~ : ~ : ~
Seijuro Hiko yawned and stretched, smiled at the empty space beside him in the bed, and rolled to his feet. Hikaru had long ago gotten him into the habit of sleeping late, not out of sloth, but because nothing he could do would get her roused early (he could stand her up and she'd simply sleep on her feet), and he didn't like spending hours alone waiting for her to rise. But lately she'd been waking even earlier than him, and he wasn't sure if she was needing less sleep or he was needing more. Probably the latter. Hell, he was over 80 years old. Some things slowed down at that age. At this time of year, when the cold gripped the mountain just before the snows came, his joints ached when he first got up. But a little sake took care of that, and the rest of him worked just fine, no matter what some idiots thought.
Sipping sake, he looked around the main room. Hikaru hadn't been up long, because there was no breakfast ready. He could hear her singing in the back, so she was probably at the shed selecting herbs and dried vegetables for the rice. He washed his face and combed and tied his hair, and was debating between going out to help Hikaru – not that she needed it – or having another warming cup of sake, when the singing stopped, right in the middle of a line. He tilted his head curiously, wondering what she'd seen. No one else was around, he was sure. None of his senses had dimmed, and he would have known.
Then she called out, "Seijuro? Seijuro, come here!" She sounded frightened. He had heard that tone in her voice so few times, it scared him, too. He tossed the sake aside and ran out the back door.
She was standing by the shed, as he'd expected, and seemed unharmed, but with an oddly arrested expression on her face. His run slowed to a long swift stride. She turned to him, and seeing her eyes took him back into a run. They looked lost, pained, and afraid. As he reached her and put an arm around her, still trying to understand what was happening, she said plaintively, "I feel funny." Then she just sank, as if her legs had gone.
He knelt, going down with her, holding her, knowing what was happening and yet denying it with a panic-stricken urgency. No, Hikaru. No.
He didn't realize he'd spoken aloud until she smiled up at him. "It's all right, it doesn't hurt now." She reached to touch his jaw, as she'd done thousands of times, but lost her strength before she could lift her arm so far. He caught her hand and held it against his face. She smiled, mostly with her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice only a little more quiet than normal.
"No, don't," he said again. It was all he could manage to get out.
She said, measuring each word, "I love you, Seijuro. Every happy moment of my life has been spent with you. But I'm just so tired now." She sighed and turned to cuddle against him, as she did every night to sleep. He could feel the warmth of her breath through his shirt, and then he couldn't, and he could see the rise and fall of her breast slowing, and slowing more, until there was an unbearable time between each rise. Finally there was no further rise, no further breath, and the soft pulse that beat in her neck ceased.
He stayed like that, kneeling, for the time it took the sun to cross a hand's-width of the sky. He kept waiting for a sign, something, anything, that would tell him this hadn't happened. He was afraid to move her, because if he did, then he would know for sure. So he just knelt there, holding that familiar shape in his arms, against his chest, while the cold crept into both of them.
When the sun crossed his shoulder and fell on her cheek, he couldn't hold back the knowledge any longer. There was no life there, no blood flowing beneath the surface to give her that delicate color, no reaction of the tender eyelid to the sunlight touching it. She was gone.
For a moment he was filled with a dark fury so strong that it shook him until he nearly dropped her. He wanted to scream, to howl, to kill something. But when he shivered and she moved in his arms, limply, he pushed the beast away and braced himself to do what he had to do.
Sliding his arm under her legs, he rose with her and carried her into the house. There he washed her, dressed her in her favorite kimono, and did all the ritual things, things he cared nothing for but knew that she would. "Last times" kept intruding into his mind – this would be the last time she'd be in this bed, the last time he'd see her in this kimono, the last time he'd touch her hair – but he pushed them firmly down into a dark corner of his mind and kept going. He would not break, not only for his own pride, but because Hikaru would expect him to remain strong.
