As he stepped toward her the magic turned solid and formed a wall, which he found himself running smack dab into.

He snarled and threw a bit of his own in an attempt to break through. It simply absorbed it. Then the colors twisted and flashed and the magic struck back at him. Kenshin formed a shield and deflected it… barely.

At the back of his mind he wondered just how strong she would be when… if… she ever learned to control her power. Running wild and raging as it was now, it was formidable enough… gods help them if she ever mastered it and turned it against them…

Ending up as Isao had would be nothing compared to what she could do if she chose to.

'Let me in,' he snarled at it. 'Let me get to her!'

The magic spilling from her body and cutting the air around them would slowly rip her apart if it wasn't stopped.

It seethed at him as he pressed against it, determined to get through.

'I'm not going to hurt her!' He snapped.

It lashed at him and he hissed as it split into tendrils striking at him and forcing him to blur and dodge and call up some of his own to blur and dodge and keep just a step ahead of it.

'I'm trying to help her!' He yelled at it.

Damned possessive protective magic!

Growling he stopped dodging and it struck hit, rocking him back on his heels with the force of the blow. It poured into him, racing through him and filled his head with a dull buzzing roar. It swept over him flooding every bit of his being searching for darkness and bad intentions.

Kenshin wanted to yank his shields up but kept them down by sheer force of will.

'Not going to hurt her,' he repeated lowering his voice to a gentle croon. 'Not going to hurt you. Help only. Help you. Help both of you.'

It flickered through his mind and he shuddered lightly doing his best to keep his thoughts quiet and gentle, calm.

His own magic glided under his skin reaching out tentatively to touch hers. As the two met he felt his knees weaken. They clashed against one another momentarily and then meshed completely.

An image of gold-edge violet and blue threads entwined flashed before his eyes and then faded.

The buzzing roar turned into a low contented purr and then he felt it pull back and out of him. For a moment coldness flooded him at its loss and then his own magic surged within him once more and warmth returned.

He opened eyes he didn't remember closing and heard the dull throb of magic in the air. It had calmed down and was no longer lashing around. Holding his breath he took a step forward and felt it assent, deciding to allow him near to Kaoru.

Kaoru lay crumpled on the floor. A broken ribbon lay a few feet away from her and her unbound hair curled around her too-pale face like a halo of ink. Her eyes were closed, the circles around them the color of old bruises. Her body was shaking and she was whimpering silently.

"Kaoru," Kenshin dropped to his knees next to her and gently touched an exposed shoulder. The coldness of her skin numbed his fingertips and he hissed.

There was a twisting, sucking feeling and everything around him spun.

When the world righted itself he found himself in Shulya's domain.

Kaoru was curled in a ball, her face buried in Shulya's lap. Threads were the only thing covering her, wrapped around her body tightly. Blue, violet-gold, silver, black… too much black…

Through the snatches of skin that he could see, he caught sight of scars marring her back and shoulders, her arms and legs were crisscrossed with them. Some of them were faded to a pale silvery color; others were the light-pink of newly healed flesh. Still others were scabbed – just beginning to heal. A large gash ran the length of her back from shoulder nearly to hip. It was bleeding heavily, staining the threads wrapped around her.

Something hot dripped down the side of his face and he raised a fingertip and it came away bloody. His scars had opened and were bleeding.

Shulya looked up her multi-faceted eyes flashing. "Your fault," her voice had lowered into a sibilant-hiss. "You were so intent on protecting her from you and your pain that you never thought about her own. You forgot to protect her from everyone else... and herself…"

Kenshin flinched, "I…"

"Was a stupid fool," Shulya snapped. "She could have handled it. It would have been painful, but she could have handled it. Now…" She gently stroked Kaoru's dark head and Kaoru cried out.

One of the scabbed cuts across her ribs broke open and started to bleed.

"Too soon you brought her back," Shulya's eyes had turned the color of storm clouds. "With barely a bond formed – a fledgling thing that might be dead now that it might."

"What can I do?" Kenshin asked softly.

