Continuing Tales

Hakama Dake

A Rurouni Kenshin Story
by Indygodusk

Part 4 of 16

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Inside the clinic, Megumi sat the two of them down at a bench out of the way of rest of the patients. Sano immediately dug into his bowl of cold noodles, but Kenshin paused to survey the room. At the moment it only held two groups of people.

The first group consisted of a mother and her three children. The youngest looked recently born, tiny hand trustingly clutching a sibling's finger as he napped quietly against his mother's breast. No one looked ill or injured, and their ki seemed calm without the darkness that portended pain. He assumed it wasn't an urgent visit, perhaps a follow-up check on how the new babe was dealing with the heat.

The other group seemed to be comprised of three young men, boys almost. One had a bandaged forearm. His two friends kept looking toward the hallway where Megumi had disappeared to. Most likely they waited for some last medicine or advice before taking off.

Cradling the cool blue ceramic bowl containing his lunch, Kenshin took a deep whiff of the salty broth. After swallowing the first bite of cold noodles, he sighed in satisfaction. He enjoyed the occasional break, eating delicious food prepared by someone else.

Poor Kaoru was willing to give him a break with the cooking. Despite good intentions though, her efforts always seemed to meet with disaster at some stage before they reached the table. No, he could call Kaoru's cooking many things, but delicious wasn't one of them. Nevertheless there were other compensations. The slightest compliment on any aspect of her cooking made her normally boisterous smile shy and her sky blue eyes glow. Plus she was getting better at making things taste edible.

Smiling, he took another bite and wondered if she might finish teaching at her friend's dojo late, and be able to join them at the clinic for lunch. He didn't want her to have to eat by herself. She might enjoy a break from eating something cooked by him too.

Over the sound of Sano slurping, Kenshin heard a familiar name spoken by the trio of young men. Cocking his head, he took a sip of the salty broth and started paying attention to their conversation.

"Bet you thought classes being cancelled today would mean no new wounds, ne Nakago?" teased the taller of the two uninjured boys leaning against the wall next to where their bandaged friend sat.

"Very funny, Naomu," the injured Nakago replied, sticking out his tongue.

"If you ask me," the third boy broke in, "we all got more cuts, scrapes, and bruises from trying to dig that well than we would have from a simple lesson. After an hour I was willing to go beg Sensei to beat on me for a while just to escape the digging."

"I wish you had, then maybe I would have gone with you and not cut myself on that damn shovel," Nakago responded.

"Jirou's just sad because he didn't get to have Kamiya-Sensei help him correct his stance today," Naomu threw in, laughing at Jirou's blush.

At Kaoru's name, Kenshin's body tensed. Carefully he set down his bowl.

"When she gets done with you, she's welcome to put her hands on me anytime she likes," Nakago said suggestively. "Have you guys noticed all of those 'private lessons' our Sensei have together? I wouldn't mind some private lessons, up close and personal, with Kamiya myself." Nakago and Naomu laughed together, though Naomu's laugh sounded a bit surprised at Nakago's daring.

Through the roaring in his ears, Kenshin dimly heard a sharp crack. It took him a moment to identify the sound as his chopsticks snapping from the furious clenching of his hands.

Jirou straightened up from his slouch against the wall looking uncomfortable, "Kamiya-Sensei isn't like that. You should be more respectful."

Nakago sighed and rolled his eyes, "I have a lot of respect for Kamiya's," he paused, making the lack of honorific even more obvious the second time, "luscious body and her way with a sword."

"Nakago!" Jirou choked out.

"Besides," he continued undaunted, "she lives alone with two guys she isn't related to, and that street brawler and who knows how many other men always stop by. It's not like she hasn't done or heard it before."

Kenshin, face hidden behind the fall of his scarlet hair, shook from the effort it took to stay seated.

Don't move. Don't you dare get up, Himura! Don't start, because despite their words they are just stupid kids who take advantage of this peace to say shit like that. Don't start something unless you can guarantee you won't regret the way you finish it. Kaoru won't thank you for cutting up her students, even if they do deserve it and you won't regret it. Control, Himura, control.

Sano had, by this time, finished his noodles with a satisfied belch. Noticing Kenshin's white knuckles clenching a pair of broken chop sticks and the fine tremors shaking his body, Sano's senses went on high alert. Looking around, he quickly focused his attention on the object of Kenshin's rage. He tuned in just in time to hear the linking of his name with Kaoru's.

"Little bastards," Sano hissed, making no effort to keep his voice low as he stood up to his full five foot eight inches of height. At Sano's movement, Kenshin's tightly strung nerves sent him lunging upwards as well.

Expressions of horror dawned on the three's faces as they turned to see an enraged Sano and Kenshin looming across the room.

Glancing at Kenshin from the corner of his eye, Sano saw something there that made him flinch. Reaching over, he squeezed his arm warningly, "I'll take care of this."

Turning back to the trio with a mean look in his eye, Sano advanced menacingly. "Would you like to insult Jou-chan to my face? Or maybe to her face you shit-faced little punks? Take your pick, 'cause either one of us will happily kick your asses," Sano finished in a bass growl, cracking his knuckles.

