Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters borrowed from Rurouni Kenshin, nor the single character borrowed from Inuyasha. In fact, I don't even own Rurouni Kenshin or Inuyasha. So there.

- Romance / Drama / Angst - Alternate Universe -

Summary: Three young women are brought into a town of assassins and soldiers, where they find life is far different than that of their sheltered home. In the midst of war and chaos, they find hope and love to stand against anything... even it not being returned.

Rating: Very "R". Sexual situations, language, violence. Yes, that's right - sex and violence. Don't like, don't read.



~`~`~`~`

To Find a Dream: War Arc
Part III


~`~`~`~`



Kaoru snuck through the halls with a vague feeling of guilt. Sango would be furious if she knew I was going down to the river so often, she thought, glancing over her shoulder uneasily. Although the bracelet on her wrist proclaimed to all and sundry that she was not to be touched, it was still dangerous to leave the building's security. Of course, in her opinion, it was also dangerous to stay inside all the time and not get doses of fresh air and sunlight. She would go crazy if they didn't allow her outside. After she passed the safety point of the servant's back entry, the young woman pulled her skirts up and darted into the garden, making her way with sure steps to her spot on the riverbank.

Something prickled along her spine, telling her that she was being watched. But she shrugged off the feeling - no one was ever here but for the servants. Another quick glance over her shoulder before she made her way down the gently inclining hill to finally come to a stop at the water's edge. She breathed deeply of the fresh air, closing her eyes and raising her face to be caressed by the sunlight. Freedom, she thought happily, kicking off her sandals to relish the feel of sun-warmed grass beneath her feet.

The past month had gone by with amazing haste after their adaptation to their new life. Megumi and Yumi had been essential in their learning the ways of the harem, and knowing who to steer away from. They also diverted attention to themselves in a selfless attempt to allow the Kirishima girls more time to get used to their new... job. It was much easier to think of it as a job than anything else.

Especially after Yumi had sat the two sisters down to talk about what exactly happened between a man and woman, how to keep from getting pregnant (those vile herbal concoctions had to be consumed daily except during their woman's bleeding!), and how to pleasure men in various ways. Her cheeks had been burning with embarrassment after that. She'd even been invited to "watch", in order to learn some of the things she'd been told, but had flatly refused. Though she thought Sango had disappeared with Yumi and one of the latter's more persistent admirers.

Kaoru wriggled comfortably in the grass before falling back, resting an arm over her eyes. It was nice to be here and simply relax. She didn't even have to worry about running into Misao. Not that it was normally a problem, but their relationship had been somewhat strained because of her friend's embarrassment and horrified guilt at having dragged the sisters to Kyoto.

They were getting over it now, especially once Misao had been assured that neither girl blamed her for their predicament, but when Kaoru wanted to relax, she didn't want to deal with anything. She gave a soft little sigh. So far, she'd been lucky and hadn't had to deal with any propositions. Either Megumi or Yumi had been there to stave them off. Even without them, however, she was still being given enough money to send home to Yahiko each month. The small packet was what Megumi called 'pin money' that they were supposed to use on themselves.

She pulled her arm from her eyes and lifted her wrist, inspecting the little bracelet she'd been given. Her name had been engraved into the platinum band; it was really a work of art, despite what it represented. She brushed a finger idly over the decorations, smiling faintly.

"Oh, those? It's an old joke... that women smelled and felt like roses, but their words stung like thorns. It's a silly thing, I suppose." Yumi had laughed when Kaoru had put the question to her. It was rather amusing, really. Shaking her head slightly, she stared up at the sky, eyes dancing over the clouds.

Though she managed to hide her discontent from her sister, she was still occasionally feeling lonely and depressed. This life wasn't one she'd ever dreamed about! The idea of using her body for money still made her shudder, and she highly doubted she would be able to... perform well, when the time came. But she had to try. Sango, she knew, was also strung tight over the entire ordeal, but as the elder, she took to her duties with a grim sort of determination. Father had always said she would have made a fine samurai, if she had ever been born a man.

Kaoru reached for a lock of hair, twirling it absently around her finger. The elegant coiffure Megumi had teased and forced the silky tresses into was still intact, but she hated it. She missed having her hair swing freely down her back, or flying in the wind. She felt too confined. And that was the biggest problem - she was stuck in a cage, and probably would be for all her foreseeable future. She'd already thrown away her dreams of a husband and family as much as she'd been able, though her heart still ached for such a life. There never would be one for her. She would die unmarried because of this. Misao and Sango were the same way. But...

At least Yahiko will be happy, she thought. If I stay away from him when he is fully grown, he will not have to contend with my fallen self and will be able to find a good wife. His children will grow to be happy and he will bring the dojo back up from the ground. She smiled. Her younger brother had a talent for the sword, and she knew his grasp of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu was immaculate, even if he was only 10. Of course, she and Sango would have to return someday to teach him the succession techniques her father had taught her older sister, but...

That was a thought for another time. For now she needed to try to find contentment. Letting out a little groan, she sat up, tucking her legs beneath her and pulling at the laces of her bodice to keep her dress from biting into her ribs. She inhaled deeply, consciously relaxing the muscles of her neck and shoulders. Her father had taught her how to meditate when she was a child, but she rarely used the skill. It was, she had always privately thought, boring. But she had to admit that the ability to clear her mind and think calmly was a good one.

