The train pulled into the Kyoto station, slowly coming to a stop. After the iron horse was stationary, it blew the steam from its engine and the doors were thrown open so the passengers could disembark. The very first passenger off one car was a tiny boy with sky blue eyes and copper hair pulled back into a low ponytail. He flew down the steps so fast, a gust of wind was all the porters even noticed.
"Himura Kenji, you wait for us!" called a sharp voice immediately after.
The small boy stopped and turned around, glaring impatiently at his raven haired mother and crimson haired father, who were just now walking down the steps.
"Hurry up, already! I wanna see Aunt Misao and Grandpa!" Kenji hollered.
"Yes, yes. We're coming, Kenji," Kenshin said soothingly. "You mustn't run ahead of your mother and me in this crowded train station. You could get lost."
Kenji was about to protest that he wouldn't get lost when...
Kenshin and Kaoru looked up, expecting by instinct to be bowled over by a petite kunoichi, as they were every year. This year however, the kunoichi was anything but petite, with her stomach sticking out as though she had stuck a balloon under her kimono.
"Misao-chan! It's so good to see you again!" greeted Kaoru, eyes traveling down to Misao's swollen belly. "How are you doing?"
"It's going fine. This little one is a kicker," answered Misao.
"Just like mine was," returned Kaoru.
Kenshin and Aoshi nodded in greeting.
Kenji looked Aunt Misao over sharply. In his memory from prior visits, she had always been small and slender. Suddenly, this year, her tummy was bulging!
"Aunt Misao, what happened to your tummy?" he blurted out.
"Kenji!" reprimanded Kaoru.
"That's alright, Kaoru," said Misao. "I'm carrying Aoshi's and my baby inside my tummy until he or she is big enough to come out and join the world."
"Oro? Baby?" asked Kenji, looking up to his parents for help.
"We'll tell you about it once we're back at the Aoiya," said Kaoru. "Right now we should get a move on."
Aoshi picked up the Himura family's bags and the two Oniwabanshuu led their guests back to the inn.
"Himura-kun, welcome!" greeted a jubilant Okina.
"Thank you for having us as always, Okina-dono," smiled Kenshin. "How is everyone?"
"Oh, we're all fine. Aoshi and Misao have been preparing for their new addition and Okon makes her weekly trips up the mountain," grinned Okina with a wink.
"Oh. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that. Just forget I said anything," said Okina, holding up his hands.
"Mom, why is a baby in Aunt Misao's tummy and how'd it get there?" Kenji asked, annoyed at having been put off before.
"In a minute, Kenji," said Kaoru firmly.
Kenji scowled, face pinching like a nutcracker at having been denied yet again.
"Follow me," said Aoshi as he started up the staircase, still carrying everyone's bags.
Aoshi put Kenshin and Kaoru in their usual room and Kenji in the one adjoining it.
Kenji unpacked his little bag, a frown on his face the whole time. Why was a baby inside Aunt Misao's tummy? How had it gotten there?
'Was I inside Mom's tummy like that when I was a baby?' the thought suddenly occurred to him.
After setting everything the way he wanted it, Kenji stood up and marched to the door to ask again.
Kenshin looked up at the sound of the door sliding open to see Kenji standing there, looking unhappy, yet determined.
"Something on your mind, son?" he asked.
"Was I inside Mom's tummy when I was a baby?" Kenji asked.
"Yes, you were," he answered truthfully.
"How'd I get there?"
"Oro? Well, it's a b-bit complicated," Kenshin stammered.
Kenji rolled his eyes. Why, oh why, did adults have to be so obtuse over answering a little boy's simple question?
"Would you like to walk up the mountain with me to see Grandpa Hiko in an hour or so?" Kenshin asked by way of distracting Kenji.
A smile stretched across Kenji's features at the mention of his adopted grandfather.
"Yeah!" he answered happily.
'Grandpa Hiko will tell me about babies!' Kenji thought to himself.
"Go practice your kata in the meanwhile. You want to show your best skills to Grandpa, right?" smiled Kenshin.
"OK, Dad," said Kenji, dutifully trotting into the inner yard to work his kata.
Kenshin felt Aoshi's ki as the shinobi entered the room and stood with him, watching Kenji.
"Himura, may I ask your advice on something?" Aoshi began uneasily.
"Through my life, I have trained to fight, infiltrate, spy, all of which required extensive planning and preparation. I have no training in fatherhood and find myself baffled by the very concept," the ninja admitted awkwardly as he sat down next to the rurouni.
"It's not something you can train and plan for. You have to simply deal with things as they happen," was Kenshin's answer as they both watched Kenji.
"I see," responded Aoshi.
"Don't worry about the future. Just enjoy your child, one day at a time. As they grow, they will explore and discover the world around them and surprise you in so many different ways," continued Kenshin, eyes lighting with pride as Kenji executed a rather difficult Kasshin maneuver.
"Spontaneity has never been my forte," admitted Aoshi.
"You'll adapt," said Kenshin, shifting his gaze to the ninja. "And don't forget: You're not alone. You have Misao-dono, Okina-dono and all the others to help you."
"Yes," agreed Aoshi.
"Children have a healing effect on the heart," said Kenshin, voice thickening. "Open your heart to that baby. Love them and let them love you back!"
Aoshi's gaze turned to Kenshin's and he saw in the violet eyes that stared back at him love, joy, peace.
"I will," he responded, a strain of unaccustomed emotion in his usually monotone voice.
"Good," said Kenshin, smile widening even more.
The two men lapsed into silence and continued to watch Kenji.
Kenshin and Kenji set out on their journey to see Hiko. Kaoru ordinarily would have accompanied them, but wanted to stay and compare pregnancy notes with Misao. As they made their way up the hill, Kenshin cast out his senses and picked up the familiar, yet always overwhelming, ki of his master. Looking up, he saw Hiko standing at the top of the hill, waiting for them.
"I believe I see a Little Lion," Hiko called down to the charging boy.
"RAWR!!!!" cried Kenji, unshouldering his shinai and leaping into the air.
Hiko drew his nihontou in battoujutsu and repulsed Kenji's attack. Kenji flipped, landed and charged again, swinging up. Hiko swung down and again blocked the boy's attack. The two pushed against each other for a moment, then broke apart.
"You've gotten better," smiled Hiko.
"I practice every day!" declared Kenji.
"Of course you do. A swordsman always keeps his skills as honed as his blade," said Hiko.
"Yup!" agreed Kenji.
"Where's the old ball and chain?"
This to Kenshin, who had just caught up with Kenji.
"The old... oro... Kaoru decided to stay at the Aoiya. She sends her regards," answered Kenshin.
"Ah, visiting with the knocked up Weasel, eh?" smirked Hiko.
"Knocked up?" parroted Kenji.
"Master..." groaned Kenshin, burying his face in his hands.
"Slang talk for a pregnant woman," explained Hiko.
This returned Kenji's mind to his previous question that no one had wanted to answer.
"How'd she get... knocked up?" asked Kenji.
"Oro..." groaned Kenshin.
Kaoru was going to kill him!
"It happens when a man and woman share a bed together," Hiko answered solemnly.
"Master!" cried Kenshin, cheeks turning red.
"Like Mom and Dad?" asked Kenji.
This was not happening!!!!!!!!
"Mmmhmmm," answered Hiko.
"Oh, OK!" said Kenji happily.
That was so simple! Why had Mom and Dad been so unhappy when he had asked a question with such a simple answer. Now that that was settled in his young mind, Kenji's thoughts returned to his first love: swordsmanship.
"Lemme show you my kata!"
"You do that," said Hiko.
Kenji trotted a few feet away, unshouldered his shinai and started working.
"Heh. He took my reproductive explanation with far more aplomb at age six than you did at age 12. Why does that not surprise me?" smirked Hiko.
Poor Kenshin's cheeks were flushed as he remembered how embarrassed he had felt when the Master had explained to him about the deer he had seen in the forest.
At age six, Himura Kenji thought himself quite a big boy; he had graduated to the second level of Kamiya Kasshin and today he would be starting first grade at the new school house.
Both parents saw Kenji off to school in the morning. Kenshin had many secret misgivings. He knew that those who differed from the status quo in the slightest way were often shunned. He remembered back to his own starved childhood. Even before he'd been torn from his family by disease, he'd been solitary, rejected by the other village children for his exotic complexion, small stature and strange quiet temperament. Kenji was a very willful and spirited child. How would he get along with the other children? Would he make friends with them, or would he be rejected for his looks and willfulness?
"You be good and mind the teacher, Kenji," admonished Kaoru.
"Yes, Mom," said Kenji, wanting to represent his family well on his first day of school.
"Remember that if you're friendly to the other children, they'll probably be friendly back to you," offered Kenshin.
"Yes, Dad," said Kenji, getting a bit anxious to break away from his parents and walk to the schoolhouse.
"Off you go," said both parents together.
"Bye," said Kenji as he started off.
As he walked toward the school, Kenji saw a lot of other young children, some with their parents, some walking alone as he was. Kenji cast out his ki to try and sense theirs the way Dad had taught him. Most of the other children were excited, nervous, etc. A few clung to their parents and wailed because they were frightened.
As Kenji neared the school, he was hit by a rather hostile ki. His eyes panned the crowd and locked with the gaze of a little boy with curly black hair and impudent brown eyes. The two sized each other up. Kenji sensed he would have trouble with this boy.
Other boy's POV
Hiyoshi Takuma watched in disgust as the redhaired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned boy approached the school from the distance. What was that foreigner doing here? Japan was for the Japanese! Revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians! That was what his father, a steelsmith for the anti-foreigner royalists during the Bakumatsu had taught him since he was little.
It made Takuma's blood boil to see this little foreigner just walking down the street as if he had the right to be there. Takuma resolved to make this redheaded foreigner's life a living hell.
As his eyes roved the crowd, they came to rest on a little girl, a beautiful little girl in a sky-blue kimono with a white butterfly print on it. She had long, silky black hair and honey-colored eyes. Kenji couldn't stop staring at her. As if feeling his stare, she looked up and smiled at him. Kenji felt his lips curl up in a smile.
The schoolhouse door opened and the bell rang to call the children to line up. The teacher, a woman looking to be in her mid-20s stood in the doorway and called for the children to quiet down.
As Kenji entered the class room with the other children, he was impressed by how large it was. The room was furnished with desks low to the ground because everyone sat on the floor. The teacher had everyone stand in a group and proceeded to introduce herself.
"Good morning, children. My name is Fukushita-sensei. I will call out your names and have you sit in alphabetical order. Please raise your hand when I call your name," said Fukushita-sensei.
One by one, she called out the children's names. Each child that raised their hand was then assigned to a desk.
"Himura Kenji," she called out.
Kenji raised his right hand. Fukushita-sensei pointed him to a middle row seat which, much to his delight, was right next to a window.
As the rest of the children were sent to their seats, Kenji watched them with great curiosity. As each child was named off, he attached their name to their face instantly. He had a steel-trap memory and would never forget the name of a person once he saw their face.
"Uchina Touru," Fukushita-sensei called out.
The little girl who had smiled at Kenji came forth and was directed to sit at a desk on almost the opposite end of the room. Touru demurely took her seat, arranged her stuff, then looked right up at Kenji and smiled again. Once again, Kenji smiled quickly before turning away. His delight was short-lived however when the teacher called out the name of the next student.
"Hiyoshi Takuma," called out Fukushita-sensei.
Kenji turned to look and sure enough, the brat with the impudent brown eyes raised his hand and was directed to sit right behind him. Of all the rotten luck. Takuma sat down behind Kenji and fixed him with a malicious gaze. Kenji scowled right back at him. He wouldn't be subdued by this Takuma kid!
"What are you lookin' at, you dirty foreigner?" said Takuma. "My dad says foreigners have no right to live in Japan and no right to send their kids to school here."
"I'm not a foreigner. I'm Japanese," growled Kenji.
"You sure don't look like it, Copper Top," said Takuma.
Kenji, who had a rather short fuse when it came to his hair color, was just about to reach over the desk and throttle Takuma for that remark when Fukushita-sensei clapped the bat against the desk and ordered quiet in the room, which had become quite a din since all the children were now sitting down. Kenji and Takuma glared at each other, then turned to face Fukushita-sensei.
Kenshin approached the front room of the house and looked all around. The coast was clear! The last time he had seen Kaoru, she had been taking a nap in their bedroom. He started to head for the front door. He wanted to run over to the school and make sure Kenji was OK. Just as Kenshin was about to slide the door open...
"Freeze!" came his wife's imperious voice.
"Oro!" went Kenshin, going all swirly eyed at being startled.
How was the greatest warrior of the Bakumatsu so easily snuck up on by his wife?
"And where are you off to, Himura Kenshin?" asked Kaoru.
"Would you believe me if I said I was going shopping for tofu?" Kenshin offered lamely.
"Without this?" asked Kaoru, holding up the bucket.
"Ooooh, so you had it. No wonder I couldn't find it," said Kenshin, knowing his ship was already sunk.
"Uh-huh, if you're going to lie, at least try not to be so lame about it. Now, the logs aren't going to chop themselves. And don't even think of sneaking out the back gate," said Kaoru, pointing to the backyard
"Oroooooo," said Kenshin as he hung his head and went out back to chop logs.
The morning lessons proceeded smoothly. The children got right into learning how to write out their names in kanji. Kenji had a grand time stroking the black brush over the paper and seeing the symbols for his name appear on the paper. This was something that he'd made with his own two hands. He couldn't wait to show Mom and Dad!
During math class, things started to go downhill. Kenji was concentrating on writing out numbers and was oblivious to everything around him. Takuma decided to have some fun with the redhaired boy sitting in front of him. He picked up Kenji's long red ponytail and dipped it in his inkwell.
Kenji was startled by the feeling of his hair being touched and whipped around to Takuma, who was solemnly concentrating on his numbers. Kenji turned around to continue his numbers and saw ink splotches on the paper where his ponytail had brushed it. Reaching to the back of his head, Kenji felt wet ink. His fingers came away with ink all over them.
The sound of Takuma's snickering made Kenji turn and glare at him. Kenji was too angry to speak, his tiny body shaking with rage.
"Well the tip of your ponytail looks Japanese. Maybe you should pour ink all over your head so you don't look like a foreigner anymore," said Takuma, grinning maliciously.
Kenji snapped. With a battle cry worthy of Battousai himself, Kenji lept over the desk at Takuma, scratching and biting for all the world like the great cat for which Grandpa Hiko had named him.
"Aaaaa! Get him off me! Get him off me!" cried Takuma.
Kenji felt himself being pulled off Takuma by the collar of his kimono. He looked into the angry eyes of Fukushita-sensei.
"Himura, what is going on here?" she said.
It was asking too much of Kenji's pride for him to explain what had just happened, so he remained silent and glared at his tormentor.
"I didn't do anything to him and he just jumped on me," lied Takuma.
Kenji snarled at him.
"Such outrageous behavior on your first day, Himura. You go and stand at the blackboard for the rest of the morning," said Fukushita-sensei.
Kenji whose blue eyes were dancing with rage, went to the blackboard silently, never once looking at Takuma or the teacher. As he stood there, he could feel all eyes on him. He burned with rage and humiliation, but never once lowered his head.
As he swung his axe into the logs, Kenshin kept thinking of Kenji. He had a bad feeling about today, something in his gut told him that things weren't going well for the boy. As a father, he wanted to intervene and make anyone who messed with his son regret it. However, he knew that Kenji would never forgive him for such a transgression.
Ever since Kenji could walk, he wanted to do everything himself. If he wanted something that was out of his reach, he would climb on top of something else to get to it. Kenshin vividly remembered when Kenji was three and four and would fall into the well at night because he refused to ask him or Kaoru to get him water when he was thirsty.
School would be no different. If Kenji thought that Kenshin was interfering and protecting him, his pride would be hurt and this would make the boy resent him. Kenshin still remembered when Kenji had disliked him as a baby and didn't want to risk losing the boy's affection by insulting his pride.
Still though, when Kenshin recalled his own harsh treatment back in his village, his heart yearned over his son. He hoped against hope that Kenji would fare better with the other children than he had at that age. With a sigh, Kenshin continued to chop. Only four more hours and Kenji would be home safe and sound. Maybe then he could relax.
Kenji was kept at the blackboard till lunch time. When Fukushita-sensei dismissed him from the board, he turned stiffly around without even acknowledging her, grabbed his bento box and went outside. Kenji found himself a secluded spot under a tree away from the other children. He wasn't exactly in a social mood after what had transpired this morning.
As Kenji sat eating the lunch his dad had packed, he felt a ki approaching him. He looked up, ready to fight if it was Takuma. Instead he saw the girl. What was her name? Touru! That was it!
"Hello. My name is Uchina Touru," she said with a bow.
"Himura Kenji," he returned quietly.
"I saw what that boy did to you. That was really unfair. Maybe if I told Fukushita-sensei what I saw, she could punish him too," said Touru.
"Nah. It's in the past, so it's not worth thinking about anymore. I just want to forget it happened," said Kenji.
"That's very kind of you. Most boys would want revenge. Would you like a riceball?" said Touru, holding one out to Kenji.
Kenji took the proffered riceball with a smile and in return, held out a piece of sushi, which Touru took in trade. The two ate their lunches together in companionable silence. After they finished eating, they played a game of hide and seek.
After they came in from lunch, Kenji sat stiffly in his seat, facing forward. Takuma spent the rest of the day tormenting Kenji by throwing little wads of paper at him and flicking the back of his head. Kenji, not wanting to get in trouble twice in one day, endured it silently, seething all the while.
Mercifully, dismissal time rolled around. Kenji waited in hiding till he saw Takuma head toward his house. He also watched Touru skip off in the direction of her house. Kenji trudged home slowly. All he wanted to do was get into the house and try to get the ink out of his hair. He hoped that Dad and Mom wouldn't ask him how his day went. As he approached the dojo, Kenji reached back and tucked his dyed ponytail under his kimono.
Kenji opened the front gate just a crack and peaked around. The front yard was deserted. Good! Kenji stepped through, closing the gate behind him. He moved quickly and quietly, always keeping his senses attuned to his surroundings.
