Late summer, dusty with lack of rain.
The land was forested, the shade created by the healthy trees cool. Maybe it was for this reason the rurouni was in no particular hurry to pass the woods by.
He was a man small-grown, short but well-proportioned, and had very long red hair with scraggly ends that needed trimming. He wore a hat low over his brow, shading half-mast violet eyes and the upper half of two deep, crossing scars on his left cheek. His clothes had been tailored for someone taller than he was, the black kimono too long in the sleeves and much too long at the hem, brushing low over his sandals as he walked. A man as fair as he was, the color did not suit him, but there was no one to really complain.
He pushed a baby cart before him, the soft squeaking and dull rolling of the wooden wheels a lulling sound itself for its simple familiarity. He had a few belongings inside it, some bedding, extra clothing, a little food, and a few odds and ends. And, of course, in the baby cart rode his little boy.
The child's hair was also red; his eyes were a hard and beautiful shade of blue in comparison to the rurouni's care-dulled violet ones. The boy was perhaps four or five, small for his age, and dressed in a yukata that was too large for him, much like his father and the kimono. Unlike his father, though, the child could grow into his ill-fitting clothing.
He was a contented child, well-used to riding along in his cart, comfortable in the vibration, the steady and constant presence of his father. At length, the sun began to sink into a glory of orange, and the little boy rose on his knees, turned toward his father, and rested his face on the rurouni's hands atop the bamboo push-bar. The man freed one of these hands and smoothed his son's hair.
This was an old little ritual, the child's signal that he was ready to sleep. Most evenings, the rurouni wouldn't be ready to stop for the night, and his son would doze in this position until the rurouni decided he had walked far enough.
But today, there was a town he wanted to reach, not far.
Or perhaps it was even closer than he thought…or maybe he was daydreaming more often than he used to these days. Before he knew it, busy sounds began to reach him.
He was surprised that the place—small and cozy the first time he had wandered this way, years ago—was not preparing to settle down for the day. He pushed his cart around the edge of an excited crowd standing around a platform. Hokashi, a small group of them, stood proudly on their stage, their trade already long in progress judging from the way their brows were speckled with sweat and the way their audience was slowly thinning as onlookers reluctantly left their places to seek their suppers at home, but their energy was still great and their professional smiles unfailing.
His son was wide awake now, the boy's face alight as he was caught up in the remaining excitement. Sitting up on his knees in the cart, he pointed at the hokashi and looked up hopefully at his father, who obligingly steered the cart closer for a better view.
There was still much to see. Many feats of skill and acrobatics. There were tricks with throwing knives, demonstrations of strength, skill with the sword, and outlandish dances. Peering at all from under his hat, the rurouni's face had the barest ghost of a smile—the first of its kind in a long, long time. Not so much at the entertainment the hokashi provided, but at watching his child's face, how the delighted boy didn't seem to notice himself gnawing on the takoyaki his father had brought him.
So intent was he on his son, he almost missed it. A throwing knife, somehow misplaced from the intended target on the stage, was sailing toward his face.
He snatched the thin blade from the air, rocking back a little on his heels and slicing open his thumb with his slowness to act.
He blinked as the crowd applauded, faces turned toward him as if he was a part of the act. The leader of the hokashi was speaking, praising his reflexes, and the rurouni met his eyes. At once, he did not like what he felt, and even less what he saw behind the performer's grin, blatantly appraising and decidedly unfriendly.
He tossed the knife onto the stage and steered the baby cart away. His son, well-attuned to the expressions on his father's face, did not complain for having to leave, and occupied his mouth with his skewered snacks.
The rurouni tried to put the troupe out of his mind. His son was happy about spending the night indoors, and was at his most vocal in the hot bath they enjoyed at the inn.
Early morning saw their bill paid and the cart being rolled back onto the road, returning to the quiet of the woods. He noticed the troupe's stage was already gone when they passed by the spot where it had been in the late afternoon before.
The morning passed by in traveling. Twice the rurouni stopped to let his son out to move around and play in the easy sunshine, chasing butterflies. He would sit, close by to watch, and it would be at these times a heavy tiredness would come over him that he could only shake off when he was moving again, when he could let his memories be smoothed away in the mindlessness of wandering.
The forest path ended, and there were crossing paths that marked the way into another town and the way into a mountain pass. Someone had chosen the spot for a restaurant and seemed to do well from the good, clean, well-kept look and feel from the place on the outside. He paused a moment there, in the last of the shade of the trees, mentally counting through what little money he had. It had been...easier, before. To travel. When he didn't have anyone with him. Back then, when he had wandered, he could go without far more often and think nothing of it.
Now he headed toward the restaurant. His son's sleep-tousled head peered over the edge of the baby cart, taking in the bright, thriving garden protected by neat fences on either side of the restaurant.
