Well, this is something I have had sitting on my hard drive for some time. I'm happy with it. It's something different, but I think its honest towards the characters. Or, at least I hope so.
This is a one-shot, btw.
I hope everyone had a fabulous summer!
When Johnny comes marching home again,
We'll give him a hearty welcome then
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we'll all feel gay,
When Johnny comes marching home.
--- Union Army bandmaster, Patrick S. Gilmore
Aoshi silently watched the council after finishing his report. They looked a little nervous, but that was to be expected. They were all waiting for him to give his opinion on mere rumors. In all the years that he had served and they still wished for him to lower himself to that level. Reaching forward, he straightened the papers in front of him into a neat pile and slid them back into the folder he had taken from his briefcase. Human weight shifted in leather chairs. Someone was clicking a pen in rapid nervous bursts of energy.
"Mr. Shinomori," the voice was female. Looking up, he met the eyes of one of the fourteen governors who believed they ruled Japan. He wondered how long it would be before they realized the price they had paid had been too high, and while things might have looked neat and clean on paper, they had hardly won anything. "Mr. Shinomori, there have been some interesting rumors this morning."
Aoshi watched her until she dropped her gaze, the motion highlighting bags under wrinkled eyes. He felt no pity for the older woman. She had made her choice, and now she and the rest of the council, fools that they were, were going to have to live with it.
"Which rumor in particular do you wish that I address?" Aoshi questioned. The subtle rebuke, suggesting that he only knew of one rumor for the day, was probably missed by half the room's occupants. The man directly to his left shifted, an acknowledgement of his carefully masked irritation.
"Is the Battousai dead?"
A new voice, one easily matched to a balding, rounded face of a man who sweated too often. He thought he would be gaining a nice profit off some of the oil he had been carefully hiding from the others.
Careful to keep his expression neutral, he reached into his briefcase again, tucking the original folder away and pulling out a second. "You received my report this morning, councilor." Flipping open the report, he let his eyes scan the words he had spent half the night carefully choosing. The importance of the wording was lost here.
"At three A.M this morning, Battousai was declared dead. The official cause is unknown, and High Commander Katsura rejected the request for an autopsy. The speculation by the doctors suggests that death was caused by the wounds dealt to him two days ago during the assassination attempt of this council."
Silence hung heavy over the group, the sound of the pen stopping before starting again. Aoshi made a mental note to have that councilor investigated a little more thoroughly. Nerves such as that were from more than the stress of the job. Besides, the constant noise was beginning to annoy him.
A tall man with salt and pepper hair stood, his face flushed with both temper and drink. "You expect us to believe that? After how silently you sat the last meeting! We declared him too dangerous to live, and now you expect us to believe that he was just killed? I demand an autopsy and a body viewing!"
Taking another mental note for Hannya, Aoshi simply watched the man. When it was clear that Katsura would say nothing, he finally spoke.
"If the council finds my work unsatisfactory, they are more than welcome to gain a second opinion." Triumph danced across that molted face. "Of course, the only evidence that I can supply for the council's peace of mind is an urn."
Silence. Aoshi let himself feel the sharp edge of satisfaction.
"By the policies set down by this council, Battousai's body was cremated within hours of his death. We felt it was too dangerous to bury him in a grave, lest some fool decide to make him into a martyr for their cause. His ashes will be scattered in the harbor like every other soldier who found death while inside our hospitals."
He paused to allow them to say anything, but that tense silence remained. Never one to find the need to fill silences, he still felt that it was important to put this behind them. To give the council some sense of security. Like the fat, pampered kid before the slaughter, they too would sleep well tonight.
"Attached to the report I sent you this morning, there are copies of all medical reports." Letting his eyes scan the faces of the thirteen individuals he knew better than they knew themselves, he closed the file. "You said it yourself, two weeks ago, honorable councilmen. Battousai was a dangerous man, too dangerous to allow to live. The decision was made, and whatever the circumstances, he is no longer a threat."
He watched as eyes dropped to the table. Let them think what they would. He already knew the conclusions that they would draw, which council members would guess the truth. His men had been feeding the council false information for months. If Katsura was aware of how the council was being used, he said nothing; simply sat in his chair, silent as he had been since the decision to kill three of the men that had been the largest threat to the cover of peace.
