The first thing Kaoru noticed was the umbrella. It was a large umbrella,
of a size that could comfortably shelter a family of four.

Not that many of the snowflakes were sticking to it -- its dark blue
color could be seen quite clearly beneath them, although more were
attaching themselves to their fellows as she watched.

Kaoru's immediate reaction was surprise coupled with understanding and
slight irritation with herself. Why hadn't *she* ever thought of carrying
an umbrella in the snow? Snow was just as wet as rain once it melted, as
it invariably would on going inside; and it would be much easier to shake
out an umbrella on the engawa than it was to brush snow off of one's hair
and shoulders and front.

The next thing she noticed was that there was only one person under the
umbrella: a woman, apparently fallen on hard times. Her kimono appeared
to once have been of high quality, made of good material, but now was
sadly faded and threadbare. She was not quite sure what color it had
originally been; it might possibly have been green or violet, but now was
a quiet grey -- except for one place on the breast, where a long tear had
been mended with thread the exact color of Kenshin's hair.

And finally her gaze traveled up to the woman's face. It was no one she
had ever seen before, to her recollection, but something about the shape
of her cheekbones or the cut of her hair seemed familiar -- and

Kaoru rocked back a little, resting her back against the shoji frame as
she sat on the engawa and waited for the umbrella woman to do something.
The other, framed in the entrance to the yard, regarded her evenly, gaze
flicking once to Kaoru's heavily pregnant belly before settling on her

In the yard, Suzume suddenly stopped, spun, and charged the older sister
who had been chasing her for the past five minutes or so through the
falling snow. Ayame blinked before emitting a mostly-feigned yelp and
running away from her pursuing younger sister, both of them laughing.

"Can I help you?" Kaoru finally said.

"I am intruding, but... are you perhaps Kamiya Kaoru, shihandai of this
dojo?" the woman asked, taking the smallest step forward into the dojo

"Yes. Yes, I am. If you have business with Kenshin, my husband, he and
Yahiko have gone to the market." Kaoru wasn't exactly sure why she'd
added that last, except that the woman *felt* like someone who would be
involved with Kenshin somehow or other.

"No," the woman said thoughtfully. "I have no unfinished business with
Kamiya Kenshin."

"Oh," Kaoru replied. And then "Careful, Ayame-chan!" as the older of the
two little girls stopped suddenly and her younger sister plowed into her,
nearly knocking both of them over.

"So~o~rry," the two of them chorused before returning to their aimless
dashing about, this time making no pretense of chasing each other.

"Actually," the woman in the grey kimono remarked, startling Kaoru, "I
came to see you."


"You are the teacher of Kamiya Kasshin-ryuu, ne? And a very strong
person; I doubt that a female kenjutsu teacher is widely respected."

"Respected enough," Kaoru shot back, one hand reaching for the bokutou
that she had pressed into service (but *only* around the dojo) as a
support for levering herself up, now that her middle looked as if she'd
swallowed a watermelon whenever she was divested of her robes. Even with
the belly-band slung properly, it was still awkward.

"I'm qualified," she continued, defensive against the -- she wasn't
quite sure if it had been a veiled insult or not, but those words all too
often were. "Even now."

"I have no doubt that you are," the woman with the umbrella agreed.
"There is no need to demonstrate, now when you finally have some time to
relax. I meant nothing but admiration. It takes a great deal of strength
and courage to make one's own decisions when they run counter to people's

"You understand," Kaoru said, pleased. "But I'm sure you didn't come --
mind the rocks, Suzume-chan! -- just to tell me that. Were you wanting
lessons? I know we've been closed off and on this past year and a half,
but the Kamiya Kasshin-ryuu dojo is open full-time, now. Whether you want
teaching for yourself, or your brother or sister, or perhaps for your
child... "

"No," the grey-clad woman said. "I have not been blessed with children,
and my brother has learnt swordsmanship in another school."

"Then perhaps for yourself? Kenjutsu, even the basics, can be very
useful, for protecting yourself. Or for protecting the people who are
important to you." Kaoru's voice rose a little as she enthused to her

"No," the woman repeated. "It's too late for me."

