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Little One

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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!”

“Hey, you-!”

“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.”

“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.

 

Chapter Text

Last chapter: Kenshin watched him go, then, with gentle hands, slipped Sojiro’s gi lightly back over his shoulders, careful not to touch his damaged skin.

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“Would you like to lay down now, Sojiro?” Kenshin asked, motioning to the futon. “You can if you like.”

Sojiro appraised the bed for a few moments, squinting in suspicion and confusion. He turned to Kenshin and pointed at the bed.

“I can lay down?” he asked.

Kenshin frowned, then nodded.

“Of course.”

“There?”

“Yes, Sojiro, you can lay there.”

Sojiro stared at the bed and Sano’s heart sunk. He recognized the signs of neglect and abuse - not only in all the bruises and cuts that littered Sojiro’s body but in the hesitant acceptance of kindness. He flinched at loud noises, was suspicious of strangers, and wouldn't take anything given to him without permission.

Sano crouched down to his haunches, smiling at Sojiro. He knew he had blown his first impression with the kid - but, then again, when did Sano ever make a good first impression? Considering this kid was a special case though, Sano lowered his voice, tossed aside his fishbone, and smiled gently.

“Hey, Sojiro,” he said. “I know this is a lot to take in, but you’re allowed to have whatever we offer you. Does that make sense?” Sojiro shook his head, but didn't shrink away from Sano like he had before. Sano bit down the urge to fondly ruffle the boy’s hair and instead just widened his smile. “That’s all right,“ he said, “it’ll make sense eventually.”

There was a knock on the doorjamb and Sojiro flinched, scooting back to Kenshin and plopping himself in the rurouni’s lap. His eyes had gone wide again, like a cornered animal’s, and his small white hands were fisted in Kenshin’s hakama. Sano turned and saw Kaoru standing in the doorway, a tray full of rice balls in her hands. Judging by how perfectly they were made, Sano figured they were leftovers from the meal Kenshin had prepared a few days ago. Thank goodness, too - if Sojiro’s first meal had been made by Kaoru, the boy would be sure to flee as soon as possible.

“I’ve brought food!” Kaoru said with a smile as she stepped into the room. “Enough for everyone too.” When Sano saw only the four rice balls and Kaoru’s slightly peeved smile, he figured she must have run into Yahiko before he left. She settled herself at a comfortable distance from Sojiro, then pushed the tray towards him. “Why don't you go first, Sojiro?” she offered. The boy shook his head furiously and scooted closer to Kenshin, sucking in a sharp breath when his back collided with Kenshin’s sternum.

“Shh,” Kenshin comforted, laying a hand on Sojiro’s head. “Why don't I go first then, hm? Is that all right?” Sojiro nodded and Kenshin reached forward, plucking the smallest rice ball from the tray. He took a small bite as Sojiro watched, then swallowed and smiled. “It’s very good, that it is.” He held out the rice ball. “Would you like to try, Sojiro?”

There was a moment of hesitation, but then Sojiro reached out a shaking hand and took the rice ball from Kenshin. Sojiro stared at the food for a while, and the others decided it would be a good idea to eat to avoid watching him. When everyone was almost finished with the food, Sojiro brought the small rice ball to his lips with obvious trepidation. Then he took a small bite. His eyes widened and all the hearts in the room rose when the first genuine smile they had yet seen graced the boy’s lips. He took a bigger bite.

“’S good!” he cried, blue eyes wide.

Kenshin ruffled the boy’s hair and Kaoru saw that he had deflated a little in obvious relief. She pushed the tray, with one rice ball left, closer to the pair.

“Eat another, Sojiro,” she prompted. “You’re hungry, right?” Sojiro nodded and reached for the last rice ball, but froze right before his fingers touched it. He looked up at Kaoru, waiting for another word that indicated permission. Kaoru forced a sad smile onto her face. “It’s all right,” she said with a nod. “Go on and eat it, sweetheart.”

Sojiro blinked at the term of endearment but grabbed the rice ball and swallowed it in two big bites. When he was finished he licked his lips, then curled himself around Kenshin’s thin stomach. Kenshin cradled his black head carefully, then nodded to Kaoru in thanks. She took the tray with a smile and a few quiet words to Sojiro, and Sano followed her out of the room.

“How has he been?” Kaoru asked the minute they were out of earshot. “Yahiko ran out to get Megumi without much of an explanation, but he looked really pale. What’s wrong?”

“It looks like he’s been beaten half to death,” Sano said, the familiar biting anger returning to his posture and voice.

Kaoru paled.

“What?” she said.

“You heard me,” Sano said, running his hand through his hair. “Kami, what the hell?! Who does shit like that to a kid?!”

“Sano-”

“I’m gonna help Yahiko get Megumi,” he said. “I’ll be back.”

He left without another word.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: He left without another word. 

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Megumi arrived as soon as she could.

She took a deep breath, steeled herself, and plastered a smile onto her face. Then she stepped into the room.

Her heart dropped to her stomach.

There, in the middle of the room and cradled gently in Kenshin’s arms was a little boy with jet-black hair. He was skinny and malnourished - nothing more than skin and bones - and was badly injured. She’d heard so from Sano and Yahiko on her way here that he was not in good condition, but even if she hadn’t, it was painfully obvious. The boy was cradling one arm against his chest, a foot was bent slightly out of place, and a few of his fingers and toes were crooked. Most likely all broken. And he held himself so tensely that it was evident he every inch of him was in pain. She bit her lip.

Kami. . .

She steeped forward further, clearing her throat to alert Kenshin and Sojiro that she was in the room. Kenshin smiled up at her, but Sojiro jumped at her appearance and clutched at Kenshin’s gi. He settled huge eyes on Megumi.

“Hello, Sojiro, my name is Megumi.” She knelt in front of Sojiro and Kenshin, immediately taking in the too pale face, bruised and dirty hands and feet, filthy hair and clothes. He’d been clearly neglected, that much was sure, but she needed to take a closer look for serious signs of abuse. “I’m a doctor.”

Sojiro blinked and cocked his head.

“Doctor….?” he murmured, blinking his blue eyes slowly. Her took her in with a long, indulgent gaze, and Megumi recognized the wariness in his eyes, realizing that he was taking in her threat level. So she smiled wider, kinder.

“That’s right,” she said, “I’m a doctor. Ken-san asked me to come. He says that you aren't doing well.”

Sojiro didn't respond but Megumi noticed the minute flutter of his hands on Kenshin’s hakama.

“He told me that you were hurt. Is that true?”

Still no response. Kenshin tucked his arms around Sojiro’s chest, resting his chin on the top of his head.

“Megumi-dono is a very good doctor, that she is,” he said, his voice quiet and comforting. “She is also a very kind woman. Do you remember what I told you before?” Sojiro nodded. “Then let’s try that, all right? Megumi-dono, why don’t you hold out your hand, please?”

Megumi frowned, but held out her hand anyway, palm up. Slowly, ever so slowly, Sojiro reached forward and placed his small hand in Megumi’s own, then, when she made no movement, curled his fingers around her palm. Megumi smiled and then curled her own fingers gently around Sojiro’s hand.

“It’s nice to meet you, Sojiro,” she said, squeezing his hand lightly. “I’m glad you’ve come to stay with Kaoru and Ken-san.”

Sojiro managed a small smile in return and pulled his hand away, settling back in Kenshin’s lap. Both doctor and rurouni were pleased that the child seemed to be slightly more relaxed.

“All right then, Sojiro, is it okay if I give you a quick check up?” Megumi grabbed her medicine chest and slid it to her side. Sojiro stiffened at the sight, but Megumi was quick to reassure him. “I’ll explain everything to you. Nothing scary or unexpected will happen.”

Sojiro eyed the medicine chest for a few moments longer before nodding slowly. Kenshin’s eyes lit up and he smiled brightly at Megumi. She smiled too, then pulled her stethoscope from the top drawer of the chest. Sojiro eyed it with curiosity and his grip on Kenshin’s hakama tightened.

“This is a stethoscope,” Megumi said, holding it out for Sojiro to hold. “It will help me listen to your heart.”

“My heart?”

“That’s right!” she smiled.

“Does it really work?” he asked, fiddling with it.

“Of course.”

“And it won’t hurt?”

“Not at all.”

“Megumi-dono,” Kenshin said, “why don’t you listen to my heart first so Sojiro can see that it doesn't hurt?”

“That’s a wonderful idea!” Megumi said, her face lighting up. She plucked the stethoscope from Sojiro’s small fingers, leaned closer, and then pushed part of Kenshin’s gi aside, exposing the left side of his bare chest. “Watch closely now, Sojiro,” she said, and she placed the buds of the stethoscope in her ears and the end of the bell against Kenshin’s breast. She closed her eyes, listening intently, and, as Sojiro watched carefully, barely blinking, Kenshin turned and winked at him. Sojiro stifled a small giggle. “All done!” Megumi said after a bit, pulling the stethoscope away. “Everything sounds great, Ken-san.”

“That’s good, that it is,” Kenshin said with a bright smile.

Sojiro was still staring at the stethoscope, eyes wide. He clearly wanted to say something, but seemed scared to.

“Do you have a question, Sojiro?” Megumi asked. Sojiro flinched and shook his head wildly, but Megumi pressed on, knowing that to get Sojiro to feel safe at all, he first had to feel safe asking for something. “It’s all right,” she said, voice gentle. “What is it?”

“Can-Can I listen to his heart too?” Sojiro asked. His voice was so quiet that at first Megumi thought she had misheard the boy’s request but when she figured it out, her whole face lit up.

“Of course you can listen to Ken-san’s heart!” she said. She turned to Kenshin. “Isn’t that right?”

Kenshin nodded, so eager to cooperate with one of the boy’s requests that his ponytail bounced against his back.

“Yes, that it is!” Kenshin leaned around and smiled at the boy sitting in his lap. “You tell me if I have a good heartbeat, all right, Sojiro?”

Sojiro nodded and allowed Megumi to teach him how to listen a heartbeat, even allowing her to maneuver the buds into his ears and guide his hands to where the stethoscope laid against Kenshin’s chest. When everyone was ready, Sojiro scrambled to his knees on Kenshin’s lap, Megumi’s hands supporting him around the waist. Kenshin ignored the boy’s sharp, bony knees digging into his legs, instead focusing on his intensely focused blue eyes and furrowed brow as he listened to Kenshin’s heartbeat. He kept frowning for a few more moments, clearly not able to hear it, but then his eyes became as wide as saucers.

“Wow!” he gasped, his hands curling around the fabric of Kenshin’s gi. “I can hear it! I can hear it!”

“Yeah?” Megumi said, and Kenshin swore that he had never seen her with a smile so wide. “What does it sound like?”

Sojiro frowned and closed his eyes, listening again. He opened them again and turned to Megumi, pulling the stethoscope from his ears and handing it back to her. Kenshin closed his gi again and sat Sojiro in his lap.

“Lub dub,” he said to Megumi, “Like lub dub!”

“That’s right. That’s what hearts sound like.”

“All hearts?”

“All hearts.” She held out her stethoscope. “Can I listen to yours?”

Sojiro stiffened again, and for a few moments, Megumi and Kenshin feared he would say no, but both hearts lifted when he nodded.

“Good boy,” Megumi said, and Kenshin kissed the top of his head. She reached for his gi to push it aside, but with a squeal, Sojiro slapped her and pushed himself closer to Kenshin.

“NO!” he screamed, his little voice shrill. “No, no, no! Kenshin!”

“This one is here,” the rurouni said, wrapping his arms protectively around Sojiro. “It’s all right, I’m right here. What’s wrong?”

“Only you touch me,” the boy whimpered, clutching so tightly to Kenshin’s arm that his knuckles turned white. “Only you touch my gi.”

“Oh,” Kenshin breathed, nodding. “I see. This one will help you, but you must let Megumi-dono listen to your heart. I’m not a doctor so I can’t do that.”

Sojiro nodded, agreeing to this compromise, and Kenshin readjusted the child in his lap, slipping the left side of his gi off of his slim body. Megumi stifled a gasp. In her many years in medicine, she had seen numerous severe injuries - compound fractures, broken necks, carriage accidents that left patients without limbs - but she had never, ever, not even in her years under Kanryu, seen a child so horribly treated. He was little more than skin and bones and all his ribs were visible. He was littered in bruises of all different sizes and colors - some close to healing, others so obviously fresh Megumi knew they had been inflicted only yesterday.

“Take off your entire gi for me, Sojiro,” she said, and, although the tone was comforting, Kenshin saw the tense worry written all over her face. “I really need to take a look at you.”

“All of it?” Sojiro asked, pale.

“Yes, little one, all of it,” Kenshin said, and he helped slip the gi completely off Sojiro’s fragile body, careful not to touch or hurt him, as Megumi, without an explanation, dashed out of the room.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Yes, little one, all of it,” Kenshin said, and he helped slip the gi completely off Sojiro’s fragile body, careful not to touch or hurt him, as Megumi, without an explanation, dashed out of the room.

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She ran, ran, to the kitchen, where she found Kaoru, Yahiko, and Sano all sitting around a little table.

“I need a thin miso broth, now,” she ordered. “Preferably mildly spiced. Sojiro needs something to eat.” She ran her hands through her long hair. “Lord, when was the last time that child ate?”

“An hour ago,” Kaoru said with a frown. “Did Kenshin not tell you? He had a few rice balls.”

“What?!” Megumi yelled, and everyone flinched from the venom in her voice. “Are you all insane?! He was probably starving before this - that much food will be too much for him!”

“He only had two small ones,” Sano said, “and rice is mild. I’m sure he can handle it.”

“Look here, Rooster Head-”

She was cut off by a semi-frantic cry from down the long hall - from a voice they all immediately recognized as Kenshin’s.

“Megumi-dono!” he was yelling. “Help! Help us, Megumi-dono!”

Megumi was already running out the kitchen, dashing back to Kenshin and Sojiro, cursing herself for leaving her malnourished and abused patient alone. She threw open the door and blinked at what she saw.

Sojiro was sobbing, holding onto his stomach and thrashing wildly in Kenshin’s arms. He was screaming between the sobs, apologizing over and over. Kenshin’s violet eyes were wide and he was holding Sojiro close to him, rocking him back and forth and whispering platitudes to the child that Megumi knew he couldn't hear.

On the floor in front of Kenshin, splattered all over his white hakama, and dribbling down Sojiro’s chin, was a puddle of sick. From behind her, she heard Yahiko gag in disgust and Kaoru gasp, but Megumi didn't have the pleasure or time to do either of those things. Her job demanded quick action and analysis. She took in the color of the vomit - pale yellow, interspersed with little white flecks - rice, she figured - and worrying slips of red. She rushed forward, expertly avoiding the sick, and landed on her knees next to Kenshin and Sojiro.

“Hey, Sojiro, it’s all right,” she soothed, but she was careful not to startle the terrified boy. “You just got sick, is all. It’s all right.”

“I-I’m sorry!” Sojiro sobbed in a brief respite from vomiting. “I’m sorry!” Megumi raised her hand to smooth the boy’s sweaty hair from his face, but Sojiro’s scream was so terrified she backed away immediately. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Please don’t hurt me! Pl-Please don’t! Pl-Please!”

Sojiro leaned forward, his hands tight against his stomach, and gagged again, some more vomit escaping his lips. Megumi assisted Kenshin in helping the boy lean forward a little more, whispering as he continued to be sick. She heard Kenshin say something to Kaoru, and, hardly a half minute later, a bowl was being shoved under Sojiro’s mouth to catch the vomit. Megumi looked up for a moment, coming face to face with a wide-eyed and pale Kaoru, and she forced a smile at the girl.

After a few more minutes of vomiting, Sojiro began to only bring up bile, then stopped completely. Megumi picked him up and laid him back against Kenshin’s chest, his head lolling weakly against the rurouni’s white shoulder. Kenshin fingered the last remnants of vomit from Sojiro’s chin with his hand.

“There we are,” he said, “there we are, Sojiro. All done now.”

Sojiro whimpered and Kenshin hugged him gently, kissing his head and whispering to him. Megumi turned and found Kaoru, Sano, and Yahiko all standing to the side, Yahiko half hiding behind Sano.

“You two-” she pointed at Yahiko and Sano - “get this cleaned up. Kaoru, some new hakama for Kenshin please.”

Sano nodded and headed off to get towels but Yahiko stood frozen where he was, his brown eyes focused on the puddle of sick, his face tinged a light green. Kaoru placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly. When Yahiko turned to her, she smiled.

“Why don’t you get Kenshin’s new hakama while I help Sano clean up?” she offered. “It’ll be no trouble.”

Yahiko nodded and deflated in relief.

“Thanks, Kaoru,” he said, then dashed off to find Kenshin a clean hakama. Kaoru watched him go with a fond smile, then turned to the door, patiently waiting for Sano to return with a bucket of water and the towels.

Meanwhile, Megumi had returned to her patient. He was shivering violently against Kenshin, curled up against him as if he expected a blow. Megumi frowned, worried, as she didn't know exactly how to go about this. Step by step, I suppose. With a deep breath, Megumi straightened her shoulders and steeled herself. Firm, but gentle, she said silently.

“I want you in that bed for me, Sojiro,” she said, grabbing her medicine chest and pulling it closer to her. Sojiro stiffened and held onto Kenshin a little tighter, but Megumi only sighed, knowing she didn't have the luxury to be extremely patient with the child anymore. Sojiro was sick and injured and he needed treatment soon. “Kenshin will still be with you,” she said, “but you need to lay down.”

“I don’t wanna.” His voice was barely above a whisper.

“You have to,” Megumi said, and she tried to smile. “Please, Sojiro, lie down on the futon.” When Sojiro made no move, Megumi looked meaningfully at Kenshin. The rurouni stiffened, understanding but not wanting to do what she asked. When she hardened her gaze, Kenshin flinched a little bit, but then nodded. He set his jaw tight, and Megumi swore she saw his battle face slip on for a brief moment, but it disappeared into soft worry as he lifted Sojiro under the armpits and deposited him gently on the futon.

Sojiro cried out upon being moved, then fell silent, his eyes filling with tears. He stared at Kenshin as if he had been betrayed, but crumpled almost immediately, reaching out for the man with his small hands. Kenshin wrapped his hands around Sojiro’s and scooted close to him, seating himself at his bedside. Megumi moved opposite of them and drew her bell stethoscope from her medicine chest.

“I’m going to listen to your heart now, Sojiro,” she said, and she helped the boy sit up as straight as he could, then placed the stethoscope over his little chest. Kenshin watched as Megumi listened, intent upon her job, and nodded and smiled when Kaoru and Sano came in to clean up the mess of sick. They worked silently, careful not to startle Sojiro or disturb Megumi’s examination, but, when Kenshin thought that Megumi’s examination was a little too long, he spoke up.

“Is something wrong, Megumi-dono?” he asked. Megumi didn't respond, but Sojiro did, stiffening immediately.

“Is something wrong with me?” he asked, growing a little frantic. He whirled towards Kenshin. “I’m sorry!”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Is something wrong with me?” he asked, growing a little frantic. He whirled towards Kenshin. “I’m sorry!”

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“Shh, little one,” Kenshin comforted, sweeping back Sojiro’s raven hair, “there’s nothing to be sorry for.”

“But something’s wrong!”

“Nothing is wrong,” Megumi said, leaning back and laying the stethoscope aside. “But, just to be safe, I want you to lie down now.”

Sojiro stared at her, wide-eyed and worried, but laid down anyway, his head propped up by a single pillow.

“Now, Sojiro, I’m going to tell you something,” Megumi said, placing her hands in her lap, “but you mustn’t panic. Do you understand?”

Sojiro nodded and his grip on Kenshin’s hand tightened.

“Your heartbeat is a little fast so I need you to stay in bed for a while, all right?” Sojiro nodded, but he felt Kenshin’s hand shake a little bit. He turned to the man, blue eyes focusing on his suddenly pale face.

“Did I make you upset?” Sojiro asked. “Did I make you mad? I’m sorry.”

“No, no, Sojiro, I’m not angry at all. This one is just worried, that I am.” Kenshin forced a smile onto his face and tried to slow his own racing heart. He couldn't help but be worried about the little boy he had just rescued, for he had already become attached to him. The former hitokiri had plenty of experience dealing with battle wounds and gruesome injuries, but he didn't know how to deal with illness; it made him feel incredibly helpless.

Sojiro stared at Kenshin for a while longer, trying to read his facial expression, but when he couldn't figure it out, he turned back to Megumi.

“Why is my heart fast?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” the doctor answered, “but I’m going to do my best to find out. For now, let’s just rest, hm?”

Sojiro nodded and relaxed a little bit, becoming more comfortable around Megumi and Kenshin. However, Kenshin knew it would still take time for the boy to adjust to Kaoru, Yahiko, and Sano. And they could be so loud. . . . He sighed and Sojiro looked up at him.

“‘M tired,” he said. Kenshin smiled.

“Would you like to sleep?” he asked, and, when Sojiro hummed in the affirmative, Kenshin looked to Megumi for permission. She nodded. Megumi began to pack her medicine chest away, complete with her basic examination, but turned to Sojiro before leaving.

“I’ll be back soon to check on your wounds, Sojiro,” she said, and Sojiro nodded and proceeded to close his eyes. Megumi sighed and left the room, motioning for Sano and Kaoru to follow her out. “I need to speak with you two,” she said. She left without another word, and Sojiro, exhausted as he was, didn't notice her leave.

Kaoru and Sano left the puddle of sick (almost clean) behind and followed her out of the room. Kaoru cast a final glance at Kenshin and Sojiro, the rurouni speaking to the boy who was clearly falling asleep, then turned to Megumi.

“Kaoru, Sano,” Megumi said, and the two stiffened at the serious tone of her voice. “I want you to understand something very important.”

“What is it?” Kaoru asked.

“I believe that Sojiro is very sick. Perhaps he was born with a strange heart defect or it may just be due to the recent stress he’s been through, but at the moment his heart is not doing well. Under no circumstances must you tell Sojiro this, and Ken-san can only find out when he’s not in the room with Sojiro.” Megumi sighed. “Which, judging by his current state, will be a while yet. Ken-san wouldn't dare leave Sojiro now.”

“So what do we do?” Sano asked, and Megumi could tell by his pinched features that he was worried.

“I’d like one of you to stay always in the room with Kenshin and Sojiro, if that’s all right.”

“But how are we supposed to be there without raising Kenshin’s suspicions?” Kaoru asked. “I don't see how that’s possible.”

“Just have some pretext for being there. Bring food or tea or something to read. Maybe dice, Sano, so you can play with Kenshin and Sojiro. Just stay with them.” She ran her hand through her long black hair. “I also don’t want Ken-san dealing with this all alone. It’ll be good for him to have you around, especially you, Kaoru.” Kaoru turned a bright pink but nodded nonetheless. “I have to go back to the clinic for some bandages and supplies,” Megumi said, “but I should be back soon. Stay with Kenshin and Sojiro and come for me if something is wrong.”

She headed out of the dojo, Kaoru and Sano seeing her off, and, when she was out of eyeshot, Kaoru deflated. Sano turned to look at her, and for the first time saw the dark circles under her eyes.

“Did you sleep last night, jo-chan?” he asked.

Kaoru shook her head.

“No, I was too worried about Kenshin.”

Sano huffed.

“I don’t know why you worry so much about him,” he said. “Kenshin can handle anything life throws at him.”

“I know. I just. . . I worry that he’ll wander off again. I worry that when he goes he won’t come back.”

Sano softened and clapped a hand on Kaoru’s shoulder. He didn't tell her that sometimes he thought the same.

“Relax,” he said, smiling, “Kenshin will come back. He’d never leave without a goodbye.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Kaoru said, and she looked up at Sano with a tired smile. “Well, I’ll go with Sojiro and Kenshin first then.”

“Ah, ah, ah,” Sano said, and he pulled Kaoru back. “No, I’m taking the first watch.”

Kaoru rolled her eyes.

“It’s not a ‘watch,’ Sano. And I’m going first.”

“No, you’re going to sleep.” Kaoru opened her mouth to object, but Sano turned her around and began shoving her towards her room. “No arguments, jo-chan. You’re going to rest and I’ll stay with Kenshin and Sojiro. I’ll wake you up if we need something.”

Kaoru looked up at Sano.

“Promise?”

“I cross my heart and hope to die,” Sano said. “Now go to sleep.”

Kaoru appraised Sano for a few moments more before nodding. She stretched her arms behind her head as she walked away and called over her shoulder for Sano and Yahiko to behave themselves.

“Yeah, yeah.” The fighter watched as Kaoru slipped into her room, then sighed. He was in for a few long hours with Kenshin and the new kid. Sano stepped into the yard, wondering where Kaoru kept finding all these strange men and boys. He was in mild awe of the little missie as well, for she was managing to continue training, teaching, keeping the dojo in order, and feeding three hungry mouths all at the same time. She was loud, annoying, sweaty, and bad at cooking, but she was also determined and fierce. Sano had the utmost respect for her, and he knew Yahiko and Kenshin did as well. He headed towards the well, where he had been teaching Yahiko how to play dice before Kenshin arrived. He leaned forward and grabbed the dice and cup, sighed, then headed to Kenshin’s room.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: He leaned forward and grabbed the dice and cup, sighed, then headed to Kenshin’s room.

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Sano didn't bother knocking, simply sliding the door open and peeking his head in. Sojiro was resting peacefully on the futon, and by his relatively steady breathing, Sano figured he was asleep. Upon Sano’s entrance, Kenshin looked up and smiled, his hand still tight around Sojiro’s little one.

“Hello, Sano,” he said, voice quiet. “How are you?”

Sano shrugged.

“All right,” he said, coming into the room and seating himself next to Kenshin. He balanced the cup of dice on his knee and studied Kenshin for a few moments - the tired violet eyes, pale features, worried posture. “How are you?”

“I am fine, that I am,” Kenshin answered and the lie rolled so expertly off his tongue that, if Sano didn't know better, he would have believed him. Instead, he snorted.

“Sure you are,” he said. “You just landed here with a sick and injured kid and you’re totally fine.” He flicked his gaze to the rurouni. “Lying doesn't suit you, Kenshin.”

Kenshin sighed.

“I suppose you are right,” he said with a gentle smile. “I am rather tired, that I am.”

“And worried.”

Kenshin nodded, his smile widening at Sano’s understanding.

“Yes, and worried.”

Sano turned his gaze to the sleeping child in front of him. He seemed even smaller than before, the blue blanket drawn up to his chin. His hand seemed tiny even when wrapped up in Kenshin’s delicate one and his face was fragile and thin, like a newborn babe’s. If he had been healthy and well treated, Sano figured the boy might have been quite lovely, with features like a girl’s. As it was though, he looked horrible. Even in sleep his face was pinched with pain and fear and it was obvious he usually slept lightly, given his tense posture; it seemed that he was prepared for a rough awakening. Sano’s heart filled with anger. Sojiro’s small face was covered in mottled bruises, with a split lip to match and big dark bruises around his eyes. A cut that Megumi had quickly bandaged rested on the top of his temple and, Sano noticed with a sudden flare of rage, that even the child’s ears were bruised and damaged - as if he had been cuffed a few too many times. It seemed that not even one inch of skin had been left untouched. Sano swore under his breath, then lifted the edge of the blanket to satisfy his morbid curiosity. As he suspected, the pads of the child’s feet were covered in bleeding cuts and callouses as if he he had been forced to walk over rough ground without shoes. Kenshin watched as Sano’s eyes lit up with anger, but he replaced the blanket over the child’s feet with utmost care.

“This is unbelievable,” Sano hissed, his body tense. “Who did this to this kid? Whoever did this deserves to die.”

Kenshin blinked at Sano’s harsh words. Sano was an angry soul, yes, and rash, but never before had Kenshin heard him say something so brutal.

“Sano…”

“Kenshin,” Sano said, and Kenshin almost pulled back at the venom in his voice. “Who did this?”

Kenshin turned away, looking back down at the little hand in his own.

“I don’t know,” he whispered, “but this one supposes it was his family.” Sano growled in anger and opened his mouth to speak, but Kenshin cut him off. “However, they were all dead when I arrived there.”

Sano froze.

“What?” he said.

“They were dead,” Kenshin repeated. “Littered all around Sojiro.”

Sano’s eyes went wide.

“You don’t think—?”

“Sojiro was crying when I arrived, that he was,” Kenshin said, “and he was holding a wakizashi in his hands.”

“He killed them?” Sano said, his voice barely above a breath. “But how? He’s so small…”

“I am not sure what happened,” Kenshin said, “but I don’t want to ask him just yet. He is still very weak and sick.”

Sano nodded.

“I understand,” he said. He laid a hand on Kenshin’s arm. Kenshin blinked in surprise at the ice cold anger in Sano’s eyes, but he knew it wasn't directed at himself or Sojiro at all. “In all honesty,” he said, completely deadpan, “if Sojiro had indeed managed to kill them, they deserved it.”

Kenshin blinked but he did not argue, much to Sano’s surprise. The peaceful rurouni usually had some words in protest to killing but it seemed he had nothing to say to redeem the ones who had badly beaten such a small child. Vulnerability was Kenshin’s weakness and Sano understood that anyone who injured the defenseless would be shown no mercy. Death would not be their fate, but Kenshin could never simply let them be. Broken fingers or arms, broken spirits - Kenshin was filled with fury. And the fact that he could not object to Sojiro’s family’s deaths spoke louder than a thousand words - he was furious.

Sano and Kenshin fell silent for a while, their eyes focused on the sleeping little boy, until Sano sighed and grabbed the dice he had brought with him.

“We’re gonna play some dice now,” he said, tossing the small squares up and down on his palm. Kenshin opened his mouth to object, but Sano shut him up. “No arguments,” he said. “Fox told me to keep you busy. Brooding and staring at Sojiro won’t do anything for you or him. So we’re playing.”

Kenshin sighed, looked down at Sojiro, and then nodded at Sano. Sano grinned in triumph as Kenshin angled his body towards him, still keeping Sojiro’s hand in his own.

“All right, Kenshin, let’s do this!”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “All right, Kenshin, let’s do this!”

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Sojiro woke up to the sound of something small rolling softly across the floor, his rescuer’s quiet voice, and a groan from someone else. His rescuer chuckled softly, chastising the other to stay quiet, and Sojiro realized that the other was the man with the spiky hair. He managed to open his swollen eyes a crack, his blurry vision slowly focusing on the pair in front of him. His rescuer, Kenshin, was still holding his hand, but his body was angled to face the other man. They were tossing dice between each other and it seemed that Kenshin was winning judging by the expression on the other man’s face. He seemed annoyed but not angry, and his lips were pulled up in a soft smile. He flicked his gaze to Sojiro and he froze right before tossing the dice.

“Sojiro?” he asked. “Are you awake, kid?”

Kenshin immediately turned to face him, the movement so fast it scared Sojiro. He flinched and pulled his hand away.

Kenshin deflated.

“I’m sorry, Sojiro, that I am,” he said, his voice quiet and soothing. “This one did not mean to frighten you.”

Sojiro blinked at him, and, seeing true regret in his eyes, he offered his hand again. Kenshin caught it up quickly and smiled at Sojiro.

“How are you feeling, Sojiro?” the other man asked. He had stayed a little bit behind Kenshin, hesitant to come closer. Sojiro frowned.

“Name?” he asked.

Kenshin and the spiky haired man frowned in confusion.

“What was that, little one?” Kenshin asked.

“Name,” Sojiro repeated, focusing his blue eyes on the other man’s face. “Y-Your name.”

“Oh,” the man said, eyes widening in understanding. “My name is Sano.”

“Sano….”

The man grinned.

“Yep! Sano.”

Sojiro flicked his eyes back to Kenshin.

“Kenshin and S-Sano.”

The red head smiled.

“That’s right, that it is,” he said, reaching his other hand forward and patting Sojiro’s head. “This one is Kenshin and that is Sano.”

“You were playing?” Sojiro asked.

“Sure were, kid,” Sano said. “We were playing dice.” He held out the small wooden squares covered in black dots for Sojiro to see. “Do you want to play?”

“I don’t know how…”

“That’s all right,” Sano said. “I’ll teach you.”

“Teach me?”

“Of course! It’s easy. Would you like to learn?”

Sojiro turned to Kenshin and, when he smiled, nodded.

“Yes, please,” he said and Sano smiled so wide that Sojiro wondered how his face didn't hurt. He’d never seen a happy smile that big. The little boy turned to Kenshin, his arms held up. “Sit up please, Kenshin.”

Kenshin hesitated.

“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea, Sojiro,” he said. “Megumi-dono said you should lie down.”

“But I want to sit up.” Sojiro tested the waters, voice hesitant, waiting for a harsh no or a cuff on the head. He was surprised when, after a moment, Kenshin just nodded.

“All right,” he said, “but you must sit on this one’s lap.”

Sojiro nodded eagerly and he held up his hands. Kenshin, with care that Sojiro wasn't used to, lifted him gently under the armpits and deposited him in his lap. Sojiro tried to ignore the aches and pains that tore through his body at being moved and tried to hold back a cry of pain, but still a strangled yelp escaped his lips. He tensed, ready for a blow, but Kenshin just slowed down and Sojiro felt Sano’s hand on his back, supporting him as he was lowered onto Kenshin’s lap. Once he was settled, Kenshin gave him a kiss on the head and Sano smiled at him.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Sojiro hesitated before nodding.

“You can be honest with us,” Sano said, falling back to his knees. “Does something hurt?”

Sojiro made a face, trying to focus on the main cause of his pain, but he couldn't figure it out. Much to his shame, his face became hot and tears leaked out of his eyes. Crying was sure to warrant a beating and he pushed himself close to Kenshin, knowing he was the only person who wouldn't dare to hurt him. Sano reached for him before letting his hand fall to his side. His face was sad.

“I won’t hurt you,” he said. Against his back, Sojiro felt Kenshin nod.

“Sano won’t hurt you, that he won’t,” he said. “Do you remember when I told you that earlier?”

Sojiro hesitated, searching his memory, then recalled Kenshin’s reassuring words and kind smile. He nodded, then turned to look at Sano.

“It-It all hurts,” he whispered. “Hurts a lot.”

“I’m sorry,” Sano said, and his eyes were sad and shining. “But can you hang on till Megumi gets back? She’ll give you something for the pain.”

Megumi? That was the lady doctor, Sojiro remembered. He nodded slowly, still hurting badly, but knowing that these two warriors couldn't do much for him besides hold him and smile.

“Would you like to play now?” Kenshin asked, peering at Sojiro’s face. “We’ll teach you, that we will.”

Sojiro nodded and Sano and Kenshin smiled, and then Sano began to explain the game slowly and patiently, all the while keeping his voice quiet and reassuring.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: Sojiro nodded and Sano and Kenshin smiled, and then Sano began to explain the game slowly and patiently, all the while keeping his voice quiet and reassuring.

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When Kaoru had sent him to get Kenshin clean hakama, Yahiko had dashed off, found a pair in less than a minute, but then, when the clean brown fabric was in his hands, he froze. He didn't want to go back there. The new kid, Sojiro, was younger than him, small and fragile, and badly hurt. He was terrified and sick and Yahiko couldn't stand to go back there. He prided himself on his bravery and honor, but the the sight of the beaten little boy resting on Kenshin’s lap froze him with fear. It reminded him of his days of pickpocketing for the yakuza, when he would be punched and kicked for his mistakes. He didn't want to see the kid again, his fresh bruises bringing back old memories for Yahiko.

So Yahiko crouched near the laundry for nigh on fifteen minutes, hakama held tight against his chest, avoiding going back to the room. He knew he had to bring the hakama to Kenshin eventually, but he didn't want to move, didn't want to see the boy again, didn't want -

Didn't want to be scared anymore.

He froze and lifted his head from the hakama.

Isn't that why he had come here? To learn how to be strong and unafraid? Why he trained every single day, endured Kaoru’s awful cooking, did boring chores around the house? He came here to be strong. Myojin Yahiko, Tokyo samurai, had come to this dojo to become strong and brave. He would never be scared again.

Yahiko got to his feet and made his way back to Kenshin’s room, his strides proud and his back straight. He wouldn't be scared again. And being scared of a bruised kid and memories was stupid. Had he really been hiding because of that? No, Yahiko wouldn't be stupid anymore. He would be brave.

As he approached Kenshin’s room, he was surprised to hear gentle laughs and words of encouragement. When he slid the door open, he saw the boy sitting on Kenshin’s lap, Sano sitting across from them, tossing dice on the floor. The boy wasn't smiling but Sano and Kenshin were, big grins on their faces. When Sojiro called evens for the next roll and dice with two dots on each rolled upon the ground, Sano gave an exaggerated groan. Kenshin laughed and Sojiro squeezed his arm, a ghost of a smile flickering so quickly across his face that at first Yahiko thought he had imagined it. He watched in silent wonder as Sano untied the headband from his head and held it out to Sojiro.

“Looks like you won,” he said. “Here’s your prize.”

Sojiro blinked. Yahiko and Kenshin did the same. Sano was offering Sojiro his favorite headband. Kenshin opened his mouth to protest, but a look from Sano shut him up. The fighter held out his calloused hand, the red fabric dangling across his palm. Sojiro stared at him.

“You won, Sojiro,” Sano said. “This is your prize.”

“I-I don’t understand,” Sojiro said, cocking his head in confusion. “Why do I get a prize?”

“When you win a game the loser gives something to the winner,” Sano explained. “Kind of like a present.”

“Present?”

“Yep!” Sano grinned. “So this is your present.”

“I-I’ve never got a present before,” Sojiro whispered, his eyes wide. Yahiko’s breath caught in his throat and, by the way Kenshin and Sano stiffened, he knew theirs had done the same. “If I take it, will it be…. mine?”

“Yes, yours,” Sano said, and it took all his willpower and then some to keep from ruffling Sojiro’s hair.

“Mine…” Sojiro whispered in awe. He reached his tiny hand forward slowly, ever so slowly, as if he expected the present to be taken away. Sano held still, stiller than Kenshin and Yahiko had ever seen, waiting for Sojiro to take the headband. Finally, Sojiro’s bruised, bony fingers curled around the red headband and he pulled it toward him. When it was at his chest, cradled in his hands, he gazed up at Kenshin, jaw hanging open. “This is mine,” he said, holding out the headband for Kenshin to see.

Kenshin smiled.

“That it is,” he said, laying a gentle hand on top of the boy’s head.

“I’ve never had anything before,” he said, “but this is mine.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “I’ve never had anything before,” he said, “but this is mine.”

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Yahiko felt his heart drop and both Kenshin’s and Sano’s faces fell. Nothing? He’s never had anything? Sojiro fingered the headband in reverent awe, then closed his eyes and leaned against Kenshin. Yahiko took this as his opportunity to speak.

“Hey,” he said, voice quiet but still loud enough to call across the room. Sojiro opened his eyes and flinched violently, tossing himself further against Kenshin and crying out.

“Shh,” Kenshin comforted. “That’s just Yahiko. He won’t hurt you, that he won’t.” Kenshin spent a few more moments trying to calm Sojiro down as Sano got up and met Yahiko near the door.

“What’s that?” he asked, motioning to the brown fabric the boy was holding.

“Oh, these are new hakama for Kenshin. Kaoru told me to get them.”

“Didn’t she tell you to do that twenty minutes ago?”

Yahiko blushed furiously.

“Hey!” he yelled. “That’s not-”

He stumbled backwards in surprise when Sano clapped his hand over his mouth. He tried to pull away, furious, but froze at the look in Sano’s eyes. He was bristling with anger and annoyance, his posture tense and brown eyes sparking with. . . protectiveness? Yahiko blinked and wondered when Sano had developed that fierce, affectionate emotion.

“Keep your voice down, idiot,” he said. “You’ll scare him.” He pulled his hand away and Yahiko glared at him. His gaze softened, however, when he looked back over at the shivering Sojiro cradled carefully against Kenshin. They were all so kind. . .

“Sorry,” Yahiko muttered under his breath. “I didn't mean to.”

Sano smiled and ruffled his hair. Yahiko scowled and pulled away and Sano grinned at the familiar movement.

“Can I give these to Kenshin now?” he asked, holding out the clean hakama.

Sano nodded.

“You’ll have to meet the new kid first,” he said, “and let Kenshin and me introduce you.”

Yahiko nodded in understanding and followed on Sano’s heels as they made their way across the room to Sojiro and Kenshin. Sano fell to his knees in front of the pair, and Yahiko stood silently behind him. Kenshin looked up at Yahiko and smiled at him. Yahiko’s heart swelled at the smile and he grinned as well, feeling his strength return to him.

“Sojiro,” Kenshin said quietly, “we have someone else for you to meet.”

“More?”

“Yes, but you’ll like him. He’s only a little bit older than you. So can you open your eyes for me?” Sojiro peeled his eyes open slowly, focusing on Kenshin’s gentle violet eyes. “Hello,” he greeted. “Would you like to meet Yahiko?”

“Yahiko….?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Kenshin said, carefully sweeping back Sojiro’s black hair. “His name is Yahiko.”

Sojiro hesitated and then nodded. His grip tightened around the red ribbon and he spoke quietly.

“I want to meet Yahiko.”

“Very good,” Kenshin said. “Look at Sano and he’ll introduce you.”

Sojiro turned his head to Sano, seeing the man and noticing the kid standing behind him. Sano smiled.

“This is Yahiko,” he said, motioning to the black haired kid with spiky hair and a dirty face. He seemed scared.

“Why are you scared?” Sojiro whispered, eyes on Yahiko. Yahiko’s eyes widened.

“I’m not scared,” he said, plopping on his knees next to Sano. “I’m just kinda . . . worried, I guess.”

“Yahiko,” Sojiro said. “You’re Yahiko.”

“Yeah.”

“Sojiro.” The child raised his thumb and pointed at his chest. “I’m Sojiro.”

“Nice to meet you, Sojiro.” Yahiko dipped his head. “I’m glad you’re here. When you’re better maybe we can play.” He looked to Kenshin for approval and when the rurouni nodded, Yahiko beamed. “There’s no boys my age around. Just a lot of girls.” He made a face. “Girls are kinda annoying, so I’d like to be your friend. If you’d let me.”

“Friend?” Sojiro frowned.

Yahiko plopped down on his butt, nodding eagerly. All his fear was gone, replaced by excitement.

“Yeah, my friend! It’ll be great!”

“Are friends nice to have?”

“What?” Yahiko frowned. “Of course! Don’t be stupid.” Sano slapped Yahiko on the back of the head and Yahiko glared at him, but had the decency to look sheepish. “Sorry,” he said, “I didn't mean to call you stupid.”

“I’m not stupid?”

“No,” Yahiko said. “Why? Did someone tell you that?”

Sojiro nodded slowly.

“Well, they’re stupid.” He smiled at Sojiro, and Sojiro blinked at the shining honesty in his eyes. “Let’s be friends, Sojiro.” He held out his hand, tanned and calloused, his face lit up with excitement.

“Friends?”

“Yep! Let’s shake on it.” Sojiro stared at Yahiko’s hand for a few seconds, and, just when Yahiko thought Sojiro was going to refuse to shake, Sojiro reached out his hand and curled his fingers around Yahiko’s palm. Gently, Yahiko wrapped his own fingers around the bruised hand and shook it. He pulled away after a few seconds, grinning.

“We’re friends now,” he said. “It’s official.”

“Really?” Sojiro whispered, eyes wide as he stared at his hand.

“Really!” Yahiko chirped. “And I’ll protect you with everything I have.”

“Protect me?”

“You’re sick and hurt, right?” Sojiro nodded slowly and Yahiko sat up straight and pointed proudly to his chest, his head held high. “Then I will use the Kasshin Kamiya style to protect you from anything and anyone who tries to hurt you! Just like Sano and Kenshin do.” He smiled, showing off a toothy grin. “Myojin Yahiko, Tokyo samurai, will protect you.”

Sojiro stared at this boy, so full of energy and spirit, and nodded.

“Thank you, Yahiko,” he said in his quiet voice. His eyes flitted to the fabric lying in Yahiko’s lap. “What’s that?” he asked.

“Oh. These are clean hakama for Kenshin since you got sick on his other pair.” He held them out to the rurouni. “You should change into these, Kenshin,” he said.

Kenshin looked down at the sick boy cradled in his arms, knowing that, so far, he had refused to be held by anyone other than him. It was hard for Sojiro to even let anyone else touch him. He nearly panicked every time Kenshin was out of sight. And, with too fast a heartbeat, Kenshin didn't think leaving Sojiro alone for even a minute was a good idea.

So he shook his head.

“I won’t change yet, that I won’t,” he said. He smiled at Yahiko, who seemed confused. “It’s all right, Yahiko. I just don’t want to leave this little one alone.”

Yahiko’s lips parted in a silent ‘oh’ and he nodded in understanding. But Sano spoke up.

“Why don’t I hold him for a minute?” he asked. “Just while you change.” Kenshin hesitated. “C’mon, Kenshin, it’ll be okay. And he seems like he’s doing all right.”

Kenshin looked down at the child in his lap, who was stiff but playing with the ribbon.

“Sojiro,” he said, “can you listen to me for a moment?”

Sojiro looked up from his ribbon at Kenshin’s delicate face and big violet eyes. He saw the worry there and curled his hand into the rurouni’s gi.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, blue eyes wide.

“Nothing, Sojiro,” Kenshin soothed, “but I was wondering if I could lay you down while I change into new hakama. Your sick is still on this pair.”

Sojiro shook his head furiously, holding onto Kenshin’s robes even tighter.

“I don’t wanna lie down anymore. Hurts.”

Kenshin frowned, worried. The soft futon hurt Sojiro? He must be hurting far more than I expected. He sighed, resigned to wear the ruined hakama for a while longer, but Sano spoke up.

“Sojiro, how about I hold you while Kenshin changes?” He watched the child stiffen and hastened to reassure him. “It’ll only be for a minute and I won’t hurt you. I promise.”

Kenshin sighed, expecting Sano’s offer to be refused immediately, but was surprised when Sojiro nodded.

“Gentle?” he asked, blue eyes studying Sano’s face. “Gentle like Kenshin?”

“I’ll be very gentle,” Sano promised.

“And I get Kenshin again?”

“Right when he comes back Kenshin will hold you again,” Sano nodded. “I’ll just hold you for a minute or so.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Right when he comes back Kenshin will hold you again,” Sano nodded. “I’ll just hold you for a minute or so.”

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Sojiro looked up at Kenshin, who was smiling. When he nodded, Sojiro turned to Sano and held out his arms. Sano’s face lit up, thrilled that the boy trusted him so much, and he exchanged a happy glance with Kenshin. He scooted forward and together, Kenshin and Sano managed to get Sano lying against Sano. Sano’s heart jumped.

Sojiro weighed so much less than he had expected - virtually nothing. However, holding him was actually quite the task - it was rather difficult to maneuver his hands to rest on a place that wouldn't hurt the boy. And Sano was alarmed by all the bones he could feel. Every vertebrae, each rib, his small shoulder blades. And his neck was so skinny Sano wondered how he could even hold up his head. But, much to his surprise, Sano felt no anger at the people who had done this when he was holding Sojiro. Rather a horrible sadness consumed him, followed rapidly by another, warmer feeling.

Was this affection? Was this feeling the one parents had when they held their little children? When their heads rolled against their shoulder, when their tiny feet rested on their hips, when their arms were looped across their neck and their hands dangled down their back? When their warm breaths tickled their neck, when their cries could be soothed by a single word? Lord, this feeling was amazing. But it also hurt. It hurt so, so much. Sojiro was obviously in a lot of pain and Sano knew he couldn’t do much to help except whisper words of comfort. And that was agonizing.

“Hush now, Sojiro,” Sano soothed after Sojiro jerked against him. He ignored the tiny kick Sojiro accidentally aimed at his stomach and moved one of his hands to cradle Sojiro’s head. His heart clenched painfully as Sojiro’s warm tears began wetting his neck, and he began to hum a lullaby he had heard long ago. He was halfway through the song, Yahiko watching him, and wondering where the hell where Kenshin was, when the door slid open.

“Ah, Ken-”

There, instead of Kenshin, was Megumi, medicine chest in hand, wearing her white doctor’s covering and white handkerchief tied over her dark hair. She glared at Sano.

“Where’s Ken-san?” she demanded. “And why are you holding Sojiro? Why isn't he lying down? Does anyone listen to me? Do you people even remember that I’m a doctor?” She plopped her medicine chest down on the ground and fell to her knees next to Sano, Yahiko, and Sojiro. She immediately heard him crying and stiffened. “How long has he been crying?”

“Only a couple of minutes,” Sano answered. “He was doing okay before this.”

“All right,” Megumi said. “I’ll need your help to lay him down.” She eyed Sano. “Be very careful with him,” she said. “Not too fast or slow.”

“I know,” Sano said, barely keeping from snapping. “I’m not an idiot.”

Megumi’s gaze softened.

“I never said you were, you silly rooster head.” Sano blinked at how gently she admonished him, but didn't have a chance to say anything as she leaned forward and spoke to Sojiro. “Sojiro, it’s me, Megumi. Do you remember me?”

“Lady . . . doctor . . .”

“That’s right,” Megumi praised. “Very good. Now, I know you don't want to, but it’s time to lay down again.” Sojiro whimpered and shook his head, his grip on Sano tightening.

“No….”

“Yes,” Megumi said, voice firm.

“Kenshin. . .”

“Kenshin will be back soon. But I need you to lay down.”

“Kenshin….”

Megumi sighed.

“Sojiro, Kenshin is-”

“This one is here.” Kenshin’s voice drifted from the entryway, and everyone looked up, finding the rurouni in a completely different outfit - dark blue gi and brown hakama. His hair was pulled back into a new, neater ponytail, but he seemed just as tired.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “This one is here.” Kenshin’s voice drifted from the entryway, and everyone looked up, finding the rurouni in a completely different outfit - dark blue gi and brown hakama. His hair was pulled back into a new, neater ponytail, but he seemed just as tired.

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Sojiro reached out for Kenshin with a whine and the rurouni carefully plucked Sojiro from Sano’s arms, smiling at the fighter in thanks, then, when Megumi motioned to the bed, placed him carefully on the futon. Sojiro whimpered at first, but quieted when Kenshin grabbed his hand. Megumi scooted closer to them, noticing with surprise and curiosity that Sojiro was clutching Sano’s headband, but she made no comment.

“It’s time to get you bandaged up,” she said to Sojiro. “Kenshin is going to help you get undressed while I get all the bandages ready.” She turned to Sano and Yahiko. “Yahiko,” she said, “you need to leave.” Kenshin had already started helping Sojiro undress and Sano had come to distract the boy, motioning to the headband in his hand.

“But-”

“You should help Kaoru make some broth for Sojiro,” Megumi said, her tone brooking no room for argument. She smiled. “You know she can’t do it herself.” Yahiko nodded in begrudging consent, then got to his feet. He spared a final look at Sojiro, surrounded by Megumi, Kenshin, and Sano, then took a deep breath and left the room.

Megumi watched him leave, then turned to her patient. He had been stripped down to only his underclothes and he trembled, terrified at being so vulnerable.

“Relax now, Sojiro,” she said. “I didn't come here to hurt you. You know that, right?” Sojiro nodded and Megumi smiled. “First things first, I’m going to look for any broken bones. Head to toe, all right? I want you to stay as still as you can.” She moved to his head, smiling in reassurance as she tried to avoid the terror in Sojiro’s eyes. “We’re starting at your head, all right?”

Sojiro nodded and Megumi began. His skull seemed unharmed, thank kami, and she smiled as she retold this finding to Sojiro. The others deflated in relief as well. Then she moved her hands to his face and slipped her fingers across his bruised skin. Sojiro screamed and tensed the moment Megumi touched his left cheekbone.

“I need to touch you again, Sojiro. Be brave for me, all right?” Sojiro whimpered and looked at Sano and Kenshin who spoke to him quietly, trying to distract him. But he still cried out as Megumi ran her fingers over his cheekbone. She stopped the moment she felt the bump on the bone. “There we go,” she said, “all done here, Sojiro.” She looked over at Kenshin and mouthed ‘broken’ to him. He nodded and his shoulders sunk.

The rest of the examination was a nightmare. Sojiro cried and cried, screaming every time Megumi found a broken bone, screaming even louder when she had to touch it again to make absolutely sure it was broken. By the end, she had found a broken collarbone, wrist, a few toes, and an ankle, along with a multitude of hideous bruises and cuts. Finally she leaned back, wiping some sweat from her brow as Kenshin whispered to Sojiro, kissing his brow gently. Sano was staring blankly in horror and looked over at Megumi.

“Are we done now?” he asked.

“I wish,” Megumi answered, “but I still need to set some of the bones and care for the bruises. Then we’ll take a break.”

“A break?! There’s more?”

Megumi nodded.

“I need to see what’s making his heartbeat so fast. I also need to make sure he’s not getting sick. He’s too weak to fight off anything major.”

Sano ran a hand over his face.

“Kami,” he muttered, “this is unbelievable.”

“I know,” Megumi said, reaching behind her and grabbing her medicine chest. From it, she pulled a small bottle with a baby blue painted top.

“What’s that?” Sano asked.

“It’s a salve for bruises. Ken-san,” she said, and Kenshin looked up from the no longer crying Sojiro.

“Yes, Megumi-dono?”

“I would like you to put this on Sojiro’s bruises, please,” she said, placing the bottle in Kenshin’s open palm. “It shouldn’t hurt him much, Ken-san.” She tried to smile reassuringly. “All right?”

“All right.” Kenshin took the salve from Megumi and placed it on his lap, leaning over Sojiro and explaining to him what he was going to do. Megumi watched Kenshin for a few moments, noting how pale and tired he was, his cross-shaped scars standing out more fiercely against his skin than usual. He looked thin and strained and she knew she’d soon have to force him to sleep because he wouldn't rest on his own. Megumi knew how much Kenshin was capable of loving - after all, his heart was so big and so full of kindness and forgiveness. But love was a double-edged blade. Seeing the child he had rescued in pain and scared out of his mind must be torturous for Kenshin. It was obvious he already cared deeply for the orphaned child, and Megumi figured that Sojiro would soon become the littlest member of this mismatched family of rescues. She sighed and leaned back, turning to Sano.

“You’re going to help me bandage and brace these fractures for me.” Sano nodded. “I left a few wooden boards outside the door. I’ll need them to be different sizes. A very small one for the broken toes and slightly longer ones for the wrist and ankle. You know what I’m saying, right?”

Sano nodded and waved a hand.

“Please,” he said, “I used to be Zanza the street fighter. I’ve dealt with breaks and fractures enough times in my life to know how to make a splint.” He squinted at Sojiro’s tiny body, mentally adjusting the lengths of the splints. He stood up. “All right, I’lll get the wood. Will you three be all right?”

Megumi managed to roll her eyes.

“Of course, you idiot,” she said. “Now get going.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Of course, you idiot,” she said. “Now get going.”

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The bruises were hard for Kenshin to look at. They were littered everywhere, in each and every color and in each and every size. They were on common places like knees and elbows, but also on places that were obviously from abuse - on his cheeks, calves, thighs, and the cruelest ones that circled around his neck and wrists. Many of them were clustered where he had been grabbed or kicked, and a huge group of them were blooming from his left side, surrounding the ribs. Kenshin treated these last, his touch, however gentle, causing Sojiro pain. Sojiro was a brave child, that much Kenshin knew, and he dealt with the pain very well, mostly just crying silently. The balms for the bruises had seemed to ease the pain some, but Kenshin hated working on his chest. Kenshin had a touch as gentle as a butterfly’s wing, but still Sojiro flinched and pulled away, and, eventually, Kenshin, who had witnessed and caused hundreds of bloody deaths, couldn't stand to touch him anymore. He stared down at Sojiro, who was sobbing, and Kenshin felt his fingers shaking, his big violet eyes huge. Sojiro was begging for it to stop hurting, and Kenshin couldn't stand it. He couldn't inflict pain on this child anymore. He jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder and whirled to come face to face with Megumi.

“Why don’t I take over now, Ken-san?” she offered, a gentle smile on her face. Kenshin immediately read the knowing understanding in her eyes and gave her the balm with a nod. He moved to the other side of Sojiro, cradling his uninjured cheek in his hand and turning his head away from Megumi.

“Look at me now, Sojiro,” Kenshin said, and his gentle tone prompted Sojiro to open his swollen red eyes, tears still flowing from them.

“Ken-Kenshin…” As he reached for the rurouni, Sojiro’s breath caught and he screamed as Megumi swept her clinical fingers over the bruises. He tried to flail and fight her off, but Kenshin kept him still with ease.

“Hush now,” Kenshin comforted, trying to keep his voice smooth despite the fact his heart was racing out of control. “It’s all right, it’s all right. Megumi-dono is helping you.” He caught Sojiro’s hand in his own and squeezed tight. “Please calm down. Please, Sojiro.”

“It-It hurts…!”

“Shh, I know. I know it hurts. But please hang in there, little one.” Sojiro sobbed and jerked when Megumi touched him again. “Please,” Kenshin said, and his voice came dangerously near cracking. “Please, Sojiro, it’s all right.”

“All done,” Megumi said a few minutes later, wiping the excess balm on her white michiyuki. “All done now, Sojiro.” She rounded the futon to come sit behind Kenshin and smiled down at the wounded child. “You were very brave, Sojiro,” she said. “Very brave.”

“Very brave, that you were,” Kenshin echoed, squeezing Sojiro’s hand.

“Done?” Sojiro asked, slumping in exhaustion. His face was red and his eyes puffy from crying and he was obviously ready to fall asleep. Megumi would have given anything to let the boy rest then and there, but, unfortunately, she still had work to do.

“Almost,” Megumi said, “we just need to bandage you up and splint your broken bones.”

Sojiro curled his lip.

“I don’t wanna,” he whined, and he sounded so pitiful that both Kenshin’s and Megumi’s hearts tightened.

“I know you don’t, darling,” Megumi said, patting Sojiro’s head. Her voice was quiet and reassuring and her smile was so gentle that Sojiro relaxed a little just by looking at her. “But you must. We’re almost done.”

Sojiro nodded, tired, and, at the same time, Sano slid open the door, his arms full of small pieces of wood.

“All right,” he said, “I’ve got the wood! Who’s ready for splints?”

His smile was so ridiculous that everyone smiled in return and even Sojiro relaxed for a moment, the ghost of a smile running across his face.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: His smile was so ridiculous that everyone smiled in return and even Sojiro relaxed for a moment, the ghost of a smile running across his face.

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Kaoru woke up to the smell of miso. She sat up and stretched her arms above her head, ruffling her hair with her fingers. For a moment, she thought it was just another day, but, when she heard Yahiko stumbling around in the kitchen and Sano in the backyard, it all came flooding back to her. Kenshin returning with a little bundle in tow, tears and fear and Megumi and vomit and so many emotions running through the air. Remembering Kenshin’s tired and worried face and recalling what Megumi had asked of her, she hurried out of bed and rushed through getting dressed. She came out into the kitchen a few minutes later, dressed in a casual blue kimono, her hair tied up in a hasty ponytail.

“Hello, Yahiko,” she greeted, smothering a yawn. “How are you doing?”

“Fine,” the boy answered, dumping some tofu into a big pot on the stove. Kaoru frowned at the quick, clipped response, noticing that Yahiko was paler than usual.

“You sure?”

“I’m fine, ugly!” Yahiko snapped, but Kaoru didn't respond, instead choosing to ignore the comment. Everyone was having a rough time around here at the moment, and she knew it might be even more difficult for Yahiko.

“What are you making?” she said instead, slipping on her shoes and stepping towards the stove. Her eyes widened as she gazed down into the pot - boiling water, some miso, and already some clumps of seaweed. “Miso soup?” she asked. When Yahiko nodded, Kaoru smiled. “It actually smells pretty good,” she said.

“Yeah, that’s cause Kenshin taught me.”

Kaoru blinked.

“Kenshin taught you? When?”

“When you were out teaching lessons one day. Kenshin was busy making lunch for all of us and he asked me to help.” Yahiko shrugged. “It wasn't that big a deal.”

“Not a big deal, hm?” Kaoru asked, and she lifted a spoonful of soup to her lips. “Yahiko!” she cried in delight. “This is delicious!”

“Really?” Yahiko actually looked mildly surprised. “This is the first time I’ve tried without Kenshin’s help.”

“Well, you did great, idiot!” Kaoru laughed and ruffled the kid’s hair. He scowled and shoved her away but her smile didn't fade at all. “Look at my apprentice - actually doing something right for a change!” Yahiko made a face and began to protest but Kaoru cut him off with a wave of her hand. “Should we bring this to the others now, Yahiko?”

“It’s not done yet,” the boy said, “and Megumi only wanted some of the broth for Sojiro. She didn't say anything about bowls for us. I did make enough though.”

Kaoru nodded in understanding and reached for a clean cup resting on the storage shelf.

“This should do,” she said, handing it to Yahiko. The boy stared at it, the small green cup laying on his palms.

“What’s this for?” he asked. “I didn't make tea. I made soup!”

“I know, but I don't think a bowlful will be good for Sojiro just yet. We’ll try smaller servings first, all right?”

Yahiko nodded, but looked crestfallen, staring blankly into the cup. Kaoru watched him for a few silent moments, noting the worry and fear written all over his face, and, if she looked closer, noticed the slight sense of protectiveness surrounding him like a stormy lightning cloud. Ready to pounce at anything who dared to hurt the sick and injured child lying nearby. Kaoru blinked in surprise and took the cup from Yahiko’s fingers.

“Is it finished now?” she asked, and, after checking the soup and nodding, Yahiko plopped down on the stone step. Kaoru picked her next words carefully as she poured the hot broth into the cup, leaving the tofu and seaweed in the pot. “Have you met Sojiro yet?”

“Yeah, we talked,” Yahiko answered and Kaoru was surprised to hear happiness tinge his voice. “We’re friends now!”

“Already?”

“Of course! Who couldn't be friends with Myojin Yahiko? I’m amazing!”

Kaoru chuckled and finished pouring the soup, laying the half-filled cup on the counter to cool a bit. She sat down next to Yahiko.

“What’s he like?” she asked. “I only met him when he was scared.”

“Well, he’s still really scared,” Yahiko said, leaning back with his arms behind his head, “and he’s really clingy with Kenshin. I can’t believe how small he is,” Yahiko said, “and he’s so delicate - like Kenshin. If I didn't know better I might think he’s a girl at first glance.”

“Is that an insult?” Kaoru asked with a raised eyebrow. “Or are you saying he’s pretty?”

“Kaoru!” Yahiko cried, swatting at her.

“I’m just teasing you,” Kaoru laughed. “No need to get so fussy!” She looked down again at her student, who was smiling at her.

“I know, ugly,” he said, but his smile faded a moment later. “He’s covered in bruises, and I think some stuff’s broken. He was really scared of me and Sano at first but he calmed pretty quick.” Yahiko looked up at his teacher. “I think he’ll like you. When you aren’t running around all sweaty and angry, you’re actually really nice.”

“I’ll ignore the first part of that comment,” Kaoru said, “but thank you, Yahiko.” She turned and got up to get the soup. “This seems to have cooled down a bit. Shall we go bring this to Sojiro now, Yahiko?”

Yahiko nodded and scrambled to his feet, taking the cup from Kaoru’s hands.

“I wanna hold it,” he said. “I want Sojiro and Kenshin to know I made it. You can follow me.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “I wanna hold it,” he said. “I want Sojiro and Kenshin to know I made it. You can follow me.”

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Kaoru laughed again and motioned for Yahiko to lead the way. She followed in her young student’s footsteps, but they began to slow as they got closer to the room. There was sobbing and a few choked screams. Kaoru recognized Kenshin’s soothing, gentle voice over the pained noises. She heard Megumi talking to Sano and the fighter’s dangerous growl. She laid a hand on Yahiko’s shoulder.

“Maybe we should come back later,” she said. “It doesn't sound like Sojiro is ready to eat quite yet.”

Yahiko turned to Kaoru with a scowl.

“Megumi told me to make broth, so I made broth. And she said to bring it when I was done.” He turned and started walking towards the room again. “So I’m bringing Sojiro broth.”

Kaoru sighed, knowing that arguing was pointless, and followed Yahiko. They stopped outside the bedroom’s closed door, listening to Kenshin’s quiet coos of comfort and catching the words “sick” and “badly broken” from Megumi and Sano’s conversation. With a deep breath, she reached over Yahiko and slid the door open carefully.

“Oh, it’s you two,” Sano said as he turned, running his hand over his face. “Good timing. We just finished checking up on Sojiro.” He lowered his voice. “He was hurt pretty bad.”

Kaoru’s heart sunk and Yahiko paled, but he held out the cup of soup a moment later.

“I made Sojiro some miso broth,” he said, voice proud. “Kaoru even said it was good.”

Sano snorted.

“The missie says everything is good.”

“Hey!” Kaoru said, slapping Sano lightly. “That’s not very nice.”

“I’m not a very nice person.”

Kaoru smiled at the familiar banter, then turned to Megumi.

“Is it all right for Sojiro to eat something now? We only filled the cup halfway, and I don’t think miso broth will be too much for him . . .”

Megumi nodded in agreement.

“All right,” she said, “have him drink some of that. But very slowly, mind you. And if he wants to stop, let him stop. I still haven't checked to see if he’s ill yet.”

Both Yahiko and Kaoru nodded and Megumi waved them over to where Sojiro was sitting on Kenshin’s lap. The pair walked over as Megumi and Sano continued their conversation about the extent of Sojiro’s injuries.

As they got closer, Yahiko stopped.

“You wait here,” he said, "and let Kenshin and me introduce you. I think Sojiro is still scared.”

“All right,” Kaoru said, and she stayed some feet back, watching as Yahiko got close to Kenshin and Sojiro. He fell to his knees in front of them, the half-filled cup of soup balanced carefully in his hands.

“Hello, Sojiro,” he said, and he tried to ignore the boy’s puffy red eyes and shaking fingers as he clutched at Kenshin’s gi and Sano’s headband. He watched as Sojiro turned to face him, hiccuping on a little cry.

“Ya-Yahiko,” he stammered. “Hi.”

“Hi!” Yahiko beamed and Kenshin smiled. Yahiko held out the cup to Sojiro. “I made you some soup,” he said, “and I thought you’d like some.”

Sojiro stared at the cup for a few moments, hesitating, before shaking his head. He curled more tightly around Kenshin, burying his face in his gi. Kenshin sighed and gently stroked the boy’s raven hair.

“Can you try some of the soup, Sojiro?” he said. “Try for us, please.”

Sojiro shook his head again, curling more tightly around Kenshin. The rurouni sighed and motioned for Yahiko to wait for a bit. He looked up and saw Kaoru standing behind Yahiko. A bright smile lit up his otherwise tired features.

“Kaoru-dono,” he said, “I’m happy to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Kenshin,” Kaoru smiled. “How are you two doing?”

“I’m well, that I am,” Kenshin said, “but Sojiro is feeling quite under the weather, hm, Sojiro?”

“It hurts,” Sojiro moaned. “It hurts lots.”

“I’m sorry, Sojiro,” Kaoru said, and Sojiro stiffened at the sound of her voice. Kaoru clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry!” she cried, looking wide-eyed between Yahiko and Kenshin. “I forgot he hadn’t met me yet.”

“It’s all right, Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin said, and he pet the top of Sojiro’s head. “I have one more person I want you to meet, Sojiro,” he said to the child, “and she’s quite wonderful, that she is.” He smiled at Kaoru as she turned a bright red and ducked her head.

Sojiro, however, uncurled and turned to face Yahiko and Kaoru. He frowned at her.

“Name?” he asked.

“My name is Kamiya Kaoru,” Kaoru answered, and she scooted forward a little bit, holding her hand out. She kept an even gaze on the boy, a gentle smile gracing her lips, but her heart was swollen with sadness.

The boy was all but bandaged from head to toe, dressed in a green yukata of Yahiko’s that hung loosely around his skinny body. A few bandages were taped to his cheeks, and a gauzy white one circled his brow. His eyes were bruised and swollen and his lip was split. More bandages circled around his neck and wrapped tightly around his chest, and even more were wrapped around his splinted left ankle. His right arm was braced and bandaged and hung from a sling tied across his neck, and some of his toes were taped together, swollen and bruised and obviously broken. He looked awful and exhausted, and, Kaoru noticed with a sudden thrill of alarm, that his unsplinted arm was wrapped protectively around his abdomen.

“Kamiya Kaoru…?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Kaoru said, “Kaoru. What’s your name?”

“You already know it, don't you?” Sojiro asked, brow furrowed in confusion.

“Well, yes, but I’d like to be properly introduced to you.” She smiled. “So what’s your name?”

“Seta Sojiro,” the boy said, and he slipped his small hand into her own. She shook it gently, smiling. Kenshin blinked in surprise, for this was the first time he had heard the child’s family name.

“It’s nice to meet you, Seta Sojiro,” Kaoru said. “You can call me Kaoru, if you like.”

“Kaoru.”

“Yes, that’s right. Is it all right if I call you Sojiro?”

Sojiro nodded and managed the smallest of smiles for Kaoru before pulling his hand away from hers.

“Well, it seems you’ve met everyone now, Sojiro, that you have,” Kenshin said.

“No more people?”

“Not for now, no.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Not for now, no.”

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Sojiro relaxed.

“Good.” He closed his eyes and Kenshin’s gaze flicked from Kaoru’s to the cup of soup lying next to her. Yahiko grabbed it in understanding.

“Sojiro,” he said, “I think you should try some of the soup I made. It might make you feel better.”

Sojiro shook his head and leaned back against Kenshin.

“My stomach hurts,” he whispered. “I don't want to try.”

Kenshin frowned down at the child.

“Your stomach hurts?” he asked. When Sojiro nodded, Kenshin’s frown deepened.

Sojiro flinched as if expecting a blow but relaxed when Kenshin made no move. He nodded, his eyes fluttering.

“It really hurts when I move.”

“Megumi-dono,” Kenshin said, trying to hide his alarm. He tightened his grip on Sojiro as the child weakened obviously in his arms.

“Sojiro?” Kaoru said, leaning forward, noting the suddenly grey color of his face. Sojiro’s head lolled in the crook of Kenshin’s elbow and he fought to keep his eyes open. Kaoru looked up at Kenshin, alarmed. “Kenshin, what’s going on?” Kenshin didn't answer, instead just staring blankly down at the child in his lap. “Kenshin?” She made to touch his arm when she was shoved out of the way.

“Move,” Megumi said, falling to her knees in front of Kenshin and Sojiro. Her hands flitted in front of her and her quick, clinical eyes took in Sojiro’s suddenly rough breathing, grey face, and protective hold around his abdomen. She grabbed his arm and pulled it away and Sojiro whined, trying to fight her grip. “Easy,” she comforted. “Ken-san, what did he say?”

“His stomach hurts when he moves.”

“Damn,” Megumi swore under her breath. “Sojiro, listen to me. I’m going to touch you now, and I need you to tell me where it hurts. Can you do that?”

Sojiro fought to keep his blue eyes open and nodded. Megumi kept a tight hold on his arm as she began to palpate Sojiro’s stomach. The boy’s eyes immediately flew open and he screamed, trying to pull away. Kenshin, startled, hardly managed to keep a hold of the boy and cradled his head when he fell back, crying.

“I see now,” Megumi sighed, leaning back hardly a minute later. “It’s not your lungs that are making it hard to breathe. Someone really hurt you.”

“What?” Sano asked and Megumi had forgotten that the fighter was standing behind her.

“He has some internal injuries.”

Kenshin paled.

“What?”

“Sojiro,” Megumi said, leaning forward, “did someone hit your stomach? Or kick you?”

Sojiro nodded. He was no longer crying, but he was clearly exhausted; his frightened fight with the doctor haven taken much of his already waning strength.

“Both,” he whispered. “Hit and then kicked.”

“Shit,” Sano muttered, running his hand through his spiky hair.

“Do you remember how many times?”

“Hit twice, kicked . . .” Sojiro made a face, clearly trying to remember. “I don't know. A lot.”

Megumi turned to Yahiko and Kaoru.

“He won’t be able to eat that now,” she said, motioning to the cup of soup. “Put it away.”

Kaoru placed her hand on Yahiko’s back and whispered something in his ear. He nodded, pale at the information he had just heard, then proceeded to get to his feet and leave the room, cup in hand.

“It’s time to lie down again, Sojiro,” Megumi said, her voice gentle but firm. “Kenshin will still be here, but you need to lie down.”

Sojiro whined in protest, but Kenshin and Megumi moved him to the futon nonetheless, soothing him as Megumi continued her examination. Kaoru watched from some distance away, her fingers shaking, and nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt Sano’s hand on her shoulder. He smiled sadly and knelt down next to her.

“You know,” he said with a tilt of his head, “I’ve never seen a kid treated that badly before.”

Kaoru nodded but said nothing. Sano turned to her, and, out of the corner of her eye, Kaoru could him see him smiling faintly.

“You’re gonna adopt him, huh?” he said. “Like you did with Yahiko.”

“Yahiko is my student,” she sniffed, but she nodded nonetheless. “And yes, Sojiro will be living here from now on.” She watched Kenshin’s back for a moment, noticing how tense he was. “Besides,” she said, “I highly doubt Kenshin will let the boy leave.” She hesitated, then tore her eyes from Kenshin, Megumi, and her patient, finally turning to Sano.

“Do you think he’ll live?” she asked, her voice quiet. His whines echoed around the room, and his frightened sobs ripped through Kaoru like a knife.

She was surprised, to say the least, when Sano snorted.

“Of course,” he said, and Kaoru wondered how he could sound so sure. He turned to her with a grin. “Kenshin won’t let this kid die,” he explained. “He carries around that sakabato - the sword that protects, right?” He nodded over to them and, for the first time, Kaoru noticed that Kenshin’s free hand was curled around the hilt of his sword - his grip so tight his knuckles were white. “Kenshin will think that his sword did nothing to protect Sojiro if the kid dies.” Sano clapped a hand on Kaoru’s back and the girl almost fell over. She raised her eyes to watch Kenshin, her gaze boring into his back as he leaned over Sojiro to kiss his brow. The rurouni Kaoru adored was kind and brave and gentle, and, above all, protective. He would do anything to protect the people he cared about. So what Sano said made all the sense in the world to Kaoru. She nodded and a gentle smile crossed her lips.

“The sword that protects,” she breathed.

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Chapter Text

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The sun had set long ago and the entire group was seated around Sojiro, passing rice balls to each other. However, Yahiko seemed to be the only one with an appetite - the others just nibbled at their food, even the voracious Sano only taking a few small bites. Their eyes were all trained on Sojiro, who was sleeping quietly, whistling breaths escaping his lips, Sano’s red headband clutched in his unsplinted hand. Megumi and Kenshin were obviously planning to spend the night with Sojiro - that went unspoken - but Sano, Kaoru, and Yahiko had no desire to leave just yet, not with Sojiro barely asleep and the other two on edge.

Yahiko reached over and plucked Kaoru’s rice ball from her fingers, blinking in surprise when she didn’t object or cry out in annoyance.

“You okay, Kaoru?” he asked, leaning forward and looking at her face. Her eyes flicked between Sojiro and Kenshin and Yahiko sighed. Kaoru’s concern was warranted, of course, but he wasn't surprised that even now Kaoru was worried about Kenshin.

“Kenshin.” He spoke up in Kaoru’s place, knowing she would probably never say something. “How are you doing?”

Kenshin blinked for a few moments, taken aback, but then he smiled.

“This one is fine,” he said.

“Are you sure?” Kaoru asked.

“This one is tired,” Kenshin amended. “But otherwise all right.”

“You should try to get some sleep,” Kaoru suggested, but all she received was a quiet, tired smile.

“This one doubts he can sleep,” he said.

Kaoru huffed, her breath sending her bangs fluttering above her head, then crossed her arms over her chest.

“You can at least try,” she muttered. “It’d be good for you.” Kenshin opened his mouth to say something, but Kaoru beat him to it, pointing at the ribbon in Sojiro’s hand. “And what is that?” she asked. “Where’d he get it?”

“That’s my headband,” Sano said, speaking around the rice ball in his mouth. Kaoru blinked, for the first time noticing that Sano’s trademark red headband was missing. Her eyes widened in shock.

“You gave him your headband?!” she all but yelled under her breath. “Well, that’s quite a surprise. I never would have seen that coming.” She turned to him. “Why did you give it to him?”

Sano shrugged.

“He beat me at dice and I gave that as the victor’s prize.”

“Willingly?”

“Of course, willingly!” Sano cried, outraged. “You’d think the kid would force that from me?”

“I just never thought you’d give that headband up,” Kaoru said. She reached over and grabbed her rice ball from Yahiko just as he was about to bite into it. Yahiko cried out in annoyance but Kaoru just shoved him gently. “After all, I’ve never once seen you without that headband, even when you’ve been out cold and bleeding.”

“That’s true,” Sano amended, “but I had nothing else to give Sojiro. And he deserved something of his own.”

“Something of his own?” Megumi asked. “What do you mean?”

“He said he had never had anything of his own before,” Kenshin said, trailing his fingers over the back of Sojiro’s hand. The women paled and exchanged horrified glances.

“Never?” Kaoru cried.

“Nothing?” Megumi said. Her eyes darkened and she clapped her fist on her hand. “This needs to be remedied immediately! Kaoru, do you have any ideas?”

Kaoru made a face and considered for a few moments before her face lit up. She nodded and clapped her hands.

“Tae, Tsubame, and I are heading to Yokohama in a couple of days. We were going to go shopping for some new clothes and things for her store, but I’ll also find Sojiro something there. I mean, there must be something good!”

Megumi nodded in approval of this plan and Kaoru beamed with delight, smiling at Kenshin, who returned it, then looked down at Sojiro. With the red headband curled gently into his hand, Kaoru could almost think he looked like any other little boy, but with the whistling breathes, the bruises, bandages, and splints, Sojiro was very unlike the rest of them. She turned to Yahiko, remembering when they had found him beat up by the yakuza, bleeding and covered in bruises from punches and kicks, but still fighting. Still with that fighting spirit. Sojiro, Kaoru feared, probably had the spirit beaten out of him long ago. And she thought maybe Yahiko could sense that, given how protective and fierce he was concerning the other boy already.

Kaoru sighed.

“I think it’s time for bed now, Yahiko,” she said, getting to her feet. She wiped her hands on her kimono and held out a hand to Yahiko. She stifled a smile when she saw the kid’s expression - he was completely distraught at the thought of leaving but he was clearly tired, if his drooping eyes were anything to go by. “C’mon,” she said. “Let’s head off to bed.”

Yahiko opened his mouth to object when Sano interrupted him. He got to his feet in one quick movement and shoved the rest of the rice ball in his mouth.

“Yeah, I’m gonna turn in too,” he said. “It’s been a long day.” He headed towards the door and slid it open, motioning for Yahiko to follow. “C’mon, kid, it’s time to sleep. Sojiro will be fine - he’s got Kenshin and the Fox.” Yahiko, however, still didn't budge.

“Yahiko,” Kenshin said and, when the boy turned to him, he managed a small smile. “If something is wrong, this one will call for you.”

Yahiko stared at Kenshin, then squinted in suspicion.

“Are you sure?”

Kenshin chuckled.

“Of course I’m sure.”

“And you promise?”

“I promise.” Kenshin held out his hand and Yahiko took it. They shook hands, gazes even and honest, and, when Yahiko pulled away, he seemed convinced.

“All right,” he said, “I believe you.” He got up from his place by Sojiro’s feet and picked up the tray with the leftover rice balls. He strode past Sano and Kaoru, then looked over his shoulder. “Come on, you two,” he ordered, “let’s leave Sojiro alone.”

The others exchanged fond glances with each other before Kaoru and Sano followed Yahiko out of the room, wishing Megumi and Kenshin goodnight.

When they were gone and the only light in the room was from a few flickering candles, Megumi and Kenshin fell silent, their eyes focused on Sojiro. The boy was resting quietly, it seemed to Kenshin, but Megumi recognized the signs of pain and unease written all over his face and present in his stiff posture. She reached forward and placed a hand on Sojiro’s brow, searching for a fever, but was pleased when she couldn't find one.

“He seems to be doing all right,” the doctor said, and she flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Why don’t you sleep now, Ken-san?”

Kenshin shook his head.

“That’s all right, Megumi-dono,” he said. “I’d rather not quite yet.”

Megumi sighed.

“Ken-san-”

“No, Megumi-dono,” the rurouni said, focusing his steely, determined eyes on her face. “This one won’t sleep yet.”

Megumi nodded, knowing there was no point in arguing with Kenshin now.

“Well, I can’t sleep just yet either, given that Sojiro isn’t in the best place right now.” She settled herself comfortably next to Sojiro’s head and placed her hand on the top of his black hair. “Looks like we’re in for a long night, aren’t we?” she said, smiling gently at Kenshin. When he smiled in response, she leaned over Sojiro and kissed his brow. “Hang in there, darling. It will be all right.”

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Chapter Text

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When the morning came, Megumi was sitting next to Sojiro, humming as she changed the bandages on his feet. He was hardly awake and was quiet, listening to Megumi as she sang an old lullaby. Kenshin had fallen asleep some feet away while leaning against the wall, his sword resting on his shoulder. He was sleeping deeply, exhausted, and Megumi, tired as she was, was pleased that Kenshin was getting some rest. She was also amazed by how well Sojiro seemed to be coping. He was still in pain, that much was obvious, but he seemed to be feeling safer and safer, no longer flinching away from Megumi as she worked.

“Where’s Kenshin?” the boy asked, turning his head this way and that, looking for the rurouni.

“Kenshin is sleeping,” Megumi told Sojiro as she tied off the last of his bandages. “See? Right over there.”

Sojiro turned his head, and, upon seeing Kenshin sleeping peacefully, nodded.

“He’s strong,” he said to Megumi.

Megumi grinned.

“He sure is,” she agreed.

“He carried me here,” Sojiro said, “and protected me.”

“Protected you from what?” Megumi asked.

Sojiro stiffened and tore his eyes from her face. He hesitated before answering.

“He protected me,” he repeated. “From bad things.”

Megumi didn't press the issue, although she was incredibly curious about what “bad things” Kenshin had protected Sojiro from. She turned back to her medicine chest, stowing the bandages away. When she turned and looked up again, she found Kenshin awake and sitting by Sojiro’s head.

“Good morning, Ken-san,” she said, "how was your little nap?” Because Kenshin had only been asleep for an hour and a half, Megumi didn't think it deserved to be called a proper rest.

“It was good, that it was,” Kenshin smiled. “Thank you for asking, Megumi-dono.”

Megumi forced a smile.

“All right, you two,” she said, “because you seem to be doing a little better, Sojiro, I’m going back to the clinic to get some medicine for you.”

“Will you be back?” Sojiro asked, and he reached for her. She smiled and took his hand.

“I’ll try to be back soon,” she said, “after all, how can I leave my littlest, bravest patient without a doctor for so long?”

Sojiro blinked.

“Bravest. . .?” he whispered.

“That’s right,” Megumi said with a nod, “the bravest of them all.” She lowered her voice. “Even braver than Kenshin.” Sojiro’s eyes went wide and Megumi smiled. “He always complains when I bandage up his wounds.”

“What was that, Megumi-dono?” Kenshin asked, a gentle smile on his lips. Megumi shot up and pretended to be shocked that Kenshin had heard what she said.

“Oh, it was nothing,” she purred and she placed a finger over her lips and winked at Sojiro. “Just Sojiro and I’s little secret.”

“Is that so?”

Megumi nodded and winked again at Sojiro, who stifled a small giggle. She grinned and she turned to Kenshin, pleased to see that he was smiling too.

“I should be going now,” she said, grabbing her medicine chest and sliding the drawers closed. She got to her feet in one smooth motion, ignoring the ache in her legs from kneeling next to Sojiro all night. She headed towards the door and flipped her black hair over her shoulder. “I’ll be back soon, you two,” she said. “Hang in there.”

Both boy and rurouni nodded, and, with a smile, Megumi left the room, sliding the door shut behind her. She took a deep breath of the fresh air and stilled her shaking fingers, heading to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. She was surprised, to say the least, when she found Sano, Kaoru, and Yahiko already up and eating breakfast. She blinked.

