A/N: I know that I have yet to post Chapter 10 of Reward and the second part of Strong Enough, but this story just lodged itself into my brain and wouldn't let me have my peace until I write it down. So here it is, for your reading pleasure. This is my own take on that classic Kenshin and Kaoru scene we love and know so well. :) The setting and dialogue for this chapter is purely anime-based, but the succeeding chapters will be a mixture of the anime and the manga.
The story is very symbolic, by the way. I guess I just couldn't find any other way to express it. And oh, one last note before you read on. This is by far the most dramatic and most angst-ridden story I've wrote, which means that this is not my usual style of writing (evidenced by the other fics I wrote). It also means that this is somewhat experimental, so I encourage all constructive criticism and feedback. :)
"The hardest part of walking away from you is knowing that you won't run after me."
A childhood lesson. Letting go. And holding on.
A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfiction
I see him everyday, and I always see him for the first time.
When I was a child, I would always accompany my mother to the market whenever she did her weekly shopping. It was my ultimate, simplest joy – I would hold her hand tightly as we weaved in and out of the crowded, noisy streets, and my young, giddy self would be overwhelmed by the dazzling sights that played before my eyes. Just as I inherited my father's love of the sword, I inherited my mother's love of colors. She was an artist in her own right – an authentic Japanese woman in every sense of the word. She mastered every skill and art demanded of a traditional house wife – she arranged flowers, she did embroidery and she was an expert cook.
What I loved the most about her, though, was her skill with the brush. She loved to paint and draw, and her calligraphy was so moving the words seemed to come alive on paper. And she had a trained eye when it came to colors. She knew what colors blended together and she knew what colors clashed; she knew how to mix different hues and she knew how to bring out a certain shade in the landscapes she painted.
I was never particularly fond of this art – I would rather have a bokken in my hands than a measly old paintbrush. I cannot deny, however, that I shared my mother's love of colors – although it manifested in a different manner. My body was my paper, and the different hues of silk that made up the kimonos I wore were my paint. And just as my mother would immerse herself in the pleasure of mixing different colors to paint her pictures, I would lose myself in the joy of blending the different colors of silk that brushed against my skin.
My father never understood this passion my mother and I had with colors. It was probably the only thing I had in common with her, aside from the love we had for my father. It was probably the closest I would ever get into being a true-blooded Japanese woman.
As the fireflies gently illuminate the melancholy darkness of the river, the memory of my mother dances before my eyes, fading in and out of view in time with the glowing light.
It is strange how I remember her tonight, of all nights.
My mother would always have this knowing smile on her face whenever we'd venture into town. She would lead me through the route that would make us pass by the dress stalls, and she would always wait for me patiently as I'd stop and marvel at each and every item of clothing being displayed. Whenever my eye picked out a particularly endearing color combination, I would turn to her with pleading eyes, and she would laugh at me and nod encouragingly at what I am about to do. And I would squeal with glee and immediately try the kimono on, and my mother would watch me appreciatively as I modeled the clothing in front of her.
However, whenever I would get particularly attached to a certain kimono, my mother would gently lay a hand on arm and slowly shake her head. And I would sigh sadly and take the kimono off, and I would return it to the merchant with a quiet thank you. Even though we were better off than most people, my family had never been particularly wealthy. Both my father and my mother were generous people, but they also taught me the value of money – and the importance of saving it. That is why I never complained, even as my young heart yearned for those silken colors. Even as a little girl, I never spent beyond my means. I knew when to pursue what I wanted, and I knew when to let it go.
Except for that one kimono.
The faint sound of rushing water reaches my ears, whispering to me, reminding me his promise to watch the fireflies with me.
I stand there beside the river and wait. He will come. As sure as the sun will rise the next day, he will come.
I remember a time in midsummer when I was around six years old. I went with my mother inside a particular store as she searched for a new kimono. She wanted something special to wear and show my father, for their wedding anniversary was drawing near. As she busied herself with trying on different kimonos and bargaining with the shop owner, I drifted towards the other displays, my eyes automatically attuning to the different colors and patterns.
It was then that I saw it.
The kimono was folded neatly at the topmost shelf behind the counter. It was the most unusual shade of crimson, seemingly out of place among the blues and greens and violets that surrounded it. I walked towards it, mesmerized by the intricate patterns of gold embroidered on the silk. I remember staring at it for a long time until my mother took hold of my hand and told me we were leaving. She grinned and showed me the kimono she bought – it was a beautiful shade of jade, with long-necked white swans floating around the hem and bamboo stalks shooting up the bodice. She was an artist in her own right, and she chose a kimono worthy of her skill. And judging by the way her face glowed as we headed back home, I could tell she was proud of her purchase.
