Shadowy twilight had blanketed the land by the time Kenshin headed back to the cave where he'd left Kaoru, drenched and unconscious, beside a blazing fire. The small stash of nuts, berries and edible roots in his pocket were the only things he’d managed to find in his hunt for food. The stores the Sekihara sisters had sent with them had been damaged in the river along with their spare set of clothes which left them with very little they could use. Right now the only dry items they had were a piece of flint and steel, and the medical salve Megumi had given Kaoru along with some rudimentary first aid items she’d had stored in her water safe pouch.
A cool breeze brushed by him, reminding him of just how wet he still was and he picked up his pace before the rain clouds above decided to open up. Grabbing a few more pieces of usable wood as he went, Kenshin quickly wended his way back to the stony hillside housing their hideaway. A few moments later he came to a steep incline that he knew, if followed, would eventually lead back to the cliff they’d fallen from.
Casting a quick glanced behind him to make sure he was alone, Kenshin turned his attention to the narrow, overgrown path that ran along the face of the hill, facing the river. With his back to the wall, he eased his way out onto the path and slowly made his way to the waterfall of thick ivy several feet away, being careful to keep his passage as undetectable as possible. Once it rained it wouldn’t matter but until then he had to do his best to keep them hidden.
Reaching the foliage naturally obscuring the cave entrance, he gently tugged it out of the way and smiled as he slipped inside; the sudden warmth enveloping him soothed his tired bones. After a quick check to make sure the natural screen had settled back into place, Kenshin turned and made his way towards the back of the cave where Kaoru and the fire were tucked away in the small space he'd sectioned out as their hideaway. If he was lucky his companion would now be awake.
A rueful smile touched his lips when he found Kaoru just as he had left her, asleep atop the thick pile of river reeds he'd fashioned for her bed. With a soft sigh, Kenshin laid the additional wood with the pile he'd collected earlier, emptied his pockets of his food stash then settled down in the small space between the still sleeping young woman and the fire that was slowly drying her out.
As far as he could tell she hadn't moved an inch which meant she was still unconscious. He had no doubt the nasty gash near her left temple was the cause; he only hoped that it wasn't serious enough for medical attention beyond the salve she carried because they were nowhere near a village. Even if they were they couldn’t risk making themselves known with Takeda most likely still hunting them.
Stifling another sigh, he set aside the thought and eyed her still wet clothes with a frown. He had stripped her down as far as he dared when they'd first arrived but even with the healthy blaze at his back it would be hours before her hakama and under kimono dried out. At this rate she might wake from her head injury only to find herself sick from exposure.
But at least she’s alive.
Moving to rest his warmed back against the rough stone wall beside her head, he exhaled tiredly. It had taken him nearly two hours to find her after he’d wrestled his way free of the river. To be honest he hadn't expected to find her alive at that point. But it seemed she had the devil’s own luck because when he’d finally found her she’d been floating face up in the reeds along the river bank a few hundred feet from where they now sat; deathly pale but thankfully still breathing shallowly.
Glancing down to watch the firelight dance across her features, he smiled. She was a stubborn one, he'd give her that. Most people would have died from an uncontrolled fall like that, apprentice mage or not. But then again, Kaoru wasn't most people, was she?
His smile softened as he trailed a finger gently along her eyebrow. Crystal clear, deep blue eyes. That was something he never thought he'd see in his lifetime. Yet, for some reason they fit her more than the bright green did. He couldn't say why he felt that way but to him the green had never really seemed... natural. Maybe it was because even in the few moments he’d seen them before she’d vanished over the edge, the sapphire blue had lit up her face far more than the imitation green ever had.
A tiny smirk touched the edge of his lips and Kenshin shook his head at the direction his thoughts were wandering. Now was not the time to be thinking about that. With an inaudible sigh, he rested his head back against the wall and listened to her now steady breathing over the crackling of the fire. What was far more important right now was to figure out how they were going to get her back to the manor safely. He may have been trained to defeat mages but going up against a black mage was something entirely different.
Although, maybe they weren’t nearly as outmatched as he feared. There was no reason for Kaoru to hide what she could do now; he was more than certain Kanryuu knew exactly what her eye color portended to. If they worked together they might just be able to deal with him before he could cause anymore harm.