“Well, well, well,” she said, stepping into the kitchen and depositing her medicine chest on the floor, “I’m shocked to see you all up. Especially you, lazy bones,” she said to Yahiko.

Yahiko scowled at her, but didn't say anything, instead turning back to his food and stuffing a large piece of fish in his mouth. Kaoru smiled fondly at him, then turned to Megumi.

“How is Sojiro?” she asked.

Megumi shrugged and seated herself at the table next to Sano, pouring herself a cup of tea.

“Well enough, all things considered. His wounds don’t seem to be showing any sign of infection and he already seems less frightened.”

“Really?” Kaoru cried, and her face lit up. “That’s wonderful!” She pushed a plate of breakfast towards Megumi but the doctor shook her head, bringing her cup to her lips.

“It is,” she said. “However, today should prove to be a critical point for him - physically and emotionally. I’ll be here for most of the day, and I’d like you all to take turns being with Sojiro. You first, Kaoru. Ken-san seems a bit stressed and I believe you should be with him.” Kaoru turned red and ducked her head, but looked up again when Megumi continued to speak to her. “Also, you’ve spent the least amount of time with Sojiro and I think he should get to know you better.”

Kaoru nodded.

“Do you want me to bring anything for him?” she asked. “Some breakfast? Miso soup? Tea?”

“Nothing to eat yet,” Megumi said, placing her empty cup on the table. “But some tea should be fine. Make it weak though.”

“Of course.” Kaoru turned to Sano and Yahiko and pointed at each of them in turn. “You two, I’m depending on you to take care of the house this morning. Can you do that?”

Sano scoffed and Yahiko snorted.

“Obviously!” they cried at the same time. Megumi smiled then got to her feet, nodding at the trio still seated around the table.

“Expect me back in a few hours,” she said. “I’m depending on you all.” She swept her hair over her shoulder, then slipped out of the kitchen, heading back to the clinic. Kaoru and the others watched her go, and then Kaoru took a deep breath. She turned and plucked the last rice ball from Yahiko’s fingers, ignoring his cry of protest.

“So,” she said, hands on her hips, “we’ve got a rice ball for Kenshin and I’ll make some green tea for Sojiro.” She nodded to herself and set her lips into a determined line. As she headed towards the stove to boil water for the tea she heard Yahiko speak to Sano.

“Lucky Kaoru is actually good at making tea,” he whispered. “Otherwise Sojiro would probably die of dehydration.”

Kaoru flung her sandal at Yahiko’s head and he fell with a plop!, crying out in surprise. Sano laughed and picked up Kaoru’s sandal, tossing it back to the girl before Yahiko could get his revenge. Kaoru smiled and turned her back, the bickering between Sano and Yahiko the background to her tea making.

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Chapter Text

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Kenshin was sitting quietly next to Sojiro, singing to the boy as he laid in bed, voice slightly off-key. Both rurouni and Sojiro jumped when there was a knock on the door, and Kenshin’s hand flew to his sword, but he relaxed when he heard Kaoru’s voice.

“Ah, Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin said, “come in.”

The door slid open to show Kaoru, dressed in a pink floral kimono with a purple ribbon in her hair and a tray with a teapot, a couple of cups, and a rice ball in her hands. She smiled at Kenshin and stepped into the room, sliding the door shut behind her.

“Hello, you two,” Kaoru greeted, her voice strong but quiet. “I’ve brought tea and snacks. Megumi said you can’t have food yet, Sojiro, but I brought some for you, Kenshin.” She came up to the pair and knelt next to Kenshin, smiling down at Sojiro. He blinked tired, wary eyes at her. “How did you sleep, Sojiro?”

The boy blinked again and said nothing.

“I’m not sure if he slept very well,” Kenshin said, grabbing the rice ball from the tray and eating it swiftly. “He was in a lot of pain.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Kaoru said to Sojiro, then she turned to Kenshin. “And you, Kenshin? Did you sleep?”

“A bit.” Kenshin smiled at Kaoru, gratefulness shining from his violet eyes. “Thank you for asking, Kaoru-dono.”

Kaoru smiled, then turned to Sojiro.

“Sojiro,” she said, “I’m heading out to go shopping tomorrow. Would you like anything?”

Sojiro blinked in wide-eyed confusion, clearly not understanding.

“For me?”

“Of course for you, silly,” Kaoru said. “I can get anything you like.”

Sojiro stared at Kaoru shocked.

“Anything? For me?”

“Yes,” Kaoru repeated patiently. “For you, Sojiro.”

“I-I don’t know.” He turned his blue eyes to Kenshin. “What should I get?” he asked, looking for direction. Kenshin smiled, understanding that letting Sojiro pick out anything he wanted would be a little too much at first.

“Hmmmm,” he said. “How about some new tabi socks and sandals? Would you like that?”

Sojiro nodded.

“Socks especially,” he whispered.

Both Kaoru and Kenshin smiled and nodded.

“What color would you like?” Kaoru asked.

“I can pick a color?”

“Of course! Here, I’ll narrow it down for you. You can have white, black, purple, or dark blue.”

Sojiro blinked a couple of times, taking in his options. After a few moments, he pointed at Kaoru.

“Your ribbon,” he said.

“My ribbon?”

“Purple like your ribbon, please.”

Kaoru’s entire face lit up and she nodded eagerly at Sojiro before exchanging an excited glance with Kenshin.

“Purple socks it is then! And for your sandals? What color would you like the straps to be?”

“White, please. Like Kenshin’s.”

Both rurouni and girl smiled.

“White sandals and purple socks. Got it.” She smiled. “You have good taste, Sojiro. I like the colors you picked.”

“You do?”

“Yep!” Kaoru smiled wide, then turned to the tray with the tea. “Now it’s time for tea.”

Sojiro paled and shook his head. Kaoru pursed her lips and sighed.

“Megumi said you should try,” she said.

But Sojiro just shook his head again.

“Sojiro,” Kenshin said, “please try for us. It might make you feel a little better.”

“That’s right!” Kaoru quipped in agreement. “Besides, you need to drink something. Otherwise you’ll get dehydrated.”

Sojiro flicked his eyes from Kaoru to Kenshin and back again before nodding slowly.

“All right,” he said, voice scarcely audible. Kaoru couldn't hear him but Kenshin’s face lit up and he smiled at Sojiro.

“Thank you, Sojiro,” he said. “You’re very brave, that you are.”

“That’s right!” Kaoru nodded. “The absolute bravest.” She lowered her voice. “Even braver than Kenshin.”

Sojiro gave a little giggle.

“That’s what lady doctor Megumi said,” he whispered to Kaoru. Kaoru raised an eyebrow and then laughed.

“She would say that,” she smiled. She leaned back and motioned to the tea. “Would you try some tea for us now, Sojiro?”

Sojiro nodded slowly, then reached for Kenshin. Kenshin gripped Sojiro under the armpits, then maneuvered the boy into his lap, careful not to hurt him. Kaoru’s heart swelled seeing Kenshin so at ease and gentle with the child. He was great with Ayame and Suzume, that much she already knew, but seeing Kenshin with another little one, this one badly hurt, Kaoru felt her affection for the rurouni grow that much stronger. He was patient, protective, and gentle, and he seemed to understand the boy’s wants and needs with such ease that it seemed like Sojiro was his own child. Kaoru’s mind wandered to an image of a little red headed baby toddling to Kenshin’s open arms, a huge smile on his face as Kaoru watched and clapped. Ah, that would be a dream come true….

“Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin said and Kaoru snapped herself out of her daydream. Kenshin was frowning at her, worried, and it was obvious that he had been calling her name for a while now. She blushed and turned to the tray.

“I’m sorry,” she said, grabbing the teapot and filling a cup half way with tea.

“Are you all right, Kaoru-dono?” Kenshin asked, concern in his voice.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” she said. “Just thinking, is all.”

“Oh,” Kenshin said. “All right.” He watched Kaoru for a few more moments, still mildly concerned, then, when she had finished filling the cup, he turned to Sojiro. He laid a hand on the top of Sojiro’s head and smiled at him. “Are you ready?” he asked.

Sojiro didn't move, but only clutched harder to Kenshin’s gi, his knuckles turning white. Kenshin sighed internally, then motioned Kaoru forward. She scooted forward until she was knee to knee with Kenshin. Then she smiled at Sojiro.

“This is green tea,” she said. “I made it for you. It should be cool by now - not too hot.”

Sojiro nodded but continued to make no move.

“Would you like to try?” Kaoru said, holding out the cup. “It’s good, I promise.”

Sojiro sat very still for a few more moments, then nodded. He reached his hand out for the cup, but, when Kaoru noticed he was shaking, she held it back. Sojiro frowned and wiggled his fingers.

“Do you want me to help you?” Kaoru offered.

Sojiro shook his head.

“You’re shaking, little one, that you are,” Kenshin said. “Why not let Kaoru-dono help you?”

Sojiro looked up at Kenshin, hesitated, and then nodded. Kaoru sighed in relief and moved forward. Sojiro wrapped his fingers around the light green cup and Kaoru gently wrapped her hands over his, suddenly noticing how small he truly was. Sano had told her, but this was more than she had expected. His tiny hands were cold and bony, but, upon touching them, Kaoru’s heart became warm. She understood, all at once, how the others had become so protective of this little person, and, the moment her hands touched his, she swore to herself, just like the others, that she would never let any harm come to the tiny Seta Sojiro.

She smiled.

“There we go, sweetheart,” she said to Sojiro. “Do you have it?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’m going to help you now, all right?”

“Yeah.”

Kaoru let Sojiro bring the cup to his lips, only helping him to keep the cup from shaking and spilling. Slowly, she helped Sojiro tip the contents into his mouth, whispering words of encouragement the entire time. After a few sips, Sojiro pulled the cup away and handed it back to Kaoru. She gazed into it, and, seeing that Sojiro had barely drank anything, she frowned.

“Sojiro, would you try a little bit more for me?”

Sojiro shook his head and shrunk into Kenshin, burying his face in the rurouni’s chest. Kenshin rubbed his back in gentle circles, sighing and shaking his head at Kaoru when she held the cup forward. She sighed, then laid the cup back on the tray.

“That’s all right, Sojiro,” she said. “You did wonderfully. And even the few sips you took will help you.”

Sojiro nodded but didn't turn, instead only pushing himself closer to Kenshin. Kenshin kissed the top of his black head and began to rock Sojiro back and forth. Kaoru smiled at him, then pulled a small ball from the pocket bag at her side.

“Sojiro,” she said, “can you look at me for a moment? I have a surprise for you.”

Sojiro stiffened against Kenshin, whimpered, and shook his head. Kaoru noticed how his entire body had tensed up as if he was expecting a blow and her shoulders slumped in sadness. What had happened to this boy? What kind of monster had done this to him? But then she set her shoulders and made her voice strong again.

“It’s a present,” she said. “Like the headband Sano gave you.”

Sojiro relaxed a bit.

“A present?” he asked, his voice muffled against Kenshin’s chest.

“That’s right,” Kaoru smiled. “A present. My father gave it to me and I think you should have it now.”

Kenshin’s eyes widened in surprise but Kaoru just smiled at him. Kenshin rubbed Sojiro’s back, leaned over, and whispered something in his ear. Kaoru watched as Sojiro relaxed a bit, then nodded, and turned around with Kenshin’s help. He blinked his blue eyes at her and Kaoru smiled. She held out her hand and both Kenshin and Sojiro stared at the round object lying on her palm.

It was a marble, a little glass ball painted with swirls of blue and green.

“Wow,” Sojiro breathed, leaning forward. Kenshin smiled at Kaoru.

“It’s very beautiful, Kaoru-dono, that it is,” he said.

“My father gave me a set when I was a girl and I thought you should have one of the marbles, Sojiro.”

Sojiro looked up at Kaoru in curiosity.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why? Because this is your new home. All the kids here get a marble. Yahiko has one too.”

“Yahiko?”

“Yep! Although his is different colors. It’s red and yellow.”

“This is. . . home?”

“If you’d like it to be,” Kaoru said. She smiled gently.

Sojiro twisted to face Kenshin, ignoring the pain that shot through his body at the motion. The rurouni was smiling down at him, violet eyes gentle and kind.

“Home?” he asked.

Kenshin nodded.

“Home, that it is.”

“Your home?”

Kenshin nodded and turned his eyes to Kaoru who blushed but somehow managed not to look away.

“My home too,” Kenshin said.

Sojiro once again turned to Kaoru.

“I would like to be home,” he said, voice quiet.

Kaoru beamed and held out her hand. When Sojiro slipped his hand into hers she raised it to her lips and kissed it gently.

“Welcome home, Sojiro,” she said.

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Chapter Text

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Kaoru spent the rest of the morning with Kenshin and Sojiro, telling them some stories about how Yahiko had made a mess of the entire dojo while Kenshin had been gone. These stories made Kenshin laugh and even managed the smallest of smiles from Sojiro. Eventually, the little boy fell asleep, comforted by the soft voices and laughter, cradled in Kenshin’s arms. Kaoru looked down at him.

“He’s such a lovely boy,” she said, her voice almost reverent. “He looks like an angel.”

Kenshin laughed quietly and from the doorway they heard a snort. They turned and found Sano leaning against the doorjamb, his ever present fishbone hanging from his lips. He tossed it behind him as he stepped inside.

“I didn't take you for a religious one, jo-chan,” he said, his tone teasing.

“Hfm,” she huffed, turning away from the street fighter. “You don’t know everything about me, Sano.”

Sano smiled and stepped further inside, and, upon noticing that Sojiro was asleep, lowered his voice and softened his steps.

“How’s he been?” he asked, motioning to the boy.

“All right,” Kenshin answered, rocking Sojiro back and forth in his arms. “Kaoru-dono managed to get him to have some sips of tea.”

“That so?” Sano raised an eyebrow and then grinned at Kaoru. She smiled back. “I’m glad of that.” He stepped forward and seated himself on the floor next to Kaoru. He looked at Sojiro, swallowed by bandages and splints, cradled against Kenshin, and noticed that the headband and a small marble were held in his free hand. “Did you give him that marble, jo-chan?” Sano asked. “It looks like Yahiko’s.”

“That’s cause they came in a set, idiot,” Kaoru said with an eye roll.

“Oh,” Sano said, and he leaned back. Kaoru looked at him for a few moments. She watched in quiet awe as every muscle in his body relaxed, as the angry frown lines on his brow and around his mouth faded, replaced by a quiet smile. However, the fire in his eyes remained.

Kenshin smiled at Sano.

“Sano,” he said, “what are you doing here?”

“I came to visit, obviously,” he said. “Also, Megumi is in the kitchen preparing the medicines. I’m here to tell you what they’re for. So, Kenshin, would you mind waking the kid up for me?”

Kenshin looked down at Sojiro who was sleeping peacefully in his lap, his breathing almost even, his face slightly less pinched. He looked back up at Sano.

“Must we?” he asked sorrowfully.

Sano nodded and gave Kenshin a small, apologetic smile.

“Sorry, Kenshin,” he said, “but Megumi wants me to explain the medicine to Sojiro now so that when she comes in with the medicine it can be immediately delivered. There’s some herbal remedies, apparently.”

Kenshin nodded in understanding but made no move to wake Sojiro. Kaoru scooted forward in his stead, and, when he nodded at her, she reached her hand out and placed it on Sojiro’s forehead.

“Sweetheart,” she whispered, “it’s time to wake up.” Sojiro didn't react at first, but he did when Kaoru raised her voice a little louder and used his name. He jerked and flailed, his tiny fist flying up in self-defense. He yelped and buried his face against Kenshin, clutching at him.

“Shh, little one, it’s all right,” Kenshin said, cradling Sojiro’s black head. “It’s all right. You’re safe.”

Kaoru and Sano watched Kenshin rock the child back and forth, Kaoru feeling guilty and Sano once again feeling angry. Eventually, Sojiro calmed down and Kenshin cajoled him into turning around. He blinked his tired blue eyes at Sano and Kaoru.

“H-Hi,” he stammered.

Both Kaoru and Sano smiled.

“Yo,” Sano said.

“Hello, sweetie,” Kaoru said. “I didn't mean to frighten you.”

Sojiro blinked.

“Sweetie?”

“Yeah, sweetie.” Kaoru smiled and explained patiently, knowing Sojiro had probably never been called by a term of endearment before and thus had no idea what they were. “It’s short for sweetheart.”

“Sweetheart? Why’d you call me that? My name is Sojiro.”

“Yes, it is, but-” Kaoru leaned forward and booped Sojiro’s nose. The boy stifled a giggle and Kaoru grinned. “-you have a very sweet heart. So you’re my sweetheart.”

“Yours?”

Kaoru pulled away and blushed, waving her hands in front of her.

“I don’t mean that I own you or anything!” she clarified, becoming nearly frantic. “I just - I just-”

“It just means Kaoru-dono likes you very much, that she does,” Kenshin said to the boy. He looked up at Kaoru with a smile, and the girl turned an almost impossible shade of red and ducked her head. Sojiro nodded at Kenshin and then turned to Kaoru.

“Sweet. . . heart?”

“Yes, that’s right!” Kaoru beamed. “Sweetheart!”

Sojiro smiled.

“I like that,” he whispered.

“You do?” When Sojiro nodded, Kaoru grinned and Sano and Kenshin did as well. “Well, then, sweetheart, we’re glad you’re up.”

“Thank you.”

“Sano wants to talk for you for a while, is that okay?”

Sojiro nodded, and, with Kenshin and Kaoru’s help, they sat the boy up on Kenshin’s lap so that his black head was resting against Kenshin’s collarbone. His bandaged, splinted feet dangled over Kenshin’s knees and his free hand was fisted in his blue gi. Once he was settled, he focused his eyes on Sano, who was sitting cross-legged in front of him. The fighter grinned.

“Hello, Sojiro,” he said. “I’m going to tell you some things and I need you to listen really hard.” He looked very seriously at Sojiro. “Do you understand?”

Sojiro nodded.

“I understand,” he repeated.

Sano smiled.

“Good! That’s great, Sojiro!” Sano grinned and Sojiro managed a little smile in return. Sano smiled wider before then he grew serious. “Listen closely now, kiddo. Megumi is making medicine for you in the kitchen and when she comes in she’s going to have you take some. I’m going to tell you what they are and what they’re for.” He looked up at Kenshin and Kaoru, letting them know that this information was for them as well. “So, first things first, Megumi knows you’re hurting so she’s going to give you some morphine.” He took a deep breath. “It’s like opium so it’s going to make the pain go away.”

Like opium? Kenshin sucked in a sharp breath and exchanged an alarmed glance with Sano and Kaoru. He remembered with vivid clarity how Megumi had come into their lives. She had been forced to make opium for Kanryu and had been working on a dangerous street variety when she had run away and discovered Kenshin and company. At the time, Sano’s friend had recently overdosed and died from the same opium and, despite the fact that now Megumi was free from Kanryu and working as a doctor, the death was still difficult for him to bear.

And opium was dangerous and addictive. Was it safe to give a derivative of that drug to a child?

But Sojiro just nodded in understanding; he didn't know a single thing about opium.

“No more pain?”

“Yes,” Sano nodded, “the pain should go away.”

Sojiro nodded and relaxed.

“That’s nice,” he whispered.

Kenshin forced a smile over his face.

“That it is,” he said, running his fingers through Sojiro’s hair.

“But,” Sano continued, “Megumi said it might make you sick at first. So she’s going to give you some medicine for that too.”

Sojiro nodded.

“That’s all for now. Does that sound all right?”

“Yes,” Sojiro said, voice quiet.

Sano smiled but he was tense. He could see that Kenshin and Kaoru were too, clearly hating the idea that little Sojiro would be receiving some type of opium. They couldn't forget what had happened - and all they knew they would never be able to. As they sat in tense silence, Sojiro half-awake in Kenshin’s lap, there was a knock on the door and it slid open. Megumi stepped in, face grim and worried, followed by Yahiko, who was balancing a tray with a small bowl of soup, medicine packets, some hot towels, and some type of herbal medicine on it in his hands. He smiled at Sojiro, the only one not overly concerned about the medicine Sojiro was going to take.

“Hi, Sojiro!” he chirped.

“Yahiko,” Sojiro said and a soft smile crossed his lips. His eyes roved over to Megumi. “Hello, lady doctor.”

Megumi chuckled as she knelt in front of Sojiro.

“You can call me Megumi, Sojiro,” she said. “That’s my name.”

“Lady doctor Megumi,” Sojiro said and everyone laughed.

“That’s right,” Megumi said with a big smile. “You can call me that too.” Yahiko placed the tray next to her and Megumi sighed and took a deep breath. “Did Sano tell you about your medicine?”

“Yes,” Sojiro nodded. “It’ll make the pain go away.”

Megumi nodded and Kenshin noticed she looked pale.

“It should,” she said. “But it might also make you sick so I’m going to give you medicine for that too.”

Sojiro nodded.

Megumi reached for a small paper packet of medicine, but, before she could take it, Sano grabbed her hand.

“Is this really a good idea?” he asked, voice quiet. “Why are you giving him opium?”

“It’s not opium, it’s morphine,” Megumi said. “It’s medicine.” She pulled her hand away. “I know what I’ve done in the past, Sano,” she said, and shame raced across her face, “but that’s over now. I’m a doctor and I’m here to take care of an injured child.” She stared Sano down. “Do you trust me?” she asked.

“Yeah, of course,” Sano said, but then he looked away. He lowered his voice even more. “But I don’t trust opium or anything like it,” he said. “I can’t forget what it did.”

“I know,” Megumi said, “and I don't expect you too. I’ll never forget either.” But then her voice grew strong. “But this little one is in pain and I’m going to do everything in my power to ease that. Morphine is the best option - it’s the strongest.”

“Is it safe to give him that?” Kenshin asked, and Megumi looked up at him, noting the concern shining from his eyes.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve made the right dose, taking into consideration his age and weight.” She smiled softly at Kenshin. “Don’t worry too much, Ken-san,” she said. “It’ll be okay.” She turned to Kaoru. “Do you have any objections or questions, Kaoru?” she asked.

Kaoru hesitated then shook her head; however, she remained pale and tense with worry. Megumi sighed, took a deep breath, then steeled herself.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: Kaoru hesitated then shook her head; however, she remained pale and tense with worry. Megumi sighed, took a deep breath, then steeled herself.

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“All right, then, Sojiro, are you ready?” When Sojiro nodded she managed a smile. “I think it’s okay for you to eat a bit now, so I brought you some broth and I want you to eat it. All right?” Sojiro hesitated before nodding again. “Good job, Sojiro.” She turned, grabbed the paper package, and poured a small amount of white powder into the bowl of miso broth that Yahiko had brought. Kenshin, Sano, and Kaoru watched with their hearts in their throats as Megumi stirred the powder into the soup until it disappeared, then drew the bowl into her lap. “All right, Sojiro, I put the medicine in this soup, so I need you to eat it all, okay?”

Sojiro made a face at the prospect of the food and wrapped his free hand over his stomach, but then he nodded. He turned to Kaoru.

“Would you help me, please?” he asked her.

Kaoru blinked but then nodded. Kenshin could tell that she wasn't eager to comply, but she stilled her shaking hands and took the soup from Megumi. She balanced the bowl in her lap, slipped the spoon into the soup, then held it to Sojiro’s lips, one hand under the spoon to keep its contents from spilling.

“Here we go, Sojiro,” she said, “open your mouth now.” Sojiro parted his lips and Kaoru slipped the spoon’s contents into his mouth. Sojiro made a face.

“Yuck,” he murmured. “Tastes funny.”

“I know, sweetheart,” Kaoru said, voice soothing, “but you need to finish this. It’s all right.” She held out another spoonful, but this time Sojiro closed his mouth tight and turned his head away. Kaoru sighed. “Come on, sweetie,” she said. “You need to eat this. The medicine is in it and it will make you feel better. I know you can do it, Sojiro.”

Sojiro shook his head and tried to turn to face Kenshin, but Kenshin just turned him back around to Kaoru. The boy whined.

“Don’t wanna,” he said.

“You have to,” Sano said, and he made his voice stern. “You will eat the soup, Sojiro, one way or another.”

Sojiro turned to him, eyes huge and terrified, and shrunk against Kenshin. Megumi slapped Sano’s arm.

“What the hell?!” she cried. “Now he’ll never eat the soup willingly.” She glared. “The last thing I wanted to do was force feed him. Baka!”

“Force feed him?” Yahiko spoke for the first time, and Sano and Megumi turned to him with winces, for they had forgotten he was sitting near them. “You’re gonna force him to eat?” His eyes were wide. “You can’t do that!”

“Yahiko,” Megumi said, “if he doesn't eat the broth, he won’t get the medicine. He needs the pain medicine.”

“But you’ll scare him!” He turned and saw Kaoru and Kenshin speaking to Sojiro, trying to wheedle the boy to eat the thin broth, but it clearly wasn't working. “You’ll really scare him.”

“Yahiko, please,” Megumi said, and Yahiko blinked at the pleading tone in her voice. “You need to understand.”

Yahiko stared at Megumi, reading the desperation and exhaustion in her eyes. He thought briefly of the terror that Sojiro would feel while being force fed the soup he had worked so hard to make, but then thought of the blessed relief from pain Sojiro would receive after that. He nodded slowly.

“I understand,” he said, his voice low. “I don’t like it, but I understand.”

Megumi sagged in relief, and then turned to Kaoru.

“Kaoru,” she said, “has he eaten anymore?”

“No,” Kaoru said, clearly frustrated and upset. “Kenshin and I can’t manage to convince him it’s okay.”

“Then we don’t have a choice. He needs to eat the soup soon or the morphine won’t have much effect. Give me the bowl, Kaoru.”

The girl’s eyes went wide.

“But, Megumi-”

“The bowl,” Megumi repeated, her voice more forceful. “Now.”

Kaoru handed Megumi the bowl, her hands shaking, then scooted away.

“Ken-san,” Megumi said, “hold him tightly now. And cradle his head and neck for me.”

Kenshin’s eyes widened.

“Megumi-dono,” he said. “Please don’t-”

“Kenshin,” the doctor said, for once using Kenshin’s full name. “Do as I say. If you can’t, I’ll have Sano hold him.” She took a deep breath and steeled herself, making her voice firm. “This needs to be done, Ken-san,” she said. “I need him to eat the soup.”

Kenshin hesitated, then motioned to Sano.

“Sano,” he said. “Hold him, please. I - I can’t.”

Sano’s eyes widened in surprise, but he nodded nonetheless. Kenshin, he noticed with shock, was shaking as he transferred the small Sojiro into Sano’s arms. Sojiro whined and reached for Kenshin, but Kenshin just shook his head and smiled.

“It’s all right, Sojiro, that it is,” he soothed. He took the child’s hand and looked him dead in the eyes. “Be brave for us, please,” he said. He smoothed Sojiro’s hair back with his hand and forced a smile across his face. “This is going to be a bit hard, Sojiro, and this one is sorry for that.”

Sojiro blinked at Kenshin, hardly noticing as Sano cradled his neck and head with his big, strong hand.

“Hard?” he whispered. “Kenshin-”

He stiffened as Megumi curled her hand around his jaw and slipped a spoonful of miso broth into his mouth. Sojiro tried to spit it out, but, before he could, Megumi closed his mouth and held tight to his jaw. Sojiro flailed, kicking and crying out, terrified. He heard a girl crying somewhere behind him and Megumi snapping at her to leave. He heard Sano and Megumi speaking to him. But he heard Kenshin’s voice most clearly.

“Sojiro,” he was saying, “Sojiro, it’s all right. Look at me. Come, little one, look at me.” After a few more seconds, Sojiro peeled his eyes open and focused on Kenshin’s face. The man was pale and his eyes were wide and sad. Sojiro began to cry and Kenshin squeezed his hand. “Swallow for us, now, Sojiro,” the rurouni said. “Swallow, it’s all right.” Sojiro shook his head furiously and Kenshin sighed then tipped Sojiro’s chin up, forcing the boy to swallow; he was careful, however, in making sure the soup slid down the boy’s throat and not into his lungs, where he would aspirate.

“There we are,” Kenshin soothed. “Just two more spoonfuls now, Sojiro. Keep your eyes on me and it will be less scary. Look at me.” Sojiro focused his teary eyes on Kenshin’s pale face haloed by his bright red hair and his little smile. He focused on the sensation of Kenshin’s hand over his own instead of the hands at his jaw and the soup that slid like slime over his tongue. He continued to cry but ceased fighting Megumi and Sano, allowing them to maneuver the morphine-laced soup down his throat. Soon, they were done.

“There we go,” Kenshin said, and Sojiro felt himself moved gently back into the rurouni’s arms. He clutched at Kenshin’s blue gi and rested his head against Kenshin’s chest. He was surprised to hear his rescuer’s heart beating fast. “There we go. It’s over now, that it is.”

“You’re scared,” he murmured, looking up at Kenshin. Kenshin smiled sadly down at Sojiro and wiped some spittle from his chin.

“Yes, that I am,” he said. “That was scary.”

“You thought so too?” Sojiro asked.

“That I did.”

Sojiro nestled himself closer to Kenshin.

“It was scary,” he said, his voice muffled. Kenshin hugged the boy close, then looked up at Megumi and Sano. Sano was grey and grim, his face set like stone, but his eyes were incredibly soft and guilty. Megumi was ashen and her fingers were shaking as she set the empty bowl of soup aside. She looked at Kenshin, guilt shining from her eyes.

“I’m sorry, Sojiro,” she said. “I know that must have been really hard for you. But we needed you to eat that soup because the morphine was in it. Do you understand?”

Sojiro whimpered.

“Scary,” he said. “Sano and lady doctor Megumi scary.”

Both stiffened and Megumi, hand over her mouth, began to cry silently. Sano stood up roughly and all but ran out of the room as Megumi pushed the tray towards Kenshin.

“Sano and I will leave now, then, Sojiro,” she said, trying to keep her voice calm. “Kenshin and Yahiko can give you the rest of your medicine and stay with you.” She got up and, before leaving, turned to Yahiko. “Come for me if anything happens,” she said, wiping the tears from her cheeks. She then stepped out of the room and slid the door shut behind her.

Yahiko stared after her for a few moments, wide-eyed and surprised, still trying to absorb everything that had happened. He had come in with Megumi, medicines and soup in tow, and they had tried to coax Sojiro into eating it. But when Kaoru and Kenshin couldn't do it, Sano and Megumi had picked up the boy and all but shoved the soup down his throat. Yahiko had known that force feeding wasn't the most pleasant of experiences, but he hadn't expected it to be so awful. Sojiro had immediately panicked, squealing in surprise and horror the moment the soup was in his mouth and he couldn't spit it out, and he began fighting Sano and Megumi, weakly kicking the pair. Kenshin was huddled over Sojiro, speaking reassuring words to him, holding his hand and trying to get him to calm down. However, Sojiro seemed inconsolable, still fighting. That’s when Kaoru started crying.

Yahiko had nearly jumped out of his skin when the girl next to him started sobbing, her face buried in her hands, her shoulders shaking in time with her sobs. Yahiko had begun to awkwardly reach out to comfort her when Megumi snapped at her.

“Get out, Kaoru!” she yelled. “He doesn't need you sobbing! Get out!”

To Yahiko’s surprise and alarm, Kaoru didn't argue with Megumi or even give her a dirty look, but instead just fled the room, tears streaming down her face. Yahiko stared in shock as she fled, then watched the force feeding go on for a few more minutes before the bowl was empty. Then Kenshin took Sojiro again and Megumi and Sano left the room.

Yahiko blinked out of his reverie when Kenshin called to him.

“Yahiko?” he said. “Are you all right?”

“What?” Yahiko said, blinking. “Oh, yeah, I’m all right. That was insane.”

Kenshin laughed softly.

“That it was,” he said. He readjusted Sojiro against him and smiled at Yahiko. “You can come closer now, Yahiko,” he said.

“Yahiko,” Sojiro said. “Y-Yahiko.”

The moment Sojiro called his name, Yahiko was at his side. He laid a hand on the sick child’s back.

“Hi, Sojiro,” he said. “I thought you were really brave just now.”

“Brave?”

“Totally! That looked terrifying.”

Sojiro nodded and Yahiko changed the subject.

“I heard that Kaoru gave you a marble. I have one too. Would you like to see it?”

Sojiro turned to face Yahiko and nodded.

“Yes, please.”

“Sweet.” Yahiko reached into the pocket bag hanging from his hip and held out a little red and yellow marble. Sojiro reached out and took it, turning it back and forth.

“Pretty,” he said. “Like fire and sun. Mine’s like earth and water.”

Yahiko and Kenshin blinked and exchanged surprised looks. That was more poetic than they had been expecting.

“I guess it is,” Yahiko said, taking back his marble. He was about to say something else when Sojiro curled up, his hand over his abdomen.

“Sojiro?” Kenshin asked. “Is something wrong, little one?”

“Hurts. . .”

“What hurts?” Kenshin asked, exchanging an uneasy glance with Yahiko.

“My stomach hurts.” He curled up tighter with a whimper and a groan. “It hurts, Kenshin.”

Kenshin began to speak when Yahiko cut him off with a bright “Aha!” He turned to the tray he had brought in with Megumi and grabbed a swaddle of white towels. Kenshin frowned, but when he touched them, they were warm.

“They’re hot water towels!” Yahiko cried, pleased. “If you put them over your stomach where it hurts they’ll make the pain go away some. You can use it until the morphine kicks in. Even after, if you want.” He didn't bring up the medicine still on the tray, figuring getting Sojiro to swallow anything else at the moment wouldn’t go over well.

Sojiro reached forward and touched the towels, and, finding them pleasantly warm, nodded. Yahiko leaned forward and placed the pack of towels over Sojiro’s stomach. Sojiro stiffened at first, unused to the new weight, but then he relaxed and laid his hand on it.

“It feels nice,” he whispered. “Soft and warm.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “It feels nice,” he whispered. “Soft and warm.”

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“Good!” Yahiko grinned. “I’m glad.” He laid down at Kenshin’s feet, arms behind his head, and looked up at Sojiro. “Hey,” he said, “can we talk until you fall asleep?”

Sojiro blinked.

“You want to. . . talk?”

“Yep.”

“Why? D-Did I do something wrong?”

“No, you did nothing wrong. I just want to talk to you.”

“About what?” Sojiro asked, confused.

“About anything. Hmmmm. . . let’s talk about sword fighting. Do you like swords?”

Kenshin felt Sojiro’s muscles go tight underneath his hands and he hastened to comfort him and stop Yahiko from speaking any further.

“It’s all right, Sojiro,” he said to the boy, then gave Yahiko a meaningful look. “Why don’t we talk about something else, Yahiko?”

“Oh. Oh, yeah, of course!” Yahiko rolled onto his stomach and propped his chin up with his hands. “Lemme tell you about the Akabeko.”

“Aka. . . beko?”

“Yeah, it’s a restaurant in town and it serves the best beef hot pot. Sometimes Kaoru will take us there.” He continued rambling for a little bit, but stopped when he saw the confused look on Sojiro’s face. “Sojiro?” he asked. “What’s up?”

“What’s beef hot pot?” the boy asked, voice quiet.

Yahiko blinked in shock, then clapped his hands and got to his feet in one swift movement. Sojiro flinched but Yahiko barely noticed.

“You don’t know what beef hot pot is?!” he cried. “This has to be remedied right away! Once you get better I’m having Kaoru take us all to the Akabeko for a feast! You just have to have beef hot pot, Sojiro. It’s sooooo good.”

“Better than soup?”

“Better than miso soup and rice balls and ohagi combined!” Yahiko bounced back and forth. Sojiro watched in fascination, wondering about how amazing this beef hot pot must be, as Kenshin smiled in quiet fondness. He looked down at Sojiro when the boy turned to face him.

“Will we really eat hot pot?” he asked. Kenshin nodded.

“If you’d like that,” he said.

“Yes, please,” Sojiro said, and he turned again to Yahiko. “I would like to try hot pot.”

“Yes!” Yahiko cried, and he jumped up and pumped his fist in the air. Sojiro flinched at the loud noise and pulled himself closer to Kenshin, but, once again, Yahiko didn't notice. He ran to the door. “I should tell Kaoru! That way she can save up money! Oh, and I should start working more at the Akabeko!” Then a thought sprang to his mind and he ran back to Sojiro and Kenshin, a big smile on his face.

“Kenshin,” he said, “is Sojiro gonna live here now?”

“Yes, that he is,” Kenshin said, stroking the boy’s hair.

Yahiko smiled so wide that Sojiro swore the grin took up his entire face.

“Then I’ll be sure to work twice as hard than usual to treat you myself!” the boy cried, pointing at his chest. “I, the great Myojin Yahiko, will be sure to take care of Seta Sojiro and feed him a great meal at the Akabeko!” He smiled wide, then fell to his knees in front of the pair again. “How old are you, Sojiro?” he asked. Kenshin blinked - he had never even thought to ask this question.

“Eight,” Sojiro answered. “I’m eight years old.”

“Eight?” Yahiko’s face lit up. “That means I’m technically your older brother! Cause I’m ten.”

“Brother?” Sojiro paled and shook his head, growing a little frantic. “I don’t want a brother. No more brothers. No more sisters.”

“That’s okay,” Yahiko said, and Kenshin blinked at his rapid understanding. “I was always an only child anyway.” He winked and managed to get a little smile out of Sojiro. “Still friends though?” Yahiko asked, holding out his hand. Sojiro wrapped his bruised one around Yahiko’s and nodded.

“Still friends.”

Yahiko grinned.

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Chapter Text

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The morphine began to kick in an hour later. Sojiro’s stomach still hurt somewhat but he stopped complaining about the pain in his chest and limbs. Much to Kenshin’s delight, by the evening Sojiro said that nothing hurt at all, but he still felt nauseous so Yahiko kept bringing warm towels to the room, along with some stories of the day he had at the Akabeko. Apparently he had told Tsubame all about the boy they were keeping in the dojo and obviously Tae had heard about it and now Tae was in the kitchen with Megumi and Kaoru gossiping her head off and asking a million questions. By late afternoon, Sojiro trusted Megumi and Sano again and even allowed them to give him small hugs. Kaoru came and ate dinner with them and Sano played dice. Megumi went about her doctorly duties such as changing bandages and giving medicine but she also sang to Sojiro. Sojiro loved to hear her sing and loved it even more when Kenshin joined in. Kenshin couldn't sing very well but it made Sojiro happy so he complied and would sing traditional songs or lullabies in harmony with Megumi.

It was a little past eight now, and the sky was slowly getting closer to inky blankness each passing half hour. The door had been left open so that fresh air could flow into the room, and Kenshin was sitting near the door, cradling Sojiro as he slept quietly. He looked down at the boy, flooded with relief.

Where earlier his rest had been fitful and pained, he seemed almost at peace now. He was sleeping relatively easily, the familiar lines of fear and pain nearly smoothed away. His breathing was no longer harsh and rattling, but had evened out, his little chest moving up and down in near perfect, slow movements. He still looked horrible and pale, covered in bruises and bandages and splints, but his restful sleep was comforting to Kenshin, for he knew that calm and peaceful sleep would speed the boy’s recovery.

Kenshin was still gazing down at Sojiro, humming quietly, when there was a knock on the door. He looked up to find Kaoru, Megumi, Sano, and Yahiko standing in the doorway. Yahiko came in first with a few candles and matches and silently lit the lamps in the room so that it was flooded with warm yellow light. Kenshin thanked him and Yahiko smiled and wished him and Sojiro a good night, yawning and then leaving the room. It was only eight o’clock but Kenshin couldn't blame him for his exhaustion - it had been yet another long day. As Yahiko left the room, Kenshin turned to look at the other three.

Sano was carrying a large basin of steaming water and some towels were tossed over his shoulders. Kaoru was holding some more towels in her arms and Megumi was carrying a tray with soap, a few sponges, and a small bowl of water on it. The trio seated themselves around Kenshin and Sojiro. Kaoru smiled tiredly at Kenshin.

“Hello, Kenshin,” she said. “How are you?”

“This one is tired,” Kenshin answered and Kaoru blinked at this honest answer. Kenshin smiled at her. “How are you, Kaoru-dono?”

Kaoru began to answer when Megumi cut her off.

“Can you wake Sojiro up for me, Kaoru? It’s bath time.”

Kenshin blinked and, as Kaoru reached forward to help wake Sojiro, she explained.

“He’s too weak to go in the bath, so Megumi decided we should give him a sponge bath. It will be good to get him clean from all the dirt and dried blood.”

Kenshin nodded, looking at the boy in his lap. He had forgotten how filthy the child was - he had been so busy taking care of him - but, upon looking at him again, he realized how necessary a bath was. Sojiro was covered in dirt and dried blood caked much of his exposed skin. It occurred to Kenshin that not only would a bath better reveal the injuries Megumi and them had taken care of, but would also make Sojiro far more comfortable. Being clean and warm would probably benefit the boy a great deal.

“A bath is a very good idea, that it is,” Kenshin said, smiling at Kaoru and Megumi. They both smiled back at him, then, with Kaoru’s help, Kenshin nudged Sojiro awake.

Sojiro’s eyes flickered open and he woke with a confused groan. His eyes roved around the room for a few moments, disoriented, before settling on Kenshin and Kaoru’s faces leaning over him.

“H-Hi,” he stammered. They smiled at him.

“Hi, sweetheart,” Kaoru said, reaching forward and laying her hand on his brow. “I’m sorry to wake you, but we’re going to give you a bath now.”

“Bath?” Sojiro frowned.

“Yes, a sponge bath. You’re not strong enough to leave the room yet so we’re just going to give you a bath here, all right? You can lay on your bed and still be comfortable.”

“Bath in bed?” Sojiro asked, clearly confused. “I-I don’t understand.”

“Do you want me to show you?” Kaoru asked, and, when Sojiro nodded, she helped Kenshin sit him up.

Sojiro’s eyes followed Megumi and Sano as they worked quietly around his bed, laying towels on top of the futon to keep it from getting wet. He looked at the basin of steaming water, the soap, and the soft hand towels.

“Wash me in bed?” Sojiro asked again and Kaoru nodded.

“That’s right, sweetie. It will be okay, I promise. We’ll be as gentle as possible.”

“Who’s gonna give me a bath?”

“Megumi and I,” Kaoru said, and, when Sojiro stiffened and clutched at Kenshin, Kaoru rushed to reassure him. “Kenshin will be right here. Would you like him to hold your hand?”

Sojiro nodded.

“Megumi,” Kaoru said, and the doctor looked up from where she was laying towels across the futon.

“Yes?”

“Is it all right if Kenshin stays?” she asked. “I think Sojiro would feel safer if he was here.”

Megumi hesitated; she wasn't sure if letting a man participate in a bath was the best idea. She had no experience with men in such things as bathing and feeding. Men usually left the room when it was time to eat or bathe and the female members of the family were usually the only ones who assisted Megumi. She was hesitant to let Kenshin stay. Then again, she remembered how wonderfully he had dealt with the frantic Sojiro during the force feeding and Sano’s firm but gentle hold on the boy as she made him swallow the broth. Also, from what Kaoru had told her, Kenshin had even persuaded the boy to eat a rice ball before he had vomited it back up. She appraised Sano and Kenshin for a few moments - Sano busily making sure the water was a safe temperature, Kenshin cradling Sojiro so gently that Megumi thought he might as well be the boy’s father. Maybe she should stop underestimating the power of men in sickness. . . especially when it came to children.

“All right,” she sighed. “Kenshin can stay. But you,” she turned and pointed a finger at Sano, “have to leave.”

“Fine by me,” the street fighter said. “I’m tired anyway.”

Kenshin smiled at Sano, then turned his smile to Megumi.

“Thank you for letting me stay, Megumi-dono,” he said. “I know it’s not exactly traditional.”

“It means a lot to Sojiro,” Megumi said, smoothing the towels on the futon. “Honestly, if it wasn't for that, I probably wouldn't let you stay.”

Kenshin nodded in understanding, then spoke to Sojiro, telling him that he was going to stay by his side. The boy instantly relaxed.

“Megumi,” Sano said, and Megumi turned to him. “The water’s good. Warm, but not too hot.”

“Good. You can leave now. Kaoru, come here and let me tell you what’s going to happen.”

Kaoru nodded and joined Megumi while Sano took her spot next to Sojiro and Kenshin. He smiled at the boy and pet his head gently.

“I’m going to sleep now,” he said, “but I’ll see you in the morning. Megumi and Kaoru will take good care of you. Also, you’ll feel a lot better after your bath. I know I feel better after one.” He grinned at the boy. “Goodnight, Sojiro.”

Sojiro held out his hand.

“Goodnight, Sano.”

Sano took Sojiro’s outstretched hand and squeezed it gently before getting to his feet and leaving the room. As he slid the door shut behind him, he threw Sojiro a wave and a wink before disappearing. Sojiro giggled.

“He’s funny,” he said. “Sano is funny.”

Kenshin laughed.

“That he is,” he agreed with the boy.

Sojiro giggled again and leaned back against Kenshin, relaxed, but immediately stiffened again when Megumi called to him. He looked up to see the two women sitting on their knees next to his bed, which was covered in two layers of towels, bowls of water and more towels next to them. Kaoru was smiling in soft reassurance and Megumi was trying to, although she seemed more troubled.

“Are you ready for your bath now, Sojiro?” she asked. The boy didn't move and Megumi sighed. “It will be all right,” she said. “Ken-san, bring him over.”

Kenshin readjusted the injured child in his arms and turned him gently so that Sojiro’s arms were looped around his neck. Kenshin, with the utmost care, cradled Sojiro’s head and back as he lowered him onto the bed. Sojiro whined in protest but was too weak to hold onto Kenshin for long and so let go after a few moments. He found himself lying flat on his bed, propped up by a pillow, everything covered in soft, fluffy white towels. He blinked and looked around him. Sojiro watched, nervous, as Kaoru unfolded a clean cloth and blanketed it over him, covering him from chest to toes. Then she turned to Megumi, who nodded at her.

“I’m going to undress you now, Sojiro,” Kaoru said. “I promise not to hurt you.”

Sojiro closed his eyes tight and whimpered, shaking his head. Kaoru looked desperately over at Megumi. The doctor hardened her gaze.

“You need to learn how to do this, Kaoru. There will be days where I won’t be here to help. So I need you to know how to do this.”

Kaoru nodded, took a deep breath, then turned back to Sojiro. She pulled back the top of the sheet, folding it down to his hips. Then she reached for the top of his green jinbei and began to untie it at the side. Sojiro whimpered and tried to move away, but Kaoru kept him still with ease.“It’s all right,” she soothed, slipping the jinbei off to expose his chest. With Megumi’s help, they maneuvered his splinted arm from the right sleeve and then slipped the jinbei off completely.

“There we go,” Kaoru said. “First part done.” She laid the jinbei aside, frowning at how worn it was. It had been an old one of Yahiko’s and so had been through a lot. It was soft but the fabric was thin in some spots, ready to make new holes at any time. Kaoru filed this information in her head - she planned to get Sojiro a new jinbei when she went shopping tomorrow.

“Done?” Sojiro whispered.

“Yes,” Kaoru said, and she folded the sheet back over Sojiro’s bare chest. “Now I’m going to take off your bottoms and underclothes, all right?” She watched, somewhat amused, as both Kenshin and Sojiro turned pink.

“N-No!” the boy cried in protest. “Don’t do that!”

“You can’t take a bath with your underclothes on,” Kaoru said with a grin. Behind her, Megumi stifled a laugh and Kenshin, still blushing, managed a small smile. Sojiro blinked.

“That’s true,” Sojiro amended.

“So can I?”

“Can Kenshin?” Sojiro asked.

“No,” Megumi answered immediately, throwing Kenshin a look. “No, he can’t.”

“Why not?” Sojiro and Kaoru asked at the same time. Kaoru exchanged a fond smile with the little boy before turning to Megumi, who looked annoyed. “I’m sure it would be less awkward for both Sojiro and me.”

Megumi rolled her eyes.

“Don’t be so embarrassed, Kaoru,” she said. “He’s a child. And don’t pretend you don’t know male anatomy.”

Kaoru stiffened and turned impossibly red, trying hard to ignore the fact that Kenshin was right behind her. She took a deep breath to calm herself and cleared her mind of some . . . inappropriate thoughts.

“Still,” she said, and she was surprised to hear how steady her voice sounded, “I think Sojiro would be more comfortable if Kenshin undressed him.”

“Fine,” Megumi huffed. “Hurry up, Ken-san.”

Kenshin followed Kaoru’s instructions and folded up the sheet to expose the child’s legs. Kaoru leaned over Sojiro to distract him as Kenshin stripped him of his clothes then slipped the sheet back over him. Kaoru looked over at the jinbei’s bottoms and confirmed that she needed to get him some new ones, then looked at the filthy loincloth. He needed a new one of those too. Kaoru sighed, realizing that Sojiro basically needed a new pair of everything.

“All done!” Kenshin said and he smiled down at Sojiro. “Now it’s bath time. Kaoru-dono is going to clean you up.”

“And I’m going to help,” Megumi said, rolling up her sleeves. Kaoru tightened her ponytail, rolled up her sleeves as well, then proceeded to pull the basin closer to her. She dipped two towels in the water and handed one to Megumi. “Head and chest first,” Megumi said, grabbing the soap and folding back the sheet to expose Sojiro’s bruised chest. She spoke to Sojiro. “I’m going to clean your chest while Kaoru washes your face. All right?” Sojiro nodded and Megumi patted his arm gently. “Good boy,” she praised. Then she turned to Kaoru. “Soap first,” she said, “then rinse it off with the water. Pat dry, don’t rub. Got it?”

Kaoru nodded, and Kenshin smiled when he saw her battle face slip on. Determined and fierce, she grabbed a bar of soap. Within a moment, though, she had grown soft and tender again and was quiet as she leaned over Sojiro.

“I’m going to clean your face now, Sojiro,” she said. “Try to stay still, all right?”

Kenshin watched Kaoru and Sojiro as they went about the task of cleaning his face. Sojiro had fixed his eyes on Kaoru’s and was following her movements silently. Kaoru spoke in a soft and reassuring voice as she swept soap and water across his face, being especially careful by his broken cheekbone. Kenshin watched with fondness as she even cleaned his eyelids and behind his ears. She brought the towel down his throat and washed it gently, trying to ignore the pained whimpers as she stroked the towel over the finger shaped bruises there. When she was done, she leaned back with a smile, and, for the first time, Kenshin could tell what Sojiro really looked like.

He was white, like snow, skin so pale Kenshin could see the blue veins pulsing weakly underneath. His face was unblemished besides the bruises and cuts and his eyes were even more beautiful than before, like shining sapphires. His eyebrows curved gracefully over them, neat and even and lovely. And his eyelashes were breathtaking. Long and thick, they framed his eyes perfectly and when he closed them, they lay like fine black brushstrokes against his cheeks.

“He’s beautiful,” Kaoru murmured, laying aside her dirty and bloody towel.

“That he is,” Kenshin said and Megumi appeared behind him and gasped softly.

“Even more beautiful than I imagined,” she whispered in awe. She turned to Kaoru and nodded in approval. “Very good,” she said. She spoke to Sojiro next, slowly and carefully. “Sojiro, we’re going to wash your hair now, all right?” Sojiro nodded and Kaoru grabbed the basin.

“Now close your eyes so we don’t get soap in them,” she instructed. Sojiro nodded and closed his eyes, his grip tightening around Kenshin’s hand. Kenshin squeezed his hand in return.

Kenshin watched as the women lifted Sojiro’s head from the pillow and then placed a smaller basin under his head. Megumi held her hand over Sojiro’s eyes to keep water from splashing into them as she poured a cup of water onto his hair. Sojiro panicked momentarily, then relaxed when all three adults soothed him and Kenshin kissed his hand. Kenshin watched as Kaoru and Megumi worked their long and gentle fingers into Sojiro’s hair, rubbing soap in it from root to end, until his head was a white blob of soapy bubbles. Kaoru giggled and told Sojiro, who in return smiled and nearly laughed. Kenshin felt his heart soar and he smiled at Kaoru, once again grateful for her presence. She blushed and looked away, returning to her task and helping Megumi rinse away the soap. By the time they finished, the used water was a disgusting grey color. Kaoru made a face and pushed it away as Megumi grabbed a towel and dried Sojiro’s hair. Then she reached to the tray behind her and grabbed a fine toothed comb.

“Comb his hair,” she ordered Kenshin.

“Oro?”

“You heard me, Ken-san,” Megumi said, raising an eyebrow and smiling. But her heart leapt with joy - that was the first “oro” she had heard since this whole ordeal had begun. “Comb his hair.”

Kenshin blinked once more before nodding and grabbing the comb. He moved and settled Sojiro’s head in his lap, unwrapping his dark black hair from the white towel. The child looked up at him with a little smile and Kenshin grinned in return.

“You have lovely hair, that you do,” the rurouni said, beginning to slowly run the comb through the black strands. He stopped and untangled Sojiro’s hair where it was knotted, fingers deft and gentle. “Although you may need a haircut,” he said as the boy’s hair fell into his eyes.

“Can I grow it out like yours?” Sojiro asked, staring at Kenshin’s red ponytail. “I like it.”

“I’m afraid not,” Kenshin laughed. He heard the two women stifle giggles at the mention of his ponytail, but they didn't interrupt Kenshin and Sojiro’s conversation, instead just working on cleaning Sojiro’s arms and legs.

“Why not?” Sojiro asked with a frown.

“Long hair is rather out of fashion, that it is,” the rurouni answered. He realized, suddenly, that the only man he’d met with long hair in a while was his master. Kenshin blinked. Had that really been the only man he’d met with long hair? If not, then the others were few and far between. So he just shook his head at Sojiro. “Your hair is very thin,” he said, eager to explain, “so I think it wouldn't cooperate well if it was long.” Then, upon noticing Sojiro’s crestfallen expression, Kenshin continued speaking. “I think you would look wonderful with shorter hair, Sojiro,” he smiled. “Very wonderful indeed.”

For the first time in a while, Sojiro’s blue eyes lit up.

“Really?”

“Really,” Kenshin said. “That way you can see and it’ll be easy to take care of, that it will.”

“Okay,” Sojiro said with a nod. “You can cut it.”

Kenshin smiled and then continued to comb the knots out of Sojiro’s hair until it was all smooth and clean, laying flat across his head. Sojiro raised his now-clean hand and ran it through his hair. He looked up at Kenshin, surprised.

“It’s soft and clean,” he said. Kenshin nodded. “And there’s no more knots.”

“That’s right,” Kenshin said with a little smile. Sojiro lifted his uninjured hand to his face and gazed at it. Kaoru had cleaned it with soft soap and gentle fingers, so the blood and dirt were gone. Just his white skin, mottled with little scrapes and bruises, remained. Even more, she had trimmed his nails and cleaned under them, leaving him perfectly clean. Sojiro blinked.

“I’m pale,” he said. “And my hands are small.”

Kenshin chuckled.

“You’re a child, Sojiro, that you are,” he said, “of course you are small.” He held out his own hand, palm up, and let Sojiro place his hand over it. Kenshin was smaller than most men his age, but his hand still seemed very large to Sojiro. Sojiro’s little fingers only reached halfway up Kenshin’s own and his palm was even smaller and slim. He sighed and Kenshin wrapped Sojiro’s hand up in his own.

“You’ll get bigger,” the man promised, smiling in reassurance. “And you’ll get better. And then you will be able to protect yourself and the ones around you. You will always feel safe.”

Sojiro blinked at Kenshin and the rurouni was surprised to see tears shining in his eyes.

“Promise?” he choked. Kenshin lifted his hand to his lips and kissed it.

“I promise, that I do.”

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Chapter Text

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The entirety of the sponge bath took twenty minutes and when it was done, Sojiro seemed much more relaxed. He was peaceful and his eyelids were heavy; he was clearly exhausted. Kaoru was beaming.

“Do you feel better, Sojiro?” she asked.

“Yes,” Sojiro hummed. “Better.”

“That’s great!” Kaoru said. Megumi nodded at her and began to take the large bowls of dirty bathwater outside to dump them in the grass. As the doctor cleaned up, Kaoru picked up the jinbei, and, with Kenshin’s help, got the sleepy boy redressed. Once he was dressed and laying down in bed again, Kaoru took a moment to gaze at Sojiro in quiet awe.

He was so pretty and fragile, like a lotus flower, and she worried fleetingly that if she took him outside and the wind blew too hard, he would fall apart and fly away. Despite being horribly injured and possibly getting ill, he seemed calmer than yesterday and already more comfortable around them. She realized she was smiling and had taken Sojiro’s hand, and, when she looked up, saw Kenshin looking at her with fondness. She blushed and laid down Sojiro’s hand; Kenshin took it in her place.

“Thank you for giving him a bath, Kaoru-dono,” he said. “I think he is far more comfortable, that I do.”

Kaoru smiled and began to gather up the towels, lifting them carefully from under Sojiro and slipping them off the futon.

“Megumi is going to come back and give Sojiro a little more medicine,” she said, folding the towels and gathering them in her arms, “and then we’re going to let you both rest. Try to sleep tonight, Kenshin, all right?”

Kenshin smiled.

“All right, Kaoru-dono, I’ll try.”

“Good.” Kaoru kissed Sojiro’s hand and whispered goodnight to the two of them before exiting the room, taking the towels with her. Kenshin watched her go and watched Megumi reenter. She was clearly exhausted.

“Are you all right, Megumi-dono?” Kenshin asked, frowning.

Megumi forced a smile.

“I’m just very tired, Ken-san,” she said. “I think I may go home tonight. Sojiro seems to be doing well.” She laid a clean basin and a tray full of supplies by Kenshin’s knees. “In a couple of hours you should wake him and give him his next dose of morphine. Mix it with a small cup of green tea and have him drink all of it.” Kenshin nodded and Megumi pointed to another small cup next to the teacup. “And, since the morphine is likely to make him sick, this is an herbal Chinese remedy for nausea and vomiting. Give him small doses of that as needed. The basin is for vomiting. Call for me if there’s blood.” She rubbed her hand across her face. “Understand?”

Kenshin nodded and, with a gentle smile, laid a hand on her arm.

“You go home and rest now, Megumi-dono,” he said. “This one will stay with him tonight.” Megumi opened her mouth to speak, but Kenshin continued smoothly. “And this one will send for you if something goes wrong.” Megumi smiled at the rurouni’s understanding and she let out a sigh of relief.

“Thank you, Ken-san,” she said, grabbing his hand and squeezing tight. He nodded at her and smiled and Megumi climbed to her feet. She stretched her arms above her head with a quiet groan. “Ah,” she said, “it’s time to sleep. Looks like I’ll have the same schedule as this little one here.” She smiled at Kenshin, then grabbed her medicine chest. “I’ll see you tomorrow, all right, Ken-san? Bright and early.”

“All right, Megumi-dono.”

“Oh, and Ken-san,” the doctor said, and she turned before she left the room. Her eyes sparked with a mild threat. “Get some sleep tonight. I’ll know if you didn’t. So if I come back tomorrow and see you didn't sleep then I will drug you.” She smiled serenely, but the threat was obvious in her voice. Kenshin gulped.

“All right, Megumi-dono,” he said. “I’ll sleep, that I shall.”

“Good.” She relaxed and smiled at her patient and her friend. “Goodnight, you two. Sleep well.” And she left the room, sliding the door shut behind her. Kenshin looked down at the boy, fast asleep on the futon. With the utmost care, he ran his fingers through Sojiro’s fine black hair, then, with a smile, began to hum a lullaby.

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Chapter Text

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Kaoru woke up early the next day, for she had to meet Tae and Tsubame at the Akabeko by eight. She wore a pale yellow kimono and a pink ribbon in her hair, and her purse was heavier than usual, as she planned to buy some new clothes and supplies for the newest addition to her household. Before she left, she stopped by Kenshin’s room to say goodbye to him and Sojiro. When she opened the door, careful to keep quiet, the sight that met her caught her breath in her throat and tugged at her heartstrings.

Kenshin had pulled his own futon next to Sojiro’s and was curled up, fast asleep, next to the little boy. His hand was wrapped around the child’s own, his grip lax, his breathing even. He seemed a little tense to Kaoru, but he did not wake when she walked in. Sojiro, however, turned to her.

“Hello, Sojiro,” she greeted, her voice hushed. “How did you sleep?”

“Good,” the boy answered. He made a face. “I got a little sick though.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Kaoru said, smoothing his hair from his face. She froze when he felt warmer. Much warmer than usual. “Do you feel okay, Sojiro?” she asked, trying to hide the worry in her voice.

Sojiro hesitated before answering and Kaoru read the fear in his eyes.

“It’s all right,” she soothed, “you can tell me. I won’t hurt you. You’re safe, sweetheart.”

Sojiro nodded, then, in a voice so quiet Kaoru could barely hear him, he whispered his answer.

“I’m hot.”

Kaoru nodded but her heart clenched in her chest. She laid a hand on top of Sojiro’s head, smiling in reassurance, and raised her voice.

“Kenshin,” she said.

The rurouni was awake instantly, his hand flying to his sword. Upon seeing just Sojiro and Kaoru he relaxed, but became tense again when he saw Kaoru’s worried expression.

“Kaoru-dono?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Sojiro says he’s a little hot,” Kaoru said, trying to keep her voice casual. Kenshin’s heart leapt in his chest but he somehow managed to keep calm.

“Is that so?” he asked and he looked down at Sojiro, suddenly noticing a fever’s flush creeping up his cheeks. He looked back up at Kaoru. “Do you know when Megumi-dono will return?” he asked, worry written all over his face.

“No,” Kaoru said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Kenshin. But I’m sure she’ll be here soon. I can stay until she comes, if you like.”

“What’s wrong?” Sojiro asked, becoming nervous.

“Nothing, Sojiro,” Kenshin reassured, and he looked back up at Kaoru. “No, it’s all right. You go shopping, Kaoru-dono. There are many things you must buy, that there are.” Kaoru opened her mouth to object, but Kenshin continued speaking. “Would you wake Sano? It would be nice if he were here, would it not, Sojiro?”

Sojiro was frowning, but he nodded.

“I like Sano,” he said.

“All right then, I’ll get him,” Kaoru said, getting to her feet and almost sprinting out of the room. She didn't understand what was happening. For the past two days, Sojiro had been doing wonderfully, not showing any signs of illness, but suddenly he was developing a fever. Kaoru’s heart beat fast. Was something infected? she wondered. Did one of them get him sick? A sickness now could be devastating, as Sojiro was so weak it would be hard for him to fight one off. Kaoru’s mind was still racing as she threw open the door to the spare room Sano sometimes slept in. It was dark inside and Sano groaned in annoyance as the sun poured onto his face.

“Jo-chan,” he complained, “come on, I was still-”

“Wake up!” Kaoru cried, and she tossed his happi at him. “Sojiro has a fever and Kenshin wants you to stay with him until Megumi gets here.”

“A fever?!” Sano cried, instantly awake. “Shit!”

He raced after Kaoru as they headed back to Kenshin’s room, the same thoughts that Kaoru just had rushing through his head. He slammed open the door when he got there, not even noticing Sojiro’s violent flinch and whimper.

“Are you all right, kid?” he demanded. Sojiro whimpered again and turned his head to Kenshin. The rurouni pet his hair gently and glared at Sano.

“Sano, you’re scaring him, that you are.”

Sano deflated.

“Sorry,” he said, scratching his cheek. “I’m sorry, Sojiro,” he said, voice lower and gentler. “I didn't mean to frighten you.”

Sojiro nodded but didn't look back at Sano. Sano sighed and placed his hand on the small of Sojiro’s back, eyes going wide as he felt the heat radiating off the boy even through his clothes. He threw worried looks at Kaoru and Kenshin and then Kaoru somehow managed to get to her feet.

“All right, Sojiro,” she said, “I’m going to get you some new things.” She smiled down at the boy. “Purple socks and white strapped sandals, right?” Sojiro nodded and Kaoru booped his nose. He managed a little giggle. “I’m also going to get you a surprise or two. How does that sound?”

“S-Surprises?”

“Yep!” Kaoru grinned. “I’m sure you’ll love them!”

Sojiro nodded and managed a little smile.

“Okay,” he said. “That sounds nice.”

Kaoru beamed.

“Then I’ll be leaving now, sweetheart.” She left the room, waving goodbye to Kenshin and Sano. Once she was out of eyeshot, she collapsed upon herself and took deep steady breaths. He’ll be fine, she said to herself. He’ll be fine. Megumi and the others will take good care of him. She stood up straight again, setting her lips in a determined line and straightening her shoulders. He’ll be fine.

He’ll be fine.

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Chapter Text

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“Kaoru!” Tae cried, waving at the girl. She was standing outside the Akabeko, Tsubame at her side, carrying a large empty basket. She was planning to buy a lot of supplies for her restaurant today as well as some new fabrics and treats.

“Hello, Tae! Tsubame!” Kaoru forced a smile, but upon getting closer to them, she actually felt her heart grow lighter and her smile become genuine. Spending some time apart from the sick and injured Sojiro would be good for her, she supposed. “How are you?” she asked.

“Good,” Tsubame answered, smiling shyly.

“Great!” Tae cried and she gave Kaoru a hug. “You look exhausted, Kaoru. How are you doing? How is the boy?”

“He’s okay,” Kaoru said, offering virtually no information, “and so am I.”

“All right, then!” Tae said. She grabbed Kaoru’s arm and dragged her off. Kaoru nearly toppled over, but Tae only gripped her tighter, keeping her upright. “I’m very excited to go shopping, Kaoru. Tsubame and I have been waiting weeks for this!”

“It’s true,” Tsubame piped up behind her. “We’ve talked about it all the time.”

Kaoru smiled and allowed herself to be pulled forward, listening to Tae and Tsubame’s chatter. With relief, she felt herself be filled with comfort and joy, and she allowed herself the pleasure of letting go of her worry, replaced by the happiness of being with her friends.

When they reached Yokohama, they began their shopping immediately.

They stopped first for food.

Tae stocked up on some new meat to try for her hot pots, but mostly bought treats to give to generous patrons (and obviously for herself and Tsubame). Soon her basket was filled with meat, Western chocolates, dango, and a multitude of other things. Her and Tsubame munched on chocolate truffles as they helped Kaoru pick out some candies to treat her friends with.

“These truffles are great,” Tsubame said, licking her lips. “I think Yahiko would probably like chocolate.”

“I read that in Western culture lovers give each other chocolates,” Tae said. She winked at Kaoru and Tsubame and they both swatted at Tae, who avoided them with a laugh. “But really, chocolate is great. You should buy some truffles for everyone.” She pointed at a small section. “Some even have fillings with things like berries and nuts.”

“Really? Then maybe I’ll try. . .”

And, after five more minutes of persuading and deciding, Kaoru purchased a small box of chocolate truffles - three normal ones, two filled with strawberries, and another with almonds.

Next, they shopped for socks.

“Oh my, are his feet really that small?” Tae cried as Kaoru purchased a child’s pair of purple tabi socks. Kaoru nodded as she took the socks from the vendor with a smile and placed them in her basket.

Tsubame gazed at her with wide eyes.

“He must be really tiny,” she said. Kaoru smiled at the girl.

“He is,” she answered. “He’s pretty little.”

“How old is he?”

“Eight.”

“Eight?!” Tae cried, her eyes wide. “He’s really small for an eight year old.”

“I told you some of the circumstances, Tae,” Kaoru said, and her voice was sad. “Are you really that surprised?”

Tsubame watched as her employer’s face fell and she shook her head.

“No, I’m not surprised at all.”

“What circumstances?” Tsubame asked, curious. “Yahiko just told me he was hurt.”

Both older women paused and exchanged a look with each other.

“Let’s go get something to drink,” Kaoru said, taking Tsubame’s hand with a smile. “I heard that a restaurant down the road is selling a drink called lemonade. Would you like to try some, Tsubame?”

Tsubame looked up at Kaoru, knowing that she was avoiding her question, but she nodded nonetheless. Kaoru smiled at her and together the three of them headed for a restaurant a few blocks down the road. It was incredibly busy and crowded, which didn't surprise any of them, and they waited patiently for a table to open up. Twenty minutes later, Tae, Tsubame, and Kaoru were seated at a small bamboo table inside the cool restaurant. Tae sighed and brought her cup of lemonade to her lips.

“Ah!” she said with a smile. “This is delicious!”

Kaoru hummed in agreement and asked Tsubame what she thought.

“It’s good,” the girl said. She laid her cup down on the table and looked up at her employer and friend, who were seated across from her. She took a deep breath, gathered her courage, then spoke. “What happened to the boy you’re keeping at home, Kaoru-san?” she asked. Both adults stiffened but Tsubame continued. “Please tell me,” she begged. “I want to know.”

“You don’t need to know, Tsubame,” Tae said, laying her lemonade down.

“But I want to help!” the girl cried. “I want to know what happened so I can help.”

“Tsubame-” Tae began, but Kaoru cut her off.

“It’s all right, Tae,” she said with a small smile. “I can tell her. You both deserve to know anyways.” She took a deep breath, put her lemonade down, then hid her hands in her lap to hide them shaking. “His name is Sojiro.”

“Sojiro,” Tsubame repeated and Kaoru blinked. The boy’s name seemed to roll off her tongue like a song, humming through the air. “So pretty.” She grinned.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Kaoru said, and she smiled in return. Tsubame and Tae were good and kind, she knew, and she saw no harm in telling them. In fact, she wasn't really sure why she hadn't told them anything before. She took a deep breath. “Now, Tsubame, I’ve told Tae before, and you know this, but Sojiro is badly hurt.”

Tsubame nodded.

“I know,” she said, “Yahiko told me.”

“He’s hurt because someone beat him very badly.” Kaoru winced as Tsubame did, then watched as her eyes fill up with tears. “No, no, no, Tsubame, don’t cry,” she said, nearly panicking. “I’m sorry. I shouldn't have told you. I just-”

“It’s okay,” Tsubame squeaked and Kaoru froze. The girl rubbed her eyes, willing the tears to stay there. “I’ve seen bad things,” she whispered, “and I don't want them to happen to anyone else. It makes me sad that something like that happened.”

Tae reached across the table and took Tsubame’s hand, squeezing tight.

“You’re a good girl, Tsubame,” she said, beaming. “Very good indeed.”

Tsubame blushed and smiled. She gripped Tae’s hand tight.

“Who hurt him?” she asked. “Was it bad people? A gang?”

Kaoru lowered her voice so the people around couldn't hear.

“His family did,” she answered.

Tsubame sucked in a sharp breath and the tears began to fall, this time in earnest.

“F-Family?” she whispered. “His family?”

“Is that true, Kaoru?” Tae asked and Kaoru could see her eyes sparking with anger. Kaoru took a deep breath and nodded.

“Sano heard so from Kenshin.”

“Dammit!” Tae hissed and her free hand curled into a fist on her lap. Both Tsubame and Kaoru blinked, taken aback by the usually calm woman’s anger. “This is horrible. I will not forgive anyone who hurts a child.”

“Me neither,” Tsubame said.

A small smile flitted across Kaoru’s face and she marveled briefly about how she had ended up with such wonderful people in her life and how they would just as wonderful for Sojiro. She deflated, suddenly flooded with a huge sense of relief; it felt good not hiding things from her friends anymore. She lifted her cup of lemonade back to her lips and finished the glass with one big gulp - it was a little too tart for her taste. She sat, patiently waiting, as Tae and Tsubame continued to drink their lemonades, contemplating what they had heard.

“Is there anything we can do to help Sojiro?” Tae asked when she was calmer, holding her sweating cup in her hands.

“Yeah, is there?”

“Hmmmm.” Kaoru placed her fingers on her chin. “Let’s see. I’m buying him socks and sandals that he helped pick out - we already bought the socks though.” Her face lit up. “Oh!” she cried. “I need to get him a new jinbei. Would you help me pick the colors and pattern?”

Both Tae and Tsubame nodded eagerly.

“That sounds wonderful,” Tae said. “Is there anything else?”

“Yes,” Kaoru said with a little grin, “there’s one more thing.”

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Chapter Text

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A couple of hours and three shops later, Kaoru, Tae, and Tsubame had bought a new pair of sandals and ordered a new jinbei for Sojiro, guessing at all his sizes. The sandals were very small, more fit for a toddler than an eight year old, and the woman at the fabric shop was shocked to hear that the small jinbei they had ordered was for an eight year old boy. “I could have sworn you were buying this for a four year old,” she said as she folded the fabric away and took Kaoru’s coins.

The trio was planning to come back soon for the new jinbei as Kaoru had requested and had even paid extra for it to be made as soon as possible. The woman had eagerly agreed, cooing over how lovely the fabric for this little jinbei was and how absolutely adorable it would look when she was finished.

Now, baskets in hand, Kaoru, Tae, and Tsubame were headed into another part of the market, a place where they were selling children’s toys and gadgets. Vendors swarmed around, calling out their wares loudly. Spinning tops, hoops, pinwheels, wooden horses, stilts - there was no end to the toys. Children ran around with their parents, eager smiles on their faces, as they pointed out toys they wanted. Some of them were crying as their parents dragged them away from the toys they refused to buy. All in all, though, it was a pleasant kind of chaos.

Tsubame looked up at Kaoru and saw that she was smiling from ear to ear.

“Kaoru?” the timid girl asked. “What are we doing here?”

“We are here, Tsubame,” Kaoru said, leaning forward and booping her nose, “to buy Sojiro a toy.”

“Oh ho ho, a new toy?” Tae asked.

“His only toy,” Kaoru said. Her face fell. “He’s never owned a single thing in his life before.”

Both Tae and Tsubame gasped and the girl’s eyes filled again with tears.

“He deserves a toy,” she said, rubbing at her eyes. “He deserves a lot of toys.”

Tae laughed and ruffled Tsubame’s hair.

“That’s right!” she said. “He deserves all the toys.” She turned to Kaoru. “So,” she said, “what are we getting him?”

“I was thinking of something soft,” Kaoru said. “He’s still on strict bed rest and I think it would be nice if he had something to cuddle.”

“I like that!” Tsubame said. “Let’s get him something soft, then!”

The trio wandered around the street for well on an hour, cooing over beautiful porcelain dolls, new wooden toys, and some toy swords. Eventually, they found a collection of stuffed animals. They argued for a while over which one to pick, but finally settled on a soft grey bunny with long dangly ears. He was stuffed with cotton, had a button nose and eyes, and was well made. Kaoru was pleased with the purchase, even though she had to pay a little too much for it, in her opinion. Luckily, they bartered with the seller to lower the price and Tae even chipped in some money, so together they could afford the new toy. The vendor wrapped the toy rabbit in paper and placed it carefully in Kaoru’s basket, thanking her for her purchase and wishing her a good day. The three left the alley of toys, smiling and beaming, and Tae even bought a few pinwheels - one for Sojiro, of course, but another two for Yahiko and Tsubame. Tsubame blushed as she took the gift from her employer, and spent the rest of the walk back down to the clothing store blowing it to make it spin.

By the time they arrived back at the clothing store, everyone felt more relaxed and happier than they had been all day. The woman who had sold them the fabric and was making the jinbei accosted them as soon as they stepped in.

“Hello!” she chirped. “I’m so glad you’ve come back so soon! I just finished the jinbei you asked for. Come, come, let me show you.” She ushered them to the back of the shop, where she sewed and seamed and made clothing for all her customers. She slipped behind the counter and then held out the neatly folded jinbei.

The three girls cooed in appreciation. The pattern they had chosen was a dark blue print dotted with lighter blue, green, and white dragonflies. The seamstress had made the jinbei flawlessly, and had even trimmed the shoulders with fine white satin. Kaoru fingered the small jinbei.

“This is beautiful,” she breathed, eyes wide. “Thank you so much.”

“Not at all, dear, not at all.” The woman took the jinbei’s top and held it out for the girls to see. “I also made a surprise for you,” she said with a smile. “And, before you ask, no, it doesn't cost any extra.”

Kaoru leaned forward and her mouth dropped open when she saw that Sojiro’s name was embroidered in white thread on the front of the shirt.

“How did you. . .?”

“I heard you three mentioning the name Sojiro most of the time you were wandering around,” the woman explained with a laugh. “It’s kind of hard to miss.” She took the shirt from Kaoru and began packing the jinbei up in some paper. “You all must really care about him,” she said. “After all, you spent so much time picking out this fabric.” She looked up at Kaoru. “Especially you. Is he your son?”

Kaoru blushed and shook her head, taking the paper-wrapped jinbei from the woman’s hands.

“No,” she answered.

“He’s not mine, either,” Tae said before the woman could ask. “He’s Kaoru’s little cousin,” she lied. “He’ll be staying with her for a while.”

“Oh, I see. So where is this little one?”

“He’s ill,” Kaoru said, placing the jinbei in her basket.

“Poor dear,” the woman said, holding her hand over her heart. “I hope he gets well soon.”

“Thank you,” Kaoru said, forcing a smile. “May I please have the receipt?”

“Of course!” the seamstress said, and she handed Kaoru the receipt. “Before you go, I have one more thing to tell you.” She nodded at the jinbei. “I know I made it without the boy’s measurements,” she said, “so if it doesn't fit him you can come back and I’ll resize it for you.”

Kaoru’s eyes widened at this unexpected kindness.

“Thank you,” she said, “that’s very generous of you.”

The woman flapped her hand.

“Nonsense!” She smiled and bowed. “I’m Ennoshita Yuki. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

The trio echoed the sentiment and bowed, and, when they left the store, the warm, setting sun dipped across their faces and filled them with fresh hope.

New socks, new sandals, new clothes, new toy - Sojiro would be getting a whole new start.

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Chapter Text

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“Ken-san, water. Now.”

Kenshin darted out of the room without a word, not complaining about leaving Sojiro’s side for a few moments. Megumi was frowning, deeply worried, as she set about trying to make the boy more comfortable. His free hand, searing hot, was wrapped around her wrist as she tried to soothe him and smooth his stringy hair from his face.

He was getting worse.

When she had arrived this morning, Yahiko had been standing by the doorway, wringing his hands. He had explained that before Kaoru had left, she noticed that Sojiro was warm and now Sano and Kenshin were with him, waiting for her to arrive. Megumi had dashed inside, wasting no time. She had found the two men flanking Sojiro, speaking to him, Sano’s hand on Sojiro’s cheek as the boy stared up at Kenshin. Megumi’s immediate findings indicated a fever. It wasn’t high, not yet, and she tried hard to nurse it away.

However, as the day wore on, it only got worse.

Hour by hour, the fever rose until Sojiro was no longer merely uncomfortable, but in a great deal of pain, the fever making him hyperaware. Megumi tried all the remedies she knew, but none of them, as of yet, had worked.

Now the sun had set and Sojiro was not doing well. At all. Pale and hot and flushed, his skin was hot to the touch and dry. He was dehydrated because he couldn't keep much water down. He was getting weaker. Megumi, despite her best attempts to the contrary, was starting to panic. What was going on?

As Kenshin ran in again, bucket of water in tow, she turned to him and shook her head.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” she said.

Kenshin’s heart sunk at Megumi’s clear devastation and the tears shining in her eyes. However, the rurouni simply leaned forward and placed his hand on her arm. Megumi flinched and looked up at Kenshin, surprised to see him smiling patiently.

“It’s all right, Megumi-dono,” he said, “you’re doing the best you can, that you are.”

“But-”

“And this one is sure that you will make Sojiro better and help him heal, that you will.”

Megumi stared at the man, who was somehow still so full of hope and kindness, and marveled at him. He’d been through hell and back, yet here he was, clinging to everything that was good in the world. Megumi’s heart swelled with admiration and she felt her drive to heal return to her with a fervor.

She took a deep breath.

“All right, Ken-san,” she said, getting to her feet and steeling herself, “we need to do something unpleasant now.”

Kenshin looked up at her, heart suddenly beating fast.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I’m giving Sojiro an ice bath. His temperature is getting too high and I can’t let it get any higher.”

“But Megumi-dono-” Kenshin began. Megumi cut him off.

“I’m well aware of the trauma this will likely cause him but it needs to be done.” She turned her even gaze to Kenshin. “If his fever gets any worse, his brain might suffer damage.”

“But-”


“Ken-san.”

Kenshin swallowed the rest of his objections and looked away, returning his violet eyes to Sojiro’s flushed face. He vaguely heard Megumi telling him that she was sending Sano for ice, but he wasn’t really listening. He merely kept staring at the boy lying on the futon in front of him.

Ice baths were horrible - Kenshin knew this from first hand experience. Not long after he had moved in with Hiko, he’d come down with a dangerously high fever. He didn't remember much about the illness - just Shishou speaking to him through a hot fog, worried frowns, and disgusting remedies poured down his throat. His one and only strong memory involved the ice bath Shishou had dumped him in.

He remembered being lifted under the armpits and held against his master’s chest. Kenshin had tried to wrap his arms around Hiko’s neck but the swordsman just grunted in annoyance and pulled his arms away. Kenshin, small as he was, was stripped quickly of his clothes, then, just as quickly, was thrown into freezing water. Kenshin remembered screaming at the top of his lungs, flailing hard against the edges of the tub, and Hiko’s strong hands. The ice burned his already feverish skin, making him screech and increasing his suffering tenfold. He didn't remember how long he was in the water - it felt like an eternity - but Hiko had pulled him out when he started sobbing.

This had been the one and only time Hiko had been gentle with Kenshin, and even now, Kenshin had no idea if it was real or if he had been out of his head with fever. He recalled having been lifted from the tub and then held against Hiko’s chest, his master rocking him back and forth and muttering the same platitudes over and over again. It had felt familiar to Kenshin, and he remembered that his parents used to hold him like this when he was sick or had nightmares.

But anytime Kenshin brought this incident up to Hiko, his master simply snorted and told his stupid apprentice that he was imagining things.

A small part of Kenshin, though, knew it had indeed happened.

And now it was Sojiro’s turn.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: And now it was Sojiro’s turn.

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Kenshin sighed and dipped a cloth in the bucket of water before laying it across Sojiro’s brow. As the boy whimpered and shivered, Kenshin felt his heart ache in his chest. He wanted more than anything for Sojiro to feel safe in his new home, and he knew that the shocking ice bath wouldn't do him any favors. On the contrary, it would probably horrify him and make him more afraid than ever. But Kenshin knew this was necessary. He also knew there would be no talking Megumi out of it. When the doctor had made up her mind, her decision was set in stone. There would be no turning back.

Kenshin flinched when there was a knock on the door but he relaxed when he saw Kaoru.

“Kaoru-dono,” he said, relieved, and, as she stepped into the room, he held out his hand. Kaoru hesitated for only a moment before taking it. She smiled at Kenshin, then fell to her knees beside Sojiro.

“Hello, Sojiro,” she whispered. Her voice was choked and scared, and Kenshin squeezed her hand. Kind, wonderful Kaoru-dono didn't deserve to go through all of this - none of them did. “Can you hear me?”

Sojiro made a small noise in his throat and Kaoru smiled.

“There’s a good boy,” she said, swallowing the lump in her throat. “A very good boy.” She took her hand back from Kenshin and cradled Sojiro’s cheeks in both her hands. “Can you try to focus on me for a few moments, Sojiro?” she said. Sojiro whined, but Kaoru soothed him quickly. “Shh, sweetheart, it’s okay. Focus on me.”

Sojiro’s clouded, unfocused eyes roved about the room for a few moments before settling on Kenshin. The rurouni smiled.

“This one is Kenshin,” he said, pointing at his chest. “Why don’t you look at Kaoru-dono?”

Sojiro blinked indulgently before nodding and finally focusing his gaze on Kaoru.

“Hello, sweetheart,” Kaoru said. “How are you feeling?”

“H-hot,” Sojiro whined. “And it h-hurts.”

“I’m sorry,” Kaoru said, trying hard to ignore the heat emanating from Sojiro’s skin. “But it will be all right, I promise. We’re going to help you. Kenshin and the rest of us are going to help you.”

“K-K-Kenshin,” Sojiro whimpered, reaching out blindly for the man. “Kenshin!”

“It’s all right,” Kenshin said, catching Sojiro’s little hand in his own. “This one is here.”

“It h-h-hurts!” He twisted, and, at the motion, pain tore through his body. He hiccuped on a scream. “H-Hurts!”

“Shh, shh, I know it does. Stay still now.” Kenshin turned to Kaoru and saw her frowning. “What is it, Kaoru-dono?”

