Obon, August 1882
It was once again that time of year. The train pulled into the Kyoto train station, coming to a gradual stop, blowing steam from its engine. Soon after, the stairs were lowered and the passengers started disembarking from the cars. Among the passengers was a short man with long, crimson hair. A shorter woman with raven black hair and a tiny child with copper hair, snuggled in the woman's arms, walked next to him.
This was the first time in two years that the entire family was making the journey to Kyoto. Two years ago, they hadn't been able to due to Kenji's birth. Last year, because Kenji had gotten very ill with a fever that had nearly killed him, they had again opted not to go. Those years, Kenshin had sent telegrams bearing apologies for his family's absence and their best wishes for the Oniwabanshuu.
This year, everyone was healthy and brimming with joy at the prospect of seeing their dear friends once again. They were looking forward to attending the always fun festivities that made up Obon in Kyoto. As they disembarked the train, the family kept a sharp eye out for a petite kunoichi with sea green eyes and a tall man with icy blue eyes who were to greet them.
"There they are!" cried Misao, yanking Aoshi along by his hand through the crowded station.
"I see them," was Aoshi's terse response as he permitted himself to be tugged along in a most undignified way by his fiance.
"HIMURA! KAORU-SAN!" Misao cried in her lovely, melodic voice toward the three people who had just gotten off the train.
Abandoning Aoshi, who was slowing her down, Misao broke into a run.
"Misao-chan!" cried Kaoru in alarm, already handing the sleeping toddler into his father's care.
"Hiya!" said Misao, looking face-to-face at Kaoru, who now lay supine beneath her.
"Hey, Misao-chan. Um, would you mind if I got up now? People are staring," asked Kaoru, kindly.
"Huh? Oh, sorry!" apologized Misao as she helped Kaoru to her feet.
"Not at all," said Kaoru as she dusted herself off.
But Misao had already turned her attention to the two redheads, the smaller one in particular.
"Oh, Kami-sama, Kaoru-san! You weren't kidding when you said he looks just like Himura!" she squealed.
Suddenly and unbidden, Misao yanked the sleeping child from his father's arms and held him at arm's length to better see him.
"So adorable!" she screeched.
"Ah! Misao-chan!" Kaoru tried to warn her.
The warning came too late. One moment, the toddler was sound asleep and cute, the next, Misao wound up with an armful of wild cat. Sky blue eyes snapped open and, upon seeing a face they didn't recognize, instantly blazed with rage. Before Misao knew what was happening, she felt herself kicked squarely in her sternum, knocking the wind from her lungs.
Misao dropped the toddler and doubled over in pain. The miniature Kenshin pivoted in the air and landed on his feet. Immediately, he retreated to the safety of his mother's side, and glared at the strange woman who had had the audacity to yank him from his father's arms and awaken him.
Kenshin knelt at Misao's side.
"Misao-dono, are you alright?" he asked. "I apologize!"
Misao coughed and tried to get air back into her lungs.
"No, it's my fault. I shouldn't have just grabbed him like that," she said between coughs.
Aoshi had just managed to wend his way through the crowd of travelers and was a bit unnerved to see his fiance on her knees, gasping for air. Kenshin was bent over, helping her to her feet.
"I'm fine, Aoshi. No harm done," said Misao.
"Kenji, Mama's ashamed of you," Kaoru reprimanded the small boy, stepping away from his clinging arms and glaring down at him. "Kicking Auntie Misao was a shameful thing for you to do."
"She bad!" retorted Kenji, pointing at Misao.
Aoshi quirked an eyebrow, quickly piecing together what had happened in the seconds before he had arrived.
"No, Kenji, Aunt Misao isn't bad. She was very happy to meet you," Kaoru insisted, nudging Kenji toward the kunoichi. "Now I want you to bow to her and apologize for kicking her."
Kenji's eyes widened to saucers, then narrowed in defiance. Why should he apologize to this strange woman who had man-handled him?
"Um, Kaoru-san, it's OK. He doesn't need to..." Misao began, holding up her hands in front of her.
"Yes, he does and he will," said Kaoru in a steely voice, crossing her arms over her chest.
