Leaving

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This scene takes place shortly after Kenshin leaves his Master to fight in the Revolution. It's one of the few times she and Hiko have a major argument. Just as a side note, I think Toshiro Kimiyama, Hikaru's second husband, is a bit of a saint - it doesn't come out in the story, but he really dislikes Hiko personally and is jealous of him besides, yet he remains a perfect gentleman.

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The Kyoto home of Kimiyama Toshiro was actually four worlds. To the front, facing onto the street, was the first world, the pottery shop, bustling with business, supervised by three clerks. Attached to it on the north side were Master Kimiyama's workshops, famed far beyond Kyoto, both for the pottery and for the artists which came from there.

Behind the shop stretched the second world, the gardens of Madame Kimiyama. Now somnolent under the snow, in the other seasons they were peacefully green, with natural stone walks leading through bursts of colorful flowers, to delicate bridges over ponds in which lilies floated and enormous fish flashed gold and orange as flame, or to quiet nooks where painted benches waited amid the soft sound of chimes and where small ivory and jade figurines hid amongst the leaves and branches, secretly offering peace, wisdom, and luck to the visitor. Even in the winter, however, the grace and balance of the architecture was pleasant to the eyes. The gardens were bordered by the river on one side and were enclosed on the other three sides by the shop and by the Kimiyama home with the other buildings that belonged to it, all surrounded by a stockade fence.

The third world was the home itself, the rice paper walls allowing as much light as possible within, and all its rooms arranged and decorated according to Madame Kimiyama's will, in beauty and order and harmony. At some distance from the main house was the fourth world, to which the noise of the household was banished and where the servants cooked and did laundry and all other such tasks.

Here, at the moment, stood the Madame herself, Hikaru Kimiyama, like an exotic orchid amongst weeds, tall and slim and straight in her flowered kimono and padded silk haori, handing out her orders for the day before leaving on an errand. The servants loved her but were in awe of her and scuttled about their duties with eyes lowered, even the trusted maid who stood behind her, holding her basket, fan and parasol ready. Her husband, however, although he also loved her, stood in no awe of her at all. A dignified, slender man with a square face, he was frowning heavily as he approached her. "I still think I should come with you."

She took the basket and parasol, dismissing the maid with a smile and a single look. Then she turned back to her husband. "You know that you dislike Seijuro. You would be away from the shop at the busiest time of the day, so you would fidget and fret, and Seijuro would say something cutting to you, and between the two of you, you would make me miserable," she complained, gently teasing.

"At least I would be sure you would come back safely. Take Bunto with you. You know as well as anyone what is going on in this city. What else do you go to gossip with your friend about? It is not safe out there, even for you."

"It is still safe enough," she said, suddenly melancholy. "For now. But soon that will end. And so will my pleasant little 'gossips', as you call them."

"He could come down off his mountain and see you here," grumbled her husband. "Nobody is going to attack him."

"He could, and perhaps he will, one day. But for now," she smiled at him again, "you see too far ahead. You are seeing the darkness of the future and forgetting that the sun shines today. Don't fear for me. Nobody is going to attack me. Your name protects me yet. However, if it will make you more contented, I will take Bunto with me."

"Give me a moment to arm him, then."

"Toshiro! In ten minutes I will be on the mountain and out of any possible danger."

"Unless you are followed."

"If I am followed, I will turn around at once and return home."

She arranged the basket on her arm, tucked the fan into her obi, and unfurled the parasol. Even this late in the year, she protected her complexion, and the thin winter sun through the paper cast a silvery glow about her head. Her husband stroked her cheek once, both an affectionate and a comforting gesture, and said, "If this weren't about the boy, I'd be more adamant. This could all be for nothing, you know. It may not even be him."

"I know, my dear. But you don't think so, do you?"

Kimiyama grimaced ruefully. "I can't see how there could be two such boys, with red hair and a swordsmanship that is... how did Bunto say they were putting it?"

"Like a demon's. No, I don't see how there could be two. But I must know for certain. The idea that Seijuro would release him at this point in his training seems equally ridiculous." She held out a hand to her husband. "I promise to be careful, and I won't be gone long."