“Would you like me to get Megumi?” she asked. “It seems like he’s in a lot of pain.”

Kenshin sighed.

“I know. But while his fever is still this high, she doesn't want to give him any more morphine.”

Kaoru’s eyes widened.

“So he’s going without painkillers?!?”

“Yes. For now, at least.” Kenshin smoothed Sojiro’s hair away from his brow. “Shh, you’ll be all right, Sojiro. Hush now.”

Kaoru took a deep breath and ran her hand through her hair.

“Megumi told me everything,” she said, “and she told me about the ice bath too.” Kenshin stiffened. “I’ve decided to help.”

Kenshin shook his head so quickly that his ponytail whipped across his back.

“No,” he said. “No, Kaoru-dono.”

“Himura Kenshin,” Kaoru said, and there was steel in her voice. “If you think you can order me around, you have another thing coming. I’m staying with you and Sojiro and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. Got it?”

Kenshin nodded and a small smile quirked his lips at her oh-so familiar fierceness.

“I understand, Kaoru-dono,” he said. He looked up at her and Kaoru tried to ignore the exhausted, naked fear in his eyes. “Would you help me get him undressed, then?”

Kaoru nodded and together they lifted Sojiro up into Kenshin’s arms, where the rurouni gently cradled him as Kaoru stripped him of everything but his underclothes. She sighed and then scooted forward, holding out her hand for Sojiro to hold. The boy took it eagerly, murmuring her name as he relaxed even further into Kenshin. Kaoru smiled at him and thought, for a fleeting moment, how they looked like a little family. With Kenshin holding the boy between them, Kaoru holding his hand, Kaoru could nearly picture it - husband, wife, and child -

Stop. Kaoru snapped herself out of her thoughts and tightened her grip around Sojiro’s hand. This isn’t about you - it’s about Sojiro. Focus, Kaoru, you idiot! Focus!

“Hush now, Sojiro,” Kenshin was whispering. “Hush now.”

“I-It’s hot,” Sojiro whined and Kaoru winced at how pitiful he sounded.

“I know it’s hot,” Kenshin said, sweeping back Sojiro’s black hair. “But it will be all right, that it will. I promise.”

“That’s right,” Kaoru echoed. “It will be all right.”

They continued whispering to the feverish boy, eager to keep him calm and trying to explain what was going to happen, all the while waiting for Megumi to return. After what felt like hours but couldn't have been more than thirty minutes, Megumi reappeared at the door, her face grim, her hair tied back in a ponytail.

“Bring him outside,” she ordered. “We’ve put the tub on the lawn.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Bring him outside,” she ordered. “We’ve put the tub on the lawn.”

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Kenshin nodded, and, with Kaoru’s help, managed to get to his feet, Sojiro cradled against him like a newborn babe. As they left the room, Kaoru’s arm on his own as she cooed to Sojiro, Kenshin wondered what this was going to be like. Would Sojiro still trust them after this? Would he even get better? And, if he did, what would he be like? Would he always be so frail and scared?

These and many more questions swirled through Kenshin’s head as he made his way outside with Sojiro for the first time in two days.

Sojiro shivered at the exposure to the chilly night air and snuggled closer to Kenshin, clutching hard at his gi. Kenshin continued walking, allowing Kaoru to help him down into the yard, his face so grim one could mistake the bathtub for an executioner’s block.

When the trio finally reached the wooden tub, Kenshin pulled Sojiro closer to him and turned his face against his breast to hide his view. Kenshin blinked in surprise at what he saw.

The tub, which he had been expecting to be filled with ice, was mostly filled with tepid water, only a few chips of ice floating in it. He put his hand in the water and frowned when it only felt slightly cold.

“I thought you said this was an ice bath,” he said to Megumi.

“It is,” the doctor said. “But it’s a lesser form of one. I want his temperature to go down but I don’t want to torture him.” A shadow raced across her face. “I hate ice baths - children always scream as if in agony. I can hardly stand it.” She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “I use ice baths as a last resort and I never, ever submerge a child fully in ice. That would be beyond cruel. And cruelty is not a part of medicine.”

Kenshin smiled at her, thankful for this brilliant, kind woman.

“Thank you, Megumi-dono.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” she said. “He’s still going to scream and fight.” She stepped forward and began to unwind the bandages from Sojiro’s tiny body, depositing them gently on the ground. As she did this, she continued to speak. “Because he’s been neglected and abused for so long I’m not sure how he’ll react to this. It’s going to be very hard, Ken-san.” She lowered her voice and focused her even, steady gaze on his face. “Are you sure you can handle this?”

Kenshin hesitated and looked down at Sojiro’s pale, fever-flushed face. He shook his head.

“I don’t know if I can,” he whispered, voice so quiet only Megumi could hear. “But this one will stay nonetheless.”

Megumi smiled faintly at the man’s honesty and squeezed his arm tight.

“It will be all right,” she whispered, and she tipped her head forward so that their foreheads were touching. “It will be all right,” she repeated, speaking a little louder so that both Kenshin and Sojiro could hear. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

Last chapter: “I promise.”

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Megumi felt Sojiro wiggle between her and Kenshin and she pulled away to give him more space. When she looked down, she saw his fever-bright eyes staring up at her.

“Lady doctor. . .” he whispered. He reached forward and clutched at her. “Will-will it really be all right?”

Megumi nodded and swept her gentle hand across Sojiro’s brow.

“Yes, it will. I promise.”

“It’s h-h-hot,” he whined. “Can you make it go away, please?”

“I’m going to try my best, darling.” She held out her arms. “Here, I’m going to hold you for a moment, all right?”

Sojiro nodded and, without complaint, allowed himself to be handed to Megumi. This wasn’t Megumi’s first time holding the little boy but still she wasn't used to it. He was small and far too warm, but he fit in her arms easily and relaxed against her. Megumi's heart swelled. Is this what it felt like to be a mother? Is this what the mothers of her patients felt when they held their sick little ones to their breasts? If so, it was a terrible yet delightful feeling. She’d known Sojiro for little over two days but she already loved him to bursting. But that meant his pain seemed to be her pain as well. With a sigh, she snuggled him closer to her and kissed his head.

“All right,” she said to the others. Everyone, except Yahiko (who Kaoru had insisted stay inside and go to bed), was gathered anxiously around the tub, Kaoru wringing her hands as Kenshin and Sano stood rigid and tense. “Here’s what going to happen. This will most likely be very frightening for him, and he might beg to stop, but we aren’t going to take him out of the bath until I tell you to. Got it?” They nodded. “Good. Also, since Sojiro has a lot of broken bones and sprains we’re going to have to keep a hold on him. Although the tub is relatively large, I can’t risk him thrashing around. I can’t have him hurting himself further.”

“We got it, Fox,” Sano said, putting his hands in his pockets. “We’ll hold him down.”

“No, you don’t ‘got it’, Megumi said with annoyance. “You’re not going to hold him down with brute force. That will do more harm than good.”

“So what do we do then?”

“You’re each going to hold a broken limb or a sensitive area.”

Sojiro moaned and Megumi stopped speaking to the others, turning to look down at her patient. She hefted Sojiro up closer to her as he whimpered. “Hang in there, Sojiro. Just a bit longer now.” She hummed soothingly to the child for a few moments until he had relaxed a little bit. Then she took a deep breath. “Sojiro,” she said to the boy, “I’m going to lay you down on a towel now, all right?”

“No….”

“Yes. It’ll be all right.” And, so, cradling his neck and back with the utmost care, she laid him on a towel next to the tub. Sojiro whimpered at first before falling still, the cool night air nipping at his skin and making him feel less warm. Megumi took his hand and then motioned each of the other three forward one by one.

“Kaoru,” she said, “I want you to hold his broken wrist. Not directly, mind you, but right here.” She took Kaoru’s hand and placed it upon Sojiro’s upper arm, away from the wrist. “And use your other hand to hold his own. There we go. Like so. Good job, Kaoru.”

Sojiro twisted and looked up at Kaoru, blinking at her. Before she could say anything, though, he turned away with a whimper and shut his eyes tight.

“Sano,” Megumi said, “I want you at his feet. You know that his toes and ankle are broken, so just try your best to keep him from kicking. That’s my main concern.” Sano nodded and moved to sit at Sojiro’s feet, smiling at the boy and speaking to him as Megumi turned to Kenshin. “And Ken-san,” she said, “I would like you to be at his head. His cheekbone and collarbone are broken, as you aware, and he needs to be handled with the utmost care. What I need you to do is hold his shoulders and try to keep his head above the water. He’s small enough so that you can hopefully use one hand to hold his shoulders up and the other to cradle his neck. He’ll be looking at you for help and comfort and I need you to be able to provide that. Can you do it?”

Kenshin nodded, resolute.

“Of course.”

“Then,” Megumi said, “let’s get started.”

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Chapter Text

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It was cold. Or was it burning? No, cold. No, burning! It hurts! It hurts! It hurts!

“Shh, Sojiro, I know, I know, shh.”

Kenshin? Kenshin! Why was he doing this? Didn't he rescue him? Why was he torturing him now? Had it all been an act? He thought he was safe now!

“Shh, sweetheart, you are safe. You’re safe, I promise.”

Sweetheart? Who called him that? It was the girl - the one with the ribbon and black ponytail. Kaoru. Kaoru. Kaoru was nice. Why was she doing this? Was she bad too? He didn’t understand so he screamed. Who was hurting him? Why was no one helping him?

“C’mon, kid, we’re helping you. Take it easy. Calm down, calm down now.”

Sano! Sano! The spiky haired one - the one who played dice and dressed in white. He was hurting him too? He didn't understand so he fought.

And fought.

And fought.

He continued screaming, this time calling for Kenshin again. Maybe Kenshin wasn’t hurting him after all.

“This one is here,” Kenshin’s voice soothed. “I’m right here, that I am. I’m holding you. Can you feel my hands?”

Sojiro squeezed his eyes shut even tighter than they had been before and tried to focus past the torture. It was so cold it burned!

“Shh,” Kenshin soothed. “Can you feel my hands, Sojiro? Try to feel my hands.”

Sojiro whimpered but eventually felt many pairs of hands all over his body, warm and gentle past the hideous cold. Hands on his arm, holding him while avoiding his broken wrist; hands on his legs, holding him still as he shivered and kicked; and hands under his shoulders and neck. These hands were small, warm, and softly calloused. Sojiro instantly recognized them as Kenshin’s. He started sobbing.

K-Kenshin!

“Shh, it’s all right,” the rurouni hummed. “It’s all right. We’re almost done. Almost. Right, Megumi-dono?”

Megumi? The lady doctor! Lady doctor Megumi! She can make it stop! Make it stop, make it stop!

“Only a few more seconds, darling,” Megumi said. “Hang in there.”

And, after what seemed like hours to the feverish Sojiro, but in reality was only less than a minute, he was lifted from his torture into strong, lithe arms. Within moments he was swaddled in something soft and warm and then he felt himself being hummed to and rocked back and forth.

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

Still scared and crying but no longer being tortured, Sojiro allowed himself to relax, his exhausted body begging for sleep.

Back and forth, they rocked him.

Back and forth.

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Chapter Text

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Kaoru watched Kenshin rock Sojiro in his arms, his movements gentle and soft, but she could see him shaking. His fingers - which she had rarely even seen quiver - were trembling as his hands wrapped around Sojiro’s neck and bottom, keeping him secure and safe. As Kaoru took a step forward to talk to Kenshin, she heard him humming a lullaby. She blinked. She hadn't heard that tune in many, many years.

“Ken-”

Kaoru was interrupted by Megumi’s hand on her shoulder.

“Kaoru,” she said, and Kaoru frowned at the older woman when she turned to face her. She was pale and weary, looking as if the ice bath had taken years off her life. “I’m going to run down to the clinic and get some more herbs. Keep an eye on them for me, would you?”

“Of course,” Kaoru said, “but I thought you’d already tried everything?”

“There’s a Chinese herbal remedy I’ve yet to try,” the doctor answered. She sighed. “I’ve never used it with a child before, but I think it might be necessary for Sojiro. If I lower the potency and size of the dose, then maybe. . .” She trailed off, her eyes focused on the black-haired boy resting against Kenshin. Her mind raced with thoughts and images, mainly of little Sojiro, eyes squeezed shut in pain, thrashing about in the cold water, screaming and begging at the top of his lungs. Megumi took a deep breath, trying to calm her racing heart. God, that had been awful; she knew it would haunt her for the rest of her days. She would never be free of Sojiro’s terrified wails, Kenshin’s gentle, shaky voice, Kaoru’s horrified expression, and Sano’s determined face as he tried to keep Sojiro still. May God have mercy on me. . .

She flinched when she felt a hand on her arm. Megumi blinked herself out of her dark memories and turned to find Kaoru smiling gently at her.

“It’s all right, Megumi,” she said. “You did what you had to do. I’m sure he’s already doing better. Kenshin,” she called, “how is he?”

“Resting,” Kenshin said, still rocking the boy back and forth, “but he seems less hot already. And this one thinks the pain has gone away some - his breathing is relatively normal, that it is.”

Kaoru turned back to Megumi with a triumphant smile.

"See?” she said. “It worked! You helped, Megumi. It was definitely worth it.”

“Was it?”

“Of course it-”

“You don’t understand, Kaoru,” Megumi interrupted, her voice close to snapping. “It may have lowered the fever for now, but he could still get worse. Besides, the trauma and stress it probably caused him. . .” She ran her hands through her hair. “I may have made a mistake.”

“Even if you did, there’s nothing you can do about it now.” Both women turned as Sano came up to them, wiping his wet hands clean with a towel. When he was finished, he tossed it casually over his shoulder. He shrugged, but his eyes were tired and worried. “We’ll do what we can for him from now on,” he said, clapping Megumi on the shoulder. “There’s no going back - no point in regretting stuff that’s already been done.” He took Megumi’s hand, and, ignoring her protests, dragged her along with him as he began walking away. “I’ll walk you to your clinic, Fox. I’ll need some of that sake you’ve got hidden for the shock I’ve gone through.”

“It’s not medicine, idiot,” Megumi huffed, but Kaoru saw the ghost of a smile flit across her face. She relaxed. Leave it to Sano. . .

Megumi pulled her hand from Sano’s and turned back to Kenshin and Sojiro. Before Kaoru or Sano could say anything, she waved her hand.

“Relax. I’ll leave with you in a minute, Rooster Head. Let me just check on my patient first.”

Kaoru stood next to Sano and the pair watched as Megumi cooed over Sojiro, touching his brow, asking him questions, and taking his pulse. After a few minutes she seemed satisfied, and, with a smile and a pat on Sojiro’s head, she turned back to Sano and Kaoru.

“We can be off now,” she said to Sano, and Kaoru was relieved to see that Megumi seemed slightly less tense. “I’ll be getting some supplies and while I’m gone, Kaoru, why don’t you and Ken-san get Sojiro all bandaged up again? There’s clean bandages in the basket in Ken-san’s room.”

“Of course,” Kaoru said, and she waved the pair off with a tired, sad smile. She turned and looked over her shoulder at Kenshin and Sojiro again. Kenshin still seemed tense, albeit less than before, but Sojiro still looked awful. Shivering from head to toe, only slightly dry by the towel and warm night air, he was obviously still very sick. And, when Kaoru caught a glimpse of his little face - fever flushed and paper white, she bit her lip.

Hurry back, Megumi, she thought to herself. He needs you here.

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Chapter Text

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The rest of the evening was quiet. Kenshin and Kaoru managed to get Sojiro rebandaged without much fuss, for Sojiro was too weak and exhausted to do anything besides whimper occasionally. They didn't dress him in the new jinbei, but instead just covered him in a small yellow yukata that tied loosely around his waist. He didn't want to be put down yet so Kenshin cradled him in his gentle arms, rocking him back and forth. Eventually though, the rurouni seemed to tire, and Kaoru took this as her opportunity to speak.

“Kenshin,” she said, “can I hold him?”

To her surprise, Kenshin didn't even stiffen, but just smiled at her, exhausted, weary, and sad.

“If he’ll let you, then this one will gladly let you hold Sojiro, that I will,” he said. He rocked forward so that the back of Sojiro’s head lolled in the hollow of his shoulder. Sojiro whimpered at the sudden movement before stilling. Kenshin raised his hand and rested it on the top of Sojiro’s raven hair. “Sojiro,” he said. “Little one, are you awake?” Sojiro groaned in response and wiggled feebly against Kenshin, raising his free, unharmed hand to grasp at his gi.

“‘Urts. . .” he whined.

“I know,” the rurouni soothed. “But it will be all right. Megumi-dono will come back with more medicine for you soon, that she will.”

“Promise?”

“Promise,” Kenshin said with a smile. He looked up at Kaoru and Sojiro followed his gaze.

“H-Hi, Kaoru.”

“Hello, Sojiro,” Kaoru said. “Are you feeling less hot?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Good! That’s very good.” She looked up at Kenshin, who nodded at her, then took a deep breath. “Sojiro,” she said, “I don’t suppose you want to lay down?” Sojiro shook his head and clutched a little harder at Kenshin. “That’s all right,” Kaoru soothed. “Then how about I hold you?” Sojiro stiffened, his eyes going wide, and he pushed himself even closer to Kenshin. Kaoru hastened to reassure him. “It’s okay,” she said, “it’s okay. You don’t have to. It’s just that Kenshin is very tired and I thought it might be nice if we let him sleep.”

Sojiro turned and looked up at Kenshin, suddenly noticing the circles under his eyes and his slow, methodical blinking - it was obvious he was struggling to stay awake.

“You’re sleepy,” he said. It was more of a statement than a question.

A tired smile pulled at Kenshin’s lips.

“This one is rather tired, that I am.”

Sojiro nodded slowly, then released his hold on Kenshin, now reaching out for Kaoru instead.

“Gentle?” he asked.

“Very gentle,” Kaoru said, and, with Kenshin’s help, Sojiro was moved into her waiting arms. Sojiro relaxed against her immediately. She was softer than he had been expecting, and her kimono felt smooth and cool against his feverish skin. And she smelt like cherry blossoms. . . Sojiro relaxed, and, soothed immensely by the scent, he wiggled closer to her and held on tighter.

When Sojiro was firmly within her arms, Kaoru’s eyes filled with tears. She shut them tight so that Kenshin wouldn't see and tried to focus on the sensation of the child lying against her. He was bony and small and weighed next to nothing, and yet, in that moment, his little weight was all that Kaoru was aware of. His knobby knees were wrapped around her hips, his splinted arm was nestled between their chests, and his other arm was snaked around her neck. His cheek was nestled right beneath her collarbone and his face was turned to her, so that his warm, tiny breaths skated across the skin of her neck.

With a sigh, she leaned her head to the side so that her cheek gently rested on the top of Sojiro’s black hair. She wrapped her arms more tightly around the boy, being careful not to hurt him. Then she relaxed.

Kenshin watched Kaoru nearly melt the moment Sojiro was in her arms. The rurouni’s heart softened and he thanked God, once again, for Kaoru-dono. If he had never come here, not only would Sojiro not have a safe place to recuperate, but Kenshin himself, mayhap, would still be a wanderer, lost in misery and self-disgust. But here, with Kaoru and the others, he once again had a home. A home. He had never thought he would say those words again. Yet here he was, in a room of his own, in clothes of his own, with Kaoru and the little boy he had rescued. It seemed that God had some other plans for this unworthy one.

A little smile crossed Kenshin’s lips and then he rubbed at his eyes. When he was tired like this, he always got a little sentimental. It was an odd habit, to be sure, but it could be worse. It could involve memories of the revolution or assassinations or Tomoe. . .

Kaoru started when Kenshin jolted to his feet in one swift movement. Sojiro whimpered against her, but did not wake as she was quick to soothe him. When she looked up, she noticed that Kenshin was suddenly very pale.

“Kenshin?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

Kenshin stared blankly at her for a few moments, before blinking himself out of his dark, bloody thoughts. He forced a smile across his face.

“This one is all right, Kaoru-dono,” he said. “Just very tired.”

“Oh. All right.” It was obvious Kaoru didn't completely buy it, but she decided not to push the issue - Kenshin was clearly exhausted from yet another long day. She smiled. “Why don't you sleep then, Kenshin?” she suggested. “Your bed is right there in the corner.” Kenshin turned, and the moment he laid his eyes on the futon, a huge yawn escaped his lips. Kaoru laughed. “Go on and sleep now, Kenshin. I’ll wake you if anything happens.”

Kenshin only hesitated for a moment before walking over to his bed. He plopped down on it, and, after wishing Kaoru-dono and Sojiro a good night, fell straight into a dreamless sleep.

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Chapter Text

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Kenshin woke, his hand flying for his sakabato, when he heard a child calling his name. He jolted up, red hair flying into his eyes, and proceeded to scan the room for danger. When he saw nothing indicating immediate danger, he focused on the face in front of him. Dirty face, spiky black hair, fiery brown eyes.

“Yahiko,” Kenshin sighed, releasing his grip on his sakabato and running a hand down his face. “Hello.”

“Good morning, Kenshin!” the boy said, and he held out a tray with a bowl of miso soup on it. “Kaoru asked me to wake you up for breakfast.”

“Ah, thank you,” Kenshin said. He took the tray and laid it on his lap, picking up the spoon. “How is Sojiro?”

“Sleeping,” Yahiko answered. He scooted aside so that Kenshin could see past him. Peering past Yahiko’s slim frame, Kenshin saw Kaoru and Megumi sitting by Sojiro, who was lying on his back in his bed, breathing easily. He relaxed.

“How was your night, Yahiko?” Kenshin asked, dipping the spoon in the soup and beginning to eat. “Did you sleep well?”

“Well enough,” Yahiko shrugged. “It could have been better, but it could have been worse. How about you? Kaoru told me you went out like a light.”

A gentle laugh escaped Kenshin’s lips.

“Yes, I suppose I did,” he said. “It was a very deep sleep as well - this one must have been very tired.”

“Duh,” Yahiko said, rolling his eyes. “It’s been a rough couple of days for you, Kenshin.” He lowered his voice. “Megumi told me she threatened to drug you if you didn't sleep at least a little. Is that true?”

“That it is,” Kenshin laughed. He reached forward and ruffled Yahiko’s hair. “You know she would have, too.”

Yahiko shivered in horror and Kenshin laughed. Upon hearing the familiar, lovely noise, Kaoru looked up.

“Hello, Kenshin!” she greeted with a little wave.

“Good morning, Ken-san,” Megumi added.

Kenshin dipped his head at the both of them, echoing their greetings. Once finished with his soup he moved to sit at Sojiro’s bedside along with the two women. He bit his lip when he looked down at the sleeping child.

Still flushed with fever and looking uncomfortable, Sojiro had been stripped and Megumi was busy wiping him with lukewarm water. Cool compresses were set across his brow, his groin, and both his wrists and ankles. As Kenshin watched, Kaoru peeled the towel from his forehead and replaced it with a new one, laying the used one aside with a sigh.

“He’s still pretty warm,” she told Megumi.

The doctor sighed and palmed Sojiro’s cheek. He whimpered at her touch and pulled away, his face scrunching up. Kenshin looked up at Megumi’s face and was surprised to see that she only looked mildly concerned. When Megumi looked up again to find Kenshin frowning at her, she smiled.

“He’s doing a lot better, Ken-san,” she explained. “It’s amazing.”

Kenshin frowned down at the sweaty, flushed Sojiro, who was clearly uncomfortable. It was not his place to question Megumi-dono, but still. . .

Megumi, sensing his doubt, explained further.

“His fever went down a lot during the night,” she said. “After I gave him some medicine, he seemed to relax a lot. Kaoru told me he actually slept relatively well.” Kenshin looked over at Kaoru, who smiled and nodded in the affirmative. He looked back down at Sojiro and listened to Megumi as she continued to speak. “And his fever is breaking, Ken-san. That’s why he’s sweating. Before, he was roasting from the inside out, but now his body is releasing that heat. Unfortunately, it will make the day uncomfortable for him - which is why he looks so miserable right now.”

“But his fever is breaking, that it is?” Kenshin asked, sweeping Sojiro’s black hair behind his ear.

“That it is,” Megumi said with a smile. “Thank God.”

“And he will be all right?”

“He should be fine,” Megumi said, grabbing a towel and soaking it in water again. She handed it to Kenshin, motioning for him to take over bathing Sojiro’s chest, and leaned back with a sigh. “Hopefully the fever will be gone by tonight or tomorrow morning. I’m surprised and pleased it broke so quickly - I didn’t expect it to.”

Yahiko spoke up from where he had moved to sit next to Kaoru.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Sojiro is very weak,” Megumi answered, reaching for her medicine chest. She rummaged through the drawers, avoiding eye contact with the others. “Honestly, during the night, I wasn't sure if he make it.”

Kaoru gasped and put her hand over her mouth.

“Really?” she cried.

“It was quite bad,” Megumi said, pulling out her stethoscope. “I wasn't holding out much hope for him.”

“But you left,” Kaoru said and Megumi could read the growing contempt in her voice. “If you thought he would die why did you leave?”

“I came back, Kaoru,” she snapped. “I needed to get medicine. Don’t you dare think I abandoned my patient. I would never do that.”

Kaoru hung her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn't mean to. I was just. . .”

“Scared,” Kenshin supplied. Kaoru looked up at him with teary eyes.

“Scared,” she said. “Very scared.”

Megumi nodded.

“I know,” she said. “I was scared too.”

A long silence fell upon the group, all eyes focused on Sojiro. Everything was suddenly ten times more serious after what Megumi had said. The most capable in doctor in town had thought there was a chance that Sojiro wouldn't last the night. Even now, Sojiro’s condition was often touch and go.

Eventually, the heavy, brooding silence got to be too much for Yahiko and he cleared his throat. All eyes turned to him.

“Hey,” he said, “it’s not that big a deal. I mean, Sojiro is still here, right? And he’s doing better. You guys get freaked out too easily.” He forced his familiar grin over his face. “Sojiro’s not gonna like all the worry when he wakes up. You’ll scare him, you know.” He scooted forward and sat himself close to Sojiro, taking his hand up in his own. He looked up at the adults surrounding him. “So?” he said. “Are you gonna scare him or are you gonna pull your shit together?”

This broke the spell. Kaoru leaned forward and slapped Yahiko upside the head. He yelped.

“Language!” she warned. Then, with a tired smile, she got to her feet. “If it’s all right with you, Megumi, can I sleep for a bit?”

“Of course,” Megumi said. “Go and get some rest.” She looked up at Kaoru and gave her an approving nod. “You did wonderfully last night, Kaoru,” she said. “Good work.”

Kaoru blushed at the praise, and, with a wave to the others and a loving glance at Sojiro, she left the room. When she had gone, Yahiko turned to the others. Megumi was frowning at her stethoscope and Kenshin was gently wiping Sojiro’s chest with cool water to make him more comfortable. An idea popped into Yahiko’s head.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: An idea popped into Yahiko’s head.

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“Hey,” he said, “can I lay down next to Sojiro?”

Megumi blinked at this unexpected request.

“What?”

“You heard me. Can I lay down next to him?”

“Why?”

“He seems lonely,” Yahiko said, peering down at Sojiro’s flushed and pained face. His grip on the boy’s hand unconsciously tightened. “I think it would be nice if he knew that someone was with him.”

“He already knows we’re here, silly,” Megumi said with an eye roll. “Despite what you might think, he can still hear our voices.”

A furious blush flooded Yahiko’s cheeks.

“I know that, stupid!” he said. At Kenshin’s silent reprimand, however, he lowered his voice and looked away. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“It’s fine,” Megumi said, waving her hand in dismissal. “I’m used to all of you yelling at me by now.” Both Yahiko and Kenshin looked away and had the decency to look somewhat ashamed but Megumi didn't seem to notice or care. “Just tell me why you want to lay down next to him, Yahiko,” she said. “Explain.”

“When I was sick and my mom was still . . .” Yahiko swallowed, “alive, she would sleep really close to me and hold me. It made me feel safe.”

Megumi softened.

“You want Sojiro to feel safe too, don’t you?” she asked. Yahiko nodded and Megumi exchanged a glance with Kenshin. When the rurouni nodded his approval, Megumi smiled. “All right, Yahiko,” she said, “you can lay down with him.”

“Really?!” Yahiko cried. He hadn't actually expected to be allowed to, so the approval was rare and exciting. He began to lay down, but, before he could, Megumi grabbed his arm.

“Some rules first,” she said. Yahiko frowned.

“What rules?” he asked. “I’m just going to lay next to him. I don’t need rules.”

“Yahiko,” Kenshin said, “please listen.”

Yahiko shut up and listened to Megumi. She was smiling gently.

“Rule one,” she said, holding up a delicate finger. “Not too close. You just might make the fever worse if your body heat is added to his already too high one.”

“Okay,” Yahiko nodded.

“Rule two: don’t talk too loud. Rule three: move slowly. You’ll frighten him if you move suddenly. And we don’t want to frighten him. I think there’s something wrong with his heart.”

“Still?” Kenshin asked. Megumi turned to face his worried violet eyes. “You haven't checked his heart in a couple of days so this one believed everything was all right, that I did.”

The doctor’s eyes grew sad.

“I’ve checked everyday, Ken-san,” she said. “It’s just that you’ve been sleeping each time I listened to his heart. I didn’t want to wake you.”

“Why would you do something so important without telling me, Megumi-dono?” His voice was dangerously near angry. Yahiko, anxious to lay down next to Sojiro, interrupted the impending argument quickly.

“Um,” he said, “can I lay down now? I’ve heard all the rules.”

Megumi tore her eyes from Kenshin’s angry, accusatory glare, nodded, and helped Yahiko get settled. When the ten year old was nestled a safe distance from Sojiro, his little hand wrapped in Yahiko’s larger, tanner one, Megumi smiled. Kaoru had two little boys now, it seemed. And the older one was already taking care of the smaller. Their dark black hair, similar in length, almost made them seem like brothers.

She was busy examining the two boys, Sojiro lying supine as Yahiko curled onto his side, knees drawn to his chest, when she felt her heart soften and some of the tension melt off her shoulders. Yahiko traced his fingers across the lines on Sojiro’s palm and began whispering to him, a little smile on his face. Sweet boys. . .

Chapter Text

Last chapter: Yahiko traced his fingers across the lines on Sojiro’s palm and began whispering to him, a little smile on his face. Sweet boys. . .

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“Megumi-dono.”

Megumi tore her eyes away from the two boys to find the exhausted, but now angry, Himura Kenshin, on his feet, looming above her. Her heart sunk. Here we go. . .

“I suppose you want to talk, Ken-san?” she asked. When Kenshin nodded, hiding his hands inside his gi, Megumi sighed and got to her feet. “Yahiko,” she said. When he turned to her, she nodded her head towards the door. “Ken-san and I will be right out here if anything happens. Take care of Sojiro, all right?”

“I’ve got this,” Yahiko said, a determined look on his face. He waved them away. “Go on.”

Megumi chuckled and even Kenshin, upset as he was, managed a small smile. Then they stepped outside. The moment Megumi had half-shut the door behind her, Kenshin turned to her.

“What are you hiding, Megumi-dono?” he demanded.

“Ken-san, please, this looks far worse than it is. I meant to tell you earlier, I did, but-”

“But you didn’t. Megumi-dono, please tell me what’s going on. I brought him here - I deserve to know this.”

Megumi took a deep breath and held out her hand.

“Give me your hand, Ken-san,” she said. Kenshin frowned but gave her his hand without a word. She squeezed it tight. “Something’s wrong with Sojiro’s heart, Ken-san. I think it’s some type of trauma.” She felt Kenshin’s fingers tremble and she gripped his hand tighter. “It will be all right,” she said, eager to offer reassurance. “I don’t think it’s anything too serious. If it was, we might have lost him by now.”

Kenshin went a shade paler.

Megumi held onto his hand tighter.

“I have some questions I need you to answer, Ken-san. Would you do that?”

“Of course, Megumi-dono,” the rurouni said, pulling his hand from Megumi’s and hiding it back in his gi. He looked down at his feet. “This one is very sorry for doubting you, Megumi-dono,” he added, voice quiet. “It is not this one’s place to question.”

Megumi softened.

“It’s all right, Ken-san,” she said. “In all honesty, if you didn't protest, I would have been concerned.” She smiled. “So you are forgiven, no need to worry.” Kenshin visibly relaxed and Megumi, satisfied, nodded. “All right, then,” she said, “I need you to tell me what happened when you found him.”

Kenshin, much to the doctor’s surprise, stiffened and went pale.

“No, Megumi-dono,” he said, shaking his head. “This one cannot tell - at least not yet.”

Megumi frowned, wondering why the usually somewhat candid Kenshin was hiding this information, but she nodded nonetheless.

“That’s fine,” she said, “but there’s a couple of things I really need to know.”

Kenshin nodded.

“What are they?”

“Did you see anyone hit Sojiro in the chest?” she asked. “This is very important - I need to know if he received any type of blunt trauma.”

Kenshin hesitated before answering.

“When I arrived there,” he finally said, voice quiet, “Sojiro was sobbing, that he was. . .” Kenshin bit his lip and trailed off, eyes becoming heavy.

“And?” Megumi prompted. “What else? Was anyone hitting him or kicking him or-?”

“They were all dead, Megumi-dono,” Kenshin interrupted.

Megumi’s words died on her lips and she went pale.

“W-What?” she stammered.

Kenshin turned and slid the bedroom door open a little bit more so that he could peek his head on the two boys lying in bed. Nothing had changed, of course, but it seemed that perhaps Yahiko was more relaxed and at ease.The rurouni sighed and half-turned to face Megumi, still half-focused on the boys in the room.

“His family - or whom this one supposes were his family - were dead upon this one’s arrival.”

“How?”

“By sword,” Kenshin answered. Megumi sucked in a sharp breath and gripped her kimono tight.

“Who do you think killed them?” she asked, voice hushed. When Kenshin didn't answer, the doctor frowned. “Ken-san?” she repeated. “Who killed them?”

“This one does not know for sure,” Kenshin finally answered and he turned his gaze full-on to Megumi. “But it may have been the little one.”

Megumi gasped and her hand flew over her heart. She knotted the fabric of her kimono tight between her fingers and settled her eyes on the ill and injured Sojiro.

She couldn't believe that. How could she believe that? Sojiro, hardly more than eight, malnourished and maltreated, had slaughtered his family? How would that even be possible? He was too little to hold a sword, much less swing it around.

“No way. . .” she muttered aloud. “That’s not possible.”

“It could have been, Megumi-dono,” Kenshin said. “People are capable of many terrible things when they are frightened or in danger.”

“But Sojiro? He’s far too small and weak. Besides, he seems too kind.”

“He is too kind,” Kenshin emphasized. “But he is also very scared.” He lowered his voice. “This one found him covered in blood and holding a wakizashi.”

Megumi paled even further.

“What?”

Kenshin just sighed.

“We will investigate fully later, that we shall,” he said, “but for now this one would just like to see Sojiro’s health improve. Is that all right, Megumi-dono?”

“Of course,” Megumi said and she shook herself out of her frightened thoughts of her severely injured patient somehow murdering his whole family. “His health is my main concern as well.” She slid open the door fully and stepped back into the room, Kenshin following her. “Let’s listen to his heart now, then, shall we?”

She smiled, but her heart was heavy.

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Chapter Text

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Sojiro woke up when he felt something cold lying over the skin of his chest. His eyes flew open, thoughts immediately flying to icy steel and sharp blades, and a strangled cry escaped his lips.

“Sojiro, it’s okay! It’s okay.”

Yahiko. Sojiro turned his head slightly and came face to face with the ten year old. He was lying next to him, curled up on his side, and Sojiro’s hand was wrapped up in his own. Sojiro frowned.

“Ya-Yahiko?”

“Hi, Sojiro,” the boy grinned. “How are you? How are you feeling?”

Sojiro furrowed his brow, trying to figure out how to respond. The sharp pain from yesterday had mostly gone away because of the medicine lady doctor Megumi had given him and been instead replaced by a dull ache. He also wasn't burning anymore. . .

“Better,” Sojiro responded. “Hurts less. Not so hot.”

Yahiko’s face lit up.

“That’s great!” he chirped.

Sojiro nodded slowly, then asked a question.

“Why are you lying down?”

“Oh,” Yahiko said, “because I wanted to stay close to you. I wanted to make sure you felt safe.”

“Safe. . .?”

“Yeah, safe. I can move away if you want me to,” Yahiko quickly added. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

Sojiro shook his head.

“No,” he said. “Stay.”

Yahiko nodded and scooted close to Sojiro, and Sojiro didn't move, allowing the close contact. He didn't flinch away, even as every bone in his body begged him too, but remained still. He was surprised at how familiar and soothing Yahiko’s presence was to him, and relaxed again, assured that he wouldn't be hurt. The cold on his chest, which Yahiko explained was a wet washcloth, didn't seem so frightening anymore. So, gaze focused on Yahiko’s freckled face, Sojiro felt himself become sleepy again and let his heavy, bruised eyes flutter close. But, right before he fell into a peaceful slumber, he heard a woman’s voice ask a quiet question and Yahiko’s hesitant “yes.”

“So we’re awake now, Sojiro?” the woman’s voice asked, more loudly this time. Exhausted, Sojiro forced his eyes back open and settled them blearily on the woman’s face - long black hair with bangs and soft, determined eyes - lady doctor Megumi. He groaned.

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Chapter Text

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Megumi sat patiently next to the futon, holding her hands on her knees with her stethoscope around her neck. She watched her patient drag himself from his dregs of fevered exhaustion with a little, pained moan, and tried her best to smile when he focused his eyes on her face.

“Hi, Sojiro,” she said, “I’m sorry to wake you, but I need to listen to your heart.”

“Ag-Again?” Sojiro whimpered.

“Yes, Sojiro,” Megumi said. “Again. I’m sorry, but this is important. It’s very, very important that I listen to your heart. Do you understand?” Sojiro nodded slowly. He didn't like it, but he understood. “All right then, Sojiro, Kenshin is going to help you sit up now. Okay?”

“Kenshin?” Sojiro asked, and his eyes roved the room for the rurouni; he hadn't seen him in a while. It had just been the lady doctor, Kaoru, and Yahiko for the past long and painful hours. “Kenshin’s still here?”

Kenshin scooted up from his place behind Megumi and smiled down at Sojiro.

“This one is still here,” he said. “This one has been here the whole time. I was just sleeping, that I was.”

Sojiro appraised the man carefully, and, when he saw no lie in his eyes, nodded. He relaxed and even tried for a smile. It was pitiful, but the attempt made Kenshin beam.

“Hello, little one,” he said. “I’m so happy to see you.”

“M-Me too.”

Megumi’s heart heart melted a little bit at the sight of these two, man and boy, rescuer and rescued, hero and victim, speaking quietly to each other whilst also seeking one another as anchors. She wanted to leave them be for a while, let them talk and rest, but the medical part of her would not allow such a thing. Sojiro’s heart was having trouble and she needed to know what was going on. So she scooted forward, making sure she was in Sojiro’s line of sight.

“Sojiro, it’s time to sit up now and have a listen to your heart, okay?” Sojiro nodded and Megumi motioned Yahiko off the bed. He rolled away, and, when he had relinquished Sojiro’s hand, the boy whimpered in surprise.

“Yahiko?”

“I’ll be back in a second,” Yahiko assured the boy with a wave and a smile. “You just gotta sit up first.”

Sojiro nodded and allowed Kenshin and Megumi to sit him up. When he was sitting up, blankets and wet washcloths pooled in his lap, Megumi pulled away and he felt Kenshin wrap his hands around his waist to keep him up. He frowned and turned back to look at Kenshin.

“Wanna sit in your lap,” he said.

“You can’t, Sojiro,” Megumi said. When he made a disappointed face, Megumi hastened to explain. “I can’t listen properly to your heart if you’re in Kenshin’s lap. I need you to sit up as straight as you can so that I can listen from your front and back.” Sojiro nodded and tried to sit up straight, but, with a strangled whimper, he sagged forward. Kenshin and Megumi gently helped him back up again. “I know how tired you are, Sojiro,” the doctor said, “but you need to endure this for just a little while. It will be all right.”

“It will be all right, that it will,” Kenshin echoed, petting Sojiro’s hair. The boy turned to look up at him, exhausted, pained eyes glistening with tears.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

Sojiro appraised Kenshin for a few moments before nodding. Kenshin smiled and laid a kiss on the top of Sojiro’s head. Megumi smiled also before scooting forward.

“We’re going to get started now, all right?” Sojiro nodded. “All right then, I want you to sit up as straight as you can, and, if you can’t go any farther, Kenshin will help you.”

“‘Kay.”

And, without anyone’s help, Sojiro managed to sit up relatively straight, much to Megumi’s surprise and delight. She and Kenshin then helped him up completely, Kenshin’s hands on Sojiro’s lower back and shoulders to keep him upright. Sojiro wiggled and made a face, his exhausted body obviously ready to slouch again.

“Hang in there for a while, Sojiro,” Megumi said, placing the stethoscope in her ears. “I’ll try to be as quick as I can.” She leaned forward. “Just breathe normally for me, all right?”

Sojiro nodded and evened his somewhat nervous breaths. Megumi leaned forward and placed her stethoscope over the boy’s breast. She immediately frowned.

“Come now, Sojiro, I need you to breath like you normally do.”

“I-I am,” Sojiro stammered, and he reached forward and clutched at Megumi’s kimono. His eyes were wide. “I promise I am, lady doctor Megumi.”

Megumi read the fear in Sojiro’s eyes and she nodded and squeezed his hand.

“It’s all right, darling, I believe you. Can you tell me how you’re feeling? Why you’re breathing like this?”

“Because it hurts,” Sojiro whimpered, clutching tighter to Megumi. Kenshin’s hands on his back and shoulder trembled. Sojiro’s eyes filled with tears. “It hurts, lady doctor.”

“Shh,” Megumi comforted, sensing the beginnings of an anxiety attack, “I know it hurts. But I need you to calm down. It’s okay, it’s okay. No one’s going to hurt you here.” After a few moments in which Megumi feared that Sojiro would fall apart, he instead calmed down. “Better?” she asked. When Sojiro nodded, Megumi smiled, as did Kenshin. “All right then, Sojiro, can you tell me what hurts? What exactly?”

“It’s hard to breathe cause this side hurts,” Sojiro answered, his hand fluttering towards the left side of his chest.

“All right,” Megumi said with a nod. “Do your lungs hurt? Or just where your heart is?”

Sojiro made a face, thinking. Megumi waited with bated breath - if it was only hard to breathe because of his heart, he was in serious danger. Please, she begged silently. Please don’t let it be that. Anything but that.

“My lungs and heart hurt,” Sojiro finally answered, snapping Megumi from her thoughts. The boy frowned when he saw that she seemed relieved. “Is that good?” he asked.

“No, but it’s a lot better than I thought.” She smiled. “All right?”

“All right,” Sojiro nodded.

“Now, I know you have no broken ribs, so the pain around your lungs must be from something else. I’m going to listen to your lungs now.”

“Not my heart?”

“No, not yet. Lungs first.” So, leaning forward, she rested the head of her stethoscope on Sojiro’s uninjured side. Kenshin kept the boy still as he tried to flinch from the cold metal, and Megumi proceeded to listen carefully. Everything sounds normal, she thought, pleased. Now onto the injured side. “I’m going to be as gentle as possible, Sojiro,” she said. “But it might still hurt a little bit. Can you be brave?”

Sojiro nodded.

“Brave like Kenshin,” he said in a voice so quiet only Megumi could hear. A grin lit up her face.

“Yes, brave like him,” she said. “Very brave indeed.”

Sojiro managed a little smile and then tried to sit up straight again, this time with less support from Kenshin. The rurouni beamed and Megumi, with a smile, steeled herself and placed her stethoscope over Sojiro’s damaged left chest.

The boy yelped when the stethoscope touched his skin and his hand flew instinctively for Megumi’s wrist. He stared at her with huge blue eyes before whimpering and pulling away. Megumi patted his head with her free hand and Kenshin whispered quiet reassurances in Sojiro’s ear, allowing the doctor to return to her work. She listened, brow furrowed, to Sojiro’s lungs. Nothing abnormal here either, she noted, and pulled back. She smiled reassuringly at Sojiro.

“Everything’s okay,” she said, and she watched as both Sojiro and Kenshin deflated in relief. “It just seems like you bruised the muscles in your chest wall so when you breathe in it really hurts. Does that make sense?”

“Mhm,” Sojiro hummed. He sagged forward, exhausted, but Kenshin helped him up again. Sojiro whined in protest.

“Just a while longer, little one,” Kenshin soothed, giving Sojiro a kiss on the top of his head. “We’re almost done.” He looked up and saw Yahiko waiting some feet away, fidgeting where he sat. The rurouni chuckled silently at the boy’s familiar impatience. “Yahiko,” he said, “why don’t you bring some tea? I’m sure Sojiro will need some soon.”

Yahiko hesitated and his eyes flicked over to the pale, beaten Sojiro. Kenshin nodded reassuringly.

“It’s all right, Yahiko,” he said. “We’ve got him.”

Yahiko squinted.

“Are you sure you two won’t fight anymore?” he asked, pointing between Kenshin and Megumi. “I don’t want to leave him if you two are bickering.”

Megumi laughed.

“We’re fine, Yahiko,” she said. “Everything’s fine. Now go and get some tea!” She swatted at him, and, with a dramatic sigh, Yahiko got up and left the room, waving a little farewell to Sojiro. Sojiro watched him go, then reached forward and twisted his little hand into Megumi’s kimono.

“Can we be done soon?” he asked, voice barely above a whisper. “It hurts.”

“I know,” Megumi said, and she readjusted the stethoscope in her ears, “which is why we’re going to get this done as quickly as possible. Now, I’m putting the stethoscope back over your hurt chest, all right? Hang in there.”

And, before she could hesitate, Megumi placed the bell over Sojiro’s chest. He sucked in a sharp, frightened breath and Kenshin hastened to comfort him as Megumi focused on his beating heart. She frowned.

Just as she had feared, and just as she predicted from her examinations over the past few days, Sojiro’s little heart was beating far too fast. Children had quicker heartbeats than adults, but Sojiro’s was far, far too quick. And this was when he wasn't terrified. How fast was it when he was frightened? It was probably putting great stress on his heart and was definitely a major cause for concern.

Megumi hid her worry and moved her stethoscope to Sojiro’s back, listening from there. It sounded much the same as from the front; however, when she began to pull away, there was a definite skip in the beat and Sojiro flinched. She turned quickly to face the boy.

“Sojiro,” she said, voice urgent, “what was that? Did you feel something? Did something hurt?”

“Y-Yeah,” Sojiro stammered, taken aback by the worry and urgency in the doctor’s eyes. He raised his hand to his heart and rubbed it with a frown. “It does that sometimes - it feels funny.”

Megumi’s eyes flew open wide, and, ignoring both Sojiro’s and Kenshin’s inquisitive looks, she moved to Sojiro’s front again, listening to his heart as she placed her fingers on Sojiro’s wrist. There. Another little skip. She bit her lip and kept listening - another minute, three more skips. She swallowed the lump in her throat as she pulled away.

Arrhythmias.

Not good. Not good at all.

Kenshin frowned and opened his mouth to ask a question when Sojiro interrupted him.

“Are we done now?” he asked, voice thin and strained. “Tired.”

“Yes, Sojiro,” Megumi said with a forced smile. She turned and began packing her stethoscope away. “All done now.”

Sojiro twisted to face Kenshin.

“Up?” he asked. Kenshin looked to Megumi for approval, and, when she nodded, the rurouni grasped Sojiro lightly under the armpits and lifted him into his lap. Sojiro sighed and pushed himself close to Kenshin, letting himself relax against the man’s chest. Sitting up for so long - even though it was only a few minutes - had been exhausting for him.

Kenshin looked down at the boy cradled in his lap with a fond smile. Sojiro was stronger than he gave him credit for - he could mostly sit up on his own, was determined, and was even starting to voice questions or tell others what he was feeling. Although his physical recovery was shaky and difficult, he seemed to be coping well in his new home. It was obvious to Kenshin that he was starting to feel safe. He smiled and gently hugged Sojiro to his chest. When he looked up at Megumi, however, his smile faded - she was pale and her lips were pursed with worry. She motioned to Kenshin to turn Sojiro around and the rurouni obeyed, cradling Sojiro’s black head in his hands and turning it towards his chest so that the boy wouldn't see the concern written all over his and Megumi’s faces. Sojiro didn't fight Kenshin, but instead only relaxed further against him, his warm breath tickling Kenshin’s exposed chest.

“Megumi-dono?” Kenshin asked, voice hushed and worried. “What’s wrong?”

“His heartbeat is too fast and skips beats. Fast and irregular are not a good combination, Ken-san.” She bit her lip and then sighed. “We’ll keep him in bed for now.”

“How serious is this, Megumi-dono?” Kenshin said, pulling Sojiro closer to his chest. Not too serious, he begged silently. Please.

“It’s not so bad, Ken-san,” Megumi said with a strained smile. “I just want him to be safe and take it easy for a while until I can figure out what exactly is going on. For now, though, he seems all right.”

Kenshin deflated in relief.

“That’s good, that it is.”

“That it is,” Megumi echoed. “But for now, bedrest. I’m going back to the clinic to get some medicine for Sojiro’s heart. Do you think you two will be all right?”

“Of course, Megumi-dono,” Kenshin said. “We’ll be perfectly fine.”

Megumi appraised her patient and her friend for a few moments, debating whether or not to leave them. But when Sojiro sighed and pushed himself even closer to Kenshin, knotting his little fist into the rurouni’s gi, she relaxed.

“All right,” she said, and got to her feet in one swift movement. Grabbing her medicine chest and holding it in front of her, she gave Kenshin a few more instructions. “Keep applying those cool washcloths to help the fever break faster,” she said, “and make sure he’s either lying in bed or in someone’s arms. I don’t want him out of this room and I don’t want him moved more than is necessary. Understood?”

Kenshin nodded.

“Understood.”

“Good.” Megumi swept her hair over her shoulder as she turned to leave. She stopped with her hand on the door and turned around. “One last thing,” she said, “I’m going to tell the others what’s happening and then I’m sending Sano in here to stay with you. The dumb Rooster Head won’t say it, but he’s been worried about Sojiro.” She frowned. “Quite worried, actually. Unfortunately, he hasn't had the chance to spend much time with the boy lately. So, if it’s all right with you, Ken-san, can I send him in?”

“Of course, Megumi-dono,” he said with a nod and a smile. “I would like that very much and I’m sure Sojiro would too.”

“Good.” Megumi smiled at Kenshin and her little patient - even though he couldn't see her - before leaving the room, her heart an odd mix of fear and hope.

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Chapter Text

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Sano was sitting cross-legged on the porch, glowering. He was staring down Kaoru, brows drawn starkly over his brown eyes, arms crossed over his chest. Kaoru was staring him down just as fiercely, her own arms locked across something soft.

“Just give him the package, Sano!” she said, and shoved out the lumpy, brown-papered package that she had been holding. When Sano didn't take it, she practically threw it at him, but he avoided her with ease.

“Hmph, that’s enough of that, jo-chan.” When Kaoru fell back on her knees, irritated and pouting, Sano sighed. “Look, I’ll take it if you tell me what’s in it.”

“No way!” Kaoru cried, hugging the package close once again. “It’s a surprise!”

“Yeah, a surprise for Sojiro. Why the hell won’t you tell me?”

Kaoru made a face.

“It’ll ruin the magic,” she mumbled. When Sano rolled his eyes, she reached out and slapped his arm. “I’m serious, idiot! None of you know what’s in here except for me, Tae, and Tsubame-chan. I think it will be more special if no one knew what it was. I also think it will make Sojiro more excited.”

Sano huffed impatiently, but then nodded, holding out his arms.

“Give it to me, then,” he said to Kaoru. When she didn't hand the package to him immediately, Sano frowned. “Give it to me, jo-chan.” He looked down and avoided her eyes. “If it’s going to make Sojiro happy, then I’ll do whatever it takes. Even this stupid idea.”

Kaoru elected to ignore the last part of his comment and handed Sano the lumpy package with a smile. He blinked in surprise by how little it weighed - it was pretty big; he had been expecting it to be heavier.

“What the hell is this?” Sano said, lifting the package to the sun and squinting at it, trying to see beneath the paper. Kaoru swatted at him.

“What part of surprise don’t you understand?”

Sano snorted and got to his feet, package held under his arm.

“Well,” he said, “I’m gonna give this to the kid now. Wanna come?”

“No,” Kaoru answered, “I have to go give lessons today.”

Sano’s eyes widened.

“Lessons? Really?”

Someone has to make money here,” the girl said, throwing Sano a look before getting to her feet and readjusting her ponytail.

“Well, yeah, but I wasn't expecting you to be going back so soon.”

“I don’t really want to,” Kaoru amended, “but we need more money for groceries and such now that we have another mouth to feed. Also, I want to pay Megumi back somehow.”

“Why?” Sano asked. “The fox does this cause she wants to, not cause she has to.”

“I know that, but,” Kaoru stepped off the porch and slipped on her shoes, heading for the dojo, “it takes a lot of her time away from her job to be here.”

“This is her job,” Sano said, following Kaoru as she grabbed her teaching materials and headed for the main gate.

“I know,” Kaoru said, “but Sojiro is a very serious case, according to her. Apparently last night she thought that he might not make it.” She didn’t notice Sano pale and so continued talking. “Even if she refuses full compensation, I’m going to give her at least a little bit of money.” She drew her brows fiercely over her eyes and made a fist. “And if I can’t convince her, Kenshin surely can.”

“True,” Sano admitted.

“All right, then, I’ll be off.” She pushed open the gate and waved goodbye to Sano. “I’ll see you all tonight! Have dinner ready by the time I get back! And tell Yahiko to do 1,000 swings! And-”

“Okay, okay,” Sano interrupted, beginning to shut the gate in Kaoru’s face. “I’ve got it, jo-chan. Everything’s under control.”

“Fine!” Kaoru huffed, her bangs fluttering across her forehead, and turned. “Oh, one more thing!” she cried right before Sano shut the gate. The fighter rolled his eyes.

“What?”

“Tell Sojiro I said hi!”

Sano smiled and then waved his hand.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll tell ‘im. I’ll tell Kenshin too,” he said as Kaoru opened her mouth. The girl blushed but then smiled at Sano’s understanding. Then, with a final wave, she left.

“See you!”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “See you!”

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Sano watched her from the half-open gate, waiting for her to disappear down the street before closing the door fully. He stood there for a moment, convinced that the sweaty assistant master would come running back and pound at the door, but, when no one came, he sighed and sauntered off, hands in his pockets, package stuffed under his arm.

Sano stopped where he was, tugging the package from his arms and holding it out. What the hell is this? he wondered, poking at it. It was soft, to be sure, and kind of squishy, but it wasn’t smooth enough to be new clothes. So what in the world. . .?

“Sano!”

The fighter turned to see Yahiko standing on the porch, a heavy tray in his hands. It was topped with a teapot and cups, a small pot of soup and bowls, and numerous rice balls. Stuffing the package back under his arm, Sano slipped off his shoes and stepped onto the porch. He frowned down at Yahiko.

“Need help?” he asked.

Yahiko made a face.

“No way!” he declared. “I was just calling you cause it’s time for lunch. Figured you wanted to mooch off of us more.”

Sano grinned and grabbed a rice ball. Ignoring Yahiko’s cry of protest, he stuffed the whole thing into his mouth and swallowed. He gagged.

“UGH!” he cried, coughing. “What the hell is that??! Is that supposed to be a rice ball?”

Yahiko smirked.

“Kaoru made those,” he said, and he sauntered ahead of Sano with a proud, smug look on his face. Sano growled in annoyance, then followed Yahiko.

“Why’re you giving jo-chan’s food to the kid? Planning to poison him or something?”

Yahiko turned and glared at Sano.

“For your information, Kenshin asked me to bring them. He wanted to eat them.”

“Kenshin did?” Sano’s eyes were wide as saucers and he repeated the question one more time, dumbfounded.

“Yes, Kenshin did,” Yahiko said, rolling his eyes. “He said, and I quote, ‘They’ll go bad if no one eats them, that they will.’”

“Psh,” Sano snorted. “He would say that. While the rest of us would gladly let Kaoru’s terrible rice spoil in the sun, Kenshin is too concerned about food.”

“I think he’s just really hungry,” Yahiko said, stopping outside the door to Kenshin’s room. “He’s hardly eaten anything lately.”

Sano growled in frustration. It’s just like Kenshin to neglect his own health when he’s worried like this, he thought, annoyed. He cracked his knuckles. I’ll have to teach him a lesson or two.

However, all he did was sigh as he slid the door open. Sitting up in Kenshin’s lap, playing with Sano’s headband and Kaoru’s marble, was Sojiro, his face pale and strained, but blessedly free of pain. Kenshin was leaning back, propped up by his hands, smiling and speaking quietly to Sojiro when the boy spoke to him or asked a question. He looked up when Yahiko and Sano entered the room.

“Hello,” he greeted with a smile. “Sojiro, look who’s here.”

Sojiro looked up from the presents in his hand and blinked up at the pair standing in the doorway. He didn't seem as frightened anymore, but Sano didn't miss how his grip on the headband tightened.

“H-Hi,” the boy stammered.

“Hey, Sojiro!” Yahiko chirped, and he stepped further into the room, laying the tray down near Kenshin’s feet. He plopped down next to it and rubbed his sore arms. “Ugh, that was heavy.”

Sano rolled his eyes and seated himself next to the boy.

“I offered to help,” he said. “But you didn't want it. So no complaining.”

Yahiko stuck out his tongue and Kenshin laughed, but, when Sano looked over at his friend, he was surprised to see that Sojiro was blinking, confused.

“What’s the matter, Sojiro?” Sano asked. Sojiro flinched for a moment, alarmed and startled, but, soothed by Kenshin, he relaxed.

“You-You offered to help Yahiko?” he asked, settling his big blue eyes on Sano’s face.

Sano smiled and nodded.

“Of course,” he said. “That tray is heavy. I didn't want him to drop it.”

Yahiko swatted at Sano and cried out in annoyance, but Sano was too focused on Sojiro to notice. The boy’s eyes were wide and confused.

“Does that make sense?” the fighter asked, making his voice gentle. “I wanted to help Yahiko because the tray was heavy.”

“Help him. . .”

“Yeah.” Sano nodded and then turned and frowned at Kenshin. The rurouni sat up and cradled Sojiro more closely, peering into his face. He was very pale now, almost white as snow, and his blue eyes were huge and far away.

“Are you all right, little one?” Kenshin asked, laying his hand on the boy’s hair. When Sojiro didn't respond, he sighed and tucked the boy closer to him.

“What’s wrong?” Yahiko asked. “What’s going on?”

“It seems like he’s remembering something,” Kenshin said. “We’ll give him a minute, that we will, to see if he comes back to us on his own.”

“Comes back. . .?” Sano asked.

“Oh!” Yahiko cried. “He’s doing the same thing you do sometimes, Kenshin! Completely space out.”

Kenshin chuckled.

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Kenshin does this?” Sano asked with a frown. “I’ve never seen that before.”

“That’s cause you’re never here to see it,” Yahiko explained. “There was actually a time when he did that a lot.” He turned to Kenshin. “It was really weird to see you like that, Kenshin. You seemed so sad.”

A soft smile tugged at Kenshin’s lips. He began to speak to Yahiko when Sojiro snapped out of his blank gaze with a whimper. He turned himself towards Kenshin, and the rurouni was surprised to feel warm tears slip down his chest. Sojiro was crying. He raised his hand to the boy’s head and ran his gentle fingers through the thin black strands.

“It’s all right, Sojiro, that it is,” he whispered. “It’s all right.”

“What’s wrong?” Yahiko asked, leaning forward. “Is he okay?”

“He’s all right, Yahiko, that he is.”

But when Yahiko heard the sniffles coming from Sojiro, he stiffened.

“He’s crying,” he said. “Did Sano upset him?” He turned and glared. “Way to go, idiot.”

Sano growled in annoyance and made to snap at Yahiko but froze when Sojiro sniffled and spoke in his quiet, timid voice.

“S-Sano didn’t make me sad,” he whispered. “Not Sano’s fault.”

“Would you like to tell us what it is, then?” Sano asked. “What happened?”

“I remembered something. . .” Sojiro said, twisting around and settling his eyes on Sano’s face. “Something not good.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Sano asked. When Sojiro’s grip on Kenshin’s gi tightened, Sano hastened to reassure him. “You don’t have to,” he said, “but we’re here for you if you do.”

“Here. . . for me?”

“Yeah,” Sano said, grinning. “Here for you. Here to help you.”

Sojiro’s eyes darted over to the tray. He lifted a bony finger, and, shaking, pointed at it.

“If I was carrying that, you would. . .”

“Help.” All three - Yahiko, Sano, and Kenshin - spoke at once. They grinned at each other before turning back to Sojiro. The little boy, although more relaxed, still looked confused.

“No one helped me then,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I had to carry lots of heavy things myself.” He lowered his voice and clutched the headband so hard his knuckles turned white. “Rice is heavy.”

Sano felt his heart swell up in a sudden rage - from what he understood, it sounded like Sojiro’s family - no, his abusers - had forced him to carry large loads of rice. And, remembering the ugly cuts and bruises on Sojiro’s feet, they made him do it often and bare-footed. He clenched his hand into a fist, shaking, fighting his urge to punch something hard and fast. God, he didn't even know these people and yet he hated them. Sojiro was a child. Who would do this to a child? But instead of punching or yelling, which he knew would only scare the living hell out of Sojiro, Sano forced a reassuring smile over his face.

“We won’t make you carry anything all alone anymore,” he said. “No rice, no wood, no anything.”

“No. . .?”

“Nothing,” Yahiko said, and Sano wasn't surprised to see fierce anger in his eyes too. He had his fists knotted in his brown hakama and he was trembling. “That was awful, what they did to you. But it’s over now and we’ll protect you.”

Sojiro blinked at Yahiko a few times, absorbing what he had said, before nodding slowly. A faint smile crossed his lips.

“Thank you, Yahiko.” He relaxed and fell back against Kenshin. “Thank you, Kenshin. Thank you, Sano.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Thank you, Yahiko.” He relaxed and fell back against Kenshin. “Thank you, Kenshin. Thank you, Sano.”

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The others grinned and Kenshin swept a hand across Sojiro’s brow.

“You’re welcome, little one,” he said. He frowned when he felt the slight heat from Sojiro’s fever on his palm. “Do you feel all right, Sojiro?” he asked. “You’re still warm, that you are.”

Sojiro wiggled against Kenshin.

“It’s a little hot,” he admitted, voice quiet. “But I’m okay.”

Kenshin, with a gentle sigh, leaned over Sojiro, dipped a towel in the basin of cool water, then placed it over Sojiro’s brow.

“You can tell us if you’re uncomfortable or hurting, Sojiro,” he said. “You’re safe here, that you are.”

Sojiro nodded and wiggled even closer to Kenshin despite how warm and sweaty he was feeling.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

“There’s no need to be sorry,” Kenshin said, a soft smile on his lips. “You’re just fine, that you are.”

“Yeah!” Sojiro winced at Yahiko’s loud and excited voice, but turned to face him nonetheless. He was grinning from ear to ear, his face bright. Sojiro frowned.

“Yahiko. . .?”

“I have an idea!” he cried. “No one is saying sorry in this house ever again.”

Sano whapped Yahiko upside the head and Kenshin burst out laughing. Sojiro snuggled closer to him.

“Yahiko, you idiot!” Sano cried, but his eyes, like Kenshin’s, were bright. “That’s a stupid idea!”

Yahiko rubbed at his head and glared at Sano.

“Why?” he demanded.

“It’s unreasonable, that it is,” Kenshin smiled. “There are plenty of things to be sorry for.”

“Like what?”

“Like when you spilled miso soup over jo-chan’s kimono,” Sano said. “Or when you dragged mud into the dojo. Or when-”

“Owah! I get it! I get it!” Yahiko shoved at Sano, who pulled back with a laugh. Sojiro watched them with soft, wary eyes. Is this real? he wondered. They’re laughing, but they’re not laughing at me. And they seem happy and not mad. . . The boy blinked himself out of his thoughts when he heard his name being called repeatedly.

“Sojiro!”

Sojiro flinched violently and snapped his eyes shut. He pushed himself against Kenshin, grabbing onto his gi and trying to ignore the pain that lanced through his body. He whimpered, his heart beating fast, and tried to pull himself even closer to Kenshin’s chest. Kenshin cradled his head and Sojiro could hear him reprimanding Sano, telling him not to yell at him or scare him. Yahiko’s accusing voice joined in and Sano, much to the others’ surprise, took it in silence.

Leaning forward, Sano laid a gentle hand on Sojiro’s back. The boy winced at first, startled, but relaxed quickly.

“I’m sorry, Sojiro,” the fighter whispered. “I didn't mean to frighten you. I was just worried when you didn't respond to your name right away.”

Sojiro wiggled around and settled his now wide-open eyes on Sano’s apologetic face.

“Sano. . . worried?”

“Yeah.”

“So. . . yelled?”

Sano chuckled and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.

“I tend to get loud,” he said.

“Tend to?” Yahiko snorted. “You are loud.”

“Hey! That’s-” Sano reached out to swat at Yahiko, but froze when he heard a quiet giggle. Was that. . .? He turned, eyes huge, to find Sojiro, still clutching tight to Kenshin, wearing the smallest of smiles. It was a genuine one too - the one accompanied by gentle upturned lips and slightly bright eyes. Sano’s heart leapt. He had smiled! Sojiro had smiled! Holy shit!

“Sano is loud,” the boy said. Kenshin and Yahiko burst out laughing, and Sojiro, encouraged, smiled a bit wider. Sano too, after a moment of pure excitement, fell back with a laugh. In minutes, he had managed to terrify Sojiro and then make him laugh! How in the hell. . .?

“Sano. . .”

Sano blinked himself out of his thoughts to find Sojiro staring at him.

“Yeah, kid?”

“Not angry,” Sojiro said, pointing at his chest. “I’m not angry.”

Sano smiled.

“I’m glad,” he said. “Do you forgive me?”

“Yeah,” Sojiro said.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: 

I’m glad,” he said. “Do you forgive me?”

“Yeah,” Sojiro said.

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“Yeah,” Sojiro said. He held out his hand, and Sano, with a smile, took and shook it. Sojiro didn't let go of his hand right away, instead squeezing a bit tighter. Heat suddenly lanced through his body and he smothered a little whimper and turned away, hoping Sano hadn't seen the tears forming in his eyes.

But Sano was smart. Smarter than he looked, at least.

“Sojiro?” he asked. “You okay, kid?”

“Hmm,” the boy hummed. “It’s h-hot though.”

“You’re still hot?” Kenshin asked, peering down into the boy’s face. “Even with the washcloth?”

“Y-Yes.” Kenshin reached forward to pry the already warm washcloth from Sojiro’s forehead, but, as his hand came close, Sojiro recoiled. Kenshin blinked before smiling softly in understanding.

“Don’t worry, Sojiro, I won’t hurt you, that I won’t.”

Sojiro blinked and nodded, embarrassed. He knew Kenshin had no intention of hurting him but it was still an instinct for him to pull away when anyone came too close with no warning. So he sat very still as Kenshin gently took the washcloth away, dipped it in the bowl of cold water, and replaced it back on Sojiro’s forehead. Sojiro hissed at the sudden cold but relaxed almost immediately. He fell back against Kenshin’s chest with a satisfied hum and scooted a little closer to him. With a smile, Kenshin handed him the marble he had discarded when Sano and Yahiko had come in, and Sojiro clutched hard at it along with the headband.

“Hey, Sojiro,” Sano said after a few moments of silence, “Yahiko brought some food. Would you eat some for us?”

Sojiro hesitated, and, just when Sano figured he’d have to bribe the boy, he nodded.

“Okay,” he said, his voice barely above a breath. “I’ll eat.”

Everyone’s faces lit up.

“Really?!” Yahiko cried, leaning forward. “Really??”

Sojiro blinked.

“Y-Yes,” he stammered. He looked up at Kenshin. “Is that right? Is that okay?”

“Of course, Sojiro,” Kenshin smiled, laying a hand on top of the boy’s head. “It’s wonderful, that it is.”

“Okay,” Sojiro said and, with the rurouni’s help, sat in Kenshin’s lap facing Sano and Yahiko. He was surprised to see Yahiko grinning from ear to ear.

“Okay, okay, okay,” the ten-year-old said, and he pushed the tray in front of Sojiro. Sojiro blinked at the large amount of food and cups - soup, tea, rice balls. . . . He raised a finger and pointed at the rice balls.

“Do I have to eat that?” he asked.

“No,” Yahiko said. “Those are for Kenshin. Megumi told me not to let you eat solid food yet.” Sojiro’s lips parted in a silent ‘oh.’ “Besides,” Yahiko added, “Kaoru made them so they’re really gross.”

Sojiro frowned.

“Why is Kenshin eating them?”

“Because he doesn’t like to waste food,” Sano said. “And he’s the only one who can stomach that shit.”

“Sano!” Kenshin said with a glare. “Language!”

His reprimand died on his lips, however, when Sojiro giggled.

“It’s okay,” Sojiro said, “it was funny.”

“Hah!” Sano cried in triumph. He leaned back and smirked. “The kid thought it was funny, Kenshin, so I can swear all I like!”

“So does that mean I can swear too?” Yahiko asked.

“No!” Kenshin and Sano said at the same time and this elicited another giggle from Sojiro. They teased each other cause they liked each other. They were friends. Maybe, in time, Sojiro could be their friend too. . .

“Sojiro!”

The boy jumped and focused his gaze on Yahiko - his friend - who was still grinning but looking worried.

“Sojiro,” he said again, “you okay? You spaced out there for a second.”

“Huh? Oh, yes, yes, I’m okay,” the boy said, going stiff for a moment. “I’m sorry.” He dropped his voice. “Please don’t hurt me. I’m sorry I wasn't paying attention. I’ll do better next time. I’m sorry.”

“Hey, hey,” Yahiko said, and Sojiro was surprised to hear that his voice was gentle, “it’s okay, Sojiro. No sorries. There’s nothing to be sorry for. I space out all the time.”

Sojiro looked up and blinked.

“Really?”

“Really,” Yahiko nodded. “Right, Kenshin?”

Kenshin laughed.

“That’s right, that it is.”

Sojiro, with a little nod and smile, relaxed again and settled his eyes on the food. Yahiko seated himself and pointed at each food in turn.

“These are the gross rice balls for Kenshin, and this is miso soup and tea for you.”

“For you too?” Sojiro asked, noticing that there were extra cups and bowls.

“Yeah, we were going to eat and drink with you, if that’s okay.”

Sojiro nodded eagerly, his expression brightening.

“Yes, please,” he said.

“Yes!” Yahiko said, pumping his fist in the air. He bounced happily and picked up the teapot, beginning to pour the tea into cups.

“Ah!” Kenshin cried. “Yahiko, slow down, that you should, or you’ll spill!”

“It’s fine, Kenshin,” Yahiko said, pouring the tea just as quickly as before. “I’ve mastered the art of tea pouring!”

“When?” Kenshin asked, lifting Sojiro under the armpits and scooting him a little farther from Yahiko. “Please be careful, Yahiko, the tea is hot, that it is!”

“Yeah, kid,” Sano said, grabbing Yahiko’s hand. “Slow down.” Yahiko opened his mouth in protest but Sano interrupted. “You might splash Sojiro if you keep that up,” he said. “Did you not see that Kenshin pulled him away?”

Yahiko’s brown eyes drifted over to Kenshin and Sojiro. Where before the boy had been sitting in Kenshin’s lap, he had been moved to sit on his knee, farther away from Yahiko and the hot tea. Yahiko blushed.

“Sorry,” he said, pouring the tea more slowly now. “I just got excited.”

“It’s fine, that it is,” Kenshin said and he moved Sojiro back into his lap with ease. “I’m just glad we didn't scald Sojiro with the tea.”

“So am I,” Yahiko said, and he leaned forward with the cup in his hands. “Here, Sojiro,” he said with a smile. “This is yours.”

“M-Mine?”

“Yep! Your green tea.” Yahiko held the cup closer when Sojiro didn't take it. “Here, Sojiro,” he said with a frown, “take the cup.”

Sojiro hesitated and scooted closer to Kenshin’s chest, his grip on Sano’s headband tightening. Kenshin, with a gentle sigh, took the cup from Yahiko and held it in front of Sojiro so that the boy could see its contents. Nothing but tea. . . Sojiro relaxed and nodded.

“Okay,” he said, voice quiet, “I’ll drink.” He reached out his unsplinted hand and curved his small bruised fingers around the cup. With Kenshin’s help, he raised the cup to his lips and began taking small sips.

“There were are,” Kenshin praised with a smile. “Good job, Sojiro.” The rurouni looked up and Yahiko and Sano. “You two should drink as well, that you should,” he said. “I’ll drink soon.”

So three out of the four in the room spent ten minutes quietly drinking tea, Sano and Yahiko once and a while making a joke or two, but most of the time their eyes were focused on Sojiro. His grip on the cup had at first been strong and even, but, as time went on, he began to shake so Kenshin took the cup and held it to Sojiro’s lips, allowing the boy to take as many small sips as he wished. After a while, though, Sojiro pushed the cup away with a little whimper.

“Done,” he said. “No more.”

Kenshin peered into the cup and was thrilled to see that it was almost half empty; this was a wild improvement from the past couple of days, where it had been difficult to coax Sojiro to take even a sip or two. He handed the cup back to Yahiko, beaming.

“You did wonderfully, Sojiro, that you did,” Kenshin said, laying his hand on top of the boy’s head and grinning at him. “This one is very proud.”

Sojiro blinked.

“Proud. . .?”

“Yes, proud,” Kenshin said. “You drank a lot - that’s a very good thing!”

A flicker of a smile crossed Sojiro’s face.

“Thank you.”

Kenshin pulled Sojiro close, wrapping his arms around him in a gentle hug. Sojiro blushed, pleased, and snuggled even closer, burying his face in the rurouni’s blue gi. Kenshin cradled his head and smiled as he handed the cup back to Yahiko. Yahiko traded Sojiro’s cup for Kenshin’s own and the rurouni began to drink, nodding at Yahiko in thanks. As he sipped his tea, his eyes roved over to the package lying next to Sano.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Oh, this is a present for Sojiro. Jo-chan gave it to me.”

“A present?” Kenshin asked with raised eyebrows.

“Yep.”

“What is it?” Yahiko asked, reaching for the package. Sano slapped his hand away.

“It’s a surprise,” he said. “Even I don’t know what’s in it. Jo-chan wouldn't tell.”

Yahiko made a face.

“That’s stupid.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sano said with a wave of his hand. “Tell me about it. But she told me to give it to Sojiro and I will. Right after he eats that soup.” He nodded his head towards the little pot. “Pour some for him, Yahiko.”

Yahiko stuck out his tongue at Sano, but did as he was told, ladling some of the pot’s contents carefully into a bowl. When he was done, he handed it to Sano. The fighter nodded in thanks and ruffled Yahiko’s hair. The boy growled in annoyance but only shoved Sano gently, careful of the soup balanced in his hands. Sano grinned and looked down into the bowl’s contents.

It was a simple miso broth. But there were a few solid ingredients in there too - small, soft cubes of tofu and green onion. And it actually smelled really good. Sano nodded in approval - it was about time Sojiro had some good and semi-solid food.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: Sano nodded in approval - it was about time Sojiro had some good and semi-solid food.

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“Did you make this, Yahiko?” Sano asked. When the boy nodded, Sano grinned. “I’m impressed. Kenshin taught you well.”

“Thanks,” Yahiko said, turning away to hide his blush.

“All right, then,” Sano said, settling the soup on his knee. He reached forward and laid a gentle hand on Sojiro’s small, bruised leg. Sojiro jerked at the contact, sitting up in the blink of an eye, and, before Sano knew what was happening, the marble that Kaoru had given to him was flying towards his face.

Sano, by some miracle, managed to avoid the projectile while keeping the soup in the bowl. He looked behind him when he heard a soft whump. His eyes went wide.

There, nestled deeply in the bamboo wall, was the blue and green marble.

“Holy shit. . .” Yahiko muttered behind him, and this time no one bothered to reprimand him for his language. Somehow, Sano had managed to avoid the marble, but if he hadn’t, it might have been lodged in his skull instead of the wall. He turned to Sojiro, eyes wide.

The boy’s eyes were huge in his little gaunt face and he had tensed, as if he expected some kind of blow.

“I-I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I didn't mean too. I was scared.”

“It’s okay,” Sano reassured the boy, trying to smile. “But I want to know how you did that. Would you tell me?”

Sojiro blinked in confusion.

“I just threw it,” he said with a frown.

“You can throw that fast?” Yahiko asked with amazement. “Holy sh-”

Kenshin interrupted him before he could finish. He leaned over and smiled at Sojiro.

“That’s a very special talent, Sojiro, that it is,” he said. “Not many people can throw that fast.”

“Really?” Sojiro asked.

The rurouni hummed.

“Indeed.”

The smallest of smiles flicked across Sojiro’s face as he nestled himself closer to Kenshin.

“If you can throw that fast, then I bet you can run that fast,” Yahiko said, bouncing on his knees. “Have you ever run before?”

Sojiro paled and his grip on Kenshin tightened.

“Only when I’m scared.”

“Oh.” Yahiko watched as Kenshin pet Sojiro’s hair with a gentle hand and he understood he should probably change the subject. He turned and pointed to the soup Sano was holding. “I made you some soup,” he said. “You should try some.”

Sojiro made a face.

“I already had tea. . .”

“Yeah, but tea isn’t food,” Yahiko emphasized. “You need to actually eat something, you know.” He took the soup from Sano and held it out for Sojiro to see. “It’s actually got some tofu in it, too. Do you like tofu?” Sojiro gave a hesitant nod. “Then you should eat it. Megumi is worried that you don’t have any solids in your diet. So she told me to put what she called ‘soft solids’ in the soup. I don’t know what she’s talking about, but I think she means the tofu.” He held it forward, and Sojiro, seeing the eagerness shining from Yahiko’s eyes, sighed in resignation. Kenshin reached over him, took the bowl from Yahiko, and balanced it on his knee. Sano grabbed a spoon and handed it to the rurouni, who held it out to Sojiro.

“Do you think you can use the spoon, Sojiro?” he asked. When Sojiro hesitated, he smiled a little bit more. “You don’t have to use it the whole time,” he said, “this one just thought you would like to try.”

Sojiro hesitated, eying the thick handled red soup spoon. No one had offered him such a thing before - when he had been fed anything other than rice balls, he’d had to drink straight from the bowl. He only knew what a spoon even was because he’d done the dishes multiple times. But he’d never been allowed to use one.

Kenshin watched the boy carefully and noticed the uncertainty in his posture and eyes. Ah.

“Have you ever used a spoon before, Sojiro?” he asked. Sojiro jumped and his eyes went wide, clearly startled by the fact that Kenshin seemed to know what he was thinking. “That’s all right,” the rurouni rushed to assure the child. “I didn't expect you to. You’re very little, after all.” Sojiro nodded and relaxed. “Would you like to try?” Kenshin asked, and, when Sojiro nodded, he handed the spoon to the boy, readjusting his fingers so he was correctly holding the utensil. With Kenshin’s help, Sojiro managed to lift a spoonful of soup to his lips and tip it into his mouth. He winced at first, afraid the soup would be too hot or salty, but finding it to be near perfect, he smiled.

“Is it good?” Sano asked, and Sojiro looked up to see him grinning. He nodded eagerly, his own smile getting a little bit wider.

“Good,” he said. “Very good.”

“Would you like more?” Kenshin asked. When Sojiro nodded and reached forward with the spoon again, Kenshin’s heart soared. This was the first time in days Sojiro had shown an active interest in eating. It was a very, very good sign, he knew, and when he relayed this to Megumi, he knew she would be thrilled.

Kenshin, Sano, and Yahiko watched with light hearts and bright eyes as Sojiro dug into the soup, eager and excited. Once and while Kenshin had to remind him with a gentle laugh to slow down, but Sojiro barely heard. He was so hungry and he hadn't even realized it. And the food was delicious - probably the best he’d ever had. Finally, he reached the bottom of the bowl, but he moved too fast. He watched, horrified, as the nearly empty bowl tipped over and fell onto the ground and his shaky hand proceeded to drop the spoonful of soup he was holding onto his chest and borrowed yukata.

He froze. He closed his eyes.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: He froze. He closed his eyes.

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“Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me-”

“Shh, we’re not going to hurt you,” Kenshin soothed, tucking Sojiro closer to him. “Shh, it’s all right, we’re not going to hurt you.” He lifted his voice, speaking to the others. “Sano, why don’t you get some towels and Yahiko a spare yukata. Do you have any left?”

“Yeah.” And he dashed out of the room, followed by Sano. The bedroom was quiet for a few moments, the only noise Sojiro’s frightened, harsh breaths and Kenshin’s whispered reassurances.

Sano returned less than a minute later with some towels. His eyes landed on Sojiro, spoon clutched hard in his hand, eyes scrunched shut, shivering and whimpering in Kenshin’s lap. He had spilled the last remnants of the soup on the front of his yukata, staining the yellow fabric an ugly brown. There was only a bit soup on the floor but Sano headed to clean it up as he tossed a smaller towel at Kenshin.

Kenshin caught it easily and laid it down at his side as he readjusted Sojiro in his arms.

“Time to get cleaned up,” he said, tipping Sojiro forward so that he was sitting up a bit. Sojiro whined in protest, but Kenshin hushed him with a coo. “It’s all right,” he soothed. “It’s all right, that it is. I’m going to use this towel to clean your chest now, all right?” Sojiro settled his blue eyes on the small white towel before nodding and clutching tighter to Kenshin. Kenshin smiled. “There’s a brave boy,” he said. He laid the towel gently on Sojiro’s damaged and bruised skin, carefully swiping the miso soup away. Every once and a while Sojiro flinched and Kenshin apologized. “I’m sorry if I’m hurting you, Sojiro, that I am,” he said, “but we’re almost finished.”

By this point, Sano had cleaned up the spill on the floor and had moved to sit at Sojiro’s side. He examined the boy’s face carefully, watching for signs of pain or distress, and, finding both, he held out his hand for Sojiro to take. His little white hand shot out and he curled his fingers around Sano’s palm, his grip tight. Sano squeezed his hand gently in response, frowning. Kenshin was being incredibly careful, the towel barely grazing over Sojiro’s skin, but Sojiro flinched at every touch. Those bruises must hurt like hell, Sano thought. He winced in sympathy when Sojiro cried out as Kenshin wiped the soup from a severely bruised area.

“It’s okay,” Sano said. “It’s okay, Sojiro. We’re almost done, right, Kenshin?”

Kenshin nodded.

“That’s right, that it is,” he said. True to his word, less than a minute later, Kenshin laid the towel aside with a heavy sigh. “All done,” he announced.

Sojiro made to snuggle close to Kenshin again, seeking the rurouni’s heat and comfort, but Sano held him back.

“Sorry, kid, but we need to change you out of that yukata first. I’m sure it’s not comfortable, huh?”

Sojiro looked down at the yellow yukata, realizing for the first time that it was still stained with wet soup.

“Oh,” he said. He looked up at Sano and nodded. “Not comfortable.”

“That’s what I thought,” Sano said with a smile. He looked around with a glower. “Where the hell is Yahiko with that spare yukata?” he asked.

At the same time, Yahiko dashed into the room, breathless, a patterned, folded yukata held against his chest.

“Took you long enough,” Sano snorted. “We’ve been getting old waiting for you.”

Sojiro giggled and Kenshin managed a small smile.

“Sano,” he admonished gently. He turned to Yahiko. “Thank you, Yahiko,” he said.

“No problem,” the boy said and he handed the yukata to Kenshin. Kenshin frowned upon touching it - it was a fine, silk-like fabric and the pattern was elaborate - green with yellow suns. His eyes widened.

“Yahiko,” he said, “this is your festival yukata!”

“So?” the boy said, plopping down next to Sano. “Sojiro needs a new yukata and that’s the only one I had left.”