"It's never too late!" Kaoru leaned forward, fervor in her eyes.

"Sometimes, it is."

And there was that in her tone which denied argument.

Ayame tripped over a stone and fell, sprawling, at the woman's feet. She
picked herself up, mouth screwing up in preparation to wail.

"Let me look at you," the woman in grey said, stooping to help the
little girl up without letting her umbrella tilt one iota. She brushed
Ayame off. "No, you're not really hurt. Just startled. Maybe you and the
other little girl should pile the snow up and make it into something for
a change."

Ayame blinked a few times, considering this, before she ran over to
Suzume and began chattering.

The woman rose, drawing nearer again to the engawa and to Kaoru.

"If you're not here about lessons, and you're not here to see Kenshin,"
Kaoru finally said, "why *are* you here, then?"

The umbrella stopped, holding still as the woman bearing it considered.
"I think," she said at last, "that it is largely curiosity. I wanted to
see you, and how you lived. I know I am being extremely rude, and I shall
take myself off -- "

"No," Kaoru interrupted. It was crazy -- it was insane -- but there was
something, some kinship, some connection, that made her want the woman to
stay for just a little longer. "Don't, please. Stay a moment and talk
with me -- I haven't been out this past week, what with my husband trying
to keep me wrapped in cotton wool, and I've been going just a bit


"Megumi wrote and said that it's probably just because it's my first
pregnancy, and that he'll calm down once he gets it through his head that
it doesn't mean I've suddenly become made of glass."

"Your husband has lost many things that were important to him, ne." It
was not -- quite -- a question.

"Yes, I *know* he's determined not to lose me too -- but that doesn't
make it any less stifling."

The other woman's lips quirked, very slightly. "Men," she offered, "can
be very exasperating."

"Don't I know it," Kaoru sighed, patting the engawa next to herself.
"Come and sit here."

The wind had picked up a little; the visitor angled the umbrella
slightly into it before proceeding the rest of the way to the engawa. She
had begun to mount the steps when Ayame and Suzume decided to interrupt.

"Come play with us, neechan!"

"Play, nee-tan!"

"You too, Kaoru-nee!"


"No." The visitor's tone was flat, final.

"Play, please?" Ayame ventured, her face falling.

"No," the woman repeated.

"Ayame," Kaoru expostulated, beginning to lever herself up, "you mustn't
bother guests."

"We shall sit and watch you play," the guest offered.

"But won't you please play with us, Kaoru-nee?" Ayame shifted tactics.

"Please, nee-tan?"

"No," the guest said again, holding her unoccupied hand in front of
Kaoru. It was a well-shaped hand, the fingers perhaps a bit shorter than
Kaoru's own, the nails longer and better trimmed. "Kaoru-oneesan's feet
are tired now."

"The baby is heavy," Kaoru amplified, wondering when she had mentioned
the weariness of her feet and ankles.

The two little girls digested this for a moment, and then nodded.

"Rest, baby," Suzume said.

"Rest, Kaoru-nee," Ayame agreed. "We're going to build a snow family."

She and her sister promptly turned aside to begin arguing over where the
snow family was going to be, how tall its members should be, and where
would be the proper place to take the snow from.

"Thank heavens they were in a reasonable mood," Kaoru sighed to her
companion. "Otherwise, they could have kept it up for an hour."

"I do not have much experience with young children," the visitor
confessed as she turned her umbrella outward, shook it once, and then
released the catch.

"They can be a handful," Kaoru said proudly. "But they can also be an
utter delight."

The woman in grey shook her de-raised umbrella, sending the remaining
snow lying with a few sharp snaps of her wrist. "Are they your sisters?"

"No... they're the granddaughters of an old family friend,

The other woman leaned the umbrella against the doorway, in just the
place that Kenshin would be sitting if he were here, and herself sat in
the place that Kaoru had indicated, politely asking more questions about
Gensai-sensei, his granddaughters, and the workings of the Kamiya Dojo.
Kaoru answered distractedly, her attention divided between the
conversation, the little girls' snow people (which presently consisted of
two cylinders, made by piling rocks first and snow over them, almost
Ayame's height), and the umbrella, which she now realized was not a solid
blue at all; it was covered, she thought, with some sort of pattern of
white dabs. And it appeared actually to be made of *cloth*, of all
things! How on earth did it keep the wet out?

