It was amazing just how clueless he could be at times. I could probably sit here on the engawa and say it straight out to him. I could be as blatant as to say, Kenshin! Enough of this stupid oro-ing of yours! I’m tired of waiting. Confess your love right this minute!
And then he’d say … oro?
And laugh with a hand running through his hair, and make some sort of joke in exchange…
…and then turn and go straight back to his laundry.
Either he doesn’t understand, or he doesn’t want to. I’m not sure which is worse. Some days I think Kenshin lets every nuance, every shy look, slide right over his head as if it’s not there. And some days I think … maybe. Maybe he knows exactly how I feel, and he’s doing his best to pretend he doesn’t know, because he doesn’t want to hurt me with a rejection … because he’s considerate like that.
Given the things we’ve been through together, maybe I should be less insecure. I know he cares for me. Some days I’m sure I can see the love there in his eyes. When he’s watching me train with Yahiko in the dojo. On the day we came back from Kyoto, and I held out my hand, he looked so happy – genuinely, for once. He cares. He loves me. I’m not as blind as he seems to be. I just wonder if what he feels for me is enough.
Of course, now I’ve been caught staring at him like an idiot. Kenshin is looking at me, now, crouched over the washtub with Yahiko’s training gi in one hand, violet eyes reflecting curiosity and concern, the fiery strands of his hair curling in the warmth and humidity and clinging to his cheek. Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan are due over any moment with Genzai-sensei; they’ll swarm him with the single-minded adoration of young children, and it won’t be ten minutes before he’s thoroughly drenched in water and suds. I don’t think he knows how sweet he looks with bubbles caught in his bangs.
Some days, I wish I could attack him in the same way.
Now there’s an amusing thought.
Kenshin looked seriously worried now - over a few moments’ silence and an odd grin, no less. It occurs to me that it’s polite to answer when someone speaks to you. So I smile. “I’m fine. Just thinking.”
“Is anything wrong?”
Nothing, except that I have no idea what’s going through that ‘unworthy’ mind of yours.
But he doesn’t wait for me to form a more appropriate answer; flicking one water-drenched hand through his hair, he’s standing up and offering one of his gentle little smiles. “If there is, sessha will try to help.”
What hurt the most, in some ways, was the likelihood that if Kenshin does have any romantic feelings toward me, past the love for a sister or friend, then he’s hiding behind that word. This unworthy one. A man with a past so soaked in blood and conflict that he couldn’t fathom how to move forward and take the hand of a woman without somehow infecting her with it.
And that’s hurtful, not just because I’m not sure how to get around that particular obstacle … but the idea that he could very well go through his life without ever letting anyone get close to him is achingly sad. I have a suspicion that for all his ten years of wandering, Yahiko and Sanosuke and I are the only ones who’ve managed to get even the briefest glimpse past the façade of the silly rurouni.
If I want my childish happy ending – if I want Kenshin to achieve some sort of peace for himself – then I have to help him break the wall around himself.
Then again, there was so much that could go wrong with that. In attempting to help him, if I said the wrong thing, what would happen? Would he shut himself back up and become nothing more than the cheerful rurouni to us? Would he leave? And that … is what stops me. Because what if?
What if something happened? What if all the worst nightmares my overactive imagination could conjure up came true? He could turn away from us so quickly, turning to walk down the dusty wanderer’s road, never to return – and I would have driven him away.
What if nothing happened? Would that be worse than something happening, to live with the constant strain of waiting for it to happen?
If I did nothing, would he leave in the end anyway?
“Kaoru-dono.” And in my suddenly serious turn of thought, I’ve completely failed to notice that Kenshin is now kneeling in front of me, peering into my stricken eyes with an encouraging smile. “Talking about what’s troubling you can often help on its own.”
It occurs to me that occasionally, Kenshin can be a hypocrite.
“I said I’m fine, Kenshin.” And to soften the sharpness of my words, I smile back. “Sometimes, thinking things through before talking about them is also helpful. Maybe later.”
He’s not convinced, leaning back to search my face with keen eyes. I know my troubled expression probably isn’t helping – I’m not as good an actor as he is. He’s close enough that the urge to reach forward and brush away those red strands clinging to his cheek is almost overwhelming.
So I glance away. And I think I’m almost happy, for once, when Yahiko comes stomping out of the dojo with the broom and a dour look on his face. “Oi, busu! When’s lunch?”
Almost happy. But it’s a diversion. Battousai has nothing on a Kaoru death-glare. “You can eat after you’ve done your chores, Yahiko-chan!”
