AN: This is the 1, 2, 3 one-shot for FairyTaleFancy, one of the contest winners. Her three prompts were K/K (obviously!), a temple, and a disguise. Truly, the temple did not get a lot of spotlight here, but I had to sit on this prompt for a while to come up with something at least somewhat original. I did not quite expect it to be so long, but here we are! So, enjoy. :D
Warnings: I butcher Druidism. And some other things. I'm a hack. Also, some slight modification of personalities to fit the setting. Nothin' too bad, I hope. ;)
Bare feet padded lightly across the stone walkway, accompanied by the rustle of loose clothes and the clacking of wooden beads. It was late enough in the morning for the sun to have warmed the path she walked, and yet early enough in the day that she still had a shadow to play with.
Kaoru followed the route she knew so well, a bounce in her step to go with her good mood. People waved as she passed by them, smiling to see the familiar young lady out on her daily excursion.
She was well known in this part of the city, openly friendly and ever the bright personality. Life was simply too short to not enjoy it, after all.
At least, that was what she told them.
With an amused smile, she veered off to the left down the walkway that would lead her into the temple gardens, leaving the busy market street behind her. The sweet smell of honeysuckle invaded her senses as she trotted through the open gates, casting a casual glance at the well-manicured plants in question creeping along the stone wall.
Most of the city was built with consideration for the natural world around it. It was old, founded during a time when druidism was still prominent amongst the populations. Trees had been built around instead of chopped down. The natural waterways had been encouraged and expanded, instead of dammed and rerouted. Gardens were abundant, and wildlife was protected.
Even now, when much of the magic of the world had thinned out, this city remained a source of natural power and harmony. Many came to find inner peace and relaxation, traveling from far and wide. In some ways, one could consider the city a large tourist attraction, which helped keep the economy strong.
And then there were some who came to make use of the energy that still lurked within the city's grid, enticed by the potential power source. They never did make it far, interestingly enough. Much of the citizens were none the wiser. Some knew something was out there protecting them, and a few more had the vaguest ideas of what that was: individuals that lurked within the shadows to protect the city and what it held within, the people, the magic, the integrity. They knew nothing more than that, but only that they could be trusted.
But that was neither here nor there, for Kaoru had other things on her mind. With a delighted laugh, she hopped from stone to stone across a small stream, opting for the shortcut over the winding path. Once on the other side, she ran up to the old temple that was nested deep in the garden. Once used for druidic practice long ago, it now stood as a reminder for what the city was founded on. The power was still there, but many simply did not understand it for what it was. They would visit, and be overcome with a sensation of peace, but did not question why that was.
Kaoru knew it was more than that though, which was why she spent much of her time there. Reaching up, she pulled herself into a dip in the stonework near the entrance that felt almost like it was made to sit upon. Dappled sunlight broke through the treetops overhead and she settled into her seat, drawing her legs up. Opening her book, she placed her bookmark between her lips, the tassels tickling her cheek, and began to read.
Two chapters had passed, maybe three, when a warm tenor broke through her thoughts. "I daresay the bookworms are out today!"
Blinking out of her book world, Kaoru looked over and down to see a familiar figure leaning against the wall on the opposite side of the path. Long red hair was in its usual well-groomed ponytail, and arms were crossed over the loose, airy clothes that were so typical of casual wear in the culture. One knee was bent, with a sandal-clad foot pressing against the wall. The corded rope wrapped around his waist was cinched at the side in an elaborate knot, keeping his top closed, except for the low v that showed off part of his chest in the front.
His violet eyes were full of mirth, and Kaoru could not help but grin as she replied. "You should best be careful, for a bookworm out in the open is a rare sight indeed! It might be contagious!"
He laughed, and she had to admit she enjoyed the lilt of his voice. Pressing away from the wall, he glanced up at the temple, then back at herself. "What are you reading today, my fair lady?"
Grin still on her face, Kaoru tilted her head at him, long hair tumbling over a shoulder. "Culture of the North, Volume II."
"Thinking about traveling?" He teased, but there was a note of interest in his voice. She wondered if he knew she could pick up on it.
"Well," She started, pressing a hand to her chest. "If I had the means and luxury, I certain would love to travel far and wide and see new places. However, I imagine I would get quite homesick very fast. I am much too attached to the gardens here. Too much snow up north, anyway. I experienced snow. Once. It was terribly cold."
It was hard to tell if she was serious or joking, and the red-haired man blinked, before he broke off into laughter again. "You are quite the comedic, Lady Kaoru."
"You flatter me, Sir Himura."
"Kenshin," he chided, wagging a finger.
"Forgive me," She bowed her head in mock apology. Truthfully, she only called him that to get a reaction out of him. He always got exasperated whenever she addressed him so formally, and it was cute to watch. After all, she ran into him nearly two to three times a week here, and they always exchanged words. Technically, he was a social rank above her, at least she was pretty sure, though she had never outright asked. However, the clues were there, in the details of his attire, and some of his responses to things pointed to him being of some form of aristocracy.
That said, differing social classes were not extreme as they were in most other cities. There was not as much of a social divide, and many people interacted with others of differing status. The city was one of harmony, and things that went against that were rarely condoned. One could have a pauper for a friend and be on good terms with a baron, and no one familiar with the city's workings would think a thing about it. It simply did no good to make such divides, hence why she could be so casual with him. "And so what brings the non-bookworm out in today's air? Perhaps to be recruited?" She waved her bookmark at him with flourish.
"Oh, no, I could never convert. I simply would not know what do with myself with all of those books. I am much too active a person to read all the time, sadly. The best you might get from me will be appreciation of a picture book." He winked at her, and in turn she sighed dramatically.
