Kaoru woke to a cold, empty bed, as she often had during her years of marriage. Even during those times when they'd shared covers at night, Kenshin did much of his brooding in the early morning hours and therefore it was not unusual for him to wake before the sun came up. She, on the other hand, was far less fond of cold predawn hours -- like now. He'd had a certain quiet broodiness about him before he'd gone to bed, and she was not surprised to find he had not stayed asleep.
Concerned, she wondered what was on his mind to make him stew now, or perhaps more precisely, she wondered what he was most agonized over: Yukio's injury, Yahiko's passing, fitting into the culture of this foreign land, or angst over things she didn't know about. After a moment of staring sleeplessly at the plaster bedroom ceiling she decided that she wouldn't rest until she knew, and slid out from under the covers. Barefoot despite the morning chill of the house, she padded down the stairs. The lights were turned off throughout the house except for one electric bulb that was lit on the back porch. However, she negotiated the darkness without flipping any switches as she didn't want to wake Yukio or Melody.
When she entered the kitchen, a quick glance at the clock on the wall told her it was just past three AM.
Kenshin had purchased the clock while she was gone. It was whimsical, with clockwork children that spun and danced every fifteen minutes. She thought the clock was very Kenshin in its bright colors and silly whimsy.
Kaoru, suspecting Kenshin was outside, walked to the back door and peered out through the window inset in it. In Tokyo, his favorite brooding spot had been the engawa steps -- unless he was doing more serious brooding, such as before a battle. Then she would find him on the roof. In England, it had been in a gazebo in the garden close to the back door, or, sometimes, a branch in a towering, ancient oak on the grounds. He liked to be outside, but close enough to keep watch over the home's occupants.
As she'd guessed, her husband was seated on the porch, leaning against the railing. He had a cup of hot tea in his hands, and a serious expression on his face. His bangs, darker red in the yellow glow of the lightbulb than they were under the light of the sun, were just long enough to fall into his eyes. Except for the lack of a pony tail, and the fact that he was wearing a very westernized and very working class pair of denim dungarees, he looked exactly as he had when they'd met all those decades ago.
She missed seeing him in his hakama. He'd taken to wearing trousers even when training -- he said it was because that was what he was most likely to be wearing when he was Challenged. She still had the pair of hakama he'd worn so long ago in Tokyo, in a trunk in their bedroom. The fabric was faded and worn to near transparency, patched in a hundred places, and probably too small for him at the waist given that he had gained weight since then. He was thin now, but not rail skinny.
Kaoru peered through the door and noted that facing him, seated in a chair, Melody was clutching a similar steaming mug. That was a bit of a surprise, that she was up and speaking to Kenshin at this early hour.
For a moment, Kaoru's heart clenched into a jealous fist. Melody was young, and beautiful, with her blond curls and blue eyes and fair skin. Melody reminded Kaoru of a porcelain doll sometimes: ringlet curls and pale skin, with rosy cheeks and youth to her benefit. And Kenshin was watching her with grave eyes. Their body language spoke of a connection between them; any woman could see it. Melody was relaxed, in a way that she was not around anyone else. Kenshin was very serious, and his focus was on her.
"Ken, I don't know what I want to do. And I can't sleep, thinking about it." She could hear Melody's words, faintly, through the door. "Maybe ... maybe with my money, I could find a husband. And then we wouldn't have to fight for my money. My property would legally come to us."
Kenshin sipped his tea. "I think idea to run inn is a good one, Melody-dono. You keep your child at your side. You able to earn good money. You not need marry; my lawyer, he says he get your money for you."
"Yukio said he wants to help me run it. The inn, I mean." Melody sighed audibly even to Kaoru's ears.
"But?" Kenshin prompted.
"But ... if he speaks to customers the way he speaks to me ..." Melody exhaled again, a deeper and more ragged sigh. "... He can't help it. The angry words, they just come out. What if he doesn't get better, Ken?"
