Meeting

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This is how Hikaru and Kenshin first met. I never planned to actually write this story, but somehow it just came out anyway.

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"Hikaru?" Toshiro Kimiyama set his teacup down and stared at his wife. "You're going out? This early? The sun's barely up."

Hikaru laughed. She understood his bafflement. Rising early was something she almost never did. "Seijuro said he was on his way to look for that little boy, yesterday," she explained. "I want to see if he found him. I won't rest well until I know."

He nodded his understanding. "If he did, bring the child back here. I know we can find a home for him. If he hasn't made other arrangements already, that is."

By "he" in that last sentence, she knew he meant Seijuro, not the little boy. Toshiro avoided saying Seijuro's name whenever possible. "I was going to. I knew you wouldn't mind." She frowned. "I just hope he found him. I still can't believe he left that child there, alone. He explained it to us, but I still can't believe it." She saw Toshiro hide a smile, and her expression cleared. "I'm glad you didn't laugh at him to his face!"

"I wouldn't dare. But it was amusing to see you raking him down like a poorly-behaved servant."

"I shouldn't have lost my temper," she sighed. "I know the boy was only a short walk from a village. I know Seijuro probably saved many lives that might have been lost if he'd delayed. But I don't care, I simply can't understand leaving a little child on a battlefield, alone, in the dark. That's... barbaric."

"He is a barbarian in many ways," Toshiro said.

"Not really. But he definitely doesn't measure things on the same scale that we do." She shook her head. The Hiten Mitsurugi principles sounded well in theory, but a man had to be strong to follow them. They emphasized humanity over humans, and she simply couldn't comprehend how anyone could count humans as if they were radishes and decide that four strangers were better to be saved in a few hours than a little child looking up at you, needing your help right then. "At least he started looking for the boy as soon as he got back."

"Probably only to please you."

"No, it was his own idea, oddly enough. I think he felt it was an obligation. And he isn't completely heartless." She bent and kissed her husband over his breakfast. "I'll be back in a few hours."

She took one of the menservants with her, because she wanted to get up the mountain quickly, and she could too easily outpace her maids. Leaving the man in the usual place, she continued just as quickly for the remaining distance, despite the steep climb. She was becoming concerned. She could see no smoke, smell no breakfast cooking. Either Seijuro was still out looking, or he'd slept very late, and either one might mean he'd been unsuccessful.

She saw him, however, as she entered the clearing. Only the back of him, for he was heading for the well to wash up, towels flung over one shoulder. She bit her lip. He didn't find him. I just know it. Bracing herself for a painful disappointment, she didn't call out to him, but instead went to the house. He would need consoling, and that would best be started with a solid breakfast, which she could have begun for him by the time he returned. Keeping busy would keep her from worrying about that child's fate.

When she opened the door, she thought for a moment that Seijuro must have been too exhausted to walk the night before, because it looked as if he'd dropped a bundle of rags on the floor. Then she realized she was looking at a pile of blankets made into a makeshift bed, wrapped around a small figure topped with a mass of brilliantly flame-colored hair. The boy. Seijuro had found him and had brought him home.

She put fingertips to her lips, trying to contain her joy so that she didn't say something and wake him. But the very act of opening the door and letting in the sunshine had done that. The boy stirred and moaned, turned over, opened one eye, and looked at her uncomprehendingly. Then he blinked, realizing he had company, and struggled out of the blankets and to his feet. The red hair wasn't the only unusual thing about his coloring, she saw. The eyes he was sleepily rubbing with one hand, as he impatiently pushed away the clinging blankets with the other, were a clear and beautiful lavender.

She was so surprised, she sat down there on the step. She'd been expecting a rough, sturdy peasant's boy, not this exquisitely delicate child with his heart-shaped face and eyes that studied her with such solemn sweetness as he bowed. He was so small that, even when she was sitting, he was barely taller than she. He couldn't be more than six years old, if that. How could Seijuro have just left him?

He tucked his chin and peered up at her through long lashes, respectfully waiting for her to speak first. She got her breath back somehow. "Hello. I'm Hikaru. What is your name?"

Still charmingly solemn, he informed her, "My name was Shinta, but it is now Kenshin, Hikaru-san."

She refrained from smiling at him and matched his gravity. "Why did you change it?"

"I didn't. Master Hiko did."

She should have known. But why would he do such a thing?

"Are you Master Hiko's wife?" he asked, hunching his shoulders a little.

