Author's note: In my eagerness to finish the last chapter I did not notice that I started referring to Kaoru's uwagi as a kimono. I will go back to fix that, among other things, once I've finished this fanfic. Also, I'm sorry (again) for the delay. There is a lot of research going into this fanfiction which sometimes makes my writing slow.
Shout out to my second beta! Thank you so much for helping me out. You're awesome.
Chapter eight: the Ameonna
"One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." ~ Henry Miller
The water was pressing down on her, suffocating her, surrounding her in darkness, and she struggled to free herself from it. Her lungs were running out of air but although she knew they were burning she could not feel it. Fingers spread, she tried to grasp for something to hold onto, to pull her to the surface, but the water felt thick and unresponsive. She was drowning…
Kaoru woke with a start.
Her hands were still wrapped around her knees, providing her head with a place to rest against her arms. The fabric of her hakama was still slightly damp which provided an explanation as to why she felt chilly when her arms seemed to be warm. The smothering embers of the fire of the previous night cast soft warmth over the front of her body, warming her bangs but leaving the ends of her long hair still wet.
It seemed that she had fallen asleep sitting up in exactly the same spot as the night before.
Her muscles felt sore and stiff as she moved, having been locked in the same position for far too long. Feeling a nagging pinch in her neck, she rubbed the back of it and rotated her head before finally sighing and looking for her companion.
Predictably, Kenshin hadn't fallen asleep on the spot like she had. Instead the demon was once again resting his back against a nearby tree, a sword resting against his shoulder, although like her he seemed far too damp to be comfortable.
It was far too early to be up already, especially after the ordeal of yesterday, but the nightmare had given her too much of a start to fall back asleep. Slowly, hesitantly, Kaoru uncurled her legs and groaned as she felt muscles protest and bones groan.
Kenshin didn't even stir. Considering how aware of his surroundings he usually was, the demon must've been even more exhausted than he looked. She decided right then and there that she would leave him to his sleep. Assuming that Kenshin had been right, the rest of their journey would be reasonably safe, leaving her free to move about on her own.
Kaoru felt the need to stretch her legs and wash her face. There was a dull ache pounding behind her eyes, she felt dizzy and nauseous and sore. It would do her good to stretch and try and shake off the nausea while she could. In fact, the moment she stood she swayed dizzily and felt her stomach churn in protest. Exhaustion never did sit right with her; always made her feel feverish and today seemed to be no exception.
Judging from the soft light it was still early in the morning; the sun must've barely risen. No wonder, then, that she felt exhaustion tug at her. Considering their ordeal of the night before and the amount of travelling they had done before, it was likely that they'd take a little longer to rest today. With a little luck she could curl up under a tree after she had her little walk and catch up on a little sleep.
For now she contented herself with checking her uwagi, finding it almost dry before walking past it. The pants of her hakama revealed far too much of her legs with their open sides but the uwagi would only cool her down further if it wasn't dry when she put it on. So it was with bare arms that she moved between the trees, keeping an eye out for spiders.
There was something to be said about facing one's demons. Although Kaoru never feared water before, almost drowning had shaken her up more than she originally thought. Her nightmare, after all, had come with a reason and the sword instructor felt it was better to face her fears sooner rather than later. If she could do so on her own, all the better, but she made sure to take Kenshin's reversed blade with her.
It felt heavier than she expected but the worn hilt felt welcoming in her palm, despite the rough feel of frayed fabric. Just holding it made set her shoulders back and hold her spine just a little straighter.
Her short walk back to the river didn't quite take her as long as she imagined it had the night before despite her exhaustion. However, there were plenty of overgrown plants and bushes to keep her occupied and for that she was thankful. It loosened her stiff muscles and kept her mind occupied until she heard the sound of rushing water.
The sting of fear she expected didn't come. Perhaps she felt more wary than she did before, more willing to respect the power that the waters held but the panic she had been dreading did not come. Softly she released a sigh of relief, a shuddery and shallow breath, before carefully making her way closer to the water's edge.
The water was still rushing past her and it was hard to believe how she could've missed the loud roar of the river the night before. Nevertheless the more shallow parts weren't quite as dangerous and Kaoru didn't intent to sink more than her toes in the water.
A careful scan of the water revealed a large enough rock for her to put her knees yet still kept her in the shallow part of the water. Kneeling cautiously on the rough flat stone made her heart beat faster than it ought to but the cool breeze that came from the speeding water felt good on her feverish skin. Her stomach was still churning but she was sure it would pass with either time or the walking during the day.
The early morning chill from the cool stone was already seeping through her hakama, the thick, still damp fabric easily susceptible to the cold. At least the stone was firm beneath her, set deep within the mud of the river and it held her weight easily.
Kaoru turned to lightly toss the sakabatou on the grass near the river. The soft soil yielded easily to the heavy steel and certain that the sword would not slip into the river Kaoru turned back towards the river.
