Into the Clear
Chapter Fifteen: Clearing
Author's Note: Here it is, folks, the last and final chapter of Into the Clear! After more than a year, the story finally comes to its end. Thank you to all those who reviewed and kept encouraging me to finish this fic! I really appreciate all the time you took to read and critique the story. I honestly couldn't have finished it without your support. Hope this at least meets the minimum of your expectations!
Outside, a gentle rain began to fall. Kenshin listened to its whisper for a long while, letting the soothing sound fill the silence.
Then he began.
"There's a place you've never been to, you know -- it's about a day and half's journey from Kyoto. I don't think you've ever been anyplace like it. I've mentioned it to you before, but I wonder if you remember. . . It's called Otsu. It's where Tomoe and I lived."
In the pause Kaoru could feel the weight of the sadness behind his words.
"It's where I went after I left," he said quietly.
Otsu? she thought, bewildered. He went back there?
"If you remember," he went on, "I told you that I burned the house down. . .after she died. I did -- I torched it and turned my back on it. I returned to Kyoto soon after. I never thought I'd return to Otsu again."
He let out a soft, derisive breath.
"But I guess it had to happen, huh? It's always been with me -- everything that happened there. It's as if I never left. And even now. . ."
Again she felt his touch, light and hesitant, against her cheek.
"Do you know how much like her you look right now? This cold skin, this hair -- she was like this. I could have sworn she was only sleeping. Her face was so peaceful. . .just like yours."
He took his hand away.
"I always thought we would have been so happy there. After she was gone, I always said to myself, if only we weren't betrayed. . .we could have been so happy. I thought I had finally found my happiness -- planting radish and being together in that small house. When she died, it felt like everything had died with her. I've told you about what happened, but do you really understand. . .what it feels like to have a wound that never heals? A memory that never goes away? As long as I live, I'll never forget. . ."
The words were painful to listen to, their impact made more acute by the heaviness of the pauses between his words.
I know you love her, she wanted to tell him. I know you always will. She was your wife.
"But you know," he continued, "somehow, being with you. . ."
His words trailed off. Kaoru held still in an agony of anticipation.
What, Kenshin? she wanted to cry out. What? What about being with me?
". . .it was happiness too," he admitted softly.
At that moment, Kaoru had an almost uncontrollable urge to open her eyes.
Listen, she ordered herself. Just listen to him.
"It was happiness too, and I couldn't understand it. I was afraid I would start to forget. So whenever I was alone, I would make myself remember all over again. . .how she had smiled at me. . .Did I tell you? Right before she died, she smiled at me. I don't know if that was forgiveness, but I know I didn't deserve it. I told myself that for the rest of my life, I'd do anything to earn that smile. I didn't even know how I'd go about it, but I had to try. . .I swore I would atone for everything."
He fell silent. Kaoru heard the faint shush of the rain falling against the trees in the courtyard. The impulse to reach out and touch him was unbearable. Just like the rain sliding off the leaves, she wanted to run her fingertips slowly down his face in a caress.
You've done so much, Kenshin. You just refuse to see. It'll never be enough, will it? Anything you do will never be enough. There's always something more to be done, something more to be suffered. To you, her smile is beyond anything you can ever earn in this life.
It's the one thing that's most precious to you, isn't it?
I understand, she wanted to tell him. I understand now.
"How could I possibly make you happy," he asked her quietly, "being this way? I told myself I didn't belong here. And when Ryou came, you seemed so happy to be with him that I figured it was time for me to go. It was around that time that Katsura sent me a letter. He was living in Otsu and wanted me to visit him. That's where I met Ayumi again."
Ayumi. A pang of bitterness stabbed at Kaoru.
What does she mean to you, Kenshin?
"You've met her, haven't you? She's been taking care of you, too. Katsura asked me to bring her to Tokyo to help her start her own life. . . He was dying, Kaoru. I couldn't refuse him anything."
He paused again, seemingly weighing his words.
"I really thought you were happy with Ryou," he finally said. "I knew you might be a little upset that I left so suddenly, but I never would have guessed. . ."
"Why did you do it, Kaoru? Why did you run in and charge at him? You had no business being there. It was my fight. He was after me. Now look at you." Exasperation strained his voice. "I don't understand you at all. I thought he was the one you wanted. You even said so yourself -- that he was all you had left."
Kaoru felt a cold, prickling dread begin to settle onto her skin.
. . .he was all you had left. . .
The words came echoing back at her, in the blank cavern of her mind. She remembered exactly when she had said them -- that night in the street, after the date at the Akabeko. She had said them, weeping into Ryou's gi, clinging onto him after she had rushed down the street, after they had. . .
After they had. . .
Kaoru's eyes flew open.
Kenshin's head was bowed. She stared at the long, unkempt locks shadowing his face.
"You saw us," she whispered.
Kenshin's head snapped up. He gaped at her.
