Last Chance at Glory
Chapter 5 : The Tournament
The days before the tournament should have been pure bliss. I should have woken up every morning to breakfast cooked by a man I could now safely say was mine. I should have been able to practice with a well-disciplined student that I had bonded with on my trip to Fuji in relative quiet. And the nights should have been filled with the pure joy of enjoying the fact that I finally got the guy.
But come on folks. Let's all remember who the guy is. It's Kenshin and should I have really been surprised when half of Kyoto showed up on our doorstop the next morning?
The shrill cry pierced the quiet of the courtyard where Yahiko and I had been practicing. I looked over at the quickly retreating shock of red hair and realized that it was exactly who I thought it was. I tried to open the door in such a way that the inevitable wouldn't happen but Misao was always too fast for me. I found myself on the ground in seconds.
"Ohayo, Kaoru!" she said, chipper as ever.
"Misao," I said with a smile. "You're in Tokyo… with Aoshi… and Okina… and…"
I stood up, deposited Misao on the ground and looked at the growing number of people filing into the dojo. I waited for a second before turning around to where Kenshin should have been.
He was already half way to the house and I could feel my eyebrow starting to twitch. When exactly was he planning to tell me that he invited the entire Oniwabanshu crew here?
"All right! Now, where's the sake?"
I paled. That voice was a bit too familiar, a bit…
"Oi, baka deshi… didn't I teach you any manners? Go get me something to drink."
I smiled. Apparently, I was going to have to get even with Kenshin at all. I'd just leave that to Hiko. The day was looking up I thought as I smiled at the tall man behind me.
"What is this, a circus?"
My mood fell a few notches with that. I could feel the coldness in the air before I turned to face our latest guest.
Megumi Tanaki. My greatest rival for Kenshin. Though by her account, the fight was over after Kyoto, she seemed to like pressing my buttons in the months that followed. Well, this time, I was going to show her that she was completely out of the…
"Ken-san!" she said, sauntering over to him. And there was Kenshin stuck between his shishou and Megumi and not really able to do much except smile innocently.
"Now wait a second!" I cried, looking over at Megumi.
"Hmmm?" she said, turning to face me. "What is it?"
"You… you…" I tried, finding words were escaping me at the moment. "You can't do that!" I finally settled. Great, that sounded just great… for a five-year-old.
"Why not?" she asked, little fox ears already poking from under her hair.
Come on, Kaoru. Just say it. It's not like there's anything to hide or to be ashamed of or… why is suddenly so damn quiet! Kenshin shot me a look but I shook my head. No, I was going to do this one myself.
"Because…" I said, walking over to Megumi and slowly taking Kenshin's hand. "Because… we're getting married."
Megumi blinked and sighed. "Finally," she said. And then she did something even more surprising. She hugged me. And the silence broke then, filling the Kamiya dojo with a sound that had been gone from it for so many years. Pure joy.
* * *
Kenshin smiled as Tae and Tsubame walked in the door, holding several trays of food.
"My, my, we are busy," Tae said looking around.
And Kenshin could only nod. Busy was the only way to explain what was going on. After things had died down from the initial celebration, the Oniwabanshu had taken one look at the state of the dojo and decided that while they were here, they might as well help fix it up.
Kaoru had money, a lot of it, and she kept giving it out for them to get supplies. It made Kenshin wonder exactly what she had done to get it but for whatever reason, she wouldn't tell him. Yahiko would have to be the one to tell him.
Only Yahiko and Kaoru were diligently working outside while the repairs were going on, trying to break in their new armor. Hiko watched from a distance, occasionally shouting out… eh, suggestions. And much to Kenshin's surprise, Kaoru had not chased after him with a shinai yet.
The two girls from the Akabeko were setting things up and Kenshin decided to let the rest of the crew know that dinner was ready. He walked out of the dining room and rounded the corner to the main dojo when he suddenly started to notice the changes.
The hole in the roof was repaired and completely impossible to discern among the rest of the tiles. Rotting wood in the railing had been sanded down or replaced. The creaking on the steps had stopped. The koi pond had been restocked and the garden around it rearranged.
The Oniwabanshu hadn't just fixed the storm damage. They had restored the Kamiya dojo to a state that Kenshin never knew. This must have been what it was like before Kaoru had lost her father.