Kaoru had not yet lost a contest of wills with her son, though with each passing month, it was becoming a more pitched battle. Kenji was a spirited and willful child, so he had to be brought to heel now if he were to be kept on the straight and narrow at all.
Kenji stared up at Mommy and saw that her gaze was unrelenting. He looked to Daddy for help, but Daddy's back was turned as he was picking up the luggage. Feeling betrayed by one parent and abandoned by the other, Kenji turned his glare fully on the target of his wrath, who tried to smile in a placating way at him.
This only succeeded in fueling the boy's ire. Copying his mother's actions, he crossed his arms and glared defiantly back up at the adults...
That night, at the Silver Temple
Kenshin, Kaoru, Okina, Aoshi, Misao, Shiro, Koro, Okon and Omasu sat among the crowd of spectators, looking up at the awe-inspiring display of the firecrackers. As the rockets shot up into the air, they exploded in glittering, multicolored lights. Everyone ooood and aaaaad as the exploding lights danced in the night sky.
Kenshin looked down from the fantastic display at the empty spot between himself and Kaoru which should have been occupied by the miniature of himself. He had looked forward to sharing this first Obon with Kenji, but because of his earlier attitude and disobedience, Kaoru had decided that was not to be this year. Kenshin had wanted to plead for Kenji to be allowed to come, but the look in his wife's eyes and her demeanor had warned of a swift and violent braining should he interfere with her chastisement of their recalcitrant son.
With an inward sigh, Kenshin looked back up at the fireworks and made up his mind to enjoy himself. There was always next year after all.
And at the Aoiya...
BANG! POP! BANG!
Kenji writhed in his futon, holding his hands to his ears. He scowled at the flashing, colorful lights outside the window. At any other time, he would have loved the fireworks. Now he resented them because he was not allowed to go out and partake of their beauty with everyone else, all because he had refused to apologize to that stupid Misao!
Kenji turned his back on the window, scrunched his eyes shut and stuck his fingers in his ears. If he could just get to sleep, morning would come more quickly and his punishment would be over. Even with his fingers ensconced in his ear canals, the sounds of the fireworks came through crystal clear, keeping the child from the slumber he sought.
Pushing the thin blanket down, Kenji pulled himself to his feet and went over to the window that overlooked the center of town. He slid it open and felt the hot August night air hit him full in the face. Beyond the huge oak tree that grew just outside the window, the fireworks were flashing on and off, all pinks, yellows, reds, oranges and blues. He could see their bewitching lights through the branches and thick leaves. Their sound was deafening, but didn't frighten him because he knew it couldn't hurt him.
One of the oak's branches grew tantalizingly close to the window. Should he? Why not? After grabbing his shinai and making certain it was strapped tightly to his back, Kenji walked to the other side of the room. After mentally calculating the distance, he began to run straight for the window. When he got to it, he launched himself up and out through the frame and grasped the tree branch. With a bit of effort, he pulled himself up onto it.
Kenji climbed the tree, maneuvering and searching for the best spot from which to watch the fireworks. Finally on the other side of the trunk, he found a spot devoid of leaves and smaller branches that looked like it could bear his minimal weight. Kenji sat down and watched as the beautiful fireworks lit the night sky in a polychromatic light show. He gazed in awe, the flashing lights reflected in his eyes.
Eventually, the fireworks began to die down. Kenji was about to head back to his bedroom window, when he stopped. Despite having been up all night, he really wasn't sleepy at all. From this high up, even in the darkness, Kenji felt like he could see all of Kyoto sprawling before him, lit only by fires and gas lamps this late at night. His eyes scanned the city from right to left. He took in the large old castles, the temples, stands, houses and everything else. It was like, yet so unlike, Tokyo.
Kenji's eyes left the city and traveled to the forest and the mountains beyond it. Just then, they stopped and locked on something: a huge kanji emblazoned on one of the mountains that lay beyond the tree tops. One expected to find fires in the city of course, but on the mountain? Strange. Kenji decided that since he wasn't tired at all, he would go and see the huge burning kanji up close.
Kenji looked down. Though it was dark, he could tell that the ground was pretty far down. He had never had any trouble climbing to high places; it was the getting down that confounded him. Usually Ya'ko-ni, or Mommy and Daddy were there to help. This time, he had to get down by himself since Mommy and Daddy would be mad at him for being out of his room.
