Author Notes: I am well aware that this fic says "complete," and hasn't been updated in two and half years. But that's the thing, this story was supposed to be a standalone one-shot. I come back to it every so often when I want to revisit this scenario. For all I know, this might be the end of this world and I won't write any further. I'm not sure yet.
I also decided to switch the perspective a bit and follow Kenshin more in this addition. Hopefully, this will give a peek into what drives the lonely redheaded king. Let me know what you think!
Disclaimer: The Rurouni Kenshin world and all characters depicted are a creation of mangaka, Watsuki Nobuhiro.
"Have you seen her?" Kenshin asked his tall guard as they made their way down the corridor.
Sano frowned at the question and hesitated before answering, "Her who?" Seeing the pointed look in response, Sano sighed. "I haven't seen her since last night."
The two men continued walking through the palace. It had been a long morning for both of them, more so for Kenshin than Sano. They had been in council with the advisors for hours. There was unrest stirring in the neighboring kingdom and they were getting dragged into it. It probably didn't help matters that Kenshin had sent a notice of marriage -meaning he was turning down Tomoe.
Since the assassination of Tomoe's father, and the ascension of her brother Enishi as king, there were growing riots in the kingdom. The people suspected that the assassination of the former king was orchestrated by his own son. The only thing that had prevented full out rebellion was the possibility of Tomoe marrying Kenshin. With a more level-headed king as an ally, the people expected a more peaceful rule. Instead, tyranny ensued. Enishi was furious that Kenshin chose someone else over his sister. Tomoe, on the other hand, sent a letter of congratulations and admitted that there was a childhood friend she loved who was a duke near the family's country estate.
It had been a relief to hear that Tomoe didn't hate him. She had been nothing but kind to him all his life, but Kenshin could only see her as a caring older cousin or sister. Now, the hot headed Enishi was causing turmoil. Kenshin could remember meeting the boy in his childhood. He was older than Enishi, who was actually the same age as Kenshin's future bride. Enishi was always causing his parents worry. He was a cruel boy and grew up ruthless.
"I'm going to the library." Kenshin then promptly added, "Alone."
Sano rolled his eyes, "What's the whole point of having me as your guard if you keep on sending me off?"
Kenshin turned down the hall away from Sano. "If you see her, tell her I'm looking for her."
"Don't smother her too much. Or she'll go find another king to fall in love with her." Sano called out loudly to the retreating figure of his king.
Kenshin cringed a bit at hearing his guard's uncouth comment. There was no doubt there were others who heard it. It was enough that there were rumors flying around about his bride-to-be's pedigree, he didn't need people suspecting she had seduced her way to the crown. Thinking on it, Kenshin doubted his fiancé could seduce anyone. There was something endearingly innocent about her. Well, as innocent as a sword-fighting, cross-dressing member of the royal guard could be.
She had also been acting different in the past few weeks. There were moments when he would catch her in deep thought, but she would wave it off as frivolous daydreaming when he asked about it. There were other times when she would disappear and he would be unable to find her for hours. Eventually, she would reemerge and say she got caught up in reading, embroidery, or taking a long stroll through the gardens.
Kenshin couldn't deny that he suspected something was awry. All of her excuses were too dainty and off. It was as if she learned all the excuses used by women in court. She was nothing like those women, and it was most likely that she was taking the horses for a wild ride than she was stitching a pillow. Her no-nonsense nature was a part of the reason he loved her. But whenever he questioned her, she would answer nonchalantly that she needed to morph into her role eventually. He feared that she would, and he would lose the fiery woman who guarded him with her life.
"I don't know if I can keep doing this Aoshi." Her whispered voice drifted toward him as he passed by the armory. There was no confusing the speaker, it was his Kaoru. But why was she addressing her captain so informally?
"You can't tell him. He would have my head for this." The deep stoic voice of the captain responded.
Kenshin kept quiet. He was never more thankful that he was trained enough that he could keep his presence unknown. Ducking into the shadows in an alcove, he listened in on the hushed conversation.
"It would be that bad?" Kaoru questioned.
"How would you feel if you caught him?"
"It's not the same." She reasoned. "We have to be better about hiding this then. No more during the day. It's inappropriate, what if someone were to see us?"
"You're worried about propriety?" He seemed slightly amused the prospect. "Fine. At night."
