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This is another of those scenes that kept haunting me until I wrote it. I knew that the relationship between the child Kenshin and Hikaru was broken beyond repair, and that they would have to forge a new relationship. Luckily, they are both rational people. Unlike, say, Hiko.
It was a bit of a scary scene to write, too, because this was my first real attempt at writing Sano!
One odd thing struck me after I wrote this. Hikaru has no real idea of any of the details of Kenshin's life as a revolutionary. She knows nothing about Tomoe and little about anything else. I doubt that either Kenshin or Hiko will ever tell her! But Yuki might.
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Sanosuke Sagara slouched onto the porch of the Aoiya, dropping beside Kenshin with a grunt. Kenshin was alone – a rarity lately – and reading something, and at the moment, that was the most interesting thing happening in the Aoiya. Sano was bored. He wanted to get back to Tokyo, to his own life and friends and pursuits. Not that the Oniwabanshuu was a bad group. They were his friends now, too. But no matter how welcome they made him feel, Kyoto was not home.
"What's that?" he demanded.
"Just a note. From Hikaru-dono."
" 'Hikaru-dono' ? I thought she said it was all right for us to call her Hikaru-san."
"She did say that."
"But I guess she didn't mean it, huh?" Rich people, he knew, could be weirdly capricious.
But Kenshin said, "She meant it, that she did."
"Then why are you calling her Hikaru-dono, all of a sudden?"
"I don't know."
Sano rolled his eyes. "So, what does she say?"
"She wants me to visit her."
"Great! I can't wait. Her cooking is terrific." They'd gone to the Kimiyama home once before, at Hikaru's invitation, all of them, to celebrate Kenshin's recovery, and she had entertained them like royalty.
"Not you. Just me."
"Oh." Sano was crushed, but only for a moment. "So, is this going to be, like, a mother sort of thing?"
Kenshin shot him an annoyed look. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, you told us she was like your mother. So is this going to be one of those talks? You know, where she tells you what a jerk you've been, scaring everyone like you did?"
Kenshin sighed. "Probably."
"Are you going to go?" When Kenshin didn't answer, Sano said, "You are going, right?"
"I don't know."
"Kenshin! She's like your mother, right? You can't just say no to your mother. You have to go."
"She's not really my mother."
Sano snorted. "All right, then what is she? Not a girlfriend. Yuki would have killed her already, if that was the case. Although she is really pretty," he added appreciatively, "so I guess she could be your back-up girlfriend."
Grinning at having gotten Kenshin to react, Sano went on musing. "There's something to be said for older women. They're mature. They aren't going to give you a hard time, like Misao-chan or the Little Missy. Yeah, that sounds good to me. You should go. Just don't tell Yuki."
"You should stop working your imagination. Have some respect for Hikaru-dono."
"Oh, I do! Lots. But then, she's not inviting me for a cozy little private chat, she's inviting you."
Kenshin tilted his head back, looking up at the sky. "Somehow, I don't think this will be a cozy chat, as you call it."
"Probably not. But come on, Kenshin." He gave Kenshin a playful punch on the arm. "You're the guy who beat Makoto Shishio. Hikaru-san is just a nice lady. You can handle her. Or, hey, do you want me to come with you, to help again? I'll see if Aoshi will get off his butt and come along as well. Too bad Saitoh's not still around," he added, with true regret. "But the three of us ought to be able to handle one woman. We'll have to leave Yuki behind, though," he added thoughtfully.
"You're being silly."
"I'm being silly? You're the one sitting around here, too scared to go talk to a woman."
"You would be, too, if you knew her well."
Sano pondered that. "I guess. I haven't known her for long, and we haven't seen much of her since you got on your feet, but I remember that once, she shut up your Master with just a glance. That's pretty impressive, you've got to admit. Yeah, all right, I guess you can be scared if you want."
"Thank you," Kenshin said sarcastically.
"Want me to go instead of you and take your place? I can talk to a lady."
"You'd just eat all of her food, break a few things, and make her mad at both of us."
"I'd be careful!"
Kenshin's face suddenly lightened into a smile. "That would probably make you even more clumsy, that it would."
Sano folded his arms on his chest. "So what's the real problem, Kenshin? What's really wrong?"
For a moment, he didn't think Kenshin would answer him. Kenshin just stared up at the sky, silent. But Sano knew him, and knew to wait for him. At last Kenshin sighed and said, "She was kind to me, when I was an apprentice. But her heart is very gentle. I knew, when I became a hitokiri, that she would never understand. So I made myself dead to her."
