Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin is copyrighted by its respective owners, of which I am not one.
Warnings: AU. (very) Unbeta-ed. Language, suggestion of adult themes.
The day Kamiya Kaoru was dreading arrived with the weather matching her mood. It had been gloomy from the start, low-hung clouds threatening to unleash their burden at a moment's notice. The darkness nearly obscured the dojo despite the lanterns they had burning in the practice hall, nearly as oppressive as the tension felt between the two occupants.
It was still early enough in the spring that the humidity had caused the cooler temperatures to rise to a more comfortable level. Kaoru had left the doors open to welcome in the breeze heralding the impending storm. It also allowed her to keep an eye out for the trouble she was expecting. The waiting was beginning to grate on her already-rattled nerves and she hoped something would happen before the rain fell.
In the meantime, Kaoru oversaw Yahiko's katas, making sure to keep a strict eye on his form and the strength of swings. Any time he so much as faltered, no doubt distracted by what had been going on lately, she sternly called attention to it and made him start all over again.
After the fourth time she did that, Yahiko suddenly lowered his shinai and eyed his teacher warily. "You're doing this to get me so exhausted I won't be around to help you, aren't you?"
Kaoru frowned at him. "That's ridiculous, Yahiko. Why would I do a silly like that?"
He snorted and wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his gi before resuming his position, shinai up. "Because I know how you think. Well, you can forget it, Busu. No matter how hard you work me, I'm staying right here until the end." Viciously, he swung down as if to emphasize his point.
Sighing, Kaoru decided to overlook his usual insult at her looks. Instead, she used her bokken to catch his bamboo sword on the next downward descent. "You're not focusing again, Yahiko. I don't want brute strength, that's not what the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu is about. Now concentrate on what you're doing and start over again, all right?"
Yahiko pressed downward with his shinai, hoping to make his teacher's bokken give way. Unfortunately, she didn't even seem to notice his efforts. After a few more moments of straining with all his might, he gave up, quite disgusted with himself. "Yeah, okay," Yahiko mumbled. Sometimes he forgot just how strong Kaoru was, despite her being a woman.
He began to practice his swings again only to be interrupted once more. This time someone was banging on the front gate. Both teacher and student glanced towards that direction, tensing at the pounding noise. Kaoru took a deep breath, firmed her chin, and hoisted her bokken to her right shoulder. "Yahiko, stay here," she ordered before marching off to answer the knock.
Yahiko watched her disappear outside, shivering as a draft breezed in. The lanterns danced under the cool fingers of the wind. He briefly considered actually obeying his teacher this one time. Luckily, sense returned and he snorted to himself, muttering, "No way, Busu!" He slid his shinai on his back before taking a moment to wipe his sweaty hands on his hakama. Now's my chance to show Kaoru how much I've learned, he thought to himself, heart thudding with both anticipation and nervousness. Determined to prove himself, Yahiko ran out after his teacher.
Kaoru tried to arrange her features into an expressionless mask, remembering how composed her father had looked despite overwhelming news. The knocks reverberated through the dojo again, heavier this time. It was a warning to open the door now. Deciding it would be better to do just that, she took one last steady breath and unlatched the gate before swinging it open.
Three men waited outside, one looking rather impatient, another licking his lips in eagerness, and the third looked just plain bored. The first two men were much shorter than their companion and considerably rounder. Unfortunately, they also looked more menacing than their taller counterpart.
"It's about time you opened up," the surly one snarled. He was dressed in a badly fitting gray yukata that had more patches than original cloth. There was a short sword that hung at his waist. His dark hair looked matted, poking out in every direction as if he had forgotten to comb it this morning.
Or take a bath for the past ten years. Trying not to curl her lips in disgust at the noxious odor the wind blew in her direction, Kaoru tried to project a serene calm. "I'm sorry, I was in the middle of teaching a class," she said politely. "What can I do for you three?"
At her words, the other short man giggled, a high, tinny sound that grated on Kaoru's nerves. "Teaching a class? With what student, that one little brat over there?" He pointed past her and smirked.
Kaoru's heart sank as she glanced over her shoulder. As expected, Yahiko had rounded the corner and was now approaching them. His coal dark eyes, already bright with determination, narrowed into anger at the pudgy man's words. "What are you calling brat, Pig-Man?" he shouted, instinctively moving his hand to the hilt of his shinai.