He called out, getting their attention and waving over to dinner. There was a collective sigh of relief as they ran down to get food. Even Yahiko and Kaoru seemed happy for the break.
As they began to remove their armor, Hiko made his way over and despite his initial inclination to run away, Kenshin stayed put. It's not like he could ever really escape his master's constant nagging.
"Nice job they are doing," Hiko said.
Kenshin nodded slowly, not trusting where this was going. A sentence from Hiko without baka deshi attached to it? This was going to be bad.
"Hai, shishou," he replied cautiously.
Hiko paused. "She sold all her good silk," he said. "At least that's what the boy said." Kenshin blinked and looked up at Hiko. "All of it, including anything she could have used for a wedding kimono."
Kenshin frowned. It was just like Kaoru to do that. She should have spoken to him and they would have been able to find some other way to get the money.
"And since you will never be able to get that much money," Hiko continued, as if reading his thoughts, "I suggest you leave this matter to me."
"Shishou?" Kenshin blinked. "But…"
"Without a dress, there'll be no wedding. Without a wedding, they'll be no children and without those I'm still short an heir. Remember our agreement."
Kenshin froze, feeling a familiar hand on his. He looked back at Kaoru with an innocent smile while he wove his free hand at Hiko.
"Kenshin has agreed to give his first born to me," Hiko said matter-of-factly," so I can train an heir."
Kenshin cringed, already feeling the pressure on his hand and had a very bad feeling of what was about to happen next.
Hiko could only smile and walk away. "Baka deshi."
* * *
The rain fell softly across the dojo as Kaoru watched her father's methodical movements. Her face was impassive as he stood up to face her.
"I will return in a few months," he said firmly. "I trust you take care of the dojo while I am gone."
"Of course," she said firmly, shifting the bokken in her head.
"Continue to give classes. I don't want to find anyone's skills have diminished while I was gone."
"They'll be better than they are now."
"I have spoken with Gensai-sensei and he will check in every so often. Tell him if you need any help."
"I'll be able to handle anything on my own."
Her father paused, fitting the last bit of his armor before retrieving the traveling bag. He turned to her and eyed her for a moment before turning to leave.
Kaoru watched him pass by her and down the stairs towards the gate. The armor made only the slightly sound, barely audible against the storm outside. The thunder boomed. The trees shook in the wind. There was one flash of lightning and she saw him for that brief instant, one last time before he disappeared into the dark.
* * *
The drums were so loud I heard them before we even entered the arena. I turned to face Yahiko, looking for any signs of nervousness. But he looked up at me with strength in his eyes. That's right, we were strong. We were ready.
I gripped the helmet closely by my side, looking around at the other teams. Only half of us were on this side, standing just outside the main room until the tournament began. We were Nakamura's choices, four teams from schools that were learning how to use the sword without bloodshed.
I wanted to smile at the others but I knew that even if we were following the same philosophy, today our paths were ours alone, leading either they led to victory or defeat. There was no common ground.
There was a loud bang outside and a man was calling out an introduction. I couldn't make out the words but from the way the others were shifting, I knew that it was almost time.
I closed my eyes and let the calm slowly grip my heart. One month of training and it was finally time. There was no question in my mind. I was going to win.
The line ahead of me started to move and I nodded to Yahiko one last time before we went out, me in the front, him a few steps behind, holding a tiny banner with our school's name.
The moment I stepped outside, it took all of my resolve to keep moving. The amount of people here was much more than I had ever expected. Benches lined the small square in the center that was to serve as the fighting arena. The roar that came from them was completely bewildering and resonated through the hall like thunder, overpowering even the constant beating of the drums. Hundreds of people were here. And I didn't recognize a single one of them.
But then I heard it. And to be perfectly honest, I don't know how anyone in the entire place wasn't going to hear it. I looked down at Yahiko and he just shook his head in amusement.
I stole a glance over my shoulder and a quick wave at the assembled group from Kyoto, Aizu and the Akabeko who started cheering loudly. A couple of the guys in line looked at me and I smiled. Sure, you guys have the rest of your school in the crowd, chanting away mottoes and school slogans but I had something better.
"KICK ASS KAORU!!"
Yeah, that was my cheering squad (Misao with that little ditty), my eyes glittered as I looked at them.
