Shifting the Balance
The pull of the market crowds had begun to wane with the falling of the sun. Dusk drew people back towards their homes, it urged shop-keepers to close their doors in preparation for night, and the varied and myriad stalls to put up their wares and pull bamboo blinds down over their traveling showrooms. The Takanawa district never entirely fell into slumber - - there was always some portion of the shitamachi, or downtown Tokyo, that remained alert and awake, catering to even the latest and most notorious patrons, but, for the most part, the decent folk returned to their families with the coming dark.
A few hopeful salesmen still called out to passerby, proclaiming "tofu for sale" or "baked yams. Stone baked Yams!" Or "fresh Fish, the finest catch from Edo bay." Himura Kenshin absently listened to the song of the salesmen, already in possession of the supplies he'd been sent after, but hesitating at a fish stall, thinking seafood might be a welcome change in menu. He shifted the sack of rice on his shoulder, surveying what was left of the day's catch, lying dead and glassy eyed in the merchant's baskets.
"Fresh fish. Just caught." The wizened old woman manning the stall eyed him with the crafty desperation of a merchant faced with too much stock at the end of her day. "A fish or two for your table?"
"Three," he agreed, almost certain that it was only himself and Kaoru and Kenji for supper tonight. One never knew when Doctor Genzai and the girls would show up, or one of Kaoru's students might stay late after practice. Supper used to be a much more expansive affair - - well, at least when they could afford it - - when Yahiko was in Tokyo, but that young man had left to see the small part of the world available to him within the confines of the empire and had taken his considerable appetite with him. Kenshin missed him. And worried a little, knowing more of the world than a young man not even twenty ever could, and more wary of the dangers. But Yahiko had his own path to discover and there was no holding him back.
There were other people he missed, desperately so at times - - people that had been, for a while, closer than blood, but had chosen to fly away, like leaves in the fall. Only the leaves came back - - in one form or another. Miss Megumi visited twice a year. Misao made the pilgrimage from Kyoto regularly, sometimes dragging a quiet, serene Aoshi with her. It was good to see them. Always an occasion to celebrate. But sometimes, it wasn't enough.
Sano hadn't been back. Not once. Almost four years since he'd gone, with the threat of the law nipping at his heels. Sometimes Kenshin wondered if he were dead; felt cold in the center of his being dwelling on it, but was far too familiar with death to deny the plausibility. Far too rational to pretend that the world outside was as placid as the one he had made for himself and his family within the orderly boundaries of the capital city. Not good to dwell on it to much though, because he'd worked too hard for this life he led. Built thick walls around the darkness and the violence that stained his past. He never, ever wanted Kenji to experience the things he had. Never ever, wanted him to know the things he had done.
Shame. It ate at him sometimes, when he looked into those wide, violet eyes, so much the color of his own. Innocence dwelled in those eyes, and love and worship and Kenshin was forever leery of loosing any of those three things. Kaoru knew. She'd known of that fear, the day he'd given the reverse blade to Yahiko. She accepted with relief, he thought, his dismissal of his past - - but she hated his abhorrence of it. She hated that he sometimes hated himself.
It was the fish, he thought, blinking himself back to the here and now of paying the merchant for her wares, that had made him think of old times and Sano. There was nothing that Sano had liked better than baked fish. Kenshin smiled wryly, nestling the wrapped fish in the wooden bucket with the rest of the odds and ends Kaoru had sent him out for. He'd gotten distracted at the Nihonbashi bridge, waylaid by the river and the people and the atmosphere. He should have been home an hour ago and would no doubt hear of his tardiness in no uncertain terms from Kaoru. Motherhood had only softened the sharpness of her tongue a little bit and marriage had done very little to curb her flash fire temper. Which was fine, for he'd never wanted to change her, only himself.
He shuffled beyond the business district, sandals kicking up little puffs of dust on the dry road. It was mid-summer and the rains hadn't come for weeks, leaving the grass dry and yellowed and the wells low. He passed a few Furi-uri at the edge of the Takanawa district coming from the residential section, poles over their shoulders, swinging their empty buckets of produce that they carried for housewives to buy for supper. He was almost past the close-set buildings and stalls and onto the more scenic road that lead towards the district where the Kenda Dojo and home lay. Still, it was a twenty minute walk or more, which meant that it would be full dark by the time he reached home and Kaoru and Kenji would both be complaining for the late supper; the former no doubt, louder and more coherently than the latter; a three year-old not possessing the breadth of his mother's vocabulary.
