ATTENTION: First and foremost, I have to explain that lack of any sort of updates etc… My beloved computer has been officially out of my hands for over three months now…and that makes writing/updating/everything VERY difficult. I will hopefully have it soon…although now I guess it has another problem. Please bear with me and know that I am still very dedicated to writing!

Author's Note- Okay, I just needed a little break from Things Left Unsaid…so hopefully this shorter story will do that job, and I'll be ready to go back to the TLU. (I'll be working on both simultaneously…) I've had this story in my head for awhile- and it will probably…hopefully… be four or five chapters…hopefully…And it is designed to be a great stress reliever, which means, I wont be fretting about how 'perfect' it needs to be...


Rating- R/M- I'm sort of enjoying this, hopefully you will too.

Disclaimer- I don't own it… bla bla bla….don't sue me…bla bla bla...


Caged


Chapter 1

Trapped


Kaoru pulled the dark cloak closer to her frame and walked briskly down the hall. Ignoring the bite in the air, she kept her eyes forward and downcast. It was late winter, and she knew that if she were to look outside a soft blanket of snow would be covering the plants and trees. Staring long enough, a winter bird might possibly land on a nearby shrub or windowsill. However, she didn't have time today to sit and enjoy the view or usually absent wildlife. She was running late, again, and Lady Yumi would have her head if she were much later. Turning a corner that led into the sleeping quarters of the fortress, Kaoru resisted the urge to break out into a run. She wasn't sure how long it had been since she had truly run.

Entering the last leg of her journey, she pulled tighter on her hood, making sure that her hair was covered. If too much was out of place, her maids would go into a tizzy. It was her own fault she was rushing, she supposed. She'd gone on a long walk through some of the deeper areas of her home, and had gotten distracted. Even though she was often ignored by those around her, it wasn't very frequently that she was able to slip away for some private time. Well, she amended that…semi-private time. The sharp clipping of feet following her rang in her ears, and she felt her gait stumble slightly. He didn't say anything, and she understood now more than ever that things could be said without words. Kaoru didn't expect her brother to do something but simply guard her. After all, it was what he could do.

She paused outside her closed doorway, waiting just long enough for her older sibling to position himself outside her door. He wasn't allowed inside.

"Be quick, or you'll be late."

Aoshi's calm voice sounded in her ears, and she absorbed the sound. It had been over a month since the last time she'd heard him speak.

Knowing that casting him a smile would go unnoticed by him but no one else, she snapped her fingers once, the noise soft. He nodded his head in assent, his eyes staring forward and unmoving. At least they could communicate…sort of. Her hand fiddled at her throat before she forced it down.

She opened the door and strode into a mess of maids fluttering about. The room was warm from the multiple women moving, the heavy drapes blocking the balcony, and a large fire roaring in the corner. Immediately one of the women shut the door behind her, closing off her view of Aoshi. Her muscles unconsciously tensed as her only ally was temporarily unavailable. Kaoru took a deep breath. He would still be there when she came out, the situation was really better then it could have been. Right? She resisted the urge to kick and fight, knowing that her frustration would get her nowhere.

Instead, Kaoru kept her eyes averted and found her cape unfastened and pulled from her shoulders. The women worked seamlessly, silent and jerky as they eliminated her simple day clothes until she was down to a plain black shift. Did other women wear dark undergarments like her? For some reason she had always pictured them as cream or white, but she'd never seen another woman so undressed. Her memories from before were too blurred to decipher such a small aspect. Candles and lanterns lit the room, and even though it was before noon outside, the dank atmosphere made it feel much later. She raised her arms obediently as a black dress was slipped over her head, and didn't need to look down at it to picture it. She wore the same dress every first day of a new fortnight. It was thick, heavy, with long sleeves and a high collar that made her throat feel pinched. It dragged slightly on the ground, even with her shoes on, and when she walked it made a slight swishing noise. It was hideous, ugly, and in the summer made her positively miserable.

