I don't think I remember how many drafts this has gone through. The only reason this is even close to getting up is because Vashka is amazing and wonderful and has insight like woah. So thank her.

One maybe two chapters left.


This… this was not her garden. Frowning, Kaoru slowly turned in a circle and tried to understand why this place felt so familiar but looked so… different. Blowing out a breath, she slowly moved down the rough stone path, eyes trying to find something that was familiar. Biting down on her lower lip, she decided that this had to be another one of those dreams. Lifting her hands to her face she frowned at the broken and cracked nails. She had spent the afternoon with Himura – no, Kenshin. They had asked her to call him Kenshin – working to fix the damage and refusing to linger over any one plant. They had worked until her back and shoulders ached – she had expected her hair to be standing on end from the buzz and spark in the air.

No, she knew her garden and this wasn't it. So what were her dreams trying to show her this time? Moving gingerly (her feet were bare and the stone was cold) she followed the direction the buzzing in the back of her skull seemed to be pointing her. Her ear drums started to hurt the deeper she moved into the garden. It was cold. Wrapping her arms around herself, she shivered.

The trees were darker here… darker and drained of whatever seemed to have given this garden its vitality. Wincing, she stepped around cracked and broken rocks, curling her toes in the hope to avoid cutting herself. She thought she saw a dark stain or two that looked wet – and the possibility for blood alarmed her. Cursing under her breath she looked up and froze.

In the middle of a decayed and dripping glade was a dead tree. It looked like it had rotted from the inside out and was hanging limply to one side. Dark, black liquid oozed from its bark and there was a large puddle of the thick substance coating the exposed roots. Watching it, she breathed in deeply and starting coughing.

It smelled terrible.

What was this? She had no idea what the tree was and had no idea why the garden was showing her this… was this part of the spell? She was loath to walk any closer to whatever this was. Shivering violently now, she was finding it hard to breathe. Something tugged at the back of her mind and she leaned over to brace her hands on knees, coughing hard enough to rattle her teeth as the air suddenly felt thicker. Reaching up with one hand to press against her pounding temple, she heard the sound of something snarling and then a warm, heavy weight was barreling into her side like linebacker. Kaoru gasped as her body landed in the earth and mulch. Looking up, she was stunned by the violence and temper in his eyes. The imagery blurred around them and that gasping, choking feeling was gone. There was no sign of the dead thing and the air smelled like her garden.


A sharply clawed hand fisted against her scalp and tilted her head back. She sucked in a deep breath just before he lowered his head and caught her lower lip between his too sharp teeth – the force holding her head in place as yellow eyes stared down at her. She hardly dared to breathe as she stared up at him. His lashes lowered till the gold was just a glimmer of color and then his tongue stroked delicately against her bottom lip, rubbing against the bruised flesh. Her hands curled against his back and something low and warm vibrated from his throat. She squeezed her eyes shut as he released her lip; the hand against her throat lightly dragging claws up the side of her neck and then around the side of shoulder, all the while laying gentle, feather soft kisses along the edges of her lips. Breathing raggedly, she scrambled to catch her bearings as he pulled back to study her.

She swallowed heavily at the glittering expression behind his gaze. The hand moving along her spine settled between her shoulder blades and the hand in her hair relaxed into an open palm, cradling instead of holding. As he continued to just watch her, the faint almost sound began buzzing at the edges of her hearing. Relaxing a little as Himura seemed content to just watch her, she opened her mouth to ask him to let her go when the edge of his mouth kicked up.

Before she could say anything the hand against her back flexed, arching her spine upwards to flatten her breasts against his chest – pressing his lips against hers. The kiss was hard, tongue sliding between her lips to find all the places that made her shiver. A low purr vibrated between them and she clutched at the muscles along his shoulders and back, leg curling around the back of his knees as she hung in his arms.

Kaoru couldn't breathe as his tongue swept through her mouth – claiming. Could hardly think as claws scraped down her spine, fingers digging into back of her thigh as he ground their hips together; heat washed through her blood in a wave and sparks flickered across the back of her closed lids. Gasping when his mouth released hers, she dug her hands into the muscle in his back and gasp as his teeth caught her ear.