When she was ready, he went outside without looking back at her and found a shovel. Neither of them had ever had much use for ceremony, and she'd mentioned once that she wanted to be buried in her garden, to be a part of it. He knew exactly where he would bury her, too. When she'd first come to the cottage to live, the day they married, she had planted a cherry tree sapling, and each year on their anniversary she had tied a garland to its branches as a not-so-subtle reminder to him of the occasion. The tree was tall and beautiful now, even in its winter starkness. Under it was a stone bench, her favorite place to sit and think. He moved the bench and began to dig there.
The ground was like iron. He got a pick, and between it and the shovel, slowly he got the earth and the roots to give way for his determination. But the day was passing, and he'd barely made a start. That didn't matter. He would keep going, all night if he must, until she had a proper resting place.
He was still digging when a young man came up the path, a servant, either from Kimiyama Ceramics or from Hitomi. Both of them sent servants at least once a day to check on him and Hikaru, which irritated him and amused Hikaru whenever he grumbled about it. As the young man drew near, Hiko saw he was one of the potter's boys, Shunso. The boy stared at the shifted bench and pile of earth. "Master Hiko, what are you doing?"
"Digging a grave, you ass, what do you think I'm doing?" The sound of his own voice was strange to him.
The boy went white. All the servants loved Hikaru. "Madame Hiko...?"
"Yes. She died this morning." That was better. It almost felt like him speaking now.
He thought, for one horrified moment, that the boy was going to burst into tears. But Shunso was made of stronger stuff. "I'll return soon," he said, and whirled and ran down the path.
"Fine," Hiko growled to his back, and went back to digging.
A half hour later, Shunso returned, and not alone. There were almost twenty men with him, young and old, and each one carried a pick or a shovel. Hiko snarled, "I can do this!"
The eldest man, one of Hitomi's servants, came forward and bowed. "We do not doubt that you can, Master Hiko. We don't come to help you. We come to honor the lady."
He couldn't argue with that. He stepped aside and let them take their turns. He wouldn't admit it – he didn't even want to admit it to himself – but he was glad they were there. He wasn't sure he could have brought himself to put Hikaru in the ground and cover her with dirt.
Within a few minutes of the servants' arrival, Hitomi and Daisuke arrived. He was glad it was Hitomi and not someone like Hanako, who would very likely have thrown herself sobbing into his arms. Hitomi's eyes were suspiciously bright, but her mouth and chin were firm. She was not about to cry in front of him. Daisuke, at her side, looked bewildered more than anything else, and his expression irritated Hiko so much that he snapped, "Nobody's immortal, Dai."
Hitomi said quietly, "What can we do?"
"Nothing. I've done what needed to be done." Reluctantly, but out of fairness, and out of a weird feeling that Hikaru was giving him a poke and telling him to act civilized, he added, "Thank you."
"Where is she?"
"In the bedroom."
Hitomi turned and went to the cottage. Hiko thought of offering Dai sake, but changed his mind. The kid couldn't handle sake. Dai looked at the gravesite and smiled. "That's a good place. Her spirit will be happy there."
Hiko scowled at him and handed him the sake jug. "For the men digging, not for you. See that they all get some."
Dai bowed and took it, and Hiko strode off toward the cottage. When he turned at the doorway, however, the sake jug was on the bench and Dai had taken off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a shovel, and was helping to dig.
Inside, he could hear Hitomi weeping in the bedroom. He was feeling numb now, so the reminder didn't hurt. He sat at the table with brush and ink and began to write to Kenshin.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Yuki walked back into the house, turning the letter over as if there might be some explanation on the other side, which of course there wasn't. "Kenshin? We got a letter from Seijuro."
He looked up from the vegetables he was chopping, smiling. "You mean from Hikaru, that you do."
"No. Their handwriting is completely different. It's from Seijuro."
Their eyes met. She knew that expression, a slight widening of his eyes, with wariness and concern mingling with a gathering of his inner forces. He felt as she did, that this could only be bad news. She handed it to him. She could have opened it and read it herself, but she didn't want to. Her instincts told her there was something very bad in it. Seijuro almost never wrote them; it was always Hikaru.
