Author's Note: Alright—this is nothing spectacular, short and sweet. I've been going through a renewed love-affair with RuroKen lately, and it keeps bugging me that out of the forty-plus stories I have posted here, only two of them are in the Kenshin category. (And even those two are quite old and quite short.) I've got several more interesting ideas than this germinating, but none of them are finished yet. Anyway, this isn't the most brilliant or original thing I've ever come up with, but consider it my way of getting my feet wet… ;)

Fish Story

She never doubted that he loved her—not anymore. After everything they'd been through, after Enishi's revenge, after Megumi had taken her aside and told her the full truth about how her apparent death had affected him, no, she didn't doubt it at all. And she knew that he knew she loved him too. She suspected he had known since about the second day after she'd met him, certainly before she had realized it herself. Kenshin was like that.

She also couldn't deny that there was a new sense of calm about him. Kenshin had always been a pretty easy-going guy—it took a lot to rile him under ordinary circumstances, and even in battle he tended toward a cool, precise rationality. Although she'd never felt that this easy-going nature was a lie, she had long understood that he sometimes used it to his advantage to set other people at ease and keep them from worrying about whatever it was he was worrying about—and yes, sometimes to keep them at a distance. For all his strength and intelligence, it was Kenshin's heart that ruled him. That was why Enishi had been able to break him so easily—and it was why, in the end, Yahiko's need had been enough to make him stand up. He cared deeply, not only about the people close to him, but about every single person in his sight, and even those he had never met. Such deep caring had led him to the Hiten Mitsurugi, and ultimately even to the Hitokiri Battousai.

Over time she had learned to see though the mask. She could tell when he was putting on the appearance of ease to hide a troubled mind. But ever since Enishi, she had seen him do this less and less. The smile on his face as he went about his housework was no longer an imitation of the person he wished he could be. It was genuine.

He had told her he would stay, and he would. This was his home, and it would always be his home.

Things were quieter around here now that Megumi had left, and Sano shortly after. They hadn't heard anything from him since he'd rowed out to join that ship in the harbor, late one night. Kaoru hoped he would write soon, if only to tell them he was still alive and hadn't gotten himself shot—they said Americans carried guns like the Japanese had once carried swords, and bullets were harder to stop with a fist.

Yahiko was still around, of course, but he spent most of his free time at the Akabeko, working and hanging around Tsubame—so most days it was just the two of them there at the dojo. It got a little lonely sometimes—she'd grown used to a crowded house, always trying to scrounge up enough extra food to feed her flock of freeloaders—but then again, in some ways it was nice having Kenshin all to herself. They'd hardly spent a moment alone together since he had first crossed her path, nearly a year ago now.

Kaoru sighed and leaned against the wooden support beam beside her, toes drawing circles in the dust below the engawa. There was the rub. In the months since Enishi, and Sano and Megumi's respective departures, very little of consequence had happened. Kenshin spent his days doing laundry and running errands and mending things around the house and grounds, and Kaoru split her time between training Yahiko and teaching at various neighboring dojos. In the evenings, they would take their meal together, sitting on opposite sides of the table, Kenshin asking Kaoru about her day, grinning with her as she told him about the student who had put a hole in Hinako-sensei's wall or the two little boys from the Ino Dojo who were plainly smitten with her. After dinner Kaoru would clear the dishes while Kenshin closed up the house. When the evening was over, they would say their goodnights and retire to their separate rooms to settle in for sleep. Alone.

And that was pretty much it.

She wasn't unhappy with the situation by any means—she loved being alone with Kenshin most of the time, and there was a cozy domesticity to their routine that she found quite satisfying. Sometimes she would sit and watch him from the shade beside the house, smiling at the meticulous detail and dexterity with which his long fingers scrubbed a stain out of one of her kimono. She had always hated doing the laundry, and she hadn't had to do it even once since Kenshin had turned up. And he never complained—he even seemed to enjoy it. Just as he seemed to enjoy cooking her meals and mending the dojo roof, both chores that she was more than happy to give up. He was a little less eager to volunteer when it came to picking up groceries, but she suspected that had something to do with the fact that it meant walking through town and getting the usual hassle for his sword or his hair or the scar on his cheek. She tried not to ask him to do that too much anymore—and in any case it was usually easier for her to pick things up on her way home from another dojo at the end of the day.

