Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin belongs to Nobuhiro Watsuki.
Summary: Kenshin recognizes a good thing when he sees it. Is it possible to reconcile ten years of instinct with the promise of happiness?
A/N: Kenshin tells Kaoru not to get used to him staying at the dojo, because he's a wanderer and can pack up and leave at any time. So what happens when Kenshin realizes, in spite of his usual tendency to move on, that he wants to stay? I think he'd come to this conclusion fairly early on, so this takes place just after the meeting with Yamagata Aritomo and that whole sword police thing, but before Yahiko shows up. This ficlet started as a little character study, then unintentionally morphed into a story about A Very Awkward Moment. I'm still not sure what to make of it.
8/28/07: Went through and did a little editing. Hopefully some awkward bits aren't quite so awkward anymore, and it flows more smoothly.
It was a massive tree. Standing on the edge of a small clearing, old and tall, with an impressive girth. Even Hiko wouldn't have been able to wrap his arms around it and have his fingers touch on the other side. Fresh cuts marred its wizened bark. Pale wood contrasted sharply with the bark's rough darkness.
Kenshin stood facing the tree, panting slightly, eyes narrowed, glaring at what he'd done. His grip on the sakabatou was so tight his hand trembled. Frustration surged through him, and he hardly knew what to do with himself.
Kaoru-dono had asked him to stay at her dojo. He had agreed, and knew almost immediately that it was a mistake. He needed to keep moving. Staying in a city like Tokyo, with a young woman like Kaoru-dono was not a good idea. He knew this. And yet, he'd agreed to stay.
Now, Yamagata-san had found him and offered him a job, requesting his services. Kenshin snorted. His services. The thought was repugnant. He'd never do that again. Who else would come for him? He needed to move on.
Kaoru-dono had witnessed the entire scene at the market. She knew who he was, who he had been, but didn't know anything about him. She said the past didn't matter, but the encounter with Yamagata-san had raised so many questions. They hung between them like a rain-heavy cloud; Kaoru-dono was just too kind to ask them.
Abruptly, Kenshin took another swing at the trunk. Wood chips and bark exploded from the point of impact. He wrenched the sakabatou out of the tree, and swung again.
He stopped for a moment, and shifted uncomfortably, sweat dripping from his chin. His gi was sticking to his back. Kenshin had a difficult time containing his disgust. He was getting soft. There had been a time when this sort of training would have hardly broken a sweat. Kenshin shook his head. This, now... it wasn't training, but did that even matter?
With short, impatient movements, Kenshin wrestled his arms from the sleeves of his gi and let it flop down around his waist. The early spring air was cool, and he shivered, goosebumps racing down his arms. Good. He took a deep breath, reached back with the sakabatou, and then let it out as he swung, once again, at the tree.
Too many questions. It was all too tempting. He should leave the dojo. He could get...used to staying there. He was fond of Kaoru-dono, and could see where that fondness would grow, given a little time. Bright blue eyes. A sunny smile. A kind heart. Yes. Very fond.
Another savage swing, another shoulder-wrenching tug. When he allowed it, he imagined himself staying at the dojo permanently. He had a suspicion, one that he hardly dared to acknowledge, that Kaoru-dono wouldn't mind. It was all so very tempting.
He knew he should leave soon. Why didn't he just go? The tip of the sakabatou touched the ground as Kenshin lowered his arm in defeat. He was so very tired. What an understatement it had been when he'd told Kaoru-dono that he was a little tired from wandering! Ten years. He'd drifted from place to place, never settling down, for ten years. A little tired? He was exhausted. There was sanctuary at that dojo. He could sense it. And it infuriated him to think he'd have to let that go.
He knew how meaningful sanctuary could be. The short time with Tomoe, that half-year in the country had shown him the importance of sanctuary. For all that had occurred to end their time at that place, he shuddered to think what would have happened if that sanctuary had never been offered. The alternative would have been devastating. He would have been lost. Even in his grief, he saw that truth.
This was the root of his anger now. He wanted so badly to take what was offered. He liked living simply, tending to simple concerns. Cleaning. Shopping. Preparing dinner. Contributing to life, rather than taking it away. Kenshin looked up at the clear, blue, late afternoon sky. And Kaoru-dono...
In order to take full advantage of the dojo's sanctuary, he'd have to give of himself. He'd have to place his trust in Kaoru-dono, maybe others as well, given her tendency to collect strays. He wasn't sure he could do that. He was so very frustrated with his own uncertainty, his hesitance to just let go.
Word of his whereabouts had already gotten out. How else could Yamagata-san have found him? Who knew who else would be coming? He didn't think he could live with himself if something happened to anyone else he cared about. And so, he needed to leave. Soon. But he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Bits of wood shot out in all directions as the edge of the sakabatou connected once again with the tree.
Kenshin sensed a presence nearby, and yanked the sword from the trunk. He caught a flash of yellow through the trees. Kaoru sometimes wore a yellow kimono. Was she searching for him? He looked up at the sun, sitting low in the sky, and realized with a start that he'd lost track of time. How long had he been out here? He peered through the trees, all his concentration focused on that presence in the distance. A matching yellow ribbon, a long, dark ponytail; it was, indeed, Kaoru. Kenshin froze. How did she find him? He had volunteered as little information as possible when he left earlier. Had she been drawn by the noise? More importantly, though, what was he going to do now?