The war was over. The political games were just beginning.
"And what about this Shishio Makoto character?"
"He was not my department's responsibility. However, a warrant has been sent out for his arrest. If that is all the council requires from me this morning, I shall take my leave." Bowing respectfully, he picked up his briefcase and left.
Fools thought they were nice and safe in their little conference room. Hannya would let him know if they deviated… from their normal patterns. Katsu would let anything valuable slip. Everything else would just be recorded in case it was needed for a later date.
Stepping into the hallway, he ignored the two shadows that joined him until they were a good distance from the council. There would still be ears, but these ears had been discovered months ago. The information they had been receiving was planned and well targeted.
"Shishio has yet to apprehended, but it is only a matter of time. Human resources is upset over the loss of several important files. They were hoping to gain an estimation of the money Battousai had accumulated over the years, wanting it to go back into the budget."
"The information is classified and has already been placed back into the proper accounts. If they want a paper trail, I will await the message from Commander Katsura." Aoshi said. "Anything else is unimportant."
Both men bowed.
Aoshi continued his walk alone.
Aoshi placed his briefcase next to his desk and settled into his chair. He could already feel the headache forming. The council would have to be eliminated soon. It wouldn't take them long to start chaffing under the restrictions necessary to box in their power. Katsura was aware of this, yet he was unhurried. He had been prepared for such slow movements from the Commander, just as he knew that Katsura was aware of the movement inside his own organization. It wouldn't be long now before they went underground. Movement at the door had him lifting his head, smiling slightly at the sight of the woman standing in the doorframe.
"I imagine things went smoothly?"
Misao walked into the room, her hands holding a tray a little awkwardly over the rounding of her stomach. Beshimi was walking next to her, his expression slightly pained, a large basket of what was going to be his lunch secured in his grip. She still moved smoothly enough not to spill the tea, but soon that faint hitch would transform into a waddle. He would have to move her out of the city soon.
"He made it out alright?" Misao asked as she sat the tray down, her expression lined with concern.
"The package was successfully delivered. How is Megumi taking the death of her patient?"
"Lots of paperwork; Sano insists his ears are ringing with her complaints. The council has already sent several men to investigate the affair. It's not likely they will turn anything up that can be useful for them. Saitoh is distinctly unamused with the line of questioning." Pulling up the second chair, she sat down with a sigh before turning her bright smile on the slightly ruffled ninja. "Thank you, Beshimi."
"My pleasure," the short man bluffed.
Aoshi sipped his tea, ignoring the almost frantic expression in his subordinate's eyes. Instead, he concentrated on the smell of fried chicken and warm bread. Misao's stomach grumbled and Aoshi lifted a brow at her as he studied the contents.
"Megumi doesn't know and doesn't need to know," Misao said defensively. "I want fried chicken with biscuits and potato wedges. I've been craving them for days now."
Aoshi took in the set of her bottom lip and lifted his mug of tea. Best to choose his battles. Such as why his tiny wife had decided to bring him lunch today. "Your worry about my safety is not necessary. They do not yet believe themselves capable of targeting my organization, and by the time they grow that desperate, we shall have gone underground."
"What makes you think I am worried?" she bluffed, her fingers twisting the end of her braid.
"You brought me lunch."
Beshimi continued to look nervous. How interesting. Turning his attention back to Misao, he watched the way her teeth sank into her bottom lip. She seemed to change her mind, reaching for the container with the chicken.
"So, I was thinking pinks for the room."
"I do not believe my son will appreciate a pink room."
"It could be a girl!"
The train lurched in an almost comfortable manner as he leaned against the window. His bag sat in the seat next to him, a silent warning to other passengers. Some brave fool might try to grab it, but he wasn't particularly worried. There were ten people in a car that held twenty-five, and all of them looked nervous. Watching the countryside slowly turn into suburbs and back into countryside was therapeutic. Rubbing his thumb over the metal band on his left hand, he planned.
