Disclaimer: I do not own the Kenshingumi; all you lawyers, please don't sue me. And all you readers please take note: I don't own anything I quote.
General Notes: Hmm... we seem to have gotten a spiffy new ratings system. I will accept the assigned rating for now (it seems to be the new PG-13), but might have some individual chapters that get rated higher for things.
Other notes: AU, which means that OOCness will jump up and down and wave its arms on occasion (although I'm trying to keep it minimal). Also, there are going to be spoilers, in the sense of riffs on or references to things in the anime and manga.
Other OTHER notes: Gaaaah! It has been unbelievably long since I updated, and I apologize. There has been (and still is, unfortunately) a lot of employment-related craziness and stress. Fortunately, 2014 resolution, move on from the previous plan to get all that other stuff settled first and then get back to writing- because clearly that plan wasn't working. Thank you SO MUCH to everybody who has been reading and enjoying this story! And now, rather than continuing to babble about my life, on with the chapter!
Chapter Thirty-Five: Sunrise to Sunset
Yahiko blinked slowly awake as the alarm radio came on, confused by his surroundings. The pale walls didn't show any sign of his poster collection; the floor of the room was actually visible….
"Oh… right. I'm staying at Kaoru's apartment, because… because Dad…"
He tightened his jaw as he sat up. First day back at school, for him and his sister; he wasn't about to break down. He had a responsibility as an Assistant Master of the Kamiya Kasshin School, darn it!
How was he supposed to be ready to help Sis take out the bad guys if he stayed hiding under the covers all day?
Loud clattering noises and occasional yelps from the kitchen told him that Kaoru was out fixing breakfast, so he headed to the shower. By the time he finished a rudimentary scrubbing and got dressed in clothes that were only slightly damp from being run quickly through the laundry the night before, the table held a plate full of toast, another plate with bacon, several boxes of cereal, butter, jam, orange juice, milk, and some fruit.
There was also a faintly smoking frying pan in the sink, with something that looked like it might have been intended to be scrambled eggs. Although he'd never heard of scrambled eggs turning that particular color before.
Some people, familiar with his sister's cooking, might have hesitated to try the bacon. Yahiko, however, told himself firmly that Assistant Masters did NOT shrink from danger… and besides, he was pretty sure he'd done worse the last time he'd been on breakfast duty.
"Dad said that the bright side was, we wouldn't have to buy replacement boards for the dojo for another month. I can't believe he took pictures to show Ugly, that was SO unfair of…"
Clenching his fist on his fork, Yahiko took another deep, cleansing breath.
"Yahiko? Is, um, the bacon okay? I actually meant to get breakfast sausage, but it was kind of late last night when I went to the grocery store, and when I got home, there was bacon in the shopping bag."
"It's fine. Thanks. I mean, you didn't have to do anything fancy."
Kaoru flushed slightly. "It's not really fancy; I mean, toast, eggs, bacon… minus the eggs; sorry. I thought about making pancakes…" At her brother's expression, she held up her hands, "I didn't actually do it! Hence the toast! Which is a perfectly normal… um... bread of some kind."
Slathering jam on his slice, Yahiko started eating the toast, and promptly grimaced
"Rye bread… strawberry jam… bad idea….," he managed, grabbing the orange juice to wash everything down.
"Gah! Sorry! Um… here, this just has butter on it…."
While Yahiko focused on toast and re-establishing his equanimity, Kaoru drank her coffee, and devoured her own toast and bacon while frowning at a note she was reading.
"So, um, Yahiko?" she asked, sounding slightly nervous as she set her mug down.
"What?" he asked, trying not to sound nervous himself.
Kaoru bit her lip. "Dr. Gensai called. He wanted… that is, he said that you're welcome to go stay with him and Ayame and Suzume. If you were interested."
"What! But, Kaoru, how are we supposed to… I mean, what about investigating what happened to Dad?"
"Okay, first of all, any investigating is going to be done very carefully and, as annoying as it might be, preferably with Kenshin around for back-up—I know, I know," she held up a hand to prevent him from saying anything, "but, frankly, after everything that's been going on…"
"Like you getting kidnapped by a demon, and me getting attacked in the park—also by a demon?"
"Yeah. I'm just saying…and I can't believe I'm saying this…." Kaoru sighed. "Fact: we seem to be having some supernatural issues around here which are definitely not friendly. Fact: something out there was strong enough to take down Dad, and it seems to have been something—or somethings- that uses a blade."
"It's a pretty good bet that whatever took down Dad was a demon, like Kenshin said?"
"I wouldn't bet against it, that's for sure," Kaoru agreed. "Especially since he took off from the hospital and just left a note saying he's looking into things and will be in touch. In any case, I don't think it's a good idea to go charging around town at night with our bokkens, all fired up and ready to rumble. Adjoining recovery rooms is not how we want to spend more time with Dad."
"And if we take Kenshin along, he can help out if it is a demon!" Yahiko finished cheerfully, helping himself to more toast.
Kaoru opened her mouth, then closed it again. She wasn't sure Kenshin would agree with being labeled the sidekick, but she knew for sure that neither she nor Yahiko was going to let somebody else have first shot at whoever had hurt their father.
