The following morning dawned grey, the weak light doing little to illuminate the small, dilapidated hut. Sitting in the shadows against the wall, Kaoru stifled a yawn behind her hand and glanced to Kenshin where he slept propped up in the corner of the room with his sheathed katana resting against his shoulder. He had asked her to wake him as soon as the sun rose but she couldn’t bring herself to disturb him. It had been, at most, two hours since he‘d awoken her to stand watch while he took his turn sleeping. Two hours. Who could run on only two hours of sleep?
She clenched her teeth against another yawn and turned her attention to the small pack Kenshin had brought. She’d give him a few more minutes while she searched for something for breakfast. Maybe there was some of those rice balls left. Her belly grumbled at the thought and she frowned when a quick search yielded nothing. Without thinking she upended the bag and nearly yelped in surprise as her wakizashi clattered loudly to the floor. The rest of the contents immediately followed and several more items hidden in their spare clothes clinked to the floor, scattering in every direction.
Kaoru winced at the noise and was just about to glance at Kenshin to see if she’d woken him when she felt icy cold steel suddenly press tight against the side of her neck. A faint gasp of pain escaped her throat as the blade bit into her skin and she froze, afraid to so much as breathe. What the..?!
A heartbeat later a hiss whispered into the quiet and the blade immediately moved away.
“I’m sorry.” Kenshin murmured from behind her.
The soft rasping of the katana being sheathed soon followed but Kaoru barely heard it over the thundering of her heart. Pressing a hand to the cut she scowled blackly. He was… sorry?!
With an inaudible growl she rounded on him ready to give him a tongue lashing he’d never forget but the words died in her throat when she saw the look of shame and horror darkening his eyes. He looked like he had just killed his best friend.
Anger forgotten Kaoru reached out with her bloodied hand. “It’s okay. It’s not serious.”
Kenshin simply stared at her for a long moment before he shifted his eyes to her red smudged palm. He moved forward and used his sleeve to wipe the blood away. “Do not forgive me so easily. I could have killed you.”
Kaoru snorted as Kenshin released her hand and reached around her to gather something from the bag‘s contents. “Do you think I’m that defenseless?” she asked raising her cleaned hand that now glowed slightly with a touch of electricity.
Looking unimpressed Kenshin simply shook his head and sat back with a small roll of white cloth. “No, but you would have been dead before you could summon that.”
Kaoru scowled at him but before she could reply he leaned forward with a length of cloth between his hands and Kaoru instinctively leaned back away from him. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to wrap the wound. It‘s the least I can do.” Kenshin replied as he guided the length behind her head and started to gently wrap the soft cloth around her neck, covering the still bleeding cut.
Kaoru suddenly found it very hard to breathe as Kenshin’s actions brought him in close enough for her to smell the faint hint of sandalwood still clinging to his skin. With effort she forced her attention over his shoulder but found it drawn back against her will. He was so close. Close enough that she could feel his warm breath on her cheek. Close enough that all she had to do was turn her head a little and lean forward to press her lips against his. Her cheeks flushed at the thought and she forced her attention to the wall again. Entertaining those thoughts could be dangerous, especially when he was this close.
However it only took a moment or two for her attention to drift back to the red head and she was surprised to find him even closer than he had been before. All she had to do now was turn her head and she’d catch the corner of his mouth.
And much to her horror that’s exactly what her traitorous body did.
It happened so fast that she didn’t even realize what she was doing until she felt his warm flesh beneath her lips. Kenshin froze at the touch and Kaoru felt her cheeks flame to life as she threw herself back. She didn’t get very far though because Kenshin caught her head and she found herself suddenly pinned to the spot by a probing, butterfly inducing look she couldn’t quite name. Kaoru swallowed thickly in an attempt to wet her suddenly dry mouth. Maybe she should say she was sorry. She hadn’t really meant to do it, not like that!
But the decision was taken out of her hands a moment later when Kenshin leaned forward and captured her lips in a soft kiss.
Kaoru gasped softly as warmth flooded her body and she stiffened, too stunned to do anything but stare at the red hair filling her vision. The kiss only lasted a heartbeat or two and before she could even think of responding Kenshin pulled back and released her.