"A pity, truly. I am always looking for potential converts," she lamented, though she did not doubt he knew she was teasing him. "Whatever am I to do with you?" She lifted her gaze to the canopy above her, shaking her head in mock disapproval.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see him shaking his head at her. "You are awful, my Lady. Much more and I'll have confidence issues!"
"Hah!" The laughter escaped her in a bark, and she pressed her fingers to her lips to quell her amusement. Sitting up and twisting around, she allowed her legs to dangle over the edge of the wall. The thin layers of her skirts twisted around her, showing off her calves and bare feet. Placing her bookmark between the pages, she closed her book with a snap and set it down beside her. Grinning down at her, she propped her weight on one hand, the open neck of her shirt sliding off a pale shoulder. "Kenshin, trust me. If there is anything you have abundance of, it's self confidence." She winked at him, and was pleased to see his smile widen.
"You flatter me, Lady Kaoru. Join me on a walk?" The words themselves should not have went together so well, but his affinity for speech and the lull of his voice made it sound like the most natural thing in the world.
She still noticed it, but acquiesced anyway. "Well, if it will keep you from having confidence issues..." Grabbing her book, she made to hop down, when he moved forward and offered a hand to her. She blinked at the gesture, an honest look of surprise on her face. In turn, he only smiled at her pleasantly and waited expectantly. With an eye roll, she placed her hand into his and allowed him to help her down. She did not fail to notice his other hand coming up to help balance her, but that was because she pretended to be less graceful than she truly was. She had a role to fill, after all.
Idly, she noted his hands were as callused as hers. Interesting. He seemed to notice it, too, because he looked down at her hand and turned it over. "How curious. Whatever does a bookworm do with such fine calluses?"
She blinked, because that had not been the response she expected. It sounded like approval for lacking soft skin so common of women of upper class society. Even her own level on the tier appreciated such pampering when they could get it, and she knew Kenshin knew she could afford the luxuries if she wanted them.
Weighing her options, she offered a cute shrug, and a sheepish smile. "There is something to be said for being active. A bookworm I may be, but I am not very sedentary when my books are closed."
It was enigmatic enough that she knew he wanted to press, but he was polite enough to not do so. Instead she watched him curiously run his fingers over the palm of her hand, and she did not realize she had bit her lip until he looked up at her and grinned, "I approve."
Smoothing her expression over into her usual smile, she teased, "Do you, now?"
"Oh, yes. I did mention earlier I was an active individual, did I not?"
"Oh, maybe I remember something like that," She agreed loftily. He laughed, letting go of her hand. She felt silly for being disappointed about that, but it did not show on her features. The surprise, however, did, when he offered her his elbow. "Shall we?"
"Ever the gentleman," Kaoru laughed, taking a moment to adjust her skirts before looping her arm through his. He led her in a manner that was well practiced, and she pretended to be led. The bright colors of the flora and fauna drew her attention, and she watched it work all around her. He seemed to have no general destination in mind, simply enjoying the route as she was. Honestly, she still did not know why he came out to the gardens so often, short of the fact he appreciated them. It still did not seem enough a reason to go multiple times a week, but hey. She had her reasons, maybe he did, too.
They were not like hers, though. That much, she knew.
Her musings were interrupted when he slowed to look at the swans in the lake. She came to a stop beside him, looking out over the calm water. A cool breeze pushed by, creating ripples across the surface. Kaoru closed her eyes, feeling the wind tousle her hair and clothes. The beads around her neck clacked gently together, and she opened her eyes to find Kenshin watching her. Quirking a brow, she let her lips turn upward in amusement. "Yes...?"
He shook his head, grinning and looked back over the water. "Don't mind me. I tend to get distracted by beautiful things. It is why I often find myself in these gardens."
She paused at his words, considering them and their true meaning. He could have easily been referring to the lake, or anything in the gardens. However, he had been looking at her, and she suspected the statement had been directed at her as well.
Was he daring to take their casual banter and light flirting to a new level? She had not expected that, and truly despite her attraction, had not considered it, either. Unfortunately, her situation did not allow for such things. It was a shame, because she did enjoy his presence, even if she knew so little about him. Some people just clicked sometimes, and she got the feeling that if she let him in, they would be a great match.
But it would not work. It could not work. There were aspects of her life he could not know of. It would be detrimental to his health, and also to her cause. The thought was somewhat sobering, but she did not let it show. Smiling, she tilted her head up at him. "My, such distractions will get you into trouble. You might walk into the lake!"
"Good thing I am an excellent swimmer," He admitted, and she lowered her gaze to the water, unsure as to how to take the words and their possible meanings.
Softly, she laughed, "Your clothes would be a mess!" It was hard to tell if they were talking about the water anymore.
"Worth the cause, I do believe. Say, are you attending the ball?" Again, with his non sequiturs that he pulled off so well. Except, she knew this was likely leading up to something still related to his hints. She knew what ball, it was the ball. It was the largest and most important festivity in the city, celebrating the founding and the founders. There would be visitors from other countries, a lot of performances, entertainment, food, drink, and the list went on. It created a lot of energy in the process, causing the city to flourish. The gardens were the most beautiful right after, and everything was richest, most abundant, and healthiest after the party as the energy dispersed through the city.
She was one of the few that knew that, though. Most attributed it to other things, but she was not unfamiliar with the real workings of the world around her. Much of the founding magic was not lost on her.
Quickly, she schooled her thoughts, knowing he was expecting an answer. In a reply that she hoped was not too delayed, she grinned, "Oh, silly Lord Himura," Oh, the look on his face at being addressed in such a way, "Whatever makes you think I am attending? That sort of event is one a bookworm like me avoids!" She winked at him, squeezing his arm.
He arched a brow at her, "You are as much a social person as I am, Lady Kaoru. Do not take me lightly. If it is a matter of invitation, I would-"
She did not let him finish, waving a hand, "Oh, you are too polite. I do appreciate such kindness, but I must decline. I really cannot go." She offered him an apologetic smile. "If I could, though, I would be glad to accompany you."
He tilted his head to regard her, and her breath caught at the look in his eye. It was there only for a moment, a look of sharp calculation, before it was quickly replaced with his usual bright disposition. "A shame, really. I do enjoy being around beautiful things."
She could not help the flush that crawled up her neck, because now she knew he was talking about her. Her hands began to sweat, and she did not meet his gaze, staring at the swans on the lake. "I apologize, Kenshin, but I really can't. Please don't make me say it again."
Pulling her arm away from his, she turned to him and bowed low and deeply, black hair cascading over her shoulders. "It has been a wonderful walk, but I must be going. I do hope you enjoy the ball. May the path you walk turn green in your wake."
It was an old saying from long ago, originating from some practitioners' ability to grow life simply by passing by. Now, it usually meant good fortune and longevity, and was a formal, polite farewell.
Turning, she hurried off, leaving Kenshin standing there watching her go. He said nothing as she left, eyes narrowed in thought. After she disappeared from view, he sighed and shook his head, a rueful smile gracing his lips. Turning, he walked off the main path into the garden's landscape. He passed by a budding tree, not yet in bloom.
In his wake was instead a full display of open flowers, their petals tilted toward the sun.
Kaoru sighed, staring at the assortment of materials in front of her. She was still bothered by the exchange in the park. Well, not by the exchange itself, but by how she had to reply.
She really, really wanted to be receptive of such things from him. She truly did. However, it would be much too risky. That Kaoru was a role she played. True, it was the life she wanted to live. That part was not an act.
But at the end of the day, a disguise was still a disguise. That Kaoru was a mask for the real Kaoru who lay underneath. Stripping down to nothing, tossing her clothes to the floor, she looked at herself in the mirror, scrutinizing her appearance. Her naked self stared back at her with the same expression, except on her reflection's body were numerous symbols and characters tattooed in an earthy pigment. She scrunched up her face at her reflection and turned back to all of the things strewn out about her in preparation for the ball.
Yes, Kenshin, she would be at the ball. She would be there, but he would never know it. In fact, she had been there every year since she was old enough. Anytime an important event in the city happened, she was there. A descendent of the founding druids, a protector.
She was what kept the city safe from any outsiders who wished to misuse the power source the city was founded on. She, and a small group of others, known within a select few as the Aegis, were charged with the secret, invisible protection of their beloved city.
And tonight was going to be unlike any other night. Apparently there was a group of arcanists who had every intention of taking the energy build up of the ball and using it for their own purposes. They apparently had the power to do it, too. It was concerning enough that Kaoru knew she would not be the only one at the ball tonight who would be keeping it safe. All of the Aegis would be working tonight, many throughout the city, and just as many within the ball itself.
She glanced at the clock. Time was closing in, and she needed to get ready. She had a city to protect.
The decorations were beautiful as they were every year, themed to match the reason for the festival in the first place. Beautiful ropes of vines and flowers were hung everywhere, wrapping around pillars, hanging from the ceiling, and draped over railings. The open pavilion the ball was held in had been carved from opalescent marble and built with extravagance in mind. The chandeliers were of gold and yellow topaz, adding to the warm glow from the lights. The floor was shined like glass, and the balconies open, allowing the place to ventilate naturally. The high ceiling open to the night sky, where twinkling stars added to the backdrop. Fountains and waterfalls only added to the ambient setting. Already there was a crowd of party-goers, and many were dressed in costumes and masks that fit the tradition. Ornate was commonplace, and everyone loved to put detail into things like masks, accessories, and body paint.
'Also,' Kaoru mused with a smile, 'Dressing up really means dressing down.' The culture of her people was to wear things that were comfortable and loose. However, that was taken somewhat abstractly when at events and involving high class society. Comfortable and loose then meant less covering and less inhibition by means of fabric. Many women wore things that barely covered what was acceptable, and many men often went without anything from the waist up. Body paint was far more common, and if anyone actually showed up naked, she suspected the only reason anyone would think it odd would be that there was no effort in their appearance.
After all, you had to look as close to naked as possible and still look good.
She was pretty sure she had managed that feat. It made her lament, almost, that Kenshin would never realize she was there. Undoubtedly he might see her if he decided to still show up tonight, but with her costume in place, he would be none the wiser to her real identity.
In fact, she was just part of the entertainment.
She waited patiently in her little preparation area, knowing she was not yet to come on display. From here it at least allowed her to focus on the currents of energy running through the ball. Right now, everything felt normal and natural as it should. Nothing was happening yet that was not supposed to, and she could feel no manipulation or negative force at work. It took a little bit of the edge off, but not much. There had been one or two close calls since she had come into this position, but nothing compared to some of the events in the past she managed to catch wind of.
She hoped tonight would be nothing like that.
She was broken from her thoughts when she heard the end of music, and an announcement of the next performance—her performance. She was a little more jittery than she would like to be. She had practiced countless times, and knew the routine by heart, but there was a difference between performing in privacy and performing in front a crowd.
And a tiny part of her really did wonder if Kenshin would be out in that crowd. She doubt she would recognize him. Most everyone wore masks, and unless she caught a glimpse of his hair, she likely would not see him at all.
