Author's notes: Alright, just for the record…I AM NOT ACTUALLY AN EVIL PERSON. Heehee…I got that a lot in the reviews for the last chapter. Anyway, I'm sorry it's so angsty but ya know, in this little universe of Broken Pieces, I can't see it any other way. It's not a very happy life they're leading. But regardless, I think that this final chapter, broken pieces, is not a SAD chapter. I mean, it has some elements of sadness but I think the ending is very uplifting. I had this ending planed out BEFORE the rest of the story. That being said, I am SURE that many people will want a more…shall we say, fluffy ending. So maybe I will write an alternate ending. Maybe. Please read on and give my ending a chance.
Oh yeah, as for lyrics, or poetry…I made it up. (except for in chapter 22 when she sings) Stuff in this chapter is stuff from all other chapters.
After you read this, this is what you can expect from me: 1 – I will be revising the whole story (no more swearing, editing out contradictions, etc.) and then you can read it as a novel – without having to wait years for the next chapte! - 2 – Writing a sequel called "complete me". Stand by for that one! Woohoo!
So, thank you to everyone for encouraging me and leaving wonderful reviews. You have all been extra patient and a great, great inspiration for me. I hope you enjoy this final instalment – but remember! I'm not disappearing yet!
Disclaimer: I didn't create Kenshin & Kaoru! Or Megumi, Aoshi, Katsura or Takasugi for that matter. But I DID kinda screw them up for the purposes of my story.
Kaoru has returned to Kenshin. In his enraged state, he is unwilling to believe that she has come back of her own will. He accepts her, however. Katsura informs Kenshin that he only as two more assassinations to complete before Choshu's rise to power. One of these is Genji, Kenshin's former co-assassin. The second is … Kaoru. The story is winding to a close.
Chapter 24: broken pieces
I should not be the one to survive this.
My life is but a fleeting excuse.
A passing trend.
A disappearing abomination.
"Will you get my sword for me?" He heard himself ask her, "There is only one more person left for me to kill."
She nodded and went to retrieve his swords from across the room.
"Both of them?" Her lilting question was innocent.
"No. One will be enough." Was that his voice speaking? He questioned himself. How had he managed not to choke on the words?
She was coming back toward him, his long sword cradled in her arms. One last murder, he thought. But it was the one person in the whole world whom he wanted to protect, the only person he had wished not to harm. He shut his eyes for a moment but the name on the black card was burned into his memory.
Vaguely he recalled Genji's last words. Who will be the one to do him in? Who will kill the most dangerous assassin in Kyoto? Why, the assassin himself, of course. Had Katsura known that Kenshin had planned take his own life in the event that he would be forced to steal Kaoru's from her? Had they orchestrated this plan just for that purpose?
He could feel her presence stopping before him. Opening his eyes, he could see her peering inquisitively into his face.
"This is the last one, right Kenshin?" She asked hopefully.
"Yes. It's the last one." The words falling from his lips were toneless stones, dropping treacherously into her hearing. He knew she trusted him. She lifted the sword up to him. The damned thing rested so innocently in her open palms, mocking him. You could not protect her with me, the sword seemed to sing to him, You will kill her with me. How terrible to be so strong and yet so unable to protect the one he loved. He took the sword by the sheath.
He dragged her to his chest, wrapping his strong (but not strong enough to save her) arms around the young woman, burying his face into her damp hair. "I love you." His confession was barely a murmur but she heard it. He pulled her away from him and held her at arm's length. It was a confession he felt that he had made far, far too late. But nothing he could say would make it all right. She would die by his hand and he would spend eternity apologizing for it.
He blinked as he realized she was also studying him. Her face had gone white.
"Your last assignment," she spoke cautiously, "It's me, isn't it?"
Her words surprised him. He had not expected her to be so quick. But then, he smiled ruefully, she was everything and everyone to him. He didn't answer with words; instead, he flung her harshly away from him. She tumbled to the floor, still staring up at him. He knew that the unspeakable sorrow in her eyes mirrored his own. But he pushed back his feelings, and unsheathed the long cruel blade, casting the scabbard away. He took a step forward, the tip of the sword trailing against the wood.
Kaoru looked up at him, her tranquil blue eyes meeting his. A wistful smile graced her pale face as he lifted the sword in preparation for a swift, decapitating strike.
"Kenshin," her voice was small, as if she were afraid of being cut off at any second, "Do you remember?" She looked up to see his mind and muscles struggling against each other. "This is how we met." She smiled again. Breathing in deeply, she rose to her feet, keeping her eyes level with his.
"Not quite." He spoke quietly, his words strangling him. "As I recall, we met when you threw a chair at me."