Kenshin took it with a steady hand, opened it, and read it. It was very short. Then he drew his knees up, dropped his forehead on them, and said, "Hikaru's dead."
"Oh, no." That was what she'd feared. She sat next to him and put her arms around him, sharing his grief. Hikaru had been a mother to Kenshin and one of her closest friends. She couldn't imagine a world without Hikaru. "What happened?"
"Master says she just quietly died. She was old, that she was." His voice was muffled against his knees.
"That doesn't make it any easier for us to bear." She knew she had to be the person to say that, to give him permission to feel his grief. She leaned against him and let her own tears fall.
After a time, she asked him what they should do. He straightened. "We must go to Kyoto, to be sure Master is all right, that we must."
"He won't like that. He'll just yell at us."
He handed her the letter. "We'll go anyway. But first, he's asked me to tell everyone else here in Tokyo about it."
Yuki opened her mouth to say that was typical of his selfish Master, then shut it again. Whatever she thought of him, there was no doubt Seijuro was dedicated to Hikaru. He might not have felt up to writing multiple letters. She wiped her wet cheeks. "I'll take care of it, Kenshin."
He looked at her, smiled sadly, and shook his head. "We'll tell them together."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Hiko sat on the hard bench, put his feet at the edge of the still-raw mound of earth, popped the cork on the jug of sake, poured some on the carved stone as always, and then took a long drink. "You know what's the worst thing about all this?" he asked her. "This place is infested with guests as thick as roaches in a cheap restaurant. First Hitomi and Dai, then the entire Aoiya, I swear. I no sooner got the house clean again when there's Kenshin. Well, you knew about that, he sat out here with you half the day. He brought Yuki, naturally, but that was all right, she's quiet. If it had been only those two, it wouldn't have been so bad. But half of Tokyo came with them. Kei and Mikiko came, of course, although they didn't get here until yesterday. Don't think badly of that, he was on the coast for business." He corked the sake, then opened it again. "Moriko probably drove you crazy, pacing around like she did and then falling apart. At least that Saitoh's good for something, he got her quieted down. She wasn't anything compared to Hanako, of course. If tears are supposed to make souls rest more peacefully, your sleep really will be eternal. I don't know how Ki puts up with it. You never did that to me. I'd be willing to bet Ki did his share of crying, too – he moped all over the gardens – but he has too much pride to let me catch him at it."
He took another long drink. "I'd tell you about all the grandchildren, but Misao kept most of them at the Aoiya. If I didn't know better, I might worry about my memory failing, because I'll be damned if I remember half their names. But I can recall every word you ever said to me and every kimono you ever wore, so that's not it. Yes, I know, I just don't pay enough attention to them to remember. You may be pleased to have all those kids wanting to visit you and think I should have let them come, but I think I would have ended up pushing them all into the hot tub and cooking them like grains of rice." He rubbed his chin. "It's hard to think of Kenshin as a grandfather. And that does not make me a great-grandfather, no matter what you say." He could almost hear her laughing at him.
He sat silently for a moment, thinking not just of Hikaru but of the enormous extended family she and Kenshin had dragged him into. Finally he sighed and said, "You should have waited and let me go first. You love family reunions, and this one is as big as they get. Everyone came to see you. They're starting home today, though, so I'll get some peace. Or I will after this afternoon. Kenshin's coming back up to visit, alone this time. I think I know what he wants. They're all looking at me like they expect me to collapse. Fools."
He rubbed the earth with one foot, gently. "I miss you. But I'm doing fine, so don't turn away from whatever heaven you're going to, just because you're worried about me. The only thing wrong is that I'm a little lonely. That's your fault, dammit. I've never been lonely in my life before. Alone, yes, but not lonely. I'll get over it, though."