As he lowered them both to earth, her foot dug into the mulch; sinking ankle deep. Startled, she lowered her eyes, watching as the ground crawled up her calf. Gasping in shock, she twisted to watch as it pulled at Himura, tugging him as well. Panic crawled into her throat and even the low, vibrating noise building in his chest didn't help as she was tugged further into the rose garden. She couldn't wiggle away, tangled around and with Himura. Lifting terrified eyes to his – the garden was trying to swallow her – she was stunned at the utter need in his eyes as he gazed down at her. She swallowed around the knot in her throat and watched him, heart hammering in her ears. The expression darkened and he lowered his head to her throat… and bit down hard enough to break skin.

Kaoru snapped straight into a sitting position and automatically scrambled back against the headboard, fingers clutching a pillow with a white knuckled grip as she frantically looked around the room, squinting to see any sign of Himura. When it was clear she was alone she swallowed hard and shook with reaction.

The dream had been… Why had she, why had he… running shaking fingers through her bangs, she lowered her hand to the place where she vividly remembered his teeth sinking into her skin. Sharp, fanged teeth that had no resemblance to her own; the skin felt smooth and unmarked and she wrapped her arms around herself.

If he wasn't here where was he? Throwing her legs over the side of the bed and she all but staggered to the window. The strange sky was the same terrible color as always and she wished she knew if it was day or not. It was so hard to tell. Eyes scanning the dully colored garden, she bit her lip hard enough to bleed.

Crouching among the flowers, head back, barefoot and wild was Himura – staring at her as if he could cover the distance between them in but a moment if she gave the wrong signal. Swallowing she took careful steps back until she couldn't see him anymore. Sitting down on the floor, she curled her knees to her chest and shivered.

Her legs smelled like earth and her head was starting to pound. But there hadn't been any sign of the bite mark. Reaching up, she folded her hand over her neck and swallowed. She wished she knew what was causing the dreams and who was sending them. Yukishiro? She doubted it. That woman would probably just show her images of her own death – but that tree… that oozing, infected tree had been something else. Something old. And in her dream she had thought that the garden was trying to talk to her. Trembling – because any chance of winning depended on her ability to know – she curled on her side and swallowed back her tears.

As soon as she got a grip on herself she was going right back to the library and she was going to find some answers. She had to.


Hajime Saitoh wasn't his only name.

It was the one truth Misao had been able to dig up on the overly cranky mage, but it hadn't told her much besides the fact that it gave him a way to hide. Magic clung to the name Saitoh but whatever his other name was… One of her Aunts had admitted that he worked for the Council but for years Misao had simply assumed he was around to make sure that none of the teachers blew up one of their more irritating students in an attempt to save their sanity. But after two days of digging through the town's history and the dirty secrets of the Himura family, she had turned her eyes back to the Council. It was obvious that they were hiding something and even more obvious once you stopped looking at the surface that Saitoh was involved.

"What are you doing here?" Misao demanded, rising to her feet and putting herself between Saitoh and the doctor. She needed answers and she wasn't going to let the Council's lap dog –even if it was more of a rabid wolf – get in her way.

"I could ask you same thing, Makimachi. You've been fooling around with magic you have no understanding of."

Misao lifted her chin. "If you want information then go ahead and charge me."

He pulled out a cigarette and lit it. "You're clan won't be able to help you if you have broken mage laws."

"Prove it." She suggested, arms crossed.

"Saitoh, it has been a while."

Misao cut her eyes back and forth between them and scowled. "You two know each other?"

"We've met."

Megumi lifted her chin. "I told her the same thing I told you. I cannot talk about it. I'm bound too close to what happened and it might destroy everything."

"At this point, enough damage has been done. I don't see how discussing your idiocy would change anything."

Misao gave the golden eyed man one more scathing look before settling into a more comfortable position and staring at Megumi. "He said you could now, so talk."

Megumi glared at them both and Misao decided to help her out a little.

