|Learning to Live Again
Author: Conspirator PM
Enishi’s been defeated, life is peaceful, and finally Kenshin can begin his new life as a settled man. At least, that’s the theory. In reality, he’s finding that starting this new life is more difficult than he expected.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Chapters: 8 - Words: 62,943 - Reviews: 139 - Favs: 77 - Follows: 100 - Updated: 10-16-12 - Published: 02-14-08 - id: 4072343
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Enishi's been defeated, life is peaceful, and finally Kenshin can begin his new life as a settled man. At least, that's the theory. In reality, he's finding that starting this new life is more difficult than he expected.
This story assumes some familiarity with the manga version of the Jinchuu arc.
If you're looking for lots of sword fights, this isn't the story for you. If you're looking for a hot K/K romance, look elsewhere. But if you're interested in Kenshin's life right after his defeat of Enishi, you've come to the right place!
Let's all give credit where credit's due: Without Watsuki Nobuhiro, there would be no Rurouni Kenshin. We bow at your feet. Not so to Sony, Viz, Shonen Jump, and all the rest, but you are the other copyright holders, after all!
Learning to Live Again
Late October 1878
It was a crisply cold October night, and Kenshin was sitting bundled up on the dojo roof staring out at the stars. He had been doing a lot of this lately. At first he chalked it up to his not being a city person. After all, he had been born on a farm and raised by a hermit, and it went without saying that his first experience with city living as a teenager had been disastrous. Okay, perhaps if there hadn't been a revolution going on at the time, and perhaps if he hadn't been brought to the city for the express purpose of participating in that revolution, it wouldn't have been so disastrous.
Still, he remembered the shock of arriving in Kyoto at the tender age of fourteen. He had been so wide-eyed and naïve back then, had never seen a town bigger than about ten shops on a dirt track, and suddenly there he was in the midst of millions of people and nowhere to go to get away from them. When he finally left Kyoto forever, the peace and solitude of the countryside had hit him like a thunderclap, and it had been a solace to him. Now, after seven months in crowded Tokyo, he often found himself longing again for that peace and solitude, but where, other than at some temple, was he going to find it? The dojo roof made perfect sense, and it always seemed to do the trick.
But on this night, as with the night before and the night before that—in fact as with every night for the entire week—the longed-for peace and tranquility that he usually found up there kept eluding him. Something was gnawing at him that he couldn't quite put his finger on, and it had been driving him crazy. It couldn't be because Sano and Megumi had left. After all, he told himself, wasn't he used to having people he cared about disappear from his life, either through death or because of his own need to keep wandering? He had to admit, though, that he felt their absence keenly. And it couldn't be that he was unhappy living where he was—far from it. No, he had found a real sense of purpose in mentoring young Yahiko, and that had made his life almost seem worthwhile, and living at the dojo with Kaoru was always an amusing adventure.
In fact, he had even begun entertaining the notion that maybe, just maybe, if the gods were finally done playing with him, he could settle down now and live out his days in some kind of peace. He had even taken the first few cautious steps down that road after they had all returned from Kyoto after the defeat of Shishio. At Sano's insistence, he had slowly started to entrust a confidence or two, to experiment with being himself, whoever that was, and it had actually felt good.
Maybe the problem was wanderlust. Maybe, after a decade of being a rurouni, he just wasn't able to stay put in one place for this long, but that couldn't be it either. He knew himself well enough to know that, deep down, he had always wanted to sink roots—his time with Tomoe, if nothing else, had shown him that. It's just that events always seemed to conspire against it and he would find himself having to hit the road again, not because he wanted to, but because he had to.
Kaoru's hushed whisper rose gently from the courtyard. She needn't have bothered—he had sensed her presence long before he could see her.
"Kenshin, are you there?" she called again, looking all around.
"Up here," he answered.
She looked up, then jumped to the top of rain barrel in an effort to join him. Kamiya Kasshin Ryu didn't rely much on jumps, but Kaoru had taken to working on them since her return from Enishi's island. She doubted she'd ever be able to make it to the roof in one leap like Kenshin, but from the rain barrel it was only a short distance. She made the second jump and landed lightly as Kenshin steadied her against the pitch of the roof. She had thought to throw a warm haori over her yukata, and she pulled it tightly around her as she joined him in sitting and staring out over the sleeping city below.
