Kenshin’s first wife.
The man that had threatened her son was dead.
Kaoru was so overcome with such a variety of emotions and accompanying ideas that trying to get hold of herself took most of her attention, and she didn’t mark what was going on in the room for several moments. Since she was unable in any case to detect her husband’s presence or hear his contributions to the conversation, it could be no surprise that she didn’t take much trouble to try to follow the latter once she had so much to think about.
But now Sano was approaching where she sat on the couch, and something had changed.
Little as she had wanted to believe these men, a combination of logic and intuition had dictated that she must… but there’d always been a part of her that had treated this as a sort of sick game she was playing to distract herself, and that wouldn’t have been surprised to find the whole thing an elaborate hoax (though it would simultaneously have been interested to discover what benefit the perpetrators could possibly derive from such a deception). Overall, though, she’d been taking this very seriously.
She hadn’t been at all prepared for certainty, though.
When Sano dropped to his knees in front of her and said, “My lady,” it didn’t matter that it was possible he was just a really good actor that had somehow found out the nickname her husband used to call her in private, and it didn’t matter that she barely knew Sano at all — she was certain, instantly freed from any doubt, that this was not Sano. The inflection of those two words, the expression on his face, especially the eyes — though nothing was physically altered, and though anyone that did know Sano would easily have recognized him, still everything had changed.
And that certainty burned away her tears, eradicated her discomposure, and left her with only the adrenaline calm of emergency. There was no time to waste dithering now.
“Kenshin,” she said.
He took her hands. “It is difficult to begin a conversation I know has to end with me leaving you, but I had to talk to you one more time.”
She didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t ask him not to go, though that was the desire of her heart; and the painful joy of talking to him again, of being granted this chance, this goodbye, was too great for expression.
“I would have told you about Tomoe, my first wife,” he went on. “That was not something I planned on hiding from you forever.”
That he was apologizing to her seemed farcical, under the circumstances, and she shook her head. This wasn’t how she’d envisioned a conversation like this going.
“And I want you to know that the reason I didn’t tell you was not that I didn’t trust you or didn’t want to share myself with you. It was because…” He too shook his head.
Even with as few words as he’d spoken thus far, Kaoru had already mostly lost track of the fact that it was actually Sano’s voice saying them, Sano’s head being shaken, Sano’s hands clasping hers. In a sense not precisely visual or aural but very definitely real, Sano had mostly melted away. It was like forgetting about the device she held during an intense phone conversation; the means of connection was irrelevant in the face of that connection.
“After my reckless driving killed Tomoe,” Kenshin finally went on, “I felt like a murderer. For the next few years, every time I looked in the mirror and saw the scars from that accident, I hated myself as much as Tomoe’s brother ever could hate me. But then I met you, and you looked at my scars and said, ‘Anyone who doesn’t think scars are beautiful has never survived any pain of their own and become stronger because of it.'”
Kaoru laughed weakly along with her husband as he added, “And I know you got that line from a movie, but what mattered to me was that you meant it. You always saw the good I could become and never worried about what I was before. You made me feel like it was all right to go on living and enjoying life even after what I had done. And I felt like I had to do whatever I could to leave behind the person I once was and try every single day to be more worthy of somehow having found love a second time.”
“I never thought you–” Kaoru paused with a faint smile and corrected herself. “I never would have thought you weren’t worthy of that. You’re a wonderful person, Kenshin — a good, great, kind, thoughtful, wonderful person.”
For her smile he returned that one of his that was so beautifully mellow and yet, as it often had been in life, faintly sad. “Thank you. You were always making me feel like that, like I could be better. I was more and more at peace with myself the longer I spent with you, and I decided that as soon as I reached a point where the past no longer hurt quite so much, I would tell you all about Tomoe and how much you had changed me. It was no secret, just… something I wasn’t quite ready to share yet.”
“I never worried about the things you didn’t tell me,” she assured him seriously. “I always knew you had your reasons. I’ve never not trusted you.”
“Then right now,” he replied just as seriously, “I need you to trust me one last time. You were not the one who killed me.”
She let out a breath that was almost another sob as the conversation shifted so abruptly from what Kenshin felt she might blame him for to just the opposite.
She could still feel the weight of the gun; she’d felt it every night in her dreams for months, and doubted it would ever really leave her hand. She could still remember with sickening precision the sight of him jerking and falling, and the ocean of self-loathing that had swept over her at that moment, soaked deep into her until she was saturated.
“There is no part of me that even begins to blame you for what you were forced to do. You protected Kenji; how could I possibly blame you for that? Don’t you think that, if I had known what was going on, I would still have gone down that alley and let it happen to keep you both safe?”
That was an angle from which she hadn’t considered things. Kenshin hadn’t had any choice in the matter, had been an unsuspecting and unprepared victim, but she’d never thought about what his choice might have been if he’d been offered one. Of course the fact that Kenshin would gladly lay down his life for his son did not change the fact that she’d taken his life without warning or consultation… but if the positions had been reversed… there was no question that she would unquestionably consent to die rather than see her son harmed.
