Author's Note: I'm ridiculous, I know. It's taken way too long for me to finally write this. But, write it, I did.
This is the final chapter. I've always had the general idea of how I wanted to end this, but I think it's turned out a lot better than what I originally wanted it to be. You'll have to excuse any continuity errors since it's been such a long gap between the last few chapters and this one. I sincerely hope you guys like it. Thanks so much for all the support for this story over the years. It's the first one that I published on fanfic, and it holds a special place in my heart.
Any further content for this story will be posted in 'Pieces of Sunset', which is the drabble series connected to this story. I have some little snippets rattling around in my head that I want to post there eventually.
Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin.
Tendrils of Sunset
It was a wonderful way to wake up - his lips brushing over hers, his fingers whispering over her arms. Kaoru shivered and arched into the light caress, enjoying the slide of skin against skin. Her back was sore from sleeping on the hard floor of her darkroom, but that discomfort slowly receded into the back of mind as Kenshin's lips settled more heavily against hers.
Without thinking, she slipped her hands underneath the hem of his shirt and ran them up the contour of his back, loving the feel of his muscles as they tensed beneath her touch. Kenshin muttered something against her lips and broke the kiss, his breath uneven and short.
When Kaoru opened her eyes, she watched as he lowered his head to press his lips to the side of her neck and then bury his face in the curve of her shoulder.
Her hands slid down his back, coming to a stop at the top of jeans. She plucked at the fabric as she shifted slightly against him. "Good morning."
He smiled against her skin, and replied, "Morning."
"Do you know what time it is?"
He raised his head, still smiling. "No. But, I'm guessing morning. Early morning."
She meant to say more, but Kenshin apparently had other things on his mind as he swept her into another kiss, this one deeper, more intense. She gasped against his lips, and loved the heavy feel of his body on hers, and the way he cradled her face in-between his hands.
She couldn't string two thoughts together, much less recognize when the door to the darkroom opened and two people stood in the doorway.
"I think I'm going to vomit."
Kenshin broke away, his head turning to the pair staring at them. Kamatari leaned against the doorjamb, a smug smile on his lips, while Yahiko looked like he'd eaten a rotten egg.
He turned back to Kaoru and chuckled at the flush of embarrassment that stained her cheeks.
"Door's fixed, I guess," she murmured. She was tempted to just ignore them and annoy Yahiko by pulling Kenshin's head back down to hers, but Kenshin shifted to the side, untangling his legs from hers. Kaoru pushed herself up on her elbows and speared her cousin with glare.
"Show's over. Carry on."
Yahiko frowned at her and stalked off, while muttering, "Nightmare's more like it."
"And, you," Kaoru said, turning to Kamatari. "Go away before I lock you in a storage closet…full of rotten lettuce!"
Kamatari grinned at her and shuddered with mock indignation. "Oh, the horror."
She sank back onto the floor as he sauntered away, and flicked her gaze over to Kenshin, who was now sitting up and leaning against the wall next to her. He looked wonderfully rumpled, his hair mussed and falling out of his ponytail, and his eyes a deep, relaxed violet.
"We should develop photos together more often," he said.
Kaoru closed her eyes and laughed. "I don't think it's the photos you're interested in, but the activity after it that you has you so…interested."
He laughed and stood slowly, stretching his arms out with yawn. "Ugh, I haven't slept on the floor in a long time. I'm out of practice."
Kenshin reached out a hand and Kaoru slipped hers into it. He pulled her up too quickly and she wobbled on her feet with a groan.
"Man, my back is killing me. I think I'm going to stash an air mattress in here in case that door gets stuck again."
"Pretty sure it was locked, not stuck."
"Hmm, whatever," Kaoru replied with smile. She lifted her head and sniffed. "I smell food. Kamatari must be cooking."
She turned to head out the door, but Kenshin tightened his grip on her hand and held her back from walking any further. Turning around with a quizzical smile on her lips, she quirked a brow.
"What is it?"
He took a step closer to her, dropped her hand, and reached up to brush her hair back from her cheek.
"About Kamatari. I -"
"Stop, stop, stop," Kaoru interrupted. She sighed deeply and closed her eyes with a groan. "My past with Kamatari is…complicated. Yes, we dated. Yes, I found him with a man. But, no, we weren't engaged for real. It was only a ploy to get a guy to stop stalking him. And, no, he's not here to win me back. He saw us when he got here, and he knows how I've always felt about you, so he decided to play a little game and make you jealous."
