A/N: So here I am, my first foray in the Rurouni Kenshin fandom. I don't own anything, obviously, although I do dedicate this story to SiriusFan13, simply because it's all her fault I'm here – even if she doesn't know it. Whenever I checked her profile to see how her Harry Potter stories were going, I'd seen tons of these 'Rurouni Kenshin' fics and I'd think, 'what kind of a name is that anyway, and what's so good about it?'
So when I saw the first volume in a bookstore one day, I recognised it instantly. 'Hey, I know that title. Well, I've got nothing else to read, so I may as well check it out.' The rest, as they say, is history; I was totally hooked, and I both hate you and love you for it, SiriusFan. (grins)
Anyway. There are spoilers in here up to and including volume 15 of the manga (sorry, haven't seen the anime, although I'd love to know what Hiko's voice actor sounds like) so if there are any stray readers around, you're better skedaddle now (just in case. I know I was hard-put not to read fanfiction until I'd felt I'd read enough of the manga to understand what was going on).
Originally this was supposed to be an itty-bitty one-shot about why Hiko was late to get to the Aoi-ya during the Kyoto-arc, but somehow evolved into a more introspective piece – not to mention a lot longer than I expected. Hope it all goes well, and I appreciate any feedback.
A pre-dawn glow shone over the mountain, illuminating the thick green foliage with a faint golden light, sparkling off of the trailing web of creeks and ponds that skirted their way down the gentle slope. The air was crisp, almost chill, but that mattered little to the tall man standing outside the curtained doorway of his secluded wooden hut, his long black hair, tied back at the base of his neck, drifting gently on the breeze.
He was staring into the distance almost as though waiting for a signal, his thick fringe shading intense dark eyes and thin face expressionless, showing nothing of the thoughts within. One fist was clenched in the red hem of his sweeping white mantle, holding it close against the cool of the altitude; the other rested on the tip of his wood-hilted nihontou.
This was the morning that his baka deshi would go to slay a demon.
A second later Hiko Seijuro snorted at the thought, recalling the redhead's vehement objection to killing.
Fine. This is the morning my baka deshi goes to get himself killed.
He sighed; Kami-sama, how did he get roped into this? He'd been perfectly happy staying up on his mountain, training, making his wonderful pottery, only rarely venturing down to the outskirts of Kyoto to sell said pottery or buy himself a jug of sake and other necessary supplies. No need to worry about noise, politics, or annoying deshis who turn up wanting to complete their training with no prior notice and rather pressing prior engagements.
He pointedly ignored the part of him – a very, very small part, of course, practically nonexistent – which suggested that it might just have been nice to see his deshi again… to know that Battousai hadn't won after all.
Why am I doing this again? He wondered, briefly entertaining the notion of a quiet morning drink before regretfully setting it aside and making his way across the grassy clearing to the meandering path which led into the trees.
His long, silent strides took him down the mountain, passing beneath a dappled canopy and over leafy debris, his black boots leaving no trace of his passing. He never flagged or stopped despite the trail's length and slope, its twists and curves, having travelled this path so many times he could have walked it blindfolded.
Keh. Now there's something I should have done…
Or rather, it was something he should have made his baka deshi do. It would have been amusing at the very least, and taught the boy something at the very most.
So many lost opportunities.
It was meant to be humorous but somehow came out more seriously than he intended, even in his own mind, and he allowed himself the luxury of grimace, since no one was out here to see him.
That's what he got for letting the baka stick around, even for a few days… bringing back the past, stirring up thoughts he'd much rather have gone without.
He had fully intended on turning Kenshin away, fully intended on denying the boy – and he was a boy, Hiko would be damned if he called that naïve baka a man, no matter what his age – the right to learn the succession technique. He was bitter, he knew that; even though in appearance Kenshin had reminded him of nothing more than an older form of little Shinta, even though there had been none of that amber glare in his eyes and only the violet, careworn weariness of someone who was crushed beneath the weight of regret.
The boy had leeched off of his training and then turned around and rejected the most important lesson that Hiko had to teach him; wasn't he owed a little bitterness?
