This short tale follows "Leaving" and was the second Hiko/Hikaru story I wrote (I couldn't have them stay mad at each other, could I?). It's undergone some revisions since I originally wrote it, but only minor ones. If you haven't read the other Hikaru stories ("Teahouse", "Sake, Tea, and Cherry Blossoms", and "The Lady and the Apprentice"), then you might want to, since this follows those. This will be the first of three that I'll be writing about Hikaru during the Revolution and just after. For Kenshin fans, sorry, he does not appear, although he is ever-present in Hikaru's and Hiko's thoughts.
I don't own Seijuro Hiko or Kenshin. All other characters are my own invention. Any historical inaccuracies are my own goofs.
Once more, my thanks to my readers, especially to those who take the time to review these stories. I always love reading what you have to say.
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The city was worse than Seijuro Hiko had imagined. The Ishin thought they were winning, the Shinsengumi believed they had the situation controlled, but the truth was that violence and lawlessness had grown like some kind of loathsome vine, winding its way along the streets, choking the life away from the citizens, one at a time or a dozen at a time. Swordsmen of both sides walked openly, arrogantly. He had been worried about Hikaru; now he began to fear.
No one bothered him, of course. He was watched with wariness, or speculation, depending on the man, but he wasn't approached. His very size and presence dismayed the less courageous, and the sword at his side warned away the more casually violent. The organized perpetrators of this horror, the Ishin and the Shogunate thugs, he avoided. He wasn't here to fight. He was here to reassure himself that Hikaru wasn't one of these victims.
He had been troubled about her safety for a long time now. He had other sources of information and ways of discovering facts, so he hadn't needed her visits to keep him abreast of the burgeoning revolution. But he missed her visits. After all, how else was he to know that she was well?
No, if he were going to be honest, that wasn't why he missed her visits. The truth was, he missed seeing her, even if he could never touch her. He missed her soft, lovely voice and her presence in his home. He was not a sociable man, but with Kenshin gone and Hikaru never coming around these past weeks, he had grown somewhat lonely.
He still didn't believe he'd been wrong in anything he'd said to Hikaru, the last time they'd spoken. But he regretted being so hard on her. There were many things he said that he would like to take back again. Had he not been so disturbed by Kenshin's leaving, he would have been more careful with his words and not hurt her. He knew how much she loved the boy. Having him turn into a soldier in this ridiculous conflict was painful enough for her, without him adding to it with harsh words and blame, even if he were in the right. He had no intention of offering her any kind of apology, but if – he forced himself to face the possibility – if she were killed in this idiotic fighting, he would never be contented again, knowing they'd parted in anger. And she in tears! She so rarely wept. His huge fists clenched, and a pair of young men, going in the other direction, crossed the road to avoid getting near him. If that husband of hers hasn't removed her from this city, I'll take her myself. He had the right to do that, at least in his own mind. She'd been his long before she'd met Toshiro Kimiyama, and while she might love Kimiyama, a fact he'd long ago accepted, that love was tepid compared to the passion he knew was still there, deep inside her, for him. Normally he would never interfere, not with a marriage, not with a decision she had made for herself, but this was different. A fragile blossom like Hikaru had no place in a war. He was not going to take any chance of losing her.
Walking the streets of Kyoto now, he knew he'd been stupid. He'd waited too long. His stride lengthened.
He'd only been to the Kimiyama shop once before, many years ago, but he remembered where it was, and he didn't have the illusory hope that he might not be at the right place when he faced the broken gate drooping from a single hinge and the shattered door opening onto destruction. A few steps brought him onto the porch and into the shop. Poised and tense, he looked swiftly around, but, to his relief, the destruction had been confined to shelves, furniture, and hundreds of pieces of pottery. The mess was incredible, but there was no blood to be seen.
He strode through to the gardens, and checked, this time with an oath. To his left, the house was a gutted shell, torn apart, shreds of the rice paper walls flapping in the soft breeze, but that wasn't what had brought the curse to his lips. What was left of the gardens had done that. Whoever had been here, they seemed to have a positive grudge against beauty. Not content with destroying the work of the Kimiyama artists, they had taken a heavy hand to the gardens. The benches and bridges had been torn down and used for fuel to burn everything else the vandals could root out of the ground. The trees and bushes were hacked down and gone, the flowers crushed and scattered, and the little ponds fouled.
