~ : ~ : ~

I keep telling people that if they can read this and not feel sorry for Hiko, they're heartless. In this story, Hikaru disappears and he doesn't see her or hear anything of her for more than a year. Then when they are finally reunited, yet again their relationship doesn't go the way they might have hoped.

~ : ~ : ~

Seijuro Hiko had nothing against Edo in particular. He disliked all cities. Cities bombarded him with noise and smells until he couldn't think at all, never mind find that inner core of balance which kept him in harmony with his energies. If he had a choice, he'd never enter a city at all. Unlike his former Master, who had actually liked cities, Hiko sought his sources of information in the country, in small towns, in rural military outposts, at inns and taverns, and in any number of other ways which avoided the crowds of a city. Still, for the past two years he had come to Edo anyway, whenever he could, every few weeks. There was something very special here, something he couldn't do without for too long. A woman named Hikaru.

He could almost hear what his Master would say about that. He knew very well that he was weakening his own powers and abilities by spending so much of his time and attention on a woman. He made an effort not to think of her at all when he wasn't in Edo, something that was easy if he was fighting or otherwise busy. But if he was bored or tired, and every time he lay down to sleep, she crept into his thoughts. No one else had that power over his mind. If the entire world were depopulated at once, he doubted he'd miss anyone except Hikaru.

They had a routine, unchanged since the first night they spent together. When he arrived in town, he stopped by the Murasaki home and had sake with her. Then that night he would let himself in through the back gate to her little two-room summer house. If her husband was at home, a few hours were all they could spend together, but Murasaki traveled a lot now that he was an important man, and he never took Hikaru with him. When he was out of town, Hiko would stay the night with Hikaru and sometimes the entire day as well. Those were the best times, when he could see her wake up, stretching and yawning before turning into his arms, or he could sit and drink sake while watching her work in her garden, or they could walk by the river or go shopping and he could see her in the sunlight and be a part of her everyday life. After he left Edo again, he always missed her for days before he could regain his mental discipline. She made what should be a simple life into something complicated, and she undermined his morals.

But she was the only temptation he couldn't resist, and the pleasure she gave him was the only thing in life better than good sake. Making resistance even more difficult, if he had even bothered to try, was the effect that he had on her. She was fanciful and even silly; she said they had been fated to meet and were destined to always be together, and that he made her soul dance. As nice as that sounded, it was all in her head, but nevertheless he knew he was good for her. Each time he arrived, she was subdued, but with every passing hour they spent together, he could see her brightening, opening her eyes and heart and spirit, becoming more joyful. He'd never made anyone happy before, and doubted he ever would again, nor did he much care, but he took as much pleasure from watching her bloom in his company as she did in watching one of her trees burst into blossom. She said he let her be the woman she wanted to be. Maybe so. If so, that woman was the only one he wanted to be with. She made all other women seem coarse or dull in comparison.

Already thinking ahead to the night, smiling, he let himself through the front gate of the Murasaki residence. There had been times, at this point, when he'd actually bumped into Murasaki himself going out, but except for giving him a curious glance the first time, and a polite if distant nod after that, as a superior to an inferior, Murasaki didn't seem to care about him one way or the other. That angered Hiko. It was an insult to Hikaru. If he were married to Hikaru and knew she was being loved by another man, even if he had no clue to the depth and intense pleasure of that love, he'd still have killed him. But Murasaki, Hikaru assured him, had his own concerns, and as long as his wife kept him the envy of his acquaintance and was discreet, what she did with her nights was her own concern. Hiko had never quite gotten over his disgust at that, but it didn't matter. It left him free to enjoy Hikaru, and enjoy her, he did.

There was no Murasaki today, but something was wrong. He realized at once what it was. Hikaru was apparently messing around with her garden again, because all the white azaleas which had once lined the walk, as well as the camellia tree, were gone now. He didn't like the change. The walk was more open, but the effect was flat and tasteless. He couldn't believe Hikaru had done it deliberately. Maybe there'd been a blight.

Then the front door opened and a man came out. He was a stranger to Hiko, but there was enough resemblance to Murasaki for him to guess who it was. What was Ogai Murasaki doing here? Eldest son or not, Fujio Murasaki had never been fond of him, and he was one of the few people Hikaru actually disliked.

Ogai Murasaki turned to say something to someone in the house, then came out onto the porch, shutting the door behind him. His stance was aggressive, and Hiko restrained his temper. He was not going to fight on Hikaru's doorstep.

The man's tone was as belligerent as his stance. "What do you want here?"

