Kenshin and Kenji were as alike as father and son could be. Both were small in stature and delicate in build. They had the same high cheekbones, the same long red hair pulled back in a ponytail and the same love of swordsmanship. The only major difference between them was the color of their eyes: Kenshin's were a deep violet, while Kenji had inherited his sky-blue eyes from his mother.
Winter had once again descended on Tokyo. The snow kept falling and falling. Already there was half a foot of it on the ground. Kenshin had no great love of the season in and of itself, but did love to frolic in the snow with Kaoru, and now that he was really getting big enough to, with Kenji. Kenshin decided to take his son out with him to give Kaoru a day to herself, as Kenji could be quite a handful.
Kaoru looked dubiously out the window at the falling snow.
"What if you get caught in a blizzard?" she asked in her worried-wife tone.
"Don't worry about that. Don't forget, I survived ten winters with no roof over my head," said Kenshin good naturedly.
"Well promise you won't stay out too late and that if the weather changes, you'll come back," said Kaoru.
"We'll be home in time for dinner. It's a promise," said Kenshin, kissing his wife on the forehead.
"I'll have dinner and hot tea ready for both of you when you get back," said Kaoru. "And thanks for giving me a day to myself."
"You can thank me in bed tonight," said Kenshin with a wink.
"Pervert," hissed Kaoru.
Kenshin was helping his five-year-old son put on his haori and scarf. As with most children his age, Kenji wanted to do it himself, but got frustrated with tying the obi. When he was about to yell in frustration, Kenshin gently slid his hands over his son's.
"Here, let me show you," he said in the very quiet voice that he only used with his little boy.
Kenshin guided Kenji's hands through the motions of tying the knot and then tying the two ends into a bow. Kenji smiled up at his dad. To the little boy, it seemed like Daddy knew everything. Kenshin smiled at Kenji, and then moving with his godspeed, scooped the youngster up and held him upside-down, face to face.
"Hah hah! Daddy's upside-down!" squealed Kenji gleefully.
"Oh I am? I can't go outside upside-down or I'll get snow in my face," said Kenshin.
Quickly he flipped Kenji over.
"Am I still upside-down?" he asked solemnly.
"No. You're OK now, Daddy," said Kenji, still laughing.
"Thank you, little lion," said Kenshin as he lifted Kenji onto his shoulders. Gripping the little boy's legs so he wouldn't slip off, he started out the door.
Kenshin and Kenji stepped out of the back gate and into the forest that was behind the dojo. Kenji squealed with delight at the softly falling snow, his voice the only sound in an otherwise silent world. Kenshin walked with swift and sure steps, never once losing his footing on the treacherous ground. Kenji locked his fingers in his father's warm auburn mane, having never been quite broken of his babyish habit of yanking Daddy's red locks.
Kenshin smiled at the tugging. This time two years ago, Kenji had had a dislike of him that no one understood. Whenever Kenshin would approach Kaoru, Kenji would scowl at him till his face was pinched like a nutcracker. He would scream and try to wriggle out of Kenshin's arms when Kenshin tried to hold him. And whenever Daddy was knelt over the washtub doing the laundry, Kenji would come up silently behind him and yank as hard as he could on his dad's ponytail, almost tempting Kenshin to cut it off, which he would have if he hadn't been afraid Kaoru would beat him black and blue for such a transgression.
Over the past year, with patience and persistence, Kenshin had been able to win Kenji over. Kenshin spent as much time as he could with his little guy, playing with him, reading to him and helping him swing his tiny shinai around. Kenji came to see that Daddy was a fun man to be around and wasn't trying to take Mother away from him. Kenji began helping Daddy with the gardening and laundry to the best of his ability. After a year of this, no father and son could be closer.
"Daddy, where does snow come from?" Kenji asked presently.
"Snow is what rain turns into when it gets very cold in the sky," answered Kenshin.
"Snow is water?" asked Kenji.
"Yes," said Kenshin.
