~ : ~ : ~

At last Hiko and Hikaru get together, and for good this time. However, it comes at a high price, especially for Hikaru.

~ : ~ : ~

Hikaru had done the best she could with the room. She kept it spotlessly clean, doing most of the work herself to spare Toshiro the disturbance of many different faces around him. She brought fresh flowers and greenery every day, plants that filled the air with fragrance as well as pleased the eye, and she placed them in the best of the new bowls and vases from the shop. She had rearranged the house so that from this room, even from his bed, Toshiro could see the garden, where spring had brought forth the bursts of cherry and plum blossoms, and he could also see the back of the workrooms and shop, where the artists bustled back and forth. She limited visitors, maintaining a careful balance so that her husband would be neither bored nor fatigued. She arranged screens to keep the chill spring breeze from him without shutting out the brightening sun. She worked hard without ever losing her appearance of serenity, at least not when Toshiro might see. Her life had contracted to a small place and time, where, despite her will and all her effort, her husband was dying.

She was only beginning to absorb the truth of it now, after so many weeks. He'd had a high fever, but she knew what to do about those, and she'd nursed him well. The fever broke, and except for being weak, he seemed well. But he remained weak, and grew weaker and thinner with every day, until finally, pale and gaunt, he was unable to rise at all. A wasting disease, the doctors called it, and could offer no cure. She'd handled the doctors, too, bringing in the best, and then the priests, anyone who offered her hope. But as her newly planted cherry trees bloomed, her heart accepted. She couldn't keep him with her. She could only make his last days as pleasant as possible.

He was not in pain. That was a blessing. His appetite was meager, but she was still able to coax him to eat delicacies she had prepared herself. He slept most of the day, but when he was awake, he knew her and could speak, weakly, but sounding completely himself. He was still the master of his home, and he would be until the day he chose to leave it for good. But that day was approaching fast. She knew, and she feared that he did, too.

In those rare moments when she was alone, she sometimes went to the altar in the garden and prayed for the patience not to curse the fate cruel enough to take him just when his life was once again whole and right. The war was over, and Toshiro had brought them all safely through it. They'd been back at the house in Kyoto less than a year. The house, shop and workrooms were fully repaired. The gardens were beginning to take shape again, and the kilns were finally being used to capacity. The hard work was finished, and now there was nothing for them to do but learn what day-to-day life would be like in this shaky peace and this new Meiji era. Toshiro had ideas for the future of Kimiyama Ceramics, including the possibility of trade with the Westerners eventually. It wasn't fair that he should die before being able to enjoy all the blessings he'd worked so hard to give them. But she took those thoughts only to the altar and to her unknown ancestors. The rest of the time she kept up the illusion of hope, for Toshiro's sake and for everyone else as well.

Still, Toshiro's last day took her by surprise, because he seemed better. When she brought him his breakfast, he was already awake and propped up on his pillows, and his eyes were bright and smiling. He teased her about fussing over him when she insisted on feeding him, to be sure that he ate. As she poured tea, he said, "I had a dream, Hikaru. I dreamed about my grandfather."

Until this illness, he'd almost never dreamed, and his grandfather had died when he was a boy. She stared at him. "What did he say to you?"

"Not a thing. We were fishing, and I was complaining because I couldn't catch anything, and he just smiled at me. It was a good dream, though, and very clear."

Keeping her face and hands calm with an effort, she said, "It is always good fortune to dream of a smiling ancestor."

"That's what I think," he said cheerfully, and began to ask her questions about the shop. Later that morning, he sent for Tomiji Watanabe and spent nearly two hours talking business and art with him. Tomiji had been Toshiro's favorite apprentice and was now a master, but instead of going off on his own, he had stayed with them and was in charge of many of the operations of the shop. Toshiro looked on him as a partner and almost as a son. Tomiji loved Toshiro equally and would never do anything to harm him, so Hikaru didn't concern herself about the length of their meeting, trusting Tomiji to end it if Toshiro showed signs of being tired.

When they'd finished, Tomiji found her in the garden, and by the look on his face and the depth of his bow to her, she knew something important had been decided. She set aside her spade. "What is it?"

He kept his eyes lowered and his head bent, and he all but stuttered when he spoke. "Hikaru-san... My master, Toshiro-san, he says..."