The rurouni moved his cart under an awning by one of the short fences, lifted his son from the cart, and led him by hand toward the door, which stood open as much for cool breezes as to welcome guests.
Inside was a surprise.
His son grinned openly at the sight of the hokashi they had seen from the village, the small group of them seated together over a healthy spread of a meal, their faces sharp with surprise when they looked up to see the rurouni and the child.
They were still dressed in the over-rich colors with designs meant to attract attention, though the lone woman in the group had washed the paint from her face. The tall, thin swordsman who had done most of the fruit-slicing tricks was not seated at the meal the others, but stood leaning against the wall with a bowl of rice and chopsticks in his hands. The barrel-bodied man who had performed the feats of strength did not bother to stop eating as his fellows did.
And the leader of the troupe scowled clearly this time, frown-lines etched deeply in the middle-aged man's face.
"Well," he said in soft, conversational tones. "What a surprise. The knife-catcher." A smile broke out on his face, somehow all the uglier in comparison with the honesty of his scowl. "Perhaps you followed us to ask for a job, traveler?"
"No. Thank you," the rurouni said, one hand gripping his son's shoulder. He had a powerful urge to simply turn and walk away from the restaurant. Part of him would almost believe that the anti-social tendencies that a dear friend had once teased him about a long time ago might finally be getting out of hand if he had become this unwilling to converse with someone, but…
…there was something very wrong with these people.
Before he had to make the decision whether to leave or not, the leader of the troupe stood up and motioned to his group, murmuring polite thanks in the direction of the waitress, they filed past the rurouni and his son.
He stared after them a moment before he let his son pull him toward the table the waitress was offering.
His mind still on the hokashi, he ordered something small and filling for his son, and blinked in surprise along with the waitress when the child's hand shot out and caught her sleeve, preventing her from leaving the table.
"Daddy," the boy said, his young, pure voice hardening with reproach. "You need to eat."
The rurouni melted somewhat, as he always did when his son began to scold him for self-neglect. He shifted slightly where he was seated, opened his mouth to tell his son that he wasn't hungry, but it was too old of an argument that had never worked anyway. The boys face darkened in that painfully familiar way.
He had his mother's glare.
Instead, he used his breath to order another small meal for himself, successfully appeasing his son. The shadows lifted from the boy's face and he beamed wordless praise at his father.
He also had his mother's smile.
The boy's mother…his wife… It was her face that dragged him away into daydreams he once never would have indulged in, and his longing for her that weighted him down past the momentum of traveling…
He missed her. He missed her every minute.
After their lunch was finished, the rurouni pushed his cart back onto the road, deciding to follow the mountain path since he had more than once visited the town in the other direction. Just to go a different way this time.
He had once told someone there were still places left to wander, but that was some time ago. He wondered what it would be like when he had run out of places.
They were moving through trees again, the wooden wheels of the cart moving easily on the hard-beaten path when he sensed them again, very close, and watching. His jaw tightened at the palpable ill-will coming from the watchers, and he stopped on the path.
His son took one look at his face, and—well-trained—the boy knelt low in the cart, his eyes scanning his surroundings.
They didn't seem inclined to make him wait. The troupe of entertainers stepped into his path, brandishing their trade now as weapons. Throwing knives bristled from the leader's knuckles. The tall, whippet-thin swordsman had already unsheathed his blade. The mountainous man was still eating, pushing the last of a rice ball into his mouth with one of his blunt, flattish fingers. And the woman looked no less ready, or capable, to fight, crouching in a martial arts stance with a pair of closed fans in each fist.
"So you are following us," the troupe's leader accused.
The rurouni stared back at him for a moment before answering. "We are only traveling. We have nothing to do with you. Please let us pass."
The leader eyed him warily. "Do you expect me to believe that, swordsman?"
The rurouni frowned. The memory of the throwing knife's blade coming straight for his face was still sharp, the shrewd gazes of the hokashi on him were not missed. "At the marketplace..." he said slowly. "This one was being tested."
"And you passed well beyond our expectations. A skilled swordsman carrying a weapon in plain sight. Did you really think pushing a kid around in a cart made you look domestic? I was willing to allow the benefit of the doubt that it was a coincidence until you showed up at the restaurant. Now you're here. There can be no doubt you're trailing us."
The rurouni's grip tightened on the push bar of his cart. "Running into you thrice in this short time was indeed coincidence. This one has nothing to do with you," he repeated. "However...why is it you believe you are being followed? You aren't simply traveling entertainers, are you?"
It was not a question.
"You aren't simply a traveler."
He was not, perhaps, "simply" anything, but he was a traveler. He sighed wearily. He wanted to move on with his son, and he wanted to do that without complications.