"Kaoru. . ."
"You saw us," she repeated, an ache beginning to build in her heart. "You saw everything, didn't you?"
He sat there, staring at her in silence, her voice reaching him like a distant murmur through his shock.
She's awake, he told himself. She's going to be alright.
"You saw everything."
The words sank in. Only then did he realize what she was talking about.
He lowered his eyes.
"I was waiting for you by the side of the road. I just wanted to make sure you would get home safely."
Kaoru continued to look at him, her gaze penetrating.
"Did you care at all?"
He looked at her. Kaoru did not back down.
"Kenshin, I'm asking you," she said, her voice surprisingly firm for one who looked so frail. "Did you care?"
"Did I care. . .?" he echoed.
Kaoru felt the tears spill then, hot and impatient. "About me!" she finished painfully. "About what you saw! Did it bother you at all -- seeing us like that? Did you care at all?"
He remained silent.
Kaoru swallowed the lump in her throat. "Of course it didn't," she said to herself, her voice dropping to a harsh, mocking murmur. "What am I even saying? Of course it never mattered. All that matters is your answer, isn't it? That answer you're looking for. You said it yourself. . ."
"Forgive me, Kaoru," he cut in suddenly.
Before she knew what was happening, she found herself swept up from the futon into his arms. He crushed her to him, her cheek pressing into the crook of his neck, his hair brushing her face. His scent, his warmth, his breath all suddenly enfolded her.
Her fingers curled into the material of his gi.
"Kenshin," she whispered.
"Of course I cared," he scolded her gently. "Of course I was furious. But there was nothing I could do. You ran to him."
Kenshin actually. . .cared, Kaoru thought to herself in awe.
"I only ran to him because I thought I could never go to you," she confessed. "Do you know how far away you seemed to me, Kenshin? You wouldn't even share your thoughts with me. You wouldn't even speak to me. The moment Ryou-nii-chan came here, you just sort of disappeared."
"I thought you were happy to be with him."
"I was. . .but he wasn't the one I wanted. He wasn't the one I needed. But he seemed like he was the one who was going to stay. So that's why -- that's why those things happened. . .that night."
He was silent. She drew back slightly and looked at him. Her fingertips touched the scar on his cheek.
"You're telling me that you can't promise that you'll always stay, right? That you don't know what you'll have to do to find that forgiveness." She paused, tears beginning to brim in her eyes again. "I won't stop you, Kenshin. I won't stand in the way of whatever it is you feel you still have to do. But all I ask is that you come back. Just come back to me. I'll wait for you. Just please, promise me. . ."
She buried her face in his shoulder.
"Promise me that you'll always come back."
His arms tightened around her.
I had no idea, he thought to himself, that she cared this much.
He closed his eyes for a moment, feeling her warmth suffuse his limbs.
Again the heavens had given him something he utterly did not deserve.
"Kaoru. . ." he said to her gently, "please don't cry. I didn't know it mattered to you this much."
She raised her head, her eyes glinting fiercely.
"Baka," she choked. "You're such a clueless baka, do you know that, Kenshin? Why do you suppose I've stayed single all these years? Who do you think I was waiting for? I turned away lines and lines of suitors for you, you know!"
Suitors? "What suitors?"
"Clueless!" Suddenly she smiled, blinking away the tears. "It doesn't matter. None of them had fabulous red hair, anyway. And I'm sure their domestic skills wouldn't have compared to yours."
"Oh. . .so it's all about the hair. And the laundry."
She took a lock of his hair and slid her fingers down its length.
"The hair is great. And the laundry and cooking make it even better. But what it's all about is you. My quiet, shy, polite you. It's those smiling eyes and these strong arms and the feeling you give me. . .always. . .of being safe." She brushed her fingertips down his jaw. "I don't want anybody else, Kenshin. I never did."
He was silent for a long moment.
"Kaoru. . ."
"I don't really know what to say," he went on hesitantly. "But. . ."
He looked at her. His eyes were startlingly solemn.
"I think nothing would make me happier than to have you with me. . .always."
A slow, sweet happiness began to unfurl in Kaoru's chest. Finally. Finally he was saying the words she had been so afraid she'd never hear.
Kenshin couldn't remember ever being hugged so tightly in his life. He stroked the length of black hair that cloaked her shoulders.
"I'll always come back," he whispered. "I promise."
"I'm so happy," she murmured. "I thought I'd never hear you say such things. I thought you'd see me always and forever as your landlady, nothing more."
As my landlady! Kenshin pictured a woman of girth, an apron tied around her wide hips, her arms akimbo, her eyes stern and intimidating.
Kaoru thought I saw her like that?
The absurdity of the thought caught him, and he began chuckling softly. Kaoru listened to the sound, deep and rich, echo in his chest.
"I can assure you," he replied, "in my thoughts, you're not landlady-ish at all."