"I did do that, didn't I?" She grinned faintly. "But actually, we met a few seconds before then, even. As I recall, you told me to prepare for my death and then you tried to kill me." As Kenshin winced, she chuckled quietly and then added, "Why aren't you telling me that now?"
"Kamiya Kaoru," Kenshin swallowed his suffering and spoke in a pained whisper, "Prepare to meet your death."
Kaoru exhaled, her eyes closing against the river of tears that was building up. Her lips trembled slightly and then she sniffed, opening her eyes and letting the tears flow slowly down. She managed a final weak smile.
"I wasn't struggling then, was I?" She saw his muscles tense. "And I'm not now."
A rush of wind was the only warning she received. Despite herself, she closed her eyes and cringed. But instead of burning steel cutting through the flesh of her neck, she only felt the ice cold touch of metal against the side of her exposed neck. Kaoru opened her eyes.
"Kenshin," she said chidingly, "That is the wrong side of the blade to be killing me with."
The cold touch left her neck. "Indeed," Kenshin replied, his eyes running down the length of the blunt edge of his sword. He sighed. "If only our battles could be fought with dull swords."
"I would think that dull swords would make it all the more painful," Kaoru quipped softly. She tilted her head to one side. "Are you going to kill me, or not?"
Kenshin lifted her chin with the tip of his outstretched sword. "Do you want me to kill you?"
"Now that," she said, "Is a very stupid question."
He gave her cheek a light slap with the flat of the blade. "Well, you're not exactly putting up a very good fight. Not like the last time I was sent to kill you, anyway."
Her voice was sharp all of a sudden. "Kenshin, my dear, I've seen you kill." Then her face and tone softened. "I realize that any resistance on my part would be quite ineffective."
"How strange," he commented in a murmur, "That we're so candidly discussing your murder." His voice cracked. "I don't want to kill you. I would have spent every day of the rest of my life with you."
"Is that impossible now?" He heard the hopefulness in her voice and was determined to crush it before it infected him.
"No," he didn't lower his sword as he spoke, "Not if tonight is the last night of both of our lives."
"Oh Kenshin." Kaoru shook her head vehemently. "That's the last thing I want to hear."
"What do you want to hear?"
"Nothing that you could say truthfully."
If meaning is lost,
We are like aimless birds
Moving from cage to cage
I will never be free.
He pressed his lips together. "It won't take a moment." She nodded and he pulled back in preparation for a lunge. With an earsplitting cry, he thrust forward, struggling to aim for her heart. Sweat beaded on his brow as he completed the movement.
"You missed." She spoke blandly. "This is beginning to rattle my nerves."
Kenshin stood, panting beside her, the sword resting on her shoulder. He pulled away, sheathing his sword. "It's quite a difficult thing to do, killing you."
"I should hope so!" Kaoru frowned and replied cheekily. "I'd be just a little peeved if you did it too easily."
"Well then stop complaining, woman."
"Look," Kaoru was returning to her caustic conversational ways, "I'd love to help you find an easier way to kill me, but it's not really in my best interests!"
"Do you think it's in mine?"
"Well, you're the one doing it, aren't you?"
"I don't have a choice!"
"Ah yes, back to the choice discussion. You know," she remarked scathingly, "You blame Katsura for far too much."
"It's my duty. I have to do it." He was glaring at her in anger. Anger was better than sorrow.
"That's right. And you said it yourself, not even I can get in the way of your duty." She bit her lip before blurting out the next words tearfully. "So get it over with already and stop making me hope for something that's impossible!"
Pushing past her, Kenshin stalked over to the opposite end of the room and ripped the short sword from its stand. He strode briskly back to her and pushed the short sword into her chest. "Defend yourself at least!" He shouted.
She looked at him incredulously. "Against you?"
"Come on," he said, drawing out the long sword again, "I'm giving you a fighting chance."
"My ass! You just want to kill me without having to really look at me." She planted a hand on her hip. "And what if I don't fight back?"
Kaoru yelped suddenly as she found herself blocking Kenshin's naked blade with the sheathed short sword in her hands. She pushed him back, and aimed to strike his shoulder with her sheathed sword. He deflected it easily and twisted to swing at her midsection. Kaoru was able to predict his move and jumped back a few feet, holding the sword up in front of her. Kenshin straightened.
"You won't be able to defend yourself if you keep it in its sheath." Kenshin's tone was flat. At least she was fighting back. He would have been disappointed if his feigned strike had actually cut her.
"Fine." She held the sword out and began to pull the blade from the scabbard. "I'll show you what my father taught me." Kaoru swiftly tugged the blade free. Kaoru narrowed her eyes and lifted the blade toward him, holding the sheath out behind her.
