"Tsk, tsk. It was an unfortunate waste of time. Oh well. Maybe next time I'll catch up with him," the well-dressed boy reckoned cheerfully, cleaning his blade nonchalantly. "He certainly works fast, I give him that."

Footsteps were heard from around the bamboo groves where the young swordsman was standing. Another young boy of medium build carrying a sword met up with the ever-smiling lad. "Hey! Who are you? What are you doing here?"

'Strange. No one is supposed to detect me. Oh, it's him!' the older boy noted casually as he surveyed the person addressing him. "Good evening! I remember you from the soba shop!"

Yahiko was caught off-guard by the merry greeting. "Ah, so you're the weird guy from the soba shop. The only other customer," he commented, but his eyes suddenly darkened as he saw the young man's bloodied katana. "Who would have thought that I actually chanced upon a psychopath that had a soba fixation? For the last time, who the hell are you? Why did you kill all those men?"

A muted thud was heard. Both of the young men looked over the direction where the soft sound originated. It was Kyoko, her eyes wide with bewilderment and incredulity as her beloved Fuyutsuki fell on the ground. "No. Soujiro-kun! Not you!"

"Y-You know this guy?" Yahiko hesitantly asked Kyoko.

"Of course! I haven't introduced myself," the older boy realized as he calmly sheathed his sword. He clapped his hands excitedly as he addressed Yahiko in a courteous manner. "My name is Seta Soujiro. It's a pleasure to meet you."

Rurouni Yahiko

A Rurouni Kenshin Continuation fic
by Chester Castañeda

A fight between two counterparts.

Disclaimer: All characters used in this fanfic (save some others) are the rightful property of Nobuhiro Watsuki and Sony. Don't sue me please, I'm very poor.

Chapter 4: The Two Prodigies

Soujiro Seta smiled pleasantly at Yahiko Myojin, bowing as if he was politely addressing an old friend. "I'm really sorry for the mess. What a dreadful thing to happen. Well, I don't mean to be rude, but I have to get going."

"The HELL you will!" Yahiko shouted out as he unwrapped the cloth-bound sakabatou, waking an apparently shocked and surprised Kyoko Sakaguchi out of her dazed trance. "You have a lot of explaining to do, Psycho-Kid!"

"Oh? I'm not a psycho-kid," Soujiro disagreed, blinking at Yahiko's statement. He soon after beamed, laughing daintily. "That's silly. I'm already twenty-four. I'm not a kid anymore."

'...Which means he didn't deny the 'psycho' part at all?' Yahiko reflected incredulously, making him pause from completely unsheathing his sword at mid-draw. He subsequently sweatdropped as the supposed twenty-four year old clasped both of his hands together in apparent enthusiasm.

"I almost forgot to ask! What's your name?" Soujiro queried pleasantly.

"Uh, Yahiko. Myojin Yahiko..." Yahiko blinked.

"Hey! Stop that!" the Tokyo Samurai Progeny demanded as Kyoko mutely looked at the two swordsmen back and forth, unwilling to interrupt their discussion.

"Stop what?" Soujiro confusedly tilted his head in askance, his eyes inquisitive and innocent.

Yahiko winced at the expression Soujiro made. It reminded him of Kenji whenever the little boy sucked up to Kaoru. He certainly didn't like seeing it on the face of a weird stranger. He also didn't quite like the sound of 'Yahiko-san' coming from the mouth of a murderer.

"I meant, 'Stop your little mind games!' Enough with the 'I'm an innocent, wandering swordsman that wouldn't hurt a fly' act! I've already seen someone else do that act, and quite frankly, I'm not falling for it anymore! You can't fool me so easily!"

'He'd already seen someone do that act?' Soujiro mused to himself. To Yahiko, he commented, "I see."

'It's weird to see two relative strangers act so familiarly with each other. Is this anything like what grandfather said to me about the mutual feeling of brotherhood between all swordsmen?' Kyoko wondered to herself.

Soujiro didn't look at all nonplussed as Yahiko finally brandished his sword. He gave the sixteen year old a clear, steady look. "I'm truly sorry, but this isn't an act. I really have no intention of staying. There's nothing of interest for me here."

Soujiro gave Yahiko a sidelong glance as he left. "See you later, Yahiko-san."

The spike-haired youth just stood there in shock and silence for a couple of minutes as the ever-smiling young man made his way to the exit of the bamboo forest. The young Myojin then repeated his earlier credo; a phrase that explained concisely what he was about to do.

"The hell you will," he whispered as he charged at Soujiro with a jumping strike.

Soujiro appeared like he was just a little more than puzzled after he turned to face the charging Yahiko. However, the hand on the hilt of his sword didn't even suffer a hint of hesitation as it executed a perfect battoujutsu strike.

A reverberating clang was heard from the two colliding swords.

Yahiko seemed to arrest his downward descent as he spoke, declaring, "I, Myojin Yahiko, Acting Master of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, challenge..."

Yahiko paused in mid-sentence as he saw the chilly smile on Soujiro's saintly face. His eyes went wide as he found himself unceremoniously pushed back a couple of feet away by the older boy with just a simple flick of the sword.

Yahiko tried to catch up with his breath as he recovered from the recoil of Soujiro's counterattack. 'Whoa. With just one move, he was able to push me away like an empty wicker basket,' he mused as he backed a few more steps away from the jovial swordsman. 'He was also able to block my two-handed sword strike with just a one-handed counter.'

Yahiko instantly fell into his usual Jodan-no-Kamae stance, eyeing his opponent warily. 'Speed and power combined; who is this Psycho-Kid?' He glanced at his back as he heard a feminine gasp of shock.

Kyoko's eyes shimmered as she just stood there, her agape mouth covered by a trembling hand. "Soujiro-kun," she whispered softly.

