The good news about this story is that it is almost done. Right now, we're looking at about three chapters. I wanted to keep it reasonable! I still have to finish Path of Thorns, after all. Some violence, a lot of me playing with various shades of magic.
Kenshin is going to be leaning (or jumping straight over the line) into Battousai territory in this one. Mostly heavily in this chapter than the others.
I hope you enjoy.
Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin.
Warning: Violence, death, magic. The usual. =)
Kaoru opened her eyes. The tent was too dark to see clearly but it felt normal. A quick glance to the front flaps told her that not more than two, maybe three hours had passed since she had done little more than roll herself up in a blanket and pass out from exhaustion. She was still tired – the marks on her wrist a dull, throbbing ache of overuse. Closing her eyes, she found herself too exhausted to fully sleep so she tried to settle into a doze. The sudden coughing-snore of her shield-brother jarred her fully awake and she glared at Sano.
It appeared to be time to get those damn snoring spells renewed. Wearily closing her eyes, she tried to pinpoint what had woken her. The silence in the campsite told her that the rest of the unit was sleeping soundly and there was a distinct lack of fire. She grimaced. Damn goblins. She needed the chance to bake in the afternoon sun or next to a good hot fire to regain some of her energy levels but with the constant rain and the eclipse… only a few more days. Reaching up she scrubbed at her eyes. Without the sun, neither her magic nor the fire-beast buried deep in her soul could recharge. She had pushed herself almost too-far and what little bit of elemental power she had left was wrapped up in the fire-beast – keeping her from burning out. She was so damn tired.
But no matter how she laid there, she couldn't fall back asleep.
Finally giving up, she pushed herself into a sitting position slowly, aware of aches and pains from too many battle skirmishes and not enough time to heal. She curled the blanket around her shoulders and shifted so she wouldn't spill out the back of the cot if she put too much pressure on the tent walls. The thick sludge that had once been thick, fertile earth made walking difficult and the tent walls precarious; it had been hard enough to get into her blankets the first time without dragging the mud with her. She had no desire to try to attempt to feat twice.
At least she hadn't dreamed tonight.
Shivering at the sound of rain beating lightly against the canvas of the tent, she curled a little further into her blanket. She should have been asleep. She would have even allowed the dreams – but the lack of them had been their own sort of message. He needed her magic to force the connection. It was possible that he was tracking her mage work and that was a little unsettling. It meant his connection was also to fire and that he could feel her mage power when it was in use. That sort of connect… but she had never heard of a demon that would put that much effort into hunting a mage who had simply made eye contact – brief eye contact for all that it had seared right through her for few seconds. Hot and yellow, with narrow pupils, his eyes that had burned through her until the crowd had jostled her forward. She hadn't caught more than glimpse of the rest of him. She didn't know his height, hair color or any scars of tattoos that might have given her a clue to his identity; demons with that much didn't stay anonymous for long in this realm.
Curling her fingers a little tighter into the blankets, she chewed on the inside of her lip. Two years was a long time to hunt and dream magic wasn't a specialty of fire-demons. Dream magic wasn't a specialty of any demon that she had ever heard off and no one that she had asked seemed to be willing to talk about it or just didn't have an answer for her. Even performing the fire cleansing ritual hadn't been able to shake those fluttery images – always hovering just outside her awareness as she slept. Her fire-beast hadn't seemed affected by his presence and it hadn't appeared that he had had been trying to make an offer for a deeper connection. Her beast hadn't done more than tighten her defenses around Kaoru's soul and magic after that first connection between them.
She couldn't figure out what he wanted or how to get rid of him. Demons were a fairly dangerous bred and she had no interest in getting involved in anything this one might have planned. She just didn't know enough about their cultural to plan a defense – even though he didn't seem to be actively hunting her outside of her rest. Lips curving into a frown, she scowled as Sano snorted again. She probably should have been more prepared for that kind of thing anyway. The borders of the deserts always brought out the interesting races. It was in the hearts of jungles or high in the mountains that you actually had to go looking for trouble. Here, in the valley beneath the deep cuts in the Dragons Back, it was populated mostly by humans and the occasional strange sidhe or elf.