"So how exactly did Himura get stuck with this curse in the first place?" Misao asked. "I'm no slouch at magical theory and my history with it tells me that this sort of power takes generations to build but to actually set it…"

"That is my fault," Megumi murmured, her voice strained. "Most of this is my fault."

Misao gave her a searching look. "If you're centuries old you really need to share your beauty secrets."

Saitoh breathed out a lungful of smoke. "The healer is not responsible for creating the spell although she did set it off."


Megumi clasped her hands together and stared at her fingers for a long moment. "Kenshin saved me. In the process, he stepped outside of the protections that should have kept him safe from the curse just long enough to let it attach. That would have been the end of it but… there was an attempt to remove it that went badly."

Misao stared at her and decided that there were details missing. Big ones. Sighing, she decided she would just break into the Council's files later. She didn't have time to be picky right now.

"So you just thought you could break a curse that had been building power for two centuries?"

Megumi ran her fingers through her hair in frustration. "I didn't know it had been that long… or at least… there was some speculation of course but no one really understood…"

Misao made a disgusted noise and turned to face Saitoh. "And your beloved council just let it sit there, festering? On a family that is protecting a node?"

"The Himura family has lost some of its… popularity over the years." Saitoh dragged in a lungful of cigarette. "At the time there were more pressing matters."

"Yes. I can see that. Brilliant foresight."

Saitoh shrugged. "The protections would have held if that idiot hadn't overstepped his ability. He has no one to blame but himself… and the idiots he chooses to surround himself with."

"Notably, you're among those."

"I am merely here at the Council's bidding. If Himura is let loose he will be… put down."

Misao bared her teeth at him and turned back to Megumi. The doctor's eyes were glittering and she flicked her hair over her shoulder.

"The Council is full of cowards."

Saitoh drop his cigarette and ground it into the floor with his boot. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out another one. Misao made a face.

"Right. Then we'll just make sure Himura is okay. I need to know what you did to the garden, Megumi."

She blinked at her. "Why?"

Misao leaned back, tilting one brow upward. "Because we need to know what we're working with. If this Yukishiro wants to kill you, it's for a reason and we need to figure that out. So start talking."

Megumi let out a long breath and settled in her chair, eyes unfocused. "What do you know about nodes?"

"On a scale of one to ten I'm sitting on about an eight."

Saitoh snorted and Misao ignored him.

"I know that Himura's family is supposedly guarding one, I know that Kenshin isn't really a mage per se and I know that transferring the node over to someone else would make a real big mess. Kind of like the one we currently have on our hands so maybe you could talk more and ask questions later?"

Megumi looked irritated but complied. "Node magic works differently. I don't believe we need to discuss the particulars here. Have you heard of the Labyrinth?"

"Greek stuff. Old legends. Fairly boring. Why?"

"Because the reason the Labyrinth was so difficult to defeat was because it was the manifestation of a node." When Misao didn't do anything, she sighed. "Himura's estate is a manifestation of a node and it wants to keep him. What I tried to do was shift the curse from directly attacking Himura to the garden itself."

"Wait, wait… what?"

Megumi pursed her lips for a moment before sighing. "The curse is linked to Himura's bloodline. Because of their direct affiliation with the node, it has deliberately been blocking them from coming to any magical harm. That is what allowed the curse to build up and change over the years to what it is now… information we did not have at the time."

Misao waved her hands. "I got that. What did you mean by redirecting?"

"What she attempted to do was force several centuries worth of buildup to change directions for its intent. By forcing the curse to accept the garden instead of Himura, the node would have taken the full brunt of the curse instead of Himura himself."

Misao stared at her for several long minutes. "That… seems like a fairly bad idea. Most magical power signatures do not respond well to this sort of curse! You could have completely disrupted the node and destroyed the magic in this part of the country for years!"

Saitoh grunted. "It was amazingly stupid."

Megumi snarled. "We didn't have all the information the Council was just sitting on, did we, Saitoh?"

He blew out a smoke ring. "Your request was processing."

"It was killing him!"