Kenshin stared at her silently with a frown. "So you wanted him to make me jealous?"
"I wanted him to keep his mouth shut and just be the friend he came here to be, and not the meddling monster he became."
"I don't know whether to be flattered, relieved, or irritated," he muttered, more to himself than her.
"I'm really sorry."
"So he's not planning on running away from you?"
Kaoru laughed, and shook her head vehemently. "Absolutely no! Even if he wanted that, it wouldn't happen."
"That's good to know," he replied and crossed his arms over his chest. "There's something that I need, though."
With a frown, Kaoru retorted, "You need something?"
"Yes, to make up for the emotional upheaval."
Kaoru bit back a smile. "Oh, really?"
"Well, what is that you'd like?"
His smile was slow, and he drew out her suspense by stepping around her and moving to the door. "One of your cameras."
"A camera? Er, okay. I wasn't aware that you wanted to take photos."
"And you," he continued.
"Yep," he said and left the room.
Kaoru stood there for a few moments, a bit befuddled, before following suit and leaving the darkroom. He had already made it to the kitchen, and Yahiko was laughing at something he'd said when she arrived. It smelled heavenly, and she knew she had Kamatari to thank for the small breakfast buffet that had been set out on the counter.
As she kept a suspicious eye on Kenshin, Kaoru filled her plate and followed the rest of them out onto the deck. The weather was beautiful, and she couldn't help but notice the way the sunlight hit the water. She sat down next to Kenshin at the metal deck table and started to eat the delicious food.
Yahiko began blathering about some new movie that he'd recently seen, and Kamatari seemed to be listening with one ear as he scanned the internet on his phone. Kenshin leaned in and said softly, "You and your camera."
"I got that part," she replied, casting him surreptitious glance. "But, why?"
"Okay, then. When?"
"To be determined. I think I'll save it for a rainy day."
Kaoru laughed and quirked a brow.
With a smile and shrug, he said, "It's always good to keep something up your sleeve."
She leaned to the side and bumped his shoulder with hers. "You are ridiculous."
From across the table, Yahiko snorted. "Oh, please. Keep it in the darkroom."
Slowly, Kaoru turned to her cousin and had the sudden urge to fling a spoonful of eggs at his face. Too bad she was so hungry. Instead of rising to the bait, she popped a full fork in her mouth and tried to ignore him.
Kamatari dropped his phone on the table with a long sigh and pushed his half-empty plate away from himself. "I'm going out on the water today. Care to join me, Kaoru?"
"Can't. Got too much stuff to do around the house. And…I'm planning on making a cake today. I found another of Grandma's old recipes that I want to try out."
Kenshin choked and gave her an incredulous look. "I thought we talked about your Grandmother's recipes! Not only are they not complete, but she had really weird taste. Last time I tried to make something of hers it came out disgusting, and I'm a fairly good cook."
Kamatari leaned back in his chair and waved his hand at Kenshin in a dismissive manner. "I went over it and made some corrections. As long as she follows the directions, it should turn out okay."
"Famous last words," Yahiko muttered. "I guarantee that I will not be eating her little masterpiece."
"Aww, I'm astonished by your generosity and understanding," Kaoru retorted with a smile and swift kick under the table at his shin. A buoyant grin swept over her face as he cursed and raised his leg to rub a hand over the sore skin.
"You did a wonderful job with breakfast this morning, Kamatari," Kaoru told him as she ignored her cousin.
He smiled smugly at her. "I know."
"Your humility is amazing," Kenshin remarked before taking a bite of a biscuit.
"I don't need humility when I'm talented at everything."
"Even cheating on your girlfriend," Kenshin asked with a quirked brow.
Kamatari shrugged and with a grin said, "Well, if you're going to do something bold, might as well go all out."
Kaoru stifled a laugh. "That guy was pretty hot."
Kenshin scowled at both of them. "But, that's not the point."
She jabbed him with her elbow and shook her head. "Water under the bridge, Kenshin."
Kaoru took a last gulp of her orange juice and stood up from the table. As she grabbed her plate, she said, "Speaking of my cake, I think I'll start cleaning now so I plenty of time to cook my masterpiece."
