First off: I have NO IDEA if all these things can be grown next to one another. All I know is that all these crops existed in Missouri during the pre-civil war era. If you want to know more about Missouri's Little Dixie I suggest you wiki it. I hardly did more. I just wanted something short and sweet. My research was shallow so forgive me. No really, forgive me.
I have not "returned" to fic, btw. I just need to get back in the practice of writing. Enishi/Kaoru is always a source of true inspiration for me. Thought a oneshot would be a good exercise. Got out of hand as expected.
Unedited and no beta as usual. Hope ya'll can live with that.
Disclaimer: I don't own Rurouni Kenshin, or Enishi and Kaoru. If I did, you can bet there would have been a different ending. Oh hellz yes.
"It isn't my place to interfere," Kaoru spoke the words quietly to herself while she fixed the fence post with a none too gentle tap of the hammer. Storms were coming and she didn't need any more breaks in her already dilapidated fence. Even if all she had was a horse, some chickens, a couple old cows, and a particularly foul tempered goat it didn't mean she needed to have Yukishiro complaining about them wandering over to his fields and eating his grass or whatever else he wanted to agitate about. The man was always angry about something.
She mumbled her mantra of noninvolvement again as she watched Kenshin trot towards her. He was often worried about her and while she appreciated his attentions, she knew it wasn't anything for her heart to flutter over. Putting her sledge aside, she admired how well he sat his horse. Yes, Kenshin was a fine man.
"Afternoon, Miss Kaoru." He inclined his head to her, with no hat to tip. The winds were gathering, beginning to whip his long red hair around his face, hiding his scar.
"Afternoon," She gave her best smile, aware she looked sweaty and dirt smeared but trying not to fidget in her dismay. "What brings you over? I think you'd be seeing to tying down that shack you call a house before your dishes all break."
Kenshin laughed politely but without feeling. He always seemed to carry his sadness with him, and Kaoru sighed inside. Nothing she could do ever reached him, unless you counted the time he was laid up in bed with a stomach condition from her special peach cobbler. Next time she swore she would check the canning date.
"I know Sano and Yahiko are here, but I wanted to make sure there was nothing else that needed doing…"
"We're fine." She said it more sharply than she intended and immediately felt bad. Kaoru didn't want his help or his pity. It had only been a year since her father had passed and she had taken over the farm. Kenshin wanted to help, nothing more. It was that nothing more that had slowly infected that thorn in her heart over the handsome cattle rancher.
Kenshin smiled in that innocent way he had and Kaoru tried to steel herself against what she knew would come next. "And if you happen to see that bull with the spot next to the eye…"
"I really don't think he would have taken him, Kenshin." Kaoru was just about ready to scream. The last storm had blown down a length of fence on both her property and the one next to the Yukishiro cotton fields. "I spent weeks on that fence and I double checked every inch of my wheat. You know as well as I do that if your bull was anywhere near…"
"Miss Kaoru, I know you work harder than all the men in your house put together, but Enishi is a devious man. I can't discount the possibility, and I trust you to be my eyes as much as I trust Enishi to earn his living off of the sweat of other men." Kenshin Himura and Enishi Yukishiro had hated one another ever since the Yukishiros had brought their cotton and their slaves to this quiet corner of Missouri. Kaoru's father abhorred slavery but was so involved in simply keeping himself together after the death of his wife that somehow he found himself cast as mediator at every town meeting. Kaoru had inherited more than a farm.
Sensitive to her moods, Kenshin made some polite conversation before taking his leave with another one of those graceful nods. Watching him go was a pleasure as he encouraged his horse into a canter. She had an abiding jealousy for Kenshin's natural ability with animals. The land had always been her father's passion, and Kaoru could care for it as well as any born and bred red-blooded American farm child, maybe even better than most, but animals were a weak point. It was a different sort of touch. Her father had once said Kenshin had been a fighting man before he was a rancher, but it was hard to imagine someone so gentle raising his voice let alone his hand against another person.
"Head out of the clouds, girl." Kaoru shook herself from her daydream as a blast of wind almost pushed her back. The clouds were no safe place for anyone's mind to be, and there was plenty yet to be done with the day. The breezes were a welcome break from the stagnant summer heat, but Kaoru worried about her harvest mere weeks away. With so much on her mind it was no wonder Yahiko's yelling had no impact until he practically ran into her as she made her way towards the barn to check on the animals.
She caught him and he gesticulated wildly in just about every direction possible, his face flushed and worried. "Sano!... Roof!... Nails!... HELP… doctor!"
Pretty sure of what had happened but afraid to verbalize it herself she grabbed the boy by the shoulders and practically shook him, trying to get him to put together a coherent sentence.
"Yahiko, calm down and tell me exactly what needs to be done." Her absolute resolve seemed to give her brother a sense of calm. He looked her in the eyes and took a deep breath.
"Sano was nailing down the loose roof shingles, but he slipped and fell. I…I just saw him go down and I know he's alive because he's screaming fit to bring the roof down…" The boy didn't get out much more than that when Kaoru broke into a sprint in the direction she had seen Yahiko barrel from at the start.
Idiot rooster-head! He was supposed to be fixing her roof not breaking his fool self! As the only regular help she had on the farm except during planting and harvest he was all she had left of her family besides Yahiko. The idea of losing him made her heart beat so fast she was sure it was one step ahead of her as she ran full tilt towards the horrible swearing just now reaching her ears.
She halted next to the man who was thrashing every long limb on his body save one leg that was bent in a way that made Kaoru's stomach flip. "Yahiko!" she called, knowing the boy was nearly caught up, "Get the whiskey in the kitchen right now and bring it here!"
At 'whiskey' Sano seemed to gain some consciousness that another person was there and he focused in on Kaoru who was practically on top of him. Shaking, but resolute, she tried to keep him from moving while asking him if he felt anything wrong besides the problem with his leg.
"Ain't this enough!" He roared angrily at her, but Sano's face moved from pained rage to mere grimace when Yahiko appeared before him, bottle in hand. With no pause he drained a fifth of the bottle's contents with an aggressive swig. "Best medicine in the world!" He tried to say with a smile that quickly became strained.
"What do we do?" Yahiko, nearly a man but still a boy at fifteen, looked to Kaoru to lead the way at times like these. Losing their father had made him more childish than he had been a year ago, and it was in the moments like these that Kaoru hated her father for leaving them. She felt guilty for it later, and she asked forgiveness for those thoughts, but there it was. At least when she was angry her thoughts were crystal, and she lost those horrible shakes.