Misao jumped to her feet. "Hey, settle down. Fighting isn't going to solve anything." She narrowed her eyes at Saitoh. "You keep deliberately poking at her and I'm going to turn you into something fluffy."

"Try it."

She bared her teeth and turned back to Megumi. "What went wrong?"

"I don't know." Megumi suddenly looked tired. "Based on all the information we had… nothing should have gone wrong. Even Shinomori… I suppose it doesn't matter now."

Misao ran both hands through her bangs and sighed heavily. "Okay. What type of defensive wards did you use to filter out the curse and other entities that might have screwed with the spell?"

Megumi's expression went blank. Misao groaned.

"You attempted that level of magic and you didn't filter outside influences out?"

"Of course we did. I just didn't…" she looked frustrated. "We didn't expect the garden to take control of the spell when it started to go wrong."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I told you, its old magic; Labyrinth walls moved. On their own. When the spell started to slip the garden… grabbed it. Except it wasn't a clean transfer because I didn't know what it was doing…" she braced her elbows on the table and rubbed her forehead. "It tied Himura's sanity to it."

Misao sat down and seriously considered beating her head against the table in frustration. This was like pulling teeth without the benefit of pliers! Digging her knuckles into her eyes, she gave herself a moment to considering breaking something before taking a deep breath and starting over.

"Okay. Let me get this straight. Himura's blood line is cursed. Himura activated the curse when he over extended his families natural defenses from the node to protect you. Said curse started to kill him. You attempted to redirect the curse because you couldn't flat out remove it for reasons that you have not yet explained, but I can guess at. Said node/garden entity did not approve of this plan. Because while it is old magic, you seemed to have failed to take it into account and grabbed the magic you were using and redirected it, thus tying Himura's mental stability/whatever to the garden."

Megumi nodded silently.

"Two questions then: One, why the hell did it grab his mind and two, what part of all this did that?" She pointed in the direction of the empty space the Mansion was once a part of.

"Because every garden needs a Minotaur."

Misao jerked her head around and gawked at Saitoh. "Himura is a Minotaur? 'Eat young, beautiful, virginal sacrifices' type Minotaur?"

Megumi slammed her hands onto the table. "That is not what this is!"

Saitoh ignored her. "The node chose the most direct path to protecting the Himura line. By choosing to tie his mental state to its garden it allowed Himura to develop a set of impressive instincts that will keep the node safe as long as he is living. I suppose in a way it did what you need it to do. It saved his life. The rest is negotiable."

Misao curled her fingers into fists. "Then why does it need Kaoru?"

"Himura must have children at some point to protect the line."

Megumi lunged to her feet. "You're twisting things for your own purposes!"

Misao crossed her arms and stared at the doctor. "You sent my best friend back into a garden to be raped by something that has the mentality of a Minotaur?"

"He isn't…" Megumi looked frustrated. "Yes, the garden will do anything to protect itself and the Himura family, but it would not allow Himura to lose all control if it can help it. It cannot risk his death or his complete insanity but it has apparently chosen insanity over death. But if Himura loses completely control then the Garden will be destroyed. He will not be able to maintain his control on the garden or the node – which is what Yukishiro wants. If she can destabilize Kenshin enough, then neither the node nor Kenshin will be able to hold each other. And if she can't kill Himura with the curse then she will do everything she can to help the Council kill him."

"But why does it need Kaoru!"

"I don't know! It might have had something to do with the fact that the spell was tied to a single rose bush. The garden was hiding it but… something like that needs care. I don't know why it decided Kaoru was the one to help it, I just know it did. I couldn't…" her hands balled into fists. "It stopped the spell from eating at the rest of him and the garden was thriving under her hands and she isn't even tied to the node."

"What went wrong?"

Megumi sat back down as if all the strength had left her knees. "For this type of reaction… the only explanation is that Yukishiro found the rose and destroyed it. It means that the curse is fully activated now and whatever world they are in will eat away at itself until there is nothing left of the garden or Kenshin… leaving behind un-stabilized node magic that Yukishiro will try to claim for herself."