"Another nightmare?" Kenshin asked after they had sat awhile in silence.
She nodded her head and huddled even tighter into her haori, as if that could ward off the memory. "It was the one where Enishi cuts you down in mid-flight," she said in a tight voice, "and then he kills Yahiko, and you're bleeding to death, but first you kill Enishi and…"
She stopped as she heard him sigh. It wasn't the first time she had had this dream and not the first time she had told Kenshin about it, and every time he had the same reaction. His eyes would cloud over, then he'd put on the rurouni smile and say, "That didn't happen, and everyone's fine," and he would pat her hand reassuringly.
This time Kaoru mouthed the now familiar words right along with him, and at the sight of it, Kenshin smiled in spite of himself. Kaoru was so resilient in the face of such traumas; it was one of the things he admired most about her. He, on the other hand, couldn't shake off the feeling of guilt that always engulfed him whenever she had one of these dreams. After all, he had inadvertently brought the violence of his own past to her very doorstep, and she had nearly died because of it. A rational person would have demanded that he leave forever before anything else could happen, but Kaoru seemed to defy those conventions and seemed to truly want him to stay. It was a hard offer to refuse.
He felt her head come to rest on his shoulder, then heard her sigh. Clearly, something else was bothering her.
"Kenshin," she finally said, turning to look up at him, "it's not your fault, you know."
Kenshin was in the midst of enjoying how comfortable it felt to have Kaoru's head on his shoulder. He looked down at her lazily and asked, "What's not my fault?"
"That Enishi is such a psychopath," she said.
Kenshin moved so suddenly to look at her that Kaoru practically fell over. "You're kidding me, right?" he said when he had regained his composure. "I mean, the man saw me kill his sister! You don't think that would do it?"
He went back to staring out at the city again, all pretense of peace and serenity completely gone.
"Look at me," Kaoru said in exasperation, and she took his face in her hands to turn it back towards her. "All these years you've been blaming yourself for Tomoe's death, right? But think about it. Yes, Enishi saw you kill his sister, but he's the only one of the two of you who saw how it actually happened. Don't you get it? You told me yourself! You couldn't see her coming! You were nearly blind, nearly deaf, unable to sense ki—you couldn't see that! But Enishi did, and what he saw was his sister running between you and your opponent as she tried to save you. He knew you didn't purposely kill his sister because he saw! He's twisted, Kenshin, and I'm convinced he was twisted long before that ever happened!"
She had been staring hard into his eyes the entire time, and she suddenly realized that she was still holding his face in her hands. She blushed, dropped her hands, then turned her head in embarrassment. "Gomen," she said quickly, "sumimasen…"
She kicked herself—he was probably angry with her now. How stupid could she be, saying something like that to him!
Kenshin's eyes widened as what she said sank in. She was right, he realized. He himself had been unable to see Tomoe come running to put herself between him and his attacker—things would have been so different if he could have—and so he had always blamed himself for her death. It was Enishi, and only Enishi, who had actually seen things as they happened, but all this time Enishi had refused to accept the truth. And, Kenshin suddenly realized, so had he.
When had Kaoru become so wise, he wondered? She had changed so much these past seven months since he had come to live at the dojo. It was while recovering in Kyoto from his fight with Shishio that he had first noticed it, that she was no longer the somewhat clueless, impetuous girl he had saved from Hiruma Kihei and his impostor brother. No, she was more cautious now, more circumspect—more mature—and he liked her this way. He watched her now as she traced her finger along a line of new roofing tile, part of the extensive repairs made to the dojo to fix the destruction caused by Enishi's jinchuu. "It's a better roofing job than sessha could have done," he noted with a quiet laugh.
Kaoru looked up with relief in her eyes. Did this mean he wasn't angry at her for what she said? "Aa," she agreed, "the workmen did a great job." Then, at the thought that her statement might be taken as an insult, she added, "Not that you couldn't have done a great job, too!" A small chuckle from Kenshin reassured her that he hadn't taken offense.
