Yuki smiled across at her as she poured tea. Outside, beyond the open door, the gentle spring shower pat-patted on her walk and dripped lazily from the eaves of her porch. She usually found the rain frustrating, since so many things had to be put off, but not when Hikaru was visiting. Then, a rainy day was an excuse for having a cup of tea and a quiet gossip. They had come a long way since the days when they'd first met, and tea with Hikaru had been an agony of distrust and apprehension. "You love it because it makes your gardens grow," she said. "To be perfectly honest, I didn't think you'd come for the childrens' second birthdays. Their first, yes, but not again. Spring is the best time of year for you on that mountain."
Hikaru looked down at her lap, where Hitomi was sprawled asleep, an abandoned little pile of limbs and a flushed face crowned with bright red hair. She stroked the child's cheek with one finger, as tenderly and delicately as she might have touched a flower petal. "I suppose I'm not tired of being a grandmother yet, even if only in name. Maybe when they get older, they can come to Kyoto and have their birthdays in the gardens." She looked up, her eyes full of sudden amusement. "I'll have to work to make it safe for children before then! Otherwise, with Hitomi and Ki, we'll be constantly dashing about trying to keep them from eating something poisonous or falling into the ponds."
She was laughing, but Yuki knew she meant it. "That will be a huge amount of work! Don't bother, Hikaru. We can just watch them carefully."
"But I want them to be able to play there. Besides, I like that kind of work."
"I never would have guessed," Yuki said dryly. Hikaru was constantly rearranging or adding to those gardens.
They talked for a while on the changes that would have to be made, both of them contributing, because although Hikaru knew plants, she had only the vaguest idea of how much mischief a child could get into. After two years of experience with an adventurous child, Yuki was more realistic. They were discussing the merits of rock walls versus wooden ones for encircling the ponds when Seijuro Hiko strode onto the porch, stopping to shake the rain from his white cape. Disgruntled at having her chat with Hikaru interrupted, especially by Hiko, Yuki nevertheless greeted him politely and offered him tea.
"I'd rather drink sake, if you have it," he said predictably.
"The good sake is almost all at the guest house with you," Yuki said, "but I think we might have a few bottles in the storeroom out back."
She started to rise, but was stopped by Hikaru's outstretched hand. "Don't, you'll get all wet. Seijuro is already wet." She turned her eyes up to Hiko. "You don't mind getting it yourself. Do you?"
For just a moment, their eyes locked, Hikaru's smiling, Hiko's expressionless except for one eyebrow twitching. Then he said to Yuki, "I'll get it," and strode off.
As soon as she was sure he couldn't hear, Yuki said, "I will never understand how you do that. You have him trained like an oversized dog."
"Never let him hear you say so, or you'll undo all I've accomplished!" Hikaru laughed.
"I wouldn't. But how do you do it?"
"Remember, I have many advantages that others don't."
"He loves you, for one thing."
"Yes, he does. But that's only a part of it. I am also older. That makes no difference now, of course, but when we first met, well, there is a huge difference between 15 and 19. It helped get him accustomed to at least listening to me when I spoke. And then, of course, there's the mountain."
Yuki shook herself from the effort of imagining a young Hikaru tutoring an even younger Hiko. "The mountain?"
"He can never believe I'm happy there, with only him. He still feels guilty about taking me away from the luxury and the social life that he's convinced I need. Because he wouldn't bend enough to join me in Kyoto, but instead. in his mind, forced me to live with him as a hermit, he bends to me in many other, smaller ways."
"I can't believe he feels guilty about that or anything."
"It's hard to picture, I know. Especially when he has no guilt over what we, as women, consider much greater sins. But he does, and I use it. Cynical of me, I know. But I must use what tools I can to civilize him."
"I've never needed anything like that," Yuki said. She admired and was often amused at what Hikaru could do, but she never once wanted to emulate her.
As always when talking about Kenshin, Hikaru's smile softened and deepened. "Yes, but Kenshin is an exceptional person. Well, so is Seijuro, but not in that way. As exceptional as he is, he is still a typical man much of the time. Which is a good thing, since otherwise I wouldn't know how to act around him."
