Reunion
Part 6

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Hikaru refuses to leave the Aoiya, where she knows Kenshin will eventually return. She gets a whole lot more than she bargained for, when the Aoiya is attacked by the Juppongatana!

This story was great fun for me to write. Hikaru has so many firsts in it - her first battle, the first time she sees Hiko fight (and yes, she goes all fangirl), and her first rage of jealousy over him. It's always fun to write scenes where Hiko and Hikaru are fighting.

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Kenshin had gone.

In the Aoiya's kitchen, Hikaru blindly folded towels, setting each one on the stack on the kitchen table, each edge precise, each side lined up. Kenshin had gone to his terrible duel, taking with him that brave young man, Sanosuke Sagara, and the policeman, Goro Fujita – no, Hajime Saitoh was his true name.

Manslayers, they called them. Hitokiri. Even Lt. Fujita, who for many years she had believed to be an ordinary police inspector. Hitokiri. How she hated the term and everything about it.

Two edges on the towel she was folding didn't match up. Ruthlessly, she shook it out, snapped it, and folded it properly. Almost finished. Then she would start cutting and rolling bandages. She was sure that the Aoiya would not be left in peace this day, and Kenshin and the others would not return unscathed. There would be wounds. Bandages would be needed.

She tried to keep her mind on her work, but it continued to return, again and again, to the same theme. Kenshin. Could fate be so cruel as to take you from me, so soon after I've finally found you again? She shook her head, absently using the back of her hand to brush away wetness on her cheek as she reached for the linen and scissors. She would not cry. He would come back. He had those great warriors beside him, after all. Yuki, too. Hikaru had seen the girl quietly slip out to follow them. Surely there was no battle that could not be won by that team, even one against Makoto Shishio and his Juppongatana. She knew, too, that Kenshin was at the peak of his power, a Hiten Mitsurugi Master now. She had to trust them.

"What are you doing, Hikaru-san?"

She looked up from her task, managed a smile for Okina. "Preparing for battle in the only way I can."

Okina shut the door behind himself and stepped forward, to speak quietly. His expression was serious, even stern. "Kimiyama-san, I am sorry. But I must ask you to leave the Aoiya. Now, while you are still able to."

She slowly rose. She understood, but that didn't mean she liked it. "I know I cannot fight. But I will not get in the way of those who can."

"I do not wish to offend you. But your very presence here is a hindrance, whether you stay away from the fight or not. If the others are aware that you are within, they will have your safety on their consciences. Their thoughts and energies will be divided."

"I ask for no one's protection." Even as she spoke the words, she knew how foolish they were. She bowed. "I apologize. I know I need not ask for it, that it will be given anyway."

"Then you understand why I must make you leave. Return to your home. I promise you, I will send word when Himura-kun returns. Or, if you still wish to be of help to us, then as soon as I believe it is safe."

She allowed a little of her frustration and anger to show. "Am I so useless? Nothing but a burden?"

"I have sent all of our employees and servants back to their homes. Only warriors remain here."

"The warriors still need to be fed, to be tended...."

"After the battle, yes! But not during it. Please, I beg you, do not make me force you to leave. I cannot spare a fighter to escort you, if you become stubborn, but I can take you myself."

"And leave the Aoiya leaderless?"

He nodded.

She bent her head. Slowly, she untied the apron strings, let the apron fall to the floor. "You swear to me to send word? The moment it is safe for me to return? Swear it!"

"I give you my word."

She lifted her chin. "Very well. I will go home and just... wait." With this, she swept from the room.

A few minutes later, when she crept back inside, the room was empty. Okina was gone.

Men could truly be fools, she thought with a smile. She had shown Okina just enough strength, and just enough weakness. Enough truth to cover her lie. Enough temper, yet enough submissiveness, for him to believe she had gone home.

As if anything could tear me away from the place Kenshin will eventually return to.

Nothing on the table had been disturbed. She grabbed the scissors and the linen, and began to cut long, even strips.

