Well… here it is. I think I've been working on this chapter for about a year? A bit longer? Ah well, either way, this one is sloooooooow going. Do not expect fast updates, please. The chapters a long and I'm working to get the plot right. So…

Here is part one! Please enjoy.

A BIG thank you to VashkaKat and Ming Hui Tseng for all their help with this chapter!

Ravyn

Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin ofr Beauty and the Beast. Sad, but true.

Warning: Magic, probably adult themes.


The large mansion had been on the edge of town for as long as Kaoru could remember. If you walked the path from the small gate over on woodlark lane, the trip through the woods to the edge of the sprawling landscape took nearly ten minutes. The drive took longer and the gates sat between two impressive columns of stone carved to look like great dragons. The design was a tad unusual for this part of the country but it seemed to have done the trick, as the town had grown away from those gates instead fof towards it.

It helped that what land the Himura family did not own around the large mansion had been turned into a large reserve. It had long been a sticking point for hopeful developers that the state was unwilling to change the layout of the reserve and that the Himura family was unwilling to sell any of their land. Older folk would nod knowingly and remind everyone that there was magic in that family.

Not that anyone really worried about magical problems. In order to use magic, everyone had to go and get a special license and attend that mage university and the Himura family hadn't seen anyone in three generations. What they did know was that the grounds were worked by honest people who did honest work and anyone could appreciate that.

And the estate was famous for its gardens and magic didn't always mix well with growing things. Twice a week, the gates creaked open for the public – for picnics, tours and the occasional quiet walk between lovers. Occasionally, a grade school class would get permission for a botanical tour. During the summer, the estate hired any number of college students to help run the tours and do minor work on the lawns, but very few actually stuck around for more than a week or two.

Kaoru had grown up with the mansion as part of her life for as long as she could remember. The dojo were she lived was near the edge of the woods that separated mansion from the town. Her mother would take her out there during the spring and summer to show off the roses and the quiet ponds. She had spent countless hours chasing her friends through the thick mazes of flowers. When she had needed a summer job in high school, she had gone to the old gardener and offered her services twice a week after school. While her father had paid her for the classes she taught, both her parents wanted her to have experiences outside of the dojo. Twice a week was a sturdy compromise and didn't leave her father short handed.

Those quiet evenings had been soothing in a way even the dojo hadn't managed to be. It had been exhausting, managing all her responsibilities. But it had opened up a world to her that she could share with her mother – flowers. While her mother understood both her husband and her daughter's passion for the school, she had never completely understood it. Flowers and gardening were passions that they could share and Kaoru treasured those memories. They had been a cushion when she had found herself alone in the world.

Breathing in deeply, Kaoru set those thoughts aside and considered the garden around her. The years she had spent away from this place hadn't been kind to it. It seemed… tired; which made no sense, because it was a garden, not a living person. Even if the Himura family was magical, magic did not create living personalities in non-human things. She knew the old gardener Gensai was getting along in years but she hadn't expected the garden to appear so worn… so drained. Her fingers itched to touch the soft, wilted buds of the flowers before her, to search deep in the mulch and between the sharp thorns for the cause. She viewed gardening like a complicated kata. Once you understood the rough, basic elements of the form, you could understand the rest.

Rubbing her hands together, she sighed at exactly how much work was in front of her. Three weeks ago she had finally admitted to herself that what little insurance money was left wasn't going to completely cover the expenses her dojo ran up. She had a solid core of students that she still taught on weekends and the advanced classes she was going to start back up twice a week in the evenings, but the new dojo was pulling away a chunk of her student base on novelty alone.

So this job was something of a blessing, even if the hard work she was going to put into it was going to make those extra classes exhausting. And the skin on the back of her neck itched constantly from something she couldn't put her finger on. It was highly unlikely that a mansion of this size didn't have some form of magical aid, although she hadn't seen so much as a ruin or mage ward.

Thoughtfully, she turned her attention to the windows of the mansion. It had been such a surprise to learn that Himura had been the one who decided to hire her. When she had worked part time he had been overseas. For as long as she could remember… the family had been overseas. She hadn't known they had returned to the mansion and she wondered how long they would stay. She had vague memories of meeting a man with kind eyes and red hair as a small child but that had been so long ago she couldn't be sure if he was part of the family or merely a sort of butler.

Well, that was enough dallying around. She had already walked the grounds. Gensai had told her she would be working mainly with the roses, which was something of a relief. The beautiful if difficult flowers were going to be a handful. And there were a lot of roses. She could already tell that the plants were going to need a good mulching and probably some fertilizing. Someone had installed a sprinkler system to water the plants, so that was one duty that she wouldn't have to deal with. She sighed. There was a lot of trimming to do. Most of the garden was planted so they flowers would bloom in stages and that meant keeping everything up tricky.

The soft, uneven crunch of feet followed by the tap of a cane against stone told her who was approaching even before he spoke.

"How do you think you'll do?"

"I think I'll be fine," Kaoru said with a smile. "I'll need your fertilization schedule if you've changed it. Do you still keep the mulch bags in the shed?"

"We use the same rose granular that we always have; same schedule that you're used to. All the plants except for those near the gazebo and the private garden are on the slow-release formula. Everything else you'll need to fertilize naturally once a month." Gensai said with a smile. "I'm sure I have a fancy chart or something lying around. I'll look for it. I've got a couple of good strong lads that will help you with the mulch."

Kaoru smiled in appreciation. Mulching was solid work and muscle was always appreciated.

"We've installed a few work sheds since you were here, so that each section has its own. I got too old to truck around tools and Mr. Himura was kind enough to indulge me. Just tack what you need to the outside door and it will be taken care of."

"Tae still provides lunch?"

"And dinner if you work too late. Once high summer sets in, everyone will have indoor work to tinker with to keep out of the worst of the sun. Tae keeps up with that list, so just ask."

Kaoru nodded and rocked back on her heels. She had brought her lunch today, but she rather doubted that a pb&j was going to be more nutritional than whatever Tae cooked. If she hadn't needed the money, she would have negotiated her pay by meals. Getting one meal a day that wasn't her cooking was going to be fabulous.

"I think anything else I can manage on my own." Kaoru said as she checked her watch. "If you can point me in the right direction, I'll get to work on some cuttings."

The sooner that was done the sooner she could start mulching. It was a good thing she liked a challenge. Looking up the bright sky, she made a note to pack sunscreen.

Gensai pointed her down the right path.

"As always, Tuesday and Thursdays we open our gates so you'll need to talk to the head of security at some point tonight. Saitoh has a series of rules he likes followed on visitor's day. We indulge him mostly to keep him off our back about other things."

X

Tae folded her hands, studying her Master. He hadn't left the window all morning – even for the tea and sandwiches she had brought up for lunch. She wondered how long it would be before Kaoru managed to make her way into the gazebo or the private section of the garden. He was already so focused on her. Biting the inside of her cheek, she kept her expression placid.

"She arrived this morning and has already started to work on the outer edges."

Tae was certain she didn't need to tell him that. His connection to the garden – the roses especially – was almost frightening at times. She kept her mouth shut about the fact that she had been forced to send a servant to bring her in for lunch or that the girl was already covered in dirt and sweat and smelling of earth. The skinny teenager who had been so kendo mad had mellowed a little at the edges but her eyes were still as bright as she remembered them.

