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The Red String

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November 1867

Kenshin hunched into a darkened corner of an empty sentou, hissing quietly as the move pulled at his wounds. It had taken every trick he knew to lose the Shinsengumi and he was no longer sure where he was in the city. He evened his breathing. He didn't think they'd managed to keep up with him.

"Oh!"

His head jerked up at the surprised exclamation and the flare of apprehensive ki. A young girl stood just inside the door, a neatly folded towel clutched to her chest with one hand and a small lantern in the other. Wide eyes stared at him, but she didn't scream, for which Kenshin was grateful. She looked young. Silence stretched between them as they observed each other until she came back to herself with another gasp.

"I'm sorry! I didn't know you were here."

Kenshin felt his lips quirk. "That's okay. I didn't enter by conventional means."

She stared at him, her confusion evident. Her eyes landed on the hilts of his daisho, but he could only feel curiosity from her. "Are you a samurai?"

"Iie."

Her brow furrowed and then she gasped in alarm. Kenshin jerked, his hand immediately closing around the hilt of his katana and extending his senses outward for some source of danger, but the girl didn't seem troubled by anything outside and her eyes were fixed on his torso.

"You're hurt," she exclaimed, moving a few steps forward and then stopping suddenly, her expression twisting uncertainly. "Are you hurt?"

Kenshin winced. "Aa."

She hesitated a moment and then shuffled forward, offering her towel. "Would you like me to get a doctor?"

"No. I will be fine."

The look she gave him clearly expressed her doubt and he almost smiled. The flare of a swordsman's ki approaching was the only warning he got before the door slid open and a man entered. "Kaoru, you are taking—"

Kenshin was on his feet in a blink, despite the way his wounded side protested, and the girl — Kaoru — turned in surprise, exclaiming, "Otousan!"

Her cry was the only thing that stopped him from moving further and then he registered the navy gi and sagged back with an inaudible sigh. He was tired. The swordsman took in the scene, dark eyes resting on Kenshin. The swordsman's eyes lingered over auburn hair and the crossed scar though his posture didn't turn threatening. "Himura Battousai—"

"Himura," Kenshin interrupted, snapping more harshly than he intended, belatedly adding a politer, "if you please."

"Himura-san," he acknowledged. "Kamiya Koshijiro."

"Pleased to meet you," Kenshin said reflexively.

Koshijiro examined the shorter man. He looked more like a boy than a man, but he'd heard the rumors just as everyone else. Koshijiro never expected to meet the infamous hitokiri in a sentou. "You're injured."

Kenshin glanced down at his wound. "Shinsengumi ambush. I was…distracted."

Koshijiro nodded, turning to his daughter. "You should return to your aunt. You have an early start tomorrow."

Kaoru looked on the verge of protesting, but subsided under her father's gaze. With a last polite bow, she excused herself, "Shitsurei shimasu."

"Kamiya-dono is very kind," Kenshin offered in the silence that followed Kaoru's exit.

"She is much like her mother. She too saw something of worth in an old warrior." Koshijiro moved toward him, offering a hand. "Come, let me see to your wounds before you return to the inn. It wouldn't be good for morale if you showed up covered in your own blood. Though, that would serve to remind them that you are indeed as human as the rest of us."

Kenshin took a seat on the stool while Koshijiro went to find another. He returned moments later with both a stool and a field medical kit.

"'Demon of Kyoto,' they call me," Kenshin murmured.

Koshijiro's movements paused and he glanced down at Kenshin's bowed head. He frowned and took a seat. "They would be wrong."

The wound was quickly cleaned and bandaged, Koshijiro working silently. When Kenshin pulled his tattered gi back over his shoulders, Koshijiro commented, "You're lucky it was shallow. You'll be fine in a few days."

Kenshin nodded. "Arigatou."

"I don't know what brought you to this war, Himura-san, but I know something of your story. War is a truly ugly thing and destroys many good men, but our loved ones wish us to return to them alive, even if parts of our souls are tattered and torn."

Kenshin's expression turned bleak and wounded and Koshijiro was reminded of just how young the other man was. "I have prevented many from returning to their loved ones."

"You are not alone in that," Koshijiro stated. "Many men are lost on both sides in a war. Each man knows the price and each prays he does not have to pay it. Return to your family after this is over, Himura-san."

"I have no family, Kamiya-san," Kenshin said softly.

There was a wealth of feeling beneath those words that tugged at Koshijiro's heart as he looked at the young man sitting across from him. So much pain for so few years. The young man needed something worthwhile in his life. Something to work for. Koshijiro packed away his medical kit, coming to a decision. "Then, I have a favor to ask of you, Himura-san."

Surprise briefly flashed across Kenshin's face, his eyes momentarily losing their hardened glint. "A favor?"

"I ask that if my daughter is ever in any kind of trouble, if I am not able to help her, that you would assist her."

Now Kenshin looked alarmed. "But—"

The borderline panic was almost amusing. Koshijiro could hardly reconcile the rumored hard-hearted Battousai with the young man before him. "I have every intention of returning to her," he assured, "but if I do not, I would like to know that someone honorable is looking after her."

Kenshin's hands fisted on his knees. "I am not worthy…"

"No," Koshijiro agreed, "none of us are, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try."

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*

In January of 1868, after the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, Hitokiri Battousai vanished from the battlefield, leaving behind his katana, and Himura Kenshin began his wandering.

In the early summer of 1877, Himura Kenshin learned of the death of Kamiya Koshijiro and turned his steps toward Tokyo.