Inside the plain duffle bag he had bought somewhere, there was a small collection of letters rubber banded together that had never been opened. He resisted the urge to reach over and feel the paper. The edges were already worn. It was unnecessary to read them, he still knew the words. Part of him recognized this was for what it was, defiance from her, while the other part simple brushed it off. He had known how she would react when he wrote the letters, but knowing the outcome might be unfavorable had never stopped him from reaching for the goal in the past. She knew that.
He had gone to her, their home first. His side had still been aching from the blow he taken earlier in the week. The bandages still fresh, skin smelling of antiseptics. The home had smelled like a tomb. He had not been surprised to find everything covered in white sheets that she hadn't taken with her. The couch was gone, along with the little round table her grandfather had carved. The walls had bare spots to mark missing pictures. Most of the ones left were meaningless. The picture he had helped her hang, her in the summery skirt and top that brought out her eyes, him in his black slacks and a good shirt had still been there. It hadn't bothered him that she had left that one behind. If she refused his letters, then she would refuse to take that particular photo with her.
The shower had helped revive him a little. Even if he had been forced to wait for the rusty grit to clear from the pipes before he could shower what was left of his old life from his skin. The bathroom itself was cold, dust covering almost everything he touched. To his relief, the bed was still in place. Rubbing his hair with a towel he had brought, he had stood there, starring at the furniture, remembering.
Her blue eyes as she starred at him, her face white with strain. "Was that all this was?"
He had forced himself to ignore the way her voice cracked. The way she had turned away from him so she could hide her emotions a little better. He had known better than to tell her that it did little good. He already knew she was crying. The war had taken so much from her and now he was asking her to lose more.
"I have to go." He had said it as gently as he could, hoping she could understand even while knowing she wouldn't. Just as she wouldn't understand that he would be back. That when he was finished he would come for her. She had never understood the way she had settled into his life and even though a promise would take her away from him, he would come back for her. When he did come back, things would be different, he knew that, but it wouldn't stop him from following her.
She had twisted around, her hair sticking to damp cheeks, her eyes blazing with the temper he so loved. "I won't be here when you come back if you walked out that door." She had meant it. He respected her for refusing to bend on her own values, but that didn't mean that he couldn't go. She knew it, yet she still challenged him.
She had never begged him. She wouldn't start now.
"I will be back, Kaoru." His tone had been as neutral as he could make it. "When I come back, if you are not here, I will find you."
Tears had slipped down her cheeks, even as her jaw tightened and her eyes darkened with anger. "I don't believe I will want to be found."
The stop at their place had been almost two days ago. The trains were slower to travel, but he didn't care for the hustle of the airports and he didn't particularly care to drive yet. He needed the time to finish healing. His side still pulled if he moved wrong, the small stitches still held his side together. He wanted to time to plan each move, consider each possible argument she would give. It would take time.
Aoshi had given him a folder before he left and he had taken his time going over the contents. He would have probably owed his friend a favor, if Aoshi had considered keeping an eye on Kaoru anything other than business. The note had been brief.
'Her address and train ticket are waiting at the station. Her papers will be delivered to you in a week. Misao is determined that you be the godfather to our child.'
It was the closet his friend would go to warn him to be careful.
The train started to slow and he picked up his bag. He would need to find something to eat. It was doubtful Kaoru would have more than instant ramen and old leftovers in her apartment. The looks he received as he walked off the train were curious, but not alarmed. Aoshi had done his job well. No one would ever expect the small, red haired man with the unusual scar to be Battousai. Not with the news so gravely announcing his death. People just didn't look for something that didn't exist anymore.
He didn't bother knocking on the door. A key had been in the envelope, and the lock turned smoothly under his hand. Turning the lights on, he shut and locked the door before he allowed himself the luxury of looking at the place she lived in now.
It was a single, one-bedroom apartment that reminded him of a tinderbox more than a place someone could live, but she had done her best with it. The paint was bright and cheerful, and it smelled like her: honeysuckle, jasmine, and the faintest touch of mint. Pushing away from the door, he set about to explore everything. Looking for any clues to the hardships she might have faced over the years without him.
The walls were scattered with pictures and framed posters. Many of them were of her parents, the arrogant sneer on the face of a younger brother who had been missing for years, a familiar picture of her family in kendo clothing and the family portrait she prized. There were faces he didn't know, places he had never seen, but very few.
