Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin and all affiliated
characters and settings are the property of Watsuki Nobuhiro and all
companies associated with the license and release of the series.
My apologies for the wait! This chapter was giving me fits, so I ended up scrapping what I'd originally planned on doing with it in favor of something that's (hopefully) a little more exciting. I still hate this chapter, but something is better than nothing for now, I hope. 8D; Further notes are at the end of the chapter.
Thank you so very much to Nekotsuki for a really helpful beta read and to Varethane for pointing out a few other issues (and for giving me ideas for things to come!). Also, no thanks to Varethane for providing crack!omake for a few future parts of the story that completely sidetracked me while writing this chapter. XD
-dono – an extremely antiquated and polite suffix for names (there really isn't a good English equivalent, I swear!)
kenjutsu – swordsmanship
kijutsu – magic (no connotation)
kijutsudou – the art of magic practice
kijutsushi – one who uses kijutsu
majubyoki – another poorly-coined word, roughly meaning "black magic sickness"
Majutsusha – one who uses black magic (coined)
Shishou – a supremely honorific term for a master-like figurehead
And do let me know if I've missed any!
Two: The Mad Charlatan
There were two dreams that often repeated in the dragon-child's mind.
The first was of a time that was barely a recollection, of when he was very young and was not yet part of the dragon-kin. All of the dragon-kin were adopted, after all; it required a great deal of training in order to become a Master, and there was only one Master at a time. The dragons were fierce and immortal, and it was once believed that any who had allied with them would also be granted such attributes. Dragons were also mistrustful of humanity as a whole, and thus would only form a contract if they found one being worthy of making – and keeping – a bond. The dragon-child was on trial, and was not yet fully bonded with the Dragons. Only Masters were capable of such feats.
In this dream, the dragon-child recalled the first time he had ever witnessed a Dragon Master. The man had been the epitome of strength and agility, with a booming, entrancingly deep voice that spoke a language he couldn't understand but wished he could. That man had become his savior in a very, very uncertain time when he had been on death's doorstep. The dream would always end when the Dragon Master gave him a new name, and a new life.
The second dream was long after he'd received his new name, and had besmirched it with the gruesome title of Majutsusha. He'd been given another name, one that he had not accepted on his own, but would stick with him for the rest of his life as a grave reminder of what he had abandoned. Once again on the verge of death, he had been saved once again by an unlikely source – a quiet, gentle young woman who had suddenly appeared into his life, and managed to save him from himself.
This night, he dreamed of her.
Eight seasons, seven moons, forty-seven sunrises. Time, a concept that hadn't existed until everything – the things that had suddenly become so important to him – had ended. The number stood out in sharp contrast to a long string of memories, of a time and place that was all at once a wonderful recollection and yet the most painful experience that he had ever endured. In fact, sometimes it was so painful that he wasn't sure how he had survived.
But when the smiling face of the woman – now long gone – came before him at night, he knew. He knew it was because of her, and that she would also be the driving force behind him in the future. And at that point in the same dream, he would always realize that he was indeed dreaming, for she was no longer alive. It was then that he would awaken.
Tonight, this dream around, however, he never reached that realization, and for once she wasn't just a dream.
"Kenshin," a quiet voice filtered through the thin paper of the sliding door at the guest room. "Kenshin, are you awake?"
Kenshin blinked; frowning as he sat up slowly, holding himself up with one hand and moving the other through the tangles in his hair. It was already mid-morning, and it had been quite some time since he'd ever slept that long. As he realized that Kaoru was probably the one who'd called him, he also realized that she was probably waiting for an answer.
"I am," he said, quickly reaching back to tie the long red and black strands into a low ponytail. The healing wounds in his shoulder and side faintly protested at the movement, but he quickly hid the discomfort as Kaoru nearly threw the door open.
Kenshin was surprised to see her holding a tray of breakfast, an almost proud grin spread across her face. He rarely saw her make anything once he'd learned – after a rather embarrassing display of a lack of control on his part – that her cooking was probably less than marginal, and it almost made him regret admitting he was awake. But she looked so happy that he couldn't deny her at least the courtesy of trying the food.
"Breakfast?" she asked, offering him the tray. Her tone was almost too cheerful, and suddenly Kenshin felt a little nervous. He forced himself to nod anyway.
"Thank you, Kaoru-dono," he said softly. "I'm sorry I slept so late; I didn't mean to cause you any trouble."
Kaoru's smile widened, if it was possible. "Oh, it's no trouble at all. Tsubame came by this morning, so really it's not an issue. Besides, you probably still need the rest."
Ah, so she hadn't made breakfast after all, but that meant that she was pleased about something else. It was then that Kenshin noticed – she wasn't teaching a class like she should have been. And – more surprising to him, at least – she wasn't even wearing her practice clothing; rather, she donned a light, floral-patterned summer yukata.
She was planning something.
"After you're finished eating, get dressed – we're going to the market," she stated cheerily. And no, it wasn't a question.
Kenshin normally wouldn't mind; in fact, he was more than willing to accompany Kaoru-dono to market. He hadn't been allowed off the dojo premises since he'd arrived a week ago, as he had been deemed "too injured" by his hostess. In spite of Kaoru's orders of bed rest (which she claimed were directly from Genzai-sensei, the elderly doctor), Kenshin had actually enjoyed his stay, and was surprised at how quickly he'd become accustomed to life at the Kamiya dojo. But no matter how much he would love to take the small trip, he couldn't avoid the fact that he was a wanted criminal. The police had to still be looking for him.
Of course, this either did not occur to Kaoru, or she had other ideas. "Well, hurry up and eat! Don't want the best of the produce to be snatched up before we get there," Kaoru said suddenly, snapping him out of his thoughts.