As the pile of rolled bandages grew high, she glanced at the fire, thinking of boiling water. She did not dare build the fire up, for fear that Okina or one of the others would notice the widening smoke, so she thought she had better start to heat the water now. Setting aside the scissors, she took two buckets to the well and awkwardly filled them. Just as she was about to go inside, however, she paused and looked toward the street. She thought she heard the murmur of voices. Masculine voices, a lot of them. She set the buckets down, crept up the alley, and peeked around the corner.

There were so many! They were all dressed alike, as if they were soldiers in uniform, but they showed no order or discipline. They had formed a semi-circle around the front of the Aoiya. She couldn't see past the wall of backs, but she could see, above their heads, the clownlike, smiling face of a freakishly round, pink man, and the end of what looked like an enormous scythe.

There would be a battle at the Aoiya, then, a bad one. She crept back inside, remembering to get the buckets.

By the time she had poured the water into pots and put them onto the fire to heat, her arms were trembling with fatigue. She wasn't accustomed to so much hard work. She wished Seijuro was here to lift them for her, as he always did. I wish he was here to help the others! she thought, pressing her clenched fists against her stomach. Never, never would she understand the philosophy which allowed Seijuro to stand back from this conflict, especially now that Kenshin was so involved. These were Kenshin's friends and family. And while they might be great warriors, each one, how could so few stand against so many?

For the first time since the Revolution, she flexed her hands and wished they had learned to wield a weapon. She could do nothing now. But she made a vow to herself. At the very least, she could make sure that she would not become the burden Okina had named her. No matter what happened, she would stay out of sight. She would not scream, or make any sound at all to give her presence away.

Yet... she couldn't just stay here in the kitchen. She had done everything she could, and if she remained here, ignorant, she would just become more afraid. Hurriedly, she stripped off her kimono and donned a servant's yukata from the clean laundry. She pulled all the jeweled and ivory pins from her hair, let it tumble free, then bound it up again in a strip of the linen. Her golden zori were kicked under the table. In her tabi, looking nothing like herself, she peeked through the kitchen door. No one was in the main dining room. They were all outside, facing their enemies. She took a breath and, hunched over, she moved sideways and low to the ground, crablike, across the floor until she reached a place where she could see through a crack in the front door.

What she saw made no sense to her, but then, she knew herself no battle strategist. The four young Oniwaban members were facing the freakishly large, fat man whose face she had seen over the heads of the crowd, and they were already cut and bleeding, but still whole. Yahiko and Kaoru faced a bone-thin man wrapped in black, and Misao stood alone against the scythe-wielder. That last person was giggling and talking about his worship for Lord Shishio.

Something was burning. She frowned. It was faint, but too strong to be someone's kitchen fire. Although she knew she had not been careless, she slipped back toward the kitchen to assure herself that nothing was amiss there. A fine thing it would be, if she burned the Aoiya behind them while they fought for it!

Before she reached the kitchen door, an explosion rocked the floor under her, sending her to her knees. She was too astonished to even wonder what happened. She just knelt there, looking over her shoulder at the front of the Aoiya and seeing dust floating in from the street. What...?

Another explosion followed, then more of them in rapid succession. Shaking, she crouched on the floor, arms over her head, and for a confused moment she was back in the Revolution, hearing artillery fire, wondering where Toshiro was. But she didn't scream, not even when the front of the building buckled inward on a cloud of dust. She bit her lip and determined to hold to her vow, and that brought her back to herself. The terror of the Revolution fell behind her, and she realized that one of the enemy must have bombs. She pulled an overturned table toward her and crouched behind its shelter.

Yahiko's yell and the cries of Kaoru and Misao brought her head up in alarm. She stared around the edge of the table and saw Yahiko stumble inside and grab the collapsed door. There was a hideous bloody wound on his back, and she half-rose to go to him. But he was outside again in a heartbeat, with the door, and more explosions rocked the ground.