"Where? We were nearly caught in the forest last time." She then added, "I prefer it where there is light."
"You need practice in the dark too."
"You know I don't need practice." Kaoru said laughing.
"My chambers then. Tonight. Remember to change. We can't be bothered with your gown again."
"What if we're found?" She asked worriedly.
"I'll be here." Aoshi's voice was uncharacteristically reassuring. "Don't worry Kaoru."
Kenshin tore himself away from the shadows and raced away toward his own quarters. Library be damned, he had other things to worry about. Like the tryst between his most trusted guard and the woman he loved. It felt like a stab in his heart that kept twisting.
Once inside his room he slammed the door shut behind him. He needed to be alone right now. He needed to sort through what he had just heard. He needed to wake up from this nightmare.
The captain of his guard, the man that never showed emotion was kind and caring toward Kaoru. How long had this been going on? Were they in a relationship all this time? Was he taken for a fool?
Kenshin raked his fingers through his hair. How was this possible? Kaoru wasn't a vixen using men left and right. He froze. Maybe that was just it. Maybe she was nothing like he thought she was.
He ripped his cloak off his shoulders -he suddenly felt suffocated with it on. He sat on the edge of his bed and fisted his hands into his unruly red hair. His mind spun. What was he going to say to her the next time he saw her?
A brief knock disturbed his thoughts. Whipping his head up, his eyes widened. The fates were cruel to test him so soon.
The door opened tentatively and Kaoru peeked her head in. Seeing him, her eyes quickly lit up and a smile tugged on her lips. "There you are. I've been looking everywhere for you. Sano told me the library, but I didn't find you there." She strolled into the room and situated herself next to him. "What are you doing in your chambers so early? Are you feeling ill?"
She reached a delicate hand toward his forehead, but he flinched back. Her brows furrowed. "What's wrong Kenshin?"
Everything. But seeing the worried look in her azure eyes, he wondered if he could live without her now. Could he forgive her? When Kaoru placed a calming hand on his knee, he knew. He could forgive her. Just as long as she chose him over Aoshi.
In the next moment he swept over her and his lips crashed onto hers. His right hand cradled the back of her head and his left tugged her torso toward him as he leaned over her. Kenshin's mind was racing and blindingly white at the same time. He needed to consume her.
This was nothing like the tentative and shy kisses Kaoru had allowed up to now. As someone who was raised hidden in the guards, she was inexperienced in the ways of men -or so he thought. He had held back after he made his initial intentions known. Kenshin had felt the need to protect her -even from himself.
His mind clicked back when he felt her arms wrap around him. She was reciprocating, albeit shyly. Her lips parted briefly, but he took advantage and delved further.
They were now lying on the bed, his body pressing her down into the mattress. His lips left hers, and trailed down the side of her neck. His hands roamed over her body, until one finally reached down to her skirt and hiked it up to her thigh.
"K-Kenshin?" Her voice was breathy and panicked.
He took in a long breath, then whispered hotly in her ear. "I want you to come to my chambers tonight." She stiffened at his words. He leaned back just enough to look her in the eyes. "Please Kaoru."
Her fretful eyes searched his, then her voice was soft as she answered. "You were the one that wanted to wait."
"I don't want to wait anymore."
"I told you didn't need to." Her finger traced the panes of his face. "You've been handling me like porcelain."
"Because I love you." This was not the first time he had said this to her. After the failed arrow shooting at the ball he had expressed his feelings and proposed. She had accepted, although he spent weeks afterward convincing her she had. Now he wondered if he had pushed her into something she didn't want.
"Kenshin..." She breathed his name out like a plea.
A pained look came across his face. Closing his eyes, he leaned his forehead on hers. "Say it Kaoru. Please, just say it."
"Tell me what's wrong Kenshin." She implored.
She wouldn't say it. She never had. No matter many times he told her his feelings, Kaoru never replied in kind. And now, he felt he knew why.
Kenshin pulled away from her and sat up. After a long moment, she brought herself up and stood. She let out a sigh, "I wish you would tell me what's bothering you."
Kaoru turned to head toward the door, but was tugged back when she felt his hand latch out to hers. Meeting his eyes she inquired. "Kenshin?"
"Come to my chambers tonight." His voice was thick with supplication.
