AN: A little bit shorter than my usual chapters. It just seemed to be the best place to stop.
Warnings: Heavy language on Sanosuke's part, some mild sexual themes, drammmmmaaaa(llama).
Remnants of Fortitude
She was so beautiful when she was lost in thought.
Cool air kissed his skin as he opened the bathroom door, pausing when he caught sight of her. She sat at the window, one leg dangling off the ledge, the other drawn up with her arm draped over the knee. She was wearing what she had worn to bed—one of his shirts. He did appreciate the sight of her in his clothes.
The sun was rising, casting her body in soft light. Her hair was messy, half out of the braid she had put it in the night before. Despite that, she was still absolutely stunning.
He said nothing to disturb her, folding his arms over his bare chest and leaned against the threshold. He always wondered what sort of thoughts went through her mind when she was lost in her own world. She never ceased to amaze him with the way she perceived things around her.
Or with the way she perceived him.
As if on cue she blinked and looked away from the bay window, eyes falling onto her lover. A warm smile touched her lips, and her gaze lingered on the towel wrapped around his waist. "Good morning."
"Good morning," He echoed quietly, a ghost of a smile touching his lips. "Do not let me interrupt you."
She made an amused noise, sliding off the window ledge and raising her arms up over her head to stretch. It was an automatic response for his eyes to drop to her bare thighs, and her slight smile became an impish grin instead. "Well, if you insist..."
He arched a red brow, pushing off the threshold and moved towards her. "You are a tease."
She blinked in mock innocence, stretching even more so, purposely showing off taut muscles and creamy skin. "I have no idea what you could be talking about. I'm just minding my own business...eek!" Her words broke off into a squeal when his fingers ghosted up her sides, tickling. She squirmed, laughter escaping her as she tried to pull away. It was a vain effort though, for he circled an arm around her waist and tugged her back against his chest. She purposely flopped her weight onto him in response. She knew it would not hinder him in the slightest, and was proven right when he scooped her up with ease and dropped her on the bed. She landed on her back, still laughing as he climbed over top of her, bracing his weight on his hands.
That slight smile was still on his face, though the look in his eyes promised her she would not be leaving the bed anytime soon. She was still laughing breathlessly, but then lifted her eyes to his. The amusement there melted into something that still took his breath away every time he saw it, that humbled him, and also made him feel like the luckiest man in the world.
He did not get to ponder too much on it right then, for her fingers found their way into his damp tresses and her mouth was doing devious things to his collarbone in the most delightful of ways.
His brain managed one last coherent thought before one of her hands tugged his towel loose.
'This must be what love is like.'
Kenshin opened his eyes, forcing himself to leave the sanctuary of his memories. He blinked as his vision adjusted to the bright lights and white walls of the room he was in. The low thrum of the machines around him and the soft beeping of the monitor next to him were the only sounds in the room.
His eyes cut to the door moments before it opened, revealing a man in a white coat and two other men in blue medical scrubs. Right on time...
His body betrayed nothing of what he was thinking or feeling, not even the slightest change in his heart rate or respiration. Golden eyes stared the three men down, and his expression was unnervingly empty.
It made them nervous, he could tell. They feared him. They feared this lab experiment who sat before them on a medical table, stripped down to his underwear. They feared him because they knew what he was.
They feared him because they could not see the chains that weighed him down, that bound him once again to this life.
"Lie down, if you would." The tremor in the voice was only a slight comfort to the caged emotions he held inside.
As the cold metal hit his back, his eyes slipped closed and he forced away the whirring of machines, the clicking of keys on a keyboard, and the low voices of the team.
'To protect Kaoru, I will once again play the puppet.'
She awoke at the first rays of light chasing away the night. Blinking blearily, she stared at the clock trying to remember when exactly she had dozed off. It had been late into the night when she did retire, and still sleep had evaded her well after she had pulled the sheets up over her body.
