My grandmother died recently and I wrote this to get through the pain of her loss. Maybe someone else would benefit from reading it, maybe not. Either way, it helped me when I wrote it.
Most people, when they wake from a nightmare, might scream or shout. Some may even bolt upright in their beds, their breathing ragged and eyes wild. But Kaoru has never done that. Even when in her dreams she's screaming and crying from the pain she's suffering, she always wakes the same.
Her eyes open, she's lying flat on her back, arms and legs straight, as if she herself were nothing more than a corpse. For a few moments, she can't move, can't breathe. Beneath her ribcage, her heart is beating a fast paced staccato that, as the minutes pass her by, slows back to a steady rhythm. As her eyes adjust to the darkness, she stares at the weathered beams of her ceiling, willing them into focus. Shadows leap at her from the dark corners of her room, scattered demons and past ghosts haunting her. She ignores them and gradually, they disperse back into the darkness, because in reality they were never there to begin with.
The dream replays itself over and over and over again and though she's so tired, though she knows if she even blinks for too long, she'll slip back into sleep and she's afraid. Afraid, because she knows that the haunting images are waiting for her, waiting to drag her down again. When she can breathe, when she thinks it's safe to move, she sits up, runs a hand through her hair, across her face. Her skin is cold, clammy and slick with sweat. Her throat is dry, so she pushes the coverlet away and stands to get some water from the well.
Moonlight tapers in through the shoji door and floods the room as she pushes it aside. The night air is cool from the approaching rain and runs soothing fingers through her hair and over her skin. Thunder rumbles in the distance, the wind picks up and leaves scatter across the smooth stones lining the courtyard. She wraps her arms around a post and leans against it, takes a deep breath as the wind rushes around her and a withered sigh when it leaves again. She feels strangely numb.
In the courtyard, beneath the old, withered tree, a single grave marker stands. The paint is chipped and fading, but she can still make out the name. She forgets her thirst, and her eyes stay rooted to the marker as she makes her way towards it. Her bare feet are chilled by the cool mud seeping through her toes, it sinks into her hakama as she settles on her knees in front of the marker.
Her fingers play with the ribbon holding her braid, remembering the day he bought it for her. She pulls it free and her hair falls behind her, slowly untangling itself.
Finally, with a strangled hiccup, she brushes her fingers down the length of wood, her fingers tracing the faded kanji. "Papa."
In the distance, she can see the sky changing color, the black of night fading into deep hues of violet and magenta. Even her body knows the significance of this day, even when she's tried so hard to forget. It's only been a year but somehow she feels like it was only hours ago that she was sitting by his bedside, holding his frail hands and begging him to keep fighting, to come back to her.
The nightmare returns, she sees her father in her mind's eye. She's forced to watch again as his body withers and fades before her eyes. She feels his hands, once so vigorous and strong, cold and shaking in her own. His skin is soft, leathery, freezing to the touch. The tender veins bright beneath the translucent skin. His face is drawn, splotched with yellow and pink and blue, his eyes bloodshot and cloudy. He's grip is weak and strong as he shakes her hand, his mouth moving though no sound besides the desperate rasping of his ragged breath comes out. She smiles placatingly through her pain, tries not to cry in front of him, tries to be strong. She rubs his arm soothing, 'I know, Papa, I know. It's alright; you're going to be alright'.
He shakes his head, tries again, more desperate to speak, to tell her something, something important. And she can't do it anymore, the tears break free, cascading over her pale features because she doesn't know and he knows she doesn't know. But he can't tell her.
He never could.
'What is it, Papa? Tell me, please tell me.'
But he can't, and it's this memory of him that hurts the most.
Time passes in the blink of an eye and she's sitting beside him, her knees drawn up to her chest as she watches his breathing slow. His hand lays limp by his side and though she tries to hold it, though she squeezes his fingers, they don't squeeze back anymore. So she wraps her arms around her legs and watches him fade from her life, helpless to stop it.
His chest rises and falls, rises and falls, and then, she's can't see anymore, her vision is too clouded by tears to see. Finally, his breath leaves him in the faintest of sighs and she's knows then that he's gone.
It hits her like a slap and her chest constricts. She remembers crying, screaming, begging but nothing brings him back and nothing eases the horrible ache of loneliness that he leaves her with.
She never knew her mother, but she knew him. He was her everything and now she has nothing. She is alone.
I can't move on, and I don't want to. If that makes me weak then fine I'm weak but...I can't handle you being gone.
