Okay, so those of you who have read my stuff before are probably going to realize this is something completely different because… well it is. The style of writing might seem a bit strange but that's because this was supposed to be a doujinshi (only my drawing skills have a while to go before they catch up with my writing speed)
Anyway, here's the deal with the story. Formatting on Fanfiction.net is hard so I have to use different conventions then I would on my website (like color coding).
Normal font – Kaoru's POV (1st person)
Bold font – Anything printed (letters, articles, etc)
Bold Italic font – Flashback
Italic font – Kenshin's POV (3rd person)
It should be pretty clear when you read the story but just in case, I figured it was worth a legend ahead of time.
Translations of certain words are at the bottom. I'm big on using names that have meaning behind them and with them in Japanese, I figured a translation would help.
Setting is a few weeks after Sano leaving in the manga.
Now… without further muddling on my part…
Last Chance at Glory
Chapter 1 : The Invitation
When all the fighting was done and all the enemies were defeated, life at the dojo became peaceful. Sano was off exploring the world and Megumi had returned to Aizu. Misao and Aoshi had gone home to Kyoto. And suddenly it was the three of us again.
It should have been different now from when we shared the dojo those many months ago. And in some ways, it was. Yahiko was no longer the spoiled kid with a chip on his shoulder… he was the spoiled young man with a chip on his shoulder. Well, I'm joking but at least one part of that is true. Yahiko is growing up and while I'll never say it out loud, I couldn't be prouder of him. My little adopted brother.
But then there's Kenshin.
I thought it was terrifying that you can love a person so completely without knowing if he feels the same. But I've come to realize that there is something much scarier than that. Finally seeing that he really does feel the same way.
It should be wonderful, you know, discovering the truth after all the doubt. But it's not the storybook finish. There's more doubt now. Tomoe's ghost hangs over us like a little rain cloud. I think Kenshin worries I'll share her fate, since I almost did. And I can't help but worry that I'll never be able to live up to her. She seemed so perfect, so ladylike, so completely opposite from what I am. I don't understand it, how he could give his heart to a girl like that and then feel the same way about me.
I'll never live up to her. I know that but… I'm just not willing to let go of him. So we play our little game, like everything is normal, like it really was only yesterday that we first met. And Yahiko, the obedient little student he can sometimes be, plays along too. Because none of us want to lose the little happiness we've found with the four walls of my dojo.
These were grim thoughts. And I should have been happier, walking back to the dojo with a full purse of money at my side. A full week of classes and I had enough money to repair the roof. And then maybe the place would be respectable enough so that I could bring a few more students in. I should have been happier.
I should also have been paying attention. After all the trouble that's happened, you would think I would be better at picking up when someone was following me. But it wasn't until my key was in the door that I heard something.
And it was very hard to miss that. I turned around slowly, realizing the door to the dojo had opened as I did. Before I could even get a look at who was calling my name, Kenshin was next to me, hand resting on the hilt of the Sakabatou.
There were three men, in uniforms and sword attached to their sides. Whoever they were, they didn't seem too pleased to see Kenshin there. Downright terrified might be the word for it. So I walked forward and tried to defuse the situation before it got worst.
"Yes," I said. "That's me."
The man reached inside his pocket and I heard Kenshin tense up behind me. I put a reassuring hand up and locked eyes with the man. There was some crinkling and he pulled up a folded up piece of paper. I took it slowly from his hand and the man bowed, taking his two comrades with him as he ran away.
"Strange," I said with a shrug walking back inside.
"What did they want?" Yahiko said, meeting us at the door.
"They had a letter for me," I replied, looking down. Stranger still it had foreign lettering on it.
"What's it say?"
I scowled, watching Yahiko peer around me, trying to see what it said before I even got the chance to open it. Argh! He really was like a little brother some times.
"I'll tell you what it says, after I read it," I replied firmly.
"Feh," Yahiko said. "Like it's anything important. Probably another student canceling classes so they don't have to have an ugly instructor like you."
I take it back. I take back everything I said about him growing up. That obnoxious little…
"Maa maa," Kenshin said, jumping in as soon as he saw my hand clench the shinai. "I'm sure Yahiko didn't mean it."
"You damn well bet I meant it."
You'd think Yahiko would have learned by now. But instead, I left him spinning around the courtyard trying to recover from shinai blow the head while Kenshin tried to keep him still long enough to assess the damage.
