Disclaimer: It's over in Chapter 1. You probably clicked on it before you got to this point.
Dedication: This chapter actually has a dedication. To Juno.
.: Chapter 5 :.
.: Dangerous Assumptions :.
An out-of-place chink and crackling hiss of breaking logs sounded from the main room's fireplace, followed by an ear-shattering crack, as though a lightning bolt from the dwindling storm had detonated inside the room. The concussion threw Kaoru off her feet, and air ripped past, flinging debris that clawed at her hair and clothes. A breathless instant later, leathery darkness draped itself over her, and a lean form pressed her further into the floor as she felt arms wrapping around her waist. Kaoru managed a shaky breath, and inhaled an ashy scent touched by brimstone. A shattering crash above them heralded a lukewarm wave of liquor that splashed across them and the entire room, sliding off Kenshin wings and soaking into hers while coating everything with a layer of broken glass.
Several moments of silence followed the mayhem before Kenshin's grip on her eased, and the both shifted to look around at the new devastation. Splintered remains of chairs and tables littered the room. She stood carefully, keeping her wings as still as possible so the broken bits of glass glittering along the feathers would fall without working themselves towards her skin or get caught in the tines. Kenshin was sporting a scattered tracery of cuts from flying debris, most of which had already stopped bleeding. Sano looked around the wall, leaning in from where he'd taken shelter in the kitchen, and started cursing.
"Damn shinobi," he snarled. "Can't ever just bust a place up. Always have to get in an explosion. You two okay?"
Kaoru stared at him for a few seconds before she started to laugh. Kenshin gave her an odd look as he shifted himself off her and climbed to his feet. "Fine, Sano. Nothing that won't heal." He reached down, and wrapped taloned fingers around Kaoru's hands and pulled her upright. "Miss Kaoru?"
"Other than my home becoming a battlefield?" Kaoru asked dryly, as she gingerly spread first her right, then her left wing, wincing a bit as the abused muscled protested at being stretched. Glittery bits of glass fell along with a maelstrom of dark-banded feathers as she shook her wings lightly. Pale skin stretched over slender bones showed for an instant before the cloaking feathers reappeared. "I should have made sure the Hirumas left town."
"Not going to be a problem anymore, Missy," Sano said, drawing their attention to where he crouched beside Kihei, who lay sprawled amidst the generalized ruin of the room. Sano pulled his fingers from the man's throat and stood, dusting his hands across his trousers. "Someone better go check on the one we left in your carriage house, but he's probably already dead too. Looks like the Oniwabanshu don't take well to being lied to."
"What happened?" Kaoru gasped, crunching across the floor, and confirming that Kihei Hiruma was no longer among the living. Her hand shook slightly, just once, before her fingers curled into a fist and her other hand wrapped around to steady it further.
"One of the shinobi was carrying poison darts," Sano told her. "I figured they were just meant to knock someone out, but it looks like they had some for tying up loose ends."
"Something strong enough to knock one of us out could be strong enough to kill a human, Sano," Kenshin said from where he leaned against the bar. The undercurrent of exhaustion caught Kaoru's attention, and she refocused on him with a frown.
"You weren't really up to picking a fight with a bounty hunter tonight, Kenshin. Sano, can help you back upstairs while I go get the sheriff."
"You two are a pair, you know that?" Sano growled, rolling his eyes. "I'm always hauling his butt out of trouble." Sano stabbed a finger towards Kenshin, and Kenshin's eyes crossed to look at it. "And you'd think a cute little succubus like you, Missy, would know about the better part of valor. You're both going upstairs before you fall over." Sano told her, snagging her wrist as he walked by and dragging her over to Kenshin so he could grab the devil as well. Double protests and fidgeting struggles met his manhandling, but no defensive magic was summoned and Sano decided that proved his point: both of them were drained to the dregs, and it didn't look like Missy had any more sense of when to slow down than Kenshin did.
From long experience, Sano knew that Kenshin would keep going and pushing himself, damn any injury he might have gotten or the consequences, until he could physically go no further if he got it into his fool head that something needed protecting. It was one of the reasons they'd been partnered, even. Sanosuke had the sense for when to be strategically lazy.
He deposited both Kenshin and Kaoru at the foot of the stairs, and gave them a final once over. Kaoru blinked and flushed, having the grace to look embarrassed as she glanced towards Kenshin, who wiped away a trickle of blood from his forehead and just smiled. Sanosuke didn't return the sentiment. "Okay, Missy, which way does that doctor of yours live?"