Ken. Kaoru had heard the nickname for her husband before, of course, still, somehow, this young woman's use of it, bald of any honorifics, made her a little jealous. Sure, she'd been calling Kenshin by his first name, and without a honorific, since practically the first day they'd met. But he was a married man, and her husband, and for a moment she wanted to smack the girl for the presumption.
Kenshin ran a hand over his face. "I owe both you and my son an apology. If I had not been so careless ... If I had told him no and worked harder to protect him ..."
Melody shook her head. "What's done is done, Kenshin. You cannot blame yourself for this."
But he will, Kaoru thought -- and a small voice in her heart wondered if Kenshin shouldn't have some of the blame. She certainly would not have let Yukio go out hunting bad cops with a camera.
Kenshin sipped his tea, and said, "Also, you do not need my son. You run inn well on your own. But a husband is a partner, and would make things easy ...? Easier. Easier. Earning your own living never easy, but a husband should be someone you trust completely, and who helps you and supports you."
Kaoru closed her eyes, hearing Kenshin's words. She did trust him ... completely, totally, and without reservation. And he had always supported her, had always been there for her. And he would be there for her until the end of their lives. She knew that. Any jealousy she had towards Melody faded away.
Melody blew on her drink, then said, "I know you blame yourself for what happened to Yukio. But you can't let it weigh your heart down, Ken. You have to keep going forward, and doing the best that you can for people in the future." She dimpled suddenly. "I'm preaching to the choir, aren't I?"
Kenshin flashed her a sudden, bright, smile. "Aa. Thank you for reminding me of what you know me to believe in, Melody-dono." He pinched the bridge of his nose, though, and leaned his head back against the railing, and said in a far more pained voice as his smile faded, "Yukio wants to marry you. We've discussed this before. You should make a decision soon, however -- Yukio's probably going to ask you soon if you don't. It might be kindest to let him know now, if you intend to say No, rather than to let him ask you, because knowing my son he will do so publically and embarrass you both. You have many practical reasons for saying yes to him, and many reasons to say no."
"If I say 'yes' we might move away from here rather than run an inn." She propped her chin on her hand. "I become ... what? A wife to Yukio Himura, a respectable gentleman with a wealthy and respectable family. My child is raised with riches beyond anything I've ever known. Oh, my father was wealthy, Ken, but not like your family is. I call Lady Jessica Trevor sister -- and I call Kenshin Himura father. And I have Yukio as my husband. And people will hate us simply for who we are, and the color of our skin."
At the word 'father' Kenshin shot her a quick look. Kaoru, despite her years at Kenshin's side, couldn't read his expression. However, she could certainly hear the tone of Melody's voice. It was odd -- wistful, perhaps. She wasn't sure what Melody thought of having Kenshin as her father-in-law.
Melody's eyes closed briefly. "I love your son, Kenshin. Tantrums and all. You should have seen him last night, playing poker ... that was the Yukio I know, and have come to love. He made us laugh, and he only ... he only had two attacks of anger the whole night."
"How did he do at the poker?" Kenshin asked, with interest. Kaoru also was curious, because her son had been quite good at card games and Go in the past.
"Badly." Melody snorted. "Grace, on the other hand, could make a living at it."
"Grace?" Kenshin seemed surprised by this, though Kaoru suspected his astonishment was feigned. She could see a hint of a sparkle in his eyes that said he'd known all along that Grace would be good at cards.
"She's got a head for numbers." Melody shrugged. "And she's more than she seems."
Melody hesitated for a moment, while Kenshin sat quietly -- Kaoru recognized Kenshin in listening mode. On the surface, this was a casual conversation. However, she knew her husband well enough to know that he, too, was often more than he seemed. Melody had been through hell over the last few months. Kenshin was probably giving her the listening ear that she very well needed.
Kaoru relaxed a little. No matter what Melody thought or might want, Kenshin was loyal beyond reproach to his wife. Melody might have a bit of a crush on her potential suitor's father, but Kenshin simply saw her as a young woman in need of help. And part of the reason that Kaoru loved Kenshin so very much was that he could never turn his back on anyone who needed help.