“But Kaoru-dono gave you this for special occasions, that she did,” Kenshin protested.

“This is a special occasion! There’s a new kid here! There can’t be anything more special than that!”

Kenshin sighed in resignation and held out the yukata for Sojiro to see. After all, it’s not as if they had any other options.

“Would you like to wear this, Sojiro?” he asked.

Sojiro reached out with wide eyes, fingers shaking as he went to touch the fabric. He froze right before though, for he had never been allowed to touch, much less wear, something so fine. He turned his blue eyes, big as saucers, to Yahiko. When the boy smiled and nodded in permission, he turned to Kenshin. Kenshin was smiling too. So, safe in the fact that he was allowed to touch, Sojiro laid his little fingers on the fabric.

He gasped.

It was smooth! Smoother and silkier than anything he had ever touched. Was this what the rich people wore every day? Was this what his wealthy neighbors who ignored his begs and screams for help wore?

“Pretty,” he said in a breath. “So pretty.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Pretty,” he said in a breath. “So pretty.”

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“You like?” Yahiko asked, and Sojiro turned to find him grinning. “Kaoru got it for me for festivals and stuff.”

“It’s pretty,” Sojiro said again. “There was a woman in my town who wore fabric like this. Except it had flowers and was pink.”

“Yeah?” Sano said.

Sojiro nodded.

“Yeah,” he said. “She ran a bright restaurant with lots of colors and lights. It was always busy. I had to go there once to pick up my br-brothers” - he tripped over this word - “and she was there. There were lots of sad, sad girls behind her who were wearing lots of makeup and pretty pins in their hair. One of the girls was really nice. Her name was Kiko.” The others in the room remained quiet and still, allowing Sojiro to speak. This was the first time Sojiro had spoken so much and no one was anxious to interrupt - even though they already knew where this story was headed. “Kiko held my hand as she took me upstairs. She was nice and warm and had a quiet voice. I liked her.” Sojiro’s little smile fell off his face. “When she opened the door to the room my brothers were in, she told me to stay back and be quiet. I listened. My-my brothers were mean. They hit her and then came outside and grabbed me. They-they h-hit me too.” Sojiro’s grip on Kenshin tightened and the rurouni smoothed his black hair with his hand. “They told me we had to leave and they gave me money to give the lady who ran the house. She was the one with the pretty fabric kimono.”

Sojiro took a deep breath.

“She-she yelled and hit me cause she said my brothers didn't have enough money. They got into a big fight and Kiko grabbed me and pulled me back so no one could hit me anymore. She gave me a hug. That was nice.” Sojiro blinked, remembering his strong memories of Kiko - the girl with the thick black hair, painted red lips, and soft almond eyes. She had smelled like plum trees. “Then the lady who ran the restaurant grabbed me from Kiko and looked me up and down. Her nails hurt my skin. She said that I was pretty and that clients would like me. She said I was w-worth a lot and of-offered to b-buy me.”

Yahiko’s hands fisted into his hakama and his eyes were huge - someone wanted to buy Sojiro?!? But that was illegal! He looked up at Kenshin, expecting to see similar outrage in his eyes, but was startled to see that the rurouni had gone slack and white, his violet eyes far away and unfocused. He had unconsciously pulled Sojiro closer to him. Yahiko opened his mouth to ask what was wrong but shut up when Sojiro continued speaking.

“But my br-brothers said no ‘cause they needed me for work. The lady in the pink and flower kimono seemed annoyed and shoved me back to my brothers. My br-brothers told me it was time to go after that and Kiko seemed really happy. I don’t know why. I never saw her again after that.”

Kenshin’s heart was beating fast. A teahouse. A teahouse. A teahouse. His family had sent little Sojiro on an errand to a teahouse. And they were even asked to sell him. Memories raced through Kenshin’s mind - ones that he hadn't recalled in a very, very long time. A man that smiled with cracked yellow teeth, being looked up and down and touched in places that had no business being touched, tossed into a caravan, walking for miles with women he didn't know, and then the bandits. . .

“Kenshin?”

Kenshin blinked himself out of his thoughts upon hearing Sojiro’s timid voice calling his name. He blinked again to find Yahiko and Sano staring at him, worry in their eyes, and Sojiro, clutching tight to Kenshin’s gi, trying to sit up.

“Are you okay?” the boy asked, his blue eyes wide. “I’m s-sorry if I said something wrong. I didn't m-mean to.”

Kenshin reached out to pet the boy’s hair but Sojiro fell back with a yelp, uninjured hand going up to shield himself. Kenshin froze, gentle hand midair.

“S-Sano!” the boy cried, his eyes shut tight. “Sano, help!”

Sano frowned and exchanged a worried glance with Kenshin; nevertheless he scooted forward and laid a hand on Sojiro’s shoulder to let him know he was there.

“It’s okay, kid,” he said, “I’m here and Kenshin isn't going to hurt you. No one is going to hurt you.”

Sojiro didn't open his eyes but wiggled in Kenshin’s lap, facing Sano and reaching for him.

“Sano. . .”

“You want me to hold you?” the fighter asked. A deep frown creased his brow and he turned to Kenshin. “But-”

“It’s all right,” the rurouni said, a forced smile on his face. He hadn't moved at all, his hand still held frozen in place. “You can take him, that you can.”

Sano studied the man in front of him for a few moments, taking in his pale face and the pained expression in his violet eyes. But he listened anyways, lifting Sojiro gently from Kenshin’s lap and placing him in his own. Sojiro wiggled close to him, knotting his fist in the fighter’s shirt. Sano’s hand came up to cradle the boy’s head and neck as he buried his face into the fighter’s collarbone with a little whine.

“It’s okay,” he soothed. “It’s okay, kid. You’re safe. No one is going to hurt you. You know that, right?”

“Y-yeah,” Sojiro answered, his voice muffled. “I just forgot.”

“That’s okay,” Sano said. “It’s okay to forget sometimes. But it’s really good that you know.”

Sojiro hummed then spoke again, his voice so quiet that only Sano could hear.

“I know Kenshin’s not gonna hurt me,” he said. “I know that most of all.”

Sano gave a huge sigh of relief and he tugged the boy closer, careful not to jostle him.

“That’s great!” he said. “That’s the most important thing of all. Whenever you don’t feel safe or scared, Kenshin will be the first person you go to.” He looked up. “Isn’t that right, Kenshin?”

The words died on his lips when he realized the room was empty. Both Kenshin and Yahiko, plus the festival yukata, had up and disappeared.

“What the hell. . .”

“What’s wrong?” Sojiro asked, and, before Sano could keep him still, he twisted to face where Kenshin usually sat. “Wh-Where did he go?” he asked with a frown.

“The bathroom,” Sano lied. He smiled down at Sojiro. “Everyone’s gotta go, you know?”

Sojiro blushed a bright red over his paper white cheeks. Sano laughed and pulled the boy closer to him. He reached over and handed him the discarded headband and marble. His eyes landed on the paper package Kaoru had given to him, but he elected to ignore it for now. Jo-chan could give it to him herself. Besides, he was sure Sojiro was getting exhausted - all the fuss with the tea and soup and spills was making him incredibly tired, if his drooping eyelids were anything to go by.

“Hey, kiddo, do you want to sleep?” he asked. When Sojiro nodded, Sano readjusted the boy in his lap so that he was being cradled like a baby. Sojiro clutched the headband tight, and, before he knew it, he was fast asleep.

Sano grinned - the kid must be trusting them more and more to be able to conk out just like that. Sano watched him for a few minutes with a soft smile on his face as Sojiro breathed easily, little whistling snores every once and a while escaping his lips. Sano stifled a ridiculous giggle at this - it was the cutest damned thing he had ever seen in his life.

“Damn it, kid,” he said, gently smoothing Sojiro’s hair away from his face, “you’re worming your way into my heart, you know that?”

Sojiro didn't wake, but sighed and leaned into Sano’s hand, the smallest of smiles creeping onto his face.

Sano almost died then and there.

*****************

Chapter Text

*****************

Kaoru returned early in the evening, and, after dumping her training supplies inside the dojo, she headed straight to Kenshin and Sojiro’s room, not even bothering to change out of her sweaty clothes. She slid open the door, expecting to see Kenshin wide awake, but instead she just blinked.

Then she smiled wide, clapped her hand over her mouth, and started squealing with excitement. Kenshin wasn't there, but arguably the sight in front of her was much, much better.

Sano was lying flat on his back, snoring, and little Sojiro was sleeping on his chest, his free hand loosely grasping Sano’s white shirt. He moved up and down with Sano’s deep, steady breaths, and Kaoru’s heart was melting. She wished she had something to document this moment forever, for everyone else to see.

She stepped further into the room, trying to figure out a way to wake the pair without startling Sojiro, when she froze. There was another noise besides Sano’s rumbling snores. What is that? It sounds like a little whistle or somethi - Oh my god. Kaoru came closer, her steps quiet, and knelt down next to the pair. She closed her eyes and listened hard. She gasped and clapped her other hand over her mouth.

So cute!!!!

Sojiro, resting flat on Sano’s chest, was snoring as well, soft and quiet, rosebud-like lips parted in sleep, once a while making a little whistle-like wheeze.

Agh!!! So cute!!!

She stared at the two for a while, admiring the peace written on their faces, when she heard a noise at the front gate. She rushed out of the room, sliding the door shut behind her, eager to let nothing disturb Sano and Sojiro’s sleep. She dashed across the porch in her socks before coming to a stop.

“Kenshin!” she cried, slipping on her shoes and rushing out to the lawn to greet him. “Kenshin, how are you?”

Kenshin smiled tiredly at her.

“I’m well, Kaoru-dono, that I am.”

“Good, good.” Kaoru clapped her hands together. “I’m glad!”

“Hey! What about me, ugly?!?”

“Oh, Yahiko, I didn't notice you there.” She turned and winked at her apprentice.

Kaoru widened her smile as Yahiko made a face at her, and Kenshin, who had been having a rough time earlier in the day, felt his heart become instantly lighter, his mood less sad.

“How was work, Kaoru-dono?” he asked, slipping off his sandals and stepping onto the porch.

“It was good - Daizai-san’s students always seem to respect me.” She placed her hands on her hips and nodded in satisfaction. “As it should be. I know I’m a beautiful and intimidating woman so it’s hard for the boys to focus, but they were great.”

Yahiko snorted.

“Who told you you were beautiful, ugly? Intimidating, yes. Beautiful, hell no.”

“Shut up, brat,” Kaoru said, swatting at Yahiko. “You just don’t understand. You’re still a kid.”

“I’m not a kid!” Yahiko cried, an angry blush rising to his cheeks. “I’m Myojin Yahiko, descendant of Tokyo samurai!”

“And still a kid. Yahiko-chan.” Kaoru winked and made a face.

“Don’t call me -chan!” Yahiko yelled, frustrated. “You’re just-”

Kenshin interrupted the escalating argument with his serene, calming voice, although it seemed a bit strained to Kaoru.

“This one is glad you had a good day, Kaoru-dono,” he said.

“Me too, Kenshin.” For the first time, Kaoru noticed the paper package he held to his chest. “What’s that?” she asked.

“Ah, it’s a new yukata for Sojiro, that it is. He’s been borrowing Yahiko’s and I thought it would be nice if he had his own.”

Kaoru nodded.

“That makes sense,” she said. “I’ve also bought him a new jinbei - Tsubame, Tae, and I had one custom made in Yokohama.”

Yahiko’s and Kenshin’s eyes widened.

“Really?” Yahiko cried.

“Yep.” Kaoru eyed the package Kenshin was holding carefully before nodding. “I was going to give it to Sojiro today but it might be better to hold off on the jinbei until he’s off bedrest. Two pieces of clothing might be difficult to take on and off.” She nodded, resolute, then took the package from Kenshin’s arms. “What’s it look like?” she asked.

“It’s nothing special,” Kenshin said, a wry little smile on his face. “Yahiko and I just bought a simple one, that we did.”

“Ah, so you helped?” Kaoru said to Yahiko. The boy crossed his arms over his chest.

“Of course!” he said. “Someone had to help Kenshin.” He made a face. “You have the worst eye for color, Kenshin.”

“Oro?”

“That pink gi is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, to be honest.”

Kaoru stifled a giggle as Kenshin opened his eyes so wide they seemed to bulge out of his head.

“Oro?” he repeated, looking down at his chest. He blinked. “I think it looks nice, that I do.”

“You would,” Yahiko snorted.

“I hope you didn't pick a pink yukata for Sojiro,” Kaoru said with a laugh. “Then you’d be a perfect match.”

Yahiko shook his head furiously.

“No way I’d let Kenshin pick the color all by himself. That’s why I left with him.” He took the package from Kaoru and began heading to Kenshin’s room. “You can see what it looks like when Sojiro opens it.”

Yahiko started ahead but Kaoru grabbed his shoulder before he could get too far.

“Sojiro is sleeping,” she said. “Maybe it would be best to let him sleep for a while longer?”

“I guess,” Yahiko said. He deflated in disappointment. “I really wanted to give it to him though. . .”

“I know, but-”

“Where’s Kenshin?” A little voice echoed through the rice paper doorway down the hall and the three on the porch froze. “W-What happened to Kenshin?”

“He’ll be back soon, kid,” Sano’s voice said. “Just wait a while longer.”

“Ken-”

Kaoru turned to look at the rurouni, but blinked when he wasn’t there. With his god-like speed he had dashed to his room and was already greeting Sano and Sojiro with a little smile and happy voice. Kaoru and Yahiko followed closely, and Kaoru wasn’t surprised to see Sojiro being lifted carefully into Kenshin’s lap, the boy nestling close to him. Kenshin rubbed the boy’s back as he threw a questioning look at Sano.

“He’s all right,” Sano answered. “Slept most of the time you were gone, actually.”

“That’s good, that it is.”

“Yep.” Sano yawned and stretched his arms above his head.

“I see that you slept as well, Sano,” Kenshin said, a laugh in his voice.

“Yeah.”

“It was super cute,” Kaoru said, stepping into the room and seating herself next to Kenshin and Sojiro. “Sojiro was sleeping on Sano’s chest.”

Kenshin’s smile grew wider and Yahiko laughed as Sano turned beet red.

“We were both tired,” he explained with a grumble, looking away. “Letting him sleep where he was seemed easier than moving him to bed.”

“You’re lucky Megumi wasn’t here,” Kaoru joked. “She’d have your head for not letting Sojiro sleep on a proper futon. I’m sure sleeping on muscle didn't do Sojiro any favors.” Kaoru moved her hand slowly into Sojiro’s hair. Sojiro stiffened at first, but relaxed when Kaoru began running her gentle fingers over his scalp. “How did you sleep, Sojiro?” she asked, her voice quiet.

“Good,” Sojiro answered, his voice muffled. “Sano is warm.”

Everyone laughed.

“That he is,” Kenshin smiled. Kaoru looked up at him, relieved to see that much of the tension that she had seen in him upon arriving home was rapidly dissipating, leaving only his comforting and soft demeanor in its place. “Yahiko,” Kenshin said, “why don’t you show Sojiro what we bought him?”

Sojiro stiffened, then, with Kenshin’s help, rolled himself around so that he was facing Yahiko while leaning against Kenshin with most of his weight. His wide blue eyes landed on the brown paper package in Yahiko’s lap.

“Wh-What is it?” he asked.

Yahiko held it forward with a grin.

“Why don’t you open it and find out?” he asked.

Sojiro hesitated but did not reach out. He shook his head and gripped Kenshin’s hakama tight.

“You open it,” he said. “I don’t wanna.”

Yahiko frowned, but after exchanging glances with the others, he nodded.

“All right,” he said. “But watch closely now - this is your present.”

Sojiro fixed his eyes on Yahiko as he began to unwrap the package, not blinking. Yahiko untied the strings keeping the paper on with deft, calloused fingers and then pulled the paper away to reveal a square of blue-grey fabric. Yahiko then picked up the fabric and unfolded it, revealing a simple dark blue boy’s yukata with grey stripes on it, accompanied by a thick grey obi.

“Kenshin and I got you a new yukata,” Yahiko explained with a grin. “We thought you should have one of your own instead of the borrowed ones.” He dipped his head at the soup-stained yellow yukata Sojiro was still wearing.

Sojiro looked down at his chest, blinking, then grasped the yellow fabric tight, his eyes roving around all the gentle faces in the room before settling on the new yukata in Yahiko’s lap.

“M-mine?” he stammered.

Sano frowned.

“Yeah, kid,” he said, “yours. Just like the headband and marble.”

“But I have. . . clothes?”

“That’s right, that it is,” Kenshin said with a smile. “Yahiko and I even picked out a color we thought would suit you, that we did. Do you like blue?” Sojiro nodded slowly and Kenshin’s smile grew wider. “Then it seems like Yahiko and I picked the right color.” He took the yukata from Yahiko and placed it Sojiro’s lap, allowing him to stare at it for a few moments before he reached out and touched it.

“Soft,” the boy murmured. He turned and looked up at Kenshin. “And. . . new?”

Kenshin hummed in the affirmative and ran his gentle fingers through Sojiro’s hair. Sojiro snuggled closer to him, holding the new yukata reverently to his chest.

“What happened to my old clothes?” he asked.

Sano made a face.

“We burned those,” he said. “They were filthy.”

Sojiro turned to him with wide eyes.

“Burned?”

“Yep. Those are gone forever. Those rags didn't even count as clothes anymore.” He frowned. “How long did you have those?”

Sojiro shrugged.

“Long time,” he said. “I washed and fixed them by myself. They weren’t very soft anymore. Or clean.” His eyes widened. “I did try though!” he blurted out. “I promised I tried really hard to keep them clean!”

“Shh,” Kaoru comforted, leaning forward and catching Sojiro’s eyes. “It’s okay. We believe you.”

“Oh.” Sojiro deflated in relief. “That’s good.” He looked down at his new yukata and pulled it closer to him. “I’ll keep this one clean too.”

Kaoru smiled.

“That’s good to hear,” she said, “but there will be no need for you to wash your own clothes anymore. Kenshin does the laundry around here.”

Sojiro turned to look up at Kenshin, his eyes comically wide.

“You?” he asked. Kenshin laughed and nodded.

“This one does the laundry,” he said. “It’s actually rather nice, that it is.”

Sojiro’s eyes got bigger.

“You-you like doing laundry?”

Everyone stifled giggles.

“Yes. I learned how to do it when I was a boy and I’ve always found it comforting.” He smiled down at Sojiro. “This one will gladly clean your clothes. There is nothing for you to worry about.”

“What about this yukata?” Sojiro asked, peeling the damp yellow fabric from his chest. “I can wash this. It’s Yahiko’s - not mine. And I-I got it dirty.”

“It’s fine,” Yahiko said, waving his hand in dismissal. “Kenshin can wash it. Besides, it’s really ugly too. I’m kinda glad you spilled soup on it.”

“Hey!” Kaoru cried, her face red. “I bought you that yukata!”

“I know. That’s why it’s so ugly.”

“Look here, brat-!”

Sojiro watched with wide eyes and bated breath as Yahiko and Kaoru yelled at each other, waiting for it to escalate into something terrifying and violent - which would be turned quickly onto him. However, as the argument went on and Sano began to laugh, Sojiro relaxed. He noticed suddenly all of Yahiko’s silly faces and Kaoru’s frantic hand motions, and realized that they were teasing each other. They weren't actually fighting - no one was going to get hurt.

Sojiro looked down at his lap and the new yukata there. He appraised the fabric for a few moments, basking in the softness and subdued colors, before turning and tugging gently at Kenshin’s gi. Kenshin immediately looked down at the boy with a smile.

“Yes, Sojiro?”

“Can I wear this now?” he asked. Kenshin bobbed his head and called for Kaoru in his calm, sweet voice. Kaoru stopped mid-word in her argument with Yahiko to turn to the rurouni.

“Yes, Kenshin?”

“Sojiro would like to wear his new yukata, that he would,” Kenshin said. “Would you mind helping this one change him?”

“Of course!” Kaoru said and she sent a smile so bright Sojiro’s way that the boy swore he could have been blinded by it. Comforted by her warmth, he reached out for her, a little smile of his own on his lips.

****************************

Chapter Text

****************************

When Megumi returned late in the afternoon, medicine chest in tow, she was surprised to find the yard of the dojo completely empty; even the usual drying laundry on the clothesline were missing. She headed inside the courtyard, a frown on her face, wondering where everyone was. She was about to raise her voice in question when she heard a quiet chorus of giggles echoing from Ken-san’s room. She blinked.

Giggles?

Megumi slipped off her sandals and stepped onto the porch, making her way down to Ken-san’s room. As she got closer, the giggles got louder and suddenly exploded into laughter - Sano’s loud guffaw was the most obvious, but Kenshin’s bell-like voice and Karou’s silly one were there too. The doctor felt the tension in her shoulders melt away, replaced by a sense of ease - if there was laughter here, it must mean that Sojiro was doing better. She slid open the door and blinked at the sight that met her.

Sojiro was sitting up in Kenshin’s lap, dressed in what seemed to be a brand new yukata - dark blue and grey with a grey obi tied loosely around his thin waist. Sano’s red headband was clutched in his hand and he was watching as Sano and Yahiko rolled his marble across the floor, each roll accompanied by a new word or phrase - they were playing dajare. Yahiko’s words always had something to do with swordplay, while Sano’s were about food.

Megumi stepped further into the room, placing her hands on her hips as Sano’s next roll was accompanied by an eager yell of “arumi kan no ue ni aru mikan!”

“Are the only words you know about food, Rooster Head?” she asked.

Sano glowered at her as the others laughed. Sojiro jerked, startled by her sudden appearance, but relaxed a moment later. He turned and sent a little smile her way.

“Hi, Lady doctor Megumi,” he said.

“Hello, Sojiro,” Megumi grinned, stepping into the room and kneeling next to him and Kenshin. “How are you feeling?”

“Good,” Sojiro answered without hesitating. He reached out and tugged at her kimono. “Kenshin and Yahiko bought me this yukata,” he said. “I like it.”

“It’s very nice,” Megumi said. “You look wonderful in it.”

Megumi watched in amusement as a blush crept onto Sojiro’s cheeks. She relaxed somewhat. Blushing and smiling were sure signs that Sojiro was doing better and being surrounded by the others’ laughter was sure to make him feel safer as well.

With a little smile of her own, Megumi reached over and grabbed her medicine chest.

“What’s that?” Sojiro asked, the wariness reappearing in his eyes.

“You know what this is, silly,” Megumi said. “This is my medicine chest.”

“I-Is a-anything in there gonna hurt me?”

“No, not at all. I just have some medicine for your heart.”

“Oh.” Sojiro blinked. “O-Okay.”

Megumi smiled and pulled out the top drawer of her chest, picking up a small, cloth covered package from it. She unwrapped the cloth to reveal a collection of small dark green pills.

“This is medicine called Heavenly Emperor Supplement of the Heart Elixir.” Sojiro blinked and Megumi laughed. “I know,” she said. “It’s a rather long-winded and silly name, but all that really matters is that it works.”

“What’s it for?” Yahiko asked, peering over Megumi’s shoulder. He scrunched his nose. “It looks weird.”

“It’s heart medicine,” Megumi explained. “It should help with your heart arrhythmias, Sojiro.”

“Which means?” Sano asked. “Clarify.”

Megumi rolled her eyes.

“This medicine is for Sojiro to take and understand,” she said. “So I’ll only take questions from him.” Sojiro’s eyes darted to Kenshin and Megumi softened. “And from Ken-san,” she amended. Sojiro instantly relaxed.

“So it’ll s-stop my heart from beating funny?” he asked.

Megumi nodded.

“Yes, it should,” she said, “or at least make the arrhythmias less frequent.”

“What about my fast heart?” Sojiro asked next, readjusting himself in Kenshin’s lap and settling his big blue eyes on Megumi’s face. The doctor blinked in surprise — she didn't think that Sojiro would have remembered that information.

“It might help with that,” Megumi said, “but I believe the main reason for your rapid heartbeat is the physical and emotional stress you're under. Once everything starts to get a little easier to deal with, your heart should be back to its normal state.”

“Really?” Sojiro asked and Megumi was happy that she could confirm the hope shining from his eyes.

“Really.”

“Yay!” Sojiro turned a little and pulled at Kenshin’s gi. “Did you hear that, Kenshin? My heart will be all better.”

“I’m so glad, that I am,” Kenshin said, pulling Sojiro close. He looked up at Megumi and she was thrilled to see that, he too, seemed hopeful. “When should he take that medicine, Megumi-dono?”

“Ah, thank you for asking, Ken-san,” she said. “It will be twice a day, once every twelve hours. Accompanied by tea or water.”

“Can he have food with it as well?”

“Of course! In fact,” she turned and looked at Kaoru, who was watching Kenshin and Sojiro with a small smile on her lips, “Kaoru, why don't you get Sojiro something to eat right now?”

“There’s no need,” Kenshin said, interrupting Kaoru as she made to get to her feet. “Sojiro ate some soup just over an hour ago, isn't that right?”

Sojiro hummed in agreement and Megumi’s eyes widened.

“He ate the whole bowl too,” Sano added, grinning at Sojiro. Sojiro blushed and looked away.

“Is that so?” Megumi cried, delighted. “Sojiro, I’m so proud of you for eating a whole bowl of soup!”

Sojiro turned and blinked up at her.

“R-Really?”

“Of course!” Megumi grinned. “It’s wonderful!”

“It’s amazing!” Kaoru added; this was the first time she had heard about the soup as well. “I’m so, so happy you’re feeling up to eating!”

Sojiro blinked and his gaze darted from face to happy face all around the room.

“Is it th-that good I ate the soup?” he asked, confused.

“It’s the best!” Yahiko cried and Sojiro watched in fascination as the ten year old began to bounce up and down. “It means you’re feeling better, right?”

“I guess so,” Sojiro answered, voice quiet. He shrugged. “Everything still hurts though, and I’m still a little hot.” He raised his unsplinted hand to rub at his chest. “And my heart still hurts.”

“Well, that’s what the medicine is for,” Megumi said, and she held it out. “We’re going to wait till nine o’clock to give it to you though. I’d like you to stay on a regular schedule if at all possible. Do you think you can wait that long?”

“Wh-what time is it now?” Sojiro asked.

“It’s five in the evening,” Megumi answered, pulling a pocket watch from the sleeve of her kimono. “Four hours. And at dinner I’ll give you some more morphine for the pain. Is that all right?”

Sojiro nodded.

“All right then,” Megumi said with a smile. “Because you’re doing so well, Sojiro, I’m going to head off for a little while to visit my other patients. I’m thrilled to see you’re making such progress — it’s a very good sign. I’ll be back in a few hours for dinner.” She turned to Kaoru and winked. “That is, if Kaoru’s not making it.”

Kaoru made a face at Megumi as Yahiko and Sano burst into laughter. Kaoru glared at them before answering Megumi coolly. She tried to sound annoyed, but was still too pleased about Sojiro’s appetite to put her heart into it.

“You don’t have to worry,” she snorted. “I’m not making it. Doctor Gensai is bringing dinner over.”

Kenshin’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth to ask a question, but Kaoru cut him off before he could say a word.

“Don’t worry,” she said with a wave of her hand. “He heard we have a new little charge here and offered to bring food to make things easier for us. But that’s all he’s heard - he doesn’t know Sojiro’s name or even if he’s a boy or a girl. He knows virtually nothing.”

Kenshin deflated in relief and Megumi nodded.

“All I’ve told him is that Ken-san’s taking care of an injured child here. The old man’s been trying to wheedle more information out of me, but I haven't told him anything else.” She smiled at Sojiro. “So there’s no need to worry, darling,” she said. “We’re the only people here that know all about you.”

“So-so I won’t have to meet another person?” Sojiro stammered. When Megumi shook her head, he deflated in obvious relief. “That’s good. I don’t wanna.”

“I know.” Megumi got to her feet and grabbed her medicine chest. “I’m going to go now,” she said, “but I’ll be back in a couple of hours. I don’t think anything will happen, but if you need me, I’ll either be at the Kanya’s or the Hinata’s residence. I’ll come immediately. All right?”

“All right,” Kenshin said, nodding at her. He smiled a bit. “Thank you, Megumi-dono,” he said. “Your help is much appreciated.”

“I’m only doing my job, Ken-san,” Megumi said. She leaned over and booped Sojiro’s nose. He giggled and Megumi’s heart soared. “And it’s my pleasure to take care of such a precious boy - you’re my favorite patient, Sojiro. I wish I could be here all the time.”

Sojiro’s blue eyes widened.

“Really?” he asked, voice hushed with awe.

“Really.” Megumi cracked a sly smile. “To be honest,” she said in a stage whisper, “my other patients can be very boring and mean. But not you. You, Sojiro, are the sweetest little patient I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. You’re even better than Ken-san.”

Sojiro blinked and then smiled.

“You said that before,” he said.

“And I’ll say it again,” Megumi grinned. She looked down at the pale, badly injured child before her and tried to keep the smile on her face. Yes, Sojiro was a wonderful patient and an even better child, but he was an incredibly difficult case. He was skittish and jumpy and had suffered some of the worst combination of injuries she had ever seen. Even now, after a number of days, the bruises had not faded in the least and he was in such obvious pain from them and the broken bones that Megumi still believed it necessary to prescribe morphine. And the fever had nearly killed Sojiro; Megumi was already having nightmares about his little screams during the ice bath — he had been terrified; it was one of the worst things she had yet to experience as a doctor.

And he wasn't out of the woods yet.

She wouldn't tell Sojiro or the others about this — they seemed so hopeful and happy at the moment — but Sojiro’s health was still teetering on the edge of a knife. One wrong move and he’d fall back to serious illness. So Megumi was keeping a careful watch on the boy, making sure none of his wounds got infected, that he wasn't coughing or such, and that his heartbeat was remaining relatively stable.

But for the others she retained her smile.

“I’ll be back later,” she said again, then turned to leave, medicine chest in hand. “Be a good boy for Ken-san,” she said.

Sojiro nodded and Kenshin pulled him close with a smile. And, with a gentle smile of her own, Megumi left the room.

*************************

Chapter Text

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“Ken-nii has a kid in his room?!” Suzume cried, clutching at her grandpa’s yukata as they walked down the street. The doctor and his two granddaughters were headed towards the Kamiya dojo to bring and enjoy dinner with them. It would be a simple meal, but Doctor Gensai had also managed to bring a small plate of sushi and some ohagi that he hope everyone would enjoy. Suzume and Ayame had been eager to come and see Ken-nii, but Doctor Gensai explained they probably wouldn't get to see him at all. When the two pouted at him, he felt obligated to explain just a little bit of what was going on. He mildly regretted it now - the girls wouldn't stop asking questions.

“How old is the kid?” Ayame said. “Are they a boy or a girl? Are they a baby? Are they small? Are they-”

“Ayame-chan,” Doctor Gensai sighed, “I don’t know. I don’t know a single thing other than what I told you. Megumi-san said it’s not safe to know more for now.”

“Not safe?” Suzume asked with a frown. “Megumi-nee-san said that?”

“Mhm,” Doctor Gensai hummed. The girls went quiet for a few minutes, much to the old man’s relief, but soon they started up again.

“Is Ken-nii safe?” Ayame asked. “If we’re not safe knowing, is Ken-nii? Is Kaoru-nee?”

Doctor Gensai stopped and turned to look down at the two little girls. Their eyes were wide and worried, full of confusion. He reached forward and ruffled both their heads in turn.

“Don’t worry so much,” he said with a smile. “Just because it’s not safe for us three to know something doesn’t mean that Kenshin-san and the others aren't safe. It probably means that the child that’s with them isn't really safe yet.” He sighed, then began walking again. The tray of sushi and ohagi was getting heavy in his old arms.

“The kid’s not safe?!?” Ayame cried, rushing forward to meet her grandpa.

“Not safe?” Suzume echoed.

Doctor Gensai turned around again and was startled to see that both of his granddaughters’ eyes were suddenly swimming with tears.

“Now, now—” he began, but was cut off by an excited cry from behind him.

“Doctor Gensai!”

Doctor Gensai turned and saw Kaoru walking towards him, her steps as strong and confident as ever, her expression bright. He deflated in relief - in all honesty, he’d been worried that the injured child Kenshin had brought to the dojo would effect Kaoru’s cheery personality. But she seemed to be all right.

“Ah, Kaoru-chan!” he said, relieved.

“Kaoru! Kaoru!” Ayame and Suzume rushed up to her, tears forgotten, and hugged her legs tight. She laughed and ruffled their hair before pulling away and offering to take the tray of food from Doctor Gensai. She smiled, looked down at the food, then licked her lips.

“Oh! Sushi and ohagi! You spoil us, Doctor Gensai!” she cried with a smile. “Come on, I’ll walk you back the rest of the way.”

Doctor Gensai nodded in thanks and walked next to Kaoru, talking to her about small matters. Ayame and Suzume managed to entertain themselves for a few minutes before they burst with questions.

“Kaoru?” Ayame said, tugging at her kimono. “Is Ken-nii safe?”

Kaoru frowned.

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Of course Kenshin’s safe.”

“What about kid?” Suzume asked. “Are they safe?”

Kaoru blinked. Once. Twice. Then her eyes turned accusingly to Doctor Gensai.

“You told them?” she asked. “Doctor Gensai!”

Doctor Gensai held up his hands in surrender.

“These little ones are very persistent,” he said with a fond smile at the girls. “And I haven't told them anything besides what you told me, Kaoru-chan.”

Kaoru huffed, sending her bangs fluttering across her brow.

“I suppose that’s fine, then,” she said. She turned and looked down at the two girls. “Look here,” she said, “I don’t want you two prying all over. When we’re at home you can play in the yard or stay in the dining room. You’re not allowed to wander around. Got that?”

Both girls nodded, eyes wide. Kaoru smiled.

“Good. Then let’s get going.”

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Chapter Text

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Yahiko stood over the two girls, shinai over his shoulder. He tried to make himself as tall as possible and looked down his nose at Ayame and Suzume, trying to assert that he was the one in charge here.

“I know Kaoru laid some ground rules,” he said, “but there’s more. You can play in the yard or stay in the dining room, but you also have to be quiet. No squealing or yelling or laughing too loud.”

Suzume pouted.

“Yahiko’s annoying,” Ayame said under her breath to her little sister. Suzume nodded in agreement.

Yahiko turned a furious red.

“Hey!” he cried. “That’s not nice, you little—!”

Kaoru grabbed her student by the ruff of his neck and pulled him back. He stumbled with a cry of annoyance and opened his mouth to yell something rude but Kaoru cut him off by pointing at the kitchen.

“Go help Megumi with the rice,” she said. Yahiko opened his mouth again, this time to argue, but stopped when Kaoru sent him a look. Yahiko sighed.

“Fine.”

And he stalked off. When he had disappeared, Kaoru turned to the two girls seated on the floor, who were strangely quiet.

“All right,” Kaoru said with a laugh, also settling herself on the floor. “Let’s hear it.”

Both girls began speaking at the same time, a waterfall of jumbled questions falling from their mouths. Kaoru blinked, overwhelmed. She honestly hadn't been expecting so many questions. She held up her hands.

“One at a time, one at a time!” she said. The girls quieted but it was clear that they were both near to bursting. She sighed and pointed at the older sister. “You first, Amaye.”

“Are they safe?”

Kaoru blinked.

“Who do you mean?”

“The kid!” Ayame said. “Is the kid safe?”

“Oh. Oh yes, of course. He’s perfectly all right.”

“So a boy!” Suzume cried. She clapped her hands together, pleased. Kaoru hid a wince. She didn't know if she was supposed to allow these two to know that. But she sighed nonetheless. It’s too late now, she thought. They already know. I’ll try not to spill anymore secrets.

“What’s his name?” Ayame asked, eyes shining.

“I can’t tell you his name,” Kaoru said, shaking her head. The girls pouted. “I’m sorry but you’ll have to meet him yourselves to know more. But if you ask me some more questions I’ll give you all the answers I can. So go ahead.”

And thus the questioning began.

“What color is his hair?”

“Black.”

“His eyes?”

“That’s a secret.”

“How tall is he?”

“Short.”

This made Suzume laugh.

“How old is he?”

“That’s a secret too.”

“Is he a baby though?”

“No.”

“Is he fat?”

“No,” Kaoru answered with a giggle. “Not at all.”

And then the most alarming question tumbled from Suzume’s mouth.

“Does he look like Ken-nii?” she asked, leaning forward with an eager smile.

Kaoru blinked.

“Huh?”

“Does he look like Ken-nii?” she repeated.

“Yeah!” Ayame added. “You said he had black hair but does he have pretty eyes like Ken-nii? If he does then he’d look like you AND Ken-nii.” She turned to her sister. “Wouldn’t that be cute?”

Suzume giggled and nodded. Kaoru turned as red as a tomato.

“A-A-A-A-A-A-Ayame!” she cried. She began waving her arms back and forth and wildly shaking her head. “You shouldn't say things like that!”

“Why?” the girl asked, voice innocent.

“You shouldn't ask if that boy is Kenshin’s son! That’s rude.”

“It is?”

“Yes! It’s very, very rude.”

“Oh.” The girls went quiet.

“Sorry,” Ayame apologized.

“Sorry,” Suzume echoed.

Kaoru sighed.

“It’s all right,” she said. “You’re little so you wouldn't know. And to answer your question, no he’s not Kenshin’s son.” Not as far as I know, anyway. . . .

“All right, you three!” Doctor Gensai said, poking his head around the corner. “It’s time to eat!”

Ayame and Suzume promptly abandoned their cushions as they cried out in joy, running as fast as their little legs could carry them to the dining room. Kaoru followed them with a soft smile, but her heart was with Kenshin and Sojiro. She hoped they were doing well. . .

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Chapter Text

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As it turned out, Sojiro was doing just fine - amazingly, Kenshin would say. He seemed relatively cheerful and, although he couldn't sit up yet, was enjoying rolling his marble back and forth with Kenshin while laying in bed. The repetitive motion was comforting to Sojiro and, eventually, his eyelids began to droop. Kenshin stopped the rolling.

“Would you like to sleep now, Sojiro?” he asked.

Sojiro blinked hard, then shook his head.

“Not yet,” he said, trying to stay awake. “I want to keep playing, if that’s okay.” When Kenshin frowned at him, he paled and scooted away. “I-I can sleep if you want me to,” he stammered and Kenshin was dismayed to see that his eyes were wide and suddenly scared.

“No, no, it’s all right, that it is,” Kenshin hastened to reassure. “You don’t have to force yourself, Sojiro. You can do what you wish.”

“R-Really?”

Kenshin smiled.

“Really. If you’d like to keep playing, we can keep playing, that we can.”

Sojiro nodded and held out his hand for the marble. Kenshin placed it on his palm with a smile. Sojiro held it up to his face, staring at the swirling blue and green colors, before wincing when a loud laugh echoed down the hall. He dropped the marble with a surprised yelp.

“Wh-What was that?” he asked, struggling to get up and face the door. He managed to turn halfway before pain lanced through his body — radiating predominantly from his broken collarbone — and he fell back down with a whimper. Sojiro shut his eyes tight against the sudden onslaught of pain and tried to focus on Kenshin’s soft voice and gentle hands as he lifted him into his arms.

“Shh,” the rurouni comforted, cradling the boy with utmost care. “Shh, I know.” When Sojiro began to cry, Kenshin’s heart clenched and he began running his fingers through Sojiro’s black hair. “I know, I know,” he said. “I know, little one, that I do. I know it hurts.”

Sojiro curled his fingers into Kenshin’s gi with a little whimper. Kenshin continued murmuring platitudes to him for the next few minutes, hoping that his voice and words would provide some type of comfort to the boy.

Finally, Sojiro quieted, melting against Kenshin’s chest, his hand still fisted in his gi. He took a shaky breath. Kenshin leaned over and peered at his face - he was distressingly pale. But Kenshin managed to hide his worry and plaster a smile on his face.

“Are we feeling better?” he asked.

Sojiro nodded, raising his hand to rub at his eyes. He winced and pulled away when he accidentally brushed against his broken cheekbone. Tears once again sprung to his eyes, and, much to Kenshin’s distress, he began to sob.

“K-K-Kenshin,” he choked. “Kenshin, it hurts!”

“Shh, I know it does,” Kenshin said, tugging the boy close. “This one knows.”

“It hurts!”

“Shh, I-”

“Kenshin?” Kenshin whipped around, red hair swishing across his back, and he blinked to find Kaoru standing at the door. She was frowning, her brow creased in worry. “Kenshin, is everything okay?”

“Kaoru-dono. . .”

“K-Kaoru,” Sojiro said, and he managed to hold up his hand. “Hold.”

Kaoru stepped quickly into the room, immediately forgetting that she still had guests in the dining room, and sat herself next to Kenshin and Sojiro. She reached for Sojiro’s hand, but he snatched it away from her in protest. Kaoru frowned.

“Sojiro-”

“No! Hold!” he said, and this time he reached for her, both hands grasping.

“Oh! You want me to hold you?”

Sojiro hummed in confirmation, his head eagerly bouncing up and down, and Kaoru looked to Kenshin for approval. Kenshin nodded and gently transferred the little boy into Kaoru’s waiting arms, where he nestled up against her chest. The girl smiled down at Sojiro and ran her fingers through his fine hair before looking up again at Kenshin. Her smile faded.

The rurouni was clearly exhausted, his bedraggled, unkempt hair falling out of its ponytail and curling loosely around his shoulders and face. His scars stood out starkly against his too white skin and dark circles had started appearing under his eyes. And was it Kaoru’s imagination or was Kenshin losing weight. . .?

“Kenshin, get something to eat,” she said.

Kenshin blinked. Kaoru was staring him down, her eyes and voice steely, even as her hold on Sojiro remained gentle. Her tone brooked no room for argument and had been all but an order.

“B-But, Kaoru-dono-”

“Kenshin,” she interrupted, her voice serene. She began to rock Sojiro back and forth. “Don’t argue with me.”

Kenshin blinked a few times, taken aback. But he knew better than to object again - her sweet tone was the one that Kenshin had learned not to fight with the hard way. When she said her words sickly sweet, Kenshin knew it was time to back off. So he nodded and got to his feet.

Kaoru smiled genuinely at him this time.

“Everyone’s in the dining room,” she said. “There’s some ohagi and sushi, along with the usual fare.” She winked. “And I didn't make the fish.”

Kenshin managed another small smile for her before getting to his feet. He patted Sojiro’s head with a gentle hand before leaving the room, promising both of them he’d be back soon. They both grinned at him and Sojiro even managed a little wave. Then Kenshin left the room, sliding the door shut behind him.

When he had walked but a few feet from the room, he felt his knees begin to shake. He took a few more steps, trying to ignore it, but he almost fell flat on his face; the only thing that stopped him were his quick reflexes. With a sigh and leaning heavily against the wall, the rurouni lowered himself to the ground.

“Kami. . .”

This was all a little too much, Kenshin thought, burying his face in his hands. He’d never thought that taking in this little boy would call for so much constant attention and reassurance, so much medical care and cost. He was starting to worry about how he was going to pay Kaoru-dono and Megumi-dono for this.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: This was all a little too much, Kenshin thought, burying his face in his hands. He’d never thought that taking in this little boy would call for so much constant attention and reassurance, so much medical care and cost. He was starting to worry about how he was going to pay Kaoru-dono and Megumi-dono for this.

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But most of all, he was shocked by how much he loved Sojiro already. He had found this little boy completely by accident, after coming across news that there was some menacing bandaged swordsman in a town not too far from Tokyo. So Kenshin had made his way there, asked a few questions, then somehow made his way to a wholesale rice company’s home. He raised his hand to knock on the gate when an ear-piercing shriek rose from the backyard. Kenshin recognized the scream for help as a child’s voice and, completely ignoring propriety, jumped over the gate, landing with grace near a shed. He raised his head and froze.

A child was standing in the pelting rain and still bodies were lying around him in a heap. He was holding a bloody wakizashi in his hands, the rain already washing the blade clean. Kenshin stared for a moment, watching the child’s little back, waiting for him to move. When he didn’t, Kenshin dared to speak up. He spoke in a quiet voice.

“Little one. . .?”

The child whirled around, wakizashi raised again, and Kenshin ignored the small blade, instead focusing on the boy. He was small and skinny and badly beaten. Tears were shining in his eyes.

“W-Who are you?” he demanded.

“My name is Kenshin,” the rurouni said, laying his sword at his feet and holding up his hands. “Himura Kenshin. I didn't come here to hurt you.”

“Wh-Why are you here then?”

“This one heard your cry for help.” He frowned at the bodies. “It seems I got here too late though. What happened?”

The boy’s eyes went wide and he said nothing. Kenshin saw him pale.

“That’s all right,” he said. “You don't need to tell me. Are you hurt?”

The boy nodded slowly.

“Can I help you?” Kenshin ventured a step forward, but the boy raised the short sword up again.

“S-Stop! Don’t come closer!”

“All right,” Kenshin said, and he backed away, hands still held up. “I’m going to stay right here.” The boy squinted at him and lowered the blade slowly. “Where did you get that sword?” he asked.

The boy looked down at the blade.

“Swordsman gave it to me.”

“A swordsman? What swordsman?”

The boy shut his lips tight and shook his head.

“Okay, that’s all right. You don’t need to tell me. But these people,” he nodded at the adults around the boy, “are they dead?”

The boy looked around and nodded slowly.

“I-I think so.” He turned his huge eyes onto Kenshin. “They were going to kill me.”

“What?!” Kenshin cried, incredulous and angry. The boy misread his anger and backed up.

“I-I-It’s true! I swear!”

“Shh, little one, I know.” He tried to smiled - gentle, understanding. “I believe you. This one heard you calling for help - you were very scared, weren't you?”

The boy nodded and Kenshin noticed that the tears had begun to fall in earnest from his eyes. Kenshin smiled reassuringly.

“I know,” he said, “I understand. It’s all right.”

“Is-Is it bad to be scared?”

Kenshin frowned and cocked his head.

“Of course not, little one.”

“Not weak? I’m not food?”

“Of course not! Did someone tell you that?” The boy nodded. Kenshin frowned, and somehow managed to mask the anger boiling inside him. “Well, they are very wrong, that they are. You are not weak, nor are you food.”

The boy stared at Kenshin for a few long moments before dipping his head in agreement.

“O-Okay.”

Kenshin smiled.

“What’s your name, little one?” he asked.

“S-Sojiro.”

“Sojiro. That’s a very nice name.” He smiled again, a wide, toothy one this time. “Hello, Sojiro.”

“H-Hi. . . K-Kenshin?”

Kenshin beamed.

“That’s right!” he said. “This one is Kenshin.”

Sojiro nodded and raised his hand to wipe his wet hair from his eyes. Kenshin squinted at him, taking in the bruised and battered boy dressed in filthy clothes, covered in blood and dirt. Kenshin couldn't tell if the blood was his or the dead’s. Not as if it mattered much; as he watched, Sojiro began weaving.

“Sojiro,” Kenshin said, his voice urgent, “can you come closer to this one?” When Sojiro froze, Kenshin hastened to reassure him. “I just want to make sure you aren't badly hurt. Will you let me do that?”

Sojiro nodded slowly and made his way to Kenshin, dragging his bare feet through the mud, sword still in his hands. Kenshin let him hold it, knowing it brought him some sort of reassurance; he was no longer too concerned that the boy would stab him with it. He held out his hands with a patient smile, and, when Sojiro was just within his reach, the boy froze. Kenshin reached forward and the boy’s grip on the sword tightened, but when Kenshin’s hands touched him gently, ghosting over his bruised skin like a butterfly, he dared to come closer. Kenshin smiled.

“There we go, Sojiro,” he said - now that Sojiro was closer to him, he could see the severity of his bruises, the way he cradled one of arms, the painful twist of an ankle. It was obvious the boy needed medical attention, but Kenshin was loathe to bring him to anyone in this town. “Sojiro,” he said, “how long have you been here?”

“Long time,” the boy said, making a face. “I used to live with Mommy but she’s gone. Then they brought me here. I’ve been here long time.”

“Have they been hurting you?”

Sojiro nodded and said nothing. Kenshin silently seethed - this house was by no means in an isolated area - all the houses on the street could probably hear Sojiro’s screams and pleas. And yet no one had done anything? Kami. . .

“They were very cruel,” Kenshin said, voice so low that at first Sojiro thought he was talking to himself. Then he raised his voice a bit. “You’ve been injured quite badly, Sojiro, that you have. Does anything hurt?”

Sojiro nodded.

“All hurts.”

Kenshin leaned back, chewing his lip.

“Do you have people in this town who could take care of you?”

The boy shook his head. Kenshin nodded and leaned back, hands on his knees. He looked evenly at the boy, voice serious but kind.

Then he made a decision.

“Would you like to come home with this one, Sojiro?”

Sojiro blinked, his eyes huge, his mouth hanging open. It would have almost been funny if he wasn't soaked to the bone and covered in bruises and blood.

“C-Can I?”

“Do you want to?”

“I-I don’t wanna stay here. . .”

“I can promise you a good and safe home, Sojiro, that I can. No one will hurt you.”

Sojiro’s eyes widened.

“R-Really?”

“Really, truly. I refuse to allow it.”

“You’ll stay?”

“Of course!” Kenshin smiled. “My home will be yours if you come with me. There’s other people too - very kind women and a boy around your age.”

“Will you make me work?” Sojiro asked.

Kenshin smiled through the pain in his heart and swept Sojiro’s black hair from his brow, revealing two big sapphire blue eyes shining with tears and tentative hope.

“Did they make you work here?”

Sojiro pointed at a huge barrel of rice laying nearby, nearly as big as he was.

“That.”

Kenshin’s eyes widened. They made this skinny, malnourished child carry huge barrels of rice? What kind of hell was this? He thought he had made Japan a safer place and yet . . . and yet. . .

“K-Kenshin?”

Kenshin whipped to face the boy again — too fast — and Sojiro backed away, promptly proceeding to fall on the ground in his panic.

“Ah!” he cried, reaching for his leg.

“Shh,” Kenshin said, moving to his side. “I’m sorry, little one, that I am. Let me see now.” It only took one look to know his ankle was broken. He bit his lip. “Would you like to go home with me now, Sojiro?” he asked again. “This one will take care of you and get you a good doctor.”

“Take hurt away?”

“Yes, we’ll make it stop hurting,” Kenshin said, smoothing the boy’s hair away from his face.

“O-Okay,” Sojiro said, and he struggled to get to his feet. “I’ll go with you.”

“No, no!” Kenshin said, keeping him on the ground. “You can’t walk, Sojiro.”

Sojiro looked confused.

“Then how will we leave?” he asked.

“I’m going to carry you, that I am,” Kenshin answered with a frown.

Sojiro’s eyes became wide as saucers.

“C-Carry me?”

“Of course. Haven't you been carried before?”

“Only with Mommy.”

Kenshin nodded. He understood, but it still upset him. He had no doubt that this wasn't the first time Sojiro had been unable to walk. And yet these monsters had made him get up and drag himself around.

“Well, this one will carry you. But first,” Kenshin pointed to the wakizashi, “I would like you to leave that here.”

Sojiro nodded and dropped the sword as if he had been burned. Kenshin reached for his own sword, and Sojiro tried to scramble backwards, a strangled, terrified noise ripping through his throat.

“No, no, Sojiro, this won’t hurt you.” Kenshin caught the boy’s eyes and unsheathed the sword a few inches. “See? The blade is backwards. It can’t cut.”

Sojiro blinked.

“C-Can’t cut?”

“That’s right. It’s a sakabato.”

“Sakabato,” Sojiro repeated. He watched as Kenshin sheathed the blade and slid it into his obi before leaning over Sojiro with open arms. Sojiro remembered with a flash his mother’s face as she did the same thing, with a gentle smile and soft eyes; Kenshin had the same look on his face now. Sojiro lifted his arms and marveled at how he was handled - Kenshin was so careful with him! He blinked and dared to pull himself closer to the man. His heart jumped when Kenshin’s hand rubbed his back gently. He was so nice and warm.

“All right, then, Sojiro, we’re going to go home now. Is there anything here you want?”

“Shoes,” Sojiro said. “In the shed.”

Kenshin nodded and made his way to the shed. There, near the door, were a pair of ruined, old straw sandals. Kenshin badly wanted to leave the shoes there, but he figured that the only things Sojiro owned were these shoes and the clothes on his back. So, with little help from the boy, who was quickly exhausting, he slipped the shoes onto his tiny feet, then left the shed.

With one final glance at the bodies around the abandoned wakizashi, Kenshin pulled Sojiro closer to him and left the house.

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Chapter Text

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“Ken-nii!” Suzume darted to her feet, rushing to meet the rurouni who had come to the door of the dining room. “Ken-nii! Hi, Ken-nii!”

“Hello, Suzume, hello, Ayame,” he said, hugging both of the girls as they grabbed onto him. “Hello, Doctor Gensai.”

“Ah, Kenshin-san, it’s good to see you.” The old doctor frowned. “You don’t look well.”

“This one is just tired,” Kenshin answered, and he seated himself at the table, the little girls flanking either side of him.

“And he hardly eats or sleeps,” Sano snorted, and he filled a bowl with a liberal amount of rice and fish before shoving it at Kenshin. “You’re gonna eat all of that and then some sushi.”

“And then you’re going to bed,” Yahiko said.

The little girls giggled.

“Yahiko and Sano are mom and dad to Ken-nii!” they said. “They take care of Ken-nii!”

Sano and Yahiko looked annoyed by this, but Doctor Gensai and Kenshin laughed. Kenshin brought the food to his lips and began eating - he had almost forgotten how hungry he was.

“That they are,” he said around a mouthful of rice.

“How’s the kid, Kenshin?” Sano asked, trying to deflect the conversation away from the embarrassing topic. “We heard him crying.”

“He’s fine, that he is,” Kenshin said. “He just heard us laughing and it startled him. There’s no need to worry.”

“Good.” Sano leaned back with a nod, popping another piece of sushi into his mouth. “I’ll stay the night with him, Kenshin. You go ahead and sleep.”

“What?!” Yahiko cried. “No fair! I want to stay with him too!”

“Kids have to go to bed,” Sano said and the girls giggled. Yahiko turned a furious red.

“I’m not a kid!” he yelled, but, at Sano’s and Kenshin’s glares and a whimper from down the hall, he fell silent. “Fine,” he grumbled, “I’ll go to bed.”

“You can stay with him tomorrow, Yahiko,” Sano said. “Kenshin’s taking the day off.”

Kenshin’s eyes widened.

“What? Sano, no! This one must-!”

“You have to go into town tomorrow.”

“Oro?”

“You heard me. Jo-chan wants you to deliver a letter to Weasel-girl.”

“Weasel-girl. . .?” Kenshin blinked. “Oh! You mean Misao-dono.”

“Yep.” Sano grabbed some sushi and tossed it into Kenshin’s bowl. The rurouni made a face, knowing that was not how it was meant to be eaten, but he picked up a piece with his chopsticks and ate it nonetheless. “Honestly, I don’t know what jo-chan wants that excitable girl here for, but she already wrote the letter and everything.”

“Oh.” Kenshin chewed a piece of sushi thoughtfully. In all honesty, he believed it would be a bad idea for Misao-dono to come. She was excitable and loud and Sojiro could barely handle laughter from down the hall. He wasn't sure Sojiro would be able to cope with such a large personality. He might have to talk to Kaoru-dono about this. . .

“I know what you’re thinking,” Sano said, and Kenshin blinked. “Jo-chan told me that you would worry that Weasel-girl would be too much for the kid to handle.” Kenshin’s eyes widened in amazement and he nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But jo-chan said not to worry too much. If that gloomy Aoshi comes, which he definitely will at some point, he should be able to calm her down some. And jo-chan seems to think that Weasel-girl will calm down considerably when she sees the kid. Also,” his voice softened, “I think she wants to have a friend here.”

Kenshin’s lips parted in a silent “oh.” Then he nodded, resolute.

“Then this one will gladly send the letter tomorrow,” he said.

And he popped another piece of sushi into his mouth.

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Chapter Text

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Dear Misao-chan,

I would like you to come over to Tokyo as soon as you can. Aoshi should be receiving a letter from me at the same time this one’s delivered. I’d like you to speak with him. *That should be no trouble, right?*

~Kaoru

“Aoshi-sama, Aoshi-sama!” Misao rushed down the porch, slipping and sliding on the hardwood while somehow miraculously not falling flat on her face. She rushed into the space where Aoshi and Okina were usually having tea at this time, throwing the door wide open.

“Aoshi-sama! I got this letter from Kaoru-san and she said that you were getting one too! Is that true? Where is it? She said to talk to you. And she wants me to come to Tokyo! What’s going on?”

Aoshi took a long leisurely sip from his teacup, trying to ignore the bouncing girl, but he couldn't for long. With a small sigh, he laid the teacup down and grabbed a letter from his side, handing it to her.

“Oooohhhhh, it’s long!” Misao cried and she opened the letter up. “What the heck? Why didn't she send me the long letter??”

“Because she knows you have the attention span of a puppy, Misao.”

“Gramps!” Misao punched her grandpa hard on the shoulder. “How dare you say such things about me!”

The old man just laughed.

“Cause it’s true, Misao-chan, it’s true!”

“UGH! GRAMPS-!”

“The Kamiya girl says they're keeping a boy at her home,” Aoshi interrupted. “It seems she wants you to meet him.”

“Oh my goodness!” Misao cried, and she grabbed the letter again, quickly reading through it. “Agh!!! They’re keeping a little boy at their house! Kenshin and Kaoru are taking care of a little boy! That’s sooooooo cute! I wonder what he’s like!”

“Very ill,” Aoshi said, “if her descriptions are anything to go by.”

Misao’s bright smile fell.

“Ill?” she said. She scanned the letter again, more slowly this time. “Oh. . . Oh no. . .” She turned to Okina. “Gramps, Kaoru-san’s asked me to come help take care of him. Can I go?”

“Of course,” Okina nodded.

“What about you, Aoshi-sama? Will you come?”

“No,” he answered. “I have business to attend to. I’m sorry, Misao.” The girl pouted. “But,” Aoshi added, “I may come afterwards when it is time for you to return to Kyoto.” Misao grinned, then got to her feet and clapped her hands.

“Well,” she said, “I’ll be off in the next hour. Don’t know when I’ll be back. See you!”

“Take one of the girls with you, Misao-chan!” Okina called after her, but the girl was already out of earshot. The old man shook his head, then grabbed his cup of tea. “I swear,” he said, “adorable Misao-chan will be the death of me.”

Aoshi said nothing.

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Chapter Text

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“And. . . just one more spoonful, Sojiro.”

Kaoru lifted the thin broth to Sojiro’s parted lips and smiled when he swallowed it.

“Good job,” Kenshin said, and he hugged the boy close. “You’re doing wonderfully.”

It had been a few days since the letter had been sent and Sojiro was making incredible strides in his recovery. His broken toes had healed and the boy had spent an entire day wiggling them happily, much to everyone’s amusement. The fever had been nursed away completely and his heartbeat was slowing down significantly, although the arrhythmias were still present. He was also much calmer and had a bit of an appetite.

However, despite his progress, there were still many issues. His other broken bones were being slow to heal and the bruises looked no different. Megumi was beginning to worry that something was wrong with Sojiro’s blood - it didn't seem to be clotting well. Besides that, Sojiro was having trouble keeping down solids. Everything they had tried - even plain rice - had been rejected, and Sojiro would vomit it back up. It was rough on him, and caused him pain, but Megumi insisted that they keep trying. It wouldn't do for him to live on broth and tea for the next few weeks - he would just lose more weight, which he couldn't afford to lose. He already weighed next to nothing.

So she had decided to try introducing solids more slowly into Sojiro’s diet, starting with a small square of tofu into a bowl of miso broth. The others had been willing to try, and Kaoru had managed to get him to swallow a bowl.

She leaned back and placed the empty bowl on the ground, watching with a little smile as Kenshin wiped some stray drops of broth from Sojiro’s lips and chin, smiling reassuringly. Kaoru’s heart swelled. They were both doing so well!

Sojiro could sleep through most nights, which allowed Kenshin time to eat and sleep as well. Kaoru was relieved - she’d been worried about the rurouni. The first few days Sojiro was here he’d gotten little to no sleep and would hardly touch the food brought to him. But when Kaoru and the others had forced him to take a few days off, he appeared to be much better. The dark circles under his eyes were gone and he no longer looked gaunt. He was still pale and stressed, that much was obvious, but Kaoru no longer feared that he would get sick as well.

“Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin said, and he nodded to her, his violet eyes sparkling. Kaoru’s face lit up - she’d been waiting for this for over a week.

“Sojiro,” she said, leaning forward and catching his eyes. “I have a surprise for you. Would you like to see?”

“Surprise?”

“Hmm,” Kaoru hummed. “It’s a very nice surprise, if I say so myself. I went shopping for you a while ago, do you remember?”

Sojiro frowned and cocked his head. Kaoru sighed and rubbed his his arm gently.

“That’s all right,” she said. “You had a very bad fever at the time. I don’t expect you to remember.”

Sojiro nodded and Kaoru smiled.

“I’m going to take this bowl to the kitchen and then I’ll come back with your present.”

“Okay,” Sojiro said. Kaoru got to her feet with a smile, then left the room, leaving the door open behind her. As she made her way down the hall, Yahiko popped out of his room.

“Kaoru!” he said. Kaoru jumped in surprise and nearly dropped the bowl before regaining her composure. Yahiko laughed and she glared at him.
“Keep your voice down, idiot!” she said. “Sojiro is sleeping.”

“That’s a lie. I just heard you guys talking.” Kaoru snorted in annoyance, but didn't deny it, and Yahiko grinned. She shoved the empty bowl at him. “Take that to the kitchen,” she said, “then get Sano and Megumi. We’re giving Sojiro his presents now.”

“Really?” Yahiko cried, and his eyes lit up. He grabbed the bowl from Kaoru and dashed off without further comment, calling for Megumi and Sano. Kaoru smiled and turned into her room, where she had been keeping all of Sojiro’s gifts since her trip to Yokohama. She’d been waiting for what seemed like ages to give Sojiro these presents, and had thus arranged them in a neat little gift basket. With a silly grin, she tossed a thin pink sheet over the top and lifted it into her arms. When she slid open the door, Megumi, Sano, and Yahiko were all waiting for her, their eyes bright.

“I’m excited for this, jo-chan,” Sano said and he offered his arms out for the basket. Kaoru shook her head and made her way past him.

“I’m excited too,” she grinned. “It should be nice.”

“Nice? It should be great!” Yahiko cried. “I’m pumped!”

Megumi laughed.

“It should be wonderful,” she agreed. “Sojiro definitely needed some new things and giving them to him now in a gift basket was a brilliant idea. I’m impressed, Kaoru.”

Kaoru held her head high with pride.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” she said. “He needed most of these things anyways.” She smiled down at the basket. “Some of the things in here are surprises, though. Not even you three have seen them.”

“Then this a treat for all of us,” Megumi said with a smile. Kaoru nodded and the other’s faces became bright as well. The stress had been taking a toll on all of them, and, although this was technically for Sojiro, Kaoru knew it would benefit everyone else greatly too.

When they reached Kenshin and Sojiro’s room, Kaoru stepped in first, everyone following behind. Sojiro blinked at the long line of people.

“Why so many?” he asked, snuggling close to Kenshin. “Is something w-wrong?”

“No, not at all!” Kaoru said, settling herself in front of Sojiro. She placed the basket close to him and smiled. “We all just wanted to see what presents you got.”

Sojiro blinked slowly, indulgently.

“Oh.” His eyes roved over the faces in the room before settling again on Kaoru. “O-okay.”

“So they can stay?” Kenshin asked.

“Yeah,” Sojiro said with a nod. “Stay.”

“Great!” Yahiko chirped and he scooted forward, pushing the basket closer to Sojiro. “Tear into it then! I wanna see!”

Sojiro blinked at the big basket, which was bulging with items hidden under a pink sheet. He turned to face Kenshin.

“Can I?”

Kenshin smiled serenely.

“Of course you can.”

“Then sit up?”

Kenshin hummed, and, with Kaoru’s help, Sojiro was soon seated in Kenshin’s lap, his legs dangling off Kenshin’s knees, his head resting on Kenshin’s collarbone. Kenshin tugged the boy close and tucked his head under his chin, grinning at the others. With a big smile, Kaoru pushed the basket closer to Sojiro.

“Go on and open it now, Sojiro,” she said. “It’s all yours.”

“C-Can you help?” Sojiro asked, and he twisted his hands into Kenshin’s hakama. “I don’t wanna.”

“Of—”

“Sojiro,” Megumi interrupted. “I want you to at least to take the sheet off the top.”

“Wh-Why?” Sojiro stammered.

“I want you to practice trusting us a bit more. There’s nothing in that basket that can hurt you.” Megumi smiled patiently. “Do you believe me?” Sojiro nodded slowly. “Then would you open the basket for us?”

Sojiro hesitated, then nodded. He reached forward his hand that was not in the splint and hooked his fingers around the corner of the pink sheet. He yanked it off with a wince and shut his eyes tight, clearly expecting something to jump out at him, but, when nothing came, he dared to crack his eyes open.

His lips parted in silent awe.

“Uwah!” Yahiko cried, leaning around Kaoru. “That’s a lot of stuff!”

Sojiro stared at the full basket in front of him, stunned. This was all for him? But there was so much! His eyes roved over the basket, over the food and toys and clothes, marveling at it all. It was almost overwhelming, all these new things. He looked up at Kaoru, his blue eyes so wide she swore they’d pop out of his head.

“A-All mine?”

Kaoru smiled and dipped her head.

“All yours. Would you like to see?”

“Y-Yeah.”

Chapter Text

Last chapter: “All yours. Would you like to see?”

“Y-Yeah.”

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“All right, what first?”

“Those,” Sojiro said, pointing at the socks. Kaoru grabbed them and held them out.

“Purple tabi socks like you requested,” she said with a smile. “Do you want to try them on?”

A little smile quirked Sojiro’s lips and he nodded.

“Only the right foot,” Megumi reminded Kaoru as she moved forward. “His toes are healed but not his ankle. I don’t even want to think about putting a sock over that splint.” She mock shuddered and Kenshin laughed. Kaoru placed one sock aside, and, with expertise that everyone was shocked by, slipped one of the purple tabi socks onto Sojiro’s little foot. She leaned back with a smile.

“A perfect fit!” she grinned, clapping her hands together. “I had to completely guess at what size your feet were, Sojiro, and it seems I did well.”

“That you did, Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin said. He smiled at her and then looked down at Sojiro, who was wiggling his toes under the purple fabric, his pale face flushed with pleasure. “Do you like them, Sojiro?”

“Yes,” the boy said. Kaoru made to take the sock off, but Sojiro pulled his foot away. She frowned.

“You don't want me to take it off?” she asked. Sojiro shook his head.

Sano chuckled.

“Are you just going to wear that one sock for the rest of the day?” he asked. When Sojiro bobbed his head, his face serious, everyone burst out laughing. But they nodded at Sojiro nonetheless.

“You can keep the sock on,” Megumi said. “Just remember that there’s another one you can wear when I can make the splint on your ankle smaller.” Sojiro nodded at her, then looked down at his sock-clad toes and wiggled them again.

Kaoru placed her hand over her mouth and hid a ridiculous smile. Sojiro seemed so pleased and happy with the socks that she knew she could give him nothing else for another week and he wouldn't mind at all. His joy at something so small was heartwarming, but also rather depressing. He was only this pleased because he’d probably never been given anything new or truly his own before. Kaoru felt her smile turning into tears, so she turned back to the basket, grabbing something new.

“Sojiro,” she said next, and when the boy looked up at her, he saw a pair of straw sandals in her hands.

“Oh!” he gasped and an honest-to-god smile lit up his face. “New shoes! Thank you!” He turned to Kenshin. “Help me put them on, please.”

Kenshin laughed and slipped the brand new pair of sandals onto Sojiro’s feet with the utmost care. As Sojiro stared at them, eyes bright, everyone’s hearts became light and big grins split their faces.

“Who knew that shoes could be so great?” Sano laughed, elbowing Yahiko in the side. “It looks like he just got a puppy.”

Yahiko nodded and laughed along. He watched with amusement as the boy tugged at Kenshin’s gi.

“Kenshin, Kenshin,” he said.

“Yes, little one?”

“Straps are white. Like yours.” Sojiro raised a finger and pointed across the room, where Kenshin’s white strapped sandals lay by the door. He laughed.

“That they are,” he said, ruffling the boy’s hair.

“Do you want to keep those on too, Sojiro?” Kaoru asked with a little smile. When he nodded eagerly, the others laughed. There was Sojiro, bruised and battered, but smiling, in a new yukata, wearing one sock and two new sandals despite the fact they were inside. He seemed happy, Megumi noted with pleasure; he had relaxed significantly.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: He seemed happy, Megumi noted with pleasure; he had relaxed significantly.

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“All right, next present,” Kaoru said and she reached into the bottom of the basket, pulling out a neatly folded jinbei. Everyone, even Yahiko and Sano, gasped.

It was stunning. It was made of a beautiful dark blue fabric covered in little baby blue and green dragonflies. The shoulders were laced with European satin and, in white letters, Sojiro’s name was embroidered on the front.

“Oh, how beautiful,” Megumi said, placing her hand over her heart.

“Wow,” Yahiko muttered.

“Pretty,” Sojiro whispered, and he reached forward and ran his fingers over the fabric. “Soft.” He smiled a bit at Kaoru. “Th-Thank you.”

“That must have been expensive, Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin said, and both Megumi and Sano whipped him upside the head.

“Shut up, baka!” they said at the same time. Kaoru laughed.

“Don’t worry, Kenshin,” she said, “the seller gave me a very good price. She even embroidered this for free.” She pointed at the white writing. “Do you know what this says, Sojiro?” she asked.

The boy squinted and frowned.

“C-Can’t read,” he said, curling into Kenshin. “I-I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Yahiko said, “I still can’t read well either.”

Sojiro blinked.

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Yahiko rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “It’s mostly cause I keep putting it off though.”

“Yeah, Yahiko is a lazy bum,” Kaoru said. She ignored Yahiko’s cry of protest and instead just smiled at Sojiro. “Don’t worry,” she said, “you’ll learn someday. Meanwhile, I’ll tell you what this says.” She took Sojiro’s fingers and ran them carefully over the white thread. “It says Sojiro — your name.”

Sojiro blinked.

“My n-name?”

“Yep! It’s a very nice name too — the woman who made this said it was very beautiful.”

“R-Really?”

Kaoru smiled.

“Really.” When Sojiro took his fingers away, Kaoru made to place the jinbei at her side, but froze when Sojiro spoke to her.

“C-Can I wear it?” he asked, blue eyes pleading.

Kaoru bit her lip and turned to Megumi. The doctor shook her head.

“I’m sorry, Sojiro, but I’m afraid you can’t wear a jinbei until you’re off bedrest. It’s difficult for us to take proper care of you and see to your wounds when you’re wearing two pieces of clothing. Do you understand?”

Sojiro nodded but Megumi didn't miss the disappointment in his eyes. She leaned forward and placed her hand on his knee.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “you won’t have to be on bed rest for much longer. And let’s think of the jinbei as a reward, hm? Does that sound nice?”

Sojiro hesitated a second before nodding.

“O-Okay.”

Megumi smiled and nodded before turning to the basket.

“May I?” she asked Kaoru, and, when the girl nodded, she picked up a small pinwheel from the basket. She handed it to Sojiro with a little smile. “Here you go, darling,” she said. From behind her, Kaoru grabbed another one and handed it to Yahiko.

“A pinwheel! Thanks, Kaoru!”

Kaoru laughed as Yahiko’s entire face lit up; the boy may have acted older than his years, but he was still only ten.

Sojiro frowned and stared at the small toy in his hand. Yahiko, noticing his confusion, scooted over to him.

“Look, Sojiro,” he said. “You blow at like this—” He took a deep breath and then blew quick and hard at the toy, making its red paper wheels pin. “And it goes like this!”

Sojiro’s lips parted in silent awe. He repeated Yahiko’s movements very carefully, then took a long, deep breath. When he tried to breathe out though, it came as a sort of frantic, tumbled choke and he launched into a coughing fit. Kenshin patted his back reassuringly and plied the toy from his fingers.

“It’s okay,” he reassured the boy. “Let’s maybe not try that quite yet, hm?”

“Yes,” Megumi agreed with a nod. “Your chest still hurts, right?” When Sojiro nodded, catching his breath, she smiled gently. “Then you can’t take too deep of breaths just yet. I don't want you to get hurt.”

When Sojiro nodded, Kaoru leaned forward took the pinwheel from Kenshin with a smile.

“You can play with this later,” she said, laying it on top of Sojiro’s new jinbei, “but for now you can just watch Yahiko, all right?”

Sojiro nodded slowly and turned to Yahiko. The ten-year-old instantly obliged, blowing on his pinwheel as hard as he could, and, as the wheel was still spinning, he handed it to Sojiro. Sojiro watched the paper spin, wide blue eyes lit with fascination, and a little smile twerked his lips when it finally stopped spinning. He handed Yahiko’s pinwheel back to him, the smile still on his face.

“Fun,” he said. “Thank you, Yahiko.”

Yahiko beamed and took the pinwheel back. He yelped in surprise and annoyance when Kaoru shoved him aside. Sojiro blinked at her bright, happy expression and the paper package held to her chest.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: Yahiko beamed and took the pinwheel back. He yelped in surprise and annoyance when Kaoru shoved him aside. Sojiro blinked at her bright, happy expression and the paper package held to her chest.

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“All right now, Sojiro,” she said. “This is the best gift yet. I told Sano to give it to you a while ago, but the idiot completely forgot.”

“Hey—!”

“Anyway,” Kaoru continued smoothly, “my friends and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what you’d like best. We settled on this.” She held out the package and laid it on Sojiro’s lap. “It’s very special - the only one the seller had.”

Sojiro blinked his owlish eyes up at her.

“R-Really?”

“Hmm,” Kaoru hummed. She grinned. “I think you’ll love it. So why don't you open it now?”

Sojiro nodded and obeyed, his little fingers going to unwrap the string holding the package together. It was slow going, given that he could only use one hand, but the others made no move to help him, allowing him to complete this little task on his own. When the string fell away and he pulled the paper apart, a huge smile crossed his face.

There was a collective gasp.

There, nestled in the thick brown paper, was a large stuffed toy - a light grey rabbit with a button nose, neatly stitched black eyes, and long dangly ears. Sojiro picked up the toy, a big smile still on his face, and pulled it close to him.

“Thank you, Kaoru,” he said, pressing his face into the toy.

“You’re welcome, sweetheart,” the girl said, laying her hand on top of the boy’s black head. She looked up at the others who were staring with amazement at the toy and chuckled. “What’s so amazing?” she asked.

“Is that a real rabbit?” Sano asked.

“Baka! Of course not!”

“Is it a Western toy?” Megumi asked. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“I think it must be,” Kaoru said. “I wanted him to have something soft, but I wasn't expecting to find a toy like this.”

“It’s adorable, that it is,” Kenshin said, reaching out and fingering one of the bunny’s ears. “And very soft.” He smiled at Kaoru. “It’s very nice, Kaoru-dono,” he said.

Kaoru blushed.

“And it made Sojiro smile!” Yahiko cried with pleasure. “That was the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on his face!”

Kenshin and Megumi nodded in agreement. Sano leaned back with a satisfied snort.

“Good job, jo-chan. Is that it, then?”

“Mostly,” Kaoru said, grabbing the pink sheet and tossing it over the basket again. “There’s just some treats in here and in the kitchen for later, when he's able to stomach more food.”

“Treats?” Yahiko asked and Kaoru rolled her eyes, getting to her feet.

“Yes,” she said, answering Yahiko’s unspoken question, “there’s some for all of you too.”

“YEAH!”

Sano and Yahiko turned to each other and high-fived. Sojiro jerked at the loud noise, pulling his head up from his new toy, recoiling against Kenshin. His hand went to curl protectively around his stomach, but, since the stuffed rabbit was already there, he grabbed onto it instead. He blinked and then pulled it close. The rabbit was soft and good and made him feel. . . safe.

Safe.

Sojiro smiled again and tugged himself closer to Kenshin, the rabbit held against his chest. Kenshin smiled down at the boy and began speaking quietly to him, playing with the bunny’s ear as he whispered soft words. Kaoru got to her feet and left the room, Yahiko following her out, chattering and pestering her with questions about these “treats” she had bought.

So that left Megumi and Sano.

The doctor was sitting patiently near Sojiro and Kenshin, her eyes fixed on them, and she felt herself relax more than she had in weeks. She’d had been having difficult cases in town before Sojiro had arrived, but with the sudden appearance of such a badly injured child, she’d been forced to lay some of them aside to deal with the boy. Her other patients were growing angry and annoyed at the lack of her presence — they were even beginning to file complaints with Doctor Gensai. The old man just sighed and waved them away, explaining that he had placed Megumi on a very special case that required much of her attention. Time spent with her other patients had been limited.

But the past few days had been significantly better. Sojiro was showing signs of obvious improvement in most areas and he was definitely feeling safer around everyone. He still preferred Kenshin to the others, which was to be expected, but Megumi hoped he’d soon allow the others to hold him as well, especially Kaoru. Megumi hated to admit it, but Kaoru definitely made Kenshin relax, and, in turn, Sojiro.

She was jerked out of her thoughts when Sano nudged her gently in the side. She blinked in surprise, then turned to glare at him. He grinned at her.

“Whatcha thinkin’ about, Fox?”

Megumi huffed and crossed her arms over her chest.

“That’s none of your business, Sano.”

“Ah, come on,” the fighter said, leaning back. “I’m curious.”

Megumi threw him a look and Sano laughed. He opened his mouth to speak, probably some annoying barb, but Sojiro interrupted him.

“Sano?” he questioned, and the man immediately dropped his usually obnoxious expression to turn to Sojiro. Megumi blinked in shock. She’d never before seen such a soft, gentle expression on Sano’s face.

“Yeah, kid?”

Sojiro held out the bunny.

“Hold,” he said.

Sano cocked his head.

“Huh?”

“Hold,” Sojiro repeated. “Hold bunny.”

“Why—?”

“Just take the toy, baka,” Megumi said and Sano threw her a look before plying the stuffed rabbit from Sojiro’s fingers.

Sojiro nodded, then twisted in Kenshin’s lap. With the rurouni’s help, he pulled a thick red ribbon from under his pillow.

“Is that Sano’s headband?” Megumi asked. Sojiro nodded but didn't say anything. He held out the headband to Sano, blinking big, expectant blue eyes up at him.

“Um. . .” Sano looked around at the others, but they shrugged. “What do you want me to do with that, Sojiro?”

“Tie it around bunny’s head,” Sojiro said.

“Oh! Like a headband?”

“Yeah.”

Sano nodded and eagerly took the headband. As Sojiro watched, chewing his thumb, Sano lifted the bunny’s dangling ears and tied the headband around its head, knotting it firmly in the back. It was big on the bunny and sort of looked ridiculous, but Sojiro beamed. Sano, with a smile, took the bunny’s arms and played at punching Sojiro with them.

“Hiyah! Hiyah!” Sano cried, lightly hitting Sojiro’s uninjured leg. “Fight me! Fight me, Sojiro!”

Sojiro giggled in delight, his entire face lighting up.

“No, no!” he squealed. “No fighting! No fighting, Sano! No fight, Sano Number Two!”

Sojiro reached out and snatched the stuffed animal from Sano’s fingers when the fighter froze. He snuggled it close to him, knotting his fingers into the animal’s ears. When he looked up, his little smile still on his face, he found Sano staring at him. He cocked his head and frowned.

“Sano?”

“Did you call that rabbit Sano Number Two?”

“Hmm,” Sojiro hummed with a nod. “That’s his name. Sano Nigou. Nigou for short.”

Kenshin and Megumi burst into laughter, their laughs so bright and loud that at first Sojiro jerked, startled. But when he saw the joy written on their faces, he relaxed. When he turned back to Sano, he was surprised to see that he was smiling now too.

“Nigou, huh?”

Sojiro winced and pulled the bunny closer to his chest.

“I-If that’s okay.”

“Of course it’s okay!” Sano said. He blushed and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “I’m kinda flattered, to be honest.”

“Why are you naming him Nigou, Sojiro?” Kenshin asked. Sojiro looked up at the rurouni, and was pleased to see him grinning from ear to ear. He smiled.

“Cause he’s wearing Sano’s headband. Also,” he pulled at Kenshin’s ponytail so that the man would lean forward and be the only one to hear what he said next, “Sano is a fighter. I want to be a fighter too - a fighter against my being sick and weak.”

Kenshin’s heart melted and he laid his forehead against Sojiro’s. Sojiro clutched at him.

“You already are a fighter, Sojiro, that you are,” he said.

“A brave one?”

“Very brave indeed.”

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Chapter Text

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It was raining hard again — hard enough that it rattled the roof of the Kamiya house. Kaoru paused in the hall, extra blankets in hand, as a loud crack of thunder tore through the sky. She shivered and pulled her shawl a little closer to her.

I hope Misao-chan is all right. I sent her the letter a little over five days ago. If I know her she would have set off the moment she got it, so she should be here soon. . .

Kaoru nudged open the door to Kenshin’s room with a toe as another roar of thunder split the air. She winced. She really hope Misao wasn't out there in the rain.

When she stepped into the room, her heart fell. She couldn't hear it past the thunder, but now that she was close, Sojiro’s wet gags were obvious. Kaoru sighed.

“It’s all right, Sojiro,” Kenshin soothed, helping the boy sit up as he threw up his lunch’s contents into a basin. “It’s all right, now, that it is.”

Kaoru laid the blankets aside and came to sit opposite of Kenshin. She gave the rurouni a tired smile before laying her hands on Sojiro’s back and neck.

“Kenshin’s right,” the girl said, helping the boy get more comfortable as he continued to be sick. “Everything will be just fine.”

Sojiro whimpered and clutched at Kaoru’s arm.

“H-hurts,” he whined with a gasp. “Hurts, Kaoru.”

“I know it does.” She looked into the bowl and curled up her nose at the foul-smelling brown and white vomit, but was relieved to see no blood. “Do you think you’re done or—?”

Sojiro leaned forward mid-question and vomited again, his back arching painfully against Kaoru’s hand. His muscles tightened like cord as he continued to be sick. This time was shorter, however, and, after a few dry heaves, Sojiro declared he was finished.

Kenshin laid the basin aside as Kaoru helped Sojiro lay down in bed again, her grip gentle. Kenshin appeared soon after her, taking Nigou and placing him in Sojiro’s free hand. He smoothed his black hair with a smile and a soft coo.

Kaoru watched them, biting her lip.

For the past few days Sojiro had been willing to lay in his bed more often than not and spent the majority of the time sleeping. Kenshin had been concerned but Megumi assured him it was nothing — Sojiro was finally feeling safe enough to sleep around them, so his exhausted, injured body was just catching up. Kenshin had been relieved to hear this and he had brightened immediately.

There was a day — a single, glorious day — where everything was just right. Sojiro slept peacefully and didn't stir, and when he was awake he managed to keep down some mild food and tea. He took his medicine with cooperation and didn't complain about any pain. He was even able to sit up on his own for a few minutes without keeling over.

On that day, Kaoru thought everything was going to be okay.

Then the night came and she woke up with a sense that something was very, very wrong. She ran to Kenshin’s room, trying to keep silent, but threw the door open when she heard sobbing and Kenshin’s soft but shaking voice.

She was startled to see Sojiro vomiting all over the bedding, his toy bunny thrown across the room as he held fiercely to Kenshin. In between gags he gasped for breath and, when he was finished, he started sobbing. Kaoru stripped the linens and laid them outside as Kenshin lifted the boy into his arms and held him close, rocking him back and forth and muttering platitudes over and over again.

When Megumi came the next day she spent the whole day and night and Kaoru barely saw her leave Sojiro’s room. When Kaoru came in the evening to bring tea, she was startled by the smell of stale vomit; despite the door that led outside being left open, it was still evident. Kenshin was sitting up by the doorframe, fast asleep, as Megumi sat next to Sojiro, her hand on his wrist. When Kaoru came closer she blinked in alarm.

