AN: And here it is, the promised sequel to Encounters. Anyone reading this who has not read Encounters may want to read that first. I won't say you'll be completely lost, but I'm sure there will be details you won't understand. I am not sure how long this piece will ultimately be—I've discovered I'm bad at guessing on that stuff. It will probably be longer than Encounters, and probably darker and more violent, as we now get to see more of what was going on in the background. Hopefully, I won't disappoint...
...Because you're either going to love me or hate me for what I'm about to do. :D
Remnants of Fortitude
"What do you think your greatest asset is?"
"I would say mine would be my ability to adapt."
"Oh? Does that shape who you are?"
"How could it not?"
The room was dark except the beam of pale moonlight shining in through the part in the curtains. At one time she enjoyed its luminosity, staying up at night to watch the moon rise.
Right now the light just seemed sickly, and reminded her of the fact she could not sleep. It reminded her that she was not in any place she could call home.
It reminded her that she was the only person in the room.
The digital alarm clock told her she should be sleeping. At 3:27 in the morning, she was instead brooding over the toss-up that was her life. She was angry. Angry at the situation, angry at the people responsible, angry at herself...
Angry at him.
She stared the ceiling down, thinking back over everything that had transpired since the first time he walked into her bar. That had been over a year ago, almost two, actually. Time had sort of blurred since then, up until a few months ago. Then, it seemed to have come to a stall.
She was still living in the past, where her frustration, regret, and helplessness kept her chained. He had been used. She had been used, and now there was going to be hell to pay.
Gritting her teeth, she sat up and threw the sheets off of her body. If she could not sleep, then best to get moving.
She had work to do.
People made references to metaphorical hells all the time. Sanosuke hated people who did that, because they just did not know what hell was.
Curling his lip, he glared at the news broadcast on the television of the diner he was in. No, they had no idea what hell was. This city, right now, was hell. Things had spiraled down into a bubbling pit of chaos, crime, and violence. The bombing of the High Purpose Medical Center and the Shishi National Banking Company last year had been the start of what was essentially an all-out underground war that broke to the city's surface. Those who could, left. Those who could not spent the night in terror, never certain just what might visit their street. Nowhere in and around the city was safe. It was not just random acts of violence, either. Organized crime was sweeping through the chaos and reaping the crop. People were willing to pay all they had for a little protection from what was going on around them.
It was a sinister set-up; manipulation and propaganda at its finest. With careful steps they had dealt a crippling blow to the one organization that had kept them at bay, and now there was nothing to stop them. Sanosuke's eyes narrowed. At least, that's what they thought.
The High Purpose Medical Center and the Shishi National Banking Company were not bombed as random acts of terrorism. They were not bombed as a symbolic gesture. They were not bombed to make a point.
They were bombed because they were the two most important strongholds for Restoration, the most ruthless anti-terrorist group in existence. Both buildings were utterly demolished, killing many of the members and employees. The survivors scattered. Fingers were pointed, and accusations made. Instead of a rebound, the members devolved into opposing factions, at odds with each other as much as they were against the ones really responsible for this.
And with Restoration in pieces, it took hardly any effort to unleash chaos onto the unsuspecting city, turning it into what it was now. Technically, he could have left. It would not have been too hard. If asked why he stayed, his response would have been immediate and vehement.
He wanted to see those bastards burn.
A noise from his phone pulled his attention away from the television. The news report was no different than any others he had listened to, all that really changed were the names and number of victims.
He stared down at the text on his phone's screen that listed a few cryptic words and some numbers. It looked like a spam text, but that was the point. Committing the numbers to memory, he deleted the message and got up from his booth. She was early. Good.
They had work to do.
'You better be prepared, Kenshin. Because when she finds you, she's probably going to try and kill you.'
Long drives were unpleasant. They allowed her to think too much, to reflect on things that hurt.