"More than what you already have done – which is next to nothing." Shulya snarled.

Kenshin snarled and then blinked as Shulya's lips twitched into a smile.

"You are learning… that is half the battle."

Kenshin blinked again and she shook her head.

"Get over here you idiot."

Kenshin found himself yanked to her side before he could even think to move.

Shulya's arm lashed out and he yelped as he was pulled down beside her by the end of his ponytail.

"Hold her," she instructed. Murmuring softly to Kaoru she hefted her gently into Kenshin's arms.

Kaoru whimpered and more of the scabs on her body tore open and bled.

"Talk to her," Shulya ordered him. "Let her know that she is not alone – for once in her life," she added in a soft whisper.

Kenshin bit his lip. "Kaoru…?" He murmured softly.

Shulya snorted in disgust. "That is NOT talking to her!"

Kenshin snarled at her and she fought back a smile.

"Kaoru," Kenshin murmured lowly. "Little one?" He stroked a hand down her back mindful of her cuts and scars. Several threads unwound from her back and attached themselves to his wrist.

Kenshin looked up briefly at Shulya who nodded.

Kenshin closed his eyes and unearthed a faint lullaby that his mother had sung to him before her death. He continued to stroke her back gently. More of the threads loosened from Kaoru and attached themselves to him, twining up his wrists and forearms. Every so slowly the torn flesh of her back and sides began to come together and knit, leaving paler scars which faded until they were almost indistinguishable from the rest of her skin.

Her shaking quieted and she let out a long shuddering breath and then was still.

"Good," a genuine smile spread across Shulya's face. "Now leave. Her physical body needs tending as well."

And like that Kenshin found himself thrust out of Shulya's realm.

Kaoru was still unconscious when he opened his eyes.

Gently he picked her up. She was boneless in his arms, head lolling against his shoulder. Her breathing while faint was steady and a touch of color had returned to her face, but the dark circles were still extremely evident.

Cradling her gently Kenshin carried her out of the stables with an expression on his face that promised death to anyone so foolish to step in his path.

000

Silence met their appearance.

Kenshin didn't look at any of Kaoru's so called family. He knew that if he as much as turned his head in their direction someone was going to be missing limbs.

Aoshi stepped to his side, flanking him. The man's face had tightened as he looked at Kaoru. Behind him the others fell into formation. Kenshin could hear faintly the soft hum of magic as they called it to them.

"Rooms?" Kenshin asked tensely.

Aoshi nodded. "Misao?" He murmured.

The girl's face was pale but she gave a jerky nod. "I'll show you where the… guest bedrooms are." She dashed ahead and they followed.

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Kaoru's family had bunched together their faces white and fearful. Almost as frightened as the look that had been on Kaoru's face when she had first seen them.

Good, he wanted them afraid.

He wanted them to hurt for hurting her.

But that was later; he had to tend to her first.

Misao opened the door to the rooms that had been designated for Kenshin… and opened the blinds, to allow as much light as possible.

Kenshin carried Kaoru to the bed and set her down as gently as he could. Her skin seemed to pale as his touch was removed from it and when he laid a hand against her shoulder he found that it had once more turned to ice. Her breathing had quickened and seemed to rattle in her chest.

He desperately wished for Megumi.

"Kenshin?" Aoshi prodded softly.

"If any of her… if any of them come near the door kill them." He couldn't bring himself to say her family. They weren't.

Aoshi nodded and left.

"Anything I can do?" Misao asked her eyes huge in her face.

"Bring tea," Kenshin said. "And then stay with the others."

Misao gulped and darted away.

Snarling softly Kenshin grabbed a blanket and wrapped it snugly around her. He then pulled the coverlet over, tucking it under her chin. She still felt cold. Too cold. He could sense her power coursing just underneath her skin and hissed.

Why was her body rejecting it?

True magic in the countries had faded in the past couple of centuries or so. In Kenshin's great-grandfather's time it had still been in everyday use. In Kasshin however it had been already thought to be long gone. Now, in Hiten magic was only used when necessary. For fighting or healing. Some old magics still remained – evident in how the water in his castle was always kept warm, the lights never needed to be fixed or changed.