"Can I drink it?" asked Kenji.
"If you like," answered Kenshin with a smile.
"Pumme down. I wanna drink the snow," said Kenji.
Kenshin lifted Kenji off his shoulders and set him down in the snow. Kenji picked up a handful of the white stuff, ignoring the cold, and put it on his tongue. Evidently he liked it, because he sailed into it.
"Alright, Kenji. Leave some of it on the ground," said Kenshin firmly. "Let's walk some more."
Daddy and son walked on in silence for a long while, going deeper into the countryside. Kenji walked behind Kenshin and tried to step in his footprints, which wasn't easy because he was so small. Kenji overstepped and fell face-down in the snow. Kenshin paused and looked over his shoulder, observing his son. Instantly, Kenji stood up, dusted himself off and continued onward, unphased. Kenshin started forward again, a smile on his face.
Kenji was walking under a large maple tree when some snow slipped off a branch that was just over him and landed with a plop on the boy's ruddy head. Kenji looked up at the offending branch and shook the snow off with a scowl. That stuff was cold and had startled him! Then he looked at his dad who was still walking ahead and got an idea. Kenji wanted to startle Daddy the way the tree branch had startled him.
After gathering up as much snow as his little arms could carry, Kenji hurried to catch up with his father. As soon as he was in range, Kenji lobbed a lopsided snowball at Kenshin, hitting him square in the back.
"Oro!" went Kenshin as he turned to face his little boy, who was staring at him with that impish little smile of his, blue eyes shining with mischief.
A smirk spread across Kenshin's face. Quick as a cat, he dug his hands into the snow and lobbed it back at Kenji, hitting the lad on the chest. Kenji squealed with delight and did the same thing back to his father. Soon they were engaged in a madcap game of snow-flinging, the forest ringing with their laughter.
Kenji was dodging another of Kenshin's snowballs when a movement in the corner of his right eye caught his attention. Kenji turned and saw a white rabbit hopping over the snow. If the rabbit hadn't been moving, he wouldn't have noticed it. Forgetting the game, Kenji started chasing the white rabbit.
"Kenji!" called Kenshin, not wanting the boy to get out of his sight.
Kenji was too wrapped up in chasing the rabbit to hear Daddy calling him. The white rabbit dodged in and out of the bushes and around the trees. Kenji quickly and gracefully followed it, though he wasn't able to catch it.
Kenji disappeared around some large trees and out of Kenshin's sight, causing him to panic. Kenshin summoned his godspeed, which wasn't as easy for him to do at 35 as it had been at 15, and charged after his boy.
Kenji saw the white rabbit jump high into the air and then land on its side in the snow. It was no longer moving. Kenji approached the still rabbit slowly, or would have if he hadn't been scooped up into his father's arms just then.
"Pumme down, Daddy. Wanna see the white rabbit," said Kenji squirming a bit in Kenshin's tight grip.
"Kenji, you must never leave my side like that again without telling me first. That frightened me badly," said Kenshin, almost in a whisper.
Kenji stopped squirming. He had frightened Daddy? How was such a thing possible? Daddy feared nothing.
"I frightened you?" asked the toddler, blue eyes as large as saucers.
"Yes. I was very frightened because I couldn't see you," said Kenshin, gazing solemnly into his son's eyes.
"Sorry, Daddy," said Kenji quietly, wrapping his arms around his father's neck.
"That's alright son. I know you won't do it again," whispered Kenshin, returning his son's hug.
"Daddy, look at the white rabbit. It was hopping and then it just jumped in the air, and now it doesn't move. Why won't it move?" said Kenji pulling back from the hug and pointing to the rabbit lying in the snow.
Kenshin set his son down and knelt to inspect the rabbit. The white rabbit was unquestionably dead. In all likelihood, it had died of malnutrition due to the harsh weather. Kenshin sighed. Kenji couldn't be protected from the realities of life forever.