Cold stung and prickled at her skin as she dipped her hands into the water but when she tossed it onto her face it awoke her skin and send a rush of adrenaline through her weary body. Another toss and it felt as if her chest loosened, giving room for air, and blood rushed to her cheeks. Refreshed, Kaoru exhaled a long slow sigh and opened her eyes to the world around her.
Staring at her, a shade lighter than her own, were unfamiliar eyes close enough that she had trouble focussing on them.
Kaoru shrieked, pushing her body backwards. Her hand dug in the mud, once, twice, three times before finally finding wet grass. Her fingers dug in desperately but she could not find the smooth touch of the scabbard she was searching for.
There was blue before her, blue and black and it was looming over her.
Kaoru only had a second to see the eyes that startled her, round and bigger than hers, widen in surprise before her fingers found what she was looking for. Her grip was tight but not too tight and she grunted as she swung her arm upward. Putting both weight and fear into that swing, Kaoru didn't take the time to unsheathe the sakabatou before she swung it through the entity before her.
There was resistance, something pushing against the blunt scabbard, but then it sunk easily through. For a moment a woman stood before Kaoru, her torso and hips separated by her violent swing.
Then it rained.
Droplets scattered, falling on her skin with no uwagi to protect her. The water did nothing to her skin, despite it having come from such a peculiar source but the chill made it prickle and her hairs stand on end. The woman had exploded into droplets, it seemed, leaving nothing behind but a few disturbed fish and an equally disturbed sword instructor. Breathing heavily, Kaoru searched the water for the mysterious woman that had been there only seconds before.
"Kaoru-dono!" Kenshin's voice reached her before he did but she did not dare to look back and find him.
There was something stirring in the water again. Something pushing the water upwards in a round shape that water never naturally took.
"Kaoru-dono!" Kenshin was closer now and she could see him from the corner of her eye. The red of his hair seemed so much brighter now that his hair was untamed, free from the usual low ponytail. Like her he seemed to have forgone his kimono although his rush was understandable. Already he had drawn his sword, reflecting as sharply as the water did.
"I…there was…" It was hard to find the words but the appearance of the demon put a little sense back into her. As she braced herself her hands sunk deeper into the wet soil of the river bank but she refused to release the scabbard. Her body was trembling, her hands covered in mud and when she straightened her feet had to find their balance. As she rose something rose with her, the round shape in the water reaching almost the same height as Kaoru did.
"Geez!" It spoke the moment it had a mouth, more curves and dips slowly forming a translucent face of a woman, "What was that for?"
Kaoru reached for the hilt of the sakabatou but Kenshin's shoulders lowered. When she looked up she had not expected to see Kenshin smiling. In one smooth movement he sheathed his sword and bowed his head in greeting.
"Misao-dono," He said, his voice low as it always was when he was being respectful, "This one is glad to see you got our message."
"Well, pipe foxes are pretty reliable," The woman replied easily stepping out of the water with legs that seemed very long compared to her short build. More water formed and then darkened into a deep blue that turned out to be some sort of uniform. There had been an old book of Kaoru's father that held images of humans with hidden faces wearing uniforms like that and from deep into her memory one single word emerged: ninja.
"Found our hide-out easily enough." Misao continued, "The message said to wait for you guys in Kyoto but I figured you might need some help."
Misao turned her head to let her gaze linger over the two of them and immediately Kaoru became forcibly aware of how little she was wearing. The breeze had free reign over the skin on her arms, teasing it into goosebumps, and slipping into the gaps of her hakama where her breast bindings did not reach.
Kenshin seemed even more naked than she was. His torso was exposed, revealing not just the many scars but also the dips and hills of his body. Swordsmanship had given him more than just scars but build his body to be strong as well as fast.
As Kaoru looked at him Kenshin tilted his head in her direction. A thrill went through her and the sword instructor quickly turned her head; feeling vaguely as if she had just been caught with her hand down the sweet jar.
"Not that you weren't doing just fine on your own." Misao only remarked dryly, eyes still lingering on the damp edges of her hakama but there was a spark of humour in her voice.
The last of the water settled, revealing a long thick braid of deep black and a large pink sash around Misao's waist. There was that same air of danger around this petite female that there was around Sano and Kenshin. Kaoru's senses were awakened enough to see that now and even if the woman had not just appeared out of the river she would've known that the other was a demon.
Would running into another human being for once be too much to ask for?
"We ran into more trouble than expected, that we did," Kenshin answered and his voice took on that light sheepish tone that reminded Kaoru of the time he had forgotten to remind her of the laundry outside, "We were lucky that Misao-dono reached us when she did, so we were."
There was something new in the water now. Kaoru could feel a presence around her, like a creature sniffing at her ankles. Something was helping them.