But they had fallen a long way from the time when you could use magic to bake bread with just a thought.

And even with their careful conservation of it, it felt like it was fading further.

Kasshin had made magic into a myth. Creatures like Tomoe and Enishi – the breve-saol were figments of imagination and legend.

As far as he had known, had thought – magic no longer existed in that country.

Had suspected that Kaoru had magic in her it would have been different – he would have tried to help her learn to use it.

Shulya was right – he had been an idiot, too wrapped up in his own past and problems to think beyond them.

But it still didn't explain Kaoru's power.

Magic had faded and disappeared in Kasshin. But Kaoru's magic was strong – far stronger than it should have been. It was almost as if all the magic that had left Kasshin had come together and decided to inhabit one person.

Kaoru.

And by the way it had reacted; it had been kept under restraints and chains, just needing a trigger to set it off.

Kenshin's lips thinned remembering the body near Kaoru.

Something told him it wasn't the first time such an incident had happened and if Kaoru's reactions to her so-called family were any indication he was correct.

She must have been unconsciously repressing it and it had built up under the bindings she had unwittingly placed on it until it had no choice but to explode and attack whatever it felt was attempting to hurt her.

Kenshin felt an ache build between his eyes. He had too many questions to ask her, too many things he needed to know to put the pieces of this puzzle together.

He placed his hand against the side of her face, cupping it and felt her magic spark underneath her skin. It was loose now; she couldn't push it back even if she tried to.

Gently he allowed a tendril of his own magic to escape. Warmth flooded him as it came into contact with hers, twining and wrapping around his so tightly he could barely distinguish where hers began and his ended. Kaoru's skin flushed, turning pinker and healthier.

Crooning softly to her shucked off his shirt, and slid under the covers and pulled her against him. Warmth spread, racing along each nerve-ending wherever his skin came into contact with Kaoru's. Her breathing gentled and became rhythmic and steady.

Kenshin had the faintest sensation of threads tightening and snapping into place.

There was a knock on the door and he opened an eye as Misao entered carrying a cup of tea in her hand. She blinked at him and bit her lip, setting the cup down on the nearby stand and then backed away and left silently.

Closing his eyes he concentrated on his magic. It meshed and melded with hers and he could see in his mind, an image of a web of threads covering the two of them. Some of the black had receded and turned blue, still more was blue-edged black. The violet-gold he'd identified as his own was completely ensnared by the blue of Kaoru's.

Whether he liked it or not they would be bound together. To leave her now would mean cutting threads that belonged not only to her, but to him as well.

'You're learning,' Shulya's voice whispered through his mind. 'Now use it. Call her back.'

'Kaoru?' Kenshin gently reached out with his magic and plucked at one of the blue threads.

A shudder went through Kaoru and she gasped softly. He felt her tensing, trying to pull away.

'No,' Kenshin said firmly. He grasped the thread tightly and began to tug at it gently.

A wave of fear hit him mixed with denial.

Kaoru.

'Kaoru…' He tried again, his voice as soft as he could make it. 'Come back.'

'No!' Her voice was a sob. 'It hurts!'

'I know it does,' Kenshin murmured. 'You can't run away.'

'Yes I can!' The blue thread in his hands snapped.

'Kaoru!' Kenshin yelled.

'Go away!' Several of the blue threads darkened and started turning black.

'I'm not going anywhere.' Kenshin said firmly.

'Then I'll leave,' The black began to spread, racing along the threads and he snarled.

'Coward,' he hissed.

'Only as much as you,' came her reply.

'I'm not running away anymore.' He told her. 'And I won't let you run either.'

'I'm not running.' She retorted.

'Yes you are.'

'No I'm not!' Several of the black threads dissolved into dust.

He was losing her.

'What are you afraid of?' His voice became the gentle croon he had used before.

'I'm not afraid of anything!'

'Yes you are.' He told her. 'You're afraid of your family.'