Not really, no, rebuked the part of him which had managed to keep from drowning in his own resentment, his own guilt – in the suggestion that, perhaps, it had been his fault because he hadn't taught Kenshin well enough.
Kuso. This is why I don't like company! He thought grumpily, not enjoying the thoughts which seemed to have been let loose by the presence of his baka deshi. He'd managed to keep them chained up for all this time, and now they had free reign.
And it wasn't even his baka deshi's fault; at least, not totally. When he'd first sensed Kenshin's ki travelling up the path he didn't know whether he wanted to beat him over the head with his saya or –
He cut that thought off before it could continue on its treacherous way.
Those few moments in which Kenshin had tried to sneak up on him had been more important than the boy knew – it gave him a chance to recover his hard-earned deadpan expression, gave him a chance to pull himself together before he did something totally undignified.
And then those baka friends of his had shown up.
He had seen the look on that girl's face, read the ripple of fear and shock and total, utter joy in his deshi's ki when he saw her.
And that's when he realized: Kenshin had changed.
He wasn't the hard-headed – well, not quite as hard-headed – boy who wanted to rush off and save Japan; what he was fighting for was so much smaller, so much simpler, and yet so much more important.
That was when the hope he'd tried to stifle had sprung fully to life, too strong for him to smother like he had when Kenshin had first arrived. So he had sent his deshi out.
And he had asked what kind of a person his deshi had become.
Hiko had followed the hitokiri Battousai's career during most of the Bakumatsu, followed every killing and every death as though his own soul had been tearing into pieces along with that of the boy he once knew. After a time he had continued collecting the information but simply stopped reading it, forcing himself to wallow in bitterness instead of shatter, instead of continuing to admit the fact that yes, he did care. He did care that Kenshin was turning himself into a demon. It was either shut himself off or find his deshi and kill him himself; at least then the boy's soul would be at rest and he wouldn't have to watch him slowly damn himself to hell.
But not only was that something he wasn't sure he had the heart to do, it was also something he didn't feel he had the right to. It had been Kenshin's decision, in the end, and Hiko refused to save people from their own decisions. Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu was a style meant to protect people, yes, but where was the good in protecting them to the point that they needed to be led through life by the hand, simply because they couldn't face the consequences of their own choices?
Kami-sama, no. If Kenshin was to burn, then he would burn with the only freedom he had left: the freedom of knowing it had been his own decision. He may have been chained by the Ishin Shishi, but they couldn't dictate his thoughts.
And burn he did, but not to hell. He had burned, and then walked out of the flames, singed, bleeding, but still able to walk, still able to wander. It was more than Hiko had let himself hope for, and he found he simply couldn't be bitter anymore.
Well… not much, at least. He still needed to figure out a way to suitably humiliate his baka deshi for walking out on him, but that could wait. He had time.
Time he hadn't expected to have, if he wanted to be honest, not that he was complaining. He hadn't wanted to die – wouldn't that have been a hypocritical irony Kenshin would never let him live down – but he knew it was a distinct possibility, more distinct a possibility than he'd had in… oh, over twenty years. Since his own shishou had been alive.
But that baka deshi of his couldn't even do that right, could he? Hiko snorted, picking his way gracefully over a bubbling stream, the mountain now rising in green-gowned slopes above him, Kyoto sprawling ever-closer in patches of roads and buildings below.
No, his deshi had to be different. Baka.
He abruptly realized that a smile was playing about the corners of his lips and shook it off, internally growling at himself for getting soft.
Of course he was getting soft. Why else would he have felt that sudden twinge of regret once he realized that Kenshin was leaving; why else would he have needed to turn away for fear the redhead would see something of it in his eyes?
Why else would he feel that soft wave of relief when his deshi spoke again, asking him for more help – asking him for help – willing for him to stay in his life – offering him the opportunity not to shut himself out again.
Kuso, I am getting soft!
He had to be, agreeing to make this journey, to look out for his baka deshi's friends; after all, they hardly had anything to do with him…
And yet, he found he didn't mind, not really. How could he, when protection was the reason he had learned Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu? He could pretend all he wanted to Kenshin's face, pretend it was a waste of his time, but really, how could he do anything less?
