(Ghost Story)

by Amaranth Adanae

Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction, written for amusement, not profit. The characters are not mine; I am simply borrowing them with respect and affection. Rurouni Kenshin belongs to Nobohiro Watsuki, Shuiesha, Shounen, Jump and Sony.

Karou walked down the dark street. It had been warmer early in the day, but a cold breeze had picked up. It stirred the dead autumn leaves, causing them to move across the pavement with a hiss.

Her skin pricked with gooseflesh, as she felt the familiar sensation of being watched. It wasn't so bad during the day, but as soon as the sun went down, she felt the weight of the watching eyes settle upon her.

She reached her apartment, and scurried inside after fumbling with her keys, hoping to hide from the watcher. The ramshackle building seemed poor protection, however; the walls were full of cracks that had been inexpertly patched, the floors, doors, and windows sloped at drunken angles, and fingers of cold air crept through gaps in the window sashes.

Karou, undressing quickly, slipped beneath her down coverlet, into the sanctuary of warmth and cover that it provided. But she remained aware that the watcher was still gazing at her...waiting.

Her anxious ears could almost make out words hidden within the whisper of the wind as it rattled the ill-fitted windows. Hear me, it said. See me. Feel me.

The presence seemed stronger tonight, more oppressive, more urgent. Usually, she could shrug aside the feeling and fall asleep, but tonight her body was alive with the primal awareness that she was being watched, considered. Not the awareness of a beautiful woman that she was being admired, but the dread of a prey animal knowing that a predator was near.

Accept me. Welcome me.

Karou shivered, even under the heavy quilt. She determinedly turned over, and settled herself firmly into the pillows. Sleep remained elusive; the harder she willed herself to sleep, the further away it seemed. She craved a cup of hot tea, but was childishly afraid to leave the safety of her warm nest.

Throwing back the covers, she scolded herself for her cowardice. She was in her own apartment, cold, but empty and safe. No one lurked in the shadows–who would bother to spy on her, this late, braving the chilly autumn air? She stuffed her feet into the slippers beside her bed, and shuffled towards the kitchen.

She placed the kettle on the burner, turning up the heat, and busied herself measuring tea into the infuser. Turning back towards the stove, she jumped as she felt a feather-light touch against her cheek.

Feel me. Turn to me. Touch me.

Yelping, Karou swiftly fled back towards the safety of her bed, pausing only long enough to switch off the stove. Huddling under the covers, she curled into a defensive ball, hugging her knees against her chest. She struggled to slow her racing breath, but her lungs froze as the mattress creaked and gave, precisely as though someone had settled at the foot of her bed. She struggled to scream, but could only force a strangled gurgle past her tight throat.

And then she froze as a cold hand slid beneath her covers to encircle her ankle.

Karou, to her later shame, fainted dead away for the first time in her life. But the blackness behind her eyelids offered no safe oblivion. She came awake to weak sunlight filtering through white sheers over the windows, her mind filled with afterimages of the vivid dreams that had haunted her unconscious mind. Her ears echoed with the faint memory of a deep voice, cajoling, pleading.

Karou dragged herself out of bed, her body stiff and eyes gritty, as though she had gotten no sleep at all. She felt drained and weary, as though she had been engaged in a struggle all night long. She drifted through the day, going mindlessly through the motions of life, but her preoccupied mind worried at the problem of her ghost, which nagged at her consciousness like a sore tooth.

She grew tense as the shadows grew longer, the muscles of her shoulders and back reflexively tightening as the sun sank in the sky. The sensation of being watched resumed earlier, and with greater intensity, than ever before. She could hear the whispered voice in the hiss of the wind through the bare trees, and in the uneasy groan of the buildings. In spite of her dread, she felt a fine web of energy shivering over the surface of her skin, causing the fine hairs on her arms and the back of her neck to stand on end. She dawdled, dallying as long as she dared with errands, but at length the fear of human predators, muggers, gangsters, and the like, caused her to scurry home before true dark. She noticed that the oppressive feeling closed in on her as she approached her apartment.

Her steps lagged as she approached her building. In the foyer, one of the lights was flickering, lending the narrow, crooked hallway a surreal aspect. She dragged herself up the steep stairs towards her second floor apartment. She briefly considered knocking on the door of the graduate student on the third floor, but she dismissed the idea. The scholar, though kind, always seemed to regard anything that happened later than the fifteenth century as peripheral to REAL life. In her quest to become an authority on medieval French literature, she was also well on her way to becoming an absent-minded professor. Besides...if there WAS anything dangerous stalking Karou, she did not want to bring it into her mild neighbor's snug, book lined sanctuary.

