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The building was in a serious need for a paint job.
Maybe some new windows, brickwork... it was truly a daunting sight.
Himura Kenshin gulped, summoning his every ounce of courage, then gathered up his things and opened the car door. He had gone through this same process every morning since he had begun working here three weeks ago, in his very first decent job for years. A high school guidance counselor.
He scuffled through the asphalt parking lot, making a beeline for the
sidewalk before he dropped everything and got loose gravel all over it. Why had he decided to bring everything today of all days, when he got stuck at every traffic light and behind a mail truck besides? Now he would be late getting in, and not even a month on the job... The students were already entering through the main doors. The first bell had probably just rung.
Kenshin wedged the door open with his foot, inwardly cheering his good luck and praising his power to hold three full duffel bags with only four fingers, then scuttled down the hallway and tried not to knock down innocent passerby. Though innocent would probably not be the word, looking at some ofthe discipline reports... But the guidance office wasn't far, and-
“Watch your back, Sagara, I’ll kill your ass! You ain’t as tough as you
think, ya frickin’ queer!”
Kenshin froze at the angry voice, and began searching for the source with a lump in his throat. A fight... aagh... This sounded like a bad one. He carefully set down his bags, hoping no one would step on them, and moved forward to try and push his way through the crowd of students thronging about the two boys who stood facing off.
“Urusee!” an equally furious tone snarled back. Kenshin blinked in
surprise, the slangy Japanese catching him off guard. He didn't let it distract him, knowing more important things were at stake than the curiosity of someone in the school besides himself and his daughters speaking his native language. He would have to break this up himself, since there didn't seem to be any other staff around. But there was no reason he couldn't, even though everyone underestimated him because of his size. Or lack thereof.
Still, though, his job was to keep order amongst the hundreds of students at this high school, and that was what he was going to do.
"What the Hell is your problem?" the same voice, the Nihonjin, continued.
"You're askin' for trouble! You're too weak to mess with me!”
"YOU'RE my goddamn PROBLEM! An' I'm not too weak to find that cardboard box you live in an' throw it into traffic with you in it!"
Kenshin broke the circle the instant the first punch connected. The boy
that had been called "Sagara" had thrown it- he was easily identifiable, features obviously Oriental. Kenshin saw in a moment why he had called the other "weak". The boy who was still recoiling from the force of the punch was small, stocky, all defiant scowls and sagging muscles. Sagara, on the other hand, was his complete opposite; tall, arms tightly muscled, well-defined shoulders and chest visible even through the white shirt he wore, and yet of a slender build. And while the smaller boy had dirty-blond hair, white skin from too much time inside, and eyes of an indiscriminate color, Sagara was dark- tanned skin, unruly and spiky hair that appeared ebony but showed to be dark brown under the fluorescent lighting, chocolate eyes framed by strangely full and delicate eyelashes.
Kenshin knew that yelling at them to break it up, as most staff did, would
most likely have no effect, so he chose to save his voice and instead stepped out between them. With a hand quickened by years of martial arts training at the local dojos, he caught the second punch in midair, fisting his smaller hands around Sagara's.
"Stop this immediately," he said coolly.
Instead of breaking his grip and muttering rebelliously as he would have expected, Sagara stared down at him in silent perplexity, dark eyes large in his bronzed face. Those eyes... they were almost gentle... warm and glimmering with luminosity that seemed out of place in a teenager who had just physically attacked another student. In fact, he was... he seemed almost beautiful, under these artificial lights...
Kenshin shook himself out of the odd thought, and forgoing the grip on his
hand, grabbed onto the tall boy's wrist. "You," he addressed the smaller combatant, "go to the office. Now."
"I didn't do nothin'-"
"Go!" Kenshin snapped. He would have to deal with him later. Even though
the blond hadn't thrown a single punch, he had initiated the encounter, and had threatened Sagara's life on top of that. It was a serious offense, in his mind, more so than simple roughhousing. You never did know, in this day and age, how far those threats would go...
