Standard disclaimers apply
So, it's been awhile. To everyone who has emailed me, I thank you for the encouragement. You people have been the best. I'm sorry I let so many of you down during my hiatus. I can only apologize. This isn't the final chapter. I'm not certain when the next one will come either. Eventually...Life has been a bit unexpected as of late. Many changes and things going on. My creativity took a massive flop and though I know I haven't fully recovered, I wanted to finish this the best I could. This chapter sucks...I'm sorry for that too. Give a bit of time to get back into the swing of things, I'll do better next time.
Kenshin's heart stopped dead in his chest, a painful jolt of fear started in his toes and coursed up his spine. Kenji's wail of terror ripped across his senses like talons through koi. " What the hell is that," he heard Saito ask, but he was already on his feet. Something had happened. Something horrible. His son never cried like that. Not Kenji. Not his brave little lion cub. Heart hammering, Kenshin leapt over the head of Aoshi and disappeared into the tall rushes and bamboo that shaded the riverside.
"Kenshin," Kaoru called after him as she too started to run in the direction of her son's voice, but her husband was already gone. A strong hand grasped her elbow when she stumbled, and she turned to see the worried frown of Aoshi's usually impassive face. "I have to get to Kenji," she shouted at him, "Something has happened!" She shook off his hand and reached for the hem of her kimono. With several furious tugs, she tore the fabric up the side of her leg. Able to move more freely, she kicked off her feeble sandals and began running after Kenshin's trail.
Behind her, Aoshi and Misao looked at one another and with a nod followed.
"Aren't you going after them," Tokio asked her husband, who still sat on the blanket, picking his teeth with a long skewer from the dango he'd just eaten.
Saito shrugged slightly and gave her a disinterested look. "It's not my business," he replied blandly.
Tokio scowled and folded her hands in her lap. "You do remember," she bit out, "that Yu was with Kenji-chan, don't you dear?" Her eyes narrowed and a wrinkle creased her elegant brow.
"You don't seem too worried about her," Saito mumbled, looking away from his irritated wife and fidgeting uncomfortably.
Saito sighed and flicked the skewer into the grass behind him. "Fine, fine," he muttered, "I'll go join the clown posse." He tried to make a show of being purposely slow, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his trousers and strolling towards the river.
Saito jumped at the dangerous snap of Tokio's voice. He glared at her over his shoulder for a moment, uttered a couple choice words, then broke into a slow jog. He wouldn't want her to think that she could jerk his chain whenever she felt like it. He made a mental note to himself not to bring his wife or family with in ten meters of the Battousai and his twisted little group of friends. If Tokio became too chummy with them, his image would never survive as a legendary Wolf of Mibu.
Kenji screamed and screamed until his throat was raw. He couldn't stop it. Terror consumed him as he stood in the murky water, immobilizing all his limbs and sucking his will away on the gentle currents of the river. Water was bad. It had nearly killed him. His rational couldn't see past the phobia imbedded in his brain. All he knew was fear. It drown out everything around him, stripping him of any sensible thought left in his head.
"For the love of God, will you just shut up already."
Kenji's mouth shut with a click. He knew that voice. It grounded him long enough to notice he'd been lifted into the air by a long katana, still housed in its sheath. Water rushed in rivulets down his soggy clothes and trickled back into the greenish river below. Up and up he went, until he was eye level with his savior. He hiccuped and then smiled a foolish, lopsided smile.
"Hiko-ojiisan," he coughed, looking at the scowling man from beneath a mat of soaking red locks.
Hiko jerked his head back and frowned even harder at the whelp he held on his sword. His dark eyes looked Kenji up and down several times before he gave the katana a rough shake. "Don't call me that," he grumbled, " It's ojiisama, remember...And what in the hell are you caterwauling about? The way you were carrying on, I thought I'd stumbled onto some sort of Kappa mating ritual."
Kenji cocked his head slightly, "Ma...mating ritual? Kappa?" Kenji glanced at the river nervously. His parents hadn't told him that there were water demons living in this particular river.
"You know, a...nevermind," Hiko replied quickly. He deftly slung his katana over his shoulder, Kenji still hooked neatly over the end, and sloshed his way to the shore. He barely glanced at Yu when he passed by, but Kenji gave her a slight wave and a shrug. The girl hesitated, her golden eyes wide, but trusting Kenji, she waded after the tall, mysterious man.
