~ : ~ : ~
Hikaru and Yuki start to become friends, sharing worry over Kenshin. Shishio's Owls invade the Aoiya, and Aoshi makes a terrible, bloody return into the lives of the Oniwaban.
~ : ~ : ~
Hikaru was thinking, too, that Yukiyo Sasaki was not a woman to be underestimated. With so much on her mind, she didn't sleep at all that night, but Yuki occupied every part of her time that wasn't spent in wondering about Kenshin and Seijuro. Talking to her had been so difficult. Yuki was wary and secretive, and very intelligent, and would require the most delicate handling.
What made it difficult was that Hikaru wanted nothing more than to pry the woman open like a gift box and ravage ruthlessly through her thoughts and memories, to learn all at once everything she knew about Kenshin.
Alone in the dark, she wept a long time for Kenshin, both with sorrow for what he'd been through, and with joy that he'd somehow conquered it all. He was still the boy she'd loved. She could see the innocent child when he spontaneously smiled, and she could see the shadow that was still behind his eyes. The shadow which had haunted him as a child had been simple fear. Now it was much more complex, mixed with guilt. Hikaru hadn't thought about the Revolution for many years, but now she sat up and hugged herself and cursed the ghosts of the men who had turned Kenshin into an assassin. Seijuro had given Kenshin the skill, but he'd never intended it for that, so she stopped short of cursing him. He would be paying for his own sins now, anyway. He was far too intelligent not to see what she herself had seen.
She felt she had a kindred spirit in Yukiyo Sasaki, but she couldn't be sure. Yuki had barriers that not only kept her out, but pushed her away. She would have to get past those barriers to understand her, and she felt she had to. Kenshin obviously loved his "family" at the Kamiya Dojo, but it was Yuki whom he'd brought with him to the pottery shop and to her home. In everything Yuki said about Kenshin was the hint of a knowledge which went deeper than what Kaoru and the others possessed. Hikaru guessed that Yuki loved Kenshin and he loved her, but whether either of them knew it, or were still only friends, Hikaru couldn't tell yet. There were too many questions, and the only way to get answers was to cultivate the friendship of a young woman determined to keep her at arm's length.
But nothing could spoil her optimism. Kenshin was alive. He was back. He was healthy in mind and body. Nothing else mattered.
In the darkest part of the night, she was to discover something else about Yuki Sasaki, something that would give her even more questions. Still wakeful, she sat up, curious, at the sound of Okina's voice. When that was suddenly replaced with shouts and the sound of a fight, she leaped up and ran to her door. Yuki was racing down the hall. She checked on seeing Hikaru's open door."You'd better stay there!" she suggested, and ran on.
Hikaru obeyed, backing into her room and shutting the door. She was no fighter and would only get in the way. That was not true of Yuki, however. The young woman had been holding a sword. Because she knew of the Oniwaban, the idea of a sword-wielding woman wasn't alien to Hikaru, so she was not shocked. Nor, she realized, was she entirely surprised. But it gave her more questions to ponder while she waited.
Laughter, a little later – Misao's, there was no mistaking it – told her she had nothing to fear from the results of the fight she heard. She resisted the urge to satisfy her curiosity and remained in her room, able to guess what had happened and, again, not wishing to be in the way. The Oniwaban had been gracious enough to allow her to stay when they'd emptied the inn of all other guests, and she would not intrude without need.
She heard the story over the breakfast she cooked and served. The Oniwaban and "Kenshingumi," as they called themselves, were in an excellent mood, having handed Shishio's Owls a resounding defeat and sent them back with a message of defiance. Having Madame Kimiyama feed them only added to the general hilarity. Good food loosened their tongues, and Hikaru heard a lot more than she actually wished to. None of them seemed concerned about what worried Hikaru most, that this attack was simply the first that Shishio would be sending against them, for no other reason than to hurt Kenshin. When she mentioned it, Okina agreed with her, but he was confident that they were more than a match for Shishio's minions. "If we weren't, would we allow you to stay here where you might be in danger?" was his response. The only others who seemed to share Hikaru's apprehension were Kaoru and Yuki, but neither of them said anything.
