Summary: (Modern AU RuroKen) For two years Misao Makimachi had been working beside the stoic Aoshi Shinomori in an unofficial government branch. The third year of their partnership and the seasons turned, the fall wind bringing a promise of a chill and danger tangled in things to come.

A/N: I'm sorry for the long (five months...) wait for this chapter, I really am. I mostly had problems with characterization, and just couldn't manage to write anything without having to go back and rewrite it in the fear that it was OOC. Finally I set a minimum deadline for myself, and though I barely made it, I managed to finish the chapter. It's much shorter than the first one, just to forewarn you.

I'd also just like to say, though, that based on the reviews to hits ratio, I can only surmise that for whatever reason, people do not like this fic. Without comments on what to change, though, there's really nothing I can do. I am not abandoning this fic, though, for the simple reason that I just don't want to give up on it. With nobody else to worry about, as it seems that nobody's really reading this, however, I will be operating on my own update schedule, meaning I'll be taking my time and not rushing (I'm not going to take five months to review again, though!) on updating.

Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin belongs to its respective creator/owners. The original concept for this story is mine to claim as well as any and all original characters/ideas I might have to throw in to make the plot work. Rule of thumb: If it already has an owner, it's not mine.


Under the Influence
–CH 2

While Misao was bumbling about her house in a zombie-like state before all but collapsing on her bed, another woman was staring out of the large picture window in the living room of her apartment as the sky continued to lighten and the white wisps of clouds in the air moved by slowly with the wind. She frowned and glanced into the street below, her eyes scanning the buildings, cars, and people. The morning rush had long since dwindled, and the restaurants were now preparing for the lunch rush, still a few hours off. She could see across the way into the window of a business across the street as a young woman with her hair in a bun sat down in her cubicle in front of her computer. The young woman turned her head and yelled something over her shoulder, and then there was movement as a man appeared behind her and handed her a mug. Watching silently, the woman at the window knew that the occupant of the apartment next to her would be awake and sitting in front of his easel, applying paint to the canvas with inhuman grace and beauty before his own window, enjoying the feel of the sun against his back as he moved. She sniffled and moved away from the window, stomping slightly as she did so before yanking a tissue from the box on a low table and blowing her nose. There was a commotion below the window, probably a pedestrian who had tried to jaywalk but had nearly been run over by a irate taxi cab driver. She rubbed her nose furiously with the tissue and glared at the window. It was the city's fault she couldn't sleep and she wasn't forgetting that fact anytime soon. She hated being sick.

Sighing, she shuffled to her kitchen, pulling out a packet of soup mix. She eyed it distrustfully, remembering the last time she'd tried to make instant ramen. That had been a disaster. She slumped slightly on the counter with the memories. The fire department had been called and the elderly woman down the hall had nearly had a heart attack thinking it was arson... If that wasn't bad enough, the rumors that had circulated the next couple of weeks ranged from saying she had tried to commit suicide, to that she was purposely trying to set her fiancé on fire for cheating on her. People had kept stopping her to ask and she had to struggle each time to not yank the person up by their collar and ingrain what had really happened into their head by less than pleasant means.

Stuffing the soup mix back into the depths of her pantry, she decided to stick with safer canned soup. With a microwave, there was no reason for her to be involved in anything except pressing the little digital buttons and watching the time count down. Once the microwave was reheating the soup, she walked to the bathroom and pulled a bottle of pills from the medicine cabinet behind the mirror. After carefully reading the instructions, she carefully shook out two more pills. Just as she was pulling a capsule of vitamin C from another container, the microwave beeped to signal the completion of its task.

She quickly popped out a vitamin and collected all the pills in her hand before making her way back into the kitchen. Pouring herself a glass of water, she downed the pills in one fell swoop before gulping the water to wash it all down. The bitter taste of the capsules remained in her mouth as she found a spoon and yanked a paper towel from the roll. Setting them down on the kitchen counter, she found her trusty oven mitts—they were decorated with piles of cake, cookies, doughnuts, pies, and other sweet baked goods—and slipped one on. Then she opened her microwave and was about to pull the other one on when the doorbell rang. Starting, she swiftly became annoyed with whoever had decided to call on her when they knew she was staying home sick. Grumbling to herself, she closed the microwave door to keep the soup from getting cold and left her oven mitts on the counter.

Upon reaching the door, she opened it, ready to give her "What do you want, can't you see I'm home sick and trying to take it easy?" speech until she looked up into a shock of red hair. Red hair connected to the smiling face of her next-door neighbor, Kenshin Himura, who was currently beaming at her with his trademark innocent smile while he held onto a large pot. In spite of herself she found she was returning the smile, albeit slightly wearily, and opened the door, gesturing for him to come into her apartment.

Kenshin shuffled through the doorframe, keeping a close watch on the pot in his arms. "Good morning, Kaoru-dono," he greeted. "I made soup for you, knowing it would save you the trouble of cooking while you're sick. It's chicken noodle."

Kaoru closed the door behind him and was about to accept his offer graciously when her mind highlighted the soup cooling in her microwave. Though she tried to hide it, Kenshin must have seen her dismay, for he added, "You can always save it for later if you've already made something."

Hastily trying to cover her slip, Kaoru shook her head. "No, of course not. I haven't made anything yet, though I was about to." She smiled then, trying to brush away any doubts he might still have. Motioning towards the kitchen, she started walking and he followed obediently behind her. "Have you eaten anything yet today, Kenshin?"

"No," he replied, managing to keep up eye contact with her and navigate with the pot clutched to his chest at the same time. "It's still early. I decided I'd come in case you ended up eating early and taking a nap afterwards."

Kaoru beamed at his words. He was right and it was still early, but it was also the perfect excuse to see him and talk to him other than the few times each day when she saw him at the mailboxes collecting his mail or when she invited him to dinner. Come to think of it, Kaoru hadn't had him over for at least three to four days. He'd always had previous plans or become so involved with his work in one form or another that she simply didn't get the chance to ask. She nearly grimaced again. She was the one who invited Kenshin over the most, but he was the better cook. Still, she was glad to see him and intended to have a decent conversation with him, no matter what he insisted about her being sick.

"Would you like to join me, then? I promise I won't get you sick," she added teasingly, hoping to get a real smile from him instead of the customary one he seemed unable to separate from his face.

Kenshin's mouth widened and Kaoru smiled wider as well in response. "If you don't mind, Kaoru-dono. We haven't had much chance to talk lately, have we?"

"No," Kaoru shook her head slightly. "Is it a new painting you've been working on?"

If he hadn't been carrying the pot, Kaoru was sure he would have reached a hand behind his head to scratch at it guiltily. "I apologize for that, that I do. I've been very inspired recently and simply couldn't tear myself away from my easel."

Kaoru wanted to frown and appear stern, but she just couldn't. Hearing him speak of painting, something he loved doing, always gave her a warm feeling. Instead, she settled with worry. "Megumi'll have my hide if you get sick from me. Just because you're a bachelor doesn't mean you shouldn't take proper care of yourself."

"I understand, Kaoru-dono," Kenshin replied placating, not unaware of her concern for him. "I will look after myself, that I will." He passed her as she stepped aside to let him into the kitchen first and put the pot down on a countertop, waiting until she had come up behind him before pulling the lid off of the pot and revealing the contents to her.

Kaoru's eyes enlarged as she saw how much soup Kenshin had made. Though she felt slightly bad that Kenshin had left his work in order to cook for her, it warmed her heart that he was willing to put aside time in order to do things for her. Feeling it was the least she could do, Kaoru let a string of compliments rain from her lips, to which Kenshin replied with bashful, small, humble replies and insisted that it wasn't too much work when Kaoru pestered him about it. She made to start pulling out bowls and spoons, but stopped when Kenshin's arm appeared suddenly in front of her, stopping her progress. She turned towards him with a questioning glance.

"Please go sit down, Kaoru-dono. I'll get everything out; I'll do it for you since I'm here anyway, that I will."

Kaoru frowned in response. "I know I'm sick, but I'm not helpless either. I'm a big girl, I can work the microwave and everything," she said, her eyes lighting up in amusement at the end of her statement.

Kenshin smiled and leaned forward on the pretense of pulling the spoons from a drawer. "You'll forgive me for wishing to baby you, Kaoru-dono?" he said softly, closing the drawer with a snap.

She was about to make a retort when she paused and noticed how he was behaving. It was always like this: He'd say something so sweet and caring that she'd be stunned speechless and wouldn't know how to respond, but he never took it a step further than that. It frustrated her to no end! She wanted answers, and she wanted them immediately, dammit! Or maybe she just wanted to smile softly at him, shake her head, and dig around her kitchen for the soup ladle. That seemed the safer course of action to take.

The bowls were out, the spoons there on the counter, and Kaoru pulled the soup ladle triumphantly from a drawer, handing it to Kenshin with a smug grin, to which he responded by taking it from her with a fond smile.

He ladled out soup into the bowls before asking, "Kaoru-dono, where is the Saran Wrap?"

"Ah! I'll get it," Kaoru jumped from where she had been standing watching him and went into the pantry, shifting boxes and cans around until she called out in frustration. "I can't find it! What do you need it for?"

Kenshin walked over to join Kaoru in looking around the pantry for the elusive Saran Wrap. "For putting the bowls in the microwave… Here it is!" He reached forward and took the Saran Wrap from where it had, quite literally, been sitting right in front of Kaoru's nose. Kaoru, meanwhile, was digesting what Kenshin had just said, and her brain made the connection between "microwave" and what was in the microwave that she didn't want Kenshin to see just as he was walking out of the pantry towards the soup.

"NO!" She latched onto his arm, and nearly tripped and fell on top of him, having attempted to jump a fairly sizeable distance to reach him without lifting her feet off of the ground in her haste. Clutching desperately to his arm, Kaoru slumped down and was prevented from losing her grip and falling by Kenshin's arms around her arms, lifting her to her feet. She smiled nervously, aware that Kenshin was watching her with confused and worried eyes.

"I mean…" she started, casting about desperately for something to save her, before abruptly bending over and pulling out a smaller pot from one of her cabinets. "We can just use a smaller pot to warm it up!" she finished, feeling proud of herself for not freezing up and standing there babbling like a moron.

Kenshin still regarded her uneasily, and she thought she saw his eyes flicker towards the microwave for a second, but couldn't be sure, before they refocused on her. "It would be easier and require less washing to use the microwave, that it would."

Kaoru put on one of her best innocent-until-caught-red-handed looks, which she hoped desperately would work on him, and grinned, waving the pot in a manner that would have Kenshin running for his life before it proved her faultless. "But I've already gotten this pot out. We can just pour the soup out of the bowls into here and warm it up that way." She crossed the fingers on one hand behind her back.

"If that's what you want, Kaoru-dono…" Kaoru set the pot down on the stove with a thunk and took the Saran Wrap back to the pantry, leaving Kenshin to handle the task of pouring the soup into the pot and turning the burner on. Smiling at him as she passed, she took the spoons and set them out on the table, retrieving paper towels to serve as napkins and folding them up before placing them on the table with the spoons.

A companionable silence descended on the two of them. Or at least Kaoru imagined Kenshin felt it was a companionable silence, to her it was more awkward than companionable. The seconds ticking by as they both waited for the soup, she was at a complete loss about what to do. Fortunately for her, the phone decided to herald itself into the picture as her savior with its obnoxious, incessant ring. Kenshin lifted his head up briefly to watch as Kaoru scrambled out of the dining room to retrieve the phone situated on the far corner of the wrap-around counter that separated the kitchen from the dining room and living room almost in the front entry hallway. Hearing her pick up the receiver and hold it to her ear, he lowered his head to resume watching the soup. As Kaoru mumbled into the phone, seemingly unable to get a word in edge-wise, he decided that the soup was ready and reached for the ladle, turning the burner off as he did so. Serving the soup into the two bowls, he put the ladle back into the pot before covering everything with the lid.

Kenshin then carefully picked up the two bowls of soup, moving to place them on the table. On his way there he paused to watch Kaoru's head bob frantically, fascinated with the way the light glinted across her hair. He wasn't quite sure if she should be getting herself worked up when she was sick, but knew it was incredibly rude to interrupt phone calls. While he was currently occupied with watching Kaoru, Kenshin didn't notice the speaker on the other end of the phone finally reach the climax of whatever it was they had been going on about. He was unprepared, then, when Kaoru finally managed to reply.


Kenshin started, jerked from his daze to look down at himself. The clean shirt that he had changed into before coming over to Kaoru's apartment was now covered in soup. Moving hastily, he glanced up to see Kaoru talking earnestly into the phone as she wandered down the hallway to her bedroom. If he worked fast enough, he could get everything cleaned up before she finished her conversation. Not that it really mattered to Kaoru whether he made a mess or not, as he always cleaned it up, but it mattered to him how he appeared to her. He didn't want to project a false image to her, but somehow he found himself caring about what she thought of him and going to great lengths to prove himself in her sight.

Soup gently placed in the sink to prevent further spilling down the sides of the bowls, he stripped his over shirt off, going into the pantry and shaking it out over the garbage can so that any large pieces of food would fall off. Returning to the kitchen, he wiped down the sides of the bowls with a damp cloth and dried them, leaving his stained shirt in the sink as he transferred them to the table. He was extremely relieved to see that there wasn't much soup missing from the bowl that he'd spilled on himself, and resolved that he'd eat that one, just in case so Kaoru wouldn't notice anything. A swift check confirmed that Kaoru was still disappeared in her bedroom, so he rinsed his shirt off and headed for her drying machine.

He hadn't really expected anything to still be in the dryer from its last use, but he made sure to check anyway. To his surprise, there was something in the dryer. Something he was distinctly sure he wasn't supposed to know about Kaoru owning. Something that was more straps sewn together than cloth. Something that was pink. Something that was a thong. A pink thong, to be precise. It had a little read heart on the front with writing that read… Kenshin mentally hit himself over the head as a small "Oro" escaped his lips. He shouldn't be memorizing the details of Kaoru's thong because he shouldn't even know it existed. He should be removing it and stashing it somewhere, far, far away from his person so he could place his shirt in the dryer and dry it enough that Kaoru wouldn't notice that-

"My thong! Kenshin, what are you doing with that!"

Kenshin shot bolt upright with his hands held up in the air, one clutching his shirt, the other Kaoru's thong as if he was in some bad Western movie and there was someone pointing a gun at his back. To be fair, Kaoru could probably do worse things to him than a Western cowboy could, even with the gun.

Kaoru shot a look at Kenshin's back, half concentrating on him and half on the person on the other end of the phone. "No, he's not… Shut up—Sano, it's not like that!" she trailed off as she turned and left the room right as Kenshin was opening his mouth to explain. He heard her footsteps plod down the hall highlighted by her voice interjecting periodically to whatever it was Sano was saying. "...Sano, if you want Megumi to see those poems you wrote in fifth grade about her, I'll be happy to personally give them to her." Kaoru came to halt. "'Megumi, your hair is so pretty. It shines with the shininess of a million shiny things.'" There was a bellow from the other end of the phone. "I'll call you back later, Sano!" she finished, setting the phone down on the cradle with an audible click. Then he heard her coming back, her footsteps having more of a stomp to them than before.

By the time she reached him, he was facing her and the evidence was stowed back in the dryer, having been hastily thrown in there as soon as she had left the room. She was livid, and Kenshin could easily see that any explanation he gave that was unsatisfactory to Kaoru's ears would earn him a painful smack to the head, and quite possibly get him the boot from her apartment.

"Oro. Kaoru-dono, I…" Kenshin hung his head slightly; unsure of how to go on and afraid she might be angry with him even after he'd explained. Kaoru only narrowed her eyes in response and waited for him to continue. He was still uncertain of how to go about telling her, but picked up where he'd left off anyway. "When you yelled at whatever it was that Sano was saying, I happened to spill soup down my shirt. I… I did not wish for you to see me like that, that I did not. I was attempting to dry my shirt and pulled your…" he gulped, "underwear out of the dryer when you found me." He glanced up at Kaoru when he'd finished to see how she took his explanation.

For a moment her face was expressionless as she contemplated something in connection with him, her reaction to Sano's news, which she would have to tell him about later, the dryer, and her thong. Then her face eased until a soft smile that turned upwards at the corners into a full-blown grin. Kaoru started laughing. The way Kenshin's face was so serious, as if he'd just committed murder in her kitchen… Really, the whole situation was so humorous that she couldn't help it. Kenshin simply stood there watching her.

When she'd finally calmed down, she rubbed at the corners of her eyes and gave him an amused, exasperated smile, her eyes lightened in teasing rather than anger. "Oh, Kenshin…" She shook her head at his antics. "It's not that big a deal. If you had just told me, I wouldn't have minded, since you cleaned up after yourself anyway."

Kenshin tilted his head to the side and gave her an embarrassed look. "I didn't want to bother you, that I did not."

Kaoru simply waved a hand, dismissing everything that had just happened as she turned, talking over her shoulder. "It doesn't matter anymore. What happened to the soup?" She felt Kenshin tense behind her and looked over at him.

"Oroo. The soup—I completely forgot!" He shot Kaoru an apologetic look as he brushed past her to reheat it for the second time that day. Gazing after him as he moved into the kitchen, Kaoru frowned, realizing that Kenshin had completely forgotten about his shirt. She watched Kenshin's movements as he bustled around the kitchen before she walked up to the drying machine and the shirt Kenshin had so carelessly tossed on top of it.

Hesitantly, she reached a hand towards it, lowering it into the soft folds of the material. A simple button-down, white, collared shirt, it wouldn't have seemed extraordinary to her if it weren't for the man who had just been wearing it. There was a light stain down the front that she could see slipping through the folds caressed between her fingers. Running a finger slowly down the fabric, she traced the outline of a spot just below one of the buttons, spinning the fingertip slowly around the button itself a few times. Kaoru sighed and dropped her hand from the shirt, instead reaching for the stain remover and spraying the sullied area. She thought for a moment, and then went to her own room for her whites, deciding to do her own dirty laundry along with Kenshin's shirt.

Kenshin peeked over his shoulder as she came out of the laundry room, wondering what had been taking her so long. "Kaoru-dono? The soup's almost done, that it is."

Giving him a passing smile, Kaoru entered her room and started rummaging around for the clothing that needed to be washed. Kenshin could just hear her voice as it drifted out the doorway and into the kitchen. "Your shirt's stained, Kenshin. While I'm washing it, I might as well wash my own laundry too." She gathered it all into a pile and tramped back down to load up the washing machine.

Curious, Kenshin made sure that the soup was safe from any more accidents steaming in bowls on the counter before wandering out of the kitchen. Kaoru seemed to be busy added detergent and spraying stain remover on articles of clothing that needed it, so he assumed she was unaware of the socks that littered the hallway from her bedroom to the laundry room. Starting in the doorway of Kaoru's room, he followed a scattered trail of socks, t-shirts, shorts, towels, and the odd bra—Kenshin couldn't help blushing when he picked up that one item, and made sure to stuff it deeper into the pile so Kaoru wouldn't see him holding it—down the hallway to the laundry room. Five paces to the gray sock, six to its mate, three paces to the grubby t-shirt, and seven paces before he entered the laundry room and found the X: a cheerily humming Kaoru, who was busily stuffing clothing into the washer's mouth.

He was about to interrupt her, walking through the doorway into the room, but he stopped, seeing something unexpected. Just as Kaoru was managing to fit all of her clothes into the washer, she turned and picked up his shirt from where he remembered leaving it on the dryer. She paused for a moment, and raised her arm as if to lift the shirt to her face, but abruptly changed her mind and lowered it into the washer with the other clothes. Though he wasn't quite sure what he had just witnessed, he was fairly confident that it was something Kaoru wouldn't have wanted him to see.

Keeping that in mind, he backtracked as far as he dared out of the room, then reversed his direction with purposely loud footfalls so Kaoru could detect his presence in the room behind her. "Kaoru-dono, you dropped these." he said as she turned to face him.

"What? Oh, thanks, Kenshin." She came up and scooped the clothing out of his arms, not noticing the pinkish tint his cheeks took at the physical contact and nearness. There was some rummaging on Kaoru's part to cram the rest of the clothes into the washer, and then she closed the lid and fiddled with the dials. The washing machine turned on and picked up the cycle, vibrating slightly with an occupied hum.

Kenshin found Kaoru facing him with a brilliant smile that almost had him gawking where he stood. "Lunchtime, Kenshin? Kenshin…?" He blinked, giving Kaoru a reassuring smile, as she was frowning at him in worry because he hadn't answered right away.

"Yes. It's waiting on the counter for us, that it is." He moved aside for her to leave the room—ladies first—keeping the smile on his face, but leaving it devoid of any real emotion. Kaoru frowned at him as she passed, but didn't say anything. She had definitely noticed his odd behavior, but he was simply relieved she didn't call him on it.

They collected the soup from the counter, relieved that it hadn't cooled yet, and set their separate bowls down at the table. Kenshin moved to pull Kaoru's seat out for her, but just as she was about to sit down, she blinked and straightened up.

"Oroo… Kaoru-dono, what—"

"I forgot something in the laundry room. You can start eating without me, Kenshin," Kaoru waved a hand at him and disappeared back into the laundry room. There was the opening sound of a door, closely followed by a slam, and Kaoru reappeared, gracing Kenshin with a smile as she hurried down the hall to her room. He thought he saw a flash of pink clutched in the hand farthest from him, but swiftly returned his gaze to his soup as he felt his cheeks heat up slightly at the memory.

Meanwhile, Kaoru had reached her room, and flung the small clothing article inside unceremoniously. Slipping a hand around the doorknob, she shut the door with a click. When she showed up again at the table, she found that Kenshin hadn't even tried the soup yet. It didn't even look like he'd moved the spoon. In fact, he seemed rather out of it, staring at a point in space. Her suspicions were confirmed when she pulled her chair from the table and he jolted, traces of shock floating through his violet eyes, as he'd only just realized she was there because of the noise moving the chair had brought.

Kenshin also felt himself starting guiltily, knowing that he hadn't even really looked at his soup since Kaoru had left, and knowing that she knew that he knew she knew. Why was he so preoccupied? Kaoru couldn't figure it out. He'd been talking so animatedly about painting earlier, and all those embarrassed looks he'd been making since he'd first showed up on her doorstep couldn't possibly be coming from someone who was preoccupied. Speaking of paintings… That was one way to start up conversation, she supposed.

"By the way, what exactly have you been painting, Kenshin?"

Kenshin's head perked up from where he had been morosely staring into his soup bowl. "Oro... Actually, it's really only a simple cityscape, that it is, but I'm trying a new painting style with it. It involves making the subject itself vividly bright while the background contrasts sharply by being impossibly dark. It was first used by… Oro, well, I actually can't remember." He gave her a sheepish smile.

Kaoru frowned at his words. "But didn't you start out as a painter?"

She nearly missed it, for it was gone from his eyes before she'd even fully registered its presence, but for a second there was a flash of something. It was... golden? A spark, and then it had vanished. Kenshin still seemed perfectly normal though, if having irises that changed color spontaneously could be considered normal.

"No, I didn't start out as a painter, that I did not." It was that I'm-perfectly-normal-and-innocent-hides-all-emotions-and-thoughts smile again. Kaoru contemplated the use of saran wrap as a potential weapon.

She wanted to ask about his old job, really she did, but it was like his blank smile was now a red-hot flashing warning sign, blaring in her face that if she wanted the conversation to continue in any form at all, she'd be best not to ask. So, she did the only thing she could think of: she changed the subject. "Are you doing anything later today, Kenshin? You know, for Halloween?"

"I was thinking I could go with you to your bakery, Kaoru-dono, that I was. You are going, aren't you?" He was appreciative, to say the least, that Kaoru had managed to recover conversation. Not knowing what she felt about him period, it didn't say much about their relationship that he'd never explained his past to her before. It was like he felt he couldn't reach her sometimes. There was so much she didn't know about him that he was afraid to share. Spending time with her like this was really all he could bring himself to ask for.

"Yes. That's why I'm supposed to be staying home today, so I can go later on after I feel better. I wish I'd been able to help bake up the cookies we're going to be handing out to the trick-or-treaters, but I know Tae will do a good job supervising to make sure they're baked correctly." Kaoru smiled, spooning herself some soup. "And," here she grinned, "you know that girl Yahiko likes, Tsubame? Yahiko heard that she'd be helping out at the bakery today and gave me this speech on how he wanted to help me out and trick-or-treating was for little kids even though I know he was planning to go out with Yutaro." Her spoon scrabbled along the bottom of her bowl in a circular rotation. "Yahiko-chan is finally growing up."

Kenshin, captivated by her moving lips while she talked as if to herself and swirled her soup, managed to smile in response to her looking in his direction. Though she really loved her little brother, he had no doubt that the next time the two got into an argument, Kaoru would be using that particular bit of info to blackmail dear Yahiko-chan.

"Tsubame? Isn't she Tae's niece?" Kenshin was contributing to the conversation. Kaoru felt herself cheered immensely that he wasn't just staring into space, though it did appear...

Kaoru giggled. "Kenshin, I feel sorry for your poor wardrobe." He blinked at her in that adorably clueless way that Kaoru had never been able to pin down as being either truly genuine or just another of his emotion-hiding acts, and noticed that he'd managed to splatter his undershirt with soup when he'd been absent mindedly spinning his spoon around just a tad too forcefully.

Shaking her head, Kaoru pushed herself out of her chair. "Here, give it to me. I'll just throw it in with the rest of the laundry." Kenshin's cheeks were tinted a slight pink as he briefly glanced at Kaoru, but saw that she hadn't quite caught onto the fact that if he took his undershirt off, he'd be wearing only his pants. Taking the collared shirt off hadn't been a problem, but he wasn't quite sure how he felt about standing bare-chested in Kaoru's kitchen. He knew, however, that to bring that fact up would make the whole situation even more embarrassing than it already was, so he turned his eyes away from Kaoru and pulled his arms out of the sleeves, angling the shirt over his head.

Kenshin's shirt was halfway over his head and covering his face when Kaoru registered the fact that he wasn't wearing anything under it, meaning he was basically stripping in front of her in her kitchen. 'Stripping' rang a few alarm bells in her mind, but for the life of her, she couldn't figure out why Kenshin without a shirt in her kitchen was a bad idea. Or, for that matter, why there could be anything wrong with being able to see his slight but muscular chest, delicately shaded golden-brown skin, shirt-tousled red hair, or bright unusually-tinted eyes brought out by his flushed cheeks watching her with an alertness akin to Misao laying off her self-imposed coffee ban. In fact, if her mind hadn't backtracked to Kenshin's eyes on her face, she probably would have zoomed in for a closer study.

Watching her reaction, he wordlessly handed over his shirt. As a nice consolation prize, he got to see her face light up in a flash of pink that could rival his own flush. She reached out to take it, hand lightly brushing his.

"Ah..." There was a slight, unmistakable sound partly between a soft exclamation of surprise and a sigh. Kenshin's eyes, riveted on their two hands and the contact they had just shared, jumped up to her face and followed the direction of her gaze to his chest.

Without thinking, Kaoru extended her hand and rubbed her thumb against a spot of blue paint at the base of Kenshin's neck near his collarbone. "How did you get paint there...?" she spoke softly, unconsciously leaning forward to examine it further.

Kenshin could feel her breath ghosting against his chest and neck, and his pulse spend up erratically with Kaoru's proximity. She'd never been this close to him ever in the history of their friendship, and in his currently topless state, he wasn't extremely sure it was a good thing. Her hand, however, was still rubbing against his neck in slow semi-circles she had yet to realize were more caressing than practical, and he could feel himself relaxing against her touch, everything about it urging him to respond in kind.

Then Kaoru was withdrawing with a small sound of triumph, her thumb colored a smudged shade of slate blue. She smiled, giving Kenshin's neck the once-over to make sure she hadn't missed anything before looking up to meet his eyes. For a moment, all they could do was stare at each other, a silent exchange of emotions radiating from each other's eyes. There was a loud honk from outside on the streets, and the thin connection holding their eyes together snapped, and they both jumped back slightly, suddenly aware of their situation.

Kaoru's blush returned and she stared first at her thumb, then at Kenshin's face, turned ever-so-slightly so his bangs hid his eyes, and then at the shirt she still held in her other hand, completely forgotten. She made an embarrassed smile in Kenshin's direction, wasn't sure if he'd seen it, but spun on her heel anyways, heading towards the laundry room. Once there, she managed to cram the shirt inside the laundry machine and paused, her palms flat on the top of the washer as the encounter she'd just had with Kenshin replayed itself in her mind. The more she thought about it, the more she was determined she didn't want to think about it, and the more it just made it worse by not leaving her alone. She wondered how Kenshin would feel about the whole thing, but decided it might just be best to act natural and pretend it hadn't happened.

Acting "natural" somehow turned into acting "awkward," Kaoru found, as she gave Kenshin one of her extra large t-shirts that she'd fished out from somewhere and tried not to watch him too much or think about the way her t-shirt would probably be returned smelling faintly of Kenshin...

After the brief transfer of words over the shirt—primarily Kaoru's faint "Here" while she tried not to stare too much and Kenshin's unrevealing smile as he thanked her politely—conversation had crawled away, withered, and quietly curled up, dying in a dark corner somewhere, taking with it any hope Kaoru had of making their lunch seem even remotely normal after everything that had just transpired. Not to mention she'd run out of soup to sip dejectedly, her bowl now empty from all the dejectedly sheepish sipping she'd already managed to achieve. She couldn't honestly say she'd have been able to concentrate on soup if she'd had any, though. Her eyes kept darting to her thumb before she could manage to tear them away or tell herself deliberately not to.

And before she could even stop herself, she was asking the first thing that came to her mind. "Uh, Kenshin, the cityscape you're painting..." But, of course, that was as far as she got.

Kenshin's head had bobbed once at the sound of her voice, but she still couldn't see his eyes, and after that one brief glance it took to confirm it, she was staring at her thumb again and trying to figure out why she'd gone and tried to ask a question before she'd figured out how to finish it.

What surprised her the most, though, was the fact that he took the initiative and answered the question she'd never finished asking in the first place.

"The painting I'm working on is for Misao-dono's birthday, that it is."

Kaoru lifted her head in amazement, and was astonished to find that Kenshin met her eyes. He didn't appear to be trying to hide from her, but she was sure that he was probably just packing his emotions up and hiding them somewhere behind his irises. Still, she supposed she should just be happy with what she could get.

"If you don't mind my asking, Kaoru-dono, what exactly are you getting Misao-dono for her birthday?"

Kaoru smiled—it was much easier to continue conversation and dispel any tension if both parties were willing to become verbally involved.

"I'm getting her—" she paused, "uh..." and stopped cold. That wasn't exactly something she wanted to tell Kenshin about. She sent him a shaky laugh and a nervous smile, to which he responded by smiling encouragingly, if a little curious at her behavior.

It was about time to change the subject, something Kaoru was extremely skilled at, as her proficiency in lying, on a scale from one to ten, was somewhere around negative googol with a few broken record players thrown in to represent her stuttering.

"Well," she smiled cheerily, just to banish any thoughts he might have that she was attempting to cover something up, "for her cake, I'm using three layers of chocolate, one white with raspberry cream between the layer of white and the layers of chocolate, chocolate whipped cream frosting, chocolate raspberry liquor drizzled over the whole thing, little raspberries around the sides, and raspberry frosting to write her name on the cake," she enthused, finally within a subject where she could blather mindlessly and not have to worry about anything making sense.

Kenshin smiled genuinely, pleased to see her happy. "That sounds very delicious, that it does."

"And fattening," Kaoru agreed. "Sano and I thought that we should be able to indulge weasel-girl at least once a year, especially since she limits herself on coffee now. It's just not the same seeing Misao sober and not hyped up on some type of caffeinated beverage."

Interested, Kenshin said, "Misao-dono limits herself on coffee? Why?"

Giggling somewhat at him, Kaoru responded, "It's because she's afraid that drinking too much coffee will somehow make her shrink. She's worried about Aoshi already with her current height, and she doesn't want to lose what little she's still got."

"I wasn't aware that Aoshi and Misao-dono were together, that I was not," Kenshin murmured, puzzled.

"They're not, but they should be," she confirmed resolutely.

Contemplating the thought for a second, Kenshin nodded. "Yes, you're probably right."

At that, Kaoru frowned and faced him. "No offense, Kenshin, but I hadn't thought you'd noticed."

"Oroo..." he laughed with embarrassment, faltering partially. "I know that Misao-dono has feelings for him, that I do."

"Then do you know about Aoshi's feelings?" Kaoru assaulted him excitedly, eager for info she could pass on to Misao.

Kenshin thought maybe it would be best not to give Kaoru the full truth, as Aoshi wouldn't be too appreciative if he did.

"I know that he cares about her, that I do," he told her cautiously.

Unsatisfied, Kaoru examined him, trying to see if he was telling her the truth and huffed when she couldn't get anything out of his expression. "Mou! But that's not good enough! Are you sure you don't know anything about how Aoshi feels, Kenshin? Misao shouldn't have to run circles around that ice block all the time if it can be avoided."

"You'd be better off asking Aoshi himself, Kaoru-dono," Kenshin said, hoping she'd let it slide and not besiege him too much about it.

"As if he'd tell me anything," Kaoru exhaled with annoyance. "I really don't understand what Misao sees in him, but after two years of work, if she can't get it out of him, I doubt anyone can."

"She's persistent, that she is," Kenshin chuckled, knowing quite well from all the times Misao had tried to barrage information out of him, and if that hadn't worked, attempted to shake it out of him by force. Most of that information, in fact, had been about Kaoru, but he wasn't about to bring that up now.

"I have to take Yahiko out this weekend to get her something," Kaoru spoke, "Plus, I need to make sure he doesn't get her anything too outrageous." Kenshin laughed lightly at her words, and Kaoru sighed, a bit miffed that she had to baby-sit her best friend and her younger brother into being civil with each other.

"Have you talked to Sano lately?"

"I haven't heard from him in a while past the time he dragged me out drinking and collapsed, that I haven't," Kenshin answered, memories of a certain rooster-headed man leaning heavily on his shoulder while announcing horrible poetry centered around a certain lady doctor at the top of his lungs.

Frowning, Kaoru felt a little nagging memory of something important that she should be telling Kenshin circulate around her head with the pronouncement of Sano's name. But, as he was currently talking, she chose to ignore the little prick of memory and shoo it away in order to listen to the redhead.

"Last I heard, he was still trying to find something 'decent' for Megumi-dono's birthday."

Kaoru laughed right along with him, then halted as something occurred to her. "What exactly do you mean by 'decent,' Kenshin?"

Then it was Kenshin's turn to look embarrassed. "Those are his words, not mine, that they are. And I don't think he meant for it to be taken in that way, though with Sano you can never tell." Both lapsed into silence after that, musing on the possible repercussions of Sano trying to give something less than "decent" to Megumi for her birthday. They exchanged nervous looks and silently consented to moving on.

Various conversations in small talk ranging from observations on the Halloween weather (drizzly), the recent amount of sales at Kaoru's bakery (better than expected), and the current status of art in the modern world (mostly Kenshin talking for this one) continued for a little while after that until Kaoru happened to stretch during a lull in conversation and caught a glimpse of the kitchen clock. Covering her yawn with one hand, she gestured towards the clock situated behind Kenshin.

"It's already two! Did you intend to stay this late, Kenshin?"

"I was enjoying the company and didn't notice the time, that I didn't," he replied amiably.

Kaoru shot him a grateful smile, but got up from her chair all the same.

"Still, if you want to go home and get to work, you can go now. I'm going to be here all afternoon, and I'll be taking a nap later, so it's no problem to clean up." She expected him to get up just as quickly and, just as politely, refute her statement. Frankly, she wasn't disappointed.

"I couldn't do that to you, Kaoru-dono, that I could not."

Kaoru suppressed a sigh. A rather happy, tired sigh, but a sigh nonetheless. "Really, it's not that much trouble. I don't want to keep you from your painting."

"I insist, that I do. I'll help you clean up, Kaoru-dono."

By that time they had both carried their bowls, spoons, and glasses into the kitchen to deposit into the sink. Kaoru had a lead on Kenshin, but he was catching up to her, and with their leftover napkins clutched in one fist as well. Kaoru, beating him to the sink and placing her bowl inside it, turned around, intending to take Kenshin's dishes from him and encourage him to go by washing them before he could. However, instead of being just in time to snag Kenshin's dishes off of him before he could catch on, she was just in time to collide head-on with Kenshin as he walked up to her, resulting in a painful collision for the two of them. In retrospect, Kaoru was amazed he kept his grip on his dishes; she knew she would have surely dropped them.

Letting off her pain in a hiss of breath, Kaoru clutched at her forehead and waited for it to stop throbbing. She dimly registered the sounds of cutlery and dishes being put down hastily before Kenshin's voice was cutting into her pointed concentration on her aching head and his hands were trying to gently pry hers away from her forehead.

"Oro! Kaoru-dono, are you alright?

She mumbled something incomprehensibly and let him move her hands from her head, but swatted them away when he attempted to touch her forehead. For a moment, his hands held hers, but then he let go. Kaoru opened her eyes, her curiosity getting the better of her, and saw Kenshin holding an Advil and a glass of water to her face.

"Here," he offered, Kaoru dutifully opening her mouth and registering somewhere in the back of her brain that he wasn't handing the pill to her—he was putting it directly into her mouth. But, before she acknowledged the need to blush, he'd already popped it into her mouth and was holding the glass of water to her lips so she could drink. She took a gulp and blinked at Kenshin, suddenly wondering how he'd managed to get an Advil from the medicine cabinet in her bedroom, retrieve a glass, fill it with water, and make it back to her in such a short amount of time. She opened her mouth to ask, but Kenshin conveniently took the opportunity to ask her how she was feeling and she forgot what she was going to inquire about in the first place.

"I'm so sorry, Kaoru-dono. Are you alright?"

"I'm fine, Kenshin." She wasn't even lying, really. The pain had gone away a short time ago. In fact, she wasn't even certain the Advil was necessary, but she still appreciated the thought. Besides, it wasn't as if she'd managed to hurt her head on her own, Kenshin just didn't seem to have given any thought to himself in his haste to check on her.

"But what about you, Kenshin? I hit you in the head. Are you sure you're alright?"

"I'm fine, Kaoru-dono, that I am. Please don't worry about me." Kenshin evaded her concern as usual. He was so predictable sometimes, she almost wondered if there was some way she could back him into a corner of her choosing if she simply planned far enough ahead.

"Your forehead's slightly red, though. It doesn't hurt?" She just couldn't give up that easily, though.

She moved closer to get a better look at his head, but found herself instead staring at him in bewilderment. How in the world had he managed to get between her and the sink to start washing the dishes without her realizing it? It was so annoying! How did he always beat her at things like this?

"It stopped hurting a little while ago, that it did. I'm fine, Kaoru-dono," he rectified.

Kaoru let it go—she'd win next time, for sure—and glanced around the kitchen for something, anything, that needed to be done. Finding nothing, she turned back to face Kenshin.

