A/n: Psst. Hey. Whoever wrote Reflections. Guess what.
Mine's better than yours.
this has been your daily moment of random Reflections hate
He had measured half his life in endings: in the last glimpse of his parents, the last grave he'd dug, the last gasp of his victims and the last look at his master's back as he'd walked away. There had been a time when he'd believed that endings were the only thing in him.
There were so many firsts, now. Even things that should have been an end, like passing on his sword, had held beginnings inside them. First kisses, first smiles, first scraped knees and bedtime stories; each child's first fumbling steps towards self and self-knowledge and their first, inevitable failures. The first time he'd found a grey hair nestled in the auburn, and Kaoru's horrified reaction – which still ranked as one of the funniest things he'd ever seen, although he didn't dare tell her that.
And soon there would be another first: his eldest son's fifteenth birthday, which would have marked him as a man in the old way of doing things. Kaoru had scheduled his rank test for the first level of mastery to coincide with it, and Yahiko… well, he still wasn't entirely certain that Yahiko's plan was wise. Not certain at all.
"Dad!" Kasumi ran towards him, wailing. It had terrified him at first, the way that children cried; but he'd learned to distinguish real pain and fear from need-for-attention and mildly-upset and really-gross-bug and any other of the dozen reasons his children might send up hue and cry. "Da-ad! Kenji's being mean!"
"Is that so?" He started to crouch in front of her. Then his joints made an odd popping sound and he thought better of it. "What happened, that is?"
"He's training in the dojo and he won't let me in!"
"Now, now," Kenshin patted his daughter's head, gazing ruefully at her pouting face. Stubborn as her mother, this one, although Kaoru claimed she got it from him. "Kenji has a very important day tomorrow, and he wants to be prepared, that he does. So why not let him be alone for a little while?"
"But I'm bored," she insisted, hitting that pitch unique to begging dogs and small children. "Chouko 'n Midori are on a trip, 'n Reiko doesn't want to play, she says all we do is baby stuff…"
Here was the heart of the issue, he suspected: Reiko had been Kasumi's best friend since they were small, and now Reiko was growing older just a bit faster. Kasumi would catch up in time, but try explaining that to a heartbroken eight year old. Kenshin sighed, very quietly.
"Well, Reiko has the right to think such things, that she does," he said, sitting down on the porch and setting aside the vegetables he'd been taking from the garden to the kitchen. "Although that still leaves you without a playmate, so it does. What shall we do about that?"
It wasn't that he didn't know how this ended: with him, in the yard, playing with his daughter until Kaoru came home or he absolutely couldn't avoid starting dinner any longer. But the unfortunate fact was that he was getting old, and his knees and back weren't quite up to the kind of rambunctiousness his youngest asked of him on a regular basis. Even with the Hiten Mitsurugi – even with Megumi's near-miraculous treatments – his body had still added up all the broken bones and bruises and started presenting him with the bill around the time he'd hit forty. So he was stalling. Cowardly, yes, but discretion was the better part of valor.
Kasumi climbed up on the porch and hugged him. He settled one arm around her, perfectly content.
"What's so important about a stupid rank test, anyway?" she muttered, "Kenji's had like a million of them and he always passes."
"Ah. Tomorrow isn't an ordinary test, that it's not. It's your older brother's birthday, too."
"So…" and here he made a quick decision, and leaned over to whisper into his daughter's ear. "So, he may also be getting a very special gift from Uncle Yahiko, that he may. But it's a secret, so it is."
She was awed, first, because she'd been let in on what the grown-ups were planning. Then the awe turned into a lingering, not really serious irritation at not being the center of attention. And finally, she became suspicious. He read all that in the shifting blues of her eyes – exactly like her mother's – right down to the firework-crackle when she believed she'd spotted the flaw and decided that she'd been had.
"…but if it's a secret, then why is Kenji practicing so hard?" She crossed her arms and sat back on her heels, sticking her imperious nose in the air and clearly determined not to be easily won out of her sulk.
"He knows tomorrow is special, he does," Kenshin explained patiently. "He doesn't know why it's special, not yet." He leaned in and tapped the end of her nose, grinning. "So you shouldn't tell him, you should not."
She eyed him suspiciously, then got to her feet.
"…fine. But if it's special, then does that mean I get to wear my festival clothes?"
"If you want."
"Yay!" She clapped her hands. "I'll go hang them up right now so they aren't wrinkled tomorrow! That's what mommy always does, right?"
