Author's Note: I've always wanted to do a good Kenshin-and-Hiko fic. I gravitate toward Kenshin/Kaoru just because romance is my factory-default-setting, but Hiko is one of my absolute favorite characters, and the rapport between him and Kenshin is one of my favorite things about the series. Anyway, this story is a slight divergence from the canon taking place shortly after Kenshin leaves the Bakumatsu. It came about because I actually misunderstood the summary of someone else's story—I thought it was going to be about this, but it turned out to be about something else. (Not that it was bad—it just wasn't what I was expecting.) So I figured, hey, why don't I just write the story I thought it was going to be…?
You Can't Go Home Again
The heavy rains had let up early that morning, sometime before dawn, and Hiko had set off from his hut soon after that. He'd only taken the time for a little miso and rice to tide him over until lunch. It had been raining for days, and he wanted to collect some of the soft, fine clay from the riverbed before it dried out and turned chalky again. It was much easier to collect and prepare for pottery work if he got to it when it still had a little natural moisture in it.
So that was why this morning saw Hiko tromping through the woods in the damp and misty twilight, ducking beneath branches and grumbling to himself when the occasional twig snagged in his long hair. He didn't come this way often, so there was hardly even a path—but it was quicker than going around by the road and then following the river up to the best spot. Even if the twigs did annoy the hell out of him.
He had just pushed through a particularly thick section of undergrowth, slowing to a vague stroll for a few feet as he fished leaves and twigs out of his bangs, when he pulled himself to a halt in mid-step, shifting his balance to avoid putting his foot down on something that was not supposed to be there. It was little wonder he hadn't noticed it sooner, as the strange, lumpy bundle of clothing sprawled across his path was nearly the same color as the ground around it, battered and beaten down by the rains and the mud and scattered with leaves and small branches from the canopy above. He started to move around it to continue on his way, assuming it was just a sack of old laundry that someone had forgotten here as they were passing through on their way from the village. No actual human would be stupid enough to spend three days lying out in the rain in the middle of the forest.
But as he started to move away, something that wasn't clothing caught the corner of his eye, and he faltered again, stumbling slightly to avoid inadvertently stepping on top of the bundle. Once he'd regained his balance, he took a half a step closer and peered down through the scattered leaves and branches to confirm what he had seen. Yep, it was definitely what he thought it was. A sword.
And curled around it, a human hand.
Hiko raised an exasperated eyebrow and sighed heavily. This really was annoying. No doubt this huddled creature would need help, and no one in the village would be willing to give it, so he would have to take care of the little thing as usual. And by the time he finally made it back down to the river, all the good clay would be dried out and chalky again and he'd have to remix it himself, which never worked out as nicely. He tended to get impatient with it and add in too much water, and then he had to dry it out again to get it to the right consistency.
Such a bother.
He sighed again and crouched down beside the huddled figure, resignedly plucking a few branches away and dusting off some of the leaves until the rough brown cloth underneath was more visible. The hand was the only visible sign that the thing was in fact human, and if it hadn't been pink with life and trembling slightly from the cold he might have assumed that the hand alone had been left behind by its owner along with the clothes. At this distance he could see how slender and delicate the hand was—probably a woman's. Damn it all—that was the last thing he needed right now.
Once the leaves had been cleared away, Hiko reached for the edge of the makeshift cloak that was pulled up over the creature's head. As he drew it back to reveal the huddled figure's face, his breath caught in his chest.
Well. He should have known there was one person stupid enough to spend three days sleeping out in the rain.
"Baka deshi…" he murmured.
Kenshin shivered in spite of the strange warmth around him. His head ached terribly, and he found he could only breathe properly curled up on his side. His nose and throat and lungs were all congested, raw with coughing, and his stomach felt so hollow it was vaguely unsettled. He was hungry, and yet the thought of food sickened him. And why did he feel so warm? It definitely hadn't been warm the last time he'd awoken. Or dry…
He winced as he swallowed, giving a small, painful cough as the motion irritated his mucous-coated throat. The cough made his eyes throb, inducing another wince, and he tried to curl a little deeper under the covers.
