All I Need Is A Miracle
A/N: Rurouni Kenshin and Gargoyles belong to their respective creators. No infringement intended. RK is mostly from the manga, with dabs of anime, and part of my "Urban Legends" AU (expanded backstory to "Spin Cycle"). As far as RL history goes, "Anjin-san" refers to William Adams, an English ship pilot who ended up a samurai in service to the Tokugawas in the early 1600s, before they closed Japan. Japan did send troops into Korea in 1894 against the Chinese (among other reasons); European powers of the time believed the Chinese would throw them right back out. That didn't happen.
Someone asked for a fix to "Samurai X - Reflections". Here we go....
Thank you for everything. Thank you. Goodbye. Kaoru....
A voice out of memory, haunting in the peaceful dark here below the cherry trees. A wrench of a sword from hands too small to hold it, a warm body lying over him, protecting him....
Shinta, listen to me. Your life has not been chosen for you, so you must live. Please, Shinta - live for me!
He had. Was it not enough? He had lived, despite pain, despite guilt; lived, and been happy. Though part of that happiness had been paid for in Kaoru's pain, her constant smile meant to lift his heart, her peaceful acceptance of their fate....
Darkness thickened. Dragged at him.
Wait, he insisted, a flicker of will driving back that long-sought rest. Kaoru. Peaceful?
The first master of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu had been many things since he'd met her, but peaceful wasn't one of them. A smack on the head with a bokken, that's what he would have expected after worrying her so; not tears and a last grasp and chill ground below falling petals.
Something is wrong.
Darkness firmed its grasp. The world was fading away from him; scent, touch, the ghosts of ki, even the last whisper of wind dying away.
He tried to reach out, tried to touch-
Nothing left. Illness had burned away all his strength, despite Sanosuke's nursing; it'd taken everything an ex-swordsman turned healer had left just to get back to Tokyo....
Battousai wouldn't care.
An odd thought, but true. The hitokiri didn't care about wounds or grief or illness; the assassin only knew target and path to target, and heaven help anyone who got in his way.
No. I am a peaceful man. I vowed to bury the hitokiri forever. I have earned my peace - earned back the name I was born with.
Earned it, yes. But Kaoru had paid so much, and asked so little....
I am not-
The ragged sigh of Kaoru's breath... stopped.
In the depths of his soul, fury howled.
Rattled the chains he had bound it with. Snarled, thwarted by old oaths.
He could hold those oaths, even now. Hold them one faltering breath more, while the dark conquered all. While Kaoru slipped away....
No more,the healer thought. No more.
No one else dies for me....
Later he would look back on that instant and compare it to how the world must have felt, that first bright instant the sun goddess Amaterasu stepped out of her mourning cave. But then-
Then he knew only fire, and rage, and air like a knife in his lungs.
Iwill not die here!
Battousai was awake. And angry.
I will... protect... my wife!
Air shuddered down his throat like icy razors. Battousai opened blazing eyes to the fading light of sunset, the sun-faded pink drift of cherry petals over his tattered gi - and over the too-still form next to him.
No. Her ki still flickered in his senses, like a star through clouds. Leaning near, he felt the faintest of breaths tickle his ear. "Kaoru." He gripped the shoulder of her kimono. "Kaoru!"
She didn't rouse. Only lay there, limp and fading. His love. His wife. His companion in life's battles....
Old reflexes stretched awake, seized hold when rational thought faltered. His sword-companion was injured on the field, and the enemy was near. "Lean on me," Battousai whispered, reaching out with the same strength of will that had faced down the Wolf of Mibu. "I am here."
He felt his ki sweep through the fallen woman, enfold-
Something shaking, and afraid, and torn by darkness. A black, oily energy surrounded Kaoru's familiar ki, hissing at him as he reached toward it.
You dare?The thought was swift as a sword strike, slashing fury through dark coils. Begone!
Darkness oozed back, just a little. Loosened its grip on the prize he sought; something rare, and bright, and infinitely fragile.
Triumph rushed through him as he gathered Kaoru's still-breathing form into shaking arms, fierce and hot as the thrill of sweeping defenders from a Shogunate warship. I have her.
More important - for how long?
Shelter, healing, revenge.Battousai ticked off priorities as he rose, swaying on his feet with Kaoru's weight. He wasn't near well....
But while he could move, he would fight.
The walk back was a blur of shadows and silence; any person could be a threat to the precious burden in his arms, and without his swords, threats were better avoided. He only roused fully once the doors were shut safe behind him and Kaoru was nestled into warm blankets.
Shelter, the hitokiri acknowledged, rubbing at arms that inexplicably itched. Healing....
Memory said a reputable doctor had been consulted, to no avail. Medicine was useless.
She's being attacked in her ki, Battousai realized, looking over the black swirls still clinging to his wife's energies, darker and thicker wherever illness had left its red marks on Kaoru's skin. That's why I could fight it. Who would do such a thing? How do I stop them?
