AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks for the reviews! They are much appreciated! There will probably be one more chapter after this one. Please let me know if you have any comments/suggestions. EDIT: I made a couple of small edits since uploading earlier today.
Kenshin, Megumi, Sano, and Yahiko all stood practically motionless after Kaoru's outburst. It wasn't that Kaoru's emotional explosion was terribly unusual. She tended to wear her heart on her sleeve, and each of them had been the target of her fiery personality more than once or twice. It was more the vulnerability of her outburst that caught them by surprise. Kaoru was generally a very confident person, and her anger in the past had never been about her own perceived weaknesses.
Sano broke the silence. "Come on Fox, why do you always have to rile her up like that?"
"Me?" Megumi replied. "I didn't call her ugly. I meant that she looks so strong and capable, a bandit would feel too afraid to attack her." She folded her arms in a confident manner, her defense convincing exactly no one.
"Well it's definitely not entirely your fault. Yahiko-chan here is the one who calls her busu all the time. Shouldn't you be grateful that she's teaching you and feeding you?"
Sano's accusation activated Yahiko's surprisingly well-developed sense of guilt, and he pulled his arms in, making himself look smaller.
"I guess so..." the war between relieving his guilt and avoiding responsibility played itself out on Yahiko's face. Eventually, avoidance won. "But it was Kenshin that made her mad, though!" he said indignantly.
Kenshin had been silent during the whole discussion, his face concerned but also pensive. He seemed genuinely surprised by Yahiko's accusation.
"This one did not think he was saying anything offensive," he said, confused.
"I hate to say it, but I think the little squirt's right," said Sano. "Yahiko and the Fox have teased Kaoru before, and she didn't react like this. It must be Kenshin's fault."
"Orororo…" Kenshin looked dazed.
Megumi chimed in, "Yes, Yahiko and my comments didn't help, but it was definitely Kenshin that caused this."
"But Megumi-dono, this one honestly doesn't know what he did wrong," Kenshin said, almost pleadingly.
"Oh Ken-san, you're too innocent to realize that what you said was possibly the most heart-breaking thing a woman can hear."
"Megumi-dono, what did this one say? Please, this one would like to fix it. This one does not like to see Kaoru-dono unhappy."
Megumi was about to respond when Sano gave her a look that said,"Are you sure it's your place to say what you're about to say?". She stopped, and looked thoughtful for a moment before responding.
"Ken-san, I can't tell you everything. A lot of the answers you're looking for are Kaoru's to tell. But I will say that no woman enjoys hearing that another woman is beautiful in her presence. It may not be logical, but when a man says, 'that other woman is beautiful,' we tend to hear, '...and you are not.'"
"But Kaoru-dono is such a practical, straightforward person. It never seemed like she cared about that kind of thing," protested Kenshin.
"Right or wrong, most women care, even when they pretend not to. And besides that, Kaoru is young. I think sometimes you and Yahiko forget that fact because she provides for you, but you can't expect her to have all of the confidence and self-awareness of an experienced woman."
Kenshin thought about it for a moment. He knew he should trust Megumi. He knew few women, and she was probably his best source of information for understanding them. If he was being honest he'd barely even known Tomoe.
Tomoe. Had she ever been insecure about her looks, as apparently Kaoru was being? He didn't think so. But then again, Tomoe was constantly being told how beautiful she was. By her friends, by Kenshin's comrades, even by random strangers in the streets.
Tomoe had also had a maturity forced on her by violence and tragedy. Kenshin had always appreciated her maturity, but he also found pure joy in Kaoru's relatively innocent and carefree life. Kaoru didn't have the same kind of sophisticated, elegant beauty that Tomoe had, but that didn't mean she wasn't beautiful. Indeed, Kaoru was the main source of beauty in Kenshin's life. Her exuberance, her anger, her passion, her energy—it was all beautiful to him.
Wasn't that clear to her? She was the only person he'd said goodbye to before he left for Kyoto. She was the only person who'd given him enough reason to stop wandering. She was the only person since Tomoe who'd ever given him a home.
If Kaoru's outburst was any indication, she still didn't realize how important she was to him. Did she need it spelled out for her?
Kenshin started speaking again, haltingly, "This one… does she expect this one to… to… tell her?"
Megumi rolled her eyes before replying, "Yes! Obviously!"
Sano stood and tugged at Yahiko's ear while simultaneously jerking his head at Megumi and thumbing at the door. "We've done enough damage. Let's leave him alone now. I think he'll figure out what to do."
Megumi sighed and said, "I certainly hope so," before rising gracefully to leave. She paused at the door. "Ken-san, just talk to her, OK?" Then she was gone.
Kaoru was in the dojo, letting off some steam. With each stroke of her bokken she berated herself for her childishness.
How could you say that, Kaoru? You don't need Kenshin to tell you you're beautiful. Do you think he would like someone as juvenile as you are? Do you think he would like someone without an ounce of confidence?
She stopped and knelt over, panting from exertion. She stared at the small pool of sweat collecting on the floor underneath her, and for a moment she was too tired to be mad at herself.
Now that she'd calmed down, Kaoru sat down and started thinking more rationally about her situation.
Kaoru knew she had a lot of great qualities. She also knew a lot of those qualities were more important than physical beauty. Kaoru knew she was compassionate, strong, smart, and determined. Surely those things were more important than beauty? How could she be so vain?
But she couldn't quite bring herself to not care. She was 18. If she wasn't beautiful now, she'd never be beautiful. Now was the time that men were supposed to start showing interest in her. Actually, men were supposed to start showing interest in her several years ago, but Kaoru figured it was OK if she was a late bloomer, or if it took some men a couple of years to realize the tough swordswoman was in fact, a woman.
And besides all that, Kaoru figured that all women, even the objectively plain, had been told at least once, by someone, that they were beautiful. But Kaoru never had. Her mother had died when she was young. Her father hadn't been the type to tell his daughter she was beautiful. She'd never had a beau or even female friends to fawn over or admire her.
That doesn't matter, she told herself. You don't need to be desperate for compliments, Kaoru. You're better than that. And besides, you know you don't want just anyone to tell you you're beautiful. You want it to be Kenshin. And that's not going to happen.
Never one to wallow in self-pity, Kaoru stood up, dusted herself off, and started stretching. She was ready to end her exercises, take a nice long bath, eat dinner, and get some sleep. She knew she'd feel better in the morning.
"Kaoru-dono?" She jumped upon hearing her name from a familiar voice.
"Yes Kenshin?" she replied.
"This one has prepared a bath for you."
"Thank you. I'll be there soon," she said as she turned away from him to put her bokken away. Kenshin was always so thoughtful. She really had nothing to complain about.
"Kaoru-dono." She jumped again, whirling back towards the voice. She hadn't realized he was still in the dojo. He continued, "Kaoru-dono, this one would like to talk with you after dinner, that I would."
Kaoru felt a thrill of excitement run through her that she immediately tried to quash. Kenshin had never set aside a specific time just to talk with her before. She tried not to read into it too much. He probably just wanted to make sure she was OK after her outburst that afternoon.
"Sure," she said. Suddenly her evening had turned from a quiet, relaxing night to several hours of tortured speculation and anticipation.