She rather thought he already knew all that anyway.

"Yes."

Tae took another long breath. "Gensai says she has agreed to work indoors when it's hot outside and that if he knows the girl at all, she will probably show up early and work late." She shifted her weight. "Gensai wasn't sure how you wanted to handle her overtime."

Kenshin said nothing.

Tae clenched her hands together, needing the pressure to keep her composure. "The roses seem to recognize her presence."

When that didn't bring any sort of response either, Tae gave a low curtsey and left.

Roses tapped gently against the glass beneath his fingers.

X

Kaoru walked her bike around the back of the house and leaned it against the dojo wall. She was too tired to make the trek to the shed. That was just fifty feet to far. Her face felt tight along the bridge of her nose and cheeks – when she pressed her fingers against the skin, her hands felt cold. She was going to be sporting pink cheeks for a few days. She really, really hoped she didn't peel.

'Note to self: more sunscreen.' Kaoru thought with a groan.

What she needed was a bath… a nice long, hot bath. This level of soreness was worth taking the time to fill up the modified furo and soaking herself into a prune. This was one of those times she was thankful that her family had tried to keep the dojo as traditional as possible when her grandfather had decided to move a branch of her great-grandfather's successful dojo in the hope that he could raise his family somewhere smaller than the large, bustling city. There were other times when she preferred the modifications her mother had bullied her father into making. But today… it was time for a long soak. She just wished she had had the money to repair the nozzle that controlled the hot water on the showerheads before today. No matter how hot the tub was the shower to rinse the dirt and sweat was still going to be cold.

Kicking off her dirty shoes, Kaoru decided she was going to have to dig out the cash for a new pair. These were going to be restricted to garden use only. Dragging herself down the hall, she got the bathwater running and glared at the hallway when the phone started to ring. Only one person had the timing to interrupt her when she just wanted to half-drown herself.

"Yes?"

"I am ordering Chinese food and bringing it over in celebration of your new job. Just wanted to make sure that you wanted your normal order of orange chicken and dumplings," Misao said swiftly, obviously catching onto the tone of her voice.

"Egg rolls and fried rice, Misao."

"Oh, I already have those written down. Okay! I am buying myself some spicy noodles and that shrimp dish so I can barter. See you in an half an hour or so!" Misao said and hung up.

Kaoru pondered that and decided she still had time to soak.

Twenty minutes to soak and takeout that she didn't have to buy was a fair trade in having to deal with her energetic friend. Moving back into the bathroom, she scrubbed herself clean as quickly as she could under the cold water and all but flung herself into the warm water of the tub. She had to grit her teeth at the shock of going from frigid cold to almost scalding but once her body adjusted, it was worth it.

Kaoru stayed in the water until Misao's voice echoing through the dojo caught her attention. Sighing, she pulled herself out of the tub and dried off, pulling on her bathrobe.

"I'm coming," Kaoru yelled back when a particularly high note from Misao had her wincing. "You are not going to die of starvation in the time it takes me to walk into the living room, Misao."

"My stomach is communing with my backbone. My backbone is attempting to forge a peace treaty, but the stomach is having none of it. It needs food. I think you are out of paper plates," Misao declared as she pulled open pantry doors. "That means we are eating off plastic and you get dish duty."

"Joy," Kaoru said as she picked up the carton of orange chicken and sighed happily. "Do I actually have to share this?"

"If you want lo mien noodles that are filled with spicy goodness and chicken, then I suggest you hand over some forkfuls, or my governors shrimp will take the chicken fried rice hostage!" Misao declared dangerously. Kaoru sighed and offered the carton. With plates piled high with egg rolls, rice, orange chicken, dumplings and various shrimp concoctions, the girls crashed on the carpeted floor of the living room, bracing their backs against the couch.

"I still can't believe you sold your dining room table," Misao complained around a mouthful of rice. "It was a nice table."

"It was a cheap table that my dad bought once mom died. That's why we have the cushions your happy butt is sitting on. Besides, I needed to make an electric bill payment." Kaoru answered once she had swallowed. "However, I get paid weekly now, plus time and a half overtime. I am planning on working round the clock until I get that garden looking tiptop again. Since its going to take some very long days to do it… there may be a table in my future."

"So did you actually go into the mansion? I mean… is it as cool and spooky as it was when we were kids? Did you see any weird stuff yet?" Misao asked as she stole the little container with the sweet/sour sauce and lavishly stirred it with her egg roll. "Is that Himura guy really back?"

"That 'Himura guy' is my boss. I haven't actually seen him yet, but there was someone looking out of a window this morning when I got there. It would make sense that his room or office over looks the gardens. Or at least, that's the view I would want once I lived there. As for 'weird stuff' not yet; although the place is spotless as ever and I didn't see anyone sweeping the paths… but that's not all unusual as I was only there for a few hours. But I didn't even see a ward to collect dust." Kaoru mused as she twisted some noodles around her chopsticks.

"You would think someone that rich and magical would just run everything with spells. It's only expensive if you have to have someone else make them."

Kaoru shrugged. "How should I know? I'm not a mage."

Misao chewed rapidly and swallowed. "There is something off about that family, you know. Or at least, that's what I've heard." She leaned forward, her voice going dramatic. "Some sort of mental illness runs in the family! Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"

"Wonder what?" Kaoru asked in surprise.

"Why they really go through college students like candy!" Misao said with a laugh. "It could be some crazy scheme to have organ donors or vampires or something! Or maybe they need human sacrifices to keep that mansion so pristine!"

Kaoru glared at her and Misao grinned. "Hey, it would be really cool if they were vampires."

"Misao!"

"Does Tae still work there?"

"Tae works there and doesn't look a day over thirty-five. And while there were some new faces, I don't think vampires eat hot turkey and gravy sandwiches." Kaoru growled. "And we would have heard something if people were disappearing. Which they aren't."

"You never know!" Misao muttered. "They could be fattening you… all the better to eat you." She heaped a large bite of rice up to her mouth and shrugged.

Deciding to finish her food and ignore Misao, they both managed to polish off their plates in record time.

"What did you really mean when you said that you thought there was some mental illness in the family, Misao?" Kaoru asked as she started cleaning the dishes. "Or were you just making that up?"

"Hmmm, no, I've really heard something. I think it was… I don't know when it was. I shall have to ask. Anyway, I think it was the current Himura's grandfather… he might have been engaged to a woman from some line of mage blood….I think. Engaged or married. No… it would have to have been engaged, because it was called off. I think she claimed that the man was insane. Apparently whatever it is, the son and grandson both suffer from it as well. You don't really hear a lot about their wives. Anyway, there was some vague mutterings of a curse or something for a while, but I haven't heard that one in ages."

"Really?"

"Yeah, well with the history of mages of magic this town has, does it surprise you? I think even one of those big professors from the University of Spells and Sorcery came down to look at town half a century back or something." Misao swirled noodles around her chop sticks. "I think my great-aunt was very taken with him, if I remember the stories right. Too bad that the mage talent in the family tends to skip around; rumor has it she was very put out by his rejection."

Kaoru kicked the dishwasher shut and frowned. "Mom never said anything about that when I went to go work there and you know how mom felt about magic."

