Author's Note: I'm not sure if I pilfered the idea of Kenshin owning a garden from Amarissia, or if that's actually canon.

Enjoy! :-)

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Seventeen years, twenty-six days

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Outwardly, nothing had changed. After his encounter with the former head of the ninja clan that had served his family for generations, Saburō fetched the tea from the village as he had promised to Ichirō and returned to Naoe castle. He kept his mien straight, no matter the turmoil he experienced inside. He saw to his duties. None of his fellow servants were the wiser that there was an enemy ninja watching over him from afar.

For this was what Kotarō had indicated to him. How the ninja planned on hiding on Uesigu territory and provide himself with food, Saburō couldn't fathom but he knew better than to question Kotarō skills and his determination to fulfill his duty. He had gained an asset, Saburō knew. A powerful one. One they would fear and distrust him for if they found out about it.

Saburō didn't dare imagine Naoe's reaction to the news that there was a ninja patrolling his land as he saw fit – and that Saburō had been in contact with him. So when the young general returned to his family's estate to fetch him on Kenshin's orders, Saburō felt relieved at first. On second thought, he realized that Kotarō wasn't going to let the matter rest. The ninja was sure to follow him to Kasugayama.

For the whole duration of the journey, Saburō jumped at every unexpected sound. It was completely improbable that any of his fellow travellers would catch on Kotarō trailing them - or being a step ahead of them, whatever the case may have been. Still, he couldn't calm his nerves. He was worried about the others finding out about the ninja. Almost as much as he was about Kotarō finding out about him and Naoe.

In the late afternoon, Jirō mentioned that they were getting close to Kasugayama. Barely had he finished that remark when Naoe brought Tsubame to a halt right next to them.

"You've never seen it before, have you?" he adressed Saburō without preamble.

Saburō shook his head, dumbfounded.

"Well, then." Naoe extended a hand. He meant for Saburō to climb up on Tsubame's back and sit behind him. Saburō had to close his arms around the man's waist to steady himself on horseback. Off they were. Naoe directed the stallion towards a ledge between the trees from where they could see far, over the fresh, green mountainside that surrounded the pleace they were headed to.

"There now," Naoe said as if lost in thought. "This is Kasugayama. Kenshin's capital and home of the Uesugi clan."

It wasn't a real castle. Not like Odawara had been. There were mostly wooden buildings in different sizes and they covered the slopes of the mountain. Saburō could see that they were erected on terraces. On the top of the slope, the biggest houses were located, one of them most certainly Kenshin's. There was thick forest surrounding the city and trees growing in between the buildings as well.

The difference to Saburō's home couldn't have been greater.

/\/

There he was again, the Hōjō pest. Nagazane had been waiting at the gates of Kasugayama for Naoe and his men since he had received word they were about to arriven. He narrowed his eyes at the sight of the boy walking among Naoe's entourage.

Naoe had never brought him here before. Why did he do so now? Couldn't he bear leaving him behind, even for a few short days? Nagazane felt a familiar bitterness rise inside him. What could the two of them even have in common? Were they talking at all or only …?

He squared his shoulders, determined not to let his jealousy get the better of him, as he moved forward to greet Naoe. The man returned his welcome with a serene smile and inquired after Nagazane's brother and the general state of the Irobe clan.

Even while talking to Naoe, Nagazane couldn't help but sneak a glance at the Hōjō boy from time to time. He was even more striking than Nagazane remembered him. Something about him had changed, it seemed though Nagazane couldn exactly put his finger on it. There was something about his movements that was different somehow…

Also, he was glaring daggers at Nagazane. He startled, hardly believing that a servant boy had the nerve to look him straight in the eye instead of keeping his gaze lowered as was becoming for a commoner, a spoil of war at that. Then again, that was the problem right there, wasn't it? How were they supposed to deal with this youth who had the upbringing of a noble and the mindset of one? Nagazane experienced a surge of frustration at the thought of being exposed to this… anomaly's presence any further.

For now, however, he realized that he didn't have to do more than keep his eyes on the boy until Naoe noticed the disrespectful behaviour of his servant. He watched with satisfaction how the older man's eyes narrowed and he barked a harsh command at the boy. Nagazane couldn't suppress a sentiment of satisfaction of Saburō flinching and making himself scarce. Or perhaps it was Naoe demanding the boy show Nagazane respect.