The burly intruder reddened at the insult, his face clouding over in anger. "Why you little -!"
She wanted to bury her face in her hands. This wasn't how she pictured the meeting would go. But before Kaoru could even jump forward to protect Yahiko and his big mouth, the tallest of the three men put a hand on Pudgy's shoulder. "Hey, cool it, Michiko, we're not here to pick a fight. Yet." He glanced at Yahiko and Kaoru could have sworn there was an amused smile tugging at the corner of his lips. "Let's just give them the message and move on. We've still got a few more places to hit before the rain starts."
Michiko didn't look convinced but the pressure on his shoulder increased in warning to agree. He settled for another glare at the youth.
Yahiko glared back but before he could say anything else, Kaoru stepped to his side and clapped a hand over his mouth. "Be quiet, you're making things worse for us!" she hissed. Out loud, she cleared her throat and offered the men what she hoped was a charming smile; she was out of practice using her feminine wiles. "And what would this message be?"
Kaoru knew, of course, exactly what it was. Even in this City, big as it was, it was hard to keep a secret that affected so many. It had been only a matter of time before the Kamiya Dojo received the same "invitation." Apparently, it came delivered by three thugs to ensure its acceptance.
The man in the dirty yukata spread his hands as if making a grand gesture. "I, Furosawa Okura, am pleased to announce that your dojo has been invited the join a protection guild that is being formed now. It consists of many other dojos and businesses in the City. There is only a nominal monthly guild fee but you'll be able to enjoy the same benefits as the others. It's quite a generous offer, considering we don't normally approach … smaller dojos."
Kaoru's eyes narrowed at the subtle insult, her hand dropping away from Yahiko's mouth to be clenched at her side. We used to have a lot more students until jerks like you came along, she thought vehemently. "I'm sure you can tell that we don't have the kind of money to join any kind of guild," she said as evenly as possible. "At the moment, we are undergoing a slight change in our student roster."
"Hmm, yes, your father was killed a short while ago, wasn't he?" Okura mused, pretending not to see the flash of anger in Kaoru's eyes. He didn't notice his taller companion stiffening as he spoke. "Such a tragedy, I'm sure you were quite devastated." He leaned forward as if to confide in her. "And that is all the more reason why you need our protection, my dear. Without a man to protect you, why, anyone could come in and take advantage of your sweet, innocent nature!"
Yahiko snickered at the idea of Kaoru having a 'sweet and innocent nature'. That earned him a whack on the head from his teacher.
"Yes, well, thank you for your concern," Kaoru bit out between her clenched teeth. "But I'm afraid we must decline."
Okura straightened up, his dark eyes narrowing at her refusal. "I see. Well, then, we won't be held responsible for anything that happens to your precious dojo and your bratty student. Will we, Michiko?"
Michiko sniggered and laced his fingers together, pushing them out so his joints cracked. "Nope, not responsible at all."
Kaoru tightened the grip on her bokken, realizing her worst fears were coming true. She had known the refusal wouldn't be taken lightly but she had still hoped to avoid a fight. Beside her, Yahiko tensed even more, apparently having come to the same conclusion. His hands slid closer to his own weapon just in case they were attacked.
But before anything happened, the tallest of the three barely stifled a yawn behind his hand and spoke lazily. "Hey, guys, it looks like it's about to start raining. Why don't you two go on to the next target and I'll stay here to take care of them? I can catch up with you guys later."
Michiko immediately glared at the brown-haired man. "No way, Zanza! That little brat is mine!"
"Besides, you've already 'took care' of the last three," Okura added, eying him with ill-concealed anger.
Zanza shrugged. "I'm here to be the muscle, aren't I? There's no point in me coming along with you guys if I don't do my job," he pointed out reasonably. "And anyway, Takeda is going to upset if you guys don't finish the rest of the route before scurrying back to avoid the rain."
Apparently, the mention of an angry boss was enough to change the men's minds. It didn't stop them from throwing baleful glances at the taller man but eventually Michiko and Okura turned to leave.
"This isn't over, brat," Michiko snarled at Yahiko as he stomped away.
"I'll fight you any time, Pig-Man!" the youth yelled back. That earned him another smack on the head from his teacher. "Ow! Watch it, Busu!"