Kaoru tried to empty her thoughts of all but the soothing sound of the river. Unfortunately, little things kept tugging at her attention. The sound of the wind catching at the fallen leaves, or a distant shout that she thought probably came from the garrison, in perhaps some training facility. Concentrate, she scolded herself, taking another deep breath and letting it out slowly.

The sharp scent of grass, the feel of the wind cooling her heated cheeks, the soft silk against her skin. The faint, nagging pounding at the back of her head, the tense knot in her belly - all faded as she forced herself to float in a wave of tranquility. Finally she began to bring out her thoughts.

Misao. She was first on her mind today. The girl had felt so uncomfortable in her presence of late, and she needed to fix that somehow. But how would that be possible? She'd tried everything to get her old friend to be the carefree girl she'd been before, but nothing had helped. Perhaps if they sat down and had a good talk? Maybe once Kaoru confessed her feelings and fears, Misao would realize that she was still a human being, and not a demon in disguise, ready to pounce once a wrong move was made. Yes - she would need to talk to her childhood friend. That wouldn't be so bad, really. Kaoru needed someone to confide in, someone who wouldn't judge her. Megumi and Yumi were wonderful, but she was a little in awe of their complete adaptation to the harem life. And Misao was still not completely adapted - she still felt the anger and sadness that came with their new positions...

Sango. Her older sister seemed to have everything in hand, but did she? Kaoru couldn't really believe that. She was certain that her sibling was holding everything inside. There wasn't much to do about that - only pray that someone would be there when she broke. She won't confide in me, because I'm the little sister she wants to protect. No matter that I'm seventeen now and perfectly able to take some responsibility on my own shoulders. She still thinks of me as her baby sister.

My own feelings... She didn't hesitate in the solitude of her own mind. I feel angry and upset. I feel betrayed by my own self. I don't like this at all and I hate having to pretend. But I'm getting better. There's nothing I can do to change this, and fighting it really won't help me at all, like Sango said. I just need to accept it. Sometimes I don't want to, because it feels like I'm just rolling over and allowing myself to be stepped on, but I have to in this case. I have to do everything I can to be happy and perhaps salvage some of my old life while making it in this new one. Clinging to the could-have-beens won't help me. It won't help Yahiko.

...am I upset that I have to give up my own dreams and happiness for him? No, not really. He's too young to be able to take care of himself, and I have to face up to that responsibility now. He's my family. She smiled faintly. When he gets older, he'll probably throw a fit that we did this for him, but that won't be for a while yet. I know he would have done anything to keep us from leaving had he known what was in store for us. And maybe if he hadn't been sick at the time. They'd sent a letter to him, a very careful one editing out their mishaps, telling him that they were fine and that they hoped he was as well. It was too bad that he couldn't respond to them, the way Kyoto was isolated.

She thought of what was expected of her now. I don't know if I can do everything I'm supposed to. Keep them company? Yes, I can do that - I can be there to talk and listen, and I can help them. But... She wanted to shy at the next thought. Can I do that with a man I don't love? I remember when Mama was pregnant with Yahiko, how she absolutely glowed. And she said that she could only have children because she loved Daddy so much. I never understood her then, but I do now, I think.

If I can't do it, though... I won't be able to stay here, where I am. I'll be kicked out, and then I'll be at the mercy of any man. I have to be able to grit my teeth and do this. But Yumi says I can't just endure it, like wives do... that I have to do everything I can to make sure he enjoys it. Everything is for him.

She gazed unseeingly over the water, shivering a little at some remembered snippets of conversation. She still hadn't even seen a man naked before, and was somewhat unsure as to how some things were supposed to be done. Yumi had assured her that she would understand once she was in the position, but still...

...

"One more thing," she added with a smile. "You both are virgins, right?" Blushing, Kaoru and Sango nodded. "That means everyone's going to want to be your first, so you want to keep that knowledge to yourself if you don't want a horde of men running after you. Even though you both are innocent, if you don't act like it, you have a better chance of slipping through this with as few men as possible."

"I don't understand," Kaoru objected. "Wouldn't men like women that are more... experienced?" Her cheeks were still crimson from the entire subject.

The older woman laughed softly. "You have a lot to know about men. Just trust me, Kaoru."

...

Ah, the complexities. She sighed, bringing her mind from the self-inflicted trance, feeling suddenly bone-weary. Though she hadn't thought very much, the emotional stress of everything she had wondered about had sapped all her energy. A glance up at the sky told her that she hadn't been meditating for very long. A faint smile curved her lips as she curled onto her side, feeling like a child again. It was nice to simply relax like this, to lie on the grass without a care in the world.

Except that... someone was watching her.

She kept herself from stiffening, but the faint prickle at the back of her neck had returned. Slowly, she pushed herself to her feet, stretching slowly and casually. Where is he? She flicked a stray strand of hair over her shoulder and turned easily, flicking her eyes over her surroundings quickly, taking everything in. She hesitated when she saw a tall, man-shaped figure near a tree, taking a protective step back when he detached himself.

I recognize him, she thought after a moment. It was hard not to remember him; the odd, striped clothing and the grotesque mask covering his face. Something vaguely resembling fear fluttered in her belly, and she took another step back, before steeling herself to stand still. She knew that she'd only seen him because he'd wanted her to see him, which brought up the question of why.

"Good afternoon," she greeted calmly, as though they had just been passing by. He inclined his head politely.

"Good afternoon, Kaoru-sama."

