Part 5

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While Hiko tries to deal with the fact that he lived through the succession technique, Hikaru is about to realize, for the first time, that he wasn't supposed to. Keeping that particular secret is going to cost him a bit of pride.

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Hiko rubbed absently at the already-healing scar on his chest, wondering how he had ever managed to re-train Kenshin with all the visitors this place was attracting lately. First Moriko distracting Kenshin, and now Yukiyo, chiding him as if he were supposed to be Kenshin's babysitter instead of his Master. His stupid apprentice sure managed to attract and keep a lot of good friends. They were all as idiotic as he was, but they were certainly loyal to him.

Before loading the kiln, he'd cleaned up the mess Kenshin had made of the cottage, smiling the whole time at how much trouble his apprentice had gone through to find a useless bag of herbs. Kenshin's brains weren't that great, but he always accomplished what he set out to do, whether it was digging a multitude of graves, learning the succession technique, or finding a small bag of medicine by tearing his Master's home apart. He couldn't regret taking Kenshin as his apprentice, even now. His own Master had said to him, Many will come to you to learn, and you'll teach them. Most you will lose. However, some day you'll look into the eyes of a boy and see the fire which means that boy will succeed. I saw that in you, the day we met. The only person in whose eyes he'd ever seen that fire was the young Kenshin, and Kenshin had only once disappointed him. And even when the idiot left to join the Revolution, he'd succeeded in what he set out to do, becoming the most effective swordsman in all that repellant chaos. Then (thanks to the principles Hiko had worked so hard to instill in his thick skull), he'd realized that his goal had been wrong all along, and instead of doing the obvious thing and falling on his sword, he'd gone about trying to repent and even to learn to live again, and he was slowly succeeding in that, too. On many levels, as an apprentice, Kenshin had been a disgrace, but Hiko couldn't help but be proud of him anyway. He smiled again. Only Kenshin could have found a way to master the Ama-kakeru-ryu-no-hirameki without slaying his master. It should be impossible for anyone to defeat Shishio Makoto while maintaining a vow not to kill, but if anyone on earth could do it, that man would be Kenshin.

He sat facing the kiln and opened a fresh jug of sake. He'd done everything he possibly could to keep himself so busy that he didn't have to think, but the kiln was full and there weren't any chores left. He couldn't put it off any longer. He had to make some decisions.

The advice about apprentices from his master had been in a letter left in the cottage for him to read after he himself had learned the Ama-kakeru-ryu-no-hirameki. It had absolved him from blame for his Master's death, and then, in a way typical of Hiko Seijuro the 12 th, banished guilt as well by laying out in very clear terms the responsibilities of a Hiten Mitsurugi Master which he was now expected to fulfill. A similar letter had been in the cottage for Kenshin, but the idiot hadn't even seen it, despite trashing the rest of the place.

Hiko had known all along, even if he'd never admitted it to himself, that the apprentice he'd chosen, the man who was probably the best swordsman in all Japan now, would not want to take on the name and mantle of Hiko Seijuro the 14 th. In the letter, he'd included the admonition and reminder of duties, but he'd added that he was sure Kenshin would be too selfish to take them up. He'd been right about that. Yet he couldn't blame Kenshin. The call to a normal, peaceful life was a strong one, especially for a basically gentle soul who had transformed himself into the Battousai and consequently suffered. Hiko understood that. He didn't condone Kenshin's selfishness, but he accepted it. That was just Kenshin. Hiko had chosen his apprentice both badly and well.

But, damn him, Kenshin had left him in an untenable position. Not once in 13 generations had a Hiten Mitsurugi Master survived the Ama-kakeru-ryu-no-hirameki of his student. And not once in 13 generations had the student not subsequently taken the white cloak and the name of Seijuro Hiko. Hiko now had no idea what his duty was. Was he required to take a new apprentice, this time one who would not only become a master, but also Seijuro Hiko the 14 th? Or had his duty ended with the passing along of the succession technique? Was it only the technique and the principles of Hiten Mitsurugi that were important, and the name and cloak only trappings? Or were the latter important symbols, without which the Hiten Mitsurugi style would sink into eventual obscurity?

