"Daddy!" Nicky said, "Hold on a second!"
At eight, Nicky was a little taller than Kenshin -- and all arms and legs, like a half grown colt. She was smack in the middle of a growth spurt, and Kenshin suspected she would end up much taller before it was done. He'd been buying her new clothes practically every week.
Carrie teased him about being shorter than his daughter; he kept telling Carrie that pretty soon, it would be her turn to look upwards at the brat. There was height in the Trevor family tree, and it looked like Nicky had inherited some of those genes.
Nicky grabbed him by the tie, and proceeded to undo it and then reknot it, all the while rolling her eyes. "How old are you again? And you still can't tie a tie, Daddy. Geeze! I swear I'm just going to get you the clip-on kind."
He started to reach up and loosen it after she was done, and she swatted his hand away, to his amusement. "Leave it alone, Daddy, you look fine."
He shook his head, smiling, and followed her out of the hotel room and down the hall. She had on a rather sophisticated outfit of flowing skirts and a stylishly fitted bodice. He had refused to allow her to stuff the bosom. He was dismayed to note she actually was developing the beginnings ofone, weren't eight year olds supposed to still be babies?
"Do you really think my shoes match?" she asked him, as they waited for the elevator. She had on sparkly dress shoes with just the barest trace of a heel; Carrie had argued no heels and he'd indulgently allowed his daughter to pick them out anyway when he'd taken her to the mall to find a graduation-day outfit. They were cute, and not very high, and he thought Carrie was being silly. If Carrie had her way, however, Nicky would still be wearing Geranimals.
Carrie's fashion sense tended towards jeans and t-shirts ... and more jeans and t-shirts, and if the occasion required it, designer jeans and t-shirts. He was reasonably sure that Carrie would have jeans and a t-shirt on under her cap and gown, even if she was wearing high heels rather than her usual sneakers. Fortunately, in her chosen field -- pediatrics -- she could get away with wearing jeans and a t-shirt into work.
Nicky, by contrast, had been quite girly from basically the moment she'd been old enough to chose ruffles over denim. This dismayed Carrie, but suited Kenshin just fine. He liked tom-boys well enough, but if his little girl wanted to be a little girl, he had no objections. He thought she looked adorable in skirts and cute shoes.
And she was still pretty good with a bokken.
"I think your shoes look fine," he assured her.
"Of course, you have the fashion sense of a peacock on a bad drug trip," his eight year old daughter informed him, hands planted on her hips.
"Hey!" He protested. "Who -- where did you hear somebody say that?"
He doubted she'd come up with that analogy herself. Which meant he needed to go thump a friend for mentioning drugs in front of Nicky. Because Nicky had an alarming tendency to Google information about anything she didn't know, and he really didn't want her Googling about drugs. She was a good kid, overall, but he worried. Because she was also a smart kid, and her mind was always working a mile a minute, and not necessarily coming up with conclusions that he agreed with.
Before he could pursue this line of inquiry further, however, a door opened down the hall and Brandon stepped out with his gown slung over one arm and a respectable suit on. His cap perched on the top of his blond curls at a rackish angle.
"Brandon!" Nicky squealed, and ran to him. "I'll ask you. You're better at this sort of stuff than my father. What do you think of my shoes?"
Brandon inspected her toes gravely, when she stuck them out from under her skirts for inspection. Then, with a twinkle in his eyes, he said, "Honestly? I think they make your feet look big."
"Oooooh!" She hit him with her handbag, and chased him down the hall, then back up it.
Kenshin smiled faintly. It was good to see Brandon run -- stem cell therapy three years ago, and a lot of physical therapy, had fixed a good bit of the damage to his spine. He was a bit clumsy, and he wore orthotics on both feet, but he was running.
The two darted into the elevator when it opened, both giggling, and when he caught up, Brandon was menacing Nicky with wiggling fingers in a clear threat to tickle. She squealed, "Daddy! Help me!"
"Hold the elevator!" Shannon shouted behind them. He hurried down the hall with a toddler gripped in his arms. Kenshin stopped the door from sliding shut with his foot, while Brandon pounced on Nicky behind him. Her shriek was ear-splitting. When he turned back, Brandon had Nicky slung over his shoulder.
Brandon said, "I think there's fountains in front of this lobby..."
