Kenshin latched the front gate shut after the last kendo student had exited the dojo grounds. Violet eyes swept the front yard, making sure all was as it should be. Satisfied that all was well, Kenshin headed into the house. After removing his sandals, he stepped up from the genkan and headed to the kitchen to start dinner, as it was his night to cook.
As Kenshin stirred the shabu shabu, he wondered where his wife was, as Kaoru hadn't yet come into the house. Perhaps she was still in the training hall? But it had been 30 minutes since class had been dismissed. Surely she should be in by now. Kenshin fought down the urge to panic and forced himself to continue preparing dinner. It was high time for him to get over what had happened last summer and stop worrying every time Kaoru was out of his sight.
Thirty minutes more passed and still she hadn't returned. Kenshin felt more than a little agitated. Setting the trays on the low table, he started toward the front door to go out looking for her. Just as he approached the door, it slid open and in stepped Kaoru. She didn't even get a chance to step out of her geta before Kenshin had her in a bear hug.
For almost a minute, Kenshin held Kaoru close to him. She could feel his breath hot on her neck and his heart beating against her chest.
"Where were you?" he finally asked in a dropped voice.
"Mika's father didn't show up to get her and she's not allowed to walk home alone, so I walked with her. Her mother made me stay for tea," answered Kaoru.
Kenshin pulled back and looked his wife in the eye.
"You should have told me. I would have walked her myself," he said.
Kaoru was a bit put off by this. It wasn't the first time she'd walked a student home. What was the big deal?
"My students are my responsibility," she said firmly.
"And my wife is mine," returned Kenshin.
Kaoru pulled out of Kenshin's embrace. She knew it was hard for Kenshin to give her space after the events of last year, but she was beginning to tire of his over-protectiveness.
"I'm not a child," she flashed, her eyes glittering with spirit.
"I never said you were," said Kenshin, hurt creeping into his features.
"Then please don't treat me like one," huffed Kaoru.
Before Kenshin could get a word in edgewise, she stepped out of her sandals and went into the dining area, leaving a rather perplexed swordsman standing in the genkan.
The meal was a quiet one. Kaoru and Kenshin sat across from each other, each avoiding eye contact with the other. The shabu shabu, though wonderfully made by Kenshin, had lost all of its appeal, so the pair ate mechanically.
As quickly as it had come, Kaoru's anger was gone. Upon reflection, she saw that Kenshin was well within his rights to be worried about her. She knew she should have told him that she was going to take Mika home instead of just disappearing. Was he angry with her?
Kenshin couldn't fathom why Kaoru couldn't see things from his point of view. Didn't she understand that now that they were man and wife, it was his duty to protect her? Didn't she understand that he worried as he did because he loved her and would die inside if anything were to happen to her? Was he being overprotective? Was he smothering her? Was she angry with him?
A couple times, one would look up momentarily as though to say something. But each time, they would look down again. This was the first time they'd had anything close to an argument and it was a bit unnerving for the young couple.
Kaoru didn't like the thought of Kenshin being angry with her. The last time he had come close to being angry with her was when he had seen her at Hiko's hut in Kansai.
"I know you didn't want me to come here, but I did. Are you angry with me?" asked Kaoru as Kenshin stepped out past her behind his master.
Kenshin paused in his footsteps, but did not look back.
"Half of me is. The other half is... kind of glad," he replied stiffly. "There's no telling where Shishio's men may be lurking, so be on your guard."
Kaoru waited for him to turn and smile at her over his shoulder as he had so often done in the past, but this time he did not, instead disappearing into the darkness behind Hiko to learn the Hiten Mitsurugi secrets.
Between that time and this, they had grown closer and closer, passing friendship, becoming lovers and finally last month, husband and wife by law.
'What are a husband and wife really?' thought Kaoru. 'Honestly, I have no idea how to be a wife. My mother died when I was eight and I grew up without a female role model. I know it's the husband's duty to protect the wife. But at the same time, he should give her her space and let her spread her wings. But if the wife is inconsiderate of the husband's feelings and worries him needlessly, he has every right to be angry, as Kenshin is now. If I want Kenshin to not be overprotective of me, I can't give him cause to worry. I have to be responsible, and that means not just disappearing and leaving him to panic. We both need to be willing to give in a little, or we'll never be happy.'
Kenshin was deep in thought as he mechanically shoveled in the beef and vegetables.
'Am I overprotective? Do I treat Kaoru like a child? I don't mean to. I know she can handle herself well in most situations. I just wish she would have told me where she was going. Perhaps I did overreact, but it's only because I love her so much. I can't help that. I can't lose her again,' he thought sadly.
Kenshin sat by the river, senses on the alert for the approach of Udo Jinei. The water rushed by in a never-ending torrent, reaching very close to the top of the river bed.
'Must've rained upstream. The river's high. Fall in the river and it's over,' Kenshin thought to himself as he listened to the swooshing of the swollen rapids.
Just then he felt a strong spike of ki behind him. Instantly, his thumb clicked the Sakabatou loose from its lock in the sheath.
"KEEEEEEEEEENNNNN-SHIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNN!" came the familiar and just now frightening voice of Kamiya Kaoru from behind him.
"Oro!" cried Kenshin, slicing his thumb open on the blade of the sword.
"HERE YOU ARE..." continued that scary drone from behind.
