Chapter Twelve: New Day's Dawn
"You could not avoid me forever, Himura." The voice that spoke was quiet and cold; Kaoru shivered at the malice that seethed almost visibly behind the words. "You were only delaying the inevitable."

Battousai's upper lip curled, nearly imperceptibly, into a smirk that made even Kaoru want to melt into the shadows in the corner of the alleyway. But the man that she now recognized as Shinomori Aoshi simply glared at him, shoulders squared and jaw set in determination, not saying a word. Whether or not he had the skill to back up the conviction in his eyes, he was immeasurably confident and brave, and Kaoru feared that he did indeed have the necessary means to be effective against the Battousai. And with Battousai's arm still being bound in a cast...

"I do not want there to be any more death," Battousai said taciturnly, his tone scraping on a warning that Kaoru knew Shinomori noted despite his unwavering stoicism. Her eyes flitted upward to meet Battousai's as he said this; did he really mean to give up his trade? "I will not kill in front of her again." She sighed loudly, even dramatically with the tension of the situation, when the words registered. It could not have been expected of him, she supposed.

"Then she may leave," was the dry response that caused Battousai to favor the taller man with a look so hard that Kaoru could practically see his intentions blazing in his eyes. If this Shinomori were a wiser man, he would have run long before this point. Or perhaps if he were a weaker man. She wondered if he really possessed the strength that silently claimed. For Battousai's sake and her own she prayed that this was not the truth. Before she could get the full measure of him, though, Battousai turned slightly to look at her. She knew what he would say, but she was loath to hear the words.

"Kaoru, go. Now."

His command was simply that: A command. It left no room for argument or discussion, and she felt her body mobilizing almost before her mind comprehended the full meaning of what he said. Almost against her will, her feet dragged their way out of the dark seclusion of the alley into the frigid afternoon sunlight of the main street. This was to be her fate, then? To not know what would happen to the man that she had so desperately fallen in love with? It seemed more than unjust to Kaoru's mind, yet she obeyed. Why did she listen? Her mind was running on a sort of automatic drive dictation, absently poring over her options, of which there weren't many.

What was going on back there? Was Battousai going to be alright? Would Shinomori really murder him in cold blood? What the hell was she doing just standing here!

People around her were starting to stare, and she could easily understand why. Here she was, a young Japanese girl, standing on a sidewalk in Russia in the middle of winter and clutching an expensive, wool-lined coat tightly around her shaking body, almost assuredly wearing a blank, listless expression. But appearances didn't matter to her anymore, not like they used to. All that she cared about was the man who was quite possibly in line to lose his life at that very instant.

Kaoru strained her ears, but she could hear nothing but the clash of metal on metal; the two were engaged in swordplay. Why didn't anyone else notice? Was everyone in the modern world so jaded that they didn't care that two men were battling to the death just feet away from where they were walking on their way to wherever their more important lives were taking them? Frustrated and terrified beyond reason, she knew she had to take some sort of action, but she didn't know what she could do. When the clash of swords came to an abrupt halt, she, without thinking, spun on her heel and sprinted back into the alley, only to slide to a stop when she saw Battousai kneeling with his good arm bracing him against the ground, staring up at Shinomori from under his long bangs and with an expression on his face so deadly that the bravest of men would have quaked before him. Yet Shinomori simply stared back at him, scarcely looking like he even had any thoughts at all in his mind; Kaoru was astounded. Neither man acknowledged her presence, they were both far too locked in the heat of battle to realize that she was standing with her back pressed flush against a cold, grimy stone wall as she tried to work out the situation internally.

Battousai seemed on alert, and while that would have been a given, she wondered how much of this he could take. He had not nearly completed his recovery yet, and she knew he had to be in pain whether he was showing it or not, and in addition to that his arm was still imprisoned in plaster. That led her to wonder just how much more of this he could stand before he made an error. And she got the impression that in this fight the slightest mistake would be a fatal one. She would die before she let Shinomori Aoshi steal the life of her Battousai. But what could she do in the position that she was in?

Suddenly she came to a realization.