Yahiko had just turned his attention back to the situation at hand when his opponent addressed him, stating, "I admit, it was a skillful strike and your form was impeccable. Your kenjutsu is quite good."

The distressing smile Yahiko saw on Soujiro's face a while ago returned as the merry young lad casually put his blade on his shoulder. "But you seem to misunderstand one thing, Yahiko-san."

"Eh?" Yahiko exclaimed cagily. "What are you talking about, Psycho-Kid?"

"I will give you a demonstration to show the difference between the two of us." Soujiro nodded to himself astutely, adding, "I will show you the difference between you and me."

A few seconds later, Yahiko clutched his stomach in agony as he struggled to keep himself up although his legs were feeling as wobbly as tofu. 'What the hell just happened? One minute, I was just talking to Psycho-Kid, the next...' He gave the subject of his roundabout musings a glare, despite it looking more like a pained wince.

The Acting Master of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu cursed under ragged breaths, flinching at the blurry image of Soujiro Seta before him, standing there all "smiley-smiley" and some such. Yahiko was beginning to really hate that annoying smile.

'How in the world did he...?' Yahiko pondered as he desperately tried to recall what had just occurred the last few moments.

A shout. Yahiko definitely remembered a shout. It was a shout of wonder, gleefulness, and juvenility that was curiously laced with undertones of malice. The shout's description matched the apparition from which it came.

"I accept your challenge, Myojin Yahiko of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu!" the apparition answered with deceptively angelic tones.

Apparition. It was an appropriate description for the "Psycho-Kid" as he unpredictably charged at Yahiko. He was just like a specter; a phantom of some sort. It certainly was the case as he disappeared midway in his dash like a ghost.

He also remembered the sound of rapid beatings on the ground. It was like the buzz of a large dragonfly's flapping wings when it neared one's ear.

Yahiko had idly wondered at the time if Soujiro's technique was anything like Takae's invisibility trick.

It wasn't.

It wasn't like anything he had ever seen before. It was different; completely different. Those were the thoughts in Yahiko's head as he skidded away from the recoil of Soujiro's first strike.

'I can't breathe,' Yahiko surmised in panic. He gradually calmed down as he gulped large amounts of air in deep breaths. 'I wasn't even able to lay one strike on him!' he considered, frustrated. 'It looks like I'm outclassed.'

The spike-haired boy furthered his contemplations despite the nasty cough he'd developed after accidentally choking on his spit while wheezing. 'If it wasn't like Takae's technique, then there's only one other explanation for his sudden disappearance at mid-charge. Speed. It was his speed... his incredible, pure speed... that made it possible. Could it be that he was even faster than...?'

Yahiko shook his head vehemently as if to clear it. 'No, that can't be right. But still, this Soujiro guy...' the young man deliberated in his head as he struggled to put his theories into order. 'Unless I'm finally going out of my mind, the speed that Psycho-Kid used was even faster than Kenshin's Divine Speed!'

He breathed with a bit of difficulty as he regarded his cheerful opponent cautiously. 'No way. Nobody can beat Kenshin's speed. Those are just stupid thoughts running in my head. But still, it's quite obvious that his sword skill is better than mine. There is no comparison. He's at the very least within Kenshin's skill level. Oh man. What have I gotten myself into? I might have bitten off more than I could chew.'

Yahiko gripped his abdomen. Soujiro had struck him just a little above his midsection, which was the same place where Takae had nearly gutted him just a few weeks ago. His midriff flared in remembrance of pain; a memory of stinging warmth.

However, it was only a recollection and a memory.

'Wait a second!' Yahiko ruminated, trailing off as he checked his abdomen. Sure enough, there wasn't a tear, slice, or cut on it; just a bruise and a vague, passing feeling of having the wind knocked out of him. He trembled in barely contained anger. "Psycho-Kid."

"Oh, you're still standing?" Soujiro simply questioned, as if he'd just noticed Yahiko's presence. "You're a very tenacious individual, Yahiko-san."

"You're not deliberately making fun of me, are you?" Yahiko asked in an annoyed tone.

"What do you mean?" Soujiro obliviously queried in return.

"You flipped your blade when you struck me," Yahiko declared plainly, as if merely stating a fact, but his eyes contrastingly glinted of annoyance and enmity. "I resent that. I hate it when people hold back and underestimate me!"

"Please don't misunderstand, Yahiko-san. I have no quarrel with you. The earlier attack was just a warning. Please don't involve yourself or Kyoko-san in this situation," Soujiro honestly beseeched, his eyes clear and cloudless.

Yahiko exerted himself as he straightened his body out from its slouching position using the embedded sakabatou as a supportive counterweight. "Yeah? Well, you should have thought about that before you killed all those..."

The sixteen year old blinked at Soujiro as his jovial opponent started eyeing his reverse-edged sword strangely. "Um, what are you looking at?"

Soujiro actually walked closer towards Yahiko to give the sword a closer inspection. 'How curious; why is the reverse side of his sword entrenched within a bamboo stalk? Could it be...?'

A mysterious grin escaped Soujiro's lips. 'Is that sword he's holding the sakabatou? Himura-san's reverse-edged sword?' The emotionally bereft youth rubbed his chin thoughtfully as his mind drifted to another plain of reality.

'Surely it could be no other than the sakabatou. There's only one left, especially since I destroyed the original,' Soujiro pondered to himself as he blissfully reminisced.

The twenty-four year old studied the novice wanderer in the corner of his eye, giggling as he felt the young lad tremble in irritation and fury. 'Well-trained, but he still acts a lot like a child. Hmmm. It's too bad I can't relate to him because I never had the chance to experience any sort of childhood since I was eight years old,' he thought.

