Author's Note: Surprise, surprise. I know I said that the story was completed, but apparently my poor mind thought otherwise. I would like to present everyone with an epilogue, and to also thank the people who left the wonderful reviews that I have received for 'A Soft Hope'.
My deepest thanks to: ChildlikeEmpress, unknown beedee, Super Sheba, Anonymous but very interested, angelwings1, Threedaysunrise, Lendra-chan, Reignashii, nebulia, ixchen, Vic'chonn, fashionista, physicalmanfestationofevil, Youkoforever, animeLCgrl, Kaotic I. Deas, PAISITA, JadeLightning-Wolf, inuwolf04, Ravyn, I Heart Edward Cullen, MikaylaMae, Shinta-Fan, Crimson Rayne, Valaroma, flaming-amber, Royal blueKitsune, superlazygirl, Jasmine blosson625, punKrocKergrl, xJediJainax, blackartemis, whoknoez, cherrystems, YourSecret'sOut, sapphireracoongal, noneedforprozac27, skenshingumi, ShadeSpirit, en route, Serphtears, toxiclollipop, Draculina17, sulou, DreamerGirl02, Miharu Kawashi, kingleby, iamthefish, Kyrene once Blood Roses, peaceful blossom, siriuslover, Nanakiyoda, Animekitty07, noname00, and Saphyrlle. (If I misspelled or skipped anyone, tell me, and I'll rectify the problem.)
And this, I promise, is the last addition to 'A Soft Hope'.
Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin.
A Soft Hope
An Enduring Hope
3 years later, 1826
Glairmoor Estate, in the countryside of Devon
It was the sound of surprised laughter that roused him from the tired slumber he had fallen into. The grass felt moist beneath his back, and Kenshin belatedly realized that he had rolled off of the protective covering of the quilt. It was with a drawn-out yawn that he stretched his arms above his head tiredly, and blinked his eyes wearily against the bright sunlight.
That disruptive laughter shifted through the air once more, and drew Kenshin's attention toward the heavy tree cover off to his right. With a slight, jarring shake of his head, he pushed himself slowly up off the ground and halfheartedly brushed stray grass blades from his wrinkled clothing. His footsteps were hushed and efficient as he made his way through the moderately tall grass, toward the trees blocking his way. Walking through the thick trail of greenery, it was a few seconds later that he emerged from the concealing plants and into the small clearing split beautifully by a medium sized stream that flowed with a sedate slip of water over stone.
Kenshin came to a gradual halt as he admired the view in front of him, his eyes studying the jovial form of his wife. She stood in the middle of the stream, her bare feet spread over two adjacent stones jutting out of the flowing water. One of her hands held the bottom of her skirts, which allowed her to raise them scandalously, showing off an ample amount of the smooth skin of her calves, while her other hand was held out to the side for balance. Her hair was unbound and free, falling gloriously down her back in a thick wave of black silk.
She was wonderfully distracted by a fast-moving creature in the water that danced with the calm current. Kaoru seemed to be hypnotized by the animal's movements as there was a small splash of water, and then nothing as it disappeared underneath the rippling cover.
Kaoru let out an audible sigh of displeasure. She leaned over slightly, her gaze narrowed as she stared at the glinting water. Nibbling her bottom lip in thought, she cocked her head to the side.
"Having fun?" Kenshin asked softly, catching her off guard.
He watched as Kaoru whipped around to peer at him, her lips curving into a pleasantly bright smile. She turned her stance slightly on the rocks, moving to face him more fully while also trying to keep an eye on the water. Instead of spreading her weight on two of the slick rocks, she moved to stand only on one.
"Finally awake?" Kaoru retorted playfully.
He nodded and walked closer to the bank of the stream as he placed his hands into the pockets of his trousers. Kaoru cast another glance down at the water, and pursed her lips in thought. Lifting her gaze to his again, she shrugged and let her grip slip on her skirts. They fell slowly down to cover her bare legs.
"Do you want to join me out here, or are you afraid of getting a little wet?" she teased, planting her hands on her hips.
Kenshin chuckled as he crossed his arms over his chest, watching as she fidgeted expectantly on the rock. "I don't know if I should. You're a dangerous woman to be around. Especially when near water."
Kaoru's eyes widened and it was hard for her to contain her amused grin. "Fine," she responded, abruptly narrowing her gaze. "I guess I'll just have to drag you out here, then."