Kaoru took off her overshirt and began to tear it into strips as she spoke. "I'm going to rig up a splint and get Sano inside while you ride to Dr. Takani's. Tell him it's an emergency and you get him over here!" Yahiko nodded, his eyes like saucers in his head. "I mean NOW! Move!" Galvanized, he took off for the barn to get the horse.
"This isn't going to be pleasant, Sano. I'll try to be as gentle as I can, but we both know this is going to hurt like hell no matter what."
"Hand me that bottle again, missy, and I promise you it won't matter in another fifteen minutes."
Kaoru sighed and tore another strip in what had been one of her favorite shirts. The wind blew through her undershirt as if it wasn't there, reminding her again of the impending storm, and she shivered.
Megumi Takani gave Kaoru that smile she couldn't stand. It said 'I'm about to tell you something unpleasant, and I enjoy watching you squirm.' If only that vixen's father had been in, instead of at a birth miles away, then Yahiko could have returned with a different Dr. Takani. Megumi was an excellent doctor, no question about that, but she and Kaoru had been on bad terms ever since they had had that shouting match in the schoolhouse when they were twelve.
"I'll tell you this, it's amazing he didn't break anything…" As Megumi started to speak Kaoru felt her breath whoosh out in relief. Nothing broken, that was good right? "But healing a dislocation like his will take about, oh, four months at least."
"That's not funny, Takani."
"Do you see me laughing, Kamiya? And that's Dr. Takani to you right now." Megumi had been training as hard as everyone else in her family, and she never missed an opportunity to remind people she should be afforded the respect her position entitled.
"Well, Dr. Takani," Kaoru tried to keep the frustration out of her voice. "You know very well that the harvest is in two months. You're telling me not only is Sano going to be laid up for four months, but he's going to be unable to help bring in my harvest?"
"No putting down your math skills, Kamiya." Megumi actually allowed herself a look of sympathy for Kaoru's plight. Personal issues aside, she had never wished Kaoru any of the tragedy that seemed to hound her recently. "As much as I hate to say it, you could always go talk to the Yukishiros."
"Never!" Kaoru would work herself into an early grave before she allowed a slave to work her land. Her father would rise from the dead just to lecture her if she allowed such a thing.
Megumi sniffed haughtily, her advice having been so pointedly rejected. "None of my business how you run your farm. I'll come and check on Sanosuke when he's less liquored up. My guess is he'll be bawling like a baby for some medicine before dawn. I have some in my bag, and I'll mix up a new batch and bring it by as soon as it's ready." At a loss and so worried she could feel a headache coming on, Kaoru simply thanked Megumi flatly and sent her on her way with a few dollars and a promise to pay the rest as soon as she had it. Megumi, feeling compassionate again to see Kaoru so vulnerable, said they'd take care of that when things were a bit less hectic.
Yahiko chatted to Kaoru about how he'd take care of all of Sano's chores along with his and that Kaoru didn't have to worry about a thing because family took care of their own. The boy looked so determined that all she could do was give him a weak smile and agree. She wondered if he comprehended how much Sano did on any given day. Even if he looked lazy and spent at least one day a week soaked in booze, Sano did more than even Yahiko knew about and they already were strained when it came to all the little maintenance issues the farm had. When it came down to it: Sano cooked.
Regardless of any side jobs the lanky former con man did, he was the one who did all the cooking and house cleaning. This was no small task, as Kaoru knew from the times Sano had been sick or too drunk to do his work. They needed someone else to help them, and as the wind whipped against the house with an ominous whine, she knew this was something that as much as she would love help from Kenshin in, he couldn't do a thing. His ranch hands were just that, and he had no extra cooks waiting in the wings to aid random neighbors.
"Are you listening to me?" Yahiko snapped at her.
"Tomorrow, I'm going to see Yukishiro." The defeat in her voice did nothing to sooth her already enraged sibling.
"You can't! You told Megumi we wouldn't! I told you I could do it, do you not have faith in me?" He stood over her, quivering with the strength of his emotion.
"They're the richest people for miles. If anyone knows where to find a cook they will. No slaves, I promise you, but maybe they have a maid or something that can cook. We'll hire someone for a few months, that's all." Yahiko gave her a look. She knew what it sounded like and she didn't feel any pride in admitting what needed to be done. It wasn't like she took any enjoyment in the idea of owing a favor to the Yukishiros. "Would you rather I cook?" she snapped.
Yahiko became very thoughtful at that. "Um."
"Right, tomorrow I see Enishi."
She was in her Sunday best. It had taken ages to hitch the horse up to the small cart they usually used when they went to town for supplies, but she couldn't walk to the Yukishiro plantation in her best shoes and dress and risk looking a mess when she met with the head of the household. Kaoru's level of nervousness surprised her with its intensity. While she was pretty sure she knew what Enishi Yukishiro looked like, she wasn't exactly certain. She had thought she had seen what might have been him at her father's funeral, but any function Kenshin was at Enishi was not.
Kaoru had been about seven the first time she had met the Yukishiros. Tomoe had come over with her brother, and had spent an afternoon chatting about inconsequential things with Kaoru's mom. Yahiko had been a toddler so Kaoru and Enishi had played in the barn for hours even though he said he was too old to play with a baby like her. He had cheated at hide-and-seek, and she yelled at him. But after lunch and a lump of special sugar candy it hadn't really mattered to either of them.
'Enishi is a lonely boy,' her mother had told her. 'It was nice of you to play with him today.' Any memory of her mother before she got sick was a cherished one and Enishi's image followed on her coat tails. Dark, messy hair and light eyes. Would she recognize him when she saw him now?
The trees unfamiliar to this region caught her attention as they shaded her on the way in. Even if she hadn't walked here she was sweating profusely under her layers of long skirts. The little boots on her feet were stiff and uncomfortable already and she had hardly walked in them yet. It didn't help Kaoru's temper, but she reminded herself it had been her own decision to dress up.
When a handsome slave in a finely tailored suit came out to help her down from her transport and show her in, she tried not to let her displeasure spill out too much. The beauty of the plantation's living areas and the grandeur of the house let you forget on whose back it had all been built sometimes. It almost made her turn around then and there, but she was only here because she had no choice. Get it done and get on with life.