"Hm?" A stern look, and then, "Are you still not feeling well?"
"No, this one feels just fine. It's just..." Kenshin looked away. "I'm not so sure this is a good idea, considering my unfortunate... status with the police right now."
Kaoru's mouth suddenly formed an 'o' as realization dawned. So she hadn't thought of that. But then she completely surprised him with an easy smile. "Well, then we'll need plenty of time to get you disguised, won't we?"
That was an option, though the idea didn't settle too well with Kenshin. But she was so earnest about this trip that he hardly felt right telling her no. He would just have to be extremely careful. Kenshin hummed an affirmative with a smile and a small nod – Kaoru seemed pleased enough with that – and then turned to the food, hoping it would take his mind off the sudden unease with the decision. He took a bite of the fish.
Really, Tsubame outdid herself on a regular basis. Either that, or he'd had too much of poor Kaoru's cooking since the last time the young girl had been by.
After Kenshin finished breakfast, he stripped down to the waist to replace the small bandage at his side that covered the only remnant of the injury that hadn't quite finished healing yet. As he reached for his own clothing, he realized that they had been ruined and that Kaoru had them thrown out. He hadn't even recalled as much, since he'd been lounging about the dojo in a simple, long sleeping yukata all week.
Oh dear. This ought to present an interesting situation. But it was just as well; the police had already caught sight of him in them, and he needed to come up with some sort of disguise anyway. Pulling the kimono back up over his shoulders and tying the obi at his waist, he left the room to look for Kaoru. He found her sitting out back on the steps, staring contentedly out over the small expanse of a traditional garden. He hated to break her mood, but...
"Kaoru-dono?" he asked quietly, taking care not to startle her.
"Kenshin! Come with me; my father's clothing might be a bit large for you, but it's worth trying, right? It'll only be for today, after all." She didn't seem surprised at his state of dress, so perhaps it wasn't such a bad thing.
"Kaoru-dono, you don't have to go through all that trouble just for me," Kenshin tried to say, but she'd already grabbed his hand and was pulling him back into the house.
Kaoru led him to a back room that smelled old, but clean. There was a suit of swordsman's armor in the back, a rack that held wooden replications of a katana and a shorter, matching wakizashi sitting beneath it along with several stone tablets and remnants of incense sticks. It was a shrine, likely a tribute to Kaoru's father. Kenshin felt a chill go down his spine as he entered the room; it felt like a special place, one sacred to Kaoru. He wondered briefly what the late Kamiya-sama would think of such a bloodied individual such as himself. Best not to think of that, he decided.
Oh, she'd been talking to him, hadn't she? Blinking, he realized that she was standing in front of him, holding out a clean set of her father's clothing, a cautious expression on her face. He smiled in a quick reassurance that he was fine.
"Sorry, sometimes my mind wanders almost as much as I do," he said apologetically. "Are you sure you're fine with this?"
Kaoru narrowed her eyes. "How many times do I need to tell you? Hurry up and get ready, or we're going to be late."
She shoved the clothing into his hands and nearly pushed him back into the guest room in a hurry, shutting the door behind him once he was inside. With a sigh, Kenshin changed into the borrowed clothing. The shoulders were a little wide, the sleeves on the long side, and the pant legs of the hakama were also too long, but they would do. It had been a very long time since he'd worn kenjutsu training clothing, and he'd forgotten how comfortable they could feel.
Once he'd tied the obi, Kenshin pulled the small mirror out of the hand table's drawer, picked up a bandage, and carefully aligned it so that it completely covered the slightly raised x-marking on his left cheek. The marking burned a little at his touch, but that was usual. Putting the mirror away, he stood and poked his head into the hallway, and heard feminine laughter coming from the kitchen. Kaoru was likely with Tsubame, then. He just might have time to fix the issue of his rather distinctive hair with a light, temporary spell before she came back to check on him.
Kenshin closed the door and sat down in the middle of the room, taking a deep breath. Though he knew the spell wasn't nearly strong enough to require the use of the staff to ground the energy needed for it, he knew he'd still feel it. Eyes closed and hands fisted together in a meditative pose, he murmured the spell in its original poetic language, and felt the warm and familiar energy tug at his chest. Once he'd finished speaking, he opened his eyes to shining light and with the final word of power, he felt the change settle and saw the light fade, his breath leaving him with it.
There was a twinge in his chest as he tried to breathe, air not coming as readily as it should have, small stars flickering across his vision in dizzying patterns. Gods, was he really that drained? He pressed one hand against his chest and the other against the floor in a sudden need to steady himself. As strands of uniformly black hair drifted in front of his face, he knew that at least the spell had worked. It would last for a good twenty-four hours, more than long enough for a trip to the market and back.
After a few moments of panting, he finally felt his breathing steady, and strength slowly return. Perhaps he wasn't as drained as he'd initially thought, but it served as a good warning to make sure he was extremely careful. He sincerely hoped he wouldn't run into any trouble, though part of him knew that it probably wouldn't be avoided. Perhaps he could ask Kaoru for an extra shinai, just in case the need for protection arose.
"Kenshin?Are you all right?"
It was Kaoru's voice, and it held just the slightest undercurrent of concern. Kenshin wondered briefly if she'd sensed the spell he'd just cast, and carefully made sure he could stand steadily enough before he stood and padded over to the door. Thankfully, his legs weren't shaking and held his weight, and he could manage to breathe almost normally. With a smile, he slid open the paper door.
"I am," he replied, rather amused by her sudden gasp when she saw the changes to his appearance. "Shall we?"
