I nodded grimly and folded my hands in front of myself, "Yes, it was foolish to think that she might never know. Such secrets never keep. But for her to find out so fast caught me completely off guard. Saitoh must have run and told her the moment I left his office. Damn him! Why would he do that? He had to know that it would hurt her." I said coldly. I knew the fault was mine for even threatening to go to such lengths, but that man did not have to tell her. I wouldn't have in his place, knowing she would suffer.
Kenshin narrowed his eyes, "It probably was something to do with his interesting ideas about justice. He probably thought she deserved to know. He might have even hoped that she would hate you."
He folded his hands into his sleeves and walked across our large room to where the screens were open to the outside, admitting the cool breezes of late afternoon, "Though I think it would have been kinder not to have told her, that I do."
I slowly followed him across the room to where he was standing, half silhouetted by the light of the setting sun. I came to a stop beside him, my arm just brushing his, and gazed out over our small garden. In the last peaceful seven years, it had been our favorite place to sit and talk when it was just the two of us - often at night after the children had been put to bed. We shared a love for the moon and stargazing and we would spend hours looking at the sky and talking. Now both of us were too tense to even sit, but it still seemed the best place to tell him what had passed between Moriko and I that afternoon. If only I could find the words to begin.
I watched the sunlight filter through the gently swaying branches of the trees, casting the yard in a golden light. What a contrast it made. I hadn't even realized what tight fists my hands had balled into until Kenshin lightly wrapped his hand around one of them and said, "What did she say, Yuki? I haven't seen you this upset since those dark days in Kyoto eight years ago, that I have not. Nor do insults usually upset you for very long. Tell me."
He said this gently, but imploringly, squeezing my balled hand in reassurance. Finally, I unclenched my fist and he took hold of my relaxed hand tightly, our fingers entwining, to show he supported whatever I might say. He had been there for be faithfully through thick and thin, but I had never done something like this. I had known he would be able to sense my emotional state, as well covered as it had been for the last few hours. Kenshin had an uncanny talent for knowing exactly how someone was really feeling, no matter how well they tried to hide it. He could read me better than he could anyone else. I took a final deep breath to calm myself and then began to relate exactly what had happened.
"And then she said that if I were an enemy, we would have already settled this with the sword. A fight without back-stabbing." I finished unhappily and paused, reluctant to continue.
Kenshin had had his face turned to the sunset instead of me, but I knew that he was listening intently. Now, he turned his face to look at me, his eyes wide, yet his expression was dark. "Yukiyo, tell me that you did not go along with that." He said softly.
I could almost hear the desperate, pleading note in his tone, something foreign to his normal speech patterns. And he had used my full name, something few did these days. He knew already, I could tell. He wanted me to tell him that he was wrong and knew that I wouldn't be able to. I closed my eyes momentarily for the strength to continue.
Finally, I reopened them and met his violet gaze, "I told her that if that would make her feel better, she had only to name the time and place and I would be there."
I paused to let this sink in, flinching inwardly at the horrified expression on my husband's usually peaceful face. "We duel tomorrow night, outside of town. You know the place." I finished, my voice miraculously steady.
A silence so heavy it could have easily been cut by the dullest of katana blades descended over us. I do not even think either of us was breathing. After what seemed like an eternity, Kenshin said in a deep, even tone, "Yuki, you can not do this."
"I have to."
"No, you don't. You can't fight with Moriko, she is one of our closest friends."
"Was." I responded quickly, cutting him off in a desperate attempt to make him understand, "She hates me now, she said so herself. I don't blame her. And, she was the one who wanted this. Kenshin, it's the only way she knows." I paused to allow myself a moment to breathe and remember my calm, "She deserves the chance to do this."
Kenshin shook his head, his hair turned to fire by the sun's dying light, "But, it's not the only way you know, that it is not. Yuki, you know how quickly Miss Moriko's temper flares. You should have refused this and given her a few days to calm down. I know that then you two could have settled this another way. A peaceful way without swords and violence."
"I'm not so sure, Kenshin. Like you said, she has a quick temper. Can you really see Moriko chatting out a difference over tea? Particularly one that is a matter of honor?"
He sighed grimly before answering, "No. The people of this era who continue to follow bushido, like Miss Moriko, don't settle disputes of honor over tea."
Then he turned his eyes away from me, out towards the scarlet skyline, disapproval written on every line of his face. I had no idea what he might be thinking and said quietly, "This may be my only chance to settle this, Kenshin. I have to try. Please understand."
For a moment, he did not reply, he didn't even so much as blink. The breeze blew his hair back from his face and I could see his unreadable expression. I was about to continue my defense when suddenly his grip on my hand tightened and pulled me to him. He hugged me in a tight embrace and I blinked over his shoulder in surprise. He held me for a moment before replying to my words.
