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This two-part story takes place shortly after "Kyoto," and by the end of it, Hikaru will have to come to terms with Kenshin becoming the assassin Hitokiri Battousai. I actually wrote this because I'd become fond of Toshiro Kimiyama and felt that good man deserved some of my words, and also because, until I did, I couldn't really see into Hikaru's divided heart. So I suppose you could call this story a shameless self-indulgence.
As often happens when I do a character vignette, especially one which involves strong emotions, the characters surprise me. I discovered some naivete in Hikaru that I never suspected, and that there is at least one act of kindness which Toshiro will not do, even to please her.
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"Hikaru-san! Hikaru-san!" The high voice piped through the yard, excited.
Hikaru turned and caught the child as she hurtled into her arms. "Izumi! Where have you been? I've been worried."
"I was talking to a man. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to worry you."
Hikaru rose, holding the warm little body against her breast. Too thin – the child was too thin. They all were. "I thought I told you never to talk to strange men!" she scolded. "Remember what happened to Kimiko?"
The voice was small now. "She went away and never came back."
"Yes. That's what she did." The pain was still fresh to Hikaru, even after so many weeks. Kimiko had been 14 and headstrong, and one day had wandered too far and met the wrong men. Toshiro and Bunto had buried her, but to the children, Kimiko had just "gone away." She hoped none of them would ever have to learn differently. "I told you back then, that's what happens to someone who talks to strange men. Why didn't you listen? You are very lucky to be here with us again," she said, hugging Izumi tightly.
"I wouldn't, but I thought he was an angel. Are we going to the kitchen?"
"Yes, but only to wash you, not to eat."
"Such disappointment! No one else is eating, either. Is that all you think about, your belly? So tell me, why did you think this man was an angel?"
"He had a white cape. And he was as tall as a house. So I thought he was an angel."
Hikaru's step faltered. What was Seijuro Hiko doing, talking to one of her children? Then the description struck her, and she started to laugh. "That was no angel!"
"I know. He said he wasn't. He said he was just a man."
"What else did he say?"
"I didn't tell him where we were, Hikaru-san! He already knew."
"It's all right, don't be afraid. You don't have to keep our secret from that man. He's a friend."
The child relaxed. "I didn't want to be bad."
Five years old, and already so frightened. How could a child be expected to understand this revolution? Hikaru didn't understand it herself. She set Izumi on the floor, poured water into a dish, and took up a clean rag to wash her. At least water wasn't a problem. "You aren't bad. What did the man want to know?"
"Lots of things."
Izumi twisted her face away from the cloth, and Hikaru caught her chin and brought it back. "Stop that. If you are going to play in the dirt, you have to be washed. What did the man want to know about?"
"That must have been a nice long chat."
Izumi considered that, her tiny face scrunched in thought. "No," she finally decided.
Hikaru tried another tack. "What did you tell him about us? No, don't worry! I told you, he's a friend, you don't have to be afraid."
Reassured, the child said, "I told him how we slept, and where we get water. And what we had for dinner last night."
Rice. Nothing but rice, and lucky to have it. "Did he want to join us tonight, then?" she teased.
Izumi giggled. "I don't think so. He made a face when I told him, as if he didn't like rice."
"Maybe he doesn't. Give me your hands. Ah, they're hopeless. Go play, but stay in the yard this time."
Hikaru followed her to the door and watched her scamper across the yard to join the other children. Probably to tell them about her "angel." The thought of Seijuro being described by that term, and what he must have thought of it, made Hikaru giggle. Then, sobering, she stared out past the dirt yard and the straw-roofed huts to the clean slopes of the mountain. He was out there somewhere, and just for a moment she yearned with all her heart to be with him, to put down all the burdens of her life and, just for once, do only what her heart desired.
