When a man aims to reach a goal, his mind will seek the easiest path. An unscrupulous man will not care who he hurts in order to obtain that which he desires, whether his wish is material greed, love or revenge. A great many men might all desire the same goal, not necessarily working together to accomplish it. In this manner, the same, convenient path will be tried over and over, becoming in and of itself a cliché.
Few take into account the hand of fate. The best laid plans are susceptible to the flaws of coincidence and happenstance.
Even something as simple as the rain can make a road impossible to travel.
The boy tried, anyway; the man further back on the road had been ugly and intimidating, but the money he paid was good. The letter in his hand needed to be delivered urgently. He wasn’t sure, if the need was so great, why the man just didn’t take it himself … but there could be any number of reasons for that, and he was heading in the right direction anyway. It helped that the money was desperately needed at home. But the sky – which had been so clear and blue earlier that day – was now a dark slate, and he was blinded by the torrent of spring rain. The only reason he knew he was still on the road was the mud underfoot, sucking at the soles of his shoes and staining the hem of pants that were faded and worn. He cursed the unpredictable nature of spring sunshine and pressed on, carrying the letter clutched close to his chest in one hand to protect it from the downpour while his other hand cradled the small pouch of sen that was his payment.
Still, the rain was not enough by itself to stop him from getting home.
It was his lack of vision combined with the figure that rose out of the gloom ahead that would halt him in his tracks; a greedy man, under the doubtful cover of an awning, eyes drawn to the small moneybag that the boy had unwisely left in plain sight. The fight was one sided, but the boy fought too much to protect his precious sen and the thief lost his temper, hand bunching into the boy’s shirt and tossing him into the alleyway nearby to crack his head against the wall.
The man took the money and glanced once at the letter before tossing it aside into a puddle. He couldn’t read, in any case. He searched the boy for anything else of value and found nothing. With a snort and a rough kick to the boy’s side, he turned and vanished down the alleyway, having at last the money to buy a hot meal and stay out of the rain.
The boy would eventually awaken and stagger home miserably to be first scolded and then coddled by his mother, but by then it would be far too late. Even if he had the clarity of mind to remember the letter, it had long since disappeared into the muck, the name written neatly on the outside flap made unreadable by the dirty water soaking through it.
Events that were hardly earth shattering by nature.
More than enough, however, to greatly complicate matters for all involved.
They kidnapped her as she was returning home from a cancelled lesson. She supposed she should be grateful that she was dressed in her training gi and hakama and was able to put up a fight, enough of one that for a moment Kaoru believed she would win. The two men who attacked her were bare-handed and overconfident, and her training in Kamiya Kasshin-Ryu was more than enough to deal with such idiots. Then she felt the cool barrel of the gun nudge against her lower back and she froze.
“You may rest assured, Kamiya-san,” said a honeyed voice by her ear. “You are merely a means to an end, and if all goes well you will be free again by sunset. Please accompany us quietly. If you behave, we will keep this as civil as possible.”
Like hell. She tightened her grip on the bokken, dread crawling in her stomach as she gave voice to the obvious. “You’re after Battousai.”
“So you do know who he is,” the voice continued cheerfully. The two thugs were staggering to their feet, glaring at her with injured pride. “That avoids the lengthy explanation. Drop the weapon.”
She hesitated for only a second, desperately searching for any other options. The polite man with the gun was just plain cheating, and she wasn’t Kenshin; there was no way she would be able to avoid the shot if he fired. She procrastinated. “I won’t abandon my sword.”
“Do you think you will have the chance to use your piece of wood again? As you like.”
A hand extended over her shoulder, open palmed and beckoning. Kaoru gritted her teeth, handed the bokken over and then allowed them to lead her away. The irritating part of it was that Kenshin wouldn’t know she was missing for at least a few hours; he expected her to be giving lessons until sundown, and wouldn’t know anything was amiss unless someone happened to see them taking her away. Of course, his ignorance would only last until they saw fit to contact him and gloat, but knowledge of that didn’t make her feel any better. If anything, the fact that she was being used against him – again – made the crawling dread she felt harden into misery.