Not that she could really *see* it without rudely craning her neck
around her visitor, which of course she wasn't going to do. Besides, now
that the woman was closer, Kaoru could verify that the thread she'd used
for mending was, as she had thought, precisely the color of Kenshin's

Come to think of it, it appeared to *be* hair. How odd.

Kaoru realized with a start that she had been leaning toward her visitor
so much that her nose was nearly touching the other woman's long hair, so
dark that it appeared purple. She jerked herself back quickly, hoping
that her guest hadn't noticed, and went on telling about how Yahiko had
come to stay with them.

Had the other woman washed her hair with something sweet-smelling? She
wasn't quite sure, but it had seemed to have some faint unidentifiable
scent, like the ghost of perfume.

It was getting windier, and the snow falling harder. Ayame and Suzume
didn't seem to mind; they'd added two more columns to their snow people,
one a little shorter than the first two and one much smaller than all
three. All four had slightly bulbous 'heads' without benefit of neck, and
one of the tall ones had an odd ridge beginning at the top and tapering
out about halfway down. Now they were beginning another one, at some
distance from the others.

Well, their straw capes were of good quality, and Suzume's was brand new
(her older sister's hand-me-down had finally fallen apart last month).
Surely they would take no harm.

Kaoru told about how Gensai-sensei's assistant was taking on more and
more of the work, and how, although she was sure the assistant was a
perfectly capable young man, if she couldn't have her old familiar family
doctor, she'd rather have Megumi. Fortunately, the older woman had
promised to come down from Aizu when her time was near.

"Aren't they calling it 'part of Fukushima-ken' these days?"

"Well, yes, but everyone still *knows* it's Aizu, so everyone still
*calls* it Aizu." Kaoru's hand ghosted over her belly. "Maybe when this
one's grown, she or he'll say 'Aunt Megumi lives in Fukushima-ken,' but
we elders will be hopelessly old-fashioned." She laughed. The other woman

"Well, it wasn't really that funny," Kaoru sighed.

"No, it was."

Kaoru looked at her guest.

"I am not very demonstrative, either," the visitor said after a pause.
"You are good at that."

"No, no, I'm terribly demonstrative," Kaoru protested.

"That is what I said."

There was another pause.

"A woman doctor?" the quiet woman finally inquired.

Kaoru began telling her all about Megumi. Well, not quite all. Most of

Midway through she had to excuse herself, using the bokutou to lever
herself up as her cheeks burned.

The other woman merely shrugged. "You are eating for two. You must needs
eliminate for two, as well."

"At least it's not as bad as it *was* -- there were times three or four
months ago when I thought I'd be spending the rest of my life squatting
with my clothes kilted around my waist." Kaoru pulled her straw cape more
closely about herself, setting the hat on her head. Then she looked at
her guest, shamefaced. "Aren't you cold?"

"No. I am more accustomed to snow."

"If -- if you get cold, don't hesitate to tell me. I have some extra
kimono that are a little scant at the moment. I'd be happy to have them
see use."

"It's really no trouble," her visitor assured her.

Still unsure, but informed by her bladder in no uncertain terms that she
had not the time to stand about debating, Kaoru set off at a fast trot.
Not a waddle, yet. Probably not for a month again. How *would* she manage

When she returned, the girls had added a second small snow person to the
one standing to the side, this time with large ears that sat a bit too
high on the head for a person -- maybe it was supposed to be a tanuki or
something -- and were pointing to the visitor and chattering.

"It's not polite to point," Kaoru scolded them, waving one hand and then
hastily drawing it back within the shelter of her straw cape. Was it her
imagination, or was it a little darker?

"It is all right," the woman in grey excused them. Kaoru was seized with
a flash of envy for the way the visitor's hair framed her face so evenly,
without more hair to one side or to the other. Although she was
experimenting with shorter hair around her face, it invariably chose to
distribute itself unevenly -- even when she had spent an entire hour
combing it into submission, her hair would rearrange itself in one kata's

"You are our *guest*."

