Sweet the laverock' s note and lang,
Liltin' wildly up the glen.
But, aye, to me he sings a sang,
Will ye no' come back again?
Will ye no' come back again?
Will ye no' come back again?
Better loved ye canna be,
Will ye no' come back again?
"How long has he been sitting there?"
What was wrong with me?
I could see him. It was raining, and the his appearance was darkened and sodden, the small form trying to seem smaller, holding onto the dark scabbard of his sword, looking so like a child trying to draw comfort from a cherished item.
Seeing him, I hurt. All over. Inside and out. My body ached from long hours of travel leaning on my crooked crutch, my only good foot aching from the effort of doing all the walking, stomach empty, and my heart, ah, how my heart shattered like glass when I saw him, sitting there.
And all I could think of to say of a matronly old woman I didn't recognize, standing out on her porch to sweep out the dust was, "How long has he been sitting there?"
Why was that important? I knew why he was there. I should have ran to him, or rather hobbled as quickly as I could. Took him by the shoulders and demanded of him what in God's name he thought he was doing, sitting there like that, why he wasn't getting out of the rain like any person with a grain of sense knew to do.
But still I held back, letting the horrible throb of our conjoined pain spread through me. And I asked my question. How long?
The older woman blinked at me, then glanced in the direction I was indicating. She stared at him for a long moment, leaning a little on her broom in masculine sort of way. "Him?" she said, as if there was anyone else stupid enough to be ignoring the downpour. She tsked softly. "He's been there for a long time now. He doesn't always sit," she added for the sake of honesty. "Sometimes he stands, but it's always in that spot. Sometimes he leaves for a while, but he's always back shortly. Sometimes a young lad comes and leads him away, but he always wanders back. Don't know what he's waiting for. Poor boy.
"How long?" I repeated distraughtly.
She seemed surprised, then looked doubly sad. "I'm not sure, Young Lady. I'm not sure at all how long he's been there. But I can tell you he's not been away from there for more than a couple of hours. Not in weeks."
The spot. A busy street, near the rise of the familiar Akabeko. He had chosen a shaded place where he could sit and not easily be seen but by a few angles like mine. From there, he had a perfect view…of the place he last saw me. Waiting for me to come back.
The rain was cold. He wasn't far. Not far at all. But it seemed to take a long time to reach him. Maybe it was because I was tired, and had to be careful not to fall down. Once I was down, it was hard to get back up, especially when I was so depleted.
My walk. Leaning on the crutch, holding onto the thick wood with both hands. Dragging the useless leg, set and bound below the knee. Clumsy, graceless thing I was now, had I ever been that kenjutsu princess?
I remembered, holding the shinai in my hands, weeks ago. A child's toy, I'd thought. But when I'd gripped the smooth hilt, the knowledge was no farther from my fingertips--memory in my hands, all the way down to feet that couldn't support the movements needed…
Kamiya Kasshin. I was the legacy, the one who was supposed to pass it on. The sword that protects. My father's ideals. My ideals. Kenshin's wishes. The strength my student was supposed to grow into.
My arms shook as I pulled myself along on my crutch. Inching toward him. He sat unmoving, like he intended to become a part of the wall he sat against. His head was down. There had never been a time in his life, I'm certain, when he didn't like to have those bangs grown long, so he could hide behind them when he needed to, the veil offering him sight without, and denying others the sight within. But now, they desperately needed a trim. When they were dry, I supposed they brushed his cheeks, but with him hanging his head in the rain, soaking with rainwater, it seemed he could no longer look out through the veil.
Or maybe that was just more illusion on his part. It didn't matter, one way or the other. I was coming toward him. Slowly, painfully, shaking out of fear and regret and sadness and…hope. It was a foolish thing to believe that if I just made it to Kenshin, everything would be all right again--but I could at least believe that it would be better than it was before. He was waiting for me, and I had come back. I had fought long and hard to come back.
I was close enough now to see the shabbiness of him. His own neat, if inelegant, repairs to his clothing coming undone and unheeded. His hands were badly chapped. Rough and raw and red, resting against each other on the scabbard, he looked like he might split the skin of his knuckles if he tried to make a fist. How long? How long had he been sitting here, in the wind and the rain? Was he here in early morning, to be covered with frost like everything else? Did he still stay here, in the shade, when the temperature dropped low in the evening?