Kenji stepped in the front door and slipped off his zori before stepping up from the genkan. He started to walk to his room when the front door slid open behind him, startling him. Kenji whirled around to see Mom with Dad standing behind her.
"Welcome home, Kenji. How was school?" asked Mom.
"It was alright Mom," said Kenji quietly. "I'm gonna go play in my room now."
"Oh, alright," said Kaoru, who had been expecting Kenji to be excited about his first day at school.
Kenshin said nothing.
Kenji went out to the well with an empty pitcher. He needed water to try and wash the ink out of his hair. Kenji walked carefully to avoid spilling any water. So intent was he on this that as he was coming back in, he almost ran headfirst into Kenshin.
"Oro?" said Kenshin, looking at the pitcher of water.
"I need it for something in my room," said Kenji, without looking up.
Kenshin reached down and pulled Kenji's ponytail out from under his kimono, revealing the ink-stained hair. Kenji looked down at the floor, shame creeping into every iota of his tiny being.
"Might this be the something?" asked Dad evenly.
"What happened?" asked Kenshin.
"I leaned my head back too far and my hair dipped into the inkwell behind me," lied Kenji.
Kenshin shook his head. He could read his six-year-old's ki like an open book and knew when the boy was lying, which almost never happened.
"A boy at school," said Kenji softly.
"Someone did this to your hair on purpose?" asked Kenshin, feeling white hot anger surge up in him, but quickly controlling it.
Kenji nodded. Kenshin sighed. It was as he'd feared. Kenji's exotic looks and temperament set him too far apart from the other children.
"Let me help you wash the ink out," said Kenshin.
Father and son went to work, getting water for the furo and stoking the fire, which didn't take too long with the two of them doing it. After everything was ready, they stepped into the furo and undressed together. Kenshin had Kenji sit down on the stool and went to work on his son's hair.
Kenshin worked on Kenji's hair for a good 20 minutes, scrubbing vigorously, soaping, rinsing, resoaping and rerinsing. But no matter how hard he scrubbed or how much he washed, that ink was fast. There was only one way to get it: the stained ends of Kenji's hair would have to be cut off.
Kenji's lip quivered when Dad broke the news to him. He loved his long hair because it made him look just like his sire. Kenji brought his emotions under control and nodded rigidly.
"Please do it fast, Dad and get it done," he said sadly.
"As soon as we're done with the bath," promised Kenshin.
Kenshin and Kenji soaked together in silence, Kenji lying limply in his dad's arms, listening to the steady thrum of Kenshin's heartbeat. Usually bathtime was fun for them, with Kenji sailing his little toy boat around the tub and playing all kinds of silly games with his dad. But not today. The little guy's spirit was definitely hurting, and Kenshin hurt for his son.
After they were out of the bath and dressed, Kenshin got the sheers and cut off no more hair than he had to. Kenji still had enough hair to reach just between his shoulderblades. Kenji heard the blades again, turned and saw that Dad had cut off a length of his own ponytail. His was now just to between his shoulderblades too.
"Dad?" he asked.
Kenshin smiled and patted his son on the head. "Now we can grow our hair back out together," he said happily.
"Thanks, Dad," said Kenji with a small smile.
"You're welcome, little lion. C'mon. Time to start dinner," said Kenshin, offering his son a hand.
The next two weeks at school were hell on earth for Kenji. Not a day went by that Takuma didn't think of something to torment the redhaired youngster with. Takuma learned early on not to directly challenge Kenji to a fight during school hours when he wielded his shinai and bruised Takuma's arms and legs badly, earning himself more punishment from Fukushita-sensei. After that Takuma became more discreet in his harassment. He played pranks on Kenji or just verbally tormented him.
Kenji was an unlucky little boy in that he always got caught when he fought back against his tormentor. Because of his swordsman's pride, Kenji refused to tell his side of the story, thus he alone was punished. He refused to tell his parents everything that was going on at school because he wanted to be strong.
Throughout this, Touru stayed at Kenji's side and was really his only close friend. During recess, if Takuma came to pick a fight, she'd threaten to tell the teacher on him. Kenji would always ask her not to get involved, but Touru refused to be dissuaded.
Because Touru was so kind to him every day and played with him during all their free time, Kenji invited her over to the dojo. Touru had never been in a kenjutsu dojo before and was fascinated by it. After introducing her to his parents (who took an instant liking to her), Kenji showed her the training hall, his shinai and his grandfather's bokken (borrowed from Dad). Under Mom's supervision, Kenji gave Touru some beginner's lessons with the shinai. Touru found she liked it and thought about asking her parents if she could become a student of the dojo.
"Looks like Kenji-chan's found himself a little girlfriend," joked Kaoru.
Kenshin's only response was a smile. He sensed that Touru was to be a permanent fixture in their son's life.
In late September, Fukushita-sensei announced to the class that she would be taking them on a field trip deep into the countryside for a nature study. The children were thrilled at the prospect of a day outside the classroom.
The next day, Fukushita-sensei led all the children out of the schoolhouse in a single-file line and led them deep into the wilderness for their nature study. Kenji walked behind Touru and kept a leery eye out for Takuma. Not a day went by that Takuma didn't do something to piss him off, whether it be snide remarks, a yank on the ponytail or a rude drawing of him on the blackboard. Takuma hadn't tried anything yet today, which put Kenji especially on edge.
The countryside was very beautiful in late September. The leaves were turning from green into different hues of browns, yellows and reds. Some of the trees had started to drop their leaves. Many of the little girls stopped along the way to collect the brightest and prettiest leaves. The boys liked to kick the leaves up and tromp noisily through them. Kenji found some very pretty red-and-yellow speckled maple and oak leaves and gave them to Touru. Touru clutched the leaves to her chest as she walked beside Kenji.
As they went along, Kenji sensed that something wasn't right. He turned his head and saw that Takuma had broken away from the group and was looking at something interesting in the tall grass. Narrowing his blue eyes, Kenji left the line too. What was that idiot up to? Touru, seeing Kenji leave, also left the line and followed him. Fukushita-sensei and the others never noticed the three children leave.
Kenji approached his tormentor silently and couldn't believe what he saw. The idiot had cornered and was teasing a mamushi with a stick! The viper was coiled up and hissing angrily at him, fangs out and poised to strike. Takuma thrust his long stick at it. The serpent struck the stick, spraying venom on it. Undaunted, he thrust again, agitating the snake further.
Kenji knew from his wilderness trecks with his dad, the Rooster and Yahiko-nii that this was a foolish thing to do. From day one, respect for the wilderness and all its little creatures had been drilled into his ruddy head. Kenji would never dream of tormenting an animal in this way, especially one so deadly.
Then it happened, Takuma tormented the mamushi once too much and the snake struck at him. It was all over in the blink of an eye. Takuma was lying on the ground several feet from where he'd just been and Kenji was on the ground, doubled up in pain from the snake bite. As the mamushi retreated into the tall grass, Touru dropped her leaves and came tearing out and knelt down over the now-shivering Kenji.
"Kenji-kun!" she almost screamed, seeing how pale he was turning before her eyes. Turning to Takuma, who was just now getting to his feet, she said to him fiercely, "Go get Fukushita-sensei! Kenji-kun's hurt!"
Takuma ran after the group, which apparently still wasn't aware of the three children's absence. Fukushita-sensei came running back after ordering the children to stay a respectable distance back.
Moving quickly, she scooped Kenji up in her arms and gave the order to move out. They had to hurry to the Oguni Clinic, for time was of the essence! The group went as quickly as they could back to Tokyo and to the Oguni Clinic. As they went along, Takuma's mind replayed the incident over and over. Kenji had taken the snake bite meant for him. Why would the boy he'd tormented daily for two weeks do such a thing? By the time they got there, Kenji was struggling to breathe.
"Takani-sensei, we have an emergency!" cried Fukushita-sensei as they came in.
Megumi emerged from the behind the door and dropped her medical bag when she saw who lay pale as death in the teacher's arms. She ushered Fukushita-sensei and Kenji into the examining room to treat the boy. Megumi, having been educated in medicine by her father who had trained in Europe, knew many exotic cures for things that would be incurable for other doctors. Kenji's life could be saved, but they were in a battle against time.
Touru now vented her wrath on Takuma.
"I hope you're happy, idiot!" she cried. "Kenji-kun saved you even though you've been nothing but mean to him. If he dies, I'll never forgive you!"
Takuma could only hang his head in shame.
"You go to the dojo and tell his parents. Kenji-kun needs his mom and dad with him right now," said Touru.
"I don't know where he lives," said Takuma miserably.
Touru gave Takuma directions. The boy set off, hoping to do some kind of penance for all that had transpired this morning.
Takuma ran as fast as he could, but his legs felt like deadweights. The guilt he felt made it hard to move, also the prospect of facing the parents of his victim. But what must be done, must be done.
Takuma arrived at the front gate, slid it open, ran to the front door of the house and started banging on it.
"Himura-san! Himura-san!" he cried out.
The door slid open and he was greeted by whom he guessed to be Kenji's mom: A woman with midnight black hair and sky blue eyes that matched Kenji's. Right now though, her hair was disheveled and her eyes watery due to a noisome cold.
"Achoo! Are you a classbade of Kenji's? Achoo!" asked Kaoru, having never seen this boy before.
Kaoru knew of Kenji's troubles in school from what Kenshin had told her, but Kenji had never told either parent exactly who it was that harassed him. That they couldn't extract from him.
"It's all my fault! I was teasing a pit viper with a stick and he pushed me out of the way and it bit him instead!" cried Takuma, on the verge of hysterics.
"A bit viber! Kenshin!" called Kaoru. "Achoo!"
A gust of wind and a red blur flying out of the gate told Kaoru that Kenshin had already heard everything.
"Let's go!" she said.
Takuma nodded and followed her. Kenshin was already halfway to the clinic.
Due to her cold, Kaoru couldn't run quickly. She struggled along as fast as she could. Takuma felt worse and worse all the time. What if Kenji-kun was dead? It would be all his fault and he would have blood on his soul.
Megumi had given Kenji the best medicines in the clinic. The rest was now up to him. To her relief, the medicines seemed to be having a good effect. He was no longer feverish and shivering, and his color seemed to be coming back. Just then the door slid open and in came Kenshin, breathing heavily, eyes wild with worry for his child.
"He'll be alright, Ken-san," said Megumi soothingly. "The fever's already coming down."
Kenshin nodded briefly, then knelt down at the bedside and took his son's hand in his own, never moving his eyes from the boy's face. Megumi stepped out to give father and son time alone. Before long, Kaoru and Takuma showed up as well. Kaoru went into the back to be with her two redheads.
Takuma sat staring at the floor. He hoped Kenji-kun would be alright. If Kenji-kun woke up, he resolved to apologize and take back every nasty crack he'd made about his hair and nationality. Just then the door slid open. Takuma looked up into Himura-san's cold gaze.
"Kenji told me that one of the boys at school was bothering him, teasing him about his hair. Would you know anything about that?" asked Kenshin softly, his violet eyes boring into Takuma.
Takuma shifted around uncomfortably and nodded, not daring to meet Kenshin's eyes. Kenji's dad was scary!
"Why?" asked Kenshin softly.
"His hair's funny," said Takuma wretchedly.
"My hair is funny too. Why don't you pick on me?" asked Kenshin shortly.
Takuma couldn't answer under Himura-san's piercing gaze.
"You are nothing more than a coward and a bully. After all that's happened, will you continue to torment him even now?" asked Kenshin.
Takuma shook his head, tears welling in his eyes.
"I won't do it ever again, Himura-san. I swear. I'll be real good to Kenji-kun if he lives," sobbed Takuma.
"He'll live. Megumi-dono got to him in time," said Kenshin.
"He's gonna be OK?" asked Takuma, finally gathering the courage to look into Himura-san's eyes.
Kenshin nodded stiffly.
"Thank you, Himura-san," said Takuma softly.
"Don't thank me. Thank Kenji when he's well again," said Kenshin, his gaze softening the tiniest bit.
Kenshin could forgive Takuma. He could even like the boy. But his worry for Kenji wouldn't permit Kenshin to be warm to Takuma right now. After Kenji woke up, it would be easier.
Kenji was kept at the clinic overnight for observation. Kenshin sent the sneezing and sniffling Kaoru home and stayed at the clinic with his son, sleeping on the bed with Kenji in his arms.
Kenji's blue eyes opened as the sun shone on them through the window the next morning. The first thing he become aware of was being held in a strong and warm embrace. Dad. Only Dad felt this warm. He looked into his father's sleeping face and saw the worry lines around his eyes.
"Dad," whispered Kenji, tugging his father's hair gently.
Kenshin's eyes open as he stirred to wakefulness. His gaze locked with his son's, bringing a smile to his face.
"Good morning, son of mine," he said with a smile, hugging the boy to him.
"What happened?" asked Kenji.
"You took the snake bite meant for your classmate and your teacher brought you here. You're going to be fine," said Kenshin, smiling for the first time since hearing about what had happened.
After Megumi gave them some breakfast, Kenshin carried his son home with orders from the doctor to keep him in bed for two more days. Kenji wouldn't return to school for a week while he regained his strength. Kenji couldn't say he was sorry not to go back there for a bit.
While Kenji recovered at home, he had visitors. First came Touru, much to Kenji's delight. She brought several get-well gifts, which Kenji gladly received, as well as makeup work, which was received with less enthusiasm. The two children had a great time playing and reading together in Kenji's room.
"When can you come back to school, Kenji-kun?" asked Touru.
"On Monday," said Kenji, wrinkling his nose.
"That's good. I miss our games during recess," said Touru.
"Me too," said Kenji, blushing.
Kenshin slid open the front door and saw Takuma standing and trembling. Feeling more relaxed now that Kenji was on the mend, he smiled kindly at Takuma. Takuma, seeing that Kenji's dad wasn't scary anymore, stopped trembling and returned a small smile.
"Hello, Takuma-chan. How are you?" said Kenshin softly.
"I'm well. Thank you, Himura-san," returned Takuma, bowing.
"I assume you're here to see Kenji. Come inside and wait in the genkan. I'll tell him you're here," said Kenshin.
"Thank you, Himura-san," said Takuma meekly.
Kenji at Mom's insistence, was doing a bit of makeup work. He had sensed Takuma's ki outside. As he expected, he sensed his dad's ki at his door.
"C'mon in," he called before Kenshin could even wrap.
Kenshin grinned to himself and slid the door open, stepping into the room.
"Hiyoshi Takuma is here. Do you want to see him, or not?" asked Kenshin.
Kenji considered for a moment.
"I'll see him," he said.
Kenshin went back to the front to admit the little penitent.
Takuma entered Kenji's room and found the redhaired boy sitting up against a cushion. Kenji read his ki and sensed no hostility or malice, those having been supplanted by guilt and sorrow. Takuma stood rigid and trembling. What was there to say to the boy whose life he'd made a living hell since school had started and who had then saved his life with no hesitation? Takuma felt his throat tighten. Abruptly, he bowed himself low to the ground.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry, Kenji-kun. I'm sorry for everything. I'm a big jerk."
Kenji didn't really know what to think. Not a day had gone by without a nasty word or a glare from Hiyoshi Takuma. Yet here he was, sincerely apologizing and asking forgiveness. Dad had always taught Kenji that it was best to forgive one's enemies when they asked and leave the past in the past. This was more honorable than the old ways of seeking revenge, which simply led to blood for blood, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Kenji let out a small sigh.
"Get up, Takuma," he said.
Takuma sat up and looked down at his hands.
"I'll forgive you if you make me a promise," said Kenji.
"Anything," said Takuma.
"Stop being a big jerk. I can't forgive you if you stop picking on me just cuz I saved your life and then start picking on some other kid cuz you don't like their hair or whatever," said Kenji.
"I promise," said Takuma. "I won't be a big jerk anymore. I'll never pick on anyone again."
"On your honor?" asked Kenji.
"Yes! Yes, on my honor," said Takuma, gathering his courage and looking Kenji in the eye.
"OK, I forgive you," said Kenji.
Takuma bowed down again.
"Thank you. Thank you," he whispered.
"Would you quit that? It's annoying," he said irritably.
Takuma snapped back into sitting up position.
"Sorry," he said softly.
Takuma reached into his pocket and pulled out a small get-well gift for Kenji.
"Thanks," said Kenji.
At first there was an awkward silence between Kenji and Takuma. Takuma still felt too ashamed to really speak to Kenji. Kenji found the silence annoying, so he started questioning Takuma about the goings-on at school.
"So what's been happening at school?" he asked.
"There are two new kids at school who look exactly alike," said Takuma. "Kyoran Hao and Tao. They kept switching places and fooling Fukushita-sensei yesterday."
"Cool. I can't wait to meet them," said Kenji excitedly.
"Want me to bring 'em by tomorrow?" asked Takuma.
"Yeah," said Kenji.
It would be great to meet a set of twins. The only other set of twins he knew were Tae and Sae, but they were seldom together as Sae lived in Kyoto.
After that icebreaker, Kenji and Takuma felt more natural around each other. They spent the rest of the hour looking at Kenji's books and complaining about the copious amounts of work that Fukushita-sensei doled out to the student body.
By the time Takuma left for home, he felt as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He would atone for the sin of tormenting Kenji by being a good friend to him and by never tormenting another kid again. Being mean just didn't pay.
The next day, Takuma brought the Kyoran twins over to meet Kenji, who was now allowed out of bed, though he still had to take things easy. Kenji stared them up and down. They looked EXACTLY alike, both with slicked back hair and thick glasses.
"I'm Hao," said one.
"I'm Tao," said the other.
"No you're not!" said Takuma. "This is Tao and this is Hao!"
Kenji laughed. He sensed that the four of them would be great friends and have a lot of great adventures in the future.
"Fukushita-sensei makes us sit apart from each other so she can tell us apart..." began Tao.
"But we just switch places before going into the room," finished Hao.
The four children then started playing hide and seek around the compound. Kenji with his ki sensing abilities, had an unfair advantage. He let the others win sometimes so they wouldn't be angry with him.