Kenshin might pass on the principles, but Hiko knew he'd be fooling himself to believe even for a moment that Kenshin would, in his turn, take an apprentice. The Hiten Mitsurugi style could die in this generation in every way except as a philosophy. But was that his fault? He'd done what he was ordered. He'd found an apprentice, taught him all the Hiten Mitsurugi principles, trained him with the sword, and brought him to the culmination of the final attack. That was where it should have stopped, at least for him. Those were the duties his Master had laid out for him. Could he now be held responsible for picking so promising a student and having him turn out to be one who would eagerly learn the principles and techniques, but reject the name? Could he have possibly seen that rebellion in the young boy among the graves? Was there something he'd missed, some way he'd failed?

He looked skyward. If his master's spirit was up there, he was probably having a sidesplitting laugh at Hiko's expense. "Instead of sitting up there laughing, you miserable old man, send me a sign," he muttered.

The sake jug was empty. He swore mildly and rose to get another. When he did, he saw a flicker of white on the trail far below. Another visitor? He considered going into the woods to avoid whoever it was, and then realized the white was from a kimono. Hikaru, then. Only Hikaru would wear a white kimono on a walk up a mountain. She'd get the hem dirty and probably get grass or leaf stains on it, then she'd take it home and hand it to her maid to be cleaned, and the silly maid would accept it and feel honored to be given the task, only because Hikaru smiled sweetly on her and thanked her. Hikaru had that effect on people. Even he wasn't entirely immune.

He straightened a little. He'd asked for a sign, hadn't he? Not that he'd been serious. But still, if he were superstitious – which he was not, he left that to Hikaru – he'd call her arrival at this moment a definite sign.

For nearly two-thirds of his life Hikaru had divided at least a part his mind from his Hiten Mitsurugi responsibilities, and never more than in the past ten years, when he'd despaired of ever seeing Kenshin again or finding another such apprentice, seen her almost every day, shared his bed with her, and spent entire days simply being with her. During that time he'd often wished he could marry her, not for his own sake, but to make her happy. He knew she wanted it. She was a woman who couldn't be contented or secure without the bonds of marriage. He didn't blame her for that, given how she'd lived her first twenty years.

Not that she'd ever mentioned marriage to him, or even hinted at it, or expressed in any way a dissatisfaction with their irregular relationship. She wouldn't. But he knew her heart as he did his own, and he knew she would never be completely happy until he married her.

While he understood, he privately thought her desire absurd. After all, why did she need the security? She was an astute businesswoman and manager, as well as a good pottery artist in her own right, and besides these skills, she had the fortune Kimiyama had left her to keep her for the rest of her life. Why should any woman want to give up everything Hikaru had – her friends and servants, kimonos and jewels, her gardens, all the luxuries and graces of her Kyoto home – in order to live alone with him in an isolated cottage? But she had been brought up with the idea that her own duty in life was to take care of men, or a man. To her, that was her destiny, and he was the man she'd chosen. While to him there was nothing wrong with the way things were between them, he could feel her discontent like a tiny ripple in the water, better than even she could feel it. Until now he'd just forced himself to ignore it, because the Master of the Hiten Mitsurugi style could not make room in his life for a wife whom he would soon make a widow.

Now, however, he was no longer the Master. Or rather (damn Kenshin!), he was no longer the only Master. He was still alive, even though he'd done his best to do his duty. Could he now, possibly, set duty aside and take up a life that did not have the boundary of knowing the day and hour of his inevitable death? The thought had a lot of merit. For one thing, it would be a gift from him to Hikaru. For another, his life would be more comfortable. And for yet another, he wouldn't have to worry about her going off and marrying someone else, which was something she was a bit too prone to do.

His head hurt. Too much sake, maybe, or too much heat from sitting before the kiln, or too damned much thinking. Maybe Hikaru would have some insight that hadn't occurred to him yet.

Then he remembered, for the first time this day, that he had never told Hikaru the usual result of the succession technique. By now that meddlesome girl, Sasaki, probably had. It was the only secret he'd ever kept from Hikaru, and he had a feeling that getting any insights from her would have to wait until she wasn't angry at him.