Yahiko leaned forward and speared Kenshin with a slightly desperate look. "Do you think you can help me with repairs on the west dock? Kaoru has me signed up for painting and some other crap that's going to take forever if I'm by myself."
With a chuckle, Kenshin replied, "Sure, I can spare some time to help you out. Let's go on over there and get started."
It wasn't until three hours later that Kenshin and Yahiko finished their repairs and painting, and finally returned to the house. By that time, Kaoru had puttered around the house and cleaned what she had wanted, and was already in the kitchen with various ingredients littering the counter.
As Yahiko passed through to go take a shower, he remarked, "Thanks goodness Kamatari can't see the kitchen now. He'd have a heart attack."
"It's my kitchen! Who cares?" Kaoru yelled after him, her hands on her hips as she stared after his retreating form. "The nerve of that kid," she muttered to herself as she turned back to her mixing bowl.
Kenshin sat down at the kitchen table and leaned back in the wooden chair. He closed his eyes for moment and just relaxed in the quiet room.
He popped open one eye and shrugged. "Not too bad. Despite all his complaints, Yahiko's a good worker."
Kaoru smiled to herself. "I know."
"I'm definitely tired, though. Getting little sleep last night because of that door fiasco and then working a lot during the day has killed my reserves. All I want right now is a hot shower, a clean pair of clothes, and a nice pillow."
Kaoru glanced over at him with a grin and took in his sweaty appearance. He did look pretty tired, and his clothes were a bit of a mess, especially since he had spent some quality time with a bucket of paint.
"You have paint in your hair."
"Fantastic! What color?"
"Well, let's hope it's just paint and not premature aging," he joked.
She laughed, dug her spatula in the bowl and started to stir the mix of ingredients together. They were both silent for a while as Kenshin rested at the kitchen table, and she tried to make her cake. She moved around the kitchen with ease and lost herself in the routine activity of mixing.
"I'm…meeting Tomoe tonight."
Kaoru slowly stopped stirring the batter and lifted her gaze. "Returning the cat?"
He had gotten up from the table and was now standing near her, an uncertain expression in his face. Kenshin leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms over his chest. "That and I need to talk to her. About things."
He looked so serious, his expression a little grim. She could tell this wouldn't be a discussion on whether to put their cat on a low-fat diet or how the weather was acting funny recently. She's be lying if she said he wasn't making her a little nervous.
"O-okay. Do you know when you'll be back?"
"She was originally going to come back here to get Oscar, but I'm just going to take him to her. It's a long drive so I'll be back tomorrow."
Kaoru turned back to the batter and resumed stirring with renewed vigor. "Drive carefully."
She could feel him at her back as he came to stand behind her. He brushed the ponytail away from the back of her neck and over her shoulder. Slipping an arm around her waist, he leaned forward and pressed his forehead between her shoulder blades.
"I'll be back. I promise."
She couldn't help the smile that spread over lips, and she replied, "I know."
"I need to go over to my house and take a shower. If I don't leave within the hour, I'll be driving into the night, and I'm not looking forward to doing that."
Slowly, he slid his hands down her arms and wrapped his fingers around her wrists. Kaoru dropped the spatula and let him turn her around so she faced him. He reached up and wiped the spot of flour from her cheek before leaning forward and kissing her. It was soft and slow and light, and when he pulled back, she knew she had a really stupid smile on her face.
He returned her smile and squeezed her hand before saying, "See you later."
"Hmm," she murmured, and watched as he stepped away from her and left the kitchen.
It had been a quiet day at school and at the house. Her students were still buzzing with excitement over the photos they had taken on the island over the weekend, and she had allotted several class periods for them to develop, organize and present a layout of the photos that were their personal favorites. For anyone who needed the extra time to develop their photos, she planned to have the school darkroom open for 2 hours after school for the next couple days. Today, however, she wanted to be home when Kenshin got back from his errand for Tomoe.
It did worry her that Kenshin had taken a day off work to drop Oscar off with Tomoe. Other teachers had remarked on his absence, saying that the only few times that he hadn't been able to make it to school had been when he had had the rare personal emergency, and when he'd been severely ill with the flu. There was nothing that she could do about his visit, but she couldn't help the small nagging feeling at the back of her mind that had randomly poked her throughout the day.
