the art of contentment
Summary: "to love and to be loved is to feel the sun from both sides." KK, romance, post chapter 254.
Notes: This takes place about a week after Sano left in the manga, so just after chapter 254. It started out as an experiment within K&K's psyches in present tense, and then Kenshin took over, so it's entirely from his point of view. I've tried to keep him IC; this, however, is my personal interpretation of him, and I must warn you that his thought process is a little odd. It also ended up being rather verbose, sorry.
Anyway, I don't own RK, and enjoy!
the art of contentment
...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Yahiko's gone, in the longhouse, and Kenshin is making dinner.
Yahiko is being stubborn. He insists he can take care of himself, but his cooking is worse than Kaoru's and everyone knows it.
He made dinner after they got back from Enishi's island, while Kenshin was healing. It was unimpressive.
And so, eventually, he'll stay for dinner. He's already coming early for breakfast.
Kenshin is making dinner and Kaoru is doing a kata in the dojo. It's quiet now, Kenshin chopping vegetables and he can hear Kaoru's feet as she lands from a jump. It means she's doing the advanced kata, the one she hadn't quite mastered before her father's death, the one she's been learning from a scroll.
He hears her swear and he smiles a little, and blushes a little, because not even Sanosuke swore like Kaoru does when she thinks no one's listening.
He listens to her feet move across the dojo floor. He can barely hear them through the walls; her feet are quiet. The sounds she makes are tiny and his breath nearly makes them inaudible.
He listens until his lungs begin to burn and he sees spots in front of his eyes. He remembers to breathe.
To love deeply in one direction makes us more loving in all others.
At dinner they eat in silence. Good silence.
The first few times he ate with Hiko were full of words. Hiko snapping at him about his posture (for the love of all things holy, sit up straight) and his hair (a good samurai combs his hair; just because it's red doesn't mean you get to leave it tangled) the food, about ways to make it better, because it was so bad. Too much miso. Not enough bean paste. The daikon need to be cut better. You forgot the tofu, you dolt.
Now, Kenshin knows that Hiko loves him, like a son, and that a criticism was more often than not a roundabout compliment, usually referring to his determination because in those early years, before Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu, it really was the only thing he had going for him.
The first few times he ate with Tomoe were full of awkwardness. The very first dinner in the cabin in Otsu, he cooked, and she knelt at the table, waiting for him to finish, watching him, expectant. He was nervous, jittery because her eyes were on him and he wanted it to be right. His miso was spicy and thick, more like cream than soup.
She cooked after that.
They ate in silence, always, but at first it was painful silence, the kind you feel when you don't have anything to say. The kind that happens when two quiet people don't know what to say but feel like they should say something anyway but don't.
Later it became content. Sometimes they talked of the garden, but they rarely had anything to talk about anyway, because it always dredged up the past.
For thirteen years he ate alone. Three years were in corners, with people whispering behind his back, their eyes full of fear.
The last ten years were less lonely, even though he was always by himself. He never spoke to anyone then, even when they spoke to him. Just a smile and a nod and pleading "don't talk to me" eyes. It worked, usually. When it didn't, he whispered sayonara, paid, and left, moving as quickly as he could without scaring anyone.
When he first ate with Kaoru-dono, she chattered a little, not quite nervously, about nothing. Told him about Tokyo, about the winter, about the dojo. Little things. She never talked about her parents. She never talked about him being Battousai. She had this sense of what subjects to avoid, always. Sometimes she would look at him and flush, color spreading from winter-pale cheeks to nose and down her neck.
And then he talked sometimes, about equally light topics. He told her about tea, about how he knew a man in the Bakumatsu who loved tea, who loved to talk to anyone about it. He told her what the man told him while they drank the tea.
She brewed good tea. She liked it bitter but he liked it less so and she made it less so just for him.
He found that out, that she made the tea less bitter for him, when she made tea for herself early one morning and then he woke up and she poured him a cup and blushed when he asked why it was so bitter.
The thought—that she made her tea less strong just for him, even though she didn't like it that way—made him feel warm and tingly inside, like a small child.
