The door of the Aoi-ya dojo slid slowly open, and all the occupants turned towards the sound. Sunlight suddenly flooded their faces, and they raised their hands against their eyes as they squinted at the lone figure that stood in the entrance.
Misao was the first to recognize him. "There you are, Himura!" she squealed as she leapt up from her seat on her floor and began bounding towards him. "Where were you all morning? You missed breakfast! I'll go get some leftovers for you since you must be… hungry…"
Misao trailed off and blinked when Kenshin walked silently past her, his hair falling over his shadowed eyes. "Himura?"
Kenshin stopped when he reached the floor of the training hall. A hush fell over the room as he slowly removed his sheathed sword from his belt. "Sano."
Startled at being addressed so suddenly, Sanosuke pushed himself off from the wall he had been leaning against and walked casually towards his friend. "What's up?"
He blinked when Kenshin raised his arm towards him, scabbard and sheathed sakabattou in his grip. "Please take care of this for the moment."
Sanosuke chuckled. "C'mon Kenshin, what kind of joke is this?"
His breath caught in his throat when the older man finally raised his head and met his eyes. "Please," Kenshin spoke softly.
Mouth set in a firm line, Sanosuke stepped forward and took the sword from Kenshin's hands.
A small smile played across the rurouni's lips. "Thank you."
Sanosuke watched as Kenshin walked past him as well. Unable to take the sudden silence that enveloped the room, Sanosuke burst out, "You do know that if you're going to fight, you're going to need this." He motioned with the sword in his hand.
Kenshin stopped, his back turned towards the taller man. "No," he said quietly. "That's not what I need."
"That's it, I'm not watching this," Megumi declared with a huff. She picked up her medicine chest beside her and stood up from her kneeling position on the floor. "You don't look well, Ken-san," she said gently as she began walking towards him. "Let me have a look at you."
The firm tone definitely issued a command. Megumi stopped in her tracks, surprised. Her hand went up to her chest and her voice faltered slightly as she spoke. "Ken-san…?"
"No," Kenshin repeated, his voice softening. He turned towards her with a smile. "No, thank you, Megumi-dono. I'm sorry to have worried you." And Megumi could only watch as he walked past her as well.
Kenshin finally reached the middle of the training hall. Everyone waited silently, anxiously, for him to speak. His next words, however, were not quite what they expected.
"Misao-dono, I would like to borrow a wooden sword."
Misao furrowed her brows. "What are you saying, Himura? I don't understand."
He smiled softly. "I'm sorry, you're right. I should make myself clearer."
And everyone could only look on in shock as Kenshin dropped to his knees in the middle of the Aoi-ya dojo and his forehead touched the floor in a deep and respectful bow.
"Makimachi Misao, Head of the Oniwanbanshuu Kyoto division... I am Himura Kenshin, fourteenth master of the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu. I respectfully ask of you to lend me the use of your dojo and your sword."
"Himura!" Obviously uncomfortable with being addressed so formally, Misao rushed in front of Kenshin and hissed, "What the hell are you doing? Get up! What kind of game are you playing?!"
"It's not a game."
Everyone looked at the man in the corner who suddenly spoke. "It's not a game for him, Misao," he repeated quietly. "I advise for you to do as he says."
Misao furrowed her brows. "Aoshi-sama…"
The man emerged from his position amidst the shadows and slowly walked towards her. "He won't get up until you give him what he asks," Aoshi spoke as he motioned to the red-haired man still crouched in a bowed position on the floor.
Misao shook her head in confusion. "I don't even know what exactly he's asking, and why."
"He's asking for a wooden sword," replied Aoshi. "And we will never know why unless he gets it."
The two looked at each other for a long moment. Finally, with a sigh, Misao walked towards the rack of wooden swords that hung on one wall of the dojo. She picked one and walked back towards Kenshin. As she positioned herself in front of him, she hesitated for a moment before she took a deep breath and spoke.
"I, Makimachi Misao, Head of the Oniwanbanshuu Kyoto division, am entrusting this dojo and this sword temporarily to you, Himura Kenshin, fourteenth master of the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu." She kneeled in front of him, bokken held horizontally in both hands. "I trust that you would not dishonor my name, or that of the Oniwanbanshuu which I represent."
"Wow. I didn't know little Misao-chan knew such big words."
"Shut up, Jii-ya!"
Kenshin finally straightened and, with his head still respectfully bowed before Misao, took the sword from her. "Thank you. You have my word that the Oniwanbanshuu's name shall not be dishonored."
