Matters of the Heart
Early afternoon found Kenshin and Kaoru within the small village of Jouden. Sitting in the shade of a tall oak beside the path that led back to Hiko’s hut, Kenshin nibbled halfheartedly on the onigiri Fuyu-chan had given him when they’d first arrived and watched Kaoru with hooded eyes.
The visit to the village had not been their idea. Aiko-san could be very forceful when she wanted to be and it seemed after her excursion to the waterfall she had decided to remind them that the newly married couple still had quite a bit of explaining to do and had sent a message with his master saying as much.
A rueful smile touched his lips for a moment. Which was the reason why Kaoru was now firmly ensconced between two of the nosiest women in the village, Aiko being one of them. While another three busybodies were working the paddy next to them. It was obvious by their probing looks and smiles that even the three tending matrons were involved in the conversation he could clearly tell the blue-eyed, apprentice mage wished she wasn’t a part of. Several times she had shifted as if to rise then plucked at the blindfold that made it all but impossible to leave on her own.
A part of him felt guilty for abandoning her to the women as soon as they’d arrived but another, larger part was relieved by the distance it afforded him. Ever since the waterfall this morning he’d been on edge and nothing he’d done so far to calm himself seemed to work. It was as if a part of him had finally acknowledged what she had come to mean to him in the time they’d known each other and it wasn’t going to give in to his rational side.
“All right kid, out with it.”
Kenshin jumped as the gruff demand cut into his thoughts and he swung his attention to Hiko who now sat beside him against the large trunk and grimaced, ashamed at the ease with which his master had been able to sneak up on him. It had been years since the aged swordsman had been able to do that.
With a slight frown, Kenshin eyed him warily, “Out with what?”
Hiko snorted softly before giving him an infuriating grin. “You have been staring holes into Kaoru’s head for the last ten minutes. Why?”
Kenshin inwardly winced. Had he really been that obvious? Outwardly his face remained calm and he swallowed another sigh as he shifted his attention back to the villagers going about their daily chores. He should have expected it. His master had always been observant but he had hoped that this time he could keep his problems to himself.
“I’m just feeling a little guilty for abandoning her to Aiko-san.’” Kenshin replied smoothly glancing to where the handful of women were still talking. Not a lie exactly. Hopefully his master would accept that and not press for the truth. A faint snort came in answer in a tone Kenshin knew all too well. His weak excuse wasn’t cutting it.
“If you want her, fight for her this time.” Hiko stated bluntly. “Don’t let this one walk away.”
Kenshin stiffened minutely but kept his attention fixed on the raven haired mage across the way. He hadn’t expected his master to have figured that out already. “I can’t,” he murmured after a moment, forcing his hands to unclench. “When I deliver her to the manor she will disappear behind the shield and most likely never come out again.”
An almost palpable silence dropped into the space between them at that but he could feel the older swordsman’s glare drilling into his head.
Kaoru shifted uneasily and Kenshin smiled hollowly to himself. As much as he wished it wasn’t the truth the stark reality said otherwise. Kaoru had said as much herself two days ago. Not to mention Tomoe and Akira would likely keep her as close to them as they could after what had already happened.
“You don’t think you can protect her as well as that shield?” Hiko asked coldly, the ice frosting his tone cutting the silence to shreds. Kenshin stiffened even more at the sheer contempt dripping from the question but before he could reply Hiko continued. “You, who are all but a master of the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu and trained by the Yukishiro family themselves to battle mages of every caliber?”
Kenshin nearly flinched at the uncharacteristic rising of his master’s voice. Ignoring the startled looks a couple of villagers gave them, he turned stony eyes to the only father figure he’d ever known, “Whether I can protect her or not is irrelevant. If she stays with me she will face not only her own enemies but mine too. There are still rogue mages who hunt me because of the shogun’s incursions I participated in ten years ago. I will not risk her like that and neither will Tomoe-dono. For that matter I’ll be lucky if Tomoe doesn’t burn me to a crisp for even thinking about Kaoru in that way!”
For a long moment Hiko simply glared at him before he sighed disgustedly and shook his head. “Yukishiro-san has no say in what that girl decides she wants and you know it. That is only an excuse.” Without another word the elder swordsman rose and, stiff backed, headed up the path towards home.
Kenshin watched him go with a frown. It was an excuse but one he would hold to no matter how hard it became.
Across the well traveled path from where Kenshin sat, Kaoru was absently picking at the sleeve of the dark blue gi he had loaned her and tried to ignore the incessant itch tingling between her shoulders blades. Someone was staring at her and it was starting to get on her nerves. It didn’t help that she was once again blindfolded so she couldn’t even look over her shoulder to see who it was.
