Chapter 8

Mea Culpa

Written by: Sherrie

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Moriko's Home

I was lying on my stomach with my face buried in my pillow. It was morning, and despite the fact that sunlight was cheerfully seeping through the rice walls of my room, I felt horrible. Wretched, even. The entire night had been filled with all sorts of dreams, the majority of them bad. I had dreamed of the Revolution, the people I'd murdered, my brother and his army, the blood and the horrible screams. And I'd dreamed of life as it was now. Yuki and Kenshin, their children, Kiyoshi, Saitoh...

I'd also dreamed about the duel. All the possibilities of what could happen had played through my mind - from swords breaking to bleeding wounds. The most terrible of the dreams involved either Yuki or myself getting killed...and I'm pretty sure I dreamed it both ways. It nearly caused me to wake up and scream when it ran through my subconscious, but I didn't and I was glad - or I would have woken Kiyoshi up. However, the dreams showed me something. I'd have to find a way to keep Yuki's life safe, and hopefully mine as well.

I sighed and curled up under the blankets, wishing the entire day was only a bad dream itself, and yet knowing it wasn't. I didn't want to get up, and I knew I'd have to. A few minutes later, my bedroom door opened from the hallway, and Kiyoshi peeked in.

"Mama? You're not up yet?" He sounded confused. Probably because I was always up by 7:00; no later then 8:00 in the morning.

I muttered, "I'm just tired, Ki. I was sleeping in. I'll be up in a few minutes." Thankfully the pillow muffled my voice - so he didn't hear any of the concern behind my words.

"Okay." He sounded pleased by the answer. "Can I run down the street and play with Hitomi?"

"No!" I spoke much harsher then I realized, and I sat up as well. Kiyoshi stared at me, now completely confused. I cursed myself inwardly. He and Hitomi were great friends, since they were the same age. They always played together - almost every day in fact. In a much softer tone I replied, "Aunt Yuki is busy today, and I'm sure Hitomi can't play this morning... I'd rather you not go to their house and bother them until she finishes what she's working on." Lying wasn't easy to do with Kiyoshi, but he seemed to believe this excuse.

"Okay... Then can I go in the backyard and play?"

"Sure." I nodded and he ran off down the hall. When I heard the door slide shut, I sighed and flopped on my back. After an entire night of bad dreams and serious thinking, I was beginning to wonder what kind of idiot I was. I'd been insane to call a duel with Yuki. Of all people, I knew how dangerous duels were. Anything could happen in one, just as the dreams had shown. Yuki obviously disliked me enough to betray me, and I had no idea how she would approach our confrontation this evening. I was beginning to seriously regret what I had done and how I'd acted. I wasn't just putting Yuki and myself in danger, but three small children as well. I could hardly believe I hadn't thought of Hitomi, Kiyoshi and Keitaro during my anger the day before.

~*~

After eating a small breakfast, I dressed in a practice kendo and pulled my sword from the rack. I didn't need much practice, just enough to loosen my limbs and exercise what I knew. I headed outside and slowly brought the katana over my head a few times to let my arms grow limber. Then I spent the entire morning running through various techniques, deciding which ones would be best for tonight. Eventually Kiyoshi stopped playing and came around to watch me, and I noticed his eyes were intensely focused on my sword the entire time.

I finally stopped and turned to him. He grinned sheepishly and asked, "When do I get to start training, mama?"

I inhaled sharply at this. It wasn't the statement or question I was expecting. Of all things, I'd figured he'd ask why I was practicing so hard this morning. Thinking fast I replied, "In another year or so. You're still young, Kiyoshi. There's no reason for you to learn right now..." I managed to smile at him.

He pouted a bit and slid off the porch from where he was sitting. "I can't even practicing swinging, like Miss Kaoru's students?"

"A sword is too heavy." I knelt down and he walked over to me. "You're too small to use it yet, Ki. Besides, you'll have to start out on a shinai, and I don't have any of those."

Despite my previous statement, he reached out and took the sword from my hands anywise. It was the first time he'd ever held one himself, and his eyes widened as his arm dropped from the weight. Slowly, he lifted it straight up in front of him by the hilt, horizontally between us, and looked at me. Defiantly he stated, "It's not that heavy." His eyes flashed a brilliant golden-brown color in the sunlight, reminding me that no matter what path I would try to lead him down in his life, he would most definitely be a swordsman.

