Sapphire Scales, a Rurouni Kenshin fanfic by Raberba girl

Chapter 8 - The Secret Room

He...he was...

"Get out!" she screamed at him. "Get out get out get out, get out NOW!"

He had never looked at her like that before. She had smelled it in him, the strength and determination that made his spirit stand as tall as hers, but she had never until now seen it reflected in his eyes, not even the night of the mob.

Silently, he reached to set the hated little bottle back in its place. His fingers lingered on it, and she shuddered. Then he looked back at her. "No," he said quietly. "I think I need to be here."

Without another thought she snatched him up in her claws as she had not done in months and trundled back to the cave entrance, where she dropped him on the ground more roughly than on that first night. "Go away! Don't come back, ever!" She retreated back inside and lay full length in the passage, weeping. Even if he did come back (he probably would, the wretched little man...), he was not going to be able to get past her bulk blocking the way.

'You betrayed me...you weren't supposed to see me...' Her past life, her true self. The shame of it threatened to consume her. She had grown to love him, to wake up every morning with joy that he was with her and loved her as if she was a person instead of a beast. So why, why did he have to ruin it? Why did he have to keep coming too close? Why did he have to barge in and look, to see how ugly and desperate and loathsome she had become? Why couldn't he have just accepted her as a dragon?

She was startled by a grunt that was not her own, and she opened her eyes to find him almost right in front of her face, rising from a crouch as if he had just landed. He had climbed over her! And she had not even felt him, curse this thick dragon hide!

He turned to look at her, and she roared at him, as loudly as she had that first morning. He merely closed his eyes and covered his ears in a businesslike manner until she had finished, then he looked at her again with that cold, terrifying expression. "Shall we go together, or must I keep fighting my way in?"

Thinking vehement curses at him, she grabbed him again and this time stuck him up at the very top of the highest tree she could find.

He had flitted down again and was striding back toward the cave before she had even turned around.

Howling, she stomped her way back faster than he did. By the time he caught up, she had barricaded the entrance with boulders and uprooted trees and anything she could find to seal him out-

"Hiten Mitsurugi-Ryuu!"

Curse him.

As she watched him barreling his way through with apparent lack of effort, glaring up at her in challenge, turning away to march back into her life as if he thought he had a right to be there, she decided that she was going to follow through with what she had meant to do from the beginning.

He made no protest when she picked him up and carried him away, did not speak to her throughout the entire flight, did not even say anything when she left him near a village a fortnight's journey (in human terms) from the cave. She almost wished, as she flew away again, that he would call after her...that maybe she could have said good-bye. But it was his fault. He was the one who insisted it had to be this way. He was the one who was breaking her heart, just as she had known he would from the beginning, just as she had tried so hard to prevent.

'I hate you,' she thought angrily as she flew, tears leaking out of her eyes. 'Kenshin...I love you so much, how could you do this to me...?'

Two weeks later (she assumed...she had not been keeping track), he was suddenly standing before her again, looking at her with a tight-lipped expression, two wolf carcasses dangling from his hand. She stared at him for a minute, wondering if he was real or just another dream, until he said coldly, "I had hoped you wouldn't need these." He dropped the dead animals in front of her nose. He said, his voice sad but unsympathetic, "You need to eat, Kaoru-dono." Then he turned and walked away - in the direction of the Secret Room.

She growled in a panic and tried to get to her feet, but she was too weak. It had been too long since she had eaten, and in her grief she had not been careful to conserve her energy. Resentfully, she choked down the wolves and then managed to force herself back up again a little later.

She found him sitting in the Secret Room, resting his arms on his knees as he looked at her portraits. She growled, but he did not respond right away. Finally he glanced over his shoulder and said quietly, "It's because your heart is in this room, isn't it. Why won't you let me in?"

"Because you hurt!" she screamed.

He got to his feet and came up to her, tilting his head back to hold her eyes. "You know I don't mean to. But it will hurt to come out, Kaoru-dono. There's no other way. Do you want to stay trapped where you are forever?"

Tears were leaking out of her eyes again.

"Kaoru-dono," he said softly. "I want to see you in the mirror."

"...No...NO!"

He turned away again and went to look in the mirror himself, where she was shocked to see his reflection. For a long time they looked at the fox without speaking, and then Kenshin mumbled, "Pathetic, isn't it. Such a tiny creature, limping around bleeding on everything it touches. I've always wondered why you let me hang around for so long, Kaoru-dono."