There was a shuffle of feet in the dirt, and the soft metallic scrape of a blade sliding from a sheath. The hairs on the back of Kenshin's neck pricked, his fingers tensed on the bucket. He turned his head casually to the shadows at the edge of the road, where a last building created an alleyway between the stone wall facing the long canal. There were shifting shapes in that shadow. A gasping breathless sound of struggling men. A cry and a curse. Thieves, no doubt, waylaying a passerby. Some innocent dragged into the darkness to be robbed of wealth and possibly life.
Passing it by was beyond him. He had no weapon of his own, but sometimes the mere presence of a witness would be enough to scatter those desperate enough to stoop to petty robbery. He stepped into the shadows of that alley, not bothering to mask the scrape of his sandals, not bothering to lower the sack of rice or the bucket of fish and supplies. There were a gathering of dark shapes. Six men, one pressed against the wall in the center. There was the glint of a short blade. A weathered wakizashi, old and misused, but deadly enough and easily concealed under clothing. The blade pressed against the throat of the man against the wall. An odd man, that. Tall and fair of hair and skin. Foreign of feature even in the dark. Kenshin had seen a few westerners, mostly at port, but not generally in alleys beyond the teaming port or business districts.
"Excuse me," he called out. "Is there a problem here?"
Six sets of eyes searched him out in the shadows. A few dark shapes shifted threateningly towards him. Not scampering like poor starving street thieves in the least. Acting more like wolves who had downed prey and had no intention of giving it up. The westerner merely stared, those odd round eyes of his hard to read in the shadows.
"Get out of here, boy," the one with the wakizashi hissed.
In the darkness he might have looked like one, short of stature and slim, possessing nothing in lines of face that might have betrayed more than three decades of life.
"I'm afraid I can't do that." He said it congenially enough. "You seem to have this man at a disadvantage."
"Mind your own business or else."
Oh, they were creative in their threats. He tilted his head, gauging the other men - - which had weapons and which did not. One had a knife, the other three clubs.
"Get rid of him," the leader growled, and two of the club-bearing ones left the circle around the westerner and advanced up the alley towards Kenshin.
A club arced past his ear and he shifted to one side, swung the shoulder weighted down by the rice into the chest of the other man, put out a foot to tangle in the staggering man's ankles, and the big body hit the ground. All very neatly done. It might have been luck or accidental grace for all the intention he gave of it. Another swing of the club and Kenshin windmilled his arms to avoid it. The bucket came up and slammed under the chin of the club wielder so hard the dull impact of the blow echoed off the stone of the canal wall. The fish went flying, as well as the small package of wasabe powder. He caught the former with the bucket and the latter in his free hand.
"Really," he said helpfully to the others. "I saw policemen just up the street. It might be wiser if you left."
"No, really - -" he swung around and pointed and the bucket conveniently connected with the temple of the first man he'd tripped, who'd been trying for his feet.
They called him a foul name, or perhaps they were merely cursing the fates. The one with the wakizashi snapped at the others to flee; drew back his blade to finish their victim. The bucket left Kenshin's hand, slammed into the bony wrist of the attacker and rebounded. The blade clattered to the ground along with his supplies and the man cursed and fled into the depths of the alley. Except for the two unconscious men on the ground, and the westerner still leaning against the wall, he had been abandoned. There was the smell of blood in the air though and none of it had been drawn by him.
"Are you all right?" He moved forward, concerned.
"Yes," the westerner said in perfectly unaccented speech.
Kenshin knelt, gathering his groceries back into the bucket. "I don't think so," he disagreed softly. There was a bit of blood spotting the ground between the man's decidedly foreign boots. But if a man chose to deny injury, out of pride or some sense of honor - - who was he to argue. He picked up the wakizashi gingerly, examining it for blood. It was clean. The sheath was no where to be seen. Probably still in the possession of the thief - - if thieves those men had been.