The look on his face is comically outraged. “But the floor’s done! And I’ve swept the yard, and finished all my training, and I’ve even fixed that hole in the fence you asked about! What else do you want? Maybe Kaoru-sama would like a nice, hot bath in the middle of the afternoon?”
“Sounds like a great idea. Thanks for offering!”
It’s fun to hear him squawk in outrage. “Don’t give me that. You’re just trying to find excuses to spend time alone with Kens—“
Funny how a bucket to the face can shut a ten-year-old up. Five seconds later, he’s holding the bucket in his hands and I’m dragging him to the front gate and giving him a shove out onto the path. “If you want a decent lunch, we need tofu. Go get it!”
And I slam the gate, listening to him stomp off along the path, and turn back to see Kenshin hastily turn away to hide the amusement on his face.
Maybe I should be insulted by that, but I’m not. It’s good to see; a glimpse of real emotion, rather than the carefully vacant and placatory look of the rurouni. I would much prefer that every emotion and thought I heard from him was honest.
I smack him over the head with the broom, anyway. Leave him oro-ing dramatically in a crumpled heap across the engawa, and go inside to make some hot tea. Genzai-sensei will be here in a moment. Any serious talk I could try and have with Kenshin would have to wait until well after the doctor had been and gone again.
Turns out Genzai-sensei didn’t bring the girls with him – or rather, he did, but they went with Yahiko to the markets instead. Kenshin gets to remain relatively dry. Genzai-sensei doesn’t stay long as a result – asks after our health, tells us how Megumi-san is doing, drinks his tea … Kenshin promises to deliver the girls back home when Yahiko returns. Given the way I threw Yahiko out, I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes his time in coming home.
And then Kenshin and I are on our own again, and the silence is awkward. He keeps glancing at me, and I know that he hasn’t forgotten the incident on the engawa. I think between us there’s a line invisibly drawn now, that neither of us feels is right to cross. He’s giving me space.
I don’t want space. I’m trying to find the right words to broach a particular subject. Mind you, it’s not surprising that I can’t think of any. How does one say to a man … Your past means nothing to me, I care for you just the way you are, please don’t let your fears keep you away from me?
Actually, putting it that way … would be best. I could say it frankly, and then just leave him to think it over, couldn’t I? Not put any pressure on him, not make him think he needed to give me some sort of answer? What is there to lose?
Apart from him?
Mou! This is hard.
Then again, it always will be, no matter how much I want to procrastinate.
And the dojo is just ours at the moment, isn’t it?
Two hours it takes me. To work up the courage to talk to him; to try and smooth away my own fears that his immediate reaction will be to flee. Kenshin is not a little boy, despite the youth of his looks. He won’t walk away from me.
But by the time I pad quietly outside to stand timidly behind him as he leans against the post of the engawa and gazes at the clouds, my heart is thumping madly in my chest. He doesn’t turn to look at me, but he knows I am there. I could move across the floorboards soundlessly and he would still know I was there. And despite his lack of greeting, the sudden, faint relaxing of his shoulders that I see tells me that my presence is welcome.
And suddenly my throat is dry, and my voice cracks on his name.
“Hai, Kaoru-dono.” His own voice is smooth, a warm and coaxing quality to it, and it occurs to me to wonder how long he’s been sitting here, waiting for me to come to him. And with that thought, I realise that just rattling off a statement and retreating is not the way to do this. I need to talk this out with him in full – and now I’m back where I started. I have no idea how to broach the subject. But I’m here now. I won’t retreat again.
“Kenshin …” Deep breath. “You’ve been staying here with us for a while, now. I … I wanted to talk to you about that.”
And it’s the wrong thing to say. The tension is back in his shoulders, the fingers at his side clench slightly before he forces them to relax. He doesn’t want to have this conversation, and now we’re stuck – because having brought it up, he won’t let me back away from it. But when he speaks, his voice still retains that steady warmth.
“It’s all right, Kaoru-dono. Please, say what’s on your mind.”
I want you to be at ease around us. I want for you to smile and laugh and get angry and show us who you really are. I want you to move past whatever has hurt you and look to your future. With us. With me. I want you to stop lying to us, Kenshin.
And I get as far as I want, before my words falter. I’m staring at my hands, and wondering where I get the nerve to make demands of him like this. He still hasn’t looked at me, and I want to see the look on his face. Is he angry with me?
I want. I want a lot of things. I want him to love me.
