"Mama, do you think Daddy will like a drawing from me for his birthday?" Six-year old Hitomi asked, smiling up at me with her sharp, blue-gray eyes.
"Oh, he will love, it, Sweetie." I answered as I paid the clerk for the charcoal sketching sticks I had just bought her.
"Give my regards to your husband, Lady Himura." The man in the stall said as he handed me my change and turned back to his business.
I nodded, before reaching down to take Hitomi's hand, squeezing it gently as I said, "Well, shall we head home now so you can begin working on your surprise for your daddy?" I asked her, smiling fondly as her two copper pigtails bounced with the enthusiastic shaking of her head.
She slipped the small package into her pocket and grinned at me, "Let's go!"
Neither Kenshin or I knew where she had gotten the desire - or the talent since she was quite good for a six year old - for art. Neither of us were particularly artistically inclined and my estranged parents certainly were not. Kenshin once mentioned that he had fleeting images in his memory of a woman drawing funny little pictures to amuse him as a child. He said he always liked to think that she was the mother he had lost to cholera too long ago to have any solid memories of her - and thus treasured these hazy images. We had both agreed that perhaps our daughter had gotten this skill from her long gone grandmother. I think the idea that he might see flashes of his unknown parents in his children pleased Kenshin very much. Personally, I hoped that they had inherited grandparent genes from only that side of the family.
It was just mid-June and the day was comfortably warm as the two of us walked through the Tokyo marketplace, Hitomi chattering happily about what she might draw at my side.
Kenshin had always been his usual humble self about his birthday. He would say, "It's not even my real birthday, that it's not. No need to make a big deal out of it." Yet, I had always arranged a gathering of our friends around June 20th - the birthday his old master Hiko had given him. None of us needed any excuse to make a big deal out of Kenshin and I think it made him glad to know he had a family and friends who cared so much after being alone for so many years earlier in his life. Besides, Hitomi adored her doting father and loved the chance to make something to surprise him. He was currently at home with our three year old, Keitaro, most likely playing one of the little games he was so good at. I smiled at the thought, still amazed everyday that the two of us had managed to create a peaceful, almost normal life for ourselves out of the wreck that was our early existence.
We had just turned onto the main street of the shopping district when a voice suddenly rose nastily above the general murmur of the crowds in front of us, "There you are! I've finally found you, you ungrateful little bitch."
I stopped, and scanned the crowd, feeling my heart beat a little faster in my chest. Shoving his way through the crowd came a man in his mid-fifties. A man I recognized immediately despite all the years between us. His pale face was contorted in anger and his gray hair was literally bristling in anger. However, there was no way I could mistake him. I felt a vicious stab of cold in my stomach that spread to my limbs, paralyzing me with shock and fear. No. Not now… how could he have found me all these years later? NO! My mind raced.
I felt Hitomi pull on the sleeve of my yukata and whisper nervously, "Mama… are you okay?"
Her presence was the only thing that kept me standing, I believe. I swallowed and grasped enough reason to step in front of my daughter, shielding her from what I knew would be a vicious encounter.
"Hitomi, stay behind me and be very still." I said quietly.
Already, the crowd was parting, becoming an audience, as it became increasingly obvious that I was the target of the man's fury. I had never more desperately wanted Kenshin beside me.
The man came to a furious, puffing halt and stood over me. I forced myself to stand straight and say clearly, "Hello, Father."
I felt Hitomi stiffen against my leg and prayed she would stay silent and out of reach as my father began to rage. "I don't believe this! You're able to calmly greet me as if I had been gone on holiday these twenty years past after you RUINED ME!"
These last words were screamed directly in my face and I smelled his sour breath. He had been drinking, a lot, but then he always did. I flinched and resisted the urge to run away. He had often hit me when I was a little girl and he was a man too young to be a father. Like so many, he chose to bury his problems in sake. Old habit from childhood still made me fear him as I feared no one else. If it was any other person, I could have used my martial arts training to take care of them in seconds. But, not with my own father, I would not do that. However, I was also no longer a cowering child.
"And just how did I ruin you?" I asked, my voice quivering slightly despite my best efforts to control it. "I haven't even seen you in twenty-five years."
Apparently, my calm made him even angrier and he snarled in my face, "Who do you think paid back your debts?! Buddha?!?"