Kenshin glanced to the sleeping mage out of the corner of his eye and quickly rethought the idea. No, to deliberately face off with him would be a mistake, because if they lost then Kanryuu would take Kaoru and that wasn’t a risk he was willing to take. It was bad enough he’d put her in this situation, Kenshin wasn‘t about to do it again. Especially now that he knew the whole truth. And there was no guarantee they’d find Kanryuu alone. It would be best to cautiously make their way to the manor once she awoke.
At the thought he chuckled softly and gave his attention back to the flickering firelight. Hadn’t they been here before? Him waiting while she lay unconscious. Ah, but this time he had no whetstone or blade to sharpen.
Later that night, within the safe confines of the Yukishiro manor, Tomoe found out just what had transpired in Kiyosu and for the very first time in her life, she knew true fear.
Turning from the window overlooking the moonlit courtyard, she settled into the chair behind her desk before her knees gave out. With resolve she locked her hands together on the smooth surface to keep them from shaking as Misao continued.
“…. but by the time Hachiro-san showed up at the Akabeko, Himura-san and Kaoru were already gone. “ Misao paused at that before adding in a small voice, “And according to Aoshi-sama so was Kanryuu, so we knew he had taken the bait.“
Tomoe grimaced and swallowed around the thick knot of trepidation in her throat. Her worst nightmare had come true. Takeda Kanryuu was actively hunting Kaoru and, for all she knew, had already captured or killed her.
Forcing her white knuckled hands apart she murmured, “You say Himura-san came up with this idea? “
Misao shook her head, “Only the part where he and Kaoru became the decoys. For some reason he didn’t want to leave Kaoru with Aoshi-sama, so instead of taking me with him he took her.“ With a shrug Misao grumbled, “I don’t know what the big deal is anyway. It‘s not like there‘s anything different about Kaoru. Once Kanryuu figures out she doesn‘t have Ayame and Suzume he‘ll leave her alone.”
Tomoe nearly winced at that and glanced to Akira, who was sitting in a chair beside her desk in an attempt to bolster her waning strength. The understanding look he gave her almost undid the tattered remnants of her composure. They should have told them the truth, at least enough to keep them from doing something like this. But now it was too late.
As if sensing those thoughts, Misao crossed her arms in irritation. “Alright Tomoe-sama, what’s going on?” She cut in crossly, “What aren’t you telling me?”
Tomoe snapped her attention back to her youngest apprentice mage. “Nothing.” she automatically replied, ignoring the hard look her student was giving her. “Is there anything else we should know?”
Misao scowled and eyed her suspiciously. “You’re lying.”
Tomoe narrowed her eyes at the accusation. “If there is nothing else, Misao, you may leave and get some rest.”
Misao‘s eyes flashed angrily. “No!” she shouted defiantly, stomping her foot. “There is something you’re not telling me and probably should have before all this happened. What is it?!”
A tense silence fell over the room and Tomoe silently regarded her student. Misao’s jaw tightened in determination and apprehension as she returned the probing stare. Maybe it was time. No, it was well past time. Misao was right, she should have done this a long time ago with both her and Kaoru. A quick glance to Akira showed his agreement and Tomoe sighed tiredly.
“You’re right, Misao. There is something about Kaoru you both don’t know about.”
She almost smiled at the startled look Misao gave her before she mumbled, “Kaoru?“
Tomoe dipped her head slightly, “Yes. Kaoru. She is far more than what she seems and even she doesn’t know the whole truth.”
Nothing but silence came from her still stunned student and Tomoe decided to begin by asking, “Did your family ever teach you about the race of people we now call the Ancients?”
Misao gave her a confused look. “Yeah. Ojiisan said they could use all the elements, and they were also the ones who sealed Ryuujin away. But what does this have to do with anything, they vanished centuries ago!”
Tomoe smiled half-heartedly, “Yes, they did. But fifteen years ago my family came across a three year old girl who was undeniably a direct descendent of that race and we took her in, hiding her behind the shield to protect her from those who would use her abilities for their own gain.”
Tomoe paused at that and let Misao do the math and come to her own conclusion. She didn’t have to wait long, a moment later Misao’s mouth dropped open in surprise before she muttered, “You’re kidding right?”
