Well, this story was written for Nekotsuki! I did my best to blend in a Rurouni who prefers not to kill against a man who fights against the threat the blood-mages and protects the innocent with killing if that is the only way left to him. Tossed in a little magic just to make it fun.
This is going to be a standalone for now, simply because I am not sure how I would develop it further. If I am bitten by a good second chapter, I will write it and post it, but I cannot make any promises!
I hope everyone likes it.
Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin.
Warning: Violence, death, and hints of torture.
Note: A big thank you to Nishatalitha for beta-reading my chapter!
The world was being washed away in a river of mud. The minute she had realized the danger, standing on the edge of the ravine and staring at the moving mountainside, every instruction she had been taught as a child to protect herself had flown away, replaced by panic. The river was pulling her in, drowning her, throwing her around as debris caught at her hair, her legs, anything it could. Her body bounced off something hard and she struggled to find a way to the surface, her lungs burning.
In hindsight, it was a good thing she hadn't had any air to lose, because when her body hit the tree she would have lost it all anyway gasping in pain as she felt something in her arm snap, even as she struggled to wrap her limbs around the wide trunk. Securing the slippery bark with her legs, she used her good arm to heave herself just far enough up that she could breathe through the muck on her face.
Pain was difficult to think through, but she managed to wiggle her way around the tree so that the flow wouldn't rip her away from the one measure of safety she had. Keeping her eyes shut, she sobbed into the bark as the heavy mudslide continued to flow around her. Testing her resolve, taunting her to let go and let it take away her pain. To give in. Tightening the hold her aching legs had, she clung to the tree with one-arm, terrified to let go. Terrified to die like this, for her father to never know what had happened to her.
The rains had started yesterday. It was why they had decided to go ahead and move, because this pass could be dangerous, and mudslides were common in this region. One day of rain had never done this to the mountain before. Clinging to that thought, Kaoru moved onto the next one. Someone had this done this on purpose. She had heard stories of mages that could delve into the secrets of the earth; she had just never expected to be involved in one of their games.
The soldiers had come to her village five days ago. They were there for the hostages the King had demanded from every village. Rumor also said he was also taking the children of royal blood whose families had not sworn to him. The King's hold on the throne was only tentative, and while some were desperate for peace, others were not. It was only a matter of time before the blood-mages attempted to assassinate the King.
It didn't matter that her small village was so far removed from the capital that it didn't care one way or the other, just that they were there and somehow, a possible threat. So she had gone, along with two others to be kept in the capital city as insurance. No one knew how long they would be held. The king had promised to look after their welfare and even offered jobs to those who wished one.
Except she was now half-buried in a mudslide. She didn't know if any of the others had survived. The mudslide felt unnatural. As she clung with weakening limbs, her face pressed against harsh bark, she struggled to breathe. If someone had caused the mudslide, once it slowed, she was going to have to try to run. Someone would want to make sure the job was finished. Her arm was either badly bruised or broken. Opening dirt-caked eyes, she looked up when the warm rain began. The clean water washed the mud out of her eyes even as it loosened her already precarious grip on the tree.
Looking around, she took in the damage around her and felt her heart sink. The mud was now moving slowly, but still dangerously thick, and waist deep. It was going to be dangerous to move without a rope to hold onto, but she was going to have to risk it. At the very least, she didn't have the strength to stay braced against the tree much longer. If the slide was unnatural whoever had sent it might be able to send another one; larger than the first or worse, come after her with swords and mage fire.
She was no mage and she was hardly what a full-grown man would consider a threat even with both arms working. Her best skill was unarming her opponent, not killing. Her father had never wished her to learn that talent and she had never been in a situation that required her to kill. Tossing a prayer to any of the gods that might be listening, she slowly slid down the tree. The mud did come to her waist, but the mage-enhanced tug was no longer pulling her under.
It was a slow, bruising trip to the edge of the slide. The mudslide was slow and debris kept hitting her legs so that she kept stumbling. She counted her blessings that she hadn't rolled a knee or ankle. The rain was made it difficult to move and with a sobbing growl that she stumbled into the shallow, slick area and fell into a tree, grabbing onto it desperately. To her left someone groaned as they moved. Twisting against the tree, not willing to let go in fear that she would fall down, she looked around. A burning hope that she wasn't alone had her frantically scanning the area for signs of life.
There! The figure was a bit blurry as she blinked grit out of her eyes, but it was a human shape. The man, she was the only girl on the trip, was heading in her direction as if he knew exactly where she was. Tears blurred her vision, and she had to blink past them. If she gave into her hysterics now, she would be a blundering mess when the other survivor arrived.
Maybe he knew if someone else was alive.
When he was close enough, she let go of the tree and tried out her shaking legs, biting her lip at the pain as her arm moved against her side. She was shaking now, and she struggled to control the reaction. Looking over at him, she realized he was one of the soldiers on the trip, the smaller one who had kept to himself. He was as filthy as she was, mud-coated hair nearly as long as hers, but his eyes were sharp as he took her in.
"How badly are you hurt?"
"I think my arm is broken." She tried to sound brave, but her words came out wobbly and she had to swallow. "Everything else is just bruised." Bruised with bone-deep aches, but she was alive and that was what mattered.
His jaw tightened as his eyes dropped to her arm. "We have to find shelter before I can tend to that."
Kaoru looked up at his face. His jaw was tense and there were signs of strain around his mouth and eyes she hadn't noticed before. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she looked around and tried to figure out exactly where they were; how far the mudslide had carried them. Her body was shivering, and it sent little shockwaves of pain down her arm each time her body shook. A warm palm settled against the base of her spine and some of that aching, growing cold faded. It was easier to breathe.
"We need to move away from this area. Do I need to carry you?"
Her eyes swung back to his body. He had to be hurting as well and yet he wanted to carry her? That would limit his ability to fight and right now, she wouldn't be able to do anything. She shook her head, denying his question. When he didn't move she tried again, this time with her voice.
"I will walk."
He stayed still for a moment before nodding. "I lost my horse and saddlebags."
"Everything I had was in the wagon." She bit her lip. "Do you think anyone else is alive?"
"I don't know." His voice was quiet. "If they are alive, they will have to make it on their own. We need to get out of the rain and there could be more slides. In the morning we will double back to see if we can find any of the supplies. Without horses, we are going to have to make it to the next town on foot. You need to see a doctor." He started to move before he finished his sentence, and Kaoru followed trying to ignore the pain.
"The mudslide wasn't natural."
He stopped and she swallowed. He didn't turn, just continued to stand there for a long moment before moving again. "I know."
So he did think they were being hunted. Deciding to save her strength for walking, Kaoru didn't bother to ask any more questions, just ducked her head and kept an eye on the back of his legs. It was hard to judge time with the heavy cloud covering, but it was almost full dark when he finally stopped, tilting his head at the hillside and nodding.
He had found a cave. Kaoru felt tears brim in the corner of her eyes and she swallowed painfully. Her rain gear was filthy and had long tears in it, and the mud had worked its way under her clothing, sliding down her legs and arms as the rain continued to soak her.
The cave was damp and musty, unused for a long time, but it was better than nothing.
"I need to look at your arm."
Closing her eyes for a moment, she nodded, sitting down so that she didn't disgrace herself and fall down. She was thankful she was mostly numb, but because she didn't have any other clothes so they couldn't risk cutting the sleeves off of what she did have.
She was sweating and shaking by the time she had freed her arm from the heavy rain gear, spots dancing behind her eyes as she breathed deeply. She was thankful she had nothing in her stomach to lose with the heavy nausea that had risen into her throat. He was kind enough to let her get her bearings before he started to carefully roll her sleeve up past her elbow, but her entire body was shaking by the time he was done.
"It's a clean break, but I still have to set it." He said finally. "I have to find something to hold it in place."
Kaoru reached out with her free hand and caught the hem of his own torn jacket. "Please," she whispered. "Before… can I have your name?"