"Anyway, Yahiko—we can't just go rushing off; we're going to need to coordinate, and plan, and make sure that we keep up with school. Well, school for you; work for me. Which is also school, but you know what I mean. My point is, you not staying here isn't going to mean we can't work on tracking down whoever did this. Dr. Gensai's house is a different part of town, but it's not really that much farther away from school. He can even drive you to school when he's dropping off Ayame and Suzume on his way to the clinic. Plus, you'd have your own room, with a desk and everything."
Yahiko looked skeptical. He could clearly see Kaoru's point—and he knew that having both of them trying to share a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with limited workspace wasn't great, but it felt like abandoning his responsibilities to just go stay in a nice house with a large yard and, he had to admit, somebody who could cook way better than his sister.
Before he could figure out what to say, Kaoru pressed on. "More importantly," she said quietly, "you need to take over the beginning classes, and Jin-sensei's dojo is only five minutes from Dr. Gensai's house."
"I have to what?" Yahiko exclaimed, blinking in shock.
"You're an Assistant Master, Yahiko—you've taught the classes before, on your own. What are we supposed to do, hang up a "closed" sign and tell all of our students, "Sorry; just forget about kendo for now; we'll call you when we've gotten our act together"? We are not letting this break our school! We owe it to… to Dad, and to grandpa, and to everybody who believes in the Kamiya Kasshin style! But until the dojo is fixed, we need to hold classes someplace else. Jin-sensei volunteered space when he's not teaching classes, and Ran-sensei said she'd do the same—but working around their schedules gives us a limited amount of time, plus they're on opposite sides of town. The best plan is to have one of us offer classes at one dojo, and one offer classes at the other. I can drive, but you really need to be within walking or biking distance."
"Okay," he said, swallowing. "You're right; we need to keep the classes going. That's…. even more important than… I mean, it's what Dad would want us to do."
"It's going to be the first thing he asks about when he wakes up And the second thing is going to be whether we took advantage of the chance to have our students run practice bouts with the folks from the other dojos, so be thinking about that. Can't miss an opportunity to show off the power of Kamiya Kasshin, right?"
Somehow, thinking about it that way made Yahiko feel a lot better. At least until Kaoru asked, "You up for working out a schedule with Jin-sensei tomorrow? Dr. Gensai is coming over this afternoon to help out and make sure you're okay with staying with them, but the sooner you meet with Jin-sensei, the faster we can let everybody in the beginning classes know what's going on."
"Err… sure? I mean, Yutaro and I were going to meet and keep working on our museum project after school, but we can do that tomorrow. I bet I can get him to give me a ride over to the dojo. He can check out the antique sword collection—hey, I bet he can see if there's anything we can use for our project; maybe we can even interview Jin-sensei about it!"
"Great! By the way, we've got about five minutes before we have to head out,"
"Wait, what?" he demanded, "What do you mean, five minutes? School doesn't start for another hour!"
"And those of us who work there have to get there before those of you who are there for the acquisition of knowledge," Kaoru replied sweetly, standing up to put her dishes into the sink. "Think of it this way—you'll be there early enough that nobody will be able to see you getting a ride from a teacher!"
Muttering under his breath, Yahiko put his dishes into the sink and dashed back into the bedroom to get his coat and books. Things were slightly improved by Kaoru handing him money for lunch when he came back into the kitchen. Given Kaoru's distracted shopping the night before, he wasn't entirely sure what else might be in the fridge.
The ride to school was uneventful. Fortunately for both of them, the attack on their father had merited a brief mention the morning after it had happened, but wasn't taking up a lot of space on the airwaves a mere day later.
"I guess that's one benefit of everybody calling it a 'Halloween prank,'" Yahiko thought to himself, "nobody cares now that Halloween's over and nothing else has happened. And if this is really one of Kenshin's sort of problem, I bet it's going to be a lot easier for him to investigate if there aren't cameras and reporters all over! Hey, I wonder…."
As the car idled at a red light, Yahiko turned to Kaoru and said, "Hey, sis? Do you think Kenshin's covering up what happened to Dad? I mean, not, 'covering it up,'" he corrected hastily at her expression, "but, you know, making reporters and the police and stuff not ask questions? So that he can hunt down the bad guys himself?"
"Um…" Kaoru blinked. "I'm not sure Kenshin and his… well, whoever he's working with…. Anyway, I'm not sure they need to, in this case. I mean, Dad's important to us, and the dojo is important to our family, but it's not exactly like Dad was, I don't know, an ambassador, or foreign royalty, or something like that."
"What if he was secret foreign royalty? Maybe somebody didn't want him to be able to return to take his crown back, and…"
"First of all, any scenario where you end up as a prince is automatically ridiculous. Second, if Dad was secretly foreign royalty, the reporters and police and whoever wouldn't know about it either."
As the car continued along the street, Yahiko muttered under his breath, "Yeah, like you'd be so great at being a princess."
Pulling into a space in the teacher's parking lot, Kaoru turned off the car and took a deep breath.
"You okay? I mean, it would be fine if you needed to take another day."
Yahiko snorted. "Right. I get to take another day off, and you have to go back to work in the exact same building? Like Dad would ever let us live that down."
Okay, maybe his grin was a little watery on the last sentence. But Kaoru grinned back and said, "Very good point, brat. 'Cause you know he's going to demand a full report when he… gahh!"