She let herself wallow in self pity for a good two minutes, and then decided to get angry instead. She was Kamiya Kaoru, and she wasn’t of a mind to let them use her against Kenshin the way Jinei had. She lifted her chin and stalked along with as much dignity as the small pistol still grinding into her spine would allow. All it would take would be for them to slip up, just once … and she would seize the opportunity to reclaim her weapon, prove to everyone involved that she’d been a fine swordswoman well before a certain clueless rurouni had fetched up on her doorstep, and be home before anyone realised she had been in any danger in the first place.
Only when they reached the outskirts of town unchallenged and continued east did her hope begin to fade. The taller of the two thugs produced a coil of rough rope. He yanked her hands forward angrily before she could protest, knotting her wrists together with no care at all. Kaoru tried not to flinch at his handling and instead gave him a furious look, speaking acidly before she could stop herself.
“There’s a gun at my back and you’re still taking precautions? Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a woman half your size.”
A second later she was on her knees and trying fuzzily to work out why she’d fallen. Her cheek felt like it was on fire. Dimly past the ringing in her ears, she heard the man with the gun – a man she still hadn’t laid eyes on, come to think of it – speak in chiding tones as he bent to wrap an arm around her waist and lift her to her feet again. The gun came into her line of vision briefly and was gone again before she could do more than entertain confused thoughts of snatching it, this time nestling gently against her rib cage.
“For shame, Aiji. I understand the rope, but there’s no call to hit a person who can’t fight back, much less a woman.”
Aiji. She muttered the name to herself, intent on making sure it stayed in her mind so she could repeat it back to Kenshin later once she’d made her grand escape. She glanced up to look Aiji in the face and found the tall man slowly massaging his knuckles, and that was when she finally realised that he’d backhanded her across the face.
Bastard, she thought. And then guiltily, I can’t hide that. It’s going to bruise and Kenshin’s going to think it’s all his fault—
Aiji met her gaze with a dark glare that made her swallow uneasily despite her resolve, and she made the rest of the short trip in silence. He reminded her of Gohei, even if he wasn’t as large. Just like the man who’d all but destroyed her school, she suspected uneasily that Aiji was the sort of man who would address every slight to his pride with cruel retaliation. Restraint was something she was only beginning to learn, but even Kaoru’s common sense told her there was no point goading a man to violence if all it would net her were more bruises.
They took her to a small, ramshackle hut in the middle of nowhere, and dashed her hopes completely by sitting her down on a crate and tying her ankles securely. The man with the honeyed voice was the one who knotted them together, more gently than her wrists. He was dressed in western clothing, a shirt and vest that had definitely seen better days, and the gun was now tucked at his waist. He prattled to her about vendettas and reasons and she hardly listened, letting her eyes roam across the musty room. There were others here that had been waiting; she counted seven in all, and she knew there were another two outside. Nine. Even so, none of them looked any more efficient than the two that had ambushed her.
There had been twice as many with Gohei and Kenshin had gone through the room in a matter of seconds, downing a room full of men and delivering a lecture on the art of kenjutsu without so much as breaking a sweat. Kaoru scowled. It wasn’t a stunt she would be able to perform any time soon (if ever, a small voice added honestly), but surely if they were going to confront Kenshin, they’d leave her with just a token guard? Maybe then… somehow… she could win free before anything bad happened. While the apparent skill of the men in the room didn’t impress her, the man with the gun was clearly intelligent; he had to know Kenshin was better than they were. And if that was the case, he would be trying any number of dirty tricks.
Which is why I’m here, isn’t it? She hunched a little, her earlier dread returning in force. It’s not just a matter of luring him out here, they’re going to… to get him to surrender or something in exchange for me and I won’t have it, I won’t—
“—Are you listening, Kamiya-san?”
She looked up at his impatient tone, glaring. “Kenshin’s not stupid. You may as well give up now.”
“You have a lot of faith in him,” he said with amusement. “My dear, it doesn’t matter if he is smart enough to realise the trap we’ve set. Does he care for you?”
She opened her mouth to retort – and shut it again. He did care, but exactly how much was still something she wasn’t sure of, and she wasn’t about to start discussing the ifs and maybes of her relationship with Kenshin at this point.
“Because with your life at stake, he’s not going to be at his best.” He patted her ankles and stood up, gazing at her with solicitous concern. “But enough for now. You don’t need to know any more. I’ve sent him a letter. He’s to meet us here at sundown, or we’ll have no choice but to kill our hostage.” At her sharp intake of breath, he added, “Please don’t be concerned. He cares for you. He will come, and you will suffer no further damage than you already have—“ She jerked her bruised cheek away from his touch. “—and you can go home when this is all over. I swear.”