Shifting her feet on the rock, she stepped to her left, moving closer to her stationary husband. In the process of moving to another adjacent stepping stone, Kaoru leaned over precariously and involuntarily unbalanced herself. Her eyes widened when she realized what an unstable position she had suddenly placed herself in. Startled, Kenshin watched as she pitched forward, a loud screech of intertwined horror and mirth erupting from her as she descended downward toward the water.
Though he was fast, unfortunately, Kenshin wasn't quite fast enough to catch her, and he winced as Kaoru fell gracelessly into the trickling, knee-deep water of the stream. He was beside her as quickly as possible, however, and it was with steady hands that he gripped her upper arms and helped her floundering form emerge from the water.
Kaoru tried to get to her feet quickly, her hands grasping Kenshin's forearms for support. Her heavy skirts floated atop the water, bunching around her knees and shifting her balance perilously. While maintaining her death grip on his arm, she reached up one hand and wiped her loose, wet hair from her eyes as her lips slanted grimly. Letting out an irritated growl of frustration, Kaoru raised her flashing gaze to his and narrowed her eyes.
"That isn't amusement in your eyes that I detect, is it?" she asked, her voice steely with suspicion.
Kenshin cleared his throat as he blinked at her innocently. "Of course not."
She pursed her lips and let go of his arm. "You are a horrible liar."
"And why do you think I'm lying?" he questioned, watching as she turned away to peer at the line of trees behind them.
She stood still for a moment before slanting her husband a sideways glare, and retorting, "I've seen that look often enough in your eyes to recognize it by now. Don't think you can hide it from me."
A small smile teased his lips. "My deepest apologies." Stepping closer to her, Kenshin bowed his head slightly and laid the palm of his hand against her lower back. "You aren't injured, are you?" he asked, letting his eyes travel over her soaked attire.
Kaoru sighed, shaking her head with the smallest of motions. "No." A visible shiver traveled down her arms, though, and she sighed with obvious displeasure. "But, that water is definitely colder than I originally thought. Dipping a toe in for fun is drastically different than dipping oneself in for lack of grace," she muttered. She stared down at herself for a moment, before peering at him with a small smile of mirth. "I guess you were right to worry about getting wet when around me."
Knee-deep in the stream water, his pants soaked through to the skin, Kenshin only nodded in agreement while cocking his head to the side.
Grinning sheepishly, Kaoru sent him a pained look. "Sorry."
"It could not have been avoided, I'm afraid."
She reached out a hand and smoothed it down the front of his dry shirt. It was out of slight distraction that she began to play with one of the white buttons in the middle. She shivered again involuntarily, not sure if this time it was from the cool moisture cloaking her, or from something entirely different. Kaoru licked her lips.
Without a word, Kenshin leaned down, slipping one arm underneath her knees while wrapping the other around her back. Hefting her light form was easy, though Kaoru immediately squawked in protest as she came to rest firmly against the warmth of his chest. Her arms loosely circled his neck automatically as her eyes narrowed and she pinched her lips with displeasure.
"You don't have to treat me as an invalid, you know. My legs work perfectly fine. A little water is not going to make me faint with shock." Kaoru quirked an eyebrow sardonically while watching as he skillfully ignored her.
Keeping her body firmly tucked against his, Kenshin carefully navigated his way out of the stream, finally gaining solid footing on the leaf-covered ground. Kaoru sighed with capitulation as she stared at the unwavering resolve covering Kenshin's features. It was at times like these, when he closed himself off like a rock, making it quite impossible for her to sway him, that Kaoru had learned to just follow his lead. Over the past few years, she had found that more often than not, she ended up arguing with herself instead of him, which in turn wore her out mentally and physically. In truth, she'd much rather save up her energy for another time…mostly to retaliate against him for his stubbornness at a later date.
Besides…she'd be lying to herself if she denied that being in his arms was uncomfortable. Who was she to protest against him wanting to hold her? The whole situation really wouldn't have irritated her as much if he weren't acting like such a man. So she was a little wet…it was far from the end of the world.
Nibbling her bottom lip in thought, Kaoru reached up a hand to run down the smooth skin of cheek. He slowly slid his gaze down to hers, his amethyst eyes studying her.
"Are you actually going to carry me all the way back to the manor?"
His eyes lightened visibly with warmth. "It isn't that far."
Kaoru snorted. "When you collapse from the strain of walking so far, I will not feel sorry."
"You aren't that heavy."
Kaoru's eyes narrowed to slits. "I wasn't referring to my weight," she muttered. "I only meant that the distance is great. Carrying anything for that amount of time will be tiring."
