Continuing Tales

Hakama Dake

A Rurouni Kenshin Story
by Indygodusk

Part 10 of 16

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After a brisk rinse and a relaxing soak in the tub, where Kaoru kept her mind firmly away from thoughts of anybody, she felt reenergized. It was amazing what feeling clean could do for a woman. Body and mind both felt refreshed, as if she'd bathed in mint leaves instead of water. She loved the feeling of being clean. It made the whole world seem better and brighter.

Do men feel this different after a bath too? Considering Yahiko's proclivity for getting grimy and staying stinky, boys certainly didn't seem to care. But what about men? Kenshin seemed to enjoy taking regular baths. He certainly always smells like something I'd love to wrap myself up in.

If she had been the one still doing the laundry around the house, she might just use it as an excuse to surreptitiously sniff his clothing. But I'd probably get caught and then they'd tease me mercilessly and use those annoying raccoon nicknames even more. It was just as well she didn't do the laundry anymore.

When Kenshin had left for Kyoto, the dirty clothes had piled up for days before anyone had noticed. It was like everything had stopped once he'd gone. In some of her less sane moments she'd wondered if he'd ever been there at all.

The only trace that he'd ever stayed at her dojo at all was the pain in her heart and the slashed-up blue gi he'd left in the changing area of the bathhouse. In his rush to leave for Kyoto, he must have forgotten it had never been stitched up and returned to his room. Either that or it had been abandoned, just like she had been. When he'd left, it had devastated her. During the day she could barely stand to leave her room. Her nights were spent tossing and turning on her futon.

She wasn't proud of her behavior during that time, but his leaving had come as such a painful shock. Surprises always threw her off balance and, blinded by love, she hadn't prepared herself for his actual departure.

When he'd first come to stay with her and gradually brought the others into her home, it had healed her. The lonely place inside her soul scraped raw and bleeding, first by the loss of her family and then by the desertion of her friends and students, had healed over before she even realized it. Young, alone, and for so long secretly scared, she had used his comforting presence as a basis for a newfound happiness.

Though Kenshin had told her that he might leave to wander again, it soon became such an appalling idea that she couldn't bear to even think of it. When Kenshin was around, life was a joy. Optimistic, frightened, or blind, she had refused to acknowledge how fragile her happiness was.

Until he said goodbye to her on a night alight with fireflies. The air had been warm, but her cheeks felt bitterly cold in the darkness of his absence. Even her scalding tears could not permanently warm them. So often a new injury felt numb when first dealt. That night she had not been so lucky. Oh Kami, it had hurt. He'd ripped away her security and serenity in seconds, reopening that tortuous wound she'd thought long since healed in her soul. She recognized her mistake then in relying on him so heavily, but by then it was too late.

His abandonment resurrected an army of painful memories from her past. Every piece of her heart taken to the grave with the death of a loved one, every time an acquaintance, friend, or former student had refused to meet her eye in the marketplace because of vicious rumors, every time she had been forced to be strong because there was no one there to be strong for her – all of these memories flooded her mind, sweeping away her stability and drowning her in sorrow.

After he had gone, she kept imagining that she saw him out of the corner of her eye. In the midst of turning to greet him, she'd remember with a nauseating jolt that he had moved on. No matter how hard she tried to forget, her mind kept replaying how the back of the man she loved most in this world looked as he walked willingly away from her into the night. The only way she could sleep at all was when she'd wrap his forgotten blue gi over her sleeping yukata and bury her nose in the collar, lulled by the scent of ginger and sandalwood.

Even though they had eventually been reunited, Kaoru hadn't returned the gi. She kept it hidden in the bottom of a chest in her room, still just as torn as the day he abandoned it. By now she probably only imagined his faint fragrance in the fabric, especially since she'd been forced to wash it. Nevertheless, she would still sometimes sleep with it wrapped around her shoulders or cuddled to her face.

When she'd made her resolution to forget Kenshin the week before, she had deliberately avoided thinking about the gi smuggled in the bottom of her chest. Rationally, Kaoru knew it should be thrown out or returned, but deep down she just couldn't bear to part with it yet. To avoid having to make a final decision, she kept herself from thinking about it all together.

Coming back to the present, Kaoru shook her head briskly. She should stop dawdling and finish tying up her hair. Kenshin was here now and, if his words of the afternoon were to be believed, seemed here to stay.

Holding a blue ribbon between her teeth, she gathered the mass of her hair into her usual high ponytail before tying it off. While she may not have the most complicated hairstyle, it was convenient, easy to fix, and she'd perfected the art of holding a ribbon in her teeth without drooling on it. Not every girl could say that. As a matter of fact, she didn't think she'd ever heard another girl say that, not that she'd said it out loud herself, but still.

She was sure Kenshin would enjoy a refreshing bath after working on the clinic roof all day, though he hadn't seemed grimy. The traces of powdery dust and slick sweat she'd touched and tasted on his skin had only reinforced the delicious reality of his presence. No, she hadn't minded that at all, though she did wonder how a bath would change things.

Would he taste more intensely Kenshin? Was it possible he could smell even more masculine and intoxicating?

Flustered, she wondered if he ever had thoughts like this. After my bath has he ever imagined the taste of my skin, or wanted to bury his nose into the damp hair at the nape of my neck and inhale?

Letting out a long breath, Kaoru finished making the bow in her ribbon. She felt ready to once again face the world as if nothing had happened, or at least face Sano and Yahiko. She didn't think she would ever be able to face Kenshin again without thinking about what had happened. The true test would come when next she saw him. If she managed to get through the evening without a blush she would count it a miracle.

Whether it was an hour or a week, she always ached when she was apart from him. The events of the afternoon had only strengthened her yearning. She loved the reassuring feel of his skin beneath her fingertips when their hands touched as he passed her tea and the warm, syrupy feeling he created in her stomach when she gazed into his mesmerizing eyes. While she knew such neediness was an overly sentimental weakness, with Kenshin she just couldn't seem to help herself.

A small voice whimpered that perhaps the golden sun really had spawned a golden-eyed delusion and she'd passed out with her limbs spread-eagled on the dojo floor. Or that she'd been staring at the wall daydreaming from start to finish. But no, she'd pretty firmly proved that the events of the afternoon were real. She felt silly enough for thinking he was a fantasy in the first place, she wasn't about to compound her stupidity now. Besides, there were the … marks.

When she'd disrobed to take her bath, she'd been a bit shocked at the state of her body. Her skin seemed hypersensitive to the most glancing touch of cloth or fingers. Just letting down her hair to tumble against the skin of her shoulders and back had sent a shudder rippling through her body.

It wasn't until she'd started unwinding the cloth around her chest that she'd noticed them – brands of passion left on her skin. A scarlet blush had swept from chest to cheeks when she'd run trembling hands across the love marks: small purple bruises and reddish bite marks produced by his lips and teeth. They sprinkled down her shoulders, the top of her breasts, and even her waist.

One she could dismiss as an accident, but thinking back on some of the possessive things he'd whispered before nipping her, she came to the conclusion that his marking had been deliberate. But for what purpose? For her to remember him by when they were apart? Like I could ever forget Kenshin's kisses. Or could it be some mysterious male fixation? Perhaps to other men the marks advertised that she belonged to him?

She'd been so caught up in the whirlwind of arousal that she didn't even remember when or where half of them had come from. For example, she'd swear his lips hadn't ventured that low, but a faint love bite on the lower curve of her stomach proved her wrong. The nip right above her bellybutton though, she quite clearly remembered what he'd been doing when she'd received that.

Kaoru wanted to feel irritated that he'd marked her like some primitive caveman chiseling his name into her body. She wasn't anyone's property! Kamiya Kaoru was a strong, independent woman who could do anything she wanted with anyone.

However, the sad truth was that deep down she didn't feel irritated at all. In fact, she rather liked it. She didn't want anyone else; she had only ever wanted him. A primitive, feminine instinct rejoiced in his claiming. She wanted this strong man to so desire her that he left evidence of his passion on her skin, left signs that she belonged to him and no other.

It worked the other way too. If she could, she'd like to warn all of the other women away, especially a certain foxy female doctor. Yes, and I'd make him walk around with a sign on his chest that read, 'Property of Kamiya Kaoru, touch on pain of my wrath.' Of course the major drawback to that plan was that if he wore a sign on his chest, she wouldn't be able to see the delectable golden skin and sculpted muscles of said chest. Plus it could get in the way during any battles he might have. But she looked at his chest more often than he got into fights, so the first consideration was really the important one. Gah, I did not just think that!

Blinking slightly glazed eyes, Kaoru checked the neckline of her kimono one last time, making sure it was still secure and hiding all of the evidence. Running her fingers over a rough line of stitching where she'd sewn up a tear on her thigh, she wondered how many more repairs this kimono would take. Thank goodness the dark blue fabric's white waves helped to disguise many of her stitches. Of course, if she sewed as neatly as Kenshin it might not look quite as worn down. Unfortunately, sewing and cooking were two things she didn't have much patience for, or aptitude. Living with Yahiko for over a year had left her with no illusions about that.

Looking down at the most recent seam near her shoulder, she realized that it was directly on top of one of Kenshin's love bites. She was definitely taking all of her baths alone until these healed. Tae had invited her to go along to a public bath sometime in the next couple of days to catch up with each other. Now Kaoru would have to make up an excuse not to go. There was no way she could show so many gossipy women the betraying marks on her body. Not and still hold her head up in public, especially since she was still a single woman on her own.

Even if they were married she'd feel too embarrassed to be seen like this by all of her neighbors. Then again, there were always exceptions. She'd have no compunction about 'accidentally' letting a mark show to one of those young hussies who liked to bat their eyelashes at her gorgeous redhead. Ha! He claimed me, not you. I may have taken his sign off, but I still have it and will hit you with it if you bat even one more eyelash. So get lost, you figurative hussy!

However, for now they weren't married so such crowing would have to wait. Perhaps she was getting ahead of herself with such thoughts,but when a man says forever I think a girl has the right to expect marriage at some point. Especially if said girl is willing to attack him with pointy objects if he doesn't propose.

But as for now, she would have to keep herself well covered until they healed. Besides, if Kaoru was really honest with herself, this was all so new and slightly confusing. Never in all of her musings had she expected to find herself in a situation quite like this. For now she just wanted to keep this something private between herself and Kenshin.

She'd feel mortified if anyone saw and asked where the marks had come from. She'd have to cover her head with a tofu bucket to hide her identity and glowing red cheeks. Gearing herself up to leave the safety of the bathhouse, Kaoru just hoped that if such an event ever happened, she'd at least be lucky enough to find a tofu bucket without tofu in it.

Stepping cautiously outside into the patchy sunshine, Kaoru was delighted to see an empty courtyard and a sky still strewn with pillows of clouds. Remember, just act normal, she thought optimistically. Rounding the porch with a spring in her step, Kaoru felt her pace falter at the sight of Sano lounging on the porch against one of the wooden posts, chewing on his ever-present fishbone. She liked to think that he changed them out periodically, but just how long those periods stretched she didn't really know. It was one of those mysteries she wasn't in any hurry to solve, either.

"Evenin' Jou-chan," Sano drawled lazily with a glint in his eyes. Slightly nervous but hoping for the best, she leaned against the next post. "Sano," she acknowledged, "so how did the roof patching go?"

Snorting, he shifted position and replied. "Not much patching and a whole lot of building new shi-," catching her narrowed eyes he hastily changed what he was going to say, "stuff, that's how. I shoulda known by now not to believe that woman when she uses the words 'little' and 'job' in the same sentence."

"Did you have to get someone else to help you two out then? Maybe one of those little boys who live next to the clinic to show you which end of the hammer to hold?" Kaoru teased as she smiled over Megumi's trickery. Since she wasn't a victim this time she found it rather amusing.

When Megumi had returned home to Aizu a few months before, the only good Kaoru had been able to see in it at the time had been the surcease of the constant teasing. But while she'd never admit it, after a few weeks she woke up one day actually missing the Fox's mocking laughter. With both Sano and Megumi gone, and Saito transferred to Hokkaido, life had become a lot quieter. Also a good deal duller, as Kaoru missed the outlet for her energy that the fighting had provided.

When Megumi had decided to return to Tokyo last month, Kaoru hadn't cared why. She was just ecstatic that her friend was back. Of course, Kaoru had conveniently forgotten in the intervening months how really and truly annoying Megumi could be when she was flirting with Kenshin.

Yet not everything was the same. Something had happened while Megumi had been in her family's hometown those months. Just what wasn't clear, but Megumi seemed more centered and happy since she had returned. Kaoru hoped she knew that if she ever wanted to talk, Kaoru was willing to listen. A few times it seemed like Megumi was on the verge of saying something, but so far she had always stopped. Which seems strange since the usual problem with Megumi is that you can't get her to stop, especially when she's flirting with Kenshin… or Sano,Kaoru thought to herself with a secret grin. If the last month was any indication of Megumi's and Sano's feelings, absence certainly had made the heart grow fonder.

"Ha ha," Sano sardonically replied to her teasing about his roofing skills, gripping his fishbone a little tighter in his teeth, "I'll have you know I'm an excellent roofer. Don't need no brats to show me how to get a job done right. In fact, I remember just last year hammerin' away on your roof, and I haven't heard no complaints about leaks ever since," he finished with a glare.

"That's because you abandoned us for months on end while you traveled the world and haven't been around when it rains," Kaoru rejoined. Seeing his glare turn into a semi-guilty frown she lightened her teasing. "Though it really hasn't started leaking… yet." Once again proving his maturity, Sano stuck his tongue out at Kaoru.

"I'm a very hard worker," Sano boasted. Scowling at her disbelieving laughter he grudgingly finished, "when I feel like it." As Kaoru continued to laugh he further conceded, "Which isn't very often. But hey, why not take life easy if you can? As long as I know I can work hard, there's no need to prove it to anyone else."

"Oh Sano," Kaoru gasped through her laughter, "how I've missed you."

"I missed you too, Jou-chan. After all," he smiled, "out of everyone in Tokyo, I chose your place to stay at. I may be a freeloader, but I have standards," he ended with an upraised finger and cheeky grin.

"Well, since I can't think of a reply that doesn't now insult myself," she grumbled good-naturedly after a moment of considering and rejecting several comebacks, "I'll let you go talk to Kenshin and decide who gets to use the bathhouse next." Quite proud of her scheme to avoid Kenshin for a little bit longer, at least until she was sure she wouldn't try to either run away or cling to him like an octopus, Kaoru straightened up to leave. Feeling quite congratulatory as she smoothed the wrinkles out of her dark blue kimono, it took her a moment to understand the implications of Sano's next question.

"Speaking of Kenshin, what were the two of you up to that made him so slow to open the gate?" As her mind raced, Sano continued with his poking, "After all, a man with god-like speed would have to be mighty distracted by something to take that long."

Kaoru hated lying. Not necessarily because of the moral implications, but more because she was simply awful at it. Somehow people always seemed to know, like it was inked on her forehead in glowing red symbols. However, the gods seemed to be favoring her today so perhaps she had a chance getting away with it this time. After all, what else would have made Kenshin finally act like that but divine intervention?

Putting on her most innocent face she replied, "I'd finally perfected a kata I've been working on for years and asked to show Kenshin the result." Wow that was even sort of true, except for the trying to show him part. Kenshin just sort of showed up unexpectedly, not that I'm complaining! Despite her traitorous mind's attempt to wallow in the memory, Kaoru forced herself to keep going. Keeping an image of Sano, Yahiko, and Megumi all pointing and laughing helped to ground her in the moment."He was kind enough to let me finish before answering the gate. I'm sorry it took so long."

"Hmm," was his inscrutable reply. How am I supposed to tell if he bought it or not if all he'll say is "hmm?" She tried waiting for more, but instead of saying anything his eyes just started twinkling.

"Well, are you going to go take your bath now or not?" Kaoru asked in annoyance. Still not answering, Sano just kept staring at her and chewing on his fishbone. Blowing her bangs out of her face, Kaoru snapped. "Stop it, Sanosuke!" A large grin slowly overtook his twitching lips. Deciding to ignore him, Kaoru turned around and stomped inside.

Reaching the hallway outside of her room, Kaoru hesitated. Perhaps she should go back and talk to Sano again? What if he knew? Perhaps she could say something to convince him that he was mistaken? Quelling the panicky feeling strangling her chest, she decided against it.Sano's not that bright, right? Right? He was probably just teasing me. Not entirely comforted but unwilling to think about it anymore, she decided to take a short nap before dinner. Walking into her room, she turned and shut the shoji.

A moment later, her head poked back into the hallway. Glancing left and right, she made certain that no one was around before padding quickly and silently down the hall. Focusing on the shiny bone needle sticking out of the sleeve of Kenshin's magenta gi, she hesitated. Obviously he'd been interrupted and set the gi down on the small lacquered table in the hall before he'd finished sewing it. When did he tear this? Strongly tempted, Kaoru chewed on her lower lip as she glanced up and down the hall again. Would he come back for it before dinner tonight? Perhaps I shouldn't. After all, I still have his blue gi, even if it smells more like me now than him.

Bending over, she took a slight whiff of the fabric. Ginger and sandalwood. Snatching up the magenta gi, careful not to prick herself on the needle, she ran back to her room and quickly slid the shoji closed.

Hakama Dake

A Rurouni Kenshin Story
by Indygodusk

Part 10 of 16

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