His voice had been icy and calm, before, but with those thoughts in mind,
the ice snapped into a flare of anger. "Go now, and I will handle you later!"
The teenager glared rebelliously for a moment, but his facade broke and he scuttled for the office door.
"Ima da-omae wa-" Kenshin turned back and looked up into Sagara's face,
those youthful features still frozen in surprise. He allowed himself to switch back into his native Japanese, knowing the boy understood it. "Come with me."
"O-oi... naze ka?" Sagara went along, and his words seemed to flow much
"Because you are going to the guidance office de gozaru yo."
"N-not the main office?" He sounded baffled.
"Iya." Irritated at his lack of movement, Kenshin started walking and dragged the boy along.
Kenshin sighed in frustration and turned back to face him. "Do you want to go to the main office de gozaru ka?"
"No! It's just-"
Sagara stared at him briefly, mouth working but no sound coming forth.
Kenshin waited patiently.
"Nothin'. And you forgot your stuff."
"Oro!" Kenshin dropped Sagara's wrist and scuttled back to gather up his
bags. He lifted them into his arms, not wanting to bother with arranging them amongst his hands, and zipped back over to where the teenager was waiting, wearing an expression of bemusement.
"Now we go." Kenshin bumbled down the hallway as quickly as he could go. Thankfully, Sagara followed.After turning the corner, Kenshin blinked helplessly at his door, then attempted to open it with his arm. No luck.
"Need some help with that?" The boy's voice was amused, but not unkindly so.
Sagara leaned over and opened the door. Kenshin burst through the opening and set his bags on the floor, heaving a thankful sigh. He turned around, motioning the student inside with a sweep of one arm, then closed the door behind him and sat down in his swivel chair. Sagara flumped onto his couch.
"So," Kenshin said more pleasantly, relaxed in the familiarity and safety
of his office, "what's your name de gozaru ka?"
"I know that. What's your first name de gozaru ka? Or do you not want me to know it?" Kenshin leaned his chin on his hands, examining the teenaged boy.
"You can just go look it up in the records, y'know. What're ya askin' for?”
Sagara looked at the ceiling.
"I wanted to hear it from you de gozaru. If you don't want to tell me, I promise I won't go look it up de gozaru yo."
"What're you doin'?" Sagara looked back down at him incredulously. "Tryin' t' gain my trust or some crap?"
Kenshin blinked. "Iya. I'm trying to be trustworthy de gozaru yo."
There was a long silence. The dark-haired boy stared at him, as though
trying to gauge his honesty.
"You haven't been doin' this very long, have you." It wasn't a question,
but a statement.
"Hai. Three weeks."
"Figures." Sagara examined him a little longer, then his face softened into a smile. Kenshin blinked again, unsure of what he had done to deserve such an honor. With the indifferent exterior melted away, the teenager appeared to be just that- young, innocent, trusting, even...
"Y'know, I think I like you. Ore wa Sagara Sanosuke."
"Ahh." Kenshin smiled in return. "Sessha wa Himura Kenshin de gozaru."
"So, Himura..." Sanosuke leaned back on the couch. "Why 'm I here? You
holdin' me ‘till the cops come?"
"P-police...?" Kenshin considered that. Perhaps he could have a police
officer speak with the other boy... maybe then he would understand the power of his words. That was what was usually done with threats, wasn't it? Yes, that was what he'd been told in orientation. "Wait here a moment. I'll be right back de gozaru."
"Wh-what?" Sanosuke jumped up as though he'd been bitten, eyes blazing angry dark fire. "You expect me t' wait here while ya call the cops on me?!"
"Oro?" Kenshin furrowed his brow in confusion, then understood and smiled soothingly. "Sit down de gozaru yo. You aren't the one who made the threats."
"O-omae-" Sanosuke looked baffled. "You're callin' the cops on Westbrook? But he didn't even hit me, he-"
"Westbrook? What's his first name de gozaru ka?"