"I can't tonight." Her hand squeezed his reassuringly. "But I will be here tomorrow night. I promise."
She quietly left without allowing him to answer. His soul felt like it shattered. There was the answer. Kaoru did not choose him in the end.
Kenshin laid back down on his bed and stared at the ceiling. What now? How different the world seemed from this morning.
If she had chosen him, then he was willing to forgive. But the reality was different. Kenshin was surprised by his willingness to forgive an indiscretion; however, he knew that he could not marry her if she preferred another man over him. Yet it was unlikely that neither Kaoru nor Aoshi would confess to the affair.
It was best to keep this quiet. If he were to decree something officially, the both of them would be put to death. Although he was livid at Aoshi, he couldn't kill him. And he knew without even considering it that having Kaoru's death on his hands would spin him into guilt and despair.
Kenshin practically grew up with the captain. Aoshi was a man that rarely showed emotion -something Kenshin had only seen on two occasions. But he trusted him with his life. And now that Kaoru was his life, Kenshin would have to trust Aoshi to keep her safe.
He turned his head toward the window and saw that it was night. The hours had slipped away from him. After Kaoru left, no one had come looking for him. Maybe they had, maybe there was someone waiting at the other side of the door.
The room was steeped in darkness, no one had dared enter his room to light it for the night. Judging by the sky, it was late enough that there would be very few people still wandering the palace.
The reality of the night was not lost to him. He didn't want to think about it. It would be best to block it out of his mind. Even the idea that Kaoru might be with Aoshi made his blood run cold. But he needed to do what had to be done.
Kenshin resolved himself. He was not a whimpering idiot pining after a girl. He was the king.
In the next moment he was storming down the corridors. He opted to leave the cloak, and decided he was too hotheaded to bring his sword. Despite the fact that a guard was assigned to him, Kenshin was actually the best swordsman in the kingdom -a fact that his sword master made sure of.
He swept through the halls swiftly before he had a chance to run into someone and change his mind. Finally, he came upon the door that led to the captain's chambers. His hand reached for the door handle, but froze when he heard a loud noise.
"Come on Aoshi!" It was Kaoru's voice. "Stop holding back."
"I can't tire you out too much. What will the king think tomorrow?" Aoshi's tone was admonishing and mildly teasing. Kenshin swallowed down the knot growing in his throat.
"Then what's the whole point? Should I go to Sano for this instead?"
Wait, what? Kenshin frowned at Kaoru's latest comment. It was one thing to consider a possible hidden relationship between Kaoru and Aoshi, but another with Sano? Without another thought to unravel, Kenshin swung the door open and stormed in. What he saw caught him by surprise.
This was not the romantic rendezvous of two lovers. Granted, the two room occupants were underdressed compared to their usual attire -but there was nothing remotely lascivious about it. Aoshi was wearing the royal guards' usual training clothes while brandishing a sword. Kaoru also held a sword but wore a loose fitting top and trousers -which Kenshin could have sworn were his.
Kaoru's blue eyes widened and she dropped her arms as if trying to hide the sword. "Kenshin?" She sounded nervous. "What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same question." Kenshin glanced over to the captain, who held an expression that revealed nothing.
"Well, you know. Um, this is." She fumbled over her words.
"She wanted to keep up with her sword training." Aoshi answered for her, his voice not revealing even the slightest hint of nervousness.
"Sword training?" Now standing within the room, Kenshin slumped against the wall nearby. The tension in his body releasing in a sudden wave. "That's what you can't do in the forest during the day?"
Kaoru frowned at his words. "How do you know about that?"
Kenshin ignored her question. "This is why you said no to me? To train with Aoshi?"
"You asked her to come to you?" Aoshi gave a rare smirk, "No wonder she was in a bad mood."
Kenshin narrowed his eyes, "Why Aoshi's chambers? Why not the guards' training room?"
"She didn't want people to know." Aoshi answered. "Not proper for the king's future bride to be sword fighting."
"It's not proper for the king's future bride to enter another man's chambers." Kenshin shook his head refusing to be tricked. "That's not all of it. If it was just sword training you wouldn't think I would have your head for this."
"You were eavesdropping?" Kaoru voice was rising a bit, an indication of growing anger.