Their guest murmured something that sounded like "Switching attributes

"What was that?" Kaoru asked as she regained the shelter of the engawa.
The snow was not falling in flakes, but in *clusters*. One, the size of a
ryou coin, had landed on her cape and was still there.

"Nothing. Ara, how impatient the snow is."

"Impatient," Kaoru laughed, taking her hood off and shaking it out (on
the side away from her visitor of course. "What a great description."

She went on telling the other woman about Megumi.

It did seem to be getting darker. Kaoru wondered whether it were merely
the day's passing, and then discarded that notion; it was far too early,
even in winter, even for the dimming of late afternoon.

Darker and windier. She didn't like that combination.

Her mouth had already opened when Ayame and Suzume turned to the two of
them and chorused "Jaan!"

"Are you done?" Kaoru asked.

"Done, done!" Suzume happily agreed.

"Oh!" Ayame said. "I almost forgot!" She moved to the uncrested tall
member of the grouping of four and carefully, with her index finger,
wrote the top half of the character for 'majiwaru,' the crisscross.

"Ah," the visitor said. "It is *this* family."

"That's right!" Ayame announced, echoed by her little sister's "Right,

"See, here's Ken-nii, and Kaoru-nee with her hair-tail -- "

Oh, the crest was a *ponytail*.

"And Yahiko-nii, and the baby, when it's born."

"Very nice," Kaoru applauded. "And who are the others?"

"Well, here's us visiting -- "

"Me, me!" Suzume said proudly. "Pig-tails!"

" -- and over here is the strange neechan, watching."

The last of the snow people was, indeed, at some distance from the rest.

"She looks lonely," Kaoru said.

"I don't mind watching. I am accustomed to it."

"Well, you *should* mind," Kaoru said firmly. "And anyway," she turned
to the two little girls, "now that you're done, it's high time you came
inside and got warm."


"If you'd rather put the rocks back right now instead of after the snow
goes away, that's all right too."

"We're coming!"

"Coming, coming!"

And where was Kenshin? He ought to be back right around now, and the
weather was looking decidedly nasty.

"I don't like the looks of the weather," Kaoru declared. "The three of
you had better stay here until it clears up."

"I believe we are going to have an actual snowstorm," the woman in grey
replied, picking up her umbrella as they went inside and standing it in a
corner. "It shouldn't last too long, though."

"In Tokyo?" Kaoru asked, mind on her husband and the umbrella. Its
handle didn't seem to be made of bamboo -- too smooth. What was it? "Are
you sure?"

"Who is sure of the weather?" the other woman replied. "A warrior's
scars know the coming rain, but seldom may accurately tell the duration."

"I suppose." Kaoru's mind switched gears. "My husband should be back

"Out in all this?"

"I know... but I feel happier when he's around. I know it's selfish of
me, but... "

"You are fortunate in your marriage. I wish I could have said as much."

"Are you married, then?" Kaoru asked, and then was immediately conscious
of her rudeness.

"I was." The woman's face was distant, as if she were looking at
something far away.

"What happened?"

"Shinde imasu."

Dead. Well, that was surely final enough, with no room left for
amendments, or for trying harder, or for the things that had not been

/"Sometimes, it is too late,"/ the woman had said. Too late for her? Or
for her husband? Or for them both?

When Kenshin had left for Kyoto... she had almost let herself believe
that it was too late, had almost lost herself in regret before something
she hadn't even realized was there within her told her to track him down,
chase him, don't let him slip away.

And Kenshin, himself, knew all about too late. Too late, when he'd
buried three girls who had been kind to him and regretted that he had not
been stronger. Too late, for his wife Tomoe, whom Kaoru had not even been
able to be jealous of -- envious, perhaps, and wistful, and slightly
inadequate in comparison, but not that hot stabbing surge of jealousy.
Too late, when he came home and found what he thought to be her own body
slumped against the wall.