I blinked in honest surprise and answered, "I never thought about it." I said it almost dispassionately and regretted it immediately. Not the smartest thing I could have said, but my mind was refusing to work properly. However, I would not let him know that he had rattled me.
"That's because you are a selfish brat!" He suddenly reached out and locked onto my arms so tightly that I knew it would bruise. Shaking me to emphasis his words he said, "Your mother spoiled you - stupid woman. She'd dead now, you know." He added, with cruel bluntness. "The consumption, over ten years ago. We couldn't afford medical attention, thanks to you!"
He released me with an angry shove backwards and I felt Hitomi cling tighter to my kendo pants. This news was like a second kick in the stomach before the pain of the old one had even begun to subside.
She had tried, my mother, but had always seemed distant. Kind, but distant. She never stepped in on my behalf, but always dried my tears afterwards. When I was younger, I had hated her too for not saving me, but now I knew that she couldn't have. I had forgiven her. To hear so suddenly that she had died, even after years of separation, hurt. Despite his resentment of me, his caustic nature, and his insults, I knew my father had loved her. He never hit her, anyhow. I said quietly, "I'm sorry."
He laughed, a humorless sound, "Don't you dare stand there and dishonor her memory with your pity!"
I took an unconscious step back from him and changed the subject, "How did you find me? You were never supposed to find me again."
His voice was still quivering with anger, "It wasn't easy, you go to ground like the vixen you are, don't you? And I couldn't even think of trying to locate you until I had recovered at least a little from my loses." He paused to push his now wild hair out of his face, " Your okiya mother agreed to help me after the old shrew took all my money. I suppose she felt some kind of guilt. She should." he spit on the ground contemptuously, "We went on the idea that you would probably resemble your mother, which you do, as unworthy as you are. It took years, but the gossip network of the Geisha finally located you from rumors." he smiled unpleasantly, "So, here I am, your father, to take you back with me. You're going to work to earn back every yen I lost because of you." his voice got more threatening with each word and he finally reached out and grabbed my wrist.
"No!" Hitomi yelled, appearing from behind the flair of my clothes.
"Hush, Hitomi." I said levelly, before expertly wrenching my wrist back out of his grasp, "I will not! You no longer have any claim to me!"
Something snapped in him. "Don't you dare talk back to me, you little whore!" he flared and before I saw it coming, he had backhanded me sharply across the face.
In the aftershock of the blow, I lost my balance and fell backwards onto the dusty road, stars dancing in front of my eyes. I tasted blood in my mouth. Through the haze of pain, I heard Hitomi scream and someone in the now churning crowd yell, "Someone hurry and find Sir Himura!" A different voice raised, "Someone find an officer!"
As I struggled to regain my senses, I prayed that Kenshin would come quickly. For once I was absolutely sure I could not handle the situation alone.
"Don't you hit my mama!" I heard Hitomi shriek in anger and I made my eyes focus to see her starting towards my father with an expression on her face so like that one that her father used to have in battle that I couldn't stifle a gasp. I had never seen her look like that before and it scared me.
I managed to croak through my shock, "Hitomi, don't!"
She didn't listen. Instead she viciously kicked my father in the ankle. I heard him grunt and turn his angry gaze sharply down on her. I shakily began to try to get to her before he could, but I wasn't fast enough in my current disturbed state.
"Mama, is it?" my father sneered. He grabbed one of Hitomi's pigtails and pulled it, almost lifting her off the ground. She screamed in pain and he said in a dangerously quiet voice, "What beautiful red hair. You ran away from a life of luxury and ruined your family with your debts so you could whore yourself out to foreign devils?!"
He threw Hitomi towards me. I had gotten my knees under me and was able to catch her and hold her tightly to me as I glared at this man who had sold me in childhood. I could feel her trembling and hated him more.
Before I could tell him the truth and defend both of us, a new voice came over the heads of the crowd, "What is going on here?"
An involuntary shiver ran down my back. This day was surely cursed. If I were in the habit of using an almanac, it undoubtedly would have told me to avoid the world at all costs on this day. This new voice was as chill inducing as my father's, in its own way. The crowds parted like the Christian's Red Sea and a tall man came prowling through them like the lone wolf that he was named after. Hajime Saitoh.