Hiko returned, carrying a bottle of the best sake and a cup, and his first words were of Kenshin, wondering where he was. Yuki explained that he'd gone to town for groceries. "He's probably waiting out the rain at Sanosuke's."
"Typical. He says he wants to speak to me about something this morning, and then runs off."
Yuki gritted her teeth. She would have said that if Hiko had risen at an earlier hour, he would have seen Kenshin already. But she kept that inside, because she knew the reason Hiko slept late was that he'd adjusted his own rhythms to Hikaru's since their marriage, and Yuki wasn't going to imply any criticism of Hikaru, no matter how indirect. However, she couldn't keep entirely quiet, because she also knew what Kenshin wanted to talk to Hiko about. Last year, stuck in Tokyo for a month for the childrens' birthdays, Hiko had complained about inactivity, so this year Hikaru had asked Kenshin and Yuki for permission to set up a kiln for him. The kiln would arrive tomorrow, and Kenshin wanted to consult with Hiko on the best place to put it. It was supposed to be a surprise, so she couldn't throw it at him. Instead she snapped, "You want to eat, don't you? Then someone has to buy the food. And while you might think it's all right for Kenshin to get wet, I don't think you'd say the same about your rice and tofu."
He looked mildly surprised, and completely unconcerned, that she should have taken offence at his tone. "You could have done the shopping," he pointed out. "Hikaru is always happy to look after Hitomi." As if noticing the child for the first time, he said, "Shouldn't she be in bed, rather than here in your lap?"
Hikaru lowered her eyes, but not before an expression of hurt filled them. "Yes, I suppose she should."
Since all of their extended family knew how much Hikaru had wanted a child of her own, Yuki wasn't surprised when Hiko promptly backed down and said, "Well, moving her now would only wake her up. Leave her be. She's probably more comfortable there anyway."
Hikaru looked up again and smiled at him. Yuki thought, Punishment, contrition, and reward. How does she do it? She makes it look so easy. But she knew she would never want to have to do that in her own life. Hikaru's emotions were real, never faked, but Hikaru carefully chose when to show them and when to hide them, depending on what was needed. For about the hundredth time, Yuki thanked her fate for having given her Kenshin for a love, and not this big, temperamental, arrogant bastard who practically forced everyone to either walk on eggshells around him or scream at him. Or manipulate him, as only Hikaru seemed able to do.
Hikaru was smiling back down at Hitomi, a fondly loving smile that she gave only to the children. "I can never decide if she's more beautiful running about and laughing, or like this, peaceful and dreaming."
"She looks dead," Hiko remarked, taking his first, ceremonious sip of the sake. "Only children can sleep with that much abandon."
Hikaru chuckled. "Very true. You know, Yuki, she has Kenshin's hair, but I think she is going to take after you."
Hiko said, "She's two years old. How can you tell at that age? And don't say 'a woman knows'."
"I'm guessing. But you can tell a lot from how a two-year-old behaves, if you watch her closely. She doesn't act much like Kenshin did when he was young." She used her long fingers to comb some of Hitomi's errant strands of hair. "How lucky that she got this color. It's lovely. She'll break hearts when she's a teenager." She looked up and said to Yuki, "She's well worth all the trouble and pain you went through for Kenshin, isn't she? Even all that time you were alone, waiting for him, must have been worth going through, for what you have now."
Hiko's gaze sharpened and flicked from Hikaru to Yuki. "What waiting alone? I know he stalled a ridiculously long time before marrying you, Yuki, but he was still here in Tokyo with you. Wasn't he?"
Yuki was still trying to collect her wits, startled that Hikaru had brought up the subject at all, but Hikaru said smoothly, "Not that, Seijuro. Before then, during his wandering days."
"What are you talking about?" he asked irritably.
"I don't think I've told you about that, actually," Hikaru mused, unconcerned.
Yuki then got the pleasure of seeing Hiko hold his temper. "Apparently not."
As if she didn't notice, Hikaru explained, "While they were wandering, Kenshin decided it would be better for Yuki if they weren't together, so he left her. She didn't come to Tokyo with Kenshin, she came to live with a relative, as a last resort. She only found him here again, later."