"You really were lucky that I reached you guys when I did!" Misao agreed, a little too readily, "I had to merge with the river just to keep your heads above water."
Misao practically oozed energy. Shifting her weight between two feet, dancing then on the heels and then on the balls of her feet and swinging her arms easily along with her body. Not even the chill of the early morning seemed capable of stopping the petite demon.
To Kaoru whose shoulders were dropping, eyes were aching and muscles were groaning; this seemed quite a feat. If anything, looking at the small woman, Kaoru was reminded more of an over energized squirrel than water. But then, that could be the exhaustion talking.
"And we were very lucky that Misao-dono was able to do that," Kenshin mildly remarked, his expression never changing despite the note of accusation in the woman's voice, "That we were. Now, why don't you join us for breakfast? There's no need to keep standing here, so there isn't."
With their unexpected visitor, Kaoru had a hunch that she could wave her hours of sleep goodbye. She sighed but at the same time knew that Misao would be a welcome addition. They needed all the help they could get and Sano's absence only made that all too clear.
Not about to continue that thought, Kaoru instead followed Kenshin who led the way back to their camp. Again the underbrush kept her occupied, frequently leaving her wincing when a thorn caught her unprotected skin. Was every forest this hostile or was her exhaustion making her susceptible to the many thorns and bristles? In either case it took effort and concentration to break through.
Occupied as she was with this little task she did not notice Kenshin drifting back to her side until his fingers gently enclosed around her wrist.
Thoughts of demons, fire and flight immediately ran through Kaoru's mind and she stiffened at the contact. Alarmed she automatically searched for Misao with her gaze, half-expecting the demon to have changed into something hostile. Instead she found the braided woman humming quietly to herself, still moving towards their camp.
Puzzled, Kaoru turned to find Kenshin's eyes already seeking her own. There was a strange shade to them now, still violet but seemingly on the verge of breaking into gold. Specks of gold were already peeking through and perhaps realizing this, the namahage bowed his head to hide them.
"Kaoru-dono," He began and his voice sent shivers down her spine. Kenshin was using those low tones again but instead of comforting her, it seemed intent to make sure she paid attention. Considering the fact that she was half convinced one could lead armies with that voice, Kaoru did just that.
"What is it, Kenshin?" She answered, giving a gentle tug and finding that the grip on her wrist only released her reluctantly. Her skin tingled where his callused fingers had gripped it and she became uncomfortably aware just how much of her skin was showing. It seemed that, although not much had changed in the demon's body language, he still managed to make her feel oddly vulnerable with his presence alone.
"Next time, please inform this one of your intention to leave," said demon told her and his fingers flexed. His head lowered, just an inch further, as he added, "This one cannot protect Kaoru-dono if he does not know where she is."
"I was just going to the river; it wasn't that far," Kaoru protested, absently rubbing the wrist that had been in his gentle but firm hold, "Besides, you were sleeping-"
"It makes this one uneasy," Kenshin quietly interrupted and though he did not look at her Kaoru knew that his eyes were golden, "When I do not know where you are, so it does."
Just what did he expect her to say to that?
Apparently not that much, for the red-head merely continued walking, not even turning to look whether she was following. A little off balance, Kaoru followed a few steps behind but at the same time she could not stop her mind from going over their odd conversation. Kenshin's head had been lowered, hiding his eyes from her, but his body language had been stiff and his fingers had flexed. Was that anger that she had seen?
It makes me uneasy when I do not know where you are, so it does.
Or was that worry?
The moment they were back, Kaoru and Kenshin reached for their drying clothes. In unspoken agreement Kenshin turned his back towards her even as he shrugged into his kimono. It was strange how heat still flooded her cheeks considering that she had spend the night half-clothed but the presence of another demon only seemed to drive home how inappropriate it had been.
But it was undeniable that it was a pleasure to be able to shrug into the, at least mostly dry, fabric of her uwagi. When she pulled her hair back up into a ponytail she at least looked like a presentable sword instructor again, no matter what her doubts were. Sometimes it was the simple things in life, after all, that gave a person courage.
It turned out that Misao had not yet eaten either and enjoyed pointing out that this did nothing to replenish the energy that she had lost helping them in the river. Her tone held a teasing edge as she spoke however and she seemed quite happy to hunt for rabbits along with Kenshin.
Kaoru made sure that the fire would be suitable for cooking while they were she turned to pack up their belongings, a habit that had quickly formed after leaving the fox's home, she realized that all of their possessions had been lost in the river.
"At least it won't be long before we get you guys to Kyoto," Misao answered her thoughts.
Kaoru looked up to find the petite woman and namahage holding a rabbit each. It was far too much for breakfast but they could dry the meat and take it with them for lunch.
