Disclaimer: Don't own characters nor the plot.

Author's Notes: ::stares at reviews:: Wow. That's going to burn a hole in my pocket. I don't think I can afford to buy cookies for all of those people that guessed correctly. Instead, I think I am going to buy cookies for all of you who guessed incorrectly! That way I'd only have to buy a dozen instead of several dozen!...Okay what the heck. Cookies for you all!

Oh and yes, I did change my penname. I had gotten unnecessary questions over why I had chosen cherrymecha. Same author, same story, different penname. Prepare yourselves for a long fluffy chapter! Sorry for the terribly long wait.

* * * * *

Part Two: Snow
~ VIII ~

* * * * *

Kaoru regarded the motion-blurred nightscape with unfocused eyes. Kenshin's SUV isolated them from all noise save for the minor grating of gravel along the highway and the gentle swish of windshield-wipers, swiping away the specks of rain. Silence was something she relished, and something Kenshin gladly gave her.

Shortly after the decision was made to leave on temporary break, Kenshin left to leave notes, make necessary arrangements and find the key to the house in the mountains. Kaoru's job was to go pack a few days' worth of clothing and anything she thought she'd need. So she trekked through the dimly lit resort to retrieve her things.


Of course, that did nothing for her shaken nerves. With every corner she turned, she expected to see Enishi with a glazed smile holding a bloodied chainsaw or Kenshin's unconscious body. She jumped away from darkened windows and couldn't stand to turn her back to open doorways. Kaoru felt like a child after watching a horror movie.

Given these conditions, it was difficult for her to pack. She'd run into a room, throw open a suitcase, grab whatever objects were within reach, shove them in, shut the suitcase and scurry out. Kenshin watched her as she came downstairs, bringing more suitcases filled with things he was sure she didn't need. He didn't say anything. When they finally loaded themselves into the car, Kaoru sat down with a sigh. She was in Kenshin's presence now, and Enishi wouldn't even dare to trail them. Hopefully.

The ride was relatively silent and ten minutes onto the highway, it had begun to rain. Not that Kaoru minded much. It fogged her view of the scenery but she was content with staring at its reflection of the inside of the car if her mind could be stopped from thinking too much. Sighing, she leaned her forehead on the cold glass, clearing an area of mist with her body heat and her breath. She was once again reminded of how childlike her actions were, but self-reprimand was not something she needed at the moment. Instead she stared into the window's reflection of her own eyes and was dully curious as to when they lost their brightness and when they had begun to cast shadows from lack of sleep.

She tilted her head on the cold window so she could see Kenshin. He had not noticed her scrutiny and was still focused on the road. His jaw was clenched and his hands gripped the steering wheel almost painfully. He was apparently still thinking about Enishi. Kaoru let her gaze linger on his face and her breath caught. With each passing street lamp, his eyes gained a more golden hue. Kenshin heard this and turned briefly in her direction.

"Kaoru? Are you alright?"

Kaoru leaned back from the window, leaving a wet imprint of her forehead on the glass. "I'm fine." She said, hesitantly looking up. His eyes were a shade of concerned violet. Of course, she thought to herself, fogged windows absorb some light and deflect others. It was then that she noticed the not-so-subtle change in Kenshin's expression. He was smiling now. She gave him a confused look.

"Maybe you shouldn't lean against the cold window like that, Kaoru." Kenshin said, repressing a laugh. Kaoru's eyes bugged out and she flipped down the mirror from the inner roof of the car. Sure enough, there was a red mark the size of a fist on the right side of her forehead. She put the mirror back and groaned.

"It's alright Kaoru," Kenshin smiled, "It's just a bit cold. Here." He kept one hand on the wheel and placed the other on her forehead, right above the mark. He gently rubbed the mark with his thumb and withdrew after it no longer felt cold to the touch. "Better?" She nodded dumbly in reply. Now her forehead was no longer red, but the rest of her face was flaming. Kenshin didn't seem to notice as he focused back on the road.

"We won't be there for a while. You may want to get some sleep."

Kaoru nodded and took the suggestion, wanting to avoid a confrontation like that again. She leaned back the seat a bit and curled up the best she could, to Kenshin's amusement. Promptly, unconsciousness claimed her and she fell into a slightly fitful sleep.

* * * * *

She didn't recognize the passage of time and hadn't remembered her dreams, or if she had dreamed at all. All she was aware of was a soft but worried voice calling her back to consciousness.

"Kaoru?" The voice had become more and more like Kenshin's, "Kaoru, wake up."

She lifted her lids and Kenshin's face blurred into view. "Hm?" was her intelligent reply.

"Kaoru, you were tossing in your sleep." His worried gaze hovered over her, "Are you alright?"

"Mm? Oh." She sat up, "I'll be fine." She ran a wary hand through her hair. Sleep had not been as restful as she'd liked. Kaoru suddenly became aware of the few cars whizzing by them and their lack of movement. That and it had stopped raining."Where are we?"

"I pulled over," He said while turning back and pulling the car out of park, "We're almost there and you just looked so distressed I thought I'd wake you up." Without giving further commentary, he pulled off the side lane and onto the road again. "Do you want to try to sleep again?"

Kaoru shook her head and leaned the chair back up, unsure if he saw her. She then voiced her answer, "No, I'll be fine. Thank you though." Kenshin nodded and continued to drive. Within a short span of time, he drove smoothly off an exit ramp onto a small local road and then onto a beaten stone trail. The jeep again absorbed all of the impact of the rough stonework and Kaoru could feel her nerves begin to ease again.

