I am so freaking glad that this chapter is over. I know I rewrote it at least seven times. At least. Huge thanks to Vashka and Wren for saving my sanity. Jane Drew, Some_Scribbles and Dragonsdaughter for their encouragement.
This is done. Complete. Final Chapter. =)
Thank you so much for all the reviews! I hope you enjoy it!
Kaoru had no idea what Sano's distraction was although it seemed to involve a large number of small explosions. Since she knew the effort it took her friend to channel that kind of energy she forced herself not to think about what he had to be doing. Later… later she would have time to yell at him. Kenshin was a flickering, red-edged blur that moved through the goblins and the remaining human-husks. The ridge they were fighting on was several hundred yards wide but the sharp, jagged walls of the mountain rose up as a natural barrier on one side.
The rain made things tricky but not impossible as she worked to keep the grasping hands and poisoned teeth away from her while avoiding any deep ruts of mud. She shook her wet bangs out of her eyes and adjusted the grip she had on her sword. So far she hadn't found anything that looked like an entrance or the opening to a lair and she was starting to feel worried. Another wave of goblins crawled down a near-vertical rock outcrop and she cursed, looking to find room to move without being forced into the deep mud. Fire flicked out around in whip-like spirals and she worked to dry out her footing. Even worse was the smell. Thick, rotting mud and the smells of burnt goblin hardly made the air worth breathing.
Just as she started to work her way west along one wall, a sudden trembling in the earth caught her off guard. Glancing around to see if Sano had caused yet another explosion she stumbled as the ground directly under her seemed to pitch. She'd been in an earth quake before, but this wasn't quite like the ground shakes she had experienced. The sludge under her feet shivered and she stared in disbelief at a large ripple that flickered from one of those high walls towards her feet.
Then a wide, gaping chasm opened and rushed towards her.
She didn't have time or the balance to run as the ground shuddered and broke away. Slipping, she could only scramble as the ground she was straining against disappeared in a wet sucking noise. Stifling her scream, she clenched her teeth together to brace for whatever impact was coming just as something slammed into the back of her skull and her vision went dark.
When she woke, Kenshin was carrying her. Her first reaction was to wiggle so he would put her down, but her head throbbed at the movement and she stifled her groan against his shoulder. His chin brushed the top of her head and for a moment magic buzzed in the air, pushing lightly along flesh and sparking against her skin. Then it was gone and she was set carefully on her feet.
To her relief, one arm stayed firmly around her waist.
"My best guess? Goblins. The cave-in wasn't as wide as it was deep. We're a few hundred feet from the surface but it doesn't look like they did more than compromise the cave-ceiling in that one location."
Kaoru grimaced. Just her luck to be standing where the ground was weakest, then. She glanced around irritably and wished he had found her sword. "That could have been worse than it was."
"Hmm," he agreed.
She puffed out a breath and untangled her fingers from his shirt, taking a wobbly step on knees that weren't quite the consistency of jelly. "Sano?"
"As best I can tell, he is still aboveground."
Kaoru took a deep breath and immediately regretted it- the stench of rotting bodies was worse here. Pulling a face, she finally glanced around and realized that the cave-in had brought them into a series of tunnels. Now that her head was no longer buzzing from the fall, she could feel the itch of foreign magic.
"Well… the good news appears to be that we've fallen into the den." Kaoru muttered, rubbing the back of her neck where the worst of the magic induced buzzing seemed to be centered. She frowned. She didn't remember reading any reports on cave systems…
"Is this system extensive?"
He arched a red brow at her, before scanning the area. "The Dragon's Back is riddled with caves; it's why there is such a problem with Goblins and other larger predators. By the stench, it appears that there are more than just goblins and humans down here."
Kenshin shrugged one shoulder, but his finger traced up behind her ear, along her neck and dispelling the worse of the buzz before settling against what felt like good sized bump. "Are you alright?"
"A bit dizzy but that won't last long." Lifting her gaze back to his face, she studied him. "How did I end up with only a bump?"
"I caught you."
She frowned at him, trying to calculate how that was possible. "The floor disappeared and you caught me?"
His eyes glittered with repressed amusement. "Yes."
