Yea verily, I have promised, and lo! It has been done. The plagiarizer has been taken down. Thank you so much to all of my readers who expressed their support—that meant a lot to me. It's nice to feel appreciated. And as I said I would, here is the next chapter of Amber Awakening for your enjoyment.
DISCLAIMER: Rurouni Kenshin is copyrighted to Nobuhiro Watsuki.
NOTE: This chapter is dedicated to all you guys, for being so cool. Rock on.
Chapter Eight: Question of Honor
"Bastard! Watch where you're going!"
"I'm sorry! Truly, I am sorry, I didn't see—"
Kaoru's apologies were cut short, and she had to duck to avoid a flying cup of sake with murderous intent behind it. She glared at the thrower, a man who was clearly drunk beyond belief. "Excuse me, but now I think of it, I do believe you ran into me!"
"Insolent son of a bitch!" The man slurred, stomping dazedly about and trying to pinpoint her with his beady little eyes. His clumsy, thick fingers began to worm their way towards the sword held in the belt at his side. "I'm a teach ya a lesson in 'spect!" He began to yank unceremoniously at his sword hilt, trying to free it from its sheath.
Kaoru blinked at the pot-bellied drunk, wiping a few drops of rainwater from her eyes as she sighed. It was barely evening, yet there were already despots like this running about. How sickening. This tiny town, just outside Nagoya's borders, was not the finest quality place in Japan. Her eyes began to slowly narrow as her opponent tripped over his own feet and landed face-first in a deep puddle of mud, still hollering insults at her.
She was not at all in the mood for this. She was wet, cold, and hadn't had a bite to eat all day. If this idiot valued his bone structure, then he would be well-advised to leave her alone.
"Sir," She said calmly, with an enormous effort, "Please. Your words are offending me, as is your presence. I ask that you please let me move past you and go into town."
"Shut up!" The man slowly crawled out of his puddle and picked himself up, wiping the wet filth of the streets off of his face. "Whelp! Vagabond! I'll fix you—make a fool outta me!" Clearly mad as a bull, and not sobered at all by the effects of his clumsiness, he finally managed to tug his blade free of its sheath.
Kaoru ground her teeth. Any other day, any other time, she might have laughed his insults off. But now they were cutting too deep, not only reminding her of her own inadequacies, but of a wild-haired boy who had called her some of the very same things many times before. The memories of her life combined with the weariness she felt after a day on the road were quickly pushing her past the point of reason into something very close to blind, shallow rage.
"Sir. Please. I'm very tired. I would like to move by you—"
"Pansy! You weak little shrimp, stop trying tah worm your way out!"
"—I just want to get to an inn, for the love of Kami—"
"—If you would like to live the rest of your life as a man—"
"Girly man! Hag!"
"That's it." Kaoru snarled, her finely strung temper finally snapping. In one swift movement, her bokken was out and at the ready, pointing towards the man with grim intent. For a moment, the press of guilt swelled up in her mind, but it was quickly buried under the swift promise of I won't kill him, for heaven's sake! and the reminder that it was not Kenshin's sword she held, but her own non-killing bokken. It would take a greater effort than she was capable of right now to really murder someone with her wooden blade.
The man found himself rendered completely unconscious within about three seconds.
Kaoru snorted slightly to herself as she unceremoniously dragged his body into a nearby alley. Really, that had hardly been worth the effort. She should have tried one of Sano's one-fingered attacks to save her strength—it would have probably had the same effect in the end.
She pulled the brim of her hat lower down on her forehead as she delivered a small, bitter kick to the man's midsection. He'd have some lovely new colors on his forehead in the morning if she wasn't mistaken. Served him right.
Her stomach let out a complaining rumble as Kaoru began to head down the street once more. She patted it consolingly, a rueful smile crossing her face. She hadn't eaten since before passing through Nagoya, probably over twelve hours ago, and that fact had been prodding at her all afternoon.
She eyed a restaurant as she passed it, stopping a moment to get a whiff of the enticing smells from inside. It was by no means a high-class place—in fact, it looked rather seedy, with moth eaten curtains over the entrance and holes in the huge lantern lit and hanging like a decaying moon just outside the door. Already she could hear the sounds of drunken revelry echoing inside the weathered walls. She was unable to afford any meal with money, so to earn her meal, she would have to work among those angry and lecherous voices, no doubt dealing with leers and stares and a good deal more besides. The very idea made her shudder slightly in disgust.
At the current moment, however, pickiness was not high on her list of priorities.
The hostess did not notice her standing just inside the door until she delicately cleared her throat. The woman jumped slightly before turning sharp, hard eyes towards the shadows where Kaoru stood. "Yes?" She demanded brusquely. "If you're looking for a handout, we've none to give."
"I have no intention of begging for my meal." Kaoru's voice was cool and distant, and the woman took a noticeable step back, eyeing her with a cautious air. "I was wondering if you'd any need of an extra pair of hands this evening. I'd accept food as payment, if you like."
The woman paused, greed briefly flitting through her eyes. "Done," she said shortly. "One of the serving girls is out tonight. We can find you the bib of one of our cooks, the menfolk'll just have to deal with a man serv—Kami!" She sucked in her breath as Kaoru pulled her hat off her head and let her long hair tumble softly down with a sigh of relief. "Heavens, you're a girl!"
Kaoru quirked an eyebrow upwards slightly. "Are you surprised?"
"Shocked, actually." The woman's look turned from astonishment to accusation. "What kind of trouble are you in, that you walk about dressed as a man, hey? You got the police after you or something? I don't want a convict or a prostitute in my bar!"
"No more of them, you mean?" Kaoru muttered under her breath. "I am not running from the police, madam, and why I wear these clothes is my own business."
The woman snorted. "Your business seems to have taken you down to the pits, child. Seems to me you should find a nice young man and make it his business too. Better to suffer together than alone, after all." Before Kaoru could summon her wits to respond to this comment, the hostess barreled on ahead. "Any case, you're a woman, and you'll be wearing this house's waitress clothes as such." She opened a closet hidden just beside her opening position and selected a piece of clothing out of it, tossing it carelessly at Kaoru. "Agreed?"
Kaoru swallowed back her protests as she gazed at the outfit. It was a kimono, which she should have been glad to see once more, had it not been for the fact that it took her two tries to figure out what on earth it was supposed to go over. It was obviously meant to flatter even the most unattractive of women and turn them into alluring creatures, and Kaoru found herself wondering why on earth the hostess had so balked at the idea of her as a prostitute and then tossed this at her. It was the color of a vengeful sunset, a searing, blistering orange that was just bright enough to not be mistaken for red. The material beneath the waist was wider than normal, allowing for easier walking and quicker movements, but the top part was bound so tightly that it seemed impossible that she would be able to serve any food without ripping a seam. Added a few patches here and there, a loose string or two, and the entire thing practically screamed slums and low morals.
After a few moments of wrestling with the indignant words that were longing to spew forth at the hypocritical hostess, she managed to grit out, "Agreed."
The hostess nodded in satisfaction. "Good. You'll work six hours for a bowl of soba and a cup of tea. No more and no less. Also agreed?"
"Fine." With another effort to shove down her pride, Kaoru stalked off towards the kitchens to get changed.
Kenshin was quietly busy being more furious than he had ever been in his entire life.
Hell with Okubo's murder, hell with Shishio's betrayal and attack on the Aoiya, hell with the destruction of the Akabeko. The only thing that surpassed his current mood was when Enishi had announced his intention to kill Kaoru, and even then he could at least form coherent sentences.
At the moment, words were completely beyond him. He could only glare, which he did with a great deal of passion, fixing his opponent with eyes so bright that they almost seemed to glow with it.
"What the hell do you mean, you're not going to let us go look for Jou-chan!" Sanosuke roared, slamming his fist down into the weak wood of the desk and leaving a rather sizable hole.
Saito calmly flicked the ashes of his cigarette at his desk's new redecoration. "You're paying for a replacement, I'll have you know," He told Sanosuke with a small smirk, his eyebrows raised slightly in sadistic amusement at watching the three males in front of him try to keep themselves from any further violence in the midst of a police station.