'Who is this Myojin Yahiko? Why does he carry Himura-san's prized sakabatou?' Soujiro briefly and absentmindedly pondered before his familiar beatific smile reappeared on his face. 'Interesting. How very interesting indeed.'

"Hey! Stop that! You're freaking me out!" Yahiko yelped. He afterwards narrowed his eyes as he muttered, "Hey."

Grasping the hilt of the sakabatou tightly, Yahiko hastily dislodged his sword from the bamboo stalk, swinging it deliberately towards Soujiro's smiling face.

"Don't ignore your opponent while still in combat! This isn't..." was what Yahiko raged before he trailed off once he realized that he had just swung the sakabatou into thin air. "Where'd he go this time?"

"I'm sorry to say, but your sword slash just now could have been executed better, Yahiko-san," Soujiro pointed out matter-of-factly seconds later as he stood a good six feet away from Yahiko. "It kind of disappointed me, I'm afraid; especially after comparing it to the strength of your earlier attack on me."

"Shut up! Nobody asked you!" Yahiko spat. 'Dammit. He evaded my strike? Even with his face so close to my sword?'

Yahiko idly wondered just why the older boy was studying his sakabatou so intently. 'Man. That really freaked me out. What's up with that?' The teenager shuddered at the notion.

"How old are you?"

Yahiko paused for a minute before the question registered in his head. "I just turned sixteen... Hey! You're doing one of those mind games of yours again!"

Soujiro merely nodded in response before he returned to his musings.

"Soujiro-kun, why?" Yahiko heard Kyoko ask. As he glanced over the girl's direction, it was clear that she was still in shock, cradling her grandfather's sword like a newborn babe.

Yahiko exhaled as he focused his gaze on his enemy. It was clear at this point that Soujiro was again deep in apparent contemplation, smiling carelessly and ceaselessly. 'Jeez, does he have any other expression on his face other than 'happy' and 'happier'?'

Yahiko could've attacked Soujiro again then and there because of the older boy's current state. 'What a weirdo.' But after seeing the result of his earlier assault, he decided to keep his guard up instead. 'He's an incredible swordsman, but still a weirdo.'

Soujiro felt strange. There was no other word for it.

Here he was, standing before a complete stranger that had affected him somehow. Mentally. Emotionally. Well, certainly not physically, but he digressed.

This was most probably caused by his curious emotive reaction to the reverse-edged sword the young boy was carrying... the sakabatou. Kenshin Himura's sakabatou.

It was the sword that had changed his life forever. Actually, Makoto Shishio's wakizashi supposedly changed his life as well, but after the battle with the Battousai, he had learned that no tangible little thing could truly change a life. Mere objects didn't have as much impact as major events and great people did. Life, on the other hand, was always shifting, always dynamic, and composed of many little changes. It could never be stagnant.

He shouldn't blame a sword for his moment of hesitation and... weakness. 'Such a loaded word.' It was probably the nostalgic feeling he had in himself that was causing him to be like this.

'My, my. I'm thinking weird thoughts again,' Soujiro supposed, chuckling.

Memories started flooding Soujiro's mind like water from a broken dam. It was a dam that was never repaired, just mostly ignored until the next torrential downpour confirmed its existence. It was a dam broken years ago by a battle with a man who would have protected him, had he only been there during the...

'Another silly thought.'

The reminiscences continued to deluge his mind, the heavy torrent in his psyche unforgiving and merciless. First, there were the memories he had of an old colleague. He was a strange, bat-winged, and gaunt man; the explosives expert of the Juppon Gatana: Soaring Henya of the Ten Swords.

Soujiro repetitively and deliberately made passing mentions and subtle inquiries to Henya concerning his defeat in Aoiya whenever they had a chance to meet and reminisce.

A resounding harrumph was the only response he ever got from his fellow former Juppon Gatana member concerning that delicate topic.

'Although I've met with him a couple of times more, Henya-san was still tight-lipped about the subject for some strange reason. However, he did mention something about a flying door and a lucky shot.' Soujiro chortled at the idea, but his mirth was soon replaced by seriousness hidden behind an ecstatic grin.

'Hmmm. According to the intelligence reports that Houji-san related to Shishio-san and me six years ago...'

"Four women, only two grown men, an old man, and a child will be present in Aoiya as of tomorrow morning," Houji Sadojima of the Hundred Sense informed Shishio and Soujiro smugly during the preliminary stages of their planned ambush. "They're the only resistance the Juppon Gatana will meet at that inn. How can we not win?"

'Houji-san had mentioned a child. Can Yahiko-san be that child?'

"The attack on Aoiya has failed. Iwanbo has fled, and Henya, Kamatari, Fuji, and Saizuchi have been arrested," a more infuriated and disheveled version of Houji detailed in Soujiro's wistful reverie. "They even had a giant with them! How could we fail? Why were they defeated?"

Then there came Shishio's piercing words.

"They were stronger than us. That's the simple truth."

Afterwards, there were Soujiro's own words.

"After all, in this world, the flesh of the weak is the food for the strong. The strong live, the weak die. But it's okay. I'm strong, so I can do the work of all the Juppon Gatana combined, can't I?"

'Strength. Another loaded word.'

He deliberately glazed over the events following that conversation. It was an incident that he had already replayed in his mind over and over. He felt no need to linger on that particular memory.

'It's time to turn my contemplations back to the situation at hand.'

Slowly, Soujiro focused his attention on the boy holding Battousai's signature weapon. 'Could it be? Could it be that the little boy in Aoiya and this young man before me are one and the same? If I'm guessing correctly, then this person was able to defeat a member of the Juppon Gatana... probably Henya... when he was only a mere child. Then there's the fact concerning his current possession of Himura-san's sakabatou.'

Soujiro's heartbeat steadily quickened in anticipation. 'He just turned sixteen, so six years ago, during the attack on Aoiya, he was merely a ten-year-old boy. I was still a pathetic little stripling under Shishio-san's protective wing when I was about that age.' His smile grew.