Actually, he didn't really need to ask her anyway, because he knew exactly what she would say. She didn't think with her head, but with her woman's heart. She'd tell him his duty was done and he should marry her. It couldn't be that easy. He'd have to work it out on his own. After, of course, he worked through the problem that was walking toward him now.

She came up to him without ever looking at his face, her eyes on that part of the scar that showed over the neck of his shirt. She stopped wordlessly in front of him and placed her fingers there, so lightly that he barely even felt the touch. Still staring at it, she said, very quietly, "Yuki says that had this been done with anything but Kenshin's reverse blade sword, it would have killed you. She says she isn't sure about that, but I think she wanted to spare my feelings. She does know something about sword wounds."

Just for a second he was tempted to take the easy way out. When she wouldn't meet his eyes, it was because something was going on behind hers. But he owed her the truth. He always had owed it to her but never found it possible to tell her. It was his only act of cowardice since taking up the sword. So he said, "She's right. With any other sword, I wouldn't have survived the blow."

"I don't understand. Did something go wrong? Kenshin would never try to kill you."

"Nothing went wrong. Kenshin completed his apprenticeship. He's now a Hiten Mitsurugi Master, and he can use the Ama-kakeru-ryu-no-hirameki against Shishio."

She looked up at him. "You sound proud of him."

"I am, but you don't need to be telling him so. He's gotten cocky enough as it is."

"But how can you be so pleased when he almost killed you?"

"Because that meant he learned the final attack. Hikaru, come inside and sit down with me. Let me explain."

"All right." Her voice was expressionless. She let him guide her inside, sit her at the table, and pour sake for them both.

He began, "This is going to be hard for you. You never have comprehended the Hiten Mitsurugi beyond the most basic principles."

"I'm sorry."

She said it humbly, falling back on her geisha training, as she often did in times of stress. It never failed to irritate him. "Don't be. It hasn't been necessary. But it is now. Try to listen and think. Don't start acting like a woman and getting hysterical."

That woke her up. Her eyes narrowed at him, but she waited to hear what he would say.

"The Ama-kakeru-ryu-no-hirameki isn't called the final attack for no reason. It's an attack that's meant to kill with one blow, using speed which is beyond godlike and a technique which assures there can be no defense against it. The Ku-zu-ryu-sen, which uses godlike speed to attack all nine points of the kenjutsu at the same time, is only a preparation for using the Ama-kakeru-ryu-no-hirameki. Do you understand?"

Her brow was furrowed with concentration, but she was following him. "I think so. But how can it possibly be taught, then?"

"The only way is to first teach the student the Ku-zu-ryu-sen, and then to convince him that you are going to kill him with that attack. The Ama-kakeru-ryu-no-hirameki can only be used by a person with the strongest will to live. When that will is brought to bear under the attack by a Master with the Ku-zu-ryu-sen, and the student successfully defends himself, then he has mastered the technique."

"You mean you first threaten him, and then expect him to pluck it from the air?"

He sighed. Years of rigorous training, reduced to a single idiotic phrase. "Something like that, yes."

"And what happens if he doesn't?"

"Then he dies at the hand of his Master. Get that look off your face! How many times have I told you that the only use for a sword is to kill people?"

"But we're talking about Kenshin!"

"My apprentice."

He watched, with admiration, as she controlled her expression again and calmed her mind. "But Kenshin mastered the technique. Right?"

"He did. And when an apprentice learns the technique, the Master, who is attacking, cannot defend. Therefore the technique can only be passed from Master to apprentice with the death of the Master."

"But you aren't dead."

"No, I'm not. Kenshin is an exceptional apprentice. In over 300 years of Hiten Mitsurugi, this is the first time that the technique has been taught without the death of one or the other."

Her fingertips touched her lips. "Your own Master? You killed him when you learned it?"

"Yes." He could still remember that day as if it had just happened. At one moment he was more excited than he'd ever been in his life, knowing he'd done something extraordinary, beyond human. He'd had a split second when he'd reached into his body, heart, and soul and everything had come together in a moment of perfection. Then he'd turned, elated, to share his joy with his Master, and saw the blood, and realized what he'd done. No other day in his life had been better, and no other day had been worse.

Hikaru was staring at him, her eyes widening. "Seijuro, that's barbaric!"

"I knew you wouldn't understand."