She puffed out her cheeks for a moment – considering what that would have taken – before blowing out a breath. "You didn't tell me you were that fast."
A faint smile tugged at his mouth. "Would you have believed me?"
"I have no idea." Reaching up she brushed her bangs out of her eyes. "How well can you see in the dark?"
He paused for a long moment, magic constricting around him. "Fairly well; but nothing will sneak up on us, if that is what has you worried."
She shook her head, trying to assimilate the assumptions she had been running on with what was now in front of her. "No, I was hoping to get a lot closer to the soul eater without giving away exactly where we are. I know the cave-in eliminates most of our surprise, but…"
She chewed on her lip for a moment. "How extensive do you believe these caves are?"
"The echoes are deep."
Kaoru pursed her lips and considered that. "Do you think it is possible to go back up?"
"No. We will have to find our way from here."
"We'll there must be a way if the goblins are about…" She let her words trail off.
"Something is bothering you."
"We need to kill the soul eater."
She was silent for a long moment. "Its… these tunnels should be overrun with goblins. This is breeding season and even without the soul eater…."
She felt uneasy. Why had the local temple sent out one small detail to deal with the goblin menace in this area if there was such an extensive area of caves for breeding? Even worse, this would be known as a trouble spot. She and Sano were independent of the foot-ranks, but they should have been aware…especially with the possibility of the eclipse. With the complete change in mindset she had been attempting with Kenshin and now this... she felt more than a little disturbed. What was going on?
Kenshin cut into her thoughts. "The floor is littered with rocks and decaying bodies; there is also the matter of the uneven floor."
The silent 'you can't see where you are going' hung between them. She grimaced. "Excellent."
"I could carry you."
She blinked. "How would you fight?"
His teeth glinted white in the murky light. "Neither the soul eater or the host shells can come close enough to engage either of us without my knowledge. But we need to move – either to find a way out or to track down your soul eater."
This was probably their best chance to find and kill the soul eater. Pursing her lips, she finally nodded. "Let's kill it."
The trip was surprisingly comfortable: he was warm and solid against her front, and her knees were braced on his forearms as he walked. It gave her an excellent opportunity to feel the play and shift of muscles under his back and shoulders as he moved. Under the stench of goblin gunk and the faint scent of sweat were the heat of embers and the slightest touch of ginger. His gait was surprisingly smooth on the rough ground and her aching body appreciated it. Her neck and shoulders were tight with strain and the pounding in the back of her head was only worsened by the scattered sensations of foreign magic. The fact that the cave darkened until she couldn't see even her hand in front of her face as they walked…
"Do you do this often?" She hoped he would tell her if talking was a bad idea. As it was, the darkness swallowed her whisper.
He paused for a moment, body loose even as he stared thoughtfully in the absolute darkness around them. When he spoke, his voice was as soft as hers had been. "Do what?"
"I have a friend who used to be particular about her play-rides as a child…" his tone was absent but his thumb roved along her calf before he started walking again. Kaoru wondered if she was broadcasting her nerves.
Shaking off her unease, she couldn't do anything about it now; she let herself be distracted by his words. She twisted a tie from his shirt between her fingers as she considered his statement. It shouldn't have surprised her that he had friends – eccentric ones if she was hearing it right – but she hadn't honestly stopped to consider it. This… demon had a life somewhere else. But he was here, with her, chasing down soul eaters.
"Do you want to go back?"
He didn't bother pretending he didn't understand the question, for which she was grateful.
"I plan to, eventually." He traced another one of those almost-patterns against her leg. "But I am content here."
There was silence except for the faintest sound of his boots against the packed earth and her uneven, nervous breathing. She wished she knew how he walked so silently, even carrying an extra hundred pounds of weight on his back. Another spike of that magic told her he was moving in the right direction and she chewed on her lip. The stench had deadened her nose enough that if they were passing any new bodies, she couldn't tell. She wondered if he could see in the endless darkness or if he had another way of walking unhampered.
"What about you?"
She jumped a little at his sudden comment and she swallowed, pulling herself together. "Hmmm?"
"Do you have any particular wish to stay in this layer?"