His fingers scratched at flesh before his will overrode them. Why did he itch? Arms, chest, face; all burned as if he'd stepped too close to festival flames....
Battousai stared at white shreds dangling from his fingers, blinking at dead skin that had hours before been angry red with illness. Sunburn?
No. The skin underneath was pale, healthy. Unmarked.
Impossible.The sight was a chill down his spine; more so when he scraped at what had been another streak of red, peeling back more shreds to expose flesh that might have never been ill. I was dying. Will or not, there is no way - nothing human could-
Demon-child, his victims' voices hissed from memory. Youkai in human form.
No! I am not - I cannot be-
Battousai snarled, crushing the rurouni's protest. What he was or wasn't made no difference. Kaoru's life hung in his hands, and he knew no way to save her....
Legends say youkai would sometimes take human lovers, Battousai recalled. To often bitter ends, for human and youkai would rise against them, and try to kill them both. The youkai by force, and the humans by magic and deadly poison.
And when their human loves fell deathly ill, the youkai would nurse them with their own blood....
The rurouni shuddered in his soul. You'd risk Kaoru's life on a fairytale?
Was it a fairytale that left you bleeding from Kiyosato's scar?Battousai hurled back. Was it a fairytale that had the Shinsengumi cursing Choushuu's redheaded demon to the night skies, every time you rescued the Ishin Shishi by impossible feats? Was it a fairytale that you had no strength or memory until Sanosuke fed you a tiger's death - and you felt that death as you tasted the flesh, tell me you did not! Are you a Hiten Mitsurugi master? Are you?
Then what is the key to the succession technique?Battousai demanded.
...The utmost will to live.Something shivered in the part of him that was rurouni, buried strength rising from an early grave. Akane told me... I had forgotten....
"You must survive to honor those who did not," Battousai whispered the words grief and terror had engraved on an eight-year-old's memory. "You must never give up." Kaoru is dying - and we have nothing to lose by trying!
He'd been a healer without swords, but a tanto had never been far from him. Battousai gathered Kaoru's feverish body into his lap, bracing himself for the cut. Shallow... we want blood, not damage.
A sharp pain, and crimson beaded up. "Kaoru." He pressed welling red to her lips. "Kaoru, please."
Slowly, ever so slowly, her tongue touched her lips. Licked. Flinched from the coppery taste, blue eyes opening in exhausted confusion.
Darkness snickered about her, sensing Kaoru's refusal in the flux of ki about them. Pressed inward, snaking toward her heart.
No!"Live," Battousai snarled, forcing the wound back to her lips. As if from a great distance, he felt his eyes melt into gold, ki crackling about him like leashed lightning, washing hair from red to inhuman scarlet. He would not lose this battle, not even when his foe was Death itself. "Fight, woman! You've never given up in your life. Live!"
Trustshimmered in her ki. Gathering her strength, Kaoru licked at crimson. Swallowed. Licked again....
It felt like flying.
Battousai cradled her in his arms, feeling his ki wrap around hers like silken cords, displacing the darkness. It howled, and it bit, and it snarled at him-
And was gone.
Kaoru sighed, slumping against his shoulder in boneless sleep. Snoring.
It was the most beautiful sound he'd heard in years.
She's alive.Battousai brushed back fever-damp dark hair, feeling the healthy warmth of her cheek. She's going to live.
And by the way he itched, so was he. Better bind this before I scratch it deeper, he grimaced, winding a clean bandage over his wrist. Don't know why I'm-
Sleep hit him fast as Saitou's Gatotsu.
Somewhere in Korea.
A set of I Ching sticks clattered over a chalked circle, rattling back from the green glow above chalk as if they'd hit a solid wall. Under an emerald silk cloak, dark eyes studied their fall, bird-bright and wary. A gnarled hand reached out to touch one stick. Violet sparked from dark wood, limning the small sorcerer in a twilight glow. "Hmph."
Violet wings folded over her ivy-green cheongsam, Demona smiled at the scattered sign. "Crisis." The gargoyle's ruby lips curved cruelly. "How sweet."
"Danger and opportunity." A thin trail of smoke lifted from the tip of a black-clad Chinese man's cigarette as he waited in the corner of this hidden house. "It would seem you've won, Dragonfly."
"Hmm." The sorcerer shook his head. "Check your sources in Nippon, Li Tang."
"Not certain of your own magic?" The black-clad Chinese intelligence officer stepped into the lantern light, smirking. "Even with a demon at your side?"
"I know my magic. As I know that of every witch in our wall. And I know it took him a long time to die," Dragonfly said flatly. "What haven't you told us, Li?"
"Nothing. You know what we know." Li Tang shrugged. "Seventeen years ago he was a great sword-master. Some sort of hero in Japan. He and his rag-tag allies broke your fellow dark feng shui masters' spells, defending Tokyo's Circle of Eternity." The Chinese spy shrugged. "But that was a long time ago. He was a dying man when Meiji's government brought him here to inspire the troops... and thanks to you and yours, he is a dead man now." Silent as a shadow, Li slipped away.