"You guys ready?" Before Kaoru's fury could boil over, Sano waltzed into the room. Seeing the redheaded king he grinned. "You guys finally listened to me and read him in?"
"Shut up Sano!" Kaoru snapped.
Kenshin pinned Aoshi with a glare. "Read in on what?"
Aoshi directed his own glare at Sano, then looked back at his Kenshin and relented. "We discovered who made an attempt on your life at the ball your highness."
"What does that have to do with this? With Kaoru?" Kenshin questioned while sparing a glance at Kaoru who now avoided his eyes.
"She will be going on campaign with us." Aoshi said.
This time, Kenshin's gaze on Kaoru didn't move. The woman looked indignant, she had obviously made her decision on the matter and she wouldn't be influenced otherwise. But she still seemed precarious with the topic with Kenshin -and rightfully so.
"Are you insane?" Kenshin questioned seriously.
Kaoru rolled her eyes. "It would be insane if I didn't go."
"Aoshi, I can't believe you would even consider putting your future queen in harm's way."
Before the captain could answer Kaoru spoke up. "I'm a guard before anything else." She stepped forward to get closer to the king. "I knew if you found out you wouldn't let me do this. But I will protect you Kenshin, and that means protecting this kingdom. Even if you don't approve."
"You can't go throwing yourself into the crossfire of a war."
Kaoru glared, "Throw myself? This is more tactical than that. Don't patronize me like I haven't spent my entire life training to do this."
"She's right Kenshin. If you plan on prevent the war from spilling into our borders, we need Kaoru." Sano tried to reason while stepping up to the couple. The tension was building and it seemed like Aoshi wasn't about to intervene. "Before you swept her up as your personal guard and girl, little missy here was a high ranking officer in the royal guard. The men who didn't know her real identity think she's been on an assignment in Enishi's kingdom."
"They're expecting her back." Kenshin said in realization.
"She was only supposed to be a temporary loan your highness." Aoshi pointed out as he sheathed his sword.
"Stop talking about me as if I'm not here." She also sheathed her sword and threw it on a chest at the end of the bed. She marched over to Kenshin and grabbed his wrist. Without a word to the other two soldiers she dragged the king out of the chambers.
They remained mum as they made their way back to the king's quarters. Once they were enclosed in the safety of the room, Kaoru let go of his wrist. Turning toward him, Kenshin could barely make out the outline of her face in the darkness.
"I'm not doing this to spite you." She whispered. "I made an oath to protect the royal family and the kingdom."
"Even when we get married?" Kenshin reached out to trace the line of her jaw.
"Especially after we're married. What kind of wife would I be if I didn't protect my husband?" She glanced around the room as if just noticing the setting. "Why is your room dark?" She moved away and made quick work of lighting the candle by the nightstand and a fire in the hearth. "The nights are getting colder. You can't skip on the fire anymore."
As she stood from building the fire he went up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. "I don't want you to go."
She sighed a bit in exasperation, "I'm not going away Kenshin, I'm going with you."
"I would be worried the entire time." He reasoned.
"And so would I if I was left here."
He leaned his head forward and rested it on her shoulder. "Why didn't you tell me about the campaign? I'll be going too. I would have seen you in the crowd."
"I doubt that." She grumbled.
"What?" Kenshin turned her around and looked her in the eyes. "I would spot you in a sea of people."
Her azure eyes pinned him. "This wouldn't be my first campaign with you Kenshin."
Realization struck him and he sighed. "You were there, when we went to the North."
"To the North, East, South, West, to the wild lands and seas. I've been on every campaign since I turned thirteen." Kaoru closed her eyes. "And you've never noticed me -well, not until you saw me naked swimming in a pond."
"I'm sorry." There was really nothing else he could say to her.
It was true, he hadn't noticed her during these previous campaigns. In reality, after tell Okina all those years ago about the crying child, he had nearly put it out of his mind. It had only been when he would see the young guards training on the field and he would catch sight of a particularly small soldier, would he wonder if that was her: the crying girl. She had seamlessly fit into the royal guards that he never spotted her.
This only added to the surprise when he visited the pond to swim that day. He stumbled first upon her uniform draped over low tree branch. It was the first time he had an intruder on one of his swims. He broke through the trees to see no one there. But then, suddenly, a whirl of ebony tresses broke through the surface. There was something about the water nymph that took his breath away.