Sojiro was lying limp in bed, exhausted, his big blue eyes half-lidded. Nigou was nudged next to him but he wasn't clutching at the toy or fiddling with it like he usually was — it just lay still by his cheek.

With Megumi and Kaoru’s help, Sojiro managed a cupful of tea before laying back down again. Kaoru had been startled by how easily Sojiro allowed people to maneuver and hold him. When she looked down at him again, he was fast asleep.

Megumi left the next morning with strict feeding instructions and a schedule.

“He’s very weak,” she’d told Kenshin and the others, “so we need to get him to eat as much as he can.”

But that was proving to be very little. Every day seemed to be a bit harder for Sojiro, and he couldn't keep down any solids. Water, tea, and broth were all he could take without getting sick.

Kenshin and Kaoru, who spent most of their time with the boy, were getting scared.

He was wasting away.

Where he had been skinny before, now he was almost skeletal, his cheeks becoming sunken and his eyes far too big. His bones were healing slowly and a too tight grip caused bruises to blossom on his skin. Megumi had been staying more often now and Kenshin hardly ever slept. Kaoru was beginning to get really worried. And with this storm. . .

Another bolt of thunder and a scared whimper jolted Kaoru out of her thoughts. She turned and saw Sojiro reaching for Kenshin, who eagerly scooped him up in his arms and nestled his head against his chest.

Kaoru sighed as Kenshin began to rock the boy back and forth, his hands cradling Sojiro’s neck and back. When he looked up, the rurouni managed a faint smile.

“Kaoru-dono,” he said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

Kaoru blinked at the unexpected comment but then smiled. She reached out a hand and ran her fingers through Sojiro’s hair. He stiffened for a moment before quieting.

“So am I, Kenshin,” she said. “And I’m glad you and Sojiro are too.”

The pair sat in silence for a while, the rain pouring down, as Kenshin rocked Sojiro back and forth. Eventually, both Kenshin and Kaoru sang a little lullaby and Sojiro finally relaxed, falling still against Kenshin.

“He’s asleep now,” Kenshin said. “Thank goodness.”

“It seems our lullaby worked.”

Kenshin laughed softly, his voice ringing through the room like bells. Kami, Kaoru loved it when he laughed!

“That it did!” Kenshin beamed. “Although we don’t sing very well, it seemed to work.”

Kaoru reached out and swatted at Kenshin.

“Oi! Himura Kenshin, I can sing very well, thank you very much!”

“Oro?”

“Don’t you ‘oro’ me, Kenshin!”

Kenshin blinked and then bowed his head.

“This one apologizes, Kaoru-dono,” he said sincerely. “This one meant no offense.”

Kaoru laughed.

“I was teasing you, Kenshin,” she said. “There’s no need to be so serious!”

“Oh.” Kenshin tried for a smile but Kaoru almost wished he hadn’t. It was too sad and tired to be one. She turned away from him and grabbed the blankets.

“Here,” she said, “extra blankets for you and Sojiro. I only brought you one, Kenshin, and these other three are for Sojiro. It’s getting chilly outside.”

“Thank you, Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin said and a real smile crossed his lips this time. “You are very thoughtful.”

Kaoru blushed.

“It’s no trouble, Kenshin. Here.” She held out the three blankets neatly layered on top of one another, and, with Kenshin’s help, managed to wrap the delicate Sojiro up. Kaoru giggled into her hand.

“He looks like a dumpling,” she said.

Kenshin laughed.

“That he does.”

Cocooned in Kaoru’s thick winter blankets and cradled against Kenshin’s chest, all that was visible was the top of his dark head, making for a humorous sight. Kaoru smiled before getting to her feet with the other blanket. She turned to Kenshin and draped it over him, her hands skirting momentarily over his thin shoulders.

“Oro?” Kenshin looked down at the soft yellow fabric encasing him and then looked up at Kaoru, who had turned a bright red but was smiling nonetheless. The rurouni smiled back at her. “Thank you, Kaoru-dono.”

Somehow Kaoru managed to turn an even brighter red before nodding.

“You’re welcome, Kenshin,” she said. She turned and headed for the door. Before leaving, she turned back to the rurouni. “Oh, Kenshin.”

“Yes, Kaoru-dono?”

“Misao-chan should be here sometime today so I’ll meet her at the gate. I’ll give you two a little warning before I bring her in. You’ll need it.” She winked. “Rest easy, you two.”

She left and slid the door shut behind her, leaving Kenshin alone with the bundled dumpling in his arms.

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Chapter Text


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Yahiko was inside the dojo, practicing his kata, when he first heard Misao. She was squealing.

Obviously.

“Aaaahhh! Hi, Kaoru-san! Hi! I’m so excited to see you and Himura and the little boy. Look I brought gifts and everything!”

Yahiko slid open the dojo door just as Misao launched herself at Kaoru, a ridiculous grin on her face. Kaoru squeaked in surprise just before contact and they both almost fell backwards into the mud. Just before Kaoru landed, Sano appeared from the house and grabbed her kimono, pulling her onto the porch. With a startled cry, the girls tumbled across the wooden deck instead of the ground.

“Geez, Weasel-girl,” Sano said, “watch what you’re doing. You both would have landed in the mud if I hadn't grabbed you.”

“Ah, sorry!” Misao clambered off Kaoru and held out her hand, helping her to her feet. She rubbed the back of her head sheepishly as Kaoru stood and wiped off her kimono. “Sorry, Kaoru-san. I just really love seeing you all.” She turned and caught Yahiko’s eyes. “Hey, brat!” she cried. “Long time, no see!”

“Not long enough,” Yahiko grumbled, walking over to the group with his shinai in hand. Misao glared at him and opened her mouth to snap, but Kaoru spoke before she could get a word out.

“Come inside, Misao-chan,” she said, “we need to talk.”

“Aw, can’t I see the kid first?”

“No,” Kaoru answered and she turned and slid open the sitting room door. “That’s what we need to talk about.”

“Oh.” Misao nodded and Yahiko blinked at how rapidly she became sober. She laid her wet possessions, including a large wrapped package, in a safe corner to dry and went to sit by Kaoru. She sat still, hands on her knees, as Kaoru prepared to speak. Yahiko hung by the doorway, shocked. He’d never seen Weasel-girl this serious before.

“Sano, Yahiko, get lunch ready, would you?” Kaoru asked. “I’d like to speak to Misao-chan alone for a bit.”

Both boys groaned but left the room anyway. They’d gotten somewhat used to cooking this past week or so — although they were by no means good at it. With Kenshin always with Sojiro and Kaoru’s awful cooking, Yahiko and Sano had started making meals for themselves and the others. It was simple fare — rice and fish — but Kaoru seemed annoyed whenever she ate it, which meant it was good; Kaoru became irritated whenever someone’s cooking was better than hers.

When Yahiko and Sano had left, sliding the door close, Misao leaned forward, laying her hands on top of Kaoru’s and staring into her blue eyes.

“Tell me everything, Kaoru-san.”

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Chapter Text

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Misao stared at Kaoru, dumbfounded. That list of injuries . . . those would be impossible to heal soon! How had a child survived so long so badly hurt like that? And the stories she heard — the beatings of the past, the fever, the vomiting — it all sounded like something out of a nightmare. The little boy had suffered horribly.

But there was fondness in Kaoru’s voice.

And when Yahiko and Sano reappeared with lunch, adoration was written on them too.

There was no doubting it — everyone already loved this little boy.

She wanted in!

Misao picked up her chopsticks and began eating her rice, ignoring how it was a little too salty. She turned to Kaoru.

“What did you say his name was, Kaoru-san?”

“Sojiro. Seta Sojiro.”

“Sojiro is an adorable name. I can’t wait to meet him.”

“Too bad he’s been real sick,” Sano said, shoveling food into his mouth. “I haven't been allowed to see him the past couple of days.”

“Me neither,” Yahiko said. “Just Kaoru, Kenshin, and Megumi.”

Misao turned big eyes on Kaoru.

“Really? Why?”

“He can’t keep any food down. Megumi is worried that he might have caught something from one of us.”

“Oh.” Misao laid down her chopsticks. “Can you tell me what you’ve been feeding him?” she asked.

“Huh? Why?”

“I used to have trouble keeping food down too when I was little.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Misao nodded and then made a face. “It stunk.”

“Well, then, we’ve been feeding him mainly miso broth, sometimes with rice or tofu in it.”

“Ah. There lies your problem!” Misao held up a finger. “Miso might be too much for his stomach to handle right now — it was for me. Too much flavor. So try rice porridge instead.”

“Rice porridge?” Yahiko said, scrunching up his nose. “Gross.”

“It’s virtually tasteless,” Misao said. “I think he may be able to hold it down.”

Kaoru bit her lip and hesitated. But when she looked at Misao, whose bright eyes were shining, she sighed and dipped her head.

“It wouldn't hurt to try,” she said. “Why don’t you show Sano and Yahiko how to make it? I’ll take your stuff to the guest room and tell Kenshin you’re here.”

“Okay!” Misao bounded to her feet with a grin, pumping her fist in the air. “All right, you two,” she said, “let’s get cooking!”

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Chapter Text

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Sojiro wasn't aware of much — he just knew he was warm and comfortable against Kenshin’s chest and that he was safe in the man’s arms. He was still in pain — it raced through every inch of him — but he was sleepy enough to be able to ignore it. He slept for a long time, dreamless and content, but was woken up by soft voices and gentle touches. Sojiro was pulled away from Kenshin’s chest for a moment and he whined in protest at the disappearance, but his hand was quickly grabbed by Kenshin’s own and he was being spoken to. Then he was leaning back once more, propped up against Kenshin’s chest again, head lolling on his collarbone. Sojiro whimpered and kept his eyes shut — he wanted to go back to sleep. But then there was something at his lips and he was scared and he flailed.

No!

“Shh, Sojiro, it’s just a spoon, that it is. See, little one? It’s the red spoon we always eat with.”

Sojiro cracked his eyes open a bit, and, just as Kenshin said, the red spoon was floating in his line of vision. It was filled with something white and mushy.

“W’as in it?” he slurred, shutting his eyes again. He was so tired.

“Rice porridge.” Kaoru’s voice. “I know it’s been really hard to eat lately but we were hoping you could keep this down. Would you like to try?”

Sojiro moaned and shook his head. He was tired of throwing up — it was gross and made a mess and it made him and everyone else scared. He didn't want to anymore.

“I know,” Kaoru soothed, laying her delicate hand on Sojiro’s knee. “I know how difficult it’s been for you, sweetheart. But we really need you to try. Can you do that for us?”

Sojiro cracked his eyes open again, focusing blearily on the two faces in front of him. Kaoru was leaning over his right side, a napkin in her lap and a gentle smile on her face. Her eyes were tired and worried. Sojiro turned to look at Kenshin. He was holding the red spoon and balancing a bowl on his knee, all the while cradling Sojiro against his chest. As Sojiro looked at him, he smiled.

“Hello, little one,” he said, voice soft. “It’s good to see you awake. This one was glad you were so quiet in your sleep — did you sleep well?”

Sojiro nodded.

“You’re warm,” he said. “Cozy.”

Both Kaoru and Kenshin laughed.

“This one is glad to hear that,” Kenshin said. “But now it’s time to eat. How about it, Sojiro? Will you try some rice porridge for us?”

“O-Okay.”

Kaoru held up his head and neck as Kenshin brought the spoonful of rice porridge to Sojiro’s lips.

“Here we are, Sojiro,” Kenshin said, and he dipped the contents in the boy’s mouth.

Sojiro made a face at the texture — it was like eating soggy rice! But it wasn't as if he was unfamiliar with the taste and he’d never gotten sick from eating things like this before, so he accepted spoonful after spoonful without complaint, swallowing each thickly. When Kenshin was done and Kaoru was wiping his face clean, Sojiro realized that his stomach was no longer churning or rejecting the food — it actually felt kind of full.

“Kenshin,” he said, and raised his hand to tug at the man’s gi. The redhead immediately popped into view.

“Yes, Sojiro?”

“Stomach doesn't hurt so much now.”

Kenshin’s entire face lit up, and, from where Kaoru was collecting the bowl and spoon, Sojiro heard her sigh.

“Oh, thank God,” she murmured.

“I’m so glad, that I am!” Kenshin grinned and he hugged Sojiro close for a moment. “But let’s give it some more time, all right? We really want you to be able to hold it down.” He readjusted Sojiro and looked down into the boy’s blue eyes. “But if you can’t, we won’t be angry.”

“R-Really?”

“Of course, little one. We’re not angry at all — we’re just worried.”

“That’s right, Sojiro!” Kaoru said, and she appeared in Sojiro’s line of vision with a smile. “We all just want you to get better.”

“O-O-Okay.”

Kenshin and Kaoru smiled and exchanged happy looks.

“Can I lay you down now, Sojiro?” Kenshin asked. When Sojiro opened his mouth, Kenshin interrupted. “I know you don’t want to, but Megumi-dono thinks it will help you to lay on your back.”

Sojiro frowned. He couldn't argue with lady doctor Megumi — she had made it very clear that her orders were the most important thing to making him feel better. And she was helping him heal every day — Sojiro had no reason to doubt her. So he nodded at Kenshin.

With Kaoru’s help, they unwrapped Sojiro from the thick blankets and laid him down on the soft futon. Sojiro relaxed with a sigh and closed his eyes. He was sleepy. . . .

But he screamed and cried when he felt someone’s hands reaching for his obi.

“Stop! STOP!”

“Shh, Sojiro, shh, it’s okay. Look, it’s Kaoru-dono. It’s just Kaoru-dono.”

Sojiro forced his eyes open and stared up, settling his wild-eyed gaze on the girl. Her eyes were wide and scared and she had backed away somewhat, her hands held up. Sojiro fell back with a moan.

“It’s okay,” Kenshin soothed, running his fingers through Sojiro’s dark hair. “Everything’s okay. You’re safe.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn't mean to scare you.” Kaoru’s voice was shaking. “I just wanted to untie your yukata so we could massage your stomach.”

“Massage. . .?”

“Yes, sweetheart, massage. Do you remember Megumi doing that?”

Sojiro frowned and searched his memory. Ah, that thing. Lady doctor Megumi had laid him down after he had eaten and untied his yukata. He had been really scared at first, but nothing bad had happened. The lady doctor had just run her hands across his belly in soft, circular motions, then allowed Kaoru and Kenshin to do the same. Kenshin was good at it, although his hands were cold, but Kaoru had just ended up being really bad at it and Megumi got really angry. Kaoru had left after that, in tears, and then Sojiro fell asleep. He didn't wake up until he was vomiting again.

He blinked at Kaoru.

“Can Kenshin do it?” he asked. “I want that.”

Kaoru’s face fell but she nodded nonetheless. Kenshin frowned.

“Sojiro,” he began, “why don’t you let Kaoru-dono—”

“You,” Sojiro interrupted. “I want you to do it. Not Kaoru.” His eyes flicked over to Kaoru and he shrank a bit, his hand going to protect his stomach on instinct. “I-If that’s okay.”

“Of course it’s okay,” Kaoru hastened to reassure. “Kenshin can help you with that. I’ll just take the dishes back to the kitchen.” She got to her feet, bowl and spoon in hand, but, before she left, Sojiro grabbed her kimono.

“K-Kaoru.”

Kaoru raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, Sojiro?”

“Th-Thank you.”

Kaoru’s entire face lit up and a smile so wide crossed her face that it made Sojiro smile too.

“You’re welcome, sweetheart.” She knelt down again and kissed his forehead and Sojiro’s smile got a little wider. She wasn't mad! When she got up again, she seemed happier and much more relaxed. “Do you need anything before I go, Sojiro?”

“Nigou, please.”

Sojiro had tossed the bunny some feet away earlier in the day and now that he was laying in bed he was acutely missing the toy’s soft warmth. It was quickly becoming his favorite thing in the whole world; he wanted it by his side.

Kaoru disappeared from his side for a moment and when she reappeared, she had the toy in hand. With a little grin, she gave Nigou to Sojiro, who immediately pulled the bunny close to him, snuggling his face in the soft gray plush. He heard Kaoru and Kenshin laugh and some words were exchanged between the two before Kaoru left. Sojiro wasn't listening, although he heard the door close behind Kaoru and Kenshin warn him he was going to touch him. He jerked on instinct when Kenshin laid his cold hand on his stomach but he relaxed quickly. Soon after the man began massaging his stomach, repetitive motions firm but gentle, Sojiro felt his eyelids grow heavy, and, minutes later, he was fast asleep.

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Chapter Text

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When Megumi appeared at the Kamiya residence, the sun had long past set. Her day had been long and exhausting — old man Sugawara had been complaining about his chest pains all morning and then the Akemi baby’s delivery had been complicated and difficult. She’d been in the house with Doctor Gensai, the midwife, and the women of the family all afternoon and evening. Thankfully, the baby was delivered safely and both mother and baby were fine.

But this had delayed her daily visit to Sojiro by more than a few hours. And she was very worried about Sojiro and how he hadn't been able to keep food down for the past few days. It was incredibly concerning and could seriously affect his health. She hadn't told the others this, but it was possible they could lose the boy if he wasn't able to eat within the next few days. And she didn't want that tragedy — not after everything they’d done for him.

With a sigh, she pushed open the gate and stepped inside. She blinked at what she saw.

Kaoru was sitting outside on the porch with Misao, their faces bathed in candlelight, and both of them were practicing. . . sewing? Megumi snorted and hid her laugh behind her hand. Could those two even sew?

At the snort, Misao looked up. She smiled and waved.

“Hello, Megumi-san! I was wondering where you were.”

“Megumi!” Kaoru dropped her sewing and ran across the porch. Megumi’s heart raced for a moment, and she felt a surge of panic rise, but it was smothered when she saw the big grin on Kaoru’s face. “Megumi, Sojiro’s doing so well! He was able to keep down lunch and even dinner!”

Megumi’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Is that so?”

“Yeah! He’s been sleeping so quietly too and hasn't showed any signs of being in discomfort or pain. Kenshin is thrilled. I sent him off to sleep a while ago. I can wake him if you want.”

“No, no, don’t wake up Ken-san,” Megumi said, slipping off her shoes and stepping onto the porch. If Kenshin was asleep, it was a sure fact that Sojiro was doing better. Megumi was flooded with relief. “Who’s with Sojiro now?”

“Sano.”

“Ah. He’d better be letting him sleep. God knows he needs it.”

“I told him not to bother Sojiro on the pain of death.”

Megumi laughed as Kaoru slammed a fist onto her open palm; she meant it.

“Then he should be sleeping. I’m going to see him now.”

Kaoru nodded and Megumi began heading to Kenshin’s room, where she was hoping to find Sojiro fast asleep. Before she got far, though, she felt a tug on her kimono sleeve. She turned to find Misao looking up at her with wide eyes. When Megumi raised her eyebrows, Misao blushed and released her sleeve.

“Um, Megumi-san,” she said, toeing the wooden boards of the porch, “can I see him?”

Megumi blinked.

“Sojiro?”

“Yeah.”

Megumi bit her lip and sighed.

“Misao,” she began, “look—”

“Megumi,” Kaoru interrupted, “I think it should be all right. Misao’s been here all day and she’s been a great help.”

“So?”

Kaoru blinked.

“Huh?”

“So? Am I supposed to be impressed? That’s why you asked her to come, right? To help?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Then it’s simple. I don’t want Sojiro to have any visitors right now.”

Misao’s shoulders slumped in disappointment but Kaoru stiffened, angry.

“Megumi,” she said, “she made the food that Sojiro’s been able to keep down!”

Megumi blinked in shock. This girl? This happy, excitable, flighty girl? She had made something that even Megumi herself couldn’t?

“You did?!”

Misao flinched at Megumi’s incredulous tone, but then raised her head and nodded with pride.

“That’s right!” she said.

“Wow,” Megumi said, and she dipped her head at Misao in respect. Misao turned a bright red. “I’m very impressed, Misao. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. He was doing very poorly. If I see fit, I will let you visit Sojiro tonight. And, if not tonight, then in the morning. All right?”

Misao bounced happily.

“Of course!” She turned to Kaoru and grabbed her arm. “Did you hear, Kaoru-san? I might be able to see Sojiro tonight!”

“Yes, I heard, silly! I was standing right here!”

Megumi laughed, then turned to leave, making her way down the porch to see her little patient, Misao’s excited chirping the background to her short walk.

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Chapter Text

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Sano was sitting silently at Sojiro’s bedside, holding the sleeping child’s hand, when Megumi slid into the room. Sano looked up and smiled at the woman.

“Hey, Fox,” he greeted, his voice hushed. “It’s good to see you.”

“You too, Rooster-Head.” The doctor made her way to Sojiro and knelt next to him, placing her medicine chest beside her. The worry began to fade from her eyes as she looked down at his face.

Sojiro was blessedly fast asleep, his face was relatively free from signs of pain, and, past the hideous bruising over his broken cheekbone, he was regaining color. He was still and quiet and was breathing easily. Megumi sighed and her shoulders slumped with relief. She almost hadn't believed what Kaoru had told her, but now, seeing him with her own eyes, she knew it was true. He’d been holding his food and calming down. Thank god.

Megumi looked up and nodded at Sano. The man visibly relaxed and Megumi turned to her medicine chest, pulling her stethoscope from a top drawer.

“I heard our patient has been keeping food down?” she said.

Sano nodded eagerly and leaned back with a grin.

“That’s right. Hasn't been sick once.”

“Is that so?”

Sano hummed in the affirmative. Megumi smiled.

“Now it’s interview time, Sano,” she said. “Before I wake Sojiro up, I want you to answer some of my questions.”

“Sure thing,” Sano said, and he leaned forward again, resting his elbows on his knees as he gazed carefully at Sojiro’s sleeping face.

“All right. So he hasn't been sick since lunch time?”

“Nope,” Sano answered with a shake of his head. “I wasn't here for lunch but I was for dinner and he’s kept it all down.”

“Good. Who was here for lunch?”

“Jo-chan and Kenshin. They said he did great though.”

“I believe that,” Megumi said, a soft smile adorning her lips. “How about pain? Has Sojiro been complaining?”

“No, but you know how the kid is. Only complains when it’s real bad.”

“Has he been showing any signs of pain?”

“Not till lately. The past hour or so he’s started whimpering and flailing once and a while.”

As if on cue, as soon as Sano said the words, Sojiro shifted under the blankets and a long, tired whine bled from his lips. At a touch, however, he fell silent again. But Megumi noticed his breathing quickening.

Then pain was still an issue.

“All right, then I’ll give him some medicine for the pain, his daily heart medicine, and maybe something for his stomach. Just to make sure he keeps his meals down.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Then I’m going to wake him now. I want to listen to his stomach.”

Sano frowned and cocked his head. He understood listening to the heart and lungs, but the stomach? That seemed weird. Megumi noticed his confusion and rolled her eyes.

“If I listen to his stomach with my stethoscope I can hear how he’s digesting food and if anything sounds wrong.”

Sano’s jaw dropped and eyes became so wide that Megumi thought they’d pop out of his head.

“You can do that?”

“Yes,” Megumi answered with a chuckle. As she was in a good mood, she added, “And if Sojiro lets you, I’ll let you listen too.”

“Really?!?”

“Would you like to?”

“Well, obviously!” He scooted forward, eyes eager. “Hey, will you let me listen to his heart too?”

Megumi rolled her eyes again.

“Maybe. But only if Sojiro lets you.” She held up a finger. “We’re not doing anything if it makes Sojiro uncomfortable. Understand?”

Sano nodded and mock saluted her. With yet another roll of her eyes, Megumi scooted forward and seated herself carefully by Sojiro’s head. She placed her hand on his brow, relieved to find no sign of fever, and raised her voice, calling his name.

“Sojiro,” she said. “It’s Megumi. Can you wake up for me?” When the boy’s eyelids began to flutter, a soft smile crossed her lips. “Darling, it’s time to wake up. I need to talk to you for a few minutes.”

Sojiro groaned.

“Don’t wanna. . .”

Sano laughed and Megumi’s smile got a little wider.

“I know, but it’s important. I’ll let you go back to sleep right after.”

“O-Okay,” Sojiro answered after a long pause, eyes still closed. “Do I have to move, lady doctor? It hurts.”

“No, you can stay right there. But Sano might need to hold you up a bit when it’s time for medicine.” Sojiro nodded. As Megumi turned and grabbed her stethoscope, she frowned. “You said you’re in pain, Sojiro. What hurts?”

Sojiro’s little face curled up.

“All of it,” he said. “It’s starting to hurt real bad.”

“Okay, then I’ll make this examination as quick I can so that you can take the medicine.”

“C-Can I take it now?” Sojiro asked, fidgeting as if to shrug off the pain.

“Not yet, darling, I’m sorry. I’m going to listen to your stomach first. Okay?”

Sojiro whimpered and clutched Nigou tighter to him, burying his face in the stuffed animal’s soft fur. Sano frowned and began running his fingers through Sojiro’s fine black hair as he had seen Kenshin so often do. He threw a questioning look at Megumi, but the doctor carefully avoided his eyes.

“Okay, I’m going to untie your yukata and listen to your belly while Sano talks to you. Can you look at Sano for me?”

“It’s all right,” Sano said. “He knows I’m here. Right, kid?”

Sojiro hummed in the affirmative, face still buried in Nigou’s fur, and snaked his hand from under Nigou’s ears to grasp at Sano’s wrist. Sano continued running his fingers through his hair, murmuring quiet platitudes. He jerked in sudden surprise when Sojiro did, and looked over to Megumi, only to find her leaning over Sojiro, her stethoscope over his stomach. She closed her eyes and listened carefully for a few minutes, and it was with relief that Sano watched her pull away with a smile.

“Everything sounds good, Sojiro,” she said, pulling his yukata back over his stomach and retying the obi. “Time for medicine now. I’m going to get some water and I’ll be right back. Hang on for just a few minutes longer.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Everything sounds good, Sojiro,” she said, pulling his yukata back over his stomach and retying the obi. “Time for medicine now. I’m going to get some water and I’ll be right back. Hang on for just a few minutes longer.”

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Sojiro whimpered in protest and Sano hastened to reassure him as Megumi left to get the water. When the doctor was gone, Sano allowed his usual strong facade to crumble. He hated seeing the kid like this. The past few days had been focused mainly on getting Sojiro to swallow food so they didn't really have time to address his levels of pain. But it was obvious now that he had been suffering for a while — he hadn't been able to keep the medicine down along with the food. So now he was lying in bed, fidgeting and whimpering, his hand clenching and unclenching around Sano’s wrist.

“Shh,” Sano comforted. “It’s okay, kid. I know it hurts, but it will be all right. It’s okay.”

“Sano. . .” Sojiro lifted his head from Nigou and squinted up at Sano. Sano’s heart did a painful twist. All along the kid’s face were lines of pain and discomfort and he hated it. No kid should have to suffer like this — not broken bones and bruises and fear. Nothing like this had ever happened to him. He was treated kindly as a kid by his family and by Captain Sagara. No one ever laid a hand on him — not unless they wanted the shit beaten out of them. And now Sano swore he’d do the same for Sojiro. No one would hurt this kid or even threaten him; if they did, Sano would make sure they’d live to regret it. He knew Kenshin, Kaoru, and Yahiko would too. He chuckled — he could see it now. Kenshin with his sakabato, Kaoru with her bokken, Yahiko with his shinai, and himself with his fists, ready to fight. Whoever fucked with Sojiro would piss themselves with fear.

Sano blinked when Sojiro’s grip tightened around his wrist and his little voice called his name. The fighter immediately looked down at the boy, who was frowning at him.

“Why’re you laughing?” he asked, and Sano read the irritation, offense, and slight fear in his voice.

“I wasn't laughing at you, Sojiro,” Sano hastened to reassure. “I was just thinking about how we would protect you.”

Sojiro’s frown deepened.

“Why’s that funny?”

“Cause we’re a ragtag group of fighters, kiddo,” Sano said with a grin. “Even jo-chan fights.”

“Jo-chan?”

“Kaoru.” Sano’s smile got a little wider. “The only one who doesn’t know how to fight is Megumi. So she’d stay and guard you while we fought for your honor.”

“Honor. . .? What’s that?”

Sano frowned.

“You don't know what honor is?” When Sojiro shook his head, Sano sighed and stroked his chin. “Hmm, let’s see. It’s like respect. The respect you deserve and that people show you.”

“Respect?” Sojiro rolled his head on the pillow. “I don't have that.”

“What?”

Sojiro’s face twisted up briefly in pain before it faded away. He took a shaky deep breath and met Sano’s brown eyes evenly.

“They said I didn't deserve that. Respect is only for the good ones, they said.”

“They?”

Sojiro said nothing, simply blinking at Sano. After a moment, Sano understood. A moment after that, his eyes lit up with anger.

“Dammit,” he hissed. Sojiro didn't flinch at the angry tone like he usually did, but screwed his eyes shut and smothered a pained whimper. He arched his back a bit, but Sano failed to notice — he was pissed as hell.

He didn't deserve respect? This little kid didn't deserve respect?? What kind of fucked up world did he live in that a child wasn't worthy of respect? All lives deserved to be respected, but a child’s even more so. Sano bit his lip to hide his rage. If Sojiro’s family wasn't already dead, he would have beat the ever-living shit out of them. They deserved it and more. Death was too kind of a punishment for them. Sano’s only consolation was that they were probably burning in hell. . . Good. That’s where they belong.

“Idiot!!”

Megumi’s voice snapped Sano out of his violent thoughts and he looked up at her, only to see her running to Sojiro’s side.

“There we go, Sojiro,” the doctor soothed. For the first time, Sano noticed that the boy was whimpering and crying, and little screams were beginning to bleed from his lips.

“Sojiro?”

“Idiot, idiot Sanosuke!!” Megumi snapped, holding the child up as she began to pour medicine down his throat. He choked and spluttered, but Megumi, with clinical professionalism, helped him swallow, soothing him with quiet words of comfort.

“What did I do, Fox?” Sano asked, and his tone became a little frantic. He leant forward, trying to comfort Sojiro, but the boy flailed and screeched, tossing Nigou at him.

“No, no, no!”

“Fox, what—”

“Leave! Now!” Megumi snapped. “And bring me Ken-san! Sojiro’s scared!”

“Of what?”

“Of the pain! And of you! Now get out!”

Sano opened his mouth again, this time to object, but the fire in Megumi’s eyes shut him up immediately. He got to his feet without a word, and, before leaving, cast a final glance at Sojiro, who had started screaming in earnest, face twisted up in pain, in Megumi’s arms.

As he left the room, Sano was almost bowled over by Kenshin and Misao, who had heard the commotion and come running.

“Sojiro!”

**********************

Chapter Text

**********************

Kenshin woke up to a soft knock on the door and the smell of miso soup.

“Himura?” A soft voice that Kenshin hadn't heard for some time echoed through the rice paper walls and the man got to his feet in one motion and slipped his sakabato into his obi. He opened the door to find Misao standing in the doorway, balancing a tray in her hands. Her face lit up when she saw him. “Himura!” she cried, the forced quiet disappearing from her voice. When Kenshin winced and held up his hands, Misao immediately fell silent. “Right. Sorry,” she whispered. “I just got excited.”

Kenshin chuckled.

“This one knows, Misao-dono,” he said. He took the tray from Misao’s hands — heavy with a bowl of miso soup, a cup of water, and another bowl — this one full of rice — from her hands. He shuffled inside, calling over his shoulder. “Come inside, Misao-dono. This one would like some company.”

A big grin crossed Misao’s face and she bounced inside the room, plopping down on a cushion opposite of Kenshin.

“It’s so good to see you again, Himura!” she chirped.

“It’s good to see you too, Misao-dono,” the rurouni said, lifting some rice to his mouth. “I’m sorry I didn't get to see you until now. What time is it?”

“A little before midnight,” Misao supplied. She waved her hand. “And don’t worry about not seeing me till now. I understand you were busy with Sojiro.” Her eyes lit up. “I heard he’s really cute. I can’t wait to see him.”

Kenshin laughed.

“Cute?” he said. “Who told you that?”

“Kaoru-san, of course.” Her smile faded a bit. “She also said he’s pretty badly hurt.” Her blue eyes settled evenly on Kenshin’s violet ones. “I’m sorry, Himura.”

Kenshin blinked.

“Huh?”

“I’m sorry you have to go through all of this,” Misao elaborated, fidgeting on the cushion. “It must be incredibly rough for you.”

Kenshin’s lips quirked into a small smile.

“You are kind, Misao-dono,” he said. “But it’s all right — this one is fine.”

Misao snorted.

“Sure you are,” she said. “No offense, Himura, but you look like crap. And are you losing weight? Do you even sleep? Are you—?”

“Misao-dono,” Kenshin interrupted, laying aside the now-empty bowl of rice, “I’m all right, that I am. I just get tired and worried.”

“I can tell.” Misao sighed and bit her lip. “Megumi-san got here a while ago — she said I might be able to see Sojiro tonight. I just wanted to make sure it was okay with you first, though.”

Kenshin smiled.

“You don't need my permission, Misao-dono. Just Megumi-dono’s.”

“Yeah, but Sojiro’s basically your kid, right?” She leaned back. “So I had to ask you.”

Kenshin’s eyes widened at Misao’s words. He’d never thought of it that way before, but he supposed Sojiro was basically his own child now. The moment he’d carried Sojiro out of the Seta residence, he’d laid claim to the safety and protection of this little person. Much like how he’d ended up with Hiko, Sojiro had ended up with him. Kenshin’s eyes widened a bit more at that. He hoped he didn't end up like his master — although Hiko was by no means a bad person, he could be rough around the edges and had a strange way of showing affection. Hiko was not Kenshin’s father, but, in all the ways that mattered, he considered him one. And Kenshin knew, deep down, that, in all the ways that mattered, Hiko considered him a son. Was that how it was going to go with Sojiro? Another father figure? Another little boy? Would it be the same?

“Himura?”

Kenshin blinked and smiled at Misao, who was looking at him with worried eyes.

“This one is all right, Misao-dono.”

“Geez, don’t zone out like that! It’s really worrying.”

Kenshin’s smile grew wider.

No, it would not be the same. There were other people here to love and care for Sojiro. Kaoru-dono, Sano, Yahiko, Megumi-dono, Misao-dono — the list went on and on. Sojiro wouldn't live alone with a teacher on a mountain — he’d be able to live in a town with lots of other people and friends and be allowed to behave like a child. That’s all Kenshin wanted, really. For Sojiro to have a chance at a childhood. They just had to get past some roadblocks first, and then everything would be all right. Hopefully.

Kenshin now grinned at Misao.

“You can see Sojiro tonight, Misao-dono, if Megumi-dono allows it.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “You can see Sojiro tonight, Misao-dono, if Megumi-dono allows it.”

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Misao’s face lit up.

“Really??”

“Of course. Although there is a very specific way to introduce you to him. He’s still quite jumpy, that he is.”

“All right. Then I’ll be patient and do whatever you guys tell me.”

Kenshin smiled and opened his mouth to speak when suddenly his smile fell from his face and he straightened up.

“Himura?” Misao asked. “What’s wrong?”

Kenshin didn't answer for a moment.

“Ah, sorry,” Kenshin answered eventually, shoulders slumping. “I thought I heard something.”

“Huh? I didn't hear anyth—”

Misao was cut off by a long, piercing wail, and she went still. Was that a child? Was that Sojiro? She hadn't had much experience with children, but Misao knew they weren't supposed to make noises like that. No one was supposed to make noises like that. She turned to Kenshin, but found him already at the door, looking down the hall. He didn't move from his spot, and so Misao went to stand next to him. The pair stayed still for a few long moments, hearing the wail slowly fade. When it was quiet for another minute, Kenshin began to relax.

“Wh-What was that?” Misao asked.

“He must have woken up,” Kenshin sighed. “Sometimes he gets scared and makes that noise.”

“Really?”

“Hmm,” Kenshin hummed. “Unfortunately.” He frowned and cocked his head. “That one seemed more pained than others though.”

Misao’s eyes widened.

“Really? You can tell?”

Kenshin nodded.

“Of course.”

“You really are just like a father, Himura,” Misao said, giggling behind her hand. Kenshin frowned and cocked his head at her. Misao laughed and explained. “Moms and dads recognize what their babies cries sound like,” she said. “They know what each cry means — when they’re hungry or in pain or lonely.”

Kenshin’s eyes widened almost comically.

“Is that true?”

“That it is,” Misao teased. She nudged Kenshin’s shoulder. “So it seems like Sojiro already has a new father, Himura! Congratulations, it’s a boy!”

Kenshin’s eyes widened even further and then he began laughing — an honest-to-god laugh that Misao had rarely heard. A big grin split her face and she understood suddenly why Kaoru-san loved him so much — when he wasn't stressed or sad, Himura was bright and kind. She wished Aoshi-sama would smile like that. . .

A scream pierced through the house and Kenshin’s laugh died immediately. Misao’s smile fell.

“Was that—?”

Another scream cut her off, this one terrified and gargled, and, at the same time, Misao and Kenshin ran out of the room. Misao followed at Kenshin’s heels as the man made his way down the hall and proceeded to take a sharp turn. He threw open the door and almost smashed into Sano in his hurry, but expertly avoided him, dashing past. Misao, too, avoided Sano with ease. However, she froze in place even as Kenshin dashed forward and landed on his knees, taking Sojiro from Megumi’s hands.

“Sojiro!”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Sojiro!”

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In front of her was arguably the worst thing Misao had ever seen in her life. She’d seen a compound fracture on the streets of Kyoto before and had nearly thrown up, but this was much, much worse.

A little boy, much smaller than Yahiko, despite being only two years younger, was writhing in Megumi’s arms, his only free hand grasping desperately at the air. From what Misao could see, his other arm was in a sling and one of his legs was braced up, but she couldn't see much else. Not even his face. Nonetheless, it was horrible.

His little black head bobbed up and down as he continued screaming, and when Kenshin appeared next to him, he didn't calm like Misao expected. He only screamed louder, but grabbed at Kenshin’s long red ponytail and pulled him closer. Misao marveled at Kenshin as he soothed the boy and gently took him into his arms, hushing him as he spoke to Megumi; his calm was admirable.

“Megumi-dono?”

Misao didn't miss the fear in his voice.

“Rooster Head was an idiot and completely ignored the fact that Sojiro was whimpering right next to him. I left for only a minute to get water and I come back to find him like this!” She leaned back and ran her hands through her hair. “Dammit, he doesn’t have the strength for this right now!”

Sojiro screamed, but it quickly trailed off into a long moan.

“Shh,” Kenshin comforted, beginning to rock the boy back and forth, “shh, Sojiro, it’s okay.” He looked back at Megumi. “Has he taken the pain medicine?”

“I just gave it to him. It should take some time to kick in though. I also listened to his stomach and it seems he’s digesting the porridge easily. Nothing seems to be wrong. I think he’s just panicking because he believes Sano ignored him.”

Megumi turned and glared at Sano, who shrunk back, but Kenshin didn't move.

“Okay,” Kenshin said and he looked back down at the boy, continuing his gentle rocking. “Shh, Sojiro, it’s okay, it’s all right. You’re safe. We’re here.”

“K-K-K-K-Kenshin!” Sojiro sobbed and his back arched a bit as the name left his mouth. Kenshin and Megumi hastened to keep him still.

“Shh,” the doctor comforted, “easy now, Sojiro. It’s okay, it’s all right.”

“We’re right here, little one. Take a breath. Don’t panic.”

“H-Help!” Sojiro’s breath came a little faster, a little shorter.

A swear slipped past Megumi’s lips and she scooted closer to her patient, leaning over him.

“Darling, try to breathe. I need you to breathe.”

“I-I can’t!” Sojiro arched again, his breath even shorter and strangled.

“Megumi-dono?” Kenshin looked up at the doctor, worry shining from his eyes.

Sojiro gave one last, scared, heaving breath before he went limp.

Misao screamed.

Kenshin nearly dropped the boy.

But Megumi only hesitated for a split second. Then she took the boy from Kenshin and cradled him against her before getting to her feet.

“M-Megumi-dono. . .?”

Kenshin’s voice shook and Misao fought down tears. Please no, please no. . .

“Relax,” the doctor said, addressing the two of them as well as herself. “He’s just fainted. He’s all right.”

Misao fell to her knees as her legs gave out in relief and a long, shaky sigh escaped Kenshin’s lips.

“Thank god,” he whispered. “I couldn’t. . . Not again. . .”

Not again? Misao frowned and opened her mouth when Megumi spoke.

“Misao,” she said, “why don't you come and hold him?”

The girl froze.

“Wh-What?”

“He won’t wake up,” Megumi reassured. “But I need to speak with Ken-san and I don’t want to leave him alone.”

“Megumi-dono,” Kenshin said, getting to his feet, “I don’t think—”

“Are you sure he won’t wake up?” Misao asked. “I don’t know if I could handle it if he started screaming against me.”

“I’m absolutely sure,” Megumi said with a nod. She cocked her head. “Mostly. So come here and say hello to the newest member of the family.”

Misao got to her feet slowly, and, with careful, gentle steps, made her way next to Megumi. She held her breath and bit her lip when she was close enough to hear the boy’s small, even breaths. Megumi, with a soft smile, readjusted Sojiro against her chest so that the boy’s head would loll towards her. When Misao saw him for the first time, her breath caught in her throat.

And she started to love him too.

He was small and frail with gaunt, pinched cheeks. He was whiter than anyone Misao had ever seen and definitely a lot skinnier. A disgusting bruise, black and blue and dark red, painted one side of his face, marring it, but it didn't make him any less beautiful. He had long, thick eyelashes, graceful brows, a button nose and rosebud-like lips — he was absolutely precious. Misao smothered a little squeal and bounced on her feet.

“He’s so cute!” she cried, voice hushed.

Kenshin and Megumi laughed, the tension sliding from their shoulders.

“He is indeed,” Megumi said, rocking the boy against her. He sighed and Megumi relaxed. It seemed the fainting had done the trick. It was odd and rare, but she’d seen it happen before. A little girl a few miles away had severe panic attacks and whenever she fainted, she’d wake up relaxed and calm. It was a definite rarity, and Megumi was thankful for it now. However, she’d have to keep an eye out for the the panic attacks in the future — they weren't a good thing for Sojiro’s heart.

Sojiro fidgeted against Megumi and his fist tightened in her kimono.

“Oops, looks like I was wrong,” the doctor said, her voice cheerful. “He’s waking up.” She ignored how Misao paled, and instead smiled and tucked the boy’s head under her chin. “And so soon too! What a good boy!”

Kenshin came closer and laid his hand Sojiro’s back.

“Would you still like to meet him, Misao-dono?” he asked, and Misao was surprised to see a smile on his previously serious face.

“Um. . .”

“It should be all right,” Kenshin said with a nod. “If Megumi-dono says you can meet him, then this one would much like you too.” He smiled, more gently this time, as Misao shrunk away. “You don't have to if you’re not ready, Misao-dono.”

Misao gave the pair a sheepish, crooked smile and bowed out of the room.

“If that’s okay,” she said, and she disappeared before anyone could say anything.

********************************

Chapter Text

********************************

“What the heck?!” Misao cried, punching her pillow. “I don’t understand! Baka! Baka, baka, baka! Misao, you’re so dumb! Aaaaagggghhhh!!”

Misao threw herself back on her bed, sprawling out and staring up at the ceiling. She was furious with herself. And why couldn't she stop crying??

She had retreated to her guest room immediately after running from Sojiro and had not let a single soul in to speak with her, not even Kaoru-san or Himura. They were worried, she could tell, but she was not going to let them see her all teary-eyed and shivering. She didn't understand!

She had been so excited to see Sojiro, despite knowing that he was badly injured and ill. But maybe this had been too much for her. She wasn't prepared for screaming and crying and fainting. She hadn't been prepared for such a darling face marred by hideous bruising. Misao knew he had been abused and she knew it was bad, but she didn't think it would affect her so much! He was so beautiful and fragile and he was just a little boy and she couldn't stand to think that someone had dared to touch him that way—!

She rolled over and muffled a scream into her blanket.

Aoshi-sama had warned her and she had read the letter a thousand times but she thought she could handle this! She was sixteen years old — this was no time to act like a baby! Even Yahiko could stand it; the brat could and she couldn’t!

But Sojiro was just so little! In all honesty, Misao recognized that she was scared. Scared to hold Sojiro, scared to look at him, scared to even be in the same room as him. But, at the same time, she adored him! He was beautiful and brave and had put up with so much pain and suffering his whole life. Misao wanted to be a part of the good things he would know now. So she took a deep breath, wiped her eyes, and sat up straight.

“Right!” she said. “I’m going to see Sojiro tomorrow!”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Right!” she said. “I’m going to see Sojiro tomorrow!”

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And see Sojiro tomorrow she did.

She ate breakfast with Yahiko and Kaoru first, and Kaoru explained the day’s plans. Laundry and then teaching for Yahiko. Later, she had to go out for lessons, so it would be up to Kenshin, Yahiko, and Misao to watch over Sojiro and do the chores. Sano wouldn't be coming today, but when Misao asked why, both Yahiko and Kaoru just got sour looks on their faces and wouldn't explain.

Today was the day Misao was going to get to know Sojiro, and, if all went well, tonight she would hold him. She wasn't going to be afraid anymore.

So, first things first, Kaoru and Misao brought Sojiro and Kenshin’s breakfast to the pair. Misao managed to step into the room but stopped and knelt just inside the doorway. Kenshin smiled at her in reassurance and his face lit up when he saw Kaoru. Misao noticed that the boy was now lying in bed, sleeping peacefully.

“Hullo, Kenshin,” Kaoru greeted, keeping her voice soft. “I heard Sojiro had a rough night.”

Kenshin nodded solemnly.

“That he did,” he said, brushing Sojiro’s hair from his face. “But he’s been quiet for a few hours now — he hasn't so much as stirred, Kaoru-dono.”

“That’s wonderful! Do you want me to wait to give him breakfast then?”

Kenshin hesitated a moment before nodding.

“Another hour or two would be all right, Kaoru-dono.”

“Of course.” Kaoru took Sojiro’s bowl of rice porridge with her as she left the room. “I’ll leave this in the kitchen to keep it warm. Make sure to eat your breakfast, Kenshin.”

She left, expecting Misao to follow her, but when she didn’t, turned around with a frown.

“Misao-chan?”

The girl was looking down at her lap, clenching and unclenching her fists, and when she spoke she did not look up.

“Himura,” she said in a quiet voice, “would it be okay if I stayed?”

“Of course, Misao-dono,” Kenshin smiled. “You can stay as long as you like.” He nodded at Kaoru, who left with a smile, sliding the door shut behind her. When she left, silence descended, the only noise Sojiro’s whistling breaths. Eventually, Misao broke the silence.

“C-Can I come closer?”

Kenshin nodded.

“Of course, Misao-dono. Come as close as you like.” He made no comment about the usually excitable girl’s hesitancy and worry, (much to Misao’s relief), and allowed her to scoot her way forward, never getting to her feet. She stopped when Sojiro’s face was just within her line of sight. She took a long, shaky breath. “It’s okay, Misao-dono,” Kenshin said. “I know it’s a lot to handle.”

Misao blushed and stuck her tongue in her cheek — Himura would be the first one to say something.

“Yeah, but,” Misao dared a peek at Sojiro’s tired, sleeping face, “it shouldn't be this hard, you know?”

Kenshin blinked, and his expression was surprisingly confused.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m scared every time I come in here too, Misao-dono.”

Misao blinked, shocked.

“Really?”

Kenshin nodded.

“Absolutely terrified. I don’t like this, Misao-dono. It is very difficult, that it is.” He reached out and swept some hair from Sojiro’s brow, smiling when the boy leaned into his touch. “Unfortunately, this one has become somewhat used to it.”

“Used to how sick he is?”

“And how scared.”

“But. . . But he’s getting better, right?”

Kenshin smiled.

“That he is,” he said. “Every day is a little better.”

“Are you sure?” Misao asked, peering at the boy’s face again. He seemed paler than yesterday, and the sunlight cast ugly shadows into his gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes. “He doesn’t look very good, Himura.”

Kenshin chuckled, although there wasn't much joy behind it.

“This one is sure,” he said. “He looks bad this morning, I admit, but he’s been sleeping so well and so quietly. His pulse is steady and his breathing is even. I hope today will be a good day.” Kenshin looked up and smiled at Misao. “In fact,” he said, “I would argue it is already a good day, Misao-dono, since you came to visit us.”

Misao blushed and a big grin crossed her face. She felt her heart become warm and some of the fear fade from her.

“You’re so cheesy, Himura,” she laughed. Kenshin laughed too, his voice bright as bells, but fell silent when a little voice pierced the air.

“K-Kenshin. . .”

Kenshin grabbed Sojiro’s hand and leaned forward so that when the boy opened his eyes, his face would be the first thing he saw. Misao, on the contrary, scooted back a bit, holding her breath. The last thing she wanted was to scare the kid with an unfamiliar face first thing in the morning.

“Kenshin. . .”

“I’m here, Sojiro, that I am,” the man soothed. “I’m right here.”

Misao watched as the boy peeled his eyes open and focused them on Kenshin. She gasped. His eyes were blue — like sapphires, like the ocean at midday. Ohhh, she thought, so pretty. She had always thought her own eyes were beautiful, a unique greenish blue, but they paled in comparison to such a pretty color.

“Kenshin,” Sojiro muttered, and his eyelids fluttered. “Bright. . .”

“It’s the morning, Sojiro,” Kenshin explained and his tone was patient and loving. Geez, everyone adores this kid. Misao didn't admit that she kinda already did too.

“M-Morning. G-Good morning. . .”

Kenshin grinned and Misao’s heart melted. So freaking cute!!

“Good morning, little one. Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah,” Sojiro said, but his voice was breathy and tired. “I didn't dream.”

“Ah. Then that’s very good. That means no nightmares.”

There was a long pause in which the two said nothing, but Kenshin continued to comb his fingers through Sojiro’s fine black hair. After a minute, Sojiro spoke again.

“K-Kenshin?”

“Yes, Sojiro?”

“Was there another person here yesterday? A-A girl?”

Kenshin’s fingers froze and Misao swore her heart stopped beating. He remembered that? She thought he’d been completely unconscious! At the most, half-conscious and not aware of the things around him. Kenshin obviously thought the same, given how he blinked in shock. But then he nodded.

“Yes, there was. It was very smart of you to notice, Sojiro.”

Misao watched with a small smile as some color flushed Sojiro’s cheeks at the praise.

“Wh-Who?”

“Her name is Misao. Makimachi Misao. She’s one of our friends and we asked her to come.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because we need a lot of help around the house, Sojiro. It’s very busy with you here. We asked Misao-dono to come to help us with chores and meals.”

“Oh.” Sojiro relaxed. “Is-Is Miso nice?”

Kenshin laughed and Misao clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from bursting into giggles. Miso?!

Misao-dono,” Kenshin emphasized, “is very nice. She’s around the same age as Kaoru-dono. She has long black hair and blue-green eyes.”

“Was she scared yesterday? Lady doctor holding me was talking to a girl and the g-girl’s voice was shaky.”

Kenshin nodded.

“Yes. Misao-dono was frightened yesterday.”

“Wh-Why?”

“She was frightened by how badly you were hurt. She very much wanted to help you but it was hard. It’s scary to see someone hurt.”

Sojiro nodded like this was the most natural thing in the world.

“Can I see her s-soon?” he stammered. “I don’ want her to be scared of me.”

“Oh, little one, she’s not scared of you.”

“But she’s scared. I don’ want anyone to be scared. No more.”

“Okay,” Kenshin soothed, “okay. Maybe you’ll be able to see her at lunch time. She’s—”

“Himura.” Misao’s voice floated across the room before she even knew what she was saying. “I can see him now if he wants.”

Kenshin frowned.

“Are you sure, Misao-dono? I don’t want—”

“Miso?” Sojiro fidgeted on the bed, trying to turn his head to face the other side of the room where Misao sat, but Kenshin kept him still with ease. Sojiro whined and tried to pull his hand from Kenshin’s. “Is that Miso?”

“Yes, little one, that it is.”

“I-I want to see her. . .”

“I know you do. Shh, it’s okay.” Sojiro fidgeted and whined again and Kenshin looked up at Misao. His frown turned into a smile, however, when he saw that her happy, bright expression had reappeared. Welcome back, Misao-dono. “Are you sure, Misao-dono?” he asked again, just to be positive. “You were so nervous earlier. . .”

Misao waved her hand and started fidgeting.

“I’m sure, I’m sure,” she said. “I’m over it now. So can I see him?”

Kenshin laughed.

“All right. But come over here slowly. There’s no need to rush — you’ll only frighten him, that you will.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “All right. But come over here slowly. There’s no need to rush — you’ll only frighten him, that you will.”

***************************************************

Misao nodded and got to her feet. Compared to yesterday, her heart was beating with excitement; she couldn't wait to see the boy. And she really wanted to hold his little hand. . .

When she came to sit next to Kenshin, Sojiro stiffened for a few long moments and his grip around Kenshin’s hand tightened. Misao’s heart dropped; maybe it had been a bad idea to introduce herself so soon.

But then Sojiro managed a small, watery smile for her.

It was only there for a moment before it fell away to be replaced by a frown of pain, but in that second, Misao was struck to the core. The boy’s smile was like a beam of light that burst in her eyes, blinding her momentarily. But then she could see again and it was as if the world was suddenly brighter and better. Her first meeting with Sojiro was becoming everything she hoped it would be and more.

“Hello, Sojiro,” she greeted, raising her hand. “It’s very exciting to meet you. I’ve been waiting for a long time.”

“Not scared. . .?”

“Nope! Not at all. You’re the cutest thing in the whole wide world.” She reached forward and booped his nose. Sojiro giggled. “Everyone here wrote such nice things about you,” she said, “so I came all the way from Kyoto to visit.”

Sojiro’s blue eyes widened.

“K-Kyoto?”

“Yep! Five days on the road. But it was worth it. I get to see all of my friends and meet you.”

“R-Really?”

“Mhm,” Misao hummed. “You’re so cute, beansprout!”

Kenshin laughed at the confusion on Sojiro’s face.

“B-Beansprout?”

“Yeah,” Misao said, “it’s a term of affection. It means you’re small and adorable, like a beansprout.”

“Oh.” His eyes flicked to Kenshin. “Not bad?” he asked.

“Not bad,” Kenshin reaffirmed. “Not bad at all, Sojiro.”

“O-Okay.” He nodded at Misao. “Hi, Miso.”

“It’s Misao,” the girl said with a laugh. Sojiro winced and pulled away from her, scooting closer to Kenshin.

He’d messed up, he’d messed up, he’d messed up! I'm in trouble now! Sojiro screwed his eyes shut tight, body stiffening in the anticipation of pain, but when nothing came, he peeled his eyes open. Misao was kneeling over him, her face sad.

“It’s okay,” she said, “I won’t hurt you. And you can call me Miso if you want. I don’t mind.” She reached out a hand to lay on Sojiro’s arm, but the boy recoiled, his uninjured hand coming up and slapping her away.

“No!” he wailed, shutting his eyes tight. “NO!”

But the girl just reached her other hand for him and Sojiro felt his heart tighten in panic. When it did the jumpy, skip thing it sometimes it did, he hiccuped on a scream.

“NO! NO! NO!”

“Sojiro, I—”

“Shh, it’s all right,” Kenshin’s voice said. Sojiro felt Kenshin’s gentle, calloused hands on his brow and arm, but it comforted him little. He screamed again.

“K-Kenshin!”

“Shh, I’m right here, Sojiro, that I am.” The man’s voice lowered for a second and Sojiro realized he was addressing the girl. “Misao-dono,” he said, “maybe it’s best if you leave.”

“But, Himura—”

Sojiro’s heart stuttered and he ripped his hand from Kenshin’s and grabbed the fabric over his chest, gasping. It hurt! And it hadn't done this in a while. No, no, no! I’m scared!

When Sojiro heard Kenshin’s voice next, the man’s voice was full of alarm.

“Misao-dono, please ask Yahiko to send for Megumi-dono.”

“What? Why? What’s wrong?”

Another little skip. Sojiro screamed and his hand tightened on his yukata. Ow! Owowowowow!

“Just go, Misao-dono! It’s an emergency!”

“O-Okay.” And Sojiro heard the girl’s footsteps grow quieter as she ran away. He could hear the girl yelling for Yahiko and the others, and he was scared by how scared they were and then his heart did another jump. He screamed again.

“Sojiro,” Kenshin said and Sojiro opened his eyes wide and settled them on the man’s face. He was pale and his face was drawn and he was frightened, although he was doing a relatively good job of hiding his fear. “Sojiro, does your heart hurt?”

Sojiro nodded and hiccuped on a scared little sob. Kenshin untangled his hand from his yukata and instead entwined Sojiro’s fingers in his own. He kept their hands over Sojiro’s heart, and Sojiro took great comfort in this. He clutched harder at Kenshin’s hand.

“K-Kenshin,” he stammered, his face screwing up, “K-Kenshin, am I going to die?”

“What?!” Fear slipped into Kenshin’s voice. “No, no, no, of course not! You’re going to be all right, Sojiro.” He swept his free hand across Sojiro’s brow; he was shaking. “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”

“I-It hurts!”

“Shh, calm down, Sojiro,” Kenshin soothed, but his tone was urgent. “It will hurt less if you calm down and breathe.”

“B-But—!”

“I know.” Kenshin took their hands from Sojiro’s chest, and moved them to rest them over his own chest. “Breathe slowly with me, now, Sojiro. It will be easier.”

“K-Kenshin!”

“Come on, little one,” Kenshin said, and Sojiro was scared to read the desperation in his voice. “Breathe with me now.” He took a deep breath. “Just like that. Can you do that?”

Sojiro forced a nod, and, his huge eyes focused on Kenshin, took a deep, shaky breath. But he stopped when his heart skipped again. He tried to rip his hand from Kenshin’s, but the man didn't let go.

“Sojiro, little one, please-”

“Sojiro? Kenshin? What’s going on?!”

That was a girl’s voice! Kaoru. Kaoru!

“I’m here.” And her hand was over Sojiro’s brow, the other at his neck, taking his pulse. “I’m here, Sojiro. It’s okay. Yahiko is getting Megumi right now.”

“K-Kaoru!”

“Shh, shh, sweetheart. It’s okay.” Sojiro stared at her pink, flowered kimono until his eyes began to swim. His heart did another jump this time and he turned to Kenshin with a scared gasp. He focused on the man’s scar, red-hair, and violet eyes until his vision went black.

Just before he lost consciousness, he heard Kenshin scream.

“Sojiro!”

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The first time Kenshin ever leaned against Kaoru was far from the romantic version she’d always daydreamed about. There were no cherry blossoms to gaze at, no gentle breeze, and they weren't sitting on a grassy hill.

Instead the trees had hardly begun blooming, it was raining hard, and they were sitting on the hard tatami mats inside Kenshin’s room.

There was no joy like Kaoru had envisioned, but only tense exhaustion, and no giggles — only thick silence that smothered them like a blanket.

Kenshin had leaned against her in the late afternoon after a horrifying morning with Sojiro. Soon after he’d met Misao, the boy’s heart had started acting erratically and he’d been scared he was going to die, and, soon after, he’d lost consciousness.

That was the first time Kaoru had heard Kenshin scream from something other than pain. It was raw and horrified and just listening to it nearly sent Kaoru into tears. But she hadn't cried. Instead, she had somehow managed to snap the reeling rurouni out of his crippling fear and helped him find Sojiro’s pulse.

“Look, Kenshin,” she had said, taking the rurouni’s hand and placing it at Sojiro’s little, bruised throat. “He still has a pulse. Kenshin, it’s all right. It’s all right. Do you feel that? That’s his pulse. Sojiro’s alive. His heart is still beating.” She leaned froward, peering past the rurouni’s long red bangs to gaze at his face. She was relieved to see that some of the initial crippling panic had faded from his face, although she didn't like how pale and scared he still was. She tried for a weak smile. “See, Kenshin? It’s okay. We’ve still got him.”

Kenshin just bobbed his head.

“So we’re just going to take Sojiro’s pulse and make sure he stays with us until Megumi gets here. We won’t move him, okay?”

Kenshin nodded again.

And they stayed like this for half an hour, Kenshin’s hand at one side of Sojiro’s throat, Kaoru’s on his wrist, her free hand resting on Kenshin’s shoulder. Every once and a while, she’d say something to comfort Kenshin and Sojiro, although she doubted either one could hear her.

Then Megumi had arrived in a flurry, and, much to Kaoru’s surprise, Doctor Gensai was with her. They had moved Kenshin and Kaoru aside and worked over the little boy in a sort of organized panic, leaning over his chest, stripping him down, and removing the pillow from under his head so that he was lying flat on the futon. Sojiro didn't stir as they touched and maneuvered him around, not even as they turned him quickly onto his side to listen to his heart from his back. The doctors spouted medical terms at each other and demanded multiple supplies from Yahiko and Misao, who were always hovering nearby, terror written on their faces. The pair brought boiled water and clean towels, herbs and medicines.

Sano had arrived around noon, ready to apologize for his behavior the day before, but no one cared about his mistakes anymore. Megumi simply enlisted the man to perform errands around the town, buying herbs the doctors needed if Kaoru didn't have them. Midday, Doctor Gensai and Megumi donned their michiyukis and hats, bathed Sojiro clean, and carefully assessed his chest and heart. They spent a careful hour listening to his heart and lungs, and Kaoru was worried by all the frowns the doctors shared. Eventually, the doctors leaned back. Megumi took off her hat and let her hair fall down her back with a sigh.

“He’s safe now,” she said. Everyone exhaled with relief and Kaoru heard Misao half-sob behind her. “We’re going to have to keep a close eye on him, though. I’ll be staying here for now. Is that all right, Kaoru?”

“Of course!”

“Good. Then Doctor Gensai and I will get Sojiro redressed and then we’re going to leave some instructions with you. Sano and Yahiko, you’ll walk Doctor Gensai back to the clinic and bring some materials back here to me. Misao, make some tea please.”

Everyone dashed off to their appointed tasks.

And that was when Kenshin leaned against Kaoru.

Her heart did a little alarmed jump at first, for she worried that Kenshin had fainted against her or something, but when she looked at his face, it was filled with relief and exhaustion. Kaoru snaked her hand tentatively around Kenshin’s side, her heart beating fast, and was surprised and somewhat pleased when Kenshin pulled himself closer to her. He sighed and let his head rest on her shoulder, his red hair tickling her cheek. Kaoru’s barriers were down, so, much to her surprise, she rested her head on top of Kenshin’s own and took one of his hands, which the rurouni gripped tightly.

It wasn't anything like what Kaoru had hoped for, but Kenshin was leaning on her for support and comfort, something the girl had always wanted.

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Yahiko was nervous. They’d sent him off to bed hours ago, but he’d just wake up every thirty minutes and dare a peek into Kenshin’s room, half-expecting to see Sojiro covered head to toe with a white sheet.

But every time he came, he only saw the boy sleeping quietly, Megumi sitting next to him, and Kaoru and Kenshin in the same spot they’d been in all day, leaning against each other and holding hands; Yahiko swore they hadn't moved a single inch. It was sickeningly sweet, but Yahiko understood. Kenshin was shaken as hell and Kaoru was there — always there — and he needed her.

At two in the morning, when Yahiko was peering into the room for the umpteenth time, Megumi and the others stiffened and suddenly moved. At first, Yahiko feared the worst and his mouth went dry, but then Kenshin spoke.

“Sojiro, little one, are you awake?”

A whine echoed throughout the room. Kaoru and Megumi relaxed, and Kenshin nearly folded over with relief.

“Thank goodness. We were quite worried, Sojiro, that we were.”

“K-Kenshin. . .”

“I’m here. It’s all right.”

“Th-Thirsty. . .”

“Yahiko can get you some water,” Megumi said, and Yahiko nearly fell into the room with surprise. He thought no one knew he was here. “Right, Yahiko?”

“Y-yeah! On it!”

Yahiko ran to the well and drew some of the cold water into a bucket. He rushed into Kenshin’s room, bucket in hand, and nearly spilled it everywhere. However, Megumi grabbed it before he could.

“Baka,” she said. “Sojiro’s not going anywhere. Slow down.” Yahiko’s cheeks colored and he opened his mouth to say something, but Megumi just smiled. Yahiko froze — he’d hardly ever seen Megumi’s eyes so kind and tired. “But thank you, Yahiko. It was very good of you to do that.”

“Y-Yeah,” Yahiko stammered in surprise. “No problem.” As Megumi poured some of the water into a cup, he dared to speak up. “I-Is it okay if I stay? I can’t sleep.”

Yahiko was expecting Megumi to object but she just nodded.

“That’s fine,” she said. “Just don’t scare Sojiro. Tell him that you’re here.”

“Sure.” Yahiko stepped forward and leaned over Sojiro, holding up his hand in quiet greeting. “Hey, Sojiro,” he said.

Sojiro blinked exhausted eyes at him.

“Ya-Yahiko?”

“Yep!” Yahiko forced a grin on his face, despite the fact that he was more terrified now than he had ever been. Even the first day hadn't been as scary as today. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“M-Me too.” Sojiro’s eyes began to flutter close but he forced them open and licked his lips. “W-Water?”

“Here we go, darling,” Megumi said, and she pushed Yahiko aside. “I’m going to hold you up while Ken-san helps you drink. Is that okay?”

“Hmm,” Sojiro hummed, already too exhausted to speak.

“Ken-san, come over here,” Megumi said. When Kenshin stiffened and didn't immediately move from Kaoru’s side, the doctor smiled. “It’s okay, Ken-san. Nothing will happen. Come and help your little boy.”

That seemed to do the trick. Your little boy. Yahiko blinked, somewhat taken aback, but he supposed it was true. Kenshin was old enough to be his own father, and so could easily be Sojiro’s too. And Sojiro clutched to Kenshin like a dad, so that’s what he now was. Kenshin had adopted a kid. And Yahiko was okay with that, cause that basically meant he had a brother.

Kenshin disengaged himself from Kaoru’s side and scooted over to Sojiro. He took his hand in his own and kissed it and Yahiko thought for a moment that he saw tears. However, when he blinked, they were gone.

“K-Kenshin. . .”

“Yes, that’s right. This one is here.” He swept his hand across Sojiro’s brow and was surprised to find it slightly cold. His gaze flicked to Megumi, but she just shook her head and handed the cup of water to him. Kenshin relaxed and then smiled at Sojiro. “Here’s some water, Sojiro,” he said. “Ready?”

And, with Megumi’s help, they got Sojiro to swallow a few sips of water before he pulled away. Though he hadn't even drained half the cup, Megumi seemed satisfied and nodded at Kenshin. The rurouni handed the cup to Yahiko and helped Megumi lay Sojiro down again. By the time Kenshin pulled the blanket up to Sojiro’s waist, he was already asleep.

“Is it all right for him to sleep so much, Megumi-dono?”

“Yes,” the doctor answered. “He went through a lot today. It’s only natural for him to be exhausted. We should let him rest as much as he can.” She turned and pushed the bucket of water away from her. “Also,” she added, “we’re not going to move him until I say so. Absolutely no moving him from this bed.”

“So we can’t hold him?” Kaoru asked, disappointment in her voice.

“No. I don’t want him moved. I’m going to move him from side to side to prevent bed sores, but he’ll be staying here till further notice.”

“Why?” Yahiko asked. “It’ll be annoying and boring to stay in bed.”

Megumi rolled her eyes.

“Any unnecessary movement might trigger something in his heart. Until Doctor Gensai and I figure out what exactly is wrong, he’s going to stay right here.”

“Can his head be propped up with the pillow, Megumi?” Kaoru asked.

“No. I want the blood flow in his body to be simple. We’re going to make this as easy as possible on his heart.”

Everyone nodded.

“Is there anything else, Megumi-dono?”

“I’m going to regulate visiting hours again,” the doctor said. Everyone looked distressed and Megumi sighed. “Too many people at unexpected times is stressful for a normally sick patient, but this is a serious case, so it’s even more important. So I’m going to regulate visiting hours and policies. Ken-san and I will be here at all times.”

Kenshin slumped in relief and nodded.

“Kaoru, you can come in the morning, afternoon, and evening with meals and you may stay for longer if Ken-san wishes you to.” Kaoru blushed and a soft smile quirked Kenshin’s lips. He dipped his head at Megumi in thanks. She smiled at him.

“Yahiko, you’re to be here in the morning. Before and after breakfast, if Kaoru lets you.” The girl nodded but Yahiko made a face.

“Only the morning?” he complained. “But, Megumi—”

“No arguments. Misao will come in the afternoons. We’ll teach her how to act around Sojiro — she’s still new to this. And Sano will come in the evenings and stay till midnight. Do we all understand?” Everyone nodded. “Good. Then Yahiko, I want you to tell Sano and Misao the new rules.”

Yahiko looked horrified.

“Why me?” he asked. “They’re just gonna yell and complain!”

“I know,” Megumi said, and Yahiko caught a glimmer of amusement in her eyes. “But I’m not having them complain in here. They’re too noisy and could upset Sojiro.”

Yahiko snorted.

“You just don’t want to hear it,” he said. Megumi laughed coyly behind her hand.

“That’s true too.”

Yahiko, with a huff of annoyance, tossed himself on the floor next to Kaoru, stretching his legs out.

“Fine,” he said, “but I don't want to do it now. It’s late.”

“All right,” Megumi conceded, “but be quiet. We’re going to let Sojiro rest for now.”

Yahiko nodded and settled himself comfortably, keeping his eyes on the sleeping Sojiro.

He’ll be all right, he reassured himself. Just fine.

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The next two weeks were rough.

There were lots of ups and downs.

The first week was the worst, and there was one night where Megumi called for Doctor Gensai and he stayed the whole night with Sojiro. They were all called in early the next morning and Megumi told them to be prepared for the worst. So they circled around the bed, the girls (and Yahiko) holding back tears as Kenshin and Sano sat in stiff silence, horrified. But nothing happened. After two hours of Sojiro’s quiet wheezes escaping his lips and becoming smoother, both Megumi and Doctor Gensai leaned back and declared that he was all right.

Kaoru and Misao had burst into tears.

After that scare, it had seemed to be getting better. Sojiro was awake for longer and longer periods, and, although he lacked an appetite, was able to stomach rice porridge, tea, and water. However, he still vomited up tofu and other solids. After trying that once, Megumi declared it unsafe. She wasn't going to risk threatening his heart with the stress of throwing up.

A few days into the second week, Sojiro began to complain and whine and reach for Kenshin, demanding to be held. It broke Megumi’s heart, but she had to deny the pair what they both wanted, and even Sojiro’s tears wouldn't move her.

But he slept a lot, Nigou held close to him, hand always held in Kenshin’s even if the man was asleep. Megumi and Kaoru tended to the boy’s needs, bathing him and cleaning him up and changing the bedsheets. They were even teaching Misao now. With delight, Misao was allowed to comb Sojiro’s hair if he was asleep.

Misao loved the boy a little more every day. Despite being desperately ill, he was absolutely precious. She loved listening to his breathing the very most, which Yahiko said she was weird for, but it was only natural. It was a sign he was alive and how it escaped his lips made it obvious what state he was in. Misao had quickly memorized the meanings.

Long and deep meant he was asleep.

When he was half-awake or having a nightmare, they’d still be relatively long, but were shallower.

Awake and comfortable, his breathing was even and easy, much to Misao’s delight.

When he was in pain, they’d get short and shallow.

When his chest hurt, they’d get really short and shallow and he’d sometimes arch his back in an attempt to get more air. Those were the scariest, but they were often over quickly with Megumi’s intervention.

At the beginning of the third week, after Sojiro had been doing well, Megumi let him sit up for short periods of time, propped up by pillows and large cushions. The weather had cleared up outside so they left the door open during the day and let Sojiro watch Yahiko play. Sojiro would often fall asleep holding Nigou, however, and despite Kenshin’s worry, Megumi kept assuring him that it was normal. Doctor Gensai did as well.

By the end of the third week, Sojiro was allowed to be held again. The moment he was in Kenshin’s arms for the first time he’d clutched tightly to the man’s gi and started sobbing. Megumi had been worried at first, but was relieved and touched to find that Sojiro was only sobbing because he was happy; he was back in the place that made him most comfortable and where he felt safest. The next day Kaoru got to hold him, then Megumi, then Sano.

One Sunday, when it was Misao’s time to visit, she bounced into the room, a big smile on her face. This week had been great; everyone seemed a lot more relaxed and she had even got to spar with Yahiko.

“Hello, Himura, Megumi-san!” she chirped, bouncing forward. She knelt opposite of Kenshin, who had Sojiro cradled in his arms, and crooked a finger at the boy. “Hi, beansprout!”

Sojiro blinked at her and then his eyes slipped shut. Misao frowned — that was unusual, he usually laughed, or at least smiled. She turned worried eyes onto Megumi.

“He had a bit of a rough night,” the doctor explained, smothering a yawn. “The pain was pretty bad and it took a while to get under control.”

“The chest pain? I thought he was almost recovered from that.”

“Not that pain — pain from the other wounds. Because we’ve been so focused on his heart I’ve had to scale back on the pain meds and he’s started noticing once more. I’ve started upping the dose again but it might not kick in for a while.”

“He’s been very sleepy,” Kenshin said, smoothing Sojiro’s hair back from his forehead. “He didn't rest much last night and the medicine makes him like this at first.”

“Oh.” Misao settled herself on the ground, leaning back comfortably. She eyed the half-sleeping child with wary eyes. Despite Megumi’s constant assurances to the contrary, Sojiro didn't look much better than he had when she first arrived. He was still pale and skinny and the bruises hadn't healed at all — they hadn't even changed color.

Kenshin looked up at Misao and saw that she was staring at Sojiro, chewing her lip thoughtfully. She must be worried, he thought. She hasn't had much of a chance to see him or to see how much progress he’s truly made. His eyes lit up suddenly.

“Misao-dono,” he said, and Misao was surprised to see a smile on Kenshin’s face. She blinked — she hadn't seen that for quite some time.

“Yeah?”

“Would you like to hold him?”

Misao’s eyes widened and her heart skipped a few beats. Kenshin smiled at her a bit wider, and, when she looked over at Megumi, the doctor nodded, her eyes soft.

“It’s about time,” Megumi said. “He’s seen you every day for three weeks now. Besides, everyone else gets to hold him — even Rooster-Head.”

“S-So I can?”

“Yes, that you can,” Kenshin said with a nod. “Megumi-dono, would you help this one give Sojiro to Misao-dono?”

“Of course, Ken-san. Come here, Misao.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Of course, Ken-san. Come here, Misao.”

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Misao made her way to the trio, her heart in her throat. She was excited while simultaneously being terrified. What if she hurt Sojiro or dropped him or—?

“Okay, Misao,” Megumi said, interrupting her thoughts, “sit opposite of Ken-san, just so, so that your knees are touching. Like that. Good. Now hold your arms like this,” Megumi carefully readjusted her arms. “Okay, now, listen well. Sojiro doesn’t weigh much, but you need to support him as much as possible. If he gets too heavy, give him back to Ken-san. If he wakes up and complains, give him back to Ken-san. If he asks to be moved, give him back to Ken-san. I don't want him panicking.”

Misao nodded in understanding.

“Okay.” She set her face, determined, and wiggled her fingers. “I’m ready. Give him to me.”

Kenshin chuckled, and, with Megumi’s help, lifted Sojiro from his arms and gently deposited him in Misao’s. The girl gasped at the sudden warmth and weight, but she nodded at Kenshin and Megumi, letting them know it was okay. Megumi readjusted Sojiro so that his bottom was resting on one of Misao’s thighs and the girl’s arm was under his knees. She helped Misao keep her other arm under Sojiro’s shoulder blades and rest his head against her collarbone.

“If he wants to move,” Megumi said, “hold your hand under his neck and scoot him down.” When Misao nodded, Megumi smiled. “Good. I’m going to let go now, Misao. Do you have him?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

And Megumi released the boy.

Sojiro’s head bobbed momentarily, but Misao pulled him closer to her. Her heart melted instantly.

He was so warm, just like she had imagined — he was not fever hot or dry, but had the soft warmth of a child. He was bonier than she expected; his thin bottom dug into her thigh, his spine and shoulder blades were easily felt, and his unbroken cheekbone lolled sharply against her collarbone. But she ignored the discomfort and instead smiled and peered down at his face. She gasped. He was even more beautiful here. She’d been close to the boy before, but holding him and seeing his face from this angle was a whole new experience. She could see every detail here — she could probably even count his eyelashes if she wanted to. But instead she just stared at the boy, smiling so wide her face hurt, her heart full to bursting.

Little warm breaths skirted over her neck, coming from his rosebud lips and button nose. He was absolutely flawless despite the bruises and cuts that littered his face. And his heart — Misao could feel his heartbeat through his chest, thrumming gently against hers. Her heart picked up speed and she nestled the boy close to her while closing her eyes, her smile somehow getting even bigger.

“Oh, beansprout,” she whispered, “you’re so beautiful.”

Kenshin and Megumi shared smiles and then Kenshin leaned forward.

“Sojiro, if you can hear me, Misao-dono is holding you. I’m right here but you’re safe with Misao-dono. Do you understand?”

Sojiro said nothing, nor did he move. Megumi chuckled.

“Looks like he’s fast asleep.” She turned to Kenshin. “Ken-san,” she said, “I have good news for you.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Looks like he’s fast asleep.” She turned to Kenshin. “Ken-san,” she said, “I have good news for you.”

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Kenshin cocked his head.

“Yes?"

“There doesn't have to be a twenty-four seven watch on Sojiro anymore.”

Kenshin’s face lit up like the sun and Megumi smiled.

“Really, Megumi-dono??”

“Of course. He’s doing a lot better, Ken-san. I’m very proud of him.”

Kenshin grinned and nodded, beaming with pride.

“As am I, Megumi-dono!”

“But that doesn’t mean everything’s all right just yet, Ken-san,” Megumi clarified. “I’ll be going back to the clinic now, but if you think anything’s wrong, even the slightest thing, call for me. I’ll drop everything.”

Kenshin nodded solemnly, although he was still beaming. Megumi smiled and got to her feet, grabbing her medicine chest. Before she left though, someone grabbed her hand. She looked up, wide-eyed, to find Kenshin smiling at her. Unshed tears were shining in his eyes.

“Thank you, Megumi-dono,” he said. “Thank you so much.”

Megumi’s voice was choked when she spoke.

“You’re welcome, Ken-san,” she said, and she returned Kenshin’s grip with a watery smile of her own.

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Shinomori Aoshi was by no means a worrier by nature. No, he was serious and realistic and pragmatic. Anyone who thought they knew him would say he was cold as ice. But Aoshi, to the knowledge of those closest to him, was relatively sensitive and emphatic on the inside. (Okina called him “mushy.”) So, when Misao didn't return to the Aoiya after four weeks and didn't send so much as a letter, Aoshi had seen fit to go to Tokyo himself and find out what was going on.

Because, truth be told, he was worried.

When he arrived at the Kamiya residence, the gate was shut and a wooden board hung over the dojo sign, painted roughly with the words “Closed.” Aoshi frowned. Since when was the Kamiya dojo closed? They usually kept their gate open and somewhat unguarded as well. The fact that it was shut tight and locked was mildly worrying — they must be incredibly concerned for the safety of the boy they were caring for.

Aoshi stood outside the gate for a few minutes, debating if he should really bother Himura and the Kamiya girl with his presence, but when a soft cry of pain echoed through the residence and caught Aoshi’s ear, he raised his hand and knocked sharply at the gate. When no one immediately responded, he knocked again. And again. And—

“Geez! Hang on a minute! Don’t you see the sign? We’re clo—”

The gate swung open to reveal the Kamiya girl. She was angry and sweaty and had tied her kimono sleeves back to work. Her eyes widened when she saw Aoshi.

“Shinomori Aoshi. . .!”

“Hello, Kamiya-san,” Aoshi said, bowing stiffly. “Is Misao here?”

“Well, yes, but. . .” Kaoru trailed off, looking over her shoulder. Another soft cry echoed from the house and she winced. “Why don't you come in, Aoshi? We should probably talk first.” Aoshi nodded and walked into the yard, allowing Kaoru to shut the gate behind him. She locked it with a sigh, then headed towards the house, motioning Aoshi to follow her. “As you know,” she said, “we’re keeping a child here.”

“Yes. You wrote me.”

“And that’s why I asked Misao to come.”

“Yes.”

Kaoru led Aoshi into the tokonoma, where a warm pot of tea was already sitting. Aoshi blinked. Had they been expecting him?

“Tea?” Kaoru asked.

Aoshi nodded and accepted the proffered cup with a small dip of the head. Kaoru watched him for a moment, wary, before speaking.

“Aoshi,” she said, laying her hands in her lap and speaking quietly, “this past month has been difficult. The boy is not doing well.”

“Does he have a name?” Aoshi asked.

Kaoru blinked.

“Does the boy have a name?” Aoshi repeated. “It’s obvious that you wish to call him by name. And I would like to hear it as well. I will not tell anyone.”

Kaoru stared at Aoshi for a few long seconds and Aoshi stared right back. Finally, Kaoru leaned back with a sigh.

“His name is Sojiro,” she said.

“Sojiro,” Aoshi repeated. “A nice name.”

He lifted the cup to his lips as Kaoru blinked at him in surprise.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Kaoru said after a moment. Had that been a compliment? What the hell. . .? “Anyways,” she said, “as I’ve said, it’s been very difficult for Sojiro and we’ve almost lost him once or twice.” Aoshi stopped sipping his tea, but Kaoru didn't notice. “Misao came around a month ago when everything became very complicated with his treatment. I was hoping she could stay longer. I don’t think—”

“I didn't come here to take Misao away, Kamiya-san,” Aoshi interrupted. “She never wrote home and we were growing concerned. She can stay as long as you see fit. I just wanted to ensure her safety.”

Kaoru’s lips parted in a silent “oh.” Then her expression brightened.

“Well, Misao is doing just fine,” she said, clapping her hands together. “She was a little wary at first but now she’s great. She’s been a wonderful help.”

Aoshi lifted the teacup to his lips and smiled behind it.

“Is that so?”

“Yep!”

“May I speak with her?”

“Ah.” Kaoru’s face fell again. “Not quite yet, I’m sorry. She’s with Sojiro right now.”

“Is it the boy who’s crying?”

“Yes. This is about the time of day they change the bandages and splints. It’s rough on him.”

“How does Misao help?” Aoshi asked.

“She usually holds him,” Kaoru said. “If she doesn’t or Sojiro is being too squirmy, then I do. Kenshin changes the bandages.”

“Ah, I see.” He took another sip of his tea, and then set the empty cup down. When another soft cry echoed through the house, Aoshi couldn't help a little wince. Kaoru frowned at him.

“Aoshi? Are you all right?”

“Fine. Just not quite used to that sound. May I go outside?”

“Ah, sure. But it’ll probably easier to hear him cry out there — his room leads right out to the yard.”

Aoshi sighed.

“Then may I stay here?”

“I don’t see why not,” Kaoru said after a moment. “When they’re done with the bandages, I’ll get Misao. You can wait here. I’m sorry I have nothing for you. I wasn't prepared for a guest.”

“It’s fine. I will meditate.”

Kaoru blinked but then nodded and shrugged. She left silently with the tea, sliding the door shut behind her. Aoshi watched her go, then crumpled a little bit, some of the usual stiffness in his posture disappearing. Misao was a brave girl. He’d been here less than a minute and he already wanted to leave. The cries and whimpers from down the hall were shaking him up more than he cared to admit.

Aoshi could handle a lot of things, blood and gore especially — he’d lived through the Bakamatsu, of course he could handle that! But cries of children were something beyond his ability to cope with. It was one of the few things that frightened Aoshi enough that his mask would crumble if he wasn't careful enough.

Kaoru reappeared before Aoshi heard her coming and he straightened a moment too late. She frowned but said nothing.

“I can let you see Misao,” she said, and there was a knowing smile on her face — the kind of smile that made Aoshi very uncomfortable. “I know you must be anxious to see her. I mean, you traveled all this way.”

“Any of the Oniwabanshuu would have,” Aoshi said, voice neutral, but he was already on his feet and walking towards the Kamiya girl before the words even fully left his mouth.