Huddled back behind the table, too afraid to look again, she strained her ears. She heard Yahiko yell again, in triumph this time. She heard the battle cries of the others. Something hit the roof, and several people screamed Misao's name. Hikaru forgot her fear and rose to her knees to see, but then came a series of crashes, as if someone were trying to beat in the wall. The sounds marched up and down the Aoiya's front, and she heard the man-woman yelling something.

Then silence. Even as she gathered her courage to crawl out of her meager shelter to see what was happening, she heard again the murmur from the voices of the hundred or so men gathered around, a murmur of dismay. Then she heard the sounds of men retreating hastily and without order. Yells, running feet, cries of fear.

The warriors of the Aoiya were cheering and laughing.

She drew a steadying breath. Surely it must be safe to come forth now. Still, she decided to stay low and out of sight until she was sure. Through the gaps in the front of the Aoiya, she heard Kaoru assuring someone that all the wounded would be tended, even their enemies, and Hikaru smiled with pride. She got to her feet and turned for the kitchen to get her supplies of healing now that Kaoru and the others needed them.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

What is that? The ground vibrated under the slow, even pounding. The sound was steady and sure, like the footsteps of some enormous beast. It came to a stop right behind the Aoiya. Forgetting caution, she ran to the back and looked out – and then stared up, and up.

Like everyone else, she was speechless and paralyzed by the sight of the giant whose form seemed to blot out the sky. In one hand he held a sword of such great size that Hikaru couldn't have measured its width with her spread arms. In the other hand he held a small, wizened old man.

The sword rose, and Hikaru saw that it was going to descend on the Aoiya itself. She leaped aside, throwing herself out of the way of the blade barely in time. In her panic, she forgot her vow and screamed, although in the din of the destruction caused by the weapon, no one heard her. The blade had come down through the roof and upper floor of the Aoiya, and buried itself in the floor not a body's length from Hikaru's outstretched feet. A wide swath of the building seemed to have disappeared entirely, and the part where Hikaru now lay was oddly shaped, the ceiling canting downward. With no apparent effort, as if he'd simply cut a cake, the giant hefted the blade free from the splintered wood and lifted it high again. Instinctively, if uselessly, Hikaru curled her legs up, but she was too terrified to move any more.

However, the sword did not descend again. Instead, the little man began to boast. Through the gap in the walls, she could see all her Aoiya friends. They were still alive and on their feet, but she could see defeat in their slumped shoulders and slackened jaws. She didn't blame them. How could anyone fight a monster that big?

I have to move. I have to get out of sight. She felt as if her bones were made of water, and she couldn't stand when she tried. She had to crawl. But, in an act of courage she would never understand, she didn't crawl away to the kitchen, but instead toward the front of the Aoiya, to the left of the jagged gap. Somewhere in her heart was a determination to witness the end of the Oniwaban members and the pair from Tokyo, yet also in her heart was also a hope that, somehow, those courageous warriors would rally and find some way to defeat even this mighty foe.

The enormous sword came down again, far from her this time, but Okina went flying through the air. She covered her scream with one hand, but Okina's Oniwaban members leaped to his rescue, catching him in midair and bringing him to the ground safely.

Her hope soared at that, but then faltered again. All of them were still just standing there, staring up with expressions of awed fear. All, that is, save Yahiko. And Yahiko, that idiot, had stepped forward and was challenging the monster! Without so much as a weapon in his hand, he stood there, shouting something – Kenshin's name – at the giant. Her eyes widened as the giant lifted his blade again. She wanted to cover them, but she couldn't move, couldn't lift her hand from her mouth. Surely not even such a monster would cut down an unarmed boy. No, surely not. Yet the sword began its downward plunge, and she would have screamed again if she could have moved her lungs.

A flash of white, at the corner of her vision. The others were all shouting to Yahiko, and the descending sword caught the light, dazzling her eyes. But the sound of the impact was not that of steel into flesh, but of steel on steel.

