Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin characters or plot.
The cloud of dust was thinning, its last vestiges sinking languidly earthward in the late afternoon sun.
It had been dry for the past two days, but Seta knew that the rainy season was coming. It was amazing the good weather had lasted as long as it had.
He'd been traveling quite a while now, wandering the hills and back roads of Japan. He'd just come to the end of a mountain track which dead-ended into a larger cart trail. A group of horsemen must have gone by a few minutes ago, judging by the amount of dust they'd kicked up. Mere travelers on foot couldn't have raised a cloud that big.
Seta stood by a boulder and looked up and down the road in front of him. Which direction should he wander? He had no immediate destination, no master to answer to anymore now that Shishio was gone.
It was freeing.
It was unnerving.
He really didn't like wandering.
How had Kenshin stood it all those years? Seta was beginning to realize that without a purpose he felt lost. There was irony for you. How could you be lost when you had nowhere to go?
At least he'd been able to find odd jobs relatively easily. His constant smile reassured people. They didn't know it was a mask he placed on his face to fit in. Most people took a smile and a polite word literally at face value.
The sun was beginning to drift closer to the mountains, its ball-like shape red behind the thin veil of clouds soon to be tinted orange and pink with the sun's dying rays. Within two or three hours it would be dark.
The dust cloud settled. Suddenly Seta realized he didn't feel like the noisy, boisterous companionship of a crowd. He stepped into the road and set off to his right, away from the direction the horsemen had taken.
As he trudged down the road, his sandals making little puffs of dust as he walked, he allowed a smile to play about his features. It was, after all, second nature.
He lifted his chin at the sound of a pair of horses coming slowly toward him, and saw them, their figures, and those of their riders, outlined by the dust trail they raised. One of the horses was limping.
Seta drew to the side of the road to let them pass.
Two men rode alongside each other. They had the hard, cold eyes of warriors. Both were in their late twenties or early thirties. One was tall and thin, the other short and stocky. Like Seta, they flouted the anti-sword laws and wore katanas at their sides.
The taller man, noticing Seta, pulled back on his reins, causing his lame horse to blow air out of flared nostrils in a huff of pain. His companion glanced sharply at him and whispered something.
Seta watched and waited patiently for them to ride by.
After a quick whispered conversation, the shorter man handed his reins to the taller one and got off his horse.
Seta braced himself. Honest, law-abiding citizens did not wear swords anymore. Nor did they ride horses so hard that the sweat matted their hair, or keep riding them even though one of their legs had gone lame.
The man was solid looking as well as short, and he had a twisted scar on his forehead.
"You there, boy." His voice was unattractive as well, Seta noticed. It was harsh, and raspy as though he'd inhaled most of the road's dust and it had irritated his throat.
Seta allowed the man to get close and noticed without seeming to that the taller man was urging the horses forward and apart in such a way as to block the road.
"Which way to the shrine?"
The question wasn't a serious one. It was a way to distract Seta so that the man could get close enough to strike. So Seta merely smiled and shrugged his ignorance.
With a sigh of steel against wood, the stocky man unsheathed his sword.
Calmly, Seta allowed him to step closer.
"What is it that you want?" he asked.
The man's eyes narrowed, obviously perplexed at Seta's lack of fear. "Your money."
"Why?" he responded cheerfully.
The scar crinkled on the man's forehead as his face twisted into a suspicious grimace, but before he could answer, the other man on the horse spoke.
"For a new horse." The man growled disgustedly as the animal shifted its weight and lifted the injured hoof off the ground to rest it. His gaze sharpened on his friend. "Finish this already."
"I have no money." Seta shrugged. "Well, not enough to buy a horse." The small roll of coins hidden in his sleeve would buy him two, maybe three nights lodging and a couple of meals at an inn, but nothing beyond that.
"We'll just see about that," muttered the scar-faced man as he lunged forward.
It was child's play to move out of the bandit's way. Seta hadn't mastered the Tenbu no Sai Niyoru Ken style for nothing. He didn't even need to utilize the Shukuchi technique to get away. He was simply in front of the bandit, and then he was not.
"Over here." Seta called, having landed on a grassy area to the man's left.
Bellowing, the man whipped around, swinging his sword horizontally, but when the blade crossed the grass, Seta was already across the road.