"How much longer will it take until we get there?" Kaoru asked, watching as Kenshin settled down to begin stripping the rabbit of its fur. His movements were always strong and efficient but never disrespectful and he made sure that they used whatever they could of the rabbit.
"Considering what Himura told me, you guys travelled quite a distance before I reached you," Misao cheerfully told her, not seeming very impressed by the struggle they endured just to stay afloat, "I reckon we'll reach Kyoto by nightfall."
"By nightfall?" Kaoru repeated, shocked but automatically her gaze was drawn to the place she estimated they came from. She did not realize she half-expected Sanosuke to burst out of those trees until she felt the disappointment of not seeing him there.
"Sanosuke know where we're heading," Kenshin told her gently and when Kaoru looked up she was not surprised to find his gaze resting on her. He offered her a smile before he turned his attention to what he was doing, speaking even as he pressed the sticks holding their meat into the earth near their fire, "He will find us in Kyoto, so he will."
"We know Sanosuke," Misao added, eyes twinkling as she added, "And considering the gambling debt he still has with a few of us, I'm sure he'll receive a very warm welcome."
"Us?" Kaoru had to ask and in her mind's eye she envisioned rooms covered in water and a cheerful Misao showing them a tub they could sleep in, "There are more of..?"
"The Oniwabanshu gracefully accepted to provide us with a place to sleep," Kenshin answered, turning the rabbits on their sticks before leaning back with an air of satisfaction, "And agreed to help us in our battle against Shishio, so they did."
"I'm sorry but what are the Oniwa-"
"We're the descendants of a group of demons who agreed to protect Kyoto ages ago," Misao answered, this time, and it was impossible to miss the tone of pride in her voice, "We are bound by contract to protect Kyoto against the unnatural enemies that you humans tend to attract. In return we get a place of our own and the food and clothing we need. Lately a couple of us have begin trying out this 'merchant' thing, too."
"That doesn't sound like much," Kaoru couldn't hide her surprise, "Surely if you're going to risk being injured, or worse, protecting a town you can ask for more? Why would demons even want such a thing?"
"To live comfortably in a home of our own," Misao answered simply and then grinned in a way that reminded Kaoru of Sano, "It's worth fighting for."
"But you can get that without having to enter a contract, can't you?" Kaoru frowned before remembering, "I know for a fact that there was an elderly old lady down the street who turned out to be a demon."
"Well yeah, we can try. But you have to hide being a demon, don't you? And after a few years you humans are bound to catch on that something strange is going on," Misao replied easily, already reaching out to curiously poke at the rabbit. The sun was climbing steadily higher in the sky and hunger could only be ignored for so long. Kenshin, however, gently nudged her hand away and readjusted the rabbit.
"I guess so," Kaoru admitted as she tried to remember that strange old lady of her childhood, "She turned out to be the cause for the chicken pox epidemic. The only way to keep her out was by placing a cedar leaf in your doorway."
"And then a monk was called in, right?" Misao added before snorting, "No thank you. Our way is much better. At least this works out for both sides and people in our town are less uptight about demons."
"To be fair," Kaoru couldn't resist pointing out, "Most demons tend to eat people."
"And most humans tend to exorcise first and ask questions later," Misao frowned before shrugging, "At least in Kyoto we've reached an understanding."
"Huh," Kaoru leaned back, watching Kenshin carefully adjusting their breakfast, they seemed to be almost done, "I guess I never stopped to think about it. I've always seen demons hiding from humans so I figured that was normal but it can't be much fun, can it? You guys deserve a place to call home as much as we do."
"I don't think many humans would agree," Misao answered lightly but Kaoru could feel her eyes resting on her. In answer the sword instructor tucked a strand of escaped damp hair behind her ear, clearly showing her face even though her eyes were on the food Kenshin was offering.
"Not many humans have seen demons and spirits ever since they were a child," Kaoru carefully, quietly answered before softly blowing on the meat in her hands, "We're only afraid of what we do not know."
She did not have to look up to know that the demons exchanged glances and only carefully turned her meat to blow on the other side.
Misao turned out to be the voice of what otherwise would have been a quiet day. Every muscle ached and sleep made her feet heavy, leaving Kaoru to move on will alone. The dark smudges beneath Kenshin's eyes weren't quite gone either and though the red-head had already shown he wasn't much of a talker, today he barely said a word. The occasional smile, however, was still freely given.
Kaoru carried the sakabatou now, yet another change to their routine but a comfortable one. It was good to know that she could protect herself, even if this had been proven by a demon that turned out to mean no harm. Speaking of demons…
"So…" Kaoru's voice was a little hoarse but she was determined to start a conversation. Exhaustion would only excuse her rudeness for so long, "If you don't mind me asking. What kind of demon are you?"
"Most humans know me as a Ameonna ," Misao smiled and Kaoru was relieved to find that the demon took no offence to her question, "But the stories are a bit off.."
