Author's Note:Guess who's been wasting time again! Ah well, it's worth it… ;)
This story takes place post-Jinchuu. More notes at the end, but for now I'll just say that the unofficial theme song for this piece is Chopin's "Nocturne No. 19 in E Minor, Op. 72, No. 1." (Catchy title, no? They really knew how to name them back then…)
In the shadows of a narrow stretch of roof overlooking the alley below, a silent figure stood. A lock of fiery hair slipped forward past the cross-shaped scar on his cheek, but his eyes were cold and hard, beads of emptiness sealed in amber. His gaze followed the young woman in the darkness, inspected the gentle ruffle of her kimono hem as she made her way slowly down the street. He could hear each soft footstep in the dust, even the barest rustle of her long, dark hair against her collar.
There was no one else around. He would have been able to sense them. The nearest passer-by was a few blocks away at least.
Slowly he crept forward along the roof tiles, keeping to the shadows, staying out of her line of vision. She didn't look up, didn't even notice he was there. Even as he stepped off from the eaves and alighted on the ground mere inches behind her, she made no indication that she was aware of him.
Then, in one swift and sudden movement he had his arms around her from behind, one wrapped tightly across her obi, pinning her back against his chest, the other clapped over her mouth to stifle her panicked screams as he craned back her neck, exposing her left cheek to the moonlight.
Nothing. Smooth and white as snow.
Rage surged in his veins, and he jerked the imposter against him, dragging another panicked sob from her as she scrabbled at his hand across her face. He barely noticed.
"Where is she?" he snarled into her ear. She only sobbed unintelligibly and tried to shake her head, so he jerked her sharply against him once more. "What have you done with her?"
The woman's legs gave out, and her weight settled more heavily against him, her sobs and struggles growing weaker as she gasped for breath, tried to remain consciousness.
His ears caught the sound of someone approaching them from behind, and he glanced back over his shoulder, dragging her with him into the shadows of the nearest building. No one there yet, but it wouldn't be long. Casting one last furious look at the sobbing woman's cheek, he suddenly thrust her away, sending her sprawling to the ground on her hands and knees. By the time she'd even managed to turn around, he was gone.
Kenshin awoke to the sound of a knock rattling his bedroom shoji in its track.
"Kenshin?" Kaoru's voice called to him from outside the door. "Is everything alright?"
Kenshin blinked heavily and pushed himself up onto his elbows, even as a liquid weight somewhere behind his eyes seemed to be trying to drag him back down into the futon. "Of course, Kaoru-dono," he called back, his voice a little scratchy with sleep. He cleared his throat and tried again. "What's the matter?"
"Oh," she said, sounding a little off-balance. "Well, nothing really—I mean, I didn't mean to wake you if you're still—it's just that you're usually awake before now, and I thought you might not be feeling well."
Kenshin frowned to himself as he pushed himself up to sit. He groped at his collar as he realized he was still wearing his clothes from the day before—he must have fallen asleep before he'd even managed to change. "I'm quite well, Kaoru-dono, thank you," he replied as cheerfully as he could manage, though the act of sitting up had only exacerbated the weighty, sluggish feeling in his head. "What time is it?"
"Nearly noon," she replied, her voice still sounding a little concerned. "But please don't rush—I mean, you can sleep in if you want to. There's nothing special going on today."
"No, no, I should get up, that I should," he replied, pushing aside the rumpled bed linens and getting unsteadily to his feet. "Thank you for waking me, Kaoru-dono."
"You're welcome, Kenshin," Kaoru replied awkwardly. He heard her hovering beside the door for a few moments longer before she finally turned away and wandered off down the engawa, her footsteps disappearing in the direction of the dojo.
Kenshin ran a hand through his untidy hair and frowned down at his rumpled clothing again. It was strange—he couldn't distinctly remember having changed into his yukata the night before, but he also couldn't distinctly remember crawling into bed fully dressed. Not that he'd never fallen asleep in his clothes before—during the Bakumatsu he had rarely worn anything else, as it had always been necessary to be ready to move or fight at a moment's notice. But these days he usually preferred ordinary sleepwear, and he rarely fell asleep without meaning to.
Then again, his sleeping routine had been very unpredictable these past few weeks. Sometimes he found himself lying awake far into the night, his mind unable to quiet itself. Other times he seemed to get plenty of sleep, yet still awoke feeling as if he'd had a fitful and restless night. He didn't recall having had any nightmares to speak of—in fact, he remembered very few dreams at all from the past few weeks, though that wasn't something he was inclined to complain about—but whatever his mind was doing while he was asleep it clearly wasn't very restful.
Still, he thought with a frown, until today he had usually managed to get up on time despite it all. Just because he was having trouble sleeping was no reason to neglect Kaoru-dono's breakfast—or to subject the rest of his friends to her cooking…
He sifted through his few belongings for a fresh set of clothes and folded the old ones away to be washed with the rest of the laundry that afternoon. As he was setting aside his loosely folded hakama, he noticed a streak of black soot along one of the outer pleats and picked at it with a frown. Odd. Where could that have come from? Soot like this often collected on the tile roofs in close-built cities—he'd spent a lot of time scrubbing it out of his clothes back in Kyoto years ago—but he didn't think he'd been anywhere like that recently. He figured he must have gotten too close to the cooking grate without realizing it, dragged the hem through some ashes.
Oh well. It would wash out with a little elbow grease.
Kaoru sat on the edge of the engawa, one arm curled lazily around the wooden support post as she watched Kenshin working across the yard. He'd probably noticed that she was watching, but she tried to do it surreptitiously anyway, peering at him from around the edge of the post. Then again, he might not have noticed after all—he'd seemed a little distracted for at least a couple of weeks now. Anyone else might not have noticed, as he did quite a good job of covering it up, carrying on with his chores as diligently and cheerfully as ever—but Kaoru wasn't just anyone, not where Kenshin was concerned. She could see the way his eyes drooped at the edges even as he smiled, and the occasional miniscule sway in his step when he seemed to have trouble finding his balance for a moment.
