Author's notes: so sorry for the delay in getting this chapter out. The holidays have exhausted me and after that, I've pretty much decided to be a lazy bum for the time being. I've got no excuses.
The following is a list of things which will be explained in detail by the end of the story: a) the role of the rurouni-like horse; b) the Battousai/beast character; c) the freaky rose garden; d) Battousai's visions. I have the answers to these questions in my outline, so, I can safely promise that if you stick with me to the very end of this, all will eventually be revealed. Now, as for the timeliness of these answers…that I cannot guarantee )
Please note the rating change for this fanfic. I've done this as a precaution. I'm not quite sure as to where the line is between PG-13 and R. I've seen some PG-13 movies which I though should have been R and I've seen a LOT of R movies in which I thought the rating could have been a PG-13, so I though I would err in the side of over-rating instead of under rating.
As usual, I would like to thank all reviewers for taking the time to leave wonderful comments. I really do appreciate the time you've taken to encourage me to write more. It's a wonderful inspiration to know that people enjoy my writing. I hope some of the questions you've had were answered.
Roses in Winter: a Fairytale Revisited - A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfiction
Chapter Five: First Night
No other words could describe his undue haste to let himself out of her sight. As soon as he closed the door to her room, he ran. Away from the sight of her wary eyes and trembling lips. Away from the intoxicating scent of her blood and the heady aura of fear. Just away from the very temptation she represented.
But, as he ran through the candle-lit halls of his home, he stumbled near the top of the staircase. His eyes glazed over as his nose caught the whiff of the fresh blood that anointed the floors by the entrance to his home. Icy fingers ran down his spine and his head instinctively turned towards the source.
He could see it, down the stairs, the way the light of the moon reflected dully off its surface. His fists tightened as he tried to will himself away from the stairs and back towards his own quarters. In his mind, he tried to envision himself walking slowly towards his rooms and gently locking the door. He envisioned himself padding softly towards his bed and stopping at its foot. And, in this ideal world, he would have conquered this beast and stayed within the confines of his own space.
Instead, as if entranced, he staggered down the stairs and towards the heady scent. His body moved on its own accord, his mind barely aware of his own actions. He was guided by instinct, led by hunger. In a distant part of his consciousness, a rationalization took place.
He had been good. So good. He deserved this reward. Did he not stop his feeding when she had requested? Did he not escort her to her room for her protection? His nostrils flared when he reached the end of the blood trail, where the blood was most fresh. He could still taste the coppery residue of her warmth on the tip of his tongue. He felt his knees buckle and his eyes closed as his mind pictured the memory of her life essence dripping slowly into his mouth. The phantom feel of her rapid pulse beating against his lips played with his memory. In an almost gesture of obeisance, he crouched down to the ground as his tongue stroked the remaining droplets of blood off the floor. And, just as easily, the small control he had used to hold the beast in check quickly dissipated.
As he felt his skin stretch and his muscles shift, his last coherent thought was that it wasn't enough.
From what, she wasn't sure. All she knew was a dreaded sense of urgency. Of fear. Of self-preservation. Her mind whispered to her of danger; she was prey to an unknown predator. Someone . . . something was chasing her, wearing her down as she ran blindly through the darkness of the forest. She could hear the unnatural thump of his steps on the fallen leaves of the ground behind her. She would swear that she could smell the musky scent of his presence as her rising fear called to him like a beacon. But most of all, she would swear that she could feel the warmth of his breath behind her neck as he reached out for her…
And so she ran. She ran until her whole body ached and until the mere act of lifting her legs to take that extra step was endurance in itself. They were so heavy! And she was so tired. Exhausted even. She knew neither the distance nor the time since she began, but she could feel her body protest at her exertions. She could hear the raggedness of her own breathing. Her throat burned and she felt her stomach heave.
Where could she go that he would not follow? Where could she hide that he would not see? He was bigger, stronger, faster.
She cried out as she felt a branch scrape her face.
She had to pay more attention. Watch where she's going.
She had to run.
She had to keep running.
If he caught her…if he caught her, she might not live to see the day.
He was running back home when he regained a conscious sense of self. He was aware of his body and its movements as he made his way back to the lair. He could feel the strain in his muscles and feel his labored breathing.
