Kenshin was close to her, touching her cheek, other arm wrapped snugly around her, as a curtain of white and pink petals fell around them, covering everything in a soft scented snow. The wind teased his red hair, pushing a few strands over his smooth cheeks. Smooth cheeks… Her heart beat faster as she only just noticed. It…it couldn't be.

"Kenshin," she whispered in wonder. His smile widened, violet eyes lit from within as he took her hand and lifted it to his left cheek. There was nothing under her fingertips but warmed skin. Not even the faint ridges she could still sometimes feel.
"Taidama, my Kaoru," he said, in his warm gentle voice that made warmth flit through her body on butterfly wings. "I'm home."
He moved his face to kiss her hand, his lips warm, his breath warmer. Then his arms were around her, strong, holding her, keeping her. She could taste his lips; feel the rapid beating of his heart as if it were her own. The pink and white turned red and yellow but she hardly noticed as his mouth moved to her neck. The sudden warmth of his tongue made her gasp and cling to him all the more tightly. Then there was a bed underneath her, a real western bed with silk sheets that slipped against her skin.

A cold drop of water on her nose. Her cheek. The crown of her head sending a cold shock through her and making her shiver as it trailed through her hair. A dull red glow behind her eyes and the dream faded to whisps of nothing. Damn. She brushed the dampness away irritably, and opened her eyes to their sun brightened room, blinking a little to get her eyes adjusted. Another drop landed freezing cold, square in the middle of her forehead. Kaoru's gaze flicked up and the irritation only increased as she saw the dark wet spot on the ceiling above her. Damn and damn. The baby kicked at her painfully, seeming just as annoyed as she was and she rubbed her belly soothingly as she struggled to sit up. She put a hand on the futon to brace herself and shifted into a more comfortable position and out of the line of wet.

The blanket under her hand was cool and she frowned down at it. It was still turned down, the pillow undented. Kenshin hadn't come home yet. The reality sunk in, making her feel heavy. He was still out, looking for Kenji. Kenji! Her heart which seemed to have sunk low in sadness sprang up again and beat wildly against her throat. Kenji. If Kenshin wasn't home that meant he hadn't found Kenji yet. That Kenji was lost or worse somewhere out there. But maybe, maybe he'd made it home before Kenshin! Or maybe Kenshin was on his way already!

Kaoru got to her feet and left the room, putting a hand over her belly and forcing herself not to run. She slid open the door to Kenji's room. The futon was unrolled, the covers kicked about every which way. A well worn yakuta had been dropped carelessly, half tangled in the blankets. Kaoru put a hand over her heart, leaning on the doorway. Relief flooded her and made her warm and almost lightheaded. Kenji was back. Her baby was alive and safe. Still she wanted to see him. Just to make doubly sure. She took a moment to get herself back together and then straightened and slid the door shut. Before looking further for her oldest, she stopped by the twins' door and peeked in. They were sleeping close, curled around each other like two chipmunks in a nest as Kenshin had put it. She watched the rise and fall of their chests, gazed at the peaceful expression on Shinta's face. Inoi's back was too the door, her face tucked against her brother's shoulder, but Kaoru knew her expression would be the same. Oh, they were both so cute! She just wanted to wrap her arms around them and squeeze them close and never let go. Her babies. Her darlings. Hers and Kenshin's.

After a few moments, she stepped away from the door and continued down the hall, absently running her fingers through the tangles in her hair. The kitchen had been prepared for breakfast and a bucket of water sat by the door. More evidence of Kenji's presence. She stepped out onto the engawa and for no reason whatsoever, the wall caught her eye. Kenji had jumped from that wall, jumping high in the air and coming down in a rough version of the ryu tsui sen. She couldn't remember what she'd felt when she'd seen him do it, only the vague surprise that he didn't really look like Kenshin at all in that moment. And afterwards….that horrible fight.

Kaoru closed her eyes and shook her head, trying not to remember what was said, the way their voices had sounded. She wasn't sure what to think. Kenji had been so happy when he realized he'd done it. He'd probably worked really hard on it. And then…to be discouraged down like that by the one person he wanted most to impress. But Kenshin did have a point. It was a dangerous technique to try and learn. She knew that Kenshin was right, that Kenji should stay away from it. She knew that it would cause him nothing but trouble. Kenji was a good boy and he could be very kind and gentle, but he was impatient and restless. He wouldn't be content just to practice the moves and not use them somehow. But what could she say? What could she do?

The thoughts continued to plague her as she walked toward the dojo where she knew her son would be. He came out before she could reach the doors, a cleaning bucket in his hand. He looked at her surprised and she smiled at him. He had his sleeves tied back and his hair tied at the back of his neck and for a moment looked just like his father. His face fell, shoulders slumping and suddenly he was a little boy again.

"I'm sorry, Mama," he muttered. Kaoru's own smile faded as worry settled in her once more. She hated to see him like this. She wanted to hold him and tell him it would all be all right. Except that wouldn't solve anything, would it?

"Kenji, you have to stop running off like that. Especially at night. It's dangerous."

"I can take care of myself," he said, not looking up. Kaoru expected that answer but it didn't stop the annoyance from knotting in her throat.

"Well it makes me worry. It makes your father worry. There's enough worry around without worrying about you getting yourself killed in some dark alley."

"I won't be killed," Kenji said, finally grinning as he looked up at her. She narrowed her eyes and gave him a look. "I won't be!" he said defensively. "I'm better than any of those punks."

"I don't care who you think you're better than," Kaoru said, putting her hands on her hips. "You're to be inside that gate before nightfall, you understand me?"

"What?" his face flashed with anger. "Mama, I'm thirteen! I'm not a baby." He was practically glaring at her. She hated that look. He was testing her, seeing how far she would bend.

"Too bad," Kaoru said, glaring right back. "That's the rule. Now go and straighten up your room. It's a mess in there." Kaoru jabbed her finger in the direction for emphasis.

"But it isn't fair!" he snapped.

