Disclaimer:I do not own Rurouni Kenshin or the RK Characters; nor do I receive any kind of monetary gains from this, or any of the stories I have written. This is strictly done for my own pleasure and that of the dear readers who honor me with their patronage.

Beware, transition chapter ahead. Some boring material.

Chapter IV

Binding the Edges

To Love, Always...

To touch a rose

Feel the breeze

Smell the scent of life

of birth

of dying

of death

Feel the Lily's petal's

Soft as breath

White as the snow fall

as lamb skin

as rabbit fur

as spring clouds

She holds the Beast in her arms

Harbors his soul with her spirit

Cradles his Heart in her hands

in her eyes

in her womb

in her loyalty

Love blooms strong

Bonds grow true

Devotions run deep

Run Eternal

Run like Sand

Run like Water

Always.

Almost as quickly as the kiss began, it ended as Kenshin's logical mind bit hard at his psyche, reminding him about public proprieties and the spectacle they were making. He could not dishonor his Angel by tarnishing her innocence with such a bold display before so many prying and disapproving eyes, so he reluctantly pulled away and set her at a more acceptable distance from his body. Within himself, he couldn't quite believe what he'd just done and wondered at his own actions.

"Gomen," he whispered, resting his forehead against hers. "I did not mean for that to happen. I... I've never kissed anyone before. I-I've never even tried to."

"It's alright, Kenshin." Kaoru gently brushed her hand over his cheek. "I've never kissed anyone before either. It was a nice first kiss."

"You're not angry?" He asked, tilting his head so he could see her eyes. "We're in the middle of the pier with a hundred people. I shouldn't have done that." Remorse flooded through him and he blushed. "I may have dishonored you..."

"I don't think anyone saw us, koishii." Kaoru smoothed her hand over his scarred cheek in a soothing gesture. "It's alright. Besides, it was only a little kiss; you stopped it quickly enough."

"So... you aren't angry with me?"

"Iie," her tone was gentle. "I am not angry, so put your worries to rest. Everything will be alright. Even if we were seen, I think we will be forgive one small lapse as long as we maintain proper distances now, hai?"

Kenshin nodded and stepped away from her, increasing the space between them once more. "I give you my word, Angel." He said solemnly. "I will not dishonor you. You are far too precious to me."

"If that is so, Kenshin, will you promise me something?"

"Hai," he looked up and met the serious pools of her dark blue eyes. "What would you have me do?"

"When we are alone... will you kiss me again?"

He watched, fascinated, as she chewed on her bottom lip with nervous teeth. She looked so innocent and childlike, he felt the unfamiliar tug of a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. This was something he had not counted on or even considered. His Angel wanting him to touch her... and his wanting her to touch him. Of course, it was a given in the situation, he had just simply not thought about it, considering his abhorrence to touch. However, when she touched him, he did not respond the same way he did when others tried.

He liked how her hands felt on his flesh. But even more so, he realized, he liked how her flesh felt beneath his hands. Perhaps the old modicum was true after all. Love really could heal even the deepest of sorrows.

Avoiding the question, he simply took her by the hand and led her away from the throng of people. "Come," he said. "It's cold. I should get you to the Inn where you will be warm." She nodded and tentatively took his offered hand.

"Does it always rain so much here?" She asked as the first spattering of moisture began to speckle her nose. "It isn't like this in Tokyo."

"We are closer to the ocean here..."

"Iie, you are not." She yanked him to a stop. "The ocean is just as close..."

"Perhaps you speak of Tokyo Bay... it is close to the city."

"Isn't that part of the ocean?"

"Technically," he raised his fine, dark brown eyebrows at her. "Not really. You have to travel out of the bay long before you reach the main body of the ocean..." Suddenly his face became a mask of serious contemplation. "I..." He paused, a feeling of extreme discomfort pooling in his belly, then he briefly caught her gaze. "I find myself in an embarrassing position, Angel." The grip on her hand tightened.

"Nani?" She asked, squeezing back.

"I do not know your name." He blushed, and looked away unable to meet her eyes at that point. "I... didn't ask you what it was... and I'm afraid I have never gleaned it from our... previous encounters. I have simply always called you 'My Angel'."

"Do you wish to know my name, Kenshin?" She reached out and turned his face back to her. "You have but to ask."

