Tides of Loneliness
Kaoru had always been considered an odd girl, but then again, most would say that it was perfectly understandable. After all, she was a female Alpha. The foreigners told myths of countries long past, where these strong females were common and honored as warriors, as the proud defenders of their home and country… but among her people?
It was million to one chance.
The instinctive roles were the cornerstone of their culture, and how could they not be? Everyone had their role, their status in the society that was decreed by nature. And everyone could easily sense the other's aura – and deduce their place in the hierarchy.
The Alphas were on the very top of the ladder – they were the born leaders with a force of personality and charisma that drew people around them. And the lower hierarchies followed them; Betas, Gammas and lastly the Omegas. However, no one knew for sure what caused these designations. It was commonly thought that the trait was inherited through the bloodline and any oddities were considered the will of the gods. But some whispered that even social interactions could affect the designation, before it settled at the cusp of adulthood.
But, no matter why it happened, there was no denying that the Alphas were admired. The histories were filled with awe-stricken stories about particularly strong Alphas, who had turned the tide of battle by inspiring courage and leading their men into victory by sheer force of will.
'Oh how I wish…' Kaoru sighed and glanced around the corner, scouting the streets ahead, misted in the morning dew. No patrols, here either…
Ugly rumors claimed that female Alphas were so rare, because these unnatural freaks of nature were unable to continue their line, that it was bad karma if one was born to their family. Perhaps it was even a sign of the god's wrath. Because female Alpha? It just wasn't right.
The women were the homemakers and as such needed to be protected.
Or perhaps the rarity of her type was caused by this disdain. After all, the blood trait had to be inherited from somewhere and if no one wanted to marry a female Alpha … it made a depressing amount of sense. Kaoru had never met another like her; the other women were always Gammas or Omegas – the lowest of all instinctual hierarchies.
Omegas were the embodiment of what was proper for a woman. And the trait bred true, they were always small, delicate, demure, and soft-spoken - everyone had an instinctual need to protect them.
Just like Alpha was what a real man should be like, the Omega was the ideal woman.
'Your life would have been easier, if you had been born an Omega.' A faded memory whispered to her, in the exact tone of her mother's grief stricken rasp from her death bed. 'Don't cry Kaoru-chan. Just obey your father and he will protect you…'
Her father hadn't cared that she was Alpha, not at all. Instead he had cheerfully taught her his sword-style and ignored her failings in more traditional female arts. 'You are what fates made you, and I am not foolish enough to defy the gods. There is a purpose for everything, even for you.'
The neighbors, though, and her father's students and people in the town…they had always had something ill to say and gossip about. 'Kamiya teaching a sword-style for peace, how odd, how backwards, just like his Alpha daughter…'
There had been a certain difficulty in gaining students because of the rumors. But her father was a good Alpha and widely admired, and after a few years, the people had adjusted to the idea.
She had been fifteen, going on sixteen - and life had been good. The sword-school had been thriving, she had reached her adulthood and most importantly: she had been promoted to an assistant master of the Kamiya Dojo. She had had students of her own, people had looked up at her, admired her - and while she didn't have any friends, life had been good. Then came Saigo's last stand, the Seinan war, and the government had issued summons to defend the Imperial rule.
As a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan police's newly founded elite unit, the sword-bearing police, her Father hadn't even had a choice in the matter. So, though tense and angry, he had gone.
"Look after the dojo, Kaoru-kun." He had said with a small smile. "It's everything I have hoped and worked for, a legacy of my hopes and dreams – and in time it will be yours. But for now, keep it standing until I return, alright?"
The message telling of Kamiya Koshijirou's passing had come not a month later.
Kaoru exhaled, acknowledged the old pain and let it go. Now is not the time for regrets. Now, only six months after his death, it is my duty to defend the Kamiya honor.
There is no one else.
The next alley had someone walking on it. Almost invisible to the senses – just a small flicker of pleasant warmness… an Omega? Yes, definitely. She was short, dressed in pink kimono and an off-white hakama. Little bit odd to see another woman willingly dressing in the warrior's low waist and utilitarian garb instead of the more modest female-version, but she was also carrying a travel bag on her shoulder, so it seemed to be a practical choice. If utterly baffling, for Omegas didn't travel alone. Ever.
And then Kaoru noticed something long slipped through the stranger's hakama ties - a sword?
What on earth?
Almost against her will, Kaoru slowed down from her brisk jog. The Omega calmly walking ahead on the empty street had red hair and a sword. A suspicion dawned, but no… it couldn't be… but there was that rumor claiming that masters of ki and illusion could damp their projected aura and fool the senses of others, and wouldn't that be a mighty handy ability for an assassin?
The dots connected like a lightning strike with the hearsay: hair dyed red by blood, faster than the eye could see with a sword, a murderer of no equal – the Demon of Kyoto, the Hitokiri Battousai.
The fury rose like a tidal wave. This was the murderer, who had been slaughtering innocents in the name of Kamiya. The assassin, who had tarnished her father's good name. No more, never again – she bit down the rising growl and drew her bokken. As a discipline of Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, she didn't believe in killing, but she could still damn well break a few bones with the wooden sword.
"…and carrying a sword in this day and age, any one would think – firstly, it's illegal to carry a sword, it was outlawed two years ago by the Meiji government…"
Her frustrated tirade was rather… charming, and Kenshin fought to reign in his smile. It would be very impolite to show his amusement. But the task was made difficult by her utter seriousness and obvious bafflement when faced with his practiced counter-arguments. Just as he was losing the control of his smile and just about to burst laughing, a police whistle rang out, alerting all the nearby patrols… and the female Alpha accosting him turned swiftly and rushed towards the noise.
Should I follow? But now is the perfect chance to slip away from this awkward situation…
His reverse-blade sword that she had thrown to the air in hurry, descended, and in an easy motion Kenshin caught the free-falling blade midair with his sheath. It was a trick that was usually considered both extremely difficult and foolishly risky – both to the blade and to the health of the idiot attempting it. If he failed to catch the blade and it hit the ground in bad angle, even the finest steel could suffer irreparable damages… and there always the potential for bloodletting in a misestimated attempt.
Most men capable of sheathing their sword mid-air were notorious braggarts. For Kenshin, it was simply the most efficient way of securing his sword and it wasn't like there was anyone watching.
Following the Alpha girl would be a sure way to end up in trouble and attract unwanted attention. And that was a police whistle… Kenshin avoided police like plague, especially in larger cities such as Tokyo – or as he still tended to think of it, Edo - where the commanding officers in the force were gathered from the old ranks of Satsuma samurai.
Even on simpler level, he didn't like attention. For many good reasons, in fact but all of them could be boiled to two: his wish to avoid the rather unfortunate fame caused by his actions more than a decade past … and to his very nature. The Omega trait did breed true, and they were always small, deferential and demure – and avoided the spot-light, preferring to stay within the Family Circle.
He was no exception to the rule, well… apart from having been born a male.
Not that it was obvious at the first or even the second glance, and Kenshin had learned to ignore the constant misperceptions regarding his gender. After all, it was like trying to fight the rising tide: he was short, with a face that was commonly described as pretty and a build that was, still, after a life time of hard work, travel and sword practice, closer to delicate than wiry.
If female Alphas were extremely rare, male Omegas were practically unheard of.
So he had learned to endure the assumptions, the questions, the looks… everything. And during the last few years, he had even started to use them to his gain, had taken to habitually binding his chest in order to avoid the easiest telltales. There was a reason why, despite the constant hunt, Hitokiri Battousai was claimed to have vanished after Toba Fushimi's battle and only a few had ever managed to connect the annoyingly accurate description from rumors to him.
But she knew, right away, without even seeing the scar… and she said something about the Battousai murdering people, here?
For most people, discerning the truth about him was nearly impossible – they knew deep in their hearts that the Omegas weren't warriors. The very idea was preposterous. And he was an Omega, there was no questioning it. Everyone could sense it and no matter the few superstitious rumors, nothing could affect this innate ability.
It was only just as well, too.
The instinctive role dynamics were the core of their culture and everything was based on this status. Social interactions, marriage, professions… yes, even the suitability for work depended on the role and the strength of one's affliction. For example, the Alphas weren't suited for menial jobs – no. They had to lead. Betas tended to be loyal, but disagreeable lot, and would never be happy if they didn't have something to protect – they usually drifted to managing small businesses, or heading family units – or to the army. Betas excelled in the army because they could bend the knee when appropriate, but had the instinctive fierce fighting spirit. The Gammas had it easiest, in truth. No pressing desire for leadership and status, but no instinctual urge to belong, to follow, either.
Nothing like the daily agony a lonely Omega was cursed to live with.
Omegas needed to be a part of a whole, to nurture, to care for something. They couldn't be happy without people around them.
Kenshin had been alone for ten years, feeling the pain and loneliness ganging up on him. When he had the chance, he helped people and thus could somewhat satisfy his yearning to belong for a little while. Cooking in an inn for a free meal – almost like taking care of a family. Fixing a small hut's roof, defending a family from yakuza, looking after the sickly elderly during influenza – it was something, anything to care for.
Just mere crumbs to keep alive a starving soul, but still more than I ever deserve.
The police whistle rang out again, and on the edge of his senses he felt a clash of a fight brewing and that charming Alpha girl had gone exactly that way…
'Use your skills for good, Kenshin – to protect the innocents,' she had written in her diary.
"This is a bad idea, so it is…"
The murderer was a mountain of a man, a powerful Alpha, and he was cutting the police patrol with a deceptive ease. Policemen fell to his blade like weeds and the slight tang of blood coloring the air was absolutely sickening. The last man standing, an elder Beta officer in a neat uniform raised his rapier in weak grip, hands shaking and betraying his absolute fear…
How did that murdering bastard dare- "AAAAAAHH!" Kaoru screamed in rage and swung her bokken in a pitch-perfect kesarigi- strike, aiming for the murderer's right neck tendon – if connected it would bring even a giant down, and she had but this one chance for surprise –
He didn't dodge, but the veiled head turned a bit – he had noticed, raising his sword not in a parry, but-
Oh, no – the wooden bokken wouldn't be enough to block that-
And at the last moment Kaoru twisted, and the murderer's steel didn't cleave through her chest, only glanced off her right arm – but the abruptly misdirected momentum drove Kaoru to the wall lining the urban street. She collided with the wall in a bad angle. Instinctively, she raised her bokken into a practiced, theoretically perfect defensive pose in front of her – oh, fuck.
Such an idiotic mistake… so this is why they say the real sword-fights are short.
A downward strike and Kaoru's weapon broke in two and the piece in her hands was useless for anything but firewood. No…
It had been the training sword she had got from her father as a gift and a sign of respect, when she had reached the status of Assistant Master. Now destroyed, just like father's reputation…
Kaoru squinted at the giant of a man, trying to clear her hazy vision… only to see the Hitokiri Battousai taking a two-handed grip of his katana – he is intending to cut me in half, what an utter monster –
Suddenly something hit her left side like a boulder, fast as an avalanche, scooping her up from the harm's way. It had happened so suddenly, that for a moment Kaoru couldn't do anything but stare at the destruction the Battousai had wreaked to the wall she had been leaning against seconds earlier. The sword had cleaved a deep slash to the wooden wall.
I would have died… but for –
And only then she glanced up at her rescuer, and saw a startlingly pretty face, gentle violet eyes, and red hair – the Omega girl she had blindly accused of being a Hitokiri Battousai just a few moments earlier, who had rather effectively disclaimed the silly notion and explained in a soft, demure voice that she was just a- "Wanderer..?"
"It's rather reckless to fight a real sword with a wooden one, so it is." The Omega admonished her with a kind, supportive smile. And instead of feeling like she had failed, that she done something stupid and childish, getting angry in an instinctual defense… she just couldn't snap a biting retort. And how could she have, at an Omega?
Suddenly a police whistle rang out again, signifying the second patrol's arrival and the murderer glanced at them, at the remaining police officer and turned to escape shouting in deep male voice "I am Battousai! The Hitokiri Battousai of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu!"
How dare he? "Wait!" Kaoru shouted and reached towards the murderer.
"It's reckless, that it is." The soft voice murmured soothingly.
Reckless! My father's reputation, the matter of his legacy, the future of her school, and all those deaths…. It isn't reckless enough! But how can I make an Omega understand that?
The Omegas don't fight, everyone knows that.
"The Kamiya Kasshin is my family's style!" She struggled, desperately fighting the Omega's sheltering grip and her own increased disorientation, only managing to gasp final words; "He's randomly slaying people in our name…"
To say that it wasn't common for women to faint in his arms would be a severe understatement. But there she was, a fierce Alpha girl – unconscious, only supported by his straining arms.
There was something deeply ironic in that.
Kenshin adjusted her a bit and stroked the back of her head, feeling if there was any bleeding from the already swelling contusion. Thankfully he found no blood, but she had hit her head pretty badly in that bout and it wasn't a good sign at all for her to lose consciousness… I can't leave her here.
I can't stay here either – the police patrol was closing in.
The elderly officer seemed to be alright, if somewhat shocked – he had fallen to the ground, shaking. Near death experiences could do that to anyone.
But most importantly, the policeman didn't need his help.
So, for now it was best for him to disappear.
Thankfully the girl in his arms wasn't very heavy. Sure he was quite strong for his size, but that didn't mean he was capable of carrying heavy loads for long periods… a fact that Hiko had endlessly ripped him for. But that's something I really don't care to remember, least of all right now.
Kenshin slipped around the corner, and waited a moment, adjusting his grip, again, with a huff. The Police patrol was almost there, but it seemed no one was following him… yet. Trudging through a narrow side alley to the other side of the urban housing block, he reached a larger road with a few disinterested early wayfarers. Thank god they were far enough that they shouldn't be able to notice who the Alpha was between Kenshin and the girl he carried… the truth would leave a lasting impression to anyone.
Better to avoid crowds, in any case, at least until he was far enough from the murder scene… no matter how shocked the elder officer had been, the was a high chance that he would be able to tell his fellow officers that a red-head Omega had carried off an Alpha girl. And in the worst case, they would be able to track the Alpha by rumors and hearsay… people noticed oddities like a female Alpha. But hopefully it would take them enough that he would manage to safely leave her behind.
Damn, she is getting heavy.
Puffing for breath, Kenshin set his burden down on the abandoned back alley and kneeled to check on her. Her breathing was steady, and she wasn't unconscious anymore… but rather drowsily sleeping. A concussion was a given, then. Damn. Again he felt her skull, looking for signs of fracture… none found, and by the looks of it, it wasn't a bad concussion either - she wasn't vomiting or seizing – so she was better than he had feared, but still not well, either. There was nothing he could do about it right now.
However, that wound in her arm was still bleeding rather nastily. The cut wasn't very deep, and it seemed like the blade hadn't breached any of the larger blood vessels, but it was rather long…
"Shit." Kenshin cursed under his breath, and rummaged around his travel back, in search for anything to bind the wound with. He had only his spare yukata, threadbare and mended multiple times, but still it was relatively clean.
Well, it should suffice for the moment, Kenshin nodded and calmly ripped a strip from the already too short hem. He couldn't count how many times he had treated his own, or a fellow soldier's wounds in tight spots, but it wasn't very often that he had had to treat a woman. And a slash was in the upper arm… He could bind it over the training gi's sleeve for modesty's sake, but usually a long slash like that needed to be bound properly to avoid scarring.
Scars look awful.
Perhaps it was patronizing and hypocritical of him, but the thought of a woman with scars did not sit well with him.
All things considered, it was no choice at all. Thus, Kenshin carefully peeled open the girl's gi and slipped the wounded arm from the sleeve. Thank god her chest is bound properly, or I would be blushing even more. This is horribly indecent... The cut looked quite clean and the edges hadn't ripped – shouldn't need stitches. Carefully he pushed the edges of the wound together, and started to wrap the wirily muscled arm with the improvised bandage.
Fitfully, the girl moaned… trying to rouse herself. A very good sign. Now if she would just wake up…
The police weren't following them. And they shouldn't be, not with that crazy zigzagging he had done to cover their tracks – hadn't she said something about the Kamiya Kasshin sword style? Yes. And considering that she was on foot and her clothes were hardly stained with sweat or travel grime, and that she didn't carry any possessions with her… it couldn't be very far.
Now, if I could just find the dojo, I could leave her to her family's care and get out of this mess…
It wasn't long after that Kenshin was inwardly cursing his luck. Sure, finding the right dojo had been reasonably easy, even while avoiding the passers-by. Carrying her wasn't a task he was very fond of, especially while he was hungry, tired and the old deep wounds in his shoulders and back were aching terribly… But none of that compared to his dismay when he realized that the Kamiya Kasshin School was empty, and this hurting Alpha in his arms was seemingly the lone occupant. So that's why she was set on hunting down the murderer… there was literally no one else.
Only a young girl with a training sword, no matter that she was an Alpha… alone against an experienced swordsman with the intent to kill.
It was admirable, but also so very stupid.
Literally an accident waiting to happen.
Well, he had come this far so he couldn't leave her now. Hopefully she would forgive his terribly rude trespass later… Kenshin sighed and laid her down on a futon in the empty bedroom, and rose to fetch water from the well for boiling.
The very least he could do now was to care for her properly.
"Ah, Ayame-chan, Suzume-chan… Come along now, we need to check on Kaoru-san before I open the practice!" Doctor Gensai urged his young grand-daughters. The elder, Ayame-chan, was now proudly four years old and the younger one was three. How the time flies… it seemed like it was just weeks ago that the girls had joined his family's protection, but in truth it had been nearly half a year.
The Seinan war had been an utterly senseless and bloody rebellion, and it had cost him a son as well as his grief-stricken daughter-in-law, who had committed a suicide. Just like it had cost young Kaoru-chan a father…
He had been a respected friend to Koshijirou, although not a particularly close one. However, when he had watched the neighbors, the students and other good-for-nothings to distance themselves from the young Kamiya heir during these months … well, he had felt a responsibility to the girl. It was a horrible burden to continue on, alone. And trying to keep a sword school running with all her disadvantages?
It was admirable effort, and something he respected deeply… despite his fear that it might end up being futile. If only Kaoru-chan could have been a Beta, or more preferably a Gamma, she could have found a suitor to lend credibility to the Dojo and continued Koshijirou's legacy easily. However, being a female Alpha and alone – there were superstitions and matters of reputation to be considered.
It would be a rare man to accept and trust a woman of a higher designation as his wife. And another Alpha would just end up fighting with her and end them both miserable. Besides, no priest would agree to marry two of the same role; it went against every religion and the common decency. With a Beta, a match might be possible if only Kaoru-chan didn't have such a strong personality…
It was just a shame, Gensai sighed, and acknowledged the unfortunate reality that Kaoru-chan didn't have any suitable prospects. But on the other hand, if something didn't change soon, it was entirely possible that the only choice Kaoru had was to sell the Dojo and begin anew…
"Coming, grandpa!" Ayame-chan chirped, and pulled along her younger sister. Suzume-chan was still sleepy and dragging her plush toy doll behind her.
Thankfully the Kamiya Dojo wasn't far away, and even small Suzume-chan managed to walk the distance by herself. He was a little bit too old to be carrying them, no matter how protective he was of the girls.
Oddly, though… the main gate of the property was still barred, as was the visitor's door. Is Kaoru-chan still sleeping? That would be highly irregular. Usually Kaoru woke up early every morning to practice no matter what, and that shouldn't have changed even if she had been out late patrolling in her self-proclaimed quest to hunt down that street-killer Battousai… no, something is wrong.
"Grandpa, why are we not going in?" Ayame-chan asked, and immediately Suzume parroted; "Yeah, Grandpa… why?"
Two pairs of innocent eyes peered at him guilelessly and he suggested; "The door is locked, still. Let's try the side gate."
"Shouldn't we knock?"
"Ah, perhaps we could but it's a long way from the main house. If Kaoru-chan is still sleeping, she wouldn't hear it."
"But we should still knock, it's polite"
Gensai couldn't help an indulgent smile reaching his lips, and concealing his worry, nodded.
The girls pounded on the door a few times, enough to satisfy what manners dictated… and proving his suspicion true that Kaoru-chan couldn't hear them. However just as they were leaving, the door opened and the girl answering their call was decidedly not Kaoru.
She was short, about Kaoru's height - and she had shockingly red hair and a rather gruesome scar decorating her left cheek. The gentle violet eyes all but shone with kindness and good intentions, an effect only enhanced by his senses proclaiming her an Omega. Perhaps that was the reason why his first question was not a demand for her identity, but rather; "What has happened to Kaoru?"
If there is stranger answering to the door, especially one in a bloodstained kimono… something bad has happened.
"Oro… ah…" The stranger stammered, surprised and indecisive.
But Gensai quickly continued; "Please, I am a Doctor!"
And then the hesitant resistance suddenly melted away and the Omega took a step back and bowed deeply; "Please, Miss Kamiya was in a fight, that she was. This unworthy one has done one's best to treat her, but she is concussed and sleeping. One would appreciate a professional's opinion, that one would."
Gensai didn't have time to more than to pause at the strange omega's deferential politeness and her old-fashioned speech that had a notable tint to the accent – a very odd mismatch between a southwestern kansai dialect and refined Kyoto–timbre... you are far from home, Gensai couldn't help thinking.
But a puzzle best left to a later time - Kaoru was more important right now. But what about his grand-daughters? Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan shouldn't be exposed to medical arts, not at such young age.
The Omega was still bowing slightly, avoiding his gaze… and she didn't seem like she could hurt a fly, despite the sword she carried on her waist. In fact, Gensai hadn't met an Omega who radiated the sense caring and safety to this degree in ages. Usually the Omegas directed their aura and emotions only to their own Family Circle, not to outsiders…
It reminded him of rather a sad case; the orphan girl, having been left to survive for weeks alone, after an epidemic. She had been starved for company and people to care for. She had felt almost exactly like this.
While the girls were his responsibility and he was ferociously protective of them… He was also a good Doctor and had dedicated his life to helping people: "Please, look after my grand-daughters while I check-up on Kaoru-chan."
He didn't need to wait for the Omega's acceptance. Even an old Gamma like him could feel her aura change to a warm, wishful agreement.
The reason why Omegas often ended up as homemakers and nurturers was actually deceptively simple - Omega's aura attracted children like honey did flies and in turn, they came to adore the little ones. The Omega's personal situation, age or relative experience didn't matter, because this tendency ran deep in them, so deep, that it could be considered to be a part of their instincts.
In Otsu, Kenshin had been a war-scarred and badly shell-shocked young man with nothing but a chafing duty to live for. At first, he had shied away from the village children, thinking himself too tainted and broken, too weird – but when the first child had noticed his tortured aura, they all had flocked to him.
Tomoe had laughed at him from the sidelines, following the spectacle with a sad smile.
If only I had understood then the yearning behind her sad smiles… She had wanted her own family, had been desperate to save whatever she could of it. But he had just assumed her coolness, and her lack of clear, defining aura was coming from her being a Gamma. If I had known then, what I know now… maybe she could have learned to trust me more.
Kenshin exhaled and tried to focus on the present. Now was the perfect chance to slip away, as his duty to the young Alpha girl was fulfilled. The police would be sure to check on Miss Kamiya regarding the incident, and it would be dangerous for him to stay – Satsuma men knew the rumors of Hitokiri Battousai better than most, and there could be a few veterans among them, who could add the clues together despite the prejudices and assumptions regarding Omegas.
And if his fears were true that someone high up in the government was looking for him, now that Katsura-san was dead and couldn't protect him anymore…
I really should go, as soon as possible.
But the two adorable children were staring at him in shameless curiosity, clutching each other's hands in a show of nerves. Underneath the child's innocence, both of them were wary. They must have been hurt badly not too long ago.
But they, too, had been given to his care for the moment. How long had it been since I have had a chance to spend any time with children?
So, Kenshin smiled invitingly and murmured; "Hello, little ones."
"I'm not a little one, I'm four years old!" The elder of the pair declared impishly and the younger parroted immediately; "Not little one!"
Utterly charmed, Kenshin kneeled down to their level, and smiled. "So you are not. This one is Wanderer, and who might you two be?"
"Ayame and she is Suzume." "Suzume-chan!" The elder, Ayame-chan, eyed him, still little bit wary and continued; "You speak weird."
"Yes, you do."
"Perhaps, I do then!" He agreed cheerfully and smiled, and it seemed to break the ice – for the two little girls giggled and then the more daring of the pair, Ayame-chan, took his offered hand and pulled her little sister after her. Young Gamma in the making, most likely…
Children's aura was notoriously difficult to read as it didn't usually settle and develop a prominent shade until the onset of puberty. And while the bloodline decided the designation, there were some theories that also the environment and social interactions in childhood could affect it. No one knew for sure, though.
Even Hiko had assumed that his new apprentice was just a remarkably demure Beta or a head-strong Gamma back then… and afterwards had a few choice things to say on the matter, when sufficiently sloshed.
Occasionally Kenshin wondered, if the tragedies of his childhood; the cholera and the slavery, had broken him more thoroughly than he realized, and were the cause for his unusual designation. Or perhaps it was just another one of his oddities along with his unique looks.
Well, it was ancient history now.
Suddenly, the younger girl's – Suzume-chan's stomach growled very vocally – and she burst out giggling at the sound, "Hungry!"
"Oro! So you are, that is true. Let's see about the breakfast then, shall we?"
The answering nods and guileless laughter soothed something deep down in his soul. Perhaps it would be alright to look after them for as long as the Doctor was busy with Miss Kamiya... and the very least he could do was to cook some breakfast for all of them. He, too, was desperately hungry, as his last meal had been a meager affair, put together on the roadside yesterday morning.
The kitchen of the dojo was quite large, as properly befitted a large household. The storeroom, though, was almost desolate and even the rice sack was running low. The counter and the wooden stove were covered in dust. The signs of disuse were everywhere, telling the same tale; once the Kamiyas had been a Samurai clan of a respectful rank, and their home had been full of life.
But now, it was all in the past and the lone occupant couldn't manage the household alone. Speaking of which, she didn't seem to be very fond of the kitchen duties either…
Well, Alphas rarely were - too much fire and temperament in their souls.
The large frying pan had something charred into the iron and even the kettle had tracks of rice burnt to a frazzle.
Such a sad thing to see.
Here was a home, just waiting for someone to make it their own. And here he was, an Omega with no home of his own. Because of my own mistakes, don't ever forget it. I don't deserve anything better.
"Wanderer, what's wrong?" Ayame-chan chirped at his side, the little Suzume-chan sucking her thumb at her side.
"Ah, nothing's wrong, that it's not. Why don't we cook outside?" He suggested, remembering the fire-pit for summer grilling that he had seen in the front yard. Determinedly he didn't allow his gaze to wander around the inviting kitchen, but instead went to fetch a large pan from the rack, gathered the necessary ingredients and led the girls outside.
I have no right to wish for anything else. I am what I am – a killer, a liar, a weak and broken man left to wonder why I keep bothering to go on.
Someone was poking her.
There was a steady ache in her head, it was an unbelievably annoying sensation. She couldn't go back to sleep, not like this, so slowly Kaoru opened her eyes. The sight of her bedroom ceiling was odd, though. She could have sworn that she had just been in that fight with the Battousai… and I could see him raising his katana into a powerful stroke, intending to cut me in half. My bokken is broken, and there is nothing to defend myself with and I am going to die -
"No!" She gasped and sat up suddenly, but the change in orientation gave her an acute sense of vertigo, and she cupped hand in front of her mouth, desperately trying to keep from vomiting.
"There, there, Kaoru-chan. Calm down," an old, but familiar voice soothed her, and laid a hand to her back to steady her. Isn't this - "Doctor Gensai..?"
"Yes, Kaoru-chan. Now, please calm down and relax. You have a concussion."
Oh… that would explain the headache and her fuzzy memory. Needless to say this was not the first concussion Kaoru had gotten, what with growing up among boys and sometimes partaking in their rough plays. That and she had been training swordsmanship her whole youth, ever since it had been confirmed that she was an Alpha.
"How bad it is?" Kaoru asked and squinted at her family's old Doctor, who had become one her closest confidants during these last few months. Her vision didn't waver, so at least that was a good sign. Even the nausea was beginning to pass.
"It's hard to tell. The Omega who treated you didn't specify the symptoms, and I was too worried to demand more details of her assessment. After all, one can be never too sure how good the person's first aid skills are… But in any case, your wit seems to be fine and your speech is clear as well. But how is your headache, and vision?"
Omega..? A flicker of a pretty face, and thick red hair admonishing her of recklessness…
Yes... there had been a small redhead, hadn't there? And then I accused the girl of being the Hitokiri Battousai, and in return she treated my wounds? Kaoru blushed in embarrassment. And I even dared to lecture the poor girl for breaking the law with her odd sword to cover up for my own blunders, ugh.
Where is the closest hole in the ground for me to crawl into?
Uh, focus Kaoru. Now is not the time to mull over your past mistakes. "Ah, the headache isn't too bad and I can see just fine. But what happened with the Omega?"
"Her? I left Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan into her care, they should be outside. As for your wounds, I had a look at your arm and it looks like it was excellently treated. The cut is almost completely closed. But because of that concussion, I would prefer to watch you for a while for better assessment, so why don't we go out and check on the girls? I think they are making breakfast, at least my nose suggests so. And maybe something light to eat would be good for you too, if you can manage it."
A deep inhale confirmed Gensai's claim… there was an absolutely delightful smell of cooking in the air.
"Yeah… I think I can do that." Kaoru agreed and started to gather her feet under her. Standing up wasn't too difficult, and suddenly she noted that she was wearing just her yukata. Someone had undressed her?
Wait a minute; hadn't Doctor Gensai said that the Wanderer had treated her?
A mortified blush rose to color Kaoru's cheeks. Ugh… How much worse could this day get? Thankfully, a subtle glance down told that her chest was still properly tied, so perhaps it wasn't that embarrassing, and really, the Omega probably couldn't help her mothering instincts at all…
Feeling little bit off-balance Kaoru leaned on the old Doctor's shoulder and walked the few steps to the shoji-screen which opened up to the porch. Walking wasn't difficult and she didn't need help after the first steps. But still - I have to take it easy for a few days, at least.
The old Doctor followed her calmly.
In the front yard, Gensai's little grand-daughters' giggling and enthusiastic laughter could be easily heard, and with them she could feel the warm, comforting presence of an Omega. And sure enough, they were cooking at the garden's fire-pit? A little bit too early in the spring for that, but then again the day is quite nice…
And by god does that miso soup in the pot look delicious.
"Oh, you are up, that you are!" The Omega cheerfully noted at her, and though her joy felt genuine, there was something off with the smile… before Kaoru could retort anything back, or even voice any of the thousand questions springing to her mind such as; 'Who are you? 'Why did you help me?' or 'Are you even real?' the Omega continued; "We just borrowed your garden to make some breakfast, that we did. Would you like to have some? You must be hungry, that you must."
In a daze, she picked one of the onigiri - that little Ayame-chan was offering her on a tray, idly noticing how the filled rice balls were shaped like cute animals, and took a good bite of it. Surely something in this world will start making a bit more sense after I have some food in my stomach…
The texture of the cooked rice was perfect, soft but not slushy, and the simple filling of umeboshi, pickled fruit, matched it marvelously. And just for an instant, it reminded Kaoru painfully of her mother, who had loved cooking… and how even the simplest of her dishes had tasted so good - 'Cooked with love,' she had jokingly explained and ruffled her daughter's hair. 'Come here, Kaoru-chan and I will teach you so one day you can cook for your children.'
It had been a long time ago… but despite her best efforts, Kaoru had always been a dreadful disappointment in the kitchen, and oh god how it hurt. But now, this Omega girl showed up and cooked just like her mother had wanted her to learn to cook, and it was so unfair.
Kaoru's temper flared, and for a moment she felt like she was drowning in a sea of jealousy and wistful might-have-beens.
"Did you not like the taste, that is?" The wanderer's hesitant question pulled her out of her thoughts, and the kind tone and sheer Omega-like concern stifled her sparking temper, just like that.
Like it was easy.
Alphas were often a fiery and temperamental bunch, it came with the territory. They had the force of personality that could move mountains, but Kaoru… she had been cursed with more temper than control, and trying to keep it under the wraps had been the bane of her existence throughout her teens. It still caused her endless amounts of trouble. And now, this strange Omega… just stifled it with a look and few murmuring words?
Everyone was watching her and waiting for an answer, but what should she say? There were too many things, but she couldn't share them! It was personal. But even Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan had noticed her anger, and were clutching each other's hands in unconscious search for support. I really need to say something, and quickly. So a little bit embarrassed, Kaoru remarked, "This is much better than my cooking."
It was not something she usually admitted. It was a touchy subject.
But it did the trick to lighten the mood. In particular, the Omega's relief was almost comical; she slumped down exaggeratedly and then smiled at her. That smile lit up her eyes, and it made it impossible not to notice that the Omega really was a beautiful girl, even with that horrible scar marring her cheek. And she looks young, too, about my age…
With the awkward situation avoided, all five of them dug in to the breakfast. Doctor Gensai with appropriate refinement, but even he seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. The rest of them… well, all of them were quite hungry. The little girls proudly presented the few they had made and showed their favorite onigiri-animals, and everyone complimented the Omega – "Just Wanderer, please" – on her cooking skills. This show of appreciation made the Omega blush, betraying her unease of even such simple compliments to the onlookers.
And everyone was studying the red-haired stranger in their own way. The girls were the most obvious about it, and bombarded the wanderer with guileless questions, which the Omega skillfully circled around time and time again. Doctor Gensai was the most polite, his questioning almost discreet, but Kaoru noted the small frown between his brows, which suggested that he had noted something odd and tried place the pieces of the puzzle together. It was the exact same face the Doctor had when he played shogi…
Kaoru, though, had problems with trying to figure out what was not odd about Wanderer. There were so many things… but now was not a proper time and place to ask about the morning's misadventure, not with the little ones eagerly watching.
So, instead she tried to figure out the more obvious clues.
Her speech pattern was so odd, almost archaic… and the accent, it was definitely from somewhere far away. And Wanderer's choice of dress, though threadbare and mended multiple times, was the men's kimono and hakama and the Omega wore them unselfconsciously, like it was perfectly proper and nothing scandalous. So is she a fellow swordswoman? But she is an Omega!
No, couldn't be. It's simply the most practical choice for travel… yes.
She had never met another girl, who preferred practicality over appearance to this degree. Somehow, it made Kaoru feel an immediate sense of familiarity towards the Omega, as odd as the thought was. She hadn't thought it possible to feel this way, either, as the Alphas were the opposites of the Omegas.
Suddenly her musings were interrupted as Doctor Gensai cleared his throat and asked thoughtfully; "Forgive me, but I don't think I have ever seen one like you before, Mr. Wanderer. Perhaps, if you don't mind… would you honor me with a few answers on a purely theoretical level?"
The Omega paused from his meal, and despite the stunned silence that had landed on them, chewed a few times before swallowing.
Kaoru was floored, Doctor Gensai couldn't mean, no… it simply wasn't possible…
"This one doesn't mind, that one doesn't. The few that notice are always curious, and one does prefer knowledge over ignorance, so one does. What do you wish to know?"
That… that meant that... this small, delicate and demure and pretty Omega is a man?!
"Excellent! This is such a rare chance… I had assumed it would be possible for a male to be designated as an Omega, just as the opposite can happen. This general assumption that males are Alphas and Betas and the females can become only Gammas and Omegas is dreadfully simplified. And practically speaking impossible, as well, because it has been already proven that half of all people are Gammas, and Alphas are only one in ten, so have you..." Doctor Gensai prattled in sheer academic enthusiasm, and the Wanderer listened to him politely and answered the old Doctor's questions very matter-of-factly.
Kaoru, though, found her world-view deeply shaken. For a moment, she felt utterly betrayed, and her temper flared. The wanderer lied to me and made a fool of me… and in my home?
How dare he!
That is way overstepping the line of decency – the nerve!
And if there was one thing that Kaoru hated above anything else, it was liars. But the little Ayame and Suzume-chan were here, and she really shouldn't lose it in front of them… so she took a deep breath, and closed her eyes… exhaled. In and out. In and out. Calm down, Kaoru… think it through.
Though the color choice of pink was a tad questionable among the current, western-induced fashions, the wanderer was dressed like a man.
And while his peculiar speech notably didn't claim any gender, his pronouns were a perfectly acceptable manner of addressing oneself. And the way his chest was bound, it didn't lie either – men could do it for multiple reasons as well… and come to think of it, the Wanderer kept his sword always close, just like the experienced Samurai used to do before the swords ban.
So that meant… I am the rude one.
Ugh, why is there never a convenient hole in the ground where I could disappear to escape from the situation?
"Miss Kaoru… is everything alright, that is?"
The Wanderer's aura was pure Omega - comforting, caring - and his violet eyes were shadowed with concern. And now she could see it too - his shoulders were wide, hips narrow and he had no chest at all – I really should have noticed this before, or… or… "Why didn't you say anything?!"
The Alpha's – Miss Kaoru's – mortified temper flaring through her aura was rather distinctive, and Kenshin couldn't help but feel awful about it.
While these situations came his way every now and then – it was always very awkward.
Well, not as bad as dodging marriage proposals or those rude people who demand physical proof... or those who believe my designation to be a sign from gods – for better or for worse. The superstitious people really are the worst...
But great deal of experience had taught Kenshin that it was best to be very calm and forgive people for their surprise. It wasn't like he had ever seen another male Omega either…
'Why didn't you say anything?' She had asked…
Because, it's better to be someone else in people's minds and memories? I am a man hunted by the government and enemies both, and to avoid the revenge those who hate me would bestow upon innocents around me, I have to hide?
Kenshin sighed, and looked at his now empty breakfast bowl, and contemplated the advisability of one last cup of miso before he would have to leave. It would be the last meal of the day for him, at least until he could manage to find some odd jobs to earn some money. But then again, he was quite full already and Miss Kaoru didn't have much either and she was convalescing.
Mind made up, Kenshin lowered his bowl next to him, and looked up at the Alpha just radiating embarrassment, confusion and anger at him.
Her sea blue eyes were utterly magnificent and alive.
"Miss Kaoru, what could one have said? It's futile to convince people of the truth, when they don't want to understand, that it is. And I know myself, so it isn't like the assumptions of others can do anything to harm this one, that they can't."
Her eyes widened, and that temperamental aura of hers – fizzled, and she looked away guiltily? For what reason?
"Well said, young man. Well said." The old Doctor agreed, and looked at the sun, "Oh dear, how the time flies. I really need to go and open my practice; I am already running a bit late. Say, Kaoru-chan – it seems you are feeling much better, but concussions are tricky. The symptoms can worsen abruptly and it would be better if there was someone keeping an eye on you."
Though the Doctor's words were addressed seemingly to Miss Kaoru, Kenshin didn't have a moment's doubt where this was heading…
Unfortunately Miss Kaoru was a very sharp woman, and didn't need more prompting either; "Mr. Wanderer, I would hate to abuse your kindness, but your help would be appreciated. In return, I would be pleased to offer you my hospitality until you leave the town."
It was an offer beyond generous to a nameless, homeless and dirt poor wanderer like him. Even on practical level, it promised a proper roof to sleep under, good meals to chase away the constant hunger and a chance to rest…
Kenshin had been on the road too long and was at end of his endurance… and what was worse, he knew it.
But more importantly, it was a chance to help a young woman in need. To care for her well-being, if just for a little while. All of his instincts screamed for him to accept. Omegas needed to care for others, it was a fact. And I haven't been able to, not in a meaningful way since Katsura-san's death abolished the veil covering my tracks…
But if he stayed, there was a risk that the police could recognize him, and that would bring terrible grief not only to him, but also to Miss Kaoru… "This one really –" He managed to begin, but then he made the mistake of looking into her eyes and his breath caught as the realization dawned - she is lonely.
"Please. You did save me… and you don't look like you can afford to stay at an inn. Call it a favor for a favor."
Worse… she is an Alpha with no family to protect. Even if she has friends, her aura is just as wounded and needy as mine.
"You don't even know who this one is," He protested feebly, all of his will to resist slipping away like water trickling between his fingers.
"I'm sure you have your reasons to wander, and I see no reason to question you further."
"Very good, that's settled then. I'm glad!" Doctor Gensai declared, and rose to stand. "I'm relieved that Kaoru-chan has someone capable in first aid to look after her, it really eases my mind. But now, we have to get going. Come along, Ayame-chan, Suzume-chan."
And in short order, Kenshin was left up wondering just how exactly he had ended up here, a dojo in the city suburbs and with all these new and sudden responsibilities.
He had come to Tokyo to hide, thinking that in a large city he had a better chance to pass unnoticed than travelling through small villages, where everyone knew one another and the lone traveler was always noticed and well-remembered. Especially a traveler as odd in appearance as me …
This winter had been the worst, really; one revenge seeker after another managing to hunt him down.
And every single time the same pattern had repeated; a hunter would come – challenge him to a fight, he would decline and then they would declare his identity as the Bakumatsu's most feared assassin to everyone in the earshot or seek to hurt people who had shown kindness to him. No matter his actions, the end result was always the same – the disturbance would be too much for the villagers to handle. No matter that the claims were always disbelieved, he would be banished with some apologetic words; "Take your worries with you, Wanderer." "We don't need the violence here." "You are not one of us."
Because of this, he had been forced to keep moving throughout the bad season and the harsh weather had given him pneumonia. He had almost died from the resulting fewer just two months ago. Perhaps, it would have been better… but Tomoe wished for me to keep living, so I have tried.
And now, oddly – he was here: washing dishes in a former Samurai household's backyard and keeping company to nice young girl.
"I can help you with that. It's just a concussion – I am not an invalid." Miss Kaoru's frustrated arguments really were charming.
"That may be so, but one is not a quest to be hosted with an utmost courtesy, that one isn't. Moreover, simple chores are calming for this one, that they are."
Kenshin paused momentarily from his rather desperate attempt to scratch the mysterious charred mess off the frying pan's bottom, and glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She looked oddly subdued, like she had something sad on her mind.
He didn't know her well, but her usual youthful vibrancy gave him hope that this peaceful era had been worth the spilled blood it had been built on. But that forlorn look settling on her face now… it suggested deep shadows of painful memories and regrets, much like the ghosts haunting his days and nights.
It rankled rather badly, in all honesty. "Why does the matter of cooking bring such sadness to you, if one may ask?"
"I… I don't…" Her stammering protests were not angry or heartfelt, instead rather weakly delivered, especially considering her nature. And if experience has taught him something, it is that sometimes it eases the heart to talk. Resuming his scrubbing he murmured; "Forgive this one's assumption - but perhaps someone dear still haunts the kitchen?
He heard a loud sigh, and rustling of clothes from behind him - then, "My mother."
"She passed away when I was ten, so it's been six years now? No, almost seven. She loved cooking, and though we were not wealthy, she made sure that we always had meat or fish to eat, and dinner always had multiple dishes. She prided herself on making a proper dinner every single day…" She paused and took a hiccuping breath, and whispered; "She wanted me to learn, but I was such a disappointment –"
She sounded so very young.
Though he knew that a girl of sixteen years was of age and considered an adult… It was like there was a gulf of incomprehension settling between them, and for a moment Kenshin felt that in comparison to her, he was a relic of an ancient past. After all, when he had been sixteen, more than a decade ago… I was a widower and one of the most experienced fighters in the campaign, tasked with guarding the powerful men during the secret negotiations between Satsuma and Choshuu alliance, that I was.
"I still can't cook, despite my best tries. I keep trying to follow her lessons, but somehow the food always ends up too spicy or too bland, unevenly cooked – raw or overcooked. I'm useless at the womanly tasks, truly."
"That's not too surprising, that it isn't." The comment slipped out of Kenshin's mouth and he felt her aura shy away like a wounded thing, mirrored by a sharp inhale. Lightning fast, he turned around spilling the soapy suds on his clothes, and hurried to explain "No, this one didn't mean it badly, that one didn't! Please, listen. One has seen other female Alphas, that he has. It's just your nature – the Alphas rarely have the patience, nor can they find the enjoyment in nurturing tasks. Not like us of low designation do, that they can't. They are the protectors –"
"You…" She started, but then suddenly burst into an uncontrollable torrent of giggles.
And Kenshin couldn't help but stare at her in utter bafflement. I dealt her a grave insult with my clumsy words, but… why is she laughing?
Wanderer looked absolutely silly – just sitting there, soap suds all over his lap and seeping through the pink cotton and staring at her like she had lost her mind.
Perhaps I have, because I haven't felt this good in ages.
Although they were practically strangers; he had been trying to soothe her painful memories. He had listened and by doing so, offered comfort like someone who truly cared. And Kaoru couldn't help but feel a wave of tender warmth towards him for making her laugh.
She hadn't been able to, not since the Battousai had begun his murdering spree and the last of her students had abandoned her.
"I really needed that, thank you." Kaoru uttered in return. After all, she had been raised with manners.
Unfortunately, her words seemed to baffle him even more as his huge violet eyes widened making him look terribly young and cute. And she couldn't help the smile lighting her face any more than the sun could avoid rising. "You may be right - about not getting any enjoyment out of chores, I mean. There is a reason why they are called chores, you know."
That brought another giggle to her lips. "Hey, you are getting all wet. Let me help you…"
"Ah, there is no need, that there isn't!" He immediately protested and rose, wiped the dust from his hakama bottom, and picked up the wash basin. "This one was already done. However… one is terribly sorry, but it seems that the pan has defeated this one, that it has."
"Defeated…? You can't mean you tried to pry the char off the bottom!"
"Err, why? Shouldn't one have – tried, that is?"
"It's been there for months - nothing I have tried on the stain works! I have been meaning to buy a new pan because of it! You should have said something!" She yelped in exasperation and an embarrassed blush rose to her cheeks. I should have insisted on helping… god knows what he thinks of me know. Kaoru Kamiya – destroyer of both kitchenware and foodstuff alike!
"It's a habit to clean a mess when one sees it, that it is. Please, don't be offended –"
"Of course I'm not offended!"
"Oro- " Wanderer huffed, but didn't say more – he just shook his head, and made his way to the backyard to dump the soapy water in the desolate early spring garden patch.
Kaoru smiled and rose to follow.
After that, the rest of the morning passed in sort of a pleasant haze. Wanderer insisted on doing small chores that had been piling up around the house; cleaning the surfaces, straightening things out, doing the laundry… and so on. The only way he allowed her to help was by letting her to offer advice and show where everything was. It was embarrassing to have a perfect stranger see her house in this state. Proper manners dictated that a guest was shown the household at its best to give a good impression. But then again, Wanderer did insist that he was just doing his part in thanks for a place to stay and free meals.
But truthfully, that couldn't be all of it, because every now and then she caught a glimpse of satisfaction on his face. And as the sun climbed on the sky, these glimpses become clearer - like, for him… doing the chores eased off some sort of painful pressure…
She gave up her feeble protests after that.
Moreover, she soon found out that she really enjoyed spending time with him - an Omega.
Which was bizarre.
For Kaoru, the Omegas had always been boring – meek, no personality, all soft-voiced agreements and shying away from arguments, avoiding crowds… they were literally doormats in human form. Before now, she had felt her estimate was entirely justified. After all, every single one she had ever met had been cut from the same cloth.
I never got along with the neighborhood girls either just for that reason, come to think of it.
But this Wanderer, he had a subtle sense of humor and underneath the polite and deferential manners, he had absolutely no qualms at all about doing as he thought best, or steamrolling an Alpha for the matter. And he was sly about it. So somehow, during the course of the morning, Kaoru found her eyes wandering to questionable paths – to his shoulders, slender hands, firm backside, that impossible red mane... He really was an utterly striking man. And deep down in her core, she appreciated the view very much. Enough to find herself wistfully entertaining some impossible scenarios, while watching him work.
She had never understood why the literature and poetry claimed the Alpha/Omega unions to be the most romantic form of love. To her, a match between polar opposites in personality seemed about as good an idea as eating a poorly prepared dish of poisonous blow-fish. Moreover, the sheer power differential felt like a slippery slope to abuse.
The couples with good marriages were usually close to each other in the hierarchy. Never the same, of course – but close. For example, Gammas and Omegas or Betas and Gammas were typically seen together. Also Alphas and Gammas, her parents had been a pair like that.
But her own teenage crushes, modeled after this thinking, had come to rather hurtful ends; 'Sorry, but I like girls, not wanna-be guys', 'Don't be ridiculous, you are an Alpha! It would never work out.' And in the end she had sworn off boys, focusing her efforts on mastering Kamiya Kasshin Ryu.
And she had become very, very good. Good enough to be promoted to a status of Assistant Master at the age of fifteen.
Maybe because of this pride, and perhaps there was a touch of wistful hope of gaining her handsome guest's appreciation – she ended up pulling Wanderer from his self-assigned chores to show him the Dojo. The training hall was the best part of the house and she had kept it pristine.
In particular, the beautifully polished floor was the apple of her eye.
I can so do some of the womanly tasks!
Kenshin didn't know what to think of Miss Kaoru's family sword-style's creed – the sword that revitalized life. Or like she proudly explained; "The goal is not to hurt people, but bring out their potential."
For him, the art of the sword was something larger than life. As a child it had given him a reason to exist, and in return he had learnt to love the dance with steel – and had honed the motions under his Master's guidance until the blade became an extension of his will.
Then had come the revolution, my foolish choices and years as an assassin. Tomoe. Grief. The endless war with no end in sight. Toba Fushimi, where we finally broke the Bakufu's hold and gained a victory against the overwhelming odds.
My vow to never again take another life.
Throughout it all, he hadn't been able to let go of the sword - couldn't, not even now, when carrying one was forbidden by the law. And the world-weary and cynical veteran in him found Miss Kaoru's words not just utterly naïve, but also an excellent way for people to end up hurt in a real bout.
Just like her ill-advised fight proved, this morning. Using a training sword against real steel...
But at the same time, buried somewhere deep in his soul, the words resonated with an idealistic youth's innocent hopes, whispering; this is something good, beautiful and right. And that little boy, who had fallen in love with the beauty of perfectly executed kata, could see this ideology as a possible path for his loved art to survive in this new and strange era of peace, where traditions were shed like worn-out clothes.
"…then my students left, one by one. The townspeople won't have anything to do with the Dojo associated with Hitokiri Battousai, either…" Her words pulled him out of his musings, and he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Her hands were clenched into tight fists, her body and aura both radiating terrible hurt. And he couldn't help but feel guilty over the mess - she is suffering, because of my mistakes…
While Kenshin had run across men using Battousai's terrible reputation for their own gain before, and had stopped the impostors if someone was being actively hurt by the claims – Miss Kaoru's plight had a personal feel to it, far subtler than most scams.
It smells fishy and I fully intend to get into the heart of it – later.
"I don't know why the legendary assassin would want tarnish my family's name, but if I don't stop him soon –"
"I understand, but you should stop seeking him out, that you should." Kenshin interrupted her desperate tirade firmly.
Young lady, your insistence to deal with this mess is not only reckless, but painfully similar to the vehemence of another youth charging headfirst into trouble, simply because he felt that no one else was willing to act.
Which is not true - it wasn't then, and it isn't now.
"That man is stronger that you by far, that he is."
He didn't allow her to argue, but continued resolutely; "A swordsman needs to be able to assess not only his own strength, but also that of his opponent's. Do you understand what will happen if you continue to challenge this man? The prestige of your school is not worth your life, that is not."
I'm sorry, but I can't allow anyone to seek death, not on my watch. Not for any reason, least of all for empty ideals like the honor of the dead.
The silence following his words was heavy, and Kenshin didn't need to meet her eyes to know she was shocked with disbelief, felt betrayed – understandable, she probably has never met an Omega who didn't agree with her, not with her aura that strong.
The crux of the designations and their inherent power dynamics was that those of the lower status were always the followers – and with Omegas, the urge to follow, to obey – to submit was so strongly ingrained that they rarely even thought to protest. The sole exceptions were Alphas, whose aura could compel others'. However, this influence over outsiders was limited - if one had a Family of their own. The Family Circle was considered sacred for this very reason. Some Western freethinkers referred to the designations as pack instincts, and though the high culture scorned such a label as barbaric, well, it didn't make the claim any less accurate.
As a rule, only the Alphas were strong enough to manage on their own – their aura naturally fought against the compulsion to belong. Others... well, for them joining a Family Circle was easy.
There were some ways around it, though. If one didn't mind breaking a few taboos.
Back then, the only reason why he - a teenage Omega with shoddy control - had been able to fight, was because the leader of Choshuu rebels, Katsura Kogoro, had secretly bound him into his inner circle - to his Family. It was as good as an adoption, thought never formally declared, and had allowed his leader to give him orders that no one else could override.
'Kenshin – I need you to kill for me.' The Omega's urge to please, to obey, could lead to an absolutely terrifying ends.
Behind him, an Alpha's aura flared into full-blown anger. He turned just in time to see Miss Kaoru's blue eyes spark; "Kamiya Kasshin Ryu was my father's life's work! After surviving the madness of the revolution, he refused all the murderous aspects in the art. And for ten years, he worked to develop a sword style meant to protect, not kill." She stepped forward, her aura crackling with power and pressing him like typhoon.
A drop of sweat beaded on Kenshin's forehead as he fought to keep his stance – all the while his very core was screaming at him to back down - 'Bend! Give up! Submit and she will protect you. You can be hers,' his instincts whispered. But hard-won reason argued back; 'No! Not like this! It's wrong!'
"And this, his life's work, he entrusted to me!" The pressure only continued to rise. Her eyes wee brimming with tears, "This Hitokiri Battousai has already killed ten people, degrading the name and honor of Kamiya! And you wish me to give up!"