Light eyes flickered at her. "Kenshin."
Closing her eyes, she let go of his jacket. Kenshin. Keeping her eyes closed didn't stop the pain. In some ways, it made it worse by giving her nothing else to concentrate on, but it kept her from thinking of the men they had left behind. The soldiers in the wagon taking their break would have had little chance to escape and probably suffocated. The men on the horses might have made it if they had been able to untangle themselves from the saddles before the horses rolled. If they hadn't…
The sounds of Kenshin re-entering the cave had her eyes opening. He was carrying two sticks in his hand, his expression still set in those tense lines that told her he was concerned about them being followed. Licking her lips, she tired to mentally brace herself for what was going to happen.
Sitting down next to her, he was silent as he murmured something under his breath. Behind her eyes she thought something had sparked and she frowned at him. "You're a mage?"
"My gift is small." He told her. "I can do little for a bone break. The most we can hope for is that I will align it correctly."
Kaoru licked her dry lips. "I trust you."
He looked up at her then, surprise in his eyes that was quickly snuffed out by acceptance. "This is going to hurt." He told her as he pulled a knife from his boot and sliced a good amount of cloth from the bottom of his rain slicker.
"Mine's already torn," she pointed out from numb lips.
"I can control my body temperature enough that I won't freeze or catch a cold. You will." He sighed. "There isn't enough dry wood to build a fire and I can't risk the magic to keep us both warm."
Kaoru translated that into he couldn't risk it now if he would need it later if they were attacked. Taking a deep breath, she turned and looked at the opposite wall, silently giving him permission.
"I'm sorry," he murmured just before his hands moved. There was sickening noise as her bone went back into place and then her vision went white.
When Kaoru came to she felt sick. The memory of her bone being wrenched back into place and the way it had echoed into her scalp along a white wave of agony kept replaying in her mind. Taking a deep shuddering breath, she opened her eyes. Kenshin must have moved them deeper into the cave; she couldn't hear the sounds of the forest or the storm. When she moved, to her shock, the surface she had been leaned against moved as well.
"How do you feel?" Kenshin's voice sounded funny with her ear against his chest, but it was a distraction. Taking another deep breath, she realized the nausea was fading. Her arm still hurt, but strangely enough, it felt better.
"Better," she tried, thankful when her lips got the word past. "How long…"
"A few hours. You needed the rest."
She wondered if he had slept at all. She didn't say anything, and neither did he. Instead she closed her eyes again, knowing that if she needed the rest if they were going to be moving on foot tomorrow.
She must have dozed off, because she when she woke again it was to Kenshin moving. Sitting up to let him move, she blinked several times and winced at the pain in her arm.
"I'll make you a sling as soon as I can," he promised as he helped her stand. "It's still an hour before dawn, but we need to move back to the site before its true light."
Nodding, she was so stiff that her neck muscles cracked with the motion, she kept her good hand fisted in his clothing and let him lead her slowly back towards the mouth of the cave. Eventually her muscles loosened enough where it didn't feel like constant agony with each step, but the minor cuts and bruises stung and burned in turn.
To her relief, it had stopped raining. It would be touch and go for the next few weeks before the big rains came in, and then travel would be impossible. Looking over at Kenshin, she wondered what he was thinking. Was he concerned about his comrades?
"Do you know the way back?" She asked him softly.
He tilted his head down to look at her. His eyes, in the half-light of false dawn, looked bruised. "I know the way."
There was something about his tone. "You don't want to go back."
"Its dangerous, but we will need any supplies not contaminated by the mud." His voice was matter of fact. "We cannot go back to your village."
She agreed with him there. "No, we cannot. The King would assume we were trying to break our contract." She bit her lip and tasted dirt. "Someone tried to kill us."
"Yes. You were lucky.'
Instead of answering, he moved forward down the cliff.
The trip back to the slide was easier in some ways. In others, it was just as difficult. Pain shot up her arm wtih every step, but as long as she didn't move too quickly or stumble, it was bearable. It helped to count her breaths or the sounds of Kenshin's footsteps. Sill, if fet like her arm was hurting less than yesterday. Or maybe she was just thinking clearer today and was able to push the pain to the back of her mind. She looked up when Kenshin stopped, looking around at the area. It wasn't until she saw the wagon sitting in the middle of grass that she realized the mud was gone; her world spun. When she was aware again, she was sitting on the ground, her head between her knees, and Kenshin crouched beside her, hand between her shoulder blades.
Taking deep, shuddering breaths, she finally looked up. "The mud is gone."
He was silent for a long time and then he sighed, his face tired. "If anyone survived besides us, Kaoru, it's doubtful that they outran the mages."
She felt her mouth tremble and pressed her lips together before she could start to cry. When she got a hold of herself, her words were shaky. "That's why you didn't use your magic last night. You were hiding us."
"I wasn't sure I did a good enough job. As it is, they know we are out here. We won't be able to use any of the goods in the wagon, but we might be able to find a saddle bag that the mages didn't curse." His tone was tired.
He was hitting the end of his own reserves. Nodding, she shoved her emotions down. She could break down later. "Okay. What do I look for?"
His eyes were violet in sunshine, and the looked down at her for several heartbeats before he nodded. "The area around them should be disturbed. Look for something that shouldn't be there. If you think it isn't cursed, mark the place and come for me. Don't touch anything without having it cleared. It's likely they wouldn't have bothered with a tracking spell; if it's cursed its going to be a death spell."
Wondering if she had enough strength, she stood and nodded. "Okay."
In the end, they managed to find a single saddle bag, half-buried in shifted debris that hadn't been part of the spell. Kaoru hadn't found it, the two she found had been spelled, and she wondered as she dug through the contents, how Kenshin had seen it. There had been a blanket, which Kenshin had folded and set carefully on the ground, and two days worth of trail food. She didn't ask him how the food had survived, and he didn't offer the information. Once they had finished taking what they could from the bag, Kenshin had done something with the straps and a strip of the wool blanket, securing her arm in a makeshift sling. The rest of the blanket was twisted carefully into a strange sort of pack to carry the food.
There were no bodies. She had to lock her teeth to keep from dry heaving at the thought. Both human and animal had disappeared completely, like they had never existed. By the time the next rainstorm came through, this area would be clean of any signs of the spell.
"We can't follow the road."
Kaoru looked at what was left of the path upwards. "I don't think I could walk up there anyway."
A ghost of a smile curved his lips and was gone. "It will be slower, but safer if we stick to the woods. They know some of us escaped and they'll be watching the roads. We need to get a few hours head start, there going to realize we are on the move soon enough. When that happens they are going to send the trackers."
"The nearest village is several days ride away," Kaoru said in a worried tone.
"I'm going to have to ask that you trust me," he said finally, "with more than just your arm."
"I don't really see what choice I have otherwise," she replied, just as honestly. "You haven't done anything to show me I can't trust you."
He nodded, moving forward.
"You know," Kaoru huffed after him as she moved. "I could ask that you trust me as well."
He turned to lift a brow at her, but didn't stop.
"It's only fair," she pointed out. "We're being chased by mages, or will be. I have a broken arm. You're the only one who is armed… sort of, anyway. A little trust would be nice on my end." He didn't say anything and she sighed, shifting her arm in her sling to make it a little more comfortable, and then trudged after him.
The day was hot. For all that it had been cold the night before; she was sweating when he finally decided to stop. She was grateful to see that she wasn't the only one who was gray with exhaustion.
"You're using magic again." Kaoru accused as she leaned against the tree, her eyes closed so she didn't have to see his expression. "Why?"
When she opened her eyes, his mouth was set into a thin line.
"Look," she said in a firm tone. "You're exhausted." Scanning his figure again, she checked him over for wounds. He wasn't bleeding or hurt anywhere else that she could tell. "Did they already set those runners on us?"
