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The Manslayer's Consort

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The first time Himura Kenshin touches a sword, he drops it and nearly slices off a toe.

 

"Careful, idiot!" Hiko snarls, dislodging the blade from the frozen ground.

 

"Ah, sorry," he apologizes, trying to still the frantic beating of his heart. His breath rises into the air, dematerializes against the grey winter clouds. "Heh. Nearly chopped off my foot, huh?"

 

"You're never going to get anywhere with your swordsmanship if you can't even hold the katana properly. Here, mimic my stance, my hand position. Like this."

 

Hiko towers over him, his very presence intimidating, his age and skill an impassable gap that he can never hope to close. Try as he might, Kenshin may be able to hold the sword, but he can't swing in a straight line to save his life. Hiko sighs and shakes his head, offering up different techniques and tricks, yet nothing seems to work. Day after day, night after night, they train as best they can, but after several months, Hiko holds up his hands in surrender.

 

"I've never before met a boy that was so completely unteachable," he reveals. "Kenshin, I'm afraid you may be doomed."

 

Currently only eleven years old, Kenshin frowns, trying not to cry. "If I can't learn how to use a sword, are you going to kick me out?"

 

Hiko sees Kenshin in that moment for the first time as a son, and the unexpected rush of emotion and warmth that tickles his heart forces his face into a deadly scowl. He thinks. "You may stay," he grants, crossing his arms, and Kenshin lights up. "Only if I cannot be your teacher, I will be your father. Do you understand, Kenshin?"

 

He nods twice, swiftly, wiping away the moisture forming in his eyes.

 

They embrace, albeit awkwardly, and Hiko pats the small boy's back fondly. "Kenshin," Hiko adds, "I still expect you to practice your swordplay once a day."

 

"But everyone is better than me at it," he cries. "Even if I had to fight someone, I'd lose!"

 

"Kenshin," Hiko chides, firm but gentle, "If you are to die, it is best for you to die on your feet, fighting till the last breath, than on your knees as a coward."

 

It's only fifteen years later, standing in the rain at his adoptive father's grave, that he truly understands what Hiko had meant. Kenshin waits by the tombstone for a long while, watching as the incense he has lit barely manages to burn even among the falling drops, the tears from the sky. Eventually, a drop of rainwater hits just right, and extinguishes the soft glow. The smoke dissipates.

 

Kenshin turns to go.

 

The journey to Tokyo takes a little more than a week by foot, but then Kenshin never did have fantastic stamina. Still, when he finally arrives, a large pack on his back holding all his worldly possessions, his first stop is undoubtedly the Akabeko. When Tae spots his red hair by the doorway, she gasps and drops her tray, empty dishes clattering to the floor.

 

He winces.

 

"Himura Kenshin, is that you?!" Tae calls, and the restaurant turns to look.

 

He fights the heat in his cheeks and grins. "Hello, Tae," he greets.

 

They sit at a small table hidden away in the far corner of the restaurant, and Tae's young employee rushes around to fill in for her while they talk.

 

"I haven't seen you in years," she exclaims, her dark eyes sparkling. "I did hear about your father... I'm so sorry to hear of his passing."

 

Kenshin smiles softly, inclining his head in a bow. "Thank you, Tae."

 

"So what brings you to Tokyo? I would have thought you'd stay in Kyoto to watch after the house."

 

He clears his throat, nervously reaching out to take a sip of his tea. "I've, ah, I've sold the house."

 

She stares. "Why?"

 

"I used the money to buy an old building here in the city. It's just up the road from here, actually, about a thirty minute walk." He pauses, fiddles with his tea. "It's a dojo."

 

Tae gasps. "Oh, Kenshin! That's wonderful! I know how much your father wanted to teach students again!"

 

"That he did," Kenshin agrees. "I'm grateful to have an opportunity to help his dreams be realized. He never took on more students after he adopted me, you know, and I know he had wished to." He smiles. "I may not be a great swordsman like him, but I can at least instruct others to follow in his footsteps, that I can!"

 

His pack is filled with several of Hiko's old swords, wooden and metal, several changes of clothes, and hardly anything else. Other than that, Kenshin will need to purchase everything for his new home and business with the money he has leftover from selling the house.

 

Tae - gods bless her - has an unused futon she offers to him, and a few odds and ends here and there he may take. She promises to have some of the kitchen hands carry them up the hill after the restaurant closes tonight, and sends Kenshin on his way with large quantities of leftovers from the restaurant.

 

He reaches the dojo by the time the moon peaks over the distant skyline. The building is old, but in excellent repair, and the previous owners had been thoughtful enough to add a fresh coat of lacquer to the floors of the practice room. Kenshin leaves his shoes by the wide step and walks to the center of the empty room, flopping down on the floor and sighing as he stares at the ceiling.

 

"This is my home now," he murmurs, and a stray firefly flickers in and out of his view as his eyes grow heavy, and slowly slide shut. He submits to sleep.

 

--- --- ---

 

In the weeks that follow, Kenshin sets up for business, finding many potential students and leaving a wise word in each ear he meets. When he isn't networking and working on cleaning up his home, he's practicing his swordsmanship.

 

Hiko had been right; Kenshin is doomed.

 

His lessons had continued throughout the years, but he had only marginally improved. His stance is right, but his swings are sloppy, his turns not sharp, and he's incredibly slow. Still, Kenshin has all the theory from years and years or relentless memorization in his mind.

 

He just can't apply it to himself.

 

One late afternoon, he walks into town for lunch at the Akabeko to find it bustling as always. Tae smiles when she sees him, and seats him at the only available spot, a small table for two at the back.

 

"How are you settling in, Kenshin?" she asks.

 

"Fine, thank you, Tae."

 

"What would you like to eat today?"

 

"The special, please."

 

When it arrives, it's a large, bubbling pot filled with thin slices of meat, perfectly cooked vegetables, and fragrant brown broth. His mouth waters, and he licks his lips as Tae slides back into the kitchen, raising his chopsticks to partake.

 

The restaurant goes dead silent.

 

Kenshin looks up from his hotpot.

 

At the entrance to the restaurant is a woman, shorter than him, but lithe, slender, strong. She's dressed in a crisp pair of black hakama that matches her hair, which is gathered at the top of her head, trailing down her back. She is very nearly frowning, and Kenshin thinks, for whatever reason, that he would love to see her smile.

 

She looks at him, and even from across the distance, he can see her eyes are as blue as the ocean.

 

He jumps.

 

"Excuse me," the woman begins, her voice clear but soft, "Is there an empty seat at your table?"

 

"Huh? It is, it's empty, yes," he stammers.

 

She crosses the restaurant, taking a seat opposite him, and Kenshin notes that she carries a sheathed katana at her hip. He stares: the ban on swords has been in place for nearly two years - perhaps she doesn't know? He blinks a few times as she helps herself to the pot of tea, wondering if his eyes are playing tricks on him.

 

He hasn't seen a female swordswoman before.

 

Whispers break out among the patrons, pointing and staring in their direction. Kenshin clears his throat. "Um, excuse me, honored lady," he begins, "Why have you chosen to sit here?"

 

The woman glances at the expanse of the busy restaurant. "Every other table is full."

 

So they are, and upon second glance, Kenshin flushes. "Yes, of course," he mutters, and bows his head. "It's a pleasure to meet you, that it is. This one is called Himura Kenshin, and I would be honored to share my table with you this afternoon, that I would."

 

He expects a cold stare, maybe even a raised brow. Instead she laughs, and Kenshin looks up.

 

His dream is realized- she's absolutely stunning with a curve to her lips, a sparkle in her eyes.

 

"You needn't speak so politely! But I am glad to meet you, Himura Kenshin," she greets, extending a bow back. "I'm Kaoru. I won't impose on you for long; I'm just starved."

 

He breathes a sigh of relief, and the entire restaurant seems to relax just a fraction. He waves Tae over. "Tae, this is Kaoru, and she'll be sharing my table this afternoon. Can we get a fresh pot of tea, please?"

 

"Sure!" Tae says cheerfully, and turns to the swordswoman. Tae's next words die in her throat. There's a long pause, then she says, "Miss Kaoru, may I get you something to eat?"

 

"I actually want what we have here at the table, if Kenshin doesn't mind sharing? I'll gladly pay for half."