"Stupid," she snarled. "You're bleeding because you've battled. You're hurt because you've torn apart the enemies who threatened what you loved, what you fight to protect. You can't see the expression in your own eyes... Who couldn't love you for that, you stupid little man? Why can't you see that it's me who's the pathetic one?"

He was gazing up at her uncomprehendingly. Her fumbling, unfamiliar signs probably looked like a hopeless jumble to him. She groaned, her heart aching, and turned to go. If he wanted to be here, fine. She would let him play in the Secret Room to his heart's content.

She should not have eaten the wolves. Now it would take longer to die.

"Kaoru-dono!" he shouted after her.

'Shut up,' she thought.

"Don't leave! Don't! I've never left you, have I? Don't leave me now!" It was the way he said it that stopped her, so that she looked back at him and saw the angry tears in his eyes. "Kaoru-dono..."

"You hurt," she told him. "I don't want to be here."

"You think you're not hurting me also?" he said.

She shifted uneasily. He was trying to guilt her into doing what he wanted...

"Come here!" he thundered when she tried to turn away again.

She growled, but then slowly lowered her head until they were more or less on the same level. He put his hands on her face, looking earnestly into her eyes. "Kaoru-dono. Have I ever run from you? Why do you run from me now? Please. Please. Tell me what I have to do. I want to help you."

'You...already have,' she thought, feeling like she was going to drown in her own tears. 'You don't have to do anymore, Kenshin.'

He rested his face against her scales and whispered, "I love you. I can't stand to see you like this, Kaoru-dono. I want to free you."

It hurt. The pain in her heart suddenly seemed to be exploding throughout her body; she lifted her head as high as she could and screamed, unable to escape. She knew Kenshin was staring at her in alarm, but she couldn't do anything about that right now; her wings were burning, her bones feeling as if they were being crushed. She seemed to be falling fast and hard. Her senses choked; disorientation seized her mind, and to escape the torment she took refuge in darkness.

o.o.o.o.o

It was cold, but she was warm. She opened her eyes slowly, seeing the glimmer of starlight above and the flickering fires that surrounded them in a half-circle. She was being held by some enormous being. Fear struck her, for she had never seen any creature bigger than her before, but she could not move at first. Trying to flex her muscles brought a threatening ache into her back and limbs. Besides, this position was very...comfortable, wrapped up and lying with her head pillowed on something softer than straw.

A voice whispered down to her, familiar, startling in its volume. "Kaoru-dono?"

She flinched, and she felt a gentle stroking over her head. "What," she started to say. The horrible, strangled croaking sound of her own voice shocked her; even as a dragon she had never sounded like that. Her mouth suddenly ached in muscles she had not known she had. She tried to sit up, and fell back with a moan of pain. What had happened? Who was this who held her?

She blinked up into a worried face, not recognizing it for a second. If not for the scars, and the red hair, it would have taken her much longer. Slowly, she raised her hands to sign, "Ken...shin...?" He looked strange, his face too large and contorted, his features fuzzy and hard to see. Was something wrong with her eyes?

"Are you all right, Kaoru-dono?" he asked.

She thought she was going to die of shock. "Kenshin- Kenshin is HUGE!"

His eyes widened as he stared at her. Then his lips quirked and he burst into laughter, for so long that she was able to sit up and stare at him, clutching the quilts around herself. Finally he recovered and gazed at her with eyes still dancing in amusement. "Thank you, Kaoru-dono. I think that's the most gratifying thing anyone has ever said to me."

"But you are!" she insisted. Then, because she could not think how to sign it clearly enough, "How did you...?" She was talking. The words were coming out of her as she thought them; rusty, hard to understand, hurting her mouth, but she could hear them. Slowly, she let go of the quilt and raised up her forelegs...her arms, her hands. She stared at them open-mouthed for a long time, so that after a while his gaze sobered and he looked at her in concern. Then she put her wonderful, soft hands against her face and burst into tears.

"Kaoru-dono?" He reached out and gently laid a hand on her shoulder, another on her arm, as if he would tug her hands away to see her face; but at his touch she shuddered violently. She had never felt anything like it, not for so long, so long ago that she had forgotten. The feel of skin on skin, the nerves in her flesh blazing to life with the contact of another human being. A human being.

