There is a certain character making a guest appearance in this chapter. I made a point of finding a place for him since he was asked for quite insistently near the beginning of this story. XD Please enjoy.
Disclaimer: Though the story is mine, the characters I borrowed took flight within it.
Epilogue: In Full Flight
Sapphire irises roved over the painting covering the entire wall in front of her. It was everything she was beginning to expect from Katsu, and yet she could never get over how beautiful he could paint. The colors were vivid, the style elegant, and the detail was exact and yet vague at the same time. Smiling as the man in her peripheral vision fidgeted almost nervously for what was not the first time, she sighed out a happy breath and turned her eyes on him.
He was an almost delicate looking man, with a slim build and the hands of an artist. Jet black hair hung long around his face, barely contained by a tie that had almost slipped off the ends down his back. Black eyes were blinking expectantly, waiting anxiously for her verdict. It was an impossibly cute response that reminded her of the lemur he used to be. It was no wonder Tae had fallen in love with him.
"It's simply wonderful, Katsuhiro. I love it." Turning her eyes slowly back to the painting, her lips bowing into an expression of soft awe, she missed the proud, beaming smile that lit his face. A gentle breeze rustled through the small courtyard behind her, swaying the branches of a single cherry tree situated perfectly at its middle. It was a treasured symbol of their secluded mountain palace, a place many came to offer prayers and ask for blessings. To allow room for it to grow the original shrine that had covered it was now gone, and in its place a covered walkway surrounded its open courtyard on all sides.
"Thank you very much, my lady. I am glad you are pleased." Katsu bowed at the waist, his joy of her praise still apparent. Glad to have a chance to praise any of the palace residents, Kaoru's grin widened and her eyes swept over the painting again.
It was a wide, sweeping painting that began at one end and told a story as it progressed to the other. There was tragedy and despair, revenge and torment, hope and then finally love. Without any prior knowledge to what the artist was referring to, it would simply be a painting full of rich emotion and vibrant beauty. Everyone at the palace would be aware, though, and that was why it was going to reside in a protected setting in the new shrine that surrounded the reborn cherry tree. This place symbolized the end of their old lives, the reign of the curse, and now the beginning of a new era of time. Katsu had wished to give life to that story with a visual representation of what everyone should be grateful for.
"I've been telling him that for weeks, but he simply would not be satisfied until he heard it from you, my lady." An amused voice came from behind Kaoru, vying for her attention. Smiling at Tae's gracefully swaying form as she came around the walk, Kaoru sympathized with her statement in mock resignation.
"I suppose they simply think wives are meant to pay compliments and are not to be taken seriously." Katsu spluttered an indignant denial, and Kaoru and Tae both giggled. Warm brown eyes were glowing with her pregnancy, her soft tan hair pinned haphazardly back away from her slightly round features. The cook was going to have their second child within weeks, and she had already confessed several times that she was more than ready to hold what she was hoping was a little girl.
"Don't say such things, my love. Your opinion matters more to me than anyone else's. I was simply worried the lady would not like the content."
"Come now, Katsuhiro. Why wouldn't I like it? Perhaps I'm a little embarrassed to be so glorified, but I'm honored, too. I would be more worried about Kenshin's reaction."
Dark eyes widened, and he took a step back. "Do you think the master won't like it?"
Giggling again, Tae shaking her head with a sigh, Kaoru waved a hand in the air. "I'm just teasing, Katsu! Kenshin will love it."
"Silly man." Affectionately chiding, Tae pushed loose hairs back over his shoulder. Worried eyes transitioned easily into warmth as Katsu looked at his wife, and she smiled. "Why don't you show her the other painting now? I'm sure she will love it, too."
Perking up, Kaoru raised her brow line expectantly. "Oh? Did you finish the family portrait we sat for already?"
"Yes, my lady. I was hoping to run it by you first before presenting it to the master." Turning, he picked up a large scroll from the floor and then walked to an adjacent edge of the courtyard so that he could unroll it fully from his standing position. Excited, Kaoru watched eagerly.
As the scroll came all the way open she heard laughter outside of the shrine walls and then the light patter of feet. Holding in her grin, she studied the new painting and ignored the new presences coming up behind her. The portrait had been her father's idea, and after the initial suggestion, Kaoru found herself loving the man all the more for making it. Kenshin had really taken to the idea. Such a solid reminder that he was now part of a loving family meant a lot to him. The fact that her father had taken to calling Kenshin "son" as well meant more than she could ever put into words. Kenshin's reaction was always one of pride at the use of such a familiar title.
At the center of the portrait stood Kenshin, looking very much like the master he was, but also very much like the man she loved. Next to him was her father, looking a bit out of place in his new, fancy clothes but happy to be there none-the-less. Kaoru stood between them, looking better than she thought she should in a new kimono Kenshin had commissioned as a wedding present. It had been a late wedding present, since they had wed in a bit of a rush, but Kaoru had no complaints. She had wanted to rush the wedding just as much as he had.
The footsteps behind her were getting closer, their light thumps suggesting they were trying to be sneaky. Fighting her smile, she dropped her eyes to the bottom of the painting and pretended to frown. Waving a finger, she directed her question to Katsu as if unaware there was anyone else to hear her. "It's really good, too, Katsuhiro, but you seem to have made a mistake down here at the bottom." Katsu frowned and looked down the scroll as if searching for a mistake. Tae was hiding her grin behind a hand.
"Where, my lady?"
"Right there and there." Moving her finger to indicate not one but two mistakes, she finally met his gaze and winked, but he merely blinked in confusion. "There are two red-headed little imps standing in front of me that I know are not my children. My boys are perfect little angels that would never think of ambushing their loving mother." Twisting skillfully, she made a grab for the two boys, hooking their small bodies carefully in the crook of her elbows and yanking them close. Shrieks of laughter and shouts of indignity echoed through the air, their struggling forms caring little for the escape they claimed to want. Tickling and laughing with them, Kaoru dropped to her knees and fell back on the walk as their weight overbalanced her. Carefully shielding their heads and letting them fall on top of her, she grinned back at their cheeky smiles.
"Mommy! That's no fair!"
"You always know we're here!"
"Of course I do, Kenji-chan. I'm your mother and I've got eyes in the back of my head." Grinning as they laughed at her claim, she switched her attention from Kenji to her youngest son and brushed the hair out of his eyes. They were only a little over a year apart, but Shinta was a touch small for his age. The handicap did not trouble him, however, and his warm golden eyes were lively and full of mischief. She suspected her oldest son was the reason her baby was now corrupted.
Kissing each on the crown, much to Kenji's faked horror, she released them to sit up. "And just what are you two up to? I hope you haven't been terrorizing Tokio-sensei." Lowering her voice to a whisper, she play mimicked a touch of fear. "You do know her husband is a brutish wolf of a man that might get you in your sleep." Shinta giggled, but Kenji snorted.
"He wouldn't dare. Dad would beat him up."