“We should go.” He murmured as he turned back to the items strewn across the floor.
Kaoru’s mouth dropped open in surprise and she stared at him in silence as he started repacking the bag. Did she just dream that? She pinched herself to see if she was sleeping and winced at the pain. “What -”
She was cut off when Kenshin handed her the sheathed wakizashi, “You may need this.”
Mouth still slightly agape Kaoru accepted the blade numbly and Kenshin returned to what he was doing without another word. Now more irritated than surprised Kaoru grabbed his ponytail and gave it a healthy yank to get his attention.
“What just happened?” She asked when he gave her a startled look.
Kenshin smiled. “I kissed you,” he replied turning back to the fallen items.
Kaoru yanked his hair again. “Why?”
Kenshin placed the last item in the bag then turned to her and gently extricated his ponytail from her hand. “Because I wanted to.” With a smile he rose and tossed the refilled bag over his shoulder. “We really should go before someone finds us.”
The gentle reminder of the gravity of their situation was enough to douse the warm feeling his words had created. That wasn’t a good enough answer and he knew it but he was right, they really needed to get back on the road. With a sigh she let it drop and rose to follow as Kenshin collected his katana and silently made his way to the wide open door. The redhead paused in the shadows at the edge of the opening and peered out, checking the yard beyond. Kaoru pressed her back to the wall beside him and let her eyes drift over the room to see if they’d forgotten anything. As far as she could tell the heavily shadowed room was empty save for the scuff marks they had left in the dirt. She frowned. If anyone saw those they’d know someone had been here.
Without thinking she called a small tendril of air and gently swept the tracks away. There. Now no one would know.
A moment later Kenshin turned to her. “It’s safe.”
Kaoru dipped her head in understanding and stepping out into the grey morning behind him to head for the woods close by. Once inside the thick canopy of tree limbs he murmured, “We will head south now. The sooner we reach the manor the better.”
Kaoru’s heart sank but she nodded anyway and reluctantly followed as he led the way further into the trees. She really didn’t want to go home, especially not now.
Several miles north of the abandoned hut Kanryuu and Suzaku made their way south as the sun continued to rise behind the thick blanket of clouds. It had taken them over half the night to find a ford shallow enough for the two of them to cross which had put Suzaku in a black mood. Worse actually.
Kanryuu, sensing the god’s volatile temper, wisely kept his distance on the small overgrown track they were following. But the worst part of it all was that they had lost the girl. She had not used magic again since the river which meant they had to wait until they found their crossing point before they could start tracking again. A faint scowl touched his lips. If only she would use just a small amount. Then they would have her.
Kanryuu found himself pulled from his thoughts when Suzaku suddenly stopped and stiffened. A sudden surge of hope flared to life in his chest. Did she…?
“They are ahead of us.” Suzaku stated triumphantly.
Kanryuu smiled. “Is she still holding?”
Suzaku slid an eye to him and with a malicious grin murmured, “No, but she has left an imprint that is closer to us than the river. We will reach the mark and track them from there.”
Kanryuu grinned himself but said nothing as Suzaku started down the track again at a quicker pace. Finally, it was all coming together.
Just outside the village of Jouden, Tomoe sat obediently beside a still sleeping Akira while Megumi worked to heal her broken ribs. The grey clouds outside seemed to rest on the tall trees surrounding Hiko‘s hut, as if they would push them into the ground, mirroring Tomoe‘s mood. She had been restless the entire night. What little bit of sleep she’d managed to get had been filled with nightmares. Horrors she knew could and would happen should Kanryuu and his pet god succeed.
“There,” Megumi stated with a smile as she settled back. “Done!”
Tomoe gingerly hugged herself and sighed in relief at the absence of pain in her chest. It had taken Megumi all night to regain enough strength to heal her ribs. Time she had been unhappy to lose but knew had been necessary.
“Thank you.” Tomoe murmured sincerely as she rose.