"Point… but Himura wasn't in the country, right? Anyway, it's not as if you are going to have lots of extensive contact with the man. The most that might happen is he might stare or something out that window, but if he really is insane he won't be looking at you; he will be staring at fluffy pink clouds or gigantic purple elephants."

"Misao, you're the only person who has ever seen purple elephants." Kaoru pointed out in amusement. "Sophomore year in high school? Chemistry class?"

"I was on drugs and they were blue elephants, thank you. Bright, neon blue. And if I, being the perfectly sane person that I am, can see these sorts of things, then a man with a mental illness is not one who can be suggested as not having seen them." Misao pointed out with a sniff. "For that, I am eating another piece of cake."

Kaoru sighed. "You would have eaten another piece of cake even if I hadn't insulted you."

"Too true," Misao said with a smile. "But at least this way I am morally justified in the stealing of cake. Otherwise, I would have just been sneaky."

Kaoru rolled her eyes and washed her hands, ignoring the obnoxious sounds that Misao was making between each bite of her cake.

"Be off with you," Kaoru scolded. "I need to go to bed if I am going to get to the mansion before it's real hot in the morning. I need sleep too. A full stomach and exhausted body means I am not going to be awake much longer whether I am lying down or not."

"Oh, all right," Misao jumped looked over at her and bit her lip. "If you need anything…"

"I get paid on Friday," Kaoru reminded her gently. "Which means I should make my car payment on time this month; the money isn't fabulous, but it's enough. Between that and the money I might be making on Saturday…"

"I still can't believe that Gohei person stole all your students!" Misao said in a cranky tone, her brows pulling downwards in displeasure.

"They have the right to choose. Kamiya Kasshin just isn't as fancy as his style… whatever it may be. I haven't really had time to check it out. It doesn't matter. The combat tournaments will start back up in August and either my students prove themselves or they don't. I can't worry about that until then."

Misao sighed and shrugged. "Well, then I wish you luck. Try to wear sunscreen tomorrow, all right? Your face is very pink. You're going to look like a shedding lizard."

Kaoru threw the dishtowel at her.

X

The world was dark in shadows and thick. Snarling, he stared at his sleeping garden and dug his fists into the earth. She had been here. Moving silently forward, he reached forward to dig his claws into the fresh earth around the flowers that she had worked with. He could taste her in the air.

Snarling, he arched his back and howled.

X

Kaoru looked at the clock on her dashboard and yawned a little; it was early enough just looking at the time was enough to make her tired. Thank goodness for her coffee pot. She had found the time to work in a kata before work to work her sore muscles loose but she could have used another hour or two of sleep.

Turning her car slowly down the cobblestone road that might have actually been the original, Kaoru made the turns she had been instructed to take in order to locate the employee parking. Visitors were required to park before they came to the mansion and had a good hike up the path. Bicycles were allowed through the gates as long as they stayed off the grass. Stepping out of her car and into the warm morning air, she locked the door and pocketed her keys. If there wasn't a nail available in the shed she was working out of today, there would be soon.

Groggily wondering if Tae had coffee, Kaoru looked up the path to the house. At the top of the hill stood a tall, severe looking man that Kaoru hadn't seen before. He stared down at her for a long moment before turning on his heel and disappearing.

Now what had that been about?

Shaking off her unease, she headed up the house. It didn't take her long to wheedle a cup of java and a biscuit out of Tae and find herself hip deep in the garden again.

The plants were being difficult. She was absolutely certain that plants didn't think or move on their own, but the plants here were… personable. It felt as if they were absorbing everything she said so that she wasn't left with even an echo. Beyond that first little scratch, none of the thorns had come near her skin, which surprised her. She usually had to wear gloves after the first couple of days because she always miscalculated the thorns. Still, her left side was plastered with dirt and there was a rock in her shoe; she was damp from the knees down and sweating profusely.

"Now," she informed the plant in front of her. "This is for your own good."

Opening the kink she had put into the hose, she sprayed the heavy green of the plants for a long time. She was careful not to ruin the blooms but the spray would remove whatever grime was clinging to the plants and help with the ant and bug problem she had noticed. Once the water was turned off, she went back to the bush to examine the plants.

"Well, I think that should do it. As long as you don't start wilting again, I won't have to use any pesticides." Thankfully, the flowers didn't have fungi growing on them; she would have to do more than just simple pruning then. Wiping her hands off on her shorts, she rubbed the small of her back. She had picked up the habit of talking to flowers from her mother – much to the amusement of anyone who heard her – she scolded and hummed to the plants as she worked.

"Once you're healthy again, you'll feel much better," Kaoru assured the pale rose buds in front of her, reaching out to brush the edges with her fingertip.

"You talk to flowers?"

The voice was young and male; cracking slightly to show that he was hitting his awkward years. Turning around, Kaoru blinked at the teenage boy staring back at her, his wild hair held back by a black bandana. He was dressed in cut off jean shorts and a dark green tank top. By the looks of him, he had been busy working somewhere.

"You don't?" Kaoru asked with a smile. "I haven't seen you around here before."

The boy frowned at her for a moment and then crossed him arms. "I'm Yahiko. Sano sent me over to make sure you didn't need help with anything since I can't do my normal job with all the people running around."

Kaoru blinked in surprise, trying to put a face with that name. "Sano?"

"Tall man who always has a toothpick in his mouth," Yahiko described, using his hands to motion the word 'tall'. "Do you need help or not?"

Kaoru dusted her hands again and smiled. "Actually, yes, my knees aren't as young as they used to be so you can be of use. I'm making sure that the only thing bothering the plants are the ants."

"Ants?"

"When I was little, my mom grew roses behind our home. One year, they started to wither and curl like the ones over there," she pointed to the wheel barrel she had been tossing bits and ends into. "When they do that, they produce a clear substance that attracts ants. They spread diseases, so we have to prune the plants and then wash them. I hate to use pesticides, but we might have to."

Yahiko gave a long-suffering sigh, then squatted down and made a disgusted noise.

"What?"

"The ground is all wet." Yahiko said in disgust. "Wet mulch is gross."

"Supposedly you're the boy out of the two of us," she muttered under her breath. "It's wet because I sprayed all the plants down, remember? If you find something that looks odd, cut it off and let me see it."

"Why?"

"Because nature's way is always best to try first," she replied.

Yahiko sneered. "You learn that from a book?"

"Actually, my mother passed that along," Kaoru responded.

"So you're just one big rose growing family?"

"Hardly," she said with a smile, moving to the plant next to the one that Yahiko was looking at. "Dad didn't have time for anything flower related, he was too busy working in the dojo."

"Dojo," Yahiko said suddenly looking interested, "You have a dojo?"

"Yes," Kaoru said in amusement. "It's been in my family for generations."

"Does it have its own style?" The boy looked like he was trying to suppress his excitement. "Aunt Tae didn't like the first place I went to, but she said if I found someone else to teach me I could still learn."

"I only give lessons on weekends for beginners because I am here during the weekdays," Kaoru told him, as she stood again. The plants looked clean. "My beginner class starts at nine."

There was silence. Then: "You're the instructor?" Yahiko's voice was incredulous.

"Yes, I have been a Master of it for a few years now."

Yahiko's mouth was moving like a fish out of water.

Kaoru gave him an amused look. "What?"

"But… if you work in the dojo why are you here?" Yahiko demanded, waving his arms. "Aren't instructors supposed to offer classes everyday?"

