A/n Allo dear readers! Forgive me for taking forever to update this story. Without specifics, I've been in poor health. It's nothing bad (Yet) but bad enough that I need to take care of myself which mean, less time for writing and often, I'll go a day or even a week without putting down a single word. I hate it, but it is necessary. I didn't do much writing but I just couldn't take going another week without giving you guys something! Anything. You know? I feel bad letting y'all hang like that.
Well, hopefully, I can better balance my life and get back to some sort of writing schedule. Even if it's only 20 minutes a day or something.

On to the story!

Chapter 23

Misao looked up as a knock came at the door. It swung open and Azure walked in.

"Sir Aoshi Shinomori." The guard said as the Metal fae stalked by. Azure gave the Lady a bow and left, shutting the door behind him. Misao sat back in the giant chair behind the giant desk in the giant study. All she wanted was Kaoru back. She didn't like this job. Her head pounded from looking at words and numbers for half the day. She had to balance the Keep's accounts and make orders for supplies. She had to do it even though her mind had been elsewhere the whole day.

She glanced down at her bandaged hands and arms as Aoshi set something down on the desk on top of her papers. She didn't know why but the attack had left her feeling guilty around Aoshi. He had warned her not to wander around alone.

"What's this."

"A gift." He rumbled.

She swallowed her guilt and looked up at Aoshi through her lashes. He looked down at the pile of leather and bobbed his head down at it. "Open it."

Misao chewed on her lip as she reached out and pulled it closer. The leather was dark molasses colored and soft as butter. Various symbols had been worked into the leather and Misao found long thin triangle shaped knives tucked away into rows of pockets. She reconsigned them as the metal bits Aoshi was working on the day she sat in to watch him work.

"They're Kunai," Aoshi informed.

Misao blinked down at the shining daggers and she pulled one free of its pocket. A single glance was all that was needed to prove to Misao that the blades were razor sharp. The tip tapered to a wicked looking point. It was so sharp and thin that Misao figured if she threw one at someone's body it would simply come out the other side without slowing.

"I want you to wear them at all time. Keep them close to you, even in sleep." Aoshi continued. Shifting from one foot to the other.

Misao returned the kunai to its pocket and finally looked up at the Metal man. "Thank you, they're amazing." She hid a smile as she noticed the man trying not to preen.

"They are strong and should never break if they are used properly. I will teach you. Once you are healed."

Misao glanced back down at her arms. Half a dozen of the cuts needed to be stitched in order to heal properly. She was warned she would scar a bit but that didn't bother her. What bothered her was the endless itching she couldn't scratch. Unfortunately, she was not an Earth fae. If she was then all she would need is a romp in bed to heal them right up. Lucky bastards. Misao's lips twitched upward and she quickly pulled away from such thoughts. "Thank you, Aoshi. I love them." She picked up the leather to inspect the straps. In doing so she discovered it was actually two pieces. One held four kunai while a smaller one held two.

Aoshi stepped up and took the smallest one from her. "This is an arm harness."If you'll allow me." he murmured as he pushed the sleeve of her Kimono up to her shoulder, careful to not bump her bandages and showed her how to tie it to her upper arm herself. "This one goes around your thigh or here. His large hand caressed the side of her ribs. "You can wear it under your kimono or tie it lower." His hand drifted down, scorching Misao's skin. "And hide it under your obi."

He reached around her to gather the straps and tied them and tucked the soft leather close to her hips so that her Obi concealed the weapons. She set her arms on his as he worked. She didn't want him to pull away. Once he was done he let his hands rest on her hips. Misao swallowed, refusing to get emotional

as she wrapped her arms around his rock hard middle.

"I'm sorry." Her voice was shaky.

"No. Don't be." With Misao's ear pressed against him, his words boomed loudly in his chest.

"But you warned me." Misao protested. "I swear to never wander around alone again."

Aoshi was still and silent for a long moment. "I do not like that you have to be afraid in your own home." His hand drifted up to pet her dark hair. "I will make an example of that man, as soon as he talks."

Misao blinked, the tears that threatened dried up instantly. "I heard this morning that he said he was ready to talk. Did he?"

