Kaoru watched Yahiko practice with Kenshin, noting that Yahiko has not managed to push Kenshin to move from his position despi

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Kaoru watched Yahiko practice with Kenshin, noting that Yahiko has not managed to push Kenshin to move from his position despite an hour of attacking. Kenshin, without moving 1 step from his position, had managed to block each and every attack from with a graceful ease which marked him as an expert on swordsmanship.

Finally, when frustration gets the better of his rationale, Yahiko went into a wild flurry of attacks which Kenshin nevertheless managed to block with the same graceful ease, still not moving from his position. When stamina and strength has run out, Yahiko sank to the floor panting.

Taking that to signal the end of their daily practice, Kenshin slid his sword back to his hakama and patted Yahiko encouragingly before turning towards Kaoru with a smile.

"He's getting better," observed Kaoru as Kenshin sat down beside her.

"Aa," Kenshin smiled.

"But still not enough to even make you move a step though, some kind of Tokyo Samurai" Kaoru added teasingly, noting that Yahiko had swelled with pride upon hearing the exchange.

Yahiko scowled resentfully, and then muttered, "At least I tried, better than some busu who just sits in the shade and watches."

"I heard that!" yelled Kaoru, and only Kenshin's restraining arm prevented Death from visiting Yahiko.

"Well it's true! Why don't you try practicing against Kenshin? I bet you can't even do half as well as I did!" Yahiko shot back defensively.

"Yahiko," groaned Kenshin who was finding it increasingly difficult to restrain Kaoru from causing permanent bodily harm to Yahiko.

"What? I'm speaking the truth! Besides, she hasn't finished her own training yet has she? And she never will if all she does is sit and watches others practice!"

A long silence followed his statement, and Yahiko, realizing that he has perhaps gone too far but still refusing the back down, stared mutinously at Kaoru, who has by now stopped struggling against Kenshin.

Without speaking another word, Kaoru strode back to her own room and slammed the shoji shut.

Kenshin winced at the slam, sighed, then turn to stare at Yahiko sternly, who squirmed under his unrelenting stare.

"Oh alright! I'll go and apologize to her, happy?" Yahiko said.

Kenshin just smiled his innocent 'I-didn't say anything' rurouni smile and went to prepare lunch.

Yahiko sighed in resignation before going to Kaoru's room.

Sliding the shoji open, Yahiko saw Kaoru sitting on her futon staring blankly into space.

Yahiko winced, looks like I dealt a more fatal blow than I realized.

Kneeling before Kaoru, Yahiko proclaimed, "Oh Shihondai-sama, please accept the humble apologies from this unworthy disciple of yours. I swear I'll think before opening my mouth again."

Startled out of her reverie, Kaoru was touched by Yahiko's gesture. The normally uncivilized juvenile-ruffian is trying his hardest to act as a humble student. Reaching out to ruffle his hair, Kaoru assured him.

"Don't worry Yahiko, I'm not hurt by what you said. It's just that… I've been thinking the same thing for a while now. I have not finished my training, but I need to earn a livelihood too. I don't have the time to concentrate on my own training, but I'll never complete my training at this rate! And Kenshin just refuses to practice with me!"

"That's strange," frowned Yahiko. "After all, he's practicing with me, and much as I hate to admit it, it's not all that tiring to practice with me. I don't see why he can't practice with you after training me."

"My thoughts exactly! I've argued the same point to him time and again, but he always makes lame excuses like he has to prepare lunch, wash the laundry or whatever stupid reasons he can think of! How dumb does he think I am? Why can't he just tell me doesn't want to train me? And why is he so reluctant to train me?" Kaoru burst out in an injured tone.

"Aw, cool it Kaoru. Maybe he's afraid he'll hurt you accidentally?" Yahiko sweatdropped at the sight of Kaoru transforming into a flaming gigantic raccoon.

"You know and I know that Kenshin's mastery of his sword is better than anyone in the country, and I honestly do NOT think I have the skill to force him to fight beyond his mastery of his sword." Kaoru state flatly.

"Point taken," conceded Yahiko, "Then why?"

"My question exactly. Honestly, I'll never figure out what's he thinking of beneath that red mop of his," pouted Kaoru.

"If that's what's bothering you, then why don't we just solve the problem?" Yahiko suddenly grinned, relieved beyond words now that he's certain he's not the cause of Kaoru's withdrawal.

"How? I've thought of every single argument but he just waves it aside with a lame excuse, and I just don't feel good forcing him to practice with me when he's so obviously reluctant" Kaoru practically wailed.

"Leave it to me," Yahiko smirked. "I'll have a talk with Sano and I'll guarantee that we'll find a way to make Kenshin train you."

"But do not force him to anything against his will, I have no wish to see him unhappy," warned Kaoru.

"Don't worry busu. I don't like to see him moping either. Trust me," winked Yahiko, leaving the room in search of Sano.

"Why do I feel worse after that sentence?" fretted Kaoru.

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"….and so now I'm trying to think of a way to make Kenshin change his mind," concluded Yahiko.

Sano, chewing on his omnipresent fishbone, frowned. "You need to know his reason before you can come up with a plan to change his mind."

Yahiko stared at him, jaws dropping to the ground. When he manages to close them again, there's an indent at the ground shaped by Yahiko's jaws.

"Is that intelligence coming out from your mouth? I can't believe I heard that!" Yahiko finally managed to say.

Sano scowled, "Do you or do you not want my help?"

"Of course I do, and let's face it: Kaoru's the only one bringing in money by teaching at other dojos. And the reason she has to take on so many jobs is because there's so many of us to feed and there's only her working. She's giving up her training because of us, and you know how important the dojo is to her. It's her goal to pass on her father's teaching but she'll never be able to do that if she doesn't complete her training. Shouldn't we do something to help her? After all, it's only changing Kenshin's mind, we won't be the one doing the actual work. Just the scheming." Yahiko persuaded Sano.

Sano snorted, but had to agree that Yahiko has a point. After all, Jou-chan IS sacrificing her dream for them, and as long as he won't be the one doing the actual work….

"Well, what are we waiting for? Step 1 is to find out the cause of Kenshin's reluctance. And it's faster and better to just ask him" Sano stood up and made his way to the kitchen, with Yahiko cheering him on.

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"You know, I'd never thought I'd be more concerned about Jou-chan than you, but the truth is the truth," drawled Sano, leaning against the wall watching Kenshin prepare lunch.

"Oro?" surprised, Kenshin stopped his preparation of lunch to turn and look at Sano in confusion.

"Don't f***king 'oro' me. I heard about what happened this morning. And it's not Yahiko's comment that has her upset, it's the fact that he's right that's got her upset. And you know it." Sano growled.

"It's not true that Kaoru-dono is just sitting and watching! And besides, sessha is sure that Kaoru-dono will complete her training soon" protested Kenshin, turning his attention back to lunch.

"When?" demanded Sano. "And how? How can she complete her training when she spends most of her time teaching at other dojos to feed us?" demanded Sano.

Kenshin winced. He has always felt bad that Kaoru has to work so hard to support them, never mind that she's always so cheerful and doesn't seem to mind it. But he kept silent.

Sensing his advantage, Sano decided to make his point. "You know, with Japan's strongest swordsman staying with her, one would think that it shouldn't be a problem for her to complete her training. After all, you're training Yahiko, why not train her as well?"

"It's not the same," Kenshin murmured.

"Oh? In what way is it different? After all, Kaoru is Yahiko's sensei, and if you can train Yahiko, why not train Kaoru as well?" Sano asked.

Kenshin remained stubbornly silent.

Sano sighed, "Give it up. I won't stop unless I get my answer."

Kenshin sighed in resignation, realizing that Sano meant it. And although he is more stubborn than Sano and there's nothing Sano can do to force him against his will, he knows that it's easier to tell him the truth. At least this way, he's certain that the truth would find its way to Kaoru, having deduced what brought this sudden concern on.

"Because then I'd have to draw my sword against her. Yahiko is one thing, he's just a 10 year old boy who has been learning the way of the sword for less than a year. Kaoru has been practicing all her life, and she's much more skilled than Yahiko. While certainly no threat to me, there's no way I can fend off her attacks without drawing my sword. And I have learnt it the hard way that there is no such thing as absolute control over a sword."

Realizing that Kenshin is referring to Tomoe, Sano fell silent. Holy shit, if I killed a woman I loved with my sword, I guess I'd be as reluctant as him, if not more, to draw a sword against another woman I love. Suddenly sympathetic, Sano laid a hand on Kenshin's arm.

Understanding Sano's silent apology, Kenshin smiled in gratitude and started preparing lunch again, certain now that the subject will be forever closed between them.

Outside however, Yahiko gritted his teeth in frustration. "What a traitor" he thought spitefully, glaring at Sano. While he can sympathize with Kenshin, he's more concerned about Kaoru. After all, what's in the past is past and there's nothing anyone can do about it. But that does not mean they should give up the present and the future. And certainly not Kaoru's future. Resolved, he set forth to do battle.

"Don't sigh a breath of relief yet Kenshin. Sano may have been bought off, but not me. And I'm not as traitorous as Roosterhead." Yahiko declared, joining them in the kitchen.

Kenshin smiled, "I wondered when you'll make your move. Yahiko, while I appreciate your concern for your sensei, please understand that I have my own reasons for not practicing with her."

"I know! I heard you the first time round!"

And when Kenshin raised his eyebrow, Yahiko stammered an explanation, "I…uh, heard them on my way here…"

Kenshin chuckled, "It's alright Yahiko. I knew you were listening, I could sense your ki behind the wall. But Yahiko, then you should know why I can't practice with Kaoru-dono."

"That's just what I'm here to argue about! I know all about your past and I know you're still feeling guilty about killing Tomoe and all that, heck, you're probably even scared of holding a sword. But you are using a reverse edged sword, it can't and it won't hurt Kaoru. Get that? You. Won't. Hurt. Her." Yahiko argued.

Kenshin opened his mouth to protest, but Yahiko plunged on ahead without giving him the chance.

"Besides, you're really hurting her now by refusing her without giving her a good explanation. And Kenshin, much as I hate to point this out to you, you know that Kaoru has been supporting us all this while without asking us for anything. Now, she's only asking you to practice with her so that she can complete her training and become a real sensei. You know it's her dream is to pass on her father's teachings! Can't you do that small thing for her? Or is your fear greater than Kaoru's dream?"

Kenshin sucked in a startled breath.

Knowing that he had scored, Yahiko went on earnestly, "Kenshin. All of us here are alone before we met Kaoru. It was Kaoru who provided us a home. And you know it. You said she's my sensei, but she's more than that. She's my mother, my sister, my family. And so are you Kenshin. I know this will upset you, but isn't it time for you to overcome your fear? For the person who brought warmth and joy back to our lives? Kenshin?"

After a long silence, Kenshin finally answered, "I….let me think about it. For now, please leave and let me prepare lunch in peace. Both of you," he added pointedly to Sano.

Knowing that this is the most they can get out of him, Sano and Yahiko could only stare at him helplessly before doing as requested.

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All though dinner Kenshin was silent, which is quite normal, except that he didn't even notice it when Sano stole his fish, and was only stopped by Kaoru who whacked him on the head with her shinai.

Concerned, Kaoru turned to look questioningly at Sano and Yahiko, who only shrugged.

Remembering Yahiko's promise to her earlier in the day, Kaoru bit her lips, remorse overwhelming her.

Kaoru no baka! Why couldn't you just leave the matter alone? So what if Kenshin refuses to practice with you? He must have his own reasons, and you can complete your training if you'd just put in a little more effort! Look what you've done now! Kaoru's conscience reprimanded her.

Suddenly losing her appetite, she excused herself and went back to her room, leaving Sano and Yahiko to battle over her leftovers.

Once back in the room, Kaoru pondered over her predicament. She needs to complete her training but Kenshin refuses to practice with her and forcing him against his will is out of the question. Which means she'll have to complete her training on her own. And since she spent most of her days teaching, that leaves her with only the night.

Coming to a decision, Kaoru changed into her gi and hakama. Making sure that no one notices her, she made her way silently out of the house and went to a nearby forest. Once there, Kaoru took a breath, gripped her shinai more tightly, and started her first night of training.

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Kenshin frowned. It's been a week since the discussion with Yahiko and Sano, and he still had not come to a decision. That's not to say that Yahiko has not pestered him, but that he could not quite make up his mind. Logically he accepts Yahiko's arguments, but the thought of drawing his sword on Kaoru just goes against something fundamental in him. He couldn't precisely figure out what, but he does know that every cell in his body protests against him drawing a sword on Kaoru.

Which brings him back to his dilemma. While Sano had left the subject alone, respecting Kenshin's decision in the matter, Yahiko had constantly bugged him about it. Not that he resents it, in fact he's touched by Yahiko's obvious concern for Kaoru. And Kaoru…

Then he suddenly froze. Come to think about it, since that day Kaoru has stopped asking him to practice with her. More than that, she's has been eating less, always leaving before they've finished dinner which is causing a nightly brawl between Sano and Yahiko. And since then Yahiko had been complaining everyday about Kaoru not waking up on time in the morning and always being late for their morning practice. Something is not right. Resolving to find out what's wrong, Kenshin decided to keep as close lookout for Kaoru.

Sure enough, Kaoru left the table without completing her dinner that night. As Sano and Yahiko fought for the food, Kenshin followed Kaoru to her room, hiding behind a pillar. And promptly blushed because it was soon obvious from the movement of her shadow on the paper door that Kaoru was changing her clothes.

Kenshin averted his eyes, blushing furiously. Kaoru-dono would skin him alive is she ever find out that he had spied on her changing her clothes. Not that he had actually seen her, but the shadows were quite a good guide as to how her figure looks like, which he could not help but notice was very alluring. But what else can he expect? After all Kaoru is constantly training, and her young body is at its prime.

Lost in such distracting thoughts, Kenshin almost did not notice Kaoru leaving her room. Alerted only by the soft click as the shoji slid shut, Kenshin immediately re-focused his attention on Kaoru. Following Kaoru out of the gate, Kenshin could only wonder at this strange behavior.

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When Kaoru reached her usual practice place, she could not help but give a yawn. This week had proven to be very taxing, and she's feeling very tired.

Slapping her hands on her cheeks, Kaoru tried to prep herself for another late workout.

"This won't do, if you're giving up only after a week's practice, you'll never be able to complete your training!" Kaoru said aloud, hoping to strengthen her resolve further by hearing the words spoken aloud.

Unknown to her, her words had just enlightened Kenshin completely. Kenshin shut his eyes tightly against the pain he felt. Poor Kaoru, she's practicing here every night by herself in the hopes of completing her training. That explains why she's always oversleeping lately. And all because he refuses to help her complete her training.

"Kaoru has been supporting us all this while without asking us for anything. Now, she's only asking you to practice with her so that she can complete her training and become a real sensei. You know it's her dream is to pass on her father's teachings! Can't you do that small thing for her? Or is your fear greater than Kaoru's dream?"

Yahiko's words taunted Kenshin. Is my fear greater than Kaoru's dream? Is it greater than even… this? He questioned himself, as he watched Kaoru forcing herself to go through her training.

Suddenly, all his dilemma and pondering and internal conflict disappeared. He had found the answer. In fact, the answer is so simple he's amazed that he did not see it sooner. Stepping forward into the clearing, he walked up to where Kaoru was.