She wondered what made him do that, as if he expected a blow. But she gave him her warmest smile. "No, just a good friend. And I'll be your friend, too, if you wish."

He considered it a moment. Then, making up his mind, he smiled at her, a clear and innocent smile which first lit the incredible eyes and then curved his mouth. "I'd like that, if Master Hiko permits."

"Master Hiko will permit anything I ask," she promised rashly. At that moment, had Kenshin wanted the moon, she would have plucked it from the sky and handed it to him. She had always loved children, but there was something special about this child that reached right into her heart.

His smile had faded, and his expression changed. She couldn't quite read it, but it worried her. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

He lowered his eyes at once. "I'm sorry, Hikaru-san. I didn't mean to be rude."

"No, it's all right, I'm not offended. But what's wrong?"

After a second, he said, "You remind me of my friends."

"Which friends?"

"Kasumi-san, Akane-san and Sakura-san."

Maybe he did have a home to which they could return him. "Where are they, these friends of yours?"

"They are dead now." He spoke it in a soft monotone of dulled acceptance.

The pity which flooded her was so strong it hurt, but she kept her voice even. "I am so sorry. They were with you when you were attacked?"

He nodded. "I tried to protect them, but I couldn't."

She struggled for words. Nothing in her life had ever prepared her for something like this. Finally she just said, "I'll be your friend now, Kenshin. And Master Hiko will protect you."

He looked up again, and she thought, No child should ever have to see what he's seen. She couldn't bear what was in his eyes. Instead, she opened her arms and reached for him, and when he came to her, she pulled him into her lap and held him, rocked him, wrapped herself around him as if she could somehow drive out the bad things with her own feelings. She wished he would cry, and give her a chance to soothe him, but he didn't. He simply held onto her neck as tightly as he could, and trembled in her arms. She laid her cheek against the soft bright hair and murmured meaningless words of comfort. Not even by Seijuro had her heart ever been so pierced.

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Clean and refreshed, Hiko tied back his hair, put on his shirt, and settled the cape of the Hiten Mitsurugi Master on his shoulders, its weight a familiar and comfortable reminder of all that he was, and was not. He'd gotten little sleep the night before, his mind filled with plans, but he felt alert and alive, ready for the day. He wasn't yet 24, and already he had an apprentice.

He'd spent hours last night ransacking his memory for everything his own Master had done for him when he first apprenticed, then adjusting it all for Kenshin, who was so much smaller than he had been at that age. He'd formed plans, rejected them, formed new ones, and worked out as many problems in advance as possible. The one thing he didn't ponder was the inevitable end of this apprenticeship, if it were successful. That was many years away, it might never occur, and he had plenty to deal with right now.

The first thing would be to get Kenshin a decent meal, if he were even awake yet, which was doubtful. He'd been so tired last night that Hiko had to carry him the last two miles. If he were still sleeping, Hiko would let him continue. The boy had definitely earned it. But once he was awake and fed, they would have to go into Kyoto and get him some decent clothes and a bed. He couldn't train in the clothes the slavers had provided, and he needed a good bed to get proper rest, something which, along with proper nutrition, was vital for the training. Also, he should have a room of his own, where he could store and take care of his things without being underfoot all the time. The little storage area in the east corner could be cleaned out for that purpose. Which was yet another task. Actual training would have to begin tomorrow, it seemed.

Thinking about the onerous task of going into Kyoto for the second time this week made him think of Hikaru. He was aware that part of his satisfaction in having an apprentice was that he'd have something to keep his mind fully occupied, so he wouldn't be thinking of her so much from now on. When he'd made that rash promise to Kimiyama never to touch her, he hadn't realized how difficult it would be. Only a man of iron will such as himself could have kept such a promise. But he was already feeling the strain, after only a year, so Kenshin would be a welcome and worthy diversion. However, at all costs he had to keep Kenshin away from Hikaru until the boy's training had properly begun. A few days, at least, long enough to make him look a little less pathetic and to establish him in a routine.

He let himself in the back door quietly, and what he saw brought him to a halt with a silent but savage curse. Hikaru was already there. She was sitting on the floor, with Kenshin in her arms and her eyes closed as if against pain. She opened them and looked at him over Kenshin's red head, her expression a raw combination of sorrow and bliss. He'd never seen that expression on her face before, but he knew exactly what it meant. She'd already taken the boy into her over-generous heart. He could see trouble ahead for both of them, years of it. Nothing he could say or do was ever going to convince her that Kenshin was a young man, not a young boy. He would have to try, but he knew he was doomed to fail. What in the name of all the demons in Hell was the woman doing up and about? She was never here this early. She should still be in bed at this hour.

