Sorry it's late.
Disclaimer: I plead the fifth.
Chapter 40: Hidden Guilt
Whoever the man was he was really strong, but really dumb. Taking on three boys, even if they were still in training was a bit arrogant. Arrogance was a large factor in loss, and Haruki knew this the best among the three. Koshijirou-sensei had found that weakness within days of starting his education, and had spent every day since trying to teach Haruki the importance of humility. Every warning ever said to him all made perfect sense now… now that he was seeing it up close. True strength was never found in overconfidence.
The man was impatient too, and easily irritated. They had already landed several blows between the three of them, and if they had been carrying live steel instead of the wooden practice swords, he would have long since suffered a serious injury. It was easy to tell how much more training they required to truly use their master's technique. It took a lot of strength, courage, and wisdom to use a non-killing style such as his in the correct fashion. Without the precise amount of control, any small misstep could easily claim the life you were trying to refrain from taking. Their master was a great man to be fighting with a blade.
Forcing his eyes to stay locked on his opponent to keep from attempting a glance at Koshijirou, Haruki dodged another attack and watched his brother counter in the opening it offered. The battle that was waging on the other side of the campfire was intense and distracting, and it took everything he had to keep from watching in awe, but he could not spare the time. Kazuki and Ren were counting on him, it was his responsibility to protect them. If they were to get hurt or killed because of his inattentiveness, then his master would be more than just disappointed. Of course, Haruki too would be devastated.
Their opponent was wearing himself out trying to keep up with their stamina, and it was with relief that Haruki saw the opportunity that would release them from the obstacle. It was another show of the man's arrogance that he gave little attention to Ren, thinking him to be the smallest and therefore weakest of their group. Because of his size, however, he was much more agile than the brothers, and as Haruki and Kazuki distracted the man's front, Ren was left with his back. Jumping forward without hesitation, his own weakness of uncertainty momentarily forgotten in the heat of battle, Ren struck a perfect blow against the back of the man's head. Landing on the man's back as he collapsed onto the ground, Ren balanced himself, the adrenaline still holding him tight, and looked up with a curt nod.
Kazuki let his bokken drop with a exhaling sigh of relief, but Haruki was already turning toward their master. He wanted to watch the fight, but there was something else prickling his senses that frightened him. Something felt wrong, and it took little time to see what. Blood was oozing down Koshijirou's right thigh from a long, slashing cut, soaking his grey hakama in dark red. The wound was a large handicap, and his foe, the man with the green eyes and sadistic manner, was exploiting that handicap as much as he could. It was all Koshijirou could do to keep up with his speed.
"Master!" Startled by the sight and terrified of the consequences, Kazuki shouted, his voice coming from directly behind Haruki. His quick movement as he lunged forward to join the duel jerked Haruki after him, frightened now for his little brother's rash courage.
"Stay where you are!" Their master's sharp command froze them both in place, Haruki's hand wrapped firmly around Kazuki's arm. "I will handle him!"
"Go ahead and let them, old man. You're going to need the help… though it won't do you much good." Enishi's sneer was harsh and mean, his words spiteful as he taunted them. "I am going to kill you, and I won't leave any loose ends to deal with."
"Killing me will not help you, Enishi. My daughter is outside your reach now. I am not the only man who will defend her."
"Man?! You gave her to a beast!"
Koshijirou frowned, and Enishi hated the superior and pitying look on his face. "My daughter chooses her own path. I have no right to give her to anyone. I am merely here to support her decisions."
"Don't lie!" Lunging at him, blinded by rage, Enishi swung his sword wildly. "I saw everything, old man! You made her cry!" The accusation caught Koshijirou's interest, briefly alerting him to an insight that startled him. In the next moment of Enishi's foolish abandon he saw an opening and the realization was pushed from his mind. Sidestepping a reckless upwards slash, Koshijirou countered, ripping open his opponents arm at the bicep. Green eyes abruptly focused as pain tore through his insanity, and Enishi retreated, his left arm hanging limp and dripping blood off his fingers. The cut had been too shallow to amount to much.
Thigh aching and feeling the loss of blood, Koshijirou forced himself to stand straight, his breath only slightly labored. "Kaoru was crying out of regret, but you would never understand her motivation even if I were to explain it to you in detail. It is also true that she left with a man that looks inhuman, but looks are quite deceiving. That man who came to get her, the lord of the palace, is a much kinder and gentler soul than you, Enishi. And stronger. Much stronger. Even if you are capable of defeating me, you will not defeat him."
"I am more than capable."
The attack was too fast for Koshijirou to completely avoid in his weakened state. Feeling the bite of the blade pierce deep into his flesh he was unable to react with more than wide, astonished eyes as Enishi stood directly before him. There was a triumphant, sadistically pleased smile on his face as he stared down upon him, his lips forming words that the master could not distinguish. Steel blue eyes dropping away from his foe's face, he glanced down at the sword joined with his body. It had buried itself almost hilt deep into his left shoulder, and Koshijirou briefly wondered why he felt no real pain. They were as one, almost as if they were supposed to be. Perhaps this is what it feels like to die. My mind has simply not caught up with the truth. The katana was abruptly moved and the world flooded back in a rush.