Then again, not many people had red hair. With that thought, she began to walk up the stairs that would take her to her stage. Her pace was brisk, and the light shifted to follow her as she came into view.
She was radiant, and that was not an exaggeration. All over her body was a silvery paint that glittered under the light. Accenting the paint were hundreds of faceted crystals all over her body, of varying sizes, and each facet made light bounce off of her in all directions. It was incredibly eye-catching and alluring.
It also would hide her runes if she had to be forced into using magic. Who said fashion could not be practical? That said, she was not completely nude. A bandeau-style top covered her breasts, colored a deep midnight blue and lined with onyx and crystal beads. The skirt she wore, if one could really call it a skirt, stopped about mid-calf, colored the same as her top. The two slits that went up to her hip on either side probably gave it a different name in fashion terminology, as if she would be privy to such things. It was made for mobility while she was performing, enhancing the display by adding fluidity to her movements. The material was held up by a corded belt wrapped twice around her waist, of blue and silver threads woven together. Two scrolls were tucked into the belt, sealed with silver string.
Hair hair had been piled atop her head, held in place by a number of jeweled silver clips that matched the heavy jewelry adorning her neck, wrists and ears. Truthfully, though, she was taking a dare with her mask. Really, she should have covered her entire face. However, she had tried in practice and felt it much too smothering. She could not breath well, and in such a physical performance, breathing was essential. So, she had went with a half-mask that covered the upper portion of her face. With a midnight blue base and silver designs, it was the most essential part of her costume, effectively hiding her identity. Anyone who might know her (and there were many) would not be able to make any connections between the mysterious performer and the young Lady Kaoru.
Confidence building as she reminded herself of this, she strut up onto stage, one arm behind her back to hold the item in her hand in firm position. She could feel the energy of the ballroom building, could feel the warm thrum under her bare feet. She came to a stop in the middle of the stage, heels coming together and body standing straight. One hand raised up to gather attention, though most had already stopped to look at her, her display drawing they eyes of nearly everyone who could see. She bowed with flourish, allowing all to see what she held behind her, an ornate machete-style sword. It looked for show, and with luck they would never know it was truly tempered steel.
Bringing the weapon out to her side while still bowing, Kaoru took a deep breath, counting in her head. Everything still felt normal, felt right, and with that she relaxed. The music began, and that was her cue.
She was a fighter, protector, and a fencer. Now, she was a dancer. Her lithe form was easily built for such movement, a combination of sharp thrusts and smooth twirls making for an enticing display of performance art. Her footwork was complicated and excellent in execution, awarding her the ability to achieve the steps of her dance with ease. She twisted and parried imaginary foes all to the beat of a powerful score. She was almost too caught up in the dance to remember what else she needed to be doing. Mindful of her duties, she began to focus on the crowd in the lucid moments of her dance, surveying them as she slowly brought her weapon around, waiting for the music to pick up.
Anything out of the ordinary, anything like a pattern, anything that she needed to know—she scoured for it all, and was rewarded about halfway through her song. There were a handful of individuals standing out in the crowd. The first was up and to her left on the balcony. His costume did not match the theme of the party. Nearly anyone and everyone attending dressed the part, for it was the socially accepted norm. This man had chosen multiple layers of deep reds and golds as their primary colors, his clothes lined with fur. It was very similar to traditions of the North that she had read about. Truthfully, it was merely notable instead of suspicious. Likely anyone trying to do anything tonight would not be so obvious.
The next was a man standing in the middle of the crowd in front of her. She could only tell it was a man because the front of his costume was open, revealing his chest. He wore a black mantle around his neck and over his head like a hood. A leather mask hid the upper half of his features from view, and a pair of antlers stuck up out of the hood. The open-front shirt and pants were of simple, loose cut, and not really alarming, but something about him made her want to keep a closer eye on him. There was something there.
The third interesting thing was the three individuals with similar costumes. It was a thing to make sure you were original, and the similarities between their clothes and masks was something that stood out like a sore thumb. White masks against a black and red costume backdrop was just unoriginal. Again, it seemed like something that was too obvious, but it was enough to keep tabs on them. One on the high balcony, and two on the main. Perhaps there were more she had not yet seen, either.
She made a cursory glance at one slow point in her dance, but alas the handful of redheads she saw did not match up to Kenshin's stature or hair style. However, that was all the distraction she could allow herself.
It was as she was doing a cartwheel that she felt it. A shift, a movement in the magic of the area. The moon was nearing a peak, and she inhaled, because the magic was a forced turn of events. Pushing up off her hands, she landed on the balls of her feet, bringing her sword around as her eyes lifted up to the ceiling. Her breath caught at the sight of the alluring gold lights floating down. Almost like fireflies, they were absolutely beautiful in appearance, a soft warm lull in their presence.
That was the danger. She was familiar with such magic, kinds that manipulated the victim to the caster's benefit. This one, she had seen described as a massive sleep spell. Swallowing, she had no choice but to act. She knew she had others here on the same side as her, but they either had not realized what was coming down, or were in no position to dispel it.
She, however, was. Crouching down, muscles tight as a spring, she catapulted herself up and twisted. With a burst of will did her magic come to life, expelling from her body in a fine silver mist that rolled through the room in a spiral away from her, negating the energy sneaking down onto the unsuspecting victims. To most it would simply appear part of a fancy effect of the dance. The only ones who would truly realize were the ones on her side, and the ones casting the spell. As she landed, her eyes widened, seeing something fly in her direction. Projective evocation was not what she had expected to follow, and sucking in air through her teeth she whipped her sword up in front of her. The spell hit the flat of her blade in a spray of red sparks that caused a few people to gasp. Technically, she could still pass it off as a performance, but having them take shots at her like this was putting people at risk. Pressing silver painted lips together, she threw her empty hand up in the air, releasing an illusion of flower petals to rain down. With a swift bow she rose quickly and spun, disappearing in a whirlwind of silver leaves.