"Perhaps," Dragonfly murmured as shimmering wards sealed the outer door.
"Your magic is lethal, old one," Demona observed coldly; no need to play the part of an enslaved demon away from watching eyes. "Especially with my added spells from Europe; spells no Japanese mage could have a counter to. What do you fear?"
"My curses are lethal to humans." Dragonfly smiled thinly. "As you know."
Indeed she did. Dragonfly would never have bargained with her had he been able to kill her instead. A pity for you the Weird Sisters' curse has made that impossible, the immortal gargoyle thought coldly. "Then our bargain is complete." She extended a clawed hand. "The eggs."
Dragonfly waved her off. "Not yet."
"I tire of you, old man...." In a bound, she was on him. Blue claws snagged in silk, lifting the sorcerer from the ground as if he were a bale of feathers. Her tail lashed like a cat's before the kill. "The eggs!"
Staring into crimson eyes, Dragonfly swallowed. Sweat beaded on his forehead as talons pressed against his jugular. "Once Li Tang reports Himura dead."
"Slay me and you will never find them, gargoyle." Fear, heady fear in his eyes... but the dark triumph behind it turned her rage to bitter ashes. "They wait in sleep for a true ally of the Dragon Throne to rouse them. Without the emperor's seal, you will have nothing."
Growling, Demona released him.
The old sorcerer picked himself off the wooden floor, straightening silk robes as if he had all the time in the world. "Be patient, Lady Demona. Just a little longer. Prove yourself in our war to cast these Japanese tyrants out of our ally, Korea, and you shall have the treasures you seek." He smiled, a shape of shadows and secrets. "And more besides."
"The life of a new clan is all I seek, sorcerer." Demona sniffed. "Ally, indeed. You would rule these people as surely as your enemies across the sea."
"And that is as it should be," Dragonfly nodded. "For we are the superior people."
"Of course." Demona smiled in her turn. What did she care for the humans and their petty wars? Who ruled here was no concern of hers. She would fight on any side, aid any cause, so long as more humans died. And Dragonfly knew it.
But he had her loyalty. For now. Dragonfly and his fellow enchanters had in their care the one thing no one else could promise her; spell-shrouded eggs, hidden away by a clan that had died for the emperor centuries before, awaiting the touch of loyal hands to wake them. New life, a new clan, to raise and shape as she would.
A week, the gargoyle thought coolly. Perhaps two, for the news to reach here.
A short span of days, compared to all the centuries alone. She could wait. She could. Until this Himura's death was known, and Dragonfly placed the first egg in her waiting hands.
And then, let the humans tremble!
The trouble with birdsong is, it comes too early in the fucking morning.
Kenshin blinked in pre-dawn darkness, freezing as he realized what he'd just thought. Oh gods... tell me I didn't.
Below the rurouni's cultivated calm, Battousai's dark fury roiled once more.
I broke my oath. Oh, kami, no-
Hurtechoed up from that dark part of his soul. Hurt, and the thirst for revenge, and....
Kenshin held himself still, almost not daring to breathe. Was that... love?
Warmth, from the part of him that even now was a ruthless assassin. The desire to hold and protect; to kill for her... to die for her.
He... I... love her?
Kenshin shook his head, disentangling himself from Kaoru's hair. He started as faint starlight showed a snowfall of white shreds wrapped in dark strands; apparently he'd scratched in his sleep. If I didn't know better, I'd swear a nest of snakes had been here.
Yet surely it's too dark here to see that....
Too dark for the past fifteen years, perhaps. This had been more than enough light during the Bakumatsu.
Night seemed near as light as day, only the colors faded... when did I lose that?
When did I forget how much I missed it?
Setting Kaoru down on the futon, Kenshin rose and stretched. And winced. Everything hurt.
But - it was a good hurt. Like the day after a fierce bout, when he'd mastered one more technique; like bringing all he cared for home from one more battle, injured, exhausted, but alive.
Kenshin wrinkled his nose at the bitter scent of sweat and illness. No need for Kaoru to wake to that.
Dusting off skin that seemed to have flaked everywhere, he set about opening every door and panel. Wind off the river, he thought, breathing in the fine mix of scents, eyes half-closed to tease out details he hadn't been able to distinguish in who knew how long. Smoke, and the Akabeko's fresh garlic, and creosote of telegraph poles....
And a happy flicker of ki, as Kaoru roused enough to watch him from sleepy eyes.
Alive.He stood in the doorway, wrist bandaged, face turned toward sunlight to breathe deep of dawn. She's alive.
Her ki flared with fear.
"Come here." Kaoru struggled to sit up. From the frustration on her face, she was still weak as a kitten; but only weak. There was none of the slump to her frame that had marked the terrible, grinding exhaustion of their illness - and nothing in her ki of surrender.
And he was by her, one swift, surprised blur of movement. How did I - never mind. "What is it?"
Kaoru laid a hand along his cheek, studying his eyes.
