Disclaimer: Watsuki-sensei (along with Sony, Viz, Shonen Jump, Shueisha, Media Blasters ADV and Fuji TV) owns Kenshin. I'm just borrowing, not profiting. I'm really extremely grateful.
A/N: Shinta's family: Father, Hiro - 44, Mother, Aimi - 32, Oldest brother, Sotohiro - 15, Middle brother, Benjiro - 12, Shinta - 9
Beta read by skenshingumi
Hoe the ground. Drop the seed in carefully. Cover the seed. Move to the next. Repeat.
This was the life of a teeny-tiny boy with hair the color of the setting sun and eyes of the deepest violet, who wore his brothers' ragged handmedowns. Working alongside his father and two elder brothers, he helped to plant fields full of vegetables and paddies of rice. Over and over again, in the relentless heat of the sun, they repeated their movements. Even in April, the repetitive motion under the sun made one so very hot! When the midday heat became too strong, the three older men shrugged out of their gi, exposing their bare skin to the wind and cooling themselves down. Seeing his father and brothers do this, the little redhead did likewise. On and on they worked until they smelled the midday meal cooking in their little wooden farmhouse with its thatch roof.
"Midday dinner time, boys," announced Hiro, a man with wise brown eyes and black hair that already held some streaks of silver in it even though he was only 44.
"Yes, Father," said the three boys, almost in unison as they picked up their farming implements and headed back to their little farmhouse where wife and mother Aimi was boiling rice and miso for them.
Shinta, the little redhead moved as quickly as he could, always making certain to keep up with his father and two elder brothers, Sotohiro, who was the oldest at 15 and Benjiro, who was 12. Shinta was so very small for his nine New Years and felt like such a baby compared to his burly elder brothers who were already called -kun while he was still lovingly referred to as -chan, much to his chagrin.
Shinta had been born a few weeks prematurely and had been a very sickly baby, unable to eat any solid foods until he was about two New Years old. His parents had feared he would not survive. Miraculously, he had survived on only his mother's milk and had slowly started to gain the ability to tolerate a few bland solids. From that point, he had gained strength and stature slowly, but it was plain to all who saw him that he would never be tall or powerful like his father and brothers.
It was only just this season that Shinta had finally been permitted to leave his mother's side and work in the fields and paddies with his father and brothers. Because of this, Shinta never wanted to be regarded as weaker or slower than his brothers. Always, he worked hard to keep up and never complained when it got tiresome or painful!
The four of them stopped at the well to hoist up buckets of water and dump the cold liquid over themselves to rinse off the sweat and grime of the day. Once they were clean and fully clothed again, they stepped into the farmhouse, which was permeated by the scent of miso.
Aimi looked up and greeted her four men with a smile. Aimi was the parent from whom Shinta had inherited his complexion, with her long ruby colored hair and beautiful amethyst eyes. She was already ladling out the miso into their bowls at the low table. Everyone sat down on their regular cushion and smiled gratefully as Aimi served the broth, which regretfully didn't have much by way of ingredients in it.
"Thanks for the food!" they all said unison before eating.
"Ka-go-me! Ka-go-me!" the little girls of the village chanted rhythmically as they danced in a circle, holding hands.
Nearby, the boys had pretend sword fights with long sticks. They thrust, slashed, parried and dodged. Sometimes, a boy would be "stabbed" or "slashed" and would fall over in a dramatic "death scene", clutching at his body in agony.
Unseen by them, a small redhead crouched in the bushes, watching them with longing in his eyes. Shinta knew better than to emerge and attempt to join the games. He remembered all too well what the results would be...
Huge eyes glowing at the prospect of playing with other children besides Ben-nii, Shinta approached a group of boys who were having a pretend sword fight.
"Can I play too?" he squeaked.
At the sound of the tiny voice, the other boys stopped and looked. When they saw the startling crimson hair on the little boy's head, their demeanor turned ugly. One of them lunged at Shinta with his stick, hitting the tiny boy on the shoulder and knocking him to the ground.
"Get outta here, Demon Boy!" he sneered.
Tears pricked Shinta's eyes as he clutched his throbbing shoulder.
"Blood haired freak, just like his mother," said another one.
Shinta's eyes blazed with rage and his jaw clenched. With an inhuman scream, he launched himself headlong into the boy who had insulted Aimi, knocking him off his feet.