She frowned at him in the darkness. She assumed that he was partially aware of her family circumstances but… "I have… never considered the possibility of leaving. I could never leave Sano behind."
He stopped then, as if digesting her words. "You have no other family?"
She curled her fingers into his shirt on reflex and then hastily let go. Those were memories she couldn't afford to touch right now. "My parents died a long time ago. My ties here are to Sano and to my oaths."
He started walking again, without making any comment and she was thankful. Then she remembered that he had said he was an orphan and raised by his master. Biting her lip, she shifted a little and carefully rested her cheek against his shoulder, letting the feel of him calm her jumpy nerves. She fingers tightened around the tie in his shirt as she realized what she was doing… and how much she instinctively trusted him by doing it.
"I cannot extend your Sano's life, Kaoru."
She frowned. "I know. My life is… was always going to be longer than his." She considered what he was asking without asking and sighed. "Sano… Sano will find his way, Kenshin. But I will not leave him."
"Is… is that why so many people wish to bond with your kind? The belief that you can save their loved ones?" If so, why did the temple discourage such relationships?
Kenshin was silent long enough that she wondered if he was going to answer. "There have been times in the past were such things were possible – but it is not my kind of magic and the price has always been high. But yes, in the beginning before your kind struck its bonds with the elemental beasts, a demon was a chance to cheat death."
Kaoru frowned, trying to understand his tone and then stilled. The twist in her gut told her she wasn't as okay with what she was thinking as she should be. She hesitated, wondering if this was even the moment to bring it up… and then swallowed her fear.
"There was someone else, wasn't there. Before me."
Kenshin stopped walking.
"Not in the way that you are thinking." He said quietly. "There was a war. It is not unusual; they crop up every few generations or so. We have learned to go to a layer instead of bringing the layer to us… but yes, there was… someone."
At her silence, he jostled her a little.
"I told you that demons wait for magic to match them."
"Religion is a human expression but… to put it in a context that you know; I suppose you could say magic is our religion. And like most religions, turning away from it has consequences."
"What do you mean?"
"For a time, I did consider the possibility of bonding with her . I have lived a long time and even demons are given to doubting. But she failed the basic tests that I demanded of myself and I refused. It was clear that she wasn't interested in more than my magic and that it could save what was left of her family. I chose to stay to the path magic had laid out for me. My refusal eventually caused… problems."
There was a wealth of information missing in those sentences, but this wasn't the time. Instead, she latched on to what he could answer now.
"I don't remember any tests."
He laughed silently, body moving against hers. "That is the point, Kaoru – if you knew you were being tested you might have reacted differently. But for you… the tests were different. Magic chose you. That is the difference."
The tie cut into her fingers. "So you really didn't make a snap decision about this."
"But you expected me too?"
He considered her words. "I did not expect you to so forcefully reject my attempts to get to know you through your dreams. By the time you tried to splice yourself, I had less patience than I had anticipated."
She frowned. "That doesn't sound like an apology."
She felt his amusement. "It isn't."
She pinched him and then jumped when he lightly returned the favor.
"I should warn you, I will not give up easily."
She blew out a breath and glared at where she thought the back of his head was. "I don't make decisions like this lightly."
"At least you are thinking about it."
And she was. She just didn't think her thoughts were moving in the direction he thought they were. All she could think about, the thought bouncing around in the back of her head like a demented humming bird was that the temple had been wrong. The one defense she had been capable of using to avoid this… relationship, was based on the belief that demons were monsters.
She had grown up with a family that had taught acceptance. She had learned the hard way as a teenager what happens when you aren't accepted by those with the power to persecute. Then she had spent a wild eighteen-months on the trade caravan before she found herself enrolled in temple classes to hone her abilities. It wasn't until the temple training that the idea that demons were evil. It wasn't really until she had met the demon's gaze in the desert that she had honestly started to dig into what humans knew about them. What she found had left her knowing she had to avoid the demon bothering her and all kinds of other preconceived notions.
And Kenshin clearly didn't fit any of them. Oh, he certainly didn't have her morals and he had a skewed, demonic view of things but he wasn't evil. He was just different. And unfortunately, she was beginning to see that those differences were ones that she could accept – if she wanted to.
