Little Birds

A Rurouni Kenshin fanfiction by Diane Long

Chapter Four

Feeling the cold seep into her, Kaoru watched the shadows of the snow laden pines through the rice papered screen doors. Her sturdy practice clothing provided more insulation from the sharp winter air than did her silk kimonos, but not much more. Usually in the dead of winter the shutters that drew over the screens locked out the cold as well as the light. However the attack on the dojo had left the shutters beyond repair revealing the outlines of the world beyond her room and inviting the cold breeze to come inside. In the warmer months, when the shutters were left open most days, she saw the shapes of leaves and plants through the shoji. Today she was privy to a new view of the silhouettes of bare branches and lonely conifers in the yard.

This cold, this suffering, she deserved it.

She looked from the dancing shadows to the flower arrangement on a low table by her elbow. Shoots of green were pushing up from the Paper White bulbs nestled in the shallow pottery dish. Leaning forward, she probed at a bulb with a delicate touch, watching how the tender roots had gained purchase on the smooth river stones that held the bulbs away from the water at the bottom of the container.

Faint wisps of condensation hung in the air about her lips as she sighed.

Last month, when Yahiko had given her this gift, she had suspected Kenshin's influence or at least his money. Why else would Yahiko give his ugly teacher a gift? She had begun to suspect otherwise when Yahiko had begun a habit of stopping by her room almost daily to see if the bulbs had begun to flower. Tae had later confirmed that Yahiko had worked to earn the money for the gift. Why he had felt the need to give her a present was unknown.

She sighed again, her breath a frosty cloud . It was a shame he would never get a chance to see the flowers bloom. Tears began to prick at her eyes as she thought of the many things she would not be able to share with her ersatz little brother.

It was all her fault. She had betrayed her ideals only to save herself. If she could have saved him too, her sins might not chafe her so. She was left with only loss and selfishness.

"Ms. Kaoru!" Kenshin exclaimed from the doorway, tightening his make-shift scarf around the open throat of his pinkish dogi. His unbound hair covered his ears in an effort to keep them warm. The feet peeking out from his white hakama wore double layers of tabi socks.

She looked up ruefully at the reprimand in Kenshin's tone. He was already striding across her room with a slight frown marring his features. With efficient, brisk, movements he snapped her screens open letting in a brief gust of snow filled air. In a moment he had the heavy outer shutters closed as well as they could be, and in another he had the screens closed again. It was an imperfect fix as plenty of light and cold still seeped in through the rice paper.

Blowing on his hands, he looked at her with an expression that was almost cross. "This room is impossible to heat properly with the doors in this state," he asserted. He frowned even harder, as if he was becoming aware of his stern tones. "Perhaps you would like a bath to warm up?"

"I'm fine Kenshin," Kaoru said, waving her hands at him as if to shoo him away. She was seeing more of his stronger side these days. It seemed that she could provoke his dark half quite easily by not taking proper care of herself. Even now she saw his struggle to keep from chastising her further. She had to give him credit for not saying that she should know better than to be in this frigid room. She knew he was thinking it.

And she knew she deserved to be where she was as well as whatever reprimands he might give her.

His eyes tracked the movements of her hands, noticing their faint shivers. He padded over to her side and knelt, taking one of her cold hands in his and chaffing it slightly. "Your hands are frozen," he murmured.

She tilted her head away from him. "They are not so bad." She couldn't really feel them anymore so they didn't bother her.

He switched hands, rubbing gently. "I could not find you," he said, the quiet strength in his voice underscoring his worry.

"I am only in my room," she murmured, pulling her hand out of his grasp and taking care not to look at his face. He had been trying to get her to talk earlier in the morning; she worried that if she found herself caught in his eyes she might say more than she wanted.

Kenshin was silent as he tentatively reached for her, stopping himself midway, his fingers tracing the air before her sleeve. He settled on clasping his hands in his lap and forcing eye contact with her by bending forward at the waist and looking up at her. "Is there something wrong with the spare room?"

"No, it's fine," she said faintly, not wanting disparage the living space Kenshin had set up for her. She tried to smile for him, mostly to get him to leave, but knew she had failed when she couldn't feel it change the look of her face.

Almost staring, Kenshin searched for a clue to her state of mind, his violet eyes flicking between her eyes and mouth.

She was relieved to know her features were not revealing anything. Just as she couldn't really smile, nor could she truly frown. She knew he wanted to ask her why she was choosing to be in a cold room packed with painful memories. He was on the edge of pushing her to talk, she could tell by how he tense he was and by how long he had been looking her in the eyes. He was being uncharacteristically direct.

After a long moment had passed in silence, Kenshin released her gaze. "Are you ready for lunch?" he asked instead of other, more difficult questions.

"Have you cooked already?" she asked, hoping he hadn't and she could distract him from it.

