So this story is done. I think I've managed to tie up most of the loose ends, but some of them would have required too many pages. As it is, this story was just shy of 100 and this was supposed to have been a one-shot. Obviously, there might eventually be a follow up, but no promises as those usually go as the muse demands and the muse on this story took its sweet, sweet time anyway. I hope you've enjoyed my little dragon story, because I certainly have.
Kaoru crouched low, bare feet silent as she skulked along the edges of a high hedge. The ground was soft, damp from early dew and she paused when she heard a soft grunt as her stalker clearly miss stepped. Carefully, she crept forward, distributing her weight so as not to make a sound. This would have been impossible to do silently if she'd been in a dress. Angling around the corner, she rose onto the balls of her feet and counted to four before springing forward and crashing into her prey. Yelping as they skidded across the slick grass, the warm body wiggled furiously against her expert hold.
Laughing, she wiggled her fingers between his ribs and tickled. Angry huffing turned into laughter and his wiggling became desperate. Smile curving her lips, she kept him pinned and grinned at his bright red face.
Panting, cheeks puffing out, Yahiko glared up at her. "You cheated."
Kaoru arched both brows. "How?"
"You took your boots off!"
Pursing her lips, she fought off a smile and instead tried to look stern. "Was this one of the rules you gave me?"
He sighed heavily. "No."
Losing her fight with her grin, she poked him. "Then why didn't you take off your boots?"
Yahiko's nose wrinkled. "It's wet."
Laughing, she pushed up to her knees then stood, hauling him up with her. "Wet or not, your boots were a liability this morning. So what does that mean?"
Grumpily, he crossed his arms. "Either take off my boots or learn how not to slip when I'm stalking someone."
Reaching out, Kaoru ruffled his hair. "Good. We'll work on that. It's important to know how to keep your footing regardless of the environment."
Yahiko grumbled. "It's going to be so much easier when I can fly."
"You've got a good 85 years of growth before you can even start worrying about that," she reminded him with a smile. "And it's important that you learn how to move now, when you're smaller. It'll help."
Yahiko rolled his eyes. "I know, I know." Striking a pose, he lowered his voice and managed an imitation of their father that was close enough to perfect that her breath caught. "Yahiko! There is a difference between balancing on two feet, and moving without anyone noticing as a sixty foot dragon with four feet and a tail. Practice!"
Laughing around the lump in her throat, Kaoru shook her head. "And yet, you can't manage not to slip in boots."
Sticking out his tongue, he glanced up at the sun. Kaoru followed his gaze and nodded. "It's time for you to clean up and get breakfast so that you're ready when your tutor makes an appearance. We'll have lunch outside today since it looks like the clouds are going to stay gone."
Brightening at the idea of spending more time in the sunshine, Yahiko bounced on his toes before taking off, the sprint back to the house helping to burn off some of his excess energy. Kaoru watched him, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. She'd come to appreciate these mornings, taking the time to slowly build her own endurance back up after her injuries. Her play with Yahiko was for her as much as him and the morning exercise was doing wonders for him. They were still taking things slow, only an hour of play before he went inside for lessons and then another hour in the afternoon and evening, but he wasn't flagging as quickly and he moved easily. The run to the house wasn't far, but even two weeks ago, he'd have stopped part of the way to suck air before determinedly taking off again.
The spell damage had lingered longer than Megumi had anticipated, and the worst of it had finally healed… at least physically. Her little brother was trying, but she caught him watching her in the evenings, as if he wasn't completely certain she wouldn't disappear. She'd feel his magic periodically throughout the day, that bright brush of sunshine against her dragon, a quick touch to assure Yahiko that she was okay. She didn't mind it. The practice of control was good for him. And it let both of them relax… especially on the nights when Kenshin was gone, handling business in Venice or somewhere on the estate. Yahiko and Kenshin had bonded almost seamlessly and her brother was at his most relaxed when both she and Kenshin were around. It was partly why she thought they had settled here along the Brenta River, instead of the Alps as Kenshin had originally planned.
