Poor Kenshin! This was hard to write :( Enjoy R&R.
Kenji watched the crowded room of people with some misgiving. Why was everyone tolerating this? Even his mother, forceful though she was, was sitting gossiping with Misao as who knows what went on behind the shoji to his parents' bedroom. Kenji's knuckles tightly on his knees and he shared a nervous glance with Megumi. At least one person was as uncomfortable as he was about leaving his father alone with a Miburo.
"Relax," Aoshi said in that tranquil tone Kenji had often grown annoyed with.
"How can I knowing Saito's in there with my Otosan?" Silence descended on the group for a moment. Megumi looked anxiously at Kaoru who averted her gaze, Sano exchanged a look with Yahiko, and Misao tugged silently on Aoshi's kimono.
"Saito didn't come to finish a man on his deathbed." Aoshi's reminder stung every soul in the room. The thought that the great man who had kept the whole group together over the years was dying was unbearable to all those present. Even Aoshi, so unfazed by the world at large, hadn't felt so perturbed since his own men's passing.
"Still," Kenji feebly added, face etched with a son's terrified concern.
Saito noted the way Himura breathed in and out, each breath, each twitch of his hand laying so peacefully on the blanket, each rustle of his legs moving beneath the covers were horrifying telltale signs of looming death. Saito, who had become accustomed to death early on, observed every sign of weariness in Himura's body, if not his soul, with thin forbearance. His own hands, vibrant with life, made him anxious when he noted Himura's dim coloring.
"Aoshi informed me you wish to see me." It was fitting that it was Aoshi who had been sent, if only because Aoshi would be the only one strong enough to withstand the Wolf's bite when he heard the news.
The room hadn't heard human voice for the last five minutes, only swallow breathing, restless hands, and outside interference. Himura had lain prone for the most part, not bothering to acknowledge his presence (which was unlike him) and Saito had turned over what to say in his head during the quiet. Now he spoke with some sense of urgency, an urgency he hadn't known he'd felt until this moment and an urgency whose origin he couldn't place. Surely he had no reason to fear Himura dying on the spot and why should he fear that anyway? Himura wasn't someone Saito had expected to grief over so why was he uneasy over this sudden confrontation? Why did he feel as if he sat not on a comfortable mat but pins and needles if this meeting meant nothing?
"Saito," Himura whispered at last, his hand on the blanket shifted. "I'm glad you came."
"What do you want?" What could Himura possibly say to him after all these years? What needed to be said so badly that he needed to be summoned to the man's deathbed? Should he not spend his last moments surrounded by loved ones such as those who waited outside this very room?
"I wanted to…" Himura paused, his face lining as he stared in thought beyond Saito. "I want something I imagine you can't really offer."
"Forgiveness." Saito glanced away, surprised by the desperate look on the rurouni's face. What platitudes could he possibly say to Himura? What had Himura even expected him to say? "Tomoe forgave me…but others…Shinsengumi soldiers I slayed and more. Will they forgive me?"
"How should I know?" He regretted his words after they flew from his lips. What person offered harshness to a man pleading for forgiveness at his most vulnerable moment? Himura, in his accustomed way, didn't give harshness back, but smiled as if he expected it of Saito, which he no doubt did.
"I have carved forgiveness my whole life for my crimes and have sought redemption for more years than I care to count." Himura closed his eyes, "I've had a happy life, but I feel ashamed that I lived to enjoy the bliss of the Meiji when so many others knew only the strife of the Bakumatsu."
"You couldn't have changed that. Centuries of strife happened before the Bakumatsu, idiot, you can't atone for the horrible lives others have lead."
"I know," Himura squeezed the blanket tightly, fist whitening as his hand trembled a little. "I've forgiven others and forgiven myself over the years and have come to terms with it… I imagine they will forgive me when I've overcome the hardest part of forgiving myself."
"I haven't asked you here to absolve me of my sins that I haven't." Then he understood all the previous conversation; the forgiveness for killing wasn't for Himura's sake. That was so like the rurouni, he thought, and for some reason his response was to laugh.
