AN: I'm close enough to finishing this one that I'm just going to post it for laughs and giggles. Actually, the only explanation I have for this one is that the muses wanted to experiment. Tiny edits made occasionally. If you see anything, let me know. I can do stealth edits to fix it.
Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin belongs to other people, and was created by Nobuhiro Watsuki. I'm just tormenting the characters for my own fiendish amusement.
Warnings: Supernatural elements. Magic. (I know that bothers some people.) Violence in later chapters.
.: Part 1 :.
.: Tempest :.
Don't go into the center of town.
Everyone in Hill Hollow lived with that rule, just like they lived with the pervasive scent of cedar and the whispers on the mountain wind. The outskirts, where everyone lived, was bustling in its own disjointed, roundabout way. The stage stopped there twice a week, just long enough to disgorge mail and the occasional passenger, before rattling back down the packed and rutted earth road towards truer civilization.
The regulars largely ignored those passing through, and the not-quite regulars that warranted ignoring. Bandits still roamed the untamed lands beyond the refracted warmth that glowed through the glass windows of the few buildings that could afford it.
Hill Hollow was a bunch of oddballs and misfits, with a well-placed outlaw or two. It was a place the bandits didn't bother with often, because there wasn't much to steal, and what there was wasn't worth the trouble of finding a new supply post that asked so few questions. Or worth the trouble you'd find once you'd returned to the wastes.
Strange things followed those who left dark debts with Hill Hollow. The superstitious whispered things like "curse" and "magic" around campfires and ranch hearths, while the practical said it was bad luck and self-fulfilling prophecy. The better informed said nothing at all. Sometimes they would name it, but rarely, for a name gave power to the thing; made it real and not a child's boogeyman to be banned with the flare of a candle or the dawn of new day.
Rain slanted down that night, whipped by the wind into stinging sheets of water and lit periodically by stark lightning. The candles lighting her common room flickered with every gust that found its way through the walls or around the windows, or was let in the door by someone entering, taking refuge from the storm.
Kaoru gave the glass in her hand a final buff with her rag before setting it on the shelf and pulling a bottle from beneath the bar. The liquor inside caught the light like red-hued honey, and she held it up to watch it sparkle. Through the thick glass, distorted and cast in the honey-glow color of the liquid, she could see almost a quarter of the people in town gathered in her hall. The saloon's common room was hall-full; providing refuge to the regular customers, and lesser-seen townsfolk who had been caught out by the rain.
Most of the later weren't buying steadily, but cozy-ed up with a single mulled drink or plate, hot from Tae's masterful hand in the kitchen. Kaoru didn't mind; she basked, enjoying the warm murmur of contentment surrounding her, comfortable as cream fluff melting above rich coffee.
The door blew open, letting in the gale, and sending everyone scrambling for handkerchiefs and petticoats, and ducking away from the wash of rain that lashed anyone close to the door. Lighting crashed, illuminating the storm-tossed world without in harsh white for a blinding instant, and silhouetting the ungainly figure hulking in the doorway.
Kaoru set the bottle she had been examining beneath the counter, and she felt a tense stretch through her hands as her normally human-like fingernails thickened and elongated into delicate claws. She relaxed somewhat when she realized that the hulking beast invading her saloon was not one figure, but two. Two men staggered in, one bent over with the other's arm slung across his shoulders and icy water sloughing off their long coats and dripped from the ends of their hair. Neither had spoken, but the water puddling below the smaller of the two was tinged an alarming shade of pale red.
Kaoru tossed her polishing cloth to the bar and vaulted over the use-worn wood, displacing a few people as they scattered to get out of her way. "Tae!" Kaoru paused long enough to lean through the door leading into the kitchen. "Come handle the bar! I have to go get Dr. Genzai!"
"On a devil's night like this?" Tae asked as she appeared, wiping her hands on her apron. "My land, Kaoru, what's going on out there?" Her eyes widened as she saw Kaoru dash forward and pull the red-head's free arm over her shoulder, taking some of the load from his companion.
The injured man hissed through his teeth at the movement, and the hand now clutching at her shoulder was stained with blood. Weariness and pain laced his amethyst eyes as he raised his hand to look at her. Kaoru smiled encouragingly and leached the smallest bit of Euphoria into him to remove the edge of the pain. The man's eyes widened as Kaoru's magic brushed against him, then drifted to a lazy half-mast and relaxed against the two holding him upright.
"Woah there, Kenshin," the taller man shifted and wrapped an arm around Kenshin's to steady him. "Missy, you sure you'll be alright?"
Kaoru nodded and started forward, forcing the other two to keep up, or be dragged behind. "We have rooms upstairs. If you two can make it that far, I'll be able to go get the doctor for him."
She didn't recognize the two, and a glance at her customers confirmed no one else did either: masks and glamors firmly in place all around. Possibly unnecessary, she thought. Her brush with the one called Kenshin told her he only appeared human.
