For BelleDayNight, who wanted more, and I was happy to oblige. Sorry I took so long.
For other readers, this is an extended version of my one-shot, The Right Man. You can find it on FFNet, probably about ten links below this story. Or you can find it in my profile.
Disclaimer: Neither Rurouni Kenshin nor its characters belong to me. Sigh.
Note: Thoughts are in italics. Sometimes emphasis is also expressed through italics. I've also used terms from the series. This takes place a couple of years after the Jinchuu arc, but with some changes. Please remember, back then a woman was expected to be married quite young, so to be past 19 or so made it harder to find a suitable husband.
rurouni: a Watsuki-fabricated term meaning 'wanderer'
busu: old, ugly hag
sakabatou: Kenshin's reversed-edge sword
-dono: extremely polite honorific attached to names to indicate the speaker's lower position (as opposed to -san, which is the most commonly used form)
shinai: a bamboo practice sword
"Kaoru-dono, this unworthy one must go." Kenshin Himura stood in the yard of the dojo, his meager belongings secured in a small satchel, the sakabatou at his hip.
"I know. I had hoped there would be…reason enough for you to stay." Kaoru's eyes were bright with unshed tears. She had felt it in the air, like the charge that builds before a storm.
" Don't. You left me once. I was terribly hurt, but not broken. This time will be no different." Kaoru's lower lip quivered. "You will always be welcome here. Farewell, Kenshin. May you find what you seek."
Kenshin opened his mouth, but shut it when nothing came out. He hadn't expected such a reaction. Gone was the naïve, headstrong tomboy; a calmer, matured woman stood in her place. He nodded.
"Thank you for everything, Kaoru-dono. Perhaps we'll meet again someday." He turned and walked through the gate, slowly disappearing down the path. Only when Kaoru could no longer see his form did she allow herself to cry.
Kenshin never looked back.
Kaoru knew, from the beginning of her relationship with Kenshin, that she was most likely going to suffer the pain of separation. She knew this, and she knew she could not avoid it. It would be more painful to prolong the inevitable, and having been nearly three years in his company, it was painful enough already. That knowledge didn't make it any easier for her, though, when her rurouni decided it was time to pick up and leave again, wherever the wind would take him. You knew it was coming, Kaoru told herself. You knew that, one day, he would need to continue on his journey of atonement. You couldn't keep him here, no matter how much you loved him.
Friends helped, they always did…but where were her friends now? Megumi was in Aizu, Yahiko was in Sano's old lodgings (he was maybe still a little too young to share such heartache with, anyway), Tae was always busy with the Akabeko, and Sanosuke…well, god knew where he was. Being alone was nothing new for Kaoru, and even though she hadn't been alone for a little while now, she could get used to it again. She was independent. She was a strong woman—she would live through this. She would be fine.
The next day, Kaoru went to the market. As she visited the stalls, she realized people were staring and whispering behind her back. She could her snippets of conversations as she walked past.
"…such a terrible scandal for a man to suddenly leave a woman all alone, after they'd been living together for years."
"They weren't even married and they were living together in the same house!"
"Well, it was to be expected, wasn't it? Who would marry such a tomboy?"
Kaoru straightened her spine, gripped her tofu bucket a little tighter and silently dared anyone to say anything directly to her face. She had been the target of gossip before, so this was nothing new. Still, she tried to buy her necessities as quickly as possible, with as much dignity as she could muster. When she finally made it home after that little ordeal, Yahiko was waiting for her. He was taller, darker, and now more man than the child that Kaoru wished he could remain. He had already learned all he could from her.
"Is it true?" Yahiko got right to the point. His deepening voice always shocked Kaoru, just a tiny bit.
"And a good afternoon to you too, Yahiko. How are you?" Kaoru breezed past him, heading towards the kitchen. Yahiko followed.
"He really left you? I thought…" Yahiko couldn't seem to find the words he was looking for.
"He continued on his journey, Yahiko. He never made any promises to stay here." With me. She began putting away her purchases.
"Are you all right?" Yahiko peered at her. He was tall enough now that he could see eye-to-eye with Kaoru.
Kaoru blinked thoughtfully. How could I possibly be all right? I am alone again, with a broken heart and a tattered reputation.
"Well," Kaoru paused momentarily. "The townspeople are gossiping. Kenshin's leaving after so much time makes things…difficult…for me."
Yahiko grimaced at the implications.
"I've decided to visit Misao in Kyoto for a while. It would be good to get out of Tokyo for a while, I think. Who knows, maybe I'll even ask her to help me find a suitable husband. One that can handle a woman teaching kendo." Kaoru smiled gently. This city reeks of Kenshin and the time we spent together.
"How about a woman who can't cook to save her life?" Yahiko snickered. A petite fist suddenly connected with his skull. "Ow!!"
He rubbed the sore spot. "What about a matchmaker?"
"Like I could afford one? Besides, I'm not really…quite…ready for that yet. I'm just considering my options. Anyway, Misao's network reaches a larger area than a regular old matchmaker's. And I'm pretty sure she can unearth every last detail about possible husbands that a matchmaker couldn't."