"I understand, that I do. I would even agree that this must be settled this way if it was anyone but you going to duel, Yuki. I do not doubt your abilities, I never have, that I have not. Nor do I think that Moriko would ever really fight to wound you. She's hurting inside, but she is a good person who was very close to you. Her reason will come through in the end, that it will. But, Yuki, what if some accident was to happen? A broken blade, even a slip in footing? You and I know too well how easily that can happen. If it were to happen, you could be badly wounded or even…"
He paused then turned his head to whisper into my hair, "I don't know what I would do without you."
He fell silent then and I felt my breath catch on a lump in my throat. Taking a moment to recover from my emotions, I returned his embrace before swallowing and managing to turn my head to look at him, "Yes, that's true. Duels are uncertain. I guess if nothing else is accomplished by this, you'll at least know how I feel every time I have been on the sidelines of one of your duels. My heart stops!"
He tensed and I saw a sweatdrop stand out on his forehead, "This is not the same thing, that it's not!"
I shook my head, "No, it's not the same because I won't be fighting someone who wants me dead. You'll have an easier time of it." I ignored his exasperated look at these words and finished, "But, it is still something that has to be done."
We moved apart from each other then and silently watched as the sun sunk down further behind the tree line. Finally Kenshin spoke again, "This certainly explains why you sent Hikaru away with Hitomi and Kei. The kids definitely don't need to even hear about this." His eyes widened then, "You didn't tell Hikaru did you?"
I quickly shook my head, "No! I decided almost immediately that it would be kinder not to. She would be so upset."
"She would have a right to be. She's not as delicate as Master thinks she is, but she still hates any kind of confrontation and particularly duels, that she does. To tell her about a duel between two of her close friends would be cruel. What did you tell her?"
"Just that I was going to try my very best to settle it. I said that I didn't know what might pass between Moriko and I in the next few days, but that whatever it was the children didn't need to be around to see or hear it. She accepted that without question." I said quietly, feeling a new guilt creeping over me for deceiving Hikaru, no matter how kind it was.
"She would. Hikaru is the kindest woman I know. She expects to be told the truth, that she does." Kenshin replied softly. I heard no accusation in his voice and I knew that he meant none, but his words still caused my guilt to increase.
We were silent for another long moment before Kenshin said, "Yuki, what if you were to accidentally injure Moriko? I would worry for both of you if that were to happen… and Kiyoshi. She would be injured, he would be terrified, and in your own way you can be as bad about guilt as you say I am. Please, reconsider, Yuki."
Once again, he had called my feelings, but I couldn't say so. Instead, I shook my head slowly, "No, I can not back down. It's not my place to back down. However, I will not hurt Moriko anymore than I already have, Kenshin. I can think of one way to insure that."
"You want to use my reverse blade sword." He finished for me, without so much as missing a beat.
"Yes." I replied simply and without surprise. After all of our years of acquaintance, friendship, and marriage, I was used to his way of reading my thoughts even in the most uncommon of circumstances.
He looked at me with a strange expression, "You know, when I showed you how to use that sword all those years ago, I never imagined that it would be for circumstances like this, that I most certainly did not." Then he sighed in resignation. "However, it will insure Miss Moriko's safety if you're set on going through with this - and I know you well enough to see that nothing I say is going to change your mind. Now, if only there was some way to insure your safety."
My heart clenched at his tone and I reached out to take his hand, "Kasai Shinkage combined with my martial arts hasn't failed me yet and having you there will give me strength. Thank you for understanding why I must do this."
"Yuki, I understand, but I can't promise not to interfere if I think that I should, that I can not."
I squeezed his hand in my own and answered quietly, "I wouldn't expect anything else."
We stood for a moment looking at each other before he said, "And I think that we should spar a bit tomorrow. I know that your skills are more than a match for a normal swordsman, but Miss Moriko is anything but."
I nodded as I released his hand, "I agree, in fact, I was going to ask you if you would be willing to do that."
He gave me a wry smile, "You had this all planned out, didn't you?"
I returned his smile, "Well, yes, but it did all depend on your answers."
"And you suspected that you knew what those would be as well, that you did."
I managed to chuckle, "I had some speculations. After all, I do know how you think, I'm your wife."
He nodded, "Which is why I'm going to make sure you're ready to face a former manslayer, whatever her intentions, and be completely comfortable with that sword before you go off to this tomorrow night!"
I continued to smile, so relieved that I wasn't going to have to defy my husband on top of all my other problems. I do not know that I would have. I was glad that I didn't have to make such a choice.