"Kenshin," he said quietly.

Kenshin unwound himself from Hikaru's neck and turned to look up at him. Hiko gave a mental sigh. If the boy had turned those big violet eyes on Hikaru, with that wistful, grateful smile touched with the fear still in them, it was no wonder she'd sat right there in the doorway. Impatiently, he snapped, "Hikaru, get up from the step. Kenshin, there are towels over there, and a well in the back, through that door. Go clean yourself up. All of yourself. You're filthy."

Somehow the boy knew it wasn't he who'd irritated Hiko, and he glanced anxiously at Hikaru, who, of course, hadn't moved. "Go on, Kenshin," she said serenely. "Get clean, you'll feel better."

"Yes, thank you, Hikaru-san." To Hiko, he promised, "I'll get very clean, Master," and then he trotted out as fast as his short legs would take him, snagging a towel as he passed.

Hikaru rose gracefully to her feet. Normally he would have handed her up, but his oath forbade even that. "Master?" she repeated curiously as she smoothed her kimono.

"I'm taking Kenshin as an apprentice."

Her eyes lit with pleasure. "You're going to adopt him?"

"No, Hikaru. Listen to me without jumping to conclusions. I'm taking him as an apprentice. Just as I was to my Master. He's going to learn the Hiten Mitsurugi style."

The smile faded, became a frown. "That little boy?"

"He's eight years old, the same age as when I started."

"He can't be!"

"That's what he told me, and I believe he doesn't lie."

"No, of course he doesn't," she said, quickly and fiercely enough for him to recognize Kenshin had won her over completely. He was cursed. Nothing good ever happened to him without something bad accompanying it. Hikaru said, "But surely that child doesn't want to learn to use the sword. Why would he? Oh... to avenge his family?"

"No. They weren't his family, and revenge is nowhere in his mind." He rubbed his nose, feeling the usual tension when he had to talk to Hikaru about something she didn't want to hear.

She cocked her head at him, then said, "You need some sake, and breakfast. Then you can tell me all about it."

He gave in. She was right, as usual. But he dreaded the coming meal. He knew Hikaru like he knew himself, and he could see what was coming.

Sure enough, although she got him his sake at once, she delayed breakfast until Kenshin came back, looking scrubbed and shining and, despite the shadow still in his eyes, happy. Hikaru settled him with a full bowl and chopsticks, fussing over him and stroking his hair while he beamed up at her. Then she sat opposite Hiko, and completed a nice family picture by joining their meal. Kicking her pretty little butt back down the mountain was out of the question on Kenshin's first day, when impressions meant so much, so Hiko gritted his teeth and let her have her way. She was going to pay for it without any intervention from him.

And so she did. At first, she just made cheerful small talk with Kenshin, asking him if he liked the food, what foods he liked best, and other such nonsense. Kenshin replied as best he could between mouthfuls, until Hiko finally, with great restraint, told her to just let the boy eat. Naturally, Kenshin sabotaged that by politely and truthfully saying it was all right, he liked talking to Hikaru-san. Eventually, being well trained in steering a conversation the way she wanted it, she found a way to gently bring up his dead traveling companions. "Seijuro tells me they weren't your family, however."

"No, they were slavers," Kenshin told her, innocently unaware of the effect the words would have on her. "Kasumi-san, Akane-san and Sakura-san were slaves, too."

Hiko watched Hikaru's face go pale, and his irritation evaporated. He had to resist reaching over to take her hand, to give her comfort. She loathed those who dealt in child slavery, and the very thought of it always horrified her, even in the abstract, never mind when represented by this child.

"Slavers?" she repeated, choking on the word. He was worried she would say they'd deserved their fate, which would not be a good thing for Kenshin to hear from her. But she was apparently driven speechless after that single word.

After a moment, Kenshin stopped shoveling food in his mouth long enough to realize a leaden silence had fallen. "Did I say something wrong?"

"No," Hiko said. "You told the truth. You should always do so."

Hikaru got herself collected again. "I'm sorry, dear. I was just surprised. I didn't know."

Kenshin said, "They weren't unkind. I'm sorry they're dead." When her expression didn't lighten, the anxious look came back to his eyes. "I did say something wrong. I'm sorry."