He'd had a ratty old drape cloth he used as a cloak, but that had been soaked through for days—how long had he been asleep? Had it dried out already? In any case this didn't feel like his old cloak—it felt like a proper bed sheet. And come to think of it, the ground underneath him felt unusually soft and dry. And it really was warm in here—the weather couldn't have turned that quickly, could it?
Kenshin blinked his eyes open, squinting against a bright orange light that danced and shivered in front of him, nearly blinding him with its brilliance. As the world slowly came into focus, he realized it was a fire. Not only that, but it was flickering and reflecting off the walls of a hut. He frowned, turning his head slightly against the pillow and sweeping his gaze over the walls. He couldn't put his finger on it, but something felt really…familiar about this place.
When it clicked, Kenshin's eyes snapped open a little wider.
"I know you're awake," a deep voice taunted from somewhere behind him, and Kenshin sat up in a flash, hand groping automatically for his sword. He was startled to realize it was nowhere to be found.
Hiko chuckled at Kenshin's alarm as he twisted and patted the futon around him. "Looking for this?" he asked, and Kenshin looked up again just in time to catch the sword Hiko had thrown to him. Relief crashed down over him as he held it in his hands again, along with a wave of dizziness. Kenshin gripped the hilt and drew the sword out a few inches, just checking to be sure it was actually his.
"Not the one you left with though, is it," Hiko said. Kenshin didn't look up, so Hiko tried again. "What use has Hitokiri Battousai got for a sword like that?"
Kenshin's gaze snapped up to Hiko's face at that, his surprise overruling the weighty feeling in his head. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but the moment he tried to draw breath he triggered another small coughing fit.
Hiko chuckled at him as he tried to clear his lungs. "What?" he said, answering the question Kenshin hadn't yet managed to ask. "You thought I didn't know? Just because I live in the woods like a hermit doesn't mean the outside world doesn't reach me. You of all people ought to know that."
Kenshin frowned down at the half-drawn sword in his lap again. Yes—he knew exactly what his shishou meant. Living here hadn't kept the outside world from reaching him either.
Maybe it would have been better if it had.
He closed his eyes as he resheathed the sword and turned away, banishing the thought. No point in going down that road again. He'd traveled it many times in the five years since he had left to join the Choshu Ishin Shishi, and it had never led him anywhere but right back to the present.
Kenshin drew in a long breath and let it out slowly, clearing his throat a little, trying not to dislodge another wave of hacking coughs. "Why am I here?" he croaked out finally, his voice rough with illness and disuse.
"I brought you here," Hiko replied, taking a sip from his sake dish.
Kenshin only slanted him a look. He knew Hiko was baiting him, but he had neither the desire nor the energy to spar with him, verbally or otherwise. "I know that, Shis—" he hesitated at the use of the respectful term, no longer certain he had the right to refer to this man as "master." "What I meant was, how did you find me?" he tried again.
"I didn't have to try very hard," Hiko grumbled. "Damn near tripped over you about fifty yards from here. Leave it to you to come all the way to my back yard just to sleep out in the rain and catch pneumonia."
Kenshin frowned at him for a second, then dropped his gaze away. He genuinely hadn't realized he was so close to Hiko's cabin. In fact, he hadn't realized he was even in the area. After Toba Fushimi he had spent a few weeks traveling along known roads and stopping in villages along the way, but that had quickly proven to be a bad idea. The reputation of Hitokiri Battousai had spread a little farther into the countryside than he'd expected, and it seemed anywhere he went he encountered people who cowered away from his scar and the sword at his hip—sakabatou or not. Some days it seemed like no matter how far he traveled he would never be able to step out of Battousai's shadow. As if that was all that was left of him, and whatever or whoever else he had been before the Bakumatsu had died somewhere in those darkened alleys. Another casualty of war.