'This boy was just ten years old, and yet he was able to defeat one of Shishio-san's premiere fighters at that very tender age.' The ever-smiling young lad's excited heartbeat palpitated even faster. 'How fascinating. I want to see what he's truly capable of, this Myojin Yahiko.'

"Myojin Yahiko-san of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu," Soujiro unexpectedly and smilingly addressed as his eyes quickly focused on his surroundings and on his immediate opponent.

"Humph. That's my name, don't wear it out," Yahiko rejoined gruffly, tensing himself for battle. 'This guy's as unpredictable as they get. What's he planning now?'

Soujiro looked at Yahiko jubilantly, a curious glint in the amused young man's eyes. "To tell you the truth, I feel a bit excited about this duel of ours," he confessed to the dumbstruck kendoist.

"'Duel', eh? For a while there, I thought you didn't want to fight," Yahiko retorted as he fell into his standard kendo stance. "But it seems that your killer instincts have reemerged again. Well, after I'm done with you, you still have a lot of explaining to do concerning what happened to all those men."

'Why? Why is Soujiro-kun acting so strangely?' Kyoko thought as she cautiously backed away from the two swordsmen who were now squaring off upon a dusty pathway. 'The smile on his face right now... I've never seen him smile like that. It's a scary smile. Who is this Myojin Yahiko? Why does he affect Soujiro-kun so much?'

"Well then, I think a reintroduction is in order," Soujiro cheered as he daintily clasped his hands in the same manner as before.

After letting out a rather colorful curse, Yahiko screamed, "NO MORE MIND GAMES! I know who I am and you know who you are. I'm Myojin Yahiko! You're Psycho-Kid! End of story!"

To Yahiko's chagrin, the eternally pleased young lad laughed amicably and freely at his angry proclamation and expense. Kyoko, on her part, worriedly glanced at her friend's current state, undeniable anxiety glinting in her eyes.

"What's so funny?" Yahiko challenged, taking up a stance and demeanor reminiscent of one of his former yakuza employer's henchmen in an obvious attempt to intimidate his adversary. "You're not making fun of me, are you?"

"Not at all, Yahiko-san," Soujiro cooed. "I'm just happy that I'm about to get the chance to fight Himura-san's prodigy."

Flabbergasted, Yahiko murmured, "How did you...?" Of course, Soujiro wasn't aware that Kenshin was now known as "Kamiya Kenshin", but that was neither here nor there.

Soujiro dramatically pointed his sword at Yahiko, proclaiming, "This is the fight between two prodigies: the prodigy of Himura Kenshin and the prodigy of Shishio Makoto. I am Seta Soujiro, the former Ten Ken of the Juppon Gatana." His eyes shone maniacally. "Prepare yourself, Myojin Yahiko of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu!"

'The Heaven Sword of the Ten Swords? Shishio Makoto? What the hell is going on?' Yahiko mulled over in his head as he braced himself, expecting the worst.

A stray bamboo leaf briefly floated into Yahiko's field of vision, obscuring his sight for a fraction of a second. That momentary distraction was all it took for Soujiro to start his imperceptible assault.

'He disappeared again using that quickness technique of his,' Yahiko observed. He tried to relax his breathing as his eyes darted back and forth the bamboo grove. 'He's not rushing towards me like before; that probably means that he's serious this time, and not just planning some sort of surprise attack.'

Yahiko loosened his stiff joints as he concentrated hard. 'Dammit, I can't see or sense him at all! He's too quick. Even his kenki is gone. I'm a sitting duck. I'm completely at his mercy.'

For some strange and inexplicable reason, Yahiko visualized a duck in a pond full of dragonflies. 'Eh? Dragonflies?'

The buzz of a large dragonfly's flapping wings grew louder in Yahiko's fantasy as it slowly but surely neared his ear. It was a buzz that sounded very similar to the slight beatings he heard all around him.

Yahiko looked at the ground. Sure enough, miniature gushes were forming on its rocky surface, lined up together in two parallel rows. The sounds increasingly grew as time passed, the zigzagging path of the dirty geysers clearly heading towards his direction.

'These gushes are the only sign that he's still here... small geysers erupting from his quick and rapid footwork!' Yahiko determinedly lifted his sword as the sounds of Soujiro's footsteps neared, becoming somewhat louder than before. 'Then I'll use those flitting footsteps to find him!'

"Imitation Technique! Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu: Ryu Tsui Sen!" Yahiko screamed out as he made a quick and small leap towards the furious trail, his sword ready to strike down his rapidly approaching invisible opponent.

Yahiko's mouth went agape as his sakabatou smashed itself on the ground, pelting rock and debris as it missed its target . He felt a dread chill on the base of his spine as he heard a familiar chortle from behind him.

"I'm afraid to say that your idea to follow the sound of my footsteps," Soujiro started to berate as Yahiko shuddered in a mixture of shock and fear, "was a bad one."

'The speed Psycho-Kid used just now was different from before; frighteningly different.' Yahiko gulped, his back still turned away from his opponent as time seemed to crawl for him. 'So he held back? Not just his sword strike, but his speed as well?'

Without any warning or ceremony, Yahiko felt a sharp, mindless pain pierce through the very depths of his consciousness as Soujiro stabbed his shoulder. He only had one thought in his mind as he yowled a horrid screech that cut through the very heart of his soul.

'Oh my God! He's not holding back this time!'

Yahiko tried... he desperately tried... but he just couldn't measure up; not at all. 'With all that pure speed and skill, he's not just within Kenshin's level. He's Kenshin's match!' Tears burned through the teenager's closed eyes. 'He's definitely out of my league; Shishio's right hand man, Seta Soujiro.'