"What? What? Gahh!"
Even on a normal school day, the sight of Mr. Fujita striding purposefully towards the car, wreathed in far more smoke than seemed possible from a mere cigarette, would have been enough to make either Kamiya sibling jump—or possibly throw the car into reverse and back screeching out of the parking lot.
"That's…. odd…" Kaoru managed, removing her hand from the car keys. "I mean, um, I'm sure there's no need for you to worry, Yahiko; I'm sure I probably forgot to ….um…. well, I'm clearly still forgetting it, but Mr. Fujita is bound to remind me, so, no need to worry."
With identical expressions, the siblings got out of the car and turned to face the science teacher. He looked at them both, and took a long drag on his cigarette, exhaling slowly before saying, "Yahiko, Ms Kamiya —I trust that you are both ready to return to school?"
They nodded. Yahiko opened his mouth to repeat what he'd told his sister in the car, but closed it again. He wasn't sure Mr. Fujita would know he was joking about having to give a full report. Well, mostly joking, anyway.
"Excellent. Yahiko, the principal wanted to meet with you before school…."
"Wait, what? Why?"
Mr. Fujita snorted. "I suspect that he wants to express support and understanding, in the form of pop-psychology platitudes and attempts to get you to open up about your feelings."
Yahiko gulped, looking faintly traumatized. "Um… Sis? Err.. Kaoru….erm… Ms Kamiya… best student teacher ever…. I don't suppose you need help cleaning erasers? Carrying textbooks? Feeding the experimental plankton?"
"Sorry; you're going to have to go through with it," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Just remember: It's either before class or after school, if you walk slowly you'll end up with less than ten minutes in the actual office, and if you don't carry out this dangerous mission, the whole entire student body will probably be forced to attend one of those da….darn motivational assemblies about pulling together and letting our bright colors shine together in a splendid tapestry of happiness."
"And then they'll happily kill me on the football field?"
"And then they'll happily kill you on the football field," Kaoru agreed.
"Fiiiine," he ground out, shoulders slumping. "See you in class, Si… Ka…Ms Kamiya." With that, he took off across the parking lot. He was halfway down the row of cars before he remembered that he was supposed to be walking slowly and ground to a halt before continuing sedately.
Kaoru grinned after him. Then, remembering who was next to her, she took a deep, calming breath and turned to face her supervisor.
"What's on the schedule for today?" she asked, still faintly curious as to why Mr. Fujita had come all the way out to the faculty parking lot rather than lurking in the doorway, cigarette in hand. "Do we need to finish scheduling the presentations, or is that next week?"
Turning in a manner which clearly indicated that she should keep pace with him as he walked back towards the school, he said, "There's a sign-up sheet in the back of the classroom. Anybody who fails to select a spot by the end of the week will be assigned one."
"Does that mean they'll have to go first, or they'll have to wait until right before Christmas vacation?" Kaoru wondered aloud. Somehow, from the expression on Mr. Fujita's face, she suspected that it would be whichever option would be most distressing to the student in question.
Before they reached the doorway, he remarked off-handedly, "Mr. Murray also wanted to meet with you, Ms Kamiya, to make sure that you are handling the situation well." Before Kaoru could do more than freeze, eyes wide, he continued, "I assured him that I was more than capable of speaking to you about it."
His tone implied that he didn't want to hear about her "feelings" any more than she wanted to talk about them—that, having asked her if she was ready to return, nothing more needed to be said.
"If, however," he continued, "you find that you need to take time off, to be at the hospital… or to handle any other relevant issues personally, I would appreciate being kept informed."
"In other words," Kaoru thought, "claiming to be home sick with a cold isn't going to work for me any more than it would for the students. Got it…. Wait, what does he mean 'handle any other relevant issues personally'?"
She stopped and blinked at her supervisor as he opened the door. She opened her mouth to ask, decided that there wasn't really a good way to formulate the question—at least not when heading into the hallway, where some of the athletes who had early-morning practice were wandering towards their lockers, and teachers were either heading to the lounge for coffee or heading back to the classroom after caffeinating.
But, all morning, as she helped prep microscope slides and make sure nothing caught on fire, in the back of her mind, Kaoru kept mentally replaying how Kenshin and Mr. Fujita had circled each other like two predators about to lunge at each other, claws out….
"Oi! Come on out of there! Look, nothing bad is going go happen, just… ow! Hey!"
"You are completely hopeless, you know that?"
Megumi's amused voice startled Sano so badly that he almost cracked his head on the edge of his coffee table as he jerked up towards where her voice was coming from.
He gave her a sheepish expression as he stood up, and said, "It's not my fault! I think the damn thing's gotten stuck back there or something!"
She rolled her eyes and pulled a small pouch out from her bag, shaking it so that it rattled. With an inquiring "mmmrrrrrooowww?," Shroedinger emerged from under Sano's sofa, heading straight for the person with the cat treats. The pudgy feline rubbed up against Megumi's ankle's affectionately, making purring noises as she handed him a treat. Sano tried not to look like he was pouting over the fact that he'd spent a half-hour trying to lure the Kamiyas' pet out from behind the furniture with no success, while his fiancée got results in less than thirty seconds.