Moving a little further out into the hedges, she sat down on one of the many benches in the lovely garden and sighed deeply, tilting her face to catch the early morning sun. It was hard to believe that it had been three months since she had gone to Himura for help. They'd been at the country villa for several weeks now and the warm sunshine and fresh air had done wonders for everyone. To Kaoru's surprise, Tae and Katsu had come with them, along with shy little Tsubame. It was one of the reasons for Yahiko's eager sprint back to the house – the little human witch and her brother had taken a mutual liking for each other, and Tae kept an eye on both.
With Tae running the household and Katsu acting as a surprisingly efficient tutor, Kaoru found she had more time on her hands than she could remember having to herself. Even when her father had been alive, she'd had a great deal of responsibilities she'd been force to jungle under her human alias. She didn't doubt that if and when she accepted this courtship for more, there would be responsibilities given into her keeping but for now this… free time was a little strange.
It had taken her several days to settle in – the villa was… opulent, somehow managing to be richly decorated and amazingly comfortable. If someone told her that Kenshin kept a considerable portion of his horde here, she wouldn't have been surprised. She'd spent the first two days fretting over how some of the more priceless pieces would survive a small dragon learning his own strength, which apparently hadn't gone unnoticed. No one had said a word, but some of the more delicate pieces had been switched to pieces that were just as lovely, but somewhat sturdier.
She wasn't certain of the exact acreage of the estate, but the nearest neighbors were more than half a day's ride by human standards. She was certain Kenshin would tell her if she asked but there were still some details that she wasn't exactly comfortable with needing to know… much to Kenshin's amusement. Blushing as she remembered that warm, affectionate expression he wore every time he managed to fluster her, she kicked her feet, enjoying the cool grass and admiring the beauty of the garden in the early sunshine.
She'd lived comfortably with her father, but this was different. Chewing on her lip, she twisted her fingers through her hair, thinking of the rooms she shared with Kenshin and the sneaky way he kept rearranging things and hiding small presents. He paid an almost unnerving amount of attention to the smallest of her reactions, her preferences. At first it had been embarrassing, leaving the woman a bit bewildered, but her dragon had simply rolled in the attention.
It wasn't that she wasn't flattered by everything, she was. Her dragon was quite impressed by him, even if it believed this was entirely her due; what was the point of a hoard if not to spoil her? It was an attitude she wasn't doing a very good job of shifting into her human perspective. Kenshin seemed to understand, and even find it mildly amusing, and she wished she had someone to ask about this. She wasn't unhappy, quite the opposite, but she occasionally found herself off balance. Kaoru supposed that was the usual learning curve for a relationship and wondered if most women would have gone to their mothers during such a time.
It just made her miss her father.
Having Yahiko back was a balm to her emotions but sometimes he'd stand a certain way, or like this morning, strike a pose and mimic their father with such accuracy she found her heart hitching in her chest. She hadn't realized until they had relocated here, with Yahiko running wildly through the perfect gardens, how much she actually missed him. Hadn't realized how tired she'd been until the worst of her burdens' had disappeared. She was relaxed, rested and content for the first time in two years… but it also gave her a chance to remember why she'd thrown herself into the care of her brother and her estate.
"You missed breakfast."
Kaoru blinked and looked up, breath catching in her throat. Kenshin was in the simple clothing she had learned he preferred, a soft shirt and equally soft breaches; his boots were a practical pair that hugged his calves in the dragon fashion instead of those ridiculous human shoes. He looked comfortable and inviting and she kept from reaching for him with a restraint she didn't know she had; it'd been a week since she'd seen him. He'd been in Venice handling a series of issues that had required the Councils judgment. An amused smile curled his lips as he took her in, eyes lingering on her bare toes before he walked forward and joined her.
Once he had settled, his fingers curled through hers, tugging her against his shoulder. Letting him pull her close, she pressed her face against his shoulder for a minute, breathing in the scent of him. The heat and magic of his dragon was close, which meant he had flown in before dawn had truly lifted over the horizon. She and Yahiko had already been out, chasing each other through the hedges, stalking through the flower beds and wrestling through the damp earth. She knew she looked a mess – her clothes were both damp and muddy, bare hands and feet the same and her braid was half wild. But this wasn't the first time he had seen her straight from the garden and it would hardly be the last. Neither the woman or dragon was bothered by the occasional romp through the mud; she'd been very pleased when Kenshin's reaction to her tendency to play had been to gift her with several sets of breeches and soft shirts.
"Tae would be horrified if I went hungry. She keeps me a plate."
He made a noise and she pinched him, for that she wasn't telling him that she had eaten two of Tae's delicious chocolate muffins before rolling Yahiko out of bed. He jumped a little – although she had no doubt that he had known the pinch was coming. She was learning that Kenshin let very little surprise him, which made those rare instances she had managed it so fun. She thought privately that might have been what originally started this, her ability to hide in plain sight. Someday, she'd have to ask him what he had thought in those tense moments when she'd let go of her magic and called in her father's favor. But regardless of what he had thought, she'd always remember the stunned surprise that had shifted into shock as she watched him react.
Feet swinging, she glanced up at him to find him watching her, muted gold behind the blue of his eyes. Fighting down the blush, she arched a brow. "How did your meetings go?"
"Well enough." He said finally, thumb running along the back of her hand, eyes thoughtful as he continued to study her. She was getting accustomed to this… intensity, but wasn't certain she'd be comfortable with it for some time to come. But he always coupled it with his personal brand of affection – hands in her hair, fingertips running along her skin, a glimmer of his dragon as he watched her – and she liked being cuddled.
"The council has approved the deaths of the Hirumas." He said finally. "Two days from now."
Kaoru blinked and then tightened her grip on his hand. His response was to flip his hand, further tangling their fingers and simply waited. Reaching up, she shoved her bangs out of her eyes. "Did you decide how?"
"It's to be left to Shinomori's discretion." There was something dangerous behind his eyes, a flicker of knowing, but it disappeared behind his eyes. Kaoru wondered what it had cost him, to let someone else handle that kill. He'd kept her informed of the proceedings, their decision to take the case before the council in a bid to see who would react and how.
Kaoru chewed on her bottom lip for a moment and then nodded. "That's good, then."
A hint of a smile ghosted along his mouth before his free hand reached up and cradled her jaw. "Alright?"
"They killed my mother and tried to kill Yahiko. I know there is something you aren't telling me about what they had planned for me…" she shook her head when he went still. "I don't want to know, not yet. But when I ask, I'll want an answer, Kenshin."
His lashes hooded his eyes for several seconds before he sighed, the dragon clear in his eyes. "Alright."
Amused at the faintest of edges she could hear in his voice, her dragon didn't consider concern in this area to be a compliment, she tilted her head back enough to hold his gaze. "Any word from Misao?"
He made a noise that was close to a growl but she arched a brow and he gave in. The woman liked it, that he was concerned and wanted to protect her; the dragon found it grating, but she was still young. Very young. And he wasn't. So she gave him room to do what he needed, but at times like this she pushed. And he let her.
"We haven't been able to find any strings that connect Gohei or Kihei to anyone other than the hunters, but we aren't finished looking. Whatever the connection, it's buried deep – we'll find it eventually." The last few words were diamond hard and she reached up and pushed his bangs away from his face, letting her fingers linger for a moment in his hair. She'd found after a few days, she wanted to touch.
"I'm okay, Kenshin. This was expected, after all. They can't get to Yahiko here and eventually they'll make a mistake, whoever they are. Arrogance was the key to Gohei and Kihei, and it'll be the key to this one too."
His thumb stroked along the skin of her cheek. "They're deaths will not be easy, Kaoru. But if you want, I will have someone provide details."
She considered it – her dragon a buffering presence underneath her skin – but she slowly shook her. "No, I don't think so. Part of me says yes, but the rest… knowing that they deserve a hard death for what they did and knowing the specifics are two different things. But thank you."
