Disclaimer: I own the entire RK anime series, all the movies, 3 soundtracks, all the manga, the profile book, the companion book, and a set of playing cards... does that count? (blinks innocently) How about my Okita figure? No? (sigh) Fine then... I do not own Rurouni Kenshin.
A/N: HOLY CRAP, I LIVE. I am so so so so so so so so sorry it took this long to finish this bloody chapter. I suck. Thank you all so much for your continued support and patience during this long hiatus! I appreciate every single review, favorite, and alert from you wonderful people, and I am so very sorry for not personally responding to most of you during this time. Your gentle (and not so gentle :P) prods to update helped me remember that there are people who are still reading and enjoying this story. I hope this chapter is worth the wait...
Only the Beginning
Written by lolo popoki
Chapter 14: The Day After
In all the years that Hiko had been drinking, he could only remember once having a hangover… and that had been the day after his Shishou had first introduced him to a large jug of sake after his genpuku, and said he wouldn't consider his baka deshi a proper man unless he finished the whole thing.
Well, he had showed that old tyrant. He damn well was a man!
And had damn well paid dearly for it the next morning, too. His master had merely laughed mockingly at his student's misery and continued with training as usual.
Spiteful bastard... Hiko thought hazily to himself. That had to have been the worst day of training ever.
His eyes still closed, the swordsman bit back a pained groan. He felt a lot like he had back then – rather like someone had taken a hammer to his skull. Maybe not quite as severe as during his inexperienced youth, but it really wasn't that much of an improvement.
Perhaps he should have exercised a little more restraint; apparently, that much sake was too much for even his exceptional tolerance. But really, who could blame him after the last couple of days?
Kenshin – dead – then having the little baka come back as a ghost…
Unless... unless all that really was a sake-induced hallucination?
Hiko shook his head sharply to clear away the remaining fuzziness from his mind, and then paused as his nose caught the familiar scent of cooking miso. Headache briefly forgotten, his eyes snapped open and he gawked at the surreal scene that greeted him.
Well, I guess that answers that question.
"Kenshin," he murmured, trying to hide his astonishment. "What are you doing?"
The red-haired ghost glanced over and smiled, still stirring the pot of miso soup he had somehow managed to prepare. "Ohayo, Shishou," he said. "As you can see, I made you breakfast." He gestured toward the plate of onigiri that sat on the floor in front of him.
"You made me breakfast?" the swords-master repeated, his eyebrow raised.
"Hai, Shishou. I made you breakfast."
"Wait, let me get this straight," Hiko cocked his head in bemusement. "You made me breakfast?"
Kenshin's eyes narrowed, wondering if his master's mind had finally snapped after everything that had happened recently. Even hung-over, he shouldn't be this slow to grasp such a simple concept.
"Aa," he replied cautiously. "I believe we've already established that..."
"But you're dead! How the hell are you able to cook?"
"Oh!" Kenshin blinked and then smiled faintly. "Well, I may be dead, but I do have some control over material objects," the ghost explained, picking up a bowl and ladling soup into it. "This is just practice." He set the bowl down in front of his master.
"Ah, I see..." Hiko said thoughtfully. "So you're able to manipulate things in the physical world. That's useful..." He glanced down at the blanket that was wrapped around his shoulders, hesitating briefly as he realized how it must have gotten there, and then uncomfortably decided not to comment. Instead, he forced a scowl on his face as he turned his attention to the rest of the room. "I see you've been doing quite a bit of 'practice' actually," he grumbled, folding up the blanket and laying it aside. "You cleaned, too?"
The swords-master wasn't sure whether to be amused or insulted by the expression of distaste that flickered across the ghost's face.
"It was necessary," Kenshin muttered reproachfully. "This place was an unholy mess. Would it kill you to actually do a little straightening up once in a while?"
Hiko snorted. "Why should I bother? It's not like I ever have visitors."
Shaking his head, the spirit sighed, a wry smile twisting his lips slightly. "You haven't really changed much in five years, have you?"
