Solstice (M-rated version)

A/N: This has its origins in an odd dream I had. I have no other excuses. And to my dismay, the flow of the story is likely choppy, and the storyline isn't at all as smooth as I would have wished for. Things might get confusing. But nonetheless, this is what I came out with.

Warnings: rated for sexual content.

A gentle breeze blew, warm and balmy with the first hints of the approaching summer, the rich scents of the season mixing with the sweet aroma of the blossoming lilac. He inhaled deeply from the rush of tepid air, a smile curling his lips. He closed his eyes as he knelt down and stretched out upon the grass, releasing a soft sigh of content.

Nothing like a good nap in the late afternoon shadow.

As he finally opened his eyes once more, blinking away the fog of drowsiness, he found himself awash in the warm, vermillion glow radiating from the descending sun. It was time to head home.

The sun had begun to set lower, and the shadows danced around him in an unknown, peaceful memory. As he passed through the foliage, through a grove of willows, there was the occasional affectionate brush of a low-hanging branch against his cheek or arm. Faint giggles filled the air and he smiled; the dryads were in good spirits on this night. There were faint whispers of his name, a gentle blowing of breeze, older, wizened tones of the elder sylphs.

Yahiko, they called him, and so he had been known since birth. Half-human, half-Fey, he was son of earth and forest. He came from his Father, flesh of his flesh, and the forest's residents respected and adored him for it.

"Ya'hi!"

A grin lit up his face as the cheerful call sounded, followed by a blur of laughter and color, and his arms were soon filled with giggling little girl. "Ya'hi."

Yahiko laughed softly, nuzzling against ebony hair as joyful blue eyes looked up at him adoringly. "Just what have you been up to, Kaori?"

The two-year-old giggled, bouncing in his arms excitedly. "Aya and I made flower chains. Wanna see, Ya'hi?"

"I'd love to." Setting the girl to his feet, a little hand grasped his as he was tugged into a large clearing. In its center was a fire-pit, lit up with only a small flame. There were a few lean-to shelters off to one side, a handful of hammocks scattered around the tree trunks surrounding them. If he looked up, Yahiko knew he would see their home, their real home, high above the ground, sheltered among the trees, a vast network of rooms and stairs molded through the Father's will and tree spirits' generosity. Father provided well for them, but in these warmer months, they tended to prefer keeping to the ground.

Swinging playfully from one of the rope ladders was Kaori's twin, flowers braided into long, violet hair, cerulean eyes twinkling at him shyly. "Hi, Ya-he-ko," she whispered, drawing out each syllable of his name.

"Hello, Aya, love." He leaned down to her and she pecked his cheek, looking up at him demurely through thick lashes.

"Did you two get something to eat?"

Kaori's dark head bobbed as she nodded. "Uh-huh. Mother made us dinner before she left."

Yahiko nodded, picking them both up with ease. "Then it's time for sleep, little ones. The dark won't last long this night."

As he settled the two together into a hammock, he let his eyes wander over their home. Their parents had little to worry about leaving any of their children alone. Father was master here; the forest was their home, and its people would never let harm come to them. But with dark setting in on a solstice night, it would reassure Yahiko to have all his siblings accounted for. That included his little brothers.

Drifting back out of his thoughts, he spotted a tuft of silver hair, sticking up from another of the hammocks. Approaching, he found Koshijiro in all his platinum-headed glory, softly snoring with an arm thrown over his face, nose wrinkling up as Yahiko shook his shoulder.

Golden eyes fluttered open, staring up at him quizzically. "Wha?"

"Where's Kenji?" While Koshijiro at eight was capable of taking care of himself, the absence of Kenji, six, unsettled him a little.

Koshijiro's head shot up, looking around in alarm. "Um…"

Yahiko groaned, rubbing a hand over his face. "Koshijiro, you were supposed to watch him while I went for meditation. It's the Solstice; Father and Mother can't be bothered."

The younger boy looked at him sheepishly. "I'm sorry, Yahiko."

Yahiko shook his head, holding up a hand. "Stay here with the girls. I'll go look for him."

And with a sudden rush of wind, he was gone.

----

The day a young village girl by the name of Kaoru, born from simple and humble beginnings, turned sixteen, her life changed forever.

Her village had been only one of many that made their home along the borders of the great Western Forest. There was never a child born that didn't grow up knowing the stories and warnings of the elders of what resided in the forest. They were powerful beings, magical beings, beings that were to be feared.

The forest ruled their livelihood. Or rather, it was the being that ruled the forest that determined their survival. The Forest Spirit, the Great Guardian; with his pleasure, spring brought rains, the summer would be mild, and autumn's harvests would be bountiful. Displease him, droughts would plague the summer, and harvest-time would be poor.

To ensure the fertility of their land, they offered the fertility of a young, female body. Her sixteenth birthday, Kaoru became that offering. She had been afraid, but she had accepted her fate for the sake of her people. There were her aunts and uncles, her cousins; her brother Sanoske and his wife Megumi, their two children; their adopted sisters Tae and Tsubame. All of their lives depended on Kaoru's sacrifice. It was simple enough. For the past thirty years, each girl was returned to the outskirts of her village the morning after the solstice; dazed and disoriented, but unharmed, though sans their virginity (if still applicable) and memory of the night before. Kaoru was almost certain she would come out of her experience unscathed.

But then she met the Guardian himself.

…Kenshin…

And she never returned to the village.

Following tradition, she had been escorted, in the early evening, to the border between the village's lands and the forest. Her entourage had included most of married women, two additional of the 'untouched' in the form of her sisters, the village chief, an elder, and a wise man. Her sisters had smothered her with hugs, kisses and tears; Sanoske, like most of the men, had stayed behind, but Megumi had whispered his message into her ear, giving her a parting embrace.