Kenji leapt to his feet, a horrified expression in his eyes. The room transformed from tension and concern to mortified wonder. Hajime Saito was laughing in the next room. Kenji furiously slid the shoji open, taking one step into the room before pausing uncertainly. He hadn't seen his father laugh in weeks, but there he was, his mortal enemy sitting beside him, and he was laughing. Kenji felt suddenly sick to his stomach. How could his father laugh at a time like this? How could Saito? And why the hell did his father look so happy with his greatest enemy and not that way with his son? Saito was effortlessly taking what might be Kenshin's last happy moment and for Kenji, who endured weeks of his moping mother, their sad friends, and Kenshin's calm attitude towards his own death, could endure no more.
"What is wrong with you!" He screamed, shoulders shaking as he turned from the sight. He tried to ignore the shocked looks of the household as he fled outside. The day was ruthlessly warm and he paused a moment, debating in his head where he might go. He ended up in the dojo, shinai in hand, swinging as if his very life depended on it. He was glistening with sweat in all of five minutes and paused to check the growing stain around his armpit. He scowled, angry that he couldn't even relief a little stress by practicing his swordplay.
He sat cross legged, shinai balancing precariously on one knee, and closed his eyes. In his head the image of his father laughing beside Saito surface and taunted him. He tried to clear his head, pushing his hair from his face and tightening his topknot. He frowned at the polished floor of the dojo, clutching his knees with his hands.
How had things ended up so grim the last few months? Finding out about father's illness had been the first blow, then watching it progress and noting how mother's overly opportunist attitude gradually dimmed, his father's constant admonishments when he found him down… How could this all really be happening to him? Life had seemed nearly perfect before. He'd met a girl he could see himself with forever (a relationship he hoped would be as meaningful as his parents), his abilities as a swordsman had never been better, and he had great friends and family… How had everything turned from amazing to mind numbing and painful at every turn? The girl he'd found so endearing was away visiting family in Kyoto, his father was dying, his mother was breaking down inch by agonizing inch before his eyes, and his friends and family just made things worse by awkward socializing or questioning about Kenshin's condition. It was all just too much to bear. He lifted his head, staring angrily at the ceiling.
"Kenji?" He stared when Chizuru's kanoko and cheerful eyes entered his vision. He half turned as she sat down beside him. She looked even healthier than before she'd gone, a warm glow in her cheeks and brown coloring touched her skin pleasantly. Her hair had a bright gleam and her eyes bore a kindness that touched Kenji immeasurably.
"Chizuru," he mumbled, unable and unwilling to say more. How could he explain to her all that had changed in the few months she'd been away?
"It feels like I haven't seen you in forever," she said, her smile softening into a line. "Have you missed me?"
"Yes," he answered, feeling the usual slightly nervous sensation around her. He'd overcome it long ago, but at times of long separation it resurfaced. He fought for more words, but settled on nothing, anxious that everything important would come out at once and make little sense. This wasn't about him, or his father's imminent death, or his mother's poor coping. This was about Chizuru and him, he told himself, no need to burden her just yet with everything terrible going on.
"I've missed you too," she smiled, "though I suppose that's redundant."
"No, it's nice to hear something pleasant."
Her gaze shifted away from his, "I heard about your father."
"Who told you?"
"He needs to learn to keep quiet," he vowed to get revenge on Yahiko for this.
"I'm glad someone told me. I would have preferred you to have told me," her hand took his. He laced their fingers together, frowning at the remains of a small cut on her pointer finger. He touched it lightly with his pinky.
"I cut myself with a kitchen knife," she said to his unasked inquiry. "Kenji?"
"How are you? Really I mean?"
He stood, staring at the distant wall of the dojo. "Not well."
"Is there anything I can do?" Her concern touched him, but he shook his head.
"If you can make Otosan better and help Okasan's deteriorating mind…"
"We are dying with him," he kicked the bucket used for cleaning the floor of the dojo against the wall, breathing heavy as he turned around in a circle. Chizuru, hands anxiously clutching her kimono, watched apprehensively as he paced angrily.
"What are you angry at, Kenji?"
"Everything!" He screamed, hands sweeping his bangs back as he circled once more. He felt ashamed at his outburst, at his manners of late, at everything really.
"What are you really mad about?"
He looked at her with tears in his eyes. He pressed his hand to his mouth, fighting desperately not to cry. Chizuru stood and embraced him, her arms warm and her voice soft and sweet. He collapsed against her, digging his fingers into her back and silky hair.