Now Hiko's attention was on her. "I didn't know that. Why did he leave you?"
Before Yuki could answer, Hikaru said, "It was a matter of principle. You should be able to understand that."
"Don't start trying to making my judgements for me. It would have to be one hell of a principle to force me to abandon a woman I supposedly loved. Of course, my st-" Both women glared at him, and he promptly amended, "My apprentice often acts impulsively and against logic and common sense. And his principles tend to get skewed if the wind blows too hard on them."
Yuki said furiously, "They do not! And he did it to save my life! Is that a good enough principle for you?"
"That depends on whether your life was truly in danger, or if he only perceived it as being so. In the years after the Revolution, from what I've heard, Kenshin's perceptions were as skewed as his principles. Sometimes wise, sometimes silly. Which is understandable, given that he tried to launch himself into an adult world using only the mind of a boy."
Yuki felt Hikaru's foot touch her gently under the table, so instead of screaming, as she wanted to, she instead spat out, "You have no idea what it was like. You weren't there, you were on your mountain, sitting on your almighty ass. You know nothing about what Kenshin was doing and thinking back then."
"Why don't you tell me?"
"I don't want to. I think I could talk all day about it and not put a dent in that thick opinionated skull of yours."
Hiko's brow rose. "Why not try giving me the simple facts? Confine yourself to those, if you can restrain your emotional outbursts, and I'll decide for myself. You call that quality 'opinionated', but I prefer to say I use my own judgement. If Kenshin had done the same, if he had been willing to listen, consider, and make up his own mind, instead of being swayed by rhetoric, he never would have become the Battousai."
She had been feeling a little ashamed at speaking that way to a guest in her house, but her guilt vaporized under this comment. Before she could retort, however, Hikaru said, "But that's history, Seijuro, and it's neither polite nor reasonable to bring it up again. Kenshin learned that lesson by the time the Revolution was over. It was one that you learned the hard way, too. By killing innocent people, just as he did."
"I was much younger," Hiko growled.
"You also had a different master to teach you better."
Yuki's temper faded with her astonishment that Hikaru would hit Hiko below the belt like that, in front of her. Hiko, too, was astonished, and wrathful. But he only said, "It's true I failed to teach him that important concept, but not from lack of trying. The seed of wisdom fell on dry earth, in Kenshin's case. I needed two, perhaps three more years with him to teach him the strength of mind to match his strength of body and his skills."
"Everyone has to learn it their own way," Hikaru agreed serenely, apparently unaware of having shocked both of them. "Kenshin always does seem to accomplish things in the most difficult way possible."
Hiko gave her a look that promised retribution later, then turned a different, more guarded, expression to Yuki. "Why don't we pass over the history, as Hikaru calls it, and get to the facts? What happened to make him do such a stupid thing as to leave a good woman he loved, and who loved him? Or wasn't it like that, at that time?"
Yuki blinked. He'd called her a good woman. Finding her voice, she said, "It was like that. We did love each other. But people were always hunting him. Then, even more than now."
"That was to be expected. As the years went by and he was rumored to be dead, naturally interest would wane. But in the years immediately after the Revolution, he still had plenty of enemies, and the fires of vengence hadn't cooled yet. So he had some fighting to do. Difficult, with the vow he made, but hardly a surprise."
"Neither of us realized it would be as bad as it was, though."
"You were young. Go on. I have yet to learn what happened."
He'd excused her? It hardly seemed possible, but he wasn't scowling or looking severe, but waiting impatiently for her to continue. She said, "We stayed together for three years, and I fought with him. But then one of those vengence-seekers caught up with us with a large number of men. Enough to outnumber us, even with Kenshin's skills. We got away, but I was wounded. Kenshin got me to a doctor and stayed with me until I was well enough to travel again. But he felt guilty about putting me in danger, so as soon as I was well, he disappeared. He left me." Even now, after all this time, she could still feel the pain of that early morning discovery.
Hiko said nothing for a long moment, only took a sip of sake. Hikaru watched him, then said, "Seijuro? A matter of principle? Would you have left me, for that reason?"
