Disclaimer: Characters and setting are the property of Nobuhiro Watsuki, I'm just borrowing them for a bit of angst.
Notes: Well I just picked up the director's cut version of "Reflections" and have been watching it, repeatedly. This started plotbunnies hopping and here we are. The story is based primarily on the OVA's.
Myojin Yahiko trudged slowly up the mountain path toward the cabin where Hiko Seijuro the thirteenth played at being a potter with a heavy heart. It had been just over a week ago that he'd come here to drag Kenji back to his mother's side whether the stubborn boy wanted to go or not, this visit was for an even more grim purpose.
Hiko was standing in front of his door when Yahiko broke into the clearing. The big man held himself perfectly still as he examined Yahiko's face and ki. "So my baka deshi didn't manage to stay home this time either," he said without expression.
Yahiko swallowed and nodded. "He barely made it back but somehow she knew, she met Kenshin beneath cherry trees and welcomed him home. He died in her arms a short while later. Kaoru… Kaoru's fading fast. She was just waiting to see Kenshin one last time."
"You'd think she'd make him wait on her at least once," Hiko said without surprise. Kaoru had dedicated her life to his idiot apprentice; he was the one she waited for, the one she smiled for, the one she always welcomed home. With Kenshin gone there would be little to keep Kaoru from following after him as she'd done when she was young and not so certain that he would always come back to her.
Yahiko glanced back toward the trail to Kyoto. Now that he'd delivered his sad news he didn't know what to do. Hiko had only truly allowed two people to get close to him all the years that Yahiko had known him and now one of them was dead. The younger man considered letting him have his privacy.
Hiko watched Yahiko waver uncertainly. "Stay," he ordered then retreated inside his home for a moment. He returned with his ever-present sake jug and two saucers.
Yahiko sat down beside him and accepted a drink. Hiko didn't look at him or speak to him, but every time Yahiko finished his drink in preparation to leave the older swordsman immediately replenished it. After a time it occurred to Yahiko that Hiko was deliberately delaying him so he sat there holding the full saucer while Hiko drank silently and steadily while he stared out into the gathering dusk.
The next morning Yahiko woke up under an unfamiliar roof and realized he must have fallen asleep sitting up the night before. He walked outside and found Hiko staring into the sunrise, his jug sitting forgotten at his feet.
"So you're up. Come," Hiko commanded tersely.
Yahiko's eyes widened as the older man stood. Hiko's movements had the same predatory grace and power as he always carried himself with but the young swordsman could see that it didn't come effortlessly this morning. Yahiko doubted that Hiko had slept at all and wondered just how much the man had drank but he followed without question as Hiko set off with a purposeful stride.
It was early evening when Hiko turned off the road toward a clearing that might have been a good place to stop and camp once decades ago. Now the rows of rotting crosses and the three neatly maintained memorial stones made it so few would choose to linger there.
"I met Kenshin here," Hiko said. Yahiko struggled to keep an expression of shock off his face as Kenshin's notoriously antisocial and closed-mouthed teacher told the story of a bandit raid on a slave trader's caravan and of the encounter's sole survivor, a small boy called Shinta who would become Hiko's student a week later.
Thirty-Six Years Earlier
"I have found an apprentice. Consider yourself fortunate," Hiko declared and set off for his mountain with the small boy, newly dubbed Kenshin, trotting after him. Hiko was amused to note that even though he was walking at only a fraction of his normal traveling pace the boy still ended up taking three or four steps to match one of his strides. His new little apprentice didn't complain though. Hiko frowned darkly; it wasn't likely that the slavers had ever taken the boy's small stature into account when setting their pace. The Hiten Mitsurugi Master slowed even further.
Twenty minutes later the boy was lagging behind again in spite of Hiko's severely curtailed pace. The tall swordsman stopped to watch the exhausted boy stumble along. With a sniff, Hiko plucked the boy off the ground by the collar of his gi and tossed him over his shoulder like a bundle of groceries. No, Hiko decided, groceries would have weighed more than this wisp of a child whom he'd acquired.
Kenshin struggled briefly then went limp and allowed Hiko to do as he would.
No longer constrained by his apprentice's much shorter legs Hiko continued toward his mountain at a distance eating pace.
As he carried the boy Hiko once again found himself marveling at what this slip of a child had accomplished. Grave digging was heavy work, even for someone of his magnificent physique. That was why he always buried the victims of his sword; it maintained his humanity. For someone with his skills taking a life was an act that required less than a moment; something that could easily be shoved to the back of the mind and forgotten; it was in burying the dead that he truly had to reflect on what he'd taken from the ones who dared to cross swords with him. In this world very few would have bothered with the bodies of those who had done them so much harm, but Kenshin had, the tiny boy had found the strength to dig over twenty graves and only three of them for those he cared for. It was that strength that had convinced Hiko to make the boy his apprentice.
The boy started squirming again then after a few minutes he went still. Hiko glanced over his shoulder, the boy had twisted around until he could comfortably tangle a small fist in Hiko's mantle and was fast asleep. Hiko's expression softened for a moment then he noticed that the boy was drooling on him and scowled.