 

Kenshin says, "Not at all, this is too much for one person to eat anyway!"

 

As they eat their lunch, Kenshin notes a thin, white scar just under Kaoru's chin on her neck that he hadn't noticed before. How does one get a scar like that, he wonders? He clears his throat. "You had quite the imposing presence when you arrived, Miss Kaoru."

 

She smiles again, politely placing her chopsticks down upon the table before responding. "I favor my father. I tend to look very cross most times, and sometimes people will ask me how they've offended me. But you, Kenshin, you have a very nice smile, and you seem very approachable."

 

He blushes from the compliment. "Well, thank you. Have you been in Tokyo long?"

 

She takes a sip of tea. "Only a day or so."

 

"Do you have family here? Friends?"

 

She hums. "I'm looking for someone. When I find him, though, I will go back to traveling."

 

"Oh? May I ask for your final destination?"

 

There's a strange gleam in her eyes as she says, "I'm a wanderer. I don't have a final destination in mind, I'm afraid. And you? How long have you lived here?"

 

"About three weeks now, truth be told. I moved here from Kyoto after my father passed away."

 

She looks into his eyes, the gleam gone. "I'm sorry to hear that," she offers.

 

"Thank you. Regardless, I'm doing my best to open a dojo. I spent most of my money on purchasing the property, though I admit I know little about enticing students to join."

 

"You're a swordsman?" she asks, surprised.

 

He grins sheepishly. "Truth be told not a very good one, but I can teach."

 

"That is a valuable skill," she says, and strangely enough, he believes that she means it.

 

Kenshin and Kaoru tuck into their meal, sharing pleasantries as they eat. Their audience seems to fade around them, but never fully disappears.

 

"May I ask you a question, Miss Kaoru?" he begins, watching cautiously as she sips her tea.

 

"I suppose," she says, but humor lingers in her words.

 

Kenshin smiles faintly, licks his lips. "Why do they stare at you? We've not been free of eyes since you arrived."

 

Kaoru pauses, eyeing him over the rim of her teacup. Slowly, she places it on the table. "I imagine it's because there aren't many people who carry swords nowadays, not after the ban, and certainly not a woman. Why do you ask?"

 

He hurries to placate her. "I mean nothing negative, of course," he assures. "A woman is just as capable of swinging a sword as a man. If I may ask another question?"

 

She's downright amused, now. "You may as well."

 

He hesitates. "Why carry a sword at all?"

 

She hums, thinking. She begins, twisting the cup in her hands, "A lot of samurai still carry swords, despite the ban from the Shogun. They feel naked without it, like a bird without feathers. Some even sleep with their swords, you know? I imagine being told you can't carry it is similar to drowning. It's something that has kept you safe, sheltered you, become a part of your body, even. Some men must feel like this."

 

"And how do you feel?" he asks.

 

She exhales, the sound suspiciously like a sigh, and a tired smile tugs on her lips. "I suppose I keep it because I don't want to drown."

 

Their pot of bubbling beef and vegetables is simmering low, their bowls of rice picked clean. The long afternoon gradually drags into early evening, and Kenshin bids the mysterious Kaoru farewell, watching as she vanishes past the entryway.

 

Tae descends upon him as a bird of prey, and the entire restaurant chatters loudly, as if they had been holding their breath. "Kenshin! Do you have any idea who that was?" Tae hisses.

 

"Oro?" He scratches the back of his head. "I believe that was Miss Kaoru, was it not?"

 

Tae looks as though she wishes to rip put his hair. "She was carrying a sword, dummy! That means she could be dangerous!"

 

Kenshin laughs heartily. "Tae, Kaoru was very agreeable, that she was! She carried a sword, yes, but plenty of people still carry swords. The ban is loosely enforced, you know!"

 

Tae sighs, sinking into the newly unoccupied seat. "I'm sorry, Kenshin. I swear, coming to Tokyo has made me paranoid. I wasn't like this when I still ran the restaurant with Sae. Everyone is cautious here; it's a bigger city, it's dangerous to trust strangers. And there's been rumors of the four Hitokiri of the Bakumatsu prowling about."

 

A chill runs up his spine. "Hitokiri? The manslayers?"

 

Kenshin lived in Kyoto, the site of most of the bloodshed. However Hiko, his teacher, his guardian, his father, had kept him away from the city for much of it, tending the pottery at their little house in the woods.

 

"You're too terrible with combat to survive if some Ishin Shishi or Shinsengumi bastard decides to pick on you," Hiko would say. "Better stay where it's safe, and keep practicing your swings. Often. I'll go into the city if we need something."

 

Living outside the city limits hadn't stopped the rumors, however. Kenshin would hear tales of the Hitokiri, who could slay men as easily as a hare could hop, silent and deadly assassins. Even after the war had ended, and the violence stopped, he was subject to every tale and word heard through the grapevines. As far as Kenshin had learned, meeting one was certain death.

 

He couldn't even imagine what kind of person could kill so thoughtlessly.

 

Tae grasps Kenshin's shoulder. "You ought to be careful, you know."

 

"I don't think Miss Kaoru is one of the four Hitokiri, Tae," he says.

 

"She could be! You know one of them is a woman, right? Her style of swordsmanship is called the Kamiya Kasshin-Ryu. Have you even seen someone stop a blade with their bare hands, Kenshin? How can you fight someone you can't even swing at?"

 

"Yes, Tae, I've heard of her."

 

"Then you know that she's terrifying," Tae whispers, and when she says the name it reverberates deep within him, "the Battousai."

 

Hitokiri Battousai, the woman who kills men. She wields a blade as long as she is tall, slicing up soldiers faster than the naked eye can see, gracefully ending the lives of all her enemies. None who have faced her have ever survived. She is, the tales say, the Demoness of the Bakumatsu.

 

Kenshin thinks of Kaoru's kind eyes, of her lovely smile, her youthful face. He shakes his head. "She's just too young to be the Battousai, Tae. You saw her, yes? She cannot be a day over twenty - think of how old she would've been during the war!"

 

Tae sighs. "I suppose she is very young. Still, be careful. There's never smoke without a fire, you know? One of the Hitokiri could really be around."

 

"I'll be careful," he chuckles. Kenshin isn't concerned, despite Tae's warnings. Tokyo is such a big city; how could such a person happen to run into him?

 

--- --- ---

 

Kenshin returns home late in the evening with groceries from the marketplace, spent from the walk up the hill and across the bridge. His regular training with Hiko, although had yielded no results, had at least kept him in decent shape. Still, his muscles aren't used to carrying rice, miso, and an assortment of other items across any sort of distance, and he craves a hot bath to soothe the ache in his shoulders.

 

The dojo is cleaning up very nicely; he's spent much of his time the last three weeks polishing the floors until they shine, repairing what damage there is, sweeping old, dead leaves from the courtyard, and setting up for visitors. All the dojo is missing now are students. He hums as he puts his groceries away. Perhaps tomorrow he'll work on advertising, visit other dojos to glean as much advice as possible from the residing masters.

 

From the courtyard, Kenshin hears a feminine voice call out, "Is someone here?"

 

It's Kaoru, nearly blending in with the night in her dark hakama, a pleasant smile on her face.

 

Surprised, Kenshin shuts the sliding door behind him and says, "Miss Kaoru! How have you found yourself here?"

 

"I remembered you told me your home was just over the hill," she says.

 

"Can I help you with something?"

 

"I'm sorry if I've disturbed you," she apologizes. "The inn I stayed at last night is full today, and I don't know the city very well. I know you're also new to the area, but would you be able to point me in the direction of another place to sleep?"

 

He pulls on his shoes, moving to stand closer to her. He notes she grips the hilt of her katana loosely, ever on her guard.

 

Tae's warning tickles the back of his mind, and he shoves it out of sight. "There's only one inn in this area that I know of," he thinks aloud. "I think you'd arrive too late at any others to get a good night's sleep." Kenshin glances back towards his new home. "If it doesn't bother you, Miss Kaoru, I have an extra room you are more than welcome to use. There's no obligation, of course, but the offer is open if you'd like to take it."

 

Kaoru pauses, considers, bows. "I'm in your care," she affirms, and he takes her inside to show her to the room.