He hid in the shadows, and respected her privacy by looking away when her nakedness came into view. Although he would have to admit he did steal the occasional glance.
When she had finally emerged from the water to dress, he was mesmerized by the transformation. She bound her breasts with a long strip of cloth and donned her uniform. The beauty that struck him disappeared into a soldier. He recognized the soldier from the periphery of his memory. He had never met her directly, but she had been there on various occasions. He recalled her presence consistently near Sano or Aoshi. She had been a passing thought back then, but now she invaded it like the plague. Better to keep that thought to himself; she would most likely hate the analogy.
"I would have stuck back with the troop, and you would have been none the wiser." Kaoru's words broke through his wandering thoughts.
"I would have noticed." He smiled, "After I realized you were the girl Okina took in, I saw you everywhere. Guarding the throne room, traveling with us, at the country estate. I couldn't keep my mind off of you."
"I don't know if that's true," She wrapped her arms around his neck. "But I believe you."
Her declaration struck him cold. How was it that she could be so unflinchingly good? "I thought you were cheating on me."
Kaoru pulled away in reaction to stare him in the face. "What?"
"That's why I barged in. I needed to confirm it before I was willing to let you go."
"Let me go?" Her eyes widened. "You thought I loved Aoshi."
This time she completely pulled away from him. He reached for her in response, "Kaoru."
"That's why, earlier, you wanted to... You asked me to come tonight..." She shook her head. "You don't trust me."
The words died in his throat. It was true, especially after suspecting her of an affair. And he felt like such a simpering teenager, but the fact of the matter was that he needed to hear the words. "You never say it."
At his admission Kaoru froze. She saw the uncertainty that the redhead carried on his shoulders -something he did so well in hiding. But she knew him too well to not see it. As the month had ticked by since their engagement was announced, she could tell that he was unsure of her feelings. Taking in a deep breath she resolved herself.
Laws be damned. There was a doubting Kenshin on her hands.
He couldn't say that he wasn't surprised by her next action. She launched herself at him. This was first time she had kissed him and not the other way around. Her finger combed through his hair and untied it from its base. Kaoru pressed her body against his and maneuvered them toward his massive bed.
When the back of his knees hit the edge of the bed, Kenshin fell backward. Kaoru climbed over him and straddled his waist. She hovered over him as wisps of her ponytail spilled over her shoulders. Her body was trembling. She was terrified and nervous, but Kenshin knew she was doing this for him.
He reached upward and tugged her hair loose so that it fell like a dark curtain around their faces like a cocoon. "You know this isn't what I mean."
She bit her bottom lip, then answered. "I can't say it Kenshin."
He sighed and looked away from her. "You have to tell me if you want out of this engagement."
She forcefully grabbed the side of his face and made turn toward her. "I want to say it Kenshin. I'm just not allowed to."
He frowned, "I don't understand."
She furrowed her brows. "For the ruler of these lands, you don't know your laws very well." She sighed. "Your subjects can show you devotion and love you. But no one aside from the king or queen's spouse may declare romantic love to the ruler."
"And you obviously don't know your history." She sat back to sit on his knees and he sat up in response. "The law was instated after your great great great grandmother married her second husband after your great great great grandfather died. A man declared his love to her and it was a whirlwind romance that led to marriage within a month. Later, she found out that he was actually in love with another woman and only married her for the power. He was imprisoned for the rest of his life. Your grandmother was lonely and vulnerable, and decided this should happen to no one else."
"That's sounds even more ridiculous." He leaned his forehead against hers. "That's why you didn't say it? Because of some silly law?"
"Silly law? As the future wife of the king, I need to follow the laws. I'm not above them."
"So you're not going to say it until we get married." He sighed.
"That's why I said you didn't need to wait to spend the night with me." She tugged his shirt toward her and moved to pull it over his head.
He stilled her hands. "Why do you trust me?"
"Because I know you won't toss me aside just because you've had me." She smiled, "And if you did, then you aren't the man I think you are -and not worth my life being married to."
He frowned at the second part of her comment. "But you would be ruined for other men."
Kaoru laughed shrugging. "Who else in their right mind would have me? I was a raised to be a knight in the royal guard."