Lifting an eyebrow, Kaoru held in her laughter. "Well, I'm glad you have such faith in your father," Pursing her lips, she saw an opportunity to catch him off guard and used it. "but that doesn't give you an excuse to taunt anyone."
Kenji's face turned red. "How come you always know everything?"
"That's my secret to keep. Now, please explain why you were telling the youngest Saitou boy that your father could beat up his father?"
Defensive Kenji stood to his feet. "He started it, Mom! He kept going on and on about how strong and cool his dad is and how the city guard is so much better than the palace guard because his dad is running it and how he doesn't need any more training because he's completely mastered fighting and…" Running out of things to say, his face flushed with agitation and the need to make her understand, Kenji pouted out his lip and Kaoru sighed. She understood now why Kenji was upset, and the scowl on Shinta's little features said he agreed.
"Alright, boys, it's time we had a little talk." Standing, she reached out both hands to collect theirs and threw a smile over her shoulder. "The paintings were wonderful, Katsuhiro. I know Kenshin will love them. Tae…" Shifting her attention, she narrowed her eyes. "Don't over do it. Suzume-chan and Ayame-chan can handle the kitchens. If necessary, Kenshin can help."
Both bowed their heads, and Kaoru took pleasure in the slight tinge of horror that curled Tae's brows. After living for so long, though, and becoming used to the roles of master and servant, it was easy to understand why the mere thought would be unnatural. Kaoru, however, found that seeing Kenshin in the kitchen was strangely relieving, though perhaps a bit infuriating since he was so good at it and she couldn't cook to save her life.
The idea had been his, and to say that Kaoru had been shocked was an understatement. After everything had settled down after the curse had broken, Kenshin had expressed his wish to her to make sure his people would be able to acclimate into this new time period. Deciding that leading by example was the best way to handle the transition, Kenshin had taken it upon himself to learn how to do something he never had to do before. Namely, take care of himself. It was a slow process, and it didn't always turn out well or end up changing anything significant, but the message was getting across. For now the master was still the master, but as time passed, the master would eventually be one of them. He would do his own chores, fetch his own things, run his own errands, and even cook his own meals. At the moment it was simply an impossibility since he was still very much handling most of everything, but the example was being set, and not just for his people.
Kaoru glanced down at her sons, smiling as they skipped along next to her. Kenshin was also setting an example for them. The children were going to be the ones that needed this transition the most. Knowing the history of their origins was good, but they could not live in it. They needed to know that in the time they had been born into, there were no such things as masters and servants. Kenji would have no power over the Saitou boys, just like they would have no power over him. Respect was still given where it was due, but it was earned and not a birthright.
A sudden mixture of pleasure and anxiety blossomed in her chest, but Kaoru no longer felt surprised by the occurrence. After six years of marriage the constant presence of the bond was very much a part of her daily life. They could only feel immediate emotions through it, and at a distance the sensation was muted. It was stronger when they were in closer proximity and at times it could be overwhelming when one or the other became beset by intense emotions. It was, however, surprisingly less insistent now than it had been in the beginning. They were not required to always be in the other's presence like they had originally thought, but it did get nervous if they were away from each other for too long. The anxiety she was now feeling was undoubtedly the bond wishing for reassurance. The pleasure, on the other hand, meant Kenshin was happy about something. Kaoru hoped that meant he was progressing well.
"Where are we going, Mommy?"
"I thought we would check on your father, and then we could talk."
As Kaoru and her two sons walked through the palace, she smiled at many of the other residents she passed. She knew everyone of them by name again and no longer felt surreal seeing all of the human faces. There was always a moment, however, just before she greeted them, when a picture of their animal forms would pop into her mind. It was easier, of course, to distinguish everyone now, but she liked remembering how they were before. Sometimes it made it easier to understand their personalities.
"Milady!" Kaoru recognized the voice before she even turned, and her smile widened as she watched Misao's petite form race up to them.
"Good afternoon, Misao-san. What's the hurry?"
Sighing in exasperation, Misao raked a hand through her hair. "It's that boy! I can't find him anywhere. Again! I swear he takes more and more after his father everyday!"
Giggling, Kaoru bit her lip. "Oh, I don't know. I think he takes after his mother."
Misao pouted out her lip angrily but didn't argue. Instead, aquamarine irises dropped to Kenji and Shinta. "Have you two seen my imp of a son? Did he even go to classes today?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Both chorused in unison, and Kaoru smiled at their courtesy. At least they were polite, which she knew they had picked up from their father and not her. Kenji went on to elaborate. "Seiichi-kun was in classes all day with us, Misao-san. Then he went with us back to the Saitou house to see Tatsuo-kun's little sister. Tokio-sensei let me hold her." Large blue eyes left Misao to look up at his mother. "Can I have a little sister, too, Mom?"
Kaoru blinked, surprised by the question. When Shinta began nodding his little head enthusiastically she looked to Misao to share in her disbelief. Misao, though, was grinning that toothy weasel grin of hers. It was the same grin she had worn the morning she had caught Kaoru sneaking out of Kenshin's pavilion after the curse had broken. Not one teasing word had been spoken to her, but no teasing had been needed. Kaoru had turned ten shades of red and then tried to stutter an explanation that Misao did not let her finish. It wasn't exactly hard to figure out what had happened, and when Kenshin had unexpectedly announced their wedding was to be held that day, Misao had said there was no harm done. The only reprimand Kaoru had received from the weasel-girl was how inappropriate it was for her to be sneaking into the master's pavilion. It was the man's duty to come to her pavilion, not the other way around.
Misao's toothy grin stayed in place as she held Kaoru's gaze, but her next statement was directed at Kenji. "Why don't you ask your father instead, Kenji-chan? He's the one you need to convince." To both women's astonishment, Kenji disagreed without hesitation.
"That's not true, Misao-san. I know how this works. Mom has the baby, not Dad."
"You mean I shouldn't have asked Dad?" Shinta's small voice spoke up from Kaoru's other side, his voice crestfallen.
"Of course not. Dad doesn't have anything to do with it." Kenji sneered at his younger brother, to which Shinta frowned.
"But Dad said he'd think about it. If he couldn't do something he'd tell me. Daddy doesn't lie."
"He just didn't want to upset you because you're still a baby. I bet if I asked him he'd tell me the truth."
"I'm not a baby!"
"Yes you are. You can't even wear my old clothes yet."
"Alright, that's enough." Kneeling between them, Kaoru gave them that look that said the fight was over, or else. "Kenji, you shouldn't tease your brother about his size. Your father was always small for his age, too."
"Yeah, I know. You told me." Grudgingly agreeing, Kenji set his little face and looked away.
Sighing at the attitude her son was picking up, Kaoru switched her attention to the younger one. "Shinta, your father wasn't lying to you. Don't you ever think he would. He has just as much right as I do to decide if we have another baby or not."
"But…" Still protesting, Kenji didn't understand how his father could have anything to do with it. "Tokio-sensei carried her baby the whole time. Saitou-san never helped her."
"I'm sure he did, Kenji. Saitou-san loves his wife."
