|Beside the Point
Author: nooziewoozie PM
"I'll do it, so long as no one walks away with recorded evidence. I don't need this getting me fired if pictures end up on facebook, or worse—" she levels a glare at Misao—"on Okina's hard drive." -Kenshin, Kaoru, and wayward strippers. Modern AU. (Warning: they talk and talk and talk. Politics, poetry, and the occasional Dan Aykroyd movie. You have been warned.)Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Humor - Kenshin & Kaoru - Chapters: 6 - Words: 23,258 - Reviews: 78 - Favs: 51 - Follows: 87 - Updated: 11-19-12 - Published: 07-14-11 - id: 7179320
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Title: Beside the Point
Pairings/Characters: Kenshin/Kaoru, past Kenshin/Tomoe; peripheral Sano/Megumi. Various characters.
Rating: T, for language and strippers. (Yay!)
Notes: I feel like I have story fatigue; I kind of just want this thing done. Do let me know if you guys are happy to let this beast die here, or if you want a short epilogue, featuring Shishio, trust exercises, and a burning park.
Kaoru wakes with a profound sense of disorientation: that wall is not her wall, those curtains are too tasteful to be hers, and she hasn't owned sheets that have such a high thread-count in her entire life, or ones that are such a rich shade of plum. She peers around with eyes heavy with sleep, and languidly wonders at her complete lack of panic. It's too dark to panic, and too warm. The light struggling past the curtains is a meager grey. The wind howls somewhere outside, almost low enough to ignore over the hissing of the radiator and the slow, soft breath against the back of her neck.
The night comes back to her then, in a rush that has her blinking owlishly at the wall in surprise. Along with that, the fact that it was Kenshin with his arm thrown over her waist, his legs tangled with hers, and his breath slow and steady and deep on her neck. She goes instantly rigid; her heart beats a rapid tattoo in her chest; every single nerve ending crackles with electricity.
So. It seems Switzerland wasn't quite the bastion of neutrality she had been hoping for.
She swallows. She should move. Gently so she wouldn't wake him. Wrap herself up in blankets, maybe make coffee. She remembers the post-it note stuck to his refrigerator with the number for the building superintendent scribbled on it; if the heat hadn't been turned on, she could maybe bully the handyman into coming up and tinkering with the radiator in the living room. She should, if she considered herself a woman of character, leave this bed and do some small, useful things to help the man who had been so generous with his time and his chocolate.
She lays a tentative hand on the arm thrown about her abdomen. Kenshin is a slim man, but he's not scrawny. She had known that. He had told her that he did kendo and some kickboxing on the side. But her breath comes faster as she feels evidence of his ropy muscles under her hand, so solid and real. She doesn't dare to move, to breathe more loudly, because she can acutely feel the swell of his pectorals against the panes of her back.
Move. I should move.
She eases one leg out of their cocoon of blankets, but before she can get far, Kenshin makes an indistinct grunt of protest, tightens his arm, and buries his face in the crook of her neck.
She reacts like a scalded cat—his nose is cold—and holds her breath. Count to ten. By beats she relaxes.
Okay, she thinks. Okay, I can handle this. She considers the topography of her situation while desperately trying not to think of the topography of Kenshin's body, so warm and comforting and overwhelmingly male behind her. She tries to ease out again when she thinks, Do I want to?
She doesn't. At all. She wants to stay and bask in his warmth and fantasize about his kisses and touches and the imprint of his lips on her shoulder. It would not be hard. She could pretend she'd never woken and burrow in the blankets.
But there's something terrible and exploitative in that line of thinking. Kenshin had not given her explicit consent to touch his body. Unthinking movements during sleep didn't count. To continue to touch him, once she'd become cognizant of the situation, would be unconscionable.
So she eases out again, this time ignoring his sleepy protests, and tiptoes to the bathroom. As quietly as she can, she brushes her teeth, helps herself to a dollop of an ancient tube of Neutrogena face wash, and then tiptoes out the door.
Kenshin wakes up knowing exactly where is his, what transpired the previous night, and with whom he'd shared a bed. She sits up, rubbing his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. A subtle hint of jasmine clings to his sheets and he can hear Kaoru arguing with someone, can smell the full-bodied hint of coffee in the air. He smiles. He could get used to that.