Kenji started back to school on Monday. Takuma, Touru and the twins were waiting at the gate to walk with him. Kenshin and Kaoru watched their son go off with the other four children. Hope welled in Kenshin's heart. Kenji's kind heart had won him these friends. Perhaps Kenji would have an easier childhood than he had. It was what he hoped for most.
"I think our little guy is growing up," said Kaoru wistfully.
"Yes," said Kenshin, not trusting himself to say anymore.
His eyes lit and the smile graced his features. To him, it was just yesterday that Kenji was a baby, yanking on his hair. Now, he was in school and had overcome his problems with no help from his parents. In a few more years, Kenji grow into a young man and eventually go through his coming of age.
Kenshin was so proud of his family.
Glancing at the calendar, Megumi mentally calculated the time between now and her last moon cycle: two months. Two months without a cycle meant only one thing. Her gaze fell upon the spiky haired man who was outside, chopping logs. Megumi smiled her foxy smile.
Megumi prepared some green tea for herself and the Rooster, who she saw was now finishing up with the last log before embedding the ax's blade into the stump and coming in. Soon the door swung open and Sano came in, stepping out of his shoes and into the kitchen.
"Sit down, Sano. I've some news for you," instructed Megumi.
Sano sat down on his cushion at the low table and awaited the news. Megumi took her time pouring the tea into two bamboo cups and passing one to Sano, who took it without ever looking away from her. Megumi took a leisurely sip of her cup, allowing the tension to build.
"The news?" Sano asked.
Megumi smiled at her Rooster.
"I'm pregnant," the lady doctor announced happily.
Megumi awaited his response.
"How the hell'd that happen?"
Megumi vein-popped and whacked Sano one with her ever-present medicine box.
"How the hell do you think, dullard?!" she fumed.
As the light bulb flickered on in Sano's head, a cocky grin spread across his features.
"That's great, Megs," he said, leaning forward and giving Megumi a long, hard kiss on the lips.
Relinquishing her grip on her medicine box, Megumi wrapped her arms around Sano and leaned into him. The two continued until their bodies forced them apart to breathe.
"I'ma go tell Kenshin 'n the punk," Sano grinned, jumping up.
"Try to be classy about it when you do," admonished Megumi.
"Sure thing, Vixen," grinned Sano as he stepped down into his shoes and went tearing out the door to brag to all and sundry about his impending fatherhood.
Kenshin was slumped over the basin, scrubbing gi and hakama against a washboard when he felt the overwhelming, stupid ki long before the gate opened and Sano came to stand before him, grinning ear to ear like a jackass.
"Hey, Kenshin. Congratulate me," said the Rooster.
"Congratulations," responded Kenshin as he momentarily paused scrubbing one of Kenji's shitagi.
"Thanks," grinned Sano.
"Are you going to tell me why I just congratulated you?" asked the redhead, looking up at his buddy.
"Cuz I knocked the Vixen up," said Sano.
"Oro?! Sano, that's wonderful!" cried Kenshin, standing up and wiping the moisture off on his hands.
"I know," grinned Sano. "Well, I'm off t'tell my part'ner. See ya!"
"Good luck!" called Kenshin. 'He'll need all the luck he can get dealing with a pregnant Megumi-dono.'
Sano sauntered into the Akabeko and right away found Yahiko waiting tables, which was weird because usually Tsubame waited tables whilst Yahiko worked in the kitchen.
"Hey, Yahiko!" Sano called.
"You know the rules, Rooster. Money first, then food," said Yahiko, crossing his arms in front of him.
"I ain't here t'eat. I got news!" said Sano.
"Which is?" asked Yahiko.
"I knocked the Vixen up!" declared Sano.
Yahiko's eyebrows shot up.
"No shit? You knocked yours up too?" he asked.
"Yup. Looks like we get to suffer together," grinned Yahiko.
"Suffer?" asked a confused Sano.
"Hell, yeah. You got no idea what hell it is living with a pregnant woman. They're totally different creatures until the baby's born," warned Yahiko gravely.
Beads of sweat broke out on Sano's brow. Megumi was moody and domineering at the best of times. He hated to think of what she might be like with her hormones out of whack.
"Uuuuhhh... y'got any advice?" he asked at length.
"Yeah. A pregnant woman is right, even when she's wrong," said Yahiko.
"When Kaoru was pregnant with Kenji, she'd lose it over the least little thing and would throw shit at me, Kenshin and anyone else she could hit. So it's better to just let them have their way," Yahiko explained.
"Woah! Great advice," said Sano. "Well, I'd better git back..."
"Another bit of advice... You're gonna have to start doing most of the work," continued Yahiko.
Ah, that would explain why Tsubame wasn't waiting tables today.
"Aw, fuck. I knew there'd be more. Yeah, OK..." sighed Sano. "See ya!"
Sano departed the Akabeko and Yahiko went back to waiting tables.
"Vixen! I'm home!" called Sano as he kicked off his shoes and stepped up from the genkan.
"Good. You're just in time to rub my feet!" called Megumi from the back room.
'A pregnant woman is right even when she's wrong...' Yahiko's words of wisdom echoed in Sanosuke's brain.
"Comin', Vixen!" he called.
First thing was first. Sano stopped in the kitchen and snatched some sake and ohagi for his foot rubbing job, then made his way back to the bedroom.
"Hi, Vixen," grinned Sano, sitting down in front of Megumi and depositing the food and sake bottle.
"Hi yourself. Did you tell everyone?" asked Megumi.
"Yup an' I did it real classy too," grinned Sano as he picked up a foot and started rubbing.
Then he looked down at her ankle and saw how swollen it was.
"Yer ankle looks like a watermelon," he observed.
"Oh, yeah. I'm sure you were very classy," said Megumi sarcastically. "And now I want a watermelon."
"But Vixen. Watermelon's outta season," said Sano.
The corners of Megumi's eyes began to twitch. Beads of sweat broke out on Sano's brow.
The next day, Megumi sent Sano to the Kamiya Dojo to borrow a bag of sugar. Sano tromped down the road to the dojo, kicking piles of leaves as he went, much to the ire of those who had just raked them into neat piles. Sano crossed the Sumida River bridge and made his way down the dirt path lined with now naked cherry trees which led to the dojo at the very end.
'I'm hungry,' Sano thought as he slid the front gate open. 'Gonna git sum grub off Kenshin 'n Missy 'fore I haul a heavy-ass bag a sugar back to the clinic.'
"Hey, Kenshin, Missy!" Sano called, raising his hand in greeting as Kenshin and Kaoru came to sit on the engawa and drink tea in the cool, but pleasant October air, their one chance to relax and be alone now that Kenji was in school. Or so they had thought.
"Hi, Sano!" greeted Kenshin, flashing an apologetic gaze to Kaoru, whose eyes narrowed murderously at the currently unwelcome presence of the former kenkaya. "We were just having some tea. Would you like to join us?"
"Don't mind if I do!" grinned Sano, plopping down on the engawa.
"I'll fetch a cup for you," said Kenshin brightly.
"Thanks, buddy," said Sano. "Hey, Missy. Vixen sent me over here t' borrow a bag a sugar. That OK?"
"Of course. There's sugar in the storage shed," said Kaoru calmly as Kenshin returned with the cup.
Murder flashing in her eyes, but face deceptively calm, Kaoru poured the tea into the cup and offered it up to Sano.
"Thanks," grinned the Rooster, raising the cup to his lips and taking a sip... "PTOOOOOOOOOOOEEEEEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Not even a fraction of a second later, all the tea in Sano's mouth was expectorated and would have hit Kenshin square in the face had he not leaned to the side.
"Missy! This is the nastiest shit I ever put in my mouth! Woman can't even boil water for tea! That's some wife ya got there, Kenshin!" growled Sano, setting the bamboo cup ungently back on the tray.
"Why thank you, Sano," said Kenshin with a wide, beaming smile, seemingly unaware of the dangerous aura that suddenly permeated the atmosphere.
"Sanosuke... IF YOU DON'T LIKE MY TEA, THEN DON'T DRINK IT, YOU LAZY BUM! GO HOME AND DRINK MEGUMI'S TEA INSTEAD OF CRITICIZING MINE!!!!!!!! GET YOUR DAMN SUGAR AND GET OFF MY PROPERTY!!!!!!" Kaoru bellowed, chucking the bamboo cup at Sano's skull.
The cup connected... and promptly shattered.
"Thanks, Missy. See ya 'round!" grinned Sano, jumping to his feet and running for the storage shed.
Not even bothering to go to the front gate, Sano beat a discreet exit out of the back gate and ran all the way back to the Oguni Clinic.
Propriety be damned! This hurt!
Misao's screeches echoed through the upper quarters of the Aoiya, which had been closed to the public today. She pushed and pushed with all her might, but due to the narrowness of her pelvis, it was a very tight fit. Okina grimaced, both at his adopted granddaughter's earsplitting shrieks and the vice like grip that was slowly crushing the bones in his right hand.
Misao's right hand crushed that of her husband, who sat staring mutely down at her distress, unable to think of anything to say or do except hold her hand and offer her silent support. Battles and wars, he understood and could plan for. Childbirth was something with which he had no experience and was badly off his game. Aoshi did his best to heed Himura's words about just taking things as they came. He hoped this would come and go quickly, as he hated to see Misao in such pain.
The midwife finally reached in and grasped the baby's head, turning it on its side to somewhat ease the delivery. That helped and Misao was finally able to push it out. The midwife quickly severed the umbilical cord and laid it aside to be put in the heso no o box. She then took the baby to clean up.
Okina breathed out a sigh of relief now that the baby was out. Perhaps, finally, the circulation could return to his swollen hand.
The midwife held the baby upside down and spanked it until breath came to it. Usually, newborns cried when they were smacked and took their first breath. This baby took a deep breath, opened her icy blue eyes and glared at the midwife. Taken aback, the woman quickly righted the child, bathed her and wrapped her in swathe. All the while, the newborn continued to glare.
'Downright creepy,' thought the midwife as she laid the baby on a futon.
Misao's ear-shattering scream brought the midwife's attention back to the patient. Why was she still in pain after the baby was born? Unless...
Okina and Aoshi had to suppress their own screams as Misao again screeched and the crushing feeling returned to their respective hands. What was going on? The baby was already out! Why was Misao still in pain?
"Misao?" asked Aoshi, uncustomary alarm leaking into his voice.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!" was Misao's answer.
Quickly returning to the futon, the midwife again reached between Misao's thighs to pull the emerging head of the second infant. Since the mother's birth canal had already been widened, the baby slid out easily. The umbilical cord was severed and laid into the wooden box.
Something was wrong! The baby was turning blue. The midwife tried smacking the baby, but it didn't breathe. She quickly righted the baby and breathed into its mouth several times, trying to get its lungs and heart going. Finally, the baby sucked in breath and let out a wail. Only then did the midwife bathe and swathe child.
"You have twin daughters, Shinomori-san," announced the midwife.
Misao couldn't believe it; two baby girls! She looked up at Aoshi's inscrutable features and hoped he was happy.
"Congratulations, Aoshi and Misao! This is indeed a joyous day. I'll go and tell the others of the newest additions to the Oniwabanshuu!" declared a jubilant Okina.
"Thanks for all your help, Gramps," said Misao between gasps.
"Yes, thank you for everything, Okina," said Aoshi with a slight bow.
After the babies were clean and dry, the firstborn was laid into Aoshi's arms and the second into Misao's. Aoshi and the quiet baby stared intently at each other while Misao had a fine time cooing over the squirmy younger baby.
"They're beautiful, Misao," Aoshi said at length.
"I love how they have your eyes," smiled Misao.
After ten minutes, they switched.
Aoshi smiled slightly at the squirmy baby in his arms, as this one's energy rather reminded him of his wife's. Misao smiled down at the quiet baby in her arms, who reminded her of Aoshi.
This from the baby in Aoshi's arms as she announced that she was hungry. Aoshi's eyes widened a bit, an unaccustomed look of panic washing onto his features.
"Give her to me, Aoshi," commanded Misao.
Aoshi handed the wailing infant to the mother, who put one on each breast for their first feeding. The couple exchanged smiles, then settled in to watch the babies.
They looked exactly alike! Both had Aoshi's icy blue eyes and tufts of jet black hair on their little heads. The one in Misao's right arm squirmed and fussed; the one in her left arm lay still and glared at her.
"They're perfect," she sighed happily to Aoshi.
"They are absolutely beautiful," agreed Aoshi again.
As Aoshi watched, he further calmed himself with Himura's advice to let things happen naturally and enjoy each moment as it came.
Kenshin and Kenji were sitting on the engawa, sipping green tea in perfect synchronicity.
"OH, KAMI-SAMA, I DON'T BELIEVE IT!" came Kaoru's voice from the front yard.
A startled Kenshin spat out his tea, which landed all over Kenji's head.
"Dad!" cried Kenji.
Kenshin looked apologetically at his son and did his best to wipe the tea off his face.
"Kaoru, what is it?" asked the redhead, looking back to where his wife came running, her features aglow with excitement.
"Misao-chan had the babies!!!!" she shrieked happily, causing Kenji to plug his ears with his fingers.
"Oro? Babies?" asked Kenshin, emphasizing the plural.
"It's all in the letter. They had twin girls named Yuki and Tsuki. Isn't that cute?" gushed Kaoru.
"Sounds dumb to me," said Kenji disdainfully.
"No one asked you," reprimanded Kaoru, earning a scowl from the small redhead.
She then went on to deliver the gory details of the birth that Misao had included in the letter.
"Eeeeeewwwwwwww!!!!!!!" cried Kenji, suddenly jumping up and running away.
"Oroooooo..." agreed a rather green-looking Kenshin.
"Rrrr, you males are hopeless. Childbirth is a beautiful thing!" fumed Kaoru, folding up the letter, which she would just share with Megumi, Tae and Tsubame instead, as only another woman could truly understand.
"If you say so, dearest," Kenshin pretended to agree.
That night, Kaoru was the only one with any appetite for dinner, so she ate out at the Akabeko while Kenshin and Kenji went to bed early to try to get the grisly images of the birthing process out of their minds.
The first snows were born in on bitter cold winds. Braziers everywhere in Tokyo were brought out of storage, fed plump wooden logs and lit to drive the cold out of people's homes.
On the outside, the snow raged, whiting out the landscape with its thick, never-ending flakes and blanketing the earth, trees and buildings. On the inside, Himura Kaoru stoked up the fire in the brazier, then slipped into the futon beside the waiting redhead, who promptly pulled her to him.
All was quiet in the dojo today; Kenji was staying with Yahiko and Tsubame. Kaoru looked into the sweet, sad little face of her beloved redhead and offered him a smile.
Kenshin buried his face in Kaoru's robes and melted into her embrace as her hands gently rubbed his back through the thick material of his robe. Kenshin lay with his ear against Kaoru's chest and took comfort in the sound of her steadily beating heart. Kaoru rested her cheek on the crown of Kenshin's head.
Kaoru held Kenshin like this and felt as his body gradually relaxed, giving into the desire for sleep. She smiled to herself when she heard his breathing fall into its deep, rhythmic cadence.
'His soul continues to heal, but the first snows will always cause the old wounds to bleed anew,' she thought sadly as she stroked the crimson tresses of the sleeping form she held to her breast.
In her arms, he would sleep peacefully, even as the snow raged outside, carrying painful and blood-soaked memories with it.
'That's alright. Each year, he'll heal a bit more. Someday, he'll even be able to be fully happy even when the first flakes fall. Until then, I'll just hold him close to my heart,' Kaoru thought as her eyes drifted closed and she relaxed into sleep.
Unbothered by the cold, a small copper-haired boy was out in the backyard, eagerly rolling large snowballs to make a snowman. After he had two balls rolled large enough, Kenji picked the second ball up, stacked it on the first and tamped it down into place. He then rolled a third, slightly smaller ball for the head. When Kenji went to put the head on, however, he ran into a problem: He was too short! Kenji tried standing on his toes, but couldn't get the second ball on top of the first, as it would just threaten to roll right back down on him. With a huff, Kenji set the ball on the ground and glared at the base.
"Want some help?" came Kaoru's voice from behind him.
With an inward sigh, Kenji nodded. As a proud boy, he hated to ask his parents for help, but this snowball had him stymied. Kaoru came over to Kenji and knelt down by him.
"Let's pick it up together and get it on the base," she offered.
Kenji nodded, then he and Kaoru picked up the recalcitrant snowball and hefted it onto the base.
"Thanks, Mom. I got it now," said Kenji.
"It's all yours," smiled Kaoru, hastening back to the warmth of the house where she smelled hot tea awaiting her.
Kenji went to work firming up the connection between the second snowball and the base to be certain it wouldn't fall off. After this was done, he began gathering snow to roll the third and smallest snowball for the head.
Inside the room, warmed by a crackling brazier, Kenshin and Kaoru watched Kenji as he shaped the third snowball.
"Kaoru, do you think Kenji realizes he won't be able to mount the third snowball either?" asked Kenshin.
"Not yet," answered Kaoru.
Outside, Kenji had formed the third and final snowball into a nearly perfect sphere and looked up at the two piled snowballs before him.
"Oh, no!" he moaned to himself, just now realizing that he definitely wouldn't be able to mount it without help.
Then an idea came to him. Setting the small snowball carefully down, Kenji retreated to the storage shed.
"Oro?" went Kenshin as he and Kaoru watched from inside.
A moment later, Kenji returned, carrying a small step ladder, which he set down before the snowman.
"Our son is so smart," beamed a proud Kaoru.
"He takes after his mother," was Kenshin's response.
"Flattery will only get you so far," admonished Kaoru.
Kenji picked up that snowball, stepped up and proudly mounted it to form the head. This done, he jumped down from the ladder and went over to the woodpile to retrieve two twigs for arms. These, he easily stuck into the sides of the middle snow ball. He then ran and retrieved two pebbles for the eyes, since the family didn't burn coal. Kenji mounted the step ladder again and stuck the pebbles into the snowman's head. For the nose, he simply poked a hole into the middle of the face with his finger.
