Author's note: Many thanks to my wonderful beta!
Chapter nine: The ribbon
"You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give." ~ Gibran Khalil Gibran
Kaoru's sheets were pleasantly warm and her pillow soft and inviting so it took some willpower to roll over onto her belly and prop her torso on her elbows. Kenshin's bright gaze forced her drowsy mind into something resembling wakefulness but that didn't mean that she could comprehend what he was saying.
"What?" she uttered not-quite-eloquently. There were strands of her hair escaping her braid –she was dishevelled, unguarded, and quite suddenly she became horribly aware of how neat Kenshin's kimono was and how steady his hands on his sword were, cradled against his shoulder.
"Something is wrong," He repeated patiently, but he was using the tone that matched the colour of his eyes. It was a tone that told her he would be the one making decisions and not allow himself to give into insecurities. The tone that made her so defensive when they first met.
"Something is wrong?" She echoed, mind struggling to catch up and finding only enough motivation to sit up because Kenshin's gaze was still trained on hers. Beneath her knees the bed was soft, the imprint of her body lingering with the heat of the fabric. When her fingers rubbed her eyes, she found sleep sticking to her lashes. Everything was seducing her back to the dreamless rest her tired body had eagerly welcomed and it was difficult to fight it on the word of a demon alone.
A demon who chose not to repeat himself but instead rose to his feet with the kind of stealth that she doubted humans could reproduce. Fir although the namahage was all fire and fierce colours, he seemed to blend into darkness surprisingly well. If she ignored the eyes, that is, and yet somehow she was never quite able to. Said eyes were already turning to the paper wall with such intensity that she wondered whether he could see straight through it. Part of Kaoru wouldn't be surprised to know he could, the way he seemed to be utterly certain that something was amiss in a world that seemed perfectly tranquil.
Outside, the world was covered in sleepy silence, the birds had not even awoken yet. There might be demons roaming the streets but none seemed close enough to entice her senses. And as far as humans went, well, no human undisturbed by her personal demon ought to be awake at this hour, no matter what their profession. Inside the compound there were no sounds that suggested of other inhabitants stirring, not even of rummaging in the kitchen or using the bathroom. Considering all these, it had to be particularly early and there was little doubt they were the only ones awake – let alone alarmed – yet she could not find it in herself to second guess the demon. After their days travelling together, she just had to accept that he knew things before she did.
It made sense to reach for that sakabatou before reaching for Kenshin's offered hand to get her to her feet.
Kenshin led her to the garden and though Kaoru followed without complaint, secretly she wished she thought of pulling a thicker kimono around her shoulders. The cool wind was harsh on her warm skin causing it to prickle uncomfortably. Kaoru couldn't resist the violent shiver that ran through her body. As her hand tugged the fabric of her collar tighter, she looked at the demon who had woken her so urgently. Kenshin's back was straight, his hand resting on his sword and though she could not see it, the sword instructor knew he was scanning the grounds that had been warm and welcoming to them. In this still world, where not even the sleepy croak of a frog interrupted the silence, he seemed broader, sturdier. Only his kimono and hair gave into the wind's cold teasing, tugging and fluttering around his body.
When she shivered again, she wasn't quite sure it was because of the cold.
Turning away from the sight, Kaoru tried to see the world as the demon did. Was there something menacing in the curve of the twisted branches? Something lurking in the darkness? The trees seemed at rest, rather than threatening and though the water of the small pond was black, it only served to reflect the stars above it. Twinkling beautifully, without even a cloud to obscure them, the stars wouldn't have been misplaced in the average love story.
"Kenshin," She asked, "Can I go back to bed now?"
"This one is afraid Kaoru-dono won't be able to go back to bed soon," Kenshin answered, his voice deceptively mild and eyes fixated on the wooden doors of the Oniwabanshu's compound.
"But how can you tell?" She was frowning now, "I don't see anything more menacing than your shadow."
"You can smell it."
As if brought on by his words alone, the stench entered her nose as some form of insidious evil. Iron, with just a hint of something earthy and unmistakable: blood. It was in the air, faint enough for her to have missed it, but nevertheless present. Now that she knew what it was, it was impossible to ignore and the sword instructor couldn't be sure whether it was her imagination that had her convinced that it was slowly, steadily creeping up on them. Just what kind of horrors did Kyoto have in store for them?
Trying not to think of clouds filled with blood, Kaoru tightened her grip on the sakabatou and straightened her shoulders. It took only a few steps to draw up to Kenshin's side and fix her stare upon the door, waiting for it to open and half-afraid of that moment. Though the smell of blood became increasingly heavy, nothing else seemed amiss. Time had no meaning as they waited, with a sick feeling of anticipation and anxiety mixing in her gut. Kaoru was just beginning to notice the cold again when the gate finally opened.
