Time to Breathe
It was well past sunset by the time the Sekihara house finally settled down enough for Kenshin to find his way back to the small, windowless room where he'd left Kaoru in the hands of the local healer earlier in the evening. Taking the steps two at a time to the second floor, he quietly started down the hardwood hall towards the end room where the gently flickering silhouette of a lone candle shown against the opaque shoji screen.
The aged healer had left an hour before after tending to Kaoru’s shoulder wound and the four cracked ribs she’d found during her inspection of the unconscious mage's severely bruised torso. He frowned at the memory of the angry reddish-blue mottled skin he'd glimpsed above her breast bindings before he'd been chased from the room. Damage he hadn't even thought to look for before he'd carried her from the woods.
According to the healer her entire back and chest were covered with the nasty bruises, as if she had been repeatedly battered from all sides. Before she’d left the elderly woman had assured them that Kaoru would be just fine, if sore, when she awoke but that still didn't set him at ease. Those bruises proved she had endured hits even the most seasoned of mages would find hard to ignore. He would feel much better if Takani-san were here tending to her instead. The elderly healer was good, but she wasn’t mageborn and there were so many complications that could arise from the severity of Kaoru’s wounds.
A muffled, hiccup-laced sniffle caught his attention as he came up beside the only other door in the hall and he paused outside the room where Ayame and Suzume now slept with Misao and Aoshi both standing guard.
With a weary sigh, Kenshin glanced to the darkened shoji as another sniffle sounded into the quiet. Kaoru wasn't the only one who had suffered today. Those two little girls had been through more in one day than any their age should ever have to endure at all. His chest tightened at the thought and not for the first time he wished he could have somehow made it here before the attack, then maybe they wouldn't have had to witness the loss of their only remaining blood relative. At three years old Suzume didn't really understand what had happened today. But Ayame...
Stifling another sigh, he continued on at a slower pace. Thanks to the death of their parents, barely two weeks before, Ayame knew even at the tender age of five what it meant when someone died. She'd been nearly inconsolable when Tae had broken the news to her that Dr. Gensai was gone now as well. Suzume, sensing her sister's distress even if she didn't understand, had been just as upset. They had clung to Tae and Sae as if their very lives had depended on it, until they'd finally cried themselves into a fitful sleep.
A grim tautness ghosted across Kenshin's lips as he came to the room housing Kaoru and, with one last glance over his shoulder, he silently slid the door back and stepped inside. The sad part was their trials were far from over. They were still in danger and would continue to be until Takeda Kanryuu was finally dead.
Sliding the panel closed behind him with a nearly inaudible click, Kenshin dropped his attention to the deathly pale woman resting on the futon in the middle of the floor. Silently he padded to her side. The soft candlelight illuminating the room flickered fitfully from its perch on a low table above her head where a small water-filled pitcher, an empty stoneware cup and the pain-numbing powder the healer had left also rested waiting for her to wake.
With a soft sigh, Kenshin removed the small blade tucked into his hakama and smoothly dropped down to sit cross-legged beside the unconscious mage. Ayame and Suzume weren't the only ones in danger either. If Takeda ever found out about what Kaoru could do he would do everything in his power to get his hands on her. Power hungry to a fault, the former black mage would see her ability to wield elements, long believed to be wiped out, as the perfect tool, especially considering his lack. That was something Kenshin wasn’t going to let happen if he could at all help it.
With a small self-mocking smile, he continued to watch the candlelight play across her pale features. Unfortunately even he didn't know all there was to know about this young woman, which was going to make things more difficult. For the most part he understood why Tomoe had always been reticent when speaking about Kaoru, but right now he really wished he knew more about this enigma he had to keep safe. Especially considering his scar's reaction to the wakizashi she'd been carrying.
At the thought, Kenshin let his attention drift from Kaoru to the sheathed blade in his hand. Why she had this relic in her possession was beyond him. As far as he knew almost everything from the time of the Ancients had been destroyed for fear that they might somehow aid the dragon god's release, even if there was no longer an Ancient to wield them. He knew the Yukishiro family had somehow salvaged and passed down a couple of items from that time as keepsakes and heirlooms but he never thought he’d see one outside of the shield, or within the hands of a mere apprentice mage. Yet another reason why he wished he knew more about this young woman’s origins.