She spent some time helping them clean the inn that morning, creating more laughter when she pointed out, with mock indignation, that servants didn't do everything for her and she did know how to clean. One of her self-appointed tasks was to gather and carry out the breakage from the fight the night before. With a basket of shards in her arms, she went out the back, to find that the job for someone stronger – carrying out and beating the tatami – had been given to Yuki. But Yuki had ceased in her work at some point, and when Hikaru came quietly out, she saw the young woman standing there, poised and still, bat in hand as if she'd stopped in mid-swing, with her head lifted and her eyes looking to the north. Toward Seijuro's mountain.
Hikaru took the moment to look at her, really look at her, for the first time. She was small and very pretty, with her catlike eyes and delicately pointed chin, but there was steel in her. Her body was supple, but with the kind of suppleness that came from athletic work, such as the dance or martial arts. She would have made a good geisha, Hikaru reflected, had the physical self been all that was needed. But her entire character mocked that. Her strength and directness were the exact opposites of what a geisha was, and her mind was quick and deep, but not subtle. She reminded Hikaru of a knife blade – harmless if it lies untouched, but sharp and dangerous to a clumsy hand. Or to an enemy, she mused, recalling the brisk efficiency with which Yuki had carried a sword down the hall.
Yuki turned her head to look over her shoulder at Hikaru. "Why are you standing there staring at me?"
Several polite answers came to Hikaru's mind at once, but this woman seemed to want nothing but honesty, and Hikaru's instinct was that would be the best way to go. "I didn't mean to intrude. I've just never truly looked at you before. He'll be all right, you know."
"I wish I did know."
"Seijuro would never really hurt him. He'll make him work very hard, but that's all."
"Call it a premonition." She swung the bat viciously, bringing out a cloud of dust from the nearest tatami. "I want to go up there and see what's going on."
"You can't. Seijuro would know you were there before you got within sight of the training ground."
"I assumed that. But I'd go anyway. I don't care what that bastard would have to say to me. The only reason I don't is that I'm afraid he'll take it out on Kenshin."
"He might," Hikaru agreed, getting a surprised look from Yuki for admitting it. "But whether he does or not, you'd still be interfering with the training, and it will take longer. I think last night's attack proves that Kenshin is right, and we have little time left. He needs to focus on the training without distractions. Even from you."
"I know." The bat swung again. "I just don't trust Master Hiko."
I don't think you trust many people, Hikaru thought. "If you're going to think about it, I suppose that being out here, beating tatami, is the best place for you."
Yuki looked at her, brows lifting. Then, to Hikaru's surprise, she grinned and agreed.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Yuki was aware that Hikaru was studying her, and she was fairly sure she understood why. Even so, being constantly observed might have made her uneasy, if her mind hadn't been so focused on that faraway mountain and what was happening there. Kenshin was in danger, she was sure of it, and Hikaru was a minor irritation compared to that.
Then the evening brought events which chased away all other concerns and brought home in a gruesome way the possible consequences of the battle they faced. Misao burst into the Aoiya in a state of barely controlled panic. She'd been too late to stop the fight between Aoshi and Okina, and Okina was badly wounded, maybe even dying.
Yuki ran with the Oniwaban to bring Okina back while Omasu went for a doctor. Of them all, Yuki had the most experience with wounds from a battle, and she knew what had to be treated immediately and what could wait. She was glad she went. When they saw Okina, for a moment Shiro, Kuro and Okon were paralyzed with shock. Yuki, who had experienced many such scenes, ignored the gore and the smells and bent over the body of the old man. Some rudimentary bandaging had already been done using Okina's own shirt. "Give me your obi," she told Misao as the girl knelt on the opposite side of Okina. "Who did this? You?" Misao nodded, huge-eyed. "You did a good job," Yuki assured her as she pulled off her own obi. "You might even have saved his life." To the others, she called out, "Make a litter, quickly."
To their credit, bossed by Misao, the other three made up a sturdy bamboo litter in moments. In the meantime, Yuki bound up what was needed, including replacing one of Misao's bandages with a tourniquet on one of the old man's arms, where a large vein was cut. As they headed back to the Aoiya, she showed Misao how to loosen the tourniquet, while applying pressure to the cut, and then to tighten it again properly, keeping circulation in the arm without allowing further dangerous blood loss. Her old training had kicked in – it was Okina's right arm, and during the Revolution the loss of a sword arm had been nearly as bad as death to a fighter. Worse, for some.