"Y-You... Wow," she said, unable to find words. "How did you–?"
"It's a minor spell," he explained, "and it's only temporary, though it should last more than long enough for a day out."
Kaoru seemed fascinated by it, as she moved about him inspecting to see that his hair was now an even color. Though his bright, violet eyes still stood out, at least the hair didn't anymore. But before Kaoru could do anything more to mess with his hair, Kenshin reached back and pulled it into a low ponytail at the nape of his neck, hoping to keep it out of his face.
"And here I thought Kaoru-dono was in a hurry," he said teasingly.
She suddenly pulled back, a blush spreading across her face. "Oh! I'm really sorry – it's just... you look so different without the red," she said, a sheepish laugh escaping her lips. "Really, I'm ready to go."
When Kaoru grabbed a shinai for herself on the way out, Kenshin felt almost guilty when he asked her for one as well. She gave him a sharp, scrutinizing look; she either didn't believe that he knew how to use one, or she thought him too injured to use one, or perhaps both. But she didn't say anything more than an admonition to be careful before she handed one to him as well. They were on their way shortly after.
It was a pleasant day outside – not terribly hot, but the sun was shining. Not likely a day for rain, and for that, Kenshin was grateful. Rain would have most certainly spoiled their plans at the marketplace. The dojo wasn't far from the marketplace, he realized. The first time he'd been on this road, it had seemed a much longer distance, though he'd been rather delirious at the time. Kaoru seemed quite pleased to have company with her, as she moved from booth to booth with a great deal of excitement. As poor of a cook that she was, Kenshin was pleasantly surprised to find that she was actually quite good at picking out the best produce she could find, and then at bargaining down the prices much further than he would have dared to push. Once they made it to the tailor's shop, Kaoru tugged Kenshin inside by the sleeve of his gi and began showing him some of her favorite fabrics. Kenshin winced at the price tags on a few of the fabrics she was showing him.
"Kaoru-dono, I don't have enough money to–" he began to protest, but she cut him off with a glare. He gulped.
"You'll need something that will last, Kenshin," she said by way of an explanation. "As much of a good tailor that Watanabe-san is, a good fabric will stay intact far longer. Don't worry about it."
Kenshin sighed; it was no use arguing with her once she made her mind up (Kaoru was a stubborn girl, after all), though he did wonder how she managed to afford all this. Perhaps her dojo was worth more than he thought it was, despite the fact that kenjutsu was far from being a popular alternative to magic.
Despite his small protests – he had to be polite, after all – he was measured for two new outfits, and found that he could indeed afford it when Watanabe quoted him the price. Kaoru seemed to be on good terms with this Watanabe, as he clearly discounted the cost of the new clothing without a word of price-wrestling. So that was why Kaoru had said not to worry about it, he realized. Kenshin thanked the tailor profusely as he paid for the services, and Watanabe told him not to worry about it and that the clothing would be ready by the end of the week.
"Watanabe is an old friend of my father's," Kaoru explained once they were outside again, before Kenshin could even ask. "He considers it a favor to my father to help take care of me."
"Ah, I see," Kenshin said with a bit of surprise. The late Kamiya-san certainly had a decent number of old friends, and he wondered once again just what kind of a man Kaoru's father had been. He almost would have liked to meet him.
However, Kenshin's thoughts on the matter were quickly interrupted when he bumped into a dark-haired young boy. With a muttered apology, the boy ran off – but not before Kenshin realized that he'd just fallen victim to a pickpocket. Muttering the words to a harmless replacement spell, he quickly summoned a small burst of energy and retrieved his wallet from the boy's shirt, stumbling only slightly as he did so, ears ringing a little. He hated to do this kind of thing to the poor kid – he was probably just trying to get by – but he couldn't very well let the boy get away with such a petty crime entirely.
"Kenshin?" Kaoru asked from beside him. "Kenshin, are you all right?"
Catching his breath, he turned to her with a tight smile. "I'm fine; this one is just a little clumsy."
She raised an eyebrow at him, but didn't say anything more. Kenshin was grateful that she didn't press the issue, though now he had a prickling, bad feeling that they were being watched. Perhaps that wasn't such a wise idea, but he said nothing as he followed Kaoru to the inn she'd said Tsubame worked at. Hopefully a good meal would get his mind off the trouble, for now.
Despite the typical bustle of the marketplace, anyone with at least a decent amount of skill in magic – though not many were left post-Purge – could recognize someone else with a great deal of skill even from the after-draft of the smallest of spells. And as unlikely as the presence of more than one such skilled user in a single place was in this time and place, there was another who could not help but notice the powerful after-draft of the replacement spell that had been used in the middle of the endless rows of booths. It held a sharp bite not unlike a dragon's claws, and the powerful, heady scent of the ancients.
One of these individuals had been shocked to find another magic-user, but was not yet skilled enough in his own methods to be able to pinpoint exactly who had been responsible for it. But he did know that it somehow involved Yahiko, and suddenly he was worried. He would have to find the kid as soon as he could, get him out of there. But at the same time, he was rather excited to find that he might have just found the one person who he felt could solve a great deal of his problems, one way or another.
The other also knew exactly who had caused the minor disturbance; he recognized the scent of the after-draft and had been expecting this one to show up for some time now. He too was excited, but mostly because he knew his efforts were finally showing him results he'd been hoping to see. He looked around the sea of heads in the crowd, trying to find the red one that the infamous Majutsusha had. It wasn't there; Battousai wasn't a fool and would likely be disguised. Instead, he followed the after-draft, and saw as it lead to a smallish, dark-haired man with a bandage on his cheek and his female companion as they continued walking through the booths as if nothing had happened. Battousai had found another woman, had he? That was also just as well; if there was even the slightest attachment to the woman, he would be far easier to snare. With a toothy grin, he vanished back into the crowd.