"Thanks, Meg. You really have a way with…"
"I am not taking the cat with me, Sano."
This time, the pout was much harder to hide. Megumi shook her head. "No way. For starters, my hospital shifts are crazy—not to mention the fact that my building doesn't allow pets any more than Kaoru's does. Second, you're the one who volunteered—you and Katsu went and fetched the cat from the dojo." Before Sano could say anything, she held up her hand. "Now, I will happily assist you in taking care of Schroedinger in your apartment, as long as it is understood that you will not foist all cat-care duties off on me."
"I'm just worried that he'll get lonely while I'm off at the bar."
"You could take him with you, you know. Keep him in the office? Maybe get Katsu to share cat-sitting duties with you?"
"He had pet-sitting duties last time, with Angel-Marie. Not sure it's fair to ask him…."
"Sano, this is not going to be just a weekend thing; you know that, right? Kaoru's dad…" Megumi sighed. "Sano, even after he wakes up—and that could take a while; they're monitoring him very closely, and they may decide to keep him under artificially if they think it will be medically useful—he's going to be in the hospital for a while. After that, I don't know. Physical therapy, but….Anyway, short version, you should plan on having that cat around for a while."
Sano looked down at Schroedinger. Having gotten treats, the cat had strolled over to Sano's favorite recliner and proceeded to curl up in a large, self-satisfied ball of fluff, snoring gently and being completely unconcerned with whether somebody might want that chair to sit in while catching up on some very important sporting events.
"Well," Sano said after a pause, "I guess having a part-time bar cat could work."
Kenshin frowned, running his fingers carefully along the dojo's splintered doorframe in the harsh noon light. His conversation with Hannya during his first visit to the dojo in the dark of night had resulted in an entire day running around the city- not entirely unproductive, he admitted. So far, he'd been able to rule out several potential candidates, narrowing the field considerably. Of course, just because it hadn't been unproductive didn't mean he hadn't handed everything off to Aoshi with alacrity and headed back to the dojo to investigate in the daylight.
The damage to the building indicated that something had broken through the doors at a fairly rapid speed—probably as the first move in the attack.
'No…. wait… whoever—or whatever—did this, they would have broken the lamps first. No light out in the courtyard; reduce the visibility…. Then you break something big, something that makes a lot of noise.'
He could picture Kaoru's father, sitting in the house, waiting for trick-or-treaters…. or possibly having handed out the last of the candy, getting ready to turn in. The noise of the door breaking would have brought him out, weapon in hand, ready to administer a well-deserved thrashing to Halloween pranksters.
'No light… broken door… suspicious quiet. No, wait. Quiet would have been too suspicious; he would have been expecting an ambush if it was quiet.'
Walking around the training hall, he caught sight of the weapons rack, broken and surrounded by pieces of its former contents.
'Of course…. How do you get a kendo master to walk into an ambush? Make it sound like it's just vandals, wrecking the place—laughing it up, breaking anything they can get their hands on. Lacking any respect for what they're destroying. That's just asking for an expert to come in and demonstrate exactly why it's a bad idea to attack a master of the art on their own turf.'
Kenshin could picture that scene, too- Kaoru's father, silhouetted in the doorway, making a bold declaration, ready to take on whoever was destroying his family's legacy.
'He comes in…. it wouldn't have taken him long to realize it was a trap… but… I think the trap was in front of him. Getting him into the dojo, so that whoever was going to attack him could come in behind him…'
He crouched down, gently touching the darkly-stained boards. The police might think that what had happened was a gang attack, violent teenagers jumping on an older man who was unable to fight them off… but Kamiya's injuries told a different story to somebody who knew martial arts.
'If this had been a group attack, there would have either been no blades involved, or more than one. You can't have multiple people beating somebody up with their fists while one person is swinging a sword around. Well, I suppose you could, but it would be incredibly stupid—and there's no way that only the intended victim would end up with cuts. Aoshi would have been collecting people's fingers off the floor if that had happened.'
'A one-on-one fight, bokken versus live steel, nobody else getting involved… This wasn't an attack; it was a duel. And considering the injuries, it went on for a while—whoever was involved wanted Kamiya to suffer, and to die slowly while bleeding on the floor of his own training hall. That's personal. That means a grudge—and that means a history.'
Kenshin smiled grimly to himself as he stood up and walked back out of the training hall. Histories could be tracked—and if somebody had been foolish enough to hire or conjure supernatural help to create their little trap, that would make tracking them that much easier. Hannya was talking to his usual sources, which would give them a clear picture of the dojo's history—and the history of the Kamiya Kasshin school. Aoshi was still tracking the leads he had mentioned, now with Kenshin's additional information. With any luck, by the evening, they would be able to start the hunt in earnest.
'And then, you bastard, we finish this.'
'Let's see how you like a one-on-one fight with me.'
Kaoru considered her plan of attack carefully. She didn't have any real evidence that Mr. Fujita was…. well, in the same line of work as Kenshin. As far as she could tell, nobody at the school had suffered an unfortunate and pointy fate within the past year or so—although she hadn't tried looking for anything suspicious, so it was hard to tell for sure. Besides which, if Mr. Fujita was there for work… well, work other than his day job…. then wouldn't he have left once it was taken care of?
