November 15, 1878
Two months had passed since Kenshin, Kaoru and the others had defeated Enishi and returned from the Island. Kenshin had been badly injured in the fight, but thanks to Megumi's immaculate care, he had healed nicely. It had been very hard on Kaoru to see Kenshin injured so badly after the fight with Shishio and then again only two months later against Enishi.
Three weeks spent in the company of the vengeance-driven man who took pleasure in making Kenshin suffer hadn't helped her either. For the first time in her life, Kaoru was being plagued by nightmares. Normally, the dreams would run their course and she would sleep on. Tonight was different...
Kaoru looked at the deathly pale body of her beloved rurouni lying on the futon, swathed from head to toe in bandages. His breathing had been rapid and shallow since he'd returned from Mt. Hiei, cradled in Sano's arms. He hadn't moved or spoken since then. All Kaoru could do was watch and wait. The waiting was the hardest. Every minute seemed like an hour, every hour like an eternity.
Suddenly, the rurouni inhaled deeply and sharply, violet eyes flying open. Kaoru was at his side in an instant, hoping he was waking up. His eyes rolled back in his head as he let out a rattling breath and went still.
Kaoru stared at him in shock for a second before her brain started to function again.
"MEGUMI-SAN! IT'S KENSHIN!!!" she screamed.
Megumi was in the room in an instant, checking Kenshin's eyes, pulse and heart rate. She looked up from Kenshin's body with tears in her eyes and shook her head. She covered Kenshin's face with the blanket, marking him deceased. Kaoru felt her strength drain from her as she went down on her hands and knees.
"Damn it! No!" she sobbed as she pounded the floor in grief. "Please Kenshin... don't go..."
Kaoru's eyes snapped open, her breathing and heart rate accelerated. She looked and saw Kenshin on the futon next to hers, chest rising and falling as he slept peacefully. He was alive and healthy. She wanted to throw her arms around him and hug him till he "orod". Instead she stood up, donned a haori and stepped out into the night air.
The stars were out in their full glory, looking like the proverbial diamonds in the sky. A full moon cast its pale light to earth, dimly illuminating Kaoru's surroundings. The trees were in the middle of shedding their multicolored leaves. With a sigh, Kaoru sat on the engawa and stared up at the moon, which stared silently back at her.
'I wish these nightmares would stop. All that was months ago, but I can't get these images of him suffering and dying out of my mind,' Kaoru thought with a shiver, pulling the haori around her for warmth.
Though asleep, Kenshin's mind became dimly aware of a sense of loss. Something vitally important was missing. As he moved toward wakefulness, he became aware that Kaoru's bright ki wasn't in the room as it should've been. Opening his violet eyes, Kenshin saw that her futon was unoccupied and the door to the outside was open.
Forcing himself to stay composed, Kenshin cast out his ki to seek Kaoru's. Ah, there she was! Kenshin let out a small sigh of relief. However, something in her ki troubled him, a lingering sense of unease. Kenshin rose and donned his yukata and haori, then went out to join his woman in the night air.
Kaoru looked up when she heard the door slide open and saw Kenshin standing there looking at her, the moonlight giving his auburn hair a bewitching appearance. Kaoru continued to stare as Kenshin approached her and sat down beside her. For a moment, neither spoke.
"I'm sorry if I woke you up," said Kaoru, uncertainty in her voice.
"Your absence woke me up," Kenshin replied, as he sat next to her.
"Oh..." said Kaoru, not certain what to say.
"Please tell me," Kenshin said softly.
"I had a nightmare about Kyoto," she confessed hesitantly. "After your fight with Shishio you were in so much pain. I kept watching over you but... Kenshin... you still died."
Kenshin let out a sigh, no doubt blaming himself as usual.
"I first had that dream after you and the others returned from Mt. Hiei. I've been having it sometimes since then, but usually I just get through it," said Kaoru.
"I wish you would've told me," Kenshin scolded gently. "Dreams are the heart's way of telling the mind what your true desires and fears are. You should never ignore them."
"My fears...?" said Kaoru to herself.
Kenshin slipped his hand over hers, causing her to turn to him.
"Tell me," he whispered.
"Being weak, being unable to fight for myself, disgracing my father's legacy by being unable to live up to his ideals," whispered Kaoru, looking down at the callused hand over hers. "But those aren't the worst... My very worst fears... involve you."
Feeling Kenshin tense, Kaoru looked up into a pair of huge, stricken eyes. He looked as if she had just slapped him across the face. Kaoru quickly realized that Kenshin thought she meant fear of him hurting her, or worse.