Megumi waved a hand at her. “No thanks are needed just go find Kaoru before Takeda does.” Megumi’s shoulders drooped slightly and she smiled sadly, “She’s going to be crushed isn’t she?”
Tomoe exhaled tiredly as she righted her under kimono. “Yes, I think she will be, but there is nothing to be done now. It’s too late.” They both knew Kaoru well enough to know she couldn’t have been with Kenshin this long without feeling something towards him. Tomoe had known that when she’d set them together and had even hoped for what she now feared.
“It will be all right.” Megumi said soothingly. “If she can’t do it one of us will.”
Tomoe shook her head. “We can‘t. It has to be Kaoru, she is the only one who can kill the piece of Ryujin Kenshin is carrying. The host will not die unless that is destroyed and she is the only one who can wield all the elements. It will take a spell that uses them all to do what needs to be done.”
The stricken look that passed over Megumi’s face mirrored Tomoe’s heart but she refused to let it show. She couldn’t worry about what the deed would do to Kaoru, it had to be done no matter the consequences. Ryujin could not be released!
“I should go.” She murmured into the quiet that had fallen. “We don’t even know if Takeda has found them yet.”
Megumi smiled half-heartedly. “Then go. I’ll wait for Akira to wake, then we will follow.”
Tomoe dipped her head and with one last look to her husband slid the door back and stepped out into the grey morning. Hiko sat on the porch to her left, with his blade resting across his knees.
“Do not kill him yet.” The master swordsman demanded without looking at her. “He deserves to have family witness his death. I will come when you decide to move against him.”
Tomoe smiled hollowly, “I will let you know.”
A simple nod was her only answer. Tomoe stepped from the porch and turned her attention to searching for the pendant Kenshin and Kaoru carried with them. It didn’t take her long to feel the weakened pulse of the silver wings somewhere off to the north. Pinpointing its exact position Tomoe summoned the necessary amount of energy and silently activated the teleporting spell, aiming for a landing a quarter of a mile east of the location.
The familiar sickness that accompanied the shift tightened her stomach for a brief moment before the world turned itself inside out. A heartbeat later she landed in a small clearing surrounded by trees and immediately called fire to her hands. A quick search of the glade showed she was alone save for a chittering squirrel and she relaxed as she headed into the trees, aiming west. The pendant still pulsed where she had first sensed it.
It wasn’t until she had gone several yards into the woods that she realized that the pendant wasn’t moving like it should be. Kenshin would have been on the road by first light or an hour after at the latest. Even with no sun to gauge the time Tomoe knew it was at least an hour if not two past that. Kenshin wouldn’t have remained here knowing Kanryuu was tracking them. Unless he had no choice.
A tiny knot of fear curled in her stomach and she pick up her pace. A quarter of an hour later she found another clearing, larger than the one she had landed in, with a rundown hut sitting in the middle of the swaying grass. Stopping at the very edge of the trees Tomoe eyed the seemingly empty building. There was no doubt about it, the pendant was inside that hut.
The knot in her belly turned into a fist and Tomoe hurried through the knee high grass. On silent feet she cautiously stepped up onto the porch and pressed her back to the wall beside the door to listen. There was nothing to hear except the soft creaking of branches in the cool morning breeze. Calling a rather nasty spell to her fingertips, she took a deep breath and rushed into the room only to stop cold just over the threshold to stare at the obviously empty hut. A weak laugh burned the back of her throat but she choked it back as she took in the seemingly untouched room. Dirt and leaves littered the floor, most likely carried in from the shoji less door and the rather large hole in the roof at the back of the hut. Tomoe took another cautious step into the room allowing more light to filter in behind her and she noticed what very few would have, the faint streaks running horizontal in a large patch of dirt to her left. Most likely caused by an apprentice mage wielding air like a broom.
Tomoe smiled. Kaoru had tried to cover their tracks. A good attempt but not good enough for one trained by Akira. Another handful of steps led her across the room to the only shadowed corner left in the brightening day and there she found what she was searching for, hidden beneath a couple of fallen leaves.