"We're getting close."
Kaoru opened her eyes wide in darkness and besides more of that smell, couldn't locate anything that would let her know what she was facing. The muscles under her stomach and fingers were tense – the faint noise of footsteps disappearing completely as he moved slowly forward. Kaoru curled her fingers into his shirt and worked on keeping her breathing light and near-silent.
She was prepared Kenshin stopping, but the way he let her body slide slowly down his back was not what she has been expecting. Glaring in the direction of his face, she would have sworn she felt him amusement before he placed one hand on her shoulder and directed her into a crouch before joining her. His breath was hot against her ear when he spoke again.
"There is a small bend and an out cropping of rocks between us and the soul-eater's lair."
"How many?" her voice was a mere thread of sound.
Kenshin paused. "It is difficult to pinpoint them as individuals – an exact number will require light."
Light would mean an immediate attack. Kaoru chewed on her bottom lip as she stared blankly at the darkness, Kenshin's shoulder warm against her own. She hadn't anticipated dealing with more than one soul eater. She swallowed down her instinctive horror and forced herself to think. So if it had completed its gate… how long ago was that? How many had crawled through?
"I will buy you time."
Kaoru's head lifted and she wished she could see him. "You can kill Soul Eaters?"
"Not in this number." He murmured quietly. "There are… limitations to the amount of power I can manifest at any one time in this layer."
Warm fingers ghosted over her wrist. "Channeling power to you does not upset the balance."
Running her fingers through her bangs, she made a soft noise of frustration. She had no idea what he was talking about. Another set of questions to ask about later. Taking a deep breath, she considered her options. Soul eaters had to be burned out – it was the only way to destroy their magic. Even with Kenshin's power pressing so thickly against her barriers, the effort of calling her beast to that level of manifestation… It would take every drop of personal power she had. In those few moments where she was pulling up her magic it would leave her completely dependent on Kenshin for protection. He had proven that he would go to whatever lengths it would take to protect her but…
Warm lips brushed her ear as Kenshin spoke. "You will take whatever you need to destroy these creatures, Kaoru."
"Whatever lengths necessary," he repeated. "I will attack them to buy you the time you need for this. Do not do anything that will allow those creatures near your soul, Kaoru – I will not share it." Something like humor lightened the hard tone of his voice as he curled his fingers around her elbow, helping her stand. "At least, not anymore than I already am."
A quick, playful brush of his fingers against her cheek and then she was alone in the darkness. He had stopped making any noise in the darkness and she stood there, senses straining to feel anything other than the buzz of his magic against her skin. The sudden fire-bright flare high in the uneven ceilings almost blinded her for a moment. By the time she regained her ability to see, the sound of steel humming through the air sounded loud in the stillness of the cave.
Using the time he was buying for her, she crept around the edge of the outcropping she could just make out in the flickering light Kenshin was holding for her. The sight made her heart sink and she couldn't breathe. For a moment, even the buzzing in her head faded away. Not only had the soul eater had already completed its gate… it had already started to bring over its nest. This many soul eaters would stay in the caves until the infestation was near-endless. Multiple gates. Large families. Uneasy suspicions that the temple was somehow involved. More importantly – she had never heard of a nest this large being exterminated completely.
She stared at the writhing bodies and tentacles that filled the cavern with horror – even as her eyes moved to track the way Kenshin moved through them. She stared at the writhing bodies and tentacles that filled the cavern with horror – even as her eyes moved to track the way Kenshin moved through them. For a moment, the stark terror faded under her anger as the certainty that Kenshin had realized the situation and chosen not to tell her burned in her stomach. She either used what her apparent personal demon was offering… or they would consume all the life on this layer before moving into the next. In order to let loose the manifestation of her fire-beast… she would have to let her inner-barriers fall.
All of them.
Damn him, he'd known.