There was a large board at either side of the arena, a smaller one near the judges. As soon as the eight teams had made it to the center, Nakamura and Watanabe made their way to join us. The stress between those two was obvious and I thought they would have gone for each other's throats if the foreigner hadn't suddenly appeared.
He looked at us and executed a clumsy bow before turning to the two politicians. He started to speak, but the language was English and I didn't understand a word of it. Instead, I was more interested in the fact that there were a large number of foreigners in the arena as well. I could see well dressed Japanese men and women, obviously from the upper classes and way in the back the rabble were there, chatting among themselves.
"This is the first annual Tokyo Kendo Tournament," Nakamura suddenly said, translating what Blackstone had just said. "The rules are simple. The referee will signal the beginning of the match. The first to strike two hit wins. All strikes must be called beforehand or they will not count. You will have one chance to use your second so it is suggested you save that until you have no other choice.
"We will pick names from this box," Watanabe said, motioning to a large wooden box in front of him, "to determine the order of the first fights. From there, the winner advances, the loser is eliminated."
The arena fell deadly quiet as Blackstone reached in and pulled out a wooden tile. Watanabe took it.
"Shiinto Kurochiku Ryu."
There was chanting from their cheering section as the tile with their name was placed on the lowest left hook on all three boards in the arena.
There were a few murmurs among the assembled fighters. Two of the militant schools were going to fight each other in the first bout. And from the looks they were casting each other, there was no love lost.
"Tanaka Byakuren Ryu… Takayama Hitsuji Ryu."
My stomach barely made it through the two names. I kept waiting to hear our name called but it was another set of two from Nakamura's schools. I looked over at Yahiko and he shot me a firm look. But I could see his hand and I knew he was just as nervous.
"Suzuki Kawa Ryu. Ishikiri Ryu. That leaves "Aka Dokuja Ryu and Kamiya Kasshin Ryu as the remaining two teams."
I let out a bit of breath and tried not to cringe. Wonderful, we were fighting against the team called Bloody Poisonous Snake. This was comforting.
I wish I could relate the brute strength that Shiinto Kurochiku Ryu fighter used to decimate his rival. Or the grace and style Takayama Hitsuji employed to defeat their opponent. But I was a bit too nervous to do anything but stare.
What was I doing here? Was I going to make a complete fool out of myself? Is this how Kenshin felt before his duels? Probably not. He had enough experience to know how to deal with flutters of nervousness. I shot a nervous look up at the stands and found my group again.
He was there, half watching the fight himself. If I wasn't so far away that things were fuzzy, I would have sworn that he looked worried. I saw him shift and look my way, his face suddenly lit up in a smile. I blushed slightly and raised my hand in a small wave. See, things were going to be just…
There was a scream of pain and the fighter from Suzuki Kawa Ryu went down. The referee jumped in, asking the man if he was all right and after a few seconds of heavy breathing he stood up. The Ishikiri Ryu man just stood there smugly, holding the shinai lightly in his hand.
Yahiko and I looked at each other with surprise and a look of agreement. We really wanted the guy from Suzuki Kawa to win. I didn't want to have to face the Ishikiri guy at all.
And somehow, despite the near devastating hit, the man from Suzuki Kawa did win. I wanted to celebrate but I suddenly realized that the end of his fight meant the beginning of mine.
Yahiko handed me the helmet and I put in on, taking a deep breath so that I didn't have an attack of claustrophobia. I wasn't ready. I really wasn't ready. But my feet were moving, my subconscious over powering me and dragging into the ring.
* * *
Kaoru looked at the two men standing at her door. Gensai-sensei shot her a look before taking the baby and the little girl away. The men shifted listlessly, as if waiting here was torturous for them.
And well it should be, Kaoru thought, holding her head high. These were messengers that no one wanted to see. These soldiers didn't fight but brought back word from the front to the people at home who were waiting and praying and just about to find out it was all for naught.
"He fell defending his commander," one of them said, as if it made the news any different. He held out the letter and she took it from him, slowly pulling off the official seal.
She would not cry. She would not dishonor his memory by crying over this. She had to be strong. She had to…
Her knees slumped to the ground as the letter rolled off the page and into her mind. The dirt ground itself into her knees. The letter crumpled in her hand. She bit her lip hard to prevent the sobs from escaping, tearing the skin there so she could taste the blood in her mouth.