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What in Bishamonten's name had just happened? Naoe was at a loss about his prize's behaviour. Thus far, Saburō had never showed any disrespect towards his elders or higher-ups. In fact, he had always demonstrated perfect countenance in his dealings with others.

"Will you explain to me what got into you?" he asked once they were inside their guest quarters and out of anybody's earshot, his voice sounding more bewildered to himself than strict.

Saburō bowed hastily. His head still lowered, he said in a small voice, "I apologize for my behaviour, tono." That was all. No explanation, no sentiment expressed.

"See to your work then," Naoe murmured, at a loss about how he should deal with this whole situation. Saburō deserved to be punished for his insolence, however, Naoe was much more preoccupied with trying to understand what was going on in his head. The boy seemed calm now, merely a certain abruptness of his movements betrayed his agitation. Unlike before, when he had seemed completely in control of himself, glaring at Nagazane as if he wanted to run him through with a spear when all the man had done was to talk to Naoe and stand next to him and -

The scales fell from his eyes. "You're jealous," he said.

Saburō froze. "I b-beg your pardon?" he stammered.

Naoe shook his head in bewilderment. "I don't believe this! You're actually jealous. And of Nagazane? Are you serious?"

Saburō bowed. "You must have completely misunderstood me, tono." There was a treacherous blush on his cheeks, almost imperceptible.

"I wish I had." Naoe stared at his prize as if he'd grown a second head. "How can you think that anyway? That I carry on with Nagazane? Is that really what you believe?"

Saburō bowed again, the epitome of polite deference. "If you do, it's certainly none of my business. You don't have to answer to me, tono."

Incredulous, Naoe listened to the boy evoking their master-servant relationship of all things to prove Naoe's assumptions to be far-fetched. "Damn right, I don't," he murmured.

Saburō made to walk past him, the bedding for Naoe's futon in his arms, but Naoe grabbed his arm and pulled him close until their bodies were flush against one another. "I'll tell you anyway." A smile stole unto his face as he looked down into Saburō's widened golden eyes. The boy had to tilt back his head to hold his gaze. "I haven't been with anybody else since I started lying with you."

Damn it, he hadn't even looked at another person!

"Oh," was all Saburō said to that, lowering his gaze in bewilderment.

"So. There you have it. Are you satisfied now?"

Saburō didn't look satisfied, or even pleased. In fact, he looked upset, Naoe realized. Flustered. His own feelings were an unheard of mixture of amusement, exasperation and tenderness. He was watching his prize with growing fascination. Who would have thought… Saburō for his part wasn't meeting his eyes. Embarrassment had tamed him somewhat, Naoe mused. He was as amenable as he could get.

It also made him very attractive. Giving in to a sudden desire - to be close to the boy or to renew the bond that Saburō had indirectly called into question, he didn't know for sure - Naoe lifted his prize from the ground. Saburō went rigid, his position giving him no choice but to put his hands on Naoe's shoulders.

Naoe realized he was smiling. His gaze flickered towards the futon he was supposed to spend the night on. He hadn't planned on taking Saburō while they were staying at the Uesugi headquarters but these were extraordinary circumstances, he decided. Only Saburō's gaze shifting to something behind him all of a sudden made Naoe notice the courtier standing in the door to their guest house.

"Your pardon, Naoe-dono. Kenshin-kō is asking to see the Hōjō boy now."

Naoe suppressed a sigh. Not only did he have to let go of his prize then, he also had to worry about word spreading with regards to the position they had been found in. Well, that couldn't be helped now.

"We're not finished," he murmured in the tone of a slight warning and reluctantly put Saburō back on the floor.

/\/

Saburō's heartbeat wouldn't slow down. Even after he'd been led out of Naoe's presence the image of the man's smile, the sound of his words lingered on his mind. He couldn't make sense of it. Why had Naoe claimed that he hadn't touched anyone besides Saburō himself since the first time they'd been together? And if it was true - why would he do that? Even if Naoe hadn't had another male bedfellow in all this time, wasn't he supposed to father an heir some time soon? If any of it was true, Saburō kept reminding himself.