Really! I give them a place to stay, free food and all I get are insults and a complete lack of privacy. I tossed my bag down on to the floor and stripped off the heavy coat, sitting down in front of the tiny table that serves as a desk. I held the letter in my hand and commented for the third time about its strangeness.
I carefully pulled the seal off the back and spread the letter in front of me. The contents, thankfully, were in Japanese. I made it about half way through the letter when I realized I must have been dreaming. I started at the top again and read it to the end. Then I reread it at least five times.
No, it wasn't possible. This couldn't actually be saying…
I stood up, suddenly realizing what it meant if it was the truth. A chance, I finally had a chance. I ran out of the door, through the courtyard barely hearing the Kaoru-dono as I ran by, and into the small shed. They were here, they had to be here!
I ignored the voice behind me and started to tear my way through the boxes, tossing them over my shoulder as I did. Tea supply, no… *duck* "Oro"… spare laundry bucket, no… *duck* "Oro"… large unidentified box, oof, no… *CRASH* "Ororororo…"
Damn… where could it be!! But then I saw, crammed in the corner, collecting dust. I walked slowly over to it, kneeling down before it. With one hand, I wiped away the dust and saw the lettering on the box. This was it.
"Kaoru?" Yahiko said from the doorway.
"Yahiko," I responded, not realizing how grave my voice was. "Go sit in the dojo. I'll be there in a minute." There was no response, no complaint, he just left and did as he was told. If only it was always like that.
I struggled to get the two box towards the door. "You could help," I said to Kenshin as I passed him by. Why was he just sitting at the door with that swirly-eyed look on his face? Completely oblivious sometimes, I thought, dropping the box on of his lap.
Yahiko was waiting for us in the dojo. I brought one box over and put it down in front of me as I kneeled down. From the side, Kenshin put the second box in front of Yahiko and took a silent seat next to us.
I looked over at Yahiko, watching him study me with determination. He knew this was big.
"You have studied the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu for more than a year now, correct?"
"Hai," he answered firmly.
"Have you dedicated yourself to the sword that protects."
"Then will you fight to protect the honor of the school?"
No pause, no question, I tried to conceal my smile but I was too proud. "Then I need you to fight by my side."
I opened the box in front of him. His brow furrowed as he reached out a hand and touched what was inside. His hands rested on the treated leather, bringing out the chest plate and holding it up.
"Armor?" he asked.
"Hai," I said. "Practice armor. For a tournament. The First Annual Tokyo Kendo Tournament."
* * *
Kendo Tournament to Occur in One Month's Time
Matches set up to settle debate between two high ranking politicians
During last night's state dinner for the American contingency, Watanabe Heiji and Nakamura Motoru nearly came to blows over a debate on the place of sword fighting in Meiji's Japan. The intervention of a Samuel Blackstone, businessman, prevented the fight from escalating as the American offered to fund a tournament to settle the question.
It started earlier that evening when Watanabe stated that any violent sport had no place in a peaceful Japan. But Nakamura argued that many schools no longer concentrate on using the sword solely to kill. The debate quickly degenerated as Watanabe, a well-known pacifist, accused Nakamura, a strong supporter of the military, of attempting to warp Japan into a war hungry nation.
Mr. Blackstone stepped in and offered to settle the debate with a tournament that would exhibit all styles of the sword. Four teams would be from schools who philosophy was evolving away from violence while the other four teams would come from more militant schools.
Rules were still being worked out but will mimic the training practices of most sword schools. Protective armor will be worn and wooden swords will be the only weapons allowed. There will be one fighter from each school but they will have a second who can fight one of their fights if they need it.
A list of eight teams was drawn up and the date for the tournament was set for one month from today. Watanabe chose Shiinto Kurochiku Ryu, Aka Dokuja Ryu, Ishikiri Ryu and Kokufuu Ryu. Nakamura chose Tanaka Byakuren Ryu, Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, Suzuki Kawa Ryu and Takayama Hitsuji Ryu.
* * *
"Just a minute!!"
Oh he is so frustrating. Annoying little brother. That's EXACTLY what he is.
I pulled the chest guard string tight, trying to let it fall on my chest correctly. It had been made for me but it was almost five years since I last tried it on and I had… well… grown since then. The gloves were next and at least they still fit. But years inside storage had left them stiff. I pushed down on them, trying to flex the leather but it was going to take more to get them in shape.
"Ah! What is it with women and always taking forever to get ready!!"
I grabbed the helmet and slammed it on. I was beyond angry. And I was going to beat it into his little head that you do not insult your sensei like that if you want to enjoy a long and pain free life.
