Puppeteers

Note: This is the second version of Puppeteers! I'm very glad to have finally found time to sit down and edit all the mistakes I missed, or didn't take the time to fix before it was posted. It was a very stressful time for me, and I'm glad I'm going to get to relive this story, because it was a wonderful, wonderful piece of my past. Please enjoy this new, fixed-up version!

Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin. I swear. Don't sue me. This disclaimer will not be repeated, and counts for the rest of the story.

Chapter 1 – The Curtain Rises v. 2

Call me crazy, but I knew something was going to happen the day I met Kaoru. It was common sense that something would happen on my return to a big city, but not something like this. Sanosuke thinks I'm silly, Aoshi thinks I'm mental, and Misao thinks I'm the most romantic guy alive.

If she only knew...

But I had it coming to get attacked by someone who thought I was... well, me, for crimes I couldn't have committed with my odd little sword. I knew something would happen, but all those things didn't even cross my mind as my hands were immersed in soapy water, happily scrubbing at some article of someone's clothing.

I still don't know why, but doing laundry serves its purpose to humble me and give me a sense of pride in seeing that I can conquer the big things, like the Shinsengumi, and the little things, like getting some obscure stain out of Kaoru's kimono.

But not even things like that were crossing my mind. A dreamlike reverie had me tight in its clutches when a yell resounded from the gate, which woke me from my fierce determination and concentration.

Like I said, laundry soothes me.

"Kaoru-anata!" The honorific alone was enough to jolt me back to life, as though someone had dropped a jellyfish on my hand. Even Sanosuke stared in open shock at the man who stood proudly in the yard I had come to call home.

Regardless of my surprise, I blinked in my most innocent rurouni-ish way. I must have looked ridiculously stupid, soapy bubbles that had brought many smiles from my landlady and her doctor's grandchildren dripping from my hands, until I shook them off and bowed deeper then anyone could ever hope to. I wanted to make myself seem as lowly as possible.

"May I help you?" I asked politely, mind still reeling from this man—no, he was a boy now that I saw him closer—from this boy's undeniably intimate knowledge of my Kaoru.

I mentally berated myself for that particular slip of thought. Whether anyone liked it or not, Kaoru was not mine. She never would be, I was sure.

The man cast his eyes over to my old clothing, obviously disapproving. I could feel it in his ki, which was not at all hidden. I wasn't the greatly feared Hitokiri Battousai for looking pretty with a sword in my hands, I could feel it on him.

After a moment's consideration, he nodded. "I'm looking for Kamiya Kaoru… the assistant master of the dojo." He seemed to add the final bit for the idiocy he felt I was displaying.

I'm may be an idiot, yes, but not so much that I miss disdain when it's all over a man… especially one who has no experience in cloaking such feelings. My smile never once wavered, but irritation was enough to stir my sleeping alternate persona. "I will inform Kaoru-dono that she has a visitor," I replied, emphasis on the '-dono' I so detested using.

"No, I will," He stopped me, exaggerating his authority over me by giving me a slight bow and beginning his march toward the dojo.

Sanosuke approached me with a look of intense dislike causing his brow to wrinkle and furrow. "Who the hell was that?" He demanded of no one in particular.

Shrugging, I began to hang my clean clothes on the lines outside the house. "Not my business."

Sano snorted. "Hell it isn't," He growled.

I smiled as innocently as I possibly could with my head throbbing and spinning with possibilities the way it was. "Ah… Sanosuke... I'm just going to get started on dinner," Drying my hands on my gi, I walked across the yard without another word toward him. When he was out of earshot, I sighed, all the relaxation I'd gained from doing laundry vaporized. The gnawing at my stomach was growing and I held back a grimace and began to calmly chop vegetables.

Kaoru's melodic voice rose and fell like a song to the words I didn't make out clearly from a nearby room.

I had no claim to her, even though the faint stirrings in my heart couldn't be explained away as a dangerous heart condition. I sighed and dropped the knife onto the counter, running a delicate hand through my red tresses. Oh, let's count the ways I felt unworthy.