Her bedroom was soft chaos. The bed had been made in a hurry. The sheets were wrinkled and uneven on the sides. One of her pillows was still on the floor. At the foot of the bed sat a clothesbasket with clean clothing haphazardly folded, with mismatched socks strewn across the top. A pair of torn jeans was dropped over a back a chair. A small potted bamboo plant sat on her desk.
The towels on the bathroom floor were crumpled and damp. A small smile lifted the edge of his mouth at the sight. Some things just never changed. The lamps around the room were old, but well cared for. It was the photo on the nightstand that caught his attention. Moving swiftly, he picked up the frame, and he forgot to breathe.
He didn't know when the picture had been taken. He was sitting in a leather chair, reading a book. One leg hung over the arm, the other folded under his body. The cut of his jeans were familiar, he was barefoot as he preferred when inside his home, but he hadn't seen that shirt in years. Reading glasses he had lost long ago were perched on his nose. Of all the pictures she had left, he wondered why she had kept this one. Why she kept it here, on the dresser, instead of in a drawer to bring out occasionally. Maybe there was more hope than he had expected.
He put the picture frame back, leaving it in a proper position, and set about straightening the little apartment. It didn't take long to arrange her bathroom, or to fold her clothes and to find the correct places for what he had folded. The socks were easily matched. The bed took only a moment. The kitchen was clean except for a few dishes, which he washed slowly before putting away. Eventually, he ran out of things to do and was forced to settle into the familiar couch and wait.
Her knuckles were white around the rag she was using to scrub the table in front of her. The last customer had almost been meticulous with his cleanliness, probably an ex-soldier, but invisible crumbs were better than the newscast playing on the little TV over the bar. Setting her teeth, she continued to work. She would have welcomed any distraction over the news on the airwaves.
…today Katsura Kogura signed off on the bill that allows…
She didn't want war updates. Those who knew her well enough that they considered her a friend were carefully avoiding her eyes. She had been asked once or twice why she hated war talk, but she refused to discuss it. Instead, she let them draw their own conclusions about her hatred of the war and the reasons why she wore a wedding band. No one asked about that, either. Kaoru wasn't certain how she would have felt if they had asked, or what questions she might have found relief in, and she wondered if it was better not knowing. There were too many possibilities for things to go wrong. Too many ways for him to find something out about her through idol chatter.
She had heard the girls talking, of course. It was impossible not to. Too many beers and more than enough romance novels fueled their intentions. They wanted her husband to be alive. They wanted him to be dead. They wanted him to be a figment of her imagination. A slightly bitter smile curved her lips. Perhaps one day he would be. The years had taught her it wouldn't be as easy as she had once thought to let him go.
Sighing, there was simply no way to justify anymore scrubbing; she turned to watch the rest of the broadcast. Most of them were images of troops filling up ports and airports and train stations. Part of her was searching for shockingly red hair, while another part was ignoring the part that was searching. Better, off if he was dead. Even if she would never know.
The soldiers were finally going home. Her mouth thinned into a straight line. Like the Romans, the government had decided any man over the age of thirty was free to return to his family with no fear of returning to the draft. She supposed the Council thought it was a fair trade to those who had watched their sons go to war. She wondered how the mothers felt of those who were not yet thirty. Her mind traced how many years had passed and tried to recall his age, and she shied away from the possibilities. A city that was tired of great need had been turbulent and angry. There were thousands of men going home to their families needing jobs. The war was ending. How much bloodshed was enough?
Her fingers clenched along the rag hard enough that the fibers made popping noises, winding the fabric tighter, until she felt the material dig into her skin. Her knuckles made the distinct cracking noise of unhappy joints. Kaoru wished she knew how she felt about everything that was changing. What she felt about everything that had changed. She was tired of being numb.
"Are you waiting for someone to come home?" the voice to her right was hesitant. "I can't wait for mine…"she paused mid-sentence and blushed, the fingers holding her fork trembling slightly.
Kaoru searched inside herself for the answer and then shrugged. "I don't know."
Was she waiting on him to come home? Hoping somewhere deep inside that he would still be alive, that he would fulfill his promise to find her. The silent promise to make things right she had wished he would give? Turning away from the girl, she went to dump the now dirty rag into the proper pile.