With a cry, she launched herself at him, swinging the sword and its sheath in a decidedly deadly pattern. Kenshin blocked the flurry of attacks easily, stepping in and out of her range with effortless grace. They flipped and turned, dancing around the apartment to the clashing of steel. But while Kaoru's cheat heaved with exertion, Kenshin barely seemed to breathe as he eluded her.
"I won't forgive you if you toy with me!" His target yelled, her swings becoming wilder.
Be angry. He saw her eyes burn as her temper flared – her wonderful, endearing temper. A smile almost worked its way to his lips. Think only about fighting. He watched as she commanded her body to twist and move in difficult ways. She had always been determined. Forget about dying.
This was the way to die – when one had no thoughts of death of all. Don't wait for death.
I am overtaken by sadness
Blood, like rain, floods my mind.
The solitude of our sufferings
Is the only friend we will ever know
Kenshin wove in and out of her attacks as if it were as simple as breathing. She grew increasingly frustrated by the second, willing her limbs to move faster and strike harder. He praised her persistence silently and waited patiently for the right moment – the moment where he could make the least painful strike. He cursed himself, for the first time regretting his immeasurable strength and skill. Watching her move, he knew that she was more skilled than most people but she would never be as good as he was.
But was she ever beautiful.
Then he saw it; the moment where he could strike and she would die instantly. She wouldn't even know that she had lost; she was so engaged in the battle. His throat caught as he stepped in, his arm tensed to deliver the fatal blow. Time slowed, mocking him.
Kenshin had always assumed you only saw your life flash before your eyes when you were about to die. Now, he was seeing hers.
He remembered the first time he had tried to kill her, the way she had leapt from the stairs in a last-ditch effort to escape his blade. He remembered the sickening crunch of bone as she collapsed. He remembered being curious but unfeeling. He recalled the silky quality of her hair when he had pulled her head back and threatened to run his sword through her throat. He heard her desperate cry. Then, he had not felt anything either. He remembered her face, illuminated by the firelight as she faced him in the dark, eliciting words from him as no one had before. He had been cruel, he admitted to himself. He had always been harsh. He regretted it.
In a split second, the memories and feelings rushed through him as he gathered strength.
"My life belongs to no one but me." She had told him once. "It is dread, not fear. Do you know the difference?" He had not, he remembered. "One day you will." Today was that day, he acknowledged.
Fear. He felt it keenly now in his gut, burning painfully. He feared losing her.
Dread was a slow ache in his chest. He did not want to hurt her.
And then, as he forced his eyes open and his sword forward, time sped up. Even so, he still caught it: the sudden breath she expelled, the loosening of her fingers on the hilt of the sword, the closing of her eyes as she waited for him to kill her. She had been waiting. He stopped suddenly, the tip of the blade millimeters from her chest.
"You saw," he whispered.
She opened her eyes. "If you had been fighting me seriously," she said, "I would have been dead a while ago. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that you were just trying to get me worked up."
"But then, why go along with it?"
"It would have been easier for both of us. Why didn't you just kill me?"
He slumped to his knees, the long sword clattering to the floor. "I can't do it. I can't kill you." He felt the sharp chill of steel pressed against his neck. Without bothering to look up, he spoke. "That is the wrong side of the blade to be killing me with, Kaoru."
"How right you are." She didn't lift the dull edge from his skin. "But I don't believe that swords are only meant for killing. I believe that swords can be used to protect the ones you love."
He wrenched the short sword from her hand and pulled her down into a fierce embrace. "But that's impossible, you silly girl. Swords are made for killing."
"Yours couldn't kill me," she said gently into his chest.
"That sword, dear girl," he said evenly, although he was still crushing her to himself, "Has killed countless men."
"But not the one you love," she whispered earnestly, "Not the one you wanted to protect."
"How can I protect you? I've been ordered to kill you. And if I don't do it, Katsura will send someone else. What useless strength," Kenshin said bitterly, "What was the point of all this killing, if I can't even protect the one I love?"
"For a better Kyoto-"
"Don't give me that crap," Kenshin began roughly.
"It was you that spouted that crap in the first place," Kaoru pointed out, pulling out of his hold.
"Is it selfish of me, then," Kenshin asked, his amber eyes haunted, "to ask that you continue to live when I have spared no other? Am I a hypocrite for wanting to live with you?"
"It is a bit selfish," Kaoru answered, placing her fingertips against his cheeks, "But it makes you human, more than anything else."
"What should I do?" He looked up into her face, his troubled eyes pleading.
"You are not a machine." Her fingers were tracing the outline of his face. "You choose. Your life is in your hands alone." She closed her eyes and planted a soft kiss to his forehead.
Kaoru's wrist was suddenly caught his iron grip and he stood quickly, pulling her up with him. Startled, she looked up into his face. His fierce expression both frightened and excited her. A fire had been ignited in Kenshin's warm, golden eyes and the intensity in his gaze was exhilarating.