"Put me down!" Nicky thrashed about. "Daddy, Unc'Shannon, help!"
"Awwww, poor little Nicky," Brandon said, "needs her Daddy's help ..."
"It's Nicole!" Nicky protested. That was new; for the last few months she'd been insisting that everyone call her Nicole rather than Nicky. And everyone was pretty much ignoring that demand, to her indignation. "And you're wrinkling my dress!"
"Better put her down," Shannon advised. "The dress is really, really important. If it's wrinkled, the world's going to end ..."
The elevator opened on another floor, admitting Carrie and Meg. Carrie regarded Brandon with an uplifted eyebrow. "What are you doing to my kid this time?"
He grinned at Carrie and set Nicky back down. "Stealing her away to be my live-in babysitter."
"She's too young!" Carrie shook her head.
"I am not!"
She was, Kenshin thought, still too young for babysitting given that they still hired a babysitter for her when they went out. But in a few years, yeah, Shannon and Brandon would have a cheerfully willing sitter. Nicky was easily motivated by money; she didn't even know about her trust fund, and Kenshin liked it that way. There would be time enough to tell her about it later. He wanted her to be a normal kid, for now.
He was not surprised that the two had adopted a child. He had been surprised when he'd looked into the little boy's eyes and seen a familiar glower, along with a rather alarming nascent buzz. Thank God he's not mine, Kenshin had thought fervently. And then he'd cheerfully offered to teach little Henry swordsmanship, much to everyone's shock.
A very amused Chiyoko had suggested later, after she met the boy, that this was a chance for some well-deserved revenge. That, however, wasn't Kenshin's motivation. It was because the boy would have the sort of talent that needed to be developed and honed or it would consume him -- and because he'd need the training.
Kenshin was pretty sure Hiko had come back as an Immortal simply because it would piss him off.
He was also pretty sure Hiko hadn't counted on Kenshin changing his diapers and wiping his nose five days a week, while his parents both worked. Swords training would come later. Little Henry was still working on more basic skills, like using the big-boy toilet and not eating his dog's food.
Sometimes, karma was sweet.
Brandon wrapped an arm around Nicky's shoulders and said, in a conspiratorial tone, "In a few years, then, you can baby sit for us when your parents stop being so mean."
"Daddy!" Henry squirmed in Shannon's grip held his arms out to Brandon, apparently jealous that one of his parents was giving affection to another kid. Brandon tolerantly lifted the boy to his shoulders.
When the elevator dinged open in the lobby, Brandon handed Henry off to Kenshin and then yanked his gown over his head and jammed his cap back on. Shannon, with a roll of his eyes, proceeded to straighten Brandon's cap and gown.
Thus made presentable, Brandon laughed and then said, "Let's go, Carrie."
The two new doctors scurried off to the convention center across the street where graduation was being held.
"Nicky!" Morgan's voice carried across the lobby, a second after Carrie was out of earshot. "Honey!"
"Hi Morgan," Nicky said, turning to face the woman. With rather notably less enthusiasm than she had greeted Brandon and Shannon, Nicky said with a smile, "You came."
"I was invited." Morgan sounded defensive -- which was probably not because of anything Kenshin might say, but because Nicky had a remarkable ability to see right through her birth mother's motivations. Still, Morgan hugged her, and Nicky smiled.
"Did you get the dolls I sent you?" Morgan asked. "From Russia?"
"Yeah, Morgan. I got them. They're cute." Nicky said, summoning up a polite amount of enthusiasm. "I sent you a thank you note last week, but I bet you left London before it arrived."
The dolls in question were porcelain baby dolls, complete with pacifiers and cute little ethnic Russian costumes. Nicky had eyed them after opening the package for a minute, then set both dolls -- a boy and a girl -- on a shelf in her room. To Kenshin's knowledge, she'd never touched them, and likely, she'd regift them come next Christmas. At eight, Nicky was certain she was too old and sophisticated and grown-up for dollies.
Carrie, however, had eyed the dolls with a bit of longing. They'd been talking about adopting another baby and the dolls were newborn sized. Kenshin was pretty sure that Carrie had snuck into Nicky's room a few times while their daughter was at school and played with the dolls herself, but he wasn't going to say anything -- he valued his head too much!