And where in Benzaiten's name was Kotarō? Had the ninja followed him into the city? Most certainly. Would he be able to track Saburō down even now when he was on his way to come face to face with an enemy clan lord? Saburō didn't doubt it. And as for the enemy clan lord, what could Kenshin possibly want from him?

Engrossed in his thoughts, Saburō had hardly been noticing where they were going, until the man servant who had guided him here gestured for him to pass through the gate and told him to wait for Kenshin-kō. After walking through the beehive that was Kasugayama, this garden with its pond and cherry-trees felt like a different world. Once inside, Saburō's eyes sought out the surrounding buildings and he immediately understood how cleverly all this had been designed, acoustically. The noise was well kept outside.

Although - or perhaps because - this garden was nothing like Ujimasa's back in Odawara from which you could see the sea, Saburō felt a large portion of his distress vanish into thin air. His joy was short-lived, however, as he soon noticed that he wasn't in fact alone. A man in the plain clothes of a servant was standing on a wooden footstool, cutting the branches of one of the cherry-trees.

How odd, was Saburō's first thought. It was the wrong time of the year for that. He didn't know all that much about gardening, but this you were supposed to do in wintertime, he was sure. He suppressed a sigh. Many things were different in this northern land.

The gardener noticed him standing there and gently pulled at one of the blossoming branches to get a better look at him. "You must be Hōjō Saburō."

Saburō bowed slightly to indicate his respect for an elder colleague, though not as low as he would have done towards Naoe or any other of his higher-ups. "It's just Saburō now", he answered. "Kenshin-dono requested me to come to his… garden."

"You've found the place." The man carefully stepped down from the stool. Clippers in hand, he gestured towards the wooden patio of the adjacent house. "Take a seat, why don't you."

Saburō obeyed. "Are you tending to this place?"

A mild, confident gaze swept over him. "Yes, I am. Do you like it?"

"Yes." The Naoe's castle had no garden, just a few trees inside. Saburō found that he had been missing a place such as this.

"The Lord is also fond of his garden. Gossip has it that this would be the only place where he can dwell in peace without any of his noble followers interrupting his meditation all the time."

Saburō's eyes widened at this disrespectful reference to Kenshin's retainers. Such a thing would have been unheard of in Odawara or at Takeda's court. Not even Ichirō or Jirō would have dared speak like this about the members of the Naoe family. It said a lot about Kenshin's rule, Saburō mused, that a gardener could make this kind of smart comment to another servant without having to fear repercussions. He wasn't sure what to think, if this was a good or a bad thing.

A silver tingling sound reached his ear. Saburō turned his head towards the source and spotted a pair of wind chimes hanging underneath the roof of the adjacent building.

"This means someone wishes to enter", the gardener informed him. "Excuse me for a moment."

Left by himself, Saburō's thoughts returned to the daimyō he was about to meet in person. So Kenshin was a lover of peace and quiet, huh? Saburō's eyes narrowed. The Uesugi clan lord hadn't exactly shown this by overrunning the lands of the Hōjō. Saburō was reminded of the plot he had thought up all these weeks ago of murdering Kenshin should the opportunity ever arise. He didn't have a weapon on him now. Of course not. The daimyō was much too well guarded for any outsider being allowed to carry weapons here in the Uesugi headquarters, the very place where he would seek peace and quiet when he wasn't campaigning to overrun other clans' territories.

What did Kenshin want from him anyway? Saburō was at a loss what to expect from the meeting. He didn't even know the man's age and what he looked like. The person who finally stepped onto the patio couldn't be Kenshin, though. He was about thirteen years old, Saburō estimated, but one could already see that the boy would grow into a strong man one day. There was a healthy tan to his face and toned limbs. He was dressed in the garment for kendo.

It stirred something in Saburō, the sight of this young boy, being educated in the warrior arts, as he had been once. He wondered how much of his training had gone down the drain by now. If he'd be able to hold his own against a child such as this.

"Are you Hōjō Saburō?" the boy asked, his dark eyes lively and full of interest.

They all made a point of addressing him by his family name. Saburō merely nodded this time, unable to guess at the boy's rank or affiliation.

