EDIT: This is a newly edited version of Chapter 3. I've made a couple of small tweaks throughout the chapter, and significantly altered the ending. Based on multiple reviewers' suggestions, I've lengthened the ending quite a bit to try and make it less abrupt. Hopefully this ending is more satisfying. I think it flows quite a bit better.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I set this story after the Jinchuu arc, but before Sano and Megumi left. I recently realized after reviewing the manga that this makes the story slightly non-canon, since Aoshi and Misao are not at the dojo. Hopefully you guys won't mind and can still enjoy the spirit of the story. I spent a lot of time really trying to get into Kenshin's head in this chapter, and I hope it seems in-character. I am a pretty extroverted person who tends to overshare, so it's not always easy for me to understand how someone like Kenshin thinks. Oh yes, and this is the last chapter, unless I'm struck with some brilliant idea for extending it. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think in reviews!
Kenshin's mind was racing as he prepared the fish for their dinner. Kaoru was taking her bath, so he knew he wouldn't be interrupted.
What had he been thinking? He knew he needed to talk to Kaoru, to help her feel better. That was why he'd asked her to talk to him after dinner. But he still had no idea what he was going to say to her!
Kenshin, you idiot, he said to himself, not bothering with the "this one"s when he was mid-internal monologue, how could you set this all up without any hint of a plan?
He knew what she probably wanted him to say. She probably wanted him to say something like, "Kaoru-dono, this one thinks that you are very beautiful." But he couldn't say that! There was a reason he'd said Megumi was beautiful when he had never said that about Kaoru, and it had nothing to do with Kaoru's looks.
Kenshin wasn't a simpleton. He knew Kaoru was in love with him. He also knew that he was in love with her. She'd told him she wanted to be with him, and they'd held hands the one time. But years of tragedy and sorrow had taught him to be cautious, and as yet they had not done anything more than that. And he knew if he said something like, "you look beautiful tonight," it might lead to something more.
And Kenshin wanted that something more. He remembered vividly the night of May 14th, the only time he had ever held Kaoru. Despite the sorrow of that moment, Kenshin's traitorous memory preserved in exact detail how it felt to hold her close to him. He remembered how her feminine frame had fit against his, how his hands had glided over her back, how her hair had smelled, and the texture of it falling against his face.
Kenshin paused from chopping the onions for a moment, indulging in the enjoyable parts of the memory while conveniently leaving out the more painful circumstances.
Yes, he definitely wanted Kaoru. That wasn't in question. But Kenshin couldn't just jump into things. While he had found closure regarding Tomoe's death, he still felt a large amount of trepidation towards relationships with women. Accidentally killing your wife tended to complicate your personal relationships. Couldn't Kaoru understand that?
Many of the Kamiya dojo's neighbors would tell you that Kenshin was a shy man, but that wasn't quite true. He didn't often express his feelings in words, but when he decided to show his affection, he did so without hesitation or embarrassment. It was that decision-making process that took time.
It all came back to that caution—that fear, not of women, not of embarrassment, not of rejection, but that fear of causing suffering. That fear of repeating old mistakes. It was a fear he meant to conquer. He fully intended to eventually make Kaoru his, but he didn't want to feel rushed into it. He needed to take one careful step at a time in order to keep his anxieties and nightmares at bay. Why couldn't Kaoru just let him take his time with this?
Suddenly, Kenshin felt a feeling that was entirely foreign to him: resentment. Why couldn't she just be more patient with him? He felt boxed in, like he was being forced into something he didn't want. He slammed the kitchen knife down on the counter in frustration.
Kenshin looked down and noticed the onions he had been loosely dicing were now in tiny, microscopic pieces. He immediately felt guilt wash over him. He was so consumed with his thoughts that he didn't notice Kaoru, freshly changed and ready for dinner, entering the kitchen. He jumped a little as she looked over his shoulder at the unlucky onions.
"Wow, Kenshin, you really slayed those onions, huh," Kaoru said with a light laugh. She made her face mock serious before executing some precise swipes through the air with her hand. "Hyah! Hyah! You unprincipled onions will not be allowed to endanger the new era! Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu Tsui Sen!"
Kaoru laughed until she noticed Kenshin's unusually sober face staring at her.
"…Sorry, I guess that wasn't a very funny joke…"
Kenshin looked a little uncomfortable before responding, "Dinner will be ready in a few minutes, Kaoru-dono."