"How can you do this to us!" Yahiko nearly choked on the words, spluttering in anger. "How dare you! She's ours, she means more to us than she ever will to you, you goddamned filthy—"
"Enough." His eyes narrowed only slightly, but Yahiko caught the change in the police officer's mood and was smart enough to hush. "No one here is debating your affection for the girl, myself least of all. But the Chief Inspector of this case has told me to tell you that you are not to be allowed to participate in this endeavor."
"Fuck you!" Sanosuke barely managed to restrain himself from making another hole in the desktop. "What the fuck are you playing at, Saito! The only reason we gave you and your damned police aid was with the notion that we were the ones going after her!"
"Then you were misled." Saito drew in a slow breath on his cigarette. "I can't imagine who would have misled you so, but you can register a complaint of misinformation at the front."
Kenshin's voice was so low in tone that it was far more an animal's savagery then a human voice. "So, all your advice to us on how we were to go after her, all that was for show!"
"I never advised any such thing, and you know it, Battousai," Saito said smoothly, rising from his desk to move to his door. "Oiji, go tell the Inspector that I had no troubles whatsoever dealing with the men of the Kamiya dojo," He ordered the young police officer just outside the door, who leapt at once out of sight. The ex-Shinsengumi member then firmly closed the door and latched it behind him.
"You've got some nerve, you bastard—!" Sanosuke roared.
"Be silent," Saito said curtly, his eyes flashing. "Sit down, you moron. I haven't got much time, the Inspector will be here in a moment to see you three back to your home."
Kenshin, whose hand had been at his sword a second earlier, narrowed his eyes at his old enemy. "You haven't much time?"
Saito rolled his eyes. "To tell give you aid, Battousai. I thought you at least knew me better than that."
The jaws of the three remaining members of the Kenshingumi dropped.
"That's better. At least you're silent that way." Saito retook his chair, puffing calmly at his cigarette. "Didn't I tell you that you idiots had a better chance than the force? I've no intention of running around for weeks looking for your Kamiya-san when there are far more important issues to look after. The Inspector knows that I am handing over my area of the investigation to a selected group of officers; he has no idea that those officers are you three."
Even Kenshin found himself rather stunned by this unforeseen move. "Saito," he began cautiously, "what in hell's name…"
"Himura, shut up and listen to what I have to tell you."
Kenshin complied, his shock multiplying by some degree. Himura?
"Now listen," Saito said swiftly and quietly. "From the information given to us by your witness, Battousai, we have managed to discern that Kamiya-san is heading south. We also believe that she only took the back road until she passed outside of Tokyo limits, then she connected with a main road and has been following it since. And we think that road is the one that leads to Kyoto."
"Kyoto," Yahiko breathed, eyes wide. "She would go there, wouldn't she?"
Saito gave a curt nod, and gave Kenshin a slightly ironic look. "With the logic that has governed all of her movements up to this point, I believe that it is a safe bet that we are correct." Kenshin gave a tense nod, but did not respond. "However, we cannot tell what pace she has set, nor if she truly intends to go all the way to Kyoto or to pass it entirely. I would not advise bothering to travel all the way to Kyoto to wait for her—she might be clever enough to avoid you and the city entirely."
"What would you advise, Saito?" Kenshin inquired softly.
"Follow her." Saito took a last deep breath of his cigarette, and then snuffed it out in a small ashtray by his elbow. "Make your own inquiries, follow her trail. You'll have to move fast, but I think it can be done. You just need to prove yourselves adequate enough to match her wit and her pace."
There was silence for a moment as the three men carefully mulled over the policeman's suggestion.
"Fine," Kenshin said at last. "We will take your advice."
Saito nodded his head. "I thought you would." He rose smoothly and came around from behind his desk. "I'd recommend leaving as soon as possible—she's got a head start, and a large one at that. Try moving as quickly as you can to the Nagoya region, then take your search from there. A carriage will be waiting outside the Kamiya dojo in thirty minutes to take you directly there."
"Can it be drawn up here?" Kenshin asked quietly.
A momentary flare of humor curled Saito's thin lips up into a smirk. "Yes, Battousai, it can be called directly here. Ask one of the young neophyte officers at the front, they'll be willing to help you."
"Thank you." Kenshin turned his amber gaze to his two companions. "Sano, Yahiko, will you go take care of that, please."
Silently, the boy and the young man pushed themselves out of their seats and headed towards the door.