"I am Nagao Kiheiji, Kenshin-kō 's nephew. He was planning to speak with you today, but must excuse himself due to unforeseen obligations. He asked me to take you back to Naoe-dono's quarters."

Saburō rose from the ground. So he wasn't to meet Kenshin after all. Unforseen obligations, he mused. He couldn't figure why the Uesugi clan lord had wanted to speak to him in the first place, so he couldn't make an educated guess at what those obligations might be.

On the way out, they passed one of the buildings. Somebody else was standing there in the shadow of the roof, he realized. It was a girl in a kimono with cherry blossoms, several years older than the boy with whom she shared the broad face and strong bones.

"This is my sister, Nagao Seiienin," Kiheiji informed him.

Saburō bowed. Only when he did so, he realized that he had never paid his respects in the same way to her brother. Oddly enough, Kiheiji hadn't taken offence by this impossible behaviour. Lifting his eyes back to the girl, Saburō caught sight of a blush on her features. Stepping close to her brother, she whispered something into his ear that made him roll his eyes in turn.

He had met some interesting people today, Saburō mused. The gardener, the young boy and his sister – they all seemed so overly calm and even-tempered. There was something contemplative about them, especially the two males, that reminded him of the monks in whose temple he had spent part of his childhood. It was this place, he decided, it bred serenity in those who inhabited it.

/\/

At last, Naoe could admit to himself that he had been nervous with regards to what might come of Kenshin-kō finally laying eyes on Saburō. It was forutnate perhaps, he mused that nothing had come of the planned meeting today. It was late in the night when he returned to his guest quarters, fully intent on continuing where he'd left off earlier today and restaking his claim on the boy in the best way possible.

Walking up the steps to the door, he felt a sudden presence in his back. He whirled around, half expecting to see someone standing behind him. But there was nobody. Naoe frowned. Latest news had put him on edge, he mused. He was imagining things.

Entering his guest rooms, Naoe was greeted by a sight that made him abandon his plans. In the light of the fire-place, Saburō was sleeping curled up on the futon. He hadn't even bothered to undress or let his hair down. Naoe guessed that the boy must have waited on him when fatigue had overwhelmed him.

He must be dead-tired.

He lay down next to the sleeping boy, studying his features in the halflight of the room. He still couldn't believe what had come to pass earlier today. It completely astounded him that Saburō would care enough to be jealous. And of Nagazane of all people! It was just too funny. A smile tugged at his lips as he lay beside his prize, watching the boy sleep in the firelight. It made him curious what else was hidden behind delicate features.

Maybe he had fallen asleep as well. The sound of footsteps fast approaching awakened him at once, though. Voices rang out in the city where everyone should have been fast asleep at this hour of the night. Fast steps sounded on the patio. Naoe got up from the futon as soon as the dark figure of a courtier appeared in the doorframe, pulling the shoji aside.

"Forgive me, Naoe-dono," the man bowed. "There seems to be an intruder on the loose inside the city."

Naoe startled. Apparently, he hadn't been mistaken earlier. But such a thing was unheard of! How had anyone infiltrated Kenshin's capital? "Is it Oda?" he asked, stepping into the yard behind the man.

"It is a possibility." He turned around to see that Yasuda Nagahide had appeared by his side, the Irobe brothers trailing behind him.

"I doubt it," Akinaga said. "Nobunaga send a messenger today that he wants to meet Kenshin-kō a fortnight from now in the borderlands. Why send an assassin now? That doesn't make sense."

"If the message was a way to lull us into a false sense of security, it does make sense," Nagahide replied.

Naoe looked up to see Saburō standing on the threshold to their quarters, the night wind pulling at the strands of his hair. He seemed to have listened closely to what they'd been discussing.

/\/

Author's Note: Kiheiji's sister (the future Mrs. Kagetora) was almost certainly NOT called Seiienin during her life time. In fact, we only know her Buddhist name, bestowed upon her after her death. I didn't want to just pick a name for her, though, so I stuck with Seiienin.

And I suppose you can all guess at who might have been the "gardener" Saburō met ;-)

I hope you liked the chapter! (even if it's a bit shorter than usual)