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Twenty

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Kaoru absently wiped at the sweat on her face, trying to ignore the man standing expectantly by the door. She had come to teach at a dojo across town, hoping that time away from him would help her clear her head and get a better perspective on things. However, in her haste to get away from him, she’d forgotten her umbrella. And a certain infuriating redhead just had to follow her and bring it, grinning his rurouni smile and saying how ‘Sessha couldn’t possibly allow Kaoru-dono to get wet.’ Upon hearing that, she’d felt her heart crack a little more but kept her face impassive, a skill built up from over a year of practice. She’d tried to send him back, but he’d insisted on waiting for her. Unwilling to cause a scene, she had acquiesced and resumed teaching.

Right then, the last student left and she couldn’t avoid him any longer. She walked over to him, but couldn’t quite manage a smile. Without speaking, Kaoru waited for him to open the umbrella then they headed out into the pouring rain. The rain drummed steadily on the umbrella and she didn’t try to speak. She thought that he tried to speak a couple of times, but when she looked over, he merely shrugged and played with the handle.

The silence between them was an odd thing, not heavy exactly, but not their usual comfortable silence. Kaoru sighed inaudibly. She wasn’t one to brood, if she had a problem or something was worrying her, she usually just came out with it. But lately she’d had a lot on her mind and she found herself withdrawing from those around her while she tried to figure out what to do. This was something that she had to figure out for herself, but she still felt guilty about shutting Kenshin out. She turned her head towards him and was about to speak when something moved in her peripheral vision. Turning her head back, she was surprised to see a young woman struggling to carry an armful of packages and handle her umbrella at the same time. Right then, the woman tripped and fell hard, sending her umbrella and packages flying.

Kenshin immediately ran to her side, leaving Kaoru standing unprotected in the pouring rain. She hurried after him, feeling the moisture already starting to seep through her clothes. However, she couldn’t fault him for rushing to help someone. It was one of things that she loved about him. She reached their side right as he helped the girl into a sitting position. She caught her breath as she realized how lovely the young woman was. Her jet black hair was swept up in a feminine hairdo that went perfectly with her delicate pink kimono. A gentle blush covered her cheeks, drawing the eye to her dainty nose, rich chocolate eyes, and porcelain skin. A shy smile graced her lips, making her look like an adorable china doll.

Kenshin’s voice was a deep rumble from where he knelt by her, “Are you ok, miss?”

Peeking through her lashes, she replied, her voice soft and sweet. “My ankle, I, I think I twisted it.”

He handed her his umbrella to protect them from the rain while he deftly checked her ankle. Agreeing with her assessment, he insisted on carrying her to her home, which she told them was just up the street. Making sure that she had a firm grip on the umbrella, he didn’t even glance Kaoru’s way before starting off.

Kaoru felt her heart ache at this. She knew that she should be glad that he thought that she was capable of taking care of herself, but it hurt that he was so wrapped up in this lovely stranger that he couldn’t even take the time to make sure that she was still there. Gathering up the girl’s packages, she covered them with the girl’s umbrella best she could to keep them from getting any wetter before reluctantly following after Kenshin and that girl. She tilted her face up slightly into the rain, trying desperately to hold onto her upbeat façade. She didn’t need total strangers to see her heartbreak. Finally she reached the closed door and knocked awkwardly with her foot. A young boy answered the door, his expression sullen, “What?”

She held out the packages, “Your sister dropped these.”

He grabbed them and dumped them unceremoniously inside the door. Staring at her, he asked rudely, “Why’re you all wet? Too stupid to get out of the rain?”

Biting back the urge to snap at him, she said, “My companion carried your sister home, is he still here?”

He snorted. “You mean the idiot my sister’s determined to marry? Yeah, he’s still here.”

Hearing the umbrella creak where she was gripping it too tightly, she abruptly thrust it into his hands. “Tell him that I’m going on ahead.”

She turned and walked away, the rain allowing her to hide the fact that a couple of tears had escaped and rolled down her face. She walked sedately for several minutes before finally reaching the dojo. Kenshin had not rejoined her. Soaked to the bone, she stumbled wearily into the dojo, jumping in shock when Yahiko yelled, “Oy, Busu!”

Turning to face him, she saw him suddenly frown, concern evident on his face. “Kaoru, are you ok?”

Wondering what he saw in her face to make him concerned enough to use her name, she straightened and smiled wearily. “I’m fine, Yahiko-chan. Just tired is all.”

He exclaimed, but it lacked its usual heat, his concern still plainly evident. “Why don’t you eat? Kenshin cooked already.”

She shook her head and looked down briefly. “Nah, not hungry. I’m just going to bathe and go to bed, k?”

He nodded slowly, his expression uncertain. “Are you sure you’re ok?”

She ruffled his hair, “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Also, you have tomorrow off. I won’t be doing any training.”