But there was…more. More she wanted from him, and more she wanted him to want from her. She hadn't spent much time thinking about that sort of thing in the early days—life had been busy enough, and without even knowing if he would still be there the next day the thought of…that kind of relationship had really been out of the question. But it wasn't anymore—not for her, at least. Life had settled down, and she wanted to settle down as well. And, though the thought of the alternative made her blush, she was tired of sleeping alone.

"Kaoru-dono?"

His quiet voice from the twilight made her straighten up, blinking out of her reverie in a slightly guilty fashion, as though he might be able to read her thoughts in her expression. She looked over at him, standing just a few feet off to her left, his sleeves still tied back with a cord that looped over his shoulders—he'd been taking down the laundry from the washing line while she had dressed herself again following her evening bath.

"What is it, Kenshin?" she replied lightly, with a smile, trying to pretend she hadn't been thinking about him.

He crossed over to the engawa and took a seat beside her, leaving a good ten inches of space between them on the wooden deck. She watched his profile as he glanced up at the distant stars appearing one by one above them, and once again she found herself marveling at the calm in his expression, a pleasant contentedness that seemed to reach all the way to his heart. She suddenly felt selfish again for what she'd been thinking earlier. So maybe they wouldn't have that kind of relationship—maybe they wouldn't fall passionately into each other's arms and make love, maybe they wouldn't get married and have a flock of children. She was alright with that, as long as he was here with her. As long as he was happy, she would be happy too.

Kenshin breathed in the night air and rested his weight back on the heels of his hands, dropping his chin again and closing his eyes. She smiled at the lock of red hair that fell across his face. She wanted to reach over and push it gently out of the way, but at the same time couldn't disturb something so beautiful. That, and she was chicken.

"It's a beautiful night, is it not, Kaoru-dono?"

"Lovely," she sighed, glancing back out toward the courtyard again. Though she wasn't really thinking of the night.

"There have been many nights like this these past few months. Sessha is starting to get used to them."

She gave him a mildly curious frown at that, noticing the slightly wry twist to his smile. She wanted to ask him what he meant by it—but before she'd actually gotten the words out his eyes fell open again, his gaze unfocused on the ground a few feet ahead.

"Did Sessha ever tell you the story about the fish?"

Kaoru blinked at him, thrown by the odd change of subject. But she shook her head. "I don't think so."

He nodded, still staring out ahead and smiling slightly. "It was years ago, during the months I spent in hiding outside Kyoto, waiting for the revival of the Choshu Ishin Shishi. I had decided to take the walk out from our home in the countryside to spend the day on the shore, see if I could catch anything. I was never much of a fisherman, but I appreciated the smell of the sea. It was so strong and pungent, so different from the smell of blood and death. It made it easier to forget that the day wouldn't last, that I would have to return to the bloodshed eventually." A mild shadow crossed his face at that, but he took a breath, and it soon cleared.

"Tomoe decided to join me that day," he continued. "I'm not sure why, as she certainly had no interest in fishing. She spent the whole afternoon sitting up on the hillside behind me, watching me work. I kept wondering what she could possibly find so fascinating about my clumsy attempts, expecting her to get bored eventually and head for home to wait until I returned empty-handed, as usual—but she didn't. She stayed there all day."

He chuckled a little, half to himself. "When I felt the tug on the line I assumed it must have snagged on a rock or something beneath the surface—but the tugging continued irregularly, and I realized I had actually caught something. I reeled it in, expecting no more than a sardine—but when it broke the surface I saw that it was instead the largest madai I had ever seen, eighteen inches long at least and quite plump, a perfect specimen. I could hardly believe my luck. When I brought it up the hillside to Tomoe, she looked it over carefully, checking for any imperfections, but finding none."