"I can't do anything!" Ever since he'd been young he'd been gifted with his father's abilities with the sword, with genius they'd called it, but he'd never had a reason to use his abilities. The age of the sword was gone and Kenji, stuck between two worlds, floundered where his parents thrived. All his life he'd felt inadequate. The sword, which he processed such skill in was inconsequential so he'd never climb to the height of renown his father had known nor open a swordsmanship school of promise like his mother. He feared he'd never do anything of importance with or without the sword; he wouldn't be a great doctor like Megumi. He wasn't going to help anybody and that hurt. He couldn't even do anything for his father. Watching Megumi tend to Kenshin, his mother's constant loving company, Sano's jokes, they all did what they could to soothe him before he would be gone and Kenji, stuck on the outside in horror, knew of no way to be there for him. He left like a child and hid in the dojo because he knew he was better off not being there.
"Kenji," Chizuru pulled out of his arms, smiling halfheartedly as she touched his face. For a moment Kenji could only stare dumbly, struck by how pretty she was and how concerned she looked. He swallowed tightly, hating the feeling of dried tears on his cheeks.
"Chizuru," staring into her eyes he saw the same look his mother always gave his father. He smiled and wondered if Chizuru wasn't the person who could give his life meaning as he said, "I love you." He kissed her, aware of how fast his heart was pounding and afraid she'd reject him, but when her surprise gave way and she kissed him back Kenji felt, for the first time in months, a new sense of hope.
Saito watched the procession slowly start to diminish. The burial had taken place over ten minutes ago and those closest to Kenshin Himura had stayed for one reason or another. Sagara had sat beneath the nearest tree when the distant friends left, a bottle of sake in hand, and Aoshi across from him. The two clearly had no intention of leaving soon. Kamiya, weeping the entire ceremony, now sat before the grave site dry eyed and speaking as if to Kenshin himself. Takani was standing to the left with weasel and the girl's usually ambivalent tone was somber as they talked. Himura's offspring had watched the ceremony without shedding a tear, but when the first dirt had been flung onto his urn had wept like a child before running off.
Saito lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. It was a very strange idea that Himura was dead. It seemed unthinkable and if he hadn't seen Himura with his own eyes days ago he wouldn't have believed it possible. The group stayed for some time, he imagined mostly reminiscing and honoring Kenshin's memory. When they had all gone he was about to approach until he spotted the red hair of Kenji. The boy dropped onto his knees before the grave, cursing and yelling some nonsense Saito couldn't quite make out. He watched with mixed emotions as the boy raged at his dead father and wondered if his own sons would act that way at his passing.
He gave a "humph" and rationalized that his sons wouldn't act that way when he passed because he had raised them to behave themselves. Kenji had been left too often in the care of that Kamiya girl, Myojin brat, and Sano. Watching the boy he could only ponder why Kenshin hadn't bothered to put him at ease before going. Had he not realized how distraught he was? Or had Kenshin, fool that he was, figured the boy would come around on his own as Kenshin had in his youth?
When Kenji lay spent on the ground he approached, dropping his cigarette into the darkness. Kenji stared vacantly at him as he stood over his father's grave.
"I've come to pay my respects."
"You didn't come to the ceremony."
"I wasn't welcomed."
"Would Himura have wanted me to come?" He raised a brow but Kenji, defeated in more ways than one, turned his head away. Saito mused, reminded by his looks if not his personality, that Himura had left behind more than just a legacy with the sword.
"What do you want? If you'd wanted to respect my Otosan you would have came after I'd left." The boy certainly had that edgy wit of the Battousai and the flaming red hair.
He shrugged, "I was curious as to what that idiot might have done to drive you to desecrate his grave."
"I didn't desecrate anything."
"You seemed ready to."
Kenji sat up from where he'd laid in exhaustion a moment ago, brushing dirt from his hair and kimono. He stared, with those same eyes, once so cold in Battousai and so understanding in the rurouni. In the boy they interchanged between afraid and miserable, neither of which he'd ever seen in Himura.
"I'm upset about a lot of things. He didn't say goodbye to me, just smiled in that way of his as he held Okasan's hand. He didn't bother to see how much it hurt me! I don't understand how he could go."
"You are stupider than Sagara if you think he didn't see your pain and care. Himura cared about everyone."
"It didn't feel that way."