"Then what is going on!" She hated feeling helpless and there was nothing she could do. Her voice rose at the last note and she clenched her good first. "Please, I would like to know what I am getting myself into."
His eyes were much lighter now than they had been this morning, but he answered her question. His voice was low and there were long pauses between each word. "Someone has been killing the King's hostages."
Kaoru flinched to hear herself referred to in that tone, but she said nothing.
"It weakens the King's position. I was sent to find the people responsible and protect the group as we traveled." His mouth twisted into a faintly bitter smile. "They were expecting me."
Kaoru blinked rapidly. "What?"
"I took precautions. My clothing, saddle, anything that could hold up to the stitches were inlaid with spells for protection." His eyes were grim. "They almost weren't enough in the slide. When I told you that you were lucky, you have no idea how truthful that statement is. I couldn't protect anyone else, not with the mage power coming right on my head. I didn't expect anyone to survive."
Her eyes widened. "That's why you bound my arm in your jacket instead of mine, for the protection spells in the fabric."
She didn't know what else to say, so she didn't.
"Unfortunately, I couldn't shake all the spells. What they hit me with was enough to slow me down. I managed to sweat most of it out last night, but it makes the use of magic… interesting."
She bit her lip, feeling sick to her stomach.
"We must report to the King," he reminded her gently. "It will not be easy, but if we work together, we might manage."
"But we are heading away from the village." Kaoru reminded him in a low whisper.
"There is a temporary gate, several days walk away in this forest. I can find it if I get close enough. It will take us a safe city."
"Do the mages know about it?" Kaoru asked.
"I don't know."
"How do you plan on getting us there? You're fighting a spell, I have a broken arm." She licked her lips. "Do you think we can make it?"
"We don't have a choice."
Kaoru sucked on her bottom lip nervously. He had closed his eyes and was breathing deeply. He might have been able to make it if he didn't have her to worry about. Maybe. But it wouldn't do her any good to worry about that now. They were stuck with each other and he needed help almost as badly as she did. Looking around, she tried to pinpoint exactly where she was.
To her surprise, the forested area looked familiar. Frowning, she tried to remember why. She bit her lower lip, an idea wiggling in the back her mind; she felt her breath catch in her throat as she realized exactly where they were. She stood up. His eyes opened. Almost all the violet was gone now, replaced by those pale streaks of sunlight.
"How long will it take you to finish sweating out that spell?"
Violet eyes took her in. "Why?"
"I have an idea. But you're going to have to trust me."
"This," Kaoru huffed as she dug her nails into the dirt of the hill and heaved herself up, trying her best not to collapse. "Is not your best idea, and the fact that he agreed to it says how crazy he is."
He needed the rest. They both knew he wouldn't be able to keep the mages off them forever, and they needed something other than their own legs to carry them if they were going to make it. She supposed the only reason he finally gave in was because he didn't expect her to find anything in the woods. Thankfully, he didn't know the land like she did, even if all she had to go on was a few studied maps.
Still, her plan wasn't brilliant by any means.
Kaoru's village was two days ride from where the mudslide had hit them. Even though she didn't know the area that she was walking through, she remembered overhearing a few conversations from some men of a few families who lived out in this direction. Even though she didn't know where it was that they lived, there were rules that everyone had to follow to live in the forest: water, location of easy shelter from mudslides, and enough trees to hide from the wind.
If she could find one, she might be able to barter for a horse. Preferably the docile, broken type of horse that would carry the weight of two small riders with a little less temper than another one; Kenshin had given her until sunset to find them, and then she had promised to come back. It was all the time they could spare. It was going to be tricky, because she had nothing on her, but she knew if she could get them to trust her, then her clan would pay what she needed.
Except the further she traveled, the worse the terrain had become and the more her aches and pains, mostly in her arm, had left themselves be known. She had maybe another three hours of daylight and she hadn't even found a footprint. Forcing herself not to give up, she dug into the landscape and pulled herself up another hill.
What she saw when she reached the top had her breath catching in her throat. There were three of four mud brick huts in front of her, with carefully lined thatch houses. There was a pot on a cold fire, and as she made her way as silently as she could into the little clearing, she checked the houses.
There was no one there. Shuddering, because she had the feeling she didn't want to know what had happened, she looked around and found another structure that might have been a stable. The animals inside turned when she opened the door. Her knees gave out with relief and she sat down hard, her bones popping loudly.
Horses. It took a while to find a saddle light enough that she could drag it one armed. It took even longer to soothe the horse that seemed to be the most willing to carry them.
The mare was old enough to know who brought in the food, and docile enough that Kaoru wouldn't have to worry about her wandering off. She almost passed out twice trying to get the saddle onto the horse's back. When she was done, her face was wet with tears and she was shaking so hard she had to sit down. Unfortunately, the mare was too tall for her to get the saddle on one handed and she had to use her bad arm for awkward leverage. After sitting on the ground, breathing deeply, she managed to get herself under control. The last thing she did before clumsily climbing onto the back of the mare, was to open the stall door so the animals could leave.
It was all she could do for them.
Mounting was hard. But she managed, tears blurring her eyes, and even managed to point her towards the thin path that led near where Kenshin was. Leaning over the neck of the horse, she concentrated on not falling off the horse.
Kenshin had his color back when she made it back to the general area she had left him in. He had to have come looking for her. By then her arm was hurting enough that she licked blood from her lip every time she bit down.
"You have a terrible sense of direction." Kenshin told her softly, his eyes concerned.
"I knew exactly where I was going," she shot back, refusing to admit how the ache in her arm was moving up her neck and settling in her jaw. She probably should stop clenching her teeth.
His mouth twitched. "You're lucky that we can stay here tonight." She wondered if that was a hint that they really weren't safe anywhere. Still, riding horseback at night was dangerous. Closing her eyes, she let him pull her down from the saddle.
"How badly did you hurt your arm?"
"I banged it once or twice," Kaoru admitted, letting his body support her for a moment before pushing the weakness down and leaning away. "I'll be all right." Tilting her head to the side, she sniffed. "Is that smoke?"
"The mages won't be hunting for us tonight." His voice was soft.
Kaoru blinked at him. "Why?"
"After dinner," he said firmly. "While you were gone I set some traps." Her stomach rumbled loudly and she flushed, moving away from Kenshin to find the warmth of the fire. She hadn't known how cold she was until she leaned against Kenshin's body heat.
"I have something I need to tell you about as well." She told him as she walked in front of him, letting him guide the mare.
"I was afraid you would."
It turned out Kenshin had done more than set traps. Where he had gotten the gear for making traps, she didn't know, but she wasn't complaining. He had caught a few quail and they were already roasting over the fire. She pressed her good hand to her rumbling stomach and sighed. He tied the mare loosely against a tree and came over to check the roasting birds.
"What did you find?"
Kaoru told him softly, not looking at him, choosing to study the fire instead. He was silent for a long time.
"They were probably killed so the mages could create the mudslide, Kaoru. There was nothing you could have done." His tone was gentle and she looked away, disconcerted that he had read her so easily.
"I'm not a mage." She pointed out roughly. Shaking herself, she looked back up him and wondered if she wasn't the only one who regretted those deaths.
"No," he said, his brows tucking together as his eyes came back to hers. "You're not. I can't find any sign of mage fire in you, yet you managed to survive the mudslide."
Kaoru knew a question when she heard one. "I hit several trees." She reminded him. "You saw the bruises. I feel the bruises. When I hit the last one I just grabbed on for dear life."
His expression smoothed a little. "I wasn't aware you were that close to the ravine when the slide started."
Kaoru sighed. "I was stretching my legs. The boys had me in the wagon all day and my backside was sore."
"Did you know them well?"
She shook her head. "Not really. I knew them; our village is too small not to have, but we were several years apart. What about you?" She pressed as he turned the sticks. "Did you know the other soldiers?"