It had been quite a surprise, actually, having workmen show up to do the repairs. It was only two days after they had returned from Enishi's island, and Kenshin was still recuperating from his wounds, when Kaoru opened the gate to find five carpenters with a wagonload of lumber and roofing tiles waiting to come in and start repairs. The letter they bore stated they were from the kabuki theater of the actor Saemonosuke VII, whom Kenshin had known during his wandering days as Ryosuke, and that the great Saemonosuke begged her indulgence to allow his carpenters to repair her dojo as a mark of his respect for "a great patriot and even greater actor," as the letter said. There were more people in this world than just her and their circle of friends who valued Kenshin, she thought. Now, if only he'd believe it….
"The city is so peaceful from up here, isn't it?" Kaoru said after another few moments. "No battles, no arguments, no worries…."
She shifted her gaze from the city to Kenshin and found him brooding as he stared out at the stars. "Is something wrong, Kenshin?" she asked.
He laughed gently. Kaoru didn't really know how to read ki, but she certainly could read his mind on occasion. "Nothing's wrong," he said as steadily as he could. "It's just that sessha is…well, just at loose ends right now."
Kaoru suddenly sat bolt upright, which nearly sent him flying off the roof. "Loose ends?" she repeated. She looked him straight in the eye. "You're not thinking of leaving, are you?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that!" he laughed. Although actually, when he had gone to apologize to Chief Uramura for the injuries the chief had suffered during jinchuu, he had offered to leave Tokyo forever to spare the city any more destruction and turmoil on his account. "You can't do that!" the chief had blurted out. "Why, the government wouldn't know where to find you if…."
Kenshin hadn't let the chief finish his sentence. He knew what the man was getting at—the powers-that-be worried that after his victory over Shishio, the fearsome Hitokiri Battousai might snap like Shishio had and become a danger to themselves and the government. The funny thing was, Kenshin was sort of relieved they didn't want him to leave. It was then that he truly realized he didn't want to wander any longer. Kaoru, of course, knew nothing of this. He shrugged and smiled in an embarrassed way. "Maybe it's just that things have changed for this one, and that takes some getting used to."
"But nothing's changed!" Kaoru said quickly, a note of panic creeping into her voice. "Well, except that Sano and Megumi have left, and Yahiko's moved out, but that's only sort of because now that it's getting colder, he's been finding all sorts of reasons to sleep here at the dojo, and…."
Kenshin chuckled softly and grabbed her hands, which were gesticulating wildly. "It's not that—it's just sessha getting used to not being a rurouni anymore." But what not being a rurouni anymore meant, Kenshin wasn't quite sure.
"Oh. That." She quieted down until another thought struck her. With great trepidation, she said, "You're not unhappy here, are you?"
"Far from it," he said, although he still couldn't figure out why he felt so unsettled.
"Good," she said, her fears allayed for now. "Then let's go back inside. It's getting cold up here, and I've got to get some sleep. I've got three classes to teach tomorrow."
Kenshin reached out a hand to help her up, then continued to hold it as they took one last look at the peaceful city below. It was with great reluctance that he tore his eyes away from the view and helped Kaoru down before jumping down himself. The two made their way back to their rooms in companionable silence, then bade each other goodnight. It was a good feeling, a peaceful feeling that made life seem worth living. Now if only he could figure out why he couldn't enjoy it.
He awoke in the morning with the sun, which most people would have found sufficiently early, but for Kenshin this represented a failing. At this time of year, the sun was coming up fairly late, and by now he should already have been in the kitchen stoking the fire and cooking the rice. He quickly rolled over to get up but winced as he did. It was that damned wound across his stomach that Enishi had inflicted during the fight right before Kaoru's so-called death. Kenshin had lost massive amounts of blood from that wound—Megumi said it should have killed him—but instead of taking care of it properly, he had dragged himself off to Rakuninmura for two weeks and let it fester. Now, more than six weeks later, it was still causing him grief. Oh, well, that was the lot of a warrior, no use complaining about it.
He forced himself out of his futon and began folding things up. More worrisome than the nagging pain from this wound was the slowness with which his energy was returning. Megumi had explained that one, too, that he had lost so much blood in the fight with Shishio and then so soon after in the two fights with Enishi that his body never had time to replenish its reserves. Or maybe it was just old age, he thought ruefully. After all, he was pushing thirty.
Whatever the reason, it was really getting on his nerves. He was used to unlimited amounts of energy; he wasn't used to feeling so wiped out all the time. Not that he let anyone know—he did know how to put on a good act—but even he couldn't hide his getting up late all the time. He quickly changed into his kimono and hakama, tied back his hair, and rushed to the kitchen. Best not to let Kaoru know he had overslept again. He quickly lit the cooking fire, started soaking some rice in water left over from the previous night, then ran out to pick some vegetables from his garden, bypassing the outhouse as he did so. No time for that now.
