Kaoru sighed as she watched the first few flakes of snow drift past the window. They spun slightly as they fell, caught on the wind, and then continued their downward journey in a lazy sort of spiral.
It was the first snow.
The first snow of the season.
She pressed her forehead against the window and sighed again. It felt cold against her forehead, chilled by the winter air, and a faint mist appeared on the glass where she breathed.
It had been a bit more than a week since the Gohei incident.
She hadn't been let out of the palace since and for the first three days, Kenshin hadn't allowed her to wander around or to explore new rooms in the palace nor had he allowed her to be alone either. She'd almost thought that he would follow her into the bathroom, but instead he had parked himself outside of the door and waited for her. She woke up with him sleeping at the foot of her bed and he followed her around all day, not giving her a moment to herself until darkness fell
Battousai hadn't appeared in the past few days and Kaoru was starting to worry. She hadn't said anything to Kenshin, but a part of her was concerned. If something had happened to him Kenshin would have told her.
Of that she was sure.
But his unexplained absence was worrying. Unable to sleep she read during the night and if anything that made her even more restless. Being able to talk to Battousai would relieve some of the boredom. She liked Kenshin she really did but his mother henning the past few days was grating at her nerves.
There wasn't anything she could get into during the day with him watching her, she wanted to say to him but didn't. In the house there was nothing that could harm her. No one that could hurt her, not that Kenshin would have let them. And there was no Gohei around either. His concern really wasn't warranted and the forced confinement was starting to make her antsy.
Kaoru wanted to be outside.
She needed to be outside.
She was slowly going stir crazy…
The longer she was stuck inside the more she needed to be outside.
That feeling had slowly intensified especially in the last day or so as the sunlight had started to fade and the sky had become cloudy and turned an opaque shade of white-grey that promised the arrival of snow.
When she had woken this morning a fireplace had appeared where previously there had been none and a small fire had been crackling inside of its hearth, warming the room and chasing away the chill. Her sheets had too turned from the lighter ones made of cotton fabric that she had been used to, to a thicker, warmer weave that caught her body heat and held it.
The creak of the door opening brought Kaoru out of her thoughts, and she turned her head to see Kenshin pad into the room.
'Lunch is ready,' he said, his voice a whisper, as soft as the glide of his feet across the floor.
"I'm not really hungry," Kaoru replied, pulling her legs up to her chest and leaning back in her chair and silently counting the falling flakes of snow.
'Kaoru,' Kenshin sighed, and she heard his stride change to something deliberate, the click of his nails against the wooden floor ringing in the air as he padded across the floor and over to where she sat.
"It's the first snowfall," she replied. Silently in her head counted twelve, tracing the path of its fall with a fingertip as another snowflake blew past the window.
'It is,' Kenshin agreed and settled down next to her.
Kaoru smiled down at him and dug her fingers into the fur between his ears scratching. At her fingertips there was the contrasting warmth of his fur and chill of winter, despite herself Kaoru shivered and pulled her hand away from the window, fingers winding his soft fur around them tightly.
Kenshin sighed, eyes sliding shut and she shook her head at him, a brief smile flashing across her face. Her fingers tightened and then relaxed and she settled back in her chair and returned to counting in her head as the snowflakes continued to fall. A few moments passed and suddenly they began to fall faster and faster so that she could barely keep up with them. The numbers in her head faded and she could only watch as they whirled and danced through the air as they fell, their movements faster and at the same time more graceful and more violent than before.
A storm was coming.
The first snowfall… the first storm of the season…
A lump grew in her throat and she swallowed around it.
The first snowfall had always been special for her and her father…
They would make hot chocolate and sit at the window and count the snowflakes. Snow maidens tears, her father had called the snowflakes and he would put some logs into the fireplace and they would drink hot chocolate and he would tell her stories.
"Do we have any hot chocolate?" She asked, her voice sounded thick and she swallowed once more.
'We should,' Kenshin replied. His head tilted back and he eyed her in a considering manner. 'But you need to eat something first. You didn't eat breakfast this morning and its lunchtime already.'