She paused, looking at him eye to eye – willing him to see her point, to understand.
The pressure of her aura was incredible.
But they were not Family, and she was not his, moreover – Kenshin was a lifelong master of self-denial. My instincts have no power over me that I don't allow!
This was not the first time an Alpha had tried to force him into submission, either. But as always… he found the act deeply offensive, and somewhere in the abandoned recesses of his soul, a small fire grew into a genuine anger. Just because I am an Omega doesn't mean you have the right to push me around!
"But I guess a homeless wanderer like you couldn't understand."
And for a second, Kenshin wanted to say something hurtful.
But he wasn't a boy anymore with no control over his temper, and Miss Kaoru… while her blue eyes were clouded with emotion, there wasn't even the slightest hint of ill will in them - she is hurting and all alone, masking her despair with righteous anger.
She doesn't know what she is doing… her aura is slashing with her emotions!
…and no matter how offended I am, that I can forgive. Kenshin closed his eyes, and drew up a smile – pushing the warm soothing feel in his aura to the forefront, all but saying - it's all right, everything will work out. And just like before; her wildly flaring aura shirked back briefly – just enough for her to notice and wrestle the control back.
A horrified shock rose to her face; "Oh god…"
Suddenly there was a loud pounding on the door – not of the training hall, but at the gate? "Police! Open up!"
As a daughter of an officer of Tokyo Metropolitan police's elite sword-bearing unit, Kaoru's interactions with the police had always been good-natured and polite. Her father had been a highly respected officer and this appreciation extended to his family as well. Even now, six months after his funeral, some of his older colleagues still came to pay their respects.
Since she was young, Kaoru had been raised to believe in the necessity of upholding the law and justice. She trusted the goodness of the law enforcement. And though some members of the police force did show a certain level of hypocrisy and corruption, just like the politicians in the new Meiji government… there were good and decent men working in the force.
However, this tall Beta interviewing her was not one of them.
She wasn't sure where she got this impression, as on the surface this Captain Ukiji's manners and questions were perfectly acceptable, if a little disinterested for the officer in charge of the Battousai - investigation. But then again, he was young – in his twenties and his accent was clearly cultured, but tinged with something odd - kansai-dialect? So… one of those Satsuma twits promoted over locals for politics.
It didn't help that he seemed to be waiting for something in her testimony, some sign of… what? A lie, duplicity, cover-up? I have always told the truth to the police!
It was raising her ire.
Perhaps even more than the way he didn't seem to care about the deaths of his two comrades this morning. Or how the Battousai still hadn't been properly identified! Mou! What are the police doing with this case?! It can't be that difficult to track down a giant swordsman, even if he covered his face with a hood!
"Like I said, the Battousai was a tall, muscular Alpha. Really tall, he was around six feet five by my best estimate. Also, he wielded his sword with his left hand – which should be a very good clue for your investigation, as left-handed swordsmen of that caliber are really rare!"
"I will take that into consideration, Miss Kamiya." The Captain sighed, like he had heard this a hundred times. But then, he paused and tilted his head a bit; "Is there anything else you might wish to add? Perhaps... a reason how a young lady like you managed to escape this terribly strong swordsman?"
The implication that a woman couldn't match a proper swordsman in a fight was clear from his smirking disbelief. How dare you! I am an assistant master of a sword school that has produced many good swordsmen, like for instance some of your colleagues!
"I would have stood a good chance against the Battousai, if he hadn't managed to break my bokken with an unorthodox move." She said primly, and it was true – she had technically been the better fighter, but had fallen back to practiced responses and thus misestimated the effect of her weapon's durability in the counter-moves. A mistake that I will never repeat.
"So with your weapon broken, how did you escape?"
"The Battousai did a two-handed stroke downwards, but got his blade stuck to the wall planking. I… I was pushed out of the harm's way by Wanderer -"
And suddenly, the Captain's eyes glinted and he leaned forward, "This wanderer, would he happen to have red hair?" The change in his attitude was staggering – that look in the eye, it was like a wolf going for the throat.
…and 'he'? I learned that detail only an hour or so in the acquaintance, how could he know?
"The wanderer had red hair, yes." She hedged, mind whirring.
"And did he fight off the "Battousai"?
I never told him that he had a sword, either… and why does he assume Wanderer can fight well enough to beat the murderer? There is something wrong. "No, the wanderer was an Omega."
"Oh," What was going on here? "Hmmm, damn... but if – did he have any other notable characteristics? Like, for instance… scars? I would appreciate any details you can provide."
A memory of a pretty young Omega staring at her with huge violet eyes, and horrendous cross-shaped scar covering his left cheek rose to her mind, and she inhaled sharply. The captain is treating Wanderer like a criminal–
"Why are you so interested in a wanderer? Shouldn't you focus on the culprit? There are people who can testify for the murders, you have a really good description! What more do you need?"
"We are doing our best to solve the case and stop the murders. But a proper police investigation covers all the details, like the possibility of… complicity."
Wanderer as a companion to the Battousai? "Don't be ridiculous!"
"Everything is possible. That's why we do investigations. So, Miss Kamiya... would you have any idea where this wanderer went?"
It wasn't possible.
No one, who was so kind as to save her, bring her home – agree to look after her, and… and… who could smile, soothe and – forgive her for nearly committing a taboo, could ever be a murderer's companion in a plot to tarnish her name.
But this slimy shit of a police-officer… could very well have a motive of his own.
"Miss Kamiya... do you know where the wanderer went?"
I have always told the truth to the police…
But right now, I trust my instincts more.
"All I know is that the Omega pushed me out of the harm's way and disappeared." Kaoru said and rose to stand, "excuse me, I shall have to ask you to leave. I do not feel so well."
Thankfully, Captain Ukiji understood the hint and left with no complaints. Kaoru escorted him to the gate, and barred the door after him - just to be sure. Then she exhaled, and fell to lean against the door feeling the tension, she hadn't even noticed, disappearing.
Oh god – what am I going do?
First the Battousai, then being injured and nearly dying - and now this.
I have to warn Wanderer that the police are looking for him.
Yes, that is logical.
She huffed and rose to stand a little bit shakily.
Honestly, she felt perfectly fine. Well, the cut in her arm twinged every now and then from careless motion, but the headache had mostly faded – it was like the concussion had never happened. It was false security, she knew that. Head injuries were tricky and a repeated blow could worsen them catastrophically.
However, as she rushed back to the dojo, Wanderer wasn't there. No note, no sign of him – and back at the main house, where he had left his travel bag…
"I never even got to apologize." She whispered, looking at the empty guest room and feeling absolutely terrible. And unfortunately, Kaoru didn't have to guess twice why he had left. She had almost done the unforgivable, and though he had been kind about it -
I wouldn't have stayed either.
As leaders, the Alphas' aura had the power to pressure others into working as a group. The sensation was usually described as muffled, more of a suggestion or a compulsion for casual contacts, as the Family Circle protected you.
An outsider could never overpower it.
As a general rule, people always had this protection – after all, though it was a bond of care and affection consisting of relatives, basically anyone could be adopted into the family. Or misbehaving members banished…
Being alone was horrible - the emptiness, the soul-crushing loneliness. For six months, Kaoru had been alone. Once, Doctor Gensai had offered an adoption to her, but it would have meant the loss of her name, abandoning her father's legacy… she just couldn't accept it.
Most people would have.
The unspoken fact was that the instincts encouraged forming Family ties, and with enough force – an Alpha could bend the unprotected mind and bind it.
Outlawed, and if found out - harshly punished. Justifiably too, after all, forcing submission was literally like a rape of the mind and binding someone against their will… It could easily lead to abuse, rape or even slavery.
In the training hall, she had been surprised, disappointed and felt betrayed – a mixture of feelings that had exploded into a true anger. And in that storm of emotions, she hadn't realized how her aura had escaped from her control and what it would mean…
Wanderer was an Omega who traveled alone.
It should have been impossible.
The Omegas craved the safety and comfort of a family. And in return everyone protected them - no higher ranked member would ever allow an Omega to travel alone, but if there was no one…
"I'm sorry…. I'm so sorry. Please, I didn't know – didn't realize, I would never…"
Kenshin sighed, feeling horribly guilty over the whole mess. Miss Kaoru had been driven to a corner with very few options, but still she had retained her spirit and courage. A feat worth of admiration by any standards, that it is.
However, she was not alone - even if she can never know it.
They had known each other barely half a day, but still one police witnessing the altercation had been enough, and the hunters were already on his trail. And so, when the investigator had interrupted his and Miss Kaoru's argument, and she had rushed to answer the door… he had gathered his belongings, erased all easily identifiable marks of his presence and vanished.
Well, it was only a technique to mute his aura – spread it so thin that without being close, no one could sense him. Though exhausting, it was an invaluable tool for an assassin, and only made possible because he had such a small aura to begin with. Thanks to this skill, the Hitokiri Battousai wasn't known as the "red-head male Omega with a cross-shaped scar."
That would have made his consequent survival impossible.
Kenshin sighed, and soundlessly edged closer to the room where Miss Kaoru had led the policeman for the interview. The eavesdropped conversation confirmed his greatest fears, but also raised questions. How widely has the knowledge of my identity been circulated? Even back then, only the higher ranks knew the specifics. An assassin can't become a well-known figure, and that is the only thing they want me for - so why does this man know?
Or does he?
And more importantly, why aren't the police interested in solving this murder case?
Unfortunately, it seemed that his best lead to solve the mystery was to follow this Captain Ukiji. Without looking back, he made his way over the wall – slipping into the mindset of an assassin with a terrifying ease. A pang of regret hit him hard for a second, have I truly found this little peace during all these years?
Stop it, now is not the time for regrets. It was his responsibility to solve this mess, and if that meant using skills he'd rather forget knowing… so be it.
During those early years in Kyoto, he had learned to use the masses of people in the busy streets as a hiding place. The first rule of shadowing someone: be somewhere where they won't look.
Often this meant the high places; the roofs, walls, bridges… but in broad daylight?
That left two choices – follow from a distance or… yes.
An alert target was a very difficult one to hunt, for he often looked behind - just like this Investigator, oddly enough. Not the behavior of an honest man, that.
But there was a solution to that –
'When hunting, know your prey and lay in wait.' Thank you, Master.
After all, a policeman was a highly visible target and had a predictable destination. So Kenshin kept his eyes and senses keyed on the Captain, and walked casually ahead on the street, sidestepping around the other passersby, always keeping several between him and his target's line of sight. In the intersections, where he couldn't take a good guess of the potential route, he found a shade from which to watch.
However, soon it became clear that this Captain Ukiji wasn't heading to the city-center, where the police headquarters should be located… but instead to the busier, poorer harbor area. What business could he have there?
It seemed the locals weren't very happy about the presence of uniformed man either, judging by the way people made way for the Captain and eyed him. It reminded Kenshin quite a bit of the reactions people in Kyoto had had to the Shinsengumi.
And then suddenly, the man slipped inside a teahouse.
Huh… so, now what?
Kenshin bit his lip, but moved closer; across the street and around the building… silently making his way onto the roof. His senses kept track of Ukiji's aura even throughout the clutter of weaker presences and followed his trek to the private rooms… there was someone waiting for him? Another Beta? So, not a visit for benign reasons, but instead – a private meeting in an indiscreet location. Son of a bitch…
There was no way he could eavesdrop their conversation from outside, but just as clearly, the discussion would be of great interest to him.
"Oro." He muttered and blushed. Now, any men, who had fought in Kyoto during the early days of the revolution, would know their way around a teahouse. The rebel tactics then had been terrorist strikes and assassinations to weaken the Bakufu's politics. And to counter those horrors, the men had searched solace from alcohol and sex.
But as a teenage omega… needless to say, Kenshin hadn't joined his colleagues. Instead, he had sometimes ended up just talking, spending time with the girls themselves in the kitchens and back rooms reserved for their rest. He had been a fascination to them, and they… their company had eased his loneliness. But as the end result, well… to his never-ending shame, Kenshin had learned a lot about the inner workings of such places.
This teahouse was of the poorer type, it had clearly seen its better days a long time ago. Near enough to the harbor area to have the unpleasant smells flowing in with the wind from the sea. Not a reputable location by any consideration - but it also means…
Ah, yes… the northern courtyard's second-story windows were open for ventilation. Swiftly ghosting along the empty servants' quarters, Kenshin managed to find himself above Captain Ukiji's meeting room and pressing ear to the floor boarding… yes, the cracks are wide enough.
"Your man screwed up. The deal was that there would be no witnesses, that no one would see the murders. Fliers, messages, notes - that was what we agreed on!"
It is the Captain's voice… but what on earth?
"I'm terribly sorry, Sir Captain – but the situation spiraled out of control. Who knew that the Kamiya girl would be as foolhardy as to hunt down the Battousai herself? We assumed that she was close to the breaking point already… please accept this token as a compensation for your troubles."
Kenshin heard a rustle of clothes, something sliding on the mat? Then there was soft shuffling of paper… ah, bribes. I seem to have hit the jackpot on the first try…
"Well, well… thank you for understanding my plight. But regarding your troubles, you might have better luck now. Kamiya was quite pathetic when I interviewed her - injured and exhausted. And though she still has quite a bit of foolish pride, it's running very thin."
"Oh yes, I know… she is almost ready. Just an encore, and then… ahem. Ah, forgive an old man for his mutterings, Sir Captain. But if you don't mind, what were you hoping for with that interview? I cannot see why a mention of the morning's events would merit such an interest…"
The other man, there was something very wrong about him. That tone was edged with deceit - a very dishonest person. What is he planning with Miss Kaoru? An encore, after tarnishing her name with a dozen murders? Kenshin's blood ran cold from the implications.