"Stop calling me ugly," Kaoru said automatically, eying the remaining man. Although Zanza didn't exude the same air of malice, there was something about the man that raised her hackles in warning. He was a good foot taller than her and as lean as a rail. He wore loose trousers and an open white shirt that showed off his bandaged mid-section. Equally wrapped with care were his fists. A strip of red cloth was tied around his forehead, holding back locks of his wild auburn hair. With the red and brown of his head, he reminded Kaoru vaguely of a rooster.
Once Michiko and Okura were out of sight, Zanza turned to regard the residents of the dojo. "You've got a big mouth, kid. If it weren't for the missy over here, you'd have gotten into a lot of trouble."
Yahiko scrunched his face up in anger and took a deep breath. "I'm not a kid!" he shouted. "And I know how to protect myself!"
"Oh, really? Why don't you show me your moves, then?"
Kaoru stopped her eager student from doing just that by stepping forward, holding out her left hand to keep Yahiko from moving further. "He's not who you should be worried about," she said sharply. "I'm the assistant master to the Kamiya Dojo. Your opponent will be me."
To her surprised, Zanza just laughed and thrust his hands into the pocket of his pants. "Don't get me wrong, Missy, but you're no match for a street fighter. Learning kendo is all well and good but with thugs like Okura, they'll use every dirty trick in the book and then some. Trust me, you're better off not dealing with them at all."
Bristling at the dismissal of her skills, Kaoru fixed Zanza with a fierce scowl. "Don't underestimate me just because I'm a woman. The Kamiya Kasshin Ryu teaches that there's more to fighting than just technical skills. I'll be able to hold my own, thank you very much!"
To Kaoru's irritation, the man just looked even more amused. "I'll remember that, thanks." He glanced up at the thick blanket of clouds hovering over them. "Anyway, I guess I'll be going now. Don't want to get caught in the rain, you know. By the way, the name's Sagara Sanosuke. You can call me Sano."
There was momentary silence while Yahiko and Kaoru stared incredulously at his noncholance. Finally, Kaoru said tentatively, "Um, aren't you going to fight me?"
Exasperated, Kaoru jabbed a finger at him. "Because you said you were going to 'take care' of us to your friends?"
For the first time since they met, Sano frowned. "They're not my friends. Even I have better taste than to befriend those two idiots."
Wondering if this was some sort of ploy to lure her into a false sense of security, Kaoru eyed him warily. "You're employed by Takeda Kanryu. That makes you my enemy and you their friend."
"Yeah, well, trust me, I'm not your enemy and I'm most definitely not their friend. Look, Missy, can't you just accept the fact that I'm trying to help you here by not fighting you? I deliberately sent Michiko and Okura away so we wouldn't have to deal with one." Sano hesitated before adding more gently, "I'm sorry about your father."
The ring of sincerity in his last words was so convincing Kaoru didn't think he was pretending. At least not about her father. But she still couldn't understand why Sanosuke was acting so … friendly. "Th-thank you," she stammered.
Evidently, Yahiko was just as suspicious because he was glaring at the tall man. "Why are you being so nice?" he demanded. "If you don't want to fight us, why are you working for Takeda in the first place?"
Sano shrugged, unperturbed at the accusing tone in the youth's voice. "I've got my reasons," he said vaguely. "Look, I'm going to leave before I get caught in this storm. I suggest you two head back inside, too. And don't worry about the guild fee, I'll take care of it."
"How? It's a monthly 'contribution'," Kaoru said. "Even if you paid for us this month, what about the next? And the one after that?"
He sighed and scratched his head absently. "Yeah, guess I forgot about that. Just don't worry your pretty little head about it, Missy. I'll think of something." Turning, he ambled away, throwing a hand up in farewell. "I'll see you two later. Get inside before the rain starts, willya?"
Kaoru stared hard at the retreating figure. Sano's white shirt billowed out as he strolled away, emphasizing the character 'aku' on the back of the cloth.
Yahiko frowned in confusion and glanced up at his teacher. "Who was that guy and is he on our side or what?"
Slowly shaking her head, Kaoru murmured, "I don't have the slightest idea, Yahiko."
"You're late, Zanza."
Sanosuke barely glanced at the snarling figure as he walked past him. "Yeah, yeah, whatever. At least I got the job done." Ignoring the glares Okura sent in his direction, he sauntered further into the mansion grounds, glancing around for the familiar flash of red. It was only when he neared the back of the house that he saw who he was looking for. "Hey, Kenshin!" he called out, lifting a hand to catch his gaze.
