Disclaimer:Rurouni Kenshin and its characters belong to Watsuki Nobuhiro. Anything else in this fic that isn't his is mine. For entertainment purposes only, Watsuki-sensei, and not for financial gain, I assure you.
Misao held the cup carefully in her hand, heading for the garden where Aoshi usually meditated. The Aoiya seemed strangely quiet now that Himura and the others were gone. They had all stayed together at the Shirobeko while the Aoiya was still being repaired, and Misao had grown used to them, But they were now back in Tokyo, and the Oniwabanshuu had moved back into their Aoiya. Yet despite the repairs, the restaurant wasn't attracting the same number customers that it did a few months earlier. Misao sighed. People were most probably still trying to sort out their lives, in the wake of the tumult that recently came over Kyoto. The Oniwabanshuu was no exception.
Shewas no exception.
"And where do you think you're going, Misao-chan?" a voice thundered from behind her. She turned to see Okina standing there, his arms crossed over his chest.
"Okashira!" she pointed out, thinking that this might be a good way to get him off this particular line of questioning. She knew where this was leading, and she had no desire to go there. Not now. But the older man made no attempt to correct himself. In fact, he just stood there waiting for her to respond.
Misao sighed. Should she tell him the truth? He was bound to find out anyway. "Well, you see, Jiya, I was just going to take this to Aoshi-sama --"
"Aoshi?" Okina's eyes bulged out of his face. "I end up with 138 stitches and you're bringing tea to him? Whose side are you on?"
Misao laid the cup down on the nearest table. It seemed like this was going to be a long day. "What do you mean whose side? We're all on the same side now, Jiya!"
But in the back of her mind, Misao understood. Aoshi had almost killed Okina in their last encounter, pushing Misao to declare herself as Okashira. She had vowed then that she would defend Kyoto and the Oniwabanshuu even if it meant going against Aohsi, but until now, she wasn't sure if she would have been able to raise a kunai at the man who had taken care of her as a child.
But Okina had fought him. And Okina had lost. Now, Aoshi was back in the Aoiya – back in their lives – and Misao couldn't blame the old man for his hostility.
"Well, he doesn't need you to run yourself ragged for his sake," Okina grumbled, snatching the cup of tea from the table.
Misao's arm shot out in protest. "Wait, what are you going to do with that?"
"Go practice with your kunais. Or help Omasu in the kitchen," Okina said flippantly. "Okashira." He added the title with a teasing expression that lit his face for a moment.
Misao pouted. "Well, if I'm Okashira, then why are you ordering me around?"
Okina mimicked her tone. "Well, if you're Okashira, then why do you let Aoshi?" He waved her off. Then his eyes narrowed into serious slits. "I'm not kidding, Misao. Don't do him any favors. A man like that doesn't need them." He stood firmly between her and the shoji door, waiting for her to withdraw.
"Fine," Misao said exasperatedly, heading towards the Aoiya kitchen.
But just as soon as she turned a corner and was gone from Okina's sight, she pressed her back against the wall and counted to five. She sneaked a peek back at him, and was surprised that he was gone.
So was the cup of tea.
She didn't need to be a genius to know where Okina was headed. There was only one way out of that room, and it led straight to the spot where Aoshi was. Summoning the stealth skills characteristic of an onmitsu Oniwabanshuu, Misao slid the door open and followed him.
Okina wasn't hard to spot. He was striding purposefully to where Aoshi was meditating. Misao stifled a snort. If he didn't want the rest of the Oniwabanshuu doing things for Aoshi, he had a strange way of showing it.
She maneuvered herself closer to the small garden temple. Okina had settled himself in front of Aoshi, adopting the same cross-legged seating position that the former Okashira took. Misao noticed Okina's lips moving, but she was still too far to hear his exact words.
When she was in hearing distance, the first thing she caught was Aoshi's reply. His back was to her, so she couldn't see his face. "It seems I was wrong in assuming that you understood."
"Understood your reasons for doing it?" Okina snapped, his eyes pure fire. Misao wondered if he had looked this way during his fight with Aoshi. "In some measure, yes. But you've healed now, in more ways than one. But what I don't understand is why you insist in staying on."
