Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin.
The entire village erupted into chaos the night Yahiko was injured.
No one knew who had done it, or why. Yahiko had not even seen the intruder. He said a slight scuffling had woken him, but he'd smelled something strange, and before he could react he'd been out cold. To the general public, Yahiko had spread that he hadn't been harmed in any other way, and only a few valuables had been stolen. Privately, though he spent a grim two hours with Kenshin. Kenji had a feeling 'a few valuables' were not the conversation topic.
They were hiding something. And Kenji was determined to find out what.
When a third hour passed, Kenji refused to wait any longer. He crept into the room next to their meeting place, and searched for gaps in the wall--the kind his father had always claimed he would fix one day when his 'back was not hurting so much.' Back when he had been the kind, eccentric old man who'd supposedly never even looked twice at a katana in his life.
A small bundle obstructed his path while he searched, so he nudged it away. It squeaked in surprise, and Kenji had to fight to stop himself from doing the same.
The girl blushed and sat up straight. "I...I wasn't..."
"Can you see from down there?"
"Yes. There's a hole right here."
Kenji dropped to the floor and peeked into the adjacent room. He could just barely see to their shoulders, even though they were sitting down. But his range of vision included Yahiko's arm, over which a bandage had been wrapped. No one had said anything about him getting hurt anywhere else.
"What about Kenji and Harumi?" Yahiko was asking in hushed tones.
"This one believes that the Aoiya would be safest for now."
"You want to send them there? With--no way! For all we know, it's Aoshi that's going around telling people to kill you--"
"Learn to trust, Yahiko, please. At least, do not make dangerous, unfounded accusations as such. We have already discussed Aoshi's change of heart at length. There is no more need to do so. He will be able to protect them as well as this one."
"But it's so far from--"
"Exactly. If this one is the target, they need to be sent away." Kenji could detect something like pain in his father's voice. "At least, for now."
"And Tsubame and Kaoru?"
"They are capable of making their own decisions, though the Aoiya would be safer for them as well."
"We should explain to them--where are they?"
"Kaoru-dono is in the garden. Has Tsubame-dono gone back to the Akabeko?"
The two men got up, and Kenji was about to follow suit when he got a clear view of the bandage on Yahiko's arm. It needed a change; he was bleeding through. But the blood had taken an odd shape.
Kenji fought the urge to vomit and jumped to his feet, rushing for the door.
"Kenji-kun, what is it?"
He couldn't get the words out. There was no way to describe his disgust at Yahiko's wound--it wasn't an accidental sword strike. It was writing. Someone had carved into Yahiko's skin with the tip of a blade, spelling out something sinister enough that even the trusting Kenshin had to keep it a secret.
Kenji never told her. The very next day, the kids were sent on an 'errand,' one they knew they would not return from. Kenshin's handshake good-bye was a little tighter than normal--as if trying to keep Kenji from leaving. Kaoru hugged her son, telling him to be safe--and quickly added 'in these troubled times.' Kenji even forgot to stay in character and ask about the needless attention.
"You stay safe too, okaasan."
"And, Kenji--" Yahiko interrupted, "if you see a gray-haired man wearing all purple--not a speck of anything else--go with him."
So he knew about the eavesdropping. The gray-haired man was probably a messenger from Aoshi, making sure they got to the inn safely.
Harumi, still in her mother's embrace, hung her head sadly. Tsubame pleaded silently with Yahiko to not let this happen, but it was of no use. After all, Kenshin had used to running-away method for years and it had worked like a charm. Emotions had to be kept under control--for now.
"Good-bye, musume. Make sure you get me the--" Tsubame stopped and choked back tears. "Good-bye."
Kanji tugged on Harumi's arm, and they headed to the marketplace.
"Why would they send us away like this?" the younger girl asked finally. Her eyes were red-rimmed and slightly swollen.
"Anyone who can get that close to your otousan is no one that I want around me," Kenji replied, attempting to keep his tone indifferent for her sake. "Besides, if this keeps persisting, they'll end up fighting. And we'd just be in the way."
An image of Kenshin's smiling face flashed in Kenji's mind. He would consider Kenji a nuisance in a fight? How was that even possible? What was Kenshin thinking, believing he could wield a sakabatou?
"I'm not that bad with a sword--and you learn fast, Kenji-kun. How would we be--"
"Did you know, Harumi-chan?" Kenji cut in. "Did anyone ever tell you my otousan was the Hitokiri Battosai?!"
Harumi shook her head. "I found out the same time you did, Kenji."
He felt relieved--which was ridiculous. It wasn't like his family and friends had been trying to betray him by keeping this secret. "Well, the Battosai's battles aren't ones we can fight in. Forget about it. They've got a good reason for not wanting us there," he said shortly.
Harumi answered softly, "Fine. But don't call him that."
"Don't call your otousan the Battosai. Nothing good can come of that--especially if someone hears you. And especially if that's what you start to think of him as."