"Yahiko!" I said throwing the door open. "I've had just about…"
I trailed off, seeing the looks of shock on their faces. Turning around, I looked back in my room, catching sight of myself in the mirror. The grate in the helmet made it difficult to see but I didn't see anything wrong. I pulled off the helmet, yelping slightly as my hair got caught.
"What's the matter?" I asked, as soon as the helmet was off.
Yahiko just shook his head, still in a state of surprise. "It was like a real samurai…"
"Baka," I said. "Of course it was, the armor is modeled after them. And if you got off your lazy butt, you could look like one too."
The insult got his attention and he scowled. He went to his room to retrieve the armor and I relished the idea of having him have to ask for help. That would take his ego down a few notches.
There was still one thing missing though. We had the armor and the swords but short of practicing against ourselves, there was nothing to hit. A little light bulb went off and I turned to Kenshin, the rurouni already back off, instinctively sensing that something very bad was about to happen to him.
"Absolutely not. No daughter of mine will take up the sword."
"Women are weak. They do not deserve the sword."
Kaoru stood up, her small nine-year-old body not looking imposing at all when she stood up and placed her hands on her hips. "But I'm the only one now. I'm the only one who can carry on the school."
"I have students that will do that better than you could. You wouldn't last a month."
"I would. And I'll be better than any of your other beginners by then too."
There was a pause. "One month, Kaoru. One month is all you get."
"Shush, its not that bad," I said to Kenshin as I tied the last string front the chest protector on Yahiko. I took the helmet and put it on Yahiko's head backwards, earning a couple of curses from him (Sano… a bad influence even when he was gone) but giving me another reason to smile.
I turned the helmet around the right way and could almost feel the anger seething through the mask. But I ignored it and handed him the shinai instead.
"Now just try a head strike once or twice," I said.
Yahiko frowned. "Won't I hit the helmet?"
I shook my head. "Why do you think we do so many of these? Why do you think I kept correcting your form? Just try one."
I watched as he brought the shinai up and then down in a men strike. Cleared the helmet no problem. I had to smile and whistle a little 'I told you so…'
"Okay, now try it on the… practice…" I couldn't help it. I just started to laugh.
Poor Kenshin. I know it may seem very cruel to do. But you have to admit… it's kind of funny to watch him, once the most feared hitokiri in all of Japan, in situations like this. I think I was fair. We needed a practice dummy, Kenshin was the only person left and I don't have another set of armor. Besides, I did lend him all the extra pillows.
So there he is, standing in the middle of the courtyard with a dozen or so pillows tied onto his head, chest and arms. I trusted Yahiko to hit correctly and not do any real damage… I think.
"Sorry, sorry," I said, holding up a hand while trying to stop myself from laugh.
"Kaoru-dono… I really don't think…"
"You'll be fine," I said with a smile. "Yahiko, give it a try."
Yahiko nodded and looked at Kenshin with apprehension. A bit slower than normal, he brought down the shinai towards Kenshin's head… and hit nothing but air. Nani?
"Kenshin!" I called. "Don't move!"
"Demo…" But I just glared and that was enough to silence him.
Yahiko tried again but with a little 'oro', Kenshin dodged. "Kenshin!"
"Kaoru-dono, it's not my fault, that it's not. It's instinct for me to move when something tries to hit me."
I frowned and moved around behind him, throwing the helmet back on and putting my hands on his back. "There, now you should stay standing. Yahiko try it again…"
There's always that split second between when you realize you've done something really stupid and when it actually happens. I saw the shinai coming down and true to his word, Kenshin instinctively ducked. Which had the unfortunate side effect of throttling me forward right into the path of the oncoming wooden sword.
A few seconds later I held my ringing head in my hands and had to wonder… in all our fights, it seemed like Kenshin was always use his superhuman speed to block anything the bad guys threw at his friends. So why the hell couldn't he block Yahiko's strike before it hit me in the head?
He read the question on my face and smiled innocently. Innocent… I bet, I thought as I clenched a fist.
The door swung open and Gensai-sensei walked in, followed quickly by Ayame and Suzume. The little girls ran up to Kenshin first (of course… even with the young ones, he's a magnet) and started to laugh at him there with all pillows strapped to him.
"Kaoru…" Gensai said looking over at Kenshin. "Ah…"
"Gomen, Gensai-sensei," I said, pulling off the helmet and putting down the shinai. "I was just practicing for…"
"For the tournament," he replied. "Yes, I saw in the paper. I wanted to ask if you wanted the training dummy back. You leant it to me a few years ago so I could teach some students about body structure."