"Your swing is a little too fast, which is why you have difficulty making a second attack after that swing," Kenshin pointed out.

Kaoru let out a startled yelp, going into a defensive stance as she turned to face him. Seeing that it was Kenshin, she slumped her shoulders in noticeable relief before straightening again to face Kenshin.

"Kenshin, what are you doing here so late?" Kaoru asked.

"Sessha could have asked you the same, except that it's obvious Kaoru-dono is here to practice," Kenshin answered.

Kaoru bit her lips before answering, 'Well, I have to complete my training sooner or later, sooner rather than later, and since I simply don't have the time in the daytime….."

Kenshin had to squeeze his eyes shut against the pain he felt just from hearing her words.

Coming to a stop before her, Kenshin opened his eyes and for a long moment, simply stared at her.

Kaoru fidgeted, wondering what Kenshin is thinking about and why he's staring so intently at her. And when she opened her mouth to voice her questions, Kenshin answered them before she could even ask.

"Sessha has noticed that Kaoru-dono has been behaving strangely lately, and has followed you tonight. What I saw here has answered my queries, and it has helped me come to a decision. I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but a week ago Yahiko and Sano has asked that I help you complete your training, but I have not agreed. Neither did I refuse, I promised them I'll think about it and that's what I've been doing this entire week, thinking about it."

"I knew it, his strange behavior IS brought on by my willful demands." Resolving to put him at ease, Kaoru spoke up, "Don't worry Kenshin. You don't have to if you don't want to. I can complete my training by myself. See? That's what I've been doing every night for the past week. Training. You don't have to concern yourself with it."

Touched by the fact that Kaoru is more concerned about him than herself even when she has obviously been pushed to the limits, Kenshin's hand went under her chin to bring her head up to face him.

"But I want to. That's what I'm trying to tell you. My only reason before for refusing was… well, I didn't want to have to draw a sword on you, especially since after Tomoe…" Kenshin's voice trailed off in remembered pain, and Kaoru felt a sharp pang of sympathy. Doing likewise, Kaoru raised her hand to lay against his scarred cheek, and to her greatest surprise, Kenshin's other hand captured it and held it captive against his cheek, ignoring her blush.

"Yahiko asked me if my fear is greater than your dream. I could not answer him then. But when I heard you just now, when I saw you pushing yourself beyond your limit… I just knew then what my answer is: For you, Kaoru, I would face hell itself. And if facing my fear can release you from this self-imposed torture of yours, then I'd gladly face it ten times over. In fact, all I have to do is put in more effort and make sure that I DON'T hurt you, it's that simple. Kaoru, please stop this night-training of yours. From tomorrow, we'll practice together after Yahiko has finished his training."

Kaoru sucked in a startled breath, hardly believing her ears. Then remembering his explanation on his refusal, she protested "But…but I don't want you to do anything you don't want to! You don't have to feel obliged, Kenshin. I can understand if you do not wish to practice with me, after Tomoe and everything, so.."

And she stopped. She had to because Kenshin's hand, which was under her chin just a moment ago, had slid upwards and now his finger is pressed lightly against her mouth, stopping her stream of words.

"I want to, please, let me help you. That would bring me the greatest joy imaginable, to be able to help you,' Kenshin whispered, and seeing the sincerity shining from his violet eyes, Kaoru could only nod dreamily in joy.

Seeing her agreement, Kenshin bend his head slowly and his mouth met hers gently, sealing the agreement.

And the couple locked themselves in a lingering kiss under the starry summer night, oblivious to the entire world around them.

Owari.

Author's note: I just had to do another sap. Besides, after that horrible piece I wrote in the office yesterday (i.e. Beauty is Stronger Than The Hitokiri Battousai) I just had to redeem myself. But if you found it too sap or too boring, feel free to send flames. I have a lot of rubbish which could do with a nice good fire. So please R&R.