Kaoru pulled on the matching gloves, knowing that time really was going much too quickly. She was supposed to be there at noon, and she couldn't be delayed. Fidgeting, she attempted to stay still as the last bit of her outfit was pinned to her head. The substantial veil was dense, covering her front and back to nearly the waist. Kaoru couldn't see anything through the almost solid design, and no one would be able to make out her features. That was the purpose of it after all. She wondered if anyone in court had any idea what she truly looked like. Kaoru rolled her eyes, like they actually cared.

The last of the servants stepped away as it was secured, the old woman's hands wiping at the apron of her dress. She had seen the other women do the same thing. After all, who wanted to touch her? Who in their right mind would even want to be near her? It was the reason why her maids were rotated so much, being around someone like her had to be damaging to one's health.

Walking past them in a dismissive fashion, she paused as one opened the door. Cocking her head slightly to the side, she stepped out into the cool hallway and waited for Aoshi's signal. Kaoru did her best to follow the procedure for his sake. Now more than ever, he was a stickler for her safety. She would do what she could do put his mind at ease. He stepped away from the wall, and she started down the hall, knowing that he'd be following only a few steps behind.

Every stride Kaoru took she could sense her stomach begin to twist and bunch. The bile in the back of her throat was sickly bitter against her tongue. Wanting to take another hallway, she let out a deep breath and clenched her hands in her skirt. Aoshi was probably aware of the sudden emotional upheaval she was experiencing, but he would be unable to comfort her in any way. It was the only way for them to be near each other, the only way the good Lady Yumi would permit it. Siblings that were strangers.

She snapped her fingers again, the noise an unexpected signal between them. One of the only ways for the two of them to convey their thoughts, or a gesture of understanding that no one knew, not even Lady Yumi. He made no indication that he had heard, but she knew that he wouldn't. The two of them passed through the end of the hallway, her feet moving into a room full of people. She felt Aoshi's presence behind her shift, his body moving into a more discreet location. Although no one could see her beneath the fabric, she kept her head up despite her discomfort, walking down the center of the room towards the other end. She wouldn't allow herself to show the dread they genuinely wanted to see.

The room was filled with the aroma of strong incense, the scent filling her lungs instantly with lead like air. A cough tried to crawl its way out of her throat. The windows were open here, and large shafts of sunlight blaringly cut through the otherwise unending shadows. She wished there was a breeze to bring in some cool fresh air. The winter air was always crisp and clean. Taking another short puff of air, she was suddenly rather surprised to smell ginger. They rarely if ever used ginger incense and when they did, it rarely was this… light. Her senses didn't feel nearly as weighed down, and she hoped they would use it again.

Knowing that Lady Yumi lay at the other end of the hall did nothing to quell her trembling body, but warped the feelings of nervousness to something similar to hate. Kaoru had never thought herself to be a person who could experience such revulsion toward another human being. But Lady Yumi had changed all that, and now Kaoru could barely recognize herself.

She couldn't see the richly dressed woman, nor the other equally well dressed people surrounding her- but she could hear them just fine.

"Is that really her? I heard she only eats meat raw."

The voice was of a woman to her left, high pitched and loud enough to carry. She sounded disgusted.

"Is what they say true? Did they find her bathing in blood?"

It was another woman, her voice farther away and fearful.

"There, there Victoria, I'll keep you safe."

Kaoru rolled her eyes and tried to push away the feelings of despair that the voices caused. Like she was going to jump on that women and do something violent. She was different, yes…but she wasn't a freak…

"It's too bad the good Lady Yumi has to keep her around. Although, I suppose the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. At least Lady Yumi knows how to control such a thing."

The sentences pierced especially hard and she bit at her lip as her chest grew tighter. The rough fabric of her dress itched at her collarbone and arms increasingly. She didn't know why the slander still upset her; she'd heard similar things said for much of her life. It wasn't as if they could possibly understand her, and Lady Yumi of course did nothing but encourage their hateful words. The spiteful witch used her and her brother…and everyone else she could sink her nails into.

She neared the throne like chair that her tormentor always occupied, and tilted her head subtly. It was the only dignity she had left that she wouldn't kneel down like an enamored wretch. Yumi often let her know that she wasn't pleased that Kaoru wouldn't get down on a knee, but she hadn't tried to force Kaoru. Yet. Hearing the rustle of shifting fabric, she didn't start at the sudden strong hand on her shoulder. The blood red nails pierced sharply into her flesh through the dress, and Kaoru allowed Yumi to turn her towards the rest of the hall. She wanted this stupid ceremony over with, but Yumi liked to drag it out.

