It had rained in the morning; the typical kind of summer downpour that gives way to blazing sunlight. The dark clouds had dispersed, leaving the earth damp and the air humid. Trees glistened, their leaves slick with moisture.
Kaoru squinted against the hot midday sun and watched as Sasami ran ahead, tugging at branches. The young girl would laugh as she was rewarded with a shower of water. Beside her, Kenshin smiled.
"It is good to see her so cheerful again. With all that has happened…"
Kaoru nodded, recalling the events of not more than a few weeks ago. Sasami had been poisoned, and had almost died. But the girl was resilient, and had made a speedy recovery under both Megumi and Doctor Yoshikawa's care. Now she was running and playing in puddles; just a regular, active kid.
And yet for one so young, she was also very strong. On more than a few occasions Kaoru had caught her unawares. There were times they came to visit that Sasami would be listless, her eyes distant. Kaoru knew that look; Kenshin did exactly the same thing from time to time.
Sasami had lost her closest living relative. Her grandfather had been killed by Shinzei's thugs; an innocent victim in his manipulative games. As if that wasn't enough, the child had been poisoned; Sasami had come so close to death. It was remarkable that on occasion she could still smile as if none of these things had happened.
Kaoru knew that Kenshin, being Kenshin, felt partially responsible for the young girl's traumatic experiences. He felt it was his fault for dragging all of them into the affairs of the yakuza, which had resulted in Kaoru and Doctor Yoshikawa being captured.
Both of them had tried to reassure him that he was not to blame.
After a while, it seemed their words must have sunk in. Kenshin had gradually returned to his old, cheerful self, and to Kaoru's intense relief, he did not seem to have suffered any long-term effects from being hit on the head. The terrible amnesia and the loss of identity that had followed had only been a temporary thing.
But still, there were times when she wondered what was going through his mind. He had always been prone to odd silences now and then; there were times when he would disappear for the afternoon, only to return with a distant look in his eyes. Perhaps the shock of getting all his memories back at once had triggered something deep; God knows Kenshin of all people had more than enough deep and conflicting emotions within himself.
Kaoru knew when to leave well alone. So for the past few weeks, she had tolerated Kenshin's strange moods, until they became infrequent. Today, it was as if nothing had ever happened. Today was a good day.
As they walked, Kaoru felt a gentle, yet firm hand on her waist, steering her to the side. She looked down and saw that she had narrowly avoided an unsavoury patch of mud. As she met Kenshin's gaze, he smiled. "Be careful, Kaoru-dono. The road is still wet."
"Aa…" Kaoru nodded her thanks, and squinted against the sunlight. The puddles did not seem to bother Sasami, who was now further ahead. "Sasami-chan, slow down!" The girl turned at the sound of her voice. "The two of us are not young like you; we can't go so fast."
Kenshin laughed. "That is the truth."
"Sorry, Kaoru-neesan," called Sasami, as she turned towards them, waiting. "It's just that I haven't been for a walk for ages!"
"I know, I know! But kid, you have more energy than both of us together. Don't overdo it."
"Kaoru-dono is right, Sasami-chan. This one isn't as young as he once was either."
"And you're still healing, Kenshin!" Kaoru shot him a mock glare, well aware that Kenshin had almost fully recovered from his injuries. It was uncanny, the way he healed so fast. Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that Kenshin was a terrible patient. Far from observing the doctor's strict instructions, he would often try and get out of bed days before he was supposed to. If they told him to 'gently' exercise his limbs, he would be out in the yard, chopping firewood. Pain had been this man's lifelong companion; he wasn't one to let it hold him back from doing anything.
Kaoru sighed, and became aware of Kenshin's intense, searching gaze.
"Is everything all right, Kaoru-dono?" His eyes were twin pools of violet, filled with nothing but concern. Kaoru quickly wiped the darker thoughts from her mind.
"Of course, Kenshin. Sorry; I was just drifting."
"That is all right." Kenshin gestured towards Sasami, who had stopped along the path. "We had better walk a bit faster; Sasami-chan is one impatient young lady!"
The girl smiled as they neared, and Kaoru noticed that the edge of her pink kimono was stained with muddy streaks, from where she had splashed through puddles. It was good to see her so lively; Kaoru recalled seeing the child close to death, her skin inhumanly pale and her lips blue. Sasami had barely avoided slipping into the next world; she really was a lucky child.
"We're nearly there," she exclaimed, pointing towards a thicket of bamboo. "I remember this place." She cut off from the road, with Kaoru and Kenshin following close behind. Sodden bamboo leaves squelched underfoot. The ground felt thick and spongy; a moist forest carpet. When Kaoru looked back, they could no longer see the path.
She was about to duck when the branch blocking her way was pulled aside.
"Go on." Kenshin stood beside her, holding the offending piece of vegetation back. She hadn't even noticed him come alongside her; come to think of it, he didn't seem to make as much noise tramping through the forest as Sasami and herself.
There were some old traits Kenshin would never be able to conceal. He didn't notice, because they came to him naturally.
In the past, his innate stealth, even when moving through a bamboo thicket in broad daylight, would have unnerved her just a little. But now that she knew him better, Kaoru didn't mind.
Besides, he really was so considerate.
Kaoru slowed as she saw Sasami stop in a small clearing; it appeared some of the older bamboo trees had fallen, perhaps felled by a storm.
"This is the place!" The young girl pointed to three stumps. If one were to connect them together, they would make a perfect triangle. They had aged and turned a darker brown, in contrast to the deep green of the living trees surrounding them. "I hid it here, Ken-niisan."
"You are a very clever girl, Sasami-chan." Kenshin stood beside them, with his hands clasped together. For the past few weeks, while Sasami had been recovering, he had been incredibly patient.
And Kaoru knew it had almost driven him mad.
The night they had returned from Shinzei's dojo, Kenshin had laid down the katana and wakizashi he had borrowed, an expression of regret crossing his features.
What might have been.
The next day, they had gone to check on Doctor Yoshikawa, and Kenshin had returned the weapons.
Kaoru recalled the doctor asking Kenshin to reconsider and keep his blades for a bit longer. His face had been pale and drawn, still etched with the pain and fear of the past few days. His hands had been wrapped in bandages.
"You still don't have your reverse blade, Himura-san. How will you protect yourself in the meantime?"
"This one cannot carry such things any more, Yoshikawa-sensei. Besides, Sano-san, Yahiko-kun and Kaoru-dono are here."
Kenshin's faith in them had surprised Kaoru; it was more often the case that he was used to protecting them at all costs. But for the meantime, the danger had passed. The criminals, or what was left of them, had gone to ground, and Kenshin reverted to his old routine, taking care of the household duties and being as diplomatic as ever. In that deceptively innocent, clumsy way of his, he would keep close tabs on the small tensions that rose between herself, Sano and Yahiko.
It must have been hard for him.
It was so odd to see Kenshin without his sakabatou; it was as integral to him as his beating heart, and yet as the weeks went on, as his dark moods seemed to disperse and grow few and far between, it appeared that he was managing just fine.
He displayed his usual stubbornness in not rushing Sasami. She was the only one who could lead them to it, and he wouldn't hear of asking her to find it until she was more than fully rested and healed.
And Doctor Yoshikawa, bless his soul, had agreed to take the Sasami into his care.
Around them, the dense thicket of trees shuddered, pushed by the wind. Kaoru shook her head. The girl must have realised the importance of this strange blade from the outset. She had found the most obscure hiding place in all of Tokyo. Who would have thought to look in a thick bamboo grove? Who would have been able to recognise such a small clearing, with just a few old trees knocked over?
Sasami smiled and reached into one of the old stumps. "See, I remember this place, because these old trees make a triangle. I used to come here to play."
Kaoru looked at Kenshin, who remained still as his familiar, trusted sword was drawn from its hiding place. The tsuka was darkened with moisture, but as Sasami handed it to him, Kaoru realised the tight fit of the scabbard would have kept any water from touching the blade. It slipped into Kenshin's palm; a perfect fit. He drew it, inspecting the blunt edge.
"As good as new. Thank you for keeping it safe, Sasami-chan." His eyes were calm. Kaoru noticed the way he held the sword as he secured it at his waist; as if it had never been missing.
Sasami nodded, and slid her small hand into Kenshin's. Kaoru smiled as she felt a warm palm wriggle its way into her grasp.
"Let's go then," she turned, and with a gentle tug, Sasami and Kenshin followed. "I'm hungry, and besides, Sano, Yahiko and Ryuji will already be at the Akabeko."
"They better not order without us!" Worry crept into Sasami's voice.
Kenshin laughed. "Well, let's hurry then. Knowing Sano and Yahiko, we don't have long."
"They wouldn't dare…" Kaoru let mock anger darken her voice, and was rewarded with a grin from Kenshin.
Small footsteps quickened, and Sasami hurried ahead, dragging them behind her. Kaoru and Kenshin shared an amused glance.
Silly rurouni. I'm glad you're back.
Author's note: Well, well, well. So this thing finally comes to a close. In a rather nice, fluffy fashion. It's taken me what… years? I know, I know, I'm pretty useless; that's what happens when you start these things as a moody teenager. Now that this one's done, I think I'll be able to concentrate more on the other stories I have left hanging; hopefully they won't be too far behind!
Sorry for the absolutely crappy/irregular updating, and thanks so much to everyone who has bothered to stick with this story and encourage me with lovely reviews. I really do take a lot of notice of and appreciate the thoughts of everyone who has taken the time to read and comment.