What is it? What does she see?
"You're..." She hesitated. But the fear was fading out of her, replaced by wonder.
He took her hand in a comforting grip. Picked up her hand mirror. Gave her a hopeful smile, and looked.
And sat down next to her. Hard.
Sparks of amber still flickered in violet eyes, echoing the shifts of Battousai within his soul. Illness had peeled away like shed skin, leaving the cross-shaped scar fresh as it had been at Toba Fushimi. And the face that bore it-
It was like staring across the gulf of years, to a wide-eyed ex-hitokiri's face in well-water.
The last time I looked so... I had just unsheathed my sakabatou the first time....
"This is not possible." For once, Kenshin could not control his shock. "This is-"
"Aoshi." Kenshin didn't even look up. A sense like moon through clouds, a ki trained to be scattered, inconstant, near impossible to read save in the heat of battle.... it could be no one else.
Shinomori stepped out of the shadows, long trench coat flowing around him, concealing the paired kodachi he carried everywhere. Still tall. Still cool. Still elegant and untouchable as night itself; eyes like forest shade, hair dark as moonless winter sky.
Still no older than the last time Kenshin had seen him, over a decade ago.
Lips slightly parted, Aoshi tasted the air. "Chinese witchery," the onmitsu leader said plainly. "The same as that which struck at Misao, and Tokio. Megumi dodged it wholly, fox that she is... one last, vile vengeance against those who defended Tokyo's Circle of Eternity. They must have been years preparing." He laughed once, without mercy. "A pity they will have so short a time to enjoy it."
"Go elsewhere, Aoshi," Kenshin said numbly. "This one is... too old for such battles."
"Last week, yes. Today?" Aoshi stepped closer. "I came as soon as word reached me of how ill Kaoru-san truly was. I knew if anything might goad you to break the Battousai's chains...."
"What-" Kenshin put the mirror down, hands trembling. "What has happened to this one?"
Kaoru punched him lightly in the arm. "Stop that!"
My Kaoru.Warmth filled him, despite the uncanny situation. This was his true beloved, she of the shinai and fiery temper; the master of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu who'd spent years breaking a humble rurouni of sessha.
"Yes." A thin smile touched Aoshi's face. "I would stop that. Cousin."
"Oro?" Kenshin squeaked.
"Distant cousin, perhaps. It's hard to be certain. But I know this." A darkened blade sliced bloodstained cloth. Beside him Kaoru stiffened, prepared to put pressure on if the wound reopened-
The horizontal slash had already knitted itself closed. As if it'd been healing for days, not hours.
"Legends can be true, Himura," Aoshi said matter-of-factly. "And the legend of the Battousai... the demon of the Revolution, the assassin whose blade fed on the lives of men, whose speed and power was beyond any human... is truer than most."
"Stubborn," Aoshi said softly, watching scarlet hair slide over Kaoru's shoulder as their carriage bounced through Tokyo's early-morning traffic. Himura Kenshin was a boneless bundle in his wife's arms, sleep having reclaimed him almost the moment the carriage door had closed. Even in the faintest sunlight, that hair glows like fire. Hanyou, beyond doubt.
But not inu-hanyou, from the scent. The faint tang that marked youkai blood had not the warmth of canine fur, but an edge like hot steel.
Not kitsune or wolf, then, Aoshi thought, dissecting odors no longer clouded by the rurouni's determination to hide Battousai at all costs. Likely not neko or koumouri, either. Which tends to throw my theory that his parents were ninja released from their clan to live as simple farmers straight into Edo Bay.
Not all ninja had youkai blood, of course. And in most of those who did it didn't run strongly enough to create hanyou. But the Aoiya onmitsu had passed down enough stories to know the treasure they had, when a true black dog had been born to the Shinomori clan.
And no one wondered why a thirteen-year-old was head of Edo Castle security, Aoshi thought wryly, testing Himura's scent on his tongue. It's not any scent I know from ninja clans, but it seems familiar-
Memory clicked, and green eyes almost widened. Samurai. Kyoto samurai. Not the royal family, but lines near it, the fiercest of those who made their names in the East against the emishi. Almost Tokugawa.
A samurai's scent in a deceptively small frame, ruled by a mind that clung to an honor neither samurai nor ninja in spirit. A man who leapt like a mountain cat, flew like an eagle, and struck with strength to match the Wolf of Mibu.
The demon of the Revolution,Aoshi recalled, and this when hanyou were drawn to Kyoto by the score by the scent of blood. Only two swordsmen ever faced him and lived, and one of those I know is wolf-hanyou. Left-handed - as samurai of old were never left-handed, on pain of dishonor - Saitou Hajime was wolf to the core.
The dragon of Hiten Mitsurugi, Saitou called him. And that skin, shed like outworn scales....Cold sweat trickled down Aoshi's spine; as if he'd reached out to rescue a drowning kitten, and found himself holding a half-starved wildcat instead. Kannon's mercy on us all. He's ryuu-hanyou!