But that any part of his life was without complications, it seemed, was not his karma.
"What have you done?" he said through lips that barely moved.
The troupe's leader smiled, but it was the gaunt-faced swordsman to his left that gave a sort of answer. "Koroshi. Assassin's guild. Our job in town was the silk merchant, Kizoku."
So, that was it. "I...see. It seems an assassin's guild can flourish in any era."
"There is always business," the woman said nonchalantly.
Then everything happened at once. The rurouni's sword was free and the long end buried deep into the gut of the big man who attacked him first. The big man fell away, clutching his stomach, eyes bulging. But, of course, there was no serious wound.
The rurouni didn't stop to consider him. The woman attacked him next, the edges of her fan worked into collapsible razors. He stepped aside quickly, keeping between his baby cart and his attackers.
The swordsman and the hokashi leader attacked him at the same time, the swordsman directly with a swift downward swing, and the leader with throwing knives. The rurouni's next swing was wide, singing along with a strong breath of wind that knocked the leader off his feet and sent his own knives toward him. Expertise marred by panic, he caught one blade in his hand, another, accidentally, in the flesh of his arm.
As he did, the rurouni met the swordsman's thrusts and parries, acknowledging the man's proficiency with the blade. Until the swordsman, grinning, stepped back several paces, sheathing his blade. "You are skilled, wanderer, but are you as skilled as I? There is a way to find out."
The rurouni held his blade before him, shaking his head. "You don't want to face against this one with battoujutsu."
The woman with the bladed fans had stepped back to watch. The swordsman moved into the proper stance, hand hovering by the hilt of his katana.
It seemed there was no help for it. The rurouni sheathed his blade in turn.
They waited without signal but one came anyway, unexpected. A heavy apple fell from the branch of a nearby tree, the sound of it explosive in the silence. The swordsmen moved.
The rurouni was the greater, the swordsman flying back, his katana knocked away, spinning across the path. But again, there was no blood, no wound.
The woman attacked again. But not the rurouni this time. She had thrust one closed fan into her obi and dashed forward with carnival agility toward the baby cart, planning either to harm or capture the rurouni's son.
He leaped forward with inhuman speed, and his sword came down, hard, on the woman's wrist. She dropped the fan and staggered back, cradling her arm. She spun to glower in the rurouni's face, then backed away a little more, unnerved by the furious blaze of his eyes.
"Never threaten my child," was all he said. In spite of herself, the woman agreed quickly with a nod.
He whirled away from her, free hand out to catch another blade, thrown by the recovered leader. The edge found its way into the older cut on his thumb, splinting open the wound anew.
The leader laughed in delight, pointing happily at the line of blood that fell from the rurouni's wrist. The rurouni blinked at him, noting the man's starkly pale face, the sweat beaded on his forehead. Then he slumped over backwards.
"Father!" the woman cried.
The troupe's leader still lived, his chest rising and falling in shallow breaths. Other than the knife he had caught in his arm, he had not been harmed at all during the fight.
The rurouni dropped the throwing knife. His fingertips were tingling.
He turned away from the false hokashi and took a hold of the push bar of the baby cart. His son, kneeling inside, looked up at him, sapphire eyes large and fearful.
The rurouni tried to smile, but the tingles were becoming a burning sensation. He pushed the cart, moving quickly off the path and into the mountain, and began sucking furiously at the knife wound, biting into it with his teeth to make the blood flow.
The path followed a river, and the river eventually met with a wide bank that had been purposely flattened out by man and covered over with smooth white rocks. The bare carcasses of old fishing boats, destroyed by weather and neglect, were still lined up and lashed together on the bank. He was dragging his feet in the dust now, his son's face directly under his, tiny hands gripping the push bar by his larger ones.
There was an old fisherman's hut ahead. Very old, as scarred by weather and abandonment as the fishing boats. Half its roof was missing.
He let go of the cart. Hands held before him for balance, he moved toward the hut, breathing hard. He just made it inside before he collapsed.
The rurouni's son climbed out of the cart and dashed to where his father had fallen. The boy grasped his shoulders, shaking him.
His father was still.
The boy hooked his fingers under the hat's straps, pulled it away and tossed it onto a moldering straw mat. The child hesitated, nearly wringing his small hands. Then he dashed outside toward the river. Leaning over a sloping edge, he cupped water in his hands. Fingers tight to keep most of it from spilling, he hurried back to the hut, dropped the water over his father's face.
The rurouni's forehead bunched a little, then relaxed again. The boy sat back on his heels, clutching his knees.
The sun was setting again, in a similar burst of orange to the evening before. The only bucket that had survived the test of time in the fisherman's hut leaked and had to be refilled often, but it would hold water long enough for the child to bathe his father's flushed face and neck with an old cloth.