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Last chapter: “Any of the Oniwabanshuu would have,” Aoshi said, voice neutral, but he was already on his feet and walking towards the Kamiya girl before the words even fully left his mouth.

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“Of course,” Kaoru said. “But you were worried, so I thought you’d like to see her now, to ease your mind a bit.”

“That is kind of you, Kamiya-san.”

Kaoru smiled at Aoshi and kept walking. Aoshi followed her silently then stopped when she did several feet from a bedroom, platters laying outside the tightly closed doors.

“All right,” Kaoru said, and she lowered her voice to a whisper so that Aoshi had to lean over her to hear what she was saying. “We’re going to peek in the door, but we won’t come in unless Kenshin asks me too. Try not to let Misao see you — you know how excitable she is.”

Aoshi nodded in understanding and Kaoru motioned him forward. Together, they tiptoed to the front of the door — it was no challenge for Aoshi to be silent, seeing as he was the former leader of the Oniwabanshuu — and then stopped. Kaoru slid the door open a crack and allowed Aoshi to peer over her head.

His eyes widened.

Misao was sitting cross-legged near a disheveled futon, dressed in her familiar jinbei, and a warm yellow blanket was tossed over one of her shoulders. In her arms was a small boy, smaller than Aoshi had been expecting, the only thing visible of him a shock of raven black hair. One of his hands, bruised and bony, was wrapped tightly around Misao’s braid and he’d tug at it once and while as he whined. Misao grimaced, but ignored the pain, instead muttering words of platitude when he’d cry.

Aoshi’s eyes lingered on her for a few more moments before they drifted to Himura, who was sitting opposite her. He was thinner than Aoshi remembered, and strained, but the familiar determined look of strength and kindness still shone from his eyes. He was holding the boy’s other arm, old bandages and wooden splints discarded at his side, and was now wrapping new bandages over new splints, trying his best to be careful. The boy, however, kept whimpering, his grip tightening on Misao’s braid, until Himura finished. Then he leaned forward and slipped the boy’s arm into a sling. With Misao’s help, they then swaddled him in the yellow blanket and Himura took him, snuggling him close. Aoshi watched as Misao and Kenshin smiled and pet the boy’s hair, singing words of praise and comfort.

Aoshi’s heart softened a bit at the sight of Misao running her hand through the boy’s black hair, a gentle smile on her lips as she spoke. He’d been worried, but now he saw that the feeling had been rather unwarranted. Misao could take care of herself just fine, and so Aoshi should have known she’d be able to take care of a child just as well. He sighed and turned to go when Himura’s voice echoed through the room.

“Kaoru-dono, Aoshi,” he said, his voice quiet but serene, “you can come in if you wish.”

“Aoshi-sama?!?!”

A startled cry escaped the child’s lips and he fought against Kenshin in an obvious spark of fear.

“Ah, Misao-dono!” Kenshin cried, trying to keep the writhing child still. “Be quiet, please! You’ve frightened Sojiro, that you have!”

Misao froze halfway to the door, and her thrilled smile fell off her face, replaced by sheepish apology. To Aoshi’s surprise, she didn't continue to the now open door, where he and Kaoru were standing, but turned around and headed back to the boy. She knelt in front of him and ran her hands through his hair, whispering in his ear before giving the top of his head a kiss. By the time she got up, the boy had quieted and Kaoru had come to sit by Kenshin. Aoshi had stayed where he was.

With a big smile, Misao now bounded to the doorway. She grinned up at Aoshi, and he was glad to see that her expression was so bright.

“Aoshi-sama! I’m so happy you’ve come! I’ve missed you!”

Aoshi managed a small smile.

“Is that so?”

“Of course!” She turned and pointed at the boy, who was now enveloped gently by Kenshin and Kaoru. “Sojiro is doing so much better, Aoshi-sama! It’s thrilling!”

“I’m glad,” the man said.

Misao smiled.

“So, why did you come, Aoshi-sama?” She stuck her tongue in her cheek and rocked back on her heels. “Did you miss me?”

“You hadn't written home,” Aoshi said, avoiding the question. “I came to make sure everything was okay.”

Misao’s lips parted in a silent “oh” and she whacked herself on the forehead.

“Misao, you baka!” she cried. “I’m so, so sorry, Aoshi-sama! I can’t believe I forgot. It’s just that it’s been so much . . .”

She turned and settled her eyes on Sojiro again.

“I understand,” Aoshi said. “Well, I’ll take my leave then. Come back when you can, Misao.” He turned to go but stopped when Misao grabbed his elbow and Himura’s voice called out to him.

“Aoshi,” he said. “Sojiro would like to meet you.”

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Last chapter: “Aoshi,” he said. “Sojiro would like to meet you.”

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Aoshi froze and did not turn around. His heart, much to his embarrassment, began to beat faster. He didn't think he could handle an injured child. He really, really couldn’t. So he just shook his head.

“That’s all right,” he said. “I’d prefer not to bother the boy.”

He shrugged Misao’s hand off his arm and made to leave the room again, when a soft voice, young and shaky and weak, called his name.

“A-Aoshi?”

He froze. The boy’s voice had a cadence to it — Aoshi immediately recognized the small strength hidden under layers of fear and pain; it was the voice of a survivor. He’d heard that tone before — lots of people who had survived the horrors of the Bakamatsu had it too, like Hannya and the others of the Oniwabanshuu. It was also especially prominent in Himura’s voice.

Before he knew what he was doing, Aoshi had turned slowly and made his way past Misao and the others to squat in front of Kenshin and the boy.

“Hello, child,” he said. “My name is Aoshi.”

The boy turned his head and settled big blue eyes on Aoshi’s face. Aoshi almost pulled away — his gaze was too wary and hesitant and old to be a child’s. What had he been through? After a moment of silent staring, Sojiro worked his uninjured hand from under the blanket and held it out.

“M-My name is Sojiro.”

Aoshi took the little, bruised hand in his own and shook it.

“Hello, Sojiro, it’s nice to meet you.” Aoshi made to pull his hand away but Sojiro’s fingers only tightened around his palm. When Aoshi looked up at his face, he was surprised to see that his lips were parted in amazement.

“Your hand is so big,” he said. “Bigger than Sano’s.” His eyes roved over Aoshi from head to toe. “You’re bigger than Sano.”

Misao’s heart skipped a beat when a small smile flicked across Aoshi’s face.

“I suppose I am,” he said. “I’m taller than a lot of people.”

“Ohhh.” Sojiro stared at him, and Aoshi was surprised by how bright his eyes were — they shone with a strange mix of curiosity and pain. He wiggled against Kenshin and he turned his lips to the man’s ear. Aoshi did not miss the whispered request.

“Can he hold me?”

Aoshi’s heart tightened and he backed up a bit. He was not going to hold this child — not yet, at least. He was adorable, to be sure, but he was still badly injured. His arm and ankle were broken and the bruising across his cheek indicated a badly broken cheekbone. He’d met Sojiro — that was enough for now.

Himura, of course, did not fail to notice this. His eyes softened.

“I’m afraid not, little one,” he said. “At least not yet.”

Sojiro whined, but did not say anything, instead going mostly slack against Kenshin. The rurouni turned his head to look at the boy’s face; his eyes were already slipping shut. He chuckled.

“It seems like we’re sleepy,” he said. “Kaoru-dono, would you help me?”

“Of course!”

And the pair moved Sojiro to the bed, laying him down and drawing the comforter to his chin. Kaoru handed him a stuffed animal that the boy clutched close before falling asleep. When soft, even whistles escaped the boy’s lips, Kenshin looked up and smiled.

“It’s good to see you, Aoshi, that it is.”

Aoshi bowed stiffly.

“You as well, Himura.”

Kenshin’s smile grew wider and he slipped his hands inside his gi.

“How long will you stay?” he asked, peering at the man under his blood red bangs.

“I was planning on leaving today,” Aoshi answered. “I only came to check on Misao.”

“I see.”

Misao’s face fell.

“Oh, don’t go so soon, Aoshi-sama!” she cried, latching onto his arm. “At least stay the night!”

“Misao,” Aoshi frowned, “you can’t invite me to stay in someone else’s home.”

Misao turned bright red and opened her mouth when Kaoru spoke.

“You can stay for as long as you see fit, Aoshi,” she said, picking up the old bandages and splints. “I have a spare guest room. Sano stays there sometimes but he can just stay at his real house.” She snorted. “That freeloader.”

Aoshi frowned.

“Thank you for the offer, Kamiya-san, but—”

“I think you should stay until you hold Sojiro, Shinomori Aoshi.”

Everyone turned to the door, where they saw Yahiko standing, hands on his hips, shinai in hand, a frown on his face.

“Yahiko!” Kaoru said. “How long have you been here?”

“Long enough,” Yahiko said. He stepped inside and pointed the shinai at Aoshi’s chest with a glower. “It’s obvious Sojiro likes you. You should stay for a while. But don’t overstay your welcome.”

And he stalked out. Kaoru hurried after him, flustered, and began yelling at him about manners and not being a brat when they were a safe distance from the room. Aoshi turned to Kenshin and bowed.

“If it is no trouble, Himura, I will at least stay the night.”

Kenshin smiled and Aoshi blinked. Himura seemed to be smiling more than usual lately.

“If Kaoru-dono says you can, then I see no problem. I will show you to your room.” He got to his feet. “Misao-dono, would you keep an eye on Sojiro?”

“Of course!” The girl disengaged herself from Aoshi and dashed forward to take Kenshin’s place next to Sojiro. Kenshin smiled at her for a moment before leaving the room, motioning Aoshi to follow him.

The guest room was only a few doors down from Sojiro’s and was spacious enough. Kenshin got out a spare futon and set it out, then stood up and smiled at Aoshi.

“Dinner is at seven,” he said. “Sano usually comes and stays with Sojiro and I for the evening and leaves at midnight. If you’d like, you can come after that to visit.” Kenshin smiled when Aoshi just blinked at him, taken aback. “Sojiro usually wakes up after Sano leaves and gets a bit flustered. This one is sure he’d like to see you.”

Kenshin turned to leave, but, before he shut the door, he smiled at Aoshi.

“I’m glad you’ve come, Aoshi.”

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It was dark when Sojiro woke up. Sano had just left, taking the dice and games with him, and that left Sojiro alone with Kenshin. Sojiro loved Kenshin a lot but he also liked seeing all the different faces. It was fun.

And there was a new face now.

Aoshi.

He was serious and didn't really smile, but he seemed nice enough. He wasn't scary at all, and, despite being bigger than anyone Sojiro had ever met, he wasn't intimidating. And Misao really liked him if her excited yelling was anything to go by.

Sojiro fidgeted in bed, trying to shrug off some of his discomfort, but a sharp pain just shot through his ankle, and he cried out. Kenshin was there immediately.

“Sojiro?”

“Ankle,” the boy ground out through gritted teeth. “‘Urts.”

Kenshin frowned.

“I’m going to take a look, all right?” he said. “Try to stay still if you can.”

Sojiro nodded and squeezed his eyes shut tight, bracing himself for the pain, but nothing came. Instead, Kenshin let the comforter rest again over his feet as the bedroom door slid open.

“Wh-Who is it?” Sojiro asked when no one moved or came closer. “Wh-Who’s there?”

Then someone appeared over him. Tall, with black hair and blue green eyes. Aoshi. Oh. For a minute, through all the pain, Sojiro had forgotten he was there.

“It’s just me, Sojiro.” His voice was deep and soft.

“H-Hi, Aoshi.”

The smallest of smiles flicked over the man’s face and, with a gentleness that belied his large hands, he leaned over and swept some black hair from Sojiro’s brow. His smile faded.

“Himura,” he said, “he’s warm.”

“Hm?” Kenshin reached forward and laid his hand on Sojiro’s brow. Sojiro nuzzled closer to his cool touch. “Not again.”

“K-Kenshin?”

“Sojiro, little one, do you feel all right?” Sojiro was surprised to hear fear in his voice.

Sojiro frowned and thought about it.

“It’s warm and my ankle really hurts,” he said eventually.

Kenshin and Aoshi exchanged a look and Kenshin leaned back, suddenly looking very, very old and tired. He ran a hand over his face.

“I’m going to look at your ankle, Sojiro,” he said.

Sojiro made a face.

“Gonna touch it?”

“Yes.” Sojiro groaned and Kenshin hastened to reassure him. “It’s all right. I know it might hurt a little, but I need to see if anything’s wrong, that I do.”

Sojiro nodded and closed his eyes. Kenshin’s heart skipped a couple of beats as he noticed that tears were already beginning to leak from the boy's eyes. He didn't want to do this, he couldn't do this, he couldn’t—

Aoshi’s voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Himura,” he said, “I can check his ankle if you wish.”

Kenshin shook his head.

“No, I need to. I felt the fracture initially and I’m worried that it might not be healing correctly. Megumi-dono and I are the only ones who know how it was broken.”

“Do you know how to set bones?” Aoshi asked suddenly.

Kenshin couldn't help but flinch.

“W-What?” he stammered.

“If it’s healing incorrectly, you might have to rebreak and reset it.”

Sojiro’s eyes flew open and he clutched at Kenshin, eyes huge and terrified.

“W-What? Pl-Please don’t hurt me! Don’t do it!”

“Shh, little one, we’re not,” Kenshin soothed. “We’re not. Calm down.” He glared at Aoshi, who looked away, a small feeling of shame bubbling in his chest.

Sojiro began sobbing because now he was terrified, and he couldn't do this. He didn't want to be hurt anymore! He couldn’t! It already hurt so much! No more! No more!

Kenshin scooped the boy into his arms, turning his face into his chest. He then spoke to Aoshi after taking a long, deep breath.

“I know how to set bones,” he said, keeping his voice quiet so that Sojiro couldn't hear him very well, “I’ve had to do it plenty of times. I have no doubt that you do as well.” Aoshi nodded and Kenshin sighed. “However,” he said, “if Sojiro’s bone is healing incorrectly, I will send for Megumi-dono. It will be safest to have a doctor rebreak it.”

Sojiro flailed against Kenshin like a frantic bird at the word “rebreak” and Kenshin struggled for a moment to keep him in his arms. However, with Aoshi’s help, he kept the boy cradled against him.

“Himura,” Aoshi said, “would you like me to get the others?”

“Yes. But just Kaoru-dono, please. Sano isn't here and I don't want Yahiko here for this.”

Aoshi nodded and got to his feet.

“I will fetch her and take Misao with me to send for Takani.” He reached for Sojiro but the boy simply screeched and slapped his hand away.

“S-Stop! No! NONONONONONONO! Not you!!”

Aoshi stepped away as if burned and Kenshin didn't miss the regret and hurt written all over his face.

“I’ll be back soon,” he said, and disappeared.

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Chapter Text

Hey everyone,

So, after the news about the atrocious, disgusting things Watsuki did I've decided to take a brief hiatus from this fan fiction. Rurouni Kenshin remains very important to me and in my opinion the characters and story are now the fandom's - they no longer belong to Watsuki. To be honest, Kenshin would have Hiten Mitsurugi'd his ass straight into the netherworld, that perv. 

However, Kenshin and his family remain very important to me and got me through some very dark times of my life. I tend to think of them as separate entities from the author. I have a lot of this story written already and I would like to continue to share it with you, if you would like to continue reading it.

Kenshin and his family no longer belong to Watsuki and now belong to us. We've taken them away from him, much like how Kenshin took Sojiro away from the Setas in this story. 

Thank you, 

FaramirsBlessing

Chapter Text

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Kaoru ran into Sojiro’s room, still in her sleeping yukata, and she didn't stop until she was next to Kenshin and Sojiro. The boy was screaming, not only in pain, but in absolute, unadulterated terror.

“What happened?” Kaoru demanded, running her fingers through Sojiro’s hair. “Shh, baby boy, it’s all right, it’s okay.”

“K-Kaoru!”

“Shh, shh.” She looked up at Kenshin, searching for an explanation. “Kenshin?”

“His ankle is hurting him,” the rurouni explained. “But he wasn't panicking until Aoshi mentioned that we may have to rebreak it.”

“Rebreak it?” Kaoru paled. “Do you really. . .?”

“I don’t know. But I wish he hadn't said something like that.” He rocked the shrieking Sojiro back and forth in his arms. “This isn't good.”

Kaoru glowered with anger as she continued to run her fingers through Sojiro’s fine hair.

“We should have sent him away,” she said. “Nothing good ever happens when that man is here.”

Kenshin sighed.

“Kaoru-dono—”

“What was he even doing here at one in the morning?”

Kenshin looked down at the boy in his lap.

“I invited him, that I did,” he said, his voice quiet.

“What?!? Kenshin!”

“This one knows.” He sighed. “I didn't think it through. Sojiro was so excited to see another face, that he was. I thought. . .”

“Well, you thought wrong!” Kaoru snapped and Kenshin recoiled at the venom in her voice. “Baka! You know what he’s like in the night! And with strangers! For God’s sake, Kenshin!”

Sojiro wailed and Kaoru leaned forward and kissed him.

“It’s all right, sweetheart, it’s all right.”

“K-Kaoru! Hold! Hold!”

“You want me to hold you?” Sojiro nodded again and reached out for her. With Kenshin’s help, Sojiro was soon nestled against her breast, clutching at her yukata. His thick tears wetted the fabric. “It’s all right, sweetie. Megumi is coming soon. She’ll make it better.”

Kenshin woodenly got to his feet when another terrified wail ripped itself from Sojiro’s lips.

“This one will wait at the gate,” he said, and left the room, ignoring Kaoru’s voice calling after him.

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Yahiko woke up to the sound of retching outside his door in the yard. What the hell. . .?

Rubbing his eyes and stretching his arms above his head, Yahiko got out of bed and slid open his door. It took a moment for his eyes to get adjusted to the dark, but when he made out the shape of a thin man with red hair kneeling on the ground in the moonlight, his eyes widened and he dashed forward.

“Kenshin!” he cried. He bounded off the porch, barefoot, and landed neatly next to the man. “Kenshin, are you all right?”

Kenshin retched again and Yahiko was tempted to take a step back. However, his experience with Sojiro had only served to give him a stronger stomach. So he leaned forward and laid a hand on Kenshin’s back.

“Kenshin?” he asked, squatting down to peer at his face. “Kenshin, what’s wrong?”

Kenshin didn't respond, instead just spitting bile from his mouth before leaning back. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve before slumping and smiling at Yahiko.

“This one is all right, Yahiko.”

Yahiko frowned.

“Bullshit,” he said. Kenshin’s eyes widened at the language, but, before he could get a word out, Yahiko spoke again. “Why don't you tell me what’s really going on? Are you sick?”

“No,” Kenshin answered. “I just made a mistake when I was taking care of Sojiro. He’s scared of me at the moment. This one is just upset.”

“Oh.” Yahiko fell silent for a moment. “What happened?”

“His ankle is probably healing incorrectly and we might have to rebreak it. Aoshi and I brought it up while he was still awake and scared him.”

Yahiko’s face screwed up and his hands clenched into fists.

“Damn Shinomori.”

“It’s not just his fault, Yahiko,” Kenshin said. “It’s mine too, that it is.”

“Sure,” Yahiko said, waving his hand, “but he’s the one who said it first, right?” Kenshin paused and an angry look crossed Yahiko’s face, one blessedly hidden by the darkness. “He should leave in the morning. And he shouldn't be allowed to touch Sojiro again.”

“Yahiko—” Kenshin froze, words dying on his lips, then dashed to his feet. It was silent, so Yahiko didn't know what was going on, but he ran after Kenshin anyway, only to find him swinging the gate open and letting Megumi, Misao, and Aoshi back in. Megumi’s face was grim and worried and she followed Kenshin to Sojiro’s room, ordering Misao and Aoshi to stay back. Misao buried her face in her hands and Yahiko swaggered towards them, ready to chew Aoshi out for what he did, but his harsh words died on his lips as the moonlight illuminated Aoshi’s face with an expression Yahiko had never thought he’d see — regret.

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“I’ve been worried about that bone for quite some time,” Megumi said, rushing after Kenshin. “I didn't think it was healing incorrectly though.”

“You didn’t?” Kenshin asked, frowning at her.

“No. Broken ankles usually cause a lot of pain and I was so worried about his heart that I didn't look over his bones very often.” When they reached Sojiro’s room, she threw open the door. “Damn it.”

Sojiro was screaming at the top of his lungs, scrabbling at Kaoru with his free hand so hard that he had covered her chest and neck in angry red scratches. Much to her credit, Kaoru showed no sign of pain, but only kept rocking Sojiro back and forth, humming to him. She looked up when Kenshin and Megumi appeared and her face flooded with relief.

“Look, Sojiro,” she said, “look who’s here. It’s Megumi. She’s come to make everything better.”

Sojiro twisted against Kaoru and his big blue eyes, swimming with tears, landed on the doctor and medicine chest. He wailed.

“L-Lady doctor! It h-hurts!”

“I know,” Megumi said, rushing forward and kneeling in front of the boy, “that’s what I’ve heard. Can you tell me exactly what hurts?” Sojiro cried and hiccuped on a sob. “Come on, darling, focus. Tell me what hurts. Focus.”

“L-Leg!” Sojiro gasped.

“Thank you for focusing, Sojiro. Very good job.” She moved a bit and laid her hand on Sojiro’s left leg, the one with the broken ankle. “This leg?” Sojiro sat up a bit and nodded before falling back with a gasp.

“Y-Yeah.”

“Okay.” Megumi took a deep breath, prepping herself. “Sojiro, I need you to lie down so I can look at your leg properly.” Sojiro whined and shook his head. “I know you don't want to, but I need you to do this. I can make the pain go away faster if you let me do this.”

“H-Hold. . .”

“No, you need to lie down.” When Sojiro shook his head furiously, Megumi sighed and nodded at Kenshin and Kaoru. They both paled but nodded; they didn't want to do this, but, nevertheless, they knew it was necessary.

So Kaoru held Sojiro still as Megumi and Kenshin pried him from her arms. He shrieked in misery, fear, and pain the whole time and scrabbled for Kaoru, begging for her. Kaoru began to cry but still allowed Kenshin and Megumi to take Sojiro from her arms and lay him down on the bed. The doctor was hoping he’d calm down some when he was finally laid down, but it was only the opposite. He screamed and screamed and, worst of all, thrashed and twisted and kicked.

“Sojiro, stop!” she urged. “Sojiro, darling, stay still! It’s okay, I know you’re scared, but if you keep fighting like this you’ll only hurt your—”

Megumi was interrupted halfway through her speech when Sojiro’s broken ankle collided with her knee. There was an alarming snap, Sojiro shrieked, and then he went limp.

“Shit!” Megumi cried as both Kenshin and Kaoru yelped in alarm. Kenshin grabbed the boy’s uninjured hand as Kaoru felt at his throat for a pulse. She turned and nodded at Megumi.

“A bit fast, but it’s still there.”

“Good.” She ran her hand through her hair. “Damn, this is bad. But I suppose having him unconscious for this examination is better than the alternative. Ken-san,” she said, “I know you want to keep holding his hand, but I need you to hold his leg still as I examine it. If he wakes, you’re the only one strong enough to keep him from thrashing.” Kenshin nodded and moved to sit next to Megumi, but the doctor didn't miss the disappointment on his face. She laid a hand on his arm and smiled at him. “Don’t worry,” she reassured, “you’ll be holding your little boy’s hand again before you know it.” Kenshin nodded and managed a small smile for Megumi. She nodded and then pointed at the places Kenshin should hold to keep Sojiro’s leg still.

And she began her examination.

Chapter Text

Last chapter: And she began her examination.

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Immediately after removing the bandages and splints, she knew something was very wrong. His little foot was beginning to turn a distressing shade of light blue and was slightly twisted the wrong way. She had no doubt that this had just happened when his foot collided with her knee, but it was nonetheless extremely worrying — he wasn't getting enough circulation to his foot.

“Shit.”

“Megumi-dono?”

But Megumi didn't hear him and continued her examination, gently moving the boy’s foot back and forth, gazing at it, and then running her clinical fingers over the swollen skin, feeling the bones there. She sighed and leaned back.

“This is worse than I thought,” she said. “I didn't think the bones would be so unaligned and broken.” She looked over at Kenshin. “Shinomori was right — I’ll need to re-break a few bones in his ankle.”

Kenshin’s face fell and he weaved. Kaoru grabbed his hand and clutched it tight.

“Bones?” she asked Megumi.

“An ankle is a joint,” Megumi explained, “there’s more than one bone.” She then took a deep, shaky breath and Kenshin turned to her, his heart beating hard against his ribcage. “And Ken-san, I’ll need to perform a surgery to fully fix the damage.”

All the blood drained from Kenshin’s face and Kaoru gasped, throwing her hand over her mouth.

“W-When?” the rurouni stammered, looking down at Sojiro’s little, pained face.

“As soon as possible. Most likely in an hour or two.”

Kaoru’s eyes widened.

“So soon?” she asked. “Can’t we give him a little more time?”

“Unfortunately, no,” Megumi said. She took Sojiro’s foot and held it up. “His foot is blue. I fear if we wait any longer, he might lose full functionality of it.” Kenshin crumbled and laid his head against Kaoru’s shoulder. Megumi and Kaoru’s hearts tightened painfully and Kaoru fought back tears.

“Wh-What do you need us to do?” she asked.

“I’m taking some of you to the clinic with me. I would have preferred to perform the surgery there, but it’s better to keep him here — I don't want to move him unnecessarily. Ken-san will stay here with Sojiro, as well Yahiko. He’ll be boiling water and cloths. The rest of you will come to the clinic and help me move all the equipment back here. I need my scalpels, sterile sheets and cloths, and each of you will get your own cap and michiyuki. I don’t need anything contaminated in this room. Doctor Gensai will come as well to assist. Understood?”

Kaoru gulped, but nodded. She got up with Megumi and followed the doctor out of the room, but not before giving Sojiro a little kiss and running her fingers comfortingly through Kenshin’s red hair.

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Misao stared at the box of shining surgical tools with huge eyes and a knot in her stomach. She had no doubt that the scalpels and knives were sharper than her kunai, and she wondered briefly how badly it would hurt to be cut open with something like that. She wrapped her hands over her stomach in disgust and fought down the urge to be sick.

“It’s all right, you know.”

Misao jumped and shut the surgical kit before turning around. Megumi was standing in the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest, a small, understanding smile on her face. She walked forward and opened the case again.

“It will be all right, Misao,” she said. “I know these look like torture instruments but it will actually help Sojiro a lot. He’ll be able to use his foot and ankle again after this.”

“Yeah, but. . .” Misao frowned. “Won’t it hurt?”

“We’ll try to keep him asleep,” Megumi reassured, “and if he wakes up, he should faint right after. Poor boy doesn’t have much of a pain tolerance.”

“Oh.” Misao nodded and then pointed at an instrument with a long handle and curved blade. “What’s this for, Megumi-san?”

“It’s called a retractor. It holds back tissues. We’ll be using it to hold back some muscle to see Sojiro’s bones. The forceps have a similar function.”

Misao paled.

“Ew.” Then she pointed at a sharp edged scoop. “This?”

“A rongeur. The French made it to work with bone.”

“And are the scissors for cutting muscles or something?”

Megumi blinked.

“That’s exactly right, Misao!” She smiled. “I’m impressed.”

Misao shrugged.

“I actually think it’s kinda interesting.”

Megumi nodded with a pleased smile and closed the top of the surgical case before placing it in her medical chest.

“Would you like to watch, Misao?” she asked.

Misao blinked in surprise.

“I-I. . . What?”

“I asked if you’d like to watch,” Megumi repeated with a laugh. “You can if you want. And you can leave or look away if it gets to be too much.” She frowned and cocked her head. “Doctor Gensai and I do need an assistant,” she said, “and you can take this opportunity to learn if you want.”

Misao hesitated and didn't say anything for a few minutes, following Megumi out of the room and helping Kaoru collect clean sheets, doctors’ michiyuki, and caps for each of them. She considered it, bouncing back and forth between the two options. Yes, it would be interesting, but could she really handle all the bone and blood? And, even if she could, could she handle knowing they were cutting into Sojiro’s ankle? Sweet little Sojiro?

Eventually, she made a decision.

“Megumi-san,” she said as they left the clinic, her arms full of clean sheets. “I’ll help if you’ll let me.”

“Of course, Misao.” She raised her voice. “Doctor Gensai,” she called, “we have an assistant!”

The old doctor turned around and nodded at Misao.

“Ah, that’s wonderful — it makes things a lot easier for us! Thank you!”

Misao beamed.

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Setting up for surgery took longer than Misao had thought it would. They had to move Sojiro from his futon and lay him on one that Kaoru was prepared to have ruined, then covered it in layers of sterile sheets. When they laid him down again, Megumi tossed another sheet over his body, then cut a square from it from knee to foot over his left leg. When Misao asked what that was for, the doctor explained with professional coolness that the rest of the sheet would keep him from getting bloody as they operated on his ankle. Misao watched as everyone, including Aoshi, paled.

After Sojiro was lying supine in bed, covered in the sheet, Sano and Aoshi, who had brought sterile metal basins, laid them around Megumi and Doctor Gensai. Megumi explained patiently to Misao what each bowl was for — the smallest for bone chips, the next for catching blood, another for disposing of dirty bandages and gauze, and the last for cleaning the instruments. Yahiko came in with a bowl of boiled water as Kaoru laid out bandages and Megumi pulled out her box of surgical tools. Though she didn't open the lid, everyone seemed to recognize it, for there was a collective gulp and everyone kept their eyes away from it.

Aoshi and Kenshin lit candles and lamps all over the room, bathing everything in warm golden light. Aoshi placed a particularly bright candle next to Misao in case the doctors needed more light.

Finally, the last thing to do was don the doctor’s michiyukis and hats. They all partnered up to help one another — Kaoru and Kenshin, Sano and Yahiko, and Misao and Aoshi.

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“Will you be all right, Kenshin?” Kaoru asked as she tied the white handkerchief over the man’s red hair.

“This one is no stranger to blood, Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin said, now tying her handkerchief on.

Kaoru rolled her eyes.

“That’s not what I asked, Kenshin. Will you be all right?”

Kenshin hesitated, then shook his head.

“Most likely not,” he said, “but I will stay, that I will. This one just hopes Sojiro will stay asleep.”

“Yeah, me too.” She smiled and placed her hand on Kenshin’s arm. “But if he doesn’t, seeing your face will really help.”

“Really?”

“Of course.”

And Kaoru’s bright grin helped Kenshin believe it.

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“Your hair is so dumb!” Yahiko cried, tossing the handkerchief aside. He made a face, then plopped a cloth hat onto Sano’s head. He laughed when Sano turned to glare at him. He was significantly less threatening in a white michiyuki with his spiky hair hidden behind a hat.

“What are you laughing at, brat?” Sano grabbed Yahiko’s arm and turned him around, proceeding to tie the handkerchief roughly over his head. The knot caught in Yahiko’s hair and he yelped in annoyance.

“Hey, watch it!” he cried, turning and trying to slap at Sano. Sano caught his hand with ease, stopping his hit halfway. “UGH!” the boy cried, pulling away. He turned and crouched, his back to Sano, but the fighter, no matter how dumb everyone thought he was, didn't miss the slight shaking of the boy’s shoulders.

He looked away as he spoke to the boy.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “It might be gross as hell, but Doctor Gensai and Fox know what they’re doing.”

Yahiko didn't turn around.

“What if something goes wrong?”

“Baka. Nothing’s going to go wrong. Even if it does, believe in the doctors. And believe in the kid too.”

“Believe in Sojiro?” Yahiko asked, curious.

“Yeah. He’s a fighter. You’ve seen what he’s been through — this is nothing.”

Yahiko nodded and jumped to his feet, suddenly determined.

“You’re right, Sano!” he said. Sano smirked and gave a self-satisfied nod. “For once in your entire life,” Yahiko said, “you’re right!”

“Hey!”

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“Misao,” Aoshi said while on his knees, as he tied the kerchief over her dark hair. “Are you sure you want to stay so close?”

“Of course, Aoshi-sama! I want to be of much use as I can.”

“I’m sure you can be of use in other ways,” Aoshi said, and Misao turned around to glare at him.

“Aoshi-sama—” she began, but she stopped when she saw the slight worry in his eyes. She smiled reassuringly and laid her hands on his shoulders. “Don’t worry, Aoshi-sama. I’ll stop if it gets to be too much. I know my limits.”

“Are you sure about that?” Aoshi asked, raising an eyebrow.

Misao slapped him.

“Of course!” she cried, indignant. She squared her shoulders and set her jaw. “I’ll be fine, Aoshi-sama. I’m not a child anymore — I can handle this. There’s no need to worry.”

With a final nod and a smile Misao stalked off to sit next to Megumi and Doctor Gensai. Aoshi took a deep breath.

He really needed to meditate after this.

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“Are you sure they should all be here, Megumi-san?” Doctor Gensai asked, looking at the white clad people all across the room. Half of them didn't even fit in their clean doctor’s clothing, but Megumi had insisted they wear them anyway; they all looked like mismatched doctors-in-training.

“What do you mean?” Megumi asked.

“Well, I understand that Kenshin should be here, as well as our new assistant, but do the others need to be here? Especially Kaoru-chan and Yahiko-chan. I have my doubts. . .”

Megumi sighed.

“I think they should be here. Kaoru won’t be able to see much and I want her here to talk to Sojiro. Her voice is comforting to him. And Yahiko will be out of the room most of the time. He’ll just be in here when I ask for hot water.” She looked evenly at Doctor Gensai. “Trust me, Doctor Gensai.”

The old doctor sighed and then nodded.

“All right,” he said. “I trust you, Megumi.”

Megumi grinned, then tightened her ponytail.

“All right, everyone. Are we ready?” Everyone nodded and a tense silence descended upon the room. Megumi tried hard to ignore it. “Then let’s get started.”

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Misao was absolutely disgusted.

But she was also completely enthralled.

They had begun a half hour ago after everyone had washed their hands in warm water and soap, and after Megumi had sterilized the surgical tools in boiling water. By the time Megumi picked up the first scalpel, everyone was in position.

Kaoru and Kenshin were sitting by Sojiro’s head, Kaoru running her fingers through the boy’s hair as Kenshin held onto his hand. Yahiko and Sano were sitting on the porch, ready to dash to the kitchen to get more boiling water on standby, and Aoshi was sitting by the wall, observing, prepared to help with whatever task they asked of him. Misao, of course, was seated next to Megumi and Doctor Gensai.

It had started without so much as a cut. As Megumi got her tools in order, Doctor Gensai took Sojiro’s crooked foot, held it under the pad and above the ankle, and snapped it back into place. Sojiro’s back arched minutely and his breath caught in his throat, but he did not wake, much to everyone’s immense relief. The doctors seemed satisfied that the blood flow was returning to Sojiro’s foot and toes and nodded at everyone with small smiles.

Then the cutting had started. At first, it was just a scalpel cut, clean, precise, and even, down the outer side of Sojiro’s ankle. Megumi taught Misao to catch the blood with gauze and toss it aside, and Misao quickly learned. Then Megumi cut even deeper and the blood that flowed was now dark and thick. And then they cut even deeper, this time using scissors to snip away muscle.

“The retractors, Doctor Gensai.” When the old man handed Megumi the long-handled, curved blades, Kaoru paled and looked away. Kenshin was still watching, unconsciously running his fingers over Sojiro’s knuckles. He didn't want to look away.

Together, Megumi and Doctor Gensai pulled away thick layers of muscles and a thin layer of fat to reveal a bone.

Misao grimaced. The bone was yellower than she was expecting and also hideously broken. Sojiro had been dealing with that for so many long weeks. . .?

“Misao,” Megumi interrupted, “catch some of this blood, please. Be careful not to touch the bone.”

Misao nodded and came closer, dabbing the gauze carefully over the most severely bleeding places. From this close spot, she could see all the details. Shining, broken yellow bone, red muscles with thick white tendons, a thin layer of yellow fat, and, worst of all, a number of nerves wrapped all around the different bones.

“Are those nerves?” the girl asked, and she heard Sano gag from outside the porch.

“Yes.” Megumi, frowning, took a scalpel and cut a little higher. “Forceps, Doctor Gensai.”

Now Sojiro’s leg was held open by four silver instruments, his ankle bone completely exposed.

“He’s so small,” Megumi said, swiping at her forehead with the back of her hand. Doctor Gensai hummed in agreement, a frown on his face.

“We’ll have to be very careful about this, Megumi-san,” he said. “It’ll take more than the two hours it usually does.”

“How many hours will it take now?” Kenshin asked. Megumi looked up and sighed.

“Three or four,” she said.

“B-But, won’t he wake up?” Kaoru stammered, her blue eyes huge.

“Hopefully not,” Doctor Gensai said. He tried for a smile. “It will be all right, Kaoru-chan.”

Kaoru took a big, shaky breath and nodded. Doctor Gensai smiled at her before looking down at Sojiro’s leg.

“All right, Misao-chan. Let’s have a little more light here, hmm?”

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As the hours wore on and the sun began to rise, Kenshin was starting to get more worried — Megumi-dono and Doctor Gensai showed no signs of finishing soon, despite the fact that their aprons and hands were covered in smears of blood and a small plate of bone chips lay next to the bed. And everyone was getting sleepy — he hoped that wasn't the case for the doctors.

“Megumi-dono,” he said, voicing his question carefully, “are you tired?”

“What? No, Ken-san, of course not. Misao, I need more light.”

“All right.”

The girl rapidly switched lamps, holding aloft the brighter one.

“We’re getting near finished, Kenshin,” Doctor Gensai said, smiling reassuringly. “Just a little while longer — an hour at most.”

Kenshin deflated in relief. Thank goodness. . .

Kenshin’s heart skipped about three beats in the next moment, however, when Sojiro stirred, a little whine bleeding from his lips, his hand twitching in Kenshin’s own. Kaoru, who had been half-asleep, was alert in an instant.

“Shh, sweetie, it’s okay, go back to sleep.” Another whine, but Sojiro didn't open his eyes. He just tossed his head to the side, his face drawing up in a rapid indication of pain. His hand twitched again.

“It’s all right, Sojiro, that is is,” Kenshin soothed. Behind him he heard the doctors swear and he hoped they were beginning to move a little faster. “It’s all right.”

Sojiro whipped his head to Kaoru again, and the girl swallowed a scared lump in her throat as she tried to smooth the pained lines in his face away. His eyes half-flickered open, but it was clear he didn't know what was going on; they roved around, clouded with pain and confusion. Kenshin turned quickly to Aoshi.

“Aoshi,” he said, “can you bring cool water and washcloths?”

The man nodded and left immediately. Kenshin spoke next to Megumi.

“Megumi-dono, what do I if he wakes up?”

“Try to keep him calm and still. If worse comes to worse, I’ll have Aoshi and Sano come in here and hold him down while we finish.”

Kaoru looked up, outraged.

“Megumi! That’s horrible!”

“I know,” the doctor snapped. “But we’re almost done and we’re not going to stop. So just try to keep Sojiro calm for now. Tell me if he really wakes up.”

Here, Aoshi reappeared, bucket of water and cloths in tow. He laid them next to Kenshin, then moved over to sit by Doctor Gensai when the old man called for him.

Kenshin was shaking now as he wetted a cloth and laid it over Sojiro’s eyes.

He didn't want Sojiro to wake up. Consciousness would only drag with it unbearable agony. But all he and Kaoru could do was whisper to him and bathe his brow and even sing to him in order to keep him calm. Kenshin desperately wished the boy would stay in this half-conscious state until this was all over — just small whines, rolling eyes, and clenching and unclenching hands. However, as Doctor Gensai and Megumi were finishing up resetting the bones, Sojiro’s eyes flew wide open. Just before he moved, Aoshi grabbed his leg and pinned it down, so Sojiro’s panicked kick didn't compromise the surgery.

Sano flew inside at a call for him and held down Sojiro’s torso to keep him from tossing and thrashing as Yahiko came to hold his uninjured leg. Kenshin took his boy’s hand and clutched hard, hoping Sojiro would return the grip.

He did.

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The pain was sharper and worse than anything Sojiro had ever felt before in his whole life. What were the Setas doing to him now? Was it a shovel? Were they throwing broken plates at him? Were—?

Sojiro froze, horrified, when he remembered where he was.

He wasn't with those horrible people anymore. They were dead. He had killed them.

He was with Kenshin and the others now.

No.

No.

He was safe there, wasn't he? He was safe. They told him he was safe.

Then why?

Why?

WHY?

He opened his eyes wide and started screaming at the top of his lungs. He vaguely heard Kaoru and Kenshin’s voices, but it hurt too much to hear what they were saying. He tried to kick and thrash but people were holding him down.

God, it hurt so much!

What were they doing to him?

He screamed loud enough to make his own ears ring when a horrible pain ran through his leg. It came from his left ankle — the one he had broken. They were hurting him! They were breaking it again! Just like Aoshi had said they were going to!

Sojiro tried to sit up to see, but was quickly shoved back down, and he realized that a cool cloth was tossed over his eyes.

He was scared.

It was scary.

It was so, so scary!

“I know it’s scary, sweetheart, but please hang on. The doctors are almost done.”

Kaoru! Why were doctors doing this to him? Doctors helped people right? Then WHY? Why were they hurting him??

He shrieked and his vision went black around the edges when the pain spiked again. He tried to pull his hand from Kenshin’s, but the man didn't let go.

K-KENSHIN!

“I’m here, Sojiro, that I am. I’m here. Hang on, little one.” His voice sounded far away now. “Megumi-dono, what do we do?”

“Give him something to bite! It might help with the pain a little bit. And tell him . . .”

The lady doctor’s voice faded and everything became a painful, colorful, horrifying jumble. Sojiro thought he could hear other people sometimes — like Yahiko and Sano — but most of the time he could just hear himself screaming himself hoarse. Screaming and screaming and screaming until he was sure that it was the only sound in the whole world. Then someone pulled the cool cloth from his eyes. Someone with a scar. And red hair.

Kenshin.

He was talking. And holding something. Sojiro, through the pain and his own cries, only caught a few words. “Leather” and “teeth” and “bite.” And then something was in his mouth. Sojiro tried to spit it out but it didn't really work so he just dug his teeth into it instead. Kaoru was running her fingers through his hair and she was crying and Kenshin was holding his hand and Sojiro felt safer knowing they were there.

But it still really hurt.

Then Kaoru was whispering in his ear.

“You bite down on that, baby boy,” she said, her voice shaky and weak. “And scream as loud as you want. Okay?” She smoothed her hand over his hair and Sojiro felt one of her warm tears splash onto his cheek. “Scream as loud as you want.”

So Sojiro did.

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All Yahiko could think was that there was a lot of blood. More blood than he had been expecting. They had just worked on his ankle, right? It didn't make sense to Yahiko that there would be so much blood from such a small body part on such an already small body. It covered Megumi and Doctor Gensai’s michiyukis, and splatters had also landed on Misao; a few flecks were smeared across her white cheeks like freckles. The white sheets under Sojiro’s leg were soaked with it, and Yahiko knew without looking that the futon under it was ruined. Much to Yahiko’s relief, Sojiro had slowly stopped bleeding soon after the doctors stopped cutting and, after the stitches were done, the blood flow had stopped completely. Now he was just covered in dried blood, which was really gross, but it wasn't as if Yahiko hadn't seen it before. He stared at the gruesome stitches, nose crinkled up, in morbid fascination. They reached from just below Sojiro’s left ankle to halfway up his calf, and the skin looked disgusting all pulled taut like that. He was glad it wasn't a gaping hole anymore though. The stitches were much preferable.

When Sojiro had woken up, Yahiko’s job was to throw himself across the boy’s right leg to help keep him still. Yahiko had thought the job would be easy, but a terrified, hurting kid had a lot more strength than he had expected. Sojiro had almost kicked him in the face once — Yahiko had barely dodged that blow. From his perch on Sojiro’s leg, Yahiko had an almost full view of Sojiro’s surgery. He couldn't see the bone, though. All the skin and muscle had been pulled back and pinned away with silver hooks and Megumi and Doctor Gensai’s hands were soaked in blood whenever they pulled away from the hole in his skin. Weasel-girl was kneeling next to them, holding a lamp aloft, chewing her lip as she watched with all the focus in the world. Yahiko watched all of them for a while, watching more and more sluggish blood pour from the surgical wound, Sojiro’s muffled and terrified screams the background to the scene. It was all very macabre, now that Yahiko considered it. And it was almost inquisitional in the pain it endured on Sojiro. Yahiko could barely stand it and was relieved when the boy’s screams fell off into long moans and then silence. When Sojiro was quiet again, Yahiko dared to look over at his face.

Kenshin was prying a piece of leather from between Sojiro’s lips, and it came out accompanied by thin strands of saliva. After laying it aside, Kenshin leaned forward and checked Sojiro’s breathing. He relaxed when everything seemed normal and Megumi ordered that everyone could get off Sojiro now. Aoshi, Sano, and Yahiko obeyed, and Sano left the room as Aoshi retreated to a corner and closed his eyes. Misao spared him a glance before turning back to the surgery. Yahiko stayed where he was by Sojiro’s side and turned to look at his new friend’s face again.

He was pale, his expression was still etched in pain, and his breathing was strained, as if even in unconsciousness he was acutely aware of the pain. His lips were parted and dry and a thick string of saliva hung off one side of his face. Tear stains ran down his cheeks. Kenshin was exhausted, but he soothed the boy with a natural ease, draping another cool cloth across his eyes and bathing his face. Yahiko watched Kenshin for a moment, a worried frown on his face, then turned to look at Kaoru.

He blinked when she wasn't at her usual place by Sojiro’s head.

“Kenshin,” he said, keeping his voice low. The red head looked up at him and blinked slowly. “Where’s Kaoru?”

“Kaoru-dono left a while ago,” Kenshin said, and somehow his face became even sadder. “After Sojiro started moaning she asked to leave. This one said she could.”

Yahiko frowned. What the hell? She wasn't just allowed to leave! How could—?

Kenshin’s voice cut through his thoughts.

“It’s all right, Yahiko,” he said. “Kaoru-dono was too upset to be of much use here.” He turned back to Sojiro and soothed him when his breath hitched a bit. Yahiko gaped at the rurouni. Had Kenshin just said that Kaoru hadn't been of much use? What the. . .

“Kenshin. . .”

“She tried her best, that she did,” Kenshin continued. “I cannot fault her for being upset. This one was upset as well.”

“Where is she?” Yahiko asked.

Kenshin shook his head.

“This one does not know,” he said. “Although I believe it may be best to leave her be.”

“What? Why?”

“Kaoru-dono is very upset, Yahiko,” Kenshin said with a sigh. “Why don’t you help Megumi-dono with Sojiro for now and we’ll find her later?”

Yahiko stared at Kenshin for a few seconds longer, wanting badly to ask why he couldn't get Kaoru now, why Kenshin was totally fine with her leaving at such an important time, why, why, why! But instead he just made a face at Kenshin, which somehow made the rurouni smile, and went over to Megumi and Doctor Gensai. When the surgery was over, with Misao’s help, he bathed the caked blood from Sojiro’s foot and patted it dry, returning his skin to its previously milk white shade.

As he left to dispose of the basin of bath water — now an unsettling shade of rose-red — he saw Kaoru sitting on the porch, her feet dangling over the wood, her toes running through the dirt. The rising sun poured a soft light on her face and most of Yahiko’s anger at her faded when he caught sight of her expression. Her eyes were puffy and red, her nose was runny, and her cheeks were splotchy. Even as Yahiko watched, a few more tears spilled from her eyes and ran down her face, landing with little splashes on her kimono. She was clutching a handkerchief between her white-knuckled hands and sniffled as she gazed blankly at the horizon.

Yahiko dumped the water in the grass before walking over to Kaoru.

“Kaoru?” he asked, voice quiet and hesitant. Despite not wanting to scare her, the girl still jumped. However, she relaxed when she saw Yahiko next to her, awkwardly hovering by her side.

“Hi, Yahiko.”

“Are you okay?” the boy asked, seating himself next to his teacher. “Kenshin told me you left and I — he — was worried about you.”

Kaoru managed a crooked little smile.

“I’m sorry I left,” she said, returning her gaze to the skyline. “But I couldn't really handle it. He—He was in so much pain.” Her voice hitched. “I—I—I really wanted to stay but Kenshin told me that my crying was only scaring him more. So I left.”

Yahiko’s eyes widened.

“Did Kenshin ask you to leave?”

“Not outright, but I thought it might be best. After all, he’s been with Sojiro the longest — he would know best what he needs.” Kaoru sniffled again and blew her nose. Then she turned to Yahiko. “How is Sojiro now?” she asked. “It’s gone quiet.”

“He’s asleep,” Yahiko said, swinging his legs back and forth. “His foot is all stitched up and he’s clean, so now everything’s finished. Megumi and Doctor Gensai said that there’s nothing to worry about except infection. But Megumi is confident that she can keep that from happening. So it sounds like Sojiro will be okay.”

“Really?”

“Mhm,” Yahiko hummed. “Everything’s all right, Kaoru.”

“So . . . do you think I can go back in?”

“Maybe not yet,” Yahiko said. “They’re getting rid of all the bloody sheets and futon.” Yahiko paused before speaking again. “And, to be honest, I-I don't really want to go back in yet. There’s too much blood.”

Kaoru’s face softened and she pulled Yahiko close to her, embracing him in a one-armed hug.

For once, Yahiko did not pull away.

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As Sano stared at Sojiro, he was relieved to find that some of the pain had been wiped from his face. After everything was cleaned up and Doctor Gensai had left, Megumi had managed to get a cupful of tea mixed with morphine down the unconscious boy’s throat and it seemed to have done the trick. Thirty minutes later, Sojiro’s breathing was relatively even and he seemed much calmer. They had moved the little boy back to his normal futon, propped his bandaged leg on a pillow, and draped him in the blue kakebuton. Aoshi had watched with a frown and fingered the fabric before excusing himself. Sano had thought it strange, but it wasn't like Aoshi was a normal person anyways, so he just shrugged it off.

Sano had nestled Nigou next to Sojiro’s cheek and was now petting the boy’s hair as he slept, once and a while gruffly humming an old lullaby he remembered his mother singing. But it was awful, so he always stopped halfway through, berating himself for his terrible voice. But he never stopped petting Sojiro’s hair, never wanting the boy to think he was alone.

They had sent Kenshin off to sleep an hour ago, after having to practically pry him from Sojiro’s side. The rurouni had spent the entire night and day with Sojiro, staying by him during the surgery and afterwards, and no one had the heart to move him until he was practically weaving. But Kenshin refused to leave the room, so Megumi, annoyed but understanding, set up a spare futon in the corner and ordered Kenshin to sleep there on the threat of drugging him. So Kenshin had finally moved from Sojiro and dragged himself to the futon.

He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

They had each taken turns with Sojiro for the past few hours. Jo-chan first, practically crying her eyes out, then Misao and Aoshi, and now Yahiko and Sano. It was late afternoon now and everyone had a sleepless night, so Yahiko had completely passed out next to Sojiro, snoring softly, his hand wrapped loosely around the boy’s elbow. If Sano didn't know himself better he would have called the sight almost adorable. Almost. But he didn’t.

He sighed and leaned back, continuing to pet the boy’s hair. Sano was relieved that Sojiro hadn't woken up yet because he knew that wakefulness would drag with it only pain. So he kept petting Sojiro’s hair, even when his hand began to cramp up, hoping the boy would stay asleep.

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Chapter Text

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Misao had been surprised, to say the least, when Aoshi suggested they go shopping.

“Huh?” She blinked.

“Let’s go shopping,” Aoshi had repeated, taking a sip of his tea. “I’m sure the Kamiya girl needs more food.”

“Oh, grocery shopping? That’s a wonderful idea, Aoshi-sama!”

So Misao had dashed to Kaoru, who had been shocked and embarrassed, insisting she could go by herself. Misao had dismissed that idea immediately and said that she and Aoshi-sama would be happy to do the shopping for her and even offered to pay. Kaoru had hit her for that one — “I can pay for this household’s food, baka!!” — so Misao took the money (and a bump on the head) and left the house with Aoshi-sama and directions to the market.

However, the first place they stopped was not the market, but a fabric shop. Aoshi had stopped in front of the shop and stepped inside; Misao, who had been chattering incessantly, had walked a while longer before realizing that the somber presence next to her had disappeared. Her eyes widened and she dashed back, peering into different shops. She couldn't find him for a few minutes, and she was getting annoyed, but then she looked into the fabric shop on a whim. She hadn't expected to see Aoshi there, standing in front of the counter, talking to the shopkeeper.

“Uh, Aoshi-sama?” Misao asked, stepping inside with a frown. “They don't sell food in here, do they?”

“No.”

“Then why are we here?”

“For a kakebuton.”

“Ah, we have many patterns to choose from, sir!” the old woman behind the counter said, and she scuttled out from behind the counter on a cane, motioning for Aoshi to follow her. He did, and, in turn, Misao followed Aoshi.

“Aoshi-sama, why are we getting a kakebuton?”

“For Sojiro.”

Misao blinked again.

“He already has one,” she said, trying to keep her voice low so the shopkeeper wouldn't hear.

“Yes, I am aware, but he requires a new one. The one he has is growing thin. You must toss blankets over it to keep him warm.”

Misao thought back to Sojiro’s bed and the kakebuton tossed across it. Now that she thought about it, the blue comforter was rather thin and was even threatening to tear in some places — it probably would if Sojiro thrashed too hard. Still. . . She bit her lip.

“Aoshi-sama, don’t you think it would be offensive to Kaoru-san if we bought him a new kakebuton?”

“No.”

“Um. Okay.” Misao usually liked how blunt Aoshi-sama was, but right now it was making things more difficult. “But we can’t use her grocery money to buy this!”

“I know. I brought money.” Aoshi reached into his obi and pulled out his traveling wallet, displaying the contents to Misao. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. “Aoshi-sama??!?” she squeaked. “You-You. . .!”

“Is everything all right, you two?” the shopkeeper said, frowning at the towering man and girl.

“Yes,” Aoshi said, snapping his purse away. At the same time, Misao said, “Y-Yeah.”

“All right,” the old woman said. It was clear she didn't really believe it, but she accepted it anyway. Over her long years, she had learned it was best not to question customers; it was a sure way to lose business. So she just smiled. “My name is Sugawara Emi.” Both man and girl bowed respectfully. “May I ask why are buying a kakebuton today?”

“A boy requires a new one,” the man said. “The one he has now is thinning and fraying.”

Sugawara-san clicked her tongue.

“That won’t do. We’ll remedy that right away.” She hobbled over to the back of the shop where thick, long silk fabrics were laid out. They ranged in every shade of color from white to black, blues and greens and pinks. There were even patterned ones. “I’ll let you two browse the fabrics for a bit,” Sugawara said. “Meanwhile—”

“There’s no need to wait, Sugawara-san,” Aoshi said, and the old woman turned around to find both both man and girl pointing at the same patterned silk.

It was a rich, dark red, covered in shining golden swirls, waves, and a multitude of colorful koi fish. It seemed a little. . . extravagant. . . for a child.

“The koi?” Sugawara asked, eyes wide.

“Yes!” the girl cried and the man nodded along with her, his eyes as solemn and serious as ever.

“Are you sure?” the woman asked.

“Of course! It’s perfect!” The girl grinned, and she turned to look up at the man. “Right, Aoshi-sama?”

“That’s right,” he said, and the old woman caught a flicker of a smile on his face.

“It’s an expensive fabric,” Sugawara continued, hesitant. “I’m not sure it would be appropriate for a child’s bed. Perhaps a simpler fabric?”

“No,” Aoshi said. “This one is fine.”

Sugawara sighed. If these people wanted a child to ruin such a lovely silk, then they could deal with the repercussions themselves. She was going to charge through the nose for it.

“Fine,” she said, pulling the silk off the shelf and heading to the counter. “It will be expensive though.”

“That’s all right,” Aoshi said, “I expected nothing less from one of the best shops in town.”

Sugawara’s annoyance faded almost instantly and she blushed at the handsome young man.

“My, my,” she said, “where did you hear this?”

“I did research and asked around the town,” Aoshi answered, completely deadpan. “They all spoke highly of you, Sugawara-san.”

“If Aoshi-sama says so, then it must true!” the short girl chirped. The old woman smiled at her.

“Thank you two very much,” she said. “I still would not recommend such a fine fabric for a child’s bed, but I will make it nonetheless.”

“Thank you, Sugawara-san. Ah, do you make makura pillows here?”

“Not here, but my neighbor does. I wouldn't recommend using this silk as a makura though. Something simpler should do just as well. Better, in fact. That way the child’s head won’t be slipping and sliding.”

“Of course. Misao, why don't you pick out a fabric for the pillow?”

“Sure, Aoshi-sama!”

Sugawara watched the girl bounce over to a shelf full of simpler, cheaper fabrics and talk to herself as she eyed each and every pattern. Sugawara smiled as she turned back to the fine patterned silk.

“A child’s size futon, then?”

“No,” the man said with a shake of the head. “A standard one will be fine.”

“But you said this was for a child,” Sugawara frowned. “Don’t you want it to be for a child’s size futon?”

“He’s not resting on a child sized futon.”

“What?” Sugawara was getting increasingly frustrated again. What the heck were these people talking about? They wanted a fine silk kakebuton for a child that would probably be ruined and now they said he didn't even have a child-sized futon? What the. . .?

“He’s very ill,” the man said, and everything clicked instantly. Ah. The silk would be soft and soothing, and the fact he wasn't in his own bed but had a new kakebuton all his own would be incredibly comforting.

“Ah.” Sugawara nodded. “I see.”

The man nodded and pulled his wallet from its hidden place in his obi. He pulled a handful of coins from it and laid them on the counter. The old woman’s eyes went wide. That much money was sure to feed her and her husband for almost three months!!

“S-Sir, it’s not this expensive!” she cried. She tried to push the money back to him, but he just shook his head.

“Please accept it,” he said. “In payment for the kakebuton, fabric for the makura pillow, and the making of the two. Would you mind having this finished by early next week?”

“O-Of course!” Sugawara said, dipping her head in agreement. “It’ll be ready when you come in on Sunday.” It would be ready by the next morning if he wanted, he was paying so much. . .

“Aoshi-sama!” The girl bounced back to the counter, a roll of fabric in her hands. It was red, covered in white diamonds and flowers. “What do you think?”

“It’s very nice, Misao.”

“Great!” The girl dumped the fabric on the counter. “This too, please!”

“Of course. I’ll send this fabric to my neighbor and it will be ready on Sunday as well. Thank you two for your business.” She bowed deeply and the pair bowed in return. They said their final thanks before the girl bounced out of the shop, black braid whipping against her back, the tall, sober man following her and saying something about daikon radishes.

Odd pair. . .

***************************************

Chapter Text

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“Hello, Sojiro,” Megumi said, smiling down at her patient. “It’s good to see you up.”

Sojiro just blinked at her.

Megumi had arrived just after dinner, medical chest in tow, ready to give Sojiro another check-up. It had been a little over twelve hours since the surgery, and Megumi wanted to keep on top of this to make sure no infection made its way to the surgical site. Sojiro was weak and immunocompromised, so he was higher risk of infection than usual. She’d been surprised to see that Kenshin was still fast asleep in the corner, and when she asked Kaoru, the girl told her he'd been asleep for a while now. Great. If Ken-san is getting sick too. . . .

The doctor snapped herself out of her thoughts and knelt next to her patient. She wasn't here to worry about Ken-san. Sojiro came first. When she first knelt down next to him and peered into his face, she was shocked to see that his eyes were open and focused on her. She had thought she had dosed him with as much as morphine as she deemed safe, but it must not have been enough. Even if he was awake, he should have been confused and bleary-eyed. But instead his eyes were bright, and, much to Megumi’s surprise and pleasure, he showed no sign of pain.

“How are you feeling, Sojiro?” Megumi asked, taking out her stethoscope.

“Tired,” Sojiro said, his voice raspy, “an-and numb.”

“Are you in pain?”

“No,” Sojiro said. “Floaty.”

Megumi chuckled.

“Yep,” she said, “that’s the medicine. It seems to be doing the trick.” She leaned over to listen to Sojiro’s heart, placing the stethoscope over his pale white breast. Sojiro flinched at the cold metal, but relaxed a moment later. As Megumi listened intently for any worrying signs, Sojiro spoke to her.

“What did you do to me?” he whispered.

“What?” Megumi asked. She stiffened and pulled away. “What do you mean?”

“When I woke up you were hurting my ankle. It hurt really, really, really bad.” Sojiro stared up at her, and Megumi was alarmed to find that his blue eyes were swimming with tears. “It hurt so bad, lady doctor.”

“I’m sorry, darling,” Megumi said, and she swept her hand across his brow. Sojiro flinched and Megumi pulled away as if burned. She dropped her hand into her lap. “We had to fix your ankle since the broken bones were healing incorrectly.”

“Did you break it again?”

“Yes,” Megumi answered with a nod. “Then Doctor Gensai and I did surgery to fix the bones completely.”

“What’s that?”

“What’s what?” Megumi asked.

“S-Surgery?”

A lump rose to Megumi’s throat and for a moment she swore she was going to choke. This little boy didn't know what surgery was? Well, of course he didn’t! Not many children did in the first place, and this one, who she doubted received any type of medical care, was even less likely to know. Megumi was usually ready to explain anything to her younger patients, but she was hesitant to this time. What would she say? That they cut him open to fix him? That sounded awful! Like a form of torture and abuse! And he’d already been through so much —

“Lady doctor?” Megumi snapped herself out of her thoughts to find Sojiro staring at her and his eyes were horrifyingly wide and scared. “I-I’m sorry if what I asked was wrong. You can h-hit me if you want. J-Just don't s-s-surgery me anymore. Please.”

Megumi settled her shaking hands in her lap and bit her lip, trying to keep the tears in her eyes from falling.

“Sojiro,” she said, weighing each of her words with the utmost care, “you didn't say anything wrong. You have a right to know what hurt you.”

“Wh-What did?”

“Doctor Gensai and I perform surgeries with small knives called scalpels.”

Sojiro’s eyes grew so wide Megumi swore they were going to pop out of his head.

“Kn-Knives? You cut me? Like a sword?”

Sword? Megumi cocked her head and opened her mouth to speak, but Sojiro’s little voice cut her off.

“So it does hurt. . .”

“Sojiro, what do—?”

“I want Kenshin, lady doctor Megumi,” Sojiro interrupted and his free hand fluttered anxiously by his side. “Kenshin, please. K-Kenshin.”

“All right, all right,” Megumi soothed, eager to keep the boy calm. “I’ll get Ken-san for you. Just try to stay still and calm, okay? Stay still.”

Sojiro obeyed, but began to sob.

“Shh, shh,” Megumi said, and she turned to where Kenshin was sleeping in the corner. “Ken-san—”

Kenshin was awake and at her side before his name had fully left her lips. He reached out for Sojiro, taking his hand and sweeping his hair from his face.

“Sojiro, little one, I’m here. It’s all right now, this one is here.”

“K-Kenshin!” Sojiro twisted a bit and tried to curl himself around the man’s knees. But the sudden movement shot pain up his body from his ankle and he stilled with a cry that turned into a pained sob. “K-Kenshin, I was r-right!”

“Shh, stay still, Sojiro. What were you right about?”

“That it hurts to be cut by a sword! I-I was right! I-I didn't want to kill them, Kenshin! I didn't want to hurt them!” His voice rose to a shriek. “I DIDN’T! I DIDN’T!”

“All right, all right, I know,” Kenshin soothed, “I know. You didn't want to kill them. Even though they hurt you, you didn't want to hurt them too, is that right?” Sojiro sobbed again and nodded. “I see. This one understands. You didn't want to hurt anyone.”

“Th-They were going to KILL me!” Sojiro said, and his blue eyes were huge. “They were going to k-kill me! With a sword!! I was going to die!” Sojiro curled his hand around Kenshin’s palm so tightly that his nails dug into the rurouni’s skin. “Die, die, DIE! They wanted to kill me, Kenshin!”

“Shh,” Kenshin said, his voice low and quiet. He swallowed the lump in his throat; he was grateful that he had found Sojiro alive and safe, but was simultaneously horrified that the boy’s life had been so threatened he was forced to kill in order to protect himself. No one should have to go through that, least of all a child.

He leaned forward and placed his forehead against Sojiro’s.

“It’s all right, Sojiro,” he said, “you’re safe now. No one is going to kill you and no one is going to die.”

“But-but Lady doctor cut me,” the boy answered, his voice a whisper. “With a knife.”

Kenshin didn't move.

“I know,” he sighed after a moment. “But that’s different from a sword. We were fixing your bones so you can walk normally.”

“B-But it really hurt,” Sojiro sobbed. “It hurt so bad. I thought you were killing me.”

Kenshin’s heart skipped a beat, and, behind him, he heard Megumi stifle a cry.

“I know it hurt, but it’s okay now,” the rurouni said, squeezing Sojiro’s hand. “Everything’s okay now, that it is. No one is killing anyone.”

Sojiro nodded slowly and Kenshin pulled away, kissing the boy’s forehead as he did so.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “I know it hurt, but it’s okay now,” the rurouni said, squeezing Sojiro’s hand. “Everything’s okay now, that it is. No one is killing anyone.”

Sojiro nodded slowly and Kenshin pulled away, kissing the boy’s forehead as he did so.

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Sojiro blinked tiredly at him and allowed his eyes to flutter close; his panicked frenzy had taken much of his already small amount of energy.

Kenshin sighed and turned to Megumi. The doctor quickly composed herself, wiping some tears from her cheeks before she tucked her stethoscope back in her medical chest and pulled from it a new roll of bandages.

“His heart sounds fine, as do his lungs,” she said, once again all business. “Now I’ll change the bandages around his ankle and then go.”

“All right,” Kenshin said with a nod, squeezing the boy’s hand. “Did you hear that, Sojiro? We’re changing your bandages and then you can sleep again.”

“O-Okay.”

“Before we start, darling, I want you to listen to me for a few moments,” Megumi said, and she peered around Kenshin to catch the boy’s blue eyes. She tried for a smile. “I’m going to put some ointment on your ankle so I need to touch you. It might hurt a little, but it should be over very quickly, all right?”

Sojiro nodded. Megumi moved over to sit by his foot, which Sojiro suddenly realized was propped up by a mountain of cushions, and he tried to sit up to see. Kenshin, however, pushed him back down with ease. Sojiro whined.

“I-I want to see.”

“Not yet, Sojiro,” Kenshin said with a frown. “It’s not a pretty sight. And this one would like you to lay down.”

“He can see, Ken-san.” Megumi’s voice, soft and reassuring, floated from Sojiro’s feet and the boy’s face lit up. He held up his hand and grasped at Kenshin, tugging at his gi, wordlessly demanding to be held up, but Kenshin was frowning and biting his lip. Somewhere beyond the pain medicine, Sojiro felt a twinge as bandages were pulled from his skin.

“Megumi-dono—”

“Sojiro,” the doctor interrupted, “can you wiggle your toes for me? Don’t look, just try to move them.”

Sojiro nodded and obeyed. When Megumi spoke next, she was thrilled.

“Very good, Sojiro!” She pinched his pinkie toe. “Can you feel that?”

“Y-Yeah.”

“And this?”

“Y-Yes.”

“Good!” Sojiro could almost hear Megumi’s smile. “I’m very happy, Sojiro!”

“Wh-Why?”

“Why? Because this means you’re already getting better and Doctor Gensai and I didn't make any mistakes that would cut off the blood flow to your toes.”

Sojiro nodded, but didn't say anything; he was getting tired again. He hadn't even realized he had closed his eyes before Kenshin was speaking to him, asking him to wake up and say goodbye to Megumi-dono. Sojiro, exhausted, didn't open his eyes, but breathed a farewell. As he fell into a deeper sleep, his hand held in Kenshin’s own, he listened to the adults’ conversation.

“Seems like he didn't get to see like he wanted.” Megumi’s voice had a laugh to it.

“I’m rather glad, that I am. It might have frightened him.”

“He’ll have to see eventually, Ken-san.”

Kenshin sighed.

“This one knows.”

“Well, I’ll take my leave then. Everything looks good to me — no sign of infection.”

“Really?” Kenshin’s voice was bright.

“Really, Ken-san.” There was a pause and Sojiro felt Megumi’s hand in his hair. He relaxed and melted a little further into the futon. “You’re right, you know,” she said after a moment.

“Oro?”

“You’re right, Ken-san,” Megumi repeated. “No one is going to die here.”

And, with those soft words, meant for his ears as well as Kenshin’s, Sojiro fell asleep.

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Chapter Text

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Yahiko was laying on his back next to Sojiro, holding his pinwheel up after he blew it so that Sojiro could watch it spin. It was a week after the surgery, and Sojiro, much to everyone’s delight, was already feeling better. He was still in pain, but it was under control thanks to Megumi and the morphine. He was still on bed rest, his ankle propped up, and he slept often and peacefully. Megumi was thrilled that he slept so quietly; his body was assisting well with his healing. He was also keeping down food, his surgical wounds were healing, and no other complications were arising.

Today, Sojiro was very tired, and had no interest in trying to stay awake and listen to Yahiko babble and talk about his life — his training at the dojo, cleaning the house, and working at the Akabeko. His blue eyes usually lit up when Yahiko told these stories, and he was full of interest and fascination, but today he was exhausted. Sano had told Yahiko that Megumi had removed some of the stitches that morning — a long, arduous process that caused Sojiro pain and distress. So it was good to let him rest. They had been instructed to not get him too excited.

Unfortunately, Yahiko was bursting with energy. How was he supposed to keep it all in? It’s not like he had much of a filter in the first place, and today he felt really, really excited. Kaoru had began teaching him a new move and he really wanted to tell Sojiro all about it.

When the pinwheel stopped spinning, Yahiko lowered it to blow it again. However, as he puffed his cheeks and took a deep breath, Sojiro spoke to him.

“Yahiko,” he said, “I want to go outside.”

Yahiko released his breath, but didn't make the pinwheel spin. He turned to Sojiro, settling his brown eyes on his pleading face. He bit his lip.

“Sorry, Sojiro,” he said, “but you can’t yet.”

“Why?”

“Well, your ankle is still messed up and you can’t walk. You’re also weak as hell. You can’t even go to the bathroom by yourself, right?”

Sojiro’s cheeks flushed with color and he looked away. Yahiko stifled a laugh.

“Don’t worry,” he said, blowing the pinwheel again, “even though you can’t walk, I’m sure Kenshin and the others will carry you outside soon enough. They’d like that.”

“So I can go out?”

“Yeah, probably soon,” Yahiko said, holding up the pinwheel. “You just have to wait a bit.”

Sojiro nodded and watched silently for a few minutes as Yahiko continued to blow and spin the pinwheel. Eventually, though, he spoke again.

“Yahiko,” he said, “c-can I see your sword?”

Yahiko froze and turned huge eyes onto Sojiro.

“Huh?” he asked dumbly.

“C-Can I see your sword?” Sojiro repeated. “Y-Your bamboo one?”

“My shinai?” Yahiko asked. When Sojiro nodded, Yahiko’s face lit up and he got quickly to his feet. “Yeah! Yeah! Of course! I’ll be right back — just give me a sec!”

The boy got to his feet and slid the door leading to the porch wide open, running to the dojo and nearly falling on his face in his haste to get there. Sojiro wanted to see his shinai! His shinai!! Kaoru and Kenshin had strictly forbidden him to bring it into the room for fear it would trigger something in Sojiro, but now that Sojiro had personally asked to see it, it was okay, right? He wanted to see it! And Yahiko wanted him to see it too!

As he dashed into the dojo, he smacked straight into Misao. Both small bodies went flying opposite directions with a startled hmph!

“Oww,” Yahiko complained, sitting up and rubbing at his hand. “What the—?”

“Hey, watch where you’re going, brat!” Misao yelled, smacking Yahiko. The boy cried out in annoyance and swatted her away. Misao frowned at him. “What are you doing, running around like a crazy person?”

“I—”

“And aren't you supposed to be with Sojiro? Himura and the others are out — they won’t be happy if they come back and find you here.”

“Ugh, shut up, Weasel-girl,” Yahiko said, getting to his feet and shoving her aside. Ignoring her protest, he reached behind her and grabbed his shinai from its storage place. “I’m going right back to Sojiro. I just needed this.” And he turned and stalked away without further explanation.

Much to his annoyance, but not to his surprise, Misao followed him.

“What are you doing with that?” she asked, dogging his footsteps as he made his way down the porch. “Are you bringing that into Sojiro’s room? I’m not sure Himura’s gonna like that.”

“Well, Kenshin isn't here and Sojiro asked to see it,” Yahiko said. He popped his head into the open doorway to Sojiro’s room with a bright smile. “Hey, Sojiro,” he said, “I’m back. Weasel-girl is too.”

“Y-You mean M-M-Misao?”

“Yes, he means me,” Misao said with a roll of her eyes. She shut the rice paper doors and seated herself next to Sojiro, smiling at him. “It’s not very nice to call people names, but Yahiko does it all the time.”

Sojiro’s eyes widened in disbelief and Misao stifled a laugh.

“Y-Yahiko makes fun of you?”

“Pffft, all the time!” Misao giggled. She turned to Yahiko. “What have you been teaching this kid — that you’re some perfect ray of sunshine or something?”

Yahiko made a face and Misao laughed. Sojiro’s blue eyes darted between them in confusion. He didn't understand. You could call someone a mean name and they could still be friends afterwards? Is that how it worked? The Setas called him mean names all the time and he was never their friend. But Misao and Yahiko were. Was it because they were kids? Was it because they actually cared about each other?

“Y-Yahiko?” Sojiro asked, cutting off the “argument” mid-word. “Can you call me a name too?”

Yahiko blinked.

“Huh?”

“C-Can you call me a mean name too?”

“What?!?” Yahiko cried, outraged and confused. “No way!!”

Sojiro flinched and closed his eyes, ready for the pain he was sure to come, but when it didn’t, he peeled them back open again, finding Misao and Yahiko frowning at him.

“It’s okay, beansprout,” Misao said, trying to smile reassuringly. She reached out and rubbed his arm. “We won’t hurt you. We’re just confused.”

“Yeah. Why the heck do you want me to call you names?” Yahiko asked, and Sojiro noticed he was gripping the handle of his shinai tightly. “I would never call you a name.”

“But you call Misao names. And you like her.”

Yahiko’s eyes widened in sudden understanding.

“Yeah, but that’s different!” he said. “I’m just teasing her. She calls me names and I call her names. It’s kinda our thing.”

“So you won’t call me a name?”

“No. I’m just gonna call you Sojiro.” He smiled. “Is that okay?”

“Y-Yeah. But we’re still f-friends?”

“Of course! Friends forever!”

Sojiro nodded and his eyes, now relaxed and calm, flicked to Yahiko’s shinai.

“C-Can you show me that?”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: Sojiro nodded and his eyes, now relaxed and calm, flicked to Yahiko’s shinai.

“C-Can you show me that?”

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“Yeah, of course!” Yahiko scooted close to Sojiro and held out his shinai so the boy could touch it. Sojiro reached out his uninjured hand and fingered the bamboo body carefully.

“It’s different from a sword. Gentler.”

Misao blinked and frowned but Yahiko laughed.

“Well, yeah,” he said, “it’s not made of metal!” He picked it up and swung it at Misao, whacking her on the arm. The girl cried out in annoyance. “But it can still hurt if you hit hard enough!”

“Ugh, brat! Don’t bruise my skin! What will Aoshi-sama think?”

“Who cares!! You’re just a kid anyway, it’s not like he—”

“Misao likes A-Aoshi,” Sojiro cut off. “Like how K-Kaoru likes Kenshin.”

Misao, mortified, turned bright red and Yahiko snorted and fell down laughing.

“Sojiro!” he cried. “I love how you just say things like that!” Yahiko rolled onto his back, guffawing. “If Kaoru were here she’d be redder than Misao!!!” He slapped the tatami mats with his hands as Sojiro, with a soft frown, turned to Misao, who was red and looked slightly angry as she glared at Yahiko.

“I-I’m sorry if I upset you, M-Misao,” the boy stammered. “I just thought—”

“No, no, it’s okay, beansprout,” the girl reassured with a smile. She rubbed the back of her head and somehow turned even redder. “You’re right, actually.”

“A-Am I right about Kaoru, too?” Sojiro asked.

“Boy, are you!!” Yahiko snorted. “That girl is mad for Kenshin!”

Sojiro nodded once, in understanding, before turning back to Misao.

“Will you get married to Aoshi, M-Misao?” he asked, voice innocent.

Yahiko broke into hysterics as Misao gasped and covered her face with her hands.

“S-Sojiro!” Yahiko laughed. “You’re hilarious!”

Sojiro frowned, his blue eyes flitting between Yahiko’s bright, laughing face, and Misao’s flushed one buried in her hands.

“D-Did I say something wrong?” he asked. “I-I’m sorry.”

Misao pried her hands from her face and scooted over to sit closer to Sojiro.

“You didn't say anything wrong, Sojiro,” she said, rubbing her hand across his arm. “But let’s keep this a secret from Aoshi-sama and Himura, all right?”

“A secret?”

“Hmm,” Misao hummed. “Let me and Kaoru-san tell them our feelings.”

Sojiro’s lips parted in a silent “oh” and he nodded eagerly.

“Okay,” he said, “I promise it’s a secret.”

Misao grinned and ruffled the boy’s hair.

“Thank you, beansprout.” She reached out and punched Yahiko. “Oi, brat! Quit laughing!”

“N-No way!” Yahiko gasped. “That was the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time!”

“Ugh! SHUT UP, YAHIKO!” Misao grabbed the boy’s shinai and whacked him on the head with it.

“HEY!” Yahiko cried. “Don’t use my shinai like that, Weasel-girl!!”

Misao got to her feet, shinai’s hilt balanced in her hand. A wicked little grin twisted her lips.

“You know,” she said, “this is a pretty good shinai. Bet you I could beat you up with this.”

Yahiko clambered to his feet, glaring at the girl. He held out his hand.

“Give it here, Weasel-girl!”

“Try getting it from me!” Misao cried, and, so quickly that Sojiro barely saw, she was flying out of the room, shinai in hand. Yahiko wasted no time in dashing after the girl, yelling and running after her, leaving Sojiro alone.

The boy’s eyes searched the room and his gut twisted painfully. He’d never been left alone here before without warning and it was scary. He didn't like it.

But then he blinked and turned to stare at the wide open door, leading out to the porch and yard. It was warm enough outside, and the falling leaves were beautiful. Sojiro wanted to see. He wanted to get closer.

He wanted to go outside.

So, Nigou in hand, Sojiro made a plan.

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Kenshin, Sano, Aoshi, and Kaoru were heading back to the dojo after a morning spent getting breakfast in the town and meeting with Megumi and Doctor Gensai at the clinic, discussing Sojiro and his medical concerns. Afterwards, Doctor Gensai pointed out the legal ramifications of taking in Sojiro and suggested that they talk to a lawyer to make Sojiro theirs by law, in case anyone came for him.

Kenshin was thinking of this as he walked down the street, avoiding holes and rocks in the road with ease. It would be safest, indeed, if Sojiro was officially adopted, but Kenshin was worried that if they took his name to a public official it would be easier for unsavory people to find him. Besides, he was hesitant to officially adopt a child under his name. That would make him a parent and he wasn't sure he was ready for that. . . .

“Kenshin.” Kaoru’s voice cut through his thoughts and he turned to find her smiling softly at him. “You know you don’t have to adopt him right this second.”

Kenshin blinked. Somehow it seemed that Kaoru-dono always knew what he was thinking about. She laughed.

“I know you, Kenshin,” she said. She nudged his shoulder gently. “Relax a bit. Think it over. And if you don't want to adopt him, I sure will.” They reached the dojo gate and Kaoru grabbed her key and unlocked it. She smiled as she pushed open the gate. “Honestly, pretty sure any of us would adopt him.”

“Hell yeah,” Sano said. To Kenshin’s great surprise, even Aoshi nodded slightly. His violet eyes widened. All of these people were so good and kind. They were willing to take in a severely injured child and protect him. He and Sojiro were so lucky —

“KENSHIN!”

“HIMURA!”

Yahiko’s and Misao’s frantic voices cut through his happy thoughts like the cut of a sword and his heart twisted as they ran up to him, eyes wide with panic.

“Himura, I’m so sorry!” Misao cried. Her eyes were red and puffy.

“What’s going on?” Kenshin demanded and his hand fluttered to the hilt of his sword on instinct.

“Sojiro’s gone!!” Yahiko yelled. He grabbed Kenshin’s gi and stared up at him. “He’s not in his bed and we can’t find him anywhere!”

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Last chapter: “Sojiro’s gone!!” Yahiko yelled. He grabbed Kenshin’s gi and stared up at him. “He’s not in his bed and we can’t find him anywhere!”

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“What?!?!?” Kaoru cried, but Kenshin was off in a second, dashing to his room, hoping what Misao and Yahiko had told him wasn't true.

But sure enough, Sojiro’s bed lay empty, blankets tossed aside and crumpled at the foot of the bed. Heart in his throat, Kenshin stepped inside, kneeling next to the futon and searching for signs of where the boy might have gone. As he examined the bed, little boy missing from it, he heard the others run into the room.

Kaoru gasped. Sano swore. Aoshi took a sharp breath between his teeth.

“Oh my god,” Kaoru said. She walked into the room, numb, and knelt next to Kenshin, grabbing one of Sojiro’s discarded blankets. “I can’t believe he’s really missing.”

“What did you two do?!?” Sano cried, and Kenshin turned to see Sano grabbing Yahiko by the front of his gi and lifting him from the ground. To his surprise, Yahiko didn't fight him.

“We were showing Sojiro my shinai cause he asked to see it and then Misao stole it.”

“That’s not—!” Misao began.

Aoshi cut her off by placing a hand on her shoulder.

“That’s enough, Misao.”

The girl dropped her head in shame and Sano glared at her one more time before talking to Yahiko again.

“Then what?” he demanded.

“I chased after her when she ran off with it. When we came back, he was gone.”

“You left him alone??” Kaoru cried. Her voice was choked with tears. “We told you not to leave him alone!” She dropped the blanket she was holding, stalked up to Yahiko, and slapped him hard across the face. Yahiko didn't cry out and Kaoru fell to her knees, fighting back sobs. “Wh-What happened to him? What have you two done?”

Sano dropped Yahiko and knelt next to Kaoru, placing a hand on her shoulder. Kenshin watched as Yahiko got to his feet silently and rubbed his red cheek. There were silent tears of shame swimming in his eyes.

“Yahiko,” Kenshin said, “come here.”

Yahiko looked up at him and Kenshin saw the dread and shame well up in his eyes in earnest; he didn't bother to hide the tears anymore. They spilled down his cheeks as he walked silently to the rurouni.

“Yeah, Kenshin?” His voice was quiet.

“Did Sojiro say anything to you before he went missing?” he asked. Yahiko blinked at the unexpected question.

“Huh?”

“Did he say anything to you?” Kenshin repeated. “I think he might have left on his own.”

“B-But Misao and I looked all over the grounds and we couldn't find him at all. Kenshin, I don't think he's here.”

“Answer my question, Yahiko,” Kenshin said, and Yahiko stiffened at the iciness that had slid into the normally serene rurouni’s voice. The boy searched his memory quickly.

“He asked if he could go outside right after you guys left,” he said after a moment. “I said no and then we moved on. Do you think that has anything to do with it?”

Kenshin stood up and did not answer.

“Nigou and the yellow blanket are missing,” he said to the others. “If someone had taken him, they would have left those things behind. He’s probably somewhere on the property. Let’s split up and search. Yahiko, Kaoru, come with me.”

And he swept past them, blood red ponytail flowing behind him. With no hesitation, Kaoru and Yahiko ran after him.

“K-Kenshin,” Kaoru said, wiping her face with her sleeve. “Do you think he’s safe?”

“This one is doubtful,” Kenshin said and Yahiko felt guilt crush him. “If Yahiko and Misao can’t find him, he’s probably hurt and hidden himself so he won’t be punished.”

“My god.”

“Sojiro!” Kenshin’s voice lifted and his serious tone took on a lighter, although still worried, one. “Sojiro, little one, we’re looking for you! Can you tell us where you are?”

