Disclaimer: Kenshin and Company belong to Watsuki-san and Company. I'm just letting my imagination run away with their characters.

Author's Note: I know there have been many stories written about what happened directly after the Jin-chu arc, but this story is something I've needed to write since I first read the Jin-chu arc. However, I also need to give proper credit: it was also partially inspired by Komagata Yumi's "Kimi wa Dare wo Mamotte." I would never have written it without being inspired by her beautiful story.

Shielding the Body and Soul

By Amberle-chan

It was early morning, and almost everyone at the Kamiya dojo slept soundly as the sun began its ascent above the nearby hills.

Kaoru had found it difficult to sleep for the last few days. Three days to be exact. Three days since Enishi's Jin-chu had been finished; three days since they had come home. She stood just outside Kenshin's room, the door slightly ajar, so she could watch him sleep. The sound of his breathing was a soft wind to her, whispering comfort, but the bandages covering his wraith-like form were not.

"He's too pale and thin," she murmured to herself, "and it's not from just his wounds. What did he do to himself in that place? Why did he go there?"

Sano and Megumi had told her about his leaving for Rakuninmura after Enishi had kidnapped her, but they refused to tell her why. They even refused to tell her what kind of place this "Rakuninmura" was. All she knew was that it was Tsubame who had eventually convinced Kenshin to leave. Worst of all, she had not understood why Kenshin had not followed Enishi immediately after she had been taken by the half-crazed madman. When she had asked her friends, Megumi had simply told her: "Ken-san will tell you, when he is ready to tell you. And it is better that he tell you what happened. It will help him heal."

Kaoru knew something horrorfic had happened in those few weeks she had been gone. She could tell by the way Kenshin's eyes followed her whenever she was in his sight. Those beautiful violet irises were filled with remembered agony, and, at the same time, quiet joy. She had even found him watching her that first night they had gotten back. She had finally gone back to her own room after making sure that he was soundly asleep. She had barely begun to fall asleep herself when a very soft sob broke the stillness. When she turned to face her doorway, the light of the half moon had lit up his spare frame as he leaned heavily upon the door, barely able to stand. A single tear, shining bright in the moonlight, had been gliding down his scarred cheek. His eyes touched hers for only a moment before he turned away.

"Kenshin...?" she had called softly after him. She had immediately risen from her futon and followed him, but when she went into the hallway, he had already returned to his room and closed the door. She could not get back to sleep after that.

Now, it was her turn to watch, and to wonder. She was impatient to know what had happened, but she was also determined to take Megumi's advice and wait. A few minutes later, she heard Yahiko stir in his room. Before he could come out and loudly demand breakfast, she knocked softly on his door, and asked him to be quiet because Kenshin was still asleep. Yahiko agreed and even offered to get water from the well for their morning tea. Kaoru smiled affectionately at her young apprentice and nodded in reply. Yahiko had been so good since they had come home; he hadn't called her any names since their return and had finished his chores without being told to do them. He had even done the laundry so Kenshin could rest.

She returned to Kenshin's doorway after Yahiko left for the well. She found him thrashing about on his futon, as if gripped by a nightmare, but his eyes were wide open and staring in shock at something only he could see. He cried out her name, rose from the futon, crashed back down to his knees, and called out her name again, his voice a harsh, whispering sob. His cry cut her soul to its core.

Kaoru immediately knelt by him. She held his face in her hands, bringing his eyes level with hers, but he still did not see her or feel her; the nightmare still had a hold on his sleeping mind. His eyes were still unmoving, his breathing a short, panting sound.

"Kenshin...Kenshin," she murmured, her hands caressing his face. "Please wake up! Kenshin, you've got to wake up!"

His eyes blinked once, and then again. His startled eyes finally saw her. "Kaoru," he moaned, before he collapsed into her arms. His arms gripped her closely, his embrace even stronger than when he had held her on Enishi's island. He sobbed once and then twice more before he relaxed his hold on her, but he did not let go.

"I'm sorry, Kaoru-dono," he said, his voice barely discernible. "I'm sorry...."

