Continuing Tales

Hakama Dake

A Rurouni Kenshin Story
by Indygodusk

Part 3 of 16

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Earlier that day

Plucking a splinter from his sweat-slick thumb with his teeth, Kenshin glared down at the roof he was currently trying to fix. This day just kept getting better and better. Maybe next he'd get lucky and a mob of kids would start pelting him with rotten melons. Luckily Sano was there to help, or else he would have even longer to look forward to this torture.

Sano had proved to be surprisingly competent when it came to roof fixing. If not for the splinters and scorching sun, Kenshin might have enjoyed the satisfaction of working with his hands and the genial company. Megumi-dono had also been very solicitous, keeping them liberally supplied with drinks and snacks during the long hours of work.

Both Sano and he had expected it to be a quick repair job before the worst heat of the day descended like a ton of bricks. Unfortunately, once they climbed up Dr. Genzai's rickety ladder to the roof, they had realized that the entire section containing the hole was on the point of collapse and, from the rank smell of certain areas, rotting.

"They're lucky we work for cheap," Sano had laconically pointed out as he tightened his red headband in preparation for the sweaty labor ahead. Picking up a box of tools, they began stripping off the pieces that couldn't be repaired.

Megumi came out about an hour later in her medicinal smock to check on their progress and bring them some drinks, "Whew, it sure got hot quick. Well, how goes it Ken-san?"

Before he could answer, Sano broke in, "We've about finished what you paid us for."

"What do you mean by that Sagara? You're doing this for free," Megumi retorted with narrowed eyes.

"Which is why before we go any further, we need to renegotiate wages. Otherwise this roof might have to stay broken for a while," he cockily replied.

"Now Sano," Kenshin started to placate, but Megumi broke in.

"Oh really? That sounds reasonable," she purred. "Yes, tallying up the costs of all your medical care in the last year that you still haven't paid for, along with food consumed and those nights you needed a cot to sleep on after a drunken binge, I believe that you should be paying us, oh," putting one elegant finger to her pursed ruby lips she paused, "oh yes, several thousand yen in addition to the fixing of this roof."

Sano's audible gulp made the fierce light in Megumi's eyes shine brighter and brought a smirk to her lips.

"Now Megumi-dono," Kenshin tried to break in between their staring contest, "you know Sano doesn't have that kind of money right now."

"Ohohoho, of course the rooster-head doesn't," she paused, "which is why I will content myself with the fixing of my roof… for now." At Sano's glare she laughed. "Feel free to take a short break and have a drink, but I expect you back at work by the time I return." After delivering her parting shot, she sauntered back inside.

Jumping down from the roof, Kenshin gratefully lifted the cup of cool tea and took a refreshing sip, washing away the salty taste of sweat and dust from his lips. Thankfully, Sano hadn't irritated her so much that she'd taken their drinks with her.

"Damn Fox," Sano grumbled, still staring after the departing woman as he grabbed his own drink.

"What, did you expect she'd actually pay us to fix this roof?" Kenshin questioned with mingled exasperation and amusement.

"No, I was just-" Sano sighed and took a deep drink. "Damn Fox, I'll get her one of these days… You don't think she'll really make me repay all that money, do you?" Finishing his tea, Sano clapped Kenshin on the shoulder and climbed back up onto the roof without waiting for his answer. Setting his own empty cup down, Kenshin joined him and started adding wooden nails to the remaining roof sections.

Despite Sano's grumbling, Kenshin doubted he had much to worry about. Despite being a self-professed freeloader with a high tab at almost every restaurant in the city, Sano always managed to find money when he really needed it. He had a quality about him that made people like him, sometimes in spite of themselves, as he suspected was the case with Megumi-dono. She liked him too much to ever call him on his full debt (unless he really really pissed her off). Just how far beyond 'like' those feelings might go, Kenshin had his suspicions, but for now the two of them seemed content with verbal sparring every chance they could get.

Kenshin sometimes wished that his own credit problems were so tangible. His credit, or karma as Aoshi would say, had never been that great. What sins must he have committed in his last life? After all, his earliest memories revolved around the death of his family, and then the kind women who'd tried to take care of him during his slavery. In fact, if living with Hiko as a student was supposed to lead to his personal redemption, he'd ruined that too.

After all of the blood and suffering he'd caused as a hitokiri, he didn't think that even ten years of wandering and atoning had balanced the ledgers. In Kenshin's eyes, he still owed the good spirits. He owed them for the copper tang of blood now staining the lives of so many wives, daughters, and sons. Although he accepted this fact, he had thought at the time and still believed those actions necessary.

For the rebirth of an era, he had paid both his past and his future. No birth, short or long, is ever easy. All are strewn with blood, excrement, and pain. Kenshin had learned all too well that change and rebirth require suffering. Slitting open the purse of his soul to pay for an ephemeral dream, he had never imagined that over a decade later he would yearn for just a little of that coin back. Not much, not enough to undo the good his silent carnage had wrought, but just enough that he might rest easy going to a woman and saying, though it isn't much, take this good of mine to add to the storehouse of your own and let us use it to build a life together.