"Curtis, but- I don't get it-"
"Stay here de gozaru yo. I'll be back in a few minutes." Kenshin bustled
out, shutting the door behind him.

Sano stared at the door.
Heaving a sigh of exasperated confusion, he ran a hand through his unruly
hair, and slumped back onto the couch. What was this, anyway? The office had sworn that the next fight he was in, no matter how inconsequential, would get him arrested, no way out.
It hadn’t even been two months since he'd started his senior year, and
already he was teetering on the brink of expulsion.
What would Sagara-sensei think of that, huh? Sano stared moodily at the
floor, twisting his fingers together. He'd been lucky this time, maybe, but there was no telling how long his luck would hold out.
He'd been expecting the usual potbellied gym teacher to come pounding out yelling and screaming, and then to get thrown in the office to await sentencing, like always. But instead, that counselor... blazing amethyst eyes, long, soft-seeming red hair framing an angular jaw, the bright fire setting off pale skin, husky soprano voice commanding him in his native Nihongo... so unlike anything he'd ever expected of...
And that scar, the cross-shaped scar that stood out against his left cheek.
It wasn't something you saw every day. There was probably quite a story behind that. Like the name, Kenshin... sword-heart, heart of sword... like something from an old samurai manga...
Sano shook his head irritably. That wasn't really something he should be
catching himself thinking about.
The door opened again, and Himura Kenshin closed it behind him. Sano
jumped, trying not to let his face assume the guilty expression he wore when he was contemplating forbidden things. Luckily, Himura didn't seem to notice anything, and teachers had a nasty tendency to zero right in on that look.
"Now," the guidance counselor said lightly, settling again into his desk
chair, "tell me what happened de gozaru yo."
"You know what happened. You were there." Sano looked at the floor again.
"Iya. Not that. Why did you think I would call the police to take you away
de gozaru ka?"
Sano focused on Himura's feet. He was wearing sandals, which wasn't odd, since the school year started at the end of summer. His feet weren't hairy
and ugly, which was always a plus. He had nice, pretty feet.
Sano blinked and looked for something else to look at. "Uh... 'cause the
office said I've been in too many fights, an'..."
The motion of Himura's hands caught his eye as the counselor steepled his fingers before his face. "Why?" he asked simply.
Sano stared at Himura's fingers. "Why?" he echoed dumbly, tracing the
outline of the little hands with his eyes.
"Why do you fight de gozaru ka?" Himura seemed unconcerned by his scrutiny.
The question startled Sano out of his reverie. "Because people mess with
me!" he answered, baffled. "Why else would someone fight?"
"Hmm." Himura met his gaze unwaveringly, seeming to search deep within him for... something... Held with the unnerving feeling that his very soul was being examined, Sano shifted uneasily.
"Wh-whaddya want from me, anyway?" he managed to stutter out.
"I want you to know the real reason you fight de gozaru yo," Himura said
abruptly, then stood from his chair, going over to open the door. "Go to class. When you know the answer..."
"What, come back so we can 'discuss'?" Sano retorted skeptically, still
feeling off-kilter and not liking it one bit.
"Iya..." A radiantly beautiful smile broke over Himura's face, dazzling
Sano briefly. "Perhaps you will understand yourself better and not have the need to fight anymore de gozaru na."
"O-oh." Sano stood, uneasy. "I-back to class?"
"Hai." Himura cocked his head, eyes scrunching up with the continued smile. Sano walked by him, through the unlatched door, hands shoved into his jeans pockets, and escaped into the hallway.
"If you might have any further problems with your classmates," Himura called after him, "don't hesitate to come see me de gozaru. Instead of fighting!"
"A-aa." Sano looked at the floor, retreating as fast as he could without
looking stupid.

Kenshin watched the dark-haired teenager leave, unsettled. What had it
been, about the child, which made him seem so... so troubled, so much more so than all the other discipline problems...?
Perhaps it was the agitation in his movements, the intensity lurking behind
those soft chocolate eyes... the sense of an impending explosion...
