Author's Note: New fic. It's coming a little earlier than I planned, but I figured I could go ahead and put up this intro chapter. :) As I mentioned in my summary, this is a direct sequel to To Heal a Heart: The Return of Cinderella and takes place immediately after that story. It will continue to be somewhat AU, but again, I will be keeping it true to the manga storyline until about Volume 27/28 (while adding in some things from the anime that don't conflict with the manga directly).

Ok, moving on, I hope my readers will enjoy my long intro chapter. :)

I do not own City Hunter or any of its characters.

Thank you to everyone who reads/follows/reviews this. It is always appreciated.

Chapter One

Ryo groaned as pale streaks of sunlight drifted in through the blinds in his room. He wished that he could put off facing the new day in front of him. He tried to tell himself that he was simply too tired to wake up because he had gotten to bed so late last night, but he was all too aware of the real reason why he didn't want to get up: so he wouldn't have to face the reasons why he couldn't sleep last night.

Ryo groaned again and rolled over onto his back so he could face the ceiling. When he had gotten that note from Kaori setting up their date, he had been shocked. He had remembered vividly the last time she had adopted her Cinderella persona and the date they had shared. It had been easily one of the best nights of his life…up until that last moment when she walked away from him.

Initially he was confused when he discovered that she had taken on this disguise again and wondered what she was trying to do. Still, there was no question in his mind that he would go. Even though he fully expected the same sad ending to their date, Ryo hungered for the chance to spend some intimate time with his partner and was more than willing to go through this elaborate charade to do it.

The moment he saw her in that bar last evening, he knew that he had made the right decision. She was beautiful, of course, but the way she smiled at him was even more wonderful to him. That smile almost made him forget about the sadness that was sure to come.

Ryo ran a hand over his face and sighed. What he hadn't expected was the way Kaori treated him during this date. Ryo could tell by the look in her eyes that she was speaking from the heart when she compared him to a knight and when she scolded him for speaking badly of himself. It was that look, that look of boundless, devoted love coupled with her willingness to sacrifice her own heart for his well-being, that finally gave him the courage to confess his own feelings.

Still, he knew that what he did last night was not just a result of what happened on that date. It was also a result of conflicts he had been dealing with for a while now.

Six months previous, when Sonia Field showed up in Japan, Ryo had been forced to think about how he had lived his life thus far and what happened to the people who became part of his world. Even though, logically, he could reason that he wasn't truly responsible for Kenny's death, the fact remained that he had been the one to pull the trigger. Even though, logically, it had been an unfortunate series of circumstances that led to Umibozu's injury to his eyes, the fact remain that he been the one to injure Umibozu. And even though, logically, Makimura had been killed by members of Union Theope while doing his normal job as part of City Hunter, the fact remained that Ryo had originally offered to take his partner's place and had allowed Makimura to talk him out of it thereby setting up the chain of events that led to Makimura's death.

Ryo took a deep breath. Again and again, whenever he allowed himself to become close to someone, he ended up causing that person pain and eventually played a hand in their deaths. Granted, Umibozu was still alive and had not been close to Ryo at the time of his injury, but the fact remained that the rest of Umibozu's life would be heavily impacted by Ryo's actions.

For most of his life, Ryo had carried this burden of grief and guilt inside him while striving to live each day as best he could. Makimura's death, however, had affected even more than usual and a part of him was ready to finally give up. He did manage to continue onward, but he knew that that was mainly because he had Kaori with him. Her presence had made his suffering bearable and even enabled him to find some much needed solace for his sorrow. Still, those feelings continued to fester inside him and the weight of this burden slowly increased year after year.

Sonia's reappearance and the events that happened shortly afterwards had been the breaking point in his ability to endure this burden. Ryo had no choice now but to confront the consistently negative impact he had had on those who had tried to be a part of his life. After looking at it from Sonia's point of view and seeing how his continued presence caused her pain, after noting how both Umibozu and Miki would be affected by any attempt on his part to survive this duel Sonia had arranged, and after contemplating how, eventually, Kaori might suffer the same fate as her brother, Ryo had begun to think that his own death was the best outcome for everyone around him. Going into that duel, he knew his instincts would push him to survive, but Ryo was not as certain that his heart had the same desire.

Ryo's feelings changed, however, the moment Kaori ran toward him to stop the duel and he ended up drawing Umibozu's fire to protect her. As the bullet grazed his temple, he could hear Kaori's screams of distress and the sound pierced his heart. In that moment, he had come to a new realization: he did not want to die. Not if it meant being separated from Kaori and making her cry, not if it meant losing his friends and the place he had finally found for himself in this world.

