TO Forgive, Part II
Disclaimer: Not mine. Standard disclaimers apply
Spoiler: Some for the Jinchuu Arc

Kaoru sighed and flopped down on a fallen log, blowing her bangs out of her face. "Mou! I thought I would have found him by now!" she muttered. The last Kenshin sighting had been in a village three days ago. She had headed off in the direction the old woman had showed her, but no Kenshin. "Where the hell is he? He only had a few hours head start!" She made a face and stood, grabbing her pack. Her feet hurt. She refused to acknowledge the pain. "I can't stop now! If I stop to rest then he'll get even further ahead of me!" She walked ahead resolutely. A few hours later, she came across a small cabin. A woman sat at the doorway, smoking. "Excuse me, have you seen anyone pass here?"

The woman stared at Kaoru and narrowed her eyes. "I've seen a few, who are you looking for?" Kaoru cautiously allowed hope to rise as she described Kenshin. "He's short, red hair, a cross scar on his cheek…" Hope was quelched when the woman shook her head. "Nope. Nobody who looks like that has come around here. I think I'd notice someone with red hair." Kaoru nodded, dejected. She decided to go back to the village from three days ago to start again. "Maybe you should have taken the main road." The woman said. Kaoru turned on her. "The main road? I thought this was the main road!" The woman shook her head. "Nope. I bet the guy you're looking for took the main road."

"Where does it go?" she asked. The woman took a drag on her cigarette. "Kyoto." Suddenly, Kaoru understood. "How do I get to that road?" she asked. The woman gave her directions and after a hasty thank you, she was off and running.

Kenshin threw another bundle of branches on the fire. It was starting to get cold. He had always hated wandering in the winter. He shivered and sat closer to the fire. The dojo had always been warm. Kaoru. For the hundredth time that night, his thoughts turned to her. She had always warmed his heart. Her smile, the way she accepted what he was without hesitation, everything about her. He felt like he did after Tomoe had died. Drifting, without an anchor. He was without his sheath again. Kenshin buried his head in his hands and wished desperately that his heart would stop hurting him so much.

Kaoru sat up, the nightmare dragging her from her sleep. Since she had met Kenshin, her worst fear had been him leaving her, and now he had. This nightmare was different. She had been wandering, and every time she thought she had found him, he disappeared. "Kenshin, you jerk!" she hissed. The tears she had been holding back for days rose up and overflowed, dripping onto her blanket. She shivered. It was cold in the old barn she had decided to sleep in. Cold air seeped through the many cracks and gaps and surrounded her. She buried herself in the thin blanket and tried to go back to sleep. And failed. "Mou!" she exclaimed.

Hiko was peacefully sipping sake at his kiln when a familiar chi interrupted him. "The baka deshi is back." He muttered. He did not acknowledge his former student until the man himself flopped down next to him on the log, looking completely dejected.

"What now? I already taught you everything you need to know." The sword master cum potter said, thoroughly irritated.

Kenshin sighed and produced two jugs of sake. "I'm not here for lessons." He said and opened a jug. Hiko eyed him as his student took a swig. "Well then why are you bothering me?" he asked, his annoyed tone holding the faintest bit of curiosity.

When Kenshin didn't answer, he thumped him on the head. "I asked you a question, idiot!" Hiko growled. Kenshin sighed again and responded after he took another drink. "I left her." He said, looking like he was going to cry.

"Why? Did she find someone who wasn't a complete moron, more her age and less likely to get her killed?" His master asked, frowning when Kenshin did start to cry.

"Hey….HEY! Didn't I teach you anything? Men don't cry!" Hiko smacked him again, his frown fading when the younger man failed to answer. He hated it when the damn kid cried. Kenshin ignored him and took another swig of sake, only responding when his master tore the jug from his hands. "Hey!" he said, startled, sniffling. "Why did you do that?"

"You're a weepy drunk! Now quit bawling and tell me why you left her!" Hiko was completely annoyed, and intrigued.

Kenshin sniffled and produced a handkerchief from his gi, blowing his nose loudly. The action made him light headed and he nearly fell off of the log. Maybe he shouldn't have had those drinks before he came up here. He thought to himself, before answering his shishou's question. "She keeps getting attacked because of me…" he said, sadly. "I thought, I thought that if I left, she would be safer."