"Tokio-sensei's my teacher, Mom. I saw her every day in class. The baby was there the whole time. I never saw that wolf monster walking around with a large belly."
Misao burst into laughter, and Kaoru bit her lip, one hand covering her mouth as she tried to stale her own delighted giggles. "Alright, Kenji, you got me there. The woman does carry the baby the whole time, but that doesn't mean she has the entire say on when she gets pregnant. The mother and father have to talk it out first."
"Look, Kenji-chan, it's kind of like the meetings your father has every day." Misao spoke up to help, her voice still highly amused. "One person can make a suggestion, but unless both your father and the other agree on it then the suggestion doesn't happen, no matter who made it. Even if your mother wants a baby, she can't have one unless your father agrees. Nor can your father decide to have a baby without your mother agreeing."
"So they just need to have a meeting?"
Misao's weasel grin was back. "Something like that."
"Then why did you say I needed to convince Father?"
Kaoru's features twitched on a frown and her hand absently plucked at the collar of her kimono. The weight of a necklace underneath lifted briefly away from her skin before knocking softly back against her sternum. Smiling sadly, Kaoru patted both of her sons on the head. "Because your father is perfectly happy with the two sons he has." As Kaoru stood she shared an understanding look with Misao, her own small hand plucking at something underneath the bicep of her kimono sleeve. Then again, Misao had more cause to be sad than Kaoru. Megumi had firmly demanded that Misao never try to have another child. Her small frame just couldn't handle the strain.
"Anyway, Kenji-chan, you were telling Misao-san about her son. When did you last see Seiichi-chan?"
"Shinta and I headed back here after playing with the baby, but Seiichi-kun wanted to go with Tatsuo-kun to visit Eiji-san at the city barracks. I wanted to see Eiji-san too, but I didn't want to go with Tatsuo-kun. He just kept bragging about his family and his dad."
Misao sighed. "Well at least I know he's somewhere he can't get into trouble. Saitou knows how to keep those boys in line." Smiling, Misao switched topics. "It's great that Eiji-chan is in the city guard now. I bet Saitou and Tokio are proud."
"Oh they are." Laughing, Kaoru nodded. "Saitou's way of bragging is different, of course, but it was still there. I thought Kenshin was going to break a tooth; his jaw was grinding so hard. Those two really love getting on each other's nerves."
"They're just competitive. Wait until Kenji-chan and Shinta-chan get older. Lord Kenshin will get so puffed up nobody will be able to stand him. He's already too proud."
"I don't think there is such a thing as being too proud of your children, Misao-san." Grinning down at her boys as they listened to the conversation, warmth blossomed in her heart when they grinned back.
"I know. Anyway, Milady, are you ready for the wedding next week? I mean, did you get the present made for Tsubame-chan?"
"Yes I did." Glancing down at the boys and warning Misao of their ears, Kaoru continued smoothly. "I gave it to her last month, so everything should be fine. I'm glad they both agreed. I really didn't want them getting married until after Yahiko was an instructor under my father, but they've already waited such a long time. It felt unfair to make them wait until now when everyone else was married within months after the curse was broken."
"It was a good thing, Milady, so do not feel bad. The Lord had as much of a hand in it as you did. Besides, they were both aware they needed to allow their bodies to mature before they could get married. Neither of them minded waiting."
"I know. It's just…"
Misao's teasing grin pulled her lips back. "Just because you couldn't wait, Milady, doesn't mean the rest of us don't have any control."
"Misao, really! Will you ever let that go?"
"I told you there were other circumstances."
"Couldn't wait for what?" This time it was Shinta who questioned, and Kaoru glared at Misao.
"To marry your father, Shinta-chan. Your mommy loves your daddy so much, she just couldn't wait."
"What's wrong with that?" Confused, Shinta blinked his warm golden eyes up at them.
Misao smiled at Kaoru and shook her head. "Absolutely nothing, Shinta-chan." Taking a step back, Misao waved a hand. "I'll see you three later. I need to go track down my little hellion before he gets himself into any trouble." Sighing, she shook her head and mumbled as she walked off. "That boy's going to be in for it once Aoshi-sama gets back from patrol."
As Misao walked away Kaoru turned her boys back towards the opposite direction. "Alright you two, let's go see your father." The nervous anxiety in her chest was slowly tightening, and the pleasure she could feel from Kenshin was dulling in response. He was getting anxious too, but he couldn't leave to find her. Not with that brute of a man he was with in charge of his time.
"Mommy, what did you get for Tsubame-san?"
"A cute little anklet to wear made out of those special stones from the mine."
"Just like your necklace?"
"Yes, baby. Just like my necklace."
Smiling absently, Kaoru's mind went back to the sad look on Misao's face as she had played with the arm bracelet Kaoru had made for her. Most of the women living at the palace and in the city now wore some form of Kaoru's special jewelry. For many of them it was simply convenient to have, but for a few like Misao, it was necessary.
Kaoru herself belonged to a third party who wore it for convenience and peace of mind. It wasn't necessary for her health to keep it on for the rest of her life, but Kenshin seemed to think so. Since Kenji's birth had been a little too difficult, Kenshin had become determined to never allow her to risk herself again. It didn't matter, though, how careful they were afterwards, because it was only a little over a year later that Shinta had come into their life. Shinta's birth had been considerably easier; there were no complications and the labor had barely lasted three hours. This was no excuse in Kenshin's mind, though. He had been a nervous wreck the entire pregnancy, and the fight that had ensued after she had informed him they had conceived another child was epic. A fight that had ended with his firm announcement that after Shinta they would have no more children and that was final.
It wasn't that Kaoru particularly wanted a lot of children, or that she was unhappy with the two she had. What upset her was the way Kenshin took the decision completely away from her. No matter what she said, no matter how she argued, he would hear none of it. It was the only subject that was ever brought up between the two of them that they could not talk through, and it hurt that he would act as if what she thought had no bearing. So after several days of his foreign attitude and her tears, Kaoru had finally decided to find a compromise.
After the curse had broken and she began to feel her own magic freely, Kaoru had begun the arduous process of learning how to control it. After a few months, Koshijirou had suggested visiting Shinsaki. That was where her family had originated from, and there were more than likely a few members still left that knew how to use magic. After the three boys confirmed the notion, Kenshin and Kaoru had gone to visit. Upon arriving they were warmly welcomed, everyone in awe over the palace lord, and then quickly introduced to everyone. By the time they were ready to leave, since they couldn't stay too long with a palace still to run, quite a few of the residents had decided to go with them and visit the legendary palace.
For many, the visit turned into a stay, and then the stay turned into taking up permanent residence. With their presence came stories and knowledge of her heritage as well as books. More books than she thought she could ever read. Slowly over time she began to learn control over her power, enough so that she could start teaching those who could not. Now, with many of the older students training under her father, and the younger ones training under her, Kaoru had enough magic users to actually start a school. It was a requirement, for those who were able, to train their body as well as their mind. So, many of the students learned Kamiya Kasshin-ryu during the morning, and magic during the afternoon. It was a good system that many of the students enjoyed.