As well as he had hunted this night, a part of him welcomed the sight of his home. Within a few leaps, he reached the entrance to his quarters. He slumped in exhaustion against the balcony doors of his rooms and began to feel the age-old shift within his body take place. His keen vision blurred just as he began to see the familiar distortion in his skin, the unnatural stretching that triggers the change. Had he been capable at that moment, he would have given a mirthless laugh at the sight he made. Instead, he grunted in pain at the feel of straining muscles and twisting organs. He grimaced at the sound of crackling bones and popping joints as he collapsed on his back on the stone cold earth, his body convulsing violently, spasmodically. He let out an exhausted breath. Although strenuous in itself, the change back to humanity had always been easier. He had learned from experience to give up control over his body and allow it to transform at will once the process began. To fight the change, whether from beast or humanity, resulted in a more violent and painful end.
Wearily, he stared hazily at the stars in the night sky and attempted to gather his bearings. His mouth tasted of blood and fur and meat. He winced at the memory of ripping flesh, of gushing red warmth, and of a heart that slowly stopped beating. The animal he had caught to satisfy the blood lust had been in his prime. The chase had been wild, fast, and all-too quick for his liking.
He took a deep breath as the spasms across his body subsided. He began to feel the small scratches and minor bruises that usually resulted from his single-mindedness at the hunt. This time, the blood lust had so consumed him that he had barely made it out of her room in one form. The scent of blood and fear had been…intoxicating. In the end, only the thrill of the hunt, the hot rush of blood and meat, and the inevitable kill and consumption had brought him out of his mindless haze.
Slowly, he pushed his aching body up, taking comfort at the sight of his pale flesh against the moonlight. The wind whispered a gentle reminder of his unclothed state but he barely shivered in response. It was a chilly night, but the warm trickle of slime and unnamed fluids that slid down his body provided adequate protection. The change was a messy event, no doubt about it.
He carefully opened the balcony doors that led to his rooms, his movements graceful and unself-conscious. The mirror called to him. She called to him. Even now, in his depleted state, he could still feel the stirrings of…a different hunger. Rejuvenated by the thought of her, he purposely entered his rooms.
Even with all her training from her father, she tripped clumsily over her own feet. Her tiredness made itself felt as her body slammed into the ground. Her instincts were off and she failed to brace herself for the fall. The shock of the sudden impact so stunned her that it took a few minutes for the taste of dirt and dried leaves to register in her consciousness. Awkwardly, she lifted herself up and spat on the ground. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, wincing at the grainy feel of soil against her lips. The damp smell of earth and decaying leaves were stronger after having tasted it. All around her, she was reminded of death. At this time of the year, even nature was dying.
And so was she if she did not get up quickly enough. She felt a gentle breeze brush her hair and rustle the leaves around her. She heard the soft fall of footsteps come closer. Their gait was unnatural, inhuman almost in its rhythm. With a gasp of a cornered prey, she quickly turned to look behind her and saw...
Nothing but the tumble of dead leaves and the tangling branches of unnamed trees. Nothing but the moonlit path she had woven in her escape.
Confused, she slowly stood up to look around her. Her eyes narrowing at any perceived movements of the forest, no matter how slight. A stillness crept around her, as though the very air itself halted all motion.
He's near. He must be. He had been so close.
In her mind she had felt the slight brush of his fingertips against her back as she ran. If he had been that close, where was he?
It was still dark when he ventured to look at her.
The ancient mirror stood in one side, hidden in the shadows, just beyond the border that any light in his room touched. Its larger than life frame stood almost as tall as the ceilings. The ornate carvings that twisted around the borders were so intricately designed that one would swear life pulsed through the figures.
He gave his reflection a wry, self-mocking grin. Of course, life did pulse through the mirror. It had pulsed since long before he had lived, and he was sure it will remain pulsing long after his own life force would have left this earth. Without further ado, he raised his hand to touch the glass, feeling the cold and solid surface against his palm. He watched as the mirror responded to his unsaid desire, his reflection wavering as circles rippled from his touch and propagated. The now cool liquid seemed to envelope his hand as a new image formed in the surface, overtaking his reflection. He leaned his face closer, his warm breath causing more ripples through the surface as he stared intently beyond the gold flecks of his irises. Immediately, his vision focused and found what he was searching for.
Her room was bathed in soft, moonlight beams that pierced through her bay windows. So still was the night that it took him a moment to find her. She wasn't on her bed where he had expected her, nor was she by the door as he had then thought. Instead, she was curled up on the cold, hard floor, fast asleep. Her hands clasped each other beneath her chin, as if holding onto a lifeline.
He frowned as he noticed what had to be an uncomfortable position to both sleep and wake up from. Almost without thought, his hand pushed its way through the mirror, reaching out to her. Silently, he stepped into her room and padded softly until he stood before the sleeping figure. His mouth twisted as he leaned down to examine her more closely. The shadows of gnarled trees danced across her tear-streaked face as she slept fitfully.