Kenji jumped down from the ladder again and stood several feet back, proudly surveying his new snowman. With a nod of accomplishment, he folded the step ladder up and carried it back to the storage shed.
This done, the boy retreated indoors, kicking off his boots and shrugging out of his hanten before running to join his parents around the brazier and share a cup of hot ginger tea with them.
New Years Eve, 1885 Shogatsu
Tomorrow would be the most important in Japan's long calendar of holidays. The inhabitants of the Kamiya Dojo had spent all day readying it by cleaning it from floor to ceiling, Kenji gleefully helping Kaoru to scrub all the floors and walls, polish all the bokken, beat all the futon and sweep the front walk. After this, he had helped Kenshin with the laundry, which had to be done inside due to the chilly weather. After cleaning came decorating. The front gate and entrance to the house were garlanded with ornaments made from the branches of pine, bamboo and plum trees.
Famished after a day spent cleaning and decorating, Kenji and Kaoru sat down gratefully at the table to a delicious New Years Eve meal of toshikoshi soba, a special noodle dish meant for the end of the old year and the start of the new year. The hot soup was topped with kamaboko, spinach leaves and half a hard boiled egg.
"Thanks for the food," they said in unison once Kenshin was seated.
Famished after a day spent helping his parents around the dojo, Kenji grabbed his chopsticks, fished out a heap of noodles and hurriedly slurped them up, barely stopping to chew before going for the egg floating in the broth, which was also barely chewed before being swallowed.
"Kenji, you know what happens when you rush your meals," warned Kaoru.
"Oro? A tummy ache..." Kenji admitted.
Well did he remember coming down with a horrible stomach ache after his last big holiday feast and having to go lie down before the festivities were over. But he was sooo hungry right now!
"Eat it slowly, Kenji. Toshikoshi is meant to be savored, not devoured," agreed Kenshin with a smile.
Kenji nodded firmly and resolved to eat the rest of it more slowly. As the family ate the soup slowly, they were warmed from the inside out after being out in the cold late December air.
Kenshin watched the clock as it ticked away the minutes steadily. Finally, 11:30 PM graced the dial.
"It's time," he said softly.
"Yay!" cried Kenji, jumping up from his cushion and running to find his hanten and boots.
Kenshin and Kaoru exchanged amused glances and then went to retrieve their own winter clothes for the short walk to the shrine.
After Kenshin locked the front gate, the family set out on the short, but cold, journey to the shrine for the ringing in of the New Year. Energized by all the food he had eaten and enthralled by being out so late at night, Kenji dashed ahead of his parents.
"Not too far ahead, Kenji!" Kaoru called after him.
Kenji slowed his steps down, but huffed impatiently, wishing his parents would hurry up. Then the sight of two familiar faces caught his attention, causing him to forget Mom's command altogether and he took off again.
"Kenji!" called Kaoru.
"It's alright, Kaoru," said Kenshin. "Kenji's found our friends."
"Hi, Aunt Meg!" said Kenji, doing his best to wrap his arms around Megumi with her bulging waistline.
"Hello there, Kenji. Are you going to the shrine by yourself?" laughed Megumi.
"No. Mom and Dad are slow!" complained Kenji.
"Ah, yes. I have the same problem. HURRY UP, ROOSTER!" Megumi bellowed over her shoulder.
"Yeah, yeah. I'm comin'," grumbled a rather disgruntled Sano as he ambled along, stuffing rice balls in a bento he'd brought along into his mouth.
"Sano! Megumi-dono!" called Kenshin as he and Kaoru just now met up with the other couple.
"Hi there. Looks like you two caught up just in time or Kenji was going to leave you high and dry," said Megumi.
"Indeed," said Kaoru, flashing a glare at Kenji, who looked guiltily down at the snowy ground.
"Rice ball?" offered Sano, unceremoniously shoving one at Kaoru.
"Put those away!" snarled Megumi, smacking Sano's hand. "You can't go more than two minutes without stuffing your face, can you?"
"Nope," replied Sano as he crammed another one in.
"Um, shall we be going to the shrine?" asked Kenshin before a fight broke out in the middle of the street.
The group started walking again, but hadn't gotten more than a few yards when another voice called to them.
"Hey, wait up!"
From behind them came Yahiko and a burgeoning Tsubame, also on their way to the temple.
"Hey, guys!" called Sano with a smile.
"Look who we actually managed to drag along with us," said Tsubame, gesturing to Tae and Katsu, who had just come up behind them.
"Hey, man!" said Sano as he and Katsu clasped hands. "How'd they git you outta yer self-imposed isolation?"
"Tae threatened me with bodily harm," was Katsu's response.
Tae smiled sweetly at her husband.
The Kenshingumi and their friends made their way to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, where several other people had already gathered. Once past the red tori gate, everyone gathered at the purification fountain, plunged their hands into the icy water and quickly scrubbed and dried them before frostbite could set in. Kenshin, Sano, Katsu and Yahiko each tossed a coin into the offering box.
At midnight, the Kenshingumi stepped up to the log suspended from the ropes to take their turn to make a New Years wish and ring the bell. Standing still for a moment, relying on shared body heat to chase away the wintry chill, everyone considered their wish. Then, moving with one accord, everyone grabbed a piece of the rope, pulled back and let the log fly forward into the bell. The sound rang out, driving all their sins away from them into the night air, purifying them for the year to come.
"Happy New Year, everyone!" Kenshin declared jubilantly.
After ringing in the New Year, everyone went home to bed, for tomorrow would be a huge feasting day.
January 1, 1886
Everyone slept in late due to being out past midnight last night. Eventually though, the light of the winter sun shining in through the thin rice paper aroused them. Kenshin was the first one up, and quickly went out to get started on the New Year's meal. Because it was such a big holiday, the meal was a large and complicated one and would take some time to make. He was glad he had gotten an early start, because all too soon, he heard the sound of fusuma sliding, footsteps and voices as Kaoru and Kenji wished each other a happy new year, then came stalking out, expecting food.
Smiling to himself, the rurouni brought out the three jubako which contained the osechi. Each of the three boxes had different compartments in it, each one containing a different dish.
Daidai, the bitter oranges whose name meant "from generation to generation" in kanji. The oranges were the adults' wish for their children to have a happy and healthy life in the year to come.
Datemaki, a sweet rolled omelet mixed with mashed shrimp. This was a wish for many auspicious days where people could dress in their finest and go out and enjoy themselves without having to worry about bad luck befalling them.
Kamaboko, a broiled fish cake. The red and white slices were laid out in alternating rows and symbolized Japan's rising sun.
Kazunoko, the herring ro. The tradition behind this fish was the wish to have many children. Whether or not that would happen, only time would tell.
Konbu, the seaweed whose name was associated with joy.
Kuromame, the black soy beans, which symbolized a wish for a healthy New Year.
Kohaku-namasu, a dish made of daikon and carrots cut into thin strips and pickled in sweetened vinegar with yuzu flavor.
Tai, a red sea-bream, which was a wish for auspicious events.
Tazukuri, which was dried sardines cooked in soy sauce. Sardines were used in rice paddies to keep them fertile and the name of the dish meant "rice paddy maker" and was a symbol for an abundant harvest.
Zoni, a soup of mochi cakes in clear broth and Kenji's personal favorite.
Ebi, skewered prawns cooked with sake and soy sauce.
And finally, nishiki tamago, an egg roulade, made from an egg whose yolk and white were separated before cooking, the yolk symbolizing gold and the white symbolizing silver.
After all the osechi dishes had been eaten, Kenshin and Kaoru shared a bottle of otoso, while Kenji drank a cup of ginger tea.
Sano and Kenshin were out drinking at one of the seedy bars that Sano liked so much.
"Tonight, I get to order us drinks," announced Sano.
"While I pay for them," said Kenshin with a knowing smile at his friend.
"But of course," said Sano with a big grin.
Kenshin shook his head.
"Hey, barkeep, two whiskeys!" ordered Sano.
What was "wish-ki"?
"You're gonna love this shit, Kenshin. It's made in Ireland and it's 10x stronger than sake," said Sano as barkeep brought them two shots of whiskey.
Sano and Kenshin each grabbed a glass and held theirs up.
Sano slammed his glass back in a single gulp and set it down with a clash, demanding more. Kenshin smelled his, then gingerly sipped it. He pulled back, coughing and sputtering. It was strong! He was able to get the rest down, though his throat burned. Sano patted the small swordsman on the back as he continued to cough after drinking it.
"Want more?" Sano asked.
"Hic Hic Hic"
Sano looked at Kenshin and saw cherry red cheeks and glazed over eyes. Kenshin smiled stupidly up at Sano, then pitched forward, face slamming into the counter.
"Out after just one? I expected better from you, Kenshin," said Sano with a shake of his head. "Let's get you home to Missy."
Sano left the money (from Kenshin's wallet) and departed the bar with the inebriated redhead slung over his shoulder like the proverbial sack of potatoes.
Kaoru looked up and was immediately in shock to see Sano now cradling the still knocked out Kenshin in his arms. She was on her feet instantly.
"Sanosuke, what happened to him?" she asked in alarm.
"It's cool, Missy. We tried some Irish whiskey and Kenshin just couldn't hold it," explained Sano with his silly grin.
Kaoru smelled the rurouni's breath, which reeked of alcohol.
"How many did he have?" she asked, as Kenshin had never had trouble with a few saucers of sake.
"One shot. That whiskey's some powerful shit. Don't be pissed or nothin'. I didn't know it'd be too much for him," said Sano as Kaoru led him back to her and Kenshin's bedroom.
She motioned for them to walk quietly since Kenji was asleep in his room and she had no desire for the boy to see his father in this state. Sano understood this and was very quiet as Kaoru slid the fusuma open and laid out the futon. Sano set Kenshin down as gently as he would a baby.
"Well, see ya t'morrow," he said with a salute.
"Thanks," said Kaoru, feeling a bit unnerved, but not angry or anything.
After Sano was gone, Kaoru sighed and brushed Kenshin's bangs back from his face. The redhead would probably have something of a hangover tomorrow. Kaoru tenderly undressed him and covered him with the quilt.
Since everyone was present and accounted for, she undressed, donned her yukata and slipped under the covers next to her passed-out redhead, whom she promptly pulled into her arms and held close to her heart.
March 20, Spring Equinox (Shunki kōrei-sai)
Dressed in their finest clothes, the Himura family departed the dojo and headed for the small graveyard just on the outskirts of Tokyo. On their way, Kaoru stopped at a vendor's booth and bought flowers and incense sticks.
When they entered, they found themselves in a green, quiet place, marked with gray stones and shaded with trees that were just beginning to grow green buds. Kaoru led Kenshin and Kenji to a gravestone with the names Kamiya Koshijiro and Kameko on them. Swallowing back her tears, Kaoru set the flowers on the graves, set the incense sticks in the ground and lit them to burn. As the incense burned down, the family of three closed their eyes in prayer to Kaoru's departed parents and the grandparents Kenji had never known.
Kenji sat back on his heels, watching as Mom went through her bottom drawer. He looked indifferently at all the trinkets in there that would naturally only appeal to girls. That was, until his gaze landed on a piece of blue fabric which had some brown spots on it. Kenji reached into the drawer and pulled it out.
"Mom, is this your ribbon?"
"What ribbon?" asked Kaoru, looking over at Kenji from the old kimono she had been going through.
"This blue one, with the brown spots," answered Kenji.
Kaoru's eyes widened a bit when she saw the ribbon in Kenji's hands. Gently, she slid it from his grasp and looked it over, her eyes misting for a second. Her mind wandered back to that moonlit night, vividly etched in her mind's eye. Her lungs paralyzed, consciousness fading. The near, yet distant clash of katana as two hitokiri fought a deadly battle with her life riding on the result.
"Mom, you OK?" asked Kenji.
"Yes, Kenji. I'm fine," assured Kaoru.
"You're crying," observed the boy.
"I am. But not because I'm sad, but because of the happy memories this ribbon gives me," explained Kaoru.
"What memories?" asked Kenji.
A watery smile broke out on Kaoru's features.
"Of the night, your Dad and I began to truly fall in love," she said happily.
"Yuck!" was Kenji's response as he jumped up and ran away.
The police station
Sano and Yahiko stood before Chief Uramura's desk, having both received urgent letters summoning them to the present location yesterday.
"This mission is of the utmost importance. There has been a huge crime wave up in Aomori. The police there have been unable to stop it, so the Kanto police are going in to help them. We urgently request your help," explained Uramura, continually pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose with his index finger.
"Not a problem," said Yahiko, gripping the Sakabatou.
"Long as we're fed," added Sano, promptly receiving an elbow in the gut from Yahiko.
"Of course. Thank you both," said Uramura with a bow.
Sano and Yahiko returned the bow and exited the police station.
"I can't b'lieve we gotta leave our knocked up wives b'hind like this," glowered Sano as he and Yahiko walked back into town.
"I know. It sucks. I hope the government learns to wipe its own damn ass one of these days," agreed Yahiko.
"Now, we gotta tell our wives we'll be gone," glowered Sano.
"I don't know about you, but I'm getting mine chocolates," said Yahiko.
"Won't work. Vixen dun like choc'lit," said Sano.
"Flowers?" tried Yahiko.
"She says they just mess the clinic up and some a the patients are 'lerjic to 'em, wutev'r that means," answered Sano.
"Shit. You're in a bind. I gotta get those chocolates. Fortunately a new import shop just opened on the outskirts of town. No more long trips to Yokohama," said Yahiko.
"Lucky bastard," grinned Sano, raising his arm in a gesture of farewell.
Sano walked back to the clinic with a heavy heart. Why did this shit always have to happen when something important was going on in his life?
'Why am I even helpin' the Meiji government? When did I get so damn soft?' he thought testily as he slid the clinic gate open.
"Vixen! I'm home!" he called out as he kicked his shoes carelessly off in the genkan and stepped up onto the floor.
"Hi, Sano. What did the chief want?" Megumi asked straight up.
"They want me 'n Yahiko to go put some shit down in Aomori," explained Sano with a sigh.
"And you said yes," said Megumi.
"I know it's real shitty timin', but it's money fer the baby," he pointed out.
"I know," sighed Megumi. "When do you leave?"
"T'night at 8," answered Sano.
Megumi pulled Sanosuke into a hug. Sano wrapped his arms around Megumi and held her close to him, drinking in the scent of her hair. Oh, how he hated the thought of being away from her, especially now. With a baby on the way, they were going to need to make all the money they could and couldn't afford to turn down any work that came their way.
"Dun worry, Vixen. Me 'n Yahiko'll kick their ass and I'll be back faster 'n Kenshin's battoujutsu," Sano murmured into Megumi's hair.
Megumi pulled back and locked Sano with a solemn gaze that made his heart thunder in his chest.
"Alright. But you have to promise me you'll be careful, Sanosuke. Remember, you have people depending on you now," she said softly, guiding Sano's right hand to her swollen belly.
"I know. I will," said Sano, gently caressing the burgeoning curve of her stomach.
'People dependin' on me. Never thought I could settle down like Kenshin did,' he thought as his hands continued their exploration of his wife's bulge.
All too soon, that time rolled around.
Sano looked out the window and saw Yahiko waiting for him outside.
"Yahiko's here. Gotta go. Gonna miss ya, Vixen," said Sano sadly.
"You and Yahiko be careful," Megumi admonished, shoving a bento into Sano's hands. "I expect both of you to come home in one piece."
"Always am," said Sano, as he slung the bento over his shoulder.
The Rooster pulled the Vixen to him and kissed her deeply on the lips, then departed for the outside, where Yahiko was waiting for him. Megumi watched them walk off with a sigh.
"How'd Tsubame take it?" asked Sano.
"She was OK with it. I made sure she'll be taken care of while I'm gone," answered Yahiko.
"Same," agreed Sanosuke.
The two men lapsed into silence until they reached Shinbashi to board the train for Aomori.
The smell of cooking miso piqued the sleeping Vixen's olfactory sense.
'Smells good,' she thought as she rolled onto her back. 'Whoever's making that is a wonderful cook...'
Cinnamon eyes snapped open.
'What? I'm the wonderful cook around here! So who the hell's in my kitchen?' Megumi wondered as she struggled to her feet.
The Vixen hastily threw on a haori, grabbed her heavy wooden medicine box and walked quickly to the kitchen to accost the interloper.
"Good morning, Megumi-dono. How are you on this fine day?" greeted the interloper from his place at the stove, where he was stirring the miso as it simmered.
"Pregnant and hungry," answered the agape Megumi, setting down the heavy box. "What brings you here, Ken-san? Is everything alright with you and your family?"
"We're all fine. Thank you for asking. Sano asked me to stay with you at the clinic until he returns," answered Kenshin truthfully, as he added a few seasonings to the soup.
"And this is alright with Kaoru?" asked Megumi.
"It is," smiled Kenshin.
"Thank you, Ken-san," said Megumi with a smile of relief.
'With his knowledge of herbs and medicine, Ken-san will definitely be very handy to have around,' Megumi thought as she approached the low table, looking for a way to sink gracefully onto her cushion.
"Let me help you," offered Kenshin, leaving the stove.
"OK," assented Megumi.
Kenshin took Megumi's hand in his right one while his left hand went to the small of her back and he gently lowered her onto the cushion. Once Megumi was seated, her new assistant went back to making breakfast for both of them. Slowly, the smell of the miso grew more and more intense until Megumi could hardly stand it. Kenshin took the soup off the stove, poured it into two bowls, carried it to the table and set it down before sitting on his cushion.
"Thanks for the food," the two said before lifting their chopsticks.
As she ate, Megumi thought of Sanosuke and Yahiko, blithely running off to different regions of Japan whenever they were asked by the Meiji government to help with some row or uprising that still seemed to plague the newly forming nation-state. Both men were still very young, energetic and cocky, sure that their strength would always be enough to put down any situation, no matter how big and fell any enemy, no matter how strong.