In my eyes, however, it was nowhere near as enchanting as that kimono on the topmost shelf behind the counter, half-hidden among the blues and greens and violets that surrounded it.
I see him everyday, and I always see him for the first time.
I wonder… will tonight be the last?
Slowly, gradually, I found myself becoming obsessed with that kimono. Every week I would return to that shop and simply stand there to gaze at that silken material until my neck would hurt from looking up too long. And every week I would find myself fascinated with a new discovery about it. I would realize that the embroidered design was actually golden vines that snaked its way up and around the bodice. I would realize that these vines had blossoms of purple flowers dotted here and there. I would realize that within the shade of the shop, the color of the kimono darkened almost to that of blood. I would realize that when the sun streamed in through the windows, the color of the kimono would change into that of a blazing fire, dangerous and warm to the touch.
"The fireflies are beautiful tonight."
I would see that kimono every week, but each time it seemed like I was seeing it for the first time.
And slowly, gradually, obsession became desire. I wantedthat kimono for myself. There was no reason, no logic, only a powerful emotion that overrode all rational thought.
His sandals gently scrape the ground as he steps out of the shadows. He has always been beautiful, but tonight, under the soft glow of the fireflies' light, he is exquisite. Almost otherworldly. Unreachable. Unattainable.
I wanted it. And I vowed to myself that I would never let this kimono go.
His eyes meet mine, and I whisper his name, a familiar feeling of fear and anguish creeping into my heart.
But I did.
Training with my father began to occur more often, and my regular trips to the market with my mother became less frequent. I missed seeing all the colors – training with my father consisted of boring blues and whites and blacks and grays – but most of all, I missed my mother. So whenever my father allowed a bit of leniency in our tight schedule, I would immediately grab the opportunity to rush to my mother's side. I would reach for the familiar comfort of her hand as we exit our compound, and she would smile down at me as we walk side by side down a familiar route. The knowing look would always be present in her eyes. She knew just where to take me.
"Governor Okubo was assassinated this morning."
My mother knew me in a way no one else did. She knew I fell in love with that kimono the moment that I saw it.
"Yes… I know that."
We would enter the shop, and my eyes will immediately stray behind the counter to the one thing that kept me coming back. My mother would let go of my hand as I'd walk over to the shelves and gaze at that crimson piece of silk folded neatly among the blues and greens and violets that surrounded it. I would always stand on tiptoe and raise my chubby hands to try and reach for it, and to my delight, I would find myself a bit taller with each recurring visit. The kimono would always seem nearer each time - near enough to touch, to hold, to have. Almost, but not quite.
"It was done by Shishio and his henchmen."
It was never near enough.
"I can't leave Shishio alone now."
Because no matter how hard I try, the shelves were just too high. The kimono would always be out of my reach.
"I'm going to Kyoto."
The frustration mounted inside me until that fateful day when I was eight years old. My mother and I visited that shop for what I didn't know would be the last time. Before I even realized I was doing it, I had walked over to those shelves behind the counter. It was automatic, almost instinctive. I reached for that kimono once more, and to my pleasant surprise, my fingers brushed against the fine silk. I seemed to have grown a couple of centimeters since our last visit. I could barely keep my excitement under control as I jumped up and grabbed a fistful of that cloth.
I realized then that I didn't know the extent of my own strength. The combined force of my jump and the added weight sent all the contents of that shelf crashing down upon me, and for a moment, I was buried under a flurry of blues and greens and violets as the kimonos fell on top of my head. My arms flailed helplessly about as my mother rushed to my side in a panic and pulled me out of the mess I had created. Her eyes contained equal parts worry and admonishment as she helped me dust myself off. I blinked and stared down at my hands, and slowly, a smile crept across my childish features.
I finally had it. The kimono was in my hands.
"Back to that time…"
I felt like I was going to burst from the happiness that bubbled inside me. I rushed over to the nearest mirror and held the kimono up for inspection. It was many sizes too large for me – it was, after all, a kimono fit for a young woman. My eyes were wide and bright as my gaze roved over the silken material, and I can distinctly remember how I stopped breathing for a moment as I let its splendor wash over me. The crimson kimono was beautiful beyond words – almost painfully so.
