Holiday

~ : ~ : ~

I've wanted to write a story about the young Kenshin ever since I first saw him, in the memorable scene where Hiko first found him. I had a little trouble figuring out a way to do it, until it occurred to me that it would be a good chance to show Kenshin's growing sword skills. Then the whole thing came to me, and here it is ~ Hikaru's chance to have Kenshin to herself for two whole days.

~ : ~ : ~

Seijuro Hiko was a light sleeper, and the first moan woke him. Not again, he thought, and waited, hoping that soft sound would be the last from the next room, but knowing it wouldn't. After a moment he heard thrashing, and the moaning climbed in volume. Resigned, he rose from his bed and went into Kenshin's room, just in time to be hit with an ear-splitting scream.

He knelt beside the boy and grabbed both flailing hands between his. "Kenshin. KENSHIN!"

Kenshin's eyes flew open, and after a second they cleared. "Master!" His fingers convulsively clutched Hiko's hands, then relaxed. "I was having a dream."

Answering the shame in the boy's voice, rather than his words, Hiko released his hands and said, "You're not responsible for what you do in your sleep."

"Thank you, Master."

"Do you remember what the dream was about?"

Kenshin shook his head. That was regrettable, Hiko thought. Often, when a nightmare was recalled and discussed, its hold was loosened. But Kenshin almost never remembered his dreams – or wouldn't admit to it – and there were so many things in his past to trouble his sleep that Hiko couldn't even make a guess. The boy's eyes looked haunted. He might have forgotten the content of the dream, but not the fear. "Can you get back to sleep?" he asked.

"I don't think so," Kenshin said, with more emphasis than he'd perhaps intended.

"All right, then, make yourself useful. Get a lantern and split and stack wood. I want it stacked as high as the second mark."

"All right, Master." Rubbing his eyes, Kenshin stumbled out. Hiko figured about a quarter hour of that kind of exercise would make him sleepy enough. Fetching sake, he sat outside to watch his apprentice work.

He wouldn't show it, but he was worried about the boy. Kenshin had always been prone to nightmares, but lately they'd been more intense and come more often. Now Hiko was planning to be gone for two days, leaving Kenshin alone. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem. Kenshin was mature and amazingly self-sufficient for a boy of nine. This time, however, was different. Hiko had suffered from nightmares himself, and he still remembered how, as a child, the terror lasted long past the wakening. Especially if one were alone in the dark. Yet this trip was one which couldn't be put off.

He had no doubt of Kenshin's courage, or he might have left him to the mercy of the dark and the dreams. But with no lesson to be learned and no test to be passed, to leave him would be unnecessarily cruel.

The rhythm of the axe had already slowed. "Kenshin. That's enough."

"But you said to the second mark."

"Now I say that's enough. Don't argue with me. Go lay down. When the sun comes up, you can make breakfast."

Kenshin wasn't always obedient, but he was drowsy by now, and he went back to his room. There, Hiko was sure, he would drop into a sound sleep that would take him well past dawn. He'd miss breakfast, but at least he'd get enough sleep. Hiko remained where he was, sipping sake and pondering unpalatable alternatives.

As he expected, Kenshin slept well past daybreak and emerged babbling apologies. Hiko pointed out that he had already missed eating breakfast, gave him a few extra chores as punishment for oversleeping, then said, "I've been thinking about tonight and tomorrow, Kenshin. I don't think I want to leave you here alone."

"I can take care of myself, Master. I'll be all right."

The boy had no idea how open and expressive his face was. The words were brave, the tone cool, but the eyes were full of apprehension. Hiko snorted. "Nice sentiment, but I prefer a little honesty. You will not be all right. You'll have bad dreams and wake the whole forest with your screaming."

Kenshin looked down at the ground, abashed. Hiko snapped, "I told you, you aren't responsible for what you do in your sleep. Nevertheless..."

Kenshin's head came up suddenly. "Master, I could work at night and sleep during the day!"

"I can see you think that's a brilliant idea, but has it occurred to you that two days of doing so will make you unfit to take up your training again on the day I return?"

"Oh."

"Right. I had another thought. You haven't been a good enough apprentice to deserve this, but I might give you a holiday, and let you spend the time with Madame Kimiyama."

"Really?"

For once the voice, blazingly eager, gave away as much as the face, reinforcing Hiko's opinion that this was a bad idea. But he simply didn't have a better one. "Yes. She may be less fond of you once you've disturbed her sleep for a couple of nights."

"I'll try not to."

Hiko let his expression tell Kenshin his opinion of that fatuous remark. "We'll have to ask her if she wants you. It may not be convenient for her to have you visit her." That's a laugh. He knew damned well that, for this, Hikaru would overturn not only her own schedule but that of the entire Kimiyama Ceramics shop. "She may not even want you to come." Ha. "So don't get your hopes up until we see her."

"What if she doesn't visit us today?"

"Then we'll go to Kyoto to see her."

"Yes, Master." Humble words, humble tone, brilliantly smiling eyes and huge grin. Hiko sighed. She was going to spoil the kid. He was sure of it. Well, he would just have to hope that his training and discipline would be able to stand up to two days of Hikaru's indulgence.

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

Hikaru left the servant behind at the usual spot, where Toshiro had long ago had a bench built in a shady place just for that purpose, and stepped eagerly up the path toward Seijuro's cottage. She was already anticipating the pleasures of the afternoon. As much as she loved her life in Kyoto, the high point of her week was nearly always these few hours she spent in the company of Seijuro and Kenshin.

She paused at the fork in the path, wondering whether to bear left toward the falls and the training ground, or to go on straight toward the cottage. Usually Kenshin was there to meet her, but not if he was training or if he had chores. Her decision was made for her by Kenshin himself, however, who just then came racing down the path from the training ground, waving at her and calling, "Hikaru-san!" About ten feet from her, he recalled his manners, came to an abrupt stop, and bowed politely to her. She could barely keep a straight face, the formal bow was such a contrast to his sweaty, rumpled appearance and the flying red hair flopping into his face.

"You've been training hard today," she remarked.

He came up from his bow with a wide smile and eyes sparkling with pleasure. "Yes, I have."

He must have done something to earn praise from Seijuro, she thought. She rarely saw him so happy.

He fastidiously cleaned his hand on his pants leg, then held it out to her. "Let me help you over the rough part of the trail, Hikaru-san."

Something was definitely strange. He always "helped" her. It was something they'd started shortly after he'd come here, a way for some comforting physical contact between them when all other contact was forbidden by Seijuro, and the formality of his verbal offer had long ago been cast aside. She took his hand, puzzled. "Is something going on?"

"Yes. No. Not really. It's just..." He looked up into her face. His expression was such a mingling of hope and apprehension that her curiosity, already stirred, became intense. What in the world was going on here? "Hikaru-san, if I... am I... I mean, I wanted to ask, do you...?"

"Kenshin." Seijuro had come up behind him, and his one word was both a reprimand and a command. Kenshin dropped her hand and backed a respectful step away from her, lowering his eyes. Seijuro said, "Get back to the house and finish your chores. You barely got anything done."

"That's because there was too much to do before you wanted to start training today!"

"Standing around here embarrassing me with your bad manners in front of Madame Kimiyama is not going to get the work done. And it certainly isn't going to make me confident in my belief that you deserve a holiday."

Kenshin's mutinous look changed to one of alarm. "Yes, Master," he said, and ran off up the path.

Hikaru looked at Seijuro. "What's gotten into him? He's acting very strangely. Come to think of it, you look rather odd, too. And since when do you let Kenshin take a holiday?"

Seijuro made a vaguely disgusted noise. "Come on, lets walk. I'm not going to help you over the nonexistent 'rough' places, however."

She laughed and opened her fan, waving it gently between them. "We'll walk, but only if you tell me what's going on."

"That's what I had in mind." They fell into step together, Seijuro adjusting his long stride to match hers. "I want to ask a favor of you."

"You have it, of course. What is it?"

"I have to go away for the next two nights, and I don't want to leave Kenshin alone here."

"You've left him alone before," she said, unable to keep the disapproval from her voice.

"We're not getting into that again."

She nodded her agreement. "What's different about this time?"

"He's been having nightmares. Very bad ones, from which he wakes up screaming."

"Oh, no. What is he dreaming about?"

"He doesn't remember. Which is probably fortunate, given their severity."