He shook his head and twisted around; pulling a flat tin plate out of the sack of goods he had been carrying around all day, he took one bird off the fire and used his knife to slice the meat onto the plate.
"No. Most men choose not to become close to mages. We are dangerous." There might have been some mild warning his tone, but she couldn't say for sure.
"You said that the mages won't be hunting us tonight." He was silent for a long time and Kaoru watched him carefully pick the bones clean, tossing the remains back into the fire.
"Last night they spent a great deal of energy hunting us." He said as he stood and placed the plate in front of her. "They are blood-mages. If any of our companions were taken alive last night, they will not be so for long. Once they refresh themselves, they will start the hunt again."
Picking up one of the pieces, she watched as Kenshin picked up the other quail and started to pull bite size pieces off with his knife, blowing softly before eating. They were both to hungry to wait for it too cool enough to eat, although hers wasn't as hot as it would have been if she had eaten it straight from the stick like Kenshin.
She supposed she could understand why he was taking the time to make sure they were rested and fed tonight. They could try to put as much distance between them and the mages tonight as possible, but by the time the mages caught up with them, they would be exhausted. The quail was delicious. Kaoru didn't know if that was because she hadn't really eaten in two days or because it was actually good…
"Where did you learn to cook?"
His eyes darkened up in surprise. He took his time before answering. "Mages don't marry often, so we are taught to survive on our own."
Licking a finger tip, she blinked. "But don't most mages spend their time in the castle?"
The edges of his mouth kicked up. "Some. It is not a lifestyle I would have chosen and the school I was sent to assumed it would not be a lifestyle I would choose."
Kaoru nodded thoughtfully. She could see the wisdom in teaching them to survive in the wild. "That doesn't automatically make you a good cook though," she pointed out before she could censor the comment.
This time it was a real smile that graced his mouth. "No, I suppose not." Some thought flickered through his eyes. It could have been the firelight, but she liked to think that it wasn't. "I like to cook."
She wrinkled her nose, picking up the last of the quail mournfully before popping it into her mouth. "I hate it."
A chuckle rumbled between them. "Is that so?" The amusement disappeared and he tilted his head to the side in question. "Why are you a hostage, Kaoru?"
She blinked, pausing where she had been licking her fingers clean. "What do you mean?"
There was a pause as if he was choosing his words carefully. "Most of the villages do not send their women."
"Oh." Shrugging, she pondered the plate. Maybe she could find a way to wash it? "I volunteered."
When she looked back up his expression was lax with surprise. She sighed. He didn't understand either. Frowning, she ran her fingers through her bangs, wincing as bits of dirt dusted down.
"We're a small village." Kaoru told him quietly. "Too many of our men are old now. Too many young killed in the war. If I hadn't volunteered they would have had to split a married pair up."
"So you thought it would best if you went." His tone held a soft edge she hadn't heard from him before.
"I know it was," she replied. She tilted her chin and then sighed. "Besides," her mouth quirked, "cooking isn't the only female duty I don't care for, and I better serve my village here than at home."
"I need to put the fire out." Kenshin said as he stood, tossing the carcass of his bird and the stick back onto the fire. "The mages might not be hunting us, but the fire will attract other things blood magic draws into the area."
"It's probably going to be warmer if we share body heat again." Kenshin said without looking at her.
She nodded in agreement. It would be warmer, and if he braced her up, she would keep from rolling onto her hurt arm. Besides, it wasn't like something small like drool was going to be embarrassing at this point. She smelled like sweat and river mud, and he had seen her faint. There were worse things than resting against something warm and male for the night.
They ended up in a hollow between two trees. Kaoru wasn't certain that it was comfortable for Kenshin, but once she got her arm wrapped around his waist and snuggled into his side, she was surprised at how comfortable he was. His fingers brushed the sling.
"Does this still hurt?"
"I'm trying to ignore it, thank you for bringing it up."
His body vibrated with faint laughter. Instead of moving his hand away, he pressed his hand a little firmer against her. Instead of pain, something warm settled into the muscle and bone and the worst of the discomfort eased.
"I thought you weren't supposed to be doing magic."
"Pain relief is small magic." The rough edge of his voice made him into a liar. "Go to sleep."
Surprisingly, it didn't take her long to do as he bid.
"I thought you were going to relax."
"This horse is from hell."
Her voice was tight with ignored pain. The first problem they had discovered was the saddle. Kaoru had been forced to pick it because it was the lightest and the only one she could heave one handed. Unfortunately, the reason it was lighter was because it wasn't a true saddle, well, not in the sense that they knew it as. The only good thing that Kaoru could figure out was that the pommel was missing, which allowed her to scoot up further onto the horse's shoulders, which did make the ride less bumpy. If anything could less bumpy. Still, Kaoru had been blessing every god she could think of that she and Kenshin were both small, because while the horse was necessary, it was an uncomfortable trip.
At least Kenshin had decided that the canter from that morning wasn't necessary anymore. She had done her best to hide the pain the necessary speed had jarred through her body. It hadn't worked. Once they had slowed he had quietly asked to see her arm, but she refused. He needed all the mage power he could pull to himself if they were truly being hunted. Her arm hurt, but she could survive a broken bone. Kaoru wasn't entire sure if she could survive a direct hit from a curse or spell.
His breath ghosted down her neck. "If you would…"
"No." Kaoru closed her eyes at the sick feeling in her stomach and then opened them stubbornly. "There's this little thing called 'the mages hunting us'. My arm will be fine." To prove her point, she leaned against his chest, forcing her body to relax. Ignoring the way the unclenching of her muscles allowed the nausea to jump to the front of her mind; Kenshin's arm was the only thing holding her onto the horse.
She knew he was frustrated. She was frustrated. This entire trip had been one frustration after another mingled with painful decisions. They hadn't even been able to sleep till dawn, Kenshin waking her while it was still dark. For some reason, waking up pressed against Kenshin had been different. Maybe it was that she was starting to see glimpses of the man behind his calm demeanor, but the temptation to turn her face into his shoulder and ignore his soft voice telling her it was time to go had been startling.
"You're such a stubborn little thing," he said finally, adjusting the hold on her waist. "So, if you won't let me take the pain away, what do you want?"
The message was clear. They couldn't get off the horse because even at the pace the horse was setting, it was faster than walking and they needed to eat up miles. The offer still surprised her.
"Talk to me."
She could feel his surprise, the way his muscles shifted under his skin.
"What do you want to know?" There was hesitation there. Closing her eyes, she thought about it. What did she want to know? Opening her eyes, she looked down at his left hand. Licking dry lips, she reached down with her good hand and tugged lightly. The reins fell from his hands obediently, his body tense behind her spine, and she turned his hand over to study network of veins, an image wavered into existence.
So she hadn't been imagining it last night in the firelight. It was different from the one she remembered seeing once or twice as a child. Instead of an odd swirl that had reminded her childish mind of the wind, rippling across skin, this one was hotter. It almost seemed seared into his skin and her eyes watered after looking at it.
"What is this?"
His breath was ghosting over her shoulder. Tearing her eyes away from his skin, where she had pressed two fingers just under the mark, she looked at him from her peripheral vision. Strands of his bright hair fell over her shoulder, startling her.
"You have mage blood."
Licking her bottom lip again, her mouth suddenly dry, she nodded. "My mother," it was suddenly hard to breathe. For several breaths, it was like he had stripped away all his shields and focused that intensity on her. She was afraid to close her eyes.
Then it was gone, and the relaxed, calm man was sitting behind her again.
"It's a spell mark. Only those with the mage gift or sometimes, individuals born into mage families, are able to see them." His fingers curled a little but then relaxed.
"What does it do?" She was pressing her limits, she knew that, but if he was going to let her get away with it, she was going to push it.
"It's a mark that shows what school of magic I graduated from and my specialty." His tone was light, but the impression that she wasn't to dig any deeper was noted.
"My mother's mark wasn't like this one."