Seijuro. Seijuro!! He stood there, her beloved, with his sword lifted high and protectively over Yahiko's bent head. Caught on it, the giant's sword had notched and cracked, and not all the monster's strength could bring it down another inch past the iron will and muscle of Seijuro Hiko. Hikaru swallowed a tearful gasp. Everything would be all right now.

She had never seen Seijuro fight, not in all the years she'd known him. She had never wanted to, and even when he had been training Kenshin, she had been forbidden to observe. A gasp at the wrong time, he had informed her, would not distract a trained Master like himself, but it would turn Kenshin's head, and such a mistake could cost his apprentice dearly. So, although she had seen occasional glimpses of their sparring, she had honored his command and turned away at those times. Even so, she believed in him, and now she didn't doubt for a moment that he could defeat this monster.

She saw him gather himself, saw his shoulders and arms bunch. The giant's sword fell heavily to one side. Cheers from the others drowned his voice, but whatever he said put spirit back into Yahiko, for the boy started yelling at him. Seijuro picked up the boy as he might a kitten. The others had quieted, and she heard Seijuro blaming Kenshin's lack of directions for his tardiness. Her face grew hot, her admiration turning to exasperation. The man would never change. Even in battle, he was still obnoxious and rude, and still calling Kenshin an idiot!

Yet the words that followed, spoken to the giant, Fuji, were anything but rude. Seijuro spoke to the monster as a man, a man he respected. He praised Fuji's fighting spirit. Even as familiar as she was with his wisdom, Hikaru lost her anger and raised her fingers to her lips again, silently awed by him. Only Seijuro Hiko could have seen through what was visible and obvious, and into the heart of the monster. No, not a monster. A man. He shamed them all with his insight, and her fingers pressed her lips harder as her heart swelled with pride in him.

He was still rude to the old man, of course, but by that time, even Hikaru had heard enough from that squealing little fellow to make her grateful that Seijuro was making him shut up.

Then, to everyone's astonishment except Seijuro's, the giant did Seijuro's bidding and shed his armor. As it clattered down like an avalanche, Fuji set the old man on the ground, threw back his head, and let out a battle cry so loud that Hikaru had to cover her sensitive ears. She heard the joy in the cry, the sudden realization of freedom, and she thought, Seijuro, are you sure you know what you're doing? Do you know what you have unleashed?

The two men froze, Fuji with blade lifted high into the sky, Seijuro in a curved stance, looking magnificent to Hikaru, like the embodiment of strength in motion, caught in an instant of time. Like a god, he stood there, and in the stillness, Hikaru heard Okina calling him marvelous, and Yahiko saying he was cool. Misao, however, in a more practical spirit, pointed out that if the two of them got into a prolonged battle, they would wreck the Aoiya. Hikaru glanced wryly around her, at the detritus, the gap in the wall through which the sun poured, revealing the buckled hole in the floor and the partially collapsed balcony of the second floor. But even as she miraculously found amusement still within her, she realized it was there because she, like the others, had no doubt that Seijuro Hiko would successfully defend them all.

As Okina had warned, when the end came, it came with incredible swiftness. Seijuro mocked the big man, and his mockery, as Hikaru knew well, would enrage anyone but Buddha himself. Fuji's grip shifted. With two hands on the hilt, he brought the sword down toward Seijuro, and so fast and strong was the blow that the wind of it blew Yahiko backward and sent up a cloud of dust. Debris from the street flew through the air in straight horizontal lines. Hikaru fell back onto her bottom with a yelp, but scrambled at once to her knees and looked out again.

Fuji had swept back his sword, and before him was a crater in the ground. There was no sign of Seijuro, and the little man crowed in triumph that he'd been completely annihilated. Hikaru looked around, sure that Seijuro's speed was greater even than Fuji's, wondering where he'd gone. Then she saw the others looking up, and she looked up, too. And there he was, his sword stuck into Fuji's, clinging nearly upside down to the side of the giant weapon, like an insect on a honey spoon. A graceful, beautiful sort of insect, she thought, smiling, her hands pressed now to her breast, watching him make even the impossible look easy, his cape whipping about him in the wind.