She at once altered her features and smiled at him with bright affection, using, Hiko knew, every bit of her geisha skills to do so. "Not at all. I think you're a good, brave boy."

He smiled up at her, then went back to his meal. The connection between the two of them was so palpable to Hiko, he could almost touch it. He was going to have a difficult time severing it enough to make the boy's apprenticeship go smoothly. But he had to try. Hikaru's influence could be harmful, maybe even fatal, to him.

At least, if he proves to be completely unteachable with the sword, I have a place to send him, he thought wryly as Hikaru forced herself back to normality and began sweetly fussing over Kenshin again. He had to admire her. No one, and certainly not Kenshin, would ever suspect the turmoil she was concealing. He idly wondered how she would dish it out to him when Kenshin was safely out of hearing.

He wasn't in suspense for long. Hikaru naturally invited herself along for the shopping in Kyoto, and as they walked down the mountain, Hiko adjusting his stride to match Hikaru's dawdling one, Kenshin ran on ahead, full of youthful energy. Keeping one eye on him, Hikaru said to Hiko, "You didn't tell me it was slavers that you killed."

"That's because it wasn't. You're not using your wits. If I had, would I have killed the other slaves as well? Bandits killed the slave traders. I just eliminated the bandits."

"I'm sorry, you're right. I'm thinking about other things," she agreed, turning her attention to him. "Why do you want to make a Hiten Mitsurugi Master out of such a little boy?"

"I'm not sure you'll understand, even if I tell you. You value certain things about Kenshin, worthy things, but not the same as what I value. Let me give you an example, and perhaps that will show you. I'll tell you how I found him."

"Did you have to search long?"

"A very long time. I gave up, actually. I assumed he'd committed suicide, and I went back to bury him and the others. That's where I found him." He told her about the rows of mounds, the crosses, and the three large stones, and about what Kenshin had said to him there. She listened to him wide-eyed, sometimes glancing at where Kenshin was exploring ahead of them, unable to believe such a small child was capable of so monumental a deed. But, as he expected, she missed the main point. She marveled over Kenshin's strength and tenacity, and she didn't neglect to scold him yet again for leaving the boy there alone, but she didn't truly hear what Kenshin had said. She listened to and even praised the words, but she was blind to their significance. Therefore, naturally, she asked again why he wanted the boy for the Hiten Mitsurugi. "And don't give me that disgusted look," she added tartly.

He resisted smiling. This was a serious matter, as serious as any in his life, and he wasn't going to let her turn it to levity. "Your understanding of the Hiten Mitsurugi is shallow. That isn't your fault, but my own, and I am going to try to correct it. It's not merely a way of swinging a sword. At its ultimate, it creates a man who can use godlike speed, skill, coordination, and strength until he is invincible. When a Hiten Mitsurugi Master wields his sword for a cause, that cause will inevitably win."

"Really."

"It's always been so, for more than 300 years. This is not a boast, it is a fact. That puts a tremendous responsibility on the Master, to always use his power according to the principles of the Hiten Mitsurugi, and never in blind obedience to commands given by another. Every fight must be judged necessary, or unnecessary, by the Master's belief in the Hiten Mitsurugi principles, and by no other standard of judgement. It is a power too great to allow it to be abused."

She was regarding him seriously now. "I understand better what you told me about the cape, how it reminds you to restrain your power."

"That is simply a physical reminder. An experienced Master wears it because he is accustomed to the burden, as he is accustomed to the burden of choice. I'm not going to give you the principles as they are handed down. That would take too long. But in short, they are meant to assure that a Master always uses his strength to protect those in trouble or pain, and that he values life, all life. Including his own."

"You value life by killing?"

"I kill those who believe the lives of others are inconsequential."

"I think I begin to see. Kenshin valued even the lives of those bandits."

He was pleased. "Yes. Teaching the sword, the physical aspect of the style, that is simple. It takes time and much work, but it is direct and uncomplicated. Teaching the principles can be difficult, maybe even impossible. Yet if the principles aren't learned, if they aren't taken into the heart and accepted fully, then the apprentice..." He stopped. No, he was not going to tell her that. "The apprentice fails and can never become a Master."

She hadn't missed that hesitation. "What happens to a failed apprentice?"

"He's cast out. He can no longer claim the style and he can never use it." That wasn't entirely a lie.