Scolding herself for her cowardice, and vainly attempting to convince herself that these sensations resulted from an overactive imagination anyway, Kaoru let herself into her dark, still apartment. She turned up the heat a few degrees, guiltily brushing aside thoughts of her heating bill, and lit several candles in an attempt to dispel the chill. Yet she could feel the dark pooling in the hidden corners, still watching, waiting. She also turned on the stereo, playing one of her peppiest pop CDs, but the soft whispers continued to tease the corners of her conscious.

Trust me. I'm here. Don't fear me.

She jeered at herself as she took her nightclothes into the bathroom to change for bed, but she couldn't rid herself of the feeling that something lurked in the living room, the bedroom. And she already knew the kitchen wasn't safe!

Kaoru took her hairdryer into the bedroom, sitting up in bed as she worked through her long hair (she also used the dryer to warm up her clammy sheets before climbing under them). Setting the blowdryer aside, she began smoothing her hair with her favorite wooden-handled brush, humming to herself to keep the whispers at bay.

And froze as an unseen hand ran through her locks, toying with the ends, and continuing on down her spine in a feather-light caress.

"What ARE you," shrieked Kaoru, swinging the brush in a defensive arc. "What the HELL do you want?"

Feel me. Trust me. Love me.

Abandoning dignity, Kaoru fled. She ran through the apartment, out the door, and up the stairs to the easy going graduate student's door. She made some lame excuse about having heard scratching noises in the wall, and seen a mouse. Her neighbor, mind still on some deep question regarding the lais of Marie of France, made vague sympathetic noises and made up the couch as a bed, asking no awkward questions. Kaoru wasn't sure if she had even heard her explanation; there was something to be said for absent minded academics.

Kaoru lay in the semi-dark, lit by a narrow crack from under the door of her neighbor's room, and listening to the comfortable rustle of her notes, and the tippity-tap of her computer keyboard, and pondered the situation. She couldn't park indefinitely on her neighbor's couch. There was a good chance that she was drifty enough not to notice if Kaoru stayed for months on end...but no. That would just put off the inevitable. She had a 12 month lease, that would be damnably hard to get out of; she could ill-afford the steep penalty they would be sure to charge. Besides, moving out would feel like admitting defeat. And she couldn't be sure that...whatever the hell it was...wouldn't follow her wherever she went.

The morning found Kaoru at the library as soon as the doors opened. She needed a plan to reclaim her apartment and her life, but she was critically short on information. She couldn't combat the...whatever...if she didn't know what it was. The section of the book stacks devoted to the supernatural were exiled to the very back of the musty basement, behind the outdated bound periodicals, segregated from the respectable academic monographs. Kaoru prowled up and down the aisle, muttering in disgust. The selection of titles on ghosts was remarkably sparse, and she could find nothing remotely useful. The few general books on spirits and hauntings offered theoretical analysis rather than practical advice, and the works offering accounts of real cases weren't reassuring. The incident of the infamous Bell Witch was the closest she could find; old Kate, as the spirit was called, eventually succeeded in killing the man she had tormented for months. Not an example she had any ambition of following.

Leaving the library, Kaoru went in search of advice of a more...hands-on type. She cringed at the thought of telling her story to another person, of being regarded as a superstitious nut, but she didn't see another option. Fortunately, she was unlikely to encounter any of her friends or professors among the warren of shabby, disreputable new age shops that were her destination.

Kaoru's first sight of the proprietor of the shop reassured her; there was no way this girl could ever consider Kaoru a nut, and the odds were that her forays into self-medication would eradicate any memory of Kaoru at all. Her unevenly chopped black hair was streaked with magenta, and three small silver rings adorned her right eyebrow. Similar rings marched up the outside of her ear, from lobe to tip, and more silver bracelets and rings decorated her arms and fingers. She glanced up briefly as Kaoru entered, but quickly went back to flipping through the magazine on the glass counter she was leaning on.