Shortly, they pulled up to a structure that could be called no less than a shack that had been to shack-hell and back. Kaoru's carefully built mental stability began to slip again. Kenshin didn't seem to notice her discomfort or what unsuitable living propositions the cabin offered as he pulled up. If anything, he seemed happier when they finally came to a stop.

"We're here!" He all but sang the unwanted obvious to Kaoru. She offered a weak smile-grimace, hoping it would pass as owing more to the past night than the sight of their shelter. Kenshin smiled brightly back as he jumped out to unload the luggage from the back. "The door should be unlocked since it's fairly safe here. There isn't anyone around for miles. You can go inside to rest a bit. I'll come in with the luggage in a moment!" He darted behind the car.

Kaoru opened the car door and carefully placed a foot on the ground. Tentatively, she took one step towards her impending doom. Upon closer inspection, the door was marred with burns and scratches and there was mold growing in the nooks and crannies of the doorframe. It was surprising that the rusted metal of a doorknob hadn't fallen off yet. Kaoru took a deep breath and tried not to cringe as she placed a hand on the said doorknob. For a deformed, rusted thing, it had not made a sound when it turned and the door gave way. Kaoru took one look at the inside and gasped.

One really should not make premature judgements.

She was standing in a gold-painted hall with marble floors, hanging chandeliers and the occasional decorative piece of pottery. Kaoru remembered to re-hinge her jaw and close the door, lest either invited flies. She slipped off her shoes out of courtesy and stepped into the adjacent room.

Once again, she was overwhelmed by how a cabin, no matter how hideous, managed to hold such large rooms. Kaoru walked around what she assumed was the living room. There seemed to be more pottery lining this room as well as fine furnishings and plush rugs. She stopped in front of a baby grand piano and let the waves of nostalgia wash over her. She hadn't touched one since she left for college. The cover was overlain with a thin film of dust and Kaoru made it a point to clean it later. She lifted it carefully to expose the pearly white and deep onyx keys that she had grown up knowing. Hesitant, she placed her fingers on the keys, but changed her mind and removed them. It seemed wrong to disturb the silence. Later, she promised herself.

Turning, she regarded the rest of the room and her eyes rested on the fireplace. The fireplace that already harbored a fire. Her brow furrowed. Already lit? Come to think of it, the lights had been on in the hall as well as the living room when she stepped into it.

"Kaoru?" Kenshin's voice called from outside, "Kaoru? Would you mind lending me a hand?" She snapped out of her train of thought and hurried out, "Coming!"

Kenshin was outside past his ears in heavy luggage, more than his weight should have allowed him to carry. Vaguely, Kaoru noted they had all been hers. Left behind was a single, lonely suitcase beside the car.

"Sorry to call you out Kaoru," Kenshin's voice came from somewhere behind the piles of baggage, "But would you mind taking my suitcase in? I have my hands a bit...full."

"Oh! Sure. Sorry." She went to retrieve the light suitcase as Kenshin made his way in, relying on familiarity rather than his eyes that had been blocked by the suitcases in his arms.

"Let's just leave them in the living room, alright Kaoru?" He directed towards her without risking to lose his balance by turning to face her. She nodded, although she knew he couldn't see her and followed him in. He removed his shoes without a teeter the tower of suitcases in his hands and turned directly at the doorway to the living room and took several strides in and expertly avoiding coffee tables, sofas and the piano. Kaoru was left to wonder at how often Kenshin must have been here.

When he reached the far end of the room, Kenshin dropped the load of suitcases on the floor with a dull thud. They had remained stacked, and even on the floor, they had been more than half of his height. Kaoru placed his suitcase lamely beside hers as Kenshin stretched out the kinks in his shoulders.

"Sorry about that," She said sheepishly.

"I think I'll live," Kenshin stretched one last time and turned to give her a smile, "But I would like some tea if you'd care to make me some." She blushed under his smile and nodded. "The kitchen is the next door over." He offered, "There should be tea in the upper left-hand cabinet and a kettle in the cabinet down and to the right of that." She took his instructions and retreated from the room. She entered the kitchen and found the tea without any trouble. She couldn't find the kettle though. She counted the cabinets again, one down and to the right. The kettle still wasn't there. There was a spot where the kettle should have been but it wasn't. She looked around the room and finally saw the kettle on the stove. The image of the lit fireplace flitted across her mind and she called into the living room.

"Kenshin?" She asked. "Does your friend, the friend that owns this cabin I mean, does he often stay here?" He had been making the longest sofa into a bed and he paused to consider her question.

"He's usually out traveling. I think he went to go visit his friends in America." He said after a moment, then went back to laying the comforter on the couch, "I'm never quite sure."

"Is there a chance that he's home?"

"There is, but it's as likely as me winning the lottery." Kenshin smiled reassuringly, "Besides, he's a nice man. He wouldn't mind us staying here, nor using anything of his."

"Oh," Kaoru thought for a minute, "Alright." And went to go finish making the tea.

Her family had made it a point to keep her away from the kitchen so she never really learned how to make tea. It couldn't be that hard, she thought. Besides, it could have been a skill one gains with age. On that note, she poured out the water from it and filled it with fresh tap water to boil. She brought the tea out and saw that there were filters in the cabinet as well. Perhaps she should use that so that Kenshin wouldn't drink a mouthful of tealeaves? She pulled one out and filled it with tealeaves from the tin. Now how do you make sure it stays shut? She looked around the kitchen and found a rubber band. Perfect! She bunched the filter at the top and secured it with the rubber band. Dropping the whole thing into the boiling water in the kettle, she sat back and felt proud of herself. There! Easy as cake.