'They are not my family.'

'No they are not,' he agreed.

'Hurts,' she whimpered.

'I won't let you be hurt again.' Kenshin promised.

'You can't protect me.' She said softly.

'You never gave me the chance to try.' He replied.

The sensation of tears falling was her only reply.

'Kaoru…' Kenshin touched one of the threads and felt a spark of hope when it didn't snap in his hands. The black seemed to have halted for the moment but was hovering dangerously close.

'Come,' he coaxed. 'Come back with me.'

'Hurts,' she cried again.

Almost there. Teasing at the corners of his eyes was a bright spark – a glowing humanoid form, blue-edged with gold.

Kaoru.

'It will always hurt if you never give it the chance to heal,' Kenshin said quietly.

There was the tentative feeling of assent.

'Come,' he repeated.

As he neared the glowing thing that was Kaoru – some of the glow started to fade away. Kaoru stood in front of him, the threads were wrapped tightly around her in alternating strands of blue and gold and silver. The majority of the scars on her body seemed to have healed. Her blue eyes were wide, tears shining in them. As he watched they began to fall.

Silently he held out a hand toward her.

Tentatively Kaoru reached toward him. Her hand hovered in a brief moment of indecision over his palm and then she placed her hand in his.

Everything dissolved into white-light and Kenshin found himself jolted awake.

Kaoru stirred against him blinking, the look in her eyes distant.

Suddenly her body went rigid and she began to flail.

"No!" She screamed.

"Kaoru!" Kenshin caught her flailing hands and she shrieked.

Her magic responded to her agitation by writhing and twisting and he did his best to keep himself calm.

"It's me," he said softly. "It's me." He repeated. "Kenshin."

Kaoru blinked and he saw her glazed blue eyes finally start to focus. "Ken…shin…?"

"Yes," he brought one of her hands to his mouth and kissed it gently.

"What…happened…?" Her eyes suddenly widened and she sobbed. "Youji…"

"He's dead," Kenshin murmured consolingly.

Her body tightened further instead of relaxing. "I killed him," her voice was a hushed whisper.

"You were protecting yourself," Kenshin said. "It was self-defense."

"He…" Kaoru shuddered. "I didn't mean to…"

Kenshin was wishing right now that she had left Youji alive. He wouldn't have lasted long once Kenshin got to him. Starting at the toes and working his way up to his neck breaking every bone between sounded like a good plan. It made it all the easier to then chop him into little pieces.

There were still several members of her so-called family left alive…

Good, Kenshin was feeling like hurting something.

"Kenshin?" Kaoru's voice snapped him out of his thoughts.

"Yes?" She was staring at him with wide blue eyes.

"You're growling…"

"Just planning the deaths of several members of the Kasshin royal family," Kenshin told her.

She flinched.

"They hurt you." Kenshin said softly.

"Yes," she screwed her eyes tightly shut.

"They won't lay a finger on you ever again – nor so much as think of hurting you," Not unless they want to be force fed several choice body parts.

"Here," he reached over and picked up the cup of tea from where Misao had left it on the bedside table. It had cooled off somewhat but she needed something in her.

Kaoru's hands automatically wrapped around it and he blinked as there was a brief spark of magic and steam began to waft upwards from the surface of the tea.

Kaoru's eyes widened and she stared at the tea and then looked up at Kenshin.

"What is going on?" She asked softly.

"Your magic is awake," Kenshin replied.

She shook her head, "I don't have any magic."

Kenshin raised an eyebrow and she ducked her head, bringing the cup of tea to her mouth, eyes lowered.

"I don't have any magic," she insisted.

"Yes, you do." Kenshin told her.

She shook her head, "I don't. Whatever… this is. It's not magic. Magic doesn't hurt people. I don't hurt people…"

Kenshin blinked wondering exactly what kind of sanitized fairy tales she had grown up on.

"There are different kinds of magics," he said softly. "Healing magics – Megumi has that kind. House magics –" Kaoru muttered something about her pretty sure she didn't have that kind of magic. "- and battle magics. Defensive and offensive magics."