A dragon whose scent even now ached of illness, when no mortal sickness should do more than unsettle a hanyou's stomach. Aoshi shook his head. "He nearly did kill himself, didn't he?"
"Don't say that!" Red highlighted her cheekbones, though Kaoru kept her voice to a low whisper. "He was sick-"
"He was. But not the way you think." Aoshi picked up a long bundle from the floorboards, face cool and impassive. This will not be pleasant. "Let him hold these."
Recognizing the shape, Kaoru recoiled. "My husband's not a swordsman anymore, Shinomori-san."
"Your husband," the onmitsu leader said deliberately, "Is a hanyou. A creature of magic who vested his youki in his sword-skill, then denied it to try to live as a human who had never tasted blood." He held out the wrapped bundle once more. "We have no time to have a sakabatou forged. He's still weak. Fragile. Without these, I swear to you, he will die."
Blue eyes met his, searching for any hint of deception. Kaoru set her jaw. "Give me the daisho."
Granting her the best bow he could manage in the moving carriage, Aoshi placed the bundled swords in her hand.
Easing her arm out from under Kenshin, she unwrapped the hilts. Unsheathed katana and then wakizashi in turn; just an inch, just enough to examine razor-edged steel. "They're beautiful."
Aoshi heard the aching sorrow in her voice. "There are still some swordsmiths who keep the old skills." I am sorry, Kaoru-san. "And though we have eluded them for now, there are still those assigned to watch Battousai, even when all accounts paint him on his deathbed." I have no choice, not if I would repay Kenshin for the gift of my life.
"Watchers? The government?" Indignation crowded out her grief. "After all this time, all he's done for them? Why?"
"Himura Battousai is a hero, Kamiya-san," Aoshi said dryly. "A hero and a revolutionary, and so a naked blade at Meiji's throat, no matter how he claims to have put aside the sword. After all, if a government has been overthrown once, why not twice?"
"But Shinta - Kenshin would never-"
Shinta?Green eyes narrowed. "They will never believe that, Kaoru-san. Never."
Kaoru winced. "So that's why you took us from the dojo."
"As of now, the rumors paint your husband dead. I consider it best to encourage them." Aoshi studied her. "Are you hurt?"
"No," she said softly, resting the daisho against her husband's shoulder. Clenched fingers into fists, as Kenshin murmured something in his sleep and curled around steel like an old friend. One hand neared her lips, as if she could still taste Himura's blood. "No, I'm... better." Blue eyes widened. "But Kenji - Megumi-"
"I've sent a message to your cub by one Myojin can tell him speaks the truth," Aoshi informed her, wishing he could be two places at once and see the young Tokyo samurai's face when Misao walked through his door. "As for Takani-san...."
Panting, Dr. Takani Megumi quit struggling in her politer captor's grip, content to watch his more plainly dressed partner turn interesting colors and stagger back from her knee. Quick dark eyes took in every detail of these concealed rooms, set in the back of a traditional inn on one of Tokyo's quieter streets, searching for the best way out. Paper walls would not hold in her scream... but the casual way the inn-servants' eyes had slid past her on their way in told her more than the painted screens was traditional here. They won't help; they won't even see me. Their loyalty is to those who hold me. If I get out, it'll be on my own. Have to thank Kaoru for those self-defense lessons... while she can still hear me. "I've told you-"
"Two of your patients are ill and missing, and you fear for them," the polite young man gripping her wrists repeated patiently. "Yes, we know, Takani-sensei."
"Then let me go-!"
"No, Takani-sensei." He managed a half-bow, never slacking his grip. His clothes might be Western in style, but that regretful civility was pure Edoko. "My most sincere apologies, Takani-sensei, but the okashira has ordered us to ensure you remain here, so you may tend the patients he is bringing."
The okashira.Megumi felt a chill that had nothing to do with spring winds. They're onmitsu.
Somehow it wasn't surprising. There was an air about them that reminded her of her time in the Aoiya; outward normality, underlain by a subtle scent of shadows and secrets.
And yet, for all that, she felt safer here than on Tokyo's streets. There was something wrong in the air about the Kamiya dojo; the same wrongness that had driven her to leave Aizu just as much as the message of Kaoru's illness. A feeling of threat, of danger, that had led the usually rational doctor to pour a line of salt around her futon every night and cross and re-cross river bridges daily, like a fox trying to throw hounds off the trail. A sense of being hunted by predators that wanted not just the flesh, but the soul itself.
You'd think I was being haunted by evil spirits... I haven't seen Misao in years. I wonder who is okashira now?"What patients?" Megumi sighed. Act as if they've worn you down. It may give you the moment you need to strike-
"The okashira said-" Here her captor hesitated, attempting to hide confusion behind a bland face. "That you would know who won you free from the spider's web."
Spider's web. Megumi shivered, keenly aware she still remembered that deadly recipe for the purest of opium. If it hadn't been for Kenshin and the others....