"I don't have enough students to rely on just my teaching right now," Kaoru said finally, struggling to keep her tones neutral. "So I work here."

There was silence for a long time. "If I brought my bokken, could you show me some moves?"

"I won't show you anything if you're going to shirk your work," Kaoru responded firmly. Planting a fist on her hip, she studied him. "However, if I have the time and you are finished with whatever it is you do… then I don't see a problem."

She turned away then, not really needing to see his response to that. It was in his voice, that all consuming drive to learn which had held her in its grip all through childhood and college.

"Now, perhaps you can show me that you actually have a work ethic by helping me check on these roses?"

The rest of the morning was spent in Yahiko's company. He pestered her on everything from what bokken she preferred, to which tournaments she had won. He quizzed her about the principles of Kamiya Kasshin and how long it would take him to learn it, until she sprayed him down with the water hose to get him to stop.

"You looked a little warm," Kaoru said with a snicker, turning off the hose and rolling it up to go back into the wheelbarrow. "I didn't think you would mind."
Turning to look at the house to hide her laughter as Yahiko started to splutter, Kaoru blinked in surprise as she caught sight of a figure standing in a large window. The light reflecting off the glass was too bright to let her see who it was, so she simply lifted a hand in greeting and went back to work.

"That's Mr. Himura's office window," Yahiko said suddenly.

Kaoru turned and looked at him in surprise. "What?"

"The office overlooks the rose gardens." Yahiko said with a shrug. "It's his favorite part of the mansion."

"You seem to know a lot about what goes around down here," Kaoru commented, looking at him in surprise. "How long have you worked here?"

"I live here," Yahiko replied as took control of the wheelbarrow. "I moved in with Tae when I was eight." There was something defensive in his tone and Kaoru decided not to step any closer to that sore spot than she had to.

"It seems like an interesting place to grow up," Kaoru commented, before gathering her tools and motioning Yahiko to the next bed. When she was finally satisfied that Yahiko knew what he was doing, Kaoru started brushing through the plants again.

"Why do you care so much about the flowers?" Yahiko's voice came out of nowhere and Kaoru turned and blinked. "I know Mr. Himura does, but why do you?"

"I like flowers," Kaoru said blinking. "They respond to the hard work you put into them and you can always see your efforts reflected in how they look. Besides, they're very pretty and pretty things are hard to find sometimes." Kaoru hesitated. "Why does Mr. Himura like them so much?"

Yahiko gave her a thoughtful look before going back to what he was doing. "They're his most prized possession," he finally answered. "It wouldn't surprise me if he decided to meet you soon. You're working on something that's important to him and all…"

Kaoru frowned, considering that. "Huh."

X

Kaoru was sitting on a chair.

In front of her, there was a fireplace filled with low burning coals that she didn't recognize. She held a book in her hand and her feet were cushioned in soft slippers; somehow she knew she wasn't alone. She turned slowly, her fingers tightening on the chair when she heard a low growling noise. Like a large dog… but it didn't sound right. Licking her lips, she stared into the darkness around the room that the fire didn't warm.

Forcing herself not to flinch back into the chair, she scanned the room slowly, searching for any sign of the creature that was making those noises. Something flickered in the corner of her eye and she found herself staring into liquid gold…

Kaoru sat straight up in bed. Swallowing, she reached over and fumbled for the light on the nightstand. The letters on her alarm clock were a violent red and glared and she almost knocked her lamp over. As soon as the light flickered on Kaoru glanced around the room frantically, looking for anything out of place. Needing to know where she was. Home. Nothing was there. She had stuff down her desire to locate a bokken. Pressing hands to her cheeks she took several deep breaths before she shivered and curled in on her stomach in an attempt to stop the fizzy nerves that had taken residence in her gut and to slow her breathing. It was just a nightmare. Taking slow, even breaths, it took a long time before she was able to sleep again.

She left the light on.

X

Kaoru walked into the kitchen, wondering if Tae had lunch ready yet. After her dream the night before she had decided to get an early start and recruited Yahiko and his tall friend, Sano, into her helping her finish up. It had taken her far less time than she had anticipated. Now there were just a few more bed of roses to be trimmed. Then her daily work would be cut nearly in half. All that she would have to keep up with on a regular basis now as the occasional weed killing, checking for disease and other miscellaneous jobs would keep her busy. That would cut her work hours down a little and give her some time to explore the rest of the garden. She didn't think she had found all the nooks and crannies yet.

Today, lunch was an assortment of cold cuts with fresh bread, fruit, cheese, and some of Tae's excellent oatmeal-cranberry cookies. Fixing her sandwich and accepting a tall glass of lemonade, Kaoru found an empty place in the dinning area and settled in to eat. It was too hot to eat outdoors today so she wasn't surprised when Sano and Yahiko came trooping in, both covered in dirt and sweat. Kaoru supposed she should get used to smelly men, but between Yahiko's teenage smell and Sano's normal manly odor, she really just wanted clean female company. Maybe she would call Misao and invite her over for pizza. She could pick it up on her way home…

Sano took one look at her and plopped down across from her and somehow fit half of his sandwich into his mouth. He chewed for several long moments while Kaoru blinked at him. When Yahiko looked like he was going to try to do the same, Kaoru kicked him.

"Just because Sano eats like a half-starved wild animal does not mean you can." Kaoru informed him when he yelped and dropped the sandwich back onto his plate. She eyed the food for a long moment.

"Yahiko… what are you eating?"

"Peanut butter and salami," Yahiko said as he glared at her. "It's good! Stop giving me that look."

Kaoru turned back to her turkey sandwich and decided to thank whatever culinary gods were out there that she hadn't been given those taste buds.

"So, Missy," Sano said as he swallowed. He paused, studied the sandwich before peeling off the top layer of bread and layering it with the barbeque chips on his plate. "What are your plans for this afternoon? You know Tae is getting a little upset that you keep working when it's so hot outside."

Kaoru rolled her eyes as she chewed. Swallowing, she took a long drink from her lemonade. "I plan on finishing the pruning of the flowers. It's not really that hot outside and…"

"Your nose is still peeling from the last time you burned," Sano interrupted. "If you haven't noticed, you're not really the type that tans; you sort of burn, peel, burn… like an onion."

Kaoru paused from where she was lifting her sandwich.

"Did you just call me an onion?" she demanded in disbelief.

"A red, ugly onion," Yahiko pitched in.

Kaoru narrowed her eyes, but before she could retaliate, Tae stuck her head around the corner.

"Kaoru, if you don't mind working in the house today several of the indoor plants need trimming and repotting. I would ask Sano or Yahiko to do it, but the last time they tried they killed one of the miniature figs."

Sano looked indignant, but with his cheeks puffed up full of cookie he was unable to reply. Kaoru decided that it was a conspiracy, and promised herself that she would get everything done in record time, so she simply nodded around the last of her sandwich. Picking up her plate and slapping at Sano's fingers as he tried to steal the cookies she followed Tae into the kitchen.

"I can start now," Kaoru offered as she rescued the last cookie from her plate.

"That would be wonderful. Mr. Himura is currently in a meeting across town so if you want to check the plants in his office first, that would be best. Here," Tae fished into her apron pocket and pulled out a list. "These are the plants that need trimming and watering; and here are the plants that need to be repotted. If you don't get it all done today before it cools off enough to go back outside that's fine, you can simply finish it during the heat of the day tomorrow."

