Kaoru narrowed her eyes as she glared at the fish in front of her, as if it was an enemy she had to defeat. Karen had lectured her endlessly on how to choose fresh fish, but Kaoru never could remember all her advice. All the fish seemed to stare at her with dull, sunken eyes, daring her to chose one of them for the dinner table. She muttered something under her breath as if they could hear her speak.
As if the thought of her had somehow summoned the girl, Kaoru turned around to see Karen behind her, smiling knowingly. The slight, graceful hitokiri was dressed as any other woman shopping for dinner, but as the two girls stood together both of them were glanced at appreciatively - or would have, if Karen hadn't been carrying around a katana, very out of place with her dark red kimono. "Still can't remember what I taught you last time?"
"Oneechan!" Kaoru shouted, half in relief and half in joy as she hugged her. Karen's assignments as of late had been centered around Kyoto and Tokyo, so for the past month she had slept on and off at the Dojo. Kaoru was happy that Karen was around so much lately, even though she also knew the girl would be gone one day and not be heard of for another half-year or more.
"Oneechan, thank the gods you're here." Kaoru waved a hand at the pile of fish, and at the vendor who wore a grim look of patience. "I know you told me that fresh fish are shiny, but ALL of these fish look shiny to me!"
"Kaoru no baka," Karen said affectionately. "Look." She picked up a limp fish and showed it to the younger woman. "See this one? Look at its eyes. They're sunken in. And see? The scales aren't all here.... The gills should be pink, but these are the color of clay!!" Kaoru gaped as Karen suddenly glared at the fish with a light that could have sent the fiercest samurai running for his mother. She half expected to see the fish start to sizzle. "This fish is as old as Hajime! Let's go, Kaoru. I've already been to the Akabeko, and Tae-san gave me a shopping list.
"Na...Nani?" Kaoru stammered, feeling herself be pulled away by Karen's enthusiastic pace. The vendor looked ready to pour a barrage of curses on Kaoru's retreating back, but the memory of Karen's glare prevented him from saying anything aloud.
As the two women weaved through the crowd, Karen talked at a rapid pace, keeping Kaoru's arm firmly tucked under hers. "There's a new official in the Meiji government, and Hajime and I have been assigned to guard him. It's complicated, but he's been targeted for assassination, and the higher officials decided that he should keep a low profile for awhile. I told them he could stay at your dojo - don't worry, he'll pay his board. And tonight we're going to have a welcome dinner at the Akabeko. We're going to pretend he's a friend of your father's - at least, that's how the gossip is going around. He's around Tae-san's age."
Kaoru found it hard to follow her words. "Wha... what's his name?"
"Monou Kamui," Karen answered promptly. "You will let him stay at the dojo? Please? If there's no room, I can stay somewhere else-"
"Don't be ridiculous, oneechan!" Kaoru said indignantly. "We have room. He can sleep with Kenshin if he must. Is he nice?"
"Handsome, and quite the gentleman." Karen might as well have been talking about a fish for the interest she showed. "Hajime will be staying around as well, and Tokio-oneesan decided to stay with him since he's going to be here longer than usual. Aoshi-san has also been called in. Which means Misao-chan will be here as well... but they can't stay at the dojo. Way too crowded, and the enemy will grow suspicious if too many of us are all in one place."
Kaoru was now rather dizzy. "So... everyone we know will be here...?"
"I suppose so. Wait a moment." Karen stopped in front of a fish store and went inside. A policeman that Kaoru hadn't noticed before stood in front of the door, keeping an eye on Kaoru at the same time. She tried to put into order what Karen had just fired at her during the past five minutes. One clear thought rang in her mind.
At least I won't have to do dinner tonight... she thought with relief.
As Karen came out with her packages, something that she had said came to Kaoru. "Oneechan, did you say that Monou-san was around Tae-san's age?"
Karen nodded and started to walk again, the policeman following behind casually at a discreet distance. "Yes, I'm pretty sure. Why?"
Kaoru's eyes suddenly sparkled with mischief, and Karen arched a brow. "Kaoru, don't tell me you're thinking what I think you're thinking..."
"What?" Her green eyes widened innocently. "I was just... wondering... about the possibilities that could happen... if he's not married, that is."
"He's not," Karen affirmed, her eyes fastening on a stall of vegetables. She picked up a few leaves of lettuce and furrowed her brow, then signaled to the vendor. Kaoru waited impatiently as he picked out a bunch, then fell into step beside Karen as she resumed walking.