Smiling ruefully, Kenshin thumbed the blade from its sheath with practiced ease and pulled it out enough to reveal about two inches of the pristine metal. He wasn’t the least bit surprised to see the soft blue glow emanating from the unsheathed blade, or feel the instant burning in his left cheek as his scar split and started to weep blood. It had been like this earlier too, the entire time he'd been cleaning the blade. The burning sensation intensified and he quickly slid it back into the sheath before his scar opened completely, then gently dabbed at the wetness on his cheek with his sleeve. It had taken him nearly two hours to finish the cleaning thanks to that.
But what he found thoroughly perplexing was the act itself. Why would his scar react in such a way from a simple blade, ancient or not? I didn’t make any sense at all.
Exhaling softly, he absently rubbed his thumb along the well-worn sheath. It was a strange piece indeed. One that, if he wasn't misreading the kanji inscribed along the blade at the hilt, had once belonged to the Kamiya family. One of the pivotal clan of mages that had helped seal Ryujin away all those centuries ago.
A soft knock roused him from his thoughts and Kenshin glanced over his shoulder just as Tae's older sister Sae slid the door open.
"Would you like me to ready you a room, Himura-san?"
Kenshin smiled and shook his head, "No. I think I'll stay here in case she wakes during the night."
Sae dipped her head in understanding and glanced to Kaoru. “Has she stirred at all?“
Kenshin sighed and returned his attention to Kaoru, “Not yet. I doubt she will before tomorrow at the earliest.”
“Would you like me to bring you anything?” Sae asked after a moment.
Kenshin shook his head again, “No. I’m fine. Thank you.”
There was a soft scraping of the door closing and he found himself once again alone with the sleeping mage. Stifling a yawn he moved back until he was resting against one of the wall supports and settled in for the night. All he wanted right now was for Kaoru to wake so he could begin to piece together the puzzle that was her.
A task he found he was beginning to anticipate more and more with each new discovery.
The first thing Kaoru became aware of as she slowly rose up out of unconsciousness was the sense of floating in a vast sea of emptiness. The darkness surrounding her was absolute. There was no light, no sound. As if…
As if she was dead…
A jolt of gut-wrenching fear rocked her to the very core of her being and the world around her, as if responding to her need for the tangible, immediately began to lighten revealing a surreal, fog enshrouded meadow. A meadow she soon recognized as being the one just behind the Yukishiro manor. Feeling somewhat calmer by the familiar sight she began to relax, wondering if maybe she was just dreaming. She soon had to question that theory though when she saw the image of a child racing towards her, slowly materializing out of thin air. It only took her a heartbeat to realize who the child was.
“Kaoru-neesan! Did you see me? I did a cartwheel!”
A sudden sense of déjà vu nearly stole Kaoru’s breath away and she simply stared in stunned silence at the continuously shifting figure of the four year old Ayame. The memory of that day, just a year ago, coming back full force. This couldn't be a dream.
“Come on Kaoru-neesan! You do it too!”
Unable to move, Kaoru could only watch in horrified fascination as Ayame reached out for her hand as she had that day wondering if she'd actually be able to feel the little girl's touch. But she felt nothing as Ayame's incorporeal hand effortlessly passed through hers and she shivered as if she’d just been touched by a ghost.
Kaoru's breath hitched painfully in her throat. … A ghost… then, did that mean she had failed?
Another shock of fear shook Kaoru’s very soul; the meadow and Ayame wavering dangerously before becoming semi solid again. Desperately wanting to know if that was the truth she unconsciously reached for Ayame even though she knew it would do no good and was surprised to find the little girl now halfway across the meadow; her arm outstretched as if she was holding someone's hand.
Now thoroughly confused Kaoru made to run after her but quickly found she couldn't move a muscle. With a frustrated growl, she was just about to call out to Ayame instead when the space shimmering beside the little girl began to coalesce into the person who was holding her hand. The blood froze in her veins at the sight and Kaoru suddenly found it very hard to breathe.
Takeda Kanryuu turned his head just enough to glance over his shoulder at her; the sinister smile twisting his face highlighted by the sudden surge of power he fed and held in his unoccupied hand. The growing sphere of death mere inches from Ayame‘s young flesh. Kaoru strained to cry out, to snatch Ayame away, as panic thrummed in time with her heartbeat. And then his smile widened into a feral grin, eye glinting in malevolent glee as the power in his hand pulsed once before he drove it into Ayame. The little girl’s screams suddenly filled the meadow.
