Author's Note: Okay, so I ended up writing another little post-Jinchuu piece. Couldn't help myself. This one is from Kenshin's perspective though…
Rated M for a reason, but it's very mild.
Kenshin quietly slid the door shut behind him and crossed to the futon laid out in the middle of the floor. He didn't even bother changing into his yukata, just rolled down onto his back on top of the covers, fully-clothed, sighing at the protestations of muscles and joints as they grew accustomed to the new position.
He took a deep breath and rubbed his hands over his face, scratching at his hairline and breathing through the space between his palms. He was exhausted, but already he could tell that falling asleep was not going to be easy. Between the usual laundry and cooking, and the slightly less usual task of spending a few hours mending a patch of leaky shingles on the dojo roof, he'd barely been off his feet all day. The ache in his spine actually seemed to get worse now that he was lying down, as though the release of pressure on the vertebrae had made space for the aches and pains to be fruitful and multiply. He tried to take deep, even breaths, gently tensing and stretching the muscles of his back and sides until they finally started to relax and the aching in his joints faded.
Still, even as the pain disappeared and he felt himself sinking more fully into the mattress, his eyes didn't seem to want to close. He scratched his fingertips up through his hair and over his scalp, finally settling his palms beneath his head as he stared up at the shadows on the ceiling. It was days like this that made him feel like an old man, joints creaking and popping with every movement, dragging grunts of effort from him as he pushed himself up off the engawa. He knew he wasn't really that old—Shishou was in his forties after all, and he was still going strong. Not that he ever actually went much of anywhere these days, but after training with him again to learn the succession technique those few months ago in Kyoto, Kenshin had no doubts that his master was quite as strong as he'd ever been. Kenshin could only hope to be in such good shape in, what…fifteen years? Give or take.
Funny how that seemed like a lot less time than it once had. Fifteen years. Fifteen years ago he had been preparing to head off and join the revolution, tear down the old world and build a new and better world in its place. Give or take.
Fifteen years ago, Kaoru would have been two. Now he really felt old.
Kenshin chuckled a little to himself in the darkness and finally let his eyes fall closed, stretching out his senses and listening to the silence of the courtyard, the rustling of leaves in the trees and a few fallen ones skittering across the ground. It would be getting colder soon. Probably ought to check all the door tracks for gaps that would let in the drafts, maybe make sure there was an ample supply of firewood in the pile, and that none of the blankets in the house had grown too threadbare.
Cold made for uncomfortable travelling weather, but that was alright. Neither of them had plans to go anywhere at the moment. At least no farther than the marketplace.
The sound of leaves stirring themselves around the courtyard gradually blended into something like the crackling of the cooking fire, and sparks like fireflies flickered across the insides of his closed eyelids, warming him against the chill of the silence. As he followed them around and around the clearing beside the river, watching them illuminate leaves in the darkness one by one, he sighed to himself and took a step forward, following their winding, fluttering flight paths further into the darkness.
A chill crept over his skin when one of the fireflies skimmed over something that was not a leaf. It had looked like a hand, resting still and silent in the dark grass. Another swooped in and he just caught the ripple of white linen, and then another flickered over a lock of dark hair resting against a white collar. When one of the fireflies dipped near enough to illuminate dark bangs and an alabaster cheek marred by a cross-shaped scar, Kenshin reared back and gave a strangled cry.
The word escaped him in the darkness of his room as he sat up on the futon, heart thudding against his ribcage. He stared around him, swallowing, trying to calm his shallow breathing, wondering when he had fallen asleep, feeling a thin sheen of sweat on his skin despite the cool night.
He knew it had been a dream, and he knew it was silly of him to worry about her—she was absolutely fine, sleeping soundly in the next room. There was no reason whatsoever to think that anything might be wrong. But every time he closed his eyes, even for a moment, he saw her face as he remembered it on that day just a couple of months ago when he had failed to protect her from Enishi's Jinchuu. When she had borne the mark of his sins.
He rolled swiftly to his feet and snatched the sakabatou from where it leaned against the wall, sliding it into his belt as he stepped out onto the engawa. He wouldn't need it, but it calmed him to have it near, especially when he felt as vulnerable as he did right now. Silently he walked down the engawa until he came to her door, hesitating only a moment before sliding it aside a few inches.
He didn't enter, didn't even speak or let her know that he was there. He knew she was asleep, and she needed her rest. He just needed to see her.
There she was, exactly as he'd known she would be, sleeping peacefully on her futon in the center of the room. The moonlight from the window fell across her left cheek, showing it to be smooth and unharmed. He breathed a small sigh, half relieved, half self-deprecating, and closed the door again.
