Sorry for keep you waiting so long! Life has keeping me quite busy during the past months . I hope you still enjoy the story!

Pure Heart

Part 8

"That's very generous of you."

Hiko watched her intensely. "No, Nozumi-san. You are wrong about that..."

They fell silent.

Nozumi knew nothing about his duty. For years, he had been searching for someone like Kenshin. And had the boy not made the impression he had, convincing Hiko that he would be his pupil, Hiko would have left him alone the second time as well. But as things were, he would go to any length to teach the boy.

"Tell me, Hiko-san, have you ever raised a child? You are rather young yourself."

"My sister gave birth to two sons. But they were only toddlers when I last saw them."

"Ah, well... raising children is not as easy as it may seem, Hiko-san. They need much attention, patience and... well... a little love as well."

Hiko forced himself to remain quiet. This was something he did not need at all! Advice from Nozumi.

"Nozumi-san..." he replied, "I can assure you that I am well aware of all this. But I also told you that I do not intend to raise Kenshin as my son. He is my pupil."

Nozumi didn't want to hear any of this. In her eyes, Kenshin was no more than 7 years old and that was child enough for her. "Ah, well, that does not change much. Believe me, I have already seen many children grow up, but this one is different. Such sad eyes at his age..."

While at first he had no idea what to do with the sleepy kittens, now Shinta was busy keeping them from clawing at his hakama as they tried to get onto his lap. Finally, there were so many kittens on his lap, two fell off again. But even if he thought theys were sweet, he could not really get into playing with them.

"Is this the boy you were searching for last week?"

Hikagi-san's words were deeply troubling him. Why had Hiko been searching for him? If he cared for his safety, he would not have left him on that field. The day before, he had believed that Hiko would try and sell him to slave traders. That error and the realization afterwards still depressed Shinta. And last night's happenings, as well as Hikagi-san's words, were only making it worse. Nonetheless,Hiko's behavior simply did not make sense.

"Are you tired, Kenshin?" Nozumi sat down beside Shinta.

"A little..."

"Hiko-san told me you are staying with him now."

Shinta nodded carefully. What did Nozumi want?

"You have to know, Hiko-san is a good man. You need not fear him."

Shinta nodded slightly, although he still was not so sure.

"Pottery will be something you are going to like. Hiko-san creates excellent pieces of pottery. Sometimes, we sell a few of his pieces to traveling salesmen passing by – they always pay well..."

Pottery? Shinta didn't get a single word. But just as he wanted to say something to Nozumi, Hiko called.

"Kenshin, we are going!"

"Hai!"

Quickly, Shinta placed the kittens back with their mother and stood up. As they bid each other farewell, he had to promise Nozumi to visit soon.

Deep in thought, Nozumi watched them leave. Kenshin had to run to keep pace with Hiko. At first, she was touched by Hiko caring for the child. But the longer she thought about it – she wondered what could have made Hiko take in the kid. Kenshin was no strong boy, but surely there would have been a farmer's family nearby to take him to. Nozumi was getting more skeptical about the whole thing. Her feelings told her the two of them would be going through some trouble.

"What are you thinking about, my dear?"

"Ah, well. It's just that it seems somewhat strange... Hiko-san is still so young, he could have his own children, not to talk about all the nice women. Why does he take in an orphan? Kami-sama, we don't even know that the boy is an orphan. Maybe he bought the child somewhere or he's a runaway? Why else whould he have been searching for Kenshin?"

"You think too much about other people", her husband remarked. "Hiko-san is a good person." And one of our best customers he thought. There were not many customers in the nearby villages and aside from the sake trader in Kyoto he usually sold his wares to, most people simply did not have the money to spend and at most visited every few months or so.

"I already know that!" his wife confirmed. "It´s hard to believe that he would harm this child, but still the whole thing is very strange. Who knows! Maybe he bought the child from the pleasure quarters..."

Hiragi frowned with frustration. When they had first moved to this place, he had thought it an advantage – his wife could not interfere with other people's affairs as much, something he had always been ashamed of. On the other hand, that had been one of the reasons he had fallen in love with her, many many years ago. She had not been like the other girls, always smiling shyly or averting their eyes when you looked at them. Nonetheless, Nozumi's curiosity had made him lose more than just some hair over the years.

"Even if he had – it does not matter to us! It simply is none of our business", he tried in vain to explain.

Nozumi did not seem to hear him – or, what was more probable, did not want to listen. "You'll see, I will find out anyway," she promised her husband.