"I just haven't been hungry lately," Kaoru replied.
'Because of what happened with Gohei?' Kenshin asked.
"Partly," Kaoru admitted.
'And what else?' Kenshin asked.
"Nosy kitty," Kaoru clucked her tongue and he made a face at her.
'Kaoru…' Kenshin shoved his head under her hand and she scratched his ears obligingly.
"I'm fine, Kenshin." Kaoru said. "I'm fine. Gohei got what he deserved, Daddy was avenged... I'm fine…Really…fine…"
'You don't sound fine,' he insisted.
"It's just… odd to have something that was such a part of you no longer a part of you… Gohei hurt my family so much. He destroyed my life. Now he's got what he deserved and I don't have that part of me… That little bit of me that was dedicated to stopping him… It's… at rest and now I have a void where it was…" She bit her lip. "That didn't make much sense did it?"
'It did,' Kenshin replied. 'You probably thought it would never happen and now that it has you don't know what to do with yourself."
Kaoru blinked at him and it took a moment for her to be able to reply, even so all she could manage was a soft "… yeah."
'C'mon,' Kenshin gave her hand a nudge. 'Let's eat lunch.'
Kaoru stared at him.
'Things like this are better handled on a full stomach.' Kenshin said knowledgeably. 'Besides we do have hot chocolate.'
"You really are addicted to chocolate," Kaoru shook her head at him.
'Of course not,' Kenshin replied innocently. 'I just enjoy it, that's all.'
"A little too much I'd say," Kaoru grinned at him and got off her chair all the same. If she didn't get up he would force her to. "Lead the way Kenshin. I might as well get to the kitchen on my own two feet but I don't put it past you to drag me there bodily should I refuse."
'I wouldn't do that,' Kenshin protested. 'Bribe you maybe but drag? Never.'
"Bribe with hot chocolate," Kaoru said.
'Hmm,' was Kenshin's noncommittal reply.
Kaoru laughed and shook her head. "So what does the kitchen have made for us for lunch today?"
'Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches,' Kenshin replied and started walking; pausing after a few steps to make sure Kaoru was coming after him. He waited until she was beside him before resuming, his stride shortening to match hers.
"And hot chocolate?" Kaoru prompted with a grin.
'Chocolate chip cookies too,' Kenshin answered, jaws parting briefly showing a quick flash of white teeth. Kaoru shook her head silently. Chocolate addicted kitty…
"Wonder if they have anything to make s'mores with," Kaoru mused, head turning to eye the merrily-lit fireplace as they left the room and headed into the hallway. While chocolate chip cookies had been their tradition there had been several times when the baking had gone wrong or they hadn't had the ingredients needed and so her father had substituted s'mores for their customary chocolate chip cookies.
'We could see,' Kenshin offered.
"That we will do then," Kaoru nodded.
'But only after you eat lunch.'
...Like there was any chance of it not happening with him around… Kaoru half-expected him to feed her lunch himself. Or stare at her while she ate. Perhaps even sit on her to make sure she did eat and didn't flee the kitchen.
"Fine," Kaoru sighed. "Lead the way."
Inside the kitchen Kaoru found tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches already on the table waiting for them. The chocolate chip cookies too. Kaoru felt her lips twitch into a grin at the red and green sprinkles strewn across the top. Chocolate chip cookies with sprinkles… She didn't know whether the palace was trying to be festive or cheer her up.
She sat down and with Kenshin eyeing her closely, ate. The soup was good and tasted fresh. Kaoru had never really liked tomato soup as a child. It was probably due to the fact that it came from a can and always had a faintly metallic taste to it.
Through the window she could still see the snow falling. Out of habit she started counting the snowflakes as they fell. One… Three… Eight… Fifteen…
Still counting, she alternated between sips of soup and bites of her grilled cheese sandwich, all too aware of Kenshin watching her. Finally after several moments she set her spoon down and looked at him, her eyes meeting his.
Kenshin didn't reply, and continued to watch her, his expression was unreadable.
"What is it Kenshin?" Kaoru asked. "If you don't tell me why you're staring at me I'm going to bop you on the nose with my spoon.