In any case, for the peace of mind of the innocent passersby, he had eventually decided to stray from the main roads and wander in the wilderness. He hadn't been sure where he intended to go or what he was looking for—at times he had thought maybe it would be best if he never found his way out. Just became another someone who disappeared into the trees and was never seen again. In the meantime, he'd kept moving, following his feet wherever they led him.
And apparently they had led him here.
Kenshin didn't look up as he heard Hiko get to his feet and cross the wooden floor around the end of the futon, over to the hearth that warmed Kenshin's back. He heard the shifting of dishes, something liquid being spooned into a bowl. Then he reared back slightly as a bowl of hot miso appeared beneath his nose.
"Take it," Hiko said shortly when Kenshin didn't move. "You look like hell."
Kenshin glanced up at his former master questioningly, but Hiko wasn't looking at him. He turned his gaze back to the bowl in Hiko's hand and took it gingerly between his fingers, peering down into the murky liquid as though he wasn't sure what to make of it. His stomach churned a little, but he couldn't tell whether it was nausea or hunger. Hiko's cooking had never been particularly expert—as a child Kenshin had quickly surpassed Hiko in that skill, and Hiko had just as quickly added cooking to Kenshin's list of daily chores—but as he hadn't had anything to eat in nearly two days, and hadn't had a decent hot meal for nearly a month before that, Kenshin thought it smelled delicious.
"If you don't eat it, I'm dumping it over your head," Hiko grumbled impatiently, and Kenshin flicked a small glare in his direction—but soon obediently lifted the bowl to his lips and began to sip the broth. After the first swallow, as the warm liquid soothed his raw throat and started to clear his sinuses a little, it was all he could do not to start shoveling the rest in—but he knew from experience that it was best to eat slowly when his body was in this condition. Otherwise it would just come right back up again.
As he finally finished the last of the miso, Kenshin swiped the back of his wrist across his lower lip and set the bowl carefully on the floor beside the futon, darting a cautious look up at his former master. Hiko had once again taken up his customary position seated on the opposite side of the room, eyes closed as he sipped from a shallow dish of sake.
"Get some sleep," Hiko interrupted shortly, not looking up. When Kenshin made no move to lie back down, Hiko lowered the sake dish again and opened his eyes slowly, regarding him with a stern expression. For a moment Kenshin felt like a child again—though even as a child, he couldn't ever recall his shishou regarding him with such genuine disappointment.
"We'll talk tomorrow," he said simply, his voice impassive. "Today, shut up and sleep."
Kenshin stared back at him for a moment longer. Then, moving slowly for the sake of his muddled and aching head, he turned around and settled himself back down on the futon, sakabatou curled tightly against his chest.
They didn't end up talking the next day, or the day after that. Truth was, Hiko hadn't really expected them to—Kenshin was clearly in a miserable state, and it hadn't much surprised him when his fever had ramped up later that evening. For the next two days Kenshin slept fitfully, sweating straight through his clothes and the bed sheets, sometimes writhing and twisting in a state of delirium. Hiko monitored him patiently, rarely leaving the hut except to go to the little-boys'-outhouse, watching as Kenshin struggled through the worst of the illness. He drank sake, sat by the fire, occasionally changed the damp cloth on Kenshin's forehead or took advantage of one of his calmer periods to pour a little broth down his throat.
Kenshin kept mumbling things that didn't make any sense. Something about hakubaiko and death. Hiko wondered if it was just the fever talking or something else.
As he sat beside the fire, staring over at his baka deshi, who was currently sleeping like a rock, he found himself remembering the little boy who used to whine and cry over a scraped knee from the day's practice like it was the end of the world. Now here he was, teetering on the verge of death, and he hardly even seemed concerned. Like his own life didn't matter to him anymore. Not for the first time in the past few days, Hiko's eyes fell on the cross-shaped scar that hadn't been there when he had seen him last, and wondered where it had come from.
Idiot, he sighed to himself, and turned his gaze once more into the fire.
Kenshin awoke to the sound of his master's rumbling snores.