Kenshin's eyebrows knit together in consideration, and he watched the tall
boy turn the corner and leave his line of sight.
What was it...?

*** *** ***

"Tadaima!" a familiar voice called, the door slamming and rattling on the
hinges. Kenshin winced at the sound, but decided against scolding her this time. It certainly hadn't done any good before.
"Okaeri, Misao-dono. How was practice de gozaru ka?"
"Eeh, fine. Dinner ready yet?" A long series of clattering and banging
shook the thin walls of the hallway by the kitchen. Kenshin tensed, but no evidence of anything breaking followed. This time.
"Not quite yet. Misao-dono... could you come in here for a moment de gozaru ka?" No harm could come from asking, at least.
His younger daughter poked her head in, then sat on the table, pulling her
long braid onto her lap and toying with it absently. Kenshin regarded her briefly, then turned back to the chicken teriyaki with a well-hidden smile. Misao-dono wore the same hopeful smile she had that day so long ago that he had adopted her. Then, she had been wishing for a home, a family to love her... now, she wanted dinner. How things changed... and stayed the same, he supposed.
"Hey, 'tou-chan, don't forget the spaghetti thing, that dinner at the
elementary school t'night. We promised we'd help, with 'nee-chan an' the Honor Society, remember?"
"Hai, hai." Kenshin smiled. "I wouldn't forget." Then, he remembered his
purpose in asking her inside the kitchen, and sighed.
"Misao-dono, do you know Sagara Sanosuke de gozaru ka?"
Misao-dono shifted on the table. "Yeah," she affirmed. "Most everybody at
least knows of Sano-san. He's in my history class."
Kenshin turned again to face her, strange uneasiness weighing down his
chest. "What... what is he like de gozaru ka?" he asked carefully.
Misao-dono shrugged. "I dunno... he sleeps through class, most a' the time. All the guys either hate him or look up to him, since he gets in all those fights 'n never loses. Most a' the girls I know are madly in love with him. He's always been nice enough t' me. Why?"
Kenshin shrugged casually, focusing on the table. "I met him today de
"Didja?" Misao-dono's voice grew sly, considering.
Kenshin blinked, looking up at her in bewilderment. That tone never inspired trust, especially not when coupled with the sparkling that twinkledin her blue eyes.
"Pretty hot, ain't he?" she teased.
"M-Misao-dono!" Kenshin scolded, turning back to the pot so she wouldn't
see the embarrassment that darkened his cheeks. "I wouldn't know."
She chuckled. "Oh, pleeease, 'tou-chan. I'm not as dense as all that. I've
known you went up the down staircase the minute I saw you. Don't try 'n hide it."
Kenshin flushed deeper. It wasn't as though he was ashamed of... his
preferences, as they were, but it didn't mean he was comfortable discussing it with his children. Or anyone. Ever. "Misao-dono, that's besides the point de gozaru yo. He's barely older than you!"
"He's eighteen! That's legal, right?"
Kenshin tried not to combust and stared at the cooking vegetables.
"But anyway..." Misao-dono huffed. "That doesn't mean you can't at least-"
"Yes it does." Kenshin cut her off. "That isn't my point de gozaru. I was
only wondering if you think he should go to counseling of some sort de gozaru na. He seemed to be quite troubled, to me."
"Counseling? Like a shrink or somethin'?" Misao-dono seemed to be
considering it.
"A therapist, Misao-dono. Just to... help him with some of his confusions."
"Why don't you do it?" Misao-dono suggested, sliding down off the table.
"You have the degree 'n all, and you already know him."
Kenshin stirred the vegetables, gazing into their bubbling depths as he
thought about the suggestion. He did have the appropriate schooling, and he did want to help him, but... but would Sanosuke even want to be helped? It wasn't his place, as a guidance counselor, to dictate how the boy should handle himself. Just to be there, if he was needed...
Sanosuke wouldn't want his help.
"Go get your sister de gozaru. Dinner will be ready soon."