“You say you and Kenshin have been married for six months?” Midori, Meguro-san’s wife asked from where she sat to Kaoru‘s left. A quick dip of Kaoru’s head affirmed the lie she and Kenshin had come up with and the elderly woman suddenly exclaimed, “Then why aren’t you heavy with child yet?”
Stunned, Kaoru stiffened and nearly choked on thin air as her cheeks flamed bright red in mortification but before she could even gather breath for a reply Midori sniffed and continued, “He’s not getting any younger you know, it’s about time he settled down with a family.” A faint breeze wafted past Kaoru’s cheek. “Wandering is no way for a young couple to live.”
“Neither of us are ready for children yet!” Kaoru retorted hotly when she finally found her voice. Children! What was the woman thinking! What had they been thinking when they’d start this lie in the first place! She didn’t know how much longer she could handle this questioning. They had already hit her with how she and Kenshin had met, what Kenshin had done to catch her attention, how he had asked her to be his wife and several more… probing questions she still blushed to think about. Midori-san had joined them late in the conversation/interrogation so thankfully she had missed those questions but still… children?…!
“You may not be ready but Kenshin has been for years now.“ Aiko replied into the hush that had fallen. “He has always loved children. We all thought he and Tomoe-san would be married and have a brood by now but things didn‘t quite work out for them.”
An icy chill swept through Kaoru. Her fault. No matter how she looked at it, it was her fault they had been separated. With a small frown she shook it off the best she could. Ignoring the tiny twinge of jealousy pinching her chest she asked, “Were they really that close?“
A soft sigh came from somewhere in front of her and one of the women in the field, Yuka if she wasn’t mistaken, replied, “They were inseparable from the time they were ten until Tomoe-chan stopped coming to the village at fifteen. Three years later we heard she had married another and Kenshin left the village to wander and hasn’t stopped since.”
Kaoru felt as if she’d been punched in the gut. She nearly jumped when a weathered hand suddenly patted her wrist.
“Don’t worry dear. He is nothing more than friends with that young woman and her husband now.” Aiko consoled gently. “He wouldn’t have married you if he didn’t love you.”
Kaoru tried to smile but she had a feeling it ended up being more of a grimace. This lie was going to kill her yet, or at the very least twist her heart into a bloody mess. A soundless sigh spilled from her lips, she really was an idiot for letting herself fall for him. There was no way he could love her back, it just wasn‘t possible. Not after what she’d done. Even if she had only been five years old at the time and unaware of what her mentor was giving up for her.
Another pat came and Aiko whispered, “Your husband is coming to fetch you. I believe he and Hiko-san just had words.”
Surprised, Kaoru was just about to ask what they had to argue about when she felt a presence drop down behind her and then a hand gently grasped her elbow, urging her to rise.
“If you will excuse me I’d like to take Kaoru home now.” Kenshin said in a flat voice. Kaoru flinched at the tone and let him guide her to her feet. Murmured assents came from the women surrounding her and Kaoru dipped her head in their general direction in goodbye before he led her away. Once he’d guided her onto the path leading to Hiko’s hut she hesitantly asked, “Is everything okay?”
For a brief moment Kenshin’s grip tightened and then with a soft ‘yes’ he released her elbow and threaded her arm through his as if it was the most natural thing to do. Kaoru swallowed as warmth flooded through her chest and she lifted her face in his direction with a frown. Something was bothering him, she could tell even with the blindfold on.
“No it isn’t,” Kaoru replied before she could stop herself. “What did you and Hiko-san argue about?” She knew it was really none of her business but after the interrogation she’d just had to endure she didn’t really care; her good humor was all but gone.
Kenshin stiffened but remained quiet which managed to irritate her even more. For kami’s sake she had to live with them until she and Kenshin left, she deserved to know what was going on between the two!
The redhead must have sensed her growing irritation because he finally murmured, “It’s nothing.”
Kaoru nearly growled and without a thought for what she was doing, she tugged the ribbon from her eyes and winced as bright light suddenly invaded her pupils. Quickly blinking away the spots dancing through her vision she slanted a glare at Kenshin. The calm smile he met her with did nothing to alleviate her aggravation and she narrowed her eyes suspiciously. He was hiding something. What could it be that he didn’t want to share with her? Granted they weren’t all that close but still, she thought they had at least become friends.