What he didn't tell her was that "lonely" was a pathetic word for the emptiness in his life now. Everywhere he looked or moved in the cottage, there was something that spoke to him of some memory of her. He hadn't realized how completely the gardens surrounded the house until now, so he spent most of each day at the waterfall. It was so bad that he almost welcomed what visitors came, yet when they left, he was exhausted. He wasn't sleeping well enough to deal with them. He'd had Hikaru's warmth to share for so many years that now he felt restless without it, and he slept with a lamp because he couldn't lie down in the dark without automatically reaching for her. And he couldn't sleep at all in the cottage. He slept in the bath house, although when the cold weather really set in, he imagined he'd have to force himself to sleep in the cottage. If so, it would be in the main room or the kitchen, not in the bedroom. Hikaru's things were in stacks in the bedroom; he'd put them there himself, closed the door, and never planned to open it again.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Yuki pulled her cloak off the hook and slung it about her as she strode out of the Aoiya. "I'm coming with you."
Kenshin was rueful but not surprised. "He'll probably be offended and insult us, and you know how much you hate that."
The cloak was hooded and trimmed with fur, a long-ago gift from Hikaru. She tied the strings and tried not to think of that. "I don't think he will," she said after a moment as she matched her stride automatically to Kenshin's. "He's not the same, Kenshin. He looks and talks the same, but he isn't."
"I'm worried about him, that I am."
"I know you are, or I would never have consented to this. Having Seijuro in my back yard isn't my idea of a good neighbor. But I'm worried about him, too. Not about his age – I swear he could still beat even Kiyoshi with a sword." She shook her head. "He's just not himself, but I can't say why. It's not just grief."
"It's as if he's been wounded and there is no way to stop the bleeding."
As usual, Kenshin gave words to her most jumbled thoughts. She nodded and slipped her hand into his.
Hiko was more polite to them when they arrived than she expected. If he was surprised to see her, it didn't show. He simply took her cloak and hung it up without comment, then served them sake from plain cups that he had probably made himself, not from the delicate porcelain that Hikaru had loved – he reached for the porcelain, but then changed his mind, as if he couldn't bear to touch them yet. Yuki mentally cursed his stubborn male pride, which made it so impossible to offer him sympathy. If ever a man needed it, he did. But she kept quiet and sipped the drink he gave her, and while Hiko and Kenshin talked about other things, she listened to the silence. She had never realized how much of a presence Hikaru had been. The house was unnaturally still without Hikaru hovering over them with refreshment, chatting merrily away, cleaning things, playing her music, or singing in the garden somewhere.
Kenshin was talking about the trip back to Tokyo, and from there he was able to naturally bring up the purpose of their visit. "We would like you to go back with us, Master," he began.
"Don't you think I've had enough family visits for a while?" Hiko growled.
"Not for a visit, Master. We'd like you to live with us, that we would."
Hiko snorted, then glanced at Yuki with a sharp and skeptical look in his eyes. She said at once, "In the guest house."
His lips twitched. "I see." He looked back to Kenshin. "I thought you had something like this in mind."
He snapped it in his usual manner, and Yuki winced, but Kenshin remained unruffled. He'd told Yuki that he wouldn't lose his temper with his Master, no matter what. "I have never questioned your intelligence, that I haven't. Have you considered it?"
Yuki waited for the usual bitching – he wasn't senile, he was in perfect health, etc. – but it didn't come. Instead, Hiko looked out the window for a moment, then said, "I'm not going to leave her."
Kenshin and Yuki exchanged glances and tacitly agreed to drop the subject. Yuki muttered something about the offer being open if he ever changed his mind, and to the surprise of both of them, Hiko turned back to them and said, courteously, "If so, I may take you up on it in the spring. She'll have the gardens all in bloom then."
Kenshin blinked. "Of course, Master. Any time."