Stupid Kenshin! Stupid, stupid Kenshin!
My arms gave out, and my good leg was too tired to keep me steady alone. All I needed was to slip in the mud, well-trodden by many feet that had come before mine, and I fell easily, four or five feet from where he sat, nice and clean, if drenched, on the untrampled grass by the wall. This was truly the last bit of weight placed on so overladen a back, and I burst into tears, pressing my face into my arm. I had already had little way to come home with some sort of dignity, crippled and barefoot and dressed in rags. Falling at Kenshin's feet and getting covered with mud had not been part of the plan. Dear God, could any of this have been planned?
I didn't hear him move. Even if there wasn't rain pattering around me or my own hitching sobs blotting out noise, I probably wouldn't have heard him, stealthy as he was. But he was there, tentative fingers brushing my shoulder, his voice soft if somewhat hoarse from sitting out in the rain like the idiot he was, he said, "Miss, are you all right?"
Such a sad tone, a little dull, like he hadn't really wanted to move, but, being Kenshin, couldn't just sit as someone suffered right before his eyes. Especially when that person just toppled off her own crutch and just lay crying in the mud like a four-year-old. Indescribably ashamed, I lifted my face to his.
The sad purple eyes studied my face for only a barest skim of a moment before recognition came flooding into them. Then expression drained away from his face, along with the blood. He sat there, face absolutely slack, and unearthly pale. Some abstracted little part of my brain wondered if it was possible for Himura Kenshin to faint from surprise.
Maybe not, because this was as stunned as I had ever seen him, maybe as anyone had ever seen him, and he still stayed up. Awake. Aware.
I levered myself to sit up, and he brought his hands up to help me in an uncontrolled, jerky, and obviously very absent motion. I didn't know what to say as I shifted my weight onto my good leg. I had thought of what my first words would be to him. What I might say when I saw him again. But now, I could only stare at him, at the way the water ran down his face from his sopping hair.
"Kaoru-dono?" he said after a very long time. It was a hesitant question, layered with fear and hope and desperation and very quiet despair, as if the world would end if I told him no, I was not Kaoru-dono.
"Kenshin." It was the only thing I could say, the only word I could force out through my constricting chest, and I was unprepared when he pulled me hard against him.
Unprepared, but not surprised and certainly not beyond my own great needs. My arms around him, I squeezed until I heard his ribs crack, felt his hands gripping hard the fabric of my kimono, as if afraid I'd vanish unless physically restrained. He made a soft, strangled noise, his arms tightening, and then he stiffened, grabbed me by the shoulders, and held me away from himself, staring desperately into my face. His shaking hands lifted to my cheeks, wiping water and mud away, tracing my cheekbones.
"You are, you are," he whispered. The hands moved back, sliding down my shoulders as his widening eyes took in the crutch, fallen beside my bad leg. Neither belonging to a stranger who needed help any longer, but to me, someone he cared for. "Kaoru-dono…what…where have…Kaoru…?"
"I…I don't know!" My crying before had been of pure frustration, but these incomplete questions simply broke the dam. I burst into tears again, only this time I wasn't facedown in the mud. Kenshin, caring far less about the muck than I did, sat down crossed-legged and lifted me into his lap and wrapped his arms around me. He couldn't keep me from being dirty, and he definitely couldn't shelter me from the rain. But I hadn't felt so safe in a long time. I had been right: things weren't okay, but they were better. So much better than before.
In fits and bursts, I got out my story, not that there was much to tell. The little fishing village with the old widow that looked after me when I washed up on the shore. The ship rigging that had been tangled around my leg that fractured it again and again from wrenching and strain. The terror of being unable to remember my own name, where I came from, if there was family waiting for me, worried about me. The widow's young grandson, newly joined of a kendo school, carrying around a shinai on his back just like…like my own student. And how I found myself by holding the bamboo sword in my hands again.
"I had to get home," I said, looking up into his face. His eyes were a constant wince of pain, lips parted over closed teeth. "She tried to stop me, but I made a crutch and walked home. S-some people helped me along the way, but mostly I walked. And…I-I don't know how it happened. Kenshin, I don't know how I ended up where I did!"