Hiragi gave up on the matter. Never had he been able to change her mind once she was sure about something.

It was already close to dark as they set off. Kenshin was tired, but Hiko could feel something was weighing him down.

In fact, there were several things Shinta was thinking about. There was the guilt he still felt, but also the fact he still did not fully understand what the nature of their relationship was. He did not know how his life would go on, how the training Hiko kept talking about would turn out… and after what Nozumi had told him… was he really to learn how to make pottery? He had been so sure Hiko would teach him the art of swordfighting. After all, that was the whole reason he had been given a new name! But now, he was unsettled. Nozumi had spoken to Hiko before talking to him, so there had to be some merit to her opinion. But how whould he be able to protect anyone with that? After all, Hiko had saved his life with a sword, not clay. What if he did not do well? Would Hiko send him away then?

Exhausted, Shinta walked after the white cloak through the dark forest path. Thousands of thoughts crossed his mind and he was too tired to try and answer them.

They took another path than the one they had come by, Hiko having chosen a shorter route in becauseiof Kenshin being tired. While they would pass pretty close to the graves, Hiko was sure Kenshin was too tired to recognize his surroundings.

He was wrong.

Shinta immediately realized where they were. Over there, by the clearing, Kasumi-san had stumbled on some root. It was then when…

"RUN!"

The men broke from the brush like lightning, the single cry the only warning they ever got. The old Mubuya-san called out shortly before his limbs were4 cut off. He had been at the end of the trail and one of the first to fall before the bloodthirsty men.

Shinta turned around and saw the old man fall down, covered in his own blood and gore. Frightened, unable to move, he watched the scene unfolding before him. Even when the women at the back started to run, they were cut down by the swords. It was just a moment, then someone grabbed his hand and dragged him away. Sakura-san ran as fast as she could, following her two sisters. She held his hand so tight it hurt. Shinta could only guess what was happening behind them. The women cried with fear, the men with savagery.

Soon, Shinta and Sakura had almost reached her sisters. Sakura pulled Shinta with such haste, he had to be careful not to fall. Her hand was cold as ice.

Some 20 meters in front of them, the first of many trees stood around the clearing. The woods were dense and would surely present ample oppportunity to hide. Shinta was sure Akane and Kasumi had chosen to run there to hide. There, they would be able to evade their pursuers more easily. Maybe they would even give up the hunt once they had lost them from sight.

The women's cries behind them were silenced one by one. In turn, the men's screams came ever closer.

Suddenly, Kasumi turned her head to speak to Sakura.

"Sakura, make has-" Her sentence was cut short as her foot was caught under some root. At once, Akane, the youngest sister, tried to get her up again. It was no use.

"I can't..." Kasumi whispered with tears in her eyes. "I can't, it hurts so much."

"You have to!" Akane begged.

"I can't. Can't..."

Shinta saw terror in Sakura's eyes as she stood before her sisters.

"So that is what shall be," Sakura whispered, so quietly only Shinta could hear. "That is what shall be." Sakura let go of Shinta's hand and sat down beside her sisters.

Shinta took the opportunity to look back. Breathing heavily, shaking, he watched. A few clouds had covered the milky full moon and left the clearing in the dark. Nevertheless, Shinta could see the picture of death before them, clearly. There were dead bodies everywhere, the grass colored red with blood.

The men were close. Shinta realized that Gayuma, the slaver, had run behind them. Now, it looked as if he wanted to beg one of the swordsmen for mercy. Before he had even uttered a single plea, he had already been silenced.

Now, only the four of them were left.

The men came closer.

Behind them, Shinta heard Akane sob quietly.

"That is what shall be," Sakura still kept saying to herself.

No, that is not what shall be! Shinta cried inside his heart. It shall not be. It must not be. Desperately, he turned around. The three sisters were on the ground, waiting, frozen in terror. As he looked again, the men were even closer. They did not run, they came in slowly, savouring the moment. They knew their prey had given up.

Then he saw it. Just a few steps in front of him. The katana that belonged to Gayama-san's son, Kensuke. Kensuke himself lay next to it, unmoving.

Without doubt, Shinta picked it up. It was heavy, much more heavy than he had expected. But he had seen it just in time. The first murderer was now directly in front of him. He had no doubts, no fear left. Shinta tightened his grip around the sword and prepared to dash – when suddenly he was taken from behind and dragged back. Surprised, he let go of the sword.

His only chance died.