He had spoken to her about that time twice. Once, right after, when she
pressed him; and once, shortly after she confirmed her pregnancy, when
she complained that he was swaddling her too tightly for her even to draw

Idiot. If you enclose a tree too tightly, it will wither and die.

She hadn't realized that she'd spoken that last aloud until her visitor

"One cannot live while fearing dying."

"Exactly!" Kaoru agreed. "Well put."

"It's from a song."

"Suzume's crowding me!" Ayame interrupted.

"Am not!"

"Are too!"

"Am not!"

"Are too!"

Kaoru rolled her eyes. So, after a moment of hesitation, did her guest.

"I see two loud little monsters," she said. "If only the two nice little
girls were here, I could make them something to eat. But I don't see them

"We're right here!" Ayame protested.

"Oh no, you can't be Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan. Suzume-chan and
Ayame-chan are quiet, polite little girls. They don't argue with each
other about nothing important."

The two little girls promptly fell silent, put their hands behind their
backs, and assumed attitudes which they doubtless fondly believed to be
of pellucid innocence.

"We are as quiet as little mousies," Suzume loudly proclaimed.

"Ssh!" her older sister scolded her.

"Are you *sure* you're Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan?" Kaoru asked.

The little girls giggled. "Of course we are! Silly Kaoru-nee."

"Silly nee-tan."

"Why, it *is* Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan." Kaoru feigned great
astonishment. "Wherever did you come from?"

The girls giggled harder. "Right here! We were right here all along!"

"You're very good with children," the visitor remarked.

"Would you like something to eat, too?" Kaoru asked, reminded of her

"I have put you to trouble by showing up. Please, let me make the food
by way of recompense."

"Oh, no, you needn't bother."

"Oh, no, I insist."

After a few more rounds of polite nothings, Kaoru led her guest into the
kitchen, to the accompaniment of a whispered "Not!" from Suzume.

"No, no," the guest said. "Use the soy sauce *lightly*, as if you were
stroking your husband's chest with your fingertips."

Kaoru blushed.

"It is something my mother used to say," the other woman explained. "Not
that I did it that much."

"Used soy sauce?"

"No, the other."

Kaoru blushed again. "You mean you and your husband -- "

"We did not talk enough." The other woman was paring a daikon left over
from yesterday. "We never quite knew what to say to each other, and when
we did speak, it was seldom about the important things." She looked
directly at Kaoru. "You don't have that problem, do you?"

"Not usually. But -- "

"Even if we had talked," the visitor continued, "I am, as I mentioned,
not good at showing what I feel. And so the only place where I could
express myself freely was in bed, with the cover of night setting me
free." Her lips twisted slightly. "I needed -- I was fierce -- or almost
hungry, like a starving person presented with a feast -- well, I was not
gentle." She shrugged. "Am I making sense?"

"Yes," Kaoru said, remembering the afternoon of the day that the
shoddily made government-contracted building had come down, and how
Kenshin, after finding her safely outside and away from the mess, had
*run* home with her and practically tackled her the instant he shut the
door, every fierce kiss and desperate motion of his hands a reassurance
that she was here, that she was alive and safe. "Yes, I do."

It had *definitely* been worth the scratches. Come to think of it, it
might have been then that the child beneath her heart was conceived -- in
which case, it had even been worth the embarrassment when Gensai-sensei
noticed them in the course of her regular checkup.

"You look like the fox that got into the sweet fried tofu, oneesama,"
the visitor remarked.

Kaoru blushed for the third time that day, then jerked. "Oneesama?"

"You are, after all, older and wiser than I am," the other woman said.

"I'm not *that* old -- "

"I can give you two years. Surely that is enough?"

" -- and I'm not wise at all."

"No, you are wise. You believe in people."

"And that isn't a stupid thing to do?"

"If you believe that people are worse than they are, often they will
become so. If you believe in the best in people, sometimes they will try
to live up to it. You redeemed a street thief, and gained a
sometimes-foolish little brother. You called your husband back to himself
from the calculation of his emotionless battle-mind, because you were not
assured it was impossible."

"Kenshin has more faith in people than I do. Except in himself."