Chaos. Voices, crying and yelling, calm and determined, pinched and worried, broke through the silence as water bursting free from a dam. All the people she assumed to be sleeping peacefully in their beds were holding onto what seemed like nothing more than mangled flesh kept together by willpower and fabric. There was blood leaking everywhere, with every step, a trail of petal-like droplets that lead as far back as she could see. Dark, reddish brown stains that contrasted so sharply, even at night, against the grey backdrop upon which they lay. The stones of the garden path seemed to exist only to support the many feet that were hurrying over them. The night's darkness served as a cloak, shielding innocent eyes from the harsh reality that was a wounded body. Even the trees of the once peaceful garden seemed to hunch towards the whirlwind of people and energy that entered the compound.
They were carrying a dying man.
Years of sword training demanded that Kaoru slide her sword in the sash of her yukata but that did not stop her from running while doing so. Pure instinct drove her right into the thick of the crowd. They were holding onto one of their own but with no plan in mind. It was a relief to have one demon pull away from the rest. Someone needed to take charge, someone from the Oniwabanshu who knew the needs of one of their own. Expecting Misao, Kaoru had to shift gears when, instead, they faced the woman they met only the day before. Masukame's hair was up, woven tightly together but several strands had escaped to frame her face, her bangs all the way to her stormy eyes. Eyes that remained fixated on the visitors, despite her clanmates hurrying past to take their charge into the building.
"Misao is gone," Masukame's eyes sought those of Kenshin's and held them, her unnaturally dark brown clashing with pale gold, "Someone needs to go after her."
"Which way –" Kaoru started but was startled into silence when Masukame's stare switched to hold her gaze. Sanosuke had never been angry enough to show her his unnatural eye colour and this look was so very different from pale gold.
"Not you. We need you inside. If you're not there Okina might –" Masukame's voice broke and just like that she was a person again, not just a demon, asking for their help.
"Me? What do you need me for? I don't know anything about medicine other than tending to cuts and bruises!" A flare of panic accompanied her words for it was undeniable that the man they carried inside needed more than an ointment and several words of encouragement.
"You can see us, can't you? Even when we don't want to be seen."
"Can see –"
"Demons. And ghosts."
"Well, yes, but what does that have to do with – "
"You can write spells. Spells that might save his life!"
"But I don't know how to do that!" Panic went down her spine like ice. Without realizing it, Kaoru stepped back and held up her hands as if, somehow, that held reality at bay as well, "I've never done anything with exorcism or ..."
"Please! Okina is our respected leader and friend. He took Misao in when she was very little and practically raised her as he did many of us! You have to help us!" There were tears in Masukame's eyes, now, falling as inevitably as Okina's blood.
"It's possible if Kaoru-dono puts her mind to it," Kenshin's voice was as steady as his gaze and as always, he was unafraid to meet her eyes, "This one will be there with you. Somehow it will turn out alright."
"Kenshin, please, we need you out there looking for Misao. If she catches up to the person who did this – "
"I swore to protect Kaoru-dono," Kenshin's tone barely changed but the look in his eyes went from supportive to unyielding, "I will remain by her side, so I will."
"It was Aoshi, Kenshin!" Anguish and rage were battling for supremacy upon Masukame's face as she all but spit out the man's name. It meant nothing to Kaoru but a subtle shift in Kenshin's stance told her that a new kind of tension was building within him. "If she finds him all on her own…We can't afford to lose a future leader of the Oniwabanshu. It'll threaten everything we've spent decades building."
"Can't we find Misao together?" Kaoru asked, very much aware that close by a man was dying. It was as if she could feel his strength fading away with every second they stood arguing. Whatever course they take, they had to choose it and soon.
"We really need you here, Kaoru-san," There was definitely a note of panic in Masukame's voice now, "Can't you feel him slipping away? You know he needs help!"
It was undeniable. Like a leaf about to fall, clinging to its branch with the last of its strength as the wind cruelly tugged to set it free, so was this man's spirit wavering. She could feel it even from where she stood. Could she really help him? Masukame seemed convinced that she could.
"Kenshin," She had no choice, "You go ahead. I'll stay and do what I can."
"Kaoru-dono…" For the first time since she met him, Kenshin visibly faltered. She could imagine his conflict: instinct warred with sense, their contract versus the life of a dying man. In the gold of his gaze, Kaoru saw his reluctance to leave her; this man who felt uncomfortable sleeping without her close by, and knew that he needed something from her before he could leave. He needed some sense of security, proof that he would see her in the morning, but what?
"This one is bound by the contract," The namahage lowered his head, shielding his eyes behind his bangs, "One cannot protect Kaoru-dono while chasing after Misao-dono."
The answer came to Kaoru when she ran her fingers over her braid. The movement had been thoughtless, merely a way to ease her anxiety but when her fingers brushed over the frayed edges of her favourite ribbon she knew what to do. With nothing else in her room, she had been forced to use the decorative silk to tie her hair together for bed. Now she was glad she had.
"Here, Kenshin," In one fell swoop she tugged the blue ribbon free and held it out to the namahage, "This is my favourite ribbon. It's lucky, see? It even survived our tumble into the river. If I give this to you, you have no choice but to return it to me."
