So I'm about to kill this fic. It's taking way too long to get done ::evil glower at fic:: Mrrrrrr… Lately I haven't been doing so hot. Between starting work, my writing taking a creative plunge, and a possible bout of anemia… yeah. I've been so tired lately… my mom's making me go get my blood looked at to see if I really am anemic. It wouldn't surprise me. I've been below par in about everything lately. I can't get out an intelligible sentence to save my life. So if this chapter seems a bit… meh… then you'll know why.

Ok, I'm gonna get review responses out of the way right now cause I'd kind of like to leave the end of this free of chatter. And there're only a couple, so… ::shrugs::

Chiaroscuro: ::shrugs:: Eh… I guess she's predictable, but the point of this story is more of… hey wait… do I have a point? ::examines story:: Hmmm… well that's certainly a debatable topic. Anyway, the thing I was focusing on with her power in this story is not so much that she can feel what's going to happen, it's that she can't feel what's going to happen now… in the single biggest turning point in her life. Pretty damn terrifying for a future-seer, I think. I also built this story around a single image that I had (it's the veeeeeeeeeeeeeeery last little part of the last scene in this chapter). I do that a lot -_-;; A vision pops in my head and I'm like "wow, that's really cool!... now how did this happen?" and much confusion and warping takes place thereafter. Mmm, when you see the last scene I think it'll become clearer why I decided that she would be a future seer/empath and all that drama of "not knowing." I built her and the story around the scene… an interesting way to work… not for long term projects, I think. Hehe. Anyway, hope you enjoy this…

Candy: Yeah, there certainly is a childlike quality about Kenshin… which he likes destroying… often… with sharp pointy things and righteous talks of peace… which gets you right back to the childlike-ness, hehehe ^_^ Glad you like the story, and thanks for all the reviews!

Jess: ^_^;;; You're soooo going to hate me… that's all I have to say about that…

To Protect: To Protect

The air lay heavily over the still afternoon. The birds sat brooding in the trees, wary of spreading their wings under such a pitiless sky. It wasn't hot, but it wasn't pleasant either. The day simply sat; ground to a halt by forces not quite discernable. Kashi cursed it as she stumbled down the road towards Saya's house. Her breath came in short, heavy pants, lank pieces of hair bouncing against her flushed cheeks.

It wasn't fair, she thought. It wasn't fair that someone like Saya should have to endure this. The girl already had more years on her shoulders than was decent for her age. She didn't deserve to die so young. Especially not when she'd finally started to look honesty happy when she smiled.

With a sort of keening groan, she pushed herself even faster, clutching at her awkward kimono to keep her legs free of entanglement. She had to find Kenshin. Surely he didn't know what was going on or the stranger never would have made it back to town. It had to have been an abduction.

Unless the stranger had already met up with Kenshin and had taken Saya forcibly.

The thought was quickly pushed from her mind. She couldn't think like that. She had to keep the hope that there was still one last bastion of strength to call upon. The villagers had proved useless in trying to rescue their young friend. Kashi couldn't really fault them. They were farmers and shop owners, most of whom were of the generation too young to have fought in the revolution. The rest were too old. And the stranger wasn't a normal samurai, either.

Kashi shook her head, forcibly turning her thoughts towards running. The road to Saya's home had never seemed so long before.

She fumbled with the cloth of her kimono, trying to keep the sweat-slippery material in hand. The distraction was enough to keep her off balance when she stumbled over the unexpected rock. Kashi landed with a grunt, dust from the road rising about her in a sullen cloud. She hissed in a breath at the pain shooting up her leg from her ankle.

"No," she wailed, shifting her weight so she could inspect the injury.

"Ms. Kashi."

Kashi jumped, a small shriek escaping her, at the unexpected sound of Kenshin's voice. The rurouni knelt beside her, a hand held up in a disarming gesture. She glared at him for a moment before sobering. He wasn't smiling.

"Kenshin," she nodded, successfully keeping most of the pain from her voice. She didn't want him worrying over her. Saya was in much more need of protection than she was. She licked her lips nervously at the hand casually gripping the hilt of the trademark sword on his hip. Maybe he knew that, too.

"He took her through town, towards the river that the lake empties into," she told him, not wanting to waste any time.

Kenshin nodded tersely, forcing a reassuring smile onto his face. She was touched by his effort, but didn't trust it for a moment. In a detached part of her mind she marveled at how good he and Saya were at keeping polite appearances. It was no wonder they'd grown close so quickly. Kindred souls didn't need special powers or reading abilities to recognize each other.

"Are you able to walk?" he asked, helping her get to her feet.

Kashi tested the throbbing ankle. She clamped her tongue firmly between her teeth to keep from crying and shook her head. Kenshin nodded and moved in front of her.

"If you'll allow me, I will carry you back to town," he said, squatting slightly and proffering his back.

"No, you shouldn't" she protested, "You need to hurry. I don't know how much time Saya has left," her voice hitched at the last and she had to put a hand to her mouth. Kenshin gave her a sympathetic look over his shoulder and didn't move.

"I know the man who took her," he said quietly, "He will not hurt her. He is merely using her to lure me into a fight he knows I will not attend otherwise."

Kashi stared at him dumbly as her mind processed this new information. So the stranger wasn't a stranger after all. She had to fight the urge to take out her fear and anger on Kenshin. It wasn't his fault he'd ended up living here. Saya must have known something like this would happen and took him in anyway. Things always had a reason when it came to Saya.

"I'm only doing this so you won't waste any more time arguing," she told him sourly as she helped him get her settled on his back. Kenshin grunted something of an acknowledgment and then was off.

Her head was still spinning with the rush of speed when he carefully handed her to one of the village boys. She was so disoriented that she didn't even get flustered when she realized it was Mr. Matsumoto helping her into a chair.

"She's by the river," she heard one of the villagers tell the rurouni. The sudden rise of voices giving similar advice roused her from her stupor. She watched in alarm as Kenshin was swamped with people all trying to relate what happened.

"Threw the blacksmith across the street like he weighed no more than a child!"

"He had her slung over his shoulder and she looked as pale as a sheet,"

"That low mongrel. You'd better teach him for laying a hand on our little Saya,"

"Said he would kill the lot of us if we tried to stop him,"

"You have to do something!"

Kashi struggled back to her feet, leaning against the chair to keep her weight off her ankle.

"Everyone, please," she shouted. The pain in her voice made heads turn. The mob quieted, watching her expectantly. Kashi let out a small sigh of relief.

"Kenshin knows where she is. Let him go rescue her," she advised quietly. The crowd murmured agreements and parted a bit to let the rurouni out. Kenshin shot her a grateful look and was gone, red hair like a beacon as he faded into the distance. Kashi and the rest of the villagers watched him go, a reverent stillness pervading the moment. There was only one wish on all of their minds, and they all prayed that Kenshin could fulfill it.

Kenshin took in his surroundings as he approached the river. The land was flat and the grass short. His mouth thinned. If he hadn't found the note, he'd know the man by the choice in battlefield.

He slowed when the familiar bulk of his opponent came into view.

"Battousai," Jinji acknowledged with the barest nod of his head. Kenshin spared him a narrow glance before sweeping the area for the reason he'd come.

Saya lay crumpled a few yards behind his opponent.

A not too subtle challenge.

"Did you harm her?" he asked coldly. Jinji laughed.

"Do you think I am a fool?" he shook his head, "I wanted your anger to fuel you into battle, not your cold rage," a smirk touched his lips as he lazily backed toward where the unconscious girl lay. Kenshin's knuckles stood white against the hilt of his sword, but his face remained impassive.

"You'll fight better if you think there is a chance you can save her. That's the kind of man you are, I've discovered," he chuckled, kneeling beside his captive and stroking a thick finger down her jaw, "You don't have a taste for vengeance, but you thrive on protecting the weak. It must stem from that unfortunate incident with your departed wife."

Kenshin ignored the barb, "Then you should know that this battle is pointless. I had no quarrel with your brother. We merely fought to protect different ideals," he bowed respectfully, "As always, I apologize for being the cause of your loss. I wish I could have known your brother by the hilt rather than the tip of his blade."

Jinji surged to his feet, face purple, "It is too late for that, Battousai. It was too late when you took it upon yourself to end his life," he drew his sword and took his stance in one violent movement, "I will allow you to mock me, and my brother, no longer. Today is the last time we meet."

Kenshin stared at him sadly for a moment before obligingly readying himself for the duel. Every time he met Jinji he had his past slammed into his face. It was people like this bitter man and his dead brother that haunted him, that made him loath who he'd been and question the pale attempts he made to atone. Jinji had the heart of a true samurai, but it had been corrupted by grief and the thirst for vengeance. He could still see the trembling youth challenging him so many years ago, tear marks fresh on his face. It was an entirely different person from the man who stood before him now. And though he was not responsible for his choice to walk it, Kenshin had certainly placed Jinji before the path.

"If it will satisfy you, I will fight," Kenshin sighed, feeling the weight of his years and deeds resting heavily on his shoulders. He wondered how he would fare this time. The last battle had been won only after a bitter struggle. It was sad to see such talent and dedication to the art wasted on revenge. In another life, Jinji could have been an even stronger protector of the Meiji era than Kenshin.

The ripples of destruction were still felt, even after a decade of peace.

"I have trained since our last battle," Jinji informed him, his rage calming to a more calculating anger. It was a needless statement. Each battle they fought thus far had seen Kenshin walk away. To beat the former hitokiri, Jinji did everything he could to constantly improve himself in the hope that each next battle would be the last. So his skill did nothing but expand while Kenshin's remained stagnant.