Gasping in pain, Koshijirou could do little more than keep himself upright, his fingers trembling around the hilt of his own katana. The pain finally registered and it hit him slowly that his heart had not been stabbed. He was still alive… but who knew for how long. He was completely at the mercy of his old, disgraced disciple.
"…she be surprised? When I show up to rescue her, she will have no choice but to acknowledge me then." Enishi was rambling, but the opportunity did Koshijirou little good. "I will be her hero. Me. The man you both shunned and hated. I have my own strength, I have my own honor. And at least I would never have given Kaoru over to a beast to rape and keep locked away."
Trembling, his mind going fuzzy, Koshijirou blinked, his head becoming increasingly harder to keep upright. "You are a beast… Enishi… and you will never have her."
The hand still wrapped around the katana clenched, his face contorting in rage, but before he could punish Koshijirou for still acting defiant, Enishi was forced to jump back or be tackled. Unable to pull the sword free, its tip lodged into a tree trunk behind his old master, he faced the three boys defending Koshijirou unarmed.
"Boys…" Weakly protesting, Koshijirou's legs buckled, tearing a cry of pain from his lips as he jerked against the blade still in his shoulder. Instantly Kazuki was by his side, supporting his weight.
"Forgive us, Master, for interfering, but we are unable to watch anyone die when we are capable of preventing it."
Haruki nodded, his black eyes staring Enishi down across the clearing, the campfire crackling and casting dark shadows over their visages. "It is a principle by which we live."
"Our Master would never forgive us if we were to stand idly by." Ren stood next to the older brother, his stance as determined as his cousin's. It pulled a crooked smile out of their teacher.
"You're right. Good job boys. I'm… proud of you."
Amused laughter cut through the praise. "You're proud that they stood by and watched me nearly kill you? You're on death's door, old man. It won't take much more for you to find yourself on the other side."
"You will have to find your way through us first." Haruki was tall and unafraid, his wooden practice sword a strong warning. It made Enishi laugh again.
"You three? Don't make me laugh. Your technique is so elementary I could pick you apart. Don't let that old man's praise go to your head. When I was barely eleven I was stronger than you. Stronger and faster and smarter. He must be going senile if he would praise you when he never once praised me." There was bitterness in his voice, and Haruki frowned. Ren glanced up at him and the look on his face showed his sensitive nature.
"Yes, Enishi… strong you were… but these boys together have something you lack. Kazuki is more courageous; Ren is much wiser; and Haruki is stronger. They will not be defeated so easily. Not when they are working together. Just look at how they beat your friend."
Enishi spit but took a step back. "I don't have time to deal with them anyway. You are going to bleed to death and that was all I wished to accomplish. I have something more important to take care of now. Kaoru's waiting for me and I won't disappoint her."
"Idiot boy!" Calling after him, Koshijirou's voice rasped and choked in his throat. "Kaoru is in love with him!"
Pausing within the shadow-plagued line of trees, Enishi glanced over his shoulder. Briefly contemplative, he sneered. "No one could ever love a beast like that."
"Master!" As Enishi disappeared into the woods Kazuki tried to support all of Koshijirou's weight as he slumped. Haruki turned to help, his hand going to the hilt of the katana. Before he could pull the blade out Ren halted him, asking him to wait while he found something to stop the bleeding.
"Quickly boys… we must warn the palace…"
"We will, Master, be calm. We must treat your wounds first."
"There's no time… quickly…"
Kaoru was still crying when Kenshin landed, her harsh sobs barely letting up enough to allow her a moment to breathe. Strangely calmed in the face of her distress, he adjusted the weight of her in his arms and said nothing. Walking his way slowly toward the dark gazebo standing alone in the middle of the private garden, he mounted the steps and carefully situated himself against one of the support posts. Trembling arms refused to release her grip around his neck, and he shifted them both so that she was resting in his lap. Leaning his head back against the pole, he stared out across the manicured grass and foliage and waited for her tears to subside.
Strong fingers clenched in his hair, his kimono long since soaked as she wept, and his eyes closed. On a day not so long before he had promised her that he would never let her come to harm. It angered him that she had harmed herself… that he had allowed her to harm herself. At the same time he felt betrayed and hurt. How could she make such a decision without thinking of the consequences? Did she not know what her absence had done to him? Did she not understand that whatever misery she had inflicted upon herself would be the same misery he would feel? How could she have thought to condemn them both in such a way?
"I-I'm sorry, Kenshin." The apology startled him from his anger and he realized his hand was pinching her arm in his agitation. Consciously relaxing his muscles, he grimaced as she hiccoughed, the close noise loud in his ear. "I'm… so sorry." Regretting his lack of control, but still unwilling to offer her reassurance, he dropped his hand in her lap, his other arm wrapped around her back for support only. Swallowing to prepare his voice to be even, he stared at a point over her shoulder.
"Why?" Quivering muscles trembled harder at the firmness in his voice, and the little control she had gained over her breathing left her. "Tell me why."
"Why would you go if you are so sorry?"
"I only… wanted to help you, Kenshin." Heavy arms finally released his neck, her hands clutching at the collar of his kimono instead. "Tomoe-dono said…" A shuddering breath shook her entire frame as she fought to explain her actions. "I had to leave to break the curse. She said… it was the only way."