"NOOOO! Stop it! Soujiro-kun, please stop!" Kyoko squealed in the background, but to Yahiko, those girlish cries sounded like they were miles away from him as his body became numb with fear.

'He's too strong.' Yahiko struggled for air; moreover, the sharp ache on his shoulder had a curious lethargic effect on him. 'At this rate, only Kenshin could stop him.' From the fading panic that penetrated through his drowsiness, Yahiko was able to grimly reflect, 'But Kenshin's not here,' despite his quickly vanishing awareness.

Fear. He felt fear. He felt afraid and vulnerable at that one moment... the moment he'd feared the most. It was a moment of weakness that he'd be ashamed to admit to anyone, even to himself.

It was the moment where he was helpless and Kenshin wasn't there to save him; his greatest fear.

'That speed...'

Kenshin wasn't there to fight against it.

'That power...'

Kenshin wasn't there to rescue him.

'I'm scared.'

Kenshin wasn't there.

'I'm so scared.'

Kenshin was gone.

So there he was... bleeding, dying, powerless, and defenseless. He wanted so dreadfully to become strong; but now, all of that was for naught.

'How humiliating.'

Because he, Yahiko Myojin, Son of a Tokyo Samurai, had just revealed to himself how much of a coward he really was.

'Hmmm. It seems that, for a moment there, I became a bit overexcited,' Soujiro sheepishly admitted to himself as he flicked the blood off of his sword. 'I didn't even notice that I had used the true Shukuchi until it was too late. I should have instead utilized the Shukuchi with three steps done beforehand like in my first attack. I practically overwhelmed the poor boy.'

The former Ten Ken of the Juppon Gatana stared at the wretched-looking Yahiko with pity in his eyes. He smilingly sighed. 'Using my true speed against a weaker opponent; how irresponsible of me.'

He pouted just a little more as he saw the glistening tears in the Tokyo Samurai Descendant's eyes. 'The willingness to fight has already left his eyes. They've became the eyes of an innocent bystander amidst the presence of a murderer.'

Soujiro then felt a nearly imperceptible flicker of unease as he heard Yahiko sob and grovel on the ground.

Yahiko grasped his bleeding wound as he apprehensively inched away from the older boy. The distressed teenager held his sakabatou in front of him like it was some sort of reverse-edged shield as he inclined his bloodied back against a wall of bamboo stalks.

'How disappointing.'

The everlastingly polite Soujiro sheathed his sword, sighing in defeat even though the opposite was actually true. 'My thoughts about this boy and his skill are mistaken. I feel that I had expected too much from him. It seems that I had overestimated this Myojin Yahiko.' He looked around, nodding to himself. 'I guess it's finally time for me to go.'

"Soujiro-kun! Soujiro-kun! Please wait!" an insistent voice urgently pleaded. The subject of the summons gave no heed to it until he heard the demanding and uncharacteristic yell of, "Seta Soujiro!"

"Kyoko-san?" Soujiro asked uncertainly as he blinked in mild surprise. He didn't expect his usually acquiescent acquaintance to be so vehement and impolite.

"I'm sorry," Kyoko apologized, embarrassed by her supposed earlier rudeness. "I was trying to call your attention, but you ignored me." She slipped her grandfather's Fuyutsuki inside her cloth belt. "As I was trying to say before, I'm afraid that I cannot let you leave."

Soujiro had a puzzled and pensive expression on his smiling face as he looked at his female friend without a word of protest or complaint escaping his lips.

Kyoko, though visibly agitated, persisted through subdued tones, "I am here to fight you. Prepare yourself."

Upon hearing the ridiculous statement, Soujiro stared at Kyoko with skepticism. 'How could she say that with such fear in her voice? It seems that she's even more afraid to fight than Yahiko-san is. It's just that she's more polite about it.' He'd laugh, but that was a very impolite thing for a compatriot to do to an obviously sensitive companion.

"For the sake of the lives you've taken and f-for the b-boy's sake as well..." Kyoko trailed off, her voice choked with unbridled emotion. She noticeably shook as she went into battoujutsu stance, her hand trembling helplessly at the hilt of her grandfather's sword.

'Please, stop shaking!' Kyoko mentally beseeched to her body before she willed herself to continue. "F-For their sake, I have chosen to fight. I am Sakaguchi Kyoko of the Musou Madden School. Please prepare yourself, Soujiro-kun."

Soujiro couldn't help himself this time as he daintily chortled. He afterwards made an apologetic chopping motion with his right hand. "Excuse me. I didn't mean to laugh, but it's quite obvious that you don't want to fight. You're panicked and afraid; you yourself know this. Please stop forcing yourself to be brave. You don't have to get involved. Go home to Sakaguchi-san and let things be."

"I will not stand down!" Kyoko roared, surprising even herself with the forcefulness and intensity of her words.

"Oh?" Soujiro asked patronizingly, adding, "And why is that, Kyoko-san?"

"Because," the double pony-tailed girl seemed at a loss for words before she determinedly avowed, "this h-has nothing to do with my willingness to fight." She resolutely grasped Fuyutsuki's handle tightly, even though her hand still continued to tremble. "I... I only do what I have to do. I-I'll be the first one to admit that I am... w-weak-hearted, but I would like to think that I can be strong when the situation deems it necessary."

Unnoticed by either of the two affable companions lost in an awkward moment of confrontation, a boy's eyes sparkled briefly in blurry awareness as he heard the girl's impassioned declaration. From there, he silently mouthed the powerful words that had cut through the haze of his mind.

"Be... strong?"

Bamboo leaves started raining upon the two new soon-to-be combatants as Kyoko Sakaguchi desperately pushed her waning self-confidence to the limit, lest it quickly left her completely.