Kenji fell silent. She was right. But how was he to forget that "slightly" important aspect of his father's past?
"We should look around for that man. Do you see any--?"
"Harumi-chan!" Kenji pointed frantically.
Nine black-clad swordsmen were gathered in a dark corner of the marketplace, slowly backing up as policemen advanced on them. A crowd was gathering to watch the spectacle they knew would ensue. Before a fight broke out, however, the nine men jumped impossibly high, kicking off the side of a building and landing neatly on a rooftop. The people below watched in amazement, but Kenji and Harumi were more focused on what they'd left behind.
The mangled and hacked body on the ground was wearing all purple--not a speck of anything else.
"Kenji-kun...what do we do?!" Harumi whispered, terrified.
He glanced up and, to his horror, saw one of the murderers pointing at them.
They say that prey runs faster than the predator. Kenji had never had to experience this particular maxim before.
He and Harumi sprinted miles in the direction they did not want to go at this point--away from their homes and the people who had the power to protect them. The killers pushed them in that direction--deliberately, Kenji was sure.
Still, the two were tiring, but every time they looked back there was at least one man following close behind. They were leaving town. The surrounding forests would give whoever was trying to kill them a perfect opportunity.
"We--need--to--get--rid--of--them," he huffed. Harumi nodded furiously, gesturing at a number of pieces of wood, which would've have been lighting the hearths of stores all around the town the next day.
Kenji gulped. He hadn't wanted to fight. They wouldn't stand a chance. But there didn't seem to be another choice.
He grabbed the piece closest to him and turned to throw it, but one of the gang had been following closer than he thought. A sword met his wood in mid-swing--but it didn't cut. It just knocked it away.
They had reversed their blades.
Kenji took a precious millisecond to ponder this. The sword was swinging his way again.
If Harumi had not thrown a block of firewood at that moment, or with any less accuracy, Kenji would've been out for the count. As it was, the attacker stopped moving, at least for the moment.
Another came swooping down from the sky. Harumi went for him, but Kenji saw a third coming in from behind her. He swerved to avoid hitting her and executed a sloppily planned uppercut. The resulting blow almost broke his fingers. He winced and retreated. That was when he saw it--the minutest of openings. This was a semi-advanced swordsman; he kept himself guarded well. But that one spot on his temple would be his downfall if Kenji could get to it.
The man took a swipe at him, but Kenji jumped and the pile of wood went everywhere. Sensing opportunity, Kenji jumped onto the debris and then pushed off, surprising the man with a jab to the head. The shock knocked him off his feet, and it was easy for Kenji to finish him off from there.
Harumi was still locked in a struggle with the second fighter. Unfortunately, he was much stronger than her, and brushed her away like a fly. Kenji had no time to react before his sword swiped her cheek.
The reverse blade was forgotten. Kenji charged at the man, furiously punching him while his guard was still down. His hand sliced onto the offender's wrist, loosening his grip on the blade and sending it flying. The rest was a blur. Kenji could never remember getting so angry--but for Harumi's safety, he would do anything.
Kenji looked up, startled. Harumi beckoned to him. She looked frightened, but she was okay. A large bruise was already forming on her cheek.
Their final attacker was unconscious. The first was beginning to stir, but he wouldn't be a problem for a while yet. "Where did the rest of them go?"
"Back to whoever sent them, probably. They'll carry the message that we aren't dead yet."
"Or that we are. They don't know about this," Harumi said hopefully, gesturing to the three limp bodies.
"No. These guys were ordered not to kill us. Look." He tugged the sword from the grasp of the last one to fall. "He hit you with the blunt end. Otherwise he would have cut off half of your face. They were all using the opposite end of the sword. Someone wants us alive, and they'll find out in a day or two that we haven't been taken yet. We need to leave, fast. Are you okay?" He touched her bruise gently, but she pulled away, blushing.
"I'm fine. But how will we get home? For all we know, the other six could be waiting in town..." She bit her lip. "We aren't going home, are we..."
"We're going to the Aoiya. I don't want to lead more assassins back there when our parents have enough to worry about."
"Do you even know where in Kyoto the Aoiya is?!"
"We'll figure it out. We've got a long day ahead of us, Harumi-chan, we need to get moving."
Hours and hours of forest traveling awaited them. With each errant branch or root that they swatted out of their way, another one popped up. Leaves tangled themselves in their hair, twigs tore their clothes. On top of everything, it began to drizzle a few hours into their walk, and it rained well into the night. Soaked and miserable, Kenji and Harumi huddled together under a tree.
"We can't stop here. We should get to the next town."
It hurt him to make her get up when she was so obviously tired and hungry and afraid, but Kenji ushered her on until they saw lights.
"Is it a village?"
"A small one, I think. It's got a roof, that's all we need."