The wise man, a wizened, sour-faced elderly man, did the proper blessings, anointing her forehead with sleek oil made of one of the nuts grown in the area. A couple of matrons fussed over her, adjusting the simple white shift she was wearing, the crown of lavender they had adorned her with, pinching cheeks already flushed red from the vigorous scrubbing they had given her in the ritualistic cleansing.

They had left her alone, with a meager meal consisting of a small loaf of bread and cheese, and a half-flagon of wine. She could not bring herself to eat, her stomach twisted and knotted as apprehensive and nerves enveloped her entire being.

As the sun began to set, and with a sudden rustle in the trees, she whipped her head around to catch her first glimpse of him. The Great Guardian himself.

She had never seen anyone like him. He wore clothing made of a strange, shimmering material she had never seen before, a sleeveless garment that draped over one shoulder and wrapped around his torso, cutting off just above the knees, held together by a wide belt. They fit well to his muscular body, snugly to the broad expanse of his shoulders and back. Falling down to his shoulders was a tangle of rich curls of fiery red, framing an exquisitely handsome face. Set in his beautiful features were warm, liquid eyes, amber in color.

Over the years since she had hit puberty she had become accustomed to the hard, lustful stares of the village men that came her way, disgusted as she was by it. But as they stared at one another…she knew this was something completely different…

Eyes the color of gold, hard as the gem itself, seemed to warm and even soften as their gaze found her and lingered. Under the searching stare, he was unguarded, his face open. Simultaneously yearning and disbelieving, even a little wistful, it was a strange expression that left her curious.

The first thing she began to notice was that the interest in his eyes was different from other men she had known. He was appreciative instead of feral; wanting, yes, but not vulgar or lusting, as if wanting to devour and defile her. Instead, his was a quiet longing, one she could feel as if it was as tangible as a physical caress. And she was shocked when elements of that same longing began to rise up in her.

She shyly ducked her head down. There was a soft padding against the grass as he lightly leapt from the tree he had been perched in, and she determinedly raised her eyes to meet his once more.

A moment frozen in time.

It was like a sudden rush of fresh air, a stirring in her soul. A first breath of springtime after the sharp cold of a long winter. Hair and skin like fire and honey, the whole of him seeming to shine like sunshine. Those golden eyes were life itself, power, majesty, and tenderness all in one.

This is was everything she had been waiting for, the culmination of her sixteen years of life.

"What's your name?" she whispered.

"Kenshin," was his reply, his tone equally as soft. He drew himself up onto his feet, approaching her with fluid, feline grace. He held out his hand to her and she hesitantly took it. His gaze became tender as he drew her closer to him, reverently kissing her palm.

"Will you come with me?"

She nodded and he smiled; before she knew it, she was behind him, her arms curving around his neck with the surprise of the sudden movement. "Hold on tight, little one." Kaoru obeyed, tucking herself against his back as they suddenly leapt into the trees, leaving the human world far behind.

As they went, she gave into to a reckless impulse, gently pressing an open-mouthed kiss against the nape of his neck. In any other time, she would have been mortified by her audacity, but something different had taken over her this night, as if she was a stranger in her own skin. But at the same time, she felt more like her real self than she had ever felt in her life. He tasted of warmth and sunlight and her senses were overwhelmed by the sensation of his body, muscle and smooth skin rippling and gliding beneath her, and the strong, masculine scent mixed with odor of sandalwood, rain and earth.

Her efforts were rewards when a low rumble sounded through him, almost like a purr, the silken sound sending a delighted shiver down her spine.

When they finally came to a stop and he let her down from his back, she found they had come to a small glen. So beautiful, it took her breath away.

Ancient, gargantuan trees towered above them, proud and beautiful in their majesty. Thick foliage in tangled green grew from their old, gnarled limbs, forming a shaded canopy that shielded them from the lingering rays of the descending sunset. Cast down were shadows of cobalt and gray, playing across the forest floor. That floor was carpeted in soft, emerald green, spotted with moss and clovers and decomposing leaves.

The sweltering heat of the summer bogged down on them, clinging to their skin in a dewy dampness, and the fireflies danced around the tall grasses as they stood together beneath the night skies with only the rising stars and the lightning bugs as their witnesses.

As she looked closer, she came to the realization that those fireflies were not fireflies after all. The winking lights in the small forms were the jewel-toned shimmer they naturally exuded, and the buzzing she thought she had heard was instead a low, melodious humming.

Faeries.

She cast a quizzical look toward Kenshin and he smiled, holding out a finger. A mischievous young faerie briefly landed on his hand, making a small tut-tut-tut sound before flying off to join her sisters.

"They're here to celebrate," he quietly told her, "They're hoping this might be the night I find my Lady."

A pair of faeries fluttered around Kaoru, playfully tugging on her hair. She giggled, unable to stop herself. She watched as another of the ethereal little beings approached her, surprising her in being clearly male, giving her a gallant bow before tucking a fresh blossom behind her ear.

"The young lord," Kenshin informed her, "He's paying his respect."

Kaoru smiled gently, giving the little lord's wings an affectionate caress. "Thank you."

She twirled the flower between her fingers, breathing in its sweet, subtle fragrance. She smiled at her own lord, her eyes glittering with delight. She held her hand out to him and he grasped it, kissing her fingers before letting her go. She cocked her head, curious at his withdrawal. "Kenshin?"

"A thousand years, young one. A thousand years since my people chose to settle here, since my father emerged from his own realm to get foot on this earth." He looked up at her, shadow falling over his face and veiling his eyes. "My sire, Hiko, was the first Guardian of this land. Two hundred years ago…he chose to hand that mantle over to me.

Every summer for a hundred years, your people have offered one of their daughters to me. And every year, I join as one with that daughter to insure the strength and the purity of the lands I protect. But every year I have been disappointed."