She suspected she knew what he was going to say. "He says?"

The dark eyes lifted to hers, humble and even a little frightened. "He says he is leaving me half interest in Kimiyama Ceramics, and that I am to run the company when he is gone. Hikaru-san, I did not ask for this! I did not think it, or even dream it!"

She put out a consoling hand. "Don't be afraid, Tomiji. I know all about it. My husband and I discussed it, long ago, during the war. I know that you and I can deal well together. The shop and kilns should be your realm. I think it is right and fitting. Both Toshiro and I trust you to carry on the Kimiyama name with honor." Overwhelmed, he bowed again, but when he would have babbled more gratitude, she sent him to the shop. "Naturally no one is to know until the day comes..."

"And may that be many years!"

"Yes," she sighed. "But you should still go back to the shop thinking about how you will eventually take on your new responsibilities, and where you would like your offices. It doesn't trouble you that I would keep the house?"

"No, Hikaru-san! Of course not!"

With a little more difficulty, she got him going in the right direction. Then the smile faded from her face and she whirled and walked back to the house, to her husband's room. "Toshiro? I just spoke to Tomiji."

He smiled up at her, cheerful but wan. "Was he coherent? He wasn't when he left."

She knelt beside him and took his hand. His fingers were cold. "No. Yes, almost. But..." She couldn't say it.

Toshiro only smiled again, but this time with a fond sadness. "I know as well as you do what my dream probably meant, love. I don't have much time left to settle things. I thought it wise to begin."

The strain of the past weeks from the effort to keep things walled away suddenly caught up with her, and even biting her lip didn't keep it from quivering, or keep the tears from overflowing. "Toshiro."

"You don't want me to leave you," he observed.

"No, of course I don't!"

"I was never entirely sure. No, I was," he amended, "I never truly doubted you. Yet in a tiny place in my mind, I sometimes wondered."

She took his hand and laid her cheek on it. "How can you say such a thing? Let me prove it to you. Don't leave me."

"I don't think I have a choice. But I'll join my grandfather with a lighter heart, knowing you'll remember me."

"Everyone who has ever known you will remember you. And grieve for you. But me most of all."

"I don't want you to grieve," he said. Then the smile returned. "Well, not for too long, anyway." The fingers under her cheek opened and stroked her skin. "I don't think I have to worry about you. He'll take care of you."

Shocked, she realized he meant Seijuro, and that she hadn't thought of Seijuro once since Toshiro had become ill. "You have already given me everything I will ever need," she protested.

"If you think so, you don't know yourself very well. But," he sighed, "all is good. I know you'll treat Tomiji kindly."

"Stop. Please stop."

"My love, your tendency to hide from things that upset you has always amused me, but you can't do that today. We have things to talk about, practical things, and my strength is leaving me. For my sake, now, be calm and we'll just talk."

With a painful effort, she drew herself together, sinking into her geisha-trained control like slipping on another kimono. The tears dried. Still holding his hand, but now resting it in her lap, she obeyed him, helping him with brisk efficiency to finish putting his affairs in order.

As usual, he was right. That night, while she slept unknowing beside him, Toshiro slipped away to join his ancestors, so quietly and peacefully that she never even wakened to witness it.

~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~

With his death, Toshiro's family relented in their enmity toward him. They still wished to have nothing to do with Hikaru, which suited her completely, but they agreed to inter his ashes in the family burial ground. Hikaru's feelings were mixed. She felt the honor, but she didn't want to send Toshiro's protective spirit away from the home he'd made for himself. In the end, however, she allowed it, because she knew that's what Toshiro would have wanted. For herself and the house, she had a stone made for him and created an altar in the garden, in the place he'd loved best, near the bench which looked onto the workrooms, beside the pond from which Kenshin had once pulled a giant koi. Sitting there, she felt less alone, and talked to him, and sometimes she even thought she heard him answer. Certainly she could always make wiser decisions after consulting with his spirit there.

And there were so many decisions to make. Despite all he had done, Toshiro couldn't smooth everything over. Adjustments had to be made, and until Tomiji Watanabe was firmly established as the new head of Kimiyama Ceramics, most disagreements and all decisions were deferred to her. She wanted peace, and she got responsibility. Yet, despite all the people around her, she was somehow still alone. Not even when Fujio Murasaki had died, and she'd been forced from her home altogether, had she felt so alone.

