The Girl Who Wasn't There
By: The Dragon's daughter
*Disclaimer* I don't own Rurouni Kenshin! Any lawyers who come slithering around my door must prepare to face the wrath of Hiko-sama! (glomps Hiko)
AU- "Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today. Oh, how I wish he'd go away!"
She wasn't there, I'll swear that on a stack of bibles.
When she walked into my bar room, that's the first thing that ran through my mind. I could see it in the way she held herself and the slight shadow in her eyes.
It didn't matter where she was physically, it wasn't here.
I'd been working in that bar for about a month and I had just been promoted to bar tender the night before since I was more familiar with the local brands of alcohol and the manner in which the custom expected it to be served. The guy before me had worked last in a bar in Texas and... well, you get the picture.
New as I am to Tokyo, I've already gotten a measure of the women here. To be honest, women were all I really noticed the first few days after the merchant ship I'd been contracted to docked in Yokohama a few months ago. I'd been on that rotting hull for six months straight without a woman in sight.
Women around here tended to be of the demure sort, heck, even the Geisha and whores were well mannered. They all wore modest kimono, walked with their eyes downcast, and wore these ridiculous little black sandals, they're called geta I think...
This woman was dressed in men's clothing. A pale yellow gi and dark blue hakama. Instead of those sandals that seemed designed to impede a woman's movements, she wore the same sort of rope and hemp sandals as any man did. I noticed that she had spurned the tabi. Even her hair was different, it was tied back in a simple ponytail rather than the elaborate coifs that the Japanese women affected.
When she made for the bar I saw that she had a wooden sword stuck in her belt the way samurai carried their katana. She didn't remove it and from the way she moved, she'd stuck it their for pure convenience rather than any motive to emulate a swordsman.
Of course, from what I could tell... and I've been around the block a few times, she -was- a swordsman. The dangerous type. She wasn't swaggering around picking stupid squabbles or making a big production of the fact she was armed. Instead she darted from clear space to clear space in the crowded room, moving unobtrusively towards me. I've been in the business long enough to know that this little lady was dangerous or was going to be one day.
I set out a small saucer in the place directly opposite me along with a discreet napkin underneath it to protect it from the eternally grimy surface of the bar-top. Did I mention what a total dive this place was? It doesn't even have rats, rats have too much class for this place. They'd get sick and die.
She took the hint and seated herself on one of the barstools that had managed to survive the transition between Boston and Tokyo.
"Warm sake, please." She murmured. I had no problem following her soft, melodic Japanese. That tends to be a problem, it's just not my native language. This girl pronounced her consonants crisply and smoothed out her vowels, her voice was real easy on the ear.
I filled her order and set the ceramic bottle before her. "Would you like me to pour for you?" I offered.
A faint blush colored her cheeks and too late I remembered that offering to pour sake for another person was usually considered a sign of respect or admiration. Oh, hell.
"Please." She murmured and looked away.
I poured her sake and she took it in her slender white fingers. She lifted it half way to her lips and then stopped. She sat there, staring into the liquid as if searching for an answer in the clear depths of the alcohol.
"You look like you've got a problem." I intuited. Heck, I'd already made an opening pass, might as well continue the conversation. "Penny for your thoughts?"
She set down the sake and looked up at me with slightly widened eyes. "I beg your pardon?"
Now it was my turn to flush. "Anyone who looks at their booze that way needs someone to talk to more than they need to get smashed. As it so happens I have a set of ears free and shoulder to cry on if necessary."
She blushed again, that pale skin showed her emotions too easily.
She looked down at her lap. "I suppose you're right. Maybe I -should- talk about this instead of holding it in." She looked at me. "I'm sorry, I don't even know your name."
I chuckled, mostly to cover up my embarrassment. "Jordan McAlister." I shrugged and scratched the back my head.
She smiled softly. "My name is Kamiya Kaoru, Shinhondai of the Kamiya Kassien Ryu."
I blinked in surprise. "Hey, I've heard of that place!" There'd been a ruckus going on in Tokyo around the time I'd first arrived. There'd been a murderer out on the streets, a bitter ex-soldier I guess, I'd heard that he claimed to study the Kamiya Kassien Ryu... whatever that was. Well, here was my big chance to find out what had really happened.
Kaoru looked down and this time the flush that gathered on her cheeks was one of anger. "You refer to the incident where the one calling himself Battousai the Hitokiri was killing people on the streets at night?"
"I... think so." I hazarded. "My Japanese wasn't the greatest at the time so I might have..."