The garden he had started on a whim, not long after returning from the battle with Shishio. Kaoru's mother had kept a flower garden in a corner of the dojo grounds, which had long ago become overgrown from neglect. With Kaoru's enthusiastic permission, he had turned it into a flourishing little vegetable garden full of fall crops of spinach, carrot, daikon, and peas, and he had found that tending it gave him great pleasure. It was pure luck that the destruction caused by Enishi and his henchmen had spared the little plot. He quickly cast an eye for offending weeds and bugs, then pulled up some spinach and a handful of peapods and sprinted back to the kitchen. Within twenty minutes, he had managed to get enough of breakfast going to make it look like he had been there twice as long. Kaoru would never know he had been late.
"Ohayo," Kenshin called out as he heard Kaoru nearing the kitchen. "Breakfast will be ready soon. It took a little longer than it should have to get the fire started, so things are a little behind…."
"It's okay that you overslept—we were out on the roof late last night, after all," Kaoru said with a smile. "You don't have to feel guilty about it."
Damn! How did she know? "No, really, sessha did have trouble with the fire…."
Kaoru chuckled. "You can't fool me, Himura Kenshin. I know your habits by now, and I know that on a normal morning, you don't exactly sprint right past the outhouse first thing without using it, and you usually spend some time weeding the garden before you pick anything, and I know that it usually takes you no time at all to get the fire going in the stove."
She walked over to stand next to him and started shelling the peas. Then, with a tiny smile tugging at her lips, she added, "You know, you could leave things to me for the few minutes it would take you to use the outhouse. Even I couldn't burn things that quickly."
Kenshin just stared at her. He knew she had a habit of watching him in the morning, but memorizing his every move? He had no idea. He felt his cheeks redden.
"Aa, perhaps sessha will take you up on that offer," he said quickly. Then, in as dignified a manner as he could manage, he left the kitchen to take care of some rather urgent business.
Kaoru watched as he left. Even after all these months, Kenshin was such a mystery to her. Not that she had that much experience with men, but her father had raised her like a boy, and she had spent most of her childhood around the boys and men at the dojo. In public, most of them followed the tradition of saying little and showing even less, but among themselves she knew they had lots to say and held very little back. It didn't take much, usually, to know what was going on in their minds.
Kenshin wasn't like that. Even in private he gave away very little, so that whenever he did say something, it was like receiving a precious gift. In fact, the most she had ever heard him say at one time was just a few weeks ago, when he recounted the story of his life as a hitokiri, and that was after knowing him for six months! So, what he had meant last night by being at loose ends or what his problem was with not being a rurouni anymore, she had no clue.
It worried her that recently, when she'd find him doing the laundry, sometimes she'd catch him staring off into space, and the look on his face she could only categorize as lost. She was convinced it had something to do with her, that somehow she wasn't enough company for him. Even worse, maybe he found her irritating and didn't want to be around her anymore but couldn't find a polite way to tell her. Not that it should matter to her since technically their relationship was just tenant and landlord, but look what happened when he left for Kyoto. It wasn't just that she had no tenant anymore that had reduced her to a whimpering blob of self-pity, and she was quite sure—okay, mostly quite sure—that it wasn't just hero worship that had led her to follow him to Kyoto. Anyway, she had come to feel a great responsibility for this man's happiness and well-being—sort of an obligation to the whole of Japan to take care of this savior of the nation. She didn't know what she'd do if it turned out that he just couldn't stand living with her at the dojo anymore….
Kenshin was back within minutes, and he gave her a sheepish smile before immersing himself in the details of chopping and cooking. He could tell Kaoru was worried about something, probably him, so he made sure to turn and flash her what he hoped would be a reassuring smile from time to time, but he wasn't sure it was working—she kept giving him furtive looks as she laid out mats and dishes for the meal.
"So," Kenshin said to deflect any questions as they sat down to eat, "you're teaching three classes today at Maekewa-dono's dojo?"
"Aa," Kaoru mumbled through a mouthful of rice. "His sons aren't happy about my teaching so many classes there, but Maekewa-sensei insists. I think it's because his students don't like his sons much. They're sort of pompous, you know?"