Tomoe simply shook her head.
Misao’s eyes flew wide. “There is no way. Kaoru can‘t be an Ancient! I’ve never seen her use anything but fire!”
Tomoe smirked tiredly, “Yes, you have.”
Crossing her arms again with a huff, Misao challenged, “When?”
“The wooden dolls she alone can enlarge or shrink at will.” Tomoe replied, as she settled back in her chair. “The lightning strike that destroyed the tree in the meadow two years ago when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The time you got soaked when you were nowhere near the creek.” Tomoe smiled sadly as Misao paled with each new instance, “I can go on if you don’t believe me.”
For a long moment Misao simply stared at her before she stuttered, “B-but.. she doesn’t have blue eyes! Ojiisan said all the girls had blue eyes and Kaoru’s eyes are green! She can’t be one of them!”
Tomoe’s expression softened, “She does have blue eyes, Misao. I hid them myself behind the strongest illusion I could create.”
“It is true, Misao.“ Akira murmured, speaking for the first time since the conversation began. “Kaoru is a descendent of the Ancients and if Kanryuu figures out she can use all the elements he will hunt her down and use her for his own purposes.”
Misao’s eyes widened in horror and she clenched her hands into white knuckled fists. “And Kaoru doesn’t know anything about this?!“
Tomoe shook her head no, but before she could say any more, Misao exploded.
“Why didn’t you tell us!“ The young mage shrieked. “Why didn’t you at least tell Kaoru! She could be… could.. be…”
“Because I was trying to protect her.” Tomoe replied softly.
“From what?!” Misao screeched, throwing her hands up in the air. “She’s in more danger now than she ever was! Kanryuu is a heartless monster. He‘ll destroy her if he finds out!”
“I know!” Tomoe snapped, losing her patience. Shocked by her own outburst, she took a deep calming breath and continued in an even voice, “I regret not telling you two before you left, but I can’t turn back time. All I can do is find her and bring her home before Kanryuu finds out the truth.”
Misao visibly sagged and shook her head wearily. “It might be too late.”
Tomoe sat straight up as a shiver of dread chilled her, her voice barely audible as she asked “What do you mean?”
Misao gave her a pained look and rubbed her forehead. “When we were on our way here this afternoon we passed a forest about fifteen miles outside of Kiyosu and… it had been burned. At least a part of it. I think that’s where Kaoru and Himura-san left the road to head to Gifu, with Kanryuu and his mages on their tail.”
The thick knot of fear became a lead weight in Tomoe’s chest. Outwardly she remained calm and gave Misao a reassuring smile, knowing it would do none of them any good to panic. “I’m sure she and Kenshin are fine. Tomorrow morning Azrael and I will begin our search there.” Standing she strode around the desk to lay a comforting hand on Misao’s tense shoulder. “Kenshin won’t let anything happen to her, he knows a little of what I just told you. He will keep her safe and help us bring her home.”
Misao gave her a look that said she wasn’t quite sure she believed that, but nodded anyway. “If anything happens to her. I will hunt down Kanryuu myself.”
Tomoe smiled in understanding, “You won’t be alone.” Steering her towards the door, she gave Misao‘s shoulder a gentle squeeze before letting go. “You should get some rest, as soon as I find her I will let you know.”
Tomoe nodded, “Yes, I promise. Now go get some sleep. Oh and send Aoshi-san to me, he said he needed to speak with me about something.”
Misao dipped her head in understanding and shuffled tiredly from the study, the door thumping closed behind her as she left. With a sigh, Tomoe sagged under the weight settling on her shoulders and turned to Akira who had come up behind her, “I really messed up, didn’t I?”
Akira shook his head. “No. You only did what any protective older sister would do.”
Tomoe tried to smile but failed miserably and Akira wrapped her in his arms. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. We all hoped her abilities and eye color were a coincidence, even though we knew it was near impossible. ”
A humorless chuckle spilled from Tomoe’s lips as she extricated herself from her husband’s arms. “And our false hope might cost Kaoru her life.”
Akira gave her a hard look but before he could say any more a soft knock came at the door. Relieved by the interruption, Tomoe waved the door open for Aoshi and leaned against the front of her desk as Misao’s tall, dark-haired guardian entered the room and dipped a shallow bow.
