A/N – Many thanks to Fenikkusuken for her suggestions on the ending.
Edit - 19 Sept 07. Kokoronagomu tells me that I should use "oiran" instead of "geisha" for a woman who has sex with her clients. Many thanks for the tip.
Disclaimer – Alas, I do not own Ruroken, any of the canon settings, situations or characters. Don't sue.
"…stay a while, Himura," Katsura-san said quietly, before Kenshin could slip out of the commander's room. "I have something I wish to discuss with you."
Puzzled, Kenshin slid the shoji shut and turned back to kneel before his leader.
"I understand that it is your fifteenth birthday tomorrow," Katsura-san said calmly, slipping out of his sodden haori and into wiping droplets of rain from his face.
"Yes, it is," Kenshin answered, surprised. His mind was more on his damp clothes and his dripping hair than on any personal celebrations. It had rained steadily all week, precluding any assassinations, but that had only meant the downpour increased at night as he escorted Katsura-san to meeting after interminable meeting. "But I do not really keep track of such things, Katsura-san."
"Ah, but your fifteenth birthday is special, Himura. It marks the transition from boy to man…" Katsura-san fell silent for a minute, his face solemn and a little regretful. "In your case, I would call it a formality. But still – such things should be celebrated. If not for your sake, then for others'."
"I am sorry, Katsura-san; I don't understand…"
"It has been a miserable week. Tempers are flaring, and the men are becoming quarrelsome – Uchiyo has suggested that we need some sort of reason to celebrate."
"Uchiyo!" Kenshin gasped, his eyes wide and horrified.
"Is that a problem? He has taken a liking to you, Himura. I think he fancies himself as a mentor, of a sort."
"Yes, but…" He trailed off as he remembered the untidy, villainous samurai who had always had a kind word for him, and who had shown him the ropes when he first arrived in Kyoto. Unfortunately, his sense of humour was very similar to that of Kenshin's shishou… His voice was aggrieved as he continued. "He said, once, that he intended to make a man out of me."
Katsura-san coughed and covered his mouth with his hand. "Is that so?" he asked.
Kenshin looked up at him sharply, searching for any sign of mockery or amusement, but Katsura-san's eyes were grave and steady, his face admirably impassive. Still, he could not rid himself of the suspicion that his superior was laughing at him.
Thoroughly alarmed by what Uchiyo might mean by celebrating – the man had been dropping hints for weeks – Kenshin resolved to avoid him and his cronies for the next few days. But it was not so easy, as he found out the next morning on the inn's back porch.
"Himura-kun," Uchiyo said, untidy, unshaven, and grinning widely. "I heard a rumour that you are fifteen years old today. Isn't that so?"
"Fifteen, eh?" Takeda, thin and wiry and always smiling, came up to join the discussion. "I remember what it was like at fifteen." He leered suggestively, winking at a horrified Kenshin. "A time of great discovery and excitement…"
Uchiyo clapped Kenshin on the back, sending him staggering forward. "And in honour of your birthday, we all – Takeda, Katagai, and a few others – organized a little celebration for you. But don't worry," he laughed, "we'll take good care of you. Just put yourself in our hands."
Kenshin paled. Desperately, he racked his brain for some sort of excuse. "Anou, Uchiyo-san, I'm afraid that Katsura-san…"
"Katsura-san gave you the whole week off, remember?" That was Katagai, chiming in from behind Uchiyo and Takeda. "The rain is keeping everyone inside; enjoy the time off from your duties."
Kenshin smiled, strained and sickly. He had long since accustomed himself to his unusual position among the Choshu samurai: he was Battousai, the feared assassin, but he was also the youngest of them by far, too-sensitive and a little naive, living cheek-by-jowl with tough, often raucous men, most of whom had none of Katsura-san's or Hiko's sophistication. The majority of them did not understand him, and it was only Uchiyo and a few others who had troubled to befriend him and make him feel welcome.
Unfortunately, he had come to understand that friendship imposed reciprocal obligations. And it didn't look as though he'd be able to get out of this one…
Kenshin was no stranger to Shimabara. Katsura-san had attended three meetings in rooms provided by the ambitious Mama-san of the Sakura tea house, and Kenshin as his bodyguard had spent the entire time in an agony of embarrassment, his ears filled with bell-like laughter and his eyes flitting over the bright, fluttering oiran and their exposed napes.
For some reason, his unusual colouring fascinated them; they watched him with dark, beckoning eyes and giggled coyly behind their delicately raised fans, their red, perfect lips smiling at him in a way that made him distinctly uncomfortable –
Uchiyo nudged him with his elbow and grinned rakishly. "What do you think, Himura? Pick any one you like – it's on us, tonight."
Takeda looked about the warm, welcoming reception room and the fluttering group of brightly dressed women, their eyes bright and avid. "Or else let one of them pick you, eh?" He laughed and slapped Kenshin on the back.
Kenshin cast a desperate glance about him, wishing that he could escape – but all his skill with a sword was useless, here, in a house full of women and well-meaning, if excruciating friends.
