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Standard disclaimers apply.

Some smut content.

thoughts

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Definitions

Akebeko - a restaurant that Tae-san runs and Tsubame works at

beeeda - this sound, accompanied by pulling down the lower eyelid and sticking out the tongue, is an insult in Japan

buso - ugly

Jo-chan - Sano's nickname for Kaoru

Kami - God

kenpo - sword fighting

tanuki - raccoon (in the anime, Kaoru is nicknamed raccoon-girl)

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Chapter 3: The Morning After

The intimate warmth of Kaoru's body was the first sensation Kenshin experienced upon awaking the next morning. For a moment, he let that simple pleasure fill his being, his heart expanding with love.

He opened his eyes, beholding Kaoru's dark head bent in concentration as her nimble fingers wove a strand of his fiery hair in among two of her own shining darkness. He must have made some sound, because she raised her eyes to meet his, a shy, uncertain smile lighting her features. The corners of his mouth lifted in response, and his eyes glowed with familiar affection as he reached for the hand she was withdrawing from the braid.

Carrying it up to his mouth, he placed a kiss in the center of her callused palm.

"Good morning, my lady," he greeted her softly.

Kaoru blushed, flustered by this change in Kenshin. She tugged her hand free to press both palms to her heated cheeks. Her insides trilled with excitement and her heart fluttered with the heady combination of open affection and the intimacy of being called "his lady." Deep contentment started at the bottom of her heart and expanded until she was encased in a warm glow. Lost in the rush, it was several moments before she noticed that Kenshin had thrown back the blankets and was getting up.

Like a sudden storm, her disquieting concerns from Kenshin's midnight confession resurfaced, darkening her thoughts. Their time alone together was almost at an end, yet the fresh intimacy that had so excited her was forever tarnished by the thought that Kenshin had merely been humoring her. The woman of his dreams was dead, placing Kaoru as his second love at best. Was she merely a surrogate? An easement of Kenshin's guilt and grief? Her doubts refused to be ignored, forming into a dull ache deep in her chest, as if they intended to set up permanent residence there.

She turned to Kenshin, needing to share her thoughts; so that in the sharing, she might conquer the hold they had on her.

"Kenshin?" She heard the hesitancy in her voice and hated it.

"Kenshin-" she started more resolutely. "About last night…"

Her first entreaty had made him pause, so that he was kneeling above her. She watched the emotions flit across his face as his solemn mask vied with his rurouni one. The result could be called a look of perplexed awkwardness that completely eclipsed the prior one of relaxed contentment.

Her questions died on her lips as she witnessed his sudden tenseness, his awful patience of waiting for the next blow to come. With sudden clarity she realized that he wouldn't avoid any of her inquiries, but that, even if she stilled her tongue now, she could not piece back together the feeling of peace he had awoken with.

She sat up and hugged her knees to her, avoiding the question she saw in his face, her lips pressed into a thin, unhappy line. She expected him to make a break for it when he had the chance, so the gentle hand on her shoulder surprised her enough that her gaze shot up to meet his.

"Kaoru?" Kenshin prompted gently, as if to assure her that she could ask the questions eating at her soul.

Kaoru began, but the loud sound of Sano in the kitchen, looking for breakfast, was enough to seal her lips. Suddenly, reality crashed in and their quiet night was at an end.

More urgent than her questions, her modesty demanded that she not be caught with Kenshin in her bedroom. Gone was the bravery of the night when faced with the two loud, crude, rowdy bachelors named Yahiko and Sano.

Kenshin seemed to sense her reluctance, and he stood with a sigh, gathering his clothes over one arm. Kaoru threw off her side of the covers and accepted the hand Kenshin offered as he helped her up.

There was a moment, with him gently massaging the center of her palm with his thumb and with them both staring into each other's eyes, where they recaptured a ghost of the tenderness that had started the morning.

Another imposing crash of Kami knew what in the kitchen startled Kaoru out of her trance and she propelled Kenshin towards the door with a hand on his chest. He allowed her to guide him until he was actually at the door, but he refused to leave when she gave him a final push. Using the hand he still held captive, he pulled her against him, encircling her waist with his free arm.

"Promise me we will talk about this later," he declared softly.

She pushed against his chest. "You need to leave! They are bound to come looking for you any moment."

His grip tightened, and his intense eyes, previously hidden by his bangs, burned into hers.

"Promise me," his voice was deceptively silken, but there was a razor sharp edge to it.

"Really, I'm fine. Just go!" she insisted, mild panic setting in.

"Kaoru." One word. Her name said with such authority, with a hint of possessiveness, as if he had the right to command her. She stilled in his arms and met his gaze with all seriousness, her urgency forgotten.

Swallowing past the sudden lump in her throat, she promised.

And just like that, with a kiss to her forehead, he was gone.

She leaned her head against the frame of the door, her forehead resting on her hand. She hadn't responded unquestioningly to authority like that since her father. Trembling slightly with nervous excitement, Kaoru tried to breath without a hitch in her chest. Later, she would be outraged, independent woman that she was, but the turmoil of conflicting emotions left her needing recovery time.

She had wanted to be cool and distant to him, to place a buffer between herself and him after he had declared love for another woman. Unsure of her own feelings, she lacked the conviction to overcome her own low self esteem and pursue Kenshin's love for herself. This unknown woman, this familiar stranger, now loomed larger than a deep frigid sea between them.

How could I ever compete with an unselfish snow angel such as her? Kaoru thought forlornly. Indeed, a spectra with raven hair, kind face, pale rosy skin, off the shoulder pure white kimono, and soft feathery wings came to mind, sinking Kaoru into deeper depression as she again bemoaned the very unfeminine body of corded muscle that lay beneath her robe.

I wonder if Kenshin likes tomboys, she mused with an ironic twist to her smile.

There was a loud squabble as Yahiko joined Sano at the breakfast table and with a sigh, Kaoru slowly went about preparing herself for the day. It was time for Yahiko's morning training, and with her head spinning from scattered thoughts, she was looking forward to some hard physical exercise.

She frequently felt Kenshin's gaze on her throughout breakfast, but she refused to meet it, the sudden show of his authority still lingering, making her loath to revive the conflict.

The tension between them must have communicated itself to Sano, because he picked up her dishes and his own without so much as a complaint.

Yahiko, however, seemed oblivious to it all.

"Hey rooster head, if you're gonna play maid, why don't you take my dishes too?!" Yahiko chimed in his usual, obnoxiously loud voice.

Sano sent a cold scowl his way, but paused in making any retaliation. His eyes flitted from Yahiko to meet Kaoru's, and he cocked an eyebrow in her direction as if to say, "Isn't that your cue?"

The distraction worked, and she snapped out of her revere. Growing anticipation blossomed inside of her, and she set about her and Yahiko's morning quarrel with a vengeance.

"Brat! Take your own dishes! And when you're done with that, go warm up with 200 strokes before you even think about coming to me for kenpo training! An apprentice should be seen and not heard!!"

Yahiko promptly pulled down his lower eyelid and stuck out his tongue. "Beeeeda." He wagged his tongue at her while edging to the door.

She stood up, her hands curling into fists. Pushing up one sleeve, she advanced toward him. "I'm going to get you!" she threatened.

"Buso!" he yelled triumphantly and scampered out the door with Kaoru hot on his heels.

Sano watched them go then cautiously approached the place where Kenshin was washing dishes. Setting the rest of the dishes down beside the slender red head, he got only an acknowledging glance instead of the usual "thank you" Kenshin greeted his help with.

"What happened between you and Jo-chan?" Sano queried, then winced at the bluntness of his statement. He had meant for it to sound better.

Kenshin paused, taking a long look at the place where Kaoru had last sat with a haunted look in his eyes. At last he turned to back to the dishes, his hands busy again.

"I told her I had a wife during the war." Kenshin answered curtly, his voice softer, more serious, and deeper than usual.

Sano tried to keep his shocked reaction from showing and failed miserably. After a moment, he gruffly patted Kenshin on the shoulder.

"I'm sure she'll get over it with time…" He trailed off, not sure of what to say.

Kenshin turned suddenly and locked gazes with Sano. The strange fierceness in them unsettled Sano, and he realized that his adrenaline was flowing, that he was instantly on guard.

"I'm not sure if I want her to," Kenshin said, more to himself than Sano. The fierceness fled from his gaze, and his violet eyes looked hollow without it. Then Kenshin resumed washing, his face bent away from Sano. "She would be safer if she didn't," he muttered under his breath then fell silent as if realizing that he had said too much.

Sano opened his mouth, intent on asking another question, but never got the chance. Kenshin shrugged, signaling that the conversation was over, and reached for a drying cloth.

"You'll help me dry and put away while you're here, right?" He addressed Sano with an innocent smile.

Sano felt his worry seep away as his inherent laziness protested this new chore, but he reluctantly took the towel and complied. Even if Kenshin's smile had been just a tad over bright, it was not Sano's place to comment.

Yahiko's steps did not slow until the gate of the dojo was well out of sight. He walked with great care, favoring his right side where a bruise the size of his fist was developing into an awful blue-black color.

Kaoru had offered to be his sparing partner, and fool that he was, he had jumped at the rare opportunity. In reality it was a chance for Kaoru to beat him senseless. It was a testimony to his growing skill that he was able to deflect most of her blows, but then neither had Kaoru been seriously fighting him. She had attacked with her anger, and as a result, her strikes had been overzealous, unbalanced, and direct.

Yahiko shivered with dread as he remembered the look in her eye as she sent him off to Megumi. Whatever had been eating at her normally would have resolved itself by the end of morning practice. Instead, she had taken one glance at the darkening bruise and sent him off to the lady doctor with a frustrated and guilty set to her face. He had gone, choking back his protests, knowing that it would trouble her if he insisted they continue.

His thoughts turned to Megumi, wondering if the lady doctor could shed some light on Kaoru's strange behavior. And on Kenshin's too, for that matter. Something must have happened between those two, causing Kaoru to need to take out her frustrations on him. Now that he had left, he hated to think of what other outlets she would find to vent her feelings. The sudden thought of what dinner would taste like rose unbidden and he choked back the bile rising to his throat.

He examined the bruise again, a speculative gleam in his gaze.

I wonder if this has enough sympathy points to get me lunch, Yahiko pondered to himself.

The thought of how Tsubame would fuss over him brought a slow smile to his lips. With a much lighter step, Yahiko set out for Dr. Genzai's to visit Megumi and then the Akebeko to visit Tae-san and Tsubame.

Megumi watched as the pesky brat left without so much as a thank you. She sighed and washed the ointment she had applied to Yahiko's bruise from her hands, her movements slow as she brooded over this latest development in Ken-san's and Kaoru's relationship.

She knew it was only a matter of time before Kaoru came to her for advice, and she sighed again because she was not sure she had any to offer. Although it was apparent to any onlooker that Ken-san had already marked Kaoru as his and that Kaoru was head over heels in love with him, the pair seemed to flounder in the shallows rather than making any headway.

She had given up on having Ken-san for herself and had nothing but good wishes for the couple, but every time Kaoru came to her, she was reminded of how he had chosen Kaoru over her. Of how he had only said good-bye to Kaoru. She had never flattered herself with thinking that she was his most important person, but it had stung that he did not consider her worthwhile to say farewell to.

She had accepted Sano's attempts at courtship and looked forward to leading the chicken-man on a devilish chase before agreeing to marry him. As of late, he had been slacking off in his efforts to woe her, and she had several nasty chores planned out as punishment. He was a good man underneath all that bravado, and was someone she was growing to respect, if not also love.

"But," she admitted softly to herself. "He is not Ken-san."

A sad smile lingered over her attractive features. No, he is not Ken-san, but then, there is no other man like him, she tempered the statement, striving to be fair in her judgment. Sano was many things, but Ken-san he was not.

She knew that both Ken-san and Sano were men haunted by dark pasts, but only Ken-san could send that shiver of fearful excitement down her spine. She would trust Sano with her life, but only Ken-san could make her feel so completely safe. And that, especially late at night, alone with her nightmares, had been the real attraction she felt for him.

"Are you feeling alright?" Dr. Genzai asked worriedly, placing a callused palm against her forehead.

Megumi jumped, blinking up at the good doctor with an uncomprehending gaze.

"Huh? Oh! Of course I'm fine. I just was thinking-" she paused, scrambling for words. "Of dinner. I think tonight would be an excellent time to take everyone to eat at the Akebeko."

Dr. Genzai rubbed his chin. "Hm. That sounds like an excellent suggestion."

Megumi waited until he returned to his patients before she allowed herself the deep sigh that had been building in her chest.

Well, that was clever thinking! And I just saved everyone from Tanuki's cooking too, she congratulated herself.

With a smug smile, she set about seeing to her other patients.

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Author's Notes

I know I never update. Gomen. It's been a tough semester at college.

Thanks to Annaneko, my beta reader. You are the best.

Everyone, the reviews mean a lot. They inspire me write more.

Gaiden, Wolfspeaker, Joseph Parker, as always I will mention you here to show my gratitude.

Quickening has a great Inu Yasha fic called Broken. Go read it.

Annaneko's site is www.rkdreams.com. She has some great RK fan fictions, along with a forum where several noteworthy RK fanfic authors gather and discuss. Stop by and say hello.

Good luck on finals for everyone!