Lunch at the Akabeko was a rather enjoyable affair, as far as Kenshin was concerned. Despite the occasional embarrassing comment from Kaoru's friend Tae (who Kaoru insisted was never "like that"), the food and service had been excellent, and Kenshin rather enjoyed being able to get away from the dojo for at least a little while. He hadn't been in one place for so long since... well, since a time he didn't particularly want to think about at the moment, but that was over a decade ago now. It wasn't worth dwelling on something that would dampen the good mood the group was in at the moment.
Unfortunately, the mood didn't last long. Over Kaoru's laughter at a comment Tae made, Kenshin's attention was suddenly pulled away when he was sure he overheard someone say Battousai across the room. Startled, he automatically allowed himself to eavesdrop, but was careful to keep a smile plastered on his face. Two men across the room were talking about another murder, one from the previous night that had clearly involved magic.
"You really can't think it's Battousai that's responsible for all of these murders, can you?" one of the men was saying. "Last I heard, Battousai was killed in the Purge."
"Nobody found his body," the second man pointed out.
"Fine then, he disappeared during the Purge. Happy? Either way, he hasn't been around in what, ten years?" The man sighed. "You can't be seriously thinking that Battousai is around."
"But who else would have that kind of power to kill that many people so quickly?"
"There exists more than one Majutsusha, Sadao."
The second man – Sadao – snorted derisively. He'd clearly made up his own mind on who was responsible, and Kenshin had to work to keep his grin from turning to a grimace. Whoever this person was that was murdering people seemed to want them to think he was responsible for it.
"Well, when you hear that the police have successfully captured this mass murderer, you can be surprised when you find that it is indeed Battousai responsible," Sadao snapped back.
The first man sighed again. "Sure, Sadao. Sure thing."
"You can't really think that someone other than Battousai is–"
"Kenshin?" And suddenly, his attention was brought back to his own table, a hand waving tentatively in front of his face.
"Oro?" he squawked, startled, elbow sliding off the table and nearly throwing him off-balance.
Kaoru giggled. "Daydream much?"
"I'm really sorry about that, Kaoru-dono!"
"It's all right, Kenshin," she said, the laughter not quite out of her voice yet. "So, are we going to sit here all afternoon, then?"
"The tab –"
"– Is already taken care of," Kaoru interrupted.
But she didn't reply as she grabbed his hand and dragged him out of the Akabeko, offering a quick goodbye to Tsubame and Tae on her way out. Kenshin managed half of one before Kaoru had pulled him completely out of the restaurant.
Kenshin tried his best to continue to enjoy the afternoon walking through the town with Kaoru, he really did; but it was difficult not to try and figure out who was responsible for these murders in his name. Although he didn't particularly like the title that had been given to him during those years, he couldn't very well allow someone else to take it and drag it through the mud like that. It was a title that he had to bear on his own, and it wasn't one he ever wanted to see used lightly. Was the impostor someone that actually knew him? The only ones he knew that might have survived were... Oh gods. They certainly weren't people he wanted to encounter; not now, and not ever.
While he knew he should probably take far more precautions, he realized that if there was any Majutsusha of the level of the individuals he had in mind, he probably had more than alerted them with his little stunt in the marketplace with the pickpocket. This was bad, and he needed to pay more attention.
Kaoru seemed to pick up on the fact that he was distracted.
"I suppose I've tired you out enough for your first day out in some time," she said suddenly with a sheepish smile. "Are you feeling all right?"
"Ah, yes, I'm feeling fine, Kaoru-dono. It's not your fault; I must be a little tired, is all. I'm really sorry about that," he replied with a smile. "I really have enjoyed our outing today."
It was the truth, after all, and Kaoru seemed pleased to hear it. And if Kaoru was pleased, he supposed he was as well.
"I'm glad," she said. "But if you're up for it, I have one more place I want to take you today. It's on the way back to the dojo."
Kenshin smiled and nodded. "I would love to."
They walked together in the direction of the bridge over the creek that led back to the Kamiya dojo, but instead of taking the path over the bridge, Kaoru led Kenshin down a smaller side path that took them closer to the creek, and then on to a small grove of sakura trees that stretched across both sides of the creek. Kenshin quickly saw why Kaoru might want to take him to that particular place. The cherry trees were in full blossom now, and with the afternoon sunlight filtering down through the branches, it really was a beautiful sight. There was a log just next to the creek, and Kaoru led him down to it before she sat down, her back to the creek.
"I used to come here a lot with my father when I was a child," she explained when Kenshin sat beside her. "Spring is my favorite time of year because of this place. Not many people know about it, so it's almost always quiet. This log wasn't always here, but it does have a nice view of the blossoms if you sit on it, don't you think?"
Kenshin smiled in agreement. It did provide a nice view, and to be honest, he couldn't recall the last time he'd taken time to appreciate the season's natural offerings. And to share it with someone he had actually begun to grow to care about... nothing really could be better, at this moment.
He had allowed himself to grow so relaxed in the moment that he didn't realize – until far too late – that there was a dangerous presence closing in on them quickly. But suddenly, he felt the binding spell form just a split-second too late to throw up any sort of defense against it, and before he could even shout a word of warning to Kaoru, he felt the energy from the spell strike his back, freezing all movement. With joints locked, tongue and lungs numbed he could do nothing as he saw a black shadow moved in behind them and dark arms reach around Kaoru's waist and face. Kaoru's sudden yelp of surprise was muffled by a dark hand, and gods she was being taken from him!