Either way, she couldn't exactly broach the topic directly. She was going to need to come at the topic sideways, and hope it worked.
After the last bell had rung, and the last students had stumbled out of the classroom, Kaoru steeled herself and went up to Mr. Fujita's desk, where he was frowning at a batch of pop quizzes.
"Mr. Fujita?," she asked, "I was wondering… well, I know Yahiko should be asking this, since it's his project, but… he and Yutaro are working on sword construction and historical swords, mostly because of the big exhibition. Um…. the theft at the museum isn't going to cause them any problems is, it? I'm not sure they'd finished taking notes."
Circling several items with a red pen, Mr. Fujita said absent-mindedly, "Unless they were actually working with the Mugenjin directly, Ms Kamiya—which I certainly hope they weren't, neither of those young idiots has anywhere near the kind of protective amulets they'd need—I don't see any reason why…"
He trailed off, looking up at her sharply. Kaoru knew her eyes had gone wide, but she couldn't quite seem to make herself say anything.
'Well, that was more information than I had expected to get,' she thought, slightly stunned.
Mr. Fujita stopped glaring at her and sighed. He pulled a cigarette out from his desk and lit it, inhaling deeply.
"I begin to see, Ms Kamiya, how exactly you keep managing to get yourself into so much trouble. And," he glowered, "Himura needs to learn to keep his mouth shut. What the hell is the point of covering up a heist if you then go telling everybody about it?"
"Right…." she said, faintly. "Sooo…. I take it that you're not human, either, then?"
"And you, um, work… with… Kenshin?" she said, slightly more tentatively.
He snorted, blowing smoke. "On a regular basis? That moron would drive me mad. Let's just say we work for the same larger cause, and that that sometimes—sometimes—includes having to put up with each other being in the same location, or combining our efforts."
"Are you… I mean, is your job here at the school like the jobs that Kenshin does at high schools? I mean, the student body seems reasonably intact, and I haven't noticed any suspiciously rune-like graffiti around…"
He stood up and walked over to the window, opening it and taking another deep drag on his cigarette before answering.
"Himura is what you might call a trouble-shooter."
A very bad joke about a job defined as "finding trouble and shooting it" passed through Kaoru's mind, but she kept her mouth firmly shut and told herself to pay attention.
Mr. Fujita continued, "He gets sent where there seems to be trouble; he follows up on tips from Shinomori or…"
He broke off and gave her a look.
"No, that's okay, I, err, already knew about Aoshi. Well, the "also being a demon" part about Aoshi, not the "supernatural problems tipline" part."
Raising an eyebrow and muttering something under his breath that sounded like, "Of course you do…." before another deep inhalation from his cigarette and an exhaled plume of smoke, he said, "Himura's assignments are meant to be temporary, focused on investigating and solving specific problems. Once he's taken care of whatever brought him to that location, he goes on to the next problem. However, changing location every six months or so is no way to raise a family, so I requested a more permanent position."
Kaoru was barely able to keep her mouth from dropping open in shock.
'Raise a family? Wait, Mr. Fujita has a family? As in, a wife and children? She must be a candidate for sainthood….'
"Fortunately for me, this city has seen several significant problems in the past decade or so. Your school, of course—and that idiot Sagara's school—plus there was that incident with the clowns. Clearly, having somebody on site who could patrol and nip any problems in the bud was the logical solution."
"Wait," Kaoru asked, "if you're already here permanently, why did Kenshin need to come back?"
Mr. Fujita raised one eyebrow and gave her a significant look.
"Oh," she said weakly. "Right. Um. And the problems that you've all been dealing with recently, those started happening after Kenshin was already here, but not because he was here? I mean, if it was happening because you were around, it would have happened, well, sooner, right?"
He considered her question carefully, walking back to his desk and extinguishing his cigarette in an ashtray located in his desk's side drawer. Finally, he said, "Even Himura's ego isn't big enough to believe that this was happening entirely because he's here. But that doesn't mean that it isn't happening, to some extent, because of him—and myself, and Shinomori, and…. Well, let's just say that some events in the past are reverberating in the present. The reason that they're reverberating here, now, has more to do with that damned sword being here than any of us. Although I strongly suspect that our presence so early in the game was seen as an additional bonus."
"Are you talking about a sword that is literally damned?" Kaoru demanded. "I mean… hearing strange voices? 'One sword to slay them all'? Devours your soul and heads to the stars after a long career of causing you to be soppily emotional about the fact that your sword keeps devouring souls?"
"First of all, Ms Kamiya, you are unlikely to encounter the Mugenjin on your own—I expect it's being very, very well-guarded. Second of all, if you were to encounter it on your own, I trust that you have enough intelligence not to try to breach the protections which would undoubtedly obviously be surrounding it. And if you were encountering it while it was being wielded by its owner….." He trailed off, uncharacteristically unable to finish the sentence.
"It would probably be an encounter of very short duration, and the nature of the sword would no longer be my problem?" she guessed.
"Indeed. But," he added rapidly, "it would not… that is, to the best of my knowledge, that particular blade has no impact on the human soul. Not the souls of those is slays, at least."
"Right. Well. Good to know, although I hope it won't be relevant," Kaoru said, hoping her voice sounded firmer than she felt it did.