Twenty minutes later, she was far from the bustle of the shop and town, in the deep shadows where tree-tops canopied the path up the mountainside. She walked swiftly, even while protecting her hem from the wet ground, for her appearance of fragility was just that, an appearance. She had no trouble keeping up with Bunto, who paced light-footed and alert as a cat before her, taking his bodyguard duty seriously. Bunto was not a city man, but an ex-soldier and once a famed swordsman, until a fight cost him his right arm below the elbow. He was a reclamation project of her husband (something which could also be said of herself), and his usefulness had exceeded even Toshiro's expectations. Through Bunto and his many friends and contacts, her husband was able to keep his fingers on the pulse of the military situation in Kyoto, which was vital during this time in which, as Toshiro often said, "You can't make a friend without also making an enemy."

Bunto, it was, who had brought them the rumor of a new recruit to the Ishin Shishi, a boy with crimson hair who could slice through anything with his sword, so swiftly that the eye could not follow the movement. Bunto hadn't yet seen this phenomenon to confirm the rumor, but he believed it was Seijuro's young apprentice. Hikaru hoped he was mistaken and knew that he wasn't. She trusted Bunto's instincts, but she also couldn't picture the Kenshin she knew, selling his sword in that way. The very possibility hurt her, and she desperately wanted to see him on the mountain, as she always did when she visited Seijuro.

She had been part of Kenshin's life – and he a part of hers – since the day Seijuro had taken him as an apprentice. The day before that, Seijuro had surprised her by telling her of the slaughter of the slaves, slave-traders, and bandits, and the survival of the single little boy. Swords and blood were things he rarely discussed with her, so she knew there must be something important about it. Then he'd astonished her again by saying grouchily, "I suppose I should make sure that boy is all right." Understanding then, she'd quietly agreed it would be a kindness and said no more.

She came back to the mountain the next morning expecting to hear that the boy was dead and to find Seijuro in a truly foul mood. Instead, she discovered the boy himself, curled up sleeping on the floor just inside the door of the cottage. When he'd wakened at the door opening, yawned, and looked up at her with the shy smile that began so sweetly in his lavender eyes, she'd promptly lost her heart to him.

She was able to get Seijuro to give the boy a bed, at least, but beyond that, she had to work hard to give Kenshin anything else out of her love. Seijuro hadn't adopted him, but taken him as an apprentice, and what he meant by "apprentice" was nothing like what Toshiro meant by the word. Seijuro saw the boy as a swordsman in training, and he wouldn't allow her to bring him gifts or sweets, or to kiss him or hold him. "You'll make him soft," he pointed out. "You're a distraction as well. How am I going to train him if you keep treating him like a child?"

She did point out that Kenshin was a child, but of course that had been useless, a waste of her breath. As soon as she realized this, she agreed with Seijuro, calmly, and thereby forestalled him from ordering her not to come around at all. After that, she treated Kenshin like a child in any and every way that Seijuro had not expressly forbidden. She carefully included him in all the meals and rituals with herself and Seijuro, as if they were a family; she sang to him as he helped her with the housework; she couldn't touch him, but she kissed him with her smiles and caressed him with her eyes; and she brought him gifts that Seijuro would not dislike, such as books or a new pair of boots. And on those few occasions that Seijuro let Kenshin stay with her in Kyoto, she shamelessly spoiled him.

Kenshin, always a clever child, fell in with the game as well. He also invented her favorite ritual between them – whenever he saw her approaching up the path, he would run to meet her, giving her that wonderful wide smile where Seijuro couldn't see him doing it, and then he would take her hand as if he needed to help her, politely, over the non-existent rough spots in the path. With every passing week, the small hand in hers grew harder and stronger, and Kenshin grew taller and more straight, and eventually the tragic shadow even left his eyes. Whatever she thought of Seijuro's methods – and she kept her opinion strictly to herself – there was no denying that he and Kenshin were good for each other.

So until she left Bunto behind and walked on to that special place in the path, and there was no Kenshin to greet her, she stupidly hoped she was wrong. Even then, with her heart feeling as if it were clutched in a cold fist, she went first to the waterfall, thinking perhaps she would find them working, as she sometimes did. Before she was in sight of it, she knew they weren't there, for no sound reached her except that of falling water. No clash of steel, no barks of irritability from Seijuro, no fierce high yells from Kenshin... just the roar of the falls. Panic touched her, and she turned and raced for the cottage. Only when she reached the yard did her common sense return. She halted, regained her dignity, smoothed her kimono, caught her breath, and calmed herself before going into the cottage.

Seijuro was there alone, seated at the table, drinking sake. He looked up at her with an expression that would have frightened a lesser woman away, but all he said was, "What have you been doing?"

She took off and hung her haori and fetched her own sake bowl from the shelf. "Why do you ask?"

"You're flushed. And your breathing is too quick. As if you were running. Which is something you never do, isn't it?"

