~ : ~ : ~
Yuki and Hikaru slowly and warily circle each other as they approach an understanding.
~ : ~ : ~
The streets of Kyoto were crowded at this time of day. They walked in a companionable silence, their thoughts of too great importance to be disturbed with small talk in the presence of strangers. The Aoiya was full of people as well, they both knew, people who loved Kenshin and wanted to be with him, and who would not give them any private time despite their best intentions. Therefore, when they passed a park and Kenshin glanced at her, they needed no further words, but turned into the gate and found a bench as far away as possible from the only other people there, a family with several rowdy children. Kenshin frowned when looking at the children, and she knew what he was thinking. Kyoto was a city of peace now, so very different from the Kyoto they had known, but Shishio, a dark curse from the past, threatened that peace again. Kenshin was feeling the weight of responsibility for that family and all the innocent citizens of Kyoto, and Yuki took his hand to remind him that he did not have to bear it alone. He didn't look at her – he would bear it alone if he could – but he didn't release her hand, either.
They sat quietly for a little while, Kenshin pensive, Yuki trying to sort out her thoughts. Finally she bluntly asked the question that was uppermost in her mind. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"About Madame Kimiyama? I already explained that, so I did."
"No. Why didn't you tell me she was a geisha?"
"Truthfully? I forgot all about it."
"How could you forget something like that?"
He held up both hands in mock defense, laughing. "I can explain! You see, when Master told me about it, I was only eight or nine years old. I believe he only told me because he believed it would make me less attached to Hikaru-san. But all he said was that she worked in the Edo teahouses, and I was too young to understand what he meant, that I was. I just assumed that was where she learned to make such good tea." He laughed again, at his own child-self, and she had to join him. He said, sobering, "When I did learn what he meant, many years later, I had already joined the Ishin and it didn't seem important. I never thought about it again until today, and then only because I saw you tense and wondered why. But I'm sorry, Yuki. If I had remembered, I would have warned you. Still, you don't need to fear Hikaru-san."
"If you trust her…"
"I trust her completely, that I do."
"Then I won't worry."
"Yes, you will. I can see it on your face. But if you get to know her better, your worry will disappear, that it will. I would not only put my life in her hands, but yours as well, without hesitation. That is how much I trust her. But I knew her for many years, and you have only just met her."
Anyone else might have pointed out that fifteen years was a long time not to see someone, and that the lady might have changed. But anyone else did not know Kenshin. Yuki did. She still didn't want Madame Kimiyama to know about her past, but the last wisp of fear faded. "Now tell me about Madame Kimiyama and your Master."
He jumped. "Oro? What about them?"
She couldn't resist teasing him, but she did want to know. She wanted to know a lot more about a woman Kenshin spoke of in those terms. "Are you going to tell me they're just friends?"
"I'm not going to tell you anything, that I'm not, when I don't really know."
"I'll wait until I meet your Master, then, and see for myself. I'm curious about him anyway, after listening to you and Madame Kimiyama talk about him. Other than that he taught you the Hiten Mitsurugi style, treated you like a slave, and is alarmingly huge," she smiled, "you haven't told me much about him. And right now he's a puzzle to me."
"Why a puzzle?"
"Because of the way you and Madame Kimiyama talk about him. If I had read the words the two of you used, instead of heard them, I would think he was a terrible man. Yet you both like him, I can see that. And that doesn't make sense." That Seijuro Hiko might be unpleasant was not what confused her. He sounded typical of many masters of martial arts that she'd seen and purposely avoided when seeking her own training, brutes and bullies who thought to pound discipline into their apprentices. What intrigued her was the fondly tolerant smile that came to the faces of both Kenshin and Madame Kimiyama when they spoke of him. They obviously cared deeply about him, and that was the puzzle.
Nor was Kenshin much help in explaining it, because he didn't try to explain it at all. He just told her she would understand better when she got to know him. "Although you may not get the chance, depending on how everything turns out."
"Do you mean the fight with Shishio, or whether Master Hiko will take you back?"
"Both, I suppose."
"If he does take you back, how long do you think it will take before you master the succession technique?"
His hand tightened on hers for a moment, although he was looking far away from her now. "I don't know, but it can't take too long. I don't have the time to spare. Too many people are suffering. You heard what Hikaru-san said."
Yuki nodded. "For a potter's widow, she seems to know a lot about what is going on in the city, and with Makoto Shishio."