He makes his way out of bed, into the bathroom, and finally out into his frigid living room. Kaoru is wrapped up in a blanket that's trailing around her ankles, a phone glued to her ear and her mouth set as she listened to whoever was on the other end. He ducks back into his room and fishes out a thick pair of socks for her, and emerges again in time to hear her say, "Yeah, well, listen up, bucko. I know for a fact that not having peepholes on apartment doors is against the law in Chicago, so one call to the right authorities would have you guys paying through your collective noses—" A pause. "Yes, I am threatening you, you numbskull." He winces. Never good to admit that out loud. "Did you not hear me? We have been without heat in the better part of this apartment for over thirteen hours now! Thirteen hours! With a blizzard outside! What part of, 'Get your ass up here and fix the damn radiator,' do you not understand? You know what? Get me your supervisor. Yes. Yes. I'll hold."
He shakes his head, enjoying the sight of her valiantly fighting his battles with obstructive handy-men. He'd often wondered why it was that people like Hiko never got put on hold and got through to supervisors in one call. It was as though corporate bureaucrats could smell accommodating personalities through the phone lines. (A particular incident from his youth involving cable TV comes to mind: Kenshin had spent a total of five hours spread out over three days getting passed from salesperson from incompetent salesperson, while Hiko had gotten the matter resolved in under thirty minutes, just in time to catch the Cricket World Cup.) He'd eventually put it down to the fact that, unlike Kenshin, Hiko walked into any given situation expecting to be treated like a king and not, say, like the pompous fathead he generally pretended to be. The bitch of it was, though, that Hiko often snapped his fingers and reality leapt to do his bidding.
Except in my case, but I don't we're ever going to make peace on that front.
"I do appreciate it," he says out loud, "but I don't think that's going to do you any good."
Her head snaps around. He watches the changes on her face—the slight reddening of cheek, the flutter of lashes, the sharp intake of breath—and he's equal parts charmed and alarmed. He comes off the doorjamb. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," she says quickly. "Fine. You scared me, is all. You move like a cat."
He's not convinced, but lets it go for now. "Force of habit." He tosses her the socks. "It'll be cold in here for a while yet. You should put those on."
"Thanks." She carefully sets the phone down and tugs on the socks.
"I meant what I said earlier." He walks into the kitchen and begins rummaging in his pantry. "Raijuta's not going to show up here before tomorrow."
She trails after him, a frown on her face and his phone stuck to her ear. "Not if I have anything to do with it."
"I'll leave you to it, then. Meanwhile, do you want eggs or pancakes?"
"Depends," she says. "What sort of eggs?"
"I had scrambled with pepper jack cheese, pepper, mushrooms, and spinach in mind." He raises his eyebrows at her in inquiry. "Or, we could do buttermilk pecan pancakes with—" he leans in to the fridge "—blueberry or hazelnut syrup. Side of turkey sausage and freshly squeezed orange juice. Your call."
Her eyes are round and her mouth slack. "Can you really—?" Then she shakes her head. "No, what am I talking about, of course you can."
"What'll it be?"
She looks slightly overwhelmed. "You understand you don't have to feed me, right? I'll be good with cold cereal or microwave oatmeal."
"And you understand that I want to feed you, right?" His heart thuds slowly in his chest. He can smell her everywhere, subtly, alluringly feminine. He wants to sift through her clever, nimble mind. He wants to spend thousands of evenings debating politics and media and the best Eddie Murphy movies with her, and cook her a thousand meals. One day, he vows, he'll take her to Istanbul and kiss her right in the middle of the Spice Bazaar.
"Oh, all right. You've worn me down with verbal food porn. I'd like pancakes please."
He grins, and then directs her toward the juicer and a pile of oranges because she likes feeling helpful and he already is plotting out a million ways to make her happy. "Attend."
Kaoru listens as Kenshin whips homemade pancake batter with machine-like precision in between pressing down on orange halves on the juicer. The kitchen is filled with delicious early morning smells: melting butter, sizzling sausage, and sweet pancakes rising on his skillet.
"I stand in awe," she says as he flips three perfectly round, perfectly thick pancakes into a beautiful china plate.