"Don't talk about my mom!" he screamed, scratching at the boy's face.
The attack didn't last long as the other two boys pried Shinta off their friend, threw him onto the ground and started hitting him with their sticks.
"Blood haired freak!"
"Your mom's a foreigner!"
Shinta curled up in a ball in a vain attempt to protect his rib cage and stomach as the boys continued to beat him with their sticks.
"Hey! Get off my brother!" came a familiar and very welcome voice.
"You bastards!" cried the other familiar voice.
"Sotohiro and Benjiro!" said one boy.
"Let's get outta here!" said another.
The third said nothing and took off with his friends with Benjiro in hot pursuit.
"You OK, Shin-chan?" asked Sotohiro as he knelt down and gently helped Shinta to his feet.
Shinta nodded, even as more tears coursed from his violet eyes. Angry with himself for being such a baby, Shinta dashed them away with his gi sleeve.
"What was that all about?" asked Sotohiro.
Shinta was silent, face to the ground.
Soto knelt down in front of Shinta so they were face to face and made the little boy look at him.
"You can tell me. I won't repeat what you say," he said gently.
At this coaxing, the dam finally broke.
"Th-they called me Demon Boy and said my hair looks like blood. They called Mom a foreigner," Shinta choked out, shoulders shaking as a fresh wave of tears engulfed him.
Sotohiro sighed and gripped Shinta's shoulders.
"Listen, Shin-chan. Don't worry about what the other kids say. They're just idiots. Your hair and Mom's is just different for whatever reason, but that doesn't make her a foreigner or you a demon. Maybe your hair is red because you're meant to do something great in life, more than farming and beyond the borders of this village, or even the entire han," said Sotohiro.
Shinta sniffled and looked up at his brother.
"You really think so?" he asked softly.
"Who knows what the future holds?" said Sotohiro. "For now, just ignore those idiot boys and concentrate on getting big and strong. If you do that, you'll be able to fight back and they'll think twice about picking on you anymore."
Shinta nodded, tears replaced by a gleam of resolve.
"I will get stronger, Soto-nii. You can count on me!" he said, finally finding a smile.
"Good," said Sotohiro, patting Shinta on the shoulders.
Just then Benjiro returned, sporting a black eye and some bruises, but grinning from ear to ear.
"All taken care of, Shin-chan. Those idiots won't bother you again if they know what's good for 'em," said Benjiro.
"Thanks, Ben-nii," said Shinta with a smile.
With an inward sigh, Shinta turned his back on the other children and headed back to the farm house. As he walked, Shinta heard the voices of his brothers as they played a game of ball with each other. The dullness left his eyes and was replaced by a mischievous glitter as Shinta decided to sneak up on his brothers and surprise them.
Sotohiro bounced the ball toward Benjiro, who was ready to catch it. Suddenly, a tiny redhead jumped out of the bushes, snatched the ball in midair, landed gracefully and fell into a full run.
"Oro!" yelped Benjiro, taken completely off guard by his little brother's appearance.
"Shinta! You get back here!" called Sotohiro, falling in after the running redhead.
"You'll have to catch me!" called Shinta over his shoulder as he ran.
Shinta ran, easily keeping ahead of Soto and Ben, due to his slight weight. There were some advantages to being small, and this was the chief one. Shinta would never be able to lift heavy objects or wrestle someone as large as his brothers to the ground, but he could run like the wind and leave them in the dust.
Safely out of sight, but hearing his brothers' feet pounding over the ground in their vain effort to catch up with him, Shinta quickly shimmied up a tall oak tree and positioned himself so he was out of their site. Then he waited for Sotohiro to come into view. Ah, there he was!
As soon as Shinta saw Soto, he chucked the ball at his brother, landing a direct hit on his head.
The two boys looked up into the tree and saw Shinta up in the branches, trying and failing to hold back his laughter. Presently, Shinta lost his grip and tumbled from the branch.
Benjiro quickly ran under and caught Shinta in his arms, succeeding in sending both of them tumbling to the ground in a tangle of laughter, limbs and swirly eyes.
Sotohiro leaped on his little brothers, easily holding them down and tickling up and down their ribs. Shinta and Ben found purchase on Soto's ribs as well, causing him to collapse on top of them.
Shinta was glad he had two such dependable big brothers. Even if the village children wanted nothing to do with him, as long as his brothers were there, he would never be alone.