When they burst into the Aoiya, Osamu and the doctor were already there. Hikaru was also there, and she took one look at the blood-soaked mess that was Okina and went white as milk. If she faints, dammit, Yuki thought as she made way for the doctor, she can just lay on the floor. We don't have time for that now.
But she didn't. In a small voice, she said, "I have water boiling. I'll go get it now."
Yuki said, "Kuro, why don't you go help her?" There was no sense in having her come back in here. As they headed for the kitchen, she asked Okon, "Can the lady be put to work cutting and rolling bandages?"
The doctor lifted his head. "Yes, we will need a lot of them."
Putting Okina back together took more than 130 stitches, and watching the doctor work, Yuki was amazed the old man still lived. The Oniwaban were tougher than they seemed. Even so, she wasn't sure he would survive the night. If he did that, the doctor told them wearily as he prepared to leave, then with proper nursing, he might make a full recovery. The night would tell.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Yuki and the Oniwaban would take turns watching, all but Misao, who refused to leave her grandfather at all. With a soldier's practicality, although concerned about Okina, Yuki went straight to sleep, getting what rest she could in the six hours before her own shift. Gently and apologetically wakened by Osamu in the darkest part of the night, she came instantly alert and went down by the light of a single candle, expecting the worst and hoping for better. As she slid into the room, silent on bare feet, Misao looked up at her and attempted a smile. "I think he's improved, Yuki-san."
Yuki bent, trying to see by candlelight, then checked Okina's pulse. "I think he is better. Certainly not worse."
Misao sighed, a sound of relief. "I couldn't be sure."
"That's because you've been sitting here the whole time, and the changes were gradual." She sat opposite Misao and noticed a small table set with covered dishes. Lifting the lid of one, she saw rice balls. Another held dumplings. The smell was divine, and she served herself at once, wishing for tea. "Did you have some of this?" she asked the girl.
Misao shook her head. "I couldn't eat."
"Don't be silly. What good will it do your grandfather if you starve at his side?" She handed Misao a bowl and chopsticks, and Misao nibbled fitfully at a few grains of rice. As the taste penetrated, although she never took her eyes off Okina, she began to eat faster until she was shoveling it in, and Yuki hid a smile.
The door opened again, to admit the fragrance of fresh tea and Hikaru, carrying a tray. She saw Misao eating and gave Yuki a quick, smiling glance of approval. Kneeling, she poured for both Misao and Yuki, using a much simpler serving style than her usual. Handing Yuki a cup, she said, "I'm sorry, I know I'm not much use in a crisis, but I'll do what I can."
"Did you cook this?"
"Yes. I doubt we'll get a regular meal for a while, and I didn't see how anyone was going to keep up their strength without some kind of food ready at all times."
"Then don't say you aren't much use in a crisis," Yuki said.
Hikaru gave her a faint, grateful smile, bowed, and left them.
Misao sighed, setting aside her empty bowl. "Everything is so weird. You and Madame Kimiyama were guests here, and now you're being a nurse and she is cooking and cleaning. I thought Gramps would be leading us in defending the Aoiya against an attack by Shishio, and instead he's almost dead and we have no one to lead us."
"Don't think this wasn't an attack by Shishio. It was, no matter how indirect."
Misao's fists clenched in her lap. "I don't care what anyone says, Lord Aoshi can't be working for Shishio. He can't, he wouldn't."
Yuki shrugged. "Maybe not. I don't know him. But whether he is or not, he's doing Shishio's will. This is exactly the kind of thing Kenshin feared." She found nothing unexpected in the situation at all. She had known from the moment she'd taken up her sword and followed Kenshin from Tokyo that she might be facing something like this.
Misao nodded miserably. "Himura was right. Yuki-san, how did you know what to do? Are you a doctor, too?"
"No. But anyone who lived through the Revolution knows something about wounds," she said, dodging the issue. Misao, being young and distraught, accepted her reply without question.