With a sigh, she reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the cake she'd finished baking the night before. It was a little lopsided and smaller than she had meant for it to be, but for the first time in her life, she had made something that hadn't tasted like burnt dirt with sprinkles on top. All she needed to do was to add the frosting and she'd be finished. A slow smile spread over her lips as she imagined the look on Yahiko's face when he realized she'd made something that's actually edible.
She pulled out the chocolate frosting from the pantry and rummaged through the cooking utensil drawer to find a plastic spatula to spread the icing on her cake. After flipping on the stereo to give her some background noise, she got to work. The task took about thirty minutes, and when she was done she felt like patting herself on the back and doing a little jig around the kitchen. With a happy smile, she stood there and stared at her masterpiece for a moment before whipping off her apron, snagging the afghan off the small loveseat in the den and heading outside onto the deck.
There was a slight chill in the air and she wrapped the blanket around her before settling onto the porch swing and staring out at the lake. She checked the time on her watch, knowing Kenshin would be back anytime now and loving the tingle of anticipation she felt.
Kenshin wanted more. He wanted everything.
He had meant to have a long talk with Tomoe, but when the time had come and he'd passed the fat cat over to his ex-wife, he'd realized he didn't need to ask her anything or try to reason out what had failed about their relationship. Looking her, it had become clear that while he had loved her, it had been with a young, undecided heart.
Kaoru…she took up so much more of him. He could feel her settling in his soul, filling him completely. There had always been apart of him that had been drawn to her, but he'd ignored it, buried it, and turned away from anything that might have suggested to him that Kaoru could be something more than his friend. What a colossal mistake.
There was a connection between the two of them that transcended anything he had ever experienced. He knew her like the back of his hand, and he loved everything about her - from the tips of her toes to her mass of beautiful black hair. She had opened his eyes to a possible future he had never let himself envision, and it was brilliant and fulfilling and so much more than he'd ever thought possible.
He watched her as she sat on the porch swing, her legs curled up and her gaze captured by the tendrils of sunset as they curled and blended on the horizon. The wind tousled her loose hair and she pulled the afghan blanket tighter around her shoulders.
She was everything that he wanted in his future. He wouldn't settle for anything less. He had wanted to move slow, settle into their new relationship slowly and let all that was novel about his feelings diffuse into him. However, this was Kaoru. He didn't need time to recognize that she was the one. He only wished that he'd opened his eyes sooner and recognized what had always been right in front of him. He couldn't imagine what might have happened if she'd found someone, and his stomach clenched painfully at the thought.
Kaoru was his.
She would always be his.
Kenshin shoved his hands into his pockets and walked down the gravel path towards the deck. She heard him coming and turned her gaze to him, watching as he made his way to her. There was indecision in her eyes, and he knew that he was the cause for it. That would change, though. In a few minutes, she would know exactly where they stood in their relationship.
She smiled despite the doubt she obviously felt, and it was a smile that came from deep within, reserved only for him - it softened her features and exuded a deep warmth.
He walked up the steps, slowly making his way over to her and sitting down next to her on the porch swing. It swayed after he sat down, rocking back and forth, and causing her hair to blow in her eyes a little.
Her lips quirked the smallest amount. "Hey, yourself. Busy day?"
"You could say that. I hate being cooped up in the car for hours on end."
"How was your visit with Tomoe?"
Kenshin gave a one shoulder shrug. "Nothing out of the ordinary. I passed Oscar to her, said hello to her and her new boyfriend, and then took my leave."
Her brow furrowed. "I thought you wanted to talk with her or something? How'd that go?"
Kenshin was silent for a moment before answering, "When I got there, I realized there was no reason to talk to her, other than the regular pleasantries."
Kaoru looked even more confused now and frowned at him. "Why is that?"
He studied her for a moment before intertwining the fingers of her left hand with his and saying, "Because I realized how much I love you."
Her eyes widened the smallest amount and she plucked at the fringe of the afghan nervously.
"Sure, you've always been incredibly special to me, but when I saw Tomoe today, I realized that nothing I said or she said would have any effect on me. You were there before her, and you'll be there long after her. You made a mark on my soul when you were six years old and we met for the first time in the Butterfly House. That mark has only grown and deepened over the years. Even when I was married, I wasn't ever able to give my whole self to Tomoe, because a part of me always held back. Even when I didn't consciously know that you were not just my best friend, but everything to me, I kept myself apart, never fully giving in to any relationship."
