Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin is copyrighted by its respective owners, of which I am not one.
At first, Misao – being the dutiful Okashira that she was – tried ignoring the rhythmic thud and occasional crack coming from outside her window to concentrate on the pile of paperwork assigned to her. When that didn't work, she gritted her teeth and jammed her fingers in her ears in another vain attempt to block the noise. But with no free hands left, Misao couldn't return any correspondence or make any notations for Okina. It was a moot point anyway; she could still hear the pounding right outside.
At last, frustrated and annoyed, Misao finally slammed her hands down on the desk and stood up to march to the window. Opening up the wooden shutters, she stuck her head out to bellow, "Sagara Sanosuke, you cut that noise out right now! People are trying to work here!"
Sano looked up from the garden, pausing from letting out his frustrations on the sakura tree. "Sorry," he said but he looked far from it.
Yahiko, seated on the engawa directly below Misao's window, simply snorted.
Misao fought the urge to kecho kick them both. It had been two days since Sano and Yahiko returned unexpectedly from Kenshin's hut. Two days since the constant pounding made Misao's head throb in time with the angry punches. Sano had been so furious he went immediately to the nearest tree in the garden and started punching it until the trunk cracked from the flurry of punches. Jiya had not been happy about that but decided it was better that Sano take his frustrations out on a plant rather than the Aoiya customers.
Yahiko, surprisingly the saner of the two, when asked about their sudden appearance, would only say that Kaoru asked them to leave to give her time in working things out with Kenshin. He refused to elaborate further, but he, too, had been brooding. Thankfully, it was in a less violent manner than his partner. Out of respect for their privacy, everyone left them alone after that. Obviously, the reunion had not gone well.
And while Misao loved them both dearly, they were also beginning to grate on her last nerve. Yahiko rarely spoke and Sano kept killing all the trees in their garden when he wasn't eating them out of business. She couldn't work with all this tension!
So Misao opened her mouth to tactfully suggest maybe they go home until Kaoru summoned them or whatever when she caught a glimpse of familiar figure walking on the city streets in the direction of the Aoiya. Her jaw dropped open in shock.
"You should close your mouth before flies go in," Sano sagely advised her with raised eyebrows. "Or before Shinomori sees you and decides to break off the engagement." He cackled, teasing her for the first time since they arrived.
"Kaoru!" she blurted out in response and disappeared from the window.
"What?" Sano asked, confused, but Yahiko leapt to his feet.
"Kaoru's here," he said tersely and ran for the gate. The street fighter blinked a few times, still confused, before following the younger man.
Misao had beaten them and was already hugging Kaoru enthusiastically at the side gate. "You're here!" she said happily. "And thank goodness, because Sano was on a nature killing spree," she added under her breath. Then she peered around her friend. "Where's Himura?"
"He didn't come with me," Kaoru said. She watched Yahiko and Sano approach and took a deep breath. Misao, following her gaze, squeezed her hand in reassurance and was rewarded with a grateful smile. When the two men were closer, Kaoru stepped forward and offered them a low, formal bow. She almost felt the surprise radiating from them and she would have smiled if her body could stop trembling. "I'm here to ask for your forgiveness," she said softly, head still bowed. "I'm sorry that my stupidity caused so many problems between us and worse, between you and Kenshin. He didn't force me to leave, I just felt as though I had to. So please, don't let my actions destroy the friendship and trust between you all."
The silence that fell was awkward and Misao tried to ease away from the group to give them privacy, but Kaoru tightened the grip on her hand. "And you as well, Misao. I'm certain Aoshi wasn't all too happy to track down an errant girl acting like a child."
"Kaoru." Yahiko's grave voice called her head to lift and meet his dark, solemn eyes. "Do you regret running away?"
She considered her answer for a bit before shaking her head. "Yes and no. I regret the pain I caused my friends and family, but I didn't regret leaving and living on my own for once. It was awful and exhilarating and challenging and I grew up from the experience. But what I did to us …" Kaoru shook her head. "Nothing could be worth the pain I caused." She exhaled slowly. "I can't change the past and I certainly wouldn't be surprised if you're going to be mad at me for a very long time. But it was me, not Kenshin, that caused all this. Please, don't blame him."
Apparently satisfied with the broken explanation, Yahiko assured her, "We were just worried about you. We didn't really think Kenshin did anything. He loved you, too, you know, just like us. Right, Sano?"
Sano stuck his hands in his pockets and looked away stubbornly.
Kaoru sighed at his response but she expected as much. Out of all her friends, Sano would be the most difficult to understand. He tended to see things as black and white, with very little grey. To Sano, she would only leave if someone forced her to, and Kenshin was the most logical explanation.
Tamping down another surge of guilt, Kaoru turned to Misao. "I don't suppose you're in need of a worker with bad cooking skills?" she asked with a half a smile.
"There's no need for that," Yahiko protested, immediately understanding why she would ask such a thing. "You can go back to Tokyo with us. The dojo is your home."
Smiling at Yahiko, Kaoru only shook her head. "I would only be in the way there. You and Sano have a thriving business that has no room for another fighting style. You don't need me anymore. You proved that."
Sano looked back. "What about the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu?"