Now to wait for the tea to finish making itself. How do you tell if the tea is done in any case? The smell, Kaoru assured herself. When it starts smelling like tea, it should be done. Cooking was easier than Kaoru had thought. Might as well make a little something to go with that tea. She pulled out some sweet buns from the refrigerator and looked for instructions to heat them. There was nothing printed on the back but the nutrition facts, however, so she ad-libbed. She removed two from the package and placed them in the microwave. She pressed a few seconds to begin with and hit start. When the microwave ding-ed its completed mission, the buns were still frozen beyond the exterior. Sure not to make the same mistake again, Kaoru punched in several numbers this time and pressed start again. The buns hadn't lived past 6 minutes when there was a small explosion in the microwave.

Kaoru looked up from where she was putting the other sweet buns back into the fridge and blinked twice. That could not have been a good sound.

"Kaoru?" Kenshin called from the living room, "Everything alright?"

"Fine! Just fine!" She reassured him, "Nothing I can't fix!"

Hesitantly, she turned to the microwave and pulled open the door. There was a spattering of what used to be sweet buns and their red bean filling on the walls of the microwave.

"I guess that means I need to make more," Kaoru sighed. She got out two more buns and stuck them into the oven this time, not trusting the microwave anymore. She could not figure out the temperatures, but figured the higher the temperature, the faster they'll be done, and so set it as hot as the sun and left to clean the microwave.

She wet a rag and began to attack the dried filling on the sides. She tried at them for a few minutes before a smell met her nose. It definitely was not that of tea.

"Kyaaa! I burned it!" She jumped up and ran to the kettle. There was a smell of burning rubber as she lifted it off and emptied its contents into the sink. The water was a discolored shade of brown-green and she had not felt the slosh of the packet of tea she threw in there. She shook the kettle and listened for it, but it was not there. She pulled off the top and saw with horror that the rubber band had glued the tea and the filter to the bottom of the kettle. It was then that she realized the burning smell had not gone away. She ran to the oven and wrenched open the door.

Their buns were on fire.

She grabbed the kettle from where she dropped it and filled it with water. Fully dousing the flaming buns with water had put the fire out. And filled the bottom of the oven with a small puddle of murky tea-water. Kaoru groaned as she put her head in her hands. There were approaching footsteps from behind her and she didn't bother to look up as she said, "I've made a mess of things, haven't I?"

"You sure have." Was the reply. However, it was not Kenshin's soothing voice nor words she heard. It was a gruff, slightly peeved voice that could only belong to one person.

Kaoru whipped around, "Hiko?!" she squeaked.

Surely enough, there stood a disgruntled middle-aged man in rumpled pajamas, none too pleased at being disturbed at godforsaken hours because his kitchen was on fire. "What are you doing here, Kamiya?"

Kaoru had enough sense not to try to answer the question. Instead, she sank into a chair and put her head in her hands again.

"Are you here with that idiot?" Hiko gruffly asked, callous to Kaoru's state of distress. She meekly nodded. On cue, Kenshin strode in and was taken aback by the scene, from the burning oven, to the lord-knows-what splattered on the microwave, to the discarded kettle on the floor, to the weary girl at the kitchen table, and finally to the owner of the cabin.

"Congratulations Kenshin." Came Kaoru's muffled voice.


"You're going to win the lottery."

* * * * *

After a brief explanation from Kenshin regarding their sudden appearance, and a lengthier explanation from Kaoru as to why the kitchen was emitting a putrid smell, things were in a state of temperamental tranquility. Kenshin offered to clean up the kitchen and make new tea, which left Grumpy and Bashful at the same table in the living room.

"You got a thing for idiot redheads?" Hiko broke the terse silence.

"Oh fine." Kaoru glared, "No, 'How have you been these past ten years,' or 'Long time no see. How did you end up here?'"

Suddenly, there were two Grumpys in the room.

"And that's not fair for you to say! Kenshin's not an idiot!" Kaoru replied hotly. There was an awkward silence as Hiko regarded Kaoru with a cocked brow.

Ah the joyous return of Bashful.

"Just Kenshin? Forgetting someone?" Hiko mocked the poor girl.

"Erm..." Kaoru blushed, "I-I meant that neither of...that um..." She trailed off. And as the silence ensued, Kaoru tried not to blush and Hiko tried not to laugh. Neither of them succeeded.

"What's so funny about me sticking up for Kenshin?" Kaoru said crossly, still red, as Hiko let out an uncharacteristically large guffaw. When that did nothing to quell him, she tried again, "At least I have an exciting love life!"

Kaoru had been so caught up in her fury that she hadn't realized what she said. Here, she did manage to get Hiko to stop laughing...long enough for him to take a deep breath and laugh harder.

"I-I don't mean...! Kenshin and I aren't..." Her blush turned ten shades more red, but the damage was already done. Trying desperately to correct herself, she blurted, "I'm engaged!"

That stopped Hiko immediately.

He stared at her blankly for a minute. Then he smirked. "We sure work fast, don't we Kamiya?"

"Wha...?" It took Kaoru a moment to catch the implications of her own words. "No no! Not to Kenshin! To someone else!" As soon as the words left her mouth, she wondered about the truth of the statement. After tonight, where did she and Enishi stand as a couple?