Perhaps he recognized that, while this point had not been unproductive, it couldn’t really alter a state of mind, a depression of spirit, that was by now so deeply ingrained. He’d always excelled at detecting what she was thinking and feeling — which had undoubtedly made his inability to do so (or at least to make sense of what he saw) while she was being threatened all the more confusing and painful for him — and he must see now that the best he could do here was attempt to put her on the path to self-forgiveness and recovery. Unfortunately, Kaoru wasn’t sure that was a path her feet could ever find.
He probably recognized that doubt too, for he said in a tone of urgent sorrow and supplication, “Please, Kaoru. I know what it feels like to take everything away from someone you love. I know what murder feels like.”
Finally she managed to speak, to break in before he could come to his point. “But you only said ‘reckless driving!’ That’s not murder; that’s just a stupid mistake!”
“Just as much murder as killing someone to protect your son,” said Kenshin quietly. “I was reckless; you were afraid. Both of us might have had a different choice, but in the end, for both of us, someone still died. So I know how it feels. I know how it feels to blame yourself, and wonder what you could have done differently — and then blame yourself even more for not doing it differently — and to think about how the one person you might be able to talk this out with — the one person who could comfort you, the person you miss more than anything in the world, so much it physically hurts — that person is not there to talk it out with you because of something you did. I know how much it hurts, and how hopeless it is, and how tempted you are just to kill yourself and get rid of it all.
“I know how all that is, and I am begging you: let it go.”
She didn’t want to appear to be making light of such a serious subject, and she believed Kenshin would know that she really wasn’t, but she couldn’t help laughing a little, wretchedly, at the simplicity of his advice. “You said you couldn’t do that until–”
“Until I met someone stronger than I was,” he interrupted intensely. “And if there is anyone in the world I believe can recover from something like this all on her own, it’s you.”
Again she gave a miserable little laugh, both painfully touched at his opinion of her and continually daunted by the seeming impossibility of what he wanted her to do.
Hearing this, his smile took on an even more regretful look as he added pragmatically, “Though I think some therapy might help too.”
Now she laughed more straightforwardly, though there was still a bitter edge to it at the idea of attempting to get any therapist anywhere to believe what she’d been through.
“I hope you will do whatever you have to to be happy again,” he went on. “All you ever did during our time together was make me happy; I can’t stand to leave knowing that you can’t be happy yourself.”
Throughout this whole conversation, something huge and heavy had been building inside Kaoru, contributing to her constriction of throat and becoming steadily more painful. Now, at the word ‘leave’ she realized what it was: the awareness, increasingly sharp and unignorable, that he really had to leave, that these really were their last few moments together until… she didn’t know when or how or even if they would meet again. She supposed he didn’t either.
“I… I’ll try…” she choked out, and the panic that was growing along with the awareness sounded in her voice. “But, Kenshin, I–” She couldn’t stop his going; she couldn’t take back what had been done even if she did manage to stop blaming herself for it. So what was there to say? That she couldn’t continue without him? Perhaps she did feel like that at the moment, to some extent, but she simply couldn’t throw his statement of faith in her strength back in his face. So in the end there was nothing to say but, “I love you so much.”
“And I love you,” was his passionately quick reply, “more than I can even tell you. I have no words for how much I love you and how much you changed my life. But if I know you will try to be happy, I can go to wherever I’m supposed to go now and…” Gently releasing her hands, he spread his and smiled. “And rest in peace.”
As he stood, Sano’s height a brief but quickly-forgotten reminder that the body, at least, was not actually Kenshin’s, Kaoru felt the panic take hold of her so firmly that she couldn’t say a word as she too jumped unsteadily to her feet.
“I feel it pulling me again,” Kenshin said, looking briefly up and over his shoulder. “I wish I could say goodbye to Kenji, but there’s no time.”
Desperately she managed to say his name, but no more.
He shook his head. “I am sorry. I would never leave you or Kenji if had the choice, but Enishi did not give me that choice. Please tell Kenji how much his daddy loves him, always. I know he will be a good person, with you raising him.”
She flew at him, gripping, crushing, clutching as if somehow she could manually hold him in the world, keep him with her. And it didn’t matter that the height was off and incorrectly-shaped arms pulled her against an unfamiliar chest; she was embracing her husband, the man she’d fallen in love with and never stopped loving, the father of her child, the source of both the greatest happiness and the greatest pain she’d ever known, for the last time.
Gently he pushed her from him after only a moment — not long enough, not nearly long enough, but his strength was irresistible. “Thank you for everything you have done for me,” he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper, even as he backed slowly away from her. “And goodbye.”
Teeth gritted, breaths hissing through them in sobbing gasps, she tried to detect some sign of his actual departure, but there was none. Kenshin was gone. There was only Sano, whose face smoothed from Kenshin’s expression into blankness and whose frame shuddered and went limp as, his eyes drifting closed, he pitched forward toward the floor.