"My goodness, Kaoru, do you intend to let an old man get any rest this night?" Genzai greeted, his usually cheerful demeanor frayed around the edges from the hour and the sudden appearance of a harried werekin on his doorstep demanding he return to the saloon. The bottom of a worn house coat thrown over a plain nightshirt peeked from beneath Genzai's overcoat.
Kaoru folded her hands in her lap, and bowed her head in apology. "It was Sano's idea to bring you back. I think he's worried about Kenshin trying to rescue me when he couldn't even hold a glamour. Are they all right?"
Genzai snorted. "One waved me off, and since he's been running around in the drizzling wet, I decided to take him at his word. The other refuses to let me see how much worse tonight's adventures have made his earlier injuries until I've seen to you."
Kaoru laughed until her breath caught with a pained hitch, and she pressed a hand to her side. Long fingers, wrinkled with age but still strong and sure pulled her hand away from her side, and probed the injury. "Cracked ribs, but not broken," Genzai said after a moment. "I can bind them up for you, and leave you something for the pain if you need it. Still, I'm no Healer, Kaoru, so you'll need to be careful until these heal up on their own." He shifted his attention to her wings, pushing aside the feathers to reveal the extent of the bruising that spread across Kaoru's back. "Add no flying or shape-shifting to that." Kaoru craned her neck so she could look at him over her shoulder, and he returned her look with a firm one of his own. "Three days, Kaoru. No adventures, no daring rescues."
"You make it sound like it's intentional," she said with a chuckle as Genzai's smoothed one of his salves over the worst of the bruising. It burned with an icy chill as it sank into abused skin and muscles, and Kaoru hissed.
Genzai grunted, as he wiped his hands clean and placed a jar of salve back into his medicine bag. "You'll do what you will, Kaoru, no doubt there, but devils have a reputation for bringing trouble. Something's chasing those young men."
"I know. And the last thing we need around here is more trouble, but …" Kaoru drew one of her feet up on the stool and wrapped her arms around her leg, "it's probably not Sano that's being chased, it's Kenshin. I know you're worried I'm going to finally acquire a stray that bites, but they didn't have to help Tae and me, and I don't think they have anywhere else to go." She uncurled herself and dropped to her feet. "Or maybe I'm just curious. Devils are legendary as it is, but I've never heard of one with a soul."
Genzai shook his head and opened her door to let himself out. "A sympathetic succubus, and a devil with a soul. Only you, Kamiya Kaoru, would even consider taking a creature like that into your home."
"No," she corrected, wearing a smile tinted with memories. "Dad would have."
Genzai shut the door behind him as he left, and Kaoru slid the tattered remains of her dress off her body. She scooped the bundle of yellow linen and formerly-white lace into her hands and sighed. Splotches from splattered liquor and tiny rips from both manhandling and flying glass savaged the fabric, leaving a sad-looking thing dangling from the tips of her claws. Kaoru finally folded the dress and dropped it into her empty mending basket. Tomorrow she'd see if it could be salvaged.
She pulled an indigo-edged robe from her clothes chest and drew it up over her shoulders, until the low cut of the back brushed the bottom of her pinions, and she could fasten the front clasp and wrap a sash around her waist to give it better form. She could see the mottling of widespread bruising spreading over her uncovered skin and feel it every time her arm, or even her fingers, moved. It was uncomfortable, but she'd heal. She coaxed a tendril of magic out, though, just enough to smooth away the markings at her throat while leaving the rest of her inhumanity on display.
Kaoru finished knotting the sash around her robe as she walked to the shuttered doors that opened onto a tiny balcony beneath the top gables of the building. She pushed the doors open, and leaned out into the rain-washed night. The moon – several days yet from being full - was setting, but visible through the thinning clouds.
It wasn't a good night for flying; the heavy wetness in the air would cling to her wings, and soak them through. Nights like this, she would stay near the fire with mending or a book, trusting the salamanders to catch stray sparks before they could catch on fabric or feathers.
The road spread before her, winding as a bit of paler darkness along the front of the saloon, illuminated by the moon and the dimmed lights shining from the windows. Tae had elected to stay for the night, probably for both security and on Genzai's orders in an attempt to keep the injured from getting into further mischief. Kaoru had picked up on his irritation with her, and no doubt Kenshin was receiving a lecture about bed rest.
How fast did devils heal? She wondered, leaning her head against the back of her hand. The legends her father had told her ran through her mind, overlaid with her old friend's concern, and the ragged exhaustion Kenshin had been fighting when he stood between her and the doppelganger.