Silent tears cascade over pale cheeks though no sound leaves her lips.
She grips the ribbon in her hands, twists it around her wrists tying them together and loosening it again. Her lips tremble, her chin quakes, the ache which has been steadily growing in her chest bursts and Kaoru bends into herself, her hands clenching into the fabric, hugging herself as she sobs silently into her knees. She wants the ground to open up and swallow her whole, to drag to under and nestle her beside him where she belongs. By her father's side, where she won't feel so lonely anymore.
Thunders shakes the sky above her, rain soaks the ground beneath her, chills her to the bone, makes her feel numb with cold, dead with anguish.
But then, something heavy drapes across her back, blocks the freezing drops and biting wind. Something warm, something soft. She feels a hand pressing between her shoulder blades, feels another tugging at her shoulder, pulling her up, away from the darkness and bitter thoughts. Her eyes catch red, it's her father's kimono draped over her, shielding her but the smell is different. Her father smelled like pine and tobacco but Kaoru smells something earthy, wood and rain, dust on a lonely highway, the scent of cut grass on a calm spring night. The image of fireflies blocks out those of her dying father.
'My father was a big man, so the only thing I have that might fit you is from when he was younger.'
She holds out the folded red haori a little hesitantly. 'Is it too flashy?'
He's a little hesitant himself, amazed by her generosity. His smile is contagious, and she finds it spreading across her own face as he gingerly takes the garments from her. 'No. This is fine, that it is.'
She's not alone.
His arm wraps around her shoulder as she presses her face into his neck. The scent is comforting, and the reaching tendrils of the painful memories are chased away by it. His hands rub soothing circles into her back and shoulders. His voice is soft, tender as if calming a child who has fallen and hurt itself. "You should not be out here in this weather Miss Kaoru, that you should not."
She says nothing, her eyes still glued to the marker. You would have liked him Papa, he sometimes reminds me of you. Feeling a fresh wave of tears breeding behind her eyes, she pulls away from him and stands. He stays crouched at her side, looking up at her in surprise and a little warily, as if she might throw herself at the marker crying again. Or worse, throw herself crying at him.
She removes the haori from her shoulders, folds it over her arms. Kenshin stands, his hand poised at her elbow, wanting to guide her inside as the sky rumbles above them but not wanting to push her. Her hands brush lovingly over the fabric. "Miss Kaoru…"
She cups his cheek with her hand, her thumb brushing the faded scar. His breath catches in his throat at the haunted look in her eyes, the loneliness, the grief. He's seen it in so many others so many times, has seen it in himself on occasion.
"Thank you, Kenshin." She turns away. "Please tell Yahiko we will not be having practice today."
He grabs her wrist, pulls her back. "Kaoru." She almost smiles at the absent 'Miss'. But she doesn't want to smile today, she doesn't want to do anything. "I'll be fine." She says softly. "Tomorrow, I'll be good as new but today…" She glances at him, pleadingly. "Just let me sleep." Just let me pretend he's still here.
His fingers squeeze her wrist, lets go.
He watches her as she goes inside and closes the screen door.
Kaoru lies down again, realizes she's still holding her father's haori, Kenshin's haori. She brings it up to her face, breathes in the scent, catches just the faintest touch of pine and tobacco beneath Kenshin's. She closes her eyes, and sleep drags her down.
No more nightmares come.
She dreams of her father, he's waiting for her in the dojo, his bokken held ready at his side. It's like he never left, his face flush and healthy, his smile bright and contagious. She doesn't even remember him being sick, doesn't remember his death, because he's still here, with her now.
"There's my little ninja." He smiles fondly, and she grins at the petname, rushes into his waiting arms. Though a separate door, Kenshin comes in with a tray of tea, and it feels so natural that she can't believe it to be otherwise. Yahiko is in the courtyard, Sanosuke with him, play wrestling. Their laughter echoes around them and she feels warmth spreading through her. Sunshine filters in, filling the room. Kenshin sets the tea down with a smile. "Be careful, Miss Kaoru, it's very hot, that it is." He says.
Her father quirks a brow as he sips his own tea. "He's a strange one isn't he?"
She laughs at Kenshin's look of mild shock and irritation.
"Only a little, papa." She says.
The sun filters through and warms her chilled skin. The scent of pine and tobacco and dusty roads and cut grass floats around her, enveloping her, cradling her.
Kaoru rolls over in her sleep as Kenshin cracks her door open hours later, and sighs in relief at the smile stretched softly across her lips.