"Perhaps you were too wrapped up in your own emotions that you ignored his. Himura is dead," Saito met his eyes, amber piercing wavering violet-blue. "He must have known leaving would be tough on everyone left behind, he'd endured countless deaths himself, but he knew it would be hardest on Kaoru. He figured you'd be fine in the end."
"He was my Otosan," tears spilled forth and the boy, so like his own sons, ducked his head and used his sleeve to dry his face. "He should have told me those things."
"Every Otosan is proud of their son and sometimes, knowing your son is strong and able, you don't realize you need to say those things." He thought of Tsutomu's leaving, of Tsuyoshi's departure, and Tatsuo's withdrawn attitude since he'd discovered he was his father. There were things, he realized now, he might have done differently, things they wanted to hear he hadn't put into words, and he felt regret for the first time in a long time.
"I know. Kenshin didn't know, how could he have when neither of you bothered speaking of it? Forgive him his human failing and love him for all the things he did right instead."
Kenji, eyes wide, stared at him with astonishment before his look transformed into amusement. Kenji, he realized, had never seen this side of him and he cursed himself for displaying it.
"No one ever said you were a softie, Saito." He glared, which gave the boy pause, before hitting the boy on the head.
"Don't say stupid things."
"Did you hate him?"
"Once," he stated honestly, knowing Kenji well enough to know he was like his mother in that he expected truthful answers. "During the bloody nights when I found a dead solider of the Shinsengumi and heard it was Battousai, when we fought within an inch of each others lives, when he assassinated politicians we could have saved I hated him then. But seeing him in the Meiji era… I didn't hate the rurouni, he was just fairly useless. In fact I admired the Battousai," he didn't add that he might have even admired the rurouni a little too.
Kenji smiled genuinely and Saito, not having seen such warmth in the boy, lit another cigarette and smirked.
Tazu was a pretty girl he supposed as he watched Tatsuo pledge his marriage vows to her. Kuni and Kachiro sat up front as Tokio, Tsutomu, Midori and children sat to their left with Tsuyoshi. Tsuyoshi's wife, Yuki Asaba, granddaughter of former Aizu clan elder Tanaka Tosa, was a beauty. Saito also liked that Yuki was an Aizu native. Their eldest son Hidaki sat uncomfortably, fidgeting throughout the ceremony. Tazu's family ran a delivery service in Yokusuka, which though not affiliated with Aizu, he supposed was permissible.
When the ceremony concluded he left to go smoke. The day was pleasant, he thought, as he lit a cigarette and stared up into the sky.
"Grandpa!" He turned with little enthusiasm, recognizing Hidaki's wail.
"What?" He snapped, giving his iciest glare. Most of his grandchildren knew to back away when he glared, but poor Hidaki, much to Saito's agitation, had never learned common sense.
"Grandpa that was boring!" He shrieked as he grabbed onto his pant leg. Saito regarded the grubby child with frustration, taking a drag as he leaned down and blew it into his face. Hidaki released him to cough and make a silly face. Saito took his moment of distract to distance himself.
Hidaki, undaunted by his grandfather's actions, tried to reach for him again. Saito used the tree to dodge the brat. Hidaki, unrelenting much like himself, pursued him around the tree as if they were playing. Saito, beyond annoyed, grabbed him by the collar and lifted him up.
"Play with me."
"No. Find Motoko or Minoru."
"They were with Tsutomu. I want to play with you!"
"Where's Ritsu then?" Tsutomu's children, eight all together, were meant to be Hidaki's playmates, not him he thought forlornly.
"Playing with Kyoko and Susumu."
"And Kazuko and Toru?"
"I don't know." Giving up he dropped the boy on his feet.
"I don't play games," he was too old to play games and though he wouldn't admit it his health put a damper on any physical activities also.
"Then do something funny."
"Like what?" He wasn't about to oblige him but if he kept him preoccupied with chat his mother or someone would eventually come outside looking for him and take him blissfully away.
"I don't know. Otosan always makes funny faces at me. Kazuko sings and Toru's does imitations."
"Tell a story. Kyoko does stories."
He scowled as he sat underneath the tree. "A story, humph."
"Yes!" Hidaki settled into his lap, resting his head on his arm. Saito, vexed, tried to think up an appropriate story. Settling on one that was just right he began to tell the tale.