"I see that the level of courtesy in the Murasaki home has lowered since the last time I visited," Hiko observed coldly. The rudeness was about to take on another dimension, too, he realized. On either side of him were two menservants, closing in warily, armed with clubs. When Murasaki saw them, long after Hiko knew they were there even though he had undoubtedly summoned them, he straightened to his full if insignificant height, like the master of his castle. Hiko was beginning to get a bad feeling about the situation.

"You're him, aren't you?" Murasaki demanded.

"Are we playing guessing games? Who am I supposed to be?"

"That slut's lover."

Hiko's blood came up so fast, he felt as if his head were on fire. He'd never been so swiftly angry in his life. "Slut?" he repeated, very quietly. "Who do you mean by that?"

"That geisha my father decided to marry after my mother was in her grave." He gestured the servants forward. "Get him out of here."

The servants knew Hiko and were reluctant to attack him, but they were more afraid of disobeying Murasaki. They rushed forward all at once, signaling their attack so clearly beforehand that Hiko could have defeated them blindfolded. He didn't unsheath his sword, because he had no desire to harm these men. He simply rendered them unconscious, then stepped up onto the porch.

Murasaki had apparently never seen a true swordsman at work before, because he was so astonished by the speed of Hiko's victory that he didn't run away. Hiko said, still with icy calm, "Slut?" Then he grabbed the man by the throat and lifted him off his feet, pinning him against the wall.

Bug-eyed, Murasaki clawed at his hand. Hiko waited a moment, then loosened his grip enough to let the man breathe again. "Would you like to reconsider your words?"

If he could have, Murasaki would have spit at him. "Why? After all, you're here, aren't you? To see her? She is a..."

Hiko calmly cut his breath off again. "You truly are a stupid man. Where is your father? He wouldn't permit you to talk of his wife like that."

A woman came out of the door, her eyes huge and frightened. Hiko ignored her. When Murasaki's face took on a bluish tinge, he loosened his grip again. "Where is Fujio Murasaki, you unworthy dog?"

"Dead!" Murasaki gasped.

That was what Hiko had assumed. There was no way this coward would call Hikaru such names if his father were alive. He tightened his grip again.

The woman was pulling on his arm with all her strength. "Stop, you're killing him!"

"Yes, I know," Hiko agreed. He was enjoying it, too. The man's feet were beating a nice rhythm against the wooden wall, and his frenzied clawing at Hiko's hand was getting weaker. "But I'll give him one more chance to amend his manners. Where is Madame Murasaki?"

Once more he let the man breathe. When he could speak again, Murasaki gasped, his voice rasping harshly, "I don't know."

"Wrong answer," Hiko smiled, and started strangling him again.

The woman was in tears, begging him to let her husband go. "We don't know! It's the truth!"

He looked down at her. "Why not? Surely she didn't just walk away."

"Please, I'll tell you, but let my husband go. You're killing him!"

"Hm." He opened his hand and let the man fall. "Murasaki, if you wake up to this life again, thank your wife for it," he said, and rapped the man on the head with the hilt of his sword.

The wife hysterically wept over the inert body for a few minutes, while Hiko waited, hands on his hips. He had more patience with women now than he'd had two years ago. But his patience only stretched so far, and he finally growled, "Shut up, woman. He isn't dead. Yet. Whether he lives or dies depends on whether I believe what you tell me. And if you lie to me and I find out, I'll come back here and kill you both. Get up and talk. Now."

The story, when it finally all came out of the trembling woman, sorely tested Hiko's restraint. Fujio Murasaki, who had died three weeks ago, had left Hikaru a sum of money, far too much, according to Ogai. They'd fought over it (Hiko translated that to, Ogai had yelled and Hikaru had stood firm), and once it had been given to her, Hikaru had packed her personal possessions and left at once. She'd entrusted Ogai's wife with a letter to be given to Hiko, but Ogai had taken it from her as soon as Hikaru was gone and burned it. Another had come, also from Hikaru to be given to him, just a few days ago. This, too, had been burned. Anxious to please him when she saw his expression at this piece of news, the woman added, wringing her hands, that she'd seen enough of the first letter, as it curled in the fire, to remember the name of a street, but not the entire address. Black Pearl Street. Not much help, since that was a long street with both residences and rooming houses. He believed her, however, when she swore she didn't know anything else.

He leaned down until his nose almost touched hers. She looked as if she were going to faint. "Tell your husband he needs to mend his manners," he said. "If I hear that he ever again speaks of Lady Hikaru in anything but the most respectful of terms, I will come back here and cut him into six pieces, and his head will be the last of the six. Do I make myself clear?"

She did faint.