It was with these kinds of thoughts that he finally made it to the outskirts of Kyoto, the sun on its ascendance overhead, shaded by wisps of clouds. Midmorning, then; should be plenty of time for him to make it to… what had his baka deshi called it?
Aoi-ya. Now, where…?
For a few moments he stood glancing from one dirt road to another, each leading into the shadow of the wooden buildings, spreading in a wandering map of paths through the city.
And then he realized…
Kuso! That baka deshi! He didn't give me directions!
He cursed inwardly, but outwardly only scowled, his sharp eyes passing once again over the roads as though looking for a signpost to tell him which direction to go in.
At this point, I suppose one road's as a good as another.
Huffing something between a sigh and a growl, Hiko Seijuro picked one of the wide, tamped paths at random and strode into the city of Kyoto, his white and red-edged cloak billowing behind him, expression set in a look of resigned determination.
A few hours later, his heavy brow instead set in a permanent scowl of irritation, his injury beginning to twinge insistently at the constant exercise, Hiko paced through the streets with only half a mind on finding his destination and the rest of it coming up with new and very creative ways to get that baka deshi back. How could he have forgotten to tell him where the Kami-damned inn was?
He conveniently ignored the fact that he didn't think of it either.
Yare yare; sometimes I wonder just how much that baka actually learned. Maybe I should have taken care of Shishio myself…
Maa, he did manage to learn the ougi, that says something. Hiko sighed inwardly, caught himself doing it, and turned it into a growl. Why am I worrying so much about that baka, anyway? It's his choice if he wants to go out and get himself killed…
Hiko finally registered that the shouts were directed at him when a stick-thin police officer barred his way, his blue uniform crisp, eyes narrowed. Hiko stared at him for a moment, and then glanced behind him when he heard stumbling footsteps as a second, more portly officer puffed up.
Kuso. Should've been paying attention, Hiko thought almost sanguinely as the shorter of the two men pointed his sabre at him accusingly, his chest still heaving from trying to keep up with Hiko's long strides.
"How dare you defy the sword ban! Relinquish your blade at once or face the consequences!"
Once again, Hiko just stared, not knowing whether to be amused at the baka's audacity or irritated for disturbing him. Not to mention the cheesy lines.
But then, he was walking around in plain sight with a katana at his back; usually he didn't venture far enough into the city for people to notice. He really should have expected something like this.
The officer started to sweat, and not from his run. Who was this man, anyway; he was so tall, and the way he stood you'd think that he was a king for the world to bow to. He didn't seem to move at all; he could have been a statue for all the officer knew, aside from his long black hair wafting gently in the slight breeze.
But the worst was his eyes – dark, shaded by his bangs, seeming to bore into him piercingly like his every secret was on display. The hapless policeman felt his skin prickling with goosebumps and found he couldn't hold the swordsman's gaze, instead looking somewhere around his chest; but that just forced him to see the man's strong build, those muscles which spoke deeply of long physical conditioning. He could probably take down half the police force without his katana.
For a moment the officer wasn't sure whether the swordsman had spoken or not, but raising his eyes to the man's face, he saw it was lined with a faint amusement that matched the derisive tone of the deep voice.
Hiko saw the officer take in a visible breath, eyes flickering as though for comfort towards his partner, and had to suppress a smirk at the man's wandering gaze. Keh, pitiful; and he wasn't even trying. If he wasn't in a hurry he'd probably take the time just to intimidate the baka a little more, but that was the problem, wasn't it? He was never in this kind of position unless he had somewhere to be.
Instead the master of Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu waved a hand dismissively, turning away. "I don't have time for this."
And found his path blocked by the second officer, taller than the last but still a far cry from Hiko's height and apparently with a little more self-possession than the other, as he had levelled his own blade at the swordsman in warning. Hiko's eyes flashed in annoyance and he was gratified to see the man flinch, although he stood his ground. "I said," Hiko uttered quietly, in the 'I'm-not-kidding-this-time-so-you'd-better-not-think-of-arguing-with-me' tone that had worked so well on Kenshin before he'd become a moody teenager and now served to make the policeman blanch and look like he wished he were anywhere else, "I don't have time for this."
