Author's note: And here is the final chapter for what has so far been my longest fanfict story. I am truly going to miss Hiko and Sako. Thanks a million for reading and reviewing!
Rain pattered steadily down on two figures: one crouching on the ground, brilliant red hair turning auburn with dampness as his thick ponytail lay wetly against his back and the other one standing tall, wrapped in a white cloak and holding an umbrella over both of their heads.
Silence lay thick, choking the air with unstated words, but taciturnity seemed appropriate in the quiet, well-tended graveyard, the history between the two men too laden with emotion and conflict to make communication anything but difficult. Finally the taller one spoke.
"I see you brought flowers." His voice was a low rumble edged with kindness, but it seemed to catch a trifle in his throat, the words a little rough as they left his tongue and hovered in the air. "Women have this thing about flowers. I know Sako does." Hiko paused, remembering the few times he had brought Sako a bouquet of wildflowers he had picked and once when he had carried home an armful from a village vendor. Sako's face had glowed every time he had presented flowers to her, and, remembering the bloody chaos of a few weeks ago, Hiko made a silent vow to bring her flowers every day he could find them in bloom for the rest of her life.
His former apprentice was silent, the heavy fringe of red hair covering those violet eyes of his and his shoulders hunched, drawing him inward as he strove in vain effort to hide the conflict warring in his mind and soul. It didn't matter. Even after all these years, Hiko could still read the kid easily. Silence fell over them again, only the sound of rain making any noise in the quiet graveyard. Time passed until the stillness was abruptly broken by Hiko's gruff voice.
"You need to stop beating yourself up over this, baka," he said with a low grumble. "It's not respectful to her memory and it sure as hell isn't doing you any good."
The slender redhead froze, coldness beginning to creep into his chi as Hiko shifted his feet impatiently. His wound was almost healed but it was itching him something fierce and he had better things to do with his time than soaking himself in the rain while trying to talk some sense into the idiot former apprentice at his feet. But the kid had been carrying this around for far too long. It was time to knock some sense into that thick head and try to set his mind at ease.
Quietly but with a voice edged in pain and self-reproach, Kenshin responded slowly and decidedly, every word falling like drops of blood. "She died by my hand. For that, I will never forgive myself."
"Baka deshi, how many times do I have to shout it at you? You didn't kill her," Hiko growled impatiently, feeling his hands itching with the desire to pound the idiot until the runt started seeing reason. A headache was pricking at his temples and he could feel Kenshin's grief pouring off him in palpable waves. It ate at Hiko like a canker, and he fought to choke back all the damned emotions being around the kid stirred up in him: pride, frustration, aggravation, loss, grief. The list was endless and infuriating.
Dammit, Hiko thought to himself, struggling for control and resisting the urge to bellow Kenshin out. A good shouting match just might work the idiot out of his depressed slump, but Hiko forced the impulse back and tried to keep a lid on his temper. The baka needed to hear what he had to say and yelling wasn't going to get the message across any clearer. The whole story surrounding the grave they were facing had come out a few days ago when Hiko had pieced together enough snippets of overheard gossip to make him pin Kenshin down and drag the truth out of him. As he crouched in the rain, barely noticing the umbrella held over his head, the boy's raw shame and self-hatred were palpable, and they weighed him down as effectively as chains.
Struggling to keep his voice below a roar, Hiko growled roughly, repeating, "You didn't kill her, Kenshin. She sacrificed herself to save you. She knew, down in her bones, it was the only way to keep you alive, and she made the decision. Sako..." his mouth twisted funny as his throat closed around his words. Coughing, Hiko tried again, fighting to keep his voice even. "Sako made the same choice. She knew that bastard was going to kill her and the kids. She...she didn't think she was going to survive and all she wanted to do was protect the kids. She told me..." his mind flashed with uncomfortable memories, "that the Amakakeru Ryu No Hirameki was the only shot she had left and that she didn't have any hope that she would survive it. But all she wanted to do was keep the kids safe."
A flicker of something wet rose up in Hiko's eye as he inhaled sharply. His voice grew rougher, hiding the emotion behind his words as he pointed a thick finger at the neatly tended grave. "This one here, she made the same choice as well. All she wanted to do was save you. She knew the only way she could do that was to sacrifice her own life."
The fire was steadily burning in Kenshin's chi, and Hiko struggled with the maddening futility rising in his core. Dammit, would I listen to the idiot if our roles were reversed and I was kneeling in front of Sako's grave? he thought to himself, staring intently at the small redhead who was refusing to meet his eyes.
