Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin and all characters therein belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki.
A/N: First things first, I would like to thank everyone who's taken the time to review my stories. It's a lot of fun hearing what you think about them, and I really appreciate it. As for this piece, it's back in the "college" type universe Ravyn likes to poke at me about. Although it's a different setting than "Falling Down."
"He's really not as complicated as you think, Jou-chan."
Kaoru paused with the plate in her hand halfway to the drying rack. Sighing in exasperation, she frowned back over her shoulder at the man currently filling up the doorway out of the kitchen. After watching him stand there for a moment, she let one brow kick up in skeptical challenge, not entirely surprised when his only reaction was to nod to further emphasize his claim. Shaking her head at his tenacity, she calmly resumed her chore and set about finishing off the rest of the dirty dishes.
Annoyed at being ignored, Sano pushed away from the wall and planted himself between her and the dish rack. Arms folded and brow set into a stern line, he leaned his hip on the counter and waited for her to look up at him. "You don't believe me."
Kaoru didn't bother to deny that accusation as she dunked the next plate in the soapy water. "No offense, Sano, but so far you've met Kenshin all of once. And with as much as you'd had to drink by the time he showed up, I'm amazed you remember it at all."
Sano snorted, lifting his chest in a silent hint for her to have more faith in his ability to hold enough liquor to kill a family of over-sized alley cats. However, the instant she held up the dish in her hand, his hands automatically went for the faucet's nozzle hose, and he fell into the familiar evening rhythm without protest. With as often as he'd stood at Kaoru's side, waiting for her to put her thoughts in order while they handled menial housework, he was certain it was only a matter of time.
It wasn't until he set the last plate to dry and watched her move on to the cups that he realized she really did intend to ignore him and stay quiet.
"Guys have a sense about these things you know," Sano insisted suggestively.
"Your ray of sunshine girlfriend says the same thing about women," Kaoru drawled out, obviously not overly impressed by either claim.
Sano's lips quirked up in amusement, and he couldn't resist teasing, "So between the two, you should have it pretty much covered, huh?" The look she shot him had him clearing his throat and hurrying to backpedal before her hands found something shaped enough like a weapon to do him serious damage. "Really, Jou-chan! When have I ever steered you wrong by accident?"
"If you think about what you just said, I'm sure you'll understand why I have a hard time believing anything you say when it comes to guys." Kaoru half-heartedly tapped his stomach with her elbow. "Don't think either of us is going to let you live that down in this lifetime."
"Hey, I was right that you and Kamatari would get along great, wasn't I?" Sano defended, letting his voice take on the faint whine he reserved for trying to wheedle back into Kaoru's good graces.
Kaoru turned to face him, resting a soapy hand on her hip while she pinned him with a flat glare. "You knew he was only looking for a cover girlfriend to shut people up until graduation."
"We agreed there weren't any guys around that would work for you," Sano reminded her.
Kaoru rolled her eyes and went back to the dishes.
Sano was quiet a moment before nudging her, keeping his face forward, but still watching her intently out of the corner of his eye. "Oi. You two didn't really sleep together, right?"
Her annoyance vanished at the hesitant question, and she flashed him the same deliberately secretive smile she always gave when anyone felt the need to bring it up. "What Kamatari and I did or didn't do in our private relationship isn't any of your business."
The muscle in his jaw twitched at the evasive response.
"You could always ask Kamatari if it really bothers you," Kaoru continued flippantly.
"You know damn well he says the exact same thing you do," Sano growled out irritably before he caught himself. Inhaling deeply, he forced his jaw and his shoulders to relax and silently reminded himself that now was not a good time to go wading through old, unresolved frustrations.
"We get along great, you know."
"I'm holding something that sprays water," he warned her with a tight frown.
Kaoru snickered, but obligingly dropped it in favor of what Sano would consider a safer topic. "I didn't have anything do with this thing with Kenshin. Misao's made some sort of bet with Megumi because she thinks he'd be perfect for Kamatari. Megumi thinks she's lost what's left of her mind and he's usually alone because he has a girlfriend waiting back home."
Sano blinked in surprise at what he knew was the highly abridged explanation, gratefully jumping on the chance to get the discussion back on track. "They made a bet? With money?"
"You know how they get." Kaoru nodded, smiling at his surprise while she passed him the next cup. "I think they're up to two hundred by now."
"What about you?"
"What about me?" Kaoru lifted her shoulder, rubbing her cheek on her shirt to get at the itch that always seemed to materialize the instant her hands weren't in any condition to be touching her face.
"What's your money on?" Sano gestured in the direction of the living room. "Misao or Megumi?"
Kaoru shrugged distractedly, oblivious to the way her hands slowed in their scrubbing as she responded. "He actually doesn't really strike me as the type to be interested in anything but his work. All the classes I've had with him, he never takes his eyes off the instructor, and he writes notes like he's taking dictation. He's in the kendo club, but he sits in the background and watches unless it's his turn on the mats."
Sano glanced down at her speculatively. "Sounds like you spend a lot of your time watching him."
He thought the blush taking over Kaoru's cheeks gave her away more clearly than anything, but he wasn't about to point that out. Instead, he waited patiently for the initial hit to turn into denial, and bit back a smirk when she predictably tried to brush off his suspicions. "I'm the vice-captain, it's my job."
"And his seat is usually close to the board," she added. "He's in my line of sight when I take notes."
"Course he is."
Kaoru set the next cup on his side of the sink with more force than necessary. Glaring up at his overly innocent expression, she hissed, "What?"
Completely unconcerned with her temper, he kept right on rinsing. "You like him."
"I guess that explains why you wouldn't look at him when Aoshi brought him to New Year's," Sano interrupted, feigning a thoughtful tone.
"Is that why you've really been hanging around the gym after practice?" Sano grinned down at her, barely holding in a laugh at the embarrassment written all over her face. "Been using me for cover to watch a boy, Jou-chan?" He clucked his tongue in disapproval and slumped his shoulders for effect. "And here I thought you were just craving the fine pleasure of my company. I feel so used."
Kaoru backhanded him in the chest, leaving a spatter of bubbles across a fist-sized wet spot below his heart. "You know damn well that I'm in that gym for MY workout just as late as you are! Kenshin didn't even start coming in at the same times until the semester changed!"
Sano leaned back on the counter again, tilting his head as though having to think back for the truth in her words. "You know, you might be right about that."
"I have a pan over here that has your face written all over it if you don't knock it off, Sano," Kaoru promised darkly.
Chuckling, he lifted his hands in a harmless gesture, motioning to her placatingly with the faucet hose. "C'mon, you know I'm teasing."
"Stop being an ass about it or I'll give your emergency beer to the underclassmen down the street," Kaoru grumbled, pointing the sponge at him to illustrate the severity of her threat.
"No need to get nasty," Sano complained, wincing in distaste at the thought of those vultures hovering around any time they were on the prowl for handouts. "Besides, it wouldn't be the first time you timed your gym-slot to watch someone you thought was pretty."
"The last time I did that, I was sixteen, now drop it." Kaoru curled her fingers around the chopsticks he'd used at lunch, giving him a considering once-over that made it clear they'd be implemented in creative ways unless he agreed.
"All right, all right." Sano sighed regretfully at the loss of his fun, but decided it was better to let it go. "Still can't say it never happened though."
Kaoru almost reached up to rub her temples, but remembered to stop herself before she wound up with soap dangerous close to her eyes. She exhaled slowly and deliberately, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge Sano as she slid both hands back into the water to feel around for the loose utensils.
After a few more quiet minutes of work, Sano absently rocked back on his heels and murmured helpfully, "There's a way you could clear up the Kenshin thing all quick and easy, you know. Completely painless." Raising his hand, he tapped the back of his thumb to the center of his forehead. "And foolproof!"
Kaoru eyed him warily. "That inspires the exact opposite of confidence."
"I'm hurt, Jou-chan." Sano pressed his empty hand on his heart without a care for the new water spots soaking through the dark fabric. "What have I ever done that makes you think you can't trust me to be a man of my word?"
"Most of the years of my life come to mind," she muttered under her breath.
"It doesn't count until you're twenty," he insisted with a broader, entirely unrepentant grin. "That other stuff was building character in your developmental years."
Kaoru was sure that if her eyes rolled any harder, they would roll right out of her head and make their escape. "You're forbidden from taking any more psychology courses."
"How am I supposed to catch up on my sleep if I do that?" Sano cocked his head to one side with a cheeky grin.
Sano let out a bark of laughter and clapped her on the back. "For a second there, I thought you might be serious."
"Yes, what could I possibly have been thinking?" Kaoru determinedly returned to the dishes before she gave into the urge to beat him to death and was forced to change her plans for a relaxing evening into thinking of ways to hide a large body.
She'd barely put her hands back in the water when Sano tapped her ankle with his foot to convince her to focus on him again. "So back to clearing up the Kenshin thing."
"There is no 'Kenshin thing,' Sano," Kaoru gritted out warningly.
The words had barely left her mouth when her brain registered a sudden shock of cold all the way from her throat to her stomach.
Just as quickly as that realization clicked, reflex had her jerking away from the sink. In her haste to get away from the source of that joltingly unpleasant sensation, she failed to factor in her surroundings enough to avoid slamming her back into the unyielding weight of the refrigerator. The shudder of impact rolled through her from head to toe, and she was vaguely aware of the magnets and take-out menus scattering haphazardly onto the floor.
Kaoru stared blankly at the thoroughly soaked front of her pale blue shirt before lifting her startled gaze to the smug grin on Sano's face. Blinking, she followed his arm down until she finally found herself looking straight at the cause for this new development.
The dripping nozzle in Sano's hand.
Her brows drew together in a rapidly darkening scowl, and her hands curled into white-knuckled fists with the rise of her temper. "I am going to beat you so hard-"
Whatever the end of that threat might have been, a faintly choked noise from the doorway cut through her fury in an instant. Distracting her from her target and automatically whipping her attention around to the absolute last person she expected to see in her apartment.
"Ah, Kenshin!" Sano called out in a positively cheerful tone, setting the nozzle back in place with practiced ease and gesturing for him to come the rest of the way into the kitchen. "I should be getting back to the living room before Megumi feels too neglected, but Jou-chan here still needs some help with the dishes. Be a friend and help out while I go about my boyfriend duties."
Kaoru swallowed hard and forcefully tore her gaze away from the unsettling heat she was seeing in Kenshin's far too compelling eyes. Her hand latched onto the taller man's shirt before he could take more than a single step, and she hissed out furiously, "You unbelievable idiot! What do you think you're doing?!"
Sano gave her a patronizing pat on the head and tried to pull his shirt free. The way her grip tightened convinced him a change of tactics was in order and he leaned in closer to her. Bringing up his hand to cover his mouth, he explained in an exaggerated, conspiratorial stage-whisper, "It takes a ballsy sort of bastard to come up to you out of the blue and ask who you're dating, you know?"
Confusion wiped the anger from her expression. "What?"
"Damnedest thing!" Sano took advantage of her slackened grip to get back his shirt and took several quick steps away to prevent her from grabbing hold of him again. "Turns out people around campus get the wrong idea with how much time we spend together where they can see."
Kaoru's brows shot up and she slanted a disbelieving look at Kenshin.
"Gotta respect when a guy takes the direct approach though," Sano continued, wiping his hands on his jeans and strategically maneuvering his way closer to the door. "He even offered to pick up the round of pizza so we don't have to stop for dinner! Or even come into the kitchen for more plates while you're busy cleaning it up. Isn't that thoughtful?"
Kaoru ground her teeth together so hard she could practically hear them creak. "Sanosuke-!"
"Wait, you-!" Kaoru took a step forward, lifting a hand only to drop it back to her side with a curse when he practically disappeared. Leaving her alone in the kitchen with a man she'd barely spoken to beyond club duties and casual, passing greetings.
A man she privately admitted was far too attractive and enigmatic for her peace of mind.
Exasperated and unbelievably embarrassed at Sano's latest display of "genius," Kaoru closed her eyes with a half-hearted wish that it would make her distractingly appealing upperclassman vanish as well.
The clicking sound, however, convinced her that maybe doing so hadn't been her greatest idea ever.
Kaoru's eyes flew open, dropping down to the lean fingers still loosely curled around the doorknob of the now closed door. Silently chiding herself for being so ridiculous, she bit the side of her tongue to clear her head and raised her eyes to the lazy smile on Kenshin's face.
All thoughts of restoring clarity slipped right out of existence, and she couldn't help but stare at him in disbelief. More than a little transfixed by the way something so small could change his entire countenance so drastically. The heat and intensity lurking just below the surface was unfamiliar on his face, displaying so much more emotion than she could ever recall seeing from him.
The sudden, wicked glint in his eyes was her only warning before he arched an eyebrow and pointedly slid his gaze down her body. He pointed traced the soft curves of her breasts and the well-defined lines of musculature her soaked shirt left practically bare to his gaze with open appreciation. And at the way her next breath came out soft and shaky, his smile deepened in satisfaction.
Kenshin dragged his perusal higher with obvious reluctance, and paused again once he reached her parted lips. Hesitating there a split second before he followed their shape with such devastating precision that she could feel the weight of his gaze spreading through her blood like warm honey.
Abruptly, his eyes snapped up to capture her full attention, and she discreetly swayed back against the refrigerator for support.
"So," Kenshin's voice seemed to slide across her skin, sending chills down her spine that had nothing to do with the state of her clothing. His fingers slid off the knob in a slow, lingering way that had her throat going dry.
And from the look in his eyes, he knew it.
"Sano tells me you're single, Vice-Captain."