Three years of her life had been spent in cheap shoes, bad lighting, and bar fights. She had been running from the war, from him, from everything, and found the one place that was never safe from war talk. How many times had she looked for employment elsewhere? How many times had she resigned herself to always knowing what was happening around her. What he was doing, even if she didn't know why he had been sent that little black envelope or why it had been more important than her.
It hadn't been the crush of people coming in and out of the little bar that had her working double shifts, even if the owner let that excuse slide. It was the need to work herself into exhaustion each night so she could sleep. It was the need to support herself so that she wouldn't be tempted to see how many promises he was going to keep. The rational side of her brain told her it didn't matter how far she ran. She knew he had contacts she couldn't evade forever. The other part wished that he would just forget and wouldn't try. Even if it meant watching for him over her shoulder for the rest of her life.
Turning back to her customers, she set her jaw.
Either he would come and try to find her, or he wouldn't.
She was hoping he wouldn't try, while knowing that he would.
Yawning, she peered through the peephole in her door. It was late… or early, and there were only a few people who would dare knock on her door at this hour. Shoving her hair out of her face, she reached for the lock. Leaning heavily against the door, she stared at the man in front of her with tired eyes. He was dressed casually, he smelled like alcohol, but his eyes were clear.
"Is something wrong, Kenshin? It's two in the morning."
His smile was soft. Her stomach did flip-flops. "No. Nothing has happened."
She found herself ushered into the room; the door shut and locked again, his smile still on his face. Kaoru was certain that her face showed her confusion.
"Okay then," she rubbed her eyes. "I need coffee."
"I'll make it."
She just followed him into the kitchen, pushing herself up to sit on the counter so she could watch him move. Even now, he was so graceful and beautiful it hurt. She wondered why she tortured herself like this, letting herself love a man who had never looked at her as anything other than a friend. She had long since promised herself if that look ever changed to what she wanted, she would seize it with both hands, but the promise was useless because he never once looked at her like that. Like she was a woman.
Warm violet eyes gazed at her for a moment before he turned back to the coffee. Kaoru knew he wanted to talk, he'd never come over without reason. There was always a purpose to his carefully planned moves. She wondered what it was, but didn't feel like it was her place to start the conversation. Getting lost in her thoughts, she looked up when Kenshin touched her knee. Her eyes met his. They were clear and touched a little with amber.
"Kaoru, why aren't you dating anyone?"
She was tempted to rub an ear, just to make sure she wasn't hearing things wrong. When he continued just to stand there, she frowned at him.
"You know, this sort of conversation can wait until I am awake and coherent."
The edges of his mouth curved, but he never moved. Sighing heavily, she crossed her arms in displeasure. "Because I don't want to."
He stepped away, to her surprise, and in a moment, she was holding a mug of hot coffee. Instead of questioning if she wanted to move into the living room, he rested his hip against the counter and watched her. If he was doing this on purpose, she was going to kill him once she remembered how to do it in a manner that was messy. Closing her eyes, she sat her cup down and sighed, wondering how long he was going to be there before she could go back to bed.
Kenshin's mug made a noise as he sat it down on the counter. When she looked at him, there was something in his eyes. Something warm and mellow and she froze. Stepping around her knee, he leaned into her so that she could feel how warm he was.
"Sano said something tonight."
She was going to kill him. Sano and Kenshin. She could bury them together. Swallowing, she stared at his eyes. They were the same, familiar eyes she loved. Except she had never seen that expression before. Taking a deep breath, and knowing that she was doing something supremely stupid, she hooked a leg around his waist, her hand closing around the collar of his shirt, and pulled him forward.
He tasted like coffee and Kenshin.
She wasn't sure when he started to kiss her back, when her other leg settled around his waist, or when his hands ended up under her shirt. All she remembered was relief, surprise, and then sensation.
Kaoru stared at her shaking hands as she hung her apron up on the hook. It was finally time to head home. She almost wished she had another shift, but her mind had been caught up in memories all evening. Distracting. She had almost broken another dish tonight. She didn't need anything else coming out of her paycheck. She needed to make rent this month.