Initially pleased, Kaoru noticed that his smile held a hint of a smirk. She narrowed her eyes.
"Hmmm. . .you're thinking hentai thoughts, aren't you!" she accused.
"You said you don't want to be thought of as a landlady."
Under the pale dampness of her skin, Kaoru blushed a bright red. "Just exactly what kind of thoughts are they?" she demanded.
"Shhh. You shouldn't be talking this much yet, you know." He hugged her close, cutting off any further protest.
In the silence they listened to the rain. Then he said quietly:
"I'd say they're very fond."
"My thoughts of you."
"Fond. . ." Kaoru tested the word. "You mean like, little sister-fond? Or friendly-fond?"
"Kaoru-dono," Kenshin said severely, "what do you want me to say?"
"I shouldn't have to tell you!" she muttered indignantly. "And besides, I thought we were over the -dono!"
"Ahh. . .sorry. It just slipped out. . .Anyway, I think it's time to put you back in the bed."
Her arms clasped automatically around his neck.
"Oh no," she said. "You're not getting away this time. Not until I hear what I've been waiting to hear, Himura Kenshin-san."
He stared at her. Her face was directly in front of his, inches away. If he nodded slightly, their noses would touch.
Her gaze was fixed intently on his lips.
She thinks I'm going to kiss her, he thought, suppressing a chuckle.
Ah, Kaoru. . .just you wait.
He lifted her and laid her back down on the futon. She kept her arms around his neck, forcing him to stay close.
He smiled, clearing her hair off her forehead.
"Would you believe me," he murmured, "if I told you that the whole time I was gone, I thought of nobody but you?"
Her lips curved in a satisfied smile.
"That's more like it," she said, pulling him closer, "but not quite. Not quite what I want to hear. I'm not letting you go until you get it right. . .Now get over here. I wouldn't have you strain your neck so. . ."
She had fallen asleep against the wall. Sanosuke picked up his dingy blanket and held it up by one finger against the weak light of the candle in the corner. Filthy, but it would have to do. He shook it out a couple of times, then draped it carefully over her.
She didn't stir. He went back to the other side of the room and settled himself comfortably into a corner. Outside the rain fell steadily.
He watched her as she slept. She looked completely out of place in his shabby little room, the whiteness of her skin glowing against the grimy paneling. His eyes scanned the floor carefully for any creatures that might crawl under the blanket and up her leg. Now that he thought about it, there were always little black things with lots of legs crawling around the room. He'd just gotten so used to them that he never thought to squash them anymore. They never seemed to want to bite him anyway.
But her. . .she was clean and she smelled good and. . .
And she's probably never been in a stinky dump like this in her entire life.
He had never intended to bring her to his flat. From the dojo, he had led her to the riverbank so she could have some of that fresh air she was craving. She had continued to walk on, following the water. When the rain had started to fall, they had found themselves at a considerable distance from the dojo. He had had no choice but to drag her through the seedy part of town back to his home.
Her head started tilting slightly to the side, her neck going slack in sleep. He wondered whether he should sprint over and catch her head with his shoulder. But before he could move, she stirred and resettled herself against the wall. The hardness of the surface behind her caused her to lift her lids slightly. She blinked at the room, disoriented.
Her eyes settled upon him. She stared at him blankly for a moment, then snapped awake, leaning forward, the blanket falling from her shoulders.
She stared down at it.
"Oh. . .I fell asleep?" she murmured, her voice still husky.
"I'd say it's about time."
She glanced at the closed shoji. The paper was still opaque, no hint of light beyond it.
She pushed her twisted hair out of her eyes.
"I'm sorry, I've. . .inconvenienced you." Immediately she began folding the blanket in her lap.
Sanosuke frowned. "What are you doing?"
She looked up. "What? Oh. . .I'm just folding this, since you were so kind to lend it to me. . ."
He rolled his eyes. A minute ago she was almost drooling in front of him, and now. . .
"Do you really talk like that?" he asked her irritatedly.
"Like with fussy words and all."
"That's the proper way to talk, isn't it?"
"Maybe to a stranger, yeah."
She gave him a polite little smile. "You are a stranger, Sanosuke-san."
His brow arched. "Is that so." He shifted his back against the wall and asked her pointedly:
"So why are you here with me?"
Her brow creased slightly in bewilderment. Not giving her a chance to answer, he went on:
"This probably isn't proper, you know -- being in a stranger's bedroom in the middle of the night. So let's hear it. Why did you have to run out of the dojo like that?"
"I just wanted to go out for a bit. As I told you."
"Bullshit. You wanted to go to Kenshin, didn't you?"
She shot him a glare that was at once haughty and annoyed. With frigid deliberateness, she laid the folded blanket on the floor next to her and rose.
"I think I'll be going now," she announced.
