Author's Notes: Taking a break from my usual style here. Trying to branch out in different directions and experiment with various ideas. Might expand this into a full length story but don't know yet. Please let me know what you think of this!
Summary: Not all gifts are appreciated. Kaoru slowly learns the value of a gift she has come to resent. oneshot KK
"I never asked you to protect me," she says suddenly, without preamble.
Everyone at the table looks up at her but she is only staring at one person. And he shrugs with a smile.
"But I want to." And he closes his eyes and smiles even more widely until all anyone can see is nothing at all.
Kaoru turns away at the sight of him hiding behind his silly grin. She snorts in a very unladylike manner, the disgust on her face as plain as the noonday sun. She hates it when he hides from her, pushing all his worry, his guilt, his longing for happiness behind the smiling mask that everyone else seems to think is endearing.
After they've eaten, they walk through the city – Kenshin leads with Yahiko and Sano right behind him. And Kaoru - she is last, watching the others. She sees how Sano slouches as he walks, his fists digging deep into his penniless pockets. She watches as Yahiko nearly runs circles around the tall man, poking and taunting with no effect. And Kenshin, that idiot, he walks with a big, stupid smile pasted on his face. But she knows better; she knows that he is as pensive as she feels – except that he is waiting for the next threat to their lives and she is waiting for him to stop worrying.
They had been walking and shopping for the better part of the afternoon when he stops suddenly, and turns to look straight at her. She raises her eyebrows.
"Kaoru-dono?" He asks quite innocently, "Is everything all right?"
"Why wouldn't it be?" She sounds more sarcastic than she means to be and immediately regrets it. But it is too late to take it back.
"Bite off his head, why don't you?"
Sano's muttered comment is unwanted, unappreciated and it makes her angry.
"Mind your own business." The words slip out before she can stop them and, again, she wishes she had held her tongue.
"Well, excuse me." He says, drawing out the vowels with an infuriating grin. With a shrug, and the fishbone moving at the corner of his mouth as he chews it, he continues his casual amble with Yahiko in tow, passing Kenshin who is still waiting for an answer.
"So," he repeats, "Is everything all right, Kaoru-dono?"
"Of course," she says with a tremendous sigh, just so that he knows that she means the opposite of what she says, "Everything is all right."
But Kenshin is not one to question her word and, as he turns back to resume walking in Sano and Yahiko's direction, he gives no sign that he is aware of the slight stirrings of anger in her eyes. They continue their walk through town and Kaoru tries to take her mind off of her fuming by glancing at the trinkets being sold by street vendors. Something shiny catches her eye and she stops.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" The man behind the table says as Kaoru studies the delicate hair ornament. "Pick it up and take a look at it in the sunlight," he urges.
She picks it up and holds it to the light, slowly turning it to see the mother of pearl inlay catch and reflect the sunshine. It is a beautiful comb; a perfect half-circle. Etchings of waves and sea creatures have been finely carved into the black lacquer and inlaid with polished pearl. Several sprigs of gold wire sprout from one edge of the moon-shaped comb and are tipped with several perfectly formed pearls which are iridescent in the light.
"These are the finest abalone pearls in the region," the vendor is saying to Kaoru, who is still captivated by the comb's elegant beauty, "And it was made by the finest artist in Japan."
"Yeah right!" Yahiko snorts.
Kaoru nearly drops the ornament when she realizes that they have all somehow sauntered back to stare at the bauble she is holding. She puts it down hastily.
The vendor feels compelled to defend his honour. "It was too. You've never even seen hair pieces like this before, I'll wager. And just think how beautiful it would look in this young lady's hair."
"Jou-chan?" Sano nearly spits out his beloved fishbone as he begins to chuckle. "That would be like putting an ivory ring in a pig's nose. Worthless piece of jewelry."
Kaoru winces but Sano continues, oblivious.
"She's no hoity-toity lady, our Jou-chan."
Yahiko and Sano laugh. Kaoru punches the tall man in the arm and slaps the back of the boy's head, a scowl painted on her face.
"You see," Sano says, rubbing his arm, "More of a man than a woman, this one."
Her face burns and she is too busy trying to keep the red from spreading to her cheeks to notice that Kenshin, unlike the others, is not laughing.
"That's what you get for poking fun at the successor of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, you idiots," she says, spinning on her heel and waving off the intentional hurt left by the teasing, "Let's go home. I've got to start getting dinner ready anyway." She strides away.
"Whoa, wait a minute!" Yahiko bounds after her. "We were just joking."
"Yeah," Sano says, catching up to her easily with his long, lanky strides, "Don't feel like you have to cook for us or anything."
They are halfway down the road when Kenshin, who has not moved, turns back to the jewelry dealer. He picks up the ornament that Kaoru dropped.
"How much is it?"
"Well, for you sir," the vendor says, preparing to haggle, "I've got a great price."
"How much?" Kenshin asks again, his tone bordering on impatient.
"500 yen." He smiles.
Kenshin nods and pulls out the money that no one knew he had. Handing it to the surprised vendor, he places the hair ornament in his sleeve and turns the follow the others home, a quiet smile on his lips.