Now, people were starting to realize something was amiss, and she regretted it could not be helped. Reappearing on the balcony where the blast had come from, she looked around, drawing her blade close to her. The area was somewhat empty compared to the rest of the building, and she knew that was not mere coincidence.
The attack came quickly and without warning. She twisted to avoid another spell slung in her direction, the energy flying out the open balcony into the night. She was much quicker on her reflexes, moving right into the melee range of her attacker, which they had not expected. She was not the most talented with spells like that, and knew her weaknesses well, and so she made up for those weaknesses in any and every way possible. She spun, bringing her foot around in a roundhouse kick, heel catching her masked assailant in the head. They went crashing to the floor, landing with very little grace. She was not yet finished, changing the direction of her momentum. With a show of flexibility she raised her foot over her head and dropped it down in a sharp ax kick, where her heel connected with the back of his neck. Satisfied he was not getting up again, she brought her index finger up and began to weave a spell in the air above him. Silver glitter alighted his body, adhering to it. He would not be waking any time soon with that kind of magic on him.
Her eyes narrowed, taking in the white mask and red and black clothing. She had been right, it seemed. How many of them were there? She wished she had a way of warning other members of the Aegis, but she would just have to act by herself for now.
She moved quickly, keeping low to the ground, following the balcony railing. Half of the party was aware things were going strangely, and only a small portion of that was starting to realize something actually serious was going on. The rest of the party-goers were still oblivious and enjoying the festivities. She only wished more of them were like that. It was easier to work around an unsuspecting crowd than it was an uneasy or panicked crowd.
Pulling her magic around her, she wove down the stairs without being seen, cloaking her presence to the naked eye. It took a lot of concentration to keep a moving veil over her form, but she was persistent in her endeavors and was rewarded with getting down to the ground level without detection. Now amongst heavier crowds, she let the magic slip away for the most part, taking the form of a minor cloak over a full veil. Now people would just be less inclined to look at her rather than unable to actually see her. Slowly, she weaved around various groups of people, eyes peeled for anyone else dressed like her attacker.
As she approached the middle of the ballroom floor, an individual seemed to all but glide out of the crowd to face her. She stopped, realizing he was staring at her and was not at all fooled by her glamor. It was the man with the antlers. She hesitated, not knowing if he were friend or enemy. She did not want to attack one of her own, but she feared he was not on her side.
Her eyes widened when he moved for her and she reacted, shifting her weight for the impact and bringing her weapon up between them. There was a resounding tang, the clash of steel meeting steel, followed by a spray of light and the smell of sulfur. Kaoru stared at what was in front of her. He had moved so fast she had not seen him draw his weapon—a sleek blade much narrower than hers, held in a lock against her own. His attention, however, was not on her. Instead, he was staring to her right and his left, with his other hand outstretched, palm forward. The spell was unlike anything she had ever seen, tightly woven magic in the form of a shimmering shield that was covering both of them, and anyone behind them. Across the room with hands outstretched, was a man of similar attire to her first attack, smoking rising from the wooden rod in his hands. She had not even seen the attack coming, and yet this man had both parried her own and defended her in a simultaneous gesture.
Her breath hitched as he moved, pulling his weapon back and close, then using it as an extension of himself, threw a blast of golden light at the man with the rod. He tried to counter, but was unable to conjure up the necessary magic in time, instead taking the spell at full force. It hit him like a canon, knocking him back and into the wall, unconscious.
The antlered man turned to Kaoru and nodded for her to follow him. She got up out of her stance to move, convinced he was one of the Aegis when suddenly there was a series of shouts. From all areas of the ballroom appeared people with the same white mask and black robes. Kaoru hissed, unaware of just how many there were. Now realizing their plan was at risk, they had decided to go all out. Above her, she caught sight of one person catapulting themselves into air. Long hair was in a braid that went to her ankles and she twisted, attacking two of the individuals who had landed on a higher tier. Kaoru had seen her before in previous events—recognizable by her braid. Another one of the Aegis. She did not know who she was in public, but it did not matter.
Turning her attention away, she moved as two came in on her. She had spent all of her years training to be as agile as possible. With a series of quick movements she avoided their attacks, short-ranged burst spells designed to be powerful, but requiring little to no distance. The only real good thing was that it was less likely that the civilians would get hurt. Many of them had not even tried to leave, and she wondered just why that was. A quick feel of the energy around her suggested something was keeping everyone inside, probably to potentially use them as additional energy in the workings of a major spell. Sacrifices, as it were.
Great, so not only were they hostages, but they were witnessing everything. Perhaps someone was better at mind magic than herself and could weave a spell to make them all forget or something. This did not go well for the whole 'secret organization' thing. Hell, it was so secret that other members did not even know each other outside of the Aegis. She had never seen anyone else's face since she had become a member. The only person who had seen her was the old man who had recruited her.
When heat grazed along her skin, she hissed, remembering she had priorities. She twisted as another blast whipped by her, shifting her weight and throwing it into an open-palm thrust. It hit her attacker right in his solar plexus, dropping him like a sack of potatoes. She felt the shift of energy behind her and she dropped to the floor as shards of ice sailed overhead. Rolling to her feet, she moved in nimble as a cat, flipping her sword around and catching her other attacker in the chin with the butt of her hilt. No need to kill unless absolutely necessary. She was a protector, not an executioner. Still, that was not enough to do him in, and she pressed, a series of quick jabs into vital areas of his body. He crumbled, curling in on himself and quickly she wove a sleep spell over his form.
