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Clearing Skies Chapter 5: Fallen Dragon

Calger459's Fanfiction

kung fu dragon

Clearing Skies Chapter 5: Fallen Dragon

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Kenji was running. Running from what, he wasn’t sure. The air was cold against his sweat-dampened skin, and his feet ached from the pounding they were taking as he plunged wildly down the moonlit streets.

Where am I? The buildings were a dark blur on either side of him. Kyoto. The word came unbidden as he skidded around a sharp turn. I’m in Kyoto. He knew these streets; they were the ones near the Aoiya, where he had spent so much time when he was younger. Through a gap in the buildings he glimpsed the ornate entrance of Gion shrine in the distance. Yes, that was definitely where he was.

His lungs burned and his vision shook violently as he ran. He could feel something behind him, a looming predatory presence that drove him forward down the narrow alley at a breakneck pace. It had every intention of hunting him down. It’s closing for the kill. What did I do? The teenager’s chest tightened in fear and his vision tunneled as he ran out of air. He tripped on something and stumbled, smacking his knee against a storage bin butted up against a wall. Kenji let out a cry of pain and fell messily, crashing down on a pile of debris in the alley.

He put a hand down to push himself up, and felt rough cloth. Looking down, he noted with surprise that he was gripping bright blue fabric. What is it? His gaze traveled further, and he looked directly into a pair of glazed, dead eyes. It was a person, he realized with dawning horror. Choking back a scream, he yanked himself away from the body, which had been nearly sliced in half. He looked around frantically, taking in the blood-soaked cobblestone alley. Several other bodies littered the ground, all dressed in the same blue coats. A few were missing heads. Most of their weapons had been broken. Who did this? He shrank back against the wall, panting and shaking. He felt stickiness on his hands and he stared in disbelief at the blood covering them. From the dead man? Lurching to his feet, he staggered forward, trying not to step on the corpses filling the alley. I have to get out of here!

He reached the end, and started to step out into the street. Something in him screamed a warning, and he instinctively yanked his foot back and pressed himself flat to the wall, staring out into the open space beyond with wide eyes. The street was filled with blue-coated men, which he realized could only be members of the Shinsengumi. They were dying quickly, one by one being struck down by a small dark figure moving among them with inhuman speed. The killer’s body was a dark blur; all Kenji could really see was moonlight flashing off his katana as he struck again and again with deadly efficiency. The men tried to defend themselves, but it was useless. Kenji pressed a hand to his mouth as one soldier panicked, turned and tried to run for the protection of the alley. He never made it. There was bright flash, and the blade which had entered the back of the man’s neck thrust upward, spraying blood toward the sky. Kenji stared in open mouthed horror as the man’s head was torn clean off. The killer followed the path of the falling body, flipping over it in a strangely graceful somersault to land silently on his feet.

The figure straightened up, flicking the blood from his sword in a sharp chiburi. The swordsman stepped out of the shadows into the full moonlight, and Kenji felt his legs give way. Ember-red hair, tied into a high ponytail, flowed around the man’s soft, boyish face. Only the eyes weren’t those of a boy at all; Kenji didn’t know what they were exactly, but they didn’t seem human somehow. The boy’s pale amber eyes were flat and expressionless, like those of the corpses back in the alley. Scarred demon with hair of fire. The description rang in his mind, as clear as the day he’d heard it from one of his classmates at school. Battousai. He shook his head in instinctive denial; though he recognized the face, he couldn’t accept it. “You’re not him,” he said aloud. “You can’t be!”

The swordsman inclined his head and fixed Kenji with a look which could almost have been called curious, if it had any life to it at all. “I’m not what?”

Kenji jumped at the voice. He knew that voice, had known it his entire life. Only it was…different somehow. Colder. Harder. And yet younger. What is he?

Battousai’s eyes narrowed at Kenji’s silence. Without another word, he pulled a small sheet of paper from his gi and wiped down the sword, cleaning the blood off with the speed of long practice. He sheathed it and pulled the weapon from his obi, flipping it around to offer it to Kenji.