"Aa," he affirmed. "Miso, rice, and pickles."

Kaoru nodded, noting how simple the menu was. She hadn't been very hungry these days and Kenshin in his own sweet way had tried to accommodate her by making the food suitable to a weak appetite.

"That sounds nice," she said flatly, knowing that she better go eat a little bit if she did not want a worried rurouni plastered to her side all afternoon.

"And maybe some fish too?" Kenshin added, watching her reaction closely.

Kaoru's stomach cramped at the thought of eating. "Fish sounds good," she agreed, not really meaning it.

"Then I will cut through the ice in the stream and catch you one!" he said with manufactured enthusiasm.

Kaoru felt an ache starting behind her right temple and absently began rubbing at it. This was too much. "Kenshin, can we just… just stop? Please?"

The false sparkle faded from Kenshin's eyes. "Stop what, Ms. Kaoru?"

"Stop pretending that everything is OK."

"I am not pretending," Kenshin said in a low voice.

"Then why are you talking about lunch?" she accused.

"Because we need to eat, Ms. Kaoru." Now it was Kenshin's turn to look away as they came as close to a real argument as they ever had. "That has not changed."

"I hate eating," she muttered, sounding petulant.

"Yahiko would not want to see you waste away for his sake," Kenshin said letting his fingertips trace along the edge of her dogi's sleeve as it lay draped over her knees.

"What do you know about it?!" She snapped her arm away so he could not touch it.

"I know that he loved you above all others," Kenshin reflected as he reached for her hand and took it in his own. "You were his mother and his sister. You protected him when everyone else in his life had exploited him."

Kaoru tried to pull away again, but Kenshin's grasp remained firm. "Stop it," she pleaded, tears welling up in her eyes. His words pierced her heart. She should have protected him better that night.

"You should have heard how he boasted about you to the other boys in town," Kenshin remembered fondly. "He loved being the only one whose big sister could do better kendo than almost all of the men in Tokyo. It was a great source of pride for him."

Kaoru raised her free arm and pressed her face into its sleeve as her breath hitched. "Please." Her kendo had murdered. She was a killer and she had still failed.

"You know how he was about his pride," Kenshin said with a hollow chuckle. "I told him to never grow out of that pride."

Her face hidden by her sleeve, Kaoru nodded as her shoulders began to shake. He hadn't grown out of it, but he would never grow out of anything now. "I… I… miss him," she sniffed.

"He loved you," Kenshin whispered, and squeezed her hand.

"I loved him too!" she cried, flinging her arm away from her eyes as bright streams of tears trickled down her cheeks. Her lips quivered as she tried to form words. "I want him b-back! I want another chance!" Her shoulders heaved as she cried harder. "That's all I want! I'll be stronger…."

Looking pained, Kenshin released her hand. "Ms. Kaoru, if it's not improper of me, I'd like to hold you," he said, managing to sound both bold and sheepish in the same breath.

Scrubbing at her tears, even as sobs caught in her throat, she looked at him with wide eyes.

"Please, may this one comfort you?" he asked earnestly, already sliding closer to her.

Realizing she needed a hug more now than she ever had, she nodded and opened her arms for him. She was quickly sheltered in his embrace as he knelt, his spread knees framing her demurely closed ones, and his strong arms pulling her to his chest.

Thusly sheltered, Kaoru lost herself to the agony that had been twisting at her soul. She cried for what she had done and what she had failed to do, barely aware that Kenshin was stroking her back and whispering calming words in her ear. They stayed that way for longer than either realized.

As her tears stopped coming, Kaoru dug her hands into the worn fabric of Kenshin's faded red dogi jacket and pulled in a deep breath. She didn't want to move. The warmth of his body seemed to sooth her troubled heart. She didn't care if it was improper to be this close to him. She hadn't been truly held by anyone since her mother had died and didn't want the moment to end. She felt safe here, as if none of her problems could touch her.

"Ms. Kaoru?" Kenshin murmured into her hair.

"Mmm?"

"You have got to stop punishing yourself."

"What?" she asked, trying to pull away.

He wouldn't let her. "Sitting in the cold, not eating, not sleeping… These things will not atone for any faults real or imagined."

"Kenshin," she began tiredly.

"This one knows the truth about guilt. That he does," he insisted, his breath a warm puff by her ear.

That struck her. Indeed, Kenshin would understand about guilt and regret. How had she forgotten about that? She nodded into his shoulder, her face still hidden. "Then what can I do?" she whispered hopelessly.

"You go on for those who cannot. It is the only way to repay the debt."

She wasn't certain, but it sounded like he was crying too.

A/N: Here is another little chapter. As always thanks so much for the reviews! They make me all wiggly and happy. Also, thanks go out to those who helped me by providing the proper name for the police chief. Now I just have to find time to go back and fix it.