Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin is copyrighted by its respective owners, of which I am not one.

Pulling down the brim of her hat more fully, Kaoru stared at the teacup in front of her as two men passed by to sit down at a table of their own. She breathed a quiet sigh of relief as they ignored her completely, chatting on about the harvest or something. After two years, she still feared discovery though many people before had chosen to ignore her in favor of their own affairs.

"More tea, dear?" came a voice at her elbow.

Jolted from her thoughts, Kaoru slanted a quick glance at the older woman beaming at her, a pot of steaming tea in hand. "Ah, yes, please. Thank you." She watched as her cup was refilled before fishing out a coin.

The old woman stopped her with a smile. "No need, dear. I can tell you had a long day. Consider this a gesture of gratitude for all your help."

Haaah? Kaoru blinked and stared at the woman, making sure most of her features weren't seen under the wide brim. Did she know something?

Giving her one last knowing smile, the old woman shuffled away to wait on the two men who had just entered. Kaoru stared after her, unsettled by that look. Perhaps she had come here one too many times and had done something to give herself away.

Whatever it was, she knew she had to leave now. Picking up her cup, Kaoru drank the contents down before rising, a hand gripping the sword at her side so it wouldn't bang against the table. She gently placed a coin on the table before turning to head out the door, one hand tugging her hat down again. Bowing her head, she escaped from the teahouse gratefully.

She didn't relax until the building was far behind her, and then only slightly. Breathing in deeply, Kaoru glanced back briefly, still rattled by the woman's meaningful words and gaze. Even if shopkeeper didn't intend on exposing Kaoru's secret, she could still slip and tell the wrong people the wrong thing.

Well, there was nothing Kaoru could do about it now. She would just have to avoid that particular stop for the next year or so. Cautioning herself to be more on guard, Kaoru turned her attention back to the road and forced her thoughts to focus on where she would head to next.

Perhaps the hot springs off the Hokkaido would be just the thing. Winter wasn't too far off and Karou preferred the warmth over cold.

Her strides, short but measured, ate up the distance quickly until she was far from the little teashop. Just as she began to relax being alone on the road, Kaoru heard a feminine voice exclaim, "Stop it! Please leave me alone!"

Kaoru didn't hesitate but broke into a run towards the voice, her left hand moving to rest on the pommel of her sword. Up ahead where the road parted in two different directions, two tall men stood on either side of a petite, hooded and cloaked figure. One of them, clearly a foreigner with short-cropped, spiky blond hair and a skull-shaped tattoo on the right triceps, reached out and shoved the figure again.

"You said you'd offer us something interesting and now yer backing away?" Skull said scornfully. His Western accent made it hard to understand him but his partner, a plain looking Japanese man with sickly pale skin and matted dark hair, snickered.

"She's just a tease. You know how these women are."

"Yeah, and now she's going to pay for it!"

"Stop, leave me alone!"

Something struck Kaoru as odd with the situation; for one, the woman in the cloak made no move to try and escape from the two men. For another, her tone seemed off, as if she didn't seem too worried about being attacked, regardless of her words.

But Pale Face reached out and tried to grope her, only to have his hand slapped away. "Hey! Are you going back on your word?" he growled, his face twisting into a deep scowl.

Shoving aside any lingering doubts, Kaoru stopped ten feet away and said calmly, "You heard her; she asked you to stop. As honorable gentlemen, you should listen to the lady." She tilted her head down slightly so only her mouth was seen, the rest of her face blocked by the overlarge hat.

Both men turned and stared incredulously at Kaoru. Finally, Pale Face turned to his partner and said, "Hey, isn't that the ghost swordsman that's been rumored to walk around the country? She's supposed to be some sort of hero that saves people and she's always seen wearing a stupid straw hat like that."

"Ehh, really? She looks more like a nosy busybody to me," Skull mused, staring at Kaoru up and down in a way that suddenly made her feel exposed.

"She's supposed to be good so you'd better be careful."

"Oh, don't worry, I'll leave a piece for you, Ninta." Grinning, Skull advanced upon her with a sadistic leer. "Come to onii-sama and let's play."

Pursing her lips in disgust, Kaoru stepped into a drawing position and waited until Skull was within swords' reach. In a smooth, practiced motion, Kaoru freed her sword from the sheath, catching the end of the blade right at her attacker's throat before jerking upward to free it from his chin. Gurgling, Skull grabbed his neck and spluttered before falling to his knees, rasping for breath with his nearly crushed windpipe.

Without pausing, Kaoru ran towards Pale Face, one hand on her sheath. She raised her sword to attack even as she kept her head down to prevent from being seen by either person. In a handful of steps, Kaoru closed the distance between them and swept the blade down in a diagonal across his chest. She looked up enough to see the surprised look cross the Japanese man's face before he howled in pain and stumbled back a few feet. Kaoru followed him step by step and turned the blade so the flat side caught his neck. Pale Face made the same strange gurgling sound and fell onto his back. After one twitch, he lay still.

Kaoru breathed in slowly and checked the sword briefly to make sure no blood had splattered on its edge. The two men appeared to be amateur fighters and she didn't have any desire to shed their blood; she only wanted to teach them a lesson. When they next woke up, perhaps the ensuing body aches would remind them not to accost any other women or insult their hats. Kaoru smiled to herself at the thought and was about to turn towards the cloaked woman when a strangely familiar voice remarked softly, "That's the sakabatou, isn't it?"