If Seijuro called them severe, they must be dreadful. "Poor Kenshin!"

"He'll survive a few nightmares, Hikaru."

"How typically callous of you. No matter what you think, he's still just a child! He's only nine years old! Nightmares are devastating to a child that age."

"You act as if I've never had them and have no comprehension of what they're like."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. Do you at least go in and hold him until he's not afraid any more?"

He gave her a look.

"No, of course you don't," she sighed.

"That kind of statement is exactly why I'm reluctant to ask you this favor. I don't think I will ever get it through your head that Kenshin is not an ordinary child. He's my apprentice, just like your husband's apprentices are his. Except that Kenshin isn't learning pottery, but the Hiten Mitsurugi style of swordsmanship, which is much more demanding. You keep thinking of him as a little boy, and what he really is..."

"Is a little boy!" she said firmly, but grinning. This was such an old argument that she couldn't even work up irritation at him about it anymore.

"He is a young man, and one with extraordinary strength, both of body and of will. However," he sighed, "I will agree with you that his mind is at least as naive as any other child's his age. That's why I'm not taking him with me. Otherwise I would."

She spread the fan across the lower part of her face and let her eyes smile at him over it. "I think you're keeping some bad company, Seijuro Hiko."

His lips twitched. "Worse than even you can imagine."

"Definitely no company to take a little boy into, then. What do you want me to do? Stay here with him? Naturally I will."

"I think Kimiyama might have some objection to that."

"Not if I have Bunto with me. Don't look at me like that! I can talk Toshiro into sparing me for a couple of days."

"I'm sure you can talk Kimiyama into anything, if you set your mind to it, but he'll blame me, not you. No. What I want you to do is take Kenshin to Kyoto to stay with you there. He's worked hard, and he's earned a holiday."

She couldn't believe her ears. Take Kenshin to Kyoto with her? Except for Seijuro himself, there was nothing in the world she desired more. She was filled with such a sudden, overwhelming happiness that she couldn't even answer him for a moment, but lowered her eyes to keep it from spilling out. She wanted to laugh and dance right there on the path. Two nights and an entire day with Kenshin? Without Seijuro around? Bliss!

Hiding her glee, she said coolly, "He certainly has earned a holiday. You work him far too hard."

"You aren't fooling me," Seijuro growled.

She burst into laughter. "You know I'll love having him."

"I know you'll spoil him rotten."

"I will not!"

"No hugging him every few minutes."

"Of course not."

"Don't hold his hand all the time."

"Of course not."

"Don't take him shopping and buy him sweets. He's not used to them. They'll make him sick."

"I understand."

"I work him hard to increase his strength, his courage, and his agility. Don't pamper him. Give him chores to do."

"I will."

"You are looking right into my eyes and lying to me, Hikaru."

Her laughter bubbled out again. "I will not spoil him. I promise you that. I won't overdo anything, and I will give him work to do. All right?"

"I suppose that's the best I can hope for. This is bad timing on Kenshin's part. Why did he pick now to have a series of nightmares?"

"He didn't do it on purpose to inconvenience you, you great bear. Stop worrying. You told him it was a special day, a holiday. No matter what I do, he'll come back to you the same apprentice."

"I wish I could be sure of that. I didn't, after spending a day with you. You have a bad effect on Hiten Mitsurugi apprentices."

She glowed at the compliment. "When do you want me to take him?"

"Right away. I really should have left already. Bring him back the day after tomorrow. And he'd better be the same apprentice when I see him again." They were in the clearing before the cottage by then, and he yelled Kenshin's name. When Kenshin opened the door, he said, "Madame Kimiyama has graciously condescended to allow you to stay with her until I return."

Hikaru resisted the urge to punch him and added her most welcoming smile to Seijuro's words. Kenshin's little face lit up, and the beautiful lavender eyes sparkled. "Thank you, Hikaru-san!"

Seijuro said, "You're leaving at once. So clean up the mess you've undoubtedly made in there, and then pack whatever you'll need for two days. And be quick about it."

Kenshin disappeared inside without another word. Hikaru asked, "Seijuro, will you be in danger, where you're going? Is that why you won't take Kenshin?"

He stared down at her. "I'm a Hiten Mitsurugi Master. How much danger can I possibly be in? No, I won't. Don't worry about me. It's as I said, company unfit for a young boy." Looking toward the house again, he put his hands on his hips and said, "See if you can break the cycle of his dreams."

"The cycle?"

"This happened once before, where they came more and more often, and got progressively worse. Then he got sick…"

"Sick? When?"

"It was a head cold, nothing more," he growled.

"You never told me."

"He was over it before we saw you again. Why tell you? I need to add that to my list. Don't fuss over him!"

She held up the fan between them and opened it. "Such a long list of don'ts," she said coyly. Then, folding it again with a turn of her wrist, she said, "The cold broke the cycle?"

"He couldn't sleep for an entire night, then the next day he slept like the dead. The dreams went away and he didn't have another one for months. Then it was one or two, sporadically, and now this. I hope it isn't going to be a pattern for his entire childhood. It doesn't do his health any good."

"You're worried about him."

"He can't train if he doesn't sleep the proper number of hours."

"Of course that's your sole concern," she said sweetly.

"You're the only woman I've ever met who could disagree by agreeing. That's my primary concern, his training. Try not to forget it, all right?"

Kenshin reappeared in the doorway, his cheeks pink from scrubbing, wearing his shinai in his belt and holding the ends of a bundle in one hand. For two days away from home, the bundle was pathetically small, and Hikaru made a silent vow that, if nothing else, she was going to buy the boy some decent clothes. She couldn't argue about the things Seijuro considered important, such as Kenshin's health, morals, and education, but there were far too many things he didn't consider important, in her opinion. She only had two days to make up the lack, but she intended to use every minute of them. "Ready to go, Kenshin?"

"Yes, Hikaru-san, I think so. Master, I didn't get the stove cleaned."

"Typical. Well, we can't inconvenience Madame Kimiyama. You can do it when you come back."

A flicker of uncertainty banished the excitement from Kenshin's eyes for a moment, and Hikaru was reminded that the child had been nowhere else but this mountain for the past year, with no other constant company than Seijuro. What had at first looked like a treat was now becoming something to fear – Seijuro was going away for longer than usual, and Kenshin would be going to a strange place, to be among strangers.

Seijuro saw that look even more quickly than Hikaru did, and said sternly, "You'd better behave yourself in Kyoto. Try not to be too much of an idiot, and obey Madame Kimiyama and her husband as you do me. Don't make me sorry I gave you this holiday. If she gives me a bad report about you, I'll take it out of your hide when I get back."

With this rather stringent, left-handed promise that his Master was coming back, even if only to beat him, and with a duty now to perform, even if only to be obedient, Kenshin's expression cleared. "Yes, Master!" he said with a grin.

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

One of the many things that Hikaru believed Kenshin needed, and Seijuro refused to provide him, was physical affection, and she didn't plan to wait long to begin. As soon as they'd gone far enough down the path that she was sure Seijuro wouldn't see them, she held out a hand to Kenshin. Always a quietly willing conspirator, he gave her his hand and let her keep it. She thought that would be enough, but as soon as her fingers wound through his small ones, she knew better. Before they got to where her servant patiently waited, she stopped and knelt, ostensibly to make some minor adjustment to his clothing. He was so small for his age that, even on one knee, she didn't have to look up at him. She straightened the wrinkled fabric, their eyes met, and he read the intention in hers and broke into a wide smile. She opened her arms and he came right into them, hugging her around the neck while she held him tightly against her.

She never wanted to let him go. He felt so tiny and fragile, she was filled with a desperate need to protect him. Yet she could feel the muscle on him and knew he was strong, as Seijuro claimed. That didn't matter. To her, the delicate matrix of bone and flesh that was Kenshin Himura was like a rare flower, to be carefully held and treasured, and she wrapped him up in her arms and cradled him there, breathing in the child-smell of him, rejoicing in her first chance to hold him close since the day they'd met, more than a year ago. He tightened his arms around her neck very carefully, as if he didn't remember clearly how a hug was supposed to go, but when she sighed happily and rubbed her cheek on his bright hair, he suddenly relaxed against her, tucked his face into her shoulder and leaned all his weight into her.

