A/n Hi everyone! Sorry it took so long to get this out. Thank you to those reviewers that keep bugging me to update. Hehe. It really helps. I love all the ideas everyone is sending me.
TexasDreamer- LOL your review made me laugh so hard. I can totally see that happening too. But yeah, poor Megumi.
Enough of my rambling. On to the story. Any editing mistakes are my own fault.
Disclaimer: I don't own Kenshin or this story.
They stared at each other, the words hanging in the air between them. They could not be unsaid. They could not be ignored. No honor. If any man had said that to him, they would be dead by now. But this was a woman, the woman who had burrowed under his skin, into his heart, against all reason, all sense.
He had hurt her, he could see, as much as she had just hurt him. And, from the stricken look in those wide blue eyes, she was bitterly regretting what she had said, where as he at least knew he was doing the right thing. It was like searing a bleeding wound with a red hot knife- agony, but the right thing. Something had to be done and to be endured.
"Do you mean that?" He realized spoken out loud.
"No. No, I don't mean that, I'm sorry for it." Kaoru closed her eyes for a moment. He knew just how the tender skin of her lids felt under his lips, against the sweep of his tongue. He forced himself to stand still and hear her out.
"You have hurt me beyond reason, beyond my ability to hold back my words. I trusted you and you have failed to live up to that, but it's my fault, for we have no agreement. I believe you have acted as you see best. You must forgive me if I hate you for it."
Kenshin flinched inwardly as she shook her head in frustration, searching for the words to express how she felt.
"You are an honorable man, I acknowledge it; I hope to never be in the power of another."
She turned and walked back to her shelter. "Kaoru-" Kenshin took one long step, and then stopped as she threw up her hand, eyes wide and shimmering with emotion.
"Your dinner is in the pot. If you touch me now, I swear I will take that knife and I will hurt… one of us." She raised the flap and vanished inside.
The long, aching sigh knifed his ribs. Kenshin welcomed the pain. It was physical, he could deal with it. Not like the pain in his heart, in his mind, in- he was very much afraid- his soul. He stood there, staring into the red heart of the fire, aware what was blurring his vision was not the heat, but unshed tears. When had he last wept?
The night he had left his family and gone to join Aoshi's household, that was when. Seven years old, skinny as a rail, all hands and feet he had yet to grow into. As terrified as a puppy thrown to the wolves. He had sobbed his heart out, his face buried in his blankets for fear someone would hear, and the next morning Aoshi-the king, by all that was wonderful- had stopped and looked down at him and laid a hand fleetingly on his shoulder. "My smallest warrior." He had said, and Kenshin never wept again.
Looking back, especially since his experience with Yahiko, he guessed the king had heard him in the night. But, Kaoru had been stronger than he had; she had not given way to her fears until sleep had overwhelmed her. Her words slashed at his nerves like white-hot knives. He had hurt her beyond reason, she said, yet even carrying that hurt like a wound, she had the grace to take back her accusations about his honor. He expected the woman of his own kind to have honor, to understand it. He had not expected that from a caged bird.
"Kenshin?" It was Yahiko, hovering anxiously just at the edge of the fire's reflected glow. It had become dark while he stood there.
"Come eat, if it has not burned. Kaoru has... gone to bed, that she has."
The boy did not come closer. "Megumi told me what you've done."
"And you think I'm wrong?" He snapped. It was unfair, but he had to hit out at someone.
"No, Kenshin-sama. If you decide, then it must be right," Yahiko said loyally, misery in his eyes.
Kenshin rolled his shoulders and forced himself to relax. "Come. You can tell me what you think. I will not be angry, that I won't."
"I... I like Kaoru. I don't want you to send her away."
"She loves you like a younger brother. She said so." Kenshin reached for a bowl and began to ladle meat from the pot. "Here, eat."
"Does she?" The boys eyes lit up. "She is very brave, isn't she?" he asked as he finally stepped forward and took the bowl.
"Very." Kenshin realized he had reduced the bread he had been holding to crumbs in mere seconds while in his deep thoughts. "She's going to need to be, to go back to her own people."
"You will send her back, then?" Even with his brow wrinkle in anxiety, Yahiko was capable of spooning food into his mouth. Kenshin wondered if he would ever feel like eating again. "Won't they be mean to her because she's been your lover?'
