I tried. I really, really tried. *goes off to sob in the corner*

*************

Up, down.

Up, down, up, wring.

The tip of the orange sun peeks over the horizon, but such a small spill of light brings no warmth to the gray atmosphere. The air is still cold. It is too early for the sleeping birds to fly. The only sounds that can be heard are the bubbles in the water and the wringing of cloth.

Kenshin has decided to do laundry earlier than usual this morning. Well, not quite morning; it can't be much earlier than four o'clock, but it doesn't really matter because Kenshin can't sleep anyway, and he'd much rather be doing laundry than lying down with open eyes all night. The cold air and icy water bites at his skin, but that doesn't matter either. The laundry will take it all away. It soothes him. It reminds him so much of the past, when he'd come in at dawn and wash and wash his hands, but the stains would never come off – except in this present instance, it does. The stains are finally coming off. He just has to keep on scrubbing, keep on washing, because that's the only way it'll stay perfect. So it doesn't matter that the cloth is already thin and frayed from being scraped against the grate too many times, and it doesn't matter that blood has started to flow into the water, the only thing Kenshin can do is scrub harder. He can't stop. Harder, harder, but only more dirty blood spills into the basin, and he wonders how that's possible because if you keep on scrubbing every mistake's supposed to disappear. Scrub harder and harder to get it all off, must give it more force, more energy, more pain, but now there's even more blood and he doesn't understand, doesn't see the cuts oozing from his hands, doesn't see the splinters shredding his skin, doesn't see anything at all except for the fact that he can't ever ever stop because then the blood will never disappear and everything will be ruined and worthless because IT'S NOT PERFECT –

… see? Laundry is so comforting.

*************

"Kenshin." Kaoru-dono is up early this morning. Why, no one really knows. Why she has bothered to put up with him for so long… well, no one really knows that either. She kneels by him and pulls his hand out of the murky red water, his fingers still clutching a piece of torn cloth. She gingerly removes the stained rag with her fingertips and lays it carefully in the dirt, by the other broken pieces. There is no reflection in the blood-clouded water. Kaoru-dono's voice grows softer. "What did you do to your hands?"

He doesn't look up at her. He blinks, and all he can do is pretend not to see the red rivers running down each fingernail, the sticky substance tracing each palm. He smiles. "I didn't do anything to them. They've always been this way."

"Kenshin," is all she can say again. She stands up and gently pulls him with her. "Come with me," is the only other thing she says, and wordlessly she guides him to the dojo, with light tugs on his wrist. Kenshin closes his eyes, breathing her in as her white yukata flutters in the cold morning breeze. Kaoru-dono is so understanding, so beautiful. So perfect.

*************

"Kenshin." His unworthy name again, on such a clean virgin tongue. That notion is enough to distract him from the burning salve she's applying to his hand. "You have to stop this."

His answer comes, almost childlike. "But my hand's dirty. I have to wash it."

Kaoru-dono sighs, and he knows what's coming next. She'll tell him that he's not dirty, that he's the purest man she's ever known, and then he'll feel so guilty for having forced such dirty rotten lies from a mouth like hers. But Kaoru-dono doesn't say anything. She just sits silently for a few moments, and finally Kenshin gathers the courage to look up at her face. Kaoru-dono is gazing down at his scarred hands, and she is stroking it with those small, clean fingers of hers. She gathers his hand into two of her own and she looks… a little wistful, a little sad. "Kenshin," again. "What do you see when you look at your hands?"

A question. One he didn't expect. What was he supposed to say in this variation of the day-to-day question and answer? "How was your day, Kenshin?" "Fine, Kaoru-dono." "Did you get the tofu today, Kenshin?" "Yes, Kaoru-dono." Then, perhaps a bit more serious: "Are you all right today, Kenshin?" "Yes, please don't worry, Kaoru-dono. I am fine."

That he could handle. Simple questions where he could simply assent or deny to his liking, meanwhile not really saying anything or feeling anything. But a question with such deliberation required…

"The truth, please," she says, and her request seems to be on the verge of a cry, a sob. Only the cruelest of demons could turn down such a sweet, desperate voice.

Kenshin had been a demon once.

And sure enough, a small part of his mind remarks bitterly at the foolish girl's plea. The truth. What would a girl like her know about the truth? But the other human part, the part in control knows that this is the least he can do, the least that he owes her. So he looks down at his free hand because it's much easier to look at than the one in her grasp, and starts to speak the truth.