But she was too much a creature of her upbringing be so free and irresponsible. She had married Toshiro Kimiyama with her eyes open, and she had made a pledge to him. Her nature wouldn't allow her to go back on that pledge, no matter what she secretly desired. Nor could she leave the people here at the farm – the servants, artists, and employees, and their families – who trusted Toshiro for their safety and her for everything else. She'd assumed the burdens, and, in truth, they were a joy to her in many ways. If that joy paled in comparison to what she had known when with Seijuro, the lack was more than justified by the knowledge that she was helping many people instead of just one.
She was a lucky woman. She had a good husband, and a good life. Of all the things she'd ever wanted in her life, only two had been denied her. A child of her own, she could never have, it seemed. As for Seijuro... She smiled. Maybe they were unable to be together as she wished, but that was her own doing, so she shouldn't complain. And her arrogant angel was still guarding her. No matter how foolish she was, he remained true. What Fate had taken away with one hand, it had given her more with the other.
She looked across the yard to where Okichi watched her husband, Sumio, painting a pattern of plum blossoms on a bowl, the intricate work and delicate artist's tools a stark contrast to the dirt under the blanket Okichi had spread for him and the empty pigsty against which he rested his back. Okichi was seven months' pregnant with their first child, and the box of paints she held in her lap was almost crowded out by her swollen stomach. Hikaru remembered Okichi playfully saying once how much she envied the glamour of Hikaru's former geisha life and her social status as Madame Kimiyama. Wouldn't the girl be shocked, Hikaru thought, if she knew I'd trade places with her any time. But that hadn't been her fate, and all she could do was work with what she'd been given and try not to regret the rest.
She smiled again. No woman who loved Seijuro Hiko could expect a life of peaceful domesticity, no matter what the circumstances, and not even for Okichi's present happiness would she have traded any moment she'd spent with Seijuro. Regret was something she constantly struggled with, but she always won the battle, because she was always able to find more good in her life than she deserved.
One of those good things was trudging up the road toward her now. Her husband, Toshiro, made a trip into Kyoto every week, alone or with what men could be spared from the farm work. He left laden with errands and returned laden with what he could find and bring back – letters and tokens from relatives of those hiding here, food, tools, artists' supplies, or whatever else they needed. Today, Hikaru was hoping for something special, and she went through the house and out into the road to meet him. He looked so tired that she embraced him before asking, "Were you able to get the medicine for Kakuei?"
"Yes, love. But not very much, I'm afraid."
"It will have to do. He's strong, even a little will help him. Come inside and sit down. I'll make you tea, and then take the medicine to him. You look exhausted. Would you rather have sake?"
He smiled as he sat. "Stop fussing. I'm fine. Sake."
She poured, then put water on to heat for the medicine. "How was the city? Does the fighting still go on?"
"Yes. I don't think this is something that will be quickly settled. There is so much hatred." He sighed. "We may be here for some time. But as bad as it is here, the city would be worse. It seems peaceful, but it's still chaotic and lawless, especially at night. Those who are supposed to protect the peace continue to fight each other instead. We would still be running a risk if we went back, one that's unacceptable to me. At least we're relatively safe here, and, as little as we get to eat, it's still more than some I've met." He added ruefully, "I did have some beans in that pack you are so diligently rummaging through, but they're gone now."
She looked up with a smile, extracting the tiny envelope of medicine she'd found. "This is what I wanted. Who did you give the beans to?"
"Kakuei's grandmother. It was she who got the medicine, and while I was there to pick it up, I discovered from a neighbor that she hadn't eaten in days. She's a tough old woman, Hikaru, she never gave me a hint. So I went back and gave her all I had. We at least have rice."
She rose and kissed his cheek. "That's why I love you." She knelt by the fire and carefully opened the envelope, then even more carefully poured and stirred the contents into the pot of water. Kakuei's grandmother had probably traded her food for this, and she, Hikaru, would not let a single particle of it go to waste.
Behind her, Toshiro set down his sake cup and said, "Do you want some news about Kenshin?"
Her hand slowed. No, I don't. Not really. Don't tell me. But she continued stirring and said calmly, "Yes, of course. Is he still alive?" Which was all she really wanted to know.