"I...I'm...not...a dragon," she whispered shakily, and found herself signing even as she spoke.

He smiled. "No."

She stared at him, pressing her hands close to her body as if they were injured. "I...I..." She did not know what to say, did not know how to get her thoughts to make sense, either with her mouth or with her hands.

Then, to her shock, he reached out and very gently touched her lips. "I wanted so much to hear you speak," he said softly. "I'm so glad, Kaoru-dono." He smiled. "You look a lot nicer than you do in your portraits."

She blushed, and was startled at the intensity of the heat that burned her face. "Yeah?" she snapped in pleased embarrassment. "Well you look...!"

He cocked his head curiously when she did not continue, and then she turned away from him, her breath coming hard. He looked like a man. She had been seeing him-

Kaoru pressed her hands over her face in mortification. She had been seeing him almost like a pet, like some cute little friend, or like some good-looking human specimen that she had idly admired, never expecting him to one day be - accessible. Even more, equal...if that. She had no advantage over him now, he was so...strong. If he could push her around when she had been a dragon...in this small, weak form of hers, he could so easily crush her.

"What is it?" he wanted to know, looking worried. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"I'm...sorry...Kenshin," she whispered. "I...threw you around all the time, and...hurt you, and was horrible to you."

He smiled, slowly and a little sheepishly. "If apologies are in order, I have some of my own, you know. For harassing you. For hurting you. For-" He broke off in surprise when her hand suddenly shot out to grip his clothes.

"No," she hissed, a little desperately. "You wouldn't let go of me. I...don't know what I would have done, if you'd really left me. I think I would have died." She was crying again, and to her relief he reached out to put his arms around her.

"Kaoru-dono," he murmured soothingly, rocking her. She shivered at his touch again, and it was worse when he frowned and rubbed her arms. "I'm sorry," he said helplessly. "I wish there was a way to get you warm, but I've already brought out all the blankets I could find."

"It's not that," she whispered. She could not look at him, even when she knew he was peering down at her inquiringly. "It's..." She swallowed. "Kenshin," she said awkwardly. "Dragon hide is very...tough. I couldn't really feel anything, through touch. Um...now I can."

There was a long pause. "Oh," he finally said. She wished so badly to know what he was feeling, but it was like half her senses were gone. She leaned her face against him and tried to breathe him in, but the only scent she could find was that of his body, there was nothing to reveal his thoughts. His mind had been closed to her.

He reached for the drooping quilt and tugged it back to cover the frayed kimono he must have found in the Secret Room to dress her in. They sat silently for a while like that, she leaning against him with the weight of his arms resting over the protective layers of cloth.

"I still can't believe how big you are," she finally mumbled.

"Give it a couple of days," he told her dryly. "Once your perceptions adjust, I'm sure you'll be disappointed."

"No," she said. "You were always big. Even...before. In a way. You were always there." She pulled away from him so that she could look at him unhappily. "Kenshin, I can't smell you anymore."

When he looked a little puzzled, she repeated it in signs, and then he smiled. "Well, I will tell you. I smell very happy, because my Kaoru-dono is finally free."

Her face was burning again. "Kenshin...you knew, didn't you? That I wasn't really a dragon?" He nodded solemnly, and she blinked in embarrassment. "How long? When did you figure it out?"

She was surprised to see his blush. "Er...well...I figured a real dragon wouldn't care about seeing me without, um, clothes."

"Wh-What?" she gasped. "But that was... You mean you knew from the beginning?"

He shrugged. "Pretty much, yes."

She dropped her face into her hands. "I thought...I thought I had kept it a secret."

He smiled. "There was a woman imprisoned beneath the dragon scales, you could see it in every gesture, every glance. No one could have looked at you and thought you were an ordinary dragon."

"That's not true," she said harshly. "It isn't true, Kenshin. You were the only one...the only one. Who looked at me, and..." She licked her lips, trying to speak through her choked throat and keep the tears back at the same time. "...and saw me," she whispered.

He looked a little dismayed. "Kaoru-dono...how long did you have to suffer like that? Who did this to you?"

She turned away from him and hugged her knees, clutching the quilt closer around herself. "It was a long time ago," she grumbled. "She's long dead."

"Kaoru-dono."

She eyed him warily, saw his narrowed eyes. "Look, you can't do anything about it, okay?" she snapped, trying to meet that look squarely. "She's dead. I didn't know she was a sorceress until it was too late, and she's been dead at least a hundred years anyway, so it doesn't matter."