Finally, Melody said, "Grace likes Yukio a lot."
"What do you think of Grace?" Kenshin's voice was steady, even, and a little curious.
"She's ..." Melody hesitated. "She's never done anything bad. But she's n-not ... I don't think she's a good match for Yukio, I just can't say w-why."
Kenshin suggested an answer to Melody's statement, "Perhaps you think she doesn't love him."
Melody hunched her shoulders as if she'd been struck. Kaoru thought, But you do, kiddo. Melody might be attracted to Kenshin -- many women and quite a few men were -- but by her body language and reactions, Kaoru thought the young blond woman truly loved her son. She felt any remaining jealousy leave her, as she watched them. She wasn't very threatened by people who were simply attracted to Kenshin; she found it flattering. Kenshin could have had his pick of many women, but he'd chosen her and she was completely confident that he was utterly loyal to her.
Still, Melody said sturdily, "A marriage isn't just about love, Ken. And love can come later."
"Aaa." Kenshin agreed, with a flash of his teeth in a bright smile. Now he was gently and subtly teasing her. "That it true. Perhaps it is you think Grace never love Yukio like you love Yukio."
Melody raked a frustrated hand through her hair. "They'd be a good match. When he gets ... when he gets angry, she just looks like she's about to cry, and he apologizes. With me, he just gets angrier and angrier ... and I can't help yelling at him. I get frustrated. And then we're screaming at each other."
Kenshin confessed quietly, "I yell at him too, Melody. For the same reasons."
Kenshin yelled at Yukio? Kaoru thought, in shock. She'd never seen her husband lose his temper at the children. He was almost infinitely patient. And quite honestly, she'd never seen Yukio do anything to make Kenshin that angry before. More often than not, when Yukio had been younger, Kenshin had meted out discipline to the boy with a straight and stern face, but then had dissolved into laughter later, out of his son's earshot, when he related whatever stupidly mischievous stunt the boy had pulled this time to her.
Kaoru, on the other hand, had never been shy about yelling at the kids. She didn't fault Kenshin for his calm and steady way of disciplining them, though. It was simply who he was. He never said much about her temper, either, except to tease her about it sometimes.
Kenshin said quietly, "It's because we love him, that he frustrates us so badly. Grace does not take it personally, because she is not attached to him, as we are. But even if she did love him she would be more tolerant than you, that is true."
The young woman frowned. "That makes me feel a lot better."
"The question is, does he need tolerance? I know I am a better man for my wife's lack thereof." Kenshin flashed a quick, blinding smile and glanced in Kaoru's direction. Their eyes met through the glass. She was unsurprised to realize he knew she was lurking, even though this was he first time he'd looked in her direction. Kenshin's ability to sense the presence others was almost supernatural in nature. Her assumption from the beginning was that she was not eavesdropping on him, because that was impossible to do.
It suddenly occurred to her that she was being rude, however, because Melody didn't know she was there. She pushed the door open, causing Kenshin to simply look up and Melody to scramble to her feet. A bit to her surprise, Melody stammered, "Mrs. Himura -- I, we ... nothing's going on here! We were just talk ..."
Kenshin, still seated, said calmly, "If Kaoru thought there was something going on between us, Melody, she would be after my head right now with my own sword."
"I see no problems," Kaoru said, with a smile at Melody. She wondered about Melody's reactions, however -- was Melody also attracted to her husband, or had she simply realized how compromising their position had looked? Likely a bit of both, if her intuition was correct. Kenshin had considerable charisma. Melody might love the son, but any woman who wasn't blind could see how attractive the father was.
"I'm ... I'm going to go to bed now. It's still a couple hours to sunrise."
Melody fled, and after she was out of earshot, Kaoru giggled as she settled down next to Kenshin. "I think you have an admirer."
"She's very much alone in this world." Kenshin looked troubled, now. "I must be careful not to encourage her."
"What, you don't want to take a mistress?" Kaoru teased, poking him in the ribs. "She's cute."
Kenshin turned several shades of pink. With considerable annoyance he said, "You know that I would never ..."