"Now," she said, not even bothering to counter that. She wasn't going to get into an argument this morning. She was tired of arguments and fights. Kenji was going to do what he was told and she wasn't about to fight more than she had to get him to do it. If her father was alive, there would be no argument at all! Kenji scowled and stalked past her, his shoulders squared in anger.

"And when you're done with that you can warm up a bath for your father."

"Why?" he said over his shoulder. He had said it to annoy her. She knew he had. And she let herself be annoyed because there was no use hiding it. But she wasn't going to fight. No. And she wasn't going to give him a chance to get a good comeback either.

"Because I said so."

How often had she heard those words from other mothers in the street? Back when she was pregnant with Kenji…well even up until the twins were toddlers, she'd always thought that those words were empty and pointless. A mother should explain to their children, she'd thought. As her mother had with her. But she'd learned quickly that explaining wouldn't do any good to someone who wouldn't listen. Even though it hadn't really been a fight, she still had the heavy feeling of winning that round and the even heavier feeling of dreading the next one. He didn't used to be like this. He used to be sweet and smiling. But…a child couldn't stay a child forever. He was struggling everyday, to find out who he was, to find out his place in the world, wanting to test the threads that still tied him close to home. She had seen that with Yahiko and at the time didn't understand. Oh, she'd realized he was growing up, but it hurt that he'd decided to go somewhere else, to live his own life. It would hurt with Kenji too. But he wouldn't leave as young as Yahiko had. No… No he was her son. This was his home. He was born here. They both loved him so much. He wouldn't leave so early. He might like to prowl the city at night but he always came home in the end. Kaoru slapped her fist lightly in her palm. And that prowling was going to stop if she had anything to say about it. He had plenty of time to prowl about in the daytime!

Kaoru nodded to herself, feeling a little better to have a goal in mind. She wondered for a moment what had come to do out here on the engawa, then remembered that she'd come to find Kenji and, that done, she went back to her room to get presentable for the day. The twins woke up when she was combing her hair, pounding through the house like rumbling thunder. Kaoru smiled. If she ever ran through the house like that, her father would glare her right into a corner. But her children could scream the walls down if they wanted to. The pounding stopped at her door and Kaoru watched, heart lifting, as the door slid slowly open and two anxious faces peered in.

"Good morning!" she said cheerfully. The door was flung open and the twins burst at her running, Shinta tripping over his feet a few times before crashing headlong into Inoi's back and sending them both onto the futon. Kaoru laughed, she couldn't help it. Inoi gave her an annoyed look, wrinkling her nose on one side. Then the girl tossed her head and a lock of messy auburn hairfell across her face covering one eye. Kaoru had to put a hand over her face to stifle the giggles she just couldn't stop.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Inoi!" Shinta said, scrambling to move off his sister. Inoi twisted around with the grace of a small tiger and attacked, tickling her brother's sensitive ribs. Shinta fell to the bed, squealing with laughter. Kaoru couldn't resist the opportunity and joined in the fun, kneeling beside Inoi and tickling until all three were breathless. Kaoru sat back on her legs, waving her hand in front of her heated face.

"How can you two be so awakethis early in the morning?" she said with a smile.

"Because we're little," Inoi said, stretching her arms over her head and yawning. "You have to run around when the sun comes up."

"Because there's not enough time when it goes down," Shinta said, with a nod. Inoi grinned at him and he grinned back as if they had just told some secret joke. Then the moment was broken and Inoi looked at her.

"Comb my hair, Mama. Is Papa making breakfast? Can I wear the moon comb today?"

"My hair, too, Mama!" Shinta said excitedly. "But I don't need a comb in my hair."

"Oh!" Inoi clapped her hands together. "And I'll wear the green yukata today! With the leaves and an orange bow."

"We washed that one yesterday," Shinta said. "And we didn't take any clothes off the line last night so it's probably still wet."

"You can wear the blue one with the koi," Kaoru said, taking the opportunity of Inoi's pout to slip a word in edgewise. They'd run her right over if she didn't. "And you can wear the moon comb or the orange bow but I don't think you should wear both."

Inoi tapped her chin thoughtfully with her forefinger. It was an unfamiliar gesture but one her little girl had been doing more often lately. Kaoru wondered where she could have picked it up. After a while the little girl nodded.

"The bow. I'll wear the comb on a special day."

"And I'll get the kimono for you!" Shinta said, bounding to his feet and launching away, stumbling a little at the door. Poor thing. He didn't have any grace at all. Maybe a few years of kendo would train it into him but he didn't seem to have much desire for it right now. Well he was only six. Children changed all the time, didn't they? Who knew what could happen. She began to run the comb through Inoi's hair. It was such a pretty red color. A lot darker than Kenshin's but sometimes in the right light the color came out deep and rich. Kaoru frowned. Kenshin… Was he back yet? Was he still out searching and worrying? She wished she knew of a way to bring him home. If he wasn't home yet, he would be by the afternoon, right? He wouldn't be out looking for that long before he came home. But he would be so very tired. He seemed tired a lot lately, though he tried to hide it.

"Mama where's Papa?" Inoi's clear voice broke into her thoughts. Kaoru looked at the little girl who was looking back at her in the small silvery mirror in front of them. Her face was serious in the way only children seemed to posses and her small mouth was turned down. It was as if she already knew but was waiting for what Kaoru was going to tell her. Kaoru hesitated a moment, trying to decide what to tell her and Inoi's face hardened, knowing the truth. Her little hands fisted in her lap.

"Inoi…" Kaoru started, wanting to soothe her daughter but not entirely sure how.

"It's not fair, Mama. Papa shouldn't have to go looking for Kenji all the time. He gets tired and it makes him sad."

"That's not something you should worry about," Kaoru said gently but firmly. "That's between us and Kenji. You just need to concentrate on your kanji." Kaoru tapped the girl lightly on the tip of her nose. "Yoshida sensei says you've been falling behind in class."

"Kanji is so hard," Inoi said, making a face. "There's too much to remember. Shinta can do it so much better." Inoi turned and flicked back her hair with a wave of her hand. "Besides, ladies don't need to know kanji."

"Is that so?" Kaoru said, but didn't correct her. Inoi really did try hard, Kaoru knew. The little girl threw herself into absolutely everything she did. All of their children were so full of life and determination. She couldn't help but envy that a little. She had strength and determination too, but sometimes she had to force that to the surface, to look past all the glaringly obvious facts and just focus on the hope. Her children believed without effort. They knew they could take on the world no matter what happened. She hoped that never changed.

Kaoru finished brushing Inoi's hair and picked a long elegant green ribbon. Inoi had said she'd wanted orange, but once she saw how much better she looked with the green she would leave it in. With a smile, Kaoru threaded the ribbon into her daughter's hair, pulling it in a soft bow, then sat back to admire her work. There was the sound of the door sliding open and Kaoru looked up, Kenshin's name rising in her throat. Shinta stood there alone, holding the yukata and grinning proudly.

"There's not an extra crease on it!" he said, stepping carefully into the room as if he was carrying fine porcelain. He knelt on the rumpled futon and laid out the yukata on the mat, straightening it out here and there. Well he'd certainly inherited his father's love of laundry. And just where was Kenshin? There was the distant sound of a door closing and both children looked up, watching the shoji expectantly. Kaoru found herself doing the same, even though she knew it was probably only Kenji moving in a different part of the house. It should be Kenshin though. He should be home by now. She knew he'd been worried about Kenji and she was too, but that didn't give him an excuse not to check in once in a while!

The door remained closed, there were no soft welcoming footsteps on the engawa, no warm gentle voice saying he was home and was sorry for making them worry. Kaoru absently ran a hand over her belly. What if he'd been pulled into something again? It had been a long time since anyone had asked him for help, but people still knew who he was.

"Mama?" Inoi said.

Kaoru blinked. The twins were looking at her with serious faces. Shinta reached out hesitantly and tugged at the hem of her sleeve. Kaoru realized she was clenching her fist in her yukata. She forced a smile and relaxed her hands, smoothing out the wrinkles then holding out her arm to her son. Shinta moved against her, tucking himself close to her ribs and resting his head on her shoulder. Inoi leaned back, but was deterred by the bulk of the baby and instead moved to Kaoru's other side, wanting a hug of her own. They weren't too worried, Kaoru knew, nothing more than a hug couldn't cure.

"It will be all right," she said, first kissing the top of Inoi's head, then Shinta's. "Your father will be home soon." Kenshin always came home. He wasn't a wanderer anymore; he was barely even a swordsman anymore. He was just Kenshin, her Kenshin, who played with the children and liked to wash clothes.

There was a sudden babble of indistinct male voices from the courtyard. Kaoru looked up, puzzled for a moment, then realized. The students! She hadn't even changed yet, not to mention there was no breakfast! Mou…

"Shinta, run and find Kenji and tell him to start boiling some rice." They could have that much at least. "If he complains tell him that I said so," she gave the boy's shoulders a squeeze. Shinta nodded enthusiastically and scrambled to his feet and out the door, calling Kenji's name before he was even on the engawa.

"Let's get you dressed," Kaoru said to Inoi. Even though the girl could more or less dress herself, she still struggled with tying the simple obi.

"I can't wait to go to class today," Inoi said, standing and letting Kaoru untie her yukata. "We're learning how to write the names of different countries and learning things about them. Like England where they have a tower with a big clock on it where the queens get their heads chopped off." Inoi chattered on. Kaoru listened with half an ear, keeping some of her attention trained on the house. She realized guiltily she was listening for sounds of an argument or of Kenji being mean to Shinta. She knew that Kenji didn't mean it, that sometimes he let his anger get the better of him.

"I don't think the Chinese grow on bamboo stalks," Kaoru said to Inoi's latest comment. She motioned for her daughter to turn so she could slip the obi around the girl's waist and tie it.

"Well that's what Manae-kun said!"

"Manae-kun?" Kaoru asked, deftly tying the cloth. Inoi nodded.

"A boy in class. He's eight and he used to make up a lot of stories but he told me this one was true! He even swore it!" Her small shoulders heaved in a dramatic sigh. "Boys… you just can't trust them sometimes."

"Well if anyone has to swear something, it's probably not true," Kaoru said, giving the tied obi a little pat. "Now I need you to keep an eye on your brothers while I get dressed, okay?"

"Okay!" Inoi said, bobbing her head. Then she walked from the room, where Shinta would have run, her ponytail swishing with her steps. She was going to be a real lady one day. The type of lady that Kaoru had never quite achieved. It wasn't that she didn't want to, but, well, life kept getting in the way. So many more things had become important than being a proper lady.

Kaoru picked up the comb and began to pull it quickly through her hair, wincing as it snagged. Not for the first time did she consider cutting her hair. It was unthinkable, of course. Almost unforgivable! It was bad enough that she didn't have enough time to look as pretty as the other ladies on the street, but with short hair, as much as a time saver as that would be, she might as well be a boy! Besides, she wanted to be a good wife to Kenshin and long hair was part of that. Looking good for him was part of that. Though sometimes she wondered if he noticed…

Of course he did! Kaoru twisted her hair back into a high ponytail and began to tie it back with a red cord. Or at least he'd better! If she ever found out he didn't she would be sure to give him an education and fast. She stood and slipped out of her yukata to pull on her gi and then slipped on a pair of worn hakama. She gathered the ties of the hakama in her hands. After all, it wasn't her fault she didn't look the same as other women. She wasn't just a wife and mother but a kendo master besides, and the one who put food on the table! Kaoru frowned as she knotted her hakama, letting her anger stay on her face rather than in the hands that pulled the ties over her rounded belly. And if Kenshin didn't appreciate that she…she would…just have to show him what was what.

Kaoru nodded to herself and, with a fiery sense of purpose, strode out the door with as little waddling as she could manage. The first thing to do was to check up on Kenji. He wouldn't have been happy being pulled away from the dojo when there were students present and when he wasn't happy, he made sure everyone knew. But so far it had been quiet. Too quiet. It was very suspicious. There were cooking sounds coming from the kitchen. Hmm. She moved a bit closer as stealthily as she could, wanting to catch Kenji if he was doing something bad. Not because she wanted to punish him, but just to let him know that he couldn't get away with it. She moved closer to the wall as she approached the kitchen, keeping her steps slow and silent, then whipped her head around the doorframe and looked in.