"Have faith in me," he murmured, his gaze carefully catching hers.
Kaoru sighed. "I do."
Several hours later, Kenshin strode down the long hallway on the second floor of his country manor, his pace restrained. Having just finished his remaining paperwork in his study, he was now in search of his wife. After returning home from their morning jaunt, she had returned to their bedroom to take a bath and clean up. She hadn't informed him where she planned to spend the late hours of the afternoon, but Kenshin had a fairly good idea of her whereabouts.
As he drew closer to his destination, Kenshin's pace slowed and he lowered his head the smallest amount in thought.
Everyday with Kaoru brought a refreshing of the mind, a rejuvenation of the spirit. With her, haunting times of the past could be pushed back to the recesses of his mind, not quite buried, but not as painfully invasive as they once had been. There was something about Kaoru that brought about an inner peace within him, placing his once wildly revolving world back on its axis, away from the chaotic madness that had been so previously enveloping.
Sometimes he wondered if his new life was merely a fleeting distraction from the horror he had reigned upon himself and so many other souls. But when he caught a glimpse of her smile, when he heard the soft huskiness of her laughter, when he was so fully wrapped around her body and it was hard discern where hers began and his ended, he felt complete…he felt a cleansing of himself that was beyond bodily restrictions.
Kaoru had managed to touch his mind, and wrap her innocence around his spirit, leaving noticeable imprints on his inner most self. After all those years of trying to atone for the horrendous deeds he had committed, he finally found absolution in a small woman whose mere presence knotted his stomach with tangled emotions, and left him feeling bare to the world.
It was painful to even imagine where he would be if he hadn't met her five years ago, when she had literally tumbled into his life. Time had passed so slowly in the two years that he had tried to distance himself from her, and push away the freedom from his self-imposed oppression that she so selflessly offered. Though they had been apart during those two long years, he had still known that she existed, and he had felt the tremors of deep affection that shuddered through his unsteady frame…her mere existence comforted him. To even think of not knowing of her, of not being aware of her presence was unbearable. Without her subtle guidance, he knew that a very lost, disoriented, and agonized man would still roam the seas, clutched with a pressing and all-consuming need to atone for deeds which haunted his entire being.
At first the very thought of relying on someone terrified him. To pass his desperation, his terror, his demons onto an unsuspecting young woman was unacceptable. While trying to protect her in the early stages of their relationship, he had underestimated her ability to understand, to forgive, and to embrace his carefully hidden thoughts of inadequacy with a perceptive patience. He was still haunted by nightmares and shadowy remembrances of his past, but with every passing day, their effect on him decreased the smallest amount, their desperate hold lessening. He would never escape them, he knew, however, his demons had become more bearable over time.
In the beginning, opening up a part of himself to Kaoru, which had been hidden from the world for so long, was a grueling trial.
Kaoru had never wavered, however.
She had never doubted him.
Kaoru had never looked at him with anything other than devotion. And love.
The depth of affections that clouded her sapphire gaze as she looked into his eyes at times humbled him…it made him strive to maintain the presence of one worthy of her steadfast emotions. Her absolute surety in her feelings helped him realize that he made the right choice when he gave into her. He would never regret his decision to marry her.
As Kenshin stepped into the doorway of the nursery, he felt a small smile cover his lips and he stopped. Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned against the doorjamb and cocked his head to the side.
Kaoru sat in the middle of the floor, the butter yellow skirt of her day gown fanned around her form. Her dark hair was swept away from her face in casual, loose chignon. She leaned forward to steady the small form of the red-headed toddler standing unsteadily before her. The boy giggled happily as he wobbled, his eyes on his mother's smiling visage. A shaky step backwards unbalanced him, and he let out a startled cry as he fell back, landing sorely on his bottom. The toddler immediately moved to turn his wide, startled blue eyes to his mother to be reassured, but he spied his father standing in the doorway and was immediately distracted from his mishap.
"Da!" he chortled happily. Kaoru followed her son's gaze.
Kenshin pushed away from the door and into the room, kneeled, and picked his son up from the floor. Running a hand through Kenji's soft red hair, Kenshin smiled silently down at him.
If some passing stranger had told him years ago that he would have this small family, Kenshin would have shrugged the statement off as drunken rambling – a scenario that was beyond impossible.
Having a child was one of the most frightening, exciting, and rewarding experiences of his life. And while this had seemed unfeasible previously, nothing felt more right.