He spoke to Fuji, kindly this time. And then, he flew. Or that's how it seemed to Hikaru, as if he simply lifted himself into the air with the strength of his great thighs. He even hovered for a moment before descending, and when he fell from the sky, it was not a fall, but a launch. His eyes glowed an eerie blue, and his sword moved too quickly for the eye to follow it. Fuji collapsed, slowly and majestically, like a great oak struck by lightning. Through the cloud of dust raised by his fall, Hikaru saw Seijuro land lightly beside him, resting his sword.

The battle was over.

Hikaru hugged herself. She had never believed that Seijuro exaggerated when he boasted of his own power and skill, but at the same time, it was one thing to believe him and another thing entirely to witness it. Yet, she had not seen him kill today. In his respect for the great warrior, he had turned his sword. Hikaru couldn't see the blade that well, but she heard the others exclaim, and the pride swelled her heart until it felt as if it would fill her entire chest. Oh, Seijuro. There is no one else like you. No wonder I fell in love with you.

Her eyes narrowed suddenly, her good feelings vanishing. She was not the only one in love with Seijuro at that moment. The two Oniwaban women, Omasu and Okon, were practically swooning over him, cooing at him about how cool he was. And Seijuro was just standing there, smiling, giving a small nod of agreement.

Of course. He knew he was great. That wasn't arrogance, he would claim, but simply an acknowledgement of the truth. A sudden and inexplicable rage filled Hikaru, so that she missed what was said next, until Seijuro's voice cut through her fog. He was talking about Kenshin. He was calling him his stupid apprentice, as usual, but he was telling them all to have faith in Kenshin. Some of her anger died away. He was an infuriating man, but he was also, as Okina said, simply marvelous.

Misao crowed their victory. Kaoru was talking about getting more bandages, now that they had peace to properly tend the wounded. Hikaru drew back into the shadows, but with so much of the Aoiya gone, even crouched down she couldn't find a shadow large enough to hide her before Kaoru stepped inside.

Kaoru's eyes widened, but even as her lips parted, Hikaru signaled her to be quiet. Kaoru nodded, still wide-eyed, and the two women went quickly back to the kitchen.

Miraculously, there was no damage in that room. Even the pots of water hadn't spilled.

"Hikaru-san, why are you here?" Kaoru asked, automatically taking the pot that Hikaru carefully handed her. "Okina-san told us you had gone."

"Okina-san is a man. A man never seems to realize that a woman won't always obey him, especially not when he believes he is in the right."

"You... you've cut bandages. So many."

"I thought they would be needed." She filled a cloth with towels and bandages, tied it into a bundle, and slung it from Kaoru's free arm. "You can come back for the rest if you need it."

"Were you here the whole time?"

"Yes. Never mind that, just go. Don't waste time here with me. But, Kaoru-san, please don't tell anyone that you saw me. I don't want Okina-san to be upset," she said, which was the truth, if not all the truth. Unless Yuki or Kenshin had mentioned it – and she did not believe they would have – no one here knew of her relationship with Seijuro, so she certainly wasn't going to add And I don't want Seijuro to strangle me.

Kaoru nodded, her expression innocent. No, she did not know. "I certainly won't say anything. But I am glad you weren't harmed. I suppose you stayed right here in the kitchen until just now? Safe?"

"Yes, of course," Hikaru lied smoothly.

"Oh, that's good," Kaoru smiled, and left with her burdens.

Ten minutes later, once more in her good clothes, although with her hair pinned up more loosely than usual, Hikaru approached the Aoiya from the direction of her home. She hoped no one would notice the somewhat less than perfect appearance which was the best she'd been able to do with no mirror. She quickened her footsteps, so that her seeming hurry to get to the Aoiya might be some excuse for dishevelment.