Horrified, Kaoru frantically threw herself forward against whatever was holding her with every ounce of energy she had; her hand outstretched in desperation.
Pain unlike anything she’d ever felt before exploded through Kaoru’s chest at the movement, wrenching her into complete wakefulness and she nearly screamed as white hot agony ripped through her entire torso. Wide-eyed, she pressed a hand to her bandaged chest, gasping for breath as tears blurred her vision; barely noticing the door of the room being flung open.
“Kaoru! Thank kami, you’re finally awake!" Misao screeched, as she stumbled over the threshold and collapsed in a heap beside the futon.
Immensely relieved to find it had all been a dream, Kaoru glanced to her best friend and gave her a weak smile as the intense pain in her chest and back slowly began to recede. “Ayame?” she managed to croak when she’d finally reclaimed enough breath to speak.
Misao gave her an odd look and shrugged. “She’s - "
But that was as far she got when the child in question came bursting into the room. “Kaoru-neesan!” Ayame shrieked, making a beeline straight for her.
Misao deftly caught the little girl before she could tackle Kaoru to the futon and inflict more damage. “Careful kiddo, Kaoru’s still hurt.”
Ayame's eyes flew wide, immediately filling with tears, and she flung her arms around Misao's neck instead and hugged her tight. Beyond confused Kaoru gave her friend a questioning look.
"You've been out for the last three and a half days." Misao said in answer as she soothingly rubbed Ayame's back. "We were all starting to think you were never going to wake up."
Surprised, Kaoru mumbled, "Three days...?"
Misao nodded. "Yeah. And Ayame here was sure you were going to die on her too."
"You're not going to die like Ojii-san right, Kaoru-neesan?" Ayame asked in a small voice, peeking out from where she had her face buried in Misao's neck.
The clear anxiety in the little girl's chestnut brown eyes made Kaoru's chest muscles clench and she winced as her wounds protested the aggravation. Ignoring the persistent throb pulsing through her torso, she gingerly leaned over enough to ruffle the child's hair. "Not if I can help it, honey."
Ayame smiled brightly but it didn't quite reach her eyes and once again Kaoru cursed Kanryuu to the deepest pits of hell. Death would be too kind for that man, eternal damnation suited his deeds so much better.
Misao gave Ayame one last squeeze before she loosened her arms enough for the little girl to get up and said, "Hey sprite, how about you go tell Tae-san that our patient is awake."
Ayame's smile became more genuine and she bounced out of Misao's lap with a gleeful "Okay!", and sprinted from the room.
Kaoru chuckled softly at her lightning fast roundabout and immediately regretted it when the action caused a particularly painful twinge to rip through her chest. Wincing, she gently rubbed the sore muscles and glanced to Misao, "What happened to me? I feel like I've been trampled by a dozen horses."
Misao glared at her and snorted caustically. "What? You don't remember the rogue mage?!"
Kaoru inwardly flinched at the sharp tone, but she knew her friend's sarcasm was nothing more than a weak attempt to hide her obvious worry. She couldn't blame her, she would have been the same way had Misao been the one to face off with one of them.
Exhaling softly, she gingerly worked her way around until she could lean against the wall in an attempt to relieve a little of the pressure that sitting up was putting on her battered body. "Yes, I remember him, but I didn't hurt like this when it was all over. Did something else happen?"
Misao continued to glared at her for a moment longer then sighed and shook her head as she reached for a small pitcher and the other items on the low table Kaoru hadn't noticed until now. "I have no idea. All I know is that you have four cracked ribs, your chest and back look like someone took a club to you, repeatedly."
Surprised, Kaoru glanced down to the bandages peeking out of the top of the pale green yukata she was wearing and noticed the bruised skin above the stark white cloth. Had the hits really been that hard? Another twinge pinched her painfully and she grimaced, must be. But she’d had no choice, it was a fight she couldn’t have avoided no matter how much she had wanted to. And one she would much rather not repeat anytime soon.
Misao snapped her fingers and Kaoru glanced up to find a small stoneware cup held out to her. “Drink this. The healer said it will take some of the pain away. Won‘t help the ribs but… “
With a grateful smile, Kaoru accepted the cup and quickly drained the contents. Setting the empty cup back onto the table she asked, “How did I get here? And where exactly is here?”