"A great man once told me that, even though I didn't want to, I would eventually fight for what I believed in. But as much as possible, if I really had to fight, I should not fight just because of some principle."

Kyoko smiled sadly at Soujiro, which made the young man stand back in surprise. "He told me to fight for a dream. A goal. A wish."

'Kinta-sama was a very wise and nice person; just like you, Soujiro-kun,' Kyoko reminisced as she breathed deeply, bracing herself again as she resumed her passionate speech.

"I'm going to fight you to fulfill that wish, Soujiro-kun." Seeing no response on Soujiro's part, Kyoko resumed, "Mother always did tease us with her 'boy that always smiles' and 'girl that never smiles' quips. Didn't we promise to each other that if I'd continue to search for the person that would make me smile, you, in turn, would continue to search for the person that you could openly cry with? I have never forgotten that promise."

Soujiro nodded absently to what Kyoko was saying, lost in his own ruminations.

"It's a promise to humanize yourself... ourselves, Soujiro-kun," Kyoko clarified, her eyes shimmering. "It's that promise that has compelled me to fight. I'm fighting for my wish; my wish for humanity. Your humanity."

Soujiro snickered at that. He remembered Kyoko's sad smile, not realizing that the same sad smile was now etched upon his face.

"Soujiro-kun, please. Say something. Tell me why you did it," Kyoko implored sullenly. "Why did you murder all those people?"

At last, Soujiro spoke. "I am afraid I am not clean enough to deserve such redemption."

Kyoko shut her eyes as she bit her quivering lip. "Okay. Then I have to do this." Ignoring the pain of her heart that mingled with her growing anxiety, she rapidly charged.

'Grandfather. Father. Kinta-sama. Please, give me strength,' she entreated as she pledged, "I will defeat you, Soujiro-kun!"

"Kyoko! Psycho-Kid! STOP!"

Kyoko and Soujiro glanced at the source of the ardent objection as they both paused in the middle of their mutual charge.

"Yahiko-san?" Soujiro inquired in a half-surprised, half-puzzled tone.

The boy in question gingerly got up from his crouching position near the now-bloodied bamboo stalks, grasping his shoulder in an effort to lessen the bleeding. "I feel so ashamed."

Yahiko looked up, his eyes containing neither fear nor anger. Humiliation and humility were its only contents. "I was petrified by you just because you were Shishio's right hand man and an even match against Kenshin. But here was Kyoko, ready to fight you even though she probably dreaded the prospect of doing so more than I did." He quickly grasped the sakabatou with both hands. "She's much braver than me."

"Please, Yahiko-san!" Kyoko addressed, remembering the spike-haired boy's name at the last minute. "You're hurt, and this is hardly your fight anymore!" she half-pleaded, half-reproached.

Yahiko grinned widely at the young girl. "I'm sorry. I was such a moron. I originally came here at your mother's request to save you, but once I saw all those dead people and Psycho-Kid over there, I became self-righteous and arrogant. I wanted so desperately to prove to myself that I could beat Psycho-Kid with my current abilities that I lost sight of what I was supposed to do."

Kyoko at last put two and two together, remembering where she had seen the conceited boy before. 'He was the one who challenged Keisuke and his gang this morning!' To Yahiko, she reproved, "Thank you, but I don't feel the need to be rescued."

Yahiko's grinning face turned serious. "I know." Getting Kyoko's full attention, he persisted, stating, "I understand your position. I know that you wanted to get that bastard Keisuke yourself. You didn't like the fact that he made you feel so helpless and violated; that's why you're here right now. You tried to be brave, even though you felt you couldn't. You wanted to be strong so that nobody could make you feel helpless anymore."

Yahiko sighed. 'Boy, did that sound familiar.'

"Like I said before, I won't be fighting Psycho-Kid for the sake of my own self-righteousness." The Kamiya Kasshin Ryu practitioner briefly glanced at the blissful-looking swordsman, wincing a bit in annoyance. "It looks like the two of you are the best of friends. And, even though I don't like Psycho-Kid all that much, I hate it when friends fight each other. I myself would hate it if I were put in a position where I had to fight a close friend of mine. So I have to do this."

"Y-Yahiko-san," Kyoko stuttered in awe. 'He's so spirited. He's a lot like Chizuru-san and Satsuki-neechan.'

"Hey! Psycho-Kid! Did you hear that? I'm still going to fight!" Yahiko called out boisterously. "Let's finish this."

Soujiro laughed gaily and openly. "Very well. Though, I must warn you, I doubt you'll survive another charge with that wound of yours, Yahiko-san." With his proverbial mask of happiness still intact, Soujiro promptly unsheathed his sword. "I'm sorry to say, but that's the truth."

"Is that so?" Yahiko snorted. "How arrogant of you."

Soujiro shook his head earnestly. "This isn't arrogance. This is one of the most important things I've learned in my life as a swordsman. Having pure motives and good intentions doesn't assure you of a victory in the end. Even though it sounds sad and tragic, it's still strength and skill and not purpose and resolve that determines who will win and who will lose. Even though you're determined to win, you will still lose."

"Really now?" Yahiko growled as he struggled within himself to find his inner calm. 'I saw how Kyoko smiled at you, Soujiro. She has already found the person she could smile with. And because of my moment of weakness, I nearly forced a girl to fight the one person she'd hate to fight the most. Because of that, I cannot afford defeat.'

Kyoko reflexively flinched as she saw a couple of leaves snap right in front of her. "Snapping leaves?" she ponderously whispered. 'Is this...?'

"Call me stubborn, but even though you say that, Psycho-Kid..."

'Is this the phenomenon grandpa told me about? The phenomenon called...?'

'With my sword, I'll make it my destiny to protect. I will not allow failure.'