So her choice was to let the demon crawl through her inner barriers… or let the soul eaters continue to grow until the end of the eclipse. Which he knew… the urge to throttle him was strong enough that her fingers curled into fists. Stupid, stupid Kaoru for forgetting that he was a demon and that while he was willing to protect her, he wasn't against using this to this advantage. Damn him, he'd kept her just off balance enough in the cave that she hadn't really considered what would happen if there was more than on soul eater – kept her from considering that she might run into this situation. And she'd let him. She'd been curious.
And she'd fail to plan ahead and protect herself from this very situation – a promise not to use her unleashing as a chance to surround her soul in magic and fire. She could almost bet he'd been waiting for this since she had sat up in his cabin and told him her intentions to find the soul eater and kill it. She just wished she knew if she was pissed because he had let her create her own trap or that she'd fallen for it. It was her own damn sense of justice that had gotten her into this mess. Damn, sneaky, unscrupulous demon who had managed to win her without her permission after all.
Her eyes flickered to the blur that was Kenshin as he moved through tentacles, the thick stench of decaying bodies mingling with the burning of something other; faint trails of fire flickering around him and the steel of his blade. He seemed unfazed by any of it and she could feel the beat of his magic moving around her like a cloak. Her jaw clenched for just a moment, she fantasized about just leaving him there – it would serve him right. But the remembrance of her body's reaction to him at the cabin, his unusual gentleness with her as she recovered from their fall. The way he had teased her as he carried through the darkness of the cavern. His honesty in answering her questions, even the uncomfortable ones. How he made her feel safe. The fact that even pissed enough to see red… she still found herself wanting him. Didn't mean she wasn't going to make him pay for it later.
Rolling silently to her feet, she curled her mental-fingers inside her barriers and wrapped herself in her elemental-beast and untangled her defenses. This was not the small opening she had granted Kenshin earlier, but an unleashing. And with each strand she pulled away, Kenshin's power wiggled in. She let it. She felt him, felt the heat of his awareness as he paused in his battle.
She lifted her gaze. Power pulsed around him, burned along his eyes and tossed his messy bangs. There was awareness and the scorching, narrow eyed gaze cut into her like a knife. She held his gaze and met it. His sword flickered out, destroying a tentacle and then his lips curled upwards in a triumphant, sharply edged smile. The last of her barriers gave way and as her beast unfurled its wings, Kenshin's power rushed to fill all the empty places inside her soul. Unlike that first rush of her fire-beast, this felt like more – it wasn't just power, but it a tangible emotion that felt like a moment she was overwhelmed in fire and magic, the sensation of drowning in heat – and then she was back on her feet and the world was brightening in scarlet and white as her beast manifested in the dark gloom of the cave.
For the first time in her life, Kaoru really understood the draw of power. In the past, she had felt hallow, weak in her joints in that absentminded awareness she maintained as she let her beast out to destroy her enemies – now she felt full. Heat swam through her in waves, holding her steady as her senses tangled with the bird that was a manifestation of her soul. It screamed in challenge, the haunting notes of its song filling her ears until the cave disappeared in a wash for light and fire.
The cave was filled with color and the strange, twisted shapes and tentacles that launched themselves at her were a wrong, disembodied vibration that angered her. Twisting along the paths of fire and magic that were second nature, she let claw and talon tear through the wrongness of them, pushing fire and magic until the sense of it disappeared.
Kaoru had no idea how long she hovered in that mingled awareness.
She had noticed before that her phoenix-self saw colors differently – saw more than she could translate as a human. But looking at Kenshin, she realized just had different the depths were. The red of his hair was deeper and brighter, a glitter of amber-gold and sunshine in his eyes that was more yellow than she could describe. It was if all the human expectations had been stripped from his skin and she seeing something raw… something inhuman. The fact that he was so utterly beautiful even now…
She wondered what he saw when he looked at her.
For an endless moment she and the phoenix hovered, staring down at the demon sheathing its sword. Then, suddenly, the phoenix folded its wing and dissolved into a waterfall of fire, falling back beneath her skin like water. She staggered, slipping and landing on her butt as her knees gave out from the exertion of the battle and the return of her elemental. Her eyes closed as it swelled and filled the grooves and places that Kenshin's magic hadn't settled into, curled up in its place in her soul. The world was tilting a little at the corners from sudden exhaustion but instead of a raging migraine from overuse, she felt like her bones had been replaced with jelly.