His voice was stunned. "A hundred...?"

"It was my fault!" she cried angrily. "Okay? I was spoiled rotten, I know that now. The Princess of the Sword, my father's darling, so proficient even with a bokutĂ´ that I actually beat men who came at me with steel. You know? Why shouldn't I have thought everyone loved me? And even- even if I really was the center of the universe, I should never have treated anyone like that, so I know it's my fault!"

She turned away from his amazed expression, lost deep in her own hurt and anger. "Snide little brat... She was a sore loser and I was a braggart winner, so she attacked me with magic and I broke her wand and called her ugly, and she came up the next day pretending to be so sweet, offering me a drink as an apology. Best thing I ever tasted," she spat. "Last thing I ever tasted, besides water and raw meat. She said...that I'd be uglier than her...unless a man could actually love me as a dragon, could love me even if I never told him the truth." She shivered. "Forever. It was meant to be forever.

"Kenshin," she whispered. "Was it really worth it? Did I really deserve all this...just for that?" He did not answer. With an angry sob in her throat, she turned to yell at him for failing to reassure her - and found him sitting with his face in his hands, breathing hard. "Ke...Kenshin?" she said in surprise.

"No," he finally whispered, his voice ragged with pain and rage. "No. You could never have done anything to deserve such a thing, Kaoru-dono." He finally raised his head to look at her. "You...could never have done anything to deserve such a thing. You were wronged, and I wish there was something I could do."

She stared at him. She could not smell him anymore, but the pain in his eyes was as clear as scent. Why would he be in pain? "Kenshin," she gasped.

Forgetting her anger, she threw her arms around him, and he returned her embrace. "It's all right, Kaoru-dono," he whispered. He was trying to comfort her!

"Kenshin," she insisted. "Kenshin, you don't deserve it, either." He sobbed once, then clung to her with his face hidden, obviously fighting to keep control. "Kenshin," she murmured, stroking his hair. "You're a good person. You saved me. You don't deserve any punishment-" He was shuddering. "Listen! You're fighting to protect people, to help them. There's no shame in that! You don't make the decisions on who dies-"

"It's with these hands," he gasped. She felt him try to pull away, so she held him tighter.

"Kenshin," she murmured. "Don't run from me now."

There was a burst of helpless laughter, and finally he looked at her again, his eyes still haunted despite his smile. "I...won't. I suppose...if you'll have me, despite it all..."

"Always," she said fiercely. Then she grinned. "Besides, you belong to me, you know. My not-maiden sacrifice. Just because I haven't eaten you yet..."

He smiled, but there was something in the smile that made her fearful. "Kenshin?"

"Kaoru-dono," he said softly. "I finally know what I'm fighting for. I didn't...before I met you. I told myself I did, but there was no way I could have, until now. Do you understand?"

She stared at him. "No," she lied.

He stroked her face, the other hand clasped with one of hers. "I will come back. I promise."

"Why can't you take me with you?" she said quickly. "I can handle a sword, I can help you-"

"No," he said harshly. "You are no hitokiri, Kaoru-dono - and you never will be, while I live."

"Then let me come, just to be with you," she insisted. "Kenshin..."

He closed his eyes. "You don't know what it's like. The bloodshed takes place in the very streets...you would not be safe there. I can't let you..." He paused when he saw her glaring at him, then said quietly, "I have never been close to anyone other than my master. There was never anyone whose safety could be used against me. Now there is."

She bit her lip. In a way it was good, to know that she had become so important to him...but of course it also meant that he would not want her close to him while he fought.

"Kenshin..."

o.o.o.o.o

They left when the roads became passable again, taking their time as they made their way to the village where he intended to leave her. He found a good place for her to stay, where the landlady's eyes lit up in recognition before sliding over to Kaoru. She was suddenly self-conscious in her faded, frayed kimono from the Secret Room, the only clothing she had. "Who's this, Himura-san? Another drunk?"

"No!" Kenshin yelped. "Er, this is Kaoru-dono."

"Good to meet you," the woman said briskly. "Don't worry, Himura-san, I'll take care of her."

They were both uneasy, waiting to be alone, finding themselves silent when they finally were alone. Kaoru stood there and watched as he awkwardly got her things settled in, fiddled around at the window, avoiding her eyes the entire time until she finally broke the thick silence. "Well, are you going to get around to saying good-bye, or what?"