Burnished gold eyes settled on him as a slight, crimson-haired man looked up from his position against the shoji. Sano would have sworn that he was leaning against the flimsy paper door but it hadn't folded under the pressure so it was hard to tell. But then again, that was the mystery of Kenshin.
"Sano," Kenshin greeted him evenly as the taller man approached. "Your two thugs came in before you. Takeda was wondering where you were."
Sanosuke shrugged as he stopped in front of his friend. "Needed to speak with the owner of the Kamiya Dojo. She was an interesting character, along with her loud-mouth student." He studied his friend's shuttered expression for a moment. "Come to think of it, you might like them. They obviously couldn't pay and instead of selling off every last possession they had, they were ready to fight. Pretty gutsy for two kids with the odds against them. "
"Gutsy will get them killed," Kenshin murmured. "I assume you did your usual routine with them."
Lifting one shoulder carelessly, Sano said, "What else could I do? All they had was a decrepit old dojo and each other. There was no one to take care of them even though the girl barely looked older than fifteen." He sighed. "I kinda felt sorry for them."
"Your sympathy is going to backfire on you, Sano," Kenshin warned. "Your trust in people is blinding you to the realities of this world. People like that will take advantage of that and discard you once they're through."
Sano stared thoughtfully at his friend for a long moment. "No," he said at last with a small smile playing on his lips, "I don't think my trust is misplaced in anybody." He let that sink into Kenshin before adding, "Besides, I'm no spotless lamb myself, you know. I've got enough sins on my soul to last three lifetimes."
Kenshin shifted uncomfortably, aware of his friend's hidden meaning underneath his words. Sano's complete trust in him was almost too much of a burden to bear. Without it, Kenshin could do whatever he pleased but the taller man kept him anchored to his conscious, even when the swordsman wanted to do something completely selfish or immoral. It was almost humbling to know that Sano would never doubt him or his actions. It was during these times when he remembered how good it felt to have someone put so much faith in him. "You and me both," Kenshin murmured. His eyes flickered past his friend just as a new voice spoke up behind Sano.
"I see you're back, Rooster-head. Takeda's been waiting for you."
Sano turned and flashed the woman a dazzling smile. "And have you been waiting for me as well, Megumi?"
Takani Megumi snorted, tossing her glossy dark hair over her shoulders in a show of disdain. "Please! Like I'd waste my time on someone like you," she scoffed. Gliding over to Kenshin, she took a hold of his left arm and held it possessively. "Sir Ken on the other hand," she purred.
Kenshin sighed but didn't try and shrug the woman off. He was quite used to her forward advances by now, though he had to warn her once never to hold onto his right side. Doing so would occupy his sword arm and such vulnerability was dangerous.
Although, Kenshin noted, Sano didn't seem too pleased by Megumi's clinginess on him. There was only the subtlest tightening of the jaw but Kenshin knew his friend too well not to notice such a gesture.
"So what do you say, Sir Ken?" Megumi murmured. "I'm sure a physical check of your body is in order and I have some free time at the moment. Why don't we head over to the infirmary so I can take a look?"
That was a bit much, even coming from Megumi. Kenshin decided a response was needed to remind her he hadn't changed his mind. He shook his arm free and folded them across his chest so she couldn't hold on any longer. "No, thank you. I feel fine," he said flatly, watching Sano's eyes warily. The last thing he wanted to do was fight over a woman he had absolutely no interest in.
Luckily, Sano seem more disgusted than inclined to fight. "I think Takeda's behavior is rubbing off of you, Megumi. You're acting like some whore in the Red Light District."
The doctor gasped at the insult and sent Sano a chilling glare that he shrugged off. "Don't hate me for telling the truth." Unable to look at her fawning over his friend any longer, he turned to walk away. "Anyway, I'll see you later, Kenshin. You may want to find a priest to ward off that malevolent she-devil hanging around you."
Megumi shot the tall man a poisonous look. "You'll pay for that, Rooster-head," she muttered. She blinked as she realized Kenshin's flickering gold eyes were boring into her. Although he was usually indifferent to her, this time she could feel her hackles raise in warning of the dangerous aura was he emitting. "Sir Ken?" she asked tentatively, taking a small step back in nervous defense.