"I will protect you," he announced with quiet authority.
"This is my choice," he interrupted, brushing his fingers over her lips, "I will protect your happiness until the minute my life is taken from me."
"He doesn't need me anymore. Everyone that needed to be killed is dead," he paused, "Except for you. And I will not let him touch you."
"Come," he cut her off, pulling her toward the bedroom, "We have to leave quickly. No doubt Katsura has foreseen this possibility as well."
"But where will we go?" Kaoru asked as watched Kenshin stuffed a pack full of clothing.
"Into hiding." He slid a cloth bag over both his swords and pulled the drawstrings shut.
"Kyoto is a big city. I know of lots of places where we can hide out." He pulled the bag's zipper shut and turned to look at her. "But they're not exactly first class places. Are you still willing to go with me?"
Kaoru nodded determinedly. "I will go wherever you go."
"I wanted to hear you say that," he said, pulling her into a fond embrace. "Now," he told her, taking her hand and leading her to the bedroom window, "Do you remember when I told you not to try escaping through the window unless you were suicidal?"
"That was a lie." With a grunt, he pushed the window up and leaned out the window.
Kaoru heard a metallic click. She peered over his shoulder in time to see a rusted metal grate fall away from the brick wall. Kenshin pulled back into the room and slung the covered swords and the pack of clothes over his shoulder. "Ready?"
"Out we go, then." Kenshin took her small hand in his and gently led her out the window and down the metal steps, which creaked and groaned under their combined weight.
Kaoru shivered as she forced her feet to move from step to step and commanded her eyes not to look through the metal grating to the concrete far, far below. She felt Kenshin's fingers tighten around hers and sensed the urgency coursing through him as he tugged her forward gently, urging her to hurry. Steeling herself, she quickened her descent and was rewarded when Kenshin threw a reassuring smile over his shoulder. She exhaled, marveling at Kenshin's sudden change. Just a moment ago, she had been crossing swords with a cold-blooded killer. Now, said killer was leading her tenderly down a set of creaky stairs to safety.
"Kenshin," she called quietly just as her feet finally met the pavement, "Are you sure?"
Without warning, she found herself in a bone-crushing embrace. "I don't want to lose you." His words were muffled by her hair. "Let me be selfish."
Kaoru smiled. "Just checking. Are we taking your car?"
"No." Kenshin pulled away. "I don't know who or what is waiting for us in the parking lot. We're just going to walk away."
"Walk away? Where?"
Kenshin smiled at her confused stare. "Down that alley." He pointed. "Then a left at the corner and straight to the love motel two blocks away. The one near the river." He began to walk.
"Isn't that really close to where we are now?" Kaoru asked, skipping to keep up with his brisk pace.
"Exactly. They would expect us to run far and we won't."
"Wouldn't they guess that we're close because you didn't take the car?"
"Katsura know I wouldn't risk taking the car. It has a GPS system – the vehicle can be tracked. He would probably assume that we would take the train – somewhere where we could get lost in the crowd. But we'll do that later – after they've searched all the train stations. For now, we'll hide out quietly."
Kaoru shrugged. "Maybe he'll just leave us alone. After all, he did like you – I think."
Kenshin frowned and didn't reply, knowing full well that it was only a matter of time before Katsura caught up with them. And then, he knew, it would rain blood.
Living as a stranger among others,
My mind traps me in a dance of distress
I dance to the music of misery
Misery will write my memories
"They've left the apartment, sir." Takasugi reported over his cellphone. "But they didn't take the car."
"I didn't think he would." Katsura stood in his office, facing the wall of windows. "What did they take with them?"
"Nothing much." Takasugi's voice was gruff and Katsura could hear him throwing things around the empty apartment. "Just a few clothes, I think, and the swords, of course. Nothing of real value."
Katsura smiled into the receiver. "You think I should just let them go, don't you?"
"Not really my business."
"Speak your mind, Shinsaku."
Takasugi pulled the phone away from his ear for a moment and swore loudly. "She's just a kid, Kogoro," he said angrily into the phone.
"You suppose? What the hell are you thinking?"
"You're right," Katsura said dismissively, "It's none of your business. But I know what I'm doing."
"You always do, huh." Takasugi sighed.
"It's not like you to become emotionally involved."
"Aw, come on now." Takasugi chuckled bitterly, "If Mr. Cold Blooded Killer fell for her, why wouldn't I?"
"So, what're your orders?"
"Send a few men to search the train stations."
"You think he's running?"
"No," Katsura smiled, placing his fingertips on the cool glass of the window, "But I want him to believe that I think he's running."