"I never asked you to cook," Kaoru says, watching from the sidelines as Kenshin chops vegetables for the soup.
"But I want to." He hardly pauses in slicing the radish as he turns his head slightly to cast a beaming smile in her direction.
"Hm." She looks away and is, once again, filled with an irrational urge to throw something at him and scream. But instead, she leaves the kitchen. He continues cutting vegetables.
Later when they eat, they eat in awkward silence. Kaoru is close to boiling over with a kind of frustration that she cannot explain and the others, except for Sano who is wisely absent, are quiet. When the food is gone, Kaoru stands and announces that she will go for a walk.
"Alone," she snaps as Kenshin rises.
He sinks back down as Yahiko attempts to hide his snickers. Kenshin smiles pleasantly. "Have a nice walk Kaoru-dono," he says to her back as she leaves their home.
She walks quickly along the riverbank, seeking to cool her anger. It's not his fault he's so protective, she thinks to herself as she strolls briskly through the crisp night air, it doesn't mean that he doesn't believe you can't protect yourself. She takes a deep breath and her gait relaxes.
She pauses mid-step when she hears footsteps on the gravel road behind her.
She turns and knows immediately that the three men casually approaching her mean her harm. She presses her lips together as they fan out toward her.
"What do you want?" She is brash and her voice is irritated.
They leer at her and she knows exactly what they want. I can take them, she thinks. The nearest man smiles and his teeth are yellow and his lips are thin and chapped. She wrinkles her nose.
"Think you're too good for us, do you?"
Kaoru knows that he is about to rush her when his leg muscles tense. She gets ready to show him that she's stronger than she looks.
But she doesn't get a chance. Suddenly Kenshin is there, between her and the men. Her fingers tighten into fists.
"Indeed, she is too good for you," he says, his voice calm, quiet and cool. "You had best be on your way."
Her would-be attackers are apparently afraid of Kenshin because they stagger back and run away into the night. Why, Kaoru thought as her hackles rise, why are they afraid of him. He is as short and almost as feminine as she.
Kenshin turns, his hands finding her shoulders.
"Are you all right, Kaoru-dono?"
She shrugs him off. "I thought I told you that I wanted to be alone."
"You had been gone a long time," he says with open palms, "I just wanted to make sure."
In the darkness, under the night sky, she looks at him for a long time and he begins to fidget. She nearly scoffs out loud. Imagine the greatest swordsman alive squirming under a seventeen year old girl's stare.
"You are always worried." She turns away and starts walking. "About everything," she adds under her breath.
"I never asked you to come with me," she says, walking as quickly as she can down the harbor road.
"But I want to," he says. He is not even pretending to have a hard time keeping up with her rapid pace.
She is vaguely intrigued by this slight change in behavior and, casting him a sidelong glance, she tries to speed up, kicking up dust behind her. Without blinking, he lengthens his graceful strides to match hers. She huffs and tosses her head in the air.
"The letter wasn't addressed to you," she says pointedly, "The only person's name on that paper was mine. So I don't see why you have to come."
"Kaoru-dono," he says, his tone lower than usual, "That letter seemed quite suspicious to me."
"What would you know?"
"It was pinned to the door post with a dagger," Kenshin replies calmly, seemingly unperturbed by her irritated gestures, "And it instructed you to meet the sender in an abandoned boating warehouse – for information about a crime your dead father might have committed in the past."
She stops abruptly to stare at him, open-mouthed. "You read my letter?"
"I was concerned." Kenshin meets her stare, his expression unruffled.
"You were concerned." Kaoru's voice is soft and disbelieving. "You were concerned so you read something that was intended for my eyes, and my eyes only."
"I did it for your own good. The contents of that letter are highly suspect."
Kaoru closes her eyes and counts to five. When she opens theme again and sees his collected expression, she shuts her eyes again and takes several deep, cleansing breaths. "That doesn't matter," she says coldly once she is sure her voice won't shake in anger, "This concerns my family's pride and I will settle this with them once and for all. I don't need you tagging along."
"I think the sender means you harm. I do not want you to get hurt." Kenshin smiles brightly. It is a ridiculous smile and Kaoru sees through it when she notices the tightness at the corners of his eyes.
"Stop trying to anticipate the next disaster. Anyway, I can take of myself." She says, her voice cracking through clenched teeth. She pivots away from him and stalks off toward the warehouse.
And, of course, when she is alone with the stranger behind locked steel doors and Kenshin is outside where she made him wait, she realizes that this is the next disaster. The man, whose torso looks too big for his body, is breathing the foul stench of hate onto her face.
"Thank you for leading Battousai to me," the man says, and she tries not to gag when he is close, "I thought I would have to hold you hostage for a while but this, yes this is much more convenient."
Her unknown assailant waves a sword in her face to taunt her. But all she can think about as she rubs her wrists raw on the ropes he tied her with, is that she was wrong and Kenshin would have to save her again. Shame stings at her eyes. The brute pushes her into the corner, forcing her to her knees.
"Let him in!"