 

She shuts the sliding door of her new quarters after bidding him goodnight, and he sighs, wondering how he's managed to entice an unmarried woman to sleep in his house. "Hiko would absolutely murder you, Kenshin," he murmurs, shaking his head and heading to the bath he so desperately wishes for.

 

--- --- ---

 

He's awoken at the crack of dawn by a crash from outside.

 

Kenshin's eyes fly open, and he's frozen in place, listening intently to his surroundings. There's another crash, the sound of something heavy tipping over, and he sits bolt upright.

 

Thieves?

 

He dashes outside in his yukata, a boukken in his hands. He's determined, alert.

 

Outside, waiting to greet him, is a mob of men, all armed with shiny, sharp swords, laughing and defacing his newly cleaned courtyard. Anger rises in his throat, makes it tight, but he still calls out, "Who are you?"

 

The din of the ruffians quiets, and they part as their leader approaches him directly.

 

He's a tall man, with broad shoulders, nearly thrice Kenshin's width. He has large, meaty hands, small, narrowed eyes, and a jaw so square and sharp it almost looks more dangerous than the unsheathed katana in his left hand. The man walks right up to him, quaking the earth with his every step, and stares downward when they are chest to chest.

 

"Oi," he rumbles, voice as deep as the ocean, "Are you the master of this dojo?"

 

Kenshin grips a little tighter. "I am. And who are you?"

 

He grins, showing all of his teeth in a wicked smirk, and raises his weapon above his head. "A challenger."

 

The only thing that keeps him from being split in half at that moment is pure reflex; Kenshin had spent most of his childhood staring at Hiko's wooden practice sword as it neared his face, and most of the time had not been able to dodge it. The challenger's katana gleams in the dawning light, and there's a whoosh of wind against Kenshin's skin.

 

The sword splits the deck he stood on, only moments ago.

 

"Come now, Master of Swords," taunts the man, easily retrieving the blade from the wood. "When a challenger arrives, you must fight him. Have you no pride?!"

 

He swings again; Kenshin scrambles out of the way, falling into some of the ruffians. They push him back into the middle of the courtyard as their leader inhales, turning to face him. "Who are you?" Kenshin cries.

 

"You may call me Hitokiri," he purrs, and the blood in his veins freezes. "I am a demon of Kyoto, a slayer of men. And I require your life."

 

The Hitokiri lets out a terrible yell, swinging to kill. He narrowly avoids the blow once more, but very narrowly. Kenshin stumbles back until his legs hit the step leading into the dojo, where he sees the source of the sound that woke him.

 

The sword rack housing the katanas that had once belonged to his father are strewn about the floor, his hard work undone by shoe prints, one of the pillars pierced with a long spear. The wood around the blade cracks.

 

Kenshin grits his teeth, pulling himself inside the room, forcing himself to his feet, his boukken forgotten in the dusty courtyard. Kenshin feels his fingers grip the hilt of Hiko's sword, and then there is a pounding of feet at the Hitokiri advances on him, giving him just enough time to slip the weapon from its sheath before steel meets steel.

 

"Oi, Master of Swords," rumbles the Hitokiri, a strange glint in his black eyes, "That's a nice blade. Give it to me."

 

"This sword belonged to my master," he spits. "This dojo was his dream, a dream he couldn't have because he chose to raise me, instead. I'd never let a murderer like you take that from him!"

 

He's suddenly very close, and Kenshin can feel his hot, putrid breath against his ear. "Maybe not, but I have no qualms killing you for that sword. Hold still, and I promise to make it less painful for you than most of the men I kill."

 

Kenshin shuts his eyes, awaiting the piercing stab in his gut, but there's a cry from his men outside, and the sound of something wet hitting the earth.

 

Kenshin and his attacker stare at the dark entrance to the dojo, like a gaping mouth, their blades still locked. Several guttural screams rip from throats, then a stampede of feet, and the fading of their retreat is punctuated by one final yell morphing into a gurgle, then nothing.

 

For several long moments, there is silence.

 

"May I enter, Kenshin?" calls Kaoru.

 

His eyes widen, the Hitokiri swiftly withdrawing towards the entrance to look after his men, gasping and choking on air as he sees what has become of them.

 

"Miss Kaoru?" Kenshin whispers. Her presence hits him suddenly, and he cries, "Miss Kaoru, run! These men are dangerous!"

 

But as he gets closer, and can see Kaoru kneeling politely at the door, he also sees the carnage.

 

The courtyard is swathed in crimson, several bodies strewn haphazardly in the dirt. Some are cut cleanly in half, leaking something dark into the dust. There must be five men dead, he realizes, and Kenshin wonders how this could have happened. The sun finally emerges, lighting the whole courtyard as if it's on fire, a sea of blood. From the end of Kaoru's unsheathed sword drips steady beads of red.

 

"Miss Kaoru?"

 

Their eyes meet; she smiles, and it's weary, tired, but genuine. "Kenshin, may I enter?"

 

"Yes..."

 

She rises, slipping off her shoes, standing before him in a heartbeat. "Are you hurt?" she asks.

 

He should be horrified. "No, I'm... I'm well."

 

The Hitokiri roars, pivoting to face them, left hand squeezing the hilt of his weapon so hard Kenshin thinks it might shatter. "You - what have you done to my men?!"

 

Kaoru's calm, soft eyes grow cold, and she looks to the intruder. "Your men were going to burst in and attack all at once. For one who challenges a Master of Swords, you don't even have the honor to make it a fair fight. I allowed most of them to leave with their lives."

 

"Don't you know who I am, little girl?" he snarls. "I am one of the four Hitokiri of the Bakumatsu! I've killed a thousand men with a single stroke of my sword! Do you think I'll spare you because you're a woman?"

 

"I do know who you are," she says, sliding a foot back, raising her dripping katana above her head. Kenshin knows that posture; it's the stance of someone ready to kill. "I've been looking for you, you know. You go from dojo to dojo challenging all the masters, attacking them with your numbers, and using the name of the Hitokiri to scare them. When I heard Kenshin was starting a new school to teach his swordsmanship, I knew you'd eventually come here to claim his life."

 

Kenshin whispers, "Kaoru,"

 

"If you know so much you should know to fear me!" he bursts. "You should know you cannot win against me!"

 

"I also know you're an imposter," she bites. "You aren't Hitokiri - you aren't even samurai. You're just a murderer killing for sport."

 

The man pauses, the color draining from his head, leaving him completely ashen. "I know you," he whispers. "Black hair... Eyes like the sea...But it can't be..." He inhales, yells, dashing forward and bringing his sword down upon her head, and Kenshin cries out, because Kaoru is sure to be dead, cannot possibly survive such a crushing blow.

 

But Kenshin blinks, and Kaoru has caught the man's blade between the knuckles of her fingers, the sharp edge a hair's width away from her head.

 

"Battousai," the man breathes, and in the next instant Kaoru has twirled around, stealing the weapon from his grasp, driving his own blood-stained katana into his heart.

 

It's stunning.

 

He crumples to wooden floors, dead.

 

Kenshin watches the light fade from his eyes.

 

"I'm sorry to have surprised you," Kaoru apologizes after a long, cold silence. "I've been tracking this man for months now. He's murdered eight others before you."

 

When he looks at her, she's kneeling on the floor, bowing so low that he jumps, a dogeza the last thing he expected.

 

"I knew your life was in danger, and I didn't tell you. I hope you can forgive me."

 

"No, I... That's fine, but," he stammers. "Miss Kaoru, please stand, I - Are you really...who he said?"

 

Kaoru looks up, and they gaze at each other for a long while. She smiles, sadly. "I never told you my full name." A beat. "I'm Kamiya Kaoru."

 

Have you even seen someone stop a blade with their bare hands, Kenshin? 

 

"That was Kamiya Kasshin-Ryu," he says. "You really are the Hitokiri Battousai, aren't you?"

 

A fire lights in her eyes, and she cries, "I'm not that person anymore! I-!" Her cheeks turn a soft shade of pink, and the volume of her voice lowers, but not the intensity. "I was, yes. But the war ended two years ago. I don't have a place to return to that people don't see me as Hitokiri. I don't want to be seen as a that for the rest of my life. I thought-" She cuts off.

 

Kenshin waits.