Kaoru's magic looked to be very, very defensive.

"It doesn't feel like magic." She said stubbornly. "It can't be magic."

"Oh really?" Kenshin's eyebrow rose and she glared at him. "What is magic supposed to be like then?"

"Chants?" Kaoru suggested. "Spell books?" She shook her head. "Not this… thing inside of me."

"What does it feel like?" Kenshin asked.

"Cold," Kaoru shuddered. "Angry… not me..."

"You wouldn't protect the thing most precious to you?" Kenshin asked.

Kaoru blinked at him, "I… yes of course I would." Her eyes narrowed. "That's a stupid question."

"That what it believes it is doing." Kenshin said.

Kaoru closed her eyes, "you're making it sound almost sentient."

"In your case it probably is."

She gaped at him.

Kenshin let a tendril of his own magic escape and brush against hers. It wrapped around his and he heard its soft rumbling purr. There was a sensation like thick velvet rubbing against him and closed his eyes as his magic responded – something smoother and sleeker satin-skinned, twining with Kaoru's.

Kaoru's eyes widened and she rubbed at her arms. "That's…?"

"That's your magic."

Kaoru blinked at him. "My magic has a physical form?"

"There are legends that it used to able to take actual forms on its own." Kenshin murmured.

Kaoru whimpered softly. "I'm getting a headache."

"Drink your tea," Kenshin said gently. Impulsively he brushed a kiss across her forehead. The wide-eyed look of surprise that she gave him was almost comical.

"I'll be back soon," he picked up his shirt that he had left on the floor and handed it to her. Kaoru took it automatically, eyes still wide and set the cup of tea on the bedside table. She pulled it over her head and then grabbed the tea cup, clutching it and burrowing back under the covers.

Kenshin closed the door silently.

And came face to a face with a so-tense-she-was-practically-vibrating Misao.

"How is she?" Misao's voice was low but her eyes were worried. Sitting in one of the couches that edged the room was an equally concerned looking Yahiko. Aoshi leaned against the opposite wall.

"Better," Kenshin said softly, feeling some weight leave his shoulders as he said it. "Aoshi?"

"No one has come near here," Aoshi replied.

"Good," Kenshin murmured.

Misao sighed in relief. "Does she need anything? Can I see her?"

"Let her rest." Kenshin said.

Misao's eyes flashed but she nodded grudgingly.

"Where are Enishi and Tomoe?" Kenshin directed is question to Aoshi.

"They should be returning in a moment with food."

Well there was no chance that the Kasshin Royal family would attempt poisoning with the breve-saol watching.

That reminded him….

"Aoshi?"

"Yes," Aoshi looked at him.

"Have there been any odd deaths in the family in the past year or so?"

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Misao pale and Yahiko tense.

"I could find out." Aoshi said.

Misao shook her head, "please…. Don't."

"I want to know if what happened today – has happened before." Kenshin said.

"It has," Misao's voice was so low he barely heard it. "Why do you think Kaoru got sent to Hiten and us with her?"

Kenshin glared at her and she did her best not to flinch.

"It's Kaoru's story. She should be the one telling it." Misao murmured.

"Tell me."

Misao bit her lip and played with the end of her braid, not wanting to meet his eyes. "Kaoru… she was the result of a one-night stand between her mother and one of the princes of the family. All we know is that he died before she was born. Her mother died during childbirth." She untied her hair and started unraveling the braid and then rebraiding it, unwilling to meet his eyes. "If her mother had survived she might have had a better life."

Kenshin was growling almost without even noticing it.

"The other servants hated her. She was half-royal – and that was good enough for them. They took out whatever pains they had with the family on her." She closed her eyes tightly. "Her family hated her also – she was an easy target I guess. If she wasn't running from the servants she was hiding from her family. Kaoru could have left the castle at sixteen. But she didn't. Because of us."

"She took us under her wing, you could say when our parents died. My parents were guards and Yahiko's were lower-class nobility – we ended up servants because of debts and no family to take care of us. Kaoru adopted us in a way. She was the one who'd step in whenever we did something wrong." Yahiko was looking at the floor and scowling.