Should I step in?
'Never stop your enemy when he is making a mistake.' A ghost of a memory whispered with the exact disapproving tone of Hiko Seijuurou the 13th.
That's a "no" then, eh Master? Kenshin smiled thinly and pressed his ear back to the floor, settling for a long wait.
"Hmm… nothing substantial, but potentially useful for my career. A year or so ago, there was a request, promising a reward for successfully locating an individual of some importance – a person, with whom your description had startling similarities. Alike petitions come every now and then, usually for finding missing scions of the influential. Nothing of interest to you."
Huh, just after Katsura-san's death… but no warrant of arrest…? That is a relief.
But who could it have been? Police doesn't dance just for anyone; it has to be someone with great influence… so from Satsuma? Not Saigo – god knows that warmonger is gone… Okubo? No, he took great offense at Katsura regarding me… someone from Choshuu? But most of the old guard are dead!
"Ah, a reward. Should I offer congratulations?"
"Please don't. Kamiya didn't give me any leg to go on, and though there are some glaring similarities… I am not sure what to believe. Who the reward is for… just can't be this wandering Omega."
And thank god for that…
"Why don't you assign a warrant of arrest and see for yourself?"
"Hah – for that description, people would notice. No, I don't wish to spread this around, or attract attention. Besides, the rumor mill has a theory that the higher-ups just want to find this guy, not to anger him."
But why? The only reason anyone has ever wanted me is because they need my skills for murder…
"Well, that is a shame. But perhaps, we can yet again be of benefit to each other? I do have many eyes and ears in my acquaintance."
"…and what would this kindness cost me, Mr. Hiruma?"
"Nothing too onerous, just some - ah, willing blindness from the patrols."
"Delaying an investigation is one thing, but interfering with the orders of another division? You ask too much."
"Do I? You are an ambitious man, surely you know the right people. And regarding one scar-faced redhead with a sword… even if it's highly unlikely to be true, I rather do think that even a chance to catch the Demon of Kyoto is worth the effort."
There was a sharp inhale, and for a second, Kenshin wasn't sure if it had been him or the Captain. His own heartbeat thundering in his ears, he closed his eyes, and fought to keep the grip of his aura.
"You knew… how…?"
"When concocting this plot, I paid some attention to the suitable legendary figures of the revolution. Among them, Battousai was an easy choice, just begging for exploitation; disappeared into thin air, terrifying with a blade, very well known, though no one knew his face or designation… only the red hair and cross-shaped scar were constant, and those could be easily hidden. It was only too pleasing identity for my man to adopt – he likes the fame, for some reason." A long suffering sigh. "But having someone with a sword to appear on the scene with matching characteristics? I can draw conclusions. So, Captain - do we have a deal?"
"I…. I don't have the authority for that. This could destroy my career!"
"Or make it. Let's say, I will pay you double for this. I am a generous man, after all."
"…or perhaps I shall have to find another ambitious man?"
A pointed pause followed.
Then a long sigh, "I can't do it, Hiruma."
"Ah… I had a feeling you were going to bail, it's all in your eyes – cowardice, unwillingness to go for that extra mile. That's a shame, hmmm…"
Kenshin heard a rustle of cloth, and then another sharp inhale.
"You can't mean that, Hiruma…" Ukiji's voice sounded absolutely terrified, but Kenshin couldn't see what was happening through the cracks – should I rush in there?
"No, I really do mean it."
Kenshin jumped up, and was half-way down the corridor when the gunshot rang out – oh god, no! Around him, the teahouse stirred from calm serenity to a bustling beehive in seconds, the guests and employees all alike rushing to the doors in panic. Kenshin, though, was desperately trying to find the meeting room. Right, right… down the corridor… there!
Even at the first glance it was clear that there was nothing to be done; Captain Ukiji had a hole between his eyes, and blood was sluggishly seeping onto the tatami matting. The policeman's sword was half drawn – he had been utterly surprised. Shit, shit, god dammit!
Again I was too late to stop it, too late to help… Stop it, idiot! Now is not the time for guilt and regrets.
But for what?
…yes. That's right.
What he could do, was to find one Mr. Hiruma and ask some very pointed questions.
Kaoru's afternoon had gone in a sort of a muddled depression.
The situation had left her feeling out of sorts, as usually she would have used the hours to her advantage, transferring the stress and tension to a vigorous practice. The sheer physicality of swordsmanship was very calming to the nerves. Alas, with her injuries… even that outlet was barred.
Alone in the large empty house, with nothing to do… she couldn't help but to notice that even if she would welcome company, there were no close friends to visit. Sure Gensai's family was very kind and accommodating to her, but after what had happened with Wanderer, she didn't dare to face the old Doctor. He would ask, and worry – and she didn't want to tell him of her shame.
Not yet, preferably not ever.
Perhaps it was the need of some safe heaven, some kind of a happy place that left Kaoru to brew tea and warm the leftover's Wanderer had stored for her – and take her spoils to the training hall. It could be considered a disrespectful act, to eat in front of the Dojo's small shrine. But in this dark mood… it just felt oddly fitting to talk to her father, offer him a portion and then munch the stale scraps of onigiri and miso in peace.
She sat there for a good while, alone in her thoughts. Long enough to have the sun set and the dusk set in.
Then, her tea cup cracked.
What…? Just like that? Utterly bizarre, she hadn't even touched the cup in a while. What mother always used to say when things broke like that?
'Kaoru-chan, it's the spirits' way of warning you.'
Yes, that was it.
"Old wives' tales now… heh, maybe I really am going mad." She muttered aloud, and rose a little stiffly. She had been kneeling in the traditional seiza-pose a bit too long and her legs prickled when the circulation came back. A long stretch helped out nicely. Her arm felt surprisingly good and a quick check confirmed it – the cut had sealed nicely. Of course it was raw, but all in all… it seemed more like a wound days old than a product of this morning. Most likely it wouldn't even scar. Thanks to Wanderer… and he was so kind with everything, and I -
Suddenly, the main door of the dojo slid open heavily, and Kaoru turned around only to see… a giant swordsman stepping inside, his heavy steps echoing on the polished floor. Behind him was a gang of armed hooligans.
And every single one of them was grinning.
Taking a step back in utter shock, she groped the storage rack set on the wall behind her for a spare bokken. The comfortable weight of the weapon didn't reassure her at all.
"Yo!" The hulking Alpha greeted in a menacing tone, a bared katana resting on his shoulders in an easy left-handed grip.
An un-kept dark beard, muscular, in his middle age, or so – probably experienced, her eye automatically cataloged. The utterly self-confident swordsman's swagger only enhanced the impression of power, and he didn't need to flex his aura to instill terror in her heart. This man is dangerous and he knows it, worse… he has followers; five, ten… no, about twenty or so, all in all.
Wait… left-handed, tall- "Battousai!"
"Ahahahahahaaaa!" The hulk burst into laughter; a loud caricature of mirth. "So you did remember me, that's what I thought. The name Battousai suits me well, doesn't it? Heh." Around him, the hooligans spread out – blocking her only means of escape. "So girl… I hear that your motto is "Sword that gives life" – shall we test it? Or do you wish to roll to your back right away?" The murderer asked and brandished his katana at her.
Driven to a corner, there was nothing else to do but to take a fighting stance; "My father's style will not lose to the likes of you!"
Which one is going to come first? She eyed the hooligans, and the Battousai… and took a few steps to the left, just to see how the opponents would react…
They circle around him, eh?
Are they waiting for some sign from him?
"I am going to enjoy ripping your ridiculous style apart, just like I ruined its reputation. And then, pretty girl… we will show you that there are fates worse than death." His leer left nothing to the imagination, and the little hairs at the back of her neck stood up.
Grrrrrr, disgusting pig!
No! Control that temper, Kaoru - and think! Ah-ha… he is trying to goad me to attack, like before.
With that mass, and height… he couldn't be very fast or agile. But he was terrifyingly strong, so going into his range with no plan would be idiotic. And she - Miss Kaoru Kamiya, the heir of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu - was not stupid enough to make the same mistake twice.
'Use your speed and precision to your advantage. Never engage to a match on his terms, for then you are sure to lose.' Thank you, dad.
So… I have to get him moving and off-balance, and then go through to his left-hand side – strong man like him would like to fight one-handed, but that would give his form blind spots. And that means – clearing some room to fight in.
"YAAAAAAAH!" She suddenly screamed, and dashed at the closest flunky on the right – startling him enough to get through his sad attempt of a parry in an instant, and stabbing a harsh tsugi to his sternum, feeling his chest give slightly. Not shattered, but definitely fractured… he should be able to recover in time. It was one of the cruelest strikes in Kamiya Kashin, guaranteed to bring the opponent down quickly. And being this outnumbered…. I don't have the time to wear them down and use gentler alternatives!
The thug behind the first one was slightly better, managing a solid block and a slight dodge, only to leave his left side unprotected – a nagi, horizontal slash, to his rib-cage brought him down, accompanied with the ugly crack of broken ribs.
It was all the surprise managed to gain her, because by then all the rest of them were alert, and the lumbering giant Battousai was charging at her –
Kaoru dodged his strike by diving under his arms, thank god I'm short – and tried to gain some distance. The Battousai didn't give her the chance, following through like a charging bull.
Don't parry that blade, never again – or you are dead!
At the last second, she dodged and slammed her bokken to the side of Battousai's thrusting blade, misdirecting the stab and creating a path to escape behind him under his arm. Sprinting and turning around, she saw the planes of his wide unprotected back and bared her teeth in sheer animalistic thrill –
"All this suffering for revenge and money, oh god… Please, let them not have reached Miss Kaoru yet –"
Kenshin had finally accosted his target; a short, stout older man, dressed in traditional, but slightly worn clothing of surprisingly good quality – giving an impression of a merchant down on his luck, not sinister at all.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even Kenshin, a survivor of some of the nastiest shit the country had seen these past decades, felt his blood run cold with panic when he heard the extent of the plot.
Kihei Hiruma was the man's name, and for him the whole thing had started some three years or so ago, when the Sword-bearing police officer, one Alpha Kamiya Koushirou had arranged a raid on his shipping business. And among confiscated stock he had found the true source of Kihei's wealth - a smuggling operation. For this, Kihei had served some time in jail but had gotten leniency from the government for ratting out his contacts. And last year, he had been let out with nothing on his name but his clothes and a huge grudge for the man in charge of the bust.
At that time, Kihei hadn't quite known what to do in order to get his vengeance… but then he had run across his younger brother, Gohei Hiruma, for the first time in a decade. The brothers weren't close by any means, as Kihei had inherited the family business and the younger son had been given leniency to learn swordsmanship to quell the fire of his Alpha designation. However, as it turned out – Gohei wasn't very happy with the name Kamiya either. As a younger man, he had studied Kamiya Kasshin briefly. But after a brutal incident, Gohei had been forcible expelled – his right thumb paralyzed forever by the Master Kamiya Koshijirou.
The brothers united in their grudge and started to plan revenge, by which everything that they had lost, would be wrought upon Koshijirou Kamiya. They wanted to destroy his name, his honor, take everything he owned and finally… leave him broken and alone.
However, then had come Seinan war and Koshijirou had died.
Having spent months plotting for revenge and arranging everything in place, the Hiruma brothers didn't want to give up - not until everything of Kamiya had been scattered to the dust. So the plan had been transferred to Koshijirou's sole heir. Systematically, they had spread rumors and organized a smear campaign to ostracize Kaoru from neighbors and casual acquaintances. Then the fake Battousai's murder spree had scattered the rest, alongside the few remaining students.
And when Kaoru would be alone and vulnerable, they planned to buy off her property with a decent offer – loaned money, which they of course intended to steal back - leaving her with nothing. And everything had worked beautifully, until now. To the brothers' astonishment, Kaoru hadn't broken – instead she had endured and held onto her pride like madwoman with nothing to lose. There had been no hope to gain the lands, not with the situation at a standstill. So, they plotted an encore - a plan to break a young lady's spirit in the vilest way possible.
"Hah! Where do you think my brother is now – Battousai? It's already too late!" Kihei had declared in helpless fury, tied up and sitting in his own pool of urine.
Kenshin's answering blow might have been too rough, but thankfully the murderer had only been rendered unconscious. Alongside him, the few thugs in his employ were likewise defeated and neatly tied-up at their hide-away, a ramshackle old dojo at the outskirts of the town.
Overwhelming horror flooding his mind, Kenshin ran. Miss Kaoru beaten and bloodied… utterly broken, screaming for help…
Even if she knows something of self defense… she has no chance. Not against that man!
The fake Battousai was a strong swordsman with a solid, versatile style, and his experience had shone through every single one of his movements during this morning's brief encounter. In comparison, well, to put it kindly… Miss Kaoru seemed to have a good grasp on theory and a nicely honed form, but most likely she had never fought for real. Practice bouts with protective equipment and wooden swords or shinai… while they reduced the training mishaps, they also instilled bad habits and false confidence. In essence - 'they teach that taking a hit doesn't hurt anything but pride. Take these idiots to a real fight – and only the lucky ones will survive to see the next day.'
That was Hiko Seijuurou the 13th's logic, and reason for giving a child of seven years a real blade. Never once, even for a second had Hiko coddled him from the harsh realities.
Miss Kaoru though…
She is a child of peaceful age.