She hadn't been this happy more than once or twice in her entire life. Her whole being was filled with it, so full that she had to swallow tears of joy. This was the closest she would ever come to holding a child of her own, and it was enough. For the next two days, he was her child. Seijuro could call him an apprentice until the stars and moon fell from the sky, but although she normally bowed to his will, she would never agree with him about Kenshin. To her, in her heart, he wasn't a Hiten Mitsurugi apprentice. He was the son that she and Seijuro would never have.

They stayed that way for a long time, and it was Hikaru who finally broke it. "Well, we'd better get going," she said, and held him away from her. "Look at your hair. It's a mess. Let me see if I can do something with it." He batted her hands away in a typically boyish gesture, and she laughed, gave up, kissed him, and rose. "Won't Bunto be surprised to see me come back so soon? And with a guest, too."

"Bunto's with you? That's great. Last time I saw him he was telling me a story, and he didn't get to finish it. I want to hear the ending!" He put his hand back in hers and skipped beside her. However, as soon as he saw Bunto rising off the bench, he let go of Hikaru and went running to the ex-soldier, yelling, "Bunto! Guess what! I get to come to Kyoto with you!"

Bunto's usually impassive face cracked a bit at that. "You do, young Kenshin? Are you running away from your Master?"

Kenshin gave this the laugh it deserved. "No. He gave me a holiday! And Hikaru-san said I could spend it with her."

Meeting Bunto's astonished expression with a broad smile, Hikaru quickly explained the situation. After hearing her out, he said respectfully, "Madame Kimiyama, I believe that you can talk anyone into anything."

"Maybe I can, but that's not the case here," she assured him. "This was Seijuro's own idea."

"Unusually considerate of him."

"Maybe he thought I deserved a treat, too. What do you think, Kenshin?"

Kenshin gave this a moment's serious thought, then shook his head. "He seemed grouchy about it, not like the time he gave you the earrings."

"Well, it doesn't matter. Are you tired from your training this morning?"

"No!"

"Then why don't we go into the city and buy you some new clothes?"

"But I don't need any. I have clothes."

"You have something to cover your nakedness. That's not quite the same thing."

"Hikaru-san, are you going to make me vain?"

He was serious, so she bit her lip and replied seriously. "I don't think I could do that, even if I wanted to."

"Master says that vanity is the fool's version of pride."

"Kenshin, darling," she said, squatting down to his level again, "you and I are going to get along a lot better if you don't use those two words again during your holiday."

"What two words?"

"Master says."

"But…"

"I know your Master very well, and I know what he says and thinks. What I want to know now is what Kenshin thinks. So, forget about Master for now. Does Kenshin think he wants to go see the city of Kyoto, and maybe, maybe, buy some new clothes, if they aren't too fine? Hmm?"

He grinned.

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

The city intimidated Kenshin for a long time, and he spent the afternoon holding her hand, pressed close to her side. Still, although intimidated, he was unafraid and fascinated, and craned his head in all directions around her body, trying not to miss anything. He'd been in big towns before, he told her, trying to sound sophisticated and instead sounding adorable, but not any city as large and busy and crowded as Kyoto. "How do you sleep here?" he wanted to know.

"Our home is on the outskirts of the city, where it is much more quiet. This is the market center of the city. There is no place more busy, not even the palace."

"Will we see the palace?"

"From a distance. Not close. Some bad men are in that area."

His hand tightened on her fingers and he said, "Then we won't go there. It would be dangerous for you, and Master would never forgive me if I let you get hurt."

"Then I'll stay close by your side."

"And Bunto will watch our backs," he said, and, satisfied with this arrangement, he turned his attention back to the shops and the people.

Seijuro was right about one thing, he wasn't accustomed to sweets and they made him queasy. Some mint tea settled his stomach again, and they headed home with Kenshin in a merry mood, wearing his new clothes. He conceded graciously that the clothes were more comfortable and felt better than his old ones, and she said she was glad he liked them, straight-faced. He had no idea of the cost of what she had purchased for him, only that she insisted he dress in blue because it suited his coloring. The girls in the shop had made a big fuss over him, embarrassing and pleasing him both, and while that was going on, she'd quietly made sure that price would not be mentioned in Kenshin's hearing. Seijuro, however, was going to want to kill her, and she smiled at the thought.

Besides his bundle, which was a little larger now, Kenshin also carried a present for Toshiro, a book he and Hikaru had picked out together. Much of his shyness had worn off, and, still holding her hand, he babbled happily about what they'd seen and bombarded her with questions about what her home was like. She realized as he spoke that he expected to sleep with the servants, and her sheer astonishment told her how much she'd come to consider him family. She didn't tell him that, because if he innocently repeated it to Seijuro, Seijuro would never allow her to keep him again. Instead she told him he was a guest and would have his own room. Privately, she had another idea in mind, but she had to clear it with Toshiro first.

Before that, even, she had to break the news to Toshiro that they had a young guest. She'd hoped to leave Kenshin in the shop with Bunto and catch Toshiro alone in the house, but her luck didn't break that way. He was on the front step of the shop, bowing a customer out.

Hikaru had always found that men gave her what she wanted if she behaved as if she expected them to, so she tossed out all her ideas for breaking the news to him gently, straightened her posture, gave him her most joyful smile, and said, "Toshiro, look, we have a visitor!"

Toshiro's brows shot up. Then his eyes started to twinkle. "This must be Kenshin, about whom I've heard so much. Welcome!"

Kenshin dropped his bundle and bowed deeply, holding out the wrapped book. "Thank you for allowing me into your home, Kimiyama-san, and I apologize for any trouble and inconvenience I might cause you. Please accept this gift." Then, straightening as Toshiro returned his bow, he added in a sudden flash of candor, "Except that Hikaru-san paid for the gift. But I picked it out."

"Did you?" Interested, Toshiro opened the wrapping. "Ah, this is perfect. I've been wanting to read this! Thank you."

Hikaru said, "Bunto, why don't you introduce Kenshin to the workers and show him the kilns? Kenshin? Would you be interested in seeing how we make a living?"

Kenshin eagerly agreed and followed Bunto into the shop, eyes huge. Hikaru turned to her husband. "I hope you don't mind."

"Why would I? I can see it makes you happy. Besides, he seems to be a good boy. His manners are excellent. Your doing?"

"So are your manners, husband! But no, that is Seijuro's doing. He's not so vain that he thinks Kenshin will be a hermit like himself, so part of Kenshin's training is to get along in society."

"You'll pardon me if I say that shocks me. How long will the boy be staying?"

"Only two nights. Toshiro – the reason Seijuro didn't just leave him alone up there is that Kenshin's been having terrible nightmares. I was wondering…"

"If he could sleep with us?" he finished for her, his eyes twinkling again. He loved it when he could read her mind. "Of course he can, if he wants to. So tell me, what role am I to assume? Do I stay back and be an avuncular presence, or do I help you care for him?"

"You do what you wish to do, Toshiro."

He shook his head, smiling. "My dear, I know how much this means to you. I don't want to interfere."

"If you do what you feel is right, then that will be perfect. I know it, because I know you."

"Very well. What will you do now?" he asked, bending to pick up Kenshin's forgotten bundle. "Show him the gardens?"

"Let me take that and get it put away. I bought him some new clothes, Toshiro. You wouldn't believe what Seijuro thinks is adequate." Toshiro laughed, and she said, "Yes, if I can pry him away from the artists, I'll share the gardens with him now."

When she came back to the shop, she discovered Kenshin had picked up an astonishing amount of knowledge about pottery, almost all of which he told her about in detail as she led him toward the courtyard. However, on seeing the gardens, he stopped talking in the middle of a sentence and just gaped.

His awe lasted about thirty seconds. After that, he was full of questions and comments again, wanting to run about and see everything at once. The one thing that fascinated him most were the flowers which folded themselves up to sleep as the sun set. But Hikaru's favorite moment came at one of the fish ponds, when she sat on the stone ledge and trailed one hand in the water, showing Kenshin how the koi would come and kiss her fingers. He was already wide-eyed from the size and brilliant color of the fish, and this made him look at them as if they might climb out of the pond and chase him, so Hikaru explained that she often fed them by hand, and that their affection was really just a way of checking for food. Kenshin put his own fingers in, laughing as they checked him for food, too. Then he startled her by opening his hands and grabbing the largest koi right out of the water into his arms.