Kaoru made a face at that idea, but obediently headed up the stairs to start checking on the plants armed with a duster, a water jug and a pair of small sheers to trim. Biting her lip at the sudden wrack of nerves she couldn't explain, Kaoru rapped on the office door. Tae had said Himura was out but there was no reason not to be cautious. When there was no answer, she opened the door and looked around. There was small ivy, a flowering hanging plant and a small tree in the office, but that was all.

It took her five minutes to clip, water, and dust the plants and then she was heading down the hall. Something shivered down her spine and she shivered. Pausing, she glanced around the hall way and frowned when she saw nothing.

'Buck up, Kamiya. It's just the dream you had last night.' She was just being jumpy.

She spent a lot longer than she had anticipated checking on plants. It was a good two hours after lunch that she managed to escape Tae's clutches and bolt back into the outside world. Yahiko and Sano were nowhere to be found and she wasn't very excited about the idea of mulching so she decided to take some time to meander through the gardens.

She wondered why she never saw Himura out and about. If she lived here she would find ways to get outside to enjoy the roses and the sunshine. Even if for just a few moments every afternoon, yet after almost a week worth's of work she hadn't seen him. Frowning, she glanced around. The area was a carefully created maze of old stone walls and clever vines. An opening caught her attention and she decided she could waste a little time exploring. Ducking under an overhanging, she was surprised to find the small glade covered in roses. A low bench was pressed against a wall and there was a little koi pond that was well cared for by someone; or wards… although she came up with nothing after a quick scan of the area.

Her eyes were drawn back to the flowers.

The climbing roses along the wall were breathtaking. The outside petals were a dark bronzy-red; the inner petals a buttery golden orange color. The plants were heavy with blooms and desperately needed to be pruned. Against the gray washed stone, the roses seemed to give off an artificial light.

But it was the rose bush at the center of the alcove that had her moving forward in delight. The plant was in obvious need of care. The ends of the leaves were curling in the heat and the roses were dropping, but nothing took away from the beauty of the blossoms. Petals that were dark red -- so dark the outer edges looked almost black; except for where the sun touched the half-hidden petals, turning them rich velvet.

Reaching out, Kaoru stroked a healthy bloom. Something sparkled and burned against her fingertip for a moment and she jerked her hand back. When the sensation faded, she hesitantly tried again. This time she felt nothing.

"Well… whatever that was, it's apparent that you need some care."

Standing up, she dusted the dirt off her bare knees and left, making a mental note of the paths she had taken. Filling a wheelbarrow full of mulch and setting a bag of fertilizer on top of that, Kaoru wheeled it down the stone path.

Pushing her weapons of choice into the alcove, Kaoru got to work. She started with the center plant first, preening away the dead branches and the dead blooms. When she was finished, the plant looked small but healthy. Taking her spade Kaoru carefully broke up the dirt and mixed in the fertilizer that the plant needed desperately. When she was finished, she dumped what water she had left in her water bottle and made a mental note to come back with buckets later. After spreading a thick layer of mulch around the base of the plants, she sat back on her knees and studied her work.

The small plant looked much healthier than it had and she nodded to herself.

"That's much better. Once you're bigger, I'll take a cutting and plant it somewhere else. You're too pretty to hide back here."

Petting the flowers on last time, Kaoru got to work on the rest of the plants. By the time she was done, her barrel was full of pruned blooms and she was covered in dirt and sweat. The tight sensation at the back of her neck told her she was burned again and she sighed. Gathering up the last of her tools, she pushed the wheelbarrow back onto the path.

Checking her watch, she pondered how much time she would have before she had to head home. The sun was just starting to set so she had at least two, maybe three hours until true dark. Biting her lip, she considered shutting down for the day but then decided against it. She really wanted to get all the major work done by this weekend so she could spend it working at her dojo and not worrying about things here.

And she was starting to see flickers of light out of the corner of her eyes which meant that it was really time for her to get some sleep.

"Well, no point in dumping you lot in the mulch pile until I add a few more."

Besides, she had felt skittish and silly all afternoon until she jumped at the slightest noise heard. Twice she had seen what she thought was a shadow out of the corner of her eye. She needed the outdoors to clear her head before she headed back to the dojo.

Satisfied, she headed out to work.

X

Rough calloused fingers ran over the cracked glad that framed a tiny, hand painted portrait. The dark, laughing eyes that stared back were not enough this time. Heat and wild, almost uncontrollable rage beat against the restraints he had chained it in and he shuddered with it.

A soft, welcome knock brought him back. The thick scent of meat and bread caught his attention and he was able to gain back the control that was so close to slipping. It sank claws into him, refusing to release completely even as he straightened to his full height, setting back against his heels like a human.

A flimsy shield that continued to hold.

Tae bustled in and arranged plats and a mug of thickly spiced tea.

"She found the roses." His voice sounded rough, strained against his ears and he turned abruptly away. The china she was serving him with rattled hard.

"Did…. I mean, how did the flowers react?" Tae asked slowly, carefully.

"They like her." Now he just sounded weary. "It won't be long before someone notices. She will come soon."

The garden was waking up. He could feel it against his skin and at night, when the sun took his flimsy shields with it… he could hear them. They spoke softly of dark hair and laughter, of warmth. Sharp nails bit into his palm as he struggled to control the urge to go down into the garden. He could almost taste her in his garden. The beast roared to life in his mind and demanded; it was the sounds of Tae clinking around the cart gave him the will to pull back from that abyss.

Tae bit her lip, looking at her master for a long time. He looked tired. There were dark circles under his eyes and his skin was pale, but his eyes were over-bright. There was such little comfort that she could give him.

"She's a smart girl. She'll manage to take care of herself."

He said nothing for long moments. When he finally spoke, Tae sighed. It was clear he wasn't ready to discuss Kaoru yet.

"Thank you for the tea. Please, do not let me keep you."

Tae gave a slight curtsey, knowing how tightly he grasped formality to shield them from what beat through his veins; what had been done to his magic. "I will return in an hour to collect your plates. Dinner will be served at seven."

"Thank you."

The door shut softly, leaving him to his demons.

X

The gardens didn't do as much good as she had hoped. Several times, she had thought she heard a woman's voice on the breeze, the words indistinguishable and upset. She had looked around a few times to see if Tae was calling for her, but she was alone. She knew she was alone.

Then there was the fact that the shed she had locked up the night before had been put back into perfect order, again. She had scanned the place several times looking for cleaning wards or some sort of strange runes, but had found nothing. So that meant human hands… or magic she knew nothing about. She was going to have to track down this invisible help at some point and make it clear that she could clean up her own messes.

To force herself to concentrate on something besides her over active imagination she had wandered deep into a patch of pale roses to check on how they were doing and to do some basic weeding. She felt safer surrounded on all sides by flowers and the little path she had used to wiggle this deep was just the right size. Sano wouldn't have been able to follow her in but she thought Yahiko might've. It was silly, but she was relieved to be out of the taunting wind.

Rubbing her stiff neck, she turned to head back along the path she had walked in on and found herself staring at a thick hedge of roses. With no small opening. Peering at the flowers, she nervously rubbed her arms. The path was gone. Looking around, she found herself completely caged in by the thick plants. She found herself staring blankly at the high, thorn sharp vines that had somehow caged her in disbelief.