Kaoru... sama? Her brows arched slightly, and she wondered if he was mocking her. Instead of asking, she kept a polite smile curving her lips as she stood there, waiting patiently for him to appease her curiosity.

They stayed at this impasse for a long moment, before he bowed before her slightly, a mere inclination of his torso. "May I offer my compliments, Kaoru-sama?" At the faint flicker of confusion in her eyes, he made a slight motion of one gloved hand. "Ah, so you do not know."

"Obviously." The chill in her voice should have frozen him, but he simply chuckled.

"My apologies for interrupting your meditation." It seemed he wasn't going to enlighten her on this thing she didn't know. Biting back her initial retort, she managed a serene smile.

"Your apology is accepted." She lifted a brow coolly. "Was there a reason for this... chance meeting, or shall I leave now?"

He hesitated, before taking a step to the side. "No reason, Kaoru-sama. Please, have a nice day." He bowed again, the polite gesture irking her extremely. Refusing to show it, she murmured platitudes before sweeping off to the direction of the large building, lifting her chin haughtily in the air.

Although she was nothing more than a harem member, she hated being toyed with. Her eyes held a simmering fury as she began to hunt down either Megumi or Yumi, who would perhaps know who this masked man was. And how dare he watch her during her private moments?

So encompassed was she in her anger that Kaoru didn't notice Misao until she bumped into her. Hard. "Ow!" She winced, rubbing her forehead. "Ah! Misao-chan?"

"Yeah." The other girl was also rubbing her head, pouting a little. "That hurt."

"I'm sorry." The older woman grimaced, before managing a real smile. I need to talk to her, she remembered. "Hey, Misao-chan? Are you busy?"

"Me? No. Actually, I was just looking for you." She laughed nervously, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. She'd taken it from the confines of her braid and allowed the silky curls to fall to her knees in unbridled splendor. Kaoru bit back a sigh - they'd always been jealous of Misao's hair.

"Oh? What for?"

"I figured that we... probably needed to talk. I don't like how we've been..." She made a slicing motion with her hand. "We've been so distant."

Kaoru looped her arm through her younger friend's with a soft chuckle. "That's odd, because I was thinking the same thing a little earlier." Very gently, she began steering her toward the solar. Very few people ever went there, and it was a nice place for privacy when one needed a serious conversation. Surprisingly, more men appeared there than women, though it had been made with the females in mind.

"Actually, I had a question," she went on, thinking back to her odd encounter by the river. "Do you know of a man who wears a mask and odd, striped clothing?"

Misao frowned slightly in thought. "I've seen him around before, but I can't remember his name." She slowed her steps to the delicate gait that Kaoru had taken two weeks to adopt, under the rigorous training and stern eye of Yumi. "You need to act feminine in order to catch the eye. I know that's not what you want, but it's what you have to do, and I won't let you shirk those duties."

"Hmm." Kaoru quickly recounted her meeting with him, causing her friend's thoughtful frown to deepen. "I'm pretty sure he was watching me since I went outside, because I remember thinking someone had their eyes on me. I just don't see why he would."

"Well," Misao ventured slowly, "A lot of men will have their... subordinates tell one of us to come to their rooms. They're all busy people, so it's not so surprising. If that's what he was going to do, though, I don't see why he didn't." She shook her head slightly. "I guess you'll just have to wait. All I can think of is that you have an admirer." The sympathetic glance went a long way to soothing Kaoru's feelings, and she smiled slightly.

"I hope not," she said lightly, her smile widening at her friend's soft laugh. "I really want another... five or so years to adjust before I have to worry about this particular brand of suitors."

"Unfortunately, I don't think you'll be as lucky as I've been," Misao murmured, once again sober. "I've had two months and the only thing I've done is keep Tenken company for a few evenings. Nice guy, though I think he really represses his emotions too much. That can't be healthy for him."

"Tenken..." Her brow furrowed slightly as she tried to match the name to a face, finally remembering the man she'd seen during the girls' reunion. "Oh! Seta Soujirou? The one who's always smiling? He is nice," she agreed. "But you're right. When he lets his guard down, it's going to hurt him. I don't think anyone's ever seen him be anything but happy."

"All he wants to do was hear me talk," Misao mused. "He does seem a little contemplative, but not overly much. He laughs a lot. But I can tell that there's something beyond that, something he probably doesn't even realize is there. I can't really do anything about it, though." She shrugged slightly.

Kaoru relaxed, realizing that, for the first time since she'd come to Kyoto, they were having a conversation without being stilted and formal. "We can only do as much as we are able. Father told us that several times when we were younger." She flashed a quick grin. "I remember how you used to be so angry because you were short, and how he'd just laugh and say that you had to make do with what you'd been given."

Misao groaned and shook her head. "Don't dredge up those memories. I know you remember perfectly well what I did in response to him saying that." She rolled her eyes, recalling some... occurrences with local boys around her age, in grumpy revenge for not being tall.

The older girl giggled as they reached the door leading to the solar. "All right, I won't," she agreed amiably, sliding the door open and slipping inside. She blinked a little at the brightness of the room, waiting for her eyes to adjust. Almost immediately the two men standing and talking quietly on the other side of the room caught her attention. They glanced up at the girls' entry.

"I'm sorry," she apologized quickly. "We didn't mean to intrude..."

The taller of the two shook his head and made a slight gesture of welcome. Kaoru smiled politely and gently tugged Misao to a pile of cushions surrounding a low-set table, watching the men out of the corner of her eye. The one who had gestured for them to take a seat seemed to be doing the same, causing the younger girl to flush slightly at the attention. She hadn't reacted that way to anyone else, but then again, very few of the men were as handsome as this one.