Megumi's gaze fell on the small swordsman who sat with her, blissfully eating his soup. Once upon a time, Ken-san had been like them, young, bright-eyed and bursting with potential and idealism, certain that the slash of his sword and the felling of the Bakufu would be enough to send Japan into a new era of peace, freedom and equality for all people. Certainly, the Bakufu had been defeated and a new era established. However, both she, a survivor of the siege of Wakamatsu Castle and Ken-san, a former Ishin hitokiri, knew that the new era still held much of the same pain and suffering as the old era, albeit better hidden.
Sano and Yahiko now both had the responsibility of upholding the legacy Kenshin had begun, keeping the new era as safe and free from harm and corruption as possible. And this was why, she, a daughter of Aizu and Kenshin, once called the Demon of the Ishin Shishi, now sat together at a table in Tokyo, as he looked after her until one of the inheritors of his legacy could return from yet another mission away.
At age 36, Ken-san's body no longer permitted him to effectively wield the powerful Hiten Mitsurugi, with which he had felled the Tokugawa and ended an era. Although he looked no different outwardly from what he had once been, Megumi knew better than anyone the toll the many battles he had been through had taken on his tiny body. Every year, she looked him over to make certain his condition wasn't worsening. Thankfully, it hadn't been and in fact, giving up the harsh battles had allowed overtired muscles and joints to heal themselves to a certain extent, freeing the rurouni from the pain and stiffness he had been starting to experience after his battles with Shishio and Yukishiro. Now, as long as Kenshin was careful and didn't overextend himself, he was generally in fine health and spirits.
And yet, for all that, Kenshin was a swordsman to the core. The Takanis of Aizu had served many samurai and Megumi knew firsthand the pride they felt at being strong warriors and disgrace when they lost their ability to fight. Some of them couldn't live with it and would commit seppuku rather than give up the warrior's life. She wondered if Kenshin ever felt a desire to join Sanosuke and Yahiko on their excursions. Did the fire of the warrior still burn in his heart and long to blaze up occasionally?
"Ken-san?" she asked presently.
Kenshin raised his eyes from his bowl to look at Megumi.
"Do you miss it, even a little, going off on missions and fighting?" the lady doctor ventured.
Kenshin stopped eating and averted his gaze to his soup for a while. Megumi began to be afraid that perhaps she had upset him with this question. She opened her mouth to retract it.
"I would be lying if I denied that a small part of me misses it. I was trained in the life of the warrior from a young age and it will always be a part of who I am," he answered at length quietly. "However, I am realistic about the state of my health now. My life as a warrior will never be completely at an end, but it is confined squarely to my adopted hometown and the protection of its denizens. The greater battles now fall onto the shoulders of those younger and more able-bodied than I am. I have faith in them, one-hundred percent."
Kenshin looked up and smiled at Megumi, not a rurouni smile, but a genuine, happy one, which brought a smile to her lips as well.
"I have faith too. Sanosuke and Yahiko will return unharmed and brimming with stories to regale our children with when they're old enough to hear them," she said.
"That they will," agreed Kenshin, returning to his miso.
An exhausted Tsubame slumped down into an empty booth. Her swollen belly made her back ache and she had been on her feet since this morning. She didn't know what she would do until Yahiko returned.
Tsubame looked up and saw Tae standing before her.
"Tae-san! It's so good to see you!" said the young waitress.
"You too, dear. Yahiko thought that maybe you could use some help around here while he's gone," smiled Tae.
"Only if it's not too much trouble for you and Tsukioka-san," said Tsubame.
"It's no trouble at all. In fact, Katsu seemed rather anxious for me to come here," said Tae.
"I see," said a smiling Tsubame.
"So then. This is your place now. What do you want me to do?" asked Tae.
"Well, we need some water from the well," began Tsubame.
"No problem," smiled Tae, heading straight back to haul water for Tsubame.
Two days pass…
"Be sure to finish the whole bottle, even if you start to feel better, Tanaka-obasan," Megumi advised the little old lady who had come in with a stomach cramp.
"I will. Thank you so much, Takani-sensei," said Tanaka-obasan with a bow.
"Now, if there's nothing else, my assistant can walk you home," said Megumi, walking with her to the door.
"You mean that handsome redhaired man?" asked Tanaka-obasan, eyes sparkling.
"Thank you!" said Tanaka-obasan, suddenly bustling along ahead of Megumi.
When she saw Kenshin, she accosted the poor redhead, yanking him along with her.
"C'mon sonny. Yer gonna walk me home," smiled Tanaka-obasan.
"Of course, Tanaka-dono," said Kenshin with a rurouni smile.
He flashed a desperate gaze over his shoulder at Megumi as the old lady practically dragged him out of the clinic.
"See you soon, my loyal assistant!" called Megumi happily.
'I will get you back for this, Megumi-dono!' thought Kenshin sourly as Tanaka-obasan manhandled him through the frontyard.
An hour later, a visibly shaken Kenshin was slowly making his way back to the Oguni Clinic, desperately trying to rid himself of the memory of that old bat's touch, which even now made his skin crawl under his kimono, the folds of which he held tightly together. Why, oh why, did people always seem to enjoy doing this to him? He hadn't felt this dirty since his days as a child slave.
"Kenshin-han!" the familiar, frightened cry of Tae-dono snapped Kenshin out of his misery and he looked up at the panicked woman standing before him.
"Tae-dono? What is it?" he asked.
"Please! You have to come to the Akabeko right away! Tsubame-chan's water's broken!" Tae sobbed.
Panic gripping his heart, Kenshin glanced at the road back to the clinic and realized quickly that it would take too long to go to the clinic, fetch Megumi-dono and then get her there, due to both the distance to the building and Megumi-dono's own advanced pregnancy. Again, he inwardly cursed that perverted old woman.
Kenshin and Tae ran back to the Akabeko for all they were worth, Kenshin praying that they would make it in time.
Tsubame's screams emanated through the doorway of the restaurant, which had been uncharacteristically closed down and all the customers shooed out with promises of a free meal on their next visit in return for their patience with this emergency. Kenshin and Tae wasted no time rushing up the stairs.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!" the flushed Tsubame screamed.
At her side, a 12-year-old waitress named Komi sat, incapable of thinking of anything to do for her senior or of doing it even if she had thought of it. The young girl looked up as the door slid open and Kenshin and Tae came in.
"Thank you for watching Tsubame-chan, Komi-chan. You can go home now," ordered Tae kindly.
Komi bowed and veritably flew out of the room, leaving the two adults to help Tsubame.
"Tsubame-dono, there was no time to go to the clinic to fetch Megumi-dono. Will you allow me to deliver your baby?" Kenshin asked.
Tsubame was only able to nod once as another wave of pain broke over her.
Mustering his courage, Kenshin lifted the cover and peered down, seeing no sign of the baby yet.
Relief was a long time coming...
Over the next three hours, Kenshin and Tae watched for any sign of the baby emerging, but nothing seemed to be happening. Wave after wave of pain broke over Tsubame, causing her to scream, but still, nothing changed. As Kenshin peered more closely, he finally realized what was wrong: Tsubame was fighting the labor!
"Tsubame-dono, when you feel a contraction come on, I need you to push for me," he instructed.
Tae's eyebrows shot up.
'She hasn't been pushing? No wonder this is taking so long!' she thought. 'Tsubame-chan...'
Tsubame quickly shook her head, even as she huffed and strained against the contraction.
"Yes, I know it hurts. But this is the only way to get the baby out of you," Kenshin explained, trying to keep his voice even and patient.
"I'm scared!" sobbed Tsubame. "I can't do this!"
Kenshin moved closer to Tsubame's face so that his eyes met hers.
"Of course you're frightened. You are a young mother in labor with her first child. That's only natural. However, you are stronger than your fears," he said, gazing steadily at her.
"N-no," said Tsubame as she continued to fight the contractions.
"Oh, yes. You are. Was it not Tsubame-dono who entered that place alone? Was it not that strength of yours that helped to pull me from my stupor?" asked Kenshin.
Tsubame closed her eyes and remembered. Yes, she remembered entering that place with its filthy inhabitants and dilapidated buildings. She remembered falling to her knees, crying at the top of her lungs, begging the strong swordsman she and Yahiko had both admired to stand up just one more time and save Yahiko.
"For Yahiko..." Tsubame ground out.
"Yes, for Yahiko. Now you must be strong for Yahiko and your and his baby," Kenshin encouraged, laying his hand on Tsubame's head as he had when she was a child.
Tsubame nodded just as she felt yet another contraction begin. Kenshin recognized it in her contorting features.
"Now, Tsubame-dono! Push, push, push!" he instructed.
This time, Tsubame sat up and bore down for all she was worth, screaming at the top of her lungs and crushing Tae's hand in the process.
'For Yahiko and for our baby, I must be strong. No matter the pain, I will bring this baby into the world!' she thought as she strained and pushed with all her might.
As Tsubame pushed, Kenshin pulled and couldn't help but smile as the baby finally slipped out followed by a gush of water and afterbirth.
"Tae-dono, scissors!" he commanded.
Tae reached into her apron and whipped out a pair of scissors, which Kenshin took and made short work of the umbilical cord with. As soon as the cord was severed, Kenshin inserted his finger into the baby's mouth, hooked the plug of mucus blocking the windpipe and pulled it out. Next, he held the baby by its ankles and gave it a good strong SMACK on its rear end to jump start its little lungs.
"Congratulations, Tsubame-dono! You and Yahiko have a son!" Kenshin declared. "Let me bathe him for you."
"Huff huff! Yahiko will be so... happy!" sighed Tsubame, falling back against the cushion.
"He will indeed," smiled Tae as she picked up the umbilical cord to preserve and put in its special wooden box for Tsubame to keep forever.
A few minutes later, Kenshin returned with the baby now bathed and swaddled properly. He knelt down and handed the small being into Tsubame's waiting arms. At feeling himself being transferred, the baby cracked his eyelids open.
"Why, he has Yahiko's eyes," sobbed Tsubame, tears spilling from hers.
"And your hair color, though I believe it will stick up like Yahiko's," agreed Kenshin.
"I can't wait to learn his name," said Tae.*
"Thank you so much, Kenshin-san," sobbed Tsubame.
"Thank you for being so strong," Kenshin smiled at the young mother.
Then he gazed down at the baby.
'And thank you, little one, for giving your mother an easy birth. You'll grow into a fine, strong man one day,' Kenshin thought as he smiled at the infant.
*A/N: In Japan, babies weren't typically named till they're a week old. The umbilical cord is dried out and kept in a wooden box as the mother's wish for the baby to have a long, healthy life.
With mother and baby asleep in the upstairs room, Kenshin and Tae retreated downstairs, where Tae insisted on making him a cup of hot tea before his departure for the Oguni Clinic.
"Very well, Tae-dono, but only one. Megumi-dono will be worried," said Kenshin, trying and failing to stifle a yawn.
When the tea was served, the two sat and drank together in silence for a few moments.
"Thank you for all your help, Kenshin-san. I must say, I'm curious as to where you learned your... midwifery skills," said Tae at length.
"Oro? Well, one naturally learns many skills during ten years on the road," Kenshin answered vaguely, staring into his tea.
"That's true," said Tae, seeing that Kenshin-san was as reluctant as he had always been to open up about that time in his life. "At any rate, it's strange to think of Yahiko-kun and Tsubame-chan as parents. I still think of them as little children and have to remind myself that they're married adults now."
"As do I," returned a smiling Kenshin, now raising his gaze to meet Tae's. "It seems like just yesterday Yahiko was a foul mouthed little boy with a warrior's heart and Tsubame-dono was a timid little girl, hiding her face behind her tray."
"Was it really Tsubame-chan who coaxed you out of... that place?" Tae asked at length.
Kenshin nodded as he took another sip of his tea.
"I guess we never know how strong we can really be until the chips are down," mused Tae.
"That's very true. At any rate, I really must return to the clinic now. Thank you for the excellent tea, Tae-dono," said Kenshin through yet another yawn as he set down his tea cup and the two of them stood.
"No. Thank you for helping Tsubame," said Tae with a bow.
Megumi looked up from writing notes. It had been well over six hours now since she had sent Kenshin to escort Tanaka-obasan home.
'I wonder if that lovesick old harpy bound and gagged him,' she thought half jokingly to herself.
A sudden burst of pain in her lower regions caused Megumi to drop her fountain pen, making some ink splotch onto the paper she had been writing on. Her hands shot around to caress her lumbar region as she got to her feet.
'Oh no! I cannot be going into labor now. If only Oguni-sensei were still with us,' she thought as she jumped up and began pacing.
Another jolt of pain shot through, this one more intense.
"Gah!" cried Megumi, doubling over. "I have to get to my futon..."
Clutching her stomach, Megumi groped her way back to her room, struggled to lay the futon out, then quickly shed her clothes and donned a white yukata even as a third jolt tore through her. Finally, she collapsed into the futon and prayed that Ken-san would return soon.
'Please hurry back, Ken-san. I need you!' she thought desperately.
'Finally! There's the clinic! I hope Megumi-dono's been alright by herself. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to either of them,' Kenshin thought worriedly as he hastened toward the clinic's front gate. 'I'm so tired...'
The rurouni swung the front door open and stepped out of his sandals.
"Megumi-dono, I'm back!" he called.
"Ken-san! Hurry! I need you!" called Megumi's voice from her room.
"Oro!" yelped Kenshin, hastening back to the room.
The sight of a pale, sweat-drenched Megumi greeted Kenshin as he entered the room.
"Megumi-dono!" he cried, falling to his knees beside her.
"My *huff* *huff* *huff* water *huff* *huff* *huff* broke..." Megumi ground out.
'This must be what the French call deja vous!'
"Alright. Let me get your medicine box," said Kenshin
Three hours pass...
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!" screeched Megumi as she bore down with all her might.
"Keep pushing, Megumi-dono. I can see the head," said Kenshin, as he watched the crowning through leaden eyelids.
"AAAAAAAAAAAGHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! DIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEE, SAAAAAAAAAAANOOOOOOOSSSSUUUUUUUUUKEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!"
Thankfully, as Megumi continued to push, the baby continued to slide out, until at last, Kenshin was able to grip it well enough to aid its entry into the world. The baby he pulled out had a head full of thick black hair. Kenshin severed the umbilical cord, opened the baby's mouth, reached in as far as he could, crooked his finger around the plug of mucus and lifted it out. Immediately, he swung the baby over, holding it by its feet and gave it a resounding...
"Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" the baby cried as its lungs gulped in its first breath of life giving air.
"Congratulations, Megumi-dono! You and Sano have a son!" Kenshin announced jubilantly as he held the black haired baby up for Megumi to see.
Tears spilled from Megumi's eyes at the sight of the infant with her cinnamon eyes and thick black hair.
Kenshin made quick work of bathing and swaddling the infant before handing him to Megumi, who took him with trembling arms. He then retrieved the severed umbilical cord for preservation.
"He's beautiful," she said softly.
In response, the baby sucked in a deep breath and unleashed an earsplitting howl.
"And hungry," she added.
"Oro! I'll leave that to you," said Kenshin with a smile, really starting to feel the fatigue in his bones now that the excitement from the delivery was wearing off.
"Thank you for all your help, Ken-san," said Megumi as she positioned the baby for his first feeding.
"You're welcome, Megumi-dono..." said Kenshin as he attempted to stand... only to crumple back to his knees. "Oro..."
"Ken-san?" asked Megumi in alarm.
"I'm... alright," said Kenshin as he tried to gather his legs under him again.
"No, you're not!" countered Megumi fiercely as she took the time to appraise the state of her assistant.
Kenshin's eyes were dull with black bags under them and his skin was very pale.
"You're exhausted from playing midwife for Tsubame-chan and me! Go lie down in your room before you pass out!" Megumi demanded.
"That's doctor's orders. Now move!" commanded Megumi.
"Yes, ma'am," Kenshin finally acceded, getting shakily to his feet and blundering out of the room.
The poor rurouni barely made it to the bed before collapsing onto it and sinking into oblivion.
"Vixen! I'm home!" called the much-missed voice of a certain Rooster as he entered at the front door.
"WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!" cried the baby at being startled awake.
This in turn startled Megumi awake. Immediately, she popped out a breast, which the baby latched onto and quieted down.
"I'm in here, Sanosuke! Keep your voice down! There are people trying to sleep!" Megumi called quietly.
Sano swung the door open and immediately dropped his shoulder pack upon seeing the small creature lying in his wife's arms. Slowly, he approached them.
"That our kid?"
"Well, he's certainly not Saitou's son," said Megumi sarcastically.
"He? It's a boy?" Sano asked, grinning from ear to ear.
"The last time I checked, the word 'he' means 'boy.' Come meet your son, Sagara Sanosuke," said Megumi.
Sano crossed the room and knelt down next to his wife and son. He gently laid a bandaged hand on the baby's head and stroked his hair.
"Aw, he got yer hair."
"My eyes too. But he has your appetite. I've already had to switch breasts once today," smiled Megumi.
"Heh!" grinned Sano.
Then he sobered.
"Sorry I missed his grand entrance into the world."
"It's fine, Sano. You were earning money for him as any responsible father would. I was well taken care of while you were gone, anyway. I wouldn't have been able to get through this without Ken-san's help. He stayed with me the entire time you were gone and ended up delivering Sozo for us," said Megumi.
"Kenshin did it? I'll have to treat him to a big bottle a sake t'morrow," grinned Sano.
"More like the day after, at least. He's sleeping in the guestroom right now, totally worn out," said Megumi.
"Just from deliverin' one baby?" asked Sano.
"More like two. Tsubame-chan also delivered today: a baby boy," smiled Megumi.
"Me 'n Yahiko became dads on the same day? No way!" exclaimed Sano.
"I said keep it down! Ken-san is sleeping! He wore himself to a frazzle today," said an exasperated Megumi.
"Sorry, Vixen," said Sano. "Anyway, I can see why Kenshin'd be tired after deliverin' two babies. That lil rurouni never ceases to amaze me."
"Me neither," agreed Megumi.
"Kenshin's been away from his own family fer too long. I'm gonna take him to the dojo. Be right back," said Sano as he stood up again.
"Don't wake him!" protested Megumi.
