Daisuke looked up from the book he was trying to read and blinked at his mother without comprehension. The book was in English, and he was having a very hard time with it. English was a lot harder than Dutch. "What?"
"I said, get your nose out of that book and go to the dojo. Now. It's late."
He gave her his most charming, cooperative smile. "You're right. It's late, I won't get anything done anyway. I'll go tomorrow, Mom."
When she used that tone, there was no arguing with her. He sighed, marked his place and put the book up. "All right, but tell Sachi if she so much as touches this while I'm gone, I'll use some of that dojo training on her head."
"You don't practice enough for that threat to worry her."
"I know." He grabbed his sword and bent to kiss her cheek on the way out the door. "I'm a disobedient child."
"You are, and don't think a little kiss is going to soften me," she snapped, but she was having a hard time not smiling. He grinned and sauntered out.
He really hated carrying the sword. Even if he was Inspector Fujita's son and had permission to carry it, most people he passed didn't know that, and they moved away from him warily as he went by them, as if he were some kind of monster. He had to keep resisting the urge to do something goofy just to prove he was harmless. But if he started that, he'd never make it to the dojo, and if he didn't go to the dojo he'd be in trouble. He couldn't lie to his mother, even if he tried. She could see through lies as if her children's heads were made of glass. And she would not fail to ask. Tokio Fujita didn't forget anything.
When he got to the dojo gate, he could hear voices in the courtyard. A lot of them, and cutting through them all, the saddened tones of Watari-sensei. The sensei was not in a good mood. Daisuke winced. It wasn't that he had no talent with the sword, although he was better with the shinai. He just wasn't interested in the sword, so he tended to let his mind wander, and when he did, Watari-san was disappointed. And no one, least of all Daisuke, could bear disappointing Watari-san. But with half his mind still absorbed with the English (what queer customs they had!), Daisuke knew that's exactly what would happen, and then he'd feel guilty, and he hated feeling guilty. It wasn't fair. He shouldn't have to waste his time here. It wasn't as if they didn't have enough swordsmen in the family. Nobu was good, and Ryushi was such a demon that Father was training him himself. And there was Mineko, too, although now that she was going to get married, she kept saying she was going to quit the sword. He agreed with his mother (not that any of them ever disagreed with her, but he honestly agreed in this case) that he needed to mix physical exercise with his studying, and he liked the martial arts he'd learned at the dojo, with its emphasis on respect and discipline, but from the moment he'd been given the shinai, he'd been unhappy there.
However, although Daisuke didn't sympathize with his parents' desire to see him become a good swordsman, he understood their reason, now that he knew the Big Family Secret. This had been passed on to him six years ago, on his 12th birthday, as it had to all his brothers and sisters on turning 12. Growing up the youngest, he'd assumed his parents discussed something like sex or marriage or family obligations on those occasions, and naturally none of his brothers or sisters had enlightened him, so he'd gotten a huge shock when he'd found out the truth was that his father had been, long ago, the famous Shinsengumi swordsman Hajime Saitoh. He still found it hard to believe. After all, the man was his father, the guy who came home from work every night and put up his feet, smoked his cigarettes, ate his dinner, and disciplined his kids if they needed it. To discover he was a hero, and that he still had a secret life and still went around slaying evil wherever he found it, was weird. But learning it had explained a lot, like why Ryushi had gone practice-crazy after his 12th birthday (going to be just like Dad, was Ryushi), and, of course, why they expected him, Daisuke, to also take up the sword.
But while he had inherited a lot of things from his father - his eye and hair color, his height, his lean build (which he could only pray would eventually fill out like his father's), and even some skill with the sword - he was a bit on the clumsy side and essentially not interested in going around killing people, evil or otherwise. Nor did he want to end up like Nobu, with the nice government job Dad had gotten for him. (Leave it to Dad to fight against the Meiji government, and then turn up with an important and trusted job within it.) Daisuke had his own plans for his life, and they had nothing to do with his parents' plans.
He sighed and reached for the gate, and then his hand stopped. An idea had struck. Mother would ask if he'd been at the dojo, but most likely she wouldn't ask what he'd done there. All he had to be able to do would be to look her in the eye and say he'd spent the whole afternoon there. That didn't mean he had to spend it in the company of Watari-sensei and the students.