Her eyes were suddenly blazing. "Are you telling me that you've known this all along? From the moment you took Kenshin as an apprentice, you knew that some day you would either kill him or force him to kill you?"

"Yes, of course."

"And today, you faced him, knowing that? Kenshin?"

"Listen to you. You'd rather I hadn't taught him? That I'd sent him, still tormented in his heart, against Shishio with no chance of achieving a victory?"

"Couldn't it have been done another way?"

"If you think so, you underestimate Shishio. And you have no idea of the strength of the Battousai that was once in Kenshin."

"Fight! That's all you men think about! Couldn't he have just left? Hidden? Forgotten about Shishio?"

"He tried that, and they hunted him out. He chose not to go back to an obscure wanderer's life, but to stay and defend the innocent. There is a lot you don't know about Kenshin, Hikaru. I can explain it all to you some day, but for right now, you have to take my word for it. Being the man he is, and the Battousai he was, this fight is one he can't avoid."

She absorbed this thoughtfully. "He knew about this technique? He faced you knowing that one of you would die?"

"Don't be an idiot. Of course he didn't know. If he'd had even a hint of it, I would have killed him. He would never have defended himself with everything he had, and mastered the technique, if he'd known he would kill me by doing so. He would have hesitated, or tried to turn his blade. Either of those would have been fatal."

"You're right. He would have died before harming you. Seijuro, how could you put him through that?"

"You'd rather I denied him? Condemned him to the half-life he was living, always struggling with the Battousai within him? It would be easier for him to struggle with his guilt over something he couldn't help, and for which I freely forgave him."

She put her hands to her temples. "Yesterday... all this week... since Kenshin came here, you knew this would happen?"

"Yes, of course," he said with an effort at patience.

"Why did you never tell me? You never said anything about it. All these years, and you never told me. You said your Master died in battle. You lied to me and hid this terrible thing. Didn't you know what a shock it would be to me? Why did you never warn me? And Yukiyo... Seijuro, you sent her down from the mountain without even letting her say goodbye to Kenshin, knowing she might never see him again? What about all his friends, waiting for him at the Aoiya?" she said, her voice rising.

"I thought I told you not to get hysterical."

"I am not hysterical. I want an answer."

"As far as Sasaki and the others are concerned, I couldn't tell them. I couldn't trust them, not even her, not to warn him. That would have killed him, and then how would they have felt? As far as telling you...." He picked up his sake cup, then set it back down untouched. "At first, when I became a Master... we were young. We'd never even kissed. I didn't want you to think badly of me. As for later, with Kenshin – hell, Hikaru, I brought him here overnight, got up to take a piss in the morning, and came back in to see you sitting there with the kid wrapped around your neck, and the most idiotically rapturous expression on your face. You expect me to have said, 'Put that kid down and don't get attached to him because one of us is going to kill the other'?"

"You could look into that boy's eyes back then, and know that, and not be ashamed?"

"Ashamed of what?"

She rose unsteadily. "I simply can't comprehend this."

He rose, too. "You aren't going to faint, are you?"

"No. I think I'm going to be sick."

"Do it outside!"

She stumbled through the tatami he was using as a door with a total lack of her usual grace. He waited a moment, but when he heard a sound, it didn't sound like sickness. It sounded like crying. Well, he was expecting that. He gathered up his courage and went out.

What he saw shocked him. Not only was she crying, but she was on her knees in the dirt, bent over, striking the ground with both fists. He'd never seen her so out of control. "Hikaru..."

She straightened and turned a tear-streaked, furious face up to him. Her fingers found a stone, and she actually threw it at him, as hard as she could. It bounced harmlessly off his chest, but he was as stunned as if she'd hit him in the head. Not content with that, she grabbed two handfuls of dirt and threw that at him, as well. "How could you do that? Did you never consider me, you selfish bastard? Not once? Did you never think how I'd feel?"

"I knew you'd be hurt, but..."

"Hurt?" She turned away from him with an odd, choking sound. "I would have wanted to die. Without you, I would have wanted to die. But if you had killed Kenshin, it would have been even worse, because I would never have let you touch me again with hands that had been stained with Kenshin's blood. How can you say you care about me and condemn me to such misery? People who have hated me have been kind in comparison."