"Oh, and by the way," Saito called after them, a hint of derision flaring out his nostrils, "if the two of you have enough brains to make my story look convincing, I would appreciate it if you could act as angry as you were earlier. I don't want to be written up for this transgression, if at all possible."
"Shouldn't be too hard," Sanosuke muttered, looking at his nemesis with loathing. "You're still an inconsiderate bastard, Saito."
"Ah, I did hope that nothing could ever damage our relationship, moron," Saito replied sardonically.
"Don't worry—nothing will ever change my feelings towards you, you jerk."
"Sano," Kenshin's voice was as sharp as steel. "Out. Now."
The door slammed hard enough to rattle the windows. The sounds of Sanosuke and Yahiko swearing could be heard even through the thick wood, fading slightly as they moved down the hall.
The one-time hitokiri and ex-Shinsengumi Captain stared at each other for a long moment.
"Why?" Kenshin asked at last, his voice even. "You defy your own precepts in doing this. Why?"
Saito crossed his arms. "Do you remember Kyoto?"
Kenshin raised one eyebrow.
Saito smirked slightly. "Touché." He paused, as if considering how best to phrase the words. "That girl followed you there, didn't she. For no other reason than to see you."
Kenshin's eyes widened in complete astonishment. "You're helping us out of sentimentality?"
Saito snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. I think that she was an absolute fool for putting herself in danger merely for your pathetic sake."
Kenshin narrowed his eyes dangerously; Saito held up a hand to ward off the oncoming growl. "She's a fool, but she is a brave fool. She shows more courage in her actions than you have in all the years I've known you. Never mind the fact that she's flighty and annoying as hell." The words were plain and matter-of-fact, but Saito's eyes were filled with a great deal of cruel amusement as he watched Kenshin sputter slightly. "You want to know why I'm helping you, Himura? Because you're a greater idiot than she is, and I'm tired of the both of you. I want you to go out and get her back, and then I never want to hear from either of you again until I see your wedding announcement in the local papers. Understood?"
Not many people had ever seen Himura Battousai in such a state. Kenshin's mouth worked convulsively, his thoughts scattered to the winds. When he finally managed to speak, his voice emerged as a breathless croak.
"H-Hai, Saito. Understood."
With a sigh, Kaoru plopped herself down at the restaurant's bar, wincing as she carefully lifted up one of her feet and gazed at it mournfully. The poor thing was twice the size it had been this morning, and she had at least four deep cuts slashing into the sides of her feet where she had accidentally stepped on a broken teacup or smashed soba dish. She had been on her feet for well over sixteen hours, and if her shift hadn't ended when it did, she would have collapsed in the middle of the restaurant and let herself be run over by the customers rather than get up.
With a clatter, the hostess rose up from behind the bar and slammed down a bowl of cold soba and a cup of some dark brown liquid on the counter. "Here," She said ungraciously, rubbing her hands briskly on a worn towel. "You can spend the night in one of the upper rooms, if you can find one that's unoccupied. We can keep you on another evening if you like, but by tomorrow night you've got to find a new occupation or offer up further services."
"I'll be gone by tomorrow morning," Kaoru promised, an unexpected gratitude rising in her breast. "Thank you for your kindness."
Her thanks seemed to catch the hostess off guard. She stopped drying her hands for a moment to blink owlishly at the young woman in front of her, surprise lighting up her sharp brown eyes. Then she seemed to come to herself once more, and her face hardened. "Don't act like I was doing you such a favor," She muttered almost sullenly. "I was doing no more than I'd do for anybody, and that's truth."
"It's the first kindness I've had in a while," Kaoru confessed quietly. "I must admit, it seemed like quite a lot to me, no matter how sparse you may think it to be."
The woman did not answer, merely continued to rub at her hands, until Kaoru was quite convinced that she was going to chafe her skin raw. Thinking she must have somehow offended her temporary mistress, Kaoru bent her head low to her food and filled her mouth with the soggy noodles, savoring their plain taste in relief. It felt wonderful to have real, solid food in her stomach once more, and she quickly downed the whole bowl in an effort to keep the sensation of being full as long as possible.