Not if it meant that his existence would end before he truly had a chance to live.

To his relief, he ended up surviving the duel, but Ryo could not shake off all of the feelings that these events had stirred up inside him. He felt lost, unsure of himself and uncertain of how he should proceed with the rest of his life. Weeks turned into months and Ryo continued to grapple with these feelings while moving no closer to any answers.

His eyes were finally opened when Kaori had taken matters into her own hands and donned her Cinderella disguise as a way to help him. It was then that he realized not only how much she loved him, but also that she held the key to the answers he was desperately seeking.

It was also the moment when he realized just how much he loved her in return. He then knew that he could no longer hide his feelings for her, not if he wanted to finally find a way to truly live instead of just survive. It had been one of the hardest decisions Ryo had made in his entire life, but the way things turned out and the happiness he now felt were proof that he had made the right decision.

As happy as he was though, Ryo couldn't help but feel uneasy, not only about this morning, but also about how the rest of the night had went.

After the two of them had confessed their feelings to each other near the docks, Ryo had taken Kaori home. They barely spoke a word on the drive there and when they arrived, they both silently went to their rooms to change clothes. Eventually the two of them had ended up on the couch that was on the same floor as Ryo's room. Kaori had shed her Cinderella outfit and was now wearing a long sleeved shirt and some sweat pants. Ryo's face broke into a lopsided grin at the sight. He had thought that Kaori was beautiful in the outfit Eriko had given her, but somehow, seeing her like this, was even more appealing to him.

"What are you smiling about?" Kaori asked, her eyebrows furrowed. "Are you disappointed now that I'm back to being me?" Ryo grinned even more and with a growl he grabbed her and pulled her onto the couch with him.

"Nah," he chortled. "Fairy tale princesses are great, but then you have to be formal and cool all the time, and that gets tedious after a while. I'd rather have a maid than a princess…that way I get to be myself instead."

Kaori frowned at his analogy, but the frown quickly faded into a smile as he drew her close to him, his arms wrapped tight around her. She embraced him back and rested her head against his chest.

"Idiot," she whispered as she caressed him. Ryo smiled again and proceeded to kiss her forehead and temples before moving back to her lips. As he kissed her, he inhaled deeply, taking in her scent, while his hands started to wander. He had fantasized about doing this with Kaori for years and now that he had the chance, Ryo discovered that he was intoxicated by her. Soon his kisses became more urgent while his hands became more adventurous in their exploration.

"Ryo…ah, Ryo…."

The hesitation in her voice snapped him back to reality. He looked down at Kaori and saw that she was blushing violently and that her eyes had more than a flicker of apprehension in them. Frustrated at himself, he loosened his hold on her.

'What am I doing?' he asked himself. 'I'm going too fast. She's not ready. And now I scared her. She probably thinks that I'm going to try to force her or pressure her into doing mokkori with me.'

"Sorry," he muttered. He turned his face away. He then felt Kaori snuggle up to him again, but even that soothing touch was not enough to quiet the turmoil he felt building inside him.

"It's all right, Ryo," she murmured. "It's just…well I never…I just don't know…."

"Don't worry," he said. "We can just stay like this, if you want."

Kaori thanked him and sank back against him. A few minutes later, she was fast asleep. Ryo resumed his hold on her and watched her sleep. He had to admit that he enjoyed cradling her like this, feeling her warmth spread all over his body. Ryo wanted to stay with her like that all night, but he did worry that he might start to lose control again.

'Besides, it wouldn't be good for her to sleep on the couch all night,' he mused.

He stayed with her for a while longer before carefully picking her up and carrying her to her room. He gingerly placed her onto her bed, covered her with some blankets and watched her sleep for a few moments more before reluctantly going off to his room alone.

Ryo sighed again and turned back onto his side. Now that he was fully awake and focusing his thoughts on Kaori, he felt his body start to respond. He looked down and, sure enough, he was in the midst of a 'mokkori reaction.' He tried in vain to chalk it up to his usual morning routine, but he knew that that wasn't strictly true. After years of maintaining a tight control over his libido in regards to Kaori, Ryo found that it took very little to get him excited about her. He then started to worry about how she might react to what was sure to be frequent incidents of mokkori from now on.

'Good thing I didn't stay with her all night,' he told himself. 'She wouldn't have been happy to wake up and find this waiting to greet her.'

Ryo frowned. Things were much easier when he stuck with casual dates and one-night stands. He didn't have to worry too much about what women thought of him and often, they went in with the same short-term desires he did. Despite his vast experience with women, he now felt like an awkward teenager, struggling to figure out how to handle his first girlfriend and it was not a feeling he liked at all.

'Because that's what Kaori is,' he admitted to himself. 'My first. The first time I have ever truly committed myself to a woman.'

It was at that moment that Ryo wondered if he had made a mistake. He was certain of his feelings for Kaori, even if he didn't completely understand them, but he wasn't sure if he could successfully develop a deep, lasting relationship with her or any woman for that matter. For years, he had become accustomed to having complete confidence in his own abilities in just about every situation, and it bothered him that he did not feel so self-assured now.

The sound of footsteps approaching his door broke Ryo's reverie. Kaori was coming to his room to wake him up like always, and he was grateful that he had finally managed to calm his body down…although it also occurred to him that he had gone to sleep naked again out of habit.

"Ryo, time to get up," Kaori said as she opened the door. Ryo scowled and pressed his face into his pillow. She was entirely too energetic in the morning for his taste.

"Breakfast is waiting for you," she said. She reached down and started shaking his shoulder. That proved to be a mistake, however, as the motion started to shift the blanket covering him downward, revealing his lack of clothing. Ryo turned toward her and was greeted by the sight of Kaori's scarlet face.

"Come on Kaori, I want to sleep in for a change," he whined. He noted the way she was staring at him and a lecherous smile appeared on his face.

"Or maybe you'd like to join me," he smirked. Kaori's face turned an even brighter shade of red as she gritted her teeth.

"Pervert," she spat at him. "Put some clothes on for a change and get up already. Your breakfast will get cold." She then stormed out of the room.

Ryo chuckled to himself and got out of bed so he could find something to wear. He knew that it could get him into trouble, but he couldn't get that look on Kaori's face while she stared at him out of his mind. Normally, the second she realized that he was naked; she would immediately look away, if not run away. This time though, she was clearly interested in what she saw, even though she was still painfully shy about it. He wasn't sure why, but for some reason, Ryo found her reaction both innocently endearing and surprisingly erotic at the same time.

'I better stop thinking about this now…or I'm not going to be able to put my pants on,' he grumbled to himself.

Almost two minutes later, Ryo walked toward the table and was shocked at what he found. In front of him was a full spread of toast, ham and fruit surrounding a plate that held a heaping portion of scrambled eggs.

"Here you go," she beamed at him, motioning at him to sit down. Ryo moved closer to her, a hint of concern in his smile.

"Kaori, you don't have to keep doing all this," he said. A bead of sweat appeared on her forehead and her gaze shifted toward a variety of places in the room.

"I just want to be a little nicer to you these days," she stammered. "Is that so odd? Besides, a job could appear at any time and you'll need plenty of energy when it does. So nutrition is important, and…."

Ryo halted her speech by putting his arms around her. He enjoyed this increase in the attentive, nurturing side to her personality, but he still suspected that she felt the need to "prove" her love for him or to "win" his affection. He knew that some of this was his own doing, and he was determined to find some way to make up for that from now on.

"If I had known that I could get more meals like this just by kissing you, I would have done it years ago," he said with a smirk.

"Is that why you are holding me now?" she asked. "So that you'll keep getting them?" Ryo had flinched when she said that, but then noticed the playful look in her eyes.

"Well don't get used to them," she continued. "I have no intention of spoiling you. Besides, our food budget can't accommodate me having to make you lavish meals all the time."

"Oh? Not even if I do this?" he giggled as he started to kiss her face and neck while holding her closer to him.

"Ryo…stop that," she said with both a laugh and a sigh. "Eat your food. I made all this for you, so don't let it go to waste." Kaori laughed again and tried to wiggle out of his arms, but she remained trapped.

"Stay home," he murmured in-between kisses. "Forget about going to check on the board. It can wait for a day….or for a week." Kaori touched his cheek causing him to stop and look into her eyes.

"Ryo," she said, joy radiating from her features.


"Don't be a moron," she replied.


"Don't think that you can start slacking off from now on," she continued. "We can't afford to go without a job for too much longer. So hurry up and get eating so I can get ready to check the board."

"Kaori, you are a cold woman," Ryo pouted. Kaori stroked his cheek and then embraced him again, burying her face against his chest.

"Tell me," she whispered. "Tell me that this isn't a dream. Tell me that I'm not going to suddenly wake up and have everything the way it was before." Ryo put his arms back around her in an attempt to reassure her.

"It's not a dream," he said. "I promise." Kaori squeezed him one last time before letting him go. The two of them then sat down to eat.

"Ryo," Kaori said as she gathered up the empty dishes. "About last night…."

