A/N: This chap contains nudity and some hints of er… whatever. Not a warning, but this is rated "M" isn't it?
DISCLAIMER: If I owned RK, I wouldn't let Warner Brothers turn it into amovie..
The Freezing Fire and the Warm Ice
CHAPTER 6- First Fall of Snow
The bugs were everywhere; crawling and buzzing around her, trying to drink her blood and sweat. Kaoru waved her hands in the air, the sleeves of her kimono offering no barrier to the blood sucking parasites which had insisted on swarming around her, since the moment she opened her eyes this morning. The man ahead of her didn't even seem to care, and this pushed her further to the brink of her patience.
"Stupid bastard," she muttered under her breath as she tried to catch up with his quick strides. At the moment, she didn't even know where he was taking them. They hadn't eaten since the day before and here they were, hitting the road again.
She raised her arms to wipe at the sweat that slid from her scalp, only to see half a dozen mosquitoes on the column of her arm. Her other hand slapped at them, blindly killing three, two of those had been full to bursting.
Seeing her own blood didn't usually upset her, but this time, with hunger taking its toll on her body, all the strength went out of her legs. Her bottom met the cool ground, the movement drawing Battousai's attention… or so she thought.
He turned towards the road again, ignoring her fallen form. With a huff that sent her bangs up over her head, she indignantly got to her feet, shook the dust from her clothes and spoke loud enough for her voice to reach him.
"Wait a second, do you have any idea where your silly feet are taking us?"
He didn't respond and kept on walking.
"Fine. Ignore me as if I don't even exist..."
He paid no attention, just like the first time she'd talked to him. Kaoru was already used to his mood swings though. Most of the time, it seemed to her as if she were a thorn in his side; she always seemed to get on his nerves just by asking a few questions.
"You're the one who dragged me out here, so it's not my fault if my presence has been a nuisance to you. Deal with it, Himura-san." she said out loud.
The corner of his lips twitched at the way she emphasized the honorific. For a moment he regretted giving her his real name.
"You know, woman, if I were you, I'd keep my mouth shut. It could save you energy, at least," he finally responded.
'He hasn't changed at all!' she mused. Maybe she was just foolish, to have thought that their conversation last night would've bridged the gap between them. He was still the infuriating jerk she'd slapped yesterday.
Being trained as a hitokiri accounted for his endurance, especially in the wilderness. He was honed to control, discipline and patience. But overcoming a feisty woman such as this would prove to be a great challenge.
'What's the problem with this woman? She always seem make the simplest things complicated!' he thought.
Battousai clung to indifference with the girl, believing that if he ever let his guard down, his enemies –who might be still after him – would see her as his weakness and use her as a potential target to provoke him. He could tell from the sound of her faltering steps that she'd been struggling with what was left of her energy to keep up with him. It tested his willpower not to carry her over his shoulders and end her suffering.
Not that he would be able to do that with that stubborn attitude of hers, anyway. When the thought of knocking her unconscious began to be very appealing, the voice inside him taunted him again.
Really? Or do you just want to feel her body close to you?
Silently banishing the voice inside his head, he walked faster. Fast enough to put some distance between them, but still close enough, in case something happened. He never regretted taking her with him, but dealing with her outbursts was more than enough to break his control.
The touch of a woman… It's been so long hasn't it? the voice spoke again.
He was right. It was only last night that they'd shared that kiss, yet the longing he felt ate at his heart like a disease. As much as he wanted to touch her, make her feel safe around him, he had to keep her at arm's length so he could get a hold of his sanity, just a bit.
'Hunger really does strange things to your head, especially when what you are craving isn't food,' he thought.
She regretted it- regretted turning down his offer about the river last night. She was more than thirsty... dry as a bone. The cool air chapped her lips; her throat was dry and throbbing and her tongue felt like a dusty worm, making it hard for her to swallow. She cursed herself for not drinking from the river when she had the chance.
'I'm not going to die of thirst in this darn forest am I?' she asked herself. She'd gone too far to turn back, 'but it doesn't mean that there are no other sources of water here, does it?'
They plodded through the pines and spruces that grew taller and better spaced, as this part of the forest grew older. A part of her admired the beauty of this wilderness, even in her physical distress- and right now, her temples were pounding with a headache so bad, she could barely walk straight.
At first, she dismissed the sound of running water as an auditory hallucination. Nevertheless, she moved faster and almost tripped when her foot caught on a thick root protruding from the ground. If not for the cushion of bushes that caught her fall, she would have re-acquainted her bottom with the ground. Battousai had gone too far ahead to even notice the problem.
'He could have at least waited for me.' She threw an irritated glance in the direction he'd been wandering off in.
'Maybe he just doesn't care, because I'm not much of a woman,' she thought.