"This is the price you pay for letting your guard down, Battousai," he heard a gravelly voice snarl in his ear from behind, and then the hands pulled Kaoru away from his side. Kaoru's screams were muted, and Kenshin felt as though his heart would stop as he struggled – uselessly – against the binding spell. A sudden burst of light with a word in the tongue of the ancients, the powerful draft of a vanishing spell, and both Kaoru and the owner of the voice were gone.
When the binding spell wore off moments later, Kenshin gasped for air, falling forward off the log to his knees with a choked sob, pounding the ground with a clenched fist in anger and frustration until he felt the side of his hand bruise. He didn't care. After all that, in the one moment he'd finally allowed himself to let his guard down, Kaoru had been–
And then it occurred to him exactly what was going on. He knew that voice, the style of magic that had been used, the stench of the after-draft was more than telling. He also knew that the man he would now have to track down was more than in the throes of majubyoki, a madness that came from an imbalance between a Majutsusha and his contractor.
"Jin'e!" Kenshin roared down the river, even though he knew the man was much too far away to hear him now.
Kaoru coughed and scowled as the crazy man who'd kidnapped her – Jin'e, he'd said his name was – lit up another cigarette and blew the first puff of smoke in a steady stream from his nose. She hated the smell of burning tobacco, really. And she'd decided from the moment she realized what had happened that she absolutely did not like this Jin'e, either. She was being used as bait for Kenshin, that much she knew for certain. And while she was indeed afraid, at the same time she was also angry, though she couldn't do much with rope binding her wrists and ankles.
"Don't worry, your Battousai will surely find his way here," Jin'e suddenly said with a low chuckle and a grin. "I made sure to leave a trail he can't afford to miss."
Kaoru curled her lip in a snarl, but said nothing. This man was itching for a fight, and she knew that if she provoked him, he might hurt her – and she had a good feeling that that would be more than cause enough for Kenshin to fight him. The fear returned with an uneasy clawing at her stomach; this was the first day that Kenshin had been outside the dojo in a week due to injuries that – while healing quite well – would still be a cause of concern.
Another concern was the fact that Jin'e was clearly a magic-user, possibly a Majutsusha like Kenshin. If that was the case, Kenshin would be forced into a duel; while Kaoru had never actually seen one before, she had heard plenty about how dangerous they could be. And also, if Jin'e was a Majutsusha, perhaps he was the one responsible for all the recent murders in Battousai's name. Had that all been an attempt to get Kenshin's attention?
"And here he comes, as predicted," Jin'e chuckled, tossing his cigarette to the ground as his gravelly voice interrupted her thoughts.
She looked down the path with wide eyes, almost ashamed at the hope that welled in her chest at his arrival. There he was, taking steady, firm steps towards them, staff in hand – he must have stopped by the dojo on his way there – and... She froze.
Kenshin wore an expression she hoped to never see again.
Eyes narrowed into a frightening, cold glare, sparkling with gold light, and his entire being began to glow a bright blue that lit up the clearing, a beacon in the dusk. Red slowly bled back into his hair even as he approached, as if the coloring spell was being pushed back. The sheer power that seemed to radiate from him stole her breath away.
"It's about time, Battousai," Jin'e said, though the grin never left his face. "You must not have been too worried about what was going to happen to your bitch."
Kaoru began to protest at the derogatory term, but Kenshin's icy voice cut the silence before she could even find her voice.
"Let her go, Jin'e. This isn't about her."
"So you do care what happens to her, then?"
"You should not have involved outsiders."
"Ah, but she obviously holds a special place among them, if none of the recent deaths of other outsiders were enough to bring you out of hiding," Jin'e returned, gesturing outwards. "You're so predictable, Battousai – you always come for the woman, even if you know it will likely mean the death of her."
"You speak of what you do not understand, Jin'e," Kenshin hissed. "Your quarrel is with me, and not her. If you lay a hand on her–"
"You'll kill me?" Jin'e laughed, a sound that was both terrifying and disgusting to Kaoru. She shuddered. "I look forward to it, Battousai."
And before Kaoru could look away, cold, black eyes and a maniacal grin met her gaze, mouth widening with a single whispered word that she did not know the meaning of, but quickly learned the power behind it as she suddenly found that she couldn't breathe.
"Ken...shin," she gasped.
Kenshin growled, and Jin'e laughed once more. "You see, Battousai? You're the one that involved her. I give her three minutes, maybe four before she dies of suffocation – and you know as well as I do the only way to break this spell is to kill the wielder, or the girl herself has to break it. Highly doubtful, that."
It was the final warning before Kaoru's world exploded in light, punctuated only by murmurings and exclamations of beautiful words she didn't understand.
There were some who considered magic-battles beautiful. With swirling lights and cursive glowing runes appearing in the air, voices speaking the lilting, melodic ancient tongues of the elements, perhaps this was not a poor assessment. That is, if one also considered this to be a siren-like beauty of such battles; they were easily as dangerous as they were entrancing.
Kaoru watched, completely captivated by the sight. She saw barriers fly up, hands were flying in all matters of patterns and gestures, and flying lights crashed against barriers that were nearly invisible. It was almost like watching a strange dream-world come to life; she was sure she saw green-glowing spiders come from within Jin'e's terrain, only to be crushed by blasts of light from Kenshin's staff. But she was losing air, and stars began flashing across her vision along with the magical bursts of energy.
At this rate, she was going to die.