"Hai," he said, stroking her cheek with his free hand. "I do."

"Kaoru," she replied in a soft voice. "Kamiya Kaoru."

"Kaoru..." It slipped off his lips, sounding and feeling more like a mantra than her name. "Kaoru... it means, 'to smell fragrant'." His fingers traced her mouth briefly and fell away. "Perhaps you are more flower than angel, hai?" Her eyes took on a luminescent sheen and he was lost in the large bottomless depths for a moment. "Iie... you will always be my Angel, Kaoru... my salvation... my peace."

"And you are my Dark Angel, Kenshin. No matter what else you may be, you will always be that... always."

"And will you love me as such, Kaoru? For I may never be anything else but what you see. Can you love something so dark and... stained? Can you love The Battousai?" He said, his voice soft as a feather fall.

"Hai..." She wiped the wet, red hair off his forehead. "I can."

He bowed to her, honoring her simple vow and then led her home through the drizzle of the cold Spring rain. Dutifully, Kaoru followed several paces behind. All proprieties observed, they looked like an ordinary couple.

O.O

Koudou Isami-Captain of the Shinsengumi, Okita Soushi-Saitou's Lt. in the Shinsengumi squad. Kurogasa/Udoh Jinei-A manslayer inside the Shinsengumi, Hajime Saitou-Captain of the Fourth Squad of the Shinsengumi

Katanamochi–Sword Bearer, Kenbu--Sword Dance

Osaka-1866

The Shinsengumi Camp

"Are you certain, Captain?" Koudou Isami glared at the tall, slim man kneeling across from him in the small room. "It could have been someone else."

"Iie, Commander. The identification was positive. It was the assassin."

"In broad daylight... at the docks? It has to be a mistake."

"I assure you, sir, it was not a mistake." Hajime Saitou replied, taking a sip of the dish of sake his superior offered him. "Okita saw him for his self."

"With a woman?" Isami poured sake for himself. "That is too unusual not to be considered, Captain. The Battousai has never been seen with a woman before. He has never been seen at a Tea House or a Brothel... his own comrades think he's partial to boys, for Kami's sake." Isami shook his head. "I can't believe it. The Lieutenant must be mistaken."

"He was not." Saitou pushed the issue. "We are all familiar with his appearance now, since the Ike Daya Incident in '64. There was no mistaking the hair and the scar. It was him."

"Battousai has never been seen out in the open without at least three members of the Ishin flanking him and some sort of a disguise. You know this as well as I... yet, you say Lieutenant Soushi saw him at the docks, alone, meeting a woman... I'm sure you see my reasons for hesitation here, Captain. It goes against his very nature to be seen alone."

"Be that as it may, sir. He was alone, and with an unknown woman." A crafty element entered the Captain's harsh, narrow golden eyes. "A very beautiful woman, according to the Lieutenant. Long black hair, slender... but wearing gi and hakama instead of kimono. Rather odd, wouldn't you say?"

"Hai, that is quite odd." Isami pursed his lips and scratched his chin. If it was the Battousai, what would he be doing meeting a woman like that? It was beside the point that he was meeting a woman at all, but why... "Have you considered it wasn't a woman at all, Captain?"

"Sir?"

"Battousai passed himself off for a woman many times with his 'pretty face'. What is to say this is not another of Katsura's recruits for his assassin squads? Another shadow to melt into the crowd and disappear? Another 'pretty face' to be lost in the mist? Eh?"

"I hadn't thought of that..." Saitou frowned. It was a disturbing and very possible summation.

"Was Lieutenant Soushi close enough to determine any... ah, obvious female attributes on this so-called woman?"

"Iie, but he said the two were very friendly..." He offered a cocky grin.

"As in..."

"They kissed briefly."

"Hmm," Isami rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "That still doesn't give me enough proof that this person is a woman. If Battousai does, indeed, have a penchant for boys... he may be attracted to his new protege'."

Again, Saitou frowned. He hadn't thought of that either.

"There needs to more investigation, Captain. I want to know who this person is, and if he or she represents a threat to us."

"I will do what I can, sir, but we still have yet to discover where the Ishin is hiding the Battousai..."