Even with most of her attention focused on the man inside needing her help, it wasn't lost on Kaoru that Kenshin stiffened and froze. His eyes seemed too wide and intense for her silly child-like logic, and his surprised silence had not been the answer she expected. It reminded her of an animal that heard a sound and wasn't sure whether it was predator or prey. For heaven's sake, the man seemed to be holding his breath!
"Take it," She insisted, offering a smile along with the ribbon, her eyes serious. They needed to hurry; all of her instincts told her so. "I'm perfectly safe here surrounded by demons hiding me from Shishio. So go and bring my ribbon back to me along with Misao."
Kenshin's hand lifted, hesitated, but then reached for the silk that she was offering. Carefully, as if afraid it would unravel at the seams from his touch alone, he took the cloth and studied it for a moment. It made her slightly uncomfortable that he chose to put it away in his kimono, carefully held between the fabric and his chest.
"Now go. I'll be here when you get back, safe and whole, I promise." Kaoru tried for a brave smile and did her best not to let fear get the best of her. The thought of trying to keep someone from dying armed by nothing more than luck and paper seemed much more frightening than fighting a horde of demons with a sword.
Her urgings seemed to fall on deaf ears at first when Kenshin didn't immediately answer. Instead he allowed the silence to continue, letting his bangs hide his eyes. Ever so slowly his thumb ran over the frayed cloth of his katana that he must've gripped a thousand times, it was the only part of the namahage that moved as he struggled to make up his mind. Kaoru could only hold her breath.
"It's a promise." The namahage finally answered his voice low and quiet, and his gaze meeting hers for a lingering second. Then suddenly, he turned on his heel rushing into the night. Decision made, he did not bother to look back or pause in hesitation. He moved with unnatural speed, jumping lengths humans could only dream of that brought him deeper and deeper into the night. Kaoru had no idea how he was going to track down Misao.
She had other things to worry about now. Rather than watching Kenshin disappear into the distance, Kaoru turned to Masukame, and found the woman looking at her strangely.
"I didn't know you were..."
"Never mind. Let us hurry."
It was as bad as she expected. Even without Masukame to guide her Kaoru would have found her way to Okina. Smears of blood painted the floors and walls, as if a storm had raged through the hallways of the Oniwabanshu compound. Running down the halls, following that sickening trail left her heart pounding but she didn't falter. They had already lost so much time arguing as it was.
"What do you need me to do?" It was her instructor voice that came out and Kaoru was thankful for it. If Masukame wanted her to try those spells then Kaoru would do so the moment she entered the room. They turned corner after corner, following blood like bread crumbs. The Oniwabanshu compound didn't look this big when she first entered it only a few hours ago but now Kaoru was aware of every step between her and her destination.
"We need the soul of language," Masukame hurried to explain, drawing back to Kaoru's side, "We've got everything set. All you have to do is support us with your gift."
"Soul of language?"
"The art of drawing out the magic slumbering within words. You need to write what you want to happen on the paper we've prepared for you and put it on the areas of his body that you want it to apply to. Okina is a satori so you don't have to worry about him reacting to the holy paper; there isn't enough malice in him. But since you're new, you're going to have to go at this one wound at atime." Masukame could not stop her voice from trembling as she spoke but now that Kaoru was following her to Okina's room she did seem calmer. The sword instructor could relate; it was a lot easier pushing away fear and panic now that they were taking action.
"It's that simple?" Doubtful, Kaoru looked up to the woman explaining, only to find Masukame with her lips tightly pressed together.
"You're going to have to really mean it."
"Of course I mean it."
"I mean," Masukame's voice was tense, "it's going to be difficult. You're really going to need to put your heart into it."
Before Kaoru could decipher what Masukame meant by that, they finally came to a halt in front of the shoji that could not hide the flurry of activity behind it. Shadows danced freely upon the paper and the ruckus of many voices already threatened to leave her ears buzzing.
The door slid open and for a moment Kaoru's heart stopped. Smells of sweat and blood fought for dominance. It was the first time Kaoru got a good look at Okina – he was old, already lined with age and his hair both on his face and his head was already white. But what struck the sword instructor were the wounds inflicted all over his body.
There was real intent to kill in the lines of his wounds.
As she watched, they pulled open his kimono to reveal more white fur along the contours of his body, most of his chest and belly bare. The fur was matted with red and brown which spread onto the strips of cloth they were placing on his body to stop the bleeding. Any human would have already passed away by now; it was impossible for a man to survive after losing this much blood, but he was a demon, and somehow, he was hanging on.
As Masukame had said writing supplies were already laid out beside Okina, as well as a stack of neatly cut paper yellow with age. The kind that reminded Kaoru of the ancient forests it once belonged to. Was there such a thing as strength in paper? Strength in words? If there was, was she capable of drawing it out?
There was only one way to find out.