A suffering, annoyed sigh left his mouth, and he shook his head like a parent striving for patience with a child. "I thought you had already learned this lesson. If you know or have seen something that I have not, then come to me with this information, that way we may find a way to solve the problem without anyone getting hurt. Together."
"But Tomoe-dono said that I…"
"I don't care what that witch said." Teeth clenching, the arm around her back tightened, crushing her against him. "It was wrong of her to place such a burden on you. You are a thousand years too young to be associated with the curse. Breaking it is my responsibility."
Tears choking her voice, Kaoru shook her head in negation, disagreeing with this claim. "She said only I could do it, that I had to break your heart because it would fulfill her revenge. Otherwise you would be stuck like this forever. I didn't want to but… I can't let everyone else suffer too. I wanted to save everyone. I wanted to save you. I love you so much Kenshin. I don't want you to suffer anymore." Cries strengthening as new guilt and anguish moved in, she sobbed over her defeat. "But it doesn't matter now. I failed. I wasn't strong enough. I could have done better. I could have still lied, but I was so happy to see you and… I wanted so much to come home." It was such an inadequacy to describe her longing, but he must have understood because his other arm finally encircled her completely within his embrace.
"Your guilt is misplaced, my lady. Even if you had lied to me again tonight, I would have never believed you. This plan was a failure from the very beginning. No amount of effort on your part would have truly met the requirements of the curse. I know you love me and I know that you always will."
"Really?" Kaoru's heart hurt hearing his confession and a part of her was so fiercely glad to know he held no doubts about her love.
"Of course. Do you not feel the same?"
Biting her lip and turning her head to the side for air, she sniffed and nodded. "Yes."
"Then why? Why would you leave me?" Features contorting in agony once more, hot tears slid down her cheeks as his voice held no warmth. "Why do this alone? I will not pretend I know everything it means to be in love, but this at least I understand. I am no longer alone… and neither are you. From now on whatever we do will affect the both of us. How could you have made such a decision without consulting me? If we are to support one another then we must tell one another everything. How can I help you if you insist on doing everything on your own? How can I protect you when you do not rely on me?"
"I couldn't tell you, otherwise it wouldn't have worked." Her voice was small, unconvincing even to her.
"It did not work anyway!" The short snap of his voice made her cringe, her face once again hiding between them. "Have you not heard a word I have said? It wouldn't have worked because I would have followed you anywhere just to bring you back. I didn't believe you. Not once."
"I'm sorry." The soft, tear soaked plea worked at his desire to pet and assure her; to coddle and baby her. Cradling a hand against the back of her head as his only allowance, he looked away, violet eyes drifting over the moonlit darkness.
"No, my lady… I don't think you are. After all, how can you be sorry for something if you do not fully understand."
"I do understand…"
"Then you know what it is like to be alone for a thousand years?" The answer was obvious, and she whimpered pitifully in the silence. "You know how hard it is to accept otherwise? You can appreciate how much faith I have for the words you have spoken when the time we have spent together is but a fraction of the life I have endured in doubt?" Stroking his hand slowly down her ponytail, he took no pity on her as he explained. "It is like being a victim of starvation for your entire life. With no home, no companionship, only a cold, empty, never-ending road laid out before you. You walk forward because that is all you are able to do, a vagabond with no purpose or desire except to continue living. You can only dream of what it is like to be full because you are barely able to find enough food to survive.
"And then one day you wake and find yourself not in the familiar wilderness, but in paradise." Violet eyes swept around the garden, seeing an echo of fireflies and stars and dim lanterns. "You are told you have been invited, that you are the guest of honor. There is a table waiting, but when you approach it is not just a simple bowl of rice as you used to dream nor even a meal or a feast… but an entire banquet. More food than you could ever dream of eating, but it is not just food, there is warmth and wonder and beauty. So much beauty." His voice softened, filling with awe. "You doubt whether it is real, and no matter how much you eat, no matter how many times you wake to the foreign beauty and warmth, you fear it is simply a mad delusion of your malnourished mind." The hand stroking down her hair stopped, his eyes unfocused as he stared up at the stars, and Kaoru's sapphire irises were finally visible. Tear-spiked lashes blinked slowly as she studied the emotion touching his features, her teeth biting her lip, and her cheeks were hot with moisture.
"You doubt, but you cannot abstain, and soon you forget what it means to be hungry. You forget what it means to be cold. You forget the hard earth you used to sleep upon, the dirt that used to cover you, the weather that used to torture you. Without willing it you become comfortable and soon you can no longer imagine your life without these new found comforts, and the fear inside you suddenly changes. Not that you have imagined your fulfillment, but that it will be taken away. Please, you pray, even if I only dream, never wake me up." His arms tightened unconsciously, and she silently pouted, all of the pain coming into sharper focus.
"Within this endless banquet you are treated so well. Everyone smiles and bows, everyone speaks compliments of your appearance and manners. You are told so many things about yourself that you never knew and you actually begin to believe them. To hear such conviction over and over again… it must be true, and soon even your fear of waking fades. Your doubt withers, your confidence builds, and you begin to take the food at the table for granted. Something you would have never done before, because before there was no guarantee. Now, you have no reason to ever believe it will disappear. You are the guest of honor, after all, this was all set up for you. Only for you." Inside the guilt and sorrow troubling her heart betrayal struck sharply, and she struggled to catch her breath. I get it Kenshin, please.