A burst of red blossomed from Kenshin's shoulder as he took a bad hit, and Jin'e crowed with victory at the small advantage that he'd created. But with a snarl and the words for another powerful spell uttered, Kenshin raised his staff high into the air with his grip on the pommel, and with a crackle of lightning, the staff transformed into a Japanese blade that glowed with the same blue light that surrounded Kenshin. He charged forward once the transformation had completed, and moved so quickly that he seemed to disappear entirely.
Jin'e cackled, parrying with a quickly-formed shield of light around his own staff, but suddenly there was an ear-splitting crack as his arm bent in an entirely wrong direction from the strength behind the blow. Kenshin's leg swept Jin'e's from under him, bright light accompanying Jin'e on his fall as the much larger man toppled to the ground with a pained shriek. With a great deal of ice in Kenshin's eyes – this wasn't the man Kaoru knew! – he raised the blade high over his head in preparation for a final strike.
He's going to kill this man! I... I can't let him do that!
The blade paused mid-strike, just enough of an opening for Jin'e to kick out at Kenshin's legs. Kenshin grimaced as his knee buckled and sent him to the ground next to Jin'e. The madman scrambled to his knees and flipped Kenshin onto his back, pinning him with a knee to his chest as he wrapped his hand tightly around the redhead's throat. Unable to break free, Kenshin began chanting but was cut short with an airless gasp as Jin'e tightened his grip and slammed his other hand into Kenshin's wounded shoulder. The lighted sword in Kenshin's hand flickered several times before the light faded, leaving the staff in its place.
"You're weak, Battousai," Jin'e spat. Then he began chanting as well.
Kaoru tried to cry out, but couldn't find the breath. She didn't want this to happen – all she wanted was for Kenshin to have one less death on his hands. Now Kenshin was the one whose life was at stake, and she was powerless to help. This was all her fault!
Red light crackled from Jin'e's hand, but instead of forming into a proper spell, it distorted and sank into the madman's arm. With a piercing shriek, Jin'e dropped his grip on Kenshin's throat and grabbed his own arm instead, collapsing to the side and howling in pain. Kenshin snatched his staff and rolled away from Jin'e, coughing as he came to his knees. Using the staff as a crutch to help him to his feet, he took several steps towards Jin'e as the madman writhed on the ground.
Kaoru's heart skipped a beat; was Kenshin really going to kill Jin'e? She didn't know what to do anymore – last time she'd tried to stop him, he ended up nearly getting killed instead. If Kenshin didn't kill Jin'e, there was always the chance that Jin'e would come after him again later, or would even strike out again like he had the last time. Was she going against her father's teachings and placing too much value of one life over another? This was all so confusing and she was running out of air and Kenshin was raising the staff and–
"Kenshin!" she cried, and then sweet air rushed into her lungs at a dizzying rate. Coughing and gasping, the world went white, and when she came to she saw Kenshin's face above hers, eyes wide with concern. He was crouching on the ground, and then she suddenly realized that she was laying in his arms.
"Kaoru-dono!" he exclaimed when he saw her open her eyes.
"It's... it's not worth it... killing him," she whispered, glad to finally have her voice back. "Please. D-Don't become like him."
Kenshin looked surprised at her statement, but before he could say anything, the ice returned to his eyes – but not as intensely as before, Kaoru noticed – when they both heard a deep-throated chuckle from Jin'e's fallen direction. Kenshin helped Kaoru to her knees before he placed a hand on his staff and twisted to face Jin'e, slowly rising.
"Looks like your woman was strong enough after all, Battousai," Jin'e said.
"Jin'e," Kenshin began, voice low with just a hint of the remaining anger from before.
"Better finish this deal up. These things always should end in the death of the loser." Jin'e suddenly pulled a dagger from a hidden pouch at his waist with his good hand, and stabbed it deep into his own chest with a grunt. Kaoru cried out in shock and Kenshin flinched, and though Kaoru couldn't see his expression, she knew he was just as surprised as she was. "Don't give me that look, Battousai. This is just as well; I can't use the one thing that entertained me in life anymore, with this damned curse. You still know as well as I do that once you dive into the darker arts, you always turn back to them, just like that. That's the way of all Majutsusha."
With a gurgle, Jin'e spat blood to the side, but even the sounds of death didn't drown out the eerie, echoing chuckle that accompanied the murderer to his death.
Once the air was silent, Kaoru looked back at Kenshin with tears in her eyes. Was that how Kenshin had stopped Jin'e – a curse? But he hadn't killed his opponent, she realized. He had stopped. But before she could say anything of that regard to Kenshin, suddenly he cried out, clutching his arm with a grimace. Oh gods, he was hurt and I completely forgot!
The strength seemed to bleed from Kenshin's knees, and Kaoru moved to catch him before he collapsed. It was then that she realized he was incredibly pale and breathing heavily, sweat breaking out on his forehead.
"Kenshin!" she cried, worried. Did Jin'e place a curse on him as well? "Kenshin, please, wake up! Kenshin!"
But no amount of calling brought Kenshin back to awareness.
The air in the clearing was ripe with the heavy scent of many after-drafts and death, dulled only slightly by the morning dew. A frustrated growl escaped the lips of the young man who stood in the middle of the mangled clearing, knowing full well that he'd more than missed the actual battle that took place here. One of the opponents was lying – dead – near one edge of the clearing, a twisted, maniacal, smiling expression forever etched into his face.
"Damn it," the young man hissed. While he didn't know what Battousai actually looked like, he knew for damned sure that the dead man at his feet wasn't the infamous Majutsusha. Clenching a fist in anger, he turned to a nearby tree and with a word, slammed his red-glowing fist into the trunk, shattering it with a single blow.
He would find Battousai. And when he did, he had a score to settle with him.