She should not have been surprised, on a day when she sat on the bench by the altar, trailing her fingers in the water and missing Toshiro, remembering Kenshin, and generally feeling sorry for herself, that she felt a presence and looked up to see Seijuro Hiko standing there watching her.

He looked hopelessly out of place in her garden. He was so huge that even the stones of the garden seemed frail in comparison, with his head at the level of the cherry tree branches and his white cloak making him seem like a single block of granite until the breeze fluttered the edge. He was scowling, his brows drawn down, and against his stern face, the contrast of the delicate petals that had blown onto his shoulders and into his hair was almost ludicrous.

She was so glad to see him, she didn't care about his expression. She didn't even think. She simply lifted her arms and let him pull her into his. Against his chest, she went limp and rested everything on him, closing her eyes and imagining for a little while that she had disappeared.

Finally, she took a deep breath and sighed.

He said, "It was a very good funeral."

Somehow, he always seemed to know exactly what she needed to hear, no matter how odd it was. She pulled away from him and found her strength and a smile. "Were you there? I didn't see you."

"I didn't want to be seen. But yes, I was there. He was a good man, and I liked him."

"He said you would take care of me. I don't think he ever liked you, Seijuro, but he trusted you. Will you sit and talk with me a while?"

He shook his head. "I'm not going to stay, not unless you need me."

She didn't, oddly enough. Not now that she'd seen him. But his company braced her, and she wanted it. "Why not?"

"It hasn't even been two weeks. That's far too soon for me to be here. You would know that, if you were thinking."

"Yes," she admitted.

He touched her face, ran a thumb along one cheekbone. "You are grieving." It was an observation, without the least trace of tenderness. Another woman might have been offended, but she knew him. And she could still feel the gentle touch of his hand. He went on in the same dispassionate tone, "I don't want to interfere with that. But I don't intend to hover here like some lovesick teenager, either. If you need me, send for me. You know you can, whenever you want, for whatever reason. Otherwise, you know where you can find me when you're ready."

She took a step backward, away from him, because that was what he wanted. "You are right, Seijuro, of course. When I see you again, I will have taken all the time I need."

He nodded and said, "Be well." Then he turned on his heel and left.

~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~

When he told Hikaru to take her time and to come to him when she was ready, Seijuro Hiko assumed it would be a matter of weeks. Perhaps a couple of months, at most.

Six months later, he was still waiting.

In all that time, although he kept careful track of her, he didn't see her except at a distance, and he didn't speak with her at all. She never sent for him or asked for his help. She went on with her life, and if sometimes she seemed so tired and pale that sunlight might show through her, like a kimono too often worn, her back stayed straight and her chin high. Her people from the ceramics shop continued to obey and respect her. Watanabe finally grew up and started to become a leader, and Hiko sometimes heard him compared to Kimiyama. As the spring passed and then the summer, Hikaru's bloom came back, as did her joy in life and in her gardens. But still she didn't come to him.

As a matter of principle, he purposely didn't change his own life any more than he absolutely had to. His world was not dependent on a mere woman. He stayed busy, often not thinking of her for days.

Having Kenshin back would have made the time go more easily. He'd hoped that, with the end of the war, the boy would return and finally finish his training. But Kenshin had disappeared, and the only word Hiko had of him consisted of insubstantial rumors, most of which were certainly false. By the time of Kimiyama's death, he'd accepted that Kenshin had chosen his own path, and it was not the path of the Hiten Mitsurugi. That disappointment bit deep. He spent many meditative hours going over everything he'd done, searching his memory, trying to find his errors. But there was no way to tell if he'd done this differently, or that, or the other, it would have changed anything. Nothing short of a miracle would change Kenshin's basic nature, and the boy was stubborn. If he were going to come back at all, he would already have done it.

So Hiko watched for a possible new apprentice. Watched, but did not search for one.

The first cold nights of autumn came, and on a full moon, he spent several days hunting down and systematically slaying a pack of government agents, policemen, who thought their privilege to carry a sword in this new era meant that they also had the right to terrorize and sack a small village. His work done, he spent the last night with a friend and arrived home at midday. At the edge of the clearing, however, he stopped abruptly. Smoke was gently pluming over his roof. He listened, and after a moment he heard what he hoped. A woman's voice, softly humming, as Hikaru did when her hands were occupied with cooking or gardening.