With a sigh she picked up the pendant and rubbed it free of dirt. Her only way of tracking them had been left behind. Why? And then it dawned on her, did they already know? She immediately shook her head. No, there is no way they could, it must have been an accident. Kenshin must have carried it in case she could still track through it, he wouldn‘t leave it behind intentionally.
Exhaling softly, she secured the pendant in the tie of her hakama and, with one last glance around the room to make sure it was empty, stepped back out into the gloomy morning searching for clues to where they’d gone. Akira had taught her much over the years and it didn’t take her long to find the nearly invisible trail leading across the knee high grass to the edge of the woods south of the hut.
Tomoe smiled and quickly made her way to the edge of the trees. Knowing Kenshin she would lose them within the woods eventually but she had a feeling she knew where they were heading now. To the small ford about five miles south of the village that would put them back on the correct side of the river to reach the manor.
Once she lost the trail completely she would jump to the ford and wait. And hope she wasn’t wrong.
Less than a half an hour later Kanryuu stood not far from the trail Tomoe had followed and eyed the dilapidated hut with distaste while his companion entered the shadowed interior.
According to Suzaku the girl had used air around here somewhere. Not for the first time he wished he was a tracker. Relying on his companion gave him a bad taste in his mouth but he had no choice. Even the bit of alchemy Suzaku had schooled him in, above and beyond what he’d learned on the continent, still didn’t reveal that one secret. Unless Suzaku had intentionally left him in the dark. Kanryuu scowled at the darkened doorway. He wouldn’t put it past the god to do just that.
As if the thought of him called him forth Suzaku exited the hut.
“They were here.” He stated as he strode off the porch. “There are also tracks I do not believe belonged to them as the residue from her spell was below the tracks.”
Kanryuu frowned. “Who else would be looking for them?”
Suzaku turned his attention to the woods. “The Yukishiro mage was not dead when she vanished.”
Kanryuu snorted. “She’s dead. Not even she could survive a jump in the shape she was in.”
His companion remained quiet but Kanryuu had the feeling he didn’t believe. The silence stretched for a few more moments and then without a word Suzaku started for the treeline directly across the glade. “They are all heading south.”
Kanryuu cursed under his breath in surprise and hurried after him. He nearly crashed into Suzaku’s back when the god suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. “One has shifted further south.”
Another curse hissed between Kanryuu’s clenched teeth but before he could say any more Suzaku murmured, “It is not the mahou tsuki.”
Relieved, Kanryuu followed Suzaku into the trees. It wouldn’t be too long now.
The morning passed quickly for the pair heading south, but by the time the sun had climbed to just shy of its apex Kaoru could quite honestly say she was tired of walking. They had kept a fairly slow pace but had remained hidden in the woods, following animal trails when they could. With longing Kaoru eyed the rather large path they were traveling parallel to, they had reached it about an hour ago but Kenshin believed they would be too exposed and kept them to the woods instead.
However, path or no, she was still tired of walking. She was tempted to try teleporting again but she honestly had no idea how she’d done it the first time, and who knew what would happen if she screwed up. Not to mention the amount of power she’d have to use. She still felt a little shaky about using the small amount she did this morning. She’d forgotten they were being tracked. She still had no idea if the person traveling with Kanryuu could track magic like some mages. She desperately hoped he or she couldn’t track like she herself did or there would be no hiding from them. Her own ability identified the aura each mage is born with which was impossible to hide. As she had proven this morning when she'd pinpointed Kanryuu some miles north of them shortly after they'd left the hut. She couldn't tell which side of the river he was on though.
Kenshin stopping in front of her pulled Kaoru from her thoughts and she eyed the redhead questioningly as he turned to her. Against her will her cheeks heated when their eyes met but she held his gaze anyway. She still hadn’t managed to get over the kiss this morning, he hadn’t said another word about it and she was half afraid to ask and find out he really didn’t mean it.
“It looks like we’ll have to use the road briefly.”
Kaoru’s brow creased, “Why?”
Kenshin gave her an odd look and with a smile he stepped out of her line of sight and she saw the woods suddenly drop off behind him.
“Oh.” She muttered sheepishly. She’d been so lost in her thoughts she hadn’t noticed.