Hiko's visit had only stirred the mess of emotions hovering in the recesses of her mind, forcing them to the surface with a vengeance as soon as he had left.
Draping an arm over her forehead, she stared at the ceiling, finding herself trapped in her memories once more.
Sanosuke had helped her pack her things, taking the majority of the load off of her weakened form. It only took a matter of minutes to grab nearly anything and everything she deemed important.
"Kaoru, are you ready? We need to go." His voice came from around the corner, and he stepped into the bedroom to see her staring down at something in her hands. It took little effort to see over her shoulder, and he was quiet for several seconds. Finally, he placed a hand on her shoulder, leaning down to whisper, "Take it. You'll regret it if you don't."
She hunched her shoulders up and clutched the item tightly to her chest, eyes squeezing shut. She did not want to break down again, but she found herself trembling anyway, anger warring with grief. The hand resting on her shoulder slipped around and she found herself being lifted up into strong arms. Sano's lips were pursed into a firm line, and he kept his gaze straight ahead, even when she buried her face into his jacket and cried.
When she finally began to pay attention to her surroundings again, she was in an unfamiliar car. Sanosuke was driving, and she was in the passenger's seat. Snow blew against the windshield, and every so often Mango would voice her protest at being in the car.
Wiping at her eyes, Kaoru curled up against herself. Her head throbbed, and she wanted to sleep. However, she needed to know. She had to know.
She glanced over to Sanosuke, then noticed that Hiko was in the back seat, both hands on his cane. He tilted his chin up, as if thinking on where to start. "Did he ever tell you anything about himself?"
Kaoru tilted her head to look out the window, pressing her forehead against the glass. "I know he was an assassin for an anti-terrorist group, and I know he hated that life." Her eyes cut over to his reflection in the rear-view mirror. "That was all I needed to know."
He stared at her with a gaze that was absolutely unnerving, and she suspected he knew she had not told him everything. After a moment, his lips curved upward in wry amusement. "That's debatable."
She clenched her jaw, which did nothing for her headache and tried to curl deeper into the seat. Before she could allow her thoughts to drift off, he spoke, catching her attention. "The group was called Restoration. The bombings last year were the first of a series of events that led to where we are today. Many of our employees died with those attacks, and it was not by chance that this happened. We had traitors among us. With the public's eyes on our associated businesses, we were struggling to regroup. Our leaders fought on what was the best recourse, and thus, we divided."
She stared at the passing trees, her expression somber. It sounded like something out of a movie, and she knew he was not done yet, because he had not gotten to why it mattered to her.
He obliged her, continuing. "The man you know as Kenshin was a pet project, and perhaps one of the most valuable assets we had. When he fled, it was a major blow to our remaining power. Still wrapped in the aftereffects of the attacks, neither side could really do anything about it."
Kaoru's eyes narrowed.
"Eventually, the other group managed to find you two in this little town. Knowing Kenshin would not return willingly, they had to force his hand. Your life spared in exchange for his cooperation."
Her blood ran cold.
"There was little he could do about it. Likely, by the time he realized something was amiss, he was in no position to get you out. You have been a hostage for weeks now. Your neighbor across the street. The bread vendor. The woman who jogs by your house every morning at six sharp. All of them were hit men, and all of them were waiting for an order to kill at the first sign from their superior."
Her breath came out in shallow pants, eyes staring down at her knees. Tom was the bread vendor. He had taken over the family business... a week before Kenshin left.
The jogger was always friendly, waving to Kaoru whenever she passed by. Now that she thought about it, she had only recently started jogging by the house.
The neighbor always left for work the same time she did. Or at least, she had only recently noticed it.
She felt queasy and nauseous all at once. These people, these real people, were set up to kill her at a simple command. And she had had no idea.
Once the initial horror had passed, Kaoru's brain began working again. "Wait, but... no one stopped you two from getting me out."
In response, Hiko pulled out a pocket watch, the gold rim reflecting light as they passed by a street lamp. "Likely the clean up crew has already swept through."