Kaoru almost bolted, but she steeled herself. She walked swiftly towards the back of the shop, and stumbled upon a gold mine. The shop offered everything you needed for a do-it-yourself exorcism, or the equivalent for your non-Christian spirit. Kaoru, still in the dark about the precise nature of her whatever, invested in a selection of anti-ghost preparations–a potpourri of rowan, rosemary, sea salt, rue, and witchhazel, several paper ofuda (on the off chance it was a Japanese demon), a small bottle of holy water and a Bible blessed by the Pope, and a few special candles, whose scent was supposed to drive away bad things. They were a splurge, but Kaoru loved the smell anyway–an herbal scent, a little sweet, with just a hint of spice.

"Watch out, things that go bump," muttered Kaoru as she dumped her packages onto her couch. She lit the candles, poured the potpourri into bowls and placed them strategically around the apartment, and laid thin lines of salt over the threshold of her door. She placed bunches of rosemary she'd bought at the grocery store on the window sills, and feeling incredibly foolish, also hung cloves of garlic. She didn't think she was dealing with a vampire, but better to be safe then sorry. She plastered the ofuda on the windows and doors, and then plunked down onto her couch with the Bible and bottle next to the glowing candles on the table . Let the ghoulies and ghosties come now, if they dared!

An hour later, Kaoru was still sitting, and feeling somewhat peeved. She felt that the darkness had receded, a little, but she had been hoping for something more, some sign that the...whatever...had moved on. But though the oppressive feel of being watched wasn't as strong, she could still feel it, lurking and in the dark corners. And she thought it was laughing...damn it!

The more time passed, the more Kaoru stewed. She tried to read, to watch television, even to work on a crossword puzzle, but she was unable to concentrate. The curious tingle, like a chemical reaction, skittered over her skin stronger than ever. And though she had tried to block the chill drafts from her window with masking tape around the edges of the frame and folded towels pressed against the crack of the sills, she could still feel a restless current in the air about her. And the same whisper teased at the edges of her hearing, oddly triumphant now.

You do feel. You hear. Acknowledge me. Please.

"Like hell," snarled Kaoru. Seething, she flounced into the kitchen. She snatched a mug down from the cabinet and set it down on the counter with a thump. She set the kettle on the burner, and turned to get the tea.

And froze, mid-turn.

There, in the corner, stood a wavering figure. He was hardly threatening, scarcely taller than she, with long red hair pulled up in a high pony tail, fair skin, and large eyes of a light color she couldn't quite make out. His cheek sported a large scar in the shape of a cross.

He was also quite transparent.

With a strangled screech, Kaoru stepped back, her hand fumbling behind her towards the counter. Damn, she thought. In her snit, she had left the holy water on the coffee table. Her fingers closed about the smooth curve of a plastic handle...not a knife, but a spatula.

With a yelp more of rage than fear, Kaoru flung the spatula at the apparition with all her strength. Both girl and spirit watched with dumb bemusement as the spatula passed right through his transparent torso, and hit the plain, white wall behind him with an audible thunk. They stared as the spatula sank into the soft plaster, and vibrated back and forth for a long moment with an unnaturally loud 'spoong.'

With mounting rage, Kaoru realized that her phantom was laughing. It was a strange experience, because she could see his transparent figure shaking with mirth, and she could faintly hear the laughter teasing the very edges of her consciousness, but the sight and the sound didn't mesh together. It was as though she were watching a movie whose audio track was out of synch, as if sound and image were being transmitted from impossibly far away, and they were traveling at different rates, so they didn't reach her at the same time.

Paradoxically, the sight of the apparition lessened her fear. The frission of horror caused by something just beyond her perception, the uncertainty, had played on her imagination, and her nerves. After all that fear, all that fuss, to discover that the cause was a, a...girly-faced, transparent, midget redhead was infuriating! And then, he was laughing at her? The last straw!

Growling, Kaoru stomped towards the living room, stopping only when the downstairs neighbor thumped on the ceiling/floor. Kaoru snarled, but stepped more softly. She paused before the coffee table to collect her bottle of holy water and her candles. They probably wouldn't do any good...but the candles did smell nice.

She flounced into her bedroom and rushed through her nightly ablutions, flopping into her warm nest of covers with an aggrieved sigh. She snuggled down, and soon fell into a deep, soundless sleep. But not dreamless; her night was filled with vivid dreams. She couldn't remember them precisely the next morning, but she rather thought that long crimson hair and a soft pleading voice featured prominently.

The morning dawned brightly, and Kaoru rose with a renewed sense of optimism. She had faced her ghost, and he wasn't that scary. In fact, for a revenant, he was downright cute...

