Kaoru sighed, re-reading the same passage for the fifth time. The dojo was peaceful, but the quiet was somehow distracting. Lonely, rather than restful. She sighed again. Small wonder she felt lonely, when she had the place to herself. Yahiko was visiting Tsubame at the Akabeko, Sano had yet to make an appearance -- he was probably off losing the last of his money gambling -- and Kenshin had gone fishing. Despondent, she allowed herself to slump forward over the table, bringing her head down to rest on the open pages. From her new position she stared out the open doors at the slowly passing clouds, letting the silence wash over her.
"Mou!" Exasperated with herself, Kaoru gathered up her book, and stepped outside. The weather was perfect for outdoor reading. Maybe Kenshin wouldn't mind a little company . . .
Kenshin yawned. The stillness by the river was a pleasant change from the cheerful and sometimes overwhelming noise common at the Kamiya dojo, but after several hours the calm had worn to boredom, the peace to a dulling lassitude. Without Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan's cheerful company to occupy him while he waited for the fish to bite, he found himself continually fighting sleep. He stretched lazily and then returned to his previous position, slouched comfortably between the sheltering roots of a tree. He had begun to doze off again, lulled by the quiet and the warmth of the spring sun, when he heard Kaoru's voice.
"Ano . . . Kenshin?"
He opened his eyes in surprise. "Kaoru-dono? Is something wrong?"
"No." She shook her head, smiling hesitantly. "I was just lonely at the dojo by myself." She held up her book. "I thought I'd read outside. Do you mind if I join you?"
"Oro?" He blinked at her for a moment before his sleepy mind registered what she'd asked him. Then he readily agreed, shifting to his left to make room for her beside him. He smiled as she settled herself against him, nestling in the angle of his shoulder and the tree.
"Nani?" She asked, catching his smile as she opened her book.
Kenshin merely shook his head and turned his attention back to his fishing. "I'm just glad to see you," he murmured.
Kaoru's face lit with pleasure. "Hai.." she softly responded, momentarily resting her head against his shoulder. Always, she thought, I'm always glad to see you. Raising her head she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, and then, content with the small smile still playing across his lips, began reading.
They spent the afternoon in companionable silence, the only sounds the soft splish of Kenshin's fishing line and the rustle of turning pages. The fishing pole was put aside after awhile, and Kenshin simply sat beside her while she read. Eyes partially closed he watched her, enjoying the play of emotions across her expressive face. Unwittingly he smiled when her nose crinkled in disapproval at something she read, and again when she paused to blow her bangs out of her eyes. Utterly relaxed and content in her company, he slid into a comfortable half sleeping-half waking state; the ever-present guilt of the hitokiri buffered by a layer of warm contentment.
As the afternoon progressed the wind picked up, turning the shade beneath the tree chilly. In response, Kaoru snuggled herself closer against Kenshin, glancing at him to see if he objected. He didn't seem to, lounging against the tree with his eyes closed. He merely shifted a little, changing positions so she could lean against him more comfortably; his right arm slipping around her as she settled against him. Neither spoke, but as she cuddled against him Kaoru sighed in contentment. She let the book fall closed in her lap as she tangled the fingers of her left hand with those of his right. A moment later she felt him dip his head to rest against hers, and closed her eyes to bask in the safety and warmth of his arms, his presence.
Kenshin was only slightly surprised when Kaoru snuggled against him, as he'd felt her shiver beside him in the cool spring breeze. He'd half persuaded himself to reach out to her when she'd moved closer to him on her own. Now, as she tangled her fingers with his, he wondered again at how well their feelings could mesh. This slight girl, with her soft heart and spine strong as the metal of his sakabatou, had restored something infinitely precious to his life. She was home to him; her trust and unspoken love wrapping protectively around him whenever he was with her. His sigh echoed hers as he bent his head and pressed his cheek to the sweetly scented silk of her hair. On impulse, he gently released the fine black strands from the sea green ribbon she'd used to tie them back. His woman. Even Jin'eh, insane as he was, had recognized it. His past kept him from stating it as plainly as Jin'eh had, but he never denied it to himself, never protested it when someone else acknowledged it. She was his. His to protect, to comfort, to love. And he was hers. Perhaps there was no longer a reason to hide how important she was to him. He shrugged mentally as he admitted he hadn't really fooled anyone. Instead, his repeated withdrawals had hurt her, the one person he most wanted to protect.
Kaoru felt the slight pull, heard the faint rasp as he slid the ribbon free, and opened her eyes in surprise. "Kenshin . . ." Turning her head, peering up at him through the midnight curtain falling over her shoulder and across his chest, she found his violet eyes gazing softly at her.