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
The snow fell, and melted, and fell again. The ground froze and thawed, shifted and settled, until Hikaru's grave became a part of her own gardens, indistinguishable except by the carved stone at her head. With the first snow, the bitter wind drove Hiko into the cottage at night, and he grew used to that, as he grew used to the silence and the loneliness. He didn't go back to pottery, however, despite the gentle urging of young Watanabe, the one-time apprentice who'd married Hanako's little sister and now ran Kimiyama Ceramics. He still went to the waterfall daily to practice, however, mostly because the hard work took the clouds from his mind.
One morning he rose to find it snowing hard enough that he didn't want to chance the waterfall. He sat on the front step with a jug of sake and watched the snow fill the air and cover the garden in soft whiteness, contented for once in the utter silence. He was supposed to have visitors this day, but he doubted they'd come. Kenshin and Yuki, who'd been visiting him every couple of weeks, wouldn't set out in this weather, especially not with Kei and Dai off with their European friends, celebrating some Christian holiday that was approaching. Ki was in Kyoto, and they were supposed to spar today, but that wasn't going to happen. Even if the snow stopped, the stone would be too slick, and besides, he doubted Hanako would let Ki come. Just as well, he thought – the boy had lost none of his strength or skill, and yesterday's match had left Hiko a little stiff. A day of rest might be good, actually. He felt more tired than usual. Even the sake didn't taste right.
The snow stopped as abruptly as it had begun, slowing from a heavy fall to a few light floating flakes, and then nothing. On a normal day, Hikaru would be sitting beside him now, remarking on the beauty of the snow-sculpted garden, and they'd probably get into a long, involved, pointless, but enjoyable discussion on the symbolism of snow. He was so accustomed to her that he could have held up both sides of the conversation, but he'd stopped talking to her weeks ago, so he remained quiet.
When the snow faded – not melted, but faded – from the first branches and they began to send out the bright spring green of new growth, the color Hikaru had so loved to see, he was curious, but not surprised, as if he were simply too tired for the emotion of surprise. He watched as the snow faded back from where the path down the mountain entered the garden, giving way to the budding of the trees, to moss growing onto the rocks, and to flowers rising and opening with a slow grace. The little fountain at the entrance, turned off for the winter, began to flow with a musical sound that matched the wind chimes which, although also taken down for the winter, now twisted in a warmer, brighter sunlight than had originally followed the cessation of the snow. It was still winter; to the right and left he could see the bleak grey sky. But before him, spreading from the path, a gold and green spring was returning to Hikaru's garden.
He was quiescent, but not dull. He had a pretty good idea of what was happening, and while he didn't welcome it, neither was he afraid. He watched the path, hoping and believing that it wasn't just the spring that was entering the garden, but he didn't see her until she was almost right in front of him. She took two more steps toward him, then stopped, regarding him with a smile in her eyes, waiting for him. She was wearing the kimono he'd buried her in, but she looked as she had on the day she'd told him about the summer house, with sunlight on her face and a soft, happy, welcoming smile in her eyes.
He felt the pain, but it went away as soon as he rose. "It took you long enough," he told her, and she laughed and held out her hand to him.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
"The snow's stopped. I'm going up to see Master Hiko."
Hanako Sagara looked up from her embroidery to see her husband standing at the window, an expression on his face far too serious for the subject. "Why?" she asked mildly. "Surely you can't train in this. It was cold last night, and there's ice under the snow. Even Seijuro wouldn't want to do sword work under these conditions. It would be dangerous."
"I didn't plan to train. I just want to check on him."
She ducked her head to hide her smile. Kiyoshi spoke of checking on Seijuro Hiko as if he were a sleeping child, and she could imagine what Seijuro would say to that. "You'll have to make up an excuse!"
"Don't I know it. I'll think of something. But no matter what he thinks, Hanako, he is getting old. Especially since... especially lately."
Hanako bit her lower lip. Two months had not been nearly long enough for either of them to cease grieving for Hikaru. Before she started to cry, she said brightly, "Ki? Why don't I come with you? We could just say I wanted a walk. He knows how much I love walking in the snow when it's fresh. He used to yell at me when I was a little kid, because I'd go up there and put footprints everywhere I could," she added, with a chuckle at the memory.