It took him several minutes of blinking up at the sloped ceiling of the hut to realize that he was still here. He really had ended up back on Hiko's mountain, and the old swordsman had not only refrained from beating him senseless, questioning his intelligence, and leaving him to starve, but Hiko had actually picked him up and brought him inside, and apparently cared for him in his delirium. This fact alone made Kenshin wonder if he still had a fever.
But aside from the basic fact that he was here in the first place, the world seemed much more orderly than it had the last time he had been fully conscious. The spinning, throbbing sensation in his head had faded, and although his breathing was still slightly obstructed he felt more like he was just a little stuffy than like he was in immediate danger of coughing up a lung.
Kenshin slowly pushed himself up to sit, rubbing his forehead and testing his balance. His left hand sought out the hilt of his sakabatou automatically, but it was right beside him on the mattress where he'd left it. The covers were in disarray from his feverish tossing and turning, but it seemed the sword had never been out of his reach.
He was quite certain he had been sleeping for a long time, but he still felt exhausted. As usual he imagined he must have traveled farther in his dreams than he could ever manage on foot, but at least this time the fever had strained away any memories of the dreams as he'd awoken. He could make a few guesses at what he'd been dreaming about—he had dreamt of little else for years—but he felt no desire to dredge it up. Tiredness he could live with—no need to know the cause.
Quietly disentangling himself from his sweat-dampened bed sheets, Kenshin eased himself to his feet, sakabatou still in hand, and walked carefully over to the fireside. There he lowered himself to sit and reached out for an empty teacup. A full pot of tea was sitting by the fire keeping warm, and he poured himself a cup. Warming his fingertips on the sides of the fine pottery, he took a small sip, feeling the warm liquid soothe his aching and scratchy throat. It suddenly occurred to him that he didn't feel particularly hungry—weak, but not as weak as he should feel if he hadn't eaten for days. Certainly not as weak as he'd felt after those few days spent on the forest floor. He peered over his shoulder in the direction of his master's sleeping room, listening to another rolling snore as it rattled the walls. The ghost of a smile flickered at the edges of his lips, and he stared down into his shallow teacup again.
The cabin was stuffy with the scent of sickness, and Kenshin felt a need to breathe the fresh air and stretch his legs a little. He found his ratty old cloak clean and folded beside his bed, and for a moment he wondered who Hiko had gotten in to do chores for him. Only as he unfolded it did it dawn on him that Hiko must have laundered the cloak himself, and he paused halfway through wrapping it around his shoulders to glance up at the closed door to the sleeping room again. He shook his head slightly and finished slinging one end of the cloak over his opposite shoulder, pulling the edge of the fabric up around his chin to keep out the chill. With the sakabatou in his belt, he got to his feet again and slipped out through the front door.
It was a grey, quiet morning, a chilly mist drifting between trees that were just blooming with the hope of spring. Kenshin pulled the cloak a little closer as a passing breeze made him shiver slightly, but still he carried on away from the cabin. He wasn't paying too much attention to where he was going, just following his feet up the winding path through the woods until he found himself in a most familiar place.
It was a small clearing leading to a precipice beside a waterfall, overlooking the stream below. As Kenshin walked slowly over toward the edge, feeling the light spray on his face, glancing around him at the imagined imprints of countless footsteps in the dust, he felt a strange sense of longing wash over him. He lowered himself to sit just a foot or two back from where the ground fell away, on a spot he had occupied hundreds of times before in a former life. The edge of Hiko's cabin was just visible through the trees down by the bend in the river.
It was a place he'd never thought he'd see again, and it still felt strange to be back here. Familiar yet unfamiliar. Somehow it made him feel even more acutely how much the years had changed him. The war had been hell, especially after the loss of Tomoe, but he'd kept himself going with the thought of something better to follow—not necessarily for him, but for the world in general. He'd never really thought about the specifics, just tried to keep moving forward until the end, when he would finally be free to live peacefully, and never again stain his blade. But he hadn't thought much farther than that, and now he found he was at a loss. Where do you go when the world can only see the face you want to leave behind? How do you live peacefully when everyone you pass on the road looks at you and sees a killer?
And they're right.