He stared at her a moment. "Yes. If your life were in danger from my presence, then yes. I would have."
"I'm actually surprised I never was in danger, given the number of people you must have angered during your lifetime. Perhaps I would have been, except, unlike Kenshin, you weren't in the Revolution, so your fame isn't political. And also, you don't tend to leave survivors." Hiko's lips twitched appreciatively, but Hikaru didn't notice, her attention having switched to Hitomi, who had shifted in her lap. "You're right, this child will be better in her bed. I'll be right back." She rose, cradling Hitomi against her shoulder, resting her cheek on the bright hair, and carried her out.
Hiko turned his eyes back to Yuki, and she stiffened her back to keep from shrinking away. She had never had his undivided attention before, or been hit with a look so intense. "I know that Kenshin is prone to sudden attacks of scruples, but I assume he didn't shout them at you as he did at me. Did he bother to explain at all, or did he just slip away?"
"He left me a letter."
"Cowardly of him."
Yuki's fists clenched. "He had to. He needed a head start on me. He knew I would follow him, that I wouldn't let him leave me. I didn't want to be apart from him. I didn't care about the fighting. Not if I was with him."
Without a word of explanation, Hiko rose, went to her kitchen, and returned with another sake cup. Sitting, he filled it and handed it to her. "That sentiment is worth sake, not tea."
She drank it, numb with astonishment. He said, "So he weighed your love against your life, and chose the latter. A proper decision, and surely a difficult one."
"I think it was."
"Of course it was. When Kenshin loves, he loves deeply. Did you try to find him and follow him anyway?"
"Yes. But you know how Kenshin is."
"As you keep pointing out, I do not know. I missed 15 years of his life, remember? Significant years. Tell me."
She couldn't believe she was having a conversation with Hiko, not like this. But he still had his attention focused on her, so she felt compelled to answer him. "If Kenshin doesn't want to be found, he isn't. He can fade into any crowd, disappear into the countryside as if he never existed. I know that seems impossible, with how he looks, but he can do it."
"Kenshin can do anything he set his mind to. And shame would have driven him to wish to be invisible. So I believe you. I believe you tried hard to find him, yet still could not."
She nodded. "I asked everyone in the entire village if they'd seen him. Nobody had. I had no clue, even, as to what direction he'd gone."
"So you gave up and came to Tokyo?"
"No! I looked anyway! I followed every lead, and when I had no lead, I followed my hunches. But I never got close. It was as if he'd ceased to exist. By the time I even heard rumors about him again, years had gone by, and I was living here with my aunt. And the rumors were so wild, they didn't mean anything anyway."
"How long did you search? Actively, that is."
"A year or so."
He nodded. "And even after you stopped searching, you never stopped looking at every crowd, every face you passed. Even when it seemed hopeless, it was automatic, and you continued to do it."
"Yes." She said slowly, "It sounds as if you've had the same experience."
"I have. Did you ever give him up for dead?"
She shook her head. "I always felt I would have known if he'd died. In my heart."
"Then you did better than I."
She was at last beginning to understand. "Did you lose Hikaru once?"
His mouth curved disdainfully. "You don't lose people. You lose things, out of carelessness. But people, they leave, or they disappear. Hikaru disappeared. Unlike you, I was never completely sure that she hadn't died. How long was it before you saw Kenshin again?"
"Seven years. Almost eight."
He stared at her for a long moment, his expression unreadable. "In all that time, you never gave up hope?"
"I gave up hope," she admitted. "But I never gave up Kenshin."
He was still looking hard at her, but he only asked, "How long did it take you to get angry with him?"
She was beyond being surprised that he understood what she'd been through. "I did that right away. I was furious that he'd done that to me, slipped away without giving me a chance to stop him," she admitted. "Did you get angry with Hikaru?"
"Had I been able to find her, I would have strangled her, at one point. But that passed, and so did a number of other emotions, until I just accepted the loss. But I had only a year to suffer. Not seven." He lifted his sake cup to her. "Hikaru said to me once that a woman's heart is stronger than a man's, and she may be right."
The entire conversation was starting to feel unreal to her. "Master Hiko, I think you just gave me a compliment."
