Kenji frowned and slammed his money down on the counter. Keeping her opinion of the youngster's manners to herself, the middle-aged shopkeeper silently placed a bowl of steaming noodles in front of him. Kenji shoveled a few mouthfuls into his face and then glanced sideways coldly. He really didn't like the way the guy next to him was smiling. The man was probably nearly 30, but he had one of those faces you could never be sure about. He might have been younger, or much, much older. The peacefully happy expression on the man's face almost gave Kenji the chills. And there was something in his bright blue eyes… Kenji barely had to rely on his keen instincts to know what it was: Recognition. Kenji scowled until he looked like he was about to have a tantrum. He ate his lunch sloppily, wishing the strange blue-eyed man would go to hell. He hated the fact that he was aware of the stranger's incredible sword ki, which was the closest thing to his own strength that he'd felt in a while. He hated anyone who seemed like they had even a chance of approaching his level of ability.
Finally Kenji couldn't stand it any longer.
"I'm his son," he growled.
The stranger smiled. "Thought so," he said in a quiet, cheerful voice.
"So who are you? Or rather, who were you?" Kenji sneered.
"Seta Soujirou. Nice to meet you."
"Seta Soujirou. The psycho kid who worked for Shishio," Kenji said.
"That's right," Soujirou nodded slowly.
"Whatever," Kenji said snobbishly. "If you're up for a fight, it'll have to wait until after my meal."
Soujirou laughed softly. "You know I have no intention of fighting you. I put away my sword a long time ago."
"Oh, let me guess, thanks to my dad?"
Soujirou nodded, his eyes in happy semi-circles.
"What a surprise," Kenji muttered.
"How is Himura-san these days?" Soujirou asked.
"Probably rotting in China," Kenji replied, sounding bored. "I guess there weren't enough losers for him to feel sorry for in his own country, so he went overseas."
"I see," Soujirou said. "And why are you out on the Tokkaido? Following in his footsteps, maybe?"
"Yes, to a certain point… and then I'll find my own way."
"You sound confident."
"I'll find true strength, the strength that my father brushed up against but never embraced. I'll be the strongest." He picked up his bowl and drank the soup from it in huge gulps.
"True strength…" Soujirou repeated thoughtfully. He closed his eyes in a smile that now had real happiness behind it, thanks to Himura Kenshin. He would never forget those life-changing moments in his final fight. He thanked Himura every day for setting him out on his path to find his own truth.
"What the hell are you smiling about? You're a creep." Kenji said disgustedly.
"You won't understand me now, but listen anyway," Soujirou said softly. "You're wrong about your father. He did embrace true strength. True strength is being able to bear the burden of responsibility for your actions. But even more than that, true strength is being able to show kindness and mercy. Love is true strength."
"Love." Kenji scoffed. "Bullshit."
"Even if your father isn't here, I'm sure that somehow his spirit will reach out to you, and show you the meaning of true strength." Soujirou stood up and bowed slightly. "Well then! I'll be on my way. Good luck!"
"Whatever," Kenji muttered, frowning.
Finally, he'd found it! The residence of the famous swordsman, the master of Hiten Mitsuryugi Ryu, his father's teacher. The man of legend, who was happy to let his legend fade away, who lived a quiet, secluded life somewhere in the mountains near Kyoto. Kenji had hiked, and camped, and researched, and asked questions, and tried everything he could think of to locate this damned little clearing in the trees. He was proud of himself for not relying on the oniwabanshu, because he despised Shinomori Misao for her cheerfulness. He hoped, but wasn't convinced, that his presence in Kyoto had gone unnoticed by the spy network, although at least the obnoxious little woman and her tedious washed-up husband hadn't invited him over for dinner or anything, which was a relief.
Kenji remembered the last time he had seen the mighty Hiko Seijurou. He had been only 7 years old, and was fascinated by the huge, gruff swordsman, and especially by his white cape. For years afterward, Kenji had daydreamed of wearing an awesome white cape like that. On several occasions he had stolen a sheet so he could wrap it around himself and pretend to be Hiko, but his father always seemed to find him, and it always angered Kenji that Kenshin seemed to know exactly what he was up to. Apparently Kenji had seen Hiko once when he was only a baby, but he didn't remember that encounter. When he was 7 he had been awed into reverence by Hiko's overwhelming sense of sword-ki, which, like his father's, had been thinly obscured by years of disuse. He had also been delighted whenever Hiko made fun of his father. Kenji was sure that Hiko's attitude towards Kenshin stemmed from his disappointment that one of his students had turned into something as lame as a rurouni.
And now, on this freezing, snowy day, Kenji was about to meet his father's master again. Only this time, he wasn't just a child on a visit. He was here for business. He wanted to learn Hiten Mitsuryugi Ryu. Pulling himself up to his full height, which was still a little shorter than his mother's, Kenji knocked on the door.