"It wouldn't have been," Kenshin replied. "My school is many leagues from here and doesn't accept many women."
She let his wrist go.
"Kaoru… have you seen any of these besides mine?"
"No," she replied. "I have only met one other person who claimed to be a mage, and he kept his wrist covered."
His breath slid down her neck as he sighed. "The second purpose for the mark is to show that I am not a blood-mage. It is the only way to tell without finding the mage in the middle of a bloodbath."
"Because once you give into that way of life, the spell mark fades."
She nodded. That made sense. She made no move to stop him as he freed his wrist from the press of her fingers, taking the reigns in both hand again. Closing her eyes, she let her head rest on his collarbones and tried to relax. The distraction of the conversation gave her something to think about, but eventually that didn't do her any good either.
"We are going to have to canter again," Kenshin's voice was apologetic as his weight shifted, sending the horse into a faster gait. Squeezing her eyes shut, she counted each jarring motion. Her knuckles went white as she twisted what was left of the ends of her shirt between her fingers.
Abruptly the horse dropped back into a walk.
"Don't even say it." She whispered. She refused to be coddled. They had to survive. Survival didn't always mean escape from pain.
"Do you trust me?"
Tired, she rolled her head back onto his shoulder and considered the set of his jaw. It was tense, but it wasn't locked so hard the muscles were jumping under his skin.
"Haven't I already answered this question?" To her embarrassment, she sounded irritated.
"I have an idea. If it works, it will help with the pain. But you will need to trust me completely." His voice didn't change. Either he didn't care that she had sounded like a bratty three year old, or he was very understanding.
"Are you going to use magic?"
"Okay, then." She could do this. "What are you going to do?"
"It's just a simple meditation," Kenshin told her, shifting a little behind her. "You're going to have to relax." This time his voice held a hint of laughter. Closing her eyes, she forced each muscle to relax. The hard line of his chest and stomach rested against her spine and he settled a hand just below her navel to hold her in place. Warming her skin.
"This," his hand pressed a little firmer against her abdomen, "is where I want you to concentrate your breathing."
"I've meditated before."
"Then you understand why it's important that you breathe where my hand is."
Kaoru bit her lip. She had been truthful when she said that she had done meditative exercises before, she just wasn't good at them. She had a hard time keeping her breathing patterns steady and keeping up the concentration required. Her mind liked to wander. The few times she had managed it, she understood why so many people used meditation to relax and center themselves. The abdomen was the center of gravity and it was the common belief that that was where your body stored its energy. By breathing directly into the hara, or belly, you released that energy in the form of heat. It was relaxing if done correctly.
Those who took the time to become extremely good at meditation were said to be able to do other things with their energy, but she wasn't sure what those things were.
"I'm not very good at breathing in patterns."
"Then follow my breathing."
"Hmm," he agreed, pressing her back against him firmly. "Feel the way my stomach and chest are moving and match your breathing to mine." His voice was soft. Biting her lip for a moment, she tried to do as he asked her.
"It might be easier if you close your eyes."
Kaoru let her breath out loudly. "Am I that obvious?"
"It's all right," he replied, his thumb stroking across her stomach once. "This won't work unless you at least try to relax, Kaoru."
She nodded. Taking his suggestion, she closed her eyes and concentrated on the way he was breathing. With her shoulders pressed against his chest, it was easy to let the way he was breathing lift and lower her own body, their breathing strangely in motion with the sway of the horse.
"Now," his voice was soft and close to her ear, hardly disrupting the way they were breathing. "Breathe in through your nose and then out through your mouth. Slowly. Keep breathing with me, Kaoru." The slightly cajoling tone of voice had her lips curving, but she did as he asked, breathing slowly and deeply in time to movements of his body. The muscles under his hand warmed as each breath went in and out, until the warmth started to spread, seeping into every limb. Even the faint pressure of Kenshin fingers moving against her stomach couldn't disturb her sudden relaxation and the jarring of the horse disappeared with the motions of her breathing.
Kaoru didn't know how long she was wrapped in warmth and the allusive sense of security, but the sudden shift of Kenshin's posture dragged her out of it. Ever muscle in his body went stiff, the hand under her navel curling into a fist. Opening her eyes, blinking rapidly as the sun burned the delicate tissue; a sound like thunder deafened her. The horse bucked wildly against the pressure of the air and then both she and Kenshin were tumbling. The world dipped and a scream built in her throat as she landed hard, the air knocked out of her lungs. White hot fire laced up her arm and across her shoulder so that her world turned white along the edges.
Some distant part of her mind registered the sounds, but it was hard to hear them over the rush of her blood. Strange echoes and sparks behind her eyes had her curling tightly against herself, her breathing painful. Her eyes burned. Terrified, she pressed her face against the earth. The air smelled like mage power and Kenshin's voice was echoing inside her brain.
Sudden silence made her teeth hurt.
"Kaoru," hands moved along her body, checking for more broken bones as he turned her over. "How badly did you fall?"
Forcing her eyes open, she blinked back the tears that had been dripping down her face. His eyes were streaked with color that bled away from his pupils in shades of gold and bronze. His features were pale, the strange scar on his cheek standing out in dark contrast.
Fingers smoothed along her cheeks.
"I'm fine." It was a lie neither of them had the time to correct. "What happened?"
"We need to find the mare and shelter."
He didn't answer, just pulled her to her feet and steadied her while her head rushed. When he finally stepped back she was steady and he started to move, heading in the direction of the broken under-brush. Every bone and muscle in her body hurt, but even through the discomfort she was able to see that something was wrong with Kenshin.
His body was moving, but there was something wrong with it. Something… off.
Something had happened during that brief mage fight.
Biting her bruised lip, she trudged after him, determined to keep up.
The rest of the day was spent searching for the mare and then hunting down shelter. Kaoru also kept her eyes open for familiar roots, occasionally stopping to dig them up. They were going to need food and Kenshin seemed… distracted. Those times that he paused when she stopped to tug at a plant one handed he just leaned against the mare. Neither of them had the energy to climb back onto her back, and the undergrowth was too thick not to lead her by the reins.
Something was wrong. When she had asked Kenshin why they weren't moving faster, he hadn't answered. The pale expression of his face was slowly going grey. She had been checking him repeatedly for blood, but whatever had gone wrong wasn't physical.
So instead, she concentrated on finding something they could eat. The tubers she had dug were small enough she could tuck them into her sling to carry without causing too much pain. If Kenshin allowed a fire they could bake them in the coals, but they were so small they wouldn't give them much to eat. Thankfully, there was still a few pieces of fruit in the pack that Kenshin had tied around his waist. Still, there wasn't much. She couldn't find any edible roots and it was still early for nuts, and the fare she had gathered wouldn't put a dent in their hunger, but with the stale bread they still had, it might be enough. With as bad as Kenshin looked, she had to get some sort of food into him.
By the time they found place they could stop for the night, Kenshin was stumbling. Not that she blamed him, she was falling over herself. Whispering an apology to the horse, she helped Kenshin into the little hollowed area that held the remains of what look like the remains of animal bones.
Another problem to worry about later. Pressing her hand against Kenshin's cheek, she hissed at how clammy his skin was. "What did they do to you during the mage fight, Kenshin."
Lashes fluttered open and pale eyes watched her tiredly. "The first strike was a curse. I didn't have enough power to shield us both."
She wanted to shake him. Reaching up with one hand she rubbed her eyes, swallowing the lump that had formed in her throat. She just wanted to curl into a ball and sleep. But there were things that needed to be done.
"Can I build a fire?"
He nodded, but didn't say anything else.
The fire was difficult. Kenshin couldn't help, she wasn't even certain he was conscious, and she had to use both hands. She had searched through the remains that had been left behind and found some flint to start the fire. That had been the last piece of luck she had had all night. The problem with the flint was that she had to anchor it in her bad hand to strike it. The first attempt had sent her almost face down into the ground as the pain shocked up and down her arm, echoing in the back of her skull. Shaking she lay there until it was manageable. Wiping her damp cheeks, she looked over at Kenshin. It didn't seem like he had even opened his eyes.