They ran towards it, finding what would have been, in dry conditions, a quaint cluster of homes next to a river. One of the larger buildings had a battered 'Welcome' sign on the front door, and Kenji and Harumi gratefully stepped inside.
"Good evening, travelers!" greeted a plump lady who had been washing off a table. "Have a seat; what can I get you?"
The restaurant was all but deserted--one man of questionable sobriety was sitting by himself in a far corner. No doubt, the rain had kept customers away. Kenji searched himself for money, and came up with the yen for his 'errands,' more than enough to cover a meal. Their waitress brought the food quickly, and the hungry travelers scarfed their meals.
It wasn't until they were halfway through seconds that Kenji felt a towering presence over them. The man who'd been sitting by himself had come closer, and was studying them.
"Mind if I join you?"
His speech wasn't all that slurred, which was a relief. Kenji was done with crazy, drunken men. The uninvited guest was still quite the shady character--his standing there was enough to intimidate anyone. He wasn't large, but his eyes were extremely sharp, and his hands calloused--as if used to hard work. He was old, older than Yahiko, but probably more fit than Kenji. And definitely stronger than the two kids combined. Harumi gulped and squeaked out a 'yes.' Kenji understood her reason for not denying him anything, but that didn't mean they had to trust him.
The stranger sat down and drummed his fingers on the table. "What are you doing in our little village?"
"Passing through," Kenji answered casually.
"A pity the rain started up. Do you need a place to stay?"
He smirked, as though he knew how much more he scared Kenji and Harumi with each passing sentence. Was he trying to be suspicious, or did he really think he was fooling them?
"No, we should be fine, but thank you."
"You're not going to be fine. The town is too small for inns. Unless you plan on walking to your destination in the storm?"
Kenji would much rather that than inevitable death.
"Again, thank you for your hospitality, but we have to leave," Harumi answered in a small voice. The man shot her a glare, and she recoiled.
"I didn't ask for small talk. I'm just saying, whoever's after you, they won't think to look in my house."
Kenji's eyes snapped open. How would anyone possibly know they were running? Was it that obvious? Perhaps, since they carried evident marks of the forest--and no one would go through that when cleared paths were available.
"I...we don't know what you're talking about," Harumi stammered uncertainly when she realized Kenji was too shocked to answer.
"Well, when you figure it out, you're welcome to stay at my place for a while. You can lay low here if you need to. It's the smallish hut on the outskirts of here. I'll be seeing you." He got up, slapped a few yen on the table, and walked out.
The plump waitress skittered up to them. "I am so sorry for his disturbing you--normally he doesn't bother anyone."
"Who is he?" asked Kenji, recovering from the surprise.
"Would you think it, I have no idea. He showed up a year or two ago and made himself a house here, but he doesn't talk to anyone. He comes here for drinks sometimes, but he gives me those glares--you know the ones," she added to Harumi, "when I try to say anything. I think he's just lonely. I thought he knew you, he was acting so friendly."
"Friendly?" repeated Harumi incredulously.
"Again, I apologize for the disturbance. Can I get you anything--on the house?"
"Um...a place to stay for the night?"
She smiled sympathetically. "I'm afraid we don't have one here. Just as he was saying. Anything else? How about something warm to drink, you look frozen over!"
They readily accepted. Hopefully it would calm them down.
"What a weird guy," Kenji said finally.
"I don't think he was after us. He would've taken us right here--look at how empty it is. And inviting us over? He has to be smarter than to use that."
"Or he is smarter, and he knows he's tricking us."
"I think we should go see what he wants--"
"--to kill us--"
"And we need a place to stay the night anyway. How far will we get if the rain doesn't stop?"
Kenji paused. "But the way he treated you--"
"Exactly. How would that gain our trust? He wasn't trying to kidnap us, Kenji. I can tell. At least for one night, he won't be a problem."
"'I can tell'?! What's that supposed to mean? I can tell, too--I can tell we'll be murdered if we go anywhere near him!"
"Trust me. There's something I want to ask him. Okay?"
Kenji didn't find this at all logical, but Harumi had her heart set on it. Hopefully she would share her thoughts in time, but until then, he was looking at a long night of keeping watch to make sure no one tried any sneak attacks. "Okay. But tomorrow we leave first thing in the morning, so get all your questions out of the way now. We have to reach the Aoiya soon--so everyone back home can know we're okay."
"I promise. First thing in the morning." Silence descended, while Kenji calculated his chances of getting throuh the night--which weren't very high. "Well...I guess it'll be nice to finally meet Aoshi-san. After we've heard so much about him."
"Kenshin-san said she worshiped Aoshi-san."
"And he didn't even know."
Something in her tone implied that he should be paying attention. "I'm sure he knew. You can't not know when someone adores you that much."
"Some people are that oblivious."
Kenji glanced at her strangely, but she continued eating quietly. Shrugging it off, he went back to his grim probability of survival.