Another quick glance gave her all the necessary details. Dark hair fell carelessly around his face, bangs falling almost in his eyes - he was too far away for her to note their color. He didn't seem to be overly muscular, though neither was he slender; broad shoulders tapered to lean hips and long legs. Powerful, she thought, almost dazed by the raw sex appeal he exuded without apparent thought. It was almost enough to make her overlook the longsword strapped to his back. Odd; she wouldn't have thought him the type, but scabbards didn't lie.

"Conservative, isn't he?" Misao spoke softly, her lips barely moving.

"What?" Kaoru blinked at her in confusion.

"Shinomori Aoshi, the Okashira of the Oniwabanshu." The younger girl lowered herself gracefully to the cushions, easily flaring her skirts about her in an attractive manner. It was second nature for her by now, though Kaoru still had to think about it before she sat. Which she did now, flaring her own skirts with a nimble flick of two wrists as she knelt onto the soft pillow. "His clothes. The high neck; you can't even see a bit of his chest." Misao grinned at her friend's blush. "I know you were looking. I was."

She coughed a little. "Misao-chan!" she protested in a fierce whisper, absolutely determined to not look.

"The other guy's not so bad, either, even if he is a little short." Aquamarine eyes danced, though her expression was properly demure. "I'm not sure if all that red hair is to my taste, though. But the scar is rather dashing."

"Misao-chan..." she nearly strangled on her friend's name as she raised a cool hand to one burning cheek. Blushing just because we're talking about men? This is a change. "That's enough, Misao-chan," she uttered firmly, azure eyes determined. Unfortunately, she couldn't sneak another look in their direction - He might be short, but he's just as sexy as that Aoshi.

The younger girl smirked a little before giving her head a slight toss. "Embarrassed?" she murmured out of the side of her mouth. Then she paused, blinking as a stray thought entered her head. "Oh!"

"What?" A little concerned, Kaoru leaned forward. "Misao-chan?"

"I just remembered." She lowered her voice further. "That guy you met earlier? He's part of the Oniwabanshu."

"So?" Then she paused. "Oh." If that Shinomori Aoshi is the leader of the man I met earlier, and if Aoshi is my admirer... The blood rushed to her cheeks once again. "It's good to know," she said lamely, before trying to change the subject. "Listen, about everything..."

Misao immediately shook her head. "Don't worry about it. We don't really need to talk." She smiled shyly. "I realized that everything was because I was being so stilted. Look at us now - it's like nothing changed."

Kaoru reached over to place her hand over her friend's, squeezing lightly. "It's good to have you back," she admitted with sincere pleasure.

"Now." Misao grinned. "About Shinomori Aoshi..."



His eyes flickered to the women talking quietly on the other side of the room. He had listened to every word of their conversation, despite their low voices; his training in the Oniwabanshu had heightened his hearing. Neither he nor Battousai were talking about anything particularly important, so he indulged himself in watching one of the newest arrivals in the harem.

"Our leader has good taste," he noted after a moment, faintly amused by his companion's disinterest. Himura Battousai glanced briefly toward them.

"I suppose so," he agreed. It had been long a topic of conversation, his apparent indifference toward the female sex. Not that he much cared for men, either - he simply was not interested. His hand rested lightly on the hilt of his katana in an absent gesture Aoshi was familiar with. He'd often done the same with his kodachi, until he'd become attached to the double kodachi strapped across his back in a long scabbard.

"You have not partaken of the harem's fruits in a while," he noted. "I have heard that Takani Megumi has been quite out of sorts."

Battousai blinked a little, amber eyes glinting in the light. He shrugged. "I never requested her presence before, so I see no difference."

For such a brutally efficient assassin, he could be rather daft in the department of women. He had not noticed Megumi's slight infatuation with him, much less Sanosuke's ardent pursuance of her. "Of course," he murmured, knowing that the irony would be lost on his companion and sometimes-friend. "Saitou was sent on another mission this morning."

"Oh?" Battousai's features sharpened immediately in interest. "Who?"

"I hear the ambassador they sent to Raneire has returned, and such an alliance needs to be taken out quickly before they manage to fight against us." Aoshi's face was as immobile as ever, but the flame-haired man was still able to read the slight signs in his face.

"So, Raneire is getting edgy over the civil turmoil," he murmured. "They want to end it quickly so their trade isn't jeopardized. They rely on the silk they get from us, don't they?" The slightest nod. "Interesting. But we will not act directly against them, of course - we will need them once we set up the government." Another slight inclination of his head. "So, Saitou, hmm? He took Okita with him, didn't he?"

Aoshi arched a brow. "You're almost getting good enough to be one of the Oniwabanshu, Battousai."

"Your compliments astound me," he replied dryly. "Okita was speaking of a mission last night; it was an easy deduction to make."

"Hmm. Tell me, what can you deduce of the two over there?"

Himura glanced toward the women, a faint line appearing in his forehead. "What about them?"

"Just tell me what you've noticed."

He took another sharp glance, before turning his tawny gaze to the Oniwabanshu's leader. "The younger has been here longer, though she respects the other. They are close friends, possibly from before their arrival in Kyoto, and do not want us to hear their conversation. The older does not seem to want to continue the topic at hand, and is highly embarrassed."

Aoshi nodded slightly. "Not bad. And you realize this how?"