Kenshin chuckled. He had a feeling it might have more to do with the fact that the sons couldn't compete with a woman for the students' attention. She was good-looking, after all….
"Anyway," Kaoru continued, "you know what they're calling me now at the Maekewa dojo? Not just the Rose of Kenjutsu, but Sensei of Myojin the Cannon-slayer! I even hear that some of their students might be moving over here, now that Maekewa-sensei has made it official that his sons will be taking over."
"Ah, yes," Kenshin chuckled, "our 'cannon-slayer.' He has had a bit of a swelled head since fighting Kujiranami, hasn't he." In fact, Kenshin had just spent the last several days dressing Yahiko down for some severe cases of disrespect to himself and the current assistant master—soon to be master—of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu.
She scowled. "Don't complain," she said. "I need to get some students at this dojo, and I don't particularly care how I get them. If it takes putting up with Yahiko's foul mouth, then…" She stopped to reconsider, a wicked gleam in her eye. "I take that back. He can be as disrespectful as he wants as long as his reputation brings students over here and he cleans the dojo floors every day and does a thousand advanced swings and…."
"…and he's too tired to work at the Akabeko?"
"Oh," Kaoru said. They couldn't afford that. Tae gave Yahiko meals in addition to wages, meals he would otherwise eat at the dojo. She had received a nice sum from the government for her role in defeating the Juppongatana—actually, it was to replace what they had wanted to pay Kenshin for defeating Shishio, which he had refused to take—but what with all the mouths she had had to feed until recently, and the cost of repairs to the dojo from the fights with Saito and Enishi, and the lack of students, not to mention winter coming up, she had already used up a good deal of that money. Now she needed to make what little was left last well into spring. "Well, then, maybe not the thousand advanced swings…."
"Don't worry," Kenshin said. "Sessha may not have been able to work much while my shoulder was healing, but Oguni-sensei says it's all healed now, so sessha can look for a real job…."
"Kenshin, how are you ever going to recover fully if you keep knocking yourself out?" Kaoru broke in. "You were trying to work even before the sling came off, and all it's doing is tiring you out!"
Kenshin stiffened. They had had this discussion a million times before. Kaoru still did not understand how heavily it weighed on him that she was carrying the entire burden of earning enough money for them to live on. As a rurouni, it didn't matter—he could work to earn his keep, then move on. But now? Now he was settled, and his sense of honor and fairness dictated that he contribute something more than just doing the housework. So, as soon as he was able to move, he had insisted on working every odd job he could manage with one arm. "Sessha has always paid his own way, and this one has cost you much more than laundry and cooking can pay for," he said.
"But this your home now, remember?" Kaoru tried to suppress the panic that threatened to creep into her voice. "Anyway, I think you've more than paid for your upkeep with all the work you do around here. Why, you've done repairs, you've started that garden, you've…."
"If this is my home," Kenshin snapped, "then you must let me help cover this home's expenses!"
Kaoru suppressed a small gasp. Were those gold flecks she saw in his eyes? They disappeared as suddenly as they appeared, but it still made her shudder—it was a reminder of Kenshin's frightening ferocity in his battles with Enishi. "Okay, okay," she said in a small voice, "go ahead and work…."
Suddenly, a whirlwind that was Yahiko burst into the room. He took one look at Kenshin's glare and Kaoru's troubled expression and said, "Trouble in paradise?" Then he grabbed a bowl, filled it with rice, and began inhaling his food.
His sudden appearance startled Kaoru. Yahiko had not slept at the dojo that night, and she hadn't heard anyone ring the bell. "How did you get in here?" she demanded to know as she tried to grab the bowl away from Yahiko. "That gate's locked."
Yahiko downed the rest of the bowl of rice in two quick gulps, then grinned. "I jumped over the fence!" he proclaimed proudly. "I've been practicing jumps for my Hiten Mitsurugi homage moves, and now I can almost make it over the top without holding on!"
"Hiten Mitsurugi homage moves?" Kaoru screeched. "You're a student of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, not Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu! What do you think you're doing?!" She looked over at Kenshin with alarm, only to find him smirking slightly. If she didn't know any better, she'd have sworn he looked somewhat proud. "Kenshin, say something!"
"You yourself have been practicing jumps," he said mildly, glad that the tension between them was broken.