She didn't need to remember waking up in his arms. She didn't need to remember the particular way he had decided to wake her. She certainly didn't want to remember the way he had looked at her, the way he convinced her that he wasn't insane. The way she had agreed with his insane plan. Her hand went to the wedding band and she pressed her forehead against the cold metal of her locker. No. This was not the time.
It had been three years since she left. Surely, she could learn some self-control when it came to Kenshin and she could learn to forget! It just didn't matter that she had loved him for as long as she had known him. Three days did not make up for leaving her. It just didn't. This wasn't Perfect, as those damn commercials reminded her every time she saw them.
The walk home was shorter than she liked, any excess energy she had going into the motions. One foot down, lift the next, move the body, another foot down. It was a pattern. One she was familiar with. Still, she felt drained by the time she arrived at the apartment complex that she lived in. Her nerves hummed with exhaustion and anticipation, and she restrained herself from reaching up and rubbing the bridge of her nose when she caught sight of her landlord.
He was going to ask her out again.
She had been tempted, once or twice, to say yes. Anything was better than the world she had created for herself; sometimes she was just so damned tired. Then she would remember she was wearing a ring, that he knew she was married (as much as what she had counted) and that he was asking her anyway. That wasn't a man she wanted to go out with even once. She smiled tiredly, moved as quickly as she dared, and eventually made it up to her apartment feeling curiously bruised on the inside.
Opening her front door, her purse dropping onto the floor with a thump, she shut and locked it, leaning against the wood for a long moment, trying to find the strength to head for the shower so she could just go to bed. She had never been more thankful that she had already eaten, although ramen was sounding tempting. Still, it was late and she was tired. She could eat in the morning. All she wanted was a cold bottle of tea, a hot bath, and to make it to bed without falling asleep this time. Taking a fortifying breath, she rubbed her eyes and turned away from the door. Groping for the light, she flicked the switch and went to head over to her little kitchen.
Her world froze and narrowed for a moment as she realized he was sitting on her couch. Calm violet eyes watching her as her stomach dropped down to her ankles.
They stared at each other for long moments. She was afraid she was going to faint. Except, no black spots danced in front of her eyes to relieve her from the reality in front of her. Instead, she was steady on her feet and he never wavered in front of her eyes.
"If you're not here to give me divorce papers, then I would appreciate you coming back later." Five years had added only a few lines to his eyes and mouth. Hard to believe he had just turned thirty.
"I came to see my wife."
"I was your wife for forty-eight hours; I stopped being your wife the moment you left my apartment. I remember expressing that clearly." Kaoru returned. Kicking off her shoes, she headed into the kitchen. She needed something to drink. She wasn't prepared to deal with this tonight. She needed more time that she wasn't going to get. She should have known those damnable newscasters should have been a warning. "I really don't think copious amounts of sex give you a right to anything anymore."
"Is that all you thought it was?" He asked from behind her. She turned from where she was peering into her open fridge. His expression was unreadable. Of all the thoughts and reasons she had given herself in five years, it was hard to decide which one she believed anymore.
"I think I was young and stupid." The cold air of the fridge steadied her a little. "I realize I am partially to blame for everything, I accept that. But what you did was deliberate and it had nothing to do with the emotions between us. Chemistry, maybe, but not emotions; you can't say you didn't know I was in love with you." She pulled a Pepsi from the fridge. "I'm not a child anymore. It's been five years. Did you know that you couldn't get a divorce against someone who was listed as a soldier because they didn't want their wives abandoning husbands while they were at war?"
"You kept the ring." He said softly, looking down at the gold band. "But you didn't touch a single deposit that was put in your account."
"The ring is camouflage. My reminder of a mistake." She shrugged. Walking to her cabinet, she pulled a glass down and filled it with ice before pouring the soda into it.
"I have a theory about the money." She watched the liquid fizz. "It interested me, once I got over my shock and hurt, that you were using my account not to just transfer funds and to keep me safe, but to hide them." She took a long swallow. Turning she met his eyes.
"Tell me, what did you do that was so important that you found the first stupid girl who you knew to marry you?" His eyes remained guarded so she closed her eyes.
"I used to hate you, you know." She told him softly. "Now I don't know what to think of you. I don't want your money. I am sure that whoever told you to hide what you were doing was involved with those black envelopes. I bet he can help you get out of this sham of a marriage without too many hitches."