"Wasn't Ameonna the story of a woman…"
"Standing in the rain licking her palm, yeah," Misao finished her sentence, cringing a little in embarrassment, "We don't even do that…much."
The trees had finally given way to a familiar sight. Farmers working their fields with stubborn determination and discipline as the sun bore down on them. The sun was kind to travellers, shining warmly on their shoulders without stifling them in heat, but to those who had to work hard its constant attention was a bit too stifling.
Only the occasional breeze gave relief and it was not uncommon to see the people working the field straighten to enjoy it. The sight was enough to lift Kenshin's head, his eyes lingering on the men at work there. It was hard to guess at his thoughts but Kaoru caught a hint of a smile before she forced herself to look back to the road they were travelling on. It was a dirt road that wound through towns and fields alike and left her guessing where it would finally stop. Just the sight of it made her aware of the weight of her shoulders and the strain of every step.
"It shouldn't be long now, Kaoru-dono," Kenshin assured her and when the sword instructor looked up she found the demon already watching her, "Once we reach Kyoto it won't be long before we're able to rest. The Oniwabanshu will make sure we're comfortable, so they will."
"Guests always get the best treatment," Misao enthusiastically assured her, "Don't you worry. We'll have you pampered and feeling like a queen in no time!"
"Thank you," Kaoru could only reply and almost didn't hesitate before she added, "Both of you."
Slowly but surely the fields became smaller, making way for more and more homes and buildings and by the time the sun was creeping near the horizon Kyoto was already in sight. Although there was still quite a way to go, the sight of Kyoto on the horizon somehow made the distance seem smaller. With renewed determination, they quickened their pace and by the time the moon came out they were entering the city.
It took a while for her to notice what the key difference was from the towns she was used to.
The stalls were similar to what she was used to back at home, if perhaps a little bigger, and full with the colours and smells of food and clothing and so many different things one might need. Accompanying the stalls were shouting vendors and laughing, haggling people deciding whether or not to take their items home. There were mothers dragging their children away from the sweet ice stands to have dinner at home while other children were being carried high upon their father's shoulders.
The stalls standing on either side of the street made things perhaps a little narrower but Kaoru could not help but feel that the atmosphere was all the more welcome because of it. The buildings were taller than she was used to and it was nice to notice that without feeling as if they were towering over her.
The sweet smell of dinners being prepared, the sounds of cheerful restaurant owners inviting people in, the laughing customers were all familiar to her. The feel of uneven stones under her sandals and the brush of bodies was familiar to her as was the navigation through crowds and inability to go against the moving mass.
Though Kenshin's hand resting casually on his sword and the weight of his sakabatou on her hip did, perhaps, hint at danger, they did not truly unsettle her. Not when there was so much laughter and the familiar murmur of a crowd to protect her from Shishio's watchful gaze. No wonder, then, that it took her a moment to pinpoint exactly what was so different from her home town that her senses were being prickled and her defences were still raised.
Expecting to bump into a person only to move straight through him was, perhaps, the moment that it truly dawned on her.
Freezing in surprise Kaoru turned to look at the man who had brushed through her but she could no longer find him in the crowd. There was no tingling, no chill, nothing to suggest that another's soul had just brushed her flesh. Shaken from her carefree state of mind Kaoru turned to let her gaze rest on her surroundings and, for the first time, truly see.
Not with the exhausted eyes of a traveller almost home but with the eyes of a sword instructor being chased.
The vendor she had been about to pass without a second glance had deep circles under his eyes. There were grooves in his face, lines of stress and anguish etched into his face and when he smiled his bottom lip trembled with the strain of it. He sold fruits that no longer looked quite that fresh and he had not bothered to straighten the lopsided prices.
At his elbow there was a boy, barefoot and dressed in a yukata far too light for this kind of weather. Kaoru could see the tooth he was missing, not yet replaced, when he opened his mouth insistently to capture the attention of the vendor. The man did not as much as look at the boy although his glossy eyes did follow a little girl passing with her mother. When the boy reached for his elbow, fingers curling to dig into the vendor's sleeve, they could not make contact.
He looked up and held Kaoru's gaze the moment he arrived at the same conclusion she did.
Something squeezed her heart as the sword instructor turned on her heel, eyes searching and locking on to new things every time. There was an old couple sitting on a bench, undisturbed when a restaurant owner emptied a bucket of soapy water at their feet, water that seemed unable to touch them. A few feet over a man walking with the crowd, never even blinking as people passed by and through him and a group of gossiping girls stood on a sidewalk that was no longer there and nor were the girls.
Kaoru had never seen this many spirits in her life. Growing up she had become used to seeing them on the night's when the moon was particularly full or not there at all, on holidays and at temples but not like this. Not in the middle of the street, completely unaware that they were-
"Kaoru-dono," Kenshin was at her side again, his warm violet eyes studying her expression and when his hand lightly touched her elbow she did not pull away, "Are you alright?"
