The boy was small - so, so small. As Kenshin approached, the little form wrapped around him like an octopus, Sano figured he must only be around five or six years old. His hair was black like pitch and his hands, fisted in Kenshin’s gi, were white but covered in welts and cuts. Sano frowned. Looking closer, he saw that the child’s clothes were ruined, soaked in blood and dirt, covered with patches at the elbows and knees.
“Kenshin!” Yahiko cried, dashing out of the dojo with his practice sword in hand. “You’re back! We really. . .” He trailed off, for the first time noticing Kenshin’s burden. “Who’s that?”
“This is Sojiro,” Kenshin said, hefting the child up closer to him. With a whimper, the boy pulled himself even closer to Kenshin, burying his face in Kenshin’s red hair. “I decided to bring this boy back with me, that I have.”
Yahiko frowned and placed his hands on his hips, letting the tip of his shinai trail in the dirt.
“Did you ask Kaoru about this?” he asked. “Cause she’s not gonna like it.”
Kenshin smiled serenely, bringing his hand up to cradle Sojiro’s head.
“Kaoru-dono is a kind soul. I’m sure she’ll accept Sojiro with open arms.” His gaze switched between Sano and Yahiko, expectant. The pair were silent for a moment, but when the silence continued and it occurred to the two that Kenshin was waiting for an answer, Yahiko nodded and Sano spoke.
“Of course! Jo-chan is really generous.” He ruffled Yahiko’s hair. “I mean, she lets this kid mooch off of her.”
“Hey!” Yahiko cried, swinging his shinai at Sano’s knees. “You’re the one who mooches off her! I earn my keep!”
“Sanosuke! Yahiko!” Karou’s voice cut through the impending argument like a knife. “What are you two fighting about this time? I asked you to clean the-”
Kaoru slid open the door to the kitchen, her hands on her hips, her face set in annoyance, but the words of admonishment died on her lips with she caught sight of Kenshin. Instead, a large grin lit up her face.
“Kenshin, you’re back!” she cried, slipping on her shoes and rushing to meet him. “I’m so glad!” She pushed past Sano and Yahiko, but came to a stop when she noticed the bundle in Kenshin’s arms. “Who’s that?” she asked.
“This is Sojiro,” Kenshin repeated, a soft smile pulling at his lips. “I found him.”
“That I did.” He offered no more information, instead just smiling at Kaoru. “Kaoru-dono, could I have another bed for Sojiro? There’s no need for another room, just a futon.” Kaoru blinked and Kenshin ducked his head. “I’m sorry to bring another mouth to feed, Kaoru-dono, but I just couldn't leave the boy where he was.”
“Of-of course,” Kaoru stammered, blinking at the small child clutching to Kenshin like a lifeline. “I understand.” It took her a few more moments to get adjusted to the thought of another boy (Lord, where did she find all these stray men and boys?) living in her house, but once she made up her mind, the decision was set in stone. She turned to Sano and Yahiko. “You two get a futon and spare blankets from storage and set them in Kenshin’s room,” she ordered. “Hurry up!”
“All right, jo-chan,” Sano said, and he sauntered off, slow as ever, to get a futon as Yahiko dashed ahead of him, making a face at Kaoru before getting the blankets. Kaoru sighed before turning again to Kenshin. Her eyes softened.
“Hello, Sojiro,” she cooed, bending over to get at the child’s eye level. “My name is Kaoru. I understand you came here with Kenshin. Is that right?”
Sojiro didn't look up, but nodded. Kaoru smiled.
“You’ll be safe here,” she said. “Nothing bad will happen to you. So can you look at me?”
Sojiro shook his head furiously, his grip tightening around Kenshin’s gi. Kaoru sighed.
“That’s all right,” she said. “I guess we’ll take this nice and slow. Are you hungry, Sojiro? We have some leftover rice balls that Kenshin made. Would you like that?”
Sojiro didn't move for a second, but when Kenshin repeated the question, running his fingers through his black hair, Sojiro bobbed his head. Kaoru and Kenshin smiled in relief.
“All right!” Kaoru said, clapping her hands together. Sojiro winced at the loud noise, but Kaoru didn't notice, and she grinned. “I’ll warm up those rice balls for you now, Sojiro. Kenshin makes great food - you’ll eat it all up!”
And Kaoru dashed away, heading to the kitchen. Kenshin watched her go with a smile, then made his way to his room, Sojiro still clinging to him.
“Kaoru-dono is very kind, Sojiro. She’s rather enthusiastic, that she is, but she is a kind woman. You’ll like her, I am sure. Sano and Yahiko are good people too. No one will hurt you here.” Kenshin sat himself on the edge of the wooden porch, slipping off his own sandals and then removing Sojiro’s small, ruined ones. We’ll have to get him new shoes, he thought. These are no good.
He slid himself onto the porch and headed for his room, Sojiro still held close to him. Upon entering, he found Sano leaning against the wall, fishbone in his mouth, as Yahiko settled blankets on a futon.
“The bed’s all set up, Kenshin,” Sano said, eyeing the boy clutching Kenshin with wary but soft eyes.
“Thank you, Sano, Yahiko.” He knelt next to spare futon, beginning to disengage the boy from his gi. But Sojiro refused to be moved, only clutching more firmly to Kenshin. After a few futile attempts, Kenshin fell back on his butt, letting out a huff of air that ruffled his bangs. “Sojiro,” he sighed, “please let go of this one. There is a bed here for you. It is far more comfortable.” Sojiro shook his head, holding onto Kenshin so tightly that his knuckles turned white.
Sano sighed in exasperation and walked over to the pair.
“Let go of Kenshin, kid,” he said, grabbing the boy and forcefully pulling him away from Kenshin’s chest. Kenshin cried out a warning, but the deed was already done. A strangled cry of alarm was ripped from Sojiro’s mouth and Yahiko, standing behind Kenshin, saw the boy’s eyes, a lovely blue, go wide with fear. He went disturbingly still in Sano’s arms, and, despite how gently Sano laid him on the bed, he started shaking and fell into a bow the moment his feet met the mattress.
“I’m s-sorry,” he stammered, hiding his face. “Please don’t hurt me.”
Sano watched with pity and self-disgust as Sojiro struggled to hide his shaking, to hide the obvious tears that choked his voice. What had he done?
“Sojiro,” Sano whispered, heart in his throat. “I didn't mean to scare you. It’s all right, I won’t hurt you. Please look at me.”
But Sojiro made no move to raise his head. Sano looked up at Kenshin, desperate apology in his eyes, and, at a nod from his friend, he reached forward a ginger hand and laid it on Sojiro’s back.
To everyone’s surprise, the boy screamed and scrambled away from the group, backing into a corner. He began shaking furiously, curling himself into the smallest ball he could. Yahiko, Sano, and Kenshin exchanged worried glances and Kenshin inched himself slowly towards Sojiro, hands held in front of him.
“Sojiro,” he said, voice quiet and soothing, “we’re sorry. We are very sorry, that we are. We did not mean to hurt you, little one.”
Sojiro raised his head, gazing at Kenshin through his black fringe. Kenshin smiled.
“You’re safe,” he said. “You are safe here, in Kaoru-dono’s home. Safe with us.” Sojiro’s eyes flicked over to Sano in silent question. “Yes, Sano is safe too,” Kenshin said. “He didn't mean to frighten you at all.” Kenshin studied the boy, noticing for the first time how pale he was, the pain written on his face, the sweat beading his brow. “Are you hurt?”
Sojiro stiffened, not moving, then, after studying the three people in front of him, he deemed it safe to speak.
“Yes,” he whispered. “It hurts.”
“What hurts?” Kenshin asked.
“Everything,” the boy said, wincing. His face curled up. “It really hurts.”
Kenshin held out his hands.
“Can this one see?” he asked. Sojiro stiffened again, but then nodded slowly. He crawled over to Kenshin, then, when he was close enough, fell back on his knees.
Kenshin smiled at the boy and laid a hand on the top of his head.
“Very good, Sojiro. That was very brave of you. Would you let this one see to your back and arm? It seems like those hurt very much.”
“M’arm more than my back,” Sojiro whispered and he pulled the offended limb close to him. He hissed when Kenshin reached for him, his eyes widening in pain and fear.
“Shh,” Kenshin reassured, “shh, Sojiro, it’s all right. I just want to see. Would you let this one see? I won’t hurt you.”
Sojiro appraised Kenshin for a few moments before he relaxed a bit. He handed one of his hands to Kenshin and the rurouni held it gently. Carefully, he slipped behind the boy and slid the gi off his tiny shoulders. He bit back an alarmed noise, but Yahiko couldn't keep from crying out.
“What happened?!?” he demanded, rushing forward. Sojiro flinched at Yahiko’s sudden movement and screamed when his own movement sent pain flaring through his arm. He folded himself into two, his injured arm nestled protectively in between his knees and chest, one hand still held in Kenshin’s own.
“Shh, shh.” Kenshin soothed, laying a careful hand on Sojiro’s hand as the boy’s breath came in short, pained gasps. He threw Yahiko a look, and the boy nodded sheepishly, backing away.
Yahiko couldn't help but be horrified. There were so many bruises. So many cuts. How was Sojiro even awake? How did he get like that in the first place? Who had hurt him? He was so small! That wasn't fair! You’d have to be a monster to beat on one so tiny!
He unconsciously clenched his hands into fists at his sides.
“Yahiko,” Kenshin whispered, and Yahiko suddenly remembered that he should leave. He should get help — someone needed to take a look at Sojiro.
“I’ll get Megumi!” Yahiko said, his gaze lingering on Sojiro for a moment longer. He swallowed the lump in his throat, turned, and left quickly. Kenshin watched him go, then, with gentle hands, slipped Sojiro’s gi lightly back over his shoulders, careful not to touch his damaged skin.