So much for discretion. The pain made him speak harshly. "Yes they will. Which do you think she will prefer? That, or for Tomoe to be her mistress?"
Yahiko's eyes dropped to his bowl and he did not speak until he had chewed for a while. "It's not easy, knowing what is the honorable thing to do, is it? I thought it would be easy when I was a man, that I would know. But it isn't"
Out of the mouths of babes. "Then learn from it," Kenshin said "We sail in six days."
… . . …
Kenshin woke in the night, thinking someone was moving in the tent, and then he heard the sound of weeping and knew Kaoru was crying in her sleep again. Kaoru would not consciously give way, not while she knew he was near. Kenshin lay there, staring up into the dark, fighting the urge to get up and take her in his arms.
He gave in, rolling quietly out of bed so as to not wake Yahiko, and crept round to Kaoru's side. He raised the flap to her section of the tent. At the slight noise the tan oval of a face tipped up towards him. It was Yahiko, hunkered down beside her, her hand in his. She had stopped crying and was lying peacefully asleep.
"Go away," the boy hissed, his face contorted with tears Kenshin knew he would rather have died than have seen.
He nodded abruptly and let the tent flap drop. Yahiko was growing up. His heart contracted. Jealousy? Of a boy? The boy took it upon himself to comfort Kaoru while he lay there undecided. Kenshin made himself stand up straight, dress and walk outside and over to the horse lines. He would walk the perimeter- there was going to be no sleep tonight.
… . . …
Kaoru woke to find Yahiko asleep across the entrance to her tent and Saitou with his head on her feet.
He scrambled up, knuckling his eyes and looking uncomfortable. "What on earth are you both doing in my side of the tent?"
He looked away. "We were keeping you company. You were… upset in the night."
"Oh. Thank you," she said softly, reaching out to touch his shoulder. "That was very gallant of you. Where is Kenshin?" There, she said his name; it wasn't as hard as she had feared.
"Gone into the city. At least, that's what he said he was going to do early this morning. We are helping with loading supplies on the ships."
"Then you need to hurry and eat breakfast and go and join him." She said. He nodded and lifted the tent flap. "Will he be angry with you for staying with me?"
"Don't know." Yahiko frowned. "Don't care."
"He's doing what he believes is the right thing," Kaoru said. She had no wish to see Yahiko become disillusioned with his master. That would be a despicable revenge.
"He made you cry."
"In my sleep? Is that why you came here?"
He nodded and was gone, Saitou padding behind him.
Kaoru washed, dressed and gave them both food, and then sat on a stool in the sun; her hands clasped around her knees and trying to think of what to do. To go back would be to enter into a world of disapproval and disgrace. Her father was still wanted her to marry, but she doubted he'd accept her now. A young widow was one thing, a retired geisha was one thing but a woman who was kidnapped away a bedded by a samurai warrior was doubtless quite another. And if he did take her, there would be the daily unspoken thought that she was married because of pity, and, if something went wrong, and he would no doubt throw her history at her face.
Or she could try and make a living here in the city by the sea. But that would be difficult, given that the chief magistrate knew who she was. He had everything to gain by letting a powerful instructor know the whereabouts of his missing daughter.
And what could she do? She had no craft skills, no money to start a business. She eyed the wagon and the driver's box seat. If she was correct, that contained part of a fortune in gold. Gold stolen from her city- surely she had as much right to it as Kenshin?
But he would argue that they were collecting on Takeda's unfulfilled promises. And whosever it truly was, take it would feel uncommonly like stealing. Or taking it to be compensated for the loss of her freedom and purity. Which was an uncomfortable thought.
"Are you ready?" It was Megumi, Her husband Sanosuke was by her side. He was tall, with crazy brown hair and kind eyes. He looked younger than Megumi, his skin tight over muscles, and tanned from the sun. All her children were well dressed, their faces still pink from a good scrubbing. "We're going to the temple, have you forgotten?"
"Yes." Kaoru admitted, getting to her feet. "I had." She was respectably enough dressed, she decided, joining the others.
Megumi's middle son, Sansu , took her hand and grinned up at her. A front tooth was missing and had a light dusting of freckles, dark brown hair that stuck up despite his mother's best efforts with a comb and water and had his father's deep brown eyes.