"Okita had him in his line of vision and couldn't follow him far enough to gain that information?" Isami gritted his teeth and wrapped his hands into fists. Anger poured from his gut and radiated out his eyes. "The boy is incompetent beyond description..."

"He followed them as far as he could, Commandar..."

"And what happened? Battousai simply vanished into thin air? Eh?"

"Iie, he led the... the person through the market. Okita lost sight of them somewhere in the fish stalls."

"Che!" The delicate china of the sake dish shatter as Isami threw it against the lower, wooden edge of the fusima. "Baka! If I didn't think your whole damned squad would commitsepuku, I'd have that boy's head for this. I can't believe a man with hair the color of the Battousai's can simply disappear. Surely he stands out like a tiger in a chicken farm. For the love of the God's, isn't there anyone who can fine him?"

Saitou scratched his chin and then looked up into the angry face of his commander. "Maybe," he said, his tone deceptively calm. "There is one among our ranks whose stealth is almost, if not, equal to the Battousai. He might be who you want."

"You sound as if I might not like what you're about to tell me, Captain Hajime."

"You may not, sir, but if you are that bent on eliminating the assassin..."

"Who is he? Is he dangerous?"

"To everyone around him, including his own comrades."

"He... kills his own?" Isami's eyes narrowed and he took a drink from the sake bottle unawares he did so. "Where is he?"

"Still with his squad. No actual deaths have been linked to him, but there are many suspicions. He... he loves the thrill of the hunt and the rush of the kill. It is the smell of the blood... he has no soul for remorse. Death is what lives in his heart. He was made to hold a blade, but... he has loyalties to anything but the blade. He is a Katanamochi and knows only the kenbu."

"Will he respond to orders?"

"Hai, he will... but, what he does after, no one ever knows. As I said, we have suspicions."

"I see." It was a risk, Isami could see that, but getting rid of the assassin was necessary. He continued to cause devastating losses to their hierarchy and his chain of envoys grew thin. "What is his name?"

"Udoh Jinei."

"Send for him. I want him here by months end." Isami met the glittering amber gaze of his stalwart subordinate. "We will see the end of The Red Death, old friend. His time is nigh."

"Hai, Commander. It will be done."

"For the Emperor."

"For Japan."

Saitou walked out of the small apartment, breathed in deep, cold breath of the midmorning air, and pulled his turquoise gi a little closer over his chest. The end of the Battousai... he wasn't sure if that was what he wanted or not.

His mind traveled back to almost a year past, when on one dark, starless night, he met the assassin. Both were ragged, tired, and smelled of too much blood. Eyes bright with adrenalin met and locked across the narrow street, breaths harsh in the silence as both felt out the other's ki. Faces and clothing were lost in the shadows, but each knew whom they faced, the glint of blades flashing unnatural in the lightless dark.

The cry, the scream, flying feet, clashing swords: the bite of steel carving into the muscle of his upper arm and the burning pain that numbed his hand. Turn, sliding on the ground, sword up, running again. Another screaming cry, another flash, and then only the darkness surrounding him. His breath was rasping, his heart pounding. The first rush of fear he ever felt sang through his blood, and he spun, lifting his blade to parry an overhead attack. Sparks few as the second sword clashed and slid off his; golden eyes, burning coals in a face he couldn't see, looked death upon him, and then the sword disappeared. Silence engulfed him, and he waited.

"Go home, bloody Wolf..." The voice floated out of the hellish black like a ghost on demon wings. "Go back to your pack of pups and be grateful you have your life."

"Too afraid to fight... Battousai?" He tried to bait the beast he knew was lurking in the world beyond his eyes. The beast that smelled of as much blood as he did. "Too afraid to fight you equal? Or... are you afraid I am your better, eh?"

"Better, Wolf?" Disembodied laughter greeted him, then that deafening silence once more. "Go back to your hole in the ground, cripple... leave me alone. I've had enough blood for one night. Haven't you?"

"Not if it's your blood, Assassin." His head was shifting side to side as the hollow voice moved around him. "Come, coward. Taste my blade."

"Iie," was the reply. "I have drawn first blood, Captain Wolf. When next I fight you, I want to see your face. I want to watch you die."

"Fight me now, you dishonorable wretch!"

"Fare thee well, Captain. Until we meet again... beneath the morning sun."