He hadn't had to do that. By all rights he shouldn't have done that. It didn't exactly match up with beings so evil that one of their own had betrayed the others, and sealed them in the underworld. A large part of her wondered how much of those old stories were true, and how much was made up. She'd always assumed it was all made up: an attempt to give an equivalent boogeyman to people who could literally be boogeymen. Her father had told her the legends over campfires, and used them to keep a curious and winged child from straying too far into the dark Outland nights.
Now she had one of those legends made flesh and being tended by her family doctor, and a good-sized part of her wanted to believe she'd either misheard Kenshin, or that he'd been lying when he said "devil". Another part of her was being logical about the whole thing and pointing imperiously at his resistance to her magic, and his appearance after losing his glamour. Despite human belief, there weren't many demonic species that sported horns, and all of them felt like shadow.
Kenshin didn't. He resonated against her magic with something she hadn't felt before; not the living shadow of a Demon, or the ancient secrets of the Underhill she always felt around the Fae, or the wildness of the werekin, or the twilight spells of the humans whose souls touched magic, or even the echoed abilities of the Animates. He didn't even feel like the dragons with their dangerous mixture of elements and light. She didn't know what he was, and "devil" was the final reasonable answer, even if it was … improbable.
Kaoru shook her head and pushed away from the window. It didn't matter. She herself wasn't in any position to judge someone by the reputation of their race. All that mattered was that they needed help, and it was a start on repaying them for their help that night.
"You, look like someone who's thinking himself into something he shouldn't be." Kenshin heard a moment after he left his room. He turned and found Kaoru stepping out of the doorway that stood at the end of the hall. A riot of mottled bruises spread across the bare skin not covered by her robe or beneath the cloak of dark feathers, and she looked tired but her smile held amusement.
"Your wings are still out," he noted, wondering if this was normal for her, or if she kept them hidden like most succubi not amongst their own kind, or poised to strike.
She glanced over her shoulder at them, and shrugged the uninjured side. "I'm under strict orders to leave them alone until they heal. It's probably just as well, since it will take time for any new stock to arrive for the bar, and they're a bloody nuisance in tight spaces. What are you doing out of bed, Kenshin?"
"I could ask you the same thing, Miss Kaoru."
"You could," she smiled cheerfully, "or you could just answer my question." When he didn't answer she continued. "Because if you were thinking I'm going to toss you out anyway, and you might as well grab Sanosuke and break for it now, then I suggest you rethink that."
"Oro?" Kenshin blinked, suddenly deflating into wide eyes and harmlessness belied only by the gleam of candlelight on leathery wings and polished horns. "I wasn't … why do you say that, Miss Kaoru?" Kaoru glanced past him to darkness still clouding the windows at the other end of the hall and frowned. Then she waited, her entire posture declaring that she knew there was something important he was not telling her, and she expected him to impart it. The silent contest of wills continued until Kenshin finally shook his head. "Sanosuke and I should leave before even more trouble finds your home."
"Trouble and I are old acquaintances," Kaoru answered before tilting her head to one side in confusion as his face darkened. "And Kenshin, none of tonight was your fault. I'm the one that helped Tae and left loose ends behind me. That's why the Hirumas' showed up tonight. I didn't turn them in because proving magical enslavement is difficult. I think Saitou would have accepted anything I came up with, though, and maybe I should have come up with something." Kaoru took a breath and shook herself out of her speculations. "I wanted to thank you. Everything would have been much worse if you and Sanosuke hadn't helped us."
Kenshin was quiet for a moment before he spoke again. "Things will become worse than two scheming humans if we stay. The storm has lifted, so your obligation is over." Kenshin turned, speaking over his shoulder as he moved towards the stairs. "Sano should be downstairs with your sheriff. I'll just collect him and we'll be on our way. You cannot shelter us in your home."
Clawed fingers tangled in red hair, and reeled him back. Kenshin yelped and grabbed at his head.
"That would be up to me, now wouldn't it?" Her voice was light, but laced with a dangerous tone as he found himself being dragged backward through an open door. "I haven't asked you to leave, and you haven't slept since before I met you, unless you're counting the time you've spent unconscious. You should stay at least until you're feeling well enough to travel." The fingers tangled in his hair abruptly loosened and slipped free as soon as his legs collided with a bed. The sudden release threw him off balance enough that he sat, and found himself looking up at Kaoru, who stood near him with one hand on her hip and a few strands of his hair caught in her fingers. "Lie down and sleep the rest of the night," she said. "You owe Sanosuke at least that before forcing him back onto the road."