He waited a full minute, hearing only the snow blowing into his ears. Another minute. Frowning, Kenji pounded on the door with his fist. Once again, there was no reply. Kenji looked up and saw smoke rising from the little chimney. Someone was home, he was sure of it. He could sense it. Kenji stood in front of the door for several more minutes, wondering why he was being ignored. Finally unable to bear his curiosity any longer, Kenji opened the door.
Hiko Seijurou sat on the floor of his small cabin, a rather large jug of sake beside him, his back to the door. "Close the door, it's freezing out there," Hiko said, without turning around. Kenji scrambled inside and shut the door.
"I meant close it with you on the other side of it," Hiko growled.
Kenji opened his mouth in surprise but Hiko held up a hand, and made a motion as if batting at an insect. "Go away," he said, before Kenji could speak.
Kenji's face twisted in indignation. "You are Hiko Seijurou, master of Hiten Mitsuryugi Ryu- my father's teacher…" he said, an edge in his voice. As he spoke, Hiko slowly rose and turned to face him. His face was expressionless, his hair showing a little gray.
"Yes, I am," Hiko said. "Thank you for reminding me. Now, get out! I'm surprised nobody ever taught you it was rude to invite yourself into other people's houses."
Wide-eyed and gaping, Kenji stared at him and made no move to leave. Hiko frowned, and then almost casually he hoisted Kenji off his feet by the front of his gi. Kenji was astounded and infuriated simultaneously.
"Hey!" he gasped, kicking. He felt stupid for not drawing his sword. Now Hiko's arm was blocking the hilt from his grasp. He was defenseless. "Put me down!"
"I intend to," Hiko said calmly, opening the door and tossing Kenji out into the snow. Kenji landed rather ungracefully butt-up in a snow bank just as the door to the cottage slammed shut.
Wiping snow off his face, Kenji's dark blue-grey eyes gleamed and seemed to lighten a few shades. Gritting his teeth and clenching his fists, he marched himself back over to the door. Positioning himself squarely in front of it, he shouted at the top of his lungs:
"Hiko Seijurou! I demand that you open this door! I demand it! I have journeyed for months, seeking your counsel! My very life rests upon this! Open this door, and look at me face to face!"
Inside the house, Hiko smiled, closing his eyes. He put down his dish of sake and went to the door. Rearranging his expression to appear as stern and intimidating as possible, he yanked the door open so fast that the air rushing past nearly pulled Kenji off his feet. Kenji staggered in front of him but quickly regained his posture, and his eyes quickly lost their confident gleam as he stared up at the giant man in front of him. The wind blew his white cape behind him. His expression was like living stone- he looked like a god of wrath and judgment, incredibly tall, broad shouldered, and the most muscular man that Kenji had ever seen, despite being nearly 60 years old.
Kenji felt like a squirrel facing a panther. He felt a strange sensation and wondered briefly if he was actually afraid of this tall old man. Almost as soon as he wondered it, he reprimanded himself stubbornly: afraid? I'm not afraid! But he smoldered with shame for even thinking of it. Hiko was staring at him coldly, staring right through him. Kenji's heart burned angrily. He knew he looked like a hot-headed brat, a mere child, in the eyes of the great master. But you're wrong! He wanted to shout.
Hiko glared down at him, unblinking, for another half a moment. And then, without a word, he slammed the door in Kenji's face.
This time the force of the air rushing out really did knock Kenji down. Kenji picked himself back up slowly, never having felt so snubbed and insulted in all his short life. Taking up a solid stance, his knees bent, his back hunched, he flexed the young muscles in his arms, squeezing his hands into fists so hard that his forearms quivered from the effort. He shut his eyes and called upon every last ounce of his strength, letting his spirit flood his body until it overflowed into the air around him. Snow flew around him in a whirlwind, the wind shifted, and the door to Hiko's cabin creaked and rattled and shook violently.
Hiko's deadly expression was no longer an act. He felt chilled deep in his heart by the unbelievable strength, the pure, unrefined power, of the boy's sword-ki. The strength of the child's spirit was unprecedented, Hiko was sure. There had never been, and surely there would never be, anything like him in history. Hiko became aware of a strange humming noise, and glanced to the side just in time to see his pieces of pottery smash one by one on the shelf. Hiko's eye twitched. The boy's father had never managed to damage anything more than a few leaves and blades of grass by projecting his sword-ki. The forces swirling now inside the cabin were more than enough to throw an average man across the room. Fortunately, Hiko's own sword-ki served as a heavy anchor, so he didn't need to worry about being tossed through the walls of his own home. But… the walls themselves might not last much longer. Hiko glanced critically at the door. It was shaking and vibrating as though possessed. Obviously the door was the focus of the boy's energy. It would be somewhat embarrassing if it shattered, leaving his cabin open to the cold night air… and it would be seen as a victory by the boy.
With a small sigh, Hiko took hold of the trembling door and pulled it open. Kenji was bent over, his small shoulders hunched, his eyes shut tight, concentrating. He didn't even realize that the door was open. Hiko smiled.
"Stop that," he commanded imperiously, expertly tossing his cape to one side. Kenji didn't even hear him. Hiko sighed and walked forward until he was standing right in front of the child. Slowly he reached down and drew the boy's own sword. Swinging it a few times to memorize its weight and balance and get a general sense of the weapon's personality, Hiko then narrowed his eyes. Then, moving too swiftly to see, he slashed at Kenji's face.
With a startled cry, Kenji did a back-flip in the snow. He landed as lightly as a cat, one hand pressed to his cheek, his eyes wide with bewilderment.
"You're a hopeless idiot," Hiko said, as Kenji realized that Hiko had taken his own sword. Kenji's face filled with shame. "What do you think you were doing? You completely neglected to pay attention to your environment. Any rusty geezer could have killed you with his bare hands just now, you were so lost in your own emotions. Focus is important, but if you focus too narrowly and lose track of your surroundings, you're a dead man. You've got to maintain awareness of your total situation. Understand?"
"Y-yes," Kenji stuttered. He took his hand away from his face and looked at the blood on his palm. Then his eyes flamed with indignation. "You…" he growled, reaching his fingers up to the bleeding scratches on his left cheek. There was no mistake- there were two shallow, precise cuts, in the shape of an X.
Hiko put Kenji's sword over his shoulder. Then he shrugged. "That's what you wanted, isn't it?" Hiko asked. "For me to turn you into your father?"
Kenji couldn't say anything. To be marked forever like his stupid father- that was NOT something he wanted. The thought of carrying around such a humiliating scar for the rest of his life made hot, angry tears form in his eyes. "No!" Kenji managed to say, but he couldn't keep the shame from his voice. Hiko watched him fighting not to cry, and let him suffer for a few minutes. Then he sighed.
"Well in that case," he said flippantly, "it's lucky that I have such expert control. Those tiny scratches on your face will be healed and gone in less than a week. Come on, it's cold out here. How long are you going sit on your ass sniveling?"
Kenji looked up, completely unnerved. All of his confidence and his anger and his pride from earlier was completely evaporated now. He had been humbled. He was an idiot after all. "Get up," Hiko said gruffly, and turned back towards the house with an impressive flourish of his cape. Kenji scrambled to his feet and followed Hiko indoors. Hiko closed the door against the winter storm and sighed, easing himself back down onto the floor cross-legged. He reached for his sake dish. Kenji sat neatly on his heels across from him, his posture rigid. Hiko took a sip of alcohol and suddenly remembered that he was still holding Kenji's sword. Casually, he tossed the weapon to its owner. "Catch," he muttered as the weapon sailed through the air. Kenji caught it by the hilt and stared at Hiko questioningly. "Now put it away," Hiko said, sounding bored and gazing passively into the fire. Kenji obeyed, and laid the sheathed sword on the floor beside him.
Hiko poured himself some more alcohol. "Your father," he began, and then took a pensive sip, "…asked me to train you, when you were old enough."
Kenji's eyes widened. This was news to him.
"Of course, I told him no."
"But why!" Kenji asked.
"At the time, you were young, but already your sword-ki was noticeable. Your father asked me to turn you into a swordsman. As he had already given up his sword at that point, it was out of the question for him to train you himself."
Kenji's mood darkened perceptibly. He clearly felt gypped out of knowing Kenshin as a swordsman. His whole life, he had felt like nothing more than a pitiful miniature replica of his father. Yahiko was more like Kenshin's son than Kenji. Kenji never knew the man that everyone else looked up to so much. To Kenji, Kenshin was a vague presence, a gentle, quiet, peaceful person, who came and went more like a visitor than a father. He was like a ghost.
"Anyway, I told him that training you was out of the question, it was too dangerous for you, and for this country. However…"
"…considering what you did to my pottery a few moments ago…" Kenji's attention flew to the shelves covered in the broken pieces, and a spark of pride reignited in the cool depths of his eyes. "…it would be more dangerous for everyone if I didn't train you. Right now you're out of control, you're reckless, immature, and stupid. You have no common sense whatsoever, and you're full of power that you don't know how to use. Undoubtedly if you tried to use it, it would end up using you, and would only cause havoc and destruction, senselessly killing many people before it finally ended up killing you. Based on your pitiful demonstration today, I can predict that you'll be dead within four years without training. But that's beside the point…"
"So you'll train me?" Kenji asked excitedly, and threw his head forward in a bow. "Katajikanai!" he muttered breathlessly.
Hiko stared into the depths of his sake dish. You were right about this kid, Kenshin, he thought regretfully. He has unlimited potential… to be a true genius of swordsmanship… and completely unstoppable.