Battousai leaned against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest as he wondered what his friend was getting at. "It is easy to see that the younger respects the older because of her body language. She defers to her. However, despite the other's wish to stop talking, she's continuing to tease her - that shows a close relationship, and a knowledge of where the line lies. As I cannot remember either of them being here before our last mission, it makes sense that they knew each other before coming to Kyoto. They also speak with their voices lowered so we cannot hear, and by the blush on the older girl's cheeks, she's embarrassed."

"Not bad at all," he murmured. "However, can you tell me what they are talking about?"

He seemed faintly annoyed by this. "No."

"Observe. The first woman keeps glancing our way, and each time she does, she blushes even more fiercely. Also, she is fiddling with her hair, trying to smooth it and make sure it is not out of place. I would have to wager they are talking about us." His brows arched as the slender man turned for another quick glance.

"I would have to disagree," he said after a moment. "They are talking about you."

Instead of getting into a juvenile argument - as they were wont to do when Battousai tried to employ logistical thinking - he pushed away from the window to make his way toward the women in question.



"Misao-chan!" Kaoru fought the urge to stamp her feet, which wasn't possible the way she was sitting anyway. "Will you stop it?"

"You're no fun," the younger girl muttered, finally leaning back. "It's not my fault you can't keep your eyes off him."

"If you'd stop talking about him, maybe I would," she sniped, pulling her hand guiltily away from a stray curl resting on her shoulder. Stop fussing or he'll notice. "Can we please talk about something else?"

"Like what?" Misao arched her brows in amusement.

"Like - you haven't asked about your father," Kaoru parried desperately. Her companion frowned slightly.

"Kaoru-chan, you don't know how he is. He disappeared when I was a child."

"Oh," she mumbled, deflated, her mind racing for a new topic of conversation. "How did you meet Yumi?" she finally asked, feeling slightly triumphant.

A ragged sigh answered her question. The sound reminded her of a young child deprived of a new and exciting toy. "She was the one who helped me get on my feet when I first came to Kyoto," Misao obediently began. "She does that with a lot of the younger girls who didn't know what they were getting into. Megumi, too."

"Yes, they would." Azure eyes softened. "Both of them have hearts of gold. And they're strong people, to have endured all this without being bitter and cynical. They still care."

"I know." The younger girl's smile flashed, a blindingly bright, cheerful expression that everyone in Tokyo remembered. Makimachi Misao had been adored by everyone with her laughter and ability to keep everyone's spirits up. "They're wonderful. In fact, they're the ones who introduced Tenken to me. It helped a lot, going in to be his companion. I'm not nearly as nervous as I was." She hesitated. "Well, I still am a little, but... not as much."

Kaoru nodded. "I can understand that, I suppose. I'm deathly afraid of what'll happen when someone really pursues me," she admitted, a faint frown curving her lips. "I really hope I'll be able to... you know." She sighed and blushed. "Yumi... talked to me about it. But..." she struggled for the words. "I was so embarrassed when she talked to me. How am I supposed to be able to... to do all that if..." she moved her hands helplessly.

"I don't know," Misao sighed, but smiled wickedly. "Then again, if I had someone like Shinomori Aoshi pursuing me..."

"Misao-chan!" I should have known she wouldn't stay off the topic more than a few minutes. Her steely blue glare cowed the younger girl for a moment, until the silence was suddenly broken by a male voice.

"Excuse me."

Kaoru gave a surprised half-jump, falling to her side as her head jerked sharply to the side to regard the tall man standing beside her. She lifted a hand to her heart, feeling its rapid beat as she spat without thinking, "Be careful! You could have given me a heart attack!" She blushed immediately as she realized what she said. "My apologies..."

"No, no, please allow us to give ours," the other man was saying, discreetly elbowing the first in the ribs. He bowed politely. "We should not have scared you so."

"No, it's all right," she protested weakly, brushing her bangs out of her eyes and sending her childhood companion a single, fulminating look. "I was just a little tense, that's all. Hello," she struggled to mend the breach, "my name is Kaoru." She held out her hand, only to have it swept up by the red-haired man who had so elegantly apologized. She blushed as he brushed a light kiss across her knuckles, feeling the heat of contact in her bones. Oh, my.

"Kaoru-dono, it is a pleasure." He glanced toward Misao with a meaningfully arched brow.

"Misao," Kaoru supplied, when she realized the younger girl wasn't fast enough.

"Misao-dono." He took her hand as well to give it similar treatment. "Himura Kenshin, and this is my companion." He jerked his head slightly toward the silent one. "Shinomori Aoshi."

"A pleasure to meet you, Himura-san, Shinomori-san," she murmured, as the younger girl breathed soft greetings. "Please, won't you join us?" She gestured gracefully toward the extra cushions surrounding their small table.

"If it would not be a bother." Shinomori was speaking now as he sat. Next to Misao, thankfully, Kaoru thought.

She desperately wished she had her fan. At least then she could hide half her face and hopefully all of her blush, which had taken permanent residence on her face since Kenshin - no, no, Himura. His name is Himura - had settled on the other side of her. Lovely, she thought grimly. The one guy who puts those butterflies in my stomach, and he's not the one pursuing me. But wait - then why is Shinomori next to Misao and not me? ... Oh, the headaches.

"And how are you enjoying Kyoto?" he was asking her friend formally.

"I would tell you," Misao admitted frankly, "but I haven't stepped foot out of the building."