"And then your fears come back to haunt you, but they do not come about as you expected. Instead of simply waking, instead of finding it all to be a delusion, you are thrown out. You were never the guest of honor, and now you are back out in the cold and hunger. Only, you can no longer deal with it like you used to. You cannot remember that person you were before, and the premature departure of all the desires born of that paradise feels so profound you do not want to live without them. You cannot. You would do anything to get them back or otherwise free yourself from the loss."
"Stop." Amethyst eyes still lost in the emotion of his tale finally noticed the empathy he had brought her to. "Please, stop. I understand… I do…" After all the tears she had cried it seemed impossible that she could still produce more, but they ran unchecked down her face. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I just… I had thought about it…" A frown formed on his brow and lips, his hand carefully touching her face. "If I stayed or went… I knew you were going to eventually suffer. Sixty years of suffering just… sounded so much better than eternity."
Very human violet eyes blinked at her as if she had missed something obvious. "I would rather have you for the next sixty years than my freedom from this curse." A sob escaped her, and she cupped a hand around his as she nodded.
"My father said something similar."
"Then you do understand?"
"Good." The control holding him back finally snapped and he hugged her tight against him, his eyes clenched shut as he buried his face in her shoulder. "I am glad you understand now." His exhaled breath was shaky. "So please. Please don't ever leave me again." Head shaking desperately in negation, Kaoru clutched tighter at his kimono seeking comfort and warmth. There was reassurance in his touch now, causing her weary body to shiver in relief, and she felt suddenly so very tired. This was everything she needed, and she never wanted to give it up again.
"Don't ever hurt yourself like that again. Don't ever lie to me. Don't try to do anything else on your own." Meaningful words were spoken against her skin, his warm breath a faint touch of heat. "I want to support you for the rest of your life. I want to make you happy, I want you to smile, I don't ever want you to act in a way that does not suit you. Please, my lady… I want you to put your faith in me. I promise to always listen and judge fairly."
Nodding, Kaoru was finally getting her breathing under control. There was still a wretched feeling lying just underneath the assurance and love he was blanketing her in. It would not allow her to feel completely certain or secure. She loved Kenshin and she could not deny that she was happy to be with him again. It was so easy to let him win when what he wanted was what she wanted as well, and even though she no longer felt as certain about her decision to lie and leave, she was unable to feel truly at peace either. Kenshin had made it clear that this strategy would have never worked because his heart would not be swayed by her act, and she believed that he was right. However, the same part of her that suffered for the pain she had given to her lover still did not think she had done enough. More than anything in the world she wanted to be with Kenshin forever, but she also wanted to free everyone from the curse so that they could be with the ones they loved, too. Even if the plan had been hopeless from the beginning, she still felt like a failure. Their permanent imprisonment was now all her fault.
"Kaoru." Sapphire eyes blinked open slowly as her thoughts retreated into the shadows of her mind. It was the first time he had ever addressed her without a title.
"Yes?" Barely able to find her voice to reply, she waited breathlessly for him to continue.
"If you are going to stay here… then I have… a condition."
"I want you… to be the Lady here… my lady." One shaky hand cupped the back her head, his face still hidden, and the tremor in the touch gave him away. "I… I want you to be my wife."
Happiness despite the enduring pain, shame, and guilt of the evening flooded her heart, making her smile tremulous. "Okay." Flattening her hands against his chest, she sniffled. "Can I have a condition, too?"
The frown on his face was perplexed when he pulled away, and she was glad to see the familiar warmth back in his eyes. "Anything. Whatever you want."
"Could you say my name like that again?" Lashes heavy as exhaustion caught up with her, she leaned her head against his chest, stray tears still leaking from her eyes. "It was really nice."
"Such a simple request." Planting a soft kiss on her forehead, he leaned his cheek against the same spot. "This is the Kaoru that I am used to." A soft hum announced her pleasure. "I am so glad that the nightmare is finally over."
A shiver passed up her spine, his words adding more weight to the situation. It had been a nightmare; a long, horrible nightmare. Tugging the ends of her overcoat tighter around her shoulders, she dug herself a little closer into his chest. It wasn't cold, but his warmth felt good. Adjusting to her movements, Kenshin allowed her to get into a comfortable position between his legs.
Settled, his arms relaxed around her and a moment later she noticed his fingers playing with the sleeve of her haori. Though he said nothing about her theft of the clothing, she knew he was aware. "I wanted… to keep something of yours with me…"
"I'm sorry for taking it without permission."
"It is alright."
"… It was a poor substitute."
"For me?" Carefully his hand reached into the fold of his kimono collar, forcing her to sit back. "Or for this?" The necklace glowed softly pink in the darkness, the silver chain winking as it swayed in his grip. Pouting she lifted a finger to touch the glass petal and admitted timidly.
"Both. I felt so naked without it." He chuckled in amusement and she smiled at his reaction, her finger just brushing the surface. A sudden, fierce flash of pink lit up the interior of the gazebo at the contact, blinding Kaoru and leaving white and black spots to decorate her vision when the light subsided. "What… happened?" Blinking, her eyes clearing reluctantly, she looked up to see Kenshin was similarly affected. After a couple of seconds of his own attempts to rid himself of the hampering aftereffect, the hand still holding the necklace jerked causing Kaoru to jump. Watching as he spread his fingers wide, she frowned in confusion when he sighed at the red scales and black claws.