Kenji decided the safest thing to do was scale down the tree. Moving carefully, he came to the juncture of the branch and the trunk. Gripping the bark with his hands and little bare feet, he started to shimmy down, slowly and carefully, hanging on for dear life. He knew better than to look down, as that would make him more likely to fall.
'Slow. Slow. Almost there,' he thought to himself as he scaled down.
Kenji thanked the kami when he felt solid ground 'neath his feet. After looking around to make certain the coast was clear, he took off in the direction of that giant burning kanji.
The sky in the eastern horizon was just beginning to turn pink. Birds in trees and bears in caves would soon stir all over Japan. One bear on a mountain in Kansai had already been awake for hours before the others. Hiko Seijuro XIII sat before his kiln, firing clay he had molded into pots yesterday. There was no point in trying to sleep with the light from that damn Daimonji flooding his hut, so he might as well get some pottery done instead.
Presently, Hiko was of the mind that he could use some breakfast, his idea of which was a jug of sake. Rising to his feet, the swordmaster went into his hut and to the shelves, only to find that he was out of his favorite beverage.
'Shit! I forgot to stock up!' he cursed himself for overlooking something so obvious. 'I must be getting old.'
The last thing Hiko wanted was to go into Kyoto during Obon when it would be overrun by tourists and the swirling chaos of their loud, annoying ki. However, he wanted to go without sake even less. Perhaps if he went down before the sun rose, he would be able to get to the Aoiya and get some sake from there before the crowds flooded the streets. With an inward sigh of irritation, he slipped his nihontou into his belt and started in the direction of the city.
Hiko made his way easily down the hill, senses attuned to his surroundings. Not a breeze of wind could blow, nor animal stir undetected by the seasoned warrior. After the end of the hill, the trail leveled off, making the walking easier. Tree after tree lined the path, thick forest and wilderness on either side. Hiko adored the wilderness and shunned the annoying cities at all costs. Still, it was good to have Kyoto nearby for convenience's sake. Just a few more yards and he would be out of the forest and on the edge of the city.
The hair on Hiko's neck stood on end when he sensed a strong flash of ki. Grasping his sword's hilt, Hiko stared straight ahead. His steely eyes watched and his sharp ears listened. Someone was coming. All too soon, he saw a flash of red through the bushes.
Kenshin? No. This ki was nothing like Kenshin's. It contained neither the softness nor the perpetual wistfulness of his former apprentice's. This was young, bright and innocent ki.
Hiko's jaw almost dropped when the figure rounded a large oak tree and he saw for himself a tiny boy with copper hair pulled back in a low, messy ponytail. The kid was clad in a dirty white sleeping yukata with a shinai across his shoulders, making his way along the path, clearly alone. As the child neared, Hiko saw that the boy's bare feet were covered in dirt and that he was trailing blood.
Immediately schooling his face into a neutral expression, Hiko crossed his arms over his chest. He then stared openly at the little boy who now stood before him, meeting his gaze squarely.
"And who might you be?" asked the swordmaster in his booming voice.
"Kenji!" declared the little boy in a sharp, clear voice. "Who're you?"
Hiko knelt down and picked the child up by the collar of his yukata so he could get a better look. The color of the hair and the shape of the small, smudged face were so very familiar to him. Only the eyes were different.
"Hiko Seijuro XIII, master of Hiten Mitsurugi," answered the swordmaster.
"Hit'n Mits'rugi?" repeated Kenji, dangling in Hiko's grasp.
"Close enough," he said. "You don't live around here, do you?"
"Kamiya Dojo!" answered Kenji.
"Are you here by yourself?" he asked.
"Mommy and Daddy," answered Kenji.
"Mommy and Daddy aren't with you right now, are they?" he continued.
Kenji shook his head.
"Are you lost?" asked Hiko.
"Not lost. Find light," declared Kenji, pointing to the flames higher up the mountain.
"You mean the Daimonji?" asked Hiko, looking to where the flames were still burning, having been kept going all night.
"Daim'ji," declared Kenji with a smile of accomplishment.
He had journeyed far and now the burning kanji was almost in his grasp.