"Oh, I still believe in it with all my heart," she assured him. "But not many others do, not these days. Perhaps, in time, I'll find a student who will carry on my father's ideals." Kaoru shrugged and smiled helplessly. "But I've also come to terms with the fact that I'm no business woman. It might be time to try something new."
"You're welcome to stay with us for as long as you want," Misao said. She turned to Sano and Yahiko. "And, of course, you two are welcome to come visit any time."
Yahiko scratched the back of his head. "Well, this is the first time we've been away since we started the business so it might be a while before we can come back." He cast Kaoru an apologetic look. "You know how it is."
Kaoru chuckled. "Yes. I do." She looked at Sano, who was kicking the ground. "Sanosuke?"
"What?" he muttered, not looking up.
Hesitating for a moment, she finally put a hand on his arm. "Are we … all right?"
Sano heaved a sigh and finally looked at her with troubled eyes. "I don't know," he said frankly. "Will we ever be all right?"
That wooden, lost stare startled Kaoru so that she dropped her hand on his arm. She didn't know what to say.
"What a silly question to ask," Misao declared suddenly. "Of course you will. We all will." When all eyes turned to her, she shrugged. "It's true. Everything changes," she said reasonably. "People change. Circumstances change. But through it all, the one thing that doesn't are your friends. Not after all we've been through together." Her cerulean eyes met each gaze squarely. "Don't you think it would be a shame for us to turn away from one another now? After we fought so hard for peace and hope?"
"Misao is right." Aoshi emerged from the Aoiya, followed by Okina. He stood next to Misao who beamed up at him. "It would be a great pity if the Kenshingumi were to be torn apart when so many new and great opportunities have arisen from it."
"What opportunities?" Sano snapped. "You mean our broken friendships? The mistrust?"
"What Aoshi means, Sanosuke, is your new business. Your partnership with Yahiko. Your students, your hand at a legitimate and respectable business." Okina stroked his white beard thoughtfully as he looked straight at the younger man. "And the beginning of a possible relationship with the lady doctor, even."
Kaoru's eyebrows shot up and she looked at Sano closely. Was he … blushing?
"You would never have accomplished these things if Kaoru had stayed," Aoshi said gravely. "Do not focus merely on the negative changes, but focus on the good things that have occurred."
"That's true," Yahiko admitted. "I would never have thought to create my own ryu. And be the swordsman I am at this young an age?" He grinned at Sano. "And who knew Sano could do math and actually be a successful businessman?"
"Hey!" Sano protested, but it was weak.
Aoshi looked down at Kaoru. "Himura is here," he said quietly.
Gasping, Kaoru whirled around to see Kenshin hovering near the open side gate. His expression looked uncertain as he met her gaze. "What are you doing here?" she asked. "I thought we agreed some time alone and distance was best."
"I, er … just wanted to make sure you arrived at the Aoiya safely," he murmured, looking away. "It's gotten more dangerous with all the flood of Westerners lately."
"Oh." Her eyes softened as she noticed him actually fidgeting. "I'm glad you're here." Despite his confession that he couldn't bear to see her walk out of his life, the awkwardness and hurt were still there. It would take time for those wounds to be healed, and Kaoru decided it was easier for her to stay with Misao until she figured out what to do with her life. It would also allow Kenshin a chance to see her, if he wanted to, without putting too much pressure on their fragile truce.
Kenshin looked up at her through his red bangs, meeting her earnest blue eyes. No one said anything for a while until Sano suddenly made an impatient noise.
"You two are going to be old and gray before anything happens," he commented sourly. "Go on, Jou-chan, give him a hug."
Kaoru cast him a quizzical glance but Sano gestured to her with a wave of his hands. "Can't you see the man is dying for a good hug and a reason to say 'Oro?' Now, go on! Yahiko and I have to leave soon and get back to the dojo to make sure that Heisuke didn't do anything stupid while we were gone."
"Oh? Leaving before you crack all my trees down?" Okina remarked a little sarcastically.
But Kaoru didn't hear him. She looked at Kenshin again before looking back at all her friends. Misao bounced up and down in excitement while Aoshi gave her a blank look. Yahiko stood between Sano and Okina, trying to keep them separated as they squabbled.
She smiled to herself at the rather familiar scene and watched Kenshin, catching the longing look in his eyes. But not just for her, Kaoru realized. For the friendship and the love he once had with all of them. He felt the separation just as much as she did. And she didn't want him to feel alone anymore.
Kaoru slowly walked towards him, not looking away until they were only a foot apart. Slowly, she held out her hand, consciously aware of every eye now trained on them.
Kenshin stared at her hand before lifting his violet eyes back to her. Finally, he grasped it and suddenly wrapped an arm around her in a tight hug.
Startled at his movements, Kaoru relaxed after a moment in his embrace. She closed her eyes and smiled into his shoulder. She couldn't turn back the time or change what had happened but that was all right. The Kenshingumi would start over again and see where it took them. And this time, perhaps they would get it right.
"Tadaima," Kaoru whispered to him, ignoring Misao's loud "Aww," in the background.
Kenshin tightened his hold on her as if he would never let go again. "Tadaima," he murmured back.
AN: Apologies for the extremely late update. Thanks to Felix02 for the encouragement to finish this story, though it still seems a little incomplete somehow. Nevertheless, I hope it lives up to expectations. Please enjoy and, as always, if you have questions or comments, feel free to PM me.