For a moment he felt as if his heart was going to leap from his chest. Happiness was something he'd found only with her, and since he wasn't accustomed to it, when it struck him, it was often painful. He wanted to race to the house and tear open the door. But there his imagination stopped, and he gave a snort of self-deprecating laughter. He could clearly see the look he'd get if he grabbed her as roughly and fiercely as he desired. A winter bath in the river would have nothing on it. Besides, he wouldn't give her the satisfaction of seeing how much he'd been wanting her to return. He stood right where he was until he was calm enough to greet her as if he saw her every day.

~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~

Hiko would have been gratified, if not surprised, to know that he had rarely been out of Hikaru's thoughts during the months after Toshiro's funeral. She desperately wanted to be with him, but that very desperation kept her away. She still felt keenly the guilt over never having loved Toshiro as much as he had loved her. She had worked hard to be a good wife, in her heart as well as in her daily actions, and she had cared for him more deeply than any other person since her mother. But she could not – and would not – surrender even to Toshiro the part of her that belonged forever to Seijuro. Because she had compromised her honor and her happiness, and taken advantage of a good and worthy man, she was adamant that she would only reunite with Seijuro when her heart felt free of all obligations to Toshiro's memory.

Nights were the worst. During the day she had so many things to keep her busy that she didn't have to think unless she wished to, but at night, all she could do was remember and worry. She wasn't accustomed to sleeping alone, and she would lay awake, sometimes for hours, chasing away memories of being with Seijuro, only to have them replaced by memories of Toshiro or by the concerns of the day. She also thought about Kenshin, sometimes as he'd been as a child, when he'd curled up against her to sleep, but more often as she'd last seen him, a strong, straight young man with a spirit as fiery as his hair, almost too big to be contained in his small body, but always with that special sweetness in his eyes when they looked up into hers.

She still didn't know what had become of him, despite everything she and Bunto had tried. There were so many rumors, it was impossible to sort the true from the false, and since the majority of them said the Battousai was dead, she stopped believing in any, preferring to wait for facts. But facts were not coming to them. The Battousai had fought during the last years of the war as a soldier rather than as an assassin, and with a chillingly savage effectiveness – that, Bunto had easily discovered. But once the shogunate had been toppled, he'd disappeared into legend. She sometimes wondered if the child she'd once cherished existed at all, anywhere, except in her memory. She still continued to search for him, however, and alone at night, her frustration and fears were among the many things that kept her wakeful.

However, eventually new routines replaced the old and became familiar. She rearranged the house several times, until at last she no longer felt Toshiro in every place she touched. She grew accustomed to seeing Tomiji running the shop. When she visited Toshiro's stone in the garden, she felt nothing but a sense of peace. She reluctantly accepted that she might never discover the truth about Kenshin. Gradually her nights became easy, troubled by nothing more than a day's normal cares. Then one night, before going to bed, she stepped out into the garden in the light of a beautiful full moon, thought about Seijuro as she often did, and realized that the thought came to her as a want for him, pure and sharp and keen, unmixed with any other emotion. She laid a hand on Toshiro's stone, thanking him for setting her free, and then sat in the garden for a little time longer, dreaming.

She woke with the yearning for Seijuro still sharp, and sprang from her bed more readily than usual. But she wasn't in a hurry. On the contrary, she spent a great deal of time over her hair, her face, her jewelry, her scent, and her clothing. She kept everything simple, as he preferred, but within those limits she made herself as perfect as she possibly could. She informed her household she would be gone a few days and then went up the mountain, all the way trying to picture what he would be like, what she would say, what he would say.

Naturally, he confounded her. He wasn't there. The cottage was empty, the fire cold. With an exasperated little mew, she folded her parasol, set it aside, and studied the house, trying to decide how she wanted to be when he returned and found her here. It was a paltry stage to work with, this cottage, but at least she didn't have to clean it first. He was the neatest man she knew. Choosing a place to sit, she arranged herself prettily, but she quickly grew tired of waiting. If he were gone on one of his hunting trips, and she had to wait here long for him, alone, she was going to make him pay dearly. In the meantime, she made herself some tea. The familiar ritual soothed her nerves, and she forgot about worrying and listening for him. Perhaps because she did, she felt his presence before she saw him. She wasn't sure. She only knew that when she turned, holding the tea tray, and saw him there, she wasn't startled.