It was obvious he'd been angry. One look at the mangled tree trunk confirmed that. He could leave the little clearing, and go meet Kaoru-dono, or he could stay and let her find him. One option to hide, another to reveal.
Kaoru-dono already had questions. He felt guilty hiding so much. Yamagata-san opened the door a crack. Would it be a bad thing to open it a little wider? If he stayed, one way or another, Kaoru-dono would inevitably learn more about him. It would be best for that information to come from himself. As unnerving for him as it was, that would require giving Kaoru-dono a glimpse beyond the carefully maintained image he presented.
Kenshin shook his head. When had he decided he wanted to stay? He wasn't sure, but he knew that he did, for as long as he was able to do so. He also knew it would be best to let Kaoru-dono find him. To let her see what kind of man she was harboring. Let her decide if she wanted to continue to have him in her home. He honestly couldn't fathom why she'd invited him to stay in the first place. Her seeming innocence of the nature of the world confused him as much as it endeared her to him, in the short time he'd known her.
Kaoru's voice echoed through the trees. "Ken-shin!"
Kenshin waited a few heartbeats longer. Waited until she was a little closer, and he could clearly see her through the trees, facing the other way, that long ponytail a river of glossy black running down her back. He hadn't felt this unbalanced in a long time. Frustrated by his nervousness, uneasy over her reaction, he took a deep, calming breath, and called out, "Over here!"
Kaoru whirled, spotting him immediately through the trees. "Kenshin!"
She made her way over to the clearing as quickly as her kimono would allow, picking her way through the few remaining trees separating them. "There you are! I've been looking all over! It was getting late, and I was wondering if--"
As she stepped from the grove, she stopped suddenly, staring at the mangled tree, previous line of thought completely forgotten. Her gaze traveled slowly over the slashes in the bark, then drifted over to where Kenshin stood next to the tree, small chunks of wood and bark scattered on the loamy ground around his feet. Her confusion was palpable. Kaoru's eyes widened with surprise as she looked between the tree and Kenshin, who waited tensely, sword lowered by his side. She took a step closer, and Kenshin observed her through his long bangs. There was sorrow in her eyes, and a pretty blush bloomed across her cheeks as she took in his appearance. "Kenshin?"
Kenshin stood very, very still, watching Kaoru watch him. Watched as her countenance clouded in a swirl of emotion. She was making him very uncomfortable. Finally, he followed her gaze, and looked down at himself. Oh. His gi. It was still hanging around his waist. Muttering a soft, "Oro," and blushing to the roots of his hair, he hastily shrugged it on and reached back to pull his low ponytail free of the collar. He shifted a little, settling the gi more comfortably on his shoulders, attempting to unstick it from his sweaty back.
Kaoru met his eyes, and said, her voice hardly above a whisper, "You have...scars."
"Yeah." Kenshin looked down, hiding his expression behind his bangs, silently cursing his carelessness.
When Kenshin had decided not to hide the evidence of his frustrated anger, he hadn't planned on revealing quite this much. Kaoru-dono was more correct than she realized; he did have scars. They were deep, and he wasn't sure if they'd ever fade. The thought hit him hard--this was why he preferred to keep his distance. What had he been thinking?
Kenshin reluctantly returned her gaze, and was surprised to see understanding. Acceptance. Kaoru-dono was sharp; he hadn't given her nearly enough credit. His respect for her increased exponentially.
Becoming decidedly uncomfortable under Kaoru's scrutiny, Kenshin distracted himself by sheathing his sword. The sound of it sliding home, settling into the sheath with a snap, had a ring of finality to it. Dismissal. He then offered her a bright smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. This was not the time for a lengthy conversation; he was in no mood for it. There was far too much to sort out before it came to that. Besides, the sun was dropping toward the horizon; evening was coming on. Kenshin knew the light would fade quickly from the clearing. He hadn't planned on staying this long.
"Apologies, Kaoru-dono, this one did not intend to stay out so long." He tried for a more genuine smile, hoping to delay questions, he realized belatedly, that he wasn't quite yet ready to answer. "Come," he raised his hand in a vague gesture, indicating the way out of the clearing, "dinner will be prepared upon returning." Hiding out in the kitchen was not the most courageous course of action, but it would delay the inevitable for at least a little while. Kaoru raised an eyebrow, but seemed to understand, and giving him a piercing look that stated this wasn't close to being over, started out of the clearing.
As Kaoru turned and began to pick her way through the trees, he closed his eyes and sighed quietly. He had gone against ten years of instinct, opening the door, letting her glimpse that which was hidden, and Kaoru-dono hadn't rejected him. He hadn't handled the experience nearly as well has he had hoped, but he still felt a sense of relief in that part of himself that wanted so badly to stay. Kenshin knew he had isolated himself for far too long; dealing with emotions, his own and those of others, in more than just a passing exchange was a challenge, and he found himself at a distinct disadvantage. However, regardless of whether he stayed indefinitely or left tomorrow, perhaps he could allow himself to take some of what the dojo, what Kaoru, offered. Perhaps he could pretend to be normal, just for a while. If he stayed long enough, maybe he wouldn't have to pretend.
He opened his eyes, and followed Kaoru from the clearing. The other part of himself, that insistent, yet somewhat quieter, voice warning him not to stay, however, reminded Kenshin that until he left the dojo, he'd need to find a more secluded clearing.