Grinning, he trotted around to the back of the dojo, where a set of practice yards were encircled by a stone wall. He climbed quickly up the largest plum tree to the top of the wall, snagging some of the fruit on the way, and then slipped to the south wall, where he could lean his back against the thick gate column and relax. An hour or two there, and he'd be able to look his mother in the eye with confidence.
He made himself comfortable, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, and ate one of the plums at once. Then he glanced down at the practice yards, so he could glean a few relevant details to pad out his story to his mother. There was only one party of people there, a bunch of young kids with a teacher and an observer, but the teacher made him sit up and stare. She was a girl.
The mere fact that a girl was wielding a shinai with skill wasn't what caught his attention. No brother of Mineko's could wonder at that. But this girl was unusual. Tall for a girl, and red-haired. And very pretty. He stared at her, unaware of the growing smile on his face. She was tough on those kids, pointing out their mistakes with a serious expression on her delicate features, but when they got it right, she rewarded them with praise and smiles. Any student, he thought, would want to earn those sweet smiles.
Even at the risk of being put to work, he had to get a closer look at her. He dropped lightly from the wall and followed it to where the lone observer, a dark-haired young man about his own age, was watching the proceedings, his shoulders propped against the stone wall and arms folded on his chest. He nodded politely at Daisuke, but his eyes, which were an unusual violet color, were mischievous when he remarked, "They wouldn't let you in the front door?"
"Long story," Daisuke grinned. "Do you know her? Who is she?"
"Who, the teacher? Her name's Hitomi Himura. Why?"
"Why? Are you kidding? She's… Uh..." He'd just about put his foot in his mouth, something he was far too prone to do. "She's not your girlfriend, is she?"
The boy was amused. "No."
Oh, good. Daisuke propped his shoulders on the wall, too, and said, "Bet you want her to be, though."
"Do your eyes work all right?"
"You think she's pretty?"
"She's a lot more than just pretty. She's gorgeous. Have you ever seen hair like that before?"
"On a relative of hers, I bet."
"See? It's not common. In fact, there's nothing ordinary about her at all. Even her muscles are pretty. My sister Mineko trained here when she was younger, and she ended up looking more like a boy than a girl when she was done. But not her. Definitely female." He whistled softly. "What I wouldn't give for a couple of hours in a dark room with her."
"She'd probably slice your head off. That sword against the wall belongs to her."
"It would be worth it. As long as it was just my head she sliced off," he grinned. "Wow, look at that move. She's got legs that just don't quit. And the rest of her is all stacked in the right places. Wouldn't you like...?"
The other boy coughed pointedly. "Something maybe you ought to know before you say anything else."
"My name's Keitaro Himura. She's my sister."
For an appalled moment, Daisuke just stared at him. "You don't look anything alike!"
"It's the hair. It fools people."
It took another several seconds for Daisuke to say anything else, although several things tried to come out at once, only to get stuck in his throat. At last he burst out with, "Oh, shit!! Me and my big mouth! All right." He tilted his chin up and pointed a finger at his throat. "Go ahead, cut it. It would serve me right."
"I'll let her do that."
"No! Don't tell her what I said! Just cut my throat now, it would be more merciful."
Keitaro smiled. "It would be. If she cut anything, it wouldn't be your throat."
"Look, you seem like a nice guy. Can we pretend the last few minutes never happened and start all over again? My name's Daisuke Fujita," he said with a bow, and when it wasn't returned, he added hastily, "And I swear to you on all my ancestors that I was just talking and wouldn't dream of doing anything disrespectful to your sister - well, maybe dream, but that's all - and I'll never, never say anything like that about her again to anyone, or let anyone talk about her like that in my hearing, or.... You're not being impressed by any of this, are you?"
"Hitomi can take care of herself."
"Yeah, but if you're her brother, I want you to put in a good word for me. Now, don't look at me like that. I promise, I'll have only the purest thoughts... no, that's a lie. But I promise to behave like an honorable man. I just want to meet her. If you introduce us, I'll be eternally grateful."