At least when she was sleeping she was too exhausted for him to reach her. If he truly was a fire-demon… right now she would cling to just about any source of heat. The heat of him would have been a draw she would have been unable to resist – it had been two days since she had sunk into the heat of a fire or felt the rays of the sun and it hurt like an old wound. She was near dry and would have to rely on her sword to see her through the upcoming skirmishes.
"I thought I told you to get some sleep." Sano's voice was groggy and cranky.
"A troll is less repulsive than you when you're snoring. I fail to see how anyone in this unit sleeping with that racket."
Sano snorted and sat up, hair sticking in all directions. Kaoru had to shift to the side to let him stretch. The tent was longer than it was wide and it made for cramped conditions that were annoying at best. Still, it made it easier to stay warm during the harsh winter months when they camped out on the flat plains with feet of snow. She shivered at the thought.
"Dreams?" There was an undertone to his voice that gave more to the question than his actual words. Sano had been even more alarmed than she by the sudden attachment to her sleep and had done just about everything from hanging garlic outside the tent to finding enough salt grains to circle her cot with. Nothing worked, but at least he tried.
"No. I'm not sure what woke me."
He grunted and flopped back down, throwing an arm over his eyes. She winced as the cot tried to buckle under his abuse but held. She'd have to let the blacksmith know his spells on the fragile metal had improved.
"I hate this country and I hate goblins."
Kaoru agreed with him. They had been stuck in this rain and mud because of a troop of goblins that had decided to build a nest at the base of the mountains. Probably was, once they were in they were damn difficult to remove. They'd been fighting on and off to days and this was the first real night anyone had gotten sleep.
Sano cracked one eye open and stared at her.
Kaoru rolled her eyes but allowed the flat glare of his gaze under his arm coax her to lie back down. Curling her cold feet together, she waited for her body to warm and relax. Warm it did but nothing she tried gave her enough peace to sleep again. Which was unusual. Six years with Sano as her shield-brother, she could count on one hand the number of times she had been unable to rest with him at her side after that first year. Shutting her eyes to give the impression of sleep, she turned her nose into the blanket and wished she could scream.
"You still suck at faking."
"Some of us don't have your practice."
"Hey! I'm excellent at faking! Totally fooled that crazy ninja clan at Three Rivers."
"My point exactly."
He grunted. "You do remember what happened the last time we were in the desert, right? The demonic version of a cockroach?"
Kaoru opened her eyes and glared at him. "That was not my fault."
"You couldn't just keep your eyes down like a normal person?"
"I'm a damn mercenary!"
Sano opened his eyes. "No need to get cranky. I'm just pointing out the obvious. Knowing our luck, we'll attract a fucking dragon or something."
Kaoru groaned. "At least that one might shoot fire at us instead of ice."
Sano flushed under the mud on his face. "That was unnecessary."
"You're the one who brought up the cockroach."
"Not a damn clue."
"Fabulous. Oh well… I guess a visit to the desert will let me rile up that cute doctor-lady who works for the temple branch there."
"So says the shield-partner keeping me awake when I should be sleeping."
She smiled, finally relaxing. Closing her eyes, she reached one last time to check on the scouts with what she had left and jerked straight up. A loud, high scream cut through the air followed by the shouts and war cries from hundreds of throats.
She threw herself off the cot and into the thick sludge that made up the floor of the valley, landing on top of Sano who had dove off his cot at the sound of the first scream. Arrows tore through the canvas and the top of the tent pole shattered, trapping them as the heavy canvas fell. She needed a weapon and she needed to be free. Her feet stocking feet and knees sank into the mud as she clawed her way out of the tent and off Sano, shoving aside her cot and reaching for the sword she had tucked close for easy access.
Sano bellowed next to her and came out of the canvas like a bull, swinging the tree branch that had been the tent pole like a whip. Ducking under his trajectory, she scrambled to unsheathe her sword. She didn't have the power to call it straight out of the sheath and it was still so dark… her fingers slipped along the hilt, slick with mud and she jerked the steel free before ducking as Sano bashed another dark skinned Goblin away from her back. Lunging forward, adrenaline erased the last of her exhausting and channeled it into energy. Sliding behind Sano, she took up guard and used his calls and screams to guide her as they fought through the worst of the goblins, working through the tight knots of combatants as they searched for higher, dryer ground.