"I'm sorry, little lion. The white rabbit isn't moving anymore because it died," said Kenshin in a very soft voice.
Kenji's blue eyes widened.
"Died? What’s that mean?" asked the little boy.
"When something dies, it no longer has life in its body. When the rabbit was alive, it was able to see, hear, feel and hop. Now its life is gone. It can't see, hear or feel anymore. It will never hop again. Everything that has life will eventually lose it and die," explained Kenshin.
"Even us?" whispered Kenji.
"Yes. Even us," said Kenshin. "We're born, we grow up, we live our lives and then we die."
Kenji looked again at the still form in the snow. Why? Why did something that was alive have to die? It didn't seem fair.
"That's not fair," he said, looking into Daddy's eyes.
"Life is not always fair, son," said Kenshin, glancing absently up at the sky.
Suddenly he realized that something was terribly wrong. While he and Kenji had been talking, the sky had been steadily darkening. Only now had he noticed it. A blizzard was moving in! Without a word, Kenshin picked Kenji up in his arms and started running as fast as he could. He couldn't summon the godspeed again so soon, so he would have to go as fast as he could without it.
"Daddy?" asked Kenji.
"There's a blizzard coming in. We have to hurry home," said Kenshin simply.
Kenji held onto Daddy for dear life.
It was too late! The snow came blowing in on bone-chilling wind. It wasn't too bad at first. Kenshin ran as fast as he could, hoping to beat it before it got stronger. His hopes were dashed as it quickly strengthened into a whiteout so thick that Kenshin couldn't see even one foot in front of him. From his past experience wandering, he knew it would be foolhardy to try and find their way back to the dojo in the whiteout.
Kenshin groped about blindly for some kind of shelter, something to lean against. He was relieved when his hand brushed up against the unmistakable texture of tree bark. He squatted down underneath the tree, set Kenji against it and shielded the boy with his body to keep the wind from hitting him and causing frostbite.
"Daddy, are we gonna die?" asked Kenji.
"Not if I can help it, Kenji," said Kenshin, holding the boy as close to him as he could.
The storm continued for what seemed like an eternity, buffeting Kenshin's slender body, robbing him of body heat despite his winter clothes. Kenshin was losing feeling in his legs. His red mane was frozen and coated with snow. Kenji watched in horror as his father's naturally pallid skin started to turn blue. He touched Daddy's left cheek and felt how icy it was.
"Daddy, I'm sorry," said Kenji, tears welling in his blue eyes.
"W-w-what f-f-or?" stuttered the shivering Kenshin.
"It’s cuz I ran away from you. We got caught out here cuz of me," said Kenji.
"D-d-don't t-think t-that. N-nobod-dy's f-f-fault," said Kenshin with great difficulty.
Kenshin could feel his consciousness slipping. He knew that if he fell asleep, all was lost. He needed something to keep him going.
"Kenji. I-I n-need you to do something for me," he said.
"What?" said Kenji.
"W-w-whenever you see my eyes c-c-close, I want you to y-yank my h-hair," said Kenshin. "Will y-you d-do this?"
"Yank your hair? Isn't that bad?" asked Kenji.
"N-not here and not now. I need t-to s-stay a-w-w-ake. Don't l-l-let me g-go t-t-t-to s-s-sleep," said Kenshin.
Kenji didn't understand the situation totally, but somehow his five-year-old brain connected Daddy's going to sleep here with the white rabbit lying on the snow. He didn't want Daddy to end up like the white rabbit.
"Don't go to sleep Daddy!" he shouted.
Over the next half hour, Kenji did everything in his five-year-old power to keep his father awake. He sang songs, said rhymes, and told funny stories. Whenever Kenshin's eyes started to shut, Kenji would yank Daddy's hair as hard as he could until Kenshin's eyes would snap open.
"G-ggood arms, s-s-son," he complimented.
After what seemed like an eternity, the wind died down. It continued to snow, but not as thickly. The world, which had been blotted out by a screen of white, came into view again.