A warm, long fingered palm settled between her should blades. She had felt him approach and had been leaning into his touch before he even reached her. Cracking her eyes open, she watched the emotions flicker across his face, the dark gold of his eyes.
Without a properly functioning skeletal system, she had nothing to hold her up and she let Kenshin take her weight. She didn't bother to reply. Trusting him to take care of her, she let go so she could examine how much damage if any had been done to her internal webs of magic. With her beast returned to its rightful place, she found that Kenshin's magic was twining itself along her core and her barriers, strengthening and filling in the weak points.
When she opened her eyes, she was outside and it was still misting. Kenshin must have found an overhanging that blocked most of the wind. Blinking, she blew her bangs out of her eyes as her arms still weren't responding properly. While she objected to feeling like a rag doll, the utter lack of burning headache was nice.
"You're awake then."
Carefully turning her head – her neck, at least, was working – she met Sano's tense expression. Relief flooded through her at seeing her friend in one piece. There was a bruise on one cheekbone and his eyes looked tired but there was a long stem of grass sticking out one side of his mouth. A clear sign that he was comfortable enough for habits.
He snorted, tilting his face so that the drizzle hit the back of his cloak and not his face. "You fainted."
"I did not."
"Uh huh," Sano arched a brow, gaze cutting in her direction. "Your eyes were closed and you fell over. What else do you call that?"
"You weren't even there!" She flexed her fingers, waiting for the tingling sensation of limbs waking up to fade. "Some distraction you were!"
Sano sat up straight, looking affronted while he pulled the grass out of his mouth "Hey now! My distraction was perfect! You're the one who fell down some damn little hole and left me to deal with all the half-corpses that kept trying to bite me! My plan was perfect, your follow through sucked!"
"You blew up some rocks! That probably helped create the 'little hole' I took a nose dive into you!"
"Like hell!" He pointed a finger at her. "This one is entirely your fault; you and your damn knack for falling off shit."
"Because you knock me off!"
"You're shields are fine, although I had hoped you'd be resting." Kenshin's voice cut into their growing argument and she twisted her head to see him walking down a rock at an angle that should have been impossible. His expression was surprisingly bland and as he crouched down, she could feel him brushing through her.
"I was not aware that your elemental beast was more than a mere fire-bird."
Sano's head snapped around. "What? You told him?"
Kaoru fisted her hands. "Sano! I just dealt with a nest of soul eaters. He watched me fight them. Of course he knows!"
"Of all the fucking…Kaoru! You went fire-bird in there? Without me? We have rules about this!"
Her bones were starting to feel less like soggy bread and more like slightly-chewed on sticks, so she leaned forward and bared her teeth. "Soul. Eater. Nest. How else was I suppose to kill them?"
Warm fingers curled her shoulders and she found herself settled back against the rock wall. Yellow eyes gleamed with amusement and a possessiveness she hadn't quite noticed before.
"Why a phoenix, Kaoru?"
"So she can bloody try to kill herself as many times as she wants. She apparently likes the practice," Sano snapped.
Kenshin went still and tense next to her. She mentally cursed. "That isn't it!"
Sano's jaw worked, teeth grinding as he bit down on whatever remark was about to explode out. Since Kenshin was watching her with eyes that could cut through glass, she didn't mind at all that her tall friend was probably cracking his molars. Instead she drew a deep breath and leveled Kenshin with a look.
"It's not that."
Kaoru really wished for something heavy to hit him with. "Sano, shut up! I can only deal with one of you at a time!"
And Kenshin had gone all quiet and dangerous inside the pocket of her soul. Closing her eyes, she counted to ten, steadied herself and then opened her eyes.
"It was an accident. My father had died recently and my gift… one of the local medicine men took me out into a field and left me. Either I found something or some way to control the fire or they return it to the gods."
"They didn't take you a temple?"
"The nearest temple… was not an option at the time." Kaoru said quietly. "I don't know what I did wrong in the summoning. I didn't even know that it wasn't…" she shrugged. "I couldn't go back to the village so I ended up hitching along with a merchant train, which is where I met Sano."