Actually, if she thought about it, the problem really went back at least a month or so, back to Enishi's Jinchuu and that battle on the beach. Kenshin had clearly not been in good shape even when he'd first turned up to rescue her, and the ensuing fight with Enishi hadn't done him any favors. Under Megumi's excellent care he had healed well, and at first she had naturally attributed his slight sluggishness to lingering effects of his injuries—but even Megumi said he was back in good health by now. And yet, something in him wasn't quite back to normal.
She really wished he would just talk to her about it. Actually she wished he would talk to her about a lot of things, but she was used to his evasiveness by now. He never liked to worry her, or any of them—and while she appreciated the sentiment, more often than not she felt they could all save a lot of trouble if he would just open up about what was bothering him from the beginning, rather than making them all jump through hoops to find out. He always seemed to think he could protect them all without them ever knowing they'd been in danger, save them even the worry that something might happen, even if they all had faith in his ability to stop it. But of course, the truth was, he couldn't stop everything—not by himself anyway. And those who knew him best could tell when something was bothering him no matter what he did to hide it.
She knew that something had happened while she'd been on Enishi's island—something more than she'd been aware of at the time. It had just been an inkling at first, something about the way everyone looked at her when she'd first emerged from the woods, but as time had passed she had confirmed with each of her friends in turn that, yes, something had happened—and no, it wasn't their place to tell. It was Kenshin's.
And Kenshin wasn't talking.
Ever since his return to health, Kenshin had been his usual diligent, cheerful, hardworking self, taking up his usual chores, seeing to her needs—and keeping her carefully at a distance. It wasn't like before they'd gone to Kyoto, when she'd felt like he always had one foot out the door, just waiting for the moment when he would have to leave again—but it wasn't like after they'd returned from Kyoto either. For a little while there, before Enishi had showed up and tried to punish Kenshin for his past misdeeds, he had seemed happier and more content than she'd ever seen him. Watching him work around the dojo, she'd no longer felt like he thought of himself as a lodger who was working to earn his keep, but like a part of the family working to better his own home. Their home.
Now, he didn't feel like either her lodger or her husband, but more like…her butler. That was definitely not the step forward she'd been hoping for.
"Something wrong, Jou-chan?"
Kaoru straightened suddenly looking around to find a grinning Sanosuke standing just over her shoulder. She realized she'd been nibbling absentmindedly at a thumbnail and quickly dropped her hand, shooting Sano a glare.
"Dinner's not ready if that's what you're looking for," she said scathingly.
Sano chuckled and shook his head. "What, I can't come by just for a visit?" he said with a grin, then jerked his head toward the other man standing just behind him, who Kaoru had failed to notice. "Ran into the chief on my way in. Says he's got a favor to ask Kenshin."
"Sorry to trouble you, Kamiya-san," Chief Uramura said with a smile and a short bow.
"No trouble at all," Kaoru said, getting to her feet to greet the chief in return. "We were all so pleased to hear you had recovered after the Yukishiro affair."
"You as well, Kamiya-san," the chief returned, and he and Sano exchanged a sidelong glance that made Kaoru sigh inwardly. She didn't bother asking them what it was about, as she knew she'd get the same answer as always.
"Is Kenshin free?" Sano asked.
"Ask him for yourself," Kaoru invited, gesturing toward the washing line where the swordsman was hard at work making up for the lost morning.
Sano led the way over with his hands in his pockets, calling out a greeting. Uramura followed a few steps behind, and Kaoru turned away to go fetch some tea for the four of them. She glanced back over her shoulder as she went, watching Kenshin greeting the others cheerfully, yet still with that same lingering fatigue in his eyes. She wished she could make it go away. She'd have gladly done her own laundry for a change if he'd just tell her what was bothering him.
By the time she had pulled together the tea set and stepped outside again, she found the three men gathered together beside the engawa. Kaoru knelt once more beside the support post and placed the tray in front of her on the deck, offering the first cup to Kenshin as he settled himself about a foot to her left
"So," he said, nodding his thanks to Kaoru and taking a small sip of his tea, "how can this one be of help, Chief Uramura?"
"Well, Himura-san," the chief began, "I'm sure you must have heard that there's been a recent spate of attacks in the area."
Kenshin's brow lowered into a concerned frown and he shook his head. "I had not—what sort of attacks?"
"Nothing too serious yet, thank goodness. The attacker has been harassing young women in the streets at night, sneaking up and seizing them in a distinctly threatening manner. So far he has always released his victims as soon as someone else approaches the area, so none of them have sustained more than a few scrapes and bruises, aside from the emotional trauma. But it seems only a matter of time before he harms someone in a much more permanent fashion."
"Yes," said Kenshin, frowning into his tea. "This one can certainly see why you're concerned. I'd like to do anything I can to help. What do you know about this attacker?"
"Unfortunately, not much. There have been no witnesses aside from the victims themselves, and none of them have yet seen his face, as he always approaches from behind. The moment he releases them, he seems to vanish. The boys at the department have taken to calling him the Nocturne, since he only seems to exist in darkness," Uramura added, a little sheepishly.
Kenshin gave a mild smile at this. "How do you know it's the same person then?"
"We don't know for certain," said Uramura. "But based on the profile it seems likely. There have been four attacks in all, the latest just last night. All of them have taken place after dark in the alleyways in and around this district, and all of the victims have given similar descriptions of the experience—being accosted from behind, asked confusing questions, and then released without any warning or any trace of the assailant. The victims themselves have all been women in their late teens and early twenties who wear their hair long in some fashion, either a tail or a braid or loose down the back."
Kenshin nodded speculatively, still mulling over his tea. "Confusing questions," he repeated looking up again. "What sort of confusing questions?"
"Well that's the interesting part," Uramura said. "He always seems to ask some version of the same thing—'Where is she? What's happened to her? What have you done with her?' He seems to believe that these women are somehow responsible for the disappearance of another woman. That's the best we can surmise at this point."
"Well, have there been any recent unexplained disappearances of women who fit the profile?" Sano asked.
"No," the chief replied with a shake of his head. "Well," he amended, "not unexplained, that is."
Kaoru glanced up from the teacup in her hands to see that both Uramura and Sano were looking at her. Kenshin merely bowed his head to take a sip of his tea, but she knew that his closed eyes were looking at her too.
