May 14, 1879
I feel tears stinging my eyes as I help my father pack up for his duty as a sword-bearing policeman in the Seinan War. Dammit, not now. I have to be strong for my father. This is as hard for him as it is for me. A warrior's duty comes before all else. You were raised knowing that this might happen again. But still, wasn't the Bakumatsu enough? It almost broke him and now they want him to fight again.
"Take heart, Princess. I can't promise that I'll come home, but I know that you'll be alright either way. I raised you to be strong and I have absolute faith in your strength," I hear my father's voice say.
"I'll be strong while you're gone. Please be careful, Daddy," I say to him.
My father turns around and looks at me with love shining in his brown eyes. He smiles gently at me and runs his hand over my hair just once.
"You have more than just your mother's eyes. You have her strength and her love. I will fight on with you and your mother's strength and love in my heart. With that, I shall prevail," he says.
Abruptly, he pulls me into a close hug.
"I love you, Princess. Never forget that," he says.
Then he breaks the embrace, picks up his suitcase and heads out the door, through the gate and joins those waiting for him. I watch, unable to move or speak, as my father's back walks off into the darkness. I will never see him alive again.
I plunge into darkness, engulfed in solitude; the cold lonliness gnawing at me like a wolf at the carcass of a deer. It seems to go on for an eternity. Then there's light; a brief time of warmth and happiness spent with a man with hair the color of the setting sun and eyes of the deepest, darkest violet. His voice is soft and gentle, his presence sad, yet comforting.
We meet new and dear friends who become a new family and share many adventures together. Then the cold dread re-enters my heart. I'm standing in a world of darkness, lit only by fireflies, wondering where he is. Then I hear his soft voice behind me.
"The fireflies are lovely this evening," he says in his soft, sad voice.
I turn around and see him standing in the fireflies' dim light, sorrow weighing his features down.
"Okubo-kyo was killed this morning," he says quietly.
"Yes, we heard," is all I can think of to say.
"Shishio and his men are the real killers. They can't be allowed to run lose. This one is off to Kyoto," I hear him say as I feel the ground open up under me.
"Will you assassinate Shishio Makoto then?" I ask tremelously.
"No... Perhaps. If this one can remain rurouni, it will be enough to meet and speak with him, defeat him if need be. But if oneself is lost as in the battle against Saitou... During the time spent here, it seemed that life as a normal swordsman was possible. Days were spent with peace in the heart. But as was shown in the battle against Saitou, deep within this one's heart there can be no doubt, the hitokiri still lives."
"But you can turn back. However close you get to Battousai, Kenshin is still Kenshin. It was the same during the fight with Jinei as it was with Saitou. You'll be fine," I say, anything to keep him from doing this.
"This is different. With Jinei, Battousai emerged to save you and retreated once your voice was heard, but with Saitou, Battousai emerged just to fight him. Your voice didn't reach. So this is different," he says, boring into me with sad violet eyes. "When we first met, you understood even after finding out about Hitokiri Battousai. 'I don't care about people's pasts,' you said. It was an amazing thing. But to the government, to Shishio and his men, to everyone else in this country who hated Hitokiri Battousai, this one is only he."
Suddenly, I feel his arms around me and his warmth near me as he pulls me into a paralyzing embrace. It's all I can do to breathe.
"Thank you for everything, and farewell. This one is Rurouni. Once again this one will drift," I hear his voice echo in my head. "Arigatou gozaimashita to sayonara. Sessha wa rurouni, mata nagareru de gozaru."
He breaks the embrace and turns and walks into the night, just as my father had walked away eight months before. I never saw my father again and I know that I will never see Kenshin again. My soul shatters into a thousand pieces and all I can do is weep.
My eyes flew open, my heart thundering in my chest.
Kenshin's voice continued to echo in my mind. I could feel the dampness of my tears on my face.
I looked at the calendar and saw the date, May 14, 1879. One year ago today, Kenshin said "farewell" to me and departed to Kyoto for the death match with Shishio Makoto. The year before that, my father had left to fight in the Seinan War and had never returned.