Her smile slid away instantly as her body stiffened. A sliver of tension settled on the back of Kaoru's neck, stiffening her spine, and she didn't dare turn around. That voice …

Her heartbeat sped up, faster than it had when she was fighting the two thugs. Dragging in some air so she wouldn't pass out, Kaoru dropped her head at an angle so it would be harder to see her under the hat. She had to leave, and now. Without responding to the question, she sheathed her sword and started to walk away quickly from other cloaked woman. Stupid, Kaoru, she thought vehemently to herself, desperately trying to hold back from breaking into a run. Stupid stupid stupid …..

"Ow, hey! Kaoru!"

The familiar, feminine shout was the only warning she had. Kaoru glanced over her shoulder, eyes widening as Skull ran straight towards her with a snarl on his lips and a dagger pointed straight at her. She didn't have nearly enough time to draw her sword or even move out of the way. Frozen in place, Kaoru closed her eyes tightly and braced herself for the impact.

Only it never came. Two seconds passed and she heard a loud smack and a thud but since she was still standing, it must have been Skull who fell. Perhaps he had tripped on the ground?

Opening her eyes, Kaoru confirmed that Skull indeed lay on the ground, completely unconscious this time. But the reason why he was in such condition made her heart lurch to her throat before dropping straight down to her toes.

Loose flame-red hair, longer than she had ever seen it, swayed briefly in the breeze before the head turned and stared at her with molten gold eyes. His face, which seemed kind and gentle before, now held no trace of warmth or peace as his gaze focused directly onto her.

Kaoru backpedaled two steps, her hand going to her throat in a defensive gesture even as her brain denied his presence. And despite the unfamiliar black gi he wore, the familiar whiff of warm ginger mingled with a hint of the forest wafted under her nose. That recognizable scent roused half-buried memories, memories she had wanted to forget. Kaoru took another step back, eyes blinking furiously to make him vanish from sight, half-certain her vision was playing tricks on her.

But Kenshin stayed exactly where he was, the golden eyes not straying from her face. Kaoru noticed with some hysterical bemusement that he had a sword in his hand that wasn't his usual weapon.

Of course not. Because she had taken the sakabatou the night she left the dojo.

Their locked gazes finally broke as Kenshin followed her eyes to the sword in his hand. He hefted it experimentally before looking back at her. "After you left, I had to find another blade. While it is no true reverse-blade sword, the edge is dulled enough to serve its purposes."

Kenshin's voice hadn't changed. It was still calm, soothing, even coolly conversational. But a thread of hardness and fury carried in the undertone. Kaoru choked back a sudden sob, overwhelmed by his unexpected presence and, without thinking, turned to flee from him. Her eyes, filling with unshed tears, caused the road to blur in front of her. The twisting of her heart squeezed her lungs down to her stomach.

She took only two steps when she ran into something hard. Instantly, hands caught her arms and steadied her. Kaoru looked up and managed, through her swimming eyes, to focus on a tall, dark-haired man gazing impassively down on her.

Shinomori Aoshi.

Which meant her first guess about the cloaked woman was right. Makimachi Misao, the cloaked figure who had never ever screamed for help a day in her life, pretended to be a helpless victim and lured her into the confrontation with the thugs. Knowing friend as well as she did, Misao used Kaoru's penchant to help people to draw her in and trap her.

A plan worthy of the Oniwabanshu. Kaoru only wished she could appreciate their ingenuity more.

Sagging in Aoshi's grasp, Kaoru bowed her head until she could see her sandaled feet. She felt more than heard Kenshin approaching and tensed at his sudden nearness. His warmth, which had always reached out to her, crowded around her, pressed in, demanded to be recognized and embraced. But Kaoru refused to give in and didn't look up at him.

Someone plucked the hat from her head so her bound and plaited hair fell down, almost to her waist now. Then cool fingers tucked themselves under her chin and forced her head up.

With little choice, Kaoru lifted her gaze until it met Kenshin's, resenting the fact that he could manhandle her so easily. She knew her eyes flashed defiant cobalt, though it didn't seem to affect him in the least. Kenshin merely studied her for a long while before the fingers dropped down and grasped her lower sword arm. Instantly, Aoshi released her and stepped back so she was now in full custody of Kenshin.

"Let's go," Kenshin said curtly, turning to face the road. He strode off, nearly dragging Kaoru with her.

"The men?" Aoshi asked him, jerking his head to indicate the unconscious thugs.

Kenshin didn't even look back. "Leave them. I've got what I came for."

* * * * *

It only occurred to Kaoru much later that the journey to their destination was unusually silent. Only when Kenshin pulled her into a small shack on the side of the road did she realize Misao hadn't said a word to her since they began walking. She had caught a glimpse of the two shinobi following them so it wasn't as if Misao had disappeared. But perhaps the once-gaki girl was now angry at Kaoru. Or perhaps she had changed into a more mature woman who kept any outbreaks to a minimum.

Kaoru almost sighed. Either explanation disturbed her more than she realized. She didn't know her friends anymore, a penalty Kaoru had only vaguely recognized as a consequence of leaving. She had begun to think that she would outsmart her friends and elude them forever. Or perhaps they had finally stopped looking for her.

She realized now that neither answer was correct.

The shack, though small, seemed well-kept enough to house them for the evening. A ring of rocks lay in the middle of the room with ashes piled inside, serving as a fireplace. There was a table with a broken leg that balanced precariously on the remaining two stumps and several crumpled piles of wood that once might have been chairs. To the far corner were two sets of badly gathered hay and a moth-eaten blanket over them, barely recognizable as a makeshift bed. At least an inch of dust coated everything, discouraging anyone from taking a deep breath lest they also inhaled the mites.

Kenshin guided Kaoru to the makeshift fireplace and tugged her down. "Sit," he said curtly.