"There are so many," Kaoru could only breathe, following a woman with her eyes no one else knew was passing. She could not look away even if she tried, "I've never seen this many-"
"Kyoto is a pretty busy place," Misao said, studying her expression like Kenshin but not with the same worried frown. If anything, Misao seemed mildly intrigued. "Pretty old too. Not to mention that there's an unusual amount of magic gathered here. We're not the only demons who've made it our home, you know."
To her left there was a man with a reptilian face who sold horns, long and curved, short and spiky, spiralling horns to a modest crowd of tailed people. Under her feet where were pamphlets, papers she thoughtlessly stepped on as litter, advertising cuisines she had never heard of before: promising snakes and lamb eyes. To her right stood a young man who bore a striking resemblance to what Yahiko might look like in a few years time: tails and all.
Oh yes, now that Kaoru was looking, it could be said that she knew.
"I'm telling you, you should stop being so stubborn and just follow my lead already," A round bellied man loudly spoke, wearing the fine silk of a man with money, "All you have to do is make them promise to be fair and you get the best prices in town. Demon's are pretty reliable that way, they get punished you know. And of course if you're scared you'll get more than what you've bargained for, you can always start off with the Oniwabanshu. They've been around for hundreds of years and haven't eaten a human yet."
"Have mercy honoured brother," His companion laughed, oblivious to the sword instructor listening. He was not wearing clothes as fine as that of the round bellied man but he had the healthy glow of a man who got to eat regularly, "Not every salesman can be as brave as you are. There are plenty of demons in Kyoto who still have plenty of ill feelings towards us humans."
Their conversation continued, as did their pace, but Kaoru was no longer interested in listening in. If Kyoto was indeed a place where demons could be spoken about in public, where they were free to make their homes and learn a trade, was the same not possible for the rest of the country? Was that, in fact, what Shishio was after?
Shishio means to take over Japan so that demons and spirits can roam the streets freely, so he does.
Kaoru had not expected to be reminded of those words but what bothered her more is that she could envision a world where that was possible. Where she would wake up and greet a neighbour with horns and know she was not the only one seeing them. Where spirits were freely guided by monks towards the afterlife and where she did not have to chase Keukegen out of her garden in the early morning.
Yes, there were demons far more malicious than tanuki, basan and ameonna but was that not why there were demons such as the namahage? Was it not just a matter of deciding which demons would be allowed to live between humans and which were not? Just why, when there was a man fighting to free demons from their secret lives, would people like Misao and Kenshin fight against it?
"If Shishio is left unattended he won't stop at just taking over Kyoto. He plans to take over Japan and have it ruled by demons, so he does," Kenshin countered with a soft voice but a stubborn look in his eyes. The namahage had no intention of letting her stay; everything from the look in his eyes to the set of his jaw told her that. "But only the demons of his choosing. Young Yahiko, as a tanuki, would be as much at risk as the humans would be, so he would."
"Kaoru-dono," Kenshin's gentle voice tickled her ears and with a jump Kaoru remembered where she was, "It is not far to the Oniwabanshu, so it is not. Could you hold on a little longer?"
"I-" Kaoru started before pausing, suddenly realizing that her shoulders were lower than before. A new kind of strain had been added to her already long list of aches and pains. It felt as if she had spent hours reading difficult books on subjects she barely understood. Distractingly she reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose before nodding, "Yes, of course."
"You're looking a bit pale," Misao noted, drawing to Kaoru's side as their pace continued. She switched places with Kenshin so smoothly that it felt agreed on but at the same time the sword instructor knew that Kenshin had preferred to watch her back in the forest as well. "Exhaustion getting to you?"
"I've never seen so many spirits and demons at the same time," Kaoru stated and felt that it was an inadequate explanation at best. There was a weight pressing on her chest and pushing at her temples, tugging on her eyelids and straining her eyes like a hot blazing sun. "Is meeting one new human to spend time with really that much to ask?"
"I'd say so," Misao replied, her grin widening so that it could contain her mischief, "Considering you're about to make a den of demons your temporary home."
The fact that it was not very lady-like did not stop Kaoru from groaning in answer.
The Oniwabanshu was a place of beauty hidden behind grey faded walls that matched those of its neighbours. Located in the poorer neighbourhood of Kyoto, neatly tucked out of sight of most, it held thick towering walls to keep intruders out. Once through those walls, however, they stepped immediately into a place that was loved and well cared for.
There were fish swimming in a charming pond big enough to have a wooden bridge separate it into two parts. The splash of their movements disturbed a frog she had not seen until it jumped into the water. Just a few paces beyond that pond were trees big enough to provide shade on even the hottest days and sweet smelling flowers lining the walls.