"I don't know." Aoshi rolled his shoulders, stepping away to put some distance between them. Talking to the Lady about torture made him feel like he was soiling a pure white cloth. "We haven't stopped the torture."

Misao looked confused. "He didn't want to talk?"

Aoshi rubbed the back of his neck but looked at her with a hard and unapologetic look. "A man will say anything to make the pain stop. If he says he will talk and we keep up the torture, he will be desperate to talk when we finally do stop. I will question him tonight."

Misao winced. "What are you doing to him?" Did she even want to know?

Aoshi turned to leave but paused at her question and looked over his shoulder. "Giving him a bath." He said cryptically. He stalked out of the study. Misao could only imagine what kind of bath the man was getting. She took up her quill and returned to her letter.

… . . …

A desert river was a strange sight to Kaoru. It ran slow, murky and low in the river bed. Kaoru threw herself in anyways, along with the rest of her Water kind. The power was not raging like the last river, but rather like a warm hug from a soft, slow moving grandmother. A week had gone by. But Kaoru was already on the third bottle of water Megumi gave to her. Kaoru made sure to only drink it when needed, stretching it out with regular water to make it last. She kept to the covered wagon, glancing out every now and then to see the sights. Not that it changed much. Rock and dirt and sometimes a thorny plant. But that was all.

But as Kaoru climbed out of the river, wincing at the feel of grit under her clothes, She finally saw something different in the vast ocean of desert. Off in the distance, the sandy mountains fell away, worn down by millions of years of rains, and wind carrying scouring sand. The years of wearing down left the once towering mountains now worn into tall, jagged towers. Bits of their bodies flaking away slowly over time to crash to the ground below. At their feet the remains of their past bodies sat, build up at the base to slowly be worn away again. Some were as short as a ship's mast, others were taller than her Keep. The tallest of them had their heads touching the rare clouds as they drifted by.

Weaving between them, like a river, was a cobblestone road. Strange trees lined the well-kept road. Kaoru couldn't tell from the distance but they seemed to be showing their Autumn colors, even though it was very much Summer. They all gathered back together and Kaoru was placed in in the wagon and they continued their journey. Kaoru sat near the front opening and watched as the stone road grew closer and closer until finally, the wagons jolted as it climbed up on it. The ride wasn't as bumpy as Kaoru had figured, the stones didn't jut too far up and it made for only a slightly more smoother ride than the sun baked hard ground. They didn't have to weave around cactus, or large cracks in the ground so they started to pick up the pace. Kaoru scrambled to the back of the wagon and poked her head out from the open flap. Sano rode there, ready to tend to any need she might have. He urged his horse closer.

"Whatcha need Missy?"

"Can you take me up to my Lord Husband?" She asked sweetly.

Sano raised a brow but nodded as he reached out and plucked the girl from the wagon and set her in front of him. Not use to riding side saddle, Kaoru held tightly to the front of Sano's shirt as he wrapped one arm around her back and took up the reins to pull his horse away from the wagon and kicked his horse into a trot to reach the front.

Kenshin was riding in front of their group. His two guards falling back as Sano pushed forward. He glanced over and gave his wife a smile. "How do you like it?" He waved his arm out at the splendor of the strange green trees with yellow leaves. Their spindly arms reaching out to touch the branches of the tree on the other side, creating a canopy of yellow that glowed in the harsh sun.

"What manner of trees are these? Why are the leaves yellow?" Kaoru asked.

Kenshin said a few words of his mother tongue.

"We call them 'The Green Bark Trees'" Sano said.

Kenshin grinned. "You could have just asked Sano. He knows about all growing things."

Kaoru huffed. "Forgive me for wanting to learn about your home land from your mouth."

"Hey now, keep me out of your domestics," Sano muttered.

Kaoru looked up at how the sunlight came through the canopy in shafts of light, creating a dancing display on the cobblestone road. "Sorry," she muttered.

Kenshin could only smile, his eyes still glowing a deep amber. "These are flowers, not leaves. We're lucky that we reached here in time to catch them, they only bloom for about two weeks, that they do."

Kaoru blinked and looked up at the trees. "They're blooms? I thought they were leaves."

"These trees don't have any leaves. Leave would cause the tree to loose too much water." Kenshin informed.

"That's why the tree itself is green. It has no need for green leaves when the trunk, branches, and every twig are themselves green." Sano threw in. "Look." He kicked his horse forward and to the edge of the road near one of the strange trees. The trunk itself was rather short, perhaps only as tall as Sano. The branches were close to the thickness of the trunk and grew up and out from the trunk much like a parasol. She reached out and touched the strange green bark and discovered it was less like bark and more like a skin. She pressed a nail into it and it, in fact, was a thin skin that her nail easily cut through.

"Strange." Kaoru breathed as she looked upward at the thinner branches, speckled here and there with finger length sharp thorns. The blossoms were tiny, perhaps a bit larger than a button. And there were millions of them on each tree and the trees stretched out along the road for as far as she could see. Sano looped back next to Kenshin and she asked, "How far do these trees go?"

"All the way to the castle," Kenshin confirmed. "The were planted here by order of the King hundreds of years ago. When the blooms die they fall from the trees and onto the road. This road is called "The Golden Path." It's not gold just now, but I always enjoyed the blooms on the trees rather than trampled under foot, that I do."

Kaoru smiled softly to herself. "I never thought you would notice such," Kaoru said.

"Aye, a right poet," Sano added.

Kenshin's eyes warmed and he jerked his head toward the back. "In that wagon with you, now."

"Yes, My Lord," Kaoru said with a smile as Sano turned his horse around.

… . . …

The Golden Path was a popular road to reach the Castle. The more they traveled the more people they encountered. Small villages popped up near the road and soon the road was cutting through larger towns. Kenshin stopped at one of these large towns to find an inn. It was very obvious they were of some importance and it wouldn't be safe or smart of them to pitch camp. The town was rather large with many large houses but Kenshin didn't feel like mingling with the highborns. Instead, he found an inn large enough for his men to have their own room, for Kaoru's maids to have theirs as well as their healer and Sano.

Once settled Kenshin ordered a cleaning and he watched with some amusement as Kaoru took in the small wash tub that was no more than a large bucket and various trays of oils were brought into their room. Kenshin took a seat near the open window and looked down at the road below from three stories up. The sun beat down on him like a warm blanket on a cold night. He wanted to wrap himself in it and never feel the cold again. He never appreciated how strong the sun was in his home land until he was in a place where the sun hardly peeked behind clouds. He would soak it in as much as he could while he was here.

His blood heated and boiled, He could feel his muscles flexing. He wanted violence or perhaps sex. He glanced over at Kaoru as she stood flabbergasted in the tiny tub. It was only a few inches deep and the Fire maids were dipping wash rags into the water and using them to wipe down her naked skin. She glanced up to him, her wide eyes full of question and confusion. His poor, sweet, innocent wife. His burning heart turned tender and soft.

"We bathe a bit differently here," Kenshin said gently. As he turned to let the sun hit his back.

"I knew that Fire's didn't like water much, but I didn't know it extended to your bath," Kaoru admitted, obviously very uncomfortable with having strangers wipe down her body. Kenshin was more than content enough to wash her himself. But in court, such things were expected and it would be good to get her used to them now. She didn't seem to know what to do with her hands. She had them crossed in front of her like a shy maiden. Her arms covered her breasts then crossed over her belly where her hands demurely covered the thatch of dark curls between her thighs. Even if he wasn't basking in the sun of his home land, the sight of her made his blood run hot.

She gasped as one of the maids pulled one arm away from her body and started to rub perfumed oil into her skin. The three other maids quickly followed and soon the room was sweet with the smell of desert flowers and apricots. Once slick and shiny with oils the maids took out curved metal strigils and started to scrape them across her skin. The oil, along with dead skin and dirt rolled off her body and soon Kaoru was glowing and clean if a bit flushed. One maid helped her from the tub and rushed her behind the open door of a wardrobe while the other maids took the tub away and four men came in with an identical tub for him.

Kenshin sighed. He too needed to get used to the strict class rules of his home lands. He stood and let one man help him strip off his traveling clothes.

The maid rubbed fresh oil into Kaoru's skin and quickly dressed her before letting her out in sight of the man-servants. Here in this land, it was taboo for a person to gaze upon the naked form of someone other than their spouse. Kenshin found it an odd taboo but for once was thankful for it. He didn't want any other eyes on his wife.

Now it was his turn to be naked in front of her. He threw his shoulder back, shook out his hair and turned to face his wife as the men worked to wipe him down and rub oil scented with cedar and bergamot into his skin. She pretended to be amused by his showing off, going so far as to smirk at him. But as she continued to gaze on him as the maid brushed and braided her hair, the more and more flushed she became. She was near burning when the men dressed him and excused themselves and finally they were alone.

"We'll have to stop and get some more clothes for you," Kenshin said, tugging at his waistcoat. He was not used to the Fire clothing as much as he was when he was younger. He very much rather wear Earth tunics and pants or even Water Gi and Hakamas.

Kaoru glanced down at her hastily purchased dress. Her neckline was square and lace covered her bosom. The pale blue fabric was pulled tight across her body with a sash tied into a bow at her back. She wore only one under skirt under the dress so the fabric didn't puff out as much as was in fashion in court. But Kenshin enjoyed watching Kaoru struggle to not put her hands on her hips which because of the bunched skits, had doubled in width.

"I like it," Kaoru confessed, looking down at herself, smoothing her hands down the embroidered bodice. "I've just never worn anything like it."

Kenshin wandered over to Kaoru and set his hands on her new ample hips. "I like it too."

Kaoru shot him a sly look. "And you look dashing as well with this bit of lace at your throat." She fingered the cravat at his neck.

"I think I look like a fool." He confessed. "I never much enjoyed these clothes on me. But I admit that I do like the look of these dresses on females."

"I wouldn't think so, with the way you were staring at me while I was being washed." She said, leaning in to place her lips high on his throat, near his ear.

He felt himself instantly grow hard and the fire in his blood immediately ignited back to full rage. How could she do that to him with one sweet little kiss?

"Careful now," He breathed into her ear. "These dresses mean that a quick tryst is easier. There are no undergarments under that dress and I'll take advantage of it, that I will."

She pulled back just enough to show she was disbelieving. "We're to meet in the dining hall at any moment. I doubt even you could maneuver around these clothes and be done in such a short amount of time."

Unable to resist her challenge he turned her in his arms and bent her over the bed. She gasped but held back a shriek of surprise as he pressed his hand firmly on her back to hold her down. She pressed her bottom against him, telling him that she was willing and quickly he gathered her skirts and parted her legs with his own. He fumbled with the buttons to free himself but once free he pulled his wife away from the bed just enough to reach between her legs and make sure she was good and ready for him.

He was pleasantly surprised to find that she was actually quite wet. Was she raging for him just as badly? The thought only further fed the fire in him and he quickly guided himself inside of her. Her hands clutched the bed covers and she pressed her face into the bed as he took hold of her hips and thrust himself hard and deep. Even muffled he could hear her deep throaty moans. She was more sensitive in this position, Kenshin had long figured out and his deep thrusts stroked a spot in her that made her tremble and moan deliciously. Even so, he bent over her body and reached around to stroke her sensitive bud. Within moments not only was she crying out into the bed but he was also struggling to be silent as he spilled his seed.

He wasn't yet ready to stop, even though they were due for dinner and he was uncertain if the door was even locked. Instead, he was distracting himself by pulling Kaoru's skirts a little higher, watching as more and more of her creamy skin came into view. As her round bottom peeked from the frills, Kaoru widened her stance and arched her back, thrusting back against him with more force, driving him deeper into her. He was more than happy to hold on for the ride and Kaoru bucked against him. Her face was away from the bed now but she was silent, save for the husky sound of her breath. Water energy gathered and seeped into her as she came for a second time. Her inner walls clamped around his cock, and he was shocked to feel himself spill over yet again in so short a time.

They held still for only two breaths before the pair stood up straight, Kenshin quickly pulled the ever present handkerchief from his breast pocket and caught his seed as he pulled away from Kaoru, lest he stain her new dress. He cleaned her gently, knowing she was overly sensitive by the way her body twitched as he touched her lower lips. He tugged her dress down and secured his buttons and they were done. The whole tryst took less than a handful of minutes.

She turned to face him and he wore a triumphant look as he noted the slightly flushed cheeks, and the soft glow of her skin, the content half smile and her heavy lidded eyes. Not a hair on her head had been disturbed, no evidence of their fun showed. They alone shared their delicious secret. He linked her arm with his and whisked her out into the busy hallway. No one was the wiser except perhaps Sano, who sat next to Kaoru, took one look at her and shot Kenshin a smirk over her head.

Kenshin kept his arm around his wife for the whole meal. She leaned into him and he into her, looking very much like newlyweds. Kenshin felt like he was showing her off. Strangers would walk by their table and glance at the pale skinned Water beauty and Kenshin knew they wanted a taste of her. But she was his. All his. And, he realized, he was glad for it for completely selfish reasons. Yes, he loved the Water female, something he didn't think was possible. But also he felt special. Looking at his exotic wife made him feel superior. As if only he knew a tantalizing secret. Here, the Water fae were very rare, she was a prize to taste. Kenshin let the possessiveness over his wife rise. He was among his own people, yes, but he didn't trust anyone with his wife. He had to be cautious. There was just one man he trusted with his wife, even over his own men, and that was Sano, who sat on Kaoru's other side. A wall of muscle and fists of stone.

He would sleep lightly, and travel cautiously, and tuck his wife away in the safety of the wagon and away from curious eyes. Funny how one little tryst, a bit of fun between lovers would pull such thoughts from him. One's he had never had for his wife before. Was it because he was in his home land and finally he was nearing his full power and his blood cried for war and sex? Was he finally starting to feel more than just content with his wife? The fact that he was even asking himself these questions proved something had changed. He still felt pissed that he had to drag his wife through the heat and the dry for something as petty as a loyalty pledge. He wondered if he would have to punch his uncle when he finally saw him. More than likely it was a bad idea. He was King.

That night Kenshin took Kaoru three more times until finally, his blood started to calm. Each time was more fierce and rougher than the last, But Kaoru didn't seem to mind. He took care with her even though she hissed at him that she wasn't a porcelain doll. She even went to far as to pull his hair to the point of it being painful. The action caused him to come with such force he couldn't hold back his roar of sheer pleasure and he gave in and bit Kaoru on the shoulder hard enough to leave a mark. She keened softly at the pain, tensing as her pleasure rolled over her body. Even though the action brought her pleasure Kenshin immediately felt remorse upon seeing the teeth shaped bruises marring her pale skin.

He kissed the mark with soft fluttering kisses in apology as the girl slowly drifted to sleep in his arms.

… . . …

Kaoru brushed her hand over the slightly aching mark on her shoulder. It was hidden under her dress but for some reason, she felt as though everyone could see it. She felt equal parts abashed and yet proud. It was as though she were wearing some sort of badge. A mark that she was important to someone, taken….claimed.

In the heat of passion, the love bite wasn't painful at all. In fact, it was what caused her to fall over the edge. But when Kenshin's blood finally cooled, he was upset at seeing the bruise. He slipped in and out of his mother tongue, cursing himself and apologizing to her. He made love to her that morning. It was so gentle, so tender Kaoru wondered if it was what real love was like. It brought tears to her eyes and she nearly glowed with power. The mark faded from so much healing power. He had taken her so many time in the past day that if she hadn't already been with child, she was sure she would be now.

She sat in the wagon across from Sano. His horse tethered to the vehicle. He had been amusing her all day with stories about their Goddesses and Gods. Their festivals in midsummer and midwinter. He weaved such vivid tales and his memories of each of his favorite dishes during parties were so detailed that Kaoru soon felt herself grow hungry. She was focused on her empty stomach so much, she hadn't noticed when Sano stopped talking and was just looking at her. Finally, she noticed and caught him.