She tuned out their conversation - stilted as it was - as Himura turned his attention toward her. "Kaoru-dono... you are from the Tokyo area, I presume?"

She paled. "Well, yes. Is it so obvious?" Does he know me? My family?

"Your accent," he explained, noting her pallor but not commenting. She breathed a soft sigh of relief. The thought of someone actually recognizing her was a terrifying one.

"I never noticed I had one," she said then, reaching up to brush her bangs from her face once again. They always seemed to irritate her when she was tense. Her eyes traveled to his thick shock of flaming hair, and she had the odd urge to brush it from his cheek. It was brushing against his scar. Dashing - no! Scars mean fighting, they're not sexy or anything.

"I noticed." He fell into silence, and she brushed out her skirt nervously.

"So... how did you meet Himura-san?" Misao asked Shinomori.

"We work together."

Brief, abrupt, and to the point.

Well, there's one question I can't ask now. They taught me how to keep up polite conversation, but I can't remember a thing! "Are you often in Kyoto, Himura-san?" Kaoru inquired, keeping her gaze on the table. She could feel his eyes on her, and wondered what he was thinking.

"Occasionally," he allowed, seeming to suddenly relax. "I'm often busy lately."

"Oh?" she lifted her head curiously.

"The war," he explained succinctly. Color flared in her cheeks once again.

Of course. The way he moves, and observes... he's probably one of the assassins. The thought made her pale once again. Good God, what company am I keeping? "Silly me," she murmured, flustered. "Everyone here is busy because of the war."

He inclined his head slightly, and she blurted, "Life changed at home, but no one was actually any busier, so I never really... thought about it..." You're sounding like an idiot, Kaoru. Stop. She bit her lip and glanced away. A month! One month with Yumi and Megumi and all you can do is pratter like an idiot! Well, at least this will keep me safe, but honestly! Honestly! I wish I could just disappear... maybe into a grave and never come out. No, wait. Bad thought. He's a fighter, he could probably help me with that wish.

She listened as Misao's laughter touched her ears. "Oh, no! Sanosuke keeps trying, but she's told him no at least five times now. We keep teasing her and saying that it's only to make sure his attention doesn't wane."

"But would it not, if she always said no?" Shinomori was asking politely, with a faint gleam in his eyes saying that he didn't believe his own words. Her friend shook her head and laughed again.

"You should know that men always want what they can't have," she scolded, peeking up at him from under her lashes.

Is she... flirting? Kaoru thought, astonished. Well, it wasn't so surprising - she had been in Kyoto far longer and was probably used to it. But still... she fidgeted a little, glancing at Himura to see that he was still gazing at her.

"Do you believe Misao's words?" she asked lightly, tilting her head slightly to indicate the conversation going on beside them. He arched a brow and leaned back, resting his arm on an upraised knee.

"I believe that it is often typical of men to pursue what they cannot attain, yes," he said after a moment, still watching her with his hooded eyes. They were the same amber of whiskey, but with an intelligence and intensity behind them that was almost unnerving. She shifted on her cushion and gave the slightest toss of her head, stiffening her spine.

"Do you believe that, for Sagara Sanosuke, Megumi is unattainable?" she inquired with a faint lilt in her voice. Oh, no. Now am I flirting?

"If he continues at his current rate, yes," he admitted bluntly, after a moment of thought. She lowered her lashes, a faint smile curving her lips.

"Then how do you think he should pursue her, Himura-san?" Her tone was artlessly curious, the question elaborately casual. But the game had been brought to a second plane.

He was silent. "Many women enjoy romance," Shinomori said instead, slowly, with the appearance of giving much thought. "Takani Megumi is likely one who does, and would also be partial to quiet dinners and intellectual conversation. If I had to guess, she would also be one to enjoy light flirtation."

She continued to keep her eyes veiled as she gently ran her fingers over a cushion, tapping them in a rhythm only she could hear. Misao interjected at that point, "And if Sanosuke were too bold and blunt, she would reject him out of hand, you believe?"

Himura smiled then, sending a faint thrill down her spine. Though she kept her lashes covering her eyes and any expressions they might emit, she could still see him clearly. "I believe that if he were just bold enough, Megumi would enjoy it." His voice dropped. "Especially were his boldness received at the right time... and place." Though he answered the other girl, his eyes still rested on Kaoru, telling them both who he was truly speaking to.

Welcome to the third plane. Can I play this game? she wondered. "If he managed to stay in her good graces until such a time and place were agreeable to her," Kaoru bantered, glancing up at him coquettishly. Her lips were still faintly curved, and she noticed that his eyes were lingering on her mouth as she spoke. "I believe he would need to give her enough romance and attention for quite a time beforehand before she would allow his previous actions to be dropped in her mind." And thrust, she thought triumphantly as she saw Shinomori twitch slightly out of the corner of her eye. A subtle allusion to the man who she had met earlier. So he was sent to me. But why?

"And if all his previous actions were done in the thought that she would enjoy them?" Shinomori murmured. The light mask over the odd, four-way flirting had become nearly transparent, and she knew Misao and Himura were listening avidly.

"Perhaps it would need to be proven before she could accept that," she returned smoothly, finally raising her eyes to meet her opponent's. Navy met aquamarine in a taunting battle; she aloof, his intently probing.

"Then I do believe he would need to devise a plan to do such," he said finally, after a second of thought.