"Aaa, good morning, Kaoru," Kenshin said from where he was standing behind the stove. "You came just in time. The rice is just done!"

Kaoru straightened and blinked at her husband. He was smiling at her as if he'd been there all morning. He didn't even look tired! The twins stood on either side of him, peering at her with wide curious eyes.

"Why did you look around all sudden like that, Mama?" Shinta asked. Kaoru felt her face heat at being caught, but decided not to acknowledge it.

"So what time did you get back, Kenshin?" she asked, folding her arms and trying to look stern. And why didn't he come tell her the moment he did?

"Not to long ago," he said, taking the lid off the pot of rice and waving away the ensuing cloud of steam. "But just in time to start breakfast and I thought you'd prefer a nice warm meal first, I did."

"Oh," Kaoru said, the sight of the white rice making her stomach grumble. It smelled so good and she knew it would taste good too. But the way Kenshin had said it…and the way he was looking at her now… Warm but bland and pleasant. She had the feeling that he was keeping something from her. Though what, she couldn't tell. Even after all these years it was impossible to know what he was thinking.

"Well you're right, I am pretty hungry!" Kaoru said, patting her stomach lightly for emphasis. "So hungry that I feel like eating out of the pine tree bowls. Shinta, Inoi, why don't you go get them?" The pine tree bowls were old and expensive and they usually only ate out of them during the summer as a special treat. She cringed inwardly as both children whooped and charged past her toward the shed where the bows were stored. She hoped they were more careful about bringing them back than going to get them.

"Kaoru must be feeling special today," Kenshin said with a smile as he uselessly stirred the rice. He was hedging and they both knew it. Kaoru stared at him, wishing she could pick out the truth from his expression. There was nothing there that told her any certainty, but many things to guess at. Kaoru tried not to let her imagination run away from her. It could mean anything after all.

"Kenshin…" she started, hating to ask him but wanting to know. His smile slipped a bit but he didn't look at her. It was something he really wanted to keep to himself for now. She knew that. She could tell… But she wanted to know if… if…

"It's nothing too horrible, my Kaoru," he said softly. The way he said it warmed her but at the same time made her gut knot a little. "This one is just a little troubled."

"Kenji…" she said, even though she knew without a doubt.

"Aa." He stopped stirring the rice and moved to busy himself with the tea kettle. He wasn't avoiding her really, but it was obvious it wasn't something he wanted to talk about right now. She wished he would. But even if he did, even if he told her everything that was on his mind, would she really be able to help? If there was only someone she could ask for advice. There was no one she really knew who had children Kenji's age though. She found herself staring at the table. Mothers should always be able to fix things. That's what she'd always believed, what people always said. A mother could keep a family together better than anyone. Maybe…maybe she just wasn't a very good one. She looked up, and though she still saw Kenshin's back, she had the feeling he'd been watching her.

"Kenji's just going through one of those things right now," Kaoru said with a cheerfulness she didn't feel. "Like when he was a four and didn't like his food touching." It wasn't anything like that and it seemed silly even to say so. It was all part of the game though. The game they'd been playing ever since she'd met him. He didn't want to worry her and she didn't want to worry him so they smiled and said happy dismissive things. It was a game she both wanted to end and didn't. In any case there didn't really seem to be a way out of it.

"Mm," Kenshin said, turning toward her with the kettle in one hand and three cups in the other. He said nothing more as he set the cups on the table and filled them with the not-quite-cheap brand of English tea which Kaoru for the life of her couldn't stop craving. The small smile on Kenshin's face had lapsed into something that was not quite a frown and his eyes were distant and thoughtful. It had been a while since she'd seen him like that. Had he heard something? Or seen something? Was someone trying to recruit him again? She'd have thought they'd given up by now. Well she would just tell them no again, and as many times as it took.

"I hope you're not thinking of going off somewhere, because it's not going to happen," Kaoru said, taking her tea cup and warming her hands with it. Kenshin blinked at her.


"Don't you 'oro' me," Kaoru said, wagging a finger at him. "You're not going off again. You're much too old to be playing hero for anyone and I can't do this all by myself." Her last words stung unexpectedly, opening up a chasm inside her that was always there whenever she thought about it. The baby shifted restlessly inside her and she smiled at Kenshin. Bright and cheerful,damnit. Kenshin's fingers brushed against her cheek, calluses rough and familiar and nearly bringing the tears to the surface.

"I'm not going anywhere, Kaoru," he said in a warm gentle voice he seemed to reserve just for her. He was smiling for real this time, which was not helping and she could feel her eyes dampen. "I'm not a ruroni anymore. I'm your husband and I'm going to stay where I belong."

"Kenshin…" she whispered. If he made her cry by being sweet she really was going to hit him. Fortunately they were both saved by the arrival of the twins who carried the six…five remaining bowls…both looking a little pale. Kaoru didn't even have to guess.

"I tripped," Shinta said, looking downcast.

"That's all right," Kaoru said. After all, bowls were bowls, no matter how expensive they were. Soon the bowls were set up, the tea was poured and the meal was on the table. Kaoru tried not to think about the empty bowl sitting where Inoi had left it. It sat alone and empty, a reminder of who should be here with them. He isn't gone, she reminded herself forcefully. He's teaching a class right now and you should be there too! As a sensei, showing up late was just disrespectful! Kaoru lifted the bowl closer to her face and ate a bit faster. She shouldn't have slept in so late, that was the problem. Just because she was pregnant didn't mean she could slack on the self discipline. Too many people were counting on her for that.

"Aaa, maybe you should slow down a bit," Kenshin said, holding up his hands. "The class is going to last for a while yet. Besides, if you eat like that you'll get a stomach ache, you will."

"And that's icky," Shinta put in. He'd suffered indigestion too, the poor thing, but that was only once after a whole day of sneaking fresh pickles out of a jar when he was expressly told not to. Kaoru was glad he'd learned his lesson, even though she'd felt bad when he had an aching stomach for the rest of the night. Inoi was giving her a long solemn look, as if she understood perfectly and reached out to gently pat Kaoru's hand.