First, there was my past; second, I'd been married. Yes, that had been consummated. Third, I had absolutely no financial means to take care of her. I closed my eyes and let the other side of me help to handle the situation. I relaxed, feeling Battousai rise just enough to make it possible to release my myriad of pent-up emotions. Sometimes I wondered if he was more open and capable to dealing with my emotions and feelings than I was.

My eyes were probably fading to molten gold from innocent lavender. Surely it was a creepy look, but I was cooking and no one would be coming in to bother me, unless they wanted something from me. If I changed my mindset, if only for a bit, I hoped that it would release me from anything that might overwhelm my rurouni violet with the amber of the more emotional and unstable Battousai. If I did that... well, I hoped I wouldn't have too many instances where the latter completely broke free.

I forced my hands to work, preparing something I wasn't even sure of. It was simply amazing how routine could be screwed up so much, but I could still cook dinner with my head in the clouds and wrapped around whatever new problem faced me.

The voices were laughing and I sighed. My heart beat faster and a girlish blush tinted my cheeks, which only elicited a long sigh from me. I was acting like a twelve-year-old with a crush and I paid dearly for my inattention to the cooking, slicing the knife directly into the flesh of my finger. The squeak of pain that followed was quickly cut off as blood slid down my finger.

Cursing uncharacteristically, I yanked my finger away to avoid bloodying my beautifully chopped vegetables and seized a scrap of cloth from heaven knows where, to bind the wound, stop the heavy bleeding, and serve as a bandage. I turned around, hands planted on my hips, pondering precisely what I was going to make.

I couldn't have looked more like a housewife if I tried, and Sanosuke was quick to tell me so from his position at the door to the kitchen.

I scowled, knowing well that the gold in my eyes was long gone at the sound of someone else in the room.

Sano laughed again, but his glance out the window as I returned to the cooking space told me he had something on his mind. "Kenshin?" His voice had lowered significantly; a good indication I should too.

"Aa?" I replied, pulling tofu out of the bucket and slicing it carefully.

"I heard some stuff in there..." He was avoiding something that he thought would upset me, but Sanosuke was never one for keeping the truth from someone who should know it.

I nodded, pretending that it didn't matter. "So?"

"I want to know how you'd feel if the guy was... romantically involved with Kaoru."

I sat down the knife patiently, hiding a deeper, darker side of me that wanted to use that knife for chopping more than just vegetables. "Sanosuke, I've only known her for ten months."

Sano raised an eyebrow, hardly believing my quiet façade. "And?"

"And that's hardly enough time to have an opinion other then happiness for her," I began putting all the ingredients together for miso soup. Okonomiyaki sounded good, too.

Sano's irritation at me was suppressed as he tried to reason with me. "Kenshin... you can't try to tell me you don't care about her…Y'know… after all the stuff you've done for her..."

"I do care, but she's my landlady, and I owe her. My care only extends to friendship." It was a flat-out lie, but he didn't need to know that.

"Is this another one of those 'this unworthy one' things?"

Yes... a nasty voice in the back of my mind muttered. "Sanosuke, can we let this be? I have to finish dinner."

Sano sighed, as though he was contemplating telling me something he felt was important. "They... well, they'll tell you. I'm going to get dinner with Tae. Tell me how things go!"

So much for friends who stick by you... I offered a smile and a wave.

Maybe, I thought, I should just stay half of each of my personalities at all times. It would have been easier to cope with all the stuff I dealt with.

As I finished dinner, I asked Yahiko to inform Kaoru and her guest that dinner was ready, and we sat down shortly thereafter. It didn't take me long to notice the sparking glimmer of joy in Kaoru's eyes and the faint tinge of pink on her cheeks when her eyes met the stranger's.