Fuji still lay in the street, unconscious, although his little friend was gone. The scythe-person was also still sitting there, smiling wryly, but with a deep underlying sadness. The others were either washing and bandaging wounds, or being washed and bandaged – all save Seijuro, of course, and Okon, who was pouring sake for him. The girl was standing before him in a pose that, with the ninja outfit she wore, revealed her entire shapely leg. Hikaru could have told her that Seijuro was not such a slave to his masculine desires that so obvious a ploy would affect him in any way, but he was also not pushing the girl away from him. In fact, he was smiling down at her.

Smiling.

Fuming and struggling to hide it, Hikaru ignored him to kneel beside Kaoru. The girl greeted her with apparent surprise, a born conspirator. "I want to help," Hikaru said.

"There are more bandages in the kitchen, and hot water. Would you mind going for them? Only be careful going through the front room. Part of the floor is gone."

Hikaru made a show of gaping at the damage and the fallen giant, and of insisting they tell her everything when they had time. She then picked her way back to the kitchen. With quick, jerky movements, she wrapped up the remaining towels and bandages. Then she found a holder and placed it around the handle of the simmering pot of water.

Another hand, a huge one, closed over hers and moved it away from the heat. Seijuro had come in silently behind her. He lifted the pot, but his eyes didn't express his usual annoyance that she'd tried to do the task herself. Instead, they were narrowed suspiciously.

Sometimes the best defense was to attack first. She allowed some of her anger to seep into her expression and thanked him coldly. "I'm grateful that you could tear yourself away from your pleasures to help me."

But sidetracking Seijuro was like trying to push over an oak tree. "You were here," he said.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You may be able to fool those people out there, Hikaru, but I know you. I know when you're acting, when you're lying."

She didn't react, not even with a blush. "I admit I didn't go all the way home, as I told Okina-san I would, but..."

"You were here," he said in that gravelly low voice that meant he was furious. "Right here, probably in this kitchen."

"I would not deliberately put myself in so much danger."

"How long are you going to keep trying to lie to me?" His hands were suddenly on her arms, forcing her into the nearest chair. He lifted her foot and yanked off her zori. "Sawdust. You didn't get those on your tabi by waiting up the street." He gave her back the zori, almost flinging it at her, then looked around and grabbed the servant's yukata from the shelf where she'd tucked it. He held it up. "Disguise?" he said, with unerring shrewdness, tossing it aside without waiting for her to reply. Then his eye lit on something under the table, and he bent, coming up with one of her hair pins.

"I could have lost that days ago," she said defensively.

"But you didn't. Did you?" When she didn't answer, he suddenly knelt before her, not in any kind of supplication, but so that he could give her a good shake. "Curse you, you willful, stupid woman. I believed you were safe! I told you to stay at home and be safe!"

"You mean stay at home and be a coward and abandon my friends?" she retorted just as savagely.

"Yes. For my sake. That's not cowardice – nobody questions your courage. But for me. You call me selfish, but you're as selfish as I am." He released her, sitting back on his heels, holding her eyes with his dark, stormy ones. "I think we are now even for the Amakakeru Ryu no Hiromeki."

"No."

"No?" He rose, his face cold. "You risked your life without telling me, as I did. I think that makes us even."

She was so angry, she fumbled trying to put her zori back on her foot. "Fine. We're even. I didn't realize we were keeping a score, but whatever you say must be right. After all, you are the marvelous and cool Hiko-sama, aren't you?"

His brow went up.

"Oh, go away! Go back to your worshippers!"

And, damn him, his mouth started to curve in a smile. "Worshippers?"

"Yes! Go get your sake and your adulation, and another look at that girl's legs. Go."

"I wasn't looking at her legs."

"Oh yes you were." He hadn't been, but she was too angry to be reasonable. "And smiling! Enjoying yourself. Well, you can just go back to them – her – them, and leave me here where I can be of some use. I am going to cook!" She rose, grabbing a skillet.