Moving to walk by him, she was surprised when his fingers wrapped around her elbow. He didn't turn towards her or make any other movement to hold her in place, but there was a peculiar sort of energy that hummed under his touch. "I have no intention of getting a divorce, Kaoru."
She turned and looked at him, uneasy with the set of his jaw. It always said he was going to be stubborn. "I have no intention of being your wife any longer than necessary."
She couldn't have misread him on everything, could she? He really just couldn't have been interested in her. Not when he knew he was going to fight in the war, not when he needed camouflage to hide behind. He had just wanted her to think that he was going to come back for her. The only reason he was here now was because…because…
He was an idiot. She swallowed and turned her eyes away. "I can easily pass off as a woman who just found out that she had a dead husband on her hands. I won't blow your cover."
His thumb was rubbing little circles around the skin of her elbow. She tried to move, but he wouldn't let go. "Let go Kenshin." He refused, so she tried a different approach. "I need to sit down, Kenshin. It's been a long day and if I am going to argue with you I need a moment."
His hand fell away from her arm. It hurt that some things never changed. It tugged at her heart and she tried to ignore it.
"Which part of those few days when you were mine led you to believe you were a convenience, Kaoru?" His back was to her when he asked the question. She looked up from where she had sat on the couch, trying to ignore that he had been sitting in this spot moments ago. She could smell him. She bit her lip. There had been little time in those two days to do anything but…
He turned towards her and her breath caught at the tawny color of his eyes. "If I had wanted a cheap whore for two days I would have gone to a red-light house." He moved forward. "If I had wanted a figurehead for my money, I would have simply created one."
A hard smile curled his mouth. "It would have been easy."
She stared at him as he crouched down in front of her and picked up her left hand, sliding his fingers along the gold band. His hands continued to trace her knuckles and the lines of her fingers.
"I don't understand." She told him flatly. "I am not completely stupid, Kenshin. If you were as involved as you say you were…why would you even bother?" Her voice was tired. "You used me."
"I did." His words were soft. "Not in the way you are imagining." He smoothed his thumb along the flesh of her palm. "I needed to know you would be here when I finished my game. I had watched you for so long, waiting for any sign. Sano that night at the bar gave me hope. I was selfish." He kissed the back of her hand.
"I know that. I always knew that. My only regret is that I hurt you."
She ripped her hand out of his hold. "Then why do it at all?" Her voice was hard. "I am not a child anymore. Empty promises and lots of sex can't convince me of anything. They're both nice while they last, but they never last." Her smile was bitter. "I learned that lesson the first time."
"Did I know how you felt about me…yes. I knew exactly what your feelings were for me." He looked up again and met her eyes squarely. "I counted on that when I arrived." A slight smile touched his mouth.
"You were so adorable when you opened the door. All disheveled and sleepy, but willing to listen if I needed to talk." He sighed. "I didn't go there to seduce you, Kaoru. I had just found out what Katsura intended and I was only looking for assurance that someone… looking for something I didn't deserve then and I don't deserve now." He hands encircled her wrists when she went to stand, holding her in her spot.
"Then you kissed me and everything changed. You were there and warm, and so willing. No sane man could have let that go. Perhaps my feelings were still growing, adapting, to you, but my words weren't hollow. I felt something for you then, and I still feel those feelings for you now. Was it the same love that you felt? No. It was obsessive and needy, but it wasn't love. It was familiar and warm. It was something worth holding onto and letting grow. It still is. That first night as you curled around me, I knew I wasn't letting you go. I wanted what was between us to grow. I knew I had not nearly enough time. So I was selfish and made sure that someone else couldn't take what was mine while I was away." He stood, pulling her along effortlessly.
"So you married me, locked me away in your bedroom, and then left to go fight your war for five years." She murmured. "That's not fair, Kenshin."
He lifted her chin and looked down at her. "Why are you not fighting me, Kaoru? I would have expected you to have broken a lamp over my head at the least." The faint teasing was also worried.