But he still took her breath away. Normally she felt a friend's comfort with him, and since she'd married Toshiro, that was all she'd allowed herself. But often in their younger years he would do something or stand a certain way, and unknowingly remind her of just how deep her passion for him ran within her. As he was doing now. He was in the open doorway, leaning casually on the jamb, his arms folded on his chest and one ankle crossed over the other. His boots were dusty and his clothes wrinkled, so he must have just returned from a trip, and his hair had gotten so long that the bangs almost obscured his face. Behind them, his expression was inscrutable, even frowning. But his eyes weren't. She was sure he was unaware of it, but the look in his eyes was one she hadn't seen since the night she first brought him into her summer house in Edo, many years ago. Burning hunger. That look was what stole her breath now, and she bent to set the tray on the table before she dropped it.

He said, "It took you long enough."

She smiled. He always found the right thing to say to put her back in balance. "It took me exactly as long as I needed to take. Were you in a hurry?" she added sweetly, knowing he'd cut out his own heart before he'd admit it.

"No. My patience isn't infinite, but it will bear a few months' waiting. Why are you always making tea?" he added irritably.

"I've been here for a little while, and I got thirsty."

He pushed away from the door and came into the room. "I didn't know you were coming."

"Neither did I, for sure, until this morning. Would you like some? Or some sake?"

"What do you think?"

She started to move past him to get the sake, then stopped and brushed his bangs out of his eyes. "I'll cut your hair for you today."

"I can cut it."

"You'll hack at it and make a mess of it."

"It's just hair, Hikaru. I don't care what it looks like."

"But I care."

He scowled at her. "All right. If it'll make you happy, you can cut my hair."

Keeping the triumph out of her smile, she gestured him to sit, then poured the sake and the tea. Another woman might have been nervous under his fierce stare, and might have believed him angry. Hikaru was soothed by the ritual that she knew so well, and none of his expressions frightened her. But she wasn't going to allow him to be discourteous. As she handed him the sake, she said, "I didn't complain when you sat down to my table without washing first, so the very least you can do is look pleased to be here."

"It's my table."

She laughed, and laughed again when he covered a smile by taking his first sip of the sake. "Very well, it's your table, and you don't have to look happy to see me if you aren't."

"I am, but I'm not going to pander to your feminine vanity by being mawkish about it."

All that was necessary to her feminine vanity was still in his eyes. She should have known better than to have spent any time worrying about this moment. Seijuro wouldn't allow it to become awkward.

He studied her face for a moment. "It must be going better at the shop. You don't look as tired as you have been."

So he'd been watching her. Of course he had. She put her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand, and gave him a mock scowl. "Seijuro! What kind of remark is that? Can't you come up with a single compliment for me? I spent all morning making myself pretty for you."

"A waste of time." But even as she widened her eyes and prepared for battle, he disarmed her by adding, "You're always beautiful, whether you spend time on yourself or not. But you don't need me to remind you of that. You have a mirror."

"I have several. But I still like to know that you think so."

"You know very well that I will always think so, no matter what time or circumstances might do to that exquisite face and body of yours. I'm not so shallow that my appreciation of you stops at your skin." His expression lightened. "That should count as a compliment."

"It's a compliment to your loyalty and discernment, not to me!" His lips twitched, and she grinned. "I did not leave my wits back in the city. Where were you? Hunting?"

So they talked. He drank sake and she drank tea, and all the time they talked. They did not discuss his "hunt", except to mention that it had gone well, but she knew Kazuo, the friend he'd visited, and his family, and they discussed them. They talked at length about the problems in the shop and how she'd handled them, and what others might occur, and he questioned her about the new pottery and if the quality was as good as when Toshiro was in charge. They discussed the Meiji government and compared notes from each other's points of view, his from his travels, hers from her many contacts in the city. They traded ideas, and argued, over what the future might bring. Except for the awareness never far from her mind that she would not be going back to Kyoto when the sun began to fall, it might have been any other visit she'd made to the cottage in the years before the war.