"Don't worry. Kenji-niichan can take care of everything."

Kaoru smiled a little. Inoi had hit the nerve of the problem, just like Kenshin would have. Kenji always seemed to be the nerve of the problem these days. No. That wasn't right. It wasn't him but his attitude.

"I know he can take care of it," Kaoru said, gently squeezing her daughter's hand. "But it's important for a sensei to show that her students mean a lot to her!" It was important for Kenji to know too. She knew he could teach the whole class by himself, but he still needed her there, even if she just stood in a corner to watch. He needed to know she was there just in case he had a problem or just to know she approved. She knew what it was like to turn around and only find empty corners and shadows.

"This one will make sure there's plenty of rice left for later," Kenshin said, knowing she was going to go even though she really shouldn't. One bowl of rice was hardly enough anymore and all ready she wanted more. That could wait though. It was only a little while after all.

"All right," Kaoru said, standing. "You guys have a good day at school. Mou, but I'll guess you'll have to come home for lunch." She usually packed them bentos. It was apparently the popular thing to see what who had for lunch and usually there was some sort of trading frenzy.

"I'll take care of it," Kenshin said. "Maybe I'll show them how to make their own bentos."

"Really, Papa?" asked Inoi, excited. Kenshin nodded. Kaoru smiled even as she frowned inside. Making a bento was a mother's responsibility. Tae-san always said a good housewife knew how to make a good bento. There just wasn't enough time for anything anymore!

"Just make sure to come home with the right box this time," she said, speaking really to Shinta who got excited in the trade and usually forgot. She kissed both her children on the top the head, then reached over and pulled at Kenshin's cheek.

"You come home, too. You've had a long morning and you need your rest," she said, giving his cheek an extra little pinch for emphasis.

"Yes, ma'am," he said as the twins burst into a fit of giggles. That was the best thing about Kenshin, for a husband he was remarkably well trained. Sometimes other women would compliment her on her ability to keep him in line. Kaoru always accepted the compliments, if just to make Kenshin 'oro', but she knew that most of the credit went to Kenshin. He just…didn't seem to mind. Kaoru left the kitchen and padded down the engawa toward the dojo. Now that it was quiet again the worries crept back around her, picking at her. She tried to forget them as she neared the dojo. A sensei was calm, face smooth as if set in stone. Funny how her father's words still came back to her. Even if she didn't always act that way when she taught, it was a lesson she always reminded herself of. The attitude of the class, he'd said, usually revolved around the attitude of the teacher.

As she came to the shoji, she closed her eyes, preparing herself, then slowly slid it open. Whatever had made the students rebellious yesterday seemed to have disappeared today. They were all patiently going through drills, paired off with one another. It was obvious they'd paired off themselves. Kenji usually had a knack for putting people together who had just the right strengths and weaknesses to be a challenge for one another.

Kenji was standing close to where Takashi-san and Nobiro-san were practicing, watching them with a critical eye. A bokken was tucked against his waist and his arms were folded. He was annoyed. Takashi-san missed a step causing Nobiro-san to snicker and Kenji's face tightened, his eyes narrowing, but still he said nothing. She moved into the dojo and he looked up at her and just as quickly looked away as if he was embarrassed about something.

"Oh, there you are, sensei," said Chiba-san standing straight and then backing up to avoid a hit by Yamada-san who obviously didn't expect him to stop. The other students stopped what they were doing and turned to greet her respectfully.

"Good morning everyone!" she said cheerfully. It was nice to see so many eager faces! "I see your drills are going very well!"

"As they should be," said Chiba-san, resting the end of his bokken on the floor. "We've certainly practiced long enough." He said it with good humor, but Kaoru had the feeling that he was ready to move on to something more advanced. Kenji snorted and Kaoru gave him a quick look.

"You haven't practiced near enough," he muttered. She knew he thought they weren't serious, that they would never do anything more than just pretending they knew how to wave a bokken around. It was just that they weren't as dedicated as they should be. A few years ago, it would have frustrated her too, but the time of swordsmanship was slowly fading away and it was good that these men had other things to do with their time than pick up a weapon.

"Well that's what this class is for, right?" she said cheerfully to the others. "I think right now we're going to do a little test to see what we still need to improve on before moving to something more advanced. Why don't you guys line up over there." She gestured to another part of the dojo. Yamada-san looked a little disgruntled at this. Typical teenage stubbornness, Kaoru thought, and wondered if she'd ever been that way. Azuma-san put a hand on his shoulder and muttered something in his ear as they walked away.

"Maybe you'll behave this time, eh, little sensei?" Chiba-san asked, slapping a hand on Kenji's shoulder in a friendly way. The boyflinched, his hand curling into such a hard fist that his knuckles went white. Something was wrong. Kaoru stepped toward him, reaching for his shoulder, everything else forgotten. Kenji moved before she could touch it.

"It's just sore, Mama," he said, reaching up to straighten his gi. There was a subtle stiffness to his sore arm and she had the feeling he wasn't telling her everything.

"How could it get sore?" she asked.

"Just because," he said, sounding frustrated. "Can't we talk about it later?" he muttered. All the students were lined up and were watching them intently. Kaoru was sure they could hear every word. She pressed her lips together, caught between wheedling the truth out of her beloved offspring and not embarrassing him in front of the students whose respect he still hadn't won.

"You're going to tell me the whole story later, okay?" she said, in a low tone. Kenji stared at the floor a moment but when he looked up there was that smile. That smile that was so familiar that it made her heart lurch.

"Kenji…" she started.

"There's nothing to tell, Mama. It's just a little sore. So don't worry about it, okay?"