He, on the other hand, glanced over the table to me in something akin to fear. "I apologize for my former rudeness. Please forgive me." Ah. So Kaoru had told him who I had been ten years before. "You've taken good care of my fiancée... I cannot express my gratitude."

If my shock showed through, it was for less than an instant, for Yahiko began to choke on a piece of okonomiyaki at the news. "Your what?" He choked out, wild confusion written clearly on his face.

I patted him on the back and offered my most falsely genuine rurouni smile. "It was an honor to defend her." It was simply fascinating how useful alternate personalities turned out to be. Battousai lurked near the surface to keep me from spazzing out, rurouni style, and the rurouni side of me kept him in check from letting everyone know how I really felt about the engagement.

Kaoru could follow my personalities by looking at my eyes and by listening to how I spoke. I averted my eyes from hers, for they had to be an interesting mess of yellow and purple, both competing for dominance.

"Himura-san?"

Please, please go away... I begged the assassin in me. I looked up and smiled. "Hai?" The boy seemed repentant enough... and if he were engaged to Kaoru... My heart sunk. I would have to leave... This thought depressed me so much that the smile faded and pain flashed across my eyes.

"Kaoru-chan tells me that you cook and clean, and are a master swordsman."

I forced the flimsiest smile I could manage onto my face. "I am..."

"It's so wonderful to see her so happy, and with someone to take care of her when I'm gone. I can't imagine what I would do if she were kidnapped."

I wasn't going to tell him that Jin e had kidnapped her to get to me. The smile was forced to be even more convincing. "It... is only proper. I could not leave her..." It was so lame, and I knew it well. I tried to eat, only to find that I wasn't hungry at all. "How long have you two been... engaged?" Good tactics were to change the subject, but couldn't I have picked a better topic?

Kaoru, to my disappointment, was the one who answered. "An hour or so," She blushed a little and looked to the boy under eyes turned down and dark lashes."We just finished our courtship and we'll be getting married in a few months." Suddenly, her radiance made sense.

That was a shock... When did this magical courtship start? Two minutes before the engagement? I sighed internally. I was pouting, and I knew it. And as I continued to numbly listen to them, I felt even more like a twelve-year-old. The rurouni's subtle ability to hide emotion was used to hide my breaking heart. I don't even know how that conversation finished. I was set on auto and my mind was down and out.

So was I, it seemed.

I think I did dishes and Hiro (the boy) was the one who started Kaoru's bath, which only further pulled me into my depression. Starting Kaoru's bath had been my job… my privilege to talk to her while she bathed and I kept the fire going. Very suddenly, I felt very old and a sharp pain that extended to my physical being replaced the fuzziness of caring for Kaoru in my heart. A realization struck me with that pain, leaving me with a staggering amount of weight on my shoulders… It would only be a matter of time before either Kaoru or Hiro asked me to leave the dojo.

I don't remember ever being so broken hearted as that night, with only the exception being directly after Tomoe's death. I had never slept much, but that night I didn't so much as come close to burying myself in the sweet, blessed arms of somnolence. Instead, I left the dojo and walked down the street. It had been many years since I had last needed a drink to calm me. I wasn't sure if I should like or hate Hiro, or if I should have simply resigned to fate and offered to return to my wandering.

When I found my way to the restaurant, I sat down and ordered a bottle of sake, head resting in my hands. I already had a headache. It wasn't anyone's fault that I felt this way, except mine. My feelings didn't matter anymore… in fact; they had never mattered, for I had never even been a consideration in Kaoru's eyes; she had been formally "courted" by Hiro long before I even met her.

I drank.

I'd never even had a chance... Life was a manipulative little girl and I was her favorite puppet. It burned at me, that feeling of rejection mixed in with and fueled by the alcohol, and I slowly felt the sharp edge that was stabbing into my heart dull. My stare was blank so I would never betray my desire to scream, or cry, or just do something about this hopeless situation.

I drank.

But the sake didn't taste as good as it used to.

Original Note: Those who review, get a chibi Kenshin doll! So please review…

End Chapter One