"I'll teach you," he says easily, busy setting the table.
"I wouldn't count on it. I'd probably burn your building down."
"I refuse to believe that you're quite as bad as you claim. After all, you managed to get Raijuta up here within the hour."
She grins. "Eh. Persistence and skill aren't exactly the same things."
"It often all comes to the same, though. How about this: you teach me how to bully city employees, and I'll give you my pancake recipe."
"Not a chance." She takes a bite. They're buttery and soft and fluffy, studded with pecans and drizzled liberally with fresh blueberry syrup. "Oh god," she groans.
"The best. If it's possible to orgasm from food, I think I just did." Her mouth is running away from her, but she can't exactly bring herself to care at the moment that across from her is sitting a man with whom she had pictured orgasms in great and varying detail. That was, after all, what had driven her to call up Raijuta—she needed something to distract her from the cold and how absurdly bereft she had felt after leaving Kenshin's bed.
Kenshin's smile is slow. She swallows hard, awareness prickling over her skin. She had felt off-center from the moment she'd turned to find him leaning against his bedroom door, so beautiful with his eyes still heavy-lidded from sleep and his mouth curled into a grin.
"Not that—that I'm asking for, uh, orgasms…because that would be…weird…." She trails off, utterly mortified.
It might be the light, but his eyes spark gold at the edges. "Why did you leave the bed first, Kaoru?"
"Because you crossed Switzerland!"
"I'm sorry." He shrugs. "If it's any consolation, I don't remember it."
She lets her forehead hit the table with a resounding thunk. "Don't be." That would be unfair, because she'd enjoyed the hell out of it. "I was the one out of line there."
"Kaoru?" His voice is soft.
"Hmm?" she asks the table. She can hear him moving around the table. He kneels right beside her chair and touches her shoulder. To her disgust, it takes her a few seconds to muster up the gumption to look him in the eyes, but look him in the eyes she does.
It's definitely not the light—his irises are slowly shading to gold.
"Your eyes," she croaks. "They're—they're golden."
"Are they?" he asks. "I'm not surprised."
"Is that normal?" she asks. She peers closely, fascinated and a little concerned. "Have you gotten that checked out? I mean, I'm no doctor, and it's really pretty, but are sure—?"
He puts his head down and laughs again. He resurfaces. "Yes. I'm sure. It's hereditary, in fact, and as far as a spate of ophthalmologists could tell, perfectly harmless." He touches her wrist and sets his thumb against the fluttery pulse there. She gasps.
"I think," he says slowly, "this is the right time to start hitting on you."
"A stripper. I know."
"That's not remotely what I meant."
"What did you mean?"
She flounders, distracted by his nearness and the molten slivers in his eyes, and how his hand was wandering up her arm. "I—I was wondering where you were going with this."
His thumb rubs a wide arc over the sensitive skin of her forearm. Might as well get it out now while she still has her wits about her. "I love pop music."
"I can live with that."
"No, you don't understand. Like, I know pop music caters to the lowest common denominator, and that it resoundingly sucks, but I love it."
"I can live with that, you know."
"Like, I can blather on about Vivaldi and Beethoven and Bach until I turn blue, but I swear to you," she says, eyes wide, "if Sexy Bitch comes on, you can bet your ass that that's what I'll be listening to. I can't even get offended because it's so ridiculous."
"At the risk of repeating myself: I'm fine with that."
"I can't cook."
She makes an exasperated noise. "I don't do laundry. I mean, I do, but sorting it and folding it is beyond me."
He kisses the inside of her wrist. She jumps. "Luckily for you, I've managed to make doing laundry an art form."
"Argh!" She shoots out of her chair and begins pacing. "I don't know what to do with you!"
He rises to his feet as well, graceful as a sunset. No awkward clambering for him. Of course she would be turned on by how the man stands up. "I think the reasonable option would be to say yes."
"You don't understand! It's like the universe dropped the perfect man on my doorstep and expects me to think that it's perfectly all right to latch on to him! There's a catch somewhere, I know it."
He scoffs at her. "You think I'm perfect? I'm flattered, but that could not be further from the truth."