"Is that what you want, Okina?" Aoshi asked pointedly. "That I leave the Aoiya? That can be easily arranged."
Okina's shoulders heaved, as if a heavy burden had been placed on it. "As an onmitsu Oniwabanshuu, I would never turn you away. You were our Okashira. I saw you grow into the warrior you became, the leader you were, the man you are now. I respected you then; I still respect you now. I don't blame you for doing what you thought was right. That is the warrior's code. But I am only human, Aoshi. And you have no right to come back into her life after all this time."
Misao's breath caught in her throat. Was Jiya talking about herI?
Aoshi cleared his throat almost imperceptibly. "Are you sure it's wise to discuss that now?"
"Now's a good time as any," the older man replied. "She will do anything for you, Aoshi. You know that. Don't you think she's had enough?"
Misao clamped a hand to her mouth in an effort to stifle an angered shout. He was talking about her! How dare Okina talk about her to Aoshi like this?
"What do you mean?" Aoshi said in his cool tone, his voice low and unhurried. "You make it sound as if my presence here hurts her."
Of course it doesn't, Aoshi-sama, she wanted to reassure him but Okina's next words got her blood boiling. "Doesn't it?" he challenged. What was Jiya's problem, anyway?
"You know I only have Misao's best interests at heart," Aoshi said firmly, and Misao's heart tipped over.
"You're a fool not to know how deeply she cares for you. But she doesn't know better. She's very young. Impressionable. Deep down, she still believes that you are the same man who held her as a child. She pined for you while you were away. She will follow you to the ends of the world if you let her, Aoshi," Okina said, his voice filled with fatherly love. As embarrassed as Misao was that Okina was saying all these things to Aoshi, she couldn't help but feel grateful for the concern that was evident in the old man's voice. "The longer you stay here, the more she thinks she can save you. If you care for her at all, you will leave and let her live her own life."
"I believe that's Misao's decision to make," Aoshi told him. "I can't force her into anything. Nor do I want to. That's who she is, Okina. I don't wish to change her. And neither should you."
His words warmed Misao's heart.
From her position, she saw Okina shake his head solemnly. "I'm not trying to change her. But by letting her go, I'm sure you realize that I only want to see her grow into the woman she should become. She shouldn't be chained to the past. She shouldn't be chained to you."
"Fine, I'll leave," Aoshi declared without preamble.
No!she wanted to cry out.
"—but only if she asks me to."
And Misao knew she would never do that.
There was complete silence. Misao strained her neck to catch Okina's reaction to Aoshi's statement. But the man had leaned forward, his arm on Aoshi's shoulder. She couldn't see his expression, but she heard his words clearly. "If I had died when we fought, would you have taken care of her?"
Misao's thoughts flew back to that fateful day. As Aoshi disappeared into the forest, leaving behind a bloody Okina, he had told her. "Get out of here and never show your face to me again." The words now echoed in her mind. Although he had believed in her earlier, she knew Aoshi's answer even before he could speak. Misao's spirits sank. If he didn't want her then, then he definitely would say --
What?she nearly cried out loud in her surprise.
"You shouldn't have even asked me, Okina," Aoshi finished quietly.
Okina's lips twisted into a reluctant grin. "Is that what you wanted to hear, Misao?"
She turned red to the roots of her hair. How long had he known that she was there? And if Okina had known, surely Aoshi –
Misao turned and ran. She would never hear the end of this. But as she pounded her way back into the Aoiya, she felt lighter than she had in years. The wind was at her back, the sun in her face. It was going to be a beautiful day.
Author's Notes:Don't sue me. What goes around, comes around – as Misao finds out, in more ways than one. No declaration of undying love from Aoshi here, folks, just a simple promise to take care of someone who means a lot to him. I was really wondering how Okina can approve of Misao's devotion to someone who nearly killed him, so I turned it into this fic. Okina's righteous anger at Aoshi during the first part of the fic isn't an act. But I felt that once dear old Jiya knows that Aoshi will not intentionally hurt Misao again or leave her alone, I think he'll be pacified. I hope it was enough for you too. :)