"Well, oneechan?" she prodded. Karen glanced at the eager girl, and finally turned her full attention to her, "...why not?" she shrugged. "Nothing's impossible when men and women are involved. Tae-san's family is quite well off and she herself is a wonderful woman. And she has an entire army of friends to help her." A look of amusement crossed her face. "The process will be ... interesting ... whatever the outcome."
"Oneechan!!" Kaoru scolded. Really, Karen could be so cynical at times, especially when anything remotely romantic was involved. Take away the katana and she could be taken for the wife of any well-off government official, or businessman - as long as she kept her mouth shut. Kaoru still didn't think Karen's present occupation suited the older woman, despite the fact she was very good at it. Too good for comfort.
"Gomen, Kaoru," Karen's smile was now repentant. "I do think that it's a good idea, really." The gods have mercy on all involved...she mentally added.
"Karen," a serene voice interrupted the two. Karen and Kaoru both turned to see a woman, pale and fragile and beautiful. Her mild grey eyes - gentle but with a hint of steel that told the fragileness was only an illusion - looked glad to see the other two women. "Kaoru-san."
"Oneesan," Karen bowed respectfully. Kaoru also greeted her. "Konichiwa, Tokio-san."
As Kaoru straightened up, she noticed a tall young man standing behind Tokio, wearing a hakama like any other Japanese man in Tokyo. But his features stood out quite strikingly. Slightly long, ebony hair with dark eyes that seemed to absorb the light around them. Kaoru found herself unable to stop staring at his face. Kenshin was handsome in a slender, graceful sort of way, and Sanosuke had the charismatic toughness of a street fighter. But this man was refined. Poised. Very good looking, she had to admit to herself.
Karen sharply nudged her, and she flushed as Tokio brought the man forward. "Kaoru-san, this is Monou Kamui. I'm sure Karen has told you about him."
"An honor to meet you," he said in a voice that made several girls nearby stare. Karen coughed and muttered something about drool. It was Kaoru's turn to nudge the hitokiri as she bowed back to Kamui. "I hope you will find your stay a pleasant one, Monou-san."
"Please, call me by my first name." Kamui grinned rather boyishly. "Karen-san has told me all about you, Kaoru-san. You might as well get used to calling me by that, since it'll be rather awkward to try beating me with a shinai while calling me Monou-san."
Kaoru sent a murderous glare Karen-ward, even though she knew she was wasting her time. Why do I bother glaring at someone who can laugh in the face of Saitou's coldest look? Aloud she said, "All right then... hope you don't regret it."
"Perhaps you could teach me kenjitsu while I'm staying here?" he suggested as they began to walk behind Karen and Tokio. "I'm always ready to learn."
"If you want a sparring partner, you should go ask your ... bodyguards," she said in a lower tone so that no one could hear. Kamui smiled ruefully. "Onegai, don't even suggest that. I haven't seen anyone except for Saitou-san actually fight, but if Karen-san and Shinomori-san are anything close to his skill, I think I'll pass."
"Yes... sparring with Saitou would not be a good idea," Kaoru agreed. "How long has he been... accompanying you?"
"For several months now. He's a very good bodyguard." Kamui chuckled a little. "The first thing he did was to maim all my previous bodyguards the moment he met them." Kaoru gapsed. "He said they smelled bad. It turned out later that they had been hired by my enemies. Between him and Shinomori-san, I've felt so safe the last past weeks, it's frightening. I wish someone would protect me from them."
Kaoru giggled as they approached the Akabeko. I was expecting some stuffy, stuck-up prick, but Kamui-san is so nice! Maybe not all Meiji government officials are as bad as Sanosuke makes them out to be...
Meanwhile, Karen and Tokio were talking in low voices as they walked ahead of the other two. "Hajime and Aoshi-san are scouting the area," Tokio informed Karen. "They said they'll be back soon."
"So they left Kamui-san and you together... alone?" Karen frowned. Tokio laughed gently. "Come, Karen, I may not be as deadly as you or Hajime, but my family has taught both their daughters and sons how to use a tanto at least. And nothing forbidding came out when I cast the stones this morning."
"Patterns change," Karen muttered. She wasn't an avid believer in the occult, even though Kodori had once told her that her great-grandmother had been a priestess. But there was such a thing as fate... as she - as all of them - knew all too well from their previous experiences. Tokio simply laughed and put a reassuring hand on the girl's shoulder as they reached the Akabeko.
Tae tapped her foot on the floor impatiently. "I can't put the stew to boil until the fish comes! Where is Karen-san?"