Pushing past any fear and a thousand doubts, Kaoru mustered the calm demeanour that she used when teaching and settled beside Okina. This close to him, she became more aware of that strange sensation of his soul clinging to his dying body. Instead of paralyzing her with fear, it only instilled a new sense of purpose unto her.
Her body moved as if on its own, as if it were the hands of a stranger that dipped brush in ink and slid brush on paper. The paper was brittle, not just yellowed, with age and Kaoru could feel every bump she scraped over with her brush. In equal and unsettling exchange, she felt something pull at her skin, as if a thin layer of her being was dragged away which finally freed with a snap as she finished her character.
Disturbed from the experience, she paused for a moment, trying to see whether there was anything different about the character she wrote as opposed to her usual writing. She couldn't see it. But she could feel it, as if that little piece of paper was now part of her. A part that she was giving away as she placed the paper carefully over a wound on the satori's belly, slipping into a dream-like state as she did so. She did not even realize that she carefully smoothed over her character, pressing it against the mangled flesh beneath, until she saw flesh reaching for flesh, skin for skin, as the wound began healing under her touch. It was deep, touching organs underneath and though those mended, she would need another paper to stop the internal bleeding.
So she drew.
Time held no meaning; voices faded, even the groans of the dying demon she barely heard. All that existed were the words she was writing and the wounds she was mending, like a surgeon keeping attention on his stitches. It was very easy to get lost in the dream-like sensation that guided her hands and kept her soul from wavering.
Another character and another layer stripped away and if she had the time she would have run her fingers over her skin, trying to feel the difference. Something told her she wouldn't feel anything, that it wasn't skin she was giving away but Kaoru had no time to worry. All she could do was write, write, write, give, give, give and hope that together with the efforts of those around her, it would be enough.
It was beginning to sting, now. Discomfort turning into a prickly pain as if she had been practising her sword technique out in the sun for too long. She felt tender, like her body was complaining about the abuse she put it through even though it was not her body that was being affected. But the pain was easy to ignore when she had to put effort into keeping the characters free from bloody fingerprints.
She was running out of skin. Soon there would be nothing to protect her from the outside world, leaving her vulnerable and wounded. Kaoru knew now, what Masukame meant by putting her heart into it. It certainly felt as if she was giving her essence away to a man she never met before. All Kaoru knew was that she had to keep going because the wounds were beginning to leak blood from under her paper and there were so many still to cover.
It was beginning to hurt. No longer the deep bruising, no longer the scraping of skin but tearing of muscle and digging into bone. Every character left her trembling, fighting back sounds of pain and blinking through the sweat in her eyes. It was impossible to tell how long she had been going at it, impossible even to imagine that she would recover from this. But Okina's soul was gripping his body more firmly now and that was enough to keep her going.
The first cry tore free from her throat. For the first time Kaoru had to stop, slow down her heart, breathe. Opening her eyes, she found that she was leaning on her hands, towering over the last character she had written. It swam before her eyes, moist with sweat and tears, but the lines were steady and smooth as if it had not been a trembling hand that had drawn them. The hands that supported her were covered in blood but it was not her own and the longer she looked, the more apparent it was that her skin was still perfectly smooth and her body was not the one injured. She gritted her teeth and rose.
How long had she been at this? Fatigue was making her vision blur and pain had her seeing stars until she could only trust on the same dream-like state that guided her hands before. It took a deep breath and a few seconds of rest for her vision to clear. With every passing heartbeat her body felt heavier. A weary look told her the papers were holding the satori's body together like patchwork on a very old kimono. It wouldn't last long; it wouldn't hold and though she knew that she must rise again, Kaoru couldn't immediately move. Shifting her stare, she met the brown gaze belonging to Okina; she hadn't even realized he had woken up. He looked as tired as she felt.
His soul was beginning to waver again. Paper barely holding onto wounds, bandages barely keeping them closed, yet his body never stopped its struggle. His chest heaved, sweat poured, heart raced and still…still… Kaoru refused to meet his gaze and battled on, writing, tearing, giving.
Kaoru could feel those dark eyes piercing her, another pair of unnatural eyes but that was not what made them sharp. The sword instructor knew what he wanted, or didn't want, and she would have none of it. Gritting her teeth she finished her character and stubbornly refused to cry out when it felt as if she tore her muscle off with it.
She was reaching bone now. Writing hammered away at the core of her being and after this she would have nothing left. Just how many characters could she squeeze out before she collapsed? Three? Maybe four? The world was a shaky, dimming place but that did not stop her from hearing the rattling sigh of an exhausted old man. "Don't!" She snarled at him and refused to look up from her writing, "Don't you dare give up!" The fact that his gentle touch slowed other hands, stopped bandages from being applied, did nothing to stop her from finishing that last character. It blackened the world, made it spin and tilt dangerously, but when she recovered she found the lines as sharp and steady as when she first started.
"Child…you listen to me.."
"Let this old man be of one final use before he dies."
"Kaoru-chan, look at me."