Point: Kaoru. "If he needs a plan, then perhaps it was a lie," she said, so sweetly that he was taken aback. But only for a moment, before Himura spoke up, his tone slow and easy.

"If Megumi were to believe that, perhaps she would need to learn to be a little more forgiving." She fought a wince. Point: Himura Kenshin.

"Or perhaps she must learn to be a little less cynical," Shinomori parried, once again having picked up his part. And another point - Shinomori Aoshi. But the game isn't over.

"That may be so," she agreed demurely, turning her shoulder on him with regal hauteur as she bestowed a warm smile on the slighter man. "Himura-san, would it be much of a burden to ask for an escort to my rooms? One never knows when unexpected, unwanted company will appear." Another subtle barb in Shinomori's direction for sending his man to find her earlier, giving her the win as he didn't respond.

"Never a burden, Kaoru-dono," he protested, standing immediately as he bowed his leave of Misao and his friend.

"Actually," the younger girl lied, glancing at the Oniwabanshu leader's contemplative expression, "I believe I wanted to talk to Sango. Isn't her room beside yours?"

"She'll be delighted to have you," Kaoru murmured as the trio left the room. She didn't bother glancing over her shoulder; that would undermine her victory. And it sang sweet in her blood as she glided through the halls.

~`~`~`~`~`

Sango ran the comb easily through her sister's straight ebony tresses. "So this Shinomori Aoshi seems to be interested in you?" she asked, somewhat amused.

"Enough to send a man out to check me out, it seems," she replied, absently twirling a leaf in her fingers. The flower gardens were deserted, the majority of its beauty gone with the late autumn's coming. "I'm not so certain of how interested he is now, though, after the exhibit in the solar." She laughed softly. "I hope he isn't, because I don't think I'd mind if Himura-san pursued me."

"Really?" She noted the curious fact with surprise. Kaoru hadn't even been close to truly accepting their position since the last time they'd even touched on the subject, but now she was openly admitting to hoping that she would have a second chance at a near-dangerous flirting game. Her brows arched slightly at that as she continued to brush the waist-length strands, ignoring the wind's attempts at playing with the silken locks. "Isn't he the one who never talks with the women? I've seen him before - he doesn't seem to like talking very much."

"You're probably right. We went silent a few times," her sister admitted, frowning slightly. "He didn't seem to dislike talking so much as he didn't like to talk without having something to say." She shook her head and stopped immediately at the sharp tug on her hair, a silent reproof from her sibling. "He seems to be one for..." her frown disappeared as she recalled words from the day before, "intellectual conversation." She sighed.

"I heard that," Sango immediately pounced.

"Heard what?" The annoyance in the two words made the older girl grin.

"You sighed. Don't deny it; I heard you!"

"I did not sigh," she denied anyway, turning and running her fingers through her hair, reaching up to plait it in absent movements.

"You did," she confirmed, crossing her arms and tapping the comb against her arm. Her smile faltered as she realized just how beautiful her sister was, with her arms raised above her head and a thin silk dress hugging her curves. It wasn't surprising that Shinomori Aoshi or Himura Kenshin were interested; even if they were a solitary individuals, they were still men.

"Maybe just a little," Kaoru conceded after a moment's pout. "You would too, if you saw him," she defended herself. "He has enough appeal to make any woman want him."

"I never said he didn't," Sango returned mildly. As she remembered, he had even had her own belly quivering a little - but she didn't need to tell her little sister such a thing. "I was just surprised that you noticed, that's all."

"Why wouldn't I notice?" She tied off her braid in an easy movement. "The man walks into a room and demands every woman's notice. His friend usually takes it first," she mused, her mind's eye flashing to the companion. "Kenshin - ah, Himura's - a little small compared to Shinomori, but he's still got the looks and the muscle. They both move like cats, really."

"Cats?" Her older sister tilted her head, pursed her lips thoughtfully. Predatory, sleek, graceful, dangerous... she nodded. "I agree."

"And their voices - have you heard them speak?"

"No." Her lips quirked in genuine amusement. She barely recalled the man with flaming hair and flashing amber eyes - she'd seen him once in passing, but Yumi had quietly told her his name. One look from him had her knees nearly giving way. Thank God she'd gotten past that reaction after a few steps, or she would have embarrassed herself.

"Megumi calls them bedroom voices. I think I would have to agree. I'd love to hear them in - oh, God, what am I saying?" Her voice rose frantically. "A month ago I wouldn't even dream these things, and now I'm thinking about it all the time!"

Sango bit back a sympathetic laugh. "A month ago we were different people," she tried to soothe.

"Not all that different! My mind has turned to - I can't believe I'm thinking this! What decent woman thinks such things?" she moaned. "I'm not supposed to worry about it until after I'm married, but here I am, thinking about... with him!"

I didn't realize it was this bad. She's definitely attracted. "Now, now, Kaoru-chan..."

"I'm... I'm turning into..." words failed her as she jabbed a finger in the direction of their new home, glaring angrily at the monstrosity as though it were the cause of all her ills. In a way, it was.

"A member of the harem?" Sango asked teasingly. When flashing azure eyes turned on her, she guessed that it was not the best answer. "It's perfectly all right to think that way, Kaoru-chan," she tried instead.

"No it's not," she groaned, dropping her face into her hands. "I was... with him! You should have heard us - we were talking about... if he would ever... oh, God!" She tried to forget the memories of their conversation the day before. A politely worded conversation with innuendos about a possible assignation between the two of them. An assignation! She wasn't supposed to think such things, even if she was part of a harem now... it had only been a month!