"Well, that is as it should be. A wife should keep her husband's feet
firmly attached to the ground."

Kaoru laughed.

"And a wife *should* be her husband's shadow and sunlight."

Kaoru laughed harder, before she realized that her guest's eyes were
again seeing something far away.

"Oishii!" Ayame proclaimed. "This is really good!"

"Oichii, oichii!" Suzume agreed.

"It *is* delicious," Kaoru said around a mouthful of the stir-fry, which
she had been told was a common Chinese dish. She wondered if it would
have been better with some tofu. She wondered where Kenshin was. She
wondered when the snow would stop -- it was rattling the house almost as
if it were rain.

"It's much better than Kaoru-nee's," Ayame went on.

Kaoru's teeth gritted.

"Is something wrong, oneesama?" her guest asked.

"I told you to stop calling me that."

"Yes, Kaoru-neesama."

Kaoru decided it wasn't worth it. "It's just that my husband's first
wife was a good cook. Maa, she was good at *all* the womanly arts! I keep
feeling like a little girl playing dress-up."

"Surely your husband married you for who you are? Would he not have
married someone more like his first wife, had he wanted such?"

"I know that in my *head*," Kaoru tried to explain, "and I'm not going
to stop running the dojo or keep a diary or anything, but I want to have
the womanly graces."

"Is it so important to you, then?"

"I don't want to shame Kenshin."

"Does he think it shame?"

"He doesn't -- but others would. And more than that, I don't want to
shame *her*. I don't want to be an unworthy successor. I don't want to
tarnish her memory."

The other woman was staring at her, eyes wide. "Kamiya Kaoru, how could
you -- " she stopped, thought for a moment, and began again. "What makes
you think that anything you do reflects badly on either of them? You are
strong. You are loyal. You are passionate and determined. You are so much
*more*, in so many ways, that it is not fair to you to look only at the
one area where you are outstripped.

"And besides -- cooking and cleaning and sewing are the least of the
things that a wife needs. As I said, she needs to be able to keep her
husband's feet on the ground. She needs to be in his confidence, to lean
on him and to be his strength. She needs to be there for him, to be his
safe harbour.

"I myself could cook, and sew, and plant, and clean, but I was never
very good at all the more important stuff."

"You weren't?" Kaoru asked, shamefaced eyes sliding away from the woman
to, oddly enough, her umbrella in the corner. The splotches weren't white
at all, she realized. It was faint, but there was *color* in them, as if
some painter had adorned the umbrella's -- canvas? What was it?

"No," the woman said firmly, drawing Kaoru's attention back to her. "I
was young and melodramatic -- not that I was particularly good at being
melodramatic, what with being so reserved -- and he was younger, and we
were both foolish."


The two little girls had long since fallen silent, staring at the
conversation as if afraid that it would suddenly erupt, perhaps in their

"You," the woman in grey went on, "are your husband's shadow and
sunlight, as you should be. As all wives should be. But -- I could only
and ever be his shadow. " Her words came more quickly, and her face
showed more expression than it had for the whole visit. "I could mourn
for his sorrows, but I could not rejoice in his gladness. I could support
him in his weariness, but I could not rage for him in his troubles. I
could hold him in his happiness, but I could not excite him from his
boredom. And I could bear his grief, and his pain, and his contentment,
but I could not trust him with my own."

There was a long moment of silence. Even the snow seemed to have

Suzume was the first to break the silence. "Story?"

"Grandpa always tells us a story after dinner," Ayame agreed.

"I -- I can't think of anything," Kaoru said helplessly. Her head was
spinning from the events of the day, and the conversation, and the
*strangeness* of it all, which had only just caught up with her.

"Long and long ago," the guest said firmly, "there were two geisha."

Kaoru sighed in gratitude, leaning back. Her lower back hurt. And how
could she have made such a mistake about the umbrella? The colored
brushstrokes were undoubtedly meant to be flowers, and the background
wasn't that dark after all.

"Their names were Miss Rainfall and Miss Snowfall," the younger woman
went on, "and they were the best of friends, even closer than sisters."