 

Kaoru looks away. "I'm sorry if I've frightened you. I can assure you that you'll never see me again after today."

 

"You saved my life," he murmurs, heart racing. There are dead men in his courtyard. Entrails strewn about the ground. A dead man lying a step away, his own sword stuck in his chest. Kamiya Kaoru kneels before him, a woman that has killed hundreds of people. He should be nauseous. He should be frightened.

 

He's not.

 

"Kenshin?"

 

"You saved my life," he repeats. "As much as I wish it was different, he would have killed me, that he would." Kenshin pauses, and before he can stop himself breathes the words, "You were incredible."

 

Kaoru gets to her feet. "I don't know what to say," she admits cautiously. "I don't usually reveal my identity, least of all to men I barely know." She licks her lips. "Do you wish me gone?"

 

"You told me you didn't have a destination in mind," he answers. "Was that true?"

 

Kaoru nods. "My only goal was to find this man. I'm free of my duties for a while now that he's been dealt with."

 

"Then," he starts, heart thumping against his ribs, "if you'd like to remain in Tokyo a while longer, you're welcome to stay here. I'd like you to stay."

 

Kaoru is silent for a long while, and Kenshin fears she will tell him no. But then the cold, hard mask of the Battousai slips, and he sees for the first time not the face of a killer, or even the mysterious smile of the stranger who introduced herself at the Akabeko, but the wistful expression of a young woman that wants nothing but to be trusted. It catches him off guard - her brow knits together, her teeth catch her lip. "Are you sure?" she squeaks.

 

Tae is wrong.

 

Kaoru isn't terrifying.

 

She's adorable.

 

"Yes," he breathes. "It's the least I can do after the service you've done for me. And, I suspect, for others, too."

 

The light finally reached the entrance to the dojo, and when the rays hit Kaoru's face they illuminate the brilliant blue of her eyes, and she smiles. "Thank you, Himura Kenshin," she whispers.

 

He offers his hand, and Kaoru reaches out, takes it.

 

Kenshin exhales.

 

He might be in love.

Chapter Text

Kamiya Kaoru stomps her small feet, successfully dislodging one of her pretty new shoes, which flies into the mud.

 

"Kaoru!" her mother scolds gently, softly. "You mustn't stomp your feet!"

 

"I'm not going," she cries, and squeezes large fistfuls of her new silk kimono in protest.

 

"You must, young one," her mother chides, her voice soft, her tone gentle. "Father has suffered much and sacrificed more for this chance, for your future. You, my daughter, hold not only your own fate, but the fate of your family on your small shoulders." Her mother's hand, soft and light, lovingly touches her cheek. "That makes you one of the strongest girls I know."

 

Kaoru tries to fight the warmth that spreads in her heart, can't. She smiles.

 

"There's my brave little girl," her mother whispers, and for a moment uncertainty flashes in her lovely blue eyes, but then she takes Kaoru's hand and says, "Father will be waiting. I'll give an excuse for the shoe, so just smile and be your wonderful self, okay?"

 

"Okay," Kaoru agrees.

 

The pagoda looms over the garden, a magnificent shadow that Kaoru cannot take her eyes off of. She can hardly believe that someone lives here; it's so incredibly different from her home she shares with her parents, among the mud and dirt of the back alleys of Tokyo. The trip had been a long one - her mother is but one woman traveling alone with her daughter, but they were lucky to remain unbothered on the road.

 

Waiting at the doors to a small, much lower building to the left of the pagoda stands a tall man, his face hard, his eyes gleaming in the growing dark. Her mother clears her throat, bowing low, and Kaoru hurries to mirror her. "We have arrived to meet with Lord Suwa," she announces. The man's eyes slide to Kaoru's feet.

 

"...Follow me."

 

He leads around the outside of the building and turns a sharp corner. Beyond that is an open entryway, and Kaoru can see the large, familiar back of her father, kneeling on a silk cushion. Just past him is an even more dangerous looking man than their guide, with cold eyes, a sharp nose, and a wicked scar spanning from his left ear all the way to the base of his neck on the other side. Whatever happened, he had survived it, and he is not to be trifled with. To his right, a boy who is almost a man sits silently, his dark eyes fixed firmly on the floor.

 

"Kamiya Kiku and Kamiya Kaoru, My Lord," their guide announces.

 

Her mother suddenly dips down in a dogeza, right in the courtyard, and Kaoru does the same. "We are humbled in your presence, Lord Suwa."

 

Kaoru feels her mother's toes against her own, and she slips the remaining shoe from her foot.

 

"Rise."

 

As they do, she watches the shoe slide out of sight into her mother's sleeve. Lord Suwa motions them in, and Kaoru longs to rush into her father's arms and hug him tightly, tell him how much she's missed him, but when their eyes meet he gives his head a little shake, and smiles reassuringly at her. At the step leading inside, her mother takes off her geta, but Kaoru climbs right inside, her feet already free. Once seated, Lord Suwa inhales.

 

"The girl wears no shoes."

 

"A mistake on my part, My Lord," her mother apologizes. "Kaoru had told me the shoes she wore were too small and hurt her feet, but I only listened once we were at your door."

 

She's struck with a sudden fear that pierces her heart that he won't believe her, will smell the lie. He will know she doesn't want to be here. Instead, he hums and leans back, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "A smart, intuitive child. I value those who know avoiding lasting damage is more important than social functions."

 

Her father bows, touching his forehead to the tatami. "Thank you, Lord Suwa. We are honored to receive your compliment."

 

Kaoru's eyes catch those of the silent young man at Lord Suwa's side, and they both blush and look away.

 

"My son is now seventeen years of age," Lord Suwa announces, and his cold eyes turn once more onto Kaoru. "How old is your daughter, Koshijirou?"

 

"She will be eight in four months, My lord."

 

"Too young, in my opinion. I've a good mind to let her age a bit before we settle any details."

 

Her father tightens his grip on nothing, releases it, tightens again, fidgeting. "My Lord, Kaoru has many years before she will be a woman. You mean to await official decisions until she is grown? Your son will be nearing thirty at that time..."

 

"You mean to question me?" Lord Suwa rumbles, his voice low, dangerous.

 

"No, of course not..."

 

He strokes his beard again, lost in thought. "Though you do have a valid point. I'm binding your daughter to my son for a purpose, after all."

 

He thinks, and the room is as silent as a graveyard.

 

"I will betroth your daughter to my son now," Lord Suwa announces. "But she is far too young to be married. We will hold the wedding when she is grown enough to understand her role as my son's wife." Turning his piercing gaze directly on her, he says, "That means you will decide your fate, young one."

 

Kaoru takes these words, keeps them in her heart for years after.

 

"Koshijirou," Suwa continues, getting to his feet, "I have a desire to play a game of shogi against you, in celebration of the bond our families now share. Your wife may attend to us in the other room as we play."

 

"And the children, My Lord?" Kaoru's mother speaks out.

 

 "They are engaged. We should allow them to spend some time in the company of their future spouse."

 

"Unchaperoned, My Lord?" she continues, her face blanching white.

 

"Kaoru is his betrothed, Lady Kiku. My son will protect her with his life."

 

And with that, her father and mother are gone, along with the silent guide and the sharp stare of Lord Suwa. Kaoru kneels as still as she can, biting her lip in concentration, afraid to look up and into the eyes of her future husband, but she cannot resist the temptation, the curiosity that consumes her entire being, and risks a glance. They stare, not another person in the whole world.

 

"Your eyes are blue," says her betrothed. "I've never seen blue eyes."

 

"They're my mother's."

 

"In all other ways you look like Koshijirou."

 

She knows she has her father's wide nose and tall forehead, his ovular face and strong hands. She also knows she'll be absolutely hideous when she grows up because of it, and wonders if he's trying to insult her. "You look like your father too," she notes.

 

He smirks. "Your name is Kaoru, right?"

 

"Yes. " She suddenly comes to the realization that she doesn't know his, and yet she knows she's avoided talking about it ever since her father brought it up. Timidly, she bites her lip. "And your name is?"

 

"Mitsuhide," he responds, tilting his head back in a way that reminds her strongly of a person who does not lose. "Suwa Mitsuhide."

 

--- --- ---

 

Kaoru wakes from her dream, sighing as the first rays of dawn light the spare room of Himura Kenshin's home.

 

Why is she here?

 

Her back aches from where she slept against the wall, legs crossed, ever on her guard. The courtyard is still stained from her encounter with the false Hitokiri and his men, but the dojo is clean; she had made sure of it, scrubbing the wood long into the afternoon until it sparkled and shone.

 

She likes Kenshin. He's the first person she's met that knew who she was that only cared she had saved his life. Many are not as understanding, but she can hardly blame them. Still...

 

Why is she here?

 

Kaoru finds her host in the kitchen, grilling fresh fish over an open flame, rice bubbling in a brand new pot on the heat. She smiles. "Good morning, Kenshin," she calls. "Are you making breakfast?"

 

He turns, an enormous streak of soot across his cheeks, and cracks a grin. "Good morning, Miss Kaoru!"

 

A bubble of laughter escapes from her lips, and her hands fly up to trap the sound, cutting it short.

 

Kenshin stares. "Is something wrong?"

 

She fears the laugh will consume her, and instead of speak, uses one hand to tap her cheek.

 

He mirrors her, confusion evident, and gasps when his fingers return black. "Soot!" he exclaims.

 

The dam breaks; laughter bursts from within her, and she laughs so loudly and for so long that she forces herself to stop, because her stomach smarts painfully and she feels like she will pass out without oxygen. "I'm sorry," she wheezes, clutching the stitch in her side, "but a soot mark that large is just so very like you!"

 

He wipes the mark from his skin, a devious smile on his lips. "I'm glad, Miss Kaoru," he tells her, and she tilts her head.

 

"Glad?"

 

"You've been very solemn since we met yesterday," he explains. "This is the first time I believe I've witnessed the real Kamiya Kaoru."

 

Her hands fall by her sides, the smile slipping from her face. "I'm sorry," she says again. "I've been on the road for a long time, so I'm not used to having company. I must have been rude yesterday."

 

"Not at all, Miss Kaoru," Kenshin assures. "I'm just glad to hear you laugh so happily." He motions to the meal cooking behind him. "Are you hungry?"

 

Kaoru is famished.

 

Kenshin is an excellent cook.

 

She gobbles up the fish quickly, taking large bites of steaming white rice in between. They dine at a low table that's large enough to fit four people, and the room is filled with sunlight, the sweet fragrance of mid-spring. She's aware of Kenshin's eyes on her, and looks up, food stuffed in her cheek. They stare.

 

"You have blue eyes," he says.

 

Kaoru swallows. "They're my mother's."

 

"You told me you favor your father yesterday," he recalls, smiling politely and taking her bowl from her, refilling it with fresh rice. "Do you have any siblings?"

 

"None," she answers, and blinks once, twice. "Do you favor your father, Kenshin?"

 

Kenshin hums, a sad ring to the notes of his voice. "I hope so," he tells her, and takes a bite of fish.

 

"Are you teaching a class today?" she asks.

 

"Perhaps if I manage to find a student or two I will!" he chuckles.

 

"Oh, I thought you had students already?"

 

Kenshin licks his lips. "I'm getting there, that I am."

 

She thinks, thoughts and actions whirling through her mind. "Would you like me to go with you today? To advertise?"

 

"Would you?" he asks.

 

"I'd be glad to. It's the least I can do after taking a day of business from you. The police wouldn't let you leave the property while they gathered our testimonies yesterday."

 

"A day of business gone, yes, but a lifetime of more days to live," he reminds her. "I planned on stopping by the other dojos in the area to ask after their surplus. I don't mean to brag, but my dojo is more centrally located in the city, that it is, and some students may wish they didn't have to go so far into the country to attend their lessons."

 

She smiles fondly at him. "Good idea. We can leave after breakfast."

 

Kaoru notices many things about Kenshin that she hadn't noticed the day before. She'd seen but a little of his fight with the imposter, and from what little she did witness, she knows Kenshin is no great swordsman. And yet he's fast. Incredibly fast. The imposter's swings had been heavy and slow, but she was still surprised he'd been able to dodge them all.

 

Even experienced samurai forget their footwork when faced with such a large opponent.

 

After breakfast, Kaoru, adjusts her dark hakama and situates her katana comfortably by her hip. Kenshin meets her at the gates, and she cannot help but note he doesn't carry any weapon himself. Not even a wooden one.

 

"Shall we set off, Miss Kaoru?" he asks brightly.

 

She nods, warmed by his smile, and her lips soften. "Let's. Where did you want to go first?"

 

They walk to a sword school fifteen minutes outside of Tokyo, and Kaoru can hear the shouts and breaths of the students from down the road. It's a busy place, and from when she can tell, run by a very talented Master of Swords.

 

He's a broad man, with wide, powerful shoulders, a slim face, and knowing brown eyes. When he spots Kenshin, he frowns.

 

"Can I help you, stranger?" he asks, voice booming. The din of chatter and putter of feet against the wood floors dies almost instantly, and Kaoru narrows her eyes as everyone turns to stare.

 

Kenshin is clearly confused by the animosity in the welcome, and reaches up to scratch the back of his head. "Uh, yes, master," he greets. "This one is Himura Kenshin. I've opened up a dojo in central Tokyo and have come to pay my respects, that I have."

 

Kaoru forces the muscles in her face to relax so she doesn't smile - there he goes again, speaking ridiculously politely.

 

The master relaxes immediately. "I see," he says, and the students go back to their exercises, filling the dojo once again with shuffling feet and battle cries. "I've heard a new master had come to open a school. So it was you, Himura Kenshin?"

 

"That is was," Kenshin affirms. "And your name is, master?"

 

"Ogura Sogo. I apologize for the cold welcome," Ogura says, extending a short bow. "We've been a little on edge lately."

 

"May I ask why, Master Ogura?" Kenshin inquires.

 

"Rumors, speculation, mostly," he notes, humming thoughtfully.

 

Kaoru takes a half step forward. "Mostly?"

 

Ogura rubs the stubble on his chin. "Truth be told, several of my students have been attacked on their way home after their lessons."

 

"Attacked?!" Kenshin gasps.

 

"No major injuries," he calms them. "Usually nothing more than a shove and a tumble, cuts and bumps. Still, I don't feel right about sending them home without anything to defend themselves other than a wooden sword." Kaoru's hand flinches reflexively over the hilt of her katana, drawing Master Ogura's eye. "It's a brave man that ignores the shogun's ban on swords," he notes, an air of suspicion in his voice. "Let alone a woman."

 

"An old habit," she deadpans, keeping her eyes still, her breathing steady.

 

Ogura turns back to Kenshin. "Perhaps you and your student would like to train with us today, Himura," he offers, and the tension drops. "We could use a fresh perspective in our matches."

 

Kenshin points at Kaoru, and Kaoru points at Kenshin "Student?" they echo simultaneously.

 

Ogura's thick eyebrows raise. "Unless you think it's not worth your time, of course."

 

Several minutes later, Kaoru stands in the far corner of the dojo, watching as Kenshin faces off against Ogura's students, one at a time.

 

He's being absolutely pulverized. Kenshin's stance is too wide, his swings too short, his turns and pivots too dull. It's amusing to see - some of the students must be half his age, children, but they manage to hit the backs of his legs and jab him in the stomach regardless. Kaoru takes note of how he holds his boukken; his fingers curl around the wood tightly, the tip of his weapon always tilted slightly upward.

 

Suddenly the wide stance makes sense. Kenshin must be used to sparring with people much taller than him.

 

Perhaps his father he mentions often? She wonders what kind of man raised her host.

 

There are eyes on her, and her gaze snaps to the opposite corner, where Master Ogura watches her quietly. He's expressionless for a moment, then smiles calmly and motion her over.

 

Kaoru crossed the room carefully, glancing back at Kenshin as he teaches one of the very young students how to properly hold his sword. Next to Master Ogura, she leans against the wall and waits.

 

"You're a dangerous woman, Kamiya Kaoru," he mumbles under his breath.

 

Her hand tightens around her hilt.

 

"You can be at peace," he assures her. "I don't mean to bring you or your friend to harm."

 

Her fingers relax. "How do you know me?" she asks.

 

"Hard to miss you, truth be told," he admits. "The long black hair, the slit on your throat, the blue eyes... Do you know anyone else that has eyes your color, Kamiya Battousai?"