"You don't mind cooking," she says, counting out his transgressions on her fingers. "You don't mind doing laundry. You're gorgeous. You're intensely intelligent and eloquent. You're a redhead who looks good in pink. Tell me what's not to like?"
He snorts. "This is probably counter-intuitive, but—I can't stay out of other people's business. It takes a lot to make me mad, but when I'm mad, I can get vicious. I can be really annoyingly righteous. And I don't often take no for an answer."
"Ugh!" She throws her hands up in the air. "The fact that you're so self-aware makes you even more attractive!"
He frowns. "I'm confused. Take pity on a poor man, Kaoru, and explain this to me. You don't seem to have any objections to me, right?"
"Then what's the problem?"
She buries her face in her hands. "It's because," she says in a small voice, finally giving life to the utterly terrifying truth of it, "I could fall in love with you."
Silence stretches out. She chances a look through her fingers.
His face is frozen, his features a study in surprise. As slowly as the sunrise and as beautifully, he smiles. "Well," he says, clearing his throat. "Well, that's good."
Her hands fall away. "It is?"
"Very good." He crosses the room in three bounding steps and slips his hands around his waist more naturally than breathing. "Very good." He kisses her forehead. "Because, you see," now her right cheek, "I began falling in love," now her left, "the moment you threatened me with that shoe." And finally, finally he kisses her mouth.
It's not a demanding kiss. It's not even much of a kiss, just a rubbing of lips and a sharing of breath.
"Is that it?" she asks. "It was lovely, don't get me wrong, but—"
He laughs. "No," he says, and finally kisses her the right way, tongue and all. She relaxes into it the same time she is enflamed by it. They break away, panting. "How's that for you?"
"Better." She leans into his chest. "I've never made out on the first date before."
"First time for everything," he says, his eyes a dizzying swirl of purple so dark it's blue and bright, bright gold, and kisses her again.
Once, while Kenshin was somewhere in the wilds of Maharashtra, he had the honor of indulging in bhang ki thandai, a sweet beverage liberally spiked with marijuana, during a Holi festival. He remembers the colors of that night, so bright they were blinding, spinning, spinning around him. Kissing Kaoru feels even better than that. Her lips are sweeter than any wine, and more potent than any bhang.
"You should know," he says when they finally break apart, panting, "that I'm in this for the long haul." He rests his forehead on hers.
"What?" she asks, a little dazed. He's ridiculously pleased. "Long what?"
He grins, but quickly schools his expression to sobriety. He must make a few things clear. "You are no one night stand. If we do start dating, I'm looking for a long-term relationship. I am older than you, and I can understand if you want to keep your options open for now, but I want you to know that—"
This time, she kisses him. It's a delicious kiss because it tastes like joy. "Me, too," she says. "I told you. I'm falling in love."
His heart almost explodes. He wraps his arms around her, and kisses her throat, the soft column of it, over and over. "Actually, your exact words were, 'I could fall in love with you.'"
She punches him in the arm, but not hard. "I think I started last night at dinner. Not very often a man feeds me such wonderful food."
"The men of this world have obviously been remiss. I'll correct that oversight, don't worry."
"Seriously, though," she says, "I feel like I'm getting the better end of this deal. I get the perfect man—shut up, Kenshin—while you get a hot mess."
"You're hot," he says, mock-seriously, leading her over to the couch. She settles down beside him and snuggles like he's been wanting her to for the better part of the last twenty-four hours. He puts an arm around her and pulls her even closer. "Maybe even a mess at the moment. Not a hot mess, though."
"Very flattering." She kisses his nose. "But hardly an answer to my question. What are you getting out of this relationship?"
He looks at her, long and hard. "Kaoru—I don't know how to say this, but the last day has been enough for me to consider you amazing. Please tell me you know that."
She rolls her eyes. "Of course I know that. Oh, God, I sound like such a ninny. But, seriously, I'm just wondering—what made me so special in your eyes that you propose a long term relationship in less than a day?"
He doesn't even stop to consider her question. "You make me laugh."
"It's not hard to make you laugh."
"I've laughed more in the last day than I have in the last ten years put together." It's as though she's gone rummaging inside his soul and thrown wide the drapes and opened vast expanses of it to the sky. The words are small and rusty from being kept in the cramped recesses of his mind. Perhaps it is time to air out all of his words, and let her be the judge. He catches her hand in his. Holds on tight. "Kaoru…"
"In good faith, maybe I ought to tell you everything."
