A/N: Happy holidays, everyone. :) I shall try to upload another chapter by the end of the year. For now, I hope you enjoy this Christmas gift, even as late as it already is.
Have a wonderful and blessed Christmas. :)
A slow, erratic thumping echoed around the otherwise silent room as she slowly made her way across the dojo. Her footsteps were dragging and heavy as her unsteady gait betrayed the real, alarming state of her injured body. She held her sword firmly by her side, with the tip carefully and deliberately held a few inches above the wooden floor. Her pride refused to allow herself to use it as a cane, even as her balance swayed precariously when she walked and her brows creased with the pain every little movement made. Yet she held herself upright and steadily fixed her gaze forward, intent on reaching those maelstrom eyes hiding behind a curtain of auburn hair.
There was only a single obstacle blocking her way.
The thumping ceased. All was silent once more as she stopped a few feet away from him.
She raised her head and calmly met his gaze. Dark brown brows creased above russet eyes he stared back at her steadily, questioningly. An unspoken tug-of-war passed between them, each refusing to yield to the other. Finally, as the muscles in his body visibly unclenched in an open sign of surrender, he began to step out of the way.
Russet eyes widened as his head whipped around to face him, not expecting and not understanding why he, of all people, should stop him.
And similarly wide, confused, and hurt sapphire eyes were asking the same thing.
"Please," Kenshin whispered. "Don't move."
The rurouni wouldn't have been brave enough to ask so openly. Yet Battousai wouldn't have allowed himself to sound so vulnerable either.
And perhaps both for the lack of anything apt to say and to voice out what everyone is feeling at the moment, Sanosuke burst out:
"Kenshin. What the hell?"
That roused a soft chuckle out of him. "Sano… I have always trusted you with my life. Always. For better or for worse, no one holds my trust and respect more than you."
Sanosuke blinked at the uncharacteristic and somewhat untimely pronouncement. He frowned. "Are you saying this because I punched you?"
A smile crossed Kenshin's lips—small, amused, and somewhat sad. "You've always proven time and again that I'm right in believing in you. You never fail to do so… even now."
The younger man watched as Kenshin slowly raised his hand to his face. His fingers gently wiped away the blood that spilled from the corner of his mouth. The skin there was already turning into a shade of purplish yellow as a bruise began to form. It was a testament to the power and strength of the blow he received—and the sentiments behind it.
"And so I ask you once more, for everyone's sake…"
His hand slowly dropped back to his side.
"For her sake…"
The fingers of his other hand curled around his bokken.
"Please… don't move away."
He slowly raised his head.
"Don't stop protecting me…"
And auburn bangs fell back to finally reveal those maelstrom eyes.
She stopped as abruptly as she began moving forward when she saw that Sanosuke suddenly tightened his grip on the sakabattou. Slowly, Sanosuke turned towards her direction. Her brows furrowed as she saw that his eyes were shut, his expression almost that of one who is in physical pain. Her gaze was then drawn to his arm, which was slowly moving upwards, carrying Kenshin's sword with it.
And then she understood. Sanosuke's arm snapped into place, effectively blocking her path with Kenshin's sword.
Apology, warning, muted affection and heartfelt regret—his russet depths contained all that and more as he finally opened his eyes to meet hers.
And perhaps both for the lack of anything apt to say and to voice out what everyone is thinking at the moment, Kaoru whispered:
The sakabattou was held horizontally in front of Kenshin, perpendicular to Sanosuke's body, as he stood at an angle diagonally in front of the older man. "Because he's right," was his simple answer.
Kaoru's brows creased. "Right about what?"
"He's right that I'm right." The sheathed sword moved slightly in midair as the former fighter-for-hire adjusted his grip on the unfamiliar weapon. "And for your sake, Jou-chan, I can't let you marry a man…"
And behind him, Kenshin lowered his head again, his bangs hiding the shame in his eyes.
"…who is jealous of his own wife."
"Oh what a load of crap."
Having had enough, Megumi leapt to her feet, her fingers still clutching her medicine chest firmly by her side. "Sanosuke, move out of damn way," she burst out, not even caring if Yahiko was within hearing range of her colorful words. "You can't possibly be thinking of fighting Kaoru-san now. Her body can't take any more at this state!" she cried as she gestured wildly at Kaoru, who gestured back helplessly in trying and failing to appease the woman doctor. "It is not your place to interfere! This is their battle, not yours!"
"On the contrary, Megumi-dono," Kenshin interjected quietly. "Sano was right to interfere. And he's much a part of this battle as everyone else is."
Exasperated, Megumi threw her hands in the air. "And you, Ken-san… what is all this bullshit about Sanosuke protecting you from you? You can't possibly be jealous of Kaoru-san! You love her!"
The words hung in the air for a long moment as Megumi waited for his answer. When none came, Megumi slowly lowered her arms as she stared at the former rurouni disbelievingly.