And she was off, pelting down the porch towards her room. Kenshin chuckled as he watched her go and marveled that her problems could be solved so easily: a hug, or a few kind words, or the promise of a special treat. She'd never gone without, never known a hurt that couldn't be soothed away, never been more than a few minutes from someone who would pick her up and dust her off and see that she was safe.
He cracked his back, wincing, and went to check on Kenji. His son had been holed up in the training hall all day, come to think of it, and that wasn't healthy.
The dojo was closed, and from inside it he heard the whistle of a wooden sword through the air, the low thud of feet against the floor, and the occasionally hard pant as Kenji executed a particularly difficult move. Kenshin knocked on the door.
"Go away, Kasumi," Kenji shouted. "I'm busy."
"One only wanted to see that you were not tiring yourself much, that I did," Kenshin said. "It would hardly be any good if you were too sore to move tomorrow, it would not."
The door slid open.
Kenshin hadn't spent much time looking in mirrors when he'd been a young man. But he had caught glimpses, quick flashes in decorative brass and streams, wells and buckets of water, in ice and in the eyes of those around him. It hurt his heart, in a strange, proud way, when he looked at his eldest son and saw himself staring back across the years.
"It's been almost the whole day, that it has," Kenshin said gently. "Perhaps it's time to rest?"
"I…" Kenji closed his eyes. "You're right."
He pushed the doors the rest of the way open and went to put his practice sword away. Kenshin followed him into the dojo, standing quietly in the doorway while his son went about cleaning the floor and storing equipment.
It had been Yahiko's idea, to pass the sakabatou on to Kenji on his fifteenth birthday as it had been given to him. Kenshin had frowned, uncertain, when Kaoru and Yahiko presented him with the plan. Kenji was so young; rash and reckless and wild, convinced he could fix the world with the edge of a blade if only he was strong enough.
I know he's not ready for it, Yahiko had said. That's why he needs it. It was the same for you and me, right?
But what had he fought and sacrificed so much for, if not a world where his son would never need to bear live steel?
Don't you still need it? he'd asked Yahiko, finally, and Yahiko had shaken his head and smiled.
Nah. It's too light for me, these days.
"So," Kenji said, too casually. "What is it that you've got planned for tomorrow?"
"Oro?" Kenshin blinked, and tried not to look like he was covering. "Whatever do you mean, that is?"
"I'm not stupid. I know you're up to something – you and mom and Uncle Yahiko." Kenji turned to face him. "What are you planning?"
Such an odd mix of feeling in his face: annoyance at being treated like a child, a child's excitement at what the surprise could be, an adult's fear of what it might be. It had been so much easier when he was a boy and the moodiness could be teased out of him, but his son was growing into manhood now, and straining for an adult's dignity.
"Now, now, Kenji," Kenshin said, putting his best grin forward. "If one told you that, it wouldn't be a surprise, it would not."
"Can I ask for something?"
Kenji's eyes were serious and almost sad; and there was that strange pinching in Kenshin's heart.
"If I do well, tomorrow…" Kenji swallowed and tilted his head forward, hiding his eyes behind his bangs, and it was like looking in a mirror that showed him the past. "Instead of whatever you're planning… can you tell me something?"
"Tell you what?" But he knew the answer even as he asked.
"The – about the things that mom and Uncle Yahiko and all the rest know, that I don't know. About – who you were, really were, back in the Revolution. How you and mom and everyone met. The real story."
"Ah, Kenji." There was a lump in his throat, strange and hard and refusing to budge. "That's not an easy thing to tell, it's not."
"I know," Kenji said, so fierce and so terribly young. "But I'm tired of just knowing bits and pieces. I want to know – I want to know where I came from."
Such fear in his voice.
From love, he wanted to tell him. From love, always, and isn't that enough? Yet he knew his son, knew the pride and the passion that drove him, and had always known that one day, he'd want to be told. Need to be told.
He just hadn't wanted it to come so soon.
He nodded anyway.
"Tomorrow," he said, heart aching. "If you do well."
Which, of course, Kenji would.
They left the dojo together and were halfway back to the house when a joyful, earsplitting shriek pierced the air. Father and son exchanged a look and hurried over to whatever had Kasumi so overwhelmed. They found her being tossed in the air by her very most favorite uncle – who was all the more adored for being so rarely seen.
"Sano," Kenshin said, "Welcome back."
"What's up?" He grinned, lanky and rawboned as ever, and Kenshin smiled, because even when Sano changed – and he could feel some deep change in him this homecoming, like the shifting of a tide – he stayed exactly the same. "Did I miss the birthday?"