Instead of relaxing at her words, the corners of his eyes narrowed. Blinking, she watched curiously as sparks of gold flickered behind his eyes. "Kenshin?"
"Something else is bothering you."
Kaoru blinked at him. "What?"
He pulled his hand free of hers and framed her face between his palms, golden eyes flickering over the lines of her face. A little baffled, but not concerned, she leaned into his hold and waited him out. He'd done this one or twice before, but only those nights where she woke short of breath, her magic clinging to her skin as she tried to shake off a nightmare.
Then he relaxed and let one hand slid down her throat, setting off a series of sparks under her skin. "Perhaps bother is not the word… but there is something on your mind."
Distracted by his hands, her voice was a touch breathless when she spoke.
"Kenshin, honestly, nothing is wrong." She shook her head as he continued to watch her and blew out a breath. "I've just been thinking about my father."
His fingers closed over her hip and pulled her closer, so that she had to grip his shirt between her fingers for balance. "Kenshin!"
He settled a hand under her braid and studied her. "You don't talk about him."
She blinked and bit her lip. "I hadn't realized."
He said nothing, willing to wait her out. Kaoru took the time he was giving her to think, to formulate her thoughts. When she did speak, her words were slow. "It isn't that I don't want to talk about him… and you've only really heard the bad things about my childhood. We were… we were really close. It took a long time for him to handle my mother's death and most of that time we were in Japan."
Kenshin twisted her braid between his fingers, thoughtful. "I knew Koshijiro had relocated to Japan, my old master lived there. Still does, in fact, it's one of the reasons I'm here. But I had no idea he had a daughter."
Kaoru nodded. "He was very careful that no one knew who or what I was. He kept me away from the other dragons when they visited and then later, passed me off as a son." Her lips curved slowly and her eyes danced. "We ran a dojo."
Kenshin arched a brow. "We?"
"Mmm," she said, eyes laughing. "Because of the laws in England, he wanted to make sure if I was ever cornered and unable to use my magic, I could defend myself without being forced to kill. He created an entire style for me. Later, we adapted those moves to accommodate actual iron, but he was determined I'd have a way of surprising an attacker."
Lifting her hand, he ran his thumb over her calluses, a self-depreciating smile on his face. "I had wondered… but I would never have guessed that, knowing what I did of your past. Perhaps I should have."
"Does it bother you?" It amazed her that he thought he should guess it at all. She knew bits and pieces of his history; it had been difficult growing up in Japan and not knowing of Battousai. Both humans and dragons had feared that name, the incredible skill with a blade and his unmatched speed. Each battle he had participated in, he had been the turning point. Sometimes, it caught her off guard, the knowing how dangerous this slim dragon was and that he had chosen her.
Eyes holding hers, he lifted her hand and lightly kissed her palm. "No."
"Good, because I plan on teaching Yahiko when he's a little bigger," she told him half-challenging, half-laughing.
He watched her from beneath his lashes, the expression behind his eyes making her breath catch. "I'd be interested in a personal demonstration."
Biting her lip, she tried to keep from smiling and was certain she had failed, "Maybe."
Amusement curled his mouth. "Persuasion then."
And knowing just how persuasive he could be, she cleared her throat. "Kenshin."
Bringing her hand to his mouth, he caught the tips of her fingers between his teeth in slow, nibbling kisses. "Hmm?"
Distracted, it took her a minute to remember where she was going with her conversation. Reaching out, she jabbed him in the chest. "Stop that."
"For now," he agreed, lacing their hands together. When she just watched him for a moment, eyes dark, he smiled. "You were telling me that you missed your father."
"It's just different here."
He blinked and she closed her eyes. That hadn't come out how she had intending. "How so?"
She waved her free hand. "It's not a bad different… but it's still different. The villa, your hoard… all this free time. It just… I was thinking that most people would talk to their mother's about this, the adjusting to a new life. I've never had one of those, so it just made me miss him, that's all."
"I met Koshijiro by accident."
