The sun felt good on his face. Soothing, relaxing still further the twinges of tension that still flared in his gut. It was over. All over.
He was free.
Kenshin let his head fall back against the pillar, eyes closed, shifting his weight slightly to the right. If he sat like this, very carefully, the post did not put pressure on the bandages wrapped diagonally across his back. Collarbone to ribs, Megumi had said, placing her fingers so he knew where it began and ended. So he could know where the pain in between ended. If he moved too quickly, it still flared from a fiery ache to screaming torment in less than a second. But if he was careful – if he was careful this was one of the two almost comfortable positions in which he’d spent the last three weeks. The third position, flat on his back, he’d done his best to avoid ever since he was strong enough to sleep on his left side.
He adjusted his arms across his bare stomach, still instinctively careful with the right forearm. The bandages had come off already, but the scar was still tender. He still felt a little skinny. Weak as a child, too, after even the slightest exertion. Fabric slipped, letting in a draft along his ribs, and he twitched the borrowed yukatta a little closer to shut. Not that it was even tied, in the first place; it had been hard enough to get it across his shoulders like a cape, and he hadn’t bothered putting his arms through the sleeves. That took too much stretching and reaching that he was not capable of yet. Besides, it was Yahiko’s, and thus way too short in all respects. Since the boy thought that white with wavy lines of maple leaves outlined in blue was a bit too – girly – he’d only ever worn it when everything else was filthy…and hence had only been too happy to loan it to him.
Clothes, in fact, had been a bit of an embarrassing problem in all this. Over the last two months, he had managed to reduce to rags every single outfit that fit him; both of his own and of the clothes Kaoru had given him of her father’s. The dark green, drawstring-waist pants he was currently wearing were Aoshi’s. Both too long and too big, but better than wearing hakama with nothing underneath. There were enough bandages crisscrossing his torso that it practically counted as a shirt, but still. After lying half naked in front of Kaoru as he’d faded in and out of consciousness and the pull of her voice, too tired to think or wish or even dream, the cloth against his neck and shoulders provided an illusion of being clothed. If he kept the bandages and old scars covered, perhaps she would worry – however infinitesimally – less. Watching that worry slowly fade because of something he was doing – namely healing – was a singing, intoxicating warmth in his chest. Even if it still hurt to breathe.
He let his eyes open lazily as the shoji behind him opened, recognizing who had come even with their attempts to be quiet. Kaoru would never be totally quiet. It was not in her nature. He could picture exactly what she was doing, leaning a little to the right, biting her lower lip as she tried to determine if he was asleep sitting up. He had been in the past. Several times.
He shook his head, deliberately tumbling his loose hair over his shoulders. It hadn’t been tied back in weeks, and every few days Kaoru brought a hairbrush that had to be her own and worked out the tangles in long, lingering strokes. They never talked much while she did it, but a blind man could have told that she – liked – touching his hair. Also that she did not – had never – thought it the least bit ugly. Or that it made him look like a demon. Sometimes it was hard to just remember to breathe when her free hand skimmed the corners of his face, gathering the unruly stragglers in with the rest.
Kaoru. Yes. Present.
On his signal, she had given up stealth and walked normally into the room. He turned his head to meet her smile, the fluttery happy one that she’d been wearing ever since he’d croaked out her name after waking up for good. It was an absolutely beautiful smile, and he smiled back. That made her blush, just a tiny bit, which was becoming predictably adorable. Things had – changed – between them. And it was worth every second of hell aboard the Rengoku and the long bloody walk up the beach afterward. He knew, and she was learning that he knew, and neither of them said clumsy words to spoil anything.
Kaoru knelt at a right angle to his position, forming a cozy corner of sunlight. A neatly wrapped package of cloth was in her hands.
“You look stronger today,” she said shyly, still smiling but keeping her eyes a little away from the exposed strip of skin and bandages down his chest. They both always tried to ignore it, any awkwardness that arose from changing bandages and her having to touch him in ways that would otherwise be intimate. More often than he cared to admit he had to close his eyes and focus on steady, regular breathing when her hands unconsciously braced against his skin. Sanno was already teasing him about it – even if he had the decency to not mention the subject to Kaoru. Or maybe he was simply learning wisdom in some small measure.
Kenshin smiled up at her in reply. Kneeling seiza style, she was taller than he was sitting crosslegged. She ducked her head and began unwrapping the package, holding it generally in his direction. The furoshiki fell away softly to the floor, revealing a neatly folded red garment that somehow contrived a hard lump in his throat. Underneath it was an off-white garment, also heart-tuggingly familiar.
“You were able to fix it?” he asked in wonder.
Kaoru shook her head. “No, it was absolutely beyond salvaging. But I – we – thought, that is – this is a new one. Since, it’s like – well, you wore it so much, we all sort of miss you without it,” she admitted, doing a credible job of controlling the level of pink in her cheeks. Kenshin blinked quickly.
Her colors, in a way. Her first gift to him. She knew how much it had meant to both of them when he wore her colors, the colors of home and acceptance and friendship and courage and so much more.
She slid to face him and laid the gi and hakama across his hands. “I know you can’t wear them just yet, but it’s a start, at least.” Her fingers brushed against his briefly as he felt the thick, familiar weight, stroking the crisp new fabric as it settled across his knees, unable to stop his smile.
When he raised his head to look at her, his eyes were shining bright.
“Arigato de gozaru, Kaoru-dono.”