Dinners after Yahiko came were loud. Louder, with Sano, and then Megumi, and loudest when Misao and Aoshi were there. He thought, at first, that he wouldn't like it, but he did. It made the room feel cozy and it made him feel loved. Like he had a family.
He eats dinner with Kaoru now in perfect and total silence. She smiles at him every once in a while, though she doesn't blush anymore, like she used to. She doesn't need to tell him that she loves him, because her eyes tell it to him all the time. He thought, at first, that it would annoy him, when he saw that light shining in her eyes. But it doesn't. He likes it.
He smiles at her sometimes, even when she doesn't smile at him, like when she eats her rice in these perfect little bites but slurps her miso loudly and spills some of it on her chin.
They don't talk for the entire meal but it's just right.
I cannot count the ways you have made my life so blessed
All I know is that you came and made beauty of my mess
Kenshin first knew he loved Kaoru when they were walking home after the incident with the sword corps. He'd asked her, teasingly, did we really have to buy this all at once, and she'd blushed a little, something like guilt in her eyes, and told him, maybe not.
The answer said that she, alone, bought them all at once, but today she hadn't remembered that she was buying for two and forgot that even the normally heavy stuff would be much heavier now. The guilt—for something so small, he marveled—she felt made him realize that he might have known her for all of two weeks but he loved her anyway.
Because it made her feel bad, that she made him do work he could have done but didn't really want to (if you wanted to know the truth).
He had planned on leaving, really. But then there was Yahiko, and helping him start his new life. And then there were those students, the ones of Kaoru, who caused trouble, who hurt Kaoru enough to make her cry.
He'd told her, you can do your best to teach people the right way, but they won't always understand.
And she had foolishly thought that maybe he understood the responsibility of teaching and looked up at him with wide eyes, all full of tears and hope, and if Yahiko wasn't there he might have kissed her.
He might have. Maybe. Probably not, but maybe.
And after that her eyes were always saying to him I love you. And he definitely couldn't leave.
A woman's conversation is more than half of the art of love.
Tonight after dinner they sit on the porch, shoulder and hips and thighs almost touching but not quite, their feet dangling off the edge because both of them are too short to touch the ground. And now they talk; Kaoru tells him about her day, about training Yahiko, about how he can beat the best of them but today at Maekawa's dojo a boy two years younger than him laid him out because Yahiko needs to work on the basics.
He heard the argument (though half of Tokyo probably heard it), knows the story, but listens to Kaoru anyway, because the sound of her voice is wonderful.
What she says is reasonable, though, and he finds himself agreeing with her and he tells her that.
Her eyes light up. "You think so too?"
He nods. "Of course, Kaoru-dono. Yahiko has progressed in leaps and bounds for six months, that he has. He never got a chance to work on the things that will make his swordsmanship strong, that he hasn't."
Kaoru grins. "That's what I thought, too. I mean, that kid was nothing compared to Henya or those bodyguard guys, but he sure whipped Yahiko." She giggles a little, and he wonders why it's such a surprise to her, when she beats Yahiko every day, at least twice. If not more.
He tells her this.
Kaoru blinks at him. "I know Yahiko. I know his weaknesses, or at least most of them. I'll probably be able to beat him when I'm eighty. There's no honor in beating someone you know so well, someone you train, not in a fair fight. Father always said he would never fight me, that passing on the title of master would have to come in some other way, because he couldn't understand why a pupil and a master would fight each other. He didn't see how that could be fair, not when they know each other so well." Her grin widens. "'Sides, neither of us fight fair, not when we're fighting each other."
She doesn't seem bothered by that, but Kenshin winces as he remembers Sano's scathing scolding of Yahiko when he attacked Kaoru from behind, not long before Enishi's arrival. He doesn't think Yahiko will ever forget the intricacies of bushido, not anymore.
Kaoru clasps her hands in her lap and looks up at the sky. The first stars are coming out and there are fireflies, a few, the last of the fall.
Kenshin watches them too, as the flock around.
"I love fireflies," she says suddenly. "Always have. Even when I was little."