His attention came back to her. "She knows a great many influential people, and she has always been able to gather information, that she has. Master used to call her the only woman he knew who could gossip about important things. I used to wonder why, as impatient as he was, he would sit and listen to her for hours. Now I understand. In the past few hours I learned a great deal about what Shishio has been doing recently, and I am less sorry than ever that I came. Hikaru-san has given me strength today."
"But she doesn't want you to fight. You can see it scares her." It scared Yuki, too, but Kenshin didn't need the added burden of her own fears. "She didn't try to talk you out of it again, but still, it was obvious." She sat thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "What that woman doesn't say is as significant as what she does say."
Kenshin looked at her, curious. She said, "You didn't notice? She never again asked you not to fight, but we both know she'd rather you were anywhere but here right now. She didn't have to say it, yet it was clear. Then there was the Revolution. She only mentioned it if she had to, and, Kenshin, she never even said the word Battousai. Not once. Yet she made it perfectly clear somehow, even without mentioning those things, that we were not going to talk about them. It was weird," she added absently, thinking about the long conversation. "She asked about your wandering days, and all kinds of questions about us and your life in Tokyo, but it was as if she'd drawn two lines in the past, before and after your Battousai days, and erased everything between. As if she isn't going to admit, to herself or anyone else, that you've ever been anything other than a little boy or a wanderer. You know," she added, "I think I like that about her better than anything else."
Kenshin's smile broke out. "Master wouldn't agree. He called it hiding her face behind her fan. He used to say that whatever Hikaru-san doesn't want to see, she simply won't look at."
"It's not necessarily a bad quality. At least she chooses well, what she wants to be blind to."
"That she does. You're beginning to like her, aren't you?"
"I don't know yet. I just met her! And she didn't really talk to me." At Kenshin's expression, she said, "No, I didn't feel ignored or excluded. Her manners are far too good for that. But that was all it was, good manners. She wasn't interested in me at all."
"I would think, after realizing she was once a geisha, that would make you happy."
"It did. But I felt very odd with the two of you."
"I'm sorry, that I am. I was afraid that might happen."
"You don't have to apologize. It's natural. The two of you share a past that I know nothing about."
"You're starting to frown at me again. I already said I'm sorry I didn't tell you about her before."
"Tell me now."
"I don't know what to tell. There were so many years, Yuki, and so much of what happened had to do with my learning the Hiten Mitsurugi style. Hikaru-san never did anything, she was just always there."
"She must have done something. Something good, I think. I've never seen you act around anyone the way you do around her. As if you care for her, but also as if you owe her something beyond just respect and affection."
He rubbed the back of his head. "I do. I just never thought about it before. But I still don't know how to explain it, that I don't. The only thing I can say is that, while Master was teaching me, Hikaru-san was always trying to be a mother to me."
Yuki picked up at once on one word. "Trying?" she repeated.
"Yes. Only trying. Master didn't approve of it, that he didn't. Her presence interfered with my training."
She got an image of a faceless Master forcibly separating Madame Kimiyama and a young Kenshin, and she scowled. "That makes him sound like a harsh man. I'm surprised he didn't just forbid her seeing you."
"He couldn't do that. I don't know why, that I don't. I know he wanted to. But Hikaru-san was always too clever for him. He kept saying he would order her not to come, but he never did, and she came at least once a week." He smiled, a smile so deep in the past that almost all the shadow was gone from it. "And when she was there, both of us were happier, Master and me. That's all I can tell you, honestly. I don't know how to explain it any better, that I don't."
"I think I understand," she said. Maybe even better than you do, Kenshin. She believed she knew now where the gentle side of Kenshin came from, the part of him which had emerged as the Battousai died. She had thought at one point that her impression was wrong, that Hiko couldn't possibly be the typical bullying type of swordmaster, because that side of Kenshin was so strong and true. Now she realized that, left to his own devices, Master Hiko would have done exactly as she expected and molded Kenshin into nothing more than a man with a sword and a belief in justice. Kenshin's sweetness, his deep ability to love, might have been born in him, but Madame Kimiyama had nursed those precious qualities in the boy and kept them alive while he was being taught to kill. At least that was how it looked to her, and getting to know Hiko and Madame Kimiyama better would confirm it or prove her wrong. She would get to know them, too, whatever it took. Not out of mere curiosity, but because the real Kenshin, the one who was not the Battousai, came from those years.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
More than 24 hours later, Yuki approached the Aoiya in the very early hours of the morning, where the lamps on the front of the inn shone very bright after a long walk in starlight. She was in the company of Kaoru, Misao, and young Yahiko, but she was lagging a little behind them, letting both Kaoru's concern for Kenshin and Misao's and Yahiko's conversation flow past her, such minor annoyances that she barely felt them. They were tiny candles compared to the flame of her annoyance at Seijuro Hiko, now that she had finally met "The Great Man".
