It was that time of the day again. Hiko looked out the window and saw the lush groves of bamboo swaying gently in the afternoon breeze. A calm had settled over the clearing. The only sign of activity was a flash, in the distance.
His pupil was going through the fluid motions of his kata. Hiko allowed himself a small, hidden smile. Kenshin's timing was perfect. He changed forms, and Hiko could see that the boy was held in the grip of the sword-trance.
Birdsong reached his ears, mingled with the wind brushing through the forest, stirring leafy treetops. With that soft hiss, Hiko sighed, satisfied. This afternoon, the light was perfect.
Hiko gathered his things; a bag filled with his tools, some scrolls, and a jug of sake. He closed the door with a soft creak and made his way across the grass, taking note of the neat pile of chopped wood that had appeared beside the shack. It hadn't been there this morning. Kenshin did not even glance in his direction as he approached. Hiko had unmasked his ki the entire time, but his pupil's concentration did not waver.
Good. Hiko kept his expression grim as Kenshin fell into a characteristic stance; the basis for so many Mitsurugi attacks. But now Kenshin was demonstrating a different kind of kata, and Hiko was secretly pleased at the boy's slow and practised movements. He was displaying control.
"I'm going out for a while, baka-deshi," he called as he sauntered past, barely looking at the boy.
"Hm," was Kenshin's reply, accompanied with a brief nod of the head. Hiko, no longer facing his student, smiled, and made his way down a narrow path that snaked into dense thickets of bamboo. The forest floor was strewn with dry, silken leaves which barely made a sound as they gave way under his feet. Hiko began to hum a soft, low tune. The place he sought was not far off.
Kenshin shifted into the third form of his stance and allowed his concentration to waver, for just a second. Seeing Hiko disappear down the heavily shadowed forest path made his curiosity burn.
Where is he going?
It was that time again; he had noticed it for the past few weeks, the strange mood that would settle over his master in the afternoon when Hiko would leave him practising his kata. Sometimes he wouldn't return until night fell, long after Kenshin had prepared the evening meal. He never spoke of where he'd been, or what he'd done.
It's none of your business. Hiko had many secrets; it was his nature to be mysterious and aloof, and Kenshin decided not to let it bother him. He cleared his mind of all thought, returning to the calm void he had created. The katana was light in his hands; more and more, it was beginning to feel like an extension of his will. Kenshin exhaled, a deep sigh.
One… two… A flock of birds rose in the distance, interrupted, no doubt, by his master as he strode on, oblivious. Kenshin shook his head. No, of course Hiko wasn't oblivious. But the way he had walked across the clearing, his aura unmasked, making Kenshin well aware of his presence, it had been careless. Well, not careless, really. This was Hiko's forest, after all. He had no concern for stealth, for hiding. Why should he? Who would Hiko need to hide from?
Well, the only person is me, really. When he's sneaking up on me, or beating me in a fight. Kenshin allowed himself a bittersweet twist of the lips; he still hadn't been able to really surprise Hiko in combat… but he was getting closer. There were a number of tricks he had figured out that he couldn't wait to try.
He shook his head. Where is Hiko going? His concentration was shattered, the spell of the kata broken. Kenshin stared into the bamboo grove again, no longer able to make out the shadow that was his master's form.
He waited for a while, no longer able to clear his mind and be still. Now he was alone, and that peculiar afternoon calm had once again settled over the clearing. All he could hear was the soft rush of the bamboo leaves, and a bird, twittering softly.
"Hm." Kenshin sheathed his katana, slowly, and set off, following in his master's direction.
Hiko held his hand steady, concentrating all of his energy into a single, focused point. Once he made this stroke, he wouldn't be able to erase it. He set the brush to the paper, and drew the faintest of lines. Then he leaned back, trying to make sense of his work.
It's not quite right. He looked at the painting, then at the branch before him. He set the brush down in a slow, gentle motion, taking care not to disturb the bird, which sat at the end of the branch. It chirped, and ruffled its feathers.
To Hiko's left there was a small grinding stone and an ink stick. He was taking care to dilute the black powder with only the smallest amount of water. Too much, and his picture would look washed out. One had to compensate for the ink, which faded as it dried. To his right, sat the sake jug, half-empty. A number of scrolls spilled from his bag; they were old and torn at the edges.
Hiko sighed, and changed brushes, selecting the finest one, which was made from wolf hair. He shook his head. It didn't look right. Something was missing, and he couldn't pinpoint it. He knew that the picture was almost complete; it just needed one or two additional strokes.