She was shown into a sitting room and almost instantly, it seemed, refreshments were produced. Cool tea, biscuits, and finger sized sandwiches that looked delicious were placed a tantalizing arm length away. She was invited to sit yet again by a maid, but Kaoru clamped down on her tight smile and shook her head. Every so often her eyes strayed to the tray of food, but she waiting for her host with small pacing steps on the lush carpet.
Tomoe was everywhere in this room. The simple elegance, the expensive nature of the furniture, the calming colors all made Kaoru remember the woman who had swept into their lives. Tomoe, the envy of every woman with her fancy finishing school education and her effortless grace. Tomoe, the idol of every man with her beautiful face and engaging social manner. Her time had been too short on this earth, but Kaoru knew that death didn't discriminate.
"Miss Kamiya, your visit is unexpected." Enishi had changed a lot from the scrawny brat who peeked before he finished counting to twenty. "Pardon me if I'm not dressed for receiving."
In a linen shirt with the high collar, a flawlessly tied cravat, and what she could only assume was a black silk vest with black embroidery she knew he was dressed more formally than anyone in the county at this moment barring the mayor or a judge. She picked at her fitted sleeves, wishing they were puffed creations the wealthy ladies sported these days, or that maybe a little less of her neck and shoulders were exposed to his gaze as she attempted to figure out the proper way to greet Yukishiro in his own home. Had his eyes always been that turquoise, and when had he started wearing spectacles? The white-grey hair had been the biggest shock of all, and Kaoru knew she was holding back her astonishment rather poorly.
"I'm amazed you remember me, Mr. Yukishiro."
His lips quirked at the corners as he responded, "You gave my man your name when you arrived, Miss Kamiya."
"Ah yes. Um. Of course I did." She felt like an idiot, standing there with her mouth practically gaping at him. Enishi walked up to face her and her heart dropped to her knees as she craned her neck up at him. He was handsome up close, not in that boyish way Kenshin was that made her feel so comfortable. Enishi, with his tailored clothes and precise movements, seemed masculine in a predatory way. Kaoru wasn't sure she liked it, and she most certainly didn't like being intimidated so easily.
Color rose to her cheeks from her anger, but Enishi might have mistaken it for something else because a knowing smirk lit his face. "Please sit down, and I'll have the refreshments served while we talk."
"Why thank you." He only took his seat after she did and looked relaxed as he did so. Kaoru felt the line up her spine taut and electrified. She had never been one of those women who had excelled at the social graces, even if she had admired those soft ladies who had had the time to turn etiquette into an art. Since Enishi seemed totally at home with silence, Kaoru forced herself to start things off. "You've been back for a while this time, I hear."
"My overseas interests have reached a fairly self-sufficient state. There's no need to travel with every boat in my fleet any longer." A young girl handed Enishi a glass of tea, hands nearly shaking. Kaoru made sure to give the girl a broad smile and got a shy smile in return that seemed to steady the poor little thing.
"Certainly felt like you were here even when you were away. Folks around here were always asking your man about what business you were getting at."
"People want gossip, I suppose. How amusing my life may or may not be to others is of no interest to me." He took a drink and fixed her with a less self amused stare. "But you didn't come here on a social call, Miss Kamiya. We haven't spoken in… some years."
That drawl of his, mostly southern but with hints of exotic lands, felt vaguely hypnotic. Kaoru concentrated on her hands as she gathered her courage to make her plea. It was just one neighbor helping another, right? "Yesterday, when the wind storm hit, we had an accident."
"Sanosuke Sagara, my father's distant cousin and the only household help my brother and I have, dislocated his knee in a fall and now we're in a bit of a bind."
Enishi leaned back, his glasses catching a gleam of light and obscuring his eyes. The man was inscrutable. He was at the house maybe two weeks of the year until he suddenly returned from a busy life in New Orleans to be in Missouri full time once more like in the days when Tomoe was still alive but before she had married Kenshin. He had run away then, not even coming back for her funeral. Kaoru had wondered what would make a person so angry they would ignore the last days of a person they loved. Enishi's mind was foreign territory.
"So now we have no cook. Yahiko never learned and I'm just about the worst cook in creation, but we have to eat." She looked at the tray for a moment, admiring it and wishing she had been granted the talent and the taste buds that went with culinary mastery. "We can figure out the house work between the two of us somehow, but we need a cook. If we could use anyone on your staff for just a couple months until harvest then I'll repay you any way you'd like, with labor or money."
"I'm sure Heishin would know more than I would I don't really have any interest or dealings with this property…" He tented his fingers in front of him, seeming to withdraw from the conversation now that he knew it was something so plebian as a neighbor asking for charity. "He'll find a suitable girl from among the serving staff and—"
"No slaves!" Kaoru realized she had yelled it out only after she had already done so. Mortified, she tried to clarify to Enishi who had silenced upon her outburst. "You must understand, Mr. Yukishiro, my family believes very strongly that the labor one gives is the property of the person and that they must be fairly compensated for it. We can't have slaves on Kamiya land."
Enishi sat up, expression grim. "I see. Perhaps you had better tell me just what it is you were expecting of me, Miss Kamiya."
"Well," Trying to bring up images of past episodes of bravery to help her didn't do much. The day she faced down that bully who picked on Yahiko at the school house and got a blood nose, or the that summer she taught herself how to swim were not the same sinking bone deep fear and excitement she had in front of Enishi. Maybe she was coming down with something. "Everyone knows you're as rich as Midas and I thought maybe the rich did things differently. You might have a couple cooks, or at least know where to hire one. I didn't come looking for a hand out, mind you!" She spoke severely.
"So you would rather have a white cook at great expense not to mention owing me a favor, even if I offered you to give you a slave to cook for you for as long as you wished it and without any need to return a dime to me let alone feel beholden?" There was a note of incredulity in his voice.
"It's a matter of principle, Mr. Yukishiro. And I'm a highly principled woman."
"I'm beginning to understand what kind of woman you might be, Miss Kamiya."
"Excuse me?" Kaoru saw something light inside of Enishi. He leaned forward in his chair, dropping his hand back down to his drink and taking a long sip before bothering to meet her eyes again. Was he insulting her? She wasn't entirely sure.