By the time the sun had cleared the Kyoto rooftops, Yuki had risen from her second sleep, taken after she was relieved on watch by Kuro. In the kitchen, Hikaru was nowhere in sight, but her presence was felt – there was hot water on the fire and the makings for tea, alongside a row of dishes that held a plain but substantial breakfast. Snagging her share gratefully, Yuki went to check on Okina's progress. Apparently he was better, because the crowd gathered before his door was excited and shouting. Misao, it seemed, had decided to ignore Okina's instructions and had taken over leadership of the Oniwaban.
Yuki thought that was a large job for such a young girl, but a single glance showed her that Misao was fiercely determined. It just might work. Not wishing to intrude on what was an important time for the Oniwaban, she retreated back to the kitchen. They wouldn't be carrying on like that if Okina had died or become worse. She was free to turn her thoughts to the upcoming fighting, and, again, to what truly concerned her most, what Hiko was doing to Kenshin up on that mountain.
Hikaru came into the kitchen while Yuki was still brooding over her tea. Even under these conditions, wearing a splashed and stained yukata borrowed from someone larger, her hair tied back in a braid as casual as Yuki's own, Hikaru managed to look elegant. But she also looked exhausted. She sighed when she sat, and she poured her tea without any ceremony at all. "Have you heard about Misao?"
"That she's declared herself commander of the Oniwaban? Yes. But I haven't seen Okina this morning. I'm assuming he's all right, however. Even Misao wouldn't be so disrespectful of the dead."
"He's holding his own. The doctor was here at sun-up and declared himself satisfied. From now on it's up to us. Which reminds me..." She set aside her tea and rose to shift a stew pot onto the larger stove. There were three buckets lined up near the door, and she saw those and said, "Good, Shiro brought more water." Then she picked one up and, with some difficulty, began to pour it into the pot.
Yuki jumped up and took it from her. "Let me do that. I'm stronger."
"What's all this for?"
"Okina, of course. He'll need to be kept very clean, and not with cold water. The Oniwaban have a vast knowledge of many things, but not much about nursing."
Yuki finished filling the pot and returned to her tea. "You're doing a lot for people who are almost strangers to you."
Hikaru moved one shoulder in a gentle shrug. "Being a decent human being, I'd either have to help, or leave. I prefer to help. When Kenshin returns, I want to know, and to know, I must stay. This is my payment for my selfishness," she smiled.
"You do realize that staying here puts you in danger, don't you? Shishio's next attack will probably be directly against this place, and with more than just a few Owls."
"I've thought about that. But Shishio will want to use that attack to weaken Kenshin, I assume, and attacking here while Kenshin is still missing wouldn't suit his purpose at all. So until Kenshin returns from Seijuro's hands, we should be safe enough here."
"You sound as if you know Shishio."
"I never met him socially," Hikaru said on a burble of laughter. "But I have a servant, an old soldier with a lot of friends in the city – Bunto, you met him at my home. He tells me things. And I know something about overwhelming egos, which Makoto Shishio does possess."
"Did you learn about that from Master Hiko?" Yuki wondered with mock innocence.
The laughter bubbled out again. "He's just one. I've met many men like that. With Shishio, though, it's personal. That, I don't understand."
Yuki shrugged. "He's just one of a long line of swordsmen who want to make their reputations by carving them out of Kenshin's hide."
"You said that before, but I think I am just now beginning to comprehend what you mean. Do you know," Hikaru said, suddenly pettish, "I've spent much more time with men than with women, but what most of them consider important rarely makes sense to me. Particularly warriors. I know what they desire, but it makes no sense! From what they tell me, this," waving a hand toward the front of the inn, "this atrocity with Aoshi and Okina, stems from the same issue. Aoshi wants to defeat Kenshin. With all that he has waiting for him here, what a stupid ambition that is." She sighed. "Almost 30 years of loving Seijuro, and I still don't comprehend how being the best killer can make a man happy."
"It doesn't, of course."
"But they think it will, don't they? And they work toward it with such ruthlessness. Not Seijuro, but that's partly because he believes he's already the best and doesn't feel he has to bother proving it. When he was younger, though..." She shook her head. "Like Aoshi, so many of them pursue that ridiculous goal and sacrifice too much else in life."
She wondered if Hikaru had been one of Hiko's sacrifices. "Kenshin doesn't."
