I sighed and sheathed my sword resolutely. At least it meant that he had believed my words completely and I had accomplished what I had set out to do. I turned as I heard footsteps coming quickly up behind me. Kenshin, Hikaru, and the children. I knew that they could not have missed the yelling and gate slamming. I was just glad of the few moments that I had been given to collect myself.
Hikaru was the first to speak, her distress over the situation written on her features and very clear in the tone of her voice, "Yuki? Was that Moriko I heard just now? She sounded furious." I saw her eyes narrow slightly, "Saitoh hasn't already been bothering her, has he? She must be in a terrible rage to have slammed the gate so hard."
I shook my head grimly, "Something has happened, but it is nothing to do with Saitoh. Not directly."
Hikaru's hand raised to her lips and her eyes went from narrow to very wide.
"I'll tell you later." I said pointedly, nodding my head ever so slightly to the children, who were watching me with equally wide eyes. Keitaro in particular looked very stressed over the situation. He was still very young and confrontations upset him. Finally, my eyes traveled to Kenshin, who was watching me with a grave expression. The two of us did not need words to communicate. He knew very well what had just passed between Moriko and I, except for the last part. That, at least, was a blessing, I would rather tell him myself.
"Mommy, why was Auntie Mor'ko so mad?" Keitaro asked, his words still having the lisp of the young. He twisted his yukata in his small hands in nervous energy and I felt terrible for being the cause of my child's distress.
"Yeah, is she okay, Mama?" Hitomi asked. She was standing behind her brother and gently hugging him to her. Obviously, it was only to support him, I heard none of the distress of the others in her tone, only concern.
I forced myself to smile faintly, "Don't worry, my darlings. I'm going to help Auntie Moriko. She'll be all right." I met Kenshin's eyes over their heads and winced inwardly as his eyes narrowed suspiciously at my words. Telling him what I had just agreed to was going to be very hard. However, that was not my first concern.
"Why don't you two run around back with your daddy? Auntie Hikaru and I are going to be very boring and chat over tea."
I managed a more realistic smile as both kids wrinkled up their noses in disgust and Hitomi said, "Tea chats are so boring! Come on, Daddy! Let's go play before they can get talking." She latched onto his kimono sleeve and began pulling.
I slid my sword into my belt and walked over to join my family. Kenshin put his free hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently in reassurance, "Are you all right?" He asked.
I nodded and covered his hand with mine, "We'll talk later after I speak to Hikaru. I have a favor to ask her. Go play now before your sleeve gets torn in two and one of us has to try to mend it!" I said with a chuckle at Hitomi and now Keitaro as well pulling on his sleeve in insistence.
He gave me one last worried look before grinning at the kids, "Okay, okay! Hurry up and make a train, we're about to leave the station!" He gave me a reassuring smile before being pulled away.
I watched as the three of them disappeared around the side of house, linked together like a train. Hitomi and Keitaro loved this game, undoubtedly because Kenshin made silly train sounds for them that they loved to imitate.
When the "train" was gone, I turned back to Hikaru who was regarding me with great concern, "Yuki, a show for the children is all well and good, but something is very wrong. What in the world has happened? Does all this have something to do with your questioning this morning?"
I nodded slowly, "Yes. Let me get the tea and I will tell you.
I slid the rice screen door to the meeting room closed behind me as I balanced the tea tray with one hand. Hikaru was already seated at the large kotatsu table, an anxious expression on her usually calm features. She was the closest thing I had to a mother, but she was really more of a best friend who I deeply respected. I dreaded telling her what I had done and earning her certain disapproval. I had made the tea to put it off, to put my thoughts in order. I had decided that I would not tell her of the duel. If she were to know, she was likely to have kittens. I thought that sparing her the knowledge until after the fact was the kind thing to do.
"Sorry I kept you waiting." I murmured as I carefully set the tea down and knelt across the table from her. I smoothed my red kendo pants in a nervous manner, trying to dry my sweaty palms enough to trust them to pour the tea.
"Never mind that. Tell what has happened to Moriko." Hikaru answered with an impatient wave of her hand. I finished pouring our tea and sat back. Her dark eyes bore into mine imploringly.