The men left as Gensai walked out and motioned at them. He could take from here, he said wordlessly, kneeling down to her and wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
"He said he would come back," Kaoru said, pushing the sobs away and holding her face firm. "He said it would only be a few…"
Gensai never said a word, knowing that there was nothing to be said. No matter how much they fought, Kaoru had been trying so hard to get into his heart. And now he was gone.
"What am I going to do?" she asked, looking at him. "What am I suppose to do without him?"
"You will survive, Kaoru," Gensai said.
"How? Without him, how I am going to run the school? How am I…"
"Kaoru," Gensai said firmly.
"He said he told you to help me. You have to help me…"
Gensai paused for a moment and then shook his head. "Kaoru, your father never asked me to help you."
Kaoru looked at him. "But… but he said that…"
"He didn't need to ask me. Because he knew you were strong enough to deal with anything that happened while he was away. He knew, as I knew, that you were stronger than anything that might happen, even this."
* * *
"MEN!" I called lunging forward and landing the strike on top of the fighter's helmet. I froze there for a moment, the armor raising and falling against my chest. The referee came over and looked at the judges.
With a nod, he grabbed my wrist and held it up.
"Victory to Kamiya Kasshin Ryu. They advance to the next round."
I heard them screaming behind me but I bowed to my opponent first. He smiled at me and gave a short nod as he turned away. I returned the expression. It was a good fight. Short, quick but very tense. We had tied in the first two minutes, each scoring a strike against the other but I had managed to pull that final strike at the last second.
I turned around and headed back to Yahiko, finally waving at my little cheering squad and earning a few more squeals of delight. Yahiko looked up at me with a smile.
"Good move," he said.
"Thanks," I managed before collapsing on the ground to catch my breath. "The next one will be…"
I trailed off, seeing the man walking towards me. Yahiko tensed but I stood up and met him halfway.
"Suzuki, from Suzuki Kawa Ryu," he said, bowing slightly.
"Kamiya, from Kamiya Kasshin Ryu," I replied with a bow.
"Kamiya-san," Suzuki said softly. "I will be blunt. I need more time to recover from my first match."
"I saw the blow," I replied. "But the rules state that there can be no delay between matches."
"I know that."
"What about your second?" I asked.
Suzuki paused, looking back at his bench. There a small boy there, not more than Yahiko's age. "I can not put him up against you."
I saw the resemblance. Suzuki had brought his son. His situation was the same as mine. Our schools were family based and didn't have that many students.
"All my other students were children," he said. "Our school was just starting out. I will forfeit my match to you. I just wanted to tell you the reason why so that…"
I held up my hand. "Put your second in."
His brow furrowed. "But he can't…"
"Just trust me," I said. "Put him in."
Suzuki paused and looked at me and then back at the bench. He nodded firmly and went back to his seat. I went back to Yahiko and sat in silence through the brief intermission between rounds.
The fighter from Shiinto Kurochiku Ryu never broke a sweat. He was stronger than anyone here, that was obvious. And despite having great speed, Takayama Hitsuji Ryu was not enough to beat him.
They called my match next and I stood up. I looked back at Yahiko and shot him a look that said get ready. He looked at me in confusion but I turned away before he could ask any questions.
Suzuki and I walked to the center of the mat and bowed at each other. The referee was walking towards us. Suzuki's eyes locked on mine through the grates of the helmet, trying to decide.
"Are you ready, Suzuki-san?" the referee asked.
Suzuki paused, struggling with the decision but finally… "I call for my second."
The referee nodded and held up a hand. Suzuki's son came out on to mat and there was a murmur in the crowd. He barely came up to my waist, the shinai in his hand shook slightly.
"Don't worry," I said softly to him with a smile.
"Are you ready, Kamiya-san?" the referee turned to me.
"I call for my second," I said.
The referee paused, looking at me with confusion but I held my ground. He held up a hand and the crowd exploded. Yahiko looked up at me as we passed and I rested a hand on his shoulder before taking a seat.
* * *
"Is she crazy? That round was a lock!" Misao said.
"That is probably why she chose to let Yahiko fight," Aoshi said.
"That doesn't make any sense!" Misao cried.
"It does," Kenshin said. "If Kaoru-dono advanced without a fight, people would always be left to wonder if she could have defeated Suzuki. This way… the question is answered fairly."
"Winning is not everything," Aoshi added. "She will not take the easy way out."
