::chanting over occult looking objects:: Shhh, I'm trying to resurrect this story from the dead. Hold on a sec ::there's a loud explosion and a poof of glitter and marshmallows:: *cough**cough* _;; Ergh… Ok. So let's see what I can do to finish this up, shall we? ::pops a marshmallow in her mouth and attacks the be-glittered keyboard::

Disclaimer: No own Kenshin! I do own these marshmallows, though. Mmmm, resurrection marshmallows…

To Protect: Without Regret

The sun had barely risen when Muriko quietly padded down the hallway toward Kenshin's room. He wanted to make sure Saya had breakfast and the best time to attack was when she was still half asleep. He slid open the door and moved to step into the room.

And froze. There, sitting up and staring out the doorway into the garden, was Kenshin. Beside him was a rumpled futon and blanket. But Saya…

"Where is Saya?" the words came from his mouth unbidden.

Strained purple eyes turned from the garden to look at him. The smile plastered on the wanderer's face was just as lackluster.

"I don't know," his voice was raspy from disuse.

"She was here last night." Muriko protested and stepped into the room. He looked around, half expecting her to be hiding in one of the corners. His niece wasn't in the house, though.

"I know." The words were unexpected.

The older man frowned, "When did you wake up?"

"Just a few minutes ago."

"But… she couldn't have left recently. I would have heard her." He rubbed his forehead wearily. This was supposed to be the morning he discovered the source of Saya's pain. The morning she started to heal from whatever wound she was suffering from.

"I didn't see her," Kenshin said quietly, "But I know she was here with me."

"Stupid girl," Muriko fought to keep his voice level, "She's almost half dead from taking care of you all this time and now she runs off just before you wake up."

He sat down heavily on the chest by the door. His cane wasn't strong enough to support him right now. Birds were busy greeting the morning in the garden. Saya should be there as well. She should walk through the door and laugh over her poor uncle's worry. 'It was just a silly thing.' And they could have a nice brunch and celebrate Kenshin's return to health.

"You." He growled and raised dangerous eyes to the wanderer, "You know what is wrong. What happened that day, Himura. Tell me."

The red head flinched and for a moment Muriko felt sympathetic. The poor boy had just woken from three weeks of healing sleep and was pale with fatigue. He should leave him to his rest and search for Saya on his own. She'd probably toddled off to Kashi's house and hadn't expected Kenshin to wake up so early.

No, she'd known exactly when he would wake up. She'd left deliberately.

"I don't even recognize my own niece anymore, Himura," he warned, "I won't wait much longer."

Kenshin lifted his head and met his gaze firmly, "I am sorry, sir. I failed to protect your niece and because of that she… she killed a man."

"Killed…" the words died on his tongue and an uneasy silence settled over them. Muriko could feel his age coaxing him to give in for the day. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. He took his breaths deeply and evenly to calm the painful thumping of his heart.

His Saya had killed a man.

"How could she do that?" he whispered. The thought was absurd. "She doesn't have a violent bone to her. She's just a little girl. I don't think she even weighs half what she should for her height. It isn't possible."

"It was her power," Kenshin's voice was hollow.

His head snapped up in horror. Her power. But the weight settled again with wry acceptance. So this was the day she had been waiting for. As a child he would comfort her when she'd wake up sobbing in the night. He'd always asked what was wrong, but she could only shake her head. It was a turning point in her life and it filled her with unimaginable fear. A moment her power would surface and she would suffer the repercussions. And Kenshin was the trigger.

"I guess she made the decision for you?" he asked tiredly.

The dry rustle of sheets betrayed Kenshin's unease, "I don't understand what you mean."

"She told me once that she would have a choice when this happened. One answer would destroy and the other would preserve. But either way she would suffer."

"Then I guess she chose to destroy," the rurouni stated.

Muriko frowned. Well, yes it would seem that way. She'd killed the man who had kidnapped her. There was the answer, but he still didn't know what the question was. He lifted his head and eyed the sulking man in the middle of the room. Here was the key to the mystery.

"Did she ever tell you what would trigger her power?" he asked idly.

Kenshin shook his head. His mouth was set in a grim line and his jaw was quivering.

"Well then we're both in the dark," he rubbed the back of his neck, "But I don't think it would be too hard to figure it out."

Purple eyes flicked in his direction before returning to the floor. Muriko frowned. The boy was being stubborn and foolish. No wonder Saya had run away. She knew Kenshin would be grouchy over being protected by a young girl.

