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 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 glared at the fish with a light that could have sent the fiercest samurai running for his mother. "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. 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? 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..."
Kaoru was now rather dizzy. "So... everyone we know will be here... in Tokyo?"
"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. "Karen, 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 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. 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 looked glad to see the other two women. "Kaoru-san."
"Oneesan," Karen bowed respectfully. Kaoru also greeted her. "Konichiwa, Tokio-san."
"What did you buy, Karen?" Tokio asked.