And Misao nodded, admiration playing across her face. "I just hope Yahiko can hold up."
* * *
"I can't do it," Kaoru said, her head hung low over the steaming broth.
"Kaoru," Gensai said softly, "we've been…"
"The bills are too high. I can't bring in students when the roof is about to cave in. Where am I going to get money?"
"You will teach outside the school, make extra money as a private instructor," Gensai said.
"It won't be enough," she said softly.
"It will. Come… it's been only a day since news of your father arrived. Matters like this should not be on your mind now, with the grief still fresh."
"He should have told me," she said softly, her breath mingling in with the steam from the soup.
"Told you what?"
"That he thought I could do this. Why didn't he just TELL me!"
"It wasn't his way," Gensai replied.
Kaoru blinked, remembering how her mother had said something similar. It was just his way. "I just wanted to hear him say it. Why didn't he ever tell me he thought I could handle this?"
* * *
Suzuki's son hit first and I could see the shock register on Yahiko's face. He had fought in some many battles, fought to protect his friends. But this was different. It wasn't life or death fight, it wasn't a free-for-all. It wasn't an act of desperation. He was fighting within a boundary of rules, with no threat of death.
It was the same reason I felt nervous at first. And I could see the confusion on Yahiko's face, the bit of fear that he might lose. This wasn't like most of our fights. We didn't have that animalistic instinct of survival or the intense desire to protect someone else from death to give us the extra push. This was a fight where we needed to find the strength from within ourselves.
I held up a hand to the referee and he nodded, walking away from the two combatants and telling them to wait. I walked over with the new shinai. It was just a pretense but I needed to get out there fast.
"Yahiko," I said quickly when I reached him.
"He hit me… I don't know how he…"
"Yahiko listen to me," I said. "It doesn't matter. You just have to make the next two strikes and you'll still win."
"No," I said firmly. "Yahiko, I know you can do this. I know because I've seen you fight before. This is different from those fights. There are more rules but you can do this. I wouldn't have asked you if I didn't think you could hold up."
I handed him the sword and grabbed his hand as it wrapped around the hilt. "I am proud of you. Whatever happens, I want you to know that. I have always been proud of you. You are stronger than anyone I ever taught."
"Kaoru…" he started softly.
"And if I could have asked for a little brother," I said, "I would have wanted him to be exactly like you." I paused, looking at him in the eye and trying not myself cry. "Now go and win this," I said a smile, knowing my eyes were glistening.
The cry from our cheering section rose to near fever pitch and Yahiko pulled the shinai away from me and nodded firmly. I stood up and walked back, taking a seat and lacing my fingers in my lap to prevent myself from gnawing off the nails.
The first hit came thirty seconds after the match began again. The second, fifteen seconds after that.
"Victory to Kamiya Kasshin Ryu. They advance to the next round."
The crowd was on their feet and I could see the pride on Yahiko's face as the referee swung him around holding up the hand. He looked over at the other boy and bowed deeply.
I looked across the way at Suzuki and he nodded in thanks. He may have lost the match but no honor had been lost in doing so. I nodded back, hoping that we might meet again outside the tournament.
"We will take a longer break now to allow the two finalists to rest and prepare for the next round. Please remain in your seats."
* * *
Misao bounded down the stairs, followed by most of the group, Hiko having decided to stay in their area to prevent the seat from being taken. Though the pretty group of women and the bottle of sake at his feet made his reasons seem otherwise. Kenshin sighed following after Misao and knowing there was no stopping her. In many ways, he was glad that Misao had suggested it.
Yahiko was a collapsed pile next to Kaoru, trying to catch his breath. She patted his head and watched us come down with a smile.
"Yahiko, you were great! I didn't think you had it in you!" Misao said.
"Thanks… Weasel…" Yahiko wheezed.
"What did…" Misao started but was promptly hushed by Omasu.
"Yahiko-chan, are you all right?" Tsubame asked, pushing herself out to the front so she could look down at him.
The poor boy caught one look at her face and shot up. "Yeah, I'm… eh… dizzy…"
Kaoru pulled him back down. "Just sit there and relax for a second." She watched as Kenshin sat next to her and threaded her fingers quickly through his hand. "So how are you holding up?" she asked them.
"Misao's not going to have a voice by the morning," Okina said with a smile.
