ACK! Remind me never to leave a cliffhanger like that again. I think it was cruel… even by my standards ^_^
Thanks for your patience and most of all, your support of this story. But then… why the hell am I still talking??? Go, read story, enjoy ^_^
Chapter 10 : The Firefly
There was a quiet breeze the next morning. It played with the wind chime before entering the room and ruffling the blanket draped against the sleeping form. Suddenly, Kenshin woke with a start, looking around for whatever had caused the disruption in his sleep.
He paused and blinked. Gingerly, he brought a hand to his head and felt a bit of a lump there. It was tender and the moment he felt the pain, everything started to click in his mind. Throwing the blanket off, he ran outside and found himself in the courtyard of the Kamiya compound.
Looking around, he tried to find someone to tell him what had happened and then suddenly saw it. Sitting by the koi pond, a figure in white. Long black hair was limp against her back, her pale hands folded in her lap. Her eyes were closed and her breathing slow.
He took a step forward and the sound of his shoe on the gravel made her look up. She turned to face him with a sad smile on her face and Kenshin felt his heart nearly break. It was Kaoru… but she was dead. A ghost sitting by the koi pond to haunt him for failing to protect her. He took another step forward and she stood up slowly.
He reached her and stretched out a hand, ready for it to pass through her but it made contact against her cheek and he realized she was solid. Not dead. Not dead at all.
Kaoru was suddenly being crushed but not in a bad way at all, she realized. This was not like the embrace she had gotten before he left for Kyoto. This was something much more and much, much better.
They stayed there for longer than either of them realized but neither was quite willing to let go. When they finally parted, Kaoru's face with filled with an apologetic look.
"Why?" Kenshin finally managed.
Kaoru opened her mouth to speak but closed it again, bringing a hand up to her neck where the bandage was. He looked at her, questioning the gesture but the answer was suddenly called out.
"She can't talk."
Turning around, Kenshin watched as Megumi joined them. "What?" Kenshin asked.
"She can't talk," Megumi said. "At least not for a while." She shot a look over to Kaoru and the younger girl nodded and sat back down. "And stay there," Megumi ordered, "or I will send you back to bed." Kaoru nodded softly, with a guilty look on her face.
"Come with me," Megumi said to Kenshin. He turned to face Kaoru but she was facing the koi pond with her eyes closed. Feeling something was wrong, he fell into step with Megumi to get the whole story.
"What happened?" he asked. "I don't remember anything except… except Misao hitting me on the head."
"Yes, she did that," Megumi said. "It's why you've been sleeping for most of the day."
He looked up at the sky, seeing that she was right. The sun had almost completed its arc in the sky. "Why did…"
"Do you know how strong that strike you threw against that Red guy was?" Megumi asked. "You managed to send him three feet through the floor. It took them half an hour to get him out."
Kenshin frowned. "But they have him now. So this is over."
Megumi paused. "No… it's not. They don't know how the rebels got in."
"What do you mean?"
"They've searched the entire room and there's no sign of how they got in. The entire city is on high alert. Things are starting to fall apart and the one person who might be able to help…" Megumi paused. "She can't remember how they got in. It's probably the trauma of it all."
Kenshin looked back, studying Kaoru as she sat and tried to think, her brow furrowing in frustration.
"What exactly…" he asked softly.
"Luck," Megumi said. "Luck that the blade was not sharp and just did a lot of superficial damage. Luck that she managed to alert the rest of the castle before they could finish the job. It was all luck." She paused. "It's also why Misao had to do what she did. I know she regrets it but… after what you did to Red, you just stopped listening."
They paused in silence, looking over at Kaoru. But she was lost in thought.
* * *
"So, you're not mad?" Kenshin shook his head and the little ninja girl leapt forward in a glomp. "Thank you!!" she said. "I didn't want to do it, but Megumi told me too."
"Hey!" Megumi snapped. "Don't blame it on me. I said stop him, no knock him out."