It was then that I realized that my husband-to-be wasn't in bed next to me like he should have been.
'Where is he?!' my mind cried out.
I jumped to my feet, stopping only to don a haori over my yukata. I tore the shouji open and listened for any sign of him in the living area or kitchen.
Silence, not even the slightest aroma of breakfast.
Panic mounting, I opened the fusuma that led into the backyard.
Silence here too. Not so much as an animal stirred. The sakura tree was dropping the last of its pretty pink petals and the flowers were out in their full morning glory. But it was so still. The silence was deafening. It was as if my nightmare were coming true. Where was he? Kenshin never went anywhere this early anymore and he never left the dojo without telling me. Could he have left to wander again?
My rational mind knew he wouldn't do such a thing, especially since we were to be married today.,but the scared little girl inside of me was in control. I turned to go back into the bedroom to check if he had packed his things to wander again.
The sound of the back gate opening caught my attention and I turned around, laying eyes on my missing redhead as he came in with a fishing pole slung over his shoulder and a bucket of fish he'd caught. He looked up and seemed startled to see me standing there waiting for him.
"Oro?" said Kenshin, seeing Kaoru standing outside in only her yukata and haori.
"KENSHIN, YOU IDIOT, WHERE THE HELL WERE YOU?!!" yelled Kaoru, brandishing the bokken she'd pulled out of thin air.
Kenshin dodged her swing and caught the bokken easily. Facing his irate fiance with the confidence borne of a year living with her, he held up the bucket of fish.
"I thought I would surprise you by catching some fish today. Were you worried because I was gone when you woke up?" he asked.
"WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK, MORON?!!" Kaoru roared, trying to pull the bokken out of Kenshin's grasp.
"I wanted to surprise you, so I left without waking you. I never dreamed you would wake up so early. I'm sorry if I frightened you," said Kenshin softly.
Kaoru's quick anger was gone, she let the bokken drop and threw herself at Kenshin, nearly knocking them both over. She clung to him and cried.
"I dreamed of last year. And you weren't here when I woke up," she whispered.
"Today, I will make a vow to love you and stay by your side forever. Have you ever known me to break a vow?" asked Kenshin, cupping Kaoru's chin in his free hand.
"N-no," said Kaoru, starting to feel very foolish.
"I know I hurt you when I left for Kyoto. If I could take away the pain, I would. But understand this, I will not leave you ever again," Kenshin continued, touching his forehead to Kaoru's.
"I believe you," said Kaoru, melting into her rurouni.
The two stayed that way for a few minutes, stopping only when the urge to breathe became too strong.
"Now, why don't you get dressed and we can eat these outside?" said Kenshin, nudging Kaoru back to the house.
"That sounds great," said Kaoru, happiness and confidence restored.
After Kaoru was dressed, she came back out and helped Kenshin cook the fish over the wok. When the fish were cooked, the pair sat on the engawa and ate them. Kaoru loved the way Kenshin could get the fish to taste. No one else had his unique gift for taking a meat with basically no flavor and making it something the tongue screamed for contact with.
After they'd eaten, Kaoru lay back in Kenshin's strong embrace and the two of them watched the clouds form different patterns in the sky. Kaoru pointed to a puffy little cloud.
"That one looks like a dog," she said.
"I see him, with floppy ears and stub tale. That one looks like a cow," said Kenshin, pointing to another one.
Kaoru saw another cloud that was long and coiling, like a serpent. As it shifted, it seemed to grow wings. Her eyes lit and she pointed it out to Kenshin.
"A dragon," she said in a whisper.
"I see him. Look at the one beside him. A roly-poly raccoon," said Kenshin, pointing to a fat little cloud next to the dragon that did indeed bear a resemblance to the racoon-dog.
"Take back the roly-poly part," warned Kaoru.
"Alright, just a cute little raccoon," said Kenshin. "Looks to me like the dragon and the raccoon like each other."
"More than like. The raccoon knows the dragon will always love and protect and be there for her no matter what may happen, or how mean she is to him at times," said Kaoru.