He finally raised his unhappy eyes to hers. "Kaoru-dono...you'll do well here. I will come back as soon as I can, I promise."

"Mad at you," she signed, then turned her back on him. She could do it a lot quicker now that she was smaller.

She heard him sigh. He came over and slowly put his arms around her. "Kaoru-dono...I'm sorry."

"You weren't worried about me getting hurt when I was a dragon," she whispered, tears prickling her eyes.

"Perhaps from physical danger, no," he admitted. Then he added gently, "Though even as a dragon, your body was not the only thing you had that could be wounded. But now..."

"I can help you," she growled again. "You know I can."

"You could," he acknowledged. "I don't want you to have to."

She closed her eyes, then turned around in his arms until she was facing him. "How long?" she whispered.

"I will come see you," he promised. "When I can, I will come see you, and one day I will come home to you for good."

She could have fought longer, but she swallowed the arguments and the resentment down, and only nodded. They smiled shakily at each other. Then he leaned forward and brushed the lightest of kisses against her cheek.

Kaoru went down to see him off, hugging her arms around herself as she watched him walk away. She stayed motionless there until he was out of sight. She waited a little longer. Then, when she was sure he was well and truly gone, she whirled and tore back into the inn, dashing up the stairs to her room where she feverishly shoved everything back into a bag. As she clattered back down again, the landlady gave her a startled, suspicious look and called, "Where are you going?"

"I'll be back soon," Kaoru answered over her shoulder. "And if I'm not, I'll be with him. Thank you so much!" She did not stop to listen for an answer, but simply ran down the street and wished that the distance she covered with each step wasn't so infuriatingly tiny.

Yet eventually she emerged from the town and kept up her flight, until she had enough room for what she wanted and was far out of sight of anyone who could see. Throwing down her pack and stripping off her clothes, she ran a little farther and then finally came to a stop, panting more from apprehension than because she was tired, ignoring her shivering as the chilly air struck her flesh. She paused to calm down and gather her thoughts. Then, closing her eyes and hoping fervently, she stretched her arms up, reaching desperately for the sky.

It hurt, but not as much as it had before, she was glad to find. She opened her eyes and looked down at herself, nearly crying with joy when she saw sapphire scales flashing in the sun; when the warm, leafy smell of the forest hit her nose; when the birdsong in her ears took on joyful meaning. Eagerly, she unfurled her wings and climbed up into the sky she had missed so badly, savoring the wind that rushed past her body and carried her above the world.

When the heady delight had cleared a little from her mind, a horrible thought occurred to her. Frantically, she wheeled back to where she had taken flight from and came in for a rougher landing than usual, clumsy in her haste. 'Oh please, oh please, oh please...' Pain shot through her as she reached desperately for the ground, but not as much as she had been expecting. Perhaps one day, as her body grew accustomed to the transformations, it would become second nature, like walking.

Kaoru sat and looked happily at her hands, thinking that they were the most wonderful things in the world. (Well, next to Kenshin.) Then she grinned and jumped up to get dressed again, feeling as dizzily happy as a child. She could dance or sing or clap her hands and not care how silly she looked; the world was wonderful and everything was wonderful.

When she had calmed down a little, she transformed again and flew back to her old cave, where the first thing she did was to hurry to the Secret Room and make sure the potion was still safe. There had been a time when she would have gladly burned it, if it could burn, but now it was more precious to her than a cave full of gold. She carefully wrapped it up and laid it in a safe place.

Then she wandered back out, thinking lazily of visiting the Big Lake after she had cleaned up the cave a bit. It didn't really matter. Kenshin traveled much slower than she could, it would take him a while to make his journey. There was plenty of time left before she had to leave, so he would find her waiting for him when he arrived.

o.o.o

For a hundred years, the fires of Dragon Mountain have been seen to glow against the night sky, and none set foot there, for it is a perilous place. Though the Ruby Beast and the Sapphire Beast have not been seen in my lifetime, some say that they are still there, watching the world turn through its seasons and venturing forth only when we cannot see. Others say they are dead, though their legend lives on; but I do not believe it, child. For sometimes, when the nights are clear and the moon is bright, you can still hear them singing.

o.o.o

Author's Note: The "other drunk" is not Tomoe here (I don't know who s/he is), but the line is a nod to that scene in the manga.