Some time during the last hours of the afternoon it began to rain, and she found out through vague eavesdropping that the honey-voiced man’s name was Toshiro. She had no clue what his grievance with Kenshin was, although he’d probably babbled it to her earlier while her attention was elsewhere. For the most part, they left her alone; one had come by with a cup of water for her, which she’d grudgingly accepted.
Aiji had picked up her bokken from its place by the wall. He sat there, calmly turning it over in his hands, his gaze occasionally meeting hers with a faint grin that had little to do with amusement and more to do with a blatant attempt to frighten her. That, at least, she could meet with scorn, staring back defiantly until he feigned boredom and turned away to talk to his friends.
The rain stopped, the clouds moved on, leaving sunlight that was hued dark gold shining through the one solitary window. She tensed on the crate, expecting that at any moment hands would latch onto her and haul her outside. Toshiro gave her a curious look and then stepped outside, followed by another.
Kaoru watched as the sky outside dimmed further, darkening into full twilight. She swallowed in sudden dryness, a numb feeling stealing over her as she slowly began to realise that the unthinkable had occurred. Sunset had been and gone… and Kenshin was nowhere to be seen.
She looked up to the remaining men and was disconcerted to find them staring back speculatively. Nervousness made her snap irritably. “Don’t look at me like that. He’s just – late. He’ll be here—“
“Will he?” Toshiro had returned, one hand still on the door latch as he regarded her with an odd mix of disappointment and sympathy. “You say he cares for you—“
“I never said that!”
“—yet would a man who cares for you allow any circumstance to bar him from making it here in time to save your life? Kamiya-san, I’m afraid you appear to have been abandoned.” He shrugged. “Perhaps he holds some sentiment, but not enough to risk his own life for you.”
Before Jinei – before she had seen for herself just how far Kenshin would push himself on her behalf – Kaoru might have been tempted to believe such a thing. Now, she merely lifted her chin and sneered. “Maybe your thugs are just too blind to see him.”
“We may not be as skilled as Battousai,” Toshiro said in a low voice. “But we are neither stupid nor ignorant. He is nowhere nearby, count on that.”
“Delayed by the rain...” As she said it, Kaoru realised just how stupid she sounded. From the faint chuckles in the room, she wasn’t the only one to notice. She shut her mouth with a snap.
“First you mock us, now your own saviour?” He smiled at her bitterly. “He is not coming, Kamiya-san. Which leaves us in a pretty dilemma, doesn’t it?”
They had threatened to kill her if Kenshin didn’t cooperate. She stayed silent, even as Aiji stood up with a satisfied leer. That Kenshin wasn’t here was unthinkable; at least, she could think of no reason on earth why he would fail to come to her rescue. She bit back the sudden urge to laugh. I need to make up my mind. Either he’s not allowed to rescue me, or he’s not allowed to leave me alone… which is it, Kaoru? And then, it occurred to her that Kenshin’s appearance or lack thereof was really the least of her troubles, if Toshiro was intent on following through with his threat.
Aiji’s rough hands descended to take a grip of her collar and haul her to her feet. Kaoru gave him a furious look and tried to jerk away, only to find he was all too willing to let her go. With feet tied she lost her balance and fell hard, breaking rotten wood beneath her as she landed amongst the crates. She ignored the painful scrape of splinters, her attention reserved solely for the laughter that had broken out among the men at her fall. Kaoru gritted her teeth and tried to rise, tensing as fingers latched onto the back of her gi. There was broken wood beneath her now – but the idea of somehow managing to saw her wrists free before Aiji assuaged his pride by beating her to death was laughable.
The words were tired. Aiji’s grip on her clothing loosened and then vanished, leaving her sprawled on the ground. Kaoru twisted to gaze at Toshiro’s disgusted expression as the man stared into Aiji’s scowling face. She didn’t move beyond that. If the way they were glaring at each other had much to do with her fate at this point, it was probably wise to attract as little attention as possible.
Eventually, Aiji spat on the ground by her feet and stalked outside.