I snapped my fingers. That's right! I had completely forgotten… Kenshin shot me a look, as if to ask if I had really forgotten it or not. So I just smiled innocently back at him.
* * *
Kenshin watched Kaoru and Yahiko walk off, taking Gensai and the girls home to get the dummy. Shaking his head slightly, he pulled off the pillows. He could have wondered if Kaoru had actually known about the training dummy but it wouldn't have mattered, he wouldn't have said no to her request.
The dojo was quiet and Kenshin had the chance to walk around without interruption. His feet traced the familiar path and a smile crossed his face. It was nice to have something familiar, something he could say was part of his life.
So many years of wandering, he never thought he would come to find a place where he could finally just… rest.
He sat down on the stone bench near the koi pond and looked at the fish swimming about. In a lot of ways, he felt just like them, content to just swim around the same place for the rest of their days.
But there was one piece to the puzzle missing, one last step before he could finally feel like his life was perfect.
And she was out right now, dragging back a heavy training dummy so she could improve her and Yahiko's skills. This tournament had gripped her with a fervor he had not seen in a long time. She was adamant that it was to restore the honor of her school with this, her best and possibly last chance to do so. But there was something more, he could sense that. And there was something in her eyes that he rarely saw. Doubt. And it was only when she looked at him.
He knew he wasn't helping matter much. It had been simpler with Tomoe because of the circumstances surrounding them. He smiled at the thought of his first love and their short happiness together. For a few months, he had actually believed he could live out his life as a peaceful farmer.
Maybe that's why he kept hesitating. He knew what happiness was and he knew what it was like to lose it… he had almost lost it again not too long ago. But he had won and the nightmare of Kaoru's death turned out to be just that, only a nightmare. When they left Kyoto after Enishi's defeat, everything should have been answered.
So why was there doubt in Kaoru's eyes? And why did he have a feeling that his own mirrored hers? What words could be spoken to clear the doubt away?
* * *
"Yahiko! You have to keep up!" I called back, watching him struggle under the weight of the armor.
There weren't many people walking on the country road but the few that were stared in disbelief as we passed by. I could hear Yahiko grumbling in the background but I ignored it. What, did he think this was any easier for me?
The armor was trapping in all the heat and the bandages around my chest made it more difficult to breathe. Worse, the armor was probably chaffing away parts of my skin I wouldn't know until later tonight.
I sighed. So much for delicate feminine skin. Not that I had ever had it. But sometimes, walking down the streets of Tokyo, I almost wished I was like the other women. Perfect porcelain dolls.
But that was never going to be me. I chose my path a long time ago, to follow in my father's footsteps and not my mother's. It didn't mean that I didn't sometimes think about what my life would have been like if I had just become a lady like my father wanted.
I heard him every night these days, in my mind just before sleep takes me. And he's always disappointed. The school is empty, the dojo is in disrepair and my heir is only assistant master, he would say.
And he was right. But I was going to change that. I was going to prove to him and everyone that I was worthy of this school. And I was going to bring it back into prominence.
But I wondered if maybe in doing this, I wasn't going to push myself further away from Kenshin. I was rapidly becoming the complete inverse of Tomoe. How long before he…
I stopped running and thinking long enough to realize I had run out of road. We made it! I told Yahiko we'd run to the end of the road and we actually made it. I turned quickly to congratulate him and realized my mistake.
The bindings had been too tight and stole the oxygen from me without my realizing it. And quickly the world was taken away too.
* * *
Kaoru's hands clenched the mud. Her breathing was heavy. Her face was soaking wet, not just from the rain the poured from the skies but from tears as well. She looked down the road and realized how long she still had to go.
Her first day of training and she could barely run the length of this road. How was she ever going to prove to her father that she could be a worthy student if she couldn't even run this short distance?
She dug her feet in and she stood up, feeling the mud push between the toes of her bare feet and into the blisters that had burst open already. But she pushed the pain away and slowly started to run again, trying to push against the wind and rain as she neared the end of the road.
When she finally got there, she collapsed once more, letting the rain fall on her face. She brought her hands up to her face and noticed that the nails were black with mud. Sitting up, she looked in a puddle and saw the damage.
The kimono was destroyed, the once beautiful fabric lost beneath the mud. Her face was nearly black with all the dirt, her eyes had two black rings around them and were bloodshot from crying. Her hair had fallen out of the elaborate bun and hung loosely on her shoulders.