Finally moving out of the sucking mud and onto rocky ground, they were able to move quickly enough to cut something of a clearing around them. Sano was cursing a blue streak, arm bleeding freely where a goblin had taken a chunk of his arm with its teeth. Kaoru was trying to compensate for a bruised should and was fairly certain she was going to have match teeth marks before the night was over.
"Where the hell did these things come from?" Kaoru gasped, trying to feel how many bodies were around them. Even goblins carried a little fire in their blood – they weren't cold creatures like drakes and the Ice People. There were too many! They had slaughtered nearly half this force just that afternoon. This was too large to be a nesting colony so why…
"I don't know but when I found out whoever was on duty is going to eat his fucking teeth!"
Kaoru blocked a poorly aimed arrow and swore, crouching down, "Sano."
"Can you see what the rest of the unit is dealing with? We shouldn't be the only ones up here!"
With this much mud, the rocky places should be the first places the men moved to defend themselves against the onslaught. Goblins were smaller, lighter than human bulk and slid through the mud were human weight was sucked down. Kaoru could feel the flickers as the other two elemental mages tried to fight off the onslaught – both were water elementals and would only be adding to the mess.
"Most of them are in clumps but a few are over there fighting… something. Shit, I can't see well enough to tell." Sano jerked around and almost took an arrow to the face. Cursing he flattened himself.
"Shit, damn and double damn."
Peering around a rock, she squinted and cursed. There were flares lighting up along the low ridge of the Dragon Back. Goblins. Lots of them, if she wasn't missing her mark. Oh just damn. They were already over run and this…
Something brushed along the edge of her senses and it stung like needles – tried to yank her in its direction but she didn't have enough magic for it to latch onto. Jerking back, she panted heavily, staring at the darkness. What… was that? Something flickered in the back of her mind, pushing to the front but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. Whatever it was, she couldn't fight it in her current state and that meant there were more problems than goblins.
"Sano, we've got to get out of here!"
He nodded grimly. "Yes."
"What's your plan?"
Sano's face fell and he kept his eyes on the empty area around him. "Me? I'm supposed to have a plan? When do I ever have a plan?"
Before Kaoru could answer another wave of goblins made another pass at them. The work was tough, butchering slashes that required more muscle than finesse and her arms were shaking by the time they were kicking bodies off their little hill. The battle that afternoon had been difficult and to face an equal or great number so soon was taking its toll. Gasping heavily and leaning against Sano's side, she licked dry and cracked lips.
"Cutting are way through here is going to be a bitch and I'm not voting for it. But you're too tired to transport and where would we go?"
Kaoru glared at him and searched for the magic inside her. It was mostly empty, drained to the dregs. Blowing out a long breath, she cut her eyes over to her best friend. He was right… where would she take them? She couldn't take them far but if she got them close enough to the edge of the clearing, near the river. She bit her lip. Her fire-beast would fight her but if she used all the personal energy left and taped into her life force…
"Hang on? What? No! No hanging on! Dammit, Kaoru!"
The spell hurt. It carved along the inside of her chest like a jagged knife and she couldn't breathe past the pain in her lungs as the magic searched through her for the power she demanded it use to take them out of the clearing. Her fire-beast flared to life and fought her for control – to keep her from over using her power – and for a moment they hovered and then disappeared, leaving behind only faint sparks of fire as the between pulled them in… and both woman and beast ran dry; the transportation spell faltered. Feeling like she was being ripped apart at the seams, she fought to keep herself together as the magic tore at her for more. Her beast struggled with her and it shrieked in fear as she started to pull apart. She was too tired to scream. Closing her eyes, she let the magic pull at her, hoping her death would fuel the spell long enough to get Sano out.
Heat suddenly washed over her skin with all the consistency of honey, holding the edges of her together when they wanted to break apart. She hung there, bathed in heat and something else and then the spell was jerked out of her control and it snapped against her like a too taunt string. It stung and the burning of her wrist told her what she already knew – she'd pushed too far.
When they landed, her knees and legs failed to support her and it was only Sano's arms that kept her from tumbling into a heap as she lost her grip on consciousness.