"Will you stop being so melodramatic? People die. I'm going to die eventually anyway. So are you, so is Kenshin."

"But not like this. Not for an abstract principle." She put her hands over her face and moaned. "Oh, no. Oh no."

"Oh no what?"

"I'm just realizing I've been blind. For almost thirty years, stupidly blind." She looked up at him, and the tears flowed freely down her face, unnoticed by her. "I just now see the truth. The Hiten Mitsurugi style means much more to you than I do. More than I ever did. And it always will. All this time, I thought I meant at least as much, and I had such dreams... it was all an illusion. How could I let myself be so fooled?"

He reached for her. "Stand up. Stop this."

She turned her face away from him.

"Hikaru. What about Kimiyama?"

That got her to look at him again. "What does Toshiro have to do with this?"

"Did you love him more than me? Is that why you wouldn't leave him for me?"

"No, of course not! That was a matter of honor."

He raised a brow and waited for it to sink in.

"Seijuro! That's completely different!"

"I don't see the difference."

"Nobody was going to die!" She rose shakily, turning away from him again. "You're going to think me silly for this, but that doesn't matter, really, does it? Do you know what hurts worst of all? Even more than the fact that you were going to cut up my heart by removing from the world one of the two people that I love? It's that you were up here all this time, knowing you might die, and you never sent for me. Not even to say goodbye. You didn't need me, you didn't want me here. You had your Hiten Mitsurugi, and that was all you needed."

"That's not true."

"You didn't send for me. You didn't even do me the honor of allowing me to share your vigil."

"I couldn't afford to weaken myself."

"Oh, yes. I understand that. I've always been aware that, as far as Hiten Mitsurugi is concerned, I've weakened you with my presence. I think," she added in a musing tone, brushing the dirt from her kimono, "that I will go home now."

He took her arm. She stiffened, but she didn't pull away. "Don't," he said. "Don't leave. I want to talk to you. Now that I'm no longer the only Hiten Mitsurugi Master, things can change between us."

She did pull her arm away at this. "They already have changed, Seijuro. Don't touch me again. I need to go home."

He'd been in enough battles to know when he couldn't win. He let her go. And as he watched her leave, regaining more of her dignity and self-control with every step, he realized that his need to think was over. He had given 35 years to the Hiten Mitsurugi. Hikaru was right, it had always meant more to him than she had. But now that he'd come to what he thought was the end of his duties, he wanted to change. Like Kenshin, he wanted to discover what a normal life would be. But if he had to do it without Hikaru, it wouldn't be worth doing. Without her, he definitely would have taken another apprentice and tried again. With her, he would never do so. He wanted her more. It was as simple as that.

He was so stunned that it took him almost an hour to start thinking of ways to express this to her, and longer to finally remember the letters he'd written last night, to Kenshin and to her. They were still in the cottage. He'd never gotten around to tossing them in the fire. They would at least prove she was wrong about the one thing she said had hurt her worst of all. Maybe that realization would be a bridge he could cross back to her. He retrieved them and headed down to Kyoto.

She'd been waiting for Kenshin at that inn, the Aoiya. He didn't know if she was still there and had no idea how to find the place, but for once he got lucky. He spotted Yukiyo Sasaki, striding with her head down in fierce concentration, the Oniwaban cloak still hiding her katana.

She saw him almost as soon as he saw her. "What are you doing here?" she asked, hostile and curious at the same time. "I don't suppose it's to help."

Apparently Hikaru hadn't told her the whole story. Otherwise she would have done her speaking with her sword. "I'm looking for Hikaru. Is she still at the Aoiya?"

"She went home." She glanced obliquely at him. "She seemed very upset."

"That's none of your business," he snapped. "Where's Kenshin?"

"He's gone to Osaka."

Osaka? What was Shishio doing in Osaka? "What's going on in Osaka?" he asked her.

"Kenshin sent us a letter. He says that Saitoh discovered Shishio's plans to have the whole city of Kyoto set on fire tonight, just before midnight. We're trying to stop it."

Hiko knew his history. "Well, that explains why Kenshin went to Osaka. Those fires are a diversion, you know."