It was cruel, even more so because she knew he did it out of love. He didn't want her to worry. Sometimes she wantedto worry, just to know what was going on. She couldn't help if everyone kept everything away from her. Kenji turned and started to walk toward the students. Kaoru's fingers twitched with the urge to drag him back and pull him into her arms. She wanted to hold him close and maybe somehow make him like he used to be. It wouldn't work that way, though, and she knew it. Kaoru put on her sensei face, playing along with the little game for now. But she wouldn't keep playing it, not with Kenji. She would make him tell her every detail. It would be better for both of them that way

They were running late again, they often were. Somehow there was never enough time in the mornings. There didn't seem to be enough time period. Kenshin was in no mood to hurry, though. He didn't normally, preferring things to take their own time, unless of course it was a drastic situation and being a little late for school was hardly that.

"Inoi, don't run so far ahead," he said for what seemed like the thousandth time. His daughter turned and he nearly lost sight of her in a small crowd of women coming from a restaurant. She was still there when they passed in a fluttering of sleeves and laughter and Kenshin was inwardly relieved.

"Stay close, all right?" he said, holding out a hand to her. She wrinkled her nose at him. It was unusual for him, he knew. Usually he didn't mind her running all over the market, because unlike a certain other child of his, he knew she would come back. Today, though, he didn't want to lose sight of her, even for a moment. Inoi hesitated only a moment before running up to him and taking his hand. He smiled at her, glad that she was so obedient and trying not to think of the day when she would be Kenji's age.

"It's so busy today," Shinta said; clinging close to Kenshin's other side. Kenshin squeezed his hand comfortingly. Shinta didn't like large crowds. Even at the Akabeko he tended to sit near the wall, surrounded by his family. Kenshin wasn't sure why, but today he was glad and too much on edge to feel badly about it. He was at least still enough of a swordsman to hide this from his family, though Kaoru seemed to suspect it, he was sure not even she knew the full extent. He could sense everyone's ki; it seemed, rippling over his nerves that were as taut as the strings of a samisen. He felt cramped, his body wanting to move in a different way, swifter, feet braced further apart to be ready to turn in any direction. He wanted a sword weighing down his side and a rough hilt in his palm. He wanted it like he wanted a stretch, to pull his body back in the form it was supposed to be.

It was the two hours of sleep in as many days that caused this, he knew, and the waking hours full of worry and fear and the anger, of Yahiko at Kenji and Kenji at the world. It was Kaoru's sorrow. It was seeing the ryuu tsui sen, or something alarmingly close to it, performed by his son who wanted to be the best swordsman no matter the cost. It was searching at all hours of the morning and finding a distraught woman with a missing child. It was finding that childmurdered in an alleyway, surrounded by police, wrapped in Kenji's gi that was cut at the shoulder. It was the unfairness of the world, the crowds of Tokyo, the sense that danger was looming just on the horizon after they'd had so many years of peace.

There was someone coming up behind them, running, he could feel their approach in the nerves along his spine. The ki was peaceful and so he forced himself to keep looking straight ahead. If he turned to see he felt he might give the person a more forceful look than he intended. Kazuo came into view, making him glad of his decision. The boy was panting, he'd been running hard but there was no fear in his face.

"Good morning, Kazuo," Kenshin said, slipping easily back into the mask of the ruroni. It had been a long time since he'd thought of himself as that. But it was a lot better than going in the opposite direction.

"Good morning, Kazuo-niisan," the twins echoed, almost in one voice.

"Good morning," Kazuo said with a little bow. He straightened and grinned at them. "Running late as usual, huh?"

"Aaa, it seems so," Kenshin said. "I'm surprised to see you are." If Kazuo was anything he was punctual. Usually he arrived early.

"My tutor kept me longer today," Kazuo said, shifting the large tome he carried to the other arm as if emphasizing the fact. "After saving me from being mauled by the dogs," he continued dryly, pushing back his sleeve to reveal a series of thin white scratches. A few days a week Kazuo went to clean the home of a rich woman in exchange for a few hours tutoring from her nephew. Kenshin had never been there, but according to Kazuo the house was absolutely overrun with pugs.

"Did you go by yourself this morning?" Kenshin asked, knowing that Kazuo started out before the sun was up. The boy nodded, adjusting his glasses.

"I usually do," he said.

"Ah." Kenshin debated whether to tell him to be careful. Just because one child had been murdered didn't mean there was any threat against Kazuo. It was far better to be cautious, however, and Tokyo in the early morning could be just as dangerous as at night.

"Maybe you should have Yahiko go with you, that you should."

"It's fine, Kenshin-ojisan. Nothing has ever happened to me."

That didn't mean that nothing would. Rather then explain to Kazuo though, he would talk to Yahiko about it. Kazuo was too young to be burdened with things like that...and so was Kenji. Kenshin's heart fell, a deep familiar sadness tightening in his throat. Did Kenji see the boy fall? Did he see the savage blow that cracked the child's skull and spilled his blood on the ground? Or did he come after there was no hope left? Kenji shouldn't have had to see either. It wasn't fair that he should. He was still so young, so innocent. He'd barely begun to live yet and to see something so terrible…

"Papa, pay attention," Inoi said.

"Oro?" Kenshin blinked, looking around at first to see if he had missed anything. Finding nothing except the expectant stares of the children he looked down at Inoi. She sighed.

"The school is down that way, Papa," she said, pointing to the road he'd walked right past.

"Unless we're taking the long way," Shinta said. "I don't mind but I don't think sensei would like us to be much later."

"Aaa, that's right," Kenshin said, guiding his children to the tree lined road. "I must be getting old."

"Papa, you areold," Inoi said with a giggle.

"I don't think Kenji-ojisan is old at all," Kazuo said, though he didn't look at Kenshin as he said it.

"You always say nice things about grownups," said Inoi. "Papa is old but we still love him." She let go of his hand and wrapped both her tiny arms around one of his, resting her head on his shoulder. Kenshin smiled. At the moment, he wouldn't even mind being called ancient. Still, he couldn't quite let her get away with it.

"Aa, I'm old and you're little," he said, to her.

"Hey!" She glared up at him, her lip out in a pout.

"But I still love you."