The Mama-san herself came out to greet them, an imposing, hard-eyed woman, her white face paint and extravagant kimono disguising her age. When she saw Kenshin, young, surrounded by older, half-drunken friends, looking lost and desperate, her eyes lost their calculation and took on a distinctly maternal gleam.
"And what have you brought us tonight, Uchiyo-sama?" she asked. "Who is your young friend?"
"This is Himura, Mama-san," he said, pushing Kenshin forward. "It's his birthday today; we're going to give him a night he'll never forget."
She bowed deeply, the movement infused with more than a little amusement. "Welcome, Himura-sama. We are pleased to have you here, on this night. Come –" she shepherded him towards the giggling girls, whose eyes had lit up when they saw him, "tell me, is there anyone you would particularly like to meet?"
He looked at them, their white, ghostly skin, rich fabrics, their carnal red mouths. They arched and fluttered and postured, all competing to catch his eye, and he flushed bright red. "Anou, Mama-san…"
"Ah, you're shy," she crooned, patting him on the shoulder, smiling indulgently. "Very well, then. Umeko-chan!" she called, singling out a slender, graceful woman with eyes like dark wells. "Come, make Himura-sama feel comfortable."
The woman – Umeko – stood and shuffled gracefully up to him, bowing deeply and smiling when she saw how embarrassed he was. "Himura-sama," she spoke, and her voice was low and rich and somehow intoxicating. An elusive, tantalizing perfume swirled about her, and it went straight to his head.
"Please," she said, holding out her white, slender hand, palm up, exposing an exquisite glimpse of bared skin.
He flushed, feeling his body react, and looked into her eyes. Helpless, he reached out and accepted her hand.
She led him to her small, intimate room, with its spare, elegant décor and the comfortable futon. It smelt of her perfume, dizzying and exquisitely feminine, and he swallowed desperately as he turned to her, his eyes asking her for something he could not name.
She smiled, as if she knew exactly what he was asking.
"Himura-sama," she purred, sinking down on the futon and deliberately allowed him a glance of her white shoulders, her kimono slipping with artistic control. "Don't be afraid. It is not such a terrifying thing, you know."
She watched him flush, fascinated by his unusual colouring and those extraordinary, expressive eyes. Poor darling innocent boy, he was so delightfully shy –
"Umeko-san," he began nervously.
He stopped as she began to move towards him.
"Yes, Himura-sama?" She reached out, slowly, and took his hand, so slight and delicate, in hers.
"I – I don't really…"
"Relax, Himura-sama," she crooned, stroking his arm gently, pressing softly against him. His whole body was stiff and quivering, but she pressed closer and closer, until she could feel his hurried breathing and his thundering pulse. With light, fluttering fingers and gentle, nuzzling kisses, she accustomed him to her touch, crooning reassurance and praise as he slowly began to accept her close proximity.
"Just let go," she whispered, her hands slipping his gi from his shoulders, revealing his smooth, sleek chest – he was not full grown yet, this boy, but when he was, he would be magnificent. He watched her, shivering, completely vulnerable, his entire soul bared in his eyes.
She smiled. And then she took his hand in hers, and brought it to her breast.
The next morning, Kenshin awoke slowly, feeling calmer and more relaxed than he had in years. Slowly, he opened his eyes, reveling in the warmth and comfort –
And then his memories of the night before came flooding back.
Gasping, he shot up off the futon, grabbing for his discarded hakama, his hands flying to his tumbled, disheveled hair, thoroughly mussed.
"Why so hasty, Kenshin-kun?" Umeko's dark, rich voice sent shivers down his spine, and he closed his eyes against the hot flood of memories it provoked.
"Uchiyo will be back soon. If I'm still in here with you, he'll never let me hear the end of it." Frantically, he looked about, picking up all the scattered pieces of clothing and apparel, struggling into his gi and haori.
She covered her mouth with her hand and laughed, her eyes dancing. "There's nothing to be ashamed of, Kenshin-kun. In fact, you should be proud."
He flushed bright crimson. In truth, it had been easier than he'd thought it would be; his shishou's arduous training had focused on cunning, patience and agility rather than brute, muscle-bound force. Umeko had been delighted that he'd caught on so quickly, and had happily tutored him in some of the more advanced techniques.
She was a very skilled, very patient teacher, and after he'd conquered his initial shyness, he'd been only too eager to learn.
"Will you come and see me again some time?" she asked, as Uchiyo's cheerful, taunting voice sounded from outside in the corridor. "I think you are ready for the twenty-seventh variation."
Caught off guard, he smiled – a small flush of delight warming him as he saw the true affection in her eyes. "Thank you, Umeko-san," he said, bowing. "I would like that."
And then Uchiyo arrived, Takeda and Katagai trailing behind him, cheerful and boisterous as they came to bear him off in triumph.
She watched him go, a shy, serious young boy, too sensitive to recognize just how protective the other men were, how firmly they'd tucked him under their rough wings. And then she turned back to her chamber, to the tousled, disarranged bedding, and the small wooden go board where she'd taught young Kenshin to play…