She was so, so tired. Her body ached, her soul wept and her hands trembled as she dipped her brush back into the half-empty ink bottle. She didn't dare to trace it over paper, almost afraid of the pain that would follow. Of the fatigue and the far too little result that came after. She succeeded in steadying him, in making it so that his body was capable of even breaths but for how long? She knew it wouldn't last and so did Okina. Looking up and meeting his gaze would signal that; she wouldn't be able to lie. Looking up meant quitting and everything that she was, everything that she knew rebelled against the very notion.
Kaoru's hand lowered to create the first stroke, feeling something within her respond and draw to it like a tired dog raising its head at yet another order from its master. This time, however, when she turned her wrist she was stopped by a gentle hand upon hers. The sword instructor stared blankly, too tired to fight and feeling defeat creep up on her.
"Kaoru-san," Masukame's voice was soft but steady, rather like that hand upon Kaoru's wrist. "Enough. That's enough now."
"I won't give up!" Kaoru shook her head and lifted it to glare straight into the eyes she had been avoiding, "And neither should you!"
"Overturned water does not return to its tray," Okina had the nerve to tiredly grin back at her until a hacking cough forced him back to seriousness, "It's over child. Now, you must listen to me. Before it's too late."
"Now is not the time! I'm busy!" Kaoru snapped, turning back to her paper. The fact that Okina knew her name bothered her much less than the trembling in her hand. She needed the lines to be straight…
"And I'm dying, so I win!" Okina sent her another blood covered grin that soon turned into a grimace before he found the strength to continue, "Listen to me. I haven't got much time. It is vital that Kenshin finds Shakku Arai. Promise me that you'll tell him this."
"I don't under-"
"Shakku Arai. Promise me!"
Kaoru looked up into the dark demonic eyes that were so like her childhood friend's, fierce with that same stubborn fire. Okina was holding on with nothing more than stubborn willpower and yet still dared to hold her gaze. A red light was already filtering through the window of his room, casting deep shadows in the lines of his face until it reminded her of the bark of old trees. It reflected off the sweat covering his face and matting his fur, shimmering like tears he would not shed.
"I promise," Kaoru whispered and saw the light fade from his eyes. His chest rose then lowered in one last shuddery sigh accompanied by the quiet sobs of his clanmates. Some of them weren't even crying – too stunned and fatigued to fully comprehend the truth of what was happening. That truth struck Kaoru hard, feeling her chest grow cold but there was no way to turn off her sensitivity. No way to ignore the image of a struggling leaf finally losing its battle, setting itself free from the branch to surrender to the clutches of the wind.
Kaoru sat back on her heels and could only run her hands over her face while releasing a tired sigh. There was nothing left. Nothing left to give, nothing left to tear off and try to revive the body before her. All of her efforts had been in vain and all what was left was bitter reality.
Death was what she found on her first morning in Kyoto.
Light was filtering through every crack in the room yet there was no scent of breakfast. Kaoru knew it was late enough for it to be served, but her stomach felt hollow. Even the birds were awakening, disturbing the sleepy silence with their cheerful songs. Considering their gentle songs as well as the soft linens of her bed and the utter exhaustion she felt in every inch of her body, Kaoru ought to have been sleeping hours ago.
She could barely get herself to close her eyes.
Instead she followed her finger tracing a circle again and again and again and tried not to think of how long it would take to rid her hands of blood. The Oniwabanshu were a tough bunch but her ears caught the occasional gasp and sob. She could not rid her mind of the image of Okina dying in front of her, nothing but a stranger. From what little she had been able to pick up, he had been something of a father figure for the demons here. And she knew all about the pain of losing a father.
Every muscle in her body ached while the world was gently spinning. She was so tired…but she could not sleep.
Shakku Arai, the name was imprinted in her mind now. Shakku Arai. She'd have to tell Kenshin the moment he got back. Tell him and hope that he knew what that meant, what Okina had been so desperate to have him know. After that she would have to help the Oniwabanshu, she owed them that much. If only she had been stronger, if only she had more to give…
Suddenly, without a sound, without warning, something shifted in the room and Kaoru looked up to find Kenshin's familiar bright hair shimmering gently at her. The demon turned to settle against the wall as he had before, his knees raised and sword resting against his chest. He didn't say anything but raised his head to meet her eyes, the thrill of the chase lingering in his golden gaze. But she saw kindness too, the moment they softened in answer to her stare.
Kaoru closed her eyes and slept.
Surrounded by the grief of others, mourning for someone - who was to her, a stranger - among his friends was its own kind of hardship. Yet Kaoru felt inspired by the perseverance of the clan. The demons allowed themselves one day of mourning before they returned to daily routine. Only rarely did she catch any of them with tears of grief in their eyes, always blinked away so very quickly. One of her father's favourite sayings kept running through Kaoru's head in those following days, returning to the front of her mind every time she saw a tightened jaw or trembling smiles.
Continuance is strength.