Saitou had never achieved a second opportunity to cross blades with the red-headed maniac, and calling Jinei to Osaka to hunt him down may very well rid him of ever getting one. He pulled a cigarette case out of his gi. Smoking always seemed to calm him when his nerves became frazzled. It also helped him think.

He definitely needed to think. There had to be a way to call Jinei and get his duel with the Battousai at the same time. He would give the matter careful consideration before sending a message south for the hitokiri. There was much to plan before his arrival.

O.O

"And who is this, Himura-san?"

"This is Kamiya Kaoru, Okami-san." Kenshin politely bowed as he introduced Kaoru to the mistress of the inn where he stayed. "She is my... cousin." He lied.

"And... she will be staying with you?" Okami looked pointedly at the young man, watching him blush. "I don't have any vacant rooms, so she will have to stay with you in your room."

"I... ah... hai, Okami-san." He nodded, feeling Kaoru's wide, surprised eyes boring down upon him. "I know where the extra futons and linens are."

"Then you can get them."

"Hai." He skittered out of the room and left Kaoru to Okami's scrutinizing eyes. Kaoru clasped her hands nervously in front of her and picked a spot on the floor to stare at.

"You aren't really his cousin, are you?" The older woman, raised thin, black eye-brows at Kaoru before turning to inspect the pack the girl had brought with her. "You didn't bring very much with you. What on earth is this?" She asked, holding up the bokken. "A wooden sword?"

"Hai, Okami-san." Kaoru kept her voice quiet and demure. She had no idea what this woman was thinking or what she was going to do. "My father was a kendo instructor in Tokyo."

"And you?" Okami looked at the girl. "What are you?"

"The same." Kaoru lifted her chin slightly. "I inherited the dojo when he and my mother died several years ago. I have been teaching kendo to young students since then."

"A woman kendo instructor?" Okami looked skeptical. "In Tokyo?" She waved her hand in the air, dismissing Kaoru. "Not possible." She said. "You'd have been arrested or publically punished for such a thing..."

"Not true!" Kaoru blustered, her anger rising to the surface. "My father was a highly respected man in Tokyo. People accepted me because of him. They know I represent his legacy, and they bring me their sons to train in his martial art. The Kamiya Kassin is the most honorable of kendos. It teaches there is a better way to live than by killing. It is 'The Sword that protects', not kills. That's why I carry a wooden sword. I protect with it..."

"And you mean to be the lover of a hitokiri? The Battousai no less?" The woman was incredulous. "He has killed more men than any other man in all of Japan. His hands and soul are stained with more blood than you can imagine..."

"I know that." Kaoru's voice was stone hard.

"Yet, you come to him regardless."

"Hai, I come to him."

"Why? What did he offer you? Money? God's know, he probably has enough. Killing for the government. They take care of their own..."

"He has no money, and you know it." Kaoru's anger began to spill over into her usually calm demeanor. "They pay their soldiers with food and lodgings... what monies he has are a meager salary for his service. How dare you speak like that. He's a patriot."

Okami cast a sideways look at the girl; her cheeks were flushed, her fists clenched, her eyes glittering. "Protective of him, aren't you?" She asked, her voice much quieter, calmer. "Interesting..."

"What's so interesting about it?"

"What did he offer you, Kaoru?"

"Offer me?" Kaoru's anger dissolved and she looked at the woman, confused. "He didn't offer me anything. I came on my own."

"On your own?" It was Okami's turn to be confused. "What made you come?"

"Love." Kaoru said, her face softening. "I came for love. I can't explain it... but, that is what brought me here, and that is why I will stay. I love him."

"Even knowing what he is?" Her face became blank of expression.

"Hai."

"Hnn," Okami turned from the girl, looking across the large, empty room that served as the dining area. "Tell me, Kaoru, can you cook?"

"I can steam vegetables," she said, biting on a finger. "But I have a hard time with pretty much anything else."

"I see," Okami looked over her shoulder. "Do you know how to clean and wash laundry?"

"Hai."

"Then you can work off your room and board by helping me." Okami brushed imaginary wrinkles out of the front of her lavender kimono, and made to leave the room. "I expect you to be up every morning by dawn ready to help serve breakfast and then start cleaning. I have over twenty Chou Shu men living here, and it takes a lot of hard work to keep up after them... including your lover."