What would Kenshin's child look like? She wondered, feeling the knife twisting her breast as she thought it. What would our son look like? Could she seduce Kenshin before he left her? To do so well that he lost control and was no longer careful? Would once be enough?
And what kind of life would half-barbarian bastard child have back in her city, in a respectable household? Perhaps if she was in bad enough disgrace her parents would give her money and let her vanish to the many streets of Edo or elsewhere to set up a small business.
"Did you have a chance to speak with Kenshin last night about that matter?" Megumi asked, her voice light and casual so that Sanosuke and the children thought nothing of it. "Yahiko thought you might have."
"Yes. I spoke to him." It was an effort to match her tone. "He is determined upon that solution. I do not think I will change his mind."
"Change Kenshin's mind?" Overhearing, Sanosuke snickered. "He thinks long and hard, that one. Then when he decides, that is it. Bull-headed."
"Pig-headed, more like," Kaoru muttered. She wondered if there was a time when a woman was most fertile. Would Megumi suspect if she asked her? And was it fair to try to bring a child into the world without a father? No, she decided, if she could arrange it so there was no suspicion in this stigma. But what if she could not? The fantasy of a handsome purple eyed son helping her in a flourishing shop, were her newly acquired cooking skills drew a crowd of customers, faded, to be replaced by the memory of her father's face when he was in a rage, and she shivered. It was impossible, selfish dream.
"Here we are." Megumi stopped in front of the steps of what was obviously a new temple. The front was rich with inlaid stone, a doorway jammed with the orderly stream of well-dressed citizens and the smoke of incense and candles floated out to perfume the air. They filed in, their voices falling silent. The children were hushed by the high arched roof and the crowd.
Kaoru did not expect to be able to concentrate, but to her surprise the atmosphere, the rhythms of the service, the smells and the pools of light slanting down from the high windows, soothed her.
After a while she began to glance around discretely, shielded behind lowered lashes. The sight of respectable families seemed as alien as the first sight of samurai in their encampment had. She sighed, and a flash of red caught her eye.
Kenshin was down on one knee, his right arm resting on his thigh, his crimson head bent in contemplation or prayer. The light shone down from above, the dust swirling in the golden rays of light. It sparked off his hair and a breeze caused it to billow softly. The light glinted off the metal filaments of gold mixed in the crimson and it flowed down his back like a living thing.
She did not take her eyes from him. He was absolutely still, kneeling on the hard stone in the humble pose of devotion. Yet for all the still hands, vulnerable neck, the closed eyes, she could see the hard angles of his cheeks, this was no priest. No one, even seeing him now, couldn't mistake him for anything other than a hard man, a warrior.
And yet he had been gentle with her, always. Kaoru felt the love building in her heart until she thought it would burst, that she would cry out, that she would run to him. But she stayed still, her lips closed, her eyes fixed on him. She saw Kenshin open his eyes and then lift his head. The relaxed right hand closed and his head began to turn towards where she was standing and her breath caught. He had felt her gaze, felt her love, she knew it.
And then, a flutter of rich blue skirts. A figure moved to his side, blocking her view momentarily, and a tall figure stood elegant, hands clasped, eyes modestly lowered, In her ebony hair, a pure white ribbon, it's ends fluttered like swan's wings.
Kenshin stood. Kaoru could see him lower his head and speak softly to the other woman, whose cheeks colored. She felt pain in her hands and looked down, opening them. Four white crescents marked each palm. With a murmur of apology to Megumi, Kaoru eased her way back through the crowd and out of the temple. This was not the place to indulge in jealous thoughts, or to feel the peace of worship rent by dislike. They looked magnificent together. Appropriate. Meant. And she had to accept it.
Yahiko was lounging in the shade, holding the horses. "Why aren't you in the temple?" She scolded mildly, perching next to him on the stone wall.
"Why aren't you? Tomoe I figure." He grimaced, obviously not expecting an answer, then looked up at the clear sky. "There's going to be a storm."
"Surely not. There isn't a cloud." She shaded her eyes and squinted up. "And it is hot."
"Hotter than yesterday," Yahiko agreed. "Can't you feel it? The tingling under your skin? The pressure on your temples? Storm's coming."
"I thought that was just the way I was feeling. But you are right, it is oppressive."
"And look at Saitou." The Wolf, uncomfortable in the heat, was pacing back and forth, the slanting bright eyes narrowed, his tail low.