Clenching his fist, Hiko thought of Sako and the kids back at the Aoiya. She had been up and back on her feet three days after her battle, despite her wounds, and he'd been caught in a bind between fussing over her and worrying about how the idiot was faring back in Kyoto. Finally, Sako had quietly suggested that the entire family visit Kyoto so that she could see the doctor friend of Kenshin's and check up on everyone. Hiko had balked at the idea, certain she wasn't fit for travel, but in the end he had relented and borrowed a horse cart from the Yamatos to take them all back to the Aoiya. To his relief, the runt had finally decided to wake up and was walking around alright, but the kid couldn't disguise the pain and deep fatigue emanating from his chi, making Hiko wonder if he was ever going to fully recover.
But at the moment, Hiko was more concerned about his former pupil's emotional state, something he had never bothered himself overmuch with. However, Hiko had a gnawing certainty that the lad was never going to fully recover physically if he didn't deal with some of the emotional damage clanking around in his troubled mind. And that was the type of stuff that wasn't easily knocked out, no matter how much you shouted.
Trying mightily to shove kindness into his voice, Hiko forced himself to speak calmly. "I know it's a lot easier said than done, and hell, I don't think I would have ever forgiven myself if Sako had died in her fight." Peering narrowly at the redhead, he said in a voice growing thick with emotion, "Dammit, boy, I know it goes against everything you are as a man to let your woman die for you. You're supposed to be the one throwing yourself between her and danger to keep her safe, and then to have those roles reversed...". Hiko shifted his weight again, discomforted and feeling something that felt oddly like shyness running through him. Angrily, he pushed it aside.
"I know what that's like, Kenshin," Hiko continued roughly, almost harshly. "Sako made a similar choice, but there won't be a goddamned day of my life that I won't blame myself that she had to, that I wasn't there to take her place. I'm just blasted lucky that she survived. Yours wasn't so fortunate. And it's as unfair as hell, no matter how you look at it."
Sighing, Hiko pressed forward. "The shitty part is that in all reality, Tomoe probably would have survived if she had left you to her fate. The shogunate bastards got what they wanted, and they likely would had let her go once they killed you off. She could have let you die and saved her own neck. Hell, a lot of woman would have done that. Your woman, she wasn't no fighter, not like Sako. Sako, on the other hand, didn't have much of a choice: it was kill or be killed. She still chose to fight, but it wasn't like she had a lot of options available. Tomoe, she had choices. And she chose to save your life instead of hers."
Hiko's hand clenched on the umbrella handle. "Fact of the matter is, no matter how much we hate it, we've got to respect the choices our women made. You've been beating yourself up for 12 years about this. But the point is, she made her choice. And like it or not, you've got to live with it. I know you would have gladly made the choice for her, but it wasn't up to you. She had total freedom to do what she thought was best. It's your job to accept that. Anything less, and you're dishonoring her memory and everything she did."
Kenshin hadn't moved a muscle, but Hiko didn't need to see his face to know that his eyes were swirling with gold. Confusion and struggle were welling up in Kenshin's energy, breaking through the calmness of the warrior's pose. Hiko was still beating back the urge to give the idiot at his feet a hearty kicking until some sense rattled loose, and sharpness rose in his voice.
"Besides, you're so busy beating yourself up over this and hanging onto the past that you can't move forward. It's about damned time you did because there's a rather fine girl waiting for you to get your head out of your butt and ask her to marry your sorry ass." Kenshin's shoulders stiffened almost imperceptibly, and Hiko could see a blush immediately rising across the back of his neck.
Irritably, he gave the boy a hard shove with his foot, knocking him forward so that Kenshin sprawled in an ungainly pile in the mud. Peering down at the idiot sternly, Hiko growled out, "Beats the hell out of me why anyone would want to marry a skinny, busted-ass runt like you, but she seems pretty set on it and if I were with you, I'd take her up on the offer." Still sprawled out on the wet ground, Kenshin twisted around, mud splattered across the front of his hakama and eyes wide with surprise and something like nervousness rising in them.
Towering over him, Hiko glowered freely at his former apprentice, wondering if he was actually going to have to beat the fool to set him straight. "Look, you can hang around here sniveling over Tomoe's grave if it suits you. But if she was half the woman I suspect she was, she'd probably tell you to get over it and get on with life. And getting on with life means finding another good woman, one that will share your bed and your laughs and your life, along with the hard stuff and chores and all the other shit life throws at you. Because it's worth it. And you'd be a fool not to."
