Into the Clear
by mikan

Chapter One: Arrival

Kaoru breathed in the fragrant air. Her steps slowed, and she paused on the bridge.

How she loved spring! Everything bright and new and full of promise. A breeze ruffled the sleeves of her kimono. She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and looked out to where the river bent and flowed out of sight.

Where does it go to? she wondered. Past here, near the market, then by the dojo -- then who knows where. In her mind she flowed with the water, winding through the city, then past the street near the dojo. She could see Kenshin opening the gate and stepping out with his little wooden tofu basket. She could hear Yahiko's whining voice echoing over the walls, and Sano's grumblings in the kitchen for something to eat.

Life at the dojo had fallen into a quiet routine. She gazed at the bend in the river again. But how long could it stay that way? Even Kenshin himself had said that things would not stay as they were. Sano would probably leave someday to strike out on his own, and Yahiko was burning with impatience to grow up.

But Kenshin. . .

She sighed. Kenshin was still the same Kenshin. Punctual, efficient, platonic. Every morning up before she was, making breakfast. Then laundry and groceries. Then lunch and dinner. The same "ohayou" and "oyasumi" opened and closed each day. And to him, she was still "Kaoru-dono", never just "Kaoru".

Kaoru-dono! she groaned inwardly. 'My lady Kaoru'. I wish he'd just call me by my name. Or even just "Kaoru-san". 'Miss Kaoru'. That has a better ring to it. At least it doesn't sound like we're still in the feudal age.

Oh Kenshin. When are you ever going to understand?

She started to think of what had happened at dinner the night before. Forcefully, she pushed the memory out of her mind.

Where was her life going? She was almost twenty years old, but what did she have to show for it? She wasn't married. She had no children. She couldn't cook. She hadn't even completed her training yet. She thought about the condition the dojo was in, and felt a sharp pang of guilt. Would her father be happy with the state Kamiya Kasshin Ryu was in at the moment? One student, and a shabby dojo.

Father, I am doing my best, she thought, but it left her not much consoled. Feeling the weight of her thoughts bearing down upon her, she closed her eyes for a moment. She would never admit it to herself at any other time, but now she felt it keenly -- she was so tired. Tired of worrying about where she would get enough money to feed them all, about what she would do if the roof started leaking beyond repair. . .she could go on and on. But most of all, she was tired of being alone. True, there was Kenshin, Yahiko, and Sano. . .but at night, or at moments like this one, she had to bear the worry and the guilt alone.

Kenshin, her heart cried, don't you see how I want to share everything with you? She wanted to share so many things with him -- so many stories she had been hoarding up, so many things she found beauty in. . .as well as the things that she worried about and those that she feared the most.

But everyday, it was the same. The same cheerful, friendly smile and innocent eyes. The same courteousness and politeness that kept them at a distance from each other. The same focused concentration on his chores for the day.

She was so tired.

He never really sees me, does he? she realized sadly. The real me. What he probably sees when he looks at me is -- someone whom he has to protect. But love?

Kaoru stared out into the distance, unseeing. Love. He had loved Tomoe-san -- he had loved her so much that even after her death, it was her spirit alone who could give him rest from the horror of his life during the Bakumatsu. In his quiet moments, those times when his eyes took on a distant look, he probably thought of her -- of the time they had lived together, of the things they had done.

Memories he'll never share with me, memories I can never erase nor surpass.

Kaoru felt like crying right there, on that busy bridge in the heart of Tokyo.

What is going to happen to me? she thought desperately. I love a man who cannot love me back because his heart already belongs to someone else. Someone who gave her life to save him, someone with far more nobility and grace than I'll ever have. Someone whom I can never replace.

She stepped away from the railing and started to walk back home, the tiny bag of snacks she had bought hanging limply from her hand. After a few moments, she suddenly realized she had been slouching. Only then did she feel the grip of the self-pity that was choking her. Resolutely, she threw her shoulders back and lifted her face to the breeze.

It's spring, Kaoru. Your favorite time of year. You're young and beautiful and the world is a big place. You're too busy to feel sorry for yourself. There's lots of stuff to be done at home. So get going, girl.

She forced herself into a brisker pace. Spring was a time of promise.

Whatever it promised, she promised she'd never feel sorry for herself again.

Kenshin looked up as the gate swung open and Kaoru stepped inside. He flashed her a bright smile.

"Welcome back, Kaoru-dono."

At the sight of him, her heart started to quicken, in spite of her resolve to remain calm. Why? she asked herself despairingly. Didn't you already decide it's hopeless?

"Konnichiwa, Kenshin." Her smile was slight. "Have you had lunch already?"

"Iya, we were waiting for you de gozaru yo."

"Good, I got some dessert. Sweet cakes."

"Arigatou, Kaoru-dono."

She turned to go into the house. Kenshin stared after her, keenly aware of her dampened spirit and forced smile.

So she's still upset.

He sighed as he turned back to his laundry. His hands methodically began scrubbing the garment in the wide bucket. Last night. . . he thought, his eyes darkening as he remembered. . .

They had been sitting down, ready for dinner -- him, Yahiko, and Sano. He had cooked up miso and bean sprouts with fish. Sano and Yahiko had been fidgeting. Kaoru had not yet appeared.

"What's taking Busu so long?" Yahiko had muttered. "I'm starving!"

"Kaoru-dono?" he had called out in turn.

No response. He had started to get worried. He had been about to get up and check on her when they had suddenly heard the sound of a door sliding open, and footsteps going down the hall.

"Finally!" Yahiko had grumbled.

"Dinner's ready, Kaoru-dono," he had announced cheerfully.

He had settled back into his spot on the floor. Seconds later, the hem of Kaoru's kimono had flashed at the edge of the doorway, and he had looked up --


He hadn't been sure if the scream had come from Yahiko or Sano or himself, but his mouth had been hanging open and he had been frozen with shock. He had stared blankly at the woman in the doorway.