Hiko nodded. "You're right. Good thinking." Kenshin looked at his master, wounded. He had hoped his shishou would tell him he was an idiot and send him back to Kaoru, not agree with him. "But I…"

Hiko sipped his sake, looking at his idiot student from the corner of his eye. "But what, you moron? Because of your past, anyone you come into contact with is in danger. Hell, you're probably putting me in danger right now. Your only hope is to become a hermit and make fabulous pottery, like me. Of course, you'll never be able to be as good as I am, but with practice, you might make pottery that's passable."

Kenshin sniffled again, imagining himself living in a small, run down cottage making pots and getting drunk every night. He made a face. "But that's so depressing!" he wailed. His master looked offended and whacked him, sending the red head flying off the log and into the forest. "Sleep it off!" he yelled after his student's soaring body. Turning back to his sake, he made a miffed sound. "Depressing indeed!" he sniffed.

Kenshin awoke the next morning in the middle of the forest with a throbbing headache. "Where am I?" he muttered, struggling to remember, and when he did, he felt like he was going to throw up. "I came here and I said THAT to my master?" He groaned and rolled over, wishing he were anywhere but here. "That's why I never drink…." He closed his eyes and wished for the oblivion of sleep to claim him again.

An hour later, he felt someone nudging him with their foot. "Hey…hey, baka, you'd better not be dead!" Hiko growled, kicking him. Kenshin groaned and curled into a fetal ball, prompting Hiko to laugh. "You never could handle your sake. I remember the first time you ever had it…you got sloppy drunk off of one saucer and then you proceeded to…." Hiko's words were cut off as Kenshin rose quickly off the ground. "Shishou!" he howled, anguished.

"Heh…it was pretty funny…" Hiko mused. Kenshin looked mortified. "Can't you ever forget those things?" he wailed. Hiko grinned. "No way." His student sniffled and looked completely dejected. He was almost thirty years old and this man still had the power to make him feel like he was ten. "Come on, baka. I've got some miso." Hiko gave him a hard slap on the back, making the smaller man pitch forward and fall flat on his face. "Ororororo…." Kenshin mumbled into the dirt. His master chuckled evilly and walked back towards his hut.

The miso was too salty. It tasted like one of Kaoru's vile concoctions. Kenshin's nose wrinkled. "I forgot you couldn't cook." He said. Hiko glared at him. "If you don't like it then don't eat it!" he roared. Cowed, the red head sipped his miso.

Later that morning, Hiko was attempting to create a particular piece of pottery, but was distracted by his moping student. "Hey, idiot! Are you going to slink around here all day?" he asked, his voice and face annoyed. "What else do I have to do?" Kenshin replied. "Well, if you're going to leech off of me, at least make yourself useful. Go to the village and get me some sake. I could also use some rice and vegetables and on your way back, catch some fish for dinner. The fishing pole is by the door." Kenshin sighed. "Hai de gozaru." Hiko rolled his eyes. "Will you quit talking like that? It's annoying." Kenshin nodded. "Hai, hai." His hand reached out and caught the small sack of money his master threw to him. "And don't take all day!" "Hai." He retrieved the pole and trudged down the path towards the village, shoulders slumped.

Hiko watched him leave and sighed, shaking his head. "The most feared assassin of the Ishin Shishi, the fourteenth inheritor of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu and he's pining after a woman. Moron."

Kaoru thanked the elderly man who had given her a ride the rest of the way to Kyoto in his cart. He wished her luck in finding Kenshin and rode off. He had been so friendly that she found herself telling him everything, well, almost everything. She had left out Kenshin's true identity. "What a nice man," she said to herself and walked into the city. It was bustling, full of people and life. She wondered what it was like during the war, when Kenshin had been the hitokiri. Her mind followed that thought and she found herself wondering what these people would think if they knew she had come here searching for the legendary Hitokiri Battousai, if they knew she loved him with everything she was. They probably wouldn't understand. She sighed.

The cemetery was ahead on her right, the view breathtaking. She knew this was where Tomoe was buried, and she had a vague idea where the grave was. She was almost afraid to meet him here, to intrude on this private and painful part of his life, but she was also fiercely determined to find him. She squared her shoulders and walked forward resolutely.