Kenshin stood by the tall row of lockers, one hand holding the door to a locker open. From behind the door, amber eyes observed the area. There were perhaps three of Katsura's spies in the train station. He nearly snorted. Could they be anymore obvious? They stood out like sore thumbs, lounging by pillars and standing still in the midst of the eternal bustling.
So, Katsura had sent men to search the train stations. Kenshin reached up to pat the black motorcycle helmet that concealed his distinctive red locks and closed the locker. He stepped into the lobby of the train station, pulling down the visor of his helmet. He smirked as he passed right in front of a spy, exiting the station.
When he stepped into the small motel room, helmet under his arm, he found Kaoru sitting erect on the edge of their double bed, tensely awaiting his return. He shut the door and grinned. She pursed her lips.
"Don't smile like that! I was worried." She jumped to her feet, marching forward with a finger ready to jab into his chest. "What makes you think you can just leave me while I'm sleeping and not come back till noon!" She was trying very hard to break his sternum with her index finger.
Kenshin burst into pleased chuckles and dropped his helmet, taking her face in his hands and planting a kiss on her forehead. Kaoru went still, completely frozen by his uncharacteristic behaviour.
"You're laughing!" She exclaimed incredulously.
"I am," Kenshin replied, spinning her in his arms, "And I plan to do much more of it."
"What happened?" Kaoru asked breathlessly.
Kenshin pulled her onto the bed. "Katsura sent men to scout the train stations."
"You went without-"
He pressed a finger to her lips. "Of course I went without you. Now, they will probably give up searching the train stations in a couple days. Then, we'll take the train to Tokyo. And," He smiled widely, "From Tokyo, we'll take a bus out of the city, find a little town and start a new life."
Kenshin watched as Kaoru blinked at him, tears slowly filling her eyes. "A new life?"
He propped himself up on one elbow and reached forward to brush a tear that had fallen down her cheek. "A new life," he repeated confidently, "Where no one knows who Battousai is. Where no one has even heard of an ability to take memories. Where we can just be normal people."
"I've always wanted to work in a library," Kaoru said, smiling shyly, "All those books."
"Whatever you want."
"What do you want?" She asked.
"To put my swords on a rack in a corner, and let them be useless decorations. To have lots and lots of red-headed children and," he grinned again, "To marry a young girl named Kaoru and give her the ordinary life she always wanted."
To his delight, he watched as a happy smile spread over his beloved's features, washing away the sorrow of her years.
They left the motel on a bright Sunday afternoon, carrying only a small backpack. Kenshin held Kaoru by the elbow, guiding her through the back alleys that would lead them to the train station. They were both silent, each treasuring the dream of a new life.
Abruptly, Kenshin stopped and his grip on Kaoru's arm became painful.
"Kenshin," Kaoru whispered urgently, "What is it?"
Kenshin looked at her, his gaze severe. "Stay here and wait," he commanded her, "And do not disobey me." In the next second, he was gone from her presence. Kaoru shivered. Then she heard sounds she knew too well. She clamped her hands over her ears and shuddered.
In a few minutes, Kenshin returned. Without a word, he took her by the hand and led her around the corner. Kaoru didn't need to look to know that the alley was painted in blood. But she looked anyway.
Several bodies littered the ground, steeping in warm blood. Sightless eyes peered at her from the carnage. She cringed, vaguely registering that Kenshin was pulling her forward.
"Don't look, Kaoru." His sharp voice shook her from her reverie.
"How did they know?"
Kenshin didn't look down but she could see his jaw tighten. "I don't know."
Suddenly, she found herself being pushed against the wall. Kenshin's familiar hand was fixed firmly to her face, covering her eyes.
"Don't open your eyes, Kaoru," she heard him say. And then he was gone.
Even when I standI feel myself falling
I fall without ceasing
Into the spaces of sin
Even though she heard the cries of the battle, she didn't open her eyes. Instead, she folded into herself, uselessly covering her ears against the sound of Kenshin killing more men. When it was over, she let him pick her up and carry her away from another blood-drenched back alley. He set her down when the bodies were out of sight.
"I'm sorry." He said, taking her hand again.
"You can't help it." Her voice was flat.
Before they could continue walking, Kaoru found herself pressed against a wall again. "Don't look." She heard him tell her.
This time, Kaoru pushed the familiar hand away. "I will look!" She told him, staring him in the eye and ignoring the shouts of the approaching men. "I will watch you."
Kenshin frowned at her and made as if to place his hand over her eyes.
"No!" Kaoru grabbed his hand. "I will watch you."