His jaws parted quickly into a grin and she rolled her eyes at him.
"Kenshin, what is it?" She reached over and grabbed her spoon. Her voice may have been joking but the thread wasn't an idle one.
'It's nothing…' he murmured. His voice was very soft and he seemed to be thinking about something. 'You hate being cooped up.'
"Yeah I do," Kaoru blinked at him wondering what was going on.
'It is unfair to you to keep you locked up,' Kenshin continued and his tone of voice was apologetic. There was a look in his eyes that kept Kaoru from replying. A lump built in her throat and she suddenly had an idea of what was going through his mind. They were keeping her locked up… confined… caged… he and Battousai both knew the feeling all too well…
And now they were doing the exact same thing to her…
She set her spoon down and rubbed his ears lightly. "I'm not angry at you. You probably don't like it any better than I do.'
Kenshin ducked his head, 'no,' he agreed softly.
She gave his ears another rub and he raised his head, eyes meeting hers. 'After… After the snow finishes falling… would you like to go outside? For a little while?'
Kaoru recognized an apology when she heard it and nodded. "A little while would be nice."
Something like relief showed in Kenshin's eyes. 'After the snow finishes falling we will go out for a little bit.'
"Sounds good to me," Kaoru nodded.
Her soup and sandwich were finished and she pushed her plate away. A second later it disappeared as the kitchen took it. As she reached over for a sprinkle-topped chocolate chip cookie a mug of hot chocolate appeared at her elbow, she took two cookies and gave one to Kenshin before taking a bite of her own.
Hot chocolate, chocolate chip cookies, snow, and the promise of being allowed outside. Things were looking up.
She ate as slowly as she could, noticing that Kenshin was eating at the same rate as she was.
He was probably trying to see how long it would take before she started fidgeting or perhaps it was an attempt to make her pull her hair out. Kaoru set her cookie down carefully and took a sip of her hot chocolate.
She could be patient.
She would be patient.
Something told her that grabbing hold of Kenshin's ear and dragging him outside with her would not be a good tactic to use to get what she wanted.
So Kaoru concentrated on her chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate and ignored Kenshin.
Kaoru jerked. "What?"
'Are you ready?' Kenshin asked.
Kaoru glanced to see his cookie had vanished. He had even cleaned his whiskers free of cookie crumbs.
She blinked and then nodded, 'ready!' She got up from the chair and hastily gulped down the last of her hot chocolate and shoved the remaining cookie into her mouth, ignoring Kenshin's snort of amusement.
Tricky cat, she should have known he'd do something like that.
As long as she was allowed to go outside it would be fine. That was all that mattered anyway.
Kaoru fell back into the snow with a sigh as Kenshin plopped down beside her. The ends of his whiskers, snow dusted, she noted and there were smears of snow across his back and sides from their snowball fight. Kaoru grabbed some powdery snow and tossed it at him, catching him in the face.
She giggled as he shook his head and blinked at her.
"Sorry," she grinned at his expression. "I couldn't resist."
Kenshin snorted and rubbed the snow from his face with a paw.
"I'll stop now," Kaoru promised, reaching over to give his ears a rub.
Kenshin shook his head and inched closer, placing his head on her shoulder. Kaoru yelped as his cold nose touched her neck.
"I deserved that didn't I?" Kaoru asked.
'Yes, you did,' Kenshin agreed.
"Snow-kitty," Kaoru teased softly.
Kenshin just blinked at her, deciding not to comment on her appearance. Kaoru was certain her nose and cheeks were red and her hair was doing its best to escape from the ponytail she had put it in and was curling slightly from the snow that had melted and wetted it.
'Want to go inside?' Kenshin asked, sitting up and giving a quick shake to rid himself of the last of the snow that clung to his fur.
Nope," Kaoru said cheerfully.
'…You're going to be half-frozen before you let me drag you inside aren't you…'
"Yep," Kaoru grinned. After being stuck inside the palace for the past couple of days, being outside, no matter how cold felt wonderful.
