Disclaimer: I do not own RK.

Simply A Man

Chapter 15

A strangled scream tore from her throat as she bolted upright from darkness. With sightless eyes she clawed at the restriction around her neck only to find the suffocating pain was from within. Panic seized her fully and she gasped and choked for precious air as if she were drowning in a bottomless sea.

Strong arms wrapped around her suddenly, a familiar warmth though she could not recall when she had ever felt it before. She struggled against the new restraint, her fear still clinging to the nightmare she had waken from.

"Shh, girl," a deep voice commanded and she felt inclined to listen. Her panicked gasps subsided into strangled sobs and his arms tightened around her.

"It's okay," Hiko breathed softly to the terrified girl in his arms. "You're safe."

Kaoru sunk against the master swordsman, her tears falling freely and fervently. She was alive. She was alive!

The usually stolid Seijuro Hiko soothed the frantic woman with quiet words and gentle strokes through her long silken hair. He was not a man to suffer fear. There had been times when he worried, like when the boy had abandoned his training to fight in the war. But he knew the boy could take care of himself. Young Kaoru Kamiya was a different story and had secured a special place in his affections…though he would never admit that to anyone.

Leaving her in the hands of those men was the hardest thing he had ever done. He could have caught up with them in a matter of minutes if Yahiko had not been with him. He feared she might never forgive him if he permitted anything to happen to the boy she had already lost once before.

There was a measure of comfort in knowing that Kenshin would be hot on the trail of those men and his fury would be unmatched. His idiot apprentice was now equal to his own skills, worthy of the honor of succeeding him as the fourteenth master of the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu. If not for Kenshin's vow to never kill again, every one of those men would have died a viciously quick death for the harm they had done to the girl. Even still, knowing this had not entirely prepared him for her condition when Kenshin returned with her.

Not for a moment had the boy left her side until now. Hiko had sent him off to fetch some water and clear his head for a time. Just his luck Kaoru would awaken from her nightmares just then.

Her sobs finally subsided into hesitant sniffles and she trembled with each shaky breath, curling into his embrace for reassurance and comfort. This pained moment brought many memories back to the old warrior, of a young red haired boy taunted by the deaths of those he could not protect. There had been many nights back then when he had held the child as he cried quietly for the ones he lost. How grateful he was when the boy finally grew past his fears and memories, but then it became harder to comfort the boy when he still needed reassurance. It was notably easier with women, he decided.

Glancing down at the young girl curled in his embraced, he smiled softly to see she had cried herself back to sleep. He held onto her for a moment longer before rolling her back onto the futon and tucking the blanket around her slender form.

"She's gone back to sleep," he said before he straightened and turned to face the door.

Kenshin's multi-colored eyes remained fixed on the sleeping woman as his master approached him.

Hiko gripped his apprentice's shoulder reassuringly and Kenshin glanced up at him. "Get some sleep before you fall over, moron."

A slight smirk flickered across Kenshin's face as he stared after his master. Hiko might act tough, but he had seen with his own eyes how tenderly his master had held the frightened woman. Shaking his head, Kenshin silently crossed the room to kneel beside her still form.

Her pale face was streaked from the torrent of fresh tears and his heart twisted within his chest. If only he had reached her a moment sooner. The sight of Gohei Hiruma kneeling over her, his filthy hands upon her throat, would forever be burned into his brain. It took all of his strength, all of his love for her to keep from severing the man's head from his body. As it was, he had struck Gohei so hard across the face with his reverse-blade sword that the man would never regain his sight.

Gohei and his men would spend the rest of their days in prison once Saitou arrived to escort them back to Tokyo. The people of the valley would sleep peacefully once again, but Kenshin feared he himself would not for as long as the woman he loved remained injured or in danger. There was still the matter of who the traitor was amongst the resistance's ranks.

Making himself comfortable against the wall within arm's reach of Kaoru, Kenshin closed his eyes and focused on her quiet, erratic breaths until they lulled him into a shallow sleep.

Soft chirping drew her from her aching dreams and her eyes fluttered open to stare at the ceiling above her. It took her a moment to realize that the sound that woke her was the spiraling song of birds. Spring was returning to the mountain.