Kenshin’s smile widened slightly and he took her hand and led her from the safety of the trees. As soon as she stepped from the cover of the woods Kaoru immediately felt exposed and the spot between her shoulder blades started to itch as if someone was watching her. She knew it wasn’t possible but that didn’t stop her from sneaking a peek over her shoulder anyway to see if anyone was there. The path behind them stood empty all the way back to where it curved to the right, disappearing from view.
A small chuckle spilled from her lips, Tomoe had always said she had a healthy imagination.
Once they reached the path Kenshin let her hand go and Kaoru did her best to ignore the twinge of disappointment that swam through her chest as she fell in beside him. For several minutes they walked in silence, following the path that now hugged the edge of the ravine as it arced away from the forest. Ahead of them, maybe a quarter of a mile away Kaoru could see a small rickety looking bridge spanning the expanse.
“How far away are we from where we are heading?”
Kenshin eyed the landscape for a moment then said, “We’ve passed the village but we still have a couple of more miles to go.”
Kaoru grimaced, more walking. Her feet were going to fall off when they stopped for a break.
It wasn’t long before they reached the bridge. Kaoru slowed when they came to the edge but Kenshin didn’t notice and he started across the weathered planks with far more confidence than she thought he should have. She winced when they creaked warningly beneath his weight and opted to stay on this side until he was all the way across. She knew she was probably overreacting because the path and the bridge were large enough for a wagon. But still… that was a deep ravine.
A handful of steps later Kenshin reached the other side and she almost smiled at the surprised look he gave her when he noticed she hadn’t followed him across. But the look of surprise quickly vanished and his eyes flew wide in horror at the exact same moment Kaoru heard the faint snapping of a twig from right behind her.
Spinning on her heel, she had just enough time to dodge the fire engulfed fist aiming for her back and she stumbled back a step to tumble to the ground. Before she could even draw breath to curse or summon her own magic a rustled of cloth whispered past her and Kenshin landed in front of her, his katana unsheathed and poised in front of him.
The dark haired mage fell back a couple of steps but the grin he gave Kaoru was enough to make her blood run cold. “I wonder if Takeda is still looking for you little Ancient.”
Kaoru scowled as she rose. “I’m not - “
She stopped when she noticed that Kenshin had stiffened. Did he really believe that? The question was quickly forgotten though when Kaoru felt the mage call forth a distinct amount of pure energy and begin to shape it. It was then that it finally dawned on her what it was she had felt back in the forest three days ago when they‘d been battling the mages. It was a signal to let another mage know the enemy had been found. Oh gods, he was going to call Kanryuu!
“Kenshin stop him!”
The mage laughed as the words left her mouth and just as Kenshin vanished from in front of her, Kaoru felt the concussion as the energy he’d gathered slammed into the very air itself and exploded out in all directions, the force of it enough to blow her hair back from her face.
In the next instant Kenshin was standing toe to toe with the mage, his blade held flush against the grinning man’s neck ready for the killing blow.
“You’re too late mage killer.“ The dark haired rogue all but purred, pressing his flesh into the blade as he spoke. “He’s coming.”
Kaoru swallowed thickly as her stomach knotted in fear and she rushed over to Kenshin. “He’s right, we have to go!“
With a hiss of rage Kenshin shoved the mage off his blade and grabbed her hand, his feet already moving them towards the bridge. They’d only manage to take two steps though when the weathered boards suddenly burst into flame. Kaoru threw up her arm to protect her face as Kenshin tugged her back from the raging inferno. The heat was so intense that it nearly stole the breath from her throat.
Stumbling back even further she cringed at the chuckle that came from behind them. “You’re not going anywhere. Takeda promised immeasurable power to whoever could catch you and I intend to claim that prize.”
Kaoru ignored the sickening dread curling in her stomach and she spun around at the same time Kenshin did. A moment later their hands met and she was just about ready to make a break for the forest again when the space between them and possible freedom suddenly shimmered and coalesced into Kanryuu and the red eyed, white haired man she’d met in the forest what seemed like forever ago.