"Of course…" The disappointment and resignation in the statement worried Kaoru.
"Of course what? What's wrong?"
"Nothing, Kaoru." Speaking her name was clearly a tactic to divert her, but his accompanying smile helped. "I think it's just happy to be reunited with you as well. That was more than likely its own way of scolding you for leaving it behind."
"Oh. Yeah." Not sure what he meant, she agreed without questioning. Why was he speaking of it like it had a mind of its own?
"Put it back on. Since you are going to stay, it is yours to keep, and I don't ever want to see you without it again."
What about Tomoe-dono? Doesn't the petal belong to her? Biting her lip, she did not voice her concern aloud, and instead focused on fastening the small hook at the back of her neck. Gently the light weight rested once more against her sternum, and Kaoru sighed at the familiar feeling. The delicate glow burned a little brighter, warming her through her clothes, and Kaoru frowned as it suddenly became easier to breathe. In fact, she felt lighter, like a weight she hadn't been aware of was lifted from her chest. Her thoughts became clearer, her weak limbs stopped trembling, and a surging rush of power she had never felt or noticed before coursed all the way down to her fingers and toes.
"I'm sorry it took me so long to get it back to you." Unaware of her experience, Kenshin brushed a hand over the trails of moisture still dripping from her chin. "I told you that I never doubted but… it still took me the last two days to convince myself you were acting." There was shame in the confession. "I'm sorry… but I was relieved knowing for certain that I was right."
Shaking her head free of the warm buzz tickling her senses, Kaoru leaned back into his chest. "It's okay." Worrying her lip, her thoughts distracted, she struggled to offer the comfort he desired. "I didn't give you much reason to believe me."
"It shouldn't have mattered." Again his hand touched her cheek and she glanced up to see him frowning at her. "Please stop crying, Kaoru. You have no reason to cry anymore." Startled, her hand joined his, touching the fresh tears still leaking from the corners of her eyes. "We are together now and I know I was angry before but I would never be cruel to you."
"I know, they just…" Sniffing, her smile came out looking crooked. "won't stop."
"Then I shall have to stay with you until they do."
"If I must."
"I think you just wanted an excuse to keep a hold of me." Teasing half-heartedly in an attempt at normalcy, Kaoru forced a breathy laugh.
"Perhaps." His smile was kind and warm, his eyes speaking more than his words.
Blushing, Kaoru played with a lock of red hair that had found its way over his shoulder, her thoughts of the necklace gone. "Will this be the first night, then?"
"The first night, my lady?"
Ducking her chin to hide her embarrassment, Kaoru's lowered voice forced him to lean closer. "Misao-san told me… about how marriage was done… a thousand years ago."
Sitting back up, Kenshin tried not to roll his eyes at the mention of that nosy weasel. "I see."
"She wanted to make sure I was aware of my actions when… I was in your room in the evenings."
"Ah." Sighing, he dropped his head back against the post. "Don't worry, Kaoru, I had planned on doing this right. We will have a proper ceremony as you are used to, with your Father's blessing. After all, I did promise him that I would protect your honor."
"Yes, and I will formally ask for his permission when he shows up in a few days. I thought, if he did not mind, that he might stay here as well. Those boys of his did not seem to mind me, and you won't have any need to worry about him."
"That would be wonderful." Eyelashes fluttering, she yawned. The surge of energy she had received from the necklace wasn't enough to fight off the fatigue from the last two days. "I hope he agrees."
"I as well."
Warm and comfortable, Kaoru relaxed completely. "Kenshin?"
"I don't wanna sleep in separate rooms."
"When we're married. I know that's what you're used to but… it's weird to me. Mom and Dad always slept in the same room."
"Oh." There was a smile in his voice, and her lips twitched at the caress of his mouth in her hair. "I have spent enough nights on my own."
"I'm glad we agree." Seemingly satisfied, it was quiet again, amethyst eyes closing in languid contentment. He would have to explain to her later that separate rooms were mostly for changing purposes. "Kenshin?"
A frown pulled his lips downward. "Yes?"
"Will you still hate your name when it's mine too?"
Hmm… Himura Kaoru… His frown twitched. "I think I'm liking it better and better by the moment."
A smile spread over his features, his thoughts now occupied with the seeds she had planted.
Eyes popping open in amused exasperation, he looked down at her. "What is it?"
"I love you."
Annoyance fading, he petted her hair, brushing her bangs aside so he could better see her face. "I love you, too." He was so glad to hear those words again. Glad that she was once again there to speak them. Complete happiness eluded him however, and he instead felt a sprouting seed of sadness as he watched the tears that were still silently coursing down her cheeks. Despite all of his reassurances something was still bothering his lady, and he was not unaware of why.
It was the beginning of the third day of their lord's demand for solitude and Sano was not happy. He had thought for sure the master would have gone after the woman, but it seemed he was insisting on being stubborn and idiotic. It was clear to everyone else that whatever had sent the little lady away was not because she had wanted to leave. Whatever fight had happened, or careless word spoken, for whatever reason she was gone the master needed to bring her back. Without her there, time was once again ignoring them.