After their fight, however, Kaoru had turned her attention towards a very specific field of study: reproduction. It had been mentioned before, since the population had jumped considerably nine months after the curse had broken, but with her magic still new to her Kaoru had not thought herself able to help at that time. With her own desperation to remove the shadows from her husband's eyes, however, her motivation became personal. Working with Megumi and her knowledge of the human body, Kaoru had soon produced a safe and gentle form of birth control to disperse to the women.
With the special stones brought from the mines, which were only special because they so easily soaked in and retained magic, Kaoru developed her first useful product of magic. It was easiest to shape them into jewelry so the women could wear them at all times, and Kaoru commissioned different types to be made so they could have a choice of style. This kept the jeweler busy for many months, but since it freely advertised his skills he had no qualms with the work. Kaoru's own necklace was the prototype, and to Kenshin's relief she had cast the magic perfectly on her first attempt.
Now, a few years later, Kaoru held no grudge against him for simply worrying himself into a state of near insanity, because she knew he only acted as he did because he loved her. Over the last few years she had even begun to feel less sorrow over her absence of an option for more children. Her two boys were a blessing, and her husband a true miracle. It was only on that one subject that he became uncompromising, and she would not ruin their life together by withholding forgiveness for his one touchy issue. In every other way he was a wonderful husband, father, and lover and she loved him enough to hold onto her original wish for his happiness.
This new situation, however, was going to be tricky. The boys were probably only interested in having a baby sister because their friend had one, and so the want would soon pass. During that time, though, she would follow Kenshin's lead. She knew he wouldn't agree to another child, and so she wouldn't even bring it up. They were past those horrible nights of misery and wretchedness; of watching him fight his own tears because she couldn't stop. The bond they shared was cruel in that way, even as it was wonderful. This time, whatever he told their sons she would simply agree to.
"Is Dad still in the training hall, Mom?"
"He should be, sweetheart. That's where we're going."
Kenji pouted. "I don't want to."
"Oh? Is there a reason why not?" Sensing the heart of the problem from earlier, Kaoru encouraged him to explain.
"Because it's shameful."
"Shameful?" Kaoru's eyebrows shot up and she looked down at her eldest son. "What's shameful about your father training, Kenji?"
"Because… because he shouldn't have to. Saitou-san doesn't have to and neither does Soujirou-san. Even Yahiko-san has almost completely mastered the Kamiya Kasshin-ryu under Grandfather and he's way younger than Dad. Why does Dad still have to be trained?"
Kaoru sighed, and her hand let go of his to curve around the back of his skull instead. "Because your father is trying to better himself. It's not because he is weak, but because he senses he can be stronger than he already is. He needs this, Kenji. Perhaps one day you will understand."
Still pouting, Kenji lowered his chin and jutted out his jaw. "I don't like that man training him."
"Hiko-sama? What's wrong with him?"
"He treats Father like a child."
Kaoru laughed. "Yes, but that's just his way. I think he actually really likes your father."
"I like Hiko-sama, Mommy. He tells funny stories." Shinta piped up, wanting to enter the conversation and Kaoru turned her smile on him.
"Me, too. I think he's alright. He's just a bit gruff, that's all."
"He shouldn't be so disrespectful towards Dad, though. Dad is letting him stay here, after all."
"And Hiko-sama is earning that stay. Really, Kenji, what has gotten into you?"
"Dad's stronger than he is! I saw him beat that old man several times! So why does he need to train with him when he's weaker?"
"Because Hiko-sama is the only other person we are aware of that knows the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu. We're lucky Soujirou-kun ran across him on his travels and was able to recognize the style he practiced." And even luckier he was able to convince him to come to the palace. "Your father may be stronger than Hiko-sama in some ways, but in others he is weaker. This training is helping him discover those weaknesses."
As she spoke they stopped next to the open shoji of the training hall, the harsh clash of swords echoing from within. Slowly their eyes adjusted to the shade of inside, and Kaoru's smile turned to one of pride. What she could not explain to her children was that Kenshin needed this to help him come to terms with the rest of his past. The style his father had taught to him was not Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu in its purest form, but a tainted version that withheld its true strength from the wielder. Apparently whoever had taught the style to Himura Izo had felt shame for his student and left before teaching him everything. This teacher had gone on to pass the true style to another student worthy of its power. This student was Hiko's predecessor several times removed.
When Hiko had first arrived at the palace and been introduced to Kenshin his reaction had been less than welcoming or believing. Nobody else alive should even know of the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu, especially such a young boy. He had agreed, however, to test him and see for himself. The first moment Kenshin had drawn his sword, however, was the first moment Kaoru could tell Hiko's opinion had changed. The sword Kenshin had bared against him was not a normal sword. Kenshin's sword had a reversed-blade that allowed him to protect without taking life.
Ever since the fight Kaoru had missed between Kenshin and Enishi and the aftermath of compassion and shared grief, Kenshin had changed. This change was different than the way Kaoru had helped him change. Kaoru had encouraged him to live by a different code, but Enishi had forced him to make a decision. In the face of despair and rage he had made his choice and made it not for revenge, but for forgiveness and life. Kenshin wanted to protect everyone in everyway he was able to. To do that he needed a weapon he could fight with that allowed him to use his fighting style without the repercussion of death. As soon as everything was up and running smoothly again, Kenshin had made a request to his blacksmith. A request he now trained with everyday.
Briefly Kaoru's thoughts lingered on Enishi and sorrow penetrated her heart. She had not seen him since the day of the invasion upon the palace, and according to everyone he had left thinking himself her murderer. Kenshin had shared, though reluctantly, Enishi's last words with her, and Kaoru too felt compassion for a man she had thought incapable of love or kindness. Her only consolation since that day had come from Yutarou.
Yutarou, like Soujirou, had decided to travel around the country and see how the terrain and life had changed. A few others had also opted to do this, and every half-year they would return to share their findings with the others. It was another way for their secluded palace to begin blending in with the time. In fact, these outings had influenced much of the clothing and hairstyles most of them had converted to. It was on one of those trips that Soujirou had come across Hiko. It was also on one of those trips that Yutarou had found Enishi.
The last time Yutarou had come back home he had informed them of his find. Enishi was living in a small village, far up north where the winter was harsher. He didn't approach him, but observed him instead; mostly out of curiosity Yutarou had admitted. Kaoru could tell as Yutarou had spoken that there was still a trace of bitterness in his tone for the man that had caused the deaths of many of his comrades. It did not overshadow his compassion, however, and Kaoru was grateful when he had finished his story with a slight touch of relief. This relief was not for the pitiful way the man was now living, nor the sad way Enishi conducted his business with an air of carelessness about his own safety or health. Rather, this relief was for the woman Yutarou had discovered was looking out for Enishi; a nice woman with a large heart and a patient demeanor.