It was too much, Shinta could move no more. All the events of that night and the following day crushed him like a tidal wave. He could not fight it, everything was back. The fear, the cries of the dying, the smell of corpses in the sun, the river that would swallow and drown him, the little slave girl with the sad eyes.

Shinta pressed his lips shut to hold the sobbing inside. The tears he could not hold back. Shinta wiped them away, but they simply kept coming.

These last few days, he had hardly thought about his fate. Hiko had kept him occupied and once night came, he had been too tired for anything but sleep. But here, in this clearing, all those things came back. How could he have protected them? The sword had been his only chance, but it had been too heavy, much too heavy...

Hiko sighed. Kenshin's Ki was in such turmoil, he felt the pressure himself. He had felt a slight tremor in Kenshin's Ki as he had played with the kittens. Hiko had to admit the boy was a mystery to him. Nozumi's advice was meant well, but he had been too proud to admit he knew nothing of children. And it was not necessary anyway. At least that's what he had told himself these last few days. After all, Kenshin was already nine years old, not six as he had initially believed. Nonetheless, there were a few occurrences he did not understand and that was troubling him. There was the things that had happened in Kyoto. Or the mishap last night. Somehow it was interesting to see what other surprises the boy had in store for him. And maybe, just maybe, he was a natural with Kenjutsu and...

He was drawn from his thoughts by sobbing. He did not even try to hide his displeasure as Kenshin finally stood before him.

"You promised me something the day before baka, did you not?"

Shinta felt worse than ever. "Go..gomen nasai..." He could not utter more before succumbing to sobbing again.

Hiko felt his patience crumble. What was wrong with the child? Where was the brave boy he found a week ago? All he wanted was to end the evening with a little sip of sake, preferably without any diversions from Kenshin.

"Are you going to stop crying?"

Kenshin fell silent and dropped his gaze to the floor, ashamed.

Mentally, Hiko declared the quiet evening a loss and turned his attention to a more pressing matter.

Shinta did not want to cry, but it simply didn't work that way. The tears would not stop coming, just like so often in the last days. He felt Hiko's anger, making him even more unsure than before. He fought the pictures inside his head, trying to hold back the tears. He simply did not know what to do.

"How am I to protect people?" he cried out his pain. "How am I to protect people without a sword?"

The sudden flare of anger, as well as the strange question, was something Hiko did not even begin to understand. Nozumi-san was right, Kenshin was a mystery to him.

"What are you talking about, baka deshi? Nobody asked you to do that!"

"But...but..." Nothing made sense any more.

"But what?"

"Nozumi said..."

Nozumi! How could a single woman cause so much trouble! Hiko prepared himself for anything that would come now. What had she told Kenshin to trouble him so?

"What, Kenshin?" he asked, forcing his voice to remain calm. "What did she tell you?"

Shinta, trying hard to keep back his tears, but somewhat failing, looked up. "She told me..." he began, between sobs. "She told me..."

"W-h-a-t? What did she tell you?"

"That I am going to learn pottery!" Shinta cried.

Hiko blinked at him in pure disbelief. Shinta was sure that this time he had said something absolutely wrong.

End chapter 8

Dear Readers, I hope you liked it. I´ll try to update more frequently from now.

Thank you to all the nice reviewers and welcome to the new! You make me so happy!

Special thanks goes to Terry McElrath, who helps Angel with the translation. Thank you so much!

Response to reviewers from chapter 7 :

Streetwise Girl : Well, I don´t translate the story myslf (I tried but wasn´t succesful at all ), it´s the work of Angel (my boyfriend) and Terry McElrath who is so kind and helps with the translation.

skenshingumi : I´m glad that you like the slow pace -most people don´t like that about my stories.

Sailor-Earth13 : It seems that we have something in common. I also look younger than my age ! Sometimes it´s really annoying, isn´t it? Most people think that I´m still a school girl.

Ssjjvash : Hey, you can read my mind! Actually I like the idea of Kenshin getting on Hiko´s nerve to get him a kitty. But since we speaking of Kenshin, it doesn´t seem relistic, so I´ll write it a bit different.

Metajoker : Ayumi isn´t my real name, it´s just a nickname for the web -

I also want to thank Crazy Hyper Lady ,WolfDaughter,Swirly, lolo popoki, geckohawaii,Shaolin 10 ,Lucrecia LeVrai ,meaganu-chan ,samuraiduck27, Salioka, xZig-zagx and pyramidgirl89. Thank you also to all the other reviewers from the previous chapters!

See you next chapter!

Ayumi