"Yes, still alive, and apparently doing very well. I talked to an officer today, and according to him, Kenshin's skill has been noticed and he was pulled from the ranks. Some sort of special duty for Kogoro Katsura. Very impressive. The officer seemed in awe of your red-haired child."
He's not my red-haired child any more. She concentrated on stirring and said, "Seijuro taught him well." He just taught him the wrong things, damn him.
"I guess he did," Toshiro agreed, "for the boy to have survived so long in that maelstrom. I don't think you have to worry about him too much."
"I don't," she lied. "Let me take this to Kakuei, and then I'll come back and have some of that sake with you, if you haven't drunk it all up."
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Toshiro didn't sleep well, and hadn't for a long time. He'd always abhorred violence, and was an outcast from his noble family because he'd chosen the life of an artist rather than that of a samurai. His trips into Kyoto were an agony to him. He had seen sights his eyes would never forget, and each time he went, thinking it couldn't be worse, he saw more. Branded in his mind was a particular image from one of his early trips, when he'd turned up a street that had been a battleground the night before. Most of the carnage had been cleared away, but off to one side was a man's forearm and hand, the fingers still wrapped around the hilt of a broken sword. The rest of the man was nowhere in sight. All that remained was the hand and the weapon, and a congealed pool of blood. To Toshiro, that represented all of this futile violence, and he loathed it.
Hikaru was his solace. Returning to her, he was always reminded that violence was an exception in life, and that love was more common than hate and beauty was found in many places. He never shared what he saw with her, beyond the bare minimum she needed to know. As much as humanly possible, he wanted her left untouched, unsoiled by this war. Then he could come home, hold her, look into her clear dark eyes, listen to her voice, and forget what he had seen, at least for a little while.
He was lying awake at dawn the next morning, staring at the ceiling, when the sound of gleeful laughter in the yard woke Hikaru. "What…?" she murmured sleepily.
"I don't know, love. I'll go check."
She sat up with him, rubbing her eyes. "I will, too. Laughter sounds so fresh and good. I want to see what's causing it."
He helped her into a robe and tied back her hair for her, because her maid was pregnant and Hikaru insisted she not have duties. Toshiro suspected that simple envy was more the problem, but he didn't mind performing some of Okichi's tasks, even if he felt clumsy doing them. His own clumsiness amused him. He could handle porcelain so fine that the light would shine through it, and handle it with ease, but he seemed to grow extra thumbs when winding a ribbon around his wife's long hair.
Decently robed, they started outside, only to be met at the kitchen door by two servants coming in, carrying a pole with a deer carcass strung on it. The carcass had been blooded and neatly field-dressed. An entire parade of others followed them, pointing and calling out the news. Everyone was excited.
Hikaru called them all to order, sent them about their duties, and directed the servants where to place the deer. One of them remarked as he put his end down, "We found this at the inner gate, Hikaru-san, just as you see it. It's heavy. We can make it stretch for a week, if we're careful. Maybe more."
"I think I'd rather have a feast. Wouldn't you?"
His eyes lit, but he said, "We should ration it."
"I think we should trust the spirits and our unknown benefactor to provide us more. If not, we still have rice for the future, and in the meantime, we will have had our feast. Tell everyone, and let them know I'll need help butchering and preparing it."
They bowed and left to do her bidding. Standing at the door, watching them run, seeing their joy at the simple pleasure of a full meal, Toshiro felt a moment of pure hatred for the man who'd provided it. He'd heard about Izumi's "angel," so he had no doubt Seijuro Hiko had decided, in his arrogant way, that Hikaru wasn't getting enough to eat, and therefore had brought her food. That he was right didn't help Toshiro accept it any better. In fact, it made it worse, because it aggravated the jealousy that he was continually trying to purge from himself. While the years had brought him an acceptance of Hikaru's friendship with Hiko, he still felt the man's presence as an irritant, like having an oversized vulture hanging about the fringes of his marriage, waiting for bits to scavenge. He felt that presence worst at times like this, when Hiko made him feel small and weak.