 

She waits.

 

"Your companion, Himura. Does he know who you are?"

 

"He knows," she admits.

 

"I suppose he would," Ogura continues, turning his eyes back to the match. "I heard something from a friend that works with the police. Is it true the man you killed the day before last was one of the four Hitokiri?"

 

"An imposter, attacking schools like your own and murdering the masters."

 

"So why does a manslayer save a bumbling fool like Himura Kenshin? His form is absolutely terrible." She's about to give a sharp retort, feeling a hot anger seize her throat, but Ogura holds up his hand to stop her. "No - perhaps it's best I don't know. What I need, Battousai, is your absolute assurance that you mean no harm to my students. If you intend to hurt them, I will strike you down now."

 

She sees his large hand grip the boukken a little tighter, and her heart sinks. Even if they fight, wood never lasts a minute against steel. "Master Ogura," she murmurs, "I can promise you on my honor that I mean you and your students no harm."

 

He lets go, placing his hands in his sleeves for warmth. "I will hold you to your word, Battousai."

 

They pause, watch as Kenshin is attacked by several young students and topples to the floor in a laughing heap. "Who is targeting your school, Master Ogura?" she asks.

 

"I don't know. The boys that were attacked said they never saw their assailant, only that they were pushed down a small hill off of the road and they ran home. One boy had his arm broken in the fall. I worry for their safety."

 

"Allow me to walk with your students," she suggests. "If nothing else, I may be able to catch whoever is targeting you."

 

He glances her way, curiosity brimming in his eyes. "You are the Battousai, are you not?" he asks. "And now you offer safety to my charges?"

 

She looks away. "I killed for duty in a time of war, Master Ogura. Please don't allow what you've heard to shape your opinion of who it makes me."

 

"Perhaps you're right." He takes a step forward, clapping his hands together. "Listen up," he announces. "Master Himura and his student have volunteered to walk you safely home in case our mysterious attacker strikes again. Say thank you, everyone."

 

The children and teenagers turn to Kenshin, who smiles and shrugs, as they bow and express their gratitude.

 

The day draws to a close and Kenshin and Kaoru head out into the late afternoon sun, a handful of students carving the path before them. They're so young, she notes, some of them not older than eight. She wonders if any of them have ever held a real sword, if any of them will ever have to.

 

Once the children are a sizable distance ahead of them, but close enough that they can spring into action if need be, Kenshin inhales. "Miss Kaoru, it was your idea to walk Master Ogura's students safely home, was it not?"

 

She glances at him, taking her eyes from the students for only a moment. "One of the young boys broke an arm," she explains. "I don't feel right about ignoring it when we could help."

 

Kenshin looks up at the painted sky, sighing fondly. "First you help me, a total stranger, and now you help yet another group of people in need." Their eyes meet again, for just a moment. "You have a kind heart, Miss Kaoru."

 

No one has ever told her something so sincerely. She bites her lip, looks away.

 

There's a rustle in the bushes ahead, and a small oscillation of energy tickles her senses. She narrows her eyes, hand hovering next to the hilt of her sword. "Kenshin," she intones, "The bushes up ahead. The children will pass them in just a moment."

 

He focuses in, and she's aware he doesn't have a weapon, but she knows he's not defenseless. The children near the bush, totally unaware, and right as a pair of hands extend from the leaves to push one of them down the hill, Kaoru leaps forward, and Keshin dashes to catch them.

 

She grabs the attacker's neck, yanking him easily from the shrubs and slamming him against the ground, sword at his throat. Having caught the small student targeted, Kenshin cries, "Are you all right?"

 

Kaoru blinks at the assailant. "A brat?"

 

The young boy held under her grip seethes, spits, "What's your problem, ugly?!"

 

--- --- ---

 

"Master Ogura."

 

Ogura turns from his duties, sees the captive, and frowns.

 

Kaoru holds the front of the boy's yutaka in her fist, offers him forward. "I caught your villain. Someone you know?"

 

Ogura sighs, shakes his head. "Yahiko, you foolish boy," he berates gently. "Souta broke his arm, you know?"

 

"I didn't mean to push him that hard," Yahiko hisses, barely older than ten and already very full of anger.

 

Ogura's frown deepens, lines on his face that Kaoru likens to canyons. "Be respectful, greet your elders. Kaoru, this is Myoujin Yahiko. He is a former student of mine, but he is no longer welcome here. Where is Master Himura?"

 

"He's walking the boys home," she explains, releasing her hold on Yahiko. He rubs his shoulder sheepishly, glaring at the floor.

 

Ogura approaches Yahiko, towering over him, and extends a large, calloused hand. "Yahiko," he rumbles, "you will return all that you have stolen from your former classmates, and I will never say another word on the matter."

 

He blanches. "I - I haven't stolen anything!"

 

"Yahiko."

 

The boy jerks back, away from Master Ogura's hand, and bumps into Kaoru. He whirls around, makes to push her, but can't so much as budge her feet from the floor. She watches tears well up in his eyes, and she can feel his rage and frustration, before he speeds around her and dashes away, vanishing beyond a distant corner.

 

Ogura sighs again. "I suppose I ought to thank you for your help. You've done us a service, Battousai - I will not forget it."

 

"It's no trouble," she assures, glancing at where Yahiko had disappeared. "You said the boy was once a student of yours?"

 

"Yes, not even two years ago. His parents were a proud samurai family, fighting on the side of the Ishin Shishi - I hope this doesn't change your opinion of him, as a servant of the shogun."

 

She licks her lips, doesn't answer.

 

"Both his mother and his father were executed for treason after the war ended, and he had no one to take him in. I offered to continue his lessons for free, but he began to lash out. Hit the other students. Fight and bully them. Then he began stealing their pocket change, and I warned him that I wouldn't tolerate such behavior, but he did not stop. I had no choice but to cut him off."

 

"A victim of the war," she laments. "Do you think he's striking out against you for revenge?"

 

"I didn't know if it was him," he admits. "But I'm glad it is, rather than a more formidable enemy. Yahiko has much anger in him, but he will grow from it." Ogura looks tired, gives her a guarded, unsure smile. "You're not what I imagined the Demoness of the Bakumatsu to be, truth be told. Thank you."

 

"Master Ogura," she starts, "do you know where Yahiko is staying?"

 

Kenshin meets her at the bridge near his home, all kind smiles and patience. "Did you manage to sort out the situation, Miss Kaoru?" he asks.

 

His smile sparks something inside her, and her chest glows with a warmth she is unaccustomed to, but welcomes. She smiles back. "Yes. Thank you for walking the students back, Kenshin. You're a good man."

 

He laughs, embarrassed, and offers her his arm. "Shall we go home?"

 

She slips her hand through the loop, resting their forearms together, and says, "Yes. Let's go." Kaoru glances back down the hill, her eyes scanning the horizon, her feet stilling. "Actually, Kenshin, I have another errand to run before we head back. Do you want to come with me?"

 

Yahiko is outside the boarding house washing a large load of clothes and trying to hide his crying behind sniffs when they arrive. He looks up sharply when their shadows dance at the edge of his vision, and hastily wipes his eyes with his sleeve. "I'm not gonna bother Master Ogura anymore, okay?" he bites. "You don't have to be here."

 

A silent man against the boarding house, his eyes on them. Kaoru notes he holds a katana. "Why do you live here?" she asks. "A boarding house like this is probably too expensive for a brat like yourself. Do you steal the money from the kids you push down the hill?"

 

"I'm not a thief!" he cries, but glances back at their quiet observer, and Kaoru sees a sliver of a dark, angry bruise forming just out of sight on his neck. "You two have to leave. It's not safe here."

 

Kenshin kneels before him, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Are you in trouble, young one? Do you need help?"

 

For a moment the mask drops, and it's the crying boy before them, but the next moment he frowns and growls from behind his teeth, "I don't need help. I need you to leave."

 

The man with the katana stands, slowly advancing on them.

 

Panicked, Yahiko shoves Kenshin hard, and he tumbles back. "Please," he whispers, eyes wide. "Hurry."

Chapter Text

Yahiko is only a child when the shogun’s men drag his mother out of their house and into the mud.