Kaoru closed her eyes for a moment. Spring. The mountain. Kenshin. Is he…Is he really dead?

"It's about time you woke up," a jovial voice spoke and her eyes shifted to find the speaker.

Laughing brown eyes filled her vision and Kaoru smiled slightly. "Sanosuke, isn't it?"

"You can call me Sano," he grinned. "You sure had us worried for a bit there, Missie."


"Up to no good as usual," he grinned. "You hungry? I've got some soup and uh…" he glanced at the other bowl beside him that held nothing more than crumbs. "There was bread too, but I got kind of hungry waiting for you to wake up. Sorry."

Kaoru laughed softly, wincing at the strain it put on her bruised throat. "It's okay," she said as she pushed herself up.

Sanosuke was quite a pleasant person, she decided as he chatted animatedly while she ate. Most of the renegade swordsmen had been subdued, the danger to the people of the valley all but eliminated. Kaoru was happy to hear of this, but her thoughts were elsewhere, on other men.

"Where is he?" she asked finally and Sano stared blankly at her.


"The Battousai. I-I want to thank him for saving me," she said softly.

Sano stared at her oddly for a moment. "He's down by the river, last I knew."

Kaoru pushed her blankets off and struggled to her feet.

"Are you sure you should be up?" Sano studied her hesitant movements warily.

Once her head cleared, she felt her feet firm beneath her. Glancing down at Sano, she smiled sadly. "I'll be all right."

Sano watched her shuffle out of the room for a moment before turning his attention back to her soup. Hmm. I wonder if she was planning on finishing that…

The sun was warm upon her face and she paused for a moment to smile up at the sky…finally, an end to the long cold winter. Curling a hand over her heart, she wondered if it would ever be the end of winter within as well. She had Yahiko back, true, but it was no longer enough.

Smoke curled up into the blue sky from beyond the cabin, so Kaoru knew Hiko was back at his kiln as usual. She would speak to him later. Right now, she only wanted to see the man who had saved her from the very edge of death, the man who had stalked Gohei across the forbidden mountain through the frozen nights to protect her.

There were many tracks trampling the path to the river, but there was no one to be found when the free-flowing waters came into view. Could Sano have been wrong? Or maybe I just missed him. Her shoulders slumping at this possibility, she shuffled across the snow-patched ground and sunk onto a boulder heated by the brilliant sun. For a moment she sat in silence and stared into the icy waters trying to piece her thoughts together.

What if he had been here? What would she have said? It wasn't like she knew him, and yet he had come for her. How did he even know she was in trouble? And what happened to Kenshin? She should have asked Sanosuke, but she was afraid. A part of her hoped the Battousai would reveal the fate of her beloved in explaining why he had come for her himself. But then, that may be expecting too much from a man Kenshin had described as 'withdrawn'.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" a voice spoke and she snapped her head around to see Eiji reclining on a boulder a few feet away. He had been shadowed by the trees thus the reason she had not seen him.

"Eiji," she said in surprise.

"You look well, Miss Kaoru," he smiled at her. "Healthier."

She pushed herself up from her rock and took a step towards him. "I heard that the resistance was successful."

He nodded, his smile looking almost strained. "There are a few who remain to be captured still, but it isn't likely the villages will have to fear as they did."

"I heard that there was a traitor who kept Gohei and his men informed of the resistance's plans, that there was an ambush. I'm relieved to see you survived."

Mixed emotions flickered through the samurai's eyes and his left hand curled around the sheath of his katana where it had been resting casually. "You are kind, Miss Kaoru. Too kind, I think."

Kaoru stared at him in confusion for a moment, studying his tense posture, the odd expression on his face…

"It was you," she gasped as she took a step back.

He stared at her silently for a moment before another thin smile flickered across his face. "There isn't much of a life for men like me in this era of peace, Miss Kaoru. I'm just a relic of the revolution. I've lived by the sword for too long. One needs to eat, don't you agree?"

"Y-yes," she said hesitantly, taking another step back when he pushed himself off the boulder.

"I did it for the money," he told her as he stepped towards her, suddenly stopping a few feet away. His expression turned thoughtful. "But then I met you."