An almost oppressive stillness clung to the air as he watched her deep and even breathing from the rise and fall of her chest. Crouching, he deftly lifted her up in his arms, taking care not to jostle her to wakefulness. The scent of jasmine permeated his senses as his quick and efficient strides led him to the side of her bed where he gently laid her to rest.
He watched as she murmured unintelligible words and phrases against the pillow. A frown marred her arched brows
"Where are you?" she whispered, uncertain whether she really wanted to know the answer.
No answer was forthcoming.
She shivered, and she knew that it had nothing to do with the cold. The woods turned eerily silent and that very silence was making her skin crawl. She felt the air thicken and she struggled to steady her breath.
"Where are you?" she whispered again, even more softly this time. She drew her arms around her and looked furtively to her sides.
She could not be alone. Could she? For what seemed like hours, she sat there, staring at the darkness.
He was just there. Right behind her. Wasn't he?
Carefully, she shook herself of the leaves that clung to her kimono as she stood up. The stillness of the night was almost as unnerving as the chase. At least while she ran, she had no thought of where she was, or anything else for that matter. The only thing on her mind was the need to escape. Now, as she looked around her, she wondered to herself. How exactly did she get here?
She glanced back to the path she wove in her haste to escape. A mist was beginning to form, starting from the grounds beyond her and making its ways slowly where she stood. Blinking rapidly, she could almost see the signs of her presence. Her eyes narrowed as she noticed a broken twig here there, evidence of her passage. Furthermore, she noticed small fabrics from her kimono hanging from the shrubs. A slight cry of distress escaped her lips as the patterns in her kimono became evident to her.
This was her favorite kimono!
What was she doing wearing a kimono at a time like this?
She muttered a sigh under her breath as her body moved restlessly on top of the covers. Here, under the cover of moonlight, he took a careful inventory of her features for the first time. Her eyes were closed, but he knew that her thick lashes hid the same blue orbs that looked pleadingly at him in his visions. In sleep, she looked more peaceful. Calmer, yet more vulnerable. Her visage lacked the edge of fear that was in evidence during their encounter earlier. Only her flushed cheeks were a testament to her previous struggles.
He expelled a quick breath of relief. Without her fear feeding upon the hunting instincts of the beast, he had a tighter rein of control. It helped that he had fed well this night already and the beast curled within him like a satisfied jungle cat. Without thought, his finger traced a line across her cheek, leaving a trail of grime in its wake. His eyes widened once he saw the marks he made; marks that greatly resembled his own. Cursing under his breath, he watched as her head tossed slowly from side to side, her dark hair contrasting starkly against the pale blue hues of the pillow. Her tresses spread around her like the dark halo of a fallen angel.
He longed to touch it. To feel its softness run through his hands. To have it tangled through his fingers as he pulls her head down and…
That unbidden thought entered his mind and he felt himself step back from the girl. He knew she was his. The moment he saw her in his visions, he had known a sense of entitlement. This woman would never leave his side. He would forbid it.
He looked outside, beyond the castle grounds. Even her words bound her to him. A grim little smile curled upon his lips. He knew a sense of peace that settled upon his chest when he extracted those words of promise from her lips. She would stay with him for as long as he decreed.
His eyes went back to her form when he heard her move restlessly in her sleep. He could hear every stroke and caress of her skin against the silken sheets as she shifted her weight from side to side. Approaching the bed slowly, he once again stared at the sleeping girl. The rhythm of her heart picked up. He could almost see her pulse throb wildly against the side of her neck. Before he could stop himself, he reached out towards her and let his fingers press gently against that erratic beat.
An indiscernible moan made its way past his throat. Life throbbed beneath his fingertips. Her life. Her blood. Unable to help himself, he leaned forward, feeling a rumble escape from his lips as his mouth replaced his fingers. He closed his eyes at the feel of her pulse beneath his tongue. Once again, the smell of jasmine wrapped itself around him as he breathed in her fragrance.
A low mumble escaped her lips.
The mist was getting thicker, turning into a dense fog. Within moments, she could barely see in front of her let alone the path she took. The wild beating of her heart throbbed against her ears as her breathing became shallower, harsher. Cautiously, she took a step back and then another. She could hear the crack of leaves beneath her feet, feel the stones give way beneath her weight.
He was playing with her.
He had to be.
How else could she explain his sudden disappearance? She could still remember the feel of his breath behind her, the touch of his fingers on her back.
He had been so close…how could she have escaped? She looked down at herself. Especially with this kimono and wooden sandals. What had she been thinking? She looked back up again, back to the quickly disappearing trail she had left. Was she borrowing trouble by looking for him? Should she instead thank the gods for her good luck at evading him?