He squatted beside the largest of the ash piles and sifted through it with a charred stick from the edge, mourning the loss of so much beauty, but at the same time grateful that, among the ash and debris, he turned up no bones. Maybe Kimiyama had done the sensible thing and removed the household to the farm before all this happened. Maybe it happened because no one had been there to stop it. That thought would have to be his hope.
He rose and stood looking around, hands on his hips. He didn't want hope. He wanted Hikaru. He wanted to see her. He wanted to touch her, to hold her, to hear her voice and know she was alive and well.
The sound of a step to his left brought him swiftly around, hand going to his sword only to drop immediately away. "Hikaru!"
She stood on the porch of the house, her hand on the shoulder of a little boy, and behind them stood the one-armed soldier who served her. Hikaru looked nothing like her usual self. Her hair was loosely bound and falling down from even that confinement, and her kimono, one of her plain gardening kimonos, was stained with mud at the knees and dusted with ash all about the hem. Her hands were dirty, and there was mud on her cheek and chin as well. But as far as he was concerned, he'd never seen her more beautiful.
She left the child with a touch and a smile, then came down the steps to him, one hand extended, her dark eyes full of sorrow. He didn't think about anything at all, certainly not about the tension that had been between them. He only responded to her pain. He grabbed her hand, pulled her into his arms, and held her tight. He hadn't touched her in almost ten years, but at that moment he didn't consider her slender suppleness, the small delicate bones under his hands, the softness of her cheek, or the familiar scent of her hair. He only thought that she was grieving, and he had to help her.
"Look what they've done, Seijuro," she mourned against his shoulder. She didn't put her arms around him, but her hands fisted in his shirt against his chest. "Look what they've done. And they killed Benkei and poor little Shioko. Why would anyone want to kill Shioko? She was just a little girl."
She swallowed a sob. "I can rebuild the gardens, but nothing can bring them back."
"No. Nothing can. But, what are you doing here now? Why are you still in the city?" he demanded.
"We came back for Natsume. He's Benkei's son. I thought he might come here if something happened to his father, and he did. We're taking him back with us."
He hurt for her, knowing her soft heart was in pain, but in truth, neither of the other deaths mattered to him as long as she was still alive. He stroked her and soothed her, and at the same time soothed himself. Then he said, "Where is Kimiyama? He should have taken you out of this by now."
"I'm here, and I did," came Kimiyama's smooth, clear voice from the porch. He was holding the little boy's hand, and if he was upset at seeing his wife in Hiko's arms, it didn't show on his face. If anything, he looked grim, as if he were bearing up under his losses with nothing but his determination not to fail. "Except the shop goods, everything of value went to the farm three days ago, including Hikaru. That is why, I think, all of this," with a wave of his hand at the mess around them. "They thought to find wealth, and did not, so they grew angry."
Hiko nodded toward the shop. "They destroyed untold wealth, in there."
Kimiyama bowed an acceptance of the compliment. "We will create more. The important thing is that, except for Benkei and poor little Shioko, we were able to save everyone's lives. However, Hikaru insisted on returning with me today to find Natsume, and she was right to do so."
"You should not have allowed it."
"Seijuro." Hikaru had stepped away from him, if not entirely out from under his protecting arm. "Natsume is timid. Bunto told us that he'd hidden under the house. I knew Toshiro would never be able to coax him out. He will only come to me."
"He could have been dragged out."
"And add more fear to his life? Fear of us? Never." She moved away from him to take the boy from Kimiyama, picking him up, and the child held her so hard that Hiko was sure her delicate skin would be bruised later. "We're leaving now, so you needn't worry any more. We won't be back, I think, for a very long time." She looked around again, and her lips quivered. "You were right about all this. You and Toshiro both. The war didn't stay between the factions."
"Death to the innocent and destruction of the beautiful are the inevitable results of ideals gone out of control," he said, thinking of Kenshin now, too.
She knew his thought, for her eyes lifted to his, stricken and yet comforting at the same time. Her hand reached out and touched his arm, and in that single gesture, he knew she'd forgiven him. She smiled, a small and wavering smile, but still a smile. "You came down from your mountain just to check on me?"
"Don't feel too flattered. I would have done the same for any friend." Kenshin's name hung between them, so heavy it was almost visible. To banish it, he said, "I'll go with you as far as the third bridge."
"We'll welcome your protection," Kimiyama said.