"Daddy, I see the trees!" said Kenji.
Kenshin's brain was almost completely dead from the cold. He could barely function. The only thing keeping him from dropping was the need to get them both moving, get Kenji home to Kaoru. Summoning all the strength he had left, Kenshin sat up and rubbed his hands on his arms, trying to get the blood circulating again. His arms had some feeling because they hadn't been directly exposed to the wind, but his legs felt like deadweights.
"I can't feel my legs. I need you to help me rub them so they warm up," said Kenshin.
Kenji got to work, rubbing Daddy's legs as hard as his five-year-old hands could. Thanks to Daddy acting as a barrier between him and the wind, Kenji hadn't suffered too badly from the cold. Slowly with the vigorous rubbing, Kenshin began to feel tingling in his legs as his circulation slowly returned to them.
Bracing himself against the maple tree, Kenshin managed to get to his feet. He had to hold onto the tree to gain his balance for a few minutes. Then he pushed off, his body crying out for warmth and sleep. Kenshin's swordsman's training and survival instincts knew that if he listened to his body, he'd die out here.
"Kenji, keep talking to me as we walk. Keep me awake. Keep me moving," said Kenshin as he stumbled along.
As they headed back the way they'd come, Kenji ran around yelling, laughing and singing. A couple times, Kenshin sank to his knees from exhaustion. Kenji sharply yanked Daddy's auburn hair till he got to his feet and got moving again. Finally, the back gate of the dojo was in sight. Kenshin willed his body to go on just a little farther. Kenji grabbed his dad's right hand and tugged at him.
"C'mon Daddy. We're home! We're home!" squealed the little boy, earning a faint smile from Kenshin.
Just as they reached the back gate though, Kenshin's strength gave out and he collapsed. Kenji looked back when he heard the thud and was horrified to see his father lying face-down in the snow, his crimson hair splayed out in all directions. He wasn't moving. An image of the white rabbit appeared before Kenji's eyes. Was Daddy dead?
Kenji approached his father slowly and touched him. His body was stiff and cold.
"Daddy?" he asked in a timid voice, receiving no answer.
Daddy was dead! Kenji felt his heart drop out of him. He'd made Daddy die!
Kenji raced into the dojo to find Mother. Mother always took such good care of Daddy. Maybe, just maybe, if she could go to him in time, Mother could save Daddy.
"Mommmmy!" wailed Kenji, in tears by now. Kenji seldom cried even at such a young age, but this was too much for his little heart to bear.
Inside the dojo, Kaoru's stomach was knotted with worry and panic. The blizzard had hit so suddenly and Kenshin and Kenji hadn't come home. She paced all over the house, frequently going to the back to see if they were coming in through the gate. Had they been trapped in the blizzard? Had they been able to find shelter? Were they even still alive?
The sound of her son's crying voice and the sudden appearance of the little boy brought Kaoru to her feet. Kenji's skin was pale, his eyes were wide and he was CRYING!
"Kenji!" cried Kaoru, throwing her arms around her son. Her relief at seeing Kenji was quickly replaced by worry. Where was Kenshin? Why wasn't he following Kenji in?
"Mommy, I made Daddy die!" wailed the little boy.
"What do you mean? Where is Daddy? Show me," said Kaoru, trying to keep her voice even to avoid upsetting the child any more.
"He fell down outside by the back gate," sobbed Kenji. "He's not moving, just like the white rabbit. I made him die."
"Kenji, you go to your room and change into some dry clothes. I'll go get Daddy," said Kaoru, giving the little boy a hug.
"Make him alive again, Mommy," said Kenji tearfully before disappearing to his room.
Kaoru ran outside as fast as she could without bothering to put on a haori. She was horrified when she saw Kenshin lying on the snow.
"Kenshin!" she almost screamed.
Wasting no time, Kaoru latched onto Kenshin's arms and started pulling him toward the dojo. Kenshin weighed only a little more than Kaoru, so it wasn't too hard for her to move him. Adrenaline borne of fear helped a lot too.