Tomoe returned the gesture and asked, “What is it you wished to speak with me about, Shinomori-san?”
The stoic swordsman fixed her with an icy-eyed stare and murmured, “The Regents have asked me to find a girl child that was born with blue eyes years ago. Do you know of such a child and where I might find her?”
Stunned, Tomoe’s knees wobbled dangerously and she fought to keep a straight face as she grabbed a hold of the desk. A quick glance to Akira showed he was just as surprised… and worried.
How did they know?
The first thing Kaoru became aware of when she finally woke was the dull throb pulsing to her heartbeat on the left side of her head. With a groan, she slowly lifted her hand to gently prod the area and hissed at the spike of pain her inspection caused. Taking a moment to let the pain dull again, she slowly slid her eyes open to see where she was and was surprised to see jet black rock glittering in the firelight some six feet above where she lay.
Kaoru jumped at the unexpected voice and hissed as the movement jarred the rest of her body, revealing the aches and pains she hadn’t noticed yet. With a frown, she carefully tilted her head back enough so she could see the violet-eyed owner of the voice resting against the wall above her head. “I’m not dead?”
Kenshin smiled, “No, just battered and bruised.”
Kaoru smiled weakly and started levering herself up. “That would be an understatement.“ she grumbled as little twinges of pain came to life all over her body. She was immensely grateful when a gentle hand came from behind, assisting her until she was sitting up on the thick bed of reeds.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, shifting around to find a comfortable position in her itchy, damp clothes. “Y’know, once I get back to the manor I’m never setting foot outside the shield again.”
Kenshin chuckled softly at that. Kaoru grinned at the sound and was just about to glance to the redhead when a shiver suddenly shook her entire body, irritating all of her aches again; including her still healing ribs. Swallowing a cry of pain, she grimaced and instinctively whispered a simple water spell that forced the wetness from her clothes, drying them instantly.
It wasn’t until a surprised yelp came from the man beside her that she realized what she had done. Horrified by her slip up, Kaoru swung widened eyes at him as the blood drain from her face. Oh, gods she had just given herself away!
Kenshin smiled softly and calmly wiped the water droplets from his face. “Could you do that for me? I’m rather tired of sitting in wet clothes.”
Still too stunned to even think straight Kaoru simply stared at him open mouthed.
“Its okay, Kaoru-dono,” Kenshin murmured when she remained silent. “I already know about your abilities.”
It took another minute or so before Kaoru’s mind fully processed what he’d said and then her eyes narrowed. “What exactly do you know about me, Himura-san?”
Kenshin gave her a crooked grin. “Honestly? Not all that much. Although,” he continued with a pointed look, “many of my questions have now been answered.”
Confused, Kaoru lifted an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
Kenshin’s answering smile was warm as he nodded towards her, “Your deep blue eyes are quite beautiful. I never thought to see one such as you in my lifetime.”
Kaoru’s mouth dropped open as an icy chill swept through her body. That’s right, the illusion was gone… and Kanryuu had seen too, as had all the mages on the cliff. She grimaced as a fist of dread knotted in her stomach. Tomoe was going to kill her. She wasn’t supposed to let anyone see, let alone the enemy! And the worst part was, she couldn’t even fix it!
“Trust me Kaoru-dono, your secret is safe with me.” Kenshin assured her. “Tomoe hid your race to keep you safe and I will uphold her wishes.”
“It doesn’t matter!” Kaoru bit out caustically, “I can’t fix it! Only Tomoe-sama knows how to create the illusion!” And then the rest of what he’d said finally sank in and she growled, “Race? What do you mean race?”
Kenshin’s eyes widened slightly and he eyed her for a moment before he murmured, “You don’t know?”
“Don’t know what!” Kaoru yelled, quickly coming to the end of her rope.
“That you’re a descendent of the Ancients.”
That stopped her dead. “What?”
When Kenshin simply continued to stare at her, Kaoru felt the last of her patience slip away. “What is an Ancient?!”
That seemed to take him even more off guard and he gave her an odd look. “Tomoe never told you about them?”
“Obviously not!,” Kaoru retorted angrily, “Or I wouldn’t be asking you.”