Twirling the umbrella a little bit in his hand, Hiko shot another glance at his former apprentice still slouched on the ground, and he was pleased to see a glimmer of dawning comprehension and something that looked very much like hope rising in the man's eyes. For a long moment, master and former pupil traded a long, meaning-laden glance, a thousand unstated words floating in the air. Finally Hiko jerked a fold of his cloak around him and turned as if to leave.
"Don't stay out here too long, you idiot. You get soaked through, your fever will flare up again." Muttering a curse, Hiko spun on his heel and stalked off towards the Aoiya where his family was waiting for him.
Feeling damp wetness soaking through the muddy patches on his clothing, Kenshin watched as his former master walked off into the rain, the umbrella covering much of his head and his shoulders high and proud. Sighing, the slender redhead felt the familiar whirlpool of emotions that always cropped up every time he was around the sword master: frustration, shame, indignation, admiration, bafflement. Pursing his lips in a thin line, he thought, Even after twenty years, Master can still effortlessly get under my skin. Moving up to his knees, Kenshin felt the pain of his injuries tugging at him as he carefully pulled himself upright again, whispering a quiet word of sorry to Tomoe as he used her tombstone to help gain his footing, his eyes never leaving Hiko's back.
As the tall swordsman stalked away from the silent redhead, he paused and Kenshin watched as his shoulders drew up tightly. "Kenshin." Hiko didn't turn around, but his head swiveled so that his former pupil could catch a side view of his face, the hard planes and sharp angles forming a mask of steel hiding the emotions swirling below its surface.
For a moment, the older man said nothing, then with a gruff quietness let loose these words. "I wanted to let you know that I'm damned proud of you. Always have been. I thought..." he cleared his throat uncertainly. "I thought it was about time you knew."
And with that, Hiko disappeared into the rainy streets, leaving behind one quiet and rather bewildered redhead who gaped foolishly after his former master as an incredulous smile of pleasure began lifting the corners of his mouth. The movement distorted the cross-shaped scar on his cheek as the blush filling his face smoothed away its harsh edges, for a brief moment leaving his face whole and unmarked.
Thank you, Master.
"You alright, Sako?" Hiko questioned worriedly, shooting a look at his wife. She was sitting upright, straight and proud on the seat next to him, her hands loose and relaxed on her lap, but he could sense the flashes of pain that kept rising up in her chi. Scowling, his eyes darted to the road. It wasn't the best maintained one, and he winced at every rattle and bump the cart gave, knowing the jolts were hurting Sako. Travelling by cart wasn't the most comfortable way to go, and he wished he had hired a kago to bring her to Kyoto.
"I'm fine, Husband," Sako responded in that mild, calm voice of hers, and the familiarity of her words made a smile play across his lips. Reaching out, Hiko carefully pulled her into his side, mindful of her healing wounds.
"You always were a rotten liar, girl," he rumbled fondly as Sako smiled gently and breathed a soft sigh of contentment against his shoulder. In the back of the cart, Kazue and Kenichi slumbered peacefully under the shade of a cloth Hiko had stretched out to protect them from the sun. A deep wave of gratitude and relief swept through him as he felt Sako's head resting on his shoulder and heard the soft sounds of his children breathing quietly behind him.
We're all alive and okay, he sighed silently. The kids are fine, Sako will recover in time, the idiot's up on his feet and hopefully talking some sense at last. Thank the gods.
His arm wrapped around Sako, Hiko began stroking her leg fondly, reveling in the feeling of her firm muscles against his fingertips and wholly grateful for her small body next to his: poised, calm, and very much alive.
The thought made him sigh again, and Sako lifted her head slightly to peer at him. He increased his stroking, a tired smile not leaving his face. "Well, girl, we made it out in one piece."
Sako smiled. "For the most part," she responded, her eyes dropping to the bandage peeping out from the edge of her kimono sleeve.
Hiko rumbled a bark of a laugh. "Well, what can I say, girl? I've getting old and have a hell of a scar across my chest and you're a mess of bandages and stitches. What's to be done with us, eh?" He patted her affectionately.
Sako laughed, a light trill that sent his spirits flying and lifted some of the weariness out of his mind and body. Laying her head back down on his shoulder, she answered, "I say we return home and make pottery and raise our children and practice the sword and grow old together."
"That sounds pretty good to me," Hiko responded with an approving jerk of his head. Snorting a bit to himself in mild amusement, he added with a rumble, "Just as long as life doesn't throw anymore unexpected surprises our way for awhile."