"He can't just go out and use what he knows so far?"

"The style is such that the soul and the body are one. If they aren't, the Hiten Mitsurugi style can't be used and no fight can be won."

"Oh," she said, her brow creasing thoughtfully.

"So, do you begin to see yet? Do you see what Kenshin is? He's a boy whose heart is pure. Despite tragedy and abuse, he has remained pure. Do you have any idea how rare that is? He has nothing that he must set aside in order to learn. He isn't like I was. The instinct of the Hiten Mitsurugi Master must be to protect. Mine was to survive, and the principles had to be pounded into me, all my previous beliefs chipped away like stone until nothing was left but what my Master placed there. I don't have to do that with Kenshin. His spirit is like a strong, clean flame. As his physical body learns, there will be nothing in his heart to hold him back, nothing against which he must struggle. If I nurture that spirit, I can teach him anything. He'll surpass me."

"You sound happy that he might beat you," she smiled.

"I will be, because I will be the Master who taught him to do so." And when that time comes, Hikaru, I hope you'll forgive me.

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Hikaru did understand, at least in a vague way, what Seijuro told her. She could see Kenshin's purity. It shone like a lamp in the night's dark. She wasn't at all sure what that had to do with a sword, but again, she could vaguely comprehend by equating it to the dance. When your heart was in the dance, the dance was an inspiration to all who saw it, as well as to the dancer.

Whatever the reasoning, whether she was right or wrong, she was certain it was important to Seijuro. She'd never seen him so excited about anything. That made it important to her, enough so that she agreed to stay away from the mountain for two weeks, to allow him to start Kenshin's training without distraction.

Understanding didn't reconcile her to having that sweet child learn how to use a sword, however. As soon as the two weeks were gone, she headed up the mountain, hoping that Kenshin had proven to be as hopelessly inept, physically, as he was suitable spiritually. She had not gone through any one hour of those weeks without thinking about the boy. If she closed her eyes, she could still feel him in her arms. He was too small, too delicate, too precious to hand over to the sword. But remembering the expression on Seijuro's face that day, she knew she had no chance of convincing him of that. Her only hope was that Kenshin would be slow, or clumsy, or better yet cowardly.

They weren't at the cottage, so she doubled back for the training ground. Long before she could see anything, she heard the rhythmic clack-clack of wood on wood and Seijuro's voice counting out numbers, apparently at random. Then she heard him shout, "Good!", followed by a high crow of triumph that could only have come from Kenshin. She stopped, her heart clenching. She knew that tone of Seijuro's, rare though it was. Her hopes that Kenshin might prove inept were crushed. On the contrary, for him to get such enthusiastic approval from Seijuro, so soon, meant that he was a particularly apt student.

She stood there a moment, breathing in and out, stifling her disappointment, reaching for serenity, arranging her face to show only what she wanted them to see. Kenshin sounded happy as well as excited, and she would not cloud his joy or Seijuro's pleasure, no matter what her own feelings were. When she was certain she was in complete control, she moved forward again.

The rustle of her silk, or perhaps that swordsman's sense Seijuro talked of, had both of them staring her way when she stepped out of the trees. She bowed politely to them while her eyes quickly took in the scene. Kenshin was dressed in his new clothes, and was already sweaty and filthy even this early in the day, but he also looked taller, as if he'd grown in two weeks. That wasn't possible, and she realized it was because he was standing straight now, as straight as the wooden staff he gripped. Behind him, Seijuro had his eyes on Kenshin, not on her. He looked smug. Or happy. With him, they were often the same. Hikaru was glad she'd taken the time to prepare herself. They were so obviously Master and apprentice, they might as well have had the words embroidered on their clothing.

Seeing her, Kenshin's face lit. "Hikaru-san!"

Seijuro lifted his own staff and rapped Kenshin sharply on the back of the head. "Don't take your eyes off your Master."

Kenshin whirled on him, rubbing the back of his head, his expression rebellious. "But, Master...! We have a guest!"

"Even then."

The rebellious look deepened, and the lavender eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Is that a new rule?"

"Just one I haven't yet mentioned."

"How do you expect me to obey a rule you haven't mentioned? That's not fair!"

"Life isn't fair."

"Where have I heard that before?" Kenshin muttered.

"Your behavior is embarrassing both of us. You may now turn and give Madame Kimiyama a proper greeting."