There was no response. So the trio combed one half of the grounds, still calling for him, as Sano, Aoshi, and Misao explored the other half. When nothing turned up, Yahiko dared to speak to Kenshin.

“What if he’s unconscious?”

“Then we’d better find him before it rains.”

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Last chapter: “Then we’d better find him before it rains.”

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Yahiko’s eyes swam with even more tears. This was all his fault. It was his turn to watch Sojiro but he had run off and been an idiot. . .

“Shit!” Sano cried. “Kenshin, we can’t find the kid anywhere!”

“Misao, Yahiko, search inside,” Kenshin ordered. “He might have hidden himself somewhere in the house.”

“But—”

“Don’t argue with me!” Kenshin snapped and his violet eyes turned, for just a moment, a shade of gold. Misao and Yahiko recoiled. “Go inside and look! Now!”

The pair dashed inside, not even bothering to discard their shoes, screaming for Sojiro, and Kaoru laid her hand on Kenshin’s arm.

“Kenshin—”

“It’s starting to rain,” Aoshi interrupted, and just as the words left his mouth, a few drops fell onto Kaoru’s cheeks.

“Shit!!!” Sano stomped a foot in the grass and ran his fingers through his hair. “Dammit! Sojiro!! Where the hell are you, kid?!?”

“Spilt up,” Aoshi said, and they were surprised at the urgency in his voice. “If he really is outside, we must find him quickly. The storm will be a bad one.”

“Shit!” Sano ran off, Kaoru following him, both of them screaming, as the rain started falling.

Kenshin stared after them, then took Aoshi’s wrist and headed the opposite direction, not saying a word. Aoshi understood and they both peered at the ground without saying anything, hoping to find signs of Sojiro in the dirt before the rain washed it away. However, the rain began to pour in only a few minutes, and soon the ground was muddy and everyone was soaked.

Kenshin dropped to his knees, fisting his thin fingers into his hair.

“Dammit,” he swore. “Where did he go? What happened?”

Aoshi tried to ignore the tears in the rurouni’s voice. He turned when he heard Misao call for him.

“He’s not inside, Aoshi-sama!” she cried from the porch.

Aoshi nodded and opened his mouth to speak when he heard a thud and a squeak. He froze and kept listening. The sounds didn't repeat themselves, but he thought them worth investigating anyways.

“A lantern, Misao!” he called through the rain, and he saw her give a thumbs up. He turned to Himura. “Himura, I heard something and I think it might be the boy.”

Kenshin looked quickly up at him through his curtain of soaked red hair.

“What? Are you sure?”

“I am not positive, but I am sure it is worth looking.” Misao appeared with a lantern and Aoshi took it, using some of his cloak to protect the flame. He walked around the well, before stopping in front of the oak tree in the yard. He stopped, Kenshin behind him. Then he turned to the left and knelt in the mud, peering under the porch. His breath caught. “Himura, under here!”

Kenshin, without thought, threw himself under the porch, and elbowed his way through the mud, guided to the little body curled up in the mud by the flickering light of the lamp. He vaguely heard Aoshi crying to the others for blankets, warm water, towels, and a multitude of other things.

But all that mattered to Kenshin was Sojiro.

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Last chapter: But all that mattered to Kenshin was Sojiro.

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When he was close, he could tell that the boy was breathing, but his eyes were closed and he wasn't moving. With gentle fingers, Kenshin ran his hands over Sojiro’s body the best he could in the enclosed space. He needed to get Sojiro out of here as soon as possible, but he needed to make sure it was safe to move him first.

His quick examination revealed his neck wasn't broken — the most important thing — and he couldn't feel any other broken bones. Thank goodness. . .

But as Kenshin ran his hand through Sojiro’s hair, he came across a lump and his fingers went slick with what he knew on instinct wasn't mud or water.

Blood.

Blood.

He was bleeding.

Head injury.

He must have made some sort of noise, because Kaoru’s voice called from outside the porch.

“Kenshin?” she asked. “Kenshin, what’s wrong? What’s going on?”

“He-He’s bleeding,” the man stammered. “His head is bleeding, Kaoru-dono. He has some type of head injury.”

“Head injury?” Kaoru asked and Aoshi’s voice was raised immediately.

“Sagara, go get the doctors. We’ll need them.” Then he was calling to Kenshin again. “Himura,” he said, “do you know how to deal with head injuries?”

“Well enough,” Kenshin answered.

“Then I will assist you. I saw far too many head injuries during the Bakamatsu. Is he breathing?”

“Yes, and nothing is broken. He probably crawled under here himself. It’s no wonder we didn't find him right away.”

“Do you think there’s any way you could carry him out?”

“No,” Kenshin answered. “It’s too cramped here.”

“Then let’s scoot him forward. Is he conscious?”

“No. He isn't responding either. Even our yelling hasn't elicited any kind of response.”

From somewhere next to Aoshi, Kenshin heard Kaoru stifle a sob.

“All right, then let’s move him forward bit by bit. Kamiya-san, please have the towels ready.”

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Kaoru sat in the mud, towels in her arms, soaked through, allowing her kimono to be ruined. She would stay here for as long as needed, and she was going to be the first to hold the little boy. The first to swaddle him up. And she was going to carry him to the bathhouse and warm him up and clean him and never leave his side again. After a few tense minutes of Aoshi on his stomach, hands held out for Sojiro, and the squelch of mud under the porch as Kenshin made his way under it, Aoshi had the boy in his hands and then placed him in Kaoru’s arms.

She stared at the little boy, and her eyes were suddenly swimming. He was filthy, his new yukata was torn, ripped, and soaked in mud. As she readjusted him in her arms, he coughed a bit, some mud and blood coming to his lips. Kaoru wiped it off with her sleeve, murmuring to him. His eyes didn't open and he didn't respond to her touch.

She was scared.

She made to get up, but Aoshi grabbed her arm.

“Give him to Himura,” he said, and Kaoru understood the look in his eyes. No matter how much she didn't want to let go of the little weight in her arms, she knew Kenshin felt so much more strongly than her. He loved this little boy with everything he had.

Kenshin wiggled out from under the porch, covered in mud, and in his haste to hold the little boy knocked his back against the wood; he ignored the pain and held out his arms for Sojiro. Kaoru laid the boy in his arms and stroked his hair from his face.

“Misao and I will be in the bathhouse. We’ll clean and warm him up in there, okay, Kenshin?” Kenshin didn't respond, but only clutched the boy more tightly to his mud-caked chest. “Kenshin?” Kaoru repeated, worried.

“It’s all right, Kamiya-san,” Aoshi said, “we’ll be there in a moment. Please have everything ready when we arrive.”

“Okay.”

Kaoru got to her feet and tore her eyes away from Kenshin and Sojiro, who were both very still, only with immense difficulty. As she got closer to the light of the bathhouse, she noticed a red stain on the sleeve of her kimono. A lump appeared in her throat.

Blood.

This much had soaked through the towels and her kimono?

Kami. . .

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Misao had never seen the beansprout look so small before. When Aoshi-sama and Himura pushed their way into the bathhouse, both filthy, Misao hoped Sojiro would be fidgeting and whining, but he was still as death, his feet hanging limply out of the towels he was swaddled in, the bandages around his ankle unwound and torn.

“Oh my god,” she breathed.

“Here, Kenshin,” Kaoru said. “Let’s lay him down here.” She was kneeling on the floor, wet hair pulled away from her face, a bed of white towels by her knees. Kenshin didn't move, but only pulled the boy closer to his chest. Kaoru bit her lip. “Kenshin, please, we need to get him cleaned up.”

“But—”

“Kenshin,” Kaoru interrupted, “it’s okay. Let’s just clean him up.”

Kenshin nodded slowly.

“All right,” he breathed.

It took all three of them — Kenshin, Kaoru, and Aoshi — to lower the little boy to the ground, making sure his head was safely stabilized. Once Sojiro was lying down, Kenshin took the child’s hand, Kaoru began stripping him of his clothes, and Aoshi rolled towels around his head.

All the while, Sojiro didn't move.

“What’s going on?” Misao asked. “Why isn't he moving? What’s wrong with him?”

“Shut up, Misao!” Kaoru snapped when she saw Kenshin’s hands shake. She didn't feel guilty when Misao flinched. “Get me hot water from the tub!”

“O-Okay.”

It was quiet for a while as everyone worked, but Misao was shocked, to say the least, when Aoshi was the first to speak.

“Sojiro,” Aoshi said, voice quiet and gentle, “we’re all here. If you can hear us, can you give us a sign?”

“Come on, sweetie,” Kaoru urged, “it’s okay.”

“It’s all right now, that it is,” Kenshin added, voice soft. “You’re safe now. You’re safe and we’re giving you a nice warm bath. Everything’s okay.”

Misao watched, bringing clean buckets of warm water, as Kaoru washed the boy’s skinny naked body clean of filth, making sure every inch of mud was gone. Kenshin kept speaking to him all the while, squeezing his hand and asking him questions, but Sojiro showed no sign of responding. Misao was getting scared. Why wasn't he waking up? What had happened? What had she done?

Suddenly, a tiny, long whine bled throughout the bath house and everyone deflated in relief. He was responding.

“There’s a good boy,” Kenshin praised. “We’re here, it’s okay. It’s all right.”

Sojiro’s face curled up and Misao was surprised to see that Himura seemed relieved by this indication of pain; there was even a small smile on his face.

“That’s it, Sojiro. We’re right here. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Another moan. Misao almost couldn't stand it. She wanted to leave, she wanted to run away, but she couldn't because this was all her fault and she couldn't believe she had done this and why had she done this!!

As Sojiro moaned again, this one long and especially pained, the bath house door was thrown open and in ran Doctor Gensai and Megumi.

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Last chapter: As Sojiro moaned again, this one long and especially pained, the bath house door was thrown open and in ran Doctor Gensai and Megumi.

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“Move!” she ordered, and Kaoru and Aoshi stepped aside.

“What happened?” Doctor Gensai asked, settling himself on the floor next to Megumi. She was already ordering Misao and Aoshi around, demanding more lights and towels, but Doctor Gensai just looked evenly from Sojiro’s scrunched up face to Kenshin’s pale and tired one.

“He left the room when Misao-dono and Yahiko left him alone,” Kenshin sighed. “We found him curled up under the porch.”

“Sano said his head had been injured?”

Kenshin nodded and turned to look at Megumi, who, with Kaoru’s help, was turning Sojiro’s head to the side. The rurouni paled at the amount of blood that had already soaked the previously white towels.

“Doctor Gensai,” Megumi said, and Kenshin was alarmed to read the fear and urgency in her voice. “I need you here, please.”

“Of course. Kenshin-san, move aside.”

Kenshin, much to his anxiety, was removed from Sojiro’s side and so had to release his hand. He watched, wringing his hands back and forth, as Doctor Gensai explored Sojiro’s head with his gentle and practiced fingers. As the examination went on, Sojiro began to cry but he never opened his eyes or moved his body.

Finally, Doctor Gensai leaned back.

“What is it?” Megumi asked. She took the blanket Misao handed to her after making sure Sojiro wasn't injured anywhere else and tossed it over his little body.

“It seems that the cut is quite severe and will need stitches, but his skull shows no sign of damage. Just quite a nasty bump.” Doctor Gensai smiled reassuringly and looked up. “I see injuries like this quite often with children.”

“Really?” Kaoru asked. “Is that all?”

“I’d say so, yes.”

“What about his movements?” Misao asked, nervous. “He hasn't opened his eyes or moved at all.”

“Just give him a little time,” Megumi said. “No other bones were broken, and, by some miracle, his ankle is still intact.” She ran her hands carefully over his body again. “I also doubt this is his first head injury.”

“Ah, yes,” Doctor Gensai said with a nod at Megumi. “That would certainly account for his lack of immediate response.”

“Then he’ll be all right?” Kenshin asked. Both doctors turned to him with small smiles.

“Yes, Ken-san, he should be perfectly fine,” Megumi said “However, let’s move him back to his room, hmm? He’ll be more comfortable there. We also need to bandage his ankle again since he managed to tear most of the bandages off.”

Kenshin nodded silently in agreement.

“Would you like to carry him back, Ken-san?” Megumi asked, and, at Kenshin’s eager nod, smiled and slid the swaddled boy into his careful, outstretched arms. Sojiro moaned at the movement and Megumi watched as he fidgeted, his toes curling and his hand going up to clutch at Kenshin’s gi. She smiled at Kenshin and Doctor Gensai.

“What are you smiling for?” Misao asked, upset. “He’s in pain!”

“He’s moving, Misao,” Megumi answered simply, picking up a clean towel, folding it, and settling it under Sojiro’s head as a little pillow. “He’s making noises and moving, which is a very good sign.”

“Oh.”

“Also, Misao,” Megumi said, and now her voice was cool, “did you and Yahiko actually leave Sojiro unsupervised?”

Misao swallowed roughly.

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Last chapter: “Also, Misao,” Megumi said, and now her voice was cool, “did you and Yahiko actually leave Sojiro unsupervised?”

Misao swallowed roughly.

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“Yes,” she whispered after a moment.

“Then I will not allow either of you near of him for a while.”

Misao’s face fell and her heart broke.

“But—!”

“Do not argue with me,” Megumi said as she helped Kenshin to his feet, Sojiro held very still in his arms. “This is your fault.” She turned and stared at Misao over her shoulder. “Isn’t it?”

Misao hung her head.

“Yes. . .”

“Then you won’t be allowed to see him for a bit. You’re both in serious trouble.”

“B-But, why?” Misao stammered.

Megumi froze in the doorway. She motioned the others forward, so Doctor Gensai led Kaoru, Kenshin, and Sojiro back to the house. When they were out of earshot and just Shinomori, Misao, and herself were left, Megumi whirled on the girl.

“Stupid girl!” she yelled. “Why are you in trouble? Why?!? He could have died if he’d fallen a different way, Misao! He could have died!”

Misao went white to the lips and Megumi was sure she understood, but she kept going nonetheless. She was scared and her fear made her furious.

“I came in here and he wasn't moving at all, Misao! He could have been paralyzed! He could have re-broken his ankle! Idiot, idiot girl! How dare you leave him alone!”

“I-I—”

“No! You and Yahiko were to watch him! He’s seriously injured and still recovering from surgery, besides having abandonment issues! We haven't left him alone all the time he’s been here. And the one day we decided you and Yahiko are responsible enough to keep an eye on him, he leaves his room when he shouldn't even be walking, falls and hits his head and proceeds to be exposed to the rain.”

“But, but,” Misao looked desperately from Megumi to Aoshi. Megumi’s eyes were filled with fire, but, much, much worse, Aoshi would not look at her. Misao’s eyes filled with tears. “But he’ll be okay, right? Doctor Gensai said—”

“He’ll be okay, injury-wise, yes, but exposure to elements like this could make him ill.” Megumi pursed her lips and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t think you understand the full scope of your idiocy, Misao,” she said. She turned and pointed at Aoshi. “Shinomori, explain to her. I’ll chew out Yahiko now. And he’ll get it a lot worse than you, considering it was actually his turn to be with Sojiro.”

And she left the room without further comment.

When she was gone, Misao fell to her knees, tears flowing down her cheeks.

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Megumi had left Yahiko in the dining room, a sobbing, wailing mess.

The worst part was that she barely regretted it — he had deserved it; Misao and Yahiko both deserved the lectures they had received. They had put Sojiro’s already fragile life in even more danger.

When Sano and Yahiko had come to the clinic little over half an hour since everyone else had been there, Megumi was at first confused. But then words tumbled frantically out of Sano’s mouth and her heart had all but stopped when the words “head injury” toppled from his lips.

Head injuries could be worse than the most severe of wounds, simply because of complications. Little cuts and bruises, initially nothing, could quickly turn into seizures and then death. Even head injuries without an outward sign could kill — when Megumi was young, she remembered her father taking care of a teenage girl who had hit her head and then died hours later. When they did an autopsy, there was blood all around her brain. Her father had said that the blood had killed all the nerves so that she couldn't move or breathe anymore; her life was over when the first clot had formed.

So young Megumi, horrified, had took to learning all she could about head injuries — the signs and symptoms and what to do. So far in her career she had only come across one other case like the teenage girl’s, and she hadn't been able to save that man either. She was haunted.

She was not going to be haunted by little Sojiro either. Not after everything they had done for him — not after how much they had come to love him.

No. She would not lose him.

When she slipped into Kenshin’s room, she found Doctor Gensai steadily stitching up the wound on Sojiro’s head as Kaoru kept his head still and Kenshin held his hand. Sojiro hadn't woken up, but Kenshin was whispering to him, running his fingers over the boy’s white knuckles. Megumi nodded at him as she made her way to the other doctor’s side and peered over his shoulder.

She bit her lip.

The gash was bigger than she initially thought — it stretched from just above his left ear to almost the back of his skull; it seemed an inch wide and a mile deep. It looked all the more hideous as Doctor Gensai had shaved all the hair away from the gash to stitch it up more efficiently and make sure no hair got in the wound. So, once the stitches were finished, there would be a long white, stitched line in the midst of his raven black hair. It would look ghastly, Megumi knew, but better a shaved spot than an infected wound.

She snapped herself out of her thoughts when she heard Kaoru speak to her.

“Megumi,” she said, “do you really think he’ll be okay?”

“Of course,” Megumi reassured. “Doctor Gensai and I both are confident that he’ll be all right. At the worst, he has a concussion.”

“What’s that?” Kaoru asked.

“It just means his brain was shaken up against his skull. It’s a traumatic injury, but a minor one. When Doctor Gensai is finished with the stitches, I’m still going to examine Sojiro just to make sure it’s nothing more serious, but I highly doubt it.” She got up and pulled some bandages from the basket in the corner. “Kaoru, would you help me bandage him, please?”

Kaoru hesitated before nodding, and, peeling herself from Sojiro’s side, took the bandages from Megumi. They wrapped his ankle, ribs, and wrist, then tied a bandage over his head when Doctor Gensai finished the stitches. Soon, the little boy was swaddled in clean, snow white bandages again.

As Doctor Gensai put away his stitching needles and thread, Sojiro’s eyes fluttered open. Everyone held their breaths, waiting, hoping.

The boy’s blue eyes roved aimlessly around the ceiling for a few moments, before he turned and saw Kenshin sitting at his side. He blinked. Once. Twice. Then he squeezed the man’s hand gently.

“K-Kenshin. . .”

Kenshin’s face lit up and everyone in the room released a sigh of relief. He recognized faces — a great sign. Kaoru started crying in relief, glad the boy was awake and coherent, and Megumi and Doctor Gensai exchanged smiles. It faded, a bit, however, as Sojiro’s face twisted up.

“K-Kenshin,” he whined, “i-it h-hurts.”

“I know,” Kenshin soothed, reaching for Sojiro’s head to smooth away his hair. But Sojiro whined in protest and pulled away as the rurouni made to touch his head.

“No touch!” he cried. “I-It hurts there.”

“Okay, all right,” Kenshin said, tone quiet. He smiled reassuringly. “I’m just going to keep holding your hand, then, all right?”

Sojiro nodded before making a face — but that too seemed to hurt him. A soft, exhausted whine bled from his lips. Megumi came over.

“Hi, Sojiro,” she said with a gentle smile. “Do you know who I am?”

“L-Lady doctor. . .”

“Very good. Do you know what day it is?”

Sojiro made a face.

“Friday,” he murmured after a moment. “It’s Friday.”

The lack of an immediate response was worrying to Kenshin, but Megumi didn't seem too perturbed.

“Good. Now, how many fingers am I holding up?”

“Three,” Sojiro answered immediately. Megumi grinned.

“Good job, darling. Very good. Now, I just need—”

“Lady doctor Megumi, head hurts. . .” Sojiro interrupted, his face scrunching up. “Can you fix it?”

“Of course I can. I’ll give you some medicine. But first, I want to look at your eyes. So keep them open for me, okay?”

Sojiro nodded and Megumi leaned over him, staring into his eyes one by one, peeling them wide open when Sojiro began to squint. He squirmed in sudden alarm, but Megumi held him still.

“It’s okay,” she soothed, “it’s okay. I just need to see.” She turned to Kaoru. “Kaoru, can I have that lamp please?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.” Kaoru reached over and grabbed a small lamp from the corner, placing it in Megumi’s outstretched hand.

“Now, Sojiro, I’m going to help you keep your eyes open and shine the light in them.”

“Will it h-hurt?”

“No, not at all. Ready?”

Sojiro nodded, and, as the others watched, Megumi held the light over his eyes, moving the lamp back and forth, watching as his pupils dilated and constricted in reaction. After a minute or so, she laid the lantern aside with a nod and a smile.

“Everything seems good, Sojiro. Thank you for putting up with that. Just a few questions and then I’ll give you some medicine.”

“O-Okay.”

“Do you feel nauseous?”

A shake of the head.

“All right. Dizzy? Numb?”

“No. B-But everything is really loud. I don’t l-like it.”

“Okay, that’s all right, darling. Everything will be okay. We’ll keep everything really quiet for you, isn't that right?”

“Of course,” Kenshin said, his voice lowered to a whisper, and Kaoru echoed him. Sojiro nodded and then turned to Megumi.

“Medicine now?”

“Yes, and then you can sleep.”

“You’ll let him sleep so soon?” Kenshin asked, and Megumi turned to the rurouni to find him frowning deeply. “When this one was a boy my master wouldn't let me sleep for a few hours after I hurt my head.”

Megumi chuckled as she turned to her medicine chest and pulled out a package of powdered pain medicine.

“Your master was a smart man,” she said, taking a cup of water from Kaoru, who had already fetched it without being asked. Megumi blinked in surprise before grinning and nodding at the girl. She blushed but smiled back. “Head injuries are dangerous things. We won’t let him sleep for long,” she explained to Kenshin as she poured the medicine into the water and stirred it. “We’ll wake him up every few hours to check on him. Don’t worry so much, Ken-san. He should be all right. And I’ll stay the night just in case.”

Kenshin nodded and his shoulders deflated in relief.

“Thank you, Megumi-dono.”

“No trouble, Ken-san. Now, Doctor Gensai, can you show Ken-san how to help Sojiro sit up so he can take his medicine?”

The old doctor nodded and made his way to Kenshin. With practiced ease, he slipped one hand under Sojiro’s slim shoulders and cupped the other at the base of Sojiro’s skull before half-lifting him up. Sojiro moaned before quieting, accepting being held and then taking the water at his lips. Then, with Doctor Gensai’s help, he was laid back down again. Kenshin nodded when the doctor asked if he understood how to hold Sojiro. Then he took the boy’s hand and sat silently by him.

Sojiro was already fast asleep.

The old doctor got to his feet with a groan and cracking joints.

“If you’ll excuse me, this old man should probably be going home now,” he said with a smile. “Megumi-san has everything under control and it seems to have stopped raining.”

“Of course,” Kaoru said, and she bounded to her feet. “I’ll walk you home myself, Doctor Gensai. Thank you so much for your help.”

“It’s nothing. I’m just glad the boy is all right. The damage isn't very serious considering what happened.” He took his own medicine chest in hand and followed Kaoru out of the room. “I’m glad I could be of assistance.” He bowed at Kenshin before stroking the little boy’s arm with a gentle, wrinkled hand. He smiled. “I hope to hear nothing but good news from now on.”

Everyone smiled and Kenshin and Megumi watched as Kaoru and Doctor Gensai left the room, most of their seriousness gone, replaced by quiet chatter. When their voices had faded away, Kenshin’s shoulders fell with relief and exhaustion. Megumi leaned forward with a frown, trying to catch the rurouni’s eyes.

“Ken-san?”

“Will he really be all right, Megumi-dono? You didn't just say that to comfort Kaoru-dono?”

“Of course not,” Megumi sniffed. “I never lie, Ken-san. It’s against my code as a doctor.”

“Ah, of course.” Kenshin looked up at her, a slight blush to his cheeks. “This one apologizes for doubting you.”

Megumi laughed quietly.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I understand. Head injuries are scary. It’s only natural for you to worry.” She turned to Sojiro and ran her hand across his arm. He fidgeted in his sleep and let out a little sigh. A small smile quirked her lips.

“But don’t worry,” she said, her tone soothing, as much for herself as for Kenshin. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. He’ll be okay.”

******************************

Chapter Text

******************************

By midnight, they had woken Sojiro numerous times, and each time he seemed to be fine. It was much to Kenshin’s and Megumi’s amusement that the boy was quickly becoming irritated by the constant awakenings and questions. Megumi declared it was normal and a very, very good sign. It was much to everyone’s relief that Kenshin had begun to relax again, the tension melting from his posture, his easy smiles returning to his face.

But he was also very tired. By midnight, when Sano arrived, Megumi insisted that Kenshin go to bed, and, despite his protests, eventually succeeded.

But only upon the threat that she would drug him.

So the rurouni dragged himself from Sojiro’s side and plopped down on the futon in the corner. Megumi smirked knowingly when he was asleep in an instant.

“Damn guy is gonna run himself into the ground if he keeps on like this,” Sano muttered, rolling his eyes. “Maybe you should start drugging him, Fox.”

“I’m not drugging anyone without their consent, idiot,” Megumi said, glaring at Sano. “Ken-san just needs to know that Sojiro will be all right and then he’ll be back to a regular sleep schedule in no time.”

Sano shrugged.

“If you say so.”

“I do.” She squinted at him. “Why? Do you not believe—?”

She was interrupted when Sojiro made a deep, long gurgling noise in the back of his throat. Both Megumi and Sano turned to him, and watched as his arm twitched and his neck arched a bit.

“Sojiro?” Megumi said, leaning forward. Sano was surprised by how urgent her voice was. “Sojiro, are you awake?”

The boy said nothing and didn't open his eyes. Megumi swore under her breath.

“I should have known this would happen,” she said. Sojiro made another gurgling noise that turned into a strangled cry. His arm twitched again, followed by his leg.

“Megumi, what’s happening?” Sano asked, fear creeping into his voice.

Megumi was moving, rolling Sojiro onto his side and opening his mouth, making sure his head was propped under the pillow. When the boy cried out again, this time his whole body jerking, Megumi swore.

“Sano, wake Ken-san up.” Another jerk and a cry.

“Is-Is the kid awake?” Sano asked, startled.

“No. His body is doing this by itself.” The next jerk was particularly violent. “Wake Ken-san up, Sano! Now!”

“Kenshin!” Sano said, getting to his feet and dashing to the corner of the room. He leaned down and began shaking the man’s shoulder. “Kenshin, wake up!”

Kenshin was wide awake instantly.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“I don’t know, but Megumi—”

A cry echoed throughout the room and, before Sano was aware that Kenshin had moved, the rurouni was by Sojiro’s side, kneeling next to Megumi. He watched as the boy periodically shivered and jerked, as if he was freezing.

“What’s going on, Megumi-dono?” he asked, reaching for Sojiro’s hand.

Megumi slapped his hand away.

“Don’t touch him!” she snapped. Kenshin stared at her, eyes wide, and Megumi sighed and ran her hand over her face. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t want him to hurt himself. Or you.”

“Hurt himself? Hurt me? Megumi-dono—”

“I don’t want you to panic, Kenshin. You either, Sano. This will get worse and I need you both to stay calm. Do not touch him or hold him down. He won’t choke and he sure as hell won’t die, so no one is panicking. Got it?”

“What the hell, Fox? What the hell are you talking—?”

Sano was interrupted by a choked, wet cry, and suddenly Sojiro went into a full-on fit. His muscles jerked and shook violently, racking his entire body, and his back and neck arched convulsively. Kenshin froze where he sat, gaze focused on the boy’s eyes, which were half open only to reveal the rolled-up whites. Megumi was in motion instantly, padding Sojiro’s injured head with the pillow and her hand, her knee on his back to keep him from rolling over.

Sano fell back with a yelp as Sojiro went slack for a moment before jerking again. He scuttled backwards, horrified.

“A-A demon!” he stammered.

“Shut up, Sano!” Megumi yelled when Kenshin flinched. “It’s not a demon! It’s just his body!”

“B-But how?”

“I’ll explain later,” the doctor said. “For now I need you to keep time. It’s been approximately twenty seconds since the seizure started. Keep counting for me.”

Sano nodded mutely.

“Y-Yeah, sure,” he muttered. He didn't move any closer but watched, counting silently.

Kenshin, meanwhile, knelt by Sojiro, horrified, staring at the boy’s face. His muscles would switch between going taught and jerking violently to going slack, only returning to jerking moments later. His mouth was wide open, and saliva was steadily falling from his mouth onto the pillow. His eyes were rolled half-open, and it was clear he was not awake, but the noises leaving his throat almost convinced Kenshin otherwise. His heart was racing. What was this? He had never seen this before. Megumi had said a seizure. What was that?

Just as suddenly as it had begun, Sojiro’s body went still. Megumi rounded his little body to kneel in front of his face, holding her hand in front of his mouth to see if he was breathing.

“How long was that?” she demanded.

“A minute and ten seconds,” Sano replied from somewhere behind Kenshin. His voice was shaking.

“Good.” Megumi’s fingers went to the boy’s throat and she felt for his pulse.

She ignored Sano’s sharp breath.

“What do you mean ‘good?’” he said. “That wasn't good at all!”

“A minute isn't very long for a seizure,” Megumi snapped. “It’s good it wasn't longer — it could have been dangerous.”

“Th-That wasn't dangerous?” Kenshin stammered before Sano could speak. Megumi shook her head.

“No, that wasn’t. He’s perfectly all right. See?” She took Kenshin’s hand and placed it on Sojiro’s throat. Kenshin felt the steady, albeit a bit rapid, beat there. The doctor then grabbed his other hand and placed it in front of Sojiro’s mouth. Kenshin felt warm, small breaths hit his fingers. “He’s just fine, Ken-san.”

“B-But. . .”

A long, tired whine bled from Sojiro’s lips and Megumi knelt to meet the boy’s eyes as he peeled them open. They were blurry and unfocused, and it was clear he was exhausted. They roved before landing on Megumi.

“L-Lady doctor. . .”

“Hi, darling. You just had a seizure, but it’s all right. Everything’s all right.”

“Seizure . . . ?”

“It just means your brain made your body act strangely for a few minutes. It’s nothing serious.”

Sojiro nodded and blinked indulgently at Megumi for a few long moments.

“Tired. . .” he whispered.

“You can sleep,” the doctor said. With Kenshin’s help, she rolled the boy onto his back again and drew the blanket up to his chin. “There’s a good boy,” she soothed. “Everything’s okay.”

Sojiro hummed in agreement, and, much to Sano and Kenshin’s amazement, he was asleep almost instantaneously.

“Is. . . Is he okay?” Kenshin asked.

“I think so,” Megumi answered. “I was expecting this, although I was hoping it wouldn't happen.” She saw Kenshin’s hand twitch in his lap, and, with a gentle smile, nodded. “You can hold his hand again, Ken-san.”

Kenshin snatched the little boy’s hand eagerly into his own.

“What was that?” Sano asked. He hadn't moved from his spot.

“A seizure,” Megumi explained. “It wasn't a demon or some other supernatural thing, you fool.” She rolled her eyes. “He isn't dangerous — he’s still just Sojiro.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure!” Megumi snapped. “I’m the doctor here, aren't I?” She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “Look,” she said, “this happened because he hit his head. It shook up his head pretty badly — badly enough to short circuit the nerves in his brain. This caused what is called a seizure. Get it?”

“So it’s his brain?” Sano frowned.

Megumi nodded.

“Just his brain,” she said. “That should be the only one, if I’m right.”

“What do you mean?” Kenshin asked.

“Sometimes people have seizures after head injuries. I’ve only ever seen my patients have one seizure and no more. I think Sojiro should be okay.”

“Really, Megumi-dono?”

“Really.” She leaned forward and placed a hand on Kenshin’s arm. “I know it was scary, but nothing bad happened.”

“Yeah?” Sano asked, and he came forward, reaching out to lay a gentle hand on the boy. He moved slowly, as if half-expecting Sojiro to bite him, but relaxed when he felt the same, familiar warmth the little boy always had. He deflated in relief. “Good.” He smiled. “You gave us quite the scare there, kiddo. Good thing Fox was here.”

Kenshin nodded and looked up to Megumi, his eyes shining.

“Thank you, Megumi-dono,” he said. “We would have no idea what to do if you weren't here.”

Megumi gave a wry smile.

“I would have taught you what to do before I left,” she said. “I’m not a fool — I wouldn't leave untrained people in charge of a little boy who could have a seizure at any time.”

“Will you stay, Megumi-dono?” Kenshin asked suddenly. Megumi smiled.

“Of course. I promised I’d stay the night, didn't I?” Kenshin nodded. “Then I’m staying the night. Hopefully,” she said, stroking Sojiro’s arm gently, “our little one doesn’t have any more seizures.”

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Chapter Text

*****************************

Sojiro didn't have any more seizures.

He slept quietly, exhausted and drugged, through the entire night and morning, and this trend continued for the next few days. Megumi and Doctor Gensai were very pleased with Sojiro’s improvement, and they reported with delight that he could stay awake for longer and longer periods of time. Doctor Gensai even said that he might be able to remove the stitches in another week or so.

Of course, Yahiko and Misao heard this through the others, specifically Kaoru and Sano. Kenshin hadn't left the boy’s room since everything had begun, and Megumi was still pissed as hell. Aoshi was allowed in the room, but, as a rule, he didn't speak much as it was. So the two got their news from Kaoru and Sano.

Kaoru was still angry at the two, but as the days passed and Sojiro showed signs of getting better, she was more willing to give information. Yahiko was especially pleased his teacher was talking to him again, although he’d never admit it aloud.

Sano was willing to tell them what was going on since the first day. He explained in detail what the stitches looked like, the procedures Megumi used to check up on him, and, most horrifyingly, the seizure.

Yahiko and Misao both had nightmares about it.

On a quiet Saturday afternoon, when everyone else was napping, Yahiko and Misao were standing in the kitchen, Misao making broth as Yahiko chopped up vegetables for dinner. They were chatting and teasing — somehow this horrible mistake had drawn them closer. However, they didn't stop making fun of each other.

“Hey, Weasel-girl,” Yahiko said, “pink really isn't your color. You shouldn't wear it.”

Misao looked down at her chest, at the pale pink kimono Kaoru had given her to work in the kitchen with.

“It’s pretty much ruined anyway,” Kaoru had said with a shake of her head, “so you can get it dirty. I know you didn't come here with a lot of clothes so this one should suffice for household chores.” Misao had thanked Kaoru and took to wearing it in the kitchen and outside when she did the laundry. She thought she looked rather nice in pink. Once, she even caught Aoshi-sama looking at her. Well, he was more frowning at her, but he was always frowning, so it must mean something, right. . .?

Misao sniffed and peered at Yahiko over her nose.

“Oh yeah, well you smell like a dog.”

“Hey!” Yahiko grabbed a piece of the radish he was slicing and tossed it at Misao. His aim was impeccable, but Misao was fast so she dodged it easily and made a face. She picked it up and threw it back, but it flew past Yahiko and headed for Aoshi, who had suddenly appeared from out of nowhere.

It would have hit him square in the face if he hadn't caught it.

Both Misao’s and Yahiko’s jaws dropped before the girl clambered to her feet, rushing towards Aoshi.

“Ah! Aoshi-sama, I’m so sorry! Are you all right? Are you hu-”

“Misao,” Aoshi interrupted, and he laid the radish back on the counter, “we have an errand to run.”

Misao blinked.

“Huh?”

“To the fabric shop. Our purchase is complete.”

Misao frowned for a moment longer before her face lit up in understanding. A big grin split across her face.

“Of course!” She clapped her hands and pulled off her kimono, revealing her familiar navy blue jinbei underneath. “Let’s go, Aoshi-sama!”

Aoshi nodded and turned to go, Misao bounding after him, but, before she could get far, Yahiko grabbed her arm.

“Oi! Where are you going?” he demanded. “You have to help me finish dinner!”

“C’mon, Yahiko,” Misao said, disengaging her arm from his grip. “I’m just going to pick up some stuff from the store with Aoshi-sama.” She lowered her voice. “It’s a present for Sojiro.”

Yahiko raised his eyebrows.

“A present?”

“Yeah! But don’t tell him — it’s a surprise!”

Yahiko stared at Misao for a few moments, taking in her excited, bright eyes and big smile. She seemed plenty happy and, because it was for Sojiro, Yahiko was willing to let her go.

He sighed.

“I guess I can finish dinner by myself. . .”

“Yay!” Misao cried, and she pulled Yahiko into a brief, albeit very tight, hug. “Thanks, Yahiko! I’lll see you later!”

And she bounded off, Aoshi following her at a more even pace. Yahiko watched them until they were out of eyeshot and then he rubbed his chest, his face set in an annoyed grimace.

“Gesh,” he muttered. “That hug nearly broke my ribs.” He turned back into the kitchen, a big smile suddenly on his face. “If those two have a surprise for Sojiro, I guess it’s time for my surprise too.”

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Chapter Text

*************************

Sojiro was sitting in Kenshin’s lap, half-asleep, watching as Megumi changed the bandages on his ankle. It was still propped up — it was always propped up — but the pain had dulled somewhat in the past few days. He stared in morbid fascination at the stitches that pulled his skin together; they had cut him open and then fixed him again. Sojiro didn't even know that was possible — the old scars all over his body spoke to the belief that big cuts just turned into bigger scars. As Megumi swept some ointment over his stitches, Sojiro sucked in a breath and curled his toes up.

“Ouch,” he hissed through his teeth.

“Sorry, darling,” Megumi said, but she didn't stop. “You just have to stay strong for me — this will make the pain go away a little bit and keep your foot from getting sick.”

“Oh.” Sojiro leaned back and closed his eyes. “Okay.”

Megumi continued silently for a few more moments, sweeping clinical and calm fingers across his stitched up skin, and Sojiro relaxed a bit when he felt Kenshin’s hand run through his hair, avoiding with care the wound on his head.

“We seem sleepy, that we do,” the rurouni chuckled.

Sojiro hummed. He was very tired, although he’d only been awake for a few hours. Much to the boy’s annoyance, his hurt head made him very sleepy. Lady doctor Megumi said it was normal, but it still upset Sojiro — he wanted to stay up. He missed seeing Kenshin and Lady doctor and Kaoru and Sano and Aoshi and Misao and Yahiko. He frowned. Now that he thought about it, he hadn't seen Yahiko or Misao since he’d been hurt.

He forced his heavy eyelids open and peered up at Kenshin.

“K-Kenshin?”

“Yes, Sojiro?”

“Where’s Y-Yahiko and M-M-Misao?”

Much to Sojiro’s surprise, Kenshin bit his lip and did not answer. Sojiro turned his eyes to Megumi, and was startled by the anger on her face. He scooted closer to Kenshin and fisted his hands in the man’s hakama.

“I’m s-sorry if that question was wrong,” he said, “just don’t hurt me. No surgery.”

Megumi winced and Kenshin wrapped his arms protectively around Sojiro’s belly, kissing the top of his head.

“No one is angry, Sojiro,” he said, his voice gentle. “We’re just surprised is all.”

“Surprised?” Sojiro frowned. “What for?”

“Why would you want to see them?” Megumi asked, beginning to re-bandage Sojiro’s foot and ankle.

Sojiro blinked and cocked his head.

“I miss them,” he said, little voice honest and earnest. “I miss them.”

“I see,” Kenshin said after a moment, and he exchanged a glance with Megumi. “We were keeping them away till now because we believe what happened to you was their fault.”

Sojiro frowned.

“No, it wasn’t,” he said. “I fell off the porch by myself — they didn't push me. I hit my own head.”

“Yes, but Misao and Yahiko were supposed to watch you. We don’t like leaving you alone. You’re still badly hurt.”

Sojiro frowned.

“I want to see them,” he said. “They make me smile. Can I see them, Kenshin?” Kenshin hesitated and Sojiro reached up and tugged at his gi. “P-Please?”

Kenshin melted at the pleading look in those big blue eyes and all his guard dropped at once. He sighed and smiled.

“All right, little one,” he said, kissing Sojiro’s head, “you’ll get to see Misao and Yahiko soon.”

Sojiro smiled.

****************************************

Chapter Text

****************************************

The next morning, Yahiko and Misao were standing outside Sojiro’s room, listening to his small voice drift through the rice paper door. Yahiko fidgeted — he sounded fine, so why didn't they let them in yet?

When Megumi appeared at the kitchen when Misao was out yesterday, Yahiko had nearly jumped out of his skin, fully prepared for another berating. But instead the doctor just crossed her arms across her chest.

“Tomorrow morning you and Misao will go to Sojiro’s room to visit.”

Yahiko’s face lit up and he dropped the knife he was using to cut up radishes as he dashed up to Megumi.

“Really?!?” he cried. “You’ll let us see him?”

“Yes,” Megumi huffed. “I’d prefer not to quite yet, but Sojiro has asked for you and neither Ken-san nor I have the heart to disagree. So tomorrow morning, 8 o’clock.”

Yahiko nodded eagerly and Megumi had been mildly shocked to see that his eyes were glittering with unshed tears.

“Megumi,” he said, “would it be all right if we brought presents?”

“Presents?”

“Yeah,” Yahiko nodded. “Apology presents.”

Megumi hesitated before nodding.

“Very well,” she agreed. “But nothing too alarming or loud, understand?”

“Got it!”

And Megumi had then taken her leave, her heart softening despite her efforts to the contrary. When Misao returned, she had been thrilled to hear the news and had even started crying. It had mildly freaked Yahiko out, to be honest, but Aoshi just watched with a small smile.

Now it was the next morning, and Misao and Yahiko were waiting outside Sojiro’s room for permission to come in, listening to the chorus of voices from inside. Sojiro’s, Kaoru’s, Kenshin’s, Megumi’s, and even Sano’s. Aoshi, of course, was there, but he wasn't speaking, as per usual.

Yahiko fidgeted when Kaoru said something stupid about Sojiro’s hair and he pulled at his gi, readjusting it. He had dressed in his nicer clothes — a red gi and black hakama; he figured looking somewhat dignified would make his apology seem more urgent. Misao had adorned herself in a orange flowered kimono, and pinned her hair into a bun. She almost looked unrecognizable. Yahiko elbowed her gently. She glared.

“What?” she hissed, keeping her voice quiet.

“You sure the kid will recognize you in that?” Yahiko smirked. “You look too classy, Weasel-girl.”

Misao growled and turned away from Yahiko, her nose in the air, but, after a few moments, she pulled the pin from her bun, letting her jet black hair flow past her waist. Yahiko stared as she began to pull it into a hasty braid — he had never seen so much hair in his whole life! How the hell did she take care of it? He could barely take care of his own hair.

“What are you staring at?” Misao asked, frowning.

“What’s it look like? I’m looking at your hair.”

“You’re weird,” Misao said with a roll of her eyes. “It’s just hair — you’ve seen it everyday of your life.”

“Yeah, but never so long.” Misao blinked and looked down at Yahiko, surprised and somewhat amused by how awed he was. “It’s awesome.”

Misao laughed quietly and tied off her braid.

“Thanks, brat,” she said, and ruffled his hair. Yahiko’s smile dropped immediately and he shoved her lightly.

“Don’t do that!” he hissed.

“Do what?” Misao’s lips quirked into a mischievous smile.

“You know what! Ruffle my hair! Call me brat! Don’t do those things!”

“Sure thing, brat.”

Yahiko growled.

“Look here, Weasel-girl—”

The door slid open, interrupting the impending argument, and, when the two turned, Kaoru was standing in the doorway, her hands crossed over her chest. She tried to look annoyed, but her expression was happy — Sojiro must be doing well.

“You two are so loud,” she said. “We were going to surprise Sojiro, you know. But now that he knows you’re here, he wants to see you.” She stepped aside. “So come inside.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “You two are so loud,” she said. “We were going to surprise Sojiro, you know. But now that he knows you’re here, he wants to see you.” She stepped aside. “So come inside.”

***************************************

Yahiko and Misao rushed inside the room, shoving their way past Kaoru, and fell to their knees in front of Sojiro. They hadn't seen him since that stormy night, and they were anxious to lay eyes on the little boy they adored so much.

They deflated in relief.

Kaoru and Sano had been telling them and reassuring them for days that Sojiro was doing fine, but Misao and Yahiko needed to see the truth for themselves.

The truth was wonderful.

Sojiro was sitting in Kenshin’s lap, his foot propped up with a spare pillow, his black head resting over Kenshin’s left breast, cushioned by an additional small pillow. His new yukata, which had been filthy after the incident in the mud, had been freshly laundered, and he was dressed loosely in it, and was currently chewing on the sleeve. All his bandages were white like snow and some of his bruises had faded in color.

But the stark paleness of his face and the thick white bandages and gauze wrapped around his head made Yahiko’s and Misao’s hearts stick in their throats. When Misao began to cry, both prostrated themselves in front of the boy, their heads on the floor.

“We’re so sorry, Sojiro!” Yahiko cried. “We didn't mean to leave you alone and we’re so, so sorry that you got hurt. We feel horrible.”

“We’re s-so sorry, beansprout!” Misao added, hiccuping on a cry. “I wish there was something we could do for you! I would take it all back if I could!”

“Please forgive us!”

Sojiro stared at Yahiko and Misao, dressed in different, nicer clothes than usual, and who were prostrating themselves in front of him, their foreheads pressed onto the tatami mats. And Misao’s voice was shaky — she was crying. Sojiro blinked a few times, then turned to look up at Kenshin.

“W-What are they doing?”

“They’re apologizing for what happened. They’re asking for your forgiveness.”

“My forgiveness?” Sojiro asked, eyes huge. “B-But—”

“But what?”

“They don't need my forgiveness. Don’t I have to ask for forgiveness?”

“Huh? Of course not, little one. You didn't do anything wrong.”

“N-Neither did they!” Sojiro said and his voice grew shrill. He winced and scrunched up his face when all this did was hurt his head. “M-Make them stop, K-Kenshin. No more apologies. Nothing wrong.”

“All right, all right,” Kenshin soothed, and he ran his hand through Sojiro’s hair. He raised his voice to speak to Misao and Yahiko. “That’s enough, you two.”

Yahiko and Misao sat up immediately, Misao wiping at her cheeks, Yahiko staring at Sojiro. He was distraught, to say the least, when he saw that the boy’s eyes were scrunched closed and pain was written all over his face. His little hands, fisted in Kenshin’s hakama, were shaking.

“Sojiro?” he asked, voice quiet. “Are you hurting? Should we leave you be?”

“No!” Sojiro said, and he snapped his eyes open. “No leaving! Misao hold!”

Misao blinked, taken aback.

“You-you want me to hold you?”

“Y-yes, please.”

Misao’s eyes flitted about the room as she sought for permission. When both Megumi and Kenshin nodded, albeit hesitantly, the little boy was transferred into her waiting arms. With Kenshin’s help, another cushion was placed between her chest and Sojiro’s head and he was readjusted so that his foot still remained on the pillow. When he was finally still and comfortable, Misao felt much of her sadness and guilt melt away. Looking at Sojiro now, warm and quiet against her chest, she was confident that he would be all right. She grinned and kissed the boy’s forehead.

“I’m so glad you’re all right, beansprout.”

“M-Missed you, Misao,” Sojiro whispered. He turned his head and met Yahiko’s eyes. “Missed you too, Y-Yahiko.”

Yahiko smiled and patted Sojiro’s arm gently.

“We missed you too, Sojiro. I’m still really sorry though.”

Sojiro made a face.

“No more sorries,” he said. “No sorries in th-this house.” He smiled at Yahiko. “R-Remember?”

Yahiko frowned for a moment before he smiled and laughed as the memory came flooding back to him.

***

“Yahiko. . .?”

“I have an idea!” he cried. “No one is saying sorry in this house ever again.”

Sano whapped Yahiko upside the head and Kenshin burst out laughing. Sojiro snuggled closer to him.

“Yahiko, you idiot!” Sano cried, but his eyes, like Kenshin, were laughing. “That’s a stupid idea!”

***

“Of course!” he said. “How can I forget that?” He took Sojiro’s uninjured hand and squeezed it tight. “No more sorries.”

Sojiro’s face lit up.

“No more sorries.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “No more sorries.”

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Kenshin and the others deflated in relief; everything was okay now. They hadn't been sure how Sojiro would react to the pair — if he would panic and hurt himself or if he would cry or be happy. Laughter and smiles were far beyond their expectations; he even wanted to be held by Misao! Everything seemed to be going well — even Megumi had relaxed.

They spent some time talking to one another, Sojiro asking Misao and Yahiko for stories and the pair recounting wildly conflicting tales of their adventures in the kitchen. This prompted from the little boy more giggles than anyone had heard in a while, and, by the time the stories were finished, everyone was smiling in honest amusement.

Sojiro snuggled closer to Misao.

“C-Can you stay, Misao, Yahiko?”

The pair looked up at Megumi, who with a deep, exaggerated sigh, nodded and smiled. Yahiko and Misao grinned and their faces lit up.

“Yep!” Yahiko said. Sojiro smiled. He yawned, which Misao was sure was the cutest thing she had ever seen, and fanned his toes and fingers. Kenshin noticed and leaned forward.

“Are you sleepy, Sojiro?” he asked. “You can nap if you want.”

Sojiro made a face and forced his eyes open.

“No sleeps,” he said, rubbing at his eyes. “I don't want to sleep.”

“Darling—” Megumi began, but she was interrupted by an excited cry from Yahiko.

“Oh! Sojiro, if you don't want to sleep, Misao and I have some surprises for you!”

Sojiro blinked.

“Surprises?”

“Yep!” Yahiko nodded eagerly. “Really good surprises too!”

Sojiro’s eyes flitted to Megumi and Kenshin, and, when they both nodded, he nodded at Yahiko.

“‘Kay,” he breathed.

Yahiko darted to his feet and left the room so quickly Sojiro flinched, then proceeded to clutch weakly at Misao’s kimono, whimpering. Megumi leaned forward and comforted the boy, keeping him still and calm. When Yahiko returned with a blanket-covered basket, Megumi turned to him with a glare.

“Yahiko,” she said, “how many times have I told you to move slowly around Sojiro? You keep scaring him.”

Yahiko’s face fell.

“Sorry,” he muttered. He peered over Megumi’s shoulder at Sojiro, who was sitting in Misao’s lap, his fists clenching and unclenching in the orange fabric of her kimono. His face was all scrunched up, but when he saw Yahiko and the basket, he relaxed marginally.

“Y-Yahiko. . .”

“Sorry, Sojiro, I didn't mean to scare you.”

“’S’okay,” Sojiro slurred. He turned to Megumi when she spoke to him and nodded. The doctor smiled and dipped her head before scooting away.

“You can give him your surprises now,” she said, and Yahiko took her spot, pushing the basket in front of him, just within Sojiro’s reach.

Sojiro looked from the basket to Yahiko, who was grinning from ear to ear.

“Wh-What’s in it?” he stammered.

“Open it and find out!”

“You open it,” Sojiro said, pulling himself closer to Misao. Yahiko sighed but did as he was asked anyway, ripping off the blanket to reveal the contents of the basket.

Sojiro gasped in delight.

There, nestled amongst a large and colorful collection of origami animals and flowers, was Sojiro’s stuffed rabbit, clean as the day it was bought, headband tied neatly around its forehead.

“Nigou!” Sojiro cried, and he grabbed the rabbit, pulling it close to his chest. “Nigou is okay!”

Yahiko beamed.

“Yep! I found him all dirty and you can’t hold something that’s all gross and covered with mud. So I cleaned him.”

“That’s so kind, Yahiko, that it is,” Kenshin said, smiling warmly at the boy. Yahiko relaxed — praise from Kenshin, who had been previously extremely angry with him, was all the affirmation he needed to know that everything was okay.

“Sure is, kid,” Sano echoed, and Aoshi hummed in agreement. Kaoru scooted closer and stifled a giggle as she stroked Nigou’s fur.

“Did you comb Nigou’s fur, Yahiko?” she asked.

Misao and Megumi snorted and Yahiko turned bright red. He had but he sure as hell wasn't going to tell them that.

“N-No way!” he stammered. “That would be dumb! I—”

“Thank you, Yahiko,” Sojiro interrupted, and he looked up from where he had buried his face in Nigou’s fur. “I’m happy he’s back and clean.” 

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Thank you, Yahiko,” Sojiro interrupted, and he looked up from where he had buried his face in Nigou’s fur. “I’m happy he’s back and clean.”

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Yahiko smiled and his blush this time was from earnest joy and pleasure.

“You’re welcome, Sojiro,” he said. He grabbed the basket and held it out so that Sojiro could see the inside. “Look! Me and my friend also made you a bunch of origami animals!” He pulled out a green one, folded in the shape of a frog, and placed it in Sojiro’s palm. Sojiro stared at it in amazement.

“This-This is paper?” he asked.

“Yep!”

“I-It looks like a frog.”

“That’s cause it is a frog, silly!”

“Wow.”

Everyone smiled at the little boy’s amazement, touched by how enthralled he was by a simple origami frog. He had probably never seen such a thing before in his life and so was thrilled by its unique prospect.

Yahiko pulled the frog from Sojiro’s fingers and placed it back in the basket.

“We’ve also made cranes, fish, and dogs!” he said, with a grin. “And my friend made a very special one just for you. She asked me to give it you myself.”

And Yahiko reached into the bottom of the basket and pulled out a complicated, beautiful purple origami lotus flower. As Yahiko placed it on Sojiro’s palm, Kaoru caught a glimpse of black ink on the bottom of the flower.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s a message from Tsubame,” Yahiko said. He turned to Sojiro. “Tsubame is my friend — she was the one who made this for you.”

“Pretty flower,” Sojiro said, his eyes wide.

“Would you like me to read the note on the bottom?” Yahiko asked, and, when Sojiro nodded, he took the flower and turned it upside down. He cleared his throat before speaking.

“Dear Sojiro,” he said, “my name is Tsubame. I’m one of Yahiko-chan’s and Kaoru-san’s friends and I have heard a lot of good things about you. I’m sorry you’re hurt and I hope you get better soon. When you feel better, maybe you can visit the Akabeko where I work. Get well soon, Sojiro! Tsubame.”

“What a sweet letter,” Kaoru said and Kenshin nodded and smiled in agreement.

“Except the part where she called me Yahiko-chan,” Yahiko muttered, annoyed. Everyone hid laughs behind their hands as Yahiko glared at them.

“Tsubame. . .” Sojiro muttered. “Tsubame sounds nice.”

“Yeah, she is,” Yahiko said, laying the origami lotus back on Sojiro’s palm. Sojiro brought it close to his face and stared at it.

“She’s from Akabeko?”

“Yep! She works there. When you get better we can go there to see her.”

“And eat hot pot?” Sojiro asked.

“Hell yeah!” Sano cried and the others burst into laughter. Sojiro smiled.

“Thank you, Yahiko. Thank you, Tsubame.”

Yahiko smiled. He took the lotus from Sojiro as he held it out and placed it on the top of the other origami in the basket before pushing it aside.

“I’ll just put this here, then, so you can play with them later, okay?”

“Okay.”

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “Okay.”

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Sojiro clutched Nigou close to his chest as he watched Yahiko push the basket aside. He watched this loud, excited new friend of his with large and bright eyes, happy he had someone new and kind to share his life with him. He turned to look up at Misao, thankful for her too. He’d missed both of these people tremendously in the past few days; he was used to seeing them everyday and it was incredibly difficult when they had been missing. It was scary, actually. He had gotten hurt and suddenly they weren't there anymore. He wanted them to be there. He wanted them all to be here — Yahiko, Misao, Megumi, Sano, Aoshi, and Kenshin. Kenshin. Sojiro whipped his head around to see if his rescuer was still there and found him sitting nearby, calm, even eyes settled on Sojiro. A flicker of a frown crossed his face when Sojiro looked at him.

“Are you all right, Sojiro?” he asked.

“Just wanted to make sure you here,” Sojiro muttered. “No leaving.”

Kenshin’s eyes softened and he reached forward to run his fingers carefully through Sojiro’s hair.

“This one is not leaving,” he reassured. “I am not leaving.”

Sojiro nodded and relaxed into his touch, but he did not close his eyes like everyone expected. Instead, his eyes locked with Misao’s. Misao frowned for a moment before laughing.

“Ah, I see!” she said. “You would like your other surprise, hmm?”

Sojiro blushed but Misao just laughed.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” she said. “We really want to give it to you too.”

“W-We?”

“Aoshi-sama and I.” She looked up and nodded at the man, who slipped out of the room. “This is a special treat, Sojiro. Aoshi-sama and I bought this last week and had it made just for you.”

“M-Made. . . for me?”

“Yep!” Misao grinned. The door slid back open and all eyes turned to the entryway, suddenly wide. “There it is!”

Aoshi was standing in the doorway, a large package in his arms — it was huge, lumpy, and probably taller than Sojiro was.

“It-It’s big,” the boy whispered, his eyes huge as saucers.

“What the hell is in that?” Sano cried as Aoshi stepped forward and laid the package on the floor in front of Sojiro.

“It’s huge!” Yahiko added.

“It’s a present for Sojiro,” Aoshi said. Sano rolled his eyes.

“Well, yeah, we know that, but what the hell is it?”

“Why don’t we let Sojiro open it and see?” Aoshi asked. He knelt to meet the boy’s eyes and tried for a smile. “Would you open it?”

Sojiro shook his head and pressed himself close to Misao.

“No. You.”

Aoshi nodded and tore the paper off the package. Everyone gasped — including Misao.

A collection of bedding was folded neatly inside the package, each piece laid on top of the other.

“Holy shit!” Sano cried. “You bought him a bed?!?”

“A complete bed set?” Kaoru added.

“Shinomori. . .” Megumi said, her hand held over chest. “How generous.”

“It wasn't just me,” Aoshi said, “Misao was involved as well.”

“It’s lovely, Misao-dono, Aoshi,” Kenshin said, bowing at the pair. “It is a very kind gift.”

“W-What is it?” Sojiro asked and everyone blinked, then nodded and smiled.

Misao stroked his cheek. She had not recalled buying a complete set of child’s bedding, but maybe Aoshi-sama had done that at some other point without her? No matter, here it was now.

“I’m sorry, beansprout,” she said, “it seems like we got ahead of ourselves. Would you like to see what it is?”

Sojiro nodded and, with help from Kaoru and Kenshin, Aoshi set up a child’s bed. There was a small, plump futon first — white, brand-new and spotless, and, on top, a pillow and kakebuton.

The pillow was a red one decorated in small white diamonds and flowers that looked like a soft heaven for Sojiro’s aching head, but the kakebuton was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life.

It was made of a fine, dark red silk, covered in shining golden swirls with waves and a multitude of colorful koi fish. Their patterned golden scales caught the beams of sunlight like soft gold and reflected with wonder in Sojiro’s eyes. It was so beautiful. . . Was it really his?

“You can touch it, Sojiro,” Misao said. “It’s okay. It’s yours now.”

Sojiro held his breath and reached toward the blanket. However, just before his small fingers grazed the fabric, he froze. Was this a trick? Would he get surgery again? Nothing so fine was ever allowed near him at the Setas. Was this a test? No, he was hurting too much already, he didn't want to hurt anymore.

He made to pull his hand away when Aoshi grabbed his wrist and placed the silk kakebuton in his fingers. Sojiro yelped in alarm, but quieted almost instantly when Aoshi spoke.

“It’s all right, little dove,” he said in a deep, quiet hum. “It’s all right. This is yours now.”

Everyone blinked and Misao stiffened. Little dove? Did Aoshi-sama just call Sojiro little dove? I haven't heard that in years. It was a favorite pet name of Misao’s that Aoshi-sama sometimes called her when she was a very little girl — but he only used it only special occasions; if she was hurt, sick, scared, or incredibly happy. It was always an honor and a comfort to be called by that name.

Little dove.

“See now?” Aoshi said, keeping a gentle hold on Sojiro’s wrist as the boy touched his new kakebuton. “Soft, isn't it?”

Sojiro nodded.

“Soft,” he echoed. “And pretty.”

“That it is,” Kenshin said. “It’s very lovely.”

“Can I lay on it?” Sojiro asked, peering past Aoshi and Kenshin to look at Megumi.

“Of course,” Megumi said with a smile. “That’s your bed now.”

So, with Kenshin and Aoshi’s help, Sojiro was moved from Misao’s arms into his new bed. They propped his ankle up with a spare pillow before draping the new, silky kakebuton over his small body. Sojiro gasped the moment it touched him and everyone froze. Had they hurt him? Had they—?

“So soft,” he whispered and his eyes filled with grateful, happy tears. “Thank you, Misao and Aoshi.” He pulled Nigou close to his chest and nuzzled his nose on top of the bunny’s head.

Aoshi, in a rare moment of tenderness, swept Sojiro’s hair away from his brow and pulled the kakebuton up to his chin.

“You’re welcome, little dove.”

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Chapter Text

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Aoshi had to leave a few days later after receiving a letter from Okina about some rather urgent affairs in Kyoto he had to attend to. He was incredibly vague with the details, but he insisted on leaving despite everyone’s protests — even Sojiro’s pleas didn't move him. So he left on a clear, sunny morning after giving all farewells, and a special hug to the “little dove.” Misao had briefly considered leaving as well, but she didn't want to leave Sojiro and the others quite yet, so she decided to stay.

A few hours after Aoshi had left, Megumi appeared. In her arms were two pieces of wood, on the tops a piece that was curved like a handle. She entered the Kamiya dojo, a wide smile on her face, and Kaoru and Misao stopped the laundry they were doing when they saw her. Kaoru walked up to her with a frown, drying her soapy hands on the apron she was wearing.

“Hello, Megumi,” she said. “What in the world are those?”

“Crutches!” Megumi said. “Today I’m going to take off Sojiro’s wrist brace because the bone should be completely healed, and, with that, he can hold onto these crutches and practice walking around.”

“Whoa!” Misao cried, bouncing up behind Kaoru. “That’s awesome! So he’ll be able to walk?!”

“Not quite yet,” Megumi said with a shake of the head. “He’s still very weak. It will take time for him to even stand on his own, but he can practice with these; they’re very good for support.”

“Cool!” Misao stared at the crutches with wide eyes, and, with a chuckle, Megumi handed them to her.

“Why don’t you bring those in, Misao?” When the girl nodded eagerly, Megumi smiled, then turned to Kaoru. “Would you bring tea, Kaoru?”

“Yeah, of course!” Kaoru dashed off and Megumi headed off to Sojiro’s room, Misao following her with her arms full of small wooden crutches. Megumi smiled wide — she was excited, to say the least, to get Sojiro out of bed and on his feet. He’d also be able to be carried around the house now, since she no longer had any reason to keep him on bedrest. So, with a wide, happy grin, she slid the door to Sojiro’s room open a peek, finding the boy sitting up on Kenshin’s lap, seemingly putting on a very elaborate show with the small origami animals Yahiko and Tsubame had made for him. She watched for a few minutes, silent.

“And now Frog-san, leader of the Green Army,” Sojiro was chirping, pointing at a cluster of green animals headed by a frog, “will lead his people to battle with Fish-san and the Blue Army.”

“Is that so?” Kenshin hummed, a smile on his face.

“Yeah!”

“And who will win this battle?”

“The Green Army! But Frog-san will die,” Sojiro grabbed the frog and tossed it aside, “and they’ll make Butterfly-san their new leader.”

“Oh. I’m sorry Frog-san died,” Kenshin said.

Sojiro twisted in Kenshin’s lap and made a face at him.

“Frog-san was a bad guy. He was a bad person.”

Kenshin’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Really?” he asked.

Sojiro bobbed his head.

“He hit his people and hurt them. He broke their bones and made them bleed. So they killed him.”

Megumi frowned at the alarming coldness in the boy’s usually bright voice and watched Kenshin stiffen. His eyes narrowed and he raised a hand to pet Sojiro’s head.

“His people are all right now though, right?” he said, his voice hushed. “So they don’t have to kill anymore.”

Sojiro frowned and cocked his head. Then he grabbed the butterfly and the fish — leaders of the opposing armies — and nodded.

“No more killing!” he said. He turned again to Kenshin, a brilliant smile on his face. “Everyone is happy! And then Butterfly-san and Fish-san get married and then nothing is bad anymore!”

“Married, hm? That’s wonderful!”

“Yeah,” Sojiro said. “Like how you and Kaoru are gonna get married someday!”

Kenshin stiffened and turned bright red, and, from behind Megumi, Kaoru nearly dropped the tea she had brought. Megumi turned and saw that she was as red as a tomato — even redder than Kenshin.

“U-Uh, Sojiro,” Kenshin stammered, embarrassed, “y-you shouldn’t say—”

Sojiro’s eyes were huge and he dropped the origami animals suddenly, his hands shaking.

“Did I say something wrong?” he said, and he made himself small, closing his eyes. “I didn't mean to. I didn't mean—”

“Sojiro, you didn’t—!”

Megumi stepped into the room now, interrupting the impending panic attack and embarrassment. Kenshin looked up when she entered, relief written all over his face. He turned red again, however, when he saw Kaoru.

“K-Kaoru-dono. . .” he began, but Megumi cut him off.

“None of this romantic nonsense,” she said, kneeling in front of Sojiro and Kenshin and setting her medicine chest next to her. She avoided Kenshin’s blushing cheeks, Kaoru’s cry of annoyance, and Misao’s snicker, instead focusing on the little boy curled up in Kenshin’s lap. “Hello, Sojiro,” she said, “I heard you were playing — that’s wonderful!”

Sojiro made a noise but didn't uncurl, shaking, expecting a blow. Megumi sighed.

“Misao,” she said, “put down those crutches and come hold Sojiro.” Kenshin opened his mouth to argue, but Megumi threw him a look before her eyes flicked back to the trembling body in his lap. Kenshin bit his lip, and he handed Sojiro to Misao, although not without hesitation; he really hated leaving the boy.

However, the moment Sojiro was in Misao’s arms, feeling safe from a perceived threat, he relaxed and uncurled, stretching. He looked up at Misao, smiling at her and grabbing her long braid. Then he turned to Megumi.

“H-Hi,” he stammered.

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: “H-Hi,” he stammered.

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“Hello, darling,” Megumi smiled. “I have very good news for you today!”

Sojiro’s eyes widened.

“Wh-What is it?” he asked.

Megumi pointed at his splinted arm, still held in a sling, and Sojiro followed her finger with a frown.

“My-my arm?”

“That’s right! The bones have healed! That means we can take it out of the sling and brace.”

Sojiro blinked a few times, but then understanding seemed to sink into him and he straightened up in Misao’s lap, his eyes wide and bright.

“R-Really?”

“Yes, really!” Megumi smiled. Sojiro’s eyes flitted to Kenshin, who was sitting behind Megumi, and the rurouni grinned at him.

Sojiro smiled and wiggled.

“Can I have it off now?”

“Of course, darling,” Megumi replied with a laugh. “I just need you to stay still. Can you do that for me?”

Sojiro nodded and went still in Misao’s lap. He allowed Megumi to untie the sling, ignoring the little pains that shot through his body, then allowed his broken arm to be taken. Megumi laid the arm in her lap and carefully untwisted the bandages from around the limb, laying them aside. Then she removed the wooden splints from either side of Sojiro’s wrist.

“There we go, Sojiro,” she said, leaning back. “All done. I’m going to ask you to do some little tests for me, all right?”

Sojiro went white.

“T-tests?” he stammered.

“Yes,” Megumi said. She lowered her voice and smiled gently. “It’s okay,” she soothed. “Nothing bad will happen to you if the tests don’t go like I want them too.”

Sojiro appraised her for a few seconds before nodding. Megumi smiled at him.

“Good boy,” she said. “Now, I want you to move your hand back and forth. Can you do that?”

“Y-yeah.”

“Tell me if anything hurts, all right?”

“Okay.”

Megumi and the others watched with bated breath and Sojiro moved his hand up and down, movements careful and hesitant. He stopped after a few seconds, laying his hand in his lap, and looked up at Megumi.

“Doesn’t hurt,” he said.

Megumi beamed.

“That’s wonderful! One more test — I would like you to twist your hand back and forth, like this,” Megumi demonstrated, moving her hand as if she was twisting open a doorknob. “Does that make sense?”

“Y-Yeah.” And Sojiro echoed Megumi’s motions perfectly. Megumi searched his face for any sign of pain, making sure he wasn't hiding or suppressing anything, but was pleased when all she saw was calm surprise and pleasure. After a minute or so, Sojiro laid his hand back in his lap and smiled at Megumi.

“Doesn’t hurt, Lady doctor.”

“That’s wonderful!” She clapped her hands. “You’re in the clear! No splint or sling anymore.”

Sojiro smiled wide.

“Really?”

“Yes, indeed.” She held up her hands and wiggled her fingers. “Two hands now!”

Sojiro giggled and held up his hands, holding them out for the doctor to hold. She balanced the little hands on her open palms and Sojiro smiled.

“Two hands!” he chirped

Megumi and the others laughed. Joy was all around the room. This was another step forward — another step towards recovery. Sojiro’s broken collarbone had healed sometime last week, and his broken cheekbone was looking much better — the swelling and bruising had gone down. And now his wrist was healed.

“Can I have a hug?” Sojiro asked, and Megumi noticed that the boy had pulled his hands from her own and was holding out his hands out to Kenshin, a pleading look in his blue eyes. Kenshin looked over at Megumi, and when the doctor nodded in approval, came quickly over to Misao with open arms. The rurouni scooped the little boy into his arms, and, with an excited giggle, Sojiro tossed both his arms across Kenshin’s neck.

“Yay!” Sojiro cried, and he pressed his face into the crook of Kenshin’s neck. “I wanted to give you a real hug for a long time,” he said, warm breaths tickling the man’s skin. “One arm hugs are silly.” He squeezed his arms tighter around the man’s neck and giggled again. “I’m so glad I get to hug Kenshin!”

The others laughed and exchanged bright and pleased smiles, but Kenshin felt his eyes grow heavy with tears. He pulled Sojiro closer to him, cradling the small and bony frame with the utmost care. Just when he thought he couldn't love the boy more, something happened that set his heart full to bursting. This was one of those moments.

Sojiro was warm and gentle, and, although still bony, had gained some weight — his vertebrae were no longer incredibly obvious and his ribs didn't poke through his skin anymore. His collarbone and arm had healed and, according to Megumi, he was well on his way to making a full recovery. Kenshin was still concerned about the ankle and the head injury but while having Sojiro held close to his chest, hugging him, he forgot about those things.

All he was aware of was the boy’s slight weight, warm breaths, and tiny, entwined hands resting against his back. Kenshin closed his eyes and took a deep breath, memorizing every feeling and emotion in this moment; he didn't want to forget. 

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Chapter Text

Last chapter: All he was aware of was the boy’s slight weight, warm breaths, and tiny, entwined hands resting against his back. Kenshin closed his eyes and took a deep breath, memorizing every feeling and emotion in this moment; he didn't want to forget.

He was interrupted when Megumi spoke.

“You can pick him up and carry him outside if you want, Ken-san.”

Kenshin and Sojiro both looked at her, eyes wide and mouths hanging open. They could go outside. . .? They could move him from the bed?

Kenshin couldn't believe it.

Neither could Sojiro.

“R-Really?” the boy stammered, huge eyes focused on Megumi. He unconsciously tightened his arms around Kenshin.

“Of course,” Megumi said with a smile and a dip of the head. “You don’t have to if you don’t want, but I thought—”

“No, no, no!” Sojiro cried. “I wanna go outside.” He turned to Kenshin and tugged at his ponytail. “Can we, Kenshin?”

“Of course, little one,” Kenshin answered with a smile. Sojiro beamed and nuzzled close to Kenshin. With Megumi and Kaoru’s help, Kenshin got smoothly to his feet, Sojiro straddled on his hip. Heart full to bursting, he made his way onto the porch. He slid open the rice paper door fully, then stepped outside, stopping at the edge of the porch step.

It was a bright, beautiful day — quite the warm one for an autumn morning — with a gentle breeze, soft warmth, and plenty of sunlight. It was absolutely perfect for—

Kenshin’s pleasant thoughts were interrupted by a whimper from Sojiro, and he turned to find the boy hiding his face in Kenshin’s neck, his fists digging into Kenshin’s gi.

“Sojiro?”

“It-It hurts!”

“What hurts?”

“My-My head! It hurts a lot! Too much light, too loud! K-Kenshin!” Sojiro tore one of his hands from Kenshin’s back and slammed it over his ear. “K-Kenshin, make it stop!”

“All right, it’s all right.” Kenshin turned back to the room, where the three women were sitting around the wooden crutches and pouring tea. Rubbing Sojiro’s back in small circles, Kenshin spoke up. “Megumi-dono, something is wrong.”

Megumi’s head snapped up and she got to her feet immediately, meeting the pair just outside the room. When she heard Sojiro’s pained cries, she knew immediately what was wrong.

“Ah, this is too much, hmm, Sojiro?” she said. Sojiro whimpered in response, and Kenshin’s heart did a little flip. “I know,” Megumi soothed. “It’s all right. We’re going to go back inside. You can come back outside later.”

Sojiro fidgeted against Kenshin, and, with a whimper, held out his arms for Megumi. She smiled gently, and, with Kenshin’s help, took the boy into her arms.

“There’s a good boy,” she soothed, turning and heading inside. “I know this is a lot to handle. But everything will be okay. I promise.” Sojiro whimpered and Megumi turned and kissed the crown of his head. “I promise.”

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One of the first things Sojiro noticed about his suddenly bigger world was that there were lots and lots of new smells. Maybe it was because of the head injury, but smells were suddenly stronger and lights suddenly a lot brighter. The day was difficult, so Sojiro mostly stayed inside, blanket drawn over his head, doors shut tight to keep the room relatively dark. Night was Sojiro’s favorite, for it was then that the noises and lights of the day faded, replaced by an inky blackness dotted with twinkling stars. Kaoru lit only a few lamps to keep the area safe, and it was just enough to allow Sojiro to see without feeling pain.

Every night, someone new would carry him outside to the lawn. And everyone smelled different. It was fascinating.

Kenshin would carry him most often, Sojiro cradled expertly on his hip. Sojiro loved being held by him. He had been the first person to carry him in years — and had carried him to safety far away from the horrible people who had hurt him. His arms were slim yet strong and nowhere did Sojiro feel safer than against Kenshin’s chest. Even when other people held him, Kenshin was always sure to stay in Sojiro’s line of sight, for he somehow knew his presence was reassuring.

Nestled against Kenshin when they were outside, Sojiro first noticed how comforting Kenshin’s scent was. His gi was always clean and freshly laundered and he smelled like clean linen. Once Sojiro mentioned this and Kenshin laughed, a real laugh that sounded like bells to Sojiro’s ears.

“This one probably smells like linen because I do the laundry every day,” he said, ruffling Sojiro’s hair.

Sojiro smiled.

“I like it,” he said, nestling his face into Kenshin’s neck. “It’s safe.”

This time Kenshin rubbed his back and kissed the top of his head.

“This one is glad of that.”

Kaoru smelled of a mix of dry sweat and cherry blossoms. It was strange to Sojiro for he had never smelled this on a woman before. The only women he had known had either smelled strongly of white plum blossoms or, in the case of his family, alcohol and disgusting soap. The stale sweat on Kaoru told Sojiro of hard work and the cherry blossoms were only on her clothes; she probably set a scented satchel in her drawers to fragrance her clothing. Kaoru held him gently yet firmly and her arms did not tremble, even when she had been holding Sojiro for a long time. She was strong and Sojiro loved her.

Megumi smelled like antiseptic, mostly. Once and a while she would come dressed nicely, her hair freshly combed, makeup on her face, and on these nights she smelled like flowers. Sojiro loved when she smelled like that — he never wanted to let go of her. Once she came smelling like plum blossoms but Kenshin had avoided her with sad and haunted eyes most of the night so Megumi never wore it again. Once, in the middle of the night, Sojiro overheard Kenshin talking to himself about plum blossoms and mentioning a girl named Tomoe. But his voice was so sad that Sojiro dared not ask what he was talking about — everyone had things they never wanted to bring up and it sounded like Tomoe was Kenshin’s.

Misao smelled like fresh air and grass and it was wonderful, but she could never hold Sojiro for long since her arms got tired easily. Yahiko made fun of her for this, but shut up once Kenshin said something to him. Yahiko never made fun of Misao’s arms again. He teased her for other things, of course, but never for how long she could hold Sojiro.

Sojiro didn't like to be held by Sano. He smelled like dirty socks.

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One night, everyone was gathered outside. Kenshin was sitting on the porch, Sojiro held against him, and Kaoru was sitting on the steps next to them. Yahiko, Misao, and Sano were running around the oak tree next to the well, playing some game and yelling at each other, and Megumi, who was off for the day, sat next to Kaoru, handing out tea cups.

Of course, Misao, Yahiko, and Sano were too busy messing around to drink the tea but Kenshin, Kaoru, and Megumi enjoyed a few leisurely cups. With Kenshin’s help, Sojiro even managed to hold a cup to his lips and drink some tea, although half a cup was plenty for him.

The boy fell back against Kenshin with a tired sigh, avoiding the man’s worried eyes as he focused on the trio by the tree, chasing each other and yelling and laughing. Sojiro found himself suddenly jealous and he turned back to Kenshin, tugging at his pink gi. Kenshin looked down at him with a curious smile.

“Yes, little one?”

“Can I play, Kenshin?” Sojiro asked, raising a tiny finger and pointing at the three. “I-I would like to play.”

Kenshin frowned and shook his head. When Sojiro opened his mouth to ask why, Megumi spoke.

“I’m sorry, Sojiro,” she said. “Your ankle isn't healed so you can’t play. You can’t even walk yet.”

“Can’t they hold me?” Sojiro asked and Megumi winced in pity at the petulant tone in his voice.

“I’m afraid not, darling. They’ll just jostle you. You can play when your ankle and your head are a little better.”

Sojiro pouted but nodded in understanding.

“Okay,” he said, voice quiet. He paused for a moment longer, watching Misao, Yahiko, and Sano begin to roughhouse, then turned to Kenshin. “I would like to go to bed, Kenshin.”

Kenshin frowned and cocked his head.

“Are you sure, Sojiro? It’s still quite early, that it is.”

“I’m t-tired,” Sojiro said, clearly lying, and he pulled himself closer to the rurouni, burying his face in the man’s chest. “Bed please.”

Kenshin turned to Megumi, worried, but the doctor just nodded.

“It’s all right,” she said. “Let him rest.”

Kenshin bit his lip and nodded, slipping inside to put Sojiro to bed. He reappeared a few minutes later, his face sad.

“How is he, Kenshin?” Kaoru asked as the rurouni reseated himself on the porch. Kenshin ran his hand over his face.

“He seems distressed, that he does. It seems to this one that he really wanted to play.”

“Yeah. . .” Kaoru said.

Megumi sighed.

“I know how badly he wants to start moving around, but I can’t risk him hurting himself again,” she said. “He’s made so much progress lately — I don’t want him to be set back.”

“I understand,” Kaoru said, and Kenshin, with a nod, echoed her.

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Tsubame was a shy girl, but, at Yahiko’s insistence and Kenshin’s permission, she had showed up at the Kamiya residence, a basket of food in her arms.

The girl stared at the gate for a few long moments, chewing on her lip. She really didn't want to be here — really didn't want to bother Kaoru and Kenshin and Yahiko and the sick, hurt child they were all watching. Sure, he sounded charming and adorable — according to Yahiko’s descriptions he had ink-black hair and blue eyes and a soft, kind face. And Kenshin loved him a lot — that was a very good sign. But Tsubame was shy. She didn't want to be a burden. So she considered leaving, and, just as she made up her mind to, the gate door swung open.

“Ah, Tsubame!” Kaoru said, running forward and hugging the girl. Her kimono sleeves were tied back and her apron and hands were covered in flour. She pulled back from the hug with a wide smile. “I’m so glad you’re here! Sojiro has been looking forward to your visit!” Kaoru, grinning, grabbed Tsubame’s slim arm and pulled her inside.

“U-Um, yeah,” Tsubame stammered. She held out the basket to Kaoru. “Tae said to give this to you. It has some meat and noodles in it.”

“Ah!! That’s amazing! Thank you, Tsubame!” She took the basket from the girl with a wide smile. “I’m going to make some of this right away! Stay for dinner — with all of this food it will be delicious!”

“Oh, Kaoru-san, I-I shouldn’t—”

“Nonsense!” Kaoru interrupted. “You brought all this food over — it’s only natural that you should have some. Besides, Sojiro would be sad if you left right away.”

Tsubame blinked.

“He would?”

“Of course! He’s gotten a lot stronger and likes visitors. He’ll be pleased to meet such a sweet new face.” Tsubame blushed and, Kaoru, with a laugh, ruffled her hair. “I’ll head to the kitchen and get dinner started. Why don't you visit Sojiro?”

“W-Without you?”

“It’s all right,” Kaoru said. “Kenshin is there.”

“Oh. O-Okay.”

“They’re in the bedroom nearest the well,” Kaoru said, pointing the way. “Knock first.” She smiled at Tsubame, her eyes soft. “Don’t worry, Tsubame,” she said. “Nothing bad will happen and I’m sure Sojiro will love you.”

“R-Really?”

“Really. Go on now — I’ll bring you three dinner soon.”

Tsubame nodded and watched Kaoru leave. Then she took a deep breath, set her jaw, and headed towards Sojiro and Kenshin’s room. She was ready. She was ready to finally meet the little boy everyone so loved.

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Sojiro stared the girl down. He hadn't ever seen a girl around his age before and it was fascinating.

She was small — although a little bigger than him — and had short brown hair that went just past her ears. She was fine-featured, like the dolls Sojiro had seen in shop windows, and had warm brown eyes. However, she was quieter than Sojiro had been expecting and avoided eye contact with him. He frowned and cocked his head.

“Why are you scared?” he asked.

The girl jerked, startled by the sudden question.

“I’m n-not,” she stammered. She blushed and turned away. “Just nervous.”

Sojiro’s frown deepened.

“Nervous?”

“Yes,” Tsubame said. “I’ve heard so much about you. I’ve always wanted to meet you. And you’re prettier than Yahiko said.”

Kenshin laughed and Tsubame, turning bright red, clapped her hands over her mouth.

“Pretty?” Sojiro asked. “Yahiko said I was pretty?”

“Well, not really. I mean, he described you to me and I thought you sounded pretty. A-And you are.”

“Pretty. . .” Sojiro whispered, and his eyes got far away. He’d never been called pretty before except by. . . .

Sojiro jerked and recoiled from Tsubame, pushing himself close to Kenshin’s chest.

“Y-Y-Y-You . . . . .!”

Kenshin, frowning, leaned around the boy to look at his face.

“Sojiro. . .?” he began, but cut himself off at the sight of the boy’s huge, haunted blue eyes and pale face, white to the lips. “Tsubame-dono,” he said, “could you move back a bit?”

Tsubame, confused, nodded and began to back away, but Sojiro, with a strangled squeal, raised a shaking finger at her when she moved.

“Are y-y-y-you from the t-teahouse?” he demanded in a little, terrified voice. He twisted in Kenshin’s lap and shoved himself away from the man. “A-Are you going to sell me, K-K-K-K-Kenshin?”

“What? No, no, of course not, little one! Why would you think that?”

“She’s wearing an uniform!” Sojiro cried, and his voice began to wobble. “My family was going to sell me to the teahouse if I was bad and some of the g-g-g-girls there wore uniforms!” His voice cracked. “D-Don’t send me away!”

Kenshin began to speak up, but, much to his surprise, Tsubame spoke first. Her voice, like Sojiro’s, was wobbly, but it grew stronger the longer she spoke.

“S-Sojiro,” she said, “I don’t work at a t-teahouse. I work at a restaurant. My uniform is from a restaurant. I’m sure Yahiko has told you about the Akabeko, right?”

Sojiro didn't relax but he looked up at Tsubame and nodded minutely.

“Hot p-pot?” he squeaked.

Tsubame smiled.

“That’s right,” she said. “Tae-san — she runs the restaurant — and I serve hot pot.”

“S-So you’re not from the teahouse?”

“No,” Tsubame said.

“And I would never sell you anywhere, little one,” Kenshin added. “This one knows what it’s like to be sold and I would never do that to you.”

