It was an early morning in Tokyo. The sun hadn't even risen yet, and most of the town was still sleeping, savoring the last few hours of peace before the day began. In the familiar dojo she called her own, Kamiya Kaoru was awake and working, her mind wandering as her hands performed a morning chore. Her thoughts turned toward her friends, wondering if Megumi had found her family, if Sanosuke was keeping out of trouble, and how the Oniwabanshuu were doing. She even missed Yahiko, in a strange sort of way; though she still trained with him, he had moved into Sanosuke's old house—and the dojo seemed oddly empty without his shouting, complaining, or snoring…

But the dojo wasn't empty at all, she reminded herself. Kenshin was here still, his constant presence comforting and supporting her. Enishi's jinchuu had been rough on them all, but the rurouni's awful wounds were finally healing, and he had begun to smile again. That in itself was something to celebrate.

Kaoru hummed happily to herself, surrounded by the comforting aroma of rice, and dew in the grass, and smoke—

Wait, what?

She jerked out of her peaceful reverie, panic surfacing as her brain registered the source of the unusual smell. The cooking fires had gotten out of hand! The fish she had worked so hard to prepare were burning, and she ran for water before things could get any more disastrous.

Several minutes later, the kitchen was a mess. In her haste she had forgotten about the rice, which conveniently chose that moment to boil over, and half of the morning's vegetables had been knocked to the floor in her frantic attempts to regain control of the situation. Kaoru paused to catch her breath, taking in the dismal scene of breakfast gone wrong. Her yukata was wrinkled and wet in several places, and she was sure her hair looked similar. Pieces of food lay scattered all over, mixed with water she had used to douse the fires, and the fish were now completely black.

She'd failed. It tugged painfully at her, but she shoved those thoughts away angrily, focusing instead on the next task. The sun would be rising soon, and the kitchen needed to be clean. No one knew what had happened here, and she wanted it to stay that way. In this state, she'd never be able to face—

"Kaoru-dono?"

Kaoru bit back a groan. Speak of the devil, she thought dully. Slowly turning around, she came face to face with a very confused rurouni.

For a moment they just stood there, Kaoru's nerves preventing all speech and Kenshin's eyes conveying questions that his voice would not. They had a daily routine— Kenshin always took care of the morning meal, claiming it would allow her more time to practice Kamiya Kasshin Ryuu with Yahiko. She had gratefully accepted the gesture, knowing that it was not just for the sake of her practice. He was giving her more time to sleep, and less work to worry about. The rurouni always insisted that the chore was enjoyable, but she didn't believe it for a minute. There was just no way something as horrid as cooking could be fun.

Kenshin's eyes took in her disheveled appearance for a few more moments before he carefully spoke.

"Is everything all right, Kaoru-dono?"

The question jolted her back to life, and Kaoru instantly began stammering, her face blushing a deep red.

"Oh— um, yes, e-everything is just – is just fine…" She willed her hands to stop shaking as she moved to pick up a towel, hiding her burning face behind her bangs.

"Oro…" Kenshin hesitated. He wants to help, she realized. It was nice of him, but she didn't think she could take it if he stayed in the room any longer.

"I'll be done with this in a minute," she said, trying to regain some of her self-confidence. "Why don't you go sit in the dining room while you wait?"

.

Breakfast was a quiet affair. Kaoru had been able to salvage about half of the vegetables and most of the rice, and Kenshin was blessedly silent as he ate, smiling gently just like he would any other day. And if the majority of the food was charred beyond recognition, well, he didn't mention it.


A few hours later found Kenshin in the yard, arms submerged in soapy water, scrubbing at the laundry. The flow of chores had been a bit odd today, beginning with Kaoru's stubbornness at breakfast, and he couldn't help but wonder what had caused the sudden change.

She had not allowed him to prepare her bath, either. That exchange had been tense—his mild protests seemed to only fuel her intensity, and she had nearly snapped at him. But she held herself back, and he relented in turn, and that was that.

And so he had fallen back on his favorite chore to pass the time. He was just beginning to hang clean clothes on the line to dry when Kaoru came out of the bath house, dressed in a fresh yukata. He smiled warmly at her, just in case she had any lingering worries about their previous argument, and she waved back, her own smile a bit apologetic. Whatever it was that had bothered her before, his Kaoru-dono was back to normal now, it seemed.

Reassured, the rurouni kept himself happily busy until midday—cleaning the dojo floor, shopping for tofu, and doing odd jobs around the house. Kaoru had stayed in her room for the last several hours; he figured she was probably taking advantage of the peace and quiet, since Yahiko would not be here to practice until tomorrow. But when noon came and went, and the sun started its descent into the west without any sign of her, Kenshin began to worry again.

He padded softly through the house until he reached the door to her room… and hesitated. Was he being irrational? Ever since the nightmare of jinchuu, he had been extremely protective of Kaoru, and he knew it could be bordering the line of awkwardness. Was a single day of privacy too much for her to ask of him?

But as he stood there debating with himself, a tiny noise that sounded suspiciously like a sniffle came through the thin paper of the door.

All doubts flew out of his mind. The knock on her door was soft, but sure.

"Kaoru-dono?"

Shuffling was heard from inside the room, and a muffled, "Yes? What is it?" reached his ears.

"May I come in?"

"Um… well – I … "

If she was trying to ease his nerves, it wasn't working. "I'm coming in."

Without waiting for an answer, he slid the door aside.

Kaoru was kneeling in one corner of the room, a mirror set up before her. A few colored glass ornaments littered the floor; her hands were buried in her hair where a clip hung at an odd angle, holding half of her hair up in a regal style. She was struggling to pull the other half into the elaborate knot, but her inexperienced hands fumbled; her whole body was trembling.

As he stepped slowly into the room, Kaoru's aim shifted. She began tugging at the clip and the knot, attempting to pull her hair free, but it wouldn't budge. With a frustrated whimper, her hands fell to her sides, and her shoulders slumped in defeat. A single sob shook her frame, and then another, and another.

Kenshin was there in an instant, reaching for the clip, but she flinched away from him, curling into herself as if she could hide in her misery.

"Shh, Kaoru… let me help." His fingers gently unwound the complex style, removing the fragile clip and combing through her long black hair, letting it fall freely around her shoulders. Finally certain he had smoothed out all the tangles, Kenshin turned her around to face him. He had no idea what to say to comfort her, so he opened his arms in invitation instead, and she took it, launching herself into his embrace. Tears soaked into his shirt as she cried; his hands rubbed soothingly against her back, holding her close.

They stayed that way for a long while, until Kaoru slowly began to calm down, her loud sobs changing into whimpers and tired sniffles. Kenshin reached a hand up to stroke her hair again. "What has been bothering you, Kaoru?"

Silence met his question, as she burrowed deeper against his chest.

"Please?" he begged. "I can't help if I don't know what's wrong…"

Kaoru mumbled something into his shirt.

"Sorry… I can't hear you. Say it again?"

"I said I'm a stupid tomboy." Kaoru finally spoke loud enough to be heard. "I'm a sweaty little girl who can't provide for her household. I'm a girl who can't dress like one, or speak like one, or cook like one–"

Kenshin's eyes widened.

"—and everyone knows I'm just a weak instructor for a style with no students, I spend my days sparring with a kid instead of filling my role as a grown woman—but I can't do anything right! I want to be beautiful like Megumi and Tae, not 'missy' or 'ugly' or—"

"Kaoru." His tone was gentle, but firm.

She lifted her gaze to meet his, and Kenshin's eyes softened.

"If you think there is something you need to prove," he said quietly, "you're wrong. You're the most beautiful woman I've ever met, Kaoru. By far. Do you want to know why?"

Her eyes watered again, but she blinked the tears back and nodded.

Kenshin smiled at her as he continued. "It's because you're so alive. You put your heart into everything you do. Megumi could have the straightest hair in all the world, and it would still never flow like yours does when you practice the Kamiya Kasshin style.

"I woke up this morning to see the kitchen a mess"—he chuckled good-naturedly, and Kaoru smiled in spite of herself—"and you were standing there in the middle of it, embarrassed and dripping wet. And my first thought was, 'she's beautiful.'"

At this, Kaoru did start to cry again, but they were good tears this time.

Kenshin reached down to pick up the discarded hair clip. It had the image of a prowling tiger, skillfully shaped and probably expensive.

"It was my mother's," Kaoru murmured, answering his unspoken question.

"And it's very elegant," he replied, handing it back and wrapping his arms around her again. "But I much prefer the real thing."

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I remember the first day I decided I'd do my own hair. I shut myself up in the bathroom and tried to make a ponytail for the first time. It was impossibly hard (the darn thing is behind your head, you can't even watch what you're doing!), and I was young, and everyone else made it look so easy— and it hurt that I couldn't do it myself. I stood in front of the mirror and cried, but wouldn't let anyone help me.

Poor Kaoru is going through the same thing, but in her case it stands for so much more. I felt so bad for her as I was writing this fic.

I hope Kenshin doesn't seem too OOC... I've always thought he could be very good with words if he tried, and after jinchuu some of those old barriers would be torn down.

Reviews and critique are welcome. I don't have a beta (to be honest, I'm fairly new to the site and not even sure how the beta system works), so all feedback is greatly appreciated.