"The dragon knows that the raccoon loves him despite what he may have done in the past and will always be by his side to comfort him in his times of trial," said Kenshin.
"And the raccoon knows the dragon will always be there to protect her. She is very lucky," said Kaoru, turning to her gaze to Kenshin's.
"Not as lucky as the dragon," said Kenshin, his gaze locking with Kaoru's as their lips completed the bond.
In the sky, the cloud raccoon and dragon melted into each other until they were one.
In the afternoon, the wedding guests started showing up at the dojo. Megumi, Yahiko, Tsubame, Aoshi, Misao and Okina and the Sekihara twins were the first to arrive. As soon as they laid eyes on Kaoru, Megumi, Misao, Tsubame and the Sekihara twins swept her away to make her up. Kenshin watched with some consternation as his Kaoru was taken from his presence, but raised no objection. After all, what were a few hours separation compared to a lifetime together?
"Even with makeup, we can only hope for so much," was Yahiko's congratulatory remark.
"Yahiko..." winced Kenshin. "Hello, Aoshi."
"So this is where my idiot apprentice holes himself up when he's in Tokyo!" came a familiar booming voice.
Kenshin and Yahiko both looked up into the chiseled features and sharp gaze of Hiko Seijuro XIII.
"Master!" yelped Kenshin, genuinely startled out of his normal composure.
"What? Did you think I'd miss my foolish pupil's wedding?" asked Hiko.
"N-not at all, Master," smiled Kenshin.
"Hey! Don't you have to get dressed for your wedding?" scolded Yahiko.
"Oro?" yelped Kenshin.
In the shock of seeing the Master at the dojo, he had completely forgotten! He didn't get a chance to think anymore before finding himself hoisted up by the collar of his kimono.
"Let's go, stupid. As the kid says, you have a wedding to change for. Hopefully, you won't need my help with that as well," said Hiko.
"No, thank you!" said an indignant Kenshin as Hiko carried him to his room, Aoshi and Yahiko following.
In Kaoru's bedroom, the Sekihara twins went to work on the bride-to-be, pulling her hair up in a bun, whitening her face and painting cherry red lipstick on her, then helping her into her white bridal kimono and veil, while Misao and Tsubame watched and dreamed of their own wedding days someday and Megumi coolly observed.
"Kaoru-chan, you will be the loveliest bride of all," said Tae.
"Kenshin-han is a very lucky man to have you," agreed Sae.
"You actually do look pretty, Kaoru. I never would have thought that possible," joked Megumi.
"Yeah, thanks, Megumi-san," huffed Kaoru with a roll of her eyes, determined not to let Megumi's teasing ruffle her feathers today.
"Oh Kaoru-san, you look so beautiful!" exclaimed Tsubame, her doe-like eyes round and luminous.
"I'm gonna wear my hair just like that when I marry Aoshi-sama," declared a lovesick Misao.
"Thanks you so much, everyone," smiled Kaoru, unable to recognize the beautiful bride that stared back at her from her mirror.
Meanwhile, Kenshin was in his room, changing for the wedding. While Kenshin changed, Hiko, Aoshi and Yahiko sat around talking and drinking sake (Hiko) and tea (Yahiko and Aoshi).
"So my idiot apprentice is getting married. When I laid eyes on you for the first time in 15 years last summer, I never would have thought it possible," was Hiko's complimentary remark to Kenshin.
"That makes two of us, Master," Kenshin responded quietly as he tucked his white kimono into the black hakama.
"I knew he could do it," said Yahiko, always determined to stick up for his hero.
"You always did think well of my student," smirked Hiko. "You might not be entirely wrong in doing so."
"Heh..." went Yahiko.
"Oro..." went Kenshin.
Kenshin and Kaoru came out, looking their finest. Kenshin wore a black hakama and haori. Kaoru's heart fluttered in her chest as she looked sideways at Kenshin. She thought the black haori set off his flaming tresses beautifully. Soon she would be joined mind to mind, heart to heart and soul to soul with this man who was as beautiful on the inside as he was on the outside.