 

It’s raining; he’s too young to understand what she means when she urgently whispers, “Stay inside the house, Yahiko, hide and don’t come out for anyone but me and your father, do you understand me? I said, do you understand me?!”

 

He hides in the space beneath the house, under the worn tatami and the wooden foundation. There are loud, thundering footsteps above him, rattling the floor directly over his head. He heeds his mother, and doesn’t come out even when she starts to scream.

 

When the house is quiet, Yahiko pushes up on the loose mat and scrambles out, tripping on his way to the dirty window. The sword his mother gave him is too heavy to lift, but he yearns to unsheathe it and rush to her aid. The men force her to kneel in the muck, shouting questions Yahiko can’t hear over the roar of the wind and the pounding of rain.

 

For a single moment, his mother’s eyes meet his through the window.

 

She smiles, all the love in the world in her eyes, and the expression remains on her face as a sword slices down to decapitate her.

 

Hide and don’t come out until she or his father arrives.

 

His mother cannot tell him they’re safe anymore, so Yahiko waits for his father.

 

And waits.

 

And waits.

 

And waits.

 

--- --- ---

 

Damn it all, the woman with the blue eyes and the smiling man are back.

 

Yahiko spots them across the yard, from his vantage point at the corner of his employers’ building. He doesn’t have time for this shit - he has a quota to meet today, and charity will only get himself and the strangers into trouble.

 

Yahiko glances at Yoku, who twirls a tall stalk of grass between his yellow teeth, taps the blunt edge of his shitty sword against his shoulder.

 

“I thought you said you’d take care of it,” Yoku murmurs.

 

“I did, okay?” Yahiko snaps, shakes his head. “I dunno why those two idiots are back. I told them to scram.”

 

Yoku lets a heavy palm down on Yahiko’s shoulder once, twice. “Fix it. We don’t need this kind of attention. The swordsman looks like he can’t see past his own nose, and the woman is just a woman. Should be cake for a samurai's kid like you, yeah?”

 

Yahiko grits his teeth, resists the urge to shrug Yoku’s hand off of him. “I’ll handle it.”

 

Yoku tisks. “See that you do.”

 

Yahiko turns his nose up and marches over, strikes a pose with his arms crossed over his chest. “In case I wasn’t clear yesterday,” he begins, “ fuck off.”

 

The woman (Kaoru, if he remembers her name) wrinkles her nose. “The mouth on you,” she scolds.

 

The man gets to one knee, a kind smile on his face. “Yahiko, my name is Himura Kenshin. My friend, Miss Kaoru, and I think you may be in trouble. Is there any way we can help?”

 

Yahiko recoils. “I’m fine. I told you I’m not gonna bother Master Ogura again, okay? Now will you please leave?”

 

He can feel Yoku standing behind him, doesn’t even turn to look and confirm it. Kenshin and Kaoru notice him too; Kenshin frowns, Kaoru remains expressionless.

 

“Hey,” Kaoru murmurs. “If you’re really fine, then okay. If you need help, meet us at the Akabeko in an hour. Your shadow is too close for a real conversation.”

 

And with that, she grips the back of Kenshin’s collar and heaves him to his feet. Yahiko watches them leave, pulse pounding in his neck, heart thudding in his ears. When he turns, Yoku is a few feet away, tapping the blunt of his katana to his shoulder.

 

“See?” Yahiko squeaks through his dry throat. “Handled.”

 

Not even thirty minutes later, Yahiko bursts past the cloth curtains separating the outside from the restaurant, searches wildly for familiar faces. This is madness, suicide, foolish, he shouldn’t be here, but he can’t make himself leave.

 

A tender touch on his shoulder, and he spins around.

 

The fingers belong to a young woman with the same, dreamy curl to her lips as Kenshin. The lunch hour of the restaurant is loud, bustling with patrons and already-drunk vagabonds, but he can still hear her over the babble.

 

“Are you Yahiko? They’re in the courtyard through the kitchen.”

 

Numb, his feet carry him past the chef and sweltering heat of the old ovens, into the small courtyard occupied by a handful of brown chickens plucking at grains amongst the grass and dirt.

 

Kaoru notices him first, or maybe she always knew he would come. “You’re early, brat,” she notes.

 

Yahiko stands tall. “Bite me.”

 

Kenshin only smiles. “We’re glad you came, Yahiko. Miss Kaoru and I want to help you. Can you tell us what’s going on?”

 

Yahiko licks his lips, hesitates. “If I tell you, you’ll be in danger.”

 

“We’re not afraid, young one,” Kenshin promises, and somehow, Yahiko believes him.

 

“I’m in debt,” he gushes, “to a man named Yoku. You’ve met.”

 

Kaoru narrows her eyes; were they always that startling shade of blue?

 

“The debt belonged to my father, and now it’s mine. I’ve been working for him to help pay it off, but he adds everything I use to it. Bedding, clothes, food, he counts every single grain of rice. He makes me take people’s purses and bring them back to him. He tells me they owe him the money and that it’s not really stealing, but I don’t believe him.”

 

Yahiko pauses here, swallows.

 

“He hurts people, when they can’t pay him back. He’s a bad man.”

 

Kaoru reaches down, hooks a finger in the front of his robe, and holds it back, cool air hitting his skin. “Did Yoku do this to you?”

 

Yahiko winces as the bruise on his neck smarts. He inhales. “I told him I didn’t want to steal from Ogura’s students three days ago. This was for talking back.”

 

The hardness in her eyes softens, almost maternal, and Yahiko trembles at the thought. “Do you have anywhere to stay?”

 

He fights back tears. “No. But sleeping on the streets is better than staying with him.”

 

Kenshin reaches down, smooths the front of his clothes with one hand. “That won’t be necessary, Yahiko. I have plenty of room at my house; you’re welcome to stay as long as you need to.”

 

The drops spill over then, brimming at his waterline, streaking down his cheeks. He hates to cry, but for the first time in years he feels like he has a chance to be free, and it is an encouraging thought. “Why are you so willing to help me?” he asks. “You don’t even know me.”

 

Kenshin looks at Kaoru, unsure himself, and the woman watches him with her maternal eyes, soft at the edges and impossibly blue. “You remind me of someone I know,” she whispers, and that’s that.

 

--- --- ---

 

Kenshin’s house is unreal.

 

It’s a short walk from the Akabeko, but still somehow tucked away from the hubbub and bustle of the city, wrapped between green trees and quiet hills. Everything is frozen here, like time has stopped and a peace settles over. When he closes his eyes, all Yahiko can hear is the whisper of the breeze and the song of cicadas.

 

There’s an entire dojo on the lot as well, and Yahiko’s eyes go as wide and round as rice bowls as he oogles it, wanting nothing more than to step inside and swing his sword around.

 

Kenshin leads him past the open doors of the dojo, however, and down a long, open-air hall to a small room, the floor lined with tatami.

 

“It’s not very large,” Kenshin apologizes, “but my other spare room is occupied. I hope this is okay.”

 

The words are on the tip of his tongue, that this room far out does the cold, dirty kitchen Yahiko sleeps in every night, but he swallows them down. “It’s fine. I can’t believe you’re going to help me at all.”

 

Kaoru takes a step forward, pats his head. “It’s no trouble. Just keep your nose clean from now on, kid.”

 

He bristles. “I’m not a kid. I’m a samurai’s son. Got it?”

 

Kaoru shakes her head. “Whatever you say.” She turns to Kenshin. “I’m going to go alone this time. Watch over him. Okay?”

 

Kenshin frowns. “Are you sure? I’d rather come with you, that I would, Miss Kaoru.”

 

Kaoru only responds, “I know,” before she takes off down the hall, a purpose to her gait.

 

It hits Yahiko that Kaoru is leaving, that she intends to face Yoku on her own, and a fear he hasn’t known since the day his mother died wells up in his throat, seizes his lungs, steals his breath. “Ugly!” Yahiko cries after her. “You can’t do this by yourself! Yoku will rip you in half!”

 

“She’ll be fine, Yahiko,” Kenshin promises, and when he searches his face for any falsehoods, Yahiko finds none. “Believe me.”

 

He sneaks out anyway, when Kenshin goes to his kitchen to make them supper.