Kaoru clenched his shoulders and shook him. "Don't you dare, Kenshin Himura! Don't you dare!" she replied. "Don't you dare apologize. There's nothing to apologize for!"

He shook his head sharply in reply, his red hair mingling with her dark tresses. "Not...true!" he said, his voice soft, but fierce. "So much..."

She grasped his head with her hands and turned his face toward hers. His eyes were once again dark with that terrible anguish, but also with love, the love she had wanted him to show for so long. She rose to her feet, her hand tilting his face up. "I do want to know what happened here, Kenshin, and I will wait until you are ready to tell me," she told him firmly, "but when you are ready to tell me, you will not apologize for anything." She strode to the open doorway. "Come into the kitchen. Yahiko is making tea."

***

When Kenshin arrived in the kitcen a few minutes later, his haunted eyes immediately sought out Kaoru. He could not make himself stop looking for her, his soul ever searching for the assurance that she was truly there. Her strength filled him, her unyielding love comforted him, but he wasn't ready to tell her yet, how he couldn't protect her when she needed him the most. He couldn't find the words to tell her that his life had ended when he had seen her lifeless body pinned against the dojo wall. How could he explain to her that he gone to Rakuninmura to seek death?

Kaoru knew Kenshin was watching her again, but how could she mind that when she found the love she wanted in those violet eyes? She wished she could just banish the sadness and pain from them as well, but she knew in her heart that Megumi was right. She would give Kenshin the love he needed right now as well as time. He was not going anywhere.

As she handed him his cup of tea, she was surprised to find that his hand was clammy as it brushed against hers. It was something she hadn't noticed earlier. She peered outside the kitchen window. It was going to be a pleasant, warm day. "Some sun will do him good," she thought to herself. "Yahiko and I can practice outside today and Kenshin can watch."

After clearing away the breakfast dishes, she and Yahiko returned to their rooms to change into their practice clothes. They then went out into the yard, where Kenshin followed them. He did not say a word as they began to practice their kendo forms in the bright sunshine. At first, he just stood on the porch, his red hair hiding his eyes as he watched Kaoru's every movement intently, but after a few minutes of standing, he sat down heavily, his back against the dojo wall. He was still too weak to stand for very long. He looked up at the sky and found the color of Kaoru's eyes there, and then he turned to find those blue eyes concentrating on her training with Yahiko. "She's alive. She's safe," his heart whispered. "She's home...," was his last thought as his eyelids fluttered closed in healing sleep.

***

Sanosuke and Megumi came to visit around noontime; Sano, as always, in search of free food, and to check in on his best friend. Megumi came with fresh medicine and bandages. She was a bit put out to find her patient asleep sitting upright on the dojo porch. The young doctor pulled Kaoru aside after they woke Kenshin up and Sano helped him back to his room.

"He should be asleep, lying down, in his room!" Megumi declared.

"Well, I thought some sun would do him good," Kaoru replied defensively. "His hands were so cold this morning, Megumi. He followed us outside to watch us practice. Besides which, falling asleep, even in that position, probably did him some good."

"You mean he followed you outside, Kaoru, not both you and Yahiko." Megumi said. She raised her hands to stop Kaoru's answer to her jibe. "I know...I know. It's just that he only puts more stress on his injuries when he sleeps like that. But the sunshine and warm air probably did him some good anyway." She turned away and headed into the house. "I should change his bandages now."

Yahiko followed Sano and Kenshin as Sano helped the smaller man to lay down on his futon. "The fox lady's going to let you have it, Kenshin. You shouldn't have been asleep like that," Sanosuke told his friend. Kenshin didn't reply, but leveraged himself up on his good arm. "You just have to know that Jou-chan's there, right?" Kenshin still did not answer, but his eyes narrowed slightly. "Yeah, right," Sanosuke sighed. Megumi appeared at his side and entered the room, her arms full of bandages. Sanosuke closed the door behind them.

He was about to turn away when he felt Yahiko's small hand tugging on his own. "Sanosuke?" Yahiko asked, his brown eyes full of worry, "why hasn't Kenshin smiled since we came home? Everything's ok now. Kaoru's fine and nothing really happened to her. Shouldn't he be happy?"