Disgusted, he strode out. He didn't look back. Without Hikaru in them, the house and gardens meant less than nothing to him.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

He hoped to get a shortcut to finding Hikaru by looking for Umeko, but Umeko had no idea where she'd gone after Murasaki's death. "I haven't seen her."

"If she writes to you..."

"She wouldn't do that."

"Why not?"

She giggled. "I can't read, Master Hiko."

He gave up. The woman was an idiot. What had Hikaru ever seen in her to make her a friend?

It took him nearly two weeks of spending most of each day asking questions on Black Pearl Street before he finally got word of Hikaru at a small house on the corner of Yasami Street. The word, however, was maddeningly useless. Hikaru had rented the house from the owner, an elderly woman who was patently honest and willing to help him. But she knew nothing. When she'd returned from visiting her sister in the country, the house had been locked and Hikaru and every trace of her gone.

The next month was the worst of his life. He kept picturing Hikaru in the most horrible of circumstances, and his imagination seemed to have no limit to the number of scenarios it could trot out for his fear. He spent the whole time in Edo, looking for her everywhere, prowling the streets, the stores, the teahouses. He regularly checked with Umeko, but that woman, once Hikaru's best friend, had no word from her. He didn't practice, he didn't meditate, he rarely ate, and he didn't even drink sake. He did nothing but look for some trace of Hikaru. But it was as if she'd been wiped from existence.

Then, one night, he looked up wearily and realized that he was seeing another new moon and that he'd been looking for more than a month, and he gave up. He simply turned and started walking, and he didn't stop walking until, twenty miles from Edo, he finally became too tired to walk further.

He was 21 years old, and he felt as if he'd already lived an entire lifetime.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

His mood followed the seasons. Through the summer he kept himself busy, and the killing brought back his discipline in all its clean glory while entire districts became safer for the honest and the innocent. But with the turning of the leaves, memories came back again, and he had to work to make himself accept that he would never see Hikaru again or learn what happened to her. He caught himself watching for her in the most ridiculous places, and every woman above average height would catch his eye and his attention, even if only for a moment. He couldn't afford the distraction, and the depression made lousy company, so he began to discipline his mind as rigidly as he did his body. For a time, it worked. As winter covered the ground with snow, a cold calm settled on him, and he buried all memories of Hikaru so deep that he no longer saw them. By the time the rivers were rising with the thaw, no thought of her had crossed his mind in weeks.

But the spring undid him again. Spring was Hikaru's favorite time of year. She passionately loved the bright green of new leaves and the opening of the flowers. For two springs he had followed her around her garden while she rejoiced in all the life coming forth after the winter sleep, from the tiniest bud of growth at the end of a tree branch to the sudden and immense burst of pink when her cherry grove bloomed. He was at his cottage when the season came, and everywhere he looked, as the forest revived from the winter, he saw things that he knew Hikaru would love. Where was she now? Was she still alive? Was she someplace where she was denied the joys of the spring? Discipline failed. He turned to sake and spent the better part of two months drunk.

Once the rush of revived life ended and the land settled into the long comfort of summer, he shook off his self-pity and gradually moved into a pattern of life that suited him. He was alone, but his nature was solitary anyway. Edo, and Hikaru, had been an aberration. He still regretted not knowing whether she was safe and happy, but he moved into acceptance that he would never know, this time a real acceptance and not just a covering-up of hurt. He hadn't seen her for a year. He could still vividly picture her face, but her image didn't intrude on him unbidden.

In this state of mind, although he still unthinkingly glanced twice at any woman above average height, when he did see her again at last, he almost passed her by.

His cottage was close to the outskirts of the city of Kyoto. He went into the city as little as possible, but sometimes there were things he had to buy which he couldn't obtain any other way, most notably sake. He was passing an open-air market on one of these trips, his mind occupied with tuning out the noise, as usual, and when he passed the tall woman holding up a draping of blue patterned silk, he glanced at her automatically and kept walking. He'd taken two strides before his mind caught up with what his eye had seen, and he spun around. "HIKARU!"

His voice was a carrying one. Half the block turned to look. Hikaru whirled and gaped at him, the silk falling from her limp fingers like water flowing. "Seijuro?" By that time he was in front of her, and she practically screamed his name and threw herself into his arms.

She clung to his neck; he covered her face with kisses. She said, "I thought you were dead," and he told her he'd feared she was. They agreed that they both looked well for two dead people, and he meant it. She was unchanged, as beautiful as ever.

He couldn't care less about the people passing and staring at them with interest, but Hikaru, when she came to herself again, did care. "We're going to create a scandal," she mock-scolded him, and pulled out of his arms.

"I don't care."

"Neither do I, but my husband will!"

"You're married? Again?"