"You better!" Inoi said, tilting her chin up in a way that was so reminiscent of Kaoru that Kenshin couldn't help but chuckle. Kenshin tried to stay focused on the moment. This road was clear of people and when Inoi tugged impatiently forward to chase after a butterfly, he let her, watching her hair swing. All too soon they reached the school. It was in a beautiful place, surrounded by blossoming trees and a koi pond that he and some of the other parents had helped dig. A group of children were playing in front of the small school house, their laughter carrying clear and bright. Inoi waved and ran toward them. Shinta let go of his hand and chased after her, grinning from ear to ear. Kenshin watched his children go, mingling with the others, seeing the joy on their faces. There was one little boy who would never get the chance to be here.

"Kids," Kazuo said with a heavy sigh, looking up at Kenshin. Kenshin smiled at him and put a hand on his shoulder.

"I know you're intelligent, and you have a strong spirit, that you do." He squeezed the boy's shoulder lightly. "But don't be in such a hurry to grow up."

Kazuo blinked at him and Kenshin had the feeling there was something important hovering just on the edge of the boy's tongue. Whatever he was going to say was cut short as shoji door of the school opened and the sensei stepped out.

"See you later, Kenshin-ojisan!" Kazuo said, running toward the gathering flock of children.

"Have fun," Kenshin said. If Kazuo heard him, he didn't acknowledge it and melted into the crowd, standing only a little taller than everyone else. The sensei was a woman, young and bright and it was obvious she loved the children very much. She caught sight of him and bowed a greeting, he bowed back and watched as she and Kazuo herded the laughing children into the school room. Just before the door closed, Shinta and Inoi poked their heads out and waved to him vigorously. There was nothing Kenshin could do but smile and lift his hand in return. Inoi looked in as the sensei called her and she tugged at Shinta's collar. The two slipped back into the room, shutting the door behind them.

The smile was still on his face as he started to walk from the building. Instead of going back home, he crossed the bridge that spanned the small pond and to a single pine tree sitting near the edge of the property. A grave marker stood in front of it, incense curling from the two burners on either side. A scattering of pine needles littered the grass around the marker. Kenshin patiently brushed them away from the stone, then rested his hand on the cool surface, feeling the characters carved there.

"Aaa, sorry Ayame-chan, I didn't bring you anything this time. I just wanted to let you know there might be a lost child who needs a hand to hold on to."

She had always loved children. When she had been alive the children would always flock to her. She never had the chance to be a mother but at least she'd spent one year teaching them. One last beautiful year before her illness restricted her to bed and then, inevitably, carried her beyond it. Even though the disease had left her weak and pale, she had died with a smile, surrounded by everyone she had ever loved. It was the most peaceful death Kenshin had ever seen and it had broken his heart even as it gave him hope.

"Protect them," he murmured, caressing the stone once more, then he stood and started back the way he had come. He passed through the well trampled school yard and was soon on road that fed into the market. It had gotten quieter, as if the city had guessed his mood. The late morning shoppers had dwindled to a quiet trickle and gentle murmuring voices. He wasn't wound so tight anymore and in fact felt liable to float away if he didn't pay attention.

The thought of home drifted through his mind. There would be a soft futon there, with the sun coming in just right and a cool breeze to tug gently at his clothes. Perhaps if Kaoru was tired, he would also have a warm wife to curl around. Aah, but that was after the breakfast dishes were clean and lunch was made. The laundry had to be taken in as well and folded and put away. The roof too, needed checking and fixing and tofu needed to be bought for dinner which needed to be made early so he could help Megumi at the clinic this evening.

There would be no sleep for him, he knew, or at least very little. Kenji had better stay home tonight. Kenshin wasn't even sure what he would be like after a third night of no rest. He also needed to talk to Kenji, not only about what had happened last night but what was happening daily to the boy's attitude. Maybe he could explain to him, get him to listen. And maybe Saitou would grow a fondness for kittens and elegant kimono. Kenshin tried to get that mental image out of his mind as soon as it drifted in. He was so distracted that he didn't even notice someone behind him until they almost touched his sleeve. He stepped out of the way without thinking and blinked down at the young girl who pulled her hand back and gave him a wide-eyed look as if she was afraid she'd insulted him. Kenshin smiled at her warmly, noting the green apron she wore and the smudges of dirt on her red sleeves. She seemed nervous but not afraid as if she'd been trying to get his attention.

"Can this one help you?" he said encouragingly. Partly, he thought with a stab of guilt, to get this business over with so he could go back home to the sleep he might get if he hurried.

"Excuse me," she said with a bow, her hair, in two long black braids flopping over her shoulder. It was a woman's gesture in a child's way and Kenshin couldn't help but smile. "I don't mean to bother you but are you Himura-san's father? Himura Kenji, I mean," she said, her face turning a little red.

"Aa," Kenshin said, looking at her in a new light. Who was she that she knew Kenji? A romantic interest was the first thing that popped into his mind, which meant both that he really was sleep deprived and that he'd been surrounded by women for far too long. This girl could be any number of people. At least she didn't say his son's name in the ominous tones of someone reporting a misdeed.

"I'm sorry, normally I would tell him in person, but he hasn't been by and Papa says he'll throw away the flowers that Himura-san ordered if he doesn't pick them up soon." She began tugging at her braid. "I like them but Papa says that kind of flower is a unpopular now and it's taking up space."

"I will be sure to tell him," Kenshin said, bemused. Kenji had ordered flowers? For what? It didn't fit the mental image he had of his son. The girl seemed to want to say something more and Kenshin waited patiently. Instead she bowed again and hurried off back the way she had come. Kenshin watched her go until she disappeared into a tiny shop tucked beside a sprawling green grocer. Rather than puzzle out the reasons now, he tucked the incident into the back of his mind and once again started for home.

It didn't take long to reach the dojo and even though Kenshin wanted to be inside, he hesitated by the gate. Kenji's class would have ended by now. Would he be sullen? Obnoxious? Most likely he was still in the bath which meant Kenshin would have some time to prepare himself before facing the child. And what kind of father was he? Hoping to avoid his son so there would be no possibility of a fight. Kenshin sighed and pushed open the door, feeling like a coward, a tired coward.