The fish flailed, liberally splashing her and everything else around them with water, beating Kenshin's face with its head. Kenshin held it close to his chest, obviously pleased with himself. "This would make a good dinner!" he said, looking at her obliquely to see if she understood he was teasing her.

She laughed aloud. The other thing she wanted most to provide for Kenshin, after physical affection, was a chance for him to be like a normal child and play. It seemed all he needed was the opportunity. "He's a king of fish, Kenshin. We can't eat a king. You'd better put him back. Although now you've humiliated him in front of all his subjects."

Kenshin dropped the fish back into the pond, splashing both of them yet again. "No I haven't. He'll tell them he was snatched up by a demon, but that he was so strong, he got away all on his own."

"A terrible red-haired demon who wanted to eat him!"

"Right! I… Oh. Hikaru-san, I got you all wet." The light fled from his eyes in a split second, to be replaced by contrition. But behind the contrition was the fear that Hikaru so hated to see.

"You got both of us all wet, you demon," she said, keeping the laughter in her voice. "But we'll be dry by the time I show you the rest of the garden."

The fear disappeared, but he was subdued as they walked, until finally, unable to bear it any more, she knelt, hugged him impulsively, and said, "A little water won't melt me, love!"

"You aren't mad?"

"No, of course not! It was worth it to see the expression on that king's boggly-eyed face when he found himself in the air."

Kenshin grinned and hugged her back, but he also apologized again and held her hand for some time afterward, leaving her wondering, behind her smiles, just what it was he feared. This was not Seijuro's doing, she knew. In the first place, Seijuro would never terrorize a child, and anyway, nobody observing them would believe Kenshin was afraid of his Master. Hikaru didn't know if it was the memory of the horrendous circumstances Seijuro had found him in, or something from his years as a slave, but she would have given anything to chase that fear away forever. That was beyond her ability, but she would keep it at bay while he was with her, if she possibly could.

Dinner was as much fun as the rest of the day had been. Kenshin's table manners were excellent, but he'd never seen such a variety of food before (as he confided to her later), so he would choose something to eat and then stare, wide-eyed, at the rest of the dishes, trying to decide what to sample next, while forgetting to chew what he already had in his mouth. Toshiro put himself out to make Kenshin feel at home, and like a sensible person, he spoke to Kenshin as one man to another, not as a man to a child. Or, toward the end of the meal, as one child to another, when a chance remark made the two realize they both knew the same boyhood song. Kenshin burst out with it, and Toshiro jumped right in, adding his deep rumble to Kenshin's high, clear voice. Hikaru smilingly served tea and cookies for dessert while the two of them recalled song after song, sometimes with hilarious results when they got the lyrics wrong. Watching Kenshin's small, serious face as he earnestly corrected Toshiro's memory, Hikaru allowed herself a short-lived fantasy that they were a simple family, father and mother and son, and she enjoyed it even as she knew it was ridiculous. She would never wish Seijuro out of existence, not even for Kenshin. But for now, pretending did no harm, and it made her happy.

Toshiro finally called a halt. "Neither of us sings very well," he said to Kenshin, with an apologetic glance at Hikaru. It was true, neither could carry a tune and their singing was literally painful to her trained ear, but she stoutly denied it anyway. Toshiro said to Kenshin, "But my wife sings beautifully and plays the shamisen. Maybe, since we have a guest, she'll sing and play for us tonight."

"No!" Hikaru laughingly protested. "You make it rude for him to refuse, Toshiro, and that isn't fair. The shamisen isn't for everyone's taste." And generally, children didn't care for it. "Besides, Kenshin's had a long day and should be going to bed soon."

Kenshin's eyes lifted to hers, and she was instantly reminded of the nightmares. How could she have forgotten them? "I'd like to hear you play, Hikaru-san," he said politely. "Master says... I mean, Master told me you play very well."

"She plays wonderfully," Toshiro said, rising and giving her a significant look over Kenshin's head. He, too, had been reminded of the nightmares.

So she took out her shamisen, and tuned it, and played for them. Most children got restless after a short time of that music, but Kenshin only seemed to become more and more peaceful rather than bored. He slid across the floor a few inches at a time until at last he was right next to her, watching her fingers on the instrument as if fascinated by the delicate movements. But his eyelids were heavy, and Hikaru changed to simpler, quieter ballads, continuing to play even when she felt him leaning against her arm. When she was sure he was asleep, she set the instrument aside and let his head slide down until it was pillowed in her lap. With one hand on his shoulder, an unconsciously protective gesture, she stared down at him, thinking how amazing it was that so much vitality and character could be contained in so small a body and behind such delicate features. The way he'd practically crawled into her lap and now lay sleeping there, in an abandoned posture, one arm flung wide and the other curled under him, implied a trust that touched her heart.

She looked up and saw Toshiro watching her, smiling. "You make a good mother," he told her.

"I wish he was mine," she said impulsively. Unlike with Seijuro, she rarely expressed her deepest emotions to Toshiro, but she was feeling too much to keep it all inside.

Toshiro's quiet smile told her he understood more than she'd realized. "I know that. Is there any chance Hiko would let him go?"

Her breath caught, and her hand, which had been stroking Kenshin's hair unaware, stilled suddenly. "What are you saying? That he should change trades?"

"You know that's not what I mean. You want a child, love, and there is room in our lives for one. I like this one very much. There is something special about him, something I see when I look in his eyes that I've never seen in a child before. I'm not good with words, I can't describe it."

"He has a special grace."

"Yes, that is a good way to put it. So I ask you again, is there any chance Hiko would let him go to us?"

She thought about the question for a long time, lowering her eyes, abashed as she often was when faced with Toshiro's generosity of spirit. Her imagination was racing into vistas of happiness. But she was a practical woman, and finally she put the dreams back where they belonged and admitted the truth. "No, I don't think so. I can ask him, but it will probably only make him angry, and he might never let me have Kenshin like this again."

"That would be cruel even for him. Is he so afraid of your influence over the child?"

"Afraid? It's hard to imagine Seijuro afraid of anything. But it worries him." She sighed. "I don't understand the reasons for teaching a child to use a sword. Perhaps you do." Toshiro's two older brothers were a daimyo and a samurai, and Toshiro himself had trained with them until he rebelled and became an artist.

"I do. I wish I could explain it to you, but there is too much of it that must be felt with the heart and spirit, and no number of words can teach that to someone like you."

"You sound like Seijuro."

"Our discussion has crossed into his world, love, and I am slightly more at home there than you, by experience if not by nature. Also, I am a craftsman with apprentices. I know how he must feel, with such skills to pass on, finding a promising apprentice. It would be hard for him to let the boy go."

She nodded. "As I understand it, the most important duty of a Hiten Mitsurugi Master is to pass on the lessons of the style to a successor. Not just the sword techniques, but also the philosophy. Seijuro has been looking for an apprentice almost since the day he became a Master. He says Kenshin is extraordinary, that he has great promise." Her eyes were on Kenshin, unable to reconcile the sweetness of his disposition with the incredible aggression and dedication that Seijuro demanded. She didn't think she would ever comprehend it. But there was something else she knew, which she did comprehend. "Besides, Seijuro loves Kenshin. Maybe not as I do, and as you might. He's not really capable of loving in that way. He wasn't raised with it. There's nothing in his background to show him how. But he loves Kenshin in the only way he can. If we were to take Kenshin from him, he would have no one."

"But if he loves the boy, wouldn't he want what's best for him?"

"He is far too selfish for that. Besides, although he won't say it in these terms, he believes that it was fate that brought Kenshin to him, and that it is Kenshin's destiny to learn the Hiten Mitsurugi style. And perhaps he is right." She looked up and met her husband's eyes. He looked concerned, and she smiled encouragement. "But I will ask him, if for no other reason than that you made the offer, and I love you for it."

They talked on other subjects after that, about the shop and his own apprentices and how their day had gone, which was their normal routine. Through it all, Kenshin slept without stirring, a warm weight in her lap, quietly breathing under her hands. He didn't wake when they decided to go to bed and Toshiro lifted him and carried him to their bedroom, so Hikaru decided to let him sleep in his clothes rather than wake him enough to change. When laid down, he promptly rolled over onto his stomach, buried his face in the pillow, and sprawled out all over the bed. Hikaru giggled, then let her maid prepare her for bed in silence, so they didn't disturb him. The way he was sleeping, she suspected a parade could go through the room without waking him, yet when she got in beside him, he half-woke, just enough to murmur her name, turn on his side, abandon his pillow, and snuggle himself into the hollow of her shoulder. Then he was soundly, limply asleep again. She rested her cheek on his head and smiled at Toshiro as he joined them. Toshiro laid an arm over both of them. Cocooned by the two adults, Kenshin slept through the night without a single disturbing dream.