She chuckled, a quick harsh sound that was completely mirthless. "Then allow me to correct your misunderstandings." Here she slipped into an overly formal style of Japanese, the term for 'me' she used actually meant something more along the lines of 'this unworthy one'. It always confuses me when people talk about themselves in the third person.
Kaoru took a sip of her sake. "There was a student of my father's classes who wished to abuse the style of swordplay we teach. He used the Kamiya Kassien to attack and wound rather than for defense and self preservation. When he challenged my father he lost use of his thumb in the ensuing fight. That was eleven years ago, two months ago he started killing people and slandering our school under the guise of a notorious assassin during the Bakumatsu." Here a soft smile touched her face and she took another sip. "Unfortunately the real Battousai happened to be in town and set the record straight. Gohei Hiruma didn't stand a chance. It was like a kitten challenging a gatling gun."
I felt my eyebrows raise in spite of myself. "From the tone of your voice I'm guessing this Battousai is part of the reason you're here tonight."
Her smile faded. "You are observant. Are all English bar tenders like you?"
I smirked. "I'm American, but it's another job of barkeeps to listen to the problems of the people they serve where I come from." I ran one of my hands through my unruly blonde hair. "Drinking is different out West. People tend to drink to get away from their problems. I saw that written all over you when you walked in here tonight, so lay it on me and we'll see what we can do."
Kaoru took another drink. "I'm my problem." She sighed and slumped onto the bar, propping herself up with her elbows.. "I'm so weak."
I blinked, had I heard wrong? "Excuse me, could you repeat that? I think I mistranslated that."
Kaoru looked reproachfully at me. "I'm weak." She said slowly and clearly.
I shook my head. "Who told you that, and better yet, why did you believe it?" I made a pointed glance at the bodken slung into her belt.
She followed my glance and winced. "Allow me to rephrase that, I'm weak compared to the people I live with." She gave another one of those huge sighs that seemed to wrack her entire body. "Kenshin, he's so strong, and Sanosuke, and Saitou... even Yahiko, my own student is outstripping me! There's always some sort of trouble going on around me and they're always taking care of it while I'm in the background doing nothing."
I frowned. "Maybe you should start from the beginning."
She blinked and then nodded. "Of course."
She started to weave a tale for me, one that I have no idea why I believe.
Maybe it was the expressions in her eyes as she spoke and the way she described everything that had happened to her in the past two months.
Kenshin, or rather Kenshin Himura was the name under which the aforementioned famous assassin went under these days and was some superhuman fighter. After chasing off the impostor, Kaoru had invited him to live with her in her Dojo since she'd lost all her students and had a small phobia about being alone. Yahiko was a pickpocket who Kenshin had rescued from a group of mobsters and given to Kaoru as a student. I privately think that this was both more for the kid than Kaoru and this 'Kenshin's' way of pacifying Kaoru. I'm not too sure I like this guy.
Sanosuke, or 'Sano' was an ex-street fighter who had challenged Kenshin over an incident in his past which he held Kenshin accountable for, lost, and had become something of a freeloader.
Again, in my opinion they were -all- freeloaders. Sanosuke was just the most obvious about it.
She went on to describe a series of blood curdling attacks and vendettas that had befallen the motley crew. In one of these Kaoru herself had been kidnapped and held prisoner by this psycho who had been trying to, and I quote, 'resurrect the spirit of Battousai'. What bull.
Of course, this is where Kaoru says her problem started. If she would have asked me, and she didn't, I would have told her that her problem had started when she didn't start charging these losers rent. But then again, we all have loser friends like that who we just can't get rid of. We like them too much and would miss them if they went. I kept my opinion to my self.
"I mean, I came out of it okay." Kaoru confided to me. "Kenshin saved me from Jin'eh, but I started thinking after that. Maybe that's my problem, I think too much."
"Thinking never hurt anyone, it's what you think about that can hurt." I shrugged. "but that doesn't mean you should swear it off. Besides, why should you go through life blindly following this Kenshin guy?"
Kaoru's head snapped up. "That's not true! Kenshin would never let anything bad happen to me! He's strong and kind and wise and..."
"And you're miserable." I pointed out. "There's something in this relationship that you need but aren't getting. No matter how nice this guy it, that doesn't change the fact that he's making you hurt."
Kaoru slumped back onto the bar. "That's not true." She murmured, but she didn't sound too convinced. "Kenshin would never do anything to hurt me."
"He doesn't have to be actively trying to hurt you to achieve the same effect." I leaned down so I could look into those big blue eyes of hers. "I'm sure he's a great guy, but he also sounds pretty clueless."