“Himura carried you here from the shrine. And here, “ She continued with a wave of her hand before Kaoru could inquire about this Himura, “is Tae-san and Sae-san’s house. We’re right behind the Akabeko.”
The soft padding of several feet coming down the hall signaled the arrival of others and Kaoru momentarily forgot about her savior as Tae stepped into the room with a relieved smile and a laden tray. Ayame and Suzume both hot on her heels.
"Kaoru-nee!" Suzume squealed in delight when she spied her against the wall.
Kaoru smiled at the beaming child. "Hi Suzume-chan."
Suzume seemed to take that as an invitation because she immediately started toddling across the room before anyone could stop her. Still too soon for the medicine to have begun working, Kaoru braced herself for the oncoming pain but much to her intense relief Tae came to her rescue.
"Wait, Suzume-chan." She called out to the little girl. "Kaoru-san is still hurt, so you can't touch her just yet."
Suzume stumbled to a stop as her face fell and Kaoru was almost sure she was going to start crying.
"It's okay, Suzu-chan. We'll be able to hug Kaoru-neesan soon." Ayame piped up cheerily, grabbing her little sister's hand. And thankfully it seemed that was enough because the little girl glanced to her sister and grinned, “Soon!”
"Ayame-chan, would you take Suzume downstairs to Sae-san for me please?"
Ayame smiled brightly, the obvious pride of being given what she saw as a grown up task shining in her eyes. "Okay, Tae-san." And without another word she disappeared out the door with Suzume in tow.
Once they were gone, Tae exhaled softly and gave Kaoru a warm smile. “They’ve been very worried about you, Kaoru-san. We all have.” She said as she bent to place the tray’s contents on the table. "I’ve brought you some fresh water and bread. I’m sure you must be hungry after so long with nothing to eat.”
Kaoru tried not to wrinkle her nose at the prospect and ignored the faint touch of nausea curling in her belly at the smell of the warm bread. She had absolutely no appetite thanks to the constant throb in her chest and back. “Thanks, Tae-san. And I'm sorry for making you worry. Though I have to admit that if I had known I was going to wake to this," she murmured indicating her bandaged chest. "I would have stayed asleep. At least until the bruises had healed.”
Tae smiled in understanding. Misao scoffed softly then smirked, "Then next time don't take on a rogue mage."
Kaoru grinned tiredly, "Trust me, I have no intention of ever doing that again if I can at all help it." But unfortunately she had a feeling this was only the beginning. She was sure that by the time this was all over they would both likely be facing them again.
"I should head back downstairs and help Sae prepare for the evening meals." Tae said, as she stepped towards the open shoji with the now empty tray tucked under her arm. "If you need anything else just let myself or Sae know."
Kaoru nodded her understanding and Tae vanished through the door, leaving just the two of them again. Gingerly lifting herself away from the wall to move back to the futon, Kaoru was pleased to find that the insistent pain she'd awoken to had finally begun to dull.
"You need any help?" Misao asked.
Kaoru shook her head. "No, it seems that whatever you gave me is starting to work." Easing over to the thick cushion, she sighed gratefully as she seated herself. "Too bad Megumi-san isn't here. She'd have these bruises taken care of in no time."
A faint shadow passed through Misao's eyes but Kaoru didn't catch it because she suddenly remembered something else concerning the healer. "Hey Misao? Are our bags here?"
Misao gave her an odd look and motioned to the far corner of her room. "Yeah, yours are right there. Why?"
Glancing to where Misao indicated, Kaoru grinned and slowly leaned over, snagging the handle of the smaller bag with her finger. A simple tug had the bag in her lap and she eagerly started pawing though the contents intent on finding the small jar Megumi had given her just before they'd left the manor.
"Megumi-san gave me something she said would help quicken the healing of minor injuries. Ah here it is!" Kaoru exclaimed as she lifted a dark green, pear-shaped earthenware jar from the bag and showed it to Misao. "I don't know if it will help my ribs but it should help the bruising."
Misao's eyes widened and she reached for the jar. "Why didn't you tell me you had this! I could have been using this on you all along!"