Not daring to disobey, Kaoru unbuckled the sword belt, placing it within easy reach more out of habit than fear, and slowly settled onto the hard ground. She was careful not to catch Kenshin's eye but unable to look away from him either. His entire body vibrated a stiffness Kaoru had never really encountered before which made her wary. To make things worse, he hadn't yelled or fixed her with a look of disappointment or pain or anything. His golden gaze remained as hard and cold as it did when Jin'e held her captive.

No. Kaoru caught a glimpse of Kenshin's eyes again and suppressed a shiver. It was worse. Much worse.

Wrapping her arms around herself in an unconscious, defensive gesture, Kaoru glanced at the door, wondering where Aoshi and Misao were. They hadn't lagged so far behind that it would take them this long to come in. Or perhaps they had decided to give Kenshin some space and time with her. Which Kaoru fervently hoped wasn't true. The last thing she wanted to do was face him. She hadn't been strong enough to do it two years ago and she wasn't strong enough now.

Kenshin, she noticed, prowled around the room like a restless spirit, checking who-knew-what as he peered at the gaping holes of the hut. He didn't look at her or attempt to make any kind of conversation. In fact, Kaoru began to think he was deliberately ignoring her.

Which suited her just fine. It would make things easier to pretend that none of this was actually happening and she was just dreaming.

But with her luck, that thought dissipated just as quickly as she thought it. Aoshi and Misao finally entered the hut, carrying a brace of rabbits and a pile of wood with them. Misao dumped the sticks into the middle of the fireplace and took out some flint and steel. With one sure strike, she kindled a twig and gently blew on it to encourage the flames to spread.

Kaoru was impressed with such a display. Misao had never had any trouble surviving but she couldn't remember a time when the kunoichi seemed so sure of herself or her skills.

Aoshi, taking the time to efficiently skin and spit the rabbits with the sharpened end of a wooden stick, brought the rabbits over. Misao rummaged through her pack and withdrew two Y-shaped metal bars which she jammed on each side of the bonfire. Once done, Aoshi laid the spit across the intersection of the Ys to let the animals cook over the fire.

All this was done with such well-practiced movements that Kaoru suspected it was a nightly habit they had picked up. Certainly they didn't seem taken aback by how well they worked together, nor was Kenshin gaping at their coordinated movements. Her friends truly had gone and changed. It hurt that Kaoru hadn't been around to see it.

Of course, Kaoru thought with a self-deprecating smile, had she chosen to stay, she would have. But at this point, Kaoru supposed the point was moot.

Still, she stared gloomily at the flickering fire, ignoring it when a spittle of rabbit fat spat out from the flames and landed on her hand. Misao kept rotating the meat around so each side would cook evenly. She never looked once at Kaoru.

The silence, in the end, was finally broken by Aoshi. He squatted by her and offered a waterskin. "Drink."

It was just one word but for Aoshi, it bordered on a miracle. Kaoru stared at him for a long moment and he returned the gaze patiently, his face still a mask that she couldn't penetrate. Finally, she nodded wordlessly and took it. Uncorking the top, she tilted the skin back and drank the water down. It tasted warm and fairly musty, but it moistened her parched throat which she hadn't realized was so dry. When she finished, she corked it back up and handed it back to Aoshi.

The tall shinobi rose and retreated again, out of range of the flames. Twilight gave way to evening and darkness blanketed the house except where the flickering fire cast its light. Even so, Misao's face seemed imposing, half of it cast in the shadows as she tended to the meal.

Eventually, the pleasing aroma of rabbit wafted from the spit as their dinner sizzled when more fat dripped into the fire. Kaoru felt more than heard her stomach rumble, reminding her it was definitely time to eat. The cups of tea she had drunk hours earlier had merely whetted her appetite.

Aoshi removed the spit from the fire and began to cut large chunks of meat off the stick, portioning it onto small, travel-sized plates. Without a word, Kenshin approached the fireplace and settled down next to Kaoru, so close his knee touched hers. Aoshi handed the first plate to Misao before distributing them to Kaoru, Kenshin, and finally himself.

"Itadakimasu," Aoshi murmured and everyone else followed suit. Kaoru only whispered the words, unwilling to call more attention to herself. She despised the heavy silence that had fallen on those whom she once considered her closest friends but she didn't want to talk and explain herself either.

They would never understand. Least of all Kenshin.

So Kaoru concentrated on the meal, taking care to eat every piping hot portion of the rabbit. The first taste of the bland meat made her realize just how hungry she was. It wasn't quite as tasty since it hadn't been properly seasoned, but Kaoru was too hungry to care in the end.

Once dinner ended, the dishes and utensils were taken care of in the exact same efficient manner they had been put out. When all was done, they sat around the fire, listening to the fire crackle and the heavy silence press upon them.

Finally, Aoshi stirred and said quietly, "We should plan on what to do next."

For a moment, Kaoru wasn't sure who Aoshi spoke to until Kenshin finally answered. His voice sounded edgier this time and Kaoru knew instinctively that he was trying to remain calm. "We'll go back to Kyoto. I have taken you both away long enough as it is."

"The Oniwabanshu are doing well. We have been correspondingly regularly with Okina and he assures us nothing is happening that he and the others cannot handle. We are able to stay with you a little longer if necessary." Aoshi flicked a glance in Kaoru's direction as he spoke.

But Kenshin shook his head. "No. It is time for us to go home as well." And he shot Kaoru a hard look that almost caused her heart to stop beating. Her instincts were right; Kenshin was extremely furious at her and, from the look of things, she wasn't going to get off easily.

Aoshi relented with a nod. "Very well, then, we'll make our way back to Kyoto. However, you should at least let the others know you've found her."