The darkness of that sudden surge of hatred shook him, and he turned away from it, looking over his shoulder at Hikaru and saying, forcing amusement into his voice, "I think I know who we have to thank for this."
"Certainly, and it was very kind of him," she said, so casually that her tone was at once a balm to his spirit and an added twinge of guilt. "I think Izumi gave him the idea, however. Still, now that he has it, I suspect we'll eat better."
He couldn't help saying, "He wants to take care of you."
Startled by his tone, she looked up from the spices she'd been selecting and met his eyes. "Yes, I suppose he does, and this is the best he can do."
Now he felt even more guilty. He could easily turn his envy around and picture himself as Seijuro Hiko, unable to be with Hikaru now, and able to provide her with nothing except a meal. In a sudden spirit of repentance, he came back into the kitchen and said, "He's been doing more than just this, love."
He drew a breath. Justice demanded he tell her, and only base envy clamored against it. "Yes. He's also been protecting us. Bunto and I never told you, but we did not bury Kimiko. She was already buried when we found her. The grave we dug was for the men who killed her. Since then, there have been others, too, we've found dead. He is keeping you safe as well as fed."
After almost ten years of marriage, she could still surprise him. She was neither touched nor impressed. She only said, "I'm not surprised. I thought that might be the case. It's what he does best, after all." She searched his face, then reached up to touch his cheek. "Toshiro, let him do it and be grateful to him."
"I can't be grateful. I know I should be, but that's asking too much, Hikaru. From anyone else, I would, but not from him." He hadn't meant to say it, but he had, and he knew how bitter he'd sounded by the expression on her face.
Then she asked him something strange. "Toshiro, what will you do when this war is over?"
"Yes. What will you do?"
Thrown off stride, he thought a moment. "Open the shop, of course. Rebuild. We have many willing hands, so it shouldn't be hard. Get the artists back to the kilns." At her smile, he put his arms around her. "Put you back in your proper setting."
"I'm in a perfectly good setting, right here."
"You didn't think so, on that first day, when you tried to work in the fields with the girls."
"Oh, unfair. I'm not used to it. I did try. But I'm better now, doing what I can, watching the children during the day, and cooking."
"And keeping the rest of us happy." His ridiculous wife – he remembered how he'd laughed when they'd first started moving things to safety here, long before the fighting had broken out, and she'd insisted on sending a box of her kimonos with every cartload. They were one of a kind, she insisted, as much pieces of art as the apprentice masterpieces he was preserving. Yet on the most recent festival day, which they couldn't celebrate in the city, she'd casually handed out those precious kimonos to every woman on the farm, theirs to wear for the entire festival day, treating the men and children to a show of color and beauty, and reminding the women they were more than toilers in the fields and cleaners of floors. The good mood had lasted for days afterward.
She said, "You've taken me off the subject."
"I hate that subject anyway," he reminded her fondly.
"I don't mean Seijuro. I mean what you will do when the war is over. You don't see it yet, do you?"
"No. See what?"
"How foolish you are to compare yourself to Seijuro. When danger came, you gave us all a place to flee from it. And when the danger is gone, you will again give us all a place to go. Seijuro can give us food, and he can give us safety. But you, Toshiro… you give us the belief that life will go on, that it will someday be normal again. You give us hope."
"Oh." After a blank second, he said, "I guess I'm a hell of a fellow, aren't I?"
She laughed. "Yes, you are. Now let me go. I can hear some volunteers coming our way, and I want to get started on our feast!"
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That night, after the feast, with a full stomach, plenty of sake, and all his dependents happy, Toshiro slept well and deeply for the first time in many nights. He fell asleep with his head in Hikaru's lap, and, smiling fondly, she sat with one hand on his waist and the other in his hair, guarding his sleep from interruption and discomfort. When she was sure he wouldn't waken, she slipped a pillow under his head, covered him lightly against the evening chill, and rose to go out and thank Seijuro.