Once his father woke, jolted by his son spilling the last of the water from the leaking bucket over his eyes. He looked up dazedly at his son. Then his head fell back again.
"No! Daddy! Daddy, wake up! Please, tell me what I should do. Daddy!"
But all his pleading was useless. His father was somewhere his voice couldn't reach. The boy was on his own.
The two were couriers. They were young, used to traveling long distances on foot with heavy sacks. Fast and cheap for their employer, but very good wages for them.
The two of them, still a bit pocked-marked with their youth, walked along the river on their way down from the mountain, their newest shipment heavy on their backs.
"I have an idea, Jotaro," the shorter one said, thrusting a finger in the air to punctuate his inspiration.
The taller rolled his eyes heavenward, seemingly well-acquainted with his co-worker's ideas. "What is it this time, Gorogoro?"
"Well, this life, you know... Pick up deliveries, drop off deliveries. What kind of life is that for a couple of guys like us?"
"I think it's all right," Jotaro said warily.
"Well, it's not very exciting. Did you see those signs back in that town?"
"A merchant was murdered last night. They say there was this really suspicious guy around. Had red hair and was pushing a kid in a cart. They think he did it."
"Why would a man who was going to assassinate somebody in the night bring a kid along?"
"I don't know." Gorogoro shrugged. "Undercover, maybe? Who'd suspect a guy pushing his kid in a baby cart, right?"
"Well..." Jotaro said doubtfully.
"They said that he stopped to watch some traveling performers and he caught a knife in his hand—with his bare hand!—when it went off-course from the target. Doesn't that sound suspicious to you?"
"Yeah, but lots of people can do things like that."
"Yeah, trained people. Besides, he had a sword. The sword-banning act's been on for years. Did you see the bounty on him?"
Jotaro sighed. He had, in fact, seen the signs, and the sizable bounty for any information on the red-headed man, last seen with a little boy in a baby cart. "So, what?"
"So, we could make some easy money if we catch sight of him."
"If he is some kind of assassin, what makes you think we can get close to him?"
"We don't have to get especially close, Jotaro. All we have to do is catch sight of where he is, and report it for a little of the reward money. Easier than deliveries, right?"
"Sounds like an easy way to get killed."
Gorogoro sighed, shook his head. "Oh, you worry too much."
Neither of the two young men noticed a small, red-headed boy, who had been kneeling behind some old boats by the river with a bucket, cut across the edge of the trees and dash away.
"Anyway," Gorogoro said after a while, "he must be long gone from here. That's why I have another idea."
"No, you'll like this one! You know how our boss gave us some money for expenses? Well, how would he really know if we spent the money?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, what if we didn't, say, stay at an inn tonight? What if we found shelter somewhere else and kept the money for ourselves instead?"
"Look!" Gorogoro pointed. "See that old fisher's hut? Looks abandoned. We can stay there tonight. Be plenty comfortable, and not waste the boss's money."
Jotaro shifted his pack. "Well...it's at least closer than the inn..." he conceded. It also wasn't as hare-brained as most of his companion's ideas.
"Yeah," Gorogoro said happily, bouncing on his toes a little as they neared the hut's door. "You'll see. This'll be—"
He shut up and stopped walking as a red-faced, red-haired young boy burst through the doorway, a sword in his hands.
The men blinked in surprise at the sight, taking a few careful steps back. The child wasn't all that much bigger than the sword, but the way he held it said clearly enough that he was ready to use it.
"Whoa," Jotaro said, raising his hands in front of him. "Easy, kid. We're not going to hurt you, we just wanted to stay here the night-"
"I'm sorry," the boy said, words polite, but teeth bared. "But you can't come in. Please leave."
Gorogoro, not liking how he was being spoken to by a small boy, bristled. "Move aside!" he barked. "We're staying here and no kid's going to stop—"
The boy growled and charged at them, swinging the sword.
The two young men didn't see the rurouni's weapon beyond the fact that it was steel and in the hands of an angry child. They ran quickly back toward the river, where the boy stopped chasing them, still growling and knuckles white where he gripped the hilt.
"All right, crazy boy, we get the message," Jotaro said, hands up in defeat. "We'll go somewhere else. Come on, Gorogoro. I guess we're staying at the inn after all."
The kid turned and darted back to the hut, where he stood guard, glowering at them as they walked away.
Gorogoro fumed for a while and then turned back, thoughtfully. They had put some distance between themselves and the fisherman's hut and saw the boy no longer stood by the door, presumably having gone back inside. "What the hell was his problem?"
Jotaro shrugged. "How should I know?"
Gorogoro stopped walking. "That kid...he had red hair."