"I'm surprised weasel girl could even do it," Sano retorted.
"HEY!" Misao said, prepping for a flying bird kick.
"Maa maa," Kenshin said holding up his hands to stop the argument. "It's all right."
"Yes," Megumi said. "No more fighting. Come on Misao, you can help me bring out dinner. Yahiko go set up the table." The little girl shot one last nasty look over at Sano before falling into step with the doctor.
"Feh," Sano said watching them go. "The two of them are always ganging up on me." Kenshin looked over questioningly at the other man. And then shrugged, walking out to the balcony that wrapped itself around the main house.
From here, they could see Kaoru, sitting by the koi pond. Night was beginning to fall and the fireflies were out but she seemed oblivious to it all.
"Still kind of surprising," Sano said. "I mean… look at what jou-chan and Misao got involved in right under our noses."
Kenshin nodded slowly, looking out at the gate that was guarded by several Imperial army soldiers. They were there to protect the only possible clue the Meiji government had.
Sano sighed. "You know, maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise. Every since that time at the river, it's like Kaoru is a whole different person."
Kenshin paused, realizing what Sano had just said. No jou-chan… but Kaoru. And what's more… Sano was right. Kaoru had been slowly drifting away from them, carried on a current of a secret life none of them could hope to understand. It was strange to think that they could have gotten so close and yet so far away at the same time.
* * *
Kaoru sat quietly, still unaware of how much time had passed. Seeing Kenshin had firmed her resolve. She was going to remember what happened and she was going to end this.
But every time she closed her eyes and tried to remember, all she could feel was the knife against her throat. The tearing sound as it cut into flesh. The feeling… the feeling of cutting into…
She shivered and forced her eyes open. It was no use. No matter how she tried, it was always going to that memory. She couldn't remember anything before it. Her hand clenched in her lap. No, she had to do it. She had to face the fear and figure out this last piece of the puzzle.
She closed her eyes and brought her mind back to the quiet concubine quarters. Her memory tried to skip ahead but she held it firm, remember the sleeping noise of the other women. The stillness of the air.
Someone stepped behind her, clicking softly against the ground, and Kaoru's eyes shot open, suddenly catching the fading light of a firefly.
Kaoru stood up. She stared at the pond, watching the reflections of the fireflies in the pond. There was a firm arm on her shoulder and she turned around, catching sight of worry in the violet eyes.
She nodded firmly and took off quickly, heading towards the gate to get to the guards there. The rest of the dojo was there before she even managed to communicate to them what she needed to say.
"Oi, jou-chan, what's up?" Sano asked, watching the guards scatter.
She turned to the group with a firm nod to communicate everything without words. She remembered what had happened.
* * *
The streets of Tokyo were empty due to the curfew imposed by the government, so the carriage had no problem getting the palace in record time. The door flew open as soon as the horses stopped, Aoshi jumping out first to help the rest of them down.
Kaoru came next to last, the new coat she had bought for Kenshin draped around her shoulders. At the sight of the imposing walls of the castle, she felt her resolve break, hearing her own scream shatter the air and falling back into…
But suddenly the last trace of fear faded away and looking down, she smiled slightly at the hand grasping hers. With a thankful look at the rurouni, she walked towards the palace.
They followed the corridors until they reached the concubines quarters. The room was in complete disarray, obviously stripped down to look for the way the intruders had gotten in. Kaoru walked over to the spot she had been sitting, trying to ignore the faint bloodstain on the ground.
"Kaoru-chan." Kaoru looked up, watching as Michi came up to her, Saitou slightly behind her. The concubine wore a flowing kimono but her beauty seemed to have fallen slightly since last night. Kaoru nodded at her with her best smile, though obviously forced. "Thank you," Michi said softly before stepping aside.