She had looked like Kaoru -- vaguely. Her face had been pasty white, and her eyes. . .her startled eyes had been encircled by a dark, defined layer of gray. He had never seen anything like it before.

Sort of like raccoon eyes, he had thought for a moment, before giving himself an indignant mental shake. He scrutinized her eyes once more.

Are her eyes bruised? Did she trip and fall flat on her face? Is that why she's so pale?

He had snapped into motion.

"Kaoru-dono! Are you alright?" he had asked urgently, but Sano had interrupted him with a chuckle.

"Jo-chan, that is the most impressive black eye I have ever seen! I've never managed to end up with one as dark and wide as that! And you have two of them too!" he had screeched, erupting into laughter.

"Busu with makeup! Mwahahahaha!" Yahiko had fallen onto the floor, laughing along with him.

While the two of them had laughed in the background, he had been locked into her gaze. She had merely stood there and said nothing, not even looking at Yahiko and Sano, only at him. In her eyes he had seen an unbelievably deep sadness. Then she had turned and quietly walked back to her room, deaf to their hasty apologies.

He had followed her. But she had begged him not to enter, begged him to leave her alone. And so he had sat there for most of the night, in the hallway outside her room -- furious with himself, furious with Yahiko and Sano, and wondering what on earth she had been thinking.

In the morning, she had come out, dressed and ready to go to town.

"Kaoru-dono, about last night -- " he had started to say, but she had cut him off.

"Please, Kenshin, it's nothing. I'm going out for a while, ne?" she had said with a little smile that was patently forced.

"Demo -- " he had started again, but she had just walked on down the hallway.

She's still upset.

He scrubbed the garment in his hand with more intensity than usual, his frustration working its way into the motion. He knew she was upset. But what could he do? She didn't want to talk about it, and she seemed intent on pretending nothing had happened -- that it hadn't affected her -- when she was so obviously hurting inside. He ditched the cloth into the soapy water, feeling helpless and hating himself for it, and for the part he had played the night before.

Ah, dammit, he thought to himself. Should I just go apologize to her? But. . .she'd probably not want to talk to me about it anyway. She's probably embarassed. Hey, even I was embarassed.

Still, he wanted to do something. She had looked so sad. The memory of her eyes came back to him.

Baka, he felt like chiding her. Why are you bothering with makeup at all? Don't you know how beautiful you are?

You've always been beautiful to me.

He knew he loved her. Loved her beyond his own life. She was the reason he was still sitting there -- alive, strong, and sane. Her belief in him -- in the good within him -- had carried him through the dark days in Kyoto when he had been on the brink of madness, of total obliteration of self. He had lived for her, had forced himself to fight back for her. Only her.

What I would give to make her mine.

The old regret welled up within him, and he crossed his arms over his knees and allowed his head to slump on them.

But she deserved a better man. Somebody whole, somebody with bright eyes who could look to the future with a clear gaze, who could look upon the past and not be mastered by it. Somebody with untainted hands, hands that could touch, and hold. . .

Somebody other than me.

He raised his head just in time to see her emerge from the house and head to the dojo. Her chin was high, and her gaze direct. She did not look at him.

His eyes followed her, and as he watched her walk away, he spoke to her with his heart.

I couldn't bear to have you there when the nightmares seize me, Kaoru. It would kill me if you saw what I really am. I haven't changed. The hitokiri is still within me, and every night, the madness washes over me like a fever. Every night, I remember everything. . . And it would make you cry, because nothing can take away this hell inside of me. Nothing. I'll be like this till the day I die.

But while you're here, there's beauty and reason in life. You're laughter and light and faith and everything to me. But if I allow you within myself, I would destroy all that. All the happiness would seep out of your soul.

And that, I will never allow myself to do.

Kaoru suddenly stopped walking and turned to face him. Her eyes pierced his.

"Kenshin? Did you call me?"

Startled, he couldn't say anything at first. Then slowly, he shook his head.

Kaoru looked at him for a moment longer. She knew there had been something. It had almost been a physical force beckoning her, pulling her to him.

What is it about you, Kenshin? she thought dejectedly. Why can't I just be normal around you?

Kenshin could feel her anxiety. This time, however, he couldn't bring himself to plaster the rurouni smile onto his face. She looked so sad. Without thinking, he stood up and started walking towards her.

"Kaoru--" he started to say, but then a voice stopped him.


Both their heads snapped to the side to see who had spoken.

A tall man stood in the portal of the gate. He was clad in a dark gi and hakama, with a ratty straw basket strapped to his back. In his right hand he carried a large walking stick.

Kenshin stared at the stick suspiciously.

I'd bet my life there's a katana inside that thing, he thought grimly. It was common knowledge that many samurai concealed their swords inside sheaths disguised to look like ordinary bamboo sticks, in defiance of the edict issued by the Meiji government banning the carrying of arms.

The man met his gaze.

Kenshin stepped in front of Kaoru.

"Who are you?" he asked the man flatly.

Kaoru's gaze shot to Kenshin. That tone of voice --

The man took a second to scrutinize Kenshin from head to toe before bowing gracefully.

"Forgive me for being so rude. My name is Hasegawa Ryou."

Kenshin felt Kaoru breathe in sharply behind him. Before he could stop her, she brushed past him, running to where the man stood.

"Ryou-nii-chan! You've come back!" she gasped, throwing her arms around him.

"Kaoru-dono!" Kenshin cried, alarmed. He watched as the man enfolded her in a tight embrace.

The man glanced at Kenshin for a moment before he turned to smile down at her.

"Hai, Kaoru-chan. I'm finally home again. And this time, I'm here to stay."