Turning to see who she need to go after next, she stopped when she realized the other five were already on the ground, unconscious. The antlered man stood there in a stance with his sword drawn, and not even remotely worked up. She panted softly, staring at him. What stamina he must have had! She was already in a good sweat, and grateful her makeup was sweat-proof.
Above her, she saw the braided girl hanging from the balcony, holding one unconscious victim by the collar of his shirt. With a sharp nod the girl dressed in purples and blacks dropped him down onto the floor and flipped back up over the balcony and out of sight. Releasing a soft sigh, she relaxed her form, feeling the weight of her exhaustion start to sink in. It had been a long time since she had used so much magic in succession.
The antlered individual drew up out of his stance and sheathed his blade, and she realized the reason she had not seen it before was the loose clothing effectively hid it from view when his arm was hanging at his side. She turned to him, regarding him for a moment, when she felt it. It radiated across the floor and up through her bare feet, a strong shift of energy in the environment that was volatile in its build up. Eyes wide, she twisted in the direction of the gathering energies just as it was released, and she had no choice but to take the hit straight-on. Too many people stood behind her to risk dodging, and all she could do was expel magic just before impact in hopes of ricocheting back any magical scatter away from the crowd. It was a force spell, and the impact knocked the wind out of her, sending her sprawling onto the ground in a messy heap. Beads and jewels scattered as her hair clips and jewelry broke, sending long hair tumbling down her back in messy curls.
She lay there for a moment, stunned. It took a moment for her brain to catch up, but once it did it was baffled over the fact that she was still alive. That much energy should have crushed every bone in her body. So... why...?
She lifted her head up and stared at the golden light making up the shield over where she had been. To her left the antlered man stood there with both hands out, and she knew the spell had been his. Her gaze returned to the magic as it began to fall in shattered pieces to the floor, disintegrating into soft bursts of light. Now she owed him twice, great. Pushing herself into a kneeling position, she noted her sword lying amidst the jewels and beads. Grimacing, she got to her feet with a little less grace than she would have liked and went to retrieve it when something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. There, some few feet away was a mask.
Her heart skipped a beat at the realization, and slowly she brought a hand up to her face, as if not wanting to believe the truth. Sure enough, painted nails touched painted skin and her lips parted in horror. It only got worse when she heard someone call out, "Lady Kaoru?"
The name stirred the crowd, whispers rising like a heated mantra. Across from her, the antlered man had whipped his head in her direction, and she could see the surprise on his visible features. She felt faint, and in a panic, she did the first thing that came to mind. She dove for her sword, tucking and rolling. Using her momentum, she rose to her feet, jumped and disappeared in another swirl of silver leaves.
'Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no.' It was all she could think as she managed to get herself to the backstage area where she had been waiting before her performance. Wasting no time, she took off in a quick run, trying to calm herself down. She did not know what she was supposed to do. She had always been taught to keep her identity a secret from everyone, including other Aegis. She never questioned why, but now she wished she at least knew the why so she could try to calm down and figure out the situation. Why, oh, why had she made herself such a prominent figure in these social circles? What had she been thinking?!
She skidded to a stop when someone appeared before her, and she had brought her sword up before she recognized the antlered man. She paused, but did not lower her weapon. In turn, he shook his head, motioning for her to follow him. She hesitated, but knew that she really did not have too much of a choice. There was still the matter of the spell wrapped around the building, and possibly more men they had not caught yet.
He moved so silently it was almost surreal, and she felt almost clumsy in his wake. The network of halls seemed almost endless underneath the main floor, but he finally stopped at a stairwell, waiting. After a moment, he nodded and ascended the steps, and she moved behind him, her weapon ready for any ambush. She refused to be caught off guard yet again. Once at the top of the stairs he stopped, holding a hand for her to wait. She did, and he was quiet, concentrating. She did too, feeling the energy of the building through her feet. The barrier was still there, and she could feel the workings of magic on the inside, and the high energy that was the panic of the crowd. Likely they were trying a large-scale invocation, using the city's energy, and the people's. She did not want to know what they could summon with that much power.
"Invocation," she hissed, and he nodded. He moved again, and she followed him around until they found themselves near the front of the main hall. Neither of them could quite see what was going on, but Kaoru could take a guess by the way the magic was stirring. They had set up a circle, and were probably preparing to start the spell. There were quite a few, and she was already pushing her limits. The people around them would be a hindrance instead of a help, and she could only hope they did not try to stampede in their panic.
"How are we to get through this crowd without causing a scene?" She had to press close for him to hear her, and he turned to regard her quietly. She glanced away from the crowd at feeling his gaze, and he looked away so she could not make eye contact. Her brow furrowed, seeing something out of the corner of her eye, like a flash of red. However, there was nothing there upon further inspection.
It must have been her imagination. Shaking her head, she began to try to think of how to get across the mass of bodies blocking her from the ritual that was starting up when the antlered man suddenly moved, sweeping her up into his arms. Before she could even protest he backed up and took a running leap. Her eyes were wide as he cleared the crowd like he had pole-vaulted over them, landing in the middle of the circle. She could feel his energy shift, and her breath hitched when he hissed into her ear, "Dance."
She had no time to do anything but react as he tossed her into the air with a motion that allowed her to tuck into a somersault. As soon as she was out of his arms, he moved, drawing the blade at his side with such speed she could not follow. He spun, releasing a burst of energy from the arc of his blade that knocked down the men around him. She landed as soon as the magic dispersed, rising up to stand back to back with him. He stood with one hand on the scabbard of his sword, the other holding the blade out in front of him. She stood with her feet planted firmly on the ground, her own blade parallel with the floor. Most of the attackers were disoriented and stunned by her ally's attack, but there were two standing there who had been good enough to avoid the attack. One was a tall man who wore a white mask that had been purposely burned at parts, giving it a very macabre sort of appearance. The other was a woman, judging by the curves visible through the cut of her red and black clothes. Her own white mask had painted lips of blood red.