Smirking, Hiko brushed his hair back from his eyes in a debonair manner. "One doesn't need to change perfection," he proclaimed loftily.
Kenshin raised an eyebrow, that sardonic smile still in place. "Ah, Shishou... as conceited as ever, I see."
"Oi, baka." Not offended in the least, the dark-haired man gave a self-satisfied grin in return. "It's not really conceit if it's true."
With a quiet snort and a roll of his eyes, Kenshin turned to put the fire out in the pit.
Hiko was cautiously pleased. It appeared his deshi had started recovering far more quickly than he had first predicted. After seeing the subdued, insecure young man Kenshin had grown into, he had been worried that he'd have as hard a time of pulling him out of it as he'd had when he was a child. But the question was, was he really coping as well as he appeared? After all, the kind of trauma that Kenshin had lived through over the past few years was not an easy thing to get over so quickly. In the past, his little deshi had been prone to relapse; time would pass where he would seem just fine, and then something would happen, usually something inconsequential, and the swordsman would find the boy curled up the corner, or crouched by the riverbank staring blankly into the water, silent and unresponsive.
Maybe Kenshin was fine, and maybe he wasn't. But he was currently dead, and that would probably play a major hand in Kenshin's present state of mind. Also, having thought all those years that his master hated him and never wanted to see him again, and then finding the exact opposite was true… Forgiveness and acceptance had been known to work wonders, after all.
Hiko decided the best thing to do for now was watch and wait. Be himself. Let things play out how they may; he would be ready for it.
After a reflective moment, he suddenly realized Kenshin was staring at him.
"What the hell's the matter?" he grumbled irritably.
"Well?" The redhead looked pointedly at the meal that was still sitting, uneaten, in front of him.
Hiko gave the food a somewhat nauseated look as his hangover reasserted itself. "I'm not really all that hungry right now," he muttered.
Kenshin's eyes widened briefly and then narrowed. "Oh no you don't..." he scowled. "I went through a lot of trouble to make you this breakfast! Do you have any idea how long it took me to do all this?" He turned the full weight of his glare on the hapless soup pot. "It seems that I have a weight limit to what I can carry, so it took me almost two hours to get enough water to cook everything with! And that doesn't even include the water I needed to wash all those dirty dishes before I started cooking... and... and... Shishou, are you laughing at me?"
And indeed he was.
After the strain of the last two days, the sudden release of tension left Hiko almost lightheaded. He snickered... and then doubled over in hysterics at the affronted expression on his deshi's face, clutching his stomach, tears running freely down his face.
Kenshin stared. "Um... Shishou...?"
After a moment, the swordsman was finally able to get himself under control. "Baka deshi," he wheezed breathlessly, shaking his head in wonder. "Sometimes I forget just how entertaining you could be."
"Entertaining, am I?" the ghost muttered dryly. "Well, I'm so glad that I'm able to provide you with so much amusement." Inwardly he smiled. He had to admit, it really was nice to see his master laugh again... even if it was at his expense. Kenshin suddenly grimaced.
Come to think of it... his master's laughter had always been at his expense.
He blew out a small sigh, and then knelt, holding up the plate of onigiri. He gave his Shishou an expectant look. "Well, seeing as I put in so much effort to make these damn things, I really think the least you could do is try one."
Doubtfully, Hiko picked up a rice-ball and stared at it for a moment. Taking a wary bite, he sweat-dropped.
Kenshin deflated somewhat. "You don't like it?"
The swords-master swallowed the mouthful of rice. "It's um… not bad, I guess..." he hedged, attempting to be tactful for once. "Especially since I don't imagine you really had much opportunity to hone your cooking skills over the past several years."
The redhead stiffened, crestfallen expression turning defensive. "Well, what do you expect?" he muttered edgily, fists clenching in his lap. "I had… other things that took up most of my time."
"Oi, oi…" Hiko sighed, frustrated. Damn moody brat...