Feeling one last squeeze before her hand was let go, Kaoru tried to remain calm as she sank down to the floor. She lay her hand on her lap and closed her eyes, remembering once more and fighting against the raising panic. Her fingers clenching on the kimono fabric until they turned white.
Too close! Her mind screamed. You're too close to where it happened! Run away!
But she sat firmly on the ground and eventually quieted the concerns down. Her fingers released and she felt the current world ebb away and slowly return to last night.
She was sitting here, in this spot. The click… she remembered the click and then.
The light. She had forgotten it but now, she remembered the smallest sliver of light on the ground before she turned to get up.
She opened her eyes and came back to the current day and stood up, slowly walking to the spot on the floor the light had appeared. She put her foot on the spot and lined up her fingers with her toes. The group watched in confusion as she slowly brought her arm upwards and pointed to a spot on the ceiling.
Saitou moved first, pulling out his sword and stabbing at the ceiling. He slashed downward and split the panel in half. A guard came forward with a light and he held it up to the opening.
With a motion of his head, Saitou sent a couple of guards up into the ceiling. The rest of the group watched with a mixture of horror and amazement as the two guards began to walk above them. Saitou followed the noise and no one thought to question him. The sounds of footsteps echoed through the corridors, coming from above and below the ceiling.
Finally they came to a stop, reaching a closed door. The guard continued and there were sounds of a struggle inside. Sano walked forward and punched the door, sending it to splinters and earning an annoyed look from Saitou.
"No!" Michi cried first seeing what was inside. "It can't be you…"
"I knew it," Saitou said looking at the man holding the bloodied sword.
Tsugio, general of the personal guard of the Imperial family, looked at the assembled group with hatred in his eyes. The bodies of the two guards lay on the ground and from the looks of the room, it was obvious they had caught him trying to escape.
"It makes sense," Misao said. "The people who fought with Red, they were too well trained. They were Imperial soldiers!"
"That's right," Tsugio replied coldly. "The most honorable of the royal guard."
"Honorable?" Michi cried. "They tried to kill the Emperor!"
"Who said the Emperor was the target?" Tsugio said looking at her. Michi paled and stepped back.
"You… you wouldn't…"
"We tried," Tsugio said, "once before only to be foiled by none other than the father of the woman who stopped us this time," he finished looking over at Kaoru with such hatred that Kenshin's hand was already at his sword before he realized it had moved.
"I hope your family burns," Tsugio said, "just like your father did."
Kaoru's eyes opened wide and she felt herself wavering between outright anger and immense sorrow. No… her father's death… it had been an accident. He had just been fighting a fire and…
"I just wanted you to know that before…before you followed the same path."
Abe had said that. Abe had known and seen what was happening.
"You will be executed," Michi spat. "I will make sure of that."
Tsugio laughed. "You'll be dead yourself before that happens," he said. "Or did you think I was the only one who sought this noble cause."
"Noble cause?" Misao cried. "You want to bring war to Japan! How is that noble?"
"It would give us the one thing denied for centuries. First the Tokogawa regime, now the Meiji regime… all with the Emperor as the supposed supreme leader but truly on a figure head. We would give him the power he deserves."
"And to do this," Michi asked. "You would kill me?"
"Not you alone," he said. "But the child you carry as well." Michi's hand moved instinctively to her stomach, pressing the fabric flat and suddenly revealing the stomach that had grown in the past few months.
"To sacrifice the future ruler of Japan…" Michi said, her voice starting to break. "How could this…"
"There would have been others," Tsugio replied. "And the death of a concubine with child would have been more than enough to topple the already fragile Meiji government."
"And Germany would have been called in to stop the revolts," Misao said, earning her a glare from Tsugio. "When they re-established order, they'd put the Emperor in charge." She paused. "Only you realize he would have been just another figurehead. And Germany would use Japan as a battleground against the French."
Tsugio looked at her. "Lies," he said simply. "Lies will get you no where."
"But the truth will," Michi said, her resolve returning. "And they will torture it out of you."