Kaoru shrugged then hissed softly as her chest pinched. Although not quite as sharp the pain was still there, hopefully that stuff would work. "She gave it to me two days before we left and I forgot about it once I had it packed."
"Well, at least we have it. The sooner you get better the quicker we can get out of Kiyosu." Misao muttered, as she leaned over to slide the shoji door shut for privacy.
Kaoru's hands stilled on her sash and she gave Misao a questioning look, "Why? What's happened since the attack?"
"Nothing yet. But who knows..." Misao replied offhandedly with a shrug as she worked off the metal band binding the rawhide lid on the jar. A faint minty smell permeated the room as she lifted the hide and set the two pieces aside.
Kaoru's eyes narrowed at the decidedly vague answer but before she could question Misao further, the younger mage gave her a pointed look. "Are you going to undress so we can get this stuff on you or what?"
Kaoru scowled but held her tongue and set to work loosening the yukata so she could slip the material off her shoulders. Once she had her upper body free of the soft cloth she pulled her hair over her shoulder and braided it into a tight rope as she eyed the bandages wrapped around her torso. Okay... now what? As far as she could tell there was no way to begin unraveling the pristine cloth.
"It's back here," Misao said as she moved around to sit behind her. A moment later Kaoru saw Misao's hand come around on her right side with the end of the bandage. Reaching her arm across to accept the piece, Kaoru stiffened as a biting pain shot through her chest and back.
"Do you want me to finish?"
With an irritated sigh, Kaoru nodded her head. "Talk about helpless, huh?" It irked her that she couldn’t even do this small task.
Misao snorted at her sarcastic tone and continued to free her discolored skin. "Not helpless... injured. You should be happy you're still alive after meeting a rogue."
A hollow smile toyed with the edge of Kaoru's lips, "But he's not..."
“It was either you or him!” Misao bit out harshly as she tugged the cloth completely loose. “Don’t feel guilty for saving your own life.”
Kaoru winced as the bandage pulled on her damaged skin before coming free. She couldn’t help feeling guilty. Deep down she knew what she’d done had been unavoidable to keep Kanryuu from finding out about her and keep Ayame safe, but that still didn’t make her feel any better. She hoped and prayed she’d never have to face that decision again.
“Where’s Kanryuu? Is he still in Kiyosu?” She asked in an effort to change the subject.
For a long moment nothing but silence met her questions and she could almost feel Misao’s pointed glare burning into the back of her head. Kaoru was sure she’d press the issue, her friend had never been one to let something like this go. But much to her surprise Misao relented with a sigh and gently started rubbing the salve into her abused back. “No. But Himura-san and Aoshi-sama think he’s still somewhere close, waiting for us to leave.”
Kaoru nearly purred as the salve immediately soothed her damaged skin, the pain all but vanishing where Misao had applied it. And then it hit her who Misao had mentioned and she glanced over her shoulder in surprise, “Shinomori-san is here! I thought he was in Edo with the shogun.”
A faint blush pinked Misao’s cheeks and she smiled. “The shogun’s regents sent him on a mission that he said led him here.”
Kaoru grinned to herself and absently reached for a slice of the warm bread Tae had left and started nibbling on it. For as long as Kaoru had known her, Misao had borne an infatuation for Shinomori Aoshi. Actually for Misao she was sure it was much more than that and she had a sneaking suspicion Aoshi thought of Misao as more than just a friend or charge too. Granted she’d only met the man twice, the first being several years ago when Misao had first come to the manor to live. And then again a year ago when he’d come to the manor check on her. But she still couldn’t shake the feeling that he was only waiting for her to finish growing up.
“What about this Himura-san? Who is he?”
Misao’s hands slowed for a brief moment then went back to rubbing in the salve. “He says he’s a friend of Tomoe-sama’s. I don’t know about that though, I’ve never met him before, even when I went beyond the shield with Tomoe-sama. And she‘s never said anything about him before that I can remember.” Misao snorted. “But he must be someone trustworthy or Aoshi-sama wouldn’t be with him. Plus Ayame and Suzume know him well enough to call him ‘Ken-nii‘, so he can’t be an enemy of the family.”
Kaoru wasn’t sure if she believed that but for now she couldn’t say anything since she’d never even met the man. And he had rescued her from the forest so he at least deserved the benefit of the doubt.
One final swipe came along her lower back just as a wide yawn pulled Kaoru from her thoughts and then the jar popped into her peripheral vision.