"Forgive the unsatisfactory meal," Kenshin continued, his words polite, his voice sarcastic. "Perhaps it would be best if you continued to eat as you've become accustomed. Though, if I remember correctly, your cooking was about as edible as the chopsticks I ate it with."
"Well, what exactly do you expect me to say? It's the truth, isn't it?"
"Maybe a little gratitude for my efforts?"
"Gratitude?" Hiko felt his headache flare, and along with it, his temper. "You want gratitude? Like the 'gratitude' you showed for my efforts? Rescuing you from bandits… keeping you from going back to a life of slavery… training you… You show me gratitude by abandoning me and everything I taught you to become a murderer?" The older man stood, waving around the partially eaten rice-ball in his vehemence. "Seems to me, you just chose one form of slavery for another!"
Kenshin's eyes narrowed, expertly hiding his hurt, but inwardly admitting the truth of his master's words. "Maybe this was a bad idea," he muttered, rising to his feet. Whirling on his heel, he slipped through the door before Hiko could react.
"Dammit!" Hiko growled, one hand coming up to rub his face in his aggravation, the other dropping the onigiri to the ground.
Stupid, stupid! Real smooth there Seijuro…
He sighed after a moment. So much for being ready for anything. Guess there was nothing to do now but wait for the idiot to get over his snit and come back. Headache back in full force, he sank back to the floor muffling a pained groan. The swords-master poked listlessly at the rest of the plate of onigiri. As a bit of a concession, he probably should try and eat some of it. Despite the taste, and how frustrating the boy had been, he supposed it was quite an impressive feat for a ghost to put a meal together.
Briefly considering the rice-balls and his uneasy stomach, he turned his attention to the miso still steaming fragrantly in the bowl Kenshin had set out for him. After a cautious sip, he smiled faintly. This at least had turned out right. A plain, simple shiitake dashi with just a touch of onion. After all these years, his little baka deshi had remembered exactly how Hiko had liked it…
Finishing off the bowl, he felt a touch of remorse. Why had he blown up at Kenshin like that? Why had he gotten so angry? Hadn't they already gotten past this point after last night's mushy heart-to-heart crap? Guess there was still a bit of unanswered bitterness that needed to be resolved. He would have to work on that.
He ladled some more soup into his bowl as he waited for the moron to show himself.
Five minutes passed.
After twenty minutes of waiting (and two more bowls of soup), the uneasy feeling in his stomach hadn't quite faded, and had apparently decided to spread to another location altogether. He found himself on his feet, fingers clenched around the soup bowl hard enough to leave cracks. He made an effort to smother his growing apprehension with annoyance, and carefully set the cracked ceramic on a table.
"Where is the little brat?" he muttered to himself. "He'd better not be waiting for me to go out and actually apologize…" Still grumbling half-heartedly, the swordsman started towards the door.
Once outside of the cabin, he faltered, staring blankly at the empty yard.
Kenshin wasn't there. No sign of the little red-head at all.
Shit… did Kenshin leave? Had he really been driven away by their foolish, pointless argument?
His stomach twisted, and for a moment Hiko felt the pain of loss as severely as he had in that room back in Kyoto.
No… Kenshin couldn't be gone. He had just gotten his deshi back, and he was not about to lose him again this soon.
Especially not over something as stupid as a goddamn riceball.
Hiko was aware he'd have to face the eventuality of his deshi's parting sooner or later. He couldn't allow the ghost to haunt him forever; Kenshin's spirit needed to be put to rest.
Though not right away. Not so soon. It was selfish, but – and he cringed to admit it – Hiko needed the boy's presence right now.
Dammit, Kenshin… where the hell are you?
With any luck, the little idiot had just stormed off to sulk somewhere. And if that were the case, then Hiko would just have to go find him and drag his ass back. Figuratively speaking, of course.
Uneasily glancing around, Hiko was at a loss. But, how to start? As a ghost, Kenshin had no physical trail to follow… no ki that Hiko could sense…
He supposed he could just start yelling and see if the boy popped up, but that bespoke of a desperation he wasn't sure he wanted to reveal just yet.