And then it dawned on her as they turned a bend towards the hut. Maybe he’d had a conversation like the one she’d just had. Hiko-san knew Kenshin and Tomoe’s past and her own with Tomoe. Did he blame their separation on her too? That thought was enough to dampen her anger and she grimaced as something in her chest twisted painfully.
“I’m sorry,” she said suddenly, giving her attention back to the path.
Kenshin stiffened again and she almost stumbled when he pulled her to a stop. “For what?” he asked clearly taken aback and, if she wasn’t mistaken, a touch angry.
Kaoru glanced into his violet eyes and with a shrug gave him a weak smile. “For taking Tomoe-sama away from you.”
The look of surprise that flew across his face almost made her smile for real but the look was soon lost under a hard one that she’d never seen on the redhead before. “Is that what those women told you?” he snapped angrily.
Kaoru jerked at the steel in his voice but before she could reply he sighed heavily and shook his head. “You did not take her away from me, Kaoru. She made her choice. I stood behind her decision then and I still do now.”
Kaoru frowned. “Then why did you leave the village as soon as you heard Tomoe-sama had married Akira-san?”
Kenshin gave her a sad smile. “I didn’t leave because of that,” he replied as he started them up the path again. “I was relieved when they married. I knew Akira would take care of her, that she had made the right choice, so I decided it was time for me to make my own way in the world and I did.”
Kaoru scowled to herself and eyed him askance for a long moment hoping for some clue that he was still holding back. But there was nothing. His face was as calm as it had been earlier. With a soft sigh she stomped down the part of her that still wanted to disagree, and let the conversation drop. At least it didn’t seem like he held it against her, which she was grateful for.
Maybe there really was still a chance for her to become more to him than just Tomoe‘s charge.
Six miles south of Jouden, Tomoe and the others were quickly but cautiously making their way through a thick stand of trees. Not a twig or leaf stirred in their passage but Tomoe knew all their efforts to remain unnoticed were for naught because according to Akira, Kanryuu and his companion hadn’t moved for nearly an hour. Which meant the black mage knew they were coming and had chosen his ground to wait for them.
Her stomach curled at the thought and she strengthened the well of power she’d been holding for the last twenty minutes. The fact that he had stopped proved that whoever was with him was someone to be reckoned with. Kanryuu himself would never had faced the four of them alone or even with a single rogue. Which made her start to believe that maybe Akira was right.
She wasn’t the only one who felt that way either. All of them had summoned as much power as they could hold and were eyeing the shadows waiting for Takeda to show his face. The black mage had never been one for an open fight and she doubted he would be this time either, with a god on his side or not.
Another tense mile passed beneath their feet and Tomoe was starting to think Kanryuu had moved on after all when Akira leaned into her ear and murmured, “They are just ahead.”
She tensed and nodded in understanding. They had only gone another five yards more when the trees unexpectedly gave way to a small, sunlit grassy meadow. Her momentum carried her several paces into the clearing before she could stop and Tomoe sensed the danger immediately but she knew it was too late. They had stumbled into a trap.
A sudden shower of jagged lightning bolts rained down from the clear blue sky and slammed into the ground a mere three feet from where the four of them had stopped, ripping the meadow to shreds. A cry ripped from Tomoe’s throat as the force of the strike tore the ground out from under her feet and she was thrown backwards into Shougo, tumbling them both to the ground.
For a moment the world seemed to spin out of control and Tomoe had the sick feeling that she was still tumbling through the air. Gritting her teeth, she quickly shook it off and bounded to her feet as fast as she could to find Akira and Hachiro already up and poised to strike, both nearly vibrating with the amount of power they held.
“I can’t tell where he is anymore.” Akira grated under his breath. “The entire area is flooded with power.”
An icy chill swept through Tomoe and with barely a thought she surrounded all four of them with the strongest shield she could erect. It was nowhere near as strong as one of Sayo’s but it was the best she could do.
In the next instant the shield was put to the test when the world around them suddenly flared to life in a white hot firestorm, the inferno so intense that the swaying grass outside the shield instantly exploded into ash. Ignoring the beads of sweat coating her face, she held the barrier in a death grip determined not to let the black mage win. A faint groan ripped from her throat as another source of power suddenly started striking the flimsy shield again and again, the force of it creating tiny tears she couldn‘t repair.
“I c-can’t hold i-it much longer…” She managed to get out between clenched teeth. The fine tendrils of raw power assaulting her through the tears was almost enough to bring her to her knees. If she didn’t let go soon the backlash of her own power along with the force pressing against it would kill her.