Kaoru, who had clearly been forcing lightheartedness to mask her nerves, now looked decidedly worried. "Ok," she said meekly before exiting the kitchen.
Great, thought Kenshin. Now she probably thinks I'm going to tell her I'm leaving again or something. He scooped the onions off of the cutting board and into the soup he was making and started running his fingers through his copious bangs.
He shouldn't have let himself get upset. It was perfectly reasonable for Kaoru to want him to move things forward. She was young, he couldn't expect her to wait around forever. It certainly wasn't fair of him to make her wait while he continued living at the dojo, effectively keeping any alternative suitors away. And deep in his heart of hearts, Kenshin knew he probably wouldn't take any action unless his hand was forced.
Kenshin sat down heavily on the stool behind him, trying to fully face himself and his pattern of behavior He hadn't hugged her until he had had to leave for Kyoto, he hadn't told her about Tomoe until after Enishi had attacked, and he hadn't held her hand until after she'd confessed her desire to stay with him. A lot of this came from his own feelings of unworthiness, of his desire not to impose himself on others. But Kaoru had made her wishes known, and he had no more excuses. It was time for him to act.
Attempting to reverse some of the worry he'd caused Kaoru in the kitchen, Kenshin was extra solicitous and kind during dinner.
"There's plenty more fish, Kaoru-dono. Would you like some more?"
"This one has prepared your favorite kind of tea, Kaoru-dono. Let this one pour it for you."
"Should this one fetch the tea cakes? It is such a nice night and they would surely be a delicious addition to our meal."
This, of course, only served to make Kaoru even more nervous, convinced as she was that Kenshin was only trying to soften the blow of whatever bad news he was going to deliver after dinner.
Yahiko could sense the tension thick in the air, and had wolfed his meal down as quickly as possible before mumbling some nonsensical excuse to get out of the dojo. Neither Kenshin nor Kaoru even attempted to convince him to stay.
Kenshin and Kaoru sat in complete silence for several minutes after Yahiko left. Kaoru picked endlessly at her plate while Kenshin took fruitless sips from his long-empty teacup. The silence between to the two grew heavier and heavier until Kaoru finally broke it.
"Kenshin, we can always talk some other time if you don't feel up to it," she said, almost desperately. She seemed close to tears.
Kenshin almost took the offered out, but forced himself to forge ahead. "No, no. This one would really like to talk with Kaoru-dono. Would Kaoru-dono care to join this one for a walk? We could see the fireflies."
Kaoru sniffed a little, then nodded. They both stood and she followed him out of the dojo.
They were both silent until they'd walked a way down the path. Kenshin was very focused on what he needed to say, and how he might say it.
For her part, Kaoru was convincing herself that she would be fine if Kenshin rejected her. There were plenty of other fish in the sea, and she knew she could find another person who would appreciate her. And he'd probably be taller and more muscular, Kaoru added, out of preemptive spite.
Eventually, at a bend in the path with a nice sturdy log that looked made for long conversation, Kenshin sat down and asked Kaoru to sit down next to him.
Kenshin thought furiously about the different ways he might start their conversation, a million different ideas running through his brain, but as he looked up at her face, all of those thoughts immediately fled his mind.
She looked beautiful. Kenshin hadn't really noticed before, but Kaoru was wearing a new kimono. It was blue with red flowers on it, and the pattern was really quite becoming. It showed off the figure she usually kept more or less hidden under kendo attire, and also made Kenshin aware of how much she'd matured in the time he'd known her. Her face was lit up by the fireflies gathered around a small pool of water by the log, and her eyes looked large and deep in their pale light. Her hair had been pulled up as elegantly as she knew how, and its inky blackness cried out to be touched.
At a loss for words, Kenshin reached his hand up and touched her cheek, staring in wonder at her beloved face. Kaoru seemed frozen in place, unsure of how to react to his wholly unexpected and unprecedented actions. She simply tried to remember as much of the moment as possible, attempting to burn the memory of his touch into a part of her memory that would never fade.
"Kaoru-dono," Kenshin said, barely choking out the words, "you are beautiful."
Kaoru, who had been staring right back into Kenshin's eyes, burst into tears.
"You really think so, Kenshin?" she asked, feeling a little pathetic but really wanting an answer.
"Of course! How could this one think otherwise?" Kenshin said, trying to put as much sincerity as possible into his reply so she would be left with no doubt.
"But… but you've never said anything before," Kaoru sniffed, breaking the spell a little as she moved to wipe her nose with her hand.