Smiling, Kaoru squeezed the small hands curled around her own. Perhaps one day she would send a message to Enishi, inviting him to visit, or simply telling him that she was fine. She hoped he eventually found peace and, with a bit of luck, love as well. Right now he was just like Kenshin had been when she had first arrived at the palace; wounded, leery, and disgusted with himself. Kaoru really hoped Enishi found a better place to be in his soul, just like Kenshin had.
For a moment the two training in the hall broke apart, the sound stilling, and Kaoru blinked as Kenshin shot a glance in their direction. There was a furrow of worry on his brow, and she realized he could feel the sorrow she felt towards Enishi. Smiling and forcing herself to think of happier times, she lifted a hand to acknowledge him as Shinta waved his arm enthusiastically to get his attention. Hesitantly he smiled back, amused with his son, but he was left no room for contemplation as Hiko attacked him again.
Hiko was a large brute of a man, with stern features, wide shoulders, and a booming voice. Long black hair was tied at the back of his neck, his dark eyes were calculating while he trained, but it was his strength that was frightening. Next to him Kenshin looked smaller than ever; as if he were a child training with an adult. Of course, what Kenji had said was true. No matter how strong Hiko looked or how puny Kenshin seemed in comparison, Kenshin could overpower Hiko. It was a strange balance of force when they were in the training hall together.
"That will be enough for today!"
Hiko called a stop to the training, and Kenshin halted to sheath his katana. Bowing his head to show his respect, the action was proven meaningless when Hiko simply turned and walked out. Trying to hide her amusement, Kaoru bowed her head as Hiko passed them as well. Instead of lowering her eyes, however, she glanced up at the large man and spoke.
"Is he meeting your expectations, Hiko-sama?"
Grunting, Hiko paused to consider her and the two children. "He's decent enough, but the boy still has a long way to go. He's too easily distracted by his pretty wife."
Kaoru giggled. "I'll take that as a compliment. But perhaps I should take a day to sit and watch and help break him of his distraction?"
"Don't be silly, woman. Wives are supposed to be distracting." Dark eyes dropped to the boys without preamble and he grunted again. "Are you boys behaving yourselves?"
"Yes, sir!" Shinta's reply was enthusiastic, anticipating a reward. Kenji's response was surlier. "Yes, sir."
"That's a lie. Boys never behave themselves."
"Now, Hiko-sama, don't be harsh." Chiding, Kaoru fought a smile.
"Be gone you tyrant." Kenshin was closer to them now, his voice only mostly annoyed as he wiped sweat from his neck with a towel. "Leave the discipline of my sons to me."
"Fine. I could use a drink anyway."
"Don't harass Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan too much, Hiko-sama! The cooking alcohol is for cooking only! Tae-san will be angry if she finds out you've raided the kitchen again!" Calling after him as he walked away, Kaoru giggled when he grunted a third time but hunched his shoulders as if caught.
"The drunk is worse than Sano used to be." Dropping the towel to the floor, Kenshin grinned as his sons attacked him. "Careful, your old man's tired!" Bracing a hand against Shinta's back as he jumped and latched himself to his father's leg, Kenshin quickly caught Kenji's arm next as he tried to climb his back and attach himself to his neck. "You boys are getting heavy. You'll be too big for this pretty soon." There was amusement in his voice and his features were smiling, but there was also sadness in the bond and it tugged at Kaoru's heart. And he was so afraid of being a bad father.
"All the more reason to get it out of their systems now." Kenji grinned at his mother over Kenshin's shoulder, and she smiled back as she leaned forward to kiss her husband's cheek. "Did something good happen, anata? You were happy earlier."
"Perhaps." His grin said otherwise and she waited for him to elaborate. "I got the chance to knock Hiko-sama on his backside. It was very… gratifying."
Laughing, Kaoru helped Kenji down when he squirmed. "I see."
"What about you, koishii?" With one hand still bracing Shinta, Kenshin touched Kaoru's chin with the other, his brow furrowing again. "Something upset you. Are you alright?"
"Of course I am. I wasn't really upset, just wistful." Looking to change the subject, Kaoru smiled and brought up something else. "Katsu finished with the portrait. I can't wait for you to see it. It's really good."
Kenshin perked up, his hands gently disentangling Shinta from his thigh. "Is that right? I can't wait to see it myself."
"Mommy said we looked like red-headed imps." Shinta's innocent observation caused Kenshin to feign shock.
"We're red-headed? When did this happen?" Ruffling Shinta's hair as if searching for something suspicious, Kenshin transitioned smoothly into tickling. Squirming and squealing, Shinta tried to fend him off but failed utterly since he couldn't breathe. Seeing his brother was in danger, Kenji jumped on Kenshin's back again but was quickly scooped off by his mother. Plopping him down on the floor next to Shinta, she began her own tickle assault on him and soon both boys were squealing.
Letting up before it turned into torture, Kaoru sat back on her heels and stared at her beautiful family. Kenji and Shinta were both still giggling and trying to catch their breath, their mouth's split into wide grins of delight. Kenshin was ruffling Shinta's hair again, his chest heaving with laughter and his own grin the genetic origin of their sons. Imps. The whole lot of them. Happy, content, and full of love, she felt the bond shiver with her emotions and Kenshin turned his smile on her in response.
"Come here, koishii." Sitting back, he held out his arms and encouraged her to scoot closer until she was leaning against his chest. "You seem happy now." Dropping his voice to a teasing whisper, he sighed in contentment when she nodded. "Good. I'm glad you can be happy surrounded by red-headed imps."
"I wouldn't be happy if I wasn't."
"That's nice to hear."
Seeing that their parents were distracted, Kenji and Shinta quietly scooted back to put some distance between them. Whispering their own secretive conversation, they stood only when they were a safe distance away for Kenji to holler. "Hey Dad! We want a baby sister! So have a meeting with Mom!" Twisting to run after Shinta who was already to the open shoji, Kenji waved his arm over his head and yelled. "We're going over to play at Sano-san's!"
Blinking and digesting what his son had just said to him, Kenshin's eyebrows shot up. "Have a meeting? What's that supposed to mean?"
The happiness and joy in his chest disappeared abruptly and his violet eyes dropped sharply to Kaoru. She was pushing herself away from him and the bond was nervous between them, her anxiety trembling against his heart. "It's a long story, but Misao and I were trying to get him to understand that mothers don't have sole decision making over when they have a baby. He seemed pretty sure that fathers have nothing to do with that part. So Misao told him it's like having a meeting and coming to a consensus. I guess it made sense to him." She shrugged her shoulders but didn't look at him. No longer leaning into him, she sat between his knees instead, her fingers playing with her kimono.
"They only want a sister because Tatsuo-chan has one now. It won't take them long to get over it." Talking quickly to make him understand, a part of her feared he might think she had planted the idea in their minds. Kaoru would never do that to him. Tentatively lifting sapphire irises, she looked up at him through her bangs to see his reaction. "I promise I won't argue this time."