The pair arrived at Hiko's cabin well after dark that night.
Hiko spent the next day checking his cabin for damage and generally making the place habitable for a second person. Kenshin spent the day trailing after Hiko like a red-haired shadow. Hiko had rather expected the boy to want to explore his new home, but he hadn't spent any time with small children since he'd been one himself, so he let the child do as he liked. It wasn't as if he was going to admit to not knowing something.
After a few hours, Hiko gave Kenshin an exasperated look. "You're covered in blood and dirt. Take a bath," he ordered. Kenshin nodded. When lunchtime arrived Hiko dragged Kenshin out of the bath, then watched as the boy picked at his food. "No wonder you're so scrawny, eat."
Kenshin sighed; he used his chopsticks to push his food around in his bowl.
"I intend to make a swordsman of you," Hiko stated. "You are going to have to get large enough to life one. For that you're going to have to eat."
Kenshin wrinkled his nose in distaste but he ate.
Hiko spent the afternoon doing katas and thinking about how he intended to go about teaching his new student. Kenshin spent it watching him in silent fascination.
That night the nightmares came. Hiko sensed the disturbance in his new student's ki and woke, but he'd already slain the dragons and he didn't know how to protect the child from the memory of them. He stood there watching the boy's face twist in horror and wondered if his sleep would be less troubled if he hadn't been left in a field of corpses for a week.
Hiko knelt to shake the boy awake but before he could touch the boy, Kenshin's restlessness calmed. Hiko realized that the boy was sensing his presence. He grimaced then sat down and made himself comfortable, if he stayed for a time perhaps the boy's sleep would deepen past the danger of nightmares.
The next morning Hiko set out to exhaust his apprentice past the point where his nightmares could bother either one of them. Carrying buckets of water to replenish the bath seemed like a good chore, both for building muscles and making sure the boy was good and tired by nightfall. When Hiko checked on his little apprentice a short time later he found the boy stubbornly lugging a full bucket that was obviously much too heavily for the child.
"Baka-chan, don't fill it so full that you can't lift it," Hiko told the boy as he dumped half the water on the ground. For a moment Kenshin glared up at Hiko with a look of fury in his lavender eyes then his gaze dropped to the ground at Hiko's feet. Red bangs fell forward to obscure the boy's face. "I'm sorry," he said softly.
Hiko's teeth gritted, the boy's natural response was much more to his liking than this subdued one. He stomped off to while Kenshin went back to his chore. When Hiko returned he noted the too deep footprints and drag marks along the path to the river and realized that the stubborn little idiot had ignored his advice not to fill the bucket so full. Hiko smirked oddly pleased at this fresh evidence that the boy's spirit was intact despite his past. "Now if only he would show proof that his brain works."
Once they'd finished lunch Hiko ordered the boy to tend to the dishes while he put together a shinai for his apprentice. The afternoon passed quickly as Hiko instructed Kenshin in holding a sword and started him on the basics.
Hiko noted that Kenshin caught on quickly and decided to order a child's katana the next time he went down for supplies. Given the furious determination with which Kenshin attacked his lessons it was obvious to Hiko that he didn't intend to allow himself to be defenseless for a moment longer than he could help; restricting the boy to a shinai would only frustrate him. Having a real sword might even cure the nightmares. Kenshin had been rather insistent about how he should have been able to protect the women who'd shown him kindness. Kenshin could never change the past, but the ability to prevent its reoccurrence might give him peace of mind. Besides, Hiko had no particular liking for poorly balanced practice weapons and his skills were more than equal keeping a beginner from injuring either himself or his teacher.
The days passed and Hiko and Kenshin grew comfortable with their routine. Chores in the morning, sword lessons in the afternoon and nightmares at night. After the second week Hiko added lessons in reading and writing in the evenings. He'd given up the hope that he could tire the boy's body past the point of dreams and turned to the new hope that academic lessons, in addition to swordsmanship, might give his idiot apprentice something to mule over in his sleep besides slaughter and bloodshed.
Kenshin didn't take to the evening lessons with anything like the fever with which he'd taken to the sword. His penmanship was atrocious; the books Hiko ordered him to read were far above his ability and thus frustrating. But, as with everything else, Kenshin obediently followed orders while shooting the swordsman dark looks from beneath his messy bangs. Penmanship, like water-carrying quickly became one of those things where Kenshin would do as he was told but he did it his way and all the comments in the world about baka deshi and chicken-scratches couldn't budge him one inch.
They amused Hiko to no end but academic lessons didn't stop the nightmares any more than sword lessons had. A part of Hiko felt obscurely pleased that his presence seemed to be the only thing that could chase away his little apprentice's dark memories; another part was beginning to sorely miss the hours of sleep he lost while guarding Kenshin's sleep.
One morning Hiko woke up to find himself sitting propped up against the wall. His expression twisted in annoyance; he couldn't believe he'd allowed himself to fall asleep without meaning to. The soft, regular sound of his apprentice's breathing assured the swordsman that his lapse and, more importantly, his nightly vigils had gone undetected. Then he opened his eyes and saw Kenshin's empty futon.
Hiko turned to his left and spotted his apprentice curled up beside him, mimicking his posture exactly and fast asleep. Hiko snorted and silently mocked himself for thinking that the boy was terribly cute. Even the sword that rested against the boy's shoulder made him look even younger and more innocent; like a child who'd fallen asleep while playing at being a samurai. The truth was much darker, but for the moment Kenshin's sleep was peaceful and the truth didn't show in his features.
Two months later Hiko was beginning to get a little concerned about Kenshin's sleeping habits, still what worked worked and sleeping curled up around his sword did seem to keep Kenshin safe from his nightmares. Beside if Hiko said anything about it he'd have to admit that there had been something odd about his sleeping habits the night Kenshin had caught Hiko sitting up with him.
Hiko concluded that it wasn't doing the boy any harm. It looked awkward, but Kenshin was obviously sleeping more deeply since he'd started doing it. When Kenshin had first come to live with Hiko it had seemed he just had to think about waking Kenshin up and the boy would be alert, now…
Hiko allowed a wicked smile to cross his lips as he glanced from the ladle of icy cold water to his soundly sleeping idiot apprentice. Without a trace of remorse he dumped the water over Kenshin's head.
Kenshin leapt to his feet sputtering like an outraged kitten. Hiko caught the boy's sword and waited for the outrage Kenshin felt to be hidden behind down turned eyes as soon as the boy's awareness caught up with his body.
"Shishou!" Kenshin squawked.
Hiko grinned. "Time to get up baka deshi."
"Hn." Kenshin stalked past Hiko without even trying to hide that he was sulking.
Hiko laughed outright because his little apprentice did look exactly like an outraged kitten, because Kenshin wasn't afraid at all anymore, because the tiny child he'd found amidst the worst the world had to offer had come through it intact so maybe there was yet hope.
Kenshin spared his master an annoyed glared over his shoulder. "You didn't have to use ice water… You don't have to enjoy it so much!"
"In my eyes the world was a diseased place, beyond all hope. Then I found Kenshin and he was free of the world's corruption so I took him away from it. I taught him to protect the weak then expected him to be content to stay on my mountain top and leave the world to burn in the hell man had made of it," Hiko said. "I was an idiot."
Yahiko tripped over a perfectly level patch of dirt. He stared at Hiko with a look of deep concern.
The master swordsman smirked at the younger man. "Yes, even I have made a few mistakes and at the moment I'm drunk enough to admit it."
Yahiko took that to mean that things said today should probably not be brought up later.
"When we first started hearing rumors of the Ishin Shishi Kenshin wanted us both to go and lend our support, it was only in the last few days that he spoke of going alone," Hiko continued. "I called it a futile, pointless struggle that would accomplish nothing but even with the corruption in the Meiji government it seems that it offers more hope for the future. Kenshin despised himself for the things he did in the name of the revolution but he always continued to believe in his new era. He could have used his skills to help bring it about without sinking to the level of a mindless weapon but he was so young and naive. He let them use him. If I'd gone with him I never would have allowed them to make a hitokiri of him. Hiten Mitsurugi does not forbid killing, just mindless killing. The only time Kenshin betrayed his teaching was when he allowed Katsura to dictate morality to him.
Yahiko shivered at the look of utter loathing in Hiko's eyes as he said the name of the man who had been Kenshin's commanding officer.
For a long time Hiko was silent. Absently he cleared the weeds and moss from the three stones at the center of the graveyard.
"I never told Kenshin that he might have been correct in his desire to help the Ishin Shishi," Hiko said finally.
"I don't think you needed to," Yahiko said. "Kenshin said stuff about the Revolution not being finished, not that it shouldn't have happened."
Hiko smiled a little. "The stubborn little brat always did know his own mind, he didn't need me to tell him when he was right. Still…"
Hiko finished with the stones then stood and stared out at the horizon.
"Several months after I found him one of the merchants I bought supplies from asked me who he was. I told them he was my apprentice, Himura Kenshin. I never bothered to tell Kenshin that Himura had been my name before I became the thirteenth Hiko Seijuro. Perhaps he knew the name was significant to me without being told, he kept it after all."
Yahiko found himself remembering a long ago conversation where he'd yelled at Kaoru for telling him things she ought to tell Kenshin. "I'm telling you because I can't tell him," she'd answered. Yahiko held his tongue and just listened as Hiko told him the things he'd waited too long to ever tell Kenshin.
Notes: The OVA's don't really give any timeline on how long it took for Hiko to return to where he left Kenshin, the manga has the shopkeeper Hiko talks to say that no one had been by in a week, but still that doesn't really say anything about how long it had been since Hiko killed off the bandits. However I think it has to be considerably longer than a day; there are a lot of crosses in that field, Shinta is under ten years old and I know how long it takes me to spade up a garden. The Slavers would have had supplies so food and water wouldn't be an issue for quite awhile.