Jotaro didn't like where the conversation was going. "So what? Let's just get into town, okay?"
"He had red hair," Gorogoro repeated. "Like the man who killed the merchant. Come on, we're going back!"
"Gorogoro! Gorogoro, leave it alone before you cause that kid to hurt himself, or one of us!" he tried to call after his companion, but the other young man wasn't listening.
Jotaro caught up with him, craning his head around the wide trunk of a tree. "I knew it!" Gorogoro crowed triumphantly. "Look!"
He pointed. A baby cart had been pushed up against the side of the fisher's hut.
"Oh, no," Jotaro said.
"Oh, yes. That's the assassin's kid, and there's the baby cart! His father must be inside."
"Gorogoro, can't you just leave it alone?"
"No. Hey, this is Boss Sanpei's territory, isn't it? We can't go at that assassin ourselves, but if we tell him, he might be willing to part with a little reward for the information. What do you think?"
"I think you should leave it alone."
"Do you want your cut or not? Come on, let's pay a little visit to the yakuza."
The rurouni's sword was made with the blade backwards. His son knew this and held the sword as special because of the many lessons his father had taught him about it. This sword was used to protect.
It didn't seem like it was very hard, at first thought, to have a heart that wished to protect. But every time he told his father, "I want to be like you, Daddy," the rurouni would only smile sadly and say, "No. Be better than Daddy."
How was it possible to be better than his father?
The boy hugged the unsheathed blade to his chest, keenly feeling how small his hands were, and how heavy the sakabato was. For the first time, the boy began to understand why his father sometimes looked like he was carrying something very heavy indeed. The need to protect, how heavy a burden it could be.
He leaned toward his father, placed one of his too-small hands on the rurouni's forehead. He burned with fever, his body fighting the poison that had also taken down that false hokashi. The child wondered if that bad man was dead. The part of him that was angry for what had happened to his father wanted to hope so, but the part of him that wanted to obey his father couldn't.
Still…it was hard not to be angry. It wasn't fair. His grip on the sword tightened. It seemed like nothing fair ever happened to his father.
It was dark. There were noises all around that made him jump on occasion. The child had clumsily built a fire in the firepit, a low flame more for light than for heat. He was too frightened to be hungry, but he wished he had something to make tea or broth for his father…
The morning seemed like it would never come. But it did, as it always would. It rained a little, a light but consistent shower.
The child set the sword aside and walked around his father. Gripping handfuls of his kimono, he tried to drag him toward the gap in the roof, in the hope that the falling water would cool his burning skin. The rurouni wasn't very heavy, but the child was small. It took all his strength to drag his father a few inches. Then he had to stop to rest, and tried again, gaining another few inches. He stopped, hearing new sounds.
There were people outside.
He dived for his father's sword, hefted the heavy weapon and turned it so that the flat of the blade rested on his shoulder. He pressed his back against the doorframe, heart racing. He peered through the tears in the flap covering the doorway.
Lots of people outside. Scruffy people. The scent of cheap sake was strong, even at this distance. There was lots of weaponry. Shafts of sunlight poking through the light rain clouds bounced off the glint of guns. Swords hung from hips, clubs and poles rested on shoulders.
Standing with them were the two men he had chased away from the fisher's hut.
The child was frightened. His first urge was to burst into tears, which he crushed down. The second urge, which would have followed the first, was to run to his father and try to shake him awake again. This too, he ignored, since if the rurouni could have woken, he would have by now.
The boy was on his own. He was the only one around to protect his father.
And pitiful protection he was. These men didn't look like they'd be frightened of an angry boy swinging a sword he was far too small to use, even if it was sharp on the side it was supposed to be.
A challenge was called out. The boy cast one last glance at his father. He had succeeded in pulling him near the missing roof, a little of the cool rain falling onto the top of his head.
The boy gripped his father's sword tighter, determination settling itself on his young features. "I…I'll protect you, Daddy." For as long as he could, he would.
If he wasn't so frightened, the child might have been offended at the way faces fell, eyes bulged, and jaws dropped when he pushed through the curtain, hefting his father's sword on his shoulder.
"Who are you and what do you want?" The child tried to harden his voice, to glare the way he had seen his father do. But faced with such odds, the boy was very aware of how small he was, small even for his age, and he was aware of how soft and thin his voice was, just a little louder than the patter of rain.
After a long moment, someone in front rumbled, "Where's your father, boy?"
The child opened his mouth to answer, but just then felt an arm snake around his waist. He yelped as he was pulled off his feet and back into the fisher's hut.
"Daddy!" he cried.
The rurouni leaned with his arms around the boy a moment, his breathing harsh and ragged. "What are you doing, son?"