Kenshin stopped for a second, breaking eye contact and sliding a hand through his hair nervously. Kaoru could feel her heart pounding heavily in her chest as she waited for him to continue.
"I know this is fast, but I want you to know that I'm never leaving your side. Where you go, I'll follow, even if you want to take photos and live in Egypt for seven years. I don't want you to think I'm pressuring you or throwing a proposal at you so soon - I'm not. I just want you to know how committed I am to making this work."
The was a beat of silence before Kaoru said softly, "Kenshin?"
"Yeah?" he asked, turning back to her, his eyes catching hers.
She leaned forward, slipped her arms around his neck and sinking into his embrace. Her lips caught his and she kissed him with a fierceness that took him by surprise. She scooted closer to him on the porch swing without breaking contact and deepened the kiss, her lips slanting over his, tongue tasting his lips and mouth. They sat there for what felt like forever, lost in each other, their lips brushing and caressing.
When Kaoru finally pulled away, her breath unsteady and lips beautifully swollen, she whispered with a brilliant smile, "I love you, too."
Kenshin chuckled, his fingers sliding through her unkempt hair. "Thank goodness."
"I think I've waited forever for you to say something like this to me."
"I sincerely apologize for taking so long," he replied.
"Hmm. The wait was worth it," Kaoru said, her eyes twinkling. She stared at him for moment before sitting upright suddenly with a gasp.
"My cake! I completely forgot. I can't wait for you to try it!"
"So you finished it?" he responded with a laugh.
She jabbed him in the side with a frown. "I don't like that surprise I detect in your voice. Yes, I finished it, and it's glorious. Better than any cake you've ever baked, that's for sure!"
"Laying down the gauntlet, aren't you?"
He grinned at her. "Is that why you taste like chocolate icing?"
She hopped up from the swing suddenly, and pulled him along with her as she made her way across the deck. "So, you caught me. I couldn't help myself as I was icing it. It just smelled so darn good."
"Well, lead on," he laughed and followed her into the house.
1 year later
"You really took a long time to finally ask for this," Kaoru said as she threw herself onto the bed with a tired sigh.
"I told you I wanted to save it for something special," he replied as he sat down in a chair across the room, his attention focused on the digital camera in his hands. "While I'm glad you finally broke down and bought your first digital camera, it'd be nice if you could come over here and help me figure out how to actually turn it on."
She twisted to her side and propped her head up on her hand as she watched him fiddle with her new camera. "Just flip the ON switch, turn the dial on top to the P setting, and take the lens cap off the lens."
His brow furrowed as he picked at the top of the camera.
"No, no," she said with a laugh as he just started to press random buttons. "Kenshin stop!"
"I'll find the right one eventually."
Kaoru smiled to herself as she scooted off the bed, careful not to step on the hem of her long dress, and walked over to him. After snagging the camera from his hands, she settled down on his lap and leaned against his chest.
"See here," she said, pointing at the ON switch. "Just flick it, and viola! You have power." She turned the dial to P and removed the lens cap for him and then handed the camera back to him.
"Amazing," he said as he put the camera strap around his neck. "Now stand up! You're part of the deal, too." He pushed her gently off his lap and watched as she stepped away from him with a mildly amused look on her face.
He raised the camera and followed her movements with it, capturing her as she slipped off her high heels, walked over to the window and pushed the curtain aside to stare outside, and then finally moved back to side of the bed.
"How's it going?" she asked, a brow quirked.
"Only a few have actually been in focus, but like you're always telling me - you have to take a lot of photos to hit on something really special."
"Very true," she replied with a smile.
He stood up and walked over to her, the camera dangling against his chest.
"Aren't you worried about wrinkling your dress? You've been paranoid for days about getting it dirty or messed up," he said as he sat down beside her on the bed.
Kaoru leaned back on the mattress and stared up at the ceiling of the room. Kenshin followed suit, lying back next to her and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Kaoru scooted closer, slipping an arm over his chest and snuggling her face into the warmth of his neck.
"Big day's almost over. We're finally married, and I don't have to worry about my dress, or the food, or the guests, or anything right now. I've got you in the honeymoon bed." She grinned at him. "What else could I ask for?"
"Good question," he replied, pulling her down to him and welcoming her slow, heated kiss. He raised the camera up with his left hand, fumbled for the button for a second and then snapped the photo.
It turned out to be the best one he took on their honeymoon.