But he didn't go back to his room. Instead, he settled himself on the floor just beside her door and let his head fall back against the sturdy outer wall. Eyes closed, he listened to her breathing, in and out, in and out, until finally he felt himself beginning to drift off again.
She was there with him, kneeling on the engawa between his bent legs. He felt her fingertips brush lightly over his upturned face, and his eyes fell open again, looking up at her soft, gentle smile. He didn't falter as she slowly leaned in, covering his lips with hers. The taste of her was sweet, just as he had known it would be, and his hands reached up to grasp her waist over the heavy fabric of her obi, his chin lifting to deepen the kiss. Her thumbs caressed his cheeks as she gently eased herself back only to scatter feather-light kisses across his cheekbones and up over his forehead. His eyes fell closed again, mouth half open at the sensation of each kiss like a raindrop, washing his sins away.
"Kaoru," he breathed, and wrapped his arms tightly around her waist as her lips returned to his once more, drinking him in.
Kenshin drew a sharp breath in through his nose as his eyes blinked open to the harsh morning sunlight. It took a moment for him to get his bearings and realize that Kaoru was standing at his knee, looking down at him with a slightly puzzled expression.
"Kaoru-dono," he started, pushing himself quickly to his feet and glancing from her bedroom door to the spot where he'd been sitting vigil during the night.
Kaoru watched him resettle the sakabatou at his waist, then looked up at him again in puzzlement. "Did you spend the night out here?"
"Uh…yes, I suppose so," he mumbled, giving her a faltering attempt at a casual smile.
"Why?" she questioned, brow dipping in bemusement.
"I didn't mean to," he said, sidestepping the real question. "I must have dozed off. I really should be starting breakfast, Kaoru-dono, that I should." And then he turned away, dusting off the seat of his hakama as he quickly made his exit, leaving her to stare after him.
Kenshin smiled to himself from the shade of the Akabeko as he watched a little boy tugging anxiously at his mother's sleeve, trying to direct her attention to the stall selling sweets a little further on down the high street.
The woman was clearly exasperated and pressed for time, already carrying too many things as it was and trying to keep the little boy from running off into the crowd. She tried to tell him that maybe they could visit the sweet shop next week if there was change left over from the other shopping, but the boy just kept glancing longingly over at the stall as she tried to finish up her last few purchases.
Kenshin glanced over his shoulder toward the other end of the high street—no sign of Kaoru just yet. She would probably be a few more minutes than usual, as the marketplace seemed to be unusually crowded today. He looked over at the despondent little boy again, who was now frowning down at his hands as they twisted in the hem of his shirt. His mother was shifting around her parcels, trying to secure her meager money sack and find a hand to offer to the boy.
Kenshin pushed off from the outer wall of the Akabeko and walked over to where they stood, fishing a fresh sweet bun out of the small bundle in his own hands.
"Excuse me," he said, addressing the woman with a pleasant smile, "I seem to have bought too many of these. I was wondering if your son might be able to take one of them off my hands for me."
The boy suddenly perked up, looking up at his mother with pleading eyes. The woman looked at Kenshin with mild surprise, cast a glance down at her son, and then gave a grateful smile, nodding.
"Thank you, Himura-san—you're very kind," she said, a little breathlessly, as Kenshin offered the sweet bun to the boy. The boy plucked it out of his hands and cradled it like a jewel, bringing it to his mouth to take a small nibble of it, as though he wanted to savor it for as long as possible.
"Not at all," Kenshin replied, smiling down at the boy. "This one is very much in your debt for lightening my load."
As he turned back toward the Akabeko, the mother and child hurrying off in the other direction, he found Kaoru standing by the side of the street, watching him with a couple of bundles looped in the crook of her arm, a soft yet brilliant smile on her face.
"I didn't think you'd be finished so soon, Kaoru-dono," he said, falling in step beside her as they walked down one of the side streets and headed back toward the dojo.
"Guess I beat the rush," she said with a little laugh. "That was very sweet what you did back there."
"What, giving away Kaoru-dono's dessert?" he replied, a little half-grin tugging at his lips.
She laughed again. "Yes," she said, "that. That boy looked like he'd never seen such a treat in his entire life."
"He probably hadn't," Kenshin replied, sobering slightly as he remembered the rough and threadbare edges of the woman's kimono. Even in the Meiji era, there were children who went hungry some nights. "At least not one he could keep for himself. I should have given him the whole bundle of them."
Kaoru cast a glance over at his profile, then looked down at the road in front of them again. "You could have if you wanted to," she said. "I wouldn't have minded."
They were out of the city center now, walking beneath the trees that lined the river along the road toward the dojo.
"Have you ever thought about having children, Kenshin?" Kaoru asked offhandedly.