"Bravo," The man commented, clapping in a rather grandiose manner. "You have proven to be most capable. Truly, you protectors are quite the adversaries. However, it ends here."
Kaoru noted her partner said nothing, staring at him evenly. She chose to focus her attention on the woman before her, who held a lacquered staff in her hands. Seconds ticked by slowly, and then both enemies attacked simultaneously. The man with antlers jumped straight up while Kaoru flipped to the side, both missing two bursts of fire designed to disintegrate them. Fire casters, great. The collateral damage could be just as bad as the attack itself. Grimacing, Kaoru began to gather the energies around her into something she could mold, knowing her own internal sources were limited. She was not good at this kind of manipulation, but if she had any chance at winning, it had to be like this.
Her opponent was ruthless, shooting a volley of quick burst spells in rapid succession, forcing Kaoru to keep moving. It meant no chance to catch her breath, or cast offensive magic back, not that Kaoru realistically could. Offensive magic was not her forte, which was why she worked so hard for physical offense. Still, this woman showed no signs of slowing down, and Kaoru was already feeling her body protesting the continual abuse. Finding the first miniscule break between attacks she shifted, bringing her hand down at the oncoming volley. She released the magic at the last second, a burst of dispelling energy that negated the volley thrown at her into an explosion of harmless sparks. She continued on the next attack, doing the same thing, until she was merely meeting each attack with a negating counter that turned the woman's magic into harmless particles.
She could not keep it up forever, but fortunately her opponent assumed she could, or was starting to exhaust her own reservoirs. With a sharp cry the lady thrust a larger attack at her, a ball of flame five times the size of anything she had tossed before. It was probably a last-ditch effort and Kaoru ran for it, pulling in what remained of her magic into her sword. With a forward jump she brought her weapon down, slicing the fire into two. The flames dissolved into fizzling red smoke as Kaoru collapsed to her knees, gasping.
In front of her, the other woman seemed to be quite tired, but not at Kaoru's level of exhaustion. Gathering what was left of her strength, she threw one last volley of fire at Kaoru, and the Aegis protector knew she could not get out of the way.
She almost was not surprised when her antlered ally appeared in front of her, a drawing a shield up with his free arm and deflecting the fireball up into the night sky. She had no time to be grateful, as the man with the burnt mask took the opening, conjuring a pillar of fire that engulfed her savior.
"Watch out!" Her voice came too late as she watched the column of flame erupt from the floor, swallowing the man before her. The heat licked at her skin and she somehow managed to get her body to cooperate enough to crawl back away from the immediate danger, panic starting to rise deep within her now that she was drained of magic and alone. However, a blur of movement shot out of the fire and she felt her breath catch as her eyes followed the movement.
The antlered man came to a stop, gold light around him in a personal shield. It had not been completely effective, his mantle up in flame. Reaching up, he ripped away the fabric from his body as his magic dropped from his form. He kept moving, pursuing after the other man.
Kaoru could only stare at the long red hair that was now no longer hidden from view. There was just no way... It could be anyone. Just because he had red hair, and was not that tall could not mean that he was...
That he was...
The clash of steel on steel broke her thoughts as she stared at the two in heated combat, discarding magic in favor of getting up close and personal. The other woman was on her knees, apparently at the end of her limits and unable to aid her partner anymore. Kaoru was faring no better, eyes trying to keep up with the speed at which the two men fought.
It was then she saw the woman crawling over to the circle that had been painted on the floor. She was going to try to activate it! Kaoru was too far away to get to her in time, especially not when she barely had the energy to stand.
And then, she felt like an idiot, because she had planned for more than this! She wanted to slap her forehead at her own stupidity! With a growl directed at herself she forced shaky fingers to grab one of the two scrolls at her hip and pulled it free. It took some fumbling to get the cord untied, but really that was the hard part. With what little energy she had she tossed the scroll and let its own magic do the rest. The parchment unraveled in a hiss of scribed magic, the runes on it coming to life with a silver glow that burst into silver flame. Reaching up, she caught the flame in between her shaking hands, feeling the buzz of stored magic, her magic. And because it was hers, there was no problem molding it, or...
...Reabsorbing it. She let the silver slide along her skin and into her core, quelling the ache of her muscles and the exhaustion in her limbs. Slowly she stood, gathering herself and her wits. Gripping her sword tightly, she sprinted forward, tackling the other woman away from the circle just as she was about to cut her hand and start the blood seal.
Cutting her would have been so much easier but since that was not an option, Kaoru instead chose to punch her in the face, sending the mask flying off. The woman glared at her with lips just as red as her mask, and Kaoru's response was to punch her again, bloodying her nose. They were far enough she was not immediately worried about blood hitting the seal, and she raised her fist once more.
A blast of heat knocked her off of the other woman, sending her tumbling back into the middle of the circle. Kaoru shook her head and looked up to see the man with the burnt mask walking over. Behind him was a hole in the wall, and no sign of the red-haired man. Eyes wide, she tried to stand, managing to her hands and knees before her limbs started shaking. The magic from the scroll was running out.
He stopped in front of her and she lifted her gaze up at him, glaring. She would not die cowering, and she refused to flinch as he lifted his sword up over his head, the blade turning white hot with heat.