She swallowed down bile. Oh.
On the verge of being overwhelmed with this new information, she struggled to make sense of her thoughts, and realized many things still bothered her. They sat in silence for several minutes while she digested his story, and finally, she managed to find the first question she wanted to ask. "Why are you helping me, then?"
"For us to gain any cooperation from him, you must be alive and well."
He watched her absorb the weight of his words, and the anger he saw earlier was back on her face as she twisted around to look at him. "You..." She could not force anything else coherent out past her lips, her entire form trembling within her clothes.
Out of one hostage situation and into another.
He smiled, and there was no warmth in it. "What did you think, child? That we are here to save you out of benevolence? That is not the type of world we live in. It is not the type of world you live in. Do not disillusion yourself. Your acceptance to be with that man had consequences. Every action must be calculated and have meaning. Every action must be with reason. The difference between us and them are the means we will employ to get what we want."
"So, what, if he doesn't join your side, you'll kill me? How is that different?"
"The hell, Missy? Why would you even think that?" Sanosuke snapped, offended.
Kaoru glared at him. "What am I supposed to believe? You throw this at me then practically tell me you're doing the same thing! I trusted you."
"We're not doing the same thing. If you would just listen...!"
"Sagara." His words cut through the atmosphere, forcing Sanosuke to swallow his words. Kaoru stared at both of them like a wounded animal ready to bite. With an annoyed sigh, Hiko continued. "Unlike Miyabe, I have standards. And class. I intend to encompass your help."
"I will never let you use me to get to Kenshin." Her words were a snarl, a promise.
"You will, because the alternative is much worse for him. I am not going to lie to you. We need him. In order to put an end to this charade, we need his cooperation. Without it, we will fail."
"Then fail," Kaoru said, venom dripping from her words.
"Sagara, I thought you said she was intelligent?" Hiko sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Goddamnit, Kaoru!" Sanosuke's words were punctuated by a sharp swerve to the outside lane, where he pulled the car over. Twisting in his seat to face her, he glared. "Will you get off your moral high ground for a minute? Kenshin fucking up and went back to do the very thing he hated to keep your ass safe, and you're sitting here saying you won't do the same for him?"
"I never said that! I said I would not let you use me to get to him!" Angry tears pricked the corners of her eyes in frustration.
"If you would stop and listen for a minute," Sanosuke words cut through her own, the vehemence in them enough to make the hairs rise on the back of her neck, "What Hiko's been saying is that we're giving you an opportunity to fight back. Sure, we're using you. We're all being used. We're being used to fight the bad guys. We're also giving you the opportunity to get Kenshin out of the frying pan and to deliver a kick in the pants to everyone who's made your life hell. And if that isn't enough for you, you'll be making the world a better place and all that shit."
Kaoru stared at him, unable to say anything. Sanosuke watched her face as she tried to process it all, tried to work it all out in her weary mind. Sighing, he shifted back and sagged into his seat. Thumping his head back against the headrest, he added, "C'mon. You told me your best trait was your ability to adapt. Don't be shittin' with me now. You want him back. You can get him back. You just gotta help us. You ain't holdin' onto that picture frame like it's your life for nothing."
She looked down to the object in her hands that she had been holding onto with a death grip. The glass was smudged from her hands and her tears, but the picture within was in pristine condition. It was the only picture they had ever taken together. They were on the beach, walking hand in hand and dressed for the cold. Kenshin's hair was an absolute mess from the wind, and Kaoru's was fairing better only because it was in a braid. She was laughing, and he was smiling. An amateur photographer had captured the shot, and Kaoru had paid him for a copy.
It was a moment in time she never wanted to give up.
It was a memory she cherished.
It was a reminder that she could not let go.
She would not let him go.
Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Kaoru traced her fingertips over Kenshin's form. A chance to get him back dangled right in front of her. At what cost? They would use her to get him on their side again, but she was using them to get him back. They would give her the means to get him back.