"Why should you wonder at it? I've often thought you're better than Kenshin deserves. He has amazing luck with the women in his life. First Hikaru, then you. Perhaps that's Hikaru's so-called Fate, making up to him for the unimaginable trouble he brings upon himself."
"He doesn't bring trouble on himself! It comes to him."
"It comes to him because of a decision he made, long ago, when he was too young and stupid to be making decisions, and too stubborn to take the advice of those who could make wise ones for him. It's true that the sorrow in his life before I found him was not of his making, but most of what followed the Revolution, Yuki, is the inevitable result of his misuse of the Hiten Mitsurugi. Don't try to pretty that up. Accept it. He has, or he would never have been able to heal his soul. You had the courage to fight with him, and to wait for him. You have the courage to face that fact. I'm sure you have, by this time, but simply don't want to admit it to me."
"You may be right. But if so, the scales of justice have been pretty unevenly balanced against him."
"You say so because you love him. That isn't the case, and he knows it. So do you, in your heart. He might have been young and stupid, but he did kill, and he killed a great many people for the wrong reasons. His penance has been just, and he's lucky to have emerged from it with the life he has now."
"He's not lucky, he's strong."
"Listen to yourself. You contradict everything I say, even when you know I am right. Kenshin's strength could have brought him through his wandering years, but only his luck brought him to meet you, a woman who would accept what he was and still love him. Those scales of justice you talk about, on that occasion, were apparently weighing the man he was, and not what that man had done." He refilled her sake cup. "Here, drink this and stop staring at me as if I've grown a second head."
"I'd be less surprised if you had! I never thought you liked me at all."
"What does liking or not liking have to do with it? I don't like most people. In fact, Hikaru is probably the only person I do like. But I respect faith and courage. Isn't that a better sentiment?"
"No, not really, but I'll take what I can get from you," she said.
He glared at her. "Why don't you go tell Hikaru she can come back now? I think she's accomplished what she wanted. You look startled. Why? You aren't stupid, I'm sure you know she deliberately started this conversation, then left so we could continue it without her presence to hinder us."
"I did think that. I just didn't realize you knew."
"There is nothing she does that I don't see and understand. I just don't always comprehend her motive, so I go along with her in order to see it. It's usually a good one."
Dismissed, she left without bowing and found Hikaru still sitting beside Hitomi's futon. Hikaru looked up with a smile and said, "Did you and Seijuro have an interesting conversation?"
"Hikaru, how could you do that? I didn't know what to do or say. You manipulated me just like you do Hiko!"
"Shh, you'll wake the baby."
"Nothing wakes that child when she wants to sleep. I think I know why you did it, but that was shameless!"
"Yes, it was, wasn't it? But I thought it would do both of you some good."
"Both of us? I can see me, but not him."
Hikaru rose, smiling again. "Did it help you? I'm so glad."
"Yes, but-" She stopped, frozen for a moment in assessment. She didn't know why seeing Hiko even the slightest bit vulnerable would help her, but it had. He would continue to irritate and even infuriate her, but she would never think him completely indifferent again. "How did it help him? What difference is it to him, what I think of him?"
"None at all, truthfully. But he will always know now that you understand a time in his life that was difficult for him. And he knows for certain what I've always told him, that Kenshin has a woman worthy of him."
"Worthy of a stupid apprentice?"
"Worthy of the man he calls the best swordsman in Japan, and worthy of the boy he loves. He'd be torn apart before he'd admit to either one of those things. In fact, he's never even admitted to me that he loves Kenshin, not once. Still, I know. And I want you to know, too."
"In ten minutes he'll be his usual obnoxious self, and I'll forget it."
Hikaru laughed. "Most likely! But you aren't angry with me?"
"No. I'm grateful. Or at least I'm sure I should be grateful, and maybe when I get over the shock of having an actual conversation with His Greatness, I might even feel grateful."
"You don't need to feel gratitude. I had my own selfish reasons for doing it. You know, we have to be sure to give him a few minutes alone with Kenshin tonight, so he can berate Kenshin on how unworthy he is of a woman like you. Kenshin will love it."