A tiny nod of understanding came from the two men she could see and with a single word she released it but not before sending out her own surprise along the path of origin of the elemental fire Takeda had forgotten to obliterate. She would have smiled if she wasn’t so exhausted at the sudden howl of agony that came from somewhere off to their left. The firestorm immediately vanished with the sound, leaving nothing but the overwhelming stench of burned earth. A sudden roar tore the silence to shreds and a huge male tiger bounded past her across what was left of the field and into the trees where the howl had come from with Shougo right on its heels. Hachiro followed a heartbeat later leaving her and Akira alone in the remains of the meadow.
Akira moved in front of her as more lightning bolts danced amidst the trees Shougo and Hachiro had disappeared into, the strikes shaking the ground under their feet.
“Are you okay?” He asked in a tight voice over his shoulder.
Tomoe nodded at his back but couldn’t find the energy to voice her answer. She felt like she’d been beaten from head to toe with a stout club, her knees were shaking and it took everything she had just to remain standing but she’d never tell him that. He’d try to send her away and she wasn’t going anywhere with a god somewhere out there among the trees.
“Maybe you sho - “
Akira was suddenly cut off when a blood curdling roar of pain erupted from where the others had disappeared and then a body suddenly hurtled past them to slam into the ground a handful of feet away. Tomoe paled and swallowed back the bile rising in her throat at the sight of the fist size smoking hole in Hachiro’s chest, his eyes staring sightlessly at the cloudless sky.
Wrenching her eyes away from the Sanada, she turned as the sound of movement came from where Hachiro had been hurled and she went completely white as Takeda and another, taller man who virtually glowed with barely contained power calmly walked out of the shelter of the trees. A body slung carelessly over the white haired man’s shoulder.
Tomoe’s stomach rolled and she almost lost the battle to keep her meager breakfast where it belonged. Was he dead?
“Those two weren’t worth the fight.” Kanryuu remarked callously when the pair reached them. The other man shook off Shougo as if he was nothing more than a sack of rice and the mage fell to the ground in a boneless heap. Tomoe almost winced at the sight of his tattered chest. He too had a fist sized hole drilled into his flesh but where Hachiro’s was directly over his heart, Shougo’s was more to the right as if the strike had been deflected at the last minute.
Heartened by the sight, she quickly searched him for some sign of life and was relieved to see his battered chest move ever so slightly with a shaky breath. He was alive… for now. An injury like that had to be taken care of quickly or he wasn’t going to survive.
Which meant they had to finish this now.
Tomoe swallowed and dug up the last of her reserves as she turned her attention back to the pair standing in front of Akira and stepped around her husband so she could face them head on.
And immediately felt the world drop out from underneath her feet when she got her first really good look at the face of the man Akira had claimed to be god. Before this she had only seen him from afar or through Azrael’s eyes so she hadn’t noticed. But now, seeing him here barely three feet away from her, there was no mistaking him, even aged and white haired as he was now she could still see the little brother she had thought lost all those years ago.
The name whispered from between her lips before she could stop herself and the man turned his full attention on her as Kanryuu laughed.
“So you do recognize him.” The black mage said with a grin. “I didn’t think you would after all the changes he has undergone. But I suppose he does look quite a bit like his father doesn’t he?”
Tomoe swallowed thickly, ignoring the jab and simply stared at the man. It was true, he did look like their father but what had caught her attention the most was that he still had their mother’s eyes, even red as they were now. It had been the one defining trait everyone had noticed when he was a child.
“How?” She managed to croak around the lump in her throat.
Kanryuu gave her an oily smile. “I was with the band who killed your family. Your parents were easy enough to kill but your brother refused to die even when he was on the brink so I took him for… re-education instead.”
The callous remark hit Tomoe like a fist and she summoned what power she could handle in her weakened state, ready to strike the black mage in any way she could when Kanryuu turned a grin on Enishi and added, “He came in handy when I finally found Suzaku too.”
The name stopped her dead in her tracks and she shivered violently as the spell she’d been preparing fell to pieces. The implication was clear but Tomoe turned widened eyes on her brother and desperately searched for some sign that it wasn’t true. But there was nothing. Akira was right, this person wasn’t even human anymore. This wasn’t Enishi, it was something else. Suzaku if Kanryuu was telling the truth. The creature of legend who was believed to have been the birth of fire magic centuries ago.
Tomoe swallowed thickly as tears burned her eyes and she instinctively strengthened the well of power within her until it burned like hot cinders just beneath her skin. He was not Enishi, that much was painfully obvious. He brother was gone beyond her reach again and for some reason that simply truth hurt a hundred times more than it had thirteen years ago when she’d lost him the first time.