I closed my eyes and hugged Hitomi closer to me. She had already bravely stopped crying and shaking, but clung to me all the same. Of all the officers in all of Japan to be in the Tokyo suburb marketplace on this day, why did it have to be HIM? He had stalked out of our lives seven years ago and we hadn't heard from him again from that day to this. Three years ago, Moriko had seen him when she was on a mission to Hokkaido, but that was the last solid account of him that I had heard. I knew that with Moriko being mother to his secret, illegitimate son, Kiyoshi, that we would most certainly see him again one day and I dreaded that time. I just did not know it would be so soon. Why did he have to choose today to return to Tokyo? I felt the life that I had worked so hard for crumbling around me and I silently screamed inside.
Saitoh stopped at the edge of the crowd to flick ashes from his ever-present cigarette and smile wolfishly at me, "It's been awhile, Sasaki. Why am I not surprised to find you at the center of this? Whenever there is trouble in the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto it's always one of you morons who start it."
He inhaled deeply on his cigarette, seemingly much more interested in it than the current situation. My father was gaping at him and had ceased ranting for a few seconds.
Obviously, Saitoh had not changed during these years past. Whether this was a good thing or not, I wasn't sure. I managed to struggle shakily to my feet and meet his gold eyes, "I did not start this, Wolf." I said, as calmly as I could still manage considering the circumstances.
Saitoh flicked a few more ashes off and muttered, "Why don't I believe that?" His eyes left mine then and took in the whole scene before saying with an edge on his voice, "Is anyone planning on answering my original question anytime soon? What is going on here?"
I glanced down at Hitomi and started. She was still wearing that fierce expression I thought I had seen the last of many years ago. Without warning, she wiggled out of my arms and walked boldly up to Saitoh. With the bluntness only a child can have, she informed him, "That mean man hit my mama and pulled my hair!"
Saitoh turned his long wolfish face downwards towards my daughter, that infuriating look of amusement on his face, "Well, there's no question about who your father is, is there, little girl?"
Hitomi gave him a confused look and answered, "No, sir. My father is Kenshin Himura."
Saitoh exhaled. I noticed with surprise that he was careful the smoke did not blow in her face. He replied dryly, "Obviously."
Hitomi wasn't a particularly patient child and I could see a child's annoyance behind her eyes, "You're a police officer, you're supposed to help people! Are you going to help my mama?"
My father recovered himself at this point and moved away from me up to Saitoh. Purposely jostling Hitomi aside and ignoring her indignant objection, and said with a nasty sarcasm, "No, granddaughter, because your precious mother is the one in the wrong here!"
This was really directed more to Saitoh than Hitomi, and I took advantage of the situation to reach out and pull her to me. Holding her tight against my legs, I watched the Wolf like a cornered animal.
He casually took a drag from his cigarette, not responding immediately. Tension almost cracked through the air before he finally asked, "And just what is it that she has done? According to the girl, you're the one in trouble here. Assault is a serious crime in the Meiji." An unpleasant grin spread across his long face.
My father's normally pale face was red with fury and he snapped, "Do you want the short list or the long, officer?! How about we start with the little slut running away from the okiya that so graciously accepted her, stealing, and ruining her family with her debt?
I heard gasps and murmurs running through the crowd. Our earlier conversation had been too low to be heard beyond a few words, but no one missed that outburst. Even Saitoh's amber eyes widened in surprise before turning sharply on me. I felt sick and might have passed out had I been a weaker woman. Instead, I took a deep shuddering breath and met those piercing predatory eyes, "That was many years ago and I ran because this man who calls himself my father sold me into that slavery for his own benefit."
More gasps from the crowd and my father hissed, "I tried to give you a life of luxury and you repaid me by stealing from your okiya and putting your large debts on me!"
He was advancing towards me again and I resisted the urge to shrink back. My eyes flicked to Saitoh imploringly. I absolutely would not openly beg for his help, but surely he wouldn't allow this to continue. Unless he's enjoying watching me be publicly humiliated… I thought miserably, which was entirely possible considering our past encounters.
I straightened my spine and took a firmer grip on my daughter as my father came close to us again. I would stand up for myself. "Slavery in luxury is still slavery and I did not steal, I bought myself back." I said coldly.
I saw my father's eyes flash and I braced myself for another blow, sheltering Hitomi with my body as best I could. It never came. I stared with amazement at the old Wolf of Mibu. He had my father's upraised hand clenched in his own and was squeezing tighter as if in genuine anger.
I heard my father whimper in pain and Saitoh snarled, "If you hit this woman right in front of me, moron, I will see to it that you're put in jail for an extensive period of time, no further questions asked on either side."