Kenshin cupped her cheek, his expression sad. "There is magic on a solstice night, magic and passion cemented by my welcoming into the body of a daughter of the earth, but never….never, my young one, have I ever been welcomed into her heart."

He let his hand drop, taking a step back. "Therein lies your choice, dear one. When you become one with me, will you open yourself completely, or do you wish to be set free when morning comes?"

Warm, soft arms slipped around his neck, drawing his head down for Kaoru to rest her forehead against his. "There may be magic in the night, my guardian, but it will only make it all the sweeter with the dawn."

He deeply inhaled. Slowly let it out. Let his eyes open. Framed her face in his hands. Whispered to her, "My sweet girl, do you trust me?"

"I do," she did not hesitate for a moment in her response.

Slowly, gently, with the utmost care, he kissed her.

Kaoru trembled against him and Kenshin's arms encircled her, holding her in a loose embrace she could break away from with ease if she so chose. But it was Kaoru who initiated the next kiss, firmer and more insistent than his own.

It was an unpracticed ardor she radiated, but one he intended to cultivate, as he splayed his hands against her back to pull her flush against him, responding with such a soft passion no other woman had stirred in him before.

And now, here she stood, enclosed in his strong arms, locked in a kiss more intense and passionate than anything she had ever experienced. The more the kiss deepened, the dizzier she became, and it became prudent for them to break away. He lifted his head from her, reveling in the soft whimper of loss she gave as they pulled away. Her eyes were closed, her mouth wet and swollen with their passion.

"Kaoru," he whispered, nuzzling against her temple. He pressed another kiss to her brow and sapphire-blue eyes fluttered open, reflecting the soft smile she gave him. She sighed contently, kissing his chin as he leaned his forehead against hers.

"Are you alright?" he whispered tenderly, brushing fingers down her cheek.

"Yes." She tilted her head up, her gaze eyes moist and shining in the faint moonlight as she smiled at him. "Kenshin," she wrapped her arms around his neck, rising up on her tiptoes to meet him, "Kiss me again."

And he did.

He was gentle- oh, so gentle.

As they parted once more, he left her wonderfully breathless, and she could not help the shy, delighted smile that broke out over her face. They shared again and again quick, light kisses before he trailed his lips to her neck. Her eyes fluttered closed, lips parting in breathless pleasure. He smiled against her skin, angling his head to take his explorations lower, lightly tracing along her collarbone, receiving a shiver of sensuality in reply. "Are you certain?"

"Never more so," came her answer, as she drew her head up to kiss him again, and from that point on, there was no need for words. He wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her flush up against his body, chest to groin. With a question in his eyes and a nod on her part, he gently lowered her to the ground, carefully leaning over her body. The soft, cool mixture of moss and grass cushioned her body as she came laid beneath him. Her lips pressed to his, tangling her fingers through the thick crimson of his hair.

Her hands glided down his back to feel the ripple of hard muscles beneath his tunic, delighting in the delicious warmth pooling through the thin fabric, and his hands traced the curves of her body, fingers lightly brushing over hips and thighs as he took in the feel of her.

He took his explorations downward, nose brushing against the swell of her breasts. He drew the straps of her shift down so not to hinder his intentions as his head lowered once more, his mouth closing over one breast.

There was a hot, tight feeling in her stomach, building up to a strange wetness pooling between her legs. The aching, wanting, grew more and more, as she fell under the spell of his ministrations. He lightly suckled her breast as his hand molded to the other, her sharp cry of his name rendering a stab of heat through his body. He attended to the taut flesh beneath teeth and tongue, paying homage to its twin in the same matter. She arched into him, hips aligning with his, and his head fell back.

She eyed him curiously, murmuring with pleasure as he pressed closer to her, a hard prodding of his arousal, the poorly disguised heat between them. With a throaty growl, he rocked against her, her skin flushing prominently as she moved against him with a new sense of need. Looking to her eyes for silent permission, he moved the flowing fabric of the shift down, giving himself to revelry in the smooth, creamy skin of her abdomen, the soft curve of her hips, her long, slender legs.

She arched against him, fingers pulling at his clothes. He deftly finished the job, undoing his belt and quickly drawing the tunic it over his head. Sitting up as he undressed, she reached for him. Kenshin did the same, drawing her to him and met her lips, eager for another taste of her. He rolled her onto her back, pressing himself flush against her, and she moaned into his mouth as the heat of his body melded with hers.

"Daughter of the earth, will you join with me?"

She looped her arms around his shoulders, "Yes, my guardian. Make us one."

He kissed her again, coaxing her hips up to meet him, gently sinking into the wet warmth of her body.

Kaoru's eyes squeezed shut at the sudden intrusion, a startled gasp escaping her despite her intention. She grimaced, trembling beneath him, tears pooling in her eyes.

He kissed her neck, nuzzling against her damp cheek. "It'll pass soon, my love."

She took in a struggling breath, peeking up at him through lashes wet with tear droplets. She raised a hand to his cheek, stroking along his jaw-line. The humming in the background picked up in cadence, her pain fading as an incredible warmth filled her, enveloping every portion of her body and soul.

She wrapped her arms around his neck, discomfort giving way to the heated sensation of him inside her, the perfect way he filled her. "Kenshin, yes."

He kissed her mouth, her neck, her breasts, her eyes, whispering reassurances. She shifted her hips against his and he moved with her. She murmured his name, moving beneath him, bucking against him to urge to set his pace. He began to move, rocking into her body with slow, sensual thrusts. "Kenshin," she whimpered, her nails raking down his back.

"I've never seen anything so beautiful," he murmured thoughtfully, hands sliding down to cup her buttocks, lifting her to him to shift his angle, burying him deeper inside her. She hooked her legs around his hips, finding and perfectly matching his rhythm. And when the time finally came for her world to turn upside-down and inside-out, he held her gently, anchoring her for the riptides of pleasure threatening to swallow her whole.