I swallowed and finally replied bluntly, "I have betrayed Moriko's trust. I threatened to reveal her affair with Saitoh if my charges were not dropped."
Hikaru's half-raised cup crashed back down to the table and tea splashed unnoticed. I flinched at the sound and her sharp intake of breath. When she did finally let it back out, it hissed through her teeth, "Yuki."
Her hand came to her mouth in shock and she finally said through her fingers, "How could you have done that to her? She can trust so few people. I had thought that you… and Kenshin were beyond such behavior now. I assume he knew your plan." She said, her voice becoming colder with each word, her eyes narrower.
"No. Do not put any of the blame for this on Kenshin. He knew, of course, but he had no part in it. He didn't even approve, but we couldn't think of any other way." I said quietly, but firmly.
"He could have stopped you." Hikaru said sharply, more to herself than to me. "But, very well. Answer my first question then. How could you? Risk ruining her life… and Kiyoshi's, to save yourself?" Her tone had turned into one of chilly disapproval that I had never heard from her before. I shuddered slightly. Was I to lose all my friends to this? Still, I would not do it differently if I had it to do over again.
"It wasn't to save myself. If I was alone, I would have paid for my crimes without complaint. But, I am not alone. I could not allow myself to be torn away from Kenshin and the children, Hikaru. They are my life. They are everything to me and I to them. Saitoh was going to put me in jail for who knows how long. He said a short while, but what is short by that man's terms? A year? Two years? No! If only he would have been reasonable, had some compassion, I wouldn't have had to do this. I did not want to! I never would have if there had been any other way." I said, well aware of the increasing desperation in my voice with each word. I never realized before how much this woman's friendship had come to matter to me. I couldn't bear the thought of her hating me as well.
"Saitoh does not know the meaning of the word compassion." Hikaru replied evenly, "You should have known that."
I could hear reproach in her tone, but it was not as cold. Grasping at the small thread of hope, I continued, "I would not have gone through with it if he had called my bluff, if that makes you feel better. Moriko is… was my friend, and I'm very fond of Kiyoshi. I would not see her punished in my place and him as good as orphaned." I raised my cup of herbal tea to my lips, hoping it would calm my nerves.
I heard the older woman sigh as she began to settle back down from her initial shock, "I know that you would not have really gone through with it. I don't suppose you could tell Moriko that though, could you?"
I shook my head sadly, "She would tell Saitoh and I would be back to where I began - trapped."
Hikaru set her cup down and regarded me with an unreadable expression, "I also know how hard it is to be separated from your loved ones - and especially your love himself. I still do not approve of what you have done, but at least now I can begin to understand it."
I closed my eyes and let my breath out slowly, wrapping my hands around my teacup. Silence hung in the room for several minutes before I whispered, "She hates me now. I don't blame her. Even if this situation is of her own making, she was still a close friend who trusted me."
Hikaru nodded, "I have never approved of her actions either, but she does have a right to be upset with you." She raised her cup and finally took a slow sip of tea, "How do you plan to resolve this? You did say that you were going to help her."
"I don't know if it can be resolved, but I'm going to try." My gaze didn't waver from hers as I said this, I was determined not to reveal the truth that would worry her so much.
"I don't think that this is forever, Yuki. Give Moriko a chance to calm down and then try talking to her again. She flares in anger without thinking. Once she has had a chance to think, I believe you two will be able to work this out."
I sighed, "I hope you're right." I tapped the edge of my teacup with my fingernail before continuing, "I know I don't deserve to be asking favors of anyone at the moment, but this is for Hitomi and Keitaro, not me. Would you please take them away for a few days while I do try to settle this? To Kaoru's or the Akabeko. They don't need to hear or see whatever might pass between Moriko and I before this is resolved."
Hikaru held her cup between her two hands and regarded me, "Yes, I think that would be best. I was going to suggest as much myself. I'm afraid Seijuro won't stay anywhere else, though."
"He can stay here without you. If there is anyone who won't care about what might go on here, it's him."