Apparently having nothing else to say on the subject, Mr. Fujita began packing up the quizzes and textbooks. "If that's all, Ms. Kamiya, I should be getting home. Tokio is picking the boys up from soccer practice, and I promised to deal with the groceries."
Even though the thought of her boss "dealing with the groceries" caused all sorts of amusing mental images to run through her mind, Kaoru managed to wrench her brain back to her original plan for this conversation.
"Actually, sir, I did have one question. It's… it's kind of what I wanted to talk to you about originally." Steeling her spine, she said, "The attack on my father… do you... any of you… do you have any new information? Any idea what happened?" At his expression, she hastily added, "I don't mean Yahiko and I are going to go charging off at the faintest hint of a lead! We know better! It's just that it's frustrating not knowing anything, especially when the police are being idiots—not that "supernatural attack" is a logical conclusion for most people, or that it necessarily means that's what happened in this case, but it seems like a likely possibility, all things considered, and… and.." Kaoru took a deep breath and tried again. "Mr. Fujita, if you have any information about what attacked my father, my brother and I would appreciate knowing about it. We are also happy to help out in any way we can."
He nodded brusquely. "Thank you Ms Kamiya. However, I don't believe that there is anything that…." Trailing off, he turned to look at her speculatively.
"There is," he said slowly, "one possible piece of information which might be useful in helping me…. that is, us… track down the perpetrator. Shinomori's investigations indicated that the primary attacker, the one who was wielding a blade, was using his left hand. Does that by any chance ring any bells?"
"Left….." Kaoru blinked. "That's unusual. I mean, there are a couple of kids on the kendo circuit who are left-handed, but none of them are anywhere close to Dad's level. Also, they're not members of our school…. I mean," she clarified, taking a deep breath and trying to present everything logically, "first of all, we don't teach live steel; I can't think of a local dojo that does. The only time I've heard about anybody even handling live steel was that time Jin-sensei's idiot nephew started swinging his great-grandfather's katana around, and you would not believe the trouble he got in… err… I mean… it's not that there aren't swords around; it's just that they're family heirlooms—they get kept on stands or in special cases, where nobody can touch them, let alone train with them."
Mr. Fujita raised one eyebrow.
Kaoru exhaled, not quite a whistle. "You're thinking somebody did try to use a family heirloom, and got more than they bargained for?"
"It wouldn't be the first time. Swords have a very long memory—and that's even if no spirits are attached to them. If someone is suddenly using a blade, and using it well enough to beat a master of his own style…."
"They may not be using skills they got through years of hard work," Kaoru finished. At his brusque nod, she sat down against one of the front desks and put a hand to her forehead. "I still don't see Dad being a logical target. We're not a large dojo; we're not in a particularly obvious location; I'd expect anybody who was going after dojo masters to go after their own first—and as far as I know, no other dojo masters have been attacked recently. We're a small community—I would know. Dad would have known. I don't see anybody going after us first as part of a spree."
'It might not be about your father—or your dojo," Mr. Fujita replied. "As I said, swords have long memories. It could be about one of the swords you have…" He held up a hand to forestall her question. "Not the one you took from that idiot— anything focused on that would go after where it is, not where it had been."
"That's good… well, not that I want to see something going after Kenshin," she amended, ignoring her supervisor's snort, "but I'm glad Dad didn't get attacked because I brought something into our house five years ago rather than tossing it into a ravine."
Looking at his watch, he put on his coat and picked up his bags. "Ms Kamiya," he said thoughtfully, "would you be amenable to my visiting the dojo tomorrow, after school? I would appreciate the opportunity to examine the swords you have in the house, to determine if something there has a connection to whatever injured your father."
"That would be fine," Kaoru answered. "I'm free after school—oh, I might be teaching an advanced class tomorrow night out at Ran-sensei's dojo, but that won't be until after dinner."
"Excellent. Tomorrow after school, then."
When Dr. Gensai arrived, granddaughters in tow and several containers of excellent noodles in hand, both Kaoru and Yahiko were just checking the last items off of the packing list. Looking to where Ayame and Suzume where happily coloring across paper placemats, he said, "Now, Kaoru, are you sure you don't want to just come stay at the house? We could make room."
"Thank you, Dr. Gensai, but I need to be able to get from school to the dojo in the afternoon in time for lessons."
"Well, I certainly hope that you'll make time to come over for dinner when you can- Ayame and Suzume miss getting to spend time with you now that you're so busy with work!"
"Of course," Kaoru said with a smile. "Speaking of the dojo, I should get going- I need to get some things before it gets dark. Yahiko, anything you need, other than clothes?"
Yahiko looked as if he was going to offer to come with her, but just exhaled and said, "Toothbrush, I guess. Shoes? I don't know. Whatever."
"Well, I'll just pick up what I can find tonight and then we can get more in a couple of days when you get whatever you need for teaching."
The prospect of teaching entirely on his own at another dojo made Yahiko turn slightly green. Before he could say anything, Dr. Gensai said, "Will you be bringing a bag over tonight, Kaoru?"
"That's the plan," she replied, trying to sound upbeat. "I'll try to get there before Ayame and Suzume go to bed, but just in case I get held up, don't tell them that, okay?"