The man pivoted relatively quickly and thrust as he ran, holding his blade parallel to the ground. Seta allowed him to get within a second of his goal, then stepped aside and around him, with movements as fluid as water. He ended back across the road as his opponent swung his head back and forth looking for him in the wrong place.
The taller man cursed and dug his heels into his horse's side, forcing the beast forward as he dropped the other animal's reins and pulled his katana from its sheath.
It was time. Seta drew his sword.
The horseman sliced downward, his blade engaging Seta's. Seta let his enemy's weapon slide off his own by slanting his katana downward. The horseman nearly overbalanced and had to pull back. Seta let the horse to pass him, then turned and smacked it on its haunches with the flat of his blade.
Though the sharp edge didn't touch the animal, it reacted, rearing and dumping its rider into the dust before limping to the side of the road. The other horse backed away and halted, raising yet another flurry of dust at its feet.
Meanwhile, the shorter man came charging across the road. Each time Seta escaped him, his anger had increased. Now he was like a raging bull, all power and instinct.
Again Seta allowed another blade to touch his, twisting as the blades engaged, enveloping the other's by slanting then shifting so that the blunt edge of his blade came down across the man's sword so hard that it was wrenched out of his grip.
It was the perfect opportunity for a horizontal return slice between the ribs and through the man's heart.
In the old days, when he'd been employed by Shishio, he wouldn't have thought twice about it. The strong lived, the weak died. It was Shishio's mantra. It was the philosophy Seta had lived by since he was old enough to pick up a sword, but now he had to find his own way.
The old life, the old ways, were no longer enough.
He reversed his grip and brought the hilt end up sharply, connecting with the man's chin with an audible crack.
Scarface fell back onto the grass, out cold.
That left his other opponent.
The tall man was on his feet. His hands were still holding his blade, its tip now pointed upwards, by his cheek. He stood with his elbows lifted, his weight distributed evenly on each foot, knees bent.
It was a traditional stance, good for striking, but it was only effective if your opponent was in front of you.
Seta quickly moved to the man's back, swinging his own blade over the man's bicep, the sharp hassaki edge ending at his throat.
"I believe you should stop now," he suggested politely.
Standing so close, Seta could smell the man's sweat, and actually see a drop of it sliding down his face.
At times like these it was difficult to see what was so attractive about the weak that Kenshin, wanted to protect them.
He pressed his blade more firmly against the man's neck. "Of course, it's up to you. I wouldn't want you to think I was telling you what to do." he said politely.
The man swallowed, and Seta allowed his blade to rise and fall with the man's throat muscles so that he didn't cut him.
The tall one thought for a minute, and then dropped his katana, which fell to the road, raising its own small cloud of dust.
In an instant Seta had retreated across the side of the road and sheathed his blade. Since he hadn't drawn blood, there was no reason to wipe it.
He smiled. "I believe your friends are waiting for you." He nodded to his left, in the direction of the initial dust cloud.
The hatred in the tall man's eyes faded for a moment as he instinctively glanced up the road past Seta, confirming Seta's guess that these two were a part of the group of horsemen who'd passed by right before he'd started walking the opposite way down the road.
There was another flare of anger in the tall man's face as he realized what he'd inadvertently revealed, but he left his sword in the dirt and without a word, and went to get the horses.
"Do please take your companion with you." Seta offered in a friendly voice.
The man, reaching for the lame horse's reins, stiffened, but dropped his outstretched hand, strode over to the unconscious bandit, dragged him by his shoulders to the horse, and hefted him across the saddle of the horse he'd rode in on.
Seta noticed with interest that he didn't seem too concerned about his friend's comfort, lifting the prone swordsman by the obi at his waist and the gi at the back of his neck, almost as if he were a sack of sweet potatoes.
The man turned and glared at Seta. "You have no idea who you're dealing with."
"Nor do I wish to." He smiled to take the sting out of the words. "Please, take your swords." Seta gestured to the two katanas lying in the dirt.
The man's face tightened, but he obeyed, striding over to pick them up and thrust one in his own sheath and the other in the sheath still sticking out of the unconscious man's obi.
Then he grabbed the lame horse's reins and mounted the other animal, swinging up behind the scarred man's body.
"You'll regret this," he spat, trying to bore holes through Seta with his eyes.
Seta kept his smile in place, and watched as the man dug his heels in the horse's sides and took off down the road, dragging the lame horse along behind him.
Turning once again to his right, Seta took the opposite direction and began walking. The sun had dipped a bit closer to the mountains. He hoped that there was a village or at least a farmhouse up ahead. Though judging by the two characters he'd encountered, he wouldn't be surprised to find villagers and farmers slaughtered and their valuables stolen.
He trudged onward, following the dusty cart track as it wound its way up and over a tree spotted hill.
Two hills later and another cloud of dust, this one accompanied by pounding hoof beats, came near.
It was a boy, not much older than Seta, riding his horse hard up the hill Seta had just crested. Once again he drew to the side of the road to let the rider pass.
The horse, however, had other plans, shying at the sight of the blue-garbed body waiting unexpectedly at the top of the hill.
The rider swore and jerked down on the reins hard to bring his horse under control. He wheeled it around in a tight circle, his lips pressed together in irritation.
Seta stood back and observed. The boy was of the samurai class. He still wore his hair in the traditional fashion of samurai during the shogunate, the top part of his head shaved bare with his topknot oiled and folded over the bald area. He wore charcoal grey hakama trousers, a white and blue striped kimono top with a lighter grey haori jacket over it. On both shoulders of the haori jacket were the small, circular mons – the boy's family crest. Seta glanced at it interestedly, but didn't recognize the design. Still, the expensive fabric and the fact that the boy flouted modern fashions and got away with it told Seta that he was from a rich family, perhaps even one of the daimyo families.
"You there, boy!"
Seta sighed inwardly as he pasted a smile on his face. He was getting really tired of being called 'boy', especially by someone who wasn't much older than he was. "Yes?"
"Did you see a crowd of horsemen go by?" The boy's face and voice were both angry, but Seta responded calmly.
"No, I only saw two horsemen." It was true, he'd only actually seen the two who had tried to steal his money, though the dust cloud led him to believe there had been more.
The boy's gaze dropped to the hilt of Seta's katana, sticking out at his hip. "That's illegal," he informed Seta, eyes narrowing. "Swords aren't allowed in the Meiji era."
"Then it looks like we're both breaking the law." Seta grinned and nodded at the Katana and wakizashi thrust through the boy's obi.
The boy, who still hadn't identified himself, looked taken aback, then angry. "If you think you can use that, then come with me," he ordered curtly. "I'm after a group of bandits."
Seta had had enough. In two hours it would be dark, and he meant to be in an inn or at least a farmhouse by then. "I'm very sorry. I'm on my way to the next town and I don't have time to hunt down bandits today." He bowed, turned his back and started down the hill.
"You can't say no to me! Don't you know who I am?" shouted the other boy incredulously.
"I believe I just did say no to you." Seta called back with a laugh, continuing to walk.
Shocked silence, then "Fine. I don't need your help!" came the boy's petulant voice.
By the sound of the hooves thudding into the ground, the boy had pulled his dancing horse back in line again, preparing to gallop off down the road. Before he did, however, he had one last thing to say.
"Why would I want the help of a fool who doesn't even know that the next closest town is in the opposite direction?" he yelled spitefully, then spurred his horse into a cantering charge down the hill.
Seta stopped dead and listened to the hoof beats fading away, then turned wearily around and trudged back up to the crest of the hill, retracing his steps.
What an obnoxious boy! He certainly didn't know the first thing about asking for help. Imagine, ordering a complete stranger to help him attack a group of bandits. Seta had absolutely no intention of going after and killing the same two bandits he'd just spared simply because some spoiled daimyo's brat ordered him to. He just hoped the boy hadn't been lying about the town being in the opposite direction.
Ah well, even if he was, Seta could still sleep out under the stars again. It wouldn't be the first time he'd done so since taking up the life of a wanderer over a year ago. However, it wasn't the most comfortable way to sleep.
On the off chance the boy was right, he'd better get moving if he wanted to make the town by nightfall. Steeling himself, he gathered his strength and began to run lightly down the road in the direction the boy and his horse had gone.
A/N: Does anybody know exactly how old Seta was when he fought Kenshin? I'm thinking fourteen or fifteen, but I haven't been able to find any mention of it in the anime.