'Not even if I promise hot chocolate and a warm fireplace?' Kenshin asked.
"Let me get half-frozen first and then I will happily let you drag me back inside," Kaoru promised.
'Okay then,' Kenshin conceded.
"Not yet though," Kaoru picked up some snow and let it trickle through her gloved fingers, watching it fall back to the ground.
Kenshin just inched closer and Kaoru leaned against him, scooping up the snow into her hands and letting it fall back down every so often.
Kenshin shook his head in amusement and she turned her head and smiled at him. "I like snow."
'I can see that,' he said easily. 'Are you sure you're not cold?'
"I'm fine," Kaoru told him. "You don't mind staying out here?"
'No I-' He went suddenly tense against her, his head snapping up and looking around. Whatever he was about to say was forgotten.
'Stay here,' all the humor was gone from his voice as he rose to his feet. 'Don't move. Just say here.'
"Is something wrong?" She asked him.
'I don't know yet,' he murmured softly. 'Just don't move from here. I will be back as soon as I can.' Then he turned and was gone, leaving her staring after him in confusion.
What had that been about? She wondered. She quashed firmly the urge go after him. He had told her to stay put. So she would.
A few minutes passed and there was no sign of Kenshin. The sun was starting to set, Kaoru saw and glanced upward, noting the first few stars beginning to appear in the sky as the light was fading. A wind kicked up suddenly and she shivered as the gust cut through her jacket.
What had Kenshin been so worked up over? There was nothing in the palace or the grounds that was dangerous.
A shadow suddenly fell across her and she turned her head, expecting it to be Kenshin.
It was a woman.
She was wearing a white kimono with an obi of some dark color that was lost the rapidly fading light. Her hair was black and sleek, falling to her waist and Kaoru felt suddenly self-conscious with her hair loose and falling haphazardly around her face.
Her face was pale with dark eyes that looked nearly black in the light and a touch of red at her lips. She merely watched Kaoru for a moment before one elegant eyebrow rose.
"Hello?" It came out more of a question than anything else as Kaoru got to her feet, dusting the snow off of her. "Who are you?"
The woman didn't reply, merely tilting her head to the side and studying her silently with those dark eyes. An expression Kaoru almost would have called amusement passed over her features.
Kaoru swallowed and merely asked again as calm as before, "who are you?"
"Who am I?" There was a definite note of amusement in her voice.
"Yes," Kaoru said softly. "Who are you?"
There was something she disliked about her that she couldn't quite put her finger on. Perhaps it the aura she had, thinly veiled amusement, the kind that came from disdain. Those almost too perfect features. The way she looked at her and made her feel gangly and awkward – a muddy little girl with holes at the knee…
No matter the reason Kaoru didn't like her.
"Tomoe," she said finally.
The name meant nothing to Kaoru and it must have shown on her face because she laughed. It was a pretty laugh yet derisive at the same time and Kaoru balled her hands into tight fists and took a deep breath against the annoyance rising within her.
"What is your name?" Tomoe asked.
Names… names were more than names. Names held power… Something was telling her not to say anything and even she was puzzled when she found herself responding before she had even given the thought to do so –
"My name is Kaoru."
"Kaoru…" The smile that curled the corners of her mouth was not a pleasant one. "It is a fitting name for one such as you." Those nearly black eyes took her in and if anything the amusement in them grew stronger.
Kaoru was really starting to dislike her.
"Why are you here?" She asked. When are you leaving? went unvoiced.
"I'm visiting," Tomoe said softly. "Aren't you going to invite me inside? It is cold here."
"No," Kaoru said and blinked, shaking her head slightly. For some reason her thoughts felt hazy. "I like… being out here just fine thank you."
"No?" Tomoe echoed softly, those near-black eyes of hers were staring into Kaoru's and she fond that she could not look away. "You will not invite me inside?"
"I... I won't," Kaoru told her. Her fist tightened, nails biting into her palms sharply and the shock of pain chased some of the fog in her mind. She took a step back and shook her head.
"You won't?" Tomoe's voice was biting.