The wheels in Hiko's head were already turning. There was absolutely no doubt as to where this kid belonged.
"Where are you, your Mommy and Daddy staying?" he asked, further testing the child.
"Aoiya," Kenji answered immediately.
'Smart kid,' Hiko thought. 'Knowing my stupid student, he probably doesn't even realize his son's gone missing yet.'
"So, you wanted to see the Daimonji and made the journey here on bare feet," Hiko mused aloud. "Sounds like something another child I knew long ago might have done. Let's patch up your feet first, then I'll take you to see the Daimonji up close. After that, I'll take you back to the Aoiya. Your parents will be frantic when they realize you're gone."
"Thank you," said Kenji trying to bow, but failing since his feet were dangling in the air.
'Must've learned his manners from his mother,' thought Hiko as he gently settled the small redhead into the crook of his left arm.
A bit to Hiko's chagrin, Kenji snuggled down, coppery head resting against the huge swordmaster's bulging pectoral.
'Don't get too comfortable, kid,' Hiko thought to himself as he carried Kenji back to his hut.
Once inside, Hiko set Kenji down on a table with strict instructions not to move from that spot. He lit an andon, heated some water over his fire and procured rice bran soap and bandages that he always kept for emergencies.
"Gimme your right foot," he commanded, not ungently.
Kenji stuck out his right foot, the sole of which was covered in dirt, blisters and blood from his having walked without the protection of sandals for the past six hours.
"This will sting," Hiko warned as he dipped a cloth in warm, soapy water.
Kenji nodded. When he felt the warm, soapy water against the sole of his foot, he flinched and a few tears leaked from his scrunched up eyes. Hiko-san hadn't been kidding. This hurt! The little boy breathed deeply and endured the deep cleaning silently as the large man worked on his foot.
After Hiko had cleansed the foot to the best of his ability, he rubbed an ointment on it that he had used to rub into another little idiot's wounds long ago and then carefully wrapped it in white gauze.
"Other foot," he commanded.
Kenji held out his left foot and the procedure was repeated.
"You hungry?" Hiko asked after he finished bandaging Kenji's left foot.
"I hope you like onigiri, because that's all there is," said Hiko, going over to the table which had some rice balls on it, covered up to keep flies off them.
"Onigiri good, if not Mommy's," declared Kenji.
Hiko snorted. He had heard tales of the Kamiya girl's abysmal cooking skills before, though thankfully, he had never experienced it firsthand. Hiko handed one rice ball to the child and packed the rest in a bento before picking Kenji up. He listened as the boy mumbled "thanks for the food", before stuffing the rice ball into his mouth as they started out into the gradually lightening sky to go and see the Daimonji before the flames were extinguished.
'Kenshin, you're going to have your work cut out for you with this one,' Hiko thought to himself as he carried Kenji toward the giant burning kanji on the hillside.
And then they were there, Hiko and Kenji's eyes took in all the small individual flames that from a distance created the huge kanji on the mountainside. It was the most beautiful thing Kenji had ever seen.
"Daim'ji!" Kenji cried with glee at the top of his lungs.
The crepuscular air was filled with the little boy's high pitched laughter.
Kaoru opened her eyes and stretched out. She turned over in the futon to see Kenshin lying facing her, still fast asleep. She brushed a few thick red bangs away from his forehead. He snuffled, but didn't open his eyes.
'Poor baby. Maybe we shouldn't have stayed up so late last night,' Kaoru thought tenderly.
Moving slowly and carefully to keep from awakening the beautiful dreamer next to her, Kaoru rose to her feet. The first thing she needed to do was see to Kenji, who would undoubtedly be awake and hungry. Kaoru made her way to the fusuma to Kenji's room.
"Kenji, are you awake? Mommy's coming in," she called before sliding the door open.
She was greeted by the sight of a futon devoid of all occupants, save for a lonely stuffed rooster. Kaoru's shocked eyes traveled to the open window. Oh Kami, had someone taken him?
"KENSHIN!" Kaoru cried.
"Oro!" came the startled reply from the room.
Immediately, Kenshin was at the doorway, bokken in hand. When he saw the look on Kaoru's face and the empty futon, he dropped the bokken and was at her side, his eyes traveling to the open window.