Sano cursed. The earth had turned into some kind of death trap waiting to happen, slick and littered with sharp rocks; barely enough room to walk without sending him over the edge of the path. The limp, barely moving weight on back was difficult enough to balance but her sword was the only weapon they had it kept digging into his thigh. Thank god he'd found the sheath strapped to her back. He was tempted to use it like a damn cane but when Kaoru woke up to find any damage it would be worth his balls.
If they managed to make it out of this.
Pausing to toss his rain soaked bangs out of his eyes; he scanned their location again, another expletive hanging on his lips. Kaoru had been too tired to try that desperate spell – and her aim had been fucking terrible. Instead of putting them somewhere on the other side of the valley, closest to where the reinforcements would be, they ended up too high and on one of the spines of the goddamn Dragon's Back. Nothing human lived this high – the air was too thin and too damn cold. They would have to cross Goblin territory to get back down and neither of them would survive that attempt. Which left him the option of going up until he could find a cave or something that resembled shelter and if they were extremely lucky; enough of something to catch on fire so that Kaoru wouldn't slip into an energy-coma and die on him.
She wasn't even shivering anymore.
"Hang on back there, missy. Just hang on."
Plunging ahead, he picked as carefully as he could, as fast as he dared through the jagged rocks and mud slush that kept trying to suck him down. There wasn't much hope that he wouldn't break a leg, but as long as he broke it after he found someplace worth hiding out he'd be okay with that. At least he'd have a chance of living long enough to bitch about it.
The rain tapered off sometime into the endless trudging up the dangerous rocky paths – which made it easier to see if nothing else. He kept getting stuck and was lucky he hadn't torn open a foot yet. At least he had slept in his boots. Kaoru's feet were bare. Kaoru's breath against the back of his neck was the only sign he had that she was still alive and it was starting to be fucking painful to keep her pressed where she was so he could monitor her breathing. Hunching his shoulders had stopped working several hundred meters ago. He didn't know what had him look up – instinct probably. He didn't have the same feel for demons or other creatures that weren't quite human the way Kaoru did, but he wasn't sure how he had missed him up until that point.
Long strands of soaked red hair clung to a pale, angular face and a pair of fucking creepy yellow eyes stared unblinking at him. He was balanced on a rock twice as high as Sano was tall and it tapered to a point that no human could stand on in the pouring down rain. He was unarmed, but Sano didn't like his chances – even if he was a ridiculously looking small squirt, he was demon.
Those yellow eyes flickered over his shoulder and burned.
"You landed a little further out than I thought you would."
Sano scowled at him as he man dropped down, hardly seeming to notice the ten-something foot drop. His knees simply seemed to absorb the impact and he strolled forward; demons were built differently than humans – even humans who had burned away bits of their humanity with elemental beasts, which meant there was little predicting what his physical capabilities were. Baring his teeth, Sano shifted his back so that Kaoru was protected by one of the stones.
"Back the fuck off red."
A red brow arched, the effect slightly more intimidating than Sano really wanted to give it credit for. A sharp, knowing smile curled to show off pale fangs and Sano shivered.
"She'll die if you don't give her to me."
"The hell you say!"
There was no fucking way he was giving Kaoru to this demon, no way in hell. Problem was he had to figure out how to keep him from just taking her. The sword at his hip wasn't going to do much good if this little imp was faster than him and he couldn't risk putting her down just yet. Double fucking damn. Shrugging one shoulder in a move that was deceptively uncaring when compared to the hot, hungry look behind those damn creepy eyes, the demon continued to smile.
"You're right of course. I'd hardly waste the power needed to drag you both out of the spell if I was going to let you kill her with your stupidity – even if she was doing such a magnificent job on her own. However, I will kill you if you do not give her to me."
"I'm not handing her over to anyone." She was his partner and gods help him – she'd fought worse for him – had just attempted near suicide to save them both. The little demon shrugged and smiled, showing off teeth that were bone white and a sharp pair of fangs.
Bloody pointed-ear was fast. Sano jerked around and skidded towards the high side of the mountain. What he didn't expect was for the red-head to simply crawl up the side of the cliff and slam a booted foot into the back of his skull, sending him sprawling. His face went straight into the mud as Kaoru was thrown from his back and a moment later booted feet shoved him further in – and then fucking bounced.