"I'm a very desirable wife. And it's been more than a year, Seijuro! Come with me. There's a restaurant just down the way here. We can have sake and you can tell me why you didn't come for me."

"It was your fault."

"Of course it was," she agreed placidly. "Come on."

She knew the proprietress of the restaurant and got them a table far from any others, as well as some very good sake. He watched her pour, every graceful movement familiar to him and yet as wonderful as if he were seeing them for the first time. He couldn't stop staring at her, and she kept sneaking looks at him and then smiling.

She handed him his cup. "Now, tell me why it was my fault that you didn't come for me."

"Did you want me to?"

She was hurt. "Yes."

"How was I supposed to know?"

"I wrote you."

"You're an idiot. You trusted Ogai Murasaki."

"Not him. I gave the letters to Mayu."

"And she's his very obedient wife. He took them from her and burned them."

She was silent a moment, and he realized that he might be about to see her lose her temper for the first time. Interested, he watched as, eyes focusing on some distant inner place and cheeks reddening, she got herself under control. He was almost sorry when she won the battle and said softly, "He is a most unworthy son."

"He's a pig and a bastard."

"For once I'm not going to tell you to watch your language. But before we say how stupid I was for trusting Mayu and Ogai, why don't you tell me – how else I was to get in touch with you?" she added sweetly.

He'd seen that one coming, and grinned. "How was I to know Murasaki would die so soon? He wasn't that old, was he?"

"Sixty-four. That's no excuse." Her expression sobered. "We should have planned better. But I suppose it made no difference, in the long run. Nothing had changed, except I had no husband and no home. I still couldn't have gone with you."

"I would have liked to know where you were," he growled. "Look at you. I kept thinking you were sick and dying in a gutter somewhere. I should have known better. You're like a cat, you keep landing on your feet."

Instead of rising to the bait, she said sadly, "I knew you hadn't abandoned me. I knew you would come if you could. I thought you'd died, like your Master did."

Effectively disarmed, he shot back, "I searched the entire city of Edo for you."

That banished her sadness. "And you hate Edo!"

"I've been looking for you for a year now. Where did you go?"

"I came here, to Kyoto. You said once that your Master trained you on a mountain near Kyoto, so I came here. It was the only thing I could think to do."

"You've been here in Kyoto the whole time?"

"Don't shout."

"I'm not shouting."

"You might as well be. Yes, I've been here almost a year. Where have you been?"

"When I wasn't traveling, I've been here. On that mountain just north of the city."

Her smile was bittersweet. "My home is almost at its foot."

Only a few miles had separated them. Maybe even less. "Hikaru..."

"Don't look at me like that. And don't touch me, I'll start to cry."

He didn't think he could stand that. He pulled his hand back. "So who is this man you married this time?"

She responded to his tone rather than his words, and said softly, "It's not like that, Seijuro. Toshiro is nothing like Fujio Murasaki. He loves me very much."

"Do you love him?"

"Yes. Not as I love you, but yes. He's a good man in every way."

He realized he had found her only to lose her again. "No summer house."

"No." Being Hikaru, she didn't let that negative sit between them. "Is that all I've meant to you? Nights in the summer house?"

"Don't try to provoke me."

Her lips twitched. "Because it would be too easy and you might shout?"

"I'm not going to play games with you. What now? What are we now, Hikaru?"

"Why do you ask me?"

"Because I know you, and we will be what you want us to be, no matter what I say or do."

"Only because you are a gentleman and kind to me."

"Just like your husband. And we are both going to dance to your tune, aren't we?"

She laughed. "I love the way you make me feel my own power, and then take it away, all at the same time." She suddenly sobered again and put her fingertips to her lips. "I love you as much as I ever did." Her hand dropped back into her lap. "But I can't offer you what I did when I married Fujio. I made no such agreement with Toshiro. He knows about you, of course, but..."

"Do you tell everyone about me? No, let me take that back. You only tell your husbands. Hikaru, you're the most absurd woman I've ever known."

"That's only because I'm honest. Which is something else you've made me."

"I didn't make it, only released it. So be honest and tell me what you want."

"I don't know what I want. I only know what I don't want, and I don't want to lose you. I don't want you to leave me and never come back."

He felt his own expression lighten, and he smiled at her. What a ridiculous woman she was sometimes. "I won't. We won't lose each other unless you run off again."

"You'll show me where you live, so that if I must run off, I will have a place to run to."

"All right. I wish I'd thought to do that before."

"Edo is much farther away," she said quietly. "I didn't think of it, either."