"Calm down, Tae-san. She'll be here soon, I'm sure." Megumi finished setting the tables and straightened up. "I'm pretty sure she met Kaoru at the market."
"In that case, it'll take forever for them to come," Yahiko said flatly. "They'll be yapping the entire way here."
"I bet you can't say that in front of Karen-san's face," Tsubame said primly, holding her tray in front of her. Yahiko scowled but made no attempt to deny the fact. "Hey, I think I hear voices outside."
"It's about time," Tae quickly walked over to the door and slammed it open - and then abruptly walked into a broad chest blocking the doorway.
"...!!" Startled, Tae stumbled back - and felt herself trip on her own feet. With a surprised shriek she felt the ground slip out from under her, but just as she squeezed her eyes shut she felt a strong arm catch her waist, and a warm hand close around her wrist, breaking her fall. She timidly opened her eyes to see Megumi and the children staring at her upsidown , her head nearly brushing against the floor.
Kamui gently pulled her up. "Are you all right?"
"Hai..." Tae said dazedly, still dizzy. She focused on Kaumi's face... and suddenly she was very conscious of his closeness - his arm was still around her waist, and his face only inches from hers - the most handsome face she had ever seen in her life. Tae stared at him, wide-eyed and speechless from both surprise and embarrassment. Her heart began to beat in her ears, making her head spin.
Kamui was also taking a good look at his damsel in distress. A woman maybe a little younger than him, with a white cloth keeping hair falling over her pleasant, pretty face. There was a capable, feminine air around her which he liked right away. She smelled of spices and tofu, and the adorable pink staining her cheeks suddenly made him want to rashly lean forward and-
"Ahem," Karen coughed gently. "Kamui-san, this is Tae-san. She's the daughter of the owner of the Akabeko."
Kaumi quickly let Tae go, and she stepped back a little as he bowed, a little clumsily for him. "Ah... the gods smile on our meeting, Tae-san. I am ... delighted to make your acquaintance."
"So am I..." she faintly echoed. Karen rolled her eyes at Megumi, who was smiling her fox smile, while Kaoru looked delighted at this turn of events. Tokio was amused. "Tae-san, do I smell something burning...?"
"Kyah!" Tae shrieked, fleeing into the kitchen. Tsubame quickly tagged behind her, while the others followed behind leisurely, except for Kaoru and Yahiko. They sat down cautiously, while Kamui still stood with a rather interesting look on his face.
Just then Sanosuke entered, and Kamui came to his senses. Kaoru waved at him. "Hello, Sano. Have you met Kamui-san yet?"
"Kenshin told me," he said coolly, with a curt nod that might have passed for a bow. "Where's Karen? Saitou wants to see her outside."
"Oneechan!!" Kaoru shouted, and Karen appeared at the doorway almost immediately, her hand resting casually on her katana. "Good grief girl, you could bring the roof down with that voice of yours. What is it?"
"Saitou wants to see you. He's outside, with Kenshin and Aoshi." Sanosuke calmly restrained the fuming Kaoru as Karen walked outside. Kamui looked after her with a concerned expression on his face.
Saitou greeted Karen with a thin line of smoke. "What took you so long?"
Karen wiped her hands on her apron calmly and bowed slightly to Kenshin and Aoshi. "I love you too, Hajime. What is it?"
"...Monou will be here for at least a week," he said in his dry voice. "We're still conducting the investigation, but we can't do it that openly for obvious reasons. The four of us will have to make sure that he stays alive until then."
"I suspect that some of the enemy is here in Tokyo." Aoshi added. "I don't think they've caught on, but from what I can tell they're searching this area pretty thoroughly."
Karen furrowed her brow. "You don't think the dojo will be in any immediate danger, do you?"
Kenshin shook his head. "I made sure of that, Karen."
"One of us must be near Monou always." Saitou resumed. "While he's at the dojo, Karen and Battousai will be responsible - when he's outside, Shinomori will follow him. The local police have been told to stay alert without being told what the situation is."
"The local police can't be trusted," the three others said at the exact same time. Saitou allowed himself a cynical smile. "A hitokiri... is a hitokiri," he muttered. Kenshin's face went expressionless, while Aoshi and Karen exchanged glances.
"Keep your wits about you," Saitou resumed. "Especially you Karen - keep your katana near you."
"I don't know, it kinda ... clashes with my kimono, you know? But if Hajime thinks Karen looks pretty with it." Karen blew the former Shinsen-gumi an insolent kiss and left the men in the alley.