"I'd better go back and start digging drainage channels around the tent and wagons. We're in a good position- up the slope, but not on steep ground. We won't get flooded, but if there is a cloud burst we could have a sheet of water sweeping down through the tents if I don't make the channel."
"Do you do this very often?" Kaoru blinked at his brisk efficiency.
"Only during the wet season. "He granted and swung up on his horse, tossing the reins of the other to Kaoru. "Tell Kenshin what I'm doing. I don't need any help."
He cantered off, leaving Kaoru sitting on the wall, regarding the ugly gray horse with some concern. What was she supposed to do now? Sit here like a stable boy in the full view of passersby and the worshipers until Kenshin came out of the temple? She could just hitch the animal to the nearest tree. People would be unlikely to steal it with the Wolf on guard, but Kenshin might be angry with Yahiko for leaving it.
She was still thinking when the worshipers began to file out. Kaoru hopped down, smoothed her clothes as best she could and tried to hide behind the horse.
"Goodness, has that boy of yours started wearing skirts?" Tomoe, of course.
"No." At the sound of Kenshin's voice, Kaoru got under the gray's neck, not willing to be discovered sulking. "Kaoru! Where's Yahiko?"
"He has gone back to camp. He says there's going to be a thunderstorm and he wanted to dig drainage channels." She thrust the reins into his hands. "Good day, Tomoe."
The wide, gray eyes shot pure poison at her, but the other woman smiled sweetly. "How novel, Kenshin, a female slave to look after your horse." She did not return Kaoru's greeting.
Kaoru flushed, biting her lip to catch back the retort. She was a slave, even if Kenshin didn't treat her like one.
"Kaoru is not a slave." Kenshin said flatly, making both women jump.
"Oh really? Then what exactly is she?"
'Damn, he walked right into that one.' Kaoru thought with a flash of grim humor. 'What's he going to say? That I'm his lover?' She nearly scoffed but as she caught Kenshin's eye and saw an answering sardonic look in them. It was back, that bond of understanding between them, and suddenly she could have laughed out loud.
"Kaoru Kamiya is a guest." He replied calmly. Tomoe's mouth dropped. "A guest who comes and goes as she pleases and is kind enough to take care of Yahiko and myself at the moment."
"Indeed, you have many geisha friends, do you?"
"No." Kenshin kept his calm. That seemed to be infuriating Tomoe almost more than anything else. "She's doing wonders for Yahiko's domestic skills."
With and undignified and unlady-like snort, Tomoe spun on her heal and stalked off, her immaculate silks flapping behind her.
"You've upset her." Kaoru observed.
"She has a temper. We value women of spirit sometimes, that we do." Kenshin was still frowning at the retreating figure.
"Does she own a sword?"
"I'm not even going to answer that." He turned back and regarded Kaoru seriously. "Are you alright?"
"No, if you want the honest truth. But I'll live. Nothing I'm going to say is going to change your mind, is it?"
"There is no good answer to this mess," he said, his purple eyes sliding over her with a look that was like a caress of regret. "I believe I've decided on the least bad one."
"Perhaps you have." Kaoru gave a little shiver. "Is Yahiko right about the storm?"
Kenshin turned on his heel and stared south. "Yes, see."
Far away, a distant smudge at the horizon, a thin dark line marked the division between the sea and the sky, where for days there had been nothing to show where one blue ran out and the other started. "That's why it's so warm, the storm is coming. Go back to camp and get ready for the evening meal but put everything that will be damaged by the rain into the chests. Take the tents down. Yahiko will move the heavy stuff out and put it under the wagons to make room inside for us, then we will stretch canvas over the top and tie it down."
"Is it going to be bad?" Seemed like a lot of trouble to go through for a thunderstorm.
"I don't know." Kenshin confessed. "We've never been here much before. But I will go down to the harbor and tell them to stop loading and concentrate on making thing secure. Kaoru-" He stopped, frowning. "I'm sorry about Tomoe."
There was no gracious way to answer that, so she simply said what she thought. "So am I."
A/n Ahhh, angst…only a matter of time before you decided to show up. Poo. I never did like making Tomoe a rat, but it's just and perfect part of her…for now at least. And it looks like Kenshin is sticking with his plan even though everyone else thinks he's nuts. But I have a feeling he's not going to have easy time giving her up.