Guess he'd have to try his deshi's favorite childhood hiding places and hope he got lucky.
Meanwhile, after some time to cool down, Kenshin had settled glumly on the roof of the cabin contemplating his own stupidity. Why had he gotten so defensive over something so meaningless?
Such a childish response… The ghost shook his head. I should be beyond such things by now. I probably should go back down and apologize for my inexcusable behavior…
After a fleeting pause to mull over the metaphysical ramifications of being able to actually remain on the roof without falling through, he started to jump down. There was another pause, as he saw Hiko suddenly step out through the door below him.
He hesitated further upon the aggravated expression on the man's face. Was his master still angry with him? He decided it was probably better to stay where he was until he could determine whether or not it was safe to come down.
Kenshin watched as Hiko studied his surroundings, the dark-haired man's expression shifting from annoyance to uncertainty… and then a quick flash of something that the ghost wasn't expecting.
Fear. For a brief moment, Hiko looked positively stricken.
Startled, Kenshin tried to puzzle out the reason for Hiko's sudden panic. What would he have to be frightened over? His master was scared of nothing! However, something was obviously affecting the older man…
Wait a minute… Kenshin blinked. Could… could he actually be afraid that I left?
Noticing his master turn and start to walk towards the woods, he finally spoke up.
"Kenshin!" Hiko froze, relieved at hearing the familiar voice, and glanced up at the figure perched on the edge of the roof. Taking a deep breath, he schooled his features into an irritated mask. "What the hell are you doing? Get down here!"
Kenshin quickly descended from the roof, cautiously approaching his teacher. He bowed his head. "I'm sorry, Shishou, for what I said. I don't know why I—"
Hiko broke in, ignoring the humility. "The soup was good," he muttered tersely, glowering at his errant pupil.
"What?" Kenshin was bewildered.
The swords-master's expression was defiant. "I said," he bit out. "The soup. Was good. Now are you coming back in? I'd prefer to finish my breakfast before lunchtime if possible."
The red-head blinked at what appeared to be an implied apology-of-sorts. "Are you sure you still want me?" he asked uncertainly.
"Want you?" Hiko stared at the downcast spirit. He rubbed at his forehead and frowned uncomfortably. "How can you even ask that after yesterday?"
Kenshin slumped. "I know… but, I'm just not sure if this is going to work…"
Hiko heaved a sigh, relenting up on his scowl a bit. "I know things are a little… weird right now, but you're giving up too easily, baka." He shot the ghost a challenging look. "That's not like you at all. It may take a little while to get used to it, but it's only as difficult as you make it out to be. Give it some time." He jerked his thumb towards the cabin. "Now, get your non-corporeal ass back in there before the soup gets cold."
"Hai, Shishou." Kenshin straightened, his eyes a little more determined as he followed his teacher through the door.
They would both give it time. They would take it slowly. It wasn't as if all their issues were expected to be resolved right away. There was so much that still needed to be said. So many things they needed to work through. Kenshin had not yet even mentioned his quest for redemption to his master; he had a feeling that neither of them was quite ready for that step just yet. Redemption could wait.
This was only the beginning, after all.
A/N: So... this is the last chapter of Only the Beginning. I hope you've enjoyed the fic! I had originally planned on continuing this story with all their adventures and eventual conclusion, but I've decided this is a good stopping point. If/when I do ever decide to resume this story-line, it will be in a sequel. I've gone back over the previous chapters and fixed a few mistakes, got rid of some language, and tried to repair the stupid formatting screw-ups this site decided to grace us with. I'm sure I've probably missed something, but I'm too tired to really care at the moment.
A major shout-out to my friend and beta, SiriusFan13, whose support has been invaluable. You have her to thank for this chapter finally being ready to post. Thanks for the kick in the ass! :P
Glossary of terms:
genpuku – coming of age ceremony
shiitake – type of Japanese mushroom
dashi – soup stock