"Well," Hiko snorted, slipping back into his usual pattern of rudeness, "Give my sympathy to the poor man. He has to eat your cooking every day." Kaoru replied with a glare. Before she could say anything, Hiko went on, "When is this overrated bondage of two people whom have no idea what hell they're getting themselves into?"

At that, Kaoru's anger slipped a bit. "I-I'm not sure anymore." She averted his gaze and picked at an invisible speck of dirt on her shirt. "We had an argument tonight." That would be the understatement of the century.

"A he-forgot-to-put-the-toilet-seat-down argument or he-got-jealous-because-I-ran-off-with-a-redhead argument?" Hiko asked, unfazed.

"I didn't run off with Kenshin," Kaoru's temper began to flare. Then just as quickly, it deflated, leaving a worn-out woman who wanted nothing more than for everyone to leave her alone, "But he got jealous anyway. He gets jealous a lot. This time things just got a little out of control. That's all." She ran a tired hand through her hair.

"Ah," Hiko's gaze softened somewhat. But not enough to notice. "Who's the lucky man? Do I know him?"
Kaoru nodded, and said warily, "Enishi."

That single name seemed to speak volumes as it hung in the air. Hiko gave a shadow of a nod and sat back. "I always thought that kid was strange."

"Thanks," Kaoru tried to sound offended but didn't have enough energy to put all the required sarcasm behind the statement. "I know he's a nice guy. Deep down he is. Really." But the words fell flat, even on her own ears.

"Listen," Hiko started gruffly, "I'm not the sentimental type. You know that. But if you need...well, you know." He broke off and coughed, unused to being compassionate. Kaoru smiled and nodded her thanks. The pair sank into uncomfortable silence again. Hiko coughed again and tried to sound annoyed, "Where's that idiot boy with our tea? Hey! Stupid!" He called loudly.

"Yes?" Kenshin replied from the vicinity of the kitchen, "Coming!" Surely enough, he appeared at the doorway garbed in an apron holding a tray and two teacups and a pot of tea. He set a cup in front of Kaoru and one in front of Hiko, then the teapot within reach between them. "I'll be going now. I have to finish cleaning the kitchen. Then I'll make something for us to eat." He moved to retreat, only to be stopped by a gentle hand on his arm.

"You don't have to," Kaoru smiled, previous mood dissipating, "Come sit with us and have some tea. You need your rest too."

"It's alright, Kaoru." He returned her smile with one of his own and warmth pooled into his violet eyes, "There's a bit of a mess in the kitchen and I enjoy cooking."

"Ah," Kaoru blushed and released his arm, "Sorry about the mess." She looked at him sheepishly.

"I don't mind cleaning." He gave her one last smile before leaving the room. Kaoru watched his retreating figure before turning back to the man sitting across from her, only to be fixed with a calculating stare.

"What?" Kaoru fidgeted again, feeling like a child in trouble in the principal's office. Well, the principal was there. All she needed was her youth and an intimidating room.

Hiko seemed not to have heard the question and continued to stare at Kaoru as a scientist would observe a caged test subject. Finally, he withdrew his soul-penetrating gaze and sipped his tea calmly, ignoring her fully.

"Hey!" Kaoru felt annoyed at the sudden shift in mood, "Are you going to tell me why you were staring at me or not?"

There was a small clink as Hiko put down his teacup and looked at Kaoru bluntly. "You've fallen for him."

"What?!" Kaoru fought the blush creeping onto her cheeks, "How do you figure that?"

"Is being obvious a tactic you use or a plus that comes with your clueless nature?"

"I have not fallen for Kenshin," Kaoru said crossly and raised her teacup to her lips, both to avoid looking at Hiko and to hide the annoying red tint in her cheeks. When she felt confident that her face had restored its normal color, she placed the half-empty teacup down.

"Besides, I told you I was engaged, didn't I?" She tried to sound miffed as she looked up, but not directly into Hiko's eyes. There was a brief silence as she waited for him to respond. Finally, he sat back and closed his eyes.

"You have a strange taste in men, girl."

"Yes, we've gone over this." Kaoru rolled her eyes exasperatedly, "I like idio—"

"I meant besides that." Hiko cut her off roughly without bothering to look at her, "You're drawn to troubled people." Kaoru blinked at him, not that he could see it. He took her silence as a cue to go on. "Quite an interesting history you have too. A callous teen from halfway across the world, a boy who had family issues for as long as he could remember, and a widow that—"

"Wait, wait." Kaoru interrupted him. "Who are we talking about again?"

Hiko lazily lifted his lids to look at her, "Battousai, Enishi and Kenshin. Unless there's someone else I should know about? Or a few dozen someones?"

"No, not that." Kaoru didn't even notice the jab as her mind mulled over the words. "Kenshin's widowed?" She felt a pang of emotion that she couldn't immediately identify. It couldn't be jealousy...could it?

"He didn't tell you." Hiko's voice was flat, stating a fact rather than asking a question. Kaoru shook her head and pushed away the growing discomfort that began to well inside.

"He never spoke of it."

"But you want to know." Again with the bluntness. Instead of responding, Kaoru risked a glance at the direction of the kitchen.

"He can't hear us from there," Hiko answered her unsaid precaution, "And we can always change the topic if he walks in." Kaoru thought for a moment and then nodded. Hiko sipped his tea and then began.