Misao froze. "What does that mean?"

Saitoh snorted. "It means that your friend is dead and it's only a matter of time before Himura loses the node."

Misao stared at him with a stricken face before her mouth hardened. "No."

Smoke blew through the air. "No?"

"If Kaoru was dead and Himura was losing control of the node, then why attack Megumi? Why not just take the mansion and the garden and prove you were in control?" She shook her head. "No, Kaoru is still alive which means that this Yukishiro bitch hasn't won yet."

"Perhaps you are not useless after all."

Misao snorted. "The irony; you work for the Council which equals utter uselessness. We wouldn't even be in this mess if they did their damn jobs."

"Such talk could be considered treason."

Misao rolled her eyes and turned her back to him deliberately. "So why does Yukishiro want you dead."

Megumi looked startled. "What?"

Misao sighed. "Something about you is annoying her enough to split her resources. Why?"

"I… when Himura saved me, he split his protections too far."

"You've said that."

Megumi's flat stare was hostile. "Then listen. He split his protections; that means that the garden is still trying to protect me. Perhaps having that protection for herself will allow her a better chance to gain control of the node when Himura dies."

Misao frowned. "Maybe… but that doesn't feel right."

"Basing your assumptions of your feelings?" Saitoh asked.

"Oh shut up. I don't see you volunteering any information."

"I don't have to. The doctor knows exactly why Yukishiro sent her mad dog after her."

Misao leaned forward, her temper starting to fray. "Did I not make myself clear earlier with the promise of a very painful, magical death if you did not tell me the truth?"

Her long fingered hands tightened into fists. "I have a piece of his garden."

"What do you mean that you have a piece of his garden?"

"What did you think was growing on the side of my home?"

"Normal, non-magical roses!" Misao snapped. "What sort of risk were you taking? Do you have any idea?"

"I didn't plant them. I told you, the magic has a mind of its own!"

"I am getting sick and tired of everyone blaming the magic for their own stupid!"

"First smart thing you've said all day." Saitoh said as he ground out the butt of his second cigarette under his heel.

Misao spun around and shoved a finger at him. "If you know something then say it now or so help me I'm going to write a formal, official complaint of abuse of power against a mage clan and get it on your record."

Saitoh smile was more teeth than anything else. "That will be fairly difficult since I am no longer employed by the council."


Misao leapt to her feet, eyes narrowed. "You've been lying!"

He snorted. "Have I?"

She shoved a finger at him. "You said, and I quote "I'm here at the Council's bidding." And now you say you don't work for them anymore! That's enough to get you into serious oath breaking trouble!"

He stared at her with glittering eyes. "Try it."

Megumi frowned at him. "Are you saying they fired you?"

He snorted. "Those bumbling idiots have… no. I was not fired."

"Then why are you here?"

Saitoh was silent for several moments before he shrugged. "You are not the only one tied to old oaths, Megumi. As I have said, if Himura breaks free from his bindings and begins to attack I will put him down. By leaving the Council's influence it simply allows me to do so in the manner that I wish."

"He is not an animal!"

Misao scowled. "What do you mean, in the manner that you wish? Why does the Council want Himura dead?"

Megumi looked stricken. "They wouldn't dare attack someone in control of a node!"

Misao wondered if just killing them both would solve so many of her problems. "We don't have time to worry about this right now…" She pinned Saitoh with her eyes. "Are you actively attempting to sabotage this investigation?"


"Swear it on your magic or get out."

Looking amused, he gave a slightly mocking bow. "I swear by my oaths and my magic that I mean this investigation no harm."

"That will have to do."

Picking up her jacket, she spun around and headed for the door.

"Where are you going?"

Misao arched a brow at both of them. "Clearly if you have a piece of Himura's garden in your backyard then we should go check it out. Maybe it will tell us something."


The roses had been all been destroyed. Frowning, Misao let Megumi walk through the still obvious wards before following. Saitoh went last. To Misao's surprise, the chain-smoker didn't even reach for his pack of cigarettes, instead he looked around the small lot and managed to look as perturbed Misao was certain as anyone had seen him. So she wasn't the only one to have missed the obvious here.