The first thing he saw was Kenji and the sight was enough to stop him in his tracks. The boy had taken down most of the laundry, and was currently painstakingly folding a gi. Kaoru hadn't made him do this, Kenshin knew. If she had, the clothes would be folded as messily as possible or just tossed in the basket. Kenji put the gi into the basket, then straightened and covered a wide yawn. Kenshin smiled, shutting the door quietly behind him. Kenji turned and saw him. He was frowning a little and met Kenshin's gaze only a moment before looking away. He was embarrassed, maybe ashamed, and uncomfortable. There were dark circles under his eyes too and a slope to his shoulders that betrayed his exhaustion.

"Good morning," Kenshin said, moving closer and tentatively put a hand on Kenji's shoulder. Kenji didn't twitch away but his muscles tensed. Kenshin wasn't sure what it meant and let his hand drift away. There was a moment of silence, filled with the unsaid words that surrounded them, the sort of tension that was always there between them.

"Thank you for taking down the laundry," he said breaking the tension before an unfortunate word shattered it. "It really helps this one out, that it does." Kenshin inwardly winced. That had sounded a bit impersonal. He didn't normally use that kind of speech with his children but it had slipped out without warning. Kenji shrugged, a gesture which could mean nothing or everything.

"You were out all night looking for me and I thought you'd like to be able to rest when you got home," Kenji said, gently pulling a small pair of tabi from the line. Kenshin stared. His Kenji was being considerate and concerned with the feelings of others? Kenshin was tempted to call him on it, pointing out this gentler side in hopes Kenji would develop it.

"That's very thoughtful," Kenshin said, not having the energy to explain fully and still wary of an argument. Kenji shrugged again. Kenshin helped with the rest of the clothes, enjoying the peace while it lasted and watching in a sort of wonder as Kenji folded quickly and efficiently as if he'd been doing it for years. When the last yukata had been folded, it was Kenji that picked up the basket, surprising Kenshin yet again.

"Now maybe you can help me do the breakfast dishes," Kenshin said teasingly.

"I already did them and cleaned the kitchen." Kenji held the basket on his hip with one hand and with the other rubbed the back of his neck. "And don't worry about lunch. Mother is determined to make it no matter what you say."

"Aaa, well I'm sure she'll make something….better than last time." That was the one thing about Kaoru's cooking, it rarely ever got worse. "Where is your mother now?"

"She's in the dojo talking to Yahiko-ji." Kenji clutched the basket with both hands again, fingernails digging into the wood. "He's still kind of mad at me."

"Is that so?" Kenshin said, glancing toward the dojo. He would have to talk to Yahiko about that. It was possible that Kenji was exaggerating, but Yahiko did have the tendency to hold a bit of a grudge. Even if it was a grudge, Kenshin was sure it would dissipate quickly. Yahiko was more mature now and viewed Kenji as part of his family, but Kenshin still wanted to talk to him. But not right now. Kenji had already started toward the house and Kenshin followed him, stopping on the engawa to stare out into the sun drenched courtyard. The roof still needed to be looked at, but lunch was in the near capable hands of his lovely wife and it didn't look like rain.

Kenshin sat where he was, resting against the wall. He reached up then looked at his hand with a half smile. Even though he hadn't held a sword in years, he'd still moved to hold it against his shoulder. He dropped his hand back to his side. A katana—sakabatou-- was a comfortable thing to have. It was security for his loved ones against the rest of the world. If it was just that, if that was all the sword meant to him, he would still carry it. But he longed for it in a faded way, wanted to feel the weight of it, get the sense of power and the knowledge he could dominate any troubles that might come his way. That was the ruroni in him, still pressing below the surface, and even further, deeper, the hitokiri, a faded memory but still existing, a stain, scar on his soul. He would never come to that point again, he knew, but he would never forget it either. A hitokiri was a hitokiri until death. In the meantime however, a former hitokiri could still be a father and a husband and, furthermore, didn't need a sword to do it.

A door slid open and Kenshin heard Kenji coming toward him. The boy was so quiet, but not quiet enough. The thought whispered from the depths and he tried to ignore it. He really needed more sleep.

"Father?" Kenji said. Kenshin looked up at him and saw he was holding a small wooden tray with two onigiri which looked vaguely hamster like. "I made these just in case…you know...Mama gets distracted when making lunch."

"Thank you, Kenji. Would you like to join me?"

"Mm." Kenji sat beside him and set the tray in front of them. Kenshin took one of the onigiri and had a good careful look at it before he said:

"These are good hamsters."

"They're mice," Kenji grumbled.

"Ah." Kenshin looked at the treat again. "I see it now."

"No you don't," Kenji said, picking up his own and taking a big bite out of the head. "You don't have to lie. I'm not a little kid that's going to be upset."

"Aaa, you're right. I'm sorry, Kenji." It was such a little mistake, but it was the little mistakes that could hurt the most. If only he could stop making them. Kenshin bit into the onigiri appreciatively. Kenji didn't eat anymore, just stared at some point beyond the onigiri. The boy was wearing an all too familiar expression. Kenshin felt as if a knife was slowly twisting into his chest. He didn't want this for Kenji. He never wanted for his son to see something so terrible. But maybe it was a good thing; maybe it would prevent him from something even worse in the future. Kenshin put a hand on Kenji's shoulder, feeling the ridge of bandages through the cloth. The knife twisted further

"I know it's hard, Kenji. But sometimes there's nothing you can do."

Kenji startled and looked at him, first in surprise, something like fear, then anger and grief and he looked away, trembling with emotion.

"It's not fair," the boy said in a low hoarse voice. "It's not fair. He was just a little kid. He couldn't even defend himself!" Kenji clenched his hand around the onigiri, squeezing it in half. "How could anyone do that, Papa?" Kenji looked at him then, tears flowing freely down his face. "It's just not fair!"

What could he say to that? What words of comfort could he use? There was nothing that Kenshin could think of and he knew there was nothing to say. It was senseless and Kenshin couldn't understand it either.

"Life isn't fair, my Kenji." He said, taking a risk and gently pressing his lips against his son's forehead. Kenji clung to his gi, twisting it in his fist and cried with harsh silent tears and there was nothing Kenshin could do but hold him.

Much thanks (and love) to Anreg, Effie and Redswordheart. :D