"Oh Kenshin, no no! I don't mean fear of you. I mean fear about you and for you," she said soothingly, reaching up to stroke his hair.
Kenshin relaxed immediately.
"Please tell me."
"Only if you promise not to feel guilty and blame yourself. You can't help what my fears are," said Kaoru firmly.
"I'll try not to," said Kenshin with a smile.
"Okay... I'm afraid of losing you," she finally admitted. "I used to have nightmares of you just leaving the dojo to wander again. After you left for Kyoto, I relived your departure over and over again in my dreams. I was so helpless. I couldn't stop you from leaving to fight. All I did for two days after was lie in bed and cry. It took Megumi almost slapping me to bring me back to my senses. Ever since then, I've been afraid that one day I'll wake up to find you gone again."
"Kaoru, my wandering days were over the moment I said it was good to be home. My place is with you," said Kenshin, sorrow flashing in his eyes. He felt guilty for causing his beloved such pain.
"I know. They're just silly nightmares and fears. But they're so real," sighed Kaoru. "Now I have these nightmares of you suffering, dying. I couldn't do anything for you when you were at death's door after fighting Shishio. I hated seeing you injured and feverish. You don't deserve to hurt, even if you think you do. You've suffered for others, for me. I can never do anything but stand there and watch. Sometimes... I feel so weak and useless."
Kenshin cupped Kaoru's chin in his free hand and forced her to look him in the eye.
"Don't you ever say that again," he said in a dropped voice. "Kaoru is not weak or useless. Kaoru is a great fighter and a strong woman. Kaoru helped take out the Juppongatana while Sanosuke and I were on Mt. Hiei and Kaoru stayed by my side for two weeks when I was near death after fighting Shishio."
Kaoru gave a startled gasp at this last sentence.
"How did you know?" she said.
"I knew," Kenshin said softly. "Though I couldn't open my eyes, I knew you were there. Beyond that, I cannot explain."
Kenshin paused a moment, then continued. He wanted Kaoru to know what her presence in his life had come to mean to him.
"The pain was terrible. So terrible that I sometimes wished for the release of death... But when you touched me, the pain faded. It became something less, something I could live through. I could always sense you at my bedside."
"I didn't want you to wake up alone in a strange place," whispered Kaoru, glancing up at his face.
Kenshin's eyes softened and he fixed her with a warm smile, taking both her hands in his.
"Your voice was the only thing that reached through my nightmares, my only connection to the real world," murmured Kenshin. "When you sang to me, all the demons fled and I saw you, standing in light, calling me back from beyond."
Kaoru's heart stopped in her chest at these words. Had her presence really been that important to him throughout his recovery?
As he looked down at Kaoru’s hands in his, Kenshin decided that since Kaoru had revealed her inner demons to him, it was past time for him to reveal everything to her. He looked Kaoru straight in the eye, pulling her out of her reverie and fixing her attention on him.
"Kaoru... how much did the others tell you of Enishi's... true Revenge?"
Kaoru flinched inside at this question. Secretly, she had wanted to learn all the details of what had happened, but now that Kenshin was actually broaching the topic, dread filled her. What horrors had Enishi wrought upon the group, which could have made them believe that she had left the world?
“Megumi-san told me that everyone thought I was dead,” she faltered at length.
“Yes. From the beginning, you were the target of Enishi’s Revenge. His goal was to hurt me by striking me at my weakest point,” Kenshin began.
Kaoru felt her stomach drop out from under her at these words.
“Enishi’s henchman Gein had another talent beyond creating mechanical ogres,” Kenshin’s story continued, “His true specialty was creating detailed, lifelike dolls that were so realistic, they could fool a doctor…”
Kaoru raised her hand to her mouth, instantly putting two and two together. It made sense. If Gein had created an ogre suit, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for him to create something like what Kenshin had just described.
When she looked into the huge violet eyes of her rurouni and saw the tears now shining in them, she realize the full horror of Enishi’s true Revenge.
"When I came into the dojo after fighting Enishi, I found you... pinned to the wall... with Enishi's watou thrust through your heart... and a cruciform scar carved into your cheek."
Kenshin choked on his own words as the memory of Kaoru's open lifeless eyes sprang up before his mind’s eye. He tried to take a deep breath, but found himself beginning to sob instead as tears coursed from his eyes, the last vestiges of his control snapping as the memories overwhelmed him.
Kaoru stared in equal parts fascination and horror as her usually composed and assured rurouni dissolved into tears before her, face lowered, body scrunched up and trembling. Before she knew what she was doing, she was reaching out for him.