She clenched her hand into a fist. "And if I help you, and we get him back, and he helps bring down these other groups..."
Hiko waited until she had lifted her head to look at him, his eyes locking with hers. "You can both leave. You have my word."
"How good is your word?"
When Kaoru pulled her mind from her memory she was almost completely done with her morning rituals. She stopped, staring at the mug of coffee in her hand and shook her head. Spacing out like this was not a good thing. At one time, she could get away with it, zoning out during class or work and still do her job effectively and somewhat efficiently. Now, however, the game had changed. Losing focus might mean a bullet to her head. Even in a building like this, her safety was guaranteed only so much. She had seen that firsthand, when Kenshin had killed someone intent on blowing his apartment complex sky high. Running a hand over her face, she sighed and stalked off to get dressed.
A short time later found her exiting the elevator into the lobby on the main floor. The security guards nodded to her on her way out, though Kaoru paid them little mind. Once outside the building she paused, looking around. She knew she was supposed to have an escort pick her up at seven sharp, but beyond that she had no more information. Her eyes skimmed around when she saw a sleek black car pull up in front of her. The tinted window rolled down on the passenger's side, and she saw a man sitting inside. He gestured for her to get in, and she obeyed.
As she fastened her seat belt, he began to pull away. Smoothing out her slacks, Kaoru turned her attention toward her chauffeur. "Thank you for the transportation."
The man nodded, and Kaoru took a moment to observe him. She could tell he was tall even without him standing. His button-down shirt and slacks complimented him nicely, giving him a businessman sort of look instead of a driver. His hair was dark, bangs falling just short of his eyes. He kept his attention on the road, but offered back, "You are welcome, Mrs. Himura."
She swallowed, emotions stirring within. She knew using her real family name was a bad idea, but hearing that one hurt, too. "Kaoru is fine," She managed, her voice coming out a little rougher than she would have liked. She chose to look out the window and away from her driver.
The other man was quiet for a long moment, then he spoke again. "My apologies."
She froze, a visible stiffening in her features. She stared at her reflection, trying to figure out just why that horrible feeling of deja vu had hit her. She had heard him speak before, she knew it. She tried to think back to any and every encounter that held significance the past few months, anything that would cause her heart to speed up like it just now had. Finally, one memory came to mind, of a night alone in her kitchen, with a man dressed in black holding a gun to her.
"He's just a man, damnit! Give him some peace!"
"My apologies. I have made a mistake. Tell the man who lives here this."
She sucked in a breath, turning her head to him. "It was you, wasn't it?"
He did not immediately reply, though she saw his brows lift slightly. Finally, when they came to a stoplight, he turned his gaze over to her, and she stared back unwaveringly. Glancing back to the road, he nodded. "Yes. I was sent to find where Battousai was hiding back then."
She considered his words, giving him an oblique look. "You could have done that without ever making your presence known."
He said nothing, and his expression betrayed none of what he was thinking. A fleeting smile touched Kaoru's lips as she looked away. "Thank you."
Silence fell after that, with Kaoru lost in her own thoughts, and her driver in his. After some time, Kaoru blinked, looking over at him. "I'm sorry. I never did ask of your name. You already know mine, but what may I call you?"
"Aoshi Shinomori is the name I currently use," He said quietly.
"I see. Well, Mr. Shinomori, I hope I can repay you one day."
He seemed taken aback, and she caught the look before he had a chance to school it over. As the car came to a stop at an intersection, he looked at her. "You do not owe me anything."
She smiled at him, the expression almost weary and showing a hint of the exhausted woman underneath. "Because of you I was able to have two months with him before he was taken from me. I may have never had that if you had not done what you did. So, yes, I really do."
He looked away, considering her words. Finally, he offered, "I work as a double agent, Mrs. Himura. Miyabe believes he holds my loyalty, and I use that to our advantage." He paused, considering his next words heavily. "Battousai is the elephant tethered by the rope."