"I told you she was mine."
Sano worked to keep from choking on the mud as the demon continued to tap dance along his spinal cord. Finally, he hopped off. Sano's head was ringing as he dug himself out of the mud to watch the demon walk effortlessly over the damn mud to bend over the boneless lump that was Kaoru. Struggling to his feet, he swayed at the ache in his head and hissed when the demon lifted her to his chest, something in the move almost tender. Stunned, it took him a moment to realize the power coming off him in waves was almost visible and his teeth started to chatter with more than the cold. Whatever he was, he was fucking strong but if he thought Sano wouldn't knock them all off this mountain to protect Kaoru from his intentions, he was fucking insane.
"Put Kaoru down, right now."
"Come, human. My cabin in this way and she needs fire."
The labored breathing against Kenshin's chest was the only sign that she was still alive and he considered turning around hitting the human male again – it was only too apparent that the large human had very little self preservation and a skull thick enough to handle it. The door to his cabin snapped open at the force of his will and he walked in, ignoring the cursing behind him.
He had anticipated that she would be exhausted – even this close to his lair and she had been unable to reach him except for that one explosive expulsion of her power in the desperate attempt to save the human he had almost thrown off the mountain. She was lucky he had caught her in time and had been able to hold the pieces of her soul together. She had tapped too deep and pushed too hard – she needed more than just rest. Setting her on the pallet he had made in front of the fire, he ignored the human's continued muttering and curses as he set about stripping her of what little clothing she had left. She was covered in mud and he wiped carefully at her cheeks.
"Do not interfere."
Her skin was too white and blue in places. Curving his power towards the fire, he pulled on it, tugging the heat and flickering flames so they would curve over her body best. Kenshin was worried about her extremities – her core heat was almost completely dampened. Reaching forward he lifted both her hands before lower her left back to where he had let it settle the first time. Carefully he examined the white scars that marked the bones along her right wrist, as if a great bird had sunk its talons deep. He could feel the echo of her oath and the weakness of the bond. It had taken six months to find a way to attach himself to the web that connected woman to fire-beast – she was smart. Instead of strength and metal she had chosen spiders silk and the flexibleness that allowed it to give and room to grow.
Unfortunately for Kaoru, he had been alive longer than even these oaths and he had attached himself to the faintest of threads, working his way to the main lines. It had taken two years and to add to the challenge was the way she unconsciously fought him. He would have let her go if the heat of that memory hadn't tugged at him – the way her gaze had cut through his glamour and shields to the man below, the way she had resonated against his magic, inside him like fire and bells. This one was his regardless of her vows.
Lifting those bone-white lines to his mouth he scrapped his fang down her skin, testing the determination of woman and fire-beast. Both were exhausted, drained by the eclipse and the ridiculous human ideas of battle. Opening his soul just enough, he dragged his tongue down the same path of his tongue – offering. What was left of Kaoru's energy skated away from him, wary. Amused, he licked again, tasting her skin beneath the grim this time. He held perfectly still, her wrist wet and warm against his mouth as he felt the fire-beast shift along those delicate tendrils. He would kill this creature if he had too, but it would damage something inside Kaoru he wasn't completely certain he could replace. The hurt would be more than physical, she had been bonded to the creature for a long time, strengthening its place in her soul and letting it deep into her magic… no, killing it would hurt her.
But the fire-beast was too exhausted to fight him for long, to fight what he offered freely. He waited for the perfect moment – he struck, sinking his fangs into the soft veins of her wrist. Her body didn't move but felt her felt the shudder through what little magic she retained and the beast screamed in challenge before it wavered and then fell; fire and talons sinking into his own magic as he licked at the blood dripping down her wrist. Then the softness of the woman washed over him, helplessly following those lines the fire-beast had opened, drawn to his magic and the fire that had created him. Allowing himself one more delicate lick, he closed his eyes and tested what he had created between them. The fire-beast had let him in but it hadn't opened the heart of those tangled threads. It would be enough to keep her safe while she healed and it was ready to deepen once she understood and accepted what he was offering.
"What did you do?"