Toshiro gave a sigh and glanced down at her. “I’m too nice,” he said mildly. “And apparently as naïve as you are. We both thought he’d come, didn’t we?”
“Don’t put me on your level,” she shot back.
“Even so.” He cocked his head, staring at her with a thoughtful look. “What would he do if you were killed?”
Kaoru was silent. It was a question she’d never given real thought to, and didn’t particularly want to dwell on now. Even if she knew the answer, she certainly wouldn’t offer it up to this man.
Instead, she clenched her hands into fists and offered him her very best death glare. “If I’m not important enough to be rescued, then you can let me go.” Kenshin had to have a good reason for not being here; yet despite that knowledge, she couldn’t stop the feeling of dull hurt that began to spread through her as she spoke. He wasn’t here… and she admitted now that despite her pride, she desperately wanted him to be. “Even if I ran all the way to the police, you would be long gone before they could come.”
“No, I don’t think that’s necessary just yet.” He turned his back to her to address his men. “Get your things. We’re going into the city.”
“You—what?” She stiffened in alarm. “What are you doing? What about me?”
“If you are not his weakness, then I have no choice but to confront Battousai head on.” He shrugged. “Perhaps hearing of your death will cause him to act irrationally. Who knows? If he cared at all for you, at the very least I can perhaps gain a momentary advantage over him.”
The idiocy of what he was proposing left her gaping in disbelief. It was only when the door opened and they began to shuffle out the door that Kaoru found her voice. “Are you mad? That will just—“
She stopped as the thought struck her. It was accompanied by a memory. The horrible moment when, spots bursting in front of her eyes as she tried to fight the icy grip of Jinei’s Shin no Ippou … she’d seen the glitter of Kenshin’s eyes as they sparked to murderous amber. The same fear gripped her now; he would have killed for her sake. The hitokiri was buried within him, but not so deeply.
Especially, it seemed, not where she was concerned.
“It will just make him angry, yes, yes.” His tone was so condescendingly soothing that she would have slapped him if her hands were free. “But angry people make mistakes. I do appreciate your concern for my welfare.” His hand gripped the door handle tightly enough that she could read the underlying fear in the trembling pallor of his fingers. “I’ll make sure somebody knows where you are. I’m afraid you’ll have to stay here for now. After all, it would do us no good to have a supposedly dead woman running into town. Goodbye, Kamiya-san.”
The door closed, leaving her alone in the gloom as she listened to his receding footsteps in shock.
Eventually the shock wore off enough for genuine terror to break through. With a cry, she punched the floorboards with both fists. “Idiot!” she screamed at the closed door. “Fool! It’s not you I’m worried about!”
The sky was dark enough now that Toshiro used the lantern to find his way back down the path. Muddy and treacherous in the aftermath of the spring rain, he tried not to think too hard about what he was about to do. Instead, he wondered what had gone wrong; he’d watched for days, and he was sure that the hitokiri had developed fond feelings for the girl. It wouldn’t be the first time he had been wrong, however, and now he would merely have to make the best of a bad situation. He had a gun, after all. If he managed to unsettle Battousai enough to upset his judgment, Toshiro could always pull back and let the men keep the hitokiri occupied while he tried for a clear shot.
“Toshiro-san,” someone said in the gloom. He swung the lantern around to look at the man’s face. “Aiji’s gone.”
He knew what that meant, and cursed. Now he had two problems; he was no stranger to violence, but in general he drew the line at hurting a woman. They were just outside Tokyo, now; how long ago had Aiji left? Was it even worth going back?
And then he heard footsteps. Slow and careful, behind him. Toshiro held a hand up for quiet and continued down the path without them, holding the lantern high to light the way ahead. That someone was leaving Tokyo after sunset was very odd indeed. Instinct provided him an answer a split second before the traveler came into view, and he took a sharp breath as the lantern cast its glow across angular, scarred features, cast into shadow under tangled crimson bangs.
“You,” Toshiro whispered.
The man looked up to show violet eyes, softening slightly from tight concern to deep puzzlement. His clothes were wet in places, still drying from the earlier downpour. In one hand he held an umbrella. The sword was still tucked at his waist.
Himura Kenshin regarded Toshiro with a look of wary suspicion.
Toshiro began to laugh, words leaving him in a rush before he knew what he was even saying. “So you came after all! I guess I should have expected you to cling to old habits, Battousai. After all, you hitokiri only come out at night!”