Hikaru said, "I thought that was a wonderful greeting." She knelt and held out her arms. Kenshin grinned and started toward her, only to get tripped up by Seijuro's staff between his knees. He stayed on his feet only with a nimble effort, and glared back over his shoulder at Seijuro.

"I said a proper greeting, Kenshin," Seijuro growled.

Both Kenshin and Hikaru understood that tone. Hikaru rose slowly, her eyes meeting Seijuro's, and she saw the denial there. She let him see that it made her angry, but his expression didn't change. Meanwhile, Kenshin set down his staff and bowed to her, welcoming her politely and properly.

She wasn't going to punish Kenshin because she was angry at Seijuro. She smiled down at him and said, "Are you enjoying your lessons? It sounds as if you are doing well."

He beamed up at her. "I am! They're difficult, but Master says I'm not totally hopeless." His eyes twinkled at her, inviting her to share his knowledge that such faint praise was a great deal, coming from Seijuro.

She at once responded, "I'm sure if you apply yourself, someday you'll even get him to say you are nearly... adequate."

Kenshin grinned.

Seijuro said, "He'll have to concentrate better than he has been."

Kenshin rolled his eyes, but when he turned back to Seijuro, his expression was one of respect. "Yes, I know, Master."

Seijuro's lips twitched. "Go down and make tea for Madame Kimiyama."

"But I wanted to tell her about today's lesson."

"Now, Kenshin. I wish to talk to her."

"Oh. Yes, Master." With a cheery wave at Hikaru, he grabbed his staff and trotted down the path.

Seijuro pointed her after him, then fell into step beside her."You're encouraging him in insubordination."

She grinned. "You didn't stop me."

"There is a difference between insubordination and disrespect. Although he is beginning to push that line."

"You say that as if you don't object to it."

"I'm relieved his spirit isn't broken. A broken spirit is something which can only be mended with time and care, the kind of care I would find it difficult to give him. If it can be mended at all. As it is, his spirit is strong. He only needs discipline."

She scowled at him. "It wouldn't hurt to let me hug him."

"On the contrary. Does Kimiyama let you hug his pottery apprentices?"

"Yes!"

"If they are ill or in pain, yes. But in simple greeting? Or whenever you wish it?" She didn't reply, and he nodded. "I didn't think so. Even he isn't that lax."

"You're going to keep him, then."

"Kenshin? Yes, of course. He shows promise. More than I could have hoped, but don't tell him that. If he grows conceited, he will cease to learn."

"There is not an ounce of conceit in that boy."

"There is pride. And pride slides easily into conceit if allowed to grow unchecked. Even in a boy like Kenshin."

His tone made her take a closer look at him. "You're growing fond of him, aren't you?"

"He's my apprentice," he growled.

She folded her hands and kept silent. His growls did not intimidate her. They never had. But she realized now that, however he acted, Seijuro was beginning to love Kenshin already, too. He might never admit it, most likely not even recognize it, since he was unaccustomed to loving. The word was only in his vocabulary as a motive for the actions of others. Not once had he said it to her, even. Yet she knew he loved her, and just as surely, she knew that Kenshin was relieving a loneliness that he had been suffering unaware. Reluctantly, she tossed away all her schemes for prying the child away from Seijuro. Seeing Kenshin today, she had no doubt Seijuro was good for him. More significantly, Kenshin was good for Seijuro. If anyone could work his way into that carefully guarded heart, it would be Kenshin.

This was fate. She couldn't fight it.

Kenshin had already laid out the tea things neatly and was ready to pour when they arrived. He served them with a grace beyond his years, but there his skill ended. Hikaru took her first sip of the tea and repressed a shudder.

Seijuro was not so tactful. "This is terrible. You should let Madame Kimiyama make the tea."

"But, Master, you told me to make it."

"Next time."

"Would you like sake instead, Master?"

"Two weeks with me, and at last you are beginning to show some glimmer of intelligence. Yes, I would like sake."

Kenshin fetched sake and a cup and placed both beside Seijuro. Then he glanced at Hikaru, a look both questioning and apologetic.

Heroically, Hikaru said, "The tea is fine, only a little strong. I'll stay with the tea." Then, with even greater heroism, she said, "Tell me about your lessons now."

Happily, innocently, with the eyes of both adults on him, equally unaware of Seijuro's pride in him and of Hikaru's desire that he were speaking with such enthusiasm about some other art, Kenshin sat beside her and told her everything that came to his mind about the past two weeks and what he had learned.


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