Without speaking or bothering to dress, Kenshin and Kaoru ran downstairs to go tearing out into the Kyoto streets to look for their son. Their thoughts both ran along a grim line. Although many years had passed since the Bakumatsu, Kenshin might still have old enemies in Kyoto. No doubt, they would have seen them at the train station and conspired to kidnap Battousai's son, perhaps hold him for ransom… or worse.
Kenshin and Kaoru raced past Aoshi, who had just emerged from his morning meditations.
"Himura?" Aoshi asked upon seeing the couple fly by.
Kenshin stopped briefly and looked at Aoshi with panic-stricken eyes.
"Kenji's gone!" was all he could get out.
"I'll assemble the shinobi and we'll scour the city," announced Aoshi, immediately going to find the others to help look for Kenji.
Kenshin and Kaoru made their way out the front door and into the courtyard. So intent were they, that they were not truly looking where they were going and ran face-first into something very large.
"So, my idiot apprentice is up to his usual morning comedy routines, I see," declared a huge, booming voice. "You weren't exactly a morning person when you were my student, as I recall."
Blue and violet eyes traveled up, up, up and looked into the steely grays of Kenshin's master.
"Master!" cried Kenshin. "Why are you here?"
"Morning, dummy," said Hiko with a sneer. "Don't tell me you've forgotten how to dress yourself?"
Kenshin looked down and only now realized that he was still in his yukata. But there were much more pressing matters.
"Forgive my rudeness, Master, but Kaoru and I can't stay and talk with you. We have to look for..."
"Hi, Mommy! Hi, Daddy!" came the high pitched, and much-missed voice.
Kaoru and Kenshin looked up to see Kenji, who was peeking over Hiko's shoulder and greeting his parents with a smile.
"Kenji!" cried Kaoru, scooping the boy into her arms and smothering him as Hiko handed him off to her.
"It seems you lost something," said Hiko with a smirk.
"Orororororo? Kenji was with you?" cried Kenshin. "How? Why?"
Hiko nodded over to Kenji.
"Why don't you ask him?" said the swordmaster.
"Kenji, what happened?" asked Kaoru, pulling back and glaring at her little boy. "Why are your feet bandaged?"
"Saw light," explained Kenji, pointing in the direction of the now-being-extinguished Daimonji on Mt. Nyoigatake. "Hiko put stingy stuff on Kenji's feet. Found Daim'ji, then Kenji here."
"All the way to the mountain?" asked Kaoru in shock.
Kenji nodded his head earnestly.
"Seems you've got a little wanderer on your hands, Kenshin. I'd keep him on a short chain if I were you," advised Hiko.
"You are very wise, Master," said Kenshin with a bow, staring at his son out of the sides of his eyes.
"Thank you so much, Hiko-san. I'm sorry if Kenji was an inconvenience," apologized Kaoru with a bow.
"Heh! Not at all. I haven't had this much fun in years," said Hiko with a grin as he turned to leave. "Stop by the hut if you like. Just be sure to bring sake if you do."
And with that, the magnificent swordmaster was gone, leaving a dumbfounded Kenshin and Kaoru in his wake, their son returned to them, unharmed and brimming with new words.
"Daim'ji! Hit'n Mits'rugi! Idiot 'prentis!" Kenji shouted, throwing his head back and laughing to the sun.
The next day, Hiko looked up from painting a teapot when he felt three familiar ki making their way up the mountain toward the hut. Smiling to himself, the huge swordsman put aside the teapot, stood up and went to greet the idiot and his family.
Kenshin wasn't surprised to find his master already at the top of the mountain, waiting for them. The two men nodded to each other in greeting. Kenji, who had insisted on walking the last few yards of the way up, even though his feet were still healing, ran up to the giant man.
"Hiko!" he cried.
"So you're back again, Little Lion? You couldn't resist the pleasure of my company. Not that I blame you," declared Hiko, swiping his hand over his hair.
'Oh, brother,' thought Kenshin and Kaoru in unison.
"What's that?" asked Kenji, pointing to the kiln.
"That's my kiln," said Hiko. "If you stay till tonight, I'll show you my fire."
Kenji looked back to his parents.