It took several tries to figure out a way to hold the flint without sending herself into hysterics. By the time the fire was crackling she had to sit down she was shaking so hard, her eyes burning with tears and dirt.
Kenshin hadn't moved, and that worried her more than anything else did.
She didn't have the strength to bury the tubers in leaves before she baked them in the coals. She didn't even know where to find leaves that were big enough. Instead, she placed them close enough to the fire that they would cook. While they were cooking, she pulled some of the fruit and walked over to sit next to Kenshin. His lashes parted a little as she dug around in his pocket for the knife.
"You have to eat this," she told him fiercely, balancing the red fruit on her knee and slowly slicing slivers. She took the first piece just to make sure it was edible before she cut another one and held it to his mouth. By the time they had gone through both of the small pieces she had gathered, he a little less grey.
"How bad is the curse?" What she really wanted to ask him was why he had been stupid enough to take the brunt of the curse on himself. He was the mage! He needed to be able to… work!
"I want details," she whispered. "I need to know."
Those gold lashes parted and she shivered internally at his expression. It was as if he didn't have the strength to contain his internal intensity anymore. It buzzed along her skin oddly, but it wasn't painful so she didn't comment.
"It's a leaching spell. It will eat away at my magic until it is gone, and then it will start in on my life force." He closed his eyes. "The problem with this spell is that a mage cannot exist without magic in his blood. I can only go a few hours. Once I start letting the magic seep into my blood stream again, the curse will use it to grow."
Kaoru stared at him in growing terror. "How do you stop it?"
"Here?" He shook his head. "If I had the proper materials… it would take energy and time. I have neither."
Her good hand clenched into a fist. "How long do you have?"
His eyes opened. "That isn't important. We are getting closer to the portal, Kaoru. I can feel it. Once we reach the safe city, my wards will burn off the curse."
"I need to check the fire." Her voice cracked a little but she ignored it. Instead, she concentrated on the tubers. They were hot to the touch, scalding her fingers, but they seemed to be finished. Ignoring the man leaning against the wall, she dug out the plate he had let her use the night before from the saddle bags and sliced the warm vegetable into thin slices. Once they were all cut up, she settled next to him again and only ate a piece of the root when he did.
After they were both finished eating she collapsed exhausted against his shoulder. His head rolled against hers, but he made no other move to hold her close. She was afraid if she accepted his warmth she would break down. Her exhaustion was making it difficult not to give into the desire to just cry. Her arm was broken, and it hurt so bad her teeth ached. Her entire body itched from mud and sweat. The thought of having bugs crawling along her scalp made her want to scream in disgust and frustration. Kenshin was dying. But he wouldn't tell her.
Their only chance was to reach a gate that the mages might or might not know about. Her next breath was shaky as tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. Breathing in deeply, she did her best to stop, but it took her several moments to get a grip on her emotions.
Closing her eyes, she breathed against his shoulder: earth, dirt, sweat and a strange new scent that smelled like sickness. She wouldn't think about it. Tomorrow, they had to reach the portal, not just for Kenshin's sake, but also for her own.
She just didn't know how more she could take.
Kenshin woke her around dawn, his face haggard with lines and dark circles under almost colorless eyes. It was still too dark to see clearly, but they both knew they had to move. Kaoru didn't know where he found the strength to get them both onto the horse's back, but once he was settled behind her, he sunk into her spine so she had to hold the brunt of his weight. Setting her teeth, she concentrated on the responsibility of keeping him from falling off the horse instead of the pain in her arm as the horse cantered.
It was during a break for the horse that Kenshin finally stirred.
"We're being followed."
His voice was hoarse and very strained.
Kaoru jerked. "What?"
"They are getting close, little Kaoru." His tone was surprisingly gentle. "We need to run."
The horse leapt forward as she squeezed him with her legs. Black spots danced along her vision at the jarring of the gallop, but they somehow managed to stay on its back. She thought she heard Kenshin mumbling under his breath, but it was hard to hear over the pounding of her own heart.
Suddenly the horse reared. Kenshin dragged her off the horse for the second time in two days and Kaoru lay stunned on the earth. There was something very wrong with the air and her heart was pounding so hard she thought it would burst from her chest.
Groaning behind her, Kenshin managed to get to his knees. Next to her. His breathing was heavy and labored and Kaoru just wanted to stay right where she was and never move again.
"Kaoru," his voice was weak. "We need to run now. The gate is close. You can feel it. I know you can."
She didn't want to feel it. She just wanted everything to stop! She was tired of running and tired of being chased it she just hurt to damn much.
"Kaoru." The tone was stronger this time. "You will get up."
Squeezing her eyes shut, she struggled.
"One more time," he encouraged. "I'll help." Somehow, she managed to find her footing, his arm around her waist pulling her up. Kenshin was breathing as heavily as she was.
"We're close to the gate." He rasped in her ear. "We can make it if we hurry. Tell me if you see something odd, anything, Kaoru. You should be able to see it."
"Odd how?" Her voice was hoarse as she struggled to keep up. She didn't know how he was carrying her along, his arm an iron band around her waist.
"You'll know it when you see it."
The air was getting heavy around them and Kaoru was finding it hard to breath. Kenshin was muttering things under his breath, but she didn't have the strength to yell at him. Either they would make it or they wouldn't.
"What are they doing?"
"What are they spell casting?" Her voice was high and broke on the last word.
"Just run, Kaoru."
The earth heaved under them and somehow they kept their feet. Her vision was blurry for a moment as she used her bad arm to catch herself, but her legs never stopped moving.
"There." Kenshin gritted, "Don't give up now." Before she could ask him what he meant the sound of something rushing caught her attention.
"We just have to get to the gate," Kenshin rasped. "Help me get to the gate."
They were so close!
Together, they all but crawled. His arm was hooked around her waist, and she used her free hand to catch them when they both stumbled. Ahead of them there was a curious patch of displaced light and then they were falling.
They crashed in a tangle of limbs. Her arm was bent awkwardly underneath her so that her word narrowed to her breathing. The earth smelled like fibers instead of dirt. Like a floor. A body roughly rolled hers, so that when she ended up flat on her back, Kenshin was half-sprawled across her. His forehead was pressed against her collarbones so that she could feel every ragged breath he took.
"We're safe." His tone was ragged and so very faint. A very fine shudder was working its way through his body. Kaoru couldn't tell if he was shaking, or if she was shaking him.
Her wavered and cracked with the one word and she didn't try again. Her throat was clogging with tears and she had to bit her cracked lip. Reaching around, she gripped his tattered shirt between her fingers. Tugging, she tried to tell him to get up and move. His breath left his body in a slow breath and then he relaxed completely, his head sliding so that his nose was pressed against her throat so she could feel each breath, his cheek just below her collarbones. Panic welled in her gut and her breathing came in short pants before she realized that he was still breathing.
Bringing her good hand up, she covered her eyes. Her breathing came in sharp gasps as she finally gave into the tears, her body shaking as she tried to stifle her sobs. Kenshin was so exhausted he never stirred as she tried to control her body's relief at being alive. For him being alive. Knowing that for now they were safe.
Eventually her tears eased. She considered trying to move Kenshin, but her body felt like something a horse had trampled. Instead, she allowed herself to be comforted by the feel of human weight against her own body. Wrapping her good arm around his back, she let her exhaustion and the way he breathed against her skin send her into oblivion.
Kenshin woke slowly. His body felt raw from the inside. Scrapped along all the muscles and organs, but his magic was there. Keeping his eyes closed, he absorbed the sensations. His shields were rebuilt. They were weak, but they were holding. The healing spells he had woven into the protections around the room were working hard to remove the curse. Food and a bath would refresh his physical body, but he needed a large meal to replace the energy he had burned fighting the curse. Even then he would have to take it easy and rest for a few more days.