Cupping her face in his hands he leaned his forehead into hers, their eyes closing. At times like these the bond made their interactions difficult, simply because he couldn't figure out what he was feeling and what she was feeling. There was hardly any distinction between the two, and at times he would find himself reacting to her emotions as if they were his own. It made for strange fights sometimes, because they would start out on different sides and end up switching halfway through so that whatever he had started out arguing for he ended up arguing against. It was the same with her, and depending on the severity of the argument, they would almost always end up laughing and forgetting it completely. There were a few situations, however, that could not be handled like that.
This was one of those situations and he had learned that as long as he kept them both calm they could usually work it out without fear of losing their own feelings. Taking a deep breath, he feathered his fingers out to span her neck and cheeks. "I am well aware of where their curiosity has come from, Kaoru." Her eyes blinked open and he held her gaze. "Shinta came to me a week ago asking for a baby sister like Tatsuo-chan's. I didn't know what to say to him because it's not a subject I have wanted to think about." He paused. "I hurt you with this subject." Violet eyes squeezed shut and he sat back, her fingers circling his wrist to keep the contact they shared. "I know it was unfair of me and I know I was being irrational but Kaoru… all I could think about was what happened to my mother."
"What?" Shocked, Kaoru sat up straighter, her fingers tightening around his wrists. This had never come up in their fights before.
"My mother had at least five miscarriages. It damaged her beyond repair, until the last one finally killed her." Pain was beating against her heart like a hammer, the vise grip of the bond so tight it was hard to breathe. When violet eyes opened again, that pain was reflected in them. "My father did that to her. She died because of what my father did to her."
How could she have forgotten something like that? Misao had told her, a long time ago, just what had happened to Kinuko, but Kaoru had somehow filed it away differently. Kaoru's own mother had died of sickness, and Kinuko had died because her body was weak. The only part of the situation that had truly registered was that both Kenshin and she had lost their mothers to some form of wasting away. Kenshin saw the entire situation differently, because he had been there and it was his mother. Kinuko did not just get sick and die, leaving him behind. Kinuko's body was repeatedly abused by pregnancies she did not have the strength to carry full term. In Kenshin's mind his father was the direct result of his mother's death. This meant…
"I just don't want to be responsible for doing the same thing to you."
"Oh, Kenshin." Wrapping her arms tightly around his neck, she squeezed herself against him, the remaining trace of sorrow from their fights disappearing. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
"I didn't think it would make a difference. You were so angry with me, and I knew you had every right to be. I just wanted to protect you, but I was only hurting you instead."
"Of course it makes a difference, because it allows me to understand your reasoning better."
"But Kaoru… I know you're not my mother. You're so much stronger than she was."
"Yes that's right and Kenshin…" Sitting back it was her turn to cup his face in her hands. "You're not your father, either. You're so much stronger than him."
Sighing, Kenshin dropped his forehead against hers and the bond was suddenly nervous again, only this time it was from him. "That's why I've been thinking… it was wrong of me to take the decision completely away from you. If you want to… we may… discuss the matter further."
Kaoru blinked, suddenly suspicious as certain details came together in her mind, and her lips pursed. "You're not just saying this now because Shinta asked you for a baby sister, are you?"
Brows furrowing heavily, Kenshin pulled back. "What do you mean?"
"Don't play dumb. You only started giving this some real thought after Shinta asked you about a week ago, right?" When he opened his mouth to deny her claim, she rolled her eyes. "Oh come on Kenshin, did you think I wouldn't notice? You've been playing with my necklace after our lovemaking all week."
"Just what are you trying to say, that I spoil Shinta too much?"
"Perhaps." Grinning, she pinched his nose and he huffed in disbelief.
"This coming from the mother that spoils Kenji when she thinks I won't notice."
Feigning shock, Kaoru's eyes widened. "I would never!"
Kenshin laughed, the seriousness in his eyes lightened by amusement. "Alright, koishii, perhaps Shinta's inquiry did encourage me to give it some thought, but that's all. These conclusions have been bothering me for awhile, and this new situation simply gave me an excuse to bring it back up without hurting you unnecessarily."
"You don't have to worry about talking to me Kenshin. I'm glad you told me, and … thank you. Thank you so much." Planting a gentle kiss on his lips, she felt the bond tremble as it released their anxiety and fear. When she pulled back his eyes had darkened, and she dropped her hands to his chest as he shifted his weight. Lifting himself off his haunches, he tilted her head back and initiated a second kiss. This kiss was deeper, warming the bond with heated emotions. Gratefully rising with him on the updraft, her hands slid over his chest, dragging over the collar of his training clothes and skimming skin. Gasping into her mouth as a shiver raced outward from the origin of her touch he pulled her closer and she inwardly grinned. After transforming back into a human the absence of his scales had left him super sensitive.
From the door someone cleared their throat and Kaoru jerked back in horror. "Am I interrupting something?" Face flaming in embarrassment, she darted a look at their unwanted audience and shook her head desperately. Sano laughed at her reaction and stepped into the training hall. Tall and lanky, he was a handsome man with warm brown eyes and hair that stood up at odd angles. He had an amiable air about him as a human, and Kaoru liked that.
Irritation and frustration jerked at the bond, distracting her from her thoughts, and Kaoru shot her eyes back to Kenshin. Growling, eyes narrowed, Kenshin stood, his hands lifting her up with him. "As a matter of fact, Sanosuke, you are interrupting." Yelping as he swept her up off the floor, she held on desperately as he stomped past the taller man. "Whatever it is you wanted will either have to wait or be taken care of by someone else. Right now my wife is in need of my attention."
Failing to hide his snort of laughter, Sano mock saluted. "Yes, sir. When will be the earliest available time to approach you later?"
"Hmm…" Pausing in the doorway, mischievous violet eyes darted a questioning look at Kaoru. "Tomorrow?" Both of her eyebrows shot up in disbelief and he grinned before throwing his decision absently over a shoulder. "Better make that the day after tomorrow. My wife thinks I've been working too much lately."
"What? No I don't…"
Ignoring her, Kenshin started walking again. "Oh, and Sanosuke, my children have gone over to your place to play. Will you make sure they behave?"
As Kenshin disappeared Sano started to yell. "Hey! I thought I told you to keep those heathens away from my girls!"
Even as Kenshin continued down the veranda, Kaoru huffed in indignation. "He better not be calling my boys heathens. It's those girls he better keep away from my sons!" Yelling her return demand over Kenshin's shoulder, she glared at Kenshin when he laughed. "And just what do you think you're doing anyway? You can't just take a day off without preparation. The palace still needs your direction on certain things."
"I thought you would be happy, koishii. Shouldn't a husband want to spontaneously spend time with his wife?"
Cheeks darkening, Kaoru pouted. "Well of course I'm happy, but that's not the point."
Sighing, Kenshin stopped to let her down. "Fine. I have been planning to take tomorrow off, Kaoru." Taking her hand, he led her the rest of the way to her pavilion. "I rarely get to spend an entire day with you or the boys. I thought we could spend a day down at the beach."
"Really?" Pleasantly surprised, Kaoru followed him through the tsumado into her rooms.