"Heavens, no," the elderly doctor agreed, "I'd never get them to settle down. Luckily, they'll have their favorite big brother to chase around. That ought to be more than enough excitement for one evening."
Saying her goodbyes, Kaoru headed back out to the car. She grimaced slightly at the thought of rush hour traffic, but told herself firmly that the sooner she got her errands at the dojo taken care of, the sooner she could get home and start figuring out her next move.
Including how to make sure that a certain red-headed demon didn't try to keep her or her brother out of the investigative loop.
Kaoru unlocked the office door and unexpectedly found herself blinking back the sting of tears as she looked at the mess of papers on her father's desk.
'Stop that...' she told herself fiercely, 'This is not the time to break down; you just need to call the students and make sure that they know that classes are cancelled this week, let them know that there will be a modified schedule starting next week, and then get Yahiko's things from his room. You can get upset later. When you have the time.'
The class lists were actually not terribly difficult to find, organized in the same black binder Kaoru remembered from when she was a little girl. She absently wondered if the binder was one of the things passed down across the generations in the dojo, but quickly forced her mind back to the task at hand. Looking at the office chair, Kaoru swallowed. While it was true that there was a phone in the office, Kaoru couldn't quite bring herself to sit in her father's chair, behind his desk. It made it feel... permanent, somehow. Picking up the binder, she headed back to the house and sat down at the kitchen table.
Working her way through the class lists took longer than she had expected. While it was true that some families had more than one child enrolled in clasess at the Kamiya Dojo, practically every family Kaoru called felt compelled to express their sympathies, to hope that Koshijirou would be well again soon, and to ask if there was anything they could do. For a surprising number, that involved offering to bring casseroles or cold-cuts, and Kaoru wondered if it was because everybody knew that she and Yahiko couldn't cook, or if it was simple the automatic and traditional response to a family tragedy.
When she was done, Kaoru sighed and rubbed her temples. She went over to the cupboard and got out a glass, then walked across the room to the sink. As she filled her glass, she looked out and tried to admire the burning pinks and golds of the sunset, but found her thoughts returning to the attack on her father.
'Who would do that? Why would anybody go after Dad? Even if it was some kind of possessed sword, I still can't see the dojo being a target. It makes no sense! What if it was somebody trying to track down who had Kenshin's sword last? But... if they were tracking the sword, that would have ended up leaving away from where it had been, and back towards my building. I mean, that's where it is now. I think. So, why not an attack in the parking lot, or my apartment, or at school... or at least some kind of threatening note made out of cut-up newspaper headlines or a horse's head in my bed or threatening phone calls or... or... this doesn't... there's no… this makes no sense, it makes no sense, it... '
It took the sound of her glass rolling across the linoleum for Kaoru to suddenly become aware that she was on the floor of the kitchen, water pooling next to her hand, tears dripping slowly down her cheeks, her breathing ragged. Clenching her fists tightly, she fought for control. Hysterics were not going to help the situation.
'Deep breaths... deep breaths, Kaoru... just like... dammit! Just like Dad taught you. You can do this. He taught you how to do this. You know this. Just breathe.'
She leaned forward slightly and focused on calming her breathing and her heartbeat, and after several long minutes was able to stand up, albeit somewhat shakily, and go find a cloth to wipe the water up off of the floor with. Luckily, the glass hadn't broken, so there was no need to sweep.
Taking several more deep breaths and focusing on what she still had to take care of in the house, Kaoru headed upstairs to her brother's room, stopping to get two large duffel bags out of the hall closet.
'Rushing in where angels fear to tread...' she thought with some amusement as she pushed the door open, ignoring the "Toxic Waste" and "Enter at your own risk!" signs Yahiko had plastered the door with. In spite of the warnings, and some amusingly graphic illustrations he'd drawn of what would happen to intruders, the room was fairly neat.
Well, fairly neat for a teenaged boy.
Since Yahiko tended to leave clean clothes in the laundry basket rather than putting them away in drawers or his closet, Kaoru saved some time by just dumping the contents of the basket into the first duffel bag. Then she began the more difficult task of looking through the closet, in the drawers, and under the bed, turning up more clothes, shoes, and the watch that Yahiko had lost the previous summer. The sight of it made her smile and shake her head, remembering her brother's all-out search for it, and final emphatic declaration that it must have been eaten by jellyfish while they were at the beach together.
Once she had the clothes taken care of, she headed to the bathroom to get Yahiko's things. Since she didn't know how long he was going to be staying with Dr. Gensai... Kaoru cut that thought off before it could get too depressing. Instead, she decided to raid the linen closet for extra towels and washclothes for her brother to use, not to mention sheets and pillowcases.
It wasn't until one of the fitted sheets fell onto the floor with a soft thump that she realized she had been tossing everything on the shelves into the overflowing duffel bag.
Kaoru closed her eyes and bent down to remove enough to enable her to at least close the bag. Since she was clutching a set of handtowels—and why was she taking handtowels, she wondered absently—with her right hand, she reached down with her left hand to...
'Did your father ever have any students who fought left-handed?'
Saitoh's question from that afternoon echoed in her mind and Kaoru found herself frowning. There was something teasing at the edges of her memory...
'These wounds seem to have been made by a blade...'
What was it?
She sat down on the top of the steps, the bags and towels forgotten, willing herself to remember.