"Yeah," said Yahiko as he stuffed another bowlful of rice in his mouth. "Anyway, it's not like he's ever gonna teach me the real thing." Then, as an afterthought, he added hopefully, "Unless you've changed your mind…."
Kenshin smiled and shook his head no.
Suddenly, Yahiko stopped eating, slapped his forehead, then reached into his sleeve to draw out an envelope. "I almost forgot!" he said as he handed it to Kenshin. "I ran into the Oguni Clinic's messenger on my way over here. He asked me to give you this."
"From Oguni-sensei?" Kaoru said. "I wonder what he wants. I thought you said you were basically all recovered now."
Kenshin tore the envelope open and scanned the letter. "Just a reminder to have my shoulder checked one more time," he said.
"Let me see that," Yahiko said as he swiped the letter from Kenshin's hand. "Yeah, so why does it say it's important? Things not healing well after all?" he added sarcastically as Kenshin grabbed the letter back.
"Kenshin?" Kaoru said when Kenshin just smiled in response.
"Sessha truly doesn't know what's so important," he finally answered. "This one can show you the wound—it really is all healed," and he started to pull down the top of his kimono.
"No, no, that's okay, I believe you," Kaoru said quickly. Not that she had never seen Kenshin's chest before, but for some reason, right now she felt a little embarrassed at the thought.
Suddenly, the bell at the gate started ringing. "Well," Kaoru said, glad for the diversion, "at least someone knows how to use a bell! Listen, if you want that lesson before I leave this morning, you'd better go clean the dojo floor right now. I'll meet you as soon as I find out who this is and get changed." Then she was off.
"Aw, do I have to?" Yahiko whined, but it was a moot question. He shoveled another bowlful of rice into his mouth, then followed Kaoru out the door. Kenshin just smiled as he picked up the bowls and started cleaning up.
Twenty minutes later, Yahiko was back. "You seen Kaoru anywhere?"
Kenshin was just putting away the last of the clean dishes. "She's not with you?" he asked.
Yahiko rolled his eyes. "If she was with me, would I be in here asking you?"
Suddenly, Kenshin was on alert. When the bell had rung at the gate, he had, of course, cast out his senses to make sure no danger lurked there. And yes, Kaoru needed to change into her training clothes, but that normally didn't take more than five or ten minutes. He cast out his senses again; still no danger, but obviously something was amiss. In a flash, he was out the door and down the hallway leading to the training hall.
"I'll check the bathhouse," Yahiko called after him, then he took off as well.
Kenshin found her sitting at her father's desk in the dojo's office, her account books open before her along with row upon row of newly made calculations. She had been crying, he could tell, but the sense he got from her was one of defiance, not sadness. "Kaoru-dono?" he said tentatively.
Her head jerked up at the sudden sound of his voice, and she quickly wiped her eyes. "Oh," she said, trying to smile, "I didn't hear you come in." She looked down at the mess on the desk, then said, "I was just…checking the finances. You know, seeing how much money we have…nothing to worry about…," but then she dissolved again into tears.
Kenshin didn't know what to do. This was so unlike Kaoru, to break down and cry for seemingly no good reason. Usually when something got her upset, she just grabbed her bokken and beat whatever it was into submission. Obviously, the cause of her upset lay in the account books, so at the risk of ending up on the receiving end of said bokken, he sat down beside her and started looking at the books and her calculations. He wasn't the quickest at numbers, but he had learned a little something of how to keep accounts from an elderly shopkeeper who had taken him in several years ago.
"That was the tax collector at the gate," Kaoru finally said in a strangled voice as she watched Kenshin scan the figures. "Taxes—who thinks about taxes? All I've been worried about was making sure we had enough money to pay for food and upkeep. I mean, I had no idea how much this dojo is actually worth—it'll take all my savings plus all the money I've earned this month to cover it."
From his quick glance at the account books and the bill left by the tax collector, it was clear to Kenshin that Kaoru had good reason to be worried.
"But this man, this horrible, horrible man!" she continued, her anger starting to build. "I asked if I could have some time to pay, but no! He says my father always paid in full on this day every year, and he expected me to do the same! When I told him my father died in the war last year, he just said I should get married to solve the problem! And when I said that wasn't going to happen anytime soon, he told me I could either pay up now or he'd force me to marry his son to settle the debt!" She dissolved into tears again. Then, in the most pitiful voice he had ever heard from her, she said, "Kenshin, what do I do?"