"No, it's tomorrow," Kenji said, shaking his head and smiling. "I'm glad you could make it."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world, kiddo." Sano ruffled Kenji's hair – he was one of the few people left who could still get away with it, mainly through sheer height. "Hey, is Foxy gonna be here?"
"She couldn't make it, she could not. But she said to send you to her once you arrived, so that she could see to your hand." Kenshin looked up at his first and oldest friend, resisting the urge to shield his eyes. "Did you get taller?"
Sano grinned down at him, cracking the knuckles on his bandaged right hand. "Dunno. Maybe you shrunk, Mr. Family Man."
"Ran into the little lady down by the docks as I was coming in," he went on to say, a bit too casually.
"Kaoru?" Even now, after all these years of peace, a touch of fear stabbed through him. "What on earth was she doing there?"
"Scraping my son off the sidewalk," a voice said tartly from somewhere behind the crowd at the gate.
Kenshin stepped past Sano and saw his wife supporting Shinta as he limped up to the threshold. He was bruised and battered, and his glasses dangled precipitously at the end of his nose. Kenshin's heart nearly stopped.
"Don't worry, Dad." Their younger son smiled up at him, barely hiding a wince. "It's not that bad."
"What on earth happened, that is?"
"Nothing, really, nothing important."
"It was those boys from his class again," Kaoru informed them, eyes snapping. "Arrogant little brats – I ought to – "
Shinta untangled himself from his mother, stepping back with alarm in his face. "Mom, no! You'll make it worse!"
"It wouldn't be so bad if you'd just fight back for once!" Fear was getting the better of her, and her temper was rising. "Why do you let them beat you up? Don't you have any pride?"
"That's not it – "
"Now, now," Kenshin said hurriedly, interposing himself between his wife and his son. "Shinta has his reasons, so he does, I'm sure."
"Kenshin, they're going too far! He could be seriously hurt one day!"
"Ah…" He turned to Shinta. "Shinta, is there anything you can do…?"
Shinta shrugged. "Stop being smarter than they are?" he said bluntly, and there was something that could have been anger but was mostly resignation in his eyes. "I try not to show off, but Mr. Ichijo always picks me, because he knows I'll do a good job. What should I do, fail?"
"You could fight back," Kenji eyed his brother, sighing in irritation. "It's not like you don't know how."
Shinta pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and smiled; his I'm-thinking smile, odd and shielding, meaning that whatever was going on, it wasn't that important, really, but if everyone could please just leave him alone for a while?
"But I hate fighting," he said calmly, and Kenshin's heart clenched. His youngest son, the quiet one, who had once said – when Kenshin asked if he wouldn't at least continue training privately, just to please his mother – that he couldn't strike a blow without imagining what it would feel like to be struck.
"They don't seem to care," Kenji pointed out. Shinta shrugged.
"Exactly. If I fight back, they'll just get angrier. Since they don't care either way, what good does fighting do?" He bowed to Sano. "Good afternoon, Uncle Sano. Long time no see."
Sano was regarding Shinta with a strange light in his eyes. "Same to you, kid."
"Excuse me, everyone, but I should really get cleaned up." Shinta bowed again. "I'll see you all shortly."
"I should change, too." Kenji sketched a bow to the adults. "Mom, Father. Uncle Sano."
"Dress nice," Kaoru said absently, looking after Shinta's receding back with worry written plain on her brow. "We're going to the Akabeko tonight, to celebrate Sano's return."
"Yes, Mom." Then he left, high ponytail swinging.
"Mom, mom!" Kasumi tugged at her mother's kimono, and Kaoru reached down to pick her up.
"Oof! You're getting big, Kasumi dear."
Kasumi squirmed in her mother's arms. "Daddy said I could wear my festival clothes tomorrow because it's an important day," she said, all in a rush. "So I took them out and I hung them up just like you always do and Uncle Sano's never seen them so can I show him pleeeeeease?"
"Huh?" Sano scratched the back of his neck. "Uh… little miss, I'm not exactly a fashion maven…"
Kaoru shot him a look. Indulge my child, it said, or suffer the consequences. Sano shut up.
"It's the first outfit that Kasumi that chose all by herself," Kenshin stage-whispered to Sano. "She's very proud, so she is."
"Oh, I get it." Sano reached out for Kasumi, and she fairly jumped from Kaoru's arms to his. "Well, I make a point of never lettin' a lady down, little miss. Maybe you can teach your Uncle Sano how to dress himself, huh?"