Her eyes began to water from her efforts to see beyond the fog. Try as she might, she could not convince herself of her good fortune. It could not have been this easy to evade the one that hunted her. Once more, she took a step back, still staring at the now non-existent trail she left. Unconsciously drawing her hair away from her face, she took one last look at the spot she came from before bracing herself to run at full speed once more.
She just had to look once more. Just to make sure.
And, as she turned back to resume her escape, she felt herself yanked back as a pair of strong arms wrapped around her and lift her from the ground. Glancing down quickly, she could see the elongate claws that wrapped around her waste. She could feel the well-muscled arms, too rough with hair to belong to a human. Her mind let out a silent scream as her legs flailed wildly while her own arms remained trapped beneath the tight grip of her captor.
The beast would tear her to pieces. She knew it. Hot tears burned beneath her eyes as she struggled fruitlessly against her fate. She did not want to die. She didn't!
Megumi! her mind screamed, entreating to the sister who had tried to protect her.
Father! In desperation, she called to the man who had sheltered her from the cruelties of the world.
"Please," she sobbed softly. Her breath knocked out of her body, she let out a belated gasp just before she felt his warm lips against her throat. "Please no!" she screamed against her captor.
Her eyes opened at the sound of her scream. She could still hear it, ringing in her ears, echoing in the room. She could feel her parched throat, sore from disuse.
A dream, she thought, letting out a sigh of relief. Just a dream. She burrowed herself in the bed and stared at the ceiling as she attempted to get her bearings. The trip-hammer beat of her heart was slowing down to a more relaxed pace and her breathing was becoming more even. Her body was once again beginning to relax, getting ready to send her off to sleep. She snuggled against the soft pillows beneath her when something nagged at her consciousness.
Abruptly, she sat up, disoriented at the unfamiliar feel of the bed beneath her. Ignoring her lethargy, she looked around her.
Where was she?
And just like that, the memory of the past few days slammed into her consciousness, bringing her back to the present. She remembered her father, arriving at the dojo in such a sad state. She remembered that horse…that knowing horse that had looked at her with kindness beneath his lavender gaze. She remembered her father's story, his plight, his reprieve from Battousai. She could still hear Megumi behind the paper rice door, entreating her to stay. Images jumbled together in her mind. She could see the rose her father brought home with him, the roses she encountered in the cursed gardens. She remembered the shadow of Battousai, the feel of his mouth on her wrist.
She choked back a sob as she held her wrist against her. She didn't want to remember, she didn't want to think. She had to be strong. For her family. Struggling for control of her emotions, she sought for ways to distract herself from her situation. Anything…anything at all.
She looked around in the darkness until her eyes settled on the decor of the room, noting the mixture of eastern and western designs. She glanced at the bay windows, her only source of light at the moment, before looking back down at herself.
How did she get into this bed?
The last thing she remembered was staring at the door. She looked to her side and noted the closed door. She had been thinking of her family and wallowing in…she winced. She had been wallowing in self-pity. She sighed. She must have woken up some time in the night and crawled into this bed. She looked down on the floor, noting the inordinately high platform where the bed rested.
She made a move to stand up, to get out of bed, when she gave a grimace of pain. Her muscles were sore. Probably a result of riding for days. She groaned as she stretched out her arms. She let out a yawn. She was also so tired. It was as if she herself had truly run as much as her dream suggested. Perhaps sleep was the best thing for her at this point. She looked back up to the door before hastily looking away. Perhaps sleep would help her escape her thoughts. Just for now. Anything was better than dwelling on her present circumstances.
She felt a warm tingle touch the side of her neck and her hand reached up to touch the spot. The scent of musk and pine needles wafted around her. Remembering her dream, she began to wonder whether sleep would do her any good. Again, she gave another yawn and felt her eyes become heavier. She felt her thoughts become hazier, less organized. She was so tired. Very tired. She really did need the rest.
He watched from the mirror as her fingers brushed against her neck. He shivered in response at the memory of feeling her life force throb beneath his tongue. He had barely leapt out of her presence and out of the room before she had awakened. Not for the first time, he cursed his lack of control when it came to this female. He, more than anyone, should know what a slip like that could cost.
Still, he watched as her lids drooped and her body succumbed to exhaustion. She needed sleep, especially after her journey. Once he was satisfied that she would remain in slumber for the rest of the night, he took himself away from the mirror and headed towards the doors that led to his balcony.
Sleep would elude him this night, he knew. His body was too tense, too alert after his little visit. Despite the ache in his muscles and the exhaustion that accompanied the hunt, he was once again restless. And so, he stood by the glass doors of his balcony and waited for the sunrise.
To be continued.