Until then, however, he knew he shouldn't linger here long. A magic-battle of this scale tended to attract a lot of attention from the police, especially with the damn mass murdering bastard still at large. Part of him hoped they caught Battousai, but not before he got his hands on him.
The dragon-child was sitting in the hut with the angry Dragon Master, his legs smarting heavily and tears streaking down his face in silence. He had done something in the wrong manner – again – and had managed to get himself injured badly enough that he couldn't walk for the rest of that day.
"Stupid whelp," Shishou muttered as he tightly wrapped the burns on the dragon-child's legs with cool, herb-soaked linen. "I told you time and again that you don't actually try channeling energy into a new technique until after you've completely mastered the spell. But did you listen? No. And that's why you got burned."
"I-I'm sorry, Shishou," the dragon-child whimpered, voice shaking with a great deal of effort not to cry in front of the larger man.
"Stop apologizing, damn it!" Shishou snapped. "You didn't do anything to me; it's your own body you should be concerned about, you idiot. When you don't do these techniques properly in a real battle, you'll do more damage to yourself than the enemy will. The Dragons are extremely picky about speaking their language properly, and they won't let you get away with messing it up. It's part of the contract – and I've told you this countless numbers of times already."
The dragon-child said nothing, biting his lip once his master's hands glided over the worst of the burns. Despite Shishou's harsh words, his hands were surprisingly gentle, and it took a quick glance at Shishou's pinched, frustrated face for the dragon-child to realize that Shishou wasn't just angry – he was worried as well. But he continued to lecture anyway.
"You do understand that some spells can become curses if you do not recite them properly, do you not? And a curse is far worse than any minor backlash from the Dragons ever could be. Think of this as the Dragons' way of reminding you not to go down that path. You can't fix a curse with some bandages and herbal ointment."
"Yes, Shishou," the dragon-child whispered, cowed.
Shishou snorted as he finished tying off the bandages, and looked directly into the eyes of the dragon-child. "I better not catch you in the throes of a backlash again, boy."
This time, the dragon-child simply nodded. He knew that Shishou knew all about the Dragons and their laws, and almost every spell imaginable. Shishou was as close to a Dragon as any mere kijutsushi could ever become. It was best to listen to his words; the dragon-child most certainly didn't want to be cursed, after all.
"You aren't to mess with these dressings until I tell you to do so – and that means don't scratch. You don't want your legs to turn ugly with scars now, do you?"
The dragon-child shook his head. Of course he didn't!
"Good. You stay here and keep your legs up, and don't get up without my permission. Don't you dare think of this as a means of getting out of your chores, boy. Next time, I'll make you walk on the damn burns."
Kaoru scrubbed furiously at the red stains in the linen strips, taking her frustration out on the bandages as if they were somehow at fault. Kenshin was still unconscious, and had been for almost two full days now. The wound he'd taken to his shoulder during the battle wasn't healing well, Genzai had told her. All in all, the situation looked bad, and she felt miserable.
If I hadn't let that crazy bastard take me, then this wouldn't have happened, part of her kept saying over an over like a mantra. This is all my fault.
But there was no way that you could have known Jin'e was coming for you, the rational voice would reply. And then she would grab her head in even further frustration and convince herself that she was insane for having an argument with herself.
Kaoru was infinitely glad for Genzai's presence right now; she hated having to leave Kenshin by himself while she taught her usual classes of kenjutsu. She couldn't very well cancel the classes, since it was her sole source of income right now (outside of what her father had left to her in his will), and she needed something to distract her from the present problem. It wasn't working very well; she would find her mind wandering back to the guest bedroom even during drills, causing her to often lose count, much to her students' amusement.
But she was far from amused at this point. It became more and more disheartening when she would go back to check on Kenshin only to find that his shoulder wound was still slowly oozing blood, and that he had hardly stirred. Genzai was baffled, and said that perhaps the duel had drained him of his strength.
Kaoru hung the freshly-cleaned linen cloths on a line to dry in the sun, dumped the soapy bucket, and went back to check on Kenshin again, only allowing herself the smallest measure of hope that he was beginning to come around. Logic dictated that she doubt it, but even the much heavier doubt couldn't squash that little bit of hope. She smelled dinner cooking as she approached the door, and realized that Tsubame must have come to cook again. With a small smile, Kaoru couldn't help but feel grateful for her friends' help. She really did have some excellent friends.
Genzai was tying off the bandages on Kenshin's shoulder when Kaoru walked in. Wiping his hands on a towel next to him, he looked up at Kaoru with a weary smile.
"How is he?" Kaoru ventured in a whisper.
"Well, the wound is finally beginning to heal," Genzai replied quietly. "A little color's coming back to his face as well, which is a good sign. I do think he was just drained from the battle, or from some spell that his opponent might have cast on him. I'm not an expert on magic, but I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case, and the spell is just now fading. He might even wake up later tonight."
Kaoru breathed a sigh of relief; that news was far better than nothing. "Is there anything I should do if he wakes up?"
"Make sure he gets something to eat, and lots of rest. He'll probably be pretty tired and weakened from blood loss, but I think once he gets enough down time, he'll be back on his feet in a matter of days."
Kaoru nodded, and smiled. "You must be tired, Genzai-sensei. Thank you so much for your help; I don't know what I would have done without you."
"It's no trouble at all, Kaoru-chan," Genzai replied, patting her on the shoulder. "And if you need anything, you know where to find me."
Kaoru walked the older healer to the gate and bid him farewell once more, reassured that he would return the following morning to check on Kenshin's progress. Dinner that evening was lonely, once Tsubame left and the sky grew dark. Kenshin was still unconscious, but Kaoru left a tray of food ready by his bedside just in case he did wake up. She brought her own futon and a book into the guest room – just in case Kenshin woke up and not because she was lonely, she kept telling herself – setting it up next to the wall so she could comfortably lean back and read by candlelight for at least a little while.