That he was out there, somewhere, she didn't doubt. He would expect her to come to him as soon as she could, and he would wait until she did. If he didn't see her come out tonight, then it would be tomorrow or the next day, but he would wait. She dressed in one of her favorite kimonos, a white one with koi swimming up and down its folds, outlined in gold thread. She left the obi, however, and tied it with only a gold tasseled cord. Her hair was down, and she realized it was starting to drag on the ground again. She'd have to get Okichi to cut it for her tomorrow. For tonight, she just twisted it quickly into a double knot caught with a jade comb, so that it hung only to her waist, out of her way. Then she slipped her bare feet into gold zori. It was dark outside, lit only by a dim half-moon, and Seijuro didn't really care what she looked like anyway, but her geisha habits remained strong. She might go outside casually dressed, but not completely unadorned.
As soon as she passed the inner gate she saw him, sitting on the farm's low stone perimeter wall, his long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Her shoulders dropped back, her chin rose, and her back straightened. With every stride toward him, she could almost feel the cares of the farm falling away from her, and she began to be a woman again, simply a woman, and not a wife or provider or judge or mother or anything else. That was Seijuro's most precious gift to her, worth more to her spirit than any number of deer to her stomach. With him, there were no burdens, no duties, no façade to maintain or weakness to conceal. She could just be herself, no matter what her "self" was at that moment, and by the time she reached him, she was almost dancing, so light were her steps.
He flicked his cloak out to protect her kimono from the dirt as she sat next to him. She was close enough to feel his warmth and hear him breathe, but they didn't touch. That had been his promise to Toshiro, and except for one time in Kyoto, in the ruins of her gardens, they had both been true to it. "Thank you for the deer," she said. "You made a lot of people happy."
"Did you eat any? Or did you give it all to the children?"
"I ate plenty. I knew you would ask, and I didn't dare do otherwise," she teased, and saw his smile flicker.
Then he looked closer at her and scowled. "What are you crying about?"
She brushed her wet cheeks with her hand. "I've missed you. I haven't seen you for weeks."
"Oh. Then why are you crying? I'd think you would be happy."
"I am happy. I'm very happy."
"Then if you want to make me happy, stop doing that. How soon will you need meat again?"
She didn't bother making the usual polite protests. They were wasted on him, like most other social courtesies. "The day after tomorrow." He nodded, and she laughed. "Aren't you even going to ask why so soon?"
"The most probable reason isn't beyond my intelligence to guess. You and Kimiyama have a refugee camp on your hands, and you've become very short of food. I imagine that spirits fall with the food supply, so you held a feast to cheer everyone up, assuming that I would be able and willing to bring you more meat later."
"Yes, of course. You were an idiot not to tell me you were in need. That little girl told me you've been existing on nothing but rice."
"But it's good rice. We have plenty of herbs and spices." When he scowled at her, she laughed. She couldn't help it. Her heart felt lighter than it had in weeks. "Seijuro, how was I to reach you?"
"I can think of at least three different ways."
"Ah, but you're the genius. I'm just a simple woman."
She had to resist the urge to rub her cheek on his shoulder, as she often used to do when particularly pleased with him. "I've burdened you enough in these past years," she said softly. "I didn't want to ask for more."
"You burden me more heavily by not asking and forcing me to guess," he growled.
"And forcing you to talk to children," she said with a giggle.
His mouth curved, just a little. "That, too."
"I'm not going to ask now, either. Then you'll feel compelled. I'll just tell you that we have almost 30 people with us now, and feeding them all is stretching the ability of our men. The salt fish and dried foods are gone. There are so many more of us than I anticipated," she sighed.
"Sometimes generosity creates more than just a good feeling. Sometimes it creates need."
"Yes, but we can't turn them away. Who would we say no to? Where do we draw the line? The artists? The servants who have been faithful to us for so many years? Their families?"