When she had first arrived their palace had been lost to the passage of time, stagnant within their little world. With her influence they had once again found themselves moving forward, progressing towards a future, towards hope. Their master no longer ignored them and once again became the stable center they needed to function properly. Brightness had returned to their lives, hopes and dreams renewed, love rekindled. Now that she was gone, it was like time had once again stopped. Their master had retreated back into his shell, and the light of hope was slowly dying for the rest of them. Doubt was beginning to take the place of certainty, and some were starting to whisper alternative reasons for her departure. Perhaps they were simply unwanted and of no use anymore.
Irritated and grumbling, Sano put his tracking skills to use. He did not want things to go back to the way they had been. Life was only just beginning to make sense to him again, he couldn't ignore all the turmoil he had gone through just to get to where he was now. It was too short of a time for him to just give up. Besides which, he had accomplished nothing. He still had yet to get his own woman back. This backsliding was not going to happen, he was not going to allow it. Even if he had to push the limits of his connection to the master, he would make sure this slump was not permanent.
The sun was barely up when Sano found the lord curled up and dozing in a small gazebo in one of the gardens. It looked like an awkward position to be sleeping in, sitting straight up with his neck bent completely forward and his wings draped on top of one another over his front like a makeshift blanket. For a moment his quiet indisposition angered Sano even more. How could the man be sleeping so peacefully when the woman he loved had left without a word? Did he feel no responsibility for mending their relationship? Did he care so little about the chaos his withdraw had thrown the palace into? Wasn't he worried at all about where the little lady was?
Clearing his throat loudly, Sano set his mouth in a stern frown. What he was about to do was dangerous and he knew it, but there were some things he could not tolerate. No one else had the nerve to so blatantly disobey the master, and even though Sano knew he was relying a little too much on his relationship with Shinta and Kenshin's respect of that, he was determined to do the unthinkable. No matter what the master did to him, he was going to give him a piece of his mind. He only hoped that it was enough to set him on the right path. Shinta help me say the right words, I'm about to do something stupid.
The noise must have woken the master because his head twitched up enough to show his red lashes flutter. Thinking that perhaps it might be safer to speak to him when he wasn't coherent enough to lash out, Sano pitched his voice loud and forceful. "Forgive me, my lord, for my disobedience, but I need to speak to you about your actions." Violet eyes darted instantly in his direction and locked on him, a frown marring his face. "It's been three days now since the little lady left, don't you plan on doing something about it?"
"I know you think it is none of my business, and in a way that may be true, but this situation has affected your subjects, my lord. You need to come to a decision. You need to bring her back." Kenshin's weight shifted, one of his wings twitched, and a second after his eyes flickered down to his lap the frown on his face darkened.
"Lower your voice."
Bravely ignoring the hiss in his master's tone, Sano hounded him relentlessly. "It shouldn't matter what happened between you. You probably weren't paying her enough attention or something. Whatever she did or you did you need to resolve it quickly. We need our master back, and the little lady was nice having around too."
"Sanosuke, you will lower your voice."
"Like hell. Not until you stop being a stubborn ass and get your woman back. Everything was better with her here. You were better with her here. You want her back so stop moping and go get her."
Huffing impatiently, Kenshin growled lowly, cutting through Sano's tirade. "Sanosuke, if you wake my lady I will have you put on ridge patrol for the next thirty years."
Mouth already open to continue, Sano blinked, his teeth clicking together as what was said sank in. Half-ducking, his ears flattened and his tail lowered. "What?"
"Ridge patrol, Sanosuke. The longest, most taxing and undesirable track for the outer patrols. You will live on that trail for the next thirty years if you do not keep your voice down."
"Yes, my lord, but… what was that you said about your lady?"
Sighing, Kenshin uncurled his wings carefully, revealing Kaoru's sleeping form still resting against his chest. She slept deeply, fortunately for Sano, safely enclosed in her lover's arms. "Are you satisfied now, you meddlesome mutt? I brought her home late last night."
Stretched on his belly in contrite submission with his jaw on his forelegs, his ears popped straight up and his tail flopped happily. "Yes sir."
"I'm glad you have been appeased." Sarcastic and annoyed, Kenshin rolled his shoulders as the stiffness from the night caught up with him.
"Forgive my impudence, my lord. I was merely concerned for your behavior." Standing, he ducked his head respectfully, then looked up with a wink. "Give the little lady my regards when she wakes up."
"Wait, Sanosuke." Pausing, Sano's pleased expression both amused and annoyed the master. "Since you are here I have an errand that needs done. The morning patrols should have already taken over for the evening here at the palace, but Saitou's city patrols should still be out. I need you to intercept Saitou before he switches off and send him here, he should be on day patrol. If he's not at the barracks then he might still be at his home."
"You got it. One bad-mannered wolf coming up."
"Oh, and Sanosuke, one last thing." Turning away nonchalantly, Kenshin pretended that he was only making the confession because it was better than a repeat of the encounter. "Since you are so concerned with my personal affairs then it might reassure you to know that the lady has agreed to be a permanent resident… as my wife." An almost timid look peeked out of the corner of violet eyes to see how this news was accepted, and a large grin spread over the dog's mouth.