Opening his eyes, he found himself starring at a pale throat, a few abrasions on the skin testament to the trials of the last few days. He could feel the lines of her body under his chest, and as he pushed himself up, he studied the contours of her face.
Her cheek bones were sharp in her face, drawing emphasis to the dark circles under her eyes. Shallow cuts and small abrasions littered her face from the mudslide and the chase in the woods.
Pushing himself into a sitting position he studied her arm. He couldn't do anything about her physical condition himself, but he could make sure she would sleep until her body had balanced itself and he had the energy to find the in-house doctor to set her arm. His magical muscles burned almost as badly as his physical as he bent to pick her up. The only thing that saved him was that the spell required to encourage her to sleep was so simple. Otherwise, he never would have gotten them both off the floor. Part of him wanted to be clean before he crawled between the sheets, but the rest of him was too tired to care about anything other than a comfortable flat surface to sleep on. The sheets could be changed.
Tucking both himself and Kaoru into the bedclothes, he found himself needing to touch her. Settling himself along side her body, he put his nose against her shoulder and allowed himself to sleep.
The sound of someone knocking woke him up. It only took him a heartbeat to shake off the grogginess of sleep, another moment to extract himself from Kaoru's still form. Sliding out of the covers, his eyes narrowed at the door, his hands reaching for the wards he had bought for this reason. Satisfied he was ready, he let his personal shield down just long enough to tastes the essence of the person outside his door.
Surprise flooded his body. After looking back to the bed to make sure that Kaoru was completely covered he walked to the door and opened it. Pale blue eyes took him in with the most relief he could remember seeing on his friend's face.
"You're alive then."
"Barely," Kenshin said. "I thought you were south."
"I felt the wards."
Which was the reason he would have come as quickly as he did; what little wards hadn't been completely drained were now connected to Kaoru's arm. It would have been confusing for someone searching that signature. Moving to let Aoshi into the room, he stayed silent until the door was shut. He watched as Aoshi's eyes scanned Kaoru on the bed.
"Who is she?"
Something flickered across Aoshi's face. Scorn.
Kenshin allowed himself to study the passive features. "She survived the mudslide on her own merit." No need to tell his friend she was mage-born even if she had no talent. "The others were either killed by the mud or by the blood-mages. As quickly as they caught us, they had to have sacrifices." That they had to have been human sacrifices went unspoken.
"The King was concerned." Aoshi's mouth tightened. "Two nights ago, the first rebellion struck against the armed forces. Some of our men were killed in the conflict, but for the most part it was contained. Last night the king had six hostages executed in compliance to the rules given to the villages."
His jaw tightened.
"The assumption," Aoshi said calmly. "Is that all the hostages were killed and that you might be alive. They are not sure. What do you want to do?"
Kenshin walked to the window, leaning against the wall to stare down at the busy street. Kaoru had assumed he was a mage for the king, enlisted in the army. The edges of his mouth pulled down into a frown. "She has taken the oath."
"The oath can be broken."
"Do you wish to undermine the authority of the man we put on the throne?"
What Kaoru didn't know was that he was part of the mercenaries that the King had brought in the help him win the war, having called in a favor that his old friend had owed him. Aoshi had never said what exactly the heir had done to earn such a boon, but he had gathered the forces he had spent half his life building. Kenshin had come into the mix a few decades later, uncomfortable with leadership and attempting to learn to deal with a bloody past. The mercenary group had thrown him back into the bloodshed, but it had given him a drive and a goal outside of his own ends to meet.
That drive had settled his gift and honed his magic. In many ways, it had probably saved his life.
"It will be your choice."
"Do you have the oath contract?"
Aoshi was silent for so long that Kenshin turned. There was a thoughtful expression on his friends face that disappeared under his blank mask almost before Kenshin could recognize it.
"I will look for a way out for your lady." He said finally. "Misao will be joining me on the hunt for the blood-mages."
Kenshin nodded. "We are close to a week ahead of the schedule I gave the King. We have time to rest and recover here."
"Look for my answer in five days." The tall man turned and headed towards the door. "I will alert Sanosuke and his wife that you are here. They will be prepared to deal with injuries."
"Try to stay out of trouble."
The door shut with a soft click.
Kaoru opened her eyes. There was no swimming up slowly, no realizing that she should be waking up. She just opened her eyes. Startled, she lolled her head on her neck to see where she was. It wasn't until she registered the remains of what looked like a breakfast that she realized where she was. For half a heartbeat she considered lying back down, but she made the mistake of looking down at her hand.
Dirt lined the broken edges of her nails. When she rubbed her wrist, it revealed the pale skin underneath. It wasn't until she was sitting up that the realized her dirty cast was gone and that the arm she was pressing down on didn't hurt. Startled, she over balanced and crashed back into the bed.
Starring up at the ceiling in surprise, she tried again. She had just levered herself into a sitting position when the door opened. Twisted her head around, she relaxed at the sight of Kenshin. A clean, washed Kenshin. Realizing there was a bath near made her scalp itch. In that instant, if she could have crawled out of her own skin she would have.
The smile on his face he saw she was awake had her mouth going dry.
Blinking, her eyes flickered to the window. "It's not morning."
"No. You would have woken around dawn this morning, but the bone healing took most of the energy your body had balanced to heal you."
"Oh… you didn't," she started, startled that he had brought someone in to heal her arm.
"It was necessary." His tone was firm and her teeth clicked shut. The edges of his mouth kicked up again. "I felt you wake, so I ordered a bath." Something in her expression must have amused him, because his shoulder shook with silent laughter.
"Megumi already left some clothing there for you to wear. Come on, I'll take you to the bathing chamber so you can wash and then nip down the kitchen to let them know you are awake. I imagine you're hungry."
She was starving. Being clean was more important. She moved a little awkwardly, her body a little stiff and still sore from the past few days, but the major hurts seemed to be gone.
"The first tub is for you to wash in." Kenshin told her as he opened a door. "Once you're clean, use the rinse water next to the first tub. The second tub is so you can soak out what aches and pains Megumi's healing didn't finish." His fingers brushed between her shoulder blades. "Try not to fall asleep again."
Before she could make a smart remark, he had shut the door. She ripped her shirt in an attempt to get it off, and she kicked the pants off as quickly as she could. The socks were ruined, and she discarded them as well.
The hot water burned. Using a stiff brush, she scrubbed herself raw before she attacked her hair. It was going to be a nightmare brushing out the tangles, but it was going to be clean tangles. Surging out of the dirty water, she picked up the buckets of rinse water and dumped them over her head. Shaking her bangs out of her eyes, she settled into the clean tub of water.
It smelled of herbs. Sliding even lower, she breathed deeply of the steam. It definitely smelled like herbs. Her bet was that the water was treated to kill any bugs she might have picked up in the wild and also to help with the aches. It was probably the doing of the Megumi Kenshin had mentioned.
The entire bathroom was spell treated. The water she had dumped onto the floor was disappearing, and the water in the other tub was… clearing. Blinking at it, decided not to worry about it, or the odds that rinse water had been spell treated to pull the rest of the dirt from her body, she took a breath and went completely under the water.
The best part about spell worked bathing chambers was the hot water never went cold. By the time she finally pulled herself out of the tub, wrapping herself in the thick towel before sitting on the bench to start dealing with her hair, the first tub was completely clear. There was a pile of things for her use, a comb with thick teeth that worked through her tangles with a lot less effort than she had earlier expected. Before long, she had tied her damp hair into a braid and was pulling on the soft clothing. It was little big, but it was clean, and the pleasure in that alone made it worth having to roll the ends of her pants and the cuffs of the shirt.