Kenshin’s eyes widened in sudden revelation, and he lowered the umbrella slowly as he straightened to his full height. He was a very short man, Toshiro noted. It didn’t seem to matter. The sheer force of presence his enemy had suddenly brought to bear was enough to dwarf them all.
The words were flat. “Where is she?”
“She’s dead,” Toshiro croaked, even as he backed away unconsciously. “You didn’t meet our terms. I – I killed her myself! With these hands! You’re too late!”
The hitokiri tilted his head to one side, a glint to his eyes as he smiled coldly. “Really.”
Her wrists were a mess by the time she’d managed to sever the cord. Kaoru worked almost feverishly on her ankles, paying no attention to the warm trickle she could feel across her palm. There was no pain; her hands were still regaining feeling. It made pulling apart the knots at her ankles almost as hard as it had been to saw her wrists free with the rough wood.
When she finally managed to stagger to the door, only to find she had been locked in, she nearly gave way to tears. Kaoru hammered at the door in frustration, on the verge of demanding to be let out when common sense reasserted itself. There was nobody outside. Instead, she turned and ran for the window. Something wooden caught between her ankles and she fell with a cry of surprise in the dark. Then she reached down to close a cold hand around the bokken. She’d fallen over her own sword.
“Better than on it,” she muttered, and lurched upright again. The length of wood now resting in her hands was reassuring in itself, restoring to her a measure of confidence. She turned to face the window with determination, pulling the bokken back to shatter the filthy glass … and stopped as another sound was heard.
She could hear footsteps outside. She turned toward the door, sudden happiness in her heart. “Kenshin!” He hadn’t abandoned her after all; was merely late. For a very good reason, almost assuredly, but she’d certainly delight in taking strips off his hide for it anyway—
No. Listen, Kaoru. Too slow, too heavy. That’s not Kenshin. She froze where she was, tightening her grip on the bokken. Her hands seemed twice as big, now; tingling with the return of blood. It would slow her down. She tried to look on the bright side. Whoever wanted to come in had to unlock the door first, after all.
She knew who it was going to be.
There was a pause as light flared outside. Flame; she had a moment of sheer panic as she considered the option that Aiji had elected to just burn the place down with her still trapped inside. But no; she’d hurt his pride. He’d come in to do it personally, wouldn’t he? Nevertheless, she breathed a sigh of relief when she heard him rattling at the door.
She didn’t even give him time to put his lantern down. The moment Aiji pushed the door open, Kaoru leapt out at him, slamming the side of the bokken up into his jaw. The light fell with a dull thud into the grass as he grunted with surprise. Then he snarled and made a grab for the bokken. Her aching hands made her slow; his grip nearly yanked it out of her hands and she held on for dear life. His other hand was reaching for her collar, a faint grin twisting his lips.
In a moment, she was going to lose any advantage she had. Kaoru spat an obscenity learned from Sano at his worst, let go of the bokken and drove a knee into his groin as hard as she could while the idiot was still congratulating himself over stealing her sword. Dirty tactics, but they worked. Aiji folded with a faint wheezing sound. She skittered back from him as he fell, skirting around him to snatch her weapon deftly from his loosened grip. With an angry cry, Kaoru turned and brought the bokken down on the back of his head.
She gave a small, uneven laugh, standing there with a bokken in her hand, staring down at his unmoving body as her adrenalin started to fade. She was shaking. She gave Aiji’s ribs an angry kick. She had no right to be acting like such a child; there were more important things to be done.
Kenshin. Kaoru turned and ran. Now that she was free, she gave full reign to her desperation. Sprinting in the dark wasn’t the wisest of ideas, but maybe if she ran the entire way she could somehow beat Toshiro to the dojo and show Kenshin that she was fine, that she was very much alive and that nothing, nothing had to change. Toshiro was an idiot that didn’t deserve to die, but far worse it would be if Kenshin were the one to kill him.
If he’d killed Jinei, he would have been lost; either to his hitokiri self or to his own sense of guilt. Nothing would ever have been the same again; if he snapped now, one way or the other, Kenshin would be out of her life. The thought was enough to make the panic rise again. She blinked back tears, and then gave a yelp as her feet found the slippery muck that was the road. Kaoru slid, catching herself with a hand before she could fall flat on her back in the mud.