As he stood up she was impressed once again at his stature. She knew that even in her heeled boots the top of her head only reached his chin. Only Sano was taller, possibly. He leaned down over her, putting hands on either side of the back of the settee she sat on. It was an imposing posture, as he invaded her personal space in a way few men had ever dared.
"I'm happy to give you my personal cook for several month, and her assistant, both of whom came with me from Louisiana and who would satisfy your requirements." His eyes were the same as they had been as a child, she decided. They looked as if they would be so clear you could see into his soul, but all you got back was your own reflection. Kaoru wondered if he was empty inside, or just hidden. "But I have one stipulation."
He's a businessman, she warned herself inside, but she really didn't have a choice. She asked and it seemed like he was agreeing, without arguing or taking offense at her conditions, which cast a definite moral judgment on his plantation's way of life. "Mr. Yukishiro, as I said, any way I can repay you I'll do the best I can to make possible. People have to eat."
"I'm coming with them." Kaoru went still as a statue as his face cracked into a wide, toothy smile. He withdrew from her personal space and picked up a small sandwich. "Chicken salad has always been a favorite of mine, you must try them."
"Yahiko if you keep making that face I'll put you on manure duty again."
Her brother, fueled with indignation at the situation they were in, had chosen not to speak to her for the past two days while the plantation party readied themselves to arrive. Kaoru said she'd have living arrangements worked out by then and she was exhausted from moving furniture and knick knacks, cleaning and preparing the spaces that would cause their household to double overnight. Yahiko had not lifted a finger to help her, though he was still doing all his chores like normal. Two days of doing her own work and Sano's as well as preparing the rooms had left Kaoru in a foul temper and with an exhausted body. Sleep was a fond memory. And all the while she got to have running commentary from the invalid in the living room who was not hesitant to point out what Kaoru had missed. In fact, Sano was a little too gleeful about ordering her around.
Even though he gave no indication that he had heard her, Yahiko at least had followed her wish and had dressed somewhat nicely to meet the two ladies who would be caring for them and the one gentlemen who probably cared not a jot for them. Yahiko had idolized Kenshin for years, and due to the long-standing feud between Enishi and Kenshin he had explicitly chosen his side. As the cart rumbled into their sight, Kaoru felt suddenly self-conscious of her home and her simple work clothes. There was no need to dress up today, she told herself, but now with the newcomers almost in earshot she wasn't so confident.
"Did you even brush your hair, Yahiko? It looks like a bird's nest." Yahiko gave her a nasty look and simply put his hat on his head mutely. This was getting ridiculous, but she didn't have time to launch into anything with her little brother.
"Hello!" Someone was waving from the cart, and Kaoru made out the friendly smiling face of a woman who couldn't be a great deal older than Kaoru herself. Next to her was that same young girl who Kaoru had seen at the plantation, who seemed to be examining her feet with great interest. Driving the cart was Enishi, which surprised Kaoru who assumed he would come later on a horse instead of with the others.
The cart halted in front of Kaoru and Yahiko, and Kaoru elbowed Yahiko in the side. "Help the ladies down and introduce yourself."
Finally looking up Yahiko met the eyes of the young lady and just about fell over as he pulled his hat off his head and tried to smooth down his hair. "Yahiko Kamiya, miss!"
The girl looked to the older woman before looking back and Yahiko, so shy she looked like she wasn't even going to respond at first. The older woman responded for both of them, saving the girl the mortification.
"I'm Tae and this is my niece Tsubame, it's a pleasure to meet you." Tae's accent was strange to Kaoru, but she suspected it was something particular to New Orleans and filed it away as something to talk about later with Tae.
Yahiko was helping the ladies down while Enishi fiddled with the straps that held down the supplies they had brought with them. Kaoru moved over to help him, and at first he tried to wave her away. Persistence being her way, Kaoru simply moved to the other side and worked at the knots. As objects were uncovered, Kaoru saw they had brought more food than she had seen in one place before barring a party and couldn't help but comment on that.
"We have plenty of food stored here, you needn't have brought so much, Mr. Yukishiro."
"I can't say it was entirely my idea," Enishi said a bit ruefully. "Tae is a cook with a singular vision and she travels with most of her kitchen despite the difficulties that produces. I admire a certain amount of pig headedness in people."
"So long as it doesn't go against what you want?" Kaoru said before she was entirely aware of it. This was not a family member coming to visit for a couple months, she scolded herself internally, this was a near stranger and a dangerous one at that. Between his wealth and his notoriously violent disposition, she needed to watch herself.
Enishi actually gave a quick laugh before he locked narrowed eyes on her. Kaoru couldn't guess what his mood might be so she just stayed silent and began to bring in the more perishable items for Tae to arrange in the kitchen while Yahiko gave them the tour, suddenly more vocal than she had seen him be since before their father died. Tsubame had worked miracles in seconds, and Kaoru just hoped Yahiko hadn't already broken his heart over her. At least she didn't need to worry about him approving of the situation now.
The day was heating up quickly and things needed to be done, so Kaoru did what she could to get everyone introduced and familiarized before she excused herself to go tend to the work that needed doing. It was later in the day than she expected to begin, so when the heat coupled with her tiredness had her swaying on her feet she wasn't really aware of anything around her.
"You're at your limit." The voice startled her and she swung around, shovel in hand towards the unfamiliar sound. Luckily for her, Enishi had reflexes like a snake and he caught the handle before the shovel could smack him squarely in the gut. He handed her a canteen of water, and Kaoru sagged with gratefulness.
"Thank you, Mr. Yukishiro."
"You might as well call me Enishi. Formalities will simply make the next few months awkward for all of us."
Kaoru wished she were as refreshed as he seemed to be, so that her thoughts were less muddled. She'd have to turn in early tonight, at the very least, if it seemed polite or appropriate to do so this first night.
"Then you should call me Kaoru." It didn't seem quite right to her, to move to a first name basis so fast, but it was bound to happen and he had already set the pace. "You confuse me, Mr. Yukishiro,"
"Enishi," She corrected with a nod and a blush that was hopefully hidden under her heat-flushed cheeks spread. "Why would you leave your plantation to come live on our farm for two months, and interrupt your business and lifestyle? A man such as yourself couldn't be that attached to his meals, could he?"
"You look like you could use a meal or two, Miss Kamiya." Was he calling her too skinny? Her mood turned black almost instantly.
"I'll have you know I do work all day, not like some women who have nothing better to do than recite poetry or pour tea for one another!"