"I'LL NEVER GIVE UP!" Upon shouting out his declaration, a thin bamboo stalk from behind Yahiko was all of a sudden split in half, startling the only two people who witnessed it.

'Kenki,' Soujiro thought delightedly.

The furious exchange of sword strikes between the two prodigies was brief.

Seconds seemed to pass forever as they stood there with their backs turned, the intensity of their respective attacks creating a powerful updraft of ferocious wind that scattered the bamboo leaves across the landscape.

Myojin Yahiko was the first one to fall as a dark, moist stain grew on his blue shirt.

A delighted voice inside the young Tokyo Samurai's psyche began mocking him.

"Having pure motives and good intentions doesn't assure you of a victory in the end."

'No. Oh God, no.'

"Even though it sounds sad and tragic, it's still strength and skill and not purpose and resolve that determines who will win and who will lose."

'I missed? I still missed?'

"Even though you're determined to win, you will still lose, Yahiko-san."

'I still... failed?'

Yahiko ground his teeth in frustration and desperation. 'No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, and no matter how determined I am, I still can't beat him. Why?'

'No good!' Kyoko summed up as she looked at the crouched and bloodied form of Yahiko. 'He's still not strong enough. Even though his fighting spirit is incredible, it's still not enough.'

'Disappointed again,' Soujiro cogitated as he looked at his bloodied blade with a touch of dissatisfaction on his merry features. 'I was kind of expecting him to rise to the challenge, but it was apparently too much for me to ask. What a pity.'

A stray memory entered Yahiko's mind. It contained a vision of himself and Kenshin six years ago, when Chou had just visited them to talk about what happened after the death of Makoto Shishio and the dissolution of the Juppon Gatana.

"Hey, Kenshin. We won. Aren't we the ones who are right?" It was a query that came from the ten-year-old Yahiko's mouth.

"If you think might makes right, you're the same as Shishio Makoto. Which side was right is up for future generations to decide. What we can do now is believe in what we know ourselves to be true and fight for it." That was Kenshin's own idealistic answer.

A new query... a more contemporary statement... was asked by the sixteen-year-old Yahiko.

"But what if you were sure to lose? No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, no matter how determined you are, you still can't win? What will you do then?"

"Well, well, Yahiko," Kenshin drawled in the kendoist's perceptive mind. "You already know the answer to that."

Soujiro looked at his katana, feeling as though something was amiss. 'How curious.' He cautiously cleaned the blade with a handkerchief, inspecting it carefully. 'Well, no nicks or scratches on the edge itself. I'm fairly sure that the sakabatou wasn't even able to touch the blade as I slashed Yahiko-san. I must be imagining things.'

His eyes then widened in mild surprise.

Tsubame blushed hard as she took the red string back and kneeled down.

"Huh?" Yahiko blurted. "Tsubame, what are you...?"

The youth went silent as the teenaged girl started tying the string tightly on his sandals. 'This is just like the first time we met.'

Tsubame smiled as she got up. "It's so you'll never forget, Yahiko-kun. I hope you'll find what you're looking for, so do have a safe trip!" she urged optimistically.

Yahiko grinned in kind, turning quickly lest he risk letting Tsubame see his reddened face. He directed a sidelong glance towards her. "Tsubame."

"Y-Yes?" Tsubame choked as her heart got caught in her throat. It was a familiar anxiety, but an ultimately welcome nervousness.

"The address I got from the post office was the Akabeko's instead of the Kamiya Dojo's. I'm entrusting you the task of getting the letters delivered to Kenshin, Kaoru, and Kenji. Good-bye."

"But why would you do that if it would be easier to mail..." her words were cut off as Yahiko looked at her with clear brown eyes that spoke volumes.

Tsubame nodded timidly to Yahiko, putting up a brave and hopeful face. "Thank you." There was no need for more words as the girl gazed at the retreating figure of her beloved. The scene was simplicity itself.

It was a memory of an unsaid promise of mutual understanding.

'When I finally return to Tokyo, I will return as a man, Tsubame! Wait for me!'

"Didn't we promise to each other that if I'd continue to search for the person that would make me smile, you, in turn, would continue to search for the person that you could openly cry with? I have never forgotten that promise." This was Kyoko's pleading pledge to Soujiro.

'When I finally return to Tokyo, I will return as a man, Tsubame! Wait for me!' This was Yahiko's unsaid promise to Tsubame.

'A samurai's word is his bond. Though I didn't even state my promise to Tsubame, I will still stake my life on it,' Yahiko avowed as he struggled to get up. The stinging warmth he felt on his abdomen was very real this time, instead of just a passing remembrance of pain. However, he barely took heed of it. 'I know how important your wish is to you, Kyoko. I know that you'll do anything for that wish.'

Yahiko steeled his nerves. 'I know. Because I also have the same sort of wish.'

"He told me to fight for a dream. A goal. A wish."

'I also want to fight for a dream, a goal, and a wish, Kyoko.'

"Even though it sounds sad and tragic, it's still strength and skill and not purpose and resolve that determines who will win and who will lose."

'Even though I hate to admit it, Psycho-Kid's probably right.'

"But what if you were sure to lose? No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, no matter how determined you are, you still can't win? What will you do then?"

'What will I do now?'

"You already know the answer to that."

'Yes, I do. Even if I were sure to lose, I will still fight for a wish and a promise.'

A memory of Tsubame blushingly tying a red string on Yahiko's sandals filled the young man's psyche.

'Because even when faced with insurmountable odds, some wishes are just worth fighting for!'

'So,' Soujiro amusedly pondered, 'he was able to anticipate my attack.'

The former Ten Ken sniggered. 'I was so concentrated on slashing his gut as fast as possible that I didn't notice that he had hit the hand guard of my sword instead.' He trailed his finger on the currently exposed metal band that separated blade from hilt. 'Meaning the sakabatou strike was able to absorb the power of my sword strike; which, in turn, means that...'