He turned and gave her his special smile, the one which, to her, was as good as a kiss. "Would you like to go? Or would it be too much?"
"Ki! I've walked up there a thousand times. I'll just get my geta and haori."
Although he didn't plan to train, Ki wore his sword anyway. Hanako could never remember seeing him leave the house without it. She just hoped that seeing him with it wouldn't prompt Seijuro to urge him into a match. That they fought on the edge of a towering cliff had always troubled her, although she'd naturally never said so to Ki, but in this weather... She tightened her grip on his hand.
He smiled down at her. "I'm sorry, I'm walking too fast, aren't I?"
He was, actually. Usually he shortened his stride for her. "A little."
He slowed, but within minutes was once again walking quickly. This time she didn't say anything, nor did she lag. She'd done a lot of walking as a young girl and took pride in still being able to keep up with Ki's long legs even in geta, if she concentrated.
They'd come out so early after the snow stopped that it had an unreal beauty, smooth as glass, without a single footstep to mar its perfection. Their feet made crunching sounds with each step, and the noise reminded Ki to slow down again. He apologized, and she smiled up at him and ran a finger down the crease between his brows, smoothing it. "It's all right. You're worried about Seijuro for some reason, aren't you?"
He made a face and nodded. "Not that it's anything new. I worry about him a lot. So does Kenshin."
"You saw him just yesterday. He was fine."
Ki shrugged. "Maybe he had an accident. Slipped in the snow and broke his leg or something."
"If he did, he won't thank you for coming along and helping him up!" she laughed.
Once outside of the city and on the way up the mountain, the snow-covered land was even more beautiful, but she'd picked up enough of Ki's uneasiness to keep her from enjoying it. She kept a firm hold on his hand. As they climbed, this was easier, because he slowed even more. At first she thought that he was babying her, and she lifted her head to protest. His expression, however, was as far away as it could be from the indulgent smile that always accompanied his pampering. He wasn't even looking at her, but ahead, and the line between his brows had come back and was even more pronounced. She began to worry now, herself, not from her own feelings but because she sensed his swordsman's instincts were at work, and she trusted them.
Even so, she wasn't prepared for what she saw when they came out of the path and into the garden, within sight of the cottage. She'd been thinking exactly what Ki had suggested, that Seijuro might have had some kind of accident on the ice. But he was sprawled on the front step, partially inside the door, and the jug of sake he'd been drinking was overturned on the ground beside him, his hand dangling limply over it.
She froze. "Ki."
He put a hand on her shoulder. "Wait here," he ordered her, and strode on. Maybe Seijuro's just drunk, she thought. He'd been drinking a lot more than normal since Hikaru's death. Perhaps the forced inactivity because of the snow had given him reason to drink even beyond his prodigious capacity. But she knew it was a hollow hope, and Ki's actions drove even that away, a moment later. He stopped and stared a moment, then bent over Seijuro and reached out a hand to feel for a pulse at the neck. Then, after a long time during which Hanako did not draw a breath, Ki went onto one knee in the snow and covered his face with both hands.
Hanako's eyes filled with tears, not for herself or for Seijuro, but for Ki, and she started toward him. However, as she took the first steps, she saw two small objects on the ground that made her stop. Amazed, she knelt and picked them up, cupping them carefully in her palm. They were impossible, but there they were. She continued on, her eyes as much on her palm now as on Ki.
When she reached him, he turned a tear-streaked face up to her, his eyes as stricken as when Kenshin had brought the news about Hikaru. "He's dead."
Her own tears had already stopped. "I know, darling. Hikaru came for him."
He rose slowly, like an old man. "What do you mean?"
"I found these on the ground, right by the little fountain," she said, and opened her hand to show him. On her palm were two pink cherry blossoms, their edges curling a little in the cold. "Hikaru came, and he went with her," she said again, and although her tears came again, she was smiling through them.