"Is that what you think rich ladies do all day?" Enishi seemed to be enjoying himself, the bastard.
Kaoru didn't want to talk about this; she had better things to do. There was enough awareness and control left in her that she saw this could only go bad places. "We can discuss this later, sir. Thank you for the water and good day!"
With a wide grin on his face, Enishi retreated with the empty water container. It was only later Kaoru realized he had never answered her question. She took her frustration out on the earth with the shovel.
It was amazing how even very strange situations could become normal after a while. All of them had built in routines from a month of living together and now Kaoru couldn't imagine a time without Tae and Tsubame. Only Enishi continued to keep her off balance. She thought she was doing well hiding it until Megumi showed up with Sano's medicine. As usual, she and Megumi had exchanged less-than-pleasantries and Sano and Megumi were bantering in their usual mildly antagonistic manner in Sano's room. Yahiko was following around Tsubame as she did her cleaning, and Tae was in the kitchen finishing up fixing supper. No doubt the doctor would stay for the meal, and for once Kaoru didn't find the prospect distasteful.
It was a rare thing for Kaoru and Enishi to be left alone. The living room felt cavernous with the lively conversation and press of people absent. Enishi was in the corner he had staked out for himself to write correspondence. Runners were coming to the house nearly every day with letters for Enishi, or contracts. It seemed like a terribly inconvenient thing to run his business in New Orleans from so far away, but Kaoru couldn't guess at why Enishi did what he did.
He kept rubbing the back of his neck, now and then creating an ink mark that would smear as he tried to relieve some of the pressure of being hunched over. It reminded Kaoru of the evenings her father had to work out the house accounts, something that Enishi had volunteered to look at and double check Kaoru's work this particular evening. Somehow, it seemed perfectly natural to her to go over and do what she had done for her father hundreds of times before and begin to rub his shoulders.
Enishi, on feeling her hands settle onto his neck, whipped his head around in what almost seemed to be fury. Kaoru gave him a searching look until recognition lit his face and he turned back down to the papers. The tension in his shoulders was remarkable, and Kaoru set to trying to relax the muscles. Never a particularly gentle masseuse, she dug in with her full strength and after a few sharp exhales from her object of torture she was rewarded with a sigh of pleasure. Usually this was when her father would wave her away and she'd tell him he needed to take it easy now and then. Enishi didn't wave her away so she kept going. The man had knots everywhere, and it was so natural to move from his neck and shoulders down to his central and lower back that she didn't even think about it.
Kaoru pulled his suspenders from his shoulders so that they stopped getting in the way, and all that was between her and Enishi's skin was one of his white linen shirts made in a country across the ocean he had visited not long ago. The effort she was putting out was not great, but her heart was beating hard in her chest as if she were running in a race. Kaoru could feel every muscle so clearly through his shirt it was like he wasn't wearing one, and the slide of fabric was all that kept her from what she assumed was skin as tan and smooth as on his face and neck.
She had a close up view of that neck since she was working on his lower back, and the hairs in front of her stirred with every breath she took. Enishi, for his part, had stopped scribbling on the account books and was as still as death. No matter how hard to worked on him now he didn't seem able to relax, and Kaory wondered if she was doing something wrong. No doubt he would tell her if she was, Enishi was never shy about his likes and dislikes. There was a loud bang from the kitchen as Tae moved something from the wood stove, and sudden self-awareness of the intimacy of the moment caused Kaoru's hands to falter and withdraw. She felt heated from the inside out and embarrassed but not regretful. Stopping had been easy, but she wanted to start again. Clearly she needed to take a walk before dinner to clear her head.
"Thank you." Enishi said simply, though he didn't turn around to face her. How strange and depraved he must think her for putting her hands on him in such a manner!
"I—" Kaoru started but the words failed even as she tried to say them. A burst of laughter from upstairs saved her from having to fill the silence and she exited the room briskly to find out what Sano and Megumi were talking about.
Angry at herself and Enishi for reasons she couldn't name, Kaoru practically stomped around the house. One more month and she'd be freed from this insanity.
Kaoru began taking walks in the evening as a regular thing after the back rub incident 'because summer nights are so fine' she told everyone. Sano would complain about not being able to walk anywhere easily, and Tae would try to tease him into a better mood or offer him something to eat. Yahiko and Tsubame were in their own world, with Yahiko talking a lot about farm matters and Tsubame laughing kindly at his attempts at jokes. Enishi would settle into his business contracts and pointedly ignore everyone, or disappear into his room.
This evening she was particularly thoughtful because of an incident a couple of days ago. Kenshin, being the neighbor he was, came to check on her as usual. He must have been observing her for some time because he came and found her when Kaoru was at a particularly far part of her land from the house. It was unusual for Kenshin to approach her and not visit with Yahiko as well, so from the start things didn't seem right.
"Miss Kaoru! You're looking well." His smile took ten years off his careworn face.
"As well as any other day. Weather's been fine. Plenty to eat. Can't complain." Somehow she felt less like speaking to Kenshin than usual. The fluttery feeling of pleasure at his attention was missing and she felt a prick of guilt deep down.
"Just wanted to make sure you… hello, sir." Kenshin turned his attention to the newcomer and Kaoru saw Enishi approach her with a cloth bundle in hand. It looked like Tae had made some special bread and had sent Enishi out to give it to her while it was fresh, like when she had made cornbread a couple weeks ago.
"Himura." Enishi spat the name out. He practically tossed the bread at Kaoru and turned on his heel to go back towards the house.
Kaoru wasn't much interested in more conversation, so when Kenshin rode off after Enishi to have a word she wasn't sad for herself but profoundly curious at what was about to happen. They were well out of earshot, but she could make out gestures. Kenshin got off of his horse and grabbed Enishi by the shoulder to stop him when the man kept walking.
It looked like Enishi was shouting something, and several times he shoved Kenshin who simply let it happen. Kaoru was pretty sure she saw one or both of them gesture at her, but the conversation was so animated she knew she might be mistaken. Things seemed to calm as Kenshin handed something over to Enishi and things looked like they might end there when something Kenshin said resulted in Enishi turning around and punching him so hard that the smaller man actually hit the dirt in a heap.
Kaoru came running over after that, but by the time she was there Enishi had made tracks for the house. Kenshin was sitting in the dirt, his horse a few feet away aimlessly walking here and there. "Kenshin! Are you ok? Are you hurt? Do you need anything?"