He speaks again, in a low, careful tone. “You don’t have to worry about saying it, Kaoru-dono. If you have something to request, sessha promises you he will not take offense.” And then, so quietly I can barely hear him, he adds, “You have done more than enough, in any case.”
It takes my mind a moment to realise that Kenshin’s own words are a little nervous at the end, as if he’s expecting me to say something that he’s been dreading all along. And I think: surely … what I’m trying to say can’t be so terrifying?
… unless he thinks I’m talking about something else.
He is, isn’t he?
And then I giggle a bit, because the conclusion I think he’s jumped to is so completely ridiculous I want to reach out and slap the idiocy out of him. As it is, I settle for lifting a delicate foot and shoving him violently from his resting place. As expected, he ends up falling to the ground with a yelp, picking himself up just as I stalk down the steps to meet him with a look of fury on my face.
“Kenshin, you idiot!” Now that the brief moment of hilarity is gone, I really am furious. “What did I say to you when we came back from Kyoto?”
He’s blinking at me, the wide innocent look of the rurouni, but there’s genuine confusion there. I’m glaring now, furious enough that he’s backing away from me. It’s taking all the willpower I have not to grab him by the front of his magenta gi and shake him. The tension is fading a bit from his shoulders, and I can see he’s realised what an idiot he is by the sheepish look that flits across his face.
And after a moment, he says tentatively, “...welcome home?”
“You thought…” Oh, Kenshin, you idiot. “You thought I was going to ask you to leave. How many times can I say it? This is your home! I’d sooner invite Gohei to stay here, than ask you to leave! How could you be so stupid as to think even for one minute--?”
And the thing is, he should know better. He was happy when I said it. Welcome home. I saw it on his face. How can he jump from that to assuming that when I mention how long he’s stayed here, I’m going to ask him to leave?
Because he knew I was having trouble talking to him about it.
Because he doesn’t just call himself sessha, he really believes it.
Because he believes he doesn’t deserve better … and I’ve never told him otherwise.
Well, I’m going to fix that in a hurry.
He has the best reflexes I’ve ever seen, but he never avoids me when I try to hit him. He doesn’t try now, as I plant both hands on his chest and shove him backward into the washtub. And I wait for him to surface, and hold back my laughter at the sodden redhead that pulls himself up – and then I crouch down and glare at him again.
“You listen to me, Himura Kenshin. I’m not going to ask you to leave. I’m never going to ask you to leave. You have a place here, with me and Yahiko. Sanosuke would never talk to me again if I threw you out, and he’d likely drag you back here by your ponytail if you tried to move on.” And quietly, I add, “Not that anyone’s going to stop you from leaving if you think you have to … your life is your own … but stay. I don’t want you to go.”
It’s on the tip of my tongue, and I swallow the words. Stay with me. I want you to stay forever. In the end, I don’t think I’m ready to admit that just yet. But what I’ve said is enough for him to understand, by the sudden, odd look in his eyes. The tension is gone, and after a long pause, he offers me a smile – full and genuine. “Arigatou, Kaoru-dono.”
And it occurs to me that the best way I can help him, to take apart the wall he’s built around himself, is to smile back. So I do. And for a few moments, the world goes away, because his smile, that look of happiness that flits across his face, is worth everything to me.
And it seems so easy now to say what’s on my mind. To tell him what I had set out to … and his expression tells me that now, of all times, he will listen without flinching from what I have to tell him—
“Heh. How did that happen?”
And Sanosuke has the worst timing in the world. If I saw any real expression of affection on Kenshin’s face, it’s long gone, replaced by an idiotic grin as he hauls himself out of the water. “Sessha fell…”
“That’s what they all say,” Sano says with a snort. The freeloader has, as usual, invited himself into my yard, and is probably here for dinner. The sun is beginning to set.
Which reminds me. So preoccupied by my thoughts, I’ve only just now realised someone has failed to come home.
“Yahiko is very late,” Kenshin says, wringing out the sleeves of his gi and trying to unplaster his hakama from his legs. It’s a comical sight. “He just went for tofu?”
A joke is a joke, but Yahiko really has taken a bit too long. Given that, I think any further conversation I can have with Kenshin will have to wait for another time. So I ask him to go and find my idiot student, and Sano offers to accompany him, and after a moment they vanish out the gate.
When he leaves, the last thing he does is smile at me again, faintly. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. He knows I didn’t get the chance to bring up my earlier thoughts, and with that smile, he tells me: there will be another day.
I hope I have the courage then.