"Hot damn!" Kaoru twitched and Sano's ears pinned back, his voice lowering to a whisper. "Congratulations. That's great news."
"Thank you." A tender look crossed over his face as he looked down on his lady, and Sano decided it was a good moment to strategically retreat. Being told personal business and witnessing personal business was two very different things. Gone before the master even noticed, Sano hurried to carry out his duty, leaving Kenshin to his adoration.
There were sticky moisture trails still evident on her cheeks, her dark hair tangled and matted to her face in those areas of recent tears. Carefully peeling the messy strands away his brow twitched as he rediscovered something he had noticed the night before. The silky black locks were dirty and grimy, as if she had not bathed since leaving the palace. Her clothes were in a similar state as well. Even if she had been on the trail for two days, there were plenty of mountain streams to use if she wished to take care of herself properly. In the heat of summer the chill water would be welcome even. Closing his eyes briefly he knew he had no room to feel indignant for her negligence. Kenshin had done little better in his own appearance. He was still wearing the attire she had helped him into the day before she had left.
As he watched a new tear pressed itself through the crevice of her closed eyelids and rolled slowly down her cheek. Even in sleep she could find no peace from the wrong Tomoe had done to her. It angered him again, because he was unsure what reason the witch had for telling Kaoru such a lie. Then again, he did know. The entire point of the curse was to bring him pain, after all, in return for the pain he had given to her. Was that not what revenge was all about? He would not even deny that he deserved to feel pain for his deeds, but he could not forgive her senseless use of Kaoru. Sending her away would never appease the curse.
A soft whimper escaped Kaoru's throat and she pushed herself forcefully into his chest, escaping or seeking comfort from whatever was haunting her dreams. Her turmoil hurt but at the moment he had no way of truly assuaging her pain except to offer her his presence. Kaoru was such a gentle and giving soul. If given the choice between her own happiness and the happiness of others she would always choose the latter. Was that not the very reason why she had left? Even if she had not truly understood her choice or that she was in fact bringing the exact opposite of what she had wished about, he knew where her heart was, and that was in good. Now that he had brought her back, however, and even though he knew she was happy to be home once again, she would never forgive herself for not breaking the curse for everyone else. She would be miserable and he wanted her to be happy.
Kenshin would gladly take away this feeling of guilt, but he knew she would give it up reluctantly. She had no place to carry it, as the entire existence of the curse was his fault to begin with, but because of this incident she now mistakenly found blame in herself. It would eat at her, never allowing her to truly be at peace, and for now he knew he had to let it. When she was calmer he would release her from her guilt and take it all upon himself. At that time he would reveal to her what he knew. He would tell her that he finally understood what it was going to take to break the curse. Because of her influence he was able to see the truth, and because of her love he was able to stop lying to protect himself. He knew what needed to happen… and he had a plan to make sure everyone would be happy in the end.
When Saitou finally showed nearly an hour later Kenshin had readjusted Kaoru to his lap where she still slept undisturbed and with no signs of waking. It did not surprise the wolf to see the lady, but then Saitou had heard all about the situation from Sano's smug declarations. It was almost as if the mutt had been speaking of the pair like he was the sole reason they were back together again. Saitou was not fool enough to believe something like that, but then again, he had never believed the master would allow the woman to be out of his sight for long, either.
Sitting at a polite distance from the gazebo at attention, Saitou allowed his manners to slip. "It took you long enough." The lord frowned at him, and Saitou's features briefly held condescension before reverting to a look of boredom. "You called for me?"
"Yes." Looking him over, Kenshin was obviously suspicious of the opening statement, but could find no reason to be overly concerned despite his irritation. "Do you know what Kaoru's father, Kamiya Koshijirou, looks like?"
"I do, my lord."
"Good, this makes things simple. I need you and you personally to take a few of your men to find him and his three students and escort them back to the palace. I doubt they will have any problems, but I don't want to give my lady any more cause to worry."
Nodding, Saitou listened to the lord's quick and precise instructions on where to find them. "Very well. Should I escort them out of sight?"
"Whatever you prefer, as long as you do not startle them."
"It shall be done." Standing, Saitou nodded again curtly. "The boys were asking after the lady. They will be pleased that she has returned."
Considering him thoughtfully, Kenshin nodded in return. "Shall I invite them to the palace for a visit? I am certain my lady would be more than pleased to see them as well."
"After the lady has settled back in. I would hate for my boys to be inconvenient." Pausing with his body half-turned away, Saitou frowned. "Since she is here may I assume she has felt remorse for her actions?"
The question felt too vague and specific at the same time, allowing the wolf's words to take on a double meaning. No one else knew of the real reason Kaoru had left, though. Had she said something to Saitou the night he had walked her down the mountain? Choosing his words just as carefully in reply, Kenshin nodded his head slowly. "She understands and regrets what she has done and came home willingly."
"Good. I have no intention of being a third party to this again. That silly child is in severe need of guidance that I have not the patience to attempt a second time."
"The assistance you granted to her will never be required of you again as I have no intention of letting her out of my sight." Annoyance with the insinuation made Kenshin's voice short. "Also, Saitou, you will speak of this child with more respect once she is my wife."
"I will keep that in mind once that happens."
"Make sure you do."
"I will also hold you to your responsibilities, my lord." Kenshin's frown narrowed in a mixture of confusion and indignity. "Our lives depend upon your actions."