Kaoru saw a lot of that strength while she was confined at the Oniwabanshu compound. Though she was assured that no lasting damage had been done, her inexperience in the healing arts had cost her. Her muscles ached, her bones groaned and though it was nothing that a few days of rest wouldn't heal, it nevertheless restricted her to the demons' compound the first few days. And that was just the ache of her body. It was undeniable that she felt an ache in her soul as well; the nagging guilt of the should-have's and could-have's that kept telling her she was to blame for Okina's death. The sword instructor knew that she had given all she could, that she had done all she could but in the times between waking and sleeping she could still see the light fading from Okina's eyes in her mind's eye.
All in all, it felt as if she had her ass handed to her after a particularly fierce training session.
Considering her situation and more so that of the demons around her, Kaoru made sure to show up at every breakfast and offer a smile no matter how tired she felt. When asked about her health, she made sure to offer a light-hearted answer before changing the subject. What was her suffering, really, compared to theirs?
However, all the downplaying in the world would not convince Kenshin to stop babying her. He was always offering to get her drinks or food no matter how often she insisted she could get it herself. Even more aggravating was his lack of reaction to the name Okina had been so desperate to pass on. Every time she brought it up, the demon would close his eyes and smile or change the subject altogether and it took stubborn effort on her part to get more out of him.
"We will deal with that when Kaoru is recovered." Kenshin's voice was still so gentle though Kaoru knew he had to be tired by now of her pressing the issue, "Just a few more days won't harm our fight with Shishio and will benefit us greatly, so it will."
Seeing the sense in that reasoning, knowing they would need all the strength they had to confront Shishio, Kaoru dedicated herself to getting better. It was in no time at all that she was becoming restless after days of doing nothing. She found that the only way to combat that restlessness was to slip out of bed during the night, when everything was quiet and only the twinkling stars held her company, with the excuse of fetching water.
It was during one of those errands that she ran into Misao.
The ameonna had changed since Okina's death. Kenshin had brought her back that night thin-lipped, white as a sheet and refusing to speak to anyone. When she had emerged the next day, there had been power in her every step. A new kind of purpose had taken over the demon who, when she found that they were leaderless, had taken on the role herself. Kaoru had heard that Okina had sheltered her under his wing and raised Misao into the demon she was now, but she had not seen the woman shed a single tear. Instead the ameonna threw herself into work with a determination that was inspiring, but also worrisome.
"Misao." On impulse, Kaoru decided to reach out rather than let the woman pass her by. It was against her nature to do nothing, "I know he was like a father to you. If there's anything I can do to help…"
When Misao met her gaze it was burning bright blue with emotion. Grief was cowering under the hot anger and fierceness that made the demon, a head shorter than her, seem tall and towering. The sword instructor found herself fighting the urge to step back.
"Do you know who killed Okina?" Misao started, tone low and shaky with the emotion that balled her fists.
"I heard that it was someone called Aoshi-"
"If this truly were Aoshi-sama then he is no longer the man I know. The man I know, the man I grew up with would never, never hurt Okina like that," Misao sucked in a breath and let it hiss out between her teeth like the spitting of an angry cat. It took her a few deep breaths before she could continue, "He is a stranger to me now."
It was strange to think that the person who she had met only a few days ago, bright and energetic, could be so hateful woman was trembling with it, her fists tightened with enough force to turn her knuckles white, a muscle jumping in her jaw with the clenching of her teeth. As if, overnight, Misao had turned into another person altogether. Yet, in a way, Kaoru could relate. Grief did extraordinary things to people and she too had felt some form of burning anger in the days after her father's death.
"I didn't kno-"
"You say you wanna help?" Misao's tone was not nearly as demanding as her bright blue eyes that held Kaoru's unflinchingly, " You can help by keeping Kenshin off my back when I go and kill Shinomori Aoshi."
"No buts." Misao's jaw tightened and her spine straightened, "I kill Shinomori Aoshi."
"Misao's been in love with Aoshi-sama since she was a little girl," Masukame sighed as she poured tea for Kenshin and Kaoru from where they were enjoying the last rays of sun on the wooden porch. "To think that she'd be set on killing him now…"
"Perhaps not all is lost." Kenshin softly interjected, offering one of his gentler smiles, "Perhaps this one will be able to bring Shinomori back from whatever darkness corrupted his heart."
"Do you think you'll be able to?" Kaoru frowned at her tea as she asked it, taking her time to enjoy the warm teacup in her hands. Although it had been days since they had struggled in the cold water of the river, the sword instructor would never again undervalue the simple pleasure that warmth could provide.
"Depends on what corrupted him. A demon of Shinomori's calibre does not change easily, so it does not." Kenshin answered and like her, he raised his cup to take a savouring sip. After closing his eyes in enjoyment he continued, "But this one would like to try, at least."
"Speaking of trying things," Masukame perked up, clearly desperate for less depressing subjects with grief still so heavy on her heart, "Have you been to one of our bathhouses yet, Kaoru?"