Kaoru cut off that thought with a sharp mental slap, and scurried out the door. She walked briskly to campus, and faced her classes with more energy than she had felt for days. The heavy shadow that had pressed down upon her had, she felt, been lifted. If she just ignored him, surely her spirit would drift away as abruptly as he had arrived.

She spent the next afternoon taking down her anti-ghost preparations (resolutely ignoring the foreboding feeling of disapproval emanating, she suspected, from her invisible visitor). She had felt rather silly putting them up in the first place, and apparently they hadn't done a particle of good; the redhead had been undeterred by them. Besides, the garlic by the windows was pungent; she was alternating between nauseated and hungry, depending on the time of day. She left the candles...she loved the scent.

Kaoru treated herself to take-out for dinner, an indulgence she felt she had earned. The last few days had been wearying without the added horror of her own attempts at cooking. She clutched the brown bag to her chest as she plodded up the steep, carpeted stairs (who on earth had chosen that god-awful, dizzying shade of emerald green anyway, and why?), savoring her parcel's warmth and the savory smell wafting from it. Ghost or no ghost, life went on. She would survive, even if it killed her–she might as well try to enjoy it.

Her newfound optimism plummeted as she entered her now-dark apartment. Someone had been busy while she was away. A white bundle now graced the coffee table she had painstakingly cleared that afternoon. Upon investigation, it proved to be a muslin bag tied closed with a ribbon of black silk. It was stuffed full of fresh herbs–sprigs of rosemary, twigs of rowan, and other things she couldn't identify. A similar bundle rested in the middle of her kitchen counter, and–the final invasion of her space–upon her pillow. A single branch of cherry blossoms rested in lone splendor on her dining table, the scent of the out-of-season flowers overpowering even the potent smell of the freshly cut herbs.

The dreams were more vivid that night than ever before. These were not ordinary jumbles of unprocessed memory from her day; they unreeled as smoothly as film in a projector:

He had been young, idealistic, and schooled in the art of the sword. And deadly. Very, very deadly. They had recruited him to aid the cause of their revolution. He had become their assassin, his blade slashing through the darkness night after night in their cause. Yet no matter how great his skill, how many he killed, it was never quite enough. The shogunate mages had summoned dark...things...and they were taking a horrible toll upon their forces.

His commanders hit upon a desperate solution: they called up a demon of their own. But theirs was no disembodied darkness–they offered it a body. His body.

The demon lent him powers of which he had never dreamt. He was tireless, and faster and stronger than any mortal, his senses preternaturally keen. He could fight as never before. Yet his mind remained his own, the demon content to remain a silent watcher in his mind.

He made short work of the shogunate's forces, taking particular pleasure in sending the dark things back to the void from which they had come. And one day there was no one left to defeat.

Yet he was not able to enjoy the victory. His superiors were left with one uncomfortable loose end: him. No longer a mere human, they did not trust him. Were not sure that they could control him. So, in a final act of betrayal, they sent him into the void, following all the dark things he had dispatched into the darkness. There he had remained, surrounded by the unspeakable things of darkness and their unrelenting, poisonous hatred, his senses blind. He had been helpless as never before. And in that fathomless night he had stayed, until he became aware of a tiny point of light in the endless darkness...

Kaoru sat up in bed with a sob. Her hand reached out to touch the knobby branch of the cherry blossom, which she didn't remember placing on her night stand.

"I'm sorry," she whispered to the night air. "So sorry." But, for once, she didn't feel the red head's presence nearby. Perhaps he had used all his energy to produce the dream, or maybe he just didn't care to face the memories. Sleep remained elusive, so Kaoru curled on her side and attempted to process the images that still lingered in her mind. Whenever she closed her eyes, the horrors he had seen burned behind her lids.

As pale fingers of dawn light reached through her blinds, Kaoru gave up on sleep and shuffled blearily out to the kitchen. She wasn't sure whether to be touched or disturbed when she discovered a bowl of ripe peaches on the counter. She couldn't bring herself to actually eat them; they might, after all, be some disturbing sort of demon fruit. But the gesture was kind of sweet.

Kaoru continued to stumble across small gifts in the coming days. Small things, mostly: a fan of sandalwood carved with a butterfly design, a ribbon of violet silk, a string of delicate glass beads. They showed up in the oddest places–dangling from a lamp, tucked into her silverware drawer, sitting on a shelf of the fridge.