He wasn't there. The marker was blank, but she knew who it honored. There were fresh flowers nestled against the stone, irises. The ashes from recently burned incense dusted the ground in front of her. He had been there. She felt strange standing there, on the grave of Kenshin's wife. She knelt and offered prayer to the young woman who had scarred more than his face. She didn't know quite what to say, so she paused after wishing Tomoe's soul peace. "What do I want to say?" she whispered. Her mind supplied an answer and taking a deep breath, she began.

"I have so many questions I wish I could ask you, Tomoe-san. So many things to say. I love him, I love him so much that I felt physical pain when he left. You know he takes too much to heart, that he has such a heavy burden. He left me because he's afraid. He couldn't protect you, and he's scared of failing me. How can I soothe him? He loves me, he does, but he's so afraid. You and I, we just want him to be happy. How can I make him happy if he won't let me?" She felt tears prick her eyes and travel down her face, dripping onto her clasped hands. "Why can't we be happy?" she whispered.

A light wind whispered through the trees, bringing with it the slightest hint of a scent. Kaoru raised her head and inhaled the delicate fragrance. White plums. She couldn't quite explain it, but she felt at ease. Smiling at the plain marker, she rose. "I will make him happy. For both of us." She said.

The vase wasn't cooperating. It rose majestically, only to slump dejectedly back onto the wheel. Cursing, Hiko began to reshape it, annoyed when it again failed to perform up to his exacting standards. He was ready to take a break when he sensed her. "Don't hover, it's rude." He said, loud enough for her to hear from her position at the edge of the clearing. She jumped about a foot. She had forgotten he could do that.

"H..hai." she stuttered, inching towards his broad back. "I was wondering when you'd show up." He said, not turning to face her. She stepped closer, her need to see Kenshin overriding her fear of Hiko. "Is he here?" she asked, hopefully. "No." replied Hiko. He let that sink in before he continued. "I sent him to the village to get some food and sake, he should be back in a few hours."

She made her way towards him slowly. He turned to look at her, favoring her with one of his trademark grins. "I won't bite, young woman." He said. She smiled a little. "So you've come to take the moron back?" he asked, looking at her with a raised eyebrow. She nodded and perched on the end of the log, as far from him as she could sit. He noticed and made a face. "Good. He'll drink all my sake if he hangs around."

"Datte…Hiko-san, Kenshin doesn't drink." Kaoru said, timidly. "That's what you think. He was certainly putting it away last night." Hiko snorted. "Apparently, the little dork is completely miserable without you." She brightened at that remark, choosing to focus on that instead of Hiko's insulting references to his student. "Really?"
"Of course. He didn't leave because he wanted to. He left because he felt like he had to." He sighed. "I thought I raised him to be better than that. He constantly disappoints me."

That raised her hackles. "Better than what? He left because he cared about me! He has the kindest heart of anyone I know! How could he disappoint you?!" She stood, fists clenched at her sides. "Why are you so mean to him all the time? He doesn't deserve that!" She was quivering with rage. Hiko raised an eyebrow. "Young lady, you know nothing of our relationship."

She would not be daunted. "That doesn't matter! I know Kenshin! He's sweet and kind and wonderful and he doesn't deserve your cruelty! He's hard enough on himself as it is!" Hiko fought the urge to laugh. Kenshin was hovering on the edge of the clearing. Kaoru hadn't seen him yet. If I push just a little harder…he thought.

"Some would say he deserves everything I dish out to him, and more. Some would even argue that he deserves to burn in hell for everything he's done. What do you say to that?" Don't disappoint me, young lady, he silently prayed. The baka needs to hear you say it. She didn't let either of them down. "I don't care what he did! All I care about is him! He's the most wonderful person in the world and I love him! I don't care that he was the Hitokiri Battousai! As far as I'm concerned, he's paid his penance and suffered enough! All I want is for him to come home with me and to finally let himself love someone again…" she was crying.

"What are you crying for?" Hiko demanded. "For him, for his suffering. I love him so much…when he hurts…so do I." She wiped at the tears that streamed down her face, angry with herself for losing control in front of Kenshin's master.