"I still want to know why you felt comfortable showing fang-y here your damn bird!" Sano said, breaking into the way she couldn't quite pull herself out of Kenshin's gaze to finish the story.
"Kenshin told you there was an entire family of them?" Kaoru snarled, turning to glare at him.
Sano flexed his fingers. "He might have mentioned something about numbers."
"An infestation like that takes time."
Some of the rage left his expression and he ran his hand over his face, wiping away the thin layer of water. "What are you saying?"
She took a long, slow breath. "It might have been a test."
Sano exploded into a series of curses and Kenshin leaned forward, amber eyes intent. "What kind of test?"
Kaoru met his gaze and bit back the smart remark hovering on the edge of her tongue. "The temple is unaware of the true nature of my fire-beast. I've done my best to keep it that way. They don't care for the greater creatures…"
"A few years ago, there was an incident." Sano's face was tight. "I thought I killed all those bastards."
Kaoru shrugged. "I don't know. But we have to face the possibility that word was sent back. I just don't… it's an eclipse."
Warm, calloused fingers curved around her fisted hand. "You're worried about the temple."
"I…it's a possibility that they know about my fire-beast… but it might have nothing to do with those oaths." She hesitated and then shrugged. "I've been asking a lot of questions about demons."
Then there was the fact that the temple had obviously lied about demons. If what Kenshin had said was true – everything in her soul said it was – then there were far reaching issues that she hadn't even started to consider. What was the temple gaining from such doctrines, how did that affect their relationships with the bonded humans and what was she going to do about it?
Kenshin faced her. "You believe they sent you here to die because of our connection."
"I don't know." Kaoru said slowly before scowling. "And there wasn't a 'connection' before this. It's more likely that someone could have discovered the truth of what I carry… I just don't know."
"That's why you asked about the cave system." Kenshin said suddenly, eyes narrowing into slits. There was something dangerous lurking behind his eyes and the magic around her thickened, twisting into thick ropes that were making it hard to breathe. She bit her lip and glanced at Sano who frowned for a moment and then shrugged and stepped back into the light rain.
Taking a deep breath, she leaned forward and jabbed him in the shoulder. She might have accepted what her soul had been telling her about this demon from the beginning – before she realized how sneaky he was – but that didn't mean he wasn't in trouble.
"You did that on purpose."
He arched a brow, gaze meeting hers. "Did what?"
"You know exactly what." To prove her point, she ran mental fingers along the edges of the power curled inside her. She wasn't prepared for the way his eyes glazed just slightly before he shook himself, the edge of his mouth curled to show the sharp point of one fang. To distract herself, she took a deep breath and jumped into the argument with both feet.
"So how long have you been planning to take advantage of the situation?" The words ground out between her locked teeth and he had the audacity to look amused. Instead of backing away to give them both some space, he shifted forward, pressing one hand against the wall next to her and pressing caging her in with the warmth of his body.
"I haven't started to take advantage, Kaoru."
She snorted. "Bullshit."
His eyes glittered. "Such a grumpy little mage."
"I did no such thing."
Both eyebrows arched. "You did too. You knew I would have to choice between letting my barriers down and dealing with what was in those caves. I just don't know how you knew!"
He shrugged, completely unrepentant. "I had considered the possibility that there were more… creatures than you had anticipated."
She started to open her mouth, angry, but his fingers slid over her lips.
"However, even I could not have planned for such an event or that you would bare your soul in such a manner. Hope… well, that is something else entirely. It was your choice, Kaoru to let me in to save yourself and I am not leaving."
She clenched her teeth to keep from biting him. When his fingers trailed down her chin to curve along her jaw, she managed to gain enough control to keep from strangling him.
"Which was cheating."
"Your soul welcomes mine."
His eyes and tone challenged her to deny it and she couldn't. She didn't really want to argue about this either but she had hoped she would have time to think about what her realizations in the cave meant without his demanding her honesty. Because if she hadn't accepted that the temple had lied, if she hadn't made the decision to trust him before she reached the soul eaters, she would have broken herself to dissolve the bond between them, even though her soul craved his. When she stayed silent, the lines of his body relaxed and he leaned in even further, forcing her to meet his eyes.