Misao looked at him for a long moment before she sighed. "Himura, I sure hope you know what you're doing," she muttered before she stood up and walked back, giving him more room. She didn't hear Kenshin's whispered words to himself.
"So do I, Misao-dono… so do I."
Kenshin felt everyone's eyes upon him as he stood up, carrying the wooden sword given to him by Misao. Finally, he turned towards the opposite end of the dojo, where there stood the person he came in here for. He began walking in that direction.
"That's about as far as you're getting, Kenshin."
Never before had he spoken with such venom against the man he idolized. Everyone turned to the young boy in surprise.
Kenshin stopped. His eyes were shadowed once more as his auburn locks fell over them. "Step aside, Yahiko."
In response, Yahiko only tightened his grip on his shinai and maneuvered himself in front of the person he was protecting, the person he knew Kenshin was after. "I have no idea what exactly is going on in your head right now, Kenshin, but I have a strange feeling I know what you're planning," he declared as he settled himself into a defensive position. Every muscle in his body was visibly tense and coiled, ready to spring into action. "And I'm not going to let you do it."
A small smile appeared on Kenshin's lips. "Your skills and your intelligence are truly beyond your years. I admire that." He took a step forward. "But I'm telling you again, Yahiko, step aside. This isn't your fight."
"And neither should you make it yours!" Yahiko spat.
"That…" spoke Kenshin quietly. "Is not for you to decide."
The shinai he held shook as his hands trembled with anger. "So what, it's up to you to decide that you suddenly want to hurt her?"
A hand on his shoulder gently stopped him. "No."
Yahiko looked up at her in surprise, and she smiled down at him. "It is up to me to decide if I let him."
And with that, she stepped around him and began walking towards Kenshin.
Yahiko grabbed her sleeve and held on tightly. "No."
She stopped. "Let go, Yahiko," she gently commanded him.
"No," he firmly repeated. "I can't stand by and watch this!"
And his eyes widened as she turned to him with the most peaceful smile on her face.
"But you can believe in me. And in him."
And in a daze, Yahiko let the fabric of her sleeve slip from his fingers as she continued to walk away from him, and towards the man who used to be Battousai. And as they watched, Kenshin raised the bokken he held and pointed it towards her, making her stop a few feet away from him.
"I am Himura Kenshin, fourteenth master of the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu."
And everyone's eyes widened as they finally realized what Yahiko had first been able to deduce from the moment Kenshin asked for a wooden sword.
"No," Megumi whispered. "Don't do it, Ken-san… don't do it…"
"And I challenge you, Kamiya Kaoru, adjutant master of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryuu…"
And amethyst met sapphire as he raised his head and his eyes met those of the woman he loved.
"…to a duel."
"Have you actually lost your mind this time, Kenshin?!" Sanosuke burst out as he strode towards the training floor.
"Himura, you liar!" Misao cried as she leapt towards him. "I'm not going to let you dishonor me by hurting Kaoru!"
At opposite sides of the dojo, both Sanosuke and Misao stopped as they suddenly felt the cold touch of a blade against their throats.
Sanosuke narrowed his eyes at the sword held at his neck by the older man. "Aoshi."
Misao swallowed at the shuriken pointed at her neck by her grandfather. "Jii-ya…"
"Why are you stopping me, Aoshi?" Sanosuke's voice was uncharacteristically quiet, carefully controlled, but just barely.
Aoshi met his piercing gaze coolly. "It is not your place to interfere, Sagara," he answered as he carefully re-sheathed his sword. "No one in this room has the right to interfere."
Sanosuke snorted bitterly. "So now you have the right to decide what's good for all of us?"
"If anyone has a right to decide, it is Kamiya-san herself," Okina spoke up as he pulled his hand back and removed the shuriken from his granddaughter's neck. "We should not deprive her of her honor."
All of them turned their attention back towards the silent couple in the middle of the training floor. Kenshin's sword was still pointed towards her, but he wasn't making any move. Then, the hand at her side which held her own bokken began moving. She slowly brought the sword horizontally in front of her, one hand gripping the hilt tightly, the other hand supporting the other end of the sword, her open palm facing Kenshin.
Yahiko's eyes widened as he recognized the defensive stance for what it was. "No… she can't possibly be serious…"
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before she spoke. "In the name of the deceased master, Kamiya Koshijirou…"
And sapphire met amethyst as she raised her head and her eyes met those of the man she loved.
"I, Kamiya Kaoru, adjutant master of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryuu, accept your challenge, Himura Kenshin."