Oh yes. Her human friend. Sighing heavily, he reached for a blanket and tucked it around her body. Once he was certain she was as comfortable as he could make her – Kenshin could feel the pull of her magic against his as she soaked him in – he turned to face the man who had fought for her on the mountain. He looked no more impressive at his hearth than staggering around the mountain like a drunk but the expression behind his eye was protective. Grudgingly, he accepted that this human had a claim on his Kaoru.
"I saved her life." Standing he dusted his now-dry pants off and eyed the puddle on the floor the tall-human had made. "Do you have a name?"
Silence. Conjuring a towel he tossed it at the man and moved away from the fire, making room for him to sit next to the sleeping woman. It could be taken as a sign that he didn't care that he was near Kaoru or that he was unconcerned with an attempt to leave. That fact that it was both allowed him not to care which one the human choose.
"You didn't answer my question."
"I don't believe you answered mine." Kenshin allowed himself some amusement at the snarl that followed him as he set about preparing a meal. She would need meat and vegetables to provide the energy her body needed to repair itself – his fire and his magic would take care of her other needs.
Sano bit down on a curse as he watched the demon move about what he suspected to be the food preparation area. Inside the cabin he could see that the demon wasn't quite as small as he had thought on the mountain. There was strong muscle there that suggested he wasn't completely useless in a fight outside of magic and Sano didn't like the way he moved – the balance of his weight said training louder than an openly worn weapon.
What Sano wanted was to find a way to incapacitate him so Kaoru could recover in peace. He would prefer to just kill him but he had no idea what the demon had done.
"Listen, demon – she's my partner."
Narrowed golden eyes glittered in his direction and then they turned away as he continued to bustle about, but Sano was stunned into silence. Was he… jealous? Frowning, he crossed his arms and tried not to inch closer to the fire. Kaoru needed the heat.
Watching the demon move, he went over everything he had learned about him in the past five minutes. The fact that this… demon, felt that Kaoru belonged to him in some way… No. She would have told him if there was a demon in her past. Which meant that he had to be…
"Are you that fucking cockroach whose been messing with her dreams?"
"I haven't been 'messing' with anything, as it is my right to make an offering."
"I can show you to one if you prefer." The demon answered as he settled a kettle of some kind over a second fire pit. "There are several with shall we say, interesting landscapes that I believe you will find unique."
Sano stood and glowered down the short redhead. "If you think for a single moment that I am going to allow you to touch her in anyway demon, you are mistaken."
The demon actually paused where he was adding herbs to the boiling water and turned to pin him with the same, creepy yellow eyes as before. They burned with intent and something that Sano did not like one bit.
"She is mine."
"Bullshit. She's her own."
He'd found more comforting smiles on the faces of dead goblins.
"She is mine human and you had best remember that. Her beast has agreed to the validity of my claim." He turned back to the kettle and poured two mugs before walking back over. One he settled against the hearth and the other he offered to Sano.
"If you catch a cold you will give it to Kaoru and I cannot allow that."
Sano almost tossed it back into the demon's face but he was right. Kaoru was the important one. Scowling in frustration he carefully took a sip and hoped it wasn't poison. To his surprised, instead of the bitter healing herbs it tasted… he tried to find the words and took another sip.
"If it was disgusting how would I get her to drink it?"
The connotation that he didn't care if Sano drank horse piss was in his voice and Sano bared his teeth at him, wondering again how much effort it would take to just kill this asshole and be done with it. Finishing off the warm tea, he stared suspiciously at every move the demon made near Kaoru. So far he hadn't tried to touch her or do more than adjust the level of wood in the fire and putter around the rest of the room, adjusting little carved animals or touching the plants hanging from the ceiling.
The tea took away the last of his chill and he sat and he was relieved to find that he had stopped shivering. If he was getting warm, then Kaoru wasn't so far gone she had to take the heat from everything that moved and was able to let the natural flow of the fire move around her instead of simply absorbing it. That meant her beast couldn't have been damage too badly in whatever foolhardy attempt to save them that transportation spell had been. Deciding he needed to check on Kaoru himself, he blinked when his body responded but sluggishly. He tried to move his muscles but they refused to lock into place.
"The… fuck?" Talking was a struggle.