The rain did not help, either. Expression weary, she drove quietly to the sound of her windshield wipers and the rain hitting the roof of her vehicle. The air conditioner was cold on her legs, but she did not feel like changing the thermostat. She should have, because it reminded her of winter.
Winter reminded her of him.
Fleeing the city had been tiring. It had taken much of Kenshin's resources and abilities to get them somewhere safe and to make sure they had not been followed. They were on the move for weeks, weaving around the country in an attempt to disappear. Eventually, they found sanctuary in a small town on the coast, moving in with the first snow of the season.
Two months they lived there quietly, happily. Kenshin worked at the harbor, and Kaoru took a part-time job at a cafe. They truly did not need the money, for Kenshin had what seemed like endless amounts from sources she never questioned. However, neither of them could tolerate sedentary life. The cat was happy to do it for them, and they were happy to keep themselves busy.
It was beautiful to watch him in this new environment. Much of Kenshin would never change. He had been forged into a weapon, and that came with a heavy price. Most of himself was cut off to the rest of the world. Quiet and aloof, he would never be able to throw that all away. For all of his healing abilities, the wounds of his heart and of his mind were still raw and open.
Slowly, though, she knew they were healing. There was a softer edge to him that had not been present before. People liked him, and accepted him easily. Children would play with him, and in those moments, she would catch a soft smile on his lips that she would never otherwise see. The acceptance from the world around him did much for his weary soul, allowing him some of the peace he had been denied until now.
But at night his demons would return with a vengeance. He never slept without his sword at his side and a gun under his pillow. He would not sleep without Kaoru tight within his arms. It was a heavy reminder that his old life still haunted him. It haunted her, too, but for different reasons.
She just had to be positive that time would heal everything. Unfortunately, time never got the chance.
There were certain details of the day she could not remember, like what she had for breakfast, or which route she had taken to work. Last minute customers put her getting home later than usual, and she knew Kenshin was waiting for her.
She expected to come home to him in the kitchen in his evening clothes and cooking up something tasty and fantastic. Something was strange though. The lights were off in the kitchen, and she smelled nothing. She could not imagine why he would not be home already. The car was still in the drive way, but they rarely used it for everyday things. Both of them could walk to work.
Unlocking the door, she stepped in, calling out. "Kenshin? Are you home?" No response was immediately forthcoming, so she made quick work of her coat and shoes. Locking the door, she moved into the room and turned on a light. The sight that greeted her made her heart drop into her stomach.
She had not seen him wear clothes like that since they left the city. The black was all too familiar, and sent a shiver up her spine. She could see his sword set tucked into his belt.
He was staring out the window, looking down the hill toward the harbor. His posture was tense, and she knew something was very, very wrong. Cautiously, she took a step forward. "Kenshin?"
Golden eyes leveled on her with a coldness so fierce that she forgot to breathe. Anger was written all over his face, and she had no idea where it came from. There was no softness to his expression, no signs of assurance at all. He had the look of a killer, and she knew tonight was not going to end well.
"What's going on?" She asked, her voice more tentative than she would like. He said nothing at first, staring at her with such intensity that she found it very hard to meet his gaze.
Finally, he spoke, and the words were shattering. "I'm leaving."
"Leaving? I don't... why?" She could not find the words, hoping instead he would simply offer the explanation she knew she would not get.
"I will not be back."
"Then, let me go with you." The words were out before she could stop them. She saw his jaw set, but she could not fathom why the request angered him so.
"You will stay here." There was no emotion in his tone; the words were spoken with such resolution that it terrified her. How could he do this? Why?
"Kenshin, I-," She broke off into a gasp when he moved, closing the distance between them with speed she had only seen directed at other people to end their lives. She found herself backed against the wall, his body holding hers in place. One of his arms had cradled her against the impact, but she hardly noticed. There was something in his expression that she could not name, something that gave her the suspicion that something was not right here, something beyond the obvious turn of events.
His breath rolled over her chin and lips in hot puffs, his voice a mere hiss. "You will stay here. If you don't, you will die."