He thought about how different the past year would have been, had they planned better and he'd returned home to the cottage and found her there waiting. It might not have been a blessing. He would have been faced with the choice between her and the Hiten Mitsurugi again, as he had when he was 15, but this time with no one to make the choice for him. He wasn't sure what decision he would have made, either. "You're better off with... what is his name, anyway?"

"Kimiyama. Toshiro Kimiyama."

"The potter?"

"You've heard of him?"

"Of course I have. His name is on pottery everywhere. You have done well for yourself. How did you meet him?"

"He had business dealings with Fujio."

"So he was one of those who envied Murasaki, was he?"

Her mouth puckered in an attempt not to smile. "You could say that. He wanted to marry me right away, but I told him about you. So he found me a house to live in, here in Kyoto, and helped me move."

He stared at her. Even for Hikaru, this was bizarre. "I can't be hearing this right. You left Edo in less than three weeks. Are you telling me this guy proposed marriage to you before Murasaki was even cold?"


"And then when you said no thank you, he brought you here to wait for another man to come and claim you?"

"It wasn't quite that simple."

"I should think not. No man is that stupid, even for you. What was the bargain?"

"Your rudeness has grown worse without my influence."

"Probably. But there was a bargain, wasn't there?"

The smile came out. "I told him I would wait two seasons, and at the first snowfall, if you hadn't come for me, I'd marry him. And that's what happened."

"He probably paid the rent on your house until then, too."

She chuckled but didn't reply. She didn't have to.

He drank off the last of the sake. "I hope he's happy with his end of the bargain."

"I believe he is. But you can judge for yourself. I want you to meet him. And I want him to meet you."

"I don't want to meet him."

"I don't care. If you and I are to be friends, then you two must meet."

Hiko's Master had once said to him that the last word a man ever wanted to hear from the mouth of a woman he wanted was the word "friend." As about so many other things, his Master had been right. "I'm not your friend, Hikaru."

"I know, but we're going to call it that. Stop trying to pick a fight with me."

"I'm not."

"You are."

"No, I'm just trying to fight the inevitable." Seeing her expression change, he said quickly, "Don't give me any of that crap about our destinies bringing us back together. It has nothing to do with fate and everything to do with a very stubborn, willful woman."

"One day, when we're old and grey, you'll admit it's fate for us to be together."

"Never. Even if I believe it, I'll never admit it."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Her Kyoto home was similar to her Edo one. Larger, more rambling, built around even more extensive gardens, but still, everywhere, was the unmistakable stamp of her personality. From the profusion of green in the gardens to the furniture in the house, all was arranged with casual perfection, clean, balanced, harmonious in color and shape. He could feel himself relaxing within seconds of entering, and he had to work to resist. He didn't want to be relaxed. He was still angry with her. Staying angry with Hikaru was difficult, but he was a Hiten Mitsurugi Master, he could do it. When she went to fetch sake (and her husband), she told him to sit and be comfortable. He remained standing, arms folded on his chest.

A man came in alone, a neat, trim man in his 30s, of average height, probably no taller than Hikaru herself, who probably would have been overlooked in any crowd if one didn't look at his eyes. These were dark and very alive, full of intelligence, edged now with both wariness and a wry amusement at the situation. "I am Toshiro Kimiyama," he said, unnecessarily.

"Seijuro Hiko." No bows were exchanged, although there was no hostility between them, only a wariness still.

"I've asked Hikaru to bring sake."

"I won't drink your sake."

The amusement in his eyes deepened. "She told me you could be rude."

"I'm not rude, I simply don't have patience for the usual social conventions."

"Another way to state the same thing. But I won't try your patience. I know who and what you are to Hikaru, and I'm meeting you only on her insistence."

"It's the same for me, and I have no idea why she insists."

"I might be able to enlighten you. My grandfather had a saying, 'The bear you see is always smaller than the one you hear snuffling in the brush'. Although, in your case, I'm not certain that's true." The humor faded, leaving only the wariness. "My wife says she wishes to keep your friendship, even now. I trust my wife, Master Hiko."

"You can trust me. You have my word. I'll neither touch her nor expect anything more from her than her friendship." He hated saying the words and giving up even the last possibility of tempting her into changing her mind. But having seen this man, he knew he didn't have a chance anyway. This wasn't a man that any decent person would betray, much less a woman like Hikaru. "Tell her you met the bear. I'll come sometime next week and show her where I live," he said, and bowed, and left.

Crossing alone through the gardens back to the gate, he slowed a moment and looked around, and realized the gods must be having yet another good laugh at his expense. He hadn't thought to ask that she return to him, much less that he receive another summer-house arrangement with her. He'd only asked to know that she was safe and comfortable. Now he knew she was both. Eventually he might even learn to be happy about it.

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