"You sell yourself too short. Men would line up for you." After a thought, he added, "And you would be coveted as the woman that rejected the king."
Kaoru rolled her eyes, "More like the king's castoffs."
He reached forward and tucked a loose hair behind her ear. "I'm lucky you don't know how wonderful you are. If you knew your true worth, you would never give me the time of day."
"Right back at you." She searched his eyes for a long moment then let out a breath. "We're not doing this are we?"
"You deserve to be married."
"And if I don't want to wait that long?"
He chuckled, "I'm sure we can work something out." Then added, "But not tonight. I don't want you to doubt me later. Emotions were running to high today."
"And whose fault is that?"
Kenshin ignored her question and asked his own. "You're still coming on the campaign aren't you?"
She grinned, "Of course."
"Then I expect you to do your job well and protect me." His tone was light, but his face was serious.
She raised a brow, "You doubt my skills."
"I just need you to promise not to leave my side the entire time."
Hearing his condition Kaoru couldn't help the smile that tugged on her lips. "I promise."
"And when we get back, you'll get rid of your oath."
Kaoru shook her head still smiling, "I'll protect you either way."
"I know." He lifted her hand to press his lips to the inside of her palm. "So we'll get married, and we'll both take a new oath."
Kaoru smirked. "Watch out, that one's forever."
Kenshin smirked back, "I'm aware."
She couldn't help grinning at the silly lonely redhead. After a short minute, Kaoru scooted off his knees to stand up. "I have to go to my room. We'll discuss war tactics tomorrow."
Before she could move away he gripped the sleeve of her shirt. "Can you stay and sleep with me?"
She blushed at the implications. "But you just said-"
Kenshin shook his head smiling, "Sleep. Just sleep."
Kaoru seemed to think the prospect over, then shrugged. "Might as well get used to your snoring."
She sat down on the edge of the bed and bent down to tug off her boots. Kenshin came up behind her to rest her chin on her shoulder and peered down as she worked on her boots. "I don't snore."
"How would you know? You can't hear yourself snore." She bumped his chin and stood up.
He scrunched his nose. "It would be a little unseemly for the king to snore."
Ignoring his comment, she began unlacing her trousers and pulled out her tucked shirt.
Seeing the show she was putting on, Kenshin smirked. "Should I get naked too?"
Tugging off the trousers she threw them at his head. "If I'm sleeping, I'm going to be comfortable. And this is far as you see."
He laughed as he batted the trousers out of the way and gave her a once over. The shirt reached to her mid thigh, and it made him realize how petite she was. He also recognized the piece of clothing. "Is that my shirt?"
"Yeah, an old one." She walked around to the side of the bed to peel down the covers.
"I didn't realize you were stealing my clothes." He got off of the covers to stand on the other side -the bed between the two.
"You wouldn't have missed it. It's an old shirt." She slid into the soft sheets and sighed at the feeling of the plush pillows. "We can't have the king in ratty clothing."
Kenshin smiled at her comment and walked over to the wardrobe. He toed off his own boots, and quickly shucked off all this clothes. He ignored Kaoru's sputtering cough at his nakedness and searched out a pair of sleep pants. He tugged them and remained shirtless. Turning, he walked over to the bed and slipped in next to her. They both lay on their side facing each other.
Her cheeks were red, but she frowned at him. "You forgot to put on a shirt."
He gave a toothy grin. "And you took off your trousers."
She narrowed her eyes, "Just keep yours on and we should be fine." She then scooted closer to wrap an arm around his torso and tucked herself into the crook of his own embrace.
He turned away briefly to blow out the candle, and then held her protectively in his arms. The flickering glow of the fireplace danced across the walls and her skin.
"I could get used to this." He said.
"You better. I'm not going to be one of those royal couples that keep separate bedrooms."
He chuckled, "I meant you initiating touching."
"You really do need to know your laws." She held him closer still. "I'm not allowed to do this either."
Kenshin raised a brow, "Then why the change of heart? Why are you willing to break this law and not the other?"
She mumbled, sleep taking over her senses. "I can only be put to death for this crime."
"And if you said what I want to hear?" He prodded on.
"I would be banished -I would never see you again." Kaoru's words were now barely over a whisper as sleep won out. "I can't imagine how I could do my job if I'm away from you."