"Then you try a practice swing." I smiled at his confidence and stood up, ready to dart forward and catch either the weapon or Kiyoshi, positive he wouldn't be able to swing the sword from over his head downward. The sword was almost as tall as he was.

But I got another surprise - another of many in two days. Kiyoshi gritted his teeth, raised the sword slowly above his head, and closed his eyes to concentrate. When he opened them, they flashed once more, and he brought my sword down swiftly. The tip touched the ground, and he grinned and looked up at me. "Like that, mama?"

I stared, shocked he'd been able to swing a katana so surely at such a young age. "Yes, like that..." I murmured. "Now... you should run play. You'll have plenty of time when you're older to practice with swords." As he handed it back and went around to the side of the house, I suddenly remembered that I hadn't been very old when I first started my training in swordsmanship. I was almost nine when Souzou took me to the Nakai Shin Dojo, and the swords were almost as big as I was too, since I'd never been tall. Besides, the blood of two swordsmen coursed through Kiyoshi's veins. I probably shouldn't have been as surprised as I was.

But even though Kiyoshi had just proven he could lift my sword and complete a minor swing, I still wasn't going to start his training for another year, perhaps two at least. Unless Yuki decides to disgrace me further and make my life even worse, I thought grimly. Then I wouldn't have any choice but to start Kiyoshi's training as soon as possible, so he could learn to defend himself at an earlier age.

I hurriedly gathered what courage I had left in me and narrowed my eyes. I would not allow myself to cry and whine about the events until this evening, hopefully after I returned home. I had a feeling deep inside that I wouldn't be able to defeat Yuki because of my own conscious, but I continued practicing well into the afternoon anyway.

Around 5:30, there was a knock on the front gate. I paused in my routines and walked around front, half scared to open my doors to anyone. But my sword was still in hand, so I cautiously cracked the gate and peered out. I was surprised at who stood on the opposite side.

"Hey!" Misao grinned at me as she cradled her little girl. Isamu was still a baby, hardly a year old, but I could already tell she would look like both her parents. Aoshi stood behind his wife, silent and withdrawn as usual.

"Hi..." I stammered. "I'm sorry, I wasn't expecting anyone today. But please come in." I held the gate open further, but Misao shook her head.

"Thank you, but we were on our way down to the Akabeko! Madame Hiko went there yesterday to stay for a few days... I don't know why. Aoshi and I thought it might be nice to visit with her before Himura's party! We were wondering if you wanted to come along for dinner this evening." She smiled brightly at me, and I winced.

"I'm afraid I can't... I've got a lot of work to do."

Misao looked disappointed for about a second before her smile returned. "Alright! We just thought we'd ask. In that case, we'll see you at the party, ne?"

I bit my lip. "I guess so." To be honest, I'd forgotten about Kenshin's party. I'd been invited a few days ago, but now I was certain I wasn't welcome there anymore. But I didn't want to disappoint Misao any more until the duel was settled.

"Great! Bye!" she turned and headed down the street. Aoshi paused and narrowed his icy eyes at me, and I diverted mine quickly. When I glanced back at him, he'd already turned to follow Misao. I sighed heavily and shut the gate again. I figured I'd lose all my friends once this whole thing got out - especially if they all knew I was fighting a duel with Yuki because of everything.

Then there was another knock on the gate. I froze. Who on earth would knock so quickly after Misao and Aoshi had left? I frowned and opened the gate again, but my eyes widened. Aoshi stood before me, alone. He showed no outward expression of any kind, and I nervously gripped the hilt of my sword.

"Is something wrong, Aoshi?" I asked quietly. "Did Misao forget something?"

"No, she didn't. I sent Misao on ahead and told her I'd be there shortly. Are you going to tell me what's going on?"

"Nothing's going on. I'm simply busy today." I insisted.

He arched one eyebrow enough to be noticed. "Considering how good your sword skills are, I would hardly call practicing daily routines a busy afternoon. I seriously doubt you'll lose all of your skill by not practicing one day out of the week."