"He met her in college in his freshman year. She was in her senior year then." He started, getting straight to the facts, "She thought he was cute and he thought she was beautiful. They dated. When she graduated, he proposed. Didn't care that he was still in college. His grades were fine. So she said yes. Got married. Moved in together in an apartment." He shrugged and that seemed to be the end of his line of speech. Kaoru waited on her last reserves of patience and when he didn't continue, she prompted him.

"Well? That can't be all!"

"I never said I was done." Hiko glared at her mildly, "And of course that isn't all. They weren't rich, of course. And no one had taken the time nor money to rid the building of its growing pest problem. One night the summer they were married, a rat chewed through their fuse box in their basement. The thing died of course. Its blasted corpse caught fire and the building went up in flames." Hiko stopped again and sipped his tea.

"But their fire alarm would have went off, right?" Kaoru tried to get him talking again. Hearing about Kenshin sparked an interest in her. She needed to hear the rest of this story!

"They were fairly poor, Kamiya." Hiko glared, "They had both been going to college on scholarship. She held a part-time job as a piano teacher, and that got them enough money to get by on. He spent all his time trying to find a way to get into a post-graduate school on the little money he had. They didn't have money for luxuries like installing a fire alarm in their apartment."

"There wasn't one already there?" Kaoru gasped, appalled.

"You have a problem grasping the facts, don't you Kamiya?" Hiko sounded annoyed, "Of course there weren't in the cheapest apartments in the slums of the city! This is getting off topic. So the building was on fire. The people on the bottom floor were the first to notice and they all got out with a few burns. Kenshin didn't live on the bottom floor.

"In case you need reminding, this was at night. Which means that people are asleep." Hiko said slowly, as if explaining to a child, "Kenshin didn't wake up until he felt the heat from the flames. By then, it was too late to get out safely.

"He woke her up immediately and they each searched the room for a way to get out. During these searches, she burned her feet and it was difficult for her to walk. The fire had spread to the window where the fire escape was, but it was possible to get out. The ceiling had already begun to collapse and Kenshin saw that it would take too long for both of them to get out before the ceiling caved in. He pushed her out the window onto the fire escape as the beams of the ceiling collapsed. On him of course." Hiko said without the slightest twinge of emotion. Kaoru, however, gasped and her blue eyes held pain for both of them.

"And as he pushed her out, she tried to grab for him, but missed. Her wedding ring, rather sharp diamond, scraped the left side of his face, giving him one of the marks of the cross," Hiko traced it with his own face with a downward motion. "As the ceiling fell, a sharp piece of plaster scratched him, giving him the second mark of the cross." He traced the mark, "So she watched from the fire escape as the beams of the building fell on her beloved. When she saw a small clearing, she climbed back in and found him unconscious, but still alive. She covered his body with hers and protected him from the flames and the falling debris."

As Kaoru listened, she felt tears prick the corners of her eyes. They were willing to give their lives for each other. Could she ever compare with that? Did she even want to try?

"What happened then?" She asked in a small voice.

"Well, then the fire department showed up. Lazy fools. They managed to pull Kenshin out with a few burns and that wound on his face."

"What about her?" Kaoru asked, already knowing the answer.

Hiko shook his head, "She didn't make it. Her body was scarred from fire and bleeding from several wounds on her back. She died protecting him."

Ending on that note, Kaoru felt a tear slip down her own cheek. She thought of all those times Kenshin smiled and laughed. How much pain he must have held back to be able to do that.

"The girl," Kaoru choked out, "What was her name?"


"What was she like?"

"Never seen her. She was supposed to be beautiful though. Tall and slender. Black hair. And the most beautiful brown eyes." Hiko said as he regarded his cold tea with distaste. He stood gracefully for a man of his size and stared down at her, "I'm going to get some sake and go to bed. Tea never did anything for me." With that he turned and headed for the door.

"Wait!" Kaoru cried before he disappeared behind the doorway, "What about Kenshin?"

"What do you mean?" Hiko looked at her over his shoulder, "He's here and alive isn't he?"

"No, I mean that he's coming back soon. He'll expect you to be here."

Hiko snorted, "He's learned never to expect anything from me." Without another word, he strode out, leaving Kaoru alone with her thoughts. Which was exactly what she didn't want.

Images of Kenshin and this angel of his plagued her mind. Kaoru found that she didn't feel the previous pang of envy. How could she bare ill will to someone who was so pure? No, all she felt now was sympathy and pain. Sympathy and pain for Kenshin, Tomoe, herself and maybe even Enishi.

Too many people to think about for one night. Kaoru wiped the traces of tears from her face and stood. She had examined this room when she came in but she felt compelled to do it again. Anything to keep her mind from settling and thinking.

She walked the expanse of the area again, stopping every once in a while to look at a vase or a picture. Eventually, she found herself at the piano. Hesitantly looking in the direction of the kitchen and the doorway that Hiko left through, she decided that it couldn't hurt if she tried a few chords.

Kaoru sat at the ivory colored bench and pushed up the cover concealing the warm welcoming of black and white. She ran her fingers along the keys and pressed a chord here and there. She hadn't played a song in years.

"Do you play, Kaoru?" Kenshin's voice startled her and her fingers hit a sour note, making Kaoru wince.

"Ah, no." She withdrew her hands, "I used to play a little." Kenshin nodded and set the tray he brought in on the table. He still wore the aprion.

"Where did Hiko go off to?" Kenshin asked, looking around the room as if he were hiding from them.

"He went to bed with some sake."