"Just the room'll be fine," the other man said, slowing slightly as they started to climb the stairs to the next level. "If it doesn't kill Kenshin right off, it's probably not going to."
Kaoru looked over the thatch of red hair lolling between them, "Should I be worried about what tried tonight?"
"It shouldn't follow us, that it should not," Kenshin rasped, answering her as he visibly fought to shake off the clinging contentment Kaoru had imposed on him. "Sano and I trapped it in a gold mine. It won't find its way out easily, that it will not."
Kenshin lapsed back into silence, but he had fought off the majority of the Euphoria and his eyes now gleamed behind hair that was sodden and dark with water, but glimmering with scarlet highlights. Kaoru gave him an odd look as she paused and used her free hand to push a door open. Four other doors in the hallway stood ajar, indicating that no one was using them, while the remaining three were shut tight. Kaoru and Sano turned sideways to edge Kenshin through the open doorway, and she ducked out from under Kenshin's arm as soon as they had him over the threshold.
Kenshin leaned against Sano as Kaoru disappeared back out the door, returning seconds later with a lantern from the hall in her hand. She slipped past the two men, set the lantern on the wash table and fed it more wick to brighten the light.
"Let's get his coat off, Sano," Kaoru said, pointing to the dark leather that was still dripping fitfully on the floor, and moving forward to help. "Brace him, and I'll get it."
With a bit of manhandling, which Kenshin bore with good grace, Sano managed to hold Kenshin up while Kaoru slid his heavy coat from his shoulders, leaving him in a damp shirt and patched leather vest over heavy cotton trousers that were marginally drier than the coat, but still dark with water. Kaoru draped the coat over a chair, stretching it out as much as possible so it would dry, and sighed as she looked them both over. Kenshin was sitting on the bed, shivering in the slight chill of the room, while Sano's dark hair was only now starting to unstick from where the rain had plastered it to his head. "Sano, there's wood and kindling enough to start a fire," she gestured to the iron potbelly that squatted on the other side of the small room. "I'll find you both something drier to wear while I call for Dr. Genzai." She started towards the door again, and Sano followed, trying to head her off.
"Missy, that's probably not a good idea." Sano followed, trying to head her off. "We don't need a doctor that much. And Kenshin isn't exactly a normal patient ..."
"My name's Kaoru," Kaoru cut him off with a dismissing wave of one hand. "And ... well, Dr. Genzai is our doctor, and this is Hill Hollow." She smiled disarmingly, a mischievous, knowing, sparkle lighting her eyes. "You must have known that when you decided to come here."
Kaoru heard what may have been a subdued chuckle from the direction of the bed as she walked past Sano and out of the room, heading for the staircase again. Normal evening sounds drifted up from the main part of the saloon: people talking, mostly adults, but a few light child voices floated above the mix. Glasses clinked as they knocked together or were dropped onto trays for transport back to the kitchen, and the out-of-key piano played a jaunty tune from the old country to stave off the continuing drum of the outside rain.
Kaoru stepped off the bottom step just as an old, stout, figure was starting up them, his black medical bag clutched in one hand, and his hat in the other. He spotted Kaoru and stuffed the hat under his arm, so he could greet her with a handclasp. "Kaoru? I hear you have a patient for me."
"Doctor!" Kaoru blinked at the appearance of the man she had set out to find, then smiled in relief. "I was just coming to get you!"
"Yes, I know. Tae sent Tsubame for me so you wouldn't need to," Genzai explained, as Kaoru took his bag and hat from him so he could shed his overcoat as they both climbed the stairs. She traded them for his still-icy coat and lead the way to the room she had left Kenshin and Sano in as the doctor continued his explanation. "She stayed at the clinic to watch the girls while I came."
Kaoru nodded her understanding and directed Genzai up the stairs to the guest rooms before continuing on her way through the swinging kitchen door. She moved briskly, in accordance with the unstated law prohibited her from lurking in the kitchen, and never "helping", on pain of being banned entirely and forced to eat hard tack, or her own cooking. Tae enforced the edict ruthlessly. However, the laundry room lay beyond the kitchen, sharing the fire-warmth from the oven and range to boil wash water for clothes and people, and there Kaoru was allowed.
A tin tub squatted in one corner, tall enough to sit in with water up to your neck, if you pulled your knees in, and curtained by a maze of lines for hanging laundry when the weather was foul, or the bather wanted privacy. A door-less cabinet stood beside it, with folded stacks of linen and spare clothes.
Kaoru pulled a few towels off the shelf, and considered her small collection of spare clothes. Most of the clothing they kept on hand wasn't large enough to fit Sano, but Kaoru's foraging finally yielded a rough boatman's shirt abandoned in the depths of the bottom shelf and a pair of long underwear. Kenshin she gaged to be roughly her size. He'd fill her clothes out a bit differently than she did, but she had trousers and shirts cut to fit and finding something for him in her room wouldn't be difficult.