"I don't think so, honey. A, it's still raining outside. And B, do you know what time it is? This part of town isn't exactly upper-crust. If you're found outside in the street, all alone and in a wet kimono, well. . .it wouldn't be very nice for you. Sit down. I'll take you back in a little while."
She remained standing, defiantly staring down at him.
"Or you can stand," he said nonchalantly. "I don't really care."
She clenched her fists, visibly keeping her temper in check. Finally, she sank back down onto the floor, folding her legs neatly to her side, turning her head away from him.
"You shouldn't stay, you know," he told her flatly.
Her eyes shot to his, dagger-like. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, I think you know. If you stay, he'll always have to worry about you. And Jo-chan will always have to worry about him."
"You're dramatizing the situation too much," she said coldly. "He doesn't worry about me like that. He promised me this night he would stay right there. That he'd be there for me. He wasn't."
Sanosuke shook his head.
"God, you're one selfish, spoiled bitch, do you know that? Pretty, but selfish."
Her eyes widened. "How dare you say such things! Me, selfish? You have no idea. . ."
"What? I have no idea what?"
"I gave him up for her!"
Sanosuke arched a brow.
"You gave him up? Let's get real here, hon. You didn't give him up. He just didn't want to be with you."
That shut her up.
"So stop acting like you're so goddamned noble," he went on. "You know you've lost, Ayumi. It's time to go. Your hanging around here won't do anyone any good. You're just confusing Kenshin. "
"I'm just. . .confusing him?" she sputtered. "How can you even say that? I've been trying to help him -- "
Sanosuke dug around in his pocket for his fishbone and stuck it into his mouth.
"Really? Let's think about that for a minute. You're an old friend of his, right? And your uncle was his master. Don't you think Kenshin would feel obligated to look after you -- especially if you hang around the house like some poor, helpless orphan?"
Her mouth fell open in outrage. "You're a horrible man, do you know that?"
"So I've been told." He shrugged. "The point is, you can't stay."
There was a long pause.
"I never said I would stay," she muttered.
"Oh? So you've decided?"
"I always knew we couldn't be together."
"Well, it's nice to know you've got that clear. Saves me a lot of breath. So," Sanosuke slapped his thigh. "Where are you heading off to?"
She narrowed her eyes at him, finding his casualness grating. With practiced grace, she turned her attention to smoothing the fabric of her kimono over her knees.
"And home is?"
Sanosuke stretched out his leg comfortably. "Ah, the west. I've been there once. Nice place. Do you still have family there?"
"Really? Not a single person?"
She exhaled, her irritation slowly fading, her thoughts starting to drift to the faces and places that she had once known.
"Well. . .I imagine if I look hard enough, I'll probably find some distant relations on my mother's side. . .or some of my father's retainers."
Sanosuke chewed on the fishbone.
"Choshu, huh? I hear they have good food there. . ."
The morning sun was shining in brightly through the shoji when Kenshin finally opened his eyes. He blinked, and turned his head. . .and found himself face-to-face with Kaoru.
His whole body went perfectly still.
She was sleeping contentedly, her head angled toward his, her arm lazily draped over his hip.
God, she's gorgeous.
Suddenly an alarm went off in his head. He stared at the conspicuously gaping front of her yukata.
Oro. . .
He twisted his body slightly and looked down. The tie of his hakama was still there at his waist, snug and secure. He breathed a sigh of relief.
We didn't do anything, Nothing, absolutely nothing, just fell asleep. . .
He glanced at her, his eyes lingering on her face. A gentle smile curved his lips.
Just fell asleep. . .together.
Gingerly, he lifted her arm and placed it back on the mattress, easing his body off the futon as carefully as possible.
She opened her eyes.
"Kenshin," she murmured.
"Good morning," he said. "I'll go make breakfast."
"Be quick, okay?" She smiled at him sleepily.
He smiled back. "Sure."
This is the best morning of my life.
He picked up the sakaba and rose, flicking his hair hastily out of his eyes. Where'd that thing go? he wondered, searching the floor for the small strip of leather that he used to tie his hair back. Deciding that it was probably lost somewhere in Kaoru's futon, he tossed his hair behind his shoulder and slid the door open.
The hallway greeted him, cool and quiet. He stared at the door to Ayumi's room. The space in front of it was empty.
Sanosuke must have gone home during the night. Ah well, he'll definitely be back for breakfast. . .
Kenshin decided to check on Ayumi. He went to the door and slid it open a fraction. A second later he flung it open, his eyes wide. The room was completely empty. Her futon remained rolled up in the corner.
Where is she!
Briskly, he covered the hallway around the house, checking every room, his worry increasing with each second. He went out and scanned the courtyard. Empty. Stifling the urge to rush out and search for her, he walked back inside, going straight to Yahiko's room.
Opening the door quietly, he found the child still sleeping, mouth open. He walked over and shook him gently.
"Yahiko? Yahiko, wake up."