"Psycho-Kid!" Yahiko yelled. "That last attack was pathetic! I was cut deeper by an old, decrepit ninja!"

'This is beginning to become a fight to enjoy,' Soujiro Seta concluded as he prepared his offensive stance once more. "Really? That's nice. I'd like to comment on your performance as well, but unfortunately, your sword has yet to touch me."

Yahiko nearly growled at his adversary's mostly correct remark. 'It's one thing for him to insult my sword skills since he's a better swordsman and all... but to do it with that smiley face of his? If he thinks he's so hot, then he should challenge me to a fist fight to see who's the better man!'

'Yahiko-san. Soujiro-kun. They're both really good fighters. I sort of envy them, knowing my vast inexperience in swordsmanship,' Kyoko weighed up in silent awe as she openly gawked at the two prodigies.

'Psyche me out, will you? Well, two can play this game!' the spike-haired young lad fumed as he visibly tried to calm himself down. "Humph. I don't know about that. I was able to anticipate your last strike."

"Yes, I must confess that it was an incredible, one-time fluke. I applaud your efforts," Soujiro jovially confessed.

Yahiko tried his best not to fall face-first on the ground in utter shame. That done, he angrily retorted, "Oh yeah? Well, your last attack sucked!" 'Why did it suck? It nearly made my guts spill out of my stomach.' "Because it was... slower than your second attack and... a little faster than your first attack!" 'I think.'

The Tokyoite paused musingly as he noticed something off beam. 'Hey, what happened to Psycho-Kid's hand guard?' His jaw slackened in disbelief. 'Did I break it? Could I have actually come close to hitting him?'

Soujiro regarded the Tokyo Samurai with uncharacteristic wariness, though it came out looking more like a blissful, closed-eye expression because of his joyful smile. 'He is correct. I used two steps before the Shukuchi in my last assault. Can Yahiko-san actually tell how fast my Shukuchi is?'

The former Ten Ken took an unhesitating step forward, rousing himself from his own musings. 'Fine. I'll believe it once I see it,' he decided. To Yahiko, he forewarned, "If so, then prepare yourself. Here I go."

Soujiro's image completely disappeared within the span of a fraction of a second.

Yahiko's heart palpitated faster. He closed his eyes as the furious yet subtle beats of Soujiro's footsteps came nearer and nearer. 'Looks like he called my bluff! He's charging again like nothing happened! Okay, Yahiko; pray that it wasn't a fluke.'

Kaoru's visage rapidly entered Yahiko's mind's eye. Or was it Chizuru's? The Descendant of Tokyo Samurai wasn't completely sure. He was subsequently whacked on the head with a shinai. "You got it all wrong again! Pay attention to what you're doing!"

Yup, it was definitely Kaoru's visage, all right.

"What now, old hag?" the ten-year-old version of Yahiko's self growled irritably. "I got the whole exercise right, didn't I? I did the dumb move perfectly!"

"Technically, yes. You did do the 'dumb' move correctly," Kaoru agreed in a tone that wasn't very agreeable at all. "But I wasn't talking about the move. You got the execution all wrong! A true Kamiya Kasshin Ryu practitioner should have..."

Yahiko yawned as he blocked the rest of Kaoru's rant from his mind. 'Blah, blah, blah. Why the hell is she so fussy? What got her ponytail in a knot? Like she said, I practically mastered the Hiza-something-or-whatever already! Does she really need to harp on me all the time?' he wondered to himself irritably as he idly cleaned his ear with his pinky.

Yahiko immediately felt a sharp pain on that very same ear as Kaoru callously pinched and twisted it. Hard. "Listen when somebody is talking to you!"

The disobedient young boy rolled his eyes as he slapped Kaoru's hand away. "Oh, forgive me. I must have missed something really important from that worn-out rant of yours! Something that hasn't been said to me a thousand times, I'll bet! Oh, woe is me."

Yahiko started to mockingly mimic Kaoru's gestures as he reiterated his teacher's rant. "'Yahiko, you're practicing Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, not Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu! Kamiya Kasshin Ryu is a defensive technique, dammit! Stop charging like a bull and anticipate your opponent for once!' Yeah right, like that would do me any good; 'confronting' my enemy by just standing there, eh? What's so manly about that? I ain't gonna do no cowardly move like that!"

Kaoru looked at Yahiko with half-lidded eyes as she smacked him on the head with a slipper. "Are you done talking? Yes? Good." She breathed in deeply to regain her composure. After accomplishing this, she let all hell break loose.

"You are such a conceited, foul-mouthed butthead! Grow up first before you even try mastering that move! Stop being so full of yourself!"

Yahiko shrugged as he made his way out of the dojo. "I'll be in the longhouse if you need me."

Kaoru seethed as she shouted out to Yahiko, "If you don't know how to really execute a Kamiya Kasshin Ryu technique, then you'll never master the school, you moron!"

As the imaginary Yahiko closed his eyes, the real Yahiko then opened his, finally awakening from his reverie. He breathed in deeply as he started preparing the first few steps prior to the execution of the Tsuka no Gedan: Hiza Hijiki. 'I knew I could always count on you when the chips are down, old hag.'

Yahiko fell into ready stance, his head buzzing with all sorts of ideas as he awaited his unseen enemy's next move. 'It's now or never, Psycho-Kid. Come at me with everything you've got. I'm ready.'

To be Continued...

Next: Fight's conclusion.

If you think the "Soujiro Seta as the main rival" motif is overkill considering Yahiko's current skill level, let me put it this way: Sesshoumaru is certainly well beyond Inuyasha's skill level, so let's just consider Soujiro as Yahiko's Sesshoumaru. No cut scenes with the Tokyo folks this time around, though.

Ja ne!