"My kind people welcome, and a special welcome to those visiting."

Her voice was like silk, seductive and cool. Kaoru could practically see Yumi's well practiced smile in her mind, standing next to the woman wearing head to toe black, looking beautiful in a silk well-cut gown of a bright color.

"Just give me moment, and we will have this period's prediction. We are very fortunate to have the Lady of Loss with us. Do not worry, she can do nothing but see."

She spoke with rehearsed ease and beauty, her words sounding pleasing to all who didn't know the venom they usually carried. The woman was so good with her words that even Kaoru and her brother had been tricked at one time. Yumi's hands traveled with practiced simplicity beneath the veil up to Kaoru's neck. The dark magical marks etched in her skin were deep, intricate, and massive- they'd been there for years. She shuddered briefly at the woman's touch, the fear it still evoked both mental and physical. Yumi moved them in a slight pattern, the fingers smooth from expensive lotions and herbs- and Kaoru felt sickly sweet magic move from the woman's hands into her body. It caused her stomach to roll and a heavy sweat to break out on her brow. A familiar clinking noise echoed in her mind, and she felt as if a noose had been removed from her neck. It was wonderful, and for a brief moment she forgot that in a less than ten minutes she would once again be unable to even whisper.

"Just another moment my patient friends."

Kaoru ignored her voice.

Yumi's hands retreated from their spot on her neck, and traveled up to Kaoru's temples. This was the worst part. It hadn't been so bad before, when there hadn't been any sort of spell and her own magic could work freely. Now, with this intricate enchantment in place, her magic was forced to mash days of energy into minutes. It was agonizing, it was debilitating, and without the release- she would die. The good Lady Yumi used that against her, against her brother.

Like always, there was no responding feeling to the spell being lifted, just a sudden onslaught of images that always seemed to take her by surprise. Her eyes shut automatically, and she was unaware of her physical self for several minutes. Instead, Kaoru tried to concentrate on what was being filtered through her, hoping that it would be over soon. When she came back to her physical senses, she was hunched over her middle protectively, her loud gasps echoing through the strangely quiet room. Her hands were tightened into balls against her stomach, the muscles in her shoulders tensed repeatedly with spasms. She silenced her soft whimpers, knowing that Aoshi could only take so much of her suffering.

Kaoru carefully straightened herself and attempted to regain her composure. Who knew how many bruises she would find later, how rigidly her body had wound itself. The court had hushed after the second magical spell had been shifted, they usually did. They fed on it- her abrupt discomfort, pain, and the words she would speak. These were all things they did not want to miss. Yumi's hand returned to her shoulder, a reminder that she wasn't done yet. She knew she wasn't finished, knew that she would never be done. Not until Yumi let her go…not until she died.

Her mouth opened, and her throat was dry and sore. She struggled for a moment to swallow. The few minutes every fortnight were barely enough to keep her voice in working order.

"Thirteen in a flood," she didn't even recognize the monotone scratchy noise that was her own, "Three in a farming accident. Two by stabbing, and four from magic."

Her mouth shut with an audible click, her jaw sore from little use and the magic Yumi had used. Yumi brought her hands back up to Kaoru's temple, and she could feel a slight pressure as her magic was once more restrained. The headache would only grow with time, until she was summoned again.

The woman touched the still trembling girl's neck once again, and Kaoru resisted the urge to scream. She wanted to shout, to cry, to speak, to say something, anything that wasn't a prediction of death. Instead Kaoru felt her ability to speak slide away from her, taken away by the woman whose own voice spoke and spoke and said nothing at all. She couldn't see Yumi, but she could feel the syrupy smile turned towards her.