"I won't. I've carried him b’fore when he weren't awake," said Sano, grimly remembering carrying a half-dead Kenshin back from Mt. Hiei after the battle with Shishio Makoto.
This was a much happier occasion.
Sano opened the door and found the little rurouni lying facedown on the bed, breathing deep and even in sleep. Gently, he rolled Kenshin over on his back, then scooped the redhead into his arms as tenderly as if he were but a newborn himself.
"Let's gitchu back t'yer own wife 'n kid, lil buddy," Sano said softly as he stepped out of the room.
Sano strode out onto the street, which was bathed in the brightness of the new electric street lamps.
'It's a wonder anybody can sleep anymore with these things shinin' in all the windows,' he thought unhappily.
The small figure in his arms shifted a bit.
Sano looked down and saw huge violet eyes staring up at him out of a pale, sleepy face.
"Hey, buddy. Yeah, it's me. No worries. I'm just takin' you back to the dojo so's you can be with Missy 'n the Midget," Sano smiled down at the little swordsman.
A smile graced Kenshin's features.
The eyelids closed and the small form drifted off into a peaceful sleep, content in the knowledge that he was in his best friend's strong arms.
Rather to his surprise, Sanosuke was able to slide the front gate open easily.
'Kenshhin'd be b'side himself if knew Missy'd left the gate unlocked,' he chuckled to himself.
Sanosuke carried Kenshin around to the back of the house, slid open the door to Kenshin and Kaoru's room and stepped out of his shoes and up into the room. Inside it was dark and silent, all lanterns and candles having been extinguished hours ago. Sano felt around in the darkness with his foot until his toes came in contact with the fabric of the futon. Kneeling down, he laid Kenshin on the futon and started to stand up again...
"Ow! What the fuck?"
"Sanosuke? What are you doing here in the middle of the night?" came Kaoru's voice in the darkness.
"I was bringin' yer husband home, Raccoon," grunted Sano, rubbing the back of his head where Kaoru's bokken had connected.
"My hus... What's wrong with him?" asked Kaoru in alarm, setting her bokken aside, kneeling down by the futon and laying the back of her hand against Kenshin's brow.
"Nothin'. He's wiped out after deliverin' two babies in one day," explained Sano.
"Two babies? Then Tsubame and Megumi..."
"Yep. Two baby boys! Ya can come 'round 'n see 'em t'morrow if ya want," grinned Sano.
"Congratulations, Sano! We'll certainly stop by. Now... get the hell out of my room," said Kaoru.
"'Night, Missy," grinned Sano before turning and dashing off into the night.
'Two babies on the same day. Incredible! And all thanks to my darling redhead,' Kaoru thought as she began undressing Kenshin.
Once Kenshin was disrobed and properly tucked into the futon, Kaoru pulled the blanket over herself and snuggled up next to her sleeping swordsman.
"I missed you. Welcome home," she whispered into his ear.
Though she couldn't see it, Kaoru knew Kenshin smiled in response.
Sunlight filtering in through the thin rice paper brought Kenshin slowly to wakefulness. Shielding his eyes with his wrist, he blinked, then stretched out. His sleep had been long, deep and peaceful with dreams of Kaoru holding him close and whispering softly to him playing out before his mind's eye.
'How long did I sleep?' he wondered to himself.
"Good morning," he heard her voice.
'Kaoru? It wasn't a dream!' Kenshin thought happily as he rolled over to see Kaoru lying next to him, smiling at him.
Kenshin's whole being was suffused with a joy, which lit him from deep within. He reached out his hand to Kaoru, who caught it halfway, her other hand coming up to caress the fading scar on his left cheek.
"Did you sleep well?" she asked him softly.
Kenshin nodded, closing his eyes and basking in her love.
"I missed you," he whispered at length.
"I missed you too, darling," Kaoru whispered in his ear.
Then they were leaning in, their lips touching, hands gently exploring each other's bodies.
SSSSSSSSSSSHHHHHHH.. PTM... THMP THMP THMP THMP...
Those sounds through the thin veneer of rice paper brought them out of their passion as they looked at each other, then at the fusuma which led out into the hall. Kenji was up and if someone wasn't out there to make him breakfast, he would attempt to do it himself, which had been the cause of the dojo nearly burning down two years ago.
"Let's go," said Kenshin quickly.
"Right behind you," replied Kaoru as the couple rose.
Later, they would celebrate their reunion.
"Freeze, Himura Kenji. Dad will make our breakfast!" commanded Kaoru to the little boy who was just going to get the step ladder so he could reach the cupboards.
"Dad's back?" asked Kenji.
"He got back last night," answered Kaoru with a smile.
"Yes!" said Kenji, pumping his fist.
No more crunchy rice in the miso!
Soon, the family was sitting on their cushions around the low table, happily digging into Kenshin's delicious morning miso.
"So, Dad, if you're back, does that mean Aunt Meg had her baby?" Kenji asked as he ate.
"Aunt Meg and Tsubame-dono as well," answered Kenshin.
"After breakfast, we're going to walk into town and visit them," said Kaoru. "So I want you to put on your good white hakama and black kimono."
"Aw, Mom. It's Saturday. I always play with my friends on Saturday," protested Kenji.
"There'll be plenty of other Saturdays to play with your friends. Today, we have new family members to meet," said Mom in her no-nonsense voice.
Kenji looked desperately to Dad for help, but found him very interested in his bowl of soup. With a sullen sigh, the boy dipped his head, but the resentment was already seeping into his eyes.
In his room, Kenji shrugged out of his yukata, which he bundled up and tossed to the side instead of folding neatly as he usually did. After finding the white hakama and black kimono, Kenji wrinkled his nose in distaste at the garments. They were brand new and were for formal occasions, such as festivals. Whenever he wore the garments, Kenji had to be careful not to stain or tear them, lest Mom's wrath fall squarely upon his young shoulders. Kenji didn't mind wearing them for festivals, but why was it necessary to wear them just to go and visit babies?
'Stupid babies! Stupid nice clothes!' he thought unhappily as he shrugged into the black kimono.
After breakfast, behold the Himura family dressed in their best clothes, heading into Asakusa for their visits with the two newest members of the growing Kenshingumi! Kenji scowled and crossed his arms in front of his chest. He had seen babies around town. They were small, wrinkly, bald and red and all they did was cry, spit up and wreak disgusting odors. Why would anyone want to visit a baby much less have one?
"Kenji, try to be patient with your mother's command. Everyone came and visited you when you were a baby. Now you're a big boy, so it's your turn to visit our friends' babies," said Kenshin softly.
"I don't like babies," replied the sullen child.
"Part of being a big boy is doing things you don't like with a cheerful attitude," said Kenshin, laying a hand firmly on the crown of his son's head.
"Yeah, OK..." huffed Kenji, though the scowl didn't leave his features.
The door slid open to reveal Sagara Sanosuke, grinning from ear to ear.
"Hey, guys. C'mon in!" he said.
The Himuras stepped inside, stepping out of their sandals and up into the building. A sullen Kenji kept his arms crossed, his gaze on the floor and his little face pinched like a nutcracker the whole time. Right now, Takuma and the others were probably tearing through the fields of Ueno Park, kites flying in the breeze! And here he had to sit still and listen to the grownups talk about stupid, boring babies!
Sano led the family back into the room where Megumi sat up against a large cushion with the baby in her arms. The babe's hair, having dried overnight, now stood up in miniature black tufts that already had the telltale appearance of feathers.
"Aw, he's adorable!" squealed Kaoru in a soft voice as she knelt down at Megumi's side.
"Thanks, Kao-chan," smiled Megumi.
The two women fell into babbling and cooing over the baby.
"Hey, Kenshin, let's go outside 'n have some sake, leave the hens to their cluckin'," offered Sano.
"That sounds like a plan," smiled Kenshin, as anxious to get away from the women as Sano.
Between the women gushing over the baby and Dad and Bird Brain going outside to drink sake, poor Kenji was quite overlooked. However, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing in the young boy's eyes. After Dad and Bird Brain had disappeared outside, he looked over at Mom and Aunt Meg, who were engrossed in the small, boring creature in Aunt Meg's arms and began slowly creeping from the room. Any minute, he expected to hear Mom's sharp reprimand and a command to stay put. When he made it to the doorway and still no command had come, he quickly made a beeline down the hallway toward the front door, stepped down into his sandals and fled the clinic.
Though he didn't want to admit it, part of him was upset with his parents for not even noticing that he had snuck away.
Takuma, Hao and Tao were standing on the railing of the Sumida River bridge, lobbing pebbles at any watercraft unlucky enough to pass underneath them.
"OW! DAMN KIDS!!!!"
The three boys laughed and stuck their tongues out at the junk as the current carried it away. Hao happened to glance to his right and saw the unmistakable patch of copper rapidly approaching them.
"It's Kenji!" he exclaimed.
"Eh?" said Takuma as he looked up at the redhead. "Copper Top, where were ya?"
"My parents made go with them to visit Bird Brain and Aunt Meg and their stupid new baby," glowered Kenji as Takuma handed him some pebbles.
"That explains your clothes," said Takuma, looking at Kenji's formal kimono and hakama.
"How did you..."
"...get away from them?" asked the twins.
"They didn't even see me leave. They don't care about me, just about the stupid baby," frowned Kenji.
"Babies make grownups do weird things," agreed Takuma solemnly.
"...another junk," said the twins.
"Bombs away!" said Takuma as the four boys unleashed a barrage of pebbles at the hapless junk rower.
PLOP PLOP PLOP PLOP PLOP!
One of the pebbles Kenji lobbed struck the man over his right eye, drawing blood.
"YOU LITTLE SHITHEADS!!!"
The four laughing boys pulled their eyelids down and stuck out their tongues at the very large and very irate man before turning their backs on him to wait for the next boat. What they didn't see was the large man beginning to row his junk against the river's current, moving steadily back toward them.
"Kenji, come here. I want you to meet the new..."
Kaoru's words died on her lips as she looked up and saw that Kenji was no longer in the room with her.
"That's strange. He was just there a moment ago," observed Megumi.
"Maybe he went outside to sit with Kenshin and Sanosuke," replied Kaoru. "Kenshin, is Kenji with you?!"
"Oro? He's not with you?" came Kenshin's voice from outside.
Kenshin was immediately back in the room. The parents looked into each other's eyes.
"He must have left," said Kenshin.
"When neither of us was paying attention. Oooh, that little..." said Kaoru through clenched teeth.
"Now, now, Kaoru. You stay here with Megumi-dono. I'll go find him," smiled Kenshin.
"Do you know where to look?" asked Kaoru dubiously.
"I have a few ideas. If I fail to find him within the hour, I'll return and ask Sano to help me," said Kenshin.
"Alright. When I get my hands on Kenji..." said Kaoru, ire rising moment by moment.
"Do hold back a little, dear. He’s our only child," reminded Kenshin.
"Well, a little. But only because you asked so nicely. Go find him," said Kaoru with a hesitant smile.
"I'll be back," said Kenshin as he departed.
Megumi looked down at her own baby and wondered if she and Sanosuke would end up having similar difficulties with him as he grew up.
"You little bastards are gonna pay!" came a surly voice from the side.
Kenji, Takuma, Hao and Tao turned and saw the junk rower they had pelted with pebbles not five minutes ago standing at the end of the bridge, blood trickling down his face from his brow over his right eye, where Kenji had hit him with the pebble. The man charged at the kids.
"Crap!" yelped Takuma as the boys started running.
Kenji of course was easily able to stay ahead of the angry man, but the same wasn't the case for Takuma and the Twins. The man caught up to them, grabbing them by the collars of their kimono.
Takuma's voice caused Kenji to turn on his heel and stare back at the large man, who was now holding his friends over the railing, dangling them over the flowing river below.
"It was my rock that hit you. Put my friends down and take your revenge on me," said Kenji as he unshouldered his shinai.
"Oh, the brat thinks he's a warrior, does he?" sneered the large man. "Alright. Let's have some fun."
With this, he dumped the three boys onto the floor of the bridge and charged at Kenji. Just as he lunged to catch Kenji, he realized the boy had disappeared.
"Here I am," came the small voice from slightly to the right.
Horrific pain as something hard rammed into his knee, causing his legs to buckle under him.
'TSUKA NO GEDAN!'
Kenji jumped back, holding the now splintered shinai and watched as the burly man was already pulling himself to his feet, leaning heavily on his left leg. He started to limp toward Kenji again, arms outstretched, fingers reaching.
Kenji clutched the splintered bamboo sword, uncertain of what to do now.
"You little bastard! I'm gonna..."
The man's words died on his lips and he turned as white as a sheet.
Kenji blinked, wondering what had caused the change in his attacker. Perhaps his Tsuka no Gedan had made the man think twice about attacking again. Quite the next moment, the guy was turning his back on Kenji and hobbling away as quickly as he could, not even mindful of retrieving his junk from the dock on the other side of the river. The next thing Kenji knew, Takuma, Hao and Tao were at his side.
"You did it!" congratulated Takuma.
"You beat him..."
"And sent him running..."
"...with his tail between his legs," said the twins.
"I guess I did," said Kenji a bit uncertainly.
"You sure did. You're an awesome fighter!" said Takuma. "C'mon! Let's go hit that new noodle stand at the waterfront."
"OK," said Kenji, turning around to walk with his friends. "O...ro..."
Kenji's words died on his lips as he and his friends turned around to see standing at the opposite end of the bridge Himura Kenshin, lips weighted down in a frown, eyes narrowed and gazing squarely at the small redhead. Kenshin started to slowly walk toward the four boys.
Takuma and the Twins started to back away from Kenji's side.
"See you in school..."
This from the twins before they took off running.
"Yeah. Hope to see you in school in one piece on Monday, Copper Top. Thanks for beating that guy and... good luck with your dad," said Takuma before he took off after the Twins.
"Yeah, thanks..." said Kenji, nonplussed at how quickly his friends had ditched him.
Kenshin stood before the miniature of himself.
"Look at me," the father commanded..
Mustering his courage, the son raised his eyes.
"Did your mother and I raise you to be selfish?" Kenshin asked quietly.
Kenji flinched under Dad's unhappy gaze.
"No..." he ventured in a small voice.
"What do you think leaving without our permission today was?" Kenshin asked.
"I wanted to play with my friends," Kenji explained.
"'I wanted,'" Kenshin echoed. "When you put your own desires ahead of family obligations, that is selfish. Today, you acted shamefully."
Kenji's eyes lowered, suddenly finding his splintered shinai very interesting.
"However," Dad's voice sounded again, causing Kenji's eyes to lift hopefully. "You protected your friends with Kamiya Kasshin. And for that, I am proud of you."
Silence fell between father and son except for the gentle spring breeze that blew up off the river flowing beneath them. At length, Kenshin turned his back on Kenji and began making his way back to the clinic. A dispirited Kenji reshouldered his ruined bamboo sword and fell silently in behind his father. Playtime was over. He knew he would be in big time trouble when Mom got ahold of him at the clinic.
Kenshin led his wayward son back into the clinic where Kaoru stood before him. Kenji noticed a bucket and rag laid out on the floor.
"Welcome back, Himura Kenji. Since you seem to have too much energy to sit still and behave like a nice boy, I've decided to let you burn that energy off by scrubbing the entire engawa," said Kaoru firmly, pointing at the bucket and wash cloth.
"My clothes!" protested Kenji, as his nice clothes had already been rather scuffed up from his fight with the junk rower.
"Nice try, Kenji. While you were out having your little adventure, I retrieved a set of your regular clothes from home. You go into the guestroom and change into them and get right to work!" ordered Kaoru, holding out the gray hakama and blue kimono.
Kenji took the clothes and walked away with his head lowered to change them.
"When I found Kenji, he was confronting a large man who seemed to have been attacking him and his friends. He felled the man with a good Tsuka no Gedan to the knee," Kenshin said softly.
"What? Really?" whispered a startled Kaoru. "Well, that would explain the state of his shinai. It seems like Kenji never does something naughty without it having a redeeming quality to it. It makes it hard to really lower the boom on him."
"I know," smiled Kenshin. "Let's go back and visit with our friends. I doubt Kenji will try to sneak off again."
"Yeah. Let's go visit that baby," smiled Kaoru.
After changing into his regular clothes, Kenji returned to the engawa and mutely picked up the bucket. He carried it to the well to get water for the assigned task. Kenji dipped the rag in, then began pushing it along the length of the porch, little bare feet making a slight thumping sound against the wood. As he worked, he tried to ignore the sounds of the adults’ happy voices and laughter, which only made him all the more miserable.
Yahiko waved in greeting to the approaching Himura family. As soon as they were together, he bowed from the waist to Kenshin.
"Kenshin, thanks for helping Tsubame. I really owe you," he said reverently.
Kaoru was a bit taken aback to see Yahiko being so formal.
"Straighten up, Yahiko. You and Tsubame-dono are family to us. No thanks are necessary," smiled Kenshin.
Yahiko stood up again.
"At any rate, let's go upstairs so everyone can meet my son," he smiled.
"Um, Yahiko. Since Tsubame's out of commission for a while, Kenji here was wondering if he might volunteer to wash dishes for you in the kitchen," said Kaoru, laying her hands firmly on her son's shoulders.
Kenji's shoulders slumped. Would this punishment never end?
"Uh..." Yahiko's gaze shifted from Kaoru to Kenshin, who glanced down at his son, then nodded slightly. "Sure! Why not?"
"Thank you. Oh and have him wear an apron because I don't want him to get his clothes wet," instructed Kaoru.
Kenji's whole body scrunched up and he winced. An apron? Mom must really have been mad. Kaoru gave Kenji a gentle shove forward and the small redhead fell in beside his big brother.
"Wudja do?" Yahiko asked as they headed to the kitchen.
"Left the clinic to play with my friends," Kenji explained.
"I don't blame ya. Visits like this can be boring," sympathized Yahiko.
Kenji looked up. At last, someone understood!
"But they're also a part of life," Yahiko continued.
A disappointed Kenji looked down at the floor again. He hated it when adults pretended to understand, but didn't really.
In the kitchen, Kenji's cheeks flushed scarlet as Yahiko handed him an apron to wear. It was two sizes too big for him!
"I'll trip!" he complained.
"Here. I'll help ya get it on and we'll tuck the front part up so it's not dragging on the floor. We need to tie your sleeves back too," said Yahiko.
An unhappy Kenji permitted his big brother to help him put on the apron and tie back his sleeves. When all was said and done, he looked like a miniature version of Kenshin when he was doing the housework at the dojo. Yahiko had to look away to hide the twitching of his mouth.
"Anyway, here's a stepping stool and there are some dirty dishes. Good luck, little brother," smiled Yahiko.
Kenji nodded, then stepped upon the stool, grabbed a dish and dunked it in the water and began scrubbing furiously.
Kenshin, Kaoru and Tae sat around Tsubame as she held the baby for them to see. As with Megumi's baby, this baby's hair showed tell tale signs of sticking up in miniature spikes. When the baby opened his eyes, chestnut irises were revealed to them.
"Your hair and Yahiko's eyes," smiled Kaoru.
"Yes. I love how his eyes look," agreed Tsubame.
"I think he'll grow into a fine swordsman," mused Kenshin.
"Kenshin, he's not even 24 hours old and you already want to put a shinai into his hands. At least let him learn to walk first!" chided Kaoru.
"But of course, dearest," smiled Kenshin.
Yahiko slid the door open and joined them.
"OK. Kenji's laboring away in the kitchen like you wanted," he said.
"Thanks, Yahiko," said Kenshin.
"So, he really took off on you guys?" asked Yahiko, sitting down next to his wife.
"Yes. It's not like we ask him to give up every Saturday!" huffed Kaoru. "He simply has to learn that the world doesn't revolve around him."
"True enough. After he finishes with this load of dishes, I'll bring him up. Maybe he won't be so resentful if he actually meets the baby," said Yahiko.
After 30 minutes had passed, Yahiko made his way downstairs and into the kitchen where he saw Kenji just putting the last dish aside after drying it. Were there tear tracks on the little boy's cheeks?
"Hey, Kenji. You wanna come upstairs and see the baby?" asked Yahiko.
Frowning, Kenji shook his head.
Yahiko approached him and squatted down so that they were at eye level.
"Kenji, you know what you become when your brother has a baby of his own?" he asked.
"What?" asked the unhappy little boy.
"You become an uncle," answered Yahiko.
"An uncle is sorta like a dad, except kinda different. But an uncle protects and looks out for his brother's kids just like they're his own because that's what brothers do for each other," continued Yahiko.
"You want me to look out for your baby?" asked Kenji.
"Of course I do! I helped look out for you when you were little because you're like my little brother. So I was hoping you could sorta do that for my kid. You think you can?" asked Yahiko, smiling.
For the first time in hours, a smile broke out on Kenji's features.
"Yeah. I can do it," he said.
"OK. Now, come meet your new nephew," said Yahiko, turning Kenji around and untying the hated apron.
Kenji approached Tsu-nee and looked down at the small creature nestled in her arms. It looked like the other one, small and immobile. But this baby was Big Brother's baby, his very own nephew to look out for and protect!
"Can I touch him?" Kenji asked.
"Sure," smiled Tsubame, holding out the baby to give Kenji access.
Kenji reached down to touch the baby's spiky hair...
"ORO!" yelped Kenji as the baby's fingers suddenly locked onto one of his coppery fringes and gave a goodly tug.
"Ah, the memories that brings back," smiled Kenshin.
Kenji tried to pry the baby's hand off his hair, but didn't dare use his full strength lest he incur Mom's wrath for hurting the baby.
"Here. I'll help," said Tsubame, gently breaking the baby's grip on Kenji's hair.
"Thanks, Tsu-nee," said Kenji, pulling back from the baby's reach.
Kenji's little "nephew" was certainly spirited. Maybe this baby would be fun.
Kenshin was visiting Sano and his baby, whom Sano and Megumi had named Sozo. At present, the rurouni was trying hard to conceal his amusement as he watched Sano grapple with fatherhood.
"Ugh! What the hell?" said Sano, holding his nose.
"Well Sano, what did you expect him to do, use the outhouse?" asked Kenshin as he scooped the babe into his arms.
"I dunno," admitted Sano.
Kenshin sighed briefly and carried Sozo over to the low table where he knelt down and started undressing the infant.
"Come here, Sano. It's time for you to learn the art of diaper changing," said the rurouni.
"Wha? Me?" cried the Rooster.
"Yes, you," said Kenshin with a patient smile.
"That's women's work!" blurted out Sano as he sulkily sat down next to Kenshin.
Kenshin ruminated on that statement for a second as he undid Sozo's little loin cloth.
"Who's the doctor?" asked the swordsman at length.
"Vixen," answered Sano.
"Correct. Who's the freeloader who hasn't a single skill to speak of, except fighting?" continued Kenshin as he cleaned Sozo off.
Sano pointed to himself.
"So who will have to spend most of their time taking care of the baby while the doctor earns a living for the family?" asked Kenshin as he put a new loincloth on Sozo.
Sanosuke pointed at Kenshin.
"Oro!" Kenshin fell over sideways.
"Hey, Kenshin!" greeted Yahiko as Kenshin entered the restaurant.
"I wanted to pick up some salmon to surprise Kaoru and Kenji with," smiled Kenshin.
"Sure," said Yahiko. "Tsubame, three salmon to go!"
"OK. Just let me put Shinya down," called Tsubame from the kitchen.
Kenshin's heart stopped in his chest.
"Shinya?" he asked in a hushed voice.
"Yeah. Anything wrong with it?" asked Yahiko with concern, noting how far away and wistful Kenshin suddenly appeared.
'Shinya. Sounds almost exactly like... Shinta,' Kenshin thought, thinking of the small, quiet child that had eventually become Hitokiri Battousai, the Rurouni and finally the man he was now.
"No. Nothing wrong at all. It's a fine name that I know you'll raise him to live up to," said Kenshin with a sad smile.
"That was the plan," said Yahiko, looking askance at his father figure.
Just then, Tsubame came out with the three salmon.
"Here's your order, sir," she smiled at Kenshin.
"Thank you, Tsubame-dono," said Kenshin, grateful to see the strange mood broken. "I'm off. Take care of yourselves."
"You too," said Tsubame.
"Yeah. See you guys tomorrow," said Yahiko.
'Shinta means Pure Heart and Shinya means Truthful One. Hopefully, he will be able to live up to his name and not stain it as I did,' Kenshin thought as he made his way home.
"Himura Kenji, if I catch you at such a stunt again, you'll be eating your food after the rest of the family, like the foreigners!" Kaoru scolded their son, whom she had caught licking the remaining grains of rice from the sides of his little rice bowl.
"Oro?" went Kenji, looking up at his mother with huge eyes.
"Don't you give me that face. That only works for your father," said Kaoru, trying to maintain her annoyance, but failing utterly in the face of such a disarming gaze.
"There isn't any wasted this way," explained Kenji, holding up the bowl.
Kaoru found she couldn't even argue with that.
"Don't talk back to your mother," she said, wanting to save face in front of her child and husband.
Having watched from the sidelines, Kenshin's sides were shaking now. If his wife caught him, he would get a bokken to the brain and spend the night in his old room, which he certainly didn't want.
May 5 Boys' Day (Tango no Sekku)
On a bamboo pole mounted on the dojo roof with a pair of gilded pinwheels, a huge, bright, polychromatic Koi-Nobori, a carp-shaped streamer made of paper, which seemed to swim in the air whenever the warm wind blew through it. Underneath it streamed a long red and white ribbon.
Having just finished his hot shobuyu bath, Kenji strutted proudly about the dojo grounds and paused to look up at the pretty streamers that seemed to writhe as the wind blew through them. Inside the home, in the tokonoma were a miniature helmet, a suit of armor, a sword, a bow and arrow, a Kintaro doll astride a carp and the kabuto helmet with two tatemono emanating from the brow, like a proud stag's antlers, all of which were symbols for a strong, healthy boy. Boys' Day was much better than Girls' Day, which was held in the damp, cloudy March weather. Sunny, bright spring days like today were for boys!
"Kenji! Your snack's ready!" Kaoru called as she stepped out onto the engawa with two sets of sweet rice dumplings and cakes wrapped in bamboo and oak leaves respectively.
"Yay! Thanks, Mom!" Kenji said as he happily trotted over to the engawa, kicked off his sandals and sat down in the shade to consume his chimaki and kashiwa mochi, to be washed down by green tea afterward.
Every day should be Boys' Day!
Kenshin and Kaoru sat on the sand, both keeping a hawk-like eye on their rambunctious son, who was drawn to water like a fish.
"Himura Kenji, you stay away from that water!" called Kaoru.
"Aw, Mom. You're SUPPOSED to go in the water at the beach!" countered an unhappy Kenji.
"He's got you there, dear," smiled Kenshin.
"I don't want him going out over his head. He's too little," said Kaoru.
"I'll go in with him," said Kenshin, getting to his feet.
"Alright..." relented Kaoru.
Kenshin headed down to the water and stood on the shore, water whooshing in and lapping around his bare feet.
"Come on, son!" he called happily, charging into the water and launching himself into a dog paddle.
Grinning ear to ear, Kenji fell in after his father, swimming out to keep up with him. Once they were out up to Kenshin's chest, Kenshin turned and splashed water playfully at Kenji, who splashed back, laughing hysterically.
Taking a deep breath, Kenshin suddenly disappeared under the water.
"Oro?" said Kenji.
Where had Dad gone?
Suddenly, Kenji felt something grasp his ankles and he was yanked down into a dark, wet world. It only lasted a second before he broke surface, encircled in Dad's strong arms.
"Dad!" he yelped.
"Ducked you!" said Kenshin happily as he released the boy. "Get me back if you can."
Kenshin was already swimming away. Not to be outdone, Kenji launched himself into a dog paddle, kicking and pulling fiercely to keep up with his father.
Kaoru sat on the blanket, watching as her two redheads frolicked. The scene touched her heart as she thought of how after years of pain and heartbreak, Kenshin had finally healed enough to be able to truly let down his guard and share happy moments like this with their little boy.
'So why am I just sitting here?' she thought reproachfully to herself, starting to get to her feet...
Then it happened. One moment, Kenji was swimming behind Kenshin, the next the ocean seemed to swallow him.
"KENJI!" screamed Kaoru, running down to the shore.
Kenshin felt the powerful blast of frightened kenki from behind him and heard his wife's frightened scream. Taking a deep gulp of air, he plunged under the water.
Moving through the dark, wet world, Kenshin kept his eyes trained ahead of him. There was Kenji, being pulled out to sea by a powerful undertow. Kenshin kicked fiercely, moving his arms and keeping Kenji in his sight.
One of the most brutal trainings he and undergone as a child had been when the Master took him out onto the ocean in a boat, dumped him overboard and had then rowed away with the command to sink or swim. Young Kenshin had floundered desperately at first, but was then driven by his desperation to survive the watery domain and anger at the Master for dumping him overboard like an unwanted fish. On that day, young Kenshin had learned to swim and swim well.
Just as he had as a child, Kenshin kept his target squarely in his sight and summoned all his strength and speed. If he missed now, there would be no second chance. Closer, closer, closer... Kenshin reached out and was barely able to snag Kenji's now-loose hair, but it was enough. Dragging the boy by his hair, Kenshin gave a mighty kick and swam to the top, where he could see the rippling light of the sun calling to them.
Just as Kaoru was about to throw herself into the water, she saw the welcome sight of her two redheads breaking the surface. She watched breathlessly as Kenshin immediately slung Kenji over his arm and gave the boy a few sharp whacks between the shoulder blades. Only when Kenji's small form shuddered and a torrent of water gushed from his mouth did her own lungs start to work again. Kaoru watched as Kenshin carried the now sobbing and coughing Kenji back to shore with him.
"Maaaamaaaa!" Kenji wailed, pride forgotten, as Kenshin gently deposited the boy into her arms.
Kaoru held the wailing Kenji close to her, rubbing his back as they returned to the blanket to pack everything up and head straight to the clinic to check him out. That was enough of the beach for one day!
"What happened?!" asked an alarmed Megumi at the sight of the two dripping redheads when she came out to greet their friends.
"Kenji almost drowned, but Kenshin saved him. Can you check him to be sure he's OK?" asked Kaoru.
"Of course. Come with me," said Megumi, ushering the family back into the clinic proper.
Once in a room, Megumi donned her stethoscope and touched it to Kenji's back.
"Alright, Kenji, give me a good, deep breath," she prompted him.
Kenji took a deep, shuddering breath and then exhaled as Aunt Meg listened. Megumi repeated the maneuver a few times on both Kenji's back and chest until she was satisfied that no fluid remained in the boy's lungs. Finally, she pulled back.
"I don't hear any water. He just needs some rest and he'll be fine by tomorrow. Since you're here, I'd like to do Ken-san's checkup as well. If you like, you can put Kenji down in one of the clinic beds while you wait," said Megumi.
"Thank you, Megumi. Kenshin, we'll be waiting for you," said Kaoru.
Kenshin's cheeks tinged scarlet as he watched Kaoru carry Kenji out of the room.
"Alright, Ken-san. Get undressed and we'll begin..."
As Kaoru laid Kenji on a bed, he looked up at her with huge, still-frightened eyes.
"What happened? What was it?" he asked, still trying to make sense of what had happened to him.
"That was the undertow, Kenji. One moment, you're swimming, the next you're pulled out to sea to drown," said Kaoru gravely.
"I'm glad Dad was there," said Kenji in a tremulous voice.
"As am I, Kenji. As am I," agreed Kaoru.
After half an hour, the door swung open and in came Kenshin, cheeks crimson from the thorough going over he had just received at Megumi-dono's hands.
"Ready when you two are," he said with a tired smile.
The exhausted family set out down the road for home, Kenji, now wrapped in a towel, still clutching his mother's kimono. Finally, the dojo came into the weary family's sight. Kenshin went on ahead to unlock the front gate for them.
Once inside, Kenshin took their blanket and bento to deposit them and Kaoru tucked Kenji into his futon.
"Sleep for now and when you wake up, we'll have tea ready for you," she admonished gently.
"OK, Mom," said Kenji, eyes falling shut.
As Kenji slept, he dreamed of the endless blue ocean and the world of cold darkness under it. However, he wasn't alone. When he looked up, he saw Dad swimming toward him. He held out his hand and felt Dad grasp his, pulling him back toward the light.
Kaoru wished she had been thinking! She knew better than to lose track of the time while working in the garden with her kimono around her waist and only her breast bindings covering her chest. But she had done it anyway and was now redder than Kenshin's hair. Pain rippled over her skin as she slowly stood up. Ouch! She stiffly walked back to the house, slid the fusuma open and stepped in, shutting it behind her and ditching her sandals in the genkan.
Kaoru immediately headed to her and Kenshin's bedroom where she could rub some of Megumi's nice cream on her skin and lie down for a while. Going to the corner, she retrieved the folded futon and spread it on the floor, causing herself more pain with the motion. She slowly unbound her breasts, found Megumi's cream and rubbed it on her sunburned shoulders. The cold cream felt good against her raw and irritated skin. After she was done rubbing it, she put it away and slipped under the covers.
Kaoru resolved to stay under the covers for the rest of the day. She didn't want Kenshin to know about her sunburn because he would be insufferable when he saw her in this state, hovering over her like a mother hen, waiting on her hand and foot and she would end up wanting to kill him, as she had through her pregnancy when he wouldn't let her do anything more than help him prepare meals.
She would stay under the covers and say she was just tired from the heat if Kenshin asked when he and Kenji got home. By the time he was ready to sleep, it would be dark and he wouldn't see her burned skin. Hopefully, it would be somewhat better by tomorrow and she wouldn't have to face an overprotective, worrywart Kenshin. Eventually she drifted off to sleep.
Kaoru came partially to wakefulness when she heard the voices of her husband and son entering the house. She hoped against hope that Kenji would keep Kenshin busy for the rest of the day. But to no avail. She heard Kenshin instructing Kenji to go outside and play for a while and then his footsteps coming to their door.
'Shit! Shit! Shit!'
Kaoru heard the sliding of the fusuma to their room and soft footsteps on the tatami mats followed by a quiet chuckle and the rustle of clothing as the red haired man knelt down beside her. She was fully awake, but kept her eyes shut, hoping he would go away till dark.
"Aw, it looks like the heat tired you out," Kenshin said softly, barely above a whisper as he started running his fingers through her hair.
'Dammit! Will you just go away until dark?' pleaded Kaoru silently.
"That looks like a good idea. I believe I'll join you," said Kenshin.
He stood back up and started undressing. Kaoru's eyes popped open. If Kenshin lay down next to her, he would see her sunburned skin and go into overprotective mode. But if she asked him to go away, he would worry then too, thinking her sick or sad. Sometimes the man was just insufferable.
Kaoru felt motion next to her as the sheet was peeled back and braced for it. Kenshin stopped cold when he saw the redness of his wife's skin.
"Kaoru, your shoulders..." he said, his voice trailing off.
"I was out in the sun too long," she admitted.
"Obviously," said Kenshin, observing her.
Suddenly he got to his feet.
"Wait here. I'm going to draw you a bath," he said.
"A bath won't help a sunburn," she said.
"My kind will," said Kenshin mysteriously as he quickly redressed.
Before she could ask him to elaborate, Kenshin left the room, sliding the door shut behind him.
'What is it with that guy?' Kaoru thought to herself.
Out in the kitchen, Kenshin grabbed as many tea bags as he could, then headed out to the well to fetch water for the bath. Kenshin fetched the pails of water he needed and poured them in the tub. This done, he added the tea to the water and mixed it in.
Kenshin slid the door open once again. Picking up Kaoru's yukata, he carefully draped it over her shoulders and tied it up to protect her modesty. Then moving as carefully as he could to keep from causing her pain, he scooped her into his arms.
"I can walk," protested Kaoru.
"I know, but would you deny me this pleasure?" asked Kenshin with a smile.
Kaoru gave him a face, but made no more protest. Kenshin carried her out to the bath house. Once they were inside and he locked the door behind them, he set her on her feet.