She swallowed, eyes watering. She did not understand, could not understand this. What had changed? Why? Her words cracked, but she managed to get them out, "Does that mean you'll kill me?"
He pulled back just a fraction, and in an instant Kaoru knew she had called his bluff. A pained look spread across his features, and it was more terrifying than anything else that had happened. She bit her lip, a hand shakily coming up to touch his face. His skin was scalding to her cold fingers, and he closed his eyes, turning away from the touch. When he looked back up at her, his expression was desperate, pleading. He looked miserable, and she probably did as well.
"Why? Why, Kenshin?" Tears were coming now, and he could not bear to look at them, closing his eyes and pressing his forehead to hers. Her hands dug into the fabric of his jacket, refusing to let go. "Don't leave. I won't let you."
"I know," He rumbled quietly. She felt his lips press against her forehead, and he pulled her close to him, gripping her in a tight hug. There was a pinch of pain, and she inhaled sharply, trying to pull back. He did not let go, and she pushed harder until the room started spinning.
As she slumped against him, he mumbled something into her ear, and then darkness engulfed her.
She woke up with a massive headache on the sofa of the living room, and Kenshin nowhere to be found.
Kaoru snapped out of her thoughts when the distant wail of a siren brought her attention back to the road. She moved over to let them pass, then took note of just how close she was to her destination. Pressing her lips into a tight line, she switched lanes once again and took the exit ramp that would lead her into the city.
His last words haunted her every waking moment. Reaching up, she angrily wiped at her eyes. "Damn you. Damn you to hell, Kenshin."
The rain had relented somewhat by the time Sanosuke had reached his destination. He was not a man for umbrellas, instead choosing to bear it with a light weather-proof jacket. He blended in well with the crowd, and everyone moved past him without paying him much thought. In the distance he could see the block that once held the SNBC building. Originally at twenty-eight stories tall, it had given out only a few days after the explosion, crashing all the way down to the ground level. Much of the destruction had been cleaned up, but there was still quite a ways to go. Traffic cones and tape rerouted commuters around the hazards, and seeing it only set him on edge.
Because if he looked hard enough, he could still see the smoke and dust rising up. He could still hear the shouts, the screaming, the sirens. He could still feel his blood run cold when he realized Megumi had been in the other building.
He could still taste the tears.
He wanted blood.
A quick beep of a horn made him jerk out of his thoughts, and he whipped his head to see a silver SUV slow to a stop. The window rolled down, and Kaoru unlocked the door. Sanosuke waved casually and got in as she pulled away.
"Drive go well?" He asked, running a hand through wet hair to push it back.
"Yeah," She replied, keeping her eyes moving between the road and her mirrors. "No trouble on your end?"
"Nah. Still take some detours to be safe, but I think we're good."
She nodded, but said nothing. They sat in silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Kaoru inquired, "Anything new?"
Sano, who had been staring at the window, nodded. "Might have a name to match the man pulling the strings."
Kaoru bit her cheek, for it was not information she really wanted to hear. What she really wanted was information on him. Patient, she needed to be patient. "How reliable is the information?"
"Iffy, but it matches up. I'm sure you heard the name before. Kanryu Takeda?"
Her brows lifted slightly, the only sign of recognition. "Wow. That's big."
"Big's an understatement. It means a lot of problems for us if he is. The political power he has in the city was devastating on its own. Combine that with underground power, and the wealth he is already known for, and we've got yet another major problem." Sanosuke sighed. "It's still just a rumor."
"It's a scary rumor," Kaoru muttered, shaking her head. "Anything else?"
Sanosuke shrugged. "Nothing like what you're hoping. Back before this whole mess he was practically invisible. People came and would clean up behind him once his work was done, and there were never any witnesses." He paused, before adding, "Except you."
"Well then," Kaoru drawled, eyes narrowing. "Aren't I special?"