Roses did not just move. Kaoru put her hands on her hips, forcing bravado to hide sudden terror that clawed at her throat.

"Now, this is not amusing." Kaoru informed the air around her. She didn't have anything to hack a path out. Carefully, she tried to push some of the plants to one side. Thorns dug into her palms, forcing her to let them go.

"No need to be cranky," she muttered. It wasn't as if the plants were alive… and it wasn't as if the plants could actually move, either. Dammit… she had no way of knowing if this was some sort of magical defense – but magic wasn't suppose to work like this. She could see the garden lights shining, so she took a deep breath. Someone had to turn the lights off at some point.

"Hello? Gensai, Sano, Yahiko? Are you out there?" Wiping sweaty palms on her shorts, she tried again. "Hello?"

No one answered and her voice echoed funnily back at her.

Swallowing, she sat down before her knees could give out. Wrapping her arms around her knees Kaoru stared at the plants. What was she supposed to do? She supposed she could write this off as… no; there was nothing to write this off as. Even Misao's crazy theories about magic didn't help this time and she doubted her friend would consider this normal; Misao had a very high threshold for strange. Oh, she supposed magic could do this but why? This was not her first time to work after dark!

As long as the lights were on she would be okay. It was a warm night and someone had to walk by at some point… Her heart jumped into her throat when those bright lights suddenly flicked off, leaving her in the dark.

"Hello!"

This time she screamed it. Nothing. Not even an echo.

"I'm not scared," Kaoru whispered to herself. "I'm not frightened by moving plants."

Except she was and the wind was picking up, whistling around her little nest of roses; she could almost hear something trying to catch her attention and she took a deep breath. And sat back down.

"Fine." she said finally, curling on her side. "I guess I'll just wait."

She just wished she knew what she was waiting for.

X

The garden was a different kind of beautiful at night. With the lights off he could slid along the paths by moonlight, letting the warm earth tell him its secrets. Curling his claws into the earth, he tilted his head back and breathed.

His eyes opened into yellow slits. There was someone here, in his territory. Snarling, he prowled along the paths, hunting. The flowers were aware and alert and his cheek brushed one particularly vibrant blossom; the image it gave him stopped him.

Kaoru.

His skin itched as and his vision swam for a moment as the wildness of his magic clawed to the surface. Heat stroked along his spine as it deliberately reminded him of the sensations that had brushed against his soul a particularly rose bush.

And now it was blooming, growing for the first time since her. Taking deep breaths through clenched teeth, he managed to force the howling in his mind back; the urge to shred his clothing and to race through his garden was strong tonight. He couldn't quite shake it, but retained enough thought to push himself to his feet to walk.

Then he caught an all together different vision and his vision went red with rage. She was here.

When he regained control of himself, he was crouched on all fours, deep in a thicket of flowers, mulch digging into his hands. Soft flower voices whispered to him as he battled for control and so it took him several moments to realize he wasn't alone. Staring at the sleeping figure, he shivered. The plants had wanted to keep her among them – to protect what was theirs. It echoed and burned along his magic and he paced forward.

She cared for them. And they wanted her to care for him. Clawed fingers curled around dark strands of hair and he had to fight to hold himself in check. He wanted to taste her throat. To feel the softness of her skin under his mouth and tongue; she had touched his soul when she had tended a single plant and how he wanted to return that favor. Instead, he brushed his fingers along her nose where the skin was peeling from a burn and then down the smooth line of her cheek. Softly, so not to disturb her even in the sleep the roses had given her.

Hunger and tension built low and trembled through his limbs. Smooth cheekbones, soft lips and thick lashes that fanned on her cheeks like fans. Blue. Her eyes were blue. With her dark hair tangled around her face and loose around her body, she did look like she belonged under the roses. Belonged to him.

Taking a deep breath, he managed to slip an arm under her knees and behind her neck. It was so easy to press his nose against her skin and to breathe her in. So light. So vulnerable. He stilled when her throat vibrated with sound under his mouth. The howling in his mind tugged at him, demanding that he curl around her under the moonlight and his roses. To protect her from the danger that she would bring.

Gritting his teeth, he moved slowly back into the mansion.

X

Kaoru woke slowly, pressing her face into the soft pillow and shifting languorously beneath the thick covers. After several nights of exhausted sleep and then the nightmare, for once she felt rested. The soft warmth of the sheets was heavenly around her body and the sound of rain beating against panes of glass coaxed her to stay and hide under the covers. It had to be early since her alarm had yet to go off, but she had no desire to open her eyes to see how much longer she could lie in bed. Burrowing even further, she curled up under her pillow to block any light and drowsed, letting awareness slowly creep into her mind.

Forcing herself to push up enough to look around the edge of her blankets, she frowned at the utter darkness. Her room was never this pleasantly dark. Come to think of it, this didn't feel like her bed either. Reaching out to the side of the bed, her jerked when her hand hit thick material. Fisting her hand in what must have been heavy drapes, she pulled them to the side.

The room most certainly went with the bed, if not with her home. Sitting up, she looked down and grimaced. Wherever she was, she hadn't changed or showered. Feeling dirty and a little disgusted with herself, she pushed herself off the bed and looked for a door. Finding one, she stepped out into a familiar hallway and frowned.

Why had she spent the night at the mansion? She tried to remember what happened last night and frowned at the vague memories. It was if the edges of whatever had occurred had been blurred so she couldn't quite put her finger on what had happened. Before she could get too worked up, Tae came around the corner and stopped in surprise before smiling and moving forward.

"Kaoru, it's still very early. You should be sleeping." Tae scolded as she walked over, wiping her hands on her apron. "Why are you up?"

Kaoru looked at the clock on the wall and felt her eyes go wide. "It's eight-thirty!" Kaoru protested. "I am… never mind. Why am I here?" Kaoru demanded before tugging at the hem of her shirt. "I woke up in my work clothes."

"You have been working too hard," Tae said firmly, ushering her out of the kitchen. "Mr. Himura says that he found you asleep under the roses and brought you back. I was out for the evening with a friend and he didn't think it proper for him to change you. Really, Kaoru, if you are working that hard then I am going to insist that you take a break!"

Somehow Tae got her up the stairs and Kaoru found herself back in the room she had woken in.

"Now, I shall round you up something to change into and you can step into the shower if you like. The towels are fresh and the bathroom is fully stocked. I will change the sheets while you shower, so if you want you can nap a little before breakfast. It's raining so I am fixing a brunch while the household sleeps in." Tae ordered as she pulled the comforter off the bed and then stripped the sheets with a brisk proficiency that startled Kaoru.

"Everyone is sleeping in?"

"I suppose Gensai didn't tell you? No, I suppose not, its summer we hardly get rain… when it storms the grounds staff only work half days and only then if the rain lets up. Otherwise, we just spend the afternoon doing light work inside the house. No point in tracking mud and mulch around the mansion and getting sick in the process. Now," Tae said as she looked at a door that must have been the shower, "into the shower with you."

X

Kaoru tugged at the hem of the shirt she wore a little self-consciously. She had changed into the clothes Tae had provided and they smelled of ginger and roses. She had stood in her bathroom in borrowed under things for ten minutes, trying to place where she had smelled that combination before. A memory naggingly tugged at her mind but she was unable to place it.

The pants were as male as her shirt and she had been thankful for the drawstrings that she had used to tighten them around her hips. They must have belonged to Yahiko or someone as equally short because she only had to roll the legs twice to keep from tripping.

Tae had insisted that she nap once she was clean and she had given in, crawling back into the soft bed until a sweet faced girl had woken her a few moments ago for the morning meal. To Kaoru's disbelieving eyes, the clock read almost eleven. By the time she made it downstairs, the dinning area was already full. Several faces she didn't know were hunched over plates. One of them had the most unusual shade of red hair that she had ever seen. Heading to the buffet, she filled a plate and sat down on the unoccupied chair next to Sano and tucked in, ignoring the curious looks in her direction.

"'Morning, Kaoru," Sano said around a mouthful of biscuit. "Did you sleep well?"

Kaoru lifted a brow as she washed down her biscuit with a swing of coffee and nodded.

"I am pleased that you were able to rest," the voice came from her right and Kaoru turned to meet the eyes of the redhead sitting next to her. His expression was kind as he smiled.

"I'm Kenshin."

Kaoru found herself staring and tried to look away, but she had never seen eyes like that. The violet was calm, but there were the faint threads of gold glittering at her, promising something wild. It reminded her of something untamed and she stared at her plate and shoveled up a forkful of eggs before looking back up at him.

He hadn't glanced away.

"Nice to meet you," Kaoru said finally. It wasn't until she has halfway into her other biscuit that she realized where she had heard that name before. Kenshin. Kenshin Himura. She swallowed wrong and ended up coughing hard into her napkin while Sano tried to beat her lungs out of her chest. As she blinked watery eyes, she kicked him under the table when it was obvious he was attempting to hide his amusement.

"What are you going to do today?" Sano asked as he leaned back with a satisfied sigh.

"Well, I can't work outside because of the rain so I thought…"

"You're taking the day off," Tae's voice cut into the conversation as she brought out a fresh pot of coffee. "Even if you didn't have those circles under your eyes there isn't anything for you to do here. I would have called you myself and asked for you to stay home today but you rode your bike over yesterday so you might as well stay here."

Kaoru frowned. "Surely there is something…"

"Kaoru," Kenshin's voice was soft, but it caught everyone's attention. The faint growl in his tone surprised her. "Please, feel free to make yourself at home here. Our intentions are not to work you to the bone. Take the day off."

Kaoru turned and blinked at him. There was more gold in his eyes now. "But," Kaoru said hesitantly, not sure if she should provoke him. "I'm here to work."

"Consider it a paid holiday for all the overtime and hard work you have been putting in my roses," Kenshin said firmly as he stood.

"But…"

"Say thank you," Kenshin suggested, one hand slipping into a pocket with a faint smile.

Kaoru frowned for a long moment before sighing. "Thank you, Mr. Himura."

She couldn't help the scowl that was etched across her face.

"Kenshin," Mr. Himura corrected softly before turning away. Kaoru watched him walk away, wondering what he did. She normally only associated the grace of his movements with some training.

"Well," Sano said cheerfully. "What does that mean you are going to do now?"

Kaoru kicked him for good measure.

X

She had felt like a delinquent for most of the afternoon, hiding from Tae and her small army of helpers that were determined she spend the day doing nothing. Somehow, she had made her way into a library. To her delight, the old fireplace was already lit. A smile curling the edges of her lips, she shut the door softly before racing to the huge windows that were covered by thick drapes. Wrenching them open, she pressed her nose up against the glass and smiled at the sight of the garden drenched by heavy sheets of rain. It would take some work to clean up the debris tomorrow, but the image was beautiful.

She managed to pull back all the drapes, shedding light on the circular room. Even with the storm, there would be enough light that she could read, especially with the fireplace taking the chill out of the air. If she was going to be forced to have a holiday when she should have been at home working at the dojo, she could at least read. Heading over to the bookcase, she scanned the titles until she found one that was familiar and pulled it from a shelf.

She ended up spending the morning sprawled out on a couch, going through the book and drowsing, rousing herself to put another log on the fire occasionally. She completely lost track of time and had been horribly embarrassed when Tae had brought her lunch. She wasn't even sure how Tae had known where she was. If anyone had magic in the mansion like Misao hoped they did, Kaoru was putting money on Tae.

The soup had been hot and filling, and to her surprise, once she had a full stomach, she had ended up fighting off a nap. She considered heading back to the room she had slept in, but decided she didn't have the energy. Placing her book on the table, she yawned and shut her eyes.

Surely she wouldn't nap that long.

X

Kenshin rubbed his bloodshot eyes. Today had been difficult. Even a run through his wet garden, feeling the storm thunder in his chest hadn't lessoned the surging tide of anger rushing through him. He had found signs of her in his garden. Snapping his teeth, he moved through his manor, stripping his clothing once he reached his room and grabbing blindly for something soft; a pair of gray pants, a white button up shirt, what he wore did not matter. He dragged a towel through his hair before he tied it back again. It wasn't enough to trap him in the veneer of a man, but it gave him something to cling to.

The carpet in his home caressed his bare feet while he moved down the hall, letting his mind wander as he rubbed a hand over his face. It was when he neared the library that he realized he had been tracking Kaoru though his home unconsciously. Swearing softly, but unable to find the willpower to turn away, he pushed open the door silently and looked around the room, every breath bringing him her scent. It wasn't until he looked at the long couch by the fire that he saw her, sprawled out like some sort of cat.

He crossed the room on silent feet.

Her breathing was deep and even, the warm fire and rain having lulled her into an impromptu nap. His eyes paused on her stocking-clad feet, considering just how small they were before working their way up the line of her legs, lingering on the way his pants fit against the curves of her body. His gut clenched and he took a deep breath, reaching forward to run his hands down her ponytail, breath shuddering as the soft strands clung to his fingers.

It was dangerous to tempt the beast and his magic this way. It was clamoring to the surface, heat flooding his veins so that he had to close his eyes and force it back.

Crouching down – damning himself for it – he watched her sleep.

X

Kaoru woke to the sound of the fire crackling and the faint clinking of good china. Slowly opening her eyes, she found herself staring at Kenshin's back as he stoked the fire. His hair flickered strangely in the fire and there was something strange about the way he was balancing his weight. Sleepily, her eyes scanned down the curved line of his spine, her mind drowsily admiring the curve of something else, before she found herself starring at something else. The man had bare feet.

"You're not wearing any socks." She watched the line of shoulders tense, a fine shudder roll down his body. Stretching a little, Kaoru put her face back into the couch.

"Do you need me to leave?" The pillows muffled her voice, but she thought he heard her. She felt lazy and disconnected.

"No," Kenshin said finally, voice deep. Kaoru finally pushed herself up to see that he had stood and walked over to a tray. That had been the noise she had heard. "Tae brought an afternoon snack. You're welcome to join me."

Kaoru pushed her bangs out of her eyes.

"I'm your gardener," Kaoru reminded him as she tucked her legs up onto the couch and studied the way he moved. He had to have training. It was all smooth muscle and male control. Shaking her head, she lifted her eyes to his face when he offered her a mug of something that looked warm.