"I got what I came here for, Miss Kaoru. Maybe a little more than I bargained for, but it's ok." He accepted her hand up and he actually smiled at her without that trace of sadness she had been used to seeing. "Take care, Miss Kaoru. Don't you worry about me, and I won't worry about you."
With that enigmatic farewell, he had made his way back to his ranch where no doubt he'd have to take care of a remarkable black eye.
At first she had tried to figure out what it all meant, but she knew so little about their history beyond what everyone knew. Tomoe and Enishi had moved here after Tomoe had married young to the only son of the Yukishiros and been widowed nearly as young. Tomoe had lived alone on the plantation with her brother until she and Kenshin had gotten engaged. There had been some sort of riding accident and Tomoe had broken her neck. Did Enishi blame Kenshin for Tomoe's death? Did he think Kenshin had killed her? Was the problem deeper than that? Did it have anything to do with Enishi living here now? Kaoru wasn't a particularly introspective person and these thoughts had only served to give her a headache and distract her from her work.
Now she took walks simply to get away from Enishi.
Initially she had made excuses to herself why this would be necessary but Kaoru was bad at lying, even to herself, and she knew what the problem was just not what she had to do about it. She was attracted to Enishi Yukishiro. She didn't mean attracted in that breezy way she had used to feel around Kenshin, light and refreshing. No, being attracted to Enishi was like deep winter in her heart—she could feel it down to the core of her bones and it made her long for warmth that seemed an eternity away. This is what mothers were for, Kaoru assumed, to talk to about boys and love and hear the amusing stories from when her mother and father were young. Maybe everyone felt this way. Maybe it was normal. Kaoru couldn't say, since she didn't have much at all to compare it to and all she knew about the human heart had to do with family and friendship.
With the kind of life he had led, Kaoru wondered if Enishi knew much about family and friendship himself. He had certainly been practically a stranger in her household. Even though he had reached an uneasy truce with the men in the house and he was the employer of the other women, Kaoru seemed to be in a category of her own. Some days he'd talk to her and prod her into anger or frustration, and other days he'd ignore her. He'd ask her deep questions, listen for her answer, and then proceed to lecture her about how she was either naïve or just plain wrong.
Kaoru now knew that Enishi assumed people were nasty, self-serving, violent, bestial, and ugly inside. Enishi knew Kaoru thought the opposite, and he spent as much time as possible giving her non-explicit examples of people who had failed him in some twisted attempt to prove her wrong. From the nature of even these rough sketches, Kaoru got the idea his business dealings were not entirely legal if not downright illegal.
None of his behavior had done anything to sway her growing feelings. Most of the time she thought he was hoping she'd prove him wrong, anyway. After Kenshin's visit he had spent most days in his room, brooding over something. His black mood had put a damper on the house. Everyone was on eggshells when he was stalking around the house, afraid to set him off.
Kaoru leaned on the fence she had mended not so long ago, before Sano had dislocated his knee and inadvertently her thoughts about life. Maybe there was a plan out there.
"You should let your hair down sometimes." Kaoru started at Enishi's voice, so close to her. Damn but the man was like a cat! How had he learned to walk without a sound? It was uncanny.
She tried not to let any of her surprise invade her voice, just glad the growing darkness of the evening obscured her from close scrutiny. "It's too long these days, it would only get in the way or tangle up. Don't know why I bother with it really."
"It suits you." Not exactly a romantic sentiment, but Kaoru would take what she could get and she felt pleasure at the comment anyway.
"When did your hair go grey?"
"It was around the time I ran away." 'After my sister died', The unspoken comment he didn't need to add. Kaoru saw him lean on the length of fence next to her, staring at the same nothing she was.
There was uncomfortable silence for a time. "So this is what you do at night." His tone became the more familiar one of teasing derision she was used to. "It's quite dull. You should think of taking up a hobby. I'm sure Tsubame would be happy to show you how to knit."
Kaoru laughed in spite of herself. "If it weren't so dangerous and the river weren't so far, I'd swim if I could."
A strong hand grasped her around the wrist and peeled her from the fence. Enishi wasn't about to deviate once he had a purpose in mind. At first Kaoru struggled in a token gesture of resistance, but in earnest when he refused to let go. The man was unnaturally strong for someone who never worked the land.
"Tell me where we're going right now, Enishi Yukishiro, or I promise you I'll scream fit to bring the heavens down."
"It's early and I have a fast horse that hasn't gotten nearly enough exercise recently." He finally let her go only long enough to get an even better grip on her upper arm instead. "We're going swimming."
"This is madness!" Kaoru tried not to watch while Enishi untucked his shirt from his pants and unbuttoned his suspenders as well. His shirt came off in a fluid motion, exposing his chest to the night air and moonlight. Kaoru's breath hitched as she realized he was every bit as beautiful as her hands had discovered during the massage. That wasn't the body of a businessman or even of a field worker, she saw in the full moon wicked scars and lean muscles. Enishi was a fighter, or he had been, and her earliest impression of him as being supremely dangerous turned out to be justified.
Before she could do much more than stare he had already jumped into the slow moving river. Water ran off of the naked parts of him while he swore and pushed back his soaked hair. "Left my glasses on! Come here and take them."
Woodenly, Kaoru approached the bank and accepted the lenses even though she was sure she no longer had knees or any muscles in her legs.
"You have minutes to join me before I make you, Miss Kamiya." He smiled with his teeth, a sure sign to Kaoru that she had even less time than he claimed. It was one of those things she had gotten used to him doing, forcing people to do things but making them go through the effort on their own. He was always pulling strings. It probably made him a good businessman.
It was scandalous, her standing here in her layers of undergarments, about to swim alone with a man she honestly barely knew. She should have felt guilty, but all she did feel was the joy of swimming in cool water on a hot night. Unable to jump in the way Enishi had, she waded to her knees and felt the pebbles and mud under her toes with tactile brushes of her calloused feet on the riverbed.
"Too slow!" Enishi chided and splashed her with a sweeping wave of his arm. Kaoru shrieked as water that felt cold to her skin plastered her undergarments onto her body. Having attacked her effectively, he didn't retreat to the other bank as she remembered kids doing back in the days of her youth. Enishi stood there, waiting for her retaliation and seeming fully confident there was nothing she could actually do that he could fear.