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

Hikaru woke alone in her bed, but that was normal, because Toshiro was an earlier riser. Always slow to rouse, she took several minutes of yawning and stretching before she remembered she'd had another bedfellow last night. Alarmed, and feeling silly for being so – after all, everyone here knew Kenshin, what harm could befall him? – she jumped out of bed, pulled on a robe, twisted her hair into a quick knot, and went out barefoot to find him. Where is Kenshin? was the only thought in her mind, and those were the first words to her maid when that young woman, who was waiting at the door of her room, rose from her bow.

"I think he's with Fumi and the children in the gardens, lady."

I hope he's playing. Seeing Kenshin play, just play, was one of her fondest hopes for this visit. She wasn't even sure he knew how to play. And I hope Fumi isn't treating him like any other 9-year-old. On any given day, for varying reasons, there were always children in the compound, either neighborhood children or children of the servants and artists. Bunto's young wife Fumi had the task of watching them, when Hikaru herself wasn't doing it. But Fumi had experience with normal children, not with a boy like Kenshin. Treating him like a child would only confuse him.

Her fears were groundless, however. Kenshin was indeed playing, but he had taken it upon himself to become Fumi's "helper" with the children. When Hikaru stepped out onto the porch, Fumi came smiling to meet her and pointed out where her "helper" was being taught a new game by his charges. Something he said made them all laugh, and he looked bewildered. Then one of the younger boys crept behind his legs (which Kenshin pretended not to see), another boy pushed him backward so that he fell over the first, and all the children then piled on him to hold him down, screeching with glee. Kenshin lay there pretending to be pinned and complaining at the top of his voice, although he could barely be heard over the laughter. One toddler climbed over his head, and Kenshin, shaking the others off, rose with the toddler riding on him and pretended to look around, asking where Riku had gone, as if the child didn't have double handfuls of his red hair in her clutches and as if he hadn't put one hand up to steady her. The other children all laughed and pointed, and Kenshin pretended to start with surprise. Then he swung little Riku down, told her she should be more careful, and set her on the ground again.

Hikaru knew she could only get in the way. She went back inside to dress properly.

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

At midday, Fumi took the children to eat and have a nap, and Hikaru took Kenshin into Kyoto for a fancy meal, and then to see the Moriguchi Entertainers, a modest circus that made its headquarters in the city. Kenshin had never seen anything like it, and she actually had to explain to him that these people were putting on a show of skill for the entertainment of an audience. Like other times when she realized how little he'd experienced of the world so familiar to her, she explained with a light tone and a smile, while his wide-eyed attention to her every word tore at her heart. When she finished and pointed out the next act, she put an arm around his narrow shoulders, more for her own comfort than his, and he happily leaned into her side and gave his attention to the jugglers.

Now that he understood, Kenshin stopped gaping and began smiling, and then laughing and applauding enthusiastically as the show progressed. He was very quick to pick out what moves took the most skill, and every once in a while, a quietly serious comment from him along the lines of, "That must have taken much time to learn to do right," made her take a closer look at the performers and increased her own pleasure, already doubled by his mere presence.

However, entertainment wasn't all he got from the show. When they rejoined Bunto and the ex-soldier asked how Kenshin had liked it, Kenshin announced, "I was watching them closely, and you know, I can do some of that!" He then demonstrated his unhoned skills, doing handsprings and cartwheels, then running along a rope holding up an awning and doing a backflip down, to the danger of all passers-by. He came back to Hikaru flushed with triumph for what he'd done right and embarrassment for what he'd done wrong, and she knelt and praised the one while minimizing the other, letting her loving smile conceal the fact that she'd been frightened nearly out of her wits the entire time. "Seijuro is teaching you some unusual things!"

Blithely unaware of deepening her shock, he said, "Oh, Master didn't teach me that. I was just copying what I saw the circus people do." Then something else caught his attention, and he scampered off to investigate, leaving her to rise slowly and exchange a horrified look with Bunto.

On the way home, however, he was destined to frighten her even worse. They passed a shop that sold household items, where she saw several things that interested her, and she released his hand in order to more carefully look over the goods. She recalled Seijuro saying that Kenshin had had a cold before, and she also recalled Kenshin complaining about the frigid temperature in the cottage in the winter mornings, before the fire was built up. Yesterday she'd bought him a warm coat and new boots, and now she bought him two blankets, a densely woven tatami to go under his bed, and some herbs which, heated in a small pot placed on a hot ceramic brick in his room, would fill the air with a vapor that was good for warding off colds. While bargaining with the shopkeeper to get everything delivered to her home, she heard the commotion begin out in the street, but she paid no attention to it. Something was always going on in Kyoto. People were always fighting. Her ear was trained to listen for the sounds of possible killing fights, and to tune everything else out.

Then Bunto appeared at her side. "You'd better come, Hikaru-san," he said, and immediately left her. This was so odd that she at once waved off the shopkeeper and looked for Kenshin.

He wasn't in the shop.

"Kenshin??"

Bunto appeared in the doorway and gestured for her to come, and she went to him, saying, "Where is Kenshin? I don't see him!"

Bunto nodded toward where a little tableau had just frozen in the street, and Hikaru clutched his arm. In the center of the tableau were three people. One, a man, was on the ground, apparently injured, and trying to crawl out of the way. Another was a big, burly, red-faced, angry-looking man holding a long staff. And the third was Kenshin, standing straight-shouldered, with one hand lightly on his shinai, his head tilted back, looking up into the big man's eyes. A crowd was already forming, and Hikaru picked up her hem and started to run toward them, only to be stopped by Bunto just at the edge of the crowd. Kenshin didn't notice them. He was telling the big man to leave the other one alone.

The crowd was chuckling, amused at this small boy being so calmly impertinent. But the big man wasn't amused. "Get out of my way, you little brat. He owes me money."

Most of the people in the crowd jeered at that, and Kenshin smiled slightly. "He says he paid you back already, and these people agree with him."

"They know nothing about it. Move, or I'll squash you like a bug." The bully punctuated the threat by raising the staff menacingly.

Hikaru couldn't believe all these people were standing around doing nothing about a small boy facing such a monster. No one was even stepping in to help Kenshin, never mind protect him. She once more tried to step forward, determined to get between them, but Bunto stopped her again, this time forcefully. "Don't break the boy's concentration," he said quietly to her. "He knows what he's doing."

Knows what he's doing? That man's four times his size! She tried to break free, furious. Meanwhile, coolly, Kenshin was saying in his high, clear voice, "You've had too much sake. Why don't you go home and sleep it off? Then if you still think this man owes you money, take it to the authorities."

The crowd muttered agreement, that the boy spoke good sense, but the comments were all anonymous, and the drunken man paid no attention. He leered. "I want that money now. And I want it so I can buy more sake. I'll take it out of his hide if he doesn't give it to me. Yours, too, if you get in my way. What the hell are you doing with that shinai, you puny little rat? Do you think that will help you against me?"

Kenshin shrugged. "You know," he began, this time in a different tone of voice, deliberately provocative, "my Master says... I mean, I say that, if a man can't hold his sake without losing control over himself, then he should not drink at all."

Hikaru hissed to Bunto, "He's trying to pick a fight!"

"Now he is, yes."

"He'll be killed! Stop this, Bunto!"

"Look at him, lady. Young Kenshin is alert, perfectly balanced and ready. That man will never touch him. Don't forget, he is already accustomed to fighting a man much larger than he is."

"Bunto...!"

He looked down at her, black eyes expressionless. "I'll step in if you wish, but he would not like it."

For a moment she struggled with her protective instincts, as the big man tossed a few more insults and threats at an impassive Kenshin. The crowd was still jeering, but they were also staying well back. Bunto promised, "I'll step in if it looks like he's bitten off more than he can chew."

"If he gets hurt, Seijuro will never forgive me."

"I think if Master Hiko were here, he'd be laughing."