They wandered off, Kasumi prattling excitedly, and Kaoru wrapped her arms around Kenshin, sighing with relief. He returned her embrace, closing his eyes as he breathed her in.
"Alright," she said, after a moment. "What's wrong with you, then?"
He chuckled. "Ah… it's about Kenji."
"When is it not?" She smiled wryly up at him. "What happened?"
Kenshin sighed. "Concerning tomorrow… after his test. He wants one to tell him – what one had hoped not to tell him, ever."
"Oh." She stepped back a little to look him full in the face. "But if he's going to carry the sakabatou, doesn't he need to know?"
He rested his forehead on hers, closing his eyes. "Yes," he said, reluctantly. "And yet…"
"You're his father," she said quietly. "He loves you, and he wants to understand. He won't stop loving you because of who you were."
"One doesn't fear that," he said, twining his fingers with hers. "One fears, rather, that Kenji will love one too much, for deeds one takes neither pride nor glory in…"
"Don't be an idiot," she said, sharply. "He's your son; he can't love you too much."
"He's reckless," Kenshin argued, stung. "He doesn't understand, not yet, that a better world cannot be made with strength alone – "
"Then help him understand," she said, pressing a finger to his lips. "No one else could do it better. You've already – oh, love."
Her eyes softened as she traced the faded scar on his cheek. "You had to learn what it meant, to truly protect others, and what strength is really for. Kenji's always known. You gave him that. And if he ever forgets, he's surrounded by people who love him, who will always find him and bring him home. He won't make your mistakes, dear." She crinkled her nose. "He'll make entirely new ones."
Kenshin laughed, softly.
"It's Shinta that I'm worried about," she continued. "He's so weak – "
"Shinta is not weak," he said firmly. "He is not a warrior. That does not make him weak."
"You didn't see it, Kenshin! They were beating him, and he just curled up and took it, like he didn't know how fight back – "
"But he does," Kenshin told her, carefully. "He does know. Better than they do. He could have beaten them all, and he chose not to."
He raised her chin to examine her face, hoping he could make her understand. "He chose, Kaoru-mine. Because he does not wish to do violence. They had nothing to do with it. He will find another way. He'll win them over, that he will, and without striking a single blow. Because that is the kind of person he chooses to be."
She looked up at him for a long moment, an indescribable light in her eyes. Then she suddenly snickered, laying her head against his chest.
"Alright," she said, laughter in her voice. "You've got Kenji, and I've got Shinta, so which of us is going to worry about Kasumi?"
"Ah…" His eyes crinkled. He had wrinkles now, in the corner of his eyes, like Dr. Oguni; laugh-lines, echoes of smiles. "She's a girl, isn't she? So traditionally, that's you…"
"But what about when she starts attracting boys? Doesn't it fall on you after that?"
"That," he said serenely, "will never happen. One will not allow it."
"It can't exactly be stopped!"
"True," he said, sliding his arm around her waist as they began to walk indoors. "But one can always send her to live in a nunnery until she's old enough to be responsible."
"And how old is that?" Kaoru leaned her head into his shoulder, grinning.
"One was thinking sixty might be appropriate. A little early, true, but she is a very clever girl…"
Kaoru dissolved into giggles. He looked down at her – his wife – tucked against his side, belonging there. Waiting with him for their children to assemble for the walk to the Akabeko, where their friends and neighbors would be waiting to eat with them in the warming evening of a remarkably early spring. And he thought: this is real. This is a life and it is mine, and it is good.
He kissed her temple.
The next day, after the ceremony, he sat down with Kenji – who seemed so small with the sakabatou hanging at his side, and Kenshin wondered if he had looked as overshadowed – and he told him the truth.
When he was done, Kenji sat for a long moment, eyes hidden by his long red bangs, and Kenshin waited for his heart to break. Finally, Kenji looked up.
"So that explains it," he said, and pulled the sakabatou from his belt to set it on the ground between them. "Why this," and he rested his hand on the sheath. "Is so heavy."
"It will be heavy for some time, so it will," Kenshin said softly.
"And when it's light…" Kenji looked up at him, into his eyes, and he saw that his son was beginning to understand. "When it stops being heavy. That's when it's time to let it go, right?"
And then, at last, there were no more endings.
Final Thoughts: So, that's done with.
Please see my author profile for a complete update, but I have two AUs planned after this, both hopefully quite long and annoyingly elaborate, which I am going to write simultaneously because I enjoy pain. One of them is quite odd, but both of them are Alina's fault.
Thank you for reading.