But where? This was the true difficulty of sumi-e; to create an image pure of form, capturing the essence of an object or creature with the fewest lines possible. It had never been his strongest talent.
Hiko tried to clear his mind, imagining the pure forms of his kata. As he touched the edges of the void, he felt something else.
A flicker, quickly doused. It was there, and then it was gone. But it was enough.
Damn it!. He wondered how long the kid had been watching him. To be able to sneak up on him like that! Sometimes the speed at which Kenshin was learning almost scared him. Hiko pushed the rather unexpected feeling of satisfaction deep down within himself and frowned.
"Kenshin, what are you doing?"
Silence. Then a rustle, and his student appeared. The guilt etched so plainly into his face almost made Hiko smile.
"I… I'm sorry, master. I was just…"
"Not minding your own business, huh?" Hiko set the fine wolf-hair brush beside him and crossed his arms. "I thought I told you to practice your kata until the sun disappeared."
Kenshin shrugged. Hiko could see the boy's guilt fade as natural curiosity started to burn through. It was so characteristic of the young.
"I couldn't concentrate," he admitted. "I just wanted to know what you do, when you leave every afternoon."
"Well now you know." Hiko gestured towards his painting. Even by his standards, it wasn't very good, but there was no way Kenshin would be able to know that. "Amongst my many skills, I am also an artist."
"Master," Kenshin hesitated, and Hiko saw his eyes narrow. Was his student being… critical? "It's a very simple looking drawing."
"Idiot." Hiko sensed the opportunity for another lesson. "What do you think is more difficult: drawing a tree with as many strokes as you like? Do you put your brush to paper before thinking, making mistakes and wasting ink to cover them?"
"But you have plenty of ink. Why shouldn't you use as much as you like?"
"No." Hiko shook his head. "Just because you have plenty of something, doesn't mean you have to use it all the time. When you fight me, do simply put all your energy into showing off?"
Kenshin shook his head. Hiko could almost see the wheels turning in the boy's mind.
"Who is the better artist," he continued, seizing the chance to drive his point home. "He who can capture the tree in fifty strokes, or he who can do it in five?"
"I see," nodded Kenshin, again casting his eyes over Hiko's work. "It's like fighting."
"Then…" Kenshin hesitated, mixed emotions playing across his face. Hiko could see his student's internal struggle. It would probably take his pupil a while to come to terms with this new concept.
"… I suppose I didn't really understand it before. But now that you've explained it to me, I can really start to see it. You've really captured the essence of the flower."
"Baka deshi!" Hiko looked at his picture again, then at the bird, perched on the branch before him. It stared back at him with glassy, unfathomable black eyes, taunting him. "You still don't understand. Do you see any flower on that branch?"
"Oh." A blush started to suffuse Kenshin's cheeks as realisation dawned. "I see. But then… excuse me master, please allow me…" Before Hiko could protest, Kenshin picked up the wolf hair brush and dipped it in the ink. Bristle touched paper and two thin lines appeared, one below the bird's beak, and a small half-circle around its eye.
"Kenshin," Hiko growled, "for that, I want you to go back and practice your kata until I return. You've just spoiled hours of work."
Kenshin nodded, set the brush down, and looked at his handiwork. "I'm sorry, master." He did not move. Hiko kept his expression stern, but was secretly astonished. The two, tiny lines Kenshin had drawn… they had been exactly what was needed, nothing more. The bird now looked like a bird.
"What are you staring at, baka deshi? Go!"
Kenshin nodded, and disappeared into the thicket, his ki wavering and eventually disappearing, as Hiko continued to stare at the picture. He reached to his side and pulled the stopper from his jug of sake. As he drank, he saw the bird swoop from its branch and shoot upwards, into the treetops. It was gone.
But it didn't matter. The creature had been captured, in paper and ink.
Hiko ran one hand through his hair and sighed, feeling the warm sake descend into his belly. "That damn kid." How had Kenshin seen it so easily? Two simple strokes, and the picture had come to life. That bird could almost fly off the paper.
As the answer came to Hiko, he almost laughed. That was the other thing about sumi-e. You weren't supposed to think about it too much.
A/N: Hiko's so mean to poor Kenshin, isn't he? But secretly he loves him... bahaha. Anyway this is just something that came to me this morning. Sumi-e is Japanese ink painting (well, according to wiki), if you hadn't figured it out. I was thinking about how you hear of great swordsmen in history also being artists etc. Apparently Musashi did some really cool drawings in his later years. Ah, I wish I could paint that stuff!