"Oh Master, I'm sure you don't want everyone here late at night," Kenshin began to decline politely.
"Oh, cut the polite crap, dummy. If your kid's interested in my genius, who are you to deter him?" said Hiko.
"Alright, Master. We'll stay," said Kenshin, after getting a silent nod from Kaoru.
"Yay!" cried Kenji, smiling up at the giant.
Hiko smirked at the little boy.
"Looks like I have at least one admirer," he said, leveling a glare at Kenji's parents.
"Oro! We're admirers as well! Right, Kaoru?" said Kenshin with a huge, cheesy grin.
"Absolutely. Hiko-sama is the best!" said Kaoru with mock enthusiasm.
"Damn right," said Hiko.
"If his ego gets any bigger…" whispered Kaoru.
"I know. I know," murmured Kenshin in agreement.
"So..." Hiko's voice cut in on their conversation.
"Don't polite guests usually bring a gift of some sort?" asked Hiko with an upraised eyebrow.
Kenshin quickly reached behind him and magically whipped out a jug of sake.
Hiko snatched the jug and took a swig. Perfect!
"Damn good," he murmured before corking the jug. "Alright! Enough standing around rotting. Let's get inside!"
"Yes, Master," said Kenshin as he and Kaoru fell in line behind Hiko and made their way to the hut.
It was Kenji who led the way, however, running ahead of the adults and only stopping when he realized they weren't right behind him. Grownups were always slow!
As soon as they set foot inside, Kaoru was absolutely horrified by how messy the place was. Dishes were left undone in the basin, a pile of dirty fundoshi lay in the corner and a layer of dust an inch thick seemed to cover everything. Kaoru promptly set up housekeeping in Hiko's hut, booting the three males outside. Hiko had a few choice words, but was too well-bred to say them in Kaoru's presence, so he kept them to himself. While they waited outside for Kaoru to call them in for midday dinner, Kenji unshouldered his little shinai, tossed Sano to Kenshin for safekeeping, went out to a clearing and started swinging his sword.
Hiko's face remained impassive as he watched the sure, precise swings of the tiny swordsman. At age ten, Kenshin's sword swings had been tentative and halting. At age three, Kenji's swings were dead on and always focused.
'He really doesn't need any training in form and skill. What he does need is firm guidance or he could easily turn into a monster,' Hiko thought.
Kenshin walked over and stood by his master's side as they both watched Kenji practice.
"There's a strong fighting spirit in him," said Hiko.
"We'll start training him formally in Kamiya Kasshin next year," he said softly.
"Mmm, I can tell you right now that will not be enough. While the principles of your wife's school are admirable, it will never satisfy him," warned Hiko.
"He's only three," protested Kenshin.
"Three he may be, but that has no bearing on his abilities. If you don't believe my words, let me show you," said Hiko, drawing his nihontou from its sheath and stepping toward the child.
"Master!" protested Kenshin.
"Trust me, Kenshin," said Hiko softly. "Kenji!"
Upon hearing his name called, the little boy's head snapped up, blue eyes widening at the sight of the blade.
"C'mon, Little Lion, show me your teeth!" Hiko called to the child, smirking.
Before Kenshin could move or protest, the little boy was running at Hiko, shinai at the ready.
Kenji leapt up and swung his shinai at Hiko's nihontou. Striking with the flat of the blade to keep from slicing the child's shinai, Hiko blocked Kenji's attack, pushing the tot back. Kenji flipped in mid air, landed upright and immediately charged again.
Kenshin watched as his master and son sparred in the light of the midmorning sun. Kenji attacked with all the might his little body could muster from different angles, looking for an opening. Hiko easily blocked all the attacks, but did not send Kenji sprawling the way he had done to Kenshin when he had trained him as a boy.
"Enough!" barked Hiko after their latest exchange.
Kenji instantly stopped, shouldered his shinai, and bowed to the master, who inclined his head in acknowledgment.
Hiko looked over at his apprentice, who had beheld the entire spectacle in bewilderment. The Master was right, training only in Kamiya Kasshin would quickly bore and frustrate a child who could already withstand attacks from his master and come out with his dignity intact. Kenshin had been 12 years old before he had been able to do this. The age of swords and warriors was long past. What would someone with such talent do in an era where swords were obsolete and guns and cannons were the weapon of choice?