But he didn't have that bit of credit. Instead, he had a debt to the gods that would curse any woman foolish enough to take him in marriage. It had cursed his first wife, Tomoe. And it would curse any woman foolish enough, kind enough, generous, beautiful, tempestuous, compelling and blind enough to take him to her heart.

God help him, but he didn't know how much longer he could resist the selfish voice daring him to tempt that curse, to grasp that dream, to do more than just stay with her. Did he in his arrogance think wishing could ameliorate his debt to the gods so easily, or that they were so simply fooled? No, no, his arrogance did not extend to that. It might be less contemptible if it did. Instead, he knew of the darkness that clung to his future and yet was too weak to allow the sun full reign in the lives of those around him.

By staying with her so long, he flaunted his weakness to himself and the gods. He'd skimmed tragedy more than once, almost lost her more than once. Nevertheless, his heart refused to take the warnings as wisdom. His heart wanted to stay – to thrust roots deep and fast into the rich, black soil of her home, to twine sinewy branches around the wooden walls, to extend stems veined with life-bearing sap, to spread jade-hued leaves in broad swaths to protect her tender flesh from the harsh elements. He wanted her to sink down between his cradling roots, curl her supple body against his trunk, and let the swaying susurrations of his branches lull her into a dreamland where sorrows disappeared and only joy dwelt.

For that was what she did for him. To Kenshin, every time he returned to the dojo and saw the weather-beaten kanji sign standing sentinel at the gate, stepped through to the faint, lingering essence of jasmine entwined with the scent of the pines in the courtyard, sensed the emanations of her melodic ki, and heard her happy "Okaeri," he remembered. He remembered that for now his wandering was over and he lived with joy; he lived with Kaoru.

Fixing roofs wasn't so bad; it was the blazing sun that made the experience nigh unbearable. Kenshin feared that he might melt through the hole in the roof to permanently stain the clinic floor in a puddle of orange, red, and white. Small children would point in disgust and shriek about blood, but Megumi-dono would calm them down and tell them "not to worry, just the remains of the resident rurouni who melted in that last heat wave, don't you remember? See how the outline and colors form his hair, gi, and hakama? Now mind your mothers when ordered out of the sun," and she'd send them calmly on their way.

At the bizarre turn of his thoughts, Kenshin wondered if he had been working out in the sun too long. Perhaps it was time for another break? Sweat soaked his gi and the folds of his hakama, a testament more to the violent heat than to any strenuous labor. While working, his sweat-spiked bangs dripped intermittently onto his cheeks, hands, and the floor far below.

Sano had only lasted a scarce half-hour after their first tea break before stripping off his jacket and the bandages around his waist. Kenshin was sorely tempted to do the same, but common sense held him back. It wasn't that he felt shy; there were just certain things he knew better than to do, like strip down to just hakama while up on a roof next to a busy street.

Most of the people in town had no idea that Kenshin the rurouni was once known as the Hitokiri Battousai. Many even thought him a bumbler with few skills to speak of. The scars crisscrossing his muscled torso, however, told a different and very bloody story. Many of those scars would raise questions he'd rather not have to answer and bring trouble he'd rather not have to deal with. So he continued working in sweat-soaked misery while Sanosuke labored alongside fractionally cooler in only his white pants.

Wiping the stinging sweat off his forehead with one hand, Kenshin leaned down through the open section of roof and called out a respectful, "Megumi-dono?"

"Coming Ken-san!" her voice replied from deeper within the clinic. A second later she strode into the room below them, still looking down as she wiped her hands clean on a towel.

"Are you two ready for lu–" at this point Megumi finished drying her hands, looked up, and froze.

Observing her unmoving form and stunned face with confusion, Kenshin followed her arrested gaze. It currently rested upon one very oblivious Sagara Sanosuke. A shirtless and sweaty Sano who, after nailing down his final rafter, sat with muscled arms crossed behind his head as he grinned in boyish pride down at his work. Kenshin supposed it was a sight to make any woman pause. Then again, Kaoru might take the opportunity while Sano was distracted to throw something at him and make him lose his balance, he thought with a smile.

"Megumi-dono," Kenshin spoke quietly, trying to break her out of her trance without calling Sano's attention to it. "Megumi-dono."

"Huh," she turned blank eyes and parted lips his way before shaking herself the way a dog sheds water, "Right. Are you two ready for bed- I mean a break? You must be hungry." Smiling weakly, she gestured inside, "Your lunch is all set out in the main room."

At the word lunch, Sano came out of his self-congratulations to heartily agree to a break. Unfortunately, he was too late to see Megumi's former absorption, and she very carefully kept her back turned as she led them inside the clinic.

Hakama Dake

A Rurouni Kenshin Story
by Indygodusk

Part 3 of 16

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