“Here, your back is done. Does it feel better?”
Kaoru flexed her back muscles a little to see and was relieved to find all the pain now concentrated in her chest. A huge smile spread across her lips. “Much better. I wonder what Megumi-san put in that?”
“I don‘t think I really want to know.” Misao said as she moved around to sit across from her again. “Do you want me to do the front too?”
Kaoru finished off the piece of bread in her hand then accepted the jar. “No, I think I can handle this.”
Misao shrugged. “Do you want me to go ask Tae-san for some more bread then?”
Surprised by the question Kaoru stilled her fingers mere inches from the salve and glanced up to the plate that had once held the small loaf of bread, which was now completely empty. Her eyebrows creased. Did she eat all that!? Was that why she was feeling tired, because her stomach was full?
With a crooked smile, Kaoru shook her head. “No, that’s alright. I can’t believe I ate that much.”
Misao shrugged again as if to say suit yourself and Kaoru turned her attention back to the task at hand. Collecting a generous amount of the salve onto her first two fingers she gently started applying the soothing ointment to the black and blue flesh between her breasts and slowly worked her way out from there. Almost instantly the pain began to dull and she nearly sighed in relief but instead was seized by another yawn.
“Don’t tell me you’re tired already.” Misao grouched halfheartedly with a grin. “You’ve slept long enough!”
Kaoru smirked. “I can’t help it. Now that I don’t hurt so much I’m starting to get tired. Maybe it’s the bread.” She added with a shrug as she finished tending her battered skin. Handing the jar back to Misao she lifted the bandages they’d removed. “Do you think we should put these back on?”
Misao cocked her head to the side then shrugged, “I have no idea. But I don’t think it would hurt if you do. Might be safer for your ribs too. We don’t need them breaking in your sleep somehow.”
Kaoru clenched her teeth against another yawn and nodded her agreement. Misao gave her a sympathetic smile as she moved to help her rewrap the bandage. “I suppose we better get this done before you fall asleep sitting up.”
Kaoru smiled tiredly before it was wiped away by the yawn she’d held off. Shaking off the heavy weight settling on her shoulders she murmured, “Maybe I’ll get lucky and the bruising will be gone by the time I wake up next.”
Misao snorted, rewrapping the soft white cloth with Kaoru‘s help. “Knowing Megumi-san it just might be. If we’re really lucky your ribs will heal too.”
"That might be a little too optimistic." Kaoru said with a wince as she pulled the bandage tight and handed it off to Misao for another round. "They still hurt when I do that or yawn." Accepting the bandage again she did her part and handed it off. "I'll be happy if the bruises stop throbbing at least."
Misao hummed her agreement, "Can't blame you there."
A couple more passes finished the task and Kaoru gently pulled her yukata back onto her shoulders as Misao settled back out of her way and recapped the jar. Straightening the neckline, she tightened the belt then gratefully sank into the futon. Another jaw cracking inhalation made her wince as her ribs protested the aggravation and she shifted around until she was comfortable again.
"Sure you don't need me to get you anything?" Misao asked as she set the jar on the table and gathered the empty plate.
Kaoru could only shake her head, too tired to say anything.
Misao snorted lightly and mumbled, "Still can't believe you're going back to sleep on me."
A faint smile touched Kaoru's lips as she started drifting off; the sound of Misao's retreating footsteps the last thing she heard before sleep claimed her.
Night had fallen once again by the time Kaoru found herself slowly being drawn out of the darkness by a rhythmic scraping of metal over stone, the ache she'd awoken to the earlier partially reasserting itself as she became more aware. For several moments, she simply laid still listening to the familiar sound wondering if maybe she could ignore the pain and go back to sleep.
Unfortunately her chest decided to remind her with a rather sharp jab that laying on her side wasn’t such a good idea and she winced as she gently rolled onto her back. She knew it had been too much to hope for Megumi’s magic salve to heal her ribs too. But at least it seemed it had done its work with the bruises. So far the only pain she felt was from the area where she assumed her cracked bones were. At least she still had the medicine Misao had given her earlier. Maybe that would help. With a soft sigh, Kaoru blinked her eyes open to the now candlelit room. She wouldn’t know unless she tried, right?