Master Hiko had turned out to be even worse than her expectations. He was not only an arrogant bully, he took those qualities to a fine art, refining them so that they were not only a club but a knife. He'd humiliated Kenshin, made him beg, then denied him, all with casual cruelty and no understanding of the man Kenshin had grown into. To give him credit, Hiko had listened carefully to what the others had told him about Kenshin's life in the past 10 years, including Yuki's privately-given account of what had happened with Tomoe during the Revolution, and he had changed his mind and taken Kenshin as his apprentice again. But whatever benefit that had toward mitigating Yuki's dislike of him had been instantly seared away by his attitude afterward. He not only acted as if he were a god dispensing Truth and Wisdom to his inferiors (that is, every other human being), he also treated Kenshin – Kenshin, of all people! – like a particularly idiotic child, and every word he spoke seemed calculated to continue to humiliate him.
Yuki's departure with the others had been something of a retreat, because she wasn't sure she could restrain her more violent impulses if she heard the words "stupid apprentice" one more time. Hiko had exacerbated her temper even more when she'd planned to go to Kenshin and give him a quick goodbye and a wish for good luck. Hiko hadn't let her, but instead had told her, essentially, to get off the mountain or he'd throw her off. She'd been so angry then, she had insulted him back and then stalked away before she did worse, leaving the others to follow however they could. Had the situation not been so desperate, and Kenshin so determined, she would have dragged Kenshin right back down the mountain, leaving Master Hiko with nothing but some more vulgar words. Even now, thinking about it, her hand flexed on her sword hilt. Rarely did she wish for her own skills to be more murderous, but right now she would have liked them to be enough to lay a certain Hiten Mitsurugi Master in the dust.
She snapped out of her reverie at once. Yahiko's voice could almost wake the dead, never mind cut through thoughts she didn't really want to think. They were standing in front of the Aoiya, and Yahiko, oblivious to having disturbed her in any way, was asking her opinion of the Hiten Mitsurugi succession technique and what she thought it might be. "I don't have any idea," she said. "Didn't we already discuss this?"
"Yeah, but you didn't say anything."
"Yes I did. You just weren't listening."
Kaoru said, "That's right. Yuki tried to tell you she didn't know anything about the Hiten Mitsurugi style except what she's learned from Kenshin, the same as you, but you and Misao started talking again and didn't pay attention."
Yahiko glared at her, but read the confirmation on Yuki's face. "Oh. Sorry, Yuki-san."
Misao, who had been given a lot to think about lately, suggested they go to bed. "Kenshin and Master Hiko already started working, so maybe Kenshin will be back tomorrow."
Kaoru said, "I doubt that. I think that with a style as complicated as the Hiten Mitsurugi, it will take longer than one night for even Kenshin to learn the final technique."
Her soft little Kenshin-worshipping voice was seriously getting on Yuki's nerves. Normally she could ignore it, but not after having been grated by Master Hiko. "I'm going to take a bath first," she said, praying that Kaoru wouldn't offer to join her. Partly to stave off the chance, she wished the other three a somewhat abrupt good night and headed for her room, where she put away her sword and grabbed a few supplies before heading for the back of the inn.
The quickest way to the guest baths was through the kitchen. Looking forward to something, anything, to help ease her tension, Yuki was halfway across the kitchen before she realized, first, that someone was there cooking, and second, the someone was not the Aoiya's cook, but Madame Kimiyama.
She stopped and stared. Had she been in a better mood, she might even have found the picture amusing, because Madame Kimiyama had tied a huge, plain canvas apron over a beautifully embroidered kimono and an elaborate obi, and the effect was silly as hell. She would have slipped back out – in her present mood she didn't want to talk to anyone, much less someone with a fondness for that bastard Hiko – but some sound alerted Madame Kimiyama, and she turned bright, smiling eyes at her. "Hello, Yukiyo-san!"
"Madame Kimiyama," she acknowledged with a bow, ready to back out again.
She wasn't to escape so easily. Madame Kimiyama said conversationally, "I suppose you're wondering why I'm here. I'm cooking. I never get to do this at home. My own cook won't allow me in the kitchen. So this is a treat for me. I actually make a very good fish stew."