"If he gets hurt, I will never forgive you," she swore. Then she sucked in a breath, too shocked to let it out in a scream, as the staff suddenly arced through the air straight down at Kenshin.

But the staff hit nothing but the ground, and it hit the ground more than a foot from where it had been aimed. Kenshin had stepped from under it and at the same time pulled his shinai out, using it to deflect the blow to one side. The drunkard growled in fury and, in earnest this time, began raining blow after blow toward Kenshin. Holding the shinai with both hands, never allowing a strike to land squarely, Kenshin kept moving into the arc of the staff, forcing the man to retreat in order to strike at him.

Hikaru's nails dug into Bunto's arm, and she whimpered. "He can't even reach the man! He's too small!"

Bunto said placidly, "He has a plan, and he is doing well. Watch. It's almost over."

Her mind full of thoughts of firing Bunto, setting Kenshin's broken bones, and abasing herself to Seijuro, she turned, trembling, to look again.

Even as she did, Kenshin's plan came to fruition. The big man had backed up to the edge of the wooden walkway, but he was so angry at not being able to hit Kenshin that he wasn't paying attention. An incautious step tripped him, and he went down heavily. Even as he fell, Kenshin let out an unearthly yell and jumped high into the air, coming down in a blur as he whipped the shinai around in a swift, controlled blow to the crown of the man's head. The bully went flat on his back and stayed there, unconscious.

There was a moment's stunned silence, while Kenshin, landing lightly and in perfect balance, unconcernedly put his shinai back into its place. Someone asked, "Is he dead?" and someone else said, "No, just knocked out." Then some woman cheered, and all the crowd started either cheering or laughing. To Kenshin's bewilderment, he suddenly found himself the center of a multitude of people who all wanted to clap him on the back, congratulate him, and find out how he'd learned to fight like that. Wild speculation ran through them, ranging everywhere from Kenshin being the son of a samurai to the whole thing being a matter of luck. Fortunately, no one bothered to give Kenshin a chance to explain, which was just as well, because he was painfully uncomfortable and obviously had no intention of telling anyone about Seijuro. The only person Kenshin paid any real attention to was the injured man who had crawled away from the fight. Still limping, the man came forward now and bowed, thanking Kenshin for saving him, and Kenshin, with his usual exquisite manners, bowed a little more deeply and claimed it as his honor to help. Then, reassured of the man having suffered no more than bruises, he looked around for Hikaru.

Seeing her with Bunto, he smiled and trotted toward them, leaving the crowd behind. But as he drew near, he got a better look at Hikaru's expression and stopped. "Hikaru-san? Are you angry with me?"

She tried to hold her temper, but she'd been too badly frightened to keep it inside. "Of course I'm angry with you! How could you do that to me?"

His lower lip disappeared between his teeth and his eyes grew anxious as he wrestled with confusion. "Do what? What did I do?"

"You left me in the store…"

"But you were in no danger. Bunto was there, too." He seemed pleased to have the problem out of the way. Then he realized it wasn't, and flinched, waiting for the next volley.

"You left me without telling me where you were going, and when I find you, you're in the middle of a public brawl!" That was as far as her temper could carry her, however. Her voice broke as she said, "You could have been hurt. You scared me to death, Kenshin!"

He finally understood. With a sure instinct, he pulled the shinai from his belt, got down on his knees, and bowed to her, apologizing. She was on her own knees in the next second, hugging him fiercely while telling him, not very convincingly, what a horrible child he was. He wrapped his arms around her neck and said, "I didn't mean to desert you without saying anything, and I didn't mean to get into a brawl. But that man was beating Kisho-san badly, and I was afraid he'd break his bones or even worse. I didn't have time to explain, and I had to help. But I am sorry that I worried you."

She held him away from her to look into his face. "Do you know this man Kisho?" That, at least, would explain it.

"No. He told me his name just now, and of course the crowd was saying it, too."

"Then why did you help him?"

"Because no one else would. They were all afraid of that big man."

"For good reason! He was vicious! He might have killed you!"

"He was drunk and very slow. I was in no danger." His shoulders drew together a little under her hands, and he looked at the ground. "Hikaru-san, please don't be angry with me. I'm very, very sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you."

She gave him a little shake, already having forgiven him. "Just don't do it again."

To her surprise, he raised his eyes and straightened his shoulders, and although his expression was one of misery, he spoke with quiet determination. "I can't give you that promise, Hikaru-san. I'm sorry. I'm unworthy. If you wish, I will go back to the mountain right now. You don't need to send someone with me, I know the way."

Bewildered, she said, "Of course I'm not sending you back up the mountain. What kind of monster do you think I am? But why can't you promise me?" She hadn't been serious about it anyway, but he was so earnest, she wanted to know his reasons.

"I can't walk past someone who is in trouble, if I can help them. Master wouldn't like it if I did, and I… well, I just can't." He was looking at the ground again, and shaking.

She was ready to kick herself. He had no experience with her temper, and she could only imagine what the temper tantrums of others had brought on his head before this. She had probably frightened him much worse than he had frightened her. Yet, even when he was this upset, he was sticking to the principles that he believed in. Sometimes he was exasperatingly like his Master, but he had a wonderful courage that went beyond the mere physical. Just like Seijuro.

She stroked his hair, then tilted his chin up and kissed his forehead. "You're a good boy," she said, "and I'm very proud of you. But I can see it's going to be up to me to keep you out of trouble. Can you at least promise me not to run off again without telling me you're leaving?"

An uncertain smile bloomed. "Yes, I can promise you that!"

"I suppose that will have to do, then."

The smile disappeared, despite her gently amused tone. "You're still angry with me. What can I do to make you stop being angry?" he said desperately.

"I'm not angry. I never really was mad at you. I was just scared that you might get hurt, and sometimes, when you scare an adult, they act angry when they see that there was nothing to be afraid of after all." He still looked uncertain, and she said, "I promise." When that didn't work, she hugged him and held him, saying, "Kenshin! I'm not mad at you, I'm not! Don't look at me like that. I still love you."

After a second or two, the slender strong arms wound around her neck again and he hugged her back. "Please don't be mad at me," he whispered.

"I'm not. And even if I do get mad at you, that doesn't mean I'll ever stop loving you. I get mad at your Master all the time, but I keep coming back, don't I?"

The grip around her neck tightened, and his chin dug into her shoulder. "That's true."

"But if you ever scare me like that again, I'm going to seal you in a barrel and give you to the circus to use for the juggling act!"

He chuckled, although his grip didn't loosen. "Next time I get into a brawl and scare you, I'll make sure to get hurt, and then you won't be mad just because there was nothing to be afraid of."

"Don't you dare!" she said, and hugged him tighter.

Bunto picked up Kenshin's shinai and smacked him in the behind with it. "Hey. You're making a public spectacle of the lady, young man. Let her get up. And take this thing. You obviously know how to use it."

Reluctantly, Kenshin unwound his arms from her neck. "Thank you, Bunto-san. If I do, it is thanks to my Master," he said politely, replacing the weapon in his belt.

Bunto's expression was an approving one, soldier to soldier, and she knew that, if Seijuro were here, his would be the same. Rising, Hikaru unclenched her fists before Kenshin saw them. It's not right. He's just a little boy. Win or lose, he's a child! He shouldn't be fighting.

He was looking up into her face again anxiously. He was far too intuitive for her to be so careless. She drove out all thoughts of swords and Bunto and Seijuro, and thought only of Kenshin the boy and how much she loved him. Then she smiled at him and held out a hand. His own sweet smile bloomed and the shadow went out of his eyes, and he wound his fingers through hers.

He was silent on the way back home, however, and Hikaru was desperately trying to think of other ways to convince him that she wasn't angry, when suddenly he said in a small voice, "Hikaru-san? May I ask a favor?"

"Of course! Anything."

"Please don't tell Master what I did." He hastily added, "I don't want you to lie! Just don't mention it unless he asks. You see, I'm not supposed to be doing that attack. Master says... I mean, I'm not ready to do it properly, not without more practice, and if he finds out that I used it..."

"You'll get a lot more practice than you want," she finished for him dryly.

"Yes." He looked ashamed. Hikaru loved Seijuro, but the urge to kick him at that moment was very strong, so it was just as well he was nowhere near.

Bunto chuckled behind her. "It didn't look to me as if you needed any more practice at it."