When Kenshin set his teacup aside and lifted his eyes again, his expression was placid as always. "This one is happy to help, Chief Uramura," he said. "I will begin patrolling the area this evening."
"Hey," Sano joked, "you don't think we're going to let you have all the fun to yourself, do you, Kenshin? If we all fan out we'll have a much better chance—"
"Thank you, Sano," he interrupted with a knowing smile, "but this one would prefer to work on his own for the time being. There's no need for everyone to lose sleep all at once."
"Oh, Kenshin," Kaoru sighed. "Really, it's no trouble…"
"No, Kaoru-dono," he said firmly. "Please let this one handle it."
"I said no, Kaoru," he snapped, eyes flashing at her suddenly with such ferocity that she actually flinched back an inch or so, staring at him. She'd seen his gaze turn dagger-sharp like that before on several occasions, but never directed at her.
Immediately his eyes fell closed in regret and he dropped his head a fraction, taking a deep breath and letting it out again before speaking. "Please accept this one's apology, Kaoru-dono," he said more calmly. "I only meant that I would really prefer to take care of this myself. Please remain at the dojo with Yahiko."
"Alright, Kenshin," Kaoru said quietly. "If you're sure."
He nodded again. "This one is very sure, thank you Kaoru-dono." Then he opened his eyes again and gave her a smile—though this one was even less convincing than his others had been lately.
He turned back to the others. "I really should be getting back to the laundry, that I should."
The chief said his farewells and took his leave, and Kenshin stood from the porch to walk back over to the washing line. Kaoru watched him go with a sigh, leaning against the post beside her again in mild consternation. After a few minutes, she felt Sano take a seat on the edge of the engawa beside her.
"Do you think he's alright?" she asked, watching Kenshin scrub away at one of his hakama.
Sano sighed, and in her peripheral vision she saw him lean back to rest on the heels of his hands. "I don't know," he said. "He says he's fine, but he always says he's fine."
Her lips quirked up in a half a wry smile before sliding back to neutral. She watched Kenshin wring out the hakama and stand again, turning to arrange the voluminous fabric on the washing line to dry before returning to the bucket to start on the next item of clothing.
"Sano," she said finally, "what happened while I was on that island?"
Sano chuckled wearily. "Jou-chan, you already know my answer to that one."
"Yeah, yeah—ask Kenshin," she parroted. "A lot of good that does me. Whenever I bring it up he either pretends he can't hear me or just breezes past it and changes the subject. What's everyone so afraid of? What could have happened that was more horrible than everything I already know?"
"Like I said," Sano repeated, his voice darkening slightly, "only Kenshin can answer that."
It was well past dark by now, and the streets were nearly empty. Kenshin had made the rounds through the streets and alleys of their side of town once already and now he was on his second pass. Still no signs of anything amiss.
Except with him, of course—he was absolutely exhausted. At one time in his life he had been accustomed to running on little or no sleep for long periods, but he had been several years younger then. He supposed he must be going soft. He chuckled a little to himself at the thought—not such a bad thing in the long run, really, to think his life was comfortable enough to allow his skills to lapse. But at the moment it was quite inconvenient. It was all he could do to keep his eyes open as he wandered the shadowed streets, senses tuned for any sign of the Nocturne. He was almost beginning to regret turning down the others' offers to help.
Almost, he thought darkly, as he recalled the conversation with Uramura that afternoon. He still wouldn't have wanted Kaoru out here skulking through the shadows. Even if she hadn't fit the profile of the victims to the letter. Even if there had been no Nocturne, he wouldn't have wanted her out here, alone in the dark. Too much could happen to someone alone in the dark.
Kenshin drifted over toward one side of the alleyway and slumped down to sit on the edge of the raised porch at the back entrance to one of the shops. He would get up and resume searching again in a minute—he just needed to rest a little, catch his breath. He leaned wearily against the corner of the adjacent building and let his eyes droop shut for a moment, breathing a sigh as he relieved himself of the effort to hold them open. He could still hear everything for miles around. It was okay. He just needed a second.
He regretted the way he had spoken to Kaoru earlier. He didn't want her out here hunting for the Nocturne, but it wasn't like him to snap at her that way, and he wasn't quite sure what had made him do it. Even the memory of it made him wince. She'd seemed more worried than upset, but if anything that made it worse. He didn't like to worry her.
A breeze whistled down the narrow alleyway, ruffling a few strands of Kenshin's fiery hair. He tried to open his eyes again, knowing he really needed to continue his patrol, but his eyelids were so heavy. They just wouldn't budge. Anyway, his acute hearing told him there was no one in the area. No one but him.
The breeze picked up again, kicked up a bit of road dust that brushed like fingertips against his cheek. He could hear the creaking of a loose roof tile somewhere further along the alley, the quiet thumping of a distant door against its frame.
Then footsteps. Light, careful. A woman's.
The red-haired man straightened, eyelids flicking open as amber glinted in the moonlight. He got to his feet and headed swiftly and silently in the direction of the footsteps.
The woman's long braid was nearly blue in the darkness, swaying against the knot of her obi. He followed her for some distance, waiting, watching, wondering when she would turn around and show him what he needed to see. He followed her every twist and turn among the alleyways, never allowing her out of his sight. When finally she emerged onto a long, straight road, he remained only a moment in the shadows before stepping out after her. She never even had a chance to scream.
Kenshin jerked at the sound of someone knocking at the shoji. "Oro? What?" he mumbled, blinking blurrily as he pushed himself up to sit, trying to get the world to stop spinning with the force of his tiredness.
"Kenshin?" Kaoru's voice called tentatively. "Sorry to wake you—I know you must be tired from last night, but I thought you might like a bath."
"What?" he said again before his brain had finished putting the words in order. "Oh. Yes. Thank you Kaoru-dono." He blinked a couple more times, frowning down at his disheveled appearance. He had fallen asleep in his clothes again, this time sprawled sideways across the futon, and with one of his sandals still on his foot.
"Kenshin?" Kaoru said hesitantly. "Are you sure you're alright?"