Misao continued, "Kaoru turned sixteen but she wouldn't leave us. She said she was waiting until Yahiko was old enough to leave and then she would leave. When I turned sixteen she said I could go – but I couldn't leave her at the castle." Misao shook her head.

"Just before your… demand for a Kasshin royal arrived…. Something happened." Misao bit her lip. "It involved Kaoru and someone died and that is all I know."

Kenshin had a very good idea of what sort of involvement the incident had been.

At least whoever had attempted to hurt Kaoru was dead.

One less person for him to kill.

At that moment Enishi and Tomoe returned with food.

Enishi's face was pulled into a scowl. "Caught one of the kitchen maids putting very subtle, nasty poison in the meat… if anyone suddenly wonders why a lot of rats in the castle start turning up dead…"

Kenshin's eyes narrowed.

How idiotic was her family exactly?

Ok so maybe his list of 'people to kill' wasn't as short as he had thought.

"Thank you," he took the bowl of soup and plate of bread and cheese out of Enishi's hands with a nod.

Misao stared at Kenshin's retreating back and watched as he slipped back into the bedroom, shaking her head slightly. "Did you see the look in his eyes?" She murmured. Someone was home and with a vengeance.

"And we take one step further in the direction of destiny," Tomoe murmured softly.

A grin suddenly split Misao's face. "Sano owes me money!"

"Sano?" Aoshi questioned.

"Mmm… he bet me that it would be six more months before Kenshin finally took notice of Kaoru. I said otherwise. I get money. Next time I see him, Rooster-boy is paying up." Her grin was evil.

Suddenly Kenshin didn't seem all that terrifying.

000

Kaoru raised her head as Kenshin entered.

"Food?" She asked softly.

Kenshin nodded.

Kaoru pushed herself into a sitting position and Kenshin placed the bowl and plate of bread in her lap and sat down next to her cross-legged.

Kaoru eyed him briefly and then picked up the piece of bread, dipped it in the soup and took a bite. Her stomach grumbled and she was surprised at how hungry she suddenly was.

She could feel Kenshin's eyes on her as she ate and while it was it was slightly unnerving, the part that she had identified as her magic was running just under her skin humming at his nearness.

She didn't know what scared her the most.

Kenshin who (judging by his previous actions toward her) had expressed no interest in her, and who had suddenly done a total one eighty… or the fact her magic that she had struggled so hard to keep locked away and under wraps was now out in the open.

And acting quite happy to be out and about.

'And seems to like him A LOT,' Kaoru grumbled remembering the touch of his own magic against hers. It had felt… right…. How it was supposed to be…

And had all happened so fast that her head was still spinning.

She finished her soup and set it down on the bedside table. Now that she was full she felt drowsy. Her body was still battered but some of the soreness seemed to have faded. At the back of her mind she was quite aware of her magic humming, a constant buzz that was almost soothing.

Her eyes started to lower and pulled the blankets over her shoulders, snuggling into the pillows.

"Tired?" Kenshin asked softly.

"Mmm," Kaoru replied.

Her eyes opened suddenly as she felt him brush against her and the sensation of his magic danced across her skin. Her own magic rose in response and warmth stole over her as the two of them touched and twined.

"You've suddenly gotten very touchy feely." Kaoru murmured trying to keep her voice from sounding too breathy.

"I'm sorry," Kenshin murmured. He couldn't help it. Both their magics were demanding touch. The way she had faded when he had left her side was evidence of that. He needed to be contact with her.

The threads binding them were tight but fragile. If either one of them attempted to pull away they would snap and shatter like glass.

And he didn't want to know what would happen.

They were so wrapped around one another that if something happened to one – without a doubt it would happen to the other.

"Go to sleep." Kenshin told her. "You need to rest."

Kaoru nodded vaguely. She was tired.

Lulled by the feeling of her magic purring contentedly and the warmth that suffused her, Kaoru slept.