His weight was heavy but welcome against her, body curved tiredly onto her own. She ran her fingers through his hair, tangling them in his sweat-damp locks. She kissed his temple. "We are one," she whispered, as she stroked his crimson hair.

He kissed her shoulder and she felt him smile against her skin. "Yes. Now and forever, my love."

It was that night, by the time the sun had peeked over the horizon the next morning, she had chosen to stay with him forever- his mate, his lady, his lover, his wife, the mother of his children.

It was that same year her firstborn was born, Kenshin's son and heir. With dark features and eyes that flashed his father's gold in the night, she called him Yahiko.

Ten years later, now and forever still held true. Kaoru had gone from sacrifice to lover, and on the night of the solstice, she would join again with her immortal beloved.

----

Prince Kenji of the Western Forest, third son of the Lord Guardian and his Lady, Kaoru, was a naturally curious boy. He was nearly six summers old and like most children his age, he had never ventured far from his family's home, let alone anywhere outside of his father's lands. On the night of his fifth solstice (not counting on one on which he was conceived, of course), that was all about to change.

Thoughts of happiness and anticipation swam around his head, his body racing across the forest floor, sinuous and sleek. His grace was inherent, his joy infectious as he snuck his nose into flowers and bushes as he passed, head turning to take in every new sight and sound.

His favorite sound above all others was the low hum resounding from around him, a rich, pleasant reverberation whose repeating chorus was an echo of an old childhood song, a familiar lullaby the forest sang with different emotion and timbre in celebration of the fertile night. Kenji could not help but laugh delightedly, as he ran all the faster.

Eventually, the forest line began to thin out before finally dying away, revealing an open field. The grasses grew tall as an average size man, sweeping upward in long stretches of tawny golden-brown and emerald green, the light shining out in pale beams casting out a ghostly sheen over the landscape. The grasses obscured him from ordinary vision, hiding him away from sight and hearing. On the other hand, his senses flared up, sounds and scents suddenly bombarding him in ways he had never before experienced.

Cooking foods. Roaring fires. People moving, speaking, laughing. The low bellowing and grunts of animals. The chattering of children and the whimpers of babes.

His nose flared, his ears twitched, and he edged closer to the clearing, pushing back the grasses to get a better look. Just as the light of the fire did, awe washed over his face, his head whipping back and forth, his eyes wide and searching.

He must have made noise because booted feet suddenly appeared in his peripheral vision. Kenji reared back, falling back on his rump, as he stared up at the strangers with alarm. There were two of them, a male and a female. There did not seem to be anything threatening about them, looking down at him with curiosity and concern.

Kenji stared up at them with the same intrigue. The man was tall, built solid and strong, with broad shoulders and muscles visible through his open shirt. His features were aquiline, with narrow eyes and nose. His hair was wild and spiky, a color Kenji had never seen on a person before, like mud or tree bark.

From first glance, the woman beside him was beautiful with a kind of natural elegance, with long black hair and eyes the same shade of the chestnuts his brother Koshijiro was so fond of. She was tall and slender, exuding a feline grace and curve to her belly Kenji had come to associate with the time when his mother had told him he was getting another brother or sister. He'd wanted another brother, of course, but when little twin girls were born, he'd found he didn't really mind.

It was the woman who first approached him, bending down to his level. "Hello there."

Kenji lifted himself up onto his haunches. "Hello," he said.

"Are you lost?"

The little redhead shook his head. "No. I'm just exploring."

The man hesitated for a moment, and then asked, "Where did you come from, young man?"

The boy simply pointed to the forest behind him. Both humans before him visibly started.

The woman paled and the man placed a hand on her shoulder when she trembled slightly. "W-what were you doing out there, young one? The forest is dangerous."

Kenji cocked his head. "Why?"

The man shifted behind the woman, their familiarity now having Kenji wondering if they were a mated pair. He had seen the same protective behavior in the animals around him, and his own sire and mother. "There are evil things out there, lad. Things that could hurt you. You shouldn't out there."

"Nothing would hurt me. The forest is my home." Kenji rolled back on his heels, grinning, "My father rules here. No harm would ever come to one of the Guardian's sons."

The humans stared at him, pale and stunned.

----

It was springtime, bordering on the onslaught of the summer season, the mild softness of the spring mixing with the spicy heat of the summertime. Still, the woods were cool that night, moonlight spilling in teasing pools through the thick canopy of overhanging trees, long, cobalt shadows casting down to the Gaean soil.

Kenshin closed his eyes as a swift breeze blew past him, the swiftly moving current cooling his body. The wind brushed back the hair falling in his eyes, causing his loose-fitting tunic to billow in the wind. He tilted his head back, opening himself to the land around him. Voices filled his ears, feelings filling his heart, memories filling his soul. Pride and happiness swelled up in him, causing him to stand just a little straighter, just a little taller.

This place…

His land. His realm. His home. Here, he ruled. Here, he was great and strong. Here, he was the protector. He protected and provided for his people, however vast and eclectic as they may be. It did not matter what form they may have taken in his life, they were his children, his brothers and sisters, his charges, and his family. This land and these peoples were what made his heart, his life and his purpose. He was Lord. He was Protector. He was Guardian.

He watched the stars as twilight began to cloak the skies. A-buzz with life was the foliage around him, the sounds of insects chirping and night birds keening, the distant calls of animals that had yet to make their slumber. His nostrils flared, picking up the scent he had been searching for, and he took off in a swift trot.

Thrill and excitement began to rise up in him. A shock went up his spine. His head began to swim with ecstasy. He knew what this night was, and what this night was to entail. Lights flashed around him, the trees spoke and the wind whispered. They wished him luck; they wished him passion and peace for his night.

He gave them a quiet thanks and continued his search for his mate. It didn't take long to find her.