Yahiko lifted a sleepy lid.
"What?" he muttered grouchily. "It's way too early, Kenshin!"
"I need you to watch Kaoru. I have to run and do something right now. Yahiko, do you understand? Go watch Kaoru for me, please?"
The boy stared at him through crusty eyes and sat up slowly.
"Why? Where are you going?"
"To find Ayumi," he replied, already heading out the door.
He made his way quickly down the hallway to the front entrance of the house. No sooner had he stepped down into the foyer when the heavy wooden door slid open, momentarily blinding him with the sudden onslaught of light. He squinted.
There before him, outlined against the morning sky, was the recognizable silhouette of Sanosuke's rooster head. And next to him was. . .
"Ayumi!" Kenshin gasped.
She gave him a small smile.
"And where might you be going?" Sano inquired. "Looks like you're about to abandon Jo-chan."
"Where did you take her?" Kenshin demanded.
"Oh no, Kenshin," Ayumi cut in hastily, "I was the one who asked Sanosuke-san for his company. Last night I just had to go out and get some fresh air, that's all. Unfortunately, we got caught in the rain, so. . .Sanosuke-san was kind enough to bring me to his home."
"You took her there?" Kenshin asked incredulously.
"It was very kind of him," Ayumi said placatingly. "And look, he even escorted me back here."
Kenshin said nothing.
Sensing the tension in the air, Ayumi latched onto Sanosuke's arm.
"Come on, Sanosuke-san, how about some tea and breakfast? You must be famished. I'll make you something myself." She threw a hasty smile at Kenshin and forcefully began to drag Sanosuke into the hallway. Sanosuke stumbled out of his black slippers and stepped up onto the raised floor of the house. Leaving Kenshin staring after him, he grinned down at Ayumi.
"Now that's more like it. So what can you make, sweetheart? Grilled fish and eggs and miso would be nice."
She shot him a glance that told him to shut up. Sanosuke closed his mouth and happily allowed himself to be led into the kitchen.
Kaoru looked up as the door slid open.
Ayumi let herself in, delicately balancing the tray at her hip and shutting the door behind her. She smiled down at Kaoru.
"Good morning, Kaoru-san. How about some breakfast?"
Kaoru pushed her hair out of her eyes and tried, with considerable difficulty, to sit up. Ayumi placed the tray down on the tatami and reached over, propping the pillows up.
Kaoru settled into the pillows. "Thank you." She stared at the tray. "It's so kind of you. . .to. . ."
Ayumi reached for the bowl of soup. "I'm the one imposing on your hospitality," she said, mixing the miso in with a little soup spoon. "Everyone has been incredibly kind to me."
She sank the spoon in the soup, then raised it to Kaoru's lips.
"Ayumi-san. . .you don't need to do this," Kaoru protested.
"You don't have enough strength to feed yourself yet. And Kenshin told me to make sure you eat. So please try, Kaoru-san."
With some embarassment, Kaoru opened her lips and sipped the soup from the spoon.
When Kaoru finished the soup, Ayumi set the empty bowl back on the tray.
"I'm sorry that's it for breakfast today, but since you haven't eaten solids in a while, I thought it might be wiser to wait a little. . . It's going to be soup for a couple of days more, alright?"
"That was enough, really. Thank you."
"How are you feeling?"
"Better. Much better. I'm eager to get up and start walking around, you know."
Ayumi smiled. "Maybe not yet. But it's good to have you awake. Kenshin's very happy, you know."
Kaoru detected a slight sadness behind her smile.
"Do you remember what I told you -- " Ayumi went on hesitantly, "that afternoon, when I came here? When we were talking in the living room, before Ryou and Kenshin. . ."
She fell silent suddenly.
Ayumi looked up, her gaze serious.
"I told you that all Kenshin needs is to know that you love him." She paused. "I'm leaving today, Kaoru-san. I've got to get back to Otsu to collect my uncle's ashes, then I'm going home to Choshu. It'll be a homecoming. . .for both of us."
"Your uncle. . ."
"Passed away recently." She took a deep breath, staring down at her hands, "Anyway, what I want to say is. . .please, just remember what I told you. Remember that all Kenshin needs is to know that you love him. If he has that, if he's made to feel that all the time, then he'll finally find his happiness. He might not show it, but deep inside, he'll be at peace. Even if the guilt comes back, even if he feels he has to go off somewhere for a while, as long as he knows in his heart that you love him, he'll always come back. He'll always come back to you."
The earnestness in her eyes wrenched at Kaoru's heart.
"You are too kind to me," she whispered.
Ayumi smiled, that same sad smile.
"You're his happiness, don't you know that?" She turned to the tray at her side and picked it up. "I'll let you rest now."
Ayumi left the room quietly and headed down the hallway back to the kitchen.
First, she had to return the tray. And then. . .
It would be time to say goodbye.