Yet here I linger
Touched by kindred hands
Kenshin stepped away, his eyes disbelieving. But, as the men were unbearably close, he turned. With practiced precision, he crouched and tossed the thin material of his trench coat away, revealing a pair of swords at his side. Kaoru watched as the man she loved pulled the long sword from its sheath and sprang forward with the grace of a deer. Although it took less than a minute, it seemed an eternity to Kaoru. She watched as his blade, so swift it was merely a blurred arc of silver, sliced the men to pieces before her very eyes. When it was done, she saw a thin trail of someone else's blood run down his temple. And in his amber eyes, she saw the mix of regret and bloodlust.
Kindred in thought, heart and duty
Kindred in death
But she went to him anyway and they continued. When he let go of her wrist for the fourth time and stepped forward into a crouch, his hand on the sword hilt, she knew.
"No." Her voice was strangled as she placed both of her small hands over his. He looked up at her, his eyes measuring hers. "Please, no more." She was pleading with him. Kenshin's frown deepened. For a moment, they were both statue still. Then, he straightened and flipped his coat back over the swords.
"Thank you," she breathed gratefully.
Kenshin didn't smile. Instead, he wrapped an arm around her waist and took off at a jog, pulling her along. They ducked from corner to corner, skirting alleys where men were waiting to ambush them. In his mind, Kenshin cursed, knowing that Katsura knew he could easily detect the others' presence. It meant one thing: he and Kaoru were being herded. And as they dashed into a dead end to avoid another group of men, he knew their time was up.
"Himura, I was wondering how long it would take."
Instinctively, Kenshin backed up, pushing a gasping Kaoru behind him. "Katsura-san," the assassin growled.
"You knew I wouldn't let you go that easily, didn't you?" Behind Katsura, stood a contingent of heavily armed men, their automatic weapons all trained on Kenshin and Kaoru. Katsura lifted a hand and Kenshin heard another group close in behind them, blocking escape. "Now, how will you get away?"
"I can kill them easily." Kenshin's voice had become quiet and deadly.
"Yes, but before you could, someone's bullet would have ended that girl's life."
Kenshin sunk into a battle ready position, his eyes fierce. Katsura seemed unfazed.
"You are a monster, Himura. A monster I created."
Another figure emerged from the ranks of the soldiers. "I never should have permitted you to leave."
"Master," Kenshin demanded furiously, "What are you doing?"
"What is necessary," Hiko said, his booming voice hollow.
"You…" Words evaded him in his fury and he prepared to launch into an attack.
"She didn't want you to kill those men and you complied with her wishes, did you not?" Katsura's question stopped Kenshin in his tracks.
"You planned this," Kenshin accused, although he had known it all along.
"I plan everything." Katsura stepped forward, his eyes moving from Kenshin to Kaoru. "You didn't kill her. She is your one unfinished assignment."
"So," Katsura replied calmly, "It proves that you are capable of being human, despite your crimes. Had you killed her, we would have happily let you kill yourself. However, you didn't kill Kamiya. But still, you are a monster, unfit for the new Kyoto."
"We don't plan on staying in Kyoto," Kaoru offered, her voice hopeful.
"Even so," Hiko said regretfully, "He'd be plagued by guilt, unable to be truly happy. He'd never see the new Kyoto with eyes unclouded by regret."
"I am happy," Kenshin snarled, "I did what I had to. I can forget it!"
"Do you believe that?" Katsura addressed Kaoru, "Do you really think he will be able to live a normal life without the sword?"
Kaoru hesitated, her eyes dropping to the place at Kenshin's hip where she knew the instruments of death lay hidden. Kenshin turned to face her, his expression wild and desperate.
"Don't listen to them." He shook her by the shoulders. "We'll live a normal, happy, completely ordinary life with ten kids and a vegetable garden n the backyard!"
"Could we?" Kaoru watched him shiver with anger. "Could you forget?"
"He could," Katsura interrupted, "If you would help him."
Kenshin whirled around to face his former mentor. "I refuse. I refuse to forget!" His voice rose in pitch as he shouted.
"Kamiya," Katsura said, ignoring Kenshin, "Do you remember when you told me that even people like Battousai were entitled to happiness and safety?"
"Yes," she replied slowly, "In the Sakura Tea House."
"I want to offer you the chance to give him happiness and safety without guilt."
"Don't listen to him," Kenshin warned, his voice wild, "I can't have happiness without you."
"But," Kaoru touched the cross-scar on his cheek, "Couldn't you? If you didn't know who I was? If you didn't remember me?"
"Kaoru," His grip on her tightened, "Not after all this. Please."
"Kamiya." Again, Katsura interrupted. "I'm afraid you only have two choices. One: you take his memory of the whole time he was working as an assassin for me – that would unfortunately include you. Or, two: we kill him now, destroy him right in front of your eyes."
"How will you kill him?"