This is silly of me to be lonely, she chided herself. After all, I've spent several years living by myself, and I did just fine. And besides, Kenshin's still here, even if he's... not very responsive.
She fell asleep upright that night, waking early the next morning to a sore neck and back. Kenshin was still out, but he looked a little more restful than he had the night before. Standing up and stretching, she took the untouched tray back to the kitchen, put her futon and book back where they belonged, and started getting ready for the day. Genzai would probably be there soon to check on Kenshin anyway, and she had several classes to teach that day.
It was in the middle of her second morning session that she saw Genzai standing at the door with a smile on his face, and she knew. Kaoru had one of her higher-ranked students take over the drills as she followed the healer back to the guest room.
"Kenshin?" she asked quietly when she saw that he was sitting up with his eyes closed. At her voice, he seemed be startled and a little groggy, but he was awake.
"Kenshin!" She nearly flung herself at his bedside, she was so relieved that he was awake. "Gods, you worried us so badly. How are you feeling?"
"Tired, but much better," he said with a small smile. "I'm so sorry that I've worried you, I am."
Genzai quietly excused himself with a small bow, saying he would be back later that evening. Kaoru barely heard him leave.
"Kenshin, I... I'm really sorry about all this," Kaoru said suddenly. "If I hadn't dragged you all over town and let Jin'e kidnap me like that–"
"Kaoru-dono," Kenshin said seriously, cutting her off. "It's not your fault; you couldn't have known this was going to happen. If you want to place the blame on someone, you should blame me. I seem to have brought you a great deal of trouble."
"But you couldn't have known either that–"
"It's all right, Kaoru-dono. This is nothing I didn't entirely deserve."
Well, that wasn't the answer she was looking for. She wanted to be angry with him, but somehow she had been so worried that she couldn't be upset in any other way. Kaoru bit her lip and wanted to tell him that no, he didn't deserve it and it wasn't all right and that she was worried out of her mind for him, but she didn't. He clearly thought that this was entirely his fault, and she didn't want him to take that the wrong way.
"Kenshin, what... what happened?" she asked instead. "I know that you and Jin'e clearly are both Majutsusha, but he'd mentioned a curse, and..."
"I placed a curse on him that broke part of the contract with his power source," Kenshin replied solemnly. "It would have kept him from being able to use magic from that source ever again."
Kenshin took a deep breath. "Every kijutsu art – regardless of type – requires an energy or power source from nature," he explained. "And in order for humans to be able to access that energy, they have to make a contract with their source. That contract binds them to a particular set of laws and language, and in return they gain the ability to use the power for various spells; each type of source varies in that regard. This is why there are so many different kijutsudou styles."
Kaoru nodded; that did make sense, in a way. "And how did you break that contract?"
"Contracts with the insect population are somewhat fragile and unstable, and are vulnerable to certain curses. Jin'e had a contract with spiders, who are sensitive to extreme temperatures. I placed an ice-related curse on him, and it broke his contract with the spiders."
Again, it did make sense. Kaoru was fascinated, though rather disgusted by the thought that Jin'e had been in league with spiders. Suppressing a shudder, she wondered briefly what manner of being that Kenshin had a contract with, but decided against asking after it – he might see her as rude and prying if she did.
Instead, she asked, "Is there any sort of spell or curse that can keep someone from healing?"
Kenshin paled slightly and hesitated, and for a moment Kaoru thought she'd asked entirely the wrong question. "Yes, I suppose there are curses like that, but not many."
"Did... did he place one on you?"
Kenshin shook his head. "No, he didn't." Kaoru waited for him to explain further, but Kenshin didn't look like he was going to say more than that for now.
"Well, maybe you just overtired yourself," she said, hoping that he would correct her. "Genzai thinks that's what happened, at least."
Kenshin seemed to be avoiding her gaze as he nodded. "Perhaps."
He clearly wasn't in the mood to say more, and while Kaoru did understand that he might not want to talk about it, she couldn't help but feel a little hurt. Changing the subject, she began fixing the dressings on his shoulder, telling him that he was to be resting for the remainder of the day, and that he would eat every last bite of the meal she was going to bring him. Perhaps it was a trick of the eyes, but he almost seemed relieved that she hadn't pressed the matter further.
For now, at least, she would let him think just that.
.to be continued.
Eek, there were a lot more of you than I was expecting on the first chapter! -hides under rock- Good grief, this was supposed to be a really whimsical fic. Haha. Guess AU really is in vogue! ... And I've got stage fright. :x
I'm really sorry if this chapter was disappointing, especially after a long wait (hehe, does anyone even remember this story?). This is at least the third time I've had to come up with what was going to happen. I almost ended up making this a one-shot collection on the theme, but decided I'd left too many open ends in the first chapter to do so. Oops! So yes, plenty of canon elements to be had, but not necessarily in the same order.
Anyway, again, I'm really sorry this took me so long. I'm really not used to writing AU or fantasy at all, but plotting this has proven to be rather fun and I would like to keep going with it. However, I can't promise quicker updates, since I am... uh... really slow. Really. Haha.
Thanks again to everyone who left comments on the first chapter! I was both shocked and amused by many of the comments, especially since there was more than one question concerning Kenshin's lack of an actual sword. Well, now you have at least part of an answer, I hope. 8D More to come... eventually! Ack. -dives back under rock-
And as much as they frighten me sometimes, comments are always very much appreciated. :3