Their building was old, the wood aged by the elements, but carefully maintained. It was bigger than Kaoru had expected it to be, stretching out and filling a space that could hold two or three more homes. The middle most likely held a small yard, as buildings like these usually did, but Kaoru estimated that it held at least sixteen rooms nevertheless.
"Everyone! We're back!" Misao called out cheerfully, leading them towards the building and immediately a door slid open. Behind it was a woman kneeling, dressed in a simple yukataand wearing a welcoming smile.
"Welcome back," She greeted them and smiled, "You might be happy to hear that we've finished preparing your rooms."
Kenshin, like Kaoru, bend his head in a graceful bow and together they started, "Thank you for your-"
"Is the old man home?" Misao interrupted shamelessly, already in the progress of taking off her sandals. Kaoru and Kenshin only shared a brief look before following her example. After the distance they had travelled, it felt far too good to finally be able to remove their sandals. As Kaoru untied hers she noticed that their little trip into the river had been a bit too much on her poor footwear; she would have to buy new ones soon.
"Not yet," The woman replied her smile falling, "He's been gone for a few hours now."
"Well you know how he gets, Probably harassing some poor young woman or something. I guess I'll have to introduce him later. Oh! That reminds me…"Finally the female demon gestured to the woman who had greeted them so politely. "This is Masukame . She's probably one of us you get to see more regularly. She helps run the Aoi-Ya so she's here a lot. Just don't make too much of a mess, alright? We've been having plenty of customers to clean up after, lately."
"It's nice to meet you," Masukame said, bowing low enough to show how her brown hair was tied back on the back of her head. They returned her polite bow but even Kenshin was slow in straightening. Outside the crickets dominated, their sound ringing all too clearly now that there were so many creatures unable to join their chorus because of their exhaustion.
"Dinner is almost ready," Masukame continued and with the polite smile, there was understanding in her eyes as she added, "And fresh clothes for you to wear in your rooms. There should be enough time to freshen up."
The heavy fabric of her uwagi moulded a little too well to her body, even dried up, and still carried the scent of river with it. Her hakama was no better, holding tightly onto her thighs and digging in her skin where it was tied. Worse still was that a day of travelling in the sun could not have helped the smell either; dried up sweat carried a unique scent of its own.
So when Kaoru responded she found that she spoke from the bottom of her heart and felt that she spoke for all of them when she said: "That sounds wonderful."
Although there were many new faces to meet and be introduced to, although the food was well prepared and the night was promising to be pleasantly warm, dinner was a quiet affair. It came to no one's surprise that Kaoru and Kenshin excused themselves the moment it was polite to do so, even if Misao looked slightly disappointed. Luckily the demon bounced back from her disappointment soon enough to show Kaoru her room.
When they reached her door, Kaoru assured Misao that the room was perfect and had just enough energy left to commit to polite small talk before the demon let her to her own devices. Perhaps tomorrow, when she wasn't as tired, the sword instructor would find the time and patience to invest into a longer conversation. For now she turned and took a moment to inspect the room that she could have all to herself.
The room she had been given was humble but functional. There were only two paintings, one of cherry blossom and one of a peacock, but there was enough room for two people to sleep in. A small low table stood in the corner and was just big enough to hold a teapot and a few cups and would serve anyone wanting to practice their calligraphy well.
It held sober colours but the sword instructor found that she liked the way it reminded her of earth and forest, steady, grounded things. It was clean, either not used very often or freshly cleaned for the guests, and spacious and there was a roof rather than trees to protect her from rain. For that, she could be thankful.
Her bedding was easily found in the big closet that lined the wall and smelled freshly cleaned. It was beckoning her after days of sleeping on a forest floor but it had been too long since she had brushed her hair to deny it any longer.
So, Kaoru found herself sitting in front of a mirror that looked a lot like the one her mother used to own and working hard on the knots in her hair. The river had not been very kind to it nor had hastily tying it back been but now that her belly was full and nothing was waiting for her but a good night's sleep, Kaoru could take the time to brush it out.
Already there was a disturbing amount of sand on her lap, reminding her that it would be prudent to take another bath soon and she vowed to take one the moment she could the next morning.
She was almost finished when there was a knock on her door.
Perhaps it was that the room was a little too big, or that there was a mirror in it that looked so familiar, or that she could not hear a slightly drunk Sano boasting in the background, but the knock was welcome. Humans can get used to almost anything, after all, and company was one of them.
"Yes?" Kaoru thus called and tried to decide whether it was worth getting up for. The decision was made for her when the door slid open to reveal Kenshin sitting before it.
Like her, he was looking freshly groomed but he was not wearing a yukata made for sleeping. Instead he was once again donned in a kimono of a soft red colour and white hakama although it was obvious that these were new and clean. If nothing else she could tell by the fact that the hakama he wore actually looked white rather than grey.