Kenshin sighed heavily and ran a hand through his bangs. She could tell he would much rather let the topic drop but right now she wasn’t feeling all that generous. It seemed she had been lied to and kept ignorant her entire life and now she wanted to know why. He remained silent for several excruciatingly long moments and Kaoru was just beginning to think he was going to refuse when he finally gave in.
“The Ancients,” he began wearily as he slid his attention to the fire, “were a small race of mages who lived on this island a thousand years ago. They, like you, were also able to use all the elements instead of a specific one as the mages do today. According to the lore books and the stories I’ve heard, they were a peaceful race who only used their abilities to help the people of the land.”
A small, sad smile touched his lips as he leaned forward to rest his arms on his bent knees. “But all that changed when the Dragon God began to perceive them as a threat. Fueled by this irrational fear, he and his brothers started hunting them down, killing anyone and everyone who got in their way.” Kenshin sighed softly and finally looked back to her, “Anyway, in the end the Ancients retaliated by destroying all but Ryuujin who they sealed away then simply vanished from the face of the earth. Many have searched for them over the years but none have ever been found… until now.“
Kaoru cocked an eyebrow, “ What makes you think I’m one of them? Tomoe-sama says I just happen to be exceptionally gifted.”
Kenshin smirked at that. “Your blue eyes. It is a known fact that the only females in the world to have deep blue eyes were the Ancients. There is no doubt in my mind you are indeed one of them. What I don‘t understand is how.”
Kaoru swallowed back a sarcastic chuckle and rubbed her throbbing head. This was too much to take in. She was supposedly an entirely different race? She almost snorted at that. She was no different than Tomoe-sama and Misao except she could use air, earth, lightning and water. But then, why had Tomoe hidden her eyes? And why had her teacher never told her of these people?
Groaning softly, Kaoru shook her head. Too many questions. “I don’t know if I believe that or not,” she replied half-heartedly, “but it doesn’t really matter anyway, right? I’m me and that’s all that matters. I’ll have to talk to Tomoe-sama when we get back to the manor.”
“That‘s understandable.” Kenshin conceded as he settled back against the wall again. “But for now let’s act as if it’s true because Takeda will undoubtedly think the same and be coming for you.”
Kaoru ignored the tiny flutter of fear caused by the black mage’s name and gave him a questioning look, “Why would he come after me? He needs Ayame and Suzume, not me?”
Kaoru‘s eyes narrowed at the faint smile Kenshin gave her. “He’s a black mage, Kaoru-dono. Once he has you in his hands, he has ways to draw on your powers. That coupled with his insanity would be almost as devastating as the Dragon God himself roaming the earth again.”
Another chill swept through her body at the implications and she angrily bit out, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about all this?” It was the least they could do considering.
“Because up until a few days ago, everyone believed Kanryuu was still powerless.” Kenshin explained gently. “That was most likely why Tomoe-dono kept this from you. So you could lead a relatively normal life without that possibility darkening your days. A powerless Takeda meant you were safe.”
Kaoru‘s irritation quickly evaporated under the obvious truth and she wilted. She could see Tomoe doing that too. Her teacher and mentor had always been more of a sister to her than a guardian, sometimes almost maternal even.
With a soft sigh, she absently rubbed her untouched temple and grumbled, “So basically we have to get to the manor without Kanryuu finding us. And that, I think, is going to be easier said than done.”
Kenshin hummed his agreement, but said nothing as he rested his head back against the rock; staring at the ceiling of the cave. Kaoru could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he began chewing over their problem.
Smiling to herself, she remained quiet and instead took advantage of his preoccupation to finally really look at him. With a critical eye, she scanned him for injuries and was somewhat surprised to find none readily visible, his hakama and under kimono were wet but otherwise intact. Her smile dropped into a frown as she glanced to her own ripped clothes, the scraps beneath a dull red in the firelight. No wonder he seemed so relaxed, how did the man do it? He must have gone into the rapids too, right?
Kaoru huffed softly under her breath and instead turned her attention to his loose fiery red hair. The majority of it was trapped by the wall he was leaning against but a few tendrils had escaped confinement and snaked over his shoulders to lay unobtrusively down his chest. Which she could tell through the thin, damp fabric of his white under kimono was smooth and well formed.