"They're still going to happen, diversion or not. Will you help us?"

"No. I have other things to do."

"Which I'm sure are more important than saving the city of Kyoto."

"You and the Oniwaban can handle it," he said, and strode off toward Kimiyama Ceramics.

The shop was closed, which it shouldn't have been at this hour of the day. He went left, down the alley toward the side gate which led to the house. As soon as he was before it, he was confronted by a very alert Bunto. The old soldier was carrying an unsheathed sword in his left hand, but he put it up as soon as he saw who it was. "Hiko-sensei!"

"Where is everybody?"

"There is a plot to set the city on fire, and the lady closed the shop so everyone could defend their own homes and neighborhoods."

"I want to see Hikaru-sama."

Bunto looked uncomfortable. "She said that, if you came, we were not to let you in."

His eyebrow jumped. "You can't stop me."

"No, Hiko-sensei," Bunto admitted unhappily, "but I would have to try. I have never seen the lady so angry, not in all my years of serving her. I would rather face your sword than her wrath."

He couldn't blame the man for that. "All right. Just tell her I'm here and I want to speak with her. See what she says."

Bunto disappeared, and returned just as quickly. "She says she will not see you," he said apologetically.

"What were her exact words?"


"Her exact words."

"She said, 'Tell him he can rot on the doorstep'."

"Very well. Tell her I will."

Bunto bowed deeply and went back inside. Hiko leaned his shoulders against the gate post and waited.

The sun went down, and the moon rose. Hiko stood there, leaning on the post, unmoving, chin sunk on his chest and arms folded. He noted that the city didn't burn, so the Oniwaban and the citizens must be doing their jobs properly. Two of Shishio's minions, thinking him sleeping, did try to sneak past him with tinder and oil. He left the bodies at the end of the alley as a warning to any others and then took up his position again. To his satisfaction, a short time after this minor interruption, Bunto came out, saw him there, and went inside. This happened again about half an hour later, and again in about another quarter hour.

Good, he thought. It won't be long now.

Bunto emerged yet again, bowed, and said, "The lady wants to know what it will take for you to go away."

She was receptive again. It certainly had taken her long enough to cool down. He handed Bunto the letters, one of them inside the other. "Give that to her. I'll wait for her response."

"Hiko-sensei, she might burn it unread."

"Then that will be her response. Just do what you're told, Bunto."


If Hikaru had cooled down any, it was not evident to Bunto, and he handed the letter to her with a deep bow and considerable trepidation. "He says he will wait for your response."

"Tell him I burned it," she said stiffly. He bowed again and started to leave, but, holding the letter in her hand, she said suddenly, "Wait. Don't go yet. I'll read this first, then call for you."

Looking relieved, he bowed himself out.

She still felt hurt, as if she were bruised inside, both physically and spiritually. She wished Seijuro would go away. She had no desire to see him now or any time in the near future. But he was just stubborn enough to stand out there for a week if she didn't read this, so she might as well. Then she could tear it into tiny bits and send it out again. If she could read it. His calligraphy was terrible. Half the time one couldn't make out the characters. Stupid man.

She turned the letter over and realized, with surprise, that it wasn't addressed to her, but to Kenshin. With a line between her brows, she opened it and found another letter inside, this one addressed to her. Puzzled, she read, Kenshin, if you have this, then I am dead and you have achieved the Ama-kakeru-ryu-no-hirameki. Congratulations. I am proud of you. She knew then what it was. He must have written it last night. In a way, it was a last will and testament for a man with no possessions except his principles. Her hands shook, but she gritted her teeth and went on.

She glanced once at the letter with her name on it, then skimmed Kenshin's. There was a very short paragraph of leave-taking and a very long one of what Seijuro considered the duties that Kenshin now owed as the new Seijuro Hiko the 14 th. Then – typical Seijuro! – a comment that he assumed Kenshin would be too selfish to assume those duties, followed by At least now you have what you need, both to defeat Shishio and to eventually be happy. Under that, Hikaru saw her own name. I have only one final command to you as your Master. Break this news to Hikaru-sama yourself, gently, and give her this.

She looked at the other letter as if it were an adder. She didn't want to read it. Finally, after several minutes of just staring at it, she unfolded it. It was much shorter than Kenshin's, and the opening salutation startled her.