"Of course I am, Kaoru-dono," he replied absentmindedly, taking the sandal off his foot and turning it over in his hands with a slightly unsettled frown. As he looked past it to the leg of his hakama, he found himself plucking at the smudged fabric over his knees, inspecting the long streaks of mud caked in the folds of his sleeves. When had he gotten so dirty? The breeze had kicked up a little road dust while he'd been out on patrol the previous night, but he looked like he'd been rolling around on the ground. He didn't remember that part.
Then again, he also didn't remember returning home and climbing into bed, yet clearly that had happened. He really needed to get this insomnia problem under control—he was starting to feel like he was losing his mind.
After he'd spent a good long time soaking in the tub, easing his aching muscles and nodding off a couple of times in the warm water, Kenshin dressed himself again and set about doing the laundry, starting with the clothes he had worn on patrol the night before. He grumbled a little to himself as he scrubbed out the stains—when had he gotten so careless? He didn't mind doing laundry, but at this rate he was going to have to do a full load a day just to avoid reaching the point where all he had left to wear was his fundoshi.
"Excuse me, Himura-san," the chief's voice startled Kenshin out of his thoughts, and he glanced up quickly. The chief seemed distinctly out of sorts, but Kenshin was rather more disturbed by the fact that he hadn't even sensed him coming. He really was off his game today.
"I'm afraid there's been another attack," the chief said gravely.
Kenshin frowned, getting to his feet from beside the washing tub and drying his hands on the towel over his shoulder. "Another attack? That's impossible—I didn't hear a thing all night."
"Well," the chief sighed, "then I suppose it must have happened while you were elsewhere in the district, because it was definitely the Nocturne."
The tone of the chief's voice concerned him greatly. "It's gotten worse, hasn't it," he surmised.
The chief nodded.
Kenshin swallowed, a strange, sickened feeling gathering in the pit of his stomach. "Don't tell me someone's been—"
Uramura shook his head before Kenshin had even finished speaking. "No, no," he said, "it's not that. She's alive—there was a head injury, but we believe it happened when he knocked her to the ground. She's already regained consciousness."
A little of the sickness subsided, and Kenshin breathed a small sigh of relief. "She's alright then?"
"Yes," the chief said, nodding, "yes, she's alright."
But Kenshin could tell that there was more to it than that. "What is it then? What's happened?"
The chief swallowed and glanced down at the ground, looking a little embarrassed and reluctant to divulge the information. "It seems he's changed his pattern slightly this time. Or maybe it was just that he had more time before someone found them, I don't know—but this time it seems that he was intending…intending to violate her."
Kenshin's eyes flashed in alarm. "How do you know?"
"When they found her she was lying on the ground, and her clothing was in disarray. She was unconscious, but he had clearly been tugging at her collar, and there were scratches on her throat and chest area, as if she'd been trying to fight him off before she'd passed out. Her memory of the incident is spotted, but she says he kept demanding to see something."
Kenshin closed his eyes and bowed his head, one fist clenched at his side. He had been there, wandering the streets, searching for the Nocturne, and still there had been an attack—right under his nose. How was that possible? When could he have been out of range? Why wouldn't he have heard it? Why wouldn't he have heard something?
He racked his brains for any signs he might have missed, but it was so difficult to recall much of anything in detail with his mind in the state it was in, sleeplessness weighing down every inch of his body. The truth was, he could hardly remember a thing—maybe he really had missed something.
"This one is so very sorry, Chief Uramura," he said grimly. "I should have been able to prevent it, that I should. Please, will you express my deepest regrets to the young woman?"
"Of course, Himura-san," the chief said, "but it wasn't your fault. Even you can't be everywhere at once."
Kenshin's jaw tightened, and somewhere in the back of his mind was a smoke-filled dojo, a malicious laugh.
"No," he agreed quietly, "I suppose I can't. But nonetheless, I feel responsible. I'll be certain to be more thorough when I'm on patrol tonight."
"Are you sure you're up to it?" Uramura asked, inspecting the dark circles under Kenshin's eyes. "You look a little worn out."
"Quite certain, Chief, thank you," he said tightly, attempting a reassuring smile. "I'll be perfectly fine by this evening, that I will."
Uramura nodded, though he didn't look completely convinced. "If you say so, Himura-san—I'm sure you know best."
As the chief turned to leave Kenshin's shoulders fell a fraction of an inch, and he glanced over at the wash basin near his feet, his soiled gi hanging over the side. Turning around, he bent over to pick it up, running his thumbs over the streaks of dirt on one of the sleeves.
Why couldn't he remember? How could he have missed it?
"Kenshin," Kaoru said quietly, and he looked up to find her standing a few feet away, her expression pinched with concern. "Please tell me what's wrong," she implored.
He looked down at the gi in his hands again. It was so hard to think straight. He just wanted to lie down, sleep until his mind could run smoothly again—but somehow he never seemed to get any rest even when he did sleep. It was only getting worse as the days passed.
He felt Kaoru move closer, but he was still startled when her hand brushed lightly over his scarred cheek. He looked up suddenly. Her eyes were silently begging him to open up, and for a moment he almost did. Maybe it would be better that way. Maybe if he could just explain, he wouldn't have to feel so afraid.
But then he saw it again in his mind's eye. The sight of her in the dojo as the smoke cleared, with his scar cut into her cheek and Enishi's sword through her heart. It seemed like it was always there, somewhere on the edge of his consciousness. Not even a nightmare—he had no nightmares these days, nor any dreams—more like a ghost. Haunting him day and night. How could he ever explain that? How could he burden her with something he could barely stand to remember?
"It's nothing, Kaoru-dono," he said at last, dropping his gaze again.
He heard her sigh, felt her hand fall away from his cheek, and it made him feel a bit bereft. He had the sudden urge to reach out for her, catch her hand in his and hold it against his face again.
"Alright," she conceded, folding her hands forlornly at her obi. "I can't say that I believe you, but I won't push you. Still, you're not going out on patrol alone again tonight."
His eyes darted to hers again with a frown. "But Kaoru-dono, you don't understand—the chief said it's gotten—"
"I heard what the chief said," she interrupted, lifting a hand to stop him, "and I know you wouldn't stay here and let others take care of it even if I told you to—but we're not letting you do this alone again. Tonight, Sano and I are coming with you whether you like it or not."