Alarmed, Kenshin twisted to look up at Bunto. She thought he was going to ask Bunto for secrecy, too, but instead he said, "I do! I was clumsy, and the technique was flawed."

Bunto shook his head. "If you say so. But if I were that fast, I'd still have my right arm. I'm sure your Master would be pleased, but if you wish it, I'll also promise to make no mention of today."

Kenshin gave him a shy smile. "He would not be pleased. He'd call me a clumsy oaf and make me do it again and again. But thank you, Bunto-san." He turned big, pleading eyes back to Hikaru.

"I won't mention it!" she promised. "Your swordplay is absolutely the last thing I would ever talk to your Master about, and he knows it. He won't ask me, and he won't hear it from me."

That was all Kenshin needed. His sunny disposition came back at once, and he skipped beside her, holding her hand tightly.

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

She told Toshiro all about the brawl that evening, after Kenshin had once again gone to sleep in her lap. She put him to bed and walked with Toshiro in the garden, arm in arm, seeking his calm understanding to put her own mind at some ease.

Nor did he disappoint her. "Most men who take up the sword begin at a very early age," he told her. "The only surprising thing is that Kenshin is already good enough to impress Bunto. Hiko must be a good Master."

"But I don't want him to take up the sword," she said, and then abruptly laughed. "Listen to how petulant I sound. As if my wants mean anything."

"They will if you can convince Hiko to let us adopt the boy."

"You still want to do that?"

"Have you ever known me to change my mind, once a decision has been made?"

"No," she smiled.

"If he does, the boy doesn't need to be a potter, although that, of course, would be ideal. But whatever he makes of his life, it won't happen with a sword. You know how I feel about them."

She nodded. "I wish I felt more hope that Seijuro will let him go. I have none, not really."

"Still, you must try or you will never rest in your heart. Do your best, and if you fail, then it is because the sword is Kenshin's fate." She shuddered, and he put an arm around her and said, "Never forget, love, what he said to you about his reason for getting into that fight. He only wanted to help, and to help a stranger, someone who meant nothing to him. Neither of us can claim to be so noble."

"You can."

"You think the best of me. The boy has a good heart. No matter what happens, that won't change."

After a moment, she said, "So you think I was a silly woman today, don't you?"

"I would never think such a thing," he smiled.

"We'd better get back. Kenshin might be having a nightmare."

But when they came to their bedroom and she knelt over Kenshin, he was sleeping peacefully, sprawled out all over the bed, and he didn't wake up even when she folded his limbs enough to make room for herself and Toshiro, and they encircled him as they had the night before. He slept as he should, soundly, like a child, with a clear conscience.

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

Their departure the next day was delayed because Hikaru didn't take goodbyes into account. Kenshin had made many new friends in the short time he'd been there, and he went to each one of them to bid them farewell. When he finally joined her, he was grinning ear to ear and ruffled from so many hugs. "Everyone is so nice here. They all say they want me to come back."

"They mean it. They like you."

He had just noticed the little cart beside her. "What is all that?"

"The things we bought for you in Kyoto."

"All of it?" She smiled and nodded, and he said ruefully, "Master will say you're spoiling me."

"Master will be made to see that you need more than he's willing to provide," she scowled, and he laughed. "Besides, a full quarter of it is taken up with that jug of sake for him. He'd better like it."

"He will. It's good."

"You've been drinking sake?"

"No. Master says I'm not worthy of that yet. But I've seen him drink sake with that label before, and he likes it. I'll pull the cart, Hikaru-san."

"No you won't. Not yet, anyway. Eiji will follow us and pull it as far as the bench. After that, you and I will pull it up the rest of the way together." This was the moment she'd dreaded. Once she turned away from the house, she would be taking him back to Seijuro.

After a moment, Kenshin said her name inquiringly. She tried a smile. "I was just thinking."

He slipped his hand into hers, staring up at her earnestly. "I don't want to leave either," he said. "But Master will miss me."

She was determined not to put him through the ordeal of seeing her cry. She said briskly, "He won't for a while yet. We'll have a picnic at the bench, in that little meadow where all the wildflowers bloom." Anything that would delay their separation. She recognized the desperation in herself, but all she could do was accept it and force herself to fulfill her promise to Seijuro to get Kenshin back by the afternoon.

Seijuro was already there when they arrived, and his brows climbed almost to his hairline when he saw the cart. After a brief greeting, he ordered Kenshin to put everything away, and while Kenshin pulled the cart toward the cottage, he turned a sardonic look at her and said, "I thought you promised not to spoil him."

"Buying him warm clothes and blankets for the winter is not spoiling him."

From where they were standing, they saw Kenshin reach into the cart, pull out a red and silver pinwheel, and hold it up for the breeze to spin it. Seijuro said, "Warm clothes, huh?"

She laughed. "All right, and a few other things. Blame me, not him."

"I am in no doubt about where to lay the blame. I hoped for better, but expected this, because I know you, and I know when you are listening to me and when you are only pretending to listen to me so that you can get what you want."

"He needs to be a child once in a while."

"I won't take any of it away from him, don't worry."

She smiled. "I know you won't. Seijuro… can we go inside and talk for a little? Away from Kenshin."

He frowned at her a moment, studying her face. Then he barked over his shoulder, "Kenshin! Did you practice while at Madame Kimiyama's?"

"Uh…"

"I didn't think so. When you finish putting all that away, start on the strength exercise I taught you last week, and alternate it with the bird-wing exercise. If you remember how to do it."

"Master! I've only been gone two days."

"And you have two days of work to make up. Two hundred of each."

"Yes, Master," Kenshin grumbled.

He turned back to Hikaru. "That will keep him busy long enough."

"Two hundred?!?"

"It's not that difficult. He's not a baby, Hikaru."

She shut up. She didn't want to irritate him.

He helped her make tea while Kenshin put away his new things in the house. When Kenshin was safely out of earshot again, she said, "You look tired, Seijuro."

"I am. I've done a lot of walking lately. But you had something to talk to me about, didn't you? Besides my less-than-satisfactory appearance."

"I wanted to ask you for something." When he lifted a brow, she said bluntly, "Would you think about allowing Toshiro and me to adopt Kenshin?"

"No."

"No? Just like that, no? Without even considering it?"

"I have considered it. I told you, I've done a lot of walking in the past two days. Therefore, I had a lot of time to think. It doesn't take a genius of my stature to reason out the inevitable result of allowing you full charge of Kenshin for two days. Knowing you as I do, I anticipated that particular question long ago. I'm not so familiar with Kimiyama, so I wasn't sure he would agree to it, but a little pondering gave me the answer to that, as well. You actually talked him into adopting Kenshin, rather than just making him an apprentice in the shop? I thought you might, but that was in a little doubt."

"It was his idea."

His lips curved. "No man in love with you is blessed with his own ideas when it comes to something you want."

"You are," she snapped.

"I have more strength of will than most men. Or perhaps the difference is that I'm more accustomed to thinking for myself."

"Why say no? It's what would be best for Kenshin."

"It is not. What would you make of him? A potter?"

"If he has the aptitude. If not, whatever he wanted to be."

"And if he wanted to be a swordsman?"

"He doesn't realize yet that he isn't becoming just a swordsman, but also a killer."

Seijuro frowned. "I would never keep the nature of the sword from my own apprentice. He knows that its only purpose is to kill men. He is young, and he hasn't taken a life yet, but he would have, the day I met him, if he'd had the strength. He is not working in ignorance here, or even in innocence."

"But he was desperate on that day. This way of life isn't right for him. He's gentle, sweet. He's not a murderer."

His expression darkened. "Is that what you think I am? Is that what you think I'm teaching him – just to murder?"

She felt her face grow hot. "I'm sorry. No, of course not. But you are teaching him to kill. Surely that's not a good life for him."

He set down his teacup. "You know, I haven't decided yet if you're just blind, or incredibly selfish, or both."

"Selfish?"

"You want Kenshin because you want him. You've adorned your desire with the excuse of it being what's best for him, but under that fine sentiment is simply a desire to possess him. I don't blame you," he added gently. "I understand. But I won't allow you to believe your truth is the only truth."

"How can learning to kill be better for him than what Toshiro and I can offer?"

"Hikaru, you are thinking only of Kenshin the child. I see Kenshin as both the child he is and the adult he will become. I want him to realize his true potential. Look out there. Look at him."