She was dressed in the flowing summer robes of soft lavender that brought out the blush of her complexion, belt-less so he was denied the sight of her natural curves, but the loose fit revealed the creamy expanse of her breasts.

His heart raced, his mouth went dry, and an intense heat stirred in his loins.

With a few more silent strides, she was in front of him, an ethereal apparition in the moonlight. But like always, the other half of his soul sensed him near, and she turned to face him. Everything about her posture, eyes and expression were welcoming. He ached for her and everything in and around him urged him to make those few final movements. Doing so, he did not hesitate to go to her.

In the faint glow, Kaoru's eyes seemed to shine, soulful and enticing. They were as blue as the ocean, and just as enigmatic and deep. Making the first, bold move, he raised his hand, lightly caressing her cheek. She leaned into his touch and, encouraged, he gently released binding of her braided hair. The heavy masses cascaded down like thick black silk, falling to her waist. A half-smile tugged at full, sensual lips as she stepped forward into the circle of his arms.

Gentle fingers moved from his wrist to slowly trail up his hand, arm and shoulder, finally coming to rest at his cheek with a teasing, tickling brush. "I've been waiting for you, husband."

His mouth curled into a warm, languid smile, and he stepped toward her.

Her scent filled his nose, enveloping him, calling to him. The sweet floral scent reminded him of the first breath of spring, as he wrapped his arms around her. He pulled her warm, lithe body against his, and lowered his head toward hers.

They came together with a sudden flame ignited.

Mouths met and clung.

Touch took on a life of its own.

It was lips and tongue and teeth, hands and fingers and entwining limbs. Taste, touch, smell and sound were enhanced so sweetly. Anything else was a forgotten sensation in the uprising heat generated between them, generous shadow cast over them to veil their clandestine intentions.

She pulled away, breaking their embrace and he gave a groan of disappointment, his efforts to reach out to her thwarted when she backed away even further. A teasing smile played across cherry-red lips full and swollen from their kisses, blue eyes aglow with mischief as she whispered. "Do you want me, Kenshin?"

"That's a rather senseless question to ask."

"You'll have to earn it, my love."

And the chase was on.

----

Yahiko was quickly losing his patience.

Nearly an hour into his search for Kenji, he came to the point in his brother's trail where the child no longer left signs of his pacing upon twigs and leaves, or in the dirt. He rolled his eyes as he realized Kenji must have shifted, meaning he would have to do the same. He crouched, stretching out his full-length. His back arched as he balanced his weight on the arches of his feet and the palms of his hands. He closed his eyes and began the change.

Yahiko snuffed, no longer on two legs, but four, effectively making the shift. New sounds and smells bombarded him, the world suddenly seeming so different and bright and loud. He pressed his muzzle to the ground, sniffing at the mud as he searched for his brother's familiar scent. He growled with satisfaction as he found what he wanted and abruptly turned, tail held high as he bounded off into the trees. Nature had shaped him into a natural runner, and so it was with remarkable speed that he moved across the forest floor.

His irritation grew as he went, realizing he was venturing closer and closer to the human settlement. His brother's scent grew all the stronger and he spotted a familiar red flash among tall grasses. There were two humans standing before him, and when the male reached out to grab Kenji's shoulders, Yahiko made his move.

A lone wolf, a russet-colored male not far into adolescence, bounded out of the trees, startling all three of them from their reverie and surprise. He snapped at the heels of the human who had dared to step so close to his brother. The audacity of these mortals, to dare and attack a prince of the forest.

But the male human acted quickly, swinging down a staff he had had strapped to his back. The lupine's feet were swept out from under him, knocking the animal onto the ground. The man backed away as the wolf recovered almost immediately, bristling with outrage as he let out a feral growl.

Yahiko rose to his feet, stretching his long legs. He looked down at his feet and concentrated, clawed paws becoming slender human hands. He shivered at the sudden touch of the cooling air against naked skin, wishing for the return of warm fur. He growled with irritation under his breath, raking his fingers through the dark mane of hair that now fell around his shoulders.

Appearing before them was a tall, tanned creature with a flowing mane of black hair, naked as the day he was born. "Kenji," he growled, his young face stormy, "Come."

----

There was something about the hunt that never failed to thrill Kenshin. His nature enabling him to stalk through the forest with the stealth and grace of a wildcat, a lurking prowler hidden in the shadows, waiting for his chance to strike.

To feel his body loose and flowing with motion yet tense with anticipation, muscles contracted, ready to spring at the absolute opportune moment. The primal thirst for the chase, the lust, stirred inside of him, thrumming through his very blood, ingrained into him until the instincts, the impulses, were as much a part of him as flesh and bone.

He was the hunter, the holder of instinct and skill passed through the generations since the very dawn of time, an echo of the knowledge only the ancients knew, an ancestral imprint upon his soul passed down to every descendent.

He moved himself into position, raising his body off the ground and made for a crouching position, every movement as fluid as the flowing of the river. He closed his eyes, centering his focus, and his form began to change. His tunic tore as he went, but he paid it no mind as he finished the shift, letting the power flow through him, smoothly and freely.

And with a flap of his majestic wings, he took to the skies.

----

Sanoske could do nothing but stare. He had just seen an animal turn into a boy, after all.

He was a handsome, rugged youth, lithe and well-built. Skin tanned a nut-brown from long hours under the sun, disheveled dark hair worn shoulder-length, eyes the color of mahogany bark, though they flashed an amber-gold as he scowled at them. He was a direct contrast to the boy called Kenji, the child was slight and small-statured, his features delicate and fey. His hair was long and crimson, his skin golden and smooth, his amethyst eyes wide and innocent.

"Wha-what are you?" he stuttered out, stumbling over his words as he imagined this youth would change shape once again and leap at him in attack.

It was Kenji that responded, bouncing excitedly as he chattered at him. "You're human, right? Our mother's told us all about humans. Cause she is one. She left her village to live with Father, and then they had me and Yahiko and our brother Koshijiro and our sisters Kaori and Aya."