Kaoru jerked and it suddenly felt as if lead had settled into her limbs. She couldn't move. She had been frozen.
"You won't?" Tomoe said again. She had moved closer and Kaoru couldn't look away from her eyes, something cold settled in Kaoru's stomach at Tomoe's approach and was spreading through her.
"Won't…" Kaoru managed between clenched teeth.
The touch of fingers against the side of her face would have made her flinch had she been able to move.
"Won't you," Tomoe breathed. A finger tapped sharply against Kaoru's cheekbone, bringing tears to her eyes.
The sound of snarling had Tomoe whirling around.
Kenshin looked as furious as Kaoru had ever seen him. His lips were pulled back in a snarl exposing long fangs. The line of his body was tense and he was striding with a controlled careful step that told Kaoru he was just barely restraining himself from leaping at Tomoe.
'Get away from her,' the growl that rumbled from his chest raised the hairs on the back of Kaoru's neck and his eyes were flashing.
"I'm not doing anything," Tomoe told him. She glanced over at Kaoru and cocked her head questioningly. "Am I doing something to you… Kaoru?"
"She's…" There was a roaring in Kaoru's ears and it made it hard to hear the words she was speaking. "She is… She is…" was she doing something or was she not doing something? "She is…"
The third time Kaoru felt something inside of her snap and some of the ice freezing her faded away. The roaring in her ears faded and the fog in her mind lifted slightly, things felt clearer, more in focus.
Fur grazed her fingertips and she blinked. From that light touch warmth spread, chasing away the ice and Kaoru sighed. Her knees buckled slightly and she leaned against Kenshin, digging her fingers into his fur.
"Okay…" She murmured. "I'm okay…" She was okay now.
Kenshin didn't say anything, his attention was still focused on Tomoe but she felt him shift his weight so that he was pressed against her more firmly. He was still growling and she felt it thrum through her, continuing to chase away the cold.
"Hello Kenshin," Tomoe said.
'Tomoe,' his voice could have cut glass.
"So hostile," she tsked. "I thought you would have been happy to see me."
'I am never happy to see you,' he replied.
Her laugh set Kaoru's teeth on edge.
"Why would that be?" She asked.
Kaoru peered up at her through her bangs, Tomoe was smiling and it set her teeth on edge. Her smile did not reach to her eyes; they were black, cold and flat. She crouched there on the ground with her fingers still digging into Kenshin's fur, continuing to chase the cold away. Beside her, Kenshin was tense, taut, body vibrating with a silent growl.
What was the history between them? Kaoru wondered but bit her tongue. Now was not the time for questions.
'You know exactly why I am not happy to see you,' Kenshin responded. It seemed like it had taken a while for Kenshin to respond, Kaoru thought. But that had not been the case. Her thoughts still felt thick and sluggish and she had been so lost in them, that time had felt as if it had slowed down, lengthening the time between Tomoe's question and Kenshin's answer.
Tomoe tsked again softly. 'So much time has passed; I thought you would have gotten over it by now.'
'No.' Kenshin's reply was short and clipped and she felt his weight shift against her. If he tensed up anymore he'd snap. She dug her fingers into his fur sharply and his head swung around. The look in his violet eyes softened slightly and she managed a smile at him.
The sound of Tomoe's laughter snapped her out of it and they both turned and looked at her.
"How cute," she smiled. "You two are positively adorable. The kitty and the little girl… The beast –"
'Enough!' Kenshin snapped. 'You know the terms. You know what must be done. I will not allow you to tamper with them.'
"Oh I know the terms. I know them very well kitty-cat." Tomoe's smile faded slightly. "Was it not I that set them forth?"
'You did.' Kenshin's voice was bitter. 'I have abided by them and played by your rules.'
"So you have." Tomoe nodded and her voice was unexpectedly soft. "So you have. But for how much longer I ask?"
'As long as is needed,' Kenshin replied stiffly.
"We shall see."
Tomoe's gaze fell on Kaoru and it was as if they both realized that she was there. Their conversation was puzzling and had so many layers Kaoru couldn't pick through them. They shared a history and it was an unpleasant one, by the sounds of it.