As her slurping faded to contented silence, Kaoru slowly let her head sink to rest on the grainy wood of the bar. She sighed wearily, letting the constant motion and work of the day finally take its toil on her. For a moment, she felt so exhausted that she thought that she would drift away right there at the bar. As this thought entered her mind, she considered her situation, then nestled her head in her arms, intent on doing just that.
A sharp finger poked her in the shoulder. Kaoru moaned and swatted at it, "Go 'way."
"If you value what virtue you've got, miss, I wouldn't sleep down here." The mistress's voice was low and urgent, and Kaoru opened her eyes immediately, her dreams forcibly pushed aside in exchange for a burst of nervousness.
"What do you mean?" She answered quietly, slowing raising her head and craning her gaze to meet the woman's face.
The mistress sniffed, then nodded her head towards the still half-full restaurant. "There's a geisha house down the street for the men folk to get their entertainment, but sometimes some of them don't want to pay, eh? And those who don't want to pay have been known to make trouble in other places."
Kaoru felt a cold shiver worm its way up her back. "Rape?"
"Nah, not exactly. But when a woman looks as tired and as hopeless as you do, missy, they've been known to trust who they ought not to trust and go where they would not normally go, understand?"
"Understood." Kaoru stretched and stumbled her way off her stool. "Thank you—" She tried her best to hide a yawn, "—for telling me, lady."
"Again, it's nothing." The woman hesitated, and then a small smile crossed her creased face. "Only what I'd do for anyone. Now, if you want to take anyone into your bed by your own accord, then that's your business. Just thought you should be given the right to choose, that's all." With her piece spoken and a seeming loss of interest in the matter, she turned and bustled behind the bar and back into the kitchen out of sight.
Kaoru found herself blinking in absolute shock after the woman. She opened her mouth to protest her innocence and announce her indignation of the very thought. Then abruptly, she closed it again.
If you want to take anyone into your bed by your own accord…
She had considered the idea before, of course. She knew—of course she knew, how could she not?—what went on behind closed doors and in marriage beds. She knew of the technicalities of the situation, and had always been content that there was nothing to it except something with the meshing of bodies and usually a man and a woman, though she had heard of variances on those sexes. But any interest in trying it for herself had been dampened by the idea of such intimacy with anyone except a man who she was sure would want to spend his life with her. When Kenshin had arrived in her life, her list of possible lovers had been dramatically changed, in all senses. Instead of taking a practical, detached look at the concept in the vague notion of perhaps getting married someday, her view had changed into a very real and very personal interest in the whole matter. And the list itself had been narrowed down to one man, and one man alone.
The whole notion of sex with anyone aside from Kenshin was rather—well—unappealing. To be completely frank, the thought of romantic involvement with any man but Kenshin made her ill. Sex was alien and frightening to her, but Kenshin was the one person in the entire world who she was sure couldn't do her any harm. The idea of sex on its own made her quite ill; the idea of sex with Kenshin—
When she could actually manage to even think of such matters, the idea of being with Kenshin in that way caused her face to warm and a pleasant spiral of heat to curl its way from her heart to her stomach.
But Kenshin was back in Tokyo. And she did not know whether or not she would be returning to him. And even if she did return—there was no way that he would want her now.
Not that he had wanted her before.
And it was with this frame of mind that Kaoru set aside her maidenly virtue for just a moment to peer speculatively around the dim and dusky bar, her eyes appraisingly seeking out the darkest of corners and eyeing the few remaining customers.
And she saw the few remaining customers eyeing her in turn.
A few minutes later, Kaoru found herself kneeling on the floor in a darkened upstairs room, her hands nervously twisting together like two fluttering birds. Her breath came in quick pants in the back of her throat, and anyone who did not know her might have confused her panicked breathing as the result of passion. Doing her best to muster up her courage and suppress the sheer sense of betrayal that was heavy pang of guilt in her heart, she stared nervously at the man in front of her as he took off his hakama and reached for her.
:ducks things being thrown at her:
Reviewing is a sign of respect for the writers of a story. So if you enjoyed Amber Awakening, please let me know!
I have finally mastered the art of the line break! Go me!
I'm batting around with a new story idea in my head, so be on the lookout for a new Kaoru/Kenshin fic around here in a few weeks.