Turning away before he could ask her why, she left the room, feeling Yahiko’s worried gaze bore into her back.

* . * . * . * . * . * . * . * . * . * . * . * . * . * . *

Kenshin lifted the injured young woman easily and took off towards where she said she lived, certain that Kaoru would be right behind him. All he wanted to do was get this girl home so he could resume his walk with Kaoru. Something was bothering her and he had planned to talk to her on the way home. It was why he’d brought her the umbrella, so they’d have a chance to talk without someone interrupting them. He’d been just about to speak when they’d seen the young woman trip and fall. He’d been frustrated about being interrupted when he’d just scraped up the courage to speak, but he couldn’t in good conscious just leave the girl lying there.

Cursing the misfortune that had caused her ankle to be sprained badly enough to need to be carried, he knocked on the door and waited impatiently. It was opened swiftly by a middle aged woman, obviously her mother. An odd combination of surprise and resignation crossed quickly over her face and she motioned for him to come in. She led him to the living room and directed him to place her in a chair.

Kenshin lowered the young woman gently into the chair her mother had indicated. She clung to him before reluctantly releasing him, settling in and handing him the umbrella, smiling up at him. He closed it out of politeness, frowning slightly as he suddenly realized that he’d left Kaoru without an umbrella in his haste to get the girl home. He turned to head back to Kaoru when he was sidetracked by the mother forcefully offering him a towel.

Feeling a light tug on his sleeve, he turned back to see the girl looking up at him in a way that made him uncomfortable, subconscious warning bells going off. If he didn’t know better, he would almost say that she was looking at him adoringly, but with a flirtatious edge to it. He was trying to politely ease his sleeve from her grip, wanting to get back to Kaoru without delay, when she suddenly turned and started gushing to her mother about how strong and kind he was, how he’d carried her so easily, etc, etc.

Feeling increasingly edgy and uncomfortable, he was relieved when she finally released his sleeve. Right then, her mother offered him a cup of tea and he couldn’t politely refuse. Feeling his frustration grow, he reluctantly accepted the cup, his worry growing about Kaoru. She should’ve been there by now, she had been right behind him, hadn’t she? He knew that she could take care of herself, but she should’ve been here by this point and her absence was making the Battosai stir uneasily. Glancing at the door, he saw a sullen looking boy slip into the room and settle against the wall, a scowl on his face. And still the girl talked, not allowing him to get a word in edgewise.

Finally, after several minutes during which Kenshin grew more and more agitated, she paused to breath and he seized his chance. “Sessha is sorry, but sessha needs to go. Sessha was walking Kaoru-dono home and sessha needs to get back to her.” So caught up in his need to escape, he missed the brief flash of anger in the girl’s eyes.

The boy snorted and Kenshin turned to look at him expectantly.

Hunching his shoulders slightly at his intense scrutiny, the boy grudgingly spoke, “She came by with the packages and umbrella. Looked like a drowned rat. Said to tell you she was going ahead.”

Worried, Kenshin swiftly excused himself. Hurrying to the dojo, he thought about Kaoru. Something had been, off, about her lately. That’s why he had wanted to talk to her today. She had been withdrawn lately, not brooding, more like deep sadness. Even her ki was reflecting this, her usual fire dull and contained. Something was weighing heavily on her mind. He’d even found her staring absently at the calendar several times in the past few weeks. He’d tried asking several times subtly what the matter was, but she’d brushed him off, retreating behind a mask of cheerfulness.

He let himself into the dojo and made his way to the kitchen. He was surprised to see Yahiko standing there, a concerned, thoughtful look on his face.

Seeing no sign of Kaoru, he asked, “Hello, Yahiko-kun. Have you seen Kaoru-dono?”

Yahiko turned absently towards him, “Hey Kenshin. She came through a few minutes ago, soaking wet. What happened? I thought that you went to fetch her?”

“I did, but someone needed sessha’s help, so she went ahead, that she did.” He felt a flare of irritation at that girl for delaying him so long, but carefully kept his rurouni persona in place. “Why don’t you fetch Kaoru-dono while sessha starts warming the miso soup?”

Yahiko gave a quick shake of his head. “She’s not hungry. She just took a quick bath and went to bed. Is something wrong with her?” He was trying so hard to be casual, but Kenshin saw the deep rooted fear of losing her shining in his eyes.

Kenshin laid a hand reassuringly on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Yahiko. Kaoru-dono is tired is all, that she is. Nothing more. If something is bothering her, we’ll take care of it, right?”

Some of the worry seemed to ease from Yahiko’s shoulders. “Of course, Busu’s ours to take care of. Probably some stupid girly thing anyway. Is dinner ready?”

Glad that he’d eased Yahiko’s worries, Kenshin set about serving them. Still, he was secretly very worried. Something was going on with Kaoru and he was going to get to the bottom of it if it was the last thing he ever did.