She felt as though her world was fragmented; each day, she attended classes in the sane and daylight world, only to return to an apartment inhabited by a supernatural...thing...that persisted in showering gifts upon her. And the weirdest thing of all was that she was growing used to it. It was seductive to feel that she wasn't alone.

Yet Kaoru's acceptance of the situation was tempered by a lingering sense of wrongness. Pretty gifts couldn't make her forget that he wasn't entirely human; at this point, he might not even be mostly human. Part of it was the knowledge at he had been an assassin; she couldn't wrap her mind around the notion that she had an invisible/transparent, semi-demonic killer sharing her apartment.

Worse still, she was beginning to suspect that the shadows were gradually returning. Her first intimation was nothing more than a subtle shiver down the spine as she walked home in the gathering darkness. The shadows of bushes, fences, and telephone poles of the neighborhood seemed larger, and more intensely black, than they ought to have been. Then, as the fresh herbs began to wither in their muslin bags, the unnatural pools of darkness began to gather once again in the corners of her apartment.

Kaoru chose the easiest course: she ignored them. She felt vaguely guilty, as if she were turning her back on a distasteful duty, but, in practical terms, she just didn't have time to deal with anything else. The semester was winding down, and term papers were coming due. She had reading to catch up on, and exams for which she had to study. The shadows (unlike a certain red-head) hadn't actually done anything. They just...lurked. (And possibly brooded, but since they didn't communicate, she really didn't care much.) And so days passed, uneasy but uneventful.

She had grown as used to (if not as reconciled to) the shadows as she had to her invisible roommate by the time she realized their danger. Granted, she had less energy than she usually did...but then, end-of-term was always draining. And she had also realized that the assassin-ghost didn't like the shadows...but that could just be a kind of territory thing. She didn't think they were dangerous...

...until they cornered her in the dining room.

Her blue and white dishes sat in clean piles on the dining table, waiting to be put away in the china closet. Two of the dusty, flame shaped bulbs in the worn, five-armed, brass light fixture suspended above the table had burned out, and one of the others was flickering. The light, therefore, was dim and uncertain. When added to the uneven slope of the wooden floor boards, the fine lacing of cobwebs she hadn't noticed before up near the ceiling, and the faint, restless movement of the white sheers as they were shifted by the draft of the window, the whole room bore an unfortunate resemblance to a tableau from a Halloween haunted house. Pity she couldn't sell tickets, thought Kaoru.

"Typical of my luck," was Kaoru's thought when she noticed the shadows beginning to gather-–in the dark corner behind the door, under the table, in the silhouette of a chair leg. The temperature seemed to have dropped a few degrees within a moment, and Kaoru began to shiver. Her stomach knotted with tension, and her breath sped, but she pulled her shoulders back, straightened her spine, and turned to the table to collect her next armful of plates with resolution. It was her imagination, surely, that the shadows were growing larger, and stretching towards her from the margins of the room. Wasn't it?

She placed her burden of dishes down on the shelf with a thump, and turned to exit the deep closet. And stopped. There, across the wooden threshold of the doorway, was a cluster of shadows nearly three feet thick. And now, seeing them clearly without the cover of furniture or bushes, she could see that they were not flat and entirely insubstantial, but rather covered the floor almost like a very thick, boiling liquid.

Kaoru's hand sought the nearest object that could be used as a weapon: a feather duster, on a long, sturdy wooden handle. It, at least, had some reach–she didn't want to come within arms-reach of that, those, whatever it was.

"Help," she squeaked, very softly. She despised the weakness and tremor of her voice, but she couldn't seem to push a louder noise past the knot in her throat.

Nevertheless, he heard her. She could see him, there, in the dining room just past the black boundary of shadows. He was a bit more substantial, perhaps, than the last time she had seen him, but he was still far from solid.

He did look more threatening than last time. His eyes, she could now see, were amber gold, and they burned with impotent rage. His transparent hands clenched and unclenched as he glared at the shadows, as though they longed for something to throttle.

But her ghost did nothing.

That jarred Kaoru out of her frozen stupor. "Well," she demanded loudly, "are you going to do something?"

The shade's shoulders twitched in a shrug, and he spread his hands slightly, though his eyes never left the roiling mass of shadows.