No response was forthcoming, because Sanosuke knew when to keep his mouth shut. She had a lot of anger, and nowhere to direct it. He knew it was risky, getting her involved. In fact, he had been against the very idea in the first place. Kenshin had once asked him to look after her, and Sano was pretty sure this was the direct opposite of looking after her, but well...
His phone began to ring, and he stared down at the number that flashed up on the screen.
When it was your boss telling you to involve her, what were you supposed to do?
She stood out on the balcony of her apartment, the half moon shining down on her. The white of her bathrobe glowed under its luminosity. The city night life thrummed below, providing an interesting display of colors and faint motions against the otherwise dark backdrop. She held a glass in her hands, half empty of its contents and watched the world go by her.
He was out there somewhere. Out there doing the work he hated. Living the life he wanted an escape from. Carrying that burden because of her.
Anger filled her again, her body shaking quietly as she worked to control her emotions. Crying, screaming, none of that would do her any good. She needed to focus her anger, and convert it into something she could use. Determination. Willpower. Fortitude.
"I see you have made yourself at home. Are the accommodations to your liking?"
She jumped, nearly dropping the glass in her hand, and her heart rate sped up, thumping loudly in her chest. She scowled, hating that she had been surprised, and hated that she had not heard him coming.
Turning, she regarded the person standing inside the apartment, barely visible in the dark. Smoothing her features over into something more neutral, she replied, "It's fine. I'm not picky."
"I noticed." The tone was dry, but still held the rich dulcet that somehow made her less on edge. Funny, considering just who and what he was. She did not want to think about the implications of his tone. It would only anger her. Pressing her lips into a thin line, Kaoru moved back into apartment, leaving the door to the balcony open. The warm breeze ruffled the curtains and she reached up to push back her hair behind her ear.
"A haircut?" There was mild interest in the tone, and Kaoru raised a brow. This man was still a mystery to her in many ways, and she hated that she was in a situation where she had no choice but to trust him. It was not that he seemed untrustworthy, but rather that she was having to put a lot of trust in him when she knew very little about him.
"Can't hurt," She replied with a shrug, her shoulder moving the hair in question. What used to be a layer of bangs accentuated by a long ponytail was now a tapered shoulder-length style that framed her face. The color was the same, but the style alone made her look quite different. "You said they were keeping tabs on me before, after all."
He said nothing to that, but she could feel his scrutiny on her. She stared back into the darkness, not really able to see his face. Crossing her arms over her chest, she leaned against one of the columns in her new home. "What is it you want from me?"
"I am assuming you mean in this very moment, for you know why I have encompassed your help into our endeavors," His knack for loquaciousness sometimes irked her, but she knew it was because she preferred simple, direct answers. Answers like the ones Kenshin would give.
He was nothing like Kenshin, of course.
Moving around the apartment, he stepped into the kitchen, fingers pausing over the light panel. A dull cast of illumination spread over the kitchen from the row of fixtures over the bar area, which was bare except for a glass bottle mostly full of amber liquid. He paused, glancing at the label, before his lips quirked upward. "I see after all this time you have not lost your affinity for scotch."
Kaoru narrowed her eyes, gripping her glass tightly as he reached into a cabinet and pulled out a glass that matched her own. Helping himself, he continued, "Things are in place, Kaoru. From here on out there is no turning back. I asked you once, the first time. I will ask only once again. Are you certain you want to do this?"
He watched her lips purse together before she tipped her head back and downed the rest of the contents of her glass. Wiping her mouth, she stalked forward and slammed the empty glass down on the counter, the noise resonating through the entire apartment. Leaning forward, she leveled her gaze up at the man, her expression one of steely resolve and passionate determination. "I will get him back, even if it kills me."
Putting the glass to his lips, Seijuro Hiko smiled.
She suspected it would be another night of restlessness. Being in the city put her on edge, especially knowing how bad it had become. There was no guaranteed security here, but had there really been any to begin with? Security was an illusion that had tricked her before, and she refused to be tricked by it again.