"You should give him a chance, Dr. Takani. He is a good man," Kenshin said before striding past her. A few feet away he stopped and spoke without turning around. "Incidentally, should something … bad happen to Sanosuke, I will assume the blame is completely yours." He finally glanced over his shoulder, the smoldering orbs piercing straight through Megumi's heart until it nearly stopped from the sheer heat and intensity of his gaze. "And I will not be happy." With that, he turned back and walked away.
Megumi let out a breath she didn't realize she was holding. She knew she had been subject to only the minimal amount of power Kenshin held coiled within him and that was more than enough to last her a whole lifetime. She pitied anyone who would step in his way, or those fools who would harm the ones Kenshin extended his protection to.
The rain that had been threatening to unleash for hours finally arrived, soaking the area almost instantly with fat, warm drops. Steady patters of drops fell in a soothing drum on the roof of the mansion as the front door opened to admit someone inside. It was with no surprise that a half-drenched Sano nagivated his way to Takeda's office and stepped into the room. Luckily, he didn't particularly care if he was dripping water and shook his head like a dog would to get rid of stray drops. As an added measure, he flailed his arms around, spraying water everywhere with gleeful abandon.
Frustrated with Megumi's behavior, Sano had stomped to the farthest corner of the mansion earlier, releasing pent up emotions onto the trees there. He was already late for a meeting with Takeda but since he didn't really care, took advantage of the moment to exercise his anger out. Now calmer, the street fighter decided he had postponed the meeting long enough.
Sano had heard Takeda had yet another coughing fit a half hour ago which brought Megumi into the room. She was still there, keeping an eye on her patient as he reclined on an overstuffed chair. They avoided looking at each other. Instead, the street fighter noticed Okura and Michiko were also lurking about, half hidden in the shadowy recesses of the dim room.
Takeda Kanryu looked up as Sano entered, his gaze drifting past him as if expecting someone else. When he saw no one was there, he rasped out, "Where's Himura?"
Sano shrugged, thrusting his hands into the pocket of his trousers lazily. "Not sure. I'm not his keeper, you know."
Takeda flinched at the reminder that Himura Kenshin was not one to be controlled. He turned to Okura and said, "Find Himura and ask him to come here." Wordlessly, Okura nodded and left.
There was a flash of dark triumph in the surly man's eyes as he passed him that bothered Sano. This was no ordinary meeting. Something was going on and he had a feeling he wasn't going to like it.
Silence pervaded the room while the four remaining occupants waited, interrupted only by the grumbling thunder andgentle footfallsof rain. They were all connected to one another in some way, though some of the bonds weren't voluntary. Drawn together by necessity and by loyalty, however twisted, they found they had little in common outside the interest of the new guild.
It was a relief when Okura returned followed by Kenshin who stopped just inside the door. His gold eyes flickered around the room briefly before resting on Takeda. Crossing his arms across his chest, he waited for him to speak.
Takeda coughed and took a sip of tea that was no doubt filled with medicine Megumi had steeped in it. "I've been hearing some disturbing news, Zanza," he said. "It seems as though your sympathizing with some of the people in the city and have been paying their guild fees for them. Most recently, some wench at the Kamiya Dojo."
Sano debated whether or not to play dumb. It didn't take a genius to figure out Okura and Michiko had ratted him out to Takeda and was now hoping he would be punished for his actions. Deciding it was better not to lie to paranoid people, he shrugged. "Yeah, I felt sorry for her and the kid," he said. "They didn't have enough to pay so I lent them some money." Sano more felt than saw Megumi shoot him a startled glance but he kept his eyes on Takeda, trying to read him for some kind of reaction.
Takeda scowled. "That's not what I hired you to do. You're supposed to make an example out of those who don't pay."
"What does it matter so long as you get your money?" Sano asked. "You still get what you want."
Takeda narrowed his eyes at the street fighter. "This isn't just about the money. This is power I'm talking about. Power that you're making me lose. If this wench goes and tells her neighbors that one of my men is helping her out, what do you think her neighbors are going to do? Not pay, of course! And neither with the next and the next until everyone refuses to give in!"
Sano stiffened and leaned forward slightly, his voice deepening until it was a quiet, even tone, completely opposite of his usual character. "I'll tell you this just once, Takeda. I am not one of your men. You're just lucky to have me. Don't forget it."