The giant stuffed dragon he'd purchased Carrie eight years ago still occupied a place of honor on their bed. His wife wasn't ashamed of liking dollies and stuffed animals, and somehow, he found this very amusing.
If Morgan had wanted to really please Nicky, she could have sent her jewelry. The silver and emerald earrings in his daughter's ears were real, and had made her giddy for weeks -- they had been a birthday gift from her grandparents. Nicky teased her father about being a peacock, but she had her own distinct fondness for bright colors and flashy styles.
Morgan had been told about her daughter's preferences a few times. She never really listened.
Kenshin contemplated Morgan for a bit, as they waited for traffic to clear so they could cross to the convention center. She'd done well for herself, as he had more-or-less expected. She had a law degree, and was working for, of all things, a large international charity.
She said all the right things: that she'd taken a lower-paying job because it was the right thing to do, and she talked about making a difference in the world. And she was; her work mattered. However, Kenshin sometimes wondered if her real reason for taking a job with the charity was because she wasn't motivated by money, and she wanted to impress people. Lawyer for a charity sounded much better than corporate lawyer or divorce lawyer.
Morgan hadn't commented on her daughter's clothing, or the pretty earrings she was so proud of, or asked her about school, or about her parents, friends, or family. She hadn't noticed that Morgan had gained six inches in the last several months, or that her birth daughter had purple streaks in her carefully braided hair. Instead, Morgan was prattling on about her own recent trip to Russia.
"... And we went to St. Petersburg, and oh! you should see the old buildings, they're so neat. I took pictures. Maybe you can come by my hotel room later and look at them." Morgan bounced on her toes. "And there was this really cute boy at a local restaurant and he kept flirting with me and ..."
Kenshin reminded himself that Morgan was only twenty-four. To her, men were still boys.
Nicky cut in, "I got almost all A's last semester, Morgan."
"... that's great! I always did good in school too ... it's my genetics, you know. I'm glad you took after me there." And Morgan was off again, continuing with a tale about a river cruise on her Russian vacation.
He wasn't sure Morgan would ever realize what she was missing. His daughter was smiling at the woman who'd given birth to her, and was being polite, and he was so very proud of her for not being a brat when he himself would have been tempted to tell her off. Because Morgan was still talking about herself, and Nicky couldn't have gotten a word in edgewise even if she had tried.
He thought Morgan was trying to impress Nicky by bragging about her vacation. She was, however, forgetting that her audience was eight -- and not particularly interested in travel to St. Petersburg.
There were fountains in front of the auditorium where Carrie's -- and Brandon's -- graduation was scheduled. Here, they met a good number of the rest of his friends. And Morgan chattered at her daughter all the while, even when Nicky looked anxiously at all the adults she was really fond of and who she clearly wanted to greet. Morgan didn't even notice that Nicky was a bit distracted, but too polite to simply cut her birth mother off and walk away.
Danny had gone into the military after his graduation four years ago; Kenshin hadn't been surprised. He was wearing a dress uniform with officer's braids on his shoulders. Gone, entirely, was the street punk Kenshin had once nearly killed for trying to hurt Atsuko. Danny, now distinguished young officer, walked across the street towards them, waving a greeting.
He had his girlfriend Susie on his arm: Tsubame. She was as gentle and sweet as ever. Kenshin had smiled for days after she'd shown up. His cheeks had hurt, he'd smiled so much, and finally, Carrie had asked, "Another one?" And he'd had to confess yes, she was another reincarnation of a dead friend.
Sandy, too, was there, lounging on a bench beside a fountain, scribbling in a notebook. He looked up as they approached. He had a small package sitting beside them, and he picked it up and held it out to Kenshin's daughter. "Hey, brat," he said, affectionately to Nicky. "This is for you."
Nicky seized the gift and tore it open, revealing a comic book. A cartoon version of Nicky was on the cover -- Sandy had modeled his latest character, a pre-teen mutant, after "his favorite niece."
Because, after eight years, they were that sort of friends. Sandy was Uncle Sandy to Nicky. The kid had a whole close-knit circle of adults who considered her "their Nicky."
On the cover, Nicky's favorite earrings sparkled in mutant-girl's ears. Sandy told her, with a gleeful grin that told of his excitement at the impending publication, "It goes on the shelves next week, but you get an early preview."
