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Light in the Time of Shadows

Chapter Text

The heat was suffocating. That is what he particularly remembered; the way the sun had risen and slowly heated the air until even standing in the shade had felt like a heavy burden. They had been travelling at night partly to avoid the summer heat, but Katsura had sent him ahead to the inn in Kyoto, and after waiting two days alone, Kenshin had become restless. He had never seen a city before, never seen so many people fill so little space, and curiosity drove him out into the streets shortly after dawn, following a hastily bolted breakfast. There had been much to see and entertain, but now it was past midday, and though he hated to admit it, he was lost. The day was warm and he had begun to feel thirsty. His mind was addled in the summer sun, so he sat down in the scant shade of a tall manor wall, the better to recover his wits. He would rest a moment, then retrace his steps.

"Excuse me, Osamurai-san?"

Kenshin started awake, his hand automatically moving to his sword hilt, his eyes blinking in confusion. The sun was no longer overhead, now sinking below the roofs of the nearby houses, still high enough to cast the figure before him in shadow. A shadow that was drawing back, hands raised so he could see that they were empty, that there was no threat.

"Forgive me, Osamurai-san, but you have fallen asleep against the wall of my family home." The voice was high and soft, and now that his eyes were adjusting he saw the figure was a young woman, close to his own age. She was frowning slightly, her head tilted to one side as though he were a very troublesome puzzle she was trying to solve. Kenshin let go of his sword and tried his best to smile reassuringly, but his lips felt dry and cracked and all he could manage was a small shift at the corners of his mouth.

"I was walking and lost my way," he rasped through chapped lips, "I fell asleep here in the sun, it seems." His voice sounded drier than his lips felt, and the girl's eyes widened with concern. Her outstretched hand drew closer to his elbow. "Please, Osamurai-san, will you come inside and take some water? Your skin is quite red."

"I…" He shouldn't. Katsura could very well be in Kyoto by now, waiting at the inn, or worse, looking for him. He should ask her for directions and go. She didn't wait for him to finish, grasping his arm and tugging him gently to his feet. The world swirled around him for a moment, and he leaned back against the manor wall, trying to master waves of nausea. The girl moved briskly then, stepping to his side as she pulled his arm around her shoulders. "Lean on me please," she encouraged him gently, and began to propel him forward with slow, small steps. It was the most agonizing walk he'd ever taken; the ground threatened to overtake him with each step, his heart pounding in his ears until it seemed the dull roar would surely split his head open. When Kenshin finally found his bearings again, he was sitting on the floor of a darkened bathhouse. The girl was kneeling in front of him, clutching his shoulders. "I am going to go for water now," she told him. "Please lie down if you feel dizzy."

He managed a feeble nod of agreement, and then she was gone. Kenshin was vaguely aware of her quick steps on the gravel outside, fading and then returning, and then she was once again before him, the long sleeves of her furisode tied back, setting down a bucket of water on either side of her lap.

"I will give you some water now," she told him gently. "Drink it slowly, and if you feel you must be sick then do so." She waited, looking straight into his eyes to make sure he understood, and only when he nodded did she pull a ladle from a bucket and lift it towards him. He drank deeply and slowly, though it was hard to check his thirst. The water was clear and cool and tasted better than anything he had ever put to his lips, better even than Shishou's sake. She gave him a second ladle, and then a third, and he began to feel the fog surrounding him lift, and his senses return to him. He was aware then, of the cool air in the bathhouse, of the smell of the teak floor and the soap and the bright floral scent of the girl in front of him. It was quiet, the only sound the faint whine of cicadas and an occasional soft gust of wind.

"Ah," he sighed. "Thank you." He moved to bow but her hands gripped his arms tightly once more, keeping him upright.

"There is no need for that, Osamurai-san! You must be careful in your movements, I believe you have sun-fever. We must cool off your skin and then you must rest."

"Ah, yes." He nodded in agreement. That was the treatment for sun-fever, water and coolness and rest. And then reason reasserted itself. He needed to return to the inn."No wait, I-"

"I am going to pour water over your head now, do you wish to remove your kimono? There are yukatas you can change into afterwards if you want to remain clothed." He gaped at her then, and while she had the decency to blush faintly, she gave him and authoritative glare. "We must cool you off, Osamurai-san, or you will truly become feverish!" she snapped, all traces of gentle care gone from her voice.

"Right!" he agreed, his overheated senses succumbing to her authority, as though letting this strange, brazen girl pour water on him was the most natural thing in the world. He shrugged out of his sleeves, pulling his kimono off his shoulders and pushing it down to the ties of his hakama.  "Ready!" he yelped, leaning back and squeezing his eyes shut.

He thought she would throw it at him, the way Shishou had that first night on the mountain, trying to clean off the dirt that had coated his skin. But after a moment's hesitation, she poured it slowly over his head, making sure the water flowed gently over his sunburnt face, down his neck and chest, cooling the heated skin. She emptied the entire bucket over him and onto the slats of the floor, and then carefully wrapped a large damp cloth around his head and shoulders, sitting him up in the process. She placed his hands in the remaining water of the second bucket, and he noticed for the first time how red they were compared to the skin of his arms. She pushed his dripping hair out of his eyes and gave him a reassuring smile. "I am going for more water now, please stay as you are." He didn’t respond, staring at his red hands in the clear water as she took up the empty bucket and quietly left the bathhouse. By the time she returned from the well, the coolness of the water and the soft darkness of the bathhouse had lulled him into a deep, relaxed slumber.

That is how he remembers their first meeting.

Chapter Text

Kenshin wakes in an unfamiliar place with an abrupt start, and sitting bolt upright, his right hand begins searching automatically for his sword.

"Easy, Young Man," says an older man kneeling to his right, lifting an arm to stop him from rising further. Kenshin stares into his eyes, untrusting, so the man puts on a placating grin. "Forgive me, my name is Oguni Gensai. I am the doctor to the Kamiya family, in whose manor you now find yourself. The lady of the house found you yesterday against the west wall."

Memory floods into him and he relaxes a fraction, nodding in understanding. "Yes. She asked me inside for water…"

"Aha!” the Doctor laughs pleasantly, "Poor child, she thought you died on her in the bathhouse. But you are lucky she found you, dehydrated as you were. Now that you are awake, sir, you should eat the breakfast she has had prepared for you."

Kenshin is wary of this friendly doctor, of the Kamiya manor. He is deep within enemy territory, and Katsura said his movements must be kept secret, his identity unknown. Now, here he is, not three days in Kyoto and already in danger of compromising everything if he does not proceed with the utmost caution. The kindly doctor uses his hesitation to thrust chopsticks into his hand and place a tray over his lap.

"Please eat, Young Man! The lady did not make this herself, so it ought to be quite tasty!" He laughs, as though this is a terribly funny joke, and in spite of himself Kenshin chuckles along as he begins to eat.

The doctor pours tea for the two of them and proceeds to tell him everything there is to know about the Kamiyas, every new detail further proving that Kenshin will be in over his head if they start questioning him. Apparently the Kamiya are an Edo samurai family of high standing with the shogun, who can trace their ancestry back to the Tokugawa clan. Kamiya Koshijiro, the current head, is in Kyoto now to assist the shogun in his discussions with the Emperor, sitting in the room of lords, guarding the shogun's palanquin, offering advice. And interestingly, Lord Koshijiro founded his own sword style, which he teaches at his dojo in Edo.

"Perhaps you have heard of it, Young Man? The Kamiya Kasshin-ryu?" Kenshin merely shrugs, so the doctor elaborates. "It is a sword that doesn't kill, you see. A sword that protects life."

"A sword that protects life?" Kenshin repeats, around a mouthful of rice.

"Yes, yes. Koshijiro-sama explained it to me once, but not being a swordsman, I found it very confusing. No doubt you would understand it better."

Kenshin does not understand it. Shishou taught him that a sword is a weapon, swordsmanship is the art of killing, and even when that death protects a defenseless innocent, it is still a death nonetheless. He will use his deadly sword to protect those who cannot protect themselves, to end suffering and to build a better Japan; that is why he is here in Kyoto, why he abandoned Shishou's mountain and followed Katsura. A sword that cannot kill is of no use to him, no use to anyone in these turbulent times.

But the doctor appears not to have noticed his consternation, and he carries on his one-sided conversation while Kenshin finishes his breakfast.

"Kaoru-sama is of course Koshijiro-sama's best student. He trained her from a very young age, more formally once her mother died. She is quite accomplished in terms of swordsmanship, though her womanly accomplishments have suffered for it. She makes splendid tea, however!" The doctor laughs again.

Karou must be the name of the girl he encountered yesterday, Kenshin thinks. And then, as if her name has summoned her, a familiar, soft voice calls from the other side of the shoji. "Dr. Gensai? I am coming in!" The shoji is pushed aside to reveal the same young woman kneeling on the porch, dressed for sword training, bending forward to pick up a large tray laden with what Kenshin recognizes as his own clothes, daisho resting atop them.

"Ah, good morning Kaoru-sama!" the doctor bows, and lifting Kenshin's finished breakfast tray from his lap, he rises to set it on the porch and obligingly shut the shoji behind the girl. "The Young Man and I were just speaking of your excellent tea, were we not sir?"

"Oh! Ye-yes," he stammers, casting about for his tea cup, only to realize it is now on the porch. He gestures vaguely with what feel like awkwardly empty hands and adds, "Very delicious."

The girl called Kaoru beams at them, and Kenshin is momentarily awestruck by her wide and easy smile. It crinkles her eyes and seems to light the entire room. She bows her head to both of them, and comes further into the room to place her tray beside Kenshin's futon.

"How are you this morning, Osamurai-san?" she asks him quietly, her large blue eyes filled with concern. They are a very deep blue, an unusual colour, he notes, like that of an evening sky, or stormy sea. Faced with her concern, he finds an overwhelming desire rise within him to put her at ease, to never make her worry. He cannot bow, at least not easily, dressed as he is in a borrowed yukata and sitting swaddled in blankets on a futon, so he closes his eyes and inclines his head with as much respect as he can.

"I am well, thanks to you, Kamiya-sama. My profoundest thanks."

"It is nothing," she murmurs, and raising his head he sees she is blushing, staring down at her hands in her lap while she fingers her sleeves. "It is all anyone would have done."

"Just so!" booms Dr. Gensai, and they both jump, remembering the doctor is still there. The Lady Kamiya releases her breath with a shaky smile, and Kenshin returns it with one of his own.

"I must check on my other patients now, Kaoru-sama," the doctor says, "but I trust you can administer the balm I have prepared? Extra on the scalp, yes?"

"Yes, Dr. Gensai, of course." She bows to the doctor, "Thank you for your help in this matter."

"No trouble, Child, no trouble!" Turning to Kenshin he adds "An honour, Young Man! I hope to see you again!" He bows himself out of the room before Kenshin can respond, chuckling as he slides the shoji shut.

"Dr. Gensai is a very kind man," the Lady Kamiya offers, smiling at the closed shoji. "He has been my family's doctor since before I was born." She turns her brilliant smile upon him again, and pulls the tray of his belongings closer. "I took the liberty of having your clothes laundered, Osamurai-san. There were a few holes I have mended. Forgive me, but the patches are not quite the same colour."

"Thank you very much!" he cries, taken aback by the kindness of this girl who doesn't even know his name.

She smiles shyly, shaking her head. "It's nothing," she repeats. "If you will permit me, I will comb out your hair and then administer the balm as Dr. Gensai requested."

"Oh…yes. Thank you."

She slides across the tatami and kneels behind him, taking up a comb and gathering his long red hair in one hand. Her strokes are gentle, mindful of his sunburnt scalp, and Kenshin, who has only ever combed his hair himself, usually long after it requires it, relishes the soothing pulls. When she has finished, the Lady Kamiya opens a tin of ointment and proceeds to massage it into his scalp. The balm is cool and herbal, tingling as it sinks into his hot skin. He releases a soft sigh, eyes sliding shut, chin lowering to his chest, shoulders slumping in relaxation. He had not realized how tightly drawn his skin had felt.

“Does that hurt?” she asks softly, and her fingers lighten their touch.

“No,” he assures her, glad when her massaging pressure is renewed. “Thank you, Kamiya-sama.”

“Such a burn…” she sighs, and clicks her tongue. “You should be more careful, Osamurai-san! Someone with such light skin ought to wear a hat!”

Kenshin smiles faintly, leaning into her fingers. “This humble one is used to the cover of trees, so he is,” he apologizes. “It is my first time visiting a city.”

The Lady Kamiya huffs softly at his admission, applying more ointment to the top of his head. “Well, there is not very much shade in a city at this time of year,” she advises, “so be careful and make sure you stop to drink water.”

“Ah, this one was not certain... that is, can one drink from any well? Or... do they belong to each house?”

She laughs, a light tinkling sound that is lovely to hear, like the ringing of a summer chime. “You really are a fish out of water, Osamurai-san. You can use any water that has a ladle with it.”

“Oh.”

The Lady Kamiya gathers his loose hair and ties it in a tail at the crown of his head, then begins rubbing the balm into the back of his neck, the top of his shoulders. When her hands slide down the sides of his neck he raises his chin, instinctively trusting her. She massages his ears, his chin, the hollows at the base of his throat. She runs her hands over the top of his chest, and Kenshin draws a deep breath. He opens his eyes to find her sliding across the tatami to face him again, scooping more ointment from the tin.

"Close your eyes," she instructs softly, and he does so, extending his face towards her and keeping himself very still. Her fingers stroke gently across his forehead, rubbing soft circles into his temples, and then ghost over his closed eyelids. They slide down the sides of his face, across his jaw, and once more under his chin, leaving a soothing chill in their wake. From there they slide up his cheeks, rubbing in circles again, and then begin smoothing across his nose and under his eyes.

Kenshin opens his eyes again slowly, thinking he will thank her, as she moves her fingers to cover his upper lip. Their eyes meet and the Lady Kamiya freezes, her fingers still on his lip, her focused expression widening into surprise. Anything he might have said dies on his tongue, and he watches a slow blush spread across her cheeks.

"She is pretty", he thinks, with her large unusual coloured eyes and her full bottom lip, the blush complimenting her otherwise ivory coloured skin. And then he is blushing too, considering how the fine arches of her brows and her thick lashes are the exact same colour as her jet black hair, and how becoming it looks pulled into a high tail, her head framed by the large bow of an indigo ribbon.

"Oro," he says, in spite of himself. The tension seems to snap between them at the sound, and the Lady Kamiya withdraws her fingers with a startled shake. She moves away from him and bows deeply, speaking frantically to the tatami. "Please be sure to apply the balm to your hands, Osamurai-san! I will leave you now, to dress for the day. Call out when you are ready!" Then she flees, looking anywhere but at him, slamming the shoji behind her.

Chapter Text

Kaoru runs directly to the well, studiously keeping her back to the house as she dips her hands into a bucket and splashes water over her hot cheeks. Sufficiently cooled, she cups a second handful of water and drinks deeply, hoping the cold water will still her racing heart. Then she scolds herself for fleeing. The samurai had needed healing, and she had done nothing improper by helping him as Dr. Gensai had instructed. She is samurai, she is a Kamiya, and no man should be able to chase her from her own guest room! She takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders, and resolutely walks back to the house. She settles into a meditative pose on the porch outside the young samurai's room, determined that when he exits she will greet him with the calmness and grace expected of an adjunct master of the sword.  

She has been in Kyoto for almost an entire season now; the early summer rains have begun to recede into hazy, humid late summer days, but she is no more used to its customs then when she first arrived. In Edo, thanks to her father’s influence, she had been free to go where she pleased, wearing hakama and a hastily-tied ponytail, free to train and roughhouse along with the boys at her father’s dojo. It had not mattered that she was a little wild, because her father allowed it, the reputation of her family enough to keep her safe.

Kyoto is different. Here, amongst so many strangers and commoners in the Emperor’s city, the expectations of a samurai daughter are more traditional. She is expected to wear a furisode, arrange flowers and pour tea. She blushes to remember her first audiences with ladies here, and their gentle lamenting of her father's neglect of her education. She had been hard pressed to check her temper, to maintain an elegant façade, when she had wanted to shout that she was a swordsman, and her father had never, ever neglected her.  

She had wept, when he had asked her if she'd made new friends. Wept and begged him to confine her to the manor, where at least she could practice the sword in peace. He had stroked her hair and promised her they would not be in Kyoto for long.

"If all goes well, Daughter-mine, we will be back in Edo before the rains return. But for now, you must try your best to fit in. There are many opportunities here for us both to better ourselves, yes?"

Her father has been understanding. She may wear hakama within their manor’s compound while she practices her kata. He arranges for her to brush up on her more traditional lessons, tea service and floral arranging and fan dancing, useless things that she had neglected in favour of learning to run a samurai household and practicing her father’s sword style. When her mother died, Kaoru had become her father's entire world, and he, hers; every step she has taken has been for him. Now, here in Kyoto, he needs her to be a proper samurai daughter, so she tries her best for him.

Karou had returned from her tea lesson yesterday afternoon and dismissed her guards at the gate. She had been hoping to meet her father there, and as soon as the clansmen were inside the manor she had indulged in a short walk. Kaoru had just rounded the corner when she noticed a slumped figure against the west wall: a young man, surely no older than herself, dressed in a blue kimono and grey hakama, with two heavy swords at his hip. The swords had given her pause, but when she saw his sunburnt skin and badly chapped lips, compassion had overridden all reservations. She'd had a nearly impossible time getting him to the bathhouse, her furisode allowing only the smallest of steps. She'd hiked it up around her knees to run to the well, bared her wrists in a wanton display of impropriety, even forced him to strip down to the waist in front of her. Whatever good will her tea lessons may have earned her will surely be erased when he tells his lord about the strange doctoring of Kamiya Koshijiro's daughter.

She blushes, remembering the way he'd gaped at her, blinking at her suggestion. Propriety had been the furthest from her mind; he was ill and needed her help. She'd pulled his arm around her shoulders without a second thought, brushed his hair out of his face as though he were her brother or husband. She sighs. Living in Kyoto is like walking the edge of a knife; one false step and a black reputation will be yours forever.

By the time Dr. Gensai had calmed her hysterics over the unconscious man in the bathhouse, two clansmen had carried him to the guestroom and dressed him in her father's old yukata. The kindly doctor had allowed her into the room to assist him. Together they'd prepared the balm to heal the samurai's skin, and while she waited for Dr. Gensai's instructions, she had stolen glances at the sleeping young man. Kaoru has spent her entire life in the company of men who came from all over Japan to learn her father's sword style, but she has never seen a man who looks like this young samurai.  

"He is an unusual looking man, is he not, Kaoru-chan?" Dr. Gensai had mused.

"I wonder where he is from?" she'd asked softly.

"Somewhere cold I should think, otherwise he would not walk about in this heat with no hat."

Kaoru smiles to herself, remembering Dr. Gensai's joke. It is true that the samurai looks as if he is from another world. His colouring is uncommonly strange, his hair the colour of fire, his skin almost as pale as hers. He is small and slight, only a half hand taller than her, but handsome, even with his face sunburnt the colour of cooked crab. She’d noted his strange, beautiful, violet coloured eyes when they’d dazedly met her own. She remembers the weight of his arm around her shoulders, the way he had fallen against her as she’d led him to the bathhouse, and water streaming down the planes of his strong chest and shoulders.  

Kaoru huffs softly and gives herself a shake, fixing her eyes on the porch where she waits for the young samurai. Her father had been none too pleased when he had discovered what she’d done. Propriety aside, she had adopted another stray, another un-lady-like habit she must now abandon. The Kamiya dojo had always been open to any creature who required its shelter, but these are different times, and there are many in Kyoto who cannot be trusted. Her father had reiterated, as she pressed her forehead into the tatami, that she is not to feed ragged children or invite old ladies in for tea, and she is absolutely forbidden from stowing strange samurai in their bathhouse. Kaoru had begged his forgiveness, and he had sighed remorsefully, gently lifted her chin.

"What is done is done, Kaoru. I will interview this boy tomorrow."

He had patted her head then, and tucked his sword into his belt. Her father does not tell her where he goes in the evenings, and Kaoru does not ask. As she does every evening, she had merely pulled the indigo ribbon from her hair and handed it to him. Their special promise, kept since she was a small child. So long as her father has her ribbon, he will have to come home to return it to her. Kaoru had woken that morning to find it folded neatly atop her training clothes.  

The shoji opens softly, and Kaoru snaps her attention back to the task at hand. The young samurai exits the guestroom, casts his eyes about and finds her kneeling on the porch.

"Ah, Kamiya-sama," he says, flowing  into a bow so gracefully it doesn't seem fair. Before she can scramble to her feet he raises his face humbly. "I am very grateful to you for your assistance," he tells her, "I shall always remember your kindness and the hospitality of your home."

He keeps his eyes respectfully downcast, and Karou is glad for it; she is sure her face is just as red as his. "O-osamurai-san!" she stammers, "It is nothing! Please!"

"I will take my leave. Again, I thank you." Before he can gather his sword and get to his feet, Karou lunges forward, blocking his path.

"Forgive me Osamurai-san, but my Honoured Father wishes to have an audience with you before you leave. I must humbly ask that you remain with us awhile longer."

He pauses, and takes a moment to stare out over the courtyard. It seems to Kaoru that he is tracing the path of the sun, weighing his options. "Forgiv-" she begins, but he is already speaking.

"I would be honoured to meet Kamiya Koshijiro-sama."

Chapter Text

Kenshin kneels in front of Kamiya Koshijiro, his fists pressed into the tatami and his head respectfully lowered. He is waiting for the Lord Kamiya to address him, and the man seems intent on remaining silent until the Lady Kamiya finishes preparing his tea. A few moments after she has placed the tea beside him, bowing, the Lord Kamiya finally murmurs "You may leave us, Daughter-mine."

"Yes, sir," she bows once more and glides out of the room, closing the shoji behind her. The Lord Kamiya waits until she is out of earshot before speaking again.  

"So. You are the samurai my daughter found yesterday."

"Yes."

The Lord Kamiya's voice is deep and gruff, in keeping, Kenshin supposes, with his large stature. His features are not unkind, but he holds them with such intensity that Kenshin feels he must be a firm man, not easily swayed. He waits, eyes downcast, for the Lord Kamiya to ask him the questions Kenshin cannot answer. The silence hangs between them as Koshijiro takes a sip of his tea.  

"There are not many men with your colouring. You can be none other than Himura Kenshin."

Kenshin starts upright, gaping at the Lord Kamiya with wide, uncertain eyes. "How…"

"Tell me, Himura-san, has Katsura sent you here to assassinate me?"

"I…"  

The Lord Kamiya shoots him an intense glare. "And a fine assassin you'll make, staring with your mouth open like a carp," Koshijiro admonishes, "I could have shouted the manor down three times over already. This is a grave insult from my old friend Katsura, to send such a dunce."

At the insult, Kenshin recovers his wits, remembering who he is and what he is capable of. His voice deepens. "Forgive me, Kamiya-sama, but I have not been sent to assassinate you."

"No?"

"No. I fell asleep in the sun against the west wall of your house, and your daughter took pity on me. I am very grateful to her for her kindness. But perhaps sir," Kenshin says, laying his hand on the sword resting beside him, an edge coming into his voice, "you might tell me how you came to learn my name."

Koshijiro regards him for a moment, his face an unreadable samurai mask.  

"Ah, better," the Lord Kamiya mutters at last, "You can release your weapon. Katsura asked me to look for you yesterday evening, when I helped him into Kyoto, and he found you missing from the inn. I did not think my own daughter would make the task so easy for me. I've told him you are here."

It is Kenshin's turn to observe Koshijiro. His spirit is low and gives every indication that he is speaking the truth. He had helped Katsura into Kyoto last night, which could only mean he was one of them.

"You are an Ishin-Shishi?" Kenshin asks.

"I am a samurai in service to the Shogun." the Lord Kamiya abruptly corrects, a sharpness in his tone, but then he smiles grimly . "Katsura is an old friend from Edo. There are many shades of grey in this revolution, Himura-san. Do not be so quick to paint me white or black."

Kenshin feels anger rise in him like an overpowering tide. How easy for this Lord, with his fine manor and favourable position with the Shogun, to speak of distinctions and nuance! There are no shades to the suffering of the defenseless; it was unacceptable, simple as that. To claim otherwise is to speak from the position of privilege enjoyed by so few, the privileged who were profiting from the people’s despair. His grip on his sword becomes white-knuckled with the effort of restraining himself; to commit an insult against the father of the girl who rescued him yesterday would be a grave dishonour.  

"Forgive me sir, but I do not see how one can support the shogun when the people suffer so," he says, through grit teeth.

"You are angry with me," Koshijiro observes. "Perhaps someday you will understand. I am a man of peace and I do not believe in revenge, but rather, in a sword that strives never to take life. Somewhat revolutionary for the times we live in, I suppose. I will do my best to help my friend Katsura, but I have my daughter to consider. If I lose my position as samurai, she will have to work for her rice, perhaps. If my blood is spilt in the streets of Kyoto for a patriot's cause, she will be alone."

"I would not wish any harm to come to your daughter," Kenshin says truthfully, as calmly as his temper will allow. "I will take my leave, if you have heard all you wish from me."

Koshijiro sighs reservedly. "Yes. I think it best, Himura-san, if you were to forget you ever came here, and I will do the same. For my daughter's safety, you understand."

"Of course."

"If you walk along our road to the river, and take the first bridge you see, I believe you will find yourself in the quarter where your inn is located. Farewell, Himura-san."

Kenshin does not trust himself with words, so he merely bows himself out of the room and stalks down the porch, trying to put as much distance behind himself and this entitled yet idealistic lord as possible. He is nearly at the gate when the Lady Kamiya comes running into the courtyard.  

"Osamurai-san!" she cries. She skids to a stop in front of him, nearly colliding with the frame of the gate, and he puts out a startled hand to catch her, before she rights herself on her own, and he is left reaching towards her like an idiot. She is carrying a straw hat and a small bundle in one hand, the other she presses to her side in an attempt to catch her breath. She takes no notice of his outstretched hand. "Are you leaving, Osamurai-san?"

"Yes. I must once again thank you for your extraordinary kindness, Kamiya-sama."

The Lady Kamiya merely waves a flustered hand at him and then presses the hat and bundle into his arms. "Here, Dr. Gensai's salve, rice balls and a few other useful things. And please take this hat! Your skin is so fair Osamurai-san, you must promise me you will wear it!"

Kenshin favours her with a soft, exasperated smile. He slings the bundle across his back, places the hat firmly on his head and ties it under his chin. He is aware that this will likely be the last time he ever sees her, this kind and bold young woman, and despite his dislike of her father, he inexplicably wants her to remember him fondly. He is overcome by an urge to clasp her hands, but fears startling her. Instead, he clenches his hands into fists at his side .

"I will always wear it," he promises her, bowing. "Goodbye." And then he is stepping through the gate, stepping away from her, stepping towards Katsura and his duty. He knows she has followed him out of the manor, that she is standing in front of the gate, watching him go. Her eyes bore into his back and he forces himself to not turn around, but to move forward.

Chapter Text

It is late afternoon when Kenshin reaches the Kohagi-ya. He sits on the back porch, slips off his sandals, and is loosening his hat when he senses Katsura's presence behind him. "There you are, Kenshin," Katsura says softly.

"Forgive my absence," Kenshin says, removing his hat and getting to his feet. "I was detained for longer than I hoped."

"And how did you find my friend Koshijiro?"

Kenshin searches for words that are truthful, but still polite. "… Firm. Set in his ways, if I am free to say so."

Katsura laughs. "Koshijiro walks his path with conviction, that is certain. But without his assistance, we would not get very far here in Kyoto. You were fortunate in your choice of walls."

"Yes, Katsura-sama." He bows. "I will remember that."

"And how is Kaoru-chan?" Katsura asks, eyes twinkling. "She was just a child the last time I was in Edo. She must be quite an accomplished young lady now."  

Kenshin says nothing, merely bowing in agreement. It seems improper to discuss the brilliant smile of Kamiya Kaoru in this, the den of Heaven's Justice. Katsura seems to understand and lets his question pass unanswered. "You should rest, Kenshin. If you've recovered, there is work for you early tomorrow morning." The Choshuu leader produces a black envelope from his sleeve.

Kenshin stares at the envelope for a moment, before reaching out to accept it. A black envelope, a death sentence, and he will be the one to administer its justice. He tucks it carefully into his sleeve. "Then I will retire now, to prepare," he says, bowing so deep that he misses the older man's sympathetic look. By the time their eyes meet again, the Choshuu leader's face is unreadable. "Rest well," is all he says.

Alone in his room, Kenshin pulls the screens of his large, second story window closed, shutting out the streets below. He lays out his bedding, swords at the head of the futon, and changes into his yukata. As he is hanging up his kimono, his eyes catch on the hem of the sleeve where the Lady Kamiya stitched a deep blue patch with small, careful stitches. He runs his thumb over them, marveling again at her kindness; she hadn’t asked him for his name, for anything in return except that he take care of himself. As if to remind him of his promise, his stomach rumbles expectantly, and Kenshin reaches for the Lady Kamiya's bundle, taking it and the black envelope to his futon.  

The bundle has two bamboo leaf-wrapped parcels at the top, the promised onigiri. Kenshin unwraps them hungrily and lifts one to his lips, promptly biting down on something hard and brittle. The rice ball practically snaps against his teeth, and he wrinkles his nose, but the flavour, while unexpected, is not bad, so he continues eating with a shrug while laying out the rest of the contents of the Lady Kamiya's gift. A bamboo drinking bottle that he can carry in his sleeve or tie to his waist, so he will not be without water. The tin of Dr. Gensai's balm. And lastly, a tiny envelope, carefully folded like a pinwheel, with no markings. Kenshin picks it up, confused, and it clinks softly. He sets it in his palm and opens it with slow fingers to reveal two gold and shiny ryo. Underneath them, written in a delicate hand is simply "good luck and safety on your journey".  

"Kamiya," he breathes. He imagines her, shutting the shoji against his interview with her father, and then striding about the manor, her steps sure and confident in her training hakama, gathering all these pieces for him. For him. As though he is a beloved brother deserving of her care. Kenshin has so rarely been cared for by women; his mother had died when he was so small, and Kasumi, Akane and Sakura were only with him a few days before the bandits came. He is not prepared for how thoroughly the thoughtfulness of one girl can overpower him. For this above all feels like a benediction; that she would offer up fortune and protection for the path he has chosen somehow suffuses it with a sense of rightness.  

Kenshin carefully folds the ryo back into the intricate envelope. He finishes her terrible onigiri with a small amount of relief. He tucks her gifts away, and only then, when all reminders of her have been carefully removed, does he open the black envelope.  

___________________________________

The sun rises warm over Kyoto, promising a fine day to those awake to greet it. It rises over the gate of the Kamiya manor, where Lord Koshijiro is leaving to fulfill his duty to the shogun. It crests the wall and warms the porch where Dr. Gensai puffs contentedly on his pipe, enjoying a brief moment of peace before he starts his rounds for the day. It lights the doorway of the small dojo where the Lady Kamiya is working up a sweat, dancing gracefully through an intricate kata. It shines through the windows of the Kohagi-ya, where Katsura is taking his breakfast, his thoughts far away. It raises itself above a secluded shrine gate, twinkling through the summer leaves, dappling Kenshin in shifting shadows as he crouches in the underbrush.  

He waits, absolutely still, until the crunch of steps on gravel sounds within range. His eyes narrow, and he thumbs his katana from its scabbard, and then the samurai is there and Kenshin moves. He moves faster than thought, muscle memory ingrained since childhood carrying him across the clearing, pulling his sword free, turning the blade and slicing down, all before the samurai can do more than gasp in shock and reach for the hilt of his sword. Kenshin pulls his blade free of the man's head, and the body topples to the ground, gurgling softly, forcing Kenshin to sidestep to avoid the spray of blood. He retreats to stand at the man's feet, and for a moment he regards this fallen samurai, once a proud lord, facedown in the gravel. The sound of cicadas fills the clearing and a soft wind rises, caressing Kenshin's face and stirring his fiery hair. He raises his head, blinking into the sun, watching the leaves dance in the wind, and tries to understand what about himself is now different.

"Hey, you!"

Kenshin is snapped from his thoughts by a man running into the clearing. "Who are you?" he breathes. He goes to reach for his sword, only to realize he is still holding it.

"I'm Iizuka, Examiner of Assassinations," the newcomer says matter-of-factly, brushing past him to kneel beside the body. He looks the samurai over. "This is your first assignment, right? Hold yourself together." He shakes his head, then mutters to himself, "There are some that become insane, or make themselves sick after their first job."  

"I'm fine," Kenshin assures him, and he is surprised to find the words are true. "I'm stronger than I thought."

"Good," Iizuka says, standing. "You need to be quick, accurate, and certain for this work."

Kenshin is quick and accurate. He can cross a clearing in a heartbeat, strike a man's vital spot in one swing. Now, he also knows that he is certain in the path he has chosen. Good luck and safety on your journey the wind seems to say.

Iizuka is speaking again, handing him a cloth to clean his bloody sword. Kenshin wipes the samurai's bright red blood from his blade, making it clean once more. He remembers the words he spoke to Katsura the day he was pulled from the ranks of the Kiheitai. If there is a new world that can be created by my sword, a world where anyone can live peacefully and without fear… If my arm can create that world, I will serve as heaven's justice. I will kill. Kenshin sheathes his now clean katana and nods once. For the new world, he will do what he must.

Chapter Text

Kenshin sits cross-legged in the corner, his eyes closed as Katsura and Koshijiro Kamiya have their audience. It is late, closer to sunrise now than sunset, and the two men have been pouring over maps for hours. Their voices are low and lulling, and Kenshin shifts slightly in an attempt to ward off sleep.  

Over a month has passed since he first came to Kyoto, and little less time has passed since his new name began to fill the streets with fear. They call him Hitokiri Battousai now, and while few live who can link his face to the name, he is glad for the anonymity it gives him. Only a month, and he has lost count of the number of men he has slain in the silence of night or the peace of early dawn. It has made him hard, the constant barrage. He knows his eyes are almost always narrowed now, that his voice is cold and deep and short. But he is delivering heaven's justice to build a new era, and if he must wield a deadly sword, he will do so without hesitation.

There is no black envelope tonight. It is the second time Koshijiro has come to Shimabara to meet his friend from Edo, and Kenshin is needed here instead, scouting with his spirit for eavesdroppers and hints of danger. It has been a week since Kenshin has last seen the Lord Kamiya; their last meeting was in an alley, for Koshijiro to pass Kenshin a packet for Katsura. It had set Kenshin's thoughts towards Kamiya Kaoru for days after, and he rolls his shoulders uncomfortably, wondering how long he'll think about her this time.  

Finally, Katsura clears his throat, beginning to fold up the maps Koshijiro has brought. "That's enough for now, Koshi," he says. "At this rate, Kaoru-chan will be rising for her katas before you are home."

The Lord Kamiya snorts, even as he nods in agreement. "She has been slipping in her discipline. Lately, I have had to shake her awake well past dawn."

"Dawn?!" Katsura laughs, "I do not begrudge your daughter her sensei."

"Until we meet again, Katsura-sama." The Lord Kamiya rises to his feet, favouring Katsura with a small smile. "Stay safe, Old Friend," he adds, before stepping into the night.  

Katsura finishes folding the maps, stowing them in his sleeves. He pours himself a cup of sake. "Kenshin," he calls softly, "Make sure he doesn’t see you." Kenshin flows to his feet and nods once, then glides into the darkness. He taps three times on the door where Iizuka, Ryusei and Aoto are waiting. There is a soft scuffle, and the sound of the shoji on the other side of the room opening. Kenshin waits to hear it close, knowing three Ishin-Shishi will now be taking up position to protect their lord and escort him back to the Kohagi-ya. Satisfied Katsura is safe, he stalks the rest of the way through the tea house, stumbling with a practiced air when he reaches the lit front hall. The owner blinks at him sleepily and Kenshin gives her a false drunken smile, tossing coins onto her desk as he staggers past her and out the door.  

He keeps up the act until he has left the red-light district, and then he melts into the shadows, quickening his steps and casting about for Koshijiro's spirit. He finds him a few blocks ahead. Kenshin keeps pace, scouting around for danger. Koshijiro is safe from shogunate clansmen and Shinsengumi, and no Choshuu Ishin-Shinshi will move against him, but there are other clans in Kyoto, other ronin, who would not hesitate against a lord like Kamiya-sama.

When they had first met, Kenshin would have been hard-pressed to believe a lord like Koshijiro-san would have risked his person and position for any cause, save perhaps his daughter. But his interest in the philosophies of Katsura’s teacher, Yoshida Shoin, had greatly affected him, as had Yoshida-san’s ultimate execution. And in the end, it was his devotion to his daughter, his desire to create a world where she could carry on his sword school and not be shunted into a subservient marriage, that had driven him to ally with Katsura. Despite his dislike of their methods, Koshijiro is their strongest ally, at least in guiding principles. For his daughter's happiness, he would defy the gods themselves. It was nothing, therefore, to defy the shogunate.  

It had been a surprise to Kenshin to learn just how much information regarding the shogun and his officials Koshijiro supplies Katsura with. The Lord Kamiya will never raise his sword for the revolution the way Kenshin does, but it did not stop him from fighting in his own way, helping Katsura and counselling the shogun to alter his policies, and this has earned him Kenshin's grudging respect. While Koshijiro seemed to regard Kenshin with what seems something like pity, the Lord Kamiya has come to respect the hitokiri's importance to Katsura's mission.

Kenshin keeps Koshijiro at a distance up ahead. He is fast enough to reach the Lord Kamiya if danger should appear. He is Hitokiri Battousai, and he pities anyone who tries him.  

The elder man's steps are calm and assured, his hands tucked into his sleeves against the night's chill. Kenshin keeps to the shadows, his hand on his sword hilt. When they reach the bridge, Kenshin ducks behind a few crates. To avoid Koshijiro's notice, he will have to allow more space between them, and cross the bridge once the Lord Kamiya is gone. Kenshin watches him cross and disappear around a corner. He slowly counts to thirty, then follows after Koshijiro. Before he even makes the bridge, he hears shouting from the opposite bank. 

Cursing, he takes off at a run, drawing his sword as he moves. He rounds a corner and up ahead he sees them, group of ten surrounding Koshijiro. How had he not sensed them? Three of the ten men are sprawled on the ground, and the Lord Kamiya is kneeling. Where was Koshijiro's sword? Kenshin runs, and one man, tall, with silver hair and beard shining in the moonlight, steps in front of the Lord Kamiya holding a knife aloft.

"Did you think the Shogun wouldn't find out, Kamiya? Thought no one was watching?" he spits, and turns his blade.

"No," Kenshin thinks, and then he is shouting it, loud and deep in the voice of a man, his legs carrying him forward with more speed than he has ever used before. His cry goes on and on and all he can see is way her eyes crinkle when she smiles. "Not her father!"

But fast as he is, he is too late. The knife arcs down across the sky and Koshijiro slumps forwards as the other men turn and rush towards Kenshin. He spins and swipes, alone in that place of life and death, and he is Hitokiri Battousai, and he is death and he has come for these men, has called them to reckoning for their crimes and his own overconfidence. He executes each man who comes at him ruthlessly, does not spare the three men who struggle to their feet to help their comrades. Nine men are dead before he realizes the tenth, the killer, has escaped him. He spreads out his spirit, sharp as arrows, and then there, three streets ahead and moving quickly. Kenshin will not let him get away.

"Hi…Himura…"

Koshijiro is kneeling once more, struggling on his hands and knees to raise himself. Kenshin turns to him, realizing he cannot leave and chase the tenth man while Koshijiro lays wounded, that he may be able to save the Lord Kamiya yet. He gathers the older man into his arms, surveying the amount of blood staining the front of the Lord Kamiya's kimono. Too much, he knows.  

"Get… get out… of here," Koshijiro pleads, reaching into his sleeve with determined effort and producing a scrap of indigo silk. He presses it to Kenshin's chest, over his heart, and it feels as though the Lord Kamiya has stabbed him.  

"Tell her… I'm sorry…"

Kenshin covers Koshijiro's hand with his own, gripping the Lady Kamiya's ribbon. If my blood is spilled in the streets of Kyoto, she will be alone.  

"I will protect her, Koshijiro-sama," he vows, his voice shaking. "I will give my life before any harm comes to your daughter." And he will, he will give anything to atone for the way he has failed her in this moment, when her father needed him most.

Koshijiro nods and sighs softly, shutting his eyes. "Protect…" he murmurs, and then he goes completely still. A soft cry of unchecked despair falls unbidden from Kenshin's lips, and he stares at the still form of Kamiya Koshijiro as though he can will the man's soul back into his body.

"I am sorry…" he whispers, "I am sorry!" He closes his eyes for a moment and is overwhelmed by the image of Kamiya Kaoru bowed with grief. Rage replaces despair. Koshijiro's killer is still at large, and he will not fail the Lady Kamiya in her revenge.  

He carefully lowers the Lord Kamiya to the ground and gets to his feet, tucking her ribbon into his kimono, over his heart. He casts his spirit out again, but instead of one killer, there are several now, strong spirits that spike with the strength of practiced swordsmen, running towards the place where he is standing. Kenshin's keen ears pick out the sound of whistles, and he curses softly, leaping into the air and landing atop the roof of the closest building.  

The whistles grow louder, and then shouts of men, and by the time the Shinsengumi unit has flooded into the street, Kenshin is far south, circling the long way back to the Kohagi-ya. Katsura must be told of his failure, warned that Koshijiro was compromised, and Kenshin must beg his Lord to spare him seppuku long enough to get Kamiya Kaoru to safety.

Chapter Text

When Dr. Gensai shakes Kaoru awake, she is first surprised, then confused. Daylight is just beginning to filter through the shoji.

"Have I overslept?" she asks, suddenly wary of the way the doctor looks into her eyes, the way he is holding her shoulder like she might break at anytime. "Dr. Gensai?"

"Your… your father, Kaoru."

Kaoru feels the bottom of the world fall out from under her. She will never remember how she stood, how she walked past Dr. Gensai out of her room, down the porch, towards the light coming from the front hall. She does not remember entering, or sitting, only that she is sitting, clutching her yukata at her neck and staring at a swordsman in a sky blue haori. "Where is my Honoured Father?"

He bows. He raises large eyes to meet her own, and his face is soft and sympathetic. It is a young face, a boy’s face under a hachigane. Only one set of ronin wear them in the city, and she is momentarily, irrationally angry that the messenger is not someone more important, someone more befitting her father's rank.  

"I regret to tell you that Kamiya Koshijiro was killed this evening."

For a moment, the words hang dark in the air, and then spin and dive into her like swarming birds. They seem to plummet straight to her heart, filling it with a blackness she cannot name. "Is he all right?" she asks, confused.

She hears Dr. Gensai's sharp breath from somewhere over her shoulder, but she gazes into the ronin's eyes, pleading silently. "Please. Please tell me he is all right. Tell me he lives."  

His eyes hold her own, and his face shows none of the surprise or confusion she feels. He merely stretches out his hand to place it over her own, where it is gripping, white-knuckled, the fabric over her knee. Her gaze travels down to his hand, and she stares at the march of white mountains across the base of his sleeve, sharp and jagged and raging against the blue sky. "No, Kamiya-sama," he says gently, and it is burned into her memory, the juxtaposition of those angry mountains and his gentle voice. "He is gone. This humble one is truly sorry for your loss."

Kaoru closes her eyes, and she takes a deep breath. She feels the ronin withdraw his hand. "May I know your name, sir?" she asks, meeting his eyes once more.

"Todo. Todo Heisuke, captain of the Shinsengumi 8th Unit."

"I am grateful to you, Todo-san, for coming here. For your kindness."

For a moment, Todo Heisuke seems like he will say more. But then he looks beyond her, perhaps meeting Dr. Gensai’s eyes, and resolves to say nothing further. "I will take my leave then. Forgive me for being the bearer of such news," he says at last, getting to his feet. Kaoru stares at the spot on the tatami he has vacated, and she has no idea how much time has passed when Dr. Gensai speaks. "Kaoru?"

"I'd like to go to the dojo, Dr. Gensai," she says.

___________________________________

They let her stay in the dojo, since she will not come out. She sleeps on the centre of the polished floor, curled around her bokken, and she eats the food they leave on the porch. It has been three weeks and Dr. Gensai has written to Maekawa-san, who is her legal guardian now. Her father's body has not come home. Kaoru is not able to mourn him or shroud him in white, she cannot take him home to Edo to bury him next to her mother, because the shogun has forbid it. There had been nine bodies in the street with her father, killed by swordsmen of incredible skill and speed. Nameless whisperers in the shogun’s court claimed that Kamiya Koshijiro had attacked the shogun's men in the street, that he had cried out for tenchuu as he slew them. The shogun has branded her father a traitor, confiscated his property, disbanded his school, and separated his head from his body after death to further shame his soul.  

Kaoru practices her kata and refuses to leave. She knows Maekawa will be coming soon, and that he and Dr. Gensai will take her back to Edo. But not to the Kamiya dojo, where she has grown up, because it is no longer her home. It is likely Maekawa will adopt her, erasing her family shame, and then try to marry her off quickly to whoever will accept a daughter of a ronin with what small dowry he can provide. It is something her father had told her she would never have to do, put aside her swordsman spirit, her name, and be subservient to a husband. He had promised to give her a life that was all her own, had kept her from being sold in marriage to someone who would only see her as a woman to be controlled. But now he was gone, along with the delusion that she could avoid such a fate.  Kaoru grits her teeth and grips her bokken tighter, executing a particularly complicated pass.  

She remembers sitting on the polished floor of the Edo dojo, sun shining through the open door and bathing her father in light, as he patiently explained his philosophy of the sword to her. The sword that protects is not a light sword to carry. There will be those who will doubt you, but you must be strong. You can never fall, Kaoru. If you fall, those you seek to protect will fall, too.

She had given him her ribbon, and he had not come home.

She leaps to the left, spinning as she slashes her wooden sword in a wide arc. The sword that protects is a defensive style. It does not seek fights, instead striving to end them. She feints right, twirling her bokken in the air. Never raise your weapon with more force than the situation requires, Kaoru. Never cut when a bruise will do. She ducks under an invisible jab, slamming the bokken hilt up, ending the kata and the fight.  

 Kaoru sinks to her knees, doubling over and wrapping her arms around herself. She cannot cry, because she has no tears left. She has no recourse with the shogun, no way to argue her father's fealty, to demonstrate his beliefs and how it is impossible he would betray his lord in such a way. She is samurai and the shogun's word is law. She cannot restore her father's honour, but it is impossible for her to bear the shame of hearing her father's name and legacy tainted. She is caught between her duty as samurai and her fierce love for her father, and her inability to reconcile the two sends her spinning into katas until she is exhausted enough to sleep.

"Kaoru?" Dr. Gensai calls from the other side of the closed shoji. "I've heated the bath. Will you come out and take a bath, Kaoru-chan?"

She says nothing, and after a few moments the doctor sighs and retreats. She knows it is just the two of them here now, the maids and retainers and clansmen have all left, abandoning her to her grief and shame. She is touched by Dr. Gensai's loyalty, though she is unable to say it. She is unable to say anything for fear that if she opens her mouth she will scream and never stop. She knows that she doesn't have long, that soon they will come and remove her by force. She knows that she cannot bear to be shunted quietly into a marriage aimed to erase her name and her swordsman's spirit; she is the last of the Kamiya, the last bearer of the sword that protects, and while it is a heavy sword, she must bear it for her father's sake. She cannot restore the name of Kamiya Koshijiro, but she will bring honour to the name Kamiya Kaoru and the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu.  

Kaoru waits until she is sure Dr. Gensai is asleep, then she sneaks to the bathhouse. She reheats the water and scrubs herself raw. She sinks into the bath, holding her breath and plunging her head under, and when she emerges she is clean and new. She dresses in a fresh kimono and hakama, gathering up what she will need in a bundle.  

She steals into her father's room, working quickly. She wants her father with her and so she takes everything of him she can; his comb, his writing set, every handkerchief ever touched by her mother's embroidery. She kneels before his ceremonial swords. Her father only ever carried them for formal occasions. Swords passed down for generations, unused, the Kamiya birthright. She tucks the short sword into her belt, hilt close to the center of her soul and the spirit, like a true bushi. She draws the blade, gathers her thick glossy hair over her shoulder, and does not hesitate. What remains springs back against her chin, one side longer than the other, and she lays the cut length of hair before the sword stand, re-sheathing the wakizashi. It is said that a woman cannot bear to part with her hair, but she will be a swordsman, now, and her pride shall be her swords. She lifts the katana, and bows over it in prayer. "Please, help me carry the sword that protects with honour, Father. Let me live for us both now."

 Kaoru goes over the west wall and follows the river. They may be ronin, but she is ronin now, too. She strides quickly, purposefully, because it will not do to arrive after dawn.

___________________________________

Kenshin sits in his window on the second floor of the Kohagi-ya, watching the road. He is waiting for Katsura to appear, and three steps behind him, Kamiya Kaoru. He twists her ribbon through his fingers, over and over, thinking about what he will say to her. It has been three weeks since his failure at the river, and he has been chafing at the delay, but Katsura could not move to protect Koshijiro's daughter sooner. Not with the shogun waiting for him to make such a misstep. But the watch on the Kamiya manor has been lifted now, and Koshijiro's retainers have all fled. Only the Lady Kamiya haunts the dojo, and it is finally safe to retrieve her. Katsura has made arrangements for her in Choshuu, a safe home where the shogun will forget her. Katsura is allowing Kenshin to take her there himself, provided she agrees to go with him.

He knows she may never forgive him, and she has that right. She has the right to refuse to see him, or to rage and weep at him, or to strike him and exact her revenge. He will bear it. He will do whatever she asks of him, even take a dagger to his gut, because she has the right. And while he has steeled himself for all possible outcomes, a small part of him hopes against all hope... that she will forgive him. That perhaps, she might let him bear some of her pain. Because, if she will let him, he desperately wants to comfort her and keep her safe. He has sworn that his life is hers now, for as long as she requires his protection.

For a moment he is lost in his imagination; she will appear in the doorway, and he will rise to his feet and she will stumble towards him, and he will catch her in his arms and hold her while she cries. He will stroke her long, silky jet black hair and return her ribbon and say I am sorry, forgive me and I will always protect you, and she will know that he will. He will take her to Choshuu and she will be safe and he will fight everyday to build a world where she does not hurt anymore. "I promise, Kamiya," he thinks, clutching her ribbon in his fist.  

Kenshin catches sight of Katsura picking his way through the crowded street. He leaps to his feet, his heart suddenly too big for his chest, though whether it is fear or something else he cannot tell. He scans the crowd around Katsura, but there is no jet black tail bobbing in the street. Katsura is alone.

"She does not want to see me," Kenshin thinks, and he feels all at once very tired and old beyond his years. He takes the stairs slowly, and when he meets Katsura at the entrance of the inn, his face is even more unreadable, his voice more hollow than when he slays strangers in the darkened streets.  

"She would not come," Kenshin says.  

"She was not there," Katsura corrects. He draws an envelope from his sleeve, addressed to Dr. Gensai in her delicate script. Katsura offers it to Kenshin with a look of extreme distaste. "She has run off and joined the Shinsengumi."

Chapter Text

Kaoru presses her forehead into the ground, her hands making a perfect triangle. The guards at the gate had been surprised to find her prostrate on the road at shift change, mostly because they hadn't noticed her until she started speaking. 

"I humbly request to speak with Todo Heisuke, Shinsengumi Eighth Unit Captain!" she yells into the dirt.  

They told her to go away, but she remained there as the sun rose high and heated her back, repeatedly asking for the captain, until the man with the large soft eyes finally appeared. He is slightly rumpled, as though he'd just woken up. "Ehh!? Kamiya-sama?!" he gasps incredulously.  

"Todo-sensei! This one, an adjunct master of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu, humbly asks to join your unit, that she does!"

Todo gapes at her, and he presses a hand to his forehead with a sigh. "It is too early for this," he grumbles quietly, then raises his voice to speak to her. "Go home Kamiya-sama."

"This humble self has no home," she says. "All that this one had now belongs to the shogun. This humble self wishes only to serve, that she does."

"What's this, Heisuke?" says a new voice. Kaoru raises her head slightly; there are two more men at the gate now, slightly older than Todo.  

"Did you seduce a boy in Shimabara last night?" the shorter of the two continues, his face amused.  

"She wants to join the troop, Okita," Todo groans, as if he cannot believe what is happening.

"She!?!" spits the samurai, turning to look at her.

"This one is an adjunct master of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu," Kaoru repeats. She breathes deeply and keeps her core strong, willing her spirit to flow like a soft wind, when all she wants is to raise her voice and temper.

"If she wants to join, she will have to address the Vice-Commander," says the second samurai. His voice is deep and emotionless, his face all hard angles.

"Saito-san!" gasps Todo in surprise.

"What!?" cries the one named Okita, "Have you lost your mind, Hajime?"

"It is the Vice-Commander who decides which unit new recruits join. If she wants to join, she must be vetted like the others." Saito shrugs his shoulders at the two dumbfounded men. "Woman!" he calls, "What is your name?"

"Kamiya Kaoru, sensei!"

"Follow me."

"The Oni is not going to like this," mutters Todo.

Saito orders Kaoru to sit on the porch outside the dojo where four other men are already waiting. He returns shortly, following behind the handsomest man Kaoru has ever seen. He looks like a shining prince of legend come to life, and his eyes pierce like fire. He bows himself into the dojo, sitting next to an older man at the top of the hall, and Saito leads them all in, instructing them to sit in a line and wait. Kaoru sits seiza and keeps her breathing even. It seems to her like a lot of men are crowding into the dojo, filling it with whispers that grow louder until the man with the face of a god barks at them to be quiet. Okita arrives, and walks to the centre of the hall, taking up a stance.  

"First recruit!" shouts the older man, and the man closest to him scrambles to his feet, bowing to him, and then to Okita. So. Kaoru will be last. She gazes intently at Okita, determined to learn all she can of his style before it is her turn. He is very, very good. Fast and strong, favouring a drawing technique. But he is overconfident, leaving his guard open to execute his quick attacks. Not often, and not for very long, but the openings are there. By the time he has sprawled the third man on his back, Kaoru knows all she needs to. He sends the fourth flying backwards into the dojo wall, and then it is Kaoru's turn.  

She bows to the men at the head of the dojo, and then to Okita. He takes up a ready stance. "I will not hold back against you," he warns her.  

"You honour me, sensei," she replies, sending a ripple of uneasy laughter through the dojo. She draws her katana, still sheathed, from her belt and takes up a defensive stance, sword parallel to the floor.  

"Begin!"

Okita draws his sword, faster than lightning, but Kaoru is ready and dodges left, towards his unprotected shoulder. He tracks her, thinking to slash across her body, but she ducks low, underneath his guard. She is too fast and he is committed, unable to avoid her following through and whacking him lightly across the belly with her sheathed sword. He hunches over and she spins her hilt in her hands, breaking apart his grip and causing his weak hand to release his sword. She grabs for the hilt, pulling him closer as she steps into her attack. She checks the swing half an inch from his cheek, and she feels Okita's wakizashi press into the fabric of her kimono and stop. He grins good-naturedly at her. "It seems we are both dead, Kamiya-san."

"Enough Okita!"  

He steps away from her, sheathing his swords, and Kaoru bows to the head of the dojo once more. The two men glance at each other, and then nod to Saito. She is led from the dojo with the four other recruits, back onto the porch where they are told to wait until called. Kaoru loses track of time, sitting with her eyes closed, carefully regulating her breathing and heart rate, until at last Saito calls her back into the dojo. She enters and kneels, fingers together, face nearly resting on the polished floor. Her newly short hair swishes against her cheeks, leaving her neck feeling strangely exposed.  

"You may raise your head," says a gruff voice, and Kaoru obliges. Okita and Todo are sitting to her left, Saito to her right. In front of her sit the older man and his handsome comrade.  

"I am Kondo Isami, Commander of the Shinsengumi," The older one says kindly, favouring her with an easy smile, "And this is Hijikata Toshizo, our Vice-Commander. Heisuke has told me of your situation, Kamiya Kaoru, and that you wish to join our group."

"Yes, sensei," she replies softly. Kondo nods.  

"How old are you, Kaoru-chan?"

"Fourteen, sensei."

"Your father was Kamiya Koshijiro?"

"Yes, sensei."

"The traitor," interjects Hijikata in his gruff voice.  

Kaoru's head snaps up at the insult, abandoning her bow in disrespectful impropriety, her hands flying to the sheath and hilt of her sword. "My father," she says levelly, "was no traitor."

Hijikata holds her gaze, glaring with eyes harder than steel. Kaoru throws back her shoulders to meet it with one just as direct. Her thumb is tense against the guard of her sword, and every line of her body dares him to deny her father's honour again. She is afraid, but she will not look away first. Okita whistles softly, and Hijikata breaks off his glare. "What is your report, Saito?" he asks.

"Kamiya-san was able to approach our gate and remain undetected by the morning guard," Saito responds flatly. "She did not allow them to dissuade her, and seemed determined to cajole Heisuke into joining his unit. I believe she would have persuaded him had Okita-san and I not arrived. She has remarkable control of her spirit, and it is apparent, after watching her in the dojo, that she is skilled with a blade. In short, she is stealthy, tenacious, and well trained."

"Well then!" booms Kondo, in a voice that reminds Kaoru of Dr. Gensai, "There are not many who can survive as long as she did against Souji. And at fourteen too! That alone would recommend her. But to win a staring match against you, Toshi… she is rare indeed."

"She did not win…" grumbles the Vice-Commander.

"Now, now. Don't be a sore loser, Toshi." Kondo grins. He pats his friend companionably on the back and then turns to Kaoru. His face grows serious. "You must know, Kamiya, that the Shinsengumi serves the lord of Aizu, and through him, the shogun. Though your family is in disgrace, you wish to pledge your life to the Tokugawa?"

Kaoru takes a deep breath, and for the first time in three weeks, her face betrays an emotion other than anger or grief. Her large eyes become earnest. "I am the last of the Kamiya, Kondo-sensei. It is my duty to my father to carry this sword, as he taught me. I ask that you allow me to bring honour to this sword in your service, and in doing so, restore the Kamiya name through my dedication to the shogun." She bows her head in deep respect, missing how Kondo's eyes mist with tears.

"Your devotion to your father and sword master is admirable, Kaoru-chan." he says softly.  

Hijikata rolls his eyes. "How do we know you are not seeking revenge, Kamiya-san?" he asks abruptly.  

"The Kamiya Kasshin-ryu does not believe in revenge," she answers simply. "It is a sword that values life."

"Values life?" chortles Okita.

"It teaches defense and respect above all things," Kaoru continues, as though she has not heard him, "and strives to protect instead of kill."

"That is nonsense," Saito states. "A sword is a tool for killing. It is made for no other purpose."

Kaoru clamps down on her spirit, trying to master her fierce temper. "The sword that protects is not a light sword to carry," she reminds herself. "There will be those who doubt you, but you must be strong." She takes a deep breath, then another. She is strong.  

"I humbly ask you to allow me to serve, Kondo-sensei," she implores.  

"Well, Toshi?" Kondo asks Hijikata, and the Vice-Commander sighs.

"The first unit," Hijikata says, and Okita whistles again.

Todo shakes his head and shoots Kaoru a grin. "She wanted to join my unit, Hijikata-sensei," he reminds them all.  

"She'll walk all over you, Heisuke," Hijikata says matter-of-factly, causing Todo to gape while Okita and Kondo to burst into laughter. "Souji will do a better job of keeping her in line."

Okita grins at Kaoru, but his eyes are deadly serious. "I will not hold back," he promises her.

Chapter Text

It is particularly warm for an autumn day, and Kaoru is on an errand. Shortly after breakfast, Okita-sensei emerged from Hijikata-sensei's office to tell Kaoru that the Vice-Commander required more ink. 

"What he does with it all is a mystery," Okita-sensei muttered. "Go after training, Kamiya-chan."

 "Yes, Sensei!" The corners of Kaoru's lips stretched slightly upwards in what passes these days as her smile. After discovering Hijikata-sensei's book of haiku while cleaning his office, she had been sworn to secrecy at the point of the Oni's sword to never, ever, tell anyone what he did with all his ink.  

She has been a member of the Shinsengumi for nearly three months now, and they have all come to rely on her in one way or another. Though she had been permanently banned from the kitchen only a few days after her arrival, when they learned she could sew, there had been a flurry of apologetic samurai presenting her with their tattered garments. She brews the tea for Kondo-sensei's important guests and helps Hijikata-sensei with the household accounts. She picks the best vegetables and fish on market days, four comrades laden with heavy baskets trailing behind her. Her comrades come to her for tending to minor injuries, for advice, for training tips. On duty, she is acknowledged as the best at speaking with civilians, well-liked even by innkeepers when she must inspect their guest books. She knows the people of their neighbourhood by name, helps them with their little troubles, keeps watch over their children. She does all these things, all the things she did as the Lady Kamiya, only now she does them with an emotionless face and two heavy swords on her hip. And while she still feels hollow, still aches for her father, she presses on down her chosen path.

Kaoru carries her two swords today but she is out of uniform, technically off-duty. There have been increasing numbers of rogue samurai in the city, and a lone Shinsengumi is an enticing target for ronin with a grudge. Her hakama swish purposely as she walks briskly through town to her preferred ink vendor. He remembers the time Kaoru-sama helped his mother carry her washing in, and always cuts her a deal.  

"Good morning, Miagi-san," she calls, walking into the shop. He is serving a customer, but he gives Kaoru a smile over the man's hat. "Ah! Kamiya-san! Just a moment, just a moment!"

"Of course." She bows, "There is no rush today, that there is not." Miagi returns to his work, but his customer is no longer paying attention to the ink stones laid out before him.

"Kamiya-sama?"

Kaoru remembers his voice, gentle and deep. He turns to regard her from under his hat, and she observes the way his tired, hard eyes widen and soften, the way the colour seems to shift to that of an iris in the rain. Eyes that had drawn her in by the west wall, and set her cheeks burning in the guest room.  

"Osamurai-san."  

It comes out a little breathless with surprise, and she is surprised to see him, a ghost from what feels like another life, another time. It was summer when she had rescued him from the sun; now the maple trees wear leaves the same colour as his hair. A short time, but many things have changed. He has called her by her old name, and her heart constricts at the reminder that she is no longer the Lady Kamiya. But she recovers quickly from her shock , and favours him with a smile that, while perhaps not as easy or bright as what he might remember, is genuine nonetheless. It is, after all, not his fault that her life is different now.  

He turns back to the ink vendor and gestures over the ink stones. "Please, see to Kamiya-sama first. I will wait."

"That is not necessary - " she begins, but he is already sliding across the tatami to make way for her. Blushing faintly, she steps out of her sandals and sits before the inks. "The usual stones, please, Miagi-san," she requests quietly.  

Miagi is a smooth enough professional that he does not remark upon the strange scene that has unfolded before him. Instead of the cheerful banter he usually keeps up with her, he executes her order with efficient silence. He hands the packets to her with a soft smile. "I’ll give your regards to my mother, Kamiya-san," he says, winking.  

"Yes, thank you," she responds softly, pressing coins into his hand with a grateful nod.  

"Have you reached a decision, Young Sir?" Miagi calls to the samurai.

"The black and dark red, please," is his quiet response.  

Miagi bends once again to his work, and Kaoru feels the young man's eyes boring into her. She knows that she should get up, step into her sandals and bow her way outside, but for some reason she cannot. She is held by the samurai's serious gaze, just as she had been that day in the guestroom with her fingers gently resting on his face. She is immobile, as if under a spell.  

"There is a tea shop just up the street," he says suddenly and softly. "Will you… that is to say, if you are not otherwise occupied… perhaps - " he cuts off when Kaoru simply nods.  

He pays Miagi for his ink stones, and together they step into their sandals. Kaoru follows him up the street, and out of old habit she walks three steps behind, something she has not done since her father was alive. She sits down at one of the outside tables while he orders tea, and only when the shopkeeper brings the pot and a small plate of dango do they look at each other.  

"It's been a while, Osamurai-san -" she begins, words tripping over her tongue in her haste to fill the silence. "How are you, Kamiya-sama?" he inquires at the same time.  

They gape at each other, and the young samurai's face is so serious, so intent, so at odds with his soft blush, that something shakes loose in her, and she cannot help herself. Kaoru laughs, and for a moment, it unlocks her old smile. "I am well, thank you, " she answers, and has the pleasure of seeing his hardened face smile in return. She looks down at her calloused hands and continues. "But it is only Kamiya Kaoru, now."

"Yes," he says gravely, his face serious once more. "I was very sorry to hear of your loss, Kamiya-dono."

Perhaps it is the way he says her name, honouring her still, or the way his eyes fill with concern and kindness, but for the first time Kaoru does not burn with shame at an apology for her father's death. "Thank you," she says softly, and she finally means it.  

She reaches for the teapot, and pours for them both. He looks away into the street. "I came to the manor," he tells her, "but only Oguni-san was there. He was packing up to return to Edo; he said you'd joined the Shinsengumi."

"That's true," she says, picking up her cup and blowing across it, "I am a member of the first unit."

He falls silent, and Kaoru is not sure how to continue. She thinks to ask after Dr. Gensai, but then the samurai speaks again. "You cut your hair," he observes, picking up his own cup. Kaoru reaches up to touch her short black hair, gathering it in her fist at the nape of her neck.  

"It's almost long enough to pull back now," she tells him. Okita had teasingly told her that her hair made her look like a haggard ronin, that she should grow it and tie it back like a proper bushi. She has been growing it for that purpose. Silence falls between them again and Kaoru searches around for something else to say, when it finally dawns on her that he is wearing the hat she gave him.

"You are wearing your hat!" she says, genuinely delighted.

"I promised I would!" his guarded face breaks into smile again. "I have your water bottle here too."

"I'm glad! I'm glad you are taking better care of yourself, Osamurai-san!"

"It's Himura. Himura Kenshin."  

"Himura," she says, testing it. "I'm glad, Himura-san."  

They fall into easy chatter then, laughing together, recounting the silliness of their first meeting. Everything they say is light and friendly, and Kaoru feels a weight lift from her chest that she hadn't realized had been there. It feels good to talk about her former life in this easy way, to have someone remember her from that time who doesn’t instantly shun or ignore it. Himura-san is thanking her for her onigiri when the bells ring the time.  

"Oh! Forgive me Himura-san, I am very late!" she cries. Okita will no doubt have her hide, not to mention the penance she'll have to do if Hijikata has forgotten the poem he wanted to write. She clambers to her feet with a groan, sliding her katana back into her belt. She reaches into her sleeve for coins for the tea, but he is already placing some on the empty dango plate.  

"I am sorry for keeping you," he says with a good natured smile that shows he is not sorry at all.

"No, it was good to see you again," she says, and she means it. "I have not passed such a pleasant afternoon in a long time."

He blushes, reminding her of his sunburn, and hides under the brim of his hat. "Then I am glad to have been of service, Kamiya-dono," he murmurs.

Kaoru chews her lip for a moment. "I…" she hesitates, worried at being thought too forward. But everything about her acquaintance with this man has been unconventional and she thinks he will understand.  

"I will be on leave in three days. For a week. Perhaps, during that time, we could meet for tea again?" She bows her head as she speaks, asks the dirt of the road instead of Himura-san in her embarrassment. It is a forward request, but she wants to see him again. She feels comfortable around him in a way she has not felt since her father died.  

"Of course," he says, and when she raises her head to look at him, he looks almost relieved.

"Then, in six days? At the same time we met in the ink shop, we'll meet here for tea."  

"In six days," he agrees, and he holds up his smallest finger. Kaoru laughs and links it with her own.  

"Six days," she repeats as they shake on it.  

She bows her goodbyes and takes off down the street, and the lightness in her heart lends swiftness to her feet as though she were leaping through clouds. She is unaware that as Himura Kenshin watches her go, the look on his face is that of someone who has received a precious gift.  

Chapter Text

Eight blocks from headquarters, Kaoru runs into Heisuke's unit on patrol.

"Kaoru-chan!" he cries. Out of all the men in the troop, only Kondo and Heisuke call her by her given name. Kondo, because he is almost old enough to be her father, and Heisuke, because he is only a year older.

"Okita has been looking for you," he warns her.  

"Ah… I lost track of time! How mad is he?"

"Cleaning the outhouses mad."

Kaoru wrinkles her nose dejectedly. "Thanks for the warning," she mutters.  

"Go over the back wall. Tell him you fell asleep in the garden," Heisuke offers helpfully. "Good luck, Kaoru." Several of his troop give her reassuring nods and grins.  

She bows in thanks and skirts the long way around headquarters, looking for a particular tree. It is easy to climb the pine to reach the top of the back wall, and it is a “secret” favorite of men sneaking home after an unsanctioned evening in Shimabara. The tree has not been cut down as a security risk because from the other side it is a three story drop into the garden behind headquarters. The commanders joke that the tree was their own personal “stage at Kiyomizu-dera,” and let it stand. Several men broke their legs after sake made them brave enough to make the jump instead of climbing down with a rope.  Kaoru does not have a rope with her, but she doesn't need one. She is one of the few people in the troop who can leap from large heights and land safely.

She climbs the pine and finds the specific branch that she knows she can launch herself from. Tucking her swords into her belt so they lay perpendicular across her belly, she leans out, gripping the branch and testing it with her weight. She swings back and forth for a moment before flipping herself around the branch for momentum, releasing her grip and spinning in the air to land tucked tightly into a ball. She rolls along the ground and comes to her feet in front of the back porch. Sitting there in the warming sun are Kondo, Hijikata, and the local magistrate.  

"Impressive," the magistrate breathes.

"Oh, Kaoru-chan…" Kondo blushes, trying to save the situation.

Kaoru drops to her knees, bent double in the deepest bow she has ever performed. She digs into her sleeves and then proffers the packets. "Your ink stones, Hijikata-sensei!"

"Such dedication!" the magistrate sighs sublimely.  

"Thank you, Kamiya-san," Hijikata grinds out, and Kaoru knows she will be very fortunate if he spares her life. "You may take them to my office and await me there."

Kaoru winces, but she manages to bow even deeper. "Yes, sensei!" she yelps, and then she exits the garden as quickly as honour will allow. Once she is through the house, she heads straight for Hijikata's office, ignoring the calls of her comrades. She sits seiza in the centre of the room and prays to all the gods until she hears footsteps stalking down the porch. The shoji slides open with a crash, revealing the Oni Vice-Commander, with Kondo and Okita behind him. Kaoru has a brief look at Hijikata's handsome face, twisted with horrific rage, before she falls to the tatami to bow with a startled squeak. She begins to tremble even before he starts speaking.

"What, on earth, could have ever possessed you, Kamiya?!" he growls, "Do you have any idea?"

"Now, now," Kondo interjects mildly.

"You will spend the evening confined in the warehouse in meditation," Hijikata barks. "Go. Now."

Kaoru speeds from the room, head down, and goes straight to the warehouse. She sits seiza for a few moments and then she doubles over and cries. She crumples with the shame of having failed, and failed badly, in her duties. She has made the Commander look a fool in front of an honoured guest, brought dishonour to the troop that  gave her a second chance and a new home. She has failed her father and deepened the shame of her family. She stuffs her fist into her mouth to silence her sobs, and begs any spirit that might be listening that when she is released from the warehouse tomorrow morning she will not be facing seppuku. If she avoids the sentence she deserves, she may be able to atone for this shame.  

"Please Father, forgive me!" she pleads, squeezing her eyes shut. Her head feels heavy and it is becoming difficult to breathe. "I failed!" She sobs over and over, and her stomach muscles ache from the strain.  

"Kamiya-chan?"

Okita is standing in the doorway, carrying a tray of dinner. He takes one look at her, weeping on the floor, and then he steps into the warehouse and pulls the door shut behind him. He sets down the tray and kneels beside her. "Don't cry, Kaoru," he says softly. He puts a tentative hand on her shoulder.  

"I sh-sh-shamed my f-f-ather…" she breathes, shaking with the effort to control her tears. She is samurai and the daughter of samurai and she must not cry.

"Tell me what happened, Kaoru," Okita offers.

Kaoru draws a deep breath and relates, as best she can between soft sobs, the events in the garden. She cannot bear to meet Okita's eyes, and her fists, resting on her knees, become white knuckled. "I brought dishonour to the troop, embarrassed Kondo-sensei and Hijikata-sensei - "

"Kaoru," he interjects, and he says her name as though she is a well-indulged little sister who is being particularly foolish. She realizes he has been calling her by her given name this whole time. She looks at him at last. He is smiling softly, with a kind and brotherly look in his eyes.

"Hijikata is not angry about the garden," he says softly, "not entirely."

"I don't understand…"

"While your entrance into headquarters was less than desired, what made Hijikata angry was that you were missing, Kaoru-chan." He stares directly into her eyes with deep sincerity, letting his words sink in. "You were gone for hours, Kaoru. Hijikata, Kondo… we were all worried. I went to three ink shops looking for you."

"I go to one on the other side of the river," she blushes, eyes wide with the realization that Okita had been searching for her not to punish her, but to ensure she was safe. "The owner's mother is my friend."

"None of us knew where you were. Imagine how Hijikata would have felt, if we found you dead in the street, all because he wanted to write some silly poem?"

"You know about the haiku?!"

Okita rolls his eyes. "It's not even good haiku, Kaoru! Imagine if you had died over something so trivial."

"I'm sorry…" she murmurs.

Okita sighs and places his hand on top of her head. "Don't scare us like that again," he smiles, tugging playfully on the longer lock of hair on the right side of her face. "We all talk like we don't give a damn, but any of us would grieve to lose a comrade, and that includes you, Kaoru. We're a family, you know?"

"Yes." she agrees, and she gives him a shy smile.  

Okita blushes and opens his mouth to say something, but the door slides open to reveal Kondo-sensei, carefully balancing two trays and a teapot in one hand. He takes in Okita and Kaoru sitting close together on the floor of the darkened warehouse, his hands resting in her hair, and the Commander becomes instantly surprised and apologetic.

"Oh! …Souji?!"

Okita's hands fall from her hair, and he leans away from her casually. "I was just bringing Kamiya her dinner, Kondo-sensei." he says.

"Yes," Kondo agrees, "I had the same idea!"

"Well, come in sensei!" Okita grins. "There is nothing for the appetite like eating in a dark warehouse."

"Aha!" The commander laughs, and soon they are settled on the floor, and Kaoru is pouring tea.

"Now, Kondo," Okita says, proffering the lid of his soup bowl to Kaoru in lieu of a teacup, "Tell me all about Kaoru-chan's leap into the garden."

"Ohh!" Kondo grins, "She was magnificent, Souji! She flew through the air like an acrobat and landed without a scratch! And when she held out the ink stones…" Kondo breaks off for a few moments in deep laughter "…it was all I could do to keep a straight face! You should have seen Toshi's face; I swear to the gods I thought his head would explode."

Okita slaps his knee and joins Kondo in his laughter, and Kaoru chuckles uneasily and clutches the teapot.  

"I am sorry, Kondo-sensei, for interrupting your meeting this afternoon," she blushes.

"No!" he cries, "You have done me a great service Kaoru! The magistrate was quite taken with your display of devotion to your duty. He was greatly impressed with the unit because of you."

"Truly, sensei?"

"Truly Kaoru-chan." He pauses in his meal to bow. "Thank you again, for your dedication. We'd be lost without you, that is certain."

Kaoru flushes again, toying with her sleeves. Okita beams with a proud smile. She knows that Okita values Kondo-san's opinion above all others, and to win his praise, in front of her unit captain, lessens her embarrassment. She favours them both with her bright, real smile, and they are both momentarily dazzled. "You honour me, sensei," she tells Kondo, and the Commander blushes.  

"Oh, Kaoru-chan! Eat, eat before your meal is cold."

"Yes, sensei."

"Aha, just Kondo. When we are gathered informally like this, please call me Kondo, as Souji does."

"Kondo," she agrees, giving him another one of her smiles.  

"Then I'll be Souji," Okita offers, holding out his lid for more tea. She blushes and reaches for the teapot. It is one thing to call the Commander by his family name, but quite another to call Okita-sensei by his given one. He is only four years older, and her direct superior. As a woman of the samurai class, it is only proper to call family members and those of the lower classes by their first names. But she remembers Okita's hand on her head and his brotherly smile. We're a family, you know?

"Yes, Souji," she says as she pours his tea, and he grins at her.

As they continue their meal, Kondo describes in detail Kaoru's impressive landing, the shades Hijikata-san's face had turned. Souji shoots Kondo a conspiratorial grin and admits to him that Kaoru knows about the haiku. Kondo's eyes grow wide with delight, and he and Souji begin trading some of their personal favourites from Hijikata's collection. Kaoru laughs until her sides feel as though they will split and tears are streaming from her eyes. Kondo stands to recite a particularly solemn one with proper air, and Souji claps his hands, giggling uncontrollably, begging him to perform another. Kaoru leans back and basks in the warmth of the scene created by these two men; she feels light and safe and home in a way she has lacked for some time. She is certain they have shared many such pleasant meals together, and she is touched they have thought to share this one with her, making her a member of their family.  

Kondo and Souji are slapping each other on the back, they are now laughing so hard, and Kaoru shakes her head indulgently and begins clearing up the dishes. She will keep this moment of happiness with her tonight as she sits in the warehouse, and when she is called in the morning before Hijikata-sensei, she will endure whatever punishment he assigns, because she knows now that he does it out of this special kind of love.  

"Kondo-sensei?" calls a voice from the other side of the door, and for a moment they all freeze. "It's Saito Hajime."

"Ah, Saito-san." Kondo says, entirely composed, as though it is perfectly normal he should be taking his dinner in the warehouse and he had been expecting the third unit captain to stop by.

"The Vice-Commander wishes to speak to you."  

"Thank you, I will go now."

Kondo gets to his feet, and opens the door. Before he steps through, he speaks to Souji over his shoulder. "I believe Kaoru-chan has been punished enough. I will inform the Vice-Commander that I have placed her under your authority for any further penance."

"Yes, sensei," Souji says softly.  

Kondo nods and leaves the warehouse. Souji tells Kaoru to take the dishes to the kitchen and ensure they are cleaned, then instructs her to retire for the evening. "You and I will train tomorrow before dawn, Kamiya-chan." he concludes.

"Yes, sensei!" Kaoru bows deeply and then continues to gather the dishes while Souji and Saito stand in the doorway.  

"Kamiya-san," Saito says, "what kept you in the ink shop for so long?"

Kaoru halts her work to look at the third unit captain. Saito-sensei is often a cypher, and his face is unreadable now. He is reserved, almost shy, Kaoru thinks, and he only speaks when he feels there is something to say. Kaoru thinks Saito is often misunderstood. She does not forget that it was because of him that she was able to join the troop in the first place. She has made an effort to know him, but others who have not are willing to believe he is hard and cruel. There are rumours amongst the men that Saito is a spy, for Hijikata, for the lord of Aizu, even for the shogun himself. Kaoru thinks the rumors are just that, but something, in that moment, warns her to be cautious.  

"The mother of the ink shop owner is my friend," Kaoru says truthfully. "I helped her bring her washing in once."

"Ah." Saito says simply.

"She invited me for tea, and I lost track of time," Kaoru lies, though most of it is true, too. "I am sorry for the worry I caused everyone. It will not happen again."

Saito nods, and Kaoru, at last finished stacking, balances the trays and exits the warehouse, heading for the kitchen. Souji and Saito watch her go.  

"Kamiya-san seems different," Saito observes once she is out of sight.

"Yes," Souji agrees, remembering when she had turned the force of her smile on him. "Kamiya-chan has always seemed closed off. Today I think she has truly decided to join us."

"Perhaps her visit with the ink-seller's mother has invigorated her spirit."

"Yes," Souji says again, "I think you are right, Hajime."

Chapter Text

Kenshin sits in front of the tea shop and tries not to fidget. He had been out on assignment last night, answering another black envelope, and even though he did not return to the Kohagi-ya until early that morning, it had been difficult for him to sleep. Each time he'd closed his eyes, the face of Kamiya Kaoru had filled his vision, and he'd eventually given up on rest with a sigh. He'd settled for taking a long bath instead, even going so far as to wash and comb his hair, and he’d taken extra care getting dressed, making sure his hakama were properly pleated. He'd been early to the tea shop, but it had allowed him to choose a seat where he was hidden from view, yet where he could still watch the street from both directions to ensure he didn't miss Kamiya-dono's approach.  

He pulls his hat a little lower, and his features twist into a wry, self-loathing smile. "Of course, Kenshin. You would treat your meeting with Kamiya like any other assignment…"

He has not told Katsura he is meeting Koshijiro's daughter today, or about running into her at the ink shop six days ago. It is not that he wants to deceive his lord, but he knows that Katsura would have forbidden this meeting. They still do not know how Koshijiro was betrayed, and while the shogun does not suspect the Choshuu Clan of treason, the Baku could still be watching the Lord Kamiya's daughter.  

Katsura had abandoned his plans for Kamiya-dono when he found out she'd joined the Shinsengumi. She is beyond my protection now, he'd scoffed. That she had thought to run off and ally herself with their enemies had angered him. Mostly, Kenshin thinks, because Katsura had been unable to tell her the truth. The Choshuu leader had made him swear he would not seek out Koshijiro's daughter.  

"But she is still Kamiya," Kenshin thinks, "Though she wears a blue haori, I still have my promise to keep."

Since that night, Kenshin is constantly on the lookout for the assassin with the silver hair and beard. It irks him to think the man has escaped, and then of course there is the danger to his work as Battousai; somewhere in the shogun's service is a man who has seen his face and lived. But there is some small comfort in knowing this man probably fears the redhead who slew nine of his comrades and knows the truth of Kamiya Koshijiro's death. This man will no doubt be scouring the streets for Kenshin, too, and when he finds him, Kenshin will be ready. For now, he keeps his rage at the man who killed Kamiya-dono's father small and smouldering, and uses it to fuel his resolve. The Tokugawa's crimes against the Kamiya family are just another on a long list of offenses to the people of Japan, and Kenshin will make sure the shogun answers for them.

He presses his fingers over his heart, where her ribbon is folded between his nagajuban and kimono. He had presented it to Dr. Gensai, when he had run to the manor with Kamiya's letter clutched in his fist. He had bowed prostrate in the deserted courtyard and begged the doctor to go after her, that the Shinsengumi was no place for one as gentle as Kamiya Kaoru.  

Please, Oguni-san! I cannot go after her, but you can. And then I can see you both to Choshuu-

I cannot do that.

Kenshin had gaped at him, with a thousand reasons to convince the doctor ready on his lips. Dr. Gensai had met his eyes with soft pity. Kaoru is like my own dear child, he'd said softly, but her path is her choice to make. She is stronger than you think, Young Man. When she believes in something, she will never give up, and she is never swayed.

He had been angry then, and said things he regretted. He had called out Dr. Gensai's loyalty, called him a coward, and told him to go back to Edo and hide his shame. The doctor had merely laughed sadly, causing Kenshin to bristle. He'd shouted that Koshijiro would haunt the doctor for his neglect of his daughter's safety, and Dr. Gensai held up a restraining hand.  

Koshijiro-sama only ever wished for his daughter's happiness. To take her back to Edo, or to Choshuu… that would erase her.

Kenshin shakes his head at the memory. He was rude to Oguni-san, but with good reason; Kamiya-dono's safety is of the greatest importance. He has already sketched their talk today in his head, how he will go about convincing her to go to Choshuu. When he'd seen her in the ink shop, she had been a shadow of her former brightness; sapped of her vivacity by grief and what was no doubt hard living amongst the Shinsengumi. She had looked like they were running her ragged. He'd stared at the deep circles under her hollow eyes and vowed he would keep his promise to her father. That she is on leave is a stroke of good fortune; it will give him more time to get her out of Kyoto before the Shinsengumi notices she is missing. By the time they sent someone out to search, he and Kamiya-dono would be well on their way south, and should their scouts catch up to them, well, let them come.  

He squares his shoulders, resolute, and catches sight of Kamiya three blocks away. She is dressed today in a kimono of a red so deep to be almost purple, a dark grey haori, and black tattsuke-hakama tied low at her waist like a man. He tries not to stare at her lean calves as she approaches.  

"Hello, Himura-san!" she calls with a smile, waving as she closes the distance. She looks brighter today, refreshed and more like herself. She plops down on the bench across from him unceremoniously and sighs in relief, stretching her dusty feet out in front of her.

"Good Morning, Kamiya-dono," he answers, and in spite of himself, his voice comes out a little reserved, his speech formal. She turns to look at him, and her eyes grow concerned. She stretches a hand out towards him, turning her whole body, tucking one leg up under herself on the seat.

"Oh, you look tired Himura-san! Forgive me, have you travelled far?" Her concern melts him, and just like that day in the Kamiya manor guest room, he moves quickly to reassure her. "No, not at all," he says. "I am well. But you look like you have been on a long journey?"

"Ah, yes," she sighs, removing her hat and shaking out her short hair. He watches it dance around her face, and wonders why one side is longer than the other. "I have come from my house in Muko, " she continues.

"Muko?" he repeats, and she nods, removing her katana from her belt and setting it on her right.  

"Yes, it belonged to my mother's family, so the shogun did not take it. I go there when I am on my monthly leave." She says it so casually, so matter-of-fact, and he cannot help the surge of guilt. If her father were still living, she would have the manor and her family property in Edo as well. "Kamiya-dono…" he begins, but she does not hear him, as she is signalling over his shoulder for the owner of the tea shop.  

"A pot of tea, please, with mint. And dango, thank you!" Her eyes flick back to his and she smiles her brilliant smile. "It's my treat today, Himura-san!" He blushes and turns his face into the street to hide it. "I did not know the Miburo had monthly leave."

"Please, don't call them that," she asks softly, and he is stabbed with regret. "I am the only one who gets a monthly leave. I am the only woman, and Kondo-sensei thought it would be best…during…well…"

"Ah," he interrupts her delicately, understanding. He imagines Katsura would feel the same way if they had a female Ishin-Shishi in their midst. "That is very generous of him."

"Kondo-sensei is very kind," she tells him, "All of them are, though in different ways." She smiles to herself at some memory.  

Kenshin doubts her words, but the tea has arrived, and he takes up the pot to pour, since she is paying. His thoughts are a jumble, not helped at all by the floral scent of Kamiya's perfume. When she absently accepts her cup from him, their fingers brush against each other, but she appears not to notice.  

"I know it must sound strange," she says, still deep in her own thoughts, "that the terrible wolves of Mibu are kind. But, in truth they are men just like any other. I had heard the rumours too, before. But when I became one of them, I learned of their decency and gentleness. They took me in and gave me a way to walk the path of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu. For that I am very grateful." She sips her tea and smiles contentedly, her eyes far away.  

"There are not many groups of swordsmen who will accept a disgraced ronin into their ranks, let alone a woman," she continues, "but they saw past that and judged me only on my merit. When Kondo-sensei saw how determined I was to restore the honour of the Kamiya name, he became my greatest ally. And when I have earned back the respect of the shogun, my father will truly be at peace."

He stares at her profile, unsure how to respond. So far, their conversation has gone nothing like he  planned. He wanted to tell her that her father had been betrayed, present her with her ribbon, and beg her to let him take care of her, but looking at her peaceful face, he hesitates. She had made her own conclusion about her father’s loyalty to the shogun, loyalties that Kenshin cannot fully deny. She had forged a place and a path forward for herself, all on her own, that would grant her peace in her own mind. That was what her father had wished for, what had led him to help the Ishin-Shishi in the first place. For Kenshin to cast doubts on her chosen path, and offer what little protection he can to her, will only destroy the happiness she has carved for herself and rob her of her agency.  

She is stronger than you think. And she must be, to win over the Shinsengumi, samurai who are by all accounts ruthless and unsentimental. He knows too, that her infectious kindness has probably led to their generosity towards her. After all, didn't she have him, the most feared assassin in Kyoto, ready to lay down his life for her?

And now she can never know. If he does not tell her now, they must always walk their separate paths, she to serve the shogun and he to break the Bakufu down, and gods, let their paths never meet on the darkened streets of Kyoto. Let him never be forced to draw his sword against her. Let him never be forced to choose between his duty and his oath.

"I am sure Koshijiro-sama is already at peace, knowing you are happy," he smiles sadly.  

"I hope so," she whispers, "I hope he will watch over me as I carry his sword."

"He will," he assures her, while to himself he promises "And so will I."

"Yes," Kamiya pats his hand in thanks, and then she playfully reaches out to grab the brim of his hat. "You can take this off sometimes, too, you know," she laughs.  

"Oro?"

It falls unbidden from his lips. Her eyes widen and a smile breaks across her face. "What did you say?" she asks.

"Aha, nothing," he blushes. He can't really explain to her how the sight of her peeking under the brim of his hat with a playful smile makes him confused. He takes off his hat to oblige her, shaking out the fiery tail of his hair, trying to clear his head. She has so befuddled him, he nearly misses the sound of someone approaching in a hurry.

"Kamiya-san!"

It is the ink-seller; he skids to a stop in front of them, falling to his knees, clutching at a stitch in his side. "Miagi-san? What is the matter?" Kamiya asks. She sets down her tea and reaches out to grab the man's shoulders, staring into his eyes with concern.

"Ronin," he gasps out, "Ryosuke's boy…"

"Where."

Her voice comes out cold and hard, and it surprises Kenshin. Her eyes narrow and he feels her spirit rising. "Tell me where, Miagi."

"In front of Ryosuke's place… the tailor shop…"

She surges to her feet, grasping her sword and slinging it through her belt with one graceful motion. "Himura," she says, not even looking back, neither an invitation or apology. It is simply his name on her lips, giving him a choice.

He reaches for his sword, and then he is standing too, following after her as she races up the street. There is a crowd of shouting people gathered in front of what he supposes is the tailor's shop, and Kamiya does not even pause to push people aside, she merely leaps over them, high into the air, landing silent as a ghost. He loses sight of her momentarily and then he jumps to follow. He lands, catlike in the clearing of people, hands on sheath and hilt, thumb hard against the guard of his sword.

There are two ronin, swords drawn, standing with their backs to him, and a rumpled boy sobbing soundlessly on the ground. Between them stands Kamiya Kaoru, holding her sheathed katana before her, and her face is beautiful and terrible at the same time.  

"Stand aside, Woman," one of them spits. Her eyes catch fire and she throws back her shoulders. Her spirit seems to blaze through him, and Kenshin is impressed, awestruck. He gazes at her determined face, at every strong line of her, and it is as if he really sees her for the first time. He thinks he at last understands why Koshijiro betrayed his lord, what Dr. Gensai had meant. To take her back to Edo, or to Choshuu… that would erase her. It would belittle the honourable spirit of this woman.

"Shinsengumi First Unit soldier, Kamiya Kaoru stands aside for no one," she says, and her voice is ice and fire, "If you wish for defeat then come."

"Keh!"

They rush her, and Kenshin draws his katana, but Kamiya doesn't need him. She feints, then side steps in the opposite direction, and the ronin bump into each other. In their confusion, she grabs the wrist of one and flings him sideways, causing him to lose his balance and his weapon. He tries to rise and crawl towards his discarded sword, and Kenshin promptly sets his blade against the man's throat. "I wouldn't," he suggests softly.  

Kamiya twists away from the other ronin, her sword spinning in her hands to crack first against his ribs, then the top of his shoulder. He gasps and falls, and Kamiya kicks his sword away from him. "Now perhaps," she says coolly, "you will tell me what this boy has done to justify the beating you gave him. Speak quickly."

The ronin raises himself on his hands and glares at her. "Shinsengumi bitch," he hisses, reaching for the hilt of his wakizashi. Kamiya sighs, and raps him lightly on the skull. He falls forward, unconscious. She turns to the other ronin, who is eyeing Kenshin along the length of his sword with extreme discomfort. His eyes dart between the two figures standing above him, and he promptly faints. Kenshin frowns in disgust and nudges the man with his foot, but he doesn't stir. He sighs and sheathes his katana, and Kamiya leaves his side to kneel in the road next to the boy, who is now being comforted by his father.  

"Is he badly hurt?" she asks softly. There are angry tears in her eyes, completely at odds with the fierce creature she had been moments before. "This humble self is sorry she was not here sooner."

"No, Kamiya-san… if you had not come…" the man's eyes fill with tears as well and he shakes his head, "He is more scared than hurt."

"Ah," she closes her eyes for a moment. When she opens them she is composed once more. "Harada-san is on patrol here today," she says softly, "Do these ronin need to be questioned?"

"Taro-kun bumped into them, and could not explain his error," is the only answer Ryosuke the tailor gives her.  

"Then we will drag these ronin to the side of the road for Harada-sensei to find." she says resolutely.

She gets to her feet, prepared to do so, when Miagi steps into the circle of people. "We will do that, Kamiya-san. Go back and enjoy your dango." Kenshin looks around him, and sees several of the crowd members nodding. She favors them with an wry indulgent smile. "Not too many bruises, please. I have a reputation."  

"Not a scratch," Miagi promises.  

Kamiya makes her way through the crowd, and Kenshin follows three steps behind her. As she passes, people reach out to touch her shoulders and back, to murmur soft thanks. He learns that he is not the only member of the congregation of Kamiya Kaoru, benevolent spirit, just perhaps the most zealous. When they are free of the crowd he moves to walk beside her.

"Ryosuke-san was my father's tailor," she explains quietly, looking straight ahead. "His son, Taro-kun, is mute."

Kenshin says nothing, he merely reaches across the distance between them and puts his hand on her shoulder. He gives it a gentle squeeze and she trembles, laughing breathily, releasing her stress and anger as she places her hand over his in thanks. "He writes beautifully," she tells him, "and is a very talented musician."

"You are too good, Kamiya-dono," he says softly.  

"Thank you, for helping me."

"Always," he says simply.  

Chapter Text

Kaoru steps into the Shirobeko, and tries to ignore the way it falls quiet, the stares taking in her black uniform. The Shinsengumi had gained a few weeks of anonymity when they first began to wear their new winter uniforms, but that had faded. She deliberately keeps her back straight, her stance open and loose, her face friendly. The family who own this restaurant is made up of hardworking, dedicated people, supporting young twin girls and another baby on the way, and she wants to avoid confrontation with their patrons if she can.

A waitress bows nervously to her, and Kaoru gives the girl a gentle smile. "I would like to speak with Sekihara-san, if he is available?" she says softly, pleasantly. The waitress murmurs something that sounds like assent, and scurries towards the back of the restaurant. Kaoru folds her hands in her sleeves, waiting. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees two small heads peeking from the doorway of the storeroom. She keeps her eyes straight ahead, her face blank, but from the edges of her sleeves appear matching pinwheels.

"Eeeee Big Sister!" squeals Tae, running from the store room. She is followed closely by her twin sister Sae, whose eyes have gone wide at the sight of the toys. Kaoru laughs and flicks her wrists, presenting each girl with her own pinwheel with a flourish. She has been careful to select two that are the same size and colour, otherwise she knows the girls will single in on one as more special than the other, and fight over it. They are happily dancing around her, blowing on their new toys, when their father appears from the kitchen. "Oh! Kamiya-san!" he exclaims, wiping his hands on his apron. "Girls, I hope you said thank you to Kamiya?"

They both halt in their play, turning serious faces up to meet hers. "Thank-you, Big Sister Samurai-san!" they chorus. She gives them an indulgent smile and then bows very deeply. "This humble self is honoured to serve such good ladies, that she is," she replies.

The girls beam at her, and begin their dance anew, chanting "Good ladies!" in their stereo voice. Kaoru bows again, this time to their father. "Forgive me, Sekihara-san, for the disruption, but I must inspect your guestbook," she apologizes.

"Of course, Kamiya-san," he replies, retrieving it from an alcove in the entranceway. Under his breath he asks "Is there trouble?"

"No," she responds, just as quietly, "we are looking for someone who may have passed this way three days ago."

He nods and flips to the day in question, and Kaoru quickly scans the entries. None of the names or aliases she has been instructed to look for are there, but Kaoru had felt these orders were a long shot anyways. "Thank you, Sekihara-san, " she says, and she gives him a soft shake of her head to assure him.

"Will you stay for a cup of tea, Kamiya-san?" he asks, closing the book. "Mae is resting upstairs, but I am sure she would like to see you."

Kaoru smiles at the invitation, which she knows is not weightlessly given. This family, like so many she has come to know in Kyoto, have always been so good to her, in spite of her uniform. She knows there are many in town who scorn the Shinsengumi, call them devils and scowl at them behind their backs. She bows in deepest gratitude. "I must regretfully decline, I am still on patrol, Sekihara-san. Please tell Omae-dono that I will call on her in a few days, when I am on my way to Muko."

"Yes, yes," he agrees. "Girls, say goodbye to Kamiya-san. She must go back to her duties now."

"Goodbye, Big Sister!" cries Sae, while Tae bows her head and says "Please take care of Kyoto, Samurai-Sister-chan!"

"Keh! Take care of Kyoto!" laughs a man two tables from the entrance. "Killing innocents in the street is more like it!"

Sekihara-san blushes red with deep embarrassment, but Kaoru ignores the patron. She reaches out to ruffle the girls hair. "I will do my best, Tae-chan," she promises with a wink.

"Hey!" the man yells again, laughing with what Kaoru can tell is too much drink, "Are you going to let that Mibu she-wolf touch your children? Don't you know her hands are covered in blood?"

Kaoru looks at him then, taking in his top knot and wakizashi, clothes of dark cotton that mark him to be either a well-to-do ronin or a low rank samurai. He has a wide, round face, and cheeks are like two halves of a split apple. They dwarf his small black eyes, and Kaoru notes that the hands he is using to point at her look soft and thick. They are not hands used to carrying a sword. There are two others at his table, a wiry looking ronin with a thin moustache who is trying to hide a smile, and a burly man with shoulder length silvery hair who is seated with his back to her. "My apologies, Kamiya-san," Sekihara-san murmurs beside her.

"It's nothing," she says, and tries to mean it. "Good afternoon."

She makes her way slowly up the street to where Souji and the rest of her patrol unit are waiting. Normally they go two at a time to inspect guestbooks, but she knows Souji had trusted her to be safe at the Shirobeko. "Anything, Kaoru-chan?" he asks as she rejoins the unit. She knows she can tell him. She can say, there are three suspicious ronin back there, and Souji will send four soldiers to rout them, maybe even go himself. But in truth, they had been rude but harmless. To make an example of them will only make the jibes they threw at her true. And if they charge in there, if they spill blood in front of those two children, she will never forgive herself. The sword that protects does not seek fights, but rather strives to end them. "Nothing, Okita-sensei," she replies.

The unit makes its way slowly up the street, turning up nothing in their guestbook search. Kaoru can tell the uselessness of the task has Souji on edge, but there's nothing to be done. Orders are orders, no matter how futile they may seem. He is turning them around to return to their regular rounds when a man clad in their same black uniform, a messenger from the third unit, catches up to them.

"O-ok-ita-sensei!" he gasps, skidding to a stop. He pulls in a deep breath, and the message Saito-sensei bid him deliver comes tumbling out of his lips: "A fire! A house fire on the other side of the river. The third unit requests help to keep back the crowd and allow water carriers through!"

Souji takes a moment to put his hand on the man's slumped shoulder. "Can you take us back there?" he asks, "Or do you have further orders from Saito?"

The messenger shakes his head. "I am ready to lead you there, Okita-sensei."

They set off at a run, haori and hachigane ties flapping behind them, and when they reach the two storey house, standing alone at the end of a road, they fan out to support the third unit in keeping the crowd back. Kaoru keeps her arms fully extended, letting her sleeves make her look bigger than she really is. A line of men are passing buckets, attempting to subdue what looks like a kitchen fire gone awry, but the entire back corner of the house is in flames, black smoke spilling out of windows and doorways, and Kaoru knows their efforts are futile. "It is lucky," she thinks, "that the house is isolated and will burn itself out."