"Such language is really unnecessary. There are things I must attend to Kaoru with and I know you would object." The redhead shrugged unconcerned as Sano slid gracelessly to the side, his entire body warm and too-relaxed to be natural. "The sedative I used is mild. It will wear off sometime in the morning."
Sano tried to get his jaws to work enough to curse as the demon glided forward, fisting his hand in Sano's shirt and calmly lifting him enough to keep from knocking his head on the floor as he dragged him forward into a separate room. Sano's lids felt heavy and no matter how hard he struggled mentally he couldn't even twitch a finger. The demon made a faint noise and hefted him onto what felt like his sleeping mat. Heat of a second fire chased away any remaining chill as he sank into the warmth in his veins.
"See? I am not completely unkind. Remember that."
Kaoru felt the fire first. It crackled against her skin with sun kissed fingers, stroking along her battered magic like a friend. She leaned into without thinking, tilting her face so the colors danced behind her eye lids. Sano must have managed to find shelter and wood dry enough to burn – although she had no idea how. Drowsily, she refused to think on the events of yesterday and instead, she allowed herself to soak in the soft brush of magic and the fire against her skin… the momentary feeling of safe.
Then she opened her eyes.
Whatever sense of peace and reassurance she had disappeared under a wave of disbelief. While it was true that Sano occasionally got lucky, he was almost always worse than her and this wasn't a small, dingy cave. They were in a small cabin that seemed to have been built from wood and stone. It trapped heat and magic in a way that she had only felt in temples and she couldn't immediately see Sano. Panic gave her the strength to sit up and she glanced around the room – and saw him. He was watching her from several feet away, standing in front of a second fire stirring something that smelled like stew. Long, rich red hair was plaited down his spine nearly to his hips – showing off pointed ears and pale, pale skin. But it was the bright yellow gaze drinking her in that set off butterflies in her stomach and closed her throat with panic.
"Your friend is sleeping in the next room. There wasn't room enough for both of you in front of this fire. He is comfortable enough in front of the second."
Kaoru stared at him. His voice was mellow, rich and deep and clearly set the tones he would use to sooth a frightened animal. Swallowing her gut reaction to reach for the fire and to throw it at him, she instead made a conscious effort to reel in the magic drinking so greedily from the flames. A slight wrinkle appeared between the demons brows but he said nothing, turning back to whatever was in that pot.
Shivering once she wasn't directly connected to the fire, she curled her arms around her middle and watched him warily. This was the demon she had seen in the sand market two years ago. She was certain of it. Surely there weren't that many demons wandering around with those eyes. But… what was he doing here and why had Sano taken refuge with him?
"Are you hungry?"
She stared suspiciously at him. He hadn't turned to see her reaction but she could feel his amusement at the way her stomach had responded to the suggestion of food. Checking her magic to make sure it was shut tight, she took a deep breath.
"Who are you?"
"For you? I am Kenshin. You are Kaoru."
"You're tall friend shouted your name on the mountain."
"So you didn't grab that bit of information while trying to get into my dreams?" Her voice was accusing and it didn't seem to bother him. In fact, the smile that crossed his face was satisfied, as if she had risen to some unknown challenge.
"The purpose of those dreams was neither to steal your name nor to hurt you, Kaoru." For the mocking smile curled along his mouth, his tone was surprisingly gentle. She frowned, not believing him.
"You're fire-beast is undamaged and I know only what you have allowed me."
Something about the angle of his eyes made her nervous. "Why are we here?"
"That spell you tried was very foolish, Kaoru. Trying to transport for that distance in the shape you were already in…" he clucked his tongue. "Even with the goblins, you should not have attempted it. Thankfully, I was able to sense you. Otherwise you would have shattered yourself."
"Sano is important to me." She met his gaze without flinching. "I will not let him die."
His eyes flared hot and they burned as they tried to tug her in. She set her magical heels and refused to budge. Thoughtfully, he finally nodded.
"Important… but not a lover."
"That's none of your business!"
He just gave her another one of those smiles and filled a flat metal plate full of the thick stew before brining it over, his intentions clear. She took it gingerly, expecting it to be hot but while there was steam coming from the top of the meal, the metal was cool to the touch. The display suggested more control than power but there was something about him that told her he was being careful not to show just how deep his vein of power ran. Not for the first time was she frustrated by her lack of knowledge of demons.