Something had happened.
Hadn't Battousai or Kenshin said something once?
It was dark where was Battousai…?
She shivered and looked at Kenshin. In the fading light his form seemed to waver and twist. His eyes caught the dying light with a glint of gold mixed with the violet and she blinked.
When had she ever thought of him as a cat? His eyes… his eyes were human… Almost too human…
Her head hurt and her thoughts were turning to mush once more. The warmth of Kenshin pressed against her was no longer chasing the cold away and she could feel it flooding her.
"Cold…" She managed between teeth that were chattering.
Tomoe's laugh cut like ice and she flinched. "Look to the little girl before she freezes into a block of ice Kenshin. I suggest you take care of her." There was a gust of wind and Tomoe wavered and between one blink and the next, vanished.
Kaoru could feel him nudging her.
"C-cold," Her eyes were heavy.
The darkness was warm and Kaoru fell into it.
Waking up was hard.
Kaoru didn't want to wake up. It was warm here. She was safe here. There was no cold. No black eyed witches with smiles of ice and laughter that cut.
With effort, Kaoru pried her eyes open. Darkness met her vision.
Dark… She blinked again. Her head still hurt and it didn't appear that her ability to think had improved much.
At least she was warm.
"Kaoru?" There was a touch against her shoulder and with a start she realized that she was not wearing clothes.
"What happened?" A semi-coherent thought at last.
"You were frozen."
Darkness… Voice in the darkness…
Where was Kenshin?
Battousai could only appear when it was dark, Kaoru remembered.
"Frozen?" She asked.
"A parting gift from Tomoe," Battousai's voice was tight.
Tomoe. The black eyed witch.
"Yes," Kaoru said softly. "It was cold."
"I am sorry," Battousai murmured. "Tomoe likes to play games."
"Why am I naked?" Kaoru was glad it was dark, her face was red from blushing.
"You were frozen. Even your clothes had been frozen." There was a shift in the bed and Kaoru heard him walk across the floor, then creak of hinges as the closet door was opened.
She hadn't heard him walk back.
Kaoru reached out and took what he was offering automatically. Silk met her fingertips. It was a sleeping robe. Fumbling by touch she put it on herself and found the sash to tie it around her.
"Better?" Battousai asked.
Kaoru nodded. "Yes."
"Good," Battousai said. "I am sorry."
"It's…" Kaoru paused; she wasn't even sure what he was apologizing for. "It's… okay."
There was an intake of breath and the air felt heavy. "I wish I could tell you what was going on."
"You can't?" Kaoru asked.
"No," Battousai's voice was apologetic. "Unfortunately for this, you must remain in the dark."
"Literally," Kaoru said softly. "It's not fair."
"I know." He sighed. "But that is how things must be."
"Why?" Kaoru wanted to know.
"If I could change them I would, but I can't. I can only tell you this is how things must be."
Had to be.
"Okay." Kaoru said.
"It's not okay."
"No, it's not." Kaoru agreed. "I'm just too tired to argue with you. But when I'm not believe me I will."
"I don't doubt it." There was the barest trace of humor evident in his tone.
"Tired…" Kaoru's eyelids were growing heavy once more and it was difficult to keep them open.
"Sleep Kaoru." Battousai said. "Go to sleep."
"Yes," Kaoru smothered a yawn.
Darkness when she was awake, darkness when she was asleep. There wasn't much difference.
Her eyes closed and she slept.
The last thing she remembered was the faintest touch against her hair.
She might have imagined it.
She might have imagined everything. The snow and the black eyed witch whose name was Tomoe. The tiger with eyes that were all too human. The man who was hidden by darkness.
Dreams or reality. Real or imagined.
Darkness when she was awake darkness when she was asleep.
There wasn't much difference.
She just didn't know which held the most secrets.
That was her life now.
One big secret.
Things that she didn't know.
Things she wasn't allowed to know.
Things she must know.
Because if she didn't….
Kaoru felt the thought cling to her even as she gave herself up to sleep.
Something bad was going to happen.