Kaoru whipped her toward him. "What do you mean?"
Aoshi cast a brief glance at her before returning his eyes to the road. "I cannot interact with him for he is very heavily monitored at all times. However, I know what keeps him chained down."
"It's me," Kaoru replied. "My life for his servitude."
"It is not you," Aoshi corrected, the slightest of smiles on his face. "It is the thought of you."
"I don't understand," Kaoru said, her expression perturbed.
"Your life is not at stake anymore. He is not a man who would agree to such terms if he could not be guaranteed regularly that you are safe. Have you not wondered why he has not sought you out these last few months?"
Her lips parted in surprise, and in growing unease. What had happened to make him continue to stay? She had been so hellbent on revenge, on saving him that she had not considered the fact that he would demand to know she was safe at all times.
With one hand, Aoshi reached for a small device—a tablet. Pulling into a parking lot to a gas station he brought the screen to life, filtering through folders and pages, until he finally came to a picture. It was in black and white, and showed a time stamp like that of a video camera. Passing it to Kaoru, she could only stare at the image capture—of her bedroom in the house she had left behind four months ago—and of a woman that looked very similar to her. The video was not high definition, so the details were lost, but it still looked just like her.
Except the date was from three days prior.
She could only stare, as her mind put the pieces together. Aoshi volunteered the rest of the information that she did not know. "They knew the moment you disappeared off the radar that they could not keep him in check. So, they have staged a double to assure him you are alive, well, and being monitored at all times."
Kaoru lifted her gaze from the image to the man looking at her, one hand still on the wheel of the parked car. "Miyabe knows we have you, and is terrified of what will happen when Battousai finds out." He smiled grimly. "And that, Mrs. Himura, is why we have kept you out of the city until now."
Her brow furrowed, trying to read what he was really saying. "It's... a power play?"
"Not quite. Miyabe has been very persistent in trying to find you, so it was largely for your protection. As I said, I am a double-agent. He believes I spy for him, and my job for months now has been to locate you. But, you are not incorrect, either. The manner in which Battousai finds out you are with us should be carefully considered."
"You're using me to manipulate him," Kaoru said softly, her words tempered with poorly hidden anger. "Trying to find the best way to work to your advantage."
"It is not something you did not already know. Mr. Hiko did mention that in order for you to have what you want, you must play your role well. What you have been doing these past few months attests to that."
She took a deep, steadying breath, because she knew he was right. All the training, all the information, all the time spent preparing her for this new world she was forced into... it had all been for him. She would let them use her to get him back. She would let them use her if it meant she could get even. She would let them use her if it meant Kenshin could eventually be free of all this.
She knew this, but it was still a lot to handle.
Reaching up, she pressed her fingers to her forehead, clearing her thoughts and quelling her anger. It took her a moment to realize they were on the road again. She had not even noticed. "So why am I finding all of this out now?"
"Because," Aoshi said as their destination came into view—a large mansion set just outside the city, "Things are about to get interesting."
AN: So I had someone point out that they felt this Kaoru was a bit more like Megumi, character-wise. I'd like to say that to me she is a lot more like Restoration/Cinema-ban Kaoru, from the couple of chapters I've read. (If you are unfamiliar with what I am referring to, Watsuki is retelling the manga to promote the movie, and is several chapters in—using ideas that were prompted for the movie but not used. Let me just say, Kenshin is oh so hot with that scarf.)
I am also sad because I had so much trouble coming up with a name for this story and then after I post the first chapter I come up with a really good one. But, I had also considered making a mini drabble collection around this setting reflecting on some of the moments between Encounters and this piece, so if I end up doing that I'll use that title. :P
I will likely not get around to responding to all the reviews this time, and I apologize for it. I am exceptionally grateful for all the feedback for the first part, and encourage you to continue to let me know what you think!