"I see death." Kaoru-dono freezes, as if she's in shock. Young, stupid girl. "I see pain, and I see misery." His lips begin to form a small smile. "And I always see blood. There's always so much blood…"

Kaoru-dono's hands begin to clench into his, and yes, it hurts, but he doesn't stop it because he deserves it. He deserves every ounce of it. Kaoru-dono has tears at the edge of her eyes. Clear, crystal tears, on the verge of spilling for the sake of an unworthy man like him. He is so lucky, so guilty.

Well? The old voice, the one that has gone through seven lifetimes, laughs mockingly. Isn't she going to start crying?

But Kaoru-dono doesn't cry. The tears stay inside, and she is somehow able to keep herself from sobbing. She stares straight up at him, but he gets the feeling that she's not looking at him – she's looking inside him. Her determined blue stare is almost defiant. "You want to know what I see, Kenshin?"

I already know, he replies silently. You see a good man, a pure man… but you don't see the dead man…

"I see death." Now it is his turn to look up, shocked. Has she finally grown and realized how disgusting he is? "I see pain, and I see misery. And yes," she smiles bitterly, "I see blood."

Ah, yes…

The day he thought would never come has finally arrived. He casts his eyes down, able to accept it with a dull resentment. Funny, he never thought it would hurt quite so much. He thought he would be happy to rid a girl like her of himself…

"But I also see hope."

What…?

Kenshin slowly looks up, but her eyes are still on his hand. She holds them delicately. "Somewhere in between all the bloodshed and pain you've brought to people… there's hope, Kenshin." She loves his name so. "I see the experience, your old scars and new blisters. I see a compassionate heart, the heart of one who should never have had to kill. I see your sorrow, your kindness… and I see your future. Our future, Kenshin." She pulls his hand closer to her and lifts it up for him to see. "A clean future you will build, with these bloodstained hands."

He just stares at his hand unbelievingly for a moment, and then closes his eyes and shakes his head. It's a nice dream to believe in… but hadn't she learned that his ugly soul carried too much of a burden to be of any use? That his hands were no longer good for anything except to wield a sword? Such a naïve idealist – even when she learns the truth, she goes back to her nicer, younger illusions, just because they're prettier to look at in the eye. "I am so sorry, Kaoru-dono," he says, because he is, "but you are foolish to place your future in my hands. I will protect you with my sword as long as I can, but that is all I can do." He shakes his head again in the face of her crestfallen expression. "I am not as strong as you are – " – not so good, so whole – " – my hands will only break – "

"Don't say that!" she snaps, and he nearly jumps at how suddenly her eyes change. They are angry now, definitely defiant. "Why do you think I'm so strong, Kenshin? Why do you think I'm so much better than you are?"

"Because – " Because you are so pure, and that purity is such fragile strength… "Because you can last," he finally says. "Because you can last three years with me and remain untainted…"

Kaoru-dono's gaze softens, but he can't bring himself to look up at her. "You're an idiot," she tells him, and he lets out a faint chuckle. She is insistent. "You are! Why do you think I've been so strong for the past few years, Kenshin?" He doesn't dare to reply. She bends down, trying to get him to look at her. "Because you are my strength. You're the one who's kept me whole." Quickly, she leans forward and embraces him with tender passion, wrapping her arms around his neck and laying her head upon his shoulder. Her voice is soft but urgent. "Now… I will make you strong. You'll use your hands again someday; just let me help." The uneasy lump in his throat grows as she speaks the final words of her plea. "Let me be your strength."

Let me be your sheath…

He says nothing, just lets her rest her head there next to his neck, lets her feel his pulse against her ear. Her quiet breath tickles the back of his neck. He speaks softly after a moment. "You'll die, just like her… and I could never accept that responsibility. I could never be the one responsible for ruining your happiness…"

He doesn't have to explain who he's talking about. She knows. He feels her sigh against him. "I would rather live and die happily with you than live a flawless, miserable life forever." She lifts her chin from his shoulder and smiles. "If you want to protect my happiness, Kenshin, you will do this. It's what I want. It's my decision, and I don't care whether or not you think it's for the greater good." Ah, there's that spark of the Kaoru he first met. "You have no choice in the matter. We will build our future together."

Kenshin draws in a deep breath. He is silent, trying to think of an argument, something that will make the girl hate him and leave him forever. When he realizes there is nothing he can say, he exhales. "My beautiful, stupid girl," he finally murmurs out loud, and Kaoru laughs at his acceptance happily. "What makes you think you can hold the pieces together and not get cut?"

Kaoru's dimples deepen, and she answers that question with a kiss.

*************

When Kenshin wakes up at night with Kaoru by his side, he no longer sees blood on his hands.

Kaoru's hands cover his own. They are not perfect, but they are pale and strong. They will cover his sins and his blemishes. They will hold him together for as long as they can.

-----------------owari-----