If she tried to concentrate, the fragment skittered away, but by relaxing and closing her eyes, she could see it...
It had been a warm summer's day, the sunlight making bright patches in the courtyard outside of the training hall... her father's advanced class was meeting in the dojo, and Kaoru, bored with whatever she'd been playing, had snuck over to peer in through the opened doorway...
... just in time to see the flash of a blade as half a bokken went spinning across the floor towards where she stood, in time to hear a cry of pain from one of the two men fighting in the middle of the floow, to see blood dripping onto the floor as he pressed his hand to the wound...
The man standing over him, brandishing his katana with a kind of savage glee, had seemed like a giant from her child's viewpoint. Even now, she was fairly sure he must have been huge, towering over the other students in the room as they looked at him with horrified, fearful expressions.
'Weaklings! You're all nothing but weaklings!'
At the time, she hadn't really understood what she was seeing, hadn't known what it meant that the man had brought an actual katana to the dojo and used it to attack a fellow student. All she had known was that there was something wrong, and that of course her Daddy would fix it, because that's what Daddy did. It hadn't surprised her at all to hear her father's voice behind her, telling her to stand back as he strode into the training hall.
"Gohei... you know that this school forbids fighting with live steel...'
The man… Gohei... had sneered at that, his face twisting into an ugly expression as he answered, 'Pathetic!'
Kaoru remembered his tone, harsh and snarling, and fragments of his words as he'd faced her father, brandishing a blade that continued to drip blood onto the floor of the training hall.
'... A sword is meant to chop people up—this blade is hungry for more blood...
... it wants yours...'
It was strange, Kaoru thought, how the threat in those words hadn't really registered with her when she was a child. Instead, she had seen only how her father had assumed a fighting position, calm and confident, preparing his attack. Gohei had made the first move, a reckless, slashing charge that had been brought to an abrupt end as her father sidestepped and brought the bokken down on his attacker's sword hand, the sickening crunch of breaking bones echoing through the room.
'Efficient use of power is one of the key components of skill...' Kaoru thought. In retrospect, she could appreciate her father's skill, the way that he had rendered his opponent incapable of further attacks with a single blow—wounding him only as much as was necessary to stop him, but no more. 'With a blow like that, Gohei's right hand would have been pretty much crippled... at least as far as kendo was concerned'
'An obsessed and violent swordsman who would have had to learn to use his left hand... it's not much to go on, but it's something. I mean, how many other people would have gone after Dad with a katana, and known how to use it?'
Standing up, Kaoru clenched her fists in determination, feeling more confidence than she had at any point since she'd found her father in the dojo.
She finally had a lead. There was finally something she could do.
'The police need to know about this...' Kaoru thought, 'As much information as I can give them, so they can track that bastard down and arrest him.'
Her mind was racing as she headed down the stairs, not even bothering to turn on the light. The police would need information, and she knew exactly where to find it. She knew roughly how old she'd been at the time; she remembered hearing the man's first name—that was all she needed to go to the dojo records and track him down. If he'd been a student, his name and personal information would have been recorded.
Crossing the moonlit courtyard, Kaoru calculated what years she needed to look for.
'He must have been a student for a while before that... better go back a couple of years...'
She grinned as she opened the doors to the dojo training hall. Fortunately for her, the Kamiya family believed in keeping all of the records relating to the dojo and its students. The funny part was that the older records were actually in better shape, a series of neat books and binders stored in the training hall rather than in her father's admittedly chaotic office.
'Student lists, student lists, student lists... Here we go! Now, to find the correct years...'
Kneeling on the floor, Kaoru perused the relevant records, scanning the names with quick precision. She'd pulled down the records going back to five years prior to the incident in her memory, reasoning that a man as obsessed with swordfighting as this… this Gohei character had been wouldn't have stuck around for much longer than that before getting frustrated and resorting to the kind of violence she remembered seeing. She wasn't sure how long she spent turning pages, running her fingers quickly down the list of names, when she finally found it: a single name, crossed out, the dark ink standing out against the neat list.
"Gohei... Hiruma..." she read out loud in the stillness of the dojo.
'Ha! Got you, you son of a...'
"So... you remember me...' a deep, rusty voice echoed from near the doorway, its tone harsh and mocking.
Startled into dropping the book, Kaoru lept to her feet, staring at the man whose massive frame was now filling the open doorway.
"YOU!" she yelled, full of seething fury, grabbing one of the bokken from the rack on the wall. "You're the one who attacked my father and tried to destroy this school! Bastard!"
He moved forward into the room then, followed by other dark figures who entered the room behind him. Kaoru's attention was so focused on Gohei, eyes narrowed, that it took her several seconds to register the sickening stench of rot, the way they were lumbering forward, giving leering grins with decaying mouths...
And she suddenly realized that, of all those who were currently in the room, she was the only one who was actually still among the living.
In this chapter I don't own: Jin, from Samurai Champloo, Ran from Tsukikage Ran (aka, "Hiko's mother and Misao's Chinese grandmother wander around Japan"), Principal Gary Murray, Party Guy ("a happening dude who can talk to the young") from the movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Elric Stormbringer.
Thank you for reading, everybody!
Next time: Kaoru gets very annoyed at her father having been attacked by a Halloween cliche.