Tsugio smiled slightly and suddenly swung the sword around. He was aiming for his stomach, preparing to commit ritual suicide to save himself the disgrace of being tortured and then executed. The option had not been given to him but it appeared that he was about to take it.
His hand shot open in surprise and the sword clattered to the floor. He fell back, clutching the bleeding hand, three sharp knives embedded in them.
"You're not getting away that easily," Misao said, watching as the guards ran forward to finish the job she had started.
* * *
"He was forewarned," Michi said softly, holding the cup of tea in her hands. "He was trying to escape because he knew we were coming. There are still traitors in the palace that would warn him."
"They'll find them," Abe said firmly.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Michi said. "From what he said, they are obviously going to come after me again."
"That's why we're taking you away," Abe said. "Until the clamor has died down and the rest of the group is routed out. And by the time they reach you, it will be too late," he added with a small smile.
"And what about the two girls?" Michi asked.
Abe nodded. "The younger one, Misao," he started, "is a part of the spy network here. They'll be able to send her someplace safe."
Michi paused and looked up at Abe. "And Kaoru?"
Abe sighed. "The same, I suppose. The Oniwabanshu appear to have a connection with her as well."
Michi shook her head. "I want her to come with me."
"No… I won't feel safe until I know she is too. And the only way I will is if she is with me."
"You understand what you are going to do?" Abe said. "She's already almost died for you. She won't hesitate to follow you if you ask… no matter what the cost."
* * *
"Okay, okay," Sano said. "I'll admit it… that was a pretty damn good shot."
Misao beamed and pulled her feet up into the chair, taking a sip of the tea. The rest of the group had assembled in a small Western style room of the palace, taking a moment to reorganize themselves before heading home.
"But Kaoru was the one who really kicked," Misao said happily.
Kaoru looked over, exhaustion written all over her face. She nodded slowly and moved her hand to cover Misao's, giving it a tight squeeze. Misao smiled, understanding the sentiment. They had made a great team.
The doors opened and Michi walked in, followed by Abe. Kaoru eyes locked on his and she stood up, her face saying all the words she couldn't. He nodded slightly, acknowledging the question and asking her to sit down.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting," Michi said sitting down with a sigh. "I think you all know Abraham Jackson. You just don't know what he does."
"He's an engineer," Misao said, instantly realizing that the words she was speaking were a lie. She sighed and smiled. "You're one of us."
"What?" Megumi asked.
"A spy," Aoshi answered. "A spy for the Americans."
"A spy for them, yes," Michi said. "But one that was helping us. The last thing the Americans want is to be surrounded on both coast by a power house like Germany."
"I accepted the job here," Abe said, "in order to prevent the revolt. We first heard of it all those years ago," he said looking over at Kaoru. "Your father… he never knew what I was until right before I left. If I had stayed, my true occupation would have become apparent. So I did the only thing I could. Trusted the one man I could with the task of finishing the job.
"But," Abe said sadly, "if I had known what would happen, I would have stayed. He was a brave man, Kaoru, braver than I was. And I can't let the same thing happen to his daughter."
"Kaoru-chan," Michi said. Kaoru looked up at Michi and suddenly knew what was about to be asked. Her eyes almost looked pleadingly at the older woman. "I thought I was strong but… "
"No, she can't go anywhere," Megumi said suddenly, realizing exactly what was about to happen. "She's still too weak from the attack."
"We'll have doctors," Abe replied.
"But you can't ask her to go!" Yahiko said, looking over at Michi. "What about her dojo? What about…" but he trailed off.
Misao looked over at her friend and knew it was pointless to argue. She knew Kaoru and how she thought. She wouldn't refuse.
It was a losing argument but the group still had one hope. But the redheaded rurouni was silent and not looking at any of them.
"Kaoru," Abe said in the silence. "Let me keep my promise to your father."