"Sounds like him. That means we each have to eat more rice balls then!" He said cheerfully, not the least affected by the loss of company, "Did you two get aquatinted? You seemed to get along pretty well."

"I, ah, knew him from my high school years. We had quite a history." Kaoru laughed nervously. Kenshin straightened immediately and looked at her with a mixture of surprise and horror.

Kaoru wasn't very good at expressing herself tonight.

"He was my high school principal!" She cried, meaning its face value and hoping Kenshin would take it as such. Sure enough, the look passed from his eyes and he continued to set the table and clear the left over dishes away.

"Must have been quite a reunion," He resumed cheerfully, "What did you guys talk about?"

Here, Kaoru froze. The foremost thought that ran through her mind was Hiko's story. But she couldn't bring that up, could she? She scourged her mind for anything else to tell him. Not of their potential relationship, Kaoru fervently thought, nor how she's virtually fallen for him. She tried to make up a lie that sounded plausible but came up blank. With mustered courage but still in a small voice, she said, "He was telling me about you."

"Whatever it was, I promise it's not true." Kenshin looked up at her, purple eyes dancing.

If only, Kaoru thought. "No, he was telling me about your late wife."

The smile on his face faltered for a moment before it was forced back into place. His eyes were no longer sparkling, though. He turned away from her and began to take off the apron.

"I see." He folded up the apron and turned back to her with an even more desolate smile than before, "What did he tell you? Everything?" Silence and guilt were his responses. "Then do me one favor Kaoru."

She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

"Please don't tell me you're sorry."

"What?" Her eyes widened and focused on his for the first time, "I invaded your privacy! It was none of my business to--"

"No, that was not what I had meant, but do not feel bad over that either." There was a flicker of something unreadable in his eyes, "I don't speak of her because people begin to pity me, and I don't want that. I'm sure you don't want pity either."

She nodded her silent understanding.

"I ask the same. The burden is mine and I do not feel I need others scrutinizing me as I try to carry it."

Kaoru nodded again and looked into his face. To her mild surprise, there was no remorse in his eyes, nor self-blame, only deep sadness and a hint of gratitude. A trivial thought struck her but she looked away embarrassed nonetheless.

"That night when I was...That night at the bar, I think I said something--"

"That I didn't know death, nor what it was like to lose someone?" Kenshin smiled, "You couldn't have known. It's alright. And I thought we put that behind us?" Kaoru nodded and gave him a wavering smile in return.

They sat down simultaneously and sank into light chatter that was meaningless but a comfort in itself.

* * * * *

After the tea, Kaoru forced a yawn that wasn't entirely fake and stated that she must excuse herself. Kenshin insisted that she take the spare room upstairs while he used the couch in the living room. There were spare bedrooms upstairs but he insisted that it would be more to her comfort and more proper this way. Hiko's room was on the bottom floor; she would have the floor to herself.

Now alone in a foreign room on an abandoned floor at night, she felt a relapse of fear from the resort. The shadows suddenly seemed more menacing than before. Before when Kenshin was there with her. Kenshin, who was asleep in the living room.

As she lay in bed, eyes propped open and forced to focus on the ceiling and not dart around the room, she decided that she needed to get out of the room. The patterns painted across the ceiling were beginning to look like devilish faces grinning down at her in mockery. With a shudder, she grabbed her coat and hurried past her unopened suitcases by the door, which at some point had been moved to her room, and down the dark flight of stairs.

Thankfully, Kenshin left the light on in the main hall. Kaoru felt a sort of calm spread through her as the brightness hit her eyes. She instinctively walked into what she remembered was the living room and later remembered that it was the room Kenshin was staying in. The fire was put out and the room was dark, but having a light at her back and knowing Kenshin was there made her more confident. She didn't feel the need to turn on the light.

Kaoru groped around in the dark, eyes still unadjusted to the dark, avoiding tables and chairs, biting back her curses when she didn't. Eventually, she found the piano although she couldn't have said why she was looking for it. She felt around it until her hands met the bench. She sat down silently and lifted the dusty cover off again. Before, she couldn't bring herself to seriously play, but now she felt compelled to. She flexed her fingers over the keys, knowing where they were supposed to go without needing to see. Then withdrew her hand as she remembered Kenshin was still sleeping. She may wake him up.

But Kaoru wanted to play. She needed to.

Biting her lip, she placed her fingers on the starting chords of a song she perfected ages ago. She pressed down gently and quickly withdrew her hands, listening for a stirring from the general direction of the sofa.

Not so much as a rustle. Good.

With a bit more boldness, she played the starting chords, and the notes after that and the notes after that...

Her muscles relaxed and she became less aware of her thoughts as all she knew was the song and the familiar feeling. If ever she played the last chords, she played the first right after them, never wanting to end the round. As time wore on, she gained her night vision but she closed her eyes out of habit.

If her eyes had been open, she would have noticed that Kenshin was not on the sofa, much less in the room.

* * * * *

Kenshin stared at his coffee. Hard. Still, it hadn't given him the answers to his thoughts. Sighing, he sat back and rubbed his eyes before glancing at the clock. Five minutes had passed since he looked last. This was going well.

The cool night air flowing through the open window of the kitchen did nothing to soothe him. It had not even affected him in his barely dressed state. His mind was elsewhere. More specifically, it was on someone. A blue-eyed someone in particular. And her annoying fiance.

Did he just think the word annoying?

No, he shook his head, he would not be jealous. This was none of his business. Kaoru was not an option open to him. He would not interfere.