Sanoske started, his mind whirling. Recognition bloomed and then exploded him, of his father's name. Koshijiro, father of Sanoske, adopted father of Tae and Tsubame…father of Kaoru…

Kaoru.

He had not realized he had spoken the name aloud until Kenji was bobbing his head in affirmation, smiling all the while. "Yes, that's our Mother's name. Do you know her?"

The older youth, who Sanoske could only guess was Yahiko, grunted, placing two restraining hands on the shoulders of the younger. "Kenji, enough."

Kenji looked up at his brother, his eyes bright and imploring. "But, Yahiko, this is Mother's people. Aren't you happy?"

Contrary to his brother's joy, Yahiko retorted. "They're Humans, Kenji. Mother chose to leave them for a reason."

Sanoske immediately protested. "That's untrue. Kaoru made a sacrifice for the good of her people. It was the monster beyond our borders that never chose to return her. If you are her children, may the Gods help her…"

Yahiko snorted and gave his head a shake, tousling his wild hair. "How ignorant are you? Have your people completely forgotten the reason you gave your daughters over to my father?"

Sanoske's jaw clenched. "To sustain our land," he replied.

The boy sighed and shook his head, his posture almost sad now. "When my grandsire first passed through the Veil to come to this world, it was he who cultivated and nurtured this land. Humans made their appearance and our peoples became more and more linked. It is with fear and uncertainty that you Humans regard my people. My grandfather sought to remedy this, but his attempts were rebuffed by that same fear and ignorance. He came up with a way to further his methods, but his heart and body already belonged to my grandmother, a daughter of the sky."

Sanoske had been watching him, his brow furrowing more and more with each word. He crossed his arms across his chest and considered. "What was his decision?"

Megumi, whose insight was becoming clearer than her husband's, was the one to answer. "He sought to join our peoples." She directed her words to Yahiko, more a statement than a question.

Yahiko gave her a small smile, startling her as the first positive expression they had seen from the youth, and considered how handsome and young the gesture was on him. "Yes, you're right."

"Join how?" Sanoske still questioned.

Yahiko rolled his eyes and Megumi hid a smile, placing a hand on her husband's forearm. "Marriage, darling."

Sanoske's expression was comical, even as Yahiko was nodding along with the woman. "A joining, a mating. Not just for a night, but for a lifetime. When my grandfather breathed his last breath and passed back through the veil, his mantle fell back onto my father, and he used the Solstice to search for a human mate, a child of the earth."

Sanoske blinked. "But…the women, they have always come home. Why not Kaoru?"

"Because she was the first to choose Father. Nothing short of a life with him." His lips curled up into a smirk. "At least, that's the way my mother tells it. She's rather a romantic."

Megumi gave him a warm smile. "She always was. Tell me, Yahiko, is she happy? Does she love him, and he her?"

"With everything they are," Yahiko replied, his voice strong with conviction.

But Sanoske was shaking his head, his lips still pursed in a frown. "I don't understand why it would come to this. We are so different…too different. It was sacrilege for the Guardian to cross this line. My sister should have come home to her family."

"Sanoske!"

"No, wife. Kaoru should have come home, married a good man and started a family. She should have never been whisked away into the enigmas and evils of that forest."

Yahiko's face hardened and he was distant once more. "My brothers, my sisters and I are meant to be the gap between our worlds, but I see it as too large a chasm to bridge. It will be long after you've died and turned to dust, but my time will come to rule, and when it does, it will be my people I serve. Humans will be of no concern to me."

How many nights, had he listened to the sound of his mother crying, whispering to his father of homesickness and the despairing knowledge that she could never return to her family with the choices she had made. She did not regret choosing her Guardian, no, not ever, but it would never been understood. A Daughter of the Earth willingly bonding with a Son of the Forest, no.

"Kenji," he said firmly once more, "We must go."

The red-haired child looked up at them sadly, and Megumi felt her heart break. He sighed but nodded obediently, bending down to his knees once again.

Within a few moments, a russet-colored wolf was trotting back into the trees, carrying in his mouth a little red fox-cub by the scruff of his neck. The two humans left behind watched them disappear, each of them left with conflicting thoughts.

Megumi whirled around, her eyes flashing with indignation, and gave her husband a good shove. "What is wrong with you, Sanoske son of Koshijiro! Those were your nephews! Your blood! Would it be so hard to let go of this prejudice?" Sanoske was a good man, a good provider and a good father, but like other men in the village, his mind had been kept narrow and shuttered.

Sanoske's expression was shuttered as he shook his head and turned back toward their home. "It's the way of things, woman. Now, come. It's getting dark and you know the things that lurk out here after sunset."

Megumi sighed sadly and walked after her husband. Protectively cradling her pregnant belly, she wondered for her children's future, and for those far after them, long after she and her husband were gone.

---

And the sun finally finished setting.

----

He watched her.

He watched as she quietly walked to the bank surrounding a familiar lake. Undoing the ties to her robes, she let the clothing fall to her feet, brushing back her long hair. Their ebony tresses fell over her face as she bent over, giving him a full view of her pertly rounded buttocks, and he suppressed a groan.

She smoothly submerged herself into the water, the coolness enveloping her with the familiar comfort of a lover. He edged closer, and her ears perked up at the rustle in the nearby leaves.

She knew he was there.

"Kenshin," she whispered.

The sound of her voice, soft, husky and alluring, was intoxicating, his name slipping from her tongue like sweet honey.

Kenshin unfurled his wings, heavy curtains of raven-black raising an impressive height behind them, spreading with an intimidating air as they caught glints of sunlight in highlights of blue and glossy gray.