His cheek came to rest on top of my head, which for some reason calmed me considerably. His voice was very soft, but still carried over the rain, as he filled in the blanks.
"You took on a little job," he said. "You were escorting two children home by ship because their guardian became ill. This one wanted to come with you but--"
My hand tightened on his elbow. I remembered. He had wanted to come along, but it was a pitifully short ride by boat just to the children's home. It was no big job to see two children back to their father, hop the boat again, and I'd be back home in no time at all. Hardly even enough time for anyone to miss me, I was certain. I gave him a couple of lumps on the head when he persisted to show my displeasure at his lack of faith in me, and, very reluctantly, he had let go.
I felt him swallow, the shaky tremor of it, and the clench of his jaw from the cheek pressed into my hair. "We got word--the ship floundered… It floundered," he repeated, as if it was impossible for any ship to dither in the waters, or even, as if it were somehow his responsibility that the vessel I had been aboard had been unseaworthy.
I didn't bother to waste my precious breath trying to tell him there was nothing he could have done about it had be been there. He wouldn't believe it.
"I don't remember the children very well," I said. I didn't. Or the ship. Or anything much other than a lot of murky darkness and struggling and horrible pain as my leg broke once, twice, three times somewhere below me in the dark water.
"They were all right," Kenshin said, surprising me. "We hurried to their home to ask after you. The children said you made certain they were on lifeboats, but there wasn't room for you. You told them--" his voice cracked, "--that you would get the next one. Kaoru-dono, this one searched so long. Any sign of you, any sight. But there was nothing. You hadn't returned home, either, when we came back to see. Traveled back and forth for weeks, leaving Yahiko behind in case you came home or sent word, but…"
"You were waiting for me," I whispered in horror. I had known this, of course, the moment I'd caught sight of his bowed red crown, huddled in his spot, but to see the truth of it in his face… And why not? Why not sit outside day after day, hour after hour, watching the crossways where I would have to come if I was traveling home? Why not starve himself and be frozen in a shady overhang, sit in the rain and risk his death instead of waiting for me at home, where I left him warm and safe and dry with Yahiko?
His eyes were so red and bloodshot, I noticed for the first time, lashes low as they blinked away the water, but now he looked me fully in the eye. "It wasn't giving up," he said. "Not like with Rakuninmura. This one was only waiting. Only waiting. You would come. One way or another, you would come back to this one."
His voice cracked again, but he didn't seem to notice, or care. Water ran into his eyes…that was water, wasn't it? Only the rain?
"How long have you been sitting here?" I still needed to know.
"The most miserable four weeks and three days one can remember," he said with a soft-faced expression of pure honesty.
As if insulted by the way we had been ignoring it, very suddenly the rain began to fall harder, in great, thick sheets that blotted out sight and most of our hearing.
"OH, FOR THE LOVE OF--!" I held a fist up toward the sky. "Can I not get a break, here!"
Kenshin burst out laughing. Since he wasn't quite willing to let go of me yet, my body shook with his as he laughed. He hugged me harder. "Oh, Kaoru-dono, it is you!" he shouted over the rain. "This isn't fever or a dream--you're really here!"
His laughter was joyous, infectious for the absolute rarity…no, it was not even a rarity; I had never heard him laugh like this, with such complete abandon. My own impulse to explode in laughter was just below the surface, sparkling in my very blood, but I was simply too happy to watch him, saturated and sorry creature that he was, with his hair plastered flat on his face. If his hold on me hadn't balanced him, he might have fallen back into the mud.
Then his eyes fell on me and again the crutch and my heavily splinted leg and his laughter tapered off. "Kaoru-dono…"
I sighed heavily. Now we were both idiots, he and I, sitting out in the pouring rain, hip-deep in sludge to have our conversation. He seemed to realize this also, and without warning he was up, hefting me in his arms. He even hooked a foot under my crutch and flipped it up, catching it with the hand he had under my shoulders, and carried us all toward one of the empty porches on the street.
My head felt strange now that there wasn't constant rain drumming on it, and I shivered. On the porch, he took a few steps and suddenly went crashing to one knee.