He looks at her. Fireflies, like the government, are a touchy subject. Why it was fireflies and not the river, or cherry blossoms, or twilight, he's not sure. His pulse pounds just above his collarbone.
Her eyes find his and she smiles a little, half-sad, half-happy.
"Father and I would catch them. When I was little, before I could run enough to catch one, he would catch one for me and set it on my finger. It would sit there for a while, and I would pretend it was a ring. It always flew away eventually, but sometimes it stayed for a long time, if I stayed very, very still." Her eyes are no longer on his, but in her lap, almost dim.
"And then I would move and it would fly away."
He doesn't think she realizes she's saying something else, but he suddenly feels bad for the things he tells her sometimes. He's not callous person, but then, maybe he is, because he's just realized that all she wants is for someone to stay with her forever, and here he is, telling her they're all going to leave, that it'll be lonely, but you'll deal with it.
Stupid, of course.
She's still looking at her clasped hands.
He opens his mouth to apologize but instead he grabs her hand. "You'll miss them if you don't look at them," he says, sounding too much like a child for his tastes.
She looks up at the fireflies and her eyes light up again and maybe he did open his mouth to apologize, after all.
They hold hands until he walks her to his room—right next to his own—and he doesn't kiss her but he wants to and she smiles at him before she slides the door closed, a soft little smile that he likes to think belongs to him.
Maybe he's allowed to think that now.
Wish not so much to live long as to live well.
By the time September—he likes the sound of the Western word, the way it sounds in the mouth of the gaijin who buys tofu when he does—comes, the summer is gone. The fireflies vanish, and it gets steadily colder as days, and then weeks, two of them, pass. Kenshin thinks, as he does the laundry, that he can feel the temperature dropping; after all, his breath was not making puffs in the air this morning.
The weather is bothering Kaoru-dono, too. A sort of melancholy has been settling over her, a mixture of sorrow and dullness. She doesn't snap at Yahiko for calling her ugly, but when she's angry, it's not just the light slap on the head or a smack with a bokken; it's a full-out beating. And the night before—the few nights before, even—he's woken to her whimpering in the next room, with her eyes a little red and puffy the next morning. Like she'd been crying. This morning he touched her hand, asked her what was wrong, and she smacked him and told him nothing at all, everything was fine.
He wishes she could talk to him all the time like she talks to him when they sit on the porch, with total, perfect honesty.
He sighs as he hears Yahiko slam, yet again, into the ground. True to her word, she's gone back to the basic moves, things she was teaching him before he left from Kyoto. She taught him a simple kata and made him do it for hours on end, until he—and Kenshin too—could probably do it in his sleep. When he complained, Kaoru-dono told him to be grateful, because she did that kata at least twenty times every day for a year before she moved on to something new.
Yahiko shut up after that, for a couple of days, at least.
Now he was going on about his old argument. "I want to be stronger, ugly!" he snaps, loudly. "How can I get stronger if you're teaching me this boring old crap?" Kenshin can hear it over the splashing of his scrubbing, loud and clear.
He hears a thud. Kaoru-dono's thrown her bokken on the floor. Her voice is dangerous.
"And I keep telling you, unless you master the basics you won't be able to beat anyone. You've been lucky, Yahiko-chan, but you only started swordsmanship seven months ago. Eventually, your lack of a firm base will get to you, like it did two weeks ago at the Maekawa dojo." He hears another thud and a grunt as she apparently throws Yahiko to the ground. "Do that kata three more times and go home. If you don't want to learn anymore, don't come back."
She stalks out of the dojo and heads for the bathhouse.
Kenshin stands. "Kaoru-dono, do you want me to—"
"I'm fine." Her voice cracks.
He doesn't hear her cry until she's settled in the cold bath, but the soft hiccoughs and sobs are only slightly muffled through the walls.
Yahiko finishes his kata and goes home.
At dinner Kaoru is silent and red-eyed. Kenshin tries to make conversation but she just smiles weakly at him and sniffles.