She looked through the open door, where Kenshin was doing some kind of intricate maneuver with a staff, over his shoulders and head, ending with the staff held directly out in front of him. Seijuro said, "I know you don't realize what you're seeing, so let me explain. I told you about the day I found him. I told you then that I'd never seen a boy with more courage and determination. He set himself a task that was practically impossible, and he kept at it until it was done. His strength of will rivals that of anyone I know, except my own. And his talent and ability to learn are incredible. If he were larger and heavier, as I was when I was his age, he would already have surpassed even me at this stage of his training." His eyes had been on Kenshin through this, but now came back to her. "You know, if I were ever going to give credence to your ideas about fate and destiny, the strongest evidence in all my experience would be that I found Kenshin as I did."

"You think it's his destiny to fight, just because he's good at it? He's good at cleaning house, too!"

"That's not the only reason. Don't forget, that day I returned to find him again, he'd buried the bandits and the slavers as well as his three friends. He has a pure heart, one that harbors no anger and gives ground to no hatred. Do you have any idea how rare that is? The Hiten Mitsurugi style demands a heart that cannot be corrupted. I had to learn that the hard way. Kenshin already knows it, even if he isn't yet aware of his own knowledge. Despite everything that's happened to him, there is nothing evil in him that I must drive out and confront. All I have to do is to nurture him and educate him on how the rest of the world will attempt to corrupt him, so that he has the mental and emotional weapons to fight it, just as he will have the sword arm to fight injustice."

"I'm not the only selfish one in this room. You want your very apt apprentice as much as I want a little boy."

"Yes, that's true," he conceded. "It's unlikely that I will ever find another apprentice like Kenshin. In fact, I very much doubt that I will ever need to find another. Even in this early stage of his training, I'm sure that he has all he needs to eventually master the succession technique. It will be easier for him when he's grown bigger…"

"He won't, though." When he frowned questioningly at her, she said, "Seijuro, you know swords. But I know children. I would only have to look at you to realize that the Hiten Mitsurugi style requires great strength and size, even if I hadn't watched you grow ever more strong through the years. But Kenshin is not going to catch up."

"With proper nutrition and the training, he may."

She shook her head. "It is already too late. He may grow strong – indeed, he already is – but he will never be tall. Nor will he ever be as massive as you are. It's simply not in him. I don't think he would ever have been a large man, but I suspect his years in slavery made things worse."

She hoped that would discourage Seijuro from wishing to keep him. She should have known better. He said, "Hm. Then I will have to find techniques to help him turn his size into a benefit rather than a handicap. It will take some study, since naturally I have no experience there, but finding a way to accomplish it won't be beyond my powers. My own Master said there was always something in an apprentice that you have to work around. I was too slow. Kenshin is too small. But the Hiten Mitsurugi can be adapted, and it shouldn't be too difficult for me to find ways to use Kenshin's size to his advantage." At her expression, he smiled faintly. "Not the answer you wanted, was it?"

"Why don't we ask Kenshin what he wants? Let him make the choice."

"No."

"Are you afraid he'd choose me, and a peaceful life?"

"No, Hikaru. If I believed him old enough to make the choice, I'd allow it. But I won't put that burden on 9-year-old shoulders. That would be cruel. You would be asking him to reject either the Master to whom he owes so much, or you, whom he loves. How can a child make that decision? That's why children have parents, and it's the parents' responsibility. I took responsibility for Kenshin when I took him as an apprentice, and I stand in for his parents now. My own Master made the choice for me when I was 15, between you and the Hiten Mitsurugi. At the time, I hated him for it, but time has made me see his wisdom."

That hurt. "You think he made the right choice for you, then?" she asked quietly.

"I'll never know the answer to that, Hikaru. I only know that having to make the choice myself would have been harmful to all of us. And to me most of all, as it would be now for Kenshin, because not only was I incapable of making a rational decision under the circumstances, but my heart would have been broken by having to choose to separate from one of you. My Master was hard, but he was also right."

"I didn't think so at the time. I thought he was cruel and selfish. I'm not so sure I've changed my mind about that." She wasn't being exactly truthful – she had understood, even then – but she was hurt and wanted to strike back.

As usual, his calm remained unruffled. "That's because you don't understand that the purpose of the Hiten Mitsurugi style is not to gain power or glory. If such were the case, I would have no argument with you. But its purpose is not personal. It is meant to save others in times of trouble and rescue them from suffering, a sword placed between the defenseless and those who would prey on them. And it has never been more needed than now, when the land is being ravaged by human wolves. My Master not only saw the suffering around him, he also knew that it would worsen as the years passed. When he was an apprentice, he told me, one man could make a difference. Now," he said bitterly, "one man can only pile pebbles against a flood. But better to do that, better to fight one small and insignificant battle at a time, than to give over the land completely to tyrants who would soak it in innocent blood."

"There are other ways to fight injustice."

"Those ways can be followed by men who have no aptitude for the sword, and on a different battleground. Your own husband is proof of that. But there are many evil men in this world, and almost every one of them carries a sword. A sword can only be stopped by another sword. So while the lawyers and philanthropists talk, and while the revolutionaries plot, I go out and save who I can. And I will teach Kenshin to do the same. You don't want him to kill, Hikaru, but, for every life he takes, he will save five, or fifty, or even five hundred, all of them more worthy to live than the scum he will slay."

I can't walk past someone who is in trouble, if I can help them. Whether Kenshin had been born with those principles, or he'd taken them from Seijuro, he believed them completely, and he would follow them into whatever hell Seijuro pointed him toward. Her heart ached. "Seijuro, I haven't known you all this time without understanding that much about the Hiten Mitsurugi. But you are a different man than Kenshin will ever be. Killing others, even evil men, will harm his soul."

"Killing harms every man's soul. Even mine. But Kenshin's spirit is strong, and the good that he does will mend the damage. Yes, killing is not as good for him, Kenshin, the person, as pottery would be. But he has an amazing gift which can work great things for the good of this country and the innocent people in it, and that gift should not be squandered. I don't want him to be unhappy. I'll do the best I can, in my training of him, to prevent it. But I won't doom countless others to pain, slavery and death for a woman's softness."

"So Kenshin is to be a sacrifice to the people of Japan."

"As am I."

She sat for a long time, silent, eyes downcast, unable to muster an argument against him, yet unable to accept his answer. The unknown masses had never meant anything to her. She loved those within her own sphere, as best she could. That Seijuro had given so much of himself to people who knew nothing of him and would soon forget him had always humbled her, but she'd never truly understood it. She also couldn't fight it. The principles were sound, and they were good. It was the reality she kept stumbling over, the reality of the boy she'd held.

Finally she surrendered. With a tiny gesture of her hands, she said, "I suppose, after this, you'll never let me keep him overnight again."

"You can have him the next time he starts up the nightmares," he growled irritably. When she looked up at him, surprised, he said, "An occasional visit can't harm him and may do him good. And I know I can trust you not to turn him against me. In that, you are a most exceptional woman."

"Sometimes I wish I weren't." She sighed. "You know I'll ask you this again."

"Don't. My answer won't change. One of my primary responsibilities as a Hiten Mitsurugi Master is to train an appropriate apprentice to take my place some day. It's both a debt of honor and a debt to my own Master. I would really prefer not to have this discussion with you again. I don't like hurting you."

"You're expecting me to abandon my hopes for Kenshin's future happiness to spare you pain?"

"Kenshin's future happiness is not and never was in your hands. I'm expecting you to assimilate that fact and stop sitting in my home, with that expression on your face, asking the impossible of me."

She stared down at her clenched fists in her lap. How much she wished, at that moment, that she was not the woman he believed her to be. She could never turn Kenshin against him – that sort of ingratitude was not in Kenshin's nature – but she could lure him away from Seijuro. The right words, the right promises, would do it, and he'd never have to know the pain of killing. However, if she did it, Seijuro would never forgive her. She would have Kenshin, but lose Seijuro.

The most terrible thing was that the decision, although difficult to face, was easy for her to make.

She went out, made sure to give Kenshin a long hug goodbye, to show him a cheerful face, and to promise him that he could visit again some time. But she found a way to refuse his company back down the path to the bench. Between now and then, she knew, her numb heart would awaken to what she'd done to it, and she didn't want Kenshin or anyone else near her when it happened.


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