Sano gently ruffled Yahiko's hair and for once Yahiko didn't object. Yahiko's life had been very confusing the last few weeks and it was hard for him to understand all of what had been going on. The boy needed some comfort of his own, and right now, neither Kenshin or Kaoru were capable of giving it to him. Sanosuke tried to give him the best answer he could: "They're in love, kid, and sometimes people in love do some strange things. Things that don't make sense. Like not smiling." He paused in thought for a moment. "Tell you what, Yahiko. Why don't you come and stay at the long house with me for a few days? We can have some fun together."

"Alright!" Yahiko exclaimed as he scampered toward his room. Sanosuke turned back toward Kenshin's room where he could hear Megumi's soft voice gently berating her patient. "Maybe if we left them alone for a few days," he thought, "maybe Kenshin will finally be able to tell her."

Surprisingly, Kaoru didn't protest Sano's suggestion. Megumi also offered to check up on the boy to make sure that "rooster head" wasn't corrupting him. Megumi left more medicine and bandages with Kaoru with some further instructions. "He should try to take a short walk tomorrow, if the weather's nice. But you shouldn't go any further than the river and back."

~ * ~ *~ *~ *

The next day dawned just as brilliantly as the day before, but it was much hotter and very humid. Kaoru almost thought of canceling the walk down to the river, but she decided that it was necessary after seeing how truly pale Kenshin was when he came into the kitchen that morning. As they ate a quiet breakfast together, she suggested that they take the walk right after they finished eating, before it became much hotter.

***

Kenshin gathered Kaoru's small hand into his own as they began to slowly walk toward the river, another reassurance that she was alive. She was glad that his hand was warm. The walked in silence for several minutes, before she began to talk, of simple, everyday things—what they would have for dinner that night, whether it would become so humid that it would rain later that afternoon, wondering if Megumi would ever realize that she really did like Sanosuke. Kaoru moved gently from subject to subject, keeping her voice light, but her eyes were full of worry for the man at her side. Kenshin saw the concern there as he watched her, as he tried to converse with her, but his voice soon faltered as he became distracted by the pain in his soul and body.

As they neared the river bank, his weakened and torn muscles began to twitch and burn. Kaoru couldn't help but notice his hand gripping her hand tighter and the narrowing of his eyes as he tried to push the pain aside. She smiled at him, encouraging him to walk just a little further. They were almost there.

Kenshin dropped heavily unto the grassy embankment at the river's edge, letting go of Kaoru's hand . He felt sick and weak, almost as weak as he had been after he first awoke after his battle with Shishio. His breathing was slightly ragged. However, the sun and warmth felt very good. He turned his face toward the sun, his red hair shining, and let the warmth flow over him, getting his breathing under control.

Kaoru settled herself next to him, her feet curled underneath her. She watched him intently as he lifted his face skyward, as if he wanted to drink in every radiant ray of sunshine. When he finally turned back to her, her expression was anxious as she searched his face. He could not hide the agony from her.

Kenshin took her hand and kissed it gently, attempting to distract her from her concern. "I'm fine, Kaoru," he tried to reassure her, "really, I am."

Kaoru shook her head sharply in denial. "No, you're not, Kenshin. You know you're not."

"Kaoru, I...," he protested, but he stopped speaking as she put her arm around his shoulders and pulled him to her. She gently lowered his head into her lap.

"Kaoru... ."

"Hush," she murmured, as her fingers tenderly brushed red bangs away from his forehead. "Rest, Kenshin, please rest."

His violet eyes gazed into her blue irises only for a moment before they slid closed.

***

Kenshin was holding tightly onto Kaoru's arm when they returned to dojo. The short walk to the river and back, even with the short rest on the river bank, had been too much on his damaged body. Kaoru watched him with deep concern, her heart clenching in fear. His breathing was short and raspy. Perhaps they should not have taken the walk to the river after all.

"I'll rest here a moment, Kaoru," he said, leaning against one of the large trees in the dojo yard. "I'll be fine, I promise."

"Maybe we should go back into house, Kenshin," Kaoru replied. "It's getting awfully hot out here."