"Your soul welcomes me ." The careful, measured weight of his words demanded a response and she blew out a long breath.
His kiss was claiming. Her fingers curled into fists as he angled her jaw with his hands just so and possessed her mouth in a way he hadn't before. One hand slid slowly down her neck, curling along her collarbones as he leaned into her. The echo of the bond between them washed through her like the desert sun and when he pulled back, lips as kiss bruised as her own – he smiled.
"I told you that you are mine."
"I do not understand your obsession for the desert. You have your own little space heater. I'm the one who has to suffer through the cold now that we pitch two tents." Sano groused as he flopped next to her, bare-chested and without his boots.
"I thought you were going to go bother other people … like that lady doctor."
"She threw me out."
Kaoru laughed, "Unsurprising."
"The Priests wanted to know where you were. I told them you were baking. They were impressed with the soul eater kills, but were a bit displeased we lost so many men. We're on temporary suspension until they can look into the details."
Kaoru cracked an eye open. "What did you think?"
"Hell if I know." He ran his hands through his hair. "I just… don't know. There was something…off, today. Anyway, they don't know about short and brimstone yet. I think it's a good idea if we don't bring him up anytime soon."
She sighed and nodded before making a face. "He isn't made of brimstone, Sano."
"Sure he isn't."
Sano tilted his head, shutting his eyes. "Where is he anyway? Here I thought he would be taking the opportunity to jump down your pants while I was gone. Especially since he's been doing it everywhere else." The last of his sentence was muttered.
Kaoru flushed scarlet and scooped up a hand of sand, throwing it at him. "Sanosuke!"
Sano blinked rapidly and glared at her, curling his fingers through the sand as if he was considering retaliation. "It's the truth and you know it."
"I've only known him for three weeks, regardless of everything else." Kaoru said through clenched teeth. "I'm not ready for… that."
And like hell if she was going to make anything easy for him. His damnable, amused patience just made her want to suffocate him with his pillow.
Sano shrugged and dug his fingers into the sun baked grains. "I don't care. Just make sure you have some damn silencing spells up when you do decide you're ready for that."
Kaoru shot him a furious look. "So says the man who's snoring is so damn loud we were politely asked to pay the fee for someone to come in and spell your room or leave!"
"The demon paid for it!"
There was a snort and Kenshin dropped into a crossed legged position, brow arched over pale eyes. Kaoru tried and failed not to stare at the expanse of his bare chest and shoulders. "I paid it because Kaoru wanted to sleep somewhere nice. Next time, I'll offer to suffocate you while you're sleeping."
Sano made a rude hand gesture and Kaoru kicked sand on him, but aimed at his legs, thankful for the distraction. Kenshin was already watching her with a knowing smile. "I'm trying to nap here and if you two don't stop it, you can leave."
Kenshin's response was to scoot closer and tangle his fingers with hers, ignoring Sano's irritated mumblings and her grumpy stare. She shut her eyes in an attempt to block them both out. She wouldn't put it past either of them to fall into a staring match but she supposed if she didn't see it she couldn't start complaining, yet.
The Temple was going to be a problem, but not one that she would have to deal with just yet. She hadn't even started finding where the original corruption started… or if it was corruption at all. It could have just been that this was the way it had always been, but what did it mean if that was the case?
The two week suspension gave her some time to think. Her magic levels had balanced weeks ago thanks to Kenshin, but there was nothing like laying out in the desert sun, her beast a warm layer of protection from sunburn while her magic lazily curled around her. It was different now with Kenshin. He was a warm ball of power next to her beast and he was the first layer of shields around her magic. They were still working on the perimeters of their relationship and while they shared a tent they rarely shared sleeping space.
When she told Sano she wasn't ready for more in their relationship yet, she meant it.
Kenshin's thumb brushed along her palm, a silent reminder that he was there – and half-naked –and worked to keep from smiling. She really didn't plan on making it easy and he saw too much as it was. No, whatever came up she would just have deal with it.
Sand landed on her face.
Oh, she'd handle it alright. And she'd start by clunking their thick skulls together.