The man looked down at Kenshin, kneeling at his feet, short blade held lightly in his hand. He took a pained breath and reconsidered. "No. Perhaps not. I would have been very much worse, if you had not come. Thank you."
Kenshin looked up, half smiling. "Thank you's are not necessary. It was the right thing to do."
"Ah - - right perhaps, but foolish, against five men."
Debating that bit of logic was useless. A change of subject was needed. He rose and had to tilt his head back to look up into the westerner's eyes. "You speak very well - - for a foreigner."
"As do you." The man agreed with an ironic laugh, and pushed himself away from the wall. He gasped, bending over, one hand clutching at his middle. Kenshin put a hand out to steady him.
"I know a doctor that lives not far away. He'll tend you." He tossed the blade into the canal and heard it hit water with a satisfying plop. The westerner limped along beside him, grunting now and then with pain. He trailed a little blood in his wake, but it did not soak the side of his western jacket or his slim cut- cut western trousers, so it was likely not life-threatening. He would not likely bleed out before reaching Doctor Genzai.
"He didn't cut you with that blade." Kenshin remarked.
"No," the man agreed and was unwilling to explain further, though he tempered his silence on the one subject with information regarding another. "My name is Quinton Winter."
"Himura Kenshin, Mr. Quinton."
"Winter," the westerner corrected with a smile. "It's the other way around in English. My formal name is last."
"English?" Curiosity arose. "From Eng - Land?"
"England. The British Isles. Yes."
"You're a merchant? A trader."
"Yes," Winter agreed. "Though fallen on bad luck, it seems."
Kenshin lifted a brow politely in question. But the man looked away, distracted. He had very pale eyes, so light a gray that they seemed almost silver. Hair that was pale gold and thinning just a little along the top. Heavy, long sideburns, but a clean-shaven chin and upper lip for a westerner. He might have been forty. But a healthy, robust forty. A man that knew physical exertion and reveled it in.
"I'm afraid, I have no money to pay your doctor." Winter said finally, softly. "They took what I had left to me."
"He'll treat you." Kenshin assured the man.
He was very late getting home. Stars twinkled brightly in a sky gone to black velvet. Kaoru was waiting on the front porch of the dojo, tapping her foot in irritation, when he stepped through the front gate.
"Where have you been? Do you know what time - -" The shrillness of her complaint dribbled away. She bit her lip in acute embarrassment as the westerner stepped through the gates on Kenshin's heel. In the light from the lantern at the gate, the man was clearly foreign.
"Oh." She said. "Oh, you've brought someone home." She crossed her hands in front of herself, contrite for her outburst in front of a stranger and a western stranger at that. Kaoru had a fascination for the west.
"No inconvenience, I prey, lady?" Winter charmed her with a sweeping bow, though it must have pained him. Kenshin had seen the wound in his side. A stab wound through the fleshy part of the hip, just above the bone. A lucky man, Winter, for it not to have punctured vital organs. Kenshin stopped at the foot of the steps looking up at Kaoru, not concerned at the blush on his young wife's cheeks or her wide eyed examination of the Englishman.
"He was robbed and had no place else to go. I have fish." He extended the offering and she blinked and looked down at the bucket, remembering finally to act the proper wife.
"Of course." She bowed, tail of dark hair sliding over her shoulder. Reached to take the pail from Kenshin's hand and scurried back into the house. Kenshin chewed his lip, wondering if this contrition on her part boded ill or well for him. He'd find out later in the privacy of their own room.
Kaoru prepared supper and Kenshin truly should have helped, if they'd wanted Winter's first meal with them to be more palatable, but Kaoru would have nothing of it, ushering him away with a secret sharp glare that impressed upon him that she wanted to maintain propriety with a guest in the house and for him to go and do husbandly things instead of assisting her in her wifely duties.
Her cooking was a thing based solely on luck. Sometimes it was agreeable, sometimes not. She'd gotten better. Truly she had, but her dumplings tended toward to be chewy and her rice mushy and more often than not she burned the fish and made the soup too watery or too spicy.