Gathering herself as best she could she finally noticed Akira virtually humming with barely contained power and she laid a restraining hand on his arm to keep him from striking. If this was Suzaku they didn’t stand a chance, especially being fire users. Her husband stiffened but still continued to eye the creature wearing Enishi’s face.
Turning her attention on him herself she asked, “If you are what he says you are, how did you survive the purge?”
“The Ancients didn’t know that he alone has the ability to partially regenerate over time unless every last fiber of his being is destroyed.“ Kanryuu replied instead. “Ryujin knew and told me to find him.”
The creature smiled at that. “My brother will not be bound much longer.“ He replied in a deep, sonorous voice that reverberated through her entire being. “Soon the mahou tsukai and the host will be in our hands.”
Startled by what Kanryuu had implied Tomoe froze at the creature’s words. Akira stiffened into a rock under her hand.
Turning wide, frightened eyes on Kanryuu she shook her head. That’s… impossible. The seal has remained undisturbed for a thousand years. There was no way a host could have been created!
“How?” She murmured sickly.
Kanryuu smirked, “Ryujin has weakened the seal enough on his side to touch the world. He can speak to or touch anyone standing before the smooth stone face of his prison.” A sly look came into the black mage’s eyes. “He knew when you visited last. He hopes you come again. This time he will not be so… restrained.”
An icy shiver of dread vibrated through her entire body as everything fell into place. Suzaku. The host. And Kaoru, the only person in the world who could break open the seal. Together they could free Ryujin.
Before she even knew what she was doing Tomoe focused everything she had into her right arm and took a step towards the two men to strike. She wouldn’t let that happen. She couldn’t let that happen! Not to Kaoru!
She got no further than that though when Akira suddenly shot past her and flung himself at Suzaku; his body radiating raw power in one of the most destructive spells they knew.
Tomoe threw her arms up to shield her face just in time and staggered a couple of steps back as the concussion of the blast rocked the earth beneath her feet. Recovering as fast as she could, she cried out when she saw Akira, his skin and clothes blackened and tattered, crumble to the ground in front of the unharmed god.
In the next instant a crushing blow struck her dead in the chest and blood sprayed from her mouth as she stumbled backwards and fell to her knees. No sooner did she hit the ground then a hand fisted in her hair and wrenched her head back so she was forced to look into Kanryuu’s face.
“Ryuijin will be freed and I will be a god!” The black mage snarled angrily. His eyes blazed with insane fury and Tomoe saw her death clearly written in their black depths. “I will not let you stop me!”
She winced as he wrenched her head back even more and she instinctively called forth every ounce of power she could handle again to strike at him but stopped when she realized that even if she did succeed against Kanryuu it would still leave Suzaku. Kaoru would still be in danger with no idea what was coming for her. Takeda sneered at her hesitation and she saw him lift his free hand as if to strike and Tomoe did the only thing she could think of. She used the power swimming beneath her skin and silently activated the teleporting spell.
She knew even as she felt the sickening feeling that marked the beginning of the shift that this could very well kill her in the state she was in. But if she was going to die she would rather do it warning Kaoru than here where her death would be for nothing.
A heartbeat later the world turned itself inside out and Tomoe silently screamed at the excruciating pain suddenly tearing through her body and scalp. However as quickly as it had come the pain vanished and Tomoe felt herself crash into the unforgiving ground.
A groan escaped her throat as she rolled off her side onto her back and she simply laid there wondering if she’d made it. She was alive that much she knew, at least for the moment, but it wouldn’t matter if she hadn’t reached Jouden.
“Tomoe-sama!“ A familiar voice suddenly cried out frantically and she would have smiled if she’d had the strength to. She had made it. A harsh scuffling sound quickly followed and Tomoe forced her eyes open as her upper body was lifted and cradled.
She did smile weakly when she met the frightened blue eyes Kaoru had fixed on her. “Tomoe-sama, what -”
With the last of her energy Tomoe shook her head, cutting Kaoru off and glanced behind her to where Kenshin was watching just as worriedly at her shoulder.
The word came out as more of a sigh but Kenshin heard and he stiffened for a split second, searching her eyes for the reason like she knew he would, before he nodded in understanding and laid a hand on Kaoru’s shoulder.
She would be safe from any and all who came looking for her.
Tomoe smiled at his silent reassurance and finally gave up the fight to remain conscious. Her eyes slip closed of their own accord as wave of darkness quickly swept her under with Kaoru’s frantic cries following her into oblivion.