Kaoru blinked in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"Gohei never stopped talking about the little girl who marked his face before she escaped him. He wanted her badly and when two men showed up cursing a defiant little wench, Gohei sent me to find her. They also talked about encountering a fiery beast and I knew I was going to be trekking up the forbidden mountain to discover if the wench they talked about was the one who got away."

"But Kenshin—"

"The resistance really did need a man like him if they were to stand a chance against us, and I needed to get him away from you so Gohei would get his chance at you. But Himura took you off somewhere and I didn't know where he hid you before coming down to the valley. And by then…" he drifted off for a moment and his eyes softened. "I didn't want Gohei to find you by then anyway."

"Then how—"

"I wasn't the only spy Gohei had in the ranks. They followed Sagara when he brought the boy up the mountain to be with you. That was how Gohei found you." He fell silent and stared down at his feet.

"All those people," she spoke softly and the samurai sighed.

"I have been blood guilty for years, Miss Kaoru. A few more lives didn't seem to matter until I met you." He lifted his gaze and fixed her with a quizzical stare. "You loved him so completely, even knowing what he had been."

"It only matters what he is now," she answered him softly.

"And what is he?"

Kaoru hesitated for a moment and then lifted her chin, her bright eyes meeting his boldly. "He is the man that I love."

Eiji's stare turned wistful. "Do you suppose, Miss Kaoru, that there is another woman as forgiving as you out there?"

Kaoru hazard a faint smile. "I always believed that if you seek forgiveness, it will find you."

He reflected her smile for a moment before his eyes shifted to gaze over her shoulder. "Do not worry, Battousai," he said though his eyes were wary. "I do not intend to harm her."

Kaoru's eyes widened and she restrained herself from spinning around to see the man that had approached so silently behind her. A fierce aura was making itself felt and Eiji was not unaffected. Finally his eyes shifted back to her.

"I hope you will forgive me one day, Miss Kaoru." He bowed deeply to her and then turned away from the river. As she watched his back disappear from view, she could not help but hope that he would find the redemption and forgiveness he longed for. He very well might become to another woman as Kenshin had become to her. Kenshin. Her heart ached in memory.

"I wanted to thank you for saving my life," she said softly to the presence she could feel behind her.

"Did you mean what you said?"

She stiffened as the familiar voice washed over her. Hesitantly, she turned around to meet his intense violet stare.


He stared at her for a moment, emotion flickering through his dark gaze as she had seldom seen before. With two steps he closed the distance between them and reached up to wipe at the tears that were beginning to trickle from her eyes.

"You are alive," she whispered as she gazed up at him through her blurring vision.

A soft smile curled his lips. "I told you I would come for you, in one form or another." There was no hesitation on his part, no barriers, no fears, nothing to keep him from giving her all of him and she opened her heart fully to embrace everything that he was as he brought his lips to hers.

He held nothing back, drinking of her essence fiercely like a dying man and she clung helplessly to him. Everything she kept sheltered deep inside shattered and bared itself to his touch, his claim. When he broke from her, both were breathing heavily and his eyes were intense with golden fire. Desire, rage, and love were a perfect swirl of molten emotion and openly exposed for her to see.

Kaoru had no desire to ever free herself from his tight embrace, thrilling in the comfort of his warmth and fearing none of his fierce passion. He possessed her completely and she would never deny the hold he had on her heart and soul. She loved him for everything that he was; Battousai, Rurouni, and…

"You were always watching over me," she whispered and he smirked impishly.

"You were in my domain."

"And now?"

He leaned his forehead against hers, his glowing eyes intent on her petal pink lips. "And now you will stay there." He moved to kiss her and she drew back, a mischievous gleam in her eyes.

"Only if you stay with me," she said.

The brilliant sapphire eyes that sparkled at him did not belong to a broken woman. They were the eyes of a woman whole and in love and they were beautiful to behold.

"Always," he swore as he leaned in and successfully captured her lips again. The fire that had remained dormant within her sparked and flamed and she wrapped her arms around his neck to keep him close to share in the warmth he had awakened from her failing heart. She would be his salvation even as he had been hers.

Oni of the forbidden mountain was a creature born of fire.

He was not a monster.

He was simply a man.

And she loved him.

- End -