It would probably be better for the both of them if he just forgot about it. Someone like him couldn't help someone else. Not when he could barely take care of himself.
It would be better to just not care anymore.

Kenshin looked up from the dishes, wiping a stray lock of red hair from his
eyes with a soapy hand, to see his older daughter standing in the doorway.
"Hai, Kaoru-dono?" he asked cheerfully.
His liveliness did nothing to appease the frustration and worry in her dark
eyes as she entered the kitchen, crossing the tiled floor to step up beside him and drop an empty pill bottle onto the counter.
Kenshin eyed the orange container, then looked back up into Kaoru-dono's face with nothing short of dread. Filled with an immediate need to explain
away this predicament, he opened his mouth to utter a pathetic, "K-Kaoru-dono..."
"How long have you been out?" she demanded, voice cracking with concern. "Kaoru-dono, sessha... It's only been a week de gozaru..."
"A week? Only?! 'Tou-san, every day you go without taking your medication is a risk, you know that! What happens if you have another breakdown, like
that time when-" Her voice broke, and Kaoru-dono looked down, fists clenching by her side.
Kenshin picked up the empty bottle of Chlorazine, then stuck it into his pocket and turned his attention to his eldest, wrapping his arms around her slender shoulders and drawing her close.
"I'm so sorry, Kaoru-dono," he whispered, stroking her hair soothingly. "It's just... it's so very expensive de gozaru... In order to keep up the rent, and handle things for school, we have to make some sacrifices... I've been saving the extra, from my paychecks and from what you girls put in from your jobs, and I'll be able to afford it at the end of the month de gozaru yo. But until then-"
"The end of the month? It's the ninth! 'Tou-san, there's no way!" Kaoru-dono broke his embrace, eyes flashing in alarm. "That's too long!"
"There's got to be something we can do, somewhere the money can come from! 'Tou-san... if you lose it again..." Her voice trembled. "I... I don't want that to happen ever again..."
Kenshin looked at the floor, his tone tightening with guilt. "Kaoru-dono,
there's nothing I can do. I work two jobs de gozaru yo. You work. Misao-dono
works. We live with the bare essentials de gozaru. There's nothing left to do."
"Kaoru-dono, I promise I will do everything I can to protect you from
whatever could possibly happen. You know that he won't hurt you and Misao-dono de gozaru. It'll be fine." Kenshin smiled reassuringly. "I promise de gozaru."
Kaoru-dono nodded slightly, not appearing very reassured, but turned to go. "Hai. I have homework to do."
"Hai de gozaru." Kenshin watched her leave, unsettled. The weight of the
bottle in his pocket accused him of his horrible parenting job, and he turned back to the dishes.
It wasn't that long until the end of the month... he would survive. It would be all right.
It would.

*** *** ***

"Oi! Oi, Yahiko, you awake?"
Sano closed the door behind him, dropping the mail on the floor by the door and checking around the dingy two-room apartment. No Yahiko presented
himself. The kid must be asleep, or studying, or something like that. Sano smiled fondly to himself, wandering over to the refrigerator and opening it to look through.
"Okaeri," a familiar voice muttered.
"Oh, hey- What the Hell, kid?" Sano stood up, scowling. His little brother stood in the hallway, clutching an ice pack to one eye and wearing a sullenexpression.
"Got in a fight," Yahiko explained.
"Lemme see." Sano knelt down in front of him, lifting the bag up for
inspection. He hissed in sympathy, eyeing the bruised swelling. "Mataku... don't be doin' crap like that. Yer gonna end up a punk like your loser big brother."
Yahiko glared with his one good eye. "This creep accused me a' stealin' his lunch."
"Mm. Didja?"
Sano grinned and mussed up his hair. "Just pokin'. You hungry?"
"Yeah, sure."
He stood, then went back to the mini-fridge. "Go siddown. Don't let too
much blood get in that. Hurts like Hell."
"Ah, advice from the master."
Sano grumbled playfully, then opened the fridge.