His perception was frustrating, but she wouldn't let him see that. "I was, just a little." She didn't explain further, but sat opposite him, poured for herself and for him, and then said, "Seijuro, where is Kenshin?"

He growled, "I don't know. Getting into trouble, I suppose."

She set the bowl down without drinking. "Then it's true? He's gone?"

"I see. That question was more in the nature of a strategic attack than a desire for information."

She was not at all deceived by his mild tone. "Is he gone? I've heard rumors..."

"I am not interested in rumors," he interrupted rudely. "Especially not about Kenshin."

"Rumors are all I have. But Bunto brought them to us, and you know he can be trusted. He says a red-haired boy with an incredible sword technique has joined with the Ishin Group."

Seijuro grunted and took another long sip of sake. "So. Is that where he went? Not that it matters which of those detestable factions he joined. The result is the same."

For a long moment she sat perfectly still, not breathing. Even her heart seemed to have stopped, and her chest felt as if it were being crushed. It was true, then. Impossible, yet true. Finally her lips moved, and in a voice which actually sounded almost normal, she said, "What happened? Why did he leave?"

He grunted again, and for a moment she thought he might not tell her. But he did. "My stupid apprentice has seen the ills and injustices of the world and decided that he not only wants to right them, but that he can."

"He's very young," she said, responding more to his tone than his words, "and ardent, and compassionate. That's only natural. And the very principles you've taught him would feed his desire to help."

She wished that last sentence back immediately as it left her lips, for it made him even more angry. "His understanding of those Hiten Mitsurugi principles is as incomplete as his training and as imperfect as his childish mind. I would not expect to hear anything so stupid from you! But where Kenshin is concerned, you have always been half-blind. Yes, he comprehends that the sword lifted in the name of Hiten Mitsurugi is to be used in defense of the helpless. He understands that only too well. But that is where his knowledge stops. No matter how often I have tried to explain it to him, he has never grasped how that sword is to be wielded. He's an idiot, and worse, a dangerous idiot. He has learned how to feel, but not how to think. Unregulated compassion is as bad as untamed passion. He cannot decide the best way for himself, so, in the moronic belief he is doing the best for the most people, he will allow himself and the skills I taught him to become nothing more than a tool in the hands of greedy, evil men."

"You've got to get him back."

"I can't get him back. He has left my hands. Do you think I didn't try to stop him? Do you think I didn't reason with him? I told him that if he left here, he would become nothing more than a murderer," he said flatly. "I told him that the Hiten Mitsurugi style could only be used for good if it is used by someone with loyalties to no man or cause, to nothing, in fact, but the Hiten Mitsurugi principles themselves. But he was too busy listening to his own eloquence to listen to me. He kept spouting drivel about the suffering of the peasants going on right now, as if that were something new in the world, a sudden plague to be stamped out at once, rather than a natural condition of mankind."

"He's only 14 years old, Seijuro. And a young 14, at that."

"For which you are partially to blame."

She felt the heat rising in her face, but she held her tongue. When she was able to master her voice again, she asked, "What did he say when you forbid him to leave? I can't imagine him disobeying you like that."

"I didn't forbid him to go. I told him to make his own decision. Which he did, the fool."

"You didn't forbid him to go?"

"Are you slow-witted today? That's what I just said."

"I am not slow-witted, I simply can't believe what I heard. Why didn't you forbid him?"

"Because it would have been useless."

"But if you had, he would still be here, and not with the Ishin!"

"He would be here now, but perhaps not tomorrow or the next day. You didn't see or hear him, Hikaru. He's burning with zeal. He shouted at me that it was my understanding that was at fault, my compassion that was lacking, my eyes that were blind. He heard nothing I said to him. Had I kept him here with a command, he would have been useless, resenting every moment, learning nothing."

"But he would still be here! He would be safe. Can't you see what will happen to him?"

Even knowing Seijuro as she did, she was dismayed by the dispassionate reply. "If he is lucky, he will be killed, and very soon."

Her lips opened, but nothing came out. She tried again. "Yes. Lucky. It would be better for him to be killed than to kill."

Seijuro nodded. "But I doubt that will happen. He's learned enough from me already so that, unless he is even more abysmally stupid than I believe, no one in this coming chaos will be able to stand against him. He will remember his sword skill and forget his principles, and he will twist what I have taught him into something vile."

"Will you forget, just once, about your precious Hiten Mitsurugi principles? What about Kenshin? Can't you see what will happen to him? It has already begun. He..."