Kaoru opened her eyes and blinked at him. He held her gaze and continued. "We were both in Ireland at the time; I had just come off a particularly bloody hunt in Japan and decided I needed a change in scenery. I don't remember the name of the pub, at the time it wasn't important, but it was small and dark. Through chance or fate, we ended up near each other at the bar. It was more common for dragons to meet in the old places; before the hunts, it was an opportunity to talk in neutral areas. Somehow, we ended up talking – he was interested in Japan, once he realized where I was from; he had left family behind when his mother had returned to her homeland during the worst of the wars. He hadn't made the trip since he'd mastered flying, but was interested in going back and I was interested in talking European affairs. My mother had been from Ireland, and I was interested in finding a territory and settling down."
Kaoru watched as his eyes unfocused a little. "I was tired of the islands and the battles. I wanted room to breathe. When we separated ways, I didn't expect to see him again."
She tightened her grip on his hand, pressing against the bone and muscle of him, wanting the anchor. "I didn't think to ask about this."
Amusement lightened Kenshin's eyes. "I told you that I had seen his hoard, that he saved the life of someone important to me. I imagine anything after that didn't particular matter."
She blushed and shrugged, wondering why she hadn't thought to ask. How she had managed to not forget, but not really remember either, that Kenshin had known her father? "I suppose so."
"He saved Sano."
Kaoru blinked at him. "The wolf?"
He laughed at her stunned expression. "Sano has been my friend for a long time. I'm bound by a promise to keep the details to myself, but your father had quite the collection of historical texts. They ended up playing an important part in a dispute that would have cost Sano his life otherwise."
"But how did you get him to agree to see those books?" Kaoru asked baffled. "He was so particular about them… so very careful."
"So you do know where the hoard is," Kenshin murmured. "I'd wondered."
Kaoru angled her head to the side. "Is that important?"
"That much knowledge, lost? It would have been a tragedy." He shrugged. "I had hoped that you knew the location and safe guards."
"I was saving them for Yahiko."
Kenshin tugged on her braid. "He'd want you to take something for yourself, Kaoru. He'd always wanted a daughter."
"I said I thought that was the last time that I'd see Koshijiro. It turned out it wasn't. We ended up tangled in a few messes together – hunters mostly. Worked to keep them out of that little part of the word for as long as we could; that peace didn't last long, and eventually we parted ways. He never said why, but it might have had something to do with your mother. Koshijiro was immensely private when it came to family – but he'd always wanted a daughter. Wanted a mate too, but it was the idea of a daughter that left him with that glint in his eyes after we killed hunters."
She swallowed past an unexpected lump in her throat. "I never knew that."
Laughing yellow eyes held hers. "He'd be less than impressed if he knew I was hoarding his daughter."
Startled, she swatted at his shoulder and he grinned. "Courting, you're not hoarding me!"
"Not yet," Kenshin mused, eyes lowering to her mouth. "But I plan to."
Fighting the smile, she narrowed her eyes. "I thought I missed breakfast."
"Hmmm," he said as his hands moved, shifting along her skin. "Good idea."
His kiss was slow, a lingering slide of his mouth against hers and her toes curled into the grass. He sighed as he pulled back, eyes pale. "Breakfast first," he said finally, voice low and husky. "Then I'm hoarding you."
"Courting," Kaoru corrected as she dropped a quick kiss against the corner of his mouth before pushing back and untangling herself. "You're courting me, Himura."
Standing he pulled her to her feet before nipping at her bottom lip. "Breakfast is courting, after…"
Lowering her lashes, she glanced at him as they moved towards the house. "Breakfast had better be good then."
She yelped when he pinched her hip lightly, before tugging her against his side. Grinning to herself, she realized she was going to accept this dragon. Not today, because she wasn't ready for it, for the commitment, but that wouldn't last forever. One day, the woman and dragon would be on the same page. And this one – with his mischief and his temper and that intensity that colored everything – would be hers.
Stepping out from under his arm she took several steps forward and grinned over her shoulder.