Kenshin sighed. There were so many things he wished he could take back, unsee, unknow. But he couldn't. This was where he was now—same place, different time. He'd never really understood that the things he would have to do to bring about a more peaceful world would render him a specter incapable of living in it.
Instantly Kenshin was on his feet, hand poised to draw his sword—but his shoulders fell in a mixture of relief and annoyance when he found his master standing several feet behind him. Not many people in the world could sneak up on Hitokiri Battousai, but apparently Hiko Seijuro XIII was still one of them.
"So this is where you ran off to, is it?" Hiko taunted.
Kenshin narrowed his eyes slightly, not sure whether Hiko was spoiling for a battle or a bickering match. Either way, he wasn't interested. "Yes," he replied.
"You shouldn't be wandering around high places in that state, you know. I'm not fishing you out of the river if you fall in."
Kenshin nodded. "I understand. I'm perfectly alright, thank you."
"Are you now?" Hiko peered at him. "Feeling better already?"
"Much better," Kenshin confirmed.
Hiko gave a slow nod. "Well in that case you'd better get started on the laundry. You'll want to have it done before it's time to fix lunch."
Kenshin's brow knitted into a frown. "Oro?"
But Hiko ignored his confusion, turning around to head back down the path toward the cabin. "Oh," he added, flinging a hand up carelessly without turning back, "and pick up another jug of sake for me from town this afternoon. I'm almost out."
Kenshin stared after him as the white cape fluttered and billowed around the edge of the trees and out of sight. He wasn't sure exactly what he had expected when he'd seen Hiko standing there. A reprimand for their last parting, some callous remark about how much trouble he'd been the last couple of days. At the very least he had expected Hiko to tell him it was time for him to move on, that the master of the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu didn't accommodate boarders. But he hadn't. He'd given him a list of chores.
You mean I can stay? Kenshin thought.
His former master's silence was his only reply.
Slowly Kenshin began to walk back down the path to the cabin as well, trying to remember where they'd kept the washing things when he'd lived here years ago. Of all the things he had expected to do with his life in the aftermath of the revolution, going back to scrubbing Hiko's hakama had been nowhere near the top of the list. But there was nowhere else to go right now, certainly nowhere better than here, and Hiko had left a door open to him at a time when all others were shut. Maybe it wouldn't be forever—it couldn't be forever—but at least for now, he was allowed to stay.
So he carried out his assigned chores obediently. If he was condemned to live as a ghost in this new era, he supposed he'd prefer to haunt the happier times in his life than the darker ones.
Hiko had to admit it wasn't so bad having the boy around again. He took up space, and he was a bit of a mopey little thing these days—but it was nice not having to do his own laundry anymore or run his own errands in the village. And the food Kenshin cooked was definitely better than anything he'd ever had the patience for. Granted Kenshin tended to portion it out as though they were trying to live through a heavy winter on one soldier's rations, but that was easily remedied with a second helping. And sake.
Actually, it surprised him how docilely Kenshin went about his chores. At one time in his life he'd been so irascible and argumentative there had been practically no living with him—especially right near the end, when the two of them had been in disagreement over the war and the nature of their responsibilities as swordsmen in times of trouble. If Kenshin had been like this back then, Hiko was pretty sure he would have been able to stop him from going off to war with just the slightest word of objection.
But then again, if Kenshin had never gone off to war, he would never have become like this.
After a week or two had passed, and it was clear that Kenshin's illness was no longer a factor, Hiko began to find the boy's quiet obedience vaguely unsettling. It just wasn't like him. Even in the beginning, after Hiko had rescued him from the slave traders, he hadn't been quite like this. Beaten down, sure, but there had always been a spark of something in his eye. Hope, maybe, or righteousness—a belief that if he just worked at it hard enough, he could make things better. Even standing in a field full of corpses, the boy had found the strength both mental and physical to bury the dead and mark their graves. It was the reason he had given him the name Kenshin—Heart of Sword. Because he'd seen that strength inside him, a tiny spark of light even in the darkest of places.