Blanching, Nakago scrambled to his feet and the three raced out the door, tripping and whimpering apologies as they ran.

Megumi returned with a pouch of herbs just in time to witness their frenzied exit.

"What was all that about?"

Seeing Sano striding off after the fleeing boys while rhythmically clenching and unclenching his fists, her eyes narrowed.

"Sano," her voice accused, "what did you do to my patients?"

Freezing, he took a deep breath and somehow managed to refocus on Megumi. "Nothing, yet…. They were talking shit about Jou-chan."

Megumi's eyes and posture hardened even more, though this time it wasn't directed at Sano. "Guess he doesn't want these herbs for the pain after all." She glanced at Kenshin's rigid form before softly commenting, "Didn't realize you guys were in the room, huh," and then dropping the subject.

"I had a patient who owed me a favor drop off the rest of the roofing supplies you two said you needed, so you should be all set to finish this afternoon." Flinging her hair back over her shoulder she continued with a raised brow, "If, that is, you're done eating?"

Kenshin looked over at the children staring at them wide-eyed from behind the edge of their mother's faded yukata, then down at his still half-full bowl of noodles sitting abandoned in their broth on the bench. He'd lost his appetite. Keeping his head tilted down, he padded noiselessly outside and back up to the roof.

Often he blessed the length of his bangs, long enough that with a well-practiced tilt of his head, he could hide his eyes and the secrets they told. Living with Hiko, never one to comment on personal appearance unless it related to sword work, he had forgotten about his eyes. Forgotten or perhaps never known, perhaps as a child he had looked different. Whatever the case, once he left to join the revolution, the oddity of his eyes and the secrets they told was made clear to Kenshin.

While he had never owned a mirror, Kenshin did possess exceptional hearing. Often whispers told him what personal observation could not: that as his moods changed so too did his eyes. When calm, thoughtful, or sad, his eyes appeared a light purple. Intense emotions, though, such as anger or grief, lust or joy, changed them. When in the grip of those feelings, his eyes were said to turn a bright gold.

He spent most of the revolution with eyes of gold. More than once he'd heard himself described as an amber-eyed demon who bathed in the blood of his victims, staining his hair crimson with crusted blood. Mostly he'd ignored the whispers, but during the dead of night when the air pressed thick with the cloying perfume of night-blooming flowers, sometimes during those nights he'd wonder about changing something he could control. He'd wonder about dying his hair black, or if cutting it all off would be worth the shame if it would stop half of the whispers.

In later years he'd contemplated how assassination work and, he was embarrassed to admit, volatile teenage hormones had combined to almost make him forget the early whispers of violet eyes. It took a few years of wandering, reparation, and maturing before the purple reappeared in his eyes and dominated. Even so, the gold still escaped when his control weakened and his passions flared. At those times, hearing the shocked exclamations brought up memories of a time he worked so hard to forget.

So he kept his bangs long. When he felt too strongly about something, he tried to remember to hide whatever color they betrayed behind a screen of shadow and scarlet strands.

Kaoru had noticed, though. He could tell she had noticed something. How much she knew or suspected, however, he couldn't be entirely sure. Usually her expressive face shifted and shouted her moods clearly, leaving no doubt as to just what she felt about of a person or situation. Every so often, though, she would subtly retreat behind a wall of cheerfulness that, when looked at closely, was only a translucent screen obscuring the shadows cast by her thoughts. Her usual transparency made these times cut more sharply, because unlike other people, he knew Kaoru had to make an effort to hide her thoughts. She had to make an effort to consciously deceive.

Kenshin thought she had noticed his habit of hiding his eyes because she'd offered to cut his hair several times. The last time was only a month ago.

Hesitant footfalls announced her presence on the shaded porch where he sat. She came almost to his side before kneeling down, carefully smoothing the edge of her red and purple flowered kimono under her knees. The movement wafted a subtle fragrance of jasmine across his body. Slowly, like a rabbit poised to retreat back to the bushes if startled, one of her small hands reached out. Curious, he kept still. Three fingers gently lifted a lock of his hair, her calluses catching roughly on a few fiery strands.

"It's getting so long," she mused, finger combing the last few inches tentatively. The soft feathering of her fingers on his back loosened tense muscles and drew a soft shuddering sigh from his lips. She continued speaking after a few moments. His eyes felt heavy lidded from the glancing touch of her fingers, "I could trim it for you, along with your bangs. Then we'd both be able to see more clearly." Her gentle voice of teasing failed to completely cover the serious undertone.

Wha-, what does she mean by that? Languor evaporating, he tensed, unable to control the flash of confused apprehension her words caused. She must have felt the muscles stiffening beneath the brush of her hand. Her fingers stopped their tentative combing and paused in a warm fan along the base of his spine, pinky resting along the top of his hakama.

"This unworthy one would not want to bother you, Kaoru-dono. Do not worry about me. I can see well enough, that I can."

A moment more of silence passed before she removed her small, hot hand and stood up. "All right, Kenshin, if you are sure…."