Chuckling, Kenshin closed the door behind them. "Yes really." Placing a hand at the small of her back, he encouraged her through the shoji and up into the inner room of her pavilion. "Tonight, however, I want to spend with my wife. So hurry and change into your training clothes. We are going down to the beach now."
"What? But what about the boys? And I need to pack, and I haven't had time to tell my students…"
"Relax, koishii, everything's been taken care of. The boys are staying with Sanosuke, and Misao-san has already packed for you. She's taking care of the rest now."
Shoulders relaxing as he took her immediate worries away, she grinned, allowing herself to be pleased with his surprise. "Ok, I'll be quick."
Kenshin stood by the doorway as she began gathering her clothes to change into. His red hair stood out next to the screen paintings surrounding him, the softer tints of color on the rice paper gentle. The Lady's pavilion was no longer the way it had been for a thousand years, and although Kaoru had been reluctant to change it, Kenshin had insisted. Kaoru was the new lady, it was no longer his mother's rooms, and so Kenshin had Katsu change the theme within. After a few discussions the inside was now painted with scenes of mountains, cheery trees, and clouds. It calmed Kaoru, and she liked to think the clouds helped her dream about those moments Kenshin had taken her flying. Since Kenshin slept in there, too, he had admitted to more than one dream of flying with her as well.
No longer embarrassed or modest in front of her husband, Kaoru began stripping herself of her kimono. With her underclothes in place he would be seeing less than he was used to anyway. Her back was to him when she shook out her training gi and slipped it over her arms, so he missed her grin when his hand touched lightly on one side of her neck. Unconsciously leaning into the touch, her brow furrowed when she felt the polished stone of her necklace slide up along her sternum.
Questioning sapphire eyes looked over her shoulder at him, wondering at his intentions. His expression was fighting between determination and anxiety, telling her what he wanted and what he feared. Kenshin was trying to make amends for his actions and yet he was not completely convinced it was something he could deal with. Kaoru understood that it was going to take some time, but it seemed Kenshin was unable to deal with his lingering indecision. Placing her hand gently over the necklace she smiled at him reassuringly.
"Kenshin, I don't need you to do anything else just because you feel guilty. Just knowing you are willing to talk about it is enough for me right now. I know you're not comfortable with the idea yet, so I want to take it slow. Okay?" Shakily he sighed, his fingers slipping from the chain to her bare shoulder before he nodded. "Even if we decide not to have anymore children, or if we decide to have five more I'll be happy Kenshin, because we'll be deciding together."
Gently his arms wrapped around her, pinning her half-covered arms to her sides and cuddling her into his chest. When he spoke his voice was soft in his confession. "I do want a little girl." He paused, his nose nuzzling into her neck. "I want her to be just as beautiful and loving and strong as her mother, and though I love my red-headed boys, it would be great if we had a child that looked like you instead."
Smiling happily, Kaoru turned to face him. "With violet eyes."
"If we do have a daughter, I think it would be nice if she had dark hair and violet eyes. Kenji has my eyes, and Shinta's are like your brother's. If we have another child, I want that child to have your eyes." As she smiled up at him she watched his expression catch between amusement and happiness with her statements and wariness and anxiety that they were discussing it at all. Shrugging her training gi on the rest of the way, she backed out of his embrace to finish dressing. "We can talk about that later though. Right now we need to hurry or we won't get down the mountain before sundown, and I'm really excited about having my husband all to myself tonight." Jumping into her hakama, she grinned at him expectantly as his mood relaxed. "Are you going to cook for me when we get there?"
Laughing, he took the tie out of her hands and finished knotting it himself. "Yes, my spoiled little wife, I'm going to cook for you. In return, though, you have to help me bathe and tuck me in."
A burst of loud laughter shot from her mouth and she pinched his cheek, much to his chagrin. "Idiot. I knew you were jealous of the boys. Would you like me to dress you as well?"
"I was thinking more of undressing…" His grin turned just slightly wicked.
Planting her hands on her hips as her body reacted suddenly to the bond, she pouted. "Don't do that. We need to get going."
Giving her an innocent look, he grabbed her hand and led her back out the door again. "What do you mean koishii? I just want you to be prepared. And just who do you think has organized this outing, anyway?"
"Yes, yes, but you are so easily distracted by your pretty little wife."
"Hiko-sama." Giggling when he rolled his eyes, Kaoru followed him out to the main courtyard in front of the master's pavilion. There waited three horses, two of them without a rider while the third held their reins. Glad that Kenshin had been giving her lessons, she swung up into the saddle of one without hesitation. When Kenshin was settled he nodded at the third rider and they began an easy walk out of the courtyard. To Kaoru's surprise, however, they did not turn down the mountain but back up it.
Frowning, she realized that they were also minus any packs. Throwing a glance at Kenshin, her frown deepened when he merely smiled. "Where are we going? And I thought you said Misao-san packed for me."
"She did. I sent our baggage out earlier, ours and the boys' that way they can join us early in the morning."
"And what, koishii?" Acting maddeningly nonchalant, Kenshin looked away to hide his amusement.
"Where are we going?"
"That, Kaoru, is a surprise."
"I'll be surprised, alright, if we make it to the beach before nightfall." Muttering under her breath, Kaoru focused back on the trail ahead of her, causing Kenshin to smother a chuckle.
It was coming evening when they finally topped the rise Kenshin wanted and Kaoru was firmly confused and just a bit irritated. She had been promised the beach, her husband, and seclusion and so far she wasn't seeing how she would get all three at once. Fighting off disappointment, she pouted. It wasn't fair or nice of Kenshin to say such things and then not deliver. Even if they had just resolved a long standing issue, she was not going to let him get away with this. Such a tease called for severe punishment.
Turning a grin of expectance and boyish excitement on Kaoru, Kenshin's smile widened when she returned the look with a glare. Reining in his horse and swinging down from the saddle, he quickly helped Kaoru down and then pulled her toward the bend in the ridgeline. They were high up the mountain now, and below were the palace city, the forest, and the ocean. It was a beautiful sight with the sun still a couple hours from the horizon, and Kaoru would have enjoyed it otherwise, but she really wanted to be at the bottom at that moment, not the top. When they rounded the corner of the cliff face, however, her mind forgot her petulance and she blinked in confusion instead.
Lined along the ridge were several people, one of which was Katsu, and she couldn't figure out why he would be there. He was chatting animatedly with a few others who were holding the strangest contraption she had ever seen. It was constructed of small poles and an odd fabric. The fabric was stretched between several of the smaller poles, and as she stared at its shape she vaguely realized that it looked like spread wings. Blinking her eyes dropped to study the poles attached to the large span of fabric above it. Here the poles came together from four different areas of the shaped fabric; two from either tip of the wings, two outwards from the front tip of the spine, and two from the back of the spine. Between the four poles coming from the spine were more poles to help it keep its shape and keep it braced together. Blinking in amazement, she looked at Kenshin and her heart jumped when he grinned.