A commotion erupts at the far edge of the crowd; three men and a woman have arrived, apparently the owners of the house. The eldest man begins pushing people aside and they part for him and what Kaoru assumes are his wife and sons. "Megumi!" he calls, and then, "Where is my daughter?" When no one answers, the crowd grows even more panicked, pushing up against the two units trying to keep them a safe distance from the fire. The family continues to force their way forward and Kaoru feels a pressure building in her heart. Souji steps into the crowd, intercepting the father with a restraining hand. "You cannot go in," he tells him quietly. "You will surely lose your life in that fire too."

The woman sinks to her knees and her younger son places his arms around her. "Megumi!" she wails, even as the older son tries to run towards the house and is caught by two soldiers, wrestled to the ground. "She hides!" he screams, his eyes filling with tears, "She hides when there is trouble and she won't come out until we find her!" But his words have no effect on the two men restraining him.

Kaoru scans the crowd quickly. Saito is twenty feet to her left, and Souji is deep into the crowd, his back to her. Neither close enough to catch her if she runs fast enough. She pulls her katana from her belt and thrusts it into the startled arms of a man in front of her. "Hold that!" she hisses at him, and then she spins on her heel, willing her feet to fly. She is almost there when she hears Saito's distant shout over her right shoulder: "Stop Kamiya!" and then, louder, Souji's frantic "KAORU! WAIT!" before she leaps through the doorway and all noise is cut off by the roaring sound of fire everywhere.

She keeps herself low, where the air is clearer and cooler, and she runs from doorway to doorway, shouting the girl's name. Kaoru is sweating, coughing, eyes leaking tears, and she knows she doesn't have much longer in this heat, that if the girl is not in these unburnt rooms then she is probably beyond saving, when she hears a cry somewhere above her. "Megumi-chan?!" she yells, her eyes darting around frantically for a ladder or stairs. She hears the cry again, louder, more desperate, and Kaoru runs towards it, finds the stairs, half on fire, and takes them two at a time. Crouched at the top, sobbing, is a little girl who looks to be seven or eight. "Megumi!" Kaoru breathes, and the girl raises her tear- and soot-streaked face, peeking at Kaoru from under jet black bangs.

With a loud crack, the stairwell gives out under Kaoru, and she leaps forward, grabbing the child and dragging her deeper into the upper room. Megumi clutches her, terrified, and Kaoru presses her against her body, wrapping her in her haori. They are in a large room with no other openings in the floor or walls other than the stairwell that has collapsed, and one large window.

"Megumi-chan," Kaoru soothes, "are there any other rooms up here? Any more stairs?"

The girl shakes her head against Kaoru's shoulder, her tears intensifying. "Listen, Megumi-chan," Kaoru says gently, "Look at me. That's it, good girl. On the other side of that window, your father, mother and brothers are waiting to catch you. I am going to have to throw you out of the window, okay?"

"Noooo! No, Big Sister!" the girl wails, and clutches her once again.

Kaoru rubs circles into Megumi's back, and keeps her breathing even, trying to think. She has never tried to land while carrying someone before, but the girl is small, the height not as great as the back garden wall at headquarters, and the room is large enough for a good head start. There is nothing on the ground save the crowd of people for her to run into. If she lands improperly and breaks her legs or neck, what would it matter, so long as the girl is unhurt. It would be an honourable thing, to die saving this child. Kaoru tightens an arm around Megumi and pulls her wakizashi from her belt. "Megumi-chan. I will go with you, okay? We will jump together."

Megumi eyes her uncertainly, her lower lip trembling. "Together?" she asks in a tiny voice.

"Yes," Kaoru smiles. "We are going to sail through the air like birds, and roll along the ground like a ball. And when we stop, your mother and father, and your brothers will be there."

"They will?"

"Yes, yes. But you must do something for me, Megumi-chan," and here, Kaoru shows the girl her short sword. "This is my wakizashi. It belonged to my Honoured Father. A sword like this, it is what makes a samurai brave, makes me brave. Can you carry it for me, Megumi-chan? Keep it close and safe?"

Megumi takes the short sword in her small hands, protectively wrapping her arms around it. The child's eyes become resolute. "Yes, Big Sister."

"Thank you. Tuck yourself carefully around it, and do not let go."

The child curls in her arms, and Kaoru pulls her closer, carrying her to the window to gauge the distance. Smoke is pouring from the edges into the clear, pristine blue of the sky, and the air at the window is blessedly cooler. Kaoru sucks it gratefully into her lungs, preparing. At her appearance, a small cheer had gone up from the crowd, but now it has faded into uneasy murmurs. "They're trapped!" a voice yells. Kaoru takes one last stock of the scene, the tense faces of her comrades, and backs away from the window. Before the crowd falls out of view, she sees a streak of red at the back. "No!" shouts a familiar voice, "Back up! Back up, she is going to jump!"

Kaoru backs into the room as far as she can, and tightens her hold on the girl wrapped in her haori. "Ready, Megumi-chan?" In response, the child presses even closer. "Help me fly, Father. Help me get her out of here safely," she thinks. And then she runs. She runs and she leaps over the windowsill, up and out. Out into the cool late autumn air, and the ground is coming, it is there, which is her cue to tuck her legs and head, protective around her small cargo. Tight, as small and tight as she can, and then she feels it, the ground hard against her shoulders, knocking the wind out of her. But it is still coming, it pounds relentless, there against the small of her back and then her left ankle cries in protest. She struggles to keep herself tight around the child, against the force of the ground threatening to pull her apart, rolling over and over, taking the heavy blows of the earth into her body until at last they stop and she is still. She aches all over and she cannot move.

For a moment there is only stillness, and Kaoru, struggling to recover her ragged breath, is thankful. Then Megumi loosens against her, raises her head from Kaoru's shoulder. "Big Sister?"

"Are you hurt, Megumi-chan?"

"No, Big Sister."

"Ah, that's good," Kaoru sighs, relieved. She sits up, very, very slowly, stretching out her legs. There is pain, a throbbing in her ankle, but otherwise only the pain of good, deep bruises, the burn of fresh scrapes. She shakes her head to clear the roaring in her ears, until she realizes it is the crowd around her, whooping and shouting.

Megumi's mother is before them then, throwing her arms around both Kaoru and her daughter, weeping, laughing. "Oh Megumi! Oh thank you, thank the gods for you, Young Woman!"

"Mama!" Megumi twists against Kaoru to clutch her mother, and after a startled second Kaoru reaches her arms around the woman too, patting her gently on the back. "There, now," Kaoru sighs. "We are safe now, so we are."

The woman draws back, her daughter safe in her arms, beaming tearfully at Kaoru. Her husband is with her now, they lean around Megumi in relief, and Kaoru feels a tightening in her chest, a prick behind her eyes and a sudden terrible longing for her mother and father. Their sons gather around them too, and she has to look away to hide her jealousy and shame.

"Kamiya Kaoru!"

Souji stalks through the crowd to stand above her and his face is absolutely livid. Before she can open her mouth to explain, he rears his arm back and hits her full across the face with all his unchecked strength. Kaoru sees stars and the crowd goes deathly silent. "You disobeyed the direct orders of not one, but two unit captains, Kamiya-san!" he hisses. She turns her stinging, resigned face to his, ready to accept her punishment, and he collapses to his knees, pulling her into a fierce hug. "You promised not to scare me again, Kaoru," he says in an accusatory whisper.

"I'm sorry," she murmurs into his shoulder.

"That's enough, Souji," Saito says softly. "To be so emotional over a comrade is unseemly in a warrior." But when Souji releases her, Saito reaches out to grip her shoulder, and Kaoru knows that for the third unit captain, such an action is akin to the one he has just chided his friend over. He holds out both her swords to her. "What you did was foolish, Kamiya-san. Very foolish, and very brave."

"Thank you, sensei," she says softly, taking back her swords.

"Can you stand?"

"I don't think so," she admits, "My left ankle…"

"Please," interjects Megumi's father. "I am a doctor. I would be honoured to see to the Young Woman's injuries."

"We'll need to take her back to headquarters to be treated," Souji says, "once the fire has been controlled."

"My brother and I will carry her," says the eldest son, and his younger brother nods in agreement. "It would be an honour to be of assistance."

Kaoru watches Souji weigh the options, unsure of why he is being so hesitant. The units are still needed here at the fire, and she is no use with her ankle. Of more concern to her is the distance to Mibu, and the fact this family no longer has a home. "Perhaps they could take me to the Shirobeko?" she suggests quietly. She knows that once Sekihara-san hears about the fire, this family will be welcome under his roof for as long as needed, and it is as good a place as any for her to convalesce. Souji nods, and directs two soldiers to find a board or door panel. In the flurry of activity that follows, Kaoru is halfway to the Shirobeko, perched on a piece of wood between the two brothers, when she remembers she ought to have looked for Himura in the crowd.

Chapter Text

The sun is nearly setting by the time Kondo and Hijikata-sensei come to the Shirobeko. Kaoru is drowsy with the weight of having been washed and bandaged and coddled; being taken care of, being surrounded by love and kindness and two families that were whole and happy has taxed her heart and drained her of her energy. But she is samurai, and when the two men shuffled into her room, she pushed aside her exhaustion, making it just another small part of herself, and sat up to bow.

"There is no need for that, Kamiya," Hijikata-sensei says softly. He and Kondo sit next to her futon, and both their faces are stoic masks. The silence draws out uncomfortably, and Kaoru is unsure of what to say. She looks expectantly at Kondo, but he averts his eyes. Surprisingly, it is Hijikata-sensei who speaks first.

"Souji and Saito have told us of your exploits today, Kamiya-san," he begins, shutting his eyes. "Your actions to save the girl were noble. However, we cannot overlook your recklessness."

Kaoru feels her heart skip a beat. She had known, as soon as Souji's fist had connected with her jaw, that there would be repercussions for her actions, but facing it was another matter. The Commander and Vice-Commander continue to avert their gaze. They seem larger than life, two great immoveable statues of the hardest rock. Two sharp peaks vibrating with barely checked tempers. She lowers her head before them.

"Forgive me," she whispers, but the Vice-Commander continues as if he has not heard her.

"To be samurai is to follow your lord even into death. It is to surrender the self, and to serve unquestioningly. When you disobeyed your unit captain and Saito-san, you proved that you are unwilling to accept this path."

Tears sting Kaoru's eyes, and she sucks in a sharp breath. Shame pierces her like a thousand arrows and she cannot raise her voice, cannot force her lips to move, to explain. How can she ever explain to these two bushi the way her heart had split, cracking once more along the barely healed scars of her father's death? In that moment, she would have done anything to keep Megumi's family from the same grief. She would have defied the gods themselves.  

She shakes with the effort of keeping herself together, her eyes focused on the tatami but looking inward, trying to calm her whirlwind spirit. Kaoru wills herself to stay strong and face her punishment; she will cry when Kondo and Hijikata-sensei are gone.  

"To ignore an order as you did undermined the authority of the Shinsengumi. By entering the house, which the townspeople were directed not to do, you insinuated that such rules are meant to be ignored, that the word of the Shinsengumi, and by extension the shogun, is not law. We cannot have such anarchy within our ranks, Kamiya-san."

Fear grips her. She cannot lose the place she has built for herself within the ranks of these men. They are her home; she has nowhere else to go. Her head snaps up in terror. "Please," she begs, "the Shinsengumi are my family!"  She sees Kondo wince as she raises her eyes to meet the Vice-Commander's. Hijikata is finally looking at her, and his dark eyes are not unkind. In any other man, she would think it sympathy.  

"You are young, Kamiya-san, and impulsive. You rush in to help others before thinking; your instincts are to your credit, but you do not consider the larger effects of your actions. I cannot punish you for the deed you did today, but we will not tolerate further disobedience. You must decide for yourself if that is a burden you are prepared to carry."

The Vice-Commander gives her a moment to let his words sink in. Satisfied she has understood, he nods once, and he and Kondo get to their feet.  

"The doctor, Takani-sensei, has prescribed three days off your feet to rest your ankle, and then of course you will be on your leave," Hijikata-sensei says gently. "Take this time, Kamiya, to think over your actions. There are many paths a bushi may walk, but only one for the Shinsengumi."

They take their leave then, and before Kondo steps out of the door, he pauses with his back to her. "I hope you will choose to be samurai," Kondo says. Each word drops into Kaoru's heart like a stone. Nothing weighs more than the Commander's disappointment. He leaves without another word, without having looked at her once. Hijikata steps after him, and she is alone.  

For a long time, Kaoru is motionless. When the lantern burns out on its own, she lies on her back, stretching out her spirit as fine and thin as it will go, willing it down into nothingness, the way her father taught her. Control your spirit, control your destiny, Kaoru. Her father had always indulged her need to help others, brushed off any impropriety because it was for a greater good. Souji turned a blind eye to it too, but she understands the time for such childish coddling is over.

She floats in the nothing, weightless, shameless, free of pain. There is no sprained ankle, no disappointed Commander, no unjust slandering of her father. These are merely obstacles that can and will be overcome.  Kaoru places her new conviction into her heart, determined to serve. There is no burden too heavy for the sword that protects.


 Kenshin sits in the common room of the Kohagi-ya, his right hand tucked into the front of his kimono, fingers resting on the silk ribbon he keeps over his heart. Around him, his fellow Ishin-Shishi are celebrating the successful destruction of the home of a believed Aizu spy. There is a dish of sake on the floor that Iizuka poured for him, but Kenshin has left it untouched.  

At the top of the room, Miyabe-sama is basking in his men's retelling of the Takani family's arrival on the scene of their burning home. "To see their faces!" he laughs without regret. "Comrades, Takani-sensei will not be reporting anything to the shogun for some time." He rubs his hands with glee.

"The house was supposed to be empty," Kenshin says. They are the first words he has spoken all evening, and the men fall silent at the accusatory edge in his voice.  

Miyabe laughs. "Come now, Battousai-san. How were we to know the doctor would leave his daughter there? All our scouts reported she always went with him on his rounds." He spreads his hands, to show no fault can be found with him.

Across the room, Yushin-san raises his sake dish in solidarity to his lord, a too-wide smile on his face. "I know I'd give anything to watch that Shinsengumi whore take a punch again," he roars, and the men join his raucous laughter.

Kenshin's hand in his kimono contracts into a fist, every muscle in his body poised to strike, and in the bare second it would have taken him to get to his feet, cross the floor, and sever Yushin's drunken head from his unworthy shoulders, Iizuka grips his elbow and spares the ronin's life. Kenshin turns his murderous stare upon the Examiner, but he is looking over Kenshin's head to where Katsura now fills the doorway.

"Kamiya Koshijiro was our honoured comrade," the Choshuu Leader says levelly, "who died bravely in our service. I will not have his daughter spoken of in such a disrespectful way, no matter who she wields her sword for."

Yushin presses himself into the floor in apology, but Katsura has turned his exacting gaze to Miyabe now. "I would speak with you a moment in the garden, Miyabe-sama," he says, turning to leave. "Join us, Battousai."

Miyabe clambers to his feet, following Katsura from the room, and Kenshin stalks behind him, deathly quiet. Surprised whispers rise amongst the men; there are not many reasons Kenshin would be called to join this conversation, and all of them end with Miyabe dead. It would be no light thing for Katsura to kill a daiymo, but Kenshin finds himself fervently wishing that is exactly why the Choshuu leader has asked for him.  

He has been in a silent rage since Kamiya-dono appeared, soot stained and determined, in the second storey window of the Takani's burning house. Because whenever there is trouble, who should appear but his benevolent spirit, ready to risk her life to set things to rights? That the cause of the trouble had been his comrades is unforgivable. He is angry with Miyabe, for ordering them to light the fire, angry with that fool of a doctor for leaving his daughter unprotected, angry with that brute called Souji who had bruised her face and then had the gall to hold her in his arms. Mostly, he is angry at himself. Because he had trusted his comrades not to be careless and they had nearly killed her and an innocent child.  

Katsura pauses in the centre of the Kohagi-ya's secluded back garden. Miyabe stops five feet behind him, and Kenshin circles around to stand a few feet to the Choshuu leader's left. Striking distance, on Miyabe's weak side. He stands loose and aloof, ready, and in the darkness he watches Miyabe struggle to swallow.

Katsura breaks away from his study of the night sky. "What you did today, Miyabe-sama, was not on my orders," he says softly.

"It was necessary Katsura-san, that doctor-"

"I cannot ask you to return to Choshuu; we are the same rank. But our methods are no longer compatible. I would ask you not to commit further acts such as today in the name of our clan."  

"You think I do not know how best to serve, Katsura?" he asks coldly, bristling.  

"I am asking you to trust that I know better, Miyabe."

"Keh! And so you call me out here, under the protection of your boy assassin? If you want me dead, Katsura, then come."

Miyabe reaches for his sword hilt and Kenshin moves; he moves as he has wanted to all evening. He flows into the space between his lord and this wayward samurai, thumbing his sword from the scabbard, daring Miyabe with his eyes. Katsura places a hand on Kenshin's shoulder, gently restraining him. "I will let you leave here with your life, Miyabe-sama. Do not think I will hesitate if you cross me again."

"Keh!" Miyabe spits, but his spirit radiates relief. He stomps out of the garden and only once he is gone does Katsura release Kenshin from his grip.  

"If I ask you not to challenge him, will you abide me, Kenshin?" the Choshuu leader asks, almost gently.

"As you wish, Katsura-sama."

"Thank you," he sighs, "for being the one man here I can trust to do his duty."

Kenshin bows and leaves Katsura to once again silently contemplate the stars. He does not return to the common room, but goes instead to his room on the second floor. He lies on his back on his futon, boxing up his anger, storing it away on the shelf where he keeps his conviction. He smoothes out his spirit, pressing down the spikes of rage, willing himself to calm. He is the son of a farmer, but he will do his duty.  

Chapter Text

Kenshin had spent most of yesterday perched on the roof of the building behind the restaurant where Kamiya is recuperating. He hadn't really wanted to spy on her, but before he visited, he had to make sure he wouldn't accidently come face to face with one of her comrades. He'd cast out his spirit, sensed her at the back corner of the upper floor and taken up his post. When a pregnant woman had opened wide the screens on the large window, Kenshin could have kissed her. He still couldn't see Kamiya-dono, but her voice was now clearly discernable to his keen ears.

She'd had a steady stream of guests: first the girls who seemed to live in the Shirobeko, then Takani-sensei came to see to her ankle, his daughter safely in his sight. Several townspeople visited shortly after breakfast, some whose voices Kenshin recognized—Miagi-san and his frail mother, who had brushed off Kamiya's concern at her travelling so far and insisted it was her duty to visit. Ryosuke the tailor and his mute son Taro, who played for her on the flute the most beautiful song Kenshin had ever heard. There was an unending litany of children, shopkeepers, elderly folk and genteel women she had helped in some way or another, who all came to pay their respects at the altar of Kamiya Kaoru, the patron saint of the defenseless of Kyoto. The sun crossed the sky, and a few hours before dark, Takani-sensei's wife, a doctor in her own right, shooed the guests from the room, saying it was time Kamiya rested. Alone with the doctor, she had finally allowed weariness and pain to show in her voice, weariness he'd felt creep into her spirit as the day wore on.

That had been enough for him. He'd taken up his sword and returned to the Kohagi-ya, where for once there was no black envelope to greet him. From her endless repeated conversation he had learned that while the eighth unit captain had come early in the morning to deliver some of her clothes and possessions, the rest of the Shinsengumi have been forbidden by the Commander to visit. She had sounded wistful, telling of it, but he is relieved. It means he can visit her whenever he likes, sit in the room with her instead of creeping outside like the assassin he is. He vows he will only stay a short while and not tire her, needing to see her to wholly verify that she is all right.

Now he found himself standing in front of the Shirobeko, clutching a branch from the Kohagi-ya's maple tree in his fist. He'd been on his way out when he'd noticed a late leaf still clinging to a thin branch, so he had plucked it for her, careful not to hurt the tree, conscious of making the lines of the branch beautiful enough to be worthy. He'd thought at the time that she would like to have this little sign that winter would soon come and go, that the resilient leaf reminded him of her. He worries now that maybe it is too forward a gift; isn't it only lovers who exchange branches and flowers? He racks his brain, trying to remember what symbolism a maple branch might carry, but comes up empty. He will have to risk it.

Laughter washes over him as he pushes aside the reed mat hanging in the doorway of the restaurant. He steps out of his sandals and three girls tumble out of a storeroom, squealing at a pitch that is almost uncomfortable. Two young twins and Takani Megumi, who has the sheath of Kamiya's wakizashi tucked through her obi. Kenshin does his best to smile at them; he likes children, but it has been a long time since he has interacted with any.

"Good morning." He bows deeply. "This humble self has come to inquire after Kamiya-dono. Is she awake?"

Three sets of eyes assess him warily, but Megumi, who is older, returns his bow. "Big Sister is finished with her breakfast," she tells him. "I will take you to her."

She reaches out and takes him by the hand, leading him through the restaurant and upstairs. The little twins, braver now that Megumi has accepted him, crowd in on either side, hands knotted in the edges of his sleeves, and he has to hunch a bit to allow them all a safe hold. Megumi throws back a shoji at the end of the hall, presenting Kenshin, blushing at entering her room unannounced and dripping with little girls, to a slightly surprised Kamiya-dono. "Big Sister!" she calls, "This samurai is here to see you!"

Kamiya presses the fingers of one hand to her lips to hide her laughter. "Thank you, Megumi-chan," she murmurs, "Please sir, won't you come in?"

The girls propel him towards her futon and deposit him on the floor before it, and cargo safely delivered, they bow to Kamiya and then run giggling from the room, slamming the shoji behind them. Kenshin just makes out a tiny voice proclaiming "His hair is made of strawberries!" before their voices fade down the stairs. He blushes again and Kamiya laughs unrestrained this time.

"Hello, Himura," she smiles. She is propped up against a woven box, covered against the late autumn chill by a heavy blanket pulled up to her waist, and wearing a thick yukata. It is a light lilac purple, tied with a pale green sash, and in such delicate colours, with her hair falling towards her shoulders, she looks softer than he is used to seeing her. There is a heavy bruise on the side of her face, but it doesn't mar her smile. "Thank you for coming," she adds.

"How are you, Kamiya-dono?"

"I'm a little stiff," she admits, "But yesterday was worse, and I was so tired! I am glad you came today, I was hoping you would visit."

"Were you?" He tries, but cannot quite manage to keep the pleased surprise out of his voice.

"I was! I had to thank you, for trying to move the crowd back from the fire."

"You heard me," he breathes, and he waits for her to ask him why he was there, waits to have to lie.

"I saw your strawberry hair!" she laughs. "Thank you, you are always helping me."

He blushes uncomfortably and looks at his lap. Kenshin cannot tell her that his debt to her is too high for even a thousand kindnesses to repay, and the thought that she feels she owes him is almost painful. "It is nothing," he says, remembering her blush when she said it to him all those months ago. It is not lost on him that she is the one in the borrowed yukata this time. "It is good you are feeling better, Kamiya-dono."

"Yes," she agrees. "I wish Takani-sensei would let me outside, though. The wind feels warmer today."

"Ah, I saw one last leaf in the garden this morning," he tells her, proffering his humble branch, "I thought you might like… that is-"

She takes the offering in both hands with a gentle smile. "Thank you, Himura," she says. "It is just what I wanted, something to brighten the room." Her smile is easy and light, the way everything always feels around her, and he finds himself smiling back at her.

"I am pleased you like it," he admits. "I hope it will tide you over until you can go outside again."

"Mmm, Takani-sensei says I can go to Muko on schedule, the day after tomorrow." She frowns slightly and adds, almost to herself, "though perhaps Kondo-sensei will not allow me to ask Heisuke or Souji…"

"Ask Heisuke or Souji what?" he asks, the names burning his tongue and making his tone harsher than he intends.

"Oh, forgive me!" Kamiya smiles, "I am always talking to myself. Takani-sensei says I have to take someone with me to Muko, in case I cannot walk all the way unaided with my ankle. But I am not supposed to see any of the Shinsengumi until after my leave, on Kondo-sensei's orders." She shakes her head apologetically. "Perhaps I can ask Sekihara-san," she muses doubtfully.

Kenshin stares at her, his pulse suddenly too loud in his ears. "I…" he starts, but then he has to shake his head and swallow the dryness in his throat, building his courage. The deadliest assassin in Kyoto, and he is afraid of an unarmed girl in a yukata. "I can go with you, Kamiya."

"Oh! Truly, Himura?" she exclaims, her eyes lit with hopeful delight. "It only takes a few hours to walk there, but are you sure it wouldn't inconvenience you?"

"I will go with you, Kamiya-dono," he promises, bursting with the pleasure of satisfying her hopes. "It is no trouble at all."


Kenshin returns to the Shirobeko two days later, though he has been back to his perch behind the restaurant a few times in between. He knows that after he left, Kamiya had placed the branch he'd brought in a vase next to her futon where she could look at it against the stark relief of the sky.

She is kneeling in the entrance when he arrives, embracing three sobbing little girls. Omae-dono and Takani-dono are putting the final preparations on a large wicker basket behind her, and Sekihara-san is just exiting the kitchen, carrying a few final additions. Kamiya had introduced him to them all two mornings ago, along with the Doctor and his two sons, Tatsuki and Kaito.

"Good morning," he tells them all politely.

Before any of the adults can respond, Tae breaks out of Kamiya's arms and runs to clasp herself around Kenshin's knees.

"Oro!"

"Strawberry Samurai!" she sobs, pressing her tear streaked face into his hakama.

"Oh, Tae-chan…" Kamiya sighs.

He gently rests his hands on the little girl's shoulders, remembering that Kamiya always spoke to them in her most respectful voice.

"This one is here to take Kamiya-dono to her house in Muko," he tells her. "Her house will be worried, it is expecting her, that it is."

"Noooo!" Tae wails, and clasps him tighter.

Kamiya smiles and shakes her head. "Hello, Himura," she murmurs.

After a few more reassurances and hugs, the girls finally allow them to start on their journey. Kenshin shoulders the wicker basket, deaf to Kamiya's insistence that she could carry it, and Omae-dono gives him an approving look. Takani-dono presses a walking stick into Kamiya's hands and makes her promise to rest if she became tired. Sufficiently equipped, they set off from the Shirobeko, pausing every few feet to turn around and wave to the three girls shouting their goodbyes from the doorway. Before they turn out of sight, Kamiya blows them all kisses. When she turns back to the road, she reaches out to tug on the edge of his black quilted haori.

"What a fine morning, Himura!" she exclaims, eyes crinkling with delight, clearly pleased to be free of her sick room.

"Yes," he agrees, laughing to himself.

Kamiya lets out a deep, sighing breath, watching it fog the air. She settles into a contented contemplation of the scenery around them, and Kenshin settles into stealing glances of her in it. The air is still warm, but a cool breeze blows against them, lifting and filling Kamiya's clothes as she walks. She wears her black tattsuke-hakama and the same dark grey haori from when they last met for tea, but her kimono is grey-blue today, and she has a thick white scarf wound around her neck. Under her hat she has tied her short hair at the nape of her neck; he finds himself staring at her small, shell-shaped ear. He tucks his arms into his sleeves, enjoying the companionable silence, the sense of peace that always seems to surround the young woman beside him.

They are stopped several times before they reach the outskirts of the city by people calling out to Kamiya-dono to say hello. Kenshin remembers the steady stream of people who had visited her sick bed and is once again amazed at the number of lives this one girl has touched in her short time in Kyoto. Kamiya gathers people to her, lends them her strength, and no need is too small or great for her. She is his antithesis; he is isolated and solitary by virtue of his strong sense of duty and his purpose in the city. She gives her kindness to everyone she meets; everyone Kenshin has met in the streets of Kyoto is dead. "But not Kamiya," he reminds himself. She is the one exception to his rule.

When they reach the checkpoint at the edge of the city, the guards are from Satsuma. They take no issue with Kenshin's fake passport, hastily drawn up for him in Choshuu. A fake samurai from a fake village in the north, with a family name Katsura invented, and they do not bat an eye, but they halt Kamiya Kaoru. The guard takes her by the elbow and leads her into the gatehouse, while Kenshin can only wait outside in tense dismay.

The two guards still posted at the gate share a few crude jokes about the She-Wolf of Mibu until Kenshin cuts them a death stare and they fall silent. Perhaps ten minutes pass, an eternity to him, and he thinks he will force his way in and get her, there are only three guards, but then she appears in the doorway. Her spirit reads annoyance and frustration, with an edge of raw anger, sharp as a knife. She smiles at him apologetically, but it does not reach her eyes.

They step wordlessly through the checkpoint, follow the road away from the city in silence. The mood is different than before, but Kenshin is unsure how to mend it. He has never seen Kamiya this upset. It bleeds into him, and makes him unsettled. After a time, Kamiya reaches out and places two fingers gently on the wrist of his left hand, which has been resting on his sword hilt.

"You can relax now, Himura," she tells him softly, and lifts her fingers. As though her light tap were magic, a tension he hadn't noticed seeps out of him.

"Oro," he breathes and realizes he'd been clenching his jaw. "Forgive me, Kamiya-dono."

"It's all right," she mutters wryly, "don't let those guards bother you. They always give me a hard time for being Shinsengumi."

"They should not show you such disrespect; you are a lady of a samurai house -"

"I am only a ronin!" she snaps at him.

Kenshin recoils as if stung. "Kamiya-dono…"

She shakes her head and puts up her hands to stop him. "Please, Himura! I am only a ronin. Don't-" she abruptly looks away, drawing in a shaky breath. They are tensely silent again and he knows from her reaction that the guards had not troubled her over being Shinsengumi, but for bearing the family name of a traitor. She is upset at the circumstances of her life, and those are his fault.

"I am sorry, Kamiya," he tells her, and he is more sorry than he can ever say.

"It's all right." Her response is short, and she looks straight ahead.

"It is only that to me," he says softly, "you are worthy of the utmost respect. Not because of who you were, but who you are."

She halts so abruptly she stumbles a little in the road and he worries she has hurt her ankle. He reaches out to support her elbow and she gapes at him, startled. "You saved me that day," he reminds her. "I know you have saved countless others. Kindness such as yours deserves the greatest honour."

"Himura…" she gasps.

"It's true. I will always be grateful to you, Kamiya-dono," he tells her. "You are so good. You helped me and I failed you and I will do anything for you, anything."

"That is…" she blushes, "that is… thank you."

She steps out of his grasp, continuing down the road. He follows half a step behind her, worried about the way she is now limping, and the nervous way she is twisting her sleeve in her free hand. He remembers from the guest room of her manor that she does this when she is uncomfortable or when she feels she is being overly praised. He knows he has overstepped himself, but the silence between them is not as sharp as before. After a time, she slows her pace so they are walking side by side again.

"It is a tenant of my sword school, helping others," she tells him quietly. "It's something I have been trained and brought up to do."

He wants to shake his head, wants to tell her that being taught something and actually executing it, living it, are two different things, but he understands that she needs to underplay her actions, that she dislikes being placed on a pedestal.

"The 'Sword that Protects', right?"

"Yes," she smiles, happy he remembered. "What is your style, Himura? Where did you learn the sword?"

"Aha, it is a very old one," he tells her, rubbing the back of his neck. "From the time of Warring States. The Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu."

"The 'Flying Sword of Heaven'. I have never heard of it," she admits, "but I only really know the major schools. Where was your dojo?"

Kenshin hesitates. His past is something Katsura has told him not to speak of, lest his cover as samurai be blown, and the harsh words of his master are still fresh wounds, even after all these months. But the road stretches before them, and Kamiya is talking to him again, and he wants her to know him. Surely he can tell her this much about himself.

"I learned the sword not far from Kyoto," he begins, "but not in a dojo. Shishou does not really care for the company of others, so he keeps to himself."

He tells her about how he began his training at the age of seven, on a remote mountain top with a man who can best be described as a pompous egomaniac. He does not mention that he was called Shinta, an orphaned village child, sold into slavery, when Shishou found him. That is something from a long time ago, and he has learned to make the fear and pain from those days a small part of himself, buried with his old name.

He tells her about the larger than life master who taught him everything he knows. As he always does when he is with Kamiya, he strays from the simple telling of a thing and strives to make her laugh. He tells her many silly stories about butting heads with Shishou, and she does laugh, and shares anecdotes of her own training with her father. It is easy between them again, on this common ground.

"Aha," Kamiya laughs, stopping in the road to wipe her eyes after a particularly hearty bout of her wind chime laughter. She points her walking stick ahead of her. "We are almost there, come along now, Himura." He can see the outskirts of Muko up ahead and he wishes the road had been twice as long. It will be a lonely walk back to Kyoto without her.

He follows her through Muko, and just like in Kyoto, several people call out greetings to her as she passes. She bows and responds to everyone by name. At the edge of the village she turns south, following a narrow path through the woods for a short distance that opens up on a small hill, with small house atop it. It is surrounded by tall pines and maples, well sheltered and secluded. To his surprise there are five children of various ages sitting patiently on the porch. When they catch sight of the two of them at the edge of the path, they all begin to whoop and shout.

"Kaoru-sensei!"

"Kaoru-sensei, you are late!"

"We thought you forgot, Kaoru-sensei!"

Kamiya steps to the house faster than is probably good for her ankle. He notices that while she had been limping on the road, now her gait shows no signs of injury. "I was kept longer at the checkpoint," she tells the children with a smile, "and so today you have learned a warrior's patience." She takes a key from her sleeve and unlocks the door, ushering them all inside. "Into the dojo, please. We will begin with a hundred strokes." Her students shuffle towards the back of the house, and Kamiya shoots Kenshin an apologetic look. "Please excuse me, Himura! Can you wait a while? We will have tea when I am finished with their lesson; please rest and refresh yourself."

"Oh! Of course!"

Before he can say more, she bows and sprints around the house after her students. He hadn't known she had students, although it perhaps explained her eagerness to come to Muko today. He is startled and pleased at her invitation, and he tries not to be too elated; after all, honour did dictate that she share her hospitality with him. She has told him to rest, but he thinks about her limp and how she has been on her feet all morning. The least he can do is unpack the basket he has been carrying.

He explores the house, finding the small kitchen, and sets the basket down to empty it. The kitchen itself is a bit disorganized, so while he puts her stores away he moves things around to make cooking easier. And then, because they have not eaten since breakfast, he thinks he should probably make some onigiri to have with their tea. While he is pulling water from the well to wash and cook the rice, it dawns on him that Kamiya will probably want a bath after her training session. She had complained that she was stiff, and a hot bath would help to ease her tense muscles. So he sets a bucket of water inside the kitchen and then sets to filling the furo in her tiny bathhouse.

When Kamiya dismisses her students, she finds him, kote, hat and haori removed, sleeves tied back, sweeping out her front room. Rice and soup are simmering above the kitchen fire, two salt fish are waiting to be grilled, and two trays are set on the table, laid with pickles, waiting for dishes. Laundry she didn't even know existed is sitting next to the well, ready to be washed, and under the bathhouse there is the distinct sound of a crackling fire.

"Himura?"

"Oh! Kamiya-dono. I thought you might like a bath. Lunch will be ready shortly, but take your time, it will keep." He returns to his sweeping.

"Himura," she says again, firmly, "you are a guest, please-"

"It's no trouble. Enjoy your bath."

She stalks off, muttering something about well-intentioned samurai, but she goes into the bathhouse. He finishes the front room, and then the rest of the house. There is only the front room, another smaller room for sleeping, the kitchen and the small dojo, so it takes him no time at all. He puts the finishing touches on lunch. He is just settling next to the well with a large tub of soapy water to start Kamiya's laundry when she exits the bath house.

"Your turn, Himura," she calls.

"Oro?"

She rakes her eyes over his tattered kimono and hakama. "We'll wash your clothes after lunch too, it looks like they need some mending."

"Kamiya-dono-"

"Help yourself to a yukata; I'll make tea," she says, and swans past him as best she can with her ankle.

Kenshin thinks it most prudent not to argue with her, and half an hour later, in matching yukata, they sit down to his delicious lunch and her excellent tea. She complements him on his cooking, though there is a strange spike of jealousy in her spirit. He wonders if perhaps Kamiya does not know how to cook. It would be natural, of a high-ranking samurai's daughter. There would have been servants to do the cooking and she would have been expected to marry into a similar household. It would certainly explain the disarray of her kitchen. He goes out of his way to praise her tea, which really is very good, just the right strength and not too bitter, and that seems to return her good mood.

He has managed to convince her that he should do the laundry, since she should not crouch next to the tub with her ankle, so she sees to the dishes while he returns to the well. He hangs his clothes on the porch in the sun where they will dry faster, and then, because he cannot walk back to Kyoto in a yukata and become the laughing stock of the Ishin-Shishi, he sets about chopping enough wood to last Kamiya for the week. He leans into each swing, savouring doing something honest with his hands. Each swing will keep Kamiya warm and fed. Each swing will bring a little happiness into her life.

The sun is almost touching the tops of the trees when he is finished, and Kamiya is bent over his kimono in the front room, her eyebrows pulled down into a near frown as she intently stitches a patch into his collar. Not wanting to disturb her, he ducks into the kitchen to prepare onigiri, setting the rice balls and some tea on a tray for them.

Kamiya has moved on to his hakama when he sets their dinner down beside her, and she thanks him quietly, eating while she carries on with her work. He sips his tea and watches her competent fingers, the flash of the needle in and out, mending holes and tears until his ragged hakama look new. She closes one last rent seam, knotting the thread and cutting away the excess. She sighs and stretches her back after leaning over for so long. Kenshin blinks out of his reverie and gathers up their dishes.

"I'll wash these, Kamiya-dono, and then I should be on my way back to Kyoto."

"Ah, yes. Thank you, Himura, for all the work you did today. I have been a terrible host!" she laughs.

"No, no," he murmurs, laughing too. He pads down the porch to the kitchen and begins to rinse the dishes. Before he goes, he'll stoke the kitchen fire, and maybe set up a brazier for her. The night will be chilly, and she is out in the woods, away from the heat of the city.

"Himura?" Kamiya is standing in the doorway, chewing her lower lip, toying with her sleeves.

"Yes, Kamiya-dono?"

"It will be dark soon," she says, looking at the floor, "and, well… Forgive me, I have kept you here very late. If you wish to stay… it's only that I would not want you to encounter danger, on the road…"

Kenshin isn't sure what to say, he is so stunned, and Kamiya takes his silence for hesitation. "You do not have to stay, Himura," she continues, her speech picking up speed, "It is not for myself that I ask. I don't need you to stay. I mean, I'm used to being here by myself. But that's not to say it would be uncomfortable! I am used to sharing quarters with men-"

"Oro?"

"-It's just that there are many ronin wandering around the countryside now, and you have been so kind to come out here with me and to do so many chores, and I would never forgive myself if something should happen to you on your way back-"

"Kamiya-dono."

"-and it's so cold at night, what if you caught a cold? I would never forgive myself of that either, or if you lost your footing, fell and hurt yourself, there would be no one around to help you-"

"Kamiya!"

She falls silent, eyes still locked on her feet. He laughs shakily, and she raises her head just enough for him to see the embarrassed set of her lips.

"Since you have jinxed my journey three times over with your worrying, I will stay, Kamiya-dono."

"Oh! Good!" Her shyness instantly dissolves in her relief, and she steps into the kitchen. "Do you like sake before bed?" she asks. "My father always took some on a cold night."


The following day dawns bright and clear. There is frost on the ground, but the sun promises a fine day. Kenshin left Muko just as the sun reached over the treetops, wrapped in his haori and the white scarf Kamiya-dono had wound around his neck before he left. She had bullied him into wearing it, wagging her finger at him and making him swear he would not catch cold, and he let himself be bullied because it was easy and he liked the flash in her eyes. The scarf smells like the warm floral scent she often wears, and he pulls the fragrance in with each breath.

They had sat up after dinner, bundled in their haori and quilts against the chill on her inner porch, watching the stars from the patch of sky visible in her small center garden. Kamiya had heated sake for him and attentively kept his dish full, elegantly holding back her sleeve as she poured. It had settled warm and comfortably in his chest, and he had felt a deeper peace than he had ever known. He had realized that this was the contentment Shishou had tried to explain to him when he'd taught him to drink: the serenity of enjoying a warming drink at the end of a day's hard work.

He'd persuaded her to drink one dish herself, her first ever taste of sake. It made her cough and brought a faint blush to her cheeks and ears. He'd laughed, reaching out to rest a hand on her blanket covered shoulder, and she had decided after that to turn in for the night. She had set up two futons in the smaller side room, with a screen between them, saying it would be easier to keep the room warm with both of them in it. He'd felt vaguely that he ought to offer to sleep in the front room or next to the kitchen fire, but the sake had stilled his tongue and he'd simply nodded in agreement. Besides, she'd settled into her futon calmly enough, bidding him a soft good night. She had fallen asleep almost instantly, and he'd lain awake, listening to her even breathing and the hushed sound of the wind before tumbling into a deep, untroubled sleep. He'd dreamt of her careful fingers moving along his face, of their eyes meeting and the slow blush that crept across her cheeks.

In the grey light before dawn, he'd woken in a strange place and had not reached instantly for his sword. For some reason, in that warm, little room filled with Kamiya's smell and her deep breathing, he'd known he was safe. He'd slunk from the room on silent feet, determined not to wake her. Before shutting the shoji, he'd risked a glance at her and found her wrapped close in her futon, curled on her side. Her face was peaceful and soft, beautiful even in the murky predawn light. He'd shut his eyes with the shoji, and leaned his forehead against the doorframe, trying to decide what it was in him that felt different. He'd given up after a moment, and shuffled off to the kitchen to prepare breakfast, and by the time Kamiya had joined him there with a yawn to make tea, he'd been focused on the rice porridge and forgotten he'd felt strange.

Now, retracing the road they'd taken yesterday, he understands things between them have shifted. He has always elevated Kamiya-dono above all others, and he still does; he does not forget his promise or how he has failed her. But now she is more earthbound, and instead of the benevolent spirit, he sees a good person, who occasionally performs extreme acts of grace. She has not shrunk in his estimation; if anything, knowing her better has grown his regard. Now, she is his friend, the only friend he's ever had, and he is her friend, capable of sharing her company and performing small acts of kindness without any debt between them.

She had told him, when she'd settled the scarf around him, that now that he knew the way to Muko, he was welcome anytime. And she had meant it. She wants him to come back and visit her. And he will. He will be in that peaceful place with her again, because they were friends. Whatever they were in Kyoto, Shinsengumi or Ishin-Shishi, it did not matter in that house. He hopes some day, when he is released from his duty, he will be able to tell her why he is in Kyoto, and the truth about her father. Some day, when his sword has built a world of peace, he will. Until then, he will do his best to be her friend and honour his promise.

When he reaches the Kohagi-ya, he is immediately accosted by Iizuka and Yushin. He'd bottled up the peace he'd felt in Muko as he'd neared the city, replaced it with the hard, emotionless samurai armour he wore as an Ishin-Shishi. He's barely stepped out of his sandals before he senses two people behind him and spins to confront the Examiner and Miyabe's retainer.

"Battousai!" Yushin grunts, "Where have you been?"

Kenshin does not favour Yushin by turning to look at him, he merely cuts his eyes towards him for long enough to make him regret his tone. Yushin takes a large step back.

"Any orders from Katsura?" Kenshin asks Iizuka flatly.

"No. But…"

Kenshin ignores him, brushes past both men. He can sense Katsura coming, and sure enough, the Choshuu leader appears in the hallway, blocking his path to the stairs.

"You missed a target last night, Kenshin," he says softly. "I had to send Kawakami."

"My apologies."

"Where were you?"

"I was with a woman," he says truthfully, and he hears the sharp gasps of the two men still behind him. Even the unflappable Katsura has a hard time keeping the surprise off his face. The older man's eyes rake over Kenshin's clothes, taking in the careful mending, the white scarf. No doubt, he can smell the floral perfume surrounding his young assassin as well.

"Is that so?" Katsura says, stepping out of Kenshin's way and digging a black envelope out from his sleeve. "It is natural to attend to such needs, Kenshin, but next time I hope you will inform us beforehand."

"As you wish."

He takes the envelope with him upstairs to his room, the hitokiri once more.


Kaoru reclines on the inner porch, in the same place she'd drunk her first dish of sake last night. She is holding a cup of tea on her lap that has long since cooled. Himura has gone back to Kyoto, and the house feels strangely empty without him. Everywhere, from the clean floors to the prepared onigiri, to the woodpile, he'd left his mark.

When she'd asked him to stay, she'd told herself it was because she was worried some harm would befall him on the road at night. And she had been worried about that. But more, she'd been worried about sending him back to Kyoto. Each time she has met Himura, his face has been grave and emotionless, his eyes two sharp points. He always relaxed eventually; his speech would grow less formal, and then he would start to smile. She doesn't know why, but she wants him to always smile that way, and she senses somehow that it is a smile he uses rarely.

When she'd gone to take his dry clothes down from the porch, she'd paused to watch him chopping wood, drawn in by the grace of his movements. His back and shoulders had corded rhythmically with each swing, his spirit exuding what she could only call satisfaction and joy. He'd been beautiful to watch, and it had pleased her, knowing he was happy, that he was enjoying his work. And she had wanted him to stay, to remain happy for a while longer.

He'd sat in the front room while she sewed in companionable silence, and despite her ridiculous impropriety, he had stayed. He had stayed and smiled, laughed while she sputtered over sake, made her feel comfortable and safe with his mere presence alone. She always felt safe when she was with Himura. After the incident in guard station had unsettled her, Himura had stalked beside her, fiercely protective to the point of deadliness, as though he expected those Satsuma clansmen to burst out of the bushes along the road at any moment.

To me, you are worthy of the utmost respect. Not because of who you were, but who you are.

Kaoru sighs and stares at her reflection in her tea cup. She thinks of Himura's playful smile that morning when she'd nearly strangled him with her scarf. Of the hope in his eyes when she'd told him he was always welcome. She'd promised then that she would do whatever she could to make sure he had no need to be tense or grave. She will always do her best to make him smile, because of who he is.

Chapter Text

Kaoru dips a ladle into the bucket of water outside the training dojo and pours it carefully over the back of her neck. She and Souji have been training since sunrise, and spending so much time in a face mask has made her head sweaty. She pours a second over her hair and face, wiping the latter on her sleeve. It has been two weeks since she returned from Muko, a fortnight since she bowed low in Hijikata-sensei's office and asked permission to carry the burden of a samurai. Kondo had smiled like a relieved father.

She pulls out the tie that keeps her hair clasped at the base of her head and shakes out the dripping ends, accidentally spraying Souji as he joins her on the porch. He dips his fingers in the bucket and flicks them at her, spritzing her face.

"That was a good session, this morning, Kaoru-chan," he says, smiling as she wipes the water off her face. "You are improving."

"Thank you, sensei, and thank you for the extra practice these past weeks."

"It is good practice for me, too, Kaoru-chan. Now, go and bring fresh water for the second unit, and then join the first unit for breakfast."

"Yes, sir."

Kaoru takes up the bucket and heads for the well, where Heisuke, Nagakura-sensei, and Harada-sensei are all gathered, washing their faces for the day. Heisuke sees her approaching and waves good-naturedly.

"Good morning, Kaoru-chan! How was practice today?"

"Good morning, sensei!" She bows to each in turn.

"Ah Kamiya," says Nagakura, "does the first unit have patrol tonight?"

"You know they don't, Shinpachi," says Harada, laughing. "Forgive him, Kamiya-chan, he is trying to be casual."

Kaoru laughs and begins to pull up the well bucket. Nagakura Shinpachi, the second unit captain, and Harada Sanosuke, who is captain of the tenth, are close friends who often tease each other. Harada's favourite barbs always seem to involve Nagakura's awkwardness around women, while Nagakura likes to bother Harada about not being bushi enough because he fights with a spear.

"The first unit does not have patrol until tomorrow evening, Nagakura-sensei, " she offers sweetly. "Today is our day off."

"Then you and Souji should come with us tonight, Kaoru!" Heisuke says, helping her with the rope of the bucket.

"Ara, where?"

"Shimabara," grins Harada.

Kaoru huffs hotly, her temper flaring. The Oni Vice Commander will cut them all new nostrils if they are caught sneaking off to the red light district, and they all know it. She opens her mouth with a short retort, but Nagakura cuts her off before she can get it out.

"It is only that, when you do not accompany us, the geisha will not see us," he says softly.

"Apparently," Harada adds, "we get too rowdy."

Kaoru is still intending to firmly decline; she has been on enough trips to Shimabara at the behest of trouble-making troop members, and she has no desire to babysit a bunch of young men in heat. But Heisuke puts his hand over hers on the well bucket. "I have been unable to see Kimiki-chan…" he says forlornly, and her resolve crumbles.

Kimiki is the maiko Heisuke is in love with, and he has been saving up all his money to pay her debts. Kaoru had met her on her first awkward, blush-ridden trip to the red light district, after Souji had forced her to go to with him and a handful of comrades. He'd thought it'd be a funny way to tease her, but the geisha had taken pity on her and paid her all the attention. It had been pleasant, to be once more surrounded by so many ladies like a samurai daughter, yet Kaoru had also been painfully aware of her hakama, short hair and calloused fingers. In the midst of those unpleasant reflections, Kimiki had gently clasped her rough hands and thanked her for being strong, and had urged her to return for a visit. Kaoru found she prefers that side of Shimabara; she goes in the afternoon to take tea with the geisha in the secret back rooms as they prepare to start their day. Their conversations typically centred around more interesting topics without her comrades around, and Kaoru, raised and surrounded by men, has learned a great deal from the candid frankness of these women. It is the type of talk not typically shared with daughters of samurai, and it has taught her another way to be strong.

"Ah," she sighs in defeat, "I will go with you."

Nagakura and Harada whoop, but it is the squeeze of Heisuke's hand and the silent thanks in his large, soft eyes that Kaoru hears.


The room is very hot, heavy with the smell of perfume and smoke, like all of Shimabara. Seated at the top of the room, Kaoru sips her tea and smiles softly when Kimiki pretends to accidentally press against Heisuke, watching him blush and gaze at the girl beside him in wonder. Kaoru had declined a geisha to serve her, despite the mother of the teahouse trying to insist when she arrived. She could tell the woman was relieved she was there, and Kaoru doesn't blame her; she has heard stories of her comrades' antics in the red light district, and she knows at least half of them are true. She'd endured the woman's kindness while turning over her swords, but all she had asked in return was that Kimiki bring her a pot of tea and join their room if she was not otherwise engaged.

Heisuke and Kimiki are seated to her immediate right, and past them are Harada and Nagakura. Somehow, Harada has managed to charm both his and Nagakura's geisha; he is regaling them both with tales of the second unit captain's bravery while Nagakura blushes silently. On her left are Souji and Saito-san, with two geisha between them. Souji and the women are trying, without much success, to get Saito to recite the Tale of Genji. He is blushing into his sake, though, so Kaoru knows he is about to crack. Once he starts drinking, Saito gets downright wordy.

It's late now, and they all seem well settled. Kaoru instinctively knows that within the next hour, her comrades will start disappearing from this room, either to back rooms or brothels, and she doesn't really need to stay to see that part. She stifles a yawn and gets to her feet.

"I think I'll head back now," she says casually. "Enjoy the rest of your evening."

Heisuke and Kimiki seem to be the only two who have heard her, and they both nod softly. Kimiki clasps Kaoru's hand again. "Thank you, Kaoru-chan," the maiko says quietly. Kaoru merely smiles, and steps lightly from the room. She is padding down the second floor balcony, headed for the stairs, when she hears Souji calling after her.

"Hey! Kaoru-chan! Wait…"

She halts and turns, and the first unit captain catches up to her. He is out of breath and swaying slightly, his clothes a bit dishevelled.

"Are you leaving?" He blinks at her owlishly.

"Yes, enjoy your evening," she repeats.

"I will go with you. You should not go alone."

Kaoru laughs and waves her hands; Souji is so drunk he'd be of no use to her if she did run into trouble. "No, no, sensei. Stay and enjoy the company of your geisha. I will get home safely."

"Kaoru. You don't understand," he says intently. He reaches out faster than she'd thought he was capable of after that much sake, and grips the front of her kimono. She gapes at him in surprise, and he pulls her closer, so they are nearly touching. "You never understand," he says softly.

"Sensei?" she whispers sharply, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up. Instinct takes over and she puts her palms on his shoulders, shoves him gently. He blinks at her in surprise and releases her kimono.

"Forgive me," he murmurs, blushing.

"I will see you at headquarters," she says uncertainly.

Souji nods, and does not move. He stays rooted to the spot, staring at the floor, and Kaoru leaves him there. She stalks the rest of the way to the front entrance and presents her token for her swords to the girl on duty without a word. Only once she has slid her father's daisho through her belt does she feel at ease.


Kenshin is hiding in Shimabara. He's hidden in this district many times before; it is the ideal place to assassinate a crooked samurai. There is a black envelope in his sleeve, with instructions for his next victim. He waits in the shadows, watching the entrance of a tea house, waiting for the samurai in question to leave. He will tail him until he is in the quiet area just outside of Shimabara, and then he will end his life. It is a task Hitokiri Battousai has performed so often that it is almost rote, and he does not anticipate any difficulty.

The night is dark and crisp, with no moon. It is almost pleasant. This will be his last job until Katsura returns; the Choshuu leader had left for Edo that morning. He is expected away for three weeks, and Kenshin plans to spend the middle of them in Muko with Kamiya while she is on leave. He's already bought the perfect gift to present as an unannounced house guest: a fine tea set for Kamiya-dono's excellent tea. It had cost him one of her shiny ryo, and he had parted with it gladly for the chance to surprise her. Katsura has given him leave, there is only this job to finish, and then time will be his.

Off to his right, Yushin and Iizuka are crouched in an alley. They will follow behind him and clean up after he is done. Kenshin has worked with Iizuka many times since his first assignment, but Yushin is a new addition. Normally it would be Ryusei or Aoto, but they had both caught colds two days ago. He is not pleased to have Yushin tag along; Kenshin has not forgotten his comments about Kamiya-dono, but it is not for him to question Katsura's orders.

The curtain of the tea house parts, and a rowdy samurai exits, leaning heavily on another man. The target and a bodyguard. That he is drunk will make Kenshin's work easier. They stumble down the road out of sight, and Kenshin ghosts to his feet. He knows the route they will take, having spent the early evening following them. He circles around to trap them between himself and the two Examiners, a precaution he does not need but takes as a formality. He waits in the shadows until the samurai are within range, and then he steps into the road.

"You'll go no further," he says flatly.

The drunk samurai blinks at him blearily, but his bodyguard eyes Kenshin, alert. "Who are you?" he demands.

"Ishin-Shishi Hitokiri Battousai," he offers, and the bodyguard gasps.

Kenshin draws his katana and lunges in one fluid motion, deadly and intent. The bodyguard has a moment of confusion, should he drop his lord and draw his sword, or try to run? His hesitation costs him his life. Kenshin splits him from hip to shoulder and spins, fast enough that the spray of blood from the wound misses him completely. The samurai finds his support collapsing under him, and he staggers, drunk and surprised. Before his wine-addled senses can take stock of the situation, Kenshin stabs him through the heart. As he falls, Kenshin slides his sword free, his precision preventing the samurai's ribs from nicking his blade. The entire thing has taken two swings, one step, and less than a minute. Two men who were alive are not, their lifeblood now mingling together in the hard packed earth of the road.

Iizuka and Yushin arrive as he is cleaning the blood from his blade. Kenshin sheathes his katana, and he takes small pleasure in Yushin's wide-eyed stare at his handiwork. He pulls the envelope from his sleeve and hands it to Iizuka with a slight nod. "I'll see you back at the inn," he tells the Examiner.

Iizuka nods in return, then settles next to the bodies. "Stop gaping and stand guard, Yushin!" he snaps.

Kenshin smirks to himself as he stalks off on silent feet. He is a fair distance away when he hears the scream.


Kaoru shudders and absently wraps her haori closer, though the night is not particularly cold. Her shivers have nothing to do with the temperature; she is deep in thought, wondering what on earth Souji could have meant.

Since joining the Shinsengumi, Kaoru has been under Okita Souji's direct supervision. He is a firm but amicable leader, and anyone in the unit would gladly lay down their life for the man who has always treated them like brothers. Kaoru herself has enjoyed a gentler hand than most, partly because she is one of the better trained swordsmen in the unit, and partly because she is the youngest. She has been happy, under his command. When he is not acting as her sensei he is the older brother Kaoru has always wanted, quick to tease and even quicker to comfort. Since their dinner with Kondo in the warehouse, they have settled into an easy friendship: he is always squeezing her shoulder, patting her head, picking her up in bear hugs when he

knows it will annoy her. She has never shied away from his touch until now.

"Perhaps it was because he was so drunk," she reasons. "Souji was not himself."

She nods to herself; that must be it. He probably thinks she does not understand that he worries about her, but she does understand. It is Souji that does not understand that she is capable of taking care of herself. Just because she will not kill does not mean she will not act to defend herself.

Kaoru is so absorbed in her thoughts that the scream up ahead catches her unawares. She snaps to attention quickly enough, hands on hilt and sheath, spirit alert and flying ahead. She senses distress and a swordsman, caught by surprise. Caution. She must proceed carefully and not rush in. It is forbidden to duel, and she isn't supposed to be out of headquarters in the first place. She starts to move to the shadows at the side of the road. A woman runs into the road in front of her, and when she catches sight of Kaoru, she flings herself at her feet. "Please!" she sobs. "Please help me, help me!"

Kaoru does not have time to ask what has happened or what help is needed, a ronin runs into the road and Kaoru instinctively steps in front of the woman and draws her sword. The ronin grins maliciously and draws his own blade. "Two women in a dark road," he drawls. "This is my lucky day."

Her spirit contracts with her temper, becoming razor sharp. Kaoru's eyes blaze and her voice develops an edge. "This woman is under my protection. Sheathe your sword and leave this place."

"Keh! If you are a good girl, I'll have a little fun with you once I've sent this woman to her grave."

He runs at her then, and Kaoru leaps to meet him.


Kenshin waits for a moment, then decides to circle back to the road where he has left Iizuka and Yushin. It would be just like that fool to blunder on his first job. He melts into the shadows and returns to the scene of his assassination. The two dead men are lying face up in the street, arranged for death, the samurai with his tenchuu note resting on his chest. Iizuka is pacing back and forth, looking in the opposite direction Kenshin has come from. Yushin is nowhere to be found.

"Iizuka," he calls softly.

"Oh! Battousai!"

"Where is Yushin?"

"Some fool woman wandered by and saw him just as we were leaving, she screamed and ran off and Yushin went after her."

Kenshin frowns in distaste. In his experience so far, he has been careful to lead his targets to isolated areas; there have been no bystanders.

"It's been too long, though," Iizuka continues. "Either that woman runs like a devil, or he's in trouble."

Kenshin shuts his eyes for a moment. To raise one's hand against a woman is the blackest of sins. But he is death, he is Hitokiri Battousai, and for the sake of a new era, he will kill. "Which way did he go?" he asks softly.


Kaoru is breathing too hard. Her left ankle is screaming in protest, failing her when she needs it to be strong. There is a deep gash running across the back of her right calf, and another on the inside of her left forearm. They throb with each movement, leaking blood, but Kaoru has no time to pay them any attention. The ronin is good, almost as good as Souji and Saito-san, and while there is a welt on his forehead, a cut on the back of his right hand, and countless bruises under his clothes, Kaoru has been unable to slow him, unable to disarm him or deliver a blow to keep him down. He leaps toward her again, attempting to separate her head from her shoulders, but Kaoru gets her sword up in time, blocks his strike, and smashes the blunt edge of her blade into his face. When he throws her back she manages to keep her feet despite the injuries to both her legs.

The ronin spits and grins at her. She's managed to knock some of his teeth out, and his bloody smile is terrifying. "Do you surrender?" he purrs. "If you put your sword away I promise to be gentle."

Kaoru feels a shudder go through her already weakened legs, and behind her, the woman she has been defending sobs brokenly. She wishes the woman had run, instead of staying glued to the road behind her. It would be easier then, to lose this fight. If it were only her here in the roadway, she could die without difficulty, but as long as the woman remains, Kaoru cannot fail. Her heartbeat is pounding in her ears, but so is her father's voice. You can never fall, Kaoru. If you fall, those you seek to protect will fall too.

She squares her shoulders, tightens her grip on her sword. Disarming the ronin has failed. Bruising him has failed, cutting him has failed. Her father had told her that there would come a time when she would be desperate, when carrying a sword that values life and a sword that protects would become mutually exclusive. There are times when there is no right decision, Daughter-mine. Sometimes you must make the least wrong choice. Her legs will not last much longer, and she cannot fall. Kaoru flips her blade.


Kenshin sends Iizuka back to the inn and heads off. He casts his spirit ahead, looking for Yushin. When he senses the two swordsmen ahead, he halts in surprise. One is Yushin, cold and hard with an edge of malice, and the other…

The other is brave and righteously angry, a complex mix of compassion and tenacity that he knows too well. His breath catches in his throat. "No."

"Kamiya-dono."

He says her name so softly, but up ahead, as if in response, he hears her yell.


She charges. She knows how to wound, how to kill a man. She knows, but she has never had to do it before. To execute this strike, she must leave her right shoulder vulnerable, and the ronin is good enough to see the opening. She must be fast.

Kaoru yells. She pulls the air from deep in her center and yells, loud and forceful like a true bushi facing down an enemy. "I will live!"

Her sword follows her spin as she ducks under the ronin's blade, she feels it pierce deep into the soft flesh under her right collarbone, but there is no time to feel pain. Her sword is still swinging, sharp edge out, and it connects with a vital point in the ronin's side, between two ribs. It slides through skin and muscle and lung and lodges against his spine. She is not strong enough, spent from the fight and bleeding from her arms, to cut any further. The ronin's blood sprays over her and she lets go of her sword, lets it follow the ronin's body as he topples away from her, gasping, momentum pulling his own blade free of her shoulder.

Kaoru kneels in the road, and she turns her blood spattered face to the woman she has killed for. Her eyes meet Kaoru's, wide with shock.

"Please," Kaoru says hoarsely, "go and find help. I cannot walk."

Kaoru shuts her eyes, and after a moment, she hears the woman stumble to her feet and run off. Kaoru's adrenaline is fading, her wounds now making themselves cruelly known, and she doesn't think the woman will come back.


Kenshin runs. Kamiya is in danger and he has promised, sworn on his heart and her ribbon that she will never be in danger so long as he draws breath. He runs because if he loses her, he now understands he will lose everything. He arrives just as the nameless woman who caused all this trouble scrambles to her feet and scurries away. She has seen Yushin, but Yushin is lying in the road with Kamiya's blade buried in his chest.

Kamiya has killed him.

She is sitting seiza a few feet away from the body with her eyes closed, and if she were not covered in blood, she could be waiting for her tea in the front room of her house in Muko. Her spirit is resigned, sad, and in pain. She is in pain.

"Kamiya-dono?"

Her eyes open, and she regards him with surprise. Her fists tighten in the fabric of her hakama, and her eyes fill with tears. "Himura," she sobs, her face contorting in shame.

He is crouched beside her before he knows he has moved, one arm protectively around her back while his eyes rake over her for injuries. She is covered in blood, most of it her own. He can tell from the spreading dampness on her shoulder that she is seriously wounded. She squeezes her eyes shut and the tears in them spill over and draw tracks through the blood on her face. Her head falls against his shoulder.

"Did…" she begins, then swallows, "…did you see?"

Kenshin feels something in him break, and he pulls her closer and wraps his other arm around her. "It's all right," he tells her. "You're all right."

She breathes shakily against his chest, and one hand grips the fabric of his kimono. "Yes."

"I am going to take you to Takani-sensei, Kamiya-dono," he tells her.

"My sword…"

"I will get it."

He tightens his arms around her for a moment, and then he releases her to stand and retrieve her katana, careful to keep himself between her and the body. He leans over his fallen comrade and regards him with blind hatred. He wrenches the sword free with as much violence as he can, finishing her strike, and wipes the blade clean on Yushin's kimono. When he turns back, her eyes roll back into her head and she almost falls face first into the road before he catches her.


Kenshin nearly scares them all out their wits, shouting the Shirobeko down for help. Sekihara-san, Takani-sensei, Tatsuki and Kaito all pound down the stairs, startled from sleep and armed with poles from a kimono stand, only to find Kenshin in the entryway with a bloody and unconscious Kamiya in his arms. They drop their makeshift weapons and immediately spring to action.

Takani-sensei shoves everything off the large table in the Shirobeko's kitchen and instructs Kenshin to lay his cargo atop it. Sekihara is dispatched to find lanterns, the two boys set to heating water. Kenshin clutches Kamiya's hand, determined not to leave her. Takani-sensei casts his professional gaze over the puncture in her shoulder and sighs.

"I will have to cauterize it," he murmurs to his wife, "Such a deep scar on one so young."

Takani-dono squeezes her husband's shoulder. Tatsuki is called in to assist, Kaito to help Takani-dono hold down her legs. Sekihara and Omae-dono each take one of her arms, and Takani-dono places a ladle, handle wrapped in cloth, between Kamiya's teeth. "Hold her head steady," she tells him.

Kenshin cradles her face between his hands, and when the hot iron enters her shoulder, her eyes fly open and she tenses, screaming a terrible, animal scream of pain that is reduced to broken sobs. Tears leak out of her clenched eyelids and he brushes them away with his thumbs, hunching over her, hoarsely whispering that everything will be fine, that the pain will stop.

With her shoulder done, Omae-dono starts to clean the blood from Kamiya's face and hair while the doctors set about stitching and bandaging. They ask Kenshin for water and he leaves Kamiya to take up his place at the well. It is not until Omae-dono places a gentle hand on his shoulder and softly tells him they have enough that he realizes he has filled every bucket in the restaurant. She sends him to the furo with a bucket and a yukata. "You are covered in blood, Himura-san."

Kamiya's blood has stained through his kimono and nagajuban. It has dripped onto his hakama and tabi, and it sticks cloyingly to his arms and chest. He scrubs himself raw, pours bucket after bucket of cold well water over himself, washing her life's blood through the slats of the bathhouse floor. Even when the water finally runs clear and he is shivering from the exposure, he does not feel clean. If it had been anyone else in the road, he would have killed them, and the woman too. He had been ready to do it. Kamiya's blood was on his hands just as surely as if he'd struck her himself. Let our paths never meet on the darkened streets of Kyoto. Let me never be forced to draw my sword against her. Kenshin buries his face in his hands, draws shuddering breaths to calm his heart, and tries not to think about what might have happened if it had been a different Ishin-Shishi assassin who had found her.

Takani-dono is waiting for him at the kitchen door when he returns from the bathhouse. "She has lost a great deal of blood," the doctor says quietly, "but her injuries are not fatal. With rest and care, she will be all right."

The doctor continues speaking, but Kenshin barely registers her words. Relief is surging through him, so acute it is almost a physical pain. She is going to be all right.

"She is resting upstairs now," Takani-dono is saying, "You should be there if she wakes, in case she goes into shock. You are the last person she remembers seeing."

He finds her in the same sick room as before, washed clean, dressed in a white yukata, covered in bandages. She is ghostly pale in the faint lantern light, her eyelids two deep bruises, and if he had not known better he would have thought her dead. Even knowing better, his breath still catches. He sends his spirit out instinctively and feels hers, small and steady like a heartbeat, kindness and fearlessness and Kamiya in the way that is only her. It washes him cleaner than any water could.

Omae-dono is tucking blankets carefully around her, and Kenshin takes up a place at the head of the futon. Takani-dono presses a hand lightly to Kamiya's forehead, checking for fever. "If her temperature rises, wake one of us immediately," the doctor instructs, and Kenshin nods, wringing out the cloth in the bucket next to him and draping it carefully over Kamiya's forehead. He is so intent on smoothing her bangs back that he does not notice the two women leave.

For a long time, Kenshin watches the soft rise and fall of Kamiya's breathing. He alternates between stroking her hair and resting his hand over hers. He dampens the cloth and replaces it on her forehead. Reacting to the change, her eyelids press closer together, then slowly open.

"Himura?" she whispers.

"It's all right," he tells her again, "You're all right."

Her fingers seek his, threading their hands together. "You helped me," she says drowsily, closing her eyes.

"Always," he whispers, stroking her hand, watching her drift back to sleep. He brushes his fingers lightly across her cheek, and then lifts them to wipe away the tears in his eyes.

Chapter Text

For two days, Kaoru drifts. Her waking hours are short and her resting ones long as her body slowly mends itself. Most of the time she hovers on the edge of consciousness, unsure of what is a dream and what is real.

Sometimes she thinks she is lying in the upstairs back room at the Shirobeko, and she believes that must be true. The various Takani family members tend to her, and Omae-dono feeds her miso broth and rice porridge and clear, cool cups of water. Sometimes the twins are there, dancing around the foot of her bed holding matching pinwheels. Sometimes she is in a burning room and Megumi-chan, her face streaked with soot, holds Kaoru's wakizashi out to her with a solemn stare. Sometimes Kondo-sensei and Hijikata-sensei loom over her, two sides of a deep canyon. Sometimes she is in the Edo dojo and her father is there, teaching her, telling her to be safe, presenting her with a blue silk ribbon. Sometimes he is hard and cold and will not answer when she calls him, simply walking from the room without looking at her. Sometimes she is in a dark roadway and the ronin is there, her katana lodged in his chest while he grins a terrible bloody grin and devours her with hungry eyes.

Yet through all of it, Himura is there. He is blushing under his hat at the tea shop, he is walking beside her on the road to Muko. He is doing her laundry. He is in the Edo dojo, in the Shinsengumi headquarters, in places he has never been. He puts damp cloths on her forehead. He is both grave and at ease. He is fiercely protective and trying to make her laugh at the same time. He is there, in the dark of the road, in the dark of the upstairs back room, and he always pulls her close, tells her it is all right. As her body grows stronger, she starts to believe him.

When she does at last grow strong enough to know where she is, to differentiate between dreams and reality, she is disappointed to find Himura gone. He'd left quietly at the first signs of morning, after Takani-dono had dispatched her youngest son to the Shinsengumi headquarters to notify them of Kaoru's whereabouts and condition. His clothes had still been damp from washing and he'd simply pulled them on in the bath house and snuck away before anyone could notice. Since then, Kaoru has slept and Himura has not returned.

Kondo and Hijikata have come each day to see her. At first they wanted to have her moved to headquarters, but Takani-dono had blocked the stairs and leveled them with a direct gaze, telling them they'd take Kamiya Kaoru out of her care over her dead body. Omae-dono had stood behind the doctor and huffed in agreement, her arms crossed over her swelling belly. Hijikata-sensei is a brilliant tactician, who knows when he's lost and when to retreat. Kaoru had remained at the Shirobeko.

When they arrive on the third day, Kaoru is awake, able to sit up a bit, propped with many cushions. She wears her right arm in a sling to keep her from pulling the burn in her shoulder, while her left rests atop the futon, stitched and bandaged from wrist to elbow. Her body is still weak from blood loss, and she struggles with the effort of staying awake. She haltingly tells them about the unsanctioned trip to Shimabara and the duel in the street.

"I did not seek to fight the ronin, but I could not avoid it," she finishes, hoarse with the effort of speaking for so long.

Kondo pours her a cup of water and helps her drink it. "We have reason to believe that ronin was a tenchuu assassin," Hijikata tells her when she finishes her water. Kaoru blinks in surprise, and Kondo smiles his fatherly smile. "You did a great service to the shogun, protecting that woman," he says softly, his voice bursting with pride.

Kaoru smiles weakly to humour him. She does not feel proud about killing the ronin, no matter who he may have been, or how much honour it brings to the troop. "Thank you, sensei," she whispers, and looks down so he cannot see her tears or her shame.

Hijikata-sensei comes to her rescue. "You are tired, Kamiya-chan," he says, his gruff voice unusually gentle. "We will leave you to rest now."

Souji, Heisuke and Saito-san come the next day. They bring her a beautiful lacquer box of namagashi that the entire troop pitched in to buy, and an elegant fan from Nagakura and Harada. Heisuke does his best to carry the conversation, with occasional help from Saito, but Souji is strangely silent. They avoid talking about the last time they were all together, and do not bring up the investigation into the ronin she has slain. Instead, they tell her the troop gossip, and Kaoru can only nod along, her wounded smile reminiscent of her first months in the unit. When they run out of things to say, Heisuke merely reaches out and places his hand over hers. He holds it in the same way he did the night he told her that her father was dead; Kaoru's breath hitches and she has to look away.

"We should let you rest, Kamiya-san," Saito says quietly, and Heisuke withdraws his hand. Kaoru nods and continues to stare out the window as they leave. She doesn't see the way Souji lingers in the doorway, his face a mask of longing and regret.

Kaoru stares out the window and she feels trapped in sand, buried under the weight of what she has done. Her father warned her that the sword that protects would not be light, and now she knows just how heavy it truly is. It is not a light thing, to take a life. She had done her best to avoid it, there in the street, but it had been her last and only option.

"Forgive me, Father," she whispers, letting her tears come. "I did not understand."

Kaoru refuses guests on the fifth day. It is too hard, weak and tired as she is, and she is not yet ready for attempts to cheer her. She tells Takani-dono that she has a headache, and asks Omae-dono to shut the window screens, keeping the little girls from her room. She cannot face Sae, Tae, and Megumi-chan most of all. Are you going to let that Mibu she-wolf touch your children? Don't you know her hands are covered in blood?

She lies on her back and watches the shadows grow one way, then lengthen another. She aches for the one presence she cannot ask for. Himura did not shy away from her in the bloody street; he'd helped her, as he always did. She cannot bring herself to burden him further after all he has done for her, but she needs him, needs desperately to hear him tell her it will be all right. She wants him to stay by her side for a little while, even if it's selfish, until she is strong enough to face the world again on her own. But he has not returned. She shuts her eyes and cries herself softly into a restless sleep.

She is lightly dozing in the dimming evening light when the shoji opens a few inches. Kaoru thinks it is Omae-dono, bringing her dinner, and she squeezes her eyes shut again, intending to pretend she is asleep.

"Kamiya-dono?"

The shoji slides all the way open and Kaoru forgets her weakened limbs and pain and tries to sit up, her face leaning towards the doorway like a flower towards the sun.

"Himura," she breathes.


"Himura," she says, and it stops his heart. She is struggling to sit up, obviously in pain, but she beams at him with her most beautiful smile. He leaves the tray in the hallway and goes to her side immediately, forgetting why Omae-dono had let him upstairs in first place. He slides an arm around her to help her sit up and when she falls heavily against it he keeps going, pulling himself behind her to support her back. She blushes up at him from the crook of his shoulder, the twin pools of her eyes large and deep.

"It's all right," he reassures and requests at the same time. Her slight frown softens.

"Yes," she sighs in relief, settling more comfortably against him.

They sit that way, Kamiya leaning against him and Kenshin bracing her weight, for what feels like both a long time and not long enough. She is warm and comfortable against his chest, and he closes his eyes, leans his chin against her hair. Their breathing evens out and synchronizes.

"Have you ever killed anyone, Himura?" Kamiya asks the thickening darkness in front of them.

Kenshin frowns and tenses slightly. Killing is all he does. "Yes," he admits softly. Kamiya lifts her hand and presses it lightly over his own, her fingers settling between his. Comforting him when he ought to be comforting her. "I remember the first person I killed," he continues. "He was samurai. When it was over, I felt different, though it was hard to explain how." It is still hard to think about; he can really only remember the dizzying patterns of the leaves swaying in the breeze. More than anything, he'd felt like nothing afterwards, empty.

"Were you afraid?" Kamiya whispers, and he flips his hand under hers, clasps it tighter in his own.

"No," he admits, "I was the better swordsman."

"I was afraid," she tells him, and he shifts protectively closer. "He was the better swordsman, but my will to live was stronger."

He wants to tell her that he is glad, that she must always, always stay alive, but she is samurai and the daughter of samurai and he will not shame her by requesting it. Instead he sits them up a bit, taking her with him, resting his arm on his knee so it is touching her side but not quite around her. Hoping she understands what he does not say.

"I could not die," she admits, "because I had to protect the woman behind me. I could not fail her."

Kamiya begins to tremble and he wants to pull her into an embrace, look into her eyes, and reassure her that what she did was right. But he senses that these are the words she would least believe. If he interrupts her she will never be able to get to the end of what she needs to say. He knows she has been unable to speak in detail about her duel with anyone yet; he's spent enough time hovering on the roof next door to hear almost every conversation she's had. It had been the closed window, the absolute silence and her wounded spirit today that had finally driven him into the Shirobeko. He'd kept away because he was dangerous, because every time he slept he dreamt of killing Kamiya in the street, of her dying in his arms, of her lifeblood covering his clothes and face and the sword he'd killed her with. But Kamiya needed him now, and he was too weak to resist her.

"My father told me that the sword that protects would be a heavy burden, but I did not understand." Her voice cracks, and she leans forward, away from him, in on herself. "I did not understand this regret."

She cries then. It is hollow and raw and it breaks him. She lifts their hands, still entwined, to her face, and her tears fall against the back of his hand. He does pull her into his arms then, he curls her into his chest and wraps his arms around her and silent tears fill his eyes, too. Her pain is his fault. It is the second time he has failed her in a dark roadway. He hates it, he hates his inability to protect her when she most needs him, hates that what he is fighting for had become a danger to the young woman who is increasingly meaning more and more to him every time he sees her.

"Let me share your regret, Kamiya-dono," he begs her. "Please. Let me bear this burden with you."

She lets go of his hand and turns her face into his shoulder, trying to breathe deeply, attempting to master her tears. He is embracing her now, all sense of propriety completely abandoned. She is so small and soft against him, and he thinks it might destroy him if she pulls away. He'd wanted to hold her like this when she was supposed to come to the Kohagi-ya; even then she'd been precious enough to him that he'd wanted to shoulder her pain. He's been calling this feeling for her many different things, homage to her kindness, repentance for his mistake, friendship. But it is something else entirely.

"Please forgive me," he murmurs into her hair. "If I had been faster, you would not have to carry this pain. I am sorry, Kamiya."

If he'd followed Koshijiro more closely, none of this would have ever happened. He is more sorry than she will ever know. He doesn't deserve her, doesn't deserve this embrace or the chance to comfort her. That she will sense his unworthiness terrifies him. She pulls away from him then, shaking her head, and it does cut him. His heart bleeds into his voice and he speaks before she can deny him the right to apologize. He could not bear to hear it.

"If you had died," he says, staring into the twin oceans of her blue eyes, letting himself drown in them, "I… I think I would have died, too."

He is expecting her to blush, lower her head and ask him to leave, or perhaps hit him for being so forward, but he needed her to know. He'd run when he sensed her in the road, because living in a world without her would not be living at all. Whatever his mistakes, he needs her, and from now on he will try to be worthy.

She surprises him by leaning into him, her bandaged arm hugging him tightly and her head resting on his shoulder. "Promise me you'll stay here," she whispers. "Promise you won't leave again."

He laughs, shaky with relief. "If I am to stay you must eat the dinner Omae-dono made, or she will throw me out."

"I will eat ten dinners," she says softly, "and then I will be strong enough for us to go to Muko."

She is serious, and the way she pronounces 'us' makes a bolt of lightning shoot down his spine. "Start with the one," he tells her, "and then in the morning I will see what the Takanis think about a palanquin."


Later, when Omae-dono comes to collect the empty tray, she opens the shoji to ask Himura-san if he'd like something to eat. He is sitting against the wicker box next to Kamiya's futon, wrapped in a blanket, with his head bent in sleep. Kamiya herself is sleeping on her back, and her face has more colour than it has worn in the past five days combined. Her left hand is resting on the tatami beside her, and Himura's right hand is entwined with it. Omae-dono silently closes the shoji without a word. She smiles knowingly about her correct hunch in letting Himura-san upstairs. In the morning, when she prepares Kamiya's tray, she makes sure there is enough for two.

Chapter Text

A day later, Kaoru and Himura travel to Muko. The Takanis had flat out refused to let her go in a palanquin, as it would have jostled her wounds too much. Instead, Himura had found a farmer in Muko who travelled into the city once a week, bringing crops to sell, and he agrees to carry Kaoru in his covered cart.

Himura arrived in the late afternoon with the farmer and helped Sekihara-san load their provisions into the wagon. Kaoru was being allowed out from under Takani-dono's watchful eye thanks to him; whatever Himura had said to the doctor had persuaded her, and Kaoru is grateful. She wants solitude, time, and distance from Kyoto.

She'd felt shy when he appeared in the doorway to tell her the wagon was ready. He'd bowed to her formally, told her the day was growing cold, and draped his quilted black haori around her shoulders before lifting her into his arms; the cloth smelled woodsy and musky, just like him. He'd carried her down the stairs and without a word, settled her on cushions prepared for her in the back of the wagon. The girls had clambered in behind her and said their goodbyes while the adults fussed over blankets. Himura stood to one side with the farmer, his face unreadable. Takani-sensei promised he'd come see them in a few days to check on her.

The journey was easy enough, once they'd passed unharrassed through the gate, the cart rolling along at a slow and comfortable pace, the farmer leading his ox, and Himura walking behind where she could see him. Every so often he'd stray off somewhere and return with something he'd seen along the road that he thought would interest her, a late flower or a bulrush or a branch with a few remaining leaves. He handed them to her carefully, gifts to brighten her temporary cage. She gathered each new thing into a growing bouquet in her right hand, still slung tight against her body. She may have neglected her flower arranging, but she is the daughter of samurai and she would not let his kindness be wasted. Each time, she'd softly thank him and then he'd duck under his hat, the one she'd given him, or bury his face into her white scarf around his neck; when visible, she could see his expression slowly softening with each step towards Muko.

The cart is too wide for the forest path to her house, so the farmer skirts around and takes a southern fork in the road. He leads his patient animal across a rice field, fords a shallow creek, and then they are in the meadow behind her house. They must still pass through a stand of trees, but it is a much shorter distance than the path, and she thinks that without the Takanis around, she might persuade Himura to let her hobble home on her bandaged legs.

It is just beginning to grow dark when the wagon halts and the farmer ties his ox's reigns to a nearby branch. Kaoru shifts herself forward, ignoring her body's throbs of protest and the pull of her stitches, and stretches her left hand out to gather up a few of the bundles at her feet. She will walk leaning on Himura, so if she tucks a few things into her sling…

"Here, Kamiya-dono," Himura offers, his hand closing around hers before she can pick up anything. She does not miss the soft way his fingers caress her own, and she feels her cheeks heat. He puts her left arm gently over his shoulders and steps closer.

Kaoru suddenly feels shy once more. "I think I could walk the little ways…" her voice trails off when he stares at her incredulously.

"Takani-dono will have my head," he tells her.

"Well, then, perhaps I should carry something…"

Himura laughs, a deep and rich noise, and shakes his head. He lifts her out of the wagon, cradling her against him like she is no heavier than a pillow. "You are too good, Kamiya-dono," he murmurs. Kaoru blushes and looks over her right shoulder, away from him. Things have changed between them since their night at the Shirobeko, though she is still unsure exactly what that meant.

The farmer shoulders their large wicker basket and gathers their few bundles up in his arms. He winks at Kaoru and falls into step behind Himura. She does not know him well; he is an acquaintance of her acquaintances here in Muko. She must invite him in for tea and send a gift to his family for his kindness. She had not been keen to stay at the Shirobeko to be fussed over, nor to return to the Shinsengumi headquarters to be lauded, so by making it possible for her to come here, this farmer has done her a great service. In Muko she can be alone, and she can learn to carry her regret with grace.

They break through the trees, and Kaoru is surprised to see warm light spilling from the walls of her little house. A shoji shuts with a snap, and there is a sound of hushed voices; Kaoru feels a panic rising in her throat. Himura unconsciously pulls her a little closer.

"Ah," says the farmer, "I beg your pardon, Jou-chan, but when folks here heard I was bringing you, they wanted to help, you see." She blinks at him in surprise and he grins. "It's no more than you'd do for them," he reminds her.

Kaoru's neighbours have all gathered at her little house and scrubbed it spotless, heated the rooms against the oncoming winter chill, aired out the bedding, and prepared a generous meal. Himura carries her across her porch and into a waiting pile of cushions in the front room, then goes to bring in the rest of their stores while a few of the women fuss over her with blankets. Her eyes water at their kindness; she feels both very overwhelmed and very tired at the same time, and while she wants to be alone, she cannot bear to refuse them.

Her neighbours seem to understand; they pass out trays quickly, and settle around her in quiet conversation, toasting her speedy recovery. The farmer comes back from the kitchen with Himura and sits beside the woman on Kaoru's left.

"Please let me introduce my wife to you, Jou-chan," he says, setting a large hand gently on the delicate, heavily pregnant woman's shoulder. He beams with pride and Kaoru smiles and nods in encouragement, pushing away her exhaustion.

"This is Naname," he tells her. Naname presses herself into as gracious a bow as she can manage with her round belly. "It is an honour that my husband could be of service to you, Kamiya-san," she says softly.

"The honour is mine," Kaoru replies automatically, slipping into the exchange of pleasantries she used to perform as the Lady Kamiya. She takes Naname's hands into her own, and lifts her out of her lowered position, concerned for her discomfort. "I am so grateful to you and your husband for your kindness."

Naname blushes from the collar of her kimono to the roots of her hair, and Kaoru graciously lifts her eyes to Naname's husband, giving her hands a final squeeze. "And your name, sir?" she asks him. Himura knows it, but there had not been cause to introduce him to her yet.

"Kamishimoemon," he tells her. He reaches behind him and pulls a struggling five year old boy into his lap. "And this is our son, Sanosuke."

"Sanosuke," she repeats, instantly comparing the boy to Harada-sensei. "I have an Honoured Brother in Kyoto named Sanosuke. He is a fine man, as I'm sure your son will be."

"Ah, say thank you, Sano," his father tells him.

The boy stares up at her with large, dark eyes, his hair sticking out at all angles, making him look like a tiny rooster. Finally he turns to his mother and says, "The Miss is very pretty, Mama." Kaoru laughs politely. Yes, this boy is very like Harada-sensei.

The meal wraps up a half hour later; the heat in the room makes Kaoru's eyes heavy, and her neighbours are tactful. Once the dishes are cleared, cleaned, and stashed away, they all begin to gather themselves to leave. Himura rises from his seat near the door, lights their lanterns for them, and walks all the guests from the house. From the open shoji, she watches his candle bob down the hill to the edge of the clearing and then return. They are alone, and it is different now.

"Are you tired, Kamiya-dono?" he asks softly. He is looking straight at her, something he rarely did before. His eyes are deep violet and concerned, along with some other emotion that she can't name, but she recognizes from three nights ago. If you had died, I think I would have died too.

"Yes," she admits, because she is unable to lie to him. He'd see right through her if she tried.

"Would you like some tea first, or do you wish to sleep? You've had a long day." She starts to offer him tea, her duty as a hostess, but that same something in his eyes stops her before she can get the words out. It is not in her nature to feel comfortable being comforted, and she regrets the weakness she showed Himura in the back room of the Shirobeko. But she was the one who'd asked him to stay, and she is grateful for his kindness now.

"I'd like to sleep," she tells him.

"Will you permit me to carry you?"

Kaoru understands that his formality is not a slip back into emotionlessness, but for her benefit; they are alone now. It is a reassurance she does not need. She trusts Himura. He has become her dearest friend and they have shared a room before, but she appreciates the gesture.

"Yes, thank you," she answers, and all at once noticing her exhaustion, stiffly lifts herself away from the cushions. He scoops her up with ease and she gives in to her weariness, resting her heavy head against his shoulder, his surrounding warmth and earthy smell lulling her deeper towards sleep. She yawns softly and snuggles closer in his arms, vaguely aware of Himura setting her down in the side room and pulling warm quilts around her. "Thank you, Himura," she murmurs, nuzzling into the edge of his haori, already mostly asleep.

"Rest well," he whispers. She can't be sure, as close to sleep as she is, but she thinks he strokes his fingers through her hair before she drifts off.


Over the next few days, Kamiya's condition rapidly improves. Kenshin makes sure she gets enough rest, enough to eat, and changes her bandages. He applies the ointment for sword wounds his Shishou taught him to make over the gashes on her leg and arm, so they won't scar too badly.

When the Takanis come from Kyoto, father and mother swinging Megumi-chan between them along the forest path, Takani-sensei is pleased with her progress. He removes her stitches and Takani-dono takes her into the tiny bathhouse, Megumi following dutifully with Kamiya's comb and a fresh yukata. Kenshin tends the fire under the furo until Takani-sensei appears at the side of the bathhouse and motions for him to follow. They walk safely out of earshot to the porch, and only then does Takani-sensei speak.

"How is Kamiya-chan faring, Himura-san?"

For a moment, Kenshin is confused. It is a question he should ask the doctor, not the other way around. "Sir?" he asks.

"I am a doctor, trained to heal the body. And you are a swordsman, trained to read the spirit. I can tell that Kamiya's body is healing well, but you must tell me if the wounds in her soul are mending."

"I don't know," he says honestly, worriedly.

Kamiya could whittle her spirit down to nothing, masking her emotions even from him. A fine skill for a swordsman who wanted to avoid detection, and she has been using it to hide from him ever since they arrived. He had thought that taking her to Muko would help her, but now he worries that perhaps it would have been better for her to be surrounded by others, to keep her occupied and away from dark thoughts. It had been Omae-dono who'd heard his request and convinced the doctors that letting him take Kamiya to Muko, alone, would be best. He'd wanted to take her somewhere where he could protect and care for her, but perhaps his selfish motives, his need to be near her, were doing more harm than good. Maybe he had misunderstood; maybe he was wrong.

"We must remember that Kamiya is uncomfortable being a burden to others, and so she shies away from those who wish to help her," Takani-sensei reminds him.

Kenshin nods, his eyes on the bathhouse. "I do not know how to reach her, other than to be a steady presence at her side," he admits.

Takani-sensei places a fatherly hand on his shoulder. "The wounds of the soul are the hardest to heal, and leave the deepest scars. But given enough time, they do heal."


Kaoru cries out in the evening's half light, sitting abruptly upright from a nightmare she cannot remember. Her heart thunders against her chest and she panics.

She hears footsteps pounding across the porch, bringing with it a sudden wave of worry that crashes over her fragile spirit. Himura opens the shoji so quickly he tears the paper. There is a flash of red hair, blue fabric, and then he is beside her, one arm around her back and the other clasping the hand she'd unconsciously stretched out towards him. His eyes are round, enormous, the colour of the very edge of sunrise, and he searches her own for signs of trouble.

"Himura!"

She sobs his name, her voice comes out still cloaked in her fear. Himura tightens his arm around her, rubs soothingly at the back of her hand with his thumb while she leans forward and presses her chin into his shoulder, trembling and trying to breathe evenly. She squeezes her eyes shut and he pulls her into a comforting embrace.

"I'm here, Kamiya-dono. You're safe."

Kaoru breathes in his familiar smell, drawing comfort from the warmth of his arms around her. Over his shoulder, resting in the alcove of the room, is the odd bouquet of branches he'd made for her on the road. "It's all right now," he tells her softly, stroking her back.

His words seem to clear away some of the darkness she has been keeping inside her heart. He is there, she is safe, and she can tell him anything. He has been silently begging her to let him help her, to let him in, for days now. Let me share your regret. Let me bear this burden with you. He has been trying to tell her that she could rely on him, that she does not have to carry the weight alone, when she has stubbornly pretended she could.

"I killed him, Himura."

She has not said it yet. She has spoken of her regret and her reasons, but avoided saying the truth outright. She killed a man when she had sworn not to kill, and the hardest part was knowing that if faced with the decision again, she would make the same choice. She has sworn to protect, and she can never fall.

Himura holds her for a moment, and then draws back, searching her eyes again. When he speaks, his voice is calm and steady.

"All swordsmen who step into battle know it could result in their death, Kamiya-dono. If you had spared him, he would have taken your life instead. That is the truth for swordsmen in the time we live in. Your sword is different; it is one of respect and compassion. Perhaps, someday, samurai will wield swords in this manner. But that will only be possible if you are alive to walk the path of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu. Have faith in your sword, and in yourself, that you will survive these harsh times, and flourish in an age to come, where such ideals can be cherished."

Kaoru has been holding her breath, and she releases it in awe. "Himura…" she breathes, "you are very wise, sensei."

He blushes and releases her. "Would you like some tea, Kamiya-dono, or do you wish to sleep more?"

"Tea, please," she replies, and then, because she likes his blush, something from deep inside springs up and makes her want to tease him. "I will drink it on the porch while you fix the shoji."

Himura blushes harder and she laughs. It is faint and soft, but she laughs.


That evening, Kenshin presents her with the tea set. It is delicate, simply glazed, the cups just the right size for Kamiya's slender, tapering fingers. Shishou had taught him to be an excellent judge of pottery and the skill had finally come in handy. She had been surprised, then pleased. She'd insisted on making him tea, and he'd suggested they take it on the inner porch.

They sit with the tray between them, a divide of a few hand spans. Kamiya sips her tea, regarding the cloudy sky in silence, but there are traces of a smile at the corners of her lips, and her spirit is no longer hidden from him. There is disappointment and regret, but there is also hope.

Their breath comes out in little puffs, and everything in the inner garden is coated with delicate frost. Kamiya sighs softly, scenting the air.

"It smells like snow is coming," she says.

"Yes," he agrees. "Are you warm enough, Kamiya-dono?"

"Yes."

They are silent again and he watches her in the greying dark. Her eyes are almost black and she looks ethereal, the hollows of her cheeks and eyes more prominent. It is an otherworldly beauty that both suits her and makes him long for her regular, sunlit smile.

"My father and I always used to watch the first snow together," Kamiya says softly. "We would sit on the porch just like this."

"You must miss him," Kenshin says gently.

"Always," she admits. "Sometimes so much it is unbearable. My father was my entire world, everything I have done, I have done for him."

Kenshin is racked by guilt, and doesn't know what to say. He wants to tell her that he knows she was Koshijiro's entire world, too, but he is not supposed to know that. Kamiya takes another sip of her tea. "Maybe if I hadn't, my path would be easier now. I could have gone back to Edo, married, and gone quietly through life, a dutiful wife and mother," she sighs.

He pictures her then, hair pulled up in pins, dressed in the kimono of a married woman. She is surrounded by small blue-eyed children, patiently embroidering while she waits for her husband to return home. It both angers and entices him. Because her proud swordsman's spirit must never, ever be so diminished. But if it was him, if he was the one coming home to her…

"Do you wish you had?" he asks softly, a slight tremor in his voice.

"No." She says it decisively, but then she sighs. "I was almost married, once. When my mother died."

Kenshin stares at her, mouth agape. But if she senses his surprise, she ignores it, her eyes still looking out over the garden. "When my father swore to never remarry, the Akuyaku clan approached the shogun. They were a lower-rank family with only one son. I was barely seven, but the shogun approved the betrothal request."

"Kamiya-dono… " he breathes, absolutely shocked. He had been seven, too, when he'd been sold, and he wanted to confide to her that he understood, that he knew what it was to be powerless. But he cannot, not while the deception about his past hung between them.

She turns slightly, meeting his eyes with a gentle smile. "My father refused. He asked the shogun permission to choose his own successor. Because of the trust between them, the shogun granted his request, and I did not have to marry. Instead, my father trained me in the sword. He knew his protection would only last while he was alive, and so he wanted me to be strong."

She sighs again and her gaze returns to the garden. He watches her profile while she elegantly lifts her teacup to her lips. Kamiya was always graceful, as a daughter of samurai ought to be. But it was more than that, more than simple duty. When she had faced down those ronin in front of the tailor shop she had moved like a dancer. Like a swordswoman.

"There have been times," Kamiya admits softly, "these past few months, when I have felt so alone. I thought then about what it would have been like to be married. But even if I was, I would still have to bear my father's treason." She smiles wryly. "But that protects me now. Who would want a daughter in disgrace for a wife?"

Kenshin's breath catches, and the words float into his mind unbidden. "I do. I would bear anything to be with you, Kamiya."

His eyes widen at this realization and his heart is in his throat, terrified she will see it, terrified she will reject him. But instead she laughs her wind chime laugh, a sound all the more precious to him because he has not heard it for so long. She shakes her head and smiles. "It does no good thinking about the way things could have been. I can only be myself, and I am the last swordsman of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu. But sometimes I wish…" She lowers her head, setting down her empty teacup. "I wish I could be both."

"Someday you will, Kamiya-dono," he assures her.

If it was him, if he was the one coming home to her, she could be both. He would never ask her to be subservient, never ask her to surrender her swords, her pride. He looks at her and he is momentarily lost in the bright vision of a future he desperately wants, one where he stays by the side of the soft girl next to him always, her fiery spirit a beacon that will always call him home. Her father had been fighting for a world where she could be anything she wanted, a world where she could choose her destiny. And gods, he hopes that someday, when the new era comes and he is free, he can find a way to be worthy enough for her to choose him.

She smiles gently at his conviction. "Perhaps," she agrees, but it doesn't sound like she means it. "Though my real dream is to return to Edo and buy back my father's dojo. I'd open the school again and teach the sword to any who wants to learn, boy or girl, samurai or not. Foolish, I know." She blushes apologetically.

"Not foolish at all," he tells her firmly, truthfully. "A worthy dream."

"Do you really think so?"

He wants to tell her that once he had been small and hopeless and on a path towards misery, and that he had been saved by a sword. An orphaned farmer's son transformed by the rough kindness of a master swordsman into a man capable of protecting others. But he knows that if starts with one truth he won't be able to stop until he has told her everything. Instead, he merely nods.

"You are so motivated, Kamiya-dono, I know you will achieve your dream. And when you do, you will touch many lives." He stares at her profile in the dark, in awe of her. "You are too good, Kamiya."

Kamiya looks down into her lap, and he knows she is twisting her sleeves under her many blankets. "Thank you, Himura," she murmurs.

He has touched on that place she doesn't like to be reminded of, her own greatness. He thinks it best to change the subject. Thankfully, a few soft flakes have begun to fall from the sky. "Look, Kamiya!" he points.

She raises her large, deep eyes, following the line of his arm. "Oh!" she breathes. Her eyes tear up and she leans towards him, still looking out over the garden. He pushes the tea tray behind them and slides closer to her, nearly touching, ready to offer her comfort should she need it. After a time, she leans her head against his shoulder and they watch the snow—first a few sporadic flakes, then a steady dusting that starts to build up on the icy ground. It covers the garden in a thin white blanket, giving the surrounding forest a hushed and peaceful sound.

Kamiya shifts in her blankets, pressing closer to him. He rests his cheek against her hair, and sighs softly in content. He wishes they could stay this way forever. "My master once told me that the snow in winter is one of life's simplest joys," he murmurs. "I believe him now."

"Thank you for sharing the first snow with me," she whispers, her voice thick with emotion.

"Always, Kamiya-dono," he says softly. "Always."

Chapter Text

Kenshin rises before Kamiya, as he always has in Muko. He leaves her to sleep in, shutting the shoji as softly as possible so as not to wake her. The clearing around the little house is blindingly white, fresh and unblemished, and he pauses on the porch to admire the beauty of the winter woods. He will have to clear a path to the well and chip away any ice that may have formed along its cover before he can start breakfast, and he is tempted for a moment to wake Kamiya, to show her the morning's expanse of fresh possibility, before it must inevitably be broken by the forces of everyday life. A bird flutters out of a tree, spilling snow from its branches, and he shakes his head with a soft laugh, turning away from the yard to walk soundlessly down the porch. Kamiya would probably punch him in the shoulder if he disturbed her before she was ready to wake.

There is a week and a half remaining before Katsura returns from Edo, ten days that Kenshin can remain in Muko before he has to return to Kyoto. Ten more days of taking care of Kamiya-dono, of learning about her past, her hopes, and her dreams for the future. After Kamiya had drifted off to sleep the night before, he had lain awake on his futon for a long time, thinking. She was so assured, so certain in her path, and it made him wonder about his own. He'd joined the revolution to create a more peaceful era, but he'd never given any thought to what he would do when it was over. After all this time, he still doesn't know, but he is certain of one thing. If Kamiya would let him, he'd follow her anywhere.

"Himura!"

Kenshin abruptly stops sweeping the yard and turns towards the house. He is ready to throw down his broom and run to Kamiya in the side room, but to his surprise, she is sitting on the porch, bundled into both her grey haori and his black one. She is smiling at him, and holding out a steaming cup of tea.

"Oro?"

She laughs, the third time she's laughed at the noise he makes when he's startled. He's impressed that she can startle him at all; her ability to hide her spirit is nothing short of extraordinary. "Here, tea!" she calls.

"Oh, thank you!" He walks to the porch and accepts it from her, and she folds her hands in her lap while he drinks. It settles in his chest, warming him throughout, and he can't help but smile at her. "Thank you, Kamiya-dono."

"Come inside for breakfast," she says, returning his smile. "You have already cleared a path to the outhouse and the furo, that's enough for one morning."

"Ah, but the well-" he cuts off when she reaches out and takes hold of his hand atop where it is gripping the broom handle. He could pull away, but he'd wrench her wounded shoulder, and her hand is very warm against his.

"We have plenty of water just sitting here on the ground," she laughs. "Come inside, I'm starving."

Kenshin looks down at his feet and rolls his shoulders, but he lets Kamiya take the broom from him. She leans it against the porch and takes back his teacup as well. "Come on," she urges gently, still smiling. "I want to see how you make rice porridge."

"Ah, this one… " he rubs the back of his neck. "I could teach you, Kamiya-dono, if you'd like."

"Oh, yes!" She smiles at him then, truly smiles, and it is like a thousand suns shining upon him, a thousand songs in his ears, and his heart pounds. She is so surpassingly beautiful when she smiles. It so overwhelms him that he can only nod weakly and follow her limping footsteps to the kitchen.


 

Late that morning, Takani-sensei comes once more, this time alone. Kenshin had just begun to show Kamiya how to prepare lunch, but he excuses himself to the woodpile while the doctor examines his patient. While Kenshin is anxious to know if Kamiya is indeed healing as well as she seemed, it is not his place to remain. Once the exam is done, Kamiya calls him in from the porch, and they share lunch with Takani-sensei while he tells them the news from the city. They sit on either side of the doctor and Kamiya fills the rice bowls and pours the tea, not touching the food in front of her because it is her duty to serve them, and she will eat when they are done. Kenshin bristles at it; she is still wounded, she needs to eat properly, while her food was warm. The doctor seems to catch on, refusing seconds and excusing himself to leave. When Kamiya starts to rise to see him off, he puts a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Himura-san," he asks, "will you walk with me to the porch? I have a few things to discuss with you."

Outside, as he sits to lace his sandals, and he gives Kenshin another fatherly smile. "Kamiya-chan is in much better spirits," he observes.

"Yes," Kenshin agrees.

The doctor stands and takes up his walking stick, laughing a little to himself. "My wife will be pleased with your doctoring, Himura-san. She had some doubts when she agreed to this scheme of yours. "

Kenshin blushes. He had told Omae-dono that Kamiya wanted to go to Muko, and that he would go too, to make sure she healed. There had been no scheme, other than the unspoken desires of his weak heart. "I am glad Kamiya-dono is getting well," is all he says.

Takani-sensei chuckles and tips his hat. "I'll come back after your leave, to check on her again." Kenshin nods, waving as the doctor disappears up the shoveled path. When he turns back to the house, he is surprised to find Kamiya dressed in her training clothes, tying her hair back at the nape of her neck. She must have bolted down her food.

"Did you eat, Kamiya-dono?" he asks worriedly.

"Ah, Himura!" she says, a delighted glint in her eyes. She completely ignores his question. "Takani-sensei said I could start practicing again, but he said you had to observe to make sure I didn't overdo it."

Kenshin rubs the back of his neck and pretends to think about it. In truth he'd love to watch the graceful way she moves through kata, and it is impossible to deny her anything she asks of him. "Did he?" he asks, watching anticipation build in her eyes, "So, if I tell you to stop, does that mean you will do it?"

Her eyes narrow and she playfully tosses her head. Her spirit soars around him, slightly annoyed but mostly excited. "You'll just have to try and make me," she grins at him, "if you can."

Kenshin laughs and crosses the room, slides open the shoji to the inner porch. He can see the long scar on the inside of her left arm, disappearing into her sleeve; she will probably have it all her life, and a matching one on her right calf. She will definitely bear the scar on her shoulder forever. His fault, as surely as if he had marked her himself. If he observes her, he might be able to teach her a few things about protecting her flanks in a fight against someone intent on killing. Maybe then she won't have to bear scars anymore.

He jerks his chin towards the open shoji. "After you, senpai."

She sniffs as she walks towards the door, pretending to be indignant, and Kenshin closes his eyes, breathes deeply, and prepares. When Kamiya walks past him he snaps his eyes open and brings his full swordsman's spirit crashing down on her, an intensity that has snapped leaves in the forest, made hardened samurai cower in dark streets. Kamiya pauses next to him for a few moments, her eyes facing forward. Then she squares her shoulders and walks towards the dojo with resolute steps. Kenshin closes the shoji behind him, following three steps behind her proud back, and he doesn't think he has ever loved her more.


 

The remaining days pass quickly, too quick for Kenshin. Between chores and practice the days are full, and Kamiya always by his side. They stand together in the dojo, running through their different katas, sparring sometimes. He always holds back and Kamiya knows he does and it annoys her, but he doesn't do it out of disrespect for her abilities, but because if he so much as scratched her he would never forgive himself. When her students come, he sits at the head of the dojo, basking in the joy of her spirit as she passes on the tenets of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu.

He has been teaching her how to cook, and now she can make a fairly passable miso, tend to rice properly, chop and prepare radish and pickles. It means they can make meals together, she stirring her soup and he making the main dishes. They eat together in the main room, trays facing each other, taking turns filling each other's rice bowls.

In the evenings, Kamiya makes tea, and because it is now too cold to sit on the inner porch, she teaches him how to play goh. They spend the evening sipping warm tea and discussing strategy, and Kenshin listens intently, amazed at the tactical mind behind her eyes. He saw it in the dojo, her ability to observe and measure her opponents, devise the best way execute her strikes. If she had been born a man, he thinks she probably would have become a high-ranking general. He tries to place his stones intelligently, ask thoughtful questions, and demonstrate that he is learning what she has to teach him. She is patient with him, and the first time he beats her she grins at him delightedly. He knows she was holding back, but it is only fair.

When Kamiya at last begins to yawn and rub her eyes, they retire to the small side room. They lie in their separate futons, spaced a few feet apart, the screen between them. She blows out the lantern and bids him good night and he lies awake, listening to her breathing deepen and slow until it lulls him into sleep as well. In the morning he wakes to her sleeping face, and thanks the gods for whatever he has done to deserve another day with her. But the days are not endless, and soon the time comes when he must roll up the little he has brought with him into a bundle and tie his hat across his chin.

He sits on the porch, tying his sandals as slowly as possible, dreading having to leave her alone. Kamiya walks up behind him and drops a haori onto his shoulders. "Don't catch a cold," she warns him with a smile. "I won't be there to take care of you if you do."

He laughs wryly and nods, because he doesn't trust himself to answer her with words. He pulls his arms through the sleeves and he realizes it is her heavy grey haori and not his black quilted one. Her floral scent settles around him and he turns to look at her in surprise.

"Yours has a hole in it I need to mend," she answers, "so take mine for now." She kneels beside him and ties the haori for him, arranging the white scarf around his neck while he finishes with his sandals. He stands and pushes his katana through his belt as she sits seiza on the porch, her hands folded in her lap.

"Safe travels," she tells him, bowing her head. She raises it again with a smile, and anyone observing them would think she was his wife, seeing him off. But she isn't his wife, and for all his hopes he is not certain she'd even want to be. He wants to throw his arms around her and hold her close, promise her he will think only of her, but even if she was his wife he couldn't do that out in the open like this, and his unasked for ardor would likely frighten her. Instead, he returns her bow.

"I will come back as soon as I can," he tells her, "but I don't know when my lord will give me leave again."

"Don't worry, Takani-sensei is coming tomorrow, and I suspect he will tell me I can return to headquarters soon. So check at the Shirobeko before you come all the way out here."

"Right," he says softly, momentarily weighed down with the thought.

During their time in Muko, he'd allowed himself to forget. To forget that in Kyoto they are enemies. That when he leaves, they will be enemies again. Their easy routine, their comfortable cohabitation, it is all smoke and mirrors, an illusion of a life and relationship he cannot have. He is going back to Kyoto to be the vanguard of the revolution, and she doesn't know. He gives himself a shake and bows to her again.

"Goodbye, Kamiya."


 

In the end, he beats Katsura back to Kyoto, and no one is willing to incur the wrath of the Battousai by questioning where he has been. When Katsura does arrive, several hours after his young assassin, he has already heard the news of the Shinsengumi's "triumph". The city is abuzz with the news that Kamiya Kaoru drew her pristine blade and stained it with the blood of the tenchuu hitokiri, that for the good of the shogun, she dirtied her hands and killed a murderer.

Kenshin is sitting at his window when Katsura calls on him. He senses the Choshuu leader at the shoji before Katsura asks to enter, which gives him time to carefully fold the blue ribbon spilled across his lap and tuck it over his heart.

"I have heard about Yushin," Katsura tells Kenshin, sitting informally before him. "Iizuka tells me you went after him, but you were too late."

"Forgive me," Kenshin lies. There is nothing he wants less than forgiveness for Yushin's death. For the scars that cursed man left on Kamiya, Kenshin would gladly kill him again a hundred times over. "Forgive me these lies, Kamiya," he thinks.

"There is nothing to forgive; it was Yushin's error. I can understand your desire to avoid a confrontation with Kamiya Kaoru."

Kenshin says nothing, and for a moment, Katsura watches him in silence. "Her father's death was not your fault, Kenshin," he adds. Kenshin nods and looks away. If Katsura wanted to think he avoided Kamiya merely out of a sense of duty to a former comrade, then let him. It was partially true, in any case.

"I knew Kaoru-chan as a young girl." Katsura continues. "Koshijiro was among my most trusted friends, and I cherish his memory. But his daughter has made her choice. If she tries to kill an Ishin-Shishi again, we cannot hesitate."

Katsura's voice rings with the emotion of a man making a decision he wishes he did not have to make. Kenshin feels himself slowly turn to stone, his heart sinking deep beneath thick ice, where no one can find it. He is in Kyoto once again, and in Kyoto, Kamiya is his enemy. In Kyoto, he is death. It takes only a few seconds for him to become hollow. "Yes, sir," he murmurs, and his voice is safely devoid of any emotion. His dead stare meets Katsura's own, and the Choshuu leader produces a black envelope and sets it in the space on the floor between them.

"The Wolves of Mibu have celebrated long enough," Katsura says softly. "It's time they learn tenchuu cannot be stopped."

Kenshin stares at the envelope long after Katsura leaves. When he at last opens and reads it, there is not much time left before he must meet the target. He crumples the orders in his fist before getting to his feet and pushing his sword through his belt. The night is cold, but he goes only in his kimono and hakama. He will not wear her haori to do this.


 

There are three of them, a great hulking bodyguard, a young man carrying a lantern, and the samurai Kenshin has been set to dispatch. They are talking empty talk of marriage and happiness, words that have no meaning to him, because he cannot have either. He steps into the street behind them, knowing they are too slow to run from him.

"You must be Shigekura Jubei," he says. He readies his stance as they turn. "Though I bear you no grudge, for the sake of the new era, I must have your deaths." He is saying too much. Why is he saying so much?

"Who are you?" the bigger guard asks.

"Choshuu Ishin-Shishi, Himura Battousai," he tells them, though somewhere in his head he knows he shouldn't say his clan or name, that he's crossed some line.

Three spirits contract into readiness, and Kenshin moves before his addled mind can even question what he is doing. He flows through ingrained kata, battoujutsu that splits the big one's head, leaps to bury his sword to the hilt into the head of Shigekura with a ryu tsui sen zan. Only the younger one is left, calling out his comrades' names in dismay as Kenshin steps into his swing; somehow the boy gets his blade up in time to prevent Kenshin from slicing his head off.

"Give up," Kenshin warns him. The boy's eyes widen and he manages to throw Kenshin back, gritting his teeth and glaring at Kenshin with fierce determination. Kenshin catches his first swing on the flat of his blade, his second strike grates into the road as Kenshin jumps sideways. He quickly moves back into striking distance, and the boy points his sword at Kenshin, the blade too high to protect his vital points. He shouts and rushes forward to swing a third time, and Kenshin merely adjusts his own swing lower, lunges with one step into unprotected space. Something stings his left cheek as the young samurai collapses into the road behind him.

Kenshin lifts his fingers to brush at his cheek, and is surprised to find they come away bloody. No one, save Shishou, has ever managed to cut him before. He stares at his fingers for a moment while the boy on the ground struggles to rise from his mortal wound, reaches pointlessly for his sword.

"Don't …want to die…" he gasps, and Kenshin stops listening. The boy is dying, but Kenshin does not want him to suffer; his pleading voice cuts off as the point of Kenshin's blade finds his heart and ends his life.

He is sheathing his katana when Ryusei and Aoto appear in an alleyway. "We've come to check," Ryusei tells him.

"Thank you for examining them," Kenshin responds automatically.

"Your cheek!" exclaims Aoto.

"It is nothing," he whispers, while Kamiya's words echo through his mind. He was the better swordsman, but my will to live was stronger. I could not die. Kenshin shuts his eyes, but he cannot stop hearing her voice. The dead boy's determined face seems to blur into hers.

"But he cut your face," Ryusei is saying. "He must have been very good."

"No," Kenshin says, "his skill itself was nothing. But his will to live was incredible." His spirit had felt so similar, far too close, to hers.

Kamiya had stood before him in the small Muko dojo with her shoulders back, her fearless spirit daring him to try her. He always held back, but she never did. She is better than the dead samurai, better than most men, but what good is a fearless spirit against the strength of Hitokiri Battousai? My will to live was stronger.

"I'll leave the rest to you," he tells his comrades, and his feet carry him away from the carnage, carry him in the opposite direction of the Kohagi-ya. Before he is too far away, he turns for a final look at the boy. "May you find happiness in your next life," he whispers.

His comrades talk quietly to each other, but his keen ears are not yet out of earshot. "He really is a Hitokiri," Aoto tells Ryusei.

Kenshin's head swims, but his feet place themselves one in front of the other all on their own. The heavy moon sinks into the ground, and the sky grows lighter, as he follows his feet without really knowing where he is going. He steps into the clearing just as the pale winter sun clears the treeline. The shoji is open slightly, calling to him like a siren, and with their destination in sight, his feet double their efforts. He is in front of the porch when a noise pulls him from his haze and he realizes he is no longer in the blood soaked street of Kyoto, realizes that he is not hearing a noise but a voice.

"Himura?" Kamiya repeats. She is standing, framed by the doorway, lit by the morning sun. She is dressed in a pale blue furisode embroidered with dark blue waves, her pink obi tied simply, the ends left to trail down the side of her body. Her hair hangs down to her shoulders, and her giant blue eyes are a bottomless well of concern.

"A dream," he whispers, staring at her in disbelief. "This is a dream." She never wears furisodes, she is not his wife, waiting for him to come home. He will wake in his room at the Kohagi-ya and she will be gone.

"You're hurt!" she gasps, and she crosses the porch in small quick steps, kneeling before him and gathering the fabric of her sleeve in her hand.

"Don't…" he begs, and tries to step away from her, tries to prevent her from becoming tainted by what he is. But he is tired and confused, and her small hands manage to capture his face between them, press the smooth silk of her kimono into his wound.

"Hold still for a moment, until it stops bleeding," she tells him. She is looking intently at his cheek, and he stares at her delicate face, the soft lines of her kimono. She so beautiful that it has to be a dream. He reaches out tentatively and places his hand over hers. She feels solid, warm.

"Kamiya," he whispers.

Her gaze slides up to meet his, her eyes large and deep, twin pools he could easily drown in. She holds his face between her slender fingers and her spirit folds around him, tender and reassuring. The weight of the night breaks over him and he squeezes his eyes shut, lifts his arms to clutch at her, starting to tremble. She pulls him closer and then he is in her embrace. She is pressed against him and he is resting his forehead where her shoulder meets her neck. She hums soothingly, stroking his hair. He sobs soundlessly into her shoulder and tightens his grip on her clothes.

"It's all right," she tells him softly. "You're all right now. You're home."

Chapter Text

It takes Kaoru a long time to coax Himura into the house. His silent sobbing terrifies her; Himura is so strong; whatever happened to make him fall apart like this has her fearing the worst. She keeps her arms tight around him, manages to pull him up onto the porch, draw him into the warmth of the front room, and shut the shoji, all with his head buried against her shoulder. She leans against the wall with him curled into her, singing softly all the songs her mother sang to her when she was small and frightened, stroking her fingers through his coppery hair. His clothes and skin are freezing, so she rubs at his back and arms, clutches him closer.

After a time, once Himura is warm and comfortable her arms, his breathing even, he draws his face from the crook of her neck and pulls gently out of her embrace. He sits seiza beside her and lowers his head formally, as though he has not spent the past hour clinging to her like a drowning man, as though there is nothing between them but the courtesy of strangers.

"Forgive me…" he begins, formal, emotionless, but Kaoru will not listen to it. She will not let him act as though the friendship between them does not exist. The way he always does when he leaves her for Kyoto and then returns, frozen under so much ice. He has done so much for her, held her and comforted her countless times as she recovered—she will not let him refuse to allow her to do the same. She reaches out to place her hands over his where they rest on his knees, ignoring how he flinches under her touch. "There is nothing to forgive," she reminds him, her voice somehow both firm and gentle. "There is nothing I would not do to help you, Himura."

He lowers his head even further, and his fists clench tighter under her hands. "Kamiya-dono…"

Kaoru places her fingers under his chin, raising it so he meets her eyes. His gaze is dead and hollow, an empty violet void with dark circles underneath. It frightens her, but she refuses to acknowledge her fear. Hasn't she promised she will always try to make him smile?

"After everything you have done for me, Himura, can't I do this small thing?"

He looks down, closing her out again, but Kaoru does not let it wound her. She had needed time to let him in, too. "Wait here," she says softly, "I will go and get the salve you made. We can't let your cheek get infected." He nods once and she gets to her feet, crosses the room. When she returns, he has moved from the wall to the middle of the floor, but he is otherwise unchanged. Kaoru kneels tentatively in front of him, setting out her medical supplies. Himura keeps his eyes closed, immovable as a statue.

Kaoru works slowly, gently. She cleans the dried blood from his face with a damp cloth, careful not to reopen his wound. She knows it was made by a sword, a glancing swipe with the rounded underside of the point, not deliberate. If someone had meant to mark his face they would have pressed deeper and used the sharpest point at the tip of the blade; it was either an accident or a lucky strike by someone inexperienced. The cut is not deep, but in the soft flesh of his cheek, it is likely it will scar, leaving a mark he will have to carry, reminding him of whatever has caused him so much distress and pain. She smoothes salve over it, praying that it will heal and diminish.

Himura has blood dried on the fingers of his left hand, likely from trying to stop his cheek from bleeding. She shifts the water bucket in front of her, then unties his kote at the wrist and pulls them from his arms. She takes his hands in her own and dips them into the water, retrieves the soap from the bottom and begins to scrub each hand between her own. She keeps her eyes on her work, but she can feel Himura's gaze rise to her face, that same intense stare that had held her in the ink shop. She senses somehow that this is important, her washing of his hands. His eyes bore into her and she does her best to pretend his gaze is normal. This is the first step; he will speak to her soon, and then she can begin to pull him back to himself.

Kaoru dries his hands and gathers his kote up with the cloth. If she leaves them beside him, he might pull them on and leave. "I'll heat the furo for you, Himura. You should have a hot bath after being in the cold for so long."

She tries to keep her voice light, tries not to betray her unease. She pats his knee, the only part of him she thinks he will let her touch, when all she wants is to throw her arms around him again. Himura catches the edge of her sleeve in his fingers. The pale blue fabric has a deep stain from his blood.

"I've ruined your kimono," he says, and remorse bleeds into his hollow voice.

"It's all right. If it doesn't wash out I will just shorten the sleeves," she laughs softly and smiles at him. "It will be the first and only kimono in my trousseau."

She'd meant it as a joke; to get him laughing is the easiest way to bring him out of his despondency. Kaoru has no delusions about the marriage prospects of an orphan from a disgraced family with swords on her hip. There is not one family who would rejoice to have such a daughter join their household. But her words have the strangest effect on Himura: he fists his hand in her sleeve, his spirit rises and crashes over her, a mix of so many emotions that she cannot even begin to untangle. Strangest of all are his eyes, blazing violet eyes that are earnest and yearning but also ashamed.

"Never think that," he tells her vehemently. "To think of yourself as unworthy…" his voice cuts off and he shuts his eyes, as though he cannot bear to say more. Kaoru blinks away unshed tears and places her hand over his until he relaxes his grip on her sleeve.

"Will you rest now, Himura, or do you want a bath first?" she asks him softly.

"I can't stay."

His eyes remain closed, but Kaoru shakes her head anyways. "Please, just for little while. I cannot let you go back to Kyoto when you look so tired. I'd have to follow you."

"Kamiya," he groans, and she uses his moment of indecision to haul him to his feet.

"The bath first then," she decides.


Kaoru sits next to the shoji outside the side room with a pot of tea and her sewing, her ears straining to catch any sign that Himura might be in distress. He'd obliged her with a trip to the bath house; the hot water seemed to have made him realize how tired he was, and he'd gotten into his futon without much cajoling. He doesn't seem like the type to walk to Kyoto in the dead of winter wearing a yukata, but she'd hid his sandals just in case.

Now she returns to her work from the morning; she'd risen in grey dark to an empty house for the first time in a long while. If she'd thought her house felt empty after Himura had stayed one night, after two weeks it seemed hauntingly vacant. She had stared at his carefully folded bedding and struggled with the ache in her chest. She hadn't noticed how close she'd let him become until he was no longer there. She ought to have gone to the dojo, ran through her katas, but for some reason she had opened the trunk where Dr. Gensai had kindly stowed all her old possessions, bringing them to Muko for her before he'd left for Edo. She had pawed through the heavy silk garments until she found her favourite one.

In Edo she had seldom worn her furisodes, though her mother had left her many beautiful ones. In Kyoto she had resented being forced by duty and circumstance to wear them, but that morning, after three weeks of convalescent yukata and training clothes, she'd wanted to dress like a woman. She'd wanted to pull back her hair properly too, so she'd hesitantly opened the other trunk from Kyoto, the one that held her father's things. Her jewelry box was buried halfway down, but before she could retrieve her hairpins, she'd become distracted from her original intent.

Many of her father's garments were lightly coloured, fine embroidered silks suitable for his position and duties. But there were a few that were darker, less formal, for travel and wear around the home. She'd pulled them one by one from the trunk, eyeing pattern and colour, and found a pair of hakama and two kimono that would suit, without pattern and in the darker tones befitting a samurai. Her father had been tall, but she is a competent seamstress; it is nothing to shorten sleeves and hems, take in seams. He is half a hand taller than her, a hand broader.

Now the soft sound of Himura sleeping keeps her company as she resumes her work, bending over her father's clothes, fashioning them into garments for him. She is fairly certain he only has one set of clothes; she's only ever seen him in his threadbare blue kimono and grey hakama, and and even with her mending, in a few more seasons they will only be good for rags. Kaoru's needle flashes in and out, and she stares at the cloth in her hands, determined to sew all her feelings into it. "You are a good person. You are deserving of friendship and kindness. You are the most important person in my life."

Heat builds behind her eyes, and in spite of herself, tears well up and spill over her cheeks. Slow silent tears that do not prevent her from continuing her work. They fall into her stitches, drying where Himura will wear her sorrow against his skin. She cries because he has been hurt. Someone has cut his face and she was not there in the dark road to find him the way he had been there for her. She cries because every time they are apart, he grows harder and colder and that is not who he is. The man who strayed off the road to bring her a pine cone is not hard and cold.

She knows very little about what Himura does in Kyoto, but she is the daughter of samurai, and it is not her place to ask. She knows he is in the service of a high ranking lord, and that his duties are of tantamount importance. She knows he is the best swordsman she has ever seen, even when he is holding back. She thinks he must be a guard, perhaps even the personal guard of the lord himself, and with all the assassins and ronin in the city, his duty must be very hard. He had tensed against her when he'd admitted that he'd killed before. She knows the weight of taking a life is like carrying a heavy stone. Carry too many, and you will sink.

Kaoru cries because she can tell Himura's duty is drowning him, and she fears there will come a time where he will cease to smile altogether. She cries because there may come a time when, dulled by so much blood, Himura's sword will not be quick enough, that instead of a harmless glance across his cheek there will be a deadly strike, and he will be gone. If you had died, I think I would have died too.

Kaoru sobs softly and she abandons her sewing to press her hand against her mouth. She cannot wake Himura. He already regrets coming to her. She wipes angrily at her cheeks, because how dare he? How dare he come into her life and offer to carry her pain, share her regret, and then refuse to let her do the same for him? Did he think she wasn't strong enough to help him, that she wasn't capable of standing at his side? She is an adjunct master of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu, she has killed a man to save a life, leapt from a burning building to save another. She is the lone woman in the most feared troop of soldiers in Kyoto. She carries a sword that others sneer at and she does it with grace. She is strong.

But a tiny voice in her head taunts her: that is exactly why he shuts her out. Who would want a woman that they had to teach to cook? That wore hakama and lived with two hundred men in dirty, cramped quarters? A woman who served the shogun with two swords, whose dream was not a husband and family but a dojo full of students? He'd said she must never think herself unworthy, but that is because he is too kind to tell her the truth. Because she isn't worthy, and her heart shatters at the thought. She isn't worthy, isn't that why she'd pulled on a furisode this morning, set to preparing clothes for him? Because she isn't worthy and she wants to be. Gods, she wants to be. She wants to protect him from his duty, she wants to be the comfort he comes home to, where he can unburden himself and be at peace. He is kind and beautiful and good; he is everything, and she loves him. Kaoru trembles with the weight of admitting it. She loves him fiercely and wholly, more than the deep love she had for her father or the special love she has for her comrades.

Kaoru curls herself against the wall and presses her face into it, doubles over with renewed despair. She loves Himura, and while she would do anything for him, she doesn't know how to help him. Worse, he doesn't want her to. She sobs quietly into the kimono she'd been altering, the cloth becoming sodden in her hands.

She feels his presence before he speaks, and berates herself for doing the one thing she should not have, woken him with her crying. He is kneeling beside her, one hand braced on the wall behind her head, and she forces her samurai armour upon herself, wills her feeble heart to cease its longing. If she is going to face him, she will not add to his burdens.

"Kamiya-dono?"

Kaoru lowers the cloth from her face and turns toward him, a false smile firmly planted on her face. Himura is there, closer than she'd thought, only a handspan away. His hair spills unbound over his shoulders and down his back, and his yukata is rumpled from sleep, open over his chest. And his eyes, his eyes like two irises in the rain, they catch and hold her. Her samurai mask falls away and she gapes at him. He is so beautiful she cannot move.

"Are you crying?" he asks softly, and Kaoru's heart betrays her, a tear drops and trails down her cheek. "You are crying." His beautiful eyes melt with concern and worry. She is stabbed with guilt; why was she always so selfish? He needed comforting and she was making him worry. Had she ever been more unworthy to be at his side then she was now?

"I…" she whispers, and then she swallows against the dryness in her throat, builds her courage. "Forgive me, I am worried about you." The concern in his eyes becomes surprise, and her temper flares again. Why is he surprised? Why should it be so shocking that she would worry about him when he means so much to her?

"I want to help you," she tells him, "I care about you, you are very important to me."

Himura trembles with an unspoken emotion and his hand lifts towards her, only to stop in midair. She grasps it with her eyes, that half extended offer. Her desperate heart clings to it and it makes her brave enough to continue.

"I don't know what happened to you last night, but you're hurt. You're hurt and maybe you almost died and I wasn't there for you like you were for me." She stares deep into his eyes because she thinks that if she keeps going, she will finally see what is buried there. "If you had died, Himura…The most important person in my life would

be gone…"

"Kamiya…" he whispers, but she shakes her head. His face blurs in her unshed tears.

"Before we met at the ink shop, I was living a half-life, I was so alone. I did not think I would ever feel happy again without my father, but you... You helped me. You have always helped me. Please, let me help you, now. I want to be the person who carries your burdens and regrets, the way you are for me. I know I am not worthy to be at your side but-"

"Not worthy?" he interjects in a soft hiss, but she carries on.

"-whatever it is you do in Kyoto…it's slowly destroying you. And I can't let that happen to you. I won't! Not to you. This is our home, and you can always come here when you're afraid or in need. I will always, always be here for you, Himura."

Kaoru's tears leak over her cheeks, and she can see Himura once more. There is the same look on his face as before, earnest, yearning, and ashamed. "I am the one who is not worthy to stand next to you, Kamiya," he says softly.

"How can you say that?!" she cries, grasping the front of his yukata, forcing her angry face forward without thinking. She is too close to him now, their faces only a few fingers apart, Himura's breath on her lips. Kaoru feels as though her heart has grown to fill her entire body, that it is beating in every part of her skin. "How can you say that," she whispers, "when you mean everything to me?" Himura's face contorts in pain, but her heart has taken over and she cannot stop the flow of her words. "How can you say that when there is no one I want to stay beside but you?"

Himura's breath is heavy against her face, his entire body tense, as though he expected a strike to come at any second. He looks as though he is facing death, and the shattered pieces of Kaoru's heart grind to dust, blown away on a mournful wind. She knew it. He didn't want her at all. Her breath hitches in her throat and her eyes fill with tears and she wants to become nothing. To be only air, invisible, unfeeling. But her heart, her poor, broken heart, has other ideas.

"You promised," she whispers, letting go of him, lowering her chin, slumping into herself, "You promised me…"

"Kamiya!" he begs, "Kamiya, please look at me." His hand leaves the wall, threads itself in the hair at the back of her head.

"I can't," she sighs tearfully.

"Kamiya," he repeats, his fingers in her hair, willing her even closer, "Kamiya." He says it right next to her lips and then his warm lips are against hers and they are soft and gentle.

Kaoru has heard from older girls and geisha that kisses, most especially first ones, are awkward, shy, cold or forceful. That men steal and it is a woman's duty to give. But her first kiss, there against the wall in Muko, soft in Himura's arms, is beautiful. It is slow and comforting and sweet. Kaoru leans into him, and Himura pulls her close against his chest. His strong hands comb through her hair, brush away the tears on her cheeks, and his lips against hers say everything he could not say out loud. That she is important, cared for, beloved. That he needs her as much as she needs him.

It ends just as it began, gently, with Himura cradling her face between his calloused hands. "Kamiya," he sighs, resting his forehead against hers. "How you can choose such an unworthy one as me…"

Before he can elaborate, she presses her lips against his again, and she tries to put all her feelings for him into the kiss. Their second kiss is deeper than the first, fearless and brave. When they break apart, Kaoru is mussed, breathless, her hands buried in Himura's hair. There is a slightly wild look in Himura's eyes, and she decides she likes it.

"If you are not careful," he murmurs in her ear, sending shivers across her skin, "I won't ever leave your side."

"Good," she whispers, "because I hid your sandals."

Himura's eyes widen, and he laughs then, deep and rich in his gentle baritone, and nestled in his arms she feels it all around her. His laugh chases away the remnants of her fears and doubts; whatever happens to them, they will always care for one another, always pull each other back from whatever darkness they might face. She watches Himura laugh and she likes the way it crinkles his eyes, brightens his whole face. She grabs his face in her hands and steals his laughter with a kiss, because she wants to feel it against her lips too. They both discover that kissing with their lips parted is different entirely: their third kiss is surprising and passionate, and lasts longer than the first two. When it ends, Kaoru's bones feel like they are made of water, her skin of lightning. She feels invincible.

"Will you stay beside me, Kamiya?" Himura asks softly.

"Always," she promises.


"Always," she swears, falling against him in a close embrace, enveloping him in her spirit. He wraps his arms around her slender shoulders, shaking with the weight of what he has done. He'd fallen, as easily as a leaf drifted into a river. He is so unworthy but she wanted him, and he could never deny a request of hers. She'd cried for him, pleaded for him; his feeble heart had ached at her pain and he'd lost the battle within himself. His fault, it was always his fault, but he wanted, he needed, and he was weak. He'd kissed her without her permission.

Kenshin had naively thought, deep in the place where he lived in dreams, that if he ever kissed Kamiya, if fate ever allowed such an incredible thing to happen, that it would be enough. He has spent countless daydreams wondering what it would be like to kiss her. Dreams of pressing his lips against hers that day in the guestroom. Of catching her when she stumbled on the road to Muko, then pulling her surprised face under his hat. Holding her in the Shirobeko backroom and telling her he'd die without her, before kissing away her tears. He'd spent two weeks in Muko trying to think of anything but kissing her, trying and failing. But every dream he's had dissolves into so much white noise because nothing could have ever prepared him for what it was like to actually kiss Kamiya. It is like fireworks, or lightning surging across his skin, like thunder in his heart, and it is not enough, there could never be enough of this feeling. He'd taken her lips without asking, and when he'd tried to apologize, tried to explain he wasn't deserving, she'd stolen a kiss of her own.

Now she was in his arms, safe, content, at peace. She wanted him beside her but she didn't know, and how could he tell her? How could he betray her gentle heart and scatter her kindness like cold ashes, tell her "I am the Ishin-Shishi assassin. Your honoured father's death is my fault. If you stand against me, my lord would have me kill you." The dead boy's determined face dances behind his eyes, his dying voice grasping desperately at life, and Kenshin shakes in Kamiya's embrace, presses his face into the crook of her neck where there is safety and comfort, her live pulse under his ear reassuring him.

"Himura?" Kamiya rubs circles into his shoulder blade, presses her lips to his hair. He allows himself one deep, shuddering breath to steady himself, to bury his remorse and show her only his gratitude and adoration. When their eyes meet he is overcome with the desire to kiss her again, and he can, so he does. He gives her a light and thankful kiss, like a soft summer wind.

"Thank you," he tells her, clasping her hands in his own, "for this home."

Kamiya blushes beautifully, shyly smiling down at their hands. They are resting on her lap, atop a pile of blue-black fabric. He had stepped over her sewing box to kneel beside her, knocked over her pin cushion. "What are you making, Kamiya?"

Her blush deepens into a shade so attractive it takes all of his discipline to stay absolutely still, to stop himself from crushing his lips to hers again.

"I…" she takes her hands out of his, smoothes them over the fabric. "I am altering a few of my father's old garments. For you."

For a moment Kenshin feels both light headed and painfully heavy. For her to give him her father's things, the father she loved above all else... it is too much. The gods knew he didn't deserve her; why did they taunt him so?

"You are giving me…"

"Yes." She nods, as though it is nothing. "You need them. If you insist on wandering around in threadbare clothes in winter, without your haori-"

"My haori is here," he reminds her.

"-Without my haori, then I have to make sure you stay warm through other means," she finishes. She reaches up to softly stroke his uninjured cheek. "I want you to have them." And her eyes, her tender, inviting eyes make him swallow the denial on his lips. She chose him.

Kenshin reverently touches the fabric in her lap, catches her tapered fingers against his cheek and presses his lips into her palm. "I am honoured," he says. Her love is the greatest honour he has ever been given. "I know how much your father means to you, Kamiya," he adds.

She blushes again, but leaves her hands in his. "It is good you came," she tells him softly, and then she smiles. "I can measure properly."


When Takani-sensei arrives, Kamiya-chan is kneeling in front of Himura-san, carefully pinning the inside hem of his over-large hakama. Himura-san has apparently just risen and pulled the pants on; his yukata collar is open in a rather wanton display, and his hair is loose and dishevelled. In fact, Kamiya-chan's hair is suspiciously wild too, and the way they both blush at him, avoiding both his gaze and each other's, gives him a rather certain suspicion that things between them may have progressed beyond friendship. Omae-dono would no doubt be pleased to see her scheme come to fruition, but he owes an immeasurable debt to Kamiya, and as the father to a young girl, he feels obligated to look after her, a young woman with no father of her own.

He lets Himura-san excuse himself to dress properly while he examines Kamiya's shoulder, ruling her fit for service. She bows herself from the room to make tea just as Himura-san returns, and Takani-sensei gives the young man a level gaze. He and his wife had gone along with Omae-dono because it seemed the best way for Kamiya-chan to heal, but now, it is time he and Himura-san discussed the finer points of duty and a young woman's reputation.


Kenshin finishes tying his sandals, then shoulders Kamiya's wicker basket. He can hear her walking through the house, shutting and locking the shoji. They are going back to Kyoto; Takani-sensei had said he'd tell the Shinsengumi to expect Kamiya by sunset. Kenshin presses his lips together in an almost wince, the doctor's lecture ringing in his ears. He'd told Kamiya that her commanders were eager for her return, but Kenshin is sure Dr. Takani has set them the curfew for a different purpose.

Kamiya steps onto the porch, dressed once again in her tattsuke-hakama and her nearly-purple men's kimono, sliding the last door shut and locking it. She sits on the porch to tie her sandals and Kenshin kneels to help her.

"Does anyone ever actually think you're a boy, dressed like that, Kamiya-dono?" he asks.

"No," she laughs, "I suppose I am not very manly looking."

"You are not," he agrees, pulling her to her feet, against him. He gives her a gentle kiss, and together, they set off towards the city.

At the edge of the clearing, he pauses, looking back at the house. Kamiya retraces her steps back to him, taking hold of his hand. "We'll be back home soon," she tells him softly. He smiles at her and nods. They walk hand-in-hand back to Kyoto until they can see the city gate.

Chapter Text

Kaoru is welcomed back like a hero, though it now appears there is more than one tenchuu assassin left in the city. They all want to hear her story, see her scars. They pass around sake and tell the stories of their own first kills, their own scars. Kaoru has only just begun to carry her heavy stone, but that evening, in the Shinsengumi headquarters, she learns they all carry stones. She learns the kinship of samurai, of men trained to take lives and never fear death. She drinks three dishes too many, blinks around at her comrades with a sheepish grin, glad she has them, wishing Himura was there, too. She falls asleep curled on the floor behind Souji as the talk carries into the night.

She wakes in her futon inside headquarters the next day with a splitting headache. Kaoru sits up with a groan, and the shoji slides open, startling her out of her wits. She has been away too long; Himura always called out before he came into the room, but in headquarters there is no such privacy.

"Ah, you're awake!" says Heisuke, entirely too loudly. Kaoru presses a hand to ward off the light streaming in from the doorway, stabbing her overly sensitive eyes. She has hazy memories of Heisuke and Nagakura-sensei stripping a very drunk Harada-san to the waist, holding him down and letting them all paint a face on his belly, using his failed seppuku scar for a mouth.

"How many things are drawn on my face?" she asks forlornly.

"None," he replies, sitting informally and setting down a tray of breakfast, "though we did try. Souji wouldn't let us."

"That doesn't sound like him," she grumbles, beginning to tuck into her food. It tastes like ashes in her mouth, but Heisuke's hangover-curing breakfasts are troop famous, so she grits her teeth and bears it.

Heisuke shoots her a strange look, so brief she almost misses it. "What?" she asks, gulping down tea like it will save her life.

"Nothing," he shrugs, "Anyway, you can take your time eating, Souji and the first unit left for patrol already."

"What?!"

She nearly sends both tray and Heisuke flying in an attempt to fling off her blankets and clamber to her feet, but Heisuke has quick reflexes; he slaps one hand down on her tray while the other one palms her face. "Stop, Kaoru!" She tries to twist out of his awkward hold but he refuses to let go of her until she stops struggling.

"Geez, do you even know where they are on patrol?" he asks her with a brotherly shake of his head. Kaoru blushes; she has no idea. "Keh, finish your breakfast," he continues, "Souji said to let you sleep in and to make sure you ate."

Kaoru eats the rest slowly, repentant under Heisuke's watchful stare. "Thank you for the meal, sensei," she says softly.

"Don't mention it," he says, waving his hands. A grin splits his face and he leans towards her like he has a juicy secret. "Now, since you've been given the day off by your captain, there is someone who'd like to see you."

"Who?" Kaoru wracks her brain, but really, it could be anyone, she's been away from the city for so long.

"Kimiki. She's been worried about you."

"Oh!" Kaoru smiles delightedly. She'd really like to go and sit with the maiko; other than Omae-dono, Kimiki is the only girl she can talk to about Himura, and she really, really wants to talk about Himura. Her cheeks flush and her eyes brighten. "I'd love to see Kimiki-chan!"


Kaoru accepts her second cup of tea from Kimiki, blowing across it while she observes the maiko's face. Kaoru has just finished telling her, gushing with emotion, that she has fallen for a kind and handsome samurai, that they have sworn to stay beside each other.

"That's wonderful news, Kaoru-chan," Kimiki says, but her smile is cautious. For the first time, Kaoru realizes the geisha in training is a few years older than her.

"No one in the troop can know," Kaoru says. "They'd kick me out for breaking the rules."

Technically, the rules said no consorting with women, but Kaoru doesn't think Hijikata-sensei will appreciate the nuance. On the walk back to Kyoto, Himura had told her that his lord had similar rules, that until he had the means to approach her guardians and ask for her hand, they must keep their relationship a secret. Kaoru hadn't minded; the idea of introducing Himura to her comrades had filled her with certain dread. She had two hundred older brothers, all of whom would be too eager to find fault with the young man who had designs on their little sister.

And there was the second reason: Himura had vowed, unprompted, that they could not be officially married until Kaoru was ready, until her duty to her father's memory was complete and they could afford to buy back the Kamiya dojo. He wanted to make her dream his own. She blushes into her tea.

"And so, what will you do? A secret engagement…" Kimiki says, her voice trailing off as concern mounts in her eyes.

"Well, we'll wait, until his lord says we can be married."

"It will be difficult, you are not of his clan," Kimiki reminds her gently, delicately. And though Kaoru is still flushed with happiness remembering the look in Himura's eyes yesterday, as he bid her goodbye, she knows Kimiki is right. She is ronin, a daughter in disgrace, and who better to understand the obstacles of marrying into a clan from disadvantage than a geisha?

"I know," Kaoru says, "But he doesn't mind those things. He…he wants to come to Edo with me. When this is over."

"When what is over?"

"This," Kaoru gestures vaguely. "The trouble in the city. When the Shinsengumi release me and his lord no longer needs him in Kyoto."

Kimiki nods, but her eyes are sad. Kaoru knows what she is thinking: what will happen if the trouble doesn't end? Kaoru knows, because Kimiki worries about the same thing, worries about when Heisuke will be free from duty and family obligation to marry her. The maiko takes a resolute sip of tea. "I will help you any way I can, Kaoru-chan," she promises. "Your secret is safe with me."

"Thank you," Kaoru says, and she means it.

The maiko smiles, and then she clasps her hands together in expectation. "Now, tell me, did he give you a token, when he promised?"

"No," Kaoru blushes, "not a token. We…he kissed me."

"Ara! Tell me everything!"


Kaoru steps carefully along the muddy road, one hand gripping her umbrella while the other keeps the hem of her furisode off the street. It is Himura's favorite, the pale yellow one, embroidered with white chrysanthemums and golden wisteria, the one he swore she'd been wearing when she'd rescued him from dehydration all those months ago. She is wearing her new obi, a gift from him, horizontal stripes of blue that march across her waist, which Kimiki had helped her tie into an elaborate bow.

It has been three months of a secret engagement, of stolen moments, messages left at the Shirobeko. Himura seems to know her troop's rotation better than some of the Shinsengumi. He had a knack for materializing out of crowds, shadows, in brief moments she was alone. He'd pull her under his hat and kiss her breathless, and if any of her unit members noticed her flushed cheeks when she rejoined them, none of them ever said.

They have not had many opportunities to be together; the unit has stepped up its rounds with the return of the tenchuu assassinations, and Himura's lord has him so busy he cannot join her in Muko for more than half a day when she is on leave. They meet in the city when they can, at the Shirobeko, outside of shrines, and once in a room Kimiki secured for them in a quiet part of the teahouse. They leave notes for each other with Omae-dono, along with small tokens. The last message he'd left had been folded into her new obi, asking her to meet him at the restaurant tonight.

Kaoru hasn't seen Himura for almost two weeks, so she had successfully lied to Kondo-sensei, telling him that Omae-dono, so near her time, had asked for Kaoru to attend her. The Commander, like most men, had regarded the details of childbirth as an impenetrable mystery, and naturally he hadn't wanted to discuss them with her. He'd agreed to her request for the following few days off without question.

Kaoru had packed a small roll of things as soon as her shift was over that morning, and made a beeline for Kimiki. She had brought the furisode especially from Muko after he had missed her leave. A week and a half apart, and she wanted to stop Himura in his tracks as soon as he laid eyes on her, to remind him of what he had missed. Kaoru blushes at her forwardness as she picks her way along the street, feeling that strange heat shoot through her whenever she thinks about Himura. Hopefully Kimiki's work would clear his customary formality right out of his head.

It is nearly dark when Kaoru steps into the Shirobeko kitchen, folding her umbrella and knocking the mud from her sandals. Omae-dono is there with Megumi-chan, and the little girl gasps, wide-eyed.

"You're so beautiful, Big Sister!"

Kaoru blushes and bows. Omae-dono laughs and pats the girl's head. "Yes, yes," she agrees. "Himura is not here yet, but everything is ready."

"Thank you, Omae-dono," Kaoru says, and she hopes the older woman knows how much she has to thank her for. Without her assistance, she would almost never see Himura. "I'll wait for him upstairs."

She starts to cross the kitchen when the Takani brothers appear in the hallway. "Oh, Okaoru-dono!" Kaito, the younger brother who is two years her elder, gapes at her. Kaoru bows to each of them, steps out of her sandals and up into the hallway. Tatsuki, the eldest, offers his hand politely to help her, and she takes it, nodding in thanks as she glides past.

"Himura-san is a lucky man," Tatsuki says softly, and Kaito nods in agreement.


Kenshin steps out of his sandals and into the hallway, shooting Omae-dono an apologetic look about the water he is dripping on her floor. She merely waves her hand at him good-naturedly. "Go on, Kaoru-chan is waiting."

It is hard not to take the stairs three at a time; a week and a half ago he'd sat with Kamiya in a secluded clearing outside a shrine, pillowed his head in her lap in the weak sunlight. He'd fallen asleep and wasted their few hours together, but she hadn't seemed to mind. She never seemed to mind the briefness of their time together, though the circumstance of it grates him. Every note in her delicate script, every small token, every stolen kiss in a quiet backstreet, they are more than he ever expected to have, and yet not enough. He can hardly believe there was ever a time when his thoughts were filled with the violence of heavenly justice, instead of Kamiya Kaoru: the flash of her brilliant eyes, her warm smile, the way she felt in his arms. He is so alive with memories and feelings that her absence for the past ten days has settled like a hot stone under his heart.

Kenshin's wet clothes slap against him as he pads towards the light spilling from the room at the end of the upper hallway. He carries his swords in one hand, so he can put them down immediately. He has plans to catch Kamiya in his arms as soon as possible, and swords would get in the way. He smiles a little to himself as he slides open the shoji; he intends to use all his trained speed to surprise her, because he can never get enough of the startled squeak she makes when he suddenly appears next to her. But when Kenshin steps into the room, he freezes, all plans and anything resembling rational thought tumbling out of his head completely.

There is a woman standing by the window, her jet black hair artfully arranged with combs and pins, and the collar of her furisode draped low enough to show the graceful curve of her neck. It is the golden furisode she'd worn when she first appeared in his life, cinched with her new striped blue obi, invitingly tied in a bow like a cord around a parcel.

Kamiya turns away from the window where she has been watching the rain, and folds her tapered hands neatly in front of her. Her lips seem redder than usual, her eyes larger and hooded. "Hello, Himura," she says softly, and raises her gaze to meet his own.

Kenshin feels his mouth go suddenly dry, which is good, because he doesn't trust himself to speak. The heat under his heart spreads through him like wildfire and his heartbeat pounds in his ears. For the first time in his life, he shakes with desire. He wants to pull everything out of her hair, have it spill down her neck as he plants kisses there, wants to tug free her obi and pull her kimono from her shoulders to kiss his way down her skin. He wants to feel every part of her, give her every soft caress he can think of or imagine, until she is satisfied and content in his arms. He clenches his fists, weighing this new intensity against the stern lecture he'd received from Takani-sensei, trying to temper his desire with his profound respect. He wanted to give all of himself to Kamiya, but only if she wanted him to, only if she was ready.

He swallows against the dryness in his throat, because he has to say something to her, this vision, something coherent and polite, but in the few seconds he takes to grapple with his wants, Kamiya's intense look shifts to surprise. "Himura, you're soaked!" she laughs, lifting a hand to smother her giggles. "You look like you've been swimming in the river!"

The tension in him breaks. It is easier, with her innocently giggling, to remember that she came before any of his own needs. He smiles at her wryly. "It is raining, Kamiya," he reminds her. He throws open his arms. "Come, embrace me," he teases.

"Oh, no!" she laughs, shaking a finger at him, "I won't let you ruin this kimono!"

"Too cruel," he pouts, crossing his arms over his chest and shivering exaggeratedly.

She tosses her head in the temperamental way that he loves, but her spirit is delighted. Usually when they meet she is cautious of his mood, hesitantly sweet, but whatever he's done today has her beaming. She walks out of the lantern light into the darker part of the room where he can make out two, separate stacks of bedding. Ah.

"Here," she says, holding out a square of folded blue-black cloth. It's the kimono she'd been working on for him. She'd already given him the charcoal grey hakama and matching kimono, but this one, the one that had sat in her lap when they'd first kissed, she'd wanted to be perfect.

"You finished it," he smiles, and when he takes it from her, he feels why it had taken so long. She has embroidered the plain fabric with thread of the same colour, a repeating pattern of maple branches that covers the entire garment. You'd have to look close to see it, but the wearer would know it was there. The perfect thing for a man with a secret engagement.

"Do you like it?" she asks, "I wasn't sure if you would wear embroidery. I can pick it out, but wear it for now until your other clothes dry…" Kenshin leans forward, careful to keep his wet clothes away from her furisode, and kisses her cheek. "You look very beautiful," he tells her.

When Kenshin returns, wrapped in his new kimono, Kamiya is kneeling beside a bucket of hot water, and two covered trays have materialized from the kitchen. He sinks onto the cushion in front of her with a soft smile, offering her his hands. She always insists on this, when he arrives in the morning in Muko, or when they meet at the Shirobeko. She takes his hands and dips them into the water, scrubs them with soap. Washing away the sins he carries for the new era. He has no idea how she knows that this simple action is so important to him, but she does, and he is grateful.

She dries his hands and then she leans forward with a playful smile and rubs the towel into his damp hair, laughing at what he is sure is a tangled mess when she pulls the towel away. She pushes his tray in front of him and slides around him. "Eat, Himura, I'll comb your hair for you."

Kamiya unties the cord from his hair, but Kenshin doesn't move to touch his food. Instead he stays perfectly still, relishing the gentle pull, remembering the last time she'd combed his hair in the guestroom of the Kamiya manor. He counts her rhythmic strokes, a full one hundred before she ties his hair back again at the crown of his head in his customary tail. She leans over him to arrange his bangs, and the opening is too tempting to resist. He catches her hands in his, leans back and pulls her around his shoulder and into his lap. She squeaks, gaping up at him from his arms, the comb still clutched in her hand. "Am I presentable enough now, for such elegant company?" he asks her softly, smiling at her blush.

"You do look very handsome," she admits, smoothing the kimono over his shoulder, refusing to meet his eyes.

"Ah, because I have you to take care of me."

She smiles at him then. "I missed you," she whispers.

"Do you remember the last time you combed my hair?" he asks her, and she nods. "I wanted to do this then, too." And he presses his lips against hers. Kamiya drops her comb, and her arms reach around his neck. They have gotten very good at kissing; they part their lips, and Kamiya darts her tongue against his. That same wildfire courses through him and he pulls her closer, deepens their kiss, starts to thread his fingers through her hair, but instead of her doing the same, she breaks away with a soft hiss of pain. Panic shoots through him, fear that he has been too ardent too fast. "Forgive me-"

"Ah, no!" Kamiya whispers. She cups his face in her hands and smiles at him. "You just pulled my hair, there are a lot of pins in it."

"Oh…"

She laughs, stroking her thumbs across his cheeks, and pulls his face to hers for a quick, light kiss. "We should eat, before it gets cold," she tells him, and he groans in response. Maybe she had minded that he'd fallen asleep, and this was her payback.

She slides out of his lap and holds her hands up placatingly. "Omae-dono went to a lot of trouble to make it," she reminds him, "and besides, I have three days leave, we have time to eat."

"Three days leave?"

"Yes, I told Kondo-sensei that Omae-dono needed me."

"Does she?"

Kamiya smiles, and he knows she is going to tease him. "She needs me to make sure you eat this dinner!" she says in mock exasperation, pulling the cloth from his tray and brandishing the chopsticks at him menacingly. She makes as if to pinch his nose with them and he ducks out of her reach, catches her wrist in his hand.

"All right," he says, taking the chopsticks away and pressing his lips to the inside of her wrist, "I'll eat, but two kisses afterwards."

"Three," Kamiya promises. She blushes, smiling shyly. "I really missed you."


Two men stand in the shade provided by an awning. One faces forward, hunched over, rooting through the basket he had been carrying and just set down. The other leans against the wall, dressed in nondescript clothing, though his strange bald hairstyle is somewhat memorable. He is trimming his fingernails with a small knife. They do not face each other or look towards one another. Neither man looks like they know the other, or have met before, but if any of the passerby happened to pay close attention, they would notice these two men were talking to each other.

"That's him." says the hunched-over man. He doesn't look up, but a young man with red hair is walking past. He is walking with a young woman dressed in men's clothing, and the two of them are swinging a girl of perhaps eight between them. They are laughing, on their way to buy dango.

"The Battousai," agrees the second, his eyes also on his work. The couple have their backs to them now, and the hunched man risks a glance.

"Who's the girl?"

"Keh," grunts the leaner, "Kamiya Koshijiro's daughter. The Miburo She-wolf."

The hunched man frowns. These two pieces of information are illogical, providing conflicting allegiances. "Can we use her?"

"Difficult to know. Intelligence suggests no. Worst case scenario, she warns him."

"And if we silence her?"

"We deal with Kondo Isami and his pack of wolves."

Finished arranging, the hunched man stands up, shoulders his basket. "Then we will have to ensure they do not suspect us."

"Sir."

The leaning man continues to trim his nails, while the other man walks calmly up the street carrying his basket, adjusting his hat lower over his silvery hair.


It is raining again, turning the oncoming evening prematurely dark. Kenshin is pacing the Shirobeko kitchen, waiting for Kamiya. He'd been kept longer at the Kohagi-ya by Katsura, and Kamiya had decided in his absence to see her friends in Shimabara. He sighs and does another circuit of the kitchen; he dislikes the idea of Kamiya walking alone around the red light district this close to nightfall, though it had been much later when she'd gotten into trouble there before. But still, at any given time there are dangerous people slinking through the dark in that part of town, and he would know. In a several hours he will be one of them.

"Here, Himura-san," Omae-dono says quietly. She has been watching him pace from her place at the stove since he arrived. She places a hot cup of tea on the corner of the table closest to him, and gestures towards a low barrel in the corner. "Sit for a moment and drink this while it's hot."

Kenshin nods and takes the cup to sit down, murmuring his thanks. He blows across the tea, cupping it in his hands, but his eyes never leave the doorway, and his spirit is coursing through the surrounding area, searching for any sign of Kamiya's presence. Another ten minutes. If he cannot sense her in another ten minutes he will go looking for her. She could be trapped somewhere, by ronin, or worse, one of his own comrades again. Kenshin grips the cup in his hands, his eyes like two sharp points. "If anyone has touched so much as a hair on her head, they will meet the blade of the Battousai," he thinks.

"Have you told her yet?" Omae-dono asks suddenly, and Kenshin nearly scalds himself with his tea.

"Wha…what?" His mind races. Did Omae-dono know? How could she know he was the tenchuu assassin?

Omae-dono smiles at him in a motherly way, oblivious to his turmoil. "Have you told Kaoru-chan that you love her yet?"

"Oh! No…" Kenshin's relief is so palpable, he nearly forgets Kamiya has still not returned. "At least, not in those words? But she knows how I feel," he continues, eyes once again on the door.

"No, no," Omae-dono laughs, shaking her head. "You need to tell her Himura-san. The exact words."

Kenshin feels momentarily frustrated with the effort of trying to give his full attention to the doorway, where Kamiya has still not appeared, and what he feels is an important conversation Omae-dono is trying to have with him. He is grateful for her wisdom, but he wishes she were more timely.

"Really?" he asks, pulling his eyes away from the door with effort.

"Really. It is obvious to us, how you feel about Kaoru; your eyes never stop following her, even in a room full of people. And it is probably obvious to you, because you know your own heart. But love makes people blind, and we need to be reassured. Tell her soon, and tell her often."

"Do you tell Sekihara-san often?"

"Whenever I can," she says with a fond smile, rubbing absently at her swollen belly. "I never know when I will be able to again, so I tell him all the time."

"Tell who what all the time?" asks Kamiya. She steps through the doorway, shutting her umbrella, shaking drops from the damp edges of her hakama. Kenshin leaps to his feet and everything falls away but her. He hugs her so abruptly, pinning her arms to her sides, that she drops her umbrella in surprise. His embrace is probably too tight to be comfortable, and she moves her arms around him as best she can, awkwardly half-raising them to pat at his lower back. He feels her chin move against his shoulder as she speaks. "Hello, Himura."

Kenshin loosens his embrace, leans back only far enough to plant a kiss on her forehead. She loops an arm around his waist and turns in his arms, but Omae-dono has discreetly left them alone in the kitchen. Kenshin places a second kiss on Kamiya's temple, and she turns back to him, regarding him with her giant luminous eyes, shining with a look of so much sweetness, so much adoration, that he swears Omae-dono is wrong. She couldn't look at him like that and not know she was the very centre of everything good in his life, couldn't fail to see how much he cherished her in return.

"Hello, Kamiya," he whispers, and his third kiss takes her lips.


Her leave complete, Kaoru returns to headquarters. She'd risen before well before dawn, but Himura had been gone. She'd left a long note for him, tied around a maple branch with the first buds of spring on it.

Omae-dono had seen Kaoru off; her large belly made sleep difficult, and she now rose at odd hours to pad around the neighbourhood and walk out her cramps. With the morning air warmer than it had been in days, she'd decided to broaden her route, and this time, Kaoru had accompanied Omae-dono as far as the bridge before the pregnant woman had decided to turn back home. A cool breeze rose off the river, and, concerned for Omae-dono in only her yukata, Kaoru had wrapped the smaller woman up in her grey haori. Kaoru had waved to her from the riverbank until she was out of sight.

She has afternoon rounds today, inspections of warehouses near the edge of town. Most of the first unit is asleep when she nods to the guards at the gate, stepping into the courtyard as the sun rises just over the edge of the roof. Most, but not all. Souji is standing on the porch outside his room, dressed in training clothes and carrying his katana, obviously on his way to the dojo. He nods and raises his hand in greeting, and Kaoru nearly sighs. Since Shimabara, he has ceased the good-natured teasing, become less friendly and more solemn. She has tried to goad him out of it, but to no avail.

"Good morning, sensei!" she calls, bowing politely, walking up to the porch.

"Welcome back," he replies formally, "How is Mae-san?"

"Well," Kaoru smiles, "But her baby has not come yet. Soon, though!"

"You'll want to go back, when it happens."

"If you can spare me, sensei, I would like to."

"Of course, of course you can."

He looks away from her, and Kaoru feels awkwardness settle around them like a heavy fog. She has tried everything to get him to come out from behind whatever wall he has built, except one thing.

"May I practise with you this morning, sensei?"

Souji's head snaps up, and he gazes at her intently. It inexplicably reminds her of Himura, and she pushes the thought away. "What?" he asks in disbelief.

"I am having some trouble with that quick-draw technique Hijikata-sensei wants us to learn. My ankle is still weak and it's slowing down the move."

"You should ask Hajime, he is better with those techniques."

Kaoru nearly snaps at him; when has Souji ever admitted Saito-sensei might be better at something? They have regular bouts, open to betting to the troop, to try and prove who is the better swordsman, and their fights always end in a draw. But losing her temper hasn't worked with Souji either. Instead she lowers her head dejectedly in defeat. "Sure, I'll ask him," she murmurs to her feet sadly.

"Okita-sensei!"

They both turn, thrust out of their sorry tableau by the arrival of a messenger from the second unit. "What is it?" asks Souji, and he looks relieved to have been interrupted.

"Nagakura-sensei asked me to bring you. He and Todo-kun require you." The messenger's eyes stray meaningfully towards Kaoru, but when she returns his stare he looks hastily away. "They asked me to come to headquarters and get you, sensei."

"All right," Souji frowns, "Come along, Kaoru." The messenger gapes at Souji, but whatever look the first unit captain cuts him makes him close his mouth. He leads them from headquarters, and after a time, Kaoru realizes they are retracing her steps towards the Shirobeko. "Where are we going?" she asks the messenger.

"Not much further," is the only reply.

They round a familiar corner, and sure enough, a large crowd is gathered near the Shirobeko. Kaoru feels a strange sense of premonition. She feels that she shouldn't go any further, but also that she has to. She follows beside Souji, and pieces of conversations drift towards her as the crowd closes around them.

"So sad, such a young family…"

"…two small girls…"

"How he'll go on, after this…"

"…And expecting, too!"

Kaoru halts abruptly in the crowd, because she doesn't want to go any further. She can't, she should not have come here. "No," she says softly, because it is the only word she can manage, the only word that expresses how wrong everything feels all of a sudden. Denial is the only weapon she has against everything falling apart.

"Kaoru?" Souji asks quietly, but she just shakes her head at him. He looks at her for a moment, and then at the messenger who will not meet his eyes, realizing he may have made a mistake. "Wait here, okay, Kaoru?" he says gently, "Wait here and don't move until I come back. That is an order."

"Yes, sensei," she whispers, and she looks at him desperately, like he is the only thing capable of putting things back the way they are supposed to be. Souji reaches out and squeezes her shoulder, and then he and the messenger disappear into the crowd.

Kaoru waits, staring at her feet. Souji has told her to wait, and Souji is her captain, he is in charge. She concentrates on regulating her breathing, but it doesn't stop the rising panic in her throat, the heat building behind her eyes. Kaoru feels the familiar old cracks in her heart, the ones she'd thought Himura had healed for good. Her breath goes in and out, but it cannot stop the words around her from reaching her ears.

"They let her stay with them…"

"Mae-san..."

"…that's what comes from trusting the Miburo."

Kaoru tries, but she cannot help it, her breath comes out in a soft moan, and she feels faint. Her feet give out under her, and she sits hard in the road. She wants Himura, she wants her father, her mother, but no one is coming.

"Omae-dono," she breathes, "Please, Omae-dono…" She stares at her hands, the hands that have taken a life, and they shake so badly she has to clench her fists in her hakama.

"Kaoru."

It is Souji, kneeling in front of her. Heisuke and Nagakura stand behind him, one over each shoulder, tall columns in matching black uniform. Kaoru meets Souji's eyes and they beg him, they plead "Tell me it's all right. Tell me everything is all right."

Souji shakes his head. "I'm sorry Kaoru," he starts, but she never hears what comes after. Kaoru wails, absolutely heartbroken, like a wounded animal, and Souji has to fold her into himself to stop her from getting to her feet and running blindly away.

Chapter Text

Kaoru does not remember lying down. She sits up on her futon, her mouth dry and her limbs heavy, side effects of a sleeping draught. The shoji is open a sliver to the cool air of the inner porch, and the sky outside is dark. Kaoru opens it further, a full hand's width, and breathes in the fresh air to help clear the fog from her head.

She remembers Souji firmly holding her against him in the street, then lifting her into his arms, carrying her all the way back to Mibu while she sobbed incoherently against him. After that, her memories are vague. Her eyes and ribs hurt, but that is nothing to the hollow ache in her heart.

She takes one last deep breath, which only seems to feed the feeling of emptiness inside her.

She casts her spirit out, a small tendril, barely noticeable, making sure she won't be accosted and forced back to bed. When she is sure the way is clear, she stalks on soundless feet towards the Commander's quarters. There is light coming from behind the shoji, showing the outlines of the five men talking within. Kaoru kneels and presses her forehead into the porch. "Kondo-sensei," she says softly, her voice carefully devoid of emotion.

There is a sudden silence on the other side of the shoji, followed by the shuffling noise of someone sliding across the tatami. Kondo himself opens the door, and she hears his sharp intake of breath before she feels his hand rest on top of her head. "Kaoru-chan," he says gently, his voice warbling slightly in pity.

"I wish to hear the report of Nagakura-sensei and Todo-sensei's investigation, Commander."

"Of course…" he makes way for her, but his face is doubtful. Kondo returns to his place next to Hijikata-sensei, and nods at Nagakura and Heisuke to continue. Kaoru sits seiza beside Souji, the last of the room's occupants, and he slides fractionally closer to her, ready to pull her against him if she should break down again. Heisuke looks at her, his expressive eyes full of sorrow, and Nagakura stares at his feet. The silence drags out for a moment.

"I would hear," Kaoru says softly, always softly, "about the death of Omae-dono."

"Kamiya…" Nagakura shakes his head.

"She was my friend," Kaoru almost whispers. She must keep her voice quiet or she will startle them with her heartbreak and rage.

"Omae-dono," Hijikata-sensei says, dignifying her in death with the honourific, when in life she was only ever Mae-san to him, "was cut down early this morning by a tenchuu assassin. She was found close to the Shirobeko with this note."

The Vice-Commander's voice is steady, and he makes no effort to gloss over the facts. He treats Kaoru like a fellow samurai, the only kindness she wishes for from these men; it breaks through her blinding anger and sadness and fear, almost letting her feel gratitude. Hijikata-sensei slides a paper across the tatami for her to read. She scans over the kanji, and when she is finished, she waits to speak until she is sure she will not scream.

"They thought it was me," she says, her soft voice taking on a hint of an edge. A voice like the fine coating of ice that conceals a turbulent river.

"It would seem so," Hijikata-sensei agrees.

The assassin had mistakenly killed Omae-dono in Kaoru's place, as payment for his fallen comrade. The note outlines how she is the blackest of villains, a swordsman who claims to stand for peace, but instead slew the agents of heaven's justice. There is a price on her head for interfering with the Hitokiri, and their revenge would be swift. She almost has to laugh, swift revenge for a death from over four months ago.

"There is more, Kaoru," Heisuke says gently. Kaoru lifts her hollow eyes, trying to comprehend how, through the swirling emotions that threaten to drown her, there could possibly be more. "The marks on Omae-dono," Heisuke continues, "I have seen them once before."

"Before?" she mouths.

"They are the same; that is to say, the hand that killed Omae-dono, also killed Kamiya Koshijiro."

Kaoru closes her eyes, and she does not cry. All her tears have been spent this day, and she has none left to spare for the old ache, the sense of absence that is all she has left of her father. There will be no more tears. If the Ishin-Shishi want revenge, she would ensure they were repaid many folds over. The sword that protects was not carried for revenge, but if the rebels thought they could kill innocents in the street, they would learn just how black of a villain she could be. She breathes deeply, once. Kaoru empties everything into the void within her, and when she seals it shut her spirit is so thin that it is almost nonexistent. When her eyes open, they are the cold eyes of a samurai. They fall on the name signed to the tenchuu note, and the characters burn into her heart.

"Hitokiri Battousai," she reads, and she looks at each of her comrades with her dead eyes. "He will answer for his crimes."


News of the civilian death spreads like fire in dry grass across Kyoto, causing panic to grip the city. The shadow war has been going on in the streets for years, but up until now, it had been the business of samurai. With the senseless slaughter of Omae-dono and her unborn son, the denizens of Kyoto now feel themselves caught, rebel assassins on one side, and Miburo on the other, and even their hero, Kamiya Kaoru, cannot be exempt from blame.

Kenshin twists her ribbon in his hands, and tries once again to sort out the web he is caught in. He is alone, sitting at his window. It is the safest place he has, after her little home in Muko. A place where he can think.

Kenshin had heard the news from Katsura that afternoon. The Choshuu leader had roused him from sleep because while he trusts his assassin, he had to be sure that Hitokiri Battousai had not taken his leader's words to heart and killed an innocent women for revenge on Kamiya Kaoru. As if anything could be more impossible. Omae-dono was dead, and Kenshin had been framed.

Omae-dono was dead, and Kenshin feels an aching sorrow at the thought. Sweet, kind Omae-dono, who had let him upstairs when Kamiya had said to refuse guests, who had convinced the Takanis that time alone with him was what Kamiya needed to heal, who guarded their messages and kept her home open to their fragile love. Omae-dono, who had seen his heart before he had. Omae-dono, to whom he owed Kamiya, the only bright spot in his life.

None of the Choshuu rebels had raised their swords; Yushin was their comrade, but not well liked, and even nearly a year after his death, Koshijiro is still honoured amongst them. Respect for his daughter outweighed the decidedly weak desire any of them might have felt for revenge. Kamiya Kaoru was recognized as a threat, but no more than any other Shinsengumi who might happen upon them in the street. So the murderer was an outsider, intent on issuing a challenge or a warning, to ensure that the Wolves of Mibu would be sharpening their swords with Hitokiri Battousai in mind.

But Kenshin has lived a double life long enough that he worries this is not mere circumstance, that there are more layers than scaring the townspeople and setting the Shinsengumi on the warpath. Because whoever had done this had gone after Kamiya. His Kamiya, the one thing he would move heaven and earth to protect. They had killed Omae-dono in her place, and while losing Kamiya would break him, knowing their friend had paid that price instead, knowing Kamiya was in Mibu, bowed over with grief and blaming herself, is yet another blackness on his soul. And if there was someone out there who knew, who knew what Kamiya Kaoru was to the one called Hitokiri Battousai, who had tried to hurt her on purpose to get to him…

She would be cursing the name of Hitokiri Battousai in her grief. His fault, her pain was always his fault. He shuts his eyes and sees her tear streaked, blood-spattered face in the dark Kyoto road, sees it fill with shame over the life she had taken. She would carry the weight of Omae-dono's death now, too.

His fist clenches around her ribbon, the weight of his promise. Had Koshijiro known, in his final moments, how much his daughter would grow to mean to Kenshin? I will give my life before any harm comes to your daughter. But he is still alive, and Kamiya has suffered wounds and heartbreak, so what good is he, what good is his bloody sword if it can't even protect the one most precious to him?

Tears sting his eyes, but he has no more time to dwell on his failures. He can sense Katsura in the upper hallway, heading towards him. Kenshin folds Kamiya's ribbon into his collar, and goes to open the shoji. Katsura enters and sits informally in the center of the room with a nod, and Kenshin seats himself before the Choshuu leader expectantly. He'd been told this afternoon to stay at the inn until Katsura had more information, until gossip could be sorted from fact.

"The Shinsengumi are holding Hitokiri Battousai responsible," Katsura says. "They have a tenchuu note for proof. Capturing and killing you is now the shogun's top priority, to restore peace in the city."

"Someone has framed us," Kenshin says, "someone who wants the Shinsengumi focused on the Ishin-Shishi."

"To have the Miburo do their dirty work, or keep them too busy to notice what this shadow group is up to?" Katsura muses. He shakes his head. "Certainly a puzzle, and here is the most confusing piece: the Shinsengumi claim the killer of this woman also killed Kamiya Koshijiro."

Kenshin, already still, feels himself go cold. "On what grounds?" he asks, already dreading the answer.

"They say the wounds are the same. Apparently the one who found this woman was also the first on the scene after Koshijiro's ambush."

Kenshin shuts his eyes, reliving the night the Lord Kamiya fell, and imagining Omae-dono in his place, his worst fear confirmed. So. If the same man that killed Lord Kamiya for turning against the Bakufu was now trying to kill his daughter, this had nothing to do with ideals, sides of the war, Bakufu or Shinsengumi, Choshuu or Ishin-Shishi. They must know, they must have targeted her, seeking revenge against him.

"You said a man escaped you, that night," Katsura says.

"The silver haired man," Kenshin hisses, shaking with a rage so blinding he does not know how his body contains it. He has to find Kamiya. When they realize their error, they will go after her again.

"Did you give them your name, when you tried to save Koshijiro?" Katsura asks, and it pulls Kenshin back to the room and the moment, out of his frantic plans.

"No," he admits, "I said nothing."

"Curious," Katsura frowns, "the silver haired man may have seen your face, but how would he know you are Hitokiri Battousai? How would he know to pin this deed on you?"

"There is a spy among us," Kenshin realizes, and Katsura nods slowly.

"We will have to be cautious," the Choshuu leader says, getting to his feet.

Kenshin has moments only, moments to weigh how much he should reveal, before Katsura leaves the room. But no matter the risk to himself or his cause, he has to protect Kamiya. "The silver haired man will go after Kamiya Kaoru again," he says, and the Choshuu leader halts. He turns back to his assassin, nodding.

"The Shinsengumi think so. It would seem the silver haired man is intent on killing her; the dead woman was wearing her haori."

"I would like to take her to Choshuu," Kenshin says, "as her father intended."

"I cannot spare you," Katsura says flatly, and when Kenshin opens his mouth to protest, the older man cuts him off. "She made her choice. Forget whatever debt you think you owe the girl. Her father's death, this woman's death, are not your doing." But they are. He should have moved faster, should have protected her father before anything else. Failing that, he should not have let the silver haired man escape. An innocent woman has been killed, and Kamiya is once again suffering, because he had failed.

"I cannot," Kenshin says, his heart burning. "Forgive me, I will not."

Katsura and Kenshin stare at each other, and each man's look is unreadable. Kenshin waits. He knows Katsura is carefully considering his options, selecting his words. He waits, ready to turn them all aside.

"Kamiya Kaoru met you once, almost a year ago. She has spent the past year living with the Shinsengumi, fighting alongside them as though they are her brothers, believing it her duty to clear her father's name and restore her family honour. She has killed an Ishin-Shishi, and she believes her friend, and her father, were murdered by another. By you, in fact. Now, you believe she will hear the truth you have to say, that she will trust you to protect her over the men who do so every day?"

Kenshin gapes at Katsura, and the words are on his tongue; "I love her. I have spent the past six months with her in secret and I am going to spend the rest of my life at her side." They are there, but he cannot force them past his lips, because Katsura has voiced his greatest fear. That Kamiya will discover who he really is, and turn away from him forever.

"Even if you think you can persuade her, the risk is too great," Katsura continues, "especially now, when we have spies to contend with. All it would take would be for her to submit your description to the local magistrate's office, and then our part in the revolution will unravel in an instant. Kamiya Kaoru is Shinsengumi. We will leave the protection of her person to them."

"But-" Kenshin tries to argue, but it is hard when Katsura speaks so much truth.

"No," Katsura cuts over his feeble attempt, "This is the last we will ever speak of this matter. Kamiya Koshijiro is dead. Bury your debt to Kaoru with him. Concentrate instead on why the man who would hurt her is intent on blaming you."

The Choshuu leader stares at him with an air of finality, waiting for his response. Kenshin could leave, he could tell Kamiya the truth, hope she still wanted him, and even if she didn't, he could run. If he left, she might be safe. Might. But then, where we would he go? And if he leaves, Katsura and his comrades would be hard pressed to continue their work here. They need him, and despite his growing doubts, he still believes in Katsura's cause.

"Yes, sir," he murmurs, bowing into the tatami.


Kaoru leaves the meeting in Kondo's office and goes straight to the dojo, shutting the door behind her. Souji tries to go after her, but Hijikata-sensei reaches over with a restraining hand and a slight shake of his head, and for the second time, she experiences a tiny wave of gratitude towards the Vice Commander. Alone in the dojo, Kaoru dances through every kata she knows, over and over, until her muscles ache and her head feels like sand. For hours, there is only the sound of her bare feet on the polished wood floor, the swish of her father's sword through air.

When the light in the dojo turns from darkness to the grey of early dawn, she completes her last kata for the night. She bows to the dojo altar and steps out onto the porch. Souji is there, sitting with his back against the wall, his sword leaning against his shoulder, snoring lightly. Kaoru is careful to step silently around him.

She goes to the bath house, and when she is clean, she dresses in the one furisode she keeps at headquarters: plain black, with her family crest on the back. She ties the plain black obi over it, a simple fold in the back, keeping it in place with a plain white cord. White tabi, black geta, her shoulder length hair pulled back at the nape of her neck and tied with a thin black ribbon. She ensures there are enough handkerchiefs tucked into her sleeve. Kaoru hesitates a moment over her daisho, but in the end she leaves them in the stand at the head of her room. From her small trunk she removes her mother's dagger, another thing retrieved and saved by Dr. Gensai, and tucks it into her kimono, between her breasts, where she can reach it easily.

Sufficiently equipped, she steals out of the front gate when the soldiers on duty are not looking, slinks through the brush at the side of the wall, until she is far enough away from the gate as to be indistinguishable from any other woman. She could have walked straight out of the gate, but she knows Kondo-sensei. Likely from now on, she will never be allowed to go anywhere without a bodyguard, and this is something she needs to do alone.

Kaoru walks through early morning Kyoto, and she is not afraid. She is samurai, and if death should find her today, it would be fitting judgement for her sins. Her geta swish through the dust of the road; she has not worn the heavy shoes in many months, but she walks with the ingrained grace of a samurai daughter, born to privilege and service. She walks across the city in small, kimono restricted steps, until she reaches the Shirobeko.

The street is empty when she arrives; the time for onlookers has past, and the time for mourners has not yet begun. She pauses in front of the restaurant, prepared. She expects to be turned away, but she had needed to come.

Sekihara looks up from the white kimono he has draped over his lap when she enters, his glazed over and red-rimmed eyes meeting hers. He holds up the fabric. "This is the only white one she had," he tells Kaoru. "She wore it to be married. It's foolish, but I want her to wear it, to take it with her to heaven."

"Sekihara-san…" Kaoru says softly, tears filling her eyes. Her samurai façade is slipping, but she has come here to do what honour dictates. She gets on her knees, and then she folds herself into a bow, fingers making a triangle, her face resting in the dirt.

"I can never be worthy of your forgiveness," Kaoru whispers into the floor, "and I will not ask for it. But please, let me grieve for her." She waits, her heart in her throat, tears dripping into the dust. And then, Sekihara-san's fingers are under her chin, tilting her face, lifting her up from the floor so her weeping eyes meet his own.

"She would not want you to blame yourself," he says, wiping at the dirt smeared on her forehead. He smiles weakly through his grief. "She loved you like a sister, she talked endlessly of how she wished for your happiness."

"I loved her too," Kaoru cries gently, "Your family…the Takanis, you have been my family. I am sorry, so, so sorry…"

Sekihara-san's face crumbles with sympathy and mutual pain, and he clasps Kaoru in a brotherly embrace. "You are part of our family, Kaoru-chan. We will need your strength now. Please, watch over my girls. Help them grow into young women like yourself." Kaoru nods against Sekihara-san's shoulder through her sobs. "Ah, good," Sekihara says, his voice cracking, patting her head, "She would have wanted that."

Sekihara gives her a quick squeeze then pulls away, though his arms stay on her shoulders; he looks so tired, and it seems that now he needs her support to stand. Kaoru buries her emotions once more. They need her strength, so she will be strong. "You should rest now," she tells him gently, "the girls will need you when they wake up."

"Yes," he sighs, rubbing at his eyes. "Himura-san got them to sleep late, but I should check on them."

"Himura was here?"

"He is here, he came last night."

Kaoru helps Sekihara to his feet and follows him upstairs. He slides open the shoji of the first room in the hallway, where his girls are sleeping. Kaoru stands in the doorway, overcome. Himura is sitting crosslegged with his back against the wall, a twin curled into both sides of his lap. He has his arms protectively around them, his sleeves covering them like blankets, his swords across his knees. All three of them are asleep. He'd come last night to watch over them, to make them feel safe so they could sleep.

For a moment, Kaoru stands in the doorway, lost in a dream. A dream of Himura, asleep in the side room of their home in Muko, with two small red-headed children curled into him. Children she would give him, when she was his wife. She has never thought of having children before; her dreams have all been for her father's legacy, but seeing Himura with Tae and Sae, she feels a sudden, terrible longing. A longing that stabs her with guilt for a future she could have, that Omae-dono has lost. A lump rises in her throat, and she cannot stay in the hallway any longer.

"Be careful when you wake him," she whispers to Sekihara. "If you startle him he will draw his sword."

Kaoru had seen her father do so, has seen her comrades do so when hastily roused. Himura had gone to sleep with protection on his mind, and she is sure he will do the same. She takes the kimono from Sekihara, and retreats down the stairs. The garment is musty, and she wants it to smell of sunshine when she dresses Omae-dono in it later.


Kenshin steps into the Shirobeko courtyard and spots Kamiya hanging a white kimono in the sun. She is crouched on the ground, straightening the hem, but he knows she has sensed his arrival, and she rises to her feet with a grace that belies her tomboyish upbringing. Kamiya faces him, eyes on her feet, a tower of black with a white face for a window. Her eyes are sunk within bruised sockets, her lips and cheeks are pallid. She looks exhausted, like she has no emotions left.

Kenshin says nothing, because there are no words for a time like this. He crosses the courtyard in two striding steps, and carefully puts his arms around her. He rests his chin on her shoulder and waits. After a time, Kamiya circles her arms around his waist, stepping into him, and he can tell from the way she is shaking that she is crying. Her face turns into his collarbone, and he tightens his embrace, strokes a hand along the back of her head. They stand that way for a long time, silent together in their grief, mourning the woman who had done so much to bring them together.

Kamiya sighs against him mournfully. "They were after me," she whispers.

"It is not your fault," he begins, but she places her fingers over his lips. Her eyes are two sharp points, and she is all samurai.

"I will find Hitokiri Battousai and bring him to justice. I will not rest until I do."

Kenshin doesn't know what he can say to that, so he just holds her closer.


They bury Omae-dono on a beautiful day. Her procession is so long, it winds for six blocks behind her. The entire troop of the Shinsengumi makes up its tail, all two hundred members in freshly laundered black uniforms, save one. Kamiya Kaoru walks directly behind Sekihara-san in her black kimono. She carries both Tae and Sae, because that was the only way to stop them crying. A twin for each hip, and though they are too heavy to be carried together, she never once shifts their weight.

The townspeople whisper to one another as the funeral concludes and they make their way home. About how she had no place to walk with the family of the one she'd condemned to death, no right to comfort the crying children of the woman who'd died in her place. Some condone her stoic face; should she not have wept for Omae-dono's sacrifice? Others, closer to her in the crowd, snicker over the unshed tears in her eyes. If she really wanted to do something, she ought to be out looking for the one who'd taken the life of an innocent in her place, not wasting her time on tears.

"Four months ago she was their hero," Hajime says, his flat voice gruffer than usual. It could be the sake, but Souji has known him long enough to recognize it as disgust. He pours his friend another dish. Their many months in the troop have taught them much about the distrust of the people of Kyoto, but to see them turn on Kaoru is a bitter pill to swallow. Especially when her sensitivity, her empathy towards others, means she hears their harsh words and believes them.

"Kaoru was already burdened by killing that ronin," Souji says, "now she will never forgive herself."

"No one ever does," Hajime responds, but his eyes stare out the bar window, look far away. Thinking, Souji knows, of the boy he'd killed, a youthful mistake that led to his exile, a life that had only found purpose again with the Shinsengumi and aku soku zan.

"True," Souji agrees, thinking of the night he'd first killed a man, a samurai. Everyone had congratulated him, celebrated his talent, but he had lain awake on his futon all night, shivering though the season was not cold. "But what matters is what you do after."

Hajime looks at him over his sake. "You are afraid," he states, "of the path Kamiya-san may walk down."

"She swore revenge."

"Kamiya-san is bushi."

But Souji shakes his head. He has learned to read Hajime's short sentences, to hear the words the third unit captain doesn't say. Kaoru is samurai and the daughter of samurai, and it would not be uncommon for her to seek vengeance. But she'd been adamant to the point of annoyance when she joined the unit that she would not take life unnecessarily, that her sword style does not condone revenge. He'd argued with her incessantly, certain she'd be a liability to the unit, that'd she'd get herself and her comrades killed—until he'd seen her take out three ronin in thirty seconds flat, disarmed, neutralized, and alive for questioning. He'd understood then, that she could take care of herself. That it wasn't that she couldn't take a life, but she chose not to, and while he hasn't puzzled out exactly why, the distinction is important. It is part of what makes her, her.

He'd understood her choice to kill that Ishin-Shishi. If there was one thing Kaoru couldn't do, it was let someone down. She would throw herself from burning buildings before she'd fail someone. He'd seen the ronin's body, the bruises and cuts, the missing teeth, all suggestions she'd tried everything to knock him down before she'd decided to bury her blade in his chest. She'd nearly died herself, and would have, if she'd not had someone to protect. It has taken him almost a year to understand why Kaoru does the seemingly backwards things she does, to understand and cherish it. He would not stand by and watch her lose her way.

"I need your help, Hajime," he says, leaning conspiratorially towards his friend, "I know you have connections. I need to find Hitokiri Battousai and kill him."

"You would deny Kamiya-san her revenge?"

"You and I both know revenge will not help Kaoru. So I will take it for her." He fixes Hajime with a stare. "Promise me, if you ever hear of his location, you will take me along."

Hajime pours another dish for himself, and then holds the bottle out, inviting Souji to partake. He rarely drinks, but he picks up his dish anyways. "You coddle her too much," the third unit captain admonishes, but it really means that he will help.

"What can I do?" Souji throws back the sake and it burns, turning his smile to a grimace. "I love her."

Chapter Text

Kaoru and Souji stand back-to-back, scanning each side of the yard, as a driving rain plasters their hair and clothes to their bodies, mutes the glint of their drawn blades.

"Two," Kaoru says, just loud enough for Souji, and only Souji, to hear over the rain.

"This side as well."

They are chasing a lead on Hitokiri Battousai, their first concrete information since Omae-dono had been laid to rest a month ago. Kaoru has dreamt every night of her father and Omae-dono side by side, watching her with blank, unreadable faces. "Bear it just a little longer," she begs them. "I will find the one who did this so you may rest peacefully."

Kaoru's grip tightens on her sword, but she does not move. They'd chased the ronin out of the bar, but now she and Souji have sprung a trap in the back courtyard. Four men in total in the dark shadows, who had taken none too kindly to having their evening interrupted, or the two dead men Souji had left inside. She keeps her defensive stance, ready for them to lunge.

She has seen Himura three times; once in the crowd at Omae-dono's funeral, and twice at the clearing outside the shrine. At the funeral their eyes had met across the sea of mourners, and despite the distance, she had felt his spirit around her. It had allowed her to keep standing, to keep holding up Tae and Sae, to endure the whispers of the people around her. At the shrine, Himura had sat with his back to a tree, and Kaoru had curled against his chest between his knees. He held her in comforting silence, and when they had to leave she felt brave enough to continue fighting. When she arrives in Muko tomorrow evening, smuggled on the back of Kamishimoemon's cart, Himura will be waiting for her, and she will put down her heavy burden for a short time, give her tired arms and back and soul rest, so she can return to Kyoto strong once more.

A shadow darts to the left, and Kaoru tracks it with her eyes only, letting her spirit maintain its surveillance on the other man. She feels Souji's shoulders shift slightly against hers. Not much longer now, before the first strike.

The troop has been working vigilantly to find the tenchuu assassin, but the murders have still continued, each one a taunt at their efforts. Saito-sensei has been frequently absent, and when Souji and Kaoru do see him, it is in the guise of a workman, a monk, a travelling salesman. It turns out he really is a spy, and he has gone deep to ground looking for Hitokiri Battousai. Today, while they had sat at a food stall drinking tea, what appeared to be an old woman sat behind them slurping plain soba and whispering. The "old woman" told them of a bar on the edge of the slums, where no questions are asked of the ronin who gather there. Last week one had let slip, after being plied with sake, that they were Ishin-Shishi.

Kaoru hears footsteps on the gravel behind her, but she doesn't turn. Souji is there to keep them off her back. She glares at the spaces where she knows the ronin are hiding, likely knowing they have committed a grave error; better to have rushed her first, instead. Souji would deal with his opponents in short order, and when he turns to help her, more than four ronin will have their lives ended today. Regret tugs at the edges of her resolve, but she pushes it away, into the place where there is no emotion. Just a little longer, and then she could rest.

Souji has been a permanent presence at her side in the last month; Kaoru is not allowed to leave headquarters alone, and Souji had volunteered to accompany her as her bodyguard so she didn't have to constantly tell Kondo and Hijikata-sensei every time she wanted to go somewhere. He made sure she stayed out of trouble, but he also gave her some space to be alone; time she could spend with Himura or at the Shirobeko. And when she wanted to crash a bar in the seedier part of town, looking for the deadly assassin, he simply shrugged and tagged along.

Souji's shoulders are no longer pressed against hers, and Kaoru hears the distinct sound of a sword whirling through the air. A startled shout rings out in a voice that doesn't belong to the first unit captain, but then there is the crunch of gravel in front of her, and Kaoru is ready. She steps into her swing, the flat of her blade slapping against the back of her first opponent's head. He would have a splitting headache when he woke up, but he would wake up. Kaoru ducks into a defensive stance, ready for her next opponent, but Souji leaps into him sideways, sword stabbing into his side, and the ronin dies before he can even reach Kaoru. She frowns and looks away, but her gaze catches the crumpled bodies of the other two ronin and she feels dizzy.

"Help me tie up this one." She nudges the only survivor with her foot, taking a rope out of her sleeve, and tries not to think about the blood on her hands.


Kenshin is methodically washing his hands in the Kohagi-ya kitchen. He has been at it for five minutes, repeatedly scrubbing the now clean skin, but the stench of blood doesn't seem to come off. He sighs and dunks his hands again. Tomorrow, Kamiya will wash them in Muko, and perhaps then the scent would fade.

He would need clean, strong hands for Kamiya. Since losing Omae-dono, she had begun to walk with stooped shoulders, to wince at every happy sound. When he spends time with her now he does not speak, but lends her as much of his strength as she needs. He tries his best, with a quiet, steady presence, to help her. He knows that time, distance, and space is what she needs, for her to come back to him. And so he waits, watching the heavy circles under her eyes deepen, waiting for signs that the tense set of her jaw is starting to slacken. He has decided that they will have five days together in Muko. Katsura is away, and Kenshin does not care if he is missed.

"Oh Battousai, there you are!" It is Iizuka, standing in the doorway. The examiner wears an excited grin as he leans against the doorframe. "Come quick, Katsura-sensei is waiting."

The look Kenshin gives Iizuka is veiled, masking his disappointment and apprehension. Katsura was back earlier than expected.

The Choshuu Leader is standing the courtyard, refreshing himself after his journey with a cup of tea. His hulking advisor and body guard, Katakai-san, stands behind him, wearing his usual grim face.

"It's been awhile since we've been able to meet," Katsura says; he has been gone for almost a month. "Are you doing well?"

Kenshin does not forget the last conversation he'd had with Katsura, the tense stare the Choshuu Leader had given him as he told him to forget Kamiya Kaoru. He has followed orders and entrusted her safety to the Shinsengumi, but Kamiya is no better for it.

"Yes," he says flatly, "I am killing them just fine."

"Hey, hey…" Iizuka murmurs, obviously surprised by Kenshin's brazen lack of respect.

"What's my assignment," Kenshin says abruptly. It is not a question more than a resigned truth. He already has a black envelope in his sleeve, an early morning job at a shrine. But if Katsura needs him further, he might have to find Kamishimoemon at the market and leave a message for Kamiya that he will be late.

"Well, it's not so important that I'd call it an assignment," Katsura begins, and Kenshin bristles.

"If it's not important, please refrain from calling me."

"Hey!" Iizuka shouts, no longer hiding his anger, but Katsura holds up a placating hand.

"There's a meeting to be held soon," the Choshuu Leader continues, "Toshiwara and Miyabe-san are expected to attend."

"You require a guard?" he asks. Things between Miyabe and Katsura are still strained, but Kenshin is not aware of dissent in the Choshuu ranks.

"Well, no. I was wondering if you would join us."

Kenshin doesn't look at Iizuka, but he feels the examiner's wide grin. "That's great!" he says, excitedly, "What an honour! Your name could go down in history-"

"I must decline." Kenshin stares at Katsura, letting the man feel the weight of his refusal. "It's easier if a hitokiri keeps to the shadows as much as possible. And I am not interested in history or honour."

Kenshin turns to exit the courtyard. All he is interested in is finishing what he came here to do. "If we achieve a new age where all can live in peace, that's enough." And with that, he takes his leave. He will complete his duty, he will bring about a peaceful era with his bloody sword, and then, at last, he and Kamiya can rest.


Kaoru shuts her eyes, and wishes she could shut her ears. Through the thin walls, she can hear the ronin's grunts of pain, the heavy thump of the wooden rod Hijikata-sensei is hitting him with. It's been an hour, but the Ishin-Shishi has yet to break.

Souji is pacing the courtyard in front of her, his damp tabi making a squelching sound with every step. She counts the seconds by the sound, trying to focus on the wet noise rather than those coming from the room behind her. The beating stops, and Kaoru lets out a breath she didn't know she was holding. Her head feels light, and Hijikata-sensei's voice on the other side of the wall sounds like buzzing.

"Kaoru?"

Souji is standing above her, concerned. His hair has dried in feathery waves around his face, and she watches them float against the starry sky, mesmerized.

"Maybe you should wait in your room, Kaoru-chan," he says gently, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I will report any news."

"No." She shakes her head to clear it, shrugging off his hand in the process. She is bushi and she will do what it takes to bring Omae-dono justice. "It's fine. I'm fine."

He opens his mouth to respond, but the shoji slides open before he can speak. She hops off the porch, spinning to face the Vice-Commander. There is blood splayed across the bottom of his hakama. Kaoru catches the silhouette of a figure slumped against the bonds keeping his arms above his head before the shoji snaps shut. She swallows the lump in her throat.

"Anything yet, Hijikata-sensei?" she asks, and she is proud her voice does not waiver.

"Go and get candles, Kamiya-chan. Souji, I will need your assistance."

Kaoru runs, her clammy, half dried clothes swishing against her, to the storeroom. She is shutting the door behind her when Saito-sensei materializes out of the shadows, startling her so badly she throws all the candles she is carrying up into the air when she cries out. The third unit captain merely arches an eyebrow. "Good evening, Kamiya-san," he says, bowing. "A strange hour, to be in the storeroom."

Kaoru takes a deep, grounding breath. She kneels to gather up her candles. "Souji and I caught an Ishin-Shishi at that bar… Hijikata-sensei wanted candles to finish his interrogation."

"Ah. I will accompany you. I have a report for the Vice-Commander."

He follows her back, and Kaoru calls out softly through the shoji. "Hijikata-sensei," she slides the door open and freezes. Souji has his sword drawn, and as she opens the door, he buries the point in the top of the ronin's foot, a grotesque look of hatred on his face as he twists his blade. The ronin screams in pain and though she doesn't realize it, she screams too.

"Don't!"

The word vibrates through the room, and Souji looks at her, startled to find her there. "Souji," she whispers, shaking.

And then Saito-sensei is there, grabbing her shoulders and spinning her forcibly out the doorway. He takes the candles away, his right hand pinning her to the wall outside. "A word, Hijikata-sensei," he says, handing in the candles.

Saito stands aside to let the Vice-Commander follow him outside, keeping his hand firm on Kaoru's shoulder. He pulls her along with him, making sure she doesn't turn until the shoji is closed. She draws shuddering breaths of cool night air into her lungs. She is bushi, this was necessary. She will not cry.

"You are dismissed, Kamiya-chan," Hijikata-sensei says softly, but Saito does not release his grip.

"What I have to say concerns Kamiya-san," Saito says.

Kaoru stares at the ground and she knows she is still shaking like a leaf in the wind. If Saito was not holding her up, it is likely she would collapse. She feels the Vice-Commander's measuring gaze, and she takes several deep, stilling breaths, emptying all her feelings once again into the void within. When she is steady she raises her head, meets the stare with a level, calm look of her own. Hijikata-sensei nods to Saito. "Go on."

"An informant has told me of the next movement of Hitokiri Battousai."

Kaoru feels her heart skip a beat and the bottom of her stomach fall out. "Where," she breathes, her voice barely holding in her emotions. Saito's hand squeezes her shoulder, but he continues to look at Hijikata-sensei.

"With your permission, I will accompany Kamiya."

Her stomach does a back flip, and she looks urgently at the Vice-Commander. "We do not condone personal vendettas," Hijikata-sensei reminds him, "Hitokiri Battousai is a wanted killer."

"Then I will take the third unit, and Kamiya. We will subdue him and bring him in for trial with the shogun."

The Vice-Commander weighs the options, and then he sighs. "It would be best to take Souji as well."

Saito nods. "He will want to be involved," he agrees, casting a sidelong glance at Kaoru.

"Keep in Saito and Souji's shadow at all times." Hijikata-sensei tells her.


Kaoru snatches a few hours sleep, sitting against the wall of her small room, her sword leaning against her shoulder. When Saito comes to get her, he is wearing his sky blue haori.

"Did we switch again?" she asks, shaking off sleep, pulling her own blue coat out of the trunk where she keeps her things.

"No, but when we walk Hitokiri Battousai through Kyoto in chains, everyone will know it was the Shinsengumi who caught him."

She pulls on her kote and ties her hachigane around her head. "It is time, Father, Omae-dono," she thinks, sliding her katana into place over her wakizashi.

The third unit is already dressed and ready in the courtyard, though it is hours before dawn. They form a protective perimeter around her as they move out of headquarters, with Saito-sensei and Souji at the head. When they reach the steep stairs of the shrine, they ascend halfway to a landing and fan out, the third unit taking up positions in the underbrush to either side of the wide stone stairway. The plan is to trap him from all sides; once Hitokiri Battousai passed the landing, they would close off his exit.

Kaoru makes to crouch with the third unit, but Souji grabs her hand and leads her across the platform without even looking at her. They go halfway up the next set of steps, and then he places her behind an outcropped boulder. It would be difficult for her to see what was going on, harder still to run out and join the fray. "Stay here," he tells her, holding her shoulders.

"But-"

"It is an order Kaoru! You do not move from this spot unless I tell you."

"You know I won't kill him," she argues, "Please, let me-"

"Stop!" he thunders, and his grip on her almost painful. "If you think I am going to let that assassin get anywhere near you, you have gone mad." He throws his arms around her and Kaoru goes absolutely still from shock. "Stay here and live. For me," he whispers, and then he is gone, running up the remaining stairs with Saito-sensei close behind him.

Kaoru grips the front of her kimono at her neck, feeling too exposed. She leans against the boulder and lets out an explosive breath. Then something happens that has not happened since she lost Omae-dono: Kaoru loses her temper. "I will live for myself," she snaps, and disappears into the woods behind her.


Kenshin adjusts his hat over his hair, starting the ascent up the many steps to the top of the shrine. His target will be there, and Kenshin has given himself enough time to take the stairs leisurely, so as not to draw attention. He is only a travelling samurai, coming to pay his respects at the shrine.