She squealed and hugged him and then turned around ran to show Kenshin. He grinned, because it was a good likeness. And he was proud of Sandy, who'd dropped out of college to follow his dreams and then had made the dreams come true. Over the last eight years, Sandy had become quite a successful comic book writer and artist. "Congratulations," he told Sandy, who beamed, "I'm sure the new book will do well."
"Can I see?" Morgan asked.
Nicky handed her the comic with some reluctance. Morgan flipped through it, then said to Sandy, "Hey, would you draw me in?"
Sandy said, "Umm, I think I have all the characters designed already. It's not that easy ..."
Nicky cut him off. She grabbed the book back from Morgan and said angrily, "It's always about you, isn't it?"
Kenshin almost smiled. His forecast for Nicky's temper had come true. He was proud of her for being polite up until now, but not at all upset that she would lose her temper now. This had been a long time coming.
Morgan took a step back as Nicky elaborated, "You! It's always about you. I don't even like to talk to you, because you only want to talk about what you're doing. You are always trying to be the center of attention! You're not happy unless you're getting something from someone. I hate you. You never give back! The only reason you even came here today was that you hoped I'd say nice things to you! It's not about seeing Carrie and Brandon graduate, it's still about you."
"I flew here all the way from London for you!" Morgan hissed.
"You flew here for you."
Nicky spun away from Morgan, tears trickling down her cheeks. She added, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. But you make me so mad sometimes."
Morgan said shortly, "It's not true."
Kenshin had not realized how much Nicky had figured out, over the years. He put his arms around his daughter and hugged her. He'd never said an ill word about Morgan to his daughter... but Nicky had figured her out.
There was a glazed look in Morgan's eyes. She took a step away from the little girl. Then she said, "It's not true."
Kenshin said quietly, "It is. It has been, for as long as I've known you."
"It's not! It's not!" Morgan sounded younger than Nicky.
"It is! It is!" Nicky insisted, tearfully, from the circle of Kenshin's arms. "You even put a note in with those baby dolls, 'I always wanted dolls like these when I was little. Maybe we can play with them when we see each other next.' They were what you wanted. Not what I wanted! I don't play with dolls! I told you that last year, and said I liked jewelry and books!"
Kenshin hadn't wanted this sort of ugliness on a day of celebration. He didn't know how to repair it, either. His friends and quite a few spectators were staring at them in shocked, awkward silence. Morgan apparently realized that a scene had been created too, for she suddenly turned away. "I'm going back to my hotel room. I hate all of you."
But Kenshin had seen her eyes. They were dark, haunted, and suddenly very alone.
He let her go. Maybe the words of an angry child would have more impact on her than anything else in the world. Maybe she would change -- maybe.
He didn't know.
He hugged his daughter closer, then stepped back, and dug out a handkerchief from his pocket. He dipped it in the fountain, and wiped the tears from his daughter's eyes. She suffered his attention silently, then suddenly buried her face in his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Daddy. I upset everyone."
And that, he thought, was the fundamental difference between mother and daughter. Nicky was sorry she'd upset everyone else. Morgan was upset, but only because Nicky had been angry with her. She wasn't much worried about anyone's feelings but her own.
"It's okay." He responded to her honestly; he figured if she was old enough to come to the conclusions she had just stated, she was also smart enough to understand this, as well. "You were the best person in the world to say those things to her. You may have made her think about her own life, and what she's missing in it."
After a bit, the others showed up: MacLeod and Richie, Methos and Tammy, Soujiro and Akane, Sasaki. And then Gloria and Gabe, Brandon and Sandy's parents, arrived. Kenshin smiled to himself as Gloria hugged Shannon and asked how her "third son" was doing -- Shannon's mother spoke to him occasionally, but his own father had effectively disowned him.
After greetings were finished, they went inside, and he watched Carrie and Brandon accept their diplomas, and they cheered until they were hoarse, and then after, they went out to a fancy dinner. People laughed, and toasts were made, and banter traded. They partied well into the night and everyone had a very good time.
After Nicky was in bed and sound asleep in the next room, he made love to Carrie, and then he fell asleep snuggled against her. As he drifted off to sleep, his final thought was that he was happy.
Life was good. He had friends, family, a child, and a wife he adored more than anything else. There were no crisis brewing, no emergencies that needed his attention.
He was simply happy.