The boy looked up into his father's face, and was surprised into smiling. His father's scarred face was flushed, eyes bright with fever, but lucid. And he was grinning broadly like he'd just seen a particularly good magic trick. "Huh?" the rurouni prompted, bouncing him gently. "What were you doing?"
The boy's smile became a little sheepish. "I…I was going to take care of the bad men outside for you, Daddy."
"You were, huh?" The rurouni pulled him into a hug. "Good boy. Now let Daddy take over?"
More challenges and threats were called from outside, but the rurouni wasn't in the mood to listen. So, he was being blamed for the hokashi assassins' work back in town.
Peering through holes in the door flap, he did a rough head-count and thought he could see maybe seventeen men, two of whom were carrying heavy packs on their backs and didn't look like fighters.
Gangsters come to collect a reward. The rurouni closed his eyes briefly, feeling hot, so unbearably hot. Not at all like the pleasant warmth of seeing his son's loyalty and bravery, but heat like the fires that had once spewed forth from the body of an old enemy. Consuming, like this, like something that would never face him when he stayed his course, and wouldn't stop chasing him when he tried to outrun it.
He passed a hand over his face, rubbing away sweat. It was just poison. Just the poison. Shouldn't have spent so much time not thinking. Shouldn't have spent so much time letting his mind wander. Should have exercised his mind, kept it disciplined.
Stronger than strange, swimming thoughts. He had enough to fight in a weakened condition just now.
He closed his eyes again, trying to stretch his senses…
There were too many years on him now. Not enough to make him old, but enough that the ravages of battle had finally stolen the resilience from his thin body.
There were things he was sure he could still do. Battoujutsu was one, though the power of it was so much less than it had been. He was certain he could still perform a decent ryutsuisen.
But now there were things that were beyond him. Amakakeru ryu no hirameki? That was a dream now, a power he had held only for a short time and used only in his most desperate hours.
He leaned against the wall, overcome with a knowledge he hadn't bothered to concern himself with in these years since a dear friend, a doctor, had presented the simple understanding that there would come a day that his body could no longer support his skills.
He had lost so much. He saw himself as broken and full of holes. He was missing pieces. A child with his wife's eyes held what was left in his hands, and was too young to know that that wasn't everything. How much more of himself would the rurouni lose? What would be left of him by the end?
The child latched onto his arm, hugged it to him. Looking up at him, yes, with his mother's eyes.
"Daddy, I want to go home."
There was a long pause. The fever would eventually break, but the body begged for sleep. Sometimes there was fire in his veins. Sometimes there was ice taking over his skin.
Home sounded so good. The dearest home he had ever known…right now, it seemed so far away.
What will be left of me?
The small red head rested against his hip, arms still wrapped around him.
Hours passed slothfully. The men outside were too afraid of him to approach the hut, though once they had tried to send a spy to peer in a window. The rurouni hadn't had to deal with him at all, watching with amusement as his son slung a rusted old pan through the window, scoring a direct hit on the sneak's chin.
His mother would have laughed. His mother would be proud.
He had his mother's impish grin and physical way of doling out justice.
How could he look so much like his father, and still be so much like his mother?
At last the shadows had deepened enough. Always an ally to him, shadows. Always accepting of him, even as brightly-colored a creature he was. Surely they would shield his child as well.
He closed his eyes against another wave of dizziness…but it was less powerful than ones before it. The assassin's poison had lost the battle. He could do this.
He stood up and held out a hand to his son, who moved immediately to take it.
"It's time. Let's go."
The little boy had no way of knowing his father's timing. How closely the rurouni had shaved the moment, stretching time as far as he could against the impatience of the gangsters outside. Nor did the boy know just how much his father had needed every minute of this borrowed time.
In summer, night was slower to come. He didn't know how impatience was driving the gangsters to grow bolder. More men had been sent for, their ranks swelling. Guns were brought, as well as arrows and fire gear. So many illegal weapons among them.
No, the boy didn't know, but he could feel their greed like something foul and thick, like a black fog.
But he wasn't afraid. His dad was with him.
"Where is the cart?" his father asked softly, wobbling a little as he walked. The wobbling didn't concern the boy. Even sick, his father was still the strongest. "On which side of the hut? Is it close?"
The boy pointed to the left wall. "It's just there."
His father looked at the wall. "Just there?"
"Yes, Daddy. Right up against the wall outside."
"Is it?" The rurouni's face lightened. "Right against the wall?"
A rock smashed through the aged bamboo curtain covering the door, sending pieces and splinters everywhere. The boy jumped, but his father didn't even look at it, nor did he respond to the following shouts from outside.
They were coming in, they announced.
The rurouni unsheathed his sword. Turning the blade over to work with the sharp side, he walked to the wall and thrust the blade through the old, rotted wood.