For a few moments longer she didn’t move, content to simply watch the weak light dance playfully along the ceiling and absently wondered just how late it was now. But then another faint twinge reminded her why she was awake and she finally eased herself up into a sitting position as the rhythmic passes continued somewhere beyond her room. Finding a comfortable position, she took a second to see if she could pinpoint the source and nearly jumped when she saw the flickering silhouette of a person crouching over what she assumed to be the whetstone just beyond her closed shoji.
Surprised and just a little bit scared now, Kaoru took a moment to get herself back together then softly called out, “Hello?”
The figure’s movements immediately stilled and Kaoru unconsciously tensed as the person glanced to the door.
Kaoru froze at the unfamiliar male voice. Who…? But then it finally dawned on her what he’d called her and her eyebrows creased in confusion. Yukishiro-san? Who did he think she was, Tomoe?
“Um… no.” Kaoru replied awkwardly. “I’m not a Yukishiro. My family name is Kamiya. Who are you?”
The illuminated figure stiffened as if surprised by her answer and then turned even more towards the door, his earlier task seemingly forgotten. “My name is Himura Kenshin. I’m a friend of Tomoe-dono’s.” He paused for a moment then asked, “May I come in Kamiya-san? It’s a bit awkward to be talking to you through the door.”
An odd sensation that Kaoru couldn’t quite identify flowed through her chest but she ignored it and glanced down, adjusting the yukata so she was fully covered before calling out, “I-I guess.” To be honest she was curious to meet this Himura-san who was supposedly friends with her mentor.
A moment later the candle that had been illuminating him was doused, then the door to her room slowly slid back to reveal the man behind the voice. Her eyes widened in surprise at the sight of his long, fiery red hair; the length held back loosely in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. But all thoughts of his odd hair color quickly vanished when he slid the door closed behind him and glanced up at her. Soft violet eyes unlike anything she'd ever seen before took her in as he padded silently across the room and settled down beside the futon, barely three feet away.
"It's good to see you awake, Kamiya-san."
Kaoru tried to ignore the odd sensation his voice caused again and simply dipped her head in acknowledgment as she surreptitiously shifted a few inches away from him in hopes that the added distance would somehow calm her now racing heart. A faint smile touched his lips at her actions and she fought off the blush trying to blossom on her cheeks. But as much as she was unnerved by his continued scrutiny, she couldn't help but eye him back just as intently.
Red hair and violet eyes. A blend she never thought she'd ever see on someone native to their homeland. Yet his handsome features proved that he was of Asian descent, odd coloring or not. And he was handsome although unlike most of the men she'd met who had more chiseled features, this man's were softer more refined. The scar running lengthwise down his left cheek didn't seem to harden his features either like it would the others, but instead seemed to accent them.
With a start, Kaoru realized where her thoughts were wandering off to and she couldn't stop the blush from rising to her cheeks this time. Beyond embarrassed, she scowled at herself and finally asked, "Why did you call me Yukishiro-san before?"
Kenshin smiled again and shrugged. "Tomoe-dono told me you had been adopted by her family so I assumed you would also take their name. If you don't mind my asking how did you come to be named Kamiya?"
Kaoru found herself relaxing somewhat at his friendly manner and easily replied, "Tomoe-sama says that when they found me abandoned the only thing I had besides the clothes I was wearing was a blade strapped crosswise along my back." Glancing around for the wakizashi she hadn't thought of until now she started to panic when she found no sign of the blade and was just about to crawl over to where her bags were to see if it was there when Kenshin softly said, "Do you mean this one?"
Kaoru swung her attention to the familiar sheathed blade he now held out to her, her eyebrow cocked in confusion. Why would he have it?
Shrugging off the question, she reached out with a slightly trembling hand to collect it but hesitated for a brief moment mere inches from the blade unsure if she wanted to reclaim that which had taken the life of the mage. Steeling herself against the nagging remorse she still felt, she forced her fingers to wrap around the well worn sheath and lifted it from his hand. "How did you get this?"
Kenshin exhaled softly then smiled. "I removed it from you before I carried you out of the woods. It has since been cleaned," he added reassuringly.
Kaoru smiled weakly at his attempt to put her at ease. "Well anyway, they found this with me," she continued softly, "and along the blade just above the hilt is the kanji for Kamiya which they believed to be my family name. So I'm a Kamiya instead of a Yukishiro."