"H-hai, Okami-san." Kaoru bowed, watching the odd woman leave the room. She couldn't understand the strangeness of her behavior. One moment she was peevish and attacking her about being here with Kenshin, and the next... the next she was treating her kindly and telling her she could work for her for her room and board. Kaoru was more confused by this woman than she was by her feelings for the hitokiri. 'What are you about, Okami-san?' She wondered, looking at the door the woman disappeared through. 'What didn't you tell me... what made you change your mind about me? Why is it so strange to you that I can love Kenshin? Do you care about him too...?'

"Kaoru?"

The soft, tenor voice teased her senses and pulled her out of her contemplation of the Inn's mistress. Turning toward it, Kaoru found the object of emotions standing close, regarding her with worried eyes.

"Are you alright?" He asked.

"Hai," she nodded, reached out to take his hand. "Okami-san says I can work for her here... for my room and board. I'll be helping to serve meals and with the cleaning and laundry." She stepped closer to him and looked up into his expressionless face. "She knows I'm not your cousin."

"I know." He said. "She... sees most things for what they are."

"Does it... upset you?"

"Iie. I am more worried about how you will feel. You will be staying in my room with me... in an Inn full of men. I would not dishonor you in public, sweet Kaoru, but you are sleeping in my room." He was worried, fearful. She could feel it.

"But I'm not sleeping with you, Kenshin. You aren't dishonoring ME."

"They do not know that."

His words hit her like ice, and Okami's words came back to her. "Okami thinks I am here to be your lover. She said the words to me."

"'Lover' can mean many things, Kaoru." He tenderly pulled her from the room, into a narrow hallway, and then up an even narrower stairway. "You are the 'lover' of my soul, saiai, the 'lover' of my spirit, the 'lover' of my sanity." They entered his room where two futons lay on the floor, several feet separating them. "But most of all, you are the 'lover' of my true self. I cannot live without you... not now. Not now that I have finally seen you with these eyes and held you with these arms."

"Kenshin..." Kaoru choked on a sob of emotion and wrapped her arms around his waist, her head pillowed on his shoulder. "I don't think I could live without you now either."

"Then, can you bear up under what these men will think of us?" He stroked her back, trying to calm her. "It will not be spoken in the streets. They will keep 'my personal life' as secret as they guard my life. No one else will know you are here with me... yet... perhaps..." He stopped and stood very still.

"Nani, Kenshin? What are you thinking?" Kaoru leaned back and rested her hands on his chest. "Perhaps what?"

"My honor demands I not dishonor you, Kaoru." He bent into her and rested his forehead on hers. "I cannot bear to know you will be thought of as a whore. Not when I know you are purity itself."

"But Okami-san has no other rooms, Kenshin. How..."

"I'll be right back." He said, hugging her and then leaving the room.

Kaoru stood in the middle of the room bewildered, wondering what he could possibly be doing. Absently she wandered over to the single window, pushing it open she looked outside at the view. A squeak of alarm and fear burst out of her mouth and she fell back, landing hard on the floor. Pain erupted up her spine and her teeth snapped shut with the impact, but she hardly noticed either as the vision she'd seen seared through her brain.

'Holy God! Did I just see... No! It can't be... It can't... Oh God, Kenshin!'

"Kaoru!" Kenshin rushed through the door, leaning the folding screen he carried up against the wall as he did. "What happened?" He knelt down beside her, wiping the wetness of tears of her pale cheeks. "Kaoru?"

"I... I saw..." She looked into the pinched features of his face, trying to mouth the words lodged in her mind and throat, but they wouldn't come free. All she could do was blink and shake, her body trembling as if she were freezing in the midst of a furious blizzard. "I...Ken..."

The fear in her eyes was devastating, and it slammed into his soul with a force that nearly doubled him over. Glancing around the room, he saw the window was open. A shiver passed through his body as he recalled the last time he saw the shutters hanging open. Okaa-san...

"What did you see, Kaoru?" He tried to sound gentle, but the urgency in his voice belied his state. "Can you tell me?" It was a terrible effort to pull his gaze from the window and focus on her face. "Did you open the window?" She nodded, and swallowed hard. "Then you looked out? Hai?" Again she nodded. "And you saw something that frightened you."