So he sat with Winter on the porch at the back garden, waiting on the inevitable.
"Do you mind?" Winter asked, taking out a slim brown stick of tobacco.
The Englishman offered him one and he shook his head. The man struck a match against the side of the steps. "A very fine house."
"Yes. My wife teaches the Kaiya Kasshin style of swordsmanship."
Winter lifted a pale brow. "Your wife?"
"This was her father's dojo. She inherited and became master."
"A female master. Unusual." Winter blew out a cloud of smoke.
"Kaoru is an unusual woman."
"Do you make it a habit of rescuing beleaguered foreigners in dark alleys - - or was I the exception?"
Kenshin smiled, tossing a pebble into the pond, listening to the fish rise to the surface to investigate. "Only this once - - of late."
"Ah. Fortunate for me then."
The Cat bounded out in a flurry of puffed fur and a discontented hiss. She cast Kenshin an accusing yellow stare before disappearing over the fence. Of course Kenji followed on her furry heels, calling for 'kitty' to come back. But Cat disliked somewhat rough, child hands stroking her fur the wrong way and even though Cat had been adopted early in the year - - a half-starved, half-grown tabby - - at the insistence of Kenji - - Cat had declared Kenshin her preferred human. Kenji was not overly dejected by the betrayal, being easily distracted by other things, like buzzing dragon-flies and curious fish, drifting clouds and arrangement of dirt in the garden.
With Cat disappeared into the night, Kenji gladly threw himself against his father's back, wrapping short, pudgy arms about Kenshin's neck and crying out. "Da's home. Da's home."
Kenshin swung the little boy around into his lap, grinning helplessly as the child squealed in delight. Finally, after a bout of tickling sensitive spots, he righted the child and pointed out that they had a visitor.
Large violet eyes went wide and serious. "Kenji, this is Mr. Winter. He's our guest. He's from across the sea to the west from a land called England. Mr. Winter, this is my son, Kenji." It always made him proud to say it. Always made him swell up inside when he thought about this - - this most glorious thing that he and Kaoru had made together.
The child continued to stare. Then lifted one short arm and pointed. "He has funny eyes."
"That's not nice." Kenshin chided, embarrassed at the directness. Winter laughed, delighted.
"My God, he looks just like you. A little darker, perhaps, but the resemblance is amazing. Strange enough to find one person here with such hair and eyes - - but two. I wonder at your genealogy."
Kenshin blinked, baffled.
"Genealogy." Kenji mimicked the odd word with nary a mispronunciation, laughed at his achievement and looked up to see if Kenshin had heard and approved.
"Merely a matter of bloodlines." Winter explained, seeing Kenshin's confusion. "Why some people's eyes are brown and some blue - - or in your case violet, I'd say."
"Oh, well, I'd hardly know that, Mr. Winter." Kenshin admitted.
Kaoru called them for supper before Winter could spew forth more incomprehensible words that Kenji could master before his father. Winter had perfect manners for a westerner, better by far than Kenji who tended to mimic Yahiko's early eating habits, by grabbing food without thought, though he spilled a great deal more than Yahiko ever let escape the endless pit that his mouth had led into. Kaoru's rice balls were not quite round, but they clung together admirably. The fish was not burned and the soup was well flavored. She'd put some effort and concentration into the meal, which should have been somewhat irritating, since she never got three out of three dishes right if it where only him she were cooking for.
"You were robbed?" Kaoru had held off as long as she could, all the way through the soup and the rice and most of the fish. One could almost see the waves of intense curiosity radiating off of her.
"A horrible experience." Winter shuddered delicately. "But at least I came away from it with my life, which I might not have if not for your husband."
"Yes. Yes." She waved a hand, negating Kenshin's contribution as a given. "You're from England? Did I hear you're from England?"
"Yes, Lady Kaoru. From a place called Birmingham."
"Birmingham." She said in awe. "Is it very beautiful? I've read about England in the newspapers."
"Have you? How wonderful. Yes, it's very beautiful. This time of year, I think, it would be very misty and green."
"Are you a merchant or a diplomat?"