He was right, but it galled her that he couldn't even show some play fear at her ire! "Mr. Yukishiro, if you can't play nicely with the other children, then you'll be sent home straight away."
"Yes'm." He said not at all apologetically and came to stand next to her. "If you want remorse, you're in for a long wait."
Kaoru huffed her irritation and leaned back into the water, ignoring him and enjoying the weightless feeling of swimming. She closed her eyes and for a while everything was right with the world. She was that carefree schoolgirl who giggled with her friends at the general store in town and ran home to hear stories about the day and its trials from her father and Sano. There was no account book to balance. No harvest to organize. No Enishi.
Drips of water hit her face and she wiped them away with one hand and opened her eyes to meet the looming form of Enishi standing above her. "Was I drifting away?" Kaoru asked. The current was so slow from the low level of the river she hadn't been alarmed by the prospect. She set her feet down and steadied herself against the pull of the water by pushing her hand against his hip.
He didn't say a word, or make any move to touch her, but as soon as Kaoru began to withdraw her hand he suddenly darted his hands forward with inhuman speed. With palms cradling her jaw on either side he bent down to kiss her almost viciously. It didn't occur to her to struggle as she got used to the fact that this was not one of her idle fantasies but a very uncertain reality.
When she didn't pull away or otherwise protest Enishi took the opportunity to take the kiss from chaste meeting of lips to something else and he angled over her and drove their lips and bodies together first aggressively and then gently. Kaoru followed his lead, letting instinct guide her through this unfamiliar ritual. When his mouth opened and his tongue pressed past her lips, she tried the same. He groaned deep in his throat and Kaoru marveled. This was the summer that wintry feeling had hinted at and it was almost too much to process.
It was when her hands finally came back to life and skimmed from his shoulders to his hips that Enishi seemed to come out of some daze and pulled back from her suddenly. Stunned, aroused, and suddenly cold without his body pressing against her and stopping the wind against her damp garments, Kaoru gathered her scattered wits.
In increasingly oppressive silence Kaoru rounded up her things and dressed again after allowing herself to dry off a bit. Enishi continued to stand in the river and it was only when she sharply called his name that he seemed to start up and mechanically put on his clothes. She was so angry she didn't even linger on the sight of his half-naked body.
The day after the swimming incident Enishi packed some saddlebags with essentials and left. Yahiko suggested they have a party to celebrate, but everyone else in the household with a shred of empathy looked to Kaoru to set the mood. Tae and Tsubame said they hadn't been given any other instructions beyond to keep doing what they were doing until he returned. Sano had the presence of mind to ask if he had said anything about the harvest and Tae said that he hadn't specified a time so they would stay until he told them to leave. He had certainly left an ungodly amount of money, in Kaoru's estimation, to help out until whatever business he had was concluded.
While the timing led her to believe it was her fault in some manner for his total withdrawal, she also conceded the possibility that he had legitimate business concerns that he had been putting off to play house at her farm. Maybe that time at the river had answered some question for him that he needed to be answered. Kaoru's insides were a prodded hornet's nest. She took out her anger and frustration on her work and a bit on the people around her, but harvest was on them too fast for her to do much besides concentrate on what she was doing.
Soon the seasonal workers were here to help as well as other farmers in the area and everyone went into a single-minded focus for the fact of life they faced in every August. What needed to be reaped was reaped, what needed to be slaughtered was slaughtered, and people ate and worked and ate again. There was laughing and stories but mostly there was worry and exhaustion followed by satisfaction and elation. If Kaoru were to judge, what they had would keep them going for another year and she was grateful. Some had more and some had less, but she forced herself to be in the present and be happy with it.
Tonight was the big party to celebrate the end of everyone's work. Kaoru was no longer in the black mood she had been when Enishi had left, but her thoughts strayed back to him almost constantly now that wheat wasn't waiting to be picked. Sano tried to tell her jokes, limping around and somehow making it part of his act. He had spent enough time pretending to be lame during his conning days that he knew how to get around pretty well, but he let the ladies fuss over him anyway.
Tsubame let Kaoru know how much Yahiko was worried about her, and Kaoru laughed to think how her brother was so mindful of his manly pride he couldn't just tell her himself anymore. Another thing Tsubame said had Kaoru thinking deeply that evening, that Yahiko would be fine with that white haired bastard coming back if it meant Kaoru would be happy again.
When had Enishi become key in assuring her happiness? It wasn't acceptable. Happiness was from family, or it was from pride in her land or herself. That someone else had somehow stolen away her happiness made her even more miserable. It wasn't fair. Nothing was, really, but she wished it could be. Seeing Yahiko so blissfully enamored and having his emotions so obviously returned even in a subdued manner just exacerbated Kaoru's loneliness. Dammit, she needed Enishi. She needed his arguments, his odd sleeping schedule, his cranky fits when he had to eat something he didn't like, and those rare moments he laughed and it reached his eyes. It was stupid, but he had become a part of her life and she was tired of loss.
"We're going to be late!" Sano yelled up to Kaoru, who was staring at the mirror in her room. She had on that same dress she had worn when she went to see Enishi. Tae had asked Tsubame to alter it and now it had the wide sleeves and low neck that Kaoru knew would fit in with the wealthy wives and daughters of the town leaders.
She knew she looked beautiful when even her brother paid her a compliment. They all piled onto the cart and Kaoru took the reigns as she was used to doing. Sano was picking at Tae's carefully done hairdo, making the woman laugh, and Yahiko was sitting far away from Tsubame, trying to look at her and trying not to at the same time while she was all dressed up.
It was time to party, and Kaoru forced a smile and started them off. Tsubame, who sang quite well, started them all off on something to pass the time and they were making their way merrily enough when a cloud of dust became apparent in front of them. The rider passed by them in a flurry of hooves an Kaoru released the breath she knew she had been holding.
"Hey hey, missy, hold up!" Sano yelled over their singing.
Kaoru stopped their progress and turned to see the rider coming towards them from the other direction. Seeing them stopped hadn't stopped the punishing pace he was forcing on the horse and when he pulled up he gave Kaoru a tip of his hat.
"I didn't recognize you with your hair down." Enishi said accusingly.
The group in the cart all gave one another a look. Yahiko looked bilious, and Tsubame excited. Tae asked a question to Sano, and then nudged him hard before he sighed and gave in.