He turned to Kaoru and held out his hand to help her up from the floor. She sent him a look clearly stating that she felt she was perfectly capable of standing on her own, but she took his hand anyway and stood. Kenji leaned against Kenshin's chest, resting his cheek against the soft linen of his shirt. Kaoru moved to stand beside her husband, and placed a hand against Kenji's back.
"You were holed up in your study for quite a long time," she murmured quietly, her eyes lifting to meet Kenshin's.
"Hmm," he responded. Kenji smiled slightly, amused by the rumble of his father's chest. "I'm completely finished now. There will be no more distractions for the remainder of our time here."
The corner of her lips curled. "I believe I've heard that statement before, and it turned out to be erroneous."
Kenshin reached out a hand and placed it on her waist before moving his arm about her to draw her against him and their son. "It's the truth. You have my word."
"And I'll hold you to it," she replied, a teasing threat in her words.
She woke slowly, reality gradually taking over and sweeping away her dreams. The gentle sounds of the night were melodic, and she almost felt herself drifting back onto the welcoming folds of sleep, but the pressing notion that something was missing kept her from succumbing.
Kaoru wrapped her arms about her pillow and buried her face in the soft cushion as she stretched her tired limbs. As she shifted, her eyes slipping open, she realized the root of her dilemma – the cause of her wakefulness. Kenshin's side was empty, cold in fact, she found as she brushed her hand over the mattress where he should have been sleeping.
The pressing drowsiness slowly slipped away as she sat up in bed, blinking against the darkness that enfolded the room. One of windows lining the east wall of the bedroom lay open, allowing a soft wind to glide into the room, brushing the heavy folds of the curtains. Pale light illuminated the opening and outlined the form that stood leaning against the side of the window, his arms crossed over his chest.
His expression was neither somber nor light, but there was heaviness to it that she recognized. Whether he thought of his past, of the present, or of something related to the work he had finished earlier that day, she didn't know, but the insomnia that gripped him occasionally was there nonetheless. Her first thought as she spied him in front of the window, was to get up and join him at his perch, but something held her back as she watched him.
During the three years since he had returned to her from his self-imposed exile, Kaoru had finally found her small niche in the world. Truth be told, she had begun to heal during that fateful trip to Kent with Misao, but it wasn't until she met Kenshin that she fully embraced that freedom from her grief, and when he left, those two years without him had been important to her as well. She had found that while she did love him terribly, it was possible to live a life she would have been content with without him. But, her life was so much fuller, complete, and rich with him in it. With the birth of their son a year and a half ago, Kaoru felt entirely whole.
She knew that Kenshin still felt the heavy pull of his past, but as time passed, she had noticed the lightening of his countenance, the gradual freeing of the overwhelming hold his demons had. During times like tonight when he was lost in thought, his surroundings forgotten and his mind overburdened, Kaoru liked to remind that he wasn't alone anymore. Far from it.
Pushing back the covers of the bed, Kaoru slipped her feet over the side of the mattress and stepped lightly onto the cold floor. With a slight shiver, she reached for the green robe thrown over the back of a chair and hurriedly slipped her arms into the warm folds. With soft steps, she walked quietly over to her husband, her gaze intent. She came to a halt next to his elbow, and with a small sigh, she reached out a hand and brushed her fingers over the exposed skin of his forearm.
She felt the small tremor that went through his arm, and a few long seconds later, he turned his heavy gaze to hers. She had gazed into that deep amethyst thousands of times, but it was almost as if she saw him anew every time she glimpsed them. Tonight, they were rich with exposed emotion, so different from the first time she had met him when every nuance of emotion was carefully concealed. Light slips of muted amber swam in his eyes, highlighting the passion, tenderness, adoration, and devotion that swam inside. Kaoru lifted a hand and slid her fingers over the smooth ridge of his cheek.
"It's cold," she murmured.
His silent response was to gather her against him, his arms wrapping protectively around her slight form. She buried her nose against the fabric of his shirt before inhaling and shifting in his embrace so her back rested against his chest. She leaned her head back against his collarbone and relaxed in his comforting hold.
Her eyes traced the light of dusk as it reached bold fingers up from behind the horizon. A peaking of soft blue and yellow merged with the navy of night, brushing like a soft stroke of blended paint underneath the fading sprinkle of stars.
"Good morning," he whispered huskily into her ear.
A slow smile spread over her lips. "Good morning."
Author's Note: I'm still in the process of writing the spin-off story for Misao, entitled 'A Persistent Hope'. For those interested, I posted a 3-page preview for it in my LJ (the link can be found in my profile). Simply go to the Memories section, and it should be there.