Kenshin glanced down at the knee of his hakama, idly rubbing at a spot of dirt with the pad of his thumb. "We went to the house, and I chopped wood for the fire while she prepared the fish for cooking. It tasted quite as delicious as it had looked, and I said so, complimenting Tomoe on her skillful preparation."

His hand stilled its movement, and his eyes grew distant again as he recounted the next part of the story. "'Even a rotten madai is worthwhile,' she said, looking right at me, with as close to a smile as she ever wore." He didn't look up, eyes still unfocused on the hand at his knee.

"I knew what she meant, even if I didn't agree," he said quietly, a flicker of a smile at his lips. "That despite the blood on my hands, despite my life as a hypocrite to my own ideals, despite the darkness and corruption in my soul, I was a good man—a worthy man. I didn't know the true size of what she had forgiven me until months later, after her death."

Kenshin took a deep breath, closing his eyes again for a moment as the shadow of that last memory crossed his expression—but not as it once had, not with that consuming sadness that made her feel like she was losing him, like he was wandering again to a place she couldn't follow. Now it was just a memory. When he opened his eyes again, they were clear and calm and contented, just as before.

"Sessha was not worthy of her then," he said, "and he is not worthy of you now. Sessha knows he has nothing to offer you, Kaoru-dono. His sakabatou and the clothes on his back are all he owns. In time even his sword will be of no use, though he promises to protect you with his last breath, whatever comes. But this is his home now."

He looked up at her, and her breath caught in her throat as his gaze captured hers. "You're Sessha's home," he repeated. "And if you'll have him, he would like very much to make a life with you."

Kaoru didn't know what to say. She could feel her mouth hanging open like the madai in the story, and there were tears collecting in her eyes. She wanted to tell him that he was worthy—that he was a good man—but she knew that whatever she said, he still wouldn't believe her. And most of all she wanted to tell him yes, of course, she wanted nothing more than to be his wife—but even those words couldn't seem to get past the lump in her throat.

He was still waiting patiently for her answer, unconcerned yet unassuming, and she felt herself compelled to do something she'd been wanting to do for ages.

She leaned toward him, reaching out a hand for his scarred cheek, and drew him toward her for a kiss. He seemed startled by this at first, but she didn't release him or back away, only kissed him more firmly. When she felt him begin to relax and kiss her back, she wrapped her free arm around his shoulders and pulled him closer, smiling against his mouth, the tears finally spilling from the corners of her closed eyes.

When she finally pulled back, she was grinning from ear to ear, sniffling a little as the clash of emotions stirred up inside of her all came to the surface at once.

"Was that meant to be a yes?" he asked softly, grinning back at her, and she nodded vigorously as she swiped at her cheek with the back of her hand. He stopped her from reaching the second stream of tears, wiping them away with the pad of his thumb.

"I'm sorry I made you wait so long," he murmured, his grin softening, but she shook her head at the apology.

"You were worth the wait," she whispered back, looking him straight in the eye, her own fingertips brushing over the edges of his scar.

No—as long as she knew the shape and color of his eyes when he looked at her across the courtyard, the curve of his lips as she told him about her day, the gentle touch of his strong yet delicate hands against her skin, she could never doubt that he loved her. And she would never doubt again.


A/N: There you go—like I said, short and sweet. Not super original, but I'll have something better for you next time. Oh, Kaoru's vague little side-tracked thought about Sano getting shot by a cowboy is sort of a roundabout reference to another idea I'm working on regarding Sano's adventures while he's in exile. I actually first thought of it several years ago when I finished the manga the first time around, but it's been resurrected in recent weeks. We'll see what happens with that…

(And yes, I stole the name Hinako-sensei from Ranma ½. What? It was the first name that came to mind… ;)