"That's because I keep yelling at you to stop groping the women around us," she snapped. "Besides, you're the one we should be asking that too."
"I'm fine," Kaoru replied. "I'll be better when we win this though," she finished firmly. She looked up at Kenshin and he smiled.
It was gone. There was no more doubt in her eyes. There was determination, strength and most of all, a warm look that was only for him.
"Didn't you hear, stay in your seats!"
The group looked up at rather upset looking soldier. Probably sent to keep things in order by the Meiji government.
"I'm this woman's doctor," Megumi snapped. "And these are my helpers. We are helping Kamiya-san prepare for the next round." The solider paused but something about Megumi's look made him back down. Unfortunately someone else decided to continue the argument.
"A woman doctor for a woman Kenjutsu. How perfect." The group's attention turned to the source of the voice and found themselves looking at the members of the Shiinto Kurochiku Ryu. "Between the two of you, maybe you'll amount to half a man."
"Still won't be enough to be at us though," another one said. That seemed to amuse the rest of them immensely and they descended into chanting.
"Kenshin," Kaoru said softly. He turned to face her and she held up her hand to show him he was cutting off the circulation with his grip. He loosened and she shook her head. "Don't get upset. This is my fight."
"No it's not," he replied. "You might be the one holding the shinai, but we're all behind you when you swing it." Kaoru blinked and looked at him and then the rest of the group, who were nodding in agreement.
"The match will resume in a few minutes, combatants get ready."
The group offered a few last congratulatory words before most of them headed up the stairs. Megumi lingered and as soon as the others were out of earshot, she leaned forward.
"Hurt him, Kaoru," she said, eyes dancing in anger over the man's statement. "Hurt him badly."
Kaoru laughed slightly and nodded. She turned to Kenshin with a warm smile. "It's almost over," she said.
He put a hand on her cheek. "It's only just beginning," he said.
"Oh, God!" Yahiko cried from his position on the floor. "I think I'm going to be sick."
Kaoru's eyebrow twitched. "You are a little brother," she said before casting one last look at Kenshin as she grabbed her helmet.
* * *
This was it. Two men down. One left. One extremely strong and egotistical man left. I could see him leering from beneath the helmet and Megumi's words echoed in my mind. We bowed slightly and took our positions waiting for the referee to signal the beginning of the match.
He moved first, almost instantly after the referee's hand came down, I countered quickly, falling back slightly while he pounded away. It was true, his style had strength. But he relied on his strength too much.
Rather than counter the next strike, I shifted to the side and let his blow come crashing through empty space. The result was he was unbalanced and left wide open.
"KOTE!" I yelled, bringing down the shinai on his exposed hand.
The referee pulled us apart and I could see the surprise on his face. I almost smiled but decided it was better not to add fuel to the fire. I shifted my feet and took my position, gripping the shinai tightly. I felt it shifting slightly in my hand, the wood pieces grating against each other, but let it go, concentrating on my opponent instead.
He attacked, stronger than before and faster. There was no dodging these blows. I was forced to counter each of them. The shock of them tore down my arms but I stood firm, watching him attack.
"DO!" he called bring the shinai around to my left side. I countered, twisting my wrists around and bending low to the ground. The two shinai hit and I felt mine shifting again in my hand.
My heart caught in my throat as I suddenly realized what was happening. The shinai was coming apart. I had to…
I twisted the sword over my head, feeling the bamboo sword come apart in my hands as I did. I could hear the crowd's reaction to seeing the shinai shatter as I moved. My hand reached the right side just as his blow came.
There was nothing to stop it. The shinai sailed below my hand, the hilt gripped in them not long enough to block it. I felt it hit my right side and the power shook through and came out the left.
My knees collapsed and I fell to the ground. There was a burning in my side, worse than I remembered in a long time. The referee was there, asking if I was all right. I knew that if I didn't get up, it was over. But it was like my entire side was on fire.
* * *
The funeral pyre ignited, sending spark into the sky. The unpleasant smell of burning flesh danced around her but Kaoru didn't move. Gensai sat next to her, watching the ritual proceed with silence. Several of the school's students were there as well, holding a respectful distance in the back.
The Buddhist monks performed the rites and Kaoru let the incense burn, staring as the smoke danced up into the air like gray snacks in black grass. The smells were making it hard to breathe but she never moved, her face an impassive mask.