He thinks perhaps it's something more than just Yahiko. He argues constantly, but they all—even Kaoru—knows that he welcomes the lessons. Now he just argues for the sake of it, because he would lose face if he said he likes being taught by a girl. So it has to be more than Yahiko, but he doesn't know what.
As soon as Kaoru finishes her tea—he made it bitter for her—she stands and says, "I think I'll go to bed early tonight, okay, Kenshin?"
Kenshin nods. "Okay, Kaoru-dono." He walks over to her, and impulsively kisses her forehead. "Sleep well. If you need anything—" You're not a babysitter, dammit! He flushes.
"I'll call. Don't worry about me." Her cheeks are pink too, from the kiss, he hopes. She turns to go, and then pauses for a moment and heads back to him, wrapping her arms around him tightly. He returns the embrace confusedly.
"'Night, Kenshin," she whispers.
"Good night, Kaoru-dono."
He doesn't sleep. He leans against his wall, which backs up against Kaoru's room, and he listens. If he's quiet enough, he can hear her shift and sigh in her sleep. He remembers to breathe this time, but barely.
And then she screams. "Father!"
He's in her room then, pulling her into his lap, stroking her hair. "Kaoru-dono! Kaoru-dono, wake up, please!"
She thrashes and he practically shouts in her ear before she opens her eyes.
"I'm here, Kaoru-dono."
She buries her face in his chest and trembles. She doesn't cry, she just shakes.
"Kaoru-dono, what's wrong? You've been acting strangely for the past few days, that you have." He thinks, perhaps he knows. Her father—something clicks, deep in the recesses of his memory.
"I—" her voice is muffled. Her fingers curl in the shoulder of his gi, and then he feels her blink against his collarbone.
She looks up at him. "Where's the yukata I lent you?"
"I put it back with your clothes, that I did. Kaoru-dono, what's wrong?"
"You should use it. I only need one sleeping yukata, after all, and that one's a bit big for me anyway."
"Kaoru-dono." He is firm now. "Kaoru-dono, please. I want to help you."
Her eyes fill with tears suddenly.
"Last year my father died yesterday," she whispers, and wraps her arms around him again. Now he can feel dampness sinking through his gi. "He was in his forties, still young. He went to fight and he came back; his arm was gone and he was sick. Infection, they said." A sob racks her whole body. "He died writhing in pain. Half his chest was this awful green color, and I had to prepare the body myself because Oguni-sensei was out of town."
Her voice is so soft he has to strain his ears to hear it, but the words themselves remind him painfully of his own losses, of the loneliness he feels. Her body shakes hard enough as she sobs to tip them over and she stutters out, "I-I've n-n-nev-never c-cried ab-bout it b-b-before."
He rearranges them so she's half-laying on his chest, so he can curl around her. He allows himself this much, because she needs someone to comfort her. He reminds himself—because he forgets, because she never speaks of it—that she has lost things too, just like him, Yahiko, even Sano and Megumi. He thinks of how he has told her everything and she has held him, let him clutch her to him like a doll, and now she needs her turn, because Kaoru-dono, beautiful, sweet Kaoru-dono shouldn't feel such utter loneliness.
He lets her cry, he strokes her hair, and her breathing evens out eventually, her body relaxing.
He's asleep too, even as the sun rises.
Love is, above all else, the gift of oneself.
In the morning, just after dawn, he opens his eyes. He's holding Kaoru's hand, clutched tight against him, and their bodies are pressed close together. He's warm, under a blanket, though he didn't think here was one the night before. He is looking at Kaoru.
Their noses are nearly touching.
She is awake, watching him. "Hi."
He smiles. "Hi."
He hasn't dreamt. Not like he usually does, not like he has for the past fifteen years. He got so that he could wake himself, so he slept in short little bursts, nighttime napping, never sleeping deeply enough to dream.
He has at least one nightmare a night, though, still—of killing or Tomoe or not protecting or accidentally killing or Kaoru or even of the cholera, watching it consume his parents from behind the thick tree trunk of his uncle's thigh.
But he hasn't dreamt tonight; he slept blessedly deep and hard with Kaoru breathing soft on his mouth. His breath puffs in the air, swirling around Kaoru-dono's face. She smiles at him.
