There was a stranger making breakfast in her kitchen. A stranger with a more than passing resemblance to her live-in-lover, which just made him all the more disturbing. Kenshin, however, didn't have tattoos across his shoulders and down his arms, wasn't six feet tall, and definitely didn't have pointed ears.
The ears were the only reason she hadn't screamed or hit him with something heavy. They seemed to indicate she was either dreaming or had lost her mind, and in neither case would rupturing his eardrums or braining him help. Besides, what kind of burglar or molester would break into her house and make her breakfast?
So instead, she took a seat at the breakfast bar and watched warily as he cracked eggs into a frying pan.
"I like mine over-medium," she commented after a moment.
He laughed, and it was Kenshin's warm, husky chuckle. "I know, Kaoru."
"Just checking," she assured him. "I don't normally find my boyfriend's taller doppelganger making me eggs, so I don't really know what the protocol for such a situation is." Her voice was bright and falsely calm, her faith in the dream/insanity theory holding strong.
The man at the stove froze. "Doppelganger?"
"Mmmhmm." Propping her elbow on the counter in front of her so she could rest her chin in her hand, she cocked her head to the side consideringly. "Well, the voice and the hair color are the same, and the muscles are the same, and the fact that you're cooking breakfast is normal... but not much else is, so doppelganger seems to fit. Although, I suppose changeling works, too..."
He put the spatula down slowly and shut off the burner, then turned around to face her. That's when she discovered his eye color was wrong, too. Kenshin's eyes were a soft violet, warm and tender, whereas the stranger's eyes were a burning amber. The cross-shaped scar was new as well, her boyfriend's face being unblemished and almost prettier than her own. This man's features were pretty, but also slightly longer and more angular, more masculine.
Frowning, not-Kenshin stepped over to the breakfast bar and splayed his hands in front of her, bracing his arms wide as he leaned in a bit closer. "What do you see when you look at me, Kaoru?" he asked.
Blue eyes widened at his carefully patient tone, and she was suddenly struck by the thought that maybe he was Kenshin, and had no idea that he'd suddenly changed his appearance overnight. After all, if she was dreaming or delusional, this was all in her head - he might be perfectly normal, and wondering what in the world was wrong with her.
She probably ought to tell him.
"Well," she began slowly, ticking items off on her fingers, "if my boyfriend were to grow eight inches, spend a painful hour or so at a tattoo parlor, decide to start wearing his hair in a top-knot ponytail, somehow manage to get a cross-shaped scar on his face, buy some amber contacts and a set of really high quality false elf ears... he'd look a lot like you." By the time she finished her voice had risen and she was breathing hard, just on the verge of hyperventilating.
Maybe she wasn't as calm as she thought.
It's not real, Kaoru, she reminded herself. One way or another it's not real, and this is not happening. Either it's a dream, or you've snapped and just need a long vacation away from fantasy films.
In response to her itemized list of (mostly) cosmetic changes, not-Kenshin merely made a non-commital pondering noise low in his throat, and tilted his head to the side in thought, tapping his fingers lightly against the counter. It was such a Kenshin-esque gesture that Kaoru found herself biting her lip and fighting the sudden and unexpected prickle of confused tears.
Why, if she were imagining all this, did he have to seem so real?
It was Sunday. Surely weirdly unsettling things such as your boyfriend swapping bodies weren't allowed to happen on Sundays? Sundays were for relaxing and sleeping in, not for meeting strangers in your own kitchen.
Then again, some days it didn't pay to get out of bed – Sundays included – and this was shaping up to be one of those days. Assuming, of course, she wasn't still in bed and dreaming. Her hand twitched toward her arm, but she wasn't quite yet willing to put things to the pinch test. She didn't yet know how she'd react if she failed it.
"Ah, that explains it," not-Kenshin mumbled mostly to himself.
"What explains what?" she demanded.
Not-Kenshin flashed her a smile, the lopsided grin that she usually found comforting. Of course, usually it was on Kenshin's face, not this... this... this wanna-be impersonator with a Tolkien complex. Her imagination really had a lot to answer for. "I just realized why Misao was mouthing congratulations at me last night, and why you can see me in my true form today."
Kaoru stared at him for a moment, before waving his words away with a flourishing, dramatic gesture. "Oh, that's easy," she replied breezily. "At present, I'm going with, 'this is all a dream,' but I'm holding 'I've lost my mind' in reserve if the dream theory doesn't pan out."
Folding his arms, not-Kenshin leaned forward further, bringing the bare expanse of his chest closer than she was really comfortable with at present. Before she could straighten in her chair, reestablishing their distance, he reached out to cup her chin in his hand. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, because it certainly felt like Kenshin's hand: hard and strong and calloused in all the right places. "You're not dreaming, Kaoru, nor have you lost your mind. It's really me."