Sanosuke?she thought wildly; Kenshin had said something about the quick-tempered fighter lingering behind in China... or maybe Korea, Kenshin hadn't been altogether coherent. Or Yahiko?
A sudden flurry of activity shadowed the screens of their room; quiet orders were given, and the shadows of the guards outside moved away. The shoji opened-
And Megumi's hands fell nerveless to her sides as her captor released her to bow. It can't be.
Tall, dark, and expressionless as ever, Shinomori Aoshi carried in a small form wrapped in his trenchcoat. Behind him came a burly onmitsu in a gi and leggings, carrying another small person wrapped in a concealing veil.
Women?Megumi frowned as the veil parted just enough to give her a glimpse of dark hair. "You'd better have a good explanation for this, Shinomori-san. I have patients to see-"
"Yes. You do." Aoshi's gaze swept the others. "You've done well. Leave us now."
Bowing, the onmitsu left.
Aoshi waited until the sounds near them died away, then gestured toward the veil. "Her first. I doubt he's woken yet, and startling him might be... unwise."
Him?Megumi shot the onmitsu leader a dark look, and reached for the veil.
Only to be beaten to it by a slim, shinai-worn hand. "And you say you hate house calls," Kaoru grinned at her.
Megumi stared, jaw dropping.
Kaoru blinked. Waved a hand in front of her face. "Hello...."
The doctor picked up her jaw. Professional. I'm going to be professional. "You were dying," Megumi said accusingly.
"I know." Kaoru's smile turned briefly sad. "You didn't tell me, but... I knew."
Megumi moved in and pushed black hair away from her patient's throat, looking for redness, bruising, any of the marks Kenshin's illness should have left behind. Pulse is good, temperature normal, breathing sounds even... I don't believe this. "Kenji said the two of you went out under the cherry trees yesterday. And you didn't come back, and he couldn't even find a trail." Her throat tightened. "I was looking for a body."
"You mean two bodies." A grin blazed across Kaoru's face.
Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I-Megumi froze. No. It's impossible.
"Carefully," Aoshi said as she moved toward the concealing trenchcoat. "He's just waking."
He?Heart in her throat, Megumi bent to peel away a layer of coat.
Swift fingers snatched it back.
Scowling, Megumi moved back in. Yanked on the white lapel.
Fast as a striking snake, the hand whipped concealing cloth back, the as yet unseen lump nestling deeper into warm folds. "Five more minutes, Okami-san...."
Kenji? No - the voice is wrong.But definitely a sulky teenager; she'd know that early-morning grumpy tone anywhere. "I don't know an Okami-san," Megumi said dryly, "But you're coming out of that coat." Feet braced, she yanked the white folds away.
Swords, worn cotton, and a flash of scarlet tumbled to the tatami. "Oro?"
Scarlet. Not true red.Megumi's fingers clenched on white cloth as she took in that maple-leaf fall of red hair. To most eyes Kenshin and Kenji were a matched pair, small, slim redheads both... but to the doctor who'd patched up the swordsman for over seventeen years, the difference was night and day. "K-ken-san?"
"Megumi-dono." Violet eyes blinked up at her, lightened by flecks of amber. "I am sorry I worried you-urk!"
"Worried me? Worried me?" Fist full of tattered gi, Megumi shook the swordsman in her grip. "Yahiko worries me. That hothead son of yours worries me. You - you stubborn, blind, self-absorbed - did you even think what your wandering all over Japan like some damn fool Kirishitan missionary out to kill himself for penance did to Kaoru, you-"
Slim fingers pulled at hers. "Megumi - air-"
"Oooo!" Still fuming, Megumi dropped him on the mat. "You jerk! 'Japan needs me. I have to atone for my past.' Didn't you ever figure out that we needed you? You-" Her throat closed on the words. Hot salt stung her eyes, and she bit her lip against the welling tears. I'm a doctor. Doctors don't cry, it's not professional.
"Megumi." Familiar hands pulled her close, letting her tears soak his shoulder. "Forgive me. You are right. I have been a fool, and I have hurt you, as I never wished to." His voice shifted, speaking past her. "I never wished to hurt any of you."
"You asked me if you could go, and I said yes," Kaoru said softly. "I was trying not to be selfish. I should have been selfish. But you promised me you'd come back. And I knew you always kept a promise." Cloth whispered as she neared them. "But if you ever try to go anywhere again without me, I'm going to thump you so hard Yahiko will be seeing stars!"
Megumi smiled through her tears. Now, that's the Kaoru I know. She scrubbed at her eyes, pulling back from the redhead still eyeing his wife as if he thought a bokken would materialize from thin air. "Let's take a look at you."
"Undernourished again," Megumi muttered to herself as she poked and prodded the slender body, lifting his gi off his shoulders to study the flake-covered skin beneath. "What on earth?"
Kenshin shrugged helplessly. "It started last night, I think. Just before I - fed Kaoru my blood-"
You didwhat? Megumi wanted to demand. But bit the words back; whatever Kenshin had suffered from, Kaoru had already been infected. It wasn't as if he could have done her more harm.