"Awww ... but you'd make such an adorable couple."
Kenshin gave his wife a glare that expressed just how much irritation he felt the comment deserved, without a single word. Kaoru sobered a bit and said in a far more serious tone, "I am truly glad that I can trust you, Kenshin. Melody's crush on you is innocent. Were you not the man you are, however ..."
He closed his eyes. "I know. Another man could take advantage of her."
"Another man with your charm could take advantage of lots of women." Kaoru poked him in the ribs again, expertly finding a ticklish spot.
He squirmed away and then grabbed at her hand and said in a low and husky voice, "I only want to take advantage of one woman."
And for a bit, after he ushered her back up the stairs, she forgot about everything but Kenshin. And when they were done, and he was nearly asleep with his arms around her and breath whispering soft against her shoulders, she realized that no matter where she was there would always be one constant in her life: the man she loved more than anything else. Kenshin never changed; Kenshin was always there for her. And as long as she knew he was there, she thought she could handle anything.
When Kaoru woke up several hours later, Kenshin was still in bed with her. This surprised her a bit, but she could definitely feel his warm, solid bulk beside her. When she opened her eyes she met his amethyst gaze.
He'd thrown the sheets off to his waist and she could see the lean, scarred lines of his upper body as his shirt had come open during the night. She reached out and traced a finger down one of the marks on his chest left by a long-forgotten swordsman's blade. He caught her hand, and pulled it to his mouth, and kissed her fingers. Then, regretfully, he said, "I wish we could linger."
"We could." She rolled over and rose onto her hands and knees, intending to lean over him and kiss him.
"Ie." He shook his head, red bangs swishing across his eyes -- though his gaze lingered on her cleavage, visible down the front of her yukata. Regretfully he said, "Raeko is missing. I need to look for her."
"Missing ...?" Her eyes narrowed. Annoyance warred with concern.
"She left the house about midnight. It's what woke me up last night. I was awaiting her return when Melody came down." He sighed, and stared out the window. The sun was shining outside. Their bedroom overlooked the home's back yard and she could see a breeze stirring the leaves of the yard's trees. "Were this Tokyo, I would not worry, but she does not speak the language and she does not know the laws or the unspoken social rules of this land.
Kenshin slid out from under the covers and padded barefoot to the radiator. They'd left a kettle of water sitting on top of the steam pipes. The water was hot enough to brew tea now, and he did that while she watched. Casually, he poured the hot water over tea in two cups. It was a habit he'd picked up since moving here, tea in the morning from water left to heat up the night before. The house was heated with steam and the radiators were always piping hot except when they were shut off; nights were chilly here, even in summer. And they were getting close to autumn.
Outside, she heard the sputter and cough of a neighbor's Model T -- almost identical to Kenshin's car -- as he fired it up. Probably, he was going to to go to work.
That reminded her. "Don't you have a job to go to?"
"I sent Melody to tell them I'll be late." Kenshin frowned. "They don't need me today anyway."
He stood in the window for a long moment, though, sipping his tea and staring outside. She watched him. He'd lost weight, likely worrying over their son. He was too pale, as well. The morning sun shone across the scarred, knife-sharp planes of his face and his fair skin seemed almost translucent.
Then he looked at her, and flashed a rurouni grin, and said, "I'm off to find our wayward ward. Melody will be back in an hour or so."
"Be careful," she said, because she always did.
He smiled. "Always am."
Kenshin checked out Chinatown first; Raeko was smart enough to know that she'd blend in best among other Asian faces. The moment she opened her mouth they'd know she wasn't Chinese, and she certainly didn't speak the language, but if she was looking for an adventure that might be where she'd head.
There was no tall, short-haired boy with a secret identity of 'girl' visible, however, among the crowds. He tried the red light district next, again on the theory that she might be looking for some excitement in the form of dice or a fight. However, his search of the streets, and a quick check of assorted bars, taverns, and gambling establishments turned up nothing.
"Sano," Kenshin addressed thin air, "I could use some help from you now, old friend. Where'd your kid go?"