She also knew she was antsy. She had been empowered to actually take initiative this time, to stop being a helpless victim. Likely, she was being used, though for what she did not yet know. It should have bothered her, but it did not.
After all, she was using them, too.
It was a game of push and pull, and right now she was not sure if she was pushing or pulling, but one thing was certain.
Checking her gun, she put it under her pillow and turned out the light, crawling into her bed.
She was through playing the victim. Eyes glazing over, her mind thought back to things she really did not want to remember. Things that hurt to think about, but also were necessary to remind her just of how much she had been used.
She would never be put into that situation again.
It had been almost four months since the day she met Hiko. Kenshin had been gone for almost two weeks at that point, although it had felt like years. She slept on the sofa after he had left, because the bed was too empty without him there. She did not leave the house, quitting her job under the pretense of a family emergency. She had no appetite, and ate very little. She slept all day and sat up all night. The days bled together, and she really did not realize how long it had been until she was forced to go out and get cat food. The only good thing about the cold was that she could cover her face up and no one would pay her any mind.
Her steps were slow, dragging, and nothing like her normal energetic gait. Her clothes no longer fit, and she stared at the sidewalk as she made her way back home. She was weak, poor nutrition contributing to a lack of energy, and her eight pound bag of cat food felt like eighty pounds. It was dark, as she had purposely waited to go to the store at the last minute, hoping to avoid seeing anyone. Now, with the street lamp her only light, she fumbled for her keys and finally managed to make her way inside the house. A warm glow greeted her as she shut the door behind her and her world came to a crashing halt.
She had not left any lights on, much less the warm, crackling fireplace in the middle of the living room. Wide eyes stared at the man who sat in the recliner facing the fireplace, his broad frame taking up the entire chair. In his lap was Mango, happily curled up and enjoying the long strokes of his fingers down her fur. His other hand was propping his chin up as he stared into the flames, a look of thought on his chiseled features. Long hair was kept in a neat ponytail at the base of his neck, rivaling the length of her own. His suit was well-cut and of high quality, fitting him perfectly. An ornate cane rested against the arm of the chair, the handle molded into the shape of a dragon's head.
She stood there, staring at him, unsure as to what to make of the scene. She felt dizzy, shock mixed with malnourishment contributing to her less than stellar condition. After a long, quiet moment he turned his attention to her, inclining his head. "Ms. Kaoru Kamiya, isn't it?"
Her breath caught at her real name. He tilted his head in mock thought. "Ah, no. My mistake. Kaoru Himura. I wonder what spurred him to use his real name."
Her eyes widened. This man knew her. He knew Kenshin. He knew more about Kenshin than she did. She had always assumed Himura was a made up alias... She froze. If he knew, then...
Her shoulders slumped, her expression weary. She looked almost gaunt. Her voice was dull as she inquired, "Then you are here to kill me?"
The man frowned, leaning his head back. A sculpted brow arched high at the words, and his mind worked through the situation. His response was not what she expected.
She blinked, expression confused. He seemed to be incredibly bothered by her question, an expression of annoyance marring his face. The next words were under his breath, but Kaoru caught them anyway. "All that money into a project that can't think."
She had no idea what that meant, but she knew it was meant to be an insult. Despite herself, she found herself unhappy at his words. "He's not an idiot."
Her voice was soft, but they got a reaction out of him. He leveled his gaze at her, looking at her carefully. "Interesting. He dumps you and tells you nothing, and yet you still defend him. No wonder he found interest in you. Sagara was right."
Who...? She blinked, but then she heard a noise from upstairs, the sound of the toilet flushing and water running. Her brow furrowed and she heard heavy footsteps coming down the stairwell. "Ugh, no more shady Mexican food. I'm pretty sure that was not beef in that taco."
Sanosuke came into view, rubbing his stomach. He looked the same as always, with his hair sticking out in all directions, and his posture lacking any sort of formality. He turned to see Kaoru and grinned. "Heya, Missy."