Kenshin's shoulders slumped and he seemed exasperated as he looked away. "I am a devil, Miss Kaoru. We are not like your kind, who only prey on the emotions of others. My race destroyed this world once."
"So that really happened?" she asked, curious. At Kenshin's puzzled look she shook her head. "I'm not asking a devil to stay, I'm asking Himura Kenshin. And if he happens to be a devil …well, people's pasts are their own and everyone has secrets. I don't mind those secrets, and I don't care what you are, Kenshin."
Kenshin sighed and allowed his head to drop forward. She could feel his emotions spinning with confusion, and surprise, a bit of wariness, and (so faint it had to be surfacing from the subconscious) a tendril of resigned aversion as he finally answered, "Succubi never do."
Kenshin kept his eyes lowered while his ears tracked the whisper of fabric as Kaoru moved closer. "When a man shows up looking like you and your partner did earlier tonight, he doesn't have anywhere else to go," Kaoru told him flatly, and the chill in her voice caused him to look up into eyes that glittered with a mesmerizing sort of heat. "That's why you're both welcome to stay, but we do have to get one thing clear." Kenshin hissed involuntarily as her hand descended on his chest, the edges of her blunted claws pressing into the skin above the rough warmth of her palms as she pressed him backward. His wings flared out of the way as his back rasped against the bedclothes beneath him. She settled on the mattress beside him and leaned across his body, with one hand resting on the mattress alongside his hip. She shifted forward, close enough for him to see the flecks of indigo in her blue eyes, as her breath ghosted across his lips and the caress of wild magic wrapped around him. "I'm not that kind of succubus."
Kenshin's eyes widened, the light purple caught more light from the shadowy glow of the candles, casting flecks of amber through them. A hint of fang flashed over her lip before Kaoru straightened and pulled away. The air around him cooled, chill with the sudden absence of her warmth, and Kenshin unclenched his fingers from where they'd twisted into his bedding.
He watched as Kaoru stood and crossed the room and opened the door, revealing a startled-looking Sano with a hand raised to knock. Sanosuke stepped aside so Kaoru could pass, answering her 'good night' with a mumble of his own. He waited until she disappeared down the hall before arching an eyebrow in Kenshin's direction. "How many times has that succubus been in your room tonight now?"
"Sano …" Kenshin dropped a hand over his eyes. "We are her guests. You should be polite, that you should."
"Who's being impolite?" Sanosuke answered with a snort and steeped fully into the room, leaving the door ajar behind him. "Missy's a succubus, and she's been in here a lot since you met her; I just wanted a count."
Kenshin levered himself up and rolled off the bed. Sano's grin didn't falter as his partner took several steps away from the bed he'd just been sprawled on and shifted to face him. "Well, Sano?"
"Well, their sheriff wasn't too thrilled being dragged out here in the middle of the night?" Sano offered. "Seriously, this place lives up to its reputation: it's a bunch of freaks and weirdoes. I've never seen a human lecture a werewolf like that doctor did the sheriff. He told him both you and the Missy were off limits until tomorrow, by the way, so you'll have until then, unless you've decided to keep going with the natural look."
Kenshin's wings curled a bit over her shoulders as he shook his head. "Miss Kaoru wasn't upset by my nature. I won't chance that her opinion is typical, even for Hill Hollow."
"Genzai and Tae know about it too," Sanosuke pointed out. "And they haven't exactly panicked. 'Course, that could be Kaoru's doing."
Kenshin shook his head. "Sano, she used a rifle instead of putting the human in Thrall and putting him up as a shield against that doppelganger. How much magic have you actually noticed her doing tonight?"
Sano thought for a moment before answering. "You're right. Every succubus or incubus we've ever run across has been bleeding magic into everything around them to keep control. It's damn hard to keep your head around one normally, but Missy hasn't tried anything. Unless …" Sano looked over at his partner and cocked a questioning eyebrow. "You never did answer my question, Kenshin."
"Miss Kaoru 's visits were only making sure we were well, and extending an invitation to stay if we wished," Kenshin said, herding his companion to the door. "But you are mistaking can't with won't, that you are."
"Eh?" Sano looked at his partner, looking confused as he crossed the threshold. "What do you mean by that?"
Kenshin's glare broke, overtaken by a suspiciously cheerful smile as he shook his head. "Good night, Sano."
The next morning, or mid-morning edging on towards afternoon if she were being perfectly honest, Kaoru pushed the door of Kenshin's room open and found the bedding neatly tucked around the mattress, and no devil in sight. Disappointed, she shook her head in resignation as she pushed away from the empty room.
"Tae!" she called, clattering down the stairs and bursting into the kitchen. "When did ..."
"Good morning, Miss Kaoru!" Kenshin said, standing in the doorway to the laundry room with a full basket in his arms. His cheerful smile looked at odds with the exhausted bounty hunter she'd half-carried up the stairs the night before, and Kaoru blinked speechlessly at the sight. With no doctor's orders to stop him, his horns and wings were now firmly hidden again, and it looked like Tae had raided Kaoru's trail clothes while the succubus herself slept. The basket in Kenshin's arms held a fluffy array of cloth and trailing sleeves.
"You're ... doing the laundry?" she hazarded, then a more astonishing fact dawned on her. "You're allowed in the kitchen?"
"He is, you still aren't," Tae informed her cheerfully, coming up behind Kaoru and tugging on one of her wings. Kaoru eeped and flicked her wing out of the selkie woman's light grasp. "Good morning, Kaoru. Now shoo, both of you. I've got people to feed that don't subsist on air."
"But …" Kaoru started, allowing herself to be ushered out of the room by Kenshin and his basket of clothing. "Wait … you're staying?"
Kenshin answered her with a nod as they emerged into the late morning sunlight. "For now. But bounty hunters attract trouble, Miss Kaoru, and our lifestyle usually means we don't stay in one place for long."
"They'll stay long enough to replace their clothes and equipment, I hope," Kaoru said. "And Hill Hollow's not the worst base for bounty hunting in the Outlands. Just don't let any of your catches go running into the uninhabited part of town."
"Oh, I'm sure you'll find out soon enough," she answered, taking the laundry basket from him and upending it into a foamy tub of water. "Don't go into the center of town."
.: Fin :.
Kat's Notes: And we are done, folks! EmeraldDragon has been the amazing and wonderful beta for this fic. LadyChi has been the cheerleader, especially when I wanted to just punt the computer out the window. And Enigma has been the silent cheerleader. I've also had a bunch of really wonderful reviewers and lurking readers (you know who you are. I still like you.) that were always so amazingly nice about the whole thing, even if this was weird. And now I'm going to ramble about stuff, and answer some questions that crop up frequently, so you can skip this part if you want to.
I have to admit that when my muses took a story prompt and then brought me the setting for this fic, I looked at them like they were crazy, and where had an idea like that even come from? The legends of the old west? And just for the heck of it, Kaoru would be a succubus, since that's about the farthest thing I could think of from her actual personality. Then the idea wouldn't go away, and I started writing it in an old notebook by my bed. The results were interesting, so I decided to write it out, and then just not post it. Then I posted it to my Livejournal, got embarrassed, and took it down less than a day later. By then Enigma came and asked "Where did it go? I liked it!" and Chi was telling me to just post it, and see what kind of a reaction I got. I was responding with "Chi, it's set in the Old West, and there are ... mythical critter things running all through it! No one writes Kenshin in the Old West! It's probably against some sort of rule." No one was more surprised than I was when the feedback I started getting was positive. (No one is a harsher critic of my stories than I am.)
I still think Kaoru was out of character, especially when she seduces Kenshin. I've had several people remark that she's not as girlishly naive as the manga/anime version of Kaoru. This is completely true. The Kaoru of Hill Hollow is older than her Tokyo counterpart. She has lived on her own for more than two years, and she's done it on the frontier of this world. She's also a succubus. How she choses to live is not typical for a succubus, but she still is one. I'm hoping the result is something like what manga Kaoru would have become if she'd had a few more years handling her own problems, determined to follow the teachings of her father, before Kenshin showed up to protect her.
Concerning the devils. It's a race, not an individual. Did they really destroy the world like Kenshin said? Yes. They were nasty pieces of work, but it was a very long time ago and they've been sealed since then. Well, most of them. The race as a whole has become somewhat mythical even to the other mythical creatures. Who sealed them? Well, it wasn't Kenshin, but I'll leave you to wonder as to who did. Hopefully, it won't be hard to figure out. I think it's kind of obvious.
Now for the question I'm sure will come up at some point: will I continue this story? Probably. This is a fun sandbox to build castles in. I'm deciding which direction I want to go next. Kenshin's past, what happened to land him and Sano a bloodied mess in Hill Hollow, the direct sequel to Sympathy, or some of the things happening later on. We'll see.
Right now, it's back to Blood Ties, and off to finish up the outline for a story called "The Moriarty Gambit" for NaNoWriMo. If you want to join me, then brush up on who Edogawa Conan and Kuroba Kaito are. Kaito is awesome, so you should meet him in any case.