"You can cry Kaoru," Gensai said, holding her hand.
She shook her head. She hadn't cried since she was a little girl. Since she had started training for her father. It was a sign of weakness.
"I'm fine," she managed.
And he let it go until after the ceremony was over. But once the last bit of food had been consumed and the mourners had left Kaoru behind with a small pile of money, he knew it was time.
"Kaoru…" he started. She looked at him with no emotions on her face. "I need to talk to you about your father."
She bit her lip and took in a deep breath from her nose. "I'm fine," she said firmly.
"No… no, it's not that. Kaoru, your father did not ask me to help you, that much is true. But he did come to see me before he left for the War." He saw her lip start to quiver.
"He told me that if something happened… that I should give you this."
Kaoru looked up, seeing the letter that had appeared in his hands. She closed her eyes and reached out, knowing her resolve was about to break. Taking it from him, she slowly opened the seal and read the letter in there.
This letter will only reach you under the worst circumstances. When passing from this life, I will have but one regret. And it comes from what I see in your eyes. Strength is something I thought I had achieved but looking at you now, I know I was wrong. I see in your eyes the same empty look that I have in mine.
The strength you and I have is only half of what a person needs. Do not live your life as I have, alone and hollow. Find that second half of a man's strength Kaoru and become stronger than what you are now.
The letter crinkled in her hands and Kaoru watched as the tears rolled down and hit the paper. A second later, she felt Gensai's arm on her shoulders and fell into him, finally letting the older man share some of her grief.
* * *
I gripped my side on the ground and looked at the referee. He was talking to me but I couldn't hear a word he was saying. I let my gaze turn towards the crowd, seeing the movement there but weaving past the sea of colors until I found them.
My cheering section. And they were on their feet. Yelling so that I could hear them above all the others.
You were right, Otosan. The strength you taught me was only a half strength. I didn't understand right away. So it took me a while to find what the other half would be. But I finally found it. And I'm not going to let them down.
I put one foot firmly on the ground and pushed up, hearing the crowd's roar as I did. I straightened myself up, holding out my sword hand with it still gripping the hilt of the destroyed sword. Yahiko ran from the back and took it out of my hand. He handed me the new shinai, gripping my hand tightly for a moment before running back.
I brought the sword down to the ground and positioned my hands. I brought it up again leveling it at my opponent's neck. He looked at me for a moment before doing the same. The referee walked forward and held his arm up.
Every muscle in my body was electric, the fire in my side feeding them like water to a desert. My grip tightened and I let everything come to a stand still as I prepared for the start.
The referee's hand came down and I attacked first, taking him off-guard and forcing my opponent back.
"KOTE!" I cried, striking for the hand.
I am not my mother.
But I am not my father either.
I am myself. I am Kamiya Kaoru.
And I am strong.
The scream came out louder than I had thought it would be. But all my strength, all my hope, everything had gone into that final strike.
My chest was heaving, my legs threatened to turn to jelly. My arms were stretched out in front of me, pushing the shinai to a point right between his head and shoulder protector. He didn't move. He knew what was about to happen.
The crowd had fallen silent. The only sound was the referee's feet as he ran up and examined the blow. I felt his hand wrap against mine and then I felt the tears in my eyes as I dropped the sword and pulled off the helmet.
"VICTORY TO KAMIYA KASSHIN RYU! THEY WIN THE TOURNAMENT!"
The crowd exploded and I saw the rush of people coming forward. But they were all too late. My friends… my family was there first and I was lost under the crush of them. I should have said something about the pain in my side but it was all right. I was strong enough to endure it.
I was strong enough to endure anything.
I looked over at Kenshin and pulled him from the rest of the group, letting him almost crush me in his arms. He looked at me and I saw in his eyes all the happiness that we would have in the years to come.
I looked away for a moment and into the screaming crowd. Otosan. I did it. I finally did it. The honor of the school is restored. I found the strength you never did. And most of all… I'm not alone.
When all the fighting was done and all the opponents were defeated, when the tournament was won and all doubt was vanquished, I finally found the strength my father had wanted me to have as a child. But more importantly I found the peace and joy I had been looking all my life for.
~ The End ~
Author's note:Thanks to everyone who reviewed ^_^ This was a tough story to write! I appreciated all the comments and the corrections (which will be made soon now that the story is done).