Kenshin shook his head with wry acceptance. There was a heavy possibility that this really would be their last battle.

Saya's groan was quiet, but so unexpected that the two men fell out of strike posture. Kenshin flicked a worried glance in her direction, but she didn't stir again. Jinji smirked at the distraction, but in a moment they were both vibrating from the waves of powerful ki spilling from their taut forms. Kenshin's eyes narrow dangerously and he fought to keep his anger in check. New techniques be damned. He couldn't risk what might happen if he didn't win this battle.

The heaviness of the day lifted momentarily with the clashing breeze of opposing charges.

Saya woke to the sound of clashing steel. She blinked slowly, trying to refocus her vision in the hope that it would refocus her mind as well. Her head was throbbing with a dull ache and her throat was dry. She sat up cautiously, mindful of the way the ground seemed to twirl beneath her.

"Kenshin?" she mumbled, pressing the heel of her hand against an eye. He was nearby. She could feel it. And something else…

Saya stumbled to her feet hastily, mind suddenly painfully aware of both her surroundings and the situation.

"Oh god," the whisper was harsh on her lips as she assessed the battle taking place before her.

Kenshin grunted, the sound liquid in his throat as his body hit the ground. His opponent strolled up to him almost casually, sword held loose and forgotten in his right hand. With his left he hauled the rurouni up by an arm. Saya cried out in pain with Kenshin as the broken pieces of bone ground against each other with the action. A sob broke free of her chest as the red head was tossed back to the ground.

"Stop it!" she screamed, throwing herself forward on shaking limbs.

Jinji paused in his advance, startled by the unexpected demand. He watched as she skidded to her knees beside the broken body lying twisted in the grass. She pressed a hand to his chest, searching his eyes anxiously for any sign of life.

"Kenshin," she murmured, pausing to let a little relief wash through her as his chest rose and fell beneath her palm.

"Out of the way, woman," Jinji growled not unsympathetically, "Don't waste your time on him. He's painted the streets with blood. He doesn't deserve to live."

"And who are you to decide that?" she replied calmly, turning to stare at her kidnapper. Jinji paled at her expression. Rather, her lack of expression. Saya gave him a brittle smile.

"Who are any of us?" she continued and he had to strain to hear her voice. Then louder, "So… you are the cause of this pain," her laughter was ironic, "At least the waiting is over. I'll finally be rid of this feeling."

"Saya?" Kenshin's voice rasped in his throat. Her head whipped back around to him. He struggled to sit up, but her hand remained firm against his chest.

"Don't move," she commanded, "I'll take care of this now."

"What?" he managed.

And at the same time, "What are you talking about, girl?" Jinji shifted the grip on his sword nervously. He didn't like the ki he was reading from her. It was putting him on edge.

"I will finish this," Saya repeated, ripping a piece of her kimono sleeve and pressing it to the largest of Kenshin's wounds that she could see.

"No," he said firmly, trying to rise again. Saya didn't try to stop him this time. He was back on the ground in an instant, breath hissing through his teeth in pain.

She took another strip of cloth and smoothed the hair away from his brow, wiping the blood from his vision. Kenshin blinked rapidly, trying to keep the darkness blurring the corners of his vision at bay.

"Let me protect you," she murmured with an ironic little smile. Kenshin stilled completely, forgetting to breathe for a moment.

"This is ridiculous," Jinji snarled, "You can't expect to fight me, girl. Don't throw your life away for a devil like the Battousai."

"Saya, no," Kenshin pleaded, "I will finish this myself,"

She just shook her head, "You can't," and bent forward, placing a kiss on his forehead along with a plea, "Please don't hate me,"

With a frustrated growl, Jinji grabbed her shoulder, practically throwing her to the side. She landed with a dull thud and was still for a moment. Kenshin watched her, horror written on his face at what he could feel rolling off of her in waves.

He'd never seen a ki so massive.

"Saya," he murmured sadly as she struggled to her feet. Her kimono was torn and stained with his blood, and a little trickle of her own leaked from her lower lip. Jinji turned to stare at her, the full impact of what she was exuding dawning on him.

"What are you?" he spat out as she stared at him, expression flat and completely deadpan.

Kenshin struggled to rise once again but found that it only made the darkness creep in faster. The day by the lake flashed through his mind as he watched her advance on the samurai from the end of a dark tunnel. Jinji was screaming at her now, warning her to stay away. Kenshin couldn't see what he was doing though. His gaze was fixed on the girl as her past words echoed through his mind.

Sometimes you can want to protect too much.

.

.

.

.

Kashi slid the door closed quietly and let her forehead rest against it. Muriko watched her from where he leaned on the opposite wall. He shifted his weight to relieve his bum leg and waited for her to speak. When she finally turned to look at him, the smile was desperate and sad.

"At least she's eating well," she said with a laugh that sounded more like a sob.

"Only enough to keep her on her feet," Muriko said heavily and offered to walk the younger girl out.

"Did she say anything to you?" he asked hopefully. Kashi shook her head mutely, eyes trained on the floor. Muriko sighed wearily and nodded. It didn't surprise him.

"I'll let you know if anything changes," he assured her at the door, "When he wakes up, if she says something… anything," he shook his head, scrubbing a hand across his face.

"Thank you," Kashi bowed politely before all but bolting from the yard. Muriko watched her go, eyes dulled by worry and age. He could feel his years keenly these days. Ever since the village men had stumbled into his house with Kenshin's broken body and his niece's silent, anxious form hovering over it. Three weeks later and the only improvement was in the former's condition. Every day the rurouni healed a little more, lost in deep sleep. It was almost like Saya was feeding him through her own body, because while he steadily improved, she was descending deeper and deeper into depression.

He sighed again and turned back into the house, heading to the kitchen to fetch his niece a light meal. When he returned to the closed door it was only after a long hesitation that he went in. He set the tray down on the low table he'd moved into the bedroom and went to his niece's side, kneeling awkwardly beside her.

"How is he doing?" he asked. She never really answered with anything more than a small smile, but he always asked anyway. Anything to relieve the room of the pall of silence that hung in it.

"He'll wake up tomorrow," she said, voice rough with disuse. Muriko stared at her in shock.

"Saya?" he placed a cautious hand on her shoulder, urging her to look at him. She did, turning flat, glazed eyes on him. He felt tears prick the corners of his eyes as he took in her appearance. She'd lost a lot of weight in the past weeks and there were dark rings under her eyes. She hardly left the sleeping rurouni's side, tending to his every nursing need like a sacred ritual. And there was the ever present sadness; some sorrow that was eating away at her from the inside. His little Saya was slowly wasting away and he couldn't get her to tell him why.

"What happened by the lake?" he asked for what had to be the two hundredth time, "The police said they wouldn't arrest Kenshin because the man assaulted the townsfolk and kidnapped you. He isn't in any trouble. What is it that's doing this to you?" he pleaded softly.

She blinked at him silently and for a moment the glaze over her eyes fell away. Muriko's breath hitched in his throat at what he saw now that her emotions weren't hidden behind the thin veil.

"Sweetheart, please tell me," he begged now, hugging her frail form to him gently, afraid she'd shatter. She shook her head against his shoulder with a small sigh. He closed his eyes and tried to respect the decision. There had to be a good reason she wouldn't say anything. Maybe she was waiting for Kenshin to wake up. Only one more day, in that case. Because if she wouldn't tell him, he'd pry it from the insufferable red head who was draining his niece of her spirit.

"I'm a bit tired, uncle," she murmured then. Muriko reluctantly let her go, nodding. He started to help her to her feet but she shook her head stubbornly. His expression smoothed understandingly and he went to the closet to pull out the spare futon. She practically collapsed onto it and by the time he came back with the extra blanket, she was already asleep, one hand stretched out to touch the shoulder of the man sleeping next to her.

Muriko considered the picture it made for a moment before shaking his head, tucking the blanket into place, and slipping out of the room.

It was well past midnight when Saya finally woke. She sat up slowly, feeling the ache of the past weeks pulling at her muscles. She pushed it aside and bent over her patient, checking his sleep.

She smiled at the even rise and fall of his chest. He was almost completely healed. The arm would need a few more weeks, but the doctor had set it and left her a sling for when he woke up. And he would wake up tomorrow. He didn't need her to nurse him anymore. There was no more hiding from the moment.

Saya pulled herself upright, kneeling with her hands folded carefully in her lap.

"I killed him, Kenshin," her words hit like stones in the still night, "I took a life for selfish reasons… I…" she stopped, pulling in deep even breaths before continuing, "I should be here when you wake up, but… I don't think I can," her hands clenched against the cloth of her lap, "I don't know… and though I don't think you'll mean to hate me…" her voice broke and she gave up with a small sob. The future was a messy blur in her heart. No matter how much she tried, the next day, and the day after that and after that, were all hidden from her.

She was blind.

"I think this will be easier on both of us," she explained in a whisper, leaning over his peaceful face. Her lips hovered over his for a long, indecisive moment, tears hitting his cheeks softly. Then, she was on her feet and stumbling out the door, a hand clamped over her mouth as she sobbed.

The air in the room settled as the sound of her footsteps and tears faded away. Then, as the night resumed its peaceful watch, a soft breeze flitted through the room where it opened to the inner garden. The tears shivered in response and slid down Kenshin's face.