Perhaps wisely, he caught the skillet and took it out of her hand. "Hikaru – are you jealous?"

He was amused, and she felt the blood burning in her ears and behind her eyes. "No. Why would I be jealous of such an arrogant, unfeeling, dictatorial man as you? If you ran away with Okon tomorrow, she'd return in a week, begging me to take you back. I probably couldn't lose you if I tried." Those words stung him for some reason; his brows came down. That restored some of her self-control, and she drew herself up haughtily. "Go back out front. You worked hard, so you deserve to have a little extra honey poured over your self-love."

"That's very kind of you. Did you see the fight?"

"Yes, and...." She stopped, appalled at her lack of sense.

"I knew it," he snarled. "You didn't even stay here in the kitchen. You came out into the Aoiya." Alarm edged his harsh voice. "You were there when Fuji knocked part of it down."

Although she was forced to summon all her strength to avoid going to him to give him comfort, outwardly she remained cold. "You're changing the subject."

He scowled. "That particular subject is ridiculous. Your apparent lack of consideration for my concern about your safety is the subject I want to discuss."

She ignored that last sentence and waved a hand airily, with a smile so false it was nothing more than a baring of the teeth. "Oh, of course it is a ridiculous subject. What do a woman's feelings matter in the aftermath of a battle?" She snapped the smile shut and glared at him. "I don't want to discuss anything at all with you. Go back out and get your boots licked. I don't care."

"Oh yes you do. You care very much, for some obscure reason. Do you have any idea how silly you sound?"

"No more than you, standing there shouting at me because I'm telling you that I have no desire to spoil your fun."

"I'm not shouting!"

She lifted a brow.

In a consciously lowered tone, grappling with self-control, he said, "You're making something out of nothing."

"Am I? I suppose I must be seeing things, then, for I could swear that I saw that girl plastering herself all over you, and what I did not see was you pushing her away or discouraging her in any way."

Seijuro Hiko's temper, when roused, was formidable, but Hikaru was angry enough herself that she watched him get himself under control with no other feeling than a mild regret. "Hikaru Murasaki Kimiyama," he growled, using both her married names, "I could teach you a thing or two about jealousy. But that is not what I want to talk about."

She drew herself to her full height. "I told you, I don't wish to talk to you about anything right now. Leave this kitchen. Go back to that half-naked girl and her jug of sake."

He made an exasperated sound, but his voice, when it finally emerged again, was calm and reasonable. "You know little about battle..."

"This has nothing to do with...."

"Silence! This has everything to do with the battle." Controlling himself yet again, he went on reasonably, like the teacher he was. "Once a battle is finished, those who participated in it usually still have energy within them – energy created by the heat of the fight – that they must work off."

"Oh, I know all about that. That's usually the excuse warlords make for their men pillaging a village and raping its women, after a battle is won. So," she waved a hand, "go and rape her."

"Sometimes, the things that come out of your mouth amaze even me." He put his hands on his hips. "I don't have battle heat to rid myself of. I've been in too many fights, and I have far too much control and skill to need to work up the kind of excitement that sharpens the abilities of others. I am talking about the Oniwaban girls. They just emerged from a life-or-death battle, something to which they are not accustomed, and their emotions are exaggerated. Furthermore, they won what they thought was a hopeless fight, so their spirits are high. Those feelings need release. I don't feel the need to discourage those feelings, which will all pass off quickly enough once the battle fever is gone. And if you had not been here," he added in a tight tone, "where you should not have been, then you would never have seen it."

"You prefer to do your flirting as well as your fighting where I can't see it?"

"I wasn't flirting!" Once more he dragged his temper back under his control. "I can see that the only way I can reassure you is to approach you as a woman."

"Stop patronizing me," she said coldly.

His lips curved. "I do love your temper, Hikaru. But I think we've had enough of it."

"I said to stop patronizing me, you conceited, overbearing, arrogant ass."