"Kenshin, I don't care what you say, you're not well," Kaoru insisted stubbornly. "If you won't let us help you for your sake, then think of the women who have been attacked. You missed him last night—what happens if you miss him again?"
Kenshin sighed. "I know," he admitted, having already reached the same conclusion, "and you're right. I'll bring Sano with me, but you heard what the chief—"
Kaoru interrupted him again with a shake of her head, eyes flashing in determination. "I know what you're thinking, but I'm not like those other women—I can take care of myself. You of all people should know I can't be gotten rid of that easily. I'm not as fragile as all that."
His jaw tightened, and he tried not to think of it again. Tried, and failed.
"I know," he replied.
He still didn't want her to go—but she was right, and he knew that. There were innocent people at stake here, and it would be irresponsible of him to place their lives solely on his own shoulders when he knew he was unreliable. Anyway, even in his current condition, anyone who could evade his sharp senses must be quite difficult to catch. They would have a much better chance of success if there were more of them.
Without really thinking about it, he lifted a hand to stroke his knuckles over the smooth flesh of her left cheek. He didn't even realize what he was doing until he heard her sharp intake of breath, met her curious eyes. Kenshin swallowed and pulled his hand back.
"Alright, Kaoru-dono," he said finally, trying to act as if nothing had happened. "If you insist."
She nodded, still looking at him as though trying to read his mind. "I do," she said. "Now you go get some rest, alright? I'll finish up with the laundry."
Kenshin nearly protested, but she was already tying back her sleeves and setting to work. He watched her for a moment longer before reluctantly returning to his room, stretching out on his futon to try to catch a few winks.
Kenshin looked a little better by the time the three of them left the dojo that evening—a little, but not much. He still had that pale, greyish look to him, and seemed to lack even the energy to animate the muscles of his face—every expression was an effort, slightly behind the beat. Kaoru wished he would just stay home and let them take care of it, at least for one night—but Kenshin was Kenshin, tired or no, and she knew it was enough of a concession for him to even allow them to help. Especially her, for some reason.
Yes, she knew she fit the profile of the victims—but as she'd pointed out to Kenshin earlier that day, she wasn't your ordinary young lady in a flowered kimono. She could take care of herself when she needed to. So far the Nocturne still hadn't seriously harmed anyone, and none of the women had had Kaoru's skills to fall back on. Anyway, she knew it wasn't just that. Ever since he had rescued her from Enishi's island, Kenshin had been especially—one might even say irrationally—protective of her. Not that he hadn't been protective of her before, but this was different. Sometimes it felt like he really did see her as fragile, in a way he never had before. Like he thought even the slightest touch would break her. She didn't like him feeling that way, not just because it made her feel as if he undervalued her abilities, but because it seemed to disturb him so much. Could that all be just because she'd been kidnapped? It seemed unlikely, especially as Enishi hadn't even been the first person to kidnap her since she'd met Kenshin—but not for the first time she found herself wondering what else possibly could have happened in her absence to make him so…frightened.
Kaoru approached another juncture between two alleys slowly, bokken raised in an easy defensive posture. They had all split up as soon as they'd entered the backstreets, though Kenshin had exacted promises from each of them to remain in earshot of the others, so that help would be close at hand if anyone ran into trouble. She peered around the corner and scanned the patches of shadow cast by the moonlight, but nothing stirred—so she turned and started down that way, moving slowly, keeping close to the wall.
Kaoru sensed the attacker just moments before he was upon her, and she whirled around to face him with her bokken.
When she recognized the faintly reddish outline of Kenshin's unruly hair, she breathed a sigh of relief. "Kenshin," she scolded with a smile, lowering her weapon a few inches. "Don't sneak up on me like that—I thought you were the—"
But the words died on her lips as he stepped forward, moonlight spilling across his scarred face and the cold, hard amber of his eyes.
"Battousai?" she breathed, frowning back at him in confusion. "What's happened, Kenshin? Why have you reverted into Battousai?"
But the man opposite didn't answer her, didn't even seem to register her utterance of his name. He didn't reach for his sword either, which seemed odd behavior for Battousai. On the few occasions she had seen him like this before he had been embroiled in the heat of battle. None of this made any sense. Why was he like this? What had triggered the attack? Why wouldn't he at least answer her?
Suddenly he rushed her, darting forward so quickly she barely even had time to gasp in response before she felt his hands grip her shoulders hard and slam her back against the wall behind her, his feral eyes less than a foot from her own. "Where is she?" he demanded in a voice that wasn't his own. "What have you done with her?"
"Who?" she asked desperately, her breath shallow and labored from the impact.
He seemed to be staring hard into her eyes for a long moment, looking for something but uncertain how to be sure that he had found it. One of his hands released her shoulder and gripped her by the jaw instead, jerking her face harshly to the right so he could inspect her left cheek.
"You're not her," he snarled, shoving her face aside again and thrusting her shoulders harder against the wall. "You're an imposter! What have you done with her?"
"Who, Kenshin?" she cried. "What have I done with who?"
"Kaoru!" he growled, and his face was so close now she could feel his hot breath on her throat. "Where have you taken her?"
Kaoru stared back at him, bewildered. This wasn't him—it couldn't be him. He wasn't even acting like Battousai, much less Kenshin. None of this made any sense. If he was looking for her, why couldn't he recognize her?
"I am Kaoru," she said, but he shook, his head violently before she'd even finished the words.
"Tell me what you've done with her!"
"I am Kaoru, Kenshin!" she insisted, gripping his elbows, tears slipping from her eyes at the sight of his face twisted in pain and rage. "I'm right here, I swear!"
"You're lying!" he snarled. "You're not Kaoru—you're an imposter! I saw her—" his voice choked off, but the anger continued unabated. "She's dead," he growled.
Kaoru's breath caught in her throat. "What are you talking about?"
"She's dead!" he spat, his fingers digging harder still into her shoulders, but she barely noticed. "He killed her, and I couldn't save her. I saw her. I have to bring her back. She's dead."