"Kenshin!" I exclaimed, holding on to him even as he held to me. He had let go of the crutch, and it hit the wood surface hard and lay still. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. No." He shook his head, hard, trying to throw the sopping bangs out of his way. "Kaoru-dono…why did you walk all this way with your leg like this? Why did you not send a message to us, have us come to get you instead?"
I gawked at him. Certainly this sudden thought had nothing to with why he had suddenly lost his balance, even if his question shocked me still more. Why hadn't I simply written to Kenshin and Yahiko? For God's sake, it would have been a lot more comfortable for me rather than traveling all this distance with a thrice-broken leg. Even if the wait would have been somewhat maddening, I would have been clean and dry and fed, and my leg would have been a little closer to healing for being allowed to rest. But most of all, I now realized that sending word to them would have saved them a couple of weeks of grief, would have made Kenshin abandon his little spot, and at this moment, he, too, would have been clean and dry and warm. But I had just been so single-minded, from the moment I felt the familiar weight of the shinai in my hands. Single-minded maybe didn't cover it. Only one thought was in my mind. There was only one purpose to my existence. To get home. To let everyone know I was all right. To make sure they were all right. It wasn't even that great of a distance from the little village to Tokyo. Not a great distance to somewhat with two good legs…
I closed my eyes briefly in the realization that I was truly the idiot here. Stupid Kaoru.
"I…I didn't think," I said weakly.
He stared, a little hollowly, at me for a moment. "You didn't think," he echoed. He sat down, very slowly, still staring at me. Then he fell forward, just as slowly as he'd sat down, buried his face in my shoulder, and went very quietly and very thoroughly to pieces.
His reaction struck me to my core. The complete unexpectedness of it, the contrast of it to the laughter of only moments before, and knowing I was the cause of it all.
It wasn't like Rakuninmura, he'd said. But he had also said, "One way or another, you would come back to this one." One way or another. Either I would come home as I did, alive and well, or I would come to fetch him in his death as he wasted away there, waiting. He had not given up on his life, or even on mine, but he had given up on being able to move forward. All that had been left for him to do was wait.
There were certain things I was supposed to be protecting him from. What Megumi had said to me in Kyoto…I was the one who was supposed to help Kenshin through the hardest places. I was supposed to be stronger. I was supposed to ease his troubles and grief, not be them!
I held him, my own tears falling.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. "I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry…"
"Don't do it again," he babbled into my shoulder. "Please, please, please, Kaoru-dono, don't do it again!"
I pressed my face into his wet hair. "Kenshin, oh, Kenshin…I am so sorry, I never thought… I'm sorry… Whatever you want, from now on. I promise. From now on, you can come. Or I won't go. Whatever you want. Right now, you could even follow me into the bath and I won't complain."
He lifted his head at that, a smile warring with other emotions on his face as he studied mine for seriousness. "Kaoru-dono…"
I smiled gently. "Are you sure? With my leg like this, I might need help--"
He lowered his head, shoulder shaking a little with quiet, healing laughter. He was flushed and looked a little giddy from so many outbursts of emotion so close together. "Let's go home," he said. "Yahiko…Yahiko needs to see you, and you need to get dry…let's go home."
"Okay," I said.
I started to reach for my crutch, but he stood up, scooping me up with the movement, and grabbing the stick up himself as he straightened.
"No, Kenshin, I can walk there. Just let me--"
"No," he said, gently, firmly. "No. You've walked enough. Now this one carries you."
Then he stepped back out into the rain, and he walked past the spot where he had been sitting, not even glancing at it. His eyes were on me.
In explanation of how this little story came about, I present the following conversation between myself and my cousin:
Filly: Hey, Krissy, if something else happened to Kaoru, do you think Kenshin would go back to Rakuninmura again?
Khrysalis: Hm. That's a good question, but I don't know, Fil.
Filly: Find out for me, will you?
Khrysalis: What? Filly, I'm busy!
Filly: Come on.
Filly: Should I remind you that you didn't finish my birthday story in time for my birthday?
Khrysalis: &$# it--!
Or something like that. So there it is. The answer to her question ended up being, no, not quite. At least, I think so, and I did find a way to find out without actually taking Kaoru away.
And before anyone asks me, yes, I am afraid of the ocean, and even more terrified of boats.
Will Ye No' Come Back Again?
Lady Carolina Nairne (1766-1845)