Kenshin looked at Kaoru's white bridal gown and veil, which temporarily hid her features from his view. She looked like some beautiful angel descended from the heavens to guard his soul for the rest of his life. In her hands were clutched a small wedding purse called a hakoseko and a dagger called a kaiken.
The couple knelt before a Shinto priest and exchanged their vows to each other, neither looking away from the other's eyes. They were purified and drank three sips of sake afterward. Kenshin read the words of commitment. Finally they made symbolic offerings to the kami. When the vows were finished, they stood up together and were announced to their guests as husband and wife.
'About time these two got together. It's almost like... having parents again,' Yahiko thought as he gazed at these two people who had had such an impact on his life in the short time he had known them.
'I'm so happy for Kaoru-san. I hope someday she and Himura will be sitting on the sidelines at my wedding,' thought Misao as her gaze shifted over to the shinobi who sat silently by her side.
'Himura looks as though he has finally found peace in his life,' Aoshi mused. 'Perhaps there are ways other than meditation to achieve this.'
Aoshi's gaze shifted over to Misao and caught her gaze. The two blinked, then quickly stared straight ahead.
Tae was dabbing suspicious moisture from her eyes as she watched her longtime friend marry the redhead she had been so obviously in love with for so long.
'This is what Kaoru-chan needs. She and Kenshin-han have both been alone for so much of their lives. Now if I could just get myself a man...'
After the ceremony, the couple welcomed all the other guests for the reception, including Sanosuke's friend Tsukioka Katsuhiro, Schinichi Kosaburo and the other members of the Oniwabanshuu. The reception party commenced with Kenshin and Kaoru being introduced as a couple. Afterwards, a great feast was held with food provided pro bono by the Akabeko.
As Tae and Sae dished out the meal, Tae made certain to give Katsu an extra large helping of everything, along with a very friendly smile. Katsu's only response was to blush crimson and try to ignore the besotted restaurateur.
Sitting across from each other at the table, Yahiko and Tsubame exchanged smiles and furtive glances at Kenshin and Kaoru. Yahiko had heard that it was Tsubame who had gone into Rakuninmura and shaken Kenshin out of his stupor so Kenshin could save Yahiko from Whale Mouth. It was very satisfying to both youngsters to see these two people that they admired so much finally come together to be happy.
What Yahiko didn't realize was that Tsubame was picturing himself and her sitting at the honored spots at the table in just a few years. If he had known, his face would have been as red as Kenshin's hair.
Hiko sat near the end of the table, pounding back saucer after saucer of sake, stopping occasionally to take a bite of food. Even though all these people and their swirling ki were starting to wear on his nerves, his heart rejoiced at the gladness and contentment on his student's features and in his ki. Hiko knew for certain that Kenshin would be alright from here on out.
Megumi looked at the place opposite her that had been left intentionally empty to honor their absent friend, Sagara Sanosuke. How she wished... Megumi pushed all thoughts of Bird Brain from her mind. He had left without a goodbye, so she simply wouldn't waste a thought on him.
After everyone had left and the dojo stood silent, Kenshin and Kaoru retreated to their room for their first night together as husband and wife.
Kaoru appraised her husband's nude form in the dimly lit room, the lambent flame reflecting on his pale skin. His hair, cascading over his shoulders in a crimson torrent, added to the strange, yet wonderful, ambiance.
A smile on his lips, Kenshin approached the marriage bed. Wordlessly, he folded the blanket back with his toes, then slid between the covers, pulling the blanket up to his and Kaoru's chests. In the next second, Kaoru found herself coiled in his arms, like the treasure of a protective dragon.
So warm. No matter how much time Kaoru spent in Kenshin's embrace, she could never get used to the fact that his body radiated heat like a brazier. To that end, they wore nothing but their skin and a thin sheet over their bodies, the shoji open to let the cool evening air in.
Kenshin and Kaoru's eyes met each other as he positioned himself over her. Although they had been lovers for months, their first lovemaking as husband and wife would be equally special in their eyes, a full consummation of the vows they had exchanged just a few hours ago, the vows that would bind them together for eternity.