Kneeling on the floor, Ayumi pushed the last piece of clothing into the straw bag. She pulled on the hemp cords, drawing the top shut, and closed the flap. Ready. She looked around the room. Everything was neatly in place, the futon in its corner, the tatamis clear.
The door slid open.
"Ah, Yahiko. What is it?"
"Kenshin told me to call you to the kitchen. He said you haven't eaten yet."
"Alright, I'll be right there. . .but -- Yahiko?"
Yahiko, about to run back down the hallway, stopped when she called his name.
"Will you do me a favor?" she asked him. "Will you give this to Kaoru-san?"
Yahiko stared at the folded length of embroidered yellow silk that she held out to him with both hands.
"Wow. . .what is that?"
She smiled. "It's a blanket. My uncle gave it to me a long time ago. I want Kaoru-san to have it."
Yahiko gave her a skeptic look.
"Are you sure? She's sort of messy, you know. When she sleeps, she kicks the blanket all around and gets it tangled in her feet. . ."
"That's alright. Could you bring this to her now? Tell her it's from me."
Yahiko took the blanket, holding the silk reverently, having seen nothing half as grand in his entire life. "Okay," he mumbled uncertainly.
Ayumi watched him leave. Then, staring at her empty hands, she smiled to herself.
I'll always remember, Uncle. . .everything we did. That tree we used to climb outside my window, the days you spent with me. . .
It's time to go home.
She picked up her bag and left the room, sliding the door quietly shut behind her.
Sano muched idly on a brand-new fishbone he had extracted from the grilled fish Ayumi had made. Across from him, Kenshin sat in silence, sipping his tea.
"So did you have a talk with Jo-chan?" Sano asked casually.
"You know she's going to want to know about everything. About Ayumi, and Ryou. . ."
"I've told her about Ayumi," Kenshin replied bluntly. "And Ryou. . .well, there's really nothing to tell. Saitou had him cremated and buried somewhere, right?"
"You can go ahead and think that if you like. I'd rather have Jo-chan hear that story, anyway. One thing's for sure, though -- I wouldn't trust that lowlife with my dead body."
At the sound of her voice, they both looked up. She stood in the doorway, clad in a fresh, light brown kimono, a straw bag in her hands.
Kenshin eyed the bag.
"Good morning. Going somewhere?" he asked.
His eyes widened.
She took a step into the kitchen.
"Thank you for your help, Kenshin, but I must return to Otsu as soon as possible. There's Uncle's ashes to collect, and I've got to say goodbye to Aunt Ikumatsu."
"But after Otsu. . ."
She smiled serenely at him.
"After Otsu, it won't be that far to Hagi."
"Hagi!" Kenshin exclaimed. "You're going back to Choshu?"
She nodded. "It's about time, don't you think? There's nothing left for me in Otsu anymore."
"Yes, but Choshu. . ."
"I'll be fine," she assured him. "I know my way."
"It's dangerous -- "
"God, Kenshin. Enough already," Sanosuke cut in, rising from his seat ang spitting out the fishbone into the box of trash in the corner. "Didn't you hear the girl? She said she'll be fine. And your whining's all useless anyway. It's not like you can go."
"Right," Ayumi agreed. "You can't leave Kaoru-san, and besides. . .I want you to stop worrying about me, Kenshin. I'm not your responsibility, you know. I can take care of myself."
"Ayumi," Kenshin said with a sigh, "if you could just wait a little -- "
"You're not going with her," Sanosuke snapped, "ever, okay? Get that through your thick head. You're not about to leave Jo-chan. Now, Ayumi's got to go, so hurry up and say your goodbyes and let the poor girl leave already."
"There's no way she's going alone," Kenshin said intractably, getting up from his seat.
"Who said she's going alone?" Sanosuke retorted, striding casually towards the doorway, where Ayumi stood. Before she realized it, he had snatched the bag out of her hands and thrown it over his shoulder, the hemp cords hooked onto his fingers.
"Alright," he said to her, "say bye so we can get going."
Ayumi stared at him open-mouthed. "Excuse me?"
Kenshin was staring at him with the same dumbfounded expression.
Sano looked at her expectantly. "I thought you were in a hurry."
"Yes. . .but. . .I'm not going with you!"
"Really? Pity. Because I'm going to Choshu, and so is your luggage. Don't you think you should come along?"
Ayumi stared at Kenshin helplessly.
Kenshin took one look at the cool determination in Sano's eyes, and sighed.
"Arigatou, Sano," he said with a grin.
"Kenshin!" Ayumi exclaimed.
"I'll feel much better knowing Sano's with you. Please give my condolences to Ikumatsu-dono, Ayumi." He bowed deeply. "You'll come visit again, won't you?"
"I'm really going with you," she mumbled to Sano.
"You heard him."
She turned to Kenshin with a resigned smile.
"Well, I guess this is goodbye. I wonder. . .how long will it be till we see each other again?"
"You'll always be welcome here," he replied.
After a moment, she nodded.
"Yes. Because this is your home, isn't it? And old friends are always welcome in one's home." She leaned forward and hugged him, recording in her mind the warmth she held.
"Be happy, okay?" she whispered. "Do your best to be happy."
She stepped away from him, then looked up at Sanosuke. "Ready?"
"Finally," Sanosuke grumbled. He glanced at Kenshin. "Alright, I'm off. Do me a favor and check up on my place once in a while, okay? I'll be back."
Ayumi gave him a last smile, then disappeared into the hallway, Sanosuke following her.
Kenshin watched them until they disappeared beyond the gate.
Did I keep my promise to you, Katsura? Will she be able to start a new life?
At least she went back to Choshu. That ought to make you happy. And she's in good hands.
At that moment, a solitary Megumi came walking in through the gate, heading towards the front entrance where he stood. Her eyes were downcast, her head bowed. She carried a heavy-looking medicine kit.
"Can I help you with that, Megumi-dono?"
She looked up. A curious sheen gleamed in her eyes.
"Oh -- Ken-san! Good morning."
He took the kit from her.
"Kaoru's awake," he informed her.
"So I've heard." She smiled at him. "You must be very happy."
"I am ." He paused, studying her face. "Did you meet Sano and Ayumi on the way?" he asked her gently.
"So he's taking her home to Choshu?"
"Yes. That's Sano for you. Nobody even asked him to." He stepped away from the doorway. "Ah, but he'll be back soon. Why don't you come in? Kaoru will be glad to see you."
Megumi entered the foyer, then slipped off her sandals and stepped up onto the hallway.
"So he said he'd be back, did he?" she asked Kenshin, walking ahead of him into the house.
Kenshin smiled to himself.
"Of course he'll be back, Megumi-dono. I hear food is quite expensive nowadays in Choshu."
She glanced at him. He was glad to see the corners of her lips lift in a smirk.
"Don't get the wrong idea now, Ken-san," she said, the teasing tone back in her voice. "You know it's you that I'm really after, right?"
He shook his head and sighed.
"No fox ears today, please, Megumi-dono? Kaoru's still recovering."
Megumi arched a brow.
"Ah. . .so now it's just Kaoru, huh? But still Megumi-dono? How unfair of you, Ken-san!"
"Forgive me -- "
Megumi touched his arm affectionately. "You musn't mind me," she said with a small smile. "I'm just spouting nonsense. Honestly. . .I'm glad that everything has finally been cleared up between you two."
They stood before the closed door to Kaoru's bedroom. Megumi looked up at him, her eyes suddenly moist again.
"Being honest is all that matters, you know, Ken-san? Being honest about what you feel."
Before he could ask her anything more, she slid the door open and greeted Kaoru with an exuberant good morning.
When Megumi had left, Kenshin shut the front door behind him and stepped back up into the hallway.
The house was quiet. Yahiko had gone out to the dojo to practice by himself. Kaoru was resting in her bedroom.
This is your home, isn't it? Ayumi had asked.
The warm brown wood, the fresh hint of air blowing in from the porch. . .it was all comfortingly familiar. Kenshin took a deep breath.
Yes. I am home. . .
He walked back to Kaoru's bedroom, stopping at the door.
And she's waiting for me.
He opened the door. She was still awake.
Kaoru looked up at him happily.
. . .As long as he knows in his heart that you love him, he'll always come back to you. . .
Kenshin noticed the lustrous yellow silk that lay draped over her futon.
"Where did that come from?" he asked.
"Ayumi-san gave it to me. Isn't it beautiful? I really need to thank her again, before she leaves."
"She left already."
Kaoru stared at him. "Oh."
He was silent for a long moment, looking at the blanket. Then he raised his eyes to hers.
"Would you like to sit out on the porch? There's a nice breeze outside."
She smiled. "If you sit with me."
He went to the shoji that opened onto the porch and slid it open. Kaoru looked outside.
The afternoon sky was clear and cloudless, its blue bright.
Suddenly she noticed he was smiling down at her, holding out his hand.
"Come on," he said.
She reached out to him. He lifted her from the futon and carried her out onto the porch. He sat down against a post. Kaoru leaned back into the warmth of his arms, her hand clasping his.
"Do you know what the picture on that blanket is?"
She shook her head. "It's very pretty, though."
"It's Choshu," he told her. "It's the old Katsura house, where Ayumi grew up. I guess giving the blanket to you was her way of letting go."
She looked up at him.
"I think I'm starting to understand," he went on. "The memories will always be there, but. . ."
"But. . .?"
"It doesn't mean we can't make new ones."
She curled her fingers around his. "Kenshin. . ."
He smiled at her. His eyes were light and happy.
"What do you think? Maybe the two of us can try. . .staying like this. . .being together always. . ."