Then what was pinning Enishi to the wall by his tonsils?
his irritating inner voice asked him.

'I was protecting her,' he fought back defensively. 'She was in pain.'

Why so sure? Maybe she wanted Enishi to hold her like that.

'She most certainly did not!'

Touchy, aren't we?

"I will not get jealous. I will not get jealous." He repeated the mantra to himself. He gave up after he saw it was useless. Despite what he could and could not help, he cared about her. Whether he felt anything more was up to him to admit.

Before he could scold himself for even daring to think those thoughts, a sound met his ears. It was a soft melody; a pleasant, sad melody. Without realizing, he stood up and walked towards it, leaving behind the cold coffee. He found himself drawn towards the dark living room where the sound was emitting. As Kenshin neared the doorway, the song took a heartbreaking tone and stopped him dead in his track. Signals went off in his head and pounded at his heart. Something about this tune...

His hand shot out towards the light switch and he flipped it on without thinking.

As soon as the light hit Kaoru's closed lids, she froze. She opened her eyes and winced at the sudden change. This was a thick, piercing brightness, not the warm welcoming one from the hallway. Hesitantly, she looked over her shoulder and saw Kenshin in the doorway, hand still over the switch.

As soon as she looked at him, Kenshin regretted turning on the light. He had interrupted something beautiful; the color lingering in her eyes told him so. But some part of him had wanted that music to stop, and it was that part of him that flipped on the light. Something about what Kaoru was playing seemed too painful. Painful for her, yes, but painful for him as well?

"What were you playing?" Kenshin forced himself ask after he put away his emotions.

"What?" Kaoru's eyes widened. She was not anticipating the question or the sudden interruption of the silence. "Oh. That was something I...taught myself a...while ago."

Kenshin nodded stonily; he was still staring at her with an unreadable expression that made her fidget. Stiffly, he walked over to her, unlike his usual graceful self, and stopped when he stood beside her by the piano.

"I'm sorry for interrupting you." His tone reverted to its normal relaxed one, "Please, play it again?"

"S-sure." Kaoru stammered out, flustered by the sudden close proximity. She watched herself place her own fingers back on the keys and stoically began to play.

"You're too tense." Kenshin interrupted a few bars in.

Kaoru inhaled sharply and looked at him. She knew that look he was giving her. She quickly looked away so he could not see the glimmer in her eyes.

"I-I know."

Kenshin sat down on her right. "You were playing fine until I walked in."

Kaoru tried to swallow back the tears and shook her head. Too many coincidences. Too many things were the same.


She looked up at him and immediately realized it was a mistake. He was turned slightly towards her, scar completely out of view. And perhaps it was in her half-flustered state, or maybe she was imagining things, but his eyes were no longer purple, but rather a molten gold. As quickly as she had looked at him, Kaoru squeezed her eyes shut, but it was too late. The image was already imprinted in her mind. Tears leaked down the side of her face.

"Kaoru? Are you al--"

"Stop." She said weakly, "Please, don't say anything."

Kenshin looked concerned but decided to consent. Kaoru waited for the tears to stop before taking a deep breath and looking up.

"Sorry about that," She said with false cheer and an equally false smile on her face. She knew Kenshin had not bought it but did not drop the cover for fear of the alternative emotion, "I'll play the song again."

"You don't have--"

"I do not mind." Kaoru gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I just want to try something this time." She turned back to the keyboard and closed her eyes before her fingers instinctively placed themselves on the starting chords. This time she played as beautifully as before, if not with more sadness.

Her fingers moved to their memorized positions while Kaoru's mind wandered elsewhere.

Ten years ago.

Just like ten years ago. Except certain things had changed.

She was, maybe still is, engaged to Enishi. She had grown up and was no longer the silly girl she was.

And Battousai...

But, she forced her train of thought onward, certain things were the same.

This song. This feeling. And this situation.

Except now she was the one playing.

Instead of playing the song repeatedly as she had before, she stopped when the song did. She looked up hesitantly when she heard no comment from Kenshin. He was staring unseeingly at the front of the piano.

"Kenshin?" Kaoru asked hesitantly.

He snapped up as if shaken from a dream. He paused for a moment as if having forgotten where he was. Showing recognition, he gave her a smile that didn't reach his eyes, "That was beautiful."

Kenshin had turned away quickly and stared again, unfocused, at the piano. Kaoru had caught the look in his eyes before he hid them and picked up the tone in his voice though he tried to mask it.

It was pain.

What had surprised her was that it was pain similar to her own. Suddenly, something dawned on her and she turned to him.

"Was that a song your wife played for you before?" She asked in a small voice.

"No," Kenshin replied instantly, although his eyes still had not focused. Then he blinked twice and considered the question before answering again, "I'm not sure. Maybe she had. I wish I could remember." He frowned.

"You can't remember?" Kaoru asked incredulously, "How can you not?"

"Ah," Kenshin gave her a bitter smile, "I guess Hiko didn't tell you everything then." Kaoru gave him a puzzled look and he continued, "After the accident, I slipped into a coma. I didn't remember anything after I woke up. What I know is what they tell me."

Kaoru's heart tore at his words. She stopped herself from apologizing for him, and instead asked, "You don't remember a thing?"

"No. Not my life up until then. Nor my wife."

"Then you don't remember her at all?" She could not prevent sadness from seeping into her voice.

"I can't even remember what she looks like." Kenshin gave a humorless laugh.

"What about photos?" She suggested, wanting to take the pain away from him, "There must have been photos of her somewhere."