"I'd rather not put that theory to a test." I answered sharply.

"Then why are you practicing so hard today? You're dripping with sweat." he pointed out.

I cursed inwardly for the thousandth time in two days. Misao might have passed off the way I looked - hot, sweaty, and sticky - but I should have known Aoshi wouldn't. I sighed and stepped out of the gate, shutting it partially behind me so Kiyoshi wouldn't hear the next part of the conversation, wherever he was.

"Look, I have something to do tonight -"

"A police mission?" He frowned.

"No! Let me finish!" I glared. "I've gotten myself involved in a duel, and I'd rather not say anything more about it, alright? I'm going to need the rest of the afternoon to think and sort things out."

"What about your son?"

"I don't know what I'm going to do with Kiyoshi tonight." I looked shamefully at the ground.

Aoshi was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Madame Hiko took both Hitomi and Keitaro to the Akabeko the other day. With it being so close to Himura's birthday, I must admit I was a bit surprised when I heard. But I know you better then to think you'd fight a duel with the Battousai." He narrowed his eyes. "I won't ask questions; I know you won't answer. But at least let me take Kiyoshi with us to the Akabeko this evening. We'll drop him off here when we return to Kamiya-san's for the night. Then he won't be involved and you won't have to worry about his safety. I'm assuming you'll be back tonight?"

I was doing my best to process what Aoshi had just said as fast as I could. The man rarely spoke more then two words a time, much less an entire paragraph. Hikaru had taken Hitomi and Keitaro away for the next few days? I might have guessed as much - Hiko must have found out about the duel, and in an effort to protect his wife, he'd probably agreed on letting her stay away from the neighborhood for a short time. Knowing Hikaru, she most likely insisted on taking Yuki and Kenshin's children with her to keep them safe. And I should have at least thought of Kiyoshi's safety before now. Moriko you idiot. I was making a lot of stupid decisions, wasn't I? I sighed inwardly at my lack of thought before answering Aoshi's final question.

"Yes, I'll be back tonight. But I hate asking you to watch my son while I'm gone." I didn't dare to look at him for fear that he might pick up on more information than he should. He was a ninja after all; he was trained to look for little hints - even emotional ones - despite the fact that he was emotionless himself.

"You didn't ask. I offered." It was a statement of command without room for argument. I sighed again and opened the gate, muttering a 'thank you' under my breath.

"Kiyoshi!" I called, and within a few seconds he came running.

"Yes, mama?"

I took a deep breath. "Would you like to go with Uncle Aoshi and Aunt Misao to the Akabeko for dinner? Hitomi and Keitaro will be there."

His eyes lit up happily. "Yea!"

"Then hurry along!" I smiled, and Aoshi reached down and let Kiyoshi take his hand.

"Aren't you coming too?" Ki asked suddenly, turning to look at me.

"No, I'm afraid I have some business tonight. Not work!" I said quickly, knowing how much Kiyoshi disliked me going to work on my week off. "I might be home late. Do you think you'll be alright if I'm not here when you get back?"

He nodded with certainty. "I'll be fine! I'll wait up for you, mama!"

"Alright." I felt my stomach clench with fear as my son waved to me and headed towards town with Aoshi. I hated leaving him alone, particularly at night. I hadn't ever done it before, but I knew it was for the best that I made sure he wasn't around the duel. Aoshi and I were close friends, oddly enough, and though the leader of the Oniwaban normally didn't take to children, he did seem to like Kiyoshi. But I still worried.

Trying to take my mind off this turn of events, I looked around the yard, making note of the shadows. The slant and angles of sunlight told me afternoon was drawing to a close, and I would need to start getting ready. I locked the gate again and headed inside, stripping my practice outfit off so I could take a bath.

A few minutes later, I found that even the warm water wouldn't calm my nerves. I was still concerned about hurting Yuki and putting her family through the aftermath of our duel should something go wrong. I couldn't bear the thought of wounding or perhaps killing someone I cared about, or even someone I once cared about, especially when they had a family of their own. After I finished washing off and had returned inside, I dressed in a pair of kendo pants and a shirt. I slowly tied my bandana around my forehead, still trying to decide what to do about keeping Yuki's life out of immediate danger.