With that, Sako's head twisted around and she gave him an odd look as Hiko stared at her in puzzlement, his brows starting to knit across his forehead. "Well..." her voice trailed off and she thoughtfully bit her lower lip, her hands moving to twist together thoughtfully. "It depends on how you define 'unexpected surprises,' my husband," she continued slowly.
"What? You aren't pregnant again, are you, girl?" Hiko rumbled. He meant it as a joke, but blanched when Sako's face turned decidedly sheepish and a rather embarrassed smile spread across her face.
Hiko stared at her in slack-jawed stupification as she continued to twist her hands together and duck her head down, a soft smile lifting her full lips. After several seconds of blankness, he stated weakly, "Tell me you're joking."
To his shock and consternation, Sako's head shook slowly, her hesitant eyes never leaving his face as a blush rose in her cheeks. "No, I am certain," she said softly, a hand going to her belly. "I begun to suspect when we were with the Yamatos and you were training Kenshin-san, but I was too worried to think about it very much, and then you were injured and after that left for Kyoto. It's only been here the past week that I have had time to listen to my body and know for certain. This one," she smiled gently. "This one is strong in me. A boy, I am certain of it. Already I feel his energy." She reached for Hiko's unmoving hand. "He will be quite the warrior, if I am not mistake. I..."
Sako's words were interrupted by a low groan from her husband who put his head between his knees and exhaled in one long, noisy string of unintelligible words for several long moments as Sako waited quietly, mildly amused and just the slightest bit nervous.
Finally Hiko's head shot up and his face was dark with sudden worry. "Good gods, Sako, you fought with your full strength and used the Amakakeru Ryu No Hirameki while pregnant? Who knows what damage that did to you and the baby? We're going back to that doctor lady to..."
"Hiko," a gentle voice interrupted Hiko's worried tirade as he jerked at the horse's reins, intent on turning it around and getting them the hell back to the Aoiya so Sako could get a full medical evaluation. A soft hand on his knee made him pause, and he looked at her critically.
"We're fine, Husband. Both of us," Sako assured him with soothing conviction. "I spoke with Megumi-san about this, and she said the same thing. But even more so, I have been listening to the baby's chi. I know he is strong and healthy. Do not worry so."
Hiko was still marinated in shock as he continued to gape foolishly at his wife, overwrought mind straining to process the new information as best it could. Another one? he thought in bewilderment as he shot a glimpse behind him where Kazue and Kenichi were still sleeping and tried to wrap his head around the idea of a third child joining their growing brood.
But as he gaped in stunned amazement, through the burgeoning avalanche of Hiko's emotions, ego kicked through the chaos to stride up and pat him approvingly on the back. Three kids in two years? That's pretty damned good, Seijuro. Let's see if the idiot can top that when he gets his sorry ass married. After several minutes of intense internal dialogue, Hiko shook his head and grinned a small smirk of triumph, then pulled his wife back into his side after patting her fondly on the bottom.
"A kid every year, huh, girl? Doesn't sound too bad to me."
Sako stiffened and gave him a pained look. "Please tell me this isn't a trend you plan on continuing, my dear love," she said, a note of pleading in her voice.
"Hell, why not?" Hiko rumbled back, pulling her closer, the smirk deepening. "As Master of Hiten Mitsurugi, it's my job to make sure the name of Seijuro Hiko continues. Might as well have a passel of kids running around to do the job proper. Besides, if you can pull of the ogi by yourself, our kids can do the same thing without having to risk either one of us teaching them. Then they can all fight over who gets my cloak."
Sako laughed quietly to herself, shaking her head a little. Then her husband's lips dropped to her ear, sending a shiver down her spine as his hot breath rasped pleasurably against her sensitive skin. "Plus, once Kazue and Kenichi get a little older, they can watch the little ones for us while we're inside making more." Teeth gently seized her soft earlobe, making her gasp a little as she unconsciously leaned into him.
Just as Hiko was about to drop a kiss on Sako's neck, she twisted around and gave him a stern look that did little to conceal her delight. "Seijuro Hiko, I will have you know that you are completely and unquestionably incorrigible," Sako stated firmly, mock indignation rising in her voice as Hiko's laugh shook the runner board they were sitting on.
"Woman, you'd better believe it," he grinned as he gave the reins a flick and directed the horse forward in the afternoon sun, the pounding of hooves bringing them home as golden sunlight poured down on them, filling them with fresh life and strength.
Kago: small litter carried by people to transport a person around.