"You and Kimiyama are a pair. You have no concept of drawing lines. You have enough rice, at least?"
"We have all the rice we need, as long as the crops don't fail, and soon our vegetables will be in. But secrecy prevents us from fishing often, and the rivers are almost bare of fish now anyway, so many people are homeless and hungry. If you've been to the city, you know that mere money won't get you anything. So whatever you can give us, I will gladly take. If you give us an abundance, I'll see to it that it's shared with our families in the city as well."
"There won't be an abundance. I'm not the only hunter out there."
"Are you in danger?"
"Hikaru," he growled, "how many times do I have to tell you how rare it is for a Hiten Mitsurugi master to be in any danger? Do you think swinging a sword is all I know? Are my senses dull?"
When he took that tone, the best thing was to ignore it. "I worry anyway. Are you lonely?"
Like a surly little boy. She had to smile. "The children want to do something for Izumi's angel, you know," she said, and giggled.
"I thought I disabused her mind of that ridiculous idea."
"Well, tell them if they want to do something for me, they should obey you and not waste any of what I bring them."
She chuckled. "You ask for so little."
"Everything I want from you, I already have. Your children can give me nothing that would be of use to me, except happiness for you."
He always said things like that so matter-of-factly, unaware of how he took her breath away. "I love you, Seijuro," she said fondly. He made a noncommittal grunt and didn't look at her, but his mouth curved. For a moment she just sat there, pleased to be quiet with him. Then she remembered, reluctantly, the other subject she wanted to take up with him. "Toshiro tells me that Kenshin has been pulled from the ranks by Kogoro Katsura. Is this a good thing? Will it keep him out of danger?" She braced herself for the answer. One of the best things about Seijuro, and at the same time one of the worst, was that he did not lie to her. Not even when he knew she would be hurt by the answer.
"Nothing will keep Kenshin out of danger except the end of this ridiculous war. And maybe not even that. But being pulled from the common ranks should lessen his immediate peril, yes."
"Why do you think Katsura wants him? I'm sure it's for his skill, but what do you think he plans to do with it?" The obvious answer was not one she wanted to think about. She couldn't imagine that, even for his precious Revolution, Katsura was cold enough to make an assassin out of a mere boy. Being a sophisticated woman, she could think of other, even less palatable reasons for Katsura's attention, but she wasn't even going to consider those.
Seijuro's words soothed her. "I don't know, and I'm not guessing ahead of the facts. He may just be creating a personal guard. He will certainly be needing one. There have already been threats against his life."
She let out her breath. Stupid of her not to think of that. This war made her think the worst of everyone. "Of course, that must be it." For a few minutes she said nothing, content to sit in his presence. But she couldn't stop thinking of Kenshin. "Do you ever see him?"
"No. I don't go to Kyoto."
"Oh." Naturally he didn't. She was being foolish, and would disgust him soon. But she couldn't stop. "Do you miss him?"
"Liar," she smiled.
"My life is infinitely more peaceful without him. If he gets killed in this war, he'll put me to the inconvenience of finding another apprentice, but at the moment, I am enjoying the freedom from his eternal chatter."
"If I didn't know you better, that would make me very angry."
"I'm speaking the truth."
"But not all of it." She rose to face him. "When will I see you again?"
"Whenever you want. Some of these people you shelter are servants who know where I live. Send a message. Or tie one of your scarves to the gate, and I'll come as soon as I see it. I'll never be far away."
She sighed. Just those five words made her feel good inside. Confident and free once again. "I wish you could do as much for Kenshin as you do for me."
"I would wish that you would stop talking about him, but I never hope for the impossible."
"Try to watch out for him?"
"There's little I can do."
"Do what you can. Don't worry about me, Seijuro. I'm better able to take care of myself than our boy is." He snorted, and she laughed. "Very well, I appreciate your help and protection. And I thank you, and I love you. Good night, my dear. Sleep well."
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