Finally she got up the courage to ask about the one subject which, after Seijuro himself, was closest now to her mind and heart. She asked him about Kenshin. If anyone knew anything about the boy, it would be Seijuro, and Seijuro was her last and best chance of learning anything.

Her heart sank when he shook his head. "My ungrateful apprentice has either been too ashamed or too busy to return to his Master, even for the simple courtesy of saying goodbye."

"Goodbye? You think he's left Kyoto?"

"I know he has."

"Who told you?"

"No one. I would know if he were still somewhere close. After all, I am his Master."

She grasped at the single straw. "Do you think he'll come back? Eventually? He'll want to finish his training, won't he?"

His brows drew together. "No, I do not think he'll return. If he were going to, he would have done so already. He's taken his incomplete skills out into the world, where he will most likely disgrace the name of Hiten Mitsurugi even more than he already has. Either that, or get himself killed by one of the many enemies he made during the fighting. Are you trying to find him?" When she nodded, he said sharply, "Don't. Forget about him, Hikaru. Even if you found him, do you think you would have the Kenshin you knew? You won't. That boy is gone beyond recall. If he were standing before you now and you looked into his eyes, you wouldn't know him."

"I still want to see him. I don't care what has happened to him or what he's become. I still love him. I always will."

"It is a characteristic of yours, to be persistent in your affections."

"It's one of yours, too!" she threw back at him. "Don't you miss him? Don't you think about him, want him back?"

"I expected him back. He didn't return. I've accepted that, and so should you. It's fruitless to wish for time to turn around and give you what you had before."

"That's not what I expect. I just want to help him."

He studied her a moment, then nodded. "But if he wanted help from you, he knew where to go."

"He probably doesn't think he deserves it."

"He would be right."

"As if that matters to me!"

"I can see you feel strongly about this..." he began.

But she was tired of his dispassionate tone. "Don't you? You love him as much as I do, in your own way. Can you just shuffle him off into a compartment in your heart reserved for pleasant memories, and forget about him as a human being?"

"Yes, I can."

"You can try. But it won't work. Some day you'll realize that."

"You should try as well. Even if Kenshin has the ability to see past what he became during the war, and could become again what you and I wanted him to be, it is unlikely that he will live long enough to realize that potential."

"I know." She looked down at her hands, clenched in her lap.

After a second, Seijuro murmured, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. Not to you."

Slowly, deliberately, she separated her fingers and opened her hands, watching each individual movement. "If you think it, you should say it." She felt the hot prickle of tears behind her eyelids and firmly demanded of herself that they not fall. "Most people say he is already dead," she whispered.

"He isn't."

He sounded so sure. She was desperate to believe him, but she didn't dare. "You don't know that for certain. No one does."

"I'm still his Master. We haven't been separated so long that I wouldn't know if he died. He's gone a long way from us, Hikaru, but not that far. Not yet."

Still alive. But living with shame, and pursued by enemies, probably everywhere he turned. Yet still alive. She swallowed convulsively, but that didn't stop two tears from gathering and rolling down her cheeks.

For the entire time they had been speaking, he hadn't touched her. Now his hand slid under her arm, caught her elbow, and pulled her gently toward him. Miserable and shaking, she accepted the comfort and crawled into his lap, curling against him like a child.

He had gotten even bigger and more muscular since the last time she'd done this, and when enough of her misery had passed through her for her to realize it, she had to adjust herself to fit against him. But the heat of his body was the same, and so was the slow, strong, even thud of his heart. After a few minutes, her tensions left her, simply flowed out as if she were a pitcher turned on its side, and she rubbed her cheek on his shoulder and relaxed. Somehow, with Seijuro, everything would be all right. They would find Kenshin, or she would find a way to live with the fact of not ever seeing him again. A gentle contentment settled into her, and gradually the beat of her own heart slowed to match his. She had the oddest sensation that the past fourteen years had been a dream – a pleasant dream, but not real – and that she had just now awakened to the real world. Her thoughts felt lighter, colors seemed more clear and bright. I'm home. I'm where I belong. She didn't know why she'd tied herself to a cantankerous, misanthropic man who could see every truth clearly except the truth of his own heart, but here, with him, was the only place where her soul felt free and powerful and welcomed. She could face anything, as long as she had Seijuro.