But now he just seemed…blank. He didn't seem to know what to do with himself. If Hiko hadn't been assigning him chores, he highly suspected Kenshin would have whiled away the days staring into space, lost in whatever memories had plagued him in his feverish sleep, weighed down by whatever sense of his own inconsequence had led him to spend three days sleeping in the rain in the middle of the forest.
After about the third week spent with his new roommate-and-lackey, it suddenly occurred to Hiko that he still had yet to see Kenshin actually draw that sword of his. Not that they'd been attacked or anything lately, but in the years he'd spent raising him hardly a day had gone by when Kenshin hadn't gone out to practice for at least a few hours of his own accord, even if it was just lazily, going through the motions to entertain himself. But he hadn't done that once since he'd been back. He never allowed the sword more than a few inches from his person, but he never drew it either.
Hiko tried his best to goad Kenshin into an argument here or there, if only to get him to animate his face a little, so he'd quit glaring at everything in that vague, halfhearted way—but it was no use. Any criticism he meted out Kenshin took in stride, and any insult he hurled Kenshin shrugged off as easily as he would have a clumsy strike of the sword.
It was damn annoying.
Kenshin kept his eyes to the ground as he walked through the town toward the liquor seller's shop. Even without looking he could feel the stares of passersby, recoiling at the sight of his sword, his hair, his scar. The air seemed to crackle with their fear, and he tried his best to ignore it, just curl deeper into his own skin and pretend he didn't know it was there. How could they know? How did they always know? Because the truth was carved into his face? Could they all still see the blood beneath his fingernails?
He made his purchases quickly and quietly—he didn't want to spend any more time there than he had to, and he was sure those around him felt the same. It was better for all concerned if he stayed out of the way.
With a jug of liquor in each hand, Kenshin made his way out of town again and back up the mountainside to Hiko's cabin. The master was nowhere to be found, but it was just as well—Kenshin figured he was probably up at the training ground completing his usual morning routine. He would be back any minute, so Kenshin left the fresh sake jugs by the table in the center of the room where Hiko would see them and quickly gathered up the laundry, taking it with him down to the nearest bend in the river to get started on the day's load.
He didn't exactly enjoy doing laundry, but these days he found he appreciated the task. It was comforting to have something physical and purposeful to do with himself all day, and the mindless repetition of the task made it easy to avoid deep thought. As he knelt down on the rocks and bent over the stream, soaking the first item in the clear water before beginning to scrub, he tried to pay attention to the leaves on the trees and the sounds of birdsong around him, the ripple of the stream as it flowed around the smooth river stones—anything and everything about this place that was only here. Anything that didn't remind him of Kyoto.
He still had nightmares of the place. He tried not to remember them when he did, but sometimes they even found him during the day. Just a little thing, the sound of a footfall on the path behind him, or the slamming of a wooden door in the distance, and all of a sudden he was back in the streets and alleys of the city, bodies falling to his blade left and right, blood raining from the heavens.
He tried not to remember.
As Kenshin wrung the water out of one of his gi's, he caught sight of his own reflection rippling in the slow-moving stream, the wicked orange locks that fell around his face, the high ponytail falling forward over his shoulder, and the cool deadness of his eyes. A face that looked like it hadn't seen a smile in a lifetime. He sighed as he stared down into the shattered reflection, trying to see something of the person he remembered being long ago in there somewhere. Because how could he expect anyone to see someone else in him if even he couldn't see past the scar?
But the longer he stared, the less familiar the face became. Finally he shoved the gi back into the water, banishing the unwelcome reflection from sight.
Hiko was hovering in the shadows out behind the back of the hut, waiting for Kenshin to return from the last of the evening's chores. This time he'd been out gathering wood for the kiln. It had been nearly five weeks since his return, and so far there had been no change in his mood. The usual taunts and proddings hadn't yielded any useful information, so Hiko had finally resorted to spying on him to see if he could gain any insights into what was going on inside his baka deshi's thick skull.
True, occasionally he had been able to get a little bit of a rise out of him—mostly a glare here or a stuttered protest there—but it never lasted long. He always slