Continuing Tales

Hakama Dake

A Rurouni Kenshin Story
by Indygodusk

Part 11 of 16

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Gentle knocking woke Kaoru up from the most delicious sleep she'd experienced in a very long time. Burrowing her nose deeper into the fabric covering Kenshin's arm, she inhaled contentedly. The staccato knocking came again, this time a little louder.

Pouting at the disturbance of her comfortable nook she demanded, "Kenshin, tell them to go away." At least that's what she intended to say. Refusing to lift her face from its happy place, what actually came out was a mumbled mishmash of, "Kenshi, tem go 'way." A few moments of blessed silence followed. Rubbing her nose against his arm affectionately, she started to drift back to sleep.

"Ah, I am most sorry Kaoru-dono, but it is time for dinner, that it is. If you sleep any longer I fear that Yahiko and Sano will eat all of the food, that they will."

Evil ingrates, was Kaoru's first thought. Then she realized that Kenshin's voice had come from outside of the shoji. He can throw his voice? That's kinda creepy. I hope he doesn't have one of those weird puppets stashed in his room that he can make talk. Last time I saw one of those I had nightmares for a week. Of course, I was only… sev…en. As sleep descended again, her thoughts slowed.

"Kaoru-dono? Kaoru-dono, you need to wake up now, that you do." Lifted closer to wakefulness again, Kaoru scrunched her nose in displeasure but still refused to open her eyes, despite his gently insistent voice.

"Little Shihandai," his suddenly low-pitched and husky voice reached into the room, "if you make me come in there to wake you up, I guarantee we won't be coming out until breakfast tomorrow, no matter what Yahiko and Sano might say in the morning."

Springing up from her futon into a sitting position, Kaoru blinked gummy eyes open and gurgled out, "I'm 'wake, I'm awake." From the other side of the shoji she heard a sigh. "Pity," he murmured wickedly before his deliberately audible footsteps moved back down the corridor towards the kitchen.

Walking away? But he's right her- Looking at where she expected Kenshin to be, she instead saw only her own left arm wrapped in Kenshin's magenta gi. She was alone. And she'd made Kenshin go away by saying she was awake. Idiot. As she tried to lift the gi up for a closer look, she realized that something was wrong. Her arm wouldn't move. Cocooned in the gi, her arm's dead weight dangled from her shoulder and no matter how hard she concentrated, not even a finger would twitch. The arm she'd snuggled into as she woke up had been her own and, unable to feel any sensation, she'd assumed the smell and texture of Kenshin's gi meant his presence. Double the idiot.

What if he'd noticed the missing gi in the hallway? Of course he noticed, Kenshin notices everything! Panic provided the push she needed to finally come fully awake. Before she could descend into full-blown hysteria however, a small voice piped up in her head. Just like he noticed that you've been in love with him forever? While that was probably a little bit different from her current dilemma, Kaoru decided to latch onto it anyway. She didn't know what she'd say when she saw Kenshin again, but she did know that she wanted to look pretty.

Slowing her breathing, she unwound the gi from her arm and proceeded to get dressed. When she'd laid down for a nap she'd changed into her sleeping yukata. Of course, getting changed with only one arm proved to be rather challenging. She only got as far as the obi before growling in defeat.

Digging out some more words learned from Sano, Kaoru massaged her arm until the painful tingles struck. When a loud oath escaped her mouth she glanced abashedly towards the closed shoji. The minute Sano came back to town my language went downhill again. Sighing at her unladylike mouth, she finished tying her obi. I may curse like a… well, a Sano, but at least the tie of my obi looks very feminine.

Not ready but knowing she could delay no longer, she opened the shoji and glanced up and down the hall. Satisfied that it was empty, she retrieved the magenta gi she'd stolen and slept with. Kaoru made sure to reinsert the needle into the sleeve, though she couldn't for the life of her remember which sleeve it had been. No time to panic now, just go. Replacing the gi on the small lacquered table in the hall, she squared her shoulders and marched off towards the dining room.

When Kaoru walked into the room, she brought with her the familiar scent of jasmine. Kenshin felt muscles unclench that he hadn't even noticed were tense. Taking his time, he allowed his eyes to drink in her appearance.

Irrationally he felt disappointed that nothing in her form advertised the change in their relationship. While he didn't think it was yet time for Yahiko and Sano to know and offer their opinions, he had hoped for some subtle sign of their time in the dojo and how she was now his. But the hair he'd so carnally disheveled was neatly tied up and the crossed collar of her kimono hid all of his love marks. Her lips still seemed slightly swollen from his kisses, but it might just as easily have been a remnant of her nap. Kenshin had wished for at least a meaningful exchanged look, but even in that it seemed he was to be disappointed.

However, the fact that she was quite determinedly not looking in his direction at all proved in his mind that she was anything but unaffected by his presence. After entering the room she had glanced quickly in his direction before retreating towards Yahiko, the color high in her cheeks as she settled herself down and immediately began riling her student up by calling him the most dreaded epithet for the proud boy: Yahiko-chan.

Allowing a slight smile to curve his lips, Kenshin decided to wait a bit before he pounced. His little innocent obviously wasn't sure how to act around him after their interlude in the dojo. As he walked into the kitchen to bring out their dinner, he heard Sano's voice join their lively bantering.

Tonight's meal was not one of his best creations. Even if the vegetables had been plump and shining he still didn't think it would have turned out well. If Sano hadn't come in to inform him of the empty bathhouse, waking him from his daydreams, they all might have been eating leftover rice and half-raw, half-burnt vegetables past their prime. While it might have been comparable to Kaoru's cooking on a good day, Kenshin would have felt shamed. He knew how hard Kaoru worked for their food. The least she deserved from him was a well cooked meal without any food going to waste.

Thanks to Sano and the excuse of a late start to the cooking, everyone should be satisfied, even if they weren't delighted, about the quality of the meal. Returning with the rice, vegetables, and grilled fish, Kenshin placed the food on the table in the midst of his squabbling companions. One more trip to the kitchen brought the steaming teapot. He'd been planning on cold tea for dinner, but with the advent of the storm this afternoon the weather had cooled down slightly. Being able to drink hot tea again was his celebration of the cooler temperature.

As soon as Kenshin sat down on his cushion everyone quieted down. "Itadakimasu," they all chorused together in thanks for the food before digging in. Tasting the fish, Kenshin was pleased to find that it was not nearly as bad as he had feared.

Over the sounds of clicking chopsticks and serving spoons, Yahiko was simultaneously trying to shovel rice into his mouth and tell them all about an amusing customer at the Akabeko.

"Yahiko, how many times have I told you not to talk with food in your mouth!" Kaoru yelled with exasperation. With a loud and painful sounding gulp he swallowed, then stuck his tongue out and pulled the bottom of one eyelid down in response.

Kenshin wasn't sure where it had come from, but suddenly a shinai appeared in Kaoru's white-fisted hands. Had she stashed it under the table before dinner? Not too concerned with the mystery, he took another bite of rice. Kaoru then proceeded to bop Yahiko over the head with it, causing his face to squish into his vegetables. Wrenching himself up, Yahiko bared his teeth in anger but, after muttering something insulting, went back to his food.

"One of these days you are going to choke, and you can bet when you do I'll be laughing instead of hitting you on the back," Kaoru glowered back before taking a violent bite of her fish.

"You're always hitting me anyway, I'd probably be grateful to choke to death rather than be whacked again," he grumbled in a very poor attempt at sub-vocalization. Kaoru blushed and took a quick glance toward and away from Kenshin's face. Her red cheeks seemed equal parts rage at Yahiko and shame over her unladylike manners.

Doesn't she know by now that I love her exuberance? She wouldn't be the Kaoru he loved without it. Of course, on those days when she turned her temper on him he could wish for a little more moderation.

As Sano reached for the boy's face, Yahiko instinctively flinched back. However, the street fighter only peeled a pickle off of Yahiko's cheek and plopped it into his own mouth. "Hey," Yahiko yelped, "that was mine!"

With a beatific smile Sano replied, "I was only trying to save your life. Choking to death on a pickle is no way to go for an aspiring Tokyo Samurai. Besides, it would break poor Tsubame-chan's heart, ne Yahiko-chan?" With a howl, Yahiko leapt from his seat and attacked, gnawing on Sano and attempting to twist his rooster head off.

During the scuffle, Kaoru and Kenshin continued to calmly eat their food. Interspersed between bites were Kenshin's attempts to catch Kaoru's gaze with his own. Every time he tried he seemed to barely miss her eyes as they darting away. Noticing Kaoru's empty teacup and the way her pink tongue had just peeked out to moisten her upper lip, Kenshin took a deep breath and reached for the teapot. "Would you like more tea, Kaoru… dono?" Staring at her glistening lips, he couldn't keep his voice from deepening.

Languidly lifting her long sooty eyelashes, she met his gaze for the first time that night. To Kenshin, it felt almost like a missing puzzle piece clicking into place with a burst of white-hot light. "Yes, please Kenshin," she replied after a moment. Each syllable of his name spoken in her slightly breathy voice sent a jolt through his body.

Keeping his attention fixed on her cerulean eyes and pink-tinged cheeks, he poured her tea without looking. Desperately he tried not to imaging her mouthing those same words in a different and more intimate situation. He could clearly see the bead of moisture resting on the corner of her bottom lip, just begging to be licked off. In their intimate pocket of silence the stream of pouring tea tinkled, releasing a puff of jasmine scented steam. Peripherally he could hear Sano and Yahiko winding down their scuffle. Somehow he needed to wrench his gaze away from her mesmerizing features before anyone noticed.

In the end, it took outside intervention to break his reverie. When Sano finally managed to throw Yahiko off, Kenshin had the misfortune of being distracted and in the way. One of Yahiko's flailing arms smacked into Kenshin's shoulder, upsetting his concentration and hold on the clay teapot. Luckily Kenshin managed to catch the fragile teapot before it smashed into the wooden table.

Not, however, before hot tea had splashed onto his hand. Carefully setting the teapot down, he hissed quietly and brought his scalded fingers to his mouth. Hearing a soft whimper, he quickly looked up through his lashes at Kaoru, barely in time to catch the dart of her retreating tongue as she stared fixedly at the hand he had just licked. Feeling his lips form a wicked smile against the palm of his hand, Kenshin waited for their eyes to meet. When they did, her lips parted in a soundless gasp.

As much as he wanted to pounce on her right now, Yahiko was joggling his elbow anxiously. "I'm so sorry Kenshin; I didn't mean to hit you, really!"

Closing his eyes for a moment to regain control, he turned away from Kaoru and towards the upset boy. As he opened his eyes again he thought he heard her mutter something that sounding suspiciously like, "if only… tea… bellybutton." He'd have to ask her later just what she had meant.

"Maa maa, a little tea will not harm this unworthy one, that it will not." Patting Yahiko consolingly on the shoulder, he rotated his hand for inspection. "See, no harm done my friend, that there is not."

"Yeah, sorry Kenshin," Sano admitted contritely as he settled himself back down on his cushion. "Jou-chan," he added as his eyes flicked to the almost broken teapot.

Everyone started eating again as conversation turned back to more general topics. Unable to keep himself from touching her any longer, especially not after she had said his name like that, Kenshin unobtrusively slipped his hand behind her body to softly touch her back just above her obi. Immediately Kaoru's cheeks flushed and her lips parted. Delicately he traced the kanji of his name like a brand over her back. Flustered, she dropped her chopsticks, but the others were too busy arguing over the last pickle to notice. He smiled quietly in satisfaction. As Yahiko finally won the pickle through trickery, Kenshin began varying his strokes, tracing the symbols for love, beauty, courage, dearest, and forever in circles around her spine.

"Oi, Kenshin," Sano voice broke in, shattering the intimate moment. "Is there any more rice in the kitchen?" For a brief moment Kenshin was seized with the impulse to lift the man up and fling him into the kitchen to find out for himself.

Letting out a long breath he regretfully lifted his fingers from Kaoru's warm back and stood up. "I'll go get it." He could use a moment alone in the kitchen to compose himself anyway. Perhaps his words had been a bit abrupt, but Kaoru would understand why, Yahiko was too absorbed in tipping the remnants of his bowl down his throat to notice, and Sano could take it any way he liked.

A family dinner was probably not the right time to continue their actions from the dojo. Therefore he decided to try and keep his hands to himself until after dinner. Then he would get her alone and reacquaint himself with those moist lips. After all, he had to teach her not to feel skittish around him before tomorrow's dinner, right? Until then, however, he would behave.

By the time he returned, Sano had already started a long and involved story about being stuck on a becalmed ship for over a week with only weevil-ridden bread to eat. In the midst of the story, Kenshin watched as Kaoru's graceful figure surreptitiously rose and opened the shoji a bit farther to maximize the breeze twirling through the room. Yahiko let out an unconscious sigh of contentment from his sprawl on the floor as the wind tousled his hair.

"But why didn't they just eat rice?" the boy inquired, his forehead crinkled in confusion. Kenshin smiled. He'd heard about this before but decided not to steal Sano's thunder.

"Well," Sano began with a twinkle in his eye as he placed one finger next to his nose and winked, "there are several answers to that question. Do you know what a weevil looks like?"

Yahiko's nose scrunched up in thought before he answered. "Well, kinda like a maggot right? Small and white and sorta shaped like," his forehead smoothed as he looked up in enlightenment, "like rice!"

"Correct!" Sano answered. "So if weevils look like rice, it's harder for people to tell what's food and what's bug. Of course," he began with a sly look in his chestnut eyes, "some sailors develop a taste for them, say it adds protein to their diet and that they like the crunchy texture."

"Eww, Sano!" Kaoru exclaimed in revulsion.

Trust Sano to ruin any romantic mood without even knowing it. You're trying to keep your hands to yourself anyway, remember?

Yahiko, of course, seemed delighted by the idea of eating bugs. "Did you ever eat them, did ya' Sano?"

"Well," he began.

"I'm not listening to this," Kaoru stated as she put her hands over her ears. However the twinkle in her eyes and loose placement of her hands belied her words.

"It wasn't that I ever grew fond of the buggers, but after a few weeks they are in all of the food. After a while it gets to be too much effort to avoid them all," Sano explained.

Lowering her hands Kaoru teased, "And we all know to what lengths you'll go to avoid effort."

Tattooing his heels on the tatami, Yahiko asked, "So what are the other reasons, Sano?"

"You see, a lots of sailors consider it too dangerous to keep rice just to feed the crew," Sano explained. "The only way they'll do it is if they're guaranteed a good profit from its sale at the end of the journey."

"But that makes no sense," Kaoru exclaimed. "What's dangerous about rice?"

"Yeah," Yahiko seconded. "Unless Kaoru cooked it. I would refuse to keep that, too." Another shinai thwack to the head was Kaoru's response. "Damn it, Busu, leave me alone!" Yahiko yelled while clutching at his scalp.

"I would if you'd stop insulting me, and what have I said about swearing inside my house, Yahiko-chan?" Kaoru yelled back. Thus began their usual exchange of a few dozen rounds of "busu"s, bruises, and "Yahiko-chan"s.

During their argument Kenshin went into the kitchen again and put together a new pot of tea. He'd heard it all so many times before that he could recite it in his sleep, complete with choreography. Shaking the tea leaves out into the pot to steep, he thought about how these familiar arguments had come to mean the sounds of home. Voices raised in annoyance, yes, but empty of malice and full of an underlying - though if asked both would claim a very underlying - affection and belonging.

Returning to the dining room with the tea tray, Kenshin caught a flash of light from the corner of his eye. The primal nature of thunder storms had always appealed to him in a deep and visceral way. Mid-step he turned, switching directions to go over and look out the shoji into the dusky sky blanketed with slate gray, dark purple, and, near the horizon, lilac clouds. A few strips of variegated molten orange on the very edge of the western sky betrayed the setting sun. In the east another flash of lightning illuminated the darkening sky for a shining moment before disappearing. Seconds later a rolling boom vibrated through the air.

"Is the storm starting up again?" Yahiko's excited voice suddenly asked at his elbow.

The argument must have ended while he'd been caught up in the storm. "That it is. Let us have our tea on the porch and hear the rest of Sano's explanation. Then we can watch the sky at the same time, that we can."

"That's a wonderful idea, Kenshin," Kaoru said, smiling at him in a way that made him feel taller than a pine tree. Setting the tea tray down outside, he made himself comfortable. Touching his shoulder momentarily for support, Kaoru knelt down by his side on the veranda. Once everyone was seated, she elegantly poured out the tea. She really had more grace than she gave herself credit for. Kenshin hoped no one noticed how the two of them kept sneaking glances at each other.

"So, Sano," Yahiko prodded, "you still have to tell us just how rice can be dangerous." As he spoke the last word another crack of lightning split the sky, followed by a deep growl of thunder that reverberated through the wooden boards of the porch. There was a moment of silence while they all looked at each other.

Then they burst out laughing.

"Oooh, it sounds like we're getting ready for a horror story. Is Yahiko too young for this? Should he worry about nightmares where rice monsters come to get him?" joked Kaoru with a grin. Everyone but the boy in question laughed again.

"Ha ha, very funny, Kaoru. Maybe we should be more worried about your nightmares and what sort of comfort objects they might require, hmm?" he rejoined sarcastically.

Confused as to just what Yahiko was referring to, Kenshin watched Kaoru go white, then red and lunge towards Yahiko with her hands outstretched. "Why you little-," she started to say before both Sano and Kenshin caught her arms from behind.