"What?" She asked, feeling guilty that she stopped paying him attention.

"Nothin'. Just..." his head tipped and he gave her a lazy smile. "You look well."

Kaoru felt herself flush and she looked away.

"Glowin' even."

Red flags went up. Sano was not stupid. His kind lived to create life. If anyone was going to find out about her pregnancy it would be an Earth. Quickly she gave him what he hoped was a shy smile, her eyes lowering to her lap. "Kenshin has been...ah...had an increase in appetite."

Sano's deep brown eyes glittered in amusement and he grinned. "You can thank his home land for that, Missy. The Sun is strong here and his energy levels have returned. He'll be wanted to murder somethin', or fuck somethin'." Sano made a strangled sound. "Bed somethin' I mean." He muttered an oath under his breath.

Kaoru smiled at him, his bouts of chivalry made him endearing. She was glad he was her friend. She tipped her head to the side. "If Fire's have a natural sexual appetite, why to they suppress it?"

"Makes their blood boil, Missy, makes them fearsome on the battlefield."

"But there isn't much of anything for them to fight these past ten years. You can't tell me they have been building up this aggression all this time, are you?"

"There will always be fights, Missy. Drunk in a pub somewhere, or a man lookin' a little too hard at another one's daughter, or wife, or farm or anythin'. Married men just bed their wives to vent it out. Single men find relief in whor- harlots."

"Sano, don't mince your words with me, I don't care, remember?"

Sano rubbed the back of his head. "Aye, Missy, but we're in Fire country now. A man can't talk this way to a high born woman."

Kaoru stared at her friend for a moment. "Really? Why not?"

"Makes it seem like we're too comfortable with each other. That I might be flirtin' with ya. And it's not socially acceptable for people to flirt with someone married or engaged. I don't want people thinkin' the worst about you, Missy. First impressions are important in this place."

That strict? "But what about Kenshin's own men? His guards and the men back at the Keep?"

Sano shrugged. "Most are fine. But there are some who think Fire's ways should be the way of everyone around them. I know there is at least one guard here with us that has already reported our "unfit" conversations to Kenshin."

Kaoru sat back in the wagon, shock on her face. "What?! What did Kenshin say?"

Sano grinned. "Told the guard to leave us be, unless he wanted his head to leave his shoulders by way of a sword.

Beside them, Kaoru's Water handmaidens and the two leftover Water guards stifled their laughter. Kaoru was so comfortable around her own people she had forgotten they were even there. This kind of insider information was delicate, but she trusted her people as much as she trusted Sano. They were still learning as much as Kaoru, and this information was important for their own safety as well.

"But in court, Kenshin is not the authority, so we need to be on our best behavior," Sano added.

… . . …

The road stretched on and on, the trees with their yellow blossoms continued along with it. Although the trees provided enough shade to cause the covered road to be a bit cooler, it was still not enough for Kenshin to be comfortable letting Kaoru out. Unbeknownst to him, but obvious to those around him, the amber was leaking out of his eyes, replaced with yellow as bright as the flowers above them.

He had figured as much. His men gave him space and strangers passed by quickly, avoiding his gaze. His true form was showing, and it would only get more obvious as they grew closer to the volcano. Kenshin dragged his tongue over his top teeth, his two canines were longer, sharper. In fact, all of his teeth were started to come to a point. It was his true form pressing forward. It was what must have bruised Kaoru's skin so easily. Kenshin nearly bit his tongue in anger. He needed to be more careful with her while he was in his homeland.

He wouldn't change until he was in the volcano, but his strength would grow as would his aggression. If he harmed Kaoru by being careless….He couldn't even finish the thought. He saw red and his horse under him grew uneasy. He swallowed once, twice and then took a deep breath. He wasn't a temper driven seventeen-year-old boy anymore. He had better control of himself.

He had to.

It's getting' hot in here...Whooo!
Thank you for being ever so patient. I do plant to update Reluctant Alpha (Finally) Spoils and Page soon. Thank you for reading! Reviews are loved.