"Why don't you go back and get my other crutches, missy. I can drive the cart to town." Sano said the words as if reading from a script Tae had handed him.
"You have crutches right—OOF" Tsubame had fluttered that pretty little hand of hers right into Yahiko's stomach before bringing it the rest of the way up to adjust her bonnet.
Tae helped Sano get into the driver's seat while Kaoru climbed onto Enishi's horse. Yahiko grumbled to himself as he kept glancing back at their retreating forms.
"Deal with it, pipsqueak!" Sano said. "I don't like it any more than you do, but Kaoru's a big girl and she can take care of herself."
"I think it's romantic." Tsubame said.
"Whatever it is, it isn't our business right now. Let's get to the party." Tae commented. "Now where were we on that song?"
"I think the crutches are over in the corner by the back door, if we hurry we can catch up with them before—" Enishi grabbed her from behind and turned her into a kiss so eager she almost forgave him the weeks of uncertainty and abject misery. He was certainly a man who knew what he wanted, but this impulsive behavior was not acceptable.
"No!" Kaoru pushed at him, protesting first against his lips and then in front of them as she made her desire to be away from him obvious. "You don't get to come back like this! You left, and what's worse you left without explaining anything. You never explain anything!"
He had obviously not expected this as his mood seemed to float from delight to irritation, but he didn't let her go even as she flailed against him. "You ask too many questions. What if I didn't know the answer? Did that ever occur to you?"
Kaoru stopped squirming against his hold, and she did the best she could to look petulant as she crossed her arms in front of her chest. It was uncomfortable as that meant they were pinched between her chest and his, but she did it anyway to drive her point in. She wasn't happy.
"Fine." He practically dropped her on the dirt and stalked towards where Kaoru had said the crutches were.
"Enishi." He didn't give any indication he had heard her. "Enishi!" The stubborn man dropped his travel pack onto the ground and began lashing the crutches to the horse.
"I'm just, that is… DAMN IT." Kaoru hated this. How dare he come back and then act like he was injured party in all this nonsense. "I'm just angry because I missed you so much."
Enishi's movements slowed, then stopped. He didn't face her, and it was somehow easier for Kaoru to talk to his back. "I was so used to you being there, and then when you weren't it was like my mind was somewhere else half the time. I thought maybe, you were disgusted with me, with what we did. You have to understand how it tortured me. That's not something a gentleman should do to a lady."
He laughed at that, frantic and alarming before it tapered off. "You're the only one who ever assumed I was a gentleman." He seemed unwilling to face her either, and the air seemed heavy between them. "And they're right. I'm a monster. I lie, I steal, I kill, and you're the one fooling yourself into thinking you can save me."
"I wasn't ever trying to save you." She was astonished that he would think so. He finally faced her and moved quickly so that they were toe to toe.
"Maybe that's how you did it. You're just so, I don't know, effortlessly insidious. I didn't know just how much you had gotten to me until that night at the river. Probably before then, who am I kidding myself?" The heat in his glance told her he was remembering that time and her body responded, wanting to reach out. Kaoru forced herself to maintain control.
"I'll admit that I first came to live with you to get at Himura. He's always seen you as a little sister, and the thought of me so close to you had to eat at him day after day. There was a delicious revenge in that for me, and I tried to find a way I could use it but then you made it all so damn complicated!" Enishi's voice grew both softer and more intense as he finally explained his motives, and Kaoru felt her body grow cold as she realized how he had used her. Enishi noticed her body language and didn't let the slap she was about to deliver land.
"I deserve it, but let me finish before you hit me, Kaoru." Unlike his usual confidence, there was a tremor there, and it was that vulnerability that kept her there. "When Himura gave me my sister's diary I finally understood, and I felt so dirty. Revenge, power, fear, it would have destroyed Tomoe to know what I'd become. And there you were, so pure, and I wanted you so much. I wanted to be worthy of you, before I tainted you any more than I already had."
The self-loathing was so deep Enishi shook, and Kaoru fought against the instinct to mother him. She was still angry at him, dammit! But she wasn't sure she wanted to be angry, or even really cared about why now that he was here.
"It isn't much, but I did what I could. I sold off some of my less savory business holdings to old partners, withdrew were I could and just cut my losses on others. My shipping company is still pretty much whole, though I can't say what I'll be shipping now." He was shifting to business mode, but he brought himself back quick enough. "I had the slaves freed and they'll be sent off tomorrow with a couple dollars and a good reference. Maybe they'll go north. I don't care. But I did it just on the chance that maybe I'd feel like that mythical good man you call me, when you aren't yelling at me for being pig-headed."
It was a lot to take. She felt elated and scared all at once. He had done all this for her, but also for his dead sister. He wanted her approval, maybe even her, but didn't understand why. Maybe this was love. It was enraging and confusing, and Kaoru wished she were the smartest person in the world so that she could unravel this puzzle.
"Well?" He stood there, waiting for her answer as if he had asked a question.
Slowly, and avoiding his eyes, she brought her lips to touch his. It was like a coil unwound inside of him and his breath rushed out right before he practically dove onto her, pushing them back until she was trapped between him and a side of the house. When that wasn't close enough for his liking Enishi lifted her up so that she couldn't touch the ground and the imbalance forced her to wrap her legs around his waist. His hands were everywhere, grasping and stroking and Kaoru was sure parts of her had caught fire they were so hot.
"We can't do this," Kaoru managed to say when they broke from kissing to snatch some humid air into their lungs.
"Give me one good reason why not." Enishi demanded wickedly as his hand traveled up her thigh.
"That's cheating." She sighed as she leaned into his touch.
"You going to threaten to pummel me this time?" He looked so cocky that she couldn't stand it and slid out from in between him and the wall. He allowed it, curious where this was going.
"I'll tell you what, if you can't find me in five minutes then we're leaving for the party."
"I count to twenty while you hide?"
"Very well." He adjusted his shirt and then more carefully adjusted his pants, which were obviously ill fitting considering their activities previously. "And if I find you?"
"Then we'll do whatever you like."
The words had hardly left her mouth when he practically shouted "Okay!"
Kaoru straightened her clothes out and tied up her hair, much to Enishi's sadness. "One more thing, Enishi," she added.
"You have to start at 'one' this time."
He paused, giving her a considering look which was as much promise as threat. "You know me too well, already."