"I doubt it," Keitaro said drily.
"Come on. Please?"
"When the lesson's over."
"I knew you were a good man the minute I saw you."
His expression set Daisuke off laughing. "OK, I admit it, I'm a jerk. But you must be used to guys making fools of themselves over your sister by now."
"Then get used to it. They will." His eyes hadn't left Hitomi for long at any point, and with this settled, he went back to admiring her unabashedly. After a few minutes, however, he ceased to see how pretty she was or to enjoy her skill, but began to appreciate something else. She was a good teacher. She had the kids well in hand, yet allowed them to express themselves and be normal kids at the same time.
Long before he'd seen enough, the back door of the dojo opened and Madame Watari came out to call the kids in for a snack. Daisuke nudged his "new best friend", and with a wry smile, Keitaro gestured his sister over. "Sis, this is Daisuke Fujita. He's another student here at the dojo. I think he wants to do something with you."
"Something?" she repeated impatiently.
"Spar with you, I guess. Have fun," said Keitaro with a grin before walking off.
Hitomi looked up at Daisuke as if he were something that had just crawled out from under a rock. Her eyes were blue, blue as a summer sky. "I don't spar for fun," she said.
Daisuke's mind worked much more quickly than his sword arm. He could almost see her lips forming the polite but dismissive words, Nice to meet you, Mr. Fujita, and even as they opened, he said, "I don't think it would be fun."
She blinked. "Why not?"
"I think you'd beat the shit out me, to tell you the truth. That was just your brother's idea of a joke. Does he always have such a subversive sense of humor?"
"Not the right word. How about sadistic? Not that I didn't ask for it."
"What in the world are you talking about?"
"Never mind. Can we…?"
She gave him a hard, flat stare. "What are you talking about?"
He'd always believed it was better to be honest, but that belief was going to be put to a real test today. "I was just telling him how pretty you were, and I think he took offense."
"So do I. Because you must have said more than that. Kei doesn't take offense lightly. I don't like people staring at me, Mr. Whatever-your-name-is."
"Then put a bag over your head, because otherwise people are going to."
"Because of my hair?"
"No, because you're pretty. Look, we've got all that out of the way now, right? I think you're pretty, you're offended, and I'm really, really sorry. Abject. Abashed. Dismayed. Whatever you want. Can we get past that? I want to talk to you."
Her lips twitched, although her expression remained stern. "What if I don't want to talk to you?"
"I'll follow you around looking pathetic?"
The lips definitely twitched this time. "Go away. I don't need a boyfriend, and I don't want a sparring partner."
"Not about that. About the kids!"
He had her attention. She'd been turning away, but this turned her back. "What?"
"The kids. You're a great teacher. They were a rowdy bunch, but you had them eating out of your hand. I want to know who taught you to do that."
There was a puzzled line between her brows. "No one taught me. They're just good kids, is all."
"No, they aren't. I've seen them with other people. Are you going to be here with them tomorrow? Would you mind if I watched you?"
"Yes, I'd mind! Why do you want to?"
"To see how you do it!"
"I don't do anything!"
"Yes, you do. You just don't know it. If I watch you, I can figure it out."
She tilted her head, looking up at him as if he were mad and she wasn't sure whether to humor him or knock him unconscious. "Why?"
"You promise you won't tell anyone?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Depends on what it is."
"I want to be a teacher someday."
"What's the matter with that?"
"You don't know my family. Teaching is not what they want their baby boy to do. But it's what I want to do, and I will do, except I'll have to find a tutor eventually. In the meantime, I get what I can, where I can. And if I can figure out how you do what you do, that'll help a lot. A guy like me - you know, kind of tall and stern-looking - can intimidate kids into behaving, but that's not what I want. How are they going to learn if they're scared or sullen? But there you are, you're just a girl, and they never took their attention off you for a moment."
"Maybe they just want to learn."
"No group of nine year old boys wants to learn anything that badly. You've got a trick. I want to know what it is. You obviously aren't aware of it, so I want to watch you." Her eyes narrowed again, and he said, "All right, I admit watching you won't be a strain on my eyes. But I swear on my ancestors, I just want to learn your trick. That's all. Anything else, I'll try to earn. Somehow. If I can."
"OK, but can we at least be friends?"
"I doubt it." She started to pick up the discarded shinai, and he bent to help her. She glared at him. "I can do it."
"Don't be so damned selfish."
"Selfish. Let me do something nice. Will that hurt you?"
She burst into laughter. "No, I guess not. You're the oddest person I've ever met, Mr., uh…"
"Fujita. But just call me Daisuke."
"You can call me Miss Himura."
"That's part of the trick, isn't it? Get respect at once. Yes, Miss Himura. Whatever you say, Miss Himura."
"You're so obnoxious!"
"It's part of my charm."
She laughed again, and she let him help her clean up the practice yard. His help was actually fortunate, because although she worked hard, she didn't have much sense of organization, and he ended up following, picking up behind her, very careful not to let her catch him grinning at her.
They were stacking the last of the shinai into the rack when one of the kids suddenly burst out of the back door. "Miss Himura! There's a big fight at the Shigaune! Watari-sensei is going there now, but he wants you to come if you can!"
"What's the Shigaune?" Daisuke asked as Miss Himura reached for the shinai she'd been using.
"It's a restaurant. We all go there, usually after practice, but sometimes some rough types go there, too, and make trouble."
"I'll come along and help, if you don't mind."
"Leave that, then," she said with a nod at his sword. When he looked at her questioningly, she said impatiently, "These are just some local drunkards. We don't want bloodshed."
"Oh. Yeah." Useless to tell her he'd never planned to draw the thing, but kept it because his father would kill him if he left it anywhere. But those scornful blue eyes were a lot stronger than his father's influence. Without a second thought, he took off the sword and grabbed the longest shinai he could find.
He followed her out of the dojo and up the street. She ran, and she ran like a deer. He had no trouble keeping up, of course - running was something he did well - but he was still impressed, both by her speed and by the look of intense concentration on her face. He watched her alertly, so he wasn't taken by surprise when, within earshot of the brawl going on at the restaurant, she said, "This way," and veered sharply to the right. He followed, but she challenged his coordination severely by taking two sharp turns, then running up a small dirt mound, leaping from there onto a wall, and then racing along the top of the wall, all at full speed. This brought them to a position behind and over the fight, so when they leaped down into it, they had the battle almost won already by sheer surprise.
She really could fight. Obviously not wanting to injure anyone permanently, she laid about her with the shinai with fierce precision, striking backs, buttocks, legs, chests, and arms, avoiding soft bellies, breakable ribs, and heads. He followed her example, using his feet and fists as well, when he had to. It wasn't fun, but it was over in seconds. Faced with two whirlwinds behind them and half the dojo in front of them, the thugs broke and ran, those that could. The ones who couldn't crawled or dragged themselves away, accompanied by some of the restaurant's patrons, jeering at them and dumping food on their heads.
Daisuke looked at Hitomi and saw her rolling her eyes at the shenanigans. She felt his gaze and looked up at him. "I thought you said you couldn't fight. You did very well."
"Thanks. I didn't say I couldn't fight. I just said you could beat me. And you could."
"You sound like you don't care. Most men don't like the idea of being beaten by a girl."
He shrugged. "I want to…" He glanced around. They were surrounded by ears, so he changed his sentence to, "I don't want to gain fame as a swordsman. So why should I care? Besides, I'm used to being beaten by girls. My sister Mineko beats me regularly, whether I deserve it or not."
The laugh sparkled in her eyes, but she didn't let it out. "Then why are you at the dojo at all?"
"Obeying my parents. My father says…" he began, and struck a pose, eyes hooded, mouth straight, shoulders back. "'You should at least be able to defend yourself, baka.'"
Her jaw dropped. "Inspector Fujita!"
His jaw dropped, too. "You know my father?"
"I've met him a few times, in Tokyo. My best friend's mother works for him. I should have known, you have his eyes. But you're not much like him, are you? At least, not when you aren't imitating him. That was spooky."
He grinned. "I can do my mother, too." He struck another pose, this time making himself look shorter, with a soft but pugnacious pout, and said in a high sharp voice, "'Get down to that dojo right now, or your father will hear about this!'"
"Don't you ever dare mock me like that. You're far too good at it."
"I wouldn't," he said, serious now. Then a smile crept over his face. "Unless, of course, you don't let me watch you tomorrow. In that case, I'll have to imitate you around the kids to see if I can figure out your trick on my own."
"Yes. Did I say I was a nice person? Surely I didn't. I never lie."
"Hardly ever," he admitted. He fell into step beside her as she headed back to the dojo, trying hard not to let her catch him admiring the way the sunlight struck fire from her hair. Of course she did, and glared at him, and he pretended to be wounded so that she laughed again.
"You're an idiot," she informed him, but she let him keep walking beside her.
"I know, my father tells me that at least once a day. My mother, twice. I'm a big disappointment to them. When they find out what I really want to do with my life, they'll chop me into pieces and make something useful out of me, like soup."
"Then why do you persist? You don't seem like the type to follow a dream."
"But I am, I guess."
"To fill young minds with knowledge?"
"Not just that." When she looked at him curiously, he said, "Don't laugh at me."
"I have this idea."
He stopped, flushing. "It's stupid."
"Tell me anyway," she said, and now she seemed truly interested.
"How much do you know about the Revolution?"
To his surprise, she flushed. "Not as much as I should. Why?"
"Most people don't know anything about it. Just that there was some fighting and a lot of bloodshed. Not why it was fought, or over what. The thing is, if people continue in the same kind of ignorance, it will all happen again. Maybe not for ten years, or twenty, or a hundred, but it will. Ignorance breeds violence. Even those guys at the Shigaune might have been gentlemen if they hadn't been brought up in ignorance. I don't want to teach rich kids. I want to teach poor kids, kids from the streets and the farms. I want to teach them not just reading and writing, but history and economics and how society works. I want to free them from the kind of life that creates thugs like those guys. I know it won't make any difference to history, but if I can make a difference to one or two or even three kids, that would be something. Don't you think? Even farmers' kids. Think how much better off they could be if they could read about techniques used in other parts of the country. And look at the Black Ships!"
"The Black Ships?"
He'd almost forgotten his audience, and mentally kicked himself, but she was obviously waiting, so he said, "Remember, when they came, all the riots? Those were born from simple fear and superstition, and look at the damage they caused, both at the time and later, too. All because we knew nothing about these Westerners. But I've studied them, and they're just like us. They only look different and talk different, but they have the same dreams and ambitions. If we had known that, if we hadn't been so ignorant, then the Black Ships could have come and gone in peace."
She was staring at him, and he felt himself blushing again. "Sorry. I get carried away. I told you it was stupid."
"I didn't say that."
"But it is. Like you say, it's a dream."
"I wasn't thinking that, either."
"What were you thinking?" he asked, bracing himself.
"I was thinking you ought to meet my father."
"He'd like you. Come on, pick up your jaw and lets get back to the dojo before something else happens."
"Yes, Miss Himura," he said humbly, then had to trot to catch up with her again. "Why haven't I ever seen you and your brother at the dojo before?"
"We don't come often. We live in Tokyo. We're just here visiting friends. Watari-san is an old friend of Kaoru's father - Kaoru's dojo is where I was trained - so I always stop and spend a little time with him when I'm here."
"My mother will be pleased. I'll spend a lot more time at the dojo now. Unless I can talk you into letting me know when you're in Kyoto again?" he added hopefully.
His face fell.
"Don't look at me like that!"
"Like I just killed your dog."
He grinned. "Begging works on you, doesn't it?"
"No," she said firmly, but the laughter was back in her eyes. "I will tell you this much. When we come to Kyoto, we stay at the Aoiya. Do you know it?"
"Of course. I'm Inspector Fujita's son. I know about the Oniwaban."
She shrugged. "If you behave yourself for the next few days, and stop being obnoxious, I'll tell them to let you know if we're coming, any time you drop by there. If you make me angry, I'll tell them to kill you and bury you under police headquarters."
He burst into laughter, and she grinned.