"Right," she retorted, her tone sarcastic, "because after dating for what? Almost eight months? It's perfectly normal for a girl to wake up and find her boyfriend has changed into something straight out of a sword-and-sorcery film." Cracking her eyes open, she slanted him a scathing glance. "That makes lots of sense."
"Yes," he agreed, tone soothing, "it does."
The smug, good-looking, impossibly elfin Kenshin imposter was laughing at her. She recognized the sparkle of humor in his eyes despite their unfamiliar amber hue. "I'd kick you if the cabinet wasn't in the way," she assured him, tone emphatic.
"Lucky me, then," he replied, placidly cheerful. When she continued to glower, he sighed. "Have you tried pinching yourself?"
"No," she answered, words frank despite her pouty manner, "I'm not ready to deal with being certain I'm insane if I don't wake up."
"Trust me, sweetheart," he coaxed, and it was entirely unfair that he would use Kenshin's endearment and Kenshin's tone to try and wheedle her compliance. "You're not dreaming and you're not insane."
"Only insane people trust figments of their imagination," she retorted crossly, "so by your own argument I can't trust you."
He rolled his eyes a second before his hand shot out, lightning quick, and tweaked her arm. The pain was sharp and sudden, fading almost as abruptly as it came. "There," he said, ignoring her yelp of protest, "now you know you're not dreaming, and you know I'm not a figment of your imagination."
"Gee, thanks," she cooed, saccharine-sweet as she rubbed her arm, "it is such a relief to know I'm not dreaming and that you're really here. Now if only I knew why, and why you're done up like an elf, and what you've done with Kenshin, my morning would be peachy-keen."
Sighing, he closed his eyes, and she just knew he was counting to ten the way Kenshin did when she was trying his patience. Kaoru gritted her teeth against a new and sudden urge to freak out: if she wasn't dreaming, and he was real... then how long had he been studying them in order to have perfected so many of Kenshin's mannerisms? The thought left her with a distinctly uneasy feeling, especially since she'd been mouthing off at him from the get go, and had no idea if he could or would turn violent when provoked.
The probability of her own insanity was distinctly comforting. Better insane and imagining that her boyfriend had morphed into a living fantasy fixture, than trapped in her apartment with a stalker. Right?
"I'm here because I live here," he told her earnestly, snapping her out of her borderline panicked train of thought. "I'm not 'done up' like an elf, I am an elf. And I didn't do anything to Kenshin, I am Kenshin."
Scratch that, Kaoru thought to herself as she stared at him, abruptly switching mental gears. It was one thing to imagine her boyfriend had turned into an elf - especially considering she hadn't exactly been sanguine about said change; it was quite another to claim you actually were one. I must be sane, because it's abundantly clear that this guy is off his rocker. "An elf?" she asked with feigned enthusiasm and sincerity, "Like Legolas?"
"Please," he scoffed, tone derisive, "I'm a fire elf. No self-respecting Legolas-wannabe would allow me within a hundred feet of one of their bowers, the silly twits." Golden eyes narrowed as he finished speaking, fingers she hadn't realized were twined with her own tightening reprovingly. "And I recognize when you're humoring someone, Kaoru, so you can stop right now. I'm telling the truth."
"You can't be," she protested, forgetting that it might not be the best idea to disabuse him of his fantasy. "Elves aren't real. And if they were real, why would one want to disguise himself and hang out with me? And if he did, why would I suddenly be able to see through the disguise?" Sitting back, she ran her free hand through her still sleep-tousled hair, searching for a convincing argument to cut through his self-delusion. "Look. I've had sex with Kenshin, okay? I would have noticed if he were really almost a foot taller than he appeared. Playing footsie would have been impossible, as would resting my head on his shoulder when we were standing face-to-face."
To her surprise, he conceded the point immediately. "You're right," he agreed, rubbing long fingers back and forth in a chafing motion over the hand he still held clasped in his own. "Or, rather, if the appearance you're accustomed to were just an illusion, you'd be right."
Kaoru blinked. "What?"
"My 'disguise' as you put it, wasn't just an illusion spell," he explained slowly, as if she weren't quite bright, which was rich considering that he was the one not making any sense. "The glamour was twined with a confusion spell. You felt what you thought you should feel, not what was really there."
Tugging her hand free, she crossed her arms. "So when I thought we were playing footsie, I was really kicking you in the shins? And you just let me?" When he smiled, she narrowed her eyes at him. "I hope I kicked you really hard."