"The trigger her father's power used was his dedication to the revolutionary cause. His beliefs," his eyes unfocused in memory, "He was always being tugged this way and that by his ideals. They ruled his life."

"That is not Saya," Kenshin observed. His scow had softened into more thoughtful expression.

"No. I would say that silly girl is ruled by her emotions," Muriko agreed. He sat up straight and his gasped. Of course.

"Yes," the other man folded his legs beneath the blanket and bowed his head, "And those emotions led her to take a life… Though I don't have any right to speak against her for something like that."

"No, you don't," Muriko snapped, "The power to protect is a curse, not a blessing. It cuts both ways. My brother was destroyed because of it, and now," he trailed off and rubbed his eye sockets tiredly. He could feel a headache coming on, but right now he had to talk some sense into this idiot.

"Kenshin, did Saya ever talk about her fears?" he asked.

"A little. She would not tell me anything that could have prevented this from happening," his fists clenched in his lap, "If she had told me, I would have made sure she wouldn't have had to endure that."

Muriko nodded as the puzzle fell into place. Only a little more and he would know exactly what was happening. "Did she say why she wouldn't tell you?" he prompted.

"She said it was her choice," the wanderer's head came up slowly as the words fell from his mouth, "If she told me too much it could change things and she would lose the one thing most precious to her." His eyes were huge with understanding.

Muriko sighed and struggled to his feet, "Saya is a girl ruled by her heart. It shows itself in her feelings, so it's only natural to assume it would trigger her other power," he turned to the door, "I'm going to make you some lunch, now. I suggest you think about this."

The head bowed again.

The older man shook his head. One more push. "I think she would fight to protect those she loved," he mused as if talking to himself, "And there is only one kind of love I can think of that would cause her to lose control."

Kenshin flinched again but didn't speak.

"I think now the only choice is left to you, Himura," he said pointedly.

His voice was low and shuttered, "She asked me to respect her choice so that she could respect mine."

Muriko's eyes widened. He hadn't expected his comment to hit so devastatingly. But the last of the mystery had fled. His face fell as he thought of his niece. Now that he knew what she was facing he didn't blame her for wanting to be away. Her love was sitting precariously in the hands of a man who had the power to crush her heart. And she couldn't see what choice he would make. Would he understand? Would he forgive her? Muriko shook his head; it was more than that.

Would he stay?

The weight of the question settled over him as he prepared a light meal. The doctor had warned that the red head would have to regain his strength gradually over time. He would need to stay grounded for a few more weeks before he was fully healed. Which meant Muriko probably wouldn't see Saya until after everything had settled and Kenshin made his choice.

The cutting board cracked underneath his hands and he stared at it in surprise. Dazedly he realized he'd been chopping the vegetables with a little more force than was necessary. He shook his head and dumped them into the broth simmering on the stove.

Perhaps the question wasn't if Saya could respect Kenshin's decision, but if he could. He shoved guilt aside stubbornly. The feelings were only natural. He was responsible for the feather-headed girl, and therefore wished to prevent her from being hurt.

"She really has grown up," he realized softly, his gaze drifting somewhere that wasn't in the room. The presumptuous five year old had stumbled through life as gracefully as she'd been allowed, with her heritage fettering her with sorrow. And now she was standing lost at a crossroads, waiting fearfully for her path to be pointed out to her.

He clanked dishes onto the serving tray and slopped food into them without much care. His footsteps were loud as he tramped down the hall with Kenshin's lunch.

"Here's your food," he announced coldly as he entered the rurouni's room, "The doctor said you should eat it slowly." Silence met his advice and he took a moment to really look around.

The futon and blanket were folded neatly in the corner and beyond their presence, the room was bare. Muriko stared at the space where only half an hour ago a brooding man had been sitting. He had just woken up; he was an idiot was to be leaving this soon.

He was an idiot for leaving at all.

His hands trembled and the dishes on the tray rattled, "Don't you dare show your face here again if you break her heart, rurouni," he warned, "This town will defend Saya even if you won't."

Clouds skimmed across the surface of the lake. Birds dipped and swerved crazily amid the breeze and their wings were rainbow touched by the morning sun. Saya watched them play without lifting her head. She wasn't feeling up to facing life right now, so she would settle for its reflection. And the only thing she couldn't stand even in reflection was herself.

She was a coward. She'd bolted just before having to face what she'd done. At least Kenshin had found a way to atone for his sins. He hadn't turned his face from what he'd done. He'd never sat by a lakeshore feeling sorry for himself while the sun stretched the day along.

She needed to go back. She should march through the house, enter Kenshin's room, and face him squarely. She needed to accept his decision and feelings over what she had done.

But that was what had sent her running from the house last night. The fear of what she would find in his eyes when they slid open and focused on her face. Would there be loathing there? Pity? Understanding? She could hardly hope for the last. Though he hadn't killed Jinji with his own hands, she had murdered the younger man in his defense. In his mind it probably amounted to the same thing. He would see it as his own failing and feel he couldn't stay.

Or he could despise her.

The thought brought the burn of tears to her eyes. She tightened her arms around her knees and tucked her face away from the world.

She managed to calm herself down after a few moments and tilted her face back toward the water. Her rumpled reflection stared back at her and she looked at herself detachedly. Dark circles sagged under bloodshot eyes and her skin was a blotchy gray color. Her hair was lank around her shoulders and didn't shine under the morning sunlight. She looked like a miserable waif.

Then her gaze slid to the right of her image. Kenshin stood there with his arm resting lightly in a sling. His face was pale and serious.

She closed her eyes for a moment before lifting her head and straightening her back. She gathered bruised courage and forced herself to turn and face him. He stared down at her and his expression was unreadable. When she realized he wasn't going to say anything, she turned back and rested her chin on her knees again. Even though she was dying with anticipation, she dreaded to have it lifted. At least while she was ignorant she had a little bit of hope.

She watched the birds in the water as he moved forward and settled onto the ground next to her. They sat next to each other and contemplated the water as it rippled and distorted their reflections.

"Thank you for taking care of me while I was injured," he said at last. Saya couldn't help a small smile when she heard his voice. She'd missed it in the past weeks.

"You're welcome," she murmured. Her eyes were drawn to the opposite side of the lake. An imposing line of trees skirted the northern side and they swayed to the silent music of the morning. She wondered what it would be like to sit in the highest branches of one as it danced.

Terrifying and surreal. Like it was really the earth that was moving and not the tree at all. If she closed her eyes she could almost feel the sensation of the wind singing through her hair and drop of her stomach as the tree lurched beneath her hands. From that high up it would almost be possible to forget she belonged on the ground.

But she wasn't cradled in the lofty embrace of the trees. She was sitting next to the lakeshore with a man who possibly hated her. The urge to run clutched her chest again and she flinched. She couldn't hold herself here much longer.

"Kenshin," she took a shuddering breath, "I'm not sorry that I protected you." The words were bold in her ears, but needed to be said. She didn't regret saving him. Not even when these moments sitting beside him could be the last.

"Are you sorry that Jinji died because you did?" his voice was chilly.

A piece of ice lodged in her chest, "Yes," she choked over the burning. Her eyes were blurring again and warmth spread over her hands as she began to cry. "I tried so hard, Kenshin. I tried to hold it back, but it was too strong. I couldn't control what my hands were doing. They just," she held them before her and they trembled, "did these awful things and I couldn't stop it." Even now she thought she could see the blood stinging her palms. She stuffed them to her chest and closed her eyes. If she didn't think about his death, Jinji's face would disappear from her mind. The feelings lingered, though. Ghosts of fear and pain that picked at the edges of her conscious and tested her ability to hold the memories and remain sane. She blocked them for the time being. As weak as she was now, to try and deal with the idea would overwhelm her. After so many years of leeched memories, she was very aware of her own teetering claim to sanity. This wasn't the time to test that claim. Not when she was already so close to breaking down.

The warm weight of an arm draped over her shoulders. She made a strangled noise of surprise as she was suddenly pulled into a tight embrace.

"Forgive me," Kenshin murmured, "You have given me so much understanding. I should do the same."

Her breath hitched in her throat. Understanding. She hadn't hoped for half that much.

"You don't hate me?" her voice was touched with awe. His hand rubbed soothing circles into her back.

"How could I hate you, Saya?" he asked with a chuckle.

"But I killed him," she protested, still not quite grasping his forgiveness, "You've lived the last ten years protecting people without taking a life. I try to protect just you and I turn into a monster." Her arms tightened around him involuntary and her throat constricted.

He shushed her, "That is why I should leave. If I am not here, you won't ever lose control of your power again."