"You've got a point there. Given how men with questionable pasts just seem to flock to you, it's probably safer to do the background checks before you even see them." Yahiko teased. "Are you gonna write a letter or just go? Misao's gonna be pissed Kenshin left."
"I'll write a letter first. It'll give me some time to get things ready here. Would you mind taking care of things here and teaching the classes while I'm gone?"
"No problem, busu." Yahiko grinned.
"But first, I'm going to beat you so hard with this shinai…"
When did she get that in her hands? Yahiko sprinted off, laughing.
So with very little fanfare, Kaoru wrote a letter to Misao, informing her of her intentions to come stay a while. She might even help out at the Aoiya, if they would let her. The gods knew she could use some cooking lessons. She was not sure how long she intended to stay, but she thought it would be a good long while, if they didn't mind. Kaoru fervently hoped that they wouldn't mind.
With her letter off in the post, she knew it would take a day or two to get to Kyoto, and then another day or two (or three) for a response. Kaoru figured that she would have close to a week to prepare for her trip, mentally and physically.
A few short days later, surprisingly, a ninja showed up on Kaoru's doorstep.
"What on earth…?" Kaoru exclaimed, taking in one Aoshi Shinomori, stone-faced and towering in her doorway.
"I've come to escort you to Kyoto. We know how expensive a train ticket can be, and it is unwise to travel alone," Aoshi replied, removing his jacket and dusting off his dark clothing. "When you are ready, we will go."
Kaoru gaped for a moment like a fish out of water, but then collected herself. "Well, I suppose it was thoughtful of Misao to send you. I can take care of myself, but why ask for trouble? Thank you for the concern. Please, come in."
With that, she motioned Aoshi into her home and led the way to a room. No doubt Aoshi would not mind a few hours of rest.
Aoshi discreetly appraised her with one cold eye as he entered. This was not quite the same headstrong woman he remembered. But, it had been a while, and time has a way of making one wiser…Aoshi glanced at Kaoru's folded hands and thought, or at least, calmer.
"I do this for the debt I owe Himura. His friends will fall under my protection." He watched her step falter a moment, and realized the wanderer's leaving had wounded the kendo instructor more than he realized.
"Well, I'm not sure…I…Thank you for the…but that's not...I mean…" Kaoru stopped in her tracks, her back to Aoshi. She didn't know what to say—Hey, I don't fall under that category because I don't think friends leave friends alone? What do I say to that?
Aoshi placed a hand briefly on her shoulder, an unexpectedly comforting weight. Startled, Kaoru looked back at him over her shoulder, her cheek brushing his fingers. Their eyes locked—her eyes bright, his unfathomable. He let his hand drop, and Kaoru continued to look at him a moment longer. She gave a soft smile in appreciation of his unspoken kindness. He may be a man of few words, but his actions speak volumes. He understands more than I think he does.
She began walking again, leading him to a small bedroom. She gestured to it, saying, "I won't be ready to go for a day or so yet. I need to finish up some things here and prepare Yahiko for teaching the classes in my place. Please, get some rest. I know the journey had to have been hard. You made it here from Kyoto very quickly."
He nodded his thanks as he walked past her into the room. He deposited his jacket to the side of the small, folded futon in the center of the room. "If you don't mind, I'd like to prepare some tea…" he began, but Kaoru interrupted him.
"I'll prepare your tea. It is the least I can do," she bowed her head.
Aoshi nodded at her again, sitting down near the futon to clear his thoughts for a moment. When he opened his eyes next, Kaoru was at the doorway with a tray of tea and cakes. How long was I sitting here?
"I know you don't usually take snacks with your tea, but it's a habit I have," she smiled sheepishly. "I'll just leave your tray here, then…"
Aoshi looked at Kaoru, a young woman who wanted so obviously to spend time with someone (anyone) but trying desperately to hide it. Not knowing what possessed him, he asked, "Kamiya-san, why don't we take the tray to the sitting room and we can share tea together?"
The look of surprised joy on Kaoru's face lit something deep within him. It was a small spark, nothing more, but he thought, Am I so glad to have made her happy? Perhaps it was just that he, too, was a lonely soul, and he could recognize a kindred spirit in Kaoru.
Together, they walked wordlessly down the short hallway to the sitting room. Sitting across from each other, Aoshi was accustomed to silence. Kaoru, however, clearly was not, and after preparing the tea, she fidgeted a bit while trying to think of something to talk about.
"Are you uncomfortable around me, Kamiya-san?" Aoshi asked quietly, eyes direct and assessing. Obviously, he had noticed her fidgeting.
"No, not really," Kaoru answered. "I'm just so used to Yahiko and Sano around, the constant noise…I feel like I need to start a conversation."
"Sometimes, you can understand someone better by listening to what they don't say." Aoshi responded, a bit cryptically.
Kaoru gazed at him questioningly, a soft smile forming on her lips.
To Be Continued...
Author's note: There you have it, chapter 1. Hopefully I'll be able to update frequently, but I can't guarantee anything.