The day is going to be hot, he can tell. Summer is well underway, and soon the scorching days will begin. It is nearly a year since he came to Kyoto, nearly a year since he met Kamiya. As if to remind him, the water bottle he has tied to his waist bumps against his hip. The Gion Festival will be soon, and Kenshin is fifteen. Old enough to consider marriage. He will write to her guardians soon, he thinks. Katsura could sense his growing dissatisfaction, perhaps he would let him leave. He will offer to train new recruits in Choshuu, take Kamiya there until he could properly take her home to Edo. She should not stay much longer in the Shinsengumi; he had been watching day by day as she spiralled deeper into her unwanted quest for revenge. It may be difficult for him to convince her to leave, to abandon her duty for the contentious province of Choshuu, but he believes he can convince her without revealing too much of what brought him to Kyoto. There is only the silver haired man to dispatch, and Katsura seemed to think there was a lead on his whereabouts. After his offer in the courtyard, Katsura had caught up with Kenshin to tell him there would likely be more information at this meeting. Kenshin had still declined, but Katsura would tell him afterwards what he needed to know.

Kenshin is halfway up the stairs when he feels an uncomfortable prickling sensation between his shoulder blades. The hairs on the back of his neck stand up; he is being watched. His hand strays to his sword hilt, and he casts out his spirit, carefully keeping his steps even so as to seem unaware. He is almost across the landing when he feels them, three men behind him with their swords drawn.

He spins, sword coming out of its sheath, connecting with the blade of the opponent closest to him. The man's eyes widen in surprise; Kenshin had moved faster than sight to block what would have otherwise been a mortal blow to his back. As he forces the opponent back and steps into a defensive stance, three more men burst out of the woods behind him. Six men in sky blue coats with white mountains along the sleeves and hem.

"Surrender, Hitokiri Battousai!"

An ambush! Kenshin's eyes narrow. "Surrender is not likely," he states.

They rush him at the same time, and while he is fast, able to leap over their heads and group them all in front of him, one swings too close for him to altogether avoid and takes the entire left side off the brim of his hat. Kenshin pulls it off his head, annoyance blooming into searing hatred. He had promised her he'd always wear it. He glares at them from behind his blade. "Your deaths," he snarls, "are now assured."


Kaoru forces her way carefully through the brush, down the steep side of the mountain to the landing. As she edges closer, she hears the sounds of blades meeting. So. He was here, and this was it. Kaoru draws her sword, silently like her father had taught her to do, hours standing in the dojo drawing and redrawing until the blade made no sound. She flattens her spirit, because she will not give the assassin the benefit of knowing where she is until she announces herself.

She grips her katana, her father's katana, with a fierce determination. It would end here. After today, there would be no more blood spilt by her or the man called Hitokiri Battousai.

"For Omae-dono," she whispers. "For father and the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu."

Kaoru takes one last deep breath, then she runs towards the battle.


Kenshin spins away from a falling body, his blade already connecting with his last opponent. A few more men had run onto the landing, but now there is only one left. He knows the last two in the unit are hesitating above him: he can sense their spirits, panicked at a situation obviously gone beyond their control. And two more, further away, not yet aware of what was going on, but with spirits sharp like fierce animals. They would be trouble if he remained here long enough to meet them. He has taken eight lives today; better to end this and retreat. He needs to tell Katsura that their spy has made his next move.

The last remaining Shinsengumi grips his blade. "Come, Battousai!" he yells as he lunges at him. Kenshin dodges left, his blade stabbing up and through the man's belly, piercing his back. The man gasps as he dies, and Kenshin hears the bushes behind him rustle, too loud to be the wind, followed by the tell-tale slap of zori on stone. He kicks the man free of his blade, spraying blood through the air, and pivots to meet the new attacker.


The rising sun is in her eyes but she can see the bodies of her fallen comrades, the silhouette of a man kicking another off his blade, covering them both in a spray of blood. "Monster!" her mind shrieks; he'd killed them all, cut her brothers down like chaff.

"Hitokiri Battousai!" she roars. She stalks to the right, tracking him as he pivots out from behind the sun, his red hair whipping behind him in a fiery tail. His red hair.

Kaoru's eyes widen in disbelief and the point of her sword wavers in front of her.

"No," she gasps.


"Hitokiri Battousai!" shouts the new enemy, moving to the right. He is halfway through his spin when he registers that he knows that voice. He knows that voice.

Time seems to slow down, each second like a drawn out year, as Kenshin turns to face her, seeing every excruciating detail. He sees her blinding hatred, glinting at him from behind her blade. He sees her eyes widen, those large, luminously blue eyes that he has drowned himself in, as the hatred turns to shock, disbelief, and then despair. The point of her sword dips, and her face is a mask of infinite sadness.

"No."

He thinks it before she says it, a curse to every god and string of fate that would bring her here, like this, to find him standing covered in blood amidst her executed comrades. Bad enough the gods had made her love him, bad enough that he had been too weak to stop her, but what had she ever done to earn a fate as cruel as this?

Kamiya's sword drops to the flagstones with a metallic clang. She takes one step back, and her eyes fill with tears.

No.

He should throw his own blade down. He should go to her, take her hand and lead her back into the woods and never stop running until they are free, until there is no Shinsengumi and no Ishin-Shishi and he can turn to her and explain, turn and tell her that he loves her, his most important truth. But he is frozen under her betrayed gaze.

She raises her fingers to her lips, the way she often did to hide her laughter, but she is not laughing now. She takes one shaky, terrifying breath.

"Kenshin?" she sobs, and her voice is very small.

No.

How long has he waited, to hear her call him by his name? He's wanted to ask her to, to hear his real name on her lips instead of the one given to him by his adopted clan. He'd thought perhaps when they were married he could ask for that intimacy. But now, he will never hear it again. Never hear her speak any words again, because she is lost to him forever. His heart burns in his chest, a pain he thinks ought to crush him, but he remains on his feet.

It is Kamiya who sinks to her knees. She falls hard, covering her face with her hand, the other breaking her fall forwards as she cries. Kenshin takes one heavy step towards her, his hands lifting as though to catch her. His fault, her pain was always his fault. He takes one heavy step, and then he senses them, the two fierce spirits running for the landing, and he has one second, one second only to weigh his cowardice against her tears. If he left he would forever betray her. If he stayed, he'd have to either surrender or kill her comrades in front of her.

No.

He sheathes his katana and runs past her, down the stairs of the shrine towards the oncoming Iizuka, who turns and runs along beside him in confusion.

"What happened?"

"An ambush," Kenshin yells, and if the examiner sees the unshed tears in his eyes he doesn't care.


Kaoru feels him run past her, a whisper of air almost like a caress. She screams inwardly at herself to look up, to reach out, to call his name, to do anything but weakly sob into her hands, but she cannot. All the pain and sorrow and fear she has been continuously locking in her heart explodes out of her, threatening to drown her, and it is all she can do to remain breathing. "It's not true. It's not true!" The thought repeats over and over.

"Kaoru!"

There is the pounding of feet, the rush of two familiar spirits. Kaoru sucks in her breath with effort, groaning under the strain.

"Are you hurt, Kaoru?" Souji rolls her into his arms, bracing her lifeless body against him, his hand cupping her tear-streaked cheek. Kaoru blinks sluggishly and tries to leave his arms, but her body doesn't listen to her commands. She lies inert against him, but her mind is alert, aware. Suddenly she sees Souji with blinding clarity "This is wrong," she thinks, "I chose to live for someone else."

"She's covered in blood," Souji is telling Saito frantically, and Kaoru feels the third unit captain's hands against her limbs, checking for injuries. He opens her haori to inspect her clothes.

"It's not hers," Saito responds, and then he looks Kaoru deeply in the eye. "Kamiya-san, can you hear me?"

"Hhhh…" she tries, "Hhhhmmm." If she could just call his name, he'd come back. He'd left because she hadn't called him by the right name. This was some kind of mistake, and saying his name would bring him back, to tell her it was all right. "Don't go. You promised you'd never leave me." Tears leak out of her eyes anew.

Souji presses his ear closer to her lips. "Is she trying to say 'Hajime'?"

"Perhaps," says Saito. "She's in shock. We need to get her back to headquarters."

Their voices fade, humming into the background, and Kaoru stares into the violet edge of the oncoming sunrise. A beautiful violet, like his eyes. It had to be a mistake, but it isn't. She had leapt out of the bushes, and Himura had been there, kicking Toma off his sword and glaring at her with eyes glinting cold and sharp enough to cut her to shreds. There was no mistaking that spirit, the pure and deadly spirit that he always kept so closely guarded, that passionate sense of courage and honour and conviction that is only him.

Kaoru tries, but the more she turns things over in her head, the less they make sense. It had to be a mistake! The man she knew would never, could never…but he'd dispatched the third unit, eight men, like it was nothing. How, how could this be right? And her father… and Omae-dono. Why, why would he kill Omae-dono in her place? To think of him, her gentle, kind Himura Kenshin and those deaths in the same breath is impossible. Yet a cruel voice hisses in the back of her head that she didn't know him at all, did she? Nothing at all of his past before they met, or of his life outside their all-too-brief meetings.

But no! If he had wanted her dead he could have done it many times, the most logical of all in the street the night she'd killed that Ishin-Shishi. She'd thought all this time that he'd been brought there by some benevolent spirit to help her, but… But he had helped her. He'd kept her alive and stayed by her side to ensure she would heal. And he would never mistake Omae-dono for herself, he was too observant, too skilled to make such a mistake. What reason would he have to kill her, leave the same marks on their beloved friend as had been found on her father… Her father... Himura asked so often about him, was his kindness borne of his guilt at taking her father's life? Could she dare hope that he had harmed neither…?

Kaoru sobs brokenly and she feels Souji's arms pull her closer. It feels wrong, his comfort; it is not the arms she needs. But if he had killed her father… how could she ever forgive that? Heisuke had insisted the wounds were the same, and Kaoru clings to that one scrap of truth. Nothing makes any sense, and there is only one person now who could unknot all her confusion. "I have to find him," she realizes; she has to let him explain. This new resolution unlocks her unresponsive limbs, and she places one hand on the ground next to her and lifts herself out of Souji's lap, groggily shaking her head.

"Kaoru!" Souji reaches for her again and she lumbers to her feet, determined to stand on her own, determined not to depend on Souji for strength any more. The ground and sky seem to swim towards her at the same time, but she takes a shuffling step forwards. Himura was fast, and she doesn't have much time. Saito-sensei gently grabs her by the arms. "Hold on, Kamiya-san," he says.

"I will go to headquarters and report this," Kaoru tells him blankly, but Saito doesn't listen to her. His eyes blaze into her own, and she sees there his grief for his unit. "Did you see him, Kamiya? The Battousai?"

Kaoru looks the third unit captain straight in the eye. He feeds stray cats at night, when he thinks no one is looking. She has seen Saito-sensei steal an entire fish out of the kitchen for them. And Souji, he is always ready to play games with the neighbourhood children, letting them climb on his back, chasing them around the compound and playing hide and seek. Heisuke wears his heart on his sleeve; he makes them breakfast when they drink too much, has devoted his life to freeing the maiko he loves. Kondo makes time for even the most insignificant of troop members. He teaches them to read, gently corrects their stances. And Hijikata writes gorgeous poetry, worries when they do not make it home on time, treats them with respect.

It must sound strange, that the terrible wolves of Mibu are so kind. But, in truth they are men just like any other. I had heard all the rumours too, before. But when I became one of them, I learned their decency and gentleness.

They are all her family, kind and loving and good. But they are also samurai, and if orders or honour dictated it, they would kill a man in an instant. It did not stop her from caring for them.

"No," she says. "The assassin was gone when I arrived."

Chapter Text

The sun is setting when he steps out into the clearing. Half of him expects her not to be there; the other hopes she has not given up on him. His spirit is heavy around him, and the air around the little house feels weighed down, as though everything is under water. A slow wind rustles the leaves and he blinks, confused, trying to sort out what is different. "It feels like the air before a battle," he realizes.

Kamiya is there. Her spirit is small, sheltered like a dying flame, unreadable. She watches him, standing on the front porch with the shoji open behind her, as though she is the last defender at the palace gates. Except, she is not wearing her swords. His own seem like an impossible burden against his hip, and he wants to fling them from his body, but such a movement would startle her.

He stops ten feet from the porch and does not raise his eyes to meet hers. For an eternity they stand, still as statues, until at last Kamiya draws in one shuddering breath.

"I wasn't sure you'd come," she exhales.

"I was not sure myself, until I was here," he tells her honestly. He'd wrestled his conscience each step to Muko, but even when he'd sat in his window, his mind in a turmoil, wondering what it meant, the lack of anyone bursting into his room with news that a man with his description was being searched for by the shogunate, that the name "Battousai" was finally linked with "Himura Kenshin." Unless the Shinsengumi was playing some deep, twisted game, it appeared that she has not revealed him. She had seen what he had done, who he was, seen the blood of her comrades on his blade... and she had stayed silent. His mind had turned the fact over and over, and though he has come to the painful conclusion that he should keep out of her life to prevent her any more pain, he still felt the inevitable pull towards her, and he'd moved without really thinking. Hoping, against everything, that her silence was a sign.

"Is it true?" she asks softly.

"Yes."

He does not look up, but he knows from the way her breath hitches that she has started to cry. Her sorrow curls around his heart like a vice, putting pressure on his already wavering faith in his cause. He'd succumbed to Katsura's madness because it was necessary to create the new era; he had a sword and it was needed. But he hadn't meant to hurt so many others, hadn't meant to breed fear and hatred and pain the way his bloody sword had. He'd been able to bear it because he'd had her, because he'd wanted her dream to succeed, and believed that when the new era came, he could make it succeed. And now, what he'd come to see as his true reason to fight stood before him, weeping in despair at what he was.

"I suppose, your lord wished to make use of your formidable skill," Kamiya says. "A samurai must do his duty."

He winces at her attempt to rationalize his deeds, to take the blame off his shoulders. "I volunteered," he tells her, hating that he must pull out from under her the fragile foundation she has built to stand on. "I am not samurai. I joined the service of the Ishin-Shishi."

"Why?" she asks, her voice breaking in disbelief, cracking with the unspoken demand of how, how he could willingly do such a thing.

"I…" he falters, and his master's voice burns in his head. They will make you a mass murderer. Kenshin clenches his fists. "My skill with the sword has made me capable of protecting others, and the people of Japan are suffering. I joined the Ishin-Shishi to help them build a new era, one of peace and happiness for all people."

"A new era," she gasps softly. "You are talking about sonno joi…you mean to dismantle the shogunate…"

Kenshin rolls his shoulders uncomfortably. He is only a sword, and the politics are of no interest to him, only the end result. "If that becomes necessary," he agrees.

"That's treason," she whispers.

"The shogunate commits the true treason when they refuse to acknowledge the world is changing, and instead watch those they are charged with protecting sicken and die, be sold into slavery and killed for no reason." He realizes his voice is rising despite himself, and tries to control his emotions. "Forgive me, but you have never seen your entire village die because of famine and disease."

"Himura…"

"You have never known what it is to be a slave. You have never seen raiders slaughter innocent women because they were too young to be useful." He stares at his feet, and his voice is hollow with memory. He shakes his head; it is not her fault that her life has been so far away from these things. "You were born to privilege. What has been given to samurai has been denied others."

"So you kill them," she says, her voice nearly breaking, "to make it fair."

"The lives I have taken have all been bloody themselves," he says softly.

He hears Kamiya's sharp hiss of breath, and her spirit, which so far has remained hidden, stabs him like a spear. "And my father?" she cries. "Was my father also bloody?"

Kenshin's chin snaps up, and his wounded violet eyes at last meet her own. Two deep blue seas, churning with anger and betrayal, battering him with the waves of her hopeless rage. "When you killed him, did you thank him for his hospitality?" she asks, shaking with barely contained emotion.

He reaches into his kimono, and Kamiya tenses. Kenshin kneels as he removes the indigo silk from its customary place over his heart, placing it before him as he folds himself into the ground, bowing to her as he should have almost a year ago. Kamiya cries out softly, recognizing the ribbon, worn a little from so much handling.

"On the night Koshijiro-sama died, I failed in my duty to protect him. He was ambushed by ninja who had discovered he was feeding information to the Ishin-Shishi. I left too much space between us, out of respect, but also over-confidence. I could not reach him in time." His hands, making a triangle in front of him, start to tremble. "I failed you."

There is a loud thud, and Kenshin jerks upright, worried Kamiya has fainted, but instead she has fallen hard on her knees, with one arm thrown against the pillar beside her. She stares at him white-faced. "He…he was…Ishin…" Her breath comes out in short gasps and he wants to run to her and hold her, but it is no longer his place. He has only words now.

"Your father wanted to create a world where you were free to be yourself," he tells her gently, "His love for you was very deep indeed. His last thoughts were for you, and he wanted you to know he was sorry."

Kamiya moans softly and presses her face against the pillar. "Father…" she breathes.

"I swore to him I would protect you," he admits, "and I have carried your ribbon since that night. Koshijiro-sama wanted us to take you to safety, if something happened to him... but before I could reach you you'd joined the Shinsengumi."

Kamiya lets out a quick, bitter laugh, and then is silent again, her expression still hidden.

"I thought I'd never see you again," he continues, "I told myself it was what your father would have wanted, for you to choose your own fate, and I would not interfere in your life, where I had no place, no right to be. But then, you walked into that ink shop. I thought it was my mind playing tricks at first, you looked and sounded so different. You… you were so broken by grief. I could not bear to see you like that."

Her shoulders tremble, a sign she is once again shedding silent tears. "I…" he falters again, remembering her tired eyes. She has worn them over and over again and he has been powerless to prevent it from happening. Her pain was always his fault. "It was my fault you were suffering, it is my constant failure that hurts you. I am unworthy to be the one to protect you, but I could not leave you alone."

"So you helped me," she whispers. She raises her head from the pillar and turns her tear streaked face to his, her resigned sadness hitting him like a physical blow. "You wished to fulfil your promise to my father."

"Yes."

"You were there that night, in Shimabara, to protect your comrade from me," she murmurs, and the abrupt change in topic catches him off guard.

"I went to kill the ones who'd seen him…" he admits, ashamed.

"Why didn't you kill me? I was unarmed, I didn't even know you were there."

"You know why," he says, and it is both an answer and a question, because she had to know he could never bring himself to intentionally hurt her, she had to know how precious she is to him.

Kamiya's shoulders slump dejectedly, and her eyes fall on the ribbon lying between them. "Because of your promise to my father," she sighs.

Kenshin gapes at her hunched over form. How could she think it was only that? Did she really think that all she was to him was a promise to fulfil, a duty to uphold? But then he turns his frustration on himself, because he has lied to her about so many things, what right had he to expect her to believe in him? Love makes people blind, and we need to be reassured.

"Because I love you," he says, voice cracking, his eyes blazing with this truth. "I love you, I would never-" But he cannot continue, because despite his love, he has hurt her, deeply and terribly.

Her head raises and her eyes are large and round, so beautiful, spilling tears down her flushed cheeks. "Himura," she trembles.

"I thought it at first… I believed it was simply my promise. But I have loved you since the day we met." And he is sorry, so sorry, that she had to bear the burden of his love, when all he is and all he has done has hurt her.

Kamiya stares into her lap and twists her fingers in her sleeves. "Then why," she whispers, "why did you not trust me?"

"Forgive me. I can tell no one," he says softly. "I can trust no one."

For a long time, they stare at each other in the fading light, his words and her ribbon between them, as the fireflies start to flit through the trees. "Who killed Omae-dono?" Kamiya whispers, at last. Kenshin knows this is a test, and he vows to keep no more secrets so long as they are his to give.

"One escaped me, when Koshijiro-sama died. A silver haired man, who dealt your father a mortal strike. The Shinsengumi say the one who killed Omae-dono is the same man."

"A grudge then, against the Kamiya," she whispers, her hands fisting in the fabric of her hakama. "He wishes to end our family line."

"Perhaps," he says. It is an option he has not considered, and he clings to it, irrationally hoping the reason she was a target was not solely his own failure. "His actions have made the Ishin-Shishi and Shinsengumi notice one another."

"Tell your comrades not to go to the bar in the slums anymore," she says, looking away in shame. "I… I captured someone there… he is being held for questioning by Hijikata-sensei…"

Kenshin had heard about the trouble last night, five Ishin-Shishi slain and Furutaka Shuntaro missing. There had been nothing to suggest it was Shinsengumi, but now he knows they are moving in the shadows as well.

"Did he talk?" he asks, "The one you captured?"

"No… not yet. Saito-sensei said he heard about the shrine from an informant. Be wary of anyone with narrow eyes and sharp features. He is a Shinsengumi spy."

Silence falls between them again, because both are loath to reveal more about their conflicting allegiances. "I will find the silver haired man," Kenshin promises her, "and then you will be safe once more."

"And then?" she asks softly. "When will you be safe, Himura?"

He blinks at her, confused, and she almost glares at him. "We are to carry each other's burdens and regrets," she reminds him, sliding off the porch. Her bare feet step carefully through the fine grass, and fireflies dance around her, setting off tiny explosions of light against her clothing. She kneels in front of him and picks up her ribbon. "This is a promise," she says, holding it out to him, "that you will return. I am only lending it to you until you come home again."

"Kamiya…"

She reaches for his hand, sets the smooth silk into his palm. "I don't know Hitokiri Battousai," she whispers. "The man I met is named Himura Kenshin. He is good and kind, and he has always helped me." She curls his fingers over the ribbon with her own, her eyes shining in the dying light. "But his duty is a heavy one, and I know it weighs on him. So I promised to stay beside him forever."

Kenshin reaches out to stroke her cheek with tentative, shaking fingers. He grows bolder when she does not flinch or pull away; he cups her face in his hand, stretching his fingers to thread into her jet black hair. Kamiya places her hand over his, and their foreheads press together.

"Be safe," she breathes, "Your life is not just your own."

He laughs, a breathy gasp of disbelief, that she could forgive him his failures, his lies and secrets, that she would still choose him. The hand closed around her ribbon lifts to clasp the back of her neck and he nods, drawing back to gaze once more into her beautiful, sad, determined eyes. He breathes in her soft, floral smell, he kisses her forehead, her temple, and lastly, her lips. It is a sad, chaste kiss, marking their promise without deciding anything for their future. When the kiss ends he buries his face into her neck, and Kamiya holds him in her embrace, her spirit gentle and sad. He burns everything into his memory, cataloguing it away in the recess of his heart where there is only her, then he pulls himself from her arms, stands and slowly walks away.

When he reaches the edge of the clearing he turns back for one final look at her, sitting in the grass, surrounded by soft, tiny lights. He tucks her ribbon back over his heart and melts into the trees. Though he doesn't know it, once he has disappeared, Kamiya Kaoru lays down in the grass and cries for a very long time.

Chapter Text

Kaoru returns to headquarters early in the morning, only two days after leaving for Muko. It felt wrong to stay in the house, wrong to be idle when everyone she cares about is now moving in an increasingly deadly game. A game in which she can no longer immediately discern which side she is on.

When Kaoru has imagined Himura in the streets of Kyoto, she has always imagined him upholding the justice she believes in. She knows him, her dearest friend, her strongest ally, the man to whom she has given her heart. How she could think of him as anything other than her comrade against the madness unfolding in the city? But he is at the centre of the madness, the very thing she had taken up swords to defend against. And he has known. He has known all this time what she is, what she stands for, what her father had stood for. He has listened to her prattle on about the sword that protects life, listened to her, encouraged her. He had told her he believed in her dream, and then run amok through the streets, his sword a harbinger of death and terror.

But he has not been a sword without morals, without a sense of right and wrong. Kaoru cannot endorse his taking of lives, but she knows, she has seen how heavy his duty is for him to carry. How he has shut himself away behind a samurai's formality because he believed his dirty hands unworthy of kindness. He chose to come to Kyoto and take on the role of a hitokiri, but it is slowly breaking him. He believes in her dream because he has to, he has to believe that when everything is over, a sword will stand for peace in the new era. She promised he would always smile, she promised he would not be alone, and she loves him. She will not abandon him when all his hopes are for a better world, when everything she knows of the swordsman's path is about caring for others.

Kaoru's steps feel heavier and heavier as she approaches the city, and her heart feels the strain. What will she do, if she is ordered to fight against him? She has already lied for his sake, already betrayed her brothers by failing to reveal his identity. Did that mean her choice was made? She had been ready to stand against the Ishin-Shishi because she believed them to be faceless enemies who had taken her father from her and mercilessly killed Omae-dono. And it had been easy to forget, in her hatred, that they were men like any others, men who simply felt the shogun no longer deserved to rule. She thinks she might believe them, now. Her father had always been loyal to the Tokugawa, had always stood next to the shogun even when newsletters arrived from Yoshida-san in Hagi every month. Her father and the shogun had not always agreed, and he had a philosophy of the sword that was counter to everything samurai were taught to believe. But he had stayed unwaveringly at the shogun's side, and despite that they'd killed him in the street, without giving him an opportunity to defend his actions. Kaoru burns with the shame of it, the weight of the shogun's betrayal. Her own betrayal she finds she cannot regret.

Kaoru adjusts the hilts of her daisho against her hip, her hand absently straying to where the Kamiya crest marked the sheath wood. They had been heavy, when she'd first starting wearing them, but now, her left side feels alien without them. Her swords to protect, and she will use them now as best she can, no longer for the shogun, but still for her father's legacy, still in aid of her brothers and the people of Kyoto, and gods, let her never come up against Himura Kenshin and his heavenly justice. If she had to choose between her heart and her duty, she would shatter.

Kaoru had expected headquarters to be under its usual morning hush, but she is surprised to see most of the troop awake and bustling about. She barely has time to remove her hat in her room before the shoji slides open.

"You're back!" shouts Heisuke, and Harada-sensei throws him a disparaging look.

"Of course she is, you're looking right at her, Todo-kun," he mutters.

Heisuke however is undaunted, grinning wide at Kaoru. "I knew you wouldn't miss the excitement," he laughs.

"Ara, what excitement?" she asks.

Nagakura-sensei pushes his way into the tiny space and seats himself unceremoniously next to her. "Your Ishin-Shishi is an interesting man, Kaoru-chan," he says. Her mind blanks in fear. Had she been followed to Muko? Did they find out about Himura?

"My… my what?" she sputters, her heart thudding in her chest.

"That ronin you and Souji caught," offers Harada-sensei helpfully, seating himself in the only other available space. Heisuke folds his arms and leans against the doorframe.

"Yeah, he's just full of interesting information," Heisuke agrees with a smirk.

"Oh…" Kaoru breathes. Relief washes over her momentarily like a fresh spring breeze, and she nearly shivers. Himura is still safe, for now. "What information?" she asks, trying to sound casual.

"Keh, nothing useful until Hijikata-sensei got out his candles," Harada-sensei laughs, "but any man would betray his own mother with hot wax in his feet."

Kaoru turns away, sickened. She had caught him, and whatever the ronin had endured was her doing. "Is he all right?" she asks softly.

Nagakura and Harada's eyes both widen in surprise, but Heisuke, who is more used to her quirks, squeezes himself into the room to kneel before her and pat her knee. "He'll live, Kaoru-chan," he promises her, and when she meets his eyes he smiles encouragingly. "He's a true bushi to endure so much for so long, I'll give him that."

Kaoru nods slowly. She is more than aware of how much the Ishin-Shishi are asked to endure for their rebellion. "He's strong," she murmurs.

"Bushi or not," Nagakura-sensei says, "He was no match for the Vice Commander."

"Yes," agrees Harada-sensei, and then he turns to Kaoru with a sharp glint in his eye. "When Hijikata-sensei found out the Ishin-Shishi leaders are meeting in secret tonight, he was a little disappointed they didn't invite us."


Kaoru slides open the shoji, and shuts it quietly behind her. The ronin is curled against himself, his arms still strung up above his head. She sets down her tray and bucket, and cuts his arms free with her dagger. The man moans softly as he slides to the floor, unable to hold himself up with all his injuries. She helps him raise himself enough to press a cup of cool water to his lips, and he drinks it thirstily; the room they have been keeping him in is stifling.

"What is your name?" she asks him quietly, when he has finished.

"Furutaka Shuntaro," he whispers, and Kaoru rewards him with another cup of water.

"Furutaka-san," she repeats. "I will remember it."

Kaoru sets to cleaning the wounds she can see, giving him as much comfort as a cool cloth against heated skin can. Kondo had agreed to only that much. "It seems I am always meeting Ishin-Shishi on very hot days," she says softly. She presses a clean cold cloth to the back of his neck while she braces him against her and helps him to eat the onigiri she has brought.

"I will not tie you back up," she tells him, "so please rest."

"I knew your father," he whispers, "Thank you, Kamiya-sama."

Kaoru nods, and smiles once, a small thing. She takes a deep breath to quiet her nerves. "Will you trust me, as you trusted my father, Furutaka-san?" she asks, her voice only loud enough for him to hear. He eyes her warily, and Kaoru does not blame him, though her stomach is tying itself in knots. "Please, I will warn them if you tell me where to find them."

"Why?" he asks, and Kaoru takes another deep breath. This is her choice, and she will not abandon him.

"There is one with you," she says, "with hair like fire and violet eyes." Furutaka's eyes widen, and he grips the sleeve of her kimono. Kaoru lets her emotion show on her face, and her blue eyes become worried and pleading. "Where can I find him, Furutaka-san?" she begs.

"What are you, to that man?"

"I love him," she nearly sobs, as loud as she dares. "Please, tell me where he is."

The ronin looks at her for a long time. So long, Kaoru worries he does not believe her. "If you wish to warn them," Furutaka says finally, "the person you must go to is Ikumatsu."


Kaoru puts down her teacup at the sound of the shoji opening, and presses herself into a deep bow. Her nose fills with the scent of delicate perfume, and the geiko, as the high-minded geisha of Kyoto called themselves, titters like a glass bell as she sweeps into the room.

"My, my," smiles Ikumatsu. "To what do I owe this high honour?"

"Forgive my intrusion on you so early in the afternoon," Kaoru says, sitting up, "but this is a matter of urgency."

"Oh?" the geiko asks, settling in front of Kaoru and reaching for the teapot. "But aren't all matters in Shimabara urgent?"

Kaoru ignores the offer of tea, reaches into her sleeve and places a wooden token on the tatami between them, coming right to her purpose. She doesn't have long; if she is noticed missing from headquarters there will be questions, and her heart is already uneasy enough that she doubts she'd be able to lie convincingly. Kaoru shoves down her guilt, gritting her teeth and closing her eyes before she speaks. "Please warn them, the Shinsengumi know of their plans this evening."

Ikumatsu picks up the token and looks over the kanji. "Furutaka Shuntaro," she reads, "Choshuu han."

"He was captured and submitted under torture," Kaoru says quietly, and feels guilt she cannot ignore. She opens her eyes and stares at her fingers as they twist her sleeves. "But he said you could get a message to the Ishin-Shishi if I came to you."

"And why would you want to warn them, Kamiya-san? Are you not Miburo yourself?"

Kaoru digs her fingernails into her palm. If she says nothing, Kenshin will once again be ambushed. If she warns the Ishin-Shishi, her comrades would walk into a trap. "I hardly know what I am anymore," she whispers, and her heart bleeds into her voice as her loyalties unravel. "But if I do nothing, one who fights with them, the one I love, will be in danger."

The geiko's guarded look turns to gentle pity. "You overestimate my abilities," she says, "at best I may be able to speak to one of them this evening."

Kaoru nods, dejected and suddenly very tired. Was this how it had felt, when he couldn't help her? "I thank you then, for your time." She moves to bow again, but the geiko puts out her hand.

"Who is it, the one who holds your heart?"

"Himura Kenshin," she whispers, and from the way the geiko's eyes widen, Kaoru knows she does not have to add 'the Battousai'.

"Then you may rest assured," Ikumatsu tells her. "The one I love has told me that man will not attend this meeting."

It feels as though a mountain has been lifted off her back, and Kaoru bows in deep gratitude. "I hope the one you love will also be safe," she tells the geiko honestly.

"You have kept him so, by coming here today. You have my thanks, Kamiya-san. I will keep the secret of your heart for you." Ikumatsu removes a delicate pin from her carefully arranged hair. It is small and golden, with a single jasmine flower decorating it. "Jasmine. That is your perfume, is it not, Kamiya-san?"

"Yes."

"A pleasing scent. Please accept this as a token of my gratitude, and wear it should you ever need to speak with me again."


Kaoru is sweating in the torch light; even with the sun set, it was still oppressively hot. It doesn't help, either, that she is wearing kote and her heavy dou. She touches the thick metal plate over her chest. Her father had the armour made for her when she became an adjunct master, but she has never had cause to wear it.

They are all waiting under the Sanjo bridge, against the west bank of the Kamo river, hiding down the street from an inn called the Ikeda, waiting for a sign that it is the location of the rebel meeting. Furutaka-san had not been sure, and so they brought a smaller force, only eleven men and Kondo, while the rest are with Hijikata.

"There," Souji says to Kondo in front of her, and Heisuke and Saito tense on either side of her.

"I saw it," Kondo agrees. "This is the meeting place after all."

"What should we do?" Nagakura-sensei asks behind her. "The Aizu Clan have not yet sent reinforcements."

Kondo surveys the troops behind him. "Ibuki," he calls to their youngest member after Kaoru. "Report this to Hijikata-sensei."

"Yes sir!" Ibuki disappears down the alley, and now there are ten of them.

"Nagakura."

"Commander?"

"Take Jineh, Shinohara, and Matsubara around the back to block their exit."

"Yes sir!" The four men melt into the road, and now they are six.

Kondo looks each of them in the eye. "We will avenge the third unit here," he tells them, and Saito's spirit sharpens with icy efficiency. Kaoru pities anyone who crosses swords with him this night, and her inner conflict rears in her spirit, threatens to pull her under and drag her beneath waves of guilt. Men were going to die here tonight, his comrades and her brothers.

Souji turns to look at Kaoru. He takes in her uneasy expression and tilts his head, indicating the place beside him. "Stay behind me," he tells her.

"Yes, sir," she murmurs, and moves into place on his left, where she can feel a deadly energy radiating off his body.

"Now!" Kondo yells, and Kaoru has no more time to think, they move as one to cross the street. Kondo breaks down the door with one level kick and keeps going; they all pound up the stairs behind him as the Commander throws open the shoji and yells "Aizu special force Shinsengumi! Surrender to the shogunate!"

The lamps go out immediately, plunging them into darkness, and below her, Heisuke softly swears. "Does he have to always announce us like that?" the eighth unit captain mutters. He runs back down the stairs with two of their men to neutralize the first floor with Nagakura.

But luck or providence is on their side: the clouds over the moon part, and the room is flooded with silvery light, exposing several men crouching along the walls. Saito runs into the room with a battle cry and a few of the men decide flight is the safer option, and jump out the window. The third unit captain follows right behind, and Kondo, embarrassed that men would run instead of fight, jumps right after him with a howl of rage.

"Kondo-sensei!" Kaoru yells, darting after him, but Souji grabs hold of her and shoves her against the wall beside him as the clouds return and the room is dark once again. "Don't expose your back, Kaoru," he whispers.

Her heartbeat thuds in her ears, and Kaoru draws her blade in silence, snuffs out her spirit. She and Souji are alone on the top floor, and she can sense at least five opponents. "Stay behind me," Souji says again.


Kenshin rests at his window, absently flipping through one of his many books. In truth, they are not his, but Katsura's. The Choshuu Leader had kept them in Kenshin's room with the small hope that Kenshin would study them, but he hardly has time. Tonight the teachings of Yoshida-san are an unequal distraction to his impatience for Katsura to return from the Ikeda-ya with his news of the silver-haired man; Kamiya has waited too long for her revenge, and he won't make her wait a moment longer. She'd left a note for him at the Shirobeko this morning on her way back from Muko, telling him she would not stay there until he could be there, too. He touches his kimono over his heart, where the reassuring slip of her ribbon between his garments reminds him of her promise. I am only lending it to you until you come home again.

"Himura!"

The sudden commotion jerks him from his thoughts; there are shouts downstairs, and heavy footsteps pound along the hallway and stop at his room. The shoji bangs open to reveal Katakai-san, out of breath, and a confused Iizuka looking over his shoulder.

"What is it?" Kenshin asks. "You're supposed to be guarding Katsura at the meeting, Katakai-san-"

"The meeting at the Ikeda-ya was raided by the Shinsengumi!"

"Then information will be leaked!" shouts Iizuka, "What about Katsura-san?"

"He was called to Shimabara…"

Kenshin loses the sounds of their voices, loses the ability to rationalize. A blinding, untameable rage overtakes him, and he can think of only one thing, that she would be there, that she is not safe, and her fool comrades had thrown her into harm's way and destroyed whatever chance he had of learning anything about the man who was trying to kill her.

"Wait Himura!" Iizuka shouts, and Kenshin is surprised to find that he has moved, that the larger man is restraining him. "It's too late! If you go charging out now you'll never get there in time!"

Kenshin throws off the Examiner's arm with ease, evades him when he lunges to catch Kenshin again. He runs past Katakai, who is too winded from his run to put up any resistance.

"There are three thousand bakufu soldiers out there!" Iizuka shouts desperately, "Fighting now will only make things worse for Choshuu!"

But Kenshin doesn't care about Choshuu, he doesn't care about the bakufu, and he would face a million soldiers if they stood between him and her.

Be safe. Your life is not just your own.

"Kamiya!" he shouts as he runs along the rooftops.


In the darkness of the room, Kaoru loses her sense of time and space. She and Souji are in the void, where there is nothing but life and death, the sound of uneven breathing, the whisper of the air around them. She measures time by the beats of her heart; two for Souji to draw his sword, one for him to step in front of her, and then, before it can beat again there is the rasp of an opponent's blade leaving the scabbard, the whipping breeze of a strike. Kaoru's heart thumps a fourth time and a ronin is dead at Souji's feet. He turns to his left, slashing out at a second, whose lifeless body joins his comrade on the floor. Souji turns back to Kaoru and gives her his handsomest grin, laughing at how easy it is. Kaoru's heart beats again and she feels all at once a presence on his right. "Look out, Souji!" she cries, leaning forward, but the ronin slams into him and they both fall. Kaoru waits two heartbeats, but neither of them stir.

"Souji?!" she calls. She takes two steps, abandoning the protection of the wall to roll Souji out from under the dead ronin. The first unit captain is covered in blood, his eyes closed. "Souji?" she calls. "Souji, get up!"

There is no sign he is breathing, and Kaoru shakes him violently. "Souji!" she cries, her eyes filling with tears, "Please, Okita-sensei!" but his lifeless body is unresponsive. "No!" she shrieks, leaping to her feet. "He was my brother!" Her spirit flares to life and she takes up an attacking stance, swinging her sword between the two remaining ronin so they know she is aware of their location. "How dare you, cowards!" she screams, "Surrender or face me!"

From her left there is an angry shout as the ronin charges. Kaoru flows like water, faster than she has ever moved, the back of her blade hitting the ronin's strike so hard she snaps his sword like a twig. She uses her forward momentum as leverage, her completed strike breaks the ronin's shoulder. He crumples to his knees and her second strike cracks hard against his skull. He collapses, and Kaoru does something she has never done before, she attacks the second ronin before he charges, and their blades clang sickeningly together. They force each other back and Kaoru circles, dodges his ill timed-lunge, her sword slicing along the ronin's back. He shouts in pain and turns to bury his sword in her shoulder, but Kaoru judges the move before he executes it, and catches the strike instead on her hachigane. For a moment she sees stars, but her tear-filled gaze doesn't waver; she glares down the ronin's blade. "Surrender," she snarls. Her own sword presses against the soft flesh of his neck.

The ronin's blade thuds to the tatami and he raises his hands. Kaoru forces him back a step, intending to walk him to the corner of the room and tie him up. But a shadow moves in the edge of her field of vision, unfolding itself seemingly from the top corner of the window, and she panics. She hits the ronin in the face with her hilt to neutralize him and he hits the floor like a bag of stones, but she has no time; she turns her attention to the new attacker. Kaoru yells, half fear, half intimidation, her hoarse voice deeper in her terror. The shadow moves faster than humanly possible, and Kaoru can do nothing but throw up her blade with all her strength and hope. She squeezes her eyes shut and her opponent's sword slams against hers with so much force the air resonates with sound. It jars her wrists and elbows and shoulders, vibrates all the way down to her feet. Her teeth chatter but she does not concede an inch.

Kaoru's eyes fly open and she stares past their crossed swords, into the surprised violet eyes of Himura Kenshin.

"Kamiya!"

They let go of their swords simultaneously, and Kaoru is pulled into his arms before she hears the twin thuds of their blades against the floor.

"Forgive me," he rasps in her ear, "I nearly…"

"I'm all right," she whispers, and his arms tighten around her, his face presses into her neck.

Kaoru turns her face into his shoulder, her fingers clutching the collar of his kimono in a fist. She is not sure if she is trembling or he is, but she suspects it is both. "You aren't supposed to be here…"

"I came to get you." He draws back to look at her tear streaked face. "Kamiya, let's get out of-"

"Kamiya-chan? Okita?"

The shout is from downstairs, and footsteps start tentatively up the stairs. Terrified, Kaoru shoves Himura hard away from her. "Go!" she hisses.

"Let them come," he grates, stepping between her and the doorway, picking up his sword.

"Kenshin!" she nearly sobs, catching his hand and jerking him back, "I won't lose you, and I won't let any of them die!" He gapes at her, and she reaches up to catch his face between her hands. "Please," she begs softly, "Please, go."

He looks at her for what feels like too long, her heartbeat thudding in her ears, until at last he softly sighs. He folds his arms around her back, and pulls her to him to kiss her. "Be safe," he pleads, exasperated, and then he is gone.

Kaoru falls to her knees. Her entire body feels weak, and while she reaches for her sword, she can no longer close her stiff hands around it. All she wants to do is curl up and cry, but she needs to give Kenshin time to get away. "Here!" she calls, gritting her teeth and sheathing her sword with effort. "Kamiya Kaoru of the first unit!"

"Kamiya-chan!" It is Hijikata in the doorway, with Saito behind him. The Vice Commander's eyes are fierce and his face grim; Kaoru's heart catches in her chest as she reaches behind her, towards the crumpled form in a sky blue haori.

"Souji is…" she sobs, unable to keep her tears back any longer. "Souji fell."

The Vice Commander is quick to go to the first unit captain's side, and Kaoru presses a weary, shaking hand to her eyes. She feels so heavy.

"He's alive!" Hijikata yells, and Kaoru's relief hits her like a physical blow. "Bring up a door panel!"

Saito stands in front of Kaoru and offers her his hand. "You did well, Kamiya. You protected him." She laughs weakly at her private joke; she has done her best to protect everyone, and her spirit is in tatters. Kaoru takes Saito's hand, getting to her feet with difficulty. The third unit captain throws her arm over his shoulders and supports her down the stairs and into the yard. The street is crawling with Aizu soldiers.

"Kenshin," she thinks, "Please be safe."


When he gets back to the Kohagi-ya, it is a flurry of hasty activity. Those in the inn are packing quickly; if any of their comrades from the Ikeda-ya survived to tell of the secret headquarters, they are all sitting ducks. Kenshin's mind is racing two plans ahead of itself. He needs to get his things, he needs to find Katsura, he needs to leave a message for Kamiya at the Shirobeko. He needs to get to Muko as soon as possible.

He runs up the stairs and throws open his shoji and Katsura is there, standing next to the stand upon which Kenshin has hung his blue-black kimono. The Choshuu leader is fingering the fabric of the sleeve with a slight frown.

"Kenshin. I am glad to see you are unhurt."

"Forgive me for worrying you."

The Choshuu leader drops the sleeve in his fingers and turns to Kenshin with a sigh. "How bad is it, at the Ikeda-ya?"

"I could not get close," he lies, because in truth he has no idea how bad it is, only that Kamiya was unhurt. "There were too many Aizu soldiers."

"When the clan hears of this, there will be blood in the streets."

"I am ready to serve," Kenshin says quietly, thinking regretfully of the way she'd held him back, the way she'd tried to keep them all safe.

Katsura turns back to the kimono. "I did not notice before, the embroidery," he says. Kenshin rolls his shoulders, and says nothing. He looks at his feet.

"I have made arrangements for a safe house in Otsu," Katsura says, "You will go there in the guise of an apothecary, since you are so handy at salves."

"Sir?"

"I must go into hiding, and you will too. We are both too valuable to the rebellion to be lost now. Iizuka has the details, he will act as a messenger between us."

"Yes, sir," he whispers, and his plans deflate, his hopes for Muko gone.

Katsura contemplates the kimono for another moment. "If you wish, take your woman. I cannot guarantee her safety, but it will be less suspicious for you as a couple then as a young man alone."

Kenshin clenches his fists. Otsu is a day's walk from Kyoto, far enough for a Choshuu rebel to be safe, but much too close to hide a missing Shinsengumi. He is not even sure she would go, if her asked her.

"I cannot, her family is loyal to the shogunate," he says, and he allows his regret to seep into his voice as he realizes it will be safer to keep where he is from her, to let her remain ignorant and safe in Kyoto.

"I am sorry," Katsura says, "You sacrifice a great deal for our cause."

Kenshin nods once. It is too late now, to let the Choshuu leader feel just how deep the sting of his sacrifice goes.


In the hours after the fight, Kaoru's strength completely fails her. She sits on the porch of the Kyoto town hall, propped up against a pillar, and watches her comrades sort through the aftermath. Hijikata-sensei spends a great deal of time arguing with the Aizu clan general until at last the soldiers withdraw and leave the Shinsengumi to their investigation. Men in blue coats run past in both directions, gathering the dead to lay them out in the courtyard, corralling the living prisoners, dealing with the wounded.

Souji had been seen by a doctor. He has a high fever but he wasn't wounded; it was only sun-fever. They'd been able to revive him by pouring cold water over him, and now he was resting in the town hall. More troubling was the head injury Heisuke had taken, a deep blow to the forehead, but the eighth unit captain had smiled at her weakly as he'd been carried into the town hall, and the bleeding has stopped.

Kaoru sits with her arms folded across her body, draping them against her dou, and she wants to lie down. She has a throbbing pain behind her eyes, and the muscles in her neck, shoulders, and back ache. Every time she tries to move her arms, a searing pain shoots down them from shoulder to fingertip. Saito-sensei appears, offering her a cup of water, and she softly refuses, keeping completely still.

"What is wrong, Kamiya-san?"

"Ara! Nothing?" she tries, but Saito grabs her wrists and pulls her arms free and she hisses at him in pain.

"Your fingers are bruised," he says in his matter of fact way, turning her palms skyward to see under her kote. "Your entire arms are purple."

Kaoru looks down at her arms in surprise. "I wasn't hit," she says, confused.

"Toma had these bruises," Saito says quietly, "And a few others from the third unit that we lost that day." He looks her straight in the eye. "You crossed swords with Hitokiri Battousai."

"I did?" she squeaks. She had never felt a strike so heavy as the one Kenshin had laid across her blade; she has no idea how her sword is still in one piece.

"What was it like?" Saito asks.

"He was strong," she admits, and Kaoru has a hard time keeping the pride and awe out of her voice. "He moved so fast all I could do was guard and hope."

"You are the first, to meet him and live."

Kaoru blinks, and then she draws in a trembling breath. "That's true," she murmurs, overcome with deep sadness. "Oh, Kenshin."

"Did you see his face?"

"No," she lies, "It was completely dark. I shut my eyes when I raised my sword, and when I opened them he was gone."

"Curious," Saito muses. He reaches across to brush her bangs away from her hachigane. "Did he leave this mark, too?" he asks, tracing the deep scratch in the metal plate.

"No," she blushes, "That was the man I hit in the face. I couldn't get my sword across in time so I blocked him with my forehead."

"You are a truly formidable woman, Kamiya," Saito says with a shake of his head. "Can you stand? If not, I will get a door panel for you for the walk back to Mibu."

Kaoru looks out over the courtyard at her comrades. They are all sweaty and dirty, many of them with blood on their clothes and bandages covering their bodies. None of them had slept in almost an entire day. "I will walk," she says firmly.

Saito places his hand on top of her head. "Truly formidable," he repeats.


Kenshin stands at the back of the crowd, his new hat pulled low over his face. Everything he owns is slung in a bundle across his back; it is a much bigger bundle then when he arrived in Kyoto a year ago. All her gifts great and small, every piece of paper covered in her handwriting, he'd been unable to part with any of them. They press against his back with a comforting weight. He stands at the back of the crowd in his grey kimono and hakama, because he irrationally needs one last look at her, and he hopes that she wants one of him, too.

It is the first time he has seen the Shinsengumi in battle dress, and even tired and dirty, he must admit they are impressive. They radiate spirit, sure in their triumphant victory, blue coats stirring in the summer breeze. Kenshin scans the parade, looking for one who is smaller and slighter than the others, whose spirit was bright and kind and good.

He senses her first, his heart swelling in recognition of her spirit, and then he sees her. She is walking in the centre of a group, next to the one named Souji who'd hit her face. Her back is straight and her chin high, though her jaw is clenched and she is limping. "You overworked yourself, your ankle is acting up again," he chastises.

"That's her Kaa-san!" says a little girl three rows in front of him, gripping her mother's sleeve and pointing at Kamiya. "That's the girl Shinsengumi!"

"Don't point!" her mother hisses, but a bystander shoots the girl a smile.

"They say she held the top floor of the Ikeda-ya alone until reinforcements arrived," the man says.

"I heard she killed eight men!" shouts another.

"Don't be stupid, she doesn't kill."

"They say she faced Hitokiri Battousai," breathes the girl's mother, and Kenshin stiffens.

"She's beautiful," sighs the girl, "I want to be just like her…"

Kenshin smiles softly. "She is beautiful," he agrees, even dirty and tired, draped in the colours of his enemies, wincing along the road. The early morning summer sun shimmers in her jet black hair, sets her deep blue eyes ablaze. The wind stirs against her tied back sleeves and he notices the bruises on her arms. His smile fades into a grimace of self-loathing, because he'd done that. Though he has sparred with Kamiya, he'd never had anyone block one of his strikes with such strength before. It had been strong enough to jar him, but it hadn't spared her from the aftershocks the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu havocked upon its opponents. The bruises would reach all the way up her arms, down her back and chest, possibly all the way to her feet; he'd been hit enough times by Shishou to know. By all rights, she shouldn't even be able to walk. "This is the true strength of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu," he thinks. "The insurmountable will to live." And he knows, that even though they must be apart, her strength will keep her safe.

Kamiya is close now, so close he can see the glint of the fresh knick in her hachigane. The little girl in front of him starts jumping up and down in her excitement. "Okamiya-san!" she cries, overcome in the presence of her hero.

The man called Souji leans down to say something to Kamiya, and when she blushes, Kenshin is stabbed by jealousy. Kamiya's eyes follow Souji's gesture to the little girl, and she waves at her. The child loses herself in her excitement, and Kamiya smiles, embarrassed, her eyes sliding past him and back to the road.

Kenshin releases the breath he'd been holding. She hadn't noticed him. But then Kamiya stumbles a bit in the road. Her eyes dart back to where he is standing, and lock onto his. Her eyes widen and her lips purse as though she is going to say something, and Kenshin shakes his head in the slightest of movements. They stare at each other for two heartbeats, eyes silently saying what their lips cannot, and then she is past him, and cannot look back without drawing unwanted attention.

He watches her proud back, a blue coat in a sea of them, until he cannot see her anymore, and then he melts into the crowd. "Goodbye, my heart," he whispers.

Chapter Text

Kaoru shivers and pulls her haori closer against the chill. It has been five months since the Ikeda-ya, and the world has fallen apart, then tried to put itself back together. After what they viewed as a direct attack by a group of masterless ronin, the Choshuu clan had marched three thousand soldiers into Kyoto, determined to avenge the shogun's affront to their honor. The shogun had reacted by declaring them traitors against the Imperial Court and calling up over twenty thousand Bakufu soldiers. Even though they were vastly outnumbered, the Choshuu clan had had no choice but to live up to their threat and mount an assault on the Emperor's palace, all the while chanting "sonno joi."

Kaoru had stood at the palace gates in defence of the Emperor with her comrades. She had watched hundreds die in battle, watched as the city went mad and was engulfed in flames. She had danced her katas across the battlefield, taking on scars but taking no lives, and though she had searched with bated breath, there was never once a flash of red hair.

She has spent her days guarding the city, helping those dealing with loss: loss of their homes, their businesses, their loved ones in this chaotic war. Kaoru presses coins into hands, gives away her elegant possessions to those in need. She finds homes for women who have lost husbands, children who are orphans like herself. She captures Ishin-Shishi in the streets and cannot bear to look at their faces when they are carted off to face the shogun's grim justice. Each face she sees in the back of a barred wagon becomes his, and her heart bleeds for the ones they will leave behind. Her sword is heavy, and she wants to put it down, but there are so many in need of her protection that she cannot bring herself to. And so she faces each day with a mask of immoveable stone, because it is the only way she can cope with the violence and pain surrounding her.

It is only when she is alone, at the end of a long day, that she will take out the black quilted haori that has almost ceased to smell like him. She wraps it over her shoulders and traces his last note with her world-weary eyes. His handwriting had never been good, and this note, written in particular haste, is almost illegible. It is a bare three sentences. Never doubt your place in my heart. Never doubt that I will come home. Be safe, my heart, my home. It is signed simply Kenshin, and Kaoru has never treasured two kanji more. She carefully re-folds the note and returns it to the box where she keeps his other letters and little mementos, buried deep in her trunk. She blows out her candle and lays on her futon, nose buried in the edge of his haori, and cries herself to sleep.

She tries not to think about where he is or what he is doing. She tries not to worry, but her every unoccupied thought is of him, on the run, an outlaw in hiding. He appears nightly in her dreams, laughing and teasing her, kissing her, holding her close until the dream shifts and he is suddenly covered in blood, falling beneath the swing of her brothers' blades, dying before she can reach him. She wakes in abrupt terror, a nightly occurrence that has happened so often she has taught herself not to cry out. There had been too many nights of Souji, or Heisuke, or Saito-sensei throwing open her shoji with swords drawn, looking for an attacker.

She had awoken from a particularly vivid dream that morning, and as it was only a few hours until dawn, she had not seen much point in trying to go back to sleep. She is in the kitchen now, carefully brewing a pot of tea to calm her nerves. Her hands perform the actions almost by rote, this last vestige of her duties as a daughter of samurai. She has been careful, since learning of her father's true allegiances, to try to shed herself of those samurai trappings she had never wanted or had use for. She is a swordsman now, and that is all.

Kaoru is just placing the lid on the teapot to steep her tea when she senses someone behind her. She is grateful she is no longer holding the kettle of scalding water as she spins, hand plunging into her yukata for her dagger. She moves faster now, since the Ikeda-ya, since losing Omae-dono, and she never goes unarmed. The small blade twirls against her palm and she drops into a defensive stance, until her narrowed eyes land on Hijikata-sensei standing in the doorway.

"You're up early, Kamiya," he says wryly, and Kaoru sheathes her dagger with a blush.

"Good morning, Hijikata-sensei," she bows, adjusting the collar of her yukata. "Would you like some tea?"

"Mm," he assents, "let us take it together."

Kaoru places the teapot and two cups on a tray, and follows Hijikata-sensei to his office. Hijikata stirs his brazier to life as Kaoru pours the tea, and he waits until they have both taken a drink before speaking. "How long do you intend to go on like this, Kaoru?" he asks her softly.

"Ara?"

Hijikata lowers his cup and looks at her with a level stare. "You are crying yourself to sleep, and waking in fear at least twice each night."

"Forgive me, sensei." Kaoru heats with embarrassment, lowering herself into a bow. It has been weighing on her terribly, these past five months. She has felt directionless without her honour to preserve, without Kenshin to defend, and it was hard to stand with her comrades when so much of the terror was their doing. She no longer believes she knows right from wrong, justice from injustice, truth from the lie that she's been living. There has been nothing but the constant onslaught of suffering, and nothing she can do, with her small hands and one heavy sword, to make it stop. Worse, she can see no way forward for anyone to make it stop.

Hijikata reaches out to gently lift her chin. "You have endured a great deal in the last year," he reminds her softly, "There is no shame in the compassion you feel." Kaoru nods, and he releases her, taking another contemplative sip of his tea. "You are an invaluable asset to the Shinsengumi, Kaoru," Hijikata says after a moment. Her eyes widen and she blushes even deeper. "Kondo is our leader, our spirit," he continues, "And I am the general, the brain. But you, you are our heart."

"Hijikata-sensei…"

"Those with large hearts are usually the strongest. They endure more, they overcome more. Never forget this strength you have."

Kaoru looks over her shoulder, out to the yard through the open shoji, where the sky is lightening to a soft violet in the early dawn. Tears sting her eyes as she whispers "I will remember, sensei."

Hijikata lifts his teacup to his mouth again while Kaoru stares at her lap, toys with the end of her braid over her shoulder. When he has finished, he sets his cup down and fixes her once again with his piercing eyes. "You should know that Kondo has a plan for you," Hijikata sighs, "and while he doesn't think it necessary to consult you, I would have your opinion of it."

"Oh…" Kaoru gapes at him, unsure. What kind of plan could the Commander possibly have for her?

"You are no doubt aware of how close Kondo and Souji are," Hijikata begins. "Souji thinks of Kondo as a father, and looks to him for guidance."

"I know," Kaoru says cautiously.

"Souji has recently spoken to Kondo about a matter of great importance to him. His brush with death at the Ikeda-ya and the increasing violence in Kyoto has made him conscious once more that he is the heir of the Okita family."

"I see," Kaoru murmurs, and dread settles in the pit of her stomach like a stone.

"Souji wishes to be married, Kaoru."

Kaoru squeezes her eyes shut. "Please, Hijikata-sensei," she pleads softly, but the Vice-Commander does not hear her.

"Are you aware that Souji is in love with you?"

"Yes," she whispers. Kaoru wrings her hands in desperation. All it would take would be for Kondo to write to Maekawa-san and she would be traded like a sack of rice. As she had almost been before, to the Akuyaku at the age of seven. There was no father this time to help her, and the scant protection he had given her by teaching her the sword would count for nothing with these men. She is no longer samurai or the daughter of samurai, but she is bound just as tightly as one in this matter. Kaoru's large blue eyes gaze imploringly at Hijikata. "But I…" she begs, "I do not love him, sensei."

Hijikata nods to himself, as though she has confirmed what he already knows. "Do you think you could, Kaoru-chan?"

Kaoru sighs and her eyes float skyward. The slight movement releases a faint wave of earthy musk from the faded black haori over her shoulders, and its comforting weight and warmth are like a pair of strong arms around her, lending her support. "No, sensei, I do not," she tells Hijikata. She lowers her head in a bow. "Forgive me, but my heart belongs to someone else."

Hijikata is taken aback, and his face becomes slightly indignant, the way her father's had when the boys in the dojo started to notice her. "When did that happen?" he demands, and Kaoru nearly laughs.

"Forever ago," she admits, because she feels like her heart has known Kenshin from the first moment she drew breath. On that hot day outside her father's manor, it had called out to him, recognizing him from her future. "He was a friend of my father's."

"And his intentions?" Hijikata says gruffly, and Kaoru actually does laugh.

"They are honourable, sensei!" she promises, holding up placating hands.

"Did your father know?"

"I don't know," she admits, "if my father knew his heart. He… he was not of our clan, or in possession of rank."

"I see," Hijikata sighs. "Then your guardian will have no cause to believe there was an earlier offer. Kondo intends to be very generous, as well."

"What can I do?" she whispers desperately.

"If you are to be married, Kaoru-chan, you will have to leave the unit."

Kaoru's head snaps up, meeting the Vice-Commander's eyes intently. "I cannot do that, I -"

"Kondo feels that it will heal your spirit. He worries for you, and does not feel that your slender hands were meant to endure this work forever."

"But-"

"I, however, disagree. You are a true bushi, Kaoru-chan, and the strength of your heart is unmatched. If Kondo and your guardian agree, you will have to marry Souji. I can do nothing for this other man. But you can give yourself some time, Kaoru-chan, to come to terms with it. I will tell Kondo you do not wish to leave the unit at this time, but you must promise me that if you remain here, it will not break you."

Kaoru stares at her hands, tears welling in her eyes again. The air is cool, but it does not yet smell like snow. Almost a year ago, they had sat on her porch and he had told her she could have anything and everything.

I wish I could be both.

Some day, you will.

But that had been before the cruelty of fate had overwhelmed them, back when she had still assumed they believed in the same cause, when her own beliefs had been unshakeable. When she'd thought that the trouble in the city would end, when she'd thought that he would build the new era and the Shinsengumi would no longer need her. She'd clung to those unlikely dreams these past five months, and they were the only thing that kept her sane.

But Kaoru is a woman, and no matter her prowess with a sword, her life has never been her own. As soon as she left the unit as Souji's wife, her fate would be sealed.

"I will not abandon my brothers," Kaoru tells Hijikata. "To leave the Shinsengumi is punishable by death." The dishonesty in this line almost chokes her—she knows she has already committed crimes that her brothers would never forgive her for… but she cannot leave now. Not as Souji's wife, not as a possession. She could not bear it.

"Ensure that is not a punishment you extract upon yourself," he tells her levelly. "I forbid you from taking your life or dying intentionally in combat."

Kaoru nods, and Hijikata looks at her with unchecked sympathy. It is a strange emotion on the Vice-Commander's face. "Souji will be good to you, Kaoru. If not, I will have him commit seppuku."

She barks a laugh, and brushes away her tears while she nods. "Thank you, sensei."

"I am sorry," he tells her honestly, "that I cannot do more."

Kaoru shakes her head. "No, sensei. You have always treated me with respect and kindness. I am grateful that you told me."

"You are one of the finest swordsmen I have ever seen," he admits, "with the spirit of ten men. I would be sorry to see such a spirit denied. I will fight to keep you in the unit as long as possible."

"Thank you," she whispers again.

"It would be best, I think, for you to leave for a time, while Kondo and I come to an understanding with your guardian. It will be easier for you, and for Souji as well, if you are not around until everything is settled."

"Of course," she agrees. She had given up the house in Muko to Sekihara-san and the Takanis when the Shirobeko burnt down; it would be a little cramped, but she could sleep in the dojo.

"There is a shipment of supplies coming from Aizu," Hijikata continues, "and we need someone to meet it, pay the merchants, and escort the supplies here. I will suggest to Kondo that we send you to Otsu as our representative. It will be about a month until it arrives."

"Otsu?"

"Mm. We will supply you with money for lodging, but it would be best to keep the fact that you are Shinsengumi a secret, since you will be travelling alone. The fact that you can be hidden as a woman will work to our advantage."

"I am ready to serve, sensei," she says, bowing.


It is nearly dark when Kaoru gets to Otsu and finds the inn Hijikata-sensei had told her to seek out. The Vice-Commander had handed over further instructions and a heavy wallet for her journey, promising he'd sort everything out as best he could. She has had hours to think, on the road to Otsu, about her future. She knows that when she returns to Kyoto in a month, she will be betrothed to Souji. He is a good man, an honourable samurai, but she does not love him. And perhaps in another time, if things had been different, she might have. If she had never met a sunburnt and dehydrated young samurai in the streets of Kyoto, she would perhaps have been grateful for Souji, and the care and affection he had shown her.

But she cannot help comparing Souji to Kenshin, who was the strongest swordsman she'd ever crossed blades with, but who had never laid a hand on her. Kenshin, who had carried passion for her in his heart, but had never tried to force his feelings on her. He had waited, until she chose him. Kenshin had kept things from her, but only because he'd wanted to protect her, had feared losing her. He'd believed in her dream, seen immediately the importance of a sword that acted with respect and compassion, and tried to help her. Kenshin wanted her to be anything and everything she chose, even when it made her his enemy. Souji… he would expect her to leave the troop, to tend to his home and bear his children, and never carry swords again. She would marry him and her spirit would wither and die, her heart forever denied the person it really wanted. It is a fate her father promised she'd never have to endure, as so many women must.

Her mind is still occupied with this lonely future, still unable to come to terms with the hopeless inevitabilities fate has thrown her way, when she reaches the inn. The innkeeper is a stout older woman who eyes the wrapped swords Kaoru is carrying with a cocked eyebrow. She is dressed for travel in a plain cotton furisode purchased specifically for this trip; her own were much too fine. She admits she must look strange in her maiden's clothes, carrying daisho and wearing a man's haori, but there had been no way she'd leave Kenshin's coat behind, and Hijikata-sensei had been adamant she travel dressed as a woman.

Kaoru gives the innkeeper an apologetic smile as she produces twice the amount of coin necessary for a night's stay, and the woman's frown melts instantly into a pleasant smile. "Ah, lodging for the night, Young Woman?" she asks politely.

"And a bath and a meal," Kaoru presses, stacking the coins up on the counter.

"Of course, of course!" the woman nods emphatically, watching the coins clink together. "Will you take your meal first, while the bath is heated?"

Kaoru frowns in distaste, and slides the coins off the counter and into her palm. "Is the bath not ready?" she asks suspiciously. "I wish to remove the dirt of the road before I eat."

"Ah, right!" the innkeeper agrees. "Please be seated and rest a moment, I will check the furo!"

An hour later, Kaoru returns to the common room, fresh from her bath and dressed in a clean furisode. She has braided her hair over one shoulder, and she presents her travel clothes to the innkeeper for airing. "I will take tea with dinner, please," she murmurs, leaving more coins on the counter. She does not wait to watch the woman swipe them up, turning into the common room and seating herself in the far unoccupied corner to await her meal. There is a group of four ronin sitting in the opposite corner who had gone quiet when she had walked past them. She can feel their eyes on her back and she grits her teeth, wishing she was dressed in her hakama and lamenting leaving her swords in her room.

There are two other men in the room, farmers enjoying a meal and a stay at an inn before returning home from the market. The one facing her stares at the ronin for a moment and then gives her an enquiring smile. Kaoru smiles back at him, shaking her head softly. She removes her weighted fan from her obi and adjusts the hilt of her dagger so that it is visible above the edge of her collar.

Kaoru's meal arrives, and she takes a deep, refreshing drink of her tea. It is not as good as hers, but it is close. She is taking another sip when a giant bottle of sake is slammed onto her table.

"Hey Woman! Have a drink with us!"

Kaoru lowers her teacup and tilts her head towards the two grinning ronin looming over the edge of her table. "We're Aizu's Ishin-Shishi!" grins the larger one. "We risk our lives day and night for the common people, the least you can do is drink with us as thanks."

"Do you mean Choshuu?" she asks softly, and their grins slip. "Surely men of Aizu would know that their lord is loyal to the shogun; the policing of Kyoto is his special task, after all."

"Yeah, we're Choshuu…" he says, recovering and smiling winsomely.

"I understand your hesitation to name your true clan," Kaoru continues, looking straight ahead and taking another drink of tea. "Since the Choshuu are banned from court as traitors."

"Right…" says the other.

"How clever of you, to hide so close to the city," she murmurs, and then turns to them with wide eyes. "But are you not worried, so close to Kyoto, about the Shinsengumi?"

"Keh! Those wolves do not frighten me!"

"They should," she says softly. And Kaoru is suddenly very tired. "If you had seen Hijikata Toshizo draw his blade and slice a man in half in the time it takes for you to blink, you would be afraid. If you had ever faced Saito Hajime's gatotsu, or Harada Sanosuke's spear, you would not boast so loud, where anyone could hear you. And that is to say nothing of Todo Heisuke, Nagakura Shinpachi, or any of the other unit captains.

"I think," she says, setting down her empty tea cup and resting her hand on her fan, "that you have likely never even faced one of the Shinsengumi's two hundred members. If you had, you would know not to disrupt someone with your false allegiances when they are about to enjoy their meal."

"What?" breathes one of the ronin, but the other reaches for her arm.

Kaoru grabs his wrist and twists it behind him, leaps to her feet as she slams the ronin hard onto the table. The force shatters the teacup, and a shard flies up and hits Kaoru in the face, but she does not release her grip. His friend steps back, hand on his hilt, and Kaoru brandishes her dagger, sets the point behind the ronin's ear. "I would like," she says heatedly, her eyes cutting to the two remaining ronin and then back to the man standing in front of her, "to eat in peace. I have no quarrel with you, sirs."

"We're- we're not even Ishin-Shishi!" he stammers, letting go of his sword and holding his hands up in front of him.

"I know," she says tiredly. "Do the innkeeper the honour of paying extra for this annoyance, and leave."

She releases the ronin and they scramble away, throwing coins down on their table and bowing out of the room as fast as possible. Kaoru sighs and bows to the two farmers. "Sorry about that," she says, sitting down to her dinner at last.

The two farmers look at each other, and then the one facing Kaoru gets to his feet. "Forgive me, Osamurai-san, but you are bleeding," he says. Kaoru winces at the name, but the farmer is undaunted. He crosses the floor and holds out a small tin. "Please, this salve will help."

Kaoru bows over the tin and takes it from the concerned farmer. "I humbly thank you," she murmurs, twisting the lid open. The salve is sunny yellow, and a familiar sweet and slightly acidic scent assaults her memory. She knows it will sting, because he'd warned her each time before he'd smoothed it over her wounds.

She raises eyes as big as saucers to the farmer, holding the open tin out before her. "Where," she breathes, "did you get this?"

The farmer laughs knowingly. "Have you used it before, Osamurai-san? Medicine sellers come from the city just to buy this salve," he beams with pride. "Our apothecary, Himura-san, is the only one who can make it."

Kaoru's heart thuds in her ears and she tries very hard to stay calm. "I have used this before," she admits, "and I'd like to buy some more. Can you tell me where I can find this apothecary?"


Kenshin is walking along the path between rice paddies, back to the small one-room cottage where he has been living for five months. It is secluded, a half-day's walk from Otsu itself, up in the mountains, away from prying eyes. Away from news of the city. Iizuka comes twice a month to keep him informed, and under the guise of a medicine seller and apothecary, they sit on the side of the road to Kyoto and discuss the latest news of the rebellion. So far, Katsura has not returned from hiding, and things for the patriots look bleak. The Choshuu had suffered heavy losses during the Kinmon Incident, and the shogun has declared a seichosen against the han and marched soldiers into the province to subdue them. Iizuka had told him that patriots are dying daily in the streets, falling beneath the swords of the Shinsengumi.

He tries not to worry, but even with so much grim news, his every thought is for Kamiya. He wakes in cold sweats from dreams of her running through blood-soaked, burning streets, trying to save people while his comrades bury their blades in her back. His only assurance is that she is strong, that her unyielding will to live would carry her through the carnage. He goes once a week to Otsu to sell medicines, and even in the relatively peaceful streets of the town, the exploits of the benevolent Miburo Kamiya Kaoru are legend. If something were to happen to her, they would speak about it there.

He has thought, more than once, of disobeying his orders and returning to the city. He could go and come back in a day, enough time to spend a few hours with her at the Shirobeko if he timed the messages right. Yet he knows holding her for a few hours wouldn't be enough; and each time he picks up his sword to sling it through his belt, it feels heavier and heavier. I won't lose you, and I won't let any of them die! Her voice echoes endlessly through his mind, reminding him of the delicate thread she walked between her duty and her heart. Surely, while he is still a rebel, she was better off without him.

And so, Kenshin buries himself in his work, keeping himself as distracted as he can. He has learned, out here in the country, the many simple pleasures of a boring, everyday life. He cultivates the land outside his cottage, planting crops the way his father had taught him; he goes into the woods to gather herbs like his master had shown him to make his salves and medicines. He chops wood and prepares his meals and keeps his cottage clean. He plays with the farmers' children who live close by, minding them while their parents and older siblings are in the fields. His existence is peaceful and humble and quiet.

He has had a good deal of time to think, out here. About why he carries a sword and how he feels about wielding it. He has realized that while the swordsman's path is important to him, he does not like taking lives. He knows that if he continues to do so, he will go mad. The happiness of those around him, protecting those who cannot protect themselves is what most concerns him, and he wants to continue to help. He knows there is one person who has seen all of this already, who is waiting for him, and when he returns, she will be there to guide him. He is ready to devote himself to her and what she has to teach him.

Kenshin presses his fingers over his heart. It is a constant habit, touching her ribbon through his clothes, feeling the silk against the maple leaves embroidered across his chest. The string of fate that held them together, that represented both their promises. He steps more purposefully along the path. Iizuka had told him only bad news this morning, but there was still a faint ray of hope that Takasugi would win, that Katsura would return. Kenshin could be called back to the city before the year was over, and the revolution could be won by summer. By this time next year, he could be married and helping her teach in her Edo dojo. It is a comforting thought, and living in the country has taught him the pleasure of positive thinking.

He smiles to himself as he walks, watching the clouds roll across the sky. He waves in greeting to Yuto and Koki as they approach him on the path, leading their ox and cart between them. They'd gone to Otsu yesterday, and were just returning. Kenshin had given them some of his radishes to sell; they'd done uncommonly well despite the late planting.

"Good morning, Himura-san!" calls Yuto. "Going to collect herbs again?"

"Good morning," he responds. "Just returning."

"Ah that's good! Koki and I have just left a samurai at your door."

Kenshin's pulse quickens, but to Yuto and Koki there is no change in his countenance. "Oh?" he asks casually.

"Yep," replies Koki, holding out the coins Kenshin is owed for his radishes. "Came from the city to buy your salve."

"Thank you," Kenshin replies, tucking the coins into his sleeve. "I shouldn't keep the samurai waiting."

He stalks down the road, his eyes narrowing towards his cottage. He sends out a bare whisper of his spirit, but senses nothing menacing in return. He has only his small knife with him that he uses for cutting plants. He'd grown too complacent; his daisho is on its stand, and he hadn't even thought to bring his wakizashi with him. When he catches sight of his home the situation is even worse: there is no one outside the house, but he can definitely sense someone in it. One of decent skill, though he could only vaguely sense them. He is going to have to use speed and surprise and hope the samurai was not crouched in front of the doorway. He grips the handle of his basket tightly, glad he is wearing kote.

Kenshin throws open the door to his cottage, prepared for anything. But he is not ready for the samurai to be standing in the middle of his house with his back to him. He is dressed for travel in a green kimono and a black haori that is vaguely familiar. His tapered fingers are outstretched to touch the herbs Kenshin has hung up to dry, and because his face is tilted skyward, the brim of his hat obscures his entire head. At the sound of the door hitting the frame, the hand falters, and the samurai turns.

Kenshin drops his basket, ears deaf to the thud it makes on the ground. His eyes stare, round in disbelief and hope.

"Kaoru," he breathes.


Kaoru.

It echoes across the cottage and sends shivers through her entire body, and it is fitting, so right, that the voice she has waited five months to hear speaks her name, a word she has never heard it use before.

"Kenshin!"

She repays him with his own name, dropping her swords and bundle, ripping off her hat, throwing her arms open wide as she runs to him, smiling through her relieved tears. There is a step between the floor and the entrance that she misses and her feet fall out from under her; but he is there, warm and solid and they sink to the ground together.

"You're safe," she sobs into his chest. "You're safe."

"Kaoru," he repeats, his arms strong around her. His hand moves to rest atop her head, cradling it as though it were delicate and precious, and when she draws back to look at him, he is crying. "I'm home," he tells her.

She beams at him, reaching out to touch the tears on his marked cheek. "Welcome home, Kenshin."

His eyes rake over her, and she wonders if she looks different; he looks almost the same, but lighter somehow. He brushes his fingers against the roll of hair tied at the nape of her neck. "Your hair is longer," he says.

"Yes," she admits.

His fingers move to stroke the scratch on her cheekbone. "What happened?"

"Oh," she laughs, "you should see the other guy." He leans forward to place a kiss over it, and a bolt of fire shoots through Kaoru at the touch of his lips. It has been so long since she has felt his kisses, that she becomes shy. "I… I had to teach some ronin a lesson last night," she stammers, "and a teacup hit me in the face." His face clouds over at that and she moves quickly to change the subject. "But that is how I found you! Those farmers had your salve with them."

"Yuto and Koki have my eternal gratitude," he breathes, pulling her once again into the safety of his arms and sighing in content. Kaoru closes her eyes and rests against him, breathing in his earthy scent, listening to his heartbeat under her ear. Everything she has endured for the past five months falls away and she is once again at peace. "I've missed you," she whispers, "so much."

"I'm sorry," he murmurs, and she feels his lips brush against her hair. "I have been safe here and you have been alone."

It was just like him, to take blame upon himself when there is none. Kaoru lifts her face to his to gently chide him, to keep him from shutting himself away in the dark, but he presses his lips to hers before she can speak. The kiss he gives her is warm and sweet after such a long hiatus, and he smiles tenderly at her after. "But you are here now," he says softly. "You are safe and we are together."

"Yes," she agrees, beaming at him, swelling with pride at his newfound ability to be happy. In their time apart he had learned to let go, to release burdens real or perceived.

"Why are you here?" he asks suddenly, laughing. "I have to be sure this isn't a dream." Kaoru wishes she could laugh with him, but the question sends reality crashing in around her. She had forgotten, in her excitement to finally see him again, why she was in Otsu in the first place. Kenshin notices the change in her face; his laughter dies off and he cups her face in his hands. "What is it?"

"Hijikata-sensei sent me away," she whispers to the floor, unable to meet his worried eyes.

"Did they discharge you from the Shinsengumi?" he asks gently, and Kaoru is overwhelmed by the concern he would show for news that would only be a relief to him. Her breath hitches as she shakes her head. "No," she sobs, "he sent me away so…so…"

Kenshin pulls her into his embrace, stroking her hair and rubbing circles into her back. "He sent you to Otsu," he offers helpfully. Kaoru cries out, because his kindness is nearly unbearable.

"So they could arrange my marriage!" she cries brokenly, clutching him, and Kenshin stiffens against her. "Oh, Kenshin!" she sobs, "I don't… I don't want to- I don't want to marry him, I…"

"Shh," he soothes, "it's all right. It's all right now, Kaoru."

She sobs in his arms hopelessly, and he holds her tight against him. All she has wanted, for the past five months, was to be in his arms, and now that she is again, there was to be an insurmountable barrier placed between them. "I won't do it," she promises vehemently, "So long as I stay in the Shinsengumi I won't have to, and I'll die before-"

"You will not die." Kenshin pulls her away from his chest to look at her tear-stained face. He grips her arms and ducks his head under her averted gaze to make sure she is looking at him. "You will not die," he repeats firmly, "because then my death will be on your hands, and your hands do not kill."

"Kenshin…" she sighs, and he shakes his head.

"Tell me what happened," he encourages softly, smoothing back her hair. He listens calmly as she relates the Vice-Commander's plan.

"Hijikata-sensei has offered to take my side," she finishes. "I will be able to postpone getting married for as long as I remain in the unit."

"I never thought I would be grateful to the Oni no Fukuchou…"

"I think you'd like him."

Kenshin laughs humourlessly. "Perhaps some day we will take tea together," he jokes. "Has Maekawa-san agreed?"

"No, Kondo-sensei has not written to him yet. But he will have to come to Kyoto to meet Souji-"

"Souji?!" he rages incredulously. "That's who it is? The one who hit you?" Kenshin's face becomes even more dangerous than it had been that day on the shrine steps. "To raise your hand against a woman…" he snarls, and Kaoru grabs his face in her hands and forces him to look at her.

"I am bushi," she reminds him, "and that day I defied my captain's orders."

"I won't let him marry you. He is not worthy to even look at you."

Kaoru huffs and lets go of him. She is not about to argue the merits of her unit captain with the deadliest assassin in the Ishin-Shishi, especially when such an argument had no place in their discussion. "I don't want to marry him," she reminds him glumly, "but bushi or not I can do nothing if Maekawa-san accepts him."

"Then don't let him accept," Kenshin says softly.

"He's my guardian, I have no-"

"You have a month; you have time to choose," he says, his eyes shining. He takes her hands in his, and Kaoru is surprised to find them shaking. "I know you didn't want to leave the Shinsengumi until you could return to Edo," he says quietly, a slight tremor in his voice, "And I know that this is not how things are done by samurai. I have nothing to offer you, except my heart…"

He falters there, and Kaoru's own heart thuds in her ears, her chest constricting until it feels like a taut drum with a rattle inside. Kenshin takes a deep breath, and raises brave eyes to meet her own. "But I love you, Kaoru," he swears, "and if you will let me, I wish to stay with you forever."

Kaoru's mouth falls open, and tears well at the corner of her eyes. He was asking her, not demanding, not arranging things without telling her, but courageously offering and hoping she'd agree. He was letting her choose.

"If you will allow it," he promises, "I will protect your happiness until my last breath."

Kaoru reaches for him, and though there are tears in her eyes, her smile, her true, unrestrained smile is radiant. "Yes," she says simply. "I would like that."

She throws her arms around him, almost knocking him over, and he hugs her against him, laughing in relief, kissing every part of her he can reach. He threads his fingers into her hair and his smile is hopeful and beautiful. "Then you'll marry me, Kaoru?" he grins like a fool.

"Yes!" she laughs, "Right now!"

"Now?!"

She casts a glance around his tiny cottage. It is really only the size of her front room in Muko, with no way to section it off for privacy or propriety. "I couldn't stay here alone with you until we are," she blushes.

"That never stopped you before," he laughs, and Kaoru punches him lightly on the shoulder.

"Then I'll just go back to the inn in Otsu, those ronin were looking for a drinking partner…"

"I think the shrine is about an hour walk," he says, hauling her to her feet, "we can make it before lunch."

Kaoru giggles uncontrollably, letting him pull her along. "Wait!" she laughs, "wait a moment!"

He stops abruptly and arches an eyebrow at her. "I thought you wanted to do this right now?" His face clouds over and he whispers "If you are not ready, Kamiya, I will not-"

"I do!" she cries in reassurance, "I am, but, I…" she blushes and stares at her feet, fighting the urge to twist her plain cotton sleeves in her fingers. "I have no wedding clothes. I don't look very much like a bride…"

Kenshin slides his hand into the left side of his kimono and draws out a length of indigo silk from over his heart. "You are beautiful," he says, offering it to her.

Kaoru pulls loose the leather cord that keeps her hair looped at the base of her neck. She gathers it up at the crown of her head, firmly wrapping the ribbon around the tail twice before securing it with a large bow. She has not worn her hair this way since the last time she was in possession of this ribbon, but her hands make the tail automatically, as though a year and a half, a hundred things, had not passed. She feels the bow to make sure it is even, her eyes giving Kenshin a questioning look.

"Beautiful," he repeats softly, love apparent in his gaze.

Kaoru steps into him, and she presses her lips to his. "I love you, Kenshin," she tells him at last.

His eyes become enormous and reverent. "Kaoru," he whispers. He kisses her very, very softly. They clasp hands, and together, they walk towards the shrine.

Chapter Text

Kenshin stirs the fire to bring more warmth into the cottage, and watches Kaoru prepare the tea. The firelight flickers against her hands, casting shadows across her clothes and face, the blue ribbon in her hair. She places the lid on the teapot and sets two cups on saucers and he thinks "My wife is making tea."

It was dark by the time they'd returned to the cottage. It had taken longer to walk to the shrine than he'd thought, and then he'd had to track down the head monk, and there had been a bit of time to wait while everything was prepared. There had been some hiccups over whether or not they had to produce their family papers, but Kaoru had reached into her sleeve, opened a hefty wallet, and gave the shrine a very generous offering while Kenshin explained that he was the local apothecary and neither of them had any family to speak of. By late afternoon they had knelt together and sipped the finest sake he'd ever tasted; Kaoru's had made her blush pink across her cheeks, and then they were married.

They had walked on to Otsu afterwards, because Kenshin lived alone and his home was not quite prepared to receive a bride. The market was winding down for the evening and they'd had to hurry, dividing and conquering by each taking one side of the street. He'd been in between two stalls when a soft indigo shawl caught his eye. Kaoru had never lived in a cottage with windows open to the elements, and he worried that she would be cold. She has it draped around her shoulders now as she lifts the teapot; her sleeve slips back, exposing her slender wrist, and Kenshin thinks "My wife's wrists are delicate."

There had been a bit of confusion over the lack of a private bathhouse. There was a communal bathhouse near the cluster of farmhouses lower down the mountainside, but Kenshin has mostly been using the river. Kaoru had blushed, embarrassed at her privilege, and Kenshin had moved quickly to fix the situation by hanging two of their kimonos across the back corner of the house for her to wash and change behind. It would do for now, until he could build a furo outside. To help put her at ease, he'd admitted that the first time he'd ever been in a bathhouse had been at the Kamiya manor, and she had smiled, remembering. She had ducked behind the make-shift screen with her bucket and cloth and he had done his best to keep himself busy preparing dinner, to keep his mind off what she might be doing behind it. She'd emerged for dinner in a tightly knotted yukata and her new shawl, and he'd thought "My wife looks lovely in blue."

Kaoru hands him his tea and he takes it from her with a smile. It is hot and perfectly steeped, sinking warmly into his chest, and he sighs in pleasure. "I have missed your tea," he admits, "No one makes it better than you."

"I hope that is not all you've missed," she says softly, and then she flushes in embarrassment. "I mean…"

But Kenshin takes her hand and kisses it, pulls her along the raised wooden floor to sit beside him. Her hands are cold so he unfolds a blanket and sets it around their shoulders. "I missed everything," he says, putting his arm around her back. "Your smile and your laughter, the way everything around you is peaceful."

Kaoru blushes into her tea again, and Kenshin thinks "My wife is shy."

"What about you, what did you miss?" he asks gently.

"This," she says, leaning against him. "The way I feel safe when you are near."

He kisses the side of her head and tightens his arm around her, and they finish their tea. The fire cracks as he sets down his cup, realizing Kaoru has finished hers already, and that she has gone tense against him. Realizing that the day is over, and it is time for him to take his bride to bed. His heartbeat thunders in his ears for a moment and he wills himself, with every inch of discipline he'd had beaten into him by his master, to gain control of his body before it ran away from him.

"Are you tired, Kaoru?" he asks softly, keeping his voice light, betraying none of the huskiness that wanted to leak in.

"Yes," she says, and her voice is very small.

"My wife is afraid."

His heart sinks, and suddenly controlling his body is easy. The very last thing he wants is for Kaoru to be afraid. "Will you put away the tea?" he asks. "I will lay out the futon for you."

Kaoru says nothing, she just slides out of his arms and begins to gather up the tea things. There is only silence in the cottage and it is deafening, heavy with intent. Kaoru washes the tea cups and pot, dries her hands, and then disappears behind the kimonos again with her mirror and comb. Kenshin adds more logs to the fire, banking it so it will burn slowly and keep Kaoru warm. He unfolds his bedding, a futon that is large for one but cozy for two, and sets his only pillow in the centre. He smoothes back the quilt for her just as she reappears. She has braided her hair over one shoulder, drawing his attention to the exposed side of her neck. Kenshin sucks in a calming breath as he thinks "My wife's neck is beautiful."

He smiles at her gently, though with her eyes glued to the floor she likely doesn't see it, and slides away from the futon. "There, Kaoru, it is ready." He moves to the other side of the fire and sits against the wall, taking his katana out of the stand and leaning it against his shoulder. "You can rest easy," he tells her, putting his hand on his scabbard. "No one will bother you out here."

He rests his chin against his chest and closes his eyes, and after a moment he hears her get into the futon. There is the sound of her hard breath against the candle in the lantern. He waits until the noise of rustling blankets stops, and then he raises his head, peeking his eyes open. The cottage is bathed in soft, ruddy light from the smoldering fire, and he can see her clearly in the semi-darkness. She has her eyes closed so he opens his all the way; he will watch her sleep until he stops feeling so restless. "My wife is safe, she is sleeping."

"Kenshin?"

She doesn't open her eyes, just calls out quietly, as though to make sure he is still there.

"Hm?"

"It's very cold," she says in a hushed voice, "Are you cold, next to the wall?"

"No, Kaoru, I'm all right."

"Oh." She frowns slightly, and Kenshin's heartbeat speeds up without his permission.

"Are you cold?" he asks her.

"Yes, a little?" Her eyes open and she looks at him across the fire.

Kenshin gets to his feet and places his sword back in the stand. He picks up their discarded blanket and kneels beside her to tuck it over her in the futon. "There," he says, with a soft smile. "Rest well." He is about to get up when Kaoru reaches her hand out of the blankets and grabs his sleeve.

"Could you-" she blushes and takes a deep breath. "I'm… it's just so cold, would you stay here?" His heart stutters and Kaoru squeezes her eyes shut. "You don't have to," she whispers, "if it will be uncomfortable…"

Kenshin almost laughs, but he doesn't want to hurt her already delicate feelings. "My wife wants me to be comfortable." He covers her hand in his as he draws the blankets back. "It might be a little crowded," he admits, "Are you sure?" Because he needed to be sure, he would only do what she wanted, what she was comfortable doing.

Kaoru slides deeper into the futon, making room for him. "I'm sure," she says quietly.

He lies down beside her, head pillowed on his arm, still holding her hand between them under the blankets. "Better?" he asks. She smiles softly, nodding against the pillow. "Yes."

"Good night then," he whispers.

But neither of them close their eyes. Kaoru stares at him, worrying her bottom lip, and Kenshin cannot help himself, he purses his lips and blows into her eyes.

"Ara!" she gasps, turning her face into the pillow. "Kenshin!"

"Sorry," he laughs, but she giggles too, half turning her face out of the pillow to smile at him. It is adorable, and when she raises her hand to smack lightly at his shoulder he catches it in his own, rolling onto his back. It pulls her against him, off the pillow, and he steals it and places it under his head. "Aha, much better," he grins.

"Give that back!" she huffs, pushing herself up on her elbows.

"No, it's my pillow."

Kaoru glares at him and grabs his collar in her fists. Her eyes burn into his and he is suddenly very aware that she is half on top of him, their legs tangled under the blankets, bodies separated by two thin cotton robes. The knot of her sash is pressing into his hip but the rest of her is all soft curves against him. "Kaoru…" he gasps.

Time seems to slow down and Kenshin becomes very still. He watches Kaoru's eyes widen and then slowly close, her face lowering towards his as her fists in his yukata tighten. His eyes slide shut and his breath leaks out of his mouth, and before he can draw another her lips are against his.

He has kissed her before, many times before, but never like this; her kiss sets off an explosion of shimmering heat inside of him. His arm encircles her waist and his hand buries itself in her hair, willing her softness closer. He grips her tight against him and a thousand sensations jostle in his brain, fighting for his attention. He rolls her onto her back and she gasps against his mouth in surprise.

"Kaoru?"

He lifts himself away to look at her, meeting her giant blue eyes, luminous in the firelight. They are fragile and wild at the same time.

"Are you… is this all right?"

Her eyes crinkle and her smile lights the whole room. "Yes," she breathes, "everything is all right."


Kaoru shifts slightly on the porch, leaning into the weak winter sun. She has been following the heated spot around with her sewing, and now she can see Kenshin, rhythmically chopping wood beside the house. His back is to her, and she becomes distracted from the task of shortening her kimono sleeves, watching his shoulders bunch and roll with each strike. He steps forward each time, bending slightly at the waist, splitting each log with graceful accuracy. His form is perfect; all he is missing is the shout that ought to accompany the heavy swing, and Kaoru wonders how many logs he'd had to split before his master had let him hold a sword.

She's seen him make firewood before, and he has always seemed to enjoy it, but not today. They have been married for three days, and ever since she woke up against him, pressed skin to skin under their blankets, something has been bothering him. He has been kind and polite, quiet in his way, but Kaoru knows that silence is his way of hiding his real feelings. It is not quite like his old formality, but it still worries her. She has tried to raise his spirits, and while he laughs softly at her teasing, gently returns her kisses, he remains locked away.

They have been married for three days, and Kenshin has made no further move to touch her. Her cheeks heat, remembering the press of his weight when he'd rolled them over, the hopeful, hungry look in his eyes when he'd drawn back to ask her. They had moved together in ways Kaoru had previously only heard about from her geisha friends and the indelicate jokes of her comrades. It had been exciting, thrilling, frantic, but in the end, it had been painful, and Kaoru had been unable to hide her tears. He'd kissed away each one, softly repeating her name until she'd fallen asleep.

For three days she has suffered the weight of regret, burdened by her sense of duty and self-consciousness over her lack of upbringing, absolutely defeated by the knowledge that she has disappointed him. She had failed as a wife when she so wanted to please him.

He pauses in his work to gather up the wood pieces littered around him, and that is when he notices her. Kaoru drops her eyes to her work and tucks the needle carefully into the fabric, folding up the sleeve as though she has just finished for the day. "Would you like some tea?" she calls, smiling as though everything is normal, smiling as a wife should.

"Yes," he assents, "thank you."

Kaoru darts into the house, afraid of his eyes on her, their gentle sadness. She stirs up the fire the way Kenshin has shown her, a carefully controlled heat that will ensure their meal does not burn. While she waits for the water to boil she casts her eyes around their little cottage, at the well-polished floor, the carefully put away stores of food, the plants hanging from the ceiling. Everything is neat and clean, organized and harmonious, kept well in order by Kenshin's constant attention. There are rows of clay pots along one wall, salves and medicines at various stages of readiness. He was going to Otsu tomorrow to sell some of them; she had helped him that morning with filling the tiny packets and tins, stocking the box of many drawers he would carry on his back. Kaoru stares around her new home and sees the man Kenshin would have been, if his fate had been different, if he had never picked up a sword.

"And if I had never picked up a sword?" she thinks. "What would I have been?"

But Kaoru knows that answer: she would have been delicate and soft, obedient, every inch a proper woman, married to a man chosen for her by her parents and her clan. She would not know Kenshin. If they had never walked their similar but separate paths, carrying their swords, he would have been a man with one name from a farming village, and she would have never cast a benign gaze on him from her manor tower.

The kettle boils and Kaoru lifts it carefully, pours water into the waiting teapot. She had seen, that first morning, when Kenshin had risen from the futon and before he'd quickly pulled his yukata around himself. Scars that were small, white and fine, thick in some places and thin in others, criss-crossing his back. Scars that had not been made by a blade. You have never known what it is to be a slave. They were faded, scars from long ago, when he had been small and whipped as punishment. She has never known what the sting of a whip feels like, though she knew the sound of it cracking against exposed shoulders and calves. Her family had punished its servants like any other.

You were born to privilege. What has been given to samurai has been denied others.

Kaoru has carried her sword that protects, but until she met Kenshin, she did not realize exactly just what that meant. She has always believed in her honour, in her duty to others. She had been given much and so she must always give; her protection, her kindness, her benevolence. But that was a small thing when the world taught everyone to know their place, and some places were closer to the sun. Her father had always believed in the ability of the shogun to maintain peace and order, but what was order when a samurai could kill a man for looking at him the wrong way? What was peace when a child could be sold, whipped and beaten, with no one to turn to for help? She is ashamed at the way she'd held Kenshin accountable; he had been taking lives in the streets to weaken a system that gave protection and hope to only a small few.

She settles the lid onto the teapot, and her eyes fall on Kenshin's daisho, resting in its stand. Her own is leaning against the wall behind it, still in travel covers; she thought that was fitting, her swords keeping vigil over his. She was his wife, and while he fought for the new era, she would fight for him. If she could not be a proper wife for him, she could at least do that much.

The door slides open behind her, hitting Kaoru with an icy draft before Kenshin can close it behind him. She shivers in spite of herself and pulls her shawl closer; she has never been so cold as she is in this cottage, and it has been worse, sleeping alone on the futon with him on the other side of the fire. Now that she knew the warmth of another body pressed against her own, her nights have been hauntingly lonely.

"Sorry," Kenshin murmurs, stepping out of his sandals. Kaoru berates herself; he is constantly worried about her being cold. He empties his armload of wood into the bin next to the fire and kneels beside her to add another log. "Is the tea ready?"

Kaoru hands it to him wordlessly, and they sit in silence. Tonight she will go to bed alone, and then in the morning Kenshin will leave for Otsu and she will spend the day alone. When he returns, they will share a meal and go to bed alone again. She thinks of all the days that will stretch out before them and her shoulders tremble. This had been her choice, and she would not fail.

"Kaoru?"

She turns then, and throws herself into his arms. There is a sharply breathed exclamation, that noise he makes when he's startled, and the sound of him putting down his teacup. His arms close around her and he strokes her hair.

"Tell me what it is," Kaoru says desperately into his shoulder. "Tell me what is troubling you."

"Kaoru…"

"I am your wife!" The cry is more forceful than she'd intended, but she can hardly help it with her nerves so frayed.

"So you are, my heart," he breathes, tightening his embrace, "But I… I have not been a worthy husband…"

Kaoru draws away from him, her eyes frantic with fear and panic, and Kenshin drops his gaze to his lap. "I promised I would never hurt you," his voice cracks, "but I have done so… forced myself upon you in the most dishonourable way…"

A hysterical giggle bubbles out of Kaoru, and she is powerless to stop it from escaping. She slaps her fingers over her mouth as Kenshin's gaze snaps to her own. "But you asked," she squeaks, "you asked and I said yes…" His mouth falls open and Kaoru's cheeks flush again with memory.

"I wanted…" she starts, but she cannot quite bring herself to tell him about the need that has opened up in the pit of her belly, the static charge she feels every time he is near. Instead her regret overwhelms her and she twists her sleeves in her fingers. "I did not do my duty properly, I failed to please you-"

"What?!"

It is her turn to meet his eyes, open mouthed. Kenshin's hands close around hers and he flushes, a dazed look in his eye. "You pleased me far too well," he admits, "I could not control myself and hurt you."

"Only a little," she blushes. "I'm fine now."

"You bled…" he says softly, tinged with remorse.

"But I won't again," she promises. Her blush deepens and she strokes her thumbs over the backs of his hands. "And there are things… things you could do before… so it doesn't hurt."

His hands tense slightly in hers, and the dazed look leaves his eyes, replaced by one that is hooded with intent. "What kinds of things?" he asks quietly.

Kaoru feels heat spread across her skin as she lifts his hands to her obi. "I'll show you," she breathes, and he crushes his mouth to her own.


Kenshin brushes Kaoru's hair aside and plants a soft kiss on the back of her neck, in the curve where it meets her shoulder. She turns her face with an expectant, small smile, and he obliges her with another soft kiss on her cheek. He sets his chin on her shoulder and clasps his arms closer around her, relishing the feel of her naked back against his bare chest, the contrast of her warmth and the cooler air of the cottage on his skin. He hums softly, and Kaoru laughs, stroking her hands along his forearms.

"Are you reassured now, Husband?" she asks softly.

Husband. He very much likes the sound of it, so much that he brushes her hair back even more to kiss the nape of her neck.

"Perhaps you might reassure me a little more," he breathes in her ear.

Kaoru shivers and her laugh is husky, but she unwraps his arms from around her, kissing each of his palms. "I will tonight," she promises. She slides away from his lap to gather her susoyoke back around her hips, and Kenshin cannot help himself, he stares at her body, bare to the sunlight streaking in from the windows. She is lean and strong, a contrast of shapely curves and toned planes of alabaster skin. He watches her shoulder blades stretch with the movement of her arms as she knots the tie at her waist and gathers her loose hair up at the crown of her head to secure it with her ribbon.

"You are beautiful," he says reverently.

She half turns, gaze on the floor instead of him, and Kenshin learns that her blush spreads all the way to her breasts. "Thank you, anata," she murmurs.

Anata. Beloved. Kenshin's heart seems to grow so large it feels like it fills his entire chest. He is still not certain he deserves her; she was too good and he too much in the shadows. But she had chosen him, him above all others.

He grabs his kimono and shrugs it closed around himself, then picks up her nagajuban, holding it out for her. "Here, koishii, let me help you," he offers. Kaoru's blush deepens and she holds out her arm for him, and that is when he notices the angry red line of a scar across her left shoulder, a scar he has not seen before. His fingers stroke it gently; the wound had been a deep one. "What happened?" he whispers.

"Oh," Kaoru says softly, her hand cupping her shoulder, hiding her newest scar from him. Her voice takes on a far-away tone. "It is from Kinmon. I didn't notice him until it was too late, and I couldn't get completely out of the way in time. But Souji was behind him…" Her eyes press closed and her jaw tenses, and Kenshin does not need her to tell him that Souji killed the man who nearly took off her arm, the weight of it is written on her features.

"I'm sorry," he tells her, folding her into an embrace. She grips him tightly, leaning into his warmth, her forehead against his shoulder.

"It was terrible, that day," she admits. Kaoru looks up at him, her eyes sad and ashamed. "I wanted you so much. Forgive me, it was a selfish thought."

"You could never be selfish," he reminds her, smiling softly. "I don't think you know how." He pulls her nagajuban around her shoulders and kisses her forehead. "Let the blame be mine, for not being with you."

But Kaoru shakes her head, shakes loose the tears in her eyes so they splay across her cheeks. "I wanted you there so you would end it," she admits, voice heavy with remorse. "Even though I knew how much it would have burdened you. Even though it meant the people I loved might die. I wanted you to cut us all down so we would stop cutting down each other. It has been so hard… so hard these past months, to justify what we are doing. I… I looked for you every day, because I knew that when you returned it would be over." She takes a deep breath that is almost a sob, and her eyes are giant, terrified. "Please," she begs him, "please forgive me."

"Kaoru…" he breathes, because he is not sure what to say. Three days ago he had been walking up the path to his cottage, thinking about how he would finish his duty to Katsura and hopefully marry Kaoru within the year. And then she had appeared, and she had needed him, and he had asked for her hand without really giving much thought to any duty besides the one he had to her and his heart. But Kaoru had been living a different life for the past five months, tossed into the immediacy of war while he idled in the countryside, dreaming his dreams. She had been fighting the rebels while he waited to be called to join the rebellion's ranks, and he will be called. Sooner or later, and if it was later, if fate allowed them this time of peace in Otsu, it would still be shattered when her comrades came looking for her.

Kenshin brushes the tears from his wife's face. "I could never be burdened by granting you something," he assures her. "If you asked me, I would kill the Emperor himself."

The corners of her lips turn up a little, but she says nothing. What he really owes her is honesty, when she has always been so open with him. "I could be called back to Kyoto at any time," he says, "I don't know for how long. I will have to continue to use my sword until the new era is achieved."

"I know," she says softly, her hands stroking over his wrists.

"But when it is, I wish to devote my life to protecting the happiness of those before me, without killing."

Kaoru meets his gaze, her spirit radiating strength and hope and belief in him, and he is once again reminded of the goodness in her heart and her unshakeable will. "Could you teach me, Kaoru? To live that way?"

"Yes." She says it immediately, with conviction and promise, and he loves her more than words can ever say. "But to do so," she says, taking his hands from her cheeks and clasping them firmly in her own, "means you can never fall, never fail in your duty. To carry a sword that protects means your life belongs to those around you. Not just to your clan, or to your lord, but to all those who need you. Your life is not just your own, anata. It is yours and mine, anyone's if you choose to help them. It is an easy thing to die, but living takes true courage. Can you promise to value your life? To hang on to it no matter what?"

"I promise."

"Good," she smiles. "Then I will be assured, waiting for you as you have waited for me, knowing you will stay alive."

"I won't make you wait long, I will end it, Kaoru, as quickly as I can."

"I know," she whispers again, and she hugs him close.

"Will you go back?" He does not have to say where, they both know what he means.

"No. I won't be allowed, when Kondo and Souji find out what I have done." She smiles softly and reaches up to stroke his scarred cheek. "This is the path I have chosen now, anata."

Kenshin feels a warm heat build in his chest, similar to a comforting cup of tea. He returns her soft smile. She had chosen him.

"We can protect you, until I can come home."

But Kaoru stiffens against him, and her eyes become hurt. "I won't sit by while you risk your life," she glares. "I am your wife, and my swords are yours."

Kenshin gapes at her, though half of him is not surprised. She had more spirit than most of his comrades combined. "You'd become Ishin-Shishi?"

"I don't know," she admits. Kaoru sighs, closing her eyes. "But I want a future where everyone has peace. So perhaps I don't need to choose a side?" she whispers. "I could just use my swords to protect people, until the path forward becomes clear."

She blinks up at him, and Kenshin realizes she is asking his permission. He blushes at the thought of someone as self-assured as his wife thinking she ought to seek his approval for anything. "You must always do as you wish, koishii. I could never ask you to fight for something you don't believe in." He smiles reassuringly, relieved he could keep her from being tangled up in Katsura's plans. If she became Ishin-Shishi, Kenshin does not doubt the Choshuu leader would send her back to the Shinsengumi as a spy.

"I believe in you," she whispers. "I will help you find your era of peace."

He catches up her fingers and kisses them, his head bowed in gratitude over her small hands. Hands that both carried and comforted him, that were somehow both gentle and strong. "Thank you, Kaoru."

"That's my wish," she smiles. "For us to live in your new era."

"That is easy to grant, because it is my wish too. You are easy to please, koishii," he teases.

"Then… I also wish to go with you to Otsu tomorrow."

"I would be glad for your company."

"And I wish to buy some paper for the windows."

"Ah yes, it is getting cold."

"And I wish for my husband to kiss me once more, so that I might reassure him further."

Heat shoots through him at the breathy tone of her voice, and Kenshin grins mischievously at her. He pulls loose the knot of her susoyoke, sliding his hands along her hips. "Then I get to choose where," he mouths across her skin.

Chapter Text

Kaoru takes a deep, sighing breath, watching it fog the air. The walk into Otsu had been long but pleasant, wrapped warm in her husband's haori and her thick, soft shawl. She had waited to walk three steps behind Kenshin, but as soon as she'd fallen into step, he'd reached back for her hand and pulled her up beside him. And so they'd walked together, kimono swishing through the frosty air, and Kaoru soon forgot about the cold in the warmth of the shining sun and Kenshin's hand around hers.

She shifts the basket she is carrying on her back, looking up the street to where she can see the little flag proclaiming medicines for sale. There seems to be a small crowd around him still, and Kaoru smiles; it made him happy to be able to help others in this way. She has already been thinking of the garden at the Edo dojo; he ought to be able to grow most of what he would need there to make his ointments and powders. With Dr. Gensai to recommend him, he would do well. Though, she thinks with a smile, she'd probably need to let him grow some radishes as well. He'd been so proud when he'd shown them to her.

Kaoru accepts her rolls of paper from the vendor with a pleasant nod, placing the agreed upon coins in his hand. She has saved buying it for last so it wouldn't get crushed or torn in her basket, and tomorrow she will have Kenshin show her how to frame the windows with it. They will spend the day together winter-proofing their home, and then he will make them a hot meal, and they will go to bed together, happy and warm. Kaoru is not sure how many days they will have before Kenshin must return to the Ishin-Shishi, but she is determined to have as many as she can at his side. She is not sure what the future will hold for Kenshin, or for herself, but for now, they are together, and they would face the future when it came, united.

She'd sent letters that morning to Dr. Gensai and Maekawa-sensei to tell them of her marriage. She does not have much time before she will need to meet the merchant convoy from Aizu, and it would be better to have everyone informed before time ran out. From Maekawa-sensei, she had asked forgiveness; from Dr. Gensai, she had asked for his blessing. She knows she will receive both, and that once her guardians consented on her behalf, she would be able to write to Hijikata-sensei and beg his forgiveness, too.

Kaoru walks up the street towards her husband, lost in her thoughts and plans, her rolls of paper cradled carefully in her arms. As she makes her way through the crowd, a boy darts in front of her path, clipping her elbow, the momentum twisting her weak left ankle, sending her spinning towards the ground before she can recover her balance. Her equilibrium is overshot with the extra weight of the basket on her back, and her ankle burns in protest as the rolls of paper go flying. Her hip hits the ground but her shoulder meets something softer, and hands close around her arms before they, too, can slam into the hard-packed earth.

"Kaoru!"

Kenshin has her in his grip, and he pulls her to her feet before her kimono can become soiled. "Are you hurt, koishii?" he asks, concerned.

"No, just my stupid ankle," she admits with a pained hiss, and Kenshin hugs her against him, his look of concern becoming discontent as he eyes the sprawled out form of the little boy in the street. Kaoru follows his gaze, and she steps away from him, beginning to snatch up the spilled rolls of paper and trying not to grimace each time she puts weight on her left foot. "Are you all right?" she calls.

The boy staggers onto his knees, his back to them, shaking his head. "Why don't you watch where you're going, woman?" he grumbles.

"Hey!" shouts Kenshin, turning abruptly from where he is picking up the last roll of paper. Kaoru puts her hand calmly on his chest.

"There is no harm done, anata," she whispers. To the boy she says, "We are both guilty of not looking, my apologies."

"Keh!" he grunts, standing, beginning to continue on his way. Kaoru feels Kenshin's spirit erupt and she reaches out to firmly grip his wrist, restraining him. He turns his angry and surprised gaze on her, and she stares back into his face, waiting for him to calm down. The world seems to fall away and Kaoru counts four of Kenshin's fogging breaths in the air before his eyes soften to the colour at the edge of sunset. She arches one eyebrow slightly and the corners of her lips curl up. Kenshin laughs softly, a little ashamed, and Kaoru lets go of his wrist.

"Please forgive my brother," says a new, familiar voice, shaking Kaoru out of the little bubble she and Kenshin are in. Kaoru turns back to the boy to find him now facing them, his head bowed in shame. A young woman is standing beside him, her hands resting on his shoulders. She is dressed in an elegant white kimono, set off by an expensive looking purple obi and red obi-age. A long violet shawl drapes from her elbows, and everything she is wearing sets off her porcelain skin, her luminous black hair, her deep, dark eyes. Kaoru's mouth falls open in shock at the sight of her, and the woman's own face betrays a slight look of surprise.

"Tomoe-chan?" Kaoru asks, though she is certain. It is only so surprising, to find her here of all places.

"Kamiya-sama…" Tomoe replies, and looks away. Her face betrays no emotion, it rarely ever did, but Kaoru can read her discomfort in the set of her jaw and her averted gaze. It was the same reaction she'd seen from all her father's old retainers, from all the samurai she had met after his death. The embarrassment she caused was unavoidable, appearing before them as one who had formerly been in favour, and now was in disgrace.

"It is Kaoru," she corrects softly, "Himura Kaoru."

Beside her, Kenshin gasps quietly; it is the first time either of them has heard her new name. Both Tomoe and her brother, Enishi, look at her with curiosity. "You… you are now married, Kaoru-chan?" Tomoe asks, her surprise causing her to slip into the informal name they'd used as children.

"Yes," Kaoru smiles, gesturing to the man beside her. "This is my husband, Himura Kenshin."

Kenshin bows deeply. "This humble one is honoured to make your acquaintance, so he is."

Tomoe returns his bow with more than her usual formal stiffness. It is something, that the proper daughter of samurai says nothing in response. Something strange settles into the air around them, but Kaoru cannot quite place it. "What brings you to Otsu, Tomoe-chan, Enishi-kun?" she asks, hoping to break the tension.

"We're going to Kyoto, Kaoru-" Enishi begins, but cuts off at the pressure he no doubt feels on his shoulders, Tomoe's grip has become white knuckled. Kaoru frowns and opens her mouth, but it is Kenshin who speaks first.

"Forgive us, this is no place to conduct a meeting of old friends," he says. "Our home is somewhat far, but perhaps you would accompany us to the inn up the street?"

Tomoe blinks out of her daze and nods. "We would be honoured to accept, thank you," she bows again.

Kenshin retrieves his box of many drawers and folds up his flag, and they all walk three steps behind him to the inn. Kaoru is careful not to wince, but her pain does not escape Kenshin's notice. When they are shown into a private room on the second floor he fusses her onto a cushion before seating himself.

"Now," he says, smiling good naturedly, pouring tea for them all, "Please tell me how you know Kaoru-dono."

Tomoe accepts her tea from him with her usual unreadable face, but Kaoru knows she is judging the fact he has poured the tea instead of waiting for his wife to do so. Enishi receives his cup from Kenshin in disbelief and promptly sets it untouched on the tatami, as though it might bite him if he raised it to his lips. Kaoru sighs softly and takes her own cup, giving Kenshin a small smile of thanks. "Tomoe-chan and Enishi-kun lived with us in Edo," she explains. "Their father Yukishiro-san was my father's steward."

"Ah," Kenshin smiles, sipping his tea.

"Our Honoured Father will be glad to know you are well, Kami… Ohimura-san," Tomoe says, casting her eyes towards the floor.

"Please pass on my greetings to him," Kaoru says, "and my wishes for his good health. I hope both he and Akira-senpai are well?"

Tomoe's lips press into a thin line, and Enishi's mouth falls open in utter shock. "Don't you know, Kaoru?" he asks. "Akira died!"

Kaoru reels, both at the loss and the way Enishi has so abruptly revealed it. Tomoe turns her face away from her brother, and Kaoru does her best to recover for her sake. "Forgive me," she bows to Tomoe, "I did not know."

The young woman regards her with eyes older than her nineteen years, and Kaoru's heart cracks for her. They had never been close—there were too many years and differences in temperament between them, but Kaoru had loved Yukishiro-san, and for his sake she had loved Tomoe. She remembers her father's student Akira, his ever-present smile, his kindness, the way he had been devoted to her father's teachings. He had never excelled with the sword, but he had been smart, resourceful, and good-natured. After announcing his engagement to Tomoe, he had followed her father to Kyoto, but after her father's death and betrayal, Kaoru had assumed he had gone home with the rest of the clansmen.

"There is nothing to forgive," Tomoe says softly. "You did not know. After Koshijiro-sama… Akira remained in Kyoto and joined the Mimawarigumi, to serve the shogun. He was killed while accompanying his new lord Shigekura Jubei home from a meeting."

Kaoru keeps her eyes on Tomoe, but she doesn't have to look at him to feel Kenshin become very still beside her. Too many things click into place, and her mouth goes dry, but she cannot swallow and betray her sudden terrible realization.

"It was the Ishin-Shishi," Tomoe continues. "They murdered him."

So, this is what it meant, to stand beside a man and carry his burdens. Kaoru lowers her eyes to her teacup and forces herself to take a drink from it. The sword that protects is not a light sword to carry. She takes a deep breath and makes herself strong. "I am sorry," Kaoru says with deep honesty, "for your loss."

Tomoe nods, sipping her tea, but her eyes above her teacup are briefly intense and sharp. "Now that the Ishin-Shishi have scattered, I am going to Kyoto to look upon the place where Akira fell. Then I will be able to move forward once more."

"Kyoto is still very dangerous," Kaoru cautions, glad to change the subject, "now more than ever. If you wish, I will write you a letter of introduction to Kondo Isami. He will be able to offer you protection in the city."

"Kondo Isami, the Shinsengumi Commander?!" Enishi gapes in wonder.

"Yes," Kaoru smiles gently. "He is a friend."

"I heard he can kill ten men in one swing," Enishi says excitedly, reminding Kaoru of exactly why her father had declined to teach Enishi the sword. The light in his eyes at the thought of killing ten men at once is almost too much to bear. "No one can do that, Enishi-kun," she says softly. "But Kondo-sensei is an exceptional swordsman, and he will keep you and Tomoe-chan safe."

"Thank you," Tomoe interjects, "but I must decline. We will not be in Kyoto long."

"Then, take this." Kaoru reaches into her obi and removes her dagger. She presents it to Tomoe with a small bow. "A daughter of samurai should not go unarmed."

Tomoe takes the dagger with careful hands, her face unreadable. "Thank you… " she bows, then gets to her feet. "We will take our leave now. Come, Enishi." The boy gets to his feet and heads for the shoji, not bothering to bow or thank Kenshin for his tea. Tomoe blushes slightly and bows on his behalf.

"I wish you continued happiness in your marriage, Kaoru-chan," she says, her voice almost a whisper. Kaoru merely nods—it is too much for her to speak, when she cannot offer the same to Tomoe, not when her betrothed had been slain by Kaoru's own husband. The shoji closes behind them and at last she looks at Kenshin. His head is bowed, and while his expression is hidden behind his hair, she doesn't need to see it know he wears a sad rueful smile, the face he makes when he hates himself.

"Anata," she says gently, placing her hand over his, "let's go home."


A frigid wind rises up around Kenshin, but he pays it no mind. The sky is black with heavy clouds and oncoming darkness, and the air smells like snow. He had followed Kaoru mindlessly through Otsu, responding only to the gentle tug of her hand pulling him along by his sleeve, lost in himself. It hadn't been until they were nearly home that he'd realized Kaoru was limping ahead of him, carrying their heavy basket, her free arm laden with all the paper she'd bought. His guilt had been insurmountable; while he'd wallowed in self-pity she'd struggled to get him home. He'd stopped her on the side of the road and left their groceries and belongings there, carrying her the rest of the way to the cottage. She had said nothing, resting against him, nothing when he'd set her onto the floor, nothing when he left to go and retrieve their things. When he'd returned she had been making tea and he couldn't bear to face her, so he'd taken his katana from its stand and melted into the woods behind the house.

At first he'd simply stood, expelling his spirit, letting his emotions rise and crash around him, safely away from where Kaoru and her gentle heart would sense them. All his fear and hatred and self-loathing, his complicated sense of conviction and unworthiness. He had asked for this, he had believed he could kill for the new era, he had been stronger than he'd thought. But he had stolen the happiness of Kaoru's friend; his sword had slashed out and ended the life she'd wanted to share. How many other futures has he erased? How many other sons and fathers, brothers and friends, whose absences were just as keenly felt? And how could he ever ask Kaoru's forgiveness for this; how could she ever overlook the fact that she had married a murderer, a man whose hands are stained with blood, while she fought so hard to protect everyone around her?

The face of the young soldier—Akira—danced before his eyes again, haunting him.

He had slashed out then, katana flashing out in battoujutsu. The dying light seems drawn to the blade as he twists and jabs, executing kata beyond anything anyone else was capable of, at a speed too quick to be seen. He has not held his sword in months but his hands remember, muscles moving in familiar patterns, lungs burning in the cold air. The movements of a killer that he could never cease to be.

Kenshin practises until there is almost no light left for even his keen eyes, then sheathes his sword and makes his way back to the cottage. He stops at the river to throw water over himself, ice-cold and punishing. Kaoru would be asleep by now, and his wet clothes and hair would be enough of an excuse not to get into the futon next to her, something tangible he could tell her in the morning rather than the truth: that his black soul should never be allowed next to her light. They both knew it now.

There is light in the cottage still; Kaoru had probably set a strong fire burning to stay warm. He slides the door open noiselessly, stepping in and shutting it quickly to keep in the heat. He turns into the room, and Kaoru looks up from the laundry tub.

"Oro?"

She has set it beside the edge of the raised floor near the entrance, and filled it with water. Hot water, from the steam coming off it. She is in the process of pouring a freshly boiled kettle-full into it, and she holds onto his eyes with her gaze.

"Your bath is ready, anata."

Kenshin stares at her, his heart bleeding. She was an angel that walked the earth, that he had no right to. She holds out her hands to him. "Come, Husband," she says, gently persuasive. "I'll wash your back for you."

He is weak so he lets her take his sword, remains still while she strips off his soaking wet clothes, half-disbelieving that she would still want to care for him. He stands exposed before her while she wipes him with a damp, warm cloth, and then he lets her ease him onto a stool and scrub him over with soap and cloth again. She pulls the tie from his hair and her soapy fingers massage his scalp, running down his neck and into his hair. She pours the water slowly over him to rinse him, in the same gentle way she had all those months ago in her bathhouse. She helps him into the laundry tub; sitting with his legs crossed the water comes up to his chest, and Kaoru settles behind him to comb his hair.

Steam rises around him and Kenshin closes his eyes to lose himself in the rhythmic strokes of the comb, listening to the snap of the fire and the soft hum Kaoru has taken up. He recognizes the tune; she'd spent hours singing it to him that fateful day in Muko. He'd ended a man's life in the street, destroying his happiness, but that day, Kaoru had given Kenshin his own happiness. She'd chosen him, as she continued to choose, no matter what terrible things she found out about him. And now she was his promised wife, caring for him when he had no right to such felicity. Kenshin sighs brokenly and lowers his head, thinking he will never be worthy of her, and Kaoru ceases her brushing.

"Kenshin?"

"I am sorry-" he begins.

"Don't anata," she says firmly. "Do not blame yourself."

"Kaoru…"

"All swordsmen who step into battle know it could result in their death," she intones, and Kenshin gasps at the memory. Kaoru places her hands between his shoulder blades, and leans her forehead into his back. "If you had spared him, he would have taken your life instead. It would have been me, in Tomoe's place."

He nearly sobs at her muffled sorrow, and he leans his head back to rest on top of hers. "Koishii…"

Kaoru's arms fold tight around his chest, and he lifts his hands out from the water to cover hers. "Your life is not your own," she reminds him softly, her tears against his skin. "You belong in the new era of peace, and you must stay alive to see it. That is what matters now."

Kenshin turns in her arms and hugs her, stroking her head where it is buried in his shoulder. "Yes," he promises.

He kisses the side of her head, and then as she turns it towards his face, he kisses her forehead. He brushes his mouth against her cheeks to catch all her tears and Kaoru moans softly and kisses him back. "Anata," she breathes urgently, kissing him again, "anata."

Goosebumps raise on his skin despite the heat of the water, and Kenshin kisses her desperately, shoving aside all other emotions besides the ones that told him Kaoru was there, soft and wanting, and he needed her. She pulls him half out of the tub against her and Kenshin forgets everything for a time, except the feel of her against him and the ardent press of her lips.

It is after, when they are curled together on top of her damp clothes, that Kenshin promises himself he will stop hiding from her. He has always believed that someday she would hate him, but she never has. He watches the firelight flicker against Kaoru's skin; he'd made her cry out more times than he'd thought possible, and now she lay against him, her face a mask of drowsy content. He shifts her closer in his arms, his fingers stroking gently through her hair. "I love you, Kaoru," he whispers.

"Mmm…" she agrees sleepily, snuggling even closer. Now that he is studying her up close, he can see that the corners of her lips turn up naturally—fitting for someone who smiles so often, who always sees the best in everyone.

"Everything I know of happiness, I have learned from you." He kisses her cheek and Kaoru turns her face to kiss him deeply, her hands stroking gently down his chest. Kenshin feels himself responding once more, marvelling at the stamina Kaoru seems to possess. He rolls onto his back with her on top of him, and Kaoru's stomach grumbles loud enough to be mistaken for thunder. He breaks their kiss in surprise.

"Oro?"

She blushes and buries her face in his neck. "Sorry!"

Kenshin laughs, stroking his hands along her back, tracing the bumps of her spine. "Are you hungry, koishii?"

"Ye-yes," she gasps. "Stop, anata, that tickles!"

"Does it?" he laughs even deeper, but he halts his hands at her waist, and kisses her lightly. "I will make us something to eat."

They pull on their yukata, and Kaoru takes their damp clothes to the washing corner to hang up. Kenshin pulls on tabi and slips into his sandals, dragging the laundry tub to the door to take it outside to dump out the water. He slides open the shoji and his face splits into a grin. "Kaoru," he calls.

"Hm?" she turns to face him. Her eyes fall on the open shoji and the yard beyond it, and her breath catches. "Oh!"

Snow is drifting down in fat flakes from the sky, twirling through the air to land in the yard. There is almost none on the ground; it has just started. Kaoru limps to the edge of the floor and steps down into her sandals, shuffling to the door to stand beside him. Kenshin puts his arm around her waist and presses her against his side to take the weight off her ankle. They stand in silence for a long moment, watching the world becoming blanketed with white.

"I wished I could be both," Kaoru says suddenly. "The last time we watched the snow together, you promised me someday I could be a wife and a swordsman, do you remember?"

"Yes," Kenshin says, because it is impossible for him to forget anything about her; she is burned into his memory like a brand. He could never forget sitting next to her on her porch, wishing that someday he'd be the man coming home to her.

Kaoru beams radiantly at him. "Now I am," she smiles.

Chapter Text

Kaoru chews her bottom lip, reading once more over what she has already written. She has been trying all day to compose a letter to Hijikata-sensei, but the right words won't seem to come. She has been in Otsu for almost a month; in two days she is expected to meet the Aizu merchant convoy at the pier. There has been no word from Dr. Gensai or Maekawa-sensei, though Kenshin checked each time he went into town. There is a chance that her guardians have written to the Commander directly, but Kaoru cannot chance it. She will go to Otsu, meet the merchants and pay them as planned, but instead of returning to Kyoto with them, she will give them a letter for Hijikata-sensei explaining why she could not return. It is a risk, and they will have to leave Otsu shortly after the merchants. But Kenshin had said there were other safe houses where they could stay, and if needed, they could simply go straight to Takasugi in Choshuu.

She is alone in the cottage; Kenshin has gone once again to Otsu to sell medicines, to scout out the pier, and check one last time for letters from Edo. With her ankle still nagging her all these weeks later, he had thought it best to go alone. He'd wrapped it tight before he'd gone, the bandages holding in place the poultice he'd made to help with the pain. He'd chided her, saying that an apothecary's wife who wouldn't keep off her feet and allow his medicine to work properly was bad for business, and she had laughed and promised she would sit still at her desk and not go anywhere.

Kaoru sets down her pen in frustration, and buries her face in her hands, groaning in disgust. It shouldn't be so hard to write this letter! There are several crumpled attempts scattered around her, and this one is likely to join them. She gives herself a shake; she will take a break, make tea, and then try again. She gathers up all the balls of paper into her lap and slides along the floor to the fire pit, where she dumps them unceremoniously into the flames. "And good riddance!" she tells them, sticking out her tongue.

She hums while she waits for the water to boil, spooning tea into the teapot and setting a cup on a saucer. Her shawl slips from her shoulders and she absently rights it; with the newly papered-over windows the cottage was much warmer, and she didn't really need to wear it inside except that she liked to. She liked throwing it around Kenshin when he came home, stamping his cold feet while she took his rosy cheeks between her hands to warm them. She liked when he wrapped them up in it while he pressed his cold nose into her neck and told her that he was home. In the near-month that she has been married, there have been many such things to like.

Kaoru smiles radiantly, though there is no one else to see it. It doesn't matter, because she is happy. And Kenshin too, never seemed to cease smiling. They tend to their little home, make medicines, play with the local children. They talk endlessly of the things that have come before and the things still to come, and while there will undoubtedly be troubles on the horizon, Kaoru has hope. They have endured so much already, but they are together, united on their path towards a peaceful era, and they would overcome whatever else might come their way.

She cups her tea in her hands and sighs across it contentedly. Kenshin will be home in a few hours, and Kaoru is going to surprise him with dinner. Nothing too extravagant—she will reheat the soup he'd made that morning, and once the radish is shredded and the fish sliced, there was really only the rice that'd she actually have to cook. But she could do that, Kenshin had taught her and it was well within her limited kitchen skill-set. He'd told her that cooking was just like the sword; it was all about timing and precision and sensing when things were right. And once she'd understood that, she had decided to face it like any other opponent, with fierce determination and lots of practice.

Kaoru finishes her tea and cleans the dishes, and then she pulls on Kenshin's haori. She breathes in the familiar earthy musk as she puts on first her right zori, and then her left. She stands hesitantly, slowly putting weight onto her ankle. But the bandages hold firm and there is no pain. Kaoru grins and picks up the bucket next to the door. She slides open the shoji to find that it is snowing once again, and she frowns, concerned for Kenshin walking home. She begins to gather snow into her bucket quickly and decides to add hot sake to the menu for the evening.

"Help! Please, Kaoru-chan!"

Kaoru drops her spade in surprise to find Tomoe running up the hill towards the cottage. Kaoru runs towards their gate to meet her, and Tomoe skids to a stop, falling to her knees in front of it, out of breath. The older girl grabs hold of Kaoru's kimono in an uncharacteristic display of emotion, and Kaoru is so taken aback that she stands rooted to the spot in shock. "Please help me Kaoru, they have Enishi!"

Kaoru blinks and then her training takes over, years of carrying the sword that protects and months of serving the people of Kyoto in the Shinsengumi. She takes hold of Tomoe's arms and lifts her to her feet, hauling her towards the cottage. "Come inside first," she says calmly, shutting the shoji behind them. "Who has Enishi?" she asks.

"Yakuza, they kidnapped him in Kyoto!"

Kaoru slides off her sandals, crosses the floor and opens the trunk where she and Kenshin keep their clothes. There are several yakuza gangs in Kyoto who were using the unrest in the city to their advantage. Kaoru keeps her temper firmly in check; she had warned Tomoe that Kyoto was dangerous, but she hadn't listened. And two samurai children, well dressed and without a guardian or guards were an easy target. "How much did they ask for him?"

"Ara?" Tomoe exclaims, and Kaoru wills herself to be patient.

"The yakuza who took him. How much did they ask for ransom?" Despite appearances, the Yukishiro family did not have a great deal of money; they had their title and their pride and little else. Kaoru's father had been generous with Yukishiro-san when he had taken him on as his steward, but Kaoru doubts they have much to spare for ransom. She clicks her tongue in frustration—a few of her furisodes would have been sufficient, but what's left of them is in Muko. She will have to wait for Kenshin, and then try to take Enishi back by force. It is not the safest plan, if they took too long, and if the Yakuza were threatened, they might simply kill their hostage. She pulls her hakama and a kimono from the trunk, and rummages around for her kote, trying to keep her worry from showing.

"Oh…" Tomoe says, tucking her hair behind one ear.

"Never mind," Kaoru says. "Do you know where they took him? And how many there are?"

"I… I don't know how many," Tomoe says. Kaoru finds her kote at last, buried deep in the back corner, and her fingers brush against the wallet Hijikata-sensei had given her. Kaoru bites her lip. She is supposed to pay the merchants, but surely there is enough? She didn't stay at the expensive inn, after all. And maybe with Kenshin with her, they wouldn't have to use it at all.

"And they have him at a woodcutter's cottage," Tomoe continues, pulling a map from her sleeve that shows Otsu, the cluster of farms close to where Kaoru lives, and a cross to mark the cottage in question, deep in the woods to the east. Kaoru looks the map over; they can follow the river most of the way there. "It should take a few hours in this snow," Kaoru muses, "but as soon as my husband returns-"

"No!"

Kaoru raises her gaze from the map in surprise, meeting Tomoe's fear-stricken face. "They… they said we only had until sundown!"

She chews her lip, weighing their options. "All right. We'll go now," she promises. "I'll leave him a note and your map, and he can follow behind us." Kaoru lifts her hands to her obi and starts to pull it loose. Tomoe stands to help her, and Kaoru quickly changes into the men's clothing with her aid. "It is just like when we were children," Tomoe says softly, "only then I'd be changing you from hakama to furisode, Kamiya-sama."

"Just Kaoru," she reminds her, knotting her belt and then bending to kneel at her desk. Her latest letter to Hijikata is sitting there, and the ink in the dish is still wet. She draws a fresh piece of paper over her letter and writes a quick note for Kenshin. Gone to woodcutter's cottage to help Tomoe. Back before dark. She pulls the ribbon from her hair and folds it neatly beside the note, with Tomoe's map underneath it. Kaoru pulls on his black haori and winds her shawl around her neck, tucking Hijikata-sensei's wallet into her kimono. From a drawer in the desk she removes her only hairpin, the small golden one Ikumatsu had given her. It is sturdy and sharp, a weapon that could be worn in plain sight. "Do you still have that dagger?" she asks Tomoe.

"Oh… yes," she answers, and Kaoru nods approvingly. She had tried once, to teach Tomoe how to throw a hairpin, but she'd been terrible at it. Tomoe was much better, thanks to her familiarity in the kitchen, with an actual knife. Kaoru winds her loose hair into a bun at the top of her head, secures it with the pin, then gets to her feet and picks up her daisho, pulling the covers free.

"Good," she replies, sliding her swords into her belt. "Don't use it unless you have to." Kaoru dumps snow over the fire and steps into her zori. She grabs Tomoe's hand and leads her out of the cottage, into the heavy falling snow. "Let's go get him," she says.


The two women follow the river until they reach a small path, barely a break in the thick brush of the woods. Kaoru has been sending her spirit ahead of her, and the way is clear, giving her more time to focus on her thoughts. Most yakuza would have taken their captive to their local headquarters where it would be hard for the authorities to step in but not so secluded as this, and the strangeness of the woodcutter's cottage sticks out to her. Kaoru turns it over in her mind, trying to see what she is up against. Why take the boy so far outside of the city?

She follows Tomoe's swaying back, deep in thought, and as they walk further and further from the river, something in the air begins to slowly weigh on her, making the space between her shoulder blades tingle. She sweeps her eyes left and right in a constant arc, wondering why she feels so on edge. Kaoru forces her spirit even deeper ahead, and then it hits her; she has lost her swordsman's sense. She halts in consternation.

"Kamiya-sama?"

"I can't feel my spirit," she murmurs. She scans the trees around them, and her eyes rest at last on Tomoe. The older girl tucks her hair behind her ear and folds her hands in front of her. It nags at Kaoru's already tense nerves, and she frowns. Tomoe was reserved, but when it came to Enishi she was fiercely protective. She had been distraught, in the cottage, at the thought of waiting for Kenshin, but now she seemed content to walk at an easy pace. She seems altogether too calm for someone whose brother was being held captive by a gang. Kaoru's eyes narrow and her heartbeat begins to sound in her ears, because too many things feel wrong. "How exactly was Enishi kidnapped?" she asks softly.

"They took him while we were in Kyoto," Tomoe says simply, and Kaoru shakes her head.

"No, not where. How."

"Oh… we… we were walking…" She seems to falter under Kaoru's intense stare, and Kaoru's stomach flops as several more gaps in Tomoe's story suddenly become apparent. She'd had a map of where Kaoru lived, but no ransom note…

"How did you know?" Kaoru asks quietly. "How did you know where I lived?"

"Your husband said-"

"My husband said our home was far. That was all."

"Kamiya-sama…"

"It's Kaoru! Himura Kaoru, Tomoe."

The older girl sinks to her knees. "Please forgive me," she whispers. "I didn't want you involved. He killed Akira. He stole my happiness."

Kaoru gapes at her in disbelief. "No," she gasps. This could not be happening. Hijikata-sensei's words echo in her mind. You rush in to help others before thinking. She shuts her eyes and Kenshin is once again kneeling in the clearing before her house in Muko, his eyes sad and resigned. I can tell no one. I can trust no one. Kaoru cannot feel her spirit but her temper burns in her heart. It was not fair, how the world seemed out to destroy him, when all he was and all he has been fighting for was kindness and peace. "I will not be used against him," she warns Tomoe.

"I'm afraid it's too late for such a promise, Ohimura-dono."

Kaoru spins on her heel, sword leaving its sheath in a blinding flash. She does not quite have her back to Tomoe—the girl had a knife. But she is now face to face with a tall man dressed in black, his silver hair and beard muted beneath the forest canopy and the falling snow. The silver haired man. The man who had taken her father from her, who had killed Omae-dono in her place. Rage bubbles over from deep in her centre and Kaoru drops into a defensive stance. "You," she grates. "Murderer!"

The silver haired man inclines his head and smirks. "Yaminobu Leader, Tatsumi," he introduces himself. "We meet at last, Ohimura-dono."

"The pleasure is mine," hisses Kaoru. "For my Father and Omae-dono, your work as a ninja will end this day."

"So hasty," he admonishes. "I'd love to test the mettle of the fabled Shinsengumi hero, Kamiya Kaoru, but it is the wife of Hitokiri Battousai that I am interested in."

Kaoru grips her blade and evens out her breathing. She harnesses her temper, a wild beast whose strength she will need to defeat the man in front of her. Kenshin's guilt, her own remorse, it would all end here. She will kill Tatsumi and it will be the final stone she ever has to carry. "Come."

But Tatsumi does not move; instead he throws back his head and laughs. Kaoru grits her teeth and lunges, but before she has even completed her step something sharp sinks into her right shoulder with so much force it drives her to her knees. She cries out in pain, throwing her face skyward in time to see another black-clothed figure emerge from the trees above her. His forked tongue flicks out from behind the sharpened teeth of his wicked grin as he pulls a clawed glove from her shoulder. Kaoru covers the wound with her left hand and staggers to her feet, turning to keep the two ninja and Tomoe within her lines of sight. Adrenaline fires in her veins and she lifts her sword once more. She needed to get out of here as soon as possible, back to where she could use her spirit.

It is the whistle that gives away her newest opponent; his axe sings through the air and Kaoru has enough time to leap sideways, mindful of the ninja in the tree. The leap is true, but her landing is not. Her left foot slips in the snow and she lands awkwardly. Before she can recover, the hulking, axe wielding ninja is above her, swinging the blunt edge of his axe down and Kaoru is trapped. The back of the axe comes down hard on her right leg, and Kaoru howls over the sound of the bone breaking.

"Sumita," Tatsumi cautions. The hulking ninja lowers his axe and steps back from Kaoru, looking at her with wary eyes.

Her lungs are burning, and for a few moments, there is nothing but pain. But Kaoru is samurai, and she is strong. The pain becomes another part of her, a numbness that is easy to ignore, and Kaoru plants her blade in the ground and hauls herself to her feet. She puts all her weight on her left foot and trusts that the bandages Kenshin has wound there will hold. She pulls her blade free with a determined noise that is half scream, half sob. Tears flow down her cheeks but she raises her katana once more. "Come," she hisses.

"Incredible," Tatsumi breathes, and shakes his head. "I am almost sorry to snuff out such a strong spirit."

"Come!" she screams, and launches herself forwards. Something stings in her left side and Kaoru stumbles, falling into the snow. It is agony, but she makes herself sit up, the fingers of her left hand searching until they find the dart in her hip. She pulls it free as a fourth ninja appears from behind a tree. Numbness is spreading down her left leg and shooting towards her shoulder. Kaoru moans in frustration and tries to stretch her left hand towards her sword, to grip it with both hands, but her arm will not move.

"Nakajo's chusen rarely misses," Tatsumi tells her, "and his stilling agent is very effective. In a few moments you won't be able to move at all, Ohimura-dono."

Kaoru glares at him with absolute hatred, and her right hand tightens around her sword. Tatsumi's eyes widen. "Still? Still you would fight?" He sighs. "Then must I kill this woman to convince you? She has outgrown her usefulness, now." He advances on Tomoe, who backs herself against a tree and grabs clumsily for her dagger.

"Stop," Kaoru croaks. "Stop." She throws her sword away, only a few feet with her gradually stiffening limbs. She knows that cannot fight anymore, and it is not worth risking Tomoe's life.

Tatsumi takes Tomoe's dagger from her and tucks it into his kimono, and the girl sinks into the snow in dazed relief. Nakajo picks up Kaoru's sword, and pulls her sheath and wakizashi from her belt. Kaoru stares at her empty right hand in defeat. She had only her hairpin as a weapon now. The Yaminobu Leader stands before Kaoru and he smiles. "Forgive me, but I can't have you thinking you might be able to take back your swords and wield them, Ohimura-dono." He bows once, and then his foot crushes her right hand. It tears a scream from her that leaves her throat raw, and the pain is finally too much. Kaoru faints into the snow, and Tatsumi unwinds her bloodied shawl from her shoulders.

"Give that to the boy to take with the note," he tells Sumita.


Kenshin hums to himself as he walks, each step ankle deep in snow. Iizuka had kept him longer than he'd hoped with news that was all the same: Katsura was still at large, Takasugi was still bogged down in Choshuu by the weather. But the snow was their ally—it would delay the merchants, perhaps give them more time before Kaoru had to disappear. There was still no letter from Edo, but that was all right. The snow had probably slowed the letter, too. For now, Kenshin was guiltily content to remain snowed in with Kaoru. He shifts his grip on the basket of groceries he is carrying. He'd bought extra, thinking the snow might keep them at home, and he hopes it might. He can't think of a better way to spend a blizzard than next to his wife. Kenshin smiles; he has bought namagashi to surprise her. The air is cold and his feet are damp, but Kenshin feels warm. He is on his way to their cottage and she would have a fire burning, a lantern lit, a shawl and an embrace to wrap him in.

It is hard to see the cottage as he climbs the hill towards it; at first he thinks it is only the slanting snow and the driving wind, but then he realizes there is no light coming from their papered windows. Kenshin frowns and quickens his steps. Kaoru had promised to stay home, off her ankle, and it wasn't like her to let the fire go out. Perhaps she had gone to the village; one of the children had caught a cold and Kaoru had been going down each day to help tend to her. But she had promised to stay home, and Kenshin's mind, prone to worry, suggests that something more sinister may have happened. He practically runs the rest of the way to the door.

"Kaoru?!"

The cottage is empty, dark, and cold. But Kenshin is a trained assassin, the best in Kyoto, and his senses kick into overdrive. From the strength of the scent of smoke in the air, Kaoru had been gone for a few hours. The trunk where they keep their clothes is open and shows signs of upset, and Kaoru's kimono and obi are pooled on the floor. Kenshin dismisses the possibility of bandits; there are no signs of struggle. His eyes dart first to the sword stand where his daisho remain but Kaoru's are gone, and then to her desk. Her ribbon is sitting atop a folded piece of paper, next to a hastily scrawled note.

Kenshin drops his basket and pulls the shoji closed. He steps out of his sandals and lunges across the floor, grabbing the note. He fears that the Shinsengumi had somehow found her, that'd she'd had to leave in a hurry. But her note is even more surprising. She'd gone into the woods with her friend from Edo. He groans slightly, picking up her ribbon and tucking it into his kimono, scanning the map she'd left him. Kenshin pulls his hakama and kote from the trunk. He has no idea what kind of help Tomoe-dono needed, but if Kaoru had taken her swords he could hazard a guess. And while he knows she can take care of herself, if she thought he'd be able to sit in the cottage and wait for her to come home, well, such a thing was impossible.

Sufficiently attired, he slips his swords into his belt and steps into his zori. Kenshin opens the shoji, and there, sitting atop his fresh footsteps in the snow, is Kaoru's shawl. It is neatly folded, not haphazardly dropped, but placed there on purpose, covered with only a light dusting of snow. Kenshin picks it up and the neat folds slip in his grasp, revealing a bloody edge. He cries out; opening the whole shawl, and a note falls out, the kanji on the outside landing face up in the snow. Kenshin's heartbeat pounds in his ears; it is addressed to Hitokiri Battousai.

"The abandoned mining village at daybreak. We four are waiting…"

He crushes the note in his fist. They had Kaoru. They had hurt Kaoru. His mind blanks with insurmountable fury and he steps out of the cottage where he had been just a man dreaming his peaceful dreams for the future. He steps into the blinding snow, a deadly killer.

Chapter Text

"Kaoru-chan."

Tomoe gently places her fingers against the younger woman's cheek, hoping the contact will help to wake her. The Yaminobu had strung Kaoru's arms up from the ceiling, with enough slack to allow her to sit, and after they pushed Tomoe into the cottage and locked the door, she had leaned Kaoru against her and cradled the wounded girl in her arms to keep her warm. It had been dark when they'd finally reached the abandoned village deep in the woods, and Tomoe has no idea how much time has passed. Kaoru was flitting in and out of consciousness. Whatever dark dreams possessed her were causing her to cry out and talk in her sleep—saying she has to live, calling to her father for help, and worst of all, begging her husband to wait for her.

A year has passed since Akira fell. Far from home, alone in a dirty street of an uncaring city, not even at the side of the lord he'd revered. He was supposed to come home to her; they were all supposed to be home by spring. But Kamiya-sama betrayed them all with his death. It had cut Kaoru, and Akira, and countless others loose in war-torn Kyoto when they should have been home safe, together in the Kamiya dojo. It had left her father destitute once more. And worse, it had left Akira with an aimless sense of duty, leading him to join with another lord who did not understand his gentle heart and slow blade. He should not have been in that darkened road.

She has been numb, since the news reached her. Akira was dead at the hands of Hitokiri Battousai, and there would be no summer wedding. She had been unable to smile when she had accepted his proposal, though her heart had soared in song. Tomoe had never been able to articulate her feelings to others–she tried to move the muscles of her face the way that others did, spent hours before her mother's mirror trying to emulate Kaoru-sama's smile, but something in her make-up suppressed it, every time. And so, though she loved Akira, she had been unable to reach him with her love, to tell him she was proud, honoured to be chosen by him in a way that he would understand. He'd decided to follow Koshijiro-sama to Kyoto to make a name for himself and prove to her that he was worthy.

Akira was dead at the hands of the Ishin-Shishi's most terrible assassin... and Tomoe had not expected that assassin to seem so kind. She had joined the Yaminobu to avenge Akira's death, to still the torrent of unquietable anger in her belly. She had been told that Hitokiri Battousai had a woman. She had known, but in her wildest dreams never imagined it to be Kaoru-chan, the girl she loved most in the world. She had never imagined watching the red-headed demon reach out and catch her falling friend in the street, hold her protectively against him as he worried over her person. She had never imagined watching him attend to Kaoru with such gentleness, pour the tea on her behalf because she was hurt from her fall. She had not been prepared for his genuine and warm smile, the way that Kaoru calling herself "Himura" had lit up his entire face. Tomoe had understood that look. It was the way her own heart sang for Akira.

After that, she had wanted to stop. Akira was dead and he had never believed in revenge, and Tomoe could not bear to hurt Kaoru, the girl who had lost so much and gave so much of herself away. Tomoe knows in Kaoru's mind, the two of them are not close—there were years and Tomoe's own barriers between them. Yet for Tomoe, there would always be the fact that no one had ever made as much effort to love her as Kaoru had. She was the daughter of a poor samurai, and Kaoru-sama had not even had to look her way, yet she always had. To put the burden of the pain Tomoe had learned into Kaoru's heart, to take away her happiness, was unforgivable. She had wanted to stop—but Tatsumi had quietly reminded her that he could snuff out not just her life, but her brother's, too.

"Kenshin… please live…" Kaoru moans, struggling against her bonds.

"Hush," Tomoe soothes. "It's all right, Kaoru-chan."

Kaoru's eyes slowly open, their once-bright blueness dulled grey by pain and the poison in her blood. "Tomoe…" Understanding breaks across her face and tears well in her eyes. "Where am I?" she asks softly.

"An abandoned village," Tomoe answers truthfully. Kaoru closes her eyes, tears spilling down her cheeks. It breaks Tomoe's heart, but she cannot move her face to show it. Instead she asks, "Are you in pain, Kamiya-sama?"

"Yes."

Guilt breaks over her in an unrelenting tide, but her expression betrays none of her turmoil. "Forgive me," she whispers.

"He will be coming for me, Tomoe," Kaoru says quietly. "Please help me, I must stay alive."

It was so like Kaoru, to be know just how to move them forward, know what would help Tomoe focus on something other than her inability to express her emotions. Kaoru's words cut through her guilt and pull her to action, because of course, Kaoru needed her. She scans the contents of the hut: there is a mouldy pile of bedding in one corner, but perhaps it was not filthy all the way through? And there, leaning against the wall, were thin slats of wood. Tomoe eases Kaoru onto the floor and sets to work. When she returns to her side, it is with splints and freshly torn bandages. She sets a perfectly decent quilt around Kaoru's shoulders and then hikes up the right leg of the girl's hakama.

"This will hurt," she apologizes.


Kenshin pauses at the edge of the woods, checking the map one final time. He's followed the river all the way to this small break in the underbrush. "This is it," he thinks, casting both map and letter aside. He has it memorized, and he knows whoever sent the letter has timed this journey perfectly so that he will arrive by dawn. Kenshin shakes his head at his foolishness; he had truly grown too complacent if he could no longer read when he was being manipulated by those around him. Tomoe was of course suspect, as someone Kaoru would trust, who clearly had reason to hate Hitokiri Battousai. But he hadn't counted on Iizuka betraying him, keeping him from home with a long, drawn out retelling of the same, stale news, ensuring there was enough time to get Kaoru out of the house and into harm's way. Kenshin would make Iizuka regret revealing himself as the Choshuu spy.

Indeed, the network of accomplices ran deep, and that meant the shogun was involved. It took deep pockets to establish a spy in the inner circle of one's enemies. It is no surprise that the shogun wants Kenshin dead, but there was only one man in the Tokugawa's service who would know to take Kaoru. Kenshin had never told Iizuka about Kaoru, never told anyone. And that meant the silver-haired man has her captive, the man who had tried to kill her before.

Kenshin's steps crunch through the snow, and here under the canopy, sheltered from the wind and most of the falling snow, he sees traces of two sets of footprints. One, larger, deeper, made by a taller woman wearing geta. The second set are only a bit smaller than Kenshin's own feet, light steps made by zori in a stride shorter than his. Kaoru's footsteps. He follows them to a break in the trees, halts when the prints come together, Kaoru's feet beside each other. They had stopped here, but why? The forest here feels strange, as though something is wrong, but he can't quite place it. His shoulder blades tingle and he casts out his spirit, only to find that he can't feel it anymore. Somehow, some terrible force has caused him to lose his swordsman's intuition—and if Kaoru had stopped here, then she had, too. There was something in this forest that had robbed them both of their crucial sixth sense.

He grits his teeth; the blocking of his spirit-sense is surely intentional on the silver-haired man's part. Kenshin has been trained to read the spirit, to exude a deadly aura in his fights. Without his spirit he was more vulnerable to those who saw only his small stature, and he would run into difficulty if his opponents could match him for speed. It would be easier, too, for someone to sneak up on him, but thankfully, he was getting used to Kaoru's ability to do that; the way she could make her spirit non-existent was impressive. Living with her has taught him to listen for her near-silent footsteps, the whisper of her breath. "Thank you for this lesson, koishii."

Kenshin sets his thumb against the guard of his katana, preparing himself, and keeps his keen ears open. Kaoru's next step had been abruptly to the left, so he turns and follows her, only to find himself in a tangle of many footprints. There are three large indentations amidst the myriad of prints in the snow; there is an obvious trail of blood throughout the clearing. Kenshin shakes in fury. She had fallen three times.

He shuts his eyes for a moment to get control of himself, and that is when he hears it, the almost imperceptible noise of feet in the snow behind him. Over his shoulder he feels the breeze of a blade whipping towards his back and he moves, the turn bringing him face to face with his enemy. The man's blade glances off his back but its weak sting is nothing to the repeated crack of a whip, and he barely feels it.

"Welcome to the Forest of Barriers, Hitokiri Battousai," grins the ninja.

It is to the ninja's extreme disadvantage that Kenshin has still not calmed down. Kaoru's blood is in the snow and all Kenshin can see is red. He moves faster than sight, the ninja gaping at the place where he had been while Kenshin grips his hilt, thumbs his blade from the scabbard and pulls it free with enough speed and strength to slice a man in half. He has not calmed down but he needs information, and so while he wants nothing more than to stain the snow with this worthless ninja's life, the point of his sword slices deep across the man's chest, and nothing more.

"Will you take me to Kaoru," he asks, katana pointed at the fallen ninja's throat, "or will you die? Choose now."

"Keh!" the ninja reaches for him, and a sudden pain blossoms in Kenshin's shoulder. The ninja laughs. "You're useless here!"

Kenshin rips the dart from his shoulder, tensing to ensure that he loses any blood that might have been tainted by the dart's poison. "It doesn't matter!" he shouts—he is done with mercy. His sword swing in arc through the air and cuts off both the ninja's arms. "Where is Kaoru?!"

The ninja screams and runs off, so Kenshin picks up his severed hands and follows after him.


Kaoru gasps for air before sinking her teeth once more into the edge of the quilt to muffle her screams. Tomoe had set her leg and bound it tight with splints, wrapped her hip and shoulder with bandages. Now she was delicately trying to splint and wrap Kaoru's crushed right hand, working around the ropes binding her wrists. Kaoru has a high tolerance for pain, but nothing had ever hurt like the tiny, shattered bones of her fingers. Tomoe presses the icicle she'd snapped from the window to Kaoru's hand again to numb the pain. "Just one more finger, Kaoru-chan," she promises. "Just one more."

Kaoru nods and grits her teeth. She could not faint again; she needs to be awake and attentive when Kenshin arrives. She doesn't know why she can't feel her spirit in the forest, but it didn't mean Kenshin can't. She has to stay awake so he will sense her, so he will find her and know she is alive and waiting for him. The Yaminobu had completely overwhelmed her, but Kenshin is the best swordsman in Kyoto, better than anyone she'd seen in Edo, probably the greatest swordsman in all of Japan. She has no doubt that he will easily defeat them.

Tomoe snaps Kaoru's littlest finger back into place, and Kaoru screams into the quilt until at last the splint was secure, the bandages tightly bound, the roaring pain reducing to a numbing hum. Tomoe lifts her sleeve and wipes away Kaoru's tears for her, tucks the quilt around her more securely. "Are you warm enough, Kamiya-sama?" she asks softly.

But pain has confused her, and for a moment, Kaoru sees Kenshin, sitting next to her on the porch in Muko, asking the same question. She had been hurt then, too, but in different places, though that night it hadn't felt so bad. They'd drunk tea and watched the snow fall, and she'd told him of her dreams. At the time she hadn't realized it, but she'd been falling in love with him. When he'd asked her if she wished she could simply be a wife and mother, for one blinding, heady instant, she had pictured him coming into the front hall of the Edo dojo and announcing to her that he was home. At the time, she had pushed the thought away because she hadn't understood her heart and had her duty to her father to complete, but now Kenshin was hers, and nothing, nothing, would keep them from that dream.

"I'm all right," she tells Tomoe. She closes her eyes, and concentrates on her breathing, the steady, slow beat of her heart. She would live, she was all right. She repeats the mantra over and over as she meditates, conserving her strength. "Please hear me, Kenshin. I will live. I am all right."

The two women sit in silence for a long time, until it is broken by a thunderous explosion in the distance. Tomoe screams and leaps to her feet, and Kaoru slowly opens her eyes. "Kenshin is coming," she whispers.


Kenshin leaps from the cave, rolling on the ground before coming to a full stop, sword in hand. The ninja had told him, before he'd set off the explosion, to walk right if he wants to find Kaoru, and he has no time to waste. He gets to his feet and finds his balance is slightly off. Dizzy, he shakes his head to clear it. The sounds of the woods seem to distort around him and he swears. The explosion in the cave had not been meant to kill him – it had been meant to hamper his hearing. He would not be able to trust it until the effects wore off.

"Your spirit and your hearing. You've lost two of your six senses, Hitokiri Battousai."

Kenshin's eyes narrow and he turns in the direction he thinks the voice is coming from. He has guessed correctly: there, behind him, is a giant, hulking ninja carrying an axe. He lumbers forwards, already swinging, and Kenshin leaps. It didn't matter that he can't sense or hear, he can see. He's surprised Kaoru in the dark more than once, being able to find his way back to bed after getting up to use the outhouse. And not just in the dark; he could make out details in any light, see farther than others could. It was a game she liked to play when they walked, to have him describe what was beyond her field of vision up ahead, and then of course, when they got close enough for her to see, she'd check if he had been right. He was always right and it delighted her every time. "Thank you for the practice, my heart."

He lands safely, away from the trees meant to crush him, and then there, above him, he sees a creature that is not of the woods. A clawed glove punches towards him and Kenshin lifts his blade just as another log comes hurtling towards him. But he sees both things, and his reflexes are true. He ducks at the right moment, slicing through the wood, using it as a shield against the glove, enabling him to leap once more to safety.

"Two against one," he says flatly. "That will save me the trouble of tracking you both down."


Footsteps crunch through the snow outside, and someone fumbles with the lock on the door. Kaoru's smile has no mirth in it. Kenshin was coming, and her captors were worried. Tomoe crouches next to Kaoru, and she tries to reassure the older girl with her eyes. "Don't worry. My husband is coming. My heart and home is coming."

The door opens and blinds them both momentarily with the faint pre-dawn light. It was almost morning, and he'd be here soon. By the time it is dark in the little hut again, a tall, spindly man with a thin moustache is sitting on the edge of the wooden floor. "So," he laughs, "you are Battousai's woman!"

Kaoru glares at him. He is dressed like a travelling medicine seller, and something about his face tugs at her memory, but she cannot place him. He smirks at her intense stare. "Geez, those eyes! They told me you are a piece of work," he laughs again. "I guess you'd have to be to marry that guy." He takes out a pipe and smiles as he starts to fill it.

"You've made my work quite easy, Himura-san," he continues. "Katsura will believe you led Battousai here to avenge your father, and with both of you dead, no one will be left to deny my story. I get a nice, fat fee from the shogun for getting rid of the thorn in his side, and the Choshuu clan are none the wiser."

"You are Ishin-Shishi," Kaoru realizes, her voice raspy from her screaming.

"Iizuka the Examiner at your service, Himura-san," he says, flicking tinder to flint above his pipe to light it, grinning around the stem.

"Traitor," she hisses.

He laughs then, taking his lit pipe out of his teeth. "Takes one to know one, Himura-san. I doubt those brothers of yours in the Shinsengumi are going to take too kindly to your new husband." He shakes his head in pleasant disbelief. "All this time you were his woman, it's incredible. Yushin must be rolling in his grave."

"Kenshin will have your life, when this is over," she warns him. She is almost inclined to let him take it, too.

"I'll be long gone if he manages to get out of this alive," Iizuka laughs, "but I didn't come in here to listen to your threats. Where's the wallet you spoke of, Yukishiro-san?" Iizuka takes a long drag from his pipe and sighs contentedly, blowing smoke towards the ceiling, and then looks at Tomoe expectantly. "Well?"

Kaoru trembles with anger, but Tomoe leans down and carefully removes the wallet from the left side of Kaoru's kimono, and tosses it towards Iizuka. "Take your fee and go," she tells him.

Kaoru huffs softly and turns her head away. When Kaoru's mother died, she'd had Tomoe to teach her how a lady ought to behave, to hold her back when her temper became too bold, to comfort her hurts. It stings to know Tomoe had betrayed her, but the girl's feelings had been used against her; a larger plot was afoot to destroy Kenshin, to cut off the Ishin-Shishi's strongest arm, and she had simply been a pawn. "He is going to live," Kaoru says softly.

"Sure," Iizuka shrugs, emptying his pipe on the ground. He gets to his feet, and with her head turned away from him, he spies the golden pin in Kaoru's hair. "What's this?" he laughs, and reaches over to pull it out. Her hair spills down her back and face, and Iizuka gives the pin an appraising stare. "Gold with mother of pearl inlay. A decent little weapon you have here, Himura-san. Did he buy it for you?" He tucks it into his kimono with the wallet, then bows to them both. "My thanks, Himura-san, and I wish you continued happiness in your marriage!"

The door shuts with a snap, and Iizuka locks it behind him before his footsteps and laughter recede. Kaoru goes back to regulating her breathing, monitoring her heart, but it is hard with the fury in her belly trying to overwhelm her. She has just about given up when a second booming explosion breaks her concentration. This one was closer, and Kaoru smiles. "I'm here, anata! I'm here and we'll go home soon."


The world is blurry, too light in front of him. Kenshin squeezes his eyes shut and then opens them again, but nothing has improved. He swears again. The second explosion had been meant to impair his sight, and now, half blind, partially deaf, and for the first time since childhood, picking up a sword without his spirit, he is beginning to feel his deep disadvantage. If he waited here for a time, he'd be able to recover his sight and hearing, but it is near dawn, and he doesn't know what they will do to Kaoru if he is late.

He staggers to his feet and wipes his nose on his sleeve. It is surely broken after he'd been hit in the face by that log, but he lifts his left hand, where her shawl is tied around his forearm, and is assaulted by her floral perfume. So, he could still smell, at least. He winds the shawl carefully around his neck and shoulders, partly to stop the bleeding from the two wounds that the ninja in the tree had left in his back, but mostly so that he can reassure himself by drawing in her scent with each breath. Kaoru. She was the light that drew him home, the heart that called to him in the darkness. So long as she is living, so long as he draws breath, it doesn't matter. Even if he cannot see, or hear, or sense, he will still find her.

The giant ninja had said that his last opponent was straight ahead, and that Kaoru was there, in a shack. Kenshin pulls his wakizashi free from a tree trunk and sheathes it alongside his katana. "Just a bit longer, Kaoru."


At the sound of the second explosion, footsteps can once again be heard running towards the hut. "Is he coming back?" Tomoe wonders, but Kaoru knows they are heavier, a larger tread. The shoji opens with a loud bang and the silver-haired man enters. He smiles at Kaoru, and Tomoe clambers away from her, across the floor to the doorway.

"It's time for your medicine, Ohimura-dono," he says, holding up a small vial. "More of the stilling agent. Enough that it is likely you'll freeze to death, so I'm afraid you'll miss the final battle."

"You're a monster!" Kaoru shrieks. She tries to evade him but he wraps one strong arm around the back of her head and pinches her nose to make her open her mouth. She nearly chokes on the fiery liquid, and tries to spit it out, but he clamps his hand over her mouth and forces her to swallow it.

"There now," he smiles. "You will thank me, in your next life, for freeing you from that murderer."

"Ken…shin…" she mumbles, the only feeble cry she can manage, because her entire mouth is going numb. She draws increasingly panicked breaths, trying to keep the greyness at the edges of her vision at bay. Her head lolls on her neck and slumps against her chest. Tatsumi cuts her arms free, and Kaoru flops forwards, smacking her chin on the floor. The Yaminobu leader rolls her over with his foot and sets her swords next to her body. Before closing the door, Tomoe shoots her a sad look of resignation and guilt, and it is the last thing Kaoru sees before the world goes dark.


Tomoe stumbles behind Tatsumi along the edge of the abandoned village, where a shack stands isolated from the rest of the buildings. He hands Kaoru's dagger back to her, but Tomoe's numb fingers can't hold it, and it clatters to the floor. "You may need this," he tells her. "The Battousai will be here shortly. If I don't finish him off, he will surely kill you for betraying his wife. That knife will be no use against him, I'd use it on yourself, if I were you." With that, he turns on his heel and exits the shack, not bothering to lock her in after he shuts the door.

Tomoe raises herself up on her knees and sobs brokenly into her hands. She had been unable to cry when Akira died. At his funeral, she had stood stoically aloof and endured the whispers of those around her, who had questioned if she had ever really loved him. She had loved him with her entire being, so much so that she had come to Kyoto, risked her life and her brother's life in search of revenge. And now Kaoru was going to die, the man Kaoru loved was going to die, and it is her fault. Tomoe weeps at her foolishness, at the hopelessness of the prison she has built with her own hands. No matter her course, she had damned both herself and people she loved who were still living. She clenches her fists and reaches for the dagger, and just as her hand closes around it, a voice speaks, muffled through the walls of the shack.

"I am taking Kaoru back," Hitokiri Battousai swears.


"Impressive," says the silver haired man, and Kenshin glares at him. "Though I should have expected as much, from a trained killer ruled by passion, wielding his sword for his woman. I ought to have thanked her for giving you this weakness, you're much easier to defeat this way."

"Where is Kaoru?!" he shouts.

"Where?" the old ninja laughs. "Her body, or her soul?"

"What…" he gasps.

"Though, I doubt you'll be able to go wherever her soul has gone, with hands as bloody as yours."

"LIAR!" he yells. "Where is she?!"

"Heh, try your spirit, if you wish. There is no magnetism here to prevent it. Do you sense her anywhere, Battousai?"

Kenshin's spirit soars, and while he senses Tomoe, extremely upset in the shack behind the silver haired man, there is no one else for miles. "No," he sobs hoarsely. "You're lying… "

"She called out for you when she died. She couldn't believe you didn't reach her in time to save her."

The words stab him deeper than any weapon. Tears sting in his eyes and he clenches his fists. She had died here, cold and alone, wounded and betrayed, and her last thoughts had been that he had failed her. She had told him once, what it feels like when someone you love dies. It feels like cracks in your heart, but Kenshin's heart shatters, obliterated by grief and anguish. It had hurt, when he'd thought she would turn away from him, but that was a single drop compared to the oceanic depths of his despair. She was gone and there was nothing, nothing in the world that could ever bring her back.

"How dare you," he breathes, voice hoarse from the pain. "It was me you wanted, how dare you kill one as good as Kaoru-dono."

"It was you who dared to possess her. You should have known better; in our line of work, there can be no weaknesses."

Kenshin bristles, and he turns his sword in his belt. "Kaoru was not a thing to be possessed, not a weakness," he grates, settling into battoujutsu stance. "She was the greatest swordsman of the age, and my only strength." His hand hovers over his hilt.

"You were what I believed in, Kaoru. Your dream was my dream. Koishii, you were the only thing that kept me sane, that kept me alive."

The memory of her voice comes back to him, a weak, unbearable echo of the true thing: Your life is not just your own, anata. It is yours and mine, anyone's if you choose to help them.

"Forgive me, my heart. I cannot live without you."

Kenshin raises his head to regard his opponent with half-blind eyes. He will have one strike to avenge Kaoru. If he misses, he will fail her once more, and if his aim is true, afterwards, he will take his wakizashi to his gut for failing to save her. Kenshin has no desire to remain in a world that would so heartlessly let go of Kaoru.

"Come," he says.


Tomoe grips Kaoru's dagger in her hands, and her heartbeat thuds in her ears. Kaoru wasn't dead, not yet, but the Battousai thought she was, and it was wrong. She slides to the doorway and peeks out. He is standing past Tatsumi, broken and defeated, bleeding and crying, his hand hovering above his sword hilt. It was wrong, Kaoru was waiting for him!

"Help him!" Tomoe whispers, "Someone, please!"

But no one answers, and tears fill her eyes anew. The wind whips through the trees and the snow falls in heavy swirls, and she knows not what to do.

"Help him, Tomoe."

It was Akira's voice. She gasps, and for a brief moment, Tomoe thinks she sees him, standing behind Himura Battousai. But the wind stirs again and he is gone.

"Help him."

Tomoe pulls the dagger from its sheath, a weapon for each hand, and gets to her feet. "Kaoru-chan is waiting," she breathes, leaving the shack, moving towards the battle.


Kenshin half-hears and half-sees the silver haired man start to run towards him. He draws in one deep breath, heavy with Kaoru's scent, and lowers his head. He had lost so many things today, but he still knew how to time an attack.

"I love you, Kaoru."

His sword whistles out of its scabbard, and he is low enough that when he feels the familiar connection of blade with flesh, the jarring force on his wrists, he instinctively knows it is the silver haired man's hip, and he angles upwards, a deadly arc that will complete itself in the ninja's shoulder. There is a second jarring when he cuts through the man's spine, but then, too soon, another one that is too close to be the shoulder blade. He is at the point of his spin where his head follows his katana, and his partially blind eyes make out a white sleeve, a loop of jet black hair, before seeing a dagger come at his face, swiping across his cheek from his nose to his jaw.

Kenshin blinks and pulls his sword free, dropping it in his surprise, lifting his arms to catch the body of a woman against him. His legs give out and he sits with her protectively cradled in his lap as the silver haired man topples backwards into the snow, dead.

He looks down at the woman, and she smiles at him. It is a small, soft smile, beautiful and sad. She is bleeding too quickly. "Tomoe," he groans, "why, why?"

"Forgive me…" she gasps softly, smiling as though she has at last found true happiness. "She… wanted… you to… live…"

Kenshin gapes at her, and her eyebrows draw together as she purses her lips, intent on telling him something more. "It's… all right. She… " Her breath hitches, once, twice, and then the light leaves her eyes.

Chapter Text

Heavy snow blankets the forest outside of Ikumatsu and Kogoro's home, and holding a tray of warm tea, the former geisha enters the interior room and shuts the shoji firmly behind her to keep out the cold. Katsura-sama had been half-crazed with urgency and passion when he'd begged her to follow him into hiding, and she had not hesitated. He was her heart and she would follow him anywhere, even to the mouth of hell if he'd asked her to. They had been like blushing children their first few weeks here, for all their boldness in Shimabara. But to live as husband and wife, even if it was pretend, was something new. Neither of them had ever lived without servants to cook and clean, and in the six months they have been together, there has been much for them to learn. Ikumatsu smiles softly as she settles onto the tatami beside Kogoro, pushing the tray ahead of her.

"Please, accept this tea," she tells Iizuka.

"Oh! Sure," he says, reaching for it. Ikumatsu picks up Kogoro's cup and offers it to him with a slight inclination of her head, a subtle smile. She does not like Iizuka, but she was not Kyoto's finest and most popular geisha for nothing.

"What news of Himura-san?" she asks gently. She is fond of the Battousai; the young man was soft-spoken and polite, always respectful to her and her sisters when he came with Kogoro to the red light district as his bodyguard. She has been worried about him alone in Otsu, worried for the brave young woman in Kyoto who held his heart.

The Ishin-Shishi examiner finishes his tea in one large gulp, and Ikumatsu holds her features steady to avoid frowning at his rudeness. He sets the teacup on the tatami with a huff of pleasure, so Ikumatsu lifts the teapot to fill the cup again. "He's fine, still making his salves," Iizuka answers. He reaches into his kimono and draws out the stem of his pipe. She does not like smoking inside the house, but she says nothing. The pipe appears to be caught on something and Iizuka gives it a sturdy tug to pull it free. As it comes out of his kimono, it draws out a second object, the thing it had been caught on. A slender golden hairpin thuds softly to the tatami, and before Iizuka can retrieve it, Ikumatsu snatches it up in her hand.

"My, how lovely!" she exclaims. "Why are you carrying such a beautiful hairpin, Iizuka-san?"

"Ah, I found it!" Iizuka laughs weakly, scratching at the back of his neck. "I spotted it on the road."

Ikumatsu looks right at Iizuka, and she knows he is lying. One did not spend as long as she had in Shimabara without learning to read a man's face. It meant he didn't know what this pin represented, that it had not been given to him on purpose. "What will you do with it now?" she asks softly.

"You keep it, Ikumatsu-sama. It will be of more use to you!" he laughs.

"Thank you. I accept," she bows, and places the pin in her sleeve. She gathers the remaining tea things and takes her leave, so Kogoro can finish his meeting. Alone in the kitchen, she inspects the pin in detail, and she is not mistaken. It is the exact one she had given to Kamiya Kaoru, as a promise she would keep her identity a secret from the rest of the Ishin-Shishi, and as means for the girl to speak to her again. If Kamiya-san had not given it to Iizuka on purpose, it meant he had discovered her somehow. Ikumatsu's eyes widen in understanding; she thinks at last, she may have found Kogoro's spy.

It is in the kitchen that Kogoro finds her; he cups her face in his hands, concern in his eyes. "What's wrong, Matsu?"

She takes a deep breath and holds up the hairpin. "I think you should go yourself to check on Himura-san."


Kenshin is not sure how much time has passed. He doesn't remember walking back to the cottage, or binding up his wounds. As far as he was concerned, one moment he'd been holding Tomoe in his arms as she died, and the next he'd found himself lying on the wooden floor at home, stiff, weak, bloody, and wrapped in his wife's discarded kimono. For one sublime instant he'd thought she had tucked it around him, but the cottage was cold and dark. Her swords were still missing, and she was gone.

He'd spent a long while on the floor then, as his wounds healed, coming in and out of fitful sleep. He'd cried out for her, wept into her kimono until his voice was hoarse. That had been all he could manage for a time. As his body grew stronger and he'd begun to reoccupy more and more of his mind, he built a fire and kept it lit, prepared himself small meals consisting of mouthfuls of rice and water. It is not much, but it is enough to keep him alive. That was what she had wanted, for him to live.

"Koishii."

She has set a near impossible task for him, when he lacks her unwavering will. She had promised she would teach him to wield his sword with compassion and respect, that his life was no longer his own. Living takes true courage, she had said, and Kenshin is not sure he is brave enough. But the long days and nights drag on, and for her, he remains alive.

When he is able to stand, he washes away the blood and dirt, dresses himself in the kimono she'd embroidered for him. He cleans their clothes and then he sits by the fire with her sewing kit and painstakingly repairs the tears in her shawl. His stitches are crooked and clumsy, nothing like the tiny even ones she'd mended their clothes with, and if she could see them, she'd probably laugh. She'd laugh her gentle, kind, summer-chime laugh, and then tell him she liked his stitches better, that she was glad he was taking care of his things. He folds her clothes away in the trunk and sets his atop them, where they will protect the delicate remnants of her soft, floral scent.

It is a few more days before he can bring himself to go near her desk. She'd left an unfinished letter there, under weights. When he reads it, it nearly undoes him.

Hijikata-sensei,

I write to tell you of my marriage, though perhaps you have heard of it already. Though you must be angry with me, I will not ask your forgiveness. I am only a ronin, and my duty is to my heart. I have chosen with my heart a good and honest man. He is kind and honourable, and I love him. I am happy…

It ended there, halfway across the page, though at the far left corner she had already signed her name Himura Kaoru. That had been too much. Looking away, he'd shut the letter into the drawer and spent the next few days sitting by the fire, trying and failing to avoid the boundless pain of his grief, which is how Katsura found him.

"Kenshin?" he asks, stepping into the cottage. Their eyes meet and Katsura's are too full of pity to be completely uninformed. Kenshin lowers his gaze to the fire once more, steeling himself for this, the first time he will have to say out loud that she is dead. He opens his mouth but no words come out, only a cold breath.

"I heard what happened here… " Katsura starts, sitting across from him. "Though she would not tell me her name, Ikumatsu said she had once given your woman a hairpin. When the traitor had it, she thought you might be in trouble. And then, on the walk here, they were bringing down bodies… "

"Iizuka," is all Kenshin says, though in his mind he tells the Choshuu Leader more.

"I have already sent someone to deal with the traitor," Katsura tells him gently. For a moment Kenshin is furious. He wanted to be the one to sever Iizuka's head from his unworthy shoulders, to punish the traitor with his own hands for taking her from him. His fists clench but she seems to appear at the edge of his vision, urging him to let go of his anger, reminding him that she did not want him to carry these kinds of burdens. He breathes deeply and nods.

"That man will deal with the assassinations from now on," Katsura continues.

"So, I am being retired?"

Katsura stares into the fire for a long time, and Kenshin, still raw, sinks once more into his own thoughts. When the Choshuu Leader speaks again, Kenshin has almost forgotten the man is still there.

"No," Katsura says at last, and the look he gives Kenshin could best be described as pleading. Except, the Choshuu Leader didn't beg. "You must continue to wield your sword for us. Each day, they hunt down more of the Ishin-Shishi in the capital. If no one stands up to them, our total destruction is inevitable. You must protect the Ishin-Shishi; it's cruel of me to ask you, but there is no one else. There is no one else I can trust. I want you to make your heart bloodthirsty, and wield the sword that soars in the heavens."

He hears Katsura's words, but does not answer. He has had enough. Enough of killing, enough of blood, enough of pain. Following that path had only led him to loss and despair. She wanted him to live, and so he will. He will live everyday knowing he is nothing more than a murderer, that he is unworthy of kindness, that he had not been strong enough when it had mattered most, when he had needed to protect the most important person in his life. He shuts his eyes and she smiles up at him. I believe in you. I will help you find your era of peace.

"Koishii… "

That's my wish. For us to live in your new era.

"I understand," he says to her.

"Kenshin…" Katsura begins, but Kenshin opens his eyes and resolutely meets the Choshuu Leader's gaze.

"If I abandon the sword now, all the lives that I have taken will be for nothing." He reaches his hand into his kimono, resting his fingers on her ribbon. Always over his heart, the place where she would remain forever. "My wife taught me the many small joys that people live for. Until there can be an age filled with these small joys, I will wield my sword. But when the new age comes, at that time… "

"…You'll throw away your sword?" Katsura asks.

"I don't know. But I'll never kill again. Never again."


The soft spring sun slants through the shoji, streaming down on the bustling activity at headquarters. Only, it isn't really headquarters anymore; the Shinsengumi are packing up at Yagi Gennojo's house and moving to Nishi Hongan-ji. The larger temple will have more space now that Ito Kashitaro and his faction have swelled their ranks. Heisuke shakes his head as he finishes tossing his things into his trunk. Ito-san joined them in the fall, and it has been two seasons of tempers flaring with too many men in too little space. He is hesitantly hopeful that the extra room will put an end to the obvious division between the Shinsengumi and its newest members, and an end to the one-sided feud Hijikata-sensei seemed to have with Ito-san.

Heisuke pushes his small trunk onto the porch and puts his sword stand on top of it. This is all he owns in the entire world, and he laughs a little to himself. Many of his comrades had more than one set of swords, many more or finer clothes than he had. But Heisuke's small trunk is weighed down with all the money he has saved, the 3 ryo pay they all received from the lord of Aizu each month that his brothers spend on drink and women. Heisuke has learned to get by on only the food provided by the troop, to mend his clothes and do without. He painstakingly puts aside as much money as he can, the faster to get Kimiki free of her debts.

His packing completed, the eighth unit captain walks down the porch to check on his men. They are supposed to be in charge of bundling up all the bedding, but without him constantly supervising them, it has already dissolved into two pillow fights. Heisuke grins—it is not like the fights aren't fun. But Hijikata's patience was starting to wear thin, and the sooner they get this job completed, the better. He rounds a corner heading for the barracks, and stops. Okita is standing on the porch in front of an open shoji, staring into an empty room. Heisuke's smile disappears. The door shouldn't even be open; there was nothing in that room to pack away. Despite the cramped living quarters, that room has been empty for months.

When Kaoru did not arrive with the shipment of supplies from Aizu, Hijikata-sensei had gone to Otsu himself to look for her. She had never turned up to meet the merchants she was supposed to escort, had only stayed one night at the inn before disappearing. Questioning the local townspeople had turned up nothing. No one remembered a girl carrying daisho or a woman dressed as a samurai. One paper vendor had said he'd sold his wares to a woman who matched Kaoru's description, but he had been adamant she had been wearing the shortened sleeves of a married woman, and that her hair had been tied back with an expensive silk ribbon. Hijikata had made a few other inquiries and then dismissed it as a dead-end; Kaoru never wore her hair that way, and never went anywhere unarmed. They'd had to accept the ugly truth: Kaoru had run off with Hijikata's money and deserted the Shinsengumi because she didn't want to marry Okita.

But Heisuke had never believed that could be true of the girl he'd known. He'd never met a swordsman more true than Kaoru, or a woman more kind. To run off without a word was cruel, it was dishonourable, it was beneath her. It had crushed Okita and Kondo-sensei, deeply angered Hijikata-sensei and Saito-san. It simply wasn't something Kaoru would do. If she hadn't wanted to marry Okita, she would have boldly faced it head on, with the same fierce determination she tackled everything else. He had argued for days that they should go back to Otsu and look for her, that she had possibly run into some sort of trouble. Heisuke wishes now to all the gods that he had been wrong.

It was after the thaw that her daisho arrived, wrapped protectively in cotton and delivered by the Otsu magistrate. The messenger had bowed low in Kondo-sensei's office and explained that there had been an incident that winter with someone they suspected was a Choshuu rebel; four of the shogun's ninja and a woman had been killed around the same time Kaoru had been noticed missing. The suspect was still at large, but a woodcutter had stumbled across the swords in the woods after the snow had disappeared, and found a body nearby. The body of a small woman, dressed in hakama. The body had been past the point of recognition, but there was no mistaking the Kamiya crest on the sheathes of the katana and wakizashi.

Since that day, there has been a hole where once a girl had been. Remorse had been most heavy for those who had blamed her for running; since receiving the news, Hijikata's temper had skyrocketed. Saito-san had disappeared for a few weeks, and Okita had begun to drown himself in more sake than he could possibly handle and make a nuisance of himself in Shimabara. They'd all taken turns hauling him back from the red light district, until finally, one evening Kondo-sensei had ordered Okita tied up and confined to the dojo. The Commander had entered at dawn carrying Okita's katana and his own. No one knew what had transpired between them, but Okita had ceased his evening degradations in favor of hunting down Ishin-Shishi with a deadly drive.

They have all been concentrating harder on finding the Ishin-Shishi, rooting out the rebels. There had been no orders to do so, only an unspoken understanding. If Kaoru had gone into hiding in Otsu, if she had gone into the woods dressed for battle, it could only mean that she had come across Hitokiri Battousai. She'd gone after him to avenge her father and her friend Mae-san, and the bastard had killed her and left her to rot in the woods. And now he was back in the city, boldly walking the streets instead of lurking in the shadows.

Instead of the cold, efficient assassin they'd all expected, he was a boy no older than Kaoru had been, a demon with fiery hair and a gruesome cross-shaped scar on his left cheek. Rumour has it he had killed his own wife for betraying him to the shogun. He has certainly killed countless soldiers in the last few months, though for whatever reason he has left the few Shinsengumi he faced alive. Maimed, broken, their career as swordsmen over, but alive. It is as though he is taunting them; he did not value them enough to give them honourable deaths. Heisuke has yet to face the hitokiri named Himura Battousai, but when he does, he will teach him the value of the Shinsengumi. He will make him feel the full weight of Kaoru's death.

"Okita," he calls softly, and the first unit captain starts out of his contemplation of Kaoru's empty room. He is three years older than Heisuke, but he looks a hundred. For a moment Heisuke doesn't know what to say. He could make a gentle comment that her room had been cleared out months ago, her possessions sent to Muko at the behest of her guardians. He could simply say she is gone, but he misses his friend and her bright smile and he can't bear to voice the words. The wind stirs through her room and he thinks he smells the faint scent of jasmine, and Heisuke believes he knows what she would say.

"Let's close the shoji," he says quietly. "Let her rest here."


Kenshin only ever visits at night. He is still the shogun's most notorious enemy, and his wife's grave typically had many visitors during the daylight hours. At least one of her comrades comes everyday, and there is a steady stream of citizens constantly keeping her stone clean. Even Katsura had come once, to pay his respects to the daughter of his friend. The Choshuu leader was still ignorant as to the identity of Kenshin's wife; only Ikumatsu-sama knew the truth, revealing to him that Kaoru had once visited her, and she had respected his decision to keep it that way. The Ishin-Shishi believed the elegant woman in the white kimono had been his woman, and he let them. The rumour in the city was that Hitokiri Battousai had killed his own wife and Kamiya Kaoru in the woods outside of Otsu, and Kenshin, carrying his guilt like a boulder around his neck, will not deny it. Instead he keeps her name locked in his heart, and cannot even speak it aloud to himself.

This particular night is warm with summer's sweltering heat, and he loosens her heavy shawl from his neck, revealing the cross-shaped scar on his left cheek. It has been a few days since he has been able to visit, and her grave is surrounded by offerings and flowers, though some of them are wilted with age. He clears it all away, along with the leaves that catch in the grass. He carefully scrubs the small stone, making sure to remove the dirt that collected in the two mon carved into it, the Kamiya crest, and the five-petal blossom of the Shinsengumi. They'd buried her with full ceremony, the funeral and dues to the temple paid for by the lord of Aizu himself.

Kenshin had been in Choshuu at the time, sent there to protect Ikumatsu-sama while she delivered news of Katsura to Takasugi, though he suspected Katsura had sent him away to give him time to grieve. It ought to bother him, that he had been unable to walk in her procession, but his guilt would not have allowed him to, regardless. Besides, she wouldn't have wanted him to bury her privately, where those who still needed her strength couldn't visit, and for that reason also he does not begrudge her comrades from keeping her ihai and daisho at the head of their dojo. She had given him the most of herself, but there were many others who needed her, too.

The stone now clean, he sets the flowers he has brought in the stone vase, a bouquet of late irises. He tries to bring that flower as often as he can. She'd told him that his eyes were the same colour, that when she saw an iris or the special violet sky at sunrise and sunset she'd always thought of him. No one had ever described his eyes that way. The eyes of Hitokiri Battousai were like the cold flash of steel, like the fires of hell, like a killer, but she had only ever seen the eyes of Himura Kenshin, even when she knew the two men were one and the same. To her he had been more than just an assassin. She had believed in him and shared her dream with him, and it is up to him now, to see it fulfilled.

Kenshin lights the incense and pours a ladle of water over the stone, and then he rests back onto his ankles and presses his hands together. He closes his eyes and bows his head, and talks to his wife. He tells her of the Takanis and Sekiharas, still tucked safe at their home in Muko. The house has belonged to him since spring. Kenshin had written to Dr. Gensai at the start of the year, his duty as her husband, to tell her guardians of her passing. The letter that had come back to Ikumatsu-sama's house, months later, when her death had been confirmed by the Otsu magistrate, had been long and draining to read. But he rereads it often, when he feels himself losing his way.

Help others, use her things to spread kindness in these times. Keep the home she gave you in good order, and keep yourself healthy and strong. This is how you can atone.

Kenshin had taken the words to heart, because they were true. It was almost as if she herself had written them. There had been nothing she'd had that she wouldn't have given away to help someone in need. So for her, he wanted the house in Muko to be full of the families she had adopted as her own, full of the laughter of children, soft words spoken over dinner, small joys.

He'd meant to go home only once, after her things arrived from Mibu. to gather the things of hers that he had wanted with him. But the girls had leapt from the porch into his arms, and would not to let him go. Takani-dono had been adamant he come once a week for a decent meal, and he could not refuse her. So he went, every week, to bring supplies from Kyoto and to play with the girls, to talk with Kaito and Tatsuki the words of young men, to eat Takani-dono's elegant meals. He would have a bath in the tiny bath house and then sit on the porch with Sekihara-san and drink sake late into the night and say nothing, safe in the unspoken understanding between the two men, both made widows over the worthless revenge of a ninja clan. He'd wake bundled in his futon on the dojo floor, assaulted by the memory of her bare feet against the polished wood, until the shoji was opened, breakfast was announced, and he was once again thrust into the midst of these two families, families he didn't deserve, but who had accepted him because of her.

He tells her the news of the rebellion also, that while the shogun had declared a second seichosen against Choshuu that spring, the Bakufu has not moved against the province yet. After the bitter winter, Katsura had learned just how ill-equipped the han was to defend itself, let alone fight for control of the capital. He had toyed briefly with the idea of keeping Kenshin there, but one man alone, even with his skills, could not be expected to carry the province on his back.

It had been Sakamoto Ryoma, a ronin from Tosa, who had given them a way out. He was a friend of Katsura's from Edo, and his exile from his home province had led him to settle in Satsuma. He had brought Katsura together with generals from that province, convinced the traditional enemies that an alliance would be beneficial to both hans. There was still unease between the groups, but Satsuma had been slowly supplying Choshuu with arms while the shogun idled in sending his troops.

"We are going soon to Osaka, to meet with Sakamoto-san and the Satsuma generals," he tells her. "Katsura wishes to see the progress for himself." Kenshin is hesitant to say this meeting will go well; there is still a sense of distrust between all of these men, and it is a mark of Katsura's unease that he is taking Kenshin with him.

"We leave in two days, so I will not be able to visit for a time," he apologizes. "But I will wear my hat and drink water, since the days are growing hot again. I am eating well and sleeping well enough."

Sleep alluded him often when he was expected to defend his fellow patriots at any given time. But when he does sleep, she is there. A soft and beautiful spirit who leads him into his dreams with her smile, who kisses and caresses him and calls out his name. A vision in a golden furisode, a purple kimono and black tattsuke-hakama, or a blue ribbon and nothing else. Those cause him to wake up shaking, his skin too sensitive and warm for him to believe it hadn't been real. He wishes she would not tease him so... and yet his greater fear is that she will disappear from him forever, leaving behind only memory.

Kenshin's chin drops to his chest, and he trembles beneath his emotions. He tries, when he visits, to be strong for her, tries not to let her see his pain, but he does not always succeed. "I miss you," he confesses. "I am reminded of you everywhere." Even with half the city burnt down, there were still too many places that held her memory. There was the ink shop where he'd met her a second time. And there, the shrine where they'd sat in each other's arms in comforting silence. Kenshin hadn't realised how many of the city's nooks and crannies he'd tucked her into, so he could kiss her under his hat. He sighs softly. It will be something of a relief, to leave Kyoto for this meeting. "Please watch over me on my journey. I will try my best, and come home safely."

Kenshin opens his eyes to look once more at the small stone that marks her final resting place. He gets to his feet and pulls her shawl closer around his neck again to hide his scar, before stooping to retrieve his bucket. "I love you," he whispers, and then leaves before she can see his tears.


A gust of chilly wind blows through the red maple leaves in the branches outside the inner courtyard of Nishi Hongan-ji, and Heisuke reaches for the warming sake. Harada is on patrol, so it is only Saito, Okita, and Nagakura seated with him around the sake heater in his room. "To Matsubara-san," he says, raising his dish before throwing back the wine. Nagakura and Saito follow suit, while Okita continues to sip his tea. The first unit captain did not drink anymore.

"A bad business," Nagakura says with a shake of his head. "To die of a failed seppuku wound, over something so trivial."

"Shinohara-san should not have interfered," Saito says flatly. Heisuke is not so sure. While it was true Hijikata-sensei had been angry over the affair, there was no proof Matsubara had killed that ronin. And if it was true, that he had loved the ronin's wife, and she had loved Matsubara in return…

"But he did," Okita says softly. Heisuke watches his friend across the sake heater, but Okita does not look up. It is nearly a year since Kaoru went missing, and the change in seasons hadn't helped. With the growing cold the first unit captain was drawing into himself more and more. Heisuke digs around for some other topic, but can't think of anything he could bring up to raise the mood. The silence drags out uncomfortably, until there is a soft call from the other side of the shoji.

"Todo-sensei?"

Heisuke turns to push open the door, revealing Ibuki kneeling on the porch. "Yes?"

"Forgive the intrusion," Ibuki says, raising his head, "but the Vice-Commander has a visitor he wishes you all to hear."

"Just when the sake was getting pleasant," grumbles Nagakura. Heisuke extinguishes the heater and they follow Ibuki out onto the inner porch, across the courtyard to where Hijikata-sensei keeps his office. Kondo-sensei and Ito-san are already there, with a man who looks to be about Okita's age. He has a wide, round face, with expansive cheeks and small, black eyes. Heisuke notes his top knot and wakizashi with distaste. He was clearly too soft to be a swordsman, and Heisuke doubts the man could wield the weapon sitting on his right with any accuracy. A samurai in name only, while he and his brothers risked their lives daily for the shogun.

They settle onto the tatami before their commanders and the guest, and Hijikata-sensei nods to the man. "If you would, start from the beginning," he says quietly. Heisuke is instantly alert; the Vice-Commander did not easily defer to other men, and his formal speech meant that whoever this visitor was, he held some importance. Heisuke looks at him with keener eyes, sitting up properly to show respect. His clothes are fine, his hair well oiled, and he certainly looked well fed.

"My name," begins the visitor, "is Akuyaku Waru. I have sought out an audience with your commanders to inform you of some intelligence I have received concerning the late Kamiya Kaoru."

Heisuke's eyes widen, and he hears audible gasps from the unit captains beside him.

"If you will pardon my forwardness," Akuyaku-sama continues, "I have come to you out of our common respect for that woman. You see, I was to marry her."


It is late when Kenshin is summoned from the safe house by Katsura. He dismisses the messenger and takes to the rooftops; it is easier for him to travel that way. Very few people looked up, and there were too many eyes on the ground to catch sight of his scar and red hair. He drops into the courtyard of Ikumatsu-sama's house, and heads for the lit shoji. At this time of night the former geisha would be practising her flute for Katsura's enjoyment in the side room they retired to before bed, and Kenshin is liked enough by that elegant woman that he is allowed to disturb them there. The muted noise of her instrument floats through the paper, and Kenshin stands for a moment to let the song reach its conclusion before he speaks.

"Katsura."

"Ah, Kenshin. Come in," the Choshuu leader calls.

He opens the shoji and immediately bows to the woman sitting across from his leader, dressed in a silk yukata. "Forgive this one, Ikumatsu-sama, for disturbing you."

"Not at all. You are never one to disturb, Ken-san," she says affectionately. "I hope you are keeping well."

He bows again, and seats himself formally before Katsura. He does not want to tell her that the cold weather is weighing heavy on him, that the approaching snow will be hard to endure without his wife. From the kind look she gives him, he knows she understands anyway. "You wished to see me?" he asks Katsura softly.

"I did. Our informant within the Shinsengumi brought me troubling news today, and I think you should hear it."

The boy Ibuki has been working for them for some time, but Kenshin has never met him. He wonders if she had ever been close with him, as he was apparently the youngest member after herself. That was what made him so unlikely to be suspected. Kenshin waits, looking at the Choshuu leader, though there is dread in his heart. If it involved him, if it involved the wolves of Mibu, then it could only be about one thing. It is no surprise what Katsura says next.

"It is concerning the events in Otsu last year," he says delicately. "A visitor came to the Shinsengumi to confirm their suspicions, that you are the one who ended Kamiya Kaoru's life."

Kenshin hears Ikumatsu's indrawn breath, and he shuts his eyes. "I did not kill her," he whispers. "But her death is my fault."

"I know you do not like to speak of what happened there," Katsura sighs, "but I must have the truth from you, Kenshin. Today the head of the Akuyaku family went to the Shinsengumi and told them you abandoned your wife in Otsu, you kidnapped Kamiya Kaoru, held her captive and ravished her, and when your wife and a group of ninja tried to stop you, you killed them all."

"What?" Kenshin breathes in disbelief. It is all he can get out, all he can make his lips say when his throat is trying to close, the insult Katsura has just spoken choking him. How dare they, how dare anyone speak such slanderous lies about the woman he had loved. How dare they blacken her reputation and her memory, when she had been such a kind and caring woman. She was dead, was that not punishment enough?

"Is it true?" Katsura says quietly.

"Kogoro!" cries Ikumatsu. "Ken-san was betrayed by Iizuka to those ninja!"

"They claim that he was obsessed with her, and I cannot deny that he was!" Katsura tells Ikumatsu defensively, but Kenshin doesn't hear the rest of their argument. The air in the room suddenly feels overwhelmingly hot and oppressive, and so he lurches to his feet, making his way outside to the garden. Kenshin sucks in deep breaths through his teeth as he stumbles into a tree, and grateful for its support, he presses his shoulder into the trunk as he falls against it and is violently sick. Over and over, until his stomach is empty and he is heaving dryly.

He feels a slender hand between his shoulder blades and Ikumatsu is there, gently rubbing his back and speaking to him softly. "It's all right, Kenshin," she tells him. "It's all right, you must calm down."

"Kkkkkhhhhh," he gasps between heaves. He wants to say her name, the name he has not spoken once since he left Otsu, not even in the confines of his own heart. He wants to say her pure and honest name once more because it was something that had been given to him, one of the many things she had allowed him to have. His hand slides inside his kimono and reaches desperately for her ribbon. "Kaaahh," he tries again, but he cannot.

"Yes," Ikumatsu says gently, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. "That was your wife's name."

"Matsu…" Katsura says from somewhere behind them, as Ikumatsu strokes her hand through Kenshin's hair.

"She loved him," she says, "She came to me to try and protect him, that day before the Ikeda-ya, because she knew about the ambush. The brave woman in Ken-san's heart, the woman who married him in Otsu. Kamiya Kaoru."

"They killed her," Kenshin sobs hoarsely, finally finished heaving. He gasps for air and he has to put both arms around the tree to brace himself; his hand comes free of his clothes with her ribbon wound through his fingers. Tears blur the blue silk in his hand and he cries out, a wordless noise of grief and unbelievable suffering. "They killed her because of me."

"Hush now," soothes Ikumatsu. "She would not want you to blame yourself."

"Forgive me," Katsura says quietly, closer now, sitting beside Ikumatsu. "Forgive me, Kenshin. I did not know… and all that time… you were trying to protect her."

They are all silent, while Kenshin slowly calms under Ikumatsu's gentle touch. He is eventually able to sit up, to drink a cup of water that Katsura goes back to the house to retrieve for him. He wipes his face on his sleeve and the Choshuu Leader places his hands gently on Kenshin's shoulders. "You said there is a house in Muko," he says, "Does anyone else know that you go there?" Kenshin shakes his head, and Katsura nods once. "Go there for now. I want you to stay there while I get to the bottom of this, and I can't do that if the Shinsengumi could stumble upon you in the city at any time."

"You said it was the Akuyaku," Kenshin says softly. "Akuyaku was the name of the family that tried to marry their son to her when she was seven."

Katsura squeezes Kenshin's shoulders. "I remember. Go to Muko," he repeats, "and leave the rest to me."

After Kenshin has left, his late wife's shawl bound tightly against his face to hide his scar and ward off the chill, Katsura turns to Ikumatsu. She is expecting him to scold her for keeping the truth about Kenshin's wife from him, and she squares her shoulders, ready to defend herself. Katsura sighs softly, raising his eyes to the star-filled sky. "Takasugi was right," he says. "I have ruined that boy's life."

Chapter Text

Hijikata straightens his back, sitting up a bit straighter after leaning over his desk for so long. When he and Kondo had left Edo, dreaming their wild dreams of earning eternal glory in battle, he would've never believed he'd spend so much of his time writing. Reports, letters, ledgers, bits of paper seemed to pile up in his tiny office for no reason. He sighs and sets down his brush. If he wasn't careful he'd grow soft and lose his fighting edge.

"Vice-Commander."

Hijikata smiles. Saito-san's punctuality could always be relied upon. He slides from the desk to the brazier in the centre of the room, and calls out for his third unit captain to enter.

"You wished to see me, Hijikata-sensei." Saito sits formally, back straight as a rod, and Hijikata's smile widens into something resembling a grin. He has always carried himself with the dignity of a samurai, but when confronted with Saito's perfunctory manners, he found himself relaxing more than he could around others.

"I did, I have need of your specific skills," he says, looking up from the brazier at the younger man. When Hijikata had first met Saito Hajime, he had been a boy of seventeen, exiled from his home for accidentally killing a hatamoto. He'd come to the dojo in Edo because he'd heard of Okita's skill and wanted to challenge him. They had been so evenly matched, the fight had ended in an exchange of blows, that Kondo and Hijikata had only managed to stop by pulling them apart and sitting on them. Saito was Okita's polar opposite: serious, exacting with his men, quiet but fierce. Hijikata had offered Saito the position of his assistant immediately. That he happened to be an excellent spy was simply a bonus.

"I am ready to serve, sensei."

"I know." Hijikata smiles, and Saito manages a slight smile too. Hijikata takes a letter from his sleeve and sets it on the tatami between them. "I have doubts I cannot shake regarding the character of Akuyaku Waru. I wrote to an acquaintance in Edo."

Saito arches an eyebrow, but he does not speak, nor reach for the letter. It is the equivalent of Okita grabbing him by the kimono and shouting, and Hijikata understands that he will have to break Kaoru's trust, and tell Saito what he knows.

"I sent Kaoru to Otsu because she was in love with another man," Hijikata confides. His guilt over doing so, over sending her to her death, has been an unbearable weight coiled around his heart. She was young enough that he had thought of her as a niece, had wanted to set her on a safe path; instead, he had set her directly in harm's way.

"She did not wish to marry Okita," Saito states. "Any who watched her could see that his affection was greater."

"Mm. My intention in sending her away was to give her time to accept her marriage arrangements. With time, I think she would have grown to love Souji. As for the man that she did love… she told me very little of him, but she did say there had been no earlier offers for her hand, that her father did not know of the man's affections. But now, we have Akuyaku-sama saying something different; that they intended to be married when the shogun forgave her father's treason-"

"You do not think he is the same man," Saito cut in.

"I do not. The letter I received from Edo corroborates parts of Akuyaku-sama's story: his father did formally offer marriage to the Kamiya, but not because of any attachment between them. They applied directly to the shogun; Kaoru was seven at the time, and she never met Akuyaku. They were after the Kamiya lands and wealth."

Saito's eyes narrow and his hands tense into fists. His rigid sense of morality, his adherence to Aku Soku Zan, was certainly agitated by Akuyaku's exposure as a liar. But it was more than that; though the third unit captain kept it very quiet, Hijikata knew Saito had not so closely observed Kaoru's feelings for Okita out of a sense of duty to his friend. He had asked the Vice-Commander for Kaoru's hachigane before all of her things were sent to Muko.

"There is something sinister then, in his approaching us with this story."

"There is," Hijikata agrees, "and I want you to find out what it is."


Waru steps cautiously along the corridors of the abandoned wing of his manor, but despite his best efforts, his silk slippers stir up small clouds of dust, clinging to the bottom of his finely pleated hakama. He frowns in distaste. They'd have to be laundered now, yet another wrong to lay at her feet.

It is midday, but the hallway is dark, lit only by the candle he holds in front of him. He wouldn't dare admit the darkness set him on edge—he likes the way she cowers from the light too much. He delights in every way that he can exert his control over her, every way he can show her exactly who is in charge. He'd saved her life, but she still refuses to recognize his help. After everything he's done for her, everything he's tried to give her, she was still ready to ignore it, insisting on being mistreated. Gods, she was so difficult!

Waru unlocks the door and steps into the chamber she is currently housed in, seating himself in the elegant chair by the door. It is a western extravagance he's adopted; he has heard that the emperors of Western nations sit in ornate thrones, and since he is lord over Kamiya Kaoru, he likes to reinforce that fact when he visits. She sits still in the corner on her thin futon while he sets his candle inside the lantern beside him. She is dressed in her ragged haori, dirty, her hands chained together and linked to the wall for his safety, and her large blue eyes, luminous from their unusual colour, are unreadable. Her quiet demeanor irks him, ironically; it had been far more thrilling when she'd screamed at him. But Kamiya was clever, she's tried many tactics, hoping to get under his skin. It's been almost a month of this silence from her, and he thinks, at last, he has won. He smiles at her. "How pitiful you look, Kamiya-sama."

"Himura-san," she corrects, but it took her an extra beat longer to answer than it once had. His smile widens.

"Don't you want to know where I have been these past few weeks, dearest?"

"Kyoto," she says calmly, almost without affect. He grits his teeth. He knows the housemaids talk to her, that they call her Ojou-sama and offer her small comforts when he isn't looking. It has been that way from the very beginning, when she'd first arrived in the manor a year ago, stolen away while her husband dealt with the Yaminobu; she had been nearly dead of exposure and covered in wounds. He'd given her the best medical care, fine clothes and food, and as thanks for saving her life, for separating her from misery and trying to give her back her rightful place, she took every opportunity to undermine him. It was unbearably exasperating, but then, the flash of pain in her eyes each time she failed was exquisite. Oh yes, she would be a great lady someday, with her ability to win over even the hardest of hearts.

"I've been to see your Shinsengumi brothers," he agrees, nodding. "They are still so broken up about your disappearance, it's shameful. Not at all how bushi ought to behave."

Her jaw tightens then, accentuating how thinly the skin stretched over her features. Well, that was her fault, too. If she hadn't tried to disarm anything that moved, he wouldn't have had to starve the feistiness out of her.

"Perhaps they would not be so moved," she says, a shadow of her former anger in her reedy voice, "if you had not sent them a corpse and my swords."

That had been out of necessity. He'd thought the Yaminobu would be able to handle the hitokiri, but they had failed. The fact remained that Kamiya Kaoru was his, but he couldn't possess her until she was free, and her brothers had needed the extra goading. He hadn't expected he'd need to go all the way to Kyoto and spell it out for them, but the fools were swords with nothing between their ears except idealism and dreams of glory in battle. The way Kondo Isami had wept when he'd told them his tale was positively embarrassing. To be reminded of all that extra effort and her continued resistance, however, makes him angry.

"You have a beautiful grave," he tells her, letting an edge develop in his own voice. "You'd be surprised how often there are irises left there."

She inhales sharply and he grins. It's the weakness she has the most difficulty hiding and the easiest for him to exploit: her longing for that damned hitokiri. A flea-bitten, no-name bumpkin of a samurai, whose only impressive ability seemed to be avoiding getting killed while he racked up a substantial body count. Waru would have admired his luck, if he didn't stand in the way of his plans. All he had to do was bring the head of that assassin to the shogun, and all the Kamiya property, including the Kamiya daughter, would be his. His father had committed seppuku over his failure to achieve that goal, but Waru had erased the shame by encouraging the Yaminobu to execute Kamiya Koshijiro for treason, and soon, when Himura Battousai was finally dead, he would be able to enjoy the fruits of his labours.

"A pity your brothers are unaware of your fondness for that traitor," he continues. "They were only too willing to believe me, when I told them how you'd been kidnapped and slain by the infamous Hitokiri Battousai. It was only conjecture before, but who would deny the word of a samurai with the backing of the Tokugawa shogunate behind him?"

"They have failed to capture him before," she says, her brief lapse in composure mostly regained.

"Ah, but now, it is a matter of honour, Kamiya-sama," he laughs. "What brothers, what bushi, would rest when a notorious killer has ravished and killed their precious little sister?"

Her eyes widen, burning with a fire that secretly excites him. He can see all her hatred and how delicious it is going to be, when he finally breaks her of it. But even sweeter than her anger is the fear that comes up to replace it. He gets to his feet, picking up his candle. "Your husband will be dead before the year is out," he promises her, "and then we can at last be married, dearest."

"Never," she gasps, her voice slightly hoarse, betraying her fear, that lovely, delicious despair he's worked so hard to see. "He's going to live!"

He laughs lightly to himself and ignores her. "It is rather stuffy in this room, is it not, dearest? Yes, I think fresh air is what you need. I will see to it that you are moved to the store room while I am away in Edo. I think all that cool, bracing air will help you come to your senses."


The stone floor beneath her is cold, but Kaoru ignores it. She has been sitting seiza all day in her make-shift cell, keeping her breathing regular, her spirit hidden. Control your spirit, control your destiny, Kaoru. She cannot risk alerting anyone in the small manor across from this shed, or who knows where they'll stick her next. The sun is finally starting to slip below the manor wall, and her dinner will be arriving soon. Sunset is coming earlier than it had the day before; Kaoru counts her breaths every day, and it has taken fewer for twilight to arrive. The season is changing, soon the maple tree she can see through her barred window will be devoid of leaves. It is nearly winter; nearly time for snow.

Kaoru coughs softly and abandons her posture briefly in order to pull her husband's threadbare haori closer around herself. She knows she is ill; poor hygiene and the two small meals of rice she is allotted each day did not lend themselves to good health. The year hadn't started out this way. When she'd first awoken, feverish and in pain, it had been in a lavish room in the manor. She'd had excellent medical care, maids to bathe and dress her, generous and elegant meals. And as soon as she had been able, she'd tried to escape. But her newly healed leg could not go very far, and she hadn't known the layout of her prison well enough. They'd stationed a guard at her door, so two weeks after her first attempt, Kaoru had tried to escape through the window. In her weakened state she hadn't quite been able to make the jump to the top of the wall, and soldiers had pulled her down by her ankles. She had been locked in a smaller room after that, but it hadn't stopped her from trying to escape again. They'd locked her in all manner of dark places, starved her, beat her, but still, she continued to try to escape. Failure was not an option she was prepared to accept.

She has lost count of the number of times she has been dragged back to the manor, either tied up or unconscious, but tonight will be her final attempt. Over the last few months she had been preparing for this escape each time she managed to get outside the compound walls, and she thinks at last she is ready. She must be ready; she no longer has time on her side. Akuyaku has greatly forced her hand, though she is weak, sick, and desperate. She has to find Kenshin before her brothers do.

The door to the shed rattles open a few inches, and Kaoru smiles softly. Aoi was the one luxury that had never been removed, because she didn't know who Kaoru was, and Kaoru had never once betrayed the tiny housemaid. The girl comes twice a day with her meal, unguarded. She sits with Kaoru and watches her eat, and she tells her the news of the world beyond the manor walls. About the seichosen in Choshuu, and the ongoing war in Kyoto. About the return of Himura Battousai to the city, and the mysterious death of Kamiya Kaoru, the Miburo hero. It bothered Akuyaku that he couldn't surprise her with the details of his cunning plans, but his latest had shocked her so badly it had nearly been her undoing. She'd waited until he was out of earshot to cry, proud of herself for maintaining her composure when every part of her had wanted to cry, to beg him not to hurt her husband. But she couldn't give him that satisfaction, not any more than he already had at her situation, and so Kaoru wept alone.

Aoi slides the shoji shut behind her, and steps forward with Kaoru's tray. "How are you tonight, Ojou-sama?"

Kaoru smiles in greeting. "I am well, Aoi, though my cough is giving me trouble. I hope you are staying warm throughout your duties?"

Aoi ducks her head, setting down Kaoru's simple dinner: a bowl of plain rice, and a single dish of water. She sits formally in front of Kaoru with her head lowered, and unlocks the chains that keep Kaoru's wrists linked together all day. Aoi folds her hands in her lap, waiting for Kaoru to begin eating. She has always treated Kaoru as a lady of some standing, though Kaoru was dressed once again in her tattered kimono and hakama. But it was easy to speak to Aoi as a benevolent lady would; Kaoru had been one, once, and she needed that veneer here, that armour she could hide her heart behind.

"What news?" Kaoru asks softly, taking up her bowl. She has not been allowed chopsticks since she'd stabbed a guard with one, so she picks up small morsels of rice with her fingers.

"The men are expected back from Edo tomorrow," Aoi offers. She blushes slightly, and Kaoru knows she is thinking of Eita, the soldier she is in love with. Aoi talked endlessly of him, and how they planned to be married some day, with their lord's permission. Kaoru hopes that dream comes true. Eita sounded like a good enough man, and Aoi is very kind.

"Would you warm my back, Aoi?" Kaoru asks gently. "It grows cold so early now."

The housemaid kneels behind Kaoru without a moment's hesitation, placing her palms between Kaoru's shoulder blades. "Perhaps Akuyaku-sama will move you back into the manor soon, Ojou-sama," she offers hopefully. "You have been so good while he has been away, and not tried to leave."

"Mm, perhaps," Kaoru says softly. She eats slowly, watching as night settles over the maple outside, and the light dims in the shed. She sets down her bowl and drinks her dish of water, then turns herself slightly. "Aoi?"

The girl raises herself a fraction, peering over Kaoru's shoulder. "Yes, Ojou-sama?"

Kaoru moves fast, too fast for the young girl. Before she can cry out, Kaoru has gripped her by the back of her neck and slammed her head into the floor. The girl goes slack against the stone, and Kaoru feels for a wound or a break, and finding none, checks her pulse, slowly beating through her neck. She sighs in almost relief; Aoi would have a bad headache for a few days, and she would probably never trust anyone quite the same again. "I'm sorry," Kaoru tells her honestly. She buries her remorse and does not cry. For Kenshin, she will do what she must.

She searches quickly through Aoi's obi and sleeves, taking anything useful and tucking them into her own kimono. She steals to the door and listens. There are fewer soldiers in the manor at the moment; most had gone on the trip to Edo, but there were still enough about patrolling the grounds. She waits for the crunch of footsteps on gravel to approach, pass, and then recede from the shed, and then she opens the door and steps out without making a sound. She regards Aoi with no small amount of guilt. "I wish you every happiness, sweet girl," she thinks, shutting the shoji.

She rounds the shed to where a barrel has been placed to collect rainwater; climbs onto the lid, grabs hold of the corner of the roof, and hauls herself upwards. Her wrists and elbows creak in protest, but adrenaline is in her veins now, and she ignores the aches of her malnourished body. It takes her a few tries, but once on the roof, she edges carefully along the branch of the maple into the tall, neighbouring pine, and climbs. It starts to lean with her weight when she is close to the top, and Kaoru grips the topmost branches and carefully dangles her legs, until her toes touch the top of the wall. She has to swing a bit before both feet find purchase, and she lets go with a wobble, crouching immediately so she doesn't fall.

She waits, muffling her cough with her sleeve, until the pine is no longer swaying suspiciously. Then she crawls on her hands and knees along the wall to the corner where she'd hidden a rope months ago on a failed escape attempt. It is still coiled under the small roof where she left it, knotted tight to the crossing beams. Kaoru loops it once around her waist and ties it, grips it tight in her hand, before turning back towards the manor and jumping feet-first. The rope burns her hands, but she ignores the sting, lowering herself slowly, carefully, soundlessly. On the ground she scans the wall in both directions, though they did not patrol beyond the walls while the lord was away. With the coast clear, she darts across the open ground, diving as soundlessly as possible into the woods. Her heart thunders in her ears, but she makes herself wait, listen, make sure she has gone undetected.

She counts her breaths until they even out, and then slips deeper into the woods. There is a cave not far where she has been routinely stashing things each time she makes an escape. Aoi is allowed two hours in the evening with Kaoru, and she probably has about half that time before someone noticed the housemaid is missing. One hour until the alarm was raised.

"I am coming home, Kenshin. Just a little longer, my love."

She makes it to the cave without leaving too much of a trail, and thankfully, her cache has not been found. Kaoru shoves the wakizashi she'd swiped off a captor two months ago through her belt, tucks two small kitchen knives into her kimono. These are the only weapons she has, but she is in no condition to fight anyway. It's been months since she was locked somewhere large enough to run kata, and her callouses are gone. But with luck and timing, she won't have to fight. Kaoru shoulders her small bundle of pilfered odds and ends, passing another coil of rope over her head and one arm. She has no idea what the terrain might be like, and she will have to stay off the road.

The night is cold and crisp, with no moon, and the woods are pitch black. Kaoru picks her way along as carefully and soundlessly as she can. There had been a time when she could have stalked the wood in silence, without any trace of her passing, but it is not just her katas that are rusty. She is eager to put as much distance between herself and her prison as possible, and her haste was likely leaving a trail even a child could follow, and earning her more bruises and scrapes than were good for her fragile body. After what feels like an age, she allows herself to slow down, to reduce the signs of her passing.

When she grows too tired, she rests for a bit at a small stream, only long enough to fill her bamboo bottle and drink a few cold gulps from her cupped hands. The air is cold, but she feels unnaturally warm and slightly lightheaded. Her breath fogs the air as she walks, and when the trees break into a clearing, Kaoru stands for a moment, overcome by the vastness of the night sky. She is so drawn up in the stars, that it is a few moments before she realizes she can hear a dog barking. Kaoru swears, a word she's often heard but never used, and she leaves the clearing and heads into the woods ahead at a run. She tears through the underbrush, her hands desperately flinging branches out of her way, until her arms sting too badly and she has to draw the wakizashi and use it to cut a path. An obvious trail, but she could not fail.

Kaoru falls, landing hard against the turf, and her wrists burn in pain, but she stumbles to her feet and lumbers forwards, refusing to slow her pace. The barking is getting louder and she can hear the shouts of men now, too.

"No, no!" Kaoru sobs out in gasps, near panic, as she continues to run. "No, please, Kenshin!"

But her husband is far away, drowning under the weight of her loss, and can't hear her. Kaoru starts to cry but she keeps running. "Don't fail, don't fail, do not fail." She falls again and again, but she doesn't stop running, even as the light of the torches catches up to her.

"I found her!"

The shout is to her left so she angles right, but trips again, flying to the forest floor. Before she can get to her feet again the dog has her hakama in its jaws, viciously shaking her leg and pulling her along the ground. Kaoru screams in terror and throws one of her knives; the blunt end of the hilt raps the dog across the snout and it drops her leg with a small yelp of surprise. She springs to her feet and its hackles rise, a low growl in its throat.

"Heel!" shouts a soldier, and the dog complies, sitting immediately on its haunches. Kaoru grips her wakizashi with both hands, backing away from the dog and the men now closing in on her. She grits her teeth, and tries not to notice the way the short blade is quaking in her weak grasp. "Don't come any closer!" she warns. Her voice is high and reedy, and she hates it, grimacing at the feeble sound of it in her ears. "I have no quarrel with you!"

"Come now, Ojou-sama," the soldier says calmly. "Put down your sword and no one will harm you."

But they will harm her. Who knows what Akuyaku will do when she is hauled back to his manor this time, or how he will try to break her spirit. Kaoru has been too long in the dark to give up on her hard-won freedom, and she is running out of time. Panic starts to bubble up under her delicately crafted resolve, the reminder that this is her last chance, and she clamps down on it, fiercely reminding herself that she has to live. "You will let me pass," she grates, "or you will meet my sword."

He sighs, and all six men around her begin to advance. Kaoru's grip is white knuckled with fear, every inch of her body screaming at her to run. She had promised to come home, and she could not fail.

"I believe," says a quiet, deep voice, echoing from behind her, "that the lady asked you to let her pass."

Kaoru gasps softly because while she has never heard the voice, something about it seems vaguely familiar. Relief flames to life in the pit of her stomach, a small, faint hope, and she turns her head in time to see a tall man emerge from the woods, his face shadowed by the darkness. He looms in front of her, a broad back in a white cloak, his dark hair caught in a tail at the nape of his neck. He radiates spirit, a raging current hidden beneath a surface of calm, and Kaoru knows that whoever he is, he is not a man to be trifled with.

The soldiers are undaunted. "Who are you?" shouts the one who must be their captain.

"I do not give my name to those about to die."

Kaoru's mouth falls open, and the soldiers hear the insult and shout almost as one, advancing with blades drawn. Kaoru has just enough time to hear the man sigh in consternation before he disappears. She cries out in her shock as the soldiers fall in a rain of blood before her eyes, and her knees give out. Her fall forwards plants her short sword into the ground and she clings to the hilt as though it is the only real and solid thing she can trust. The dog scampers away whining, and the last soldier hasn't even finished falling before the man appears again with a swirl of his cloak. "You're safe now," he says simply, sheathing his blade, and Kaoru is too overwhelmed by her rescuer to speak; her eyes roll back in her head and she faints onto the forest floor.


Kenshin adjusts his grip, and pulls the indigo shawl tighter around his face. His steps crunch on the frost-covered ground behind the house. The air is starting to smell like snow, a thing he'd never really noticed before he'd met her. But now the crisp scent is another thing that constantly reminds him of her absence, and he is glad to have been sent to Muko because he cannot bear the thought of seeing the first snow alone.

He is doing his katas by the woodpile; with so many now in the small house, the dojo is being used as a third bedroom, and Kaito and Tatsuki were still asleep. His sword slices through the crisp air and he thinks of all the chores he can do today to keep himself busy. More wood needed to be chopped and more water hauled from the well, and Takani-dono had talked last night of going into the village to stock up on provisions before the snow actually came. Even if she didn't want his company, there was always laundry to be done, and if that didn't take up the whole day he could clean the bathhouse. He is becoming an expert at ensuring he is constantly occupied, never alone with his thoughts.

"Ken-san!" Megumi-chan calls him from the porch, waving and smiling. He sheathes his katana and bows to her diffidently. Now that she was ten, Megumi had decided to become a voracious flirt, and the only people she could practice on were Kenshin, and poor, bewildered Sanosuke whenever the little boy came by with his mother to visit.

"Ken-san," she repeats, "Tou-san is home from Kyoto! Come and see!"

He smiles in agreement and lets her take his hand and pull him along the porch. Takani-sensei had left two days ago, summoned abruptly to the city by a patient. Perhaps he'd have news of the patriots, or of the Shinsengumi's investigation. Kenshin grits his teeth against the bile that tries to rise in his throat each time he thought of it.

Megumi-chan slides open the shoji to the main room. "Tou-san!" she sings, but Kenshin tenses immediately. Sekihara-san is glaring at Takani-sensei; they have clearly interrupted an argument. The two men's faces immediately become impassive, but not quickly enough to escape Kenshin's notice.

"Welcome home, Takani-sensei," he tells the doctor quietly.

Takani-dono rises from her place next to her husband and holds her arms out to Megumi-chan. "Come, Daughter-mine, let's make Tou-san some tea, yes?"

When the shoji has slid closed behind them, Kenshin raises his head to look at the two men. "What is it?"

Takani-sensei presses himself into a deep bow, deeper than a vassal to his lord. "Forgive me, Himura-san. Forgive me, I had no choice," he moans.

Sekihara-san shakes his head in violent disgust, his anger bursting over top of the doctor's apology. "He told them you are here! He is an Aizu spy!"

Kenshin breathes out explosively, almost in relief. This was a small thing compared to the other burdens he was running from. This, he could handle. "I know," he says softly.

"Forgive me," the doctor pleads again. "They threatened my family, Himura-san…"

Kenshin knows that, too. It was a standard tactic, to lean upon an unwilling informant. His violet eyes meet the doctor's, and they are understanding, kind. "How many are coming?"

"You have to run, Himura-san," Sekihara says.

"No," Kenshin disagrees, still looking straight at Takani-sensei. "If this one is not found here, they will kill you all, and this humble self would not wish any harm to come to anyone here, that he would not. So this one will remain, but all of you must leave at once."

"We'll go back to Aizu," Takani-sensei says softly. "I have had my fill of the politics in Kyoto. I am truly sorry, Himura-san."

Kenshin nods to him. There was nothing for the doctor to be sorry for; he would gladly give his life in exchange for the lives of the families here. He'd promised to live, and he will try, but if he could die to keep them safe, then perhaps the gods would let him see her face once more before they cast him into hell.

"Sekihara-san, there is a doctor in Edo—Oguni Gensai is his name. Kamishimoemon can take you there in his cart. Persuade him to take his family as well, in case they have been watching the house."


Kaoru sits up with a groan, and presses her hands to her face in an effort to subdue the waves of nausea and headache that the sudden movement seem to have caused. She breathes deeply, up from her centre and down to her core, and when she at last feels calm and still, she risks lowering her hands and slowly opening her eyes. Instead of tree trunks and grass, she is surrounded by wooden walls, shelves covered with pottery. Kaoru looks down at her lap to find that she is lying on a futon, swaddled in quilts.

"Oh!" she exclaims in surprise.

"You're awake."

Kaoru squeaks and nearly jumps out of her skin, her eyes darting around the darkened hut. "Who…" she says weakly, because she is not quite up to her usual boldness, "who is there?"

Instead of an answer, there is the sound of flint on tinder, and then a small fire in the centre of the hut flares to life. The light stabs sharply at her eyes and she has to squeeze them shut for a moment, but when she can at a last hold them open again, her gaze falls upon the same tall man who had come to her rescue, sitting informally, his large body shielding her eyes from the fire. He has an angular face and piercing dark eyes, and once again, Kaoru gets the sense that he is used to being obeyed.

"You have been ill," he says. "Your eyes will be sensitive to light for some time."

Kaoru lowers her head. "Thank you," she murmurs, "for helping me." He waves a hand at her in dismissal, and pours himself a dish of sake. Silence fills the hut.

"Forgive me, but what happened, to the men back there…?"

"You are the only survivor."

Kaoru bows her head, adding this guilt to the stones she already carries. They had only been doing their duty, and while she was glad to have been rescued, it did not mean they'd had to die for it.

"You grieve for them," the man says, and though it is not a question, Kaoru nods. "Peculiar," he huffs. "Not many would grieve for the deaths of their captors."

Kaoru smiles softly. "I am not very ordinary," she admits.

He looks at her for a long time. She has the distinct impression that he can see into the very depths of her, that he is measuring and weighing her worth. At last, he pours himself another dish of sake. "My name," he says, "is Niitsu Kakunoshin. In exchange for rescuing you, I will hear your story."

Kaoru sighs and tries to think how best to start. She could tell him about her mother's death and the grudge borne from it, about her father's fierce and protective love for his only daughter. She could begin with her father's treason, the loss that had torn her entire life apart, but what was gone is no longer what is most important. There was someone waiting for her.

"I suppose it really began on a very hot day," she says.


Souji coughs softly into his sleeve, before returning to the task of tending to his katana. The nagging cough has been bothering him for a few days now, likely the opening assault of a cold, but Souji has had colds before, and he won't trouble Kondo by asking for time off, not when he was captain of the first unit, and was needed.

He taps his uchiko along the unoiled blade, inspecting it for nicks as he goes. Souji was probably more attentive to his swords then most thought advisable, but his daisho had saved his life more than once, and a swordsman was only as good as his weapons. Besides, they had been given to him as a gift from Kondo on the day of his genpukku, the day he'd taken the name Okita Souji and become a man. He wipes the stone powder carefully away with a clean nuguigami; his comrades use their cloths over again, but he uses them only once. Heisuke thought it was crazy, but Souji has no need for the eighth unit captain's economy; he does not have a wedding to save for.

Souji grimaces to himself as he sprinkles choji oil onto a fresh nuguigami. Kondo had told him not to dwell on a future that could never be, but it was hard when the past refused to remain there. He knows the Commander has been making quiet inquiries into a bride for him, some samurai's daughter who would be quiet and calm, who would help him run Kondo's dojo someday, when he inherited it. But Souji does not want a gentle wife, he had wanted a woman with tenacity and spark, with the spirit of a bushi. And he will never forgive Hijikata, for sending her away.

He coughs again softly, one hand gripping the hilt while the other rhythmically polishes the sword with oil. He can see his face in the flat edge above the blade's undulating wave, but he continues to polish. He can sense Hajime approaching along the porch, and it is better to have his hands busy and appear industrious, otherwise his friend would note that he has perhaps been dwelling too long with his thoughts again, and inform the Commander.

"Hajime," he calls, before Saito can announce himself. It does not phase the third unit captain, merely opening the shoji and seating himself formally in front of Souji with a nod. Souji takes one last appraising look at his blade, and then sheathes it, setting it to his right. He glances at his friend at last, and is surprised to find his face looking tenser than usual. "What's happened?" he asks.

"A comrade of mine in the Aizu forces tells me that they are leading an ambush on Hitokiri Battousai."

Souji blinks. There was typically a great deal to unpack in Hajime's sentences, but right now he doesn't care that his friend has just alluded to his post as a spy for the lord of Aizu. He doesn't care because it is about that man, and his blood fires in his veins from the mere mention of the villain's name. "Have you told Kondo? Did they ask for us?"

Hajime shakes his head. "They do not want us there. It will be their honour to capture him for the shogun, not ours."

Souji hisses and looks towards the shoji, hands clenching into claws. It is not enough, for him to be beheaded under the shogun's justice. Himura Battousai deserves a thousand blades thrust through his heart for what he had done to Kaoru, and Souji wants to be the one to deliver them. "Why are you telling me this?" he asks softly. Hajime had a strange grasp on comfort, and Souji would not put it past his friend to think that this kind of closure would be helpful.

"He killed eight of my men," Hajime says matter-of-factly. "I cannot take him on alone."

Souji snaps his gaze to Hajime's face. "What?"

"The ambush is to take place this evening. An entire day, for us to go and come back."

Understanding dawns on Souji's face. "Where is he?"

Hajime's face darkens, his sharp features narrowing with terrifying fierceness. "In Muko. In Kamiya's house."

For a moment, there is only blinding anger. There truly are no depths to which that demon would not sink to demean her memory. Souji breathes heavily through his nose, squeezing his eyes shut, and Hajime reaches out and rests a hand on his shoulder. "We should tell Heisuke," Souji says, once he can reason again. "We'll need someone to cover for us when they notice we're gone."

The shoji slides open with a quiet bang, and they both reach for their swords, before Heisuke himself steps through the doorway. His typically gentle eyes are murderous, and his thumb is hard against the guard of his katana. "If you can get by me," he says softly, "you can go without me."

In spite of the rage in his belly, the tell-tale tenseness in his shoulders that always comes before a fight, Souji laughs. "You're better than both of us," he admits, a fact Heisuke keeps quiet by avoiding sparring with comrades outside of his own unit. The eighth unit captain's stance relaxes and he smiles at them both, though it lacks all of his usual humour. Souji gets to his feet and slings his sword through his belt. "Shinpachi is on patrol; we'll leave him a note telling him where we've gone."

They exit the small room with spirits sharply honed, closing the shoji behind them.

In the next room, Ibuki leans away from the wall and ghosts to his feet, leaving through the opposite shoji. Katsura needs to be warned as quickly as possible.


Kaoru pulls Aoi's wooden comb one final time through her glossy black hair, and picks up a strip of faded black fabric to tie it back. The cloth is all that remains of Kenshin's haori; when she'd tried to wash her clothes in the river by Niitsu-san's house, the pounding water of the waterfall had nearly disintegrated her beloved coat. She'd come back to the small hut in hysterical tears, proffering the soaked tatters of the ruined garment. Her emotion unsettled the stoic potter, and his attempts at comforting her had been terrible. He'd patted her head a few times and then abandoned the hut altogether, waving towards a cupboard and telling her there were clothes that would fit her in the topmost tray.

She'd meant to tell Niitsu-san only as much of her story as was safe to tell a stranger, but as she'd talked, the sense of safety and protection in the hut made her trust him, and she had ended up telling him everything. She'd given him her name, Kenshin's name, spared no detail in the complicated web of revolution and revenge the two of them were tangled up in. He had listened to it all with the same stoic face, and when she was finished, he'd simply said You cannot walk back to Kyoto in that state. You are welcome here, until your strength returns. Kaoru had stayed until her cough and fever left her, until she could eat more than a few bites of rice. She is still weak, still just skin and bones, but she can't make Kenshin wait any longer.

Her hair now bound at the crown of her head with her new, makeshift ribbon, Kaoru slides across the floor to the cupboard, and pulls out the topmost tray. Its contents are wrapped in thin paper, coated with dust. She sneezes as she opens it, careful not to spill the dust onto the clothes underneath. She rubs at her nose, removes the haori at the top, and is suddenly assaulted by a familiar scent. The smell of musk and woods, of strong arms and gentle hands, of fiery hair. Kaoru cries out and presses the garment to her face, burying her nose in it. "Kenshin," she whispers in disbelief.

I learned the sword not far from Kyoto, but not in a dojo. Shishou does not really care for the company of other people, so he keeps to himself.

She looks around the small hut with renewed awe and interest, seeing it with fresh eyes. This was where he'd grown up. The walls that have sheltered her were the same ones that had sheltered him, when he had been small and frightened and alone. The roof beams that she'd fallen asleep staring at were the same ones that had greeted him each morning before he rose to begin his katas. And the man outside…

Kaoru dresses quickly in Kenshin's old clothes: a kimono and tabi, and a tattsuke-hakama that is a little too short. There is a second kimono and more tabi and she rolls them up into the bundle of her meagre possessions, along with the small wooden top that had rested in the furthest corner of the tray. She finds Niitsu-san outside, sipping sake in front of his kiln, but Kaoru knows now that he is no mere sword-wielding potter. He turns as she approaches.

"You'll be going, then?" he asks.

Kaoru nods, adjusting the bundle across her back, pulling the blue haori closed around herself. Niitsu-san is not one for many words, and while she has so much she wants to say to him, he had never revealed to her that he was Kenshin's master, despite knowing she is his pupil's wife. Secrecy seems important to him, and so she would not make the man who'd saved a little boy and ensured her happiness so many years ago endure a long goodbye. Instead she lowers her head with the respect of one sword master to another. "Thank you," she murmurs, bowing deeply, "for everything."

He nods once, and turns back to his kiln. Kaoru stares at him for a moment longer. "Thank you, Shishou," she wordlessly tells his back, then she turns and melts into the woods. He'd told her she was only a day from Muko, and she will go there first. She needs information, care, and rest. Kaoru turns her eyes east, and follows her heart to towards Kyoto.

After she has gone, when he can no longer feel her blazing spirit, Hiko Sejiuro smirks to himself. "Well, my foolish apprentice," he laughs quietly, "at least your choices in women are better than your choices in allegiance." He pours himself a dish of sake, and holds it aloft. "To Himura Kaoru," he toasts. "I wish you continued happiness in your marriage." He downs the wine in one gulp, and then picks up his sword. There are many things his student blamed him for, some right and some wrong, but failing to ensure his wife made it home in one piece would not be one of them.

Chapter Text

The snow had come early last year, and now that he thought back on it, the year before as well. Kenshin both appreciates the bare gray ground, and wishes nature would just take its course already. The telltale crisp scent had been lingering in the air for almost a week, and he has a sinking suspicion that today, of all days, the clouds will finally break.

One year ago today, he lost her.

He would have liked to sleep through the day, and yet he wakes in the muted dark of dawn, raises his head from his chest and grips his katana at his shoulder, all at once alert and alive and aching. There is no snow, no adversaries at his door, just nothing. An empty house and a hole in his heart that no distraction could fill.

He hadn't managed to sleep more than a few hours, after everyone left yesterday for safer places. Too agitated, too on edge, too raw. He spent the past night with his back to the wall, staring across the room at the spot where he'd kissed her, where she'd chosen him and he'd damned her with his blackened soul. Eventually the weariness of his body won out; his chin drooped and his eyelids closed, and his mind had paid back his foolish body with dreams of her dying, reaching for him and calling out his name. But he was always too late.

It had taken him some discipline, in those first few months of the year, to carry the burden of his grief in silence. He had done his best to keep it from Ikumatsu, to allow Katsura to bury him in work. And when he'd begun to stay at the Ishin safe houses, there were other men there, men who did not know anything about him other than his infamous name and dark reputation. He'd gone to see her grave as often as he could, put on a brave face for her and lived, but now, alone, confronted with fabricated cruelties, waiting to be ambushed in the home that had been their sanctuary, he gives in, and lets his mourning crush him.

"Koishii…"

Kenshin leans his heavy head back against the wall and shuts his tired eyes. He feels exhausted, and he knew that if she was here, she'd quietly disapprove of the way he has been neglecting his health. If she had been here, he would have tried to send her to Edo, and she would have stubbornly insisted she stay and help him. She would have been sitting on the other side of the shoji now, her father's sword against her shoulder, shooting him meaningful looks until he gave in and went to sleep in the side room, letting her take the watch. He sighs, and tries to ignore the nagging feeling at the centre of his heart that was threatening to undo him at the slightest prodding. Bad enough that the air was cold and the clouds had been slowly darkening all morning, but his heartsick senses had been fooling him into thinking he could feel her spirit, faint at first but growing stronger, until he was sure he was going mad.

There were other spirits approaching too, and these he's certain are real. He's felt them all before, one on the night Kamiya Koshijiro died, and the other two from the ambush at the shrine. It was unlike the Aizu, to rely on the Shinsengumi when they themselves could win glory for the shogun; the generals of that han are still bitter about the Ikeda-ya. Either the Miburo had insisted on sending their own men because of the grudge they bore against him, or they had a spy in the Aizu ranks. He assumes the latter, but it does not matter. Kenshin rolls his shoulders and gets to his feet. They are closing in on the clearing now, one on each flank and the other coming straight on. It is not what he would have done; better to have two come at him and the third from behind. It meant that while all three were intent on challenging him, two were deferring to the greater rights of the third. He pushes his sword through his belt and adjusts her shawl. The man who comes at him directly will be Okita Souji.

Kenshin opens the shoji and pulls it shut behind him, stepping off the porch and into his zori. He slowly walks from the house and stops just where the terrain begins to dip down towards the woods; they'd have to fight him uphill. It is exactly where he'd stood to tell her he was Hitokiri Battousai, where he'd prostrated himself in a futile hope for forgiveness and she had given him back the ribbon now tucked in his kimono. He stands there, to defend their home, to try and keep his promise to live, as a few snowflakes begin to lazily drift from the sky and on his sleeve. He closes his eyes and raises his face to feel the snow fall on his marked cheek. His jaw clenches; it feels like she is so near. "You have earned this living hell, hitokiri," he reminds himself.

"Himura Battousai!"

Kenshin opens his eyes, and three men are at the base of the hill. In the centre, as he had known, is Okita Souji. The man who'd hit her face, and still thought he was worthy to love her. On his left is a taller man with sharp, angular features; the one who she had said was a spy, the third unit captain Saito Hajime. To the right is a younger man, and here, Kenshin feels a momentary pang of regret. His large eyes were narrowed into angry slits, but she had described her friend Todo Heisuke to him enough that Kenshin knew it is the eighth unit captain. The maiko in Kyoto Todo-san wants to marry had been her friend, had once set aside a room for them in the teahouse. He has made enough women cry over men he has killed, and today, he will not add another.

"I bear you no grudge," he tells Todo-san softly, truthfully. The eighth unit captain glares at him but Kenshin tries to make him see reason. "A man who resides in a woman's heart has no right to be so reckless with his life. Please, return to Kyoto."

Todo-san's eyes widen in shock and indignation. "Shut up!" he shouts. His lips pull down into a sneer. "Is that why you killed your wife? To get out of her heart?"

Kenshin grits his teeth. "I did not kill my wife." But her death is my fault.

"Enough," says Okita softly, and Kenshin notices he is shaking slightly. "For the pain you caused Kamiya Kaoru, I, Shinsengumi First Unit Captain Okita Souji of the Tennen Rishin-ryu, will end your life." He grips his sword hilt and steps forward.

Kenshin's eyes narrow, and his spirit crackles with rage. The fact that this man would dare to say her name constricts his heart in his chest. "Faint words," he grates, "from a man who hurt her himself."

"How dare you!" Okita thunders, his eyes like a wild animal gone mad, and Kenshin takes hold of his sword, ready to pull it from its sheath when Okita gets close enough. Adrenaline rushes through him and he has to hold himself still with the effort. There has been a primal desire in him to face this man ever since the day he let his fist fly. She might have forgiven it, brushed it off as bushido, but he never would. Beside Okita, his comrades draw their swords, announcing their names and intents, starting up the hill.

"Choshuu Ishin-Shishi hitokiri, Himura Kenshin of the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu," he announces formally, lowering himself slightly into battoujutsu stance. "If you try to defend your actions with her honour, then rest assured, I will kill you."

"You asshole!" Saito rages, charging at him, his vengeful comrades only a step behind. They are fast, nearly as fast as he is, and he changes his tactics, because striking one of them would leave him too open. Saito reaches him first and Kenshin's sword whips free of its scabbard to parry the third unit captain's lightning-quick jab aimed at his gut. He uses his momentum to pivot into relative safety behind Saito's back, giving him a few seconds to avoid a swipe from Todo-san before the third unit captain can turn. He ducks past Todo-san and his real adversary is there; Okita's sword swings downwards towards him and Kenshin leaps sideways, his own sword slicing out towards the first unit captain's exposed side. But Saito has recovered his positioning and his blade darts in to protect his comrade, so Kenshin spins again, but not quickly enough. Todo-san's katana comes away red and Kenshin backs up a little to give himself some space, allowing his opponents to regroup. His hip stings where he's been cut and his breath fogs the snowy air, but the glancing wound is barely a scratch, not enough to slow him down. He knows a little more of their abilities now, and he raises his blade, hones his spirit. Behind him, the leaves remaining on their branches snap angrily. "Come," he dares them.


Ibuki leaves the last safe house, finally heading back to headquarters. He isn't the only messenger Katsura has dispatched, but he had the most safe houses to rouse. The Choshuu Leader's orders still burn in his ears. "I don't care what you have to do. Get everyone." Ibuki's work is done now, but he hopes, in memory of the girl senpai who'd always had a smile for him, that he is not too late.


Kenshin tumbles out of his leap and raises his sword instinctively, crouched low on the ground. His clothes are damp from sweat and blood, his breathing hard, but he is in the place of life and death, and barely feels his wounds. Todo-san had been able to hit his leg and Saito had nearly impaled him, but Okita has yet to touch him. Kenshin has earned his wounds through his own recklessness, choosing to leave his guard open in favour of striking at his opponents. There is a vicious gash across Okita's back, and Saito is limping, the entire left side of his hakama dyed red. Todo-san wipes at the blood from the shallow cut above his left eye and raises his sword again. He is the best of the three, and Kenshin has not helped himself by trying to avoid dealing him a killing blow. He would send Todo Heisuke home safe to Kyoto today, even if it killed him.

Okita and Saito fall into position behind Todo-san; it made sense, he was the least injured, the most skilled, the one Kenshin seemed hesitant to fight. The eighth unit captain's blade wiggles in his hand to prevent Kenshin from reading exactly where he will move, and it is only extensive training and blinding speed that has kept Kenshin's head on his shoulders. Against Todo-san, he is well matched. Saito was too reliant on his thrust technique, Okita too used to his opponents being slower than himself. None of them could match Kenshin in the air. His ryu tsui sen zan had caught Todo-san off guard, but now that they knew he could jump, they'd be more careful of their positioning.

Kenshin pushes himself to his feet, ignoring the wetness that surges down his wounded leg. He flicks the blood from his blade and shoves it into its sheath, his hand ready again for battoujutsu. If he could knock Todo-san unconscious with his sheath, he'd be able to end the other two.

Todo-san feints and then rushes Kenshin's strong side, planning to pivot at the last moment to try and avoid Kenshin's swipe; Kenshin waits for the tell-tale sign of the turn, and then he flows into the new space; for two seconds Kenshin and Heisuke meet eye to eye, and whatever the eighth unit captain sees in Kenshin's gaze makes his eyes widen in surprise. Todo-san spins; he has read Kenshin's intent but not fast enough to avoid Kenshin's sheath cracking hard against his sword arm. He yelps and ducks out of harm's way as Kenshin's unsheathed katana connects with Okita's sword in his place. The vacuum in the air created by his sword draws the first unit captain's blade against his at a crooked angle—the force of the blow breaks Okita's sword. Okita howls in frustration and presses forward, a move that lets Kenshin swipe hard at his chest. But Okita rolls, Kenshin's killing blow becoming only a very serious wound, and allowing the first unit captain to plant the few remaining inches of his broken blade into the back of Kenshin's right shoulder.

"Ah!" he gasps, faltering in surprise. Kenshin twists himself away from danger, his lower back pressed protectively against a tree, while the Shinsengumi captains rush to make sure Okita is all right. Kenshin pulls the blade out of his back and throws it out of sight into the woods. He rolls his shoulder. The pain is bearable, but his right hand is going numb and he cannot afford to let go of his sword. He takes her ribbon from his kimono and winds it around his hand, through the guard of his katana, pulling the knot tight with his teeth, gritting them against the strain. "Come," he hisses.

"Keh!" Saito spits, and then lunges forwards with his katana in his left hand, ready to thrust it into his opponent's heart. But Kenshin has seen this move several times now; he leaps out of the way, over Saito's head, pushing himself off a branch above, his sword aimed for the now unarmed Okita like a missile. The first unit captain reaches for his wakizashi, but, like most swordsmen, he would be unused to the shorter range. Triumph and rage burn in Kenshin's eyes and he grips his katana, ready at last to unleash his revenge on this man. His arms raise as he plummets back to earth, but something burns across his chest, sharp and raw, and instinct takes over, curls him in on himself to protect his organs. In his eagerness to get to Okita he had forgotten Todo-san. He hits the ground hard, in a ball. Kenshin scrambles to his knees but Saito is there, and before he can take the third unit captain out at the knees, Saito's katana is through his hand, pinning it and the sword it was tied around to the ground. Saito kicks him hard in the face and Kenshin hears his nose break. He tries to reach for his wakizashi, but Saito grabs his left arm and pins it behind his back.

Todo-san flicks Kenshin's blood from his blade, and hands it to Okita. "For Kaoru," he says softly. Heisuke turns his back, clutching his bruised sword arm, and does not watch. Okita takes hold of the hilt and looks at Kenshin. His mouth is a thin, menacing line.

"Burn in hell for eternity, Himura," he spits.

Kenshin raises his chin. "Are you going to behead me, or do you wish to chat all afternoon?"

Okita snarls, and that is what Kenshin wants, for him to be angry, for him to want to lash out quickly. It would hurt less that way. He gazes upwards with unfocused eyes, and watches the snow dance down towards him from the sky. Snow in winter was one of life's many joys, and for Kenshin the first snow of the year was one of the many joys she had given him. He does not have the faintest hope that he will be allowed to go where she has gone, but anywhere is surely better than what trying to live without her has been like. Okita steps towards him and he closes his eyes. A tear ghosts down his marred cheek. "I'm sorry, koishii…" he thinks, and the gods are gentle, her spirit seems to erupt around him, to guide him into death.

"NO!"

Kenshin opens his eyes in surprise, turning his face towards the sound of a cracked, reedy voice. There are rushing footsteps through the dead grass and Okita halts mid-swing, just in time for a figure to crash into him sideways: a frail and small figure, with a stunning jet black tail.

"No, Okita-sensei!"

The first unit captain falls backwards in a heap; Saito lets go of Kenshin's arm, running forwards with a small yell and Heisuke turns in surprise and rushes towards the tangle of limbs splayed on the ground. Now would be the time for him to escape, but Kenshin is frozen completely still in shock.

Impossible!

His mind completely blanks of everything except the delicate figure untangling itself from Okita; the first unit captain sits up, gazing at her in absolute wonder. Kenshin's heart is in this throat and he feels dizzy, because it can't be real, because his eyes are lying to him. But she was there.

"Kaoru?" he whispers in disbelief, and he can finally say her name.

She is sobbing hysterically, her clothes hanging off a body that was only skin and bones, her cheeks too hollow and her skin too pale. And her spirit, her spirit, it was panicked and afraid in a way she had never been.

"What did they do to you?"

She grabs Okita's kimono in a death grip and her giant blue eyes are terrified. "Souji!" she sobs. The first unit captain takes her face between his hands and crushes his lips to hers, and Kenshin loses his mind. She cries out, frantically trying to pull away, and he yells like a man possessed.

"DON'T TOUCH HER!"

He pulls his wakizashi from its sheath and throws it like a spear at Okita, snarling with hatred. But Heisuke had already moved to scoop up Kaoru into his arms, and Saito had intervened to pull Okita away, so Kenshin's sword lands harmlessly in the ground beyond the space where the first unit captain had been moments before. Saito sees the short sword and turns to glare at him, but Kenshin only cares about the wan and fragile woman sobbing against the eighth unit captain.

"Kaoru," he breathes, each syllable like a benediction. "Kaoru. Kaoru."

She won't stop crying and he needs to go to her, needs to comfort her and reassure himself that she is all right, that she was here, alive. Because of course she was! Of course she was; with that unyielding will to live, and more fool him for giving up on her. He'd believed the Yaminobu, but it had been a lie. There was nothing that she couldn't overcome, nothing, and she had promised him she'd come home. His heart and his home, all he has ever needed.

"Kaoru," he calls gently, gritting his teeth as he grabs hold of Saito's sword to pull it free. His fingers have barely closed around the hilt before Okita is over him, Heisuke's sword point against his throat.

"Move and you die," the first unit captain hisses.

"No," Kaoru pleads, her voice a feeble, tiny thing. "Don't, Souji…"

"Hush Kaoru," Heisuke says softly, holding her as though she is a small child, "It's okay. It's okay now." He looks Kenshin straight in the eyes, his face unreadable, and then after a moment he tightens his grip on the woman Kenshin considered to be the most precious thing in the world. "Arrest him, Souji," he says, not breaking Kenshin's gaze. "Bring him back for trial with the shogun."

"Heisuke-" Okita starts, incredulous, but Saito cuts in over him.

"Kamiya does not approve of killing," the third unit captain says softly.

"Please Souji," she begs, and it is heartbreaking, hearing her beg for his life. "Let him… oh please…"

"Kaoru," he whispers, softly soothing. "It's all right. You're all right."

"Shut up!" Okita yells, but Kenshin doesn't hear him. She has finally raised her head from Heisuke's shoulder, and he is finally looking into the deep blue pools of her eyes. They are frightened and anxious but they are also full of love, and looking at her, it feels like his heart is breaking and rebuilding itself at the same time. Gods, she was so beautiful. He smiles at her, a small, relieved smile just for her, just for whatever he had done in his past lives to earn this, to be able to look at her once more, alive. Her lower lip trembles and her cheeks are wet with tears, but she is no longer crying. He tightens his fingers around the hilt of Saito's sword and looks at Heisuke, a wordless plea asking him to get her to safety, to shield her from whatever would happen next.

Heisuke tries to lift Kaoru up in his arms, but she slides out of his grasp, looking at Kenshin, holding his gaze. "No, Heisuke," she murmurs. The Shinsengumi captains stand around them, frozen, their faces ranging from amazement to horror. Kaoru edges closer and ducks under Kenshin's arm that still holds Saito's sword. Her face is a hand away from his, blue eyes overwhelming him and her living breath on his face, and he feels her arm circle around his waist. She looks up at Okita, still pressing Heisuke's sword to his throat. "Please, Souji."

But the first unit captain simply gapes at her, and Kaoru softly sighs. She grips Saito's sword hilt above Kenshin's hand, and then she leans in, she leans against him and sets her chin on his shoulder, and Kenshin cannot stop the disbelieving tears that run down his cheeks or the small gasp from escaping his lips; he has wanted to hold her, to feel her embrace, for so long. "If you kill him," she says softly, and he feels her trembling voice vibrating against his shoulder, "you will kill me, too."

"Kaoru," he whispers, letting go of Saito's sword, burying his fingers in the hair at the back of her head, giving in and letting himself return her embrace. He forgets Okita and the threat of death against his neck and turns his face into the side of hers; the blade under his chin draws blood from the movement but he doesn't care, she is here, she is alive, she is choosing him all over again.

"This is madness, Kaoru!" Okita begs, his voice hard and sharp. "He… he's… Get away from there!"

"I won't," is her soft reply.

"Kaoru!" It is Todo-san, slightly pleading. "We won't kill him, okay? It's okay now…"

But Kaoru's only response is to bury her face in Kenshin's neck, and he feels her eyes squeeze shut and her lips move as she cries "No!"

"Let go, koishii," he murmurs against her neck, but his traitor arm holds her tighter. He should let her go but he can never lose her again. "Never, ever let go of me; I have something to live for, I have you."

"Drop your weapon!"

The yell is from behind him, and Kenshin, startled, grips Kaoru even closer. He knows that deep voice and the spirit attached to it; he'd know that commanding tone anywhere. The pressure of a blade and the looming shadow of the first unit captain are suddenly gone.

It is Shishou, and he is angry.

"Who are you?" Saito shouts, reaching for his wakizashi.

"Niitsu-san," Kaoru breathes in surprise, and Kenshin draws back far enough to look at her.

"You know him?" he asks. Kaoru nods, but he does not have the chance to ask her how. Shishou is suddenly standing over them, the edge of his cloak swirled protectively around them both. He regards the three unit captains in front of him with a disdainful eye and huffs. "If anyone is going to kill this idiot, it will be me."

Kenshin groans softly, and Kaoru, shielded under the red trim of his master's cloak, cups his face in her hands. "No one is killing you," she whispers fiercely, her spirit so like the woman he knew. Her eyes rake over him in concern, and she pulls a handkerchief from her kimono, pressing it gingerly to his neck, while her other hand gathers her sleeve and presses it to his nose, tilting his head forward to stop the bleeding. Kenshin gently wrests Saito's katana from his hand; it has cut her ribbon and it unravels as he leaves both swords on the ground, and throws his arms around his wife.

"Kaoru… gods Kaoru," he sobs quietly, relief making him tremble. She was so tangible and real against him it is nearly too much. "He told me you were dead. Koishii, if I had known, I would have tried-"

"It's all right," she murmurs, forgiving him, always, when he was so undeserving. "I've found you."

The bleeding has stopped and she moves the kerchief to his shoulder, drops her sleeve to lay her palm against his scarred cheek. She smiles then, a hesitant smile that seems unsure of itself, but close enough to the smile that never ceased to increase his heartbeat, the smile he never thought he'd see again. His breath catches and his overwhelmed heart overrides all the instincts telling him that they are in danger, that he needs to pay attention. Instead he leans forwards and gently kisses her. For a moment, sheltered from the world under his master's cloak, there is only himself and Kaoru, and their quiet, tender reunion. She leans her forehead against his. "Sorry I'm late," she whispers.

Kenshin nearly laughs; it comes out as a soft breathy huff, and he tightens his arms around her even more. He is about to tell her that it is considerably past when she'd promised to be home, but the voices of the men outside their fabric sanctuary finally break through.

"Explain yourself, villain!" Okita is yelling, though there is an edge of fear in his voice.

"I will explain that you are poorly outmatched, with one sword between the three of you," offers Shishou in his usual haughty tone. "For the girl, I will forgive your insult, but a second and I won't hesitate to kill you. I suggest you leave now."

"We are not leaving without her," Saito says quietly, his voice a velvet threat.

Shishou arches an eyebrow and then leans over, looking down at the two huddled forms under the edge of his cloak. "Do you want to go with them?" he asks Kaoru. She clutches Kenshin tighter, and Shishou smirks and nods. "I didn't think so."

"We have no quarrel with you sir-" Todo-san begins, but he is immediately cut off by a shout from the woods.

"But the Ishin-Shishi have quarrel with you, Mibu dogs!"

It is Katakai's voice, and as he speaks, nearly the entirety of the Ishin-Shishi force runs into the clearing. Kenshin swears softly—if he'd known he was going to have all these reinforcements, he might have allowed himself a decent night's sleep. He hears the soft, sharp intake of Kaoru's breath, feels panic flood her spirit again. Kenshin lowers his right hand to the ground, closing it around the hilt of his sword. He is not going to lose her again. "Stay behind Shishou," he tells her, but her hand closes over his wrist.

"Let me go with them, anata," she says softly. "Let us leave here peacefully and-"

"Stand down in the name of the shogun!" interrupts a yell. Kenshin curses again, louder. An entire unit of Aizu soldiers is charging up the hill.

"AMBUSH!" yells Katakai, and then all hell breaks loose.

Shouts and the sound of blades clashing fill the clearing almost instantly, and Kenshin moves faster than he should with his injuries; he is woozily pressing Kaoru into a column on the porch, an arm around her and his katana now in hand, before she has time to squeak in surprise. "Go in the house," he begs her. He can't help the queasy look on his face though, and Kaoru ignores him and reaches for his forearm above his wounded hand that was clutching her bloody, shredded ribbon around his sword. "Bandages," she huffs, slapping at her kimono in search, "I know I have some…"

"After, koishii," he promises. "Please, just stay where it is safe-"

"This place won't be safe for either of you for some time," cuts in Shishou. He looks over his shoulder at the battle unfolding in front of him, and then his eyes bore into his apprentice. He sets Kenshin's wakizashi on the porch. "You are wounded and your wife is in no condition to fight. I assume you have a place in Kyoto?"

Under the harsh, unyielding gaze of his master, Kenshin can only nod. It is the first time Shishou has spoken to him since their quarrel.

He muscles Kenshin out of the way to lean forward and kiss Kaoru's hand; her cheeks flush and Kenshin clenches his jaw. "I will stay to ensure no damage is done to your house, Okaoru-dono," Shishou says, his tone and gaze lighting over her. "It has been an honour to be of service to you. Visit me again when you are well, I would hear more of your sword school's unusual teachings."

"As for you," he grates, once again glaring at Kenshin, "do not bother until you are ready to accept the teachings of yours." He swirls his cloak dramatically and walks away, giving Kenshin no chance to respond. His mind whirls with a hundred accusations he could hurl at his master's retreating back, but Kaoru squeezes his hand. "Should we circle through the house?" she asks softly.

Kenshin sheathes his daisho and tucks his wounded hand, ribbon and all, into the front of his kimono. "We'll leave through the dojo and cut across the meadow," he agrees, taking her hand and pulling her after him, trying to keep her as close as possible. Evening is just beginning to descend on the little house as they sneak away from the battle, both of them too caught up in the joy of their reunion to think about what they are leaving behind. Kenshin sets a rapid pace through the falling snow and Kaoru jogs a little to keep up with him, her hand tightly gripping his.

"Where will we go?" she asks, out of breath, as they angle towards Muko. Her thin face is sweating from the exertion.

Kenshin squeezes her hand reassuringly, and slows his steps. "I know a place," he promises.

Chapter Text

Heisuke is tired. It's only been twenty hours since he burst into Souji's room and quietly swore revenge, but it feels like twenty years. Beyond the physical toll of walking to Muko and running back, of fighting in a battle, more painful than the shallow cut above his left eye and the dull ache in his sword arm from his duel with Himura-san... was the weight of his shame. Heisuke had sat immobile in the Commander's office as Kondo tore into his three unit captains, listening to his fury as he demanded to know what the hell they had thought they'd been doing, deliberately circumventing the Aizu, the Aizu who paid them and whom they served. It was Kondo who had to answer to Lord Matsudaira for the unit of dead soldiers killed by the Ishin-Shishi, for interfering with the capture of a notorious hitokiri who had then managed to escape.

But above all, it was the emotional strain that had drained him so thoroughly. His friend had burst out of the bushes, a little worse for wear but suddenly alive, and then she'd betrayed them.

Hijikata's eyes had grown colder, his jaw tighter, as he had announced that Kamiya Kaoru had three days, the standard for anyone suspected of deserting, three days to report to headquarters and explain herself. There had been a quiet hurt in Saito, a new haunted look in Souji's eyes. Heisuke is not sure how the events of today have manifested on his face, but whatever Ito-san had seen there had gotten him out of patrol. He'd tried to rest on his futon, but the throbbing in his wrist and the unending turning over of his thoughts prevented sleep from coming.

It was harder to sneak out of headquarters in the temple than it had been in Mibu, but Heisuke manages to steal away in the quiet hush sometime between midnight and dawn. His head is heavy and his steps shuffling, but there is only one place he wants to be tonight.

A man who resides in a woman's heart has no right to be so reckless with his life.

He sneaks in the back, through the kitchen, and the scullery maid nods to him and quietly informs him that Kimiki is unoccupied this evening; in thanks he presses a few coins into her hand. It is enough for three days' worth of incense, and he tells her to keep whatever funds are remaining. He pads softly to the small room where Kimiki lives, the elegant cage that he is desperately working to free her from. There is light behind the shoji, but for several heartbeats he stands outside her room, letting himself sense her soft spirit, making sure she is alone.

"Kimiki?" he calls out quietly.

He hears her soft gasp, the rapid patter of her small bare feet on the tatami. The shoji is thrown open and she is in his arms before he can react. "Heisuke!" she sobs, "Oh my love, my love I have been so worried!" Her hands clutch at his clothes and he holds her as close as he can, his throat tightening and his eyes squeezing shut. For a second, he is once again in the clearing in Muko, meeting the look of Himura Battousai as he spun out of his reach, his eyes warning Heisuke to be careful. Telling him not to risk himself, not to hurt the woman he loves, to avoid the dark paths the Hitokiri himself has walked down.

"Forgive me," he begs softly, sweeping her loose hair away from her shoulder, pressing his nose behind her ear. His nose fills with the spicy scent of her perfume, and he breathes deeply, trying to ground himself, trying to clear away the jumble in his head and focus on calming the crying woman in his arms. They stand in her doorway for a long time, until Heisuke scoops her up and carries her into her room. If they cause a scene and disrupt the other patrons, the mother of the tea house will be angry. He sits in the center of the room, with her safely tucked against him, the sound of her tears mingling with his memories of the day.

Kaoru. It's all right. You're all right.

His eyes had looked at Kaoru like she was a precious gift; like seeing her again had refilled something empty within him. Heisuke had not wanted to see those eyes, believe those eyes, but he had found himself tightening his grip on the girl they'd come to avenge with the hitokiri's death, and voicing support to let him live. And she hadn't turned away, as a victim would from their captor, she had met Battousai's eyes, accepted his words of comfort, climbed into his arms. She had wanted him to live.

If you kill him, you will kill me, too.

It was Okita she had been afraid of, afraid of what he would do to Himura Battousai, afraid of what he might do to her. Heisuke had never in his life moved faster than he had to separate Kaoru from the unwanted embrace of the first unit captain. Heisuke rubs a hand over his face and sighs. He had been confused enough after Akuyaku-sama had come to speak with them; now the mystery of the past year of Kaoru's life seemed even deeper. After the events of today, if someone told him that Himura Battousai was intent on Kaoru, he would have agreed without hesitation. But not for the sinister and twisted ends that they had been led to believe…

Let go, koishii…

He'd called her beloved and held her like he'd done it a thousand times, fingers buried in her hair. Held her as though the lack of her embrace had nearly ended him. Heisuke hugs his own beloved closer. "Shhh," he soothes. "It's okay Kimiki…"

She raises her head from his shoulder, her face red and raw, so unlike the carefully crafted facade she had to wear everyday. He leans over her to kiss her real face, the face she only shows to him. "I love you," he tells her, "Everything is going to be okay."

"I was so afraid," she says, "There were Ishin-Shishi here earlier, celebrating."

"What did they say?"

"Only that they'd defeated some Aizu and Shinsengumi, protecting the Battousai in Muko," she tells him. "But I feared the worst…"

"Kimiki…" he cups her face in his hands, partly to keep them from shaking. "Kaoru is… Kaoru is alive."

Her eyes widen and he tells her everything. He is not reserved by nature, and he has never kept secrets from Kimiki. But the more he tells her about Kaoru's strange reappearance, and subsequent disappearance again with Hitokiri Battousai, the less surprised her look becomes. By the time he has come to the end of his tale, she is no longer sitting in his embrace, but seated formally in seiza, her head bowed and her eyes on her lap. He reaches for her hands, hoping the gesture will cause her to look at him. "What is it, what's wrong?" he asks.

She does look at him then, and it makes him gasp, the look of fear and guilt in her eyes. "She loves him!" she blurts out.


In the end, Kaoru does not even get her three days of grace; the very next day, the shogun does her explaining for her, in orders delivered to the Shinsengumi and every Kyoto magistrate. In less than twenty four hours the news is all over the city. Kamiya Kaoru is alive, and a traitor. Her likeness is posted on every signpost and public building, listing her crimes and offering a hefty reward for her capture. She had deserted her unit, faked her death, and worse, she had harboured Hitokiri Battousai at her home in Muko for a year while she was presumed dead, then helped him escape the Aizu. In short, she was a rebel, and the shogun was calling for her head and the lives of anyone caught helping her.

Less than four hours after that, every poster in Kyoto had been torn down.

A few were ripped down by passing Ishin-Shishi, but the vast majority were removed by the citizens themselves. In the quarter where Kaoru had purchased goods as the Lady Kamiya, a large quantity of the posters were gathered in a heap in front of the magistrate's office and set on fire. It had been a grave miscalculation by the shogun; he had failed to understand that the people of Kyoto were tired of watching their homes and businesses burn, tired of the carnage in their city, and especially tired of the shogun's demands that were causing so many clans to openly battle one another in the streets. The Shinsengumi and the Aizu who kept the peace had never been popular, except for one young woman, who had spread goodwill everywhere she went. When the madness following Kinmon had unfolded in Kyoto, Kamiya Kaoru had been there, ready to help any way she could. She had been one of the few people on whom the citizens could rely, and even her death hadn't stopped people from asking her for help; they'd prayed at her grave and asked her to watch over their beleaguered city. Now they reasoned that if she had helped Hitokiri Battousai, it was because he had been deserving of it.

When house inspections begin that afternoon, the soldiers and Shinsengumi searching for traces of the Battousai and Kamiya are met with open resistance. Bands of citizens pelt them with rotten vegetables and excrement, doors are barred against their entry. When an inn owner and his son are killed by the Aizu, people flood the streets in response, rioting outside the Emperor's palace, calling for the removal of the vigilante police forces, completely disregarding their own safety as they are chased down and beaten back by the palace guards.

Saito crouches next to a laundry tub, washing the stains out of his haori. Someone had dumped a bucket of gods-know-what over him today, and it had taken nearly an hour in the bath house to get the stench out of his hair. However, it doesn't take long for the insistent ache in his left leg to assert itself, forcing him to sit on the ground next to the tub. Quite a few stitches had been required to seal the wound Himura Battousai had left in his thigh, and while Hijikata had wanted him to rest, Saito had ignored the order. There were too many things he needed to get to the bottom of for him to be idle.

"You got hit too, huh?" Nagakura says. Saito looks up to find the second unit captain in the courtyard, dressed in a yukata, carrying a crumped bundle of soiled clothing in one hand and a laundry tub in the other.

"Mm," he grunts in assent, and Nagakura sighs, and sets to filling his tub with water from the well.

"I wonder how long Kondo is going to go along with these orders," Nagakura muses. "It's pretty crazy, Kaoru-chan just suddenly showing up and then committing treason, of all things."

"You were not there," Saito reminds him.

Nagakura falls silent again, musing his way through Saito's short reply. It is a trick Saito has developed, to buy himself time to think in social situations. He does not often feel comfortable in the company of others, and so he tries to say things that make others slow down.

"But still… the guy who killed her father? She was ready to kill him herself, and that is saying something."

Saito ceases his scrubbing; and stares at his reflection in the water. What he is really seeing is Himura Battousai, kneeling on the ground with Saitou's own sword through his hand, clutching Kamiya to him like a lost treasure. The image shouldn't cut him so deeply, but it does. "How long?" he thinks. "How long did you know, Kamiya-chan?"

"He always left her alive," Saito says softly. "I thought perhaps it was because he wouldn't kill a woman."

She had been completely beside herself after the ambush at the shrine, and after the Ikeda-ya, she had seemed to lose her desire to look for the Battousai altogether. Now he understands. It was not just that Himura Battousai chose to avoid killing her; it was also Kamiya, who had chosen to let him escape. His fists clench and he sets to scrubbing with renewed vigour.

"She has been a traitor for longer than we know."


Kenshin is roused by Katsura shortly after nightfall. He's been in and out of consciousness for the past two days; it had taken just about all his endurance to get Kaoru and himself from Muko to the relative safety of Ikumatsu-sama's house. Hearing Kenshin's special knock, the former geisha had opened her kitchen door to find him on his last legs, badly wounded and leaning heavily on a supposedly dead woman, and had not batted an eye. With cool efficiency and her usual eye for detail, she'd ushered them inside while simultaneously dispatching a maid to fetch a doctor and a ronin to find Katsura. She had instinctively understood that Kenshin needed his wife by his side, so it was Kaoru who assisted the doctor in tending him. It was only after he had drifted off with the aid of a sleeping draught that Kaoru allowed herself to be looked at. He'd woken briefly, shortly before dawn, reassured to find her bundled into the futon next to his, her face wan but peaceful in sleep, her hand covering his.

He quickly dresses himself in the dark, careful not to disturb Kaoru. Each time he's woken she's been there, and while he has no idea what she endured in the past year, it is evident that she needs the rest. He noiselessly slides the shoji shut behind him, and pads softly to where Ikumatsu and Katsura are waiting on the porch. The geisha holds out a haori for Kenshin with a wordless smile, and he lets her help him into it while he adjusts his swords in his belt.

"Every available man is watching this house," Katsura tells him. "I need you with me, but Kaoru will be safe here."

"I will go and sit with her," Ikumatsu offers, nodding. "In case she wakes up before you return."

In reply he takes the blue shawl from his neck. "Give her this," he says softly. "Tell her to keep it for me until I return."

Ikumatsu folds it over her arm and stands on the porch, watching them disappear into the night. Once they are out of earshot, Katsura turns to his hitokiri, and quietly fills him in on the events of the past few days. Kenshin's frown grows deeper with each additional piece of news. Kaoru would feel responsible for the unrest, and probably try to do something drastic to fix it. But Katsura is already a few steps ahead of him. "I do not doubt that when Kaoru hears of it, she will try to turn herself in," the Choshuu leader finishes, "and for your sake, I cannot allow her to do that. It is my hope that after this meeting, she won't have to even consider it."

They are the first ones to arrive, and Kenshin is sitting formally a little behind and to the left of Katsura when Saigo Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi enter the room, and followed at last by Sakamoto Ryoma. The Tosa ronin nods to Kenshin with familiarity before settling between Katsura and the Satsuma men. The Choshuu leader called the meeting, but Sakamoto-san always acts as the intermediary between the hesitant allies.

Sake is poured, formal pleasantries exchanged, and then Katsura comes right to the point. "I need the help of those who have the ear of the Emperor," he tells Saigo and Okubo. "It is in his interest, I believe, to intervene in the matter of Kamiya Kaoru."

"So it's true," says Sakamoto-san with a smile. "She has been helping your hitokiri."

"Kamiya Kaoru," Katsura says after taking a deep breath, "despite being Shinsengumi, has helped the Ishin-Shishi numerous times. Her loyalty is to the people of Kyoto, and she has always acted in their interest. Her father was taken from her and she has been cruelly used by the shogun. He has branded her a traitor to ensure her silence."

"The Emperor is grieved by the unrest in the city," Okubo says carefully.

"If we do nothing, she will turn herself in to stop the riots," Katsura continues, "and the city will fall into greater chaos."

"Is that not to our advantage?" Saigo replies calmly, and Kenshin's audible hiss causes the Satsuma generals jump. Katsura sets his left hand on the tatami, his arm a pretend barrier to protect them from his hitokiri.

"Perhaps," Katsura agrees, "but perhaps not. She is the wife of Himura Battousai."

Kenshin is not ready for the admission, nor the three sets of eyes that turn toward him, wide with surprise, but he doesn't blame them. It is a constant wonder to him as well, that such a woman could love him, but she does. He raises his chin to meet their looks, defiant. She has chosen him.

"He already lost her once," Katsura continues," and I fear if he does so again, there is no man in Japan who will be safe from his retribution. Including myself."

Sakamoto-san winces slightly, but so quickly that only Kenshin notices. He moves just as quickly to cut off any indignation from the Satsuma men regarding the veiled threat Katsura has just leveled at them.

"What Ohimura-dono certainly does possess," Sakamoto admits with an easy smile, "is the hearts of the people of Kyoto. The past few days are evidence enough of that. If we want to win the common people to our cause, she would be a powerful ally."

"And if the Emperor helps her…" Katsura adds, leaving the rest for Saigo and Okubo to interpret on their own. The two men look at each other for a few moments, and then Okubo reaches for the sake.

"Then let us drink," he says, "to the continued happiness of Himura-san's marriage."


The dojo is dark, and most of the troop members are asleep or on patrol, but it doesn't stop Ibuki's heart from thundering in his ears. In truth, no one had asked him to do this, but he wants to. He owes it to his girl-senpai, and after Kondo posted the shogun's orders on the wall, it hadn't felt right for her daisho to remain here.

He pads on soundless feet to the altar and kneels before the sword stand, only to find it empty. He frowns in worry, had Hijikata removed them already? He gets to his feet just as the sound of a match striking fills the noiseless dojo. His heart leaps into his throat as he spins towards the new source of light.

"Looking for this?" The eighth unit captain holds out Kaoru's swords.

"Todo-sensei!" he gasps. "I…"

Heisuke blows out the match, and then his voice echoes through the dojo, though he is barely speaking above a whisper. "I thought they'd send someone for these. I didn't think it would be you, Ibuki-kun."

Ibuki grits his teeth and sets his hand on his sword hilt. Todo-sensei is the best in the troop, but they are both blind right now thanks to the extinguished match. He might have a chance if he could move without making any noise. But to his surprise, there is a soft thud in front of him. Just beyond his feet he makes out the shape of the Kamiya daisho.

"Take them to her, and don't come back," Heisuke says. "I will have to expose you if you do. If you want any of your things I will leave them in Shimabara with a maiko named Kimiki."

Ibuki can hardly believe it, but his knees hit the tatami and he bows to Todo Heisuke. "Thank you, sensei," he gasps in relief. "I have… there is nothing I need."

"Tell her I understand. Tell her that Kamiya Kaoru, Shinsengumi First Unit soldier, died in Otsu. She should not look back."

"Yes, sensei."

"And tell him that if anything else ever happens to her, he will answer to me."


It is quiet, peaceful even, when they return to Ikumatsu's house. The sun will rise soon; there had been a great deal of strategy for Katsura and his allies to discuss, and none of them are certain how long their plans may take, or if they will even be successful. But Katsura had squeezed his shoulder when the others left, and promised he would do everything in his power to protect Kaoru. It is reassuring, because both men know there is an unspoken truth between them: that his wife is his first duty, and for her safety, Kenshin would abandon Katsura and his revolution in a heartbeat. He is done with putting the Ishin-Shishi before her.

They part ways in the kitchen, with Katsura telling him to rest. Kenshin nods, but as much as he wants to, as much as he wants to fold himself around his sleeping wife and savour the mere existence of her, he goes to the bathhouse instead.

Kaoru's health is delicate, it did not take much observation to see that. It had not escaped his notice that she is much thinner than she should be, and that she had recently been ill. Though they have been sharing a room, he has yet to see her eat or change clothes, though she wore a different yukata each day.

For the past two days she has slept next to him, but on a separate futon. When he wakes and finds her there, close enough to touch but still far away, he lies on his back and listens to her breathing and aches to hold her, but does nothing. In his brief waking hours, she has been distant and unsure of herself around him. She did not shy away if he curled against her in his sleep, or if he held her hand or kissed her, but she jumped at unexpected sounds, flinched when his touches were unseen. Ikumatsu had told him that when the doctor had inspected her, she had been covered in scars, scrapes, and deep bruises. That there were marks on her wrists from when she had been restrained by chains. He didn't know what had happened to her in the past year. He didn't know and he couldn't ask her to tell him until she was ready. But he knew that they'd taken her because of him, kept her somewhere where she couldn't get free. His fault, it was always his fault that she has been made to suffer.

Kenshin sighs and steps out of his hakama. It was expected, after whatever she had endured, after whatever had kept her from coming home, that she would be different. The bright and vibrant spirit she's always possessed is still there, but she only lets it show fleetingly, cautiously keeping it behind a steady, hollow quiet. It is not the first time she's hidden her spirit from him, nor the first time her smiles didn't reach her eyes. She had endured and overcome before, and he would make certain, with patience and care, that her easy and brilliant smile would flash across her face once more. What matters is that she is alive, she is here with him and safe, and that he can atone for his failure by ensuring it never happens again.

He pulls the tie from his hair, shrugs out of his kimono, and tugs loose his fundoshi. It is hard to do with the insistent pull of his wounds, but he ignores them. It is more important that he washes away the dirt of the city, more important that Kaoru doesn't get sick. Freed of his clothes, he picks up the bucket of fresh well water and dumps it over himself, the chill making him jump a little and the rushing sound of water over his ears blocking out the noise of the bathhouse door.

"Ara!"

Kenshin spins, his hands looking for the sword that isn't there, and comes face to face with Kaoru, frozen with her back pressed into the door. Her eyes are enormous and he gapes at her as a slow, delicate pink flushes her pale cheeks, taking his breath away. "Koishii," he whispers.

"I- ah, I am sorry!" she stammers, her eyes falling to her feet, and reminding him that he is completely naked, dripping cold water on the floor. He turns to the side, but he can't take his eyes off her flushed face; it is the most colour she has worn since she came back to him, and she is beautiful, so surpassingly beautiful in her peach-coloured yukata and blue shawl, with her hair in a sleep-tousled braid over one shoulder. He wants to bury his fingers in it, kiss her rosy cheeks. The need opens up a raw ache in the pit of his stomach.

"Forgive me, I didn't know you were in here," Kaoru says softly, unsteadily groping for the door handle behind her.

"Wait!"

The shout startles her; she jumps and her giant eyes meet his again, and Kenshin curses himself. He'd spoken straight from his need and not in the gentle way she needs him to. "It's fine, koishii," he says, softer, smiling in what he hopes is an easy way. "You don't have to go."

Her blush deepens a little, and then, she does something incredible. A resolute look flashes briefly in her eyes, and she squares her shoulders slightly. "Do- do you need my help, anata?"

"Oro?"

"Do you need my help to wash, because… because of your hand?" she presses uncertainly, her eyes somewhere around his knees. "The doctor said you shouldn't move your shoulder more than necessary…"

"Ah, this one," he breathes, fighting the urge to rub the back of his neck. "Yes, koishii, if you would help me…"

She nods, her eyes falling back to the floor as she hesitantly steps forward. Kenshin makes himself stay absolutely still, as though she were a frightened bird he wanted to land in his hand. When she is finally next to him, her shawl hung up and holding soap and cloth, she speaks again. "Could… would you sit, anata?" she murmurs. "You have grown so tall since…" She clutches the cloth tighter and bites her lip.

That had been a surprise to both of them, that in the year they'd been apart he had grown half a hand. He hadn't noticed because he was still shorter than most men, but his diminutive wife's head now barely came up to his chin. He can tell it upset her, though, to have missed it, to have a physical representation of their time apart.

Kenshin reaches out and touches the end of her braid. "Not so much as your hair, koishii," he smiles. It fell to her hips now in a silky curtain, so black it was almost blue. From his futon he has watched her comb it and has had to grip his elbows to stop himself from running his hands through it. However, his comment makes a small crease appear between her brows, and so he takes his hand away. "Could you help me sit down?" he asks her softly, trying to keep the sadness out of his voice.

"Yes, of course." She takes hold of his elbow and helps him lower himself onto a stool, careful of the wound in his side and the stitches running up his leg. She starts scrubbing his hair, while Kenshin uses his left hand to lather himself with soap. They work together silently, until Kaoru moves his soapy hair over his shoulder, and he hears her gasp softly. Her fingers trace over the circular pattern of five puncture scars on the left side of his back, and then follow the thick scar that crosses it, to where a similar circular pattern is half covered by the bandages of his fresh wound. He feels her forehead press into the space between his shoulder blades, and her deep breaths shooting down his spine, cool against his wet skin. After a moment she leans away again and begins to wash his back, but her hands are trembling and he hears her breath hitch; she is crying.

"Kaoru?" he keeps his voice gentle, free of any hint of concern. She was doing her best to keep her tears silent.

"Yes?"

He wants to ask her. He wants to pull her against him and ask what had been done to her, kiss away her tears and promise that she will be safe, that he will never let anyone hurt her ever again. But he has to wait until she is ready to tell him. "What are you doing awake so early?" he asks instead.

"Oh, I…" she takes one deep breath, and the rest follows in a voice so small he can barely hear it. "I couldn't fall back asleep without… without you there." She moves to his left side, scrubbing his shoulder and down his arm, and he has to turn his head so she doesn't see his watering eyes, or watch him swallow against his tightening throat. She had been alone, in the dark, without him.

"I won't go away at night anymore," he promises her quietly.

"No," she says, "I must get used it. When you are well Katsura-sama will need you at all hours." She puts down the cloth and soap and reaches for a bucket of water, a thin smile that doesn't reach her eyes spreading across her lips. "Close your eyes, now."

She gently pours the water over him, and it hides the tears that leak out of his eyes, in memory of a young woman in a golden furisode, tending to a stranger in her bathhouse. She drops a towel over him and pushes his wet hair out of his face. "There," she says. "Shall I help you into the furo?"

He looks at her, kneeling on the wet floor. Her yukata is soaked from her ankles to her knees, and she is shivering slightly. "What about you, my heart?" She blinks at him, confused, and he pinches the damp edge of her sleeve between his thumb and forefinger. "If you stay in these wet clothes, in this temperature, you will become sick, Kaoru."

She grips the collar of her yukata tightly in her fist. "It's fine, anata, really. I had a bath last night, I just came in here to use the furo while I waited…"

"Then use it," he says. "We can share it."

Her cheeks colour again with a soft pink blush, and her fist tightens further into a white-knuckled grip. "No," she says softly, and there is so much pain in her voice it cuts him to shreds.

"Kaoru," he all but sobs, reaching for her. She tenses and he drops his hands, cursing himself again, for pushing her, for being the reason she'd had to endure whatever had hurt her so deeply. "Koishii, I don't know," he tells her brokenly, "I don't know what was done to you. But you should know that I will never hurt you. If… if you never want me to touch you, I won't. I won't Kaoru. It is enough that you came back, it is enough that you are alive."

"Kenshin," she gasps. Her face breaks and she throws her arms around him, tighter than he has dared to hold her. "It's not… oh anata, I haven't been…" Her breath shudders against his shoulder. "It's not that- no one has dishonoured me." She draws away from him and her eyes fall dejectedly. "I don't want you to see," she whispers. "I don't look… I'm-"

"Beautiful," he tells her. He lifts her chin and gazes into her tear-filled blue eyes. "You are so beautiful, Kaoru. And there is nothing, nothing, koishii, that could cease to make you so."

"Kenshin," she breathes softly, shaking her head. Her fingers trail along the edge of his hand, sending sparks shooting up his skin. "Thank you, anata."

"Leave your yukata on," he offers quietly. "Just come and sit with me. I have been away all night; I missed you."

"I missed you too," she says softly, and he hears it in her voice, the long days she had endured alone, the ache he has tried to keep out of his own voice. She gets to her feet, her face more certain, and offers him a hand up. "Though I should hang up this yukata, so it has time to dry."

He follows her as she helps him into the hot water, and closes his eyes while she steps out of her clothes, binds up her hair, and gets into the furo, opening them only when her shoulder presses into his chest and she is settled comfortably against him in the water. He lifts a wet hand to brush a damp lock of hair off her cheek and she looks up at him, loving, trusting, and brave, and when his lips press against hers, his hands stroking down her back, it feels like no time has passed at all. She tucks her head under his chin and he folds his arms around her. She is bony and he can feel every single one of her ribs, but it doesn't matter. She would become well again.

"Isn't this nice, koishii?" he asks. "We've never had a bath together."

"Mmm," she breathes softly, and then stifles a yawn.

"You can sleep if you want to," he tells her. "I will be right here."

"I'm sorry," she murmurs, "that I went into the woods without you."

"Shhh, we don't have to talk about that now."

She nods against his shoulder, and he can tell from her deepening breaths that she is nearly asleep. "But-" she huffs drowsily, before whatever she was going to say is interrupted by another yawn. He laughs softly, and gods, how long has it been since he's laughed? He kisses her temple, his small and unbreakable wife, who fit into all the pieces of himself that were empty and hollow and made them whole. Her presence in his life has once again reduced all his sorrow into a quiet, manageable hum, so quickly, it is almost surprising. Almost, but then, everything around her has always felt peaceful and right.

"For now, my heart," he says gently, shifting her closer in his arms, "just rest."

Chapter Text

Kaoru stands perfectly still, arms outstretched, while Ikumatsu-sama works around her, pulling and folding and tying. Today is the first day she'd risen and not felt tired, the first day she had been able to eat over half her breakfast, and the former geiko had seen it as cause for celebration. She'd appeared at the shoji shortly after the breakfast trays had been cleared, obviously using her maids to keep track of Kaoru’s diet and progress just as meticulously as Kenshin. She was too polite to discuss the achievement, merely remarking on how well Kaoru was looking, how much colour she had this morning, and suggesting that Himura-dono might like to wear a kimono today?

The one Ikumatsu had chosen, from her own personal collection, is rosy pink and embroidered with large blossoms of red and gold. There is a complementing golden obi-age and red obi that Ikumatsu ties for her in the simple fold of a married woman, instead of her usual bow. Once she is dressed, she sits to have her hair arranged. The whole process is both foreign and familiar; she'd had a maid to dress her most of her life, but it has been months since she wore an obi and even longer since she'd had someone to tie it for her.  

"I must return this to you," Ikumatsu says softly, lifting a small golden hair pin from her jewellery box. "I was fortunate to rescue it from one who had no right to carry it. Please re-accept it now, unless it would be painful for you to keep it."

Kaoru shakes her head, touched by the woman's kindness. "I would be honoured, Ikumatsu-sama, to keep this token from you."

The former geiko smiles and slides the jasmine flower into Kaoru's hair. "I asked Ken-san if I might keep it, to remember you," she admits. "He was very generous to allow it; I know your possessions were sacred to him."

Kaoru bites her lip. She knows some of what Kenshin endured, from the pieces of the past year fed to her by Akuyaku and stories told by his servants. But so far, she and her husband have not discussed their year apart except in the vaguest of terms. "How bad was it?" she murmurs.  

Ikumatsu sighs. "In the beginning, when he first came to stay with us, it was very bad," she says, and her directness is a mark of her respect for Kaoru, and her admiration for Kaoru’s husband. "He became better at carrying it, but since that day in Otsu, he has walked like he was already dead."

She feels her eyes water, but Kaoru wills herself not to cry. He has told her before that he would die without her—she had spent every day of the past year praying for him to be strong, praying for him to stay alive so she could come home to him again. That he had somehow carried the one thing that would break him, somehow stood again and continued to fight, fills her with fierce pride. They had tried to crush him and he had survived.

Kaoru turns to Ikumatsu and bows deep. "I must thank you for your kindness to my husband during my absence." That is what they have settled on calling it, an absence. She had been away and has now returned. "I do not doubt your support was instrumental in helping him get through the past year."

"There is no need to thank me," Ikumatsu responds gently. It is a common response, but she means it. "I am very fond of Ken-san, fond of you. It is a great relief to all of us, that you are once again at his side."

Kaoru lifts her tear-streaked face to meet Ikumatsu’s gaze, and is surprised to find unshed tears shining in the older woman's eyes, too. Ikumatsu smiles and laughs softly, clapping her hands. "Come now!" she exclaims, "We must let Ken-san admire my handiwork!" She gets to her feet and waits at the shoji, giving Kaoru time to wipe her eyes and square her shoulders in private before joining her there. The two women walk down the porch to the spacious room that has been given over for the Himuras’ use.  

"May I present," Ikumatsu says proudly, stepping to one side and opening the shoji in front of Kaoru, "Himura-dono."

Kenshin turns to look at her; Kaoru has only a brief moment to wonder what he is doing out of bed before their eyes meet and she forgets everything but him. His eyes widen and his lips part, and she feels a heat spread across her cheeks but also in the pit of her stomach. They'd had a bath together two days ago, but apart from sleeping in each other's arms and gentle kisses, they have not been intimate. Kenshin seemed hesitant to do anything that might make her uncomfortable, and she in turn worried for his wounds. There was still so much between them that needed to be brought out into the open, aired and allowed to heal, but looking at him now, Kaoru thinks perhaps she might be ready.

"You look lovely, Kaoru-chan," says the other occupant of the room, and she exhales slightly in surprise. She hasn't heard that voice in years, since she was a little girl and he a gawky and awkward teenager, come to learn her father's sword style. "Ani-ue," she says automatically, an old habit from the past, and Katsura's eye twitches slightly at the name. Honoured Brother.  

"Does she not?" Ikumatsu says happily. "Just the right colour for her, no?"

"Indeed," he agrees, smiling at his wife. "Would it trouble you, Matsu, to bring us tea? There are some things I must discuss with Kenshin and Kaoru-chan."

"Of course," she nods, propelling Kaoru slightly forwards and shutting the shoji behind her. Kaoru stands just inside the room for a moment, reading the two men seated within; her own spirit she withholds. Kenshin is calm on the surface but she can see traces of worry, a slight edge of anxiety and Katsura has gathered his spirit for what he feels will be a difficult conversation ahead. Kaoru makes her choice. She has known Katsura since she was a girl; he is tactical, cautious. He only moves when he is assured success, or out of options. That he had waited until now to come and see the daughter of one of his mentors means that his hand has been forced in some way.

"It has been a great while, Ani-ue," she says softly, crossing the tatami and carefully seating herself beside Kenshin, on his left, her knees a few inches back from his. To any other she would appear a dutiful wife, but Katsura was quick enough to see the small amount of space, to understand that Kaoru had tactics of her own.  

"You have grown," he admits. "You look so much like your mother, you still have her eyes."

"It is the nature of children to grow," she smiles wanly, bowing in thanks for the compliment. "I hope you have been well."

The Choshuu leader nods and looks away for a moment, gathering his thoughts. "I've come to speak to you about what has been going on in the city since you returned," he says, looking at her again. "I know Ibuki told you some of it."

Kaoru nods, her eyes straying to her daisho in the corner of the room. Ibuki-kun had risked a great deal to bring them to her, but she knew Heisuke would be true to his word. That the eighth unit captain had chosen to let Ibuki leave was an even greater risk, but one she would have to repay another time.  

"The riots," she responds softly, lowering her head. Guilt twists her heart, and she feels Kenshin shift slightly beside her.  

"Things are calmer today," Katsura says. "But the slightest prodding will cause the city to erupt once again. You have quite the dedicated following, Kaoru-chan."

She blushes, but raises her gaze. "I’ve only ever done what little I could," she says quietly. "There has been a great deal of suffering by the people of Kyoto."

If her hint makes him uncomfortable he shows no sign. Instead, he looks towards Kenshin. "I have approached our allies and asked for their help in this matter."

"Allies?" she presses.

"Men of Satsuma. I can no longer enter the Imperial court, or address grievances to the shogun. But the Satsuma clan serves the Emperor directly." He gives her a moment to store away that information, to try to recall if she knows, from Kinmon, who any of those men might be. If Satsuma was now working with Choshuu, their allegiances had altered radically since she had been away. "They have agreed to help," he continues, "but we must know the nature of what happened to you, Kaoru-chan."

The worry in Kenshin's spirit deepens, and she understands now—neither man wanted to make her voice painful memories. Katsura had come because his allies had demanded this knowledge from him, and he was unable to protect her without it. Kaoru takes a deep breath. "That day in Otsu, I was captured by a Bakufu ninja group, the Yaminobu…" she whispers. "They… they wanted revenge, for the men Kenshin had killed, when… when he tried to save my father."  

"Yes," Katsura says gently. "They told Kenshin they had killed you, Kaoru-chan."

"No, but I was wounded … and poisoned…" She winces at Kenshin’s spike of anger. She wants to reach out and hold him, but she could not with Katsura present. Instead, she endeavours to make herself strong. "A liquid that prevented me from moving. They gave me enough to make sure I would freeze to death before I woke up."

"But you woke up?" Katsura asks, in the same gentle tone.

"Yes," she says, but then shakes her head. "No. I didn't wake up in Otsu, but in a manor. I'm not exactly sure where it is…" Niitsu-san could have carried her after she'd fainted, for an hour or a week for all she knew. "The manor belonged to Akuyaku Waru."

Katsura's eyes widen, and Kaoru feels Kenshin's gaze, round and staring. "What?" he breathes, and his voice is nearly broken.

She squeezes her eyes shut and reaches blindly for Kenshin's hand; it closes around hers, warm and strong, and she clutches it tight. "It was not your fault," she wants to shout, but it remains a thought only. "He… I have no proof," Kaoru continues, "but I believe he organized things with the Yaminobu."  

Kaoru grits her teeth against the memory. A small, heavy-set man with a round face and beady eyes. Are you gonna let that Mibu she-wolf touch your children? Don't you know her hands are covered in blood? It had been him, that day in the Shirobeko, drunk and meeting with Tatsumi, his Yaminobu contact, and Iizuka, their spy. Shouting about his father's blood on her hands. He'd taken her father in turn, and set about trying to claim everything that was hers, including her person. And Kenshin has lived every day since her father's death holding himself responsible. He had borne grief and despair, been slandered and wounded, all for one foolish man's quest for revenge and greedy ambition.  

"It was not your fault!"

"Kaoru-dono?"

She opens her eyes and lets out an explosive breath, surprised to find that she had been holding it in, that there are tears on her cheeks. Kenshin has her pressed into him, his injured hand covering both of hers. "Anata," she sobs softly, dropping her head against his shoulder.

"That's enough," he says to Katsura quietly. "That's enough for today."

"No," she shakes her head, and tries her best to smile at him. "It's all right. I'm all right." She swipes her hand under her eyes and remains in Kenshin's one-armed embrace. She doesn't care now about politeness or propriety—let Katsura understand that they were a unified front.

"If there is proof, Kaoru, we will find it," Katsura promises.

She nods. "I believe he also arranged to have my father killed; he told me as much," she adds sadly. "And he told me that the shogun had promised him all the Kamiya property as a reward for…" she grits her teeth again, and Kenshin's arm tightens across her back, "as a reward for the killing of Hitokiri Battousai."

Kenshin's head sinks beside hers, and she forgets Katsura completely because her husband needs her. She turns her head into the side of his face. "It was not your fault," she whispers. He starts to tremble against her and she repeats it, equal parts proud and surprised that her voice comes out sounding both gentle and firm, almost the way it used to sound. "It was not your fault, Kenshin." He nods once, but she can tell from the rigid way he is holding himself, from the controlled way he is keeping himself from crying out, that he does not yet believe her.   

Kaoru turns back to Katsura, clasping Kenshin's injured hand carefully. "Akuyaku thought the Yaminobu would kill Kenshin," she whispers, voice thick with pride, "but they could not."

"He thought you would wake up in his manor, a widow, grateful for his help," Katsura muses softly.  

"I tried to escape," she replies. "Many times. But I was not strong enough." She adds softly for Kenshin: "Until the final time, when Niitsu-san helped me."

"Akuyaku confined and starved you," Katsura adds, a dangerous glint in his eyes, "while letting everyone believe you had died."

"He knew the Shinsengumi would seek revenge," she agrees. "So he planted a corpse and spread false rumours to ensure they would take it." She presses a little closer to Kenshin. "They almost did," she whispers.  

That had been the single most terrifying moment of her life, worse than losing her father, worse than losing Omae-dono, worse than being trapped, separated, and alone. She had thought, as she broke out into a run from the bushes, that she would not make it in time to stop Souji's sword. That she would lose him before she even got him back. She had seen him pinned to the ground and shouted in complete panic, and even now, thinking about it makes her scared.  

"You are both safe now," Katsura assures her. "It would be difficult for anyone to break through the defenses we have here. It is our most guarded safe house. Both of you can recover your strength."

It is on the tip of her tongue, "And when Kenshin has recovered his strength?" but she remains silent. That was a discussion for another time. It was Kenshin's choice to fight for Katsura, and as his wife she would support him. But she would no longer allow Katsura to take advantage of his kindness and conviction.  

"Thank you," she says, bowing slightly. "I am grateful for your assistance, Ani-ue."

"I should have given it to you long ago, when Koshijiro was killed. I will not fail in my duty any longer."

She should thank him again, but they are interrupted by the soft call of Ikumatsu from the other side of the shoji. Katsura slides across the tatami and opens the door, and speaks softly to his wife. He turns back into the room with the tea tray, and there are only two cups. "I will leave you now to rest," he says quietly. "Thank you, Kaoru-chan, I know that must have been difficult to speak of."  

It is only after the tea has been set down, the shoji closed, and the retreating footsteps of Ikumatsu and Katsura are no longer audible that Kenshin raises his head. He is crying.  

"Anata!"

Kaoru hugs him fiercely, as tightly as she can while still being mindful of his wounds. She starts to cry too and his arms encircle her, keep her close against him while he sobs into her neck. "Forgive me," he gasps hoarsely, "forgive me, I should have looked for you… I should have known!" He cries wordlessly into her shoulder as she sobs against him.  

"Oh anata, it was not your fault! Please, Kenshin. Please, anata!" She struggles to be strong so she can comfort him, tries to control her tears enough to hum soft songs to him. "Shhh," she pleads, "it's all right now. I'm all right. I'm with you.

"Kaoru…" his hand grips her kimono far too tightly for its wound, and she takes it gently in her own, loosening it from her clothes before blood can bloom on the bandage. She kisses the tips of his fingers and strokes her hand through his hair. "Shhh, I'm with you," she repeats softly.  

"I promised to protect you, I promised you'd never be hurt… I have failed you so terribly-"

"Stop."

She cups his face in her hands and makes him look at her, and his lips twist into that dreaded wry smile. She can see it in his eyes—he will say it was his doing, the darkness she had faced, he will take the weight of all the misery and pain and shoulder it for her, just as he did for all of Japan when he'd taken up his sword and pledged it to the new era. But he was her husband, and it was her choice and her duty to stand beside him, and she would no longer allow him to bear it all alone.

"It was not your fault."  His eyes widen, and she repeats herself, her voice soft and soothing.

“It is not your fault.”

She will tell him as many times as required, make it a mantra that will dig itself into his heart and become truth. His eyes flood with tears again but his gaze doesn't break. And Kaoru looks into his eyes and hopes he sees nothing but love and acceptance. Because his kindness had been used against him by so many, because he had been a boy with a dream of a better, more peaceful world, because he loved her, unconditionally and wholly, and had borne the sorrow of thinking he shouldn't.  

"I love you," she tells him. "I love you; you are all that I had, in the dark times of my life: when my father was taken from me, when I needed help to carry my burdens… when the world became full of shadows, you were my light. Even when it hurt and distressed you, you never abandoned me."

"Kaoru," he says again, and it is exquisite, the sound of his voice saying her name.  

"Kenshin," she responds reverently, his name that built an archway on her tongue, a gate which led to everything wondrous and beautiful and worth fighting for. "You chose me," she whispers. "Though it was difficult, and there were so many barriers, you still chose me."

He could have left her there, in the ink shop, in the blood-soaked roadway, in the courtyard of the Shirobeko, or the clearing in front of her house. He could have turned away so many times, chosen a path that would have been easier, given his heart to someone completely free to love him. He could have walked out of her life that very first day, and never seen cause to enter it again. It had taken her a year of his absence to understand just how deeply he loves her, the infinite width and breadth. She had been naïve before and taken it for granted, but never again.  

"You have always helped me, always been at my side when I needed you, always supported me and let me make my own path… you have never failed me, anata."

His eyes shine into hers and her own mist; he was on the path to redemption now but she was still burdened with guilt of her own . She lowers her head, buries her face in his chest. "I know the rumors," she whispers brokenly, "I know what they tried to blame you for…You have been so strong, anata, so strong to bear it! All you have endured… over one man's ambition…"

Kenshin slowly lowers himself to the tatami, onto his back, cradling her against him. His face is grim, but strangely calm. "You escaped him," he says softly. He extends one careful finger to trace the edge of her cheek. "Your strength, koishii, it is incredible.

"You were waiting, anata," she reminds him. "I could not give up."

"Thank you," he says, voice thick, "for saving me. For coming home." He lays his bandaged hand against the side of her face and looks into her eyes. "Kaoru, I will make him answer for this; I will take back what is yours-"  

"No."

He gapes at her and she shakes her head against his shoulder. "No, anata. No more scars for me." She pulls away, raises herself up on her elbows so she can see his face. He'd been covered in them, when she'd helped him in the bathhouse. Scars he'd earned trying to save her in Otsu, trying to stay alive for her in Muko. She’d started crying, when she’d seen the two near-identical scars from that Yaminobu’s claws that marked her own shoulder. She rests her fingertips on the newer scar on his face, that slants back towards his chin and forms a savage X on his left cheek; he flinches and she hides the scar under her palm.  

"When Omae-dono was killed," she says softly, "I believed I had to seek out the one who killed her, and end their life; I thought that would be justice. The Kamiya Kasshin-ryu does not condone revenge, but I made myself believe it was something else, something right. I have learned now, as my father tried to teach me, that to take a life for any reason is a heavy thing, and revenge is an empty promise, an unbroken cycle of despair. The dead do not wish for revenge, they wish only for the happiness of those they leave behind. I know it, because I died. All those long days without you, I did not hope you would avenge me. I hoped you were all right, I hoped you were living well without me."

She had sat seiza every day and prayed he was taking care of himself, that he was safe, that he had not been buried along with her. She knew all too well that failing her, losing her, was his greatest fear, that his large heart was the one thing his enemies could exploit. In the past year he had been through hell and back; it was evident in his hollow eyes and the myriad of new scars that adorned his fair skin. But scars would heal, given time.  

"Do this for me now," she asks softly. "Help me build a world for the living; I want to walk your path to the new era. I do not wield a killing sword. But I will pledge it to the new era just the same."

"You don't have to choose a side, koishii," he reminds her softly.

Kaoru's eyes water and she nods. "But I want to. I want a country that will protect those who cannot protect themselves. I want a place where there is safety and justice; where children are no longer sold into slavery or marriage. I want to build a world where no one has to suffer what we have ever again. I want to build it with you."

Kenshin lifts his hands, one broken and bandaged and one whole, his fingers against the sides of her face as though she were made of glass. "Then we will build it," he promises, "together."

Together. The word settles inside her like a soft warm light, and even though she is crying, Kaoru smiles. "Yes," she agrees.  

His eyes widen, and Kenshin's breath catches. "You smiled," he whispers. His own lips curl upwards and he strokes his thumbs gently over her cheeks. "So beautiful, my wife…" he murmurs.

Kaoru blushes, shy under his gaze. "It is the kimono Ikumatsu-sama chose," she tells him, "the colours are quite pretty…" She bites her lip; thinking of how hollow her cheeks must feel, the dark circles under her eyes. Thinking of Kenshin, healthy and strong despite his wounds, standing in the bathhouse as water trailed down the toned planes of his fair skin. And all of that was next to her now, the warmth of his body even seeping through the thick silk of her kimono. Together.

"It is the woman inside it," he says gently, and Kaoru looks into his eyes, large and violet and so, so kind. They catch and hold her the way they always do, but she loves the comforting way they draw her in, the way his eyes focus on hers and everything falls away until there is only them. It is the safety she feels in his presence, intensified. Together.

"Anata…" she whispers softly, almost a question. Hoping he could hear the unasked request, that he would understand. She is shy, and they have been apart for so long.  

Kenshin's fingers slide cautiously into her hair, and in response to the slight pressure, she lowers her head, meets his lips in a careful kiss. She molds herself against his side and one arm encircles her waist, keeping her close and safe, while his other hand strokes gently down her cheek and neck, to stop at the collar of her kimono. He rests his forehead against hers, and kisses her once more, comforting, light, and soft. "Is this all right, Kaoru?" he asks quietly, and she nods her head against his, eyes closed. This time the kiss is deeper, slow and calm, his hands moving over her shoulders and back, coming to rest at her waist, along the intricate fold of her obi. He draws back and kisses her cheek, and Kaoru looks down at him, his hair spilling around him on the tatami, his eyes patient and adoring, filling her with a quiet fire. She takes a deep breath. "Would you help me take off this kimono?" she asks. "It's pulled too tight."

Chapter Text

There is a warm wind blowing along the inner porch of Matsu's house, and coupled with the sunlight pouring into the secluded center garden, the morning had been warm enough—and Kenshin healed enough—that he was allowed to practice katas outside. The frigid winter had finally given way to spring, and the young man, not often idle, seemed relieved to be in motion. Katsura watches him for a time from the porch before his eyes are drawn at last from the impossible skill of his best hitokiri to the young woman sitting across the garden. The shoji to the room she shared with her husband has been opened to allow in the fresh air and spring sunlight while she sat mending. Katsura recognizes the fabric in her hands as one of Katakai's kimono and shakes his head, smiling softly. Kaoru had a knack for working her way into people's hearts, and it has not taken long for the entire Ishin-Shishi group to adopt her as their own.

He steps quietly along the porch, towards Kaoru's room. He knows both Himuras were aware of his presence even before he stepped foot in the house; Kenshin was attempting to be polite by ignoring him, as it was not him Katsura is here to see. It is only when his shadow casts itself over her sewing that Kaoru looks up, tucking the needle safely into the cloth.

"Good morning, ani-ue," she smiles, bowing her head. "You have returned home."

He returns her smile, noting that while hers has grown a little wider than when she'd arrived in the winter, it still does not light her eyes. It cuts him, to see her mother's eyes in a face turned cautious and hidden, and to know that he was partly to blame. To know that he is woefully late, that he should have been working to bring the shine back to her eyes nearly three years before.

"I've only just arrived," he tells her. "It has been a long journey from Satsuma."

"Ikumatsu-sama is out," Kaoru says with a small frown. "Would you like tea?"

"Perhaps later," he assures her, smiling again. "I stopped in at the Satsuma residence, and had a cup there. But if it wouldn't trouble you, Kaoru-chan, I would speak with you for a moment."

The furrow between her brows grows deeper, and Katsura notices that behind him in the center garden, there is nothing but silence. Kenshin had stopped his exercise, apparently in tune with his wife's emotions. "With me?" she murmurs, and then slides herself deeper into the room, making space for him to sit. "Of course, what is it?"

He can't help himself, he grins at her as he takes a seat. "Okubo-san wants to tell you himself, so you will have to act surprised when he comes with the order," he warns. "But, Kaoru-chan, you have been pardoned by the Emperor."

She blinks at him. "Ara?'

"You are no longer an outlaw, you can walk freely in Kyoto."

"But… how?"

"In recognition of your service, the Emperor made you his ward, Kaoru-chan. The shogun has no sway over you. And," he grins wide, unable to contain his excitement on her behalf, "your title, the Kamiya lands, the manor and the dojo, all of it, are to be returned to you."

"The dojo…" she whispers, covering her lips with her fingers, tears watering in her eyes. "Ani-ue…"

He lowers himself deeply into a bow, his fingers a perfect triangle, nose nearly on the tatami. She far outranked him now. "It is an honour, Kamiya-sama, for this humble self to have been able to be of service to you."

"Himura-san," she corrects blankly, and he raises his face to meet her confused look. "What about…" her eyes look past him, focusing on the man standing in the center garden behind him. "Kenshin has been pardoned too, ani-ue?"

Katsura straightens, his face sympathetic. This is why he had needed to tell her before Okubo. "No, Kaoru-chan," he says softly. "You have been forgiven because you have done nothing wrong; you have fought bravely for the shogun, defended the Emperor's safety. The Kamiya are not traitors."

"Kenshin is not a traitor," she says, her voice trembling. "He has followed your orders, ani-ue…"

"Will you trust him to me, Kaoru-chan?" he asks. "In the new era-"

"The new era…" she murmurs. "He gave you his sword in order to help people. Not for sonno joi, or to make Japan stronger, but to build a better world for the common people, a world where there is no needless suffering. Can you promise me, Katsura, that what you are doing will bring about this peace?"

He blinks at her, and she meets his gaze directly, a faint glimmer of her fiery spirit in her eyes. "My husband will no longer fight alone," she reminds him, her voice quiet and firm. "Himura Kenshin belongs to the Kamiya family, now."

"Kaoru," he begins, but she continues right over him.

"My father helped you because he believed in a world based on merit, he believed in fairness. When Yoshida-san died, he helped you, ani-ue."

Katsura presses his lips together and looks down at his lap. He feels Kaoru's eyes boring into him, and wonders when she had learned to be so delicately commanding, when she had learned to come straight to the heart of a matter.

"You asked Kenshin to fight for you, and he agreed," she says. "If he wishes to lend his sword to the Ishin-Shishi, you will have the support of the Kamiya. But it will always be his choice. And when the new era comes, it will be the Himura family, not the Kamiya, who live in it."

He nods, and then smiles at her tightly. "The Emperor has chosen his allies well, I think."


It is a bright and warm afternoon, a day on the cusp of summer, when the Lady Kamiya is escorted from the palace of the Emperor to her restored home. Surrounded by an honour guard of Satsuma clansmen and her own returned samurai, dressed for the occasion in a fine silk furisode and hakama, her daisho on her hip, and riding the horse the shogun had presented to her as part of his apology. The people of the city line the road carrying small banners bearing the Kamiya mon and throwing dried sakura petals as she passes, and Kenshin has never seen anything more adorable than his wife, blushing in faint embarrassment at being the centre of so much attention. He follows her progress from nearby rooftops, as the afternoon sun dips lower and dusk descends, until finally the gate of the Kamiya manor is closing behind her, and she is dismounting in the courtyard to greet her household.

Kenshin walks along the top of the manor wall, and drops quietly into the back garden. The manor is divided into sections, and the family had its own secluded quarters at the back, only accessible by one entrance from the rest of the house. It has a private garden and bathhouse, which would be theirs alone while they lived in Kyoto. He rolls his shoulders at the thought of so much space for two small people.

Ibuki is waiting for him at the shoji, dressed in his newly made haori, embroidered with the Kamiya crest. Ibuki had pressed his face into the tatami the moment he found out about Kaoru's title, and immediately sworn fealty to her. She'd gently raised him up by his elbows and asked him to be her personal guard. He nods to Kenshin, sliding open the shoji for him.

"Third door on the left, Himura-san," Ibuki says. "She'll be along shortly, and my watch will end at midnight."

"Thank you, I'll be here until morning," he replies, and Ibuki bows, closing the door behind him. He sighs softly as he walks down the porch; there are very few members of the Kamiya household who know about him, only her personal staff, Dr. Gensai, and her steward. She would be meeting now with Yukishiro-san, and Kenshin enters their bedroom lost in the memory of his own meeting with the Kamiya steward upon his arrival in Kyoto. Kenshin had bowed low and deep, knowing he could never be worthy of the man's forgiveness, and that Yukishiro-san had no choice but to endure him as the husband of his Lady. But the man had smiled at him, and asked to hear of Tomoe's final moments, relieved to know she had been able to smile at the end.

Yukishiro-san had pushed a small, cloth-bound book towards him with tears in his eyes and tapped the cover. You would honour me greatly, Himura-san, if you would read and keep this diary of hers. He had read it because duty bound him to do so, and now he kept it at the top of his trunk here, with his other most prized possession, Kaoru's shredded indigo ribbon, tucked safely in its pages. The diary is a symbol of his promise to Tomoe's memory and to Yukishiro-san: Enishi has not returned home, and Kenshin would find him. He knew all too well the trials a boy alone in the world would face, and finding Enishi has become one of the Ishin-Shishi's top priorities.

He is drawn from his thoughts by Kaoru's approaching spirit, and he goes to greet her on the porch. She strides towards him in her finery, her smile slightly self-conscious, though her eyes are relieved to see him. "I'm home," she says.

"Welcome home, Kamiya-sama," he smiles, bowing slightly.

Kaoru groans softly, threading their fingers together. "Not you, too," she murmurs, tilting her face up for a kiss. He obliges her with a particularly passionate one; last night she had been the guest of the Emperor and stayed at the palace, and it had been their first evening apart since she'd returned.

"Forgive me," he whispers, pressing another kiss to her mouth, "Welcome home, my heart."

She smiles softly, and then leans her head on his shoulder. "I'm glad you are here."

Though she has not voiced it, Kenshin knows she was hesitant to return to the manor, to the place where she had lived with her father. He'd understood that it might be difficult for her to live with the constant reminder of her father's absence, and so he had told Katsura that so long as it was safe for him to do so, he would stay there with her.

"I will be here for the night," he promises. "And the night after, and the night after, for as long as I can."

"I don't know, you have already displeased Aoi with your presence; it is the duty of a Lady's maid to set out her futon and dress her for bed."

That was another part of her apology from the shogun; Kaoru had asked that the housemaid Aoi, who'd helped her escape, and Eita, the soldier Aoi loved, be released from Akuyaku's service and allowed to wed. It was a far lighter concession then Akuyaku ought to have been forced to make, and he had readily complied. Kaoru had not expected the girl to show up at the manor, adamant that she would serve no other but her "Ojou-sama," but Kenshin had known, from his wife's grateful tears, that she was happy to have Aoi and Eita close by. Aoi was dutiful and kind, attentive to Kaoru's needs as a high-ranking lady that Kenshin would have been hard pressed to fulfil. And Eita was a skilled and loyal soldier, and along with Ibuki, someone he could trust to keep her safe.

"Mmm, I thought she'd be pleased to have the night off. Since I am here, Eita does not have to relieve Ibuki of the watch."

Kaoru giggles against his shoulder, like a summer wind chime, and Kenshin smiles, hugging her against him. Her laughter is coming more frequently now, and each peal of it is a gift.

"Perhaps she will see the benefit by tomorrow morning," Kaoru agrees, and Kenshin laughs.

"Well then, since you are maid-less, it falls to this humble self, that it does, to prepare you for bed, Kamiya-sama." She is still so very light, even in the many layers of her fine clothes, and it takes nothing at all for him to scoop her up into his arms. Kaoru squeaks and he grins at her, starting down the porch towards their room, where he has left the shoji conveniently open. He sets her on her feet just inside and closes the door behind him. When he faces her again, Kaoru has walked to the middle of the room, and he can tell from her trembling shoulders that something is wrong.

"Koishii?"

"Ara, sorry," she blushes, wiping her eyes, turning to smile weakly at him. "It's just… this is my room… it's so strange to be here, once again."

Kenshin crosses the tatami and folds her into his embrace; her arms encircle his back tightly while she hides her face in his chest. "Can it… can't it be our room?" he asks softly. "If not, koishii, we will choose another."

"Our room," she repeats, lifting her head and smiling softly. He brushes away the remains of her tears with his thumb and kisses her forehead. He sighs against her bangs, worried she is enduring the manor on his behalf.

"Are you sure, Kaoru, that this is what you want? Yukishiro-san and Dr. Gensai will take you back to Edo if you ask it."

"I'm sure."

"Kaoru…"

She shakes her head, and cups his face in her hands. "My home is where you are, anata, and you are needed here. I won't go to Edo without you."

He opens his mouth to tell her that it would be different, to be separated for a time when he knew she was safe. To promise that it would not be for long and that he was sure Katsura would give him leave to visit; but the words die on his lips. Never, ever let go of me; I have something to live for, I have you.

Instead he nods softly, turns his head to kiss her palm. He takes her hands in his and tries his best to give her an easy smile. "Now then, Kamiya-sama, would you like a bath?"

Kaoru chews her lip and shakes her head. "I wish you would not call me that, anata."

He blinks at her, and she blushes, running her thumbs over the backs of his hands to take the sting out of her words. "It is only that… I am very proud to be Himura Kaoru. And I wish that, at least when we are alone-"

He does not mean to cut her off, but Kenshin cannot help himself, he presses his lips over hers, cupping her face in his hands. He is often bad with words but she always understands how he feels when he kisses her, and so he tries his best to convey how very humbled he is that she loves him, how honoured he was to have been chosen by her, and his gratitude that she had found him again and that the long days of their lives stretched out before them. He kisses her deeply and reverently, and he takes his time. Kaoru fists her hands in the front of his kimono and it is only after their kisses have ended that he realizes they have sunk together to the tatami, and she is comfortably seated between his knees, safe and close.

"Forgive my error, Honoured Wife," he whispers, and Kaoru laughs and wrinkles her nose.

"Oh no, not that either," she laughs.

"Ohimura-dono?" he tries, teasing, immensely rewarded when she laughs again. Gods, he would do anything to make her laugh. She shakes her head and her eyes grow wide in mock indignation. "You are hopeless, Kenshin!" she complains.

"Ah, then tell this one, how should he address you?"

She taps her lips with one tapered finger, her eyes sparkling with mirth, and he holds himself very still, resisting the urge to pull her against him and kiss her senseless. She was so very beautiful, but what she said next would be important, and he should not interrupt her again.

"Kaoru," she says simply. "I like it best when you say my name."

A little thrill shoots through him, and he leans forward and kisses her cheek. "That's all?"

"My heart, also," she admits, blushing, "and koishii, too."

"I like when you call me by my name too. And anata, and Husband. Are those names all right, Kaoru?"

"Of course! Of course, anata."

She settles against him and he hums softly, stroking her shoulder. "Then, shall I help you with your furisode, Kaoru?" he blinks at her innocently. "You should not let it become wrinkled, Aoi will be mad."

Kaoru blushes, but she nods and he helps her to her feet. She has put on weight in the last few months, but she was still very shy about being unclothed, and Kenshin was becoming adept at reading her small signs. If she clutched at the collar of her nagajuban he would excuse himself to let her change into her yukata and know they would softly kiss each other until she fell asleep in his arms. But Kaoru knew how to read him too; all she had to do was let down her shimmering curtain of hair, and his fingers would bury themselves in it of their own volition.

She loosens the tie of her hakama and sets her hands on his shoulders to steady herself while she steps out of them, revealing the detailed embroidery along the edge of her furisode. He knows it is her mother's handiwork; after Kinmon Kaoru had parted with all her furisodes except the ones touched by her mother's hand. He bends down to retrieve and fold the hakama for her while Kaoru reaches behind herself to loosen her obi. It is the blue one he'd purchased for her, and she pulls it from her waist and holds out the heavy silk to him. "Will you hang this for me, anata? I will wear it again tomorrow I think."

He nods and folds it over his arm, looping the obi-jime twice before tying a knot in its centre. "Are you still going, tomorrow?" She is fumbling with her datejime so he moves to stand before her, carefully untying the silken knot and unwinding it from her waist. "I saw Todo-san in the crowd," he adds.

"Ito-san too," Kaoru sighs, loosening the karihimo from her waist and hiking up the extra fabric of her furisode so she can untie the other from around her hips. "And many others, but not… all."

"They won't refuse you, it would be a grave insult to turn away a ward of the Emperor." But secretly he hopes that her former Commanders do turn her away. It would be easier for her, if they cut themselves out of her life, easier for her to walk her new path without regret.

"Perhaps, but I will not be forgiven. At least Ito-san will see me, and that will be enough." She sighs again, folding her two karihimo. Kenshin takes the silken ties and steps behind her, holding the edge of her collar while she steps out of her furisode. She sits to remove her tabi and Kenshin takes all of her silk garments to the kimono stand, keeping his back to her, conscious of her comfort.

"There is so much to do," she sighs behind him. "I had forgotten how much it takes to head a household."

"Can I help, Kaoru?" he asks.

"No, thank you." He hears the smile in her voice and continues with arranging her furisode. "You are busy enough, Husband, leave this to Yukishiro-san and me."

He turns, wanting to reassure her that he would help her, that she did not have to do this alone, that all she had to do was ask, but when he meets her eyes, he sees that she already knows this. His breath catches in his throat and he takes an involuntary step forward, drawn in by her soft smile and the fall of her long black hair, trailing over her shoulder. She pads towards him, the silk of her nagajuban rustling against the tatami, his favorite soft pink blush staining her cheeks.

"I should help you now, anata, with your kimono…" she muses shyly.


Kaoru accepts her tea from Ito-san, careful to keep her back as straight as possible. She would have preferred for the men in front of her to relax their own posture; she is a little woman, and it is tiring to strain her height so they could keep their heads lowered. But there is too much mistrust now, for Kondo and Hijikata to treat her as they had before. She watches them calmly over the lip of her teacup, patient. Kondo is too emotional for distance, and Hijikata too rough for courtesy, so they had left the formalities to Ito, and greeted her in silence.

"Thank you, Ito-san," she says softly, setting her cup down on his proffered tray. "The tea is quite refreshing."

"The honour is mine, Kamiya-sama," he bows. "May this humble self inquire as to what we owe the pleasure of your visit?"

Kaoru looks at Kondo and Hijikata, but they do not raise their gaze. Kaoru sighs in resignation. They had received her as the Lady Kamiya, as though there was nothing between them but duty, and so she answers Ito-san elegantly, as a lady should. "I am grieved over the way I parted from you all last winter. I have come to make amends."

"Amends?" Kondo hisses softly, and Ito-san winces. Kaoru squares her shoulders, and pushes the heavy lacquer box Eita had carried in for her towards the Commander. She had known insulting them would be the only way to get their attention.

"I am in the debt of Lord Matsudaira," she murmurs. "I return to him the funds I received in your service, and the costs incurred for the funeral last spring. I am grateful to him for his support in the darkest time of my life."

Kondo turns red and Hijikata's jaw tightens, but Kaoru presses on. She takes a wallet from her sleeve and sets it atop the box. "I must also return those funds that were given to me for travel and lodging in Otsu. Please accept their return with my deepest gratitude."

"Is that all, Kamiya-sama?" growls Hijikata.

"No, sensei."

The Vice-Commander's eyes widen, and Kaoru lowers herself into a deep bow, her forehead on the tatami. The ornaments in her hair tinkle softly as she speaks. "I can never repay my debt to the Shinsengumi, or to you both, Kondo-sensei, Hijikata-sensei. For this home, this family, I shall be forever thankful."

"Kaoru-chan…" Kondo breathes, and she raises her head, unsurprised that the Commander is crying.

"It is because of my service to you that my father will at last be laid to rest beside my mother in Edo." She sits up and reaches for Kondo's hand, squeezing it gently while she speaks to Hijikata. "I know that when all hope was lost, you grieved for me. I know that when my honour was slandered, you fought for me. I am greatly humbled, and I know you must have many questions."

"Where were you, Kaoru?" Hijikata asks quietly.

Kaoru gives Kondo's hand a final squeeze, leaving her handkerchief in his palm. The look she gives Hijikata is sympathetic. "I have promised the shogun not to speak of it," she admits, which is true. "You will forgive me for not embarrassing him by disclosing it."

Hijikata's face remains unreadable and she sighs. "Since the winter, I have been the guest of the Emperor, and stayed at the Satsuma residence." That was almost true—she had moved there briefly with Kenshin when Okubo-san had brought the order pardoning her, and it seems to be enough for the Vice Commander.

"Why did you not come to us, Kaoru-chan?" Kondo asks softly.

The look she gives the Commander is indulgent, though Ito-san has the decency to look incredulous on her behalf. "I could not put you in such a position with the shogun, Kondo-sensei," she murmurs.

"And Hitokiri Battousai?" Hijikata says, each syllable landing like a stone.

Kaoru meets the Vice-Commander's ice cold gaze with one just as bold, exactly the way she had so long ago, when he'd dared to call her father a traitor. Over his head, distant and slightly to the right, she can feel Kenshin's spirit, where he is hiding on some rooftop and thinking she could not sense him. Even with her honour guard and Eita, he wanted to make sure she is safe. She raises her chin, every inch the Lady Kamiya, all samurai. If she'd been wearing daisho she would have set her thumb against the guard of her sword in warning.

"In Otsu, that man tried to save my life. I could not let him die for it."

Hijikata's smile has no humor in it, and as expected, it is clear he does not accept her brief explanation. "You will forgive us, Kamiya-sama, if we do not share your opinion of him."

"He has done many things," she says coolly, "but he has never wronged me."

Silence falls over the room, and Kaoru waits for other questions she would only half answer. There are many paths a bushi may walk, but only one for the Shinsengumi. She could no longer walk the same path as these men. It deeply saddens her, that she can never return to the easy way she once spoke with Hijikata and Kondo, that the kinship she'd had for them was now shattered. They deserved more than lies from her, and it breaks her heart to know that in spite of her best intentions, she had betrayed them. But she had tried to walk two paths before and failed. She had tried to keep safe everyone in her heart, but she could no longer protect them all. It was impossible to help everyone, she knew that now. There are times when there is no right decision, Daughter-mine. And Kaoru had made her choice long ago.

At last, Ito-san clears his throat. "Is there anything further, Kamiya-sama?" he asks gently.

"Yes," she smiles briefly at him. "I would speak for a moment with Todo Heisuke."

Ito-san nods, but it is Kondo-sensei who speaks. "He's in the dojo."


Heisuke rolls along the polished floor, coming to his feet short of breath. He does not like to spar with friends, but sometimes, sacrifices must be endured for friendship. He readies his stance, shinai aimed at the weakest point in Okita's defence. "Ready?" he calls.

"Come," grates the first unit captain. Heisuke sighs. He lunges towards his friend, hoping he wouldn't have to draw this out for too long. He has rounds tonight and it was never comfortable to patrol with a fresh set of bruises. However, Okita freezes, eyes wide and staring through him, and Heisuke cracks him lightly over the shoulder for his mistake. The first unit captain sinks to his knees on the floor, and Heisuke offers him his hand.

"Can you stand?" he asks worriedly. He hadn't hit him that hard. Okita ignores him and bows his forehead into the hardwood.

"Please, don't…" says a soft voice behind him, and Heisuke turns, shocked and dismayed to find the exact reason he was letting Okita hit him standing in the doorway.

"Kaoru!"

She bows herself into the dojo, restricted slightly by the expensive furisode she was wearing. It is pale blue with koi swimming lazily through pond lilies across its hem and sleeves. Heisuke has never seen Kaoru dressed as a woman before, and he sees now what so many others in the troop had—she is beautiful. Small and delicate, lit with a courageous inner fire. No longer a frightened girl in her manor, or a hard-eyed bushi with everything to prove. It is almost as though she had stepped into the role she was meant to play. For some reason, it makes him feel fiercely proud; she was his friend, his little sister, and it was an enormous relief to see roundness coming back to her cheeks, brightness to her unusually coloured eyes.

"It is Himura-san's care, that has helped her look so healthy."

"Okita-sensei," she calls quietly, "please, raise your head."

The first unit captain raises himself to sit seiza, but keeps his gaze on his lap, a deep red flush colouring his cheeks. Kaoru watches him for a moment, and then she looks at Heisuke with an apologetic smile. "Forgive me for disturbing you, Kondo-sensei told me you were in the dojo. I thought you'd be alone, you don't usually spar with anyone…"

She chews her lip and her gaze falls once again to the kneeling first unit captain. She begins to twist the edges of her sleeves with her fingers and Heisuke moves quickly to reduce the awkwardness that has settled over the three of them. "How can this humble self be of service to you, Kamiya-sama?" he asks, bowing. She frowns softly and he smiles and wiggles his eyebrows at her, and is rewarded with a small, suppressed giggle.

"I require you, would you walk out with me to the porch?"

At her request, Okita gets to his feet and bows to Heisuke. "Thank you for the practice," he says shortly, and then he strides from the dojo, purposely not looking at Kaoru, though he walks right past her. When he has left, the Lady Kamiya sighs softly.

"Sorry," Heisuke apologizes, because someone should.

"It's nothing," she murmurs. "I cannot expect Souji to forgive me."

"There is nothing to forgive," Heisuke says firmly. "You did not ask him to love you, and he never asked if you loved him."

She smiles at him kindly, and then gestures towards the porch. Heisuke places his shinai on the rack and follows her outside. "What did you need, Kaoru?"

"I was hoping you would accompany me to Shimabara."

"What? Why?!" he sputters, and she laughs, tucking her arm through his.

"There is a maiko there whose debts I am keen to settle."

Heisuke freezes so abruptly that Kaoru has to steady herself against him. He reaches out to grip her elbow by instinct and he gapes at her as they nearly tumble onto the porch. "Kaoru!" he gasps, and she smiles, beaming at him while she regains her feet.

"I will pay it all or give you the remainder, Heisuke, whichever your honour would prefer."

"Kaoru!" he gasps again, because he is at a complete loss for words. She grins and reaches out to his face with her tapered fingers to brush away the tears he hadn't noticed shedding.

"It is the very least I can do for you, when you did so much for me that day, to protect my heart," she says softly. "You know, as well as I do, a man who resides in a woman's heart should spend his days beside her."

"Kaoru, I will pay you back-"

"Hush, consider it my wedding gift."

The word crashes over him and he grins at her. "Kaoru, I am getting married!"

"Yes!" she laughs, and he suddenly panics.

"Gods where will we live? I need to buy a house…"

"Heisuke!" she laughs. "If you wish, Kimiki can stay with me, at the Kamiya manor. I'd be so happy to have her company, and to see you often."

He blushes. He knew how generous Kaoru could be, but he has never been on the receiving end of her kindness quite like this before. "Thank you, Kaoru."

She pats his arm, leading him down the porch towards where her guards are waiting next to her palanquin, one of them kneeling by the porch with her geta. They are still out of earshot and Heisuke stops her, because there is something he still has to make right. He checks over his shoulder and pulls her deeper into the porch, lowering his voice to a whisper.

"And him, Kaoru… I'd like to… that is… we should be introduced… properly."

She smiles, and for a moment her eyes lift over his head, slightly to the right. "I'd like for you to meet him, Heisuke."

"Good. Someone should, after all. Make sure his intentions are honourable."

Kaoru rolls her eyes, and then she grins at him mischievously. "I think it's a bit late for you to approve of my husband, Todo-kun."

"What? Kaoru!"


Akuyaku sits on the porch of his manor, drinking sake and watching the last remaining Yaminobu ninja work through his exercises in the yard. The high tail on the man's otherwise bald head twitches along with the movements of his chained swords spinning through the air. The shogun had forbid Akuyaku from coming any more to Kyoto or Edo, and he is bored, confined to his small property.

The summer sun is disrupted by the shadow of a young man, and Akuyaku blinks at him for a moment before a faint breeze stirs his white hair, and he remembers the boy's name. "Ah, Enishi?"

"A message has arrived for you, Akuyaku-sama," the boy says, voice flat and devoid of emotion. It is slightly unnerving, and Akuyaku grabs for the letter in the boy's hand, flustered by his dead eyes. It so perturbs him that he tears the envelope. He scans the kanji and his eyes widen, vexation quickly blooming into delight. He grins at the boy. "You will have your revenge yet, Enishi."

"Sir?"

He thrusts the letter into the boy's hands and rubs his own together in anticipation. "It is a summons from the shogun," he explains. "To war."

Chapter Text

"Tell me to stay."

He whispers his plea into her shoulder, where his head had come to rest. In the silence of their bedroom, the words hit her as though he'd shouted. Kaoru tightens her arms around her husband and squeezes her eyes shut, pushing her feelings away. She must be strong, and these last few years have given her a great deal of practice at hiding her emotions. When she answers, her voice is soft and steady.

"Would that make it easier to go, anata?"

Hours earlier, when she'd found him sitting against the west wall, she'd known immediately that something was wrong. He'd climbed to his feet with a too-easy smile, and she had indulged him because Heisuke was waiting inside to meet them and she wanted their meeting to go smoothly. And it had gone incredibly well; Kenshin was shy, but he already knew Kimiki and his extreme politeness to the redeemed maiko had soothed any initial reservations Heisuke might have had. The eighth unit captain wanted to know him, wanted to like him, and by the time supper was concluded and they had poured sake for each other, it was evident that the two men were developing a tentative and respectful friendship.

It was after Heisuke returned to headquarters, after Kaoru had ensured Kimiki was settled for the night in her new rooms and went to join Kenshin in their bedroom, that he had told her. Katsura was even now on his way south with the remaining Ishin-Shishi, and Kenshin had two weeks to get to Satsuma, to join the ship led by Sakamoto Ryoma, before they left without him.

Choshuu was at war.

Part of her was grateful that Katsura had not ordered Kenshin to leave immediately with the rest of the patriots; he had given them this brief time, he had taken her words to heart and was letting Kenshin choose. But Kaoru knew Katsura, her husband, and herself, and Katsura only moved when he was assured success. Katsura was not asking for more calculated assassinations on the dark roads of Kyoto. Kaoru had seen war, seen Kyoto burn, and she knew that in any conflict, it was the common people who suffered most. If the hans answered the shogun's call, Choshuu would be greatly outnumbered and in need of every ally they could get. To ask him to stay when she knew he would hold himself accountable for the fighting in Choshuu, for every fighter or bystander who died, was more selfish than she could allow herself to be.

The obvious answer would be to go with him, to once again don her hakama and resolutely push her father's daisho through her belt. But her kata are still weak, her swords still uncommonly heavy. Her body remembers the movements, and her instincts are improving, but her strength has not yet returned. She'd be a liability, following him into combat, one that would weaken him when so many required him to be strong. And if her presence was discovered there, if it became known that the Lady Kamiya was in truth a patriot, the Emperor would have no choice but to abandon her. She would be lucky to be sentenced to seppuku. She had many lives depending on her—she could not repeat her father's mistakes.

Kaoru had known all of this, the minute he'd grasped her hands and gently pulled her into his lap, she had known that he would go and she would stay. So when he had stroked her hair and told her he would stay if she asked, there had been nothing to do but kiss him, fist her hands in his kimono and pull the cloth from his shoulders, until he gave in to the distraction and lowered them to the tatami. They are typically gentle with one another, but this had been frantic and needy; he had clutched her desperately and she had pulled his hair. Now they lay in the tangle of their clothes, sweat drying in the cool air of the early summer evening, with their heavy words pressing against them in the dark.

Kenshin draws back to look at her, trying to make up for the absence of her spirit by reading her expression with his keen eyes. His hair spills over her shoulders and his large eyes are soft and far too kind. "I won't go if you ask it, koishii-"

"I can't." She feels tears prick her eyes and she reaches for his face, for those gentle eyes. "Whatever you choose, I will love and support you."

His arms pull her close too quickly; she squeaks to find herself against him, his face buried in her neck once more. "Kenshin?"

"I am not strong enough, Kaoru," he breathes. "I can't lose you again."

"Then come home to me," she tells him, and he gasps softly. She strokes her fingers down his back, trying to ease the tension there. "Go, and end it," she whispers, "and come home safe."

"Kaoru…"

"I have Ibuki and Eita, and Heisuke to look after me. I will be cautious and careful, and keep myself safe for you, anata. But... if I lose you… if you don't come home…"

"I will."

"Do you promise?" she sobs, and he kisses her.

"I swear it, I will never go where I can't find you."

She nods bravely, and their limbs loosen into a more comfortable embrace, with her head resting on his shoulder now. For a long time they hold each other, aware that it could be some time before they will do so again.

"If there is trouble, Kaoru, I want you to go to Shishou," he says.

"I will. And I will write everyday, so you know I am safe."

He strokes his fingers down the side of her arm, staring up at the ceiling. After a moment, his movement pauses where her arm meets her back, and then starts to trace a familiar scar. "What's it like," he asks softly, "to be in a war?"

Kaoru shivers and she sits up, pulling the fine silk of her nagajuban up around her shoulders. She wraps her arms around herself, but it is the memories of Kinmon, and not the night air, that have her feeling so cold. Kenshin sits up and wraps his arms around her, setting his chin on her shoulder, his warmth comforting against her back, and she tries her best to give him an honest answer.

"It is like falling into a well," she says. "You feel trapped on all sides, and even though you are tired, you must continue to swim until you can be pulled into the sun."


Not long after Kenshin leaves, the news of the war with Choshuu breaks throughout Kyoto. In public, she does her best to act surprised, and in private, endures the sympathetic looks of those closest to her. Kaoru throws herself into her training with renewed vigor, pushing herself to become stronger, to become faster, to be able to follow after her husband and stand beside him. She rises early, in the grey light before dawn, and when her clansmen shuffle into the dojo to begin their morning training, they find their Lady slick with sweat, pouring cool water down her neck, her hair tied up with a frayed piece of black cloth.

Her training progress starts today's letter to Kenshin, how many strokes and how many kata, the hits she'd been able to land, just that morning, on Ibuki and Eita. When she could easily defeat them she knew she'd be ready to train with Heisuke, though she doubts he'd be as hard on her as Souji had been.

Kaoru sets her brush down across the ink dish. She'd had a letter just yesterday from Maekawa-sensei; Kondo had written to him to renew an offer of marriage on Souji's behalf, and her former guardian wrote her that he had readily shut down the Commander's overture. It troubled her; convention should have forbidden Kondo-sensei from even considering to propose such a marriage. Kaoru was a high-ranking lady and technically a member of the Emperor's household—which likely meant that Kondo thought Kaoru wanted to marry Souji. She groans softly. It was highly probable that the Commander would soon pay her a visit to plead Souji's suit.

To the world she was unmarried, and a woman with her considerable property and position obviously needed a husband. She had barely been home a month when mothers of eligible sons began to make their visits. Yukishiro-san could usually curb the lower-ranking ones, but she has already had to endure tea with two such formidable women. A similar tea with Kondo-sensei would be unbearable. She'd have to talk to Heisuke; perhaps he could appeal to Ito-san on her behalf. Once, she might have gone to Hijikata-sensei, but that avenue seems closed to her forever.

Kaoru scans her letter to Kenshin, shaking her head. "Marrying you was supposed to end this problem, anata," she smiles fondly. She picks up her fan and flaps it over the letter to help the ink dry faster. Once she could fold it into its envelope, she'd start on a reply to Maekawa-sensei.

"Kamiya-sama?"

Aoi is at the open shoji, and Kaoru favours her with an easy smile. "Yes?"

"The clansmen wish to speak with you, they have assembled in the dojo."

"Oh?" Kaoru frowns, getting to her feet. "Do you know what they want to speak to me about, Aoi?"

Her maid chews her lip. "A letter has arrived this morning, Kamiya-sama, from Satsuma."

Kaoru's pulse quickens, and her heart leaps into her throat. She hasn't received a letter yet, from Kenshin, but she knew he was unlikely to write until he landed in Satsuma. "A letter for me?" she breathes, "From… from-"

"I don't know, Kamiya-sama. But Yukishiro-san was unable to intercept it."

She thrusts her fan into Aoi's startled hands. "Go to Kimiki and wait with her. If I do not come back within the hour, she is to go to Heisuke, and you to Ikumatsu-sama, all right?"

A brave look crosses the maid's face. "Yes, Kamiya-sama."

Kaoru feels a brief wave of pride and gratitude, and then she is gone, pounding down the porch towards the dojo as quickly as her furisode will let her. Eita is at the end of it with her geta, and both he and Ibuki help her down into them, flanking her as she strides purposely and calmly to the dojo and bows herself inside. Every last clansman is there, and Kaoru's eyes immediately fall on the letter sitting on a tray in the center of the dojo. It is addressed to her, but the handwriting is not Kenshin's. The second name on the letter belongs to Sakamoto Oryo, Ryoma's wife.

A near explosive breath leaves her and Kaoru raises her eyes to search those of her samurai. "You wished to speak with me?"

Haruto is the eldest, the captain of her clansmen, his family loyal to the Kamiya for generations. "We implore you, Kamiya-sama," he bows, "send us to Choshuu!"

Kaoru gapes at him. In a thousand years, she wouldn't have expected this. "Ara?"

"Your Honoured Father was cast aside by the shogun, and us with him," Haruto pleads. "Now that same shogun would run rough-shod over the men of Choshuu; over Katsura-sama and Takasugi-san, who studied the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu. For the memory of your Honoured Father, let us avenge him in Choshuu."

"Haruto-san," she gasps, moved beyond words. She shakes her head. "The Kamiya Kasshin-ryu does not condone revenge. My father would not wish you to throw away your lives."

"Then send us to fight alongside Himura Battousai," Haruto says softly.

"What," she breathes, nearly choked by panic. Kaoru sinks to her knees, causing Ibuki to lean over her in concern, while Eita sets his thumb against the guard of his sword.

"You do us a dishonour, Kamiya-sama," Haruto chides. "What swordsmen would we be, to not sense a spirit like that under your roof?"

Kaoru blushes from her hair to what feels like her toes, and in that moment, she would have been very grateful had the floor opened up and swallowed her whole. Haruto laughs softly and the tension in the room seems to break, the dojo filling with quiet laughter as Kaoru blushes even harder. "He… he's my…"

"You do not need to explain your personal affairs to us, Kamiya-sama," Haruto interrupts, blushing a little himself. Kaoru presses her fingers to her burning cheeks, mortified at the careful way her captain was treating her honour. "Send us to Choshuu to help him."

She looks around the room at the resolute faces of her samurai, and Kaoru wants to give in. She couldn't go herself, but she could send him an entire unit, a group to stand around him, to keep him from being reckless and to bring him home. Her eyes water as she looks once more at the letter in the centre of the dojo, and suddenly an idea dawns on her.

"I am unworthy of this kindness," she says, "but I thank you humbly for it. I cannot openly defy the shogun. The Emperor took a great risk to protect me and I cannot disappoint him, so I cannot send Kamiya troops to Choshuu."

Haruto opens his mouth to protest; Kaoru holds up a hand to stay him. "What I can do," she continues, "is send you to Satsuma for training."

Murmurs flood the dojo and Kaoru holds up her other hand for silence. "Saigo-san is our friend," she reminds them, "and if he should feel your training would be best served in Choshuu, what can I, a mere woman, do?"

Haruto grins and pushes the tray with the letter towards her. "A letter for you, Kamiya-sama," he offers. "If you will excuse us, we must make preparations to depart for Satsuma."

Kaoru takes the letter with a firm nod. "Make haste," she tells him, and gets to her feet.

She pauses in the yard to slide her feet into her geta and calm her racing heart. After exhaling quickly, she turns and smiles in relief at her two personal guards. "That was masterfully done, Kamiya-sama," Eita says softly.

She smiles at him in thanks. "Will you please go to Kimiki's chambers and tell your wife that everything is all right?" He bows, then strides off towards the rooms in question. Kaoru turns to Ibuki. "Will you take a message to Ikumatsu? Tell her what's happened here; she will be able to get word to Katsura."

"Yes, Kamiya-sama," he bows, and jogs towards the gate.

Kaoru shades her eyes, judging the position of the sun. She still has time, before she needs to go over the accounts and petitions with Yukishiro-san—they will need to assess what provisions are needed for the men traveling to Satsuma. She would need to send someone trustworthy with a letter to Saigo-san; Dr. Gensai was the best candidate. A soldier would be remarked upon, but a doctor calling on a patient was only to be expected. She strides back towards the room she uses as her office with more purpose; her letter to Kenshin would be dry, and she could start right away on a note to Saigo-san.

It is not until she is once again seated before her desk that she remembers the letter tucked into her obi. Kaoru pulls it out and opens the envelope, surprised to find the inside of it written on, and another letter enclosed inside, unaddressed. It tumbles into her lap as she reads Sakamoto-dono's careful kanji.

It gives me great honour, Kamiya-sama, to forward this to you. I hope you will not think it unfit to forward all answering correspondence through me.

Your humble servant,
Oryo

Kaoru cries out softly and her shaking fingers open the second letter, covered in tiny cramped brushstrokes, his terrible handwriting all the more illegible and precious because he had tried to fit so much onto the paper. "Kenshin," she sobs quietly. She forgets all her unanswered correspondence, her appointment with Yukishiro-san, her plans to deploy her clansmen. She slides to the light of the open window, the better to decipher his hopeless scrawl. When Aoi comes to return her fan, she finds her mistress curled on the floor, smiling sadly to herself, pressing a piece of paper to her heart as though it were her first-born.

"Aoi!" Kaoru sits up with a start. She wipes a stray tear from the edge of her eye and smiles at her maid. "Come in, there is much to do."


It is quiet today; the guns silent but waiting. For his part, Kenshin is relieved to be on dry land again. The voyage from Satsuma had valued speed over comfort, and it had been only his second time on a ship. He had been fortunate to stop heaving before they entered Choshuu waters, and as their Tosa crew navigated the straits to bring them into position against the Bakufu fleet, the uneven roll and pitch of the deck was forgotten in the place of life and death. Masts, rigging and rail became familiar terrain as he leapt onto enemy vessels, as sure of his footing as if he were on land. It was only after he'd fought his way across three ships, into a small boat bound for shore, after he'd torn his way up the beach, that he'd had time to dwell on the shaking in his legs, though whether that was an after-effect from the sea voyage, or from his first battle, he couldn't say.

Takasugi had ordered a victorious retreat in the afternoon, and now they are lying in wait on their side of the straight, regrouping while they awaited the shogun's next move. Many of the men had billeted down to sleep, but Kenshin has something much more precious to claim his time: nearly a month's worth of letters from Kaoru. They'd been waiting for him on shore, sent dutifully by Oryo-dono to Takasugi's mistress Uno, who had arranged them in chronological order for him in an empty namagashi box.

Starved for his wife's presence, he devours her letters, pulling them one after the other from the box, letting them surround him on the tatami as he immerses himself in her routines and training, her news of Kyoto. She writes just as she speaks, with pauses and stresses, and he can almost hear her voice, her windchime laughter, feel her next to him. It bolsters him, reminds him that this separation was not like the ones before; she was safe, she was happy.

Her last letter mentions that she had started sparring with Heisuke, that Kimiki had chosen the fabric for her wedding kimono, and that Kondo had tried to visit the day before, to speak with her once again about marriage. He frowns over that. He carefully folds each letter back into the box, then goes to find Katsura or Takasugi. One of them would have ink and paper.

He makes his way across the compound they have taken over as barracks, nodding to the men who call out to him in greeting. His performance on the beach had earned him something close to hero-status, and he is ashamed of it. He walks briskly, and does not stop to talk. He finds the Choshuu generals and Sakamoto-san together in Takasugi's room, pouring over maps.

"Ah, Kenshin," Katsura greets him, opening the shoji wider to allow him into the room.

Kenshin merely bows by way of apology for not sitting down and joining them. "I was looking for some paper and ink," he explains.

Sakamoto-san grins at him, the easy smile that he gives to everyone, and always reminds Kenshin of Kaoru's own ready smile. "You are at quite a disadvantage, your wife seems to have used up all the paper in Japan," he jokes.

Kenshin would have smiled slightly in agreement, but instead watches as the grin fades from Sakamoto's face. Kenshin turns in the doorway, both of them suddenly aware of a sharp spirit approaching in haste. Katsura is on his feet a second later, as a scout comes running towards them.

"Sir!" he exclaims, out of breath, bowing to Takasugi.

"What is it?" Katsura asks.

"Soldiers sir, marching towards us-"

"How many?" Takasugi, ever brash, cuts him off.

"No sir, not foes," the man corrects, and all four of them gape at him.

"They're allies?" Sakamoto asks, confused.

"A hundred men," the scout confirms. "They came from Satsuma, but they are men of Edo sir, Kamiya clansmen."

Kenshin's heart leaps into his throat. "Who leads them?" he asks softly, so quietly, no one hears him.

"They say they are here to fight for Himura Battousai," adds the man, looking questioningly to Kenshin.

"Let them approach," Katsura says firmly, dismissing the scout. When the man is gone he turns to Kenshin with a small smile. "Kaoru is full of surprises."

"Wait,"Takasugi cuts in. "Do you mean to tell me that knee-high kitten who used to tug on my hakama and beg for dango has just sent us a hundred men?"

Katsura laughs. "She is a grown woman now, the very image of her mother, and twice the bushi Koshijiro ever was. In our correspondence, she refers to you as 'the Wastrel'."

Takasugi grins. "I think I'm in love."

"She's taken," Kenshin says flatly, and Takasugi claps him on the back.

"I wish you continued happiness, General Himura."


Laughter fills the late summer air, and Ito politely turns down his twelfth offer of sake, good-naturedly waving Shinohara-san away from his empty dish. "Not for me," he laughs, "offer it instead to the bride and groom." Shinohara nods and laughs, making his way up the hall with his jug. Seated at the top together are the newlyweds, and though they think no one has noticed, Ito observes that they are still holding hands, buried beneath the many folds of Kimiki's elegant white kimono. For his part, Heisuke is beaming, dressed in his formal best, his family crest proudly displayed on his shoulders. Ito smiles; it has been some time since Heisuke was entrusted to his care at their Edo dojo, and he is immeasurably proud of the man Heisuke has become. He gazes over the sea of black uniforms around him and sighs. For men such as Heisuke, he has reached his decision.

There is one other woman present; a beacon of light in the otherwise dark sea of Shinsengumi uniforms. Kaoru-sama is seated slightly apart from the rest of the guests, though in truth she was hosting them all in her own home. Every so often a small group or a single man would go over to pour her a dish of sake. She always smiled and refused the offer, pouring them a dish instead in return and talking with them quietly for a few moments before they left to rejoin the festivities. It was rather calculated on her part; even without Kondo and Souji in attendance, she was keeping herself distant to ensure there was no scene at Heisuke's wedding. The sake has been flowing for quite some time now, and though it is only because he happened to be watching her closely, Ito is the only one who notices when Kaoru-sama gets softly to her feet and slips away into the darkness of the porch behind her.

Ito excuses himself just as quietly, abandoning the noise of the festivities and walking out onto the porch. The evening air is cool, and he gives himself to a moment to adjust to the temperature and the darkness. He steps down into his sandals and makes his way into the sheltered back garden, where Kaoru-sama is standing, staring into the hall at the laughing faces lit up inside, fanning herself slowly despite the cool night air and the heavy indigo shawl pulled tightly around her shoulders. He is five feet from her before she speaks.

"They always did enjoy a party," she smiles quietly.

"A little too much, sometimes," he admits with a grimace.

She laughs. "They have never quite been to your taste, Ito-san," Kaoru-sama admits. "But they are good in their own way."

He nods in pleasant agreement, and they stand together in silence for a few more moments, until at last Kaoru-sama closes her fan and turns to him. She is very lovely in the moonlight, the ornaments in her dark hair shining, and the pale blue silk of her furisode dancing around her in shimmering waves of embroidery. They are broken only by the horizontal stripes of her obi at her waist, and at the edge of her right sleeve. The fabric is pulled and creased there, as though someone had worked very hard to remove a stain. She taps her fan gently over the spot at her wrist, and smiles. "Is there something I can do for you, Ito-san?"

"You have always been very observant, Kamiya-sama," he bows, smiling. "I should not be surprised that you noticed I do not quite fit in amongst the Shinsengumi."

"Do you still quarrel with Hijikata-sensei?" she asks, and when he is silent, she sighs. "The Vice-Commander can be as immoveable as a stone, sometimes. But his heart is in the right place. I imagine trying to voice your counsel has been difficult for you."

"The greater difficulty," he admits, "has been Kondo-san. He is incredibly hesitant to adopt new methods."

They are silent again for a time, Kaoru assessing him with unreadable eyes. It makes Ito's mouth go dry, and he has to focus hard not to swallow. Finally, she taps her fan against her cheek. "To leave the Shinsengumi is punishable by death," she says quietly, "unless, of course, you are under the protection of the Emperor."

"I know."

She opens her fan and flutters it briefly around her face, looking once more into the hall, before snapping it shut against her palm. "In a few weeks I will be hosting a tea to congratulate the Todo family on their marriage. You would honour me greatly, Ito-san, with your attendance."

"The honour is mine, Kamiya-sama," he bows.

She nods once and gathers up the hem of her furisode. "Come alone," she says softly, and takes her leave.


Kenshin stands under the light of the freshly lit lamp in the inner courtyard of Kokura Castle, reading. At first, Kaoru's letters had been short, one standard page, covering the events of the day before, telling him how much she loved and missed him. But as their separation grew, as the seichosen dragged on from summer to autumn, the length of her letters had increased. The one he is reading now is not so much folded as it is rolled, and he has developed such a skill for unrolling one end while rolling up the other that he might be mistaken for a scholar if not for the swords on his hip.

She had given up writing every day, and Kenshin, with only four letters to match her output, cannot hold her to account for it. The decrease in frequency partly explained why the letters were so long now, but in truth, his wife has been busy. She keeps steady correspondence with Katsura through Ikumatsu-sama, and Sakamoto-san through Oryo-dono, and her letters are filled with her many meetings with Saigo-san, Okubo-san, and Ishin-Shishi not even Kenshin had been aware of. While the shogun thought all the patriots were occupied in Choshuu, it seemed the Lady Kamiya, with Satsuma's help, was leading a shadow attack in Kyoto. Kenshin frowns over her latest letter, worried. Kaoru had a better head for politics and strategy than he did, but it didn't mean she wasn't taking risks.

"Please be safe, my heart," he murmurs, because he would not be able to address his worries to her in his response. How could he, when her every effort was to bring him home, to keep him safe? He sighs, unrolling the last few feet of paper. He has taken more lives in the last four months than all his years in Kyoto combined, but he must keep going, until he could be pulled into the sun.

Only, when daylight finally broke over him, would it cast too much light on his heavy sins? Would Kaoru see it, the horrors he'd committed on the battlefields of Choshuu? The delicate scent of jasmine clings to her letter, the only thing other than blood he is still able to smell, and he trembles. He's given up believing he could walk away from her to spare her from being tainted by what he is; he had lost her once and could never lose her again. He blinks away the wetness in his eyes to focus on her delicate kanji, and the words jump out at him, as though she had read his very thoughts.

I think of you, and how lonely you must be, how dark your days must seem. But remember, anata, that you are not alone, that I love you and am waiting for you, here in our home. There is nothing, my heart, that will keep us apart for long.

"Kaoru," he whispers. He finishes reading, the end of her letter full of soft promises for when he came home. He rolls the paper closed and presses it to his lips. "I will come home soon, koishii."

"Himura-san?"

"Ah, yes?" he calls, stowing the letter safely in his sleeve. Haruto materializes out of the dark. "Takasugi-san wishes to speak with you."

Kenshin nods and dismisses his captain to rest. These last few months, he has been tireless at ensuring the safety and wellbeing of his men, of Kaoru's men. The Kamiya Unit is the only group in the patriot ranks here who have not suffered any casualties. He makes his way through the halls of Kokura, their base since liberating it from the Bafuku forces. What was left of them had disbursed into the wilderness around the castle, preferring guerilla tactics on Choshuu scouting parties. Many of the Bafuku commanders had already withdrawn, but victory could not be claimed until the shogun's forces left Choshuu for good. Takasugi was content to wait them out; the weather was growing colder, and they were safely ensconced in their warm castle, well supplied. For now, it was a waiting game, though what would falter first, the shogun's will or Takasugi's failing health, was anyone's guess.

He stops outside the shoji, and seats himself in front of it. "You asked for me, Takasugi-san?" he calls.

"Kenshin, yes," Takasugi replies, before his voice is lost briefly to a fit of coughing. Kenshin remains outside the shoji. Takasugi had forbid them all from entering his room now. It was no secret he was succumbing to tuberculosis, and the Choshuu general would not allow an outbreak in his men.

"He has called you to tell you that he wants you and your men to escort me back to Kyoto," Katsura says, striding down the hallway towards him. He sits next to Kenshin with a nod.

"We are withdrawing?" Kenshin asks.

"Some of us," Takasugi says hoarsely from inside.

Katsura smiles sadly at the shoji. "Takasugi is going to Uno," he tells Kenshin quietly. "He has served Choshuu well, and earned the rest. It is time he went home."

Understanding breaks over Kenshin and he looks at the shoji. "It has been an honour to be of service to you, Takasugi-san," he says softly, lowering himself into a deep bow. Katsura squeezes his shoulder.

"It is time you went home, too, Kenshin," Katsura says. "Things are well in hand here, and there is someone in Kyoto eager for your return."

"Yes," he agrees, thinking of the way her eyes would light up, the dazzling smile that would overtake her face. He wonders if he could sneak on ahead and surprise her; he would stand in their private garden and she would leap from the porch into his arms, and he would kiss her the way he has been dreaming of, for all these months.

"I, too, am eager to be home."


Kaoru sinks lower into her bath, the steam fogging the air in the bathhouse and pushing away the cooler outside air. She had spent a pleasant afternoon with Ikumatsu-sama today; the former geiko had invited her to view the leaves of the maples in her center garden, now a vibrant red. The invitation had suggested that while the ones who they most wanted to view the autumn leaves with were away, they ought to look at them together, and Kaoru had once again been touched by Ikumatsu's gentleness and tact. Only the day before she had been feeling deeply lonely gazing on the leaves of her own maples, and she wonders if Ikumatsu did not have herself a well-meaning spy in Ibuki.

Kaoru smiles softly to herself. "I should find Ibuki a wife," she laughs, storing it away for her next meeting with Ikumatsu.

She leans her head against the back of the furo and gazes out the window at the stars twinkling through the steam of her bath, wondering if Kenshin is awake, if he is looking at the same stars. His last letter had been vaguer than usual, speaking only about how much he missed her and longed for her company, how he hoped to be home before the winter snows. Katsura had written to say Takasugi was withdrawing, his health had deteriorated too much, and the Choshuu Leader feared for his friend's life. Takasugi had always been bold and full of vigor, and Kaoru cannot reconcile her memories of him with the thought of his approaching death. It must grate him so, to be fighting against an enemy he couldn't see, couldn't rail and thrash against.

Kaoru sighs and shuts her eyes, her dark thoughts leading her to once again review her training session with Heisuke that morning. Their match had been going well until Heisuke had gotten under her guard, and while she had thought all day of the things she could have done to prevent his hit, at the time, her mind had simply gone blank in absolute fear. Before he could touch her with his bokken, she'd simply crumpled to the floor, her hands raised protectively over her head, screaming in terror. It had taken him several minutes to calm her down, much to her embarrassment. It was only after she'd drank a cup of water and gotten control of herself that Heisuke had gripped her shoulders, a resolute look in his eyes.

This will not do, Kaoru. If you wish to once again be a swordsman, you must overcome your fear. You have always been determined to live, but now, you are afraid to die.

His words echo in her mind, and Kaoru burns with shame. She has been raised to never fear death, that to give one's life to protect others was an honourable thing. She has been trained to be brave, to give everything she has, to never fall unless it was the only way left. Living takes true courage. But sometime in those long days of darkness and captivity, she had lost hers. Kaoru presses her eyes more tightly shut, fighting against the tears that were welling in them. She had been so determined to get free, to find him again, that now she fears leaving him alone the most. She had gone into the woods thinking she was strong, and her defeat there had caused him immeasurable pain.

Kaoru huffs in frustration and dunks her head under the water. She lets the sound of it in her ears push away all her thoughts, all her worries, all her hopelessness. She spreads them thin into the water, and only when she is empty does she raise her head and once again draw breath. There was only one person she could discuss her fears with, and he was not here. Until Kenshin came home, she would just have to continue to do her best to put on a brave face for everyone who needed her to be strong.

She steps from the furo and dries herself off quickly, shivering in the cooler air. The nights are turning cold now, and it wouldn't be long until there was frost. Aoi has laid out a thick, warm yukata for her, and Kaoru pulls it gratefully around herself, braids her hair and settles her shawl tightly around her shoulders. Facing the door, she steels herself for the dash across the cold garden, reminding herself that Aoi would have her room heated, the large futon ready with extra blankets. She throws open the door and Ibuki snaps to attention.

"Kamiya-sama!" he says urgently.

"What is it? What's wrong?" Kaoru asks, immediately sensing his worry. It was Eita's turn to guard her private quarters, and Ibuki should be asleep, not standing here outside the furo.

"We've caught two men trying to sneak into the manor," Ibuki tells her. "We have them tied up in your sitting room… they say they are desperate to speak with you, that they have information that can only be given to you."

Kaoru frowns. "Who are they?"

"They are doctors from Aizu. They say you know them; their family name is Takani."

She blinks in surprise, and nods to Ibuki. "I will see them, bring them to my room." He bows and heads off to retrieve his prisoners while Kaoru runs across the garden to her warm bedroom. She has just enough time to throw her haori over herself for modesty and seat herself on the edge of her futon before the shoji is opened and Eita and Ibuki enter, each leading a slightly rumpled Takani brother. They thrust the boys onto their knees before her and Kaoru smiles at them gently.

"Tatsuki, Kaito," she says, reaching for their hands. "It has been so long, how are your parents? And Megumi-chan?"

Tatsuki grips her hand, his voice broken slightly with emotion. "There's no time Kaoru-chan," he says, and Eita's lip curls at the informal use of her name. "You have to warn Himura-san!"

"Ara?" Kaoru blinks. "Kenshin is not here…" she says, confused.

"We know," Kaito says. "We came to Kyoto with a group of new recruits, though Tou-san tried to prevent us from enlisting. We overheard tonight, the Aizu have reports of Katsura and Sakamoto moving north. The men we are with are going to ambush them, to regain the honour they lost in Muko."

"He would have told me," she says softly, "if he was coming home…"

"The reports are all the same, a man with red hair is travelling with Katsura," Kaito answers. "There are two places they could be, a warehouse along the river, or an inn on the Osaka road. They are going to split up and ambush both locations."

Kaoru shakes her head, unable to believe it. "I don't know where he is, he would have told me-"

"They are at the inn," Ibuki cuts in. Kaoru turns to stare at him, and he sinks to his knees, bowing deep with his forehead on the tatami. "Forgive me, Kamiya-sama! Ikumatsu said to keep it secret; he wanted to surprise you."

Kaoru is very surprised, but only for an instant. "Ibuki, go to the stables and have my horse saddled."

"Yes, Kamiya-sama!" he leaps to his feet and rushes from the room, and Kaoru gets to her feet, crosses the floor to her sword stand, picks up her daisho with her shaking hands, and tucks them through her sash. She turns to look at the Takani brothers. "I need you to tell me exactly where the inn is located, and how the Aizu recruits plan to get there."

Tatsuki pulls a map from his kimono and sets it open on the tatami. "These are the plans, Kaoru-chan."

Kaoru surveys the map, then tucks it into her yukata. There is not much time, but they were going to avoid the road, and she has a fast horse. "Eita, please have Aoi prepare a room for Tatsuki and Kaito within my private quarters. No one is to know they are here." He nods, and she sets her hands on the brother's shoulders. "You have taken an enormous risk to come here," she says softly.

Tatsuki covers her hand and gives it a squeeze. "The last time he was ambushed we could do nothing. It would have been too shameful to let it happen a second time."

A second time. Kaoru shivers slightly, and looks at Eita. "When they are settled, you or Ibuki must go to the Satsuma residence and report this. Okubo-san must send reinforcements."

"Yes, Kamiya-sama."

Kaoru squares her shoulders; she has done her best to think before rushing in this time, and she hopes it is enough. She nods once more to Tatsuki and Kaito, and their faces are sincere. Kaoru takes a deep breath, before running out into the night.

Chapter Text

Though it is quiet around the inn, Kenshin keeps his spirit questing out in all directions into the surrounding woods. The Kamiya unit are all inside, taking a late dinner. This close to Kyoto, Kenshin couldn't risk any of them being identified. Saigo-san had arrived from Kyoto that afternoon with a group of Satsuma samurai and a small force of Ishin-Shishi. Tomorrow morning, the Kamiya men would leave for Osaka with Saigo and his bodyguards to catch a ship to Satsuma, and the rest would continue towards the city. He'd have to wait for nightfall, but he'd see Kaoru in less than a day.

Now, with everyone settled for the evening, Katsura, Saigo-san, and Sakamoto-san are gathered in the upper room to plan their strategy for the coming weeks, while Kenshin sits a little behind Katsura, guarding the door. The Choshuu Leader and Satsuma General were arguing, and Sakamoto-san seemed unable to persuade either side to relent. A tense silence falls over them and Kenshin closes his eyes. This is was going to take time, so he might as well rest as best he could…

"Gentlemen, I once again implore you-" Sakamoto-san starts, cut off abruptly by Kenshin leaping to his feet. "Oh, Himura-san?"

But Kenshin ignores Sakamoto's confused call; he throws open the shoji and pounds down the stairs, taking them two at a time. He knew better now than to assume his heart was imagining that spirit. His speed causes a commotion from the men downstairs, and they all pour out of the inn ahead of him, gripping swords and shouting. He shoves a few out of his way, so desperate is he to get to her. She is coming too fast and she is determined and worried.

There are shouts outside from the scouts and then the noise of pounding hooves, and Kenshin is on the porch just as her horse rears back on its hind legs, startled by all the noise. Kaoru keeps her seat and calms the animal, patting its shuddering neck almost absently. Her eyes scan the crowd frantically and then lock onto his, and the bottom of his stomach falls out.

"Aizu!" she shouts, though Kenshin will always remember it as a whisper. "There are Aizu on their way here, you must retreat."

He stares at her, too in shock to register anything other than her presence. "How long do we have?" he hears Saigo-san ask behind him, and she tears her eyes away from his to speak to the Satsuma General. He is vaguely aware that she is talking, answering questions from Saigo-san, Katsura, and Sakamoto-san, but he continues to stare at her.

She is dressed only in a yukata, her shawl wound loosely round her shoulders and her haori thrown hastily overtop. Her hair has become wild during her ride, hanging in a dishevelled version of her nightly braid over one shoulder. Her eyes are large and shining and the cold air has made her cheeks rosy. She is speaking with breathless urgency, her chest heaving as she tries to draw in enough air, tries to calm her racing heart. Her horse shifts, on edge from the nerves of its rider, and Kenshin notices for the first time that the hem of her yukata has been pushed up to her knees, exposing her slender calves and delicate ankles. His is not the only indrawn breath at that; what finally draws him out of his daze is the realization that there are several men in the yard staring appreciatively at his wife. Kenshin's eyes narrow and Sakamoto-san sets a large hand on his shoulder.

"We can't rely on Okubo's reinforcements," Saigo-san is saying. "We'll have to make do with what we have here."

"But Saigo," Kaoru implores, "if we retreat now, we won't have to fight at all."

"If we retreat we run the risk of meeting them further north in unfamiliar terrain," Saigo disagrees. "We have the advantage now, thanks to your warning. If you wish to withdraw we can send a guard of Kamiya men with you."

Kaoru chews her lip and shakes her head, and the men in the yard begin to disburse with various commands to take up positions. Kenshin stalks through them all, Haruto a step behind him. When he reaches the horse it dances away from him; the animal did not like Kenshin and for his part the feeling was mutual. Haruto takes hold of the reins and nods to him, and Kenshin lifts his arms up to her, to help her down.

"Honoured Wife," he says softly, staring at her knee.

Her slender hands grip his shoulders and his hands find her waist by instinct, and he sets her on the ground very gently, all without looking at her. He takes hold of her hand and turns to Haruto. "See that the horse is attended to," he orders quietly, "then assemble the men and find out where Katsura wants you."

"Yes, Himura-san," Haruto answers, but Kenshin doesn't stay to hear him, he walks briskly through the yard, into the inn and up the stairs to his room at the back, pulling Kaoru behind him. There are so many emotions swirling through him that he doesn't trust himself to speak, so he lets go of her hand to wordlessly shut the shoji and light his lamp. This is not at all how he'd wanted their reunion to go, but he pushes that thought away; her hand had been cold, so he undoes his bundle and sets out his second set of clothes and a pair of clean tabi, keeping his back to her.

After he has sat in silence for a moment, next to the laid-out clothes, he hears her set down her daisho and take a tentative step towards him. "Anata…" she says softly, and it breaks the dam within him.

He leaps to his feet and crosses the floor faster than she could see him move—she jumps when he grips her shoulders, but he doesn't care. "Is this being safe, Kaoru?" he asks, his voice shaking. "Is this what you call careful?"

Her round eyes stare at him. "Ibuki confirmed this was where you were, it was not a trap-"

"Then why did you not send Ibuki?!" he shouts. "Why not Eita or anyone else, Kaoru?! Not a trap?! What if you had been spotted on the road? No one would have found you!"

He has never once, in all their time together, raised his voice to her. She has never seen him angry before, though he was certainly familiar with her temper. He expects it now, and he waits for the tell-tale crackle of her spirit, the narrowing of her eyes. He wants her to scream at him, hit him, tell him how awful he was being, because he knew he was being awful, and he deserved it. But instead, she seems to fold into herself, the way she had when she'd first returned to him, and remorse nearly destroys him. "Are you angry with me?" she whispers.

"Half of me is," he sighs softly in admission, pulling her against him into an embrace and burying his hand in her hair. She folds her arms tightly around him and presses her face into his shoulder, surrounding him with the scent of jasmine and a feeling of peace that he has been lacking for the past four months. "The other half, is somewhat relieved."

"I'm sorry," she breathes, trembling against him, and he hugs her closer.

"I am the one who is sorry," he tells her. "I should not have shouted. You startled me; I was scared."

She draws back to look at him, searching his face with her midnight-coloured eyes, and he is overwhelmed again by how beautiful she is, how close she is to him. "I missed you," she says quietly, and a steady heat builds itself in his stomach, tingles along his skin.

"Kaoru…"

She takes his face between her tapered fingers and kisses him, soft at first, until he fists his hand in the clothes on her back, and then her lips part and it becomes very hard to focus on being gentle. Her arm snakes around his neck and they move together until her back hits the wall and she is pressed up against him, soft curves and firm muscles and Kaoru, her floral scent and the salt taste of her skin. He kisses down her neck while his hands work at pulling away her shawl, and Kaoru makes excellent use of the loose way he wears his kimono by sneaking her hands inside to run her cool fingers over his skin. He finally gets the shawl free, pulling it from her neck and dropping it on the floor, kissing the delicate curve of her collar bone, the hollow of her throat.

"Excuse me, Himura-san?"

The voice is outside the shoji, and Kenshin presses his forehead into Kaoru's shoulder, her hands stilling against his back.

"Himura-san," the voice continues, "Katsura-sama is looking for you."

Kenshin groans softly and extricates himself from his wife. "I'll leave you to change," he tells her quietly, smoothing his dishevelled collar. She nods dazedly and he leaves her there next to the wall, grateful that she doesn't move until after he has opened the shoji to address the man in the hallway. If she'd followed after him, he would have sent the messenger back with very specific directions on where Katsura could take himself for the next hour.

"Thank you," Kenshin says, smiling tightly. "I will go to him now."


Kaoru smoothes down the front of her borrowed kimono, her hands running over the delicate embroidery of maple leaves, hidden to all but the most discerning of eyes. She rests her hand on the hilt of her katana and takes a breath to ready herself before squaring her shoulders and stepping into the common room. Soldiers are arrayed along both walls, all Ishin-Shishi. Kenshin is standing alone by the door, and he leaves his post to meet her.

"Where are the Kamiya men?" she asks, her voice hushed.

"In the woods to the east," Kenshin whispers back. "Saigo took the Satsuma men and has them waiting on the other side of the clearing."

Kaoru nods—that seemed like the best plan to trap the Aizu recruits. They'd rush the door of the inn, thinking they'd caught the entire Ishin-Shishi group off-guard, and then Haruto and Saigo would funnel in from either side and force them to surrender. "Then I will go to take up my position with Haruto," she says, proud that her voice is steady. She gives Kenshin what she hopes is a reassuring smile and he reaches out to catch her wrist.

"Please wait with Katsura and Sakamoto-san at the back of the inn," he says. "You cannot be seen here, Kaoru-dono."

She opens her mouth to protest but he shakes his head. "We can't risk it, you know that. Stay with Sakamoto-san-"

"Let me stay with you."

She says it softly, placing her hand over his, and her voice shakes. It has been four months since he left, and while she has been brave and kept herself busy, now that he is next to her, looking so tired and worn down and under the weight of too many stones, she could not bear to be away from him. "Please, Husband…" she begs.

Kenshin's eyes cloud with worry and his lips part, but before he can speak Sakamoto-san walks into the room and calls out his name. Kenshin straightens and drops her wrist. "Here, Sakamoto-san," he answers softly.

"Ah, and Ohimura-dono," the Tosa ronin says, nodding to her. "I thought perhaps I'd wait here with you, we can guard the door for Himura-san."

A brief look of relief flashes across Kenshin's face, and he nods. Kaoru has heard that after Kenshin, Sakamoto-san was the best swordsman in the patriot ranks, so she nods too, following them both to the door to take up her place. They wait in silence for what seems like forever, until it becomes obvious that a group of people are stalking up to the inn, doing their best to remain silent and failing miserably. Kenshin waits until the soft sound of blades being drawn fills the inn yard, and then he nods once to the rest of the patriots. From her place behind Sakamoto-san, Kaoru watches him open the shoji and step onto the porch, alone.

"Who is there?" Kenshin calls, his voice flat and hard, and Kaoru's heart is in her throat.

"Hitokiri Battousai!" someone shouts, raising yells from across the inn yard and Kenshin moves. She knows he can jump farther than most, but he clears the porch by several feet, sword whistling out of its sheath in the battoujutsu he was so famous for. He breaks over the Aizu in a red tide, leaving only death in his wake, and Kaoru gasps, her eyes wide and staring. "Stop him," she whispers. "Someone, please stop him…"

Sakamoto-san turns out of the doorway to face her, looks at her questioningly and sets a hand on her shoulder. "You've never seen it before," he realizes softly.

She'd sparred with him the in dojo, but he'd always held back, and he had been Kenshin, the man she'd been slowly falling in love with, the one with kind eyes and calloused hands. And after, when she'd met Hitokiri Battousai on the shrine steps, it had been in the aftermath, with her comrades littered around him. They'd crossed swords once, at the Ikeda-ya, but her only memory of that night is the force of the blow, of a shadow moving in the dark, until suddenly it was over and Kenshin was there. She has never seen him fight before, not as a patriot, with the flying sword of heaven in his fist, tearing down the old era to make way for the new.

I will have to continue to use my sword until the new era is achieved. But when it is, I wish to devote my life to protecting the happiness of those before me, without killing.

Kaoru chokes back tears. She'd forgotten, in everything that had come after those first blushing days of marriage, that she had made him a promise.

Could you teach me, Kaoru? To live that way?

Her daisho had stood in their travel covers keeping vigil over his, and it was time now for her to be strong. She has someone she needs to protect. Kaoru grips the sheath of her katana and sets her thumb against the guard, her fingers closing over the Kamiya crest. Not a light sword, but hers to carry.

"I'm going to my husband," she tells Sakamoto-san, and before he has time to stop her, she runs past him out the door.


Kenshin is alone in the place of life and death, and he has no time to question where his reinforcements are; Kaoru is in the inn behind him, which made every Aizu soldier in the yard a threat to her safety. He feints left, spins right, and another man falls beneath his sword, his face indiscernible in the moonless night. Kenshin runs ahead to draw them after him, away from the entrance of the building where Kaoru is hiding. He slashes another attacker across the chest, and then backs up to catch his breath. The Aizu fan out around him, so many, too many really, for one man to fight alone, unless of course that man happened to be trained in the Hiten-Mitsurugi-ryu. But these men of Aizu are fresh recruits, and the one he takes for their leader smiles. "Surrender and face the shogun's justice," he says, and Kenshin lifts his sword, ready.

"I will not," he says flatly.

"Then this is where you'll die," the boy says, his lip curling.

Kenshin prepares to move, but out of the corner of his eye, he sees a shadow shift in the forest and the furthest Aizu soldier crumple to the ground. Another one closer to him goes down, too, and then suddenly Kaoru is there, her sword steady in front of her and her shawl pulled up over her cheeks to hide her face. In one bounding step she is beside him, guarding his back.

"There are two Battousai!" shouts one soldier, and Kenshin has to admit, with his hair muted in the dark and with her dressed in his clothes, they probably do look a bit similar.

"What are you doing?" he hisses at her, and in return she winks at him. It takes all of his restraint not to throw her over his shoulder in disgust and leap onto the roof, where he could give her a very stern lecture about her apparent lack of self-preservation tonight and what it was doing to him.

"I'm getting you some help," she replies softly, and sure enough, he hears Haruto shout off to his left.

"Defend the adjunct-master!" the Kamiya captain yells, and men stream out of the forest.

She winks again and Kenshin sighs. "Now will you go back into the inn?"

"No," she says firmly, and he can feel her spirit slowly building. "There is someone here I need to protect."

Kenshin gapes at her, but before he can remind her that he is more than capable of taking care of himself, an attacker near her moves. His heart pounds in his ears and he flows into the space in front of her, blade arching up to meet the man's sword before it could reach her. It opens his back to the men in front of him, and one charges forward, only to be met and thrown back by Kaoru's drawn katana. She spins and the back of her blade cracks over the man's sword arm. He crumples in pain; she'd hit him with enough force to break his arm.

"How dare you," she yells, her voice laced with both ice and fire. "This man is under my protection! He is mine."

Kenshin is vaguely aware that the Kamiya clansmen around them have engaged the Aizu soldiers, that Saigo and his men have come out of the woods, and that Sakamoto-san is leading the Ishin-Shishi away from the inn. But all of the bedlam around them is lost under the blazing spirit of the woman in front of him, steadfast and righteous and unafraid. Though it is dark and there is no moon, she shines like a beacon. She knocks the man unconscious with the butt of her hilt, and she turns, ready to face the next attacker. But Kenshin is there first, dispatching the opponent before him then leaping through the air after another, her spirit like fire in his veins, her voice like an endless heartbeat in his mind. He is mine. He is mine. He is mine. Perhaps that is what makes him flip his blade, so his ryu tsui sen zan crushes the man's shoulder instead of killing him.

"I am hers."

He lands with his knees bent and head lowered, the attacker sprawled out beside him, unconscious from the pain in his shoulder. Kenshin straightens and raises his eyes to meet hers. Her shawl has slipped to reveal the determined set of her jaw, and her blazing look sets off an explosion under his skin. He stares into the depths of her dark eyes and there is only one thought inside him, that he needs to take her somewhere safe and quiet and alone and show her exactly how he belonged to her.

"Himura-san!"

"What?!" they both shout, heads snapping towards the voice in mutual frustration.

The messenger balks under their matching glares. "Ka-katsura-sama…" he stammers, and Kaoru sighs in exasperation.

"Where is he?" she barks, and even Kenshin is taken aback by the checked anger seething in her voice. It finally makes him aware of his surroundings, and he realizes the fight is over, that the Aizu had surrendered and are being corralled together and tied up. The messenger stares at Kaoru, terrified, and she sheathes her sword. "I would speak for a moment with the Choshuu Leader," she says, softening her tone.

The apparent cooling of her temper makes the messenger brave enough to turn to Kenshin and deliver his message. "Okubo-san has arrived; they caught the other Aizu force on the way here."

"Good," Kaoru says. "You can tell him I would speak with him as well. Please see to our men, Kenshin." She walks towards the inn. The messenger looks questioningly at Kenshin and he glares at him again in response. "The Lady gave you an order," he says, spinning on his heel and setting off to find Haruto.


Kaoru is lucky. Katsura, Saigo, and Sakamoto are gathered together at the far end of the common room, which gives her enough time to cross the floor and make sure Okubo is in the doorway where he can observe, before she seats herself calmly at the table with them.

"Ohimura-dono," Sakamoto-san says, smiling, "what can we do for you?"

"Why," she asks softly, "was Kenshin sent out onto the porch alone?"

Katsura smiles gently, indulgently even, and Kaoru buries her spirit even deeper, makes it nothing, gives them no hint of the torrent of rage inside her.

"Kenshin is the vanguard of the revolution-" he begins, but Kaoru does not let him finish.

"Was he always sent out like that in Choshuu?" she asks, her voice soft enough that they had to strain a bit to hear. "Is it your practice to have him face the enemy first, alone?"

"It is nothing he can't handle," Katsura says dismissively.

"No longer," Kaoru says, a bit louder.

"Pardon?"

"You will no longer do so. Kenshin is a formidable swordsman, but he is one man." She raises her gaze from her lap to look at Saigo-san. "How long did you intend to wait, before you helped him?"

"Ah, I must ask your forgiveness, Kamiya-sama," Saigo says. "I was not familiar with the skills of the Ishin-Shishi here, so I deferred to Katsura's greater knowledge of his men. It was believed that this plan of attack would result in the fewest casualties for our forces."

"But not for the Aizu. If you had come out of the woods and surrounded them, they would have been forced to surrender. With just the Kamiya and the Satsuma alone, our numbers were greater. It would have been a fine insult, to present Lord Matsudaira with his newest recruits, and demand an apology for their release. It could have persuaded many who are not openly in defiance of the Aizu's grip on Kyoto to seek us out. Instead we have killed his men and given him recourse for revenge."

Sakamoto-san gapes at her, and Saigo strokes his chin pensively. She has spent the past four months helping Saigo-san recruit samurai to the patriot cause, using her influence as the heir of the Kamiya family and her unique position in the Emperor's court. She is a link to the people of Kyoto, and both common folk and nobles alike were willing to pour out their displeasure with the Aizu into her sympathetic ear. Those she deemed willing to support the Ishin-Shishi she sent Saigo's way, and she has yet to be wrong. "I must ask for a deeper forgiveness, Kamiya-sama," he says softly.

Kaoru gets to her feet. "The fault is not entirely yours. I will continue to entrust the Kamiya clansmen to you, but I will speak with them upon their return home about their failure to defend their General. Please take care of them in Satsuma."

"Of course," Saigo bows, and Kaoru turns to take her leave.

"I was not aware, Kaoru," Katsura says, voice shaking slightly, "that you had become the leader of this revolution."

Okubo is in the doorway and looking at Kaoru as her eyes narrow, so he sees the change in her countenance when she finally allows her anger to manifest on her face. She looks at Katsura, all samurai.

"And I was not aware, Kogoro, that you had so many allies you could afford to make threats."

He frowns at her, opening his mouth to say something while in a hot temper, and Kaoru holds up her hand to stop him before things were said that they would both regret. "I am your friend," she reminds him honestly. "But I have spoken to you about this before. Do not abuse my husband's sense of honour again. I will not ask you a third time."

With that, she takes her leave. Okubo stands to one side to let her past, but he ensures she is not yet out of earshot when he addresses the Satsuma Leader. "It would be best, I think, for all the Satsuma and Kamiya forces to remain here. I will return the captured soldiers to the Aizu residence, and state we were attacked under false reports of treasonous activity. Perhaps we can salvage some of Kamiya-sama's plan. The Ishin-Shishi should withdraw in case the Aizu come to investigate…"

Kaoru nods to herself and steps off the porch. The Choshuu forces did need to leave, most especially their notorious hitokiri, and she has a somewhat-rested horse at her disposal.


Saigo steps out onto the porch, having just left Ryoma and Katsura to prepare for their departure. Katsura was in a fine pique, and Saigo could not show his delight at seeing the man get dressed down by a woman half his age and size, so the porch was the safest place for him. He stands beside Okubo and follows his gaze to the girl in question. She is striding briskly through the courtyard towards a young man, his fiery hair caught in a high tail.

"We're leaving," she tells him simply, and Saigo watches as the most fearsome assassin in the entire country nods and follows three steps meekly behind her.

"That girl is holding all the cards," he tells Okubo quietly.

His friend laughs softly. "We are the ones who gave them to her."

Saigo laughs as well. Over the past four months he has found a formidable ally in the Lady Kamiya. Her former ties with high ranking samurai and her possession of the Emperor's favour meant many were eager to please her. She made an excellent figurehead; she was beautiful, honourable, and she had been wronged by the shogun. The people adored her as well, and she has been late for more than one of their meetings because the time she set aside each day to hear grievances had gone long. Though Saigo and Okubo had acted to protect her out of fear of her husband, doing so had earned them a far greater weapon than her husband could ever be. And she was not interested in power or politics, though she excelled at both. She simply wanted them to succeed so her husband wouldn't have to fight anymore. In short, so long as they kept her happy, she would return that kindness many times over.

"She'll play them with care," Saigo muses. "I am content to let her keep them."

Okubo nods, recognizing their unspoken decision. "Then we should attend her tea for Todo Heisuke and his wife. Kamiya-sama has arranged for us to meet a friend of hers there."

"Yes," Saigo agrees, and turns to leave.

"There are men in the Aizu ranks who saw Hitokiri Battousai here this evening," Okubo reminds him quietly. Saigo nods. So long as they are Choshuu's allies, so long as they are united in the same cause, and so long as they are working alongside the Lady Kamiya, it is in their interest to protect that young man.

"Wait for her to leave. Kamiya-sama does not approve of killing."


It is nearly dawn, and Kenshin shifts on the futon, adjusting Kaoru's weight to bring her closer. It is nearly dawn, and despite her insistence that she wasn't tired, her eyes are starting to remain closed longer than open. She snuggles into his side with a smile, and Kenshin presses a kiss to her forehead. He is tired too, but a good tired, the kind that came after a lengthy session in the dojo or a productive day of chores.

He'd followed behind her to the inn's stable, where a Kamiya clansman was already waiting with his bundle and her saddled horse, and despite his misgivings about the animal, it had remained calm while he swung up into the saddle behind her, only dancing a little at the extra weight. Kenshin did not have the first clue about how to ride a horse, but Kaoru had taken up the reins and moved her knees, and the horse understood from these signals that it was time to go. It had been slightly nerve-wracking at first, but he had soon eased into the rhythm, leaning into Kaoru in front of him, his arms encircling her waist. She'd ridden to Muko because it was closer, and because there was an unspoken agreement between them that time alone, truly alone, was needed.

She'd seen to the horse and he'd filled the furo; they'd entered the tiny bath house together without suggestion, undressed each other without words, and Kenshin is not ashamed of the way she took him apart on the slatted floor, or the desperate way he had begged her to do it. He had needed her; when they collapsed into each other's arms it felt like a layer of darkness was peeled away, like a part of himself that had been missing was regained. They had poured cool water over each other and sat in the warm furo, and talked of light things, things he had missed, memories of other times. The content of their discussion was not what was important, it was the sound of her voice, the sight of her smile and the shine in her bright, sea-coloured eyes.

He'd carried her from the furo to the side room, not because she was tired but because he wanted her as close as possible, and when he'd set her down on the futon her arms had tightened around his neck, her lips had sought his, and it was his turn, then, to see to every need she demanded of him. But that was better than their earlier desperation. He could take his time, savour the feel of her hair in his hands and her skin against his, relearn every line and curve. She is stronger than when he'd left in the summer, her lithe body nearly back in fighting shape. Her hands are calloused and rough, a swordswoman's hands.

He had watched her hands from the floor of the main room, dangling his feet into the kitchen while she stood making tea. The tea set he'd given her so long ago was still tucked safely in its place on the shelf, and she had carried it to him on a tray, her eyes sparkling as she tried to smooth her dishevelled hair with one hand. He'd drunk one cup because he missed her tea, but only one cup before the continuous slipping of her yukata off her shoulder got the better of him. He needed to be in her arms again, and the rest of the pot was forgotten on the porch.

Now she was curled beside him, half covered in his discarded yukata, her hair a wild and inky pool that spilled down her back and across his chest. He watches her struggle in vain to keep her eyes open and chuckles. "Rest now, my heart. It is very late."

Kaoru sighs, smiling. "I have always wanted to be here like this," she tells him. "This was where I fell in love with you, in our first home."

"This was where you found me again," Kenshin says softly. He regrets bringing up that time of darkness, but he'd simply wanted to convey how sacred this little house is, the place where she'd let him care for her, where she'd chosen him over and over.

"Of course," she murmurs, and he feels her smile widen. "I told you I would always be here for you."

He rolls on his side because he wants to see her, sets his hand carefully on the side of her face, amazed that even after everything she has gone through, she could still smile with such hope. Kenshin is no longer certain about the reason why he'd picked up his sword four years ago and joined the Ishin-Shishi—the boy he'd been then was irreconcilable with the man he was now. But he is certain of the woman beside him, certain that she was deserving of a place that was just and good. She had asked him to help her find that place, and now, with Choshuu safe, he could do so at her side. "I love you," he whispers. "Let's not be apart again."

She smiles and turns her head to kiss his palm, and her eyes take on a mischievous glint. "If this is what reunions are like, I suppose I could endure it," she giggles. But then the mirth fades and she sighs. "But not all our reunions have been like this… and I am sorry… back then I was-"

"That is not something you need to apologize for," Kenshin says, his voice shaking. "My heart, you do not ever have to apologize for that…"

She nods, chewing her bottom lip. "I'm afraid," she whispers softly.

He looks into her eyes, and waits. She has never told him exactly what had happened to her in Otsu, and after, though from the scars on her skin, he could guess. He had never pushed her to tell him. His every instinct is telling him to pull her more tightly against him, to promise that he is here now and she would never be hurt again, but first she needs to tell him her fears. He wants her to feel safe, to be happy, and while he carries his dark days as a sharp and painful reminder, he does not want her to do the same.

"I'm so afraid to lose you anata, but I'm even more afraid for you to lose me…"

It was exactly like her, to worry more about others than herself, to rush into danger because someone else was hurting or in trouble. He knew that; he knew from the first moment he'd met her. She had thrown his arm around her slender shoulders and guided him into her bathhouse without so much as learning his name. It was that kindness that had made him love her, that had inspired him to be a better man than his deeds as a hitokiri suggested. And it was that same kindness that had made his heart leap into his throat when she'd run headlong into a burning building to save a child, when he'd found her, bloody and broken, on a Kyoto street with Yushin sprawled out beside her. She had been afraid tonight to come and warn them, afraid of his anger and fear. But she had still drawn her sword and stepped out of the woods, because he had needed help. Kaoru would do anything to help someone, even when doing so was what she was most afraid of.

"You were so brave, my heart, to help us tonight."

Her breath comes out soft and shaky, and she nods once, her fingers reaching out to tentatively touch the stronger, newer scar on his cheek. It had new meaning for him now, that scar. It marked the beginning of his resolve to create a world of small joys, a place, as Kaoru called it, for the living. He covers her fingers with his own, and smiles at her gently.

"We're together now," he reassures her. "You found me; we're home and safe."

"Yes," she agrees, her own beautiful smile taking his breath away. "I think that if I have you to protect, I won't be afraid anymore."

He pulls her against him then, pressing a kiss into her neck. "Then I will stay as close as possible," he whispers huskily. She giggles and her lips brush against his hairline, and suddenly he is not tired at all.

Chapter Text

Kenshin sits at the windowsill in the upper room of the inn, watching as the sun set over Kyoto. A light breeze stirs his hair, shakes the flowers in the neighbouring cherry tree, and scatters petals onto the road he is watching, to be trampled underfoot by the dancers below. He reaches out and catches one, soft pink and delicate, before it is lost in the ruckus, and carefully hands it to Kaoru, who is seated on the tatami below him, her hand resting on his knee while she too scans the crowd. Her slight frown is replaced by a smile as she tucks the petal carefully under the collar of her kimono, where it crossed under itself on her chest.

"Do you remember," she asks, "that leaf you brought me, in the Shirobeko?"

"I do."

"I still have it," she laughs, and he smiles, stroking a finger down her cheek.

A particularly loud cheer rises from the street, and Kenshin grimaces. "They will have a hard time, coming through this," he says, gesturing with his chin to the crowd below. Kaoru sighs, and watches the dancers for a long moment.

"They are dancing to forget," she says softly, sadly. "The harvest was so poor, and the hans bought up extra provisions in case of war. It is a hard time to get by."

Kenshin is more than aware of the food shortages. While he had been away in Choshuu, the Kamiya manor had been transformed. There was a free clinic headed by Dr. Gensai, and once Kaoru had petitioned the Aizu to release the Takani brothers to her care, three doctors were barely enough to keep up with demand. There was a school which Kimiki ran with Yukishiro-san's help, where children came to learn to read and do sums. The barracks, near empty once the clansmen left for Satsuma, were now almost overflowing. The number of ronin who came to swear service to the Lady Kamiya increased weekly, so much so that Haruto and his unit were staying in Satsuma until new quarters could be arranged. The rooms of the main buildings had already been divided, then divided again, to provide shelter for families with no homes, children with no parents. The gates were always open, from dawn until dusk, for those who were in need, and hungry people were showing up at the kitchen door in greater numbers to beg for rice.

Kaoru leans against his leg, still watching the dancers, and he sets his hand carefully on the top of her head where it rests against his knee. He could tell the spectacle troubled her, and he knew that the next few nights would likely involve her pouring over her account books in her tiny office until it was well past dark. He strokes his fingers over her hair—he would need to speak with Aoi to ensure that there was a fresh candle on her desk tonight, that her ink was well stocked. He finds himself hoping somewhat selfishly that the dancers will delay the others, that the meeting will go late, and that because of the hour, Kaoru would forgo her usual evening work and curl up next to him on their futon. He had no other orders from Katsura tonight and she needed the rest.

While his days have been spent guarding Ishin-Shishi and covering escapes for various missions, Kaoru has been wielding weapons of a different sort. Her daisho sat idle in the sword stand in their room, next to his empty one, but her pen worked incessantly; there was this noble to persuade, this samurai to encourage, this message for Katsura or Sakamoto-san or Saigo. Since the shock of Emperor Komei's sudden death, her work seems to have increased ten-fold. He knows only a quarter of what she is up to, and he keeps it that way; politics were her arena, and he left it to her expertise. There was not much he could do, a farmer's son, a fake samurai with a bloody reputation, other than accompany her on nights like tonight, when she needed to go somewhere in secret. Tonight, Katsura had sent him on this duty—since the seichosen, the Choshuu Leader seemed to understand that for his own peace of mind, Kenshin needed to know she was safe.

"Ah," he observes. "There is Todo-san." He nods towards where the eighth unit captain is skirting his way cautiously through the crowd, Ito-san behind him.

Kaoru straightens and smoothes her fingers over her hair. "Perfect, I needed him to arrive first. Will you keep watch, anata, and tell me when you see Saigo, Okubo, or Sakamoto-san?"

"Of course my heart," he smiles reassuringly. She tries her best not to treat him like a bodyguard, but when it is for her, it is not a chore at all. "Do you want me to give you a signal?"

"No," she smiles. "Just say when you see them. Your presence will be shocking enough for Ito-san, the announcement of the other three will seem normal in comparison."

"Are you sure this is wise?" he asks for the hundredth time. "Can you trust Ito-san?"

"I trust Heisuke. Ito said he wants to leave the Shinsengumi, and that means he must ally with the Ishin-Shishi. He has been saying he is for sonno joi for years, it is time for him to prove his allegiance."

Kenshin nods, but in his gut something still doesn't feel right. He also trusts Todo-san, but the tingling between his shoulderblades suggests he needs to be extra alert this evening. He gives Kaoru one last smile before he turns back to surveying the road, his spirit sharp and ready.


Saito crouches low on the rooftop, and waits. He'd followed Heisuke from a safe distance until he and Ito-san disappeared into an inn, and now he was waiting for them to leave, his spirit alert should they take the back entrance. Since Heisuke's marriage, he has been unable to shake the feeling that the eighth unit captain was hiding something, and it irked him. There were too many suspicious variables surrounding Ito-san, and while he has been unable to uncover anything, he has not given up on trying. So that evening, when his comrades took off in secret, he had been relieved to follow, to know that perhaps Ito was suspicious after all.

The rabble in the street below him and the sinking sun made it difficult to pick people out of the crowd, but all Saito has to do is watch the door. It is not long until his patience is rewarded—two men stop briefly, as though considering the inn, before stepping casually inside. Saito's eyes narrow and his features sharpen; he knew those men from Kinmon, when they had been allies. He had to get closer, to possibly hear what was being discussed. Lord Matsudaira would certainly want to know what Saigo-san and Okubo-san wanted to talk to Ito-san about.

Saito climbs down the side of the building and snakes through the crowded street. He ducks down an alley, scales the inn's roof, and crosses the tiles to lower himself onto the porch of the second storey, facing the central garden. It was quieter there, and Saito walks casually, pretending to be just another patron, and searches for the sound of Ito and Heisuke's voices. He locates them quickly enough; he ducks into a narrow hall between Ito's room and the next, used by the serving girls to deliver food and sake, and he wedges himself in the dark corner at the back to listen.

"Have we all arrived?" Ito's muffled voice asks through the shoji.

"No," says an unfamiliar voice. "There is still one more of us to arrive." Saito nods with satisfaction, prepared to wait. When the last member of the meeting arrived, there would be formal introductions, and he would learn everyone's name.

"Have patience still," says Kaoru-chan, and Saito's chest constricts, his breath catches, and he nearly gasps. His heartbeat thunders in his skull, but there is no mistaking that soft, high voice, the kindness of her tone. "It is a long way from Gion-" she continues, and if Saito were a poorer spy, he would have missed the way her voice cut off, the quiet rustle of fabric that suggested someone had moved to stop her. The silence from within drags out for a moment too long, and he knows instantly that he has been discovered.

It is providence that the room next door is empty, that the shoji had recently been repaired and slid noiselessly shut behind him. In less than a minute he is out the window and into the crowd, and trusting his disguise and the swaying dancers to cover him, Saito weaves his way to the other side of the street, and turns, just in time to see Hitokiri Battousai in the second storey window of the room he has just vacated. If it had been a wound to hear Kaoru's voice, the appearance of that man was a mortal blow. He'd stopped trying to determine if Kaoru was a traitor; there had been little evidence to suggest she was, and it had felt like a betrayal to her kindness, the friendship they'd shared, and his regard for her to keep searching. But that man was next to her again.

His jaw clenches and he watches the assassin scan the crowd, then disappear back into the room. Saito only has a long knife with him, but he knows any assassin worth his salt would check the perimeter before the meeting resumed. He knows he is being irrational and senseless; even as skilled as Saito is, one knife against that man would count for nothing. He is more than aware that on that day in Muko, if Hitokiri Battousai hadn't been so reluctant to kill Heisuke, the three of them likely would have died on his bloody sword. He knows it is reckless but he doesn't care. He needs to know why that man was in the same room as Kaoru. Saito skirts his way around the street, down a side alley, to the back of the inn. He crouches behind a row of barrels, and waits.

After a few moments he hears the sound of zori on gravel, not coming from the alley, but from the inn behind him. Saito watches as Kaoru herself steps out of the back kitchen, pulling her haori closer around herself. She is dressed exactly as she had been in the troop; a dark kimono and striped hakama tied low on her waist like a man, her daisho thrust through her belt. But now, there is an indigo shawl wound around her neck, and her hair cascades behind her in a high tail. "Anything?" she calls.

Hitokiri Battousai materializes out of the alley, his steps completely silent. "No," he grates softly, and tightens his grip on the sheath of his sword, still scanning around with his icy eyes. "Whoever it was, they are long gone."

Kaoru sighs. "Well, there is not too much harm done; we hadn't introduced anyone yet, and Ito and Saigo have met before."

"But if you were heard…" Battousai says, and Saito recognizes the tightness in his voice, the tenseness of the man's shoulders. He was worried. For Kaoru.

"It is no secret I am a friend of Saigo-san's, and I used to train under Ito in the Shinsengumi," Kaoru reminds him. She smiles softly and reaches out, setting two fingers on Battousai's wrist, still tense from his grip on his katana. "You're not going to let me out of your sight now, are you?"

The stiffness seems to drain out of him, and the assassin blushes, smiling slightly. "That I will not, koishii." He cups her cheek with his free hand, and she steps into him, resting her head against his shoulder while he hugs his other arm around her.

"Good," she whispers, and the villain laughs quietly, kisses her forehead. They stand in their embrace for several moments, and then Kaoru leads the rebel's bloodiest assassin back into the inn, holding firmly onto his hand. Saito stares at the doorway after they have gone, letting each emotion crash over him in waves. He is not certain how long he remains crouched behind the barrels at the back of the inn, but when he gets to his feet, a part of him has died. A small, feeble part, a tiny flame of hope that no longer had the strength to burn. I sent Kaoru to Otsu because she was in love with another man. He should have known better, after her theatrics in Muko, but he'd let his feelings about her fool him, fool them all.

Saito stalks through the night of Kyoto, and though he only has a long knife with him, he burns with the spirit of ten samurai. He doesn't have anything worth reporting to Lord Matsudaira, but that didn't matter. He had more than enough to discuss with Hijikata-sensei.


Kaoru sits in her little office, pouring over her work. She has long since pulled all the ornaments out of her hair; they are stacked next to her on the floor, and her long black hair, freed of its heavy and oppressive hairstyle, trails down her back, pooling slightly on the tatami behind her. Her shoji is open to the inner courtyard to allow in the night air; it had been raining all day and the humidity had at last given way to a clear, star-filled sky. Every so often the faint breeze stirred the papers on her desk, flickered her lamp flame, and rang the summer chime hung up outside. It was a beautiful evening, but Kaoru paid it no mind. She chews the end of her pen, rereading her letter to Sakamoto-san.

With Satsuma in control of the young Emperor's court, and the peace treaty finally ratified in Choshuu, Kaoru had turned her political attentions elsewhere. She has been working closely with Sakamoto-san, attempting to settle the revolution they were all working so hard to achieve with peaceful means. If she continued to recruit more samurai away from the shogun, if their plan succeeded and the shogun could be pressured into returning power to the court, perhaps there would no longer be the need for war.

Her letter complete, she sets down her pen and stretches out her back. She has been sitting at her desk since dinner, and all her correspondence has finally been answered. There was only one outstanding item left on the corner of her desk; a report from Ito-san about supplies needed for his men. It has been five months since she had helped him leave the Shinsengumi. Under special order from the Emperor, Ito-san and his men now served the Lady Kamiya as the Goryo-Eji, guarding the tomb of the Emperor Komei. It was simpler work for those accustomed to patrolling the city, and Kaoru had not been surprised when men from other units had left with Ito-san. It meant Ito was available to train the ronin streaming into the Kamiya manor, and Heisuke no longer split his time between headquarters and his wife.

She fidgets with her sleeves, reading over Ito's request. Kimiki had been relieved beyond measure when Heisuke left the Shinsengumi, and it had not been long after Heisuke's new living arrangements that Dr. Gensai had confirmed Kimiki was with child. The news had been followed a few weeks later with a second announcement: Aoi, too, was expecting. Kaoru's hand strays absently to her left hip, a habit she had developed whenever Kimiki or Aoi padded by, their bellies beginning to grow round under their obi. Her fingers brush over her furisode, where under the many layers of fabric there was a starburst-shaped scar, the reminder of the poisoned dart she'd been hit with in Otsu. It was pointless to fret over it; Dr. Gensai had told her that the absence of her monthly cycle, even after all this time, was common for a woman whose diet had been so drastically reduced as hers had been during her captivity. But it had been over a year now, and for all of Dr. Gensai's reassurances, she still worried.

Kaoru grits her teeth and forces herself to set her hands on her desk. To the world she was unmarried, and what good did it do, to worry over the children she could not even give Kenshin anyway? Not when he was a patriot and their marriage was a secret, and her safety and position depended on it remaining a secret. They talked sometimes, of the child they would have, when the revolution was over, when they went home to Edo. Light talk of a hopeful future but always of the future. And so Kaoru continued to pour all of her effort into ending the revolution and setting him free, building his new era so they could finally live in it together, openly. She picks up her brush and dabs it into the ink to add some notes to Ito-san's report. She would pass it on to Saigo and get him to obtain the supplies Ito-san needed. Once she was finished here she could work through her frustration in the dojo; she could not let Kenshin see it when he came home.