Kenshin gritted his teeth and cupped her face. "I am not leaving you," he said firmly. "But I am going to go look out the window." Kaoru grabbed at his wrist, shaking her head frantically. "I will be fine," he tried to reassure her. "I must go, Kaoru." He pressed a gentle kiss to her cheek and stood up.

It was only a few steps to the open window, and Kenshin took them slowly, deliberately, his hand resting on the hilt of his katana. One deep breath and he leaned over the edge and looked out onto the surrounding rooftops and down into the busy street. 'What did you see, saiai?' He looked right, left, and ahead, seeing nothing.

"She was standing in the middle of the street, Kenshin." Kaoru's voice was weak, small, and terrified behind him. "I saw her... the way Shinta sees her... your Okaasan. I saw her, dead and rotting. She was looking at me and she held her hand out, like she wanted me to do something."

Kenshin turned from window, staring at Kaoru with horrified eyes. "You... you saw her?"

"Hai," Kaoru tried to wipe the constant flow of tears off her face. "There was a reddish light glowing around her... like a bloody halo. It was awful. It was just like Shinta told me... she was moldering with worms and rotted flesh." Her final words choked off as she started to sob. "I s-saw her... Oh God... I saw her."

"No!" He screamed, leaping to where she sat on the floor, grabbing her up into his arms, burying his face in the satin of her hair. "No! You can't have her!" He rasped, his heart thundering with fury and panic. "I won't let you have her! Do you hear me?" He raised he face to the ceiling, his golden eyes fierce. "I won't let you take her from me... I'll die first!"

Kaoru gripped his back, her hands fisting into the material of his gi, holding onto his strength, pulling him into her. Their pain became one, and she cried with him, for him, for herself. The image of that beckoning hand flaunted itself before her, and she cringed from it, pushing her head into the curve of his neck and shoulder, hiding from the horror, the fear... the promise. He would protect her. He would...

"Ken-shin..."

"I won't let her have you, Kaoru," he sobbed. "I swear it."

She felt him holding her, pulling her even closer, and then he eased her away, his hands on her face.

"Kaoru!"

She knew what he saw. It couldn't be helped. His pain was part of her soul, his tears part of her heart. His tears were her tears.

Blood welled up from her tragic eyes, smeared the perfect porcelain of her skin and his neck. It stained his hands as he held her, oozing between his fingers, dripping onto her gi and his hakama.

"What-what is this?" He sounded as terrified as any child. "What is happening?"

"Pain, beloved." She raised a hand to her own face and watched it come away bloody. "Your pain... your tears."

"Oh God's..." So this was where his pain went when he let it loose from his control. "Forgive... forgive..." He cradled her in his arms, her head nestled against his chest, his cheek pressed into her nape. "I didn't know. I didn't..." He kissed her neck and closed his eyes. "You have borne so much for me, my Angel. So much, and still all I have offered you is more pain, more suffering. I cannot let you stay, Kaoru. Not now... I can't..."

"What do you mean, you can't let me stay?" Her hands tightened their grip on his clothes. "I'm not leaving. I won't! I belong here with you. We belong together. I won't let you send me away. Not ever!"

"Kaoru..." If he never wished before that he could cry, he did now. But his eyes remained dry. She continued to cry, hanging on to him for the life preserver he was.

She cried for both of them.

O.O

It hovered outside the window, the rotted flesh of it's face twisted into a malformed, ghoulish smile, showing broken, gray-green teeth. Yellow eyes, gleaming with maniacal joy, watched the young couple embracing on the floor. Everything was going precisely as planned, and soon all would be as it should.

Garbled laughter slipped through beetle holes inside the windpipe and passed flaps of decayed skin, sounding more like the rasping of corn husks in an autumn breeze. Dead strings of old brownish-red hair swung haphazard around the insubstantial remnants of a green and pink kimono, the darker green obi a tatter of threads.

'Beware, woman...' it's horrible mouth spoke, the words fading into nothingness as they fell from parched and withered lips. 'He belongs to me, forever... and the time has come for him to return to my arms, for that is where he truly belongs. You may keep him for a time, but I will not let you enjoy him but for an instant...

...only an instant..."

TBC