It was then that I made my decision.
"Back to how you were ten years ago?"
I heard my mother sigh behind me. "Is that red kimono still for sale?"
"…I don't know."
I whirled around and stared at her in surprise, but it turned out that she was talking to the shop owner. The old woman shrugged. "I've been trying to sell that thing for a long time now. No one wanted it."
"For the past ten years, I have fought to keep myself from becoming Battousai."
"They said that it was too expensive, and the color was too exotic."
"However, that battle with Saitou really taught me something."
"The price was too high for something so strange."
"Deep within me, there is a vicious manslayer who will never change."
My gaze dropped to the kimono I held. My small hands tightened around it.
"But you were able to go back to normal soon afterwards! No matter how close you get to the Battousai, you are yourself, Kenshin!"
"I see," I heard my mother murmur.
"A rurouni who doesn't kill…"
I was still staring at my hands when I felt her gentle touch on my shoulder. "Kaoru-chan," she said softly. "I promise I'll save enough money for that kimono. By the time your next birthday comes around…"
Her hands, soft and smooth and free of the calluses I have now, gently tilted my face up so I could see her smile at me. "You can be sure of what gift you'll be receiving from me."
"When I first met you, Kaoru-dono, you told me that you didn't care about my past."
She was waiting for me to answer, but I did not.
"…I was happy about that."
Instead, I dropped my gaze and, without a word, I walked towards the old woman who owned the shop.
"Day after day, I continued to rest my soul, and I really felt that I could become a normal swordsman."
With a solemn bow that was unbecoming of the small child I was then, I returned the kimono to its owner.
"Thank you for everything."
"Kaoru-chan?" The confusion was apparent in my mother's voice.
"Sessha wa rurouni. I must be wandering again."
"It's okay, okaa-san." And with a smile that veiled the sadness that settled over my young heart, I raised my eyes to meet hers. "I don't want it anymore."
He is the perfect epitome of a true swordsman. He is always on alert for any impending danger that might befall upon him, ready to defend himself from those who are trying to hurt him – and the people he is fighting to protect. Therefore, in order to protect those people, he has to protect himself. He cannot afford to be weak. That is why he makes his defense impenetrable.
His strongest defense, however, does not come in any way from the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu. It comes from inside him, from the walls he erects around himself to protect the vulnerable man within. His strongest defense lies within the goofy grin of the rurouni and the fierce eyes of the hitokiri. Battousai keeps people away with his sword; the rurouni, with his smile. The rurouni is his first line of defense; Battousai, his second.
A swordsman only lets his defenses down when he knows that the danger has passed. He drops his guard only when he knows that there is no enemy around to hurt him, when he knows that he is in the presence of the people he trusts – of the people he loves.
And that is how I knew, when he took me in is arms that night…
"Thank you for everything."
I knew without a doubt that he loves me.
"Day after day, I continued to rest my soul."
It wasn't the action itself. An embrace was simply that – an action, a physical closeness, and nothing more. But this… this was pure sacrifice on his part. He forced himself to be strong, to be brave, to step out of those walls he erected around himself for so long and bare himself in all his vulnerability… to me.
"And I really felt…"
The rurouni never would have done something so bold. But the hitokiri wouldn't have been so gentle about it either.
"…that I could become a normal swordsman."
The man who held me that night was neither the rurouni I met nor the hitokiri he once was. The man who held me that night was the man inside that impenetrable wall of bumbling antics and vicious threats of murder. A man who deliberately stripped his defenses down for that one moment to hold me.
"You are yourself!"
There were many reasons why I cried that night. The irony of that moment was one of them.
"I must be wandering again."
I never met Himura Kenshin until he said goodbye.
There is only one other instance when a swordsman lets his defense crumble. It is only when he finally loses the strength to fight, when he has no other choice but to surrender. He places his life in the hands of the people left to catch him – ally or enemy, it does not even matter. When a swordsman finally tires and wants to stop fighting, it does not matter how his suffering will end or who will end it – it only matters that someone will.
He surrendered himself to me that night, trusting that I will hold him in his weakest, most vulnerable state.
But I didn't. My arms remained frozen at my sides, even as my body trembled with the tears I tried and failed to stop from falling.
I could not hold him. I shouldn't. Because if I did, he would stay. Deep in my heart, I knew that if I held him that night, he never would have left my side. And I wanted him to leave. Oh, how I wanted him to leave, even if it slowly kills me inside. Because I don't want to be selfish anymore.