"Not much of a house, Missy," a rough voice suddenly drawled behind them. "Maybe we should play with you instead."

Four men were standing on the dojo porch. They were rough looking and wearing ragged clothing. Two of them had short swords and one had a club. The one who had spoken was holding Kaoru's bokken in his hands.

"Robbers," Kenshin muttered. He began to thumb the sakabatou from its sheath, when Kaoru's hand clenched his wrist tightly. It was a sign of his weakened state that he could not shake her hand off his arm.

Kaoru's eyes were almost sapphire black as she faced him. "Not this time, Kenshin Himura. Now, it's my turn to protect you," she whispered fiercely, as she slowly pulled his sakabatou from the sheath at his waist.

"Kaoru...!" Kenshin pleaded with her, but his voice went unheard as she confronted the men who had invaded her home. Kenshin's sword felt a bit heavier than her wooden bokken, but she knew that was something she could adjust for.

The four men smirked at her, all of them laughing, their own weapons held lightly in their hands. "Look, the little girl's got a knife," one of them taunted her. They ignored Kenshin; he obviously wasn't going to be any trouble to them once they got rid of the girl.

Kaoru ignored them and dropped down into a battle stance. Kenshin slowly raised himself from where he had been leaning heavily on the tree, watching her with amber-tinted eyes, his body tense. He knew that Kaoru was right. He was in no condition to fight. He could barely stand up, but if this battle got out of hand, he would join it to protect her, no matter what the cost.

Kenshin then watched in awe as Kaoru held his sword in her fist as if she had been using it for years. Her balance was perfect, as she stood lightly on the balls of her feet, the sword held out protectively in front of her. He knew instinctively that she would not attack first, but would only defend. Her father's training was too deeply ingrained.

Two of the men suddenly yelled and attacked, one holding a sword and the one who had her bokken. There was a clash of steel against steel, but Kaoru threw her weight against the short sword, sending the man skidding away from her. Then, with a sudden flick of the sakabatou, the short sword was flying away from the man's hand. Kaoru leaped and kicked out, her foot connecting with the man's chin. He crashed to the ground, and did not move again. She then whirled as the man with the bokken was suddenly standing above her, the bokken held high.

"If you're going to use that thing, you should learn to use it properly!" she declared through gritted teeth, as she swung the sakabatou into the man's unprotected ribs. He doubled over in pain. Kaoru hit the butt of the sword's hilt into the back of his head. He collapsed.

The man with other short sword was now attacking. She rolled under his initial swing, her face hitting the ground, but she was up again in an instant, blue eyes blazing. His sword slashed out, trying to get past the longer reach of the sakabatou, but Kaoru deflected his every move. Kaoru suddenly side stepped and the man stumbled forward. The dull edge of the sword careened into the back of his neck. He fell.

The man with the club watched the fight before eyes with sudden fear. This was no little girl. This was a woman with training, who had the heart and soul of the samurai. He raised the club defensively as Kaoru approached. The sakabotou arced through the air and suddenly the club was cloven in two. The man dropped what was left of the club and turned to run.

"I don't think so!" Kaoru cried, as she leapt out once more, her feet crashing into his back. The man fell and rolled over onto his back, trying to regain his feet. As he looked up, he saw that the sakabotou's edge was only an inch above his groin. Kaoru smiled wickedly and shook her head at him. The man's eyes rolled back into his head as it hit the ground.

Kenshin collapsed back into the tree in relief as Kaoru turned away from the last man she had felled. She faced Kenshin, eyes shining with her victory. Kenshin's violet eyes first gazed at her in awe, and then he was suddenly grinning at her. The smile lit up his whole face. It was the first smile she had seen from him in days.

***

Yahiko ran into dojo yard, shouting, "Kenshin, Kaoru! I came back because I forgot...," he stopped in mid-sentence, his feet halting at the same time. The dojo yard was littered with several unconscious men; all of them were cut and bruised. Kaoru was standing with her back to him, Kenshin's sakabatou in her hand; she was facing Kenshin who was leaning heavily on the tree in the yard, the empty sheath in his hand. Their blue and violet eyes were locked on each other, and Kenshin was smiling. Kenshin was smiling!