"He destroyed your roses."

"It appears so."

Saitoh walked forward and stared at the ground. "The white-haired Yukishiro was here?"

"I sort of kept him from disemboweling the good doctor here." Misao said mildly. "But I thought you knew that."

Saitoh reached for something and then stopped himself, straightening as he looked around. "He should not have had access to this place."

"His sister has more control than we first believed." Megumi said bitterly, crouching to touch a ruined rose petal, something tense along her mouth.

"Maybe," Misao agreed reluctantly, walking along the path. There was a… heaviness to the air here that there hadn't been before. "But why destroy the flowers?"

Megumi was silent, fingers brushing along more of the broken blooms. "The flowers will know when the battle between them starts – or if he is close to breaking the spell."

"If Kaoru is close to breaking the spell," Misao corrected. "But why does that matter… it's not like you can do anything from this side."

Saitoh sighed and said in a voice heavy with intent. "The garden already has Kamiya's blood."

Misao jerked up. "What does that mean?"

"It means…" Megumi started and then stopped. "I don't know what it means but it's connected somehow to this little piece away from the estate. I think."

"You think?" Misao scowled. "I really don't think either of you are taking my threats seriously here. When I say that I want to know everything, I mean everything."

"There is a lot I am unaware of, Misao, since I can no longer step foot onto the estate grounds. I am not even sure why this bit has been following me around." Megumi said.

"Probably to keep you from getting killed by your stupidity," Misao snapped before taking a deep breath. "I guess it doesn't matter. At least I gave her a ward."

Megumi sneered at her. "You think a ward will help when generations of a blood feud are finally coming to a head?"

Misao shrugged. "I have no idea – magic tends to do what it wants, after all. You of all people should know that. I just gift it with a little direction sometimes. We'll see what it does."

"Is that so?"

Sticking her tongue out, she squatted down and studied a mostly ruined flower. She thought it had moved but there was nothing underneath it. "I still think there was a reason that Enishi did this."

"You mean besides the fact that he is insane."

"Even insanity has reasons." Misao muttered, poking at the flower again when it almost seemed to wiggle. Hot sparks pressed against her finger and she yelped, falling on her ass.

"What the…"

Breaking free of the ground was a flower-vine and it curled upwards, a single pale, creamy white flower opening to full bloom. Staring at it in surprise, Misao's heart started to hammer when she heard the faint, irritated grumblings of her best friend.



He'd been watching her all day and it was starting to… well, he was already under her skin. Blowing her bangs out of her eye, she cut a flat stare in his direction. Heavy lidded, intent yellow eyes stared back, completely unabashed that she had caught him again and continued to watch. Working to keep a completely illogical blush from creeping up her neck, she twisted back around and tried to decide what he wanted now.

It didn't help that she kept remembering his teeth pressed against her throat and the feel of his mouth against hers. For someone mostly reacting on animalistic tendencies he could really kiss. Feeling her cheeks start to burn as he eyes seared a hole in her back, she shoved her fingers back into their work and forced herself to think about something else.

She wondered what Misao was doing. The thought of her friend hurt, a sharp jagged pain and she swallowed several times, catching control of emotions she was fairly sure stemmed from a lack of sleep. Brushing dirt covered hands against her knees, she sighed heavily. She knew what Misao was doing. She was tearing the libraries apart and black mailing anyone and everyone she had dirt on for some sort of help in this situation.

Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, she turned to find Kenshin had gone very still, his gaze slightly unfocused as he looked at something internally. Then something bloomed on his face that she couldn't read and then bright yellow was locked onto her and she couldn't breathe. Then he was moving forward in the half-crouching glide that made up his walk that managed to be graceful and slightly awkward before he was sitting right next to her, nudging her shoulder with his. She frowned at him.

"No. I have work to do."

Another, more insistent push and a faint growl.

"I said no."