'How true…' Kaoru thought bitterly. 'I would have. He deserves it to.' She lowered her eyes and sighed. "I'm tired, Kenshin. You're not the only one who suffered these past fives years. All my hurt…my anger…its faded. I don't have that fight anymore. I think I managed to use it all up." She looked up at him and met his eyes squarely.
"You hurt me when you left. I can still remember everything from that day. Your eyes were so hard and cold. You refused to answer any of my questions. I had no idea what you were doing or going. Do you know how much of a shock it is to realize you married someone you don't know? That you loved a man who might not be real? To realize I knew nothing of you and was just a silly little girl?"
His hand fitting against the curve of her cheek, "and now?"
'Now I am a woman…looking at something that is beautiful, but painful…'
"Now I don't know what I want." Her mouth curved downward. "A quick tumble in the bed for old times sake? Actual information so that I can find myself being drawn back to you? Nothing, so that I can finally be left in peace?" She gave an artless shrug. "Does it really matter?" She placed her palm flat on his chest so feel his heartbeat. "Why are you here Kenshin?"
His other hand came up to splay across the expanse of her neck so that his fingertips rested above her pulse point. "I want you." His voice was decisive. "I want you to give me a chance to do things right. To fix the things I did wrong the first time." His fingers slid into her hair. "I want to woo you and love you and get to know the changes five years have brought." He hesitated and then sighed. "I am willing to share my past with you…some things…some things are dangerous for me to tell you. I can't endanger those around me, but I can give you what I can."
"Give me something then," she challenged fiercely. "Tell me something that will make me believe this isn't all some big hoax of yours." Her eyes burned for a moment. She needed something. She could never deny herself this man, but she wouldn't hurt herself the same way again. She needed something.
"During the war I was given the code-name Battousai."
His words were simple and casual, and it took her a moment to process them. When she finally did her fingers curled into his shirt for support. "What?" She managed, her brows tucking together in confusion. "Battousai… is dead."
"Yes," he agreed. "The councilors under Katsu thought I was becoming too dangerous. Shinomori got me out." He gave her a hard look. "Battousai is dead leaving only Himura Kenshin, but… it will always color me. Can you live with that?"
"I don't even know if I can live with Kenshin." Kaoru said faintly, her world still spinning in shock and surprise.
His hand slid to the nape of her neck to rub the taunt muscles. "Are you willing to try?"
She licked her lips, uncertain. "I…I don't know…" she whispered. She closed her eyes. "It's hard to think around you."
Instead of taking a step back, he bent, hooking an arm around the back of her knees and swung her up into his chest. Placing his nose against her hair, he breathed for a long moment. "Can I hold you tonight?" He asked softly. "I can take the couch but I… I would like to be able to hold you."
He wasn't pressing her for answers tonight.
Relaxing a little in his arms, she thought about how it had felt those three mornings she had woken to his arms wrapped firmly around her, his body warming hers. She nodded against his neck and was surprised at the shuddering sigh that left his chest. She found it difficult to believe that he had been without human contact all those years, yet…
"I haven't given you an answer." She softly reminded him as he put her down in her bedroom. He steadied her until she was certain her feet were on the ground. He had put her clothes away. She hadn't known he was neat.
"I don't expect one." He said gently, handing her something to change into. "We can talk about it in the morning if you like, but I… I thought perhaps we could spend the day getting to know each other. Learning." His eyes glittered at her. "I think that it's only fair that you know what you're getting into."
She hesitated. "I have work…"
He shook his head. "Even if you turn me down you won't have to work in a place like that anymore to support yourself. Go change. You're tired."
She did as he asked, feeling a little numb. There had been a faint tinge of authority in his voice as he gave the order. She suddenly didn't doubt that he had been telling her the truth. She had married Battousai. Feeling lightheaded, she leaned against the wall in the bathroom for a moment before walking out and dumping her uniform in the wash basket. He had gone into the bathroom when she exited so she crawled under her covers, exhausted. They would just have to figure this out tomorrow. Maybe he could cook breakfast.
The lights went out and she didn't hear a noise until he crawled in beside her. There was no hesitation in the way he wrapped himself around her, slipping one arm under her neck and draping the other across her waist, tangling his legs with hers. She breathed deeply for long moments, memorizing the feeling of being safe for the first time in five years, and slept.