Ayame and Suzume smiled.

"Miss Rainfall was messy, and talked a lot, and lived almost completely
on the outside of her skin, because she had never learned to pull herself
inside. Miss Snowfall was neater, and because she was very practical, she
took care of Miss Rainfall. But even though they were very different,
they loved each other very much, and they asked their god to please have
them reborn as the first and second wives of a very kind, polite, and
brave man, who would love them very much.

"And because Miss Rainfall had done the god a great service, he agreed.
But, since he was a god, he liked jokes and had a strange idea of what
was funny. So, for a joke, they were reborn as the nice man's first and
second wives -- but not at the same time."

"Is this long ago when heroes had several wives?" Ayame asked.

"It was when the geisha asked the god, but they were reborn later, when
men could only have one wife at a time. And just to make the joke
funnier, when they were reborn, they acted the complete opposite way to
the way they had. So Miss Rainfall goofed, very badly.

"And so she went to the god and complained. It was harder, because now
she didn't talk much, and had never learned to let herself outside of her
skin. But she had done the god a great service, and her stupid little
brother had spent some time following the god when he was supposed to be
following the god's opposite number, so the god let her go and make
things right with her husband, before he married Miss Snowfall.

"And then the god let her go and make things right with Miss Snowfall,
because they had been the best of friends, and because she wanted to be
sure that Miss Snowfall was happy. So she visited one last time, before
she had to leave and go away forever."

"Did Miss Snowfall and her husband live happily ever after?" Ayame

"They were quite as happy as Kaoru-neesama and Kenshin."

"They lived happily ever after," the little girl pronounced.

"Medetashi, medetashi!" her little sister echoed.

"And I believe the snow has stopped."

Ayame ran over and opened the shoji. The snow had indeed stopped, and
the wind had scoured half the yard of all but the thinnest coating of
snow, piling the rest up in drifts.

"Our snow family!" Ayame wailed. "Their rocks are showing!"

"Ugly, ugly!" her little sister chimed in.

Indeed, one side of all the pillars had been scoured clean of snow. The
top of the one representing their guest, lacking the snow, had toppled
off and lay next to it.

"Well, you had all the fun of building them," Kaoru comforted them,
laboriously regaining her feet. "And you can tell Kenshin and Yahiko how
splendid they were when they get home. Speaking of which, where *are*
those two idiots?"

Ayame shrugged.

Kaoru's gaze fell on the visitor. "Why are you smiling?"

"I expect your husband is thinking of you," the woman in grey said. She
had a very nice smile, Kaoru realized. It lit up her face, and made her
seem more human.

There was a clatter from behind them. Kaoru turned to find that Suzume
had knocked over the umbrella, which had partly opened.

"Oh, *Suzume-chan*," she said.

"I didn't mean to!" Suzume yelped. "The spots were there before!"

"Those are *paint* marks, silly," Ayame told her little sister, looking
at the umbrella. Beneath the spots of pink and white and purple and green
and yellow, the background was the lovely blue of the sky on a clear day.

"Actually, the design is printed on the fabric," the woman in grey said.
"And those are water lilies."

"Ohhh," Kaoru said softly, picking it up. It was beautiful. There was no
other word for it. How anyone could print a painting on an umbrella was
beyond her, but the result -- it was just blobs of color, but from a
distance they did, indeed, look like water lilies, particularly as the
sun shone on them. The wooden shaft ended in a thicker lacquered handle,
with something inlaid on the bottom of it that she couldn't quite make
out. Maybe if she had better light. She stepped onto the engawa.

"It is a Western-style umbrella," the visitor continued.

"Is that *cloth* it's made of?"

"It's rather heavy, but it does a very good job of keeping out
precipitation. I'm not quite sure what sort of cloth it is; it's a mix of
some sort, and I think there are glass threads in there."

"Surely not *glass* threads. They'd break."

"I don't truly know. It was a gift." The guest rose to her feet,
absently plucking at the front of her kimono. As she leaned forward, her
doubled hair shifted, and Kaoru noticed a matching rent on the back, this
one mended with blue-black thread the color of the shihandai's hair.