"Hot chocolate," His mouth curved a little when he caught her surprise. "Gardeners get hungry as well, I'm told."

His voice was teasing and she blinked in surprise and didn't argue when he put together two plates. Hers he piled with little éclairs and what she thought might have been either chicken salad or egg salad sandwiches. For his own he didn't touch the sweets, just filled it with those little sandwiches. Each movement was precise, delicately careful and she wondered at the almost strained control of his movements.

"Can I get you anything else?"

"I think I'll just try to get through that first," Kaoru muttered, accepting the plate with her free hand and blinking at the food. Where to start? Clearly, she had to start somewhere, because Kenshin wasn't touching his food. Once she took a bite of the sandwich – it was chicken – he followed suit. Kaoru didn't actually really see him eat any of it, but he filled his plate twice more while she nibbled. He had to be one of those men who couldn't gain weight.

"I haven't gotten a chance to thank you properly for taking such good care of my roses." Kenshin said once she set her plate down to concentrate on her hot chocolate. He absorbed the surprised look in her eyes, letting her emotions soak in as far as he could in the hopes of containing his beast.

"It's my job," Kaoru pointed out. She rolled the mug slowly in her hands. "I like my job, so I do my best. No thanks are necessary. My paycheck is good enough thanks for me."

She tried to hide the curl of pleasure in her stomach at his words. Everyone liked to be appreciated. She was slightly uncomfortable at the heated look in his eyes so she took a sip of her hot chocolate and tried to change the subject.

"How did this place come to having such a wonderful collection? There are some roses here I have never seen before." She let her mind wander to those roses that were so dark a red they were almost black, showcased by the orange-y bronze roses. She really needed to get a cutting.

"My mother loved roses, as did my grandmother. I grew to have a… special appreciation for them some years ago." His tone held a note that kept Kaoru from asking another question.

Even so, there was something comfortable in the silence between them as they finished off the hot chocolate. Kaoru was watching the fire lazily when Kenshin stood.

"I should leave you to your peace." He gave her another of those bewildering smiles. "Enjoy your afternoon."

Kaoru watched him leave, baffled by his behavior. There had been something… warm in his expression. Rich, eccentric types with insanity in the family were sure strange.

X

Kaoru sighed, kicking the wall irritably. How it was that Tae had managed to talk her into spending another night was beyond her. True, her work clothes had been cleaned and she would be able to sleep in a little, but she just wasn't comfortable taking advantage of Himura's kindness like this. Tugging on her bangs, she sighed. Her argument with Tae had not gone as well as she could have hoped. It hadn't gone anywhere.

She supposed she could have found a phone and called Misao to come pick her up but that seemed… underhanded. Not that Tae seemed to mind underhand tactics. Flopping down onto the bed, she growled. Well, she was stuck here so she might as well get a good night's rest.

She supposed there was a bright side to this. She hadn't had to eat her own cooking in almost twenty-four hours. Yanking the blankets over her head, she let herself fall asleep.

X

Kaoru woke to a weight pressing down on her chest. Rolling onto her stomach, she shuddered several times. There wasn't a lamp next to the bed to save her from her nightmare this time. Breathing heavily into her soft sheets, she finally uncurled herself and searched for some form of calm. It was a dream. Just a dream.

Sitting up, she rubbed her face briskly, trying to pull herself awake enough so that if she fell back asleep she wouldn't dream the same nightmare. Sitting on the bed, elbows propped on her thighs, head pressed into her palms she suddenly became aware of a low level growl that vibrated through the bed and straight to her bones. There was a sudden heaviness to the air, thick with something that almost felt like humidity. For a moment, she thought she hadn't managed to wake herself up at all.

She bit her lip hard enough to hurt and swallowed around the sudden lump in her throat.

Lifting her head away from her hands, she blinked hard and tried to find the source of the sound. Her heart started to hammer in her hears as she realized that the big windows weren't letting in light in and she suddenly realized what that thickness in the air was. Magic. She wasn't equipped to deal with magic.

Slowly, eyes still uselessly scanning the room, she reached down to tug the covers away from her legs to give her better movement. The growl went from bone vibrating to fairly snarling and she froze. It was far closer than it had been. Any frantic moving she made might agitate whatever it was in her room.

Gold flashed at her in the darkness and her breath caught in her lungs. There wasn't any light in the room so how did she see…

Swallowing hard, she licked her lips. "Hello?"

She shrieked when the bed dipped suddenly and jerked her legs on instinct when something brushed her leg. Before she could make a scramble – the edge of the bed, a pillow, anything – the thing snarled and it was so close she felt its breath against the bare skin of her arm. It was finally close enough that she could make out its shape and her gut went cold when she realized it was human.

Before she could react the shape moved and she found herself pressed flat into her pillows, a heavy body pressing her down. The thick, heaviness in the air made it hard to breathe and she gasped for air. The creature on top of her stopped growling and through the panic racing in her system she picked out that it had stopped growling and almost seemed to… purr.

Hot breath warmed her neck and she curled her fingers into fists, and she strained to find some sort of leverage or wiggle room. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't seem to budge the man pinning her and she tilted her head back to scream when her eyes crashed into unearthly yellow. Her scream died in her throat and she swallowed, hard.

Those were the same yellow eyes from her nightmares.

Slowly, her breathing and heart rate slowed to something almost normal and the weight of the air seemed to ease and no matter how hard she tried she couldn't seem to work up any panic. She realized suddenly that he had to be using magic to calm her down and… what was he going to do. Without the terror to sharpen her senses, all she could feel was a sort of morbid curiosity. Taking a risk – because with or without this unnatural calm she wasn't getting raped – she slowly moved her hands until they rested lightly against the man's back. To her surprise, her fingers brushed up against hair and she kept her fingers from curling into it. If he tried anything, that would be her first weapon…

Kaoru squeaked when the gold eyes suddenly disappeared and a warm mouth pressed against her neck in a soft caress before he started to nuzzle her neck. She froze, hands digging into his back and still nothing – no panic, no terror, just a warm fuzziness that was starting somewhere in her abdomen and bubbling up.

'Okay I can deal with this…' Kaoru thought a little erratically when those lips pressed against the sensitive juncture of her neck and shoulder. 'All I have to do is reach up and yank if I even get a hint of tongue or teeth…' But he made no move to do more than settle against her, arm snaking around her waist while his other hand buried itself in her hair.

It was almost as if he was cuddling…

The low level purr increased in intensity and whatever tension his unnatural calmness had left disappeared as her muscles all but melted. Unease tried to find its footing but was unable to do so and she tried to work through what was happening. The sudden grazing of teeth against her skin jerked her enough that she managed to cut through some of the relaxation and jerked on his hair.

"No!" She said firmly, pushing against that edge that and trying to wiggle out again. "No and get…"

He snarled against her skin and then his teeth were moving against her neck in a way that whitened the world at its edges. Her breath hissed around from between her teeth and without her permission, her lolled to the side when his tongue brushed against her skin and warmth spread like honey through her veins.

His nose nuzzled under her ear and he fairly vibrated with whatever noise his chest was making. Warmth hummed through her blood and she found her eyelashes suddenly weighted down. She tried one last time to find a way to push him off but her entire body felt heavy. Her eyes drifted shut without her permission; his warmth and the even rhythm of his breathing lulled her back to sleep.


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