Kenshin nodded curtly but said nothing more. Kaoru avoided looking at him, staring fixedly at one of the stones encircling the fire.

Finally, Aoshi stood. "Misao, perhaps you can show Kaoru where to wash up before we turn in for the evening," he said neutrally.

Misao looked up at him before nodding. She jerked her head in Kaoru's direction and headed outside without a word.

Kaoru's heart felt as if it was tearing in two. Misao had probably been her closest female friend besides Megumi, and now it seemed they were perfect strangers. Had her disappearance really done this much damage to them all? She hadn't intended to hurt them, but no one would believe that.

Except Aoshi. As she stood on shaky legs, the shinobi caught her gaze. The dark eyes didn't exactly display warmth and understanding but he acknowledged her presence, at least.

Perhaps it was better than she deserved. Kaoru hurried away from the heat of the fire, a kind of coldness creeping up from the soles of her feet to settle heavily in her stomach. She blinked furiously to wipe the tears from her eyes, mourning the loss of her friends.

Still, she knew that if she had to choose again, Kaoru would make the same decision.

Outside, Misao waited a few feet away, nearly invisible in the dark. "Follow me. I won't insult you by advising you not to run. You won't escape Kenshin twice."

A fleeting sense of hope warmed Kaoru's soul; at least the kunoichi finally spoke to her. While Misao didn't sound exactly warm and friendly, it wasn't completely indifferent, either. Perhaps she could salvage the relationship.

Lighting a small lantern, Misao led the way down a small path which eventually ended at a small stream. Misao set the light down, knelt at the edge and cupped some water in her hands to drink. After some hesitation, Kaoru did the same a few feet away. The cold water washed down the taste of rabbit from her mouth and it helped settle her nerves some. Rolling up her sleeves, Kaoru washed her face, arms, and hands, turning towards the light source to scrub more vigorously. Lacking any cleaning supplies, she did the best she could until something slimy and wet was pressed into her hands.

Kaoru looked up and met Misao's gaze that reflected the deep velvet blue of her eyes in the dim lantern. "Here, use this," she said quietly.

Her heart leapt in relief. That tiny gesture of friendliness almost made Kaoru want to weep with joy. She seized the opportunity to rebuild the tattered remains of her relationship with the kunoichi by grabbing her hand and upsetting the soap. "Misao, please," she begged her. "Please tell me you aren't so angry that you can never forgive me." Kaoru despised how her voice hitched as she fought back the telltale signs of a cry coming on.

Misao looked away and strained silence fell between them. Kaoru desperately clung onto the softly calloused palm in her hand, feeling the slight trembling in that appendage and not daring to breathe. Finally, the kunoichi exhaled and the tension seeped away from her body until she had completely deflated. "I was never very good at holding grudges anyway," she admitted as she drew her eyes back to Kaoru.

Elation overcame Kaoru and she couldn't speak for a moment. Finally getting her emotions under control, she offered Misao a tiny smile. "Neither am I," she whispered.

Softening even further, Misao drew Kaoru into a long, tight embrace. "We thought we had lost you for good," the younger woman murmured. "We were devastated when you turned up missing. Himura most of all."

Kaoru tried not to stiffen in her friend's arms but the mention of Kenshin swept a cold wave of dread through her heart. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "But I did what I thought I had to do."

Drawing back, Misao studied her curiously. "So why did you leave?" she asked. "None of us ever understood your reason. I thought Himura might have done something at first and even threatened him to come clean. But he always maintained that he never did anything and vowed to find you no matter how long it took."

Although there was no longer any real censure in Misao's voice, Kaoru winced at the implication of her words. She knew Kenshin – or the others – would have reacted somewhat strongly to her abrupt disappearance, especially after their long history together, but she hadn't realized her friends would accuse Kenshin of causing her to run. The last thing she wanted to do was to place her departure squarely on his shoulders. "I know I owe you an explanation, Misao, but please, give me some time," she whispered, looking down at her hands. "It's … it's complicated and I think I'm going to have to talk to Kenshin first." She looked up, aware she cast her friend a pleading look. "But please, it's not Kenshin's fault. Not really. He didn't do anything overtly to make me leave."

Misao stared at her for a long moment. Kaoru knew the younger woman caught the significance of her last words; her leaving did have to do with Kenshin. "All right, Kaoru," she said finally. "I'll give you the time that you need. But I'll just tell you right now, Himura's changed ever since you disappeared and he's going to want a very good explanation as to why you left."

"I know he's changed. You have, too." Kaoru tried to smile at her friend but her lips refused to curve up. "You're much more serious than you used to be. And you've gotten better at your shinobi skills."

Misao beamed, instantly melting away any trace of somberness. "I have, haven't I? Aoshi's been giving me private lessons. Jiya thought it was shameful that the leader of the Oniwabanshu was so clumsy and ordered him to help me. Of course, Aoshi was a fantastic teacher and I learned a lot from him. To tell you the truth, though, I think I was just going through just an awkward phase in my growth spurt and it took me a while to get used to getting taller and all. But at least I got some private tutoring out of it." She smiled smugly at Kaoru.

Kaoru couldn't help but really smile this time. That long, breathless litany was exactly what she remembered about Misao. It was nice to see that not everything had changed in her absence. "You've gotten much better," she agreed, "but your acting skills still need some work. I almost didn't come 'rescue' you, you know."

Misao winced. "Really? Aoshi keeps telling me that I'm not convincing enough as a maiden in distress and I never knew how much work it was to pretend to be helpless. I mean, how does swooning help you in that kind of situation? Wouldn't it make more sense to kick or punch the guy?"

"Absolutely," Kaoru agreed fondly. The lack of the honorific from Aoshi's name sounded out of place, yet it suited Misao. Kaoru thought it was about time the kunoichi addressed her long-time crush in a more intimate gesture. But before she could say so, his voice called out, "Misao? Are you two done? It's getting late."

Misao winced, apparently realizing just how much time had passed since they went down to the river. "We'll be right there!" she called back.

The exchange, while swift, sounded unusual. Perhaps it was the way Aoshi had addressed Misao. Instead of his usual, bland tone, a touch of something lurked under his words. Concern, perhaps? Kaoru stared at her friend speculatively for a long moment before raising an eyebrow. "So … you and Aoshi?" she asked.

Misao's smile grew bigger and she nodded jauntily. "Yes, for almost a year now. We'll be betrothed in a few months after I turn nineteen. Jiya promised we wouldn't wait as long for the wedding but he wanted me to grow up a little more first." She splashed some more water on her face before standing. "Come on, we had better get back before Himura decides we're taking too long and stalks over here."

Nodding in agreement, Kaoru rose and began to follow Misao back up the path towards the hut. But before they had taken ten steps, Misao suddenly turned around and said, "You know you can always talk to me, right, Kaoru? I don't know why you left but if you ever need someone to talk to, I'll listen."

Sometimes, Kaoru wondered what she had done to deserve such a good friends like Misao. Sudden tears sprang up, stinging her eyes as Kaoru attempted to blink them back. The ache of leaving her friends behind, hidden for the past two years, suddenly grew like a gaping maw in her heart. She hugged the younger woman tightly and whispered, "Yes, I know. Thank you."

Satisfied, Misao turned back and led them back to shelter. Inside the house, both men were still seated around the fire. Two bedrolls lay behind them, ready to sleep in. Aoshi looked up at the women and nodded. "We will resume our journey at dawn tomorrow. I suggest you go to sleep now in preparation."

Misao went directly towards the bed closest to Aoshi and flopped down. "Good night, then," she said. She shot Kaoru a reassuring look and a wink before lying down. Rolling over on her side, the kunoichi fell asleep within minutes.

A hint of a wry smile tugged at the corners of Aoshi's mouth as he watched her. Following suit, he laid down within the sleeping roll, his lean body curved protectively around Misao.

Kaoru hesitated before gingerly making her way towards the bed at Kenshin's back. She tried not to make a sound, as if the slightest of noises would rouse the hidden beast to anger. As she reached the roll, she sat down, sliding her feet underneath the covers before looking at Kenshin's back. He hadn't moved ever since she and Misao had come back from the river, keeping his eyes riveted to the fire. She hesitated, wondering if they were going to share the bed just like Aoshi and Misao were doing. Kaoru didn't really want to ask him but the thought of not knowing made it worse.

Gathering her courage, Kaoru took a deep breath and asked quietly, "Are you going to bed?"

Kenshin didn't answer and just when Kaoru gave up waiting, Aoshi murmured, "Himura will take first watch tonight."

"Oh." Kaoru remembered Kenshin always taking turns with Sano or Aoshi staying up whenever they traveled on the road together. Kenshin had once explained to her that the roads were so dangerous nowadays, one had to be extremely careful and vigilant, even during the quietest hours of the night.

Laying down, she turned so her back lay towards Kenshin. Kaoru realized the sakabatou lay within hand's reach and she drew it closer for reassurance. Despite the comforting touch of the worn sheath that slightly relaxed her, Kaoru wondered if she was going to be able to sleep tonight. Not when a familiar body sat within arm's reach, still vibrating anger and deep hurt.


Kaoru abruptly awoke just before dawn from months of ingrained habit of sleeping in less-than-safe situations. For the first time in a long time, she felt warmly comfortable and she snuggled against that heat – that is, until her body hit something hard but yielding. That something hard shifted slightly but stopped moving again. She froze, her heartbeat accelerating as memories of yesterday's events came crashing to the forefront of her mind. What else felt so hot it was like touching a furnace? As her breath caught, Kaoru debated whether or not to turn over to see if her suspicions were correct. Finally unable to stand it any longer, she inched around to look behind her.

Kenshin lay beside her, already awake. His burning gold eyes stared down at her as his body was molded protectively around her. Kaoru was vaguely aware that Aoshi, up to keep watch, had politely turned away to stare at Misao and give them a semblance of privacy.

As close as she was to Kenshin, feeling the heat from his body reaching out to wrap around hers, Kaoru felt her mouth dry, and not necessarily from just fear. It had been two years since she had been this close to Kenshin and her body, predictably, reacted to his closeness. Feeling herself overheat from the sheer power of his presence, Kaoru couldn't find any words to say to him. She didn't even know what to say.

Luckily, after another long, assessing stare, Kenshin finally sat up from the bedroll and stood without looking back down at her. "We leave in a half hour," he said curtly before striding out the door.

Taken aback by his abrupt exit, Kaoru watched him leave before she realized Aoshi watching her. "What?" she asked self-consciously. Her fingers tightened their grip on the sword reflexively which she hadn't released, even in sleep.

Aoshi didn't answer her question but said instead, "When Misao awakens, you can go to the river again to wash yourself."

Thirty minutes later, the four of them set out on the road again. Kenshin had not demanded or taken the sakabatou away so Kaoru girded it back on her waist, infinitely relieved of the familiar weight dangling across her left hip. She gave up plaiting her hair again and instead tied it back at the nape of her neck. Kaoru made a mental note to have Misao cut it at some point now that the kuniochi was at least talking to her.

Her hat was nowhere in sight and Kaoru didn't have enough courage to ask Kenshin what he did with it. In fact, all throughout breakfast of cold, leftover rabbit and some hard bread, he remained as aloof as he had the night before.

She walked behind Kenshin but in front of Aoshi and Misao. Kaoru knew they looked like an odd group together on the road; most women who traveled only went to the nearest market and almost always had some parcel with them. Perhaps in order to seem less suspicious, Misao wore her cloak with the hood up. Although they received several odd looks, no one stopped them or questioned their blatant disregard for the sword ban.

The day dragged on as they did nothing but walk and rest at certain times or relieve themselves. Misao didn't speak much but cast Kaoru several reassuring looks that warmed her heart. Perhaps Kenshin made Misao too nervous for her usual chatter; the red-head still looked out of sorts and no one dared speak with him.

That night, they slept outdoors under a shady grove of trees for camouflage as well as protection. There was no nearby river to clean themselves up and Kaoru went to bed feeling dirty. It wasn't the first time she had felt this way but she never got used to it.

Kenshin stayed up to watch as well but Kaoru didn't fall asleep for a long time, knowing come morning that he would be sharing the bed with her again.

At dawn, they resumed the last leg of their travels. Having journeyed back and forth in the prefecture for two years, Kaoru recognized the road would take them directly into Kyoto by late afternoon. Dread filled her heart at having to leave Misao and Aoshi behind. At least she had had a friend and buffer against Kenshin; she didn't want to know what would happen when they headed to Tokyo on their own.

The tension between them worsened when they stopped at a teahouse for lunch and overheard rumors concerning the ghost swordsman. Kaoru knew how often and embellished the rumors about her were but it always amazed her how exaggerated the stories had become. As they sipped the last of their tea, three newcomers entered the small shop and spoke loudly with one another.

"Did you hear that last week, the swordsman single-handedly repelled back a group of raiders from overcoming a caravan of supplies for the Prime Minister? I heard there were thirteen men all beaten to the ground when the police showed up!"

"That's nothing," another one scoffed. "A month ago, the ghost swordsman freed an entire village from some dirty yakuza who had taken it over for his own evil gains. She utterly destroyed the boss and he hasn't been found since!"

"I wonder who it is. Hey, you think it's a woman like some people say?"

"A woman? You've got to be kidding me. Someone that good can't possibly be female!"

Kaoru didn't even twitch at that remark, having heard it all before. In fact, it had worked to her advantage several times when her identity was almost revealed. But next to her, Misao bristled in indignation. "I should show them exactly what a 'female' is capable of," she muttered, earning a stern look of disapproval from Aoshi.

"But I heard the swordsman is real short. And no one's ever gotten a good look at them. How do you know it's not a woman?" the second voice countered.

"Look, someone with enough courage to rescue two kids from a burning building has got to be a man. Women are too fragile for that sort of thing."

The loud thunk of a teacup hitting the table made Kaoru jump and she looked up with wide eyes. Instead of an indignant Misao, as she half expected, Kenshin stood and strode towards the exit. As he passed by the three gossiping men, he paused and said, "You don't need to worry about the ghost swordsman. She's dead. I killed her."

Every conversation stopped flat in the entire teahouse. All eyes fixated on the red-haired man staring down at the three men who looked back, gaping.

Finally, the third man managed to work his jaw enough to say, "What?"

Kenshin smiled then, a cruel parody of amusement that made the men visibly flinch. "I killed her. You'll never see her again so you don't have to worry about it any longer." He looked up and met Aoshi's calm stare. "Let's go," he said curtly before striding back out to the road.

Speechless and just a little bit angry, Kaoru rose with Misao and Aoshi and followed after them. Soon, the confusion gave way to seething fury and she fumed inside. How dare Kenshin say such a thing? What in the world possessed him to say such a ridiculous, untrue comment?

She almost had a half a mind to march up to Kenshin and smack him on the head before demanding an explanation for his actions. But from the vibrating power that poured out from him, she thought it perhaps wasn't the wisest move. Yet that didn't abate her anger and Kaoru found herself, for the first time since meeting him again, feeling more than confused and scared. She was mad. Furious.

As soon as they caught up with Kenshin, to Kaoru's surprise, Aoshi spoke. "That was ill-advised of you, Himura," he said calmly. "Now that you have sparked such rumors, a hunt will be on for the ghost swordsman."

"Well, they won't find her, will they?" And Kenshin flashed Kaoru what she could only describe as a triumphant, fiercely self-satisfied look. "Then they'll know what I said was true."

"Yes, but then they'll come after you," Aoshi pointed out dryly. "After all, the ghost swordsman is – was rather popular among the common folk. And contrary to what you may think, there are very few red-headed men heading towards Kyoto. A red-headed man with a scar on his cheek, no less. Rumors of Battousai may even be resurrected because of your actions."

"Let them." And with those clipped words, Kenshin made clear that the conversation was at an end.

Kaoru's head spun at the revelation of Kenshin's outburst. It was odd to see him reacting instead of thinking things through. Did he truly not care that his actions may have put himself in danger? And why did he look so smug when he told the men he had killed the ghost swordsman? None of Kenshin's actions made sense to her anymore.

To her relief, nothing else happened the rest the journey back to Kyoto. As they neared the city limits, Kaoru felt a pang of homesickness, not only for the city that held so many memories for her, but for her own hometown. So many things had happened here, from meeting new friends to finding Kenshin on his mission to destroy Shishio … the sheer amount of memories was almost too much to bear. She had never expected to set foot back into the city again. The Oniwabanshu had too many spies for her to risk coming here and no amount of disguises would fool them.

The city looked to have prospered well; crowds of people all mingled in the sidewalks and roads, occasionally stepping aside to a wagon or horse through. The murmurs of voices swelled up until it filled the entire area and the air tasted of just baked bread, fresh produce, and the faint odor of fish. They wended their way through the crowd a little more easily as anyone looking at Kenshin had enough sense to step back and allow him space.

The familiar street leading to the Aoiya didn't seem to have undergone much change, either. The roads bustled with people coming and going, flowing swiftly as if they all had important business to take care of. Kaoru saw the sign indicating the entrance to the restaurant and her heart ached.

They stopped next to the sliding door. Aoshi nodded to Kenshin and said, "If you have need of anything, please let us know."

Kenshin returned the gesture. "Thank you."

Misao hugged Kaoru tightly and murmured in her ear, "Everything will be all right. He still loves you and I know he won't hurt you." She then cast Kenshin a suspicious look before adding more loudly, "Though if he does, I'll be happy to come over and kick his rear for you."

"Misao," Aoshi said in a severe tone.

Kaoru returned the embrace just as tightly, wishing she didn't feel as though her last ally was leaving her. Oh, she didn't think Kenshin would hurt her physically, no matter how angry he was; he was too honorable a man to hit a woman despite his fury. But he was also not one to take a slight on his honor, and worse, Kaoru knew she had hurt him deeply. "Thanks, Misao," she whispered.

"Please give Okina and the others our regards," Kenshin said. "As well as our apologies that we couldn't stay any longer. But you can imagine I am eager to get home."

"Yes," Aoshi agreed. His eyes drifted to Kaoru briefly and he offered her a slight bow. "I am glad we found you." Kaoru only nodded back weakly, touched that he would actually say such a thing. Aoshi then turned, slid the shoji opened, and gestured Misao to enter in front of him. The faint sounds of greeting carried over but abruptly cut off as the door shut behind them.

Kaoru took a deep breath to calm her rapid heartbeat. She still hadn't gotten over her fury at Kenshin's earlier behavior at the teahouse, but she was also far more nervous at being alone with him. She didn't know what he was going to say or even do. The only comfort she had was knowing she would soon see Sano and Yahiko. Of course, they would be severely annoyed with her, but it would be good to see them all the same.

Kenshin surprised her by clamping a hand down on her arm and dragging her to walk beside him. She stumbled after him, stifling a yelp at the sudden motion. He didn't look at her or even acknowledge her presence short of the tight grip right below her elbow. Perhaps now that Aoshi and Misao were gone, he felt as though he couldn't trust her to run away from him.

Kaoru felt the beginnings of unease when she realized Kenshin wasn't heading for the Tokaido Trail, the fastest way to Tokyo. Instead, his swift pace carried them out of the city and towards the countryside. The path looked vaguely familiar and she racked her brain to discover why. Suddenly, a vivid memory of her first time in Kyoto popped up. Searching for Kenshin and Sano, she and Yahiko had taken this very route to … Hiko's cottage?

Confusion and wariness infused her body as she thought about it. Why would Kenshin take her to his master's house? Knowing the man, he would have just laughed at Kenshin for 'losing his woman'.

A glance at Kenshin's intense expression as he marched up the familiar path to the mountainside told Kaoru it probably wasn't wise to pepper him with questions just yet. Kaoru wondered if she was going to have to get used to not understanding anything about him anymore.

When the cottage finally loomed into distance, Kaoru expected the outdoor furnace to be roaring with a fire and perhaps even Hiko Seijirou sitting out in front, drinking sake. But, looking around, she realized the oven door was tightly shut and she saw no pieces of pottery, done or otherwise sitting out.

Kenshin didn't say anything until he opened the door to the cottage and pulled Kaoru in. Too busy looking around for signs of Hiko, Kaoru tripped over the entrance and waited for a blistering lecture on manners from the arrogant tone of the Hiten Mitsurugi master. But only cold silence and musty air greeted her. Bewildered at the quiet, she stared around the dusty one-room house, feeling the eerie emptiness that settled into a home when someone hadn't occupied it for a very long time. Dust covered every inch of surface available, and while most things still looked the same, Kaoru also saw several changes. A low, rickety table was now tucked back into the far corner, holding a tiny, slender vase of wilted wildflowers and a hunk of moldy bread. A futon, rolled up neatly, lay against the wall where a spider made its home nearby, crawling over the dirt-covered blanket. Two windows, both without shutters, allowed sunlight to filter in, concentrating light on the grimy floor. The fireplace lay cold and bare, filled with ashes and only a few stray logs of wood littered the firebox.

The dread filling her heart grew heavier and Kaoru turned to face Kenshin who leaned against the door frame. "Where is Hiko?" she asked, her voice cracking slightly.

Those golden eyes watched her impassively for a long moment before Kenshin replied without inflection. "He died over a year ago."

Kaoru hadn't been very close to the man despite having fought together against Shishio's Juppongatana more than three years ago. She respected him as a fighter and, despite his alcoholic tendencies and brutal sarcasm, even respected him for his wisdom and understanding of Kenshin's character. But after the confrontation with Shishio, their contact had been minimal and she sensed that both Kenshin and Hiko might have wanted it that way.

Still, Hiko's death shocked Kaoru and she didn't know what to say or do. It was more than Hiko seemed larger than life and the fact he looked half his age, which didn't seem all that fair to Kaoru. It was all the sudden changes in her friends and she no longer knew how to handle things anymore. She wanted to ask Kenshin if he was all right and what happened to his master but her mouth wouldn't work.

Luckily, Kenshin finally moved passed her, squatting down in front of the hearth to clean out the ashes and throw some logs into the fireplace before lighting it. "I live here now," he said, almost conversationally, as if they were actually speaking to each other again without any wall between them. "After Hiko died, his will left me this cottage. So I moved in here."

"You left the dojo?" Kaoru asked in a painful whisper. The thought of Kenshin leaving never crossed her mind. She somehow thought the four of them – she, Kenshin, Sano, and Yahiko, would always remain together. Of course, Megumi, Misao, and occasionally Aoshi would be a regular visitor. After all, they were the Kenshin-gumi, as Yahiko had proclaimed.

When the fire blazed to Kenshin's satisfaction, he clapped his hands free from soot and dirt before standing up to face her. Gold eyes mocked her as he asked, "Does that bother you?"

Kaoru opened her mouth to answer but shut it the next moment. No matter what she replied, it drove his point across.

She should never have left.

All this was too much for Kaoru to take in. The vague feeling of numbness had prevented her from thinking too hard on what happened in the past two days, but she now had to come to terms with being reunited with her friends and accepting the fact she didn't know anything about them anymore. Kaoru never thought things would have changed so much between them all, much less between her and Kenshin, but here they were, virtual strangers once more.

The very idea almost made her weep. This wasn't supposed to happen! Karou felt torn between anger and fear and bitterness.

Kenshin, she realized, merely stood there, watching what Kaoru felt a myriad of emotions cross her face. She never did find a way to hide her feelings from Kenshin, and she suddenly felt as though her soul was exposed to him. Hating how vulnerable she felt, Kaoru took a deep breath and struggled to bring her emotions under control.

Apparently recognizing what she was doing, Kenshin's thoughtful manner peaked to the surface briefly and he abruptly strode past her. "I'm going to get more firewood and dinner." Without waiting for an answer, he stalked out.

Without Kenshin's measuring gaze upon her, Kaoru suddenly breathed more easily. He had given her a respite and the opportunity to bring her thoughts back into a semblance of order. She honestly didn't know if she would have the strength to face him in the near future, but Kenshin would demand answers and she had to give them to him. He deserved that much.

Sighing out loud, Kaoru looked around the tiny room for a distraction. Her nose wrinkled in disgust as she noted how dirty the hut was. The domestic side in her reared up in sight of such filth and she gratefully took to cleaning the place up. Not only would it give her something to do, but at least she would be useful.

Rolling up the sleeves of her gi, Kaoru hunted around for a cleaning cloth and began tackling all the dust that had accumulated from disuse. As she wiped the tables, dishes, table, and futon clean, she marveled at the thick coat of dust. It testified as to how long Kenshin had looked for her.

Guilt surged to the forefront again but Kaoru brutally pushed the feeling back down. Now was not the time to wallow in self-pity. She needed to calm down and think about things rationally to prepare for her confrontation with Kenshin.

When Kenshin finally returned with an armful of wood and some sort of animal Kaoru had never seen before slung across his shoulders, she managed to dust almost half the room, set the table with newly cleaned dishes, and pumped a bucket of water for cooking. Kenshin looked around without comment but Kaoru saw his lips tighten in an obvious sign of anger. Was he annoyed at her taking the initiative of cleaning his home? She didn't get a chance to ask; he abruptly dropped the wood off into the firebox and stalked back outside to clean and gut the animal for their meal.

Kenshin cooked in silence while Kaoru tackled dusting the rest of the house. The small hut became filled with strangled silence and she was even more grateful for something to do while they waited for dinner so she wouldn't have to think about the tension between them. Kaoru felt her nerves stretch from the near tangible tension emanating from Kenshin. Her apprehension and his silence only increased the strain between them.

When the animal finished roasting, they sat down together and ate without speaking. The thought suddenly struck Kaoru as she took her first bite that she hadn't had a home-cooked meal in nearly two years. Kenshin's cooking was still as good as ever but the more she ate, the more it turned into sawdust in her mouth. She knew it was only a matter of time before Kenshin began demanding answers.

But even after they finished eating, Kenshin did not bring the subject up as Kaoru expected. Or any subject, for that matter. While she quietly cleaned up the dishes, he went outside and stayed there until Kaoru's curiosity got the better of her. She peered out the window and noticed him sitting in front of the unlit huge stone kiln, staring at it with what seemed like an extremely pensive look. Kaoru decided to leave him alone and finished up the rest of the cleaning.

By the time Kenshin returned from his meditation outside, Kaoru wrung the dust cloth free from any water and looked around with faint satisfaction. The house was now livable, at least temporarily. She would have to scrub the floors with something else besides water another day.

Kenshin tugged the futon out and flung the blankets off, causing bits of dust that escaped cleaning to scatter in the air. "It's getting late, we should sleep," he said curtly.

Staring at him in astonishment, Kaoru gaped at him for a long moment. "S-sleep?" she managed to repeat.

Kenshin quirked an eyebrow at her. "Unless you had something else in mind?" he asked sardonically.

The crude joke definitely wasn't what the Kenshin she knew would have said. Kaoru's heart twisted yet again at the reminder that she no longer knew her friends. She spread the damp cloth out on the table to dry and moved towards the futon. It was clearly meant for a single but Hiko had been a big man and both she and Kenshin weren't; they would probably fit all right together.

And they did. Kenshin blew out the lamp and lay on his side so that his body curved around Kaoru's. Kaoru tried not to stiffen at the slightest movement he made and briefly wished for the sakabatou to be closer than the corner where she had leaned it for safe keeping. Even as Kenshin's breathing began to even out as he drifted off to sleep, Kaoru remained awake for a long time afterwards.

AN: Beta-ed by Laegdin a looooooong time ago. Many thanks to her for catching all my silly mistakes and correcting them. The second and final part will be posted approximately within the next four weeks.