He struck a breathtaking sight, bare from the waist up to leave little to the imagination, and there was no denying he was a magnificent example of masculine beauty. Powerful muscles beneath tawny skin accenting a sinewy body, the swarthy aura around him softened with unreadable emotions. He gazed down at her from his elevated vantage point, eyes shadowed and blazing with a kindling intensity.

"Kenshin…" She breathed his name, a quiet, husky sound that lingered through the air, reaching his ears in a caressing whisper as intimate as a physical touch.

She slowly emerged from the water, the sudden change of temperature raising goosebumps against her skin. Water glistened against her body, accenting the utter temptation that was silken curves and skin. She slid onto one of the smooth stones aligning the pool, holding his stare from a moment longer before demurely lowering her eyes, conveying silent invitation.

Kenshin hesitated no longer, vaulting himself off the low ledge to land effortlessly onto the soft bank. His wings retracted and disappeared, the shape-shifting abilities of her lover's race never failing to awe her. It no longer surprised her, however, as she had come to realize just how in touch Kenshin and his people were with the forest. Kenshin was one with his land- there was no reason why he shouldn't take on some of the traits belonging to the creatures he protected.

He stripped of sandals and breechcloth as he went, slowly making his way toward her. She heard the faint splashing sound accompanying his entrance into the water and a moment later, warm fingers curled around her chin, tilting her face toward him.

Golden eyes met blue, strong arms encasing her as he pulled her tightly against him. He nuzzled her neck, rough hands slowly skimming up her back, sending heated shivers down her spine. His lips were against her throat in soft ministrations, warm breath brushing against sensitive skin as he gently exhaled. "Am I welcome, Kaoru?"

Her head fell back to allow him better access as he trailed soft kisses down her neck and shoulder, tongue swathing against flushed skin, teeth scraping lightly against the sensitive spot just above her collarbone.

She reciprocated, pressing her lips to his neck. He felt it, then as they parted in a breathless whisper of his name, curling into a smirk as she leaned up. She caught his earlobe between her teeth, tracing her tongue along the shell. "Welcome, my guardian. Very welcome."

Her arms slipped around his neck as he lifted her, listening to the dark rumble thrumming through him as he kissed her. The kiss was a soft, languid stirring of passion, a gentle contact eliciting a deeper reaction than they could have ever expected before each other. He lowered her carefully into the shallows near the shore, the water enveloping her as thoroughly as his embrace when they sank down together into its depths.

He softly pecked her lips, hands softly stroking her face. His breath was ragged in her ear after they parted, muscles slowly relaxing as she skimmed her hands up the sleek skin of his back.

"Daughter of the earth," he whispered huskily against her ear, a clear echo of their first solstice night, and the last eight that had followed it, "Join with me."

"Yes," was her breathless reply.

Kaoru leaned back and her beloved gently settled himself between her legs. She felt him, throbbing and painfully erect, against her inner thigh, and she whimpered with soft longing. Her hands slid upward to tangle into the fine hair at the nape of his neck, whispering his name. She kissed his temple as she parted her legs, arching into him. Kenshin closed his eyes with a murmur of content, as she took him into her body.

Pleasure filled every sense as he moved above her in slow, languorous rhythm. Her head fell back, nails lightly scouring his back as he took her closer to what'd she wanted from the moment they first locked eyes. The water around them weighed down each undulating of his body, slowing his movements, but still kept them smooth and steady with added buoyancy. At times he kept his thrusts teasing and fleeting, other times deep and lingering in startling intensity, all the while playing her body with hands and mouth of a beloved lover.

He shifted, bracing his weight on his forearms. He picked up speed, Kaoru locking her legs around his waist to deepen the instinctive arch of her own hips, taking him deeper. She could do nothing more than hold on, soft and pliant to his demands as he pushed into her, determined to bring her into her pleasure.

And he did, rendering her trembling and exhausted in his arms as he released himself in the aftermath of her still quivering climax. She nearly collapsed if not for the way he eased them down with the weakness of both their bodies. He sighed softly, feeling the brush of her lips against his shoulder as she tucked her head into the crook of his shoulder. They stayed that way for a time, post-coital languor enveloping them both.

"Kenshin…"

Kenshin raised his head to smile at her. She combed her fingers through his hair, smoothing the damp locks away from his forehead. He leaned into her touch, turning his head to kiss her palm. "My love, we have to go soon," he muttered, voice thick with regret.

"Mmm," she acknowledged, just as regretful, as she touched his face, stroking her thumb against his cheek. Her eyes focused on the distant horizon, just beginning to color with the gray hues of dawn. She nuzzled against his neck, breathing in the wet, earthen scent of him. "The night's almost over.

She shifted beneath him, and he shivered as her breasts brushed against his chest, thighs pressing against his reawakened groin. She moved slightly, earning a heavy groan from him as his loins began to tighten.

"Heartless," he grumbled as she slipped a hand between his legs, not to wrap around him, instead to teasingly stroke his thigh. He twitched and she grinned, kissing him with a lazy intimacy. She traced her tongue over his lower lip, catching it between her teeth. He growled in response, the low sound rumbling through his chest, causing a shiver of excitement to resound through his lover.

"No, my love," she replied with a faux expression of innocence, unable to hold back a smile as her eyes twinkled with a wicked light, "Determined."

He arched a brow and returned the smile, "Stubborn, I think is the better choice." He lowered his head, taking a breast into his mouth. She moaned, gripping at his hair as he circled his tongue around a pebbled nipple. He nipped at her, grabbing Kaoru's hands to pin her wrists above her head. He slipped his knee between her thighs, nudging them apart. He released one of her hands to gently grasp her leg, hitching it up around his hip, and he entered her once more.

Kenshin found himself falling into the motions of making love to her as easily as instinct, and he realized, as she wrapped herself around him and gasped his name, that he never wanted to stop.

----

You found him?

The sudden thought invading his mind only served to heighten Yahiko's irritation and he spared a glance at a tree above them, eyeing the small snowy owl perched on a low branch.