 

The pounding in his ears hasn’t stopped, and it matches the pace of his footsteps, afraid for Kaoru. She may carry a sword at her hip despite the ban, which makes her brave, but Yahiko knows.

 

Brave men die, too.

 

It doesn’t matter how strong Kaoru is, because Yoku will eat her for dinner, will chop her up faster than she can blink and scatter the parts so far away no one will ever find her. He’s seen it happen to grown men that underestimated Yoku.

 

How much easier will it be for him to slice up a woman?

 

Yahiko catches up with Kaoru too late; he’s still more than a hundred paces away when she reaches the sliding door of the warehouse, and he’s too far away to cry out and warn her as she opens her mouth and calls politely, “May I speak to the master, Yoku?”

 

The door opens, and Yahiko dives for the bushes, his cowardice eating him alive. He’s hidden; he’s safe.

 

Yoku chews on his grass stalk, rolling it between his teeth and his tongue, his filthy, muck-brown eyes looking Kaoru down, then up. The sword he usually keeps on his shoulder is sheathed at his hip, and it strikes Yahiko as wrong.

 

Something isn’t right about that.

 

“You’ve been busy,” Yoku notes coolly. “This makes the third time you’ve come to visit. I’m afraid the brat isn’t here; you’ll have to come back another time.”

 

He makes to shut the door, but Kaoru slides her foot in its path, cutting it off. “I never said I was here for him.”

 

A grin spreads across Yoku’s face, and he spits the stalk from his mouth, face hungry, posture predatory. “So you’re here for me, sweetheart? I’m flattered, though I get the feeling you’re not in the mood to make love. What else then? To fight?” His eyes dip to the sword at her hip. “That’s some serious metal you’re packing. Tell me this doesn’t have to end in bloodshed, darling.”

 

“This doesn’t have to end in bloodshed,” Kaoru regurgitates. “So long as you let Yahiko go and never bother him again.”

 

Yoku sighs, steps into the yard, shuts the door. Yahiko sees the glint of Yoku’s knife on the inside fold of his shirt, hidden just out of Kaoru’s sight. The words of warning rise in his throat, along with bile and acid, but nothing comes out.

 

“Look,” Yoku begins. “I may be willing to strike a bargain with you. It’s clear from your sword that you’re not afraid of the shogun’s men, and there’s no way a stupid woman like you is part of the military government. You don’t have the first clue on how to use that thing, do you?”

 

Kaoru says nothing, and Yoku begins to circle her like a vulture circling a carcass.

 

“I needn’t hurt you, pretty,” he utters, low enough that Yahiko has to strain his ears to hear him, and the words leave him feeling chilled. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do: You being the brat back to me. I’ll punish him for trying to run away, but I’ll cut his debt in half. He’ll be out of my hair by the time he’s twenty, if I do that.”

 

“What do you want in return?” Kaoru asks, but by the hard edge of her voice, Yahiko is sure she already knows.

 

“You, of course. A few nights with you under me, screaming my name, and you’ll more than cover the other half of his debt.”

 

Yoku chuckles.

 

“Whores are expensive these days.”

 

She slaps him; Yahiko swallows his gasp. He’ll surely kill her, now.

 

Yoku’s face reddens around the crimson spot on his cheek, his yellowed teeth gnashing in rage as he reaches inside his yukata. “You fucking bitch,” he snarls.

 

Yahiko finds his courage at this moment, leaps out from the brush, bursting at the top of his lungs, “he has a knife, Kaoru!”

 

It happens so fast he almost misses it.

 

There’s a flash of steel, a swirl of cloth, and when the sudden wind settles, Yahiko can see clear as day that Kaoru has caught Yoku’s knife between the knuckles of her left hand. She slices down (when had she unsheathed her sword?) and a fountain of blood rushes from the stump at Yoku’s wrist, all the red draining from his face and out through his wound.

 

The blood splashes against Kaoru’s white socks, staining the hem of her hakama. She doesn’t seem to mind.

 

Yoku screams, clutches the air where his hand used to be, red liquid rolling down his arms, over his thighs as he sinks to his knees, pooling in the dirt.

 

Blood-mud, Yahiko thinks.

 

“You’re disgusting,” Kaoru mutters. “Yahiko. You were supposed to stay with Kenshin.”

 

He licks his lips, steps closer. “I was worried you would get hurt.”

 

Kaoru looks back at him at that, and the hard edge evaporates from her eyes, ice melting into ocean, a tired smile on her lips. “Thank you. But I can take care of myself.”

 

She tosses the knife - complete with Yoku’s still-gripping hand - away.

 

“Demoness!” Yoku shrieks, trying to crawl away from them. “You caught my blade like it was nothing! And your eyes, your eyes!”

 

Kaoru doesn’t even blink, but steps on the hem of Yoku’s yukata, keeping him in place. “Yahiko,” she begins, “this man has wronged you. How do you want me to punish him?”

 

He doesn’t even need to think. “Kill him. He’s ruined too many people’s lives.”

 

“No!” Yoku shrills, “no no no-”

 

Kaoru shoves the bloodied end of her katana into his neck. Yoku twitches, gurgles, stills.

 

Yahiko doesn’t look away, won’t. He watches the light fade in Yoku’s eyes. His captor is dead, and Kaoru withdraws her blade from him, blood dripping from the tip.

 

Yahiko steps forward, fumbles with the sword on Yoku’s hip.

 

“Leave it,” Kaoru says.

 

“No,” Yahiko shoots back. “Not this. He stole it from me.” The katana slides free, and Yoku’s corpse thumps back to the blood-mud. The blade is dirty and heavy, but Yahiko doesn’t care, because for the first time in his life he can lift it without help. He glances up at Kaoru, his savior. “My mother gave it to me.”

 

And that seems to be something Kaoru understands. “Okay. Let’s go home.”

 

--- --- ---

 

They’re not five minutes from Kenshin’s house when Yahiko finally speaks up. “Yoku seemed to know you. He called you Demoness.” For a long few seconds, Kaoru doesn’t answer. Then, she reaches down and flicks his forehead, hard. “Ouch! What the fuck, Ugly?”

 

“It’s none of your business, brat,” she answers.

 

“Like hell! You changed my life today, you crummy bitch! I have the right to know who saved my ass!”

 

Kaoru snorts, ruffles his hair into his eyes. “I’m just someone that’s good with swords.”

 

But Yahiko knows it’s more than that, that Kaoru must be hiding a deep secret.

 

She’s better than just good ; she’s fast, had grabbed Yahiko before he could run away on the hill yesterday, caught Yoku’s hidden blade before he had cut her open, unsheathed her katana in the blink of an eye. Yahiko has heard the name for blade-catching swordsmanship before, but can’t think of it now. Something Something-Ryu, used by one of the four Hitokiri of the Bakumatsu.

 

Come to think of it, Yahiko remembers his mother telling him one of the Hitokiri was a woman.

 

There are tales, bedtime stories told to children to scare them, of eyes the color of ice, hair the shade of midnight, and a thin, pale scar across her throat…

 

He looks at her neck, and the white line shines in the setting sun.

 

The Demoness of the Bakumatsu.

 

The woman that slaughtered a thousand men with one swing of her sword.

 

Kamiya Kaoru.

 

Yahiko’s mother was murdered by the shogun’s men. His fingers tighten around the hilt of his weapon, and he wonders what it would be like to drive it into her back, watch her bleed out like he watched Yoku. He wonders if killing her will help him avenge the death of his parents.

 

Kaoru breaks the silence.

 

“Yahiko,” she begins, “never regret the choice you made today.”

 

Kamiya Kaoru is not Suwa Mitsuhide. Yahiko saw the soldier that killed his mother clearly, can still recall the haunting look in his eyes. Kamiya Kaoru did not kill Yahiko’s mother. While she’s not completely blameless from the countless men that died during the war, she saved Yahiko’s life, and he can respect her wish to remain unidentified.

 

It’s probably because of the assumptions people make of her, and before today Yahiko would have never assumed any member of the shogun’s court would risk themselves for the well-being of one stupid, lowly brat.

 

A thief that sleeps in dirt.

 

So, Yahiko loosens his grip on the hilt, turns his eyes forward, and walks quietly by the Demoness of the Bakumatsu’s side. She gave him good advice, not to regret ending Yoku’s life.

 

He takes it to heart.