She blinks wide, blue eyes at him. "Everything?"
"A…a biography of sorts. You call me perfect, but you should know how—" Profoundly damaged I am. "—about certain events that have had a pretty big impact on me."
"Lay it on me," she says, squaring her chin. She taps his chest. "I can take whatever you dish out because you are worth it."
Something deep inside him unclenches. "This father I keep telling you about," he begins, "Well, he's not really my father. He did adopt me when I was eight, but…my parents, my birth parents, I don't have very many memories of them." He remembers even less than his words intimate: a blue room and voice telling him to hush. He can't even tell if the voice had been a loving one. "Anyway, I was passed from foster home to foster home. In the last home I was in, I made some friends, these girls who looked after me the best they could. Eventually, though, as many children in that situation do, I fell in with the wrong crowd. Little things, in the beginning: shoplifting, pick-pocketing, running little extortion schemes with other kids." He falls silent, trying to parse into words what happened next the way he remembers. "One night there was a fire. They died. They all died. I remember the smoke, and Kasumi carrying me out. I was seven."
She leans her head against his shoulder, and holds his hand.
"I sat there for three days among the rubble. Social Services lost track of me. They thought I'd died—and what was one small body among all the others?" He clears his throat. "I survived. My old gang helped a little, though most of them wanted nothing to do with me. One of them showed me how to lift tires, how to sell them to chop shops for a little money." Shinsaku, bless his heart, had explained how he didn't need to seek validation for crimes he'd committed as a child, but Kenshin had never been able to stop. "You need to understand. I was so hungry all the time. I knew that there were other things I could do, that other kids did, but I was too scared. I knew it was bad, that kids who went away with old men didn't always come back, or if they did, they came back funny. So it was petty thievery for me.
"The nights were just starting to get cold, but I didn't dare go to a shelter. Bad things happened to kids at shelters. Better to take the streets and trust your luck. One night, there was a white Cadillac parked behind a seedy dive down the street from where I was camping. Big, beautiful thing. Gleaming fenders. A car like that stands out when you live your life in filth. So, what do I do? I decide to lift the tires off that baby.
"Turns out, though, that the car belonged to one Seijuro Hiko. He was in town tracking down a bar where the owner supposedly brewed his own beer, and he caught me in the act." He turns to half-smile at her, still puzzled at the wonder of it. "I was terrified that he'd turn me over to the police. He didn't. He took me home instead."
"Maybe he's not such an asshat, after all," she says softly.
Kenshin snorts. "Oh, he is. He is. Don't be fooled, he's an asshat through and through. But he's not a terrible person. He…you see, after he plucked me off the streets, I wasn't…doing well. The normal symptoms of PTSD. I'd wet the bed, have nightmares and flashbacks, burst into tears for no reason, and had little to no idea how to interact with people in meaningful ways. I had a lot of trouble believing that Hiko wouldn't throw me out on my ass if he got tired of me."
"But he didn't."
"No, he didn't. He saved my life over and over again. He taught me kendo in his own familial style. He hired tutors to make up for all the school I missed." As though that is the end of it. A million memories come to mind: cool nights watching fireflies from the porch, hot apple cider on cold fall mornings, and a new bicycle for him every year as long as he wanted it. Still, one image of Hiko stands out among the rest—the way Hiko had stayed up to read to him when the nightmares came—incomprehensible books, to be sure, War and Peace, A Tale of Two Cities, The Shah-Namah, The Art of War—but Hiko had been there, his huge bulk ensconced comfortably in the armchair next to Kenshin's bed, his voice rumbling beautiful words late into the night. "Of course, once I'd gotten over the fact that he had indeed somehow found me in the system and then bullied the system into letting him adopt me, I began acting out. All of the usual ways, of course, to test his affection." He smiles a little to himself. "I don't know where I got the gall. He's still about three times my size." Maybe because he'd been sure that Hiko would never really hit him. Knocks on the head didn't count. That was kendo.