Kenshin sprinted through the suburban streets, and when passing the Kamiya's gate it was impossible not to notice the score of strange auras in the dojo and sounds of a fight. Swallowing the rising panic, hoping for the best and fearing for the worst – he rushed to the training hall, only to pause at the doorway to stare at the scene in utter shock.
She… she… is fighting against the fake Battousai.
Gohei Hiruma was limping badly, nearly all his mobility gone and nursing his ribs at the left side. He was almost finished, keeping pauses and sizing his opponent to make his last strikes to count. The surrounding thugs were watching the match intently, getting ready to step in. At the side, three of them were out cold. And Miss Kaoru… her eyes were shining fierce with rage, and she was grinning in exhilaration. Her arms were bleeding with small cuts, she was covered in sweat, bruises and blood, strands of hair had fallen from her neat ponytail and plastered to her face – she looked like a demented Goddess of War, her lone aura a shining star amidst the sea of black hate.
Kenshin had never seen anything as awe-striking.
A woman, just short as me – armed with only a bokken and still managing to fight that monster of a man to a standstill.
And she is being smart about it, too. Kenshin noted with approval. Gone was the stupid, over-confident bravado of attacking a terribly strong foe head-on, and now she was using her small size to her advantage, dodging and keeping her opponent at a distance.
And her swordsmanship…
Smooth, polished kata, high precision, tendency to fall back to defense – but a mature style, instead of a piece-meal of common moves he had suspected, when hearing Kamiya Kashin was so recently developed. But even more remarkably, every single attack was intended to disable, not to kill. It was like seeing a functional opposite of Hiten Mitsurugi…
She is good. I never thought she could be this good.
And for a second, he was almost tempted to keep watching from the sidelines, and allow the fight to continue. If only so that she could regain her warrior's honor by fighting her own battles to a clean victory. That sort of thing was always important for the Samurai…
Kenshin narrowed his eyes - she is squinting.
Nearly at the end of her rope, she was panting for breath and constantly blinking – shit.
She has a concussion.
If stressed too much, her symptoms would worsen and she could pass out.
Kenshin didn't think even for a second more, just unsheathed his sword and channeled the sword-ki through the blade and; "Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu - Doryuusen!"
The wood broke and exploded - the force of ki and the sword's momentum gouging a deep crevasse through the middle of the training hall's polished floor. As the dust and splinters rained down… absolutely everyone had stopped to stare at him in utter shock.
"This one is sorry for being late, so one is."
"Wanderer…?" Kaoru gaped at the short and demure man she had come to know as an extraordinarily kind and caring person, who at the moment – standing calmly amidst utter destruction, his odd reverse-blade again sheathed and his faint submissive aura frozen still – managed to look anything but sweet. Somehow, he radiated menace and self-confidence, every inch of his being saying; "I own this battleground."
Which is impossible… Omega's don't fight.
At the back of the room, Kaoru was panting for air, hands shaking and a headache pounding like a hammer at her skull, making it difficult to concentrate. She was grateful for the break, but… "You can't possibly defeat them!"
Omegas lack the will to clash against the opponent's aura… especially against so many! It is madness to even try – especially as the Omega in question didn't have the Family Circle's protection! These men were twisted, maybe sick enough to break the taboo and try to bend a misbehaving Omega to their will-
"So are you another naïve girl talking about swords bringing out one's potential and protecting life?"
Girl…? They can't see it either? But the thought of not being the only one making the same mistake regarding Wanderer was a cold comfort right now. Male or female, it doesn't change the fact that Wanderer is an Omega and completely outclassed!
"No. A sword is a weapon. The art of the sword is learning how to kill. No matter what pretty words one uses to speak of it, this is the truth." Wanderer spoke calmly, looking thoughtful. "Miss Kaoru, your words can only be spoken by someone who has never dirtied their hands – it is an utopian ideal."
With those words, something broke in Kaoru's heart. I thought you were on my side…
But then Wanderer looked straight at her and continued; "However… when I compare the two – I like your ideal better than the truth. And perhaps someday… I hope your words could become the new nature of swordsmanship."
A brilliant smile lit Wanderer face – and she not only forgave him, but also… That's it exactly!
My father's vision! He, too, can see it!
Then the moment passed, and Wanderer turned to the Battousai and his eyes narrowed, his face morphing to a hostile glower. The difference was like between a day and night. "And as for you, Hiruma Gohei… Kihei told me everything. Your evil ends now, that is does."
"You… what did you do to my brother?"
"He is alive. However… you all will be facing justice for your crimes."
"Hah! No, I don't think so." The Battousai growled, and flared his aura, so that even Kaoru felt the pressure – and Wanderer paused in concentration, sweat beading on his temple. The pressure he felt must have been horrifying. And not giving even a moment's respite, the Battousai – Hiruma Gohei - shouted to his men; "Go get her! First one to take her down can have her!"
"Yeah!" The thugs roared and brandished their weapons.
You monster… that's cheating! Kaoru thought in horror, and was about to charge – but the street killer Battousai saw it, and instantly raised his katana and blocked her way; "Girl – don't even think about it!"
Her balance shaky, Kaoru lowered her bokken… I can't bring him down without causing a serious injury, not fast enough. Not in this state.
"Stand back!" Wanderer grunted, clearly fighting against the onslaught of the compulsive aura – and took the battoujutsu – stance, ready for a quick draw. "I don't wish to cause needless injuries, that I won't."
What are you doing… run you idiot!
"The one who's going to get hurt is you!" The thugs shouted and charged.
What happened next… was unbelievable.
How is he doing that?
"…four, no five guys with one swing – it is witchcraft!" The thug nearest to her exclaimed in sheer terror, and backed away.
No… no it's not.
At first, Kaoru could only see an amazing display of speed – in everything. The speed of movement, the speed of sword… both combined with the speed of reading the opponent's movements to bring many targets down using the least movements possible.
It was… almost godlike. Like witnessing a demon stepping out of a kabuki play and wreaking havoc with abandon.
But then, she began to see the absolute mastery of sword – the sheer skill and precision in Wanderer's strikes. With the bokken, less weighty weapon with softer edges, Kaoru had honed and honed her precision and control, so that she could use just enough force to injure, but never kill. But with a reverse blade… just an inch off or a hit from a bad angle, the sheer momentum of over three and half feet of blunted steel would crush organs and bones with a deceptive ease…
Every single one of the Wanderer's targets seem to be only knocked out.
No one can be that good! With a swordsmanship like that – her breath caught, as she finally put together the Wanderer's movements and the paths of his sword – if he wouldn't be pulling his strikes, if not for that blunted blade - that swordsmanship is…
"I forgot to mention…" Wanderer paused to stand still, resting his blade over his shoulder calmly. Around him on the ground lay all of his targets, incapacitated. Only the battered form Battousai still faced him – and he was staring at the Omega in rage and fear. Wanderer's faint aura was eerily cold… reminding her more of something supernatural than human. "Hitokiri Battousai's swordsmanship is neither Kamiya Kasshin nor any other original style you use. It's Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu – an old style, from the age of civil wars – designed to slaughter multiple targets with deadly swiftness. Without the reverse-blade…"
…he didn't need to finish the sentence. In her mind's eye, Kaoru could see the thugs cleaved in half, their blood and guts coloring the dojo's floor. A wave of sheer terror rose from the bottom of her stomach, and for a second Kaoru was sure she was going to be sick. So that meant… the revolution's most feared killer, who could still frighten the hearts of those that had lived through the chaos…
How did I ever think you harmless?
"Red-hair… cross-shaped scar, but that aura…. what are you?! You are an Omega! I can feel it! No human can change their designation!"
"That they can't. After the designation sets, it's decided." The Wanderer agreed with a grim smile, eyes narrowed and considering. "It's just as simple as it seems, or not. Just as Alphas have a strong urge to command, and possess power to do it… their very opposites in the hierarchy have an equally powerful need to obey. Given the right orders, there is nothing quite as terrifying as an Omega's urge to please."
Oh god, you can't mean… Kaoru blanched white. If you were the Demon of Kyoto, then your Alpha…
"Interesting! I shall have to try that out myself! After I deal with you!"
…was an absolute monster. Forcing one of his own, one in his protection to kill? Omegas cherish life! It is in their nature and to make them go against that…! There should be a law…
…it can't be that simple, it doesn't even remotely explain how he can shrug off the Alpha's pressure, or avoid being forcibly bound! Not while lacking the protection of Family, which he can't have, not with an aura like that. I could sense it, now that I know what to look for!
And no Omega has the will to fight – they just don't. They avoid conflict!
"There can be only one Battousai in this world – if I kill you, the title of the strongest will be mine!" The fake – Hiruma – took a limping step forward, ignoring the pain like mad bull. Challengingly he stalked closer, all his actions signaling that he wasn't going to back down without a fight, and at the perfect range, Hiruma readied his katana in a two-handed grip –
Wanderer didn't step back from the challenge, but sighed, "Although I dislike violence… I guess I don't have a choice."
Accepting a one strike duel?
Is he an idiot? There are better ways to win that fight! Why would he…?
And Hiruma far outranks him in strength; even with Wanderer's speed… it will depend on who gets the head start.
Like a behemoth, the giant swordsman raised his sword into the air and shouted; "Die!" Then slashing downwards with all his might–
Falling from an impossible jump, Wanderer swung his blade from over his head, letting the strike gather strength, and then gripped the blade with his left hand to reinforce the strike further, and finally the gravity of freefall bringing even more additional momentum… it hit Hiruma's wrist with sickening force, bringing the giant down all the way through the wooden floor.
Calmly, Wanderer sheathed his sword and remarked; "I have no attachments to the name Battousai, but I won't give it to the likes of you. Of course, with that hand, you will never swing a sword again." Then he sighed, and turned around, looking at her with soft violet eyes, his aura feeling incredibly sad, "This one didn't wish to deceive you, but… it's better if some things are not known, if possible."
Kaoru didn't know what to do or to say, it was just too much. Everything that had happened today was too much.
"Well, farewell." Wanderer turned around, and started walking away.
Walking away from my life, from my dojo… he dodged the limbs and bodies of the unconscious thugs, circled around the long crevasse in the floor, stepping on the pieces of board and splinters, some dust rising with his steps…
…my beautiful floor…
Her eyes narrowed. Oh no…
No way, no way in hell you fucking bastard. You are so not going to wreck my Dojo and then just leave!
"WAIT A MINUTE!"
"How am I supposed to take care of this mess all by myself? Can't you at least help me a little?!" Kaoru, what are you doing? He is the freaking Hitokiri Battousai – "I DON'T CARE who you used to be!"
Wanderer turned to look at her and -
Don't you dare to give me that apologetic and demure smile either – you are just as lonely as I am!
"It's better that I go. You need to alert the police to arrest these men, but I cannot be here when the police arrive. They have orders to look for this one, that they have."
"Why? Have you broken any laws?"
"Errr…. no, but-" he looked absolutely befuddled, eyes wide and mouth gaping –
"Then I DON'T CARE!"
Her stormy blue eyes were transfixed on him and her Alpha's aura was blazing in tune with the sheer force of her will, but not an inch of it was pressuring him.
With her shaky control, being so emotional…
How can she have grown so much in such a short period of time? It shouldn't be possible! Kenshin could only stare at her with a growing amazement. She truly wasn't a little girl to be coddled and cared for, but a fierce woman, a fighter – a leader. And she is inviting this one to…
To share her home, help with her troubles?
Oh god, it is so very tempting.
But sadly, it's also impossible…
If an older man came to live with a lone woman, a lady of good name no less… The rumors of illicit affairs behind the walls would be the least of it. Adding the inevitable danger that followed him… "Consider your reputation, the matter of your name's honor. If the real Battousai stays, you will lose everything." Kenshin sighed and glanced to the open door, to the small paved pathway leading away from the property. It was difficult to see any joy in freedom of travel, especially now that the darkness of evening's shadows was closing in. I wish it could be different-
"I DIDN'T SAY I WANTED THE BATTOUSAI TO STAY! I WANT THE WANDERER-" she shouted, but suddenly seemed to realize what she had blurted out, and blushed deep red, covering her mouth in embarrassment and turned away, "W…well fine! If you have to leave, then leave!"
She wanted the Wanderer?
"…but if you are leaving, at least tell me your name. Battousai was the name of a patriot from a long time ago. Or don't you want to tell me your real name?
…the first time anyone has wanted me just for me. Not for my skills, not my fame, not my looks or potential… just an Omega with nothing worthwhile on his name.
It was very humbling.
But also… Kenshin frowned - yes, it just might work.
If a lone Alpha took in an orphaned Omega, offering some work and duties against a place to stay… it would be considered a kindness, nothing more. Especially if…
Well, thankfully keeping up the androgynous charade wasn't very difficult. With some encouragement, the people's assumptions could even become a protection of a kind. If the public came to know that odd redhead as an utterly nonthreatening and unremarkable Omega, not many would think twice about some silly old stories. Sure the committed revenge seekers could still come, but…
…it wasn't like he couldn't leave again.
Smiling, his heart feeling lighter than in ages, he slid the training hall's door shut. Be gone!
The syllables felt odd on his tongue. How long has it been since I have said that name aloud? Five, no… seven years? Perhaps, it was foolish to give away his carefully guarded anonymity as a mere Wanderer, especially now when someone powerful was looking for him. But no matter anything else, that name…
Meant bonds of love and caring...
'…from now on you will be Kenshin. My Apprentice.'
'To avoid questions, it would be better for you to have a family name. One more ronin among the rebels would raise no brows. Hmmm, yes. But I cannot give you my name - our bond cannot be legalized, ever – however, perhaps you wouldn't mind me making one just for you? Ah, so silent… well, let's see. 'Hi' – for scarlet and 'mura' for village, yes. It's generic enough to not be remembered, but suits you very well.'