Yumi stepped away, and Kaoru knew it was her cue to leave. Her first steps were hesitant, the echoes of the things she had just seen weighing heavily on her mind. With them all forced to be so close together, the intensity was much greater than it should have been. She'd need to rest for the remaining hours of the day and for much of tomorrow. Not that anyone in the court was concerned with her. She still felt their eyes on her, the sycophants waiting to hear Yumi's regretful words that so many would meet their untimely end- The congratulations that Lady Yumi would receive afterward for having such a useful person in her service. Kaoru just wanted to be out of there, just wanted to be walking with Aoshi a few steps behind her. It was a weak wish, a wish that held little hope but for a simple reprieve. She wanted it badly though, to just be away from them. They wouldn't understand, couldn't understand the magic that flowed through so many peoples' veins.

Yumi's voice rang out as she made her exit, expressing her deep remorse that so many would perish. Yeah, right. Just as quickly Yumi moved on, the events for the fair celebration filling the hall with excited whispers and words. They didn't heed the words that Kaoru had spoken; they thought no more of them as easily as they dismissed her. She was just a carnival act, a freak shown, the things she said where unavoidable truths that were necessary. Yumi never thought to correct them.

Still weak, she was almost out of the door when her foot caught the hem of her gown. She pitched forward; mortified that she would fall in front of so many individuals that despised her. Preparing for the worst, she flinched when instead of hard marble she felt warm arms around her. Trying to gain her bearings, she without delay pried herself out of the stranger's arms. She had realized the moment she'd been caught that it hadn't been Aoshi. He was the only one she would have thought would have bothered to help her, but his frame was much larger than the one holding her. Not quite certain how to react, she stayed still for a moment, wondering if they would berate her for her stupidity or ignore her completely.

"Are you alright, my lady?"

The words were spoken softly in her ear and said with genuine concern. She jumped at the unexpected sentence. The deep male voice wafted through the thick clothing she wore, winding its way across her body and soul. Something deep within her cried out in satisfaction at his voice, his arms, his form being so near her own. Kaoru couldn't breathe, her limbs felt shaky and weak. She wanted to curl up in his embrace and rest. It felt as if she could see into his very heart if she tried; that he was able to look into her. Like stepping stones connecting to banks of a river or stream, she sensed a connection wavering between the two of them. Stepping farther away from him, she forced the urges away. This sort of reaction was not allowed. He had more than likely touched her without thinking; he was probably just now realizing the mistake he had made.

A head came unusually close to hers, and even through the thickness of her veil she could make out violet eyes tinged with amber. They stared through the fabric and into her face, into her very spirit. Covered head to toe, she felt naked beneath his piercing stare. She took a hesitant step back so his eyes were once again a mystery to her. His gaze saw too much of her. The emotions that the man awakened within her were raw and ancient.

She nodded her head in assent, desiring to be both close and far from him. Kaoru had gone years under Yumi's care, and this was the first time anyone besides her own blood had asked such a sincere question; the first time a person besides her brother had touched her willingly. It… unnerved her and she needed time to gather her rampant thoughts.

"Are you quite sure? You took quite the tumble."

She shook her head again, willing him to be silent. He had to stop. His voice was like hot bath water soothing and surrounding her. Something about the way he spoke was intimately personal. She couldn't take kindness from a stranger. It brought back memories and feelings that were better off long dead; and awakened things that she couldn't afford to feel. Kaoru felt a hand land on top of her shoulder, and instantly recognized the weight and shape of it. Leaning slightly into the person directly behind her, she smiled thinly. Aoshi.

"Excuse us sir."

His voice was low and contained a hard edge to it. She had noticed him using the same tone among the nobles and upper class when he was forced or obligated to speak. However, it didn't contain the underlying hatred that she could often detect. Feeling a small amount pressure on her shoulder, Kaoru took sure steps forward, knowing that Aoshi would take good care of her. They passed by the man quickly, and Kaoru resisted the silly urge to look back towards him. It wasn't as if she would even be able to see him. Her heart twisted a bit as they left him, almost seeming to protest her movements. She pushed away the odd feelings and concentrated on moving forward.

As she exited the room and stepped into one of the many hallways, she sensed a mind brush calmingly against her own. The touch was gentle, soothing, and held an underlying strength. It was an experience she hadn't had happen since her brother had had a portion of his own magic sealed. She shuddered at the subtle touch. It melted the tight muscles throughout her body, and made the hairs on her arms and neck stand up. Even if she had wanted to block such a link, she was magically unable to do so anymore.