"I want you to take this. Keep it on you," Battousai said as he pressed the cold item into her palm, releasing it into her hold only when he was certain she had a firm grip on it; her hand sank rapidly with the heaviness of it and she didn't like its feel as she wapped her fingers around it tightly.

"What do I need this for?" she questioned tentatively, staring at it in semi-incredulousness.

Battousai chuckled darkly as he wrapped an arm around her waist and kissed her forehead quickly. "Keep it on you," he reiterated. The answer was more than unsatisfactory to Kaoru, who frowned, eyebrows knitting together in consternation.

"But why do I need this?" she asked insistently.

"You are still naïve, aren't you sweetheart?" Kaoru struggled to repress her frustration; this was not the time for half-joking insults. As if sensing her irritation, Battousai hastily righted the situation. "I want you to be able to protect yourself."

"I thought you wanted to be the one to protect me," she said softly.

His eyes flashed hotly as if to remind her not to second-guess his motives and she instantly regretted her words, which had likely been a threat to his pride. His hair framed both of their faces as he pressed his forehead to hers and looked deeply into her eyes.

"You once told me in not so many words that you wanted to be able to take care of yourself, that I was asphyxiating you and caging your freedom. I am giving you room to breath and stretch your wings, sweetheart, and I think you would be wise not to take that for granted. But never doubt that I will be the one to protect you. If it costs me my life and the lives of those around me, I swear you will be kept from harm."

Behind his words she could read his intent. He didn't know if he would be there for her at all times, and he wanted her to be safe if the unthinkable ever happened. She nodded slowly and tilted her head up to press her lips to his. The possibility that she would have to use it was slim to none, anyhow...

Kaoru knew that she had been wrong and that now was the time to act. This Shinomori Aoshi could not be permitted to take what was hers. For he was as much hers as she was his, that she knew well. She nodded to herself, determination in her eyes.

Stepping off the wall and bracing her feet wide, she drew the gun from the inside pocket of her coat in what felt like the blink of an eye. Without the slightest, she leveled it, steadied herself, and squeezed the trigger. At the same time she closed her eyes tightly, though she appreciated that perhaps that was not the best idea.

She heard a surprised grunt of pain and the muffled thump of a body hitting the ground, but she refused to open her eyes. Even though she'd been prepared to kill not so long ago to avenge the death of her father, she realized then that she could never have gone through with it. And now... now she wasn't sure how she could take this. She wasn't even entirely sure she'd shot the correct man. Certainly she'd taken aim, but she didn't have much experience with guns; the fact that she could easily have hit Battousai by chance hit her abruptly and she couldn't stop the silent tears from flowing down her face. She cried for herself, for Battousai, and for the man she had just shot. She had never wanted to kill anyone.

A strangled cry left her throat as she felt strong arms wrap themselves around her trembling body. Pressing her face into Battousai's shoulder, she didn't say a word. Had she been able to see him, she would have recognized the fierce look on his face, and she would not have liked it in the least. His eyes gleamed and his lips were turned upward in approval. His so recently un-caged bird had learned how to sing again. And the song had stumbled forth from the barrel of his gun. She was wholly his possession know. But the time of seeing her as a pretty plaything had long passed. He was not only her keeper but also her willing prisoner.

"You are so beautiful," he whispered, his warm breath rustling the hair on the top of her head. "So fucking beautiful, my love."

The harshness of his language was offset by the tenderness of his voice; her tears fell faster as he lifted her chin and set about kissing them away. Pulling away from her momentarily, he bent and swiftly retrieved the gun that she had dropped as if it could blister her skin. He knew that it would burn far more than flesh; she would carry the marks of murder for the rest of her life, and there was no escaping that kind of branding. With a few deft movements, he dropped the unneeded weapon in a deep pocket, sheathed the blade that he picked up from where he'd left it in his shock, and pulled her to his side.

Kaoru kept her head bowed, eyesight blurred by the tears that refused to be dried, and blindly put one foot in front of the other as Battousai led her away from the alley and away from a turning point in her life. It seemed that so much had changed so quickly. And while she didn't know how to address those changes, she knew that Battousai was still alive and more in love with her than she understood how to express even to herself. Perhaps, she thought, things could still go right for them.