Kenshin thought for a moment about how to respond to the question Kaoru hadn't quite voiced. While he'd been preparing dinner in the kitchen, he'd worked out in great detail why he hadn't told Kaoru any of his feelings for her before. There was a lot he could say to try and explain his behavior, and Kaoru deserved to hear it all one day. Thankfully, though, Kenshin was wise enough to realize the kind of response that was most needed in this moment.
"Because this one was stupid, Kaoru-dono. This one is sorry."
Kaoru smiled a big, genuine smile that lit Kenshin up from the inside out. Kenshin reached to grab her hand, and she let him, interlocking their fingers.
"Kenshin… It's really nice to know that you think I'm beautiful, but…" she paused for a moment, clearly not wanting her words to come out wrong. "…but a man can admire a woman's looks without… caring for her." She looked at him earnestly, begging him to understand so she wouldn't have to elaborate any more.
Kenshin smiled his trademark soft smile at her and released her hand, instead wrapping his arm around her shoulder and pulling her gently against his side.
"Kaoru-dono, this one cares for you very much, that I do. If Kaoru-dono would allow it, this one intends to stay by your side and never leave."
At first, Kaoru felt sublime bliss fill her soul upon hearing Kenshin's confession. After a moment, though, Kaoru started to feel some anxiety invade her mood. Kenshin felt her stiffen at his side and gave her a questioning look.
"Would Kaoru-dono not like that?" he asked, experiencing for the first time a shred of doubt in Kaoru's feelings for him.
"No, it's not like that at all," replied Kaoru, reaching her arm around his waist and hugging him briefly. She then withdrew from him and leveled a steady gaze at him, expression very calm and serious.
"It's just… Kenshin, we've talked like this before, and nothing really changed. I just… Mou! Kenshin, I don't want to be your landlady for the rest of my life."
Kenshin let out a little sigh of relief before smiling again at Kaoru. This was a concern he believed he could address.
"Kaoru-dono, this one hopes you do not think this one treats you the way he would treat any landlady. This one has been slow to change, that is true. But this one is trying. This one will try to change faster, if Kaoru-dono can also try to be patient. It is, after all, hard for an old man to change his ways," Kenshin smiled again self-deprecatingly.
Kaoru smacked him playfully on the shoulder. "Old man, pfft! You don't look a day over 20. It's not fair," she pouted in mock annoyance. Kenshin relaxed as they shifted back into their old banter. But things couldn't be the same after that. Kenshin intended to keep his promise to Kaoru, and try to move their relationship forward more.
They walked back to the dojo together. While they were still too shy to hold hands, they stood closer together than before, occasionally brushing shoulders or hands when encountering unevenness in the path.
Kenshin entered the front gate first, then turned and offered Kaoru a hand as she stepped in after him. Based on the loud snoring coming from his room, Yahiko was already asleep.
When Kaoru stepped into the courtyard, Kenshin didn't move aside to make way for her, and Kaoru almost ran straight into him. She suddenly found herself very close to him, still holding his hand. She looked at their joined hands, then up at his face. Kenshin's expression was very focused in a way Kaoru had only ever seen before when he was in a fight, and Kaoru felt her chest tighten. Slowly, she removed her hand from his and placed both of her hands on his chest, setting her fingers on the fabric of his gi and allowing her thumbs to rest on his bare skin.
She could feel Kenshin tense under her fingers, but he didn't back away. He maneuvered one hand around her waist, and the other he brought to her cheek, gently running his thumb along her jawline. Kenshin pulled Kaoru closer and closer to him, looking directly into her eyes as if discovering for the first time the marvels of the human iris. Kenshin seemed content to continue their staring match, but Kaoru, who had never before been kissed, could no longer take the anticipation. She closed the remaining distance between them in an instant, and kissed Kenshin firmly on the lips.
It wasn't their best kiss. Kaoru didn't really know what she was doing, and Kenshin was pretty out of practice. But to Kaoru, it was one of her most treasured memories. Kenshin had already told her she was beautiful, but it was his kiss that convinced her more than his words.
In the coming years, Kaoru would learn to appreciate Kenshin's daily small acts of tenderness and affection as his most meaningful way of expressing his feelings for her. The way Kenshin treated her, like she was the most precious thing on the planet, was more valuable than any pretty words. Without Kenshin ever having to utter a word, Kaoru knew that she was his beloved.
Of course, she was still human. She liked Kenshin to tell her, at least every once in a while, that she was beautiful.