"Kenshin? Kaoru?" Yahiko asked. "What happened?"

Kaoru didn't turn around, but kept her eyes on Kenshin's warm, smiling face. "Yahiko, please go into town and get Saitoh, ok?"

Yahiko looked once around the yard again. There were four men there. "Oh....oh. Ok," he finally managed to splutter before he ran down the road into town.

Kaoru watched his retreating back for only a moment before she turned her gaze back to Kenshin. She approached him, took the sheath from his hand, and slid the sakabatou into it. Her hand then reached up to gently caress his cheek. "I told it you it was my turn," she said.

Kenshin folded her into his arms. "Yes, it was, that it was," he agreed. He nodded in the direction of the bodies strewn about the yard. "I think we should tie them up."

***

All four men were still unconscious but had their hands and feet tied with Megumi's left over bandages when Yahiko returned, Saitoh and two other policemen trailing in his wake. "I think Kaoru did it, Saitoh-san," he was saying as they entered the yard, "Kenshin's been too weak to fight, and she had his sakabotou in her hand."

"The little girl is stronger than she looks," Saitoh drawled, as Kenshin approached them. "Something that you have taken too much time to realize yourself, Battousai."

"Hai, Saitoh," Kenshin replied, "that I have."

Saitoh then ordered his men to untie the prisoners feet, as he slapped them awake. At that moment, Kaoru stepped out onto the dojo porch. She had changed her clothes; the only sign of her fight was a darkening bruise on her left cheek. Saitoh noticed that Kenshin could not keep his eyes off her.

"You haven't told her yet, have you?" Saitoh asked. Kenshin shook his head. "Stop being a weakling, Battousai. Your woman is strong. Tell her."

~*~*~*~*

Minutes later, the dojo yard was empty except for the two of them. Saitoh and the other officers had shuffled their prisoners into a waiting wagon. Yahiko mumbled something about going back to Sano's place and firmly closed the dojo gate behind him.

They were alone. It was time.

Kenshin approached Kaoru, who was still standing on the dojo porch. She could see from the way his eyes never left hers, that he was ready to tell her what had happened on the day of Enishi's attack. She prepared herself, her shoulders tensing.

Kenshin took her hand in his own and gently pulled her into the dojo. His eyes never leaving her face, he pointed to a gash in the wall. Kaoru was startled when his eyes started to glisten with tears.

"I...I...found you...there," he said, his voice choked, as his hand gripped hers tighter. "You...were dead. Enishi...killed you...his sword was...in your heart... ."

Kenshin suddenly dropped to his knees, his body wracked with sobs, and then barely a breath later, she was wrapping herself around him. "I'm not dead, Kenshin," she whispered, her voice warm against his neck. "I'm right here. I'm fine!" She gently rocked him and continued to murmur assurances until his crying stopped.

When Kenshin finally looked up again, Kaoru's eyes were also full of tears. She gently brushed his red locks away from his face, her hands gently cupping his cheeks. Kenshin reached up and brushed a tear away from her eyes. She smiled at him and kissed his hand as it brushed against her lips. They both took several deep, cleansing breaths, continuing to silently drink in each other's warmth for several minutes.

Kaoru's hands dropped from his face to tangle with his own. She sighed once and forged on. There were still more questions to be answered. "Kenshin," she said, her voice soft and low, "there are still some things I need to know." He did not answer, but waited for her patiently to continue. "And before you tell me what Enishi did to make you think I was dead, please tell me what kind of place...Rakuninmura is."

Kenshin lowered his head, his red bangs shadowing his eyes. She tried to lift his chin, but he vehemently shook his head against her hand. "Rakuninmura is...a place where people without hope...go to live," he stumbled through the words, his voice barely audible, "but I did not go there, to live...I went there...to die... ." He lifted his face to hers as he spoke those last two words, his violet eyes boring into hers.

Kaoru's sapphire eyes widened. "Oh, Kenshin... ." Her hand caressed his scarred cheek.