The boy shrank from the weapon. There was blood on its hilt. “I don’t want that!”

“Don’t you?” the hitokiri asked, his inflection neutral. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”

There was a clatter, and Kenji looked down to where the bloodied katana had been thrown at his feet. Battousai fixed him with a hard, unyielding glare. “Don’t be naive. This is what you wanted. This what Hiten Mitsurugi will give you.”

“NO!” he shouted. He jumped to his feet and backed away. “You’re not my father! He would never do this!”

“Fool.” It was just one word, but from Battousai it was the greatest threat Kenji could imagine. “Either pick up the sword or don’t. But this is the truth.”

Kenji shook his head again and backed away. The hitokiri watched him, then bent to pick up the sword. What happened next was so swift Kenji couldn’t follow it; all he knew was the hitokiri was bearing down on him now, sheathed blade tilted back ready to deliver a fatal battou-jutsu. The boy turned and ran for it, jumping over the bodies in his way. He felt the icy wind of the steel blade flying toward his neck…

…and suddenly felt a sword in his hand. Acting completely on instinct, he swung around and felt his blade meet the hitokiri’s with a violent, scraping shudder. He looked across the crossed blades directly into the other’s flat eyes. He tried to see something there, some shred of compassion or humanity. There was nothing. “You can’t be him,” he insisted.

The hitokiri’s reply was not what he expected. “But you could be me, in time.”

Battousai shoved hard against him and Kenji spun away, trying to regain his balance, sword flailing. He was aware on some level of being out in the street again, and in the open space he crouched and spun to keep from falling, bringing his blade around in a tight circle. He never saw the man who came running out from another side street, couldn’t stop the spinning blade from sinking deep into his unprotected torso.

The forward momentum of the man’s run caught the blade and yanked Kenji off his feet; he fell forward with a shout and landed on top of the body. He lay there stunned as the man flailed in agony beneath him. As fast as he could he got up, not thinking as he tried to pull the sword out from the horrible wound. “I-I’m sorry I didn’t…”

His words died as he recognized the man’s very familiar blue and white outfit and spiky hair. He dropped the sword as if were a venomous snake. “No…” he whispered. It was all he could think to say.

Yahiko’s struggles weakened and he turned his head to stare up at Kenji, the life already fading from his large brown eyes. “Kenji…why…”

“Brother!” Kenji sobbed, falling to his knees. “Brother, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know!”

Yahiko’s eyes drifted shut and he lay still. Kenji stared in disbelief at the body and felt as if he had been the one who’d been stabbed; he curled around the pain in his chest, shaking with horror, fear, and sudden self-loathing. It was long moments later that he forced himself to look up at Battousai, who stood just a few feet away, watching in silence. “Didn’t you see him?” he finally said, voice shaking. “Why didn’t you do anything? Why didn’t you warn me!”

“People will die by your hand. Sometimes by accident,” Battousai said simply. “It’s not my place to stay your hand.”

“I would NEVER do this!” Kenji screamed, pounding the street with his fist. “NEVER!”

“You just did,” the hitokiri pointed out with icy logic. “Now you must live with it. Just as I did.”

Kenji ran blindly at him with a hoarse cry and swung his fist at Battousai’s face. He was startled when the hitokiri didn’t even try to dodge; he took the blow stoically, grabbing and holding on to Kenji’s shoulders as the boy sobbed and flailed at his chest, over and over and over…

“Kenji.”

Kenji jerked and turned away from the hand touching him, squeezing his eyes more tightly shut.

“Kenji, wake up!”

He gasped and came awake, staring up into a pair of concerned violet eyes. Not amber, he thought, shaking still with the horror of his nightmare. Not amber, NOT amber.

Kenshin looked down at him. “Are you all right? It’s time to leave.”