Certainly not the actions of a child barely into maturity. Saitou marched away, leaving the master and his bride-to-be alone once more in the gazebo. The entire situation was too complicated when it should not have been. Without even knowing everything Saitou could see what was most important. The witch had tried to keep him in the dark, to use him like she had used Kaoru with her half truths, but he was a being much more shrewd than the little girl. It angered him that she had succeeded in tricking him for a time, but there seemed to be some use in his cooperation. It was sickening to think that she had deliberately used an innocent girl just to satisfy her own wishes, though.
When he had first approached the sorceress she had answered his questions openly about the curse and its origins. To break it, however, she had told him was quite simple. All that needed to happen was for the young lord to fall in love and to be loved in return. Not so simple when he was trapped in the form of a hideous beast, but she had assured him that his appearance was the point. If a young woman could love him despite his outward facade then it would prove that he was not the heartless monster of his younger years and she would be appeased by his rehabilitation. Saitou had been skeptical, but the chance had not been worth passing up.
So he had found a child, as requested. One that showed no fear of his large form or the speech that came unnaturally from his mouth. The girl had been all to eager to go with him, to meet others like himself, to see the palace and all its glory, and to encounter the master that her mother had told her about in stories. Saitou had watched that day, reassured that his choice had been correct by the master's actions. Even when she did not come back for years, he had thought nothing of it. The girl had been young, after all, and she would need to mature before love could truly form. Besides, the lord's activities ever since that day had become more lively, showing promise. The witch, too, had expressed no concern. The lord would eventually bring her to the palace, and if he did not then they would engineer a way to get her there.
Once she was there he had been forced to simply wait and watch. No one but they could create the love that was needed, and any interference would only hamper their development. There were plenty of others to intervene and encourage the two fools. Let them do what he could not. When it was apparent that they were in love, however, his skepticism grew. If all it took was their love for one another, then how come nothing had happened?
"Perhaps the girl does not really love him, or he her." Not long after this declaration, the witch had informed him that Kaoru had decided to leave. The plan had not worked. The witch was worried about her walking back down the mountain alone, however, and had asked him to escort her. The conversation that had ensued between the two of them during their walk had confirmed all of his suspicions about the witch.
Angered, at himself, the witch, the girl, and the master, he cursed his own involvement in the now tangled web, sickened even by his own hopeful response. It was that weakness had that allowed him to be used, and it was that hope that had kept him from doing everything he could to keep the girl from leaving even when he knew she did not want to. He spoke of dishonor, but his own actions were far from honorable. To protect his family, however, to give them the life that they deserved, he would do what was needed. Conflicted by what he knew was right and his responsibility and devotion towards his family, he had lectured the girl but still let her go. Even if there was only a slim chance of setting his family free, he could not pass up the possibility. If it was to work they would never know of the dishonor because he would never tell them, and he would carry it solely by himself for the rest of his life just to let them live peacefully. A part of him had known that it would never work, however. The same part that knew his master would never allow his lady to be gone from his side for too long.
When his anger had subsided, the truth had come easily. At the very beginning the witch had told him that only the master could break the curse and no one else. That meant even Kaoru was unable to. From here on he would have to trust the master to take care of the problem. It would not be easy, but the boy had grown much. When he got back from escorting the girl's father, he would see about approaching the lord. If something was to be done, it needed to be done soon.
Enishi glanced up at the morning sky with a harsh grin. Well rested and making good time, he would be at the palace after sunset where his men would be waiting for him. The beast would never expect an ambush when people were supposed to fear him. Such assumptions would be its downfall, and Kaoru would finally be his. Better yet, she would be happy to be his. After being held by a beast, she would no doubt be eager to love him.
A/N: Well, this took long enough, but I only need one excuse and that is life. It happens, unfortunately. I apologize.
I am also sorry that this chapter wasn't quite exciting. A lot of stuff happened, but I didn't get to Tomoe, and I know someone was really excited about that part. I had to hold off on it, though, so it will be in the next chapter, I assure you. I had to restart the beginning of this three times because I couldn't get the feel right. I am much more satisfied with it now, but I struggled with the emotion in this chapter, which is usually the part I have the least problem with. I think I've burnt myself out after the last three chapters of drama. I'm ready for some fight scenes dammit! Even though they are my worst areas. I'm hoping practice makes perfect, so bear with me.
So I left Koshijirou kind of hanging in limbo. XD It's fun that way. Kenshin's talk with Kaoru was supposed to be a little different, but I always have an easier time of imagining what it's supposed to be like and then have trouble putting it to paper. I hope that becomes easier, but I doubt it. It seems Kenshin knows something, or has realized something, about the curse. (evil laugh) Oh, and I wanted to bring out Saitou's actions since I didn't really explain before, but I feel like I shot myself in the foot. I have the reasoning in my head, but I have such a hard time writing it without making it into five pages of worthless thoughts that have nothing really to do with the plot line. So this will have to do.
Please leave a review and tell me what you think. I'm going home this week, so I won't be anywhere near my laptop for nine days. That means the next chapter might be a little while though hopefully not as long as this one. Coming up, Kaoru's insecure, Kenshin confronts Tomoe, and mayhem finds the palace at night.