"You mean, you didn't try to explain that whole Battousai thing to her at all."
"No. I didn't."
"Dead, huh? Does that mean you left Kyoto without saying goodbye to her?"
"Or even telling her you were leaving?"
"That is right."
"Did you even write her a letter?"
"Kenshin, you really are a jerk."
"It wouldn't have killed you to send her a letter."
"I thought she would be happier if she thought I was dead."
Sano rolled his eyes. "For a guy as smart as you are, you don't know anything about women, do you?"
"How much do you know?" Kenshin retorted.
"Not much," he admitted cheerfully. "Women can't be understood by a guy. But I still know a whole lot more than you do! Hikaru-san may be rich and, you know, an older woman, but she isn't all that different from Megumi or the Little Missy. She's still a woman, and the way you describe it, she considered you her son. So how do you figure that believing you were dead would make her happy? What a moron."
"Better than her knowing the truth."
"What? That you were wandering all over Japan being a hero, defending the weak without ever killing anyone? Yeah, that would have upset her a lot." At Kenshin's annoyed glance, he grinned. "Oh, you mean the whole Battousai thing. Which she never found out about, right? Since she doesn't know anyone in Kyoto who was likely to tell her about Battousai being a young red-headed guy, like that one-armed guy who works for her...."
"Right. I'm sure he didn't know. He looks like the sort who couldn't keep an ear to the ground, nope," he said, ladling on the sarcasm. "Not to mention that she knows nearly everyone important in Kyoto, including Saitoh, and she throws all those parties. No way that gossip would have come to her that way. Or, wait, maybe she lived like a hermit when her husband was alive."
Kenshin's annoyed look became a glare, and Sano happily continued. "She probably knows the whole story. But she's forgiven you anyway. Not just for being Battousai, but for letting her think you were dead, too."
"Why do you think that?"
"You really are a moron. Wasn't she here when we got back from kicking Shishio's ass? Didn't she stick around while you were in a coma? She has all those servants, but did she bring one of them over to help us with you? No, she nursed you with her own hands. And she cried a lot, too. That was pretty bad," he added with a shudder. "But she wouldn't have done all that if she hated you."
"I suppose you're right."
"You know I'm right. Come on, admit it. She just wants you to grovel a bit, is all. Go see her and just apologize!"
A short silence followed.
"All right, I'm going!" Kenshin snapped.
"Good." Sano slapped him on the back. "You owe it to her, after all. She's been really good to you. To all of us."
Kenshin blinked, and Sano realized that, for a moment, Kenshin was looking somewhere that only he could see. Then the violet eyes cleared, twinkled, became normal again. "You're right again."
"I'm always right." When Kenshin didn't argue with that, he added, "What am I right about?"
"I owe Hikaru-dono a great debt. The very least I can do is go to talk to her alone, and try to explain. But, Sano, I don't think you're right about her wanting me to grovel, exactly."
"What does she want, then? According to you."
"That's the problem. I'm not sure. Maybe more than I can give her."
He sobered. "Like what? You're not the same mixed-up guy who came here a little while ago, Kenshin. You've become a Hiten Mitsurugi master without breaking your vow not to kill, and put Battousai behind you for good. She's already forgiven you for the past. Maybe. So she..."
"Maybe?" Kenshin squeaked.
"Well, women can be funny about that kind of stuff. But mostly, anyway. I think."
"Oh, you're a lot of help, you are."
"And hey, maybe you ought to think about what you want."
"Yeah. I mean, if you don't want her as a mother, or a friend, or a girlfriend..."
"I'm just saying! But if you just want her to be dead to you, like you were to her, then just ignore that invitation. Yeah, that'll be a lot easier."
"You know I can't do that."
"Yeah. I do know. Because you're a decent guy, and she's a nice lady, and you owe her."
"You make it sound really simple, but she isn't a simple woman."
"So what? Keep it simple anyway."
Kenshin suddenly smiled. "You sound like my master."
"Huh?" Sano couldn't figure that one out at all.
"Never mind. I'll explain it to you later. Give me the letter. I'll go."
"Explain what? Explain it to me now!"