"Well," he said slowly, "you do have just enough to pay the bill…"
"But then we barely have enough money for food and none for firewood, and winter's almost here," she pointed out tearfully.
"Well," Kenshin started to say, but Kaoru cut him off, flames shooting from her eyes.
"If you're going to say I should marry that guy's son, well, you can just forget the whole thing, mister! I'm never getting married! You know what happens if I get married? I lose everything! I become the property of my husband and his family, like some kind of horse, and everything I own becomes theirs, too, including this dojo! Oh, no, I will never give up my father's legacy—never!" Then she buried her head in Kenshin's chest and dissolved into tears again.
Kenshin was not prepared for this, and it took him several seconds before he finally wrapped his arms around her. It was somewhat disconcerting to feel her cry against him in great heaves. He felt quite helpless—this was not something he knew how to deal with. "What about your father's family?" he finally asked.
Kaoru pushed away and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "There is no family," she managed to say. "My father said they disowned him for marrying my mother. It was just me and him against the world, he used to say. Now it's just me," and she returned to sobbing into Kenshin's chest.
He found himself stroking her hair and rubbing her back in an attempt to calm her, but really, what could he do? Women were expected to be married off as part of often complex business arrangements, and the woman usually had little or no say in the matter. Even the poorest families got something from the deal, even if it was only that the woman's family had one less mouth to feed and the husband's family gained one free worker.
Love, of course, had nothing to do with it, which was a problem for him, for he suspected, though he could not be totally sure, that he loved Kaoru. At the very least, he knew he cared a lot for her. After all, hadn't she become his reason to live? But what could he offer her in return? He was penniless, a wanderer whose only skill was not only passe in the new era, but which he would have refused to use or teach even if it weren't passe. He knew that maintaining this dojo required much, much more than what Kaoru alone could bring in as an itinerant teacher, and despite her protestations, he was sure that no matter how much cooking or cleaning or laundry he did, it could never fully repay the cost of putting him up. So, marriage? There was absolutely nothing he could bring to such an arrangement. Once again, he felt helpless.
Suddenly, Yahiko burst in, and at the sight of Kaoru in Kenshin's arms, he cried out, "Ewwwww!"
Through her tears, Kaoru blushed and pushed herself out of Kenshin's embrace, glaring at Yahiko as she tried to dry her tears.
"Yahiko," Kenshin said as calmly as he could, "it would be more appropriate for you to ask what's wrong, then make a quick exit."
"No, it's okay," Kaoru sniffled. Turning to Yahiko, she said, "The tax collector came, I owe a lot of money I don't have, and I might end up losing the dojo, that's all."
"Tax collector? Lose the dojo?!" Yahiko was stunned. Then, suddenly, he pulled out his shinai and yelled, "Okay, where is he? Let me at him! I'll teach him a thing or two, or my name isn't Myojin the Cannon-Slayer!"
Suddenly, Yahiko found that his shinai was no longer in his own hands but in Kenshin's. "Hey, give that back...!" he started, but there was something about Kenshin's eyes that made him shut up.
"Never, ever are you to talk like that," Kenshin growled out in a warning voice. "The sword is never to be used that way!"
The voice sent shivers down Yahiko's back, but he shook it off and tried to grab back his shinai. "Like I should listen to you," he taunted Kenshin. "Who was it, after all, who held this place together while you sat and felt sorry for yourself in Rakuninmura, huh? Why, if it hadn't been for me…!"
Suddenly, Yahiko felt himself pinned against the wall by a gust of cold wind, though it was like no wind he had ever felt before, and he found himself staring into two cold eyes whose very look promised death or worse if he even so much as dared to move. Kaoru felt it, too, and she backed away.
Yahiko tried to break loose, but he felt paralyzed. He had never seen Kenshin like this outside of battle, and it scared the crap out of him. "O…kay," Yahiko managed to say, "maybe I was a little out of line. I apologize."
The force that had pinned him lessened. Kenshin turned away, tossing the shinai back as he said, "Go practice the transition from the tenth to the eleventh move in the fifth kata while you're waiting for Kaoru-dono."
