It started as a dull ache somewhere in the vicinity of her chest, and built until it was a throbbing pain filling her entire being, forcing the air from her lungs.
'Ten seconds,' she thought desperately. "Just ten seconds and this will all be over."
The fear flowed through her veins like blood, preventing coherent thought. God, was this time going to be the end of her? Was the silence finally going to swallow her whole and leave nothing for her guards to find?
Time was slowing; she was sure of it. The increasingly slow tick of the clock was deafening and she clutched at the table, her knuckles turning white with the force.
In and out, in and out. The shadows had crept their way across the floor, stealing into her mind to darken her vision as the silence squeezed like an iron band around her throat. She seared her gaze onto the face of the clock. Kami, please don't let this be the end of Kaoru Kamiya.
She snapped her head round to the door, her heart thudding in her chest. The tall silhouette of a man blocked the light from the corridor behind, his darkened features giving him a sinister air.
Aoshi approached the table and gracefully set down the tray of food without so much as a tinkle from the porcelain on it. He tactfully ignored the way her hands shook as she reached for one of the grapes.
'Okon says to eat all your vegetables this time or you'll get nothing but broccoli for a month.'
A shudder ran through her body. Cursed broccoli, how she hated it.
'I suggest avoiding the pie, Misao made it and I believe her test subject got food poisoning.'
He was getting much better at the idle chit chat these days, even managing to inject some forced joviality into it. She wondered briefly if Misao was training him. She had no doubt that it was she who was forcing the stoic ice cube to make conversation when he came to bring her her food. She knew very well that the icy Okashira had no need for trivial small talk. What hell must Aoshi have been through before Misao finally got her way? She had almost certainly driven the poor man up the wall with her non-stop chatter while he tried to meditate. It was one of Misao's favourite tactics to get her way with the emotionless man and as yet it had never failed.
'What is it, Hannya?'
She was dragged out of her amusing reverie by the sudden appearance of the strange man by the window.
'It seems he is on his way, Aoshi-sama.'
She sensed rather than saw Aoshi's displeasure at this information since the impassive mask he called a face gave nothing away. Yet something about the line of his shoulders read tension and the look he gave her, though she couldn't put her finger on why, was somehow different than usual, more disturbed. She, however, felt only a dull sense of resignation. Of course he was coming. He always came.
'Tighten security around the perimeter. He'll get in anyway but we don't want him to take advantage of any leaks to speed up his arrival. We just need to buy enough time to get Bokken out.'
She admired the fact that Aoshi no longer choked over her silly codename. Misao had chosen it as a joke to lighten the mood of their constantly moving convoy and it had caused Aoshi a lot of discomfort. It seemed ages now since Misao had picked it. It was at least seven safe houses ago.
'As you wish Aoshi-sama.'
Hannya bowed respectfully to his leader before disappearing in the split second her eyes closed on a blink. She wondered once again how he always managed to do that no matter how hard she tried to keep her eyes on him.
'Don't leave this room,' Aoshi commanded, all pretence of friendliness gone as he swept quickly back to the door.
The only sound came from his shiny white trench coat swishing through the air. She had a sneaking suspicion that this was the only reason Aoshi wore it, a sort of superhero cape to make him look cool, just like Yahiko carrying his bokken wherever he went.
'Don't worry, Aoshi, I know the drill.'
I've been through it enough times.
Aoshi simply nodded and left the room and once again she was alone with the ticking of the clock and the suffocating silence. Kaoru sighed quietly. There was a time when she would have taken offence at being ordered around like that by anyone, but now she just took it as part of the status quo. It had not always been this way; she had been happy and independent once.
'Yahiko-chan , if you call me Busu one more time, you and Tsubame won't be having any little Yahikos in the future,' she growled, letting her bokken whistle dangerously close to said student's left ear.
'You're supposed to be against violence, Busu,' Yahiko gasped, a light blush dusting his cheeks at the mention of Tsubame's name.
Skidding back, he just managed to dodge the next, rather unnecessarily aggressive strike.
'No, I'm against killing. I don't see anything wrong with a bit of grievous bodily harm when it comes to loud mouthed baka deshis.'
She aimed another sharp blow, missing what made Yahiko male by a hair and causing him to let out a strangled sigh of relief.
'Ah the memories,' came a slightly wistful voice from the dojo doorway.
Kaoru was immediately distracted, forgetting both her infuriating student and the sparring session they were having as she turned a smiling face to the new occupant of the room. What was it about this man that made everything else seem so completely trivial?
'Kenshin, what are you doing here so early? I thought we were meeting up at the Akabeko at seven.'
She rushed at him and was immediately enveloped in a warm ginger-scented embrace.
'Kaoru-dono, it is seven thirty.'
She felt a chuckle rumble through his chest as she turned horror-struck eyes to the clock, only to discover that he was indeed right. Her distress was short-lived, however, as it was almost immediately replaced by a resurgence of the previously dispelled rage, Yahiko butting in.
'Ew, Busu, I'm sure Kenshin doesn't want to hold a smelly, ugly hag like you.'
She opened her mouth to retort with some equally childish quip before her face lit up in a way that caused Yahiko to pale with fear. He knew that expression.