"-Everything started to itch. And then I fell asleep. When I woke, it was like this. I don't know...."
"I think I do," Aoshi commented.
Megumi shot him a glance.
"When you're done," the okashira said evenly.
Hmph.Megumi went on with her examination, searching for any sign of the illness that had thwarted her best efforts to cure Kaoru. No, no, and no. He's obviously been sick; I've seen people in better shape after a bout of influenza. But he's not sick now. Why? Infection just doesn't vanish.
She left the bandaged wrist for last. Folklore or not, something seemed to have helped them both. She was not going to scold him over a few cuts-
Cloth fell away, leaving a bright red scar.
"That was - last night," Kenshin said haltingly.
Impossible.Megumi touched the healed cut, fingers registering the reality of new skin. Took a closer look at the familiar face of her most troublesome patient. Too familiar; an echo out of memory, of a long-ago panicked flight into the midst of a dice game where the only person who felt safe was a swordsman who glanced up at her with startled violet eyes....
She gripped his chin now, peering into those same wide eyes. "Hold still."
His hand lifted; stopped, and moved away from hers with a visible effort. "Megumi-san, I-"
San, not dono, hmm? "Hush. And don't move." She didn't miss the trembling in his muscles, the way his left hand gripped a saya like a lifeline. Amber flecks danced in his eyes, threatening to set violet ablaze in golden fire. And he's not - quite - holding on to the polite rurouni. Careful, careful, Megumi. He's close to the edge, and he knows it. "You're safe now, Ken-san. Try to calm down-"
"No," Aoshi said flatly.
"Shinomori," Megumi warned him.
"No." The okashira's gaze was emerald ice. "Chaining Battousai is what nearly killed him in the first place, Takani. The hitokiri's fury is all that's kept him breathing. The fury... and the youki it raises."
Megumi's eyes bugged. Youki? "Don't be ridiculous, Shinomori-san." Why isn't Kaoru saying anything? "You can't possibly be serious-"
"I think he is," Kaoru said simply.
Knuckles whitened on the saya. "I am not a demon!"
Megumi flinched back, seeing violet melt into burning gold. Oh, kami, protect me.
"Stop." The lack of emotion in Aoshi's voice froze her in place. "He won't hurt you, Megumi."
A hand found a hilt, and Battousai snarled. "You don't know that, damn you!"
Aoshi didn't move. "I know the history of Kyoto, Battousai. We haven't drawn on you. We're not your targets. You will not harm us."
"The surety of the Oniwabanshu." The hitokiri's lithe form curled on itself, poised to strike. "You've been wrong before."
Oh, damn, Kaoru thought.
Cold and immovable as stone, Aoshi was no help. And from the sickly pallor that had swept Megumi's face-
She thinks we're all dead, the swordswoman realized. She knows Kenshin was delirious; she thinks the sickness drove him over the edge, and the hitokiri will kill us all.
So I guess it's up to me.
Kaoru walked into range. Met cold amber with warm blue, and reached out. "You won't hurt me."
Battousai stiffened, hands clenched on steel. Trembled.
"You won't," Kaoru said softly, seeing the fear for what it was. "The first time I saw you this way, you were trying to save my life. You knew what it would cost you, facing Jin-e, and you did it anyway. Because you cared. You always care." She laid her hand against his scarred cheek, firm and gentle at once. "I know you. And I'm not going anywhere."
"Kaoru." His voice was a ragged whisper. Amber searched her gaze, fearing she had stepped blindly into a lethal ambush. "I am not safe."
"And you won't be," Aoshi said levelly. "Not until the threat to Kaoru is dealt with. Dragons are very possessive of their mates."
"Dragons?" Megumi said faintly.
"Threat?" Battousai said more pointedly.
"Saitou and Misao will be here soon. I'd prefer to explain this only once." A ghost of a smile touched the okashira's face. "In the meantime... I hear the baths here are excellent."
Aoshi's right, damn him.
Kenshin slipped into hot water with a sigh, resigned to the low murmur of profanity in the back of his mind. He'd been an impulsive, hot-headed fourteen-year-old when he'd joined the Ishin Shishi, started work as a hitokiri under the hand of a man caught in Choushuu's worst political infighting, and had spent most of the next five years surrounded by hard-fighting, hard-drinking soldiers, killers, and conspirators of all stripes.
All of which meant Battousai had a vocabulary that could turn salt-tanned sailors pale. And very little compunctions about using it.
Fucking right. Sometimes you have to talk to people in a way theyunderstand, remember? Like you're going to have to talk to that damn ninja if he doesn't keep his oh-so-pretty paws off your Kaoru-
Kenshin held his breath and ducked under steaming water, trying to banish images of talking that involved steel, blood, and a very skewered okashira. Thank the kami he'd always been the quiet type.
Too damn quiet. Worth making a little noise sometimes, especially when... oooh, yeah.