"Ken-san… tell me Sanosuke's wrong."
The red-haired man remained silent. And the man in front of him remained unmoved.
Megumi slowly shook her head. "Ken-san… just to make it clear, I'm not disagreeing with Sanosuke just for the sake of disagreeing with him, like always," she said as she laughed uneasily, humorlessly. "This time…"
Her words dropped to a whisper as her voice wavered. "This time… I really want him to be wrong."
And the former Battousai raised his head once more. "I'm sorry."
Megumi's breath caught in her throat as Kenshin met her gaze by looking past Kaoru, who was standing in front of her. And indeed, the woman doctor wasn't sure who he was really apologizing to.
"I don't understand."
Okina looked at the girl beside him, and his eyes widened when he saw how her fists were clenched and her body was trembling all over. "Misao…"
"I don't understand!" She strode forward, barely able to reign in the emotions bursting out of her. "What can you possibly be jealous of, Himura? What is Kaoru doing wrong? How can the person you love and who also loves you with all her heart and soul be the very reason for you to deny your own self-worth?"
"It was when you lost her."
Only his voice can get through her even when she's losing control of herself.
The former Oniwanbanshuu head slowly stepped forward. "It was when you lost her when you suddenly realized it, didn't you, Himura?"
Misao furrowed her brows as she looked at him questioningly. But he didn't—couldn't—meet her gaze. Instead, he directed his gaze forward towards his former adversary. "This is your fear, Himura. Much more than losing her… you're afraid of having her."
Misao's eyes widened.
Megumi threw her hands in the air again. "Thank you," she muttered sarcastically. "Everything makes so much more sense now."
"Actually… it does."
Everyone in the room turned towards him at the intrusion of his quietly but resolutely spoken words.
Misao narrowed her eyes. "Oi, what did you mean by that, Yahiko-kun?"
"I can't believe it either." The young boy's gaze traveled slowly across the room, taking note of the surprised looks on everyone's faces, until it finally rested upon the red-haired man silently standing on one end of the room. "But you're actually jealous that we value her more than we value you."
"What?" Megumi whispered.
"And you're afraid that by marrying her…" Yahiko gestured with his sword towards his teacher before he turned back to his idol. "You would lose your value entirely." He let his arm drop heavily to his side. "Isn't that right, Kenshin?"
His voice wasn't even challenging or questioning. His tone was one of bitter surety, simply waiting for an acknowledgment.
"So what's it gonna be, baka deshi?" Hiko suddenly spoke up. His gaze never left Kenshin's form, and he took note of how every word and action affected his surrogate son. "Are you going to have her? Or lose her? Which fear is greater?"
Finally, Kenshin raised his head once more. His burning eyes met those of his surrogate father's, and Hiko couldn't help but smirk at what he saw in them.
"Tell us, Kenshin. Which fear will you be surrendering to?"
Kaoru shook her head and began to step forward. "Kenshin—"
"When you died—"
It was the raw and unrestrained pain behind the words, more than the words themselves, which shocked everyone into silence.
Kenshin took a deep breath and let it out slowly, his whole body shuddering as he did so. "When we… thought you died, Kaoru-dono… I…"
Watching him relive the nightmare hurt her infinitely more than finding out the real reason behind his recent actions. "Kenshin," said Kaoru softly. "It's okay, you don't have to say anything right now—"
"I wasn't the only one who was lost."
Yahiko's eyes widened.
"A part of us died and was buried along with that body which we thought was yours," Kenshin whispered. "When you weren't there, it just wasn't… home." He gazed unseeingly at the sword in his hand. "I wouldn't have blamed anyone for leaving. There was… no other reason to stay."
Sanosuke looked over his shoulder at Kenshin in surprise.
"Earlier in this fight, I told you that you are life, and that I am the sword." The arm holding his bokken slowly rose, and with it his bangs fell back as he followed the sword's movement with his gaze. "But even as the sword that protects life… I couldn't do anything. Not only couldn't I bring you back to life…" His eyes scanned the room slowly. "Not only couldn't I bring back… our life…"
"Ken-san…" Megumi whispered as her eyes began to mist over.
"But I couldn't even find the strength to use my sword again. Hell, I couldn't even find the strength to stand up." His gaze finally landed on his future wife's, but her eyes widened at how his looked so blank. "When you died, Kaoru-dono… I became utterly useless."
His eyes were dark and clouded as his gaze turned towards the sword he held. And they knew that at the moment, he wasn't really there, in the Aoi-ya dojo, with them.
"And as I slowly rotted away in that godforsaken place in Rakuninmura… somehow, there came a point when I wasn't sure anymore if I was the one who left them… or if they were the ones who left me."