The next thing Kenshin felt was Kaoru’s arms encircling his shoulders and pulling him to her breast. He relaxed into her embrace, his emotional barriers crumbling as Kaoru rocked him slowly back and forth while stroking his hair. For a few moments, they stayed thus, Kenshin’s body shaking with each sobbed breath as he tried desperately to calm down. Gradually, the rocking motion and the feeling of her hand gently stroking his hair did the trick, drying the tears and allow his breathing to go back to normal. After the storm passed, Kenshin took a deep, cleansing breath and pressed on with the story.
"When I saw you... it... everything stopped. I... couldn't move. I couldn't think," he said slowly, never looking up. "For two weeks, I lived as though dead in Rakuninmura."
"The Outcast Village?" said Kaoru in disbelief.
Kenshin nodded, still without looking up.
“Then how did you…”
"Tsubame-dono. Kujirinami escaped from jail and went on a rampage, so Yahiko fought him. But he was badly injured, so Tsubame-dono came into Rakuninmura and called to me, asked for my help. It was her voice that woke me up."
Kaoru’s eyes were wide with disbelief. Tsubame? Shy little Tsubame, who his her face behind her tray, had had enough courage to enter a slum? A lot had happened while she had been gone.
The couple sat in silence for a long time. As she stroked Kenshin’s tumbled locks, Kaoru mulled over everything he had told her. Kenshin lay with his head resting against Kaoru's chest, listening to the sound of her heart beating, drawing comfort from the warmth of her embrace and gentle ministrations.
For her part, Kaoru had a lot to think about. Kenshin’s weak point… Twice, she had been taken and used as a pawn against Kenshin, first by the psychotic Jinei Udo and again by the vengeful Enishi. And although he hadn’t kidnapped her, Saitou Hajime had used Kaoru and Yahiko as unwitting hostages in her own dojo to teach Kenshin a lesson about how properly to protect people. Kenshin had departed for Kyoto alone because he hadn’t wanted Kaoru and the others caught up in the chaos of Shishio’s new revolution.
‘I really am his weak point. That has to change,’ Kaoru thought to herself as she absently fingered strands of red hair. ‘If I really want to be by Kenshin’s side, I have to follow Megumi-san’s advice and get stronger, not just mentally, but physically. I must completely master Kamiya Kasshin Ryu!’
For now though, there was a certain redhead to think of, resting in her embrace and in desperate need of comfort, having just relived his personal hell.
"Aren't we a funny pair?" Kaoru began. "I lost my will to live when you left for Kyoto and you lost yours when you thought I was dead. Neither of us can live without the other, it seems. I think we were definitely made for each other, wouldn't you say?"
Kaoru meant it partly as a joke to lighten the mood. Kenshin, in no frame of mind for jokes, raised his head and looked at her solemnly with those heartbreaking eyes of his.
"For 15 years after I lost Tomoe, I wandered through the world alone, never allowing myself to get close to anyone," he proceeded to say. "I thought this was right. I believed myself so stained with bloodguilt that anyone I got close to would be tainted by it. My duty was only to protect people, never to allow them to love me, or even protect me if need be. When I learned the secret of Hiten Mitsurugi from my master, I nearly died because of that mistaken belief. When I saw the Master charging me down with the Kuzu Ryu Sen, my mind was flooded by memories of the people who had become close to me and the final one was of you, crying out for me.
Suddenly, I realized that I had been living my life very much in the wrong for the past decade. I found a strength I never knew I could possess, one much greater than the willingness to die for those I would protect: the willingness, the need, to live.
On Mt. Hiei, after Shishio's sword pierced my side, I lay on the ground, my life blood seeping out of the wound. I saw the shadow of death over me. I was ready to surrender, ready to move into the next world. But just at that moment, I remembered the promise I'd made to you.
'Let's all go back to Tokyo together...'
It was the memory of that promise and the renewed will to live from it that gave me the strength to get up and fight on. If you hadn't come after me, I never would have gained the will to live and the true strength needed to fight Shishio. I would have died an empty shell with only the coldness of the hitokiri in my heart and the stench of blood in my nostrils.
You are my will to live, Kaoru. Live on with me as my wife and complete my soul," Kenshin finished, fixing her with a hopeful gaze.
"Kenshin, you silly man, what took you so long?" Kaoru gently chided.
Joy broke out over Kenshin's features like a thousand suns.
They leaned forward and kissed each other deeply, their bodies silhouetted by the arc of the large moon, now setting in the western horizon. The couple turned and watched as the moon continued to sink in the horizon, the first pinkish light of the rising sun just starting to creep into the eastern sky.