Dry clothing and linen in arms, Kaoru left the washroom and stuck her head in the saloon's main room as she passed to gage the state of her customers and staff. Tae looked up, questions in her eyes, and Kaoru smiled reassuringly, feeling nothing amiss more than a subdued wariness of the strangers waiting upstairs and a general sense of curiosity. A thread of wry amusement ribboned from Tae as Kaoru ducked out again and started back up the stairs.
Genzai was puttering around his patient when she entered, and motioned for her to close the door behind herself. Kenshin was sleeping, his face pale and smudges of exhaustion darkening the skin around his eyes. The final traces of her Euphoria clung to his mind and Kaoru had to force herself to ignore siren's call of his energy that swirled with the thrilling tint of magic at the edge of her senses. The last thing the man needed was to lose energy to a sudden craving.
"I sent the other one into the next room," Genzai told her, and she was certain he'd noted how Kaoru made a point to keep him between herself and her guest. "He wasn't doing much better at staying on his feet than this one."
Kaoru made a noncommital sound that turned into a snort as unfamiliar snoring echoed from the next room, and busied herself with setting the dry clothes on foot of the bed and piling the wet ones in a basket she extracted from a corner, while making a mental note to slip in and do the same in the room Sano had appropriated later. She noticed with some relief that either Sano or the doctor had helped Kenshin undress so the only thing soaking the bed was his scarlet hair.
The sharp click of Genzai closing his medical bag caught her attention and the old doctor straightened. "I've patched him up, Kaoru, so the physical wounds should heal cleanly." Genzai said, sitting back on his heels and pulling out a handkerchief to wipe away the sweat gathering on his face as the heat from the fire spread through the room. "However, I'd like your opinion on the energy drain. Something has fed on this young man to dangerous levels."
Kaoru's eyes widened and she held up her hands. "Not my doing!"
Genzai seemed amused with her denial. "I didn't say it was."
"But if you're offering ..." a weak voice interrupted from their patient. "I'm sure it would be more enjoyable than what did try to kill me, that it would."
Genzai turned, a disarming smile on his face. "Conscious already, eh? You're a hardy young fellow."
"Sano," Kenshin rasped, alarm and something predatory and dangerous lit his eyes, which were becoming less hazy by the instant, as he scanned for his companion. "Where is he?"
"In the next room," Kaoru answered, moving into his field of vision so he focused on her and not on Genzai. He had fought off the final dregs of her magic quickly, leaving only the cloaked mist of his own tantalizing her senses. She, however, had more tricks up her sleeves than Genzai if their foundlings turned out to be dangerous. "He snores like a troll."
Breathy laughter met her comment, and Kenshin sagged back into the pillow, closing his eyes. Biting her lip, Kaoru moved to stand beside the bed and placed her hand over Kenshin's heart. One of his eyes cracked open as he felt her hand against his skin and the tips of her claws trailing over his chest. Her eyes were closed, as though she were listening to something very faint.
"I'm amazed you're managing to hold a human form," Kaoru told him bluntly, when she pulled away. "But you'll survive. Is there anything special I should ask Tae to fix?" She allowed the unspoken acknowledgment of his nature to hang in the air until Kenshin responded with a slow, wary, shake of his head.
"You should probably wake him up every hour to make sure there aren't complications," Genzai said to Kaoru. "Here, hand me those other dry things. I'm going to check on the furry beast you have next door
Kaoru nodded and gathered the things up to hand to the doctor, foisting the wet laundry basket on him as well, with a cheerful request to drop it off in the kitchen before he left. Genzai gave her a grandfatherly smile and patted her dark hair. Kaoru batted him off and let him leave as she went to check on the stove radiating a subtle warmth through the room. The iron grate swung open, and a glittering pair of reptilian eyes blinked at her from the flames. A delicate set of claws emerged, and stretched languorously before curling around a branch of the log and the salamander yawned at her.
Closing the stove, and being amused at how quickly one of the fire salamanders had moved in, Kaoru followed Dr. Genzai's path to the door. The fire lizard would warm the room, contain the blaze, and likely retrieve more wood from the kitchen if it began to cool.
Kenshin watched her movements with heavy-lidded eyes that drifted shut the moment the door latched behind her.
Creatures and Words of Interest
By request, here's a glossary of sorts, in case you're not familiar with all the creatures I use. I may not be sticking fully to the textbook definition on some things. If I miss one, please let me know, and I'll do a stealth edit of the chapter. (I also tend to answer any questions posed to me. So feel free to ask.)
Euphoria - Magically inducing a brief increase in the endorphin and adrenalin levels of the victim. It can be addictive.
Succubus - A type of demon that feeds on emotion. Succubus is the term for the female only. The male of this species is called an incubus.Succubi can affect the emotions of their victims and are also shapeshifters.
Salamander - A semi-sentient fire elemental that takes the form of a flame-colored lizard.