Thrice more he did this, in three different areas. Then he lifted a foot smashed his heel into the center of the area he had been working. It broke and splintered, and he used his sword to bat the remnants out of the way.
The cart was there. He could put out his hand to touch it.
The noise had alerted the gangsters outside. They knew something was going on. An escape attempt.
Still, the rurouni was unhurried.
He knelt in front of his son, and his hands were hot where the gripped the child's slender shoulders.
"I'm going to put you in the cart," he said, slowly, clearly, firmly, violet eyes boring into sapphire, his voice different, deeper, harder. "I'm going to push the cart, and I'm going to make certain the cart is going to go very, very fast. Stay down low and don't raise your head. When the cart stops, even if it falls over, don't worry about the things inside, understand? I want you to run. I want you to head back toward that restaurant where we ate. Don't stop running, no matter what you see, don't turn around no matter what you hear. Just keep running. I'll catch up with you. Do you understand?"
The child nodded, the first thrills of fear clawing at his belly. His throat tightened, preventing speech.
Then he was lifted into the air, dipped under the top of the hole his father had smashed into the wall and popped into the cart. His father's arm and trembled at the last of the effort. There was a crashing sound behind them. Someone had come in, tearing down the door covering.
"Don't look back," his father whispered.
And then the cart was moving.
The boy could not explain what happened. He felt, at first, an understandable force—his father pushing the cart and running. But then there was a mighty wind that caused him to fall down flat on the bottom of the cart, unbalanced body and mind by the incredible speed.
Don't look back, his father had said. He couldn't now if he wanted to.
In his younger years, the rurouni might have made an attempt at reason, even if it was just to say that he did try. Now, he was too experienced and too pressed for time. He knew very well they wouldn't listen. His son was streaking along in the other direction at a speed that couldn't possibly be safe. He'd overdone it a little.
And for all his lamentations for the swordsman he was once, he still could not deny the swordsman he was now. He was still one for whom a rabble such as this was no match.
He was around the dilapidated fisher's hut and plowing through the first of them before they could react.
He hadn't fought in a long time. But it was still in him, the familiarity of battle rushing back to him, overpowering the last effects of the poison.
But not enough.
They cut him first, a shallow but long slash across his sword arm.
He swore inwardly. So weak. Part of it was the poison, yes. But there was once a time they would not have been able to touch a single hair on his body.
Even as these things went through his mind, he didn't know how he looked to them. The fierceness on his face, the determination that he needed to be done with them quickly and go after his son was set in his features like death.
He was a red demon with molten eyes. That, and the name, that name that he could never seem to outdistance no matter how much he wandered.
They dropped one after another in the familiar way they always had. The rhythm was so customary. One against many.
This was what he was. One against many.
They were all so much bigger than he was, and that, too, was familiar. Big, tough men had been collected for this venture.
Was…was that it, then? An answer to a question he'd never thought to ask. Had he, in the beginning, been meant to be weak? Was that why he had failed so often, had been damaged again and again by things he could never control no matter what power he gained? Was he misplaced? Was he supposed to be a weak little boy back then, a farmer's son? A small body trying to hold in such power…was that why the power had gradually eaten away his health and durability?
Maybe the misplacement went further than that. Maybe the weak little boy was meant to die quietly in the grip of cholera, and he might have been buried in the arms of his mother. There were a great many times when that had not seemed like such a bad place to be.
He began to laugh, giddy with dizziness and rush of blood, unnerving his opponents all the more for not skipping a beat in his offense.
His bones did not rest in the cold, dead arms of his mother because he had warm, living arms waiting for him. The women who had dared to love him. The affectionate half-hugs and superficial punches of certain friends. The living smiles of ones who had looked up to him. There were those who waited for him even now.
His son waited. An affectionate child. Couldn't go to sleep without a goodnight hug.
As it should be.
He was not 'meant' to be weak because it could not be afforded. He was not misplaced because there were places he was meant to be.
The boy ran. He was good at running. Though his father did not seem to want to teach him swords, he had no problem teaching him other things, like how to run fast.
"You learn faster than I did," the rurouni had once said, the note of pride in his voice unmistakable. This son would make his father proud tonight too.
His lungs burned, but it wasn't bad yet. No invisible knives in his ribs. It had been a long time already, but he could run for even longer. The restaurant wasn't far. Was it closed by now? It would stay open longer in the summer, wouldn't it?
No. He would worry about that when he got there. And if it was closed, he'd—
Hands grabbed him, hands belonging to somebody rather unbalanced, someone who fell to his knees as the momentum carried them forward. But the hands maintained a strong grip.
Heart leaping into his throat, the boy called out for his father.
"Yes…son…what is it?"
The boy looked up, slack-jawed, at the rurouni, who was rubbing the ear his son had screamed almost directly into, panting heavily, and drenched with sweat.
"Sorry…to scare you…" the rurouni panted over a small grin. "But you're so fast…Daddy didn't have breath to call out. Sorry."
The boy didn't care. He threw his arms around his father's neck. Not good for the man's out-of-breath state, but at this moment, the rurouni didn't care either. He wrapped his arms tightly around his son, who was far more important than his next breath.
Without meaning to, the rurouni fell gently sideways onto the grass. So hot…it was still so, so insufferably hot…
"Daddy? Daddy, are you all right?"
Those eyes. Brilliant blue eyes. He smiled gently, running his thumb over his son's cheek. So like her, he was.
Yes. As it should be.
Oh, but he wanted to see her.
These were the pieces of himself he could never lose, no matter how much they pained what was left of him. He would never allow himself to become completely hollow.
He closed his eyes.
"We'll rest," he said. "Just for a few minutes."
They made it home. And she was there.
She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He had seen beautiful things. He had seen all kinds of flowers, every color that was possible to be in the sky or on the ocean. He had seen statues and sculptures, rainbows, the freezing beauty of icicles pointing down and unbroken snow in winter, and vast, roaring waterfalls falling into an expanse of brilliant green forest in summer…
She was more beautiful still, more than any wonder he had ever seen.
Her lovely face, clean and free of all make-up or false emotional masks of any kind, broke into a wide grin.
How like her to be waiting for them at the gate.
He smiled back, and his son left his side for the first time in many days, giving his hand a squeeze of apology and thoughtfulness that seemed well beyond his years as he broke away and dashed toward the open arms as his mother.
"Daddy got hurt again!"
"Again?" She looked over her son's ruddy top to look her husband over. He tried to smile reassuringly, but it came out more as sheepish.
"I protected him," the boy proudly informed her.
She looked down at her son strangely for a moment before she sighed and turned him toward the house. "I can see that there will be no more unsupervised visits to see Grandpa Hiko."
"He says he doesn't like to be called 'Grandpa Hiko'."
Her laughter was deeper and more throaty than it had once been, like she was pulling joy deep from the bottom of herself that was even richer than the joy at the surface. "I know. That's why we call him that. Now go inside and get ready to have a bath."
"What about Daddy?"
"Yes, Daddy looks filthy too. Now go on so I can scold him for not being able to take a simple trip without getting into trouble."
The child threw his father a sympathetic look and ran inside to get ready.
Husband stood alone, looking at his wife, who was looking at him as if trying to decide if she would coddle or scold him first. He did his best to guide her to a more favorable decision by trying to look as pitiful as possible. He found this wasn't at all hard.
She sighed, smiled and opened her arms to him, and he went to her gratefully.
"What happened to your clothes?" she asked, not liking much the look of the ill-fitting kimono.
"Someone accidentally dumped paint on us from a rooftop," he said. "They had some clothes to give us that mostly fit, as an apology."
"Where are the ruined clothes?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "They were in the cart."
"Where is the cart?"
He lowered his head onto her shoulder, sighing deeply.
"All right," she assented, patting his back. There was probably a long story to tell, and clearly, he was too tired to do any telling. "How about that bath?" She ran her fingers through his hair. "This needs washing."
"What's wrong, Love?" she asked gently.
"It…it's fine, these visits to Master, but… This one thinks he should not…go traveling anymore. Not without you."
"Why not?" She tried to press him back so she could look into his face, but he didn't want to budge, only pulling her tighter against him.
"It does strange things to the mind. It…it felt like… No, this one was. This one was rurouni again," he said, voice hoarse. He leaned a little more heavily on her then, and she straightened her back, as if trying to lend him strength.
"Is that…so bad?" she said softly.
"Yes. This one wants to be home. A rurouni never again." They were quiet for a moment, holding each other. Then he whispered, "Did you know, back then, this one could go for years never being called by name?"
She shook her head. He couldn't see her face, but he felt her reaction in her hands. The tender way she caressed the back of his neck.
He took her by the arms and pushed her away a little, looking into her face needfully. "Name me now," he pleaded. Today, it was important. The words were, today, just as important as the sight and the touch of her had been.
But she did. How she knew, and just how well she knew, he didn't understand. He thought, later, that perhaps he had yet again underestimated her, had taken it too lightly just how very well she knew his heart.
She took his face in her hands, eyes fully intent on his. "You are Kenshin," she said, slowly and clearly. "Kenshin. You are home. You are mine. And you are whole."
And for the first time in several days, he felt like he truly was. He leaned his forehead against hers for a moment. Then she wrapped an arm firmly around his waist and guided him inside.