Kaoru got Kenshin inside the dojo and then into their bedroom. Laying him down on the futon, Kaoru put two fat logs in the brazier and got a roaring fire going. She had to get Kenshin warm. Time was of the essence. Once she had the fire going, Kaoru went over to the futon, dragged it and Kenshin over near the brazier and began undressing her husband.
Once she had him unclothed, Kaoru covered Kenshin with the blanket, trying to get him warm. Her efforts were rewarded when she felt just a little bit of warmth starting to emanate from Kenshin's body. Kaoru decided that Kenshin needed to be warmed on the inside as well as the out. After tucking him under the blanket up to his chin to keep him warm while she was gone, Kaoru ran out to the kitchen and poured some of the tea she'd set to steep into a cup, then hurried back into the bedroom.
Cradling Kenshin's head in her right hand, Kaoru poured the hot liquid into his mouth, being careful not to spill it onto his bare skin. Kenshin swallowed the tea automatically. Kaoru kept making him drink it until the cup was empty.
Kenji entered the room just as Kaoru finished giving Kenshin the tea. He'd changed into warm, dry clothes and was really quite alright considering what he'd just been through. Kenji walked over to his parents.
"Is Daddy alive?" he asked.
"Yes, Daddy's alive, but he's very cold. We need to warm him up. Let's both get into bed with him. The more people with him, the faster Daddy will get warm," said Kaoru as she unfolded the blanket and motioned for Kenji to climb in next to his dad.
Kenji climbed in and snuggled up against Daddy. Mother climbed in on the other side and tucked all three of them under the blanket. Kaoru and Kenji snuggled with Kenshin on both sides, trying to warm him up.
After what seemed like an eternity, Kenshin's body began to warm up noticeably. His skin started to revert to its usual pallor instead of the unsightly blue it had turned to. Kenshin's brain started to function and he gradually became aware of lying under a soft blanket next to a hot fire. His violet eyes opened and saw Kaoru and Kenji's anxious faces watching him.
"Daddy!" cried Kenji, hugging his father as tightly as he could.
"I'm home," whispered Kenshin, smiling at his wife and child.
"Welcome back," whispered Kaoru, relieved to see her husband awake again.
For the next two hours, the three lay together on the futon, neither Kaoru nor Kenji wanting to leave Kenshin's side. Kenshin gradually woke up and became more aware. His color was much better now. Finally Kaoru was of the mind that they could use some food.
"Are you hungry, darling?" she asked softly.
"Starving," said Kenshin with a sleepy smile.
"I'll get some food for all three of us and we can eat in here. I'll be back in half an hour tops," said Kaoru, getting up and exiting the room.
Kenshin saw the look of sadness on Kenji's face. He stroked his son's titian hair for a minute. Why was the little guy so distressed?
"Why the long face?" asked Kenshin.
Kenji's lower lip was trembling. He didn't want to cry in front of Daddy, never in front of Daddy! He wanted to be strong and brave like Daddy. But now he just couldn't help it.
"I'm sorry I made you die," said Kenji, tears rolling down his face.
"Made me die? What are you talking about?" asked Kenshin, fighting back the urge to laugh at his son's very serious distress.
"At the gate. You fell down and didn't move, just like the white rabbit," said Kenji.
"No, little lion. I wasn't dead. I was very cold and tired," explained Kenshin. "You did a great job of keeping me going. I would've died if I'd been trapped in the blizzard and you weren't there. You saved my life, son."
Kenji seemed to feel a bit better hearing this.
"Really?" he asked.
Kenshin drew his son into his arms.
"Really," he said. "You're a very brave boy. You'll be a fine man one day."
Father and son spent the next half hour just lying together, enjoying the quiet of the room with each other. Finally the fusuma slid open and in came Kaoru, carrying three plates of steaming rice and grilled fish. Kenshin and Kenji sat up and accepted the plates, thanking Kaoru. The three sat down to eat together, Kenshin with the blanket wrapped around his shoulders for warmth.