"Himura Kenshin, that's my name now."
'And how is my husband's name written? I should like to be able to write it in my diary. Oh? Sword Heart from the Scarlet Village? Someone had a sense of humor, naming you."
The only people ever to have called him by that name… had all been people he deeply respected. Adding Miss Kaoru to their ranks was only fitting. "I'm a little tired of travelling. A wanderer can never know when the winds of time will blow him away, but if you don't mind that…"
Her beautiful blue eyes were so thrilled, and she looked so happy-
Perhaps agreeing to this was foolish. But, at the same time… both of us are lonely and so worn, nearly broken. Could something that offers comfort for the both of us be wrong? Is this offer for a simple friendship for a little while too good for a sinner like me?
"For a little while, I will stay."
But for that smile, I don't think I care.
As it turned out, the whole mess was both easier and harder to deal with than Kaoru had feared.
Easy, for like she remembered her father saying time and time again, the Chief of Tokyo Metropolitan Police, Uramura-san was an extremely sensible and intelligent man. Proven again by how he believed her story of the events after a few clarifications. And when she finally managed to convince Kenshin to meet with him and explain directly what he knew… things started moving.
Kenshin's very matter-of-fact description of Captain Ukiji's murder, what he had learned from the fake Battousai's brother, Kihei Hiruma… it was truly horrible to listen to. But Chief Uramura seemed to believe it all and promised to take care of everything – including the arrest of the men Kenshin had left tied-up at Hiruma's hideout.
However, the harder part of the mess was the state of her training hall. After the thugs had been carted away, it was clear that the floor was completely wrecked and that replacing the floor boards would be expensive.
I don't have that kind of money.
And I can't continue the swordsmanship lessons properly anytime soon to gain enough, not without a training hall. Regaining students will become very difficult if I can't compete against other Sword schools with good location and facilities. It's already difficult, being a female alpha and not having a Master's rank…
What am I going to do?
However, Kaoru didn't voice her worries and continued to listen to the discussion… only to be shocked, when Chief Uramura willingly parted with the information of who exactly from the government was looking for the real Hitokiri Battousai.
"Sir Yamagata Aritomo? Oro… could he, perhaps, once have been known as Yamagata Kyosuke-san?"
"Yes, I do believe the General Yamagata was named Kyosuke in his youth."
"Oh… He was always an honorable man, that he was. Perhaps, it would be better to find out why he is seeking this unworthy one…"
"I shall pass on the word then."
Kaoru had listened throughout the exchange in growing disbelief, as the facts about her errant Wandering Omega piled up. He really walked with the rich and powerful back then. But why isn't he enjoying the victory among them now?
But seeing how Kenshin was growing reserved with the Chief's continuing questions, she decided that she wouldn't pry. The past must be very painful for him, and what does it matter anymore?
"Say, Mr. Himura, as a policeman I cannot help worrying… how can an Omega travel alone without the Family Circle?"
"Oro… errr… technically speaking, one does have a family, but it's… err, this one was adopted by one's Leader. The Circle was very small, and after revolution one was allowed freedom to go where one wished, and still retain the protection. However, as he died last year… this one is still bound to his widow. But she is a fellow omega and this one hasn't seen her but a few times, so the bond is frail – almost impossible to notice, one assumes."
That… explains some things, but still, Kenshin has been alone with a ghost of a bond since the revolution? That is not much better than not having a Family! Oh god, how has he managed to bear it? Kaoru just gaped in horror.
"A Circle between two Omegas, I will say! That would explain what I am sensing very well indeed. Thank you, Mr. Himura. But, if you don't mind one additional question… what are your plans for now?"
"He will be staying with me." She cut in rudely, hoping to bring this interview to an end.
"Miss Kamiya…" Chief Uramura uttered with obvious apprehension for the first time, and in that one look Kaoru could see his distaste for the idea of a former assassin staying with his old colleagues' daughter.
Yes, Kenshin is a man. Yes he fought in the revolution. But he helped me and I want to help him. Kaoru thought and stared at the older Alpha in front of her, radiating utter confidence and conviction.
"Well… perhaps it's okay. You are a strong Alpha in your own right." The Chief of police hedged for a moment, but then after seeing that she didn't budge, acquitted finally and changed the subject; "Say, Miss Kamiya… what are you going to do about the Dojo?"
"I… don't know…"
"Unfortunately the police cannot give you any compensation for defeating the criminals. A precedent like that would encourage vigilantism, but…" And suddenly Chief Uramura glanced at Kenshin, and then smirked a little, a fleeting display of private amusement. The little hairs at the back of her neck stood up with premonition, no you don't… but then the elder Alpha shook his head and said to her, "Somehow it occurs to me that the person who located the real Hitokiri Battousai - was you Miss Kamiya. And General Yamagata did provide a substantial reward for finding this man."
"I would be perfectly willing to part with the reward, if Mr. Himura doesn't disappear by the time it takes the General to return to Tokyo and arrange a meeting. All very honest and above board, I assure you."
I don't like this…he has already helped me so much, but - Kaoru glanced at Kenshin, who seemed thoughtful, eyeing fleetingly the dojo and for a second, it looked like a flash of guilt shone in his eyes. But then he nodded slightly to her and Kaoru felt absolutely terrible.
It's not your fault that I am screwed. And the very last thing I wish to do is to abuse your kindness… But right now, this is the best we can get. "That is alright." She said resolutely.
Soon after, the interview ended and they were left alone.
Finally, Kaoru breathed in a sigh of relief. She was way too tired and hurt to deal with the mess and strangers right now, and it seemed that Kenshin agreed – for he wasn't pushing her to visit Doctor Gensai. But instead, he had ended up brewing her tea, scrounging something fast to snack for supper and started to clean and treat her hastily bandaged wounds properly. Kaoru was past a needless show of nerves at this point and had completely relinquished her gi – trusting only the chest bindings to protect her modesty, while Kenshin fussed over the new bruises and lacerations she had picked up at the fight at the Dojo.
Amusingly, it seemed Kenshin was more bothered by propriety than her, judging by the steady blush continuing to color him all the way down his neck. A blushing red-head, dressed in a pink kimono… by all logic the end result should have been alike a mortified lobster.
It's not, though. Kaoru dimpled. "I'm fine, don't worry so much."
He looked up from his current task of cleaning and re-bandaging a small laceration just under her ribs, his violet eyes looking terribly sad and guilty. It created a sort of bizarre effect – old eyes, and a face so young – how old is he anyway? Older than me, but surely not even close to father's generation… no, he has to be younger than my father.
"Miss Kaoru… this one is very sorry for what happened, if one had been faster – "
"No!" She exclaimed loudly, and sat up straighter, "Kenshin – you saved me. You believed me, when no one else did. And if anyone should apologize, it should be me! I am using your kindness to pay for the dojo's repairs, and don't you try to claim to me that you actually want to meet with this General Yamagata – I saw your eyes! I don't know why you avoid your old comrades, and I am not going to pry… but… it's not right of me to ask you to face them for my gain…"
Why does he look so surprised..? Why would he believe that everything is his fault?
Oh god, I never got to apologize to him for the taboo, either… "...and truthfully, I really owe you." She whispered, voice breaking just a little bit. How could he even bear to agree to stay when - "Earlier at the Dojo… I didn't mean to, but I was so close to forcing you, and you have to know that I would never-"
"Miss Kaoru!" And when she looked at him, he seemed to be even more distressed if possible, "Please, Miss Kaoru. Listen! You couldn't have done what you fear you might have had. Trust this one, it isn't possible."
"Kenshin, I may be younger… but I am a strong alpha. My aura has always been very strong, almost too much to control and I have always struggled with it. And your aura is so weak…" But seeing the sheer conviction in his eyes, she fell silent.
"Miss Kaoru, this one has travelled all over the country, and trust one when he says… he hasn't met Alpha strong enough to compel this one. Not since -" He paused and frowned.
"Since…?" She prodded, curious… but then her brain caught up, and she slapped her hand to cover her mouth. I just promised not to pry and here I am, prying… ugh, where is the closest convenient hole in the ground to disappear into? "Please, pay me no mind."
But, somehow… her awkwardness eased off the ice, and Kenshin smiled at her, his frown disappearing. "Oro… ah, it's true that this one doesn't like to speak of the past… but this matter is something you should know, one thinks. If only to ease your distress, that is." He nodded once, and tied the bandage around her ribs neatly. "There, that's done, so it is. Now, please turn around Miss Kaoru, this one would like to see your shoulder while explaining, that one would."
Without question, Kaoru turned – and Kenshin leaned over to inspect the cut. It didn't seem like a bad one, just a scratch, really.
He dabbed the dried blood off with a wet cloth, and his tone a bit distant, started; "This one became a swordsman's apprentice as a young boy, couple years before the designation set – but when it did, my Master wasn't very pleased. Of course for a very strong Alpha with a notoriously bad temper – and one hasn't ever met anyone stronger than him – an Omega for a student wasn't a good match at all."
Understatement of the year! Kaoru's eyes widened in surprise, and she was about to inquire further when Kenshin sighed behind her, "One is sorry, Miss Kaoru, but this wound will need a few stitches, that it does. Otherwise it will scar - the edges have ripped a little and it's bleeding again, that it is."
"That's fine. I don't mind scars. They just tell of a life lived."
"That they do…" Kenshin muttered a disheartened agreement, but puttered behind her to slip the thread into the needle in the candlelight, and then…
"Ouch." Kaoru cursed and inhaled, trying not to flinch.
"One is sorry, but there isn't much to do about the pain without herbs. One could go fetch some from Doctor Gensai –"
"No! You don't have to. It isn't so bad. Just continue, please."
"Ah… try to relax, and it will hurt less, that it does." He sighed, and Kaoru forced herself to uncoil the best she could. Inhale, exhale… I hate the feeling of a needle piercing my skin! "So, what happened with your Master? Did he have something to do with how the compulsion doesn't work on you?"
His belligerent scoff was almost an alien reaction from the polite Wanderer, "You could say that."
And for a second, he reminded Kaoru not of a grown man but more like a teenage boy with a grievance, the impression only helped along by his bland tone; "Master claimed that he had already spent so much time and effort to train this one, and wasn't about to have his work wasted – not for such an insignificant reason as a submissive designation. Nor the resulting instinctual need to obey the enforced commands."
"Errr… he must have been quite a character." Arrogant, and out of his mind!
"Oro!" Kenshin exclaimed with a huffing half laugh, "No truer words spoken, that there aren't! But yes, he was of the opinion that humans should be able to master their base-instincts and could learn to ignore the call. If sufficiently motivated, that is… so Master began giving this one the enforced orders – constantly. But… ah, oro – he had this one perform ridiculous tasks, such as counting every rice grain on the bowl and aligning them according to the size, or he would set this one intentionally to fail – and this one was a very meticulous student, so after a few years… one learned to get angry, recognize the compulsion and throw it off."
"That's…" cruel, abusive and a total violation of a student's trust. She sharply inhaled, but then frowned – but, maybe, it was also the only way to get an Omega to develop enough of a fighting spirit to survive as a Swordsman.
"That must have been useful to learn." Kaoru finally tentatively answered, half hoping him to continue.
"Oh, this one is grateful, make no mistake. But one wouldn't recommend it to anyone, that one wouldn't. But it's all ancient history now. Say, this wound is treated, Miss Kaoru. Do you have any other cuts? Or was this the last one of them, that is?"
"Just bruises, but those will fade away on their own. Thank you." She turned a bit to see him, and saw his concerned eyes and the sheer caring his aura radiated, and something in her heart just melted. "Kenshin…"
"Oro?" He uttered, a little bit bewildered.
"Thank you, for being there – here, now – with me." I have been lonely for so long… and now I'm not. Now, no matter how tired and aching… I feel good.
And it's because of you.
"You're welcome, Miss Kaoru." He said with a faint smile, like…
You know exactly what I mean – you can feel it too.
Himura Kenshin… you have layers and layers in you. I cannot even begin to see through them all… but I think I would like to.
If you would allow me.
"Hey, I have wondered this one thing… and it's alright if you don't answer, but how old are you? I mean, I have been trying to puzzle it out the whole day – you look my age, but if you fought in the revolution like my father…"
"Errr… that's…" He grinned a little – amusement mixed with a tint of exasperation, but then drew his brows together into an adorable, but pouty, puzzled frown and started counting on his fingers. And by the way he went at it, it was clear that he wasn't going logically by the years, but piecing together a mess of cues – an effort chorused by little mutters, "…Otsu, the great fire… so, then was… Kihei-tai, yes - but, The Black Ships…"
And by each jumping movement, Kaoru's brows raised a step and then she just couldn't keep it in anymore; "How can you not know your own age!"
Kenshin's violet eyes seemed innocent, "Oro… one has never kept track?" and then he smiled, a little bit apologetically – his aura soothing the little flare of temper like it had never even been there, "This is fairly sure he is 28, that's so."
"28!" Oh thank god, not even close to father's age – but, "How can you be 28 with a face like that!"
It wasn't possible – there wasn't even the beginnings of crow's feet cornering his eyes, nor any other obvious blemishes, and it couldn't be just because he was so fair skinned, almost like a westerner, either -
"Err… would thirty make you happier?"
"You are picky, that you are." he said with a laugh - the last hint of melancholy disappearing, and that true honest amusement looked good on him.
For all his smiles, these true ones were a rarity – one I could get addicted to.
And she dimpled a true smile in return.
We will be alright.