"Wait a minute—Kaoru's my instructor, not you…," Yahiko started to say, but Kenshin continued as if he hadn't said a word.
"In moving from the backhand to the overhead swing, you leave yourself vulnerable on the left side." When Yahiko seemed disinclined to move, Kenshin growled, "Just go do it—now."
Once again Yahiko was stunned. Kenshin had been watching him that closely during practice? He forced himself to pull his eyes away from Kenshin and took off. Kaoru watched him go, then said shakily, "You shouldn't have been so rough on him. You've really scared him." And me, too, she thought to herself.
Kenshin took a deep breath. What had gotten into him, scaring Yahiko and Kaoru like that? But Yahiko was too young to possess as much skill as he did with a sword, and that, as Kenshin knew all too well, was a dangerous thing. There was a reason he hadn't wanted Kaoru to teach the ougi to Yahiko so soon.
"Sessha will apologize," Kenshin said, "but only for scaring him." As for that crack about Rakuninmura, he thought bleakly, clearly he needed to have a little chat with the boy.
Kaoru relaxed slightly now, but it made her uncomfortable that just when she thought she knew everything there was to know about Kenshin's moods, he'd go do something like this that would scare her. Yet right now he didn't look scary, just—how did he describe it last night? At loose ends? She shook herself ever so slightly, then looked back at her account books and said, "So, what now? What do I do?"
Kenshin sighed. Kaoru was trying to act as if nothing had happened, but he could tell she was shaken by his outburst at Yahiko.
"There can be no argument now about my finding work," he said finally. "What you earn from teaching at the Maekewa dojo will at least keep us in food. I can at least try to earn enough for firewood. Today sessha was planning to go to that labor exchange where Sano used to hang out—maybe sessha can find some work there. And maybe Yahiko could pay you a little something for his lessons from his earnings at the Akabeko. Somehow, sessha's sure we'll make it through until spring. Maybe by then you'll have real students, and this one can plant enough in the vegetable garden to sell at the market, and…."
Kaoru ran over and hugged him. "Oh, Kenshin, thank you, thank you, thank you!" she cried as tears started to fall again. Her fear over his outburst was all but forgotten.
He blushed, then gently broke her embrace. "It's getting late," he said. "If sessha doesn't leave now, this one will have no chance at the labor exchange. Go practice with Yahiko, then find the tax collector and give him his money. We'll find a way to make this work."
She wiped her nose again, then headed for the training hall and Yahiko. Within minutes, Kenshin heard the sounds of bokken against bokken and cries of "Busu!" and "Brat!" Life was back to normal, but the weight of life as a settled man seemed even heavier than before.
Haori: A lightweight coat worn over kimono.
Yukata: light summer-weight kimono.
Gomen, sumimasen: both are ways to say "I'm sorry," "forgive me."
Rakuninmura: Those of you who are used to Maigo-chan's superlative manga translations will recognize this. It's the Japanese word for what the translated manga calls the Fallen Village.
Cannon-slayer: Not Japanese, I know, but this is the place to note that during jinchuu, Yahiko fought Kujiranami, whose one arm had been replaced with an Armstrong cannon. Hence, "Cannon-slayer." (And yes, Yahiko didn't actually kill him, but he is a bit of a boaster, ne?)
Ougi: the succession technique of a sword style.
Author's Note: Every action has a reaction, and that's what this story is about. Kenshin has ended his wandering days by settling at the dojo. The reaction? Now he's got to worry about how to pay the bills. He ran off to Rakuninmura? Yahiko's unthinking hero worship is gone. He unleashed the ferocity of the Battousai to defeat Enishi? Not even in the fight with Saito had Kaoru ever seen him this way, and it scared her. No wonder the poor guy feels at loose ends! But don't despair, he will find his way, and the journey will include some good, old-fashioned sword-rattling, both literal and figurative.
Many thanks go to 'older woman,' author of the superlative Ichirizuka, for convincing me to post this story. The idea actually rattled around in my mind for two years and I was about to give up because I kept running into severe conceptual problems. Then older woman asked if I was writing anything new, I sent her a little of the story, and she convinced me to forge ahead. So, I guess if you don't like what you see, you can blame her (only kidding)!!
If you're wondering where Co-Conspirator is, she was the one who planted the idea for this story, but she is currently deep into other manga right now ("RK will always be my first love, though," she says). She sends her regards.