Kenshin's eyes turned to swirls as his heart palpitated in his chest. He vaguely registered the shift of weight on the log as Kaoru plopped down beside him.
'Scarier than Jinei!' he thought to himself, only half-jokingly.
"Sanosuke told me you don't plan to return to the dojo for a while," she said. "I won't go back either. I'll stay with you."
An awkward moment of silence passed between them as Kenshin pondered what Kaoru said and how best to rid himself of her.
"Kaoru-dono... Did you have an argument with Sano or something, or with Yahiko?" he asked.
"No!" answered Kaoru, her face scrunched up in frustration with the Rurouni's apparent cluelessness.
Kenshin sighed inwardly and finally broached what they both knew was the true reason for her presence.
"You heard about Jinei," he admitted.
"I've heard, but I'm not leaving," said Kaoru, ever the stubborn one.
"This one can never defeat Jinei while protecting someone else," said Kenshin.
After a pause, Kaoru stood up, untied the blue ribbon from her hair and held it toward Kenshin.
"My favorite blue ribbon. Take it," she said.
"What good would?" he began.
"JUST TAKE IT!" barked Kaoru.
"Fine. Yes ma'am," said Kenshin, meekly taking the ribbon.
"But this is just a loan. You have to bring it back," said Kaoru as Kenshin struggled to understand what she was getting at. "Don't you forget and start wandering again after you defeat Jinei. I'd never forgive you for that."
Only then did Kenshin understand that Kaoru feared that he meant not to return to the dojo. Understanding slowly broke out on his features and he smiled his goofy, disarming "Rurouni Smile" (as Kaoru secretly called it) at her.
"Fine. This one will bring it right back. So you go home and wait for its return," he said.
Kaoru smiled affectionately at the redhead.
"I'll do that," she said.
However, before she had even moved, Jinei swooped by on a boat and grabbed her, sailing down the fast-moving river with Kaoru in his vice-like grip.
Kenshin stood where he was, dumbfounded and immobilized by shock. How could he have not sensed Jinei's approaching presence? Because he had let himself be distracted! His normally soft eyes began to blaze with long-suppressed rage.
"I see it in your eyes, Battousai! I see that this girl is your woman! Get mad, get mad like last night when I stabbed that rooser head punk!" called the maniac as he sailed away with Kaoru in his grip.
"KENSHIN!!!" Kaoru screamed as she struggled in vain.
"JINEI!!!!" Kenshin roared as he felt the first stirrings of the assassin in his soul.
'How do I protect Kaoru without smothering her? How do I keep her safe without treating her like an invalid or a child? What good is it to say that I love her if I'm thoughtless of her feelings? That's not love; that's control. There has to be some kind of middle ground,' thought Kenshin.
After clearing away the dining ware in silence, the couple retreated to their bedroom and hesitantly changed into sleeping yukatas in silence and then slowly got into the futon together. They lay back to back for what seemed like an eternity (it was really only two minutes). Finally Kaoru couldn't bear the silence anymore, and, as Kenshin seemed to have withdrawn into himself, decided that she needed to break it.
"Kenshin, did we have our first argument tonight?" she asked hesitantly.
"Close enough to it," the redhead responded softly.
Silence descended upon them for the space of a minute.
"Are you angry?" Kaoru inquired at length.
"No. Are you angry with me?" returned Kenshin.
"I was at first. I thought you were treating me like a child. But I thought things over, and it was wrong of me to just leave without telling you," answered Kaoru.
Kenshin turned on his side and pulled Kaoru to him, hugging her with all the strength in his lithe body.
"I know I worry too much. I know you can take care of yourself," he whispered. "But, every time you go out, my stomach knots up and doesn't loosen till you're in the door again."
He stopped and took a long, shaky breath.
Intermingling with the thick smoke, the smell of white plum assaulted Kenshin's senses, triggering a visceral nausea. He skidded to a dead stop.
'This scent, it's...'
A figure emerged from the smoke.
"White plum. To me, it's my sister's scent. To you, it's probably..."
The feeling of his katana slicing Tomoe's body in half played back in Kenshin's mind as if it had just happened moments ago.
"ENISHI! WHAT DID YOU DO TO KAORU-DONO?!!!" Kenshin cried in desperation.
Enishi grinned maliciously.
"This scent is a trail. Follow it carefully," he instructed. "The 'answer' you've been looking for is there."
Kenshin began running again, adrenaline born of desperation coursing through his veins, speeding him along.
"Take a good look. Mourn, scream, regret, then cry yourself to death."
Kenshin stopped at the hole in the dojo wall. The sight before him would haunt him to his dying day. The Sakabatou clattered noisily to the floor as Kenshin crumpled to his knees, his mind shutting down.
"Hiten Mitsurugi is worthless. Himura Kenshin is worthless. Once again I couldn't protect the woman I loved. Kaoru-dono. Kaoru..."
"So what do we do?" Kaoru asked at length. "You want to protect me, but I hate to be smothered. Is there something in the middle we could settle upon?"
"I think we could work it out," agreed Kenshin. "We'll have to."
"How about if I tell you where I'm going and when I expect to be back, and you don't panic when I go out?" suggested Kaoru.
"I can work on it," said Kenshin with a small smile.
"We'll work on it together," corrected Kaoru, touching the tip of Kenshin's nose.
For the first time that evening, Kenshin smiled.
For now, everything was alright.