He released my father's hand and resumed his casual manner, pulling another cigarette out of his pocket to replace the one he had lost saving me from another blow. "I might do that anyhow, since you obviously already hit her once. You will be doing some time for that as it is, don't be an idiot and make it worse." he motioned towards my cut lip and I hastily wiped the blood away, still too surprised to speak. I never would have dreamed that Hajime Saitoh would defend me, law or no.
My father rubbed his reddened hand and retorted, "I can do what I like, she's mine! I bought her back twice over in debts."
"That she most certainly is not." a new voice said and my heart lifted from it's dark misery as if on wings.
Kenshin. I felt my knees becoming weak with relief.
Hitomi's head whipped around at his voice and her face lit up, "Daddy!" she yelled over the crowd's resumed murmuring at this latest turn, "Don't worry, Mama, Daddy's here now."
The crowd parted once again and Kenshin came striding through it wearing a look nearly identical to the one his daughter had earlier. I had not seen it in years, but I was glad to this time. I didn't care what the crowd might be saying now. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that he was here. Everything would be okay.
Walking past Saitoh and my father as if they were not there, he put his arms around me and I leaned thankfully into his support and strength. He held me closer and asked, "Yuki, are you okay? Toma came running in saying that a man was attacking you on the street, that he did."
I lifted my head from where it had been buried in his neck and nodded, "I'm all right… just a little shaken." I shivered despite his warmth and said, "The man is my father."
I felt him tense in surprise, but before he could reply, Hitomi hugged his arm tightly, "Daddy, he hurt mama and pulled my hair!"
That did it. I saw a too familiar flash in Kenshin's eyes I thought long gone as he rounded on my father, one arm still around me, giving me much needed support and I leaned gratefully into him.
My father took a step back, uncertainty on his face. In a deep, threatening voice so unlike his normal, cheerful tone, Kenshin said, "You will regret doing that." I saw his hand move to his sword hilt, and made no move to stop him.
My father still managed to sneer, "And who the hell are you?" The nasty smile returned to his face and he added, "A faithful client, judging by your red hair, who likes playing samurai?"
Kenshin didn't flinch at this blatant insult, but answered evenly as he drew his sword, "I am her husband, that I am. And if you're implying about my wife what I think you are, you will learn just how good I am at 'playing samurai'."
My father went pale and he began to back up as Kenshin leveled his sword at him and whispered to me, "Yuki, shield Hitomi." I nodded, enjoying the look of fear in my father's eyes more than I would admit.
Before anything happened, Saitoh stepped smoothly in between Kenshin and my father. Saying in a voice only for those close by, he said, "As entertaining as this little family feud is, Battousai, I can't let you commit assault either."
Kenshin seemed to see him for the first time and lowered his sword, "Saitoh, it's been awhile. Then again, you have a habit of showing up whenever my life has just become peaceful, that you do."
Saitoh grinned wolfishly again before turning to scan the crowd. I saw several more blue uniforms and knew that his back up had arrived. This was going to end soon, one way or another. He ground his latest cigarette into the road and said to my father, "Come on, I'm taking you in for assault. You'd be smart not to resist."
"Like hell you are! What about her?! She's a thief and worse, and you're just going to let the little bitc-" he was abruptly cut off by the hilt of Kenshin's sword lodging against his throat.
His violet eyes had turned darker and narrowed almost to slits, and he said in a calm, chilling tone, "You will not refer to my wife in such disrespectful terms, that you will not."
My father tried convulsively to swallow and I heard Hitomi whisper beside me, "Tell him, Daddy!" I rather agreed with her sentiment.
Saitoh glared at Kenshin in an annoyed manner, "You haven't changed, Battousai, you still pay no attention to what other people tell you."
He pushed the hilt of Kenshin's sword away from my father and took a firm grasp on the front of his shirt, "The crime of assault is worse than thievery. That's why you're going to jail and your daughter only has to come down for questioning tomorrow."
He rounded to look coldly at me, "And you will come, Sasaki. You've managed to create a fine mess for me to deal with on my first day back in Tokyo."
Kenshin, Hitomi, and I all glared right back at him and I finally answered sharply, "It's not Sasaki anymore, it's Himura, and this is not my fault. It's his." I pointed to my father, who spluttered his rage before being shaken into silence by Saitoh, "But, I will come tomorrow, Wolf."