An explosion of light from behind made him twist around to look, and Kaoru stared past him at the form walking out from the middle of the light. Glowing runes wrapped around his arms and chest, very similar to her own she had disguised. His mask had been ripped off, showing off a face she had seen numerous times before. However, there was a strange cross-shaped scar on his cheek, with one of the slashes creeping up over his nose. And his eyes... his usual violet eyes were glowing a hot wheat gold. His mere presence seemed to radiate light that was not visible, casting shadows in all directions in ways she did not think were possible.
"Your time here is over," Kenshin hissed, and with an angry snarl, snapped his fingers. Kaoru gave a yelp when the entire city's magic responded to his command, swirling to meet his call. It was a sensation so overwhelming that it frazzled her nerves and made her lightheaded. She collapsed to the floor, and she knew she was not going to get to see the end of this ordeal.
She woke up at the temple. It took her several minutes to get through her disorientation, and even after she had no idea how she got there. It was still night, and the lanterns were still lit. She looked around, and then realized she was wearing one of Kenshin's loose tunics over her own minimal clothes. Hugging the material close to her, she frowned, wondering if he had brought her here.
Well, likely he knew the temple was one of the best places to replenish one's own magical reservoir. There was a reason she often visited the gardens, after all.
That thought brought the sobering reality with it that he knew her identity—everyone did. Now she did not know what to do. Drawing her knees up to her chest, she rested her chin on them, hugging her legs tightly to her.
"I daresay you are the most exciting bookworm I have ever met."
She lifted her head to the sound of the voice to see Kenshin walking toward her. His clothes were quite ruined, parts burned and missing, but otherwise he appeared to be just fine. His eyes were not glowing anymore, and his runes were gone. Even his scar had disappeared.
Weakly, she smiled at him, but there was no heart in it. "Thanks."
He frowned, stopping a few paces short of her and tilted his head at her. "Are you all right? How do you feel?"
She shrugged. "I'll be fine."
"You do not sound fine. This is not the Lady Kaoru I know."
She gritted her teeth, glaring up at him. "Don't you get it? You don't know me. You never did. That is a fake Kaoru. I've been lying to you this whole time. You should understand, you've been doing it to me, too."
He blinked at her, before he grinned. "You are such a comedic."
She had the audacity to look insulted, and before she could even retort, he had stepped forward, pressing a finger to her lips. "You mean to tell me that you do not like to read books? That you do not enjoy witty banter? That you do not enjoy feeling the earth against your feet, and its energy between your toes? That the callouses on your hands are not you? My dear Kaoru, you have never lied to me about who you are. You just think you have."
She was silent at that, considering his words. Quietly, she replied, "And you?"
He arched a brow. "Me? Have you ever even asked me anything of myself?"
She paused. No, she had not. "Well, what if I had?"
He grinned again.
"Well, wait," She sat up straighter and pointed a finger at his face. "What about the scar? There was a scar. And your eyes. What was that?"
The grin slipped off his face and he sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I would fancy a sharp one."
"If you do not answer, I will cut your silver tongue off," she hissed.
He gulped. "Ack, okay, okay. That was, um... well, I do use a bit of veiling magic to hide the scar. The glowing eyes thing is not a constant."
"Well what is it then? Why would you hide a scar?"
He pressed his lips into a thin line, giving her a look and crossing his arms. "How is it you can be such a bookworm and not know about your own city's founders?"
"Hey!" Kaoru replied indignantly, but over what she was not sure. What was she supposed to know? "I've read all the books I can find! What are you talking about?"
He merely arched a brow at her and stared.
She glared back, huffing, and recalled all the details of the city founders. Only one came to mind that fit the conversation. "What? Are you telling me you're, what, a direct descendent of Battousai?"
"I never had kids, thanks."
"Well how am I supposed to—what." She stopped, lips parted and staring at him. He stared back evenly, looking somewhat miffed at her accusations, and blew an idle strand of hair out of his face.
"You're telling me that you are Battousai?"
He shrugged, "Does it matter?"
"Oh, well. Okay, then. I am Battousai."
She threw her hands up in the air. "Really, Kenshin? Really?"
"What? I'm serious!"
"So am I! Why are you... I don't even...Augh!" She made a noise of frustration, clenching her hands into fists.
"Of all the reactions I considered from you, this was not on the list," he grumbled.
"Well, I expected you to be an Aegis, not … well, not the Battousai. What are you, immortal?"
He waved a hand dismissively, "It's complicated. Also, unimportant in the moment. Look, can we talk about something else?"
"Like what? What is more important than you being Battousai?" Kaoru exasperated, feeling the heat rise to her face in her frustration.
"I can think of a few things," He started, moving toward her. "Like... how I did not know you could dance like that. Or that you had a costume like that. Or that you were that flexible. Or this." And without any more of a warning he pulled her forward, crushing her mouth against his.
She was going to retort, honest. She really, truly was. However, the feel of his lips moving over hers was incredibly distracting, and she found that perhaps it was not as important as she was making it out to be. Or maybe just not as important as the fact he was kissing her with wild abandon.
Fine, they could talk later. And she would figure everything else out later. Right now, she was a little preoccupied.
AN: I'd like to say I wrote this in a day, and damn am I tired. I also have a penchant for dressing Kaoru up and making her badass, and describing Kenshin's magic as golden. Also, I am really wondering if anyone has picked up that in nearly every non-canon story I write I describe the scar to match Watsuki's tankoban redesign. I love that change in the design!
I had fun writing this. I intend to just leave it here, however I suppose if I get bullied enough I might write a sequel of sorts. So you should let me know if you like it. ;)
And with that, I shall return to chipping away at Remnants and Sortiarius.