He gripped her arms, not tightly, but showing her his strength so that she knew she would not be able to break the grip. Yet his voice was soft. "Hikaru. I have you. Why would I want to look at any other woman?"

His rare tenderness always disarmed her. "But you were looking."

"Only out of courtesy and respect. It shouldn't trouble you."

"But it does."

"Why?"

"She... she's so much younger than I am," she said, trying not to let her voice quiver.

"She is a child, yes."

"And more beautiful."

"No woman is more beautiful than you, in my eyes. And in ten years, or twenty, I will still be saying the same thing, and it will still be true."

"Then why did you let her crawl all over you like that?" she demanded.

"Because it helped her and did not harm me."

"It hurt me."

"You were hurt, not because of what that girl did, but because you were where you should not have been. And because you don't trust me."

"I..." He was right. Now she felt her face flushing. "I do trust you. But she is so young and lovely, and a warrior, and – everything I'm not."

He released her, scowling. "Do you really think so little of me? Do you think me so weak that, having chosen you, I would succumb in a moment to someone who, as you say, is everything you are not?"

"No, but..."

"If you truly trusted me, there would be no 'but' in this conversation."

Her pent-up emotion burst out. "I do trust you! I just don't want some other woman handling you."

At that, he laughed, his big, full-bodied, most annoying laugh.

She snapped, "I know it's childish and unfair, but I still don't like it."

"I suppose I should feel flattered."

"Don't you?" she asked, sullen.

He touched her pouting lower lip with one finger. "No. I'm insulted. You know me better than anyone does. I have been waiting for you for more than half my life. Now, when I am finally able to ask you to marry me, you believe, even irrationally, that I would turn away from you for a young girl I just met? And you call yourself an intelligent woman."

She gasped. With the words marry me, all the air had left her lungs, as if she had been punched. "Seijuro..."

"What?" he demanded, annoyed.

"Did you just ask me to marry you?"

"No, I did not. I simply said that now, with Kenshin's training complete, I am able to do so. Jealousy turns your brains into soba."

Jealousy was forgotten. Okon was forgotten. Even the Aoiya and the battle were forgotten in the future that suddenly opened before her. At last, the one thing that was her heart's greatest desire would be given to her. "A-are you going to ask me to marry you?"

"Yes, but not until Kenshin returns and you don't have the best part of your mind focused on my stupid apprentice."

"My answer is yes."

"I haven't asked you yet! There's Kenshin to worry about. And there are things we have to discuss first. Such as where we'll live."

"On the mountain, of course. Can I have a garden?"

"A small one. But what about...?"

She flung her arms around his neck. "Shut up, you idiot. What does anything else matter, except that we will belong to each other, forever and ever, from now on?"

"In other words, you are saying that a good cure for jealousy is security."

She leaned back to smile into his eyes. "Of course. Isn't that the reason you want to actually marry me?"

"Indirectly. It is true that, if you're married to me, you won't go off and marry someone else."

She laid her cheek onto his shoulder. "Don't be so romantic. You'll make me soft."

"You're already soft. Let me go. You wanted to cook, remember?"

She laughed, held him more tightly, then released him. "You just want to go out and flirt with that girl again," she said, but this time teasingly, her eyes merry.

"I am not flirting, I keep telling you. I'm just allowing her to pour sake for me. I'm not going to pass up good sake simply because you have decided to let your brain be swamped with hysterical female notions."

"Then when you come to my home to propose marriage, you had better bring a very good atonement gift."

He looked at her a moment, his expression stilled. "It's good to see you laugh."

The reminder took away her merriment. If Kenshin were killed today, how long would it be before she would have the heart to be happy like this again? Seeing that he was reading her thoughts, she put out a hand, and he took it. "He will come back, won't he?" she whispered.

"He will come back. But, Hikaru, he's changed, and this fight will change him even more. You will scarcely know him. You have to face that."

She raised his hand to her cheek. "You'll be there to help me."

Continued


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