Overcoming her own mortification, Kaoru stood up, knocking down a clump of moist dirt in the process. She wanted to scream her anger at him, for disregarding her most of the time. But it wasn't as if she was asking for his attention, she just wanted him to make her feel that she wasn't alone in all of this.
His attempts to keep his mind off of her had been so effective, that he'd barely heard her stumble. It was only when she started whining that the flat line that was his mouth, tugged down at the sides.
"I told you, if I were you I'd–"
Before he could finish what he had to say, he was cut off when a certain sound grew louder – too loud to mistake it for anything other than what it was. Bracing for the inevitable, he turned to face her, dismissing the small woman's perplexed expression.
Missing the look of total shock on his face, she blurted out, "What's your problem?" Her hands were on her hips, an odd posture for one who had just been exhausted.
The command was sudden; Kaoru would have shot back a nasty remark, if not for the desperate urgency of his voice. She willed herself to look back, only to be met by the sight of a dark cloud of wasps approaching.
In an instant, her entire body sprang to life. The muscles of her legs were suddenly bursting with strength as she made a wild dash towards him, breaking one of her sandals in the process. When she reached him, his arm instantly came around her thighs and she found herself in the same position he'd carried her yesterday.
"You idiot – can't you find a better way to carry me around?"
"Should I put you down now?"
"Who asked you to carry me anyway?"
"And would you stop acting like a child for once? You just broke your sandals! One more complaint from you and I won't have a second thought about leaving you to those poisonous insects. "
He'd never felt more triumphant than when her body slumped in submission.
"Where did those insects of yours came from anyway? Did you happen to fall on bushes while we were walking?" he asked.
"Of course not!"she denied, to stave off the humiliation hitting her squarely in the face. 'How would you know, when you're not even there?' was what she wanted to say.
He raised an eyebrow. Instead of arguing with her, he kept his mind busy trying to find a way to escape the wasps.
Kaoru noticed his movements; she could tell that he'd gotten a bit sloppy. But, he was still fast enough to carry both of their weights at his speed, not to mention that he was already worn out.
The sound of water came to her again, this time it was clear to her that it wasn't just her imagination as it seemed to get louder with each step they made. They headed toward it, ducking under low branches and stepping over fallen logs like a wild animal in a lunatic's trance. Her head felt like it was going to explode and she had to cover her mouth not to upchuck with every leap he made.
Suddenly, they stopped, finding themselves at the edge of a steep precipice beside which seems to be a deep river. Kaoru's throat rejoiced at the sight of flowing water, the wasps were not getting any slower.
"Hold your breath."
Before she could even process what he'd said, she found herself detached from his body in mid-air as he made a risky jump. She didn't even have the chance to suck in air as she felt the ice cold water swallow her whole body, her head being the first to go underwater.
She waded desperately, moving her body as much as her kimono would allow. Water entered her ears and nose and the need to surface became paramount. There was little current where she was, so she pushed closer to the surface and was about to pop her head out but before she could, a hand grasped her wrist and pulled her back under.
From underwater, she could see a blurry image of Battousai, shaking his head in warning. She'd been deprived of water earlier, but now she couldn't let him deprive her of air too; she desperately needed it! Kaoru struggled and kicked at him to break free, but he was stronger- she'd have no choice but to resort to something tricky.
Battousai didn't see it coming until her nails grazed his arm, just enough draw blood. The sudden pain loosened his grip on her and he immediately let go. Her head finally out of the water, she coughed at the water that choked her, then his titian head followed, no better off. She swam towards the big rock at edge of the river, heaving at the weight of her wet kimono that dragged her down.
Kaoru clung to the rock, muttering curses at him, calling him names, the least of them being "stupid."
"Are you trying to get us both killed?" The pair of blue eyes he admired seemed to shoot flares back at him. She wrung out her kimono sleeves and felt for the remaining sandal on her foot and threw it at him, missing him by an inch.
"So this is what I get for saving your life," he mumbled as he climbed to the edge.
"Oh, so drowning somebody counts as saving a life?" she bit back harshly.
He stood up at the edge, regarding her seriously, and then she that familiar indifference snapped back into place again.
"Those werepoisonous wasps."
Then he left her sitting there, torn between guilt and dissipating anger. He peeled off his dark, sopping top and made his way towards some tall bushes, enough to make a decent cover while he got out of his clothes. He would just give her time to contemplate her actions.
Finding a good stump to lay his sword on, he proceeded to squeeze the water out of his clothes. He hung them over an old branch to dry, shivering as the icy breeze touched his bare skin. Winter was already casting its early winds. He had to keep his patience a notch higher than usual if he wanted to keep her with him – at least for the time being.
Now that he thought of it, it struck him. After this he wasn't really sure what to do about her. She was right that this was entirely his fault. Being dragged out of her home, he would admit, was a wrong move. But even if she wasn't any better off with him, her life would be in danger if he returned her to the dojo right now.
'Better choose the lesser evil,' he decided. But- at least for now- he simply could not let her go. Not when he'd found a cure to the demons inside him.
Kaoru staggered to her feet. Looking around her, she spied a tangle of dead pine boughs. She took them to one of the tall firs near the river and leaned them against the trunk, like upside-down fans, creating a little space –sort of a half tent – she could crawl into. If no wind came to knock the branches over, she thought she would be fairly snug
"What a life... lost in the forest, soaked to the very strands of your hair and with a complete jerk who could make you feel crazy with guilt," she muttered to herself as she put the last branch on her makeshift shelter. She freed her dripping hair from its ribbon, letting its heavy weight to cling to her pale shoulders as she loosened her obi.
A few feet away she spotted a cluster of bamboos. Their branches were a good length to hang her kimono on. Shoving the last of her robes, she walked towards it naked from the waist up. She clasped her soiled clothes tightly to cover her chest.
After finishing the task, she walked back to her spot, and then stopped halfway when the Battousai chose that untimely instant to show up. He stood looking at her with an expression on his face that she couldn't quite decipher. It was too late before she realized his eyes were totally feasting over her nakedness, sending heat from her cheeks to her bare shoulders.
Her arms came up to cover her chest, retrieving what was left of her decency, as her sanity tried to come up with words to say to him. Not when he'd already taken in the pink buds of her nipples as they stood out in the cool air or the way the color that spread over her chest brought life to her usually pale skin.
Battousai eventually turned away, totally dismissing her as if nothing had happened. The sudden change unsettled her, but more than that, the strong feelings radiating off him made the distance between them even more evident. She tried to convince herself that he was just surprised and indifferent, as if the change of his eyes' expression didn't have an effect on her… when it actually did.
Battousai's clenched knuckles nearly turned white. The sight of women's bodies didn't usually have this effect on him, considering that he'd had comrades once and they'd had their share of brothel visits. He was still a man after all, and men have their own needs. Even if he'd been known to always be in control, he could easily go crazy with the strange feelings this woman could evoke in him.
It had been a long time since he'd had such perverse thoughts- until he saw her body's response to his stare. It wasn'tmerely lust and he knew it.
Fleeting memories of his deceased wife came back to him with a vengeance. His first time with her had been gentle. The night was young back then, and the scent of white plums wafted with every touch, every caress. Inch by inch they discovered their bodies' reaction to questing hands, and lips…
This time it was different. With the way they clashed over anything and everything, he expected no less from their lovemaking- clashing again and again until the fire consumed them both and he could lay exhausted in his angel's loving embrace, resting his head against her warm and supple breasts while her gentle hand moved in circles on his naked back soothing away any tension and trauma, shielding him from the cold and cruel ice, until there wasn't anyone or anything left in that sanctuary but him and her sweet murmurs, and the scent of jasmine, and blue eyes...And maybe someday, he would be worthy enough to touch her, lavish her with the same attention she'd bestowed upon him.
Realizing where his thoughts had wandered off to, he pounded a fist into the rough bark.
He needed that dip in the river again.
At the moment, Kaoru remained silent as she took in every rustle of leaves around her whenever the cool wind blew. Her face was contentedly upturned to the brightest part of the sky to where the sun might be hiding behind the early winter clouds. She lost track of time and didn't have any idea how long she'd sat there like that, with her knees drawn to her chin, until Battousai finally invaded her personal, little refuge.
"It's starting to get a bit chilly, don't you think?"
She snorted. "Chilly? Well, considering that were both drenched and naked in open air, you could say that. It'll be by grace that we don't end up catching colds," she said without looking at him.
Overlooking her usual demeanor, he brought something to her face. "Here. I managed to find some food."
Kaoru stared at the piece of roasted fish– the poor thing had the stick coming right through its mouth to the end of its tail– then back at him. At the fish. Then back to him again. Giving in to the needs of her stomach, she finally took the fish from his hands and threw him a skeptical look.
"Now you're bribing me with food." Even so, she took her first bite. It felt like she hadn't eaten for weeks and her taste buds would've accepted even her own cooking, but what she appreciated most about him, was his ability to make even the least of ingredients delicious.
"Wow, you're really good at this," she mumbled between mouthfuls.
"No. Living in the woods."
Taking nothing himself, he watched her eat the second meal he was able to make for her since they'd met. As if she'd read his mind, she spoke,
"Come to think of it, I haven't eaten anything but your cooking, since you woke up."
Noting the silence around them as she continued eating, Battousai said with a smirk "Hmm… maybe I should keep your mouth occupied from now on."
"And what do you mean by that?" She suddenly drew back.