"Kirei . . ." he whispered, his voice a caress. Letting the ribbon slide from his fingers, he stroked a few strands away from her face, revealing the faint blush on her cheeks. Kaoru's eyes widened slightly as realization sparked, and her small white teeth bit anxiously into her full bottom lip to stop it's slight, nervous trembling.
He's going to kiss me. Kaoru thought. His hand cradled her face, his thumb brushing back and forth over her cheek. Please let him kiss me. She bit her lip anxiously as she waited, and as his stroking thumb shifted to flow over the small hurt, she closed her eyes. Oh please don't let him pull away this time. A moment later his mouth -- caressing, coaxing, faintly possessive -- met hers. Kenshin . . .
Always before he'd withdrawn at the last moment, pretending to ignore or be unaware of feelings which were infinitely obvious. As he kissed her now, the pretense was revealed in all its staggering depth. His touch was tempered with the gentleness he habitually displayed toward her, but also held a wealth of hidden emotion: Fire and longing, passion and demand. And all of it encompassed by an incredible sweetness. She protested softly when he released her moments later, disentangling her fingers from his only to clench them instead in the loose fabric of his shirt to call him back. Teasing her fingers free he threaded them again with his own as his lips slid over her cheek, touched lightly on her eyes, and then finally brushed the tip of her nose. His arm tightened around her, holding her close against him as she turned her face into his chest.
"Kenshin?" Her voice was soft and hesitant.
"Mmmm?" She felt a small glimmer of annoyance at the relaxed timbre of his. She frowned at their twined fingers, worried he would pull away, but uncertain what to say to stop him. She was unaware he was watching her, or that he'd smiled when she rolled her eyes at his response, and so his voice surprised her a little when next he spoke.
"Daijoubu." She turned her head slightly to look at him, finding his violet gaze resting warmly on her. "It's alright." The phrase seemed to hold a wealth of meaning: I'm not going to pull away this time. You don't have to worry. Satisfied, she relaxed against him again, closing her eyes and letting her senses absorb how it felt to be held that way. Safe. Loved. Protected. Cherished. Swaddled in contentment she slid slowly and inexorably toward sleep.
Dinner was long overdue. Sano and Yahiko prowled the dojo in search of either Kaoru or Kenshin, and met disconsolately in the kitchen.
"Kenshin was supposed to go fishing today," Yahiko offered, as Sano looked questioningly at him.
Yahiko shrugged. "Who knows what she might be up to?"
"Well, if Kenshin was going fishing, maybe he's still by the river," Sano suggested.
"I suppose." Yahiko sounded less than convinced as he followed Sano out of the dojo grounds, and Sano silently agreed with him. This wasn't like Kenshin.
Sano and Yahiko followed the river for some time, their unspoken worry growing, before they stumbled upon Kaoru and Kenshin peacefully asleep beneath a tree.
"What-" Yahiko began, and was abruptly cut off as Sano covered his mouth.
Sano shook his head sharply at Yahiko, indicating that the boy should be quiet. He couldn't explain it, but there was something indescribably right about the couple cuddled together beneath the tree. He didn't really want to disturb them, and certainly not with one of Yahiko's outbursts. After a moment he sighed. He was going to have to wake them, whether he liked it or not. He couldn't let them spend the night out here. Sano gathered up the fishing gear and Kenshin's catch, and sent Yahiko back to the dojo with them. Bad enough to disturb them . . . he wasn't going to let Yahiko further ruin the mood with his rude comments.
"Oi. Kenshin," Sano whispered, gently nudging Kenshin's leg with his foot.
Kenshin sleepily opened his left eye to find that the sun had set and that Sano was standing over him. He blinked and then opened both eyes. "Oro?"
"Shhhh . . . Jou-chan's still asleep."
As Sano's words penetrated Kenshin's sleepy mind, he glanced down at Kaoru and smiled gently.
"Ano . . . I just thought you shouldn't spend the night out here," Sano continued, glancing away. The gentle way Kenshin was looking at Kaoru was too private for him to watch.
"Arigatou." Sano turned back to find Kenshin standing, Kaoru cradled in his arms. She snuggled her face into his neck as he spoke. "She looked so content I didn't want to wake her."
"Aa." Sano agreed, smiling at the somewhat sheepish tone in Kenshin's voice. Shaking his head slightly, he turned and headed back toward the dojo, trusting Kenshin to follow.
Kenshin looked down at Kaoru again and smiled before following, precious bundle held close to his heart.
July 23, 1998