"I was going to do the dishes," she stated, in the rather soupy hopes that he'd give up and let her wash them.

He gave her a pleasant smile. "I've got it. In fact, look, I'm already done, that I am." He held out a shiny, dry dish, causing Kaoru again to wonder, with no small amount of vexation, what sort of supernatural abilities he possessed to be able to accomplish tasks directly beneath her nose without her seeing them.

At least that gave her an opening to move in and collect dishes to put away. Or, it would have, if he hadn't coincidentally managed to take with him all of the dishes worth putting away, leaving her with only the spoons, of which there were two. Mentally grumbling darkly at being coddled, Kaoru picked up the spoons and found, much to her continued irritation, that Kenshin had pulled open the silverware drawer for her. She slid the spoons into their slots, wondering exactly how much damage she could do if she dropped the spoons now and made for the butter knives.

The soup pot stood alone and forgotten on the stovetop. Kenshin picked it up and stored it away in her refrigerator before Kaoru's legs had even registered the message to turn her body. Foiled again.

With nothing left to clean or store, there was really no reason for Kenshin to stay. And even though Kaoru had said he could leave, half of her had been hoping he would stay anyway, just so they could talk and she could be around him for a little while longer. Now she'd have to say goodbye and wait for later as her next chance to see him again.

"Well, I guess I'll see you later, Kenshin," Kaoru smiled, though her heart wasn't in it.

Kenshin began walking out of the kitchen slowly, almost as if he regretted having to leave. "Nothing special to wear for Halloween, Kaoru-dono?"

At his question, Kaoru laughed. "What, so I can be teased by Yahiko again?"

"Ooroo... Misao-dono told you that costume was a bad idea, that she did."

Kaoru frowned at his disloyalty. "I'm not going as anything," she clarified.

"I see," he said faintly, chagrined.

The awkward silence that cascaded on them this time took them all the way to Kaoru's door.

Somberly, Kaoru pulled open the door for him. He brushed past her, the t-shirt she'd loaned him sweeping across her shoulder for a second before he was standing out in the hallway.

"Thank you for inviting me in for lunch, Kaoru-dono," he smiled. "Next time I'll invite you over, that I will."

"You're welcome." Kaoru tried to maintain his level of cheerfulness. "I'll bring something over for you if you do." She shuffled her feet, unsure of what to say.

"Um, about your clothes..."

"I'll take them when I see you later."

Kaoru frowned. Any excuse to see him was a good excuse, right?

"I can bring them to you when they're done. After all, you live right down the hallway."

"Don't trouble yourself, Kaoru-dono. Didn't you say you were going to take a nap?"

Darn. He had her there.

"It's not that big of a deal," she tried to reassure him. "I was going to read anyway, so I can listen for the washing machine while I read my book."

Kenshin, for once, was without anything to say to politely refuse Kaoru's attempts to expend any effort on his behalf. Score one for Kaoru. She kept talking so he couldn't jump back in if he happened to think of any way to decline her offer.

"It shouldn't take more than another hour. I'll bring them to you when the dryer's done, that way they'll still be slightly warm," Kaoru finished victoriously.

"I won't go anywhere until you do, that I won't," he joked.

Kaoru smiled at him, glad that she'd won.

"I'll see you later, Kenshin." Despite her best efforts, her statement still sounded distinctly like a question.

"Get well soon, Kaoru-dono," he smiled back.

Recognizing the formal end to their lunch together, Kaoru began closing the door, but halfway through, Kenshin's voice stopped her.

"Oh, and Kaoru-dono?"

She tilted her head enquiringly, willing him to go on.

"You might want to clean the soup out of your microwave before it cakes into that bowl any more than it already has."

And before Kaoru's mind could process that he had somehow found out or guessed as to the soup still sitting in her microwave and make up a decent response or blush, he was gone.

Kaoru blinked, shook her head, and closed the door. Only then did she realize that she hadn't told Kenshin Sano's news, and after she'd specifically promised to do so. She sighed and rested her forehead against a wall. She'd just have to tell him later.

She'd also have to take care of that soup.

Then, as if someone up there was laughing at her, the washing machine beeped.





A/N: If you skipped the first A/N, go back and read it now, as it concerns the future updating schedule of this fic.

K&K do play a role in this fic. I'm not just throwing them in for the sake of it, just in case anyone was wondering. The most you're ever going to get out of them, though, is WAFF and fluff, unless I up and decide to change my mind and start writing smut. This is an AxM centered fic, so if you're a KxK fan and looking for anything more than WAFFy fluff, I have to tell you now that you'll be disappointed.

Oh, and I think Re-Ane is going to be, er, snarky in her E/N. You can skip it if you want... (nervous look)

E/N: Alright, people, 'readers' if I can even call you that… I want each and every friggen' one of you to review right now. I don't give a darn if you're logged in or not. I don't even care how many words it is, or if you want to be anonymous, (though I expect some in-depth logged-in reviewing too), and I expect 10 reviews and I think that there SHOULD be at least 25. You have no idea how much Ri works her perfectionist little self to crank out these uber-long chapters, and you all repay her by sending her into tangents of low self-esteem by not leaving a single word to even back up the TONS of hits in her stats. This may sound a bit harsh, but the bottom line is that if you guys don't even let her know that you're reading and enjoying this fic, you won't get another chapter and I doubt she'll even bother bringing you guys another story. I mean, honestly, why would she bother? You guys aren't giving anything back, and that's sad. To further encourage reviewing, if you leave a review I myself will go and review a story of yours, the most-recently-updated one. So DON'T YOU DARE CLICK AWAY FROM THIS PAGE OR I SHALL SPORK YOU UNTIL YOU ARE AN UNRECOGNIZABLE BLOB OF MEAT KTHXBI. D: