The door slides open in the night. Not frequently enough to be expected or infrequently enough to be threatening, but enough to be familiar. Kenshin is awake before Yahiko makes the final decision to enter. The boy collapses on top of him, breath ragged from some nightmare, and Kenshin holds him close and safe. The boy is young, brave, and resilient, but he has lived through more than any child should have to. Kenshin holds him until he is cried out and drops back into sleep. Kenshin does not sleep again that night.
Megumi has thrown herself into her new role as Gensai-sensei’s assistant. It is admirable how she dedicates herself to alleviating suffering now that she is able to. Kenshin has protected a woman from a violent husband in the easiest way - by stepping into the blow meant for her - and Megumi spends more time cleaning and salving his wounds then is needed. Finally she stops, but she leans her forehead against his back and he hears her stifled tears. She feels every illness and injury and death as if it were her own personal failing; as he did when he first started wandering. Kenshin’s words of understanding will not change it, so all he can do is murmur his thanks for her care over and over until she can start to believe.
There is someone waiting in his room, and Kenshin hesitates before sliding the door open. Kaoru is there, hair piled on her head, her clothes arranged to show off the nape of her neck. He can’t help staring for a moment, but he can’t stay - not when she is so obviously uncomfortable. Her fingers grip his sleeve before he can start to shut the door, and this close he can see them tremble. Kaoru’s parents are dead, he remembers, her students ran before he arrived. She has been betrayed by one she trusted. He remembers her easy trust and when she ran to him at the riverbank to make sure he would return. He sits with his back to a wall, sword on the floor just within reach. She is still trembling when she clings to his arms, and he pretends not to notice the tears on his shoulder.
Sanosuke has already been drinking when Kenshin arrives at his room. He invites Kenshin in with too bright eyes and too brittle cheer and places a bottle in his hands so he won’t have to speak. Kenshin knows what the Sekihoutai meant to his friend and goes along with the pretense of normality. They drink, and Kenshin has his guard down enough that he’s surprised to suddenly be flat on his back with Sanosuke lying on top of him. The younger man is still silent, but his breathing is harsh and uneven. He is not a child and would not appreciate being held, so Kenshin keeps his arms spread out on the floor next to him. He is hot headed and would not hear words now, so Kenshin does not offer them. Instead, he concentrates - as much as he is able after drinking - on his own body. He closes his eyes and slows his breathing. Slow and deep, in and out. He purposely relaxes his muscles, accepting the weight of his friend.
Ayame and Suzume are very young, so they spend a lot of time at the dojo where they can be better monitored. It often falls to Kenshin, but he doesn’t mind. In the evening, when Gensai-sensei comes for them, the two men drink together. Tonight he watches with sad eyes as the girls chase each other around the yard. He had been unable to save their parents - his only son and his wife - and it eats at him. He is old, and what will happen to these girls who are his whole world? Kenshin refills their cups and tells stories about the girls’ day and all the people who love and teach them.
Kenshin returns from shopping to find the dojo strangely quiet. He muses while he puts everything away, then goes to the training room to see what’s wrong. Nothing, it turns out, when everyone greets him with good cheer and presents. He has been there a year, and since they don’t know his birthday they decided on another day to celebrate. He is not even able to enter before they start gathering around him. Ayame and Suzume hold out pictures they’ve drawn, clamoring for praise he is happy to give. Megumi slyly offers to help him with the scar cream she has made for him. He thanks her for it and smiles as Kaoru pushes her away in anger. She gives him clothes. He hasn’t had new clothes in years and it’s been even longer since someone else got them for him. She blushes when he stares in wonder, then runs off to cajole Yahiko. Sanosuke tosses him a jug, the promise of companionship later.
Kaoru pushes Yahiko forward and the boy holds out a wooden plaque like the ones in the dojo. Kaoru has been working on his reading and writing as well as his sword work and Yahiko has written Kenshin’s name in his very best handwriting. He shuffles anxiously while Kenshin stares, and then cries out when Kenshin falls to his knees. Kaoru kneels next to Kenshin and puts her arm around him. He turns to her, holding the plaque that announces he is part of the household, and doesn’t try to hide his tears.