Ryo looked up from his plate which had just been cleaned of the last bit of food. He could tell by her tone that she was unsure of whatever she was going to say next. He could feel the tension in the room and wanted desperately to diffuse it.

"Oh that," he laughed. "Don't worry about it. I got carried away and…"

"Let me finish," Kaori interrupted with a glare.

"Will do," Ryo said, making a show out of shutting his mouth. Kaori sat down next to him, her eyes downcast.

"The truth is…I," she muttered. "Well, last night….I'm scared, Ryo."

Ryo goggled at her. Kaori was usually not the type of person to admit to being afraid. He found himself worried over what she could be afraid of.

"I know that, for someone like you, who has been with countless women, this is going to seem ridiculous," she continued. "But the truth is that…I've never been in a situation like this before. I've never been with a man. I've never even had a boyfriend before."

"Not even a boyfriend?" Ryo echoed, his question a genuine one. "Really? I always imagined a mini-Kaori pounding some hapless boy on the playground with her hammer and then a teenage Kaori keeping the guys in line with a mace."

He half expected her to give him a tap with her hammer after saying that and was worried when she just mutely shook her head.

"No," she said. "When I was growing up, I used to wonder what was wrong with me. All my friends would fall in love and I just couldn't feel that way about anyone. It wasn't until…."

"Until?" Ryo asked, leaning toward her.

"Do you remember the first time we met?" Kaori asked. "I don't mean that time right before I turned twenty, I mean before…back then."

Ryo blinked in surprise and then nodded. Early on in his association with Makimura, he had met Kaori when she was in her teens. Kaori had been suspicious of her older brother's activities and while satisfying her curiosity, she had met Ryo. It had been an extremely tense meeting at first, with Kaori pretty much blaming him for the fact that her brother was now living in a much more dangerous world, but eventually the two of them reached an understanding.

Ryo let out a sigh as he reminisced about that time. Even back then, he had been surprised and impressed by how strong and generous Kaori's heart was. When he met her again years later, he had been pleased to discover that she had lost none of that strength and generosity …and he had also been excited by the fact that she was growing into a beautiful woman.

"Before that time, I didn't think I could fall in love," she said. "But then I finally did…I fell in love for the first time…the only time…."

"Only time?" Ryo asked. "You mean….?"

"Yes," Kaori nodded, still looking downward, her cheeks red. "There has only been one person in my heart. Just one person I could love." Suddenly, Ryo felt like he had just been hit with one of Kaori's hammers.

'She's been in love with me this entire time? Ever since we first met?' Even though she had admitted it, Ryo couldn't believe it. He couldn't imagine someone loving him that much for such a long time.

"So now, I'm scared," she said. "My dream has finally come true and I…I don't want to mess it up or disappoint you or…."

"Kaori," he interrupted. "Don't worry so much about it."

"But Ryo…." Ryo put a finger to her lips, silencing her.

"Listen Kaori," he said. "Don't be afraid just because you've never done this before. The truth is, you're just like me. This is new to me too."

"What?" Kaori said, disbelief evident in her voice. "What do you mean new? You said yourself that you've been with numerous women…."

"Oh sure, I've been on lots of dates…a lot of which ended up being mokkori," he said. "And I've even had a few brief affairs. But I've never had a girlfriend before. Not really. So you see we're the same."

"The same," she repeated thoughtfully.

"Exactly," Ryo smiled at her. "So the both of us are going to make lots of mistakes and act like idiots while we figure out what we should be doing. But it's ok because we'll be acting like idiots together."

Ryo laughed as he said this, his laughter becoming more and more boisterous until he noticed the irate look in Kaori's eyes.

"Who is going to be acting like an idiot?" Kaori asked. A large bead of sweat dropped off Ryo's brow, his smile starting to fade.

"Well I um,…that is…" he mumbled.

Suddenly Kaori's expression softened and she let out a sigh.

"You are hopeless," she said. "You know that?" Ryo's head bobbed back and forth.

"That's me," he said, trying again to smile. "Hopeless Ryo-chan." Kaori laughed and embraced him.

"Ryo…thank you," she murmured as she snuggled against him. Ryo put his arms around her, his smile growing. He knew that his attempts to reassure Kaori were clumsy, but she didn't seem to care. She had understood him and it had been more than enough for her. It was then that he realized that this was another facet of why he loved her: because she loved him for who he was, not who he could be.

Looking down at Kaori resting against him, Ryo knew that, despite his apprehension and worries, he had no choice but to put forth his best efforts to hold onto Kaori and build a relationship with her.

Simply because his heart would not allow any other option.