"Kenshin," she breathed, carefully lifting her hand up to stroke his cheek, and she was surprised to find tear tracks beneath her fingertips. "I'm not dead, I promise. I'm right here."
"You can't be…" he insisted again, but the fight seemed to be going out of him, his voice choked with despair.
She brought her other hand up to his face and tried to hold him steady so she could capture his gaze, force him to see her. "I'm here, Kenshin. You rescued me. I'm right here."
His eyes flickered in the shadows, rage and despair warring with longing—he wanted to believe her, she could see it, but he didn't know how.
His breath left him on a heartrending whine, drawn in again just as sharply. "Kaoru," he sobbed at last, and for the first time she could hear something of the man she knew in his voice, struggling up through the anger. His arms wound tightly around her shoulders, fingers clenching so hard in the fabric of her shirt that she wouldn't have been surprised if he'd torn straight through it. His weight collapsed gradually against her as his legs weakened, and she had to slide down the wall to steady their descent as they crumpled to the ground. All she could do was wrap her arms around his violently trembling shoulders as he sobbed uncontrollably into her collar.
"It's okay," she soothed, still bewildered, terrified at the depth and force of his fear, trying to sort out the line between reality and delusion. She pressed a kiss to the side of his head and stroked his hair as his sobs continued unabated, racking his suddenly small and fragile form with frightening magnitude.
Footsteps thundered toward them out of the darkness, and Kaoru looked up as Sano skidded to a halt at the end of the alleyway. "Jou-chan," he panted as he jogged toward them, "are you alright? I…" he trailed off as he noticed Kenshin's weeping form. "What the hell happened?" he said, glancing from Kenshin back to Kaoru in bafflement.
"I don't know," Kaoru replied blankly, still equally at a loss. "But I think I've found the Noctune…"
Sano's eyes darted up to hers again in questioning alarm. All she could do was nod.
With Sano's help, Kaoru managed to get Kenshin back to the dojo. They had to move slowly even though Sano was carrying him, because the second Kaoru would let go of his hand he started flailing and lashing out, demanding to know where she was. As long as he had hold of her, hand clutched in both of his, he remained relatively docile. Even after they had settled him into his futon he wouldn't allow her to leave his side even for a moment—not that she tried very hard to do so by that point. She didn't have any intention of letting Kenshin out of her sight until they'd figured out what was going on with him.
While Sano went to fetch Megumi from the clinic, Kaoru stretched out on top of the covers beside Kenshin on his futon. She kept her left hand entwined with his, propping herself up on her right elbow so she could watch him as he slept. She wasn't sure exactly when he had fallen asleep—in some ways it seemed as if he had never really been awake—but now that he was like this he seemed relatively calm. Only the jagged line of his brow, the strength with which he held onto her, and the occasional whispered utterances of her name told her that his sleep was anything but peaceful.
Kenshin awoke with Kaoru's name on his lips.
Once again he found that he had fallen asleep fully dressed. And once again he found himself in his futon with absolutely no memory of when or how he had gotten here. He stared up at the sunlit ceiling, trying to piece together his memories of the previous evening. He remembered the laundry, speaking to the chief, speaking to Kaoru, napping for a bit. He remembered leaving the dojo with Sano and Kaoru, a petulant Yahiko left with the task of cleaning up after them following the evening meal. He remembered splitting up to cover more ground as they wandered the back alleys of the district, and then…
Nothing. Just a blank.
Kenshin frowned to himself in consternation. He tried to lift his hand to his face, only to find it was trapped underneath something. He glanced to his left and did a double-take as he realized that the something was a sleeping Kaoru.
His breath became shallow as he stared at her, her fingers laced with his, her head resting on his shoulder. She was still wearing the kosode and hakama she had worn the night before, and her hair was a bit mussed from sleep, falling down from its customary ponytail. Something about the sight of her there, lying on top of the covers and curled against his side, both thrilled and frightened him in equal measure. Frightened mainly because he still had absolutely no memory of why she was there. But that wasn't all there was to it either—somehow he felt like the knowledge was hidden somewhere in the back of his mind, but it was as if he was afraid to remember it. Like he didn't want to remember.
Which was very strange indeed, because he could only imagine that anything that ended with Kaoru lying next to him in his bed was something he definitely wanted to remember.
His breath caught in his throat as she stirred, her free hand coming up to rub at her face. He wondered if he should try to get away before she had fully awakened, at least put some distance between the two of them so she wouldn't feel embarrassed—but he couldn't seem to move a muscle. He could only stare at her as her eyes blinked open, brow wrinkling as she tried to take in her surroundings. When she looked up at him, he saw her eyes widen sharply, and suddenly he wondered if he shouldn't have tried to escape after all.
But before he could even open his mouth to stammer an apology, her face split into a smile of relief, and she scooted up onto her elbow to look down at him. "Kenshin!" she gasped. "You're alright!"
His instinctive apology died on his lips at that, and his brow furrowed. "Alright? Of course I'm alright," he said, a little bewildered. "What happened?"
Her smile began to fade slightly, replaced with a new sort of worry. "You still don't remember?"
Her worry was infectious, and for a moment he could feel the dark secret at the back of his mind straining against its cage of shadows. "What happened, Kaoru-dono?"
She sagged a little, giving him a halfhearted smile and brushing aside a lock of his red-orange hair. "I was hoping you could tell me."
Kenshin caught her hand in his and held it gently to his chest. Something about its warmth comforted him. "Kaoru-dono," he said slowly, "do you mind if I ask how we got here?"
Her smile flickered again, and she averted her eyes briefly as a blush rose on her cheeks. She seemed to have only just noticed their intimate position—and yet, even so, she didn't seem inclined to move away. "Sano and I brought you back here after…after we found the Nocturne."
The shadow stirred again, a strange sort of fear curling in his stomach. He didn't understand the reaction—if they'd found the Nocturne, that was a good thing, wasn't it?
Why couldn't he remember?
"You found the Nocturne?"
Kaoru nodded slowly, and the look in her eyes seemed to be trying to tell him something. Something he was afraid to know.
The moonlight winked out from behind the rooftop across the alley, and he felt his feet meeting the earth, a woman in a kimono several feet ahead.
Kenshin's eyes squeezed shut and he shook his head slightly, banishing the image. When he looked up at Kaoru again, he still found her watching him with a grave sort of sympathy. Waiting.
He swallowed. "Where is he now?"
She breathed a small sigh, slid her hand from his slackened grip and lifted it to stroke his cheek with her knuckles. "Kenshin…"
He turned his face away and sat up quickly, shaking his head absently. His own voice growled fiercely in the darkness, his fingers tearing at the collar of a kimono. A woman pleaded beneath his fingers. The ground thudded against his knees, but he didn't release her.
"No," he choked out, blinking hard, his fingers fisting in the bed sheets at his sides. "Oh my god. Oh my god…"
He barely felt Kaoru's hand at his shoulder as she sat up beside him, barely heard her gentle, coaxing utterance of his name.
His fingers gripped her shoulders with bruising force as he shoved her back against the shadowed wall of the alleyway. "Where is she?" he snarled. "Imposter!"
"Kenshin." Her voice dragged him up out of the memory a little more insistently this time, and he looked around at her, seeing her and yet not seeing her.
"Oh my god," he whispered, his voice hollow in his chest. "What did I do?"
Her smile seemed both sympathetic and relieved. She didn't answer, instead just wrapped her arms around his shoulders from the side and leaned her cheek against him, holding him tightly. He swallowed the bile he could feel rising in his throat, one hand coming up to grasp her forearm as he dropped his chin, staring at the rumpled blankets.
"It's okay," she said. "You didn't hurt anyone, not really."
His fingers tightened on her arm, his eyes squeezing shut. "How can you say that?" he murmured. "I attacked six innocent women. I…I attacked you."
"But no one was seriously hurt," she insisted, holding him a little closer.
"But they could have been."
"You weren't yourself."
"That's just the problem, isn't it?"
She sighed. "Kenshin…"
"No," he interrupted, gently peeling her arms off of him and rolling to his feet to take a few steps across the room. "You don't understand, Kaoru-dono."
He fought to control his breathing, his head still swimming with the memories as they breached the surface one by one. Memories that were his, and yet not his. "As Battousai," he said quietly, "I killed many people, but always for a purpose. What happened with Tomoe was an accident, but at least I remembered it." He ran a restless hand over his face as another woman's scream echoed in his ears. "Even when I've come close to killing again in these past few years, it was always a choice—my heart might turn cold as Battousai, but my mind has always been my own. But this…what I remember…it wasn't me. It was my body, but my mind wasn't my own."
He felt his fingers wrapped around a woman's throat, released his clenched fists and turned his head away, wishing he could forget again.
"I can't be trusted."
He expected her to gasp, to jump up and try to insist that he was wrong, that everything could still be fixed if they just worked together. What he didn't expect was for her to laugh. It was a small, wry laugh, but still a laugh.
"You're wrong, Kenshin," she said calmly.
He turned back halfway, regarding her with a frown. She pushed herself to her feet and walked over to him, standing so they were face to face.
"I mean yes, it's true," she conceded, "you weren't in your right mind, obviously. But I don't believe that you had any intention of hurting anyone."
"Why?" he asked, bewildered.
"Because," she said, lifting a hand to his cheek, "you were looking for me."
His left hand lifted unconsciously to grasp her wrist as he subtly leaned into her caress. "I don't understand."
"Kenshin," she sighed, looking up at him seriously. "I think it's time you told me what happened while I was away."
Kenshin froze, eyes widening slightly with alarm. "Why is that?"
"Because I have a right to know," she replied. "And because whatever it was, it's tearing you in two."
He released her wrist, and she slowly brought her hand down, folding it with its mate in front of her. His eyes fell upon her left cheek, and for a moment he could almost see the scar there, like it was hidden beneath the surface. Like the woman he had seen in the dojo had been real, and the Kaoru who had returned to him was only a doll.
"You died," he said quietly, still staring at her cheek. Part of him expected her to flinch or express some measure of horror at this, but she didn't—almost as if she already knew. "I heard you scream, and I came after you—and when I reached the dojo I found you sitting there with my scar carved into your cheek and Enishi's sword through your heart."
She stiffened slightly at that, but still didn't comment. She seemed to be waiting, giving him the time he needed to tell the story at his own pace.
"After that, it was like I died too. I didn't want to live anymore—it was too hard, and I was too tired. I left the dojo and found myself in the fallen village. And I waited there while my life bled out of me, so that maybe someday soon I could join you."
He felt more than saw it as she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him. He bowed his head against her shoulder and squeezed his eyes shut against the tears that threatened, a few slipping past his defenses. He held her close as he drew in a ragged breath, fighting to stop fighting. He had to tell her. She had to know.
"I never saw the doll after they discovered you were alive," he said quietly. "It had been destroyed by the time I returned from Rakuninmura. I don't know, maybe if I'd seen it as it really was…it was just so hard to forget. It was so real. Even now, when I know you're safe and you're right here with me, part of me still can't forget. It's like part of me still believes you died back then. You died, and I couldn't save you."
The tears were flowing freely now, and he pressed his face into her shoulder, body shivering with silent sobs. She just held onto him, rocking them gently back and forth and letting him cry, running her fingertips through his hair. He didn't know how long they stayed like that, how long he wept—for her, for himself, for his own relief that she was alive, for the fear that would probably always stay with him in some small measure. Because anyone worth loving was someone he could lose. He had lost too many someones in his life to ever forget that.
When his wounded heart finally rung itself dry, he took a shuddering breath and squeezed her gently again before pulling back to look her in the eye. "I'm sorry, Kaoru-dono," he said sheepishly, brushing a lock of hair back from her face.
She smiled and shook her head. "Don't be," she said. "Don't ever be sorry for giving me the truth." Her smile turned slightly lopsided as she gave him a teasing look of warning. "And if you ever keep anything important like this from me again, I'll turn into Nocturne-Kaoru and come looking for you."
He laughed a little in spite of himself—but the mirth faded quickly at the reminder of what he had done. His eyes fell on her shoulders, over the bruises he knew his fingers must have left there.
"Hey," Kaoru said, turning his face back to her with both hands on his cheeks. "Stop that. I told you, it's alright—no one was seriously hurt. And Megumi believes that your new little alter-ego was just some kind of stress reaction—your way of dealing with something you hadn't properly dealt with consciously yet. Now that you have, it should stop happening."
When he made to protest, she stopped him with a finger to his lips. "Don't get me wrong," she continued, "she still thinks we should keep a close eye on you for a while, especially at night. But…ah…I wouldn't mind doing that myself, to be honest. If you're alright with that."
He took in her slightly nervous expression, and the faint blush that had reappeared on her cheeks, and smiled a little beneath her fingertip. When she hesitantly curled her finger away from his lips, he leaned forward and pressed them gently against hers instead, savoring her warmth and the sweetness of her breath.
After a long moment, he pulled back just far enough to smile at her again. "No, Kaoru-dono," he whispered, kissing her softly a second time. "I don't mind that at all."
They spent a few more breathless moments there before he trailed a string of kisses over her cheekbone, lingering over the location of the imagined scar until it had completely disappeared from his mind. Then he kissed his way down the long column of her throat and just beneath the collar of her shirt, feeling her breath rise against him as his lips pressed against her sternum, just above her heart. He stayed there long enough to convince himself that it too was whole and undamaged.
When he lifted his head to look up at her again, he found her smiling down at him. "Satisfied?" she asked knowingly.
He straightened up once more and kissed her deeply, promising things to come. He nodded slowly as he pulled back. "I think I've found what I was looking for."
Kaoru looked up and gave a brilliant smile as Kenshin rounded the corner into the dojo yard. "Finished already?" she said, walking toward him.
He nodded, grinning back and offering the bucket in his hand as they met halfway. "I met Machida-dono on the road as she was heading toward the market, so I managed to save myself the trip. She was very pleased with the dumplings you sent her as well."
Kaoru gave him a knowing smile. She knew it was a lie, but this was the sort of lie she didn't mind so much. Her cooking was getting better, but it wasn't likely that Machida-san had preferred her dumplings to Kenshin's onigiri. "I'm glad to hear that," she said, taking the bucket from him and resting it against her obi as they turned to walk back toward the house. "Did you have any trouble getting the tofu?"
"No trouble at all," he replied, shifting the rest of his purchases from one arm to two so that he could carry them more easily. When they reached the kitchen Kenshin busied himself putting things away while Kaoru began preparing the tofu for cooking. She would let Kenshin do that part, of course, especially as Sano and Megumi were coming around for dinner that evening—but at least she could help with the simpler steps.
Megumi's visit was not a purely social one, as they both well knew—she had made a habit of coming by for dinner a few times a week ever since Kenshin's little episode, just to observe him and make sure there were no signs of a relapse. Kaoru had been keeping an eye on him almost constantly as well, of course, but there were some things only a trained eye could recognize. Still, it had been nearly a month since the last appearance of the Nocturne, and Kenshin was definitely in much better shape. He still occasionally suffered from insomnia, but most nights he slept all the way through—and in any case, Kaoru was always right there beside him to hear it if he ever started wandering in his sleep again. So far he hadn't. Even his sleeping mind seemed content just to hold her a little tighter against him until the shadows passed.
Meanwhile, he had been making weekly visits to each of his unintended victims, bringing them gifts of food and helping them with chores around the house as an apology for his actions. Most of them had been understandably skittish of him at first, but once Megumi and Chief Uramura had explained the situation they had seemed quite sympathetic. As he had been mending roofs, doing laundry, cooking food, and completing a host of other tasks for them for the past four weeks, Kaoru strongly suspected that most of them considered Kenshin's debt to them repaid several times over by now—but he still went, and she didn't try to stop him. She knew it made him feel better, and that was the important thing at this point.
She felt his hand brush the small of her back as he came up beside her, and she looked over at him with a smile, stepping aside to let him take over on the tofu. As she wiped her hands on a nearby cloth and leaned against the wall beside the counter, she watched his slender fingers at work, trying to memorize the steps for the next time she made her own attempt. It was no use though—she soon found herself distracted from his hands and instead paying attention to the look of contented concentration on his handsome face instead. She knew that he could sense her shift of focus, but only the slight upward curve at the corners of his mouth told her he was aware of her scrutiny—and that he didn't mind it in the least.
The only thing that still worried her these days was the look that crossed his face every time he glanced past the threshold of the dojo. At least the memory wasn't following him around anymore—but it was still there, somewhere out of sight. And maybe it always would be, a little bit. But as long as she could be there for him, letting her presence remind him of the truth, she believed that he wouldn't lose his mind to the fear again. And maybe in time, even the oldest scars would fade.
A/N: So, three things inspired this story:
1) I was listening to some Chopin, and suddenly got the urge to write a Kenshin story using the title "Nocturne."
2) I've always been bothered by the notion of Battousai as some sort of Mr. Hyde figure—Kenshin without morals or inhibitions—so I found myself asking what it would take for me to buy Kenshin acting that way. That led me to a sort of PTSD-induced attack of dissociative identity disorder. At first I'd meant to have him out drinking and whoring and attacking people unprovoked—but I quickly realized that the second he drew his sword or showed his face anywhere the game was up. Any witness's description of him would be instantly recognizable. So I had to scale back a bit and limit him to aberrant behavior that he could carry out without ever being seen—which turned him into more of a Jack the Ripper than a Mr. Hyde, but whatever. It works… ;)
3) Been hankering to write a "Kenshin finally tells Kaoru what happened while she was dead" fic too anyway, so this gave me the perfect excuse. I had a few ideas in that area that didn't end up fitting with this story though, so I may revisit it at some point in the future.
Oh, also, I realize I may have played a little fast and loose with the character mix here—I left Yahiko on the sidelines, and I can't remember whether Misao and Aoshi would have returned to Kyoto yet by this point in the timeline. Just go with it. I needed Kenshin and Kaoru for obvious reasons, and Sano makes a nice foil—plus, he's so often gone already in these kinds of post-Jinchuu fics, and he's always been a favorite of mine… ;)