"That's not necessarily true." Hikaru replied quietly. I knew that she was used to people's poor opinions of her husband and usually said nothing, so this surprised me "But, I think that I will take the children to the Akabeko since Kaoru's place is already crowded with Misao, Aoshi, and Isamu. Besides, I would love to visit with Sanosuke and his family."
"Well, Tomiko will be very happy to have you. I really appreciate this."
"Think nothing of it, I love spending time with Hitomi and Kei. When I have them all to myself, I can spoil them." Her eyes twinkled mischievously.
I mock rolled my eyes skyward, "Buddha help Kenshin and me!"
She laughed and the tension abruptly lifted from us. She reached out and gently touched my hand, "And I want to see Moriko and you work this out. Your friendship was too special to lose."
I nodded before picking the tea towel up off the tray, "Well, I suppose I better clean this up and go tell Kenshin and the kids what's going on."
"Don't worry about the cleanup, Yuki. I'll take care of it for you." Hikaru said, as she gracefully got to her feet."
I smiled up at the older woman in deep gratitude for everything she was doing. Then I folded my hands and bent the upper half of my body in a deep formal bow of appreciation, "Thank you, Hikaru."
She bowed slightly in return before waving her hand in dismissal and then deftly beginning to wipe up what had spilled. I turned and quietly left the room by the open-air hallway instead of the indoor one I had entered by.
I had just rounded the side of the house, lost in my own racing thoughts when a huge hand closed on my wrist, jerking me out of my walk. My other hand flew instinctively to my sword as the force of my own stopped momentum pulled me around. My hand immediately fell from my hilt as I saw the immense shape of Seijuro Hiko standing in front of me, my own small hand dwarfed by his own. He released it and looked down his sharp nose at me.
I rubbed the offended skin. "What is it, Master Hiko? You could have just called my name instead of skinning my wrist." I said in a rare tart tone. "I'm in a hurry."
"I know that. I want to talk to you right now anyhow." He rumbled softly and I realized that he did not wish to be heard by anyone who might be within hearing range. He whirled around and began walking away from the house, obviously just expecting me to follow him.
"Talk at me is more like it." I muttered as I fished an old pair of geta sandels out from under the outside walkway. Slipping them onto my feet, I jumped lightly down from where I was and silently followed the master across the yard. Curiosity, damn it, had the better of me. The almighty Hiko and myself had only ever had one real conversation and that was many years ago. It had proven my theory that he disapproved of me wrong, but we still rarely spoke outside of curtesies. Something that would make him specifically want to was enough to intrigue me into putting aside the chaotic present for the moment.
He stopped underneath one of the many cherry trees that lined the manor walls, well out of hearing range of the house. His cape swirled majestically around him as he stopped, turned, and said without preamble, "You kept something from Hikaru. I want to know what." He crossed his massive arms and looked down on me like some god of judgment.
"Eavesdropping is very rude, Master Hiko." I replied evenly. It was one of my personal goals not to let this man rile me like he used to be able to.
He snorted, "Why would I go to the trouble of eavesdropping on you? I was just trying to have a nice, quiet afternoon jug of sake when all hell started breaking loose around here. First was Moriko making all that noise earlier and then my wife and you chattering like magpies right beside the window I was sitting under. How was I not suppose to overhear?"
"You might have moved for privacy's sake." I said coldly.
"Why should I? I was drinking there long before you two came in." He held up the sake jug still tied to his wrist as proof. "Now, tell me what you are keeping from Hikaru."
Infuriating bastard. He was right, as usual, but I did not want to tell anyone without first telling Kenshin. Who did he think he was ordering me around anyhow?
"I haven't even told Kenshin yet. Why should I tell you? It's not your business."
"You haven't told Kenshin because you haven't had the chance. You deliberately kept something from Hikaru and it is my business if it is something that could hurt her in any way." He replied pointedly.
I could not argue with that. Not with him. No one could argue successfully with the man with the exception of his wife. "Fine. I will tell you if you will let me be the one to tell Kenshin."
The big master smirked, "The last thing I want to be is involved in your marital affairs. Start talking."
"Moriko and I are going to settle this with a duel tomorrow night. It was what she wanted." I answered bluntly. I wasn't surprised when Hiko didn't even so much as blink.