I saw the truth in his eyes. I heard the truth in the slow footsteps he made. I felt the truth in the almost desperate way he pressed my body so intimately against his.
He did not want to leave any more than I wanted to be left behind.
The calmness of his voice when he spoke or the dignity of his stance as he moved did not fool me. He was not as confident about his decision as he showed himself to be. He should've just left me. He should've just left us all. We would be hurt, we would be angry, but in the long run, we would understand. The petty emotions of a handful of people in Tokyo were insignificant compared to the cries of the millions of people all over Japan who will suffer under the vicious rule of a man resurrected from the flames of the Bakumatsu.
The threat of Shishio Makato and his Juppon Gatana taking over Japan was a national crisis that needed to be acted upon immediately. One could not afford to waste time, not even to spare a moment to fulfill a promise made to watch the fireflies on the evening of May 14th.
Why did he have to fulfill his promise to me?
Out of respect for his landlady? Maybe. But if proper etiquette and decorum was all it was, he could've just left a letter. Or he could've just sent one from Kyoto when he arrives. It was more formal, more proper – and all the more easier for us all if he simply wrote his farewell.
Because he is an honorable man who keeps his word? Perhaps. And indeed, it was a touching thought and gesture. But even Saitou will agree that it was also incredibly stupid. After all, what is a promise made to one woman compared to the fate of an entire country?
Perhaps he himself isn't aware of this. And even I deny this to myself until now. But somewhere deep within us, we both knew the real reason why he came to me that night.
He wanted me to stop him from leaving.
He is not a selfish person like me. He knew what needed to be done. He is too kind, too noble, and too strong – he would not allow the people to suffer before his eyes, not while he can still wield a sword in his hands. He knew the call of duty when it came – he was indebted to his country as much as his countrymen were indebted to him. And he knew the price of that duty – one that he is all too willing to sacrifice for the greater good of all.
He is willing to give up his own happiness.
I am not blind. And neither is Sanosuke, Yahiko or Megumi. And even he can't fool Tae or Tsubame, or Genzai-sensei and his granddaughters. We can all clearly see the happiness in his eyes when he is with us – when he is here, in Tokyo, the Kamiya dojo, our home. This call of duty wasn't something he was happy about, not when he has to leave us to fulfill it. He may be a lot of things, but he is not a hypocrite. He knew what needed to be done, but it wasn't what he wanted.
He wanted to stay here with us. With me.
That is why he came to me that night. He needed a reason to stay. He needed me to be selfish for him.
I followed him when he left to fight Jin-ei. I held onto him when he was about to fight Saitou. I did not want to lose him, and that is why I followed him, stopped him, called out to him, clung to him. I did not care about any other consequences – I simply wanted to be with him. I didn't want to lose him. I was selfish.
And he came to me that night, expecting me, wanting me to be just as selfish as I was before. And I could've very well stopped him too. I could've asked him to stay, and he would've never left, and we wouldn't have even cared if Japan burned under the fury of Shishio's power.
I could've held him, if only he didn't hold me first.
There were many reasons why I cried that night. The irony of that moment was one of them.
If only he didn't hold me, then I wouldn't have known the man behind the goofy grin and the fierce eyes. I wouldn't have known who Himura Kenshin was. And I wouldn't have known that this Himura Kenshin is what Japan needed… much more than I ever will.
He didn't leave us. I was the one who made him leave. Not because I pushed him away. Not because I pulled away from him. But simply because I did not ask him to stay.
I did not hold him.
And I cried, because I wanted to.
I'm sorry, Kenshin… but I just don't want to be selfish anymore.
I could see it in the way he would not look at me. I could feel it in the way his arms wavered ever so slightly when, after a moment and forever, he finally let me go.
He came to me that night because he needed me to give him that happiness he wanted. He was not a selfish man. He wasn't asking for much.
And I cried, because I couldn't give it to him.
I'm sorry, Kenshin. But perhaps it is still not the time and place for you, or even for me, to be happy. Not when there are still too many people more worthy of you than I am.
And even as he walked away, I could still hear it in the way he never hurried. He kept his footsteps slow and deliberate, loud enough for me to hear.
He was waiting for me to run after him. Just as I have always done before. And I cried because this time, I wouldn't stop him from leaving. This time, I wouldn't follow him, call out to him, or cling to him.