Hiko had taken a single, intimidating step towards the officer when he abruptly felt a swell of strong kenki. Startled, his head snapped around in its direction, the long tails of hair that trailed past his face waving with the forceful motion, just as a faint, panicked shout rose above the city somewhere distant, followed by a rumbling and a cloud of dust.
Instantly he was gone, sparing the two hesitant officers no more mind as he sprinted lightly over hard ground, his long ponytail tracing the air behind him with graceful flicks. To bystanders, there seemed to be nothing more than a flash of white and an abrupt gust of wind and swirl of dust as he passed.
The long, still-healing slash travelling up his ribs and chest immediately sprang to life, striking a complaining lash of pain down his torso, but he ignored it in favour of the rumbles and shouts he heard somewhere in front of him, even when he noted in a detached part of his mind that it was making his breath shorter than it should have been.
He sped into an intersection, the timber buildings around him giving way to momentary clear sight, and his step almost faltered in faint surprise.
At first Hiko thought it was some kind of robot that he ran towards, towering distantly over the city of Kyoto. Its head was covered by a gleaming plated helmet, its face smoothly skull-like and chest covered in a restricting breastplate. He could see flames billowing upward, almost seeming to lick at the metal and leaving it ash-gowned, smoke wisping around it.
Then he felt it again: the ripple of the ki he'd felt before, and saw the way the cinders marked the pale shoulders black, and that's when he realized – not a robot – a man –
He could hear the carrying screams, now, mostly of panic, some of pain, and prayed fervently to whatever gods were up there that it wasn't the Aoi-ya that was being attacked.
A second later he knew that it couldn't be; there were too many voices crying out, and all of them men. The Oniwabanshu would never scream for pain, let alone fright, and he didn't think there were that many of them besides.
It's somewhere else, then. His stride slowed, his boots soft on the condensed path as he came to a halt, making himself breathe evenly, albeit shallowly, against the sharp, constricting pain in his chest. His mind drifted back to the policemen who'd tried to apprehend him and decided they – if not personally – were an adequate enough target for one such as Shishio. Attacking the station would keep the law enforcement off the streets, that was for sure.
The swordsman felt that ripple of ki for a third time and found himself looking at the giant, studying the broad shoulders and narrow chest, the huge blade – practically a cleaver – that the man wielded, wondering at what he was sensing.
Regret… frustration… resignation… yearning?
Dark eyes narrowed in focus as Hiko actively sought out the man's fighting spirit with his own, and found himself abruptly distracted by a second ki.
…smugness. A sharp sense of triumph.
No, more than that.
It was the arrogance of one who was Master, but not one who had mastered. One who held power over someone else, whether by threat, or trickery, or blackmail.
The giant turned, and that's when Hiko saw him: a bald old man, dressed in voluminous robes and holding a gnarled cane, sitting on the giant's shoulder like a conceited, reigning sovereign.
And the words the voices had been screaming finally registered, some of them nearer than others, babbling.
Hiko connected the dots, abruptly awash with anger, seeing the way the elder practically patted his companion on the shoulder, like a chained dog, oblivious to the slitted eyes looking down upon the hidden scene below them with a mixture of unseen frustration and longing. The black-haired recluse glared, teeth gritted, up at the self-satisfied old man, even as the giant turned away, trudging off through the city with a swell of flames and smoke shrouding his exit.
Yaro! Exploiting a man like that…with a ki such as he has, he should have been a swordsman – a samurai –
For a moment Hiko stood, incensed; then his lips drew a straight line and he took a deep, careful breath, silently promising some kind of reckoning or acknowledgement, whichever he could give to that towering man.
Then he focussed his mind once again on the Aoi-ya.
There was no doubt in his mind that the pair he'd just seen were Shishio's men, probably of the Juppongatana. He'd witnessed black-uniformed soldiers prowling his mountain once or twice, knew that they were the ones who did the grunt work, and these two were far too distinctive to be common fighters.