'I have to go and get cleaned up, Yahiko. I want you to do another five hundred katas before you lock up and don't even think about skipping a few. You know I always find out.'
She indicated the security camera situated high on the wall where it could see the entire dojo floor.
'Have fun now, Yahiko-chan.'
With an evil laugh she took Kenshin's hand and pulled him from the room, the swearing echoing after them.
The memory made her laugh again, as the sounds of Yahiko's fury still rang in her ears. It would probably have sounded slightly insane to anyone who had been walking by, a woman bursting into impromptu maniacal giggles in a completely silent room. This thought only succeeded in making her laugh harder. It was quashed, however, when voices were heard shouting up and down the corridor, bringing her back to the horror of the present with a bump.
'Isamu, get the damn ammo!'
'All of it?'
'Yes, all of it, Baka, do you have any idea what we're up against?'
A crash and a bright light lit up the darkening sky outside her window and the voices became more frantic.
'Shit! Just grab what you can and get down to the guard posts!'
'I don't want to die! The money isn't worth it, Renku, let's just get the hell outta here!'
'Don't be such a coward. Now get the hell down to the post before I shoot your ass for insubordination.'
A rush of footsteps, and then the eerie hush fell again. Renku should have listened to Isamu, she thought with a false calm. He didn't allow anything to keep him from what he wanted, and anyone who got in his way was as good as dead. It was a pity that she couldn't take Isamu's advice herself. After all, when you were the thing he wanted you didn't have a chance in hell of getting out.
'Oh, Kami, there's no escape,' she whispered to the empty room.
Her breathing became shallow and she closed her eyes, trying to slow the pounding of her heart. There was no escape, no escape; she was never going to be rid of this shadow plaguing her life. She couldn't take this much longer, the stress was killing her.
'Kaoru-dono, relax,' Kenshin purred in her ear as they made their way towards the mansion house.
His attempts at reassuring were lost on her, however, especially with the use of the honorific which he just wouldn't drop despite the fact that they had been dating for three months. The house was huge, the grounds sprawling out as far as she could see. But it wasn't the house itself that was stressing her out. God only knew she had seen more than enough big houses in her young life. No, it wasn't that; it was what was inside it.
'Sessha's parents are going to love you, that they will.'
Squeezing her hand, he practically had to drag her up the steps to the door. It was a definite sign that she was truly terrified when even Kenshin's cute speech quirks couldn't make her smile.
'Kaoru-dono, do you trust me?'
At her immediate nod he grinned goofily in the way that always made her melt.
'Then trust Sessha, they will love you.'
She cursed herself quietly, forcing this painful memory back to where it belonged, back into the far recesses of her mind. Why was it that even now, even after everything that had happened, his voice always soothed her senses, like silk smoothing out the rough edges of her fear?
Then trust Sessha.
The words echoed once again through her mind, making her face twist into a grimace. That trust had been shattered long ago and the shards still tore mercilessly at her heart. She now wondered vainly if that elderly couple had even been his parents. They had seemed a little off to her, so cold and severe next to their ditzy son. She had felt like a scolded child every time either one looked her way and there had been so little affection passed between them and their son. At the time it had only registered as sadness in her mind, that so sweet a man could have such terrifyingly distant parents. She remembered distinctly being furious, assuming that it was they who had ingrained the use of that horrible word 'Sessha' in him. But now, with everything that had occurred, she couldn't help but wonder if that had been another set-up, another lie to keep her from prying too far into his life. A wave of disgust rolled through her. She had been so afraid to bring to the surface painful memories of a childhood he might prefer to forget. Now, it was oh so clear that he was just trying to prevent her from discovering his true past, his dirty, horrifying past. Tears welled up in her eyes and she once again forced thoughts of him away.
'Get out of my head, damn it, and get out of my life!' she growled angrily.
However, the second her mind focused away from her memories, it returned to something even worse. The shadows had finally won out over the last of the sunlight and she now sat in complete darkness, only prompting the fear that lurked at the corners of her mind to struggle forth. She had to do something quickly before the silence and the shadows combined to swallow her.
She had no idea when this feeling had first developed. It had crept up on her so slowly over her months of captivity that before long every unfilled moment of quiet and solitude was a source of terror for her. Then, after what happened, there were just too many moments.
The room began to get smaller, wringing a frightened whimper from her throat. Surely Aoshi wouldn't mind if she turned on the light? What harm could one more light do in this wretched fortress? After a couple of seconds her fear made her mind up for her. She needed light and space, but more than anything else she craved sound. The desperation was overwhelming to the point where she began to drum her fingernails against the polished wood of the tabletop to stave off the eerie stillness. The constriction of her chest lessened with the noise and she relaxed back in her chair.
A gust of air whispered past her ear, blowing her hair lightly away from her face. Odd, the windows were painted shut and barred in such a way that even if they weren't they couldn't be opened. There really shouldn't be any wind.
She squinted over her shoulder but night had well and truly settled with not a star in the stormy sky. She could barely see a hand in front of her face let alone the windows. Finally, after a moment of indecision, she decided that she would get up to check while turning on the light, killing two birds with one stone.
She made to stand, only to freeze as a distinctive scent reached her nose on that delicate little breeze. Ginger and pine.
'Hello Koneko,' he breathed in her ear.