She realized that he was stroking her – her back, her hair, her arms – as she might stroke a frightened child, and that he'd been doing it for some time. It wasn't like him to be so restless. She caught one of his hands and twined her fingers through his. "I'm all right."

"I know." After a moment he said, "I never recognized the importance of touching someone, until recently."

She didn't lift her head from the hollow of his shoulder. "When did you realize it?"

"When I last held you, in Kyoto."

So many years ago. He would hate it if he realized how often she pitied him. She said, "It's a basic human need."

"I don't normally require the same things most humans seem to need, so sometimes I find them hard to understand. I should have let you keep Kenshin with you more often, Hikaru. You were right about that."

She closed her eyes for a moment. "You could have held him yourself."

"That's not really in my nature."

"You do it very well with me," she said, and smiled. "You could have. It just would have been difficult for you, and you would have had to recognize the necessity. Which you didn't."

Another long moment of silence passed before he said, "I doubt it would have made a difference, however."

She remembered Kenshin as she'd seen him last, only days before he'd left Seijuro. "No, he would still have gone to war. That was in him. Neither of us could have stopped him, not you with your orders or me with my pleading. You were right about that."

"But you'll still never forgive me for letting him go."

"I'll forgive you. I just won't drink sake with you."

"Stubborn woman."

She chuckled. Then she sobered again. "The question is, would more affection have changed him enough so that he would have come back, instead of just disappearing?"

"What do you think? If so, he would have come to you. He got nothing from you but affection."

She shook her head, not wanting to face the fact that somehow, both of them, so opposite, yet both loving Kenshin, had still failed him. Seijuro put a thumb under her jaw and tilted it up until he could take her face between his hands. "I've said this so many times, I feel as if it is engraved on the very stones outside, but I will say it once more. Kenshin is a man, not a boy. He chose to leave us, and he had good reason for that choice, even if we don't know what that reason was. It wasn't a whim or a child's fearfulness. Give him more credit than that. Let the boy go, Hikaru. Let him be a man. Otherwise, even if he does come back, he will still forever be a stranger to you."

She nodded solemnly. She did understand what he meant.

He kissed her brow. "Now I would like it if we dispensed with the subject of Kenshin unless there is a particular reason to discuss him. It's late. We should eat something. The problems of the world are more easily solved on a full stomach."

"Let me up, and I'll cook for you."

Instead he rose, still holding her in his arms, a feat of strength that made her squeak, throw her arms around his neck, and grip tightly. He set her feet on the ground, but kept his hands on her waist. "How long can you stay?" he asked.

That look in his eyes was back. Feeling very pleased with herself, she said, "Three days. That's as long as I dare leave the shop and house untended right now. But I'll come back as often as I can, and stay as long as I can." She untangled herself from his grasp and headed for the kitchen, talking casually about food and asking what he wanted to eat.

He followed her, as she expected. When she turned an inquiring look on him, he said, "I'll help."

"Help me cook?"

"Don't look so astonished. I've done my own cooking almost all my life."

"Yes, but I fondly imagined mine was better," she said, handing him vegetables and a knife.

"It is." He kept staring at her, however, and she turned to him again and lifted a brow. He said, "I want to ask you something."

"Then ask."

"How long will this last?"

She knew what he meant. "Toshiro left me very well provided for. I don't need to marry again unless it pleases me."

"It's the pleasing you that worries me."

"I'm very well pleased right now," she said blithely, and turned away to start preparing the rice. Inside, her heart was breaking, just a little. Her wish – her hope, her dream – had always been that he would want to marry her and have her live here with him. But it seemed the Hiten Mitsurugi still stood between them. She was far too practical a woman, however, to be disappointed if a wish of hers was not granted, and she would never show that to him. "Now, either start cutting up those vegetables, or get out of my kitchen."

His arms circled her from behind and he rested his chin on her shoulder, his jaw against her cheek. She knew it for a wordless apology. Very few of her thoughts ever truly eluded him. At least he'd considered it, and with that, she would have to be contented. She found a smile from somewhere and said, "I don't hear you saying that it's your kitchen."

"You can have it," he grinned.

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