"You mean, you can't do anything?" snarled Kaoru in exasperated outrage. She backed up a step, brandishing the duster. The shadows inched a little closer and then stopped. Even though Kaoru was still shivering, her skin had begun to tingle and burn. Her hands, clutching the handle of her impromptu weapon, had an almost golden glow.

Accept me, acknowledge me... His voice softly teased at the edges of her consciousness, even as she focused on the enemy.

"I see you, I'm acknowledging, I'm asking for your goddamn help. What the hell else do you need?" growled Kaoru.

Name me.

"What? But I don't know your name! Do I just make something up?" She snapped. "Okay, I dub thee Sir Groucho. Now do something about these...things!"

She got a swift sense of disapproval, accompanied by a shake of the shade's head. She also got a feeling of dissatisfaction bordering on sadness. It was, weirdly, similar to the attitude she got from her crazy lit professor when she tossed him a lame, off-the-cuff analysis of a work she'd barely read–disappointment with a promising student who ought to be able to do better.

Okay, thought Kaoru. He clearly expected her to know it; the information was probably somewhere in the dreams she sent her, which meant that it was somewhere in her unconscious mind. She just had to draw it up into her conscious mind.

She looked at the shadows. They hadn't come any closer, but they weren't going anywhere, either. Stalemate. She then looked over to the shade, committing to memory the color of his hair, the curve of his jaw, the shape of his scar, his stance. Holding the image as tightly as she could in her mind, she took a deep breath and, though it took a real act of will, closed her eyes and forced her mind inward.

Kaoru focused on his image, on his essence, and tried to gather everything she knew about him. She sought to reassemble all of the knowledge into a whole. When she had him fixed in her mind as clearly as possible, she sort of opened herself, and asked.

"Battousai," she whispered, opening her eyes. He flinched back, just a little, and shot her a sideways look from beneath his long bangs.

"Kenshin," she added.

That, it seemed, did it. He turned his head towards her, eyes widening a little, and, with a slight twitch of his lips that might have been a smile, drew his sword from a scabbard that she could have sworn hadn't hung on his belt a moment ago. His amber eyes blazed pure gold, his hair flamed brilliant red, and his sword flashed silver-blue. Once. In a single, swift, deadly arc.

The blade met the shadows with a hiss, and the darkness disintegrated with angry, anguished cries that were all the more horrible for being utterly silent. The shadows briefly boiled with more energy than before, and then slowly ebbed away into nothingness.

The feather duster dropped from Kaoru's numb fingers, hitting the floor with a clunk and rolling into the corner. Kaoru took one shaky step, then another, stumbling out of the closet and closing the door with trembling hands. Kenshin watched her, motionlessly, with silent concern.

"Thanks," she said lamely, dropping, nerveless, onto one of the chairs. "Are they gone?"

He twitched one shoulder in the same almost-shrug that he had earlier. Kaoru mentally interpreted it as 'kind of.'

"They...will not trouble you again," he said quietly, his voice slightly hoarse, as if rusty with disuse.

"So, they aren't gone-gone," pursued Kaoru.

"No," he replied. "They weren't...here...enough to fully destroy. To finish them off, I would have to follow them back...there. And I have seen enough of that place for a thousand lifetimes. But they will not have to strength to return for a few centuries."

His voice grew stronger and smoother as he talked, and he seemed to grow even more solid. Kaoru could now see the careful patches and darns in his full grey hakama and his dark blue gi, as well as a fine tracery of scars on his hands. Still shaky, but restless, she rose again to her feet and stepped closer to him.

"Thank you." She said again. He held out a hand towards her, again watching her from beneath the long red bangs. She took it, and the shockingly warm fingers, rough with a swordsman's calluses, closed around her cold hand. He gently tugged her into the living room, towards the couch, and pulled her towards him with one hand while simultaneously wrapping the blue fleece throw from the couch around her with the other.

She breathed in his warmth, and pressed closer to his chest, wrapping her arms around his waist. He stilled in surprise, then bent his head over hers and slid his hands tentatively to her back. Long falls of red hair drifted over her, fine as silk. He smelled faintly spicy, like ginger and cinnamon and sandalwood and citrus, with perhaps just a hint of brimstone.

"You are chilled," he whispered, tightening his grasp on her.

Kaoru pressed her face against him, tucking herself more securely into the lee of his frame, and buried one hand in his thick ponytail.

"Not anymore," she replied. "I'm not cold anymore."


Many thanks to JaneDrew, Dragonsdaughter, and Ravyn for their comments and encouragement.