Hikaru, beloved,


I am sorry. I know this will be a shock, but I couldn't warn you. You would have found some way to stop me, and that would have doomed Kenshin. You won't understand, but I can't help that. There is no way to explain, not to a woman with a heart like yours. I am glad it turned out this way, however, for I did not want to come to you and tell you Kenshin was dead at my hands. Don't blame him. He had no idea this would happen, and he is innocent of anything except being a good apprentice.


I would very much like to hold you one last time, but I had to choose between my own selfish desires and Kenshin's life. I know you won't mind that I chose Kenshin.


There are many things I would like to say to you, but they all seem trivial now. Except this, something you know but that I have never once said to you. I love you. I have loved you since the first moment I saw you in that Edo teahouse garden. You are the only thing in this world that I regret leaving.




By the time she reached the signature, she was blinking away tears so hard that she could barely see the paper. She set it aside and sat staring at the wall, silently cursing him. He had been thinking of her. He had wanted and needed her. And now, when he had kept this atrocious secret and she desperately wanted to hate him, he did this. As a love letter, it was pathetic. But coming from a man who, as he admitted, had never once in more than 25 years said the word "love" to her, it meant more than all of the pretty verses she'd ever received during her lifetime.

But, dammit, she hated him even more now. How dare he wait until he was going to die, and then put it in a letter? And then bring it now like an offering to a temple, a sacrifice of paper and ink and maybe a little pride, to get her to forgive him for something so heinous? He'd lied to her, deceived her in the most horrible way, about himself and about Kenshin. He'd planned to leave her all alone in this world for the sake of a stupid sword attack. None of his pretty words about helping Kenshin ameliorated that. She crumpled the letter in her fist. This is not going to work, Seijuro, she thought, squaring her jaw. She called Bunto's name, loudly. She would tell Bunto that she was still of the same opinion, and that Seijuro should go back to his damned mountain and leave her alone.

But by the time Bunto came in, she'd changed her mind and was smoothing the paper across her knees.


Hiko straightened, unconsciously bracing himself when Bunto came out again. If the letters hadn't worked, he had nothing else to try.

Bunto bowed. "The lady says for you to come inside."

He hid his triumphant grin. That would be for later. He followed Bunto up the path to the porch, and Hikaru stood holding the door open with her own hands. He reached for her, and she walked into his arms, putting hers around his neck. "Say it," she said against his shoulder.

He cleared his throat. "Say what?"

"What you said in the letter."

Women. They were never satisfied. "I love you, Hikaru. There. Are you happy now?"

"No. I still hate you."

"Idiot woman. If you hate me, why are you standing in an open doorway, in front of your own home and full view of anyone who passes by, hugging me so tightly you're cutting off my air?"

"As if I could, you thick-necked, thick-skulled beast. What other horrible surprises do you have for me?"

Her tone was light, but he could hear the worry under it. He held her a little tighter. "None."

"You promise?"

"I said none, didn't I?"

She kissed the point of his jaw. "I wanted to kill you, you know."

"That's a truly irrational, but typically female, reaction."

"At least now I know why you became such a famed swordsman."

"Do I want to hear this?"

"You said you had to have a strong will to live, to learn the attack yourself. And there must be dozens of people out there who want to murder you. Maybe hundreds. You therefore became so skilled in order to survive."

"You've said that to me before," he said dryly. "But I became skilled because that was what I wanted."

"And what do you want now?"

He couldn't tell her that, not yet. Although he was forgiven, he knew her grievance wasn't yet dead, but only submerged for the moment under the emotions his letter had stirred. He still had some work to do before she would accept a proposal of marriage with anything but indignation at his insensitivity. He knew he was insensitive at times, but he wasn't a fool. "We'll go into that another time," he said, and picked her up to carry her into the house, shutting the door behind them.

She chuckled. "I know what you want."

"You do not," he said, putting her back on her feet. "I just wanted you off the porch. You know there's going to be violence out there."

She shivered and came back into his arms. "Don't leave me."

He didn't misunderstand her. Whatever was going on in the city this night, that wasn't what was on her mind. "I won't, Hikaru. Never again."


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