I want to be with him. More than anything in the world, I want to be with him. But this time… I'm willing to lose him.
I'm sorry, Kenshin, if I can only apologize to you in my mind. I'm too busy trying to keep the sobs from escaping my throat, because I know that if you heard me you will immediately run back and hold me in your arms once more, and we both know that this time, you won't let me go.
There were many reasons why I cried that night. The irony of that moment was one of them.
He left, wanting to stay. And I stayed, wanting him to leave.
I'm sorry, Kenshin. I really, truly am. But I just don't want to be selfish anymore.
Startled out of her thoughts, the little girl blinked and looked up towards the source of the voice. "What is it, okaa-san?"
Her mother stared worriedly down at her. "You've been quiet ever since we left that shop." She grasped her daughter's hand more tightly. "Are you all right?"
The little girl smiled and nodded. "Yes, of course."
The concern did not disappear from her mother's eyes. They were walking down the usual alley where the clothing stalls were, but her daughter did not even spare a glance at them.
How could she ignore something she loved so much?
"Kaoru-chan," said her mother after a while. "I was just wondering…"
The little girl cocked her head to one side. "About what?"
Her mother pressed her lips together before she spoke. "Why don't you want that kimono anymore?"
Surprised, the little girl stopped in her tracks. "The… the kimono?" she repeated timidly.
Her mother knelt down and gently stroked the little girl's hair. "I know you too well, Kaoru-chan. Even though you never told me, I knew you wanted that kimono. You wanted it ever since we came to that shop two years ago." Her eyebrows creased as she carefully grasped her daughter's arm. "Why don't you want it now?"
The normally boisterous child surprised her mother by speaking so softly. "It's too beautiful."
Her mother blinked in confusion. "Too… beautiful?"
"Hai," said the little girl as she looked down at herself. Her chubby little hands ran over the frayed material of her worn gi – a type of clothing unfit for a girl. She had been practicing with her father that morning, and she could already see the first marks of a lifetime's worth of calluses on her palms. "I realized it when I held the kimono up to the mirror to see if it would suit me. And I realized that I was too ugly to wear something that was made for a princess."
"Don't say that," came her mother's voice, gentle but firm. "And you are a princess, Kaoru." Her fingers, soft and smooth and so unlike those of her daughter's, tenderly slipped underneath the little girl's chin and tilted her face up so that their gazes met. "You are our little hime-chan."
Her hime-chan only smiled and shook her head. "There are prettier girls out there, okaa-san. It wouldn't do for someone so ordinary like me to wear something so… so unique and special and precious like that kimono."
The little girl gently fingered the sleeves of the kimono her mother wore. It was the same jade kimono they bought from the shop two years ago for her parents' anniversary. "You told me once before that a work of art should be judged by the heart of the artist who made it. And for some reason, even though I never knew who made that red kimono…"
She reached up and clasped a hand over her heart. "Somehow… I felt that the artist created that kimono for a much higher purpose." A small smile appeared on her face. "There are other girls out there who probably have every reason to buy such a rare kimono like that. It might be something that they really need. While I…" Her voice turned soft, almost guilty. "I sought that kimono… just because it was something that I wanted." She looked up to meet her mother's startled gaze. "That would just be too selfish of me, wouldn't it?"
"And what's more, those girls will be able to show the true beauty of that kimono to the world." She chuckled softly, a sound of happy indifference, but only her mother heard the tiniest hint of bitterness camouflaged in that sound. "Because if that kimono falls into the hands of a girl like me, who will always be hidden in the dojo and following my father's path of the sword that protects life… that kimono will be hidden in the shadows along with me. And it wouldn't be fair for such a beautiful piece of art to be in shadows, ne, okaa-san?"
Her mother's eyes widened.
"It really is such a beautiful kimono," the little girl continued as she casually shrugged her shoulders. "But I have no regrets in letting it go. I know it will serve a much better purpose than to be owned by someone like me."
And her mother could only watch in awe as the brightest, truest smile she had ever seen appeared on Kamiya Kaoru's face.
"It's okay, okaa-san. I just don't want to be selfish anymore."
End of part one
A/N: Has anybody noticed by now that my fics are very Kaoru-centric? ;) I can't help it. She is my favorite character after all.
And don't you just love the background music playing in that departure scene? It's Intermezzo by Pierto Mascagini, I think. Sigh… just listening to it makes me fall in love with the couple all over again…