* * *
The docks in Yokohama were crowded as people bustled around with activity. Out in the distance, the large ship was anchored, awaiting the last minute travelers. Michi stepped carefully into the boat, helped down by Abe. The two looked up at Kaoru and she held up a finger to ask for time.
Turning back to the assembled group, Kaoru could only feel a pang of regret. There had barely been anytime at all for any of them to understand what was happening. Even Sano hadn't complained on the train ride over.
There was only one thing on their mind as Kaoru turned to say good bye. Why the hell wasn't Kenshin saying anything? They all knew that it would take one word from him and she would stay.
Kaoru shrugged slightly and worded 'not long', holding up six and then nine fingers. Six to nine months. Not too long to be away.
"Shorter," Misao said coming forward and giving her a hug. "We'll help find them and get you home sooner." Kaoru clutched the other girl's hands to say be careful.
Aoshi bowed slightly, Megumi nodded slightly pretending not to be upset. Sano looked like he was trying to be cool but was failing miserably. Yahiko was trying to stand proud, promising her he would take care of the dojo while she was gone. And Kenshin… Kenshin was just standing silently at the side.
They were wrong. He couldn't say anything to make her stay. Not because she wouldn't listen or wouldn't care. But because he just couldn't bring himself to do it. It wasn't about thinking he was worthless anymore or that this should be some penance for almost letting her get killed.
This was about understanding that Kaoru had finally stepped beyond the young Kendo teacher and was finally among the honorable elite of this country, people who would live and die to keep Japan strong. And it was something he understood to well. It was the reason he had gone to Kyoto, why he would always take a job from the police.
To ask her to stay now would just have been cruel because she still would have had to leave. So he was going to let her go. Let her be swept away again by the water. Sano was right, she had been changing since that day, pulling her farther away from what she had once been, farther away from all of them.
Kaoru stepped down into the boat, no longer looking at the group. She couldn't bare the thought of waiting longer. Her resolve wavered under their words and threatened to break if she stayed any longer.
She looked up at them as the boat started to pull away, locking eyes finally with Kenshin and realizing that of all of them he understood. Amazing, she finally understood him so completely, why he always fought despite the warnings from Megumi and the dangers to himself. But it was too late now. Maybe when she got back…
"Are you all right?" Michi asked, putting a hand on the young girl's shoulder. Kaoru nodded slightly, trying desperately to push back the tears. Michi tensed watching the emotions play out on Kaoru's face. Abe looked over at her with a shrug. He had warned Michi about this.
Sano sighed. "She'll back soon," he said firmly. "It'll be like she never left." The group slowly turned to leave and didn't realize until they reached the end of the dock that they were one short.
Kenshin's feet should have moved but he found they were rooted in place, slowly watching the boat slip away.
Kaoru looked back, watching the dock slowly disappear, hands clenching the kimono she wore.
Abe shook his head sadly and turned to speak with the captain in English.
Michi watched the scene play out and let her hands rest of her stomach. It was easy to order people around, to believe you were in charge. With the power of the Emperor behind her, she could have anything in the world. Its how she got Kaoru involved in the first place. It's how she got the girl to come with her now.
"It is my job to understand people."
She had said to Tsugio when he questioned her about bringing in the young Kamiya. But she saw now that she was wrong. She didn't understand or know Kaoru at all. She had just assumed she would be like another loyal retainer, who would follow orders without question or regret.
"She's already almost died for you. She won't hesitate to follow you if you ask… no matter what the cost."
But this was a young girl, one with a family, friends and obviously, someone she cared deeply about. And in her selfishness, Michi had never stopped long enough to see that behind the Kamiya name was a girl very much like herself.
Michi's family was made up of people who shared no blood relation, just a common situation that had evolved into a familial bond. And love… Michi knew love. She knew it all too well. It was why she would rather remain as a concubine forever then be another man's wife.
"Stop the boat," Michi said suddenly standing up. "Turn the boat around."