Connecting in such a way was beyond personal, and the very action was expressly forbidden at Yumi's court. So who? Who had felt comfortable enough to do such a thing? Violet eyes flashed through her mind, along with a strong voice, and she clamped down on the growing fear in her chest. Such intimate magic rarely occurred between strangers, and although she didn't feel violated…she felt as if she should feel abused. Had a spell been cast on her that she was unaware of? Her mind conjured up image after image of horrible situations, and Kaoru bit her lip in aggravation.

It was more than likely her imagination. With her own magic as hindered as it was, Kaoru was probably overreacting. She pushed the errant thoughts from her mind. It was nothing. Who in there right mind would even want to attempt such a thing with her? Following the circular hallway with her feet, she picked up her pace as she got closer to her chamber. She needed to be away from everyone, the hateful stares and harsh comments.

Finally nearing her room, she stopped in front of the door with a heavy sigh. Her brother halted behind her, and she could feel the emotions she had for him well up. Knowing that the passages around her room were always empty following the ceremony, she hesitantly pulled up her veil so she could see. The halls were indeed bare, and Kaoru was thankful for this brief moment they could have.

She looked up into the face of her brother, angling her head to accommodate his height. He wore brown and navy blue, the colors of a soldier or indentured servant. The clothes were clean but well worn from use, and they lacked any adornment or other pomp. They were also spelled to act as a light armor. He felt no need to draw attention to himself, in fact, he hated attention. Aoshi's dark hair had gotten a bit long again, hanging and falling into his eyes. Although he was well groomed, his hair blocking his face was something he didn't mind. He held himself straight and taut, waiting diligently to thwart any threat to his sister. She examined him, noting the tell tale differences that the years had done to him. He was weighed down by their situation, by his responsibilities.

Checking the hall again for others, she quickly moved forward and wrapped her arms around his waist. Hugging him was like hugging a stone wall. Through the veil she could feel his hand come down to rest on her head. Tears swam behind her eyes, and she quickly moved away from him. It wouldn't due to have someone notice their interactions.

"I have you, you're fine. I won't let anything happen to you. I promise."

He whispered the words in a flat voice, and Kaoru felt her senses start to return. Aoshi, her rock- he was the only thing that made living bearable. What had she been thinking? She wanted to apologize, to tell him that she loved him and needed him. He wouldn't let anything happen to her, but if anything happened to him she wouldn't survive long. After all this time, he was the only reason she got up every day.

Without a voice however, she couldn't even say his name.

Aoshi must have understood her thoughts, even with his own personal obstacles; his other senses were sharp enough to make up for them. She was grateful for that. Kaoru allowed her eyes to flicker up to Aoshi's face. Markings like those around her neck covered both of his temples, the black standing out against his tan skin. It was the mark of Yumi's work. A stain on those whose magic she had manipulated. Just as she had been a mute the last eight years of his life, so too had he been blind.

Separate from one another, the setbacks would have been workable, but together it was unbearable. Kaoru was unable to communicate a thought, and he was unable to see her sign or mouth words.

"I have some errands to run, stay in your room until I knock."

Knowing that he wouldn't see her motion of understanding, she switched back to the only signals they had; and snapped her fingers. It felt cold, impersonal…inadequate. Opening the door, she paused briefly to look back at him. He turned his focus to the room, and she knew he was employing his available magic in an energy sweep. Obviously satisfied with the results, he turned his attention back to Kaoru.

"Lock it."

He must have sensed her movement, because his head inclined softly. He reached forward and pulled the door shut behind her. She dutifully pulled the heavy bar across the door, effectively trapping others out and her in. Leaning back against the grainy wood, she listened to his footsteps as they retreated down the corridor. Feeling emotionally drained, she pulled at her gloves, throwing them across the room in a moment of anger.

Damn her! Damn Yumi and her wicked mind!


Next Time: The next chapter is finished and just needs editing, so expect it up soon. We meet the man with the violet eyes and hear Sanosuke's fond nickname for Yumi.

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