The red light district he'd just searched wasn't far from the docks and Cannery Row. About thirty seconds after he asked for Sano's help his Model T sputtered and died. He was directly in front of a busy commercial wharf -- Marshall Shipping was a block up the sea front. Here, the strong odor of fish hung in the air and, as he watched, a wagon laden with a heavy load of tuna trundled past, pulled by two skinny mules. A number of small fishing boats were docked and offloading their catch.
Kenshin swore at his vehicle in a choice mixture of insultingly phrased Japanese and profane English. There was nobody to hear but the automobile and, possibly, the ghost of Sanosuke. Sano might have been impressed by Kenshin's command of obscenity, but neither shocked by it nor offended. Kenshin wasn't sure if the problem was ghostly meddling or the usual unpredictable mechanical nature of the automobile, but after a final hissed insult, he added, "... and there's no doubt she's your kid."
He heard laughter in the distance, and then a drinking song despite the fact that it wasn't much past noon. He looked up when it registered on him that the drinking song was in Japanese.
Several fishermen were headed down the dock. The were laughing and horsing around -- as he watched, they elbowed one another and the elbowing turning into roughhousing. They weren't drunk -- much --- yet, despite the singing, but he suspected they would shortly end up in the bars.
One of them was taller than the others by an inch or two.
With short hair.
And despite the height, the taller one had boyishly fair features ... or girlishly fair.
Kenshin covered his face with his hands briefly. Then he shouted, "Rae ..." And trailed off. He didn't exactly want to blow her cover as a boy, because he figured it was safer to be a boy than a girl here, and the -ko prefix on her name made it a girl's name.
"Hey, Kenshin-san!" she waved cheerfully. "I found a job!"
He set the parking brake on the Ford, and hopped out. "You scared me to death. I swore to your father I would see that you're safe and I can't do that if you don't tell me where you're going!"
She shrugged. Her tone was unapologetic and not particularly respectful when she responded. "I found work. This is Captain Nick-san. He hired me to work on his fishing boat."
Kenshin glanced at the man, taking his measure. The captain was a sturdy, ruggedly built man, missing a couple fingers, with a broken nose, a scar to rival Kenshin's own slashed across one cheek, and an elbow that didn't quite move right. He looked like he'd lived a hard life. Fishermen generally did.
"It's honest work." Now she sounded defensive.
Kenshin wanted to protest that it was too dangerous. That she didn't need to work. That she could stay home, and he could see that she was given a good education, tutored and coddled and treated as his own daughter.
She met his eyes. Her gaze was fey, full of wildness and freedom. And defiance.
He nodded curtly. "I am relieved it is nothing worse than honest work."
He saw some tension leave her shoulders. She'd probably expected him to make a scene. He wanted to -- had she been one of his own girls, he'd have hauled her home by the ear -- but he doubted it would do any good. If he tried to control her, she would just run away. Fishing was dangerous and difficult work, but she was right in that it was a honest job. The likely didn't know she was female, but she so easily passed for a teenage boy that he didn't think this would be a problem. It was her attitude as well as her looks that made her seem so very boyish.
He looked again at the fisherman, who was studying him curiously. Kenshin started to stick his hand out for a western style handshake, and thought ruefully that he'd been around Westerners too much. He changed that to a bow and said, "My name is Ken Shin. I work for Marshall Shipping, and I promised this one's late father I would see that he is safe."
"I am very pleased to meet you ... You speak Japanese fluently. Kyoto, right?" The fisherman said, easily. There was curiosity in his eyes. "I'd heard that Marshall Shipping had imported a translator when I saw the ambassador last, but nobody had met you yet except him and his daughter."
Which meant that the man already knew Kenshin's cover story of being half white, and Kenshin didn't need to explain his origins. The Japanese community here was so small that likely everyone knew everyone else, and gossip would travel fast. Kenshin smiled slightly and said, "My Japanese is much better than my English, it is true, but that is the job I do."
"Mm. If you have spare time, perhaps you could help us, as well?" The man said, genially. "I'm sure most of us speak less English than you, and none of us read it."