"What?" Kaoru blinked, struggling to catch up with the sudden change of subject, "N-no, of course not."
"Then you should join us tonight!" Masukame's voice rose with her enthusiasm, "It'll do you good! One last relaxing soak before you and Kenshin go and hunt down Shishio before he can mess with Kyoto further."
"I-uh…I-I don't know…" Was it unlady-like of her to not jump at the chance? Instinctively Kaoru turned to look at Kenshin who didn't even blink at the abrupt turn of events. If anything, his frown was a thoughtful one rather than disapproving.
"You'll be perfectly safe," Masukame continued, undaunted by their hesitation, "Misao and I won't be the only ones there. And Kenshin, you can accompany us to the way there and back if you feel that'd be safer."
"Well…" Kaoru hesitated, "I'd be lying if I said it wouldn't be nice but..."
"Then it's settled!" Masukame cheerfully chirped with an enthusiasm that was startling, "We're going! Now if you'll excuse me, I need to prepare dinner."
Before either the namahage or the sword instructor could protest any further they were watching Masukame's back as she headed towards the kitchen.
"She needs the distraction, so she does." Kenshin stated, although Kaoru couldn't be sure whether it was to himself or to her. Either way, it seemed like a reasonable explanation. She, herself, was beginning to feel a bit stuffy in this tension filled, grief-stricken house. So she hummed in lieu of a reply and enjoyed the gentle breeze from the safety of their porch. Said breeze teased and grabbed at her hair and Kaoru absently tucked the long strands behind her ear. It tickled and itched uncomfortably; unused as she was to wearing it loose. Which reminded her, "Kenshin, can I have my ribbon back?"
"My ribbon," She reminded him, "You said you'd bring it back to me."
"Ah," He sighed, "In the chaos of what happened, I forgot."
"That's alright," Kaoru offered him a smile, "But if you don't mind fetching...it…now…"
Kenshin, rather than standing and heading back to his room, reached into his kimono with one hand. In a single fluid movement he pulled out the familiar blue silk that was her ribbon and promptly made her forget what she was saying. It was unsettling to think that he had kept the fabric so close to him all this time; it was still warm with his body heat as he deposited it back into her hands.
"Thanks…" Kaoru uttered quietly, only to feel her breath catch upon seeing a brown reddish stain streaked across the blue fabric, "You bled on it!"
"It was a small wound," Kenshin offered Kaoru a reassuring smile big enough to force his eyes closed; "I'm fine now."
"That was my favourite ribbon!" Her temper raised her voice and in a sharp movement she held up the cloth for Kenshin to see, "I'll never get out a stain like this one! I can't believe it! Maybe I should just strangle you with this."
"Maa, maa," Kenshin held up his hands, seeming more nervous now than he did the night he went after Misao, "this one will make it up to you."
"Is that a promise?" The question was out of her mouth before she could think it through. For a heartbeat there was silence as the namahage seemed frozen by what had simply been a childish response. Startled, Kaoru froze right with him and held the demon's surprised gaze without making the conscious decision to do so.
"Ah…" His face softened along with his voice and his eyes took on a warm violet hue that was downright unfair for a man to have, "This one will get you a new ribbon. As long as Kaoru-dono doesn't mind coming to the market tomorrow, that is?"
"N-no of course not…" Kaoru stammered, tightening her hold on the ribbon as if that could fight down the burning blush she felt creeping up her neck, "Thank you, Kenshin."
Bathing with demons was definitely a new experience.
If it hadn't been for the sign at the entrance, Kaoru would've doubted whether this was a "for women's only" bathhouse. There were women with beards and jaws as square as a piece of tofu and women with hair on their backs and eyes on their elbows. It was hard not to stare though Kaoru made a genuine effort, only because she got her fair share of stares in return despite numerous other humans being present.
It was a relief to learn that the Oniwabanshu, as regular patrons, were often led to the less crowded baths. Flanked by Misao and Masukame as well as several other women of the group she was getting to know only now, it was easy to ignore the unfamiliar faces and let her guard down ever so slightly.
"I'm surprised you guys managed to convince Kenshin so easily." Kaoru noted as they were changing, "Other than insisting to walk us here and back, he seemed pretty okay with it."
"Everyone can see how worn out you still are. It's hardly surprising he thought it was a good idea to let you relax for an evening." Masukame answered, her voice much softer than Misao's loud snort.
"He didn't just think it was a good idea." The woman's cheeky tone was almost back to normal. It was frightening, really, how easily the demon could change faces. "He even arranged a special surprise for his special Kaoru-dono."
"I-I'm not his-" Kaoru sputtered but her stammers were easy enough to ignore, especially when there were louder women around.
"What kind of surprise?" Masukame's curiosity gave her voice a higher pitch as she leaned a little closer to Misao. Embarrassingly, she wasn't the only demon listening as most of the women changing seemed interested in this new piece of pleasant gossip. Ears reddening, Kaoru busied herself with adjusting her towel around her even though it was perfectly secure.