"Anyway, fast forward to my last year in college. I'd taken the bar exam. Hiko, of course, didn't want me going to law school." Hiko had wanted him to go into the family business, such as it is, but Kenshin had decided very early on that the warrior-slash-hermit-slash-artist lifestyle was not for him—he was not nearly misanthropic enough. "I'd worked my way through undergrad and paid the rest of the way with scholarships, so he didn't really have much of a say in the matter. He still calls me a bloodsucker, you know. Anyway, I'd moved off campus, and I was living in a run-down part of town, it was all I could afford at the time. I was juggling three different internships and taught kendo at the local YMCA, so I was sleeping about three hours a night. And…
"And one night, I heard my neighbors getting loud. My neighbors, they were an old man who would go on long business trips, a daughter my age, and a little boy, all of them poor. I'd gotten to know the daughter at that point—sometimes we'd trade recipes, I'd carry her laundry and groceries up, that kind of thing." He swallows. "Her name was Tomoe."
This is significant, a voice in Kaoru's head whispers. Tomoe, Tomoe.
Her heart had broken over and over for all that he'd borne and for how he still tried to normalize his life, as though neglect and deprivation and tragedy didn't leave devastatingly unique and utterly lasting scars, ones that wouldn't be as obvious as the one on his face but just as livid. But she'd sat and listened and held his hand and didn't flinch.
"Tomoe, it would not be unfair to say, was probably the first woman I ever fell in love with."
Kenshin's voice is a quiet, gentle rumble beneath her ear, but that doesn't stop the words from punching her in the gut. This is not about you, she tells herself. This is not about you. Listen.
"It would also not be unfair to say that I wanted to marry her. I never had any concrete plans—it was more of nebulous wishful thinking on my part. I'd go to law school, she'd go back to college, and we'd settle comfortably somewhere and raise her little brother, Enishi, and when the time was right, we'd have our own kids. I never really told her any of this, mind you; I just asked her out. We were both dirt poor, so we went out to matinee showings of old movies a lot. I remember seeing Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers and the second Harry Potter movie at the crack of noon." She feels him smile. "For a time…we were happy, or as happy as people living slightly below the poverty line could get."
Every one of his words should hurt her like pins, but her heart cracks only for him, a splinter at a time.
"Then," he continues, "her ex-boyfriend came to visit. His name was Akira Kiyosato. He and Tomoe had known each other since grade school, and even dated for a time, but he'd gotten involved in gangs and drug-peddling and she'd kicked him out of her life after she found out. She was handy that way, Tomoe. So he came back, having finally run afoul the gang leadership. They used him, apparently, to sell to rich suburban kids. I could see it; even run-down and filthy and desperate, he looked wholesome." He paused. "I hated his guts."
"Did he…was he abusive?"
"No. No. He was polite and apologetic and swore he'd get out in a matter of days, once he lined up a place to hide out for a while. I hated him because he was what I—what I would have become, had Hiko not rescued me." He shakes his head. "Anyway. A few nights later, I hear glass breaking, people yelling. I run over to Tomoe's. There were these two guys, dressed all in black and in chains. They had baseball bats, and they were yelling at Akira, at Tomoe, smashing the place up and having the time of their lives." His voice tightens in anger, even as he doesn't stop stroking her arm with one hand and hanging on to her own with the other.
"It was the smashing the TV that really got to me. The Yukishiro family didn't have much, but whatever they had, Tomoe kept polished to a high sheen. You could have eaten off her floors. I grabbed my sword, hacked and sliced and diced, sent the goons home with broken bones. 'No big deal,' I thought. 'Scared them away. Everything is fine.'"
An icy mass settles in Kaoru's stomach.
"They came back the next day. They brought guns." His words come slowly and as though from a great distance. "I was at their apartment, trying to coax her little brother out from under the table. She was cooking, Akira was smoking by the window. He was an ass. He knew she didn't like the smell, but he still…" He clears his throat. "They came without warning. They kicked down the door. I remember the sound. Like thunder inside your head. I pushed Enishi under the table, got under with him. I remember watching the bullets jerk Akira around, one, two, three. Then Tomoe came running."
There is silence, leaving her to wonder in mute horror and sympathy. After a minute, he says softly, "They shot her, too. Just once, but that was enough. I don't remember much after that. I must have run towards her because I got shot twice, once in the shoulder and again in my left arm. I…held her as she died." He rubs a hand over his scarred cheek. "I got these that day when they shot out the window above my head."
Oh, God. Kaoru holds herself still. In the quiet of his apartment, every word feels like the deepest confidence.
"After that, it's all a blur. Paramedics came. They sent me home to Hiko. I stayed for a while. Worked my fingers down to the bone with my sword once I was able, hours at a time. He made inquires after Enishi and Mr. Yukishiro for me—he'd survived, and both of them had disappeared into the ether, it seemed like. I stayed long enough to hear that. Then I just…left."
"Was Hiko…didn't he have anything to say about that?"
Kenshin snorts. "Oh, he had plenty to say. 'Be as the bamboo leaf bent by the dew.' Old aphorisms delivered with such snide superiority that you wanted to knock his teeth out. But he didn't stop me. He didn't give me any money, of course. He doesn't believe in that kind of thing…but, he did tell me not to die. That I had to come back and then we'd share a drink as men. 'If you ever muddle your way to manhood,' were his exact terms, but you get the gist." He takes a deep breath. "So, there you have it. My sordid history and the events that precipitated my induction into the ranks of globetrotting maniacs."
Kaoru is beginning to see how Hiko had saved Kenshin yet again—he'd saved Kenshin from self-pity. Whenever Kenshin's narrative had gotten too maudlin, there had been a mention of Hiko, dispensing wisdom and condescension in equal measure. I ought to send him a fruit basket.
"So," Kenshin continues, "you can imagine my frustration when, after a number of years of trying not to involve myself with anyone, I come across this tableau: Sano and his fists against a dozen-odd Yakuza. He was, of course, doing something bone-headedly noble—defending a poor family from them, I believe." He sighed. "So I did what I did best—I pulled out my sword and helped Sano the best I could."
"I remember this story," Kaoru says, sitting up a little bit. "Sano says you ran like hell afterwards."
"I did. I hadn't the cleanest track record when it came to defending the helpless with brute force."
"But he hunted you down."
"That he did. He wouldn't give up—a tendency, I'm sure, you're familiar with. Anyway, in the end, he scribbled his address down on a scrap of napkin and told me to look him up if I ever happened to be in Chicago. And six months later, that's what I did."
"What made you decide to come back?"
"Truly, you want to know?"
"I finally figured out what it means to be a bamboo leaf bent by the dew. It means to be aware of the forces acting around you, and how you can act in concert with them or against them to fulfill your ends. To use appropriate force to meet challenges. I realized that in the world we live in, swordsmanship could give you philosophical basis, but not the means. So I came back, went to law school, and decided that I'd help as many people as I could, but on my terms."
They are silent after that. It's a comfortable silence that permeates every inch of Kenshin's skin. He soaks in it. He catches a lock of Kaoru's hair and twists it around and around, around this finger than that one. Let her digest. Let her think. She will not leave. He closes his eyes twice just to reassure himself that this is not a dream: Kaoru has heard his troubles, and is still here in his arms.
At length, she sits up, looks him in the eye, and says, "Okay, now that you've laid your heart at my feet, so to speak, lets get a few things clear, yeah?"
"One. Every holiday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, what-have-you, we invite Hiko."
"I don't think you've thought this through," he says, even as fireworks are going off inside of him: she's making long-term plans. She's planning on being here, with him, come Thanksgiving, come Christmas, come as many years as he could make his last.
"No, I'm sure I have. We invite him."
"All right. You're going to regret this, though. He's obnoxious."
"Oh, I know," she smiles. "But you need someone to rankle you. You're too self-possessed."
"Evil," he mutters.
"Two. We go to couples' counseling. You have your issues, and I have mine, and I like you too much to have them cloud a very good thing. So: therapy."
"Aye, aye, captain."
She smiles sweetly. "Three. Let's take this slow. I know the whole stripper episode was awkward, but could we, I don't know, go out? Dinner-and-a-show? Like normal people?"
"I think that's doable."
She sends him a dry look. "I'm so glad you think so. Four. I want a cat."
"I live to please," he says, and kisses her with his heart and soul and all the hope for the future he feels thrumming through his veins.