"Are you all right?" Abe asked, moving over as the guards on the boat shifted uneasily.
Michi turned to Kaoru. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked you to come. I shouldn't have asked you to help us. You need to go home."
Kaoru blinked in surprise and then her face lit up. She hugged Michi tightly in thanks and turned to Abe as he attempted to communicate the request. But the captain was shaking his head, pointing at the boat and pointing at his watch.
From his spot on the dock, Kenshin watched the sudden burst of activity on the boat. There wasn't any sign of danger but it looked like there was an argument going on. The
American was yelling, pointing at the concubine and then at the shore.
And then Kaoru turned and locked eyes with him. There was a second pause before she finally moved again, to the side of the boat, then up to the railing and suddenly over into the water.
He was in the water before she even resurfaced. The boat was frantically turning, trying to get to the woman who was now swimming in the water. But she paid it no heed, as she swam back towards the dock.
The water clung to her clothes and her hair had come loose, dancing in the water as she swam. So like the river, Kaoru realized, when it swept her away. Only this time, it wasn't taking her away but home.
The rest of the Kenshin-gumi rushed to the end of the dock, a growing crowd behind them watching the two people trying to reach each other in the choppy waters of the ocean.
Waves were not about to slow either of them down as they cut through the water. A couple of fishing boats had turned around to help them but the cries of their captains were ignored.
With one final push, Kaoru and Kenshin finally made contact, first grabbing each other's hands and then enveloping the other in an embrace. They started to sink in the water, completely oblivious to the cheers from the dock.
Beneath the surface of the water, the sounds of the outside world muffled by the sea around them, they finally found their moment of peace with no chance of interruption. And in that moment, they finally succumbed to the months of tension, the seemingly endless waiting and said all that needed to be said without words but a kiss.
But oxygen is one of those things that humans need and eventually they had to break away from the perfect moment and resurface. But it was a new world when they did.
The cheers were all to clear now, not just from the Kenshin-gumi but most of the people around the docks enchanted by the lovers' scene that had just played out. A fishing boat pulled around and the captain helped them inside.
Back on the dock, the Kenshin-gumi celebrated the last second reprise for Kaoru. And the pure joy should have been enough to make anyone happy. But Sano saw his chance to pay back Yahiko for the fish incident in the festival. With the young boy distracted, he pushed him into the water.
Sano laughed as Yahiko resurfaced, yelling at him. Sano leaned forward to help him back up but felt a firm foot on his backside and was suddenly in the water as well.
Megumi cackled, little fox ears popping up at the sight of the sputtering Sano. She would have enjoyed the moment more if she had suddenly felt herself go over the edge and into the water.
Misao smiled with pride, watching the rest of them struggle in the water. She had finally one-upped them all and managed to be the last man standing. And then suddenly she found herself falling into the water.
With a surprised look, she resurfaced and looked up at the dock, wondering who the hell had pushed her in. And from there, Aoshi looked down at her, the slightest smile on his lips.
The fishing boat pulled up to the dock and unloaded the two drenched people just as the rest of the group had finally clambered to dry land. Kaoru was crushed by the group of people who were celebrating her return but it felt so good she didn't even mind.
They heard three horn blows from out in the water. Turning around, the group saw the boat with Michi and Abe slowly pulling away again, the two waving at them from the back of the boat. Misao waved frantically, calling out well wishes while Yahiko tried to outdo her. The rest of the group settled on a polite wave back.
Kaoru smiled at them as she waved with one hand, the other firmly locked around the hand holding her waist. Looking over at Kenshin she smiled at his happy look and lay her head on his shoulder, letting out a happy little sigh.
From far away, Saitou lit up a cigarette as he turned to the policeman next to him.
"Take a letter," Saitou said, puffing out a cloud of smoke. "Dear sister, I am leaving the children with you while Tokio and I take a vacation in the mountains…"