"I'm not telling," Misao chirped, grinning at the effect her simple words had, "But I gotta say, we're gonna be pretty jealous."
Before Kaoru could inquire any further, the demons began making their way towards the pool and into the water. Not about to leave the safety of the group, the sword instructor hurried to join them.
The water was hot and it took some time getting used to but once she did, it was heavenly.
Okina, Kenshin and even Shishio were far from her mind as she allowed her tight muscles to relax under the heat, letting her long hair drift back around her like black seaweed. There were aches and sores on her body that she had been all too aware of for days but beginning to ease only now. The voices of the women around her became background noise as the sword instructor allowed herself this bit of bliss.
By the time her skin was beginning to look rosy, she was startled back into reality by Misao's cheerful shout of, "Over here!"
The water splashed, giving voice to her disturbance as Kaoru tried to remember where she was and why Misao called out. She looked up to find a massive woman with several teeth poking through her lips making her way around the edge of the pool. There was a wooden box in her hands, old and worn and though the thin slits she could see long and thick brown hairs falling between the cracks. That made no sense, though, as far as Kaoru could tell everyone in the bath had too much hair rather than too little.
"It's Kenshin's surprise!" Misao explained, catching Kaoru's confused look, "All you need to do is close your eyes, lean your head back and relax away!
"Aaah I can remember my fist geji treatment..." A wrinkled yet scaly woman not too far from Kaoru sighed in envy, eying the box that was brought steadily closer, "There's nothing quite like it. I'm sure you'll enjoy it, young lady."
"Eh…thank you. I'm sure I will." Kaoru could only reply, curiously settling closer to the edge of the pool even though she could feel eyes on her every movement. With nothing else to occupy them, the women were quite happily sticking their noses in her business and though the sword instructor knew it was harmless fun, it nevertheless made her horribly aware of her body. To top it off; now that she was settled low in the pool, the towering woman seemed more massive than Mount Fuji.
"Just rest your head back, dearie. Feel free to close your eyes if you want to," The towering woman's voice was far too light and girly to fit her thick arms and broad shoulders, "I'll take care of everything."
With no other choice but to bare her throat to the world, Kaoru slowly tilted her head back and felt blunt claws carefully gather her hair together. It was spread out over the stones behind her until she felt the gentle tug downward of her wet hair. Several tugs followed as those same blunt claws ran through her hair and Kaoru couldn't help but wonder what went through Kenshin's head when he arranged a massage for her.
Kaoru didn't have to wonder for long as the claws pulled away, followed by a rattle of the wooden lid setting on the stone floor. There was a rustle before something heavy as a pebble was placed on her head. It wriggled and pulled, sliding deeper between her hairs to touch her scalp. Another rustle and another pebble-like weight was placed upon her head which promptly turned left to slide behind and over her ear. It brushed over her skin, tickling terribly before turning further to begin working its way to her nape.
Kaoru had a horrible feeling that those weren't lifeless pebbles that were being placed on her head.
Carefully, making sure not to move her head a single inch, the sword instructor opened her eyes despite a nagging feeling that she better not. At first, she only saw the other women relaxing around her, still hearing the occasional rustling sound followed by a gentle weight being set on her hair or head.
Then she saw the first antenna.
Kaoru froze in horror as she saw it twitch and dance from the corner of her eye before suddenly disappearing. A soft 'plop' followed, telling her that it was now floating somewhere around her breasts. Slowly looking down to the creature that a second ago had been on her face Kaoru could feel a scream rising up her throat. She choked on it in but then managed a small whimper while her eyes followed the creature as if by a will of their own.
It was disgusting. With more than ten long, thin legs to support it, the insect looked like a cross between a centipede and a spider. It was brown and huge, as big as the palm of her hand and far too flexible for its own good. To make matters worse, it didn't just float on the water but managed to jump straight onto the stone edge where a large claw was waiting to put it back on her head. The thing jumped and it was to be put on her head.
The blood was draining from her face and her body felt paralyzed with terror and yet, the sword-instructor found her voice. Even if it didn't quite sound like her voice with it being at least two pitches higher.
"Why are there bugs in my hair?!" Kaoru shrieked, sitting up in panic. Now she could feel them wriggling through her wet hair on the bare skin of her back. Would she dare pick them out?
"It's the present we talked about," Misao explained, blinking in gentle confusion as she eyed Kaoru's panicked face. The demon seemed perfectly happy to sit in a pool with the occasional floating jumping bug around her, "The one Kenshin got you."
"Why would he do this to me?" Kaoru shuddered in horror as she felt long thin legs scramble for a foothold on her shoulder, "Why would he put bugs in my hair?!"
"They're good bugs though."
Author's note: And that's it for this chapter! A chapter which would not have been possible without the aid of Pale Moon Swamp who kindly came over for half-a-day-writing sessions that forced us both to work on our fanfiction. Please check out her poems as I promise you they are amazing. You can find her in my favourite author list if you're interested.
See you next chapter!