"I've had Katsuhiro working on this for some time now. It's been thoroughly tested and it's safe, or as safe as it can be. I know how much you enjoyed flying…"
"It works?" Breathless, Kaoru shot her eyes back to the strange contraption. "It flies?"
"Well… it glides. It's not really flying, but it's similar. At least we can enjoy it together." Pulling her closer, he showed her the framework. "This one is sturdy enough for two people. It can take us all the way down the mountain."
"We're going now?" Excited, Kaoru actually bounced, and he couldn't help but laugh.
"Yes, Kaoru. I told you we were going to the beach, and that is where we will go. I thought we might start it out right and take our first flight together in six years."
"Well what are we waiting for? How does this thing work?"
Katsu outlined the basics for her, but Kenshin would be the one truly in control of the glider. After explaining what she needed to do to keep from interfering with Kenshin, they were soon ready with the front grip in hand and their feet poised to run the few steps to the ledge. Grinning like a fool, Kaoru took in the scenery below her, above her, the glider, and finally Kenshin over her shoulder when he planted a soft kiss in her hair.
"You were right, Kenshin."
"Hmm? About what?"
"It's been just like flying. All the excitement and energy, laughter and love, turns and flips and beauty, even fear… our life together has been just like flying. Just like you told me. I'm so glad I was able to follow your voice and come back."
"So you could hear me." Releasing one hand to hug her tight into his chest, he closed his eyes and took one deep breath. "I'm glad, Kaoru, that the promise I made to you has been true. I'm only sorry I can't really take you flying anymore."
"Are you kidding, Kenshin? This is going to be great!"
Releasing her with a laugh, Kenshin gripped the pole next to her hand again. "I'm glad you seem to like my surprise."
"I love it! This is the best surprise yet! Now hurry up! I want to go!"
"Very well, my eager wife." Urging her right foot forward, he grinned, remembering their first flight together. "Hold on tight… and don't close your eyes this time."
A few quick steps, a strong jolt, and they were in the air, the sail catching the wind and keeping them aloft. The air was cool, but the heat between them was warm, the bond they shared thrumming with joy and laughter and love.
Bonus: A Chance Encounter
Himura Izo was not a man to show weakness. The way he spoke, the way he walked, the expression on his face were all meant to show strength and, depending on whom he was with, power and authority. In his current situation he kept a constant wall of all three. Rarely was he invited to the Emperor's Court, but while there he had to be on his guard. There were too many others looking for weaknesses for him to allow any that he might have to show.
The man walking leisurely next to him had little worry, it seemed, for allowing his weak characteristics to show. At first Izo had suspected it was because he had enough power or leverage over someone of importance that he need not care how he acted. It was the only reason Izo had requested a moment of the man's time to begin with. Now, three long hours later, and he was beginning to realize it was simply because the man had so little power he had nothing to lose. Becoming short in his answers and irritated with the man's constant rambling, Izo ground his teeth a bit harder. The first available moment he was given he would leave. The entire trip had been a waste. There was no one left with enough power to back him in his conquest that was willing to, and now this man was adding insult to injury by stalling his departure.
Trying to think of a better way to tell the man he could care less what his medical ailments were and if he did die soon he hoped it was within the next three minutes, Izo was glowering when they turned the next corner on the veranda. A combination of shrieks and gasps jerked him from his black musings, and sharp golden eyes looked up in time to catch sight of a young lady. Seated in the shade of a tree, surrounded by several ladies' maids who were the origin of all the surprised noises, she was petite, delicate, and stunning in her extravagant kimono. There was no trace of shock on her poised features, but her peculiar violet eyes were curious as she looked straight back at him. A few seconds later and one corner of her mouth tilted slightly up into a pleased smile.
The moment passed quickly as the maids surrounding her jumped up and spread their arms to shield their lady from sight. Blinking as the man next to him laughed and apologized, Izo was surprised to find the muscles in his face were lax and quickly tensed them back into a frown of displeasure. "What is that young lady doing out in the open? Does she not realize there are men conducting business here?"
"Sorry, Himura-sama, that was my fault. I did not warn my daughter. I daresay I was not expecting you to stay so long." Izo's jaw clenched tighter, resisting the urge to glare. It was the idiot's fault he was still there. "Kinuko has so few chances to relax outside that I hate to begrudge her even one. There are so many men vying for her affections that she usually stays inside her pavilion most days. Come along. Let us leave her to enjoy her surroundings while we talk elsewhere. Did you still wish to continue our conversation, or have you grown weary?"
Izo studied the man's expression and the tone of his voice. If it wasn't for how simple the man was Izo might have thought he had set up the entire encounter. His posture and his voice both said he spoke the truth, however, which meant Izo was never meant to see the lady. Unable to stop himself, he glanced over his shoulder and was surprised again by the violet eyes that were staring back. Leaning to one side, her dainty hand pulling back a maid's sleeve, she was watching him. She was young, but her actions were not the same as any other child. She did not blush, or simper, she simply stared with eyes open and appreciative.
Turning his attention back to the man next to him, Izo bowed his head, his terse voice trying for politeness. "Perhaps we may share some tea."
A/N: Oh so much to say! First of all, I hope everyone liked the last chapter. The boys were fun, writing a bunch of humans again was interesting, because I had to consciously think about them being humans and not animals anymore. The birth control jewelry was my own way of keeping the population from booming out of control. Seriously, these poor people have just spent the last thousand years as animals… babies are going to happen. Misao's situation was sad, but looking at Aoshi and then looking at her… having a baby has the possibility of becoming a problem. Kaoru's situation came about in a different way, but while I was writing I was like… yeah, Kenshin would probably not be too thrilled by difficult pregnancies since his mom died because of several. Of course, he'll have to realize that not everyone is going to have that problem. I tried to explain the bond, and then there's Hiko! Yay! Everyone was asking for him at the beginning of the story, so I thought of a place for him, and here he is. A brief appearance, but he's still there!
As for the last little bonus. Izo is supposed to be a bad guy. I've made that pretty clear all the way through the story. But even bad guy's have some humanity, which I gave a hint to when Kaoru got the chance to asked Kinuko if she was in love with her husband. It's fairly obvious that she is, but that gives us the question why? So I wanted to show a little of his humanity, and perhaps leave everyone feeling a little differently about him. He's still a bad man, a bad father, a bad master, and really probably a bad husband… but I think he loved Kinuko. Otherwise he would not have married her since he gained nothing but her in the marriage. If you didn't catch on, her father has nothing but a title that really gives him nothing but status above the common people. Anyway, I hope you liked the short encounter that started everything.
I'm really going to miss this story, but at the same time I am so glad that I have finished it. Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me from beginning to end, to everyone who joined in the middle, and anyone reading this for the first time without having to wait for a post. I have appreciated all the criticism, raves, encouragement, and freak outs… you guys are so much fun! Hope to see you in another story… though I do plan on finishing A Mother's Love first. People have been hounding me. It needs revised pretty bad too. Alright, I'll quit stalling the goodbyes and ask for one last review! Thanks again. ~fin