I looked up on my wall once I finished dressing. An ornamental sword rack hung there, opposite my futon. On the very bottom bar was the shortest of the four swords I owned - my wakazashi. I'd stolen it in the Revolution from a dead samurai, one who had obviously been esteemed enough to carry such an expensive weapon. I probably would have never used it for suicide, but I carried it anyway through those bloody, chaotic years. On the next bar was the katana I had used as a manslayer. I put it up shortly after I had Kiyoshi, vowing never to use it again unless I was required to pull of an assassination. The third bar was empty, and I kept the sword I normally used there when I wasn't wearing it.

But hanging on the top bar was a sword that I would never part with. No matter what happened, that sword would always hold the highest spot on the rack, and I had not taken it down in the past six years except to polish it.

Now, I put my own katana below it, and then gently lifted the top sword from its place and into my hands. I sadly ran my fingertips over the worn leather sheath before sliding the steel out and gazing into the reflection. I closed my eyes for a moment, listening as the Revolution played in my mind. Gunshots, sword clashes, screams and yells, the scent of blood - rivers of blood - all of it meshed together in my heart. I flinched and opened my eyes, feeling tears pricking my lashes once more.

I had sworn this sword would never be used after the Revolution ended. But now, I found I had no choice but to pull it from its permanent position and put it into action. No matter how Yuki fought against me, I would not hurt her.

Yuki deserves her family, even if she betrayed me. She must have had some reason behind it, and fighting this duel is wrong - because I messed up. I can't hurt her, I can't hurt Kenshin, and I definitely can't hurt their children...

And there was one way I knew I could avoid hurting Yuki. I would use this sword.

Souzou's sword.

~*~

The night air tingled against the back of my neck whenever my hair blew to the side behind me. I kept my eyes focused downward, and I spoke to no one I passed along the way. It didn't take long to arrive at the place I'd chosen, and I found it deserted. Only the light breeze rippled the grass through the field. I walked across it and stared upward at the stars, begging my brother to give me the strength I needed, and to keep Kiyoshi safe this evening. I shuddered involuntarily and hoped no one would blame my son. I was the one who'd done wrong.

Suddenly, I realized I wasn't alone, and I glanced over my shoulder to see Yuki, Kenshin and Hiko headed from the path towards the field. I took a sharp intake of breath and ordered my nerves to remain calm. I should have guessed Master Hiko would be joining this little event, especially after Aoshi had told me Hikaru was in town. He'd probably stand on the sidelines, and after the whole thing was over, he'd remind me what a horrible person I was, that my skills were declining, and how much Hisako would disapprove of my actions. I winced at the thought of what my sword master would say about this entire ordeal. Knowing Hiko's big mouth, he'd tell Hisako as soon after he and Hikaru returned to Kyoto. Then I'd be shunned from the mountain as well as Tokyo simply because I had an affair with the man I loved and was crazy enough to call a duel to try and save what little honor I had left. If I had any honor left. I was beginning to wonder if I did or not. I'd fought for my honor all my life...had I completely destroyed it by having Kiyoshi?

But right now, that didn't matter. As they came closer, I put on a face of stone to hide the turmoil of emotions inside me, and turned to them directly, despite the fact that they were still some distance away. I drew my sword quietly and without flourish, and let my arm drop so the point of the blade touched the grasses. Then stealthily I turned the sword in my hand with my fingers, hoping Kenshin and Hiko wouldn't notice right away, so the back of the sword faced outwards. Using the back of a katana was hard, and the perfect balance that I always had during a fight would now be put to a test. I could use the back of the sword, I'd done it before, and it was extremely difficult. But it was the only way I knew, aside from downplaying all of my attacks, to keep Yuki's life safe. And by using Souzou's sword, I'd be reminded of what he had wanted in this new era - peace. Something my life obviously would never have.

I narrowed my eyes as Yuki's face came into view. She didn't look very happy, and neither did Kenshin. Master Hiko looked as he usually did - slightly bored. I felt a new wave of guilt rush through my body for everything - from having my affair with Saitoh in the first place to challenging Yuki. But I managed to keep my control and I said nothing. I just silently prayed that no matter what happened, that the gods would keep my son safe.

To be continued…

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