Saitoh nodded, "That's right, you will, or I'll come drag you there myself."
I crossed my arms and said, "You can try."
Kenshin continued to glare at him, "Do that, and we will finish that duel of ours."
Saitoh waved to the other officers, who came forward and took my father's arms, ordering him to silence his protests, "I've told you before, I really couldn't care less about fighting a duel with an idealistic wanderer."
Kenshin didn't humor him with an answer. He slowly returned his reverse blade to its sheath.
We all watched for a moment as my father was led away. Then Saitoh rounded on me again and growled, "You be there at 10:00 tomorrow morning, Himura, or I'll be at your door." He turned and stalked off after his men.
With the tension gone, relief set in and I did finally sink down to the ground, thoroughly alarming Kenshin and Hitomi in the process. It couldn't be helped, I couldn't have stood a moment longer under that stress. I stared at the dusty road and wondered what I was going to do now. Kenshin knelt and gently put his arms back around me, whispering into my hair, "It's all right now, that it is, he's gone, Yuki."
Hitomi patted my back as if I was the child and said, "Yeah, don't worry, Mama… they took the mean man way."
They were right, for the time being, I could breath. Until tomorrow morning, anyhow. I clasped Kenshin's arm for a moment for strength before shakily letting him help me up. As soon as I was standing, I hugged Hitomi to me tightly again, "Are you okay, sweetie?"
She nodded, "Yes, Mama. But, I have a question. Why did that funny looking officer keep calling Daddy… Battousai?"
The word came out strangely from her six-year old tongue, but I felt a new cold stab join the others. I locked eyes with Kenshin and he shook his head slightly to reassure me before leaning down to pick her up.
Holding her, he managed to grin, "Oh, that's just a silly name that officer likes to call me, 'Tomi. " He said, using his nickname for her. "I don't think he has room to talk, that he doesn't." he leaned in closer to her, as if confiding some big secret, "I think he looks like a mangy old wolf."
He tapped her nose lightly on the last three words and she giggled, "You're right, he does, Daddy!"
I let my breath out slowly, Kenshin's quick, effective distraction giving me much needed time to pull myself together from all these emotional shocks. The crowd was starting to disperse. Several came up to ask if I was all right, but many walked past with strange, badly concealed glances at me. I met their eyes coolly and they quickly quailed, hurrying on their way. Who knows what they were thinking of me after what they had heard. Many probably thought I deserved the whore insults. Maybe I did. I closed my eyes and wondered again why all this had to happen now that I had found peace, a family, and somewhere to fit in. Why?
My eyes opened at Kenshin's light touch on my shoulder. He and Hitomi were watching me with identical looks of concern on their faces, "We should go have Miss Megumi treat your lip, that we should."
I raised my hand up and felt a swelling where I'd been hit so hard. My fingers still came away bloody. I nodded silently in agreement as he took my arm with the one that wasn't holding Hitomi and began leading me towards the clinic.
Hitomi grinned, "Yay! Auntie Megumi's! I can see Ayame and Suzumi!" She paused, "Daddy, put me down." She never liked being held or carried for long, having too much energy for it.
I watched him set her down and another thought crossed my already spinning mind. I touched Kenshin's hand that was still resting on my arm, "Kenshin, where's Keitaro?"
Kenshin shook his head, "Don't worry about him. When Toma told me what was happening, I hastily left Kei with Miss Moriko." his smile lessened, "It's why I was not there for you sooner, Yuki. I'm sorry, that I am."
He sounded so guilty for something that could not be helped that I hugged him closer to me, "Don't apologize. I knew you would come."
His smile returned and my mind began to relax enough to allow me to smile back, "I bet Moriko wanted to come with you!"
Kenshin chuckled and nodded as he watched Hitomi skipping further ahead, "Yes, I said you were in trouble and her sword was practically already in hand, that it was! I managed to convince her quickly that someone had to stay with Keitaro and Kiyoshi. She grudgingly agreed, but demanded that we let her know as soon as it was taken care of… or what she could do to help." he paused and smiled, "She's a true friend, that she is."
I nodded in agreement as we walked through the open doors of the clinic. I didn't approve of many things Moriko did, but there was no questioning her loyalty. "We'll also have to tell her that Saitoh has returned." I said slowly, after a moment.
Kenshin's smile faded as well at the though of all that this could eventually lead to, "That we will."