"Stuff it with food, to keep you from talking. What else did you think? I really didn't think that food could get your head functioning properly again."
And then she couldn't help but smile. It was infectious, and he longed for her to keep smiling at him like that.
"Hmm?" His tone still held the air of indifference, but nevertheless, she shook off her pride and in a low voice, she apologized.
"I'm sorry I threw that sandal at you."
He avoided her searching eyes. "At least we're even. Your throwing that sandal in the river means you have to figure out ways to travel barefoot from this point on."
'Insufferable guy.' She thought.
"My clothes have probably dried off by now." He stood up, his muscles rippling as he stretched his arms over his head. The he eyed her shoulders, and her hands immediately covered the exposed skin.
Turning away, he ordered, "You too, get dressed. If we move fast, we'll be able to get out of this forest before dark. And next time don't go barging through the forest naked."
The statement shot heat rushing through her veins again. "Pervert," she scoffed.
But right now, she felt giddy at the good news. She waited until he was gone so she could snatch her dry kimono from the bamboo twigs. With the same proficiency she had in her sword art, she was able to take less than a minute to don her kimono and stood waiting for him.
Battousai came out of the trees with a pair of what looked like woven twigs in one hand.
"It may feel a little itchy but at least they'll do the job," he said, as he tossed them to her feet. "This will save us both trouble."
Securing the coarse sandals to her feet with a knot, she took few steps to test the pair. He was right about the itch, but the material was soft enough for her feet to move freely and thick enough to protect the soles of her feet.
Up on the tips of her toes, she could see the towering trees, now far away. The sunset cast a shadow on the steep slopes, a view she admired wholeheartedly.
"To think were there an hour ago..."
"Hurry up, we still haven't found a place to stay yet." Battousai's voice brought her back down to her feet again.
She walked alongside him now, the sprinkle of bushes had, one by one, vanished into solid ground as they drew closer to civilization. From here she could see the roofs of scattered buildings, some tattered and some fairly small. As they arrived at one village, she took in the unfamiliar place, not noticing that Battousai had stopped in front of an inn.
The front gate opened suddenly, revealing a middle-aged woman clad in kimono. She smiled and greet him.
"How may we serve you, sir?" the woman asked politely.
"We're looking for a place to stay for a little while..." When he realized he was standing there alone, he glanced around in panic. Relief came over him when he saw Kaoru gawking around like a country bumpkin.
"I have company," he said with a slight smile.
"Your wife?" The impression that they were a couple brightened the woman's face even more. Battousai stuttered over something to say at the unexpected inquiry.
"She's a young one." The woman said, noting the bright designs of Kaoru's kimono "… The woman sighed, remembering her own youth, "But it's just like they say, young love cannot be repressed."
"If you would excuse me for a moment, madam." He excused himself for to retrieve Kaoru.
Meanwhile, the young woman was too occupied looking around. She almost jumped when she felt a hand grip her elbow.
"Kaoru! don't ever leave my side again! Do you understand?" Battousai's eyes were full of anger and worry as she stared blankly at him. She couldn't say a word as she'd just snapped out of her stupor.
"This place might look quaint to you, but this place could be dangerous for outsiders like us. Let's go. The innkeeper is waiting." He led her to the inn and, to Kaoru's relief, the innkeeper who greeted her was very kind.
"How long have you been married?"
The question tore through Kaoru's obviously occupied mind, but before she could answer, Battousai spoke,
"I think we should continue this inside, we're a bit tired."
The woman smiled and led them, but before Kaoru could set foot inside the entrance, she felt something cold touch her cheek. She looked up to see the first few drops of snow descending.
"The first snow, it's finally here." She touched her cheeks and let the tiny drop slide to her chin, a small smile gracing her lips. When she turned to look at Battousai, she was taken aback by his dark expression. Unlike the familiar indifference he usually dealt her with, this was different. It was as if she hadn't known him at all.
"Come on, we shouldn't stall over such things," he said, turning his back to her. She hadn't felt such coldness from a person before, much colder than the ice of winter.
Kaoru watched as he and the innkeeper made their way inside, leaving her to be the lone figure in a soft rain of white flakes – a total contrast to the blood mingled snow on a forest floor, not so long ago...
It was like… how many months since I last updated? Ok let's just not count it... I haven't given up on ff. No, not ever. This is what I love. Anyway, my university is accepting exchange students to Japan. But as much as I want to go, I can't because the term falls tight on my schedule. I'll be taking my internship this summer and preparing for my senior year, another reason why I can't update my stories more frequently.
I'd have to thank JLuc for this. He adds the spice to my sugar, if you know what I mean.. he always make me realize the full potential of this story and I praise him for it.
Remember the episode where Kenshin used his sword to ward off wasps? Well, let's not exaggerate for once and get a little more REAL here, shall we?