"Thanks for the food," said Kenshin before all three tore into their food.
After Kaoru had tucked Kenji into bed in his room, she returned to their room where the fire created eerie, yet romantic shadows on the wall. Kenshin was lying on his side, staring into the fire. It felt great to be warm again, although his muscles were very sore from having slogged through the snow.
"How do you feel?" asked Kaoru. "Be honest."
"I'm alright. My muscles are a bit sore though," said Kenshin, wanting to be honest, but not wanting to unduly worry Kaoru.
"I have just the thing for that. Roll over on your belly," said Kaoru.
Kenshin did as he was told, a smile gracing his features. Kaoru exited the room and returned with a small pot of oil, which had been warming over the hearth in the living room. Megumi had given it to her and explained that when rubbed on sore muscles, it helped to relax them. This was just what the doctor ordered.
After pealing the blanket back, exposing Kenshin's nude body to her, Kaoru poured the oil onto his back. Kenshin sucked in his breath through his teeth. The oil felt surprisingly good. Slowly, deeply and thoroughly, Kaoru pressed down into Kenshin's sore muscles, working the oil in. She could feel tense muscles relax and turn to yokan as she rubbed them. Kenshin let out deep guttural moans of pleasure. Kaoru smiled, pleased that she could elicit this kind of response from the normally reticent man.
Kaoru rubbed the hot oil over Kenshin's lower back and shoulders, working it in very thoroughly on his shoulder blades, then out over his arms, to the very tips of his fingers. Having finished with Kenshin's upper body, Kaoru turned her attention to the lower part. She rubbed the oil onto his smooth, round buttocks and then his legs, which were very sore from walking through the deep snow.
"Ooooh, woman what you do to me," moaned Kenshin, forcing Kaoru to bite back a giggle.
Finished with the legs, Kaoru helped Kenshin to roll over onto his back. She rubbed the oil all over Kenshin's torso, starting with his belly and working her way up over his chest, and out along the upper sides of his arms.
Kaoru slid her hands down over Kenshin's torso, not wanting to break contact with him as she worked on the front side of his legs. She rubbed the hot oil onto Kenshin's thighs, knees and then his calves and feet. Kenshin's mind was floating, lost in the pleasure of the experience. His brain was melted to warm goo by the oil and the erotic touch of his wife spreading it all over his nude body. Needless to say the soreness was completely gone, having been replaced by feeling like yokan. Kenshin wouldn't have been able to walk now, even if he'd felt the inclination to move, which he most certainly did not.
Kaoru set the pot aside and replaced the blanket over her husband. She quickly got undressed and then slipped under the covers beside Kenshin, who promptly wrapped his arm around her. Kaoru rested her hand on her husband's oily chest.
"Feeling better now, darling?" she whispered.
Kenshin smiled languidly and nodded.
"Thank you for giving me the day off, even if it didn't turn out as planned," whispered Kaoru.
"You're welcome, but could we wait till summer for the next one?" murmured Kenshin.
"Um, Kenshin. Kenji mentioned a white rabbit. What was that all about?" asked Kaoru, absently stroking Kenshin's chest.
"He saw a white rabbit die in the forest today," he answered, still not opening his eyes.
"Oh..." said Kaoru. "I guess he had to learn about that sooner or later."
"Yes," said Kenshin. "He's a very brave boy. The spirit of a warrior..."
Kenshin's words trailed off because he was exhausted. Kaoru stroked her husband's scarred cheek.
"We can talk in the morning. Get some sleep," she ordered gently.
Kenshin turned over on his side, buried his face in Kaoru's breast and let out a contented sigh. Kaoru stroked Kenshin's gorgeous mane and stared into the fire for a while, thinking about how blessed she was that she had two such wonderful guys in her life and how she had almost lost them today. She was very glad that they hadn't ended up like the white rabbit.