Kaoru couldn't quite think how something could have come to go right
through the kimono like that, but it was fortunate that the other woman
hadn't been wearing it at the time.

"The weather has calmed," the younger woman continued, "and I must be on
my way."

"So soon? If you wait a little, Kenshin and Yahiko will be back. I'm
sure they'd be happy to see you."

"It is all right, oneesama. The boy has his own affairs to see to, and
my business with your husband is over and done with.

"Besides, I really must be going. I have stayed too long as it is." She
paused. "Although you have made it a pleasant visit. Thank you."

"Is there someplace you... have to be?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes." The woman came up past Kaoru and stepped
down into the yard. "Genki de ite ne, oneesama."

"But... " Kaoru stared at her as she made her way through the yard, and
then looked down at her own hand, holding it and the object in it up.
"You forgot your umbrella!"

"Keep it!" the woman called, turning and smiling again. "It suits you
better now, anyways."

She was at the gate now -- had they really left it *open* when it was
snowing so hard -- turning again to shut it behind her.

"But you didn't even tell me your name!" Kaoru protested.

"Yes. I know."

And she shut the gate and was gone.

Kaoru simply stared at the gate for a while.

"Wow..." Ayame said from beside her.

"What is it?" Kaoru asked.

"We've never seen a real live ghost before."

"Ghost, ghost!" Suzume proclaimed.

Kaoru blinked. "What makes you think she was a ghost?"

Ayame and Suzume regarded her with the same you're-being-silly look as
they had when she pretended not to recognize them. "She walked through
the snow and didn't leave any footprints."

Kaoru looked at the thin coating of snow between the engawa and the

The thin, *unmarked* coating of snow.

She sat down rather hastily, calling the umbrella into play to keep from
landing with a thud.

Inlaid into the round end of the handle, as she had half-suspected, was
a name-crest.


/"What happened, with your marriage?"/

/"Shinde imasu..."/

/"I think that it is largely curiosity. I wanted to see you, and how you

/"I have no unfinished business with Kamiya Kenshin."/

/"What makes you think that anything you do reflects badly on either of

/"You are your husband's shadow and sunlight, as you should be..."/

And, as Kaoru stared, the inlay seemed to writhe, shifting under the
surface of the lacquer until it had become a different name.


/"It suits you better now, anyways..."/

She was still sitting, staring at the umbrella, when the gate opened a
few minutes later.

"Tadaima de gozaru!"

Kenshin maneuvered his way in, heavy buckets of miso dangling from the
shoulder yoke. Behind him, Yahiko carried a bucket of tofu, pausing to
kick the gate shut behind him.

"I do apologize that we were delayed, but the tempest arose so suddenly
-- "

"And since we were right next to the Akabeko," Yahiko interrupted, "we
hung out in there until the snow stopped."

"Oh?" Kaoru asked the boy who had become a younger brother to her, as he
set the tofu on the engawa. "Why *were* you next to the Akabeko? It isn't
on the way to the market."

Yahiko blushed. Looking about for a diversion, his eye fell on the two
little girls. "Get your stuff together, Ayame-chan, Suzume-chan. I'll
take you home, okay?"


"Okay, okay!"

Kenshin, who had been putting the miso away, came back out in time to
see the three figures in straw capes making their way to the gate like so
many haystacks. He put his arms around Kaoru's shoulders and nuzzled her
hair. "Did aught of import happen while we were gone?"

Oh, your dead wife dropped by to tell me that she hadn't been too good
at the job and considered me a great improvement, and complimented me
into the bargain, Kaoru thought crazily. "Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan made
a snow family," she gestured to the snow-adorned piles of rocks, "and I
got us a new Western-style umbrella." She held it out and opened it. The
sunlight shone through the fabric, giving Kenshin's face an odd dappled

"Waa... that's beautiful," he said, looking up at the umbrella. Kaoru
looked at him, at Yahiko on his way out the door, at the snow people
(even the fallen one), down at her belly, with its curve masked to some
extent by her kimono, and back up at the umbrella.

It was a large umbrella, of a size that could comfortably shelter a
family of four.