"It's not so bad," her sister insisted, biting her lip. "At least you're not the one who... watched..." she nearly choked on her words.

Kaoru's head snapped up. "You didn't? I thought you might have but I really didn't - you did?" she squeaked. Sango slapped a hand to her cheek, feeling the heat of her mortification.

"She... said that she wouldn't really be doing much but that, you know... I should maybe watch and get a feel for it..." she made a vague motion with her hands. "But..." she ended weakly. "I think it might have gotten... a little out of hand."

Her little sister was silent for a moment, before rallying back with, "What does that have to do with me thinking about... about that with him?"

Sango squirmed a little. Now I'm not going to get out of this. I should have kept my mouth shut. "It wasn't... so bad, really. Actually, I was really embarrassed watching, but..." She huffed out a little laugh. "You remember Kenshin - well of course you do, you just talked about him, but..."

Kaoru blinked. "Kenshin? What...? You didn't..."

"No! No, no. Nothing like that. But when I first saw him, I..." she motioned vaguely. "I was thinking about that, too. Don't give me that look," she added sternly, despite her embarrassed giggles. She was unable to hold her sister's gaze. "It... I think it's because we, um, know about it and... that's why we think about it. We wouldn't know about it until after we were married if..." she motioned again. "You know."

"Right." She took a deep breath. "Sango..."

"Yes?"

"We're never going to speak about this again. Ever."

"Good idea." She shook herself. "Where's Misao-chan?" she asked quickly, desperate to change the subject. Her companion was more than willing to follow along with that lead.

"I think she had another dinner with Tenken."

"Tenken? Oh, the smiling boy? He's sweet - I had dinner with him the other night," Sango mentioned thoughtfully. "All he wanted to do was listen to me talk about anything at all."

"Really? He does the same with Misao-chan." Kaoru tilted her head curiously. "Perhaps he's a little lonely, even though he's always smiling and happy."

"It would make sense. He doesn't seem to be really close with anyone, though Yumi treats him like a little brother." She frowned slightly. "Perhaps I should have dinner with him more often. Maybe he'll loosen up a little and talk to me."

"I hope he does." The younger girl bit her lip. "Misao-chan and I think he's repressing his emotions too much. If he could find someone to talk to, it would help him a lot. It's unhealthy to do it for as long as he has - no one ever remembers him as anything other than a smiling, cheerful guy."

"Hmm." Sango looked up at the sky, watching the sun begin its descent. "There has to be a reason for it. But if he doesn't want to talk about it, I can't make him."

"He might not even be aware of it himself," her sister cautioned. "So it might be a long time before he breaks down the barriers to talk with anyone about it."

"I'm surprised Yumi or Megumi hasn't gotten anything out of him. It might be a little deeper than anything I can dig for." Honey-brown eyes lingered over the clouds, before turning back to her sibling. "I hear Sanosuke tried to offer Megumi a collar again?"

"Yes." Kaoru's lips twitched slightly. "He was drunk at the time."

"So she refused, I gather?"

"Of course."

"The poor dear. If only he'd learn that wooing her would go a long way." Sango laughed softly. "Most women like romance, instead of brash assumptions."

"But men will continue to pursue what they can't attain," the younger woman pointed out.

"Only to a certain point before they lost interest in the chase entirely, Kaoru-chan," she replied dryly. "The unattainable is only worthy for so long."

"What unattainable?" The lilting, cheerful voice could only belong to one person. Sango turned to smile warmly at the newcomer.

"Misao-chan! I thought you were holding company with Tenken-san again."

"Oh, no. He and Himura - I mean, Battousai-san - were sent out today." The young girl frowned slightly. "Kaoru-chan, did you know Himura-san is Battousai?"

"What?" Her eyes widened. Battousai? But he's... he's... too nice to be that assassin! "Himura Kenshin?"

She nodded. "Tenken-san introduced us before he left." Her face was sober for once as she added, "Be careful, Kaoru-chan. I know you like his company, but..."

"I will," she was quick to assure. "He's gone right now, though, so it will be easy to stay away from him." Her brow furrowed in thought. "But if he's Battousai - then who is Shinomori Aoshi...?"

"The Oniwabanshu are Katsura-sama's information network," Misao explained. "But because of his great fighting skill, he is also one of the assassins. I heard that he will be taken from that information to fight openly after the winter ends."

"I see." To be surrounded by those who coldly take the lives of others... "Tenken, Battousai, Shinomori... are there any others?"

"Well - there's the Shinsengumi captain, Saitou..."

"Saitou?!" Sango's head snapped up.



*`*`*`*`*`

CJ's Blurb: Wee. I kind of liked this chapter, with some [Kaoru x Battousai] and [Aoshi x Misao] introduced. *grins* Some light humor in this chapter, I hope you enjoyed. Kaoru's going through a minor hysterical phase at the end, but it was necessary. Any of you notice how Battousai has a lot of Aoshi in him? I kind of liked that touch - the complete opposite of our loving, sweet-tempered Rurouni. Then again, it might also be my own little method of buttering up Panda for not making it a Kaoru/Aoshi pairing. *laughs*

I especially liked the Battousai flirting part. He doesn't have much to do with women, nor does he much care, but he's been around Aoshi long enough to pick up his way of toying with the females. Wonder how many of you guessed that during the scene... ~grin~

Thank you all for the reviews, they are muchly appreciated. :)