"Kenshin?" She spoke because he wouldn't, her voice puzzled and her cheeks flooding with warmth. Why was he here? And why, she suddenly noticed, did he bring his sword?
"Kaoru-dono, this one did not mean to surprise you," Kenshin started carefully and lowered his head in a gentle bow .His ponytail slid over his shoulder when he did so and even in the dark the red of his hair was far too vibrant to be natural, "But there is a matter that needs to be addressed, so there is…"
"There is?" Kaoru blinked, catching his gaze in the mirror and finally turning to face him properly. He was kneeling outside of her room but only just, his knees touching the space that divided her room from the hall. He looked as if he was expecting her to invite him in, hands resting on his legs and head still slightly bowed.
"Can't it wait until tomorrow?" She tried even while knowing the answer. When Kenshin only looked at her she sighed and relented, "What is it?"
"This one has vowed to protect Kaoru-dono," Was it just her imagination or was Kenshin's voice even softer than it normally was? "One cannot do this from another room."
"We're perfectly safe!" There was an unwelcome squeak in Kaoru's voice and when she cleared her throat she found that she was holding onto the collar of her yukata. Carefully, deliberately, she let it go and took a moment before continuing, "Surely Shishio won't break into a demon filled inn just to get to me?"
"Shishio attacked you in the middle of the street, so he did," Kenshin calmly answered and finally lifted his head. The stubborn gold was back but it was the same gold that she had seen in the river, the one she reached for when the current was threatening to pull her under. "I don't want to take any chances."
"Kenshin…" Kaoru sighed as her shoulders fell, too tired to think of a better response. The demon simply held her gaze, waiting. It was a little uncomfortable to be the victim of his gaze when the situation seemed so improperly private. But then again, they had been in far more improper situations by now.
"Kenshin, can I ask you something personal?" Since the red-head was not going anywhere, she felt it was a good a time as any to ask what had been on her mind for a while now. Nevertheless the sword instructor made sure to wait for the namahage's consenting nod before continuing, "If we didn't have a contract, if I asked something else when I broke you from that mirror, would you still be set on protecting me like this? Worrying about it even at night?"
"Kaoru-dono," Kenshin breathed her name and closed his eyes before smiling. When he opened them again to look at her, she was surprised to see that he once again wore the gentle but unusual violet colour, "You should not worry about that, so you should not. This one is very happy to protect Kaoru-dono in whatever way I can."
Again, Kaoru felt like a child caught with her hand down the sweet jar. Again, the namahage saw far more than simply what she told him. Perhaps, only a few days ago, she would've snapped at him but to Kaoru's surprise she found she was simply reassured.
"Well, then…" Hoping that somewhere, somehow her father would forgive her Kaoru could only ask, "…what did you have in mind?"
"Looking over Kaoru-dono."
"…in this room."
"In this room," The namahage nodded and gave her that smile that made him look innocent, if not downright harmless, "If it makes Kaoru-dono feel better, then this one would be happy to sit behind the folding screen."
"Don't you need sleep?" Kaoru asked, frowning mildly, "You can't do that if you're staring at me all night."
"This one has no intention of staring at Kaoru-dono all night," Kenshin's smile changed, ever so slightly, until it wasn't quite crinkling his eyes when he gave that statement. There was a pause, just enough for an intake of breath before he continued, "This one will simply be able to sense immediate danger even while catching up on a few hours of sleep. More than three hours will not be necessary, that it will not."
"I don't suppose sleeping in front of the door is an option?" Kaoru sighed and reached up to begin braiding her hair, it would not do for it to knot in her sleep when she had just spent many minutes carefully untangling it.
"There are demons that can enter a room as smoke and use their swords before their feet touch the ground," The red-head stated but this time she heard the note of apology in his voice. She looked back to him to find that his eyebrows were knit together. Quite suddenly she was certain that Kenshin disliked asking this of her as much as she disliked having him ask.
"Come in, then," She said and when he didn't immediately move she smiled wryly and added, "There's probably more room between us here than there was in the forest."
Nodding his consent Kenshin stood and entered her room. When he slid the door behind him it was with an air of finality and the sword instructor jumped at the sound of the door hitting the wall.
The demon walked without sound and if her candle had not still been lit, he would have been hard to follow. As it was, she watched him settle against the wall opposite of her bed, the other side of the room. As she expected, there was more room between them now than before.
Forcing her hands not to tremble, Kaoru blew out her candle the moment her hair was completely braided and climbed into bed. It felt less strange than she thought it would, sleeping with Kenshin in the room. Perhaps the days of travelling had simply made the demon more familiar to her than she thought.
She fell asleep with the sound of his breath lulling her to sleep.
She awoke because of the sound of his voice.
"Something is happening," The namahage told her and when she lifted her head, it was to meet piercing golden eyes, "Something is wrong."