She pulled his arms closer around her. The bursting happiness in her heart seeped out into her wide smile.
"I never wanted anything more," she whispered, closing her eyes and snuggling against him.
As he gazed at her, Kenshin suddenly had the feeling that he had just been saved.
This smile is what's most precious to me. . .
He drew her closer to him.
Together, they sat there and watched the blue sky turn into a field of clear, winking stars.
Author's Note (Again): And there you have the ending, as best as I can write it. I will admit one thing here: when I started this story, Seisouhen hadn't yet come out, so I envisioned a total WAFF-fest ending for this fic (in fact, in my imagination, when I was filling in the gaps left by the anime and the manga, I had a nice happy WAFFy ending for the "happily ever after" part of Kenshin and Kaoru's life.)
Of course, that was before Sony ever released the "official" version of the "happily ever after" -- in the form of Seisouhen.
After seeing Seisouhen, well, I guess my perception and understanding of Kenshin sort of changed. The Kenshin in Seisouhen is a man who can't let go of the duty he's brought upon himself -- his duty of atonement -- and his burden of guilt. It made me sort of sad to see him like that. Even though he had Kaoru by his side, even though they had a son, he still found it necessary to leave home and do all sorts of things that ultimately only led to his and Kaoru's early demise. It was saddening to see that no matter how much they'd been through together, no matter how much love and acceptance Kaoru gave him, he still felt that he had to go out and work to find that ever-elusive sense of forgiveness. The tragedy in Seisouhen (and I guess it's the tragedy of the whole series) is that this forgiveness does not come to Kenshin until his death. In the end it seemed to me that the most important thing to Kenshin was really his quest for that forgiveness. He left Kaoru and Kenji in search of it.
It made me really sad to see that, but in any case, I accepted it as a deeper insight into his character. I started to see Kenshin in a different light, and I guess the way that I'll always think of him from now on is in terms of the sadness lingering behind his smile -- Kaoru and Kenji made him smile, but he wasn't able to let go of that sadness until his death.
With all this in mind, and seeing Kenshin in this light, I revised this story and wrote the ending above. I'm not sure how WAFFy it is, but I tried not too make it too gloomy. Or too WAFFy, either, for that matter. A totally happy WAFFy ending somehow seemed at odds with the insight into Kenshin's character provided by Seisouhen.
Thank you again for reading and for taking the time to let me know what you thought. Your comments really helped me work on my writing, and I had fun, too. I hope you enjoyed the story in some measure as well.
edit: June 2007
Wow, I can't believe it's been almost five years since this story came to a close. I'm really grateful to all those who read and reviewed -- it makes me so happy to know that people are still reading this despite its advanced age. :) I greatly appreciate all the feedback I've received, especially the numerous different reactions to my use of Seisouhen as the motivation for the ending.
Since there appears to be some contention over the influence of Seisouhen, I thought it was probably time I clarified a few things. As best as I can remember, when Seisouhen came out and I watched it, I was unaware that it was not part of Watsuki's vision for Kenshin's story. To my mind, it was a feasible continuation of the happy ending shown in the manga. Kenshin and Kaoru, I recall, end up together; they have a son. The manga does not show us the later years, when the son is grown and Kenshin and Kaoru are in their old age. Thus, when I saw Seisouhen, I took it for what it advertised itself as -- the continuation and ending of Kenshin's story. I didn't know Watsuki envisioned a happy ending for everyone and that he had no hand in the production of Seisouhen.
In any case, whether Seisouhen is "official" or not is beside the point. Seisouhen is just one of many possible ways the rest of Kenshin's life could have unfolded -- I just happened to use it and adapt it into my own personal canon. I don't regret having done so -- honestly, I don't hate Seisouhen. It made me sad when I first watched it, but I don't hate it. There's an aching, tragic beauty to it that fits who I believe Kenshin to be: he is, more than anything, a somber man at heart.
Of course, this somberness of heart doesn't preclude him from having Watsuki's happy ending. The main difference between Watsuki's canon and my vision of Kenshin is that for me, Kenshin's happy ending ultimately does not last. For a few years he is happy, but eventually his inability to forgive himself robs him of the chance to make that happiness last. This, for me, is the truth of his character.
This fic has a happy ending, though, let's not forget that! Anyway, I think that the issue is more with my discussion of Seisouhen in the author's note rather than with the actual ending of the fic itself. So, to address matters: I am now aware that Seisouhen is not part of the official Kenshin canon. However, I don't believe that its "unofficialness" makes it any less worthy an insight into Kenshin's character. I think Seisouhen is beautiful in its portrayal of the deep sadness that Kenshin holds within himself. That sadness is what I remember most vividly about him, and it's what rings true for me when I think again about his story, after all these years.
Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to share your thoughts. I appreciate it more than I can express.
- mikan, 6/1/07