Kenshin stopped short, staring at her as she continued a few steps further. When she realized he was no longer beside her, she stopped as well, hesitating only slightly before glancing back at him with a carefully casual expression on her face.
Kenshin stared at her for a few moments longer after that, noticing the way the early-evening light cast a faintly orange glow along the edge of her long, midnight ponytail.
"No," he said, still a little dazed, still unable to take his eyes off the place where orange bled into black. "I haven't."
He almost didn't see it when her face fell, her shoulders sinking just a fraction of an inch before she could hide it. She turned away again. "Oh," she muttered, dropping her gaze to where her hands were knitted together in front of her obi. After another moment of silence, she started walking again, her zori whispering in the dust.
"Kaoru-dono," Kenshin said, still frozen in place, and she paused again, glancing back at him with a slightly more convincing casual expression than before. More convincing, but not entirely.
He tried to think what he had intended to say, but the moment he met her eyes across the road every word in his vocabulary slipped through his fingers. Finally he just shook his head and gave her a slightly apologetic smile, resuming the walk home. She smiled a little as well and glanced quickly away, waiting until he caught up to her before continuing toward the dojo. They walked the rest of the way home in silence.
Kenshin didn't sleep much at all that night.
What he'd told Kaoru was true—he hadn't ever really thought about having children. Before Tomoe, he'd never even thought about having a wife. Before Hiko his main concerns had been avoiding beatings, protecting the women from the slave traders who had hold of them, scraping up enough food to eat. Under his Shishou's protection he had always had enough to eat, but beatings and injuries in the service of the Hiten Mitsurugi had been a daily—if not hourly—certainty. It really was almost a wonder he'd actually lived through it…
The war had been no place for children, real or imagined, and anyway he'd been hardly more than a kid himself at the time. During the months in Otsu with Tomoe he had enjoyed spending time with the village children, but in a way he'd felt as if he were pretending to be one himself more than he was really taking care of them. And then, after Tomoe, after the snow had run red with blood and he had made his vow never to kill, the question of children, marriage, home, family, had been so far from his mind he hadn't even considered it. He had grown accustomed to the idea of spending the rest of his life as a wanderer, alone.
But he hadn't done that. Without ever really meaning to, he had found a home, a family—a wife. Not that Kaoru was really his wife, and it wasn't as if they had ever actually spoken about the subject—but in every practical sense she had become his other half. He couldn't imagine walking away from this place tomorrow and going back to the way things had been before. There were too many things here that mattered to him, and he knew that this place would always wait for his return. That Kaoru would always wait. The whole point of wandering was to avoid attachment—each attachment was something that could be taken away, used against him, made to suffer for the sake of punishing him. But once the attachment was made, removing himself from it couldn't unmake it. Whether or not he had ever intended it, he belonged here. He belonged with her.
Kenshin thought again of that halo of orange mingled with the dark strands of her hair—and for the first time in his life he wondered what color eyes his child would have, and whether the child's hair would be a fiery red like his, or Kaoru's raven black.
The weather had started to turn in earnest now. Kenshin had spent most of the day trying to finish up the last few repair projects around the house so that they would be well prepared for winter when the snow came. Kaoru had been teaching at a neighboring dojo all afternoon, and he had made sure her bath was ready and waiting for her when she returned home. When she reemerged from her bedroom dressed in a fresh kimono, her slightly damp hair tied up at the back of her head, Kenshin was just finishing taking down the last few items from the wash line and folding them to be put away.
Kaoru noticed what he was doing and came over to help him without a word. He let her finish folding the laundry while he stepped over to rinse out the wash tub. When he had cleaned it and propped it up against the well at an angle to dry, he straightened again and looked over at Kaoru, watching her nimble fingers flit in and out of the folds of fabric as she tidied them away.
"Have you ever thought about having children, Kaoru-dono?" he said quietly.
Kaoru turned to him suddenly, a half-folded yukata clenched in her fingers. She blinked and glanced away, recovering from her moment of surprise with a self-conscious little laugh and a shrug of her shoulder. "What on earth makes you ask that?" she said as she refolded the yukata and placed it on top of the pile. But she didn't reach for the next item after that, instead folding her arms across her stomach and avoiding his gaze.
Kenshin took a deep breath and watched her carefully, chewing over his next words for a moment. "Because I've been thinking about it a lot lately."
Kaoru's hands tightened their grip on her arms, but she didn't look up at him. "You have?" she asked tremulously.
Kenshin nodded. When she didn't say anything more, he took a few steps toward her until he was standing right in front of her, though her eyes were still hidden by her bangs. He reached up and gently brushed back the lock of hair that hung beside her face, coaxing her to look up at him. When her eyes met his, he could see why she'd been hiding them—there was a raw and fragile longing written all over her expression.
"Would you like to have children someday, Kaoru?" he asked quietly, running the edge of his thumb lightly along her cheek.
She pressed her lips together against the tears he could see forming in her eyes, and he saw her throat move as she swallowed. "Only if they were yours," she whispered back.
Kenshin felt his face split into a grin, and he gently cradled her cheeks with both hands, leaning forward until their foreheads were touching. "I wouldn't have it any other way, Kaoru-dono," he murmured.
He heard her draw in a small breath, and without even thinking he followed it, brushing his lips against hers. She trembled against him, and he tasted salt on his tongue as one of her tears slid free—but she only pulled him closer, wrapping her arms tightly around his sides and clutching at his shoulder blades.
She was so warm against him, and he found himself wondering why he had waited so long to hold her like this. Fear of loss, maybe—but would it really have been any harder to lose her after letting himself feel this, know this, than it had been before? Keeping her at a distance hadn't made her matter to him any less. It had only kept her at a distance.
He sighed as she eased herself out of his arms, letting her go only reluctantly. He watched her walk slowly across the courtyard, moving over toward the house. When she was just a few feet from the engawa, she paused and turned back halfway, giving him a slightly nervous smile. It was a moment before he realized she had lifted a hand to him, palm open. He glanced from it back up to her face, a silent question in her eyes.
He swallowed and moved toward her, sliding his palm into hers and feeling her fingers curl around his gratefully. She led him up onto the engawa and over to the door to her room. She didn't release him as she slid the shoji aside and gently tugged him over the threshold, letting him go only to close the door behind them.
She still looked nervous when she turned back, but it was a different kind of nervous. She walked slowly over to him and lifted her hands to his face. He wanted to kiss her again, but he didn't want to push her too far or too fast. They were on very new ground here, and he wasn't sure what either of them wanted or expected right now.
She leaned up and brushed her lips against his, and he curled his hands around her shoulders, kissing her back even more ardently than before. Her palms slid from his cheeks to flatten against his chest, curl in the fabric of his gi as if preventing his escape.
When he felt them loosen again, her hands sliding down even further between them to reach for the knot at the front of his hakama, he pulled back slightly, grasping her wrists and looking her in the eye. "Are you sure this is alright?"
"Alright?" Kaoru smiled and kissed him again briefly, whispering against his lips, "I've been dreaming of this."
He released her and captured her lips again, reaching shaking fingers around to begin loosening her obi as he felt her shifting aside the fabric of his gi. When at last there was nothing left in between them, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her tightly against him, breathing in the feeling of her smooth flesh against his.
They stood there like that for several moments, her fingertips tracing the outline of his shoulder blades—and then she slid free of his arms again and turned away. His eyes followed her past his shoulder as she crossed to the futon, knelt beside it and slipped beneath the covers. When she lifted her eyes to him again, sitting there with the linen sheet held modestly over her chest, she gave him a blushing smile.
He accepted her invitation, crossing to the other side of the futon and sliding in beside her. As he pulled her into his arms again and kissed her deeply, feeling her warmth and love surround him, he didn't feel like an old man whose joints were rusting shut. He felt like a child, trembling with feelings and sensations that were out of his depth. Like someone who'd found a reason for the smile he often hid behind. Like a man who had remembered how to live.
She clung tightly to his shoulders as they were together, and he buried his face in her throat. "I love you," he whispered, kissing the soft skin over her collar bone. "I love you, Kaoru."
Afterward he lay beside her with his cheek against her chest, his fingers tracing tender patterns over her ribcage as hers sifted through his long and tangled hair.
He felt her give a small sigh, heard her head shift on the pillow as she ducked her chin to look down at him. "Please tell me you'll stay," she said quietly.
Kenshin lifted his head to smile up at her, leaned forward and kissed her gently, brushing a strand of hair back from her face. "I'll stay," he promised. "I don't ever want to be anywhere else."
Kaoru beamed, her eyes shining up at him, and she pulled him down for another lingering kiss.
They lay there in each other's arms all night. When the morning came he would cook for them and do the laundry, and she would be off to teach at one of the neighboring dojos again, pick up a few things at the market on her way home. And then in the evening they would be together again, and each evening after that, just like this.
Whenever the nightmares threatened he would hold her a little closer and she would run her warm fingers through his hair and tell him that everything would be alright. And he would rest his roughened palm over the smooth, gently curving skin of her stomach and imagine the color of their child's eyes.
A/N: In case anyone is curious, the title is a reference to the Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo, which is the piece of music that plays over the scene in the anime where Kenshin leaves Kaoru to go to Kyoto. I know the song from elsewhere, but ever since that episode it has always been about Kenshin and Kaoru for me. And I figured the word "intermezzo" applies nicely to a story like this, which falls in the quiet space between major arcs/life events…