“Yahiko!” Kenji said, still caught in the dream. “Yahiko is…” his voice faded as he came back to himself. He felt the grass against his back, and the hot morning sun beating down on him. He was in Hiko’s forest, he realized, by the waterfall. He wasn’t in Kyoto, and Yahiko wasn’t really dead. A dream. He sank back with relief and closed his eyes, pressing his hands to his face. Only a dream. Thank the gods…

He could feel Kenshin’s puzzled gaze on him, but he didn’t want to look at his father just yet. “I’m all right,” he finally said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

There was an awkward silence, and he wondered what his father could possibly be thinking right now. “All right, I’ll be waiting then. Don’t take too long.” Kenshin’s light footsteps receded through the grass. After they were gone, Kenji uncovered his eyes and rolled onto his side, staring at the sparkling water of the river. Battousai. Swallowing hard, he shoved the memory of his nightmare from his mind and headed for the water to wash his face.

~*~

Kenji came out of the woods twenty minutes later and plopped down next to his travel bag, which he’d left by the large tree the night before. He rested his head on his knees briefly, deliberately ignoring Kenshin who was standing nearby, waiting with an increasingly impatient air. “Kenji, what are you doing? Let’s go.”

“Hungry,” The boy said simply. Something bounced by his feet and he glanced down at a wrapped package.

“You can eat on the way,” Kenshin explained. He turned to leave.

Kenji glanced toward Hiko’s cabin, then back at his father. “Wait! What about Hiko-sama?”

Kenshin glanced back over his shoulder. “He’s all right for now. One of the others will be by later to check on him.”

Kenji blinked. “Others? You mean the Oniwabanshu?”

A distinctly disgusted snort came from inside the cabin. “I don’t want those barbarians coming up here!”

Kenshin’s mouth twitched in a brief smile. “Don’t worry Shishou, they won’t stay long. I’ll be back tomorrow.”

A noncommittal grunt was the only reply, and Kenji couldn’t help but smile himself. “He sounds like he’s feeling better.”

Kenshin’s smile faded, and without replying he turned and walked toward the trail which led down the mountain.

Kenji stood up and slung his bag over one shoulder. He started after his father, then hesitated, staring at the cabin. This was it, he realized. If he left the mountain now any hope of learning Hiten Mitsurugi was gone.

Hiko wouldn’t do it even if he were well though. That’s what he said. But then, Kenji allowed reluctantly, it wasn’t really the old man’s job to pass on the school. It was his father’s. Profound disappointment burned in him, and he clenched his free fist by his side. I can’t give up. Somehow, I have to convince Father. His hand went limp again as he thought of the enormity of the task. It seemed impossible.

He felt his father’s annoyed glare on him. “Kenji!”

After one more moment’s hesitation, Kenji willed his feet forward. He couldn’t believe they were leaving Hiko alone up here, still not at all well. He closed his eyes, wishing desperately that he could stay. “Be well, Grandfather,” he whispered.

~*~

The birds sang cheerily as they picked their way down the winding mountain path. The trail in fact barely existed; the only one who ever traveled it regularly was Hiko, so Kenji and Kenshin were forced to wind around trees and climb over boulders as they made their way down. Kenji admitted to himself that he wouldn’t be able to follow this path on his own without getting lost; he was a bit grateful his father knew the way so well. But the fact that they were leaving still made him furious. Unable to retaliate in any other way at the moment, he resorted to glaring at Kenshin’s back, sending his displeasure in waves toward the older man. I know you can feel it. You can sense ki. When are you going to teach me to do that? Probably never, if you have your way. He bared his teeth at his father’s back.

If Kenshin felt his son’s anger, he didn’t acknowledge it. He did however pick up the pace slightly, and Kenji realized that if he wanted to eat, he’d have to do it on the move. Ripping open the package, which turned out to be rice balls, he started wolfing them down, trying not to trip on anything.

He ate rather noisily, and after a moment Kenshin glanced back at him. “Kenji, when did you eat last?”

“Dunno,” he said, mouth full of rice. “I…uh….” He hesitated. “I sort of…ran out of money.”

Kenshin looked forward again, and there was a moment of heavy silence. “Ah, yes,” he said tightly. “The money you stole from our room.”