But although he followed Kenshin through the Aoiya and halfway to Madame Kimiyama's house, demanding that Kenshin explain whatever the mystery was, Kenshin didn't tell him.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~ : ~
The water flowed with a soft, muted tinkling, as lazily peaceful as the huge, colorful koi that circled the pool. On the edge of the fountain, Hikaru sat beside Kenshin, her fingers trailing in the water, enticing the fish to come to her and nibble. "Do you remember the first time you came to visit me? You snatched one of the koi right out of the water."
They had been making small talk – mostly about the Aoiya and their friends – and she had only been given his profile to watch. But at this, he looked at her, his face lighting with amusement. "I was trying Shishou's lesson on catching fish. To eat."
"I should have known Seijuro was to blame for that, in some way." She smiled. "The fish was nearly as big as you were."
He turned his head. She had only the profile again. "That was very long ago."
"A lifetime ago, it seems." No response. What can I do? What do I say? It used to be so easy to talk to him. Now, I feel like a stranger. But I am not a stranger! I do know him. No matter what has happened, no matter what he's done, he's still Kenshin. Yet, still, no words would come to her. She stroked the water and watched the impenetrable profile. He had bent his head so that his bangs covered his eyes. She wanted to touch his hair, to draw him against her, but she could not. Seijuro was right. Kenshin was a man now. There was no sign of that little boy who had terrorized her koi and filled an empty place in her heart.
"Kenshin..." Unable to stop herself, she reached out, touched his arm.
He looked at her. His eyes were not empty or shuttered, but they could not be read. She pulled her hand back. "What do you want from me?" she asked, letting the words stumble out.
He looked surprised. "Odd. That's what Sano asked me."
"If I am using the same words as that adorable but silly young man, then I need to think better before opening my mouth." Encouraged by his slight smile, she said, "But I still want an answer." She drew a breath. "Do you want me utterly out of your life? Do you want to remain dead to me?"
He stared at the ground again, and her stomach lurched. Her view of his chin, his cheekbone, his shoulder gave her no clue to his feelings. He said quietly, "I wish you had never needed to learn that I was alive."
"Why? Why would you wish me so much pain? How did I fail you?"
"I failed you."
"Yes. Yes, you did. But you failed yourself more. And you've punished yourself, and me, enough already. But what does that have to do with it? With today? With what you want now?"
"We cannot bury the past. What we have been, and done, in the past has made us what we are. You can't hold up your fan before your face and pretend to believe that I was never a murderer, as long as we don't talk about it."
His words stabbed at her. Pale, she said, "It seems to be my fate to love men who are murderers."
"Then we'll talk about it. Without my fan," she snapped. When he looked at her, his eyes still with that unreadable depth to them, she said, "When I learned – when Toshiro told me – that it was you who was killing all those people, I hated him for telling me. I hated Seijuro for telling him. I hated, most of all, the men who sent you to kill. But I didn't hate you. Not for a single moment."
"Because you still thought of me as your child."
"Yes. Just because of that. I see now that I was wrong. I should have hated you, then, too. You made the choice, didn't you? You weren't the misguided child I thought you were."
He hesitated before saying, staring at the ground again, "I was misguided. But the choice was mine. Every night, with every death that I caused, I made that choice."
She felt as if a piece of her heart had broken off and was drifting away, the piece which had loved a little boy as her own. It would drift into her memories, no longer to be a vital part of her being. But despite the pang of that separation, her heart said that Kenshin, her Kenshin, was still beside her, if she could only find him. "Then you made the choice to atone. And for ten years, you have continued to atone for what you did."
"May I ask you something?"
He nodded again.
"Did you ever love me, as I loved you?"
He became absolutely still. Even his breathing stopped.
"It's a simple question," she said.
Even with only his profile to study, she could see the moment when he decided to tell her the truth, see the rise of his chest as he took a breath and the tiny shift of his shoulders as he braced himself. But when he spoke, his voice was, as always, calm and soft. "I am not sure you will understand this, but it is because I loved you that I could not look at you when I had blood on my hands."
"You thought I would be afraid of you? Love you less? Be shamed by you?"
"To be totally honest, it was nothing so noble. I believed – I knew – that I would feel my own shame even more deeply than I already did, if I came to you. Maybe too deeply to go on living with it."
"But I would have forgiven you."
She struggled to understand. "You make it sound as if my forgiveness would have been a curse."
"That is exactly right."
She flinched, and drew in a hitching breath.
Still staring at the ground, he said, "Hikaru-san. Please do not cry."
"No. I won't." She was silent for a full minute, trying to comprehend what he meant. "You didn't want to be forgiven, did you? And especially not by me, or Seijuro. Because you couldn't forgive yourself."