Of course. What are you doing here? Get back to the girls.

Koshijiro made an indignant sound, flapping his wings. They're a stone throw away, brother. What has you so bothered?

Yahiko's mind wandered, remembering the village and the humans they had encountered there. He thought of the rejection they had faced and the words he had spoken in anger. He thought of the pregnant woman and the softness of her eyes, the warmth of her acceptance, the child that grew within her. He thought of his mother's eyes dancing with mirth and happiness as they sat in the firelight and she spoke of myth and stories of her people, the Humans.

The tension of his thoughts caused his jaw to clench and the kit he was holding gave a yelp of protest. He set the cub down, giving the red fur an apologetic nuzzle. Kenji rubbed his nose against his chest, indicating his forgiveness, and nestled closer, eyes closing with drowsiness.

He thought of the responsibility that would face him in several centuries, at the end of his father's lifetime, and knew he could never bear to favor one people over another. He thought of his father's promises, his mother's love, and made his decision.

Yahiko sighed and shook his head, picking Kenji up once again. Nothing to worry about, young one. Let's just go home. We all need sleep.

----

They were so picturesque, curled up with one another in a single hammock. She had a light, amusing thought wondering how they had managed it. Yahiko was laid out, Kenji cuddled up to one side with his brother's arm thrown around him, fitting perfectly in the crook of his elbow. Kaori and Aya were in turn sprawled out across him like a body blanket, so entangled together she could not tell where one began and the other ended. She was certain the only thing keeping them from toppling over from their adolescent brother was the protective arm thrown around them. Koshijiro, not one to be left out, was draped over Yahiko's legs, his head pillowed on the elder's thigh as he curled up around his feet. She stifled a giggle the best she could, but failed to hold back her smile.

"What are you thinking of, beloved?"

Kaoru smiled at the sound of her husband's voice coming up from behind her, followed soon by the warmth of his strong arms slipping around her waist, his chest pressing against her back as he held her close.

"Nothing. Everything."

Kenshin chuckled softly, nuzzling into her neck. "That answer is rather vague, my love."

"Mmm, perhaps."

"Would you like to know my thoughts?"

She turned her head, touching her nose to his cheek. "Please enlighten me, my guardian."

There were times when he thought there would never be any change in the rift between his people and hers. The damage was deep and immense, though the wound had been formed without any weapon wielded beyond fear and confusion. But as he held his wife here in his arms, looking out upon their beautiful children, half-bred though they were, he saw what it meant for those he protected and watched over to truly be one.

He smiled to himself, pressing a kiss to the nape of her neck, enjoying the small shudder he received in return. "I'm thanking the forest for the gift she gave me. For the night she gave you to me."

Kaoru sighed with contentment as her lover rested her head back against his shoulder, contemplating his words and the sight set out before him.

Her children were nothing sort of mystical, as different as night and day from one another. She had expressed puzzlement as to most of her children being born looking nothing like her or their sire. Her inner woman had panicked- such differences in the human world often caused a wife to be charged with infidelity. Her husband had reassured her that exotic coloring and features was common among the Faerie. There could be no doubt that it was Kenshin's children she carried, bore, raised and loved.

Dark as night, Yahiko, her firstborn and eldest son. Precious to her as the first offspring cementing her bond with Kenshin, his birth had been a blessing and rejuvenation. He was a passionate young man, strong, proud and golden. He thrived in his status as Kenshin's heir and future Protector. He could be serious and solemn as he could be fiery and determined, and his ability to love was as protective and fierce as his father's.

Koshijiro was the perfect counterbalance between them his parents, with his father's serenity and his mother's integrity. Named for her father, he was more like the moonlight, quiet and tranquil, but holding a mysterious power all his own. He was a flawlessly attractive boy more slender and lithe in figure than either father or older brother. The eyes were Kenshin's gold, the silver hair knotted up into a high ponytail pure Fae, but the feline grace and aura exuding from the boy was Koshijiro himself. He had always been able to move silently through the forest, regardless of night and day, as if born to fit into the role given to him.

Their youngest, their twin daughters, were only two, delicate and precocious in ways she could not help but adore. The older of the two, Kaori, was fire and spirit, her mother in miniature, but wild and open in a way Kaoru would have never been allowed. She kept her ears to the ground, connecting to the forest in ways even her brothers could not match.

Aya was gentle and soft-spoken, unlike her more outgoing counterpart, naivety and sweetness radiating from her. She was constantly lost in her thoughts, eyes closed and head tilted up as she listened to the whispers of the wind. Kaoru would not be surprised when the day came that her daughter would be old enough to embrace her shift, sprout wings and meet the skies.

Despite their differences, the girls were like ying and yang, a perfect balance for one another. And Kaoru loved them so for it.

Kenji, full of mischief and magic, quick and nimble-footed. An amazingly strong and virile youth, he had not been able to sit still from the moment he learned to walk, then shift, and Fae children learned early, growing much quicker than human children. Kenshin explained to her that a child conceived in early summer needed to be old enough to survive the coming winter, but it had still shocked her when her little redheaded boy had surpassed the rest of her children in growing up into the scamp he was.

She tilted her head toward her husband as he released her, letting her stretch her body as she felt the lure of their own hammock calling to her.

"When do you think we should talk to them?"

His question earned him a shrug and a smile. "Let them rest for now. We'll discuss the events of their night later." She paused for a moment. "We need to speak with him."

"About the Humans? Yes."

"In time," she whispered, her eyes straying to the sleeping visage of their firstborn.

Kenshin nodded, turning his attention back to the morning. Squaring back his shoulders, the very picture of the pride and strength as he stood before his family, he raised his chin and closed his eyes. Kaoru smiled, mimicking his gesture, and breathed in the lovely morning air. Touching her stomach, she could not help but smile again.

The Solstice had its magic after all.