Kaoru spun around to see Hiko looming behind her. Before Kenshin could react, the only other master of the god-like speed sword technique had pulled Kaoru away. "If he moves," a sword was placed against her neck, "I will kill you. If you don't choose to take away his memory, Katsura will kill him."
"Quite a dilemma, don't you think?" Katsura asked, his voice deceptively pleasant. "Now what is your choice?"
"An ultimatum," Kenshin snarled bitterly, "The tool of the weak and cowardly." He swore profusely, shaking with barely restrained fury.
"Yet even the strongest fall to it." Katsura said, looking steadily at his former assassin. "Now, don't move," he warned as several men came forward and dragged Kenshin to the ground forcefully, "Or you will watch Hiko slit Kamiya's throat."
"How could you?" Kenshin accused his former master as he allowed himself to be restrained by Katsura's soldiers. "How could you?"
"It is the only way to spare you." Hiko spoke sadly, but didn't remove the blade from Kaoru's neck.
"So, Kamiya," Katsura pressed, "Your choice."
Daring to reach another,
I fall forward into fear
Though scarred and broken,
We cling to hope.
"Let me go," Kaoru said quietly to Hiko, who loosened his grip. She pulled free and stepped forward. Kenshin watched her approach him, dread knotting in the base of his stomach.
"Kenshin," she said, kneeling in front of him, her movements wooden.
Kenshin's breathing quickened as he began to understand her intentions. He pushed backward, trying to back away from her. As the men struggled to hold him fast, Kaoru crept forward until she was kneeling between his writhing knees.
"My Kenshin," she whispered tenderly, "I love you."
"No," he protested desperately, limbs stilling as she wrapped her slender arms around his torso, "Please, Kaoru, don't."
"Tell me that you love me." She leaned into him and cupped his face in her hands.
He shook his head stubbornly. Kaoru smiled wistfully and drew his lips into a deep kiss. When she pulled away, both their faces were stained with tears. "Please," she repeated, "Tell me that you love me."
"I love you." He said it slowly and fearfully. "Please, just let them kill me."
Fresh tears trailed her face. "I love you too much for that," she replied, nearly choking on the words, "But thank you for everything." As Kenshin began to shake his head wildly, she lowered her face to his. "I needed to hear you say that one more time."
"No, I won't forget you. I refuse," he snarled at her, trying frantically to push the fear from his eyes and replace it with anger.
She smiled, although sadly. "I wish that you could." For what she knew was the last time, she kissed him, tracing her fingers over his features. And then, as her heart broke, she pressed her fingertips to his forehead and pulled away.
"Kaoru," he whispered, his voice drifting away from her brokenly. She tried so hard to smile at him.
He struggled to stay conscious, staring at her. She watched his eyes darken, watched herself fade from his memory.
He wasn't dying, but the light in his eyes was fading. Kaoru clutched desperately at his shirt as he gradually became a dead weight in her arms. Right before his eyes drifted closed, a look of confusion passed over his face like a cloud. Kaoru gently lowered him to the ground and pressed her face into his chest. Somehow the simple act of breathing had become unbearably difficult.
At the sound of that cool, rational voice, Kaoru sat up, swiping at her tears with the back of her sleeve. Yes, it was done. But would he forgive her, if given the chance? Not even the scholars who would rise in the new era would be able to pass judgment on their actions. Their history, as well as their names, would disappear.
What happened after that, Kaoru could hardly remember. She dimly recalled fighting to hold on to Kenshin's limp form. But losing, of course. The last thing she remembered was watching as Kenshin was carried away. Then, there was darkness for her too.
Hope, like a fleeting wind,
Stirs our hearts as leaves
Kaoru woke up in a familiar place. Although her cheeks burned from crying, she sat up with a smile. She was covered in Kenshin's blankets in Kenshin's bed in Kenshin's bedroom.
Perhaps it had been a dream.
But as the morning wore on, she knew that she was alone. The locks had been changed on the door and a new key rested on the dining table, saying that the apartment now belonged to her. Katsura had signed the note in his precise handwriting. She ran out into the hallway, only to be faced with normal neighbours. One elderly woman had smiled at her kindly and taken her hand, expressing condolences at the recent loss of her husband. At her baffled expression, the kindly neighbour had clucked her tongue and explained that the owner of the apartment building had told her all about the accident. Kaoru, completely at a loss, had allowed herself to be ushered back into her new apartment for a cup of hot tea.
She had read Katsura's note again and again, searching for clues of Kenshin's whereabouts. There were none.
It would be the last contact she would have with the illustrious leader of the Choshu organization, now the ruling party in Kyoto.
Kaoru moved through her life as if through a hazy dream. She left in the morning for work. Somehow, she suddenly had a job in a library. She read books as if they were food. The she returned to the apartment to eat and sleep, dreaming of a red-headed man, dripping in blood.