"I'm sure." She didn't ask the obvious question, but Madame Kimiyama filled that gap.
"I suppose you're wondering, too, what I'm doing here at the Aoiya at all." She dipped one elegant finger into the pot, then licked it, adding to Yuki's feeling of weirdness. "Not quite ready," she observed, and turned her attention back to Yuki. "Although you probably know why I'm here, don't you?"
Yuki shifted her stance. "I can guess. But why don't you tell me anyway?"
"I'm here because here is where I can get news about Kenshin, surely and quickly. Seijuro took him back as an apprentice, didn't he?"
The shortness of her answer wasn't lost on Madame Kimiyama. "But he didn't make it easy, did he?"
"Would you like some tea?"
"No. Thank you. I was just going to take a bath and go to bed."
The lady sighed. "Seijuro must have been more than normally obnoxious, to make you so rude."
Yuki resisted the urge to agree with the first part of that. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude."
"Yes, you did. You know I want to talk about what happened, but you don't want to discuss it. I don't blame you, but I wish you would. I have no other way of finding out what is happening."
"You could ask Misao, or Kaoru, or even Yahiko."
"But they don't really know, do they?" Madame Kimiyama asked shrewdly.
"They were there."
"But not so wise as you are. And you went up there earlier than they did. Please. One cup of tea. Then I promise you, I'll let you have that bath."
Yuki normally would have said no, but for a brief second, when the other woman had said the word "please", Yuki saw an expression flicker in her eyes, one of a startlingly deep sadness. It was gone in an instant, replaced by the pleasant smile, but Yuki could neither forget it nor deny it. Whatever caused that sorrow, it compelled her to at least give in on this small thing. "One cup," she agreed.
She was almost immediately sorry. She sat and let Madame Kimiyama serve and pour, and watching her, she was taken vividly back to her okiya days. She easily recognized the lady's purpose. Part of the tea ceremony, even that small part of it which Madame Kimiyama had just employed, was to relax the other person and make them feel comfortable. Perhaps it was just habit that made the lady do it, but the result was the opposite of what was intended. Instead of relaxing, Yuki was reminded she was in the presence of someone she couldn't really trust, no matter what Kenshin believed. She focused on the flavor of the tea and calmed her mind. She needed her wits about her, and regretted the moment of pity that had stuck her here. "I really don't know what to tell you, Madame Kimiyama."
"I wish you would call me Hikaru. I've been a widow for almost ten years, and I no longer feel like Madame anything. You can tell me what you thought of Seijuro, for one thing," she smiled.
"I'd rather not. I know you like him."
"No. I love him, which is different."
Yuki took another deep drink of tea, trying to comprehend this. She'd suspected it before going up the mountain, but now that she'd met Hiko, she didn't see how anyone could love him, much less a refined lady like this one.
Correctly reading her expression, Madame Kimiyama laughed. "I know. After meeting Seijuro in a bad mood, it is difficult to believe he can be lovable. We have loved each other for almost 30 years, but despite that, there are many days when I don't like him at all. He tends to have that effect on people. And," with another smile, "my love for him has never been blind. So why don't you tell me what you really think?"
Well, she'd asked for it, and Yuki was tired of biting her tongue. "What I really think is that he's the rudest, most conceited, most arrogant bastard I've ever met."
"I don't mean to offend you…" she began, although now that the cork was out of the bottle of her temper, she actually didn't give a damn.
But Madame Kimiyama waved a casual hand. "Don't concern yourself about that."
"Then I'll tell you, he acted as if he's so superior to any of us, even to Kenshin, that it's only because he's gracious that he allowed us to so much as dirty his floor. He treated Kenshin as if Kenshin was still a little kid, and he kept calling him stupid. Stupid! Kenshin! Even after we told him what Kenshin has done, how far he's come, what he's accomplished. Not that it mattered what we said. I think Kenshin could have come to him with the Buddha on one hand and a score of angels on the other, all singing his praises, and Hiko would still have looked down his nose at him just like he did, and called him a stupid apprentice for filling his house with more guests."
She expected Madame Kimiyama to be offended for sure this time, if by nothing else than by the venom of her tone, but instead, the lady broke into laughter. "Yes, he probably would have said that! Oh, I could just strangle him sometimes."
"I wanted to kill him."
"A lot of people have felt that way."
"You must be very tolerant, to love that man."
"It's ridiculous, I know, but I've gotten into the habit of it."
"And I'm sure he doesn't treat you like he does everyone else."
"But he does. He often calls me stupid. However, you're right in that there is another side of him that only I see. I could try to explain it, but I doubt you'd be interested." By the smile in her eyes, she knew exactly how uninterested Yuki really was. "Beside, you only offered to stay for one cup, and that's half gone. Tell me what happened up there."
"I did. He was a rude and arrogant ass, but he did take Kenshin back and promised to teach him the succession technique."
"I mean tell me in detail. Tell me what was said. It's important to me. Kenshin is important to me. I don't expect that to mean anything to you, but I hope it does."
"I really don't want to have to go through it again."
And there it was again, that flicker of deep sadness in her eyes, quickly hidden. Yuki was familiar with how a person could put on a face for the rest of the world to see, and hide behind it, and she knew that was what this woman was doing now. The face of the calm hostess was hiding a desperate woman. "Why is this so important to you? Kenshin said you were like a mother to him. Do you still think of him as a son?"
Madame Kimiyama nodded. "I always will, although I can see he's grown far past that. I tried to adopt him, even, when my husband was still alive."
"Kenshin didn't tell me that."
"Kenshin doesn't know. He was just a child, it would have been cruel to tell him. But the only two people I love in this world are up on that mountain together now, and I know much about what happened before, but nothing about what is happening now. Which is why I will take advantage of your courtesy and beg you to tell me." The smile returned. "I know exactly how rude and arrogant Seijuro can be, so you don't need to be afraid for my feelings."
"I wouldn't anyway. You asked. I'd either answer, or not, but if I answered, it would be with the truth."
"I suspected as much. Will you?"
The question Yuki asked herself was, would Kenshin want this woman told? She closed her eyes, picturing him when they'd spoken in the park. Madame Kimiyama was asking for information, not help, yet it felt like the latter. And yes, Kenshin would expect her to help the lady. She opened her eyes. "I'd better refill this cup," she muttered, and poured for both of them. Even as she touched the pot, she realized that her ceremonial manner, learned at the okiya and practiced with her aunt, would give her past away just as surely as Madame Kimiyama's had. But she only knew one other way to pour, a man's way, the one she'd used in the army. She chose the latter, and saw curiosity flicker across Madame Kimiyama's brow. But no comment was made. The lady accepted her cup and waited for the story she wanted to hear.
Yuki began at the beginning, with Hiko's first words. When she reached the part where Hiko had made Kenshin beg him, then turned him down with insults, Madame Kimiyama covered her eyes with one hand and groaned, "Oh, that man can hold a grudge!"
"For Kenshin leaving him. A very long story. Please go on."
Now the lady wasn't trusting her. But, deep into the memory, Yuki was far too angry with Hiko to give a damn about his motives. She told the lady about The Great Man's holier-than-thou lectures, and, on being asked, about how Kenshin had replied to them. About a third of the way through, she suddenly observed, "You look pleased."
"I am. Oh, not at Seijuro. He's behaving just as I expected. I'm pleased with Kenshin. I know nothing about swordsmanship, so I have no idea if Kenshin has achieved his potential there, as Seijuro wished. But I saw many qualities in him as a boy that I hoped would develop as he became a man, and it seems at least some of them have. Seeing him yesterday, I hoped... well, never mind. Most of my hopes have already been answered. Please go on. If what followed was more of the same, just tell me of any significant things."
"There really weren't any until Misao, Yahiko and Kaoru came. They heard Hiko insulting Kenshin and kicked in the door to defend him."
Hikaru burst into laughter. "I'm sure Seijuro loved that. What did he say?"
"He grouched about having visitors."
"Coolly, I'm sure. But I'm also sure he took advantage of the situation somehow."
"He did. He sent Kenshin to the river for water. As if Kenshin were a servant or slave," she added, her anger rising again. "Is that the way Hiko treats his apprentices?"
"He's only had the one. And yes, I'm afraid so. Why did he want Kenshin to leave?"
"He wanted to question us about what Kenshin had been doing during the ten years he'd been missing."
"Of course. He picked your brains. He's good at that."
"He's very good," she said. "He insulted Kenshin to our faces to get them angry so they'd talk more freely."
"What did they tell him? Yukiyo-san..." The mask had slipped again, and it was the real woman who lifted haunted eyes to Yuki's. "Understand, I know very little about what happened to Kenshin during the Revolution. That was my fault. I didn't want to know. But afterward, when he disappeared, I tried desperately to find him, and couldn't. I thought he was dead. I prayed he hadn't gone on as he had been. But I knew nothing. Yesterday, he avoided the question. He only said that he was wandering. What did he do? What happened to him?"
"He threw away his sword and got the reverse-blade sword he carries now. Then he took a vow never to take a life again, and became a wanderer, trying to repent for all the lives he had already taken."
For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Hikaru was staring down at her hands twisted together in her lap. "He kept that vow, didn't he?"
"Yes. He's fought many battles since then, but has never taken a life."
"I could see that in his eyes." She bit her lower lip, then collected herself and looked up, calm again. "He's been in Tokyo for some time. Does he feel he's completed his penance and can stop wandering?"
Had Hikaru asked for anything more, Yuki would have told her to ask Kenshin. But she didn't. Instead, she observed dispassionately, "I see why he feels so compelled to stop Makoto Shishio, then. Even as a child, he took up every burden onto his own back. So – Seijuro learned this. Undoubtedly that was what he wished to hear. But I notice you say they told him. Not you?"
"Not me." Yuki would never have allowed that bastard the satisfaction of seeing he'd gotten anything from her, even anger. "I told him what I thought he needed to know, privately, and that's all."
"Which I assume he accepted without comment and without thanks."
"You know him." She was glad Hikaru didn't press any further. She'd only told Hiko about Tomoe because it might affect Kenshin's training and was something that a sensei, no matter how obnoxious, had a need to know. But she'd tell no one else, not even someone who considered herself Kenshin's mother.
But Hikaru now looked weary, and she didn't ask. Instead, she asked about what Hiko had said when he'd taken Kenshin back as an apprentice. Yuki told her, and told her how he'd then thrown the rest of them off the mountain. "He was going to start the training right away, in the dark."
"He's worried about Shishio."
"Then why doesn't he go after Shishio himself?" Yuki demanded.
"It's not that kind of worry. Seijuro considers all forms of government either wicked or corrupt, or both. He sees no real difference between the current Meiji government and that which Shishio would establish. To him, they are all bad, and he fights his battles on another level. He is worried about Shishio for Kenshin's sake, because Shishio is apparently after Kenshin personally. He wants Kenshin to be able to defend himself and those he cares about."
"Will he fight alongside Kenshin?"
"I doubt it. I believe he'll see this as Kenshin's battle, and he won't interfere. I will never understand this warrior philosophy!" she burst out suddenly. "It makes no sense. Kenshin will understand, I'm sure, but if he is killed for the want of one more sword, I will never forgive Seijuro. But no," she added, calming. "Seijuro will not send Kenshin to face Shishio unless he is absolutely sure Kenshin can defeat him. He and Kenshin both believe the final attack of the Hiten Mitsurugi will assure that. I hope they are right."
"What if Kenshin doesn't master the final attack?"
"Seijuro always believed he would, even when Kenshin was just a child. He wouldn't have taken Kenshin back, no matter what any of you said, if he didn't believe it still. What do you think?"
"What I think isn't relevant."
"True. I only asked because I wanted to know," Hikaru said gently.
"I think Kenshin can do anything he sets his mind to do."
"So do I. Well, you've finished three cups of tea, and I know you want your bath. We'll be here together for a while, since I'm going to be the Aoiya's guest until Kenshin returns, so I hope nothing I've said or done has given you a dislike of me."
"Why should you care about that? It's a big inn."
Sudden amusement lit Hikaru's eyes. "Because I can see that you're important to Kenshin, of course."
She was giving truth for truth. Far from being offended, Yuki was much more comfortable with that. She rose, saying, "I don't dislike you. I think we can get along for a little while."
She bent to take the tea tray, but Hikaru waved her off. "I can clean up. I've kept you from your bath long enough."
"You look ridiculous in the kitchen."
Hikaru laughed. "I know. That's part of the fun. You should have seen your face when you came in and saw me. I plan to cook breakfast, if for no other reason than to see the reactions of the Oniwaban."
Trust her or not, it was hard not to like her when she laughed like that. Yuki wished her a good night and went to her bath. She had been soaking for some time, trying not to think about what Kenshin might be going through at this moment, when she realized that, sometime during the conversation in the kitchen, the woman had gone from being Madame Kimiyama to being Hikaru, in her mind. She had no idea how that had happened, but one thing was certain. Hikaru Kimiyama was not a woman to underestimate.
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