She gave him a suspicious glance and he smiled. "I will feed the great behemoth a meal when he wakes. But not if you do not eat your share now."
"I don't think I like you."
"I enjoy a challenge." He turned away, letting her eat in peace – forcing seconds on her when she had finished the first. He didn't ask, just claimed her plate and brought it back with a look. Glaring, she had complied because she was hungry and it was good. Really good. She had almost asked what he had used to make it but had decided not to. There was a smug look that said he knew she liked it and it pleased him. Her expression turned mulish when he brought over a mug of some sort of steaming drink.
"It will help you sleep."
"I need to see Sano."
"In the morning. My word will have to suffice."
"I assure you," Kaoru said tightly, "it does not."
He squatted down in front of her, close enough that she could smell the lingering spices from dinner on his skin. She was surprised to find that she had to work to keep from staring at his hair and the way the fire colored it.
"You almost shattered yourself today – you refuse to pull in the magic stored in this room for the single purpose of aiding you. You will rest, Kaoru. You may argue with me when you can perform a simple spell without fainting."
She narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth but his body shifted, a warning. So instead of arguing him about her ability to use fire, she picked the argument she had already established. Because she was not doing anything until she knew Sano was alive and well. Anything.
"I want to see him."
He sighed heavily and snapped his fingers. This time there was nothing subtle about the power he used. There was shifting, a sort of repression gone and suddenly the room vibrated with the sound of Sano's snores. A pained expression crossed Kenshin's face.
"He is dreadful."
Relief made her dizzy. Sano only snored like that when he was comfortable and deeply asleep – both things he would never be with this demon if there wasn't a reason. Kenshin was watching her with that pained amusement and she finally reached for the mug. She tried not to notice the way her fingers tingled when they brushed his. She glared down into the dark liquid.
"I hate tea."
"Unsurprising, considering humans will grind up almost anything for it. You will like this one."
She frowned at him and decided not to comment at that knowing expression behind his eyes. Eyes still focused intently on her, he moved his hand in a motion she didn't recognize, muffling the sounds of Sano sleeping again. Careful of the hot liquid, she took a delicate sip. Sunshine blossomed on her tongue and she blinked in surprise.
He smiled again, standing easily. "Finish the mug."
She wondered if hurling it at his back counted. Instead she took slow, careful sips until it was gone and set it on the floor. Reaching down, she rubbed her fingers along her shirt and then frowned, staring down at how clean it was and she flushed bright red.
"You changed my clothes!"
"You had been dropped in the mud at least once and it appeared you had chosen to dive headfirst into a pile of it. I thought you would appreciate being clean when you woke. If it makes you feel better, I used a spell."
"No it does not!"
He laughed and she really considered throwing the mug at him. Huffing, she stared at the flames blinking when she felt the first tendril of her magic reach out to tangle with the fire. Frowning she reached to pull it back it and found that she lacked the finesse. Brows tucking together, she felt several more threads connected to her fire-beast slowly begin to unwind from the coils she kept them in when she didn't trust her environment. Her fire-beast was sleeping, exhausted as she was but then…
She whipped around. "You drugged me."
"I told you the tea was to help you sleep," Kenshin corrected as he paced back over to pick up the mug.
She gaped at him as her magic sank completely into the flames. The heat from the tea was still there but it was spreading in time with the heat of her magic, warming her as it eased muscles tight with tension. "That's cheating!"
"Hardly, Kaoru. I told you exactly what you were drinking."
She glared at him. "You used mixed herbs with fire magic?"
"Yes. It's gentle enough that you won't wake with a hangover and it will allow your magic to work while you sleep." Kenshin smiled at her grumpy expression and knelt beside her, pressing his hand between her shoulder blades to hold her up as her muscles turned to liquid. "You need the magic, why are you fighting it?"
"I don't trust you."
"Fair enough," he agreed as he settled her back into the blankets, tucking them around her shoulder and chin as her eyes fluttered shut. "Get some rest, you can yell at me in the morning."
A sudden, golden rush of power washed over her skin and she gasped, unable to open her eyes to see where… Gentle fingers teased through her bang and she slid into sleep, skin and body absorbing the new power like a sponge.
[End Chapter One]