"Yes, Master." I said with a wink as the last rays of sunlight disappeared behind the horizon.
I gripped the hilt of the reverse-blade sword tightly in my two hands, panting from the effort of the morning's activities. Not for the first time I wondered how Kenshin had always managed to get the crazy blade to work so well for him. It always seemed so awkward and off-balance to me whenever I had lifted with it. And now I planned to fight a duel with a former manslayer while wielding the thing. I was beginning to believe that I was certifiably crazy.
The hot June sun beat down on our open yard where Kenshin and I were sparring. We had been working at it since early in the morning and I was appalled by how my fighting skills had declined in the peaceful years that I had been spending raising my children. It was as if my daily practices meant nothing! At first, it had been all I could do to block even the simplest attacks. I had blamed it on the sword, but I knew that wasn't the truth. One's body may never completely forget a skill learned, but when that skill is out of use for so long, it's a challenge to make the limbs remember. However, Kenshin's talent seemed to have not slipped in the slightest despite the fact that he had dueled no more than I had in the past seven years. He didn't even practice as I did beyond sparring with a few of Kaoru's students from time to time. Sometimes I wonder if Hiten Mitsurugi really is the style of the gods. I thought irritably, brushing my damp bangs out of my eyes.
Kenshin stood across the yard from me, as calm and cool as he had been when we first began our practices with the rising of the sun. I searched his violet eyes, hunting for some hint of what he intended to do next. He never even seemed to blink the entire time that we had been sparring and the practice sword in his hands moved surely and smoothly as he flowed from once stance to another. It was only in the past hour that I had begun to be able to continuously block his lighting fast attacks. I sighed. At least my skills were slowly coming back and hadn't abandoned me completely. I would be able to give Moriko the duel she deserved.
I twirled the sword around once to loosen my wrists as I watched him. The wind rose again, ringing the temple bells in the eves of our home, and blowing my ponytail back from my head. Just that fast, Kenshin moved, seeming to race the wind. I swung my sword up swiftly to block his attack and then just as quickly back down in a reverse crescent to parry the second attack. For a long minute, the strange clack-clack-clack of wood meeting metal filled the open courtyard as the two of us moved in a flurry of jumps and stances. I made no effort to change to the offensive, it was all I could do to keep my husband's strikes from reaching me as it was. I parried and turned each of his attacks at the last possible moment and was slowly forced backwards across the grass. Kenshin's expression never wavered and the bamboo sword seemed alive in his hands. Abruptly, his swinging slash changed in mid-motion to a thrust with god-like speed. I couldn't even follow it and found myself with the tip of the practice sword centimeters from my throat, the reverse blade still at my side in preparation for a block.
"Oh, damn it, I yield." I muttered, and dropped my sword arm completely. Kenshin did the same and gave me a sympathetic look as I turned from him and trudged towards the walkway of the house. My long unused muscles were screaming from use and I badly needed to take a moment's break. I slid the sword into its sheath and gratefully collapsed onto the wood paneling, my feet hanging limply over the side.
Kenshin followed me over and sat down cross-legged beside me, a strange little smile on his face, "You're doing much better, Yuki! Don't look so frustrated. There are only a small number of swordsmen in Japan who could fend off the speed of Hiten Mitsurugi for that long, that there are."
I reached back and lifted my long ponytail up off of my neck and then looked over at him, "But, as you said last night, I won't be dueling with just any swordsman. Moriko is a former manslayer with a speed to almost match your own. Even if she doesn't intend to hurt me, her speed will not change."
I sighed as a breeze blew pleasantly against the back of my neck, doing much to cool me down, "And I used to be able to put you on the defensive at least once or twice a match when we sparred. Now, I'm just barely blocking."
"That's because your form is sloppy." A new voice rumbled from the corner of the house.
I snapped my head around to see Master Hiko striding towards us. Perfect. Just what I needed was that most critical of swordsmen watching me. I swore viciously under my breath and Kenshin blinked in surprise. I didn't care. That man's criticism was the very last thing I wanted or needed at the moment. Of course, he continued to dish it out as he came towards us.
"Your elbows are going all over the place and your knees might as well be knocking together. You couldn't even defeat a first year apprentice with form like that." He finished as he came to a stop in front of me, arms crossed. I glared as he effectively blocked my much-needed cooling breeze.
"With all due respect, Master Hiko, shut up." I said wearily.
To my further annoyance, Hiko laughed, "How did you ever get to be a master at all with an attitude like that?"
I started to retort, but Kenshin quickly cut me off, leaping to my defense, "Now, Master, Yuki is doing much better, that she is! She's always been more than a match for the average swordsman - I'm just helping her practice fighting someone with exceptional skills."