"At the time, it wasn't so coherent a thought. I only knew that seeing either of you was something I couldn't face. So I left without a word. I convinced myself that was the best thing I could do for you."
"Do you know, now, that you were wrong?"
"I know, now, that I selfishly did what was the best thing for me."
"Oh, Kenshin. It was the only thing you could do. Even your strength must have been faltering under the burden you already carried, without adding me and Seijuro to it."
There was a change in his profile, a slight but perceptible relaxation in his mouth. "You are being very understanding."
"I know I would not have been able to help you then. I might have hurt you even more deeply. This is something I've only recently been able to accept." Despite her best intentions, her anger at that long-ago betrayal slipped through a crack in her guard. "But you could have written to me! You could have let me know you were alive! Couldn't you?"
"Nothing had changed. Not enough."
"Even now, it is hard."
She folded her hands in her lap. "You and Seijuro make fun of the way I hide behind my fan, as you put it. But sometimes that is the wisest thing to do. The past is done, and we cannot change it. I must stop blaming you for it. And you must stop blaming me."
He looked at her, startled. "I don't...."
"You do. You blame me in your heart for being too good, too noble, too loving to have ever accepted you as a slayer of men. Because you believe I have those qualities, you love me, but you have used them as an excuse not to face me."
He still had his face turned toward her. "You may be right," he said after a moment.
"And I have blamed you. For being foolish, for allowing yourself to be used as a tool of destruction, for not loving me enough to trust me. We have both been right, and both been wrong. For our own peace of mind, we must set those feelings aside. I know that. I have known that since you first came back, and you came to see me with Yuki. Now I want to make you see it. The problem is... what frightens me..."
"Is what?" he asked gently.
Now it was her turn to look away. "I am afraid that, when all the past is put behind us, and all the twisted emotions between us are smoothed away, then you truly will be able to walk away from me. I am afraid that only those things join us, and that you will never again need me or want to care for me." She brought her hands up, impatiently wiped her cheeks. She had told him she wouldn't cry. "You don't need me. Why should you? You have friends. No, you have a family now. The one thing I always wanted to give you, you have found with others. My time in your life ended long ago, and I just c-can't accept that."
His hand circled her wrist, moved up. His fingers curved around her palm, as they had when he'd been a boy. "You are right. I no longer need you. But I still want you." He smiled when she looked at him. "You have always been afraid of things that I didn't understand. I don't want to hide away the past, Hikaru-san. I don't want to forget how you became my mother, the person who truly loved me for no reason, just because I was me. You asked me what I wanted from you, and I'll tell you. I want you to love me as you did before. I want you to forgive me for hurting you and hiding from you. I want to always be welcome here in your home, and to know that I can continue to trust you as I always have."
"Kenshin, I'm going to cry."
"How can I help it?" However, she managed to get by with only a few tears and a single, wrenching sob. "When you have children, can I be their grandmother?"
"All right, if you have children."
He smiled. "If I do, it would be a good thing for them to have you for a grandmother." He tilted his head, studying her, his hand still wrapped around hers. "I have told you what I want. What do you want, Hikaru-san?"
"I only want to be allowed to love you. Will you let me love you?"
"If that is what you truly want."
She slid her hand over his cheek, and he didn't flinch away, nor did his eyes, smiling, change their expression or avoid hers. "It is everything I want," she sighed. She wanted desperately to hug him, to hold him in her arms. But he was a man now, and she couldn't do that. If she were going to love the man, she couldn't treat him as a boy.
He must have read her desire, because his eyes suddenly twinkled. He put his arms around her and drew her close. To her surprise, it felt natural and right for her to put her cheek in the hollow of his shoulder, rather than the other way around. She couldn't hold him tightly, for his wounds were still tender, but she enveloped him softly in her arms, then kissed his cheek and let him go.
"Are you happy now?"
"I am as happy as anyone can ever be. I have everything I have ever wanted." And soon I'll have more. I'll have children to care for. Your children. But he wasn't ready to hear that yet. "Are you happy?"
He answered her seriously. "I'm not sure. I think it might be a long time before I can feel true happiness. But I am satisfied and contented. It feels good not to be afraid of you now."
She smiled. "That sounds close enough to happiness to satisfy me." She rose. "May I walk with you back to the Aoiya? I would like to visit your friends today. Our friends." The smile within her heart came to her lips. "Our family."
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