Back on shore, Hiko dumped the boy into the mud and sat down heavily on a large, rotted out log. He reached into his sleeve and pulled out a piece of tattered cloth and tossed it at Kenji. "Clean yourself up," he remarked, " and don't give me that dumb look. You remind me of your father."
Kenji grinned and scrubbed his face, his pale eyes never once leaving the face of his ojiisama. He was so excited in seeing him again, that all his fear dissipated, forgotten in a matter of seconds.
Yu kneeled beside him, wringing out the sopping ponytail that stuck to his back. Her eyes watched the tall stranger with long black hair nervously. Never has she seen a man so large, nor so scary looking. He was completely suspicious. She looked at the sword hanging from his waist and the jug of sake in his hand. Definitely suspicious. She narrowed her eyes and glared at him.
Hiko arched a brow at the little girl sitting next to Kenji. She was a brave one indeed. He almost laughed. Who would have thought he'd meet two little lions in his lifetime. Though to which was fiercer, it was too early to tell, but Hiko would bank on the girl in the long run. Women were frightening creatures, especially when they felt their families and loved ones were threatened. So his little omago had found a girlfriend already. That was a relief. He'd been worried that Kenji would take after his ridiculous father. It took that moron eighteen years to find a woman and another ten after the first one was gone. Thinking of Kenshin, Hiko crossed his legs and looked back at Kenji. "Where is that ridiculous father of yours," he asked.
Kenji laughed and elbowed Yu. "Hiko-ojiisama is funny," he giggled.
"I am not...funny," Hiko snapped.
Yu's eyes widened and she looked from Kenji to Hiko. "Ojii…sama," she asked, "You know him?"
"Hai! That's Hiko-ojiisama! My father's otousama!" he announced, beaming with pride.
"Wha..." Hiko stammered, a look of surprise upon his face. He almost corrected the boy, but decided to let it slide. Though no child of his loins would ever be so idiotic, he had practically raised Kenshin on his own, so in some respect, Kenji was right. It wouldn't do any good to explain it to him anyway. The little red haired cub was as stubborn as they came and once he got an idea in his head, trying changing it was utterly impossible. Besides, he didn't mind being thought of as Kenji's ojiisama...that much.
"Oooh," Yu whispered, slightly relieved that the giant man wasn't an enemy. Somehow, she knew he was a swordsman that not even the likes of her father would cross and come out unscathed. She moved closer, peering up at the scowling man with a simple kind of admiration.
"Who's this," Hiko asked, motioning with a finger at Yu. "She looks familiar."
"I'm Fujita Yu," she replied before Kenji had the opportunity to introduce her. "My father is a police officer." She crossed her arms and looked him square in the eye, as if daring him to ask her more questions.
"Is that so?" Hiko asked, arching his brows in mock surprise. So, this was the daughter of that Shinsengumi dog, Saito Hajime, now known as Fujita Goro. He knew she looked familiar, it was the eyes that gave it away. How interesting. Former revolutionary dog, Battousai the manslayer's son and former third captain of the Shinsengumi's daughter pairing up. Who would have ever guessed? He was going to enjoy watching this little drama unfold. Very much indeed. Hiko chuckled to himself.
"How did you know where to rescue me?" Kenji suddenly asked, tearing Hiko away from his joyous thoughts of his pupils parenting tortures.
"I didn't come here to rescue you, you silly brat. Your mother bullied me into coming to he her stupid little picnic today. I really don't like being threatened, you know, so I figured I should come down here and tell her that myself." Honestly, he never even spoke to Kaoru about the picnic. Kenshin had relayed the message to him and reminded him how easily offended the little swords woman could get. He'd got the hint, though it wasn't quite a threat, but Kenji didn't need to know that.
Kenji's eyes widened and he suddenly shook his head. "Hiko-ojiisama, don't do that," he cried.
"Why not," Hiko asked.
"Mama's scary when she's mad. Even father's afraid of her! You might get hurt!"
Hiko couldn't help it. He laughed and then laughed some more. He reached out and gave Kenji's head a quick ruffle, enjoying the puzzled look in the boy's wide, blue eyes. "Alright, I'll take your word for it," he chuckled, "Should we go find your parents now?"
Kenji nodded and wrung on the hem of his ruined kimono. He was as dry as he could possibly get. He worried what his mother would say when she saw him. There wasn't a doubt in his mind that he would get in trouble, but not much could be done about it now. Yu handed him his missing sandals and he slipped them over his small feet, using Hiko's pant leg to steady himself. "Okay, I'm..." he started to say, but Hiko knocked him back into the muck as he drew his sword swiftly from it's sheath.