One day, she collapsed in front of his armchair and, dropping her head into the seat, sobbed until she was weak and light-headed. And yet, he did not return that day. Nor the next day. Even though she waited, he did not return the next month, either.
But the month after that, an unmarked package arrived at her door. In it were Kenshin's swords and his bloodied clothing. Kaoru placed the swords on the rack above the fireplace and stood back. Now, they were only decorations. She looked at them for a long time, and didn't even realize that she was crying.
We fall toward the moment when
All our fears and dreams collide
Kaoru had begun to take regular walks around the city, watching as new businesses sprang up, no longer hampered by gangs and crime. It was on a bright Sunday afternoon like any other that she found herself passing the schoolyard of her old high school, Fugiya High. She stopped dead in her tracks and pinched herself to make sure she wasn't dreaming. There, sitting on a park bench facing the school and away from her, was a figure so familiar that her heart ached.
A man, not in black but in the blue uniform of a Kyoto policeman, sat folding a paper crane on his knee. His hands worked slowly and carefully, but she could see the strength in the way he sealed the creases in the heavy paper. His hair, though knotted low, at the nape of his neck, was the colour of fire, shining like molten gold in the sunshine. Without knowing it, Kaoru was moving forward, her breath caught in her throat.
As she drew closer, she heard the voice she loved saying, "There you go, Ayame. A crane!"
A child, whom Kaoru hadn't noticed before, laughed and took the paper crane from the striking policeman, her face erupting in a dimpled smile.
"I want one too, Ken-nii!"
"Ah!" The policeman laughed, ruffling another child's hair, "Next time, Suzume. Your mother is waiting."
The children giggled and their laughter was like the bubbling of a busy creek. The policemen laughed too, waving as the children ran to their waiting mother.
"Do you like children?" Kaoru found herself speaking even though she felt as if her throat were parched and dry.
"Ah!" The policeman turned to face her, "That I do!"
At the sight of his upturned face, Kaoru knees nearly gave out. "I'm glad to hear it." She took a step closer. "Do you come here often?" She asked, her breathing shallow and apprehensive.
"I do." He smiled again and the scar marring his delicate features moved. "This place feels familiar."
"Why?" Kaoru stepped closer, her heart beating an impossible rhythm against her ribs.
The policeman's gentle lavender eyes crinkled in thought. "I don't know," he said, motioning that she should sit beside him on the bench, "But when I sit here, I feel as if I am waiting for someone. Someone I knew before."
Kaoru sat beside him, her attention focused intently upon his face. "I'm Kaoru," she said carefully, leaning forward slightly, "What's your name?"
Kaoru felt a wave of emotion wash over her and she blinked back tears. Her fingers curled into the fabric of her skirt and she looked down at his hands, her eyes tracing every line and scar.
"Have we met?" The voice was quiet and thoughtful.
Kaoru looked up to find the man studying her fixedly. "Not really."
"You seem familiar." He squinted at her through the bright sunlight and chuckled merrily. "Perhaps we met in a past life?"
"Yes." Kaoru blinked back the burning in her eyes. "Yes, a past life." She smiled too.
He touched her hand and she closed her eyes. The familiar rough calluses on the tips of his fingers were more soothing than any healing salve.
Sift through the oceans of tears
Rise from the ashes of sorrow
"You know," he said, running a fingertip across her hand, "I woke up in a hospital bed about a month ago. Some politician told me that I had succeeded in my goal of bettering Kyoto and that I would start my career as a policeman." He paused. "I remember coming to Kyoto - he told me that I had arrived more than ten years ago as a boy – but I don't remember any of those years." His eyes darkened as he continued. "The politician who was there when I awoke, I think his name was Katsura, said that while I had been trying to help, I became the victim of a terrible crime." He turned to look at the young woman. Her blue eyes were watching him intently as she listened. He smiled crookedly. "I'm sorry. I don't even know why I am telling you all of this. I just feel that I can trust you, that perhaps I know you." At this, he saw her expression suddenly jump in hope. "Perhaps," he said, smiling, "You can help me remember."
Her lips lifted slowly. "Your past memories?"
"Yes." Kenshin nodded enthusiastically.
To his surprise, Kaoru leaned forward and pressed her fingers to his cheek, tracing the lines of a scar he didn't remember receiving. She smiled, her eyes filling with tears that, for some reason, he ached to kiss away. "The past doesn't matter anymore," she told him and he believed her, "We only have the future."
"Are you sure we don't know each other?" Without even realizing it, he had cupped her face in his hand.
"We don't yet." Her smile brightened his world. "But we will."
And please help me collect
The broken pieces of my heart
End of chapter 24. Fin.
LOOK FORWARD TO THE SEQUEL: Complete Me
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