The street was a vivid patchwork of colored paper and cloth, red, orange, yellow on the matted gray. The vines above were only a little barer because of it. Kenshin studiously avoided stepping on the colors as he followed Hiko's directions—lines in the sand—to the brewery.

The district had grown silent after sunrise. The night had been long and loud.

The platforms had been clothed for occasion, and local talent called upon for the entertainment. After the prepared ones had left the stage, neighbors called up neighbors to do their bit. First timid and controlled, the performances were all too short. But as sake flew from mouth to mouth, the acts grew in vigor, and the jokes grew loud and racy, till it seemed that the entire district was crammed into these streets.

The party had broken off mere hours before sunrise—

With an almost mechanic grin Kenshin looked on from shop to shop, house to house. A few men lay, nearly still, in the shade of the shuttered buildings, but many more he could feel in similar stupor just beyond the walls.

Kenshin continued along the street as instructed.

He took the left at the three-way crossing with growing apprehension. Stalls lined this street, and people lined the stalls.

His eyes darted often at the shouts from the kiosks; the basket did look sturdy, and the price was indeed reasonable, the fish was definitely fresh, it had been caught early that morning after all, the sweets did indeed look delicious, cheap too, rite?

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Hiko had limited his visits to the big city over the years. The streams ran coolly with fresh water. The seasons brought in fish, the winds rock-salt. The eastern slope had berries to spare almost into winter. Meat and hides came easy to a hunter as skilled. But there never was enough at the hut for a growing boy who ate like an ox. No—his growing boy didn't eat nearly as much, and well, maybe that was because he wasn't growing after all.

He crossed the arches into Kyoto, sneering. What a waste of fine sake.

Hiko wondered briefly if all these sudden recollections were normal. Perhaps his growing boy was up to his old tricks again? Perhaps last night's drink had been laced? He knew that perseverance was one thing the boy never lacked. Just how long had it been since the baka had been disciplined last?

Try as he might however, the memories of his late master wouldn't leave his mind. Sure, they had met in these very streets. But a simple stroll through an all too quiet city street was hardly enough to upset Hiko Seijuro.

I remember. I will always remember.

You were already a stooping geezer when we first met, crossed blades.

The sound that shot through my arm, eyes stinging, and all about me ringing.

You'd already sheathed back your sword before I recognized what was left of mine. You'd already made up your mind before I bowed down to you.

I only wanted to surpass you. I hated you. I have always been the last to accept defeat. But you, I had to accept. You made me accept, and recognize, and even—revere.

Hiko had cut across the market district altogether. And now settled comfortably in the shaded engawa of a teahouse, as well known during the day for its tea, as for its women at nights.

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Kenshin slowed down often on the street, if only to look at children at play as they threaded their way through the crowds with ease. He had also become aware of the many that glanced and some that stared at him. At first it seemed that the katana at his side drew too much attention, but Kenshin soon realized that that only helped clear a path ahead. He began to seek the shade-self-consciously, wishing that his hair didn't stand out as much.

His face lit up as he spotted the bold red kanji up ahead. A left turn into a quiet shaded alley, a creaky door, and a creakier flight of stairs led into the gloom. A wizened voice greeted him from somewhere in the half-light.

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Hiko watched, amused, as a very different seeming person re-entered the busy street.

Short as ever—but he seems freed, expectant, happy!

The street forked in a juncture that led further into Kyoto's market district. The stalls and streets were abuzz with vendors, undaunted by the noon heat. People fluttered from shop to shop inspecting wares, sure hands reaching out for choice goods, weighing, touching, sampling.

Kenshin, seemingly dazed, matched step with the crowd of shoppers, as he bobbed from stall to stall, watchful but intent-less, a goofy smile plastered on his face.

Hiko knew that the baka would take good care of the sake, and for now, that was enough. He let the crowd take Kenshin further away, till the boy was a red speck that moved in and out of his sharp eyes.

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The heady rush—the sounds, the sights, the freedom, the newness, had kept the smile steady on his lips. The crowd grew on him soon enough. And Kenshin did what came to him naturally, he watched and learnt.

His fingers reached deftly for coins as he bought a treat here and a toy there, with barely contained glee. The sun was no longer in his eyes and the rough cords that held the unexpectedly heavy ornate jar no longer cut into his shoulder. The mochii was sweet in his mouth and he wondered what Kyoto had to offer to surpass the sweet spring water that he loved, and the bitter sake his master sometimes forced on him. A slight rustle caught his ear—

—something was amiss!

In a whistling arc the blade was loosed, sent biting into its target. Kenshin had taken a half-step towards the threat—drawing and stabbing—he brought the katana back to guard, in the same breath. And then, there was deathly silence.

The sea of people had parted nearly as fast as the Hiten Mitsurugi blade. They watched with fear and awe, and silenced anger. But none looked more stricken than the little redhead who stood ready for battle with the bleeding child.

Only the tip of the katana was bloodied as it had dipped into flesh with practiced ease. But the stance was lost to the horrifying counterstrike. There was no offensive, no attackers, no threat, just an urchin who had reached for the wrong man's purse.

His sandy hair, shocked eyes, and stricken face scared Kenshin worse than the deafening silence. A red stain crept along the boy's gi as he clutched his hands to his chest.

And still there was only silence and watchful eyes.

Kenshin tried to take a step back, but couldn't. Neither could he move towards the boy.

Was he a samurai dispensing justice to a thief? Was he a monster that shed a child's blood? Was he, the boy, alright?

The crowd parted swiftly when Kenshin regained his bearings after the long second had passed. They let him pass, with his suddenly blood-red hair and wild eyes, and drawn blade and expensive sake. He wasn't one of them anyway.

Minutes later, in a dark niche between two large buildings, Kenshin hunkered down on the ground, mechanically wiping his sword.

Could he ever come back to this place? What would his Shishou say if he ever heard of this? And the boy—

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Word of some great Satsuma samurai's errant son skewering an urchin traveled fast through the market district. And Hiko couldn't help but feel the beginnings of a terrible headache. He didn't need to hear more than a few words of the excited, hushed recountings' to know exactly what his baka deshi had done.

He wondered briefly how Kenshin was faring. And for a guilty moment how his sake jug had fared too.

He remembered well the first few sleepless nights after he had brought the slave-boy home, the stricken glances, the silence, and the nightmares, and he wanted no part in a repeat of the episode.

Snorting at a passerby's retelling of the event, and how the little thief had deserved what he had gotten Hiko decided that what little peace could still be had, he needed. He started on his way back to the mountains. Away from all but one of the morons, who he was sure would eventually loiter back to his home.

The ougi was off at any rate.

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This was originally slightly longer and much less involved. At Any rate, its done with. Hope you liked it Krissy-nee.

A big shoutout to lolo popoki for her prompt beta-ing.