"Sano... what...?" She was so confused by this point. Not even bothering to take her shoes off, she took a step forward as he walked up to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders in familiarity. She almost collapsed against him.
"Sagara works for me," The other man offered, rising to his feet. Mango bounded out of his lap and away and he dusted his pants free of any cat hair. Once he was satisfied, he took a sweeping bow. "My name is Seijuro Hiko. You will understand the importance later."
Kaoru stared at him, then glanced back up at Sano. He peered back down at her, though his expression quickly melted into one of worry.
"Good god, Kaoru! You look like shit!" Quickly she was being pulled into her living room, and she simply had no energy to fight back. She staggered after him, and he pulled her scarf off and pulled her out of her jacket. She stumbled and found herself sitting on the sofa through Sanosuke's direction. Crouching down in front of her, he scowled. "The hell are you doing to yourself?!"
"I..." She could not find the words, eyes tearing up. She was just so tired. She did not want to think about anything. She wanted to be grateful for his concern. She wanted to be grateful he was here, but she just did not care. Everything hurt.
"He didn't tell her." The man named Hiko spoke out of disapproval and exasperation. What did he not tell her? What did it even matter? Kaoru watch Sanosuke sputter at this information, red coloring his cheeks as he struggled and failed to contain himself.
"Goddamnit, Kenshin! Augh!" She flinched at the outburst, and hearing his name only made the tears finally fall. Distraught at seeing her cry, Sanosuke awkwardly patted Kaoru's head. "Aww, shit. I'm sorry, Missy! I'm not mad at you! Your boyfriend is an idiot."
"He's not..." She sniffled, wiping at her eyes, frustration mingling with weariness. She was unable to finish her sentence, and instead chose to just squeeze her eyes shut. "Why are you here?"
"To ask you a question," Hiko answered. When she did not respond, he took that as initiative to continue. "Do you want him back?"
The words rang deep in her, causing her to open her eyes and stare at the floor through wet lashes. Did she want him back? He had left her. Without so much as a goodbye, he had left her to go back to the life she thought he hated. He had thrown away everything he had with her and disappeared into the night, leaving her behind. He had told her she would die if she followed him.
So did she want him back? She was miserable, wasting away in heartbreak because of him. Was he worth it? What could be so important that he would leave her behind for that life again?
She thought back to the last words he spoke to her, and the determination and willpower that had left her came rushing back at full force.
"I love you."
Lifting her gaze up, eyes shining brightly with a fire that had not been there before, she replied, "Yes."
"Are you certain? There is no turning back."
With what strength remaining she pulled herself to her feet, using Sanosuke's shoulder for balance. Squaring her shoulders, she met his gaze full-force. "I want him back."
He nodded. "Very well, then. Pack your things, Ms. Kamiya. Tonight, we are breaking you out of a hostage situation."
She stared at him, her expression indicating she did not know what he spoke of. Sanosuke stood, cracking his knuckles. "C'mon, Missy. Surely you didn't think Kenshin left you of his own free will, didja?"
She had no idea why he had left. She had been too emotional, too distraught to think clearly. Now looking back, it did not make sense. He had been upset, pained to leave her. He had tried to hide it, but he had not been able to do so.
"Tonight, we are breaking you out of a hostage situation."
Her breath caught, and suddenly it all made sense. And suddenly, all the misery, pain, and heartbreak had transformed into pure, burning anger.
Someone was going to pay.
AN: Hopefully you all aren't going to kill me for this, haha. I know Kaoru is a little different here, but it's justifiable. Sorry for the lack of Kenshin in this chapter. He won't be missing for long, but I needed to get everything set up. Had a bit of trouble getting a lot of the scenes the way I wanted them, but hopefully my struggles aren't too visible. So many of you were so happy with Encounters, and I fear this piece may not do it justice. Here's hoping!
As always, I greatly appreciate and encourage your thoughts, comments and critiques, so please do review and tell me what you think!