Kaoru doesn't look up when she hears the doors scrape open. She doesn't watch Kenshin systematically immobilize the men hired to kill him. There is shouting. And then, the battle is over and, instead of the clashing of swords, she hears only grunts and groans. Soft footfalls stop at her back. She feels Kenshin's deft fingers on her arms and, with a quiet whisper, the cords fall away from her. Rubbing her wrists, she stands.
Kaoru finds that she cannot look at him. She can smell his sweat from where she standing. "Thank you," she mumbles as she shuffles into the light of the harbor.
They don't say anything as they walk home. They don't say anything for a while.
But a few days later, when she is getting ready for bed, Kaoru finds the pearl hair comb lying on her folded futon. She picks it up with both hands, her breath hitching in her throat.
And suddenly, Kenshin is at her door. "Do you like it?"
"I didn't ask you to get me this." Awed by the extravagant gift, she runs a finger along one of the fine golden threads. Something else, though unsaid, hangs clearly in the air. You didn't have to protect me, then either.
"I wanted to." His face breaks out into a genuine smile and her heart leaps. He touches her hand with his fingertips.
"Thank you." For both times. She turns around with the precious ornament still in both hands. She is also smiling.
But the short tranquil interlude is shattered when Kaoru awakens to a noise in her room a few nights later. She sits up and squints through the dim moonlight, able only to discern the shadowy figure of an intruder in the corner of her room. She hears the sounds of clinking and immediately knows what is happening.
"Stop," she yells.
The thief looks over, startled. Even as Kaoru forces her sleepy limbs into action, she knows it is too late. The man jumps up and darts outside, leaping off the porch and into the cover of night. She doesn't miss the sparkle of pearls in the moonlight as he runs away.
For a moment she can only stare. And then she tightens her sleeping robe and is ready to give chase. Just as she is about to spring into a wild run, she is jerked back by a hand on her arm. She turns.
Kenshin is there, his eyes trained on something she can no longer see in the inky black dark of night.
"He took the comb you gave me!" She tries to wrench his hand from her arm but finds, that for once, he does not let her. "And you let him get away," she shouts, pushing on his chest.
His eyes are on her now. "Don't cry, Kaoru."
"I'm not crying," she protests, her voice brittle.
He smiles gently and cups her face, his fingers interrupting the trail of tears running down her cheek.
"I never asked you to help me," she says as she steps closer to him.
"But I want to," he says as he prompts her to take the ornament he is still holding out to her in one hand. He smiles widely.
"Where did you find it?" She asks, taking the priceless comb from him.
"At the street vendor's."
She looks up sharply. "You didn't buy another one, did you?"
He shakes his head and chuckles and she thinks that she's never heard him laugh in such a way before. "No," he says, grinning, "Though he tried to sell me the one he stole last night."
"You mean he…" She stopped for a moment, her eyes sparking angrily. "That crook! I should go down there and-"
He interrupts her with a deep, throaty laugh. "That won't be necessary, Kaoru."
"He won't be selling and stealing back what he sold ever again," he says more quietly, and Kaoru can hear the dangerous tone beneath his calm exterior. A tingle runs up her spine.
"How did you know it was him?"
"I recognized his ki," he says, "And I thought the price was too low when I bought it."
She decides to wear the hair ornament on their next trip to the Akabeko and blushes when Sano and Yahiko begin to tease her as they walk through town. She blushes even harder when Kenshin pays her a compliment.
While they are eating, Sano opens his mouth to crack a joke about her womanliness but sagely decides to abandon it when he catches a glimpse of Kenshin's face. He already knows that expression well.
"I got a letter from my cousin," Kaoru says as she is about to take a sip of tea, "She is inviting me to visit her in Yokohama." She knows that he will not wait for her to ask for his protection.
"When will we leave?" Kenshin asks, looking over the table to meet her eyes.
"At the beginning of next month?"
"Whoa," Yahiko says with his mouth half-full of food as he exchanges an incredulous glance with Sanosuke, "You two are going together? I thought just Kaoru was invited."
"I am going to make sure Kaoru-dono travels in safety."
Kaoru smiles at him over her cup of steaming tea and knows that he does not think she is weak since he is stronger. "Thank you, Kenshin," she says.
He smiles back, warm and happy, and she no longer thinks it is a lie.
"I never asked you to stay." She whispers to him through her teeth, an act earning her a disapproving glance from the Shinto priest.
"But I want to." He whispers back.
She offers him a small smile and resists the urge to touch the pearl comb in her hair. They are kneeling side by side, a set of sake cups before them. He cannot keep a toothy grin from his face and she knows that despite his silly smiles, he is constantly thinking of how to make her happy and keep her safe. He has always given and she has never had to ask. She sees the wrinkles at his temples and loves them.
They drink, and are married.
"I never asked you to love me," she says in a voice worn by age as she turns her head on the futon to look at him.
This time, he smiles slowly before he answers her. He reaches for her hand, feeling the soft creased skin on her fingers and remembers.
"Yes," he says, his eyes alight in his wrinkled face, "You did ask me to love you." She starts to protest, his dear wife, but he continues. "And I want to."
They fall asleep together, cast in orange and gold from the sun setting behind them.