A familiar ki shone in the changing room, accompanied by muffled sounds of scrubbing. Still under water, Kenshin started thumping his head against the side of the tub. This is not the time!
Says who?Raw fury had a gentler, almost playful edge. Come on, come on; you know you've got to come up for air soon. Why not now?
I'm going to get pounded, Kenshin thought darkly, silently breaking the surface to breathe as a hand touched the door.
Hello? Wife? Last I heard, that was an invitation to drool.
I do not drool over Kaoru!
...Too damn bad.
And then even Battousai was silent, taking in the shadowed curves of a swordswoman, wet dark hair trailing over her shoulders, fresh-scrubbed skin cloaked in a damp towel. My Kaoru.
You do notice, Kenshin informed his darker half wryly, she's carrying a knife?
Approvalradiated from that unchained fury. Kaoru herself was lovely; Kaoru armed was even better.
"Room enough for two?" Kaoru asked shyly.
Anytime, anyplace, anywhere-
"Oro," Kenshin murmured, moving aside to let Kaoru slip into the hot water. "Forgive. I am - distracted."
"Aoshi said you would be." She leaned against the side of the tub near him, shoulder not quite touching his. "We talked, while you were sleeping... about youkai, and hanyou, and how you control the rage without killing it."
Control the rage. Hadn't he spent the last seventeen years of his marriage doing exactly that? Refusing to kill; hiding the darkness he knew frightened Kaoru so. Feeling the fire that was Battousai flicker lower and lower, fading under the rurouni's will.
Don't. Even. Think about it.Dark fire burned in his veins, entrenching itself against any attempt to seek the rurouni's calm. Peace almost killed you. You promised to live a long time before you promised to bury the hitokiri. I'm not going anywhere. Get used to it.
"He said you must have figured out some ways to - to balance yourself, or you'd never have survived to reach twenty." Her shoulder brushed his; sweet distraction. "But there are a few things he told me about that I know we've never tried. And since Saitou can drive you crazy even when he's trying to be nice - and we both know he won't be, not if Tokio was in danger too...."
"Oro." Kenshin winced at the very thought. Saitou on a good day could drag Battousai close to the surface. Right now....
Oro my ass. Let's see how he likes that Gatotsu shoved up his-
"Anything," Kenshin sighed.
"All right." Her hands shook a little as she retrieved the dagger. "I think you'd better... I mean, I don't know much about...." Kaoru took a deep breath, and tapped her shoulder. "Here. Aoshi says a little cut heals cleanly."
"Kaoru!" The part of him that wasn't avidly watching the muscled line of her arm move across her breasts was appalled; not only by the offer, but by the sudden rush of red hunger he'd buried for decades. "I cannot. I must not-"
"Then show me how." Determination burned in blue eyes. "Aoshi says you probably can't pick out scents as well as he can - you're ryuu, not inu - but you can sense other hanyou by their ki. They're a threat to me. This will help." Her voice dropped. "Please?"
Pale, he took the blade. Razor sharp. As were all Aoshi's gifts, in their own way. "Beloved. I do not want to hurt you."
"I know." Kaoru brushed back wet red hair. "I trust you-" She sucked in a breath at the quick sting of steel. "I've always trusted you."
"Not quite always, oh huntress of hitokiri." Gingerly, he tasted the line of crimson against white skin, ready to pull back at the first rush of battle fury. Praying to any power that would listen that he could pull back. Shedding the blood of his enemies had calmed him in the past, but Kaoru was no enemy....
It was a taste, a scent, a shock of ki against ki. A reaching-out of Battousai's strength to meet and mingle with that pure flame he'd been drawn to since one dark night in Tokyo, when a brave young woman stalked the streets on the trail of a killer.
Not battle-fury, he knew, nuzzling up and down Kaoru's shoulder, licking the cut with each pass, making her shiver when lips and teeth grazed the hollow of her throat. Though I wouldn't exactly call this calm....
Her hand touched his face, gently pushing back. He fought down Battousai's snarl of disappointment, lifted his gaze. "Kaoru?"
"Kenshin." Blue eyes were wide, dilated with the same fire rising in his veins. She licked her lips. "Someone could come in-"
"Someone had damn well better not." Caressing the skin of her throat, he claimed her lips.
ki - life energy.
hitokiri - manslayer, assassin.
anata - "you", used for husband, or wife.
youkai - demon, supernatural creature.
rurouni - wanderer.
kami - gods.
sakabatou - reverse-blade sword.
kodachi - sword mid-length between a katana and a wakizashi.
onmitsu - spy, ninja.
hanyou - half-demon.
inu - dog.
kitsune - fox.
neko - cat.
koumouri - bat.
emishi - aborigines, sometimes identified as the Ainu.
ryuu - dragon.
youki - demonic energy.
daisho - paired swords.
-sensei - master, doctor.
okashira - leader, head. "The boss".
shinai - bamboo practice sword.
tatami - reed or rice straw mats.
-dono - lord or lady, high-ranking person.
saya - sheath.