Sitting back he watched from under dark lashes and then moved too fast for her stop, sliding his shoulder into her gut and lifting her off her feet. Gasping for air as he moved them along the path at a pace quicker than balancing her should have allowed, she sputtered for air when he finally set her down.

"Kenshin! What are you doing?" She stood up, brushing mulch off her butt and glared at him.

A faint smile curled the edges of his lips and his eyes moved over her shoulder to the rose that was leaning forward, inches from her face.


The faint, slightly disembodied voice of Misao took the strength from her knees. Kaoru sank to the earth and stared at the pale, white flower in front of her that the voice of her best friend had echoed quite clearly from. She stared at it, ignoring the way claws tangled in her hair.


There was silence.

"Holy shit, what is this? Some sort of rose cell phone? Magical walkie-talkie? I mean, who would have thought something like this was possible… dammit, is this why he… ouch, stop it!" There was a snarl and two other voices and then Misao was back.

"Are you alright?"

Tears pooled in her eyes and she swallowed before she could talk. "I'm alive but we're under some sort of magical siege here and… everyone is disappearing."

"Disappearing?" This time the voice was male and one Kaoru did not recognize. There was a faint vibration from Kenshin that might have been a snarl.

"I'm the only beside Kenshin who isn't… mostly transparent."

Again that pause.

"Um, who the hell is cooking?"

Kaoru rubbed her eyes and leaned forward, a faint smile curling her lips at that comment. "What's going on there?"

"Oh lots of stuff I can't apparently tell you about or risk damaging your chances of getting out. But I'm working on a plan, okay? You're not fighting this alone and… damn; the flower is starting to wilt. Listen, stay live, you hear me? Stay…"

Kaoru reached out and touched the flower as it almost seemed to sag, spent. Closing her eyes she struggled with a torrent of emotion that surged in her chest and throat. Before she could decide exactly how she was going to deal with this, Kenshin gave a faint sigh and slid boneless next to her and looked gray. Alarmed she reached out and touched his face, voice high as she said his name.

He didn't open his eyes.


Still no response and she bit her lip, looking around. Pulling her hand away from his face, she stilled the sudden rushing of wind, female laughter taunting the edge of her senses. Tomoe. She cursed at the timing. She was hunting them and Kenshin was gray faced and apparently exhausted which meant…

Kaoru stared at him. "You… did that?"

Lashes fluttered just a little and she curled her fists together, trying to understand. He… he had done something so she could talk to Misao. So she wasn't alone. How had he known that she needed that? And now they vulnerable because… because he was too pale and drained and that bitch Yukishiro was going to kill him. He had risked himself for her.

Tilting her head, she studied the landscape and pressed one hand into the earth and one hand curled along Kenshin's wrist. Something hummed in the air and a sensation like small ants crawling all over her body made her shiver – and then the air shimmered and for a moment it seemed to hang and then it faded away.

And for some reason she felt safe. Taking a deep breath, she determinedly ignored the growing thunder as Tomoe hunted and very carefully threaded her fingers through Kenshin's. His eyes opened a glimmer before shutting again and his long hand curled around hers. Swallowing heavily, she stared at their hands.

He looked so comfortable like that – his fingers linked to hers, close enough that his shoulder could brush her leg. Eyes shut, breathing low and deep he almost seemed… normal. Relaxed. But whatever he had done had taken a great deal out of him. Swallowing, she traced the lines of his knuckles with her free hand and came to a decision.

Reaching out, she brushed his hair out of his eyes and his eyes opened. "Thank you."

Hesitating under that brilliant, exhausted gaze she took a deep breath before leaning over and brushing her mouth along his. His lips were slightly chapped and when she pulled back, he had gone perfectly, completely still. She wasn't even sure he was breathing. Brows tucking together, she frowned at the unnatural stillness but before she could ask, there was a sensation like a hammer slamming into her chest and she fell backwards. Before she could recover there was a sound like thunder hammering through her ears and the sudden screams and rushing of the garden was buzzing along her nerves like a thousand bee stings; just before it overwhelmed her and her world edged into darkness yellow, yellow eyes caught and held her gaze.

And then everything faded away.

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