"A merchant, I'm afraid, that has fallen on rather bad luck. A string of bad luck actually. I find myself at somewhat of a disadvantage."
"What happened? If you don't mind my asking?"
Kenshin sipped his tea, musing that Kaoru would have asked whether Winter minded or not.
"Ah, where to start. I've been here in Japan for many years off and on. Almost twenty years, I daresay, learning the culture and the people. Its so much better now for a westerner, under the Meiji rule than it was before in the Tokugawa era."
"I'm three." Kenji held up three fingers, declaring this important bit of news with solemn pride.
Kenshin smiled behind his cup and Kaoru frowned, shushing Kenji at his interruption of their guest. Kenji yawned, not overly chastised and leaned in against his mother's side.
"Ah," Winter said. "Practically grown."
"Please, go on." Kaoru urged, leaning forward to refill tea cups.
"A few years ago, I made an investment in a project that failed rather - - disastrously. Attempting to recoup from that, I put the remainder of my funds into the outfitting of a ship which most regretfully sank off the coast of Japan in the storms last spring. I've been waiting for funds from home since then, and increasingly fear that my letters have gone astray."
"Well, I'm sure it takes a very long time for messages to get all the way to your England and then back again." Kenshin said.
"Rather." Winter agreed bleakly. "In the meanwhile, I find myself in dire straits. And now robbed of what funds I had left to me - - - I'm afraid that a foreigner even in the enlightened Meiji capital will be hard pressed to support himself."
"Oh, no." Kaoru said. "I'm sure there's something you can do. Why, you could teach English until your message arrives. I'm sure there are lots of people who would love to learn about the west."
"Do you think?" Winter lifted a politely dubious eyebrow.
"Of course! Why I'd love to learn. You could teach here!! You could stay here!! He could stay here, couldn't he, Kenshin, and teach English to students. What a wonderful idea."
She was immensely proud of the notion. Winter blinked at her. Kenshin did. Kenji snored softly away, head in her lap.
"Yes, I can see it now - -" She was rubbing her slim hands, already picturing the envy the Kenda school might get, having an Englishman in residence teaching western things. They would be the talk of the neighborhood and they hadn't been that in some time - - not since rumors of the Battousai had began to dwindle. He would just as well they not be the talk of the town, but Kaoru had the dojo to think about - - Kaoru thought about money a great deal more than he ever did and chided him for his lack of concern. Where did one expect food to come from if not from money and where the money if not from students? Oh, he had heard that time and again as the students dwindled now and then as the young men found other interests than the discipline of the sword to attract them. After all this was the peaceful era of the Meiji. There was no revolution. There was no war. The violence hid in the shadows - - at least in Tokyo and it was easy to pretend it no longer existed. But, there were always those who wanted to learn. Always a roster of students, no matter how small, to contribute to the dojo. It was just in Kaoru's nature to worry.
"That - - would be fine." He gave his assent when Winter looked his way, even though Kaoru had made up her mind on the issue and was already plotting how to make best use of it.
Winter was polite and mannerly and well-spoken - - but some tiny inkling of unease rippled through Kenshin at the thought of the man staying under their roof. Perhaps it was the avoidance of the issue of the wound and how it was gotten. It had been no dagger wound, such as the other blade wielding thief had carried. It was clean and deep and most certainly made by a finer blade than those men had possessed. He supposed Winter could have had the most terrible of luck and been set upon twice, but it seemed unlikely. The area was not teeming with cutpurses - - much less gangs of them.
Kaoru prepared a room for the Englishman while Kenshin carried a far gone Kenji to bed, then returned to clean up the supper dishes and set the room right. He collected the last few scraps of fish to put out for Cat. With Kenji safely gone the tabby padded leisurely back into the garden to claim her supper. Cat wound around his ankles, brushing against the hem of his hakama, trying her best to make him give up his pursuits and focus on her most esteemed self. He very deftly avoided her. He went about shutting the dojo down for the night, extinguishing lanterns, making sure the gates were closed tight, making sure the blinds were down over windows in case the much needed storm chose tonight to hit. The Cat followed him on his rounds, a silent observer to the ritual. He paused by the garden in the moonlight and noted that a few errant weeds had sprung up between cabbage heads and cucumber plants. He'd make a point of weeding tomorrow.