Kaoru chuckled softly. "Oh yeah. He's clueless all right."
I stood back up. "There it is." I said with a grand sweeping gesture. "When anyone has a problem with a relationship, that's what it generally boils down to. Your partner's clueless."
Kaoru giggled and a bit of sparkle found its way into her eyes. All of a sudden she was ten times more attractive, and I could see what was keeping this ronin in town.
I grinned quirkily. "Now, what are you going to do about it?"
Kaoru blinked. "do?"
I nodded firmly. "From where I'm sitting, that's your biggest problem. You've surrendered the reins of your life to someone else and, even though you're telling yourself he can take care of it, something inside you just can't handle that. Also, part of it seems to be that you're getting lost in Kenshin's shadow."
"... lost?" Kaoru echoed.
She leaned forward again and stared at the hardwood of the counter top. Her eyes were focused completely inwards and I could hear her muttering to herself.
"Is that it?" she whispered. "Am I resenting Kenshin? Okay... he is the strongest person in the world and... yes, he does try and solve all my problems even if I don't need help..." an edge started to creep into her voice. "and he tries to hide things from me, like when the money's running low, or when he's gotten another death threat.... 'But I didn't want to worry you, Kaoru-dono!"
She shook her head furiously and stared up at me.
"You're right!" she whispered in shock. "I didn't... I didn't want to realize it before now."
Kaoru seemed to crumple in on herself. Tears started to gather in her emotional eyes. "I resent him for being better than me. Even Yahiko looks up to him more than me and he's -my- student!"
I sensed a break through. "Well, recognizing the problem is the first step to solving it."
Kaoru chuckled through her tears. "'Know thy Enemy.'" She quoted.
I nodded. "So, what are you going to do?"
Kaoru wrapped her arms around herself and stared at her now cold sake. "I have no idea... if, if I could get a little stronger, at least enough to stay ahead of Yahiko so I can keep teaching him and not be a pathetic joke, I think that would help." she shrugged. "Especially since Kenshin is -never- going to catch a clue as to what is going on."
I cocked my head. "Maybe you should get way for a few days, without your friends?" I suggested. "Go train somewhere and concentrate on yourself for a while?"
Kaoru laughed harshly. "Worry-wart Kenshin would never let me go on my own, he has a hard enough time letting me out of his sight."
I frowned, she really -did- need to get away. Well, I hated corrupting such a basically nice person, but... "so sneak off, leave a note in your room."
Kaoru blinked and straighten up in indignation. "Kenshin would worry himself sick!"
Kaoru deflated. "And... and..." she frowned in consternation. "You're very aggravating, you know that?"
Kaoru shook her head. "So, I should take a vacation. Is that what you're saying?"
"More like a training trip." I shrugged. "Just get off on your own for a bit. It happens in everybody's life, it's called growing up and realizing what you are and what you aren't. What you aren't is a housewife to be taken care of, now you need to go figure out what it is you are instead of that."
Kaoru mulled over my words for a long while.
I served some other customers while she thought. Minutes turned into hours and stretched out until people started trickling out of the bar. While I was wiping off as much of the spilled drinks and other... things off of the bar top, Kaoru looked up at me.
"I know someone in Kyoto I could stay with." She said slowly. "He would understand my problem and Kenshin wouldn't -dare- cross him."
"So go stay with him." I told her. "Pick some fights with a few street gangs and polish up your skills. When you feel ready to face your ronin friend again come on back to Tokyo. I'll even give you a round of drinks as a welcome home gift, on me."
Kaoru smiled and got up off the bar stool. "I think..." she hesitated. "I think I will. You are a good person to talk to, MacAlister-sama." She bowed formally and gifted me with a dazzling smile. "I'm glad I met you."
I copied her bows somewhat awkwardly, I've never been good at all this formal stuff. "Glad to be of help, come back when you need it. I work from noon until closing."
Kaoru nodded. "Next time, maybe we can just chat like normal friends do. I'll leave my problems at the door."
I grinned. "Bring 'em in with you and we'll beat em up until they beg for mercy. Good luck, Kamiya-san."
"Kaoru." She said demurely. "You may call me Kaoru."
"Only if you call me Jordan."
She bowed again. "Goodnight, Jordan."
And she walked out of the bar.
It's been a week since that night, and the city has been in an uproar. This Kenshin Himura has some pretty well connected friends. He's been tearing the city apart looking for her.
Well, I hope he doesn't find her.