"I could certainly try, though I have a far from perfect command of the langauge." Kenshin was truly pleased by this; he could keep a better eye on Raeko if he had a friendly relationship with her employer.
"Wonderful." The man beamed. "Come, I'll buy you and Rae a drink. He's a hard worker, by the way."
Raeko beamed proudly and held her hands up to display a few blisters on palms that were already callused. "We filled the boat with sardines."
Kenshin nodded at his automobile, parked at the curb in an area that wasn't really meant for parking. "I'm having a little trouble with my automobile. Do you think you could push it to a parking space?"
However, when he returned to his vehicle, it started on the first try. With a shrug, he invited the fishermen and Raeko to pile into the car, ignored their protests that they stank of fish, and drove them up the road to tavern that Nick had alluded to.
Raeko frowned at the game of Go. She was clearly losing to one of her new coworkers, and not happy about it.
Kenshin watched, nursing his first and only drink. The fishermen were a good bit drunker than he was, and Nick observed this as he set down on the stool next to Kenshin. "Not much for beer?"
Kenshin shook his head. "I'm going to go to work after lunch, now that I found Rae. It would set a bad example if I were intoxicated when I showed up."
Which was true, though he was more worried about not being drunk in public period than what anyone would think at the Marshall Shipping office. Losing his head was, as always, a real risk if he drank enough to slow his reflexes down.
"So, what brought you to America?" Nick said, genially. He was intoxicated enough to be nosy, and to want to satisfy his curiosity with direct questions.
Kenshin didn't quite frown, but he felt like it. The question was more than a bit unwelcome -- he wasn't about to tell his life story to a stranger. Few Westerners wondered about the reasons why he left Japan, they just assumed he and his family had gotten itchy feet. Or they'd left for economic reasons. For the Japanese, though, it was a very valid question. It felt almost disloyal to leave Japan and make a living elsewhere, and many Japanese found it weird and strange.
He said finally, "I'm related by adoption and marriage to some wealthy Brits." It was explanation enough, he hoped.
"Mm. My family was killed in a fire. I was at work -- I was a teacher." Nick stared off into space for a long moment. His fingers -- the seven and a half of them he still had -- gripped his stein of beer. His nailbeds turned white as Kenshin watched. In a voice so calm it surprised Kenshin, given the sudden tension radiating from the man's body, he said, "Everything there reminded me of them. This was as far away as I could get."
"I'm very sorry." Kenshin realized now why Nick had taken an American name, too.
He shrugged. "Rae reminds me of my wife, when we were young. We grew up next door neighbors. Yuri was four years younger than me. She'd be twenty, now."
Kenshin blinked. He had assumed that Nick didn't know that Raeko was a girl. Nick caught his reaction and smiled faintly. He said, "Rae told me she was a girl, after we got back this morning."
"You don't mind?"
Nick shrugged. "She's a hard worker." He scratched his forehead, where sunburnt skin was peeling. "Besides. She does remind me of Yuri. Yuri was tall and thin too, and liked to argue."
Kenshin glanced up from Nick's hands to Nick's face. He studied the man, trying to read his nature from the man's weatherbeaten, scarred features and close-set eyes. He wasn't even sure how old Nick was. Old enough to have married and lost a family, and probably prematurely aged by the elements. He couldn't tell a thing about him, other than that he was a hard worker -- as evidenced by the battering the man's body had taken, as a fisherman -- and probably not evil. Finally, Kenshin said, "She's the daughter of a friend. I'm sworn to protect her."
Nick grinned. It was a knowing, mischevious expression, and made the scar across his face bunch up. He said, "And she's not making your life easy, is she?"
"No." Kenshin growled, "She's not."
But, Kenshin decided, he was a little less worried now. Raeko had found friends, it seemed, and a job. 'Fisherman' wasn't a career choice he would have picked for her -- it was hard, dangerous, a man's job -- but he would not tell her no, either. If he did, he knew she would simply rebel further. And there were worse things she could be doing.