Sojiro and Tsubame blinked and the girl stiffened. Kenshin did not look away from Sojiro’s eyes, riveted on his face, and Tsubame felt like she was witnessing something extremely personal that she had no business hearing. But she couldn't move.

So she listened.

“This one’s parents and brothers died when I was eight years old,” Kenshin said. “They got very sick and passed away in a matter of days. I had nowhere to go so the old woman doctor from the village sold me when slave traders came. They were not good people.”

“D-Did they hurt you?” Sojiro stammered.

“They did not hit me,” Kenshin said, “but they touched me in places they had no business too.”

Sojiro and Tsubame choked and tears sprang to Tsubame’s eyes. Kenshin-san. . . .

“They were going to sell me to a teahouse because I looked like a girl,” Kenshin continued, “but they were all killed by bandits before we got to a town.”

“Wh-Where did you go?” Sojiro asked.

“My teacher, Hiko, found me,” Kenshin answered, and now there was a little smile on his lips. “He rescued me and taught me how to use the sword.” His hand roved to his sakabato and he clutched the sheath tightly. “I was all right, Sojiro,” he said to the little boy. “And so are you. You’re safe now. Nothing will happen to you. You’ll be all right.”

“All right. . .?”

“All right.” Kenshin held out his arms with a smile. “This one promises.”

Sojiro, with a sob, tossed himself back into the man’s arms and wrapped his hands tight around Kenshin’s gi. Kenshin rubbed his back in smoothing circles, and, after kissing Sojiro’s head, looked up at Tsubame with a sad smile.

Tears slipped down the girl’s face.

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Dinner was delicious but, despite Kaoru’s cajoling, Tsubame didn't stay the night; she left soon after dinner was served. Kaoru came later in the night to Sojiro and Kenshin with a pot of tea, surprised to find Sojiro fast asleep in bed; he was usually still awake at this time.

“Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin said as he rubbed his fingers over Sojiro’s white knuckles, “would it be all right if I wrote a letter?”

“Of course, Kenshin! Who to?”

“My master.”

Kaoru nearly dropped the teapot in surprise and looked up at Kenshin, her eyes wide.

“Hiko-san?” When Kenshin nodded, Kaoru’s jaw dropped. “Kenshin!” she hissed, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb Sojiro’s sleep. “Are you crazy? I don’t think Sojiro is ready to deal with that man.”

Kenshin shook his head.

“It will be all right,” he said.

“How can you sound so confident?” Kaoru asked. “He’s so abrasive — I don’t know if Sojiro can deal with that kind of personality. Is Hiko-san even good with kids?”

“He raised this one,” Kenshin answered.

“That wasn't my question,” Kaoru said, her lips pursed. Kenshin avoided her eyes and Kaoru snorted. “That’s what I thought. Why do you even want him here, Kenshin? It’s not like he’ll be of much help.”

“Sojiro asked to meet him.”

Kaoru, again, almost dropped the teapot.

“What?!?”

Kenshin nodded, but didn't elaborate. Kaoru groaned and dragged a hand over her face. She wasn't really looking forward to having the haughty, annoying man in her house, but if Sojiro asked, there wasn't really a way she could say no. She couldn't deny this new little family member anything.

“Fine,” she said with a long, dramatic sigh. “You can write a letter. But don’t expect anything — I doubt he’ll come down from that mountain.”

Kenshin smiled at Kaoru — one of those serene, soft smiles that melted her heart.

“Thank you, Kaoru-dono,” he said, and, much to Kaoru’s surprise, he bowed to her. “This one knows that Shishou is a difficult man, but it is much appreciated that you let him visit.”

Kaoru couldn't help the smile that crept across her face.

“You’re welcome, Kenshin,” she said, and she held out a freshly poured cup of tea. “Tea?”

“Thank you, Kaoru-dono.”

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Hiko rarely got mail. No one wrote to him — most people didn't even know where he lived. And he preferred it that way. People were a nuisance — loud, annoying, ignorant, petty, and a million other things he generally despised. So he lived up on top of a mountain to avoid them, where he practiced his swordsmanship and made pottery. He only went down to town to sell his pieces and buy necessary supplies, such as rice and vegetables. But he really hated it and avoided it as much as possible.

One day in mid-September, after Hiko had sold a particularly fine wedding cup set to a wealthy farmer and was heading back home, he heard someone calling his name.

“Nitsu-san! Nitsu-san!”

With a growl of annoyance, Hiko turned to find the postman’s boy running towards him, waving a letter in his hand. Hiko frowned.

“What is that?” he demanded the moment the boy was at his feet.

“A letter, Nitsu-san.”

“Of course, you fool! What are you stopping me for?”

“Well, it’s a letter for you, Nitsu-san,” the boy said, and he held it out. Hiko grabbed it in annoyance, expecting it to be some ridiculous letter from someone asking him for more pottery pieces, but he froze when he recognized his apprentice’s messy handwriting. What the. . .

“Thank you, boy,” Hiko said, and he handed the kid a few coins before sending him on his way. He looked back down at the letter and bit his lip. Despite himself, he was worried about his apprentice — Kenshin never wrote him. Had something happened?

Still biting his lip, Hiko hurried back up to his hut, anxious to read the letter.

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Hiko should have known better than to be worried about his apprentice. The kid wasn’t hurt or sick or in danger — no, he was just being an idiot.

Hiko slammed his sake disk back on the short table with a growl.

He couldn't believe the stupidity!

Kenshin had up and adopted a little boy! What the hell? Did he know how much care and attention a brat needed? And he’d brought the boy back to the Kamiya girl’s home without permission! His apprentice wasn’t only stupid, he was apparently also rude.

Hiko grabbed the letter and read it again. Just to make sure he hadn't imagined what he had read at least fifteen times by now.

Shishou,

I apologize for writing to you so suddenly. I hope you are doing well. I am writing to you on behalf of the boy I have been looking after, for he would very much like to meet you. His name is Sojiro and he’s been with me and the others at the Kamiya dojo for some time now. Unfortunately, he’s been seriously injured and ill for a few months, but is making progress in his recovery. I hope you will not mind visiting Tokyo at some point this year. If possible, come at your earliest convenience with a letter telling of us of your imminent arrival.

~Kenshin

Underneath his apprentice’s chicken scrawled name were five others — Kaoru, Yahiko, Sano, Misao, and Megumi, as well as a small child’s drawing of what appeared to be a bird. Next to it, Kenshin had labeled it Sojiro. So the kid couldn't write either.

Hiko ran a hand over his face before refilling his sake disk and downing a large swallow.

“Baka,” he muttered to himself. “Picking up a kid on the streets. Becoming a father before he’s ready. Where did he get that stupid idea. . .” Hiko slapped himself. Dammit, he got it from me!

He recalled the scrawny waif of a thing he had discovered after the massacre — he had been little more than skin and bones and yet had managed to bury every single body. He was bloody and small, with dark red hair that shone like fire in the sun. He had violet eyes that were too old for a child and he had blistered, working hands. Hiko had been immediately entranced by the little boy, and, before he was fully aware of what he was doing, he had a new apprentice and a new son.

It was all very surreal. It still was, actually.

He had raised a waif into a man, into an assassin, into someone kind.

Kind.

Kenshin had always been too kind.

That had been his downfall during the Bakamatsu, and it was his downfall now. His apprentice had been kind enough to pick up a little street rat and if he kept that up he’d have a houseful of raggedy brats in no time.

So Hiko decided to go. He packed some pottery, money, and supplies, along with his sword, and set off immediately, despite the setting sun.

He told himself he wasn’t going to see this little boy who had captured Kenshin’s heart and attention. Told himself he didn't want to see the small hands that had scribbled the little bird on the corner of the letter. Told himself he wasn’t going to see Sojiro.

That’s what he told himself.

He was lying.

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Hiko arrived in Tokyo a week and a half later. It was a hideously crowded place — full of people and crowds and noisy vendors and animals; it all made Hiko want to rip his hair out. So he retreated inside of a quiet noodle shop most of the day in order to avoid the noise and strange looks he got. What with his huge frame and white cloak, he tended to draw unwanted attention. The noodle shop was quite generous with its wares and alcohol and Hiko payed them well, much to the delight of the shopkeeper and his wife.

When the sun had set and the streets had quieted, Hiko took his leave of the shop, followed by earnest cries of thanks and requests to return any time he liked. Hiko brushed them off but reminded himself to stop by the noodle shop at least once more before leaving.

And so, supplies in tow, Hiko made his way to the Kamiya dojo.

He arrived when the sky turned black.

Any other person would figure to come this late would be considered rude, but Hiko wasn’t any other person. He was Hiko Seijuro the Thirteenth. He would be let in any time of the day or night as he so pleased! Especially when it was the current residence of his stupid apprentice.

So he knocked. And knocked. And knocked. Just as he was about to raise his voice, the gate swung open to reveal the Kamiya girl, dressed in a simple lavender kimono, hair tied into a hasty ponytail. Her face was red and set in anger, but it shifted to a look of surprise when she saw who was there.

“Hiko-san!”

“Kamiya-san,” Hiko said, and he bowed woodenly.

“Come in, come in,” Kaoru said, ushering the towering swordsman inside. “We weren't expecting you,” she said once the gate was closed behind them. With a slight hint of venom in her voice, Kaoru turned to Hiko. “Did you not read the letter, Hiko-san? We asked you to send word of when you were coming.” Hiko shrugged and Kaoru glared at him. “We asked so you wouldn't startle Sojiro!” She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Oh well. You’re here now. Come to the tokonoma. You can wait there for Kenshin.”

Hiko nodded and followed Kaoru to the tokonoma, where he seated himself at a low table, his belongings gathered close to him. Kaoru disappeared, and, hardly a minute after she’d gone, Hiko’s apprentice appeared.

Hiko frowned at him, but inside he felt a strange sense of pride. Kenshin’s frame had thinned and his face was pinched with stress, but his eyes were bright and his swordsman’s spirit was stronger than ever.

“Found another thing to live for, have we, baka deshi?” he smirked.

Kenshin smiled.

“Yes, that I have.” He seated himself across from Hiko and smiled serenely at him. “It’s good to see you again, Shishou.”

“Eh,” Hiko snorted. “I always seem to be meeting you when you’re up to stupid things.”

Kenshin’s smile didn't falter; he was used to his teacher’s abrasiveness.

“Sojiro isn’t stupid, Shishou,” he said. “He is quite—”

“I didn't say the boy was stupid, idiot,” Hiko interrupted. “I said that you were. What were you thinking, picking up a kid from the street?”

“He wasn’t on the street,” Kenshin said and Hiko saw that his posture had stiffened and his hands had tightened into fists on his lap. “He was in an abusive household.”

Hiko raised an eyebrow.

“So you broke into someone’s home to rescue a boy?”

“No.” Kenshin shook his head. “I was in a nearby town looking for a rogue swordsman when I heard a boy screaming for help, so this one thought that he might have been terrorized by the swordsman.”

“Was he?”

“No. He was standing in the rain, bruised and bloody, holding a wakizashi.” Kenshin dropped his voice. “His family’s bodies were littered around him.”

Hiko stiffened and his eyes narrowed.

“Are you telling me that the boy killed his family?”

Kenshin avoided his teacher’s eyes.

“Yes,” he murmured. “He thought he had to.”

“Why?”

“They threatened to kill him. And, seeing the shovels, knives, and swords the men’s bodies wore, this one has no doubt they meant to.”

Hiko’s eyes widened and his heart swelled with anger. He remembered his boy — with tattered clothes, red hair like fire, and covered in blood that was not his own. Little Shinta — no, Kenshin — had not yet been a killer but had seen more than his fair share of violence. Hiko had no doubt that Kenshin’s little boy had seen, and experienced, even more.

He pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I do not blame your little one,” Hiko said. “Fear makes anyone capable of even the most terrible of acts. But still,” he pointed at Kenshin, “why did you bring him back here?”

“He had no one else,” Kenshin said. “I couldn't just leave him, Shishou.”

“I understand,” Hiko said, and he did; he had felt the same when he first found Kenshin. “But you clearly didn't think of the others who live here. This is not your home, baka deshi. This house belongs to the Kamiya girl. You can’t just bring another mouth to feed here.”

Kenshin bit his lip.

“This one understands,” he said, “but I knew that Kaoru-dono would be willing to help Sojiro. She is very kind.”

Hiko sighed.

“You’re as thick as ever,” he said. “True, the girl is kind, but this must be stressful for her as well. Did you even bother to think of the others before you dragged the boy here?”

“Of course!” Kenshin cried.

“And did you consider that the boy would be a burden?”

Kenshin stiffened.

“Sojiro is not a—”

“He is,” Hiko interrupted. “A child is a burden.”

Kenshin’s eyes widened.

“Shishou!”

“There is no denying that, Kenshin.” He avoided Kenshin’s eyes before pulling out the letter his apprentice had written him. “However,” he said, and his voice became suddenly, albeit begrudgingly, gentle, “they are very special burdens.” He pointed to the drawing of the bird on the bottom of the page. “And it seems to me that your little one is quite special.”

Kenshin’s eyes widened almost comically and he stared at Hiko in surprise. He had never in a million years expected his master to act so soft and speak so gently; only when Kenshin was very young and newly with Hiko did his master act so. It seemed that young children were his weak spot — although Hiko would never admit it.

Kenshin’s serene smile widened and Hiko glared at him.

“What’re you grinning at?” Hiko said, shoving the letter back in his bag.

“You’re a good man, Shishou.”

Hiko blinked, taken aback, before he snorted.

“Baka,” he said. He fidgeted and paused for a moment before settling his once again serious eyes on Kenshin. “Now tell me about this little boy. Sojiro, yes?”

“That is right,” Kenshin said. “His name is Seta Sojiro.”

“Not Himura Sojiro?”

Kenshin flinched and Hiko smirked at his apprentice’s discomfort.

“No,” Kenshin said, rapidly regaining his composure.

Hiko waved his hand.

“Tell me about him,” he said. “How was he hurt? How has he been?”

“Sojiro was beaten very badly,” Kenshin said. “He was covered in bruises and had many broken bones when this one found him. He suffered from heart palpitations and struggled to keep food down. His ankle healed incorrectly so we had to perform surgery to correct it—” Hiko shivered — “and he suffered a head injury a while ago. Megumi-dono is only now allowing him to walk again with support.”

Hiko felt his heart turn to lead in his chest. Such a child so badly hurt? He had thought Kenshin was the worst he had ever seen, but the blood blisters and emaciation were nothing compared to what his apprentice had just described. How in god’s name did the boy accumulate such serious injuries? And how was he even alive — the pain must had been killing him.

“How old is Sojiro?”

“Eight.”

Hiko’s eyes widened.

“Eight?” He pinched the bridge of his nose and, for a moment, lost his composure. “Kami. . .”

Kenshin frowned.

“Shishou. . .?” he asked, and Hiko despised the concern creeping into his voice. His stupid apprentice he had all but raised had no right to be concerned about him.

“Can I meet this child?” he asked, snapping his head up.

Kenshin blinked before nodding and smiling once again.

“Of course, Shishou. He should be awake by now. The head injury usually causes him to be awake at night rather than the day since light is overstimulating for him.”

Hiko nodded.

“That makes sense,” he said. He got to his feet as Kenshin did and motioned for his apprentice to lead the way. As he followed the red head, Kenshin turned and smiled.

“This one is sure you’ll like Sojiro very much,” he said.

Hiko’s lips quirked in a faint smile.

“I’m sure I will.”

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Chapter Text

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Crutches were hard to use. Sojiro hated them. It was hard to balance on the two sticks and even harder to propel himself forward. And the arms of the crutches really hurt his armpits. He was sore and exhausted after standing for only a few minutes. And he couldn't even stand on his own yet; lady doctor Megumi was usually helping him stay up.

He had just started his daily practice with Megumi’s help and Kaoru’s supervision and support when there was a knock on the doorjamb and Kenshin slid the rice paper door open. He smiled wide when he saw Sojiro standing up.

“Kenshin!” Sojiro chirped.

“Hello, little one,” Kenshin said. “This one is glad to see you're standing up!”

Sojiro beamed.

“Thank you, Kenshin!”

The rurouni’s smile widened further as he stepped into the room. He didn't walk up to Sojiro, though, like he usually did, but instead stayed by the door.

“I have a special visitor for you, Sojiro,” he said.

Sojiro stiffened.

“Wh-Who?” he stammered.

“There’s nothing to be frightened of,” Kenshin reassured. “Do you remember when I told you about my master, Hiko?” Sojiro nodded. “Well, this one invited him to visit because you’d asked to meet him.”

“S-So he came?”

“That he did,” Kenshin nodded. “He’s right outside the door. Would you like to meet him now?”

“Y-Yeah,” Sojiro stammered and Hiko took this as his cue to enter.

His eyes widened immediately at what he saw.

A little boy with ink black hair and cobalt blue eyes was standing in the middle of the room, supported by the doctor and a pair of crutches. He was smaller than Hiko had been expecting, and, if Kenshin hadn't told him differently, he wouldn't have guessed the boy was eight — he looked more like a four or five year old. He was skinny, but not all skin and bones, and his skin was a natural porcelain, accompanied by rosy blushed cheeks. His hair had a large shaved spot just above his left ear, and a scar was evident, but soft black fuzz was beginning to grow over it. He was dressed in a blue-grey yukata, a grey obi tied loosely around his tiny waist, the sleeves dangling slightly over his hands and the hem of it trailing near the ground. He was balanced on a pair of small, handmade crutches, supported by the woman doctor, and he held one heavily bandaged foot behind him. As Hiko stared at him, taking in every detail of this fragile little boy, a tiny moan escaped the boy’s lips.

“Sojiro?” Kenshin said.

Hiko didn't move from his place near the door, even as the little boy’s face drained of what little color it had and he weaved on the crutches. Before anyone could blink, Hiko’s baka deshi was at Sojiro’s side, scooping the little boy into his arms and tugging him close.

“Sojiro, little one, it’s all right, that it is,” he said, cradling the boy’s head with his hand. “It’s all right.”

Sojiro whimpered and buried his delicate face in Kenshin’s red hair. He whispered into his ear, voice soft and quiet, but Hiko, with his trained hearing, could still hear every word the boy was saying.

“Scary,” Sojiro whispered. “Big and scary.”

Kenshin suppressed a chuckle and pet Sojiro’s hair.

“I know he seems that way, but Hiko-san is a very kind man. If you'd like to meet him, you’ll see. Would you like that?” Sojiro hesitated before nodding. Kenshin smiled and swept the boy from a hug onto his hip. Sojiro clutched tight at his gi and kept his face buried in Kenshin’s neck as the rurouni walked up to Hiko with a smile like the sun. Hiko loved that smile, though he’d never admit it.

“Shishou, this is Sojiro.” Kenshin nudged Sojiro’s head, prompting the boy to look up. “Sojiro, this is my Shishou, Hiko-san.”

Sojiro slowly peeled his face from Kenshin’s neck and allowed his eyes to travel to Hiko’s stern face. The cobalt blue swept carefully over the swordsman’s face, drinking in every detail, searching for a threat. He relaxed only marginally, however, when his so-called examination was complete, for Hiko was nothing if not intimidating.

He had a strong, angled face and jaw, a hawk-like nose, and piercing brown eyes. His hair was long and black, and most of it was pulled back in a ponytail. That which wasn't was either swept across his forehead in bangs or hung down the side of his face, making him look even more intimidating. Like Aoshi, he didn't smile.

He was tall — even taller than Aoshi — and was wearing a red shirt, black pants, and a huge white and red cloak. Upon looking at it, Sojiro relaxed a bit more, melting against Kenshin.

“Your cloak is funny,” he said, voice all but a whisper.

Hiko’s eyes widened and, just as Sojiro feared he would be in trouble, Kenshin and the others burst into laughter.

“That it is!” Kenshin laughed, hefting Sojiro higher on his hip. A bolt of pain shot through Sojiro’s ankle at the sudden motion, but he bit down a cry, instead clutching Kenshin more tightly.

Hiko glared at him and Sojiro squeaked in terror. He had done it now, this was it, he was going to get hurt again, this time by the big, scary man. . . .

“Baka deshi,” the swordsman growled, and Sojiro realized that the glare hadn't been directed at him at all, but at Kenshin. Sojiro clutched at him a bit tighter.

“Kenshin. . .”

“It’s all right, Sojiro, that it is,” Kenshin said, and he raised his hand to pet Sojiro’s head. As he carded his fingers through the fine black strands, Hiko snorted.

“Baka deshi,” he said, “you’ve hurt your kid.” Kenshin blinked, but, before he could speak, Hiko nodded at Sojiro’s ankle. “You moved him too fast — it caused him pain.” He moved his sharp gaze to Sojiro. “Isn’t that right?”

Sojiro’s eyes widened and he flinched.

“I-I—”

“It’s all right,” Hiko said, and everyone froze at the gentle, soft tone of his voice. It was still gruff and deep, but he had lowered it to suit the atmosphere of the room and the attitude of the little boy straddled on Kenshin’s hip. He reached forward and laid a gentle hand on Sojiro’s back. “It’s all right, kid,” he said, “I didn't mean to frighten you. And Kenshin here, didn't he hurt you?”

“N-Not on purpose,” Sojiro stammered, and he was amazed by how large the hand against his back was. Kenshin’s shishou was even bigger than Aoshi. . .

“Well, of course my apprentice would not injure you intentionally,” the large swordsman said with a scoff, “but you should tell him and the others if they hurt you.”

Kenshin, much to Sojiro’s surprise, nodded.

“Yes, please tell us, little one. Did I hurt you?”

“Y-Yeah. Moved too fast — hurt my surgery ankle.”

“Oh, I see,” Kenshin said, and he moved to put Sojiro back in bed. With Megumi’s help, they deposited the slim boy back to the futon, careful not to jostle him. When he was sitting up in bed, supported by cushions and pillows, Kenshin crouched in front of him and took his hands. “This one is very sorry that I hurt you,” he said, violet eyes earnest and bright, “and you must promise to tell this one and the others if we accidentally hurt you again.”

Sojiro nodded.

“Promise,” he said.

Kenshin smiled.

“Thank you!” he beamed. He handed Nigou to the boy as Megumi propped his still ankle on another cushion. Kenshin ruffled the boy’s hair and then turned to Hiko, motioning for him to come closer.

Hiko appraised Sojiro, surrounded by the pillows and blankets, and, after deciding that it would be all right to speak to the child, came and knelt in front of him. He allowed the boy to stare at him for a few moments before speaking.

“Sojiro,” he said, “I am honored to meet you. My baka deshi said very good things about you.”

Kenshin, much to his embarrassment, couldn't hide a blush, and Sojiro smiled.

“I’m glad to meet you too, Shishou.”

“Shishou?” Hiko echoed, and he was mildly mortified when his voice cracked. “Did you call me shishou?”

Sojiro flinched and clutched his stuffed bunny close.

“Is-Is that wrong?”

“Well, Sojiro,” Kenshin said before Hiko could speak, “he’s not your shishou. He is this one’s. You can call him—”

“Shishou,” Hiko interrupted. “You can call me Shishou, Sojiro.”

Both Kenshin and Sojiro turned to Hiko, eyes wide with surprise. Hiko was still kneeling calmly across from them, his face the same as ever, no indication of joy or annoyance anywhere, but his hands were clenched tightly under his cape and his eyes were slightly shining. Hiko tore his eyes away from the pair, staring instead at the tatami mats. He cleared his throat.

“Only if you’d like too, that is,” he said. “If you want, you may call me Hiko-san.”

“No, no!” Sojiro cried, leaning forward. “I want to call you Shishou!”

“Then Shishou it is.”

And Hiko, in the first time in years, gave an honest smile.

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Chapter Text

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Shishou was big. No, not just big — huge!! He towered above Kenshin and dwarfed the girls and Yahiko — even Sano seemed small compared to the swordsman. Sojiro liked him, despite how strange he acted.

He was huge but moved silently — he’d appear at Sojiro’s side in an instant, startling the boy. The first time he had done this Sojiro flailed and screamed, terrified, and afterwards Hiko always made an effort to alert the boy that he was coming into the room.

He didn't smile. Sojiro was used to the warm, kind smiles that he received everyday, so having someone around him who never smiled and always looked mildly annoyed was kind of scary in its unfamiliarity. Whenever Sojiro asked why Hiko was annoyed, the man always looked surprised and tried to school his expression into one of calm; it didn't work — he still looked annoyed. But his eyes were always soft, so Sojiro felt safe around him.

Hiko, in the week he had been at the Kamiya dojo, hadn't so much as touched Sojiro since the first day. But Sojiro was desperate to know this man better — what he smelled like, how strong his muscles were, how high he’d be when settled against the man’s chest. So, one fine morning, Sojiro decided to ask.

Kenshin and Hiko were seated on either side of Sojiro, enjoying their own meals of fish and rice as Kenshin sometimes helped Sojiro lift a spoonful of miso soup to his mouth. Sojiro was getting better at handling the utensil on his own, but he still shook sometimes and so needed help. After he swallowed a spoonful of the soup, he raised his voice and turned to face Hiko.

“Shishou,” he said, “would you carry me outside?”

Kenshin blinked, taken aback, but Hiko, not missing a beat, shook his head. Sojiro’s heart fell.

“I won’t carry you, Sojiro,” Hiko said, laying his chopsticks aside, “but I will gladly help you walk outside.”

Sojiro’s heart leapt again with joy.

“Really?!?”

“Yes, of course. You are doing much better than before, so I will not coddle you and carry you around. It’s time for you to practice walking more.”

Sojiro nodded, but Kenshin spoke up.

“Shishou,” he said, anxiety laced in his voice, “I’m not sure this is the best idea. Sojiro is still—”

“Baka deshi,” Hiko interrupted, and he threw his apprentice a dirty look. “You need to have more faith in your boy. He’s gotten much better, haven't you, Sojiro?”

Sojiro nodded eagerly.

“Yeah!” he said. “I can stand on my own now with the crutches! And the sun doesn’t bother my head as much.”

Hiko smiled, and, much to Sojiro’s delight, so did Kenshin.

“All right,” he said, “you can walk around for a bit, Sojiro.” He reached forward to collect the empty bowls and stacked them on a tray. “This one will go clean the dishes while you two take a walk.” He smiled, then got up and began to leave the door. As he slid the door open, however, he turned. “Don’t push him too hard, Shishou,” he said to Hiko.

Hiko waved a hand in dismissal.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Get out of here, baka deshi — we’ll be fine.”

Kenshin made a face, but nodded and then smiled at Sojiro.

“I’ll be back soon, that I will,” he said. And then he left, sliding the door closed behind him. Sojiro turned eager blue eyes to Hiko, his hands fluttering excitedly by his side. Hiko chuckled.

“You’re just as impatient as Kenshin was when he was a child,” he said. He sighed and got to his feet, towering over Sojiro. “All right,” he said, “let’s get started.”

With gentle hands, he gripped Sojiro under the arms and tugged him up, allowing the boy to clutch at his cape as he balanced on one leg, holding his injured foot behind him. Hiko reached over and grabbed the small crutches from where they were lying nearby. He made to hand them to Sojiro, but the boy stopped him.

“Wait!” he cried.

Hiko blinked, taken aback.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

Sojiro pointed to a basket in the corner of the room, a large one with his name plastered on the side.

“There’s a jinbei in there,” he said to Hiko. “Can I wear it on our walk?”

Hiko bit back an annoyed sigh — kids were so needy. But he could never refuse tiny Kenshin a rare treat or an opportunity to have fun before the training begin, and he couldn't refuse this tiny kid anything either. So he just nodded and helped Sojiro sit down again before going over to the basket.

He blinked.

There was a lot of crap in it — origami animals, shoes, loincloths, extra clothes and blankets, a marble, as well as some other miscellaneous objects. But, on the top was a neatly folded blue jinbei, decorated with white dragonflies and embroidered with Sojiro’s name. Hiko smothered a smile as he pulled it out — it was actually kind of adorable. He turned, little jinbei in his arms, back to Sojiro.

The sick little boy was propped up by his mountain of pillows and cushions, fingering the stuffed bunny in his lap. When Hiko turned back to him, his face lit up and a wide smile graced his lips. Hiko remembered Kenshin’s rare smiles — they were precious to him and he remembered every one. He’d probably remember Sojiro’s too.

Sojiro reached out and wiggled his fingers. Hiko gracefully sat next to the boy, rolling his eyes.

“Hold on, hold on,” he said, his voice gruff. Sojiro frowned and shrunk a bit. Hiko’s heart shrunk along with it. “I’m not going to hurt you, kid. And I’m not mad. How many times do I have to tell you this?”

Sojiro shivered and pulled his arms close to his chest.

“S-Sorry,” he stammered.

“And stop apologizing. It’s not befitting of a strong kid like yourself. I swear, you’re just like Kenshin.”

Sojiro started to uncurl then, settling his wide blue eyes on Hiko.

“L-Like Kenshin?”

“Yeah. He was half-scared out of his mind when he was your age too.” Though he had a reason to be, just like you do. . . .

“I know,” Sojiro whispered, much to Hiko’s surprise. “It’s cause the slave people took him.” He leaned forward and wrapped his tiny hand around Hiko’s wrist. He lowered his voice even further. “But you saved him.”

Hiko blinked. Kenshin had told that story? He didn't think that his stupid apprentice would ever tell anyone about his past — he hadn't even told the Kamiya girl yet, not to his knowledge anyway. So what was he doing, telling it to an abused kid?

But as Sojiro stared up at him with strangely grateful eyes, Hiko understood. Kenshin had told Sojiro so that the boy knew he was not alone, that others had suffered like him, that someone understood him. He had told him to give him hope. Perhaps his apprentice wasn’t so stupid after all. . . .

Hiko’s thoughts were cut off by Sojiro’s little voice.

“Thank you,” he breathed.

“Huh?”

“Thank you,” Sojiro repeated.

“What the heck are you thanking me for? I didn't do anything.”

“You saved Kenshin. And then he saved me. If you didn't save Kenshin back then, no one would have saved me now.” Sojiro paled. “I-I would be d-d-dead.”

Hiko’s heart tightened painfully and he reached out to awkwardly pat the boy’s head.

“Well, then you’re welcome,” he said, and that was that. “Now, enough talking. Let’s put this on and then go on a walk. All right?”

Sojiro nodded and his smile reappeared.

“Okay!” he chirped.

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Chapter Text

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It was a beautiful day. Sunny, but not too hot. A gentle breeze, not too hard or cold, blew through the air. It was absolutely perfect. Sano, Misao, and Yahiko were lounging around on the grass, staring up at the clouds and pointing out what they thought they looked like, and Kaoru was out hanging up laundry. She had tried a few times to get them to help, but gave up after a minute. They weren't going to be of much help anyway, even if they tried. So she picked up a small obi from the laundry — and, with a smile, hung it on the line to dry. When she turned back to the basket, a flash of blue on the porch caught her eye and she looked up.

Her heart nearly burst with pride.

Sojiro was wobbling towards her on his little crutches, wearing the jinbei she had bought him, Hiko following him closely behind in case he fell down. But Sojiro was doing well, from what Kaoru could see — he was walking all by himself. She abandoned the laundry to run up to him.

“Sweetheart!” she cried, rushing onto the porch and clapping her hands. “Sojiro, you’re walking!”

Sojiro giggled happily and sped up, wobbling towards Kaoru a little faster. Kaoru’s smile didn't falter and she fell to her knees, arms wide open.

At Kaoru’s excited cry and Sojiro’s laugh, Sano, Misao, and Yahiko rolled over on the grass and Kenshin appeared at the kitchen door, a wet bowl in his hands. All four faces lit up and they cried out with joy, abandoning their tasks and running toward the porch. Hiko watched the happy faces all around him with satisfaction. Good job, Sojiro, he thought. These kids really love you.

Sojiro didn't falter on his crutches, even when he got faster, and he didn't stop until he was in Kaoru’s arms. Even then, he didn't let go of the crutches, but allowed himself to be smushed against her breast, her hand cradling his head.

“Sweetheart, I’m so proud of you!!”

“That was amazing, kid!” Sano said.

“You’re awesome, Sojiro!” Yahiko chirped, a loopy smile on his face.

“Beansprout!” Misao grinned. “You’re amazing!”

“Sojiro!” Kenshin hopped onto the porch and hugged both Sojiro and Kaoru, not wanting to move Sojiro from her arms. Kaoru blushed but Kenshin didn't notice. “Little one, this one is so happy and proud of you!” He kissed the top of the boy’s head, and everyone pretended not to see the tears in his eyes.

Sojiro wiggled against Kaoru and, when she released him, he dropped his crutches and tossed his arms around Kenshin’s neck. Kenshin, with a wet, joyous laugh, picked the boy up and spun him around, careful of his broken ankle. Sojiro giggled in delight, and when Kenshin stopped spinning him, he fell into Kenshin’s neck and sighed.

“Love you, Kenshin,” he murmured.

Kenshin squeezed him tight.

“I love you too, Sojiro.”

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Chapter Text

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Sojiro walked again that night for Megumi. When the doctor burst into tears and started sobbing, Sojiro had been taken aback. Had he done it wrong? But Megumi said she was crying happy tears — she was so, so happy to see he was doing better. Sojiro didn't even know happy tears were real before — but it seemed that everyone was crying them today — Megumi, Kaoru, Kenshin, Misao and even Yahiko. Sojiro might have imagined it, but he thought he saw a single tear roll down Shishou’s cheek too.

Later the same evening, Sojiro was resting in Kaoru’s lap as Kenshin held his hand and Misao played with his hair, careful to avoid his head injury. He was getting sleepy and cold, but he would never admit that; he didn't want to sleep yet.

But, much to his dismay, Kenshin noticed immediately.

“This one thinks it’s time for bed,” he said, and he gathered Sojiro from Kaoru’s lap and swaddled him in a warm blanket. Sojiro had to fight to keep his eyes open. But when he managed, he struggled against Kenshin.

“No!” he said. “I wanna stay up later!”

“You’re falling asleep, kid,” Hiko said with a dry chuckle. “It’s time for you to go to bed.”

“But, Shishou—!”

“You should listen, that you should,” Kenshin said. “Sick bodies need rest. We’re all very proud of you, but you’re still not completely well yet.” He tried to lay Sojiro down on the bed, but the boy struggled against him and clutched his gi tight. He shook his head furiously.

“No!”

“Yes.” Megumi spoke up. “I’m the doctor here, Sojiro, and I say you need sleep. If you don't go to bed now, then I’ll have to give you medicine to make you fall asleep. Do you want that?”

Sojiro shook his head.

“Then go to bed, darling.”

With a resigned sigh, Sojiro released Kenshin’s gi and allowed the rurouni to lay him down on his futon. Kenshin pulled the silky kakebuton up to his chin and then kissed the crown of his head. Sojiro let his eyes slip shut, but decided to feign sleep. He had always wondered what they talked about when he was fast asleep; now was his chance to find out.

“Do you think he can go to the Akabeko now?” Yahiko chirped.

“Maybe,” Megumi answered. “He’s physically well enough, but. . .”

“But?” Kenshin’s voice.

“I’m not sure he can handle so many people at once — it might be overwhelming for him. And the Akabeko is a very crowded place.”

“Maybe Tae can make an exception,” Kaoru said. “I’m sure if I talk to her, she’ll be more than happy to keep the shop open another hour for us.”

“This one isn't sure if we should ask her to do that,” Kenshin said.

Someone slapped him.

“Himura Kenshin!” That was Kaoru. “It’s going to be fine!”

“Geez, Himura,” Misao added, “you’ve gotta ask for something if you want it.”

“All right, all right,” Kenshin said with a laugh. “We can ask Tae-dono.”

“Yes!” Sano cried, and he high-fived Yahiko. Sojiro flinched on instinct before freezing. Had anyone noticed? Had anyone—?

“It’s all right, kid,” Hiko whispered. “I know you’re awake, but I won’t tell. Go ahead and listen.” He took Sojiro’s small hand in his large one and squeezed it. Sojiro squeezed back and fought down a smile. Shishou was so nice. . .

He tuned back to the conversation.

“Do you want to talk to the lawyers yet, Ken-san?” Megumi asked.

Kenshin paused for a moment.

“This one is not sure, Megumi-dono.”

“You should definitely adopt him before someone comes here and steals him,” Misao said.

Sojiro stiffened. Steal him. . .?

Hiko squeezed his hand tight.

“No one is going to steal him, not on my watch,” Sano said, cracking his knuckles.

“But there are people looking for him,” Misao said, anxiety in her voice.

Sojiro’s heart froze in his chest and the room suddenly got colder and the atmosphere much, much more serious.

“What are you talking about, Misao-dono?” Kenshin asked, trying to keep his voice neutral — but Sojiro could tell he was nervous.

“There are rumors of some bandaged man looking for a little black-haired boy.” She dropped her voice. “They say this man has even killed people who get in his way.”

It got even colder and Sojiro swore he couldn't breathe.

Shishio-san, Shishio-san, Shishio-san was looking for him. . . . He was going to die! He was going to DIE!

He couldn't breathe.

“Whoa, kid, it’s okay,” he heard Hiko say, and he felt himself being lifted up. “Easy, it’s okay. Takani.”

Then there were hands all over him — gentle and kind, but also cold and scary. He was going to die! Shishio-san would kill him!! Sojiro opened his eyes, hoping that this was all a dream, but all he saw was blurs of red and purple, Kenshin’s hair and Megumi’s kimono. They were talking to him, Kenshin was holding him, but he couldn't hear them over his own heartbeat and heavy breathing. Why was it hard to breathe? Had Shishio-san poisoned him? Was he dying already? He was dying!

I’m dying!!!

Within the next moment, Sojiro was lifted up and then was outside. Cool night air nipped against his face and he opened his mouth to drink it in. But his lungs wouldn't let him take much — he was choking and breathing too fast and he was scared! Scared!

He felt more than saw Kenshin rocking him back and forth, being handed up to Hiko, who sat him up straight in his arms, and Megumi smoothing his hair from his face. Propped up completely against Hiko, it was suddenly a little easier to breathe, and his blackened vision began to clear. Megumi and Kenshin were petting his head, murmuring platitudes and urging him to be calm and quiet. Sano was rubbing his hand up and down his back, and Yahiko was awkwardly patting his uninjured foot. Kaoru and Misao, who had disappeared, showed up again, Nigou and Megumi’s medicine chest in tow. Sojiro realized that he was being rocked slowly back and forth, and it took him another moment to realize that Hiko was doing this.

“Shi-Shishio-san,” Sojiro stammered, and he tried to take a deep breath; he only choked. The voices grew more urgent, but Sojiro couldn't hear them. If he was going to die, he needed to warn them, warn them of Shishio-san. “Shishio-san killed me. . .” he stammered. “Kill me. . .” He arched his back and then fell limply against Hiko, gasping like a landed fish. He tried to open his eyes for one final look at Kenshin, but he couldn’t. He hoped he’d see the man again in heaven. . . .

“B-Bye.”

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Chapter Text

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Sojiro went slack and Kenshin’s entire body tensed like a bowstring. Megumi, more urgent than ever, ordered Sojiro to be laid in bed, head propped up. Kenshin couldn't move, but only watched as his master laid the tiny Sojiro in his bed and stuffed a pillow under his head. Kaoru rushed forward, as did Misao and Sano.

“Is he breathing?” Sano demanded.

“What happened?” Misao asked, her voice shaking.

“Shut up! All of you shut up!”

Silence fell upon Megumi’s command and now the only sound were the short, wet little wheezes coming from Sojiro. Kenshin’s knees wobbled a bit. He was breathing. Thank God. He had thought the last words he’d hear from this little boy would be his strangled “bye.” And he could never deal with that. He’d lost too much already, he couldn't lose Sojiro too.

Megumi leaned over Sojiro with her stethoscope, and, after untying his jinbei, listened carefully to his lungs. After a few tense moments, she leaned back with a heavy sigh.

“Everything’s all right,” she said, “just another panic attack.” She motioned Kenshin forward before turning to Kaoru. “Kaoru, can you make some tea please? I think it’ll help him calm down when he wakes up.”

“Of course.” Kaoru left the room, Misao following her, as Yahiko, fidgeting near the porch, watched the proceedings around him.

Sojiro had been fine only minutes before — fast asleep, his breathing as even and soft as it always was. They had been discussing going to the Akabeko now that Sojiro was doing better; Yahiko had promised Sojiro months ago that they’d be able to take him and now seemed like a good time.

But then Weasel-girl brought up the fact that someone was looking for Sojiro — or at least a boy who sounded like Sojiro — and suddenly Hiko-san was holding the little boy up, and Sojiro was fighting for air and thrashing and gasping. What he said had mostly been garbled speech, but one thing — a name — caught Yahiko’s attention.

“Who’s Shishio-san?” he asked and watched Kenshin’s back stiffen.

“He’s the swordsman I went to look for,” the rurouni said, squeezing Sojiro’s hand and not turning to face Yahiko. “This one was told that Shishio has been terrorizing quite a few cities, killing police officers and others as well. I went to look for him, but only found Sojiro instead.”

“How do you think Sojiro knows this Shishio?” Megumi asked as she leaned over to retie Sojiro’s jinbei. The boy fidgeted at her touch, but stilled a moment later when Kenshin ran his hand through his hair.

“This one found Sojiro defending himself with a wakizashi,” he said. “I figure that Shishio must have given it to Sojiro.”

“Oh.” Yahiko nodded and made his way next to Kenshin, crouching beside him and peering at Sojiro’s face. “That makes sense. But you said he was defending himself, Kenshin. Defending himself from what?”

Everyone in the room — Megumi, Kenshin, Sano, and Hiko — stiffened, and Yahiko, with narrowed eyes, looked around suspiciously.

“What do you guys know that you aren't telling me?” he asked. When no one answered, he opened his mouth to ask again, but was interrupted by the appearance of Kaoru and Misao.

“Here’s some tea—” Kaoru began, but Yahiko bounded to his feet and cut her off.

“Hey, ugly, they’re hiding something from me!”

Kaoru made a face.

“I’m sure they’re not,” she said, pushing past Yahiko and laying the tea tray on the ground. “You’re just being dramatic. And don’t call me ugly.”

Yahiko groaned. He turned to Misao.

“What about you, Weasel-girl? Do you know anything?”

“Anything about what?”

“About why Sojiro had a wakizashi when Kenshin found him.”

Misao’s eyes widened and Kaoru whipped around.

“What?” they both said at the same time. Then they turned to Kenshin.

“Kenshin?”

“Himura?!?”

“Kenshin, what is Yahiko talking about?” Kaoru asked. “You never told me about a wakizashi. You just told me his family was dead when you. . .” She trailed off and her eyes became suddenly huge. “No. No way! That’s impossible! Right, Kenshin?” Kenshin avoided her eyes, which was all the confirmation Kaoru needed. She threw her hands over her mouth. “Oh, God!”

“Kaoru?” Yahiko asked, voice hesitant. “Kaoru, are you okay? What happened?”

Before Kaoru could get a word out, Hiko spoke up.

“It seems that little Sojiro here killed his family.”

The color faded from Yahiko’s face and he only vaguely heard Misao’s strangled cry and her knees as they hit the floor. Yahiko couldn't hear anything over the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears, and hardly registered Kenshin’s soft voice as he explained the exact circumstances of how he found Sojiro.

Yahiko couldn't believe it — he refused to believe it. How could Sojiro, so small and frail, wield a short sword with deadly accuracy to kill everyone around him? Yahiko couldn't stand to think of Sojiro as a murderer. It was just so wrong! But then again, it wasn't murder if he was defending himself, right?

“Kenshin,” he blurted out, “is Sojiro a murderer now?”

Kenshin stiffened and he blinked, eyes huge.

“He’s a killer, not a murderer,” Hiko supplied when Kenshin didn't speak. He leaned forward and squeezed Kenshin’s shoulder. “He’s not a murderer, baka deshi. I’m a murderer, as are you, but not Sojiro. Killing in self-defense is not murder.”

Kenshin nodded slowly.

“Yes,” he said after a moment, “yes, that’s right. He’s not a murderer. Just a scared child.”

“Can the police arrest him?” Misao asked.

“No,” Megumi said instantly.

Misao’s shoulders slumped in relief.

“Thank goodness,” she sighed.

“Where did Sojiro even get a wakizashi?” Kaoru asked, taking a deep breath and sitting up straight again.

“That’s what we were talking about before you guys came back,” Sano said. “We think some swordsman named Shishio gave it to him.”

“The same Shishio Sojiro was freaking out about?” Misao asked. “He seemed really panicked about it — is this the swordsman you were looking for, Himura?”

Kenshin nodded.

“Yes, although I didn't have a name until now.”

“And this Shishio is looking for Sojiro?” Megumi asked. When Kenshin nodded, she frowned. “But why? I don’t understand.”

“It seems like every person who’s seen this swordsman’s face is dead,” Hiko said. “Sojiro is the only person who’s seen him and so can give an eyewitness description of him. He’s a threat.”

Kenshin nodded.

“Which is why it’s more important than ever to keep Sojiro safe,” he said. “If what Misao-dono told us is true and Shishio really is looking for him.”

“Well, he’ll be safe,” Yahiko declared with all the confidence in the world, and he puffed out his chest. “If he’s got all of us protecting him, then nothing bad will happen to him.”

The first smile Yahiko had seen in quite some time graced Kenshin’s lips and he nodded at the boy.

“That’s right,” he said, and he took Sojiro’s hand and squeezed it tight. “Nothing bad will happen to him while we’re here.”

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Chapter Text

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The next morning was very bad.

Sojiro had woken up screaming and thrashing and had hurt his ankle again, which set the screams into terrified, pained sobs. This had continued for nigh on an hour as Megumi fixed the bandages and checked the stitches. Kenshin held the boy in his arms and tried to coo him back into quiet and calm.

But it hadn't worked, and, much to Megumi’s dismay, Sojiro had ripped some of the stitches open again while thrashing.

It took everyone to keep Sojiro down as Megumi restitched Sojiro’s ankle and his terrified screeches ripped through every heart, and even Hiko flinched when Sojiro arched his back and every tendon in his neck stood out.

He closed his eyes and laid a hand on the boy’s forehead.

“Hush now, Sojiro, it’s all right,” he said, voice as gentle as he could make it. “It’s all right. There now, little one.”

Hiko kept talking to Sojiro, who had strangely calmed somewhat at his voice, until all was done and over with.

“There now, all done,” Hiko declared. “All done, Sojiro. There, there, it’s all right. You did well, very well. We’re very proud.”

Sojiro cried for a little longer, hiccuping on sobs, until he was exhausted enough to fall asleep.

“I’m impressed, Hiko-san,” Megumi said as she collected bloody bandages and used needles. “You’re better with children than I supposed.”

Hiko snorted.

“Not really. You can ask my baka deshi how I raised him. I definitely am not one who deals well with children.”

“Ken-san is one of the kindest people I have ever known,” Megumi said, “and I have no doubt you had something to do with that.” She smiled. “You may be an arrogant swordsman, Hiko-san, but you work with well with children. I’m grateful.”

Hiko blinked at the genuine compliment and bowed his head at the doctor as she left the room. The swordsman spent most of the morning and afternoon with the exhausted Sojiro, who was fast asleep, as the others went about their daily business and Kenshin slept as well.

Around four in the afternoon, Sojiro awoke and Hiko stiffened to attention immediately, watching the boy for a few moments as his confused, tired eyes roved, unfocused, around the room. They finally settled on Hiko and the swordsman dipped his head at the boy.

“Hello, Sojiro,” he said, “I’m glad to see you’re awake. Did you sleep well?”

“Where’s K-Kenshin?” Sojiro asked, either not hearing or ignoring Hiko’s question. “K-Kenshin. . .”

“My apprentice is sleeping,” Hiko supplied. “Much like you, he is very tired.”

“Oh.” Sojiro blinked indulgently, then nodded. “Okay.”

There was a few moments of silence, before Hiko took a deep breath. He wasn't used to being alone with a kid — he hadn't done it in years, not since Kenshin lived with him.

“How are you feeling, kid?”

“Tired,” Sojiro frowned, raising a fist to rub at his eyes, “and my surgery ankle hurts.”

“I’ll bet,” Hiko said, fighting back a snort. “You were fighting everyone this morning and managed to hurt yourself again. Don’t you remember?”

Sojiro blinked and nodded, and, much to Hiko’s distress, tears welled up in his big blue eyes.

“Aw, kid, come on, don’t cry. There’s nothing to cry about.”

“S-sorry,” Sojiro stammered and he tried hard to keep the tears in his eyes. “I know it’s my fault it hurts again.”

“That’s right. Now stop crying. I’m going to get you some water. By the time I’ve come back, I’d like to see you’ve stopped crying.” Sojiro stiffened as Hiko got to his feet, body going tense as a bowstring. Hiko sighed. “I won’t hurt you,” he reassured the boy. “It’s just that—”

“It’s just that Hiko-san can’t stand tears,” a voice behind him chirped. Hiko turned, a surly frown on his face, to find the Makimachi girl standing behind him. She was dressed in the same jinbei she always wore — blue with pink laces and ribbons — and was holding a tray of tea and snacks in her arms.

She made a face at Hiko as she stepped into the room.

“It’s true and you know it,” she said, laying the tray next to Sojiro before leaning over him and kissing his brow. She crooked a finger at him, grinning, and sat herself next to the boy. “Hello, beansprout,” she greeted.

“H-Hi, Miso,” Sojiro stammered. Misao laughed.

“It’s Misao,” she reminded the boy. “But, if you really like it, you can keep calling me Miso.”

Sojiro nodded.

“You shouldn't coddle him, Makimachi-san,” Hiko said and Misao sighed. She turned to the large man, her blue eyes sparking with annoyance.

“It’s Misao,” she said. “And Sojiro is an eight-year-old boy who’s been sick and hurt for months. Not to mention terribly abused before this. He deserves some coddling, or whatever else he needs.” She ruffled Sojiro’s hair and smiled at him before frowning at Hiko, daring him to fight her.

Hiko was obviously too proud to let this sixteen-year-old girl slight his pride. He snorted, ignoring Sojiro’s flinch and Misao’s angry face.

“Kenshin was eight years old when I found him,” he said, “and I didn't coddle him at all.”

“No offense, but Himura is a human disaster,” Misao sniffed. However, her eyes softened as she considered her statement. “I mean,” she corrected, “there’s a lot going on with Himura. He’s a complicated person. He can be full of self-doubt and crippling guilt, but there’s no doubt he’s a good guy. And good guys aren't raised by stoic jerks.” She raised her hand and pointed at Hiko. “So there’s no way I believe that you didn't coddle him. Even if you did just a little, you totally coddled him.”

Hiko opened his mouth to protest, but shut it again quickly as a handful of memories flooded him. Fevered Kenshin in his lap, nightmare-riddled Kenshin wrapped around his knees, hurt Kenshin clutching at his cape, bloody fingers leaving small stains on the pristine white fabric. It occurred to Hiko that, although all in all he’d been hard on Kenshin, he’d allowed himself and the boy rare moments of affection and softness. And, now that he thought about it, it had probably contributed to little Kenshin’s feeling of safety and how kind he was. Yes, for better of for worse, Hiko had coddled Kenshin in his own way.

When Hiko came back to himself, he found the Makimachi girl smirking.

“Told you so,” she said, and, for once, Hiko was willing to admit defeat.

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Chapter Text

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Kaoru had Sojiro straddled on her hip, Misao next to her as she rubbed the boy’s back in gentle circles. It was much to Kaoru’s amusement that Sojiro rapidly fell asleep, his exhausted body slumping against her and his warm little breaths skating across her collarbone. She giggled, delighted, when Sojiro made a soft squeak in his sleep. Misao gasped.

“Cute!!”

“All right, you two,” Megumi said, rolling her eyes, “the bath’s ready. Let’s get Sojiro in there.”

Kaoru and Misao nodded, slipping on their sandals as they stepped off the porch and onto the grassy courtyard. They made their way to the bathhouse, Sojiro still asleep, all three dressed simply in their bath yukatas.

It was bath time — and the first real bath Sojiro had ever gotten so far in the time he’d been here. Ever since he’d arrived, he’d gotten a sponge bath as often as possible — usually every other day. But Kaoru had always been dying to give him a real bath, a bath in the tub with proper soaps and scents and everything. Now that he was doing better, able to walk and eat and stay awake most of the day, and Megumi said it was okay to get his nearly-healed ankle wet, the very first thing Kaoru had demanded was a bath. Sojiro seemed hesitant at first, but when Kaoru and Misao spouted the miracles and nearly magical qualities of baths, Sojiro, entranced, had eagerly agreed.

Megumi had one condition — only the girls were to be with Sojiro in the bathhouse.

Kenshin had, of course, vehemently argued against this, but once that he was convinced that Sojiro would be all right, and multiple slaps from the girls (and Hiko) about a woman’s privacy, he had agreed.

So now he was standing outside the bathhouse, wood in hand, stoking the fire that warmed the bathwater. When he saw the Kaoru and Misao coming, Sojiro in tow, he ran to greet them. He laid a hand on the small of Sojiro’s back, and Sojiro stirred on instinct.

“K-Kenshin…” he muttered, raising his sleepy head from Kaoru’s shoulder. “K-Kenshin.”

“Hello, little one,” Kenshin smiled. “Are you excited for your bath?”

Sojiro nodded and rubbed his eyes.

“Yeah,” he said. He clutched at Kaoru a little tighter. “Kaoru gonna keep me safe.”

Kenshin smiled softly.

“That’s right,” he said. “Kaoru-dono is going to keep you very safe. As are Misao-dono and Megumi-dono.” When Sojiro nodded again, Kenshin reached forward and took one of his hands. “This one will be right outside, Sojiro,” he told the boy. “Nothing bad will happen, but if it does you can just call for me. I’ll be there as quickly as I can.”

Sojiro nodded.

“Thanks, Kenshin,” he said quietly. “Thank. . .”

“Kaoru, Misao!” Megumi popped her head out the door and rolled her eyes when she saw that they had been stopped by Kenshin. “Ken-san. . ." she sighed, and she came out and shooed him away. “Get on out of here, Ken-san,” she said, and she took Sojiro from Kaoru, allowing him to wrap his legs around her waist. “Tend to the fire with Yahiko and Hiko-san. We’re fine. Everything’s okay here, Ken-san.” She arched an eyebrow. “Understand?”

Kenshin deflated and nodded. He bowed respectfully.

“This one understands, Megumi-dono,” he said. “I apologize if I was rude.”

“Stop being so formal, Ken-san,” Megumi said. “It’s fine.” She lowered her voice. “And if we do need you, I’ll call for you. So relax, all right?” Kenshin managed a small smile and touched Sojiro’s back one more time before stepping away. Megumi, satisfied, walked into the bathhouse, Kaoru and Misao following her. Hot steam flowed from the open door, but, once Misao closed it, it disappeared, trapped lovingly in the bathhouse.

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Chapter Text

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Sojiro wasn't used to warm baths. Much less a bathtub. And he was with other people — women specifically. Which was weird.

At the Setas, Sojiro took baths in a small wooden tub in freezing water, and then only when he had a chance. Which wasn’t very often — he’d be lucky to bathe twice a month.

But now he was floating in warm water, the bathtub a lot bigger than him so that he could stretch his legs out, and he felt comfortable and safe since Kaoru was holding him carefully, keeping his head above the water.

Baths were strange and special. When he was at the Setas, he would just wash himself quickly with a rejected bar of soap, shivering in the cold water the whole time, and he rarely got to wash his hair. Since his baths were so short and cold and his bar of soap so small, he was always dirty. His feet had never been clean, no matter how hard he tried.

But now, his toes were clean and looked like pink, skin-colored beans. He wiggled them in confused delight and laughed, elated when Misao tickled them.

“Stop! Stop!” he giggled and he kicked at her, splashing water all over her.

Sojiro froze, horrified, waiting for them to plunge him under the water and drown him, but, much to his relief, Misao just laughed in return. She cupped some water in her hands and tossed it at Sojiro.

Sojiro squealed in delight, and he slapped the bath water with his hands, splashing her again — as well as Megumi and Kaoru. Kaoru laughed, as did Megumi, but the doctor tried to school her face into a frown.

“Now, now, you two,” she said, “let’s keep the water in the tub, all right?”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ll try,” Misao said, and she winked at Sojiro. Sojiro giggled again but tried not to splash Misao as often — although he splashed more than Megumi would have preferred. As Misao played with Sojiro, Kaoru and Megumi washed his hair thoroughly, then all of his body, every nook and cranny of his skin, until Sojiro felt like a whole new person — as if all the filth and terrible things the Setas had ever put him through was washed away with the dirty water. Once again, he felt safe.

When his bath was done, the girls bathed too, and allowed Sojiro to wash and play with their hair, tickling him every so often.

All too soon the bath was done and Kaoru was lifting Sojiro out of the water as Misao swaddled him in what seemed like a million towels.

“Clean and nice,” Misao sang as she rubbed Sojiro’s soaking hair with a towel. “Sojiro-chan is all clean and nice! Sooooooo clean and nice!”

Sojiro giggled and wiggled closer to Kaoru, nestling his clean face into her collarbone, humming in contentment. Kaoru laughed.

“You’re so cute, sweetheart,” she said. “Did you enjoy that bath?”

“Yeah!” Sojiro said.

“I thought you would,” Megumi said. “Baths are good for sick and tired bodies. They’re also very relaxing.”

Sojiro’s eyes fluttered and he nearly melted into Kaoru. Now that Megumi said that, nothing really hurt and all his muscles weren't stiff or achy. It was an amazing feeling, and, combined by the comforting warmth of the bath and towels, Sojiro realized he was sleepy. He yawned and Megumi laughed, rubbing her hand up and down his back.

“That relaxing, hm?” she said, a smile in her voice. “Well, then, let’s go to bed.”

Sojiro barely woke when they stepped outside, and hardly stirred when he was handed to Kenshin, who nestled his nose in his hair and complimented on how clean and fresh he smelled.

Sojiro’s grip tightened on Kenshin’s gi, and then he smiled and fell asleep.

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Chapter Text

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Hiko left a few days later. Buoyed by Sojiro’s improvement, he claimed he was no longer needed. He would no longer be a burden to the Kamiya household, and insisted he go back to his mountain and his pottery practice. Despite everyone’s efforts to the contrary, Hiko could not be swayed to stay, and he left without so much as a goodbye.

However, much to everyone’s bemusement but Sojiro’s delight, the swordsman left a small, hand-crafted clay bird near Sojiro’s pillow. It was blue with red and yellow feathers, and, on the bottom, had Sojiro’s name painted carefully in what Kenshin immediately recognized as his master’s handwriting. He smiled at the present. It had not been made before Hiko had come, which meant that he’d secretly been baking and painting a little bird for the boy all the time he had been here.

“Shishou is a good man,” he told Sojiro when the boy held out the bird. “A very good man indeed.”

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Chapter Text

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Yahiko skipped into Sojiro’s room, heart racing with excitement. They were finally taking Sojiro out! Finally! It had been months since Yahiko had promised to take Sojiro to the Akabeko, and now that Sojiro could walk relatively well on his crutches and hadn't shown any complications or signs of distress, Megumi said they were in the clear. Sojiro could go out with them!

The next day, Yahiko and Kaoru excitedly made arrangements with Tae. They would go during the late afternoon to avoid the lunchtime and dinner crowds, and Tae agreed to set them in a private room to keep Sojiro comfortable and away from prying eyes. She and Tsubame would be the only ones serving them — no strangers.

Sojiro was eager to go, so they set the restaurant date for as soon as possible. Kenshin and Sano spent a lot of time with Sojiro, trying to keep him from getting too antsy, as Yahiko crammed in more hours at the Akabeko and Misao and Kaoru went shopping.

They came back the day before the restaurant visit with black hakama and a small purple gi. Sojiro got another bath, got a haircut (from Kenshin, who was the only one he trusted with the scissors), and even tried a nibble or two of dumpling that Kaoru offered him.

The day of the trip was far more elaborate and celebratory than it needed to be, but, after all, it was a very special day — Sojiro had waited months for this. Kaoru and Misao dressed in the nicest clothes they had and insisted that all the boys in the house take a bath and dress nicely as well. It was an annoyance to Sano and Yahiko — who lived in a permanent state of dirtiness — but, at Kaoru’s insistence and the special occasion, they agreed to get cleaned up.

It was getting late, and the sun was beginning to dip behind the mountains when Yahiko slipped into Sojiro’s room. The boy was sitting on Kenshin’s lap, dressed in his black hakama and purple gi, purple tabi socks on his feet; one of them was placed very carefully over the bandages on his foot. Kenshin, dressed in white hakama and a black gi, was playing with Sojiro, holding up Nigou and cooing nonsense words, much to Sojiro’s delight.

Yahiko stepped into the room with a wide grin, which Sojiro and Kenshin mirrored. Sojiro grabbed his stuffed rabbit from Kenshin and waved one of its paws at Yahiko.

“Nigou says hi, Yahiko!” Sojiro chirped.

“Hi, Nigou!” Yahiko said. “Hi, Sojiro! Hi, Kenshin!”

“Hello, Yahiko,” Kenshin smiled. “You look very nice, that you do.”

Yahiko blushed and looked down at his clothes. Kaoru had bought him a new pair of hakama — brown and full length — as well as a forest green gi. Yahiko complained that he looked like a tree, but he was secretly pleased. He never would have admitted it, but he had been needing new clothes. And these were very nice.

He muttered a thanks, raised his head, and plopped down on the tatami mats in front of Sojiro.

“Sojiro!” he said, his huge smile again on his face. “Are you excited?”

“Yes!” Sojiro said, bobbing his head up and down. Yahiko fidgeted before speaking again.

“Did they tell you that I’m paying for your dinner?”

Sojiro’s and Kenshin’s eyes widened, both having not known this information, and Kenshin opened his mouth to protest when Kaoru’s voice echoed from the doorway.

“Yahiko has been working very hard for this,” she said. She was dressed in her finest kimono, makeup on her face, with her favorite pin in her hair. She smiled at her student. “You’ve put in extra hours and everything, isn’t that right?”

Yahiko’s face turned red at the honest pride and affection laced in Kaoru’s voice. It was weird when she talked to him like this, considering most of the time she was sweaty, loud, and annoying. But, oddly enough, Yahiko found himself comforted by her soft voice — it made him feel safe. Ugh, that’s stupid, Yahiko thought and he tossed the mushy emotion out of his mind.

“Yeah,” he said to Sojiro, “yeah, I have been working more hours. But it’s not that big of a deal. Don’t you remember when I told you that I’d treat you to hot pot someday, Sojiro?”

Sojiro’s face scrunched up in thought for a few long moments before his eyes became big.

“That was a long time ago. . .” he whispered in awe. “You remember?”

“Well, duh,” Yahiko snorted. “I never forget about food.”

Kenshin laughed and Yahiko’s heart swelled.

“That’s true, that it is!” he chuckled. He smiled at Yahiko. “Thank you for your generosity, Yahiko.”

“No problem!”

“All right, everyone ready to leave this place? I’m hungry.”

Everyone turned to find Sano at the door. He hadn't changed his clothes at all, but had bathed like Kaoru ordered (only cause she said he couldn't come if he didn’t). Much to his annoyance, when he came out of the bath, he found his clothes wet and hanging on the line to dry — most likely Kenshin’s doing. It was frustrating to wait, but Sano had to admit that he did he like his clothes clean — more girls looked at him and vendors actually spoke to him. It also occurred to Sano that his filthy clothes hadn't been doing Sojiro’s weak little body any favors. All that dirt and dust. Ugh, gross.

“Yeah! Let’s go!” Misao popped up behind Sano, dressed in a borrowed kimono, her hair pinned up, a flower in her bun. She skipped into the room, crouching down near Sojiro and making a face at him. Sojiro giggled. “You ready, sweetpea? Cause I’m ready! Yayyy!” She plopped down on her back, sprawled out. Sojiro giggled again.

“Misao, get off the ground!” Kaoru cried. “You’re going to ruin—”

“Are you two already fighting?” Megumi’s voice drifted from the doorway, and everyone turned to find her standing behind Sano. Sojiro’s eyes widened.

“Pretty,” he muttered, gaze locked on Megumi. The woman had pulled her hair into an elaborate style, adorned with a red and gold pin. She had left behind her trademark purple doctor’s michiyuki and had instead replaced it with a pale red kimono, which matched her hairpin and lipstick. Sojiro was struck by sudden memories of the sad girls, thinking for a moment that Megumi looked like them, but no — she was happy. Happiness made her beautiful. Not like the sad girls.

“Megumi, you look beautiful!” Kaoru cried. Megumi swept her hand across her brow and smirked.

“I know.” She winked at Kenshin. “Isn’t that right, Ken-san?”

“That you do, Megumi-dono,” he said. Kaoru whipped to face him, her face red with anger, her eyes spitting fire. Sojiro and Kenshin flinched at the same time. “You look beautiful too, Kaoru-dono, that you do!” Kenshin spluttered.

Sojiro clutched at Kenshin, scared of Kaoru’s angry red face, and nodded his head frantically.

“That you do!” he squeaked, echoing Kenshin.

This seemed to dissolve the tension in the room as Sano burst into laughter and strode up to Kaoru, tossing his arm across her now-relaxed shoulders.

“You’re hilarious, jo-chan!” he chuckled. “You managed to scare the most fearless man and boy in aaaallllll of Japan!”

“Shut up, Sano,” Kaoru grumbled, shrugging Sano’s arm off her. She stepped forward and knelt in front of Sojiro, a soft, regretful smile on her face. “I’m sorry I scared you, Sojiro,” she said. She turned to Kenshin and nodded at him. “And you too, Kenshin.”

Both man and boy smiled and Sojiro reached out and squeezed Kaoru’s hands.

“Forgive.”

Kaoru beamed at the boy and nodded, squeezing his hands in return.

“Thank you, Sojiro,” she said. She turned to Kenshin, an eyebrow raised. “Will you forgive me for being ridiculous, Kenshin?”

“There is nothing to forgive, Kaoru-dono.” He smiled serenely at her.

Kaoru blushed bright red, then got to her feet.

“All right, then,” she said, “let’s get going.”

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Chapter Text

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Outside was far more terrifying than Sojiro had imagined. He was used to the confines of a house and yard — both at Kenshin’s and at the Seta’s, so, to say the least, everything was very big and new to him. First, there were so many people and they tended to gawk at him. When they first left the house, Sojiro had been determined to walk on his own with the crutches, and was doing well, Kaoru and Kenshin flanking him as the others dawdled behind. But then people started running up to him, cooing over how cute he was or asking strange questions. Then one child, a tall boy around thirteen with missing teeth, asked why Sojiro was so ugly and couldn't walk. Kaoru, outraged, had nearly slapped the boy and started yelling at him; Yahiko, of course, almost got into fight. When the boy’s mother appeared, she grew mad not at her son, but at Kaoru. From there, it escalated quickly. Nearly everyone got involved. What had at first been a peaceful walk on easy dirt roads had suddenly turned into a cacophony of noise and anger. Sojiro shut his eyes tight and weaved on his crutches.

Scared. He was scared. So scared.

Eyes still scrunched tight, Sojiro felt himself being lifted gently into the air and he struggled at first, frightened, but when he heard Kenshin’s voice close to his ear, he dropped his crutches and clutched hard at the man’s ponytail, fighting back tears.

Kenshin rocked Sojiro back and forth, rubbing his back gently, as he surveyed the drama unfolding before him.

Kaoru, red in the face, was practically screaming at the boy’s mother, demanding why she wasn't mad at her rude little brat. Her fists were clenched tight in her kimono and it was obvious to Kenshin that she was ready to fight if she had to. Megumi and Misao were flanking her, lips pursed and eyes sparking with anger.

Kenshin’s violet eyes moved from the women to Yahiko, Sano, and the boy. Sano was forcibly holding Yahiko back as the boy screeched at the much-taller teenager, daring him to fight “Myojin Yahiko, Tokyo samurai!”

It was obvious to Kenshin that Sano wanted to release Yahiko and set him loose, but he was grateful he didn’t, for with Yahiko’s extensive training, he would easily beat the teenager in a fight, despite his shorter stature.

Kenshin sighed and rubbed Sojiro’s back again, hand moving up to cradle the boy’s head when he whimpered.

Time to end this.

“Ma’am,” he said, stepping forward. He ignored the growing crowd around them, instead settling his even violet gaze on the woman. Kaoru, Megumi, and Misao immediately fell silent. The woman glared at him and Kenshin bowed stiffly, still supporting Sojiro. “What is your name, ma’am?”

“Kato-san,” she answered, eyes narrowing in suspicion.

“Kato-dono,” Kenshin said, and the woman went stiff with shock at such a formal address. “Kato-dono, this one does not appreciate the behavior of your son.”

The woman sniffed.

“Is that so?” she said. “Well, I don’t see what Tobio—”

“Your son was quite rude to our child, that he was,” Kenshin said, hefting up Sojiro to emphasize his point. He avoided using Sojiro’s name, not wanting people to ask questions that had no answers. They had all agreed to do this in public. “We would like an apology.”

“You should all apologize first,” Kato-san said and she crossed her arms over her chest. “I came here and found you all screaming at my son. That behavior is extremely inappropriate. And that one—” she pointed at Yahiko “—was getting ready to fight Tobio!”

“He deserved it!” Yahiko yelled. He struggled briefly against Sano. “Your kid is a sick person!”

“How dare you—!”

“Yahiko,” Kenshin said, and he threw the boy a look. Yahiko froze and then nodded. He stopped struggling, but his eyes remained angry. Kenshin turned back to the woman. “We would like an apology,” he repeated.

“No!”

Kenshin felt his patience rapidly slipping and he tugged Sojiro closer to him. His heart began to beat faster in anger.

“We would like an apology,” he said again.

“I already told you no! Why—” The woman’s voice died in her throat at the look Kenshin gave her. His lips had tightened into a thin line and his wide, peaceful eyes had narrowed dangerously, seemingly flashing gold for a moment. She felt her heart skip with a cold fear and, for the first time, she noticed the sword at his side. She stiffened, then cleared her throat and spoke to her son.

“Tobio, what did you say?”

“Huh?” the boy didn't turn to his mother, instead sneering at Yahiko. “The kid that man is holding is ugly as hell and can’t walk. I want to know what happened to him. Did he fall off a roof or something? He looks stupid enough.”

“Hey, brat—!” Misao began, but she was cut off.

“Oh ho. Tobio, Yui, what’s going on here?”

A man appeared from the crowd, dressed nicely in a Western style suit. Another Kato. Kenshin glared at him. He could tell immediately that kindness was obviously something this man didn't know well.

“Your son insulted our boy here,” Kenshin said before the woman could answer. “We’ve asked for an apology.”

The man’s lip curled and he strode forward with a smirk. He got a little too close to Kenshin and Sojiro for comfort, but Kenshin refused to move. All he did was pull Sojiro even closer to him.

The man made a face.

“Your kid is beat to shit.” He laughed, a cruel noise from the bottom of his throat, when Yahiko growled at him. “Relax, kid. I’m just telling you how it is. My son noticed too and obviously had to say something.”

“Your son called our child ugly!” Megumi yelled. She pursed her lips and stood up straighter when the man glared at her. “We demand an apology.”

“Listen, woman, my son is no liar. I’m sure he’s as ugly, or even uglier, than Tobio says.”

He reached forward, gripping Sojiro’s gi, and tried to pull him from Kenshin. Sojiro screamed in terror, the unfamiliar rough calloused fingers digging into his skin. He was released almost immediately, however, when Sano appeared and grabbed the man’s wrist, hard enough to hurt.

“Enough, asshole,” the fighter growled. He tightened his grip around Kato’s wrist, enough so that the bones ground together.

“Let go of me, you brute!” Sano looked to Kenshin for permission, and, when the rurouni nodded, released the man’s wrist. Kato backed up a few steps, rubbing his wrist with a pained face. He snorted. “Animals. And Tobio was right. Quite an ugly child you’ve got there. An ugly crier too.” He nodded at Sojiro, who was clutching at Kenshin hard enough to hurt, sobbing and screaming; he was clearly terrified.

“We would like an apology,” Kenshin said. “From you and your entire family.”

The man glared at Kenshin.

“Look here! I’m not apologizing and neither is my wife or son. If anything, you're the ones who should be apologizing for almost breaking my wrist!”

“Seriously?!?” Misao yelled. “You insulted and manhandled our kid without our permission and then you decide that you deserve an apology?!? What the hell is wrong with you?!”

“Shut up,” Kato sneered at Misao. “What right does a bitch like you have to talk to me like that?”

Misao’s jaw dropped and then she reached into her obi, pulling out her kunai.

“That’s it! You asked for it!” she said, but Kaoru grabbed her arm before she could toss one.

“Misao, stop! You’re only making things worse!”

“You have weapons on you?” the woman yelled. “And he has a sword! What is wrong with you people?”

“What’s wrong with us?!?” Megumi yelled, her cheeks flushed. “You’ve scared our child and refuse to apologize! There’s clearly something wrong with you!”

“Shut up!” Kato cried. “Look here, we “insulted” your son because he is ugly. A deformity and stain on this world. Children who can’t walk on their own and are as scared as that have no right to exist.”

“Yeah!” Tobio sneered.

Kenshin’s heart dropped at the insinuation that Sojiro’s life was worth nothing. His eyes flashed.

“That’s enough,” he said, lowering his voice. “Apologize now.”

“I already said no, you idiot! How many times do I have to say it?”

“Apologize,” Kenshin repeated. “Now.”

“And if I don’t?” the man asked. “Are you gonna beat me up? I bet that’s what you do to that kid, huh? Beat him or something? Or do you beat him and then have your way—”

He froze when the cold feel of steel tickled his throat. He looked up, eyes huge, wondering where the blade had even come from. Kenshin, still holding the little boy in one arm, had drawn his sword with a speed Kato hadn't thought possible and was holding it against the base of his throat. Kenshin’s eyes were narrowed dangerously and dead-cold murderous intent was written on his face. Kato swallowed roughly.

“Apologize,” Kenshin demanded and his voice was cold.

“Kenshin. . .” Kaoru’s soft voice called the swordsman’s name, but he didn't seem to hear her — his eyes stayed cold and the sword did not waver.

“Apologize,” he repeated.

“I’m s-sorry,” Kato squeaked. He was vaguely aware of how his voice cracked but was too terrified to be ashamed. “Yui, Tobio, you apologize too.”

The woman and boy followed suit and Kenshin, with a curt nod, lifted his sword from the man’s throat and slid it back into its sheath.

“Thank you for your apology,” he said, and he bowed to them. He reached down and picked up the little boy’s discarded crutches, handing them to Megumi. His hard face melted away, replaced by a serene smile and peaceful eyes. “We’ll be on our way now, that we will,” he said. He bowed to the crowd. “We apologize for disturbing your afternoon.”

And the group left, heading towards the main part of the city. When they turned a corner, the previously silent crowd broke into murmurs of shock and surprise.

“That was incredible.”

“I didn't know Kamiya-san had a little boy. . .”

“What a terrible family, terrorizing a child like that.”

“Wasn’t that Himura-san?”

“Yeah. I’ve never seen him draw that sword before though. It was kind of terrifying.”

“Have you heard the rumors about Himura-san? That’s he’s the Hitokiri Battousai?”

Kato stiffened.

“What? No! I don’t believe it!” someone else cried.

“Neither did I until today. Did you see that face? That was the face of a murderer.”

“You’re being ridiculous. There’s no way Kaoru-chan would let an assassin into her house.”

“Maybe. . .”

The man turned to his family with a smirk. Hitokiri Battousai, huh? That was something they could work with.

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Chapter Text

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Halfway to the restaurant, Kenshin and the others were stopped by the police.

“Ugh. Really?” Sano cried, throwing up his hands in annoyance. “We didn't do anything wrong!”

“A group of eyewitnesses say that you assaulted a man on the street by grabbing his wrist and pointing a sword at his throat,” one policeman read off a notepad.

“He assaulted our kid first!” Misao protested. “If you’re going to arrest anyone, arrest that guy!”

“No one is going to get arrested,” the police chief said, and he stepped forward from the back of the group, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I’ll take it from here, men. Head back to the station.”

“Yes, Chief.”

The other policemen left, and, once the police chief was sure they were out of earshot, he sighed and turned to Kenshin and the others. Much to their surprise, he smiled.

“Is this the little boy Kamiya-san has been telling me about?” he asked, voice gentle. When Kenshin nodded, the police chief leaned forward. Much to everyone’s surprise, he didn't touch Sojiro and just spoke with a calm voice, rich with a quiet cadence. “Hello, small one. It’s very nice to meet you. You don’t need to look at me, but I’m the police chief of this town. Not to worry, I’m on your side.” He straightened with a sigh and turned to the others. “I’m supposed to give you all a warning, but I don’t much think one is warranted. Although you should be careful about drawing that sword, Himura-san.”

Kenshin nodded.

“Of course.”

“Good. That’s all then.” He tipped his hat at them. “Have a good rest of your day.”

“Thank you, chief.”

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Chapter Text

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They didn't go to the Akabeko. Sojiro was too shaken up to go anywhere else except home, which he begged for, and, even when they were back, refused to let go of Kenshin. He was far too frightened and allowed no one other than Kenshin to even touch him.

He didn't sleep. Nor did anyone else.

Within the next few days Sojiro developed a fever that Megumi reassured was no danger. It arose from stress, she said, and it would disappear in a few days, barring any complications.

Kenshin and the others didn't really think he would get better, given how rough everything had been for him, but, much to their delight, Megumi was right and the fever subsided quickly. Soon Sojiro felt safe being moved from Kenshin to the other’s waiting arms, although he still didn't like to be alone — he didn't even want to be away from someone’s lap.

But as the fever faded, the panic attacks began.

It started on a quiet day when Sano had Sojiro in his lap, both supposedly fast asleep in Kenshin’s room, bathed by warm sunlight. Sano, snoring, had not noticed Sojiro wake up, nor his frightened little breaths or silent tears. However, he startled awake when Sojiro started to scream, eyes huge and unfocused. Sano tried his hardest to calm Sojiro down and to ask what was wrong, but the little boy didn't react to anything he said or did. The others came running at Sano’s call for help, but no one could reach Sojiro, not even Kenshin.

His eyes were too far away, too unfocused, and it was clear he was seeing something that wasn't really there.

Nothing seemed to calm the boy or snap him back to awareness — not hugs, not Nigou, not reassuring words. In the end it was Kenshin that thought of it.

He scooped Sojiro into his arms and tucked the little boy into as small of a ball as he could — arms cradled around his stomach, little knees drawn up to his chin. Kenshin then proceeded to wrap the boy in as many warm blankets as he could until, as Misao noted, he looked like a dumpling.

Much to everyone’s amazement, the cocooning and swaddling seemed to work as Sojiro soon
quieted down, his sobs tapering off into quiet whimpers and his blue eyes returning to awareness. He fidgeted in the blankets for a moment before settling down, his head dropping limply. Kenshin pulled him closer, supporting his head.

“Little one,” he said, “are you all right? You gave us quite a scare, that you did.”

“S-Sorry,” Sojiro stammered. “I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?” Misao asked, leaning forward. “What did you see? It seemed like you weren't here with us, Sojiro.”

Sojiro whimpered and shut his eyes tight, curling impossibly tighter in the blankets.

“Seta. . .” he said, “one of Seta brothers was punching me. He yelled mean things. H-He called me ugly and said I should die. H-He said he would kill me!” Sojiro’s face scrunched up and he began to cry. Kenshin, with a heavy sigh, shifted Sojiro so that the boy’s face was on his shoulder and gently patted his back.

“You’re not ugly and you do not deserve to die, Sojiro, that you do not,” he said. He bit his lip when the boy sobbed and began rocking him back and forth, still patting the Sojiro’s back. This flashback was obviously triggered by the foolish man and son who had verbally assaulted them on the street on the way to the Akabeko, and, once again, Kenshin cursed them. Sojiro had been doing so well — so, so well — and had even been walking on his own, until those people had said such abhorrent things.

“Sojiro, you’re beautiful!” Kaoru said suddenly, and she popped up behind Kenshin to make eye contact with the little boy. “I’ve never met such a lovely little boy as you. You’re not ugly at all!”

Sojiro’s sobs subsided a little bit.

“R-Really?”

“Yes!” Kaoru said, nodding eagerly, excited that Sojiro was responding to her. “You’re so sweet and perfect — ink black hair, skin like fine bone china, and the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. They’re the color of the sea on a sunny day, sweetheart.”

Sojiro blinked.

“The. . . sea?”

“Yes! The wide blue ocean under the light blue sky. You are more beautiful than either of those things and your eyes are just that color.”

Sojiro fidgeted in the blankets and Kenshin’s arms, and Kenshin, understanding, removed the blankets from Sojiro’s body so the boy could stretch out. Immediately upon being released, Sojiro reached for Kaoru and the girl took him in her arms with a smile.

She kissed his cheek, and, much to everyone’s surprise, a flicker of a smile graced Sojiro’s face.

“Kaoru,” he said, “what does the ocean look like?”

Kaoru blinked, taken aback. Yahiko yelled out in shock, causing Sojiro to wince, but he didn't notice.

“You’ve never seen the ocean?!?” he cried. “Well, you have to see it! It’s like, it’s like,” Yahiko waved a hand, searching for words, “it’s like where the earth meets the sky! It’s amazing!”

Sojiro’s eyes became almost comically wide.

“Earth meets sky. . .?” he whispered. He turned then to face Kenshin. “Can I see the ocean, Kenshin?”

“Of course, little one!” Kenshin smiled. He reached out and ran his fingers through the boy’s fine black hair. “You can see the ocean very soon.”

Sojiro smiled and melted at Kenshin’s touch, his eyes fluttering closed peacefully. Everyone in the room sighed, relieved that the panic attack had subsided, replaced by a sense of safety and love and something to look forward to.

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Chapter Text

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Sojiro was sitting in the sand, humming to himself as he gathered it around him and patted it into a hill. He bit his lip in concentration as he grabbed a few pebbles and set them in a neat line across the top of the hill. When he was finished, he tugged at Kenshin’s gi, and the man, who was sitting next to him, looked down with a smile.

“Yes, Sojiro?”

“Look at my sand mountain!”

“It’s very nice, that it is,” Kenshin grinned. “Very nice indeed.”

“The rocks are houses of the sand people who live on top of the mountain,” Sojiro said, pointing at the pebbles. “They like their homes and everyone is friends.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah!”

Kenshin smiled at the fair child in front of him, once again grateful for his presence. A week after asking to go see the ocean, Megumi and the others decided to take a trip to the beach. Everyone took the day off and headed off early in the morning, picnic baskets full of lunch in tow. Sojiro’s crutches wouldn't be of much use in the sand so Kenshin just carried the boy in his arms; he slept most of the walk there.

When they arrived, Kenshin nudged the boy awake and Sojiro’s eyes alighted on the ocean, hit with bright morning sunlight, reflecting light on its deep blue waves. He watched, entranced, as waves shook the smooth surface of the sea and frothy water lapped up against the sand. After a few moments of mesmerized staring, jaw dropped open, Sojiro’s face lit up and he pointed at the edge of the water.

“Can we play?” he asked, and his voice was bright.

Everyone was eager to oblige, but Megumi warned him not to get the bandages around his ankle wet; Kenshin or someone else would have to hold onto him while he played. Sojiro didn't care — as long as he got to play.

So, Kenshin and Kaoru each holding one of Sojiro’s arms, allowed the boy to dip his uninjured foot in the water. He shrieked in delight at the cold touch of ocean water and tossed his head back with a laugh — a laugh so real that Kenshin almost burst into tears. He hadn't ever heard the little boy laugh like that before. When he looked over at Kaoru, he wasn't surprised to see her crying, nor Megumi or Misao. But the tears swimming in Sano’s eyes were nothing short of a miracle. As Kenshin stared, Sano huffed and composed himself, pretending that he hadn't been emotional only a moment before. Kenshin laughed.

Yahiko ran up to Sojiro, hakama rolled up to his knees, splashing into the water. His brown eyes were wide and shining. He dunked a hand into the water and pulled up a white shell.

“Sojiro, look!” he said. He held out the shell in his tan calloused palm and Sojiro blinked in fascination at the small round object. He reached forward and took it from Yahiko.

“What is it?” he ask