Something squeezed inside her chest and she had to struggle to breathe. She had his forgiveness, but not his presence. An appropriate punishment for her crime. She'd made her choice and now she would live with it. Or without it. He would walk free of her strange imprisonment. His life was full of hardship and she'd fettered him enough already.

Still, the words cost her. "I know," she croaked. The trigger would disappear and without its presence her heart would ache, but she would endure. She had no other choice.

"But I don't think I will," he went on, his voice suddenly light.

Saya blinked, "What?" Had she missed part of the conversation?

"Well, if I leave you might fall in love with someone else," he reasoned.

"Kenshin!" she blushed. He had to have figured out her feelings for him to understand what had happened, but it was embarrassing to hear him say it so baldly.

"And how do I know he will be able to protect himself?" His voice dropped, "I don't want you to ever lose yourself to that power again. I don't want you to have to endure anymore hardship than you already have."

She shook her head, "No, Kenshin, it was my choice. I could have told you before hand, but then you would have," she trailed off and hugged him closer. He wouldn't have let her soil her hands. For her innocence he would have sacrificed himself.

"And this is mine," he reminded. His breath was warm in her ear, "Let me protect you, Saya."

The breath shuddered from her lungs in a sigh and she collapsed limply against him. There didn't seem to be any strength left to her bones.

"Alright," she accepted dazedly. From one extreme to the other. From never having him with her again to a lifetime of his soothing presence. At least… what she assumed was a lifetime.

"Let's go home, Saya," he prompted with a chuckle. She nodded against his chest and attempted to rise. He grunted when her arms buckled and she thumped against him.

"Sorry," she murmured dizzily. He had a broken arm, she reminded himself.

He laughed, "Aren't we a fine couple? A half-healed invalid and his exhausted nurse. How will we manage to make it back, I wonder?"

She smiled. Couple? Yes, that was a nice word for him to use. She could wiggle the specifics from him later; maybe when she wasn't so tired. A mid morning nap wasn't considered proper, but between the warm sunlight and the drowsy rhythm of Kenshin's heart, sleep was irresistible.

"Worry about that later," she suggested.

"Mmm," he agreed, enjoying the view of the lake and the company tucked in his arm.

It wasn't until her head started to slide off of his shoulder that he realized she'd fallen asleep.

"Oro," he muttered, trying to balance her with only one arm. She seemed to have other ideas, though, as her head found his lap and a hand curled possessively around his knee. He blinked at the unconscious movements and a quirky smile tugged his eyes closed in content.

She was still as much of a mystery as ever, but maybe a few of the shadows had been chased from her heart. If they hadn't been, he'd already made it his private goal to tease them free. Hopefully it wouldn't take very long; she deserved a break. But if it took months, that's how long he would stay. He would wedge himself irremovably in that house and her heart. Even if it took years. Even if it took the rest of his life.

And even if it didn't.

::sniffles:: It's… it's so… so… CHEESEY! ::cracks up:: Ah, I love recognizing the disgusting fluff in my work. But that's what I set out for in this story. A nice romance. Some plot, some character, a nice happy ending ::content with her fluff:: And it's DONE! ::does a jig:: That's three things I've finished! Well… two if you don't count the one shot. ITFH is moving nicely, and I've been making stabs at the Summer Session plot recently, so things are going well. Now if I can just hold back the tidal wave of school work looming over the shore… ^_^ Zeh Wulf shall prevail! Wish me luck! And thanks for reading!

Thanks Candy, jess: see? I made it better ^_^ Chiaroscuro: ::swallowing a huge iron pill:: Uh, yeah. Anemia sucks. Oh well. I finally finished it! Wah! Everyone dance! Abby: O.O Wow, you empathized with my villain. Yeah! ^_^ I guess I'm doing something right, then. Hehe. Glad you liked Saya, too. She amuses me greatly and I hold her in a special place cause she's strong without realizing it. Evlo, and Anjali Sahra: Yeah! It's my cool reviewer of inspiration! Glad to see you're back on the scene. Yeah, that scene rocks my socks. That part with her almost kissing him and everything afterwards was what I wrapped the story around. I so want to animate that part. Just that part. Ok, so maybe the whole thing, but that especially. I've probably mentioned this all already in past A/Ns… -_-;; That's what I get for two months hiatus. Bad Wulf! ::scampers back to ITFH::