"Unlike my apprentice, I am not a fool," he bit over her words. "He has put himself into the hands of men who will use him to kill their enemies. Not the enemies of peace or mercy, but their enemies. They'll convince him their cause is just and their tactics necessary, naturally, but some day, when the blood of his victims reaches as high, perhaps, as his eyes, those eyes will open fully and he will see how his hands are stained with the murders of men who were innocent of anything except being on the opposite side of this senseless conflict."

"And after? When he does see what he has allowed himself to become? What then?"

He considered that a moment. "Then he will probably kill himself. Or allow himself to be killed."

"You realize this? You know what torment he will go through, when he finally sees what he has become, and you sit here calmly drinking sake?"

"What do you want me to do, go down there, grab him by the hair, and drag him back?"

"Yes, if that's what is needed."

"Then he would turn right around as soon as my hand opened, and run back to his new masters. You still see him as a little boy, and I see him as an idiot, but he sees himself as a man grown and ready to make his own decisions. I could talk to him until this mountain crumbled to dust beneath our feet, and I couldn't change that. Even I don't have so much eloquence that I can be heard by ears determined to listen to no voice but their own."

"You could have said the one thing that would have saved him. You could have said No. You could have ordered him to stay here and complete his training. He would have obeyed. Yes, he would be resentful and learn nothing, but eventually he would understand and accept that you were right. Perhaps it would have taken him years, but at least he would still be here, and alive, and not faced with a horrible death or a future of torment!"

He made a disgusted sound. "For six years I have been explaining it to you, and for six years you have not listened. You're as bad as he is. You are not his mother, and I am not his father, I am his Master. Why should I force him to stay here when I can teach him nothing?"

"To protect him! To save him!"

"No man can be protected against himself. You have a woman's weakness, to believe that wrapping loving arms around Kenshin can keep him from the harm which he is so determined to do to himself. That is a pleasant fallacy. Even if you locked him in your husband's storeroom until this conflict is over, you would only have saved his body. He would emerge just as ignorant as when he went in, and he would go forth and render your efforts worthless by finding another cause to burn for, another master to direct his sword. I didn't throw him out. He chose to give up his training. Nothing I could do or say would change that decision. And nothing you could do would save him from the consequences of that decision."

"I don't believe you. I don't accept that. We aren't talking about just anyone, we're talking about Kenshin. You're always telling me what a genius you are. Surely you could have said something, done something, to stop him!"

"You keep arguing in circles. I told you, his mind was made up, and according to his own firmly held beliefs, he thinks he actually has a mind. Nothing would have been gained by delaying the inevitable. His own nature leads him to his destruction, not something that I did or failed to do. Stop shouting at me. You're starting to sound like him. And don't you dare start to cry," he barked.

She rose in one swift, furious movement and whirled away from him, staring blindly at the wall. "Oh, Kenshin," she whispered, and her voice was that of a woman already mourning one dead. "Seijuro, you should have stopped him. All your words and principles don't change that. You chose to let him go out to destroy his soul."

"Don't be more of a silly woman than you already have been. Stop your dramatics. Drink your sake."

Coldly, she said, "I will never drink sake with you again until Kenshin returns."

"Then you had better bring tea with you when next you come, because that will most likely never happen."

"No. You're right, it probably won't. He's gone." At that moment, the only thing that kept her from leaving Seijuro at once, in anger, perhaps never to return, was the knowledge that he, too, could clearly see ahead to the poisoning of Kenshin's heart and soul, and that he suffered just as she did. He would never admit it, even to himself. But she loved him, and even now she could see the pain in him. However, there was one major difference between them. She'd had no choice about Kenshin's leaving, whereas Seijuro had a way to prevent it, and had not done so. She would have to work hard to forgive him for that. And now she looked forward to a future that was even more dark and grim. The coming conflict had invaded even the peace of Seijuro's retreat.

Oh, Kenshin, my sweet child. You are lost. She suddenly couldn't bear to be here, where every corner reminded her of Kenshin's smile, his bright hair and eyes, his sweet and eager courtesy. She straightened and wiped the tears from her cheeks with one swift, decisive movement, then took her haori from the hook. Without turning again to look at him, she said, "You have broken my heart, Seijuro. Worse, you have broken your own. You just haven't realized it yet." With that, she walked out the door, and she didn't see or speak to him again until, months later, the suppressed, secretive, nighttime violence of the coming revolution burst out into the daytime of true warfare.

Nor did she drink sake with him again for fifteen more years.


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