"Ka-o-ru!" he groaned, his frustration and the way he expressed it far too familiar for comfort. "Fine. I'll prove it to you." Standing, he walked around to her side of the counter, and pulled her resisting form into his arms. Although her cheek came to rest on his chest rather than his shoulder, there still seemed to be a place for her there, one that was both comfortable and familiar.
It frightened her in some indefinable way. Like the foundations of her beliefs were in danger.
Strong fingers nudged her chin up until her gaze met his. "Now watch," he instructed. Slowly, before her eyes, his visage melted into the one she knew so well, and she found her head nestled in its accustomed place against his shoulder. "If you concentrate," he breathed in her ear as her body stilled against his in shock, "you should be able to feel what's real, rather than what the spell is telling you to feel. It will probably help if you close your eyes."
And he was right. Good lord, he was right! With her eyes closed, and every sense focused on him, she could feel the smooth muscle of his chest rather than the bone of his shoulder.
He was telling the truth.
Gasping, she pulled away, entire body trembling, hands curling into fists.
"You stay away from me!" she ordered, and then contradicted it by stepping forward and punching him in the gut. "You lied to me, you bastard!" and the hurt was clear in both her tone and in the deep blue of her gaze. "Now what?" she demanded, backing away and evading his hand when he reached for her. "Do you sweep me away to wherever it is you come from, and have someone take my place?
His own expression was blatantly shocked. "What?"
"Isn't that what faeries do? Take advantage of poor mortals like me?"
"I'm not a faerie, I'm an elf," he reiterated, "and you wouldn't let me take advantage of you if I tried – which I haven't, nor do I plan to."
"You know what I mean! Whatever you call yourselves, our folk tales are full of stories about changelings and people getting lost Underhill for ages. It's what your kind do, isn't it? Steal our lives, trick us into having your babies?"
"That was Zeus, love," he told her, his low tone working hard to soothe as he moved toward her, one painstakingly slow step at a time.
"Don't correct me!" she snapped, darting around the sofa toward her bokken. "I'm pretty sure Oberon did it, too!"
"I don't care!" he retorted, still striving to be patient and understanding, but shifting steadily toward annoyed and just a bit hurt himself. "I don't plan to do anything but continue on as we have been! Right here, in this apartment. And if there are any babies to be had, it'll be after we're married, and after you agree to it!"
That stopped her in her tracks. "What?"
"You heard me." Golden eyes snapped with restrained testiness, long red hair seeming to crackle with irritation.
Blue eyes stared back for a long moment, and then fell closed, her manner almost resigned. "Kenshin," she said, tone a bit helpless, "I really don't understand."
Strong arms wrapped around her, folding her close, his scent and the feel of him – his ki, she guessed – familiar and comforting. "I'm an elf," he whispered, and she nodded. "We hide what we are as a general rule." She nodded again. "I love you," he continued, and when she didn't immediately nod her head in acceptance of that fact, he gently shook her in reprimand. "I love you," he repeated, "the same way a mortal man loves his woman. But there are rules. I couldn't just tell you what I am."
"Then why can I see the real you today?" she asked, voice muffled due to the way she'd burrowed into him seeking solace.
"Because we've been together for a month of Sundays," he answered. "One thing your folk lore depicts correctly is the fickleness of most of the Seelie and Unseelie races. So, in the interests both of secrecy and in promoting better relations between us and humans, all of our number are placed under a geas. I had to prove my constancy to you, and you to me, before that geas could be lifted."
"And constancy is defined as a month of Sundays?" Kaoru's tone was one of flummoxed disbelief. Kenshin nodded. "Why not a year or something? Wouldn't that make more sense?"
"My people are known for whimsy," he pointed out, "and find meaning in things humans would think meaningless. It's much more difficult to keep track of a month of Sundays than it is to keep track of a year. If the geas is lifted, it's much more likely to be a spontaneous and natural thing."
"Are you trying to say that... you were so comfortable with me that you forgot to worry or keep track of time?" The look in Kaoru's eyes was pleased, and Kenshin allowed himself to fully relax for the first time since she'd named him doppelganger.
Bending his head, he brushed a kiss over her brow. "That's exactly what I'm saying."
There was silence for a long moment, and then she pulled back to look up at him through her lashes, her smile a bit shy and more than a bit welcoming. "That's... kind of romantic."
And just like that, Kenshin knew he'd been forgiven. Clearing his throat he feigned nonchalance, even though his entire body was awash with relief. "So... any other questions?"
"Ohhhhh, yes," she responded, her grin mischievous and her tone sultry. "Let's start with: what's sex like with the real you?"