Now that she was clean, her stomach started rumbling loudly in complaint. Uncertain what she should do with what remained of her clothes and boots, the thick socks protecting her feet from the floor, she decided she would ask Kenshin. Opening the door, she blinked in surprise to find a slender woman with her hand raised to knock.
"Ah, I was wondering if you had fallen asleep."
"No," she returned hesitantly. There was no need to tell this woman that bathing in warm water was a luxury in her village. Or that she had felt it necessary to soak her scalp for as long as possible in the water, half terrified of having lice.
"I'm Megumi," she said with a faint smile. "Kenshin asked me to make sure you had everything you needed."
"I wasn't sure where to put the clothing I had on…"
"I'll take care of it." There was a faint note of disgust in the woman's voice. "Nothing worse than having to feel male-grungy for any period of time; I'll show you to your room. Tae has already sent a tray up with a meal for you."
Kaoru's stomach rumbled in answer.
Megumi smiled. "Good. Sometimes with bone healing appetites don't wake up for a day or so. You need the proteins of a good meal as soon as you can."
She looked up at Megumi in surprise. "You're the healer?"
"Yes, here is Kenshin's room. I'll be back by to check on you later tonight."
Blinking in surprise, Kaoru shook her head and stepped back inside the room, the scent of warm meal watering her mouth. Kenshin wasn't in the room, but that was alright. Sitting down at the table, Kaoru dug into the food with gusto. There was a bowl of thick stew filled with potatoes, corn, what she thought was rabbit, and a mixture of spices that made her eyes water. There were several thick slices of bread to go with the stew, as well as a plate with more of the rabbit, this time baked in something sweet tasting. Whipped tubers and mild and spicy greens rounded the meal. The meal was probably two, but it wasn't until she was swallowing the rest of the bread that she realized she was full.
And tired. With a full belly came exhaustion. Rubbing her eyes, she decided that taking a nap would be a good idea. She didn't know how long it would be before Kenshin decided they needed to be on the road and she needed the rest. Standing up, she climbed back onto the bed. Someone had already changed the sheets and they smelled like sunshine.
The crackling of fire woke her. Sitting up, she found Kenshin adjusting the wood on the fire. In that moment she realized exactly how red his hair was. It had always been a dirty muted-brown after the mudslide, but now it almost burned down his back.
He turned and smiled. "Tae will be bringing up the dinner tray soon."
Frowning she looked out the window and felt her face burn with embarrassment. Her 'nap' had ended up being the rest of the afternoon. It was dark outside and the light in the room was coming form the fireplace and the mage lights.
Mage lights. Mage lights.
"Kenshin," her eyes narrowed. "You had better not have been the one to light those lights."
Violet eyes flickered over in her direction, the edges crinkling. "If I did?"
Pursing her lips, she crossed her arms and glared. "I'll think of something."
Turning back to the fire, he set the prongs down. "I'm sure you will. However, no, I didn't light them. They are built into the room spells."
Standing, he dusted his hands. "There are things we need to talk about before dinner comes."
"Because for the next few meals, you're going to sleep almost immediately after; it's a one of the side effects of a bone healing."
Sliding out from under the covers, she nodded. "Okay then." That would explain why she was still sleepy after several hours of rest. She didn't even want to think of how long she had been asleep before she woke up this afternoon.
Moving to stand by the fire, she warmed her hands. "What do you want to talk about?"
Titling her head to face him, she watched curiously as he closed his eyes, subtle lines around his mouth smoothing away for a moment. Kaoru was starting to understand why humans considered mages ageless. Besides the faint lines, there was really no way for her to guess his age.
When he opened his eyes, the faint trace of boyhood was gone and replaced by the intensity she was uncomfortable with.
"The rebellions have begun."
Kaoru nodded. It had really just been a matter of time before villages became restless, before the blood-mages gave the kingdoms reasons to imagine that things had been better before the new King's crowning. Things were always better on the other side.
"The King has already executed a handful of hostages."
Tearing her eyes away from the sparks behind the violet, she stared at the fire. So this was what he was getting at. A warning. Well, she had known what she was getting into when she had taken her oath and this wasn't going to change it.
"It was only a matter of time, Kenshin." Tilting her head, she offered him a smile. "I knew what I was getting into when I agreed."
His mouth tightened at the corners in displeasure.
"You will not be going in front of the King as a hostage, Kaoru."
Shock made her immobile for a moment before she turned to face him head on. Challenging him directly probably wasn't the smartest thing to do, but she had never gone back on her word before and she wasn't starting now.
"Yes, I am."
Something about the way he watched her from his bangs, his shoulder leaning against the wall next to the fireplace, arms crossed over his chest had her clenching her teeth until they hurt.
"So you wish to put yourself in a position to die for your village."
Letting her breath out between her teeth, she shook her head slowly. "You make it sound as if I have a death wish. We have already discussed my reasons for being a hostage, and I do not wish to repeat myself."
"What if you could do more for your village than simply sit around waiting for your death mark?"
Frowning, she studied him. "I took an oath, Kenshin. I refuse to break my word."
"Oaths can be removed, Kaoru."
"Only the…" her words died in her throat. There hadn't been so much gold in his eyes outside of the battle with the mages or directly after the mudslide. What did that mean?
"Only the King can remove your oath. I know."
"What are you getting at, Kenshin," she demanded. "I hate games."
He pushed away from wall and stood next to her in front of the fire. She watched his profile as he considered the flames. What was he thinking?
"I want you with me."
Her body jerked a little with the statement.
"Mages don't have partners, Kaoru. We don't have friends or companions that we trust outside of the battlefield." His head tilted and his gaze locked with hers. "These past few days have been nothing but one trial after another. We have exchanged life debts. Did you think that I would let you go so easily?"
Kaoru wondered if what was glimmering behind the gold of his eyes was why people avoided mages. She didn't know what it was, but it was frightening. She may have been a mage's daughter, but she knew nothing of the craft besides that it was dangerous.
"Why would he let go of my oath, Kenshin?"
"You are mage born. You see spell marks. You saved my life."
"I wasn't aware your life was so important."
"There is a lot you don't know." Only then did his eyes leave hers, allowing her to breath evenly again. "There is much I will never tell you."
Licking dry lips, she turned her eyes back to the fire. "He will want more hostages from my village."
"He would want them anyway. One is not nearly enough to convince a village to stay out of trouble." Kenshin responded gently. "But the returning hostages may be safer then your group was."
"Because you are not going to be there?"
The long silence was filled with the occasional crackle of the fire. "I though that was the case at first… but now I am not so sure."
What did that mean?
There was a shifting sensation and a smell of embers, and there was suddenly two trays on the small table. Food. Distraction. Stepping away from him, Kaoru was startled when he reached out and caught her wrist.
"I will not allow you to come to harm because of some idiot from your village decides the King does not deserve his crown, Kaoru."
She swallowed at the feeling of his fingers wrapped around her wrist. "But you think I will come to other harm?"
"I do not know," he said finally. "The path I walk is dangerous. If I thought you would be safe somewhere else, I would find a way to keep you there. But the blood-mages know your mark just as well as they know mine." Those pale eyes ran along her face.
"So you think the King will release me from my vow."
There was that something behind his eyes again. Something sparking and wild that made it so very hard to breath, to look away.
Biting her lip, she finally nodded. The reason she had chosen to become a hostage was that it was the best way for her to serve her people. Helping Kenshin find the reasons they were killing hostages would serve them better. If she was really honest with herself, she might be able to admit that she was intrigued by the man she had come to know and wasn't willing to not find out more about him if she could. That strange intensity, the odd gentleness, and the strange comfort his presence brought her.
To her surprise, he lifted her knuckles to his lips before he released her hand.
"You need to eat. We are a few days ahead of schedule and can take the time to rest."
Lips parted in surprise as he stepped around her to the food, Kaoru watched as he uncovered the dishes. Still feeling the soft press of slightly chapped lips against her skin, she swallowed and went to join him for dinner.