Misao's hands were hovering over her mouth, which had dropped open in shock. She shook her head. "Himura… we never realized… you actually thought—"
"Every single person in this room," Kenshin's voice suddenly rang loud and clear, nearly making everyone jump. "Every single person I've come to care about…" he continued, his tone softening. "I met because of my sword."
His gaze landed briefly on his master's.
"It's either I fought them…"
He looked at Aoshi and Sano.
"Or I fought with them in defending them or enlisting their help…"
His gaze traveled towards Misao and Okina.
"Or I fought for them… to save them.'
His eyes sought Megumi and Kaoru.
"I met them because of my sword… and they stayed because of my sword."
And finally… he looked at Yahiko. He held the boy's gaze for a long moment before he broke eye contact and turned away.
"I am thankful, in many ways, to the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu." His gaze landed on the sword Sanosuke held. "Even though it showed me many reasons to kill, and even to die…"
Briefly his hand came up to cup the scar on his cheek.
"It also showed me many reasons to live."
Amethyst eyes tenderly met sapphire ones softly gazing at him from across the room.
"In that last battle with Enishi, I found my answer in living a fighting life until I can no longer wield my sword," said Kenshin quietly. "And yet I wonder what will become of me afterwards... when I can no longer use the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu."
Megumi's eyes widened.
"And the more I thought about it, I suddenly felt… scared." His fingers tightened over the sword he held. "If I lost the very reason why the people I love are around me—if I lost my usefulness to them—then they won't have a reason to stay anymore… in the same way they left me when you left us."
Sanosuke's grip on the sakabattou wavered slightly. "Kenshin…"
"I am jealous, Kaoru-dono, because you have such a rare gift of life that people will always find a reason to include you in their lives. You give meaning and purpose to people's lives with or without your swordsmanship. Whereas I… if I lose it…"
Kaoru watched as Kenshin, in a gesture similar to what she did earlier in this fight, brought the sword upwards and held it close to his heart.
"I don't have anything left to offer. I… will become permanently useless. And that's what I'm afraid of."
Her eyes widened as he raised his head and met her gaze.
"I don't want to be useless to you. Because you might… leave me too."
He wasn't crying.
"Losing the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu, I can handle. But losing you, Kaoru-dono… and this time, permanently…"
But the sadness in his eyes went deeper than tears.
"I'm not sure if I can survive losing my sword… and the reason I am wielding it."
The tinkling of the wind chime was the only sound that can be heard over the long silence that followed the strange and heartbreaking series of revelations from this extraordinary man. They were all so caught up in wonder at how insecure and vulnerable he revealed himself to be that they almost didn't realize what happened next until Sano cried out.
He was thankful for his ingrained reflexes as a trained fighter because he was able to duck and avoid the bokken that suddenly spun and sailed through the air past him.
The man behind him, however, distracted as he was, wasn't as fortunate. And the bokken reached its intended target as it hit him smack in the face.
And everyone could clearly see that in that moment, the former Battousai really was caught off guard.
Sanosuke gaped at the swirly-eyed rurouni for a moment before he turned to the woman in front of him. "Jou-chan. What the hell?"
Kaoru slowly lowered her arm, which was still poised in mid-air after she threw her weapon.
The sword fell from his face—which now sported a bokken-shaped welt—and Kenshin fumbled as he caught it in his hands. "Oro…" He stared at his fiancée across the room. "Ka…Kaoru-dono?"
"Kenshin… you… IDIOT."
Her tone was angry. Her eyes were crying. But her lips… were smiling.
Kenshin blinked, awed at how so many different reactions and emotions can burst out of a single person all at once.
Then again… she had always been an amazing woman.
"So let me get this straight…" Kaoru began as she furiously swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. She began to walk forward, and both Megumi and Sano moved as if to help her. She held up her hand to stop them, then smiled at them to convey her gratitude. The smile then disappeared as he turned her gaze back to her fiancé. The crinkles at the corners of her eyes, however, betrayed the fact that she was trying hard not to laugh.
"You're trying to prove to yourself in this fight that you still haven't lost your skill with the sword. Because if that's the case, it means that you're already useless, and I'll leave you because I don't have any other reason to stay. Because you're so convinced that it was also the reason why everyone supposedly left you when I supposedly died. And you're more afraid of me leaving you than me actually dying, because if I leave, it will be my choice."
Okina blinked. "Well, that about sums it up."
"Shut up, Jii-ya," Misao hissed.
Kaoru stopped and sighed. "Kenshin, darling, for your sake, I will try to understand your stupidity."
"Good luck on attempting the impossible," Hiko muttered under his breath.
Everyone else turned to glare at him.
"What?" Hiko retorted.
Kaoru grinned. "I know, Hiko-san. But I shall try my best." She turned towards the man at the other side of the sword Sanosuke held. "And for your sake, Kenshin… I will try to show you that all those reasons you have for being afraid…"
And amethyst eyes widened as sapphire ones softened into a smile.
"…don't actually exist."