Kenji choked on the rice, staring at Kenshin’s back in alarm. He swallowed hastily, wincing as he forced the barely-chewed food down. “I uh…I can explain…”

“No, you can’t,” Kenshin snapped icily. “How on earth did you spend that much yen by yourself?”

“Hey, I earned that money!” Kenji shot back indignantly. “Working in the dojo!”

“Strange, I don’t believe that’s the arrangement you had with your mother.”

Kenji bit back a harsh reply; something about Kenshin’s tone was reminding him uncomfortably of his dream. Obviously his father was still very angry with him, and he decided that inciting the former hitokiri’s wrath further was probably not a good idea. Shivering slightly, he ate the rest of his breakfast quietly.

Some time later they finally reached the base of the trail. Kenji let his father lead the way back to Kyoto. As the morning wore on the path through the fields and small villages grew more crowded with pedestrians and wagons, and they ended up walking close together to keep from being separated. Kenshin attracted a lot of stares as usual; even though there were quite a few foreigners in Japan these days, people still weren’t used to differently colored hair, especially not red.

Kenji scanned their faces, but didn’t sense any real danger. People were whispering and pointing, but they didn’t seem to be connecting his father’s features with the stories of Battousai. At least not out here in the country, Kenji amended. There was always the risk in Kyoto proper of his father being recognized for who he used to be. It was just one of the many reasons why he avoided the city as much as he could, visiting briefly only once a year. Even though the war was so long ago, people still can’t forgive him. Kenji frowned at his father’s back. His dream had made him realize just how difficult he still found it to believe that the Kenshin he knew as his parent could ever have been a hitokiri…could ever have killed people. He wondered if his father could feel his confusion; he wondered if he cared.

Of course he cares…he went to all that effort to find me. The boy swallowed and hugged his arms. His body was really aching now, especially his feet. “Father?”

“Yes?” Kenshin’s voice was neutral again.

Kenji eyed his father worriedly; how long did he stay mad for, exactly? “Are we really walking all the way back to Kyoto?”

“Of course.”

“But why? Couldn’t we get a carriage or something? We have a long way to go still.”

“No.”

“But it’s so hot! And I’m really worn out.”

“And whose fault is that?” Kenshin asked mildly, still keeping his gaze forward. “I promise you’ll survive a few more hours.”

“But…”

Kenshin stopped abruptly, and Kenji nearly ran into him. His father turned and fixed him with a severe stare. “Stop. Whining.” He spun on his heel and continued.

“…yes sir,” he whispered, trailing a respectful distance behind.

~*~

They fought the late lunch crowds toward the Aoiya. By now Kenji was in serious pain and he limped increasingly behind Kenshin. Part of him was strongly tempted to just vanish into the crowd, anything to avoid the confrontation he knew was coming. He’d already been reprimanded by his father; now it was his mother’s turn. His throat clenched. She’s gonna kill me.

The Aoiya came in sight, and Kenji spotted Omasu at the entrance, waving customers in. It didn’t take her long to notice Kenshin coming through the crowd. “Oh, Himura-san you’re back! And you’ve found Kenji-kun!”

Kenshin nodded, and Kenji didn’t think he’d ever seen Omasu look so relieved. She ran inside and he could hear her shouting the news to everyone. So much for a quiet entrance. He kept his face low as he followed Kenshin into the inn. Omasu directed them away from the main part of the building to the private end where the Oniwabanshu lived.

Kenji let out a breath as the doors closed behind him and the sounds of the inn faded away. He was here now, for better or worse. He stood awkwardly in the entranceway, feeling very out of place even though he’d spent much of his childhood here. He watched as his father removed his zori and stepped up onto the tatami of the receiving room. He sat down at the low table and slumped tiredly against it, obviously exhausted. He didn’t look at Kenji, and after a moment’s very awkward silence, he looked toward Omasu, who was standing nearby. “Where’s my mother?” he asked.

Her sudden shadowed expression alarmed him. “She’s here Kenji-kun, but if I were you… I’d let her come to you.”

“Oh,” he said faintly, feeling sick inside. She gave him a sympathetic, yet slightly worried smile and vanished through a doorway. Kenji remained where he was, unsure what to do next.

The sudden sound of approaching, pounding feet decided that for him. “KENJI!”

He braced himself for the impact, but that didn’t help too much as Misao took a flying leap from a doorway and side-tackled him. His arms pinwheeled as his travel pack overbalanced him, and he crashed to the floor. He flailed about and tried to shove the small female ninja off him. “M-Misao-san!”

His right side gave a sharp, painful throb and he couldn’t stop himself from crying out. Misao didn’t seem to have noticed as she grabbed him by the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet, holding him firmly at arm’s length. He stared blearily into her face, and was honestly startled by the furious look in her large blue eyes. “Welcome back!” she said with a dangerous grin.

Kenji’s eyes widened as she raised a hand. “What…”

Kenshin’s head snapped around at the sound of the resounding slap which echoed through the small space. Kenji staggered backward then fell to his knees, holding his face and staring up at Misao. “That’s for worrying us half to death!” she snarled at him. A second later she knelt and wrapped her arms around his shoulders in a gentle embrace. She leaned her forehead against his. “Thank goodness you’re safe, you big idiot.”

Kenji blinked slowly and kept still, uncertain how to respond. Through her hair he could see his father staring at him with a sharp, thoughtful expression. Had he noticed he was hurt? After a moment, apparently deciding the show was over, his father looked away and went back to studying the patterns on the wall screens.

Misao abruptly pulled back, nose wrinkled in distaste. “Oh ew! Look at you, when did you have a bath last?”

Now the boy flushed in embarrassment. “Err, well…I haven’t really had the time you know…”

“That’s so gross!” she gasped, horrified. “I can’t believe I actually hugged you! All right, you’re getting a bath. Now!”

“Uh…what?”

“You heard me.” Misao pulled him to his feet again, got behind him and shoved him up onto the tatami. He barely had time to kick off his shoes as she pushed him down the hall, still railing against his smell.

Kenshin stared after them in bemusement. He glanced toward Omasu, who had reappeared. She smiled. “Kaoru-chan will be out in a moment, Himura-san. How is Hiko-sama today?”


~*~

Kenji sank gratefully into the hot water, letting out a long, contented sigh. It hadn’t taken him long to realize why Misao had been so disgusted by him; it had taken several buckets of water and a lot of scrubbing to get all the filth and grime he’d accumulated off him. To be honest, he really hadn’t noticed how bad it had gotten; he’d been much to preoccupied with the stress of his trip to worry about being clean.

He leaned back against the side of the wooden tub and closed his eyes. The heat of the water soothed the still-healing injury on his side, and after several minutes he couldn’t feel it at all anymore. For the first time since he’d left Tokyo he himself really relax. It was quiet here, and for a moment he could forget about everything that had happened to him on this journey, and the people he still had to face back in the Aoiya. He was so tempted to sleep, and it took a great effort to force his eyes back open. “Drowning in a tub, now that would be a stupid way to die,” Kenji mused.

He stared at the ceiling instead and watched in mild fascination as steam condensed into droplets on the heavy wooden beams and dripped back down, hitting the floor with a faint plink. The drips continued, and he focused on the cycle of the water, trying not to think about yesterday, or this morning, or having to face his mother once he got out of here. The very thought made him cringe, and he wondered why it had never occurred to him that he might have to answer to his sword master eventually.

Because you were expecting to learn Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu, a snide voice said in his mind. Maybe with that, she would have been so impressed she would have forgiven you. “Well then I’m just dumb,” he muttered aloud, pressing his hands to his face. He knew his mother better than that. His father was exactly right; by leaving he had shown exactly what he thought of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, and directly insulted his sensei. He wasn’t going to come out of this particular situation unscathed, that he was sure of.

For several more moments he tried to just enjoy the water, stretching his sore limbs and rubbing his swollen feet. Soon though the steam died away and the water started to cool. He checked his fingers and smirked; they were already wrinkly. Guess it’s time to get out. He looked toward the door in apprehension. “Gods help me,” he whispered.

At that exact moment, the bathhouse door slid open with sharp, authoritative snap. Kenji yelped and ducked down into the water, causing a small wave of water to slosh out of the tub.

“Kenji, stop that! This floor was just cleaned.”

Misao? Kenji raised his head cautiously and peered over the edge of the tub. Indeed, the Oniwabanshu okashira was standing there in her casual daily ninja gear, a large roll of bandages and a small box tucked under one arm. She slid the door shut behind her and walked up to the tub.

His eyes widened in alarm. “W-what are you doing in here?! Get out!”

“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped irritably. She hooked the bathing stool behind her with one foot and dragged it forward, depositing the bandages and box on it. “You think I didn’t notice you’re hurt? I’m sure your dad didn’t miss it either. Just who do you think you’re fooling, huh?”

Kenji suppressed a small surge of panic and sank deeper into the tub, so that his nose was barely above water.

“I’m waiting for an answer, Ken-chan.”

He scowled and raised his head. “I’m not a little kid anymore! Stop calling me that.”

“My, aren’t we being a little jerk today,” she observed mildly. “Well since you seem determined to not answer anything directly, then I’ll share a secret with you.” She crossed her arms and propped her elbows on the side of the tub, looking down at him. “Everyone here has spent the past month looking everywhere for you, and I mean everywhere. I guess I taught you a little too well.” She frowned. “But you weren’t careful enough, Kenji. We caught wind of your little fight in that village, and we know you saw the doctor there. Apparently you were hurt badly enough you hung out there for almost a week before moving on.”

Kenji had the grace to look sheepish. “So you all…did know I was okay then?”

“Of course we didn’t!” she snapped furiously. “We got someone down there maybe the day after you left, and by then you’d vanished on us again. Kaoru-san’s been an absolute wreck, and your dad hasn’t been much better. You’ve been a royal pain in the ass Kenji, and the least you’re going to do is let me look at that wound. I heard you cry out earlier, and when I asked Himura he said you were limping all the way here!”

Damn it, why does he have to notice everything?! “I’m fine,” he growled, glaring up at her. “It’s….it’s almost healed, okay? It’s just been a little sore.”

“Bull,” she spat. “Stand up.”

“What?!”

“You heard me.”

“I’m not a little boy!” he repeated stubbornly, feeling his face flush. “I can’t let you…you know….”

“Oh please, it’s not like I haven’t seen it before. I’m not your girlfriend, I’m your aunt. Now stand up.” There was a definite note of command in her voice now, and for once she actually seemed her age, only a year younger than his mother.

Kenji stood very slowly and reluctantly, keeping his back to her. He knew she’d see the red welt on his right side where the arrow had passed through him. The doctor he’d seen had told him it was miracle it hadn’t hit anything vital.

Misao’s sharp hiss through her teeth confirmed that assessment. “What in the hell did that to you?”

“It’s nothing,” he insisted, cheeks burning. He could feel her prodding at it. “I took care of it.”

“You call getting into a sparring match with Himura ‘taking care of it’? This is a deep wound, and it’s only a couple weeks old. You’re lucky it hasn’t started bleeding again. Get out so I can wrap this.”

She thrust a towel into his hand and he covered himself hurriedly. It was more difficult than he expected getting back out of the tub; the arrow wound ached deeply now that he was out of the water, and he winced as he sat down one of the other bath stools.

“You’re going to have to stand for this, Kenji. Come on.” Misao’s voice was more gentle now, and he obediently stood still while she took a jar of salve out of the small box she’d brought. She spread the soothing cream over the wound and wrapped it securely with several strips of bandages. “There,” she said, giving the wrapping a light pat. “Feel better?”

“Yes,” he said gratefully. “Thank you.” He started to reach for the clean white yukata lying on the wooden bench attached to the wall.

“Hold on.”

He looked back at her. She was sitting down now on the other stool, looking at him. “I need to talk to you for a minute.”

He frowned and picked up the yukata. “About what?” He turned away and wrapped the thin robe around him, tying it shut with angry movements. Whatever she wanted to discuss, he knew he wasn’t going to like it.

The gentle concern in her voice surprised him a little. “How did you get hurt?”

He didn’t answer for a moment. “A couple of bandits snuck up on me in the woods, and I let the one with the knife get too close.” He turned back to face her. “I haven’t had too much real-life fighting experience you know? Pretty embarrassing really, the whole thing.” He attempted a smile.

She gave him a long, searching stare. “That didn’t look like a knife wound to me.”

“You don’t believe me?” he asked her quietly. He hoped that she really hadn’t seen though his lie.

“I believe you were in a fight,” she said calmly. “But I have trouble accepting that you were so careless a mere thug could have done that to you.”

He frowned. After an uncomfortable pause he said, “I can handle this, Misao-san. Don’t worry about it.”

“Are you sure?” she persisted. “Kenji, whatever is going on in that head of yours these days, I hope you know what you’re doing, because the people who love you are suffering for your pride. You understand that, right?”

He looked away guiltily. “I can do this myself,” he said quietly. “I’m not a boy.”

“But you aren’t a man, either.” He shot her a furious look, but Misao didn’t react the way he thought she would; instead of angry, she just looked slightly sad, an expression he wasn’t used to seeing on her face.

She sighed heavily and ran fingers through her thick rough-cut hair. “I’ve known you a long time, Kenji. You’re a very proud person, and you’re strong. You want to do everything by yourself. But you don’t have to be that way all the time. If you need help, or if anyone threatens you, we’re here for you no matter what.”

That statement had hit a little too close to home and he shifted uncomfortably. Did the Oniwabanshu really not know who had ambushed him near that village, or was Misao trying to make him give something away? He decided to avoid the subject altogether.

“You can’t help me with what I want,” he said quietly. “Only my father can do that, and he won’t.”

Now she looked annoyed. “I can’t believe what a brat you are sometimes. Don’t you care about your parents’ feelings at all? You’ve put them through hell, and for what? A stupid sword style!”

“It’s not just a sword style!” he said heatedly, taking an aggressive step forward. “It’s…”

“What? What is so important about Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu?” She stood up now, hands fisted at her sides. Kenji eyed her posture warily; she tended be rather violent when upset, and he didn’t feel like being on the receiving end of another Keicho Kick at the moment. “Kenji, talk to me. Please.”

He looked away, suddenly feeling very awkward and unsure of himself. It was true, he’d always found it much easier to talk to Misao than his parents. Out of everyone, she’d always understood him most. Even so…

“Misao-san…” He took a deep breath and looked up at her, determined. “I know you want to help me. But…this is something I need to do. On my own.” He met her eyes at last. Don’t ask me for details. Please don’t ask…

They held gazes for another moment, then to his immense relief she gave the slightest of nods. “All right, Kenji. I’ll trust you on this one. I just want you to promise me one thing.”

He gave her a questioning look. “Whatever it is that you feel you need to prove to yourself, it’s not worth your life. I want to you promise me that you won’t bite off more than you can chew, go it alone unnecessarily, and end up dead. If you do something that stupid, I won’t forgive you. Got it?”

Kenji finally smiled, a real smile, and was rewarded by the look of relief on her face. “I promise.”

~*~

Kenshin didn’t move from the low table after Kenji had gone to bathe. Instead he waited for his wife. Omasu hovered nearby, occasionally shooting him concerned glances. He imagined he looked pretty haggard. He hadn’t been able to sleep at all once he’d returned to Hiko’s cabin last night. He’d just sat there staring into space, going over the events of Kenji’s arrival over and over in his mind.

Part of him still couldn’t believe how he’d treated his son. He’d never shown any kind of violence toward his child before. It just wasn’t in his nature, and he’d shocked himself with his aggressive anger, which he acknowledged had been building steadily in the weeks since Kenji’s disappearance. Their brief sparring match weighed heavily on his mind too. Had he done the right thing, challenging his son like that? It was not something he’d planned to do originally, it had just sort of…happened. I let my temper get out of control, which is unacceptable. Did I really get through to him, or have I made the problem worse? Does Kenji want Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu more than ever now?

With Omasu standing there he resisted the urge to bury his face in his hands in frustration. Instead he studied his reflection in the polished wood of the table. This past month had made him feel emotions he hadn’t experienced a long time. Panic and fear had knotted his insides for weeks now, and he’d honestly expected Kenji’s return to finally ease those feelings. However the anxiety wasn’t fading, and he suddenly felt overwhelmed by his exhaustion, both physical and emotional.

What was happening to his son? Kenji was hiding things from him, lying to him. Although the Oniwabanshu had heard vague rumors of a brown-haired boy getting into a fight in a village about a week’s walk from Tokyo, they hadn’t been able to find out too much more beyond the fact that the boy had seen a doctor and stayed in the village for several days. There was no doubt in his mind now that it had been Kenji; it explained both his delay in arriving at Hiko’s mountain and his lack of money. Although Kenji had seemed fine when he’d first arrived, Kenshin had noticed his son’s growing pain and weakness. He’d been slow in their fight last night, favoring his right side, and by the time they’d reached the Aoiya he’d been visibly limping.

Kenji, what happened, and why haven’t you said anything? That wound must have been serious if you’re still feeling it now. Who had hurt his son? Maybe they had just been bandits, or a group of local youths. But did he really want to ask Kenji about this? After all, the boy had had the sense to get help at the time, and though the wound was obviously still sore he didn’t seem to be in any real danger.

No, Kenshin realized, it wasn’t the wound he wanted to ask about, or even who was responsible. Kenji’s persistent anger was a much bigger concern. He’d been furious when he’d left Tokyo, upset and frustrated that Kenshin had refused to teach him Hiten Mitsurugi. That was obvious, and even understandable. But after a month of traveling, and especially after having run into trouble on the way, Kenshin would have expected that anger to have faded somewhat. Kenji’s behavior yesterday though had proved this wasn’t the case at all; the boy still burned with same passionate and indignant fire, laying the blame for his misery completely on his father.

Kenji was clearly willing to go to great lengths to achieve his goal, even if it meant getting hurt. How on earth was Kenshin supposed to handle that? He wanted to help his son, but he knew with deep conviction that it wasn’t going to be by teaching Hiten Misturugi. He had to find another way, but what that was he had no idea.

He looked up at the sound of a door sliding open, and met Kaoru’s eyes. She looked as exhausted as he felt. He forced his confused thoughts into some kind of order. “I found him,” he said simply, letting his face convey the rest to her.

She closed her eyes briefly. “I know. Thank you.”

Kenshin slowly got to his feet. His entire body was stiff and store, and he couldn’t hide how difficult it was to move. I guess I’m getting a bit too old for random sparring sessions. He straightened up and did his best to ignore the painful twinges in his back. With an effort he smiled at his wife. “I’m going to go and rest a bit, if that’s all right. Kenji went to have a bath.”

“Did he.” Omasu looked genuinely alarmed at Kaoru’s cold tone. “I’m going to help in the kitchen,” Kaoru said after a long, strained silence. Without another word she walked past Omasu and out of sight.

The Oniwabansu ninja looked at Kenshin, who merely inclined his head in an apologetic gesture. “She’s still very angry,” he explained.


TBC….


~*~

A/N: So, did anyone expect to see another whole chapter of Kyoto stuff this time? Neither did I. Originally this part was much shorter, but my ever-wonderful beta pointed out some rather obvious character opportunities I was missing, and in the end drama won, pushing the action right out of this chapter. But that’s okay, right? The next chapter is already well under way, and we’re finally going to get to the action (I swear!).

Next time: Back in the present, Kenji gets himself into some serious trouble. Can he hold his own against thugs sent for Battousai, or is he in for a real butt-kicking?

A/N #2: Just FYI, I’ve graduated with my second bachelor’s degree and am working on finding full-time employment. So although chapter 6 is already partly written, I have a bit more to go on it, and there are no guarantees on when it will be out. I’ll make it as soon as possible. Fair enough? Thanks for reading!

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