"Thank you for your concern, Kaoru-dono," he replied, hoping she wasn't hurt or mad.

She sighed, but when he turned to look her face seemed cheerful and serene. He could tell that her screen was up, hiding what she really felt.

"Kaoru-dono…" he didn't know what to say. He only knew he wanted the face she showed him to be real.

Searching the deep blue pools of her eyes, he felt a little lost. For a moment her eyes searched back inscrutably, then she blinked and when those long lashes rose, the screen had disappeared. In the slant of her brow, the tilt of her nose, the quirk of her lips, and the shine of her eyes he could read sadness, concern, and affection.

"Kaoru-dono," he repeated, but now even knowing her mood, he still didn't know what to say. Should he tell her he was sorry? That he didn't think he could take hearing her voice sounding shocked, scared or disgusted? That he was afraid if she caught him staring at her yellow-eyed she might get the wrong idea, or (perhaps worse) get the right idea of where her lush body and pouting lips led his thoughts? Did she want to know that only a thread remained of his control, that only a fragile thread kept him from crushing her curves against his body, thrusting his hand into the silky hair at her nape, and sucking her bottom lip between his teeth?

"It's alright Kenshin." She rose gracefully to her feet. "When you're ready let me know," she said over her shoulder before walking off towards her room.

Ready to… oh, about the hair. Following her retreating form with his gaze, it took until she turned the corner to shake himself from his daze. Standing up, Kenshin decided to go and do something that didn't require thinking, like chop more wood for the bath house.

It had happened a month ago, he thought, picking another splinter out of his finger angrily. She had touched his hair and the small of his back so naturally, if tentatively, just a month ago, so he couldn't understand why she barely tolerated him this last week. She didn't act cruel; she still had the kindness and the temper. But the way she treated him was somehow so different.

It probably had something to do with the night they ate fish. On the way home, they had run into a married couple that Kaoru knew. After the conversation she seemed wistful and melancholy. Kenshin had wondered if she was unhappy because she still loved her boyhood crush, Tomoaki, and he was now married. He couldn't see Kaoru trysting with a married man, he just couldn't see it. But she was definitely unhappy about something.

Then at home, Yahiko had chortled something about Kaoru mistaking the fish for a present. She had laughed about the mistake herself, but something rang false in her expression and voice.

Kaoru gave so much of herself, yet she received so little in return. He should have gotten her something. It had been a long time since he had gotten her anything. He didn't want to send the wrong message, yet since he didn't know what he wanted the right message to be, he ended up not giving her anything at all.

Now though, he was scared that his lack of action might have doomed him. What if he lost her? Lost her because she didn't realize how much he appreciated her, how much she meant to him? What if she left him? He'd always assumed that if they parted, it would be because he left, not her.

He didn't know what exactly had caused it, or why the night of the fish had led to this, only that it had. This last week she went out of her way not to touch or look at him. He could have shaved his head bald and she still wouldn't have noticed his eyes. She never looked up long enough to see them. Something had to change, to go back to the way it was or forward to something else. Just not the way it had been this last week. He couldn't take any more of this.

Frowning down at his empty hands, Kenshin blinked and looked around. Sano sat at the edge of the roof swinging his legs and swigging from a jug. Shaking his head sharply, he looked around again and realized that he hadn't imagined it, the roof really was finished. Cheered slightly, though the problem of Kaoru still churned fretfully in the back of his mind, Kenshin went over next to Sano, took the earthen jug from his raised hand, and downed a mouthful.

"Sano! Oi, Sano!" called a red-faced Yahiko as he raced up to the roof practically gasping for breath. Kenshin felt a surge of worry seeing his urgency, but Sano just grabbed the jug and took another swig.

"How can you run in this heat? And what do you want?" Sano queried lazily from his perch.

"I need you to give me some money."

"Sure, you want to borrow some cash at a good rate?" Sano inquired before finishing the last of the jug and shaking it a bit to make sure it was truly empty.

"No, I mean I need you to give it," Yahiko yelled up with his arms straight and stiff by his sides.

"Now wait a second, Yahiko-chan," Sano choked.

"Don't call me chan!" he screamed, unexpectedly knocking Sano off the roof with a small piece of rotting wood lying next to the clinic wall.

"We don't have a second," Yahiko declared from his place next to Sano's prone body. "He said he'd only guarantee that price for another hour. So you have to come now! Besides, you owe me, remember, for not telling Megumi? Of course I could go talk to her right now," Yahiko threatened with crossed arms.

"No, no, I'm… coming," Sano muttered with a grunt as he levered himself off the ground.

Curious about what secret Yahiko knew, Kenshin chuckled. "While you go see what the fuss is all about, I'll go see how Kaoru-dono is doing back at the dojo."

Hopefully, the walk back alone would give him a chance to clear his head and figure out what to do. If he was really lucky, he'd arrive to find Kaoru calmly practicing in the dojo, wearing a welcoming smile as she looked into his eyes and said, "Okaeri," just like she used to.

Hakama Dake

A Rurouni Kenshin Story
by Indygodusk

Part 4 of 16

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