"I don't see why I need to learn swordsmanship," Minoru complained to his father as they walked home.
"It is useful."
"It teaches discipline to unruly brats like you," Saito responded. Tsutomu smiled and nodded in agreement.
Minoru crossed his arms, "I don't want to learn."
They exchanged knowing glances; Minoru had been saying he didn't want to learn swordsmanship since he was seven. Saito glanced to his left and noted the man dressed in dark blue once more. He had been following them since they'd picked up the rice from Morinosuke's.
"Tsutomu," his son gave him a concerned look at the tone he'd used. "Take Minoru on ahead."
"Just listen would you, idiot?"
"I don't see why we should leave you. We'll be home soon enough."
"Stop acting like Minoru and obey me, Tsutomu." Tsutomu, seeing he was serious, resigned, and taking Minoru's hand started walking faster as Saito stopped. He took his cigarettes out and pulled out a stick such as the man in blue got within sight.
"Hajime Saito, Captain of the Third Unit of the Shinsengumi?"
"Goro Fujita, retired police officer, museum guard, and clerk."
"Like hell you are. I've come here to kill you."
"Rather dramatic, aren't you?" Saito lit his cigarette as the man, tall and bald and rather nasty looking, glared at him. "If no one has managed to kill me yet, what makes you think you can?"
He gave his most pleasant Goro Fujita smile, hoping the fool would see sense at the last moment and leave. They never did though. With a yell the man lunged at him, sword drawn and waving wildly. Saito dodged effortlessly and drew his katana. Steel met steel, resounding on the silent path. Saito, knowing Tokio would be annoyed if he was late for dinner and that he'd get lectured at later for it, resolved to end this quickly. Though he'd given up Aku Soku Zan and didn't pursue evil as he had before he still didn't hesitate to kill those fools that went after him with evil intent.
He dodged the next attack and prepared to Gatotsu the fool when his knee, bastard that it habitually was, gave out. Cursing his luck he blocked the bald man's next attack and pushed him away. Trying to rise proved too much for his old body and he was stuck, willing his knee to work as his enemy, sword seeking his blood, came dangerously close. He used what strength remained in his good leg to roll away and try to get up again. All he needed was for his leg to stand for a moment so he could Gatotsu the idiot into oblivion. He parried the next attack, desperately hoping his leg would give him one last burst of energy. When done was forthcoming, he readied his sword and prepared, like a brave Shinsengumi Captain that he really was, to fight to the death, even if that death was his own. He'd always expected to die on the battlefield anyway, just not as an old man and because his body gave out.
He saw the wooden box hit the man in the head with some confusion before he spotted little Minoru, panting heavy and looking scared out of his mind, standing just behind his attacker.
"Minoru!" He stared at his grandson, mortified that he, weaponless expect for a wooden box, had attacked a grown man with a sword. Tsutomu, as grandfather and grandson regarded each other, grabbed the sword from the passed out swordsman. He ripped the cloth of his kimono and began tying up the assailant.
"I'll take him to the station and give a full report," Tsutomu said as he picked Minoru up and looked him over. "Don't you ever do anything like that again! I told you I'd handle it!"
"But grandpa needed me!"
"I don't care."
Minoru, on the verge of crying, stopped when Saito placed a hand on his head.
"Do you see how useful swordsmanship can be now?" Minoru smiled and embraced him.
"I promise I'll practice every day!"
"Look, Minoru, your grandma," Tsutomu said with a chuckle. "Your knee huh?"
"That was a good idea. Wake him up."
"I was enjoying my nap," Shinpachi said as he sat up. "Brat gone, eh?"
"Yes. Thank you for indulging us, Nagakura-san," Tsutomu said. "Minoru hasn't ever taken his training seriously so I'm glad this has helped."
"No problem. I don't mind. Kids these days don't understand how useful a good sword arm can be."
"That's right," Saito said with a smirk. "Let's go for some sake. Let Tokio know, Tsutomu."
"Fine, but don't stay out too late, Otosan."
"You tricked Minoru!" Hidaki had admired Minoru because he was the oldest his whole life.
"We did. Now there is your mother." Yuki gave him an apologetic smile, knowing he disliked too much time with the little ones. In honest it was fun manipulating the gullible brats.
Japanese Word to know:
Kanoko/Tegara-traditional Japanese hair tie.