The sword master quickly suppressed a smile. There's still one more thing he needs to hear…
"He left because you were in danger. Even if he does love you…and you love him…to be with Kenshin is to be constantly in danger from his enemies."
She shook her head, her reply vehement.
"I would face the Devil if it meant he would come home to me. My life may be in danger, but as far as I'm concerned, he's worth it. Even if someone takes my life, at least I can die knowing that I loved him and he loved me too. Life is too short to live with regrets and unfulfilled wishes. I know the danger and I accept it because it's part of him. I accept all of him. Kenshin, the Battousai, all of him."

Hiko finally let the smile break free. "Then you deserve him, though I still don't think he deserves you." He looked past her, "Do you agree, Kenshin?"
Kaoru's back stiffened and she counted to ten before she slowly turned around. Kenshin was standing at the edge of the clearing, a jug of sake in one hand and a sack, fishing pole and fish in the other.

"He heard that?" she squeaked. Hiko chuckled. "Every little bit." She turned to him, face red and angry. "You let me say all of that?! Why didn't you stop me??" He spread his hands out. "Because, stupid, he needed to hear you say it and I doubt you would have ever been able to say that to his face." The frown vanished and was replaced with something close to shock as his words seeped into her mind.

He chuckled again and rose from the log. "I think I'll leave you two alone." He walked over to where Kenshin was still standing, frozen and took the food and sake from him. "Go to her, moron or I'll use you as a practice dummy." He whispered, with a wink. Raising his voice, he turned towards Kaoru. "But don't take all day! I don't like being run out of my own home!" Whistling, he strolled away, leaving them alone.
There was silence.

"Kaoru-dono…." Kenshin murmured at the same time as she said, "Kenshin…"

They blushed and looked away from each other. Finally, he spoke again. "Did you really mean all of that?" he asked, his voice low and uncertain. She nodded. "Of course!" She felt the fear seep away. All she cared about was him.

She wasn't close enough to read his expression, so she walked towards him. "Kenshin…I meant everything I said."
He was looking at the ground, his bangs hiding his eyes. She stood before him, her hand moving to lift his face upwards.
"Please…come home with me. I need you. And not just me. Yahiko needs a father, Sano needs a friend and Megumi needs a brother. You brought us together, made us a family. But without you, we're anchorless." Her timid fingers reached out to brush his hair away from his face and eyes. They were closed. "Kenshin…look at me." He shook his head slightly and took a deep breath. "I won't put you in danger anymore…"

She was beginning to lose her temper. That stubborn…she thought to herself.
"I won't, Kaoru-dono. I'm sorry…"
"BAKA!" She smacked him over the head and his violet eyes popped open in surprise. "ORO?" She was angry now. "BAKA!" Her hands grasped his shoulders and shook him soundly.
"Kaoru-donooorrrooo…." He couldn't speak as his head whipped back and forth.
"You jerk! You would rather spend the rest of your life alone and miserable?! You'd rather make the rest of us unhappy?!"
She punctuated the last statement with an extra hard shake and then let him go, tears rising in her eyes. "Ororororo…" he moaned, his eyes spinning.

She turned away from him, shoulders shaking as she cried. "Don't cry…please…" he begged, having recovered somewhat from her attack.
"Why shouldn't I?" she sobbed.

Kenshin did the only thing he could. He turned her towards him and wrapped her in his arms. "Please don't cry…I didn't mean to hurt you." He whispered, feeling his already broken heart crack a little more as she sobbed into his shoulder.

"I love you, Kenshin and I want to be with you…" she choked out, her voice muffled by his shoulder.
"Me too." He whispered. "But how can I take everything you offer in exchange for a life of danger and uncertainty? That's not love, that's selfishness."

She wrapped her arms around him, refusing to relinquish this moment in his arms. "Kenshin…if you don't come home with me now, I swear I will follow you where ever you go." He had to smile at that, at the vehemence in her voice.

Is it really so wrong to accept her? He asked himself. She loves me. She wants me. She makes me whole again. He tried to fight it, arguments popping into his head. Jineh…
Shishio, Enishi…
Doesn't matter. I want her.
But she'll always be in danger…
So then I'll always protect her.
I won't fail again.

"Kaoru…" he whispered. She loosened her grip and looked up at him, hope filling her eyes when he called her by her name. No honorific, no distance, just Kaoru. He looked down at her, his eyes shining with something nameless but wonderful. "I'll always protect you. I will protect our happiness." She smiled and it seemed to him, the most beautiful sight in the world. And then he kissed her and the rest of the world faded away.