The sound of pained cries and the unmistakable clash of swords from somewhere up ahead froze her in her tracks. She listened for a moment, praying that she had misheard, that the fight miraculously involved some other group of hired thugs that just happened to be outside Tokyo at this time. And then she took off again, sliding precariously through the mud, uncaring of the possibility of further injury as she tried desperately to make it there in time.
There was light up ahead. She bolted for it, her feelings finally given voice as she ran, a yell of sheer, fear-driven necessity. “Kenshin!”
There was silence, which did nothing to ease her panic. She was stumbling into the light, half blinded by it, only seeing enough to know that there were bodies on the ground … and then there was the clatter of a sword dropping, and two warm, strong arms caught her before she could lose her footing again. His clothing was damp. She fisted her hands in his damp magenta gi and looked up at his face wildly, to meet a pair of shocked violet eyes.
She looked down to the sakabatou, dumped from his grip as he went to catch her. It was clean; not a trace of blood to be seen.
Thus reassured that she had overreacted, Kaoru proved that she was in control of the situation by bursting into tears.
After a moment, his arms lifted to curl around her shoulders, holding her close and letting her cry into his shirt. She heard a faint hiss of breath and knew he was taking in her appearance; his fingers tightened on her shoulders. She pulled back, freeing her face from the damp material. “No, it’s all right. I’m okay—“
“You are not,” he said carefully, lifting a hand to tilt her chin gently, eyes tracing the bruise on her cheek. There was a tightness to his expression that suggested he was having second thoughts about the leniency he had shown to the men that littered the ground. “This one is very sorry he did not arrive sooner, Kaoru-dono.”
Which reminds me … “Why didn’t you?” she demanded. “They sent you a note and everything!”
Kenshin blinked, taken aback. From the look on his face, she knew: the note was something he had never received. Relief hit her, followed swiftly by guilt. And then… bafflement. “How did you—“
“It started to rain,” he said, as if it was all the explanation she needed. She tried to glare at him, but he was no longer meeting her gaze; instead, he was tearing a strip from his gi. She stared at him stupidly, wondering what he was doing, before he reached down to take hold of one of her hands with the utmost of care.
In the light, she stared at the mess she had made of her wrists. Raw and puffy, and not likely to heal properly for weeks given the stress she’d put them through. Kenshin bandaged them carefully, not making a sound. Kaoru bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I should have been more careful.” Her eyes were drawn to something else collapsed on the ground. An umbrella. It started to rain. The tears threatened again.
“You were as careful as you could have been,” Kenshin said, looking up at last to offer her a warm smile. The concern was still in his eyes, but he wasn’t angry; at least, not with her. It only made her feel a little better; he hadn’t been angry after she’d been taken by Jinei, either.
Which in itself said something, didn’t it?
He hadn’t killed them; by the looks of things, he had been vicious, but he had never flipped his blade. She wondered if Toshiro had carried through with his plan. Kaoru glanced along the ground to the man in his patched western clothing. There was an ugly welt along his jaw that suggested it might be broken. She swung her gaze sharply back to Kenshin as he finished applying his makeshift bandaging. “Kenshin?”
“That man,” he said mildly, “is a very bad liar, Kaoru-dono.”
She stared at the bruised and battered bodies on the ground. He hadn’t believed Toshiro – but the lie had been enough to anger him. Kaoru considered that… and smiled a little.
Kenshin followed her gaze as he sheathed the sakabatou, then touched her shoulder to get her attention. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”
He stared at her for a moment unsurely, before putting the umbrella into her hands and reaching forward to take hold of her shoulders. She blinked, startled, as he turned her around and began to steer her away. “This one will draw you a hot bath when we get home,” he said with serene determination. “After that, Megumi can look at you.”
“But I’m fine!”
He ignored her protest, his grip firm as he began to walk her home, one arm laid across her shoulders. It wasn’t intimate – more a steady grip to keep her upright and moving – but she relaxed into it anyway. She suddenly had the suspicion that, given half the chance, he would have carried her all the way back. For a very brief moment, she was tempted to let him; independence be damned, she’d had a horrible day, and Kenshin was warm and safe… but that was a line she was not willing to cross.
Not yet, at least.