If he's done terrorizing the police, he'll probably go to join his friends there. At least he'll be easy to follow.
And perhaps then…
Hiko's hand moved almost restlessly to the wooden hilt of his nihontou as though itching for battle, even as he moved for the first time in minutes, changing quickly from a standstill to a light-footed run, his white mantle streaming out behind him.
Streets and houses flashed by, and occasionally people too; some of them were colourfully-dressed bystanders, while others were police officers, shaken, burned, ash-covered, uncertain. He assessed them critically as he passed the shattered inferno that remained of the station, littered with debris, still smoking and crackling with flames, and knew there would be no help from that quarter. Shishio had clearly planned this to strike at the Aoi-ya with no hope for reinforcements.
But then, he didn't know about Hiko. Or if he did, he had dismissed him as a grouchy hermit.
It was a mistake Hiko intended to make him regret.
It was hard keeping the giant and his yaro master in sight, but Hiko persevered, detouring through narrow side-streets or over shingled rooftops when the main roads became clogged with wreckage from the pair's path of destruction. When the giant finally stopped Hiko was running almost blind, losing clear view for minutes at a time, and his angle of approach had somehow changed without him realizing.
But that didn't matter; the giant had clearly reached his destination, and with a point to aim towards Hiko worried less about his route and more about getting there on time.
Time. He hated the word; it always seemed to imply something less than what you had. Running out of time, being on time, they were all phrases he hated, because he understood all too well the consequences of losing it.
One of the last times he had 'run out of time' it had been Kenshin who had suffered for it, Kenshin who had watched those three women being slaughtered. Just a few seconds later and Kenshin would have shared the same fate.
I've seen it happen far too much.
It was almost ironic that for all his hatred of time he hadn't even noticed its passing after Kenshin had left, as though he had been left hanging while the world passed him by. His deshi had been there and then he hadn't; and then before he knew it, he had lost sixteen years and his deshi was back, older, wiser, and no longer a child.
But a boy. Always, always, a naïve boy.
At least to him; Hiko couldn't call Kenshin a man because to him it had only been yesterday that Kenshin had left. In some ways, Hiko had simply refused to acknowledge the past sixteen years as having happened, and if they did, they had happened to someone else. Someone who wasn't his deshi, because his deshi had been strong, had been kind-hearted, and Hiko couldn't imagine something as terrible as the transformation into Battousai happening – not to his deshi.
Kenshin's return had shattered all of that, and Hiko still didn't know whether he wanted to kick him or thank him for it.
In the distance, the sunlight winked off of steel as the giant's broad blade rose up, and Hiko's heart clenched, his speed increasing unnoticed; but when it fell it was only to a billow of dust and a scattering of debris, the only thing beneath it a building.
The swordsman let out a short breath of relief without halting, ignoring the tight burn around his ribs that was his injury. Shimatta! If his lack of directions makes me get there too late I'll…
The murderous thought was cut off by another hindrance as a flock of black-uniformed swordsmen appeared in a frantic rush around the corner ahead of him, their loose clothes fluttering. They spread across the entire street in their anxiousness to get away from wherever they'd come from, and Hiko audibly growled at the obstruction, not even pausing to slow his pace. They were in his way; he would run right over them to get down that street if he had to, because he had a feeling he knew where they'd just been.
Some of them turned and saw him barrelling down upon them, his face set into grim lines, dark eyes flashing amber beneath long, windswept bangs, his hand on the sword at his side and mantle swept out behind him like the broad wings of a dragon. Their eyes widened and they got out of his way in a hurry, their alarmed reactions hardly enough to warn the rest to do the same before he'd passed in a flash of wind and dust.
None of them decided to follow or challenge him, oddly enough, and as long as they'd already left the Aoi-ya he didn't really care what they did.
Besides, what he saw as he reached the end of a half-decimated street a minute or two later was enough to capture his attention and make his heart freeze in his chest: the armoured giant's huge blade rising ominously overhead, about to come down upon the battered, spiky-haired boy in front of him, standing unsteadily amidst a scene of ruined timber.
Half a dozen thoughts flitted through Hiko's mind in the space of an instant, but predominant among them was the thought that it was happening all over again; that it had happened far too often, that he had already been too late too many times.
I will not be too late now.
Twin puffs of dust marked the street where he'd been as he moved, fast enough that he couldn't make out the buildings around him, his gaze narrowed to the small form of that boy and the descending blade, seeming almost slow to his sharp eyes. His bangs lashed in his eyes, his hair a swirl of black against the ripple of white fabric, giving the impression that he was flying instead of merely running. His injury was a fiery band of pain across his chest, but there was also the distant, irrational thought that breathing was overrated anyway.
His right hand gripped the saya at his waist, his left moving to the hilt, gripping it in preparation for battoujutsu. And that was when he knew, a tiny smirk crossing his lips even in the midst of this insane race. I will not be too late.
I'm going to make it.
Hiko stared down at Fuji, feeling a mixture of relief and regret. He'd been right, in the end, that all the giant had wanted was to be recognised for what he was. Hiko only hoped that he found peace in that.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the dumbfounded expressions on the faces of Kenshin's friends, and restrained a smirk. They thought that was his best, the naive idiots; typical that his baka deshi would hook up with people like that.
…it was kind of refreshing. After so long in solitude, wallowing in his own bitterness and suspended in time, it was refreshing to see the kind of innocence that he had fought for so long. That Kenshin had finally learned to fight for himself.
And that girl…
Hiko turned to find her beside him, looking almost as battered as her student, her white gi tattered and hanging off one shoulder, her dark hair coarse and ruffled with dust. But in her blue eyes was such gratitude, such relief.
And Hiko couldn't help but smirk with knowingness as he said, "Just believe, and wait."
And then smile for real, more widely this time, when her firm and confident answer was, "I'll do that."
Slipping his nihontou back into his wooden saya with a sharp screech, Hiko glanced up towards cloud-wreathed Mount Hiei in the distance beyond Kyoto, and didn't even both to wipe the smile away. So desu ne, Kenshin. With people like these behind you, you'll just have live through this after all.
And somehow, knowing you, you'll do it by proving me wrong and keeping to that naïve vow of yours. Even if you do have a lousy sense of direction.
A/N: This list doesn't include the names and such in the story which I'm assuming you'll know – like the name of the ninjas and whatnot. I'm assuming a lot of you will know most of these anyway, but I've learned so much from these little fanfic dictionaries that I'm not about to take the risk that you all do.
Baka – 'stupid', 'idiot', all of those tamer insults
Deshi – 'apprentice'
Gi – a type of loose shirt
Kami – 'god'
Kenki – a swordsman's fighting spirit
Ki – a person's life-energy or aura (for all I know 'kenki' and 'ki' could mean the same thing, but this is how I've always differentiated between the two – with one being specific to swordsmen)
Kora – informal term meaning 'hey!' or something like 'listen here!', usually used in a curt manner to get someone's attention
Kuso – an all-purpose swearword like 'shit'
Maa – 'well'
Nihontou – from what I've been able to find out, a nihontou isn't a sword type like a katana or wakizashi, but is a term for a particularly beautiful or respected blade, often one that's been passed down generations as an heirloom. Only a blade made in Japan can be called a nihontou. I've seen Hiko's sword referred to by this classification, and once I found out the definition I just had to use it too, since I'm one of those who likes to think that the sword from 'Crescent Moon of the Warring States' is the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu heirloom.
Onore – impolite term meaning 'you' but is closer to 'you damn person'
Ougi – succession technique
-sama – an extremely respectful honorific equivalent to 'lord' or 'master'
Saya – the scabbard
Shishou – 'master', as in master and apprentice
So desu ne – this phrase is pretty ambiguous. It can mean something along the lines of 'I see' or 'it seems to be that way'. I had a hard time choosing a phrase that worked for what I wanted and this was the closest I could find – none of the English ones quite seemed to cut it.
Yare yare – all-purpose exclamation; 'oh brother', 'good grief', that kinda stuff
Yaro – 'that bastard' or simply 'bastard'. Equivalent in Japan is something like 'farmhand', which seems to be a pretty bad insult