"You...are my life, Kaoru," he told her, his voice strengthening. "You are my home." She gasped and smiled, knowing what that word meant to him. "My...life ended when I saw you lying there...your beautiful eyes...lifeless." He paused, studying her, and then he chuckled suddenly. "Thank Kami-sama for Aoshi. I never thought I would be grateful to him for anything."

"Aoshi?"

"It was Aoshi who discovered that your body was actually a puppet. A puppet made by Gein. Enishi knew what he was doing. His revenge was complete." His hand cupped her face, once again she brushed her lips against it. "He wanted to see me suffer by taking that which is most precious to me away. I almost let him have you...."

She took his hand from her face and clasped it in both of her own. She gently shook her head at him. "Remember what I said yesterday, Kenshin. No apologies." He began to speak, but her fingers touched his lips. "No, Kenshin. You're always apologizing for things that don't need forgiveness, and I do wish that you would stop doing that. There is nothing to forgive." She twined her arms about his neck, bringing him closer.

He crushed her to him. "Kaoru...," he whispered, his voice almost lost among her ebony locks. "I just want to protect you."

"I know, Kenshin," she replied, pulling back from him. "But you must let me protect you once in awhile." She smiled wryly. "I just proved that I could, right?"

Kenshin laughed, something that he had not done in weeks. It felt very good, just like the young woman he held in his arms. "That you did," he admitted with a grin.

Kaoru's expression suddenly became serious. "Kenshin, I need you to hear me right now, really hear me," she said. Kenshin nodded only once in reply, his full attention given to her. "You're always trying to protect me, from your past and from yourself...from Battousai." She paused only for a moment. "You always think of others before yourself, Kenshin, especially me, and although I will always love you for that, you never protect yourself."

"Oro?" Kenshin was confused.

"Yes, you do protect yourself and everyone around you physically with this sakabotou," she said, her hand lightly touching the sheath that lay on the floor next to them, "but you never protect your own soul." She took a deep breath, her eyes locked onto his. "I know the guilt you carry, my love; it tears you up inside. You always think yourself unworthy of anyone's love because of it."

Kenshin stiffened, his hands slipped from hers; he dropped his eyes to them, his fingers curling into fists. "I'll never be free from the blood, Kaoru," he said, his voice a gentle rasp. "Never."

Kaoru's hands covered his fists. Kenshin let her gently unclench his fingers. "Kenshin, do you love me?" she asked quietly. He looked up, startled that she could ask such a question. He cupped her face in his hands and brushed her forehead with his lips. "Always," he whispered. "I will always love you."

"Then you must let me in, Kenshin," she replied, her voice suddenly fierce. "If you won't protect your own soul, please let me protect it for you."

He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close to his chest. She could hear his heartbeat; it was strong and steady. "That could be a dangerous undertaking, love."

She pulled back from his embrace and stared into his eyes. "When have I ever been afraid of danger, Kenshin?" she asked, her voice dry. He chortled in reply, a sudden smile shining across his face. She pressed her lips against his scar. "You will protect me, and I will protect you. Will you promise me this?"

His only answer was to take her lips with his own, sealing his soul to her guardianship and sheltering love.

The End

Last Author's Note: I know there are some readers out there who won't like my portrayal of Kenshin being sick and weak in this story, but I would only remind them that this story takes place after Kenshin was injured in one battle, after he did not eat for two weeks while he lived in Rakuninmura, and then another battle with Enishi. How would you feel under those circumstances?

I would also like to apologize if there are any inconsistencies between this story and what goes on in the manga. I've only read the English translations of the Jin-chu arc; I have been unable to read and see the manga (Viz won't publish the English version of the Jin-chu arc for at least another year and a half, maybe longer). If you want to point them out (constructively, please!), then I will try to fix them at a later date. I'm also not sure that I like the title of this piece, so that may change later as well.

Thank You: I want to thank everyone who was so kind with their reviews of my first fan-fic: rurouni madness, mewberries, Britannie Love, fuzzie ears, and those who made anonymous reviews. I want send a special thank you to Bando-Eido no Megami-sama, whose review was really great (WoW!). I've started to write the epic (or mini-epic as the case may be) you suggested I write.

Please note that this is my first fan fiction, except for a single song- fic, so please be kind with your reviews!