Taken aback by his brusque words, Takeda glanced at Kenshin, who had yet to say anything thus far. Still, he knew what Zanza meant: he was only here because of Himura, not for any loyalty to Takeda himself. And the so-called guild leader's hold on the red-haired man was tenuous at best. He had nightmares of waking up one day to realize both men, the real source of his strength, gone.
Still,he knew that in order to show himself the leader of his group, Takeda needed to be strong, stronger than Zanza the fighter and Himura the hired sword. He glanced at Okura and said, "You know where the dojo is. We'll be paying them a visit in the morning."
Sano blinked. "What?"
Smirking at the tall man, Takeda said, "You heard me. The six of us are going to visit the residents at the Kamiya Dojo to see what's so special about them. Perhaps the wench is a pretty bit of flesh, eh?" He winked lasciviously at Sano whose stomach churned in sudden revulsion.
"Their fees are taken care of. There's no point in going to see them," Sano said sharply, trying to contain the hidden worry rising up inside. It seemed as though he was making it worse for the Missy.
"On the contrary, as leader of this new guild, I should go to the people and 'reassure' them of their safety under our protection," Takeda said smoothly. He coughed again, this time a little more violently. "We'll leave after breakfast," he rasped out before covering his mouth with a hand. His thin frame shook with the force of the hacking and Sano glimpsed of bright red liquid spilling between Takeda's hands.
Megumi immediately stood and poured him more tea. "Everyone out," she ordered. "He's going to need some space."
Sano turned and ducked out the door and out of the mansion, stalking down the street and sloshing water on people as he shoved by them. Any dirty looks shot in his direction was pointedly ignored. The rain had already stopped but left rather deep puddles in every groove of the ground. Somehow, he managed to step into nearly all of them, nearly drowning his pants in mud.
Darkness had already invaded the early evening so the mansion grounds were lit with lanterns to illuminate the area. Most men, catching a glimpse of Sano's tense face through the flickering light, kept out of his way hastily. Confronting Zanza when he was angry never ended well for the intruder.
He wasn't surprised when Kenshin caught up with him a few hundred feet away though the red-head's legs were shorter. Kenshin's speed was near legendary and almost impossible to escape.
"Where are you going?" the swordsman asked.
"To warn them, of course. It's my fault. I made this worse for them." Sano could kick himself for not thinking his plan through. And it wasn't only the Missy he had helped. There were numerous other people who couldn't afford the 'guild fees' and he had offered them the same kind of aid. How could he have been so stupid and not thought this through?
"Takeda is going to be very angry with you," Kenshin reminded him.
"Takeda's too busy coughing up his stomach to care," Sano retorted. "Besides, he never said I couldn't see them first." He glanced at his friend. "And anyway, he won't get rid of me. He needs me." To watch over you were the unspoken words.
Of course, if he ever turned against Takeda that could change in a moment's notice. But Sano preferred to worry about that later.
Kenshin merely nodded as if he didn't realize that and slowed as they neared the front gate. "Good luck, then. And Sano."
He glanced back at his friend. "Yeah?"
"Even if you hadn't offered to pay the fee, the dojo would have still found itself under Takeda's scrutiny. After all, you know how he takes care of those who defy him." Kenshin's eyes were flaring like twin golden orbs that absorbed the light instead of reflecting it. There was a serious undertone in his voice that Sano rarely heard him use. The street fighter tensed, realizing he was being warned.
If Sanosuke chose to go against Takeda, it didn't mean Kenshin would do the same.
Sano had known that another fight between them would be inevitable. The subsequent befriending after their first battle didn't mean he was blind to the truth. They would meet again on the battle field some day. It was destiny. And if tomorrow was the day, Sano would welcome it.
So he slowly nodded to Kenshin. "I do." Sano paused, wondering if he should say anything else. It was unlikely they would be on the same side when morning came – unless he came up with a brilliant plan to turn Takeda's interest away. Sadly, planning was not one of his strong points. "Well … I'll see you tomorrow."
Kenshin returned the nod. "Tomorrow."
Sano lifted a hand in a brief goodbye before turning back and disappearing into the darkness.
AN: Apparently, I am nearly incapable of doing a one-shot that is less than 5000 words. This little story, which has occupied my mind the past week, has become three times longer than I intended, which is why I decided to break it up into three parts. Luckily, it's almost done so my other stories will be posted as scheduled. I just had to get this out of my head before it drove me insane. As usual, the schedule of updates are posted on my profile page.