A hot blush flew across her cheeks and she tore her eyes away from him to look to the fire. Now was definitely not the time to be admiring the man’s attributes, especially considering their predicament, not to mention their age difference. That thought was enough to calm her down somewhat and she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Being Tomoe’s childhood friend meant he had to be at least the same age as her mentor and Tomoe had celebrated her twenty-eighth year just a couple of weeks ago. And yet he didn’t look a day over twenty, twenty-five at most.
Noting his damp clothes again, she finally remembered his earlier request. “Himura-san?” she murmured to catch his attention. When Kenshin glanced her way, she asked, “Would you still like to be dried?“
A surprised look passed over his face and Kaoru couldn’t help but smile. Must be he’d forgotten. The look quickly vanished though under a relieved smile and he dipped his head. “First, it’s Kenshin. And yes, if you can.”
A funny feeling flowed through her chest at the implied familiarity. Ignoring it the best she could, she began to slowly stand up; being careful not to aggravate her sore body too much. Once she had reached her feet, she glanced to Kenshin who had risen with her and smirked at the questioning look he was giving her.
“It’ll be easier with us standing.” She explained as she reached out to grasp his covered wrists lightly. Kenshin stiffened at the contact and Kaoru grinned to herself as her thundering heart began to slow to a more normal pace. It was nice to see she wasn’t the only one affected by the other.
Taking a deep breath to calm herself even more, she closed her eyes and sent tiny tendrils of power through her hands into his clothes; weaving a web around his body from his shoulders to the hem of his hakama. Once she had completed the invisible cross-stitch she whispered a single word and snapped the web closed, forcing the water from every inch of cloth. On her this wasn’t nearly as hard because she could grab the water through her skin and force it away.
An angry hissing came from the fire as several droplets splashed in the flames and with a satisfied smile she opened her eyes to her now dry companion. She blushed at the slightly awed look Kenshin was giving her and released his wrists.
“Better?” She asked in an effort to snap him out of it.
Kenshin blinked, then shook his head as if he’d just awoken and gave her a smile that caused that funny feeling to swim through her chest again.
“Yes, very much.”
Kaoru absently rubbed at her chest in a feeble attempt to force whatever it was to go away. Turning she removed the damp reeds from her bed before cautiously sitting back down. “So… did you have any luck thinking up a plan to get us to the manor?”
With a weary sigh, Kenshin settled back down against the wall beside the damp spot he’d made. “Not yet. But there’s really no hurry, this place is the safest place we could be right now.”
Eying the oddly colored walls curiously she asked, “What’s so special about it?”
For a long moment nothing but silence was her answer and she glanced back to the redhead wondering why. She was surprised to see a faint tinge of sadness marring his face and then he finally murmured, “This was the place where Tomoe’s family hid from the shogun’s troops days before they were caught and killed. The black stone is due to the ward her mother cast to hide their presence from the trackers in the shogun’s employ.“
Kaoru’s eyes widened in surprise and she felt the warmth flee from her body. “Oh…”, she mumbled barely above a whisper as she shifted her attention back to the shimmering black walls. With a trembling hand she reached out to the wall beside her and ran her fingers over the smooth, ridged stone.
She’d been all of five years old when that had happened. She barely remembered the kind man and woman who had taken her in, or their son who had died with them that day but she knew even now that they had loved her like one of their own. And here they were protecting her once again even if they weren’t aware of it.
A poorly stifled yawn caught her attention and she glanced back to Kenshin, who she could now tell was clearly exhausted. Smiling, she said, “Maybe you should get some rest, Himur-” She stopped at his quirked eyebrow and quickly amended, “K-Kenshin…-san.”
Kenshin smirked at her stammer and nodded in agreement as he moved to the other bed of reeds on the opposite side of the fire. “We both should probably rest for now. Tomorrow will be soon enough to plan our journey.”
Kaoru glanced between him and the entrance. “… Are you sure we both should?” she asked uncertainly.
Kenshin gave her a reassuring smile. “Yes, none will find us tonight. I’m sure.”
Kaoru eyed him for another few moments as he settled in, then finally sighed and laid down herself. If he said they were safe then they must be. Right?