"Kaoru?"

"Ara!"

Startled, she nearly drops her brush onto her lap, but Kenshin is fast, and his nimble fingers pluck it out of the air before the ink can damage her furisode. "Anata!" she gasps. "When did you get home?"

"I have been home for some time," he admits, setting her brush carefully across her ink dish. "Aoi thought it was best not to disturb you, but it is quite late now, my heart." He blinks at her, his large eyes slightly concerned, and Kaoru huffs and leans forward to give him a soft kiss.

"Welcome home, Husband."

"Ah, I am home," he smiles.

Kaoru smiles back at him, squeezing his hand and returning to her desk. Nothing in Ito-san's report is urgent, so she shuts it in the drawer to keep for the morning. "Have you eaten?" she asks, and Kenshin nods, reaching around her to pick up the jumble of her hair ornaments.

"This one was offered dinner at Ikumatsu's house," he explains, setting each hairpin out carefully on the desk for Aoi to put away. "The furo is still warm, koishii, if you wish to have a bath?"

Kaoru takes in his slightly damp hair and fresh yukata with slight disappointment. It would have been nice to take a bath together, especially since the weather had finally cooled. But she'd had a bath earlier, before going out to meet Okubo-san, so she shakes her head. "Would you like some tea?" she asks instead.

"Ah," he smiles, getting to his feet and holding out his hand to help her up. Kaoru blows out her candle and follows silently behind him, down the porch of the main manor building, towards their private quarters. She realizes just how late it is—the inhabitants of her large household asleep and their rooms completely dark, allowing Kenshin to walk the grounds without the risk of being seen. When they reach the outer shoji, Kaoru is surprised to find it unguarded.

"Did you send Ibuki to bed?" she asks.

"Mm," Kenshin hums vaguely. He slides open the shoji and pulls her through the doorway, and Kaoru gasps. The inner porch has been lined with dozens of small candles, and many blankets sat waiting in front of the shoji of their bedroom, along with a tea tray. She turns to stare at him in wonder and he smiles, blushing slightly, running his thumb over the back of her hand.

"I thought we might take tea," he says softly. "There is a fine sky this evening, koishii."

Kaoru feels her own blush heat her cheeks; her gaze drops and her free hand strays unbidden to her left hip. "I… yes, of course, anata…" she murmurs, before he catches both her hands up in his own, and she raises her eyes again to find him resolutely looking at her.

"We will have children, Kaoru," he promises. She chews her lip and nods, feeling tears building in her eyes. He cups her face in his hands, smiling gently. "We will, a girl with dark hair, and blue eyes, and your beautiful smile."

Kaoru looks away, and shakes her head. "I want a boy with red hair," she says quietly.

"Well, I'll try koishii, but at least one of them has to look like you," he hedges, his fingers slipping into her hair. His tone is light and easy; he was trying to make her smile. Kaoru closes her eyes for a moment. He had gone to all this effort for her, so she buries all her feelings except how much she loved him. It was selfish, to want more when she already has so much.

"At least one?" she teases softly. "Are you expecting many?"

He sets his fingers carefully against the fabric of her kimono, resting them over her heart. "We don't have to have more than one if that is what you want," he smiles at her. "But this one is looking forward to making him or her, that is certain."

"Kenshin!" she laughs, genuine and lost in the moment, slapping his hand away.

He grins at her and leans forward to give her a kiss. "Shall we have tea?" he asks gently. "I had to wait for all the maids to go to bed before I could make it."

She laughs and nods again, and he leads her down the porch towards their bedroom, and they are so caught up in their small happiness that both completely miss the shadow that detaches itself from the top of the wall and disappears into the night.


Saito sips his tea, eyeing the youth in front of him. He is not one to underestimate, but the Okashira looked like he was barely past genpukku.

"The target is Kondo-san? You're certain?" he asks the boy.

Shinomori-san's eyes narrow, obviously offended. "You doubt my information?" he replies.

Saito shakes his head. Of all the shogun's ninja, the Oniwabanshu were the elite. "No," he answers. "But if this is accurate…"

"It is an invitation to war," Shinomori-san finishes.

"Then I must speak with the Vice Commander. It must be avoided."

The boy nods, closing his eyes, and Saito takes his leave. It is already late and he had many people to report to with the Okashira's news, and all before he would need to return unnoticed to his quarters in the Goryo-Eji. Shinomori Aoshi waits calmly in the dark for Saito's spirit to disappear, and then he speaks to the last remaining Yaminobu ninja, hidden on the other side of the shoji.

"Tell Akuyaku-sama this favour will not go unpaid."


Kenshin walks three steps behind Kaoru, eyes scanning each rooftop and alleyway, thumb pressed against the guard of his sword. To hide his scar, he keeps his hat tipped low and his chin tucked into the white scarf wound around his neck, grateful for the crisp air of the autumn night that made the accessories seem commonplace. Kaoru was bundled up in her haori and shawl ahead of him; unhappy. He had adamantly insisted he go with her to meet Ito-san, and she was worried and annoyed. There was always a risk of his being spotted by a patrol. She was practically running, the lantern she carried bobbing from side to side furiously, casting swaying shadows before her that would have had a passing patrol on them in seconds, but he doesn't have the heart to force her to slow down. When she rounds the corner in front of Ito's house, he darts ahead; panic floods her spirit, but he knocks the accustomed three times before she can get to the door.

It is Heisuke himself who answers, and Kenshin relaxes slightly. He takes the lantern from Kaoru and blows it out, ignoring the reproachful look she shoots at him. Instead, he nods to Heisuke. He didn't like to worry Kaoru, but the shogun had only just recently returned the right to rule to the Emperor, and everyone in Kyoto knew it had been the Lady Kamiya, with the help of Sakamoto Ryoma and the Lord of Tosa, who had orchestrated the peaceful deposing of the old order. But the Aizu still patrolled the streets for the shogun, and Kenshin knew far too well exactly what could be lurking in the shadows, looking for a political target. He was not about to lose her again.

Heisuke frowns slightly. "Himura-san, you should not be here," he says quietly, concerned. "You can't be seen by Ito-san's guest."

He can practically feel Kaoru's agreement behind him, but Kenshin simply nods. "I won't be. Please, take care of Kaoru-dono."

He moves aside for her to follow Heisuke into the house, and when the door has closed behind her, he melts into the shadows. Three leaps and he is on the roof, a simple flip and he is on the second-storey porch. His soundless footsteps take him to the room next to where Ito and his guest were now greeting Kaoru, and he sits silently next to the closed shoji, looking up only briefly to acknowledge Heisuke when he enters the room and sits beside him. Formal greetings are exchanged, and the guest comes right to his point.

"Forgive me for calling you from home so late, Kamiya-sama," says Nagakura Shinpachi, the Shinsengumi's second unit captain. He had trained with Ito and Heisuke at the same dojo, but had not joined them when they left to form the Goryo Eji.

"There is no need to be so formal, Nagakura-sensei," Kaoru says, a smile in her voice.

"Ah, but it's strange now, isn't it? I used to call you Kaoru-chan…"

She laughs her windchime laugh. "It's nostalgic. Please, what did you need to speak to me about?"

"It's not me who needs to talk to you, actually. I've come on official troop business! Kondo-san and Hijikata-sensei are having a party. They want to meet with you, and Ito-sensei. With you both."

"Why?" Ito asks, not surprised or suspicious, simply curious.

"I think they feel bad," Nagakura laughs. "They want you to come for dinner so they can admit they were wrong."

Kaoru laughs again. "That sounds like Kondo-sensei. How is everyone?"

"Well. But I have to get back, it's late. Here is the official invitation."

Heisuke gets to his feet and leaves to show Nagakura out, and by the time he has returned, Kenshin had left his hiding spot to sit behind Kaoru.

"Well?" Ito asks, watching Heisuke as he sits down and picks up the opened letter on the tatami.

"It's Hijikata-sensei's handwriting," Kaoru smiles. "I don't think it's a prank."

"A prank?" Kenshin asks flatly.

"Harada is not this bold," Heisuke agrees, pushing the paper towards Kenshin.

"Shall we go together, Kamiya-sama? It will be my honour to escort you," Ito offers.

Kaoru smiles, but before she can accept, Kenshin speaks. "No," he says firmly. She looks at him abruptly and he shakes his head. "They are in the service of Aizu, we cannot trust them."

"It will be all right-"

"No."

"Kenshin-"

"It's too dangerous, Kaoru-dono. I cannot allow you to go."

Her lips part to try again to persuade him, but he refuses to concede. The air around him seems to contract and quiver, and he stares at her, gathering his full spirit, ready to turn every argument aside. He will not lose her again.

It is Kaoru who looks away first, and she twists her fingers in her sleeves. "Please take me home," she whispers softly.


He is sitting on the porch when Heisuke finds him. The morning was bright and clear and cool, and Kenshin is sitting with his back to the wall, staring out over the garden in the direction of the dojo, where he could hear Kaoru practicing. Todo-san sits casually on the porch with his sword beside him and his hands tucked into his sleeves, appearing to enjoy the tranquility of the morning. They sit in silence for several moments.

"You know," Heisuke says, not looking at him, "Kaoru wanted to join my unit, that first day."

Kenshin doesn't say anything, and the former eighth unit captain stretches, leaning back against the wall to stare up at the roof. He smiles to himself at the memory. "She looked pretty pitiful, sitting there in the road, covered in dust, but she wouldn't move. I was so hung over that morning, I thought the gods had sent her to test me."

Kenshin's lips twist slightly, because he knew exactly how stubborn his wife could be. When she believed in something, she never gave up, was never swayed. It was one of the things that he loved about her.

"So, she wanted to join my unit," Heisuke continues," but of course, she had to be tried, like any other recruit. Kondo let her go last, I think because he thought maybe if Souji was tired, he'd go a bit easier on her. I remember she sat so alert, watching, and then when she took Souji to a draw… there were only three people in the troop who could do that. You could tell she was young, that she'd never had to fight anyone before, but it was impressive."

Kenshin closes his eyes for a moment, remembering the first time he'd seen her in action, outside the tailor's shop. She had impressed him that day, too, so much so that he'd decided it best to leave her be in the Shinsengumi. "Kaoru-dono has always been competent," he says softly.

Heisuke nods. "Souji never told her just how good she was, or that he made her do extra practice with him because she was actually a challenge for him. No one ever told her that to make the First Unit, the elite unit, on the first try was unheard of. And she got better, after that ronin she killed, after she lost her friend, and after Kinmon. She should have been leading her own unit by then, but they sent her to Otsu instead."

Kenshin remembers the force of her strike against his, the unyielding strength that had met his blade that night at the Ikeda-ya. "Kaoru-dono was strong," he murmurs.

"She is strong," Heisuke says. He turns and looks Kenshin straight in the eye, holding his gaze. Kenshin is not sure, because he has only ever seen Heisuke's fighting spirit once before, but it feels like Heisuke is daring him to disagree. "You know it, Himura-san. You know better than anyone how much she went through, how hard she fights."

He does not want to argue with Heisuke. Kaoru was already upset with him, and he has so few friends. When he speaks he does his best to keep his tone level, to not let his emotions seep in. "You do not know, Todo-san, what I went through."

Heisuke looks away, a sad smile on his face. "I don't," he admits. "But I do know how hard it was for Kaoru to watch you leave for Choshuu."

Kenshin keeps silent. It would be an insult to explain duty to someone as honourable as Heisuke. He stares out at the falling maple leaves, his jaw tense.

"Do you know why Kaoru stays up in her office so late?" Heisuke continues quietly. "It's because she is waiting for you to come home, Himura-san."

"That is too far, Todo-san," he warns.

Heisuke holds out both hands in front of him, his large eyes gentle. "She worries for you. You know how women are. But Kaoru is different; she is bushi. She understands that you have your duty, and she respects your abilities, trusts you."

Kenshin shuts his eyes, feeling very tired and very unlike himself.

I'm afraid.

She'd said she needed him beside her, to feel safe, to be strong. And so he has been quick to step in front of her, to fight her battles and be her sword.

I think that if I have you to protect, I won't be afraid anymore.

Kenshin sighs heavily, his breath near explosive. "My wife is a swordsman," he says softly.

Heisuke nods, and reaches out to grip his shoulder. "She will never believe in herself if you don't."

He smiles wryly. "But if I cease to be her sword, what can I do for her?"

Heisuke stares at him, and then he laughs, so abruptly Kenshin nearly jumps. "Don't you know, Himura-san?" Heisuke asks, still chuckling, and when Kenshin doesn't answer he smiles conspiratorially. "Love her, of course."

Kenshin gapes at him, and after a beat he smiles slightly too, nodding. He gets to his feet and tucks his sword through his belt. It was morning now, so he couldn't walk around freely outside their private quarters. But nothing was stopping him from going over the roof. He bows in deep gratitude to Heisuke, still chuckling on the porch. "You are right, that is certain. Thank you, Todo-san."

"Ah," Heisuke waves him off. "It's nothing Himura, don't worry about it."

"Please excuse me then," he says, and deaf to the shocked shout Heisuke makes when he leaps up onto the roof of the porch, he moves silently across the tiles, making his way towards the dojo where her shining spirit and fierce yell were calling out to him. She is alone, working through her katas, and he grins. It was high time he offered to spar with her again.

Chapter Text

Kaoru straightens on her cushion, glancing down the hall once more to where Ito-san was seated with Kondo-sensei. The bells have just rung the hour, and the early dark of winter has fooled her—it is earlier than she had expected. She sighs softly. She had hoped that she had been present at this gathering long enough by now for her to politely excuse herself. She fidgets with the edges of her sleeves, a stunning furisode of pale green covered in vermillion maple leaves. She had chosen it because of the season, and all the red embroidery was a bold reminder to the other guests of her elevated status in the Emperor's court. Also, secretly, because the leaves matched Kenshin's hair. A private and personal declaration of her heart, just like the hidden leaves that adorned his own kimono. She wanted that as armour, the heavy silk like a protective embrace. Kenshin had relented and let her accept Kondo's invitation, but she still wanted him with her; she has gotten used to his reassuring presence over her left shoulder.

Ito laughs loudly down the hall with Kondo, and Kaoru frowns slightly. It was unlike Ito-san to drink too much or act unruly, but he and Kondo seemed to be making amends. Then the evening was not a total waste. Her gaze drifts once again to the open shoji, where the cloudy, starless sky seemed to be promising snow. She will stay one more hour, and then return home. Kenshin had no orders tonight, so with her usual tact, Ikumatsu had invited him to dinner. She could send Eita for him when she left; Aoi would be asleep but Kaoru could make the tea and set out the blankets herself, so that by the time Kenshin dropped into the center garden, everything would be ready. She smiles softly to herself, already reassured by the thought.

"That is the first smile you have made this evening," says a gruff voice.

Kaoru blinks out of her reverie as Hijikata-sensei carefully seats himself beside her. "Forgive me," she says, bowing her head. "I am out of sorts this evening. Thank you again for the kind invitation."

"You have been at court too long," the Vice Commander says. "You look tired, Kaoru-chan."

Her breath nearly catches at the informal use of her name, and she blinks in surprise. Hijikata is too rough for courtesy, but his heart is always in the right place. Nagukura-sensei had said they wanted to reconcile, and she has known Hijikata-sensei long enough to recognize his brand of apology. Kaoru is touched—she had chosen this path, but she still missed her family.

"I have many duties now," she admits. "When I was a girl I helped to run our household, but I did not know how much work it would be to do it alone."

"Mm, to lead is not a light responsibility," he agrees. He sighs, a pained look in his eye. "There is so much paperwork," he grumbles.

Kaoru nearly laughs; from the many hours she'd sat with Hijikata-sensei in his office helping with the accounts, she knew just how much he hated paperwork. "Surely there must be someone to help you, sensei? Nagakura-sensei was always good with numbers…"

"He is not as fast as you were," he sniffs, waving dismissively. "Kondo asked me to train Souji, but that boy is hopeless."

She chews her lip, toying with her sleeve. "How is Okita-sensei?" she asks quietly.

"Lonely," Hijikata says shortly, and Kaoru raises her eyes in shock at his abruptness, but the Vice Commander is not looking at her. "With Heisuke and Hajime gone, he actually has to focus on his unit for once."

"He is a good captain," she says defensively, relieved that she would not have to explain once more her refusal of Souji's marriage proposal, and Hijikata smiles at her.

"To you he was. You were very talented, and he wanted you to succeed. But his patience is too short with people of less skill than himself. He becomes frustrated too easily in training."

Kaoru knew that to be true. She had stepped in to train the newer recruits on Souji's behalf, after it was obvious that he lacked the patience. "Sometimes a firm hand is needed in training," she says, though she knows that did not characterize what Souji did at all. "If the unit cannot withstand Okita-sensei's lessons, then they will not be prepared in a fight."

Hijikata nods, looking down the hall towards Kondo and Ito. "I hear Ito-san has been training your ronin for you," he says, and Kaoru feels a prickling sensation between her shoulder blades. The Vice Commander turns to her again, his face impassive. "I would have thought you'd want to train them yourself, Kaoru-chan."

She selects each word with care, keeping her spirit mild and her face unreadable except for a pleasant smile. "I have been fortunate that Ito-san was tasked with guarding the tomb of the late Emperor," she says. "It was a great honour for me to offer my patronage to the Goryo-Eji, I owe Emperor Komei my life. Ito-san has been very generous with his time; it is my hope that the new Kamiya clansmen will be able to assist him with his guarding duties."

"But still, does it not bother you, that they do not follow your sword school?"

Kaoru laughs, light and silvery. "Most of the Kamiya clansmen have been trained elsewhere," she admits. "Those that have an interest join the Edo dojo, but the new clansmen have come from diverse areas. Ito-san's methods of training make him better equipped to adapt to the times."

Hijikata looks at her for a long moment, considering her words. Kaoru pays it no mind. The hairs on the back of her neck are still standing up, but she remains calm. If Hijikata was digging for information, he would continue to press.

"It's a shame," the Vice Commander says at last. "You have even ceased to wear your daisho."

Her eyes widen, a small crack in her armour, but that was allowed. The words Hijikata had just said would be a high insult to anyone, bushi or not. "Daisho are not fitting for a lady of my station, least of all in this setting," she says with slight heat in her voice. She feels her cheeks flush, but that was allowed too. It was fine for Hijikata to know she was mortified by his words.

"You are bushi," Hijikata reminds her, his tone gentle. "There is no spirit prouder… so why trust your men to Ito?"

Kaoru looks away because in truth her heart is breaking. Hijikata had not sat next to her to renew the mentoring relationship that had once been so dear to her. Instead, he was abusing their past to try to pry into her affairs. She shuts her eyes for a moment, fighting against the desire to climb to her feet and run from the room, to get into her palanquin and go straight to Ikumatsu's house where Kenshin could offer her strength and support in the face of this final betrayal. "It is only fair, after you left them," she tries to remind herself, but it still hurts.

"Kaoru-chan," Hijikata-sensei says, but what he would have said next is never uttered. A loud thud silences the room, and Kaoru looks down the hall, relieved for the distraction. However, her relief is only momentary. Ito-san awkwardly gets to his feet, trying to recover from a fall. His steps shuffle uneasily, and Kaoru abandons her cushion and Hijikata-sensei to go immediately to his side.

"Ito-san? Are you all right?" she asks.

"Oh! Kamiya-sama!" He blinks at her, looking off into the distance, and Kaoru takes hold of his arm.

"Shall we go home now, Ito-san? I think you have enjoyed yourself to the fullest."

"Ah, yes," Ito agrees. He pats the top of her head, and several guests gasp at the impropriety, but Kaoru merely smiles at him.

"Come then, sensei," she says gently, prodding him towards the door.

Kondo-sensei meets her there, and with a quick bow, takes over with helping Ito outside. Eita is at the porch with her geta and she steps into them while Kondo stiffly wrangles Ito off the porch and into his own sandals. The leader of the Goryo-Eji sways slightly on his feet, so Eita sighs softly before throwing Ito-san's arm over his shoulders.

Kaoru turns to Kondo-sensei on the porch and bows her head respectfully. "Thank you for the pleasant evening, Kondo-sensei," she says politely. "I hope Ito-san has not disrupted the festivities."

"Not at all, Kaoru-sama!" he bellows, grinning. Kaoru smiles back softly, pretending she has not noticed the shifting of his eyes, or the slightly awkward way that he bows, very deep, to hide his face. Kaoru takes her leave, climbing into her palanquin as her guards fall in place around it.

She waits until they have carried her three blocks before ordering a halt. "What is it, Kamiya-sama?" Eita asks, shifting Ito on his shoulders.

"I am going to turn my back," she instructs as she climbs out. "I need a pair of hakama and a haori, so I want you to remove Ito-san's, and then put him in the palanquin."

Kaoru turns around, and she hears Eita sigh again, followed by the rustle of fabric and soft protests from Ito-san that suggested her orders were being obeyed. She smiles. Eita was nothing if not reliable. After a few minutes, Eita clears his throat. "Kamiya-sama?"

He is holding out the hakama for her, his eyes averted. Kaoru quickly pulls off her obi, her heavy furisode. Several of the guard blush and turn away as she stands in the road in her nagajuban and pulls on Ito's hakama. He is a bit taller than Kenshin, so she ties the hakama high, around her ribs like a woman. "There," she says, removing her mother's dagger from inside her clothes and shoving it through her belt. "Hold the haori a moment for me, Eita."

She ducks into the palanquin to give Ito a reassuring smile, and folds her furisode over him. It distracts him while she steals his sandals, and she wraps her geta in her obi and hands the bundle over to him. "Will you keep this safe for me, Ito-san?" she asks, and he nods vigorously. She arranges the furisode closer, to keep him warm, giving him a final smile before closing the screen.

Kaoru pulls her arms through Ito's haori and motions Eita closer. "Go to Ikumatsu," she instructs softly. "Tell Kenshin he is needed at Ito's house."

Eita hesitates. "May this humble self know your plans, Kamiya-sama? He will ask…"

She nods and raises her voice for everyone to hear. "I am going to continue to Ito-san's, to get Todo-san and Ibuki as planned, and the three of us will join you at home. Ito-san is to be taken straight to the Kamiya Manor, to see Dr. Gensai, and no one else."

"Dr. Gensai?" Eita asks in surprise.

"Ito-san only drank two dishes," she says softly. "I think he has been drugged."


"Did you learn anything, Toshi?" Kondo asks, and Hijikata shakes his head.

"She was offended," the Vice Commander admits. "So if she was hesitating before, she won't now."

Kondo nods. "Then we will proceed as planned."


Saito crouches low against the riverbank, waiting. He had drawn straws with Souji to decide who would be spared this duty, and he had not missed the relieved look on the first unit captain's face when Saito was the loser. So now he found himself with a unit of twenty men hidden around a street corner, waiting to ambush the palanquin that would be carrying Kamiya Kaoru, former Shinsengumi first unit soldier, and highest traitor against the shogun. He owed her nothing, after how deeply she has betrayed him, but she was a woman and so he will do it quickly and without pain.

Sandals crunch on the gravel, and Saito prepares to move.


Kenshin knocks carefully, three times on Ito-san's door, and the minutes he has to wait for the answer are sheer agony. In truth, all evening there has been a nervous energy buzzing under his skin, and it had taken all of his restraint to not run out on Ikumatsu's dinner to spend the night on the roof of Kondo Isami's house instead.

Todo-san answers, his face pleasantly surprised. "Well, Himura-san, have you come to try to beat me at goh?" he laughs. "Ibuki is a terrible opponent."

Kenshin blinks in confusion, and beside him, Eita frowns. "Is Kamiya-sama not here?" Eita asks.

"No…" Heisuke says slowly. "She and Ito-san have not yet returned."

Kenshin's pulse starts to pound in his ears, and Eita begins to explain to Heisuke what he had told Kenshin on the way there.

"Todo-san!"

A man runs into the garden, too distraught to notice that Hitokiri Battousai is two feet from the man he is seeking. He drops to his knees and grabs at Heisuke's hakama, and Kenshin's mouth goes dry. It is one of Kaoru's palanquin bearers, and he is bleeding.

"We were ambushed, Todo-san!" the man wails. "Ito-san… Ito-san is dead…"

Heisuke's eyes widen but Eita grabs the man by his collar. "Was the Lady Kamiya with you?"

He shakes his head, sobbing. "All dead!" he moans. "They killed everyone…"

Kenshin is having difficulty breathing, but he hangs on to what he knows—that Kaoru was strong and determined, that she had been armed with the dagger he himself had tucked into her clothes before she left, and several sharp hairpins. That she had not been at the scene of the ambush and could hide her spirit to remain undetected from would-be assassins.

"Where are they?" Heisuke was asking through grit teeth. "Where are the villains?" He is now shaking the man violently, but he stops suddenly. All three swordsmen in the garden turn, and Ibuki is suddenly at the door.

Faint, far away and determined, a righteously angry spirit had suddenly bloomed in the night.

Kaoru!

"Go, Himura-san!" Heisuke cries, but Kenshin is already gone.


Kaoru walks carefully in the shadows, but the streets are deserted, and no one is around to see a strange woman pass by with a heavy and elegant hair arrangement, too-large hakama, and poorly fitting zori. She is still several blocks from Ito-san's house, when the crunch of gravel alerts her to someone approaching from the alley ahead and to her left. Her hand goes immediately to her belt, gripping the hilt of her dagger as though it were a sword. But it isn't her katana; she swears softly to herself. She pauses in the shadows and makes her spirit nothing. With luck, this person would pass and she could continue on her way.

But the shadow comes out of the alley and heads straight for her, feet picking up speed on the road, and Kaoru has only moments to make a decision. A sword comes swinging out of its sheath far too fast, but not as fast as Heisuke or Kenshin. She plants her feet, her father's voice in her ears. There is a moment before the strike, Daughter-mine. A moment in which you can catch the blade.

The point of the katana comes arching towards her and Kaoru steps left, forwards and away, her wrists crossed before her. The hilt slams into her hands, and pain shoots up her arms, but she clamps her wrists tight and twists, still pushing forward. The assassin grunts as his grip breaks, and Kaoru spins out, katana still stuck between her wrists. She adjusts her grip and prepares to turn back, but she slips in Ito's sandals. Air whistles through her borrowed haori and nagajuban, and the cold air stings across her back. The assassin's wakizashi comes away red, but the cut is light, a grazing scratch. More troubling was that her clothes were now threatening to fall from her shoulders, and Kaoru clutches at her collar to keep them on, one hand holding her captured sword steady in front of her. She kicks off the sandals and circles her opponent, stepping at last out of the shadows and into the lighter darkness of the roadway.

He gasps. "Kaoru?"

She gapes at him, incredulous, her determination giving way to fury. Her hand squeezes the hilt of his sword, the familiar guard against her fist, and he steps out of the shadows too.

"Souji?!"

He lowers his wakizashi and steps towards her. "You aren't supposed to be here," he whispers.

"Don't move!" she yells, pointing his sword at him. "Don't you dare come near me!"

He stares at her, and Kaoru has to fight her anger and the hot tears that are threatening to obstruct her vision. Only an hour ago she had been worried about him, defended him to Hijikata-sensei.

"What are you doing?!" she cries, because too many things are clicking into place, and she doesn't want them to.

He coughs softly into his sleeve. "Where did you learn to do that?" he asks, "Disarm someone like that?"

But Kaoru ignores his question. She has half a mind to throw a hairpin into him. "You were my captain," she says, her voice shaking. "You were my brother, Souji!"

He nods, his eyes ashamed. "I couldn't believe what Saito said of you… so I volunteered to be here instead."

Kaoru blinks, trying to process Souji's words. "You were supposed to kill Ito-san…" she breathes, and she doesn't want to ask but she has to know. "Where else, where were you supposed to be?"

The look he gives her is answer enough, and Kaoru shivers, but she keeps her stance, the katana firm in front of her.

"I didn't ever want it to be this way," Souji says softly. "I… surely you know, how dear you are to me…" He looks at her, all but begging for her forgiveness, but Kaoru has had enough of trying to reconcile. She watches him around her stolen sword, her eyes all samurai.

"How many?" she asks, betrayed. "How many men does Kondo have waiting to ambush me?"

"Kaoru-"

"My people are in danger!" she snaps. "Stand aside."

"I can't do that," he pleads. "Kaoru, you know I can't do that. Just come with me to headquarters. We can explain everything-"

"I am not going anywhere with you," she hisses. The cold is seeping into her back and she wants to wound him too. "I don't trust you."

"Kaoru," he gasps, hurt. "I love you, please-"

"I never loved you like that," she says, each word a burning truth she has been dying to speak. "I never wanted to marry you."

"But you could have-"

"No! I don't love you, Souji."

His fist tightens on his wakizashi, and Kaoru knows that when he is frustrated, his aim deteriorates.

"I am not afraid of you," Kaoru says truthfully. "I have someone I promised to live for, and I will not lose."

"Is it true then?" he grates, eyes hidden beneath his hair. "Hitokiri Battousai is your lover?"

Kaoru raises her chin proudly, throws back her shoulders, and raises the katana before her with both hands. She is angry, so angry, but also strangely relieved. She thinks of Kenshin, quiet and kind and everything she holds dear, and she is suddenly at peace. It is a kind of void she has never experienced before, and she looks Souji straight in the eye, ready.

"Yes," she says calmly. "It's true; I love him."

Souji's lips curl, and he raises his wakizashi. "Then you are a traitor," he hisses.

"And so?" she asks, her voice steady and her body deadly still. "What will you do now?"

He shouts then, and runs at her. Kaoru steps to the left, Kenshin's voice in her mind. An opponent intent on killing will look where he means to strike. Okita breezes past her, the displaced air from his swing fluttering in her clothes. She turns, unscathed, and he growls in frustration, watching her now, waiting for her to move. When an opponent thinks he is faster, he will watch your vital points, not your sword. Move him where you want him to go. Kaoru jerks her left shoulder, and Souji barrels forwards, aiming for her exposed side. He ignores his katana in her fist, and when she slams the blunt edge into his ribs he cries out in pained surprise. She hears the crunch of at least one rib breaking as she follows through, throwing Souji into the street. He lands hard, gasping as the wind is knocked out of him, and Kaoru stands before him, sword raised and ready should he decide to regain his feet. A swordsman sent to kill will not accept a loss, koishii. To deal them a blow does not mean the fight is over.

Souji sits up, coughing, pressing a hand to his mouth. Kaoru glares at him from behind his blade, until he hunches over, and blood spills from between his fingers. She lowers his sword, holding it at her side, calm and waiting, but she knows this fight is over. Acceptance folds over her, and she turns away from her former unit captain and walks away. The gravel bites into her tabi and the cold air stings against her back, but she makes herself pick up her pace. Ito-san was in danger, and she needed to warn them.

"Kaoru!? Kaoru!"

Kenshin's voice, in the distance. Kaoru runs down the street towards the sound, clutching her claimed sword, sending her spirit ahead to alert

her husband. Her feet sting and her clothes slip down her shoulders but she makes herself run.

"Kenshin! Anata, where are you?"

"Kaoru!"

His voice is closer, somewhere above her. Kaoru trips on the edge of her over-sized hakama, pain shooting up her arms from her bruised wrists as she plants her hands to break her fall. The sword skitters along the road and her clothes fall down her arms. Scrambling to her knees, she grabs again for her collar as arms close around her, wide sleeves covering her naked back while he presses her into his chest.

"Kaoru," he breathes, his voice hoarse. "Gods, koishii…"

He is shaking, so she does not allow herself to tremble. Her hands find his face and she draws back to look at him. "It's all right," she soothes, her voice both gentle and firm. "I'm all right."

Kenshin folds her into his embrace again, his spirit radiating relief. "What happened?"

She shakes her head. "It was Souji," she admits. "We have to hurry-"

His hands tighten painfully on her and his eyes become like ice. "Where is he?" he grates.

The air seems to intensify around them and Kaoru shivers, but she is not afraid. She covers his marked cheek with her palm and meets his murderous stare. "No more scars for me, anata," she reminds him softly.

She watches his eyes while he fights with himself, but she had promised to teach him, and not all lessons were easy. They sit in the road for a long moment, until his eyes soften into the colour at the edge of sunset. He nods once, and lets go of her to pull his haori from his shoulders and set it around her. He looks at her feet, devoid of sandals, and moves to pick her up, but she grabs his wrist.

"Kenshin, Ito-san is in danger. We have to go to the Kamiya Manor-"

But Kenshin takes hold of her hands, looking into her eyes with sympathy. "My heart…"


Heisuke is running, anger burning in his veins. Why? Why kill Ito-san, why attempt to kill Kaoru? The palanquin bearer had said that they'd left Ito's body near the river and he'd be damned if it sat there all night waiting for the magistrate. He has five others with him, so they could carry Ito-san home. It does not take them long to find the spot where the palanquin still lay overturned, the road slick with blood, littered with the bodies of Kaoru's guard. And further, wrapped protectively in her furisode and clutching her obi to his chest, lay Ito-san.

"Sensei!" he breathes, falling to his knees. Rage bubbles up inside him and he grits his teeth to keep himself from crying. Bushi did not cry. He sits beside his mentor, and reaches out to close his eyes. "I will avenge you, Ito-sensei," he promises.

"Todo-san," Shinohara says, sounding worried, and when he looks up it is to see they are surrounded by at least twenty men, dressed in black, their faces covered. Heisuke gets to his feet and draws his sword.

"Villains!" he shouts. "Here is where you die!"

Feet rush against gravel, and then Saito is beside him. "I came as soon as I heard," he says, drawing his sword and guarding Heisuke's back. Heisuke's smile has no humour in it. Now that Saito was with him, they were certain of victory. He nods to his comrade, and turns to face the attackers, and it is a complete surprise when something pierces his back, his chest. Pain shoots through him and it is suddenly hard to breathe. Something wet is pouring along his body and his legs give out, as the hardness in his body slides free. He turns his head slowly, so slowly, because everything was pain and it felt like he was drowning. Saito is standing over him, his sword slick with blood, and Heisuke shakes his head. That didn't make sense.

"Aku Soku Zan, traitor," Saito hisses.

Heisuke gapes at him, and Saito raises his sword again. When it plunges into his shoulder, Heisuke cries out, spitting blood, and his body goes rigid. It hurt. Gods, Kimiki, it hurt so much. Saito is trying to pull the blade free, but it wouldn't give, and Heisuke has enough presence of mind to grab the hilt with his hands. He couldn't do anything else but this, keep this blade from killing the rest of his comrades, keep it to warn Kaoru.

"Kaoru. Please, Little Sister, take care of Kimiki. Take care of our child."

This is the final thing he thinks of, not of revenge, but of his wife, cradling their baby in her arms. The world goes dark and he falls forwards, and does not rise again.

Chapter Text

The air over the manor is heavy, as are the oppressive winter clouds that threatened to break at any moment. For the first time since its lady's return, the gate is locked, and clansmen wearing both Kamiya and Satsuma uniforms lined the inside walls. Heisuke had sent her two personal guards to the Satsuma residence for help, and in the end, it had been men of Satsuma who'd carried his body home. Her slain guards and Ito-san, along with two members of the Goryo-Eji, were laid out in the hall. She could make out the soft sounds of their mourning families from the room where she sat, dressed in her black kimono, keeping silent watch over Heisuke's body.

She had washed him herself, with Kenshin's help. Under the shroud he was bandaged and clean, his features peaceful. It was all she could do for Kimiki, after she had failed to protect him. She closes her eyes briefly. They are red and ringed with dark circles, but Kaoru would not allow herself to sleep. She sits still, her legs going numb, focusing on the spirit across the house as it sat its own vigil in front of their shared bedroom. Kimiki had nearly fainted from the shock and then turned hysterical, until Tatsuki had gotten her to drink a sleeping draught and Aoi had helped her into Kaoru's futon. So now Kenshin sat, patient and still, waiting for Kimiki to awaken so he could bring her to see Heisuke.

Kaoru let her mind float into the nothing, where there was no tiredness, no ache in her bruised wrists, no scratch across her back, no grief. There was no time for such things in the wake of the evening's events; because she had duties to her household and her slain people, duties to the grief of those who remained behind. She had already needed to act quickly and decisively to ensure that no more lives were lost, for her allies favoured war. She had nearly driven herself hoarse talking to Saigo, Okubo and Katsura, ever grateful for Sakamoto-san's presence as another voice of reason. She had conceded only to Saigo calling his troops over from the Satsuma residence, including her own clansmen stationed there. They were right, she was no longer safe, and they needed to protect the Emperor and the city from the Aizu. They were right, the Shinsengumi could no longer be allowed to move freely in the city and attack its citizens at will.

Kaoru opens her eyes and looks at the tray sitting beside her on the tatami. Two katana with their blades wrapped protectively in cotton, waiting for delivery to the Kyoto magistrate. Two swords: the sword that had tried to take her life, and the sword that had ended Heisuke's.

She continues to turn Hijikata's words over and over in her mind, trying to discover why they had turned against her so violently. She had left the troop under mysterious circumstances, but that had been over a year ago. She had turned Souji down, but Hijikata had taken her side in that matter, and her refusal to Kondo had been gentle, and based on the principle of her status. She had allied Ito with Satsuma, but the Emperor had publically chosen Ito, chosen Kaoru to oversee him. It was possible the nature of her alliance with Satsuma had been discovered, that someone had overheard her at that meeting. But the fact of her collaboration with Satsuma was no secret. Her clansmen were under Saigo's care and she was well-enough placed at court to be of use to him. There was nothing in Hijikata's line of questioning that had alarmed her, save for asking after her work with Ito-san, and for this they had killed him, tried to kill her. For this Heisuke had died.

I couldn't believe what Saito said…

Is it true, then? Hitokiri Battousai is your lover?

Someone had overheard her at the meeting, but Kenshin had not spoken, and never found the culprit. They had been so, so careful to keep their marriage a secret; he never walked around the manor nor left their private quarters. But there were people who knew, and now each would have to be investigated. Hijikata was too shrewd to have asked her about Hitokiri Battousai, but Souji wouldn't have lied to her. Saito was a capable spy, and somehow, he had found out. The rumours in the troop around who he worked for had ranged wildly; Hijikata, Lord Matsudaira, the shogun himself, and so she had to assume her marriage was now known to all of them. She had never before considered those men her enemies, they were merely on the opposite side of what she was working to achieve. She ought to have known better, known that bushi like them would not afford her the same consideration.

Kaoru presses her lips together, gazing once more at the shrouded body before her. If the Shinsengumi wanted to hold her to account for loving Himura Kenshin, if they thought it a crime heavy enough to spill blood over, then she had no choice but to treat them as her enemies. She was done with hiding, done with treading lightly to preserve appearances. She has spent years sheltering her heart and walking her path with care, and still they had taken her brother from her.

"Heisuke, I will build a world for your family. I will make a place for them that is safe."

She clenches her fists, shooting pain up her arms. But the pain was small, nothing compared to her resolve.

Feet pound down the porch and Ibuki halts outside the shoji. His spirit is angry, incredulous – Kaoru steels herself. It had taken them longer to arrive than she had expected. She opens the shoji and her personal guard's eyes are murderous. "Kamiya-sama," he grates, "the Shinsengumi are at the gate."

"All of them?" she asks, and he nods.

"You know what to do," she reminds him. "You have your orders."

"Yes, sensei!" he replies, but there are tears in his eyes. Kaoru squeezes his shoulder.

"There will be another time, Ibuki-kun."

At her words, he blinks back his tears, nods grimly and slides out of the doorway, bowing his head into the porch. With one final look at Heisuke, laid out in death, Kaoru folds her hands in her sleeves and walks with purpose towards the gate.


Hijikata stands at the Kamiya gate, a little ahead of Kondo's horse. Before setting out they had agreed that Hijikata would do the speaking, as he always did. He had underestimated Kaoru, had never thought she'd sense their intent and switch her place with Ito-san, and then easily disarm Souji, easily defeat him in every way possible. So now they stood at her gate, a small sea of armour and sky blue haori, their banner snapping in the winter wind.

The gate creaks open, and Hijikata is surprised, then cautious. He had been expecting to see a crowd of clansmen, possibly even her infamous lover. But the red-haired assassin is nowhere in sight, and while clansmen do line her porch, each one with a sword at the ready, the yard is empty. Only one young woman stood there, a small tower of black topped with a sad, white face. Her dark blue eyes scan the road before locking onto his own; Hijikata ignores the shifting of the men behind him, pushes away the thought that she looked too tired and small.

"Kamiya-sama!" he shouts. "We are here in the name of the shogun to arrest you for treason! Surrender, and offer up the traitor Hitokiri Battousai, or we will take your manor by force!"

For a moment, nothing happens. There is only the sound of the wind through everyone's clothes, the same wind that was swaying loose hairs about her face. Kaoru removes her hands from her sleeves and folds her tapered fingers in front of her, her wrists clearly covered in bandages.

"We are a house in mourning," she says softly, trusting the wind to carry her words. "I must respectfully ask you to leave."

"We will not," he declines.

Kaoru's eyes stray almost imperceptibly to the right, her fingers twisting in the edge of her sleeve. So. There was someone hidden to the right along the wall. There were probably soldiers on either side of the gate, obscured from view. Kaoru was young but she wasn't a fool, and hadn't he taught her himself how best to defend against an enemy?

"My life has been threatened," Kaoru speaks again, her eyes directed toward the ground. "We have lost faithful servants. I will ask again, for you to withdraw, for the shogun to honour our grief."

Before he can shout at her to stop stalling, the clansmen behind her on the porch move apart, and Ibuki steps into the yard, carrying a large tray. It is the first time that he has seen the boy since he deserted, and Hijikata's lips curl into a near snarl. The boy kneels at Kaoru's side and holds out the tray, a look in his eyes that would have set a lesser man running.

"Thank you, Ibuki-kun," she murmurs, and then Kaoru looks Hijikata in the eye once again. There is a fire burning in her eyes now. He sets his thumb against the guard of his sword.

"You have come just as I was on my way out," Kaoru says, picking up the first sword on the tray. "I was thinking I'd pay a visit to the Kyoto magistrate this morning, but perhaps I should go see Lord Matsudaira directly." She holds the sword in front of her, gripping the the blade so that the hilt was clearly visible. "This is the sword my attacker carried." She drops it into the dirt of the yard. "And this," she says, now picking up the second sword, "is the sword that killed Todo Heisuke."

Her eyes move left, then right, glaring at Souji and Hajime in turn, then return to bore into his again. She drops the second sword into the dirt as well. "You have two captains with empty sheaths. Will you answer, Hijikata-san, for the actions of your men?"

He grits his teeth, not missing the new honorific at the end of his name. Kaoru's spirit is there now, her eyes narrow. When she speaks, her anger is finally in her voice, covered by a fine layer of ice. "Will you answer for the brother that I have lost?"

"Enough, Kaoru!" he shouts. "We know! We know that you and Ito were plotting to kill Kondo-"

"And your proof?" Kaoru shrieks overtop of him. Her face is flushed with both rage and disbelief, her eyes incredulous. Her fists ball in the fabric of her kimono, and she glares at him, waiting. But Hijikata has no answer. They have the word of the Okashira, but no physical proof. Their plan had been to search the manor for evidence, to get her to confess. He glares back at her, but she calls his bluff immediately.

"You have none," she gasps in horror. Her face turns grey and she looks like she is going to be sick. "You were my family," she says brokenly. "You were my shelter. I have never acted dishonourably to you. I looked the other way and protected you from the Emperor's scrutiny."

Hijikata gapes at her, watching as she starts to shake. She sobs once, and presses her hand to her eyes. "I loved you, and you believed me capable of that…"

"You are a traitor," he states, more to remind himself then to show that he is unmoved. "You associate with traitors."

The hand falls away, and she squares her shoulders, raises her chin. "You know nothing of me, or my people," she grates. "Todo-kun's wife is pregnant. His child will grow up without a father, because of your rash, baseless actions. I can no longer allow you to harm the citizens of this city. If you come into this manor, it will be an act of war."

Ibuki rises to his feet, his hands on his sword, ready to protect his mistress. At that signal, clansmen from each side of the gate run into view, taking up position in front of her, each one carrying a rifle. Shoji open behind her, and men of Satsuma and the Goryo-Eji pour into the yard. Hijikata swallows dryly. It is far more than he had expected, more than he had behind him.

"Well?" she asks, taking her daisho from her second personal guard. "Will you stake your lives, the lives of the Aizu, and the lives of all samurai loyal to the shogun, on your information? Will you start a war, Hijikata?"

To emphasize her point, more men appear on the roof, rifles aimed at them. He is outmanned and outmaneuvered, and he will never, ever again underestimate Kamiya Kaoru.

"We will return, with proof of your disloyalty," he swears.

Kaoru ignores his warning. "Close the gate," she orders.


She doesn't watch the gate close on her former comrades, or Hijikata turn and retreat. Instead, she keeps her grip firm on her daisho, and looks toward the wall to the right of the gate, where Kenshin had taken up position. She hadn't included him in her plans, but of course, her person was threatened, and so there he was, crouched and ready to run out in front of everyone and face an entire troop of soldiers alone. It is only when his stance relaxes that her breath returns. It leaves her lips in a sob and she falls to sit on the ground, lightheaded.

"Sensei!" Ibuki kneels down beside her, grasps her shoulder.

"They're gone now, Kamiya-sama," Eita tells her quietly, and takes her daisho away.

"Kaoru-dono?" Kenshin is there, standing over her. He glances around the courtyard before kneeling in front of her and placing one hand carefully over hers, his eyes gentle. "It's all right now, my heart, it's over now."

Kaoru bites her lip and nods, wishing she could lean against him, let him carry her to their private quarters. Many in her household had been shocked last night when she'd arrived home in the arms of Hitokiri Battousai, but that had hardly been the only shock, as the bodies came home, as her allies arrived, as her secrets unravelled and fell away.

Kenshin squeezes her hand, and she manages a weak smile in return. If nothing else, at least now, after he had been in the manor so prominently, she could have him with her in the open. All of her allegiances were known to the shogun now, and there was no use in hiding.

"Kamiya-sama!"

Eita drops her daisho and runs. It had been Aoi's voice, off towards the room where Heisuke lay. Kaoru surges to her feet, following after as quickly as her kimono will allow, but Kenshin is faster than both of them. He throws open the shoji to Heisuke's room and Aoi runs outside, screaming, straight into Eita's arms. She collapses against him in tears, and Kaoru stands in the garden, frozen.

"Don't come closer, Himura-san!" Kimiki shrieks, waving a knife in front of her, and Kenshin lowers himself to his knees, his hands held out carefully in front of him. Kaoru watches in terror as the heavily pregnant woman ceases pointing her dagger at him, turning it to instead set against her face. "I will not live without him," she sobs softly, and tightens her grip on the hilt. Her hands shake and she bites her lip, her tears streaming down her face. For a moment, Kaoru thinks she will drop the blade, but then she screams, "Heisuke!" She moves, and Kaoru yells, still paralyzed. But at that moment, Kenshin disappears from the doorway, a flash of red hair and blue fabric—the next time she sees him he is next to Kimiki, one hand closed around the blade of her dagger, the other pinning her hands around the hilt. Kaoru gasps and she falls onto her knees in relief, her shoulder sagging against the door frame.

Kimiki struggles briefly, but she is no match for Kenshin's iron grip, and she gives up, sobbing, "Let me die, Himura! Please… please don't make me live without him!"

But Kenshin doesn't let her go. He is wearing his daisho and there are too many blades still within Kimiki's reach.

"Forgive me, Kimiki-dono," he tells her softly. "I was waiting to talk to you, but Kaoru-dono needed me first."

"There is nothing you can say that will bring him back," she cries, "I want to go to him-"

"When Kaoru-dono disappeared," he interrupts, but then he shakes his head. "When I thought Kaoru-dono had died, in those first moments... I wanted to die, too. I was hoping my opponent would end my life, so I wouldn't have to do it myself, but I had resolved to to do it, if it came to that."

Kimiki blinks at him and Kaoru's breath catches in her throat. He never speaks about what happened to him in Otsu, not even to her.

"I couldn't bear it," Kenshin admits quietly, "the thought of a world without her. Even though I knew the gods would never allow me to go to the same place as her, that no matter what I did, I would not see her again... I still wanted to die."

He had Kimiki's attention now, and so he lowers their hands, still keeping hold of hers, around the dagger. The blade is pressing against his hands, and he is bleeding, but he ignores it, instead holding Kimiki's gaze.

"I defeated that opponent, and the blow that was meant for me was taken by someone else. I took a life I should not have, but that person forgave me. She told me I had to live, because it was what Kaoru-dono had wanted."

Kaoru presses her hands over her mouth. "Tomoe!"

"I didn't want to believe her. I didn't want to live, even though I knew the words were true. I spent many days on the floor of our home, hoping for death to find me, but it did not come. Standing up again was the hardest thing I have ever done, but I did it. Just as you, Kimiki-dono, will stand again. This pain will not go away, but with time it will diminish until it becomes easier to carry. You are strong Kimiki-dono, and you have someone to live for. The precious child inside of you is a part of Heisuke. Please," he begs, "please live for that child."

"Himura-san!" she sobs. Kimiki seems to sink, the fight going out of her—at last, Kenshin lets go of her hands. She grabs the front of his kimono and buries her face against his chest, sobbing incoherently, and Kenshin wraps his arm around her, making soothing noises while he sets her dagger down on the tatami behind him and takes his daisho from his belt. He clenches his fist behind his back, to stop it from bleeding.

Kaoru looks out across the garden, where Aoi was silent, folded in Eita's arms, and beyond them Katsura stood waiting with Ibuki. Everyone's face is a mask of sadness, no one's eyes will meet hers. Burying all her emotions and weariness, she gets to her feet. "Please go for Dr. Gensai," she tells Eita quietly, and he nods. Kaoru glides away in a daze, nodding Katsura towards her office. There were still things that required her attention, and Kenshin's quiet words have made her remember something important. Apart from trusted friends and servants, there was one other person who knew that she had married Kenshin.


It is past dark when Kenshin is relieved of guard duty by two members of the Goryo-Eji. Katsura had sent him to walk Sakamoto-san home and remain with him until further notice. He hasn't seen Kaoru since the morning; it had taken a long time to calm Kimiki to the point where it was safe to leave her in Aoi's care, and by then Kaoru had been sequestered in her office with Katsura, Saigo, and Okubo. He'd waited for her on the porch outside, which was where Katsura had collected him with his orders. It had made his shoulders twitch, to again be dividing his loyalties. He was still in the service of Choshuu, but his heart wanted to stay there in the Kamiya Manor.

Kenshin ghosts home along the rooftops, but when he reaches the manor, he drops down to the street and walks in through the front gate. The guards nod to him, but a few servants in the yard go still at the sight of him. Kenshin nods to them as well, hurrying along so as to miss their reaction. Cleary, his presence would take everyone some getting used to. But this was his home; it had been for months, and his wife was waiting for him. He walks boldly across the grounds to their private quarters, where Ibuki stood at the shoji.

"Himura-san," he says, bowing politely and opening the door.

Kenshin stands beside the younger man for a moment, then reaches out to squeeze his shoulder. "You did well today, Ibuki-kun."

The corners of Ibuki's eyes water, but he is bushi, and in front of Kenshin, he would not cry. He nods in thanks as Kenshin steps through the door to leave him to wipe at his eyes in private.

The garden is dark, the only light from the lamp in their bedroom, a soft golden river that flowed from the open shoji and pooled around the woman sitting alone on the porch. She is still wearing her black kimono, and the light seems to bend around her, as if she is a sturdy and immoveable stone.

"I am home, Kaoru," he calls out to her. He walks around the porch to sit right beside her, and she leans against him without looking at him.

"Welcome home," she mumbles, sounding so tired. He puts his arm around her for a moment, and when she slumps against him, finally giving in to her exhaustion, he pulls himself around her, allowing her to lean against him comfortably. He wraps both arms around her and presses his face against her hair, soothed by her perfume. The day before had been one crisis after another, but nothing had shaken him as deeply as finding her sprawled in the road, bleeding and shoeless, her clothes in shreds. To have her in his arms was the only relief he knew. Though it made him guilty to admit he felt relieved; they had lost so many, but not each other.

Kaoru takes hold of his arms where they cross in front of her and leans her head against his shoulder, looking out into the garden. It was very late now, the manor quiet.

"I spoke today with Katsura," she tells him. "You have married outside the clan, and so you can no longer serve him."

Kenshin blinks, surprised. It seems a strange time for the Choshuu Leader to dismiss him, when he has been married for nearly three years.

"Oh?" he asks, because that is all he can think of to say.

Kaoru turns, her tired eyes heavy in the darkness. "They know," she says. "The Shinsengumi, the Aizu, the shogun. And you were here today; and… I want you here. I do not wish to hide anymore, and there is no need to do so."

"Koishii…"

He looks at her hands, the slender, tapered hands that he loves, the hands that have carried so many burdens. "I am still a hitokiri," he reminds her. "Your reputation-"

Kaoru presses her hand to his lips, silencing all the excuses on his tongue. He looks at her, pleading. "Do not endure more hardship for my sake, do not let my presence make you unsafe."

"I don't care about my reputation, I want you here," she repeats, iron in her voice, the voice of the Lady Kamiya, all samurai. Her eyes soften as she lowers her hand. "I will make it safe for you to be here."

He gapes at her; watching as she chews her lip and fiddles with the edge of her sleeves. She exhales sharply and swipes her hand under her eyes. "I want you here."

He holds her then, while her shoulders tremble with quiet tears, running his hand over the back of her head, humming the soft songs she always sang to him. Trying to be a soothing place of comfort and strength on what had been a very dark day. This was what Heisuke had told him he could be for her, and to honour his fallen friend, he will try to remember he is more than a sword.

"Then I am a ronin, now," he muses quietly when she has ceased crying, when she is warm and safe in his arms.

She nods against his shoulder. "Yes," she whispers, and the relief in her voice thrills him. He has no duty now but what he chose, and his heart is already deeply bound.

"I have heard around the city, that the Lady Kamiya will take in ronin, regardless of their past misdeeds. Do you think she will let me serve her?"

The corners of her lips twitch in an almost smile. "I think perhaps she would."

Chapter Text

It only took five days to call her men back from Satsuma, for Saigo to surround the city with nearly every soldier in his clan. For two tense weeks, the city waited. Unable to enter the city, the shogun sent his apologies to court, saying he was ill and could not attend. When the Lord of Aizu followed suit, Kaoru finally had the opportunity she needed. It took very little convincing to get the lords of court to pardon Choshuu of their clansmen's actions and reinstate them as protectors of the Emperor.

Once the order was passed, it was nothing for Saigo and Katsura to take control of the palace gates at dawn, nothing to dispatch an imperial herald to the Aizu estate to inform Lord Matsudaira that his presence in Kyoto was no longer required. With one scroll of paper, Kaoru cleared the city of the shogun's forces, forgave Choshuu, and set Kenshin free.

Kaoru sets her empty cup back on its saucer, staving off Ikumatsu's attempt to refill it with a sincere smile. She dressed today in dark blue hakama and kimono, the sleeves embroidered with light purple aster: the flower for remembrance. She was still a representative of the Emperor, and every eye looked at her as she travelled through the city. It had been her first public appearance since Ito-san had been assassinated, and she had cut an impressive figure on her black horse, surrounded by a unit of Goryo-Eji. Perhaps not as impressive as the red-haired man on a grey mare beside her, but then, Kenshin was unreasonably handsome in his striped hakama, black kimono, and the haori that she herself had embroidered with the Kamiya mon.

Ikumatsu smiles, setting down the teapot. "I look forward to the rumors in the city tomorrow."

Kaoru laughs softly. "If anything, at least this will stop the mothers of samurai from trying to visit," she agrees, playing with the edge of her shortened sleeve. She looks across the yard, where Kenshin was pacing on the opposite porch.

"He is still uneasy about it," Katsura muses, and Kaoru nods.

"We have been in the shadows for a long time," she says softly. "He has been pardoned, but it will take time for him to pardon himself."

"If there is anything I might do to help-"

"You have done enough, ani-ue."

They look at each other for a long moment, and it is Katsura who looks away first. "Forgive me…" he starts, but Kaoru shakes her head.

"He volunteered," she reminds him. "It is our burden to bear now."

Kaoru hears Ikumatsu release the breath she had been holding, and she gives the older woman a gentle smile. The former geiko returns it, relief in her eyes, and begins to gather the tea things. After his wife has taken her leave, Katsura speaks again.

"Do you still intend to let Akuyaku walk free?"

Kaoru bites her lip, and shakes her head. She had weighed everything carefully before coming to this decision. "Strip him of his manor," she says quietly. "Without resources he will be useless, and easy to keep track of."

"You won't kill him."

"I won't. He deserves it, many times over, but…" Her eyes drift again, across the house.

Katsura shakes his head, but the look in his eyes is fond. "The Kamiya walk a path I do not envy," he admits. "How you manage to do it with such grace and strength is beyond me. I still have much to learn from the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu."

Kaoru smiles briefly in thanks, but the look in her eyes is serious and firm. "We need to talk about Saigo-san."

Katsura grimaces, and Kaoru draws herself up to her full height. Sakamoto-san has been ill for nearly a week, so it fell to her to keep the peace.

"The Satsuma are stirring up a great deal of trouble in Edo," she continues, "and surely you know we cannot hope to prevent war if we continue to provoke the shogun."

"War is coming, whether we want to avoid it or not," Katsura says. "I will see what can be done about Edo, but you and I both know, all it will take to start a war is a spark."


It is hours before dawn, but Hijikata had always been an early riser. He has found that these quiet contemplative hours are the best for completing his paperwork, so he starts each day by preparing tea, stirring his brazier to life, then sitting at his desk. On this particular morning, there is a fine coating of frost in the yard, so he skirts along the porch, taking the long way to the kitchen. Only, once he is in the kitchen, the woodbin has been allowed to remain empty, and the stove fire has gone out. The Vice Commander frowns. This week the chore was the responsibility of the first unit, and it was unlike Souji to be lax with his men. Since their falling out with Kamiya Kaoru, the first unit captain had become hyper-vigilant of his duties.

On the way to the woodpile, Hijikata reflects on his young friend's recent behavior; while it was good he had not sunk into a depression, as he had when she had gone missing, his current abrasiveness was driving everyone equally crazy. He would need to speak to Souji before things got out of control and they had a mutiny on their hands.

"I should have turned that girl away the very first day," Hijikata grumbles, though his heart is not in it. She was still one of the finest swordsman he had ever seen, still tactically brilliant. It was a shame, really, that she had become a traitor. A waste of talent.

A loud thud echoes out of the bathhouse next to the woodpile, and Hijikata listens, alert. It would be very unusual indeed for someone to be in the bathhouse at this hour; he had enough trouble getting the men in there during the day. The Vice Commander arms himself with a log a bit thicker than his wrist and walks noiselessly to the bathhouse door.

There is a muffled noise coming from inside, and it takes him a moment to recognize it as coughing. Hijikata throws the log to the ground in mild disgust. A sick recruit could infect the entire troop if left untreated, and now he would need to play nursemaid. He throws open the bathhouse door and steps inside, and his eyes immediately widen at the scene before him.

Blood. There is blood on the floor, dripping through fingers. So much that Hijikata almost thinks the man is cut before another hacking fit of coughing shakes his shoulders, and the Vice-Commander knows. As a child, Hijikata had overcome the same illness, but it had never been this bad.

"Souji."

He kneels next to the first unit captain, and sets his hand between the younger man's shoulder blades to warm his lungs. "Try to relax," he advises, his typically gruff voice gentle, betraying his concern underneath. "Try to breathe deeply."

It takes several minutes, but eventually Souji does stop coughing. He wipes the blood off his chin with his sleeve and stares at Hijikata with dead eyes. "Don't tell Kondo. I will continue my duties."

"Like hell," Hijikata spits, and once again he is the Vice Commander. "Can you stand?"

He pulls Souji's arm around his shoulders and helps him to his feet. "Don't be so foolish. You're going to rest, and get well, just as I did," he orders, leading Souji from the bathhouse and across the frosty yard. If Hijikata had to tie him up and lock him in his room, gods help him, he would.

"Hijikata-sensei!" Nagakura yelled, taking in the sight of them.

"Nagakura," he replies. "I need you to go for the doctor."

"Yes sensei, but…"

Hijikata pauses for a moment, looking over his shoulder at the second unit captain. They were no longer to patrol Kyoto because of the Imperial decree, but Nagakura was on guard duty.

"What is it?"

"The Kyoto magistrate is here," Nagakura reports, looking uncomfortable. "He wishes to speak to you and Kondo-sensei about Sakamoto Ryoma."


Kenshin stops at the entrance to the dojo, and waits. It is growing dark, but he can still easily make out the figure inside, dressed in training clothes that have become damp with sweat. Kaoru's tail of hair snaps behind her as she twists, slicing her bokken through the air. He can easily see that her arms are tired, that the strain from expending too much effort has made her unusually sloppy. It has been hours since the messenger from Katsura had brought the news. She had quietly gone to the dojo while he seated himself at her desk to write their condolences to Oryo-dono, and he had left her to her practice, because the dojo was where she went when she had emotions too big to name.

A particularly complicated kata proves too much for her over-worked limbs – she trips and her bokken clatters to the ground. Before she can hit the floor he is beside her and has closed his arms around her, lowering them both carefully to the polished floor.

"Kaoru," he chides softly, brushing her sweaty hair back from her face.

She grits her teeth and looks down. "How dare they," she hisses, and he nods in sympathy.

The Kyoto magistrate had found a katana sheath in Sakamoto's room, the wood marked with the crest of the Harada family. The Shinsengumi had yet to publicly deny the accusation. Instead, they were holing up in Fudodo and waiting for orders from the Aizu forces, trusting that their allegiance to the shogun would help them overcome the rumors.

"They have killed patriots before," he reminds her gently.

But at this, Kaoru shakes her head. "Sanosuke fights with a spear. His family does not have hereditary daisho."

Kenshin blinks at her in confusion and she presses her lips together and reaches for his hands. "We must be careful of Saigo-san's ambition," she tells him quietly. "The Satsuma are eager for war."

The implication crashes over him, and Kenshin reels. Sakamoto-san had been their ally, the broker of the Satcho alliance. He was Kaoru's strongest supporter.

"Do you-" he starts, and then he rolls his shoulders. It didn't matter if the alliance was falling apart – he was not Ishin-Shishi any longer. He abruptly gets to his feet, his mind blanked of everything except the Oryo-dono's kindness, and how she doted on Sakamoto-san, the pain he knew for those who are left behind. His fists clench and he nearly jumps when Kaoru takes hold of his wrist.

"Where are you going?"

He gapes at her, unsure how to answer that question. He knows where he would like to go; it would be easy for him to gain entry to the Satsuma Manor, he could walk right through the gate and ask to see Saigo. Revenge in this case was natural, and if Saigo was cutting ties with his allies, he had to move before Kaoru was next. But then they would know it had been him; better to keep to the shadows, travel by rooftop. All that mattered was the safety of his wife. "There will be no more attempts on your life," he says quietly, not allowing it to be a question.

Her gaze melts into what seems like pity. "Kenshin," she says softly, then shakes her head. "Who would try it, anata, with you sleeping beside me?"

"Sakamoto-san was just as fast," he reminds her.

"This is not your stone to bear, anata. It is not your duty to carry these kinds of burdens for everyone."

Kenshin rolls his shoulders and stares at her toes, peeking out from under the hem of her hakama. He could easily break the delicate hold she has on his wrist, but he doesn't want to. He stares at the floor and fights hopelessly with the two parts of himself; the swordsman bound by duty, and the man bound by his heart.

Kaoru's fingers slide down his hand, taking hold of it and threading their fingers together. "There will be war," Kaoru says gently. "Especially now, without Sakamoto-san to guide us. Saigo needs the Kamiya forces. He needs me."

Kenshin nods, not at all reassured. They should have run. They should have left Otsu and never looked back, but they had been so naïve. Perhaps they still were.

"And he is afraid of you," she adds.

He looks at her then and her eyes are gentle; she taps her forefinger against what he knows is his wry smile, the smile he knows she hates. He had come to offer her comfort, but he should have known better. She was far stronger than he was.

"Will you stand beside me, anata, on this path I have chosen?"

"Kaoru," he sighs. He takes her other hand in his, pressing a kiss to her palm. "Always, my heart."

"I will have to go tomorrow to inspect the troops stationed outside the city, will you come with me?"

He nods, kissing her palm again, and so Kaoru cups his cheek. "Then we should sleep soon, I want to leave at first light."

Kenshin leaves her touch to retrieve her bokken, walking across the dojo to replace it in the rack. When he turns back she is watching him with a soft look in her large eyes, twisting her fingers in her sleeves, suddenly vulnerable and shy.

"Koishii?"

A soft flush covers her cheeks and she bites her lip. "Will you come and sit with me, in the furo?"


Nagakura Shinpachi, second unit captain as well as the newly promoted first unit captain, stamps his cold toes and watches forlornly as his breath fogs the air. Guarding Kondo-sensei was supposed to be an honour, but it hardly seemed like a prize on this frosty winter morning. The sun had barely risen, so there was at least the promise of warmer hours to come on the road, but he couldn't help but wonder gloomily if this type of duty was exactly how Souji had gotten ill in the first place.

Several of the men around him are blowing warmth into their hands instead of looking sharp, and Shinpachi can't really blame them. He'll have to reward them with hot sake and noodles tonight; the first unit had had it hard enough lately with losing Souji, and none of them had escaped the Vice-Commander's foul mood or Kondo-sensei's rash decision to travel towards Edo in search of new recruits. It was a fool's errand, especially with all the reports of Satcho units hiding in the countryside. Not for the first time, Shinpachi rues his promotion. "I should have insisted Saito-san take it," he mutters under his breath, causing Kondo-sensei's horse to blow air at him. He pats the animal's neck absently and goes back to scanning both sides of the roadway. Nothing seems amiss, but for some reason he is starting to get the unpleasant feeling that someone is watching him. Judging from the others' fidgeting, he is not the only one.

With only the unsettling feeling and a soft whinny of unease from the horse to warn him, a figure materializes ahead of them to the side of the road.

"Stop!"

The voice is soft, high, and clear, both gentle and firm at the same time. A voice that was used to issuing both kindness and command.

"It's Kaoru!"

"…Kamiya-senpai?"

"Kaoru-chan…"

The murmurs ripple through the men, and the familiarity only deepens Kondo-sensei's look of displeasure.

She takes two strides towards them and stops, out of range and with her feet together, her hands covered in kote held loose at her sides. She is dressed for travel in a blue kimono with a black tattsuke-hakama tied low at her waist, wearing a thick haori and a strikingly dyed indigo shawl wound around her neck. Her hair falls behind her from a high tail, caught at the crown of her head with a scrap of faded black fabric. She looked so much like she had in the troop that he almost expects her to report.

"You shouldn't be here, Nagakura-san," she says, and she looks angry, but also worried. It made him want to tug the edge of her sleeve in reassurance, the way he had used to when they patrolled together. But that was in the past.

He bows deeply; he is only samurai and Kaoru is a ward of the Emperor. "Forgive us for intruding on you, Kamiya-sama, we are on the way to Edo. Our travel documents were approved by the gatekeepers."

Kaoru sighs resignedly. "I am sorry for that," she says, and her voice hints that someone in the gatehouse will be very sorry indeed. "But I have to ask you to turn around; it is not advisable for you to travel right now."

He is about to bow politely and try to persuade her otherwise, but Kondo-sensei, diplomatic as only Kondo could be, decided in that moment to take matters into his own hands.

"You will forgive us for not heeding you, Kamiya-sama, but we are on business for the shogun."

Shinpachi winces. Kaoru looks at Kondo-sensei for a long moment before answering, "There are gunmen stationed along this road, who will shoot hostile forces," she says calmly. "Until the matter of Sakamoto Ryoma's death is cleared, it would be best for you to turn back."

"Is that a threat?" Kondo levels at her, and Shinpachi has to bite his tongue, he is so mortified.

Kaoru's eyes flash, and her spirit crashes against them – only it felt strangely different from the spirit he remembered. Colder, darker, more lethal. It actually sends a shiver up his spine. If this was what Souji had been up against in their duel he does not blame the man for losing in one hit.

"Are you threatening me, Kondo-san?"

Kaoru shifts her weight, and sets her thumb against the guard of her sword. Shinpachi's heartbeat pounds in his ears, and he looks urgently at the Commander. It would be very bad, after the mess with Ito-san and the rumours regarding Sakamoto Ryoma, for them to do anything other than leave the Lady Kamiya unharmed. Her question hangs in the wind for several moments before Kondo speaks again.

"We must go to Edo."

"Fine," she sighs. "Fine, Kondo, if your business is so important. We will escort you."

"We?" Shinpachi thinks, suddenly concerned about exactly how many men she has stationed around them and how they had managed to hide so well... when the real owner of the lethal spirit steps out of the underbrush beside her. He is only one hand taller, one hand broader than the woman next to him, but his eyes are colder than steel, their narrow glare pulling his gruesome cross-shaped scar into sharp relief. Hair the colour of blood and a reputation blacker than death itself. Hitokiri Battousai.

Several men reach for swords before Shinpachi can think to shout a command, but Kaoru is faster. She sets her right hand on her hilt and lowers her stance. That was all, but it was enough to make the troop stand down.

"We will take you as far as the bridge," she says.

"This is absolute madness," Shinpachi thinks, looking up at Kondo-sensei and praying to all the gods the Commander wasn't about to get them all killed on the sword of the Ishin-Shishi's caged demon. His stance is perfect, and the rumours said that once his hands were set to draw, you were nothing but a dead man. Shinpachi was one of the best in the troop, but this man had held his own against Souji, Saito-san, and Heisuke, arguably three of the best swordsmen in Japan. The second unit captain was bushi, he did not fear death, but even so he breaks out in a cold sweat.

"I dislike this, Honoured Wife," Battousai says quietly, eyeing them all.

Kaoru sets two fingers on the assassin's wrist, and Shinpachi observes how his grip on his sword hilt loosens a little. "Bear it for a little while, Husband," she says softly.

Shinpachi swallows hard, cursing himself for forgetting. The rumour had spread through the troop like wildfire, but it wasn't until Kaoru had paraded through the streets of Kyoto with obviously shortened sleeves and the Battousai riding beside her that he'd allowed himself to believe it.

"If anything should happen to men in the service of the shogun," she continues, "it will only push us closer to war."

She was helping them merely for political reasons, but Shinpachi will take what he can get. He'd rather not die today if he can help it. He doesn't wait for Kondo-sensei to ruin the mood; Shinpachi bows deeply to her in gratitude. "Thank you for your generosity, Kamiya-sama. If it suits, please lead on from here."

She looks at last at the man beside her, meeting his eyes in what appeared to be a silent conversation. He can't be sure, because the man's spirit doesn't change, but it appears to Shinpachi that he relaxes a bit, that his eyes soften under her gaze. Hitokiri Battousai nods once before setting out, keeping his hands ready to draw, and Kaoru stays one step behind him, equally alert. They move with an effortless unison that likely would have choked Souji to see, clear of each other's drawing range and checking each other's blind spots.

The men of the first unit fan out behind her without being ordered, a safe distance back. Shinpachi takes hold of Kondo's horse's reins and starts out, his own unit falling into step around him. They go slowly, everyone checking and rechecking around them, halting when Kaoru signals, because of course she remembered their hand-signals. Each time, Hitokiri Battousai would melt into the high grass on the side of the road, and they would wait tensely for his return before starting out again. It is not until the bridge is in sight that Shinpachi finally feels the magnitude of what Kaoru has done for them, what Hitokiri Battousai of all people has done; and he thinks the men back at headquarters won't ever believe this – he can barely believe it himself. He grins at the insanity of it all, when off to his right, comes a faint click.

Hitokiri Battousai spins on his heel, his eyes wide in fear, and everything happens all at once.

"No!" Kaoru shouts, leaping towards the sound in the bushes, but before she can even get off the road the Ishin-Shishi assassin has wrapped himself protectively around her and there is the thunderous crack of a gun firing. Kondo's horse rears while Shinpachi pulls hard on the reins in his hands to control the animal.

A small puff of smoke hangs over a particularly dense thicket, and Hitokiri Battousai releases Kaoru from his arms. "Kenshin!" she cries.

Shinpachi vaguely wonders if "heart of the sword" was a curse he hadn't yet encountered. Kaoru reaches for Hitokiri Battousai with a soft cry, but the man has already disappeared in the direction of the smoke, moving so fast that one second Kondo's horse was rearing and he was there, and the next the horse is standing shaking and he is gone. Shinpachi looks up at the Commander as he doubles over in his seat, clutching at his chest.

"Kondo-sensei?" he asks, fighting against the dread in his stomach. There had been one shot and atop his horse the Commander was an easy target. He lets go of the reins to try and prop the Commander up, and one of the men accidentally hits the horse's flank with his scabbard. The frightened animal screams and bolts, with Kondo still on it, and Shinpachi swears louder than he should in the presence of a high-ranking Lady.

"Go, Nagakura-sensei!" Kaoru shouts, so frantic that she hasn't remembered to hide her spirit. She is beyond angry. He barks the command for retreat immediately. They owed her at least that much for all the trouble she'd encountered for their stupidity. His men turn and run after their Commander's horse, but he hesitates.

"Kaoru," he says, and she tears her eyes away from the smoking thicket to look at him, her eyes so sad it feels like he's the one who's been shot. "Thank you Kaoru-chan. Thank him for us."

Kaoru looks at him for a moment, something unreadable in her eyes. Then she turns back to the thicket and squares her shoulders. "Go," is all she says, so he takes his leave.


It is pitch black when Murakami shakes him awake, but Enishi is used to the Yaminobu keeping random hours. He blinks the sleep from his eyes to see the hulking ninja assessing him with a hard stare.

"Still keen on revenge, boy?" he asks gruffly.

Enishi nods. Until Hitokiri Battousai is dead, he cannot go home to face his father. Not until his honour is sated and his sister can rest in peace.

"Get your things together," the ninja orders. "Only what you can carry. It's time to part ways with Akuyaku-sama."

Enishi throws his meager possessions together in minutes, wrapping them all up in a violet shawl and tying the bundle securely across his back. Murakami leads him through the manor, keeping to the shadows. It is no easy feat considering the courtyard is swarming with armed men bearing guns and torches, but Murakami is the last of the shogun's Yaminobu, and his skill is what has kept him alive.

Once they are in the safety of the woods, Enishi hazards a question. "What's happened?"

He'd seen the rest of the inhabitants of the manor corralled together, though nobody had seemed to be hurt. If anything, it had looked like the guards had surrendered without a fight at all.

"Don't trouble yourself," Murakami grunts. "It was about time Akuyaku's schemes caught up with him."


Kaoru scrubs a hand over her eyes, and tries again to focus on the papers in front of her. Her mind is crammed with the details of scouting reports, ammunition inventories, calculations of distance and rate of travel. The shogun is on the move from Osaka, and by tomorrow his forces will be at Tominomori. Signs pointed to him amassing his army on two roads, one from Toba, and the other from Fushimi. Katsura and Saigo had already set to reinforcing the gates, but they would have to move their men into place tomorrow. The strategy nagged at her; there were many roads into Kyoto, and with only five thousand men at their disposal, they'd be hard pressed to defend them all against the shogun's much larger army. That he was choosing to bottleneck his forces south of the city confused her, and that made her worried. She feared a second strategy was coming, and she does not know what it is, or how to defend against it. They were going to have to commit the bulk of their forces at Toba and Fushimi, and keep lines of communication with other guard posts as open as possible.

She taps her map over Toba, where scouting reports indicated the Shinsengumi would be marching. They would be under Hijikata now, with Kondo still healing from his gunshot wound. They had done the shogun a great service by ensuring the troop was lead by the Vice Commander, instead of the less-tactically minded Kondo. Kaoru shakes her head and sighs, setting the map aside. A letter is under them, and Kaoru recognizes the handwriting as Oryo-dono's. She opens it carefully; she hadn't been expecting Sakamoto-san's widow to send a response to their letter so soon.

Kamiya-sama,

I once again enclose a letter for you. This was found amongst Sakamoto-sama's things, and I wanted you to have it.

Words cannot express my gratitude for the kindness you and your Husband have shown me.

Oryo

"Ah," she sighs softly. Kaoru opens the second letter with shaky fingers. On this, the eve of war, she feels Sakatmoto-san's absence very keenly. Without him, she is not certain of how they will navigate in their new era. Without him, she does not know how she will manage Katsura and Saigo.

Ohimura-dono,

It occurs to me, now that we have brought our new era out into the light of day, that we must now work to unify those who oppose us. I fear I will rely on your life-giving sword a great deal in the times to come, for if Japan is to heal from its divisions - if we are truly to become one nation, and not simply a grouping of hans – we must seek this unity without bloodshed. How are we to ask the people, the samurai, to set aside centuries of duty and unite? Perhaps we need a symbol, something everyone can look to and understand. Maybe this is the musings of a man delirious, I will leave you to decide! I have been in bed much these last few days with a cold, but I grow stronger and look forward to discussing this with you. Send your husband soon to play goh, he is a good warm up for his craftier wife.

Ryoma

Kaoru folds the letter with care, and looks out over her yard, trying to come to terms with her shame. Was Sakamoto-san disappointed beyond the grave, to know war had not been avoided? And what would he do in her place, now that it was upon them, now that their small force was about to face the entire might of the shogunate?

"How can I unite us, Sakamoto-san?" she murmurs. As if in response, a stiff breeze blows through the yard, snapping at the Kamiya banners on the wall.

Perhaps we need a symbol…

Kaoru's eyes widen and she climbs to her feet. She runs along the porch towards her private quarters, but Kenshin finds her before she gets there.

"What is it?" he breathes, sounding out of breath. "What's wrong, koishii?"

"I need to speak with Katsura," she tells him, taking his hand and leading him towards their room. She needed to put on hakama and her daisho.

"I will go with you," he says, but there is a question in his eyes. Kaoru squeezes his hand.

"Sakamoto-san has reminded me; when facing an opponent, I must remember the tenants of the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu. We will have to engage the shogun, but perhaps there is a way to do so without wasting too many lives."

He blinks at her, and she smiles. "What we need is a banner to unite us."

Chapter Text

It is not yet dawn; even with the shoji open, their room is still dark. Kaoru stands perfectly still, her arms outstretched. She had watched her mother dress her father in his armor once, knew the order the pieces went on and the prayers to be spoken over each. She has tied her own armor on herself more than once, though before Kinmon, it had been Heisuke who'd tightened the sote over her shoulders for her.

Kenshin has been tugging at her armor's various knots for nearly an hour, but she let him. She had been equally detailed when tying on his kote, ensuring the links of the light mail shirt he wore under his kimono lay flat and bore no weak spots. The kusari was the only addition to his normal clothes, and while she would like to encase him in plates of iron, she knows the weight would only slow him down. So she'd pressed her love into each tiny hoop of metal, and charged each one to keep him safe and whole.

Finally satisfied with her haidate, Kenshin raises himself to his knees and touches his fingers to the center of her dou. It is the most important prayer, the final one said over armor, and Kaoru sets both hands over his and bows her head. She closes her eyes and offers her own prayer for them both. Let us go and end it, and come back safely. Give us no more stones to bear.

When she opens her eyes he is looking up at her, his gaze soft and unreadable. He clears his throat gently. "How does the armor feel?"

She rolls her shoulders, twists her waist, and nods. "Good. Secure."

He picks up her himo and gets to his feet. Kaoru sets her hands on his shoulders while he binds it around her waist. She squeezes his shoulders as he knots the sash.

"Go where you are needed, save as many lives as you can," she says softly. She steps forwards, curling her arms around his neck as his arms encircle her and they press their foreheads together. "Then come home."

"To me."

She leaves the last part unspoken, because they are each other's home; so long as their hearts are beating they will always have a place to return to. Kenshin takes hold of her hands, lowering them to hold at their sides. They stand in silence for a few moments until he draws away and reaches into the left side of his kimono.

"I am only lending this to you," he warns quietly, drawing out a tattered scrap of blue silk from over his heart, stained and frayed and stitched together in two places. Kaoru wills herself to remain strong for him, and meets his shining eyes. He reaches out to cup her cheek.

"This is my most precious treasure," he tells her, voice shaking slightly, "so you need to come home and return it to me."

Kaoru pulls loose the cord securing the tight knot at the back of her head, and he combs his fingers through her hair, gathering it at the crown of her head in a high tail, binding it tight with her ribbon, their string of fate, the promise that tied them together.

"I will," she tells him firmly, when the knot was secure.


Kaoru paces back and forth on the road, attempting to keep warm. Night is starting to fall over the Toba gate, and while they were safely ensconced behind a defilade of sandbags, wooden panels, and bamboo stakes, she didn't dare order any fires lit. If her reports were correct, the Kuwana forces on the other side of the gate had rifles of shorter range than those carried by the men stationed with her here, but she wouldn't make things easier on them by giving them light to see by. This was the most dangerous time – armies were always more vulnerable at dusk, especially when they'd been waiting around all day in a stalemate.

Both Katsura and Saigo had agreed it was necessary to keep communication channels as open as possible, and Kaoru had further ensured Saigo's support by breaking up the Satsuma forces into two groups. Half were in Fushimi with the bulk of the Choshuu, under the joint command of Katsura and the Satsuma General. The rest were here with Okubo and her, lined up next to Kamiya clansmen and the Goryo-Eji. Kaoru's lips turn up wryly; she did not envy Katsura. At least Okubo had to defer to her because of rank... but if she was honest, Katsura and Saigo were better suited working together, and the Choshuu Leader owed her that favour. It was best to keep Kenshin as far away from Saigo as possible.

Her husband is sitting off to the side of the road on top of a few sandbags, sword leaning against his shoulder, hands folded in his sleeves, eyes closed. His easy repose doesn't fool her; she knows he is alert to the slightest noise, but his seeming indifference to the situation has calmed the other soldiers immeasurably. What did they have to worry about, if the legendary Hitokiri Battousai was relaxed enough to sleep? Kaoru twists her fingers in the air; her sleeves have been tied back, covered by her kote. Rumors of Kenshin's feats were traded like currency in the Satcho ranks, but apart from the small force she'd sent to Choshuu under Haruto, no one here had fought in battle with Kenshin before. She has seen him only once, not enough to trust herself to deploy him.

Go where you are needed. Save as many lives as you can. Then come home.

"Kamiya-sama."

Her high tail of hair and tattered blue ribbon whip around at the noise, but Kaoru makes her steps towards Haruto calm and even. All eyes are on her to lead, and if she is calm so too would be her men. Her general holds out a bamboo canister.

"The latest report on the negotiations," he explains.

Kaoru takes it with a steady hand and a nod, reads it over quickly and returns it to the canister. "Take this to Okubo. I will await him here," she says softly.


Saito is cold, but the cold was a small thing. They'd been sitting all day behind the Kuwana lines, waiting, and Hijikata was nearly irate. For the Vice-Commander, the insult of making troops march all the way from Osaka and then wait around for negotiations to take place was a heavy one, and Saito agreed. The shogun had set his sights on wiping out the Satcho rebels; why was he even entertaining talking to them? For the hundredth time that day, he wished they had not broken their units apart; a third were here with him and the Vice-Commander, the other two in Fushimi with Nagakura and Harada. If they'd been together as one troop, they might have already taken Fushimi themselves.

He's drawn from his thoughts by some slight activity behind the opposing defilade – the men are shifting, rifles that were once relaxed are now aimed. Saito holds his breath, and the Vice-Commander tenses beside him.

"I would speak a moment with those in charge!" comes a high and soft call. Hijikata-sensei leans forward to look over their sandbags, and Saito does the same. She was there, standing a little behind and above her men. In the failing light her hair was blacker than jet and her eyes icy grey. Resplendent in blue armour and with the Kamiya daisho proudly carried in her himo, she looked like Tomoe Gozen reincarnate, come to defend the Toba Gate. His breath catches in spite of himself, in spite of everything; she is still the most formidable woman he's ever encountered.

"We will hear you," shouts the Kuwana general in reply, and Kaoru steps more prominently into view, flanked by a samurai with red hair and an indigo shawl wound around his neck, and a taller man in the Western uniform of the Satsuma clan. The reports said Okubo was with Kaoru, but Saito glares at her other companion.

"It is late," Kaoru responds, "and there is no break in the negotiations. You are cold, we are cold. Let us agree to make no move this evening, and sleep soundly."

Saito's lips press together in what could perhaps pass as a smile, while Hijikata chuckles softly next to him. They'd known Kaoru for years, ever since that day she'd sat seiza in their dojo and proudly proclaimed her sword honoured life. They'd never listened to her, so perhaps that was why her kindness always surprised them, always seemed misplaced. Of course she would ask for a temporary truce; it was freezing outside.

The Kuwana general knows nothing of Kaoru, however. He is bushi, and she has insulted him and his men.

"Kuwana does not surrender!" he shouts, and Kaoru tosses her head, the way she did when she was annoyed or thought someone was being unreasonable. Saito thinks he sees her mouth the word "idiot".

"We will not move from this spot unless you turn the Toba gate over to us," continues the general.

"That, I will not do."

The general's laugh has no humour in it. He turns to his men, now bold. "Kuwawa is ready for war, a koku of rice to whoever brings me that bitch's head!"

A shout rises from the men, and Saito frowns in distaste. The Shinsengumi behind him are silent. Kaoru was their enemy and they are bushi, they will do their duty, but none of them would dishonour her by cutting off her head after death for personal gain. It was the wrong thing to say, and Saito once again wishes to be in Fushimi. At least the Aizu there were honourable. He turns to address the men behind him, and that is when he sees it – off to the right an enterprising young Kuwana gunman sets his rifle against his shoulder, and takes aim.

"Stop!" he shouts, but it is drowned out by the crack of the rifle. In the wake of its thunderous noise, everything goes deathly silent, and seems to freeze.


Kaoru staggers backwards, years of footwork in the dojo keeping her balanced and on her feet. She's never been shot at before, and the impact was surprising. It is the second force, larger than herself and heavier because of the kusari under his kimono, that knocks her down. But Kenshin's reflexes are better than hers; he rolls with her to take the impact of the ground before pinning her protectively under him. She gives herself a moment to catch her breath, and then she moves each of her limbs, to show him she is not hurt.

Kenshin unfolds himself from around her, large violet eyes conflictingly concerned and furious.

"Kaoru-dono?"

The bullet has torn a plate from her left sode, but apart from what will be a dark bruise, she isn't hurt. "His aim was too low," she tells him softly, but he doesn't smile. He helps her sit up, and across her lap he and Okubo appear to have a silent conversation. Okubo nods once, and Kenshin cups her cheek for a brief moment, staring into her eyes as if to memorize them. His gaze is icy, concentrated.

"Stay down," he tells her, and before she can even move, he has sprung to his feet and vaulted smoothly over the defilade.

"Kenshin!" she shouts, but the only answer is the noise of shots firing from across the road.


Shinpachi hands Harada back his water bottle with a sigh, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. They've been waiting in the cold for hours, loitering around the magistrate's office while their commanders stare up the hill at the Satcho forces facing them. It was ridiculous – they have greater numbers, while all their opponent seems to have is the high ground. Rush them from all sides, and they'd quickly overwhelm the smaller force. He wishes Hijikata-sensei were here; these generals needed someone bold and decisive, and the Vice-Commander would not have taken their inaction lightly.

"Remember," Harada says suddenly, "when Hijikata-sensei argued in the street with those Aizu generals at the Ikeda-ya?"

It's almost as if his friend had read his thoughts, and Shinpachi laughs at the memory. Hijikata-sensei had been hoarse for three days afterwards.

"Gods, that was a day," he smiles. "Kondo-sensei jumped out of a window!"

"Okita killed three people, with sun fever," Harada chuckles.

The second unit captain nods; that had been impressive. But the most impressive feats that night had been those of their smallest member.

"Kaoru held the top floor alone after he fainted," he remembers quietly.

Harada falls silent then too, each of them remembering. She'd limped along the road with her chin high, but there had been a moment when her spirit had faltered. Shinpachi has always secretly believed that was the moment when the troop lost her. He shakes his head. They live in confusing times.

"Do you hear that?" Harada asks, his head cocked to the side.

Shinpachi puts aside his thoughts and listens: there is the soft, icy howling of the wind, and the flapping of their banners, and then, in the distance, sounds like those of drums and thunder. "What is that?" he wonders aloud.

"Guns," Harada says shortly.

Shouts start to rise from the hill above them; with their higher vantage point, the Satcho force must be able to make out what is happening in Toba. That, or they had a good messaging network. An opening volley of shots ring down from the hill and Shinpachi doesn't wait for committee approval. He gets his men in position, and readies to take the hill.


Kenshin vaults over their blockade, bending low to run towards Koeda Bridge. Bullets whiz past him but he is too fast for their aim to be accurate, and he is safely behind a wooden panel before the next volley. He can hear Kaoru shouting in the distance, but more pressingly, there are two men behind this panel and he doesn't want to wait for them to figure out that they could shoot him through it. Kenshin spins, drawing his sword, slashing twice. He leaves the two men in a pool of their own blood and makes for the next panel.

Four deafening blasts shake the road in front of him, one from each of the Satcho cannons. He peers around the panel, avoids the swipe of a sword before planting his blade into the man wielding it. Kenshin ducks behind the shooting panel, and cleanly removes the head of the man who'd shot at her. A faint part of him feels that he should not have moved without her permission, but he has never felt more viscerally right about taking a life. Another volley of cannon fire slams into the road before him; it makes his ears ring but it was not nearly as loud as contained explosives in a cave – the noise is nothing to him.

Parts of the Kuwana line have caught fire, and a horse is running wild behind their front line, throwing the soldiers into disarray. Men are shouting, but Kenshin has been in battle before; he moves instinctively. The world around him is mayhem, shouting, running, burning, and exploding, but Kenshin is alone in the place of life and death, and he is calm. One opponent at a time, the economy of movement and blinding speed ingrained in him since his youth. In Choshuu it had been his job to lead the vanguard, to overwhelm their enemies and clear a path for the Kamiya forces coming behind him. They were her people and it was his duty to return them safely to Kyoto. Now, it was Kaoru herself behind him, Kaoru who he needed to be kept safe, Kaoru who would live or die based on their success. If they failed here she'd be executed as a traitor, so Kenshin will not fail.

Go where you are needed.

Kenshin leaps over the Kuwana barrier, swiping his sword in a large arc, crashing into raised rifles and killing the men who held them before they had time to shoot. More shells are exploding behind him now – he counts four, and then he hears the Kamiya battle cry. Haruto was following him over the defilade.

Kenshin kills three more men on the way to the cannon, and the gunner there simply turns and flees. He cuts the wheels away and it crashes uselessly to the ground, having never fired against them.

Save as many lives as you can.

He has just enough time to see the joint force of Kamiya and Satsuma men crash over the defilade in a wave before he has to duck behind the cannon, pinned down by enemy fire. He takes a few deep breaths to steady himself, reaching out with his spirit to find hers, righteously angry and still safe behind their barrier. He buries his face in her shawl for a moment, jasmine blocking out the scent of ash and sulfur, then he surges to his feet to face a group of men in sky blue coats. Someone to his right is shouting for the men to retreat, but the bulk of the force is already engaged. Kenshin grips his katana, and prepares to move. He has one last order to fulfill.


It's his first battle, and a giddy energy buzzes beneath his skin. Enishi grips his rifle closer, knowing he is ready. Beside him, Murakami checks his own weapons. They were finally going to meet Hitokiri Battousai, and Enishi was at last going to have his revenge.

Gunfire peppers down from the hill, aimed at the blue-coated men on their flank. The Aizu general has been watching their progress for twenty minutes, and finally he makes his decision.

"Spearmen to the front! Ready the cannon!"

Enishi crouches behind their shooting panel, and sets the butt of his rifle against his shoulder. The wind stirs his white hair, and he smiles.

"Soon, Nee-chan."


Kaoru coughs into her sleeve and motions her men forward; it is hours until dawn but Toba is on fire, choking them with smoke but giving them more than enough light to see. Overhead, the now familiar sound of cannon fire and exploding shells has stopped. Kaoru wouldn't risk them hitting her own men, and it gave them time to move the cannon forward to more advantageous hilltops. They had the shogun on the run, but his army still vastly outnumbers her own, and they were going to need those cannons in the morning.

Gunfire peppers the roadway, but they are all safely out of range, tucked behind the corners of buildings. She waits for the last rifle blast, counting to three to be sure. Into the silence of the line reloading, she motions her men to shoot. Two volleys, and then press forward. She runs low, weaving the way Kenshin had across Koeda Bridge, her heavy armor pressing down upon her. She has been treading in this well for three hours, but she couldn't stop yet. Not until she caught up to her husband. Not until she knew he was safe.

The flat of her blade slaps hard across a man's stomach, and when he doubles over her hilt smashes into the side of his head. It was too much force, but she couldn't afford to be precise. Her arms are tired and she has no time. A samurai with only kote for armour runs at her, and she dodges his strike, hits him first across the hips and then at the knees. He staggers towards her again and a Satsuma gunner behind her shoots him through the chest. His blood sprays over her and he falls, and Kaoru takes her stone and keeps going.


Shinpachi kneels behind the Aizu line to catch his breath. Bullets are still flying down from the hill, but he needs to survey his men. Harada is leaning over someone in a blue coat, closing the man's eyes, and Shinpachi swears. He's lost twenty good men trying to take this hill, but he couldn't fall back unless the Aizu told him to. Too many of his men are nursing wounds, but Shinpachi sighs and nods to Harada.

"On your feet, Shinsengumi!"

He is proud the answering cry is not feeble. Their banner is briefly lit up by an exploding shell, the kanji for sincerity burning against the night sky. They were going to plant that banner on the hill, or die.

"Nagakura!"

He turns at the shout, relief flooding through him. "Vice-Commander!"

Hijikata-sensei strides through the darkness, the rest of the troop behind him. They are worn, but not half as bloody as the men here.

"Has the shogun taken Toba?" Harada asks, and the Vice-Commander shakes his head.

"We're retreating," he answers flatly, surveying the hill. "Fushimi is too well defended, and Kaoru is advancing from Toba. Fall back to Tominomori, and then get some rest."

Shame bites into him, and Shinpachi lowers his eyes. "Forgive me, sensei," he murmurs, mortified.

Hijikata-sensei squeezes his shoulder briefly, his eyes grim. "There will be another time," he promises.


Kenshin sits in the dead grass, his arms resting over the tops of his knees, looking northeast towards Toba. Daylight is coming on, muting the brightness of the fires, highlighting the black smoke. Kenshin keeps his eyes on the horizon, and not on the ground, which is littered with unmoving bodies.

He'd met up with Katsura at Tominomori in the early hours of the morning, and now everything is momentarily still. They are well fortified, the bulk of the men resting. Men advancing from Toba were still arriving here, and he can sense her spirit, resigned and weary, at the other edge of the field.

Kenshin's hands dangle from his knees, bloody and cold. The blood has dried there, but he doesn't want to touch anything with them, so his sword is sitting next to him on the grass. He is half torn with wanting to hide from her approach, and running desperately across the deserted battlefield to catch her up in his arms. He is torn, so he stares at his hands and doesn't move.

Kenshin looks blindly forwards, pretending to be deaf to the tread of their approaching footsteps and the Edo accent of the Kamiya men – until suddenly she is there, her hair wild and her armor covered in soot and blood. Kenshin swallows a lump in his throat; none of the blood is hers.

She says something softly to Ibuki, who nods to Eita, and the two men lead the rest of her troops into the safety of the fortifications. Then Kaoru walks towards him, lit by the breaking dawn behind her. She kneels in front of him, setting her sword down, and takes hold of his hands without hesitating, her tapered fingers as cold as his, marked with splotches of dark red. She holds his hands until they are warm, then she takes her bamboo water bottle from her hip and pours the entire thing over them, rubbing at the dark crimson trails on his fingers, his caked palms. His eyes sting and he rubs her hands as well, until both their hands are white and damp in the cold morning light.

"Are you tired?" she asks softly.

"A little," he admits, his voice slightly hoarse from the smoke and the shouting and the hot sake Katsura had made him drink.

"I have to walk into the fortification," Kaoru says, her voice low and warbling with strain and fatigue, "but could I lean on you first, just for a moment?"

Kenshin reaches for her, pulls her into him, her head tucked under his chin. He keeps his eyes on the horizon and does not look at her, so she cannot see his wry smile or the shame in his eyes. He strokes her hair and she hums to him very softly, as the sun comes up over Tominomori and they fall exhausted into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text


 

I think, what’s hardest, is that it was mine, it was ours. Nobody likes to have the rug pulled out from under them, but it’s more important that it is. It’s more important for those girls, for those children. It’s a just kind of betrayal, because no one should be exempt from their crimes: this is one of the things Kenshin taught us.

I don’t know if I will finish Light, I think I will leave it up to all of you. Maybe it’s helpful, a kind of release, to be able to read the characters in a story that isn’t coming out of the mind of an abuser, I don’t know. We all have a choice to make, and I want to be respectful of all of yours. What I can tell you is how I feel, which is that I poured hundreds of hours into it, I dove into deep, deep research holes. I became a better writer; I decided to write Light to see if I could, and I can, I put my whole heart into it and I felt all of yours with every like, every kudos, every comment.

None of that can be taken away from me, the knowledge that I could make something enjoyable to others, the hesitant pride in my abilities that I am only just starting, tentatively, to accept. Even if Light is never completed, the effort I expended, and what I learned about myself while doing it, has value. And do you know what, these characters belong to me. The way Kenshin rolls his shoulders when he can’t answer; the toss of her head Kaoru does when she’s annoyed, those are mine and I made it, and I will never be sorry that I did.

What has always been most important to me in this fandom is the people; the friendships made along the way, born out of a mutual love of a bumbling samurai and transcending into real, in-real-life pals. I don’t think many of us will interact as a fandom anymore, or at least, not for some time. But I’d hate to lose you. So I’ll be here, in a different capacity, but always a friend.

xoxo
kakikaeru

Chapter Text

First, let me apologize for getting your hopes up when you saw this update. This isn't a new chapter, or, at least, not yet.

A very cool thing is happening in the YOI fandom, spurred by two amazing talents, louciferish and thehandsingsweapon, who are writing poems/drabbles/finishing WIPs for charity. I'm such a small person, I have nowhere near the following those two have, but in times of trouble, they are speaking words of wisdom. Things ended badly here, all of us went away and rebuilt in the ways that made sense to each of us, and now, with time and distance, I'd like to try and do something good. And so, if you DM me on tumblr, or leave a comment demonstrating proof of donation to a non-profit organization, this humble author is at your bidding. Some great areas to choose:

This is in no way an exhaustive list, choose an NPO that matters to you, give them some cash, and in exchange I will do the following:

  • $5 - a short drabble up to 500 words, based on a prompt of your choosing
  • $10-$25 - a short story of up to 2500 words
  • $50 + - a new chapter on one of my existing WIPs*, or a long form story of up to 10,000 words

Now you know me, and you know the fandoms I write for. I'm happy to write any of the above about characters from Yuri!!! On Ice, Scarlet Heart Ryeo, Kaze Hikaru or a fandom of your choosing as long as I don't have to research 100+ media outputs to get the characterization right. What I can't do is write new stories for Rurouni Kenshin, but this is where that asterisk comes in, and why we are right here:

*For every $5, I will write 500 words of epilogue to Light in the Time of Shadows. This means, you can pledge your money for something new in another fandom, or put that donation towards getting closure on a story that won't be finished. You can turn this update into a real update.

I don't know if this will do much, or anything, but I thought, I have to try. I'd encourage you to check out what lou and hands have for offer too, if my talents don’t appeal to you. Open your hearts, your wallets, or consider donating your skills too!

xoxo as always, and thanks for reading!

kakikaeru