Kenshin was brought back to earth by the sound of his son's voice.
Kenshin forced himself to smile at his little boy.
"C'mon. Let's go see if your mother has midday dinner ready for us yet."
Kenji nodded and headed for the hut with his father, Hiko following them at a leisurely pace.
"They what?" cried Kaoru upon hearing the news of Kenji and Hiko's spar.
"Now, now, Kaoru. It was fine. The Master only used the flat of his blade," placated Kenshin.
"Even so, he still could have hurt Kenji!" Kaoru protested.
"Kaoru, Hiko is the man who taught me everything I know. If I can spar with Kenji and not hurt him, so can my master," said Kenshin softly.
"But Hiko's so big and Kenji's so small," said Kaoru.
"Kenji is safer with my large master than he is with small me," soothed Kenshin.
"Even so," said Kaoru. "Does Hiko-san want to train Kenji in Hiten Mitsurugi?"
"Of course not," replied Kenshin. "The Master and I discussed this a few years ago. We both agree that Hiten Mitsurugi should end with us."
"Well, all I hope is that you and Hiko are careful with Kenji," frowned Kaoru.
"Not a hair on his head will be hurt, dearest. You have my word," said Kenshin with a reassuring smile.
"If your word's broken, you'll be sleeping in your old room for quite a long time," warned Kaoru.
"Yes, ma'am," said Kenshin with a gulp.
After midday dinner, Kaoru sat on the stump, watching Kenshin and Kenji spar, Kenshin using his bokken and Kenji his shinai. She smiled inwardly at the cute sight her two redheads created when they sparred together like this.
"Is it true?" Hiko's deep voice reached Kaoru's ears.
"Is what true?" asked Kaoru, looking over at the swordmaster, who was firing something in his kiln.
"That my former apprentice no longer practices Hiten Mitsurugi?" Hiko finished.
Kaoru sighed and looked back at the redheads sadly.
"He can't use Mitsurugi anymore because his body is too small to withstand it," she answered at length in a subdued voice.
"This started after he learned the secret."
Not a question.
"Yes," replied Kaoru.
"Hiten Mitsurugi, and especially its secret moves, are the most demanding techniques in all kenjutsu. Kenshin hastened his deterioration by using the secret three times in one day and then again when he fought Yukishiro Enishi after having gone three weeks without eating. Trust Kenshin to do something like that!" huffed Hiko.
"He does do some rather extreme things at times," agreed Kaoru. "But he always does them out of love for other people."
"I suppose he wouldn't be Kenshin if he didn't," sighed Hiko as he withdrew his finished project from the kiln. "What do you think?"
Kaoru looked and saw a little teapot in Hiko's tongs with a forest of cherry trees dropping pretty pink petals painted all around it.
"Hiko-san, it's lovely," exclaimed Kaoru.
"Naturally," said Hiko with an arrogant smile. "This is yours. Use it to pour good tea for my idiot apprentice when you return to Tokyo."
"Thank you, Hiko-san. I will," said Kaoru.
She would pour at least as good a tea as she could ever hope to brew.
Kyoto train station
The train to Osaka Bay whistled as it blew off steam. Shouts of "all aboard" were heard throughout the station.
"I'll be counting the days till next Obon," said a subdued Misao, who even now, struggled with long goodbyes as Kaoru once had.
"It'll be here before we know it and we'll all have lots of fun again," agreed Kaoru. "Right, Kenji?"
"Right!" agreed Kenji. "See Gran'pa Hiko!"
'Grandpa Hiko?' thought Kenshin. 'The Master won't appreciate that at all...'
The Himuras and Aoshi and Misao bowed to each other in farewell.
“Say goodbye, Aoshi-sama,” instructed Misao.
“Goodbye,” said Aoshi.
“See you next year!”
The Himuras boarded the train and found a seat on the right side so they could wave goodbye to Aoshi and Misao when the train started to move out. As it moved and began to pick up speed, Misao ran alongside it while Aoshi watched dispassionately in the background, his only sign of farewell a raised hand.
The minutes to the next Obon had already begun to tick away.