"I thought so. Where?"
"Outside the town where there is open space and we are less likely to be seen or heard."
"And you kept it from Hikaru to spare her the knowledge. Good. She is delicate and it would upset her very much."
I wasn't so sure about Hikaru being as delicate as all that, but I didn't make a point of out of it. He certainly wouldn't listen anyhow.
"Well, at least it will be good for my st… Kenshin to be on the sidelines for once. Good taste of how everyone who cares about him feels. I suppose I better go to this thing to keep him in line and keep you two cats from killing each other. You certainly are a lot of trouble." He grumbled and pulled his cape around himself in a long-suffering manner.
I rolled my eyes inwardly. I knew he was going to come for Hikaru's sake, even if he would never admit it. "I have no intention of hurting Moriko more than I have already. I'll be using Kenshin's sword."
The big man raised his thick brows, "And Kenshin doesn't know this yet either? Are you in for a fun night." He said with a laugh.
"I'll convince him." I said with much more resolution than I felt.
"Good luck. His head is hard as a rock when he disagrees about something and he is definitely going to disagree with this."
"I know that."
"I'm going to find Hikaru now. Thanks to you, I won't see her for a few days." He turned and strode off across the yard. I was left staring after him for several moments before continuing on my interrupted parental mission.
"But, Daddy, what about your birthday?!" Hitomi asked unhappily from where she was standing by Kenshin's side. She looked distinctly like the world was quickly coming to an end, I could even seen unshed tears glistening in her eyes.
Kenshin knelt down so that he was face to face with our daughter and smiled, "Don't cry now, 'Tomi. When you come back, we'll have the biggest party ever, that we will!"
"You promise?" She sniffed.
"Yeah, you promise?" Keitaro echoed from where he was clinging to my neck.
"I promise! My birthday is no fun without you two after all." He said, standing back up and ruffling her hair.
"And we'll be sure to make some great surprises for your father." Hikaru chimed in from beside me.
Kenshin blinked, "Oro? I'm not sure I like the sound of that, that I'm not!"
Oros always made the kids laugh and everyone's mood lifted a little bit. I hugged Keitaro to me tightly and kissed the top of his head, "I know you will be a good boy, Kei. You always are." I said with a fond smile.
He nodded and I turned to give Hitomi a more stern look, "You be good too, Hitomi. Don't give Hikaru trouble or lead your brother into it!"
She grinned impishly, her tears forgotten, "I won't!"
Kenshin and I gave each other a knowing look and shook our heads. We had heard that before!
Kenshin knelt again and hugged Hitomi, balancing on the pads of his feet, "Really try to stay out of trouble for more than five minutes this time, 'Tomi." He reinforced, before sending her towards me.
I hugged her as well and kissed her forehead, "Have fun, sweetie. You too, Kei!"
"We will, Mama!" the two said together.
Hikaru turned to Hiko, who was watching the farewells with a distinctly annoyed expression. He looked at her and said, "I don't see why everyone is making such a fuss over this! These kids are only going to be gone for a few days! I probably won't see you either, and I'm not making a big deal of it!"
Hikaru lips fell into a classic geisha pout, "Why do you always say such things, Seijuro?" She then dropped her act and stood on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek, still holding Kei in her arms, "You be good too." She said, her eyes twinkling wickedly.
Hiko snorted, "I am always good."
"I know." Hikaru replied as her husband turned and stalked back inside the estate, most likely to take refuge in another jug of sake.
She shook her head, "You may be doing more baby-sitting than I will." She said with a wink before taking Hitomi's hand. The three of them turned and started off down the street with much waving and good-byes.
Kenshin and I finally turned and walked back through the gates into the manor courtyard. He pulled the main gate shut behind us and then turned to face me. His smile had faded and deep concern was written all over his face.
"Now we can talk, that we can. You only would have sent Hikaru, Hitomi, and Keitaro away if you were worried about something happening to them." He reached out and gently touched my cheek, "What did Moriko say that has made you so concerned?"
I sighed and slipped my arm through his, "Come into the house and I'll tell you."