Kenshin’s grip became almost painful as the black mage became solid and turned an oily grin their way.
“I told you once you couldn’t get away from me, Ancient-san. Now do you believe me?”
Kaoru’s blood turned to ice in her veins and she immediately tapped into the wellspring of earth magic beneath her feet. She wasn’t going down without a fight.
“She’s a spirited one,” The white haired man remarked and Kaoru gasped as his deep, sonorous voice slid along every nerve in her body. She didn‘t remember him sounding so… strange last time, like he was larger than the earth.
“She holds earth. Be on your guard.”
Kanryuu scowled as if angered by the warning and slid a glare at his companion but before anything more could be said Kaoru felt a familiar signature warp the space behind her and she turned just in time to see Tomoe become solid. Kaoru’s eyed flew wide. What?
She had no time to question it though because as soon as her mentor took in the scene before her she launched a fireball the size of her head at Kanryuu and his companion. At that moment instinct took over and Kaoru lifted her foot and slammed it back down sending a shock wave at the two distracted men at the same time. But all they got for their effort was a chuckle from Kanryuu and a ground shaking roar of triumph as his companion simply absorbed the fireball without so much as a singed hair.
And yet, neither one saw the streak of red that shot towards them while they were focused on the magical attack. All of a sudden Kanryuu cried out in pain and clutched his bleeding chest only to stumble forward in the next instant as if he’d taken a strike to the back too.
A moment later Kenshin was back where he’d started from, in front of her again. “That was only a taste of what I can do.” He warned the two mages calmly. “I will not let you take her from me so easily.”
A faint groan of dismay reached Kaoru’s ears from behind her but she had no time to wonder about it because the mage beside Kanryuu suddenly laughed. The sound of it made Kaoru’s breath catch in her throat.
“You will be the perfect vessel for my brother.” The strange, red eyed mage intoned. And then she suddenly felt an incredible pressure push against her body and Kenshin fell to his knees with a scream of pain that soon changed to a soul shaking roar that made the small hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
Terrified, Kaoru went to reach for him but was wrenched back before she could even get close.
“Picture the manor’s courtyard!” Tomoe demanded into her ear. Confused, Kaoru yelled no and tried to shake off the hand holding her in place so she could help Kenshin but the hand tightened to the point of pain and Kaoru spun on her ready to fight her way free if she had to. Why was Tomoe doing this! Kenshin needed help!
But the look in her mentor’s eyes and wetness on her cheek stopped Kaoru cold. “Picture the manor’s courtyard.” Tomoe repeated softly.
Kaoru shook her head. “No! Kenshin needs us!” The roar had died down but Kaoru could still hear groans of pain coming from him. She couldn’t just leave him like this. She loved him damn it!
The look on Tomoe’s face saddened even more and she shook her head. “We can’t help him anymore. It’s too late.”
Kaoru snarled angrily and wrenched her arm as hard as she could as she spun around. Only to stop dead when her eyes lit on the man she was trying to help. Kenshin now stood facing her with Kanryuu and the other mage grinning at his back. His left cheek, where his scar had been, was now a bloody mess as if the old wound had burst open again. But that was not the cause of her sudden capitulation. It was his eyes. They had gone from the soft violet she had come to love to a fierce golden hue, the pupil switching back and forth between being rounded to being slit like a reptile’s.
“Picture the manor’s courtyard.” Tomoe murmured softly into her ear again. So transfixed on the shifting eyes watching her with a strange mixture of love and hate, Kaoru barely heard her or felt the small pressure inside her head that came with the words until, against her will, an image of the dusty yard in front of the gate flitted through her mind and she felt power well up inside her of its own free will. Kaoru felt nausea twist her stomach and she finally realized what was happening.
“No!” She screamed as she tried to wrench herself away. But it was too late. The world suddenly turned itself inside out and she lost sight of Kenshin and the others only to have another image soon fill her eyes as she and Tomoe stumbled to their knees before a gate she knew far too well. Sick to her stomach, Kaoru stared horrified at the intricately carved, weathered wood as the hand that had been holding her fell away.
She was home. The very last place in the world she wanted to be.