"Come on Jou-chan, calm down or you'll never get to hear the end of my story," Sano pleaded. Huffing to herself, Kaoru stopped her struggles to get free and settled back down onto her knees.

During the struggle Kenshin had to admit he'd taken shameless advantage of her distraction to touch her as he'd been longing to do again since he'd gone to get Sano's rice. With only one hand grasping her smoothly muscled arm, earned during a lifetime of kendo practices, his other was left free to finger a few strands of her silky jasmine scented hair where it cascaded down her back. Instead of soothing his appetite, it only inflamed his desire to corner her after this friendly dinner and find again that hint of grapefruit mixed with jasmine he'd discovered in her lips and on the skin just below her ear.

Of course, the way she'd squeezed his thigh affectionately just before settling down wasn't helping his attempts to stay cool either. Shifting his weight a bit uncomfortably, he waited for Sano to continue and distract him from his discomfort.

"Where was I?" Sano questioned. "Ah yes, dangerous rice. Ships have been ferrying rice across the ocean for hundreds of years, and for just as many years there have been stories of tragedy: ships disappearing, cargos lost, and sailors betrayed by Lady Luck into the arms of the ravenous ocean." Another crash of thunder shook the porch, but by this time Sano was on a roll and unwilling to stop, even for divine theatrics.

"We all know what happens when you add a handful of rice to a pot of water. Now imagine containers the size of this dojo filled with rice. All of that rice is separated from the vast ocean of water only by the thin wooden keel of the ship. Even a small leak can mean disaster. Once the water starts to soak into the rice, it's either dump the cargo immediately or lose the ship. I've heard stories of ships literally split apart like broken eggs by the force of the expanding rice. Not even metal can withstand the pressure. As soon as the ship sinks, the sailors are stranded in the water miles from the closest shore and, once in the water, all of the sailors inevitably drown – the lucky ones at least. The unlucky ones are eaten by hideous creatures from the watery depths."

Looking at the wide eyes and rapt expressions of his audience, Sano smiled evilly. "I guess sea monsters like adding protein and a crunchy texture to their diets too."

"Sano!" Kaoru and Yahiko yelled in unison, double-teaming a cackling Sano until he was flat on his back and crying out for surrender.

After Kenshin rescued three teacups midair that had gotten kicked off of the porch, everyone calmed down again. The dishes were being returned to the kitchen and Kenshin was trying to figure out how to get Sano and Yahiko to do the cleanup so he could corner Kaoru that much sooner. He didn't hold out a lot of hope unless something drastic happened.

At this point he was almost tempted to flash his yellow eyes and growl to get them scrambling. No one else needed to know that it was lust and not anger that caused his eye color change. But no, he didn't want his friends to be afraid of him. He could be patient for a little while longer.

"Oi, runt," Sano grunted in Yahiko's direction. "Now's a good time."

"Good time for what?" rang out Kaoru's voice as she came in from the porch with the tea tray.

"For your surprise," smirked Sano.

Kenshin saw Kaoru's perplexed eyes jump to his face, but he didn't know what this was about either. Wait, could this have something to do with the reason Yahiko came running to the clinic to grab Sano this afternoon?

"Sit down and close your eyes, Kaoru," Yahiko instructed after she'd dropped off the dishes in the kitchen.

"Why?" she asked suspiciously. Considering the pranks those two played on each other, Kenshin couldn't entirely blame her.

"Just do it Jou-chan, or you'll ruin the surprise," came the order from Sano.

"Oh all right, but I depend on you," she said, pointing at Kenshin, "to defend me from anything underhanded." Though she sounded disgruntled, a smile kept breaking through the scowl she tried to pin on her face.

Kneeling down by the table, she closed her eyes and intertwined her fingers in her lap. As Yahiko entered the room again, Kenshin saw her tilt her head in the boy's direction. "I don't hear anything croaking or squeaking, so can I assume it isn't a slimy or furry surprise?"

An evil grin lifted Yahiko's lips and Kenshin felt a moment of worry. "If you'd stay like that for five more minutes I could go and find something," the boy offered.

"Absolutely not!" was her rapid reply as she started to rise up, but with her eyes still closed.

"Alright, alright," Yahiko placated. Holding out a mysterious bundle wrapped in a cloth of leaf green, Yahiko suddenly looked shy. "Okay, you can open your eyes now."

Hakama Dake

A Rurouni Kenshin Story
by Indygodusk

Part 11 of 16

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