Was that really her? She reached a hand forward and touched the pool, letting the reflection waver a bit before it disappeared completely under the sudden burst of rain. She stood up and looked down the road. Clenching her fists, she started to run down it again, ignoring the pain in her feet as she did.
* * *
I blinked my eyes open and found I was staring at the blue sky, Yahiko pulling on my sleeve next to me. I took in a few breaths and nodded, pushing off the ground into seating position.
"Gomen," I said softly. "I didn't realize the binding were too tight. It made it hard to breathe."
"Are you sure you're okay?" he asked.
I smiled slightly at him. Concern? Well of course. We were concerned about each other constantly. And I guess I hadn't helped matters by passing out.
"I'm fine," I said, producing a smile. I stood up. "Come on, we need to run back."
"No," I interrupted, sensing what he would say next. "And don't tell Kenshin either. It was just a bout of stupidity on my part."
Yahiko looked at me and frowned. "Stupidity is normal for you," he snapped.
I could have gotten angry but I knew he was insulting me in the 'I'm worried about you' type of way. So I can let it slide without losing too much face. You know… maybe if Yahiko and I stopped insulting each other all the time, we might be able to actually express the way that we actually felt about each other.
"Oi, busu! Come on, I'm hungry and Kenshin's cooking so I won't get poisoned."
Ah… what do you know. I'm feeling the urge to express my true feelings already. "Don't call me that, Yahiko-CHAN!" I cried, grabbing the shinai and running after him, shouting a few insults as I did.
* * *
Kenshin watched them come in, a bit surprised at the amount of energy they still had after their run. In fact they were still running. More like Yahiko was trying to run away from Kaoru as she waved her shinai at him.
They disappeared around the corner and Kenshin smiled, walking over to the now dry laundry. The wind suddenly picked up and Kenshin looked up at the darkening sky. Rain?
He barely had the chance to let the thought sit in his head before the sky burst and rain tumbled from the sky. He frowned at the laundry, watching it get wet. All that work… well, it wasn't like he minded the thought of doing it again. Laundry was a meditation after all.
He heard the cries from the back of the dojo and quickly left those thoughts behind as he ran quickly around the building to see what was wrong. He skidded to a stop as soon as he got there.
Their armor was gone, tossed onto the balcony so as not to ruin the leather. But it seemed whatever they had been fighting over was still at the forefront of their thoughts. Kaoru seemed intent to whack Yahiko over the head and the two of them were spinning in the mud as they fought.
Kenshin ran forward to pull them apart and he suddenly noticed it. They weren't yelling at all. They were laughing. Kaoru was trying to catch Yahiko but kept slipping in the mud and he couldn't get away for the same reason. So rather then just keep arguing, they had been reduced to fits of laughter.
Kenshin watched the scene with a growing smile. Despite the coldness of the rain, Kenshin didn't want to move from his spot. Watching the two of them playing in the rain and mud was producing the warmest feeling for him. They stopped and looked up at him with guilty smiles and finally got their footing.
"Its really raining, ne?" Yahiko asked, looking down at his drenched clothes.
"Mou, Kenshin," Kaoru asked looked at him. "What happened to the laundry?"
Kenshin's face fell slightly and it was Kaoru needed to know exactly what happened. She looked at him angrily as he started to back off, suddenly finding himself slipping in the mud. All the years of training and he was about to lose to some mud?
For some odd reason, Kaoru had finally managed to get her balance and was advancing towards him, muttering something about how nothing ever got done around this place. Kenshin realized this was some gods' idea of a joke as she suddenly slid forward in the mud and inadvertently took out his leg from under him.
The two of them hit the ground hard and Kenshin felt the mud seeping into his hair. He pushed himself upward and looked over to make sure that Kaoru was all right. She sat up and looked over at him with a bit of anger flaring in her eyes. He smiled as best he could, wondering what he could do to save himself from her wrath.
But someone else stepped in. From the other side of the back yard, Yahiko was bawling with laughter. That was all Kaoru needed to switch targets. Standing up, she took off after her student.
He sighed as he got up and walked over towards the bath, realizing they were all going to need to warm up after this night.
* * *
Translations for this chapter:
Byakuren : White Lotus
Dokuja : Poisonous snake
Hitsuji : the Ram in Chinese zodiac
Ishikiri : Stone cutter
Kawa : River
Kurochiku : black oak
Shiinto : silent (as the grave)