Kenji blinked, stunned and confused. Yu's shriek caught his attention and he looked up to see his father, blinded by fury charging through the bushes. Katana clashed, the sound of steel ringing about them in the forest. It all happened so fast, Kenji was a bit bewildered, but he saw his father slip in the mud and become pinned to the ground under Hiko's massive boot. Behind them, the rest of the group charged into the clearing, weapons drawn and faces determined.
Hiko scowled down at his student. "Nice to see you too, baka deshi," he growled, grinding his foot into Kenshin's chest.
"M...master," Kenshin gasped, his violet eyes full of astonishment.
"A bandit," Hiko snapped, glaring at Kenshin. "I can't believe how stupid you are sometimes!"
Kenshin handed his gi to Kaoru and tried unsuccessfully to wipe the grime from his hakama. "I said I was sorry master. I heard Kenji scream and I lost myself."
Hiko grunted and crossed his arms, looking down at Kenji who stared worriedly at his father. "Lost yourself? You were waving your sword around like an idiot! I can't believe I let a hot-headed fool like you become a master of Hiten Mitsurugi." Hiko shook his head and frowned. "Besides, if you were so worried about bandits in this area, what kind of parent lets their child wander so far away?"
Kenshin glanced at Kaoru, who's head drooped slightly. A heaviness had settled itself upon her face and Kenshin grew irritated. "Now master, that's not fair..."
"Oh, it's not, is it?" Hiko barked. "Your brat falls in the river, screaming his head off like some damn oni's got him, and your nowhere to be found. What am I supposed to think? I mean, you lost him once, why not a second time?"
"It's okay, Kenshin, Master Hiko has a point," Kaoru replied quietly, putting a hand on her husbands clenched fist. "I am sorry that Kenji caused you trouble once again. I hope you can forgive him for being such a nuisance and us for being so irresponsible." She bowed slightly, but didn't bother to look at the larger swordsman as she moved away from the two men, towing Kenji behind her.
Hiko's hardened features softened a bit. "Whatever," he mumbled, "I expect it from the brat, but this guy here should know better." He jabbed a finger into Kenshin's chest and glared at him. "What has gotten into you? Are you sure it's not you who needs some training, instead of your son?"
Kenshin took a step back and opened his mouth, but no words came out. He could only stare at his master's angry face and a blanket of shame settled around him. Could his master be right? Perhaps it was his own anxious spirit influencing Kenji's infantile, untrained one. Children looked to their parents for examples. It only made sense that Kenji would perceive his father's actions as just and whole. He glanced at Kenji, who stood watching them from the safety of the rest of the group. Had he failed his son once again?
Nearby, Saito lit a cigarette and shook the flame from the match. "So, that's the Battousai's master, eh?"
"Seijuro Hiko, Hiten Mitsurugi master. He's a formidable swordsman, though not much more than that is known about him," Aoshi said with a slight nod.
Saito studied the man from afar, letting out a long curl of smoke. "He's not exactly what I imagined," he replied, "I'm glad he's not my master."
"That's what I thought as well, when I first met him."
Hiko shook his head and grabbed Kenshin by the arm, causing the red haired man to jump. "Get that pathetic look off your face," Hiko snapped, "I can read you like a book. You're thinking what a miserable, pathetic excuse of a parent you are. You're cataloging all the things you've done wrong since that brat was born. I'm going to tell you this once, Kenshin, so you better listen good," he pulled his student in closer, his face dark with anger. "Stop using Kenji as an excuse to feel sorry for yourself." He pushed Kenshin away from him but kept his eyes locked onto his students.
Kenshin's face paled and he absently rubbed the red marks where his master hand held him. "E...excuse?" he stammered. Was that true? He looked at Kenji and Kaoru, both watching them from the distance with worried faces. Was he so consumed by his own mistakes that he'd somehow overlooked the things that were most important? Kenji wasn't him, he was a separate being. He would grow, make his own mistakes, learn from them and move on a stronger man. That was how things were suppose to be, yet Kenshin knew he what he lacked. He couldn't move on, and that was affecting his son.
"You get it now, moron?" Hiko grumbled.
Kenshin inclined his head slightly. "Aa...I believe so, Master. I have some thinking to do, that I do."
"Well, don't hurt yourself. I have little faith in whatever's between those ears of yours, but I know you only want what's best for that brat. Don't mess this up, Kenshin. You only have one chance." With that, Hiko turned and left Kenshin standing alone, chewing on the nest of thoughts that cluttered his brain.