His spirits sunk, and he sat heavily on the floor. Empty. The rent overdue,
for the past three months, not paid... empty. His next paycheck not due for two weeks... empty.
"Hey, uh... you eat yet?" Sano stared at the empty shelves. At least they
still had the apartment. For a while. That was something.
"No! That spaghetti dinner is t'night, remember? You promised we'd go."
Yahiko sounded faintly outraged. "You didn't forget!"
"Oh, no, no, I didn't." Free food! Sano rejoiced inwardly, thanking whatever gods existed for his good fortune. "We gotta go soon for that, right?"
"Yeah. Now."
Sano stood up again, stretching to keep up a mock casual exterior. "Sure,
all right. Go on down to the car, I'll be there in a minute." The car... he had to pay insurance and the car payments...
"Didja get the fuel injector fixed yet?" Yahiko headed for the door.
Sano winced. "Not yet, no... Don't worry about it. Just go."
The door swung shut, and Sano picked up the mail from the floor. Maybe he'd gotten some credit card offers or something, with extended limits... or free money in envelopes, or something like that. You never did know.
Magazine subscription expired... big deal. Charities asking for money...
good luck. Plain envelope with his name on it... oh shit.
Sano stared at the envelope, the rest of the mail fluttering from his nerveless fingers like dying doves from their perch. Oh, shit... He tore it open, hands shaking and clumsy.
He read the short, typed letter with an uncomfortable weight in the pit of
his stomach. Oh, God in Heaven, what now? What now? God, what now? Sano crumpled the eviction notice up in his fist, headed for the door. He would just go to the dinner at the elementary school, pretend like nothing was wrong, and break it to Yahiko in the morning, or something... Or something.
He opened the door, then closed it behind him, his hands shaking, stomach twisted, eyes beginning to sting...
Sano slumped to the floor in front of the door to the apartment he used to
own, where he had lived for five years, the place he had taught his little brother to write, the only safe place in the world... Where did he go now? He didn't have enough money to rent another place. He had to pay for the car, and the insurance on the car, and food... He had to take care of a ten-year-old kid...
Sano buried his face in his arms and cried, unable to hold back the tears
he'd been hiding for a decade, ever since Sagara-sensei had died, ever sincehe'd lost the only people who had wanted to take care of him, the only people he had ever loved besides Yahiko, the only people who had ever loved him...
What did he do now?
Sano lifted his head, staring at the pay phone on the wall through a film of tears. He did so for a long time before remembering that he had no one tocall. All his friends at school were just acquaintances, except for Katsuhiro... but Katsu's parents were convinced he ran drugs, and they wouldn't let him near the house. Katsu would want to help him out, but...
There was nobody left.
Sano thought about the redheaded guidance counselor with those blazing
amethyst eyes, the gentle smile... He'd only met him today, but... He had to
restrain himself from stumbling across the hallway and looking up "Kenshin Himura" in the telephone book, needing a friendly voice, someone to tell him it would be okay, that everything would work out, even if it wouldn't...
Just a friendly voice...

*** *** ***

"So what do you need us to do de gozaru ka?" Kenshin asked hurriedly,
checking his watch. "It's almost seven..."
"Hai, hai..." Kaoru-dono looked about the small cafeteria, then nodded
briskly. "Go and help the other Honor Society members serve the food, 'tou-san. Misao, uh... go greet people at the door or something."
Misao-dono looked around, then shrugged. "Can I, like, walk around an' see how the people like the food?"
"Misao-dono, don't harass the children."
"I WON'T!"
Kenshin smiled, then hustled for the kitchen. Kaoru-dono followed at full
speed. They were... quite late, after all. Misao-dono had insisted on driving, and taking back roads, and... well, it had been an experience, to say the least.
He wrinkled his nose at the familiar cafeteria smell as the door swung shut
behind him. Aagh... he hadn't been near a cafeteria since... well, a long time.
This was going to be an interesting night. He could feel it.
*** *** ***