"Don't bother washing yourself. Just slide into the water," he commanded gently.
"Kenshin, what good will..." Kaoru started.
"Trust me," he said. "Please."
With a sigh of exasperation, Kaoru took off her yukata. Then moving gingerly so as not to cause more pain to her skin, she slipped into the water while Kenshin held her hand to balance her. Almost at once, Kaoru noticed a difference in the way the water felt. It was cool and smoother than any water she'd ever felt before. It started to have a good effect on her skin right away.
"What kind of water is this?" she asked in amazement as she sank up to her neck.
"Ordinary well water. This is the secret ingredient," he said, holding up an empty tea bag.
"Tea?" asked Kaoru. "I'm bathing in tea?"
"Yes. There's nothing like a tea bath for a sunburn," explained Kenshin.
"Where do you learn this stuff from?" asked Kaoru, giving her redhead such a look.
"One learns many more things than just how to fight and hide while wandering," said Kenshin simply.
Kaoru nodded and allowed herself to soak for the next hour while Kenshin left her to make certain Kenji was staying out of trouble.
"Kaoru, one thing about today upsets me," said Kenshin as they lay in each other's arms that night.
"Which is?" asked Kaoru.
"You weren't really asleep when I came in. You were trying to hide your sunburn from me," answered Kenshin reproachfully.
Kaoru was silent for a second before nodding sheepishly.
"Because every time there's something the least bit wrong with me, you treat it like a huge crisis. Every time I sneeze or cough, you ask me if I need to go the clinic. Sometimes a sneeze is just a sneeze," said Kaoru.
"And others, it's a sign of impending death," replied Kenshin, tightening his embrace.
"Kenshin, the problem is, I feel like if I do tell you when something's wrong, you'll panic and overreact," persisted Kaoru.
"But I didn't this time. All I wanted was to make you feel better," pointed out Kenshin.
"That's true and the bath did help a lot. Maybe you're improving," said Kaoru, tracing the slope of Kenshin's nose with her finger.
Kenshin smiled and playfully nipped at Kaoru's fingertip.
The Himuras made their annual pilgrimage to Kyoto for the Obon festival and to visit Tomoe's grave. They took the ship from Yokohama to Osaka, then boarded the train in Kobe for the last leg of the trip to Kyoto.
Kenji's eyes rolled as he thought of Uncle Aoshi, whom he privately called the Ice Man, having picked up the name from Sanosuke and Yahiko. All the Ice Man ever did was sit around sipping tea and reading scrolls. Boring!
On the other hand, Auntie Misao was bursting with effervescence and fun. She was one of the few people whose energy could match Kenji's own and could actually wear him to a frazzle before the day was out. Auntie Misao always had some nice Western candy or toys on hand for Kenji when the Himuras came to Kyoto, despite Mom's admonitions that such things would spoil him. Kenji certainly didn't think he was spoiled since Mom made him help sweep the front walk and polish the bokken as chores.
And of course, there was Grandpa Hiko, Kenji's favorite person in all the world, after his parents and Yahiko.
Once they arrived at the train station and got off, they were welcomed by Aoshi. Usually Misao would be there, pulling Kaoru and Kenji into a bear hug, but she was glued to the babies and wouldn't leave them even for a second.
"So how's fatherhood treating you, Aoshi?" asked Kenshin.
"It's quite... spontaneous," responded Aoshi, tersely as ever.
"Yes, it is," smiled Kenshin.
With no more words, the group made their way to the Aoiya.
The babies were adorable. At one new year old, each one had a thick tuft of jet black hair on her head. Their eyes were their inheritance from their father, a bright icey blue. Misao held Tsuki in her arms while Aoshi held Yuki in his.
Kenshin couldn't help but notice the difference in the babies' personalities. Tsuki, like her mother was a little live wire, constantly moving, making noises and impulsively grabbing at things. Yuki on the other hand, sat stock still in Aoshi's lap and made about as much noise as her stoic sire.
'Alike in looks, but opposite in personality,' he thought to himself.
Kaoru and Misao spent their time cooing and making googly eyes over each baby. Aoshi was able to hide his nausea very well when they cooed over Yuki, who seemed to share her dad's opinion of baby talk.
Kenji sat the entire time with a scowl on his face. With all the attention focused on the babies, he was bored and unhappy. For some reason, Aunt Misao had forgotten to give him either candy or a toy this year, probably because of the babies. He wouldn't mind it so much if he were permitted to leave and amuse himself as he did in Tokyo. For some reason, his parents didn't permit him to roam Kyoto freely. Not wanting a repeat of last spring, Kenji forced himself to sit quietly while Mom and Aunt Misao ignored him in favor of the babies.
Kenji felt his dad's hand on his head, giving him a sympathetic pat.
"Would you like to walk up the mountain with me and visit Grandpa Hiko?" Kenshin asked softly.
Kenji flew past Kenshin to the gate.
"Hurry up, Dad! Can't keep Grandpa waiting!" the boy called.
"Indeed," said Kenshin with a smile.
Kenshin breathed deeply and wiped the sweat from his brow as he and Kenji made their way up the hill.
'I'm definitely getting old,' he thought with a wistful smile as he watched Kenji go tearing on ahead of him.
Moments later, he felt that huge, familiar ki and raised his eyes to see the large swordsman standing at the top of the hill.
"Grandpa!" yelled Kenji, launching himself into the air and landing easily in Hiko's arms.
The big swordsman put Kenji on his shoulder and smiled up at him.
"What's the Little Lion been up to for the past year?" he asked.
"I beat up a bad guy with Mom's Tsuka no Gedan," Kenji answered proudly.
"Good," smiled Hiko, turning his gaze back to his former student. "Any time you want to get up here, Gramps!"
At this, Kenji burst into a giggling fit.
“Ha ha ha ha ha! Gramps!”
"Good to see you too, Master," smiled Kenshin, pointedly refusing to rise to Hiko's bait.
"Everyone still alive in Tokyo?" Hiko asked.
"We're all fine, Master. Oh, did you hear that Misao-dono had twins?" Kenshin asked.
"Of course I know about that! That's why I've hardly gone down there the past six months," said Hiko distastefully.
Kenji smiled, glad to see he wasn't the only one who didn't care about the babies.
Kenji went to practice his kata while Dad and Grandpa sat and watched him while drinking sake.
"So your Little Lion bared his fangs on someone?" Hiko asked.
"Yes. Four months ago. The man attacked him and his friends for some reason and he protected them," answered Kenshin.
"You're proud of him?"
"Yes, but also worried. He obviously has a great talent for swordsmanship, but of what use will that talent be in the new era? Sword play has become a sport now and as you said, that will not satisfy him in the long term," said Kenshin.
"Leave him with me while you visit your friends and I'll spar with him," offered Hiko.
Kenshin turned his gaze to Kenji. Sparring with Hiko wouldn't be like sparring in a dojo with referees, rounds and rules. It would be pure, unbridled swordsmanship, where they would fight each other until one dropped their sword or dropped from exhaustion. Perhaps that would be just the thing to burn off some of Kenji's excess energy.
"Alright, Master... Kenji!"
Kenji shouldered his shinai and returned to his father.
"How would you like to stay with Grandpa instead of at the Aoiya?" Kenshin asked with a big smile.
"Really?" asked Kenji, looking at both men.
"Really," returned Kenshin.
"Yes!" said the boy enthusiastically.
"Alright then. I'll return for you in three days' time. You be good for Grandpa," said Kenshin.
"OK, Dad. Have fun with the babies," smiled Kenji.
"Oh, indeed," said Kenshin. 'More like have fun with Kaoru...'
"Now that that's settled, get the hell off my mountain and go back to your raccoon," said Hiko.
"Oro? Raccoon?" asked Kenji.
"Oro, just a pet name Grandpa has for your mom," said Kenshin quickly. "Thank you, Master. See you soon, Kenji!"
Then Kenshin was gone, moving quickly down the mountain, anxious to get back to the Aoiya to have fun with Kaoru.
Kenji and Hiko stood across from each other at the base of the waterfall, Kenji brandishing his shinai and Hiko brandishing his nihontou.
"Attack me!" Hiko commanded.
"YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!" Kenji cried as he rushed at Hiko with his little shinai.
This was the sound heard as Kenji's shinai met with the flat of Hiko's blade as the two encountered each other midair. They sailed past each other, landed, pivoted and launched again.
After wearing themselves out sparring, the two settled down near a small lake to do some fishing.
After hooking the worm, Hiko coiled his arms, then cast the line into the lake. By his side, Kenji watched his every move, recording it for mental posterity. The boy's eyes roved over his adopted grandfather's form, missing nothing.
"Grandpa, you have some gray hairs," Kenji pointed out presently.
Hiko's heart stopped just for a second. Another child's voice from long ago echoed in his mind.
"Master, you have some gray hairs!"
Smiling inwardly, Hiko maintained a neutral expression as he glanced down at the small copper haired boy next to him.
"Probably from putting up with you all day, stupid," he grunted.
At this, Kenji broke into a giggling fit that could rival one brought on from a dose of laughing mushrooms.
"Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! You're funny, Grandpa!" the little boy chortled.
"I know I am. Now, shut up. You're scaring the fish away," Hiko commanded.
Kenji promptly quenched his laughter, but his eyes continued to shine, matching the sunny sky that graced them.
Just then, Hiko felt the line jerk as a fish latched onto the bait underwater.
"Get the net," he commanded.
"You got a bite!" cried Kenji happily, reaching for the net and holding it out.
With a mighty yank, Hiko pulled the unfortunate fish from its watery home and dropped the shimmering, silvery creature into the waiting net. The fish was quite large, more than enough for two people.
"Alright!" cried Kenji.
"That's good enough. Let's get back and I'll grill it for us," said Hiko.
"Thanks, Grandpa!" said Kenji happily.
That night, Hiko cooked up a delicious dinner of fresh lake fish and shared it with the grandson of his heart over a roaring fire.
With the return of the cooler temperatures and the reddening of the momiji leaves came the time for Kenji's return to school to start the second grade, which made him wrinkle his face with distaste. He would ever so much rather be back in Kyoto, staying with Grandpa or sparring with Dad, Mom or Yahiko and Yutaro back at the dojo. At least he had his friends to share the misery with him.
"Hurry up, Kenji!" called Takuma's voice from outside the front gate.
"Coming!" Kenji called as he shouldered his shinai, grabbed his slate and books and raced outside.
There were Takuma, Touru and Hao and Tao.
"Let's get to school..."
"...before the dragon lady eats us for breakfast," finished Tao.
"You guys got that right," said Takuma disdainfully.
"Good morning, Kenji-kun. I like that color kimono on you," said Touru demurely, looking at Kenji's dark red kimono, which made his hair look like flame.
"Hi, Touru-chan. Your hair looks awful pretty with that ribbon in it," said Kenji, cheeks blushing.
"Kenji and Touru sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!" teased Takuma.
"Ow!" yelped Takuma, rubbing the lump welling up in his hair. "Cantcha take a joke, Copper Top?"
"Not that kind, Curly Top," growled Kenji, shouldering his shinai.
"Sorry..." grunted Takuma.
During reading class, Kenji felt his eyes crossing as he looked at hirigana the students were being introduced to. Last year, he had learned the kanji for writing his name Sword Path. This year, the students were to be introduced to hirigana, which they would learn before tackling more kanji. Kenji felt his eyelids start to sink shut as Fukushita-sensei droned on and on about each letter and how it was pronounced.
Did he really need to learn this stuff?
WOOSH WOOSH WOOSH WOOSH!
Kenji's bamboo sword cut the air as he swung in precise, rhythmic strokes. On the sidelines sat Kaoru along with Yahiko, who had baby Shinya with him today so Tsubame could run the Akabeko without worrying. As he swung, he found his gaze repeatedly drawn to his "nephew" Shinya.
Even though he was just a few months old, the baby seemed to be staring intently at Kenji's kata, taking in every move. Because of this, Kenji resolved to make his movements absolutely perfect so that he might begin to look out for and teach Shinya, as Yahiko had told him he should.
When Kenji finished his kata, he bowed formally to his teachers. When he looked up, Shinya was smiling his baby-gum smile at him. Kenji felt a smile tug at his own lips.
Maybe babies weren't so bad after all.
Kenshin, Kaoru and Kenji, all armed with rakes, pulled leaves into a big pile. When the pile was as neat as they could get it, Kenshin lit a match and tossed it into the pile.
The entire pile went up in a mountain of flame.
Kenji watched wide eyed as the leaves burned away, smoke ascending to the heavens like a funeral pyre. It was a breathtaking sight.
"Stay back from the fire!" Kaoru demanded, clutching Kenji's shoulder.
"I know, Mom. I'm not a baby!" fumed Kenji, sidestepping from Kaoru's grasp.
Kenshin slid the shoji open partway and peered out into the backyard where large droplets of water fell from iron gray clouds, cold November rain drenching the land. With an inward shiver, he slid the door shut again.
As Kaoru braided her hair for the night, Kenshin fed two fat logs into the brazier and stoked up the fire. Hopefully, they would be enough to keep it going through the night. The sound of rustling fabric told Kenshin that Kaoru was finished braiding. He looked up and smiled at his wife as she grabbed the futon and laid it out.
Kenshin shrugged out of his yukata and lay down in the futon. Kaoru dipped her fingers into her jar of Megumi's salve and began slowly rubbing it into the old scar from Shishio's Guren Kaina on his right pectoral. Each scar after that was lovingly attended to, leaving a pleasant tingling feeling running all over Kenshin's skin. Kaoru put away the salve and joined Kenshin in the futon. The pair held each other close and stared into each other's eyes until sleep claimed them, Kenshin first, Kaoru soon after.
The entire Kenshingumi sat at their old booth, feasting slowly on the New Years toshikoshi, all except Sanosuke and Yahiko, who seemed to be in a race to see who could slurp up their noodles the fastest, much to their respective wives' disgust.
Megumi looked down at baby Sozo, who looked up at her with large cinnamon eyes locked on the bit of noodle she held. With a smile, she popped it into his mouth and watched in fascination as he inhaled it.
Tsubame sat with baby Shinya in her lap, watching his wee hands and pulling them back when they got too close to the bowl of hot soup before her.
"No, Shin-chan. That soup is HOT," she said gravely to the baby.
"AAAAAAAH!!!!!" was Shinya's answer, displeased at being thwarted in his efforts to see what was in the bowl.
Kenji scowled at the squawking baby and then at his empty bowl.
"More!" he demanded, holding his empty bowl for Mom to refill.
"More what?" asked Kaoru, hoping to get Kenji to at least tack on a "please" as an afterthought.
"More toshikoshi!" said an exasperated Kenji.
With a patient sigh, Kaoru dished up yet another bowl of noodles for her boy.
Kenshin, for his part, looked at every member of his little makeshift family with a loving gaze.
Megumi, the other with a shady past. Whenever he looked into Megumi-dono's eyes, he could see his own sins reflected back at him in the pained gaze she sometimes still showed. Like himself, she lived her life to atone for what she had done by helping others. Megumi was a friend and healer, the one who had saved his life by treating the severe wounds Shishio and Enishi had inflicted on him in 1878. Without her expertise, he would not be sitting at this booth in this restaurant, ringing in the New Year.
Tsubame, the young girl who had overcome her fears and entered a place that no one in their right mind would walk into. She had thrown herself down before his half-dead shell and begged him to rise once again and save Yahiko. Her words had been what reached his nearly dead spirit and rekindled it. Without Tsubame-dono's courage, he knew he would have simply withered away in that slum, a dried up and useless husk.
Yahiko, the son of his heart. He could still remember seeing the pride of the old samurai in the filthy, foul-mouthed pickpocket who had accosted him on the Sumida River bridge on that long ago February day. Yahiko's admiration of him had allowed the boy to grow at a breakneck rate into a top flight swordsman, even learning a few of Kenshin's old Hiten moves without being taught. Now Yahiko was Kenshin's successor, carrying the Sakabatou at his side and travelling far and wide to protect people and fight crime as needed.
Sanosuke, the brother who had his back no matter what. As a brash teenager who bore a grudge against the Meiji government for a horrific injustice, Kenkaya Zanza had recklessly challenged Hitokiri Battousai to a duel and had been handed his ass on a silver platter. Sanosuke's resentment against the Meiji government had quickly turned into admiration and respect and Kenshin had found himself with a friend who could fight by his side on nearly equal terms. Despite their differences, they had good times together, going out drinking and gambling, Kenshin listening to Sano's dirty jokes and stories of his world travels and Sano not being afraid to give Kenshin a pop in the jaw when he thought Kenshin needed straightening out.
Kenji, the son of his loins. The boy was his miniature in every way, possessing a bright and passionate spirit that was a mix of his own and Kaoru's. His heart was one of pure love and joy. Whenever Kenshin looked into his son's blue eyes, he felt his wounded heart mend a bit more. When they did things together, whether it be romping in the forests and fields or swimming together, their ki sang to each other and synchronized perfectly. Kenji's boundless energy, enthusiasm, pride and independence were all a source of happiness and pride for him.
And Kaoru, his wife and helpmate living, breathing, working and sleeping right at his side, ready to support him in his moments of weakness and confusion as he was her. She had called him back from the brink of madness when he was about to kill another former hitokiri, had followed him to Kyoto and made him realize that yes, people could love him unconditionally and want him to return home with them and had nursed him lovingly when he was racked with pain and fever after fighting Shishio. When he had thought her dead after Enishi's Revenge, his heart and spirit had died. When she had been restored to him, he had been reborn. Her voice quieted the anxieties that sometimes still arose in his heart. Her touch soothed his body when his old scars would tingle or his joints and muscles ache in the cold. Her bright gaze and loving smile never failed to lift his spirits and bring a smile to his lips. Their lives were intertwined and their hearts beat as one, now and forever.
'What a family!' Kenshin thought happily as he set down his bowl and looked over at the incense clock.
"Happy New Year, everyone!" he declared.
The men raised their sake saucers.
The old year was out and the new in; the rest of their lives stretching ahead of them into the future.