Kaoru was braiding her hair when Kenshin finally wondered in, Kenji's cat trailing at his heels. They moved much alike, the two of them, silent and supple with hidden secrets beneath a surface of lithe sinew and muscle. Kaoru was never so graceful, never so efficient in her movements. Annoying that her husband glided with more grace across the floor than she ever could. Annoying that he was more collected than she was in the face of esteemed visitors. She had so wanted to impress the Westerner. She wasn't sure she hadn't made a fool of herself.
"Do you think he'll stay?" she asked, hushed, for voices carried between thin walls and the Englishman was only a few chambers down. Kenshin shrugged, shedding hakama and gi and hanging them neatly over a clothes dowel before slipping into a thin sleeping robe. He folded to his knees next to Kaoru, tying off her braid for her, smiling across at her with that suspiciously opinionless expression he sometimes effected.
"I don't know. I'm sure he'll tell us."
"It could be so good for the school." She leaned forward, fingers touching his thigh. "So many people are fascinated by the west now days. Word will get around. If he charges for students - - then he can pay us rent - - wouldn't that be nice for a change - - a border that actually paid rent."
"That's hardly nice." He beetled his brows a little, very much aware of which border she spoke of.
"Well you don't have to pay now. Much." She clarified. One of his drawn brows rose. She grinned at him. "Well, I have a good feeling."
"He is very mannerly and pleasant." Kenshin admitted. "He speaks like a finely educated man, even if he is a foreigner.'
"I wonder where he learned? He said he'd been in Japan for twenty years. That's a very long time."
"Almost longer than I've been alive."
"No wonder he speaks so well. He's been doing it longer than you."
"Are you saying I don't speak well?" She gave him a look. Sometimes his blatant honesty hid unwitting insult.
"No. That's not what - - " He tried to back out of that blind alley and she waved a hand to dismiss it, more interested in the Englishman. "I think I'll spread the word at market and most certainly at the tea house - - oh and I can get Dr. Genzai to tell his patients and - -"
"Aren't you getting ahead of yourself. Weren't you just wondering if he would even stay? He might have other things to do. He is a merchant after all."
"You heard what he said. He's penniless until support from his home comes. His ship sank. So what better things does he have to do? Don't you want him to stay?" She turned to look at him, worried that he might not. He shrugged, slid down on the tatami mat with his arms under his head. Pensive. Thoughtful.
"What?" she leaned over him, braid trailing over her shoulder, wanting more than that look for an answer. His lashes fluttered shut, dark and thick against pale skin, then open again, bringing with them a fleeting smile.
"Nothing. If you want him to stay, then I have no problem. I can see you see the possibility of many yen in the future if he is here - - so who am I to argue against such prosperity?"
She frowned, uncertain if she were being teased. Sometimes, even after all this time, he could be annoyingly hard to read. But she trusted, for the most part, that none of his obscurities were of threat to her.
"Are you implying that I'm greedy?" she knew very well he had, but being well aware of the possibility of such a condition, she was not as truly offended as she let herself sound.
"Well - - no. Maybe. A little, yes." He meandered his way towards the truth.
"Oh, so that's what you think of me?" She swung a leg over his hips, glaring down and shaking a fist in mock threat. He smiled up, no doubt enjoying the view and the feel of her rump against his groin.
"You make a fine Imperialist, Kaoru." His hands slid up under the hem of her robe, fingers grazing along her thighs.
"Darned right." She agreed, then gasped a little when he found a sensitive spot and leaned back so that he might have a better angle at it. He was very, very good with his hands, her Kenshin. She bit her lip, thoughts of the dojo's monetary gain momentarily scattering. They shifted about a bit, ending up under the light summer covers.
"We have to be quiet." She murmured, and he blinked at her from behind tousled red hair. "The Englishman. He's just a few chambers down." One had to be conscious of guests. What Kenji would sleep blithely though in the next chamber, the westerner might not. One hardly wanted him lying awake, roused by the sound of their lovemaking. He might be offended, after all, and take his precious knowledge of the west to some other house.