I gave him a grateful look for his support, and for saving me from a losing verbal battle with the immense sword master.
Hiko snorted, "That's right, make excuses for your wife. That won't help her at all. It's a good thing you never took an apprentice, you'd probably make excuses for him too."
I looked up to meet his hard gaze and said evenly, "It wasn't an excuse. You know how skilled Moriko is. I never claimed to be any kind of god-like swordsman like you, but I do have to be ready for however she decides to approach this." I dropped my ponytail back down onto my neck and finished, "And if you would leave us be, maybe I could continue to improve."
Hiko raised his brows, "What, you think I have nothing better to do than watch this charade? I'm going into town to see Hikaru. Try not to slice your own foot off, Yukiyo." He said as he turned in a flourish of cape and began striding towards the main gate.
"Ass." I muttered as I watched him go, too pre-occupied with everything else that was going on this day to remember my vow not to let the man get through my cool shell.
"Don't pay any attention to Master Hiko, Yuki. That's just the way he is, that it is. You are doing much better than you were this morning."
"How could I forget?"
Then I placed my hands on my knees and pushed myself back to my feet, "Let's continue, Kenshin. I'm accomplishing nothing just sitting here."
Kenshin blinked and gave me a concerned look, "Are you sure you're ready so soon? Even Master Hiko used to give me longer breaks than that."
"I'm ready. I don't have six years to train, only today. And I'm going to prove that Master of yours wrong."
Kenshin shook his head and stood, "No one has ever proved Master Hiko wrong, that they haven't. Even if they did, he wouldn't admit it. Still, if you're sure." He walked across the yard until he was facing me at about a distance of about twenty feet. To my surprise, he took up a defensive stance.
"Let's try something different. You come at me and I'll meet your attack. That's more like a real duel, that it is. Whenever you're ready."
I nodded and adjusted my hold on the reverse-blade's hilt, shifting it until its balance vaguely resembled what I was used to. I closed my eyes for a moment to gather myself and call on my sword spirit that had once been so strong. I felt it stir and my eyes flashed open in that instant. I moved swiftly into one of my Kasai Shinkage attacks, an overhead slashing move that had always served me well.
Kenshin caught the blade on his practice sword and threw if off with some difficulty, "Much better, Yuki. Keep going!"
I nodded and kept moving with a new determination. I would never admit it, but my elbows were under much tighter control now.
It was nearly an hour after our break, yet my arms were surprisingly lighter than they were when I had begun. My skills really were returning and my confidence with them. Even the sword was becoming easier to fight with, almost natural.
I swung the blade in a wide crescent to block Kenshin's lighting fast attack. Though I felt the force of the impact to my very bones, I felt satisfaction at having successfully turned a technique with such speed and skill behind it.
He took two light steps backwards before suddenly striking forward with the speed of a snake. At the last moment, he feinted to the right, changing the nature and direction of his attack. I was ready for it. I swerved to avoid the wooden blade and then whirled around to deliver a sharp kick to the side of the practice sword on its return thrust. To my amazement, the sword flew from Kenshin's grip to land several feet away.
He turned to look at me with an expression of surprised pride on his face, "Well done, Yuki!"
I stood panting, but slowly a smile crossed my face. Despite the unhappy circumstances that had led me to this, I had only bettered Kenshin in a sparring match perhaps once or twice before in all of our long relationship. I couldn't help but feel some pride at accomplishing so much in just a day's time.
Kenshin came over, still smiling broadly, "Even Master Hiko couldn't find fault in that move, that he couldn't. And now I'm less concerned about tonight. I still wish that it wasn't happening, but, I think that you're right, it must."
At the mention of the reason for our impromptu sparring, the smiles went from our faces and we were left standing in somber silence, "I wish it wasn't going to happen either, but once again there is no other way. Let's hope that this will be a quick end to it."
Kenshin nodded grimly before walking back across the yard to pick up the fallen practice sword. When he returned, he pointed to the reverse blade I was returning to its sheath, "Obviously, you found the sword's balance."
I nodded, "Yes, though it still feels strange. But, I would use it even if I hadn't. I can't risk hurting Moriko. It is me who is in the wrong, after all."
"That you can't." Kenshin said softly, "But, you cannot put all the blame for this on yourself."
I shook my head, "I deserve it for betraying a friend. Now, I'm going to go get ready." I said quickly, looking for a fast way out of this conversation. I turned, and swiftly walked back towards the house. I glanced at the wall clock as I hurried past it on my way to the bath and shivered slightly. Just a few more hours. Now I was physically ready, but would I be able to mentally prepare myself to duel with someone who had been so close to me just a short time ago? I prayed that I could, for everyone's sake.