Hikaru's expression lightened and softened. "But I think we can agree, Kenshin is exceptional. What an irony, that he has the fame, the reputation for being the best, he who doesn't seek or desire it. I'm sorry," she said, stirring her tea although it didn't need it. "I'm not usually so talkative. I'm just tired and worried."
"I don't mind. I like hearing your opinions. Especially since they agree with mine."
"Yet you use a sword."
"I carry it for self-defense."
"A fan is a more common means of self-defense for a woman than a sword. No, don't worry, I won't pry. To tell you the truth, right now I'm not sure I want to know," she added with a self-deprecating smile.
Hiding her face behind her fan , Kenshin had called it. He did know this woman well. At least she was honest with herself. Yuki said, "I'm sorry, but I could not tell you even if you were to ask me."
Hikaru didn't fuss or look hurt, she simply nodded, accepted, and tactfully changed the subject. "Will you be as glad as I am when all this is finished?"
"Probably more." She'd only recently found Kenshin again. The dream of a peaceful future with him in Tokyo was what kept her going now.
Hikaru glanced back over her shoulder, in the direction where Okina lay. "I do wish Kenshin didn't have to hear of this, what has happened to Okina, but I don't see how it can be avoided. And when he does, he'll blame himself. Won't he?"
"Yes. He did try to leave, to dissociate himself from them so they'd be safe, but they wouldn't hear of it."
The soft smile came back. "You. His friends from Tokyo. Now the Oniwaban. He has a knack for inspiring loyalty."
"It's not a 'knack'. He's a good man who cares for others. That brings out the best in good people."
"I've known many good men in my lifetime, but none who could draw people to him as naturally and easily as Kenshin does. Even as a child he had that quality. It's a kind of magic that even worked on Seijuro."
"That's hard to imagine." Impossible, really, to think that even Kenshin could break through that man's self-centered shell.
"But true. I feel a little guilty, with Okina being so injured, but my thoughts keep going back to the same place. Yours, too, I know."
"A lot depends on what happens up there."
"Seijuro won't fail him."
Yuki said something in polite agreement, but privately she wasn't so sure.
Hikaru replied to her tone rather than her words. "He won't. I've known Seijuro since he was little more than a boy, and I've never known him not to accomplish what he says he will. If Kenshin can learn this final technique, whatever that is, then Seijuro will teach it to him. And when I knew Kenshin, he could do anything he put his mind to."
"He still can."
"Then we can assume he'll learn it, and we only have to worry..." Her hands and face stilled for a moment, but her voice went on calmly, "...whether or not they are right and that it will give him what he needs to defeat Shishio."
"I'm not as sure of Master Hiko as you are, Hikaru-san. I can't explain it, but I have a bad feeling about what's going on up there. If I thought I could get away with it, I'd be up there now, watching. Just to be sure."
Hikaru frowned delicately. "Despite how he acts and talks, Seijuro loves Kenshin. He would never do anything to harm him." This was said with simple conviction, not as an effort to convince Yuki of anything, but as what the lady believed to be true. "I feel apprehensive, too, but not about Seijuro. I worry more about what will happen when Kenshin leaves Seijuro's hands. I am hoping Seijuro will come with him, and help him. He tells me he's the greatest swordsman in Japan, and he's often said that Kenshin would be even better than him, once his training was complete. If the two of them fought together, I don't think Shishio would stand a chance."
For a moment Yuki allowed herself the luxury of that thought. Hikaru was right. Kenshin and his Master together would be an inconceivable force. But she didn't think on it long. Hiko wouldn't bestir himself, she was sure. Still, this lady might have some influence over him. "Is there any way that you can talk him into helping Kenshin?" she asked.
But she asked without real hope, and was therefore not disappointed when Hikaru shook her head. "None at all. He might help Kenshin, or not. But it will be entirely his decision, based on some male, warrior code of honor that I can't begin to understand. This isn't an area where I can influence him. I wish I could!"
Yuki had fought with other warriors, but she didn't think she'd be able to understand it, either. Not when Kenshin was involved. Not when one sword might make the difference between victory and defeat, death or life. Especially a sword as mighty as Hiko's was supposed to be. "Maybe he isn't as good as he claims," she muttered.
Hikaru's fierceness faded, and she chuckled. "Oh, he is. Seijuro has no humility, but neither does he brag. He is what he says he is. And he knows exactly what's at stake. As I said before, he won't send Kenshin back to us until he is sure that Kenshin can defeat Shishio."
"And Kenshin's life – and all of our futures – depend on his judgement."
"His judgement is very good. But we also depend on Kenshin, and I have faith in Kenshin."
"As do I." She had more faith in Kenshin than in a dozen Hikos and every other person in Kyoto all piled together.
Hikaru refilled their cups, her gestures setting Yuki's already stretched nerves on edge. But she was beginning to know the woman now, and seeing past the geisha grace, she recognized that Hikaru was using the little interval of ritual to regroup her thoughts. So she wasn't surprised, when her cup was in her hands, to be asked if she would answer a question. "You'll think it personal and impertinent, I'm afraid," Hikaru added.
"If the question is too personal, I reserve the right not to answer."
"Naturally. And I will accept that."
"Then go ahead and ask it."
The pretty hands folded in her lap. "It is obvious that your affection for Kenshin is very strong. But do you love him? I don't mean as a friend, but..." Something in Yuki's expression made her smile. "You do love him."
"More than my life and everything in it."
"Oh." The expressions which crossed the other woman's face were too swift and complex for Yuki to follow, but her tone was happy when she said, "That is good. Does he love you?"
"Yes, he does."
"Do you plan to marry?"
"That's three questions."
"I can count!" Hikaru said, and for no reason at all, both of them laughed. "There's no limit to my impertinence, but..."
"But you care about Kenshin." That excused a lot. "That question doesn't have a simple answer, however. We were separated for a long time and only recently found each other again. And then there's the problem of the ghost of the Battousai."
Hikaru's expression, for once unguarded, abruptly filled with grief. "Does that touch you, too?"
"Everything about Kenshin touches me."
After a moment of silence, Hikaru said, "I've spent a lot of time praying that Kenshin was alive and happy. Now I think I shall have to pray for his past to remain where it belongs and stop poisoning his present."
"That's hopeless. Pray that he'll learn to accept the help of his friends in bearing it."
"You're right. That sounds much more practical. In some ways he's changed beyond my recognition, but in some he's still the same boy I knew. Seijuro said to me once that, when Kenshin left him, he was about to take the entire burden of the Revolutionary cause onto his own shoulders. He is still carrying it all alone, isn't he?"
"He's trying to," Yuki said grimly. "But he won't if I can help it."
Another silence fell, a longer one, and Yuki wondered what Hikaru was going to come up with this time. However, before she could speak again, the door opened and Kaoru entered, looking cheerful. "Hello. Am I intruding?"
If so, she was a welcome intrusion. Yuki smiled at her and gestured toward the teacups. "No, not at all. Join us."
Kaoru sat and let Hikaru pour tea. "Did you hear?"
"Hear what?" Hikaru asked. Yuki noticed that her entire bearing had changed – she had straightened, and seemed to put aside her weariness and to put on, instead, a face of maternal courtesy.
"About Misao and the Oniwaban. And Okina," Kaoru said eagerly.
Hikaru answered. "Yes, we did. It's very good news. That is, assuming Misao can actually be their leader. I don't know the customs of the Oniwaban. And she is very young."
"I wondered about that, myself, but she's more mature than her years." Kaoru didn't observe the way Hikaru's eyelids lowered over a flicker of amusement. Kaoru was not much older than Misao, after all, however much running her own dojo had matured her.
"She'll have to be," Yuki said. "This is just the beginning, a mere feint by Shishio."
Kaoru nodded, her eyes wide and troubled. "And if this is just a feint, it frightens me to think of what is the worst he can do. Madame Kimiyama, should you be here? This could get very dangerous."
"It's sweet of you to be concerned, but I'm sure that I'm well protected. And you needn't fear that I will do something foolish and get in your way."
"I didn't think that!" Kaoru lied gamely.
"I won't leave until I see Kenshin again."
"That may be some time, maybe even days. Yahiko's gone up the road to watch for him, thinking it might be today, but I don't see how even Kenshin can learn the final technique of something like the Hiten Mitsurugi that quickly."
She sounded sensible, as usual, but when she said Kenshin's name, Yuki felt the flicker of Hikaru's gaze on her. She kept her face neutral. She knew why Hikaru had glanced at her. Kaoru believed no one guessed how much she worshiped Kenshin, but even in a serious conversation such as this one, she breathed the name like a prayer. Even Sanosuke, not known for his perspicacity, knew it and teased her about it.
"What do you think the Hiten Mitsurugi final attack is, exactly?" Hikaru asked Kaoru, delicately changing the subject without seeming to.
"I have no idea. Kenshin's style is so different from the Kamiya style, I couldn't even begin to guess. But it must be incredible."
"Why?" Hikaru asked before Yuki could stop her.
"Kenshin is the greatest swordsman in Japan, except for Master Hiko himself. If there is something he still must be taught, that something must be beyond what we can imagine."
"Do I hear respect in your voice for Master Hiko?"
Kaoru had no idea of the relationship between Hikaru and Hiko, and answered without seeing the gleam of mischief in Hikaru's eyes. "Yes, of course! I'm sure he is a great man, and a great master."
"Yet I understand he was rude to you."
"Not to me. To the others, yes," with a quick apologetic glance at Yuki, "and... and to Kenshin, yes. But he did listen to what we told him about Kenshin's life since the Revolution, fairly. And he did take Kenshin back, although it must be an inconvenience to him."
"Well, he has a trade now. And he's an old man. Teaching Kenshin at this point in his life can't be easy for him."
Hikaru said straight-faced, "You're probably right. Why don't I freshen the tea?" she added, and rose to go to the stove. Yuki knew she was turning her back on them so as not to laugh out loud at Kaoru's innocence, and that was kind. Yuki herself had no inclination to laugh. Not when the subject was Seijuro Hiko.
When Hikaru brought fresh tea back to the table and knelt to pour, she changed the subject yet again, asking Kaoru to tell her about the Kamiya dojo. Yuki watched with reluctant admiration as Hikaru, with the merest word or expression of interest, drew the younger girl out and, in an indirect way, got her to talk about Kenshin. Kaoru was no fool and let nothing slip that she shouldn't, but by the time Yahiko returned and dragged Kaoru away for a lesson to help kill the time, Hikaru had thoroughly picked her brains.
When Kaoru and Yahiko, amiably squabbling, had gone out into the yard, Hikaru said, "They're as worried about him as we are. And as fiercely loyal."
Hikaru smiled. "She has a schoolgirl's crush on Kenshin, nothing more."
"I know that. She's been a good friend to him."
"Do you dislike her?"
"No! Quite the contrary. We're good friends, and I've acted as a mother to her, at times. Why do you think that?"
"Your face has that quiet expression, like still water. I assumed you were hiding something. I thought perhaps you were worried. I'm sorry if I was wrong."
"If I'm worried, it has little to do with Kaoru and a lot to do with Makoto Shishio." Then, "You don't believe me, do you?"
"I don't think you just lied to me, no. But that you haven't told me the whole truth. May I be blunt?"
"I'd prefer it."
"You don't consider Kaoru a threat to your relationship with Kenshin?"
Yuki shook her head. "At worst, when she finally understands it, she'll be hurt. I don't want that."
"You're very kind. If all goes as I suspect, here in Kyoto, Misao won't be the only young person to mature. Maybe Kaoru will learn to understand the difference between worship and love, and that the emotion of love has many varieties. There can be no value too high to be placed on a loving friend."
Until Kenshin had come into her life, Yuki's experience of the varying kinds of love came almost entirely from observation. Only Kenshin and, to a lesser extent, her aunt, had ever given her any kind of affection, and only seeing other families, other lovers, had given her the knowledge that love could have many manifestations. Now she knew better. She had learned to care for Kaoru as she might a younger sister, and the impromptu family that had formed at the Kamiya dojo – Kaoru, Kenshin, Sano, Yahiko, even Megumi – had taken her in as one of them. Each was different, and the way she liked and even loved each of them was different. It may hurt her, but she will be able to understand. She was hit, suddenly, with a painfully deep wish for all of this to be over and Kenshin safe, so she could begin living again. With Kenshin, and with a family. A family whose children would be safe, secure, and most of all loved, as she had never been.
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