Kenshin's eyes narrowed minutely when she finished her explanation, his easy manner quickly disappearing beneath a soul searching, mind probing look that made her want to squirm in her seat. Confused by his sudden change she met him stare for stare, stubbornly refusing to be intimidated, and waited for him to say whatever it was he wanted to say. But when the silence continued to stretch it occurred to her that maybe he didn't believe her. Now that irritated her a little bit, she had no reason to lie. At least not about that.
With a frown she thumbed the blade from the sheath with practiced ease to show him the proof; completely forgetting the fact if he had cleaned the blade then he had probably already seen the inscription.
All thoughts of wanting to prove her words true were banished though the moment the blade slipped free from the sheath and she noticed the alien, soft blue glow emanating from it in her peripheral vision. Stunned she stared at the exposed blade. What...?
A pain-filled hiss broke into her musings and she glanced to the red head sitting across from her and was surprised to see him clutching his scarred cheek, the scowl darkening his features making her pause.
"Does it always glow blue like that?" Kenshin asked between clenched teeth.
Still too shocked to form a coherent reply Kaoru simply shook her head no and glanced back to the blade. Why was it glowing like that? Another agonizing hiss came, soon followed by Kenshin wrapping his hand around hers and guiding the blade back into the sheath. Kaoru froze at his warm touch, the odd sensation she'd ignored earlier coming back tenfold and now centered along the back of her hand.
"Forgive me,” Kenshin murmured as he released her hand. “But for some reason that blade opens my scar."
For a long moment Kaoru simply stared at the hand he'd touched until what he'd said finally sank in. Then she glanced back up to the cheek he'd been holding and noticed the trail of blood running down his face before he wiped it away; the scar now an angry red. Curious as to why that would be she absently leaned forward to wipe away a spot he had missed under his chin and immediately regretted the action as her damaged ribs vehemently protested the abuse.
Thankfully Kenshin grabbed her shoulders as she gasped loudly and tipped sideways, the clear worry in his eyes almost making her smile. "Are you okay?"
Kaoru eased herself back slowly and sighed. “Yeah, I just forgot that I’m not as healed as I’d like to be.”
Kenshin smirked at her obvious irritation and released her once she found a comfortable, stable position. “I think it would be best if I woke Misao-dono now like she asked.”
“Wake Misao?“ Kaoru inquired, clearly confused. “Why?”
“Because she believed you would need more of Megumi-san’s salve.” Kenshin replied softly as he rose and started for the door. “And it would seem she was right. If you’re hungry I could also retrieve the onigiri Sae-san prepared for you earlier.”
Kaoru‘s mouth dropped open at his quick action. “Wait! “ She exclaimed just as he was about to slide the shoji open. “You haven’t told me how you know Tomoe-sama yet! Or why you’re even here to begin with!”
Kenshin stopped and glanced over his shoulder, the grin teasing his lips making her blush. “I’m not going anywhere, Kamiya-san. I promise there will be plenty of time for us to talk again. But for now it would be best if you were made comfortable. Would you like that onigiri?”
Abashed, Kaoru clamped her mouth shut and simply nodded. Kenshin gave her one last smile before he slid the door back and stepped out, closing it soundly behind him. It was a good thing they still had time because there was a lot more she’d like to know about that man.
But what she didn’t know was that just beyond the door said man paused, having similar thoughts.
With a secret smile Kenshin glanced back to the figure silhouetted against the shoji. She was far more than just a puzzle now. If what she said was true then he now had even more reason to keep Kanryuu from getting his hands on her. But there was one thing he still didn‘t quite understand. If she was indeed a member of the long dead Kamiya family then how had she come to be in the first place? As far as he, and everyone else in the known world knew, the Ancients had vanished centuries ago.
With a soft sigh, Kenshin shook his head at the unanswerable question and started down the dim hallway. She also lacked the defining trait of the female Ancients. The women of that race had always been blue-eyed and her vivid green ones were anything but. That in itself made him question the validity of her story, but that didn’t answer why Tomoe’s parents had given her the name when they too knew of the Kamiya family’s true history.
Kenshin exhaled tiredly as he started down the stairs to the first floor. In the end it didn’t really matter what was true and what wasn’t. All he needed to know was that she was someone precious that needed to be guarded. And he would do everything in his power to make sure she was kept safe.