Kenshin shook his head. "All the ones we had were burned in the fire. I can't find any of her family. They seemed all to have moved at some point either before or after we got married. Once again, I seem to have forgotten." Another bitter smile.

"It must be horrible," Kaoru said softly, "not to be able to even remember anything of your passed loved ones."

"It is not as bad as you would think," Kenshin brightened a bit for the first time since he entered the room, "I remember bits here and there. Like the way her bangs fell into her eyes." He gave a genuine smile, "Or the movement she'd use to put on a coat. Or the way she swooned when she played a song on the piano. Or the way she'd hit me when I teased her." Kaoru listened with a painful swell growing in her heart. He really loved her. She felt tears prick her eyes again.

"But over everything, one thing I'd always remember about her was her eyes. She had the most beautiful eyes anyone had ever seen." Kenshin went on, oblivious to Kaoru's tears.

"Hiko told me," Kaoru choked out, "The warmest brown possible."

"Brown?" Kenshin seemed to snap back to reality. He looked confused for a moment then laughed, "Yes, I guess they were brown." He caught a glance of the clock face and cringed. "It really is late. You should try to get some sleep Kaoru. You could manage a few hours before dawn breaks."

In the instant before Kaoru responded, an image of dark halls and menacing shadows flashed in her mind. "No, I'm really not tired." She sat tense and awake, trying to pass off as a real insomniac rather than someone about to drop off to sleep at any given time.

Kenshin said nothing. He started into her eyes long enough for her to be uncomfortable and then broke the intensity by blinking. "You're afraid of something." He said it without the slightest trace of judgmental emotion.

"Not really," She tried to be an adult, to act her age. Really, she tried. But with Kenshin, she felt as if those ten years had done nothing to mature her. "I just..."

"Feel ill at ease from today." Kenshin finished for her. When her embarrassment was his only silent agreement, he said more gently, "You should have told me then."

"But what could you have done?" Kaoru gave in to her own exhaustion and pulled down the facade. The weariness in her tone proved against her intention of being rude.

"I could have made it better," Kenshin replied. Kaoru considered him for a minute. He had really thought he could have helped. It was that, if nothing else, which made her heart flutter. Still, she let her tiredness take over as opposed to her emotions.

"Are you sure, Kenshin?" Her lips pulled into a wry smile, "It would be rather hard for you to fight...off...shadows..." Her words slowed as her breath was cut short to make way for a yawn. Kenshin didn't reply as he watched her. As her yawn hummed to an end, he stood up and gathered the sheets splayed across the couch.

"What are you doing?" Kaoru looked after him confusedly.

He pulled up all the loose ends of the blanket and looked at her, "Fighting off the shadows for you." Without another word, he headed for the door, leaving Kaoru staring after.

"Wait!" She tried to keep up with his purposeful stride, "What do you mean? What do you plan to do?" He didn't answer as he headed up the stairs and in the direction of her designated room. "Hey!" she called again in vain.

Kenshin strode past her room into the one adjacent to hers. It was a musty study that looked as if it hadn't been used in years. He dropped his armload of bedding onto the small armchair in the corner of the room and proceeded to prepare his makeshift bed. Kaoru watched his motions with a growing sense of dread.

"W-what are you doing?" She finally managed to ask. "You...you aren't planning to stay there for the night?"

"I plan to," Kenshin tossed a pillow at the head of the mass of sheets. Satisfied, he turned to give her a smile, "And I will."

Kaoru knew she had no reason to object, nor did she really want to. Yet seeing as the drowsiness had faded with her brief jog up the stairs to keep up with Kenshin, her sentiment came back full blast.

"But I thought you said it wouldn't be proper!"

"The reason for that had been to make sure you were comfortable," Kenshin's smile grew a bit wider, "If that means my staying here, so be it."


"No if, ands or buts." Kenshin placed his hands on her shoulders and tipped his head so his eyes were level with hers, "You need sleep after today. I will make sure to protect you from the shadows." The corner of his mouth lifted into a smile as she flushed. "Go get some sleep." Perhaps it was exhaustion on his part, or the part of him that cared about her that had made him realize just how pretty Kaoru was, blushing under the moonlight. It was also the same damned state of mind that made him lean forward and place a quick kiss on her forehead.

Kaoru had been trying to focus on anything but the implications Kenshin's words held when she felt his lips brush the top of her head. By the time her surprise startled her enough to look up, he had his back to her and was turning down the sheets. Taking advantage of his diverted attention, Kaoru tried to outrun her embarrassment and quickly slipped out of his room, back into hers.

With a dull click, she shut the door behind her and leaned her weight against it. She placed a hand on her forehead where his lips had been minutes ago. Slowly, she smiled. When she lifted her head, her eyes caught sight of the window she hadn't previously noticed was there. Over the scratching fingers of the trees and cool glow of the moon, she could clearly see one bright star near the top of the sky.

When she had climbed into bed later, the smile had not faded. Not even when dreamless sleep came to claim her.

* * * * *

How did you all find that? I thought it was a slow but very fluffy chapter. Not much action but lots of character development. I'm not entirely satisfied with it. Also, did anyone see the Tomoe-issue coming? This is where it strays from the series. (No, she's not related to Enishi in this one) Also, the piano song wasn't in the series for a reason. You'll see. Ha haaaa.

I promise there will be many more shocks in the next chapter of Winter! Thank you all for reading and for putting up with my irregular writing habits!