"I pulled up a blanket for you."
"When did you wake up?"
"Just a few minutes ago. It was cold." Her teeth chatter a little bit. Her lips are purple.
He takes Kaoru's hand away from his chest and looks at it. Her hands are small and callused, the backs brown still from summer. The knuckles are chapped. He runs a thumb over the dry spots; they had bled a little bit recently.
Her face floods with color and Kenshin thinks he's probably blushing as well, but he likes holding her hand.
"It's getting to be winter," Kaoru whispers. The shoji door is open a little, and outside the early morning sun makes the frost on the cherry tree silver. "Yahiko works this morning. He'll be here in the afternoon."
Her eyes are oddly warm and her face colors further.
Kenshin leans down and kisses the back of her hand, long, lingering. His mouth moves to her knuckles, kissing each chapped ridge. And then to the tips of her fingers, kissing each, almost taking them into his mouth but not quite. Down from the thumb to the heel of her hand, and then the center of her palm. His lips touch her wrist, and he can feel her heartbeat pounding through the nearly translucent skin. He kisses the skin there again, with a little swipe of his tongue and a nibble of his teeth; she tastes good, like Kaoru and soap and tears.
He lifts his head, suddenly self-conscious, doubts flooding his mind. What if he didn't deserve this? What if he read the signs wrong? What if she didn't love him? What if—
Her mouth, soft as butterfly wings, soft as eyelashes, touches his.
Their eyes flutter shut.
And the day came when the risk it took to remain in the bud was more painful that the risk it took to blossom.
The morning is quiet, with tea and last night's leftover miso soup and them on the porch, not almost touching like usual but pressed together as though they are one thing. Laundry and practice is not forgotten but set aside instead. Kenshin's hair is mussed; the ponytail falling out, and Kaoru's barely combed through her braid, her hair falling in half-waves around her face. Her yukata is still a little dishelved, and his gi is draped over her shoulders, keeping her warm. He's not even sure if he's wearing her clothing or his, because they couldn't tell which pair of navy hakama one the floor was which, and she just handed him a haori, one that was in considerably better shape than the one he owns.
"Maybe," Kaoru begins, and then stops, drinking her tea instead. The tea is halfway between bitter and not, a kind of compromise.
"Hmm?" Kenshin says. It's still cold out, the frost is only just beginning to melt and it's already midmorning. The sun is shining, but it doesn't warm much. They warm each other.
"Nothing," she says, and then takes his hand.
Moments later, she starts again. "Maybe—maybe we could…" she flushes wildly, her skin redder than he's ever seen it.
"Go on, Kaoru-dono," he says quietly, and she whispers something that makes his heart drop down into his stomach or maybe fly into his throat, he's not sure.
"What?" he breathes. "What did you say, Kaoru-dono?"
"I said maybe we could get married!" Kaoru snaps, quickly, nervously.
Kenshin blinks, once, twice, and then he says, "You want to—marry me?"
Kaoru opens her mouth but then closes it, as though she doesn't trust her voice. She nods instead, firmly.
He realizes that he's never told her he loves her, even though she knows it. He knows she loves him too, he even likes that they don't have to say it, but maybe she needs that, because she looks uncertain now.
"I—" he decides to take the plunge. "I love you, Kaoru."
She doesn't say "You do?" or "Really?" but she smiles widely, and it's the most beautiful thing he's ever seen, more beautiful even than Tomoe standing in the street as the blood rained down around her.
"I love you too," she says, and snuggles against him, practically in his lap.
"And—" he blinks away sudden tears, because he's never felt quite so real in his life. "And I'd like to marry you."
He didn't think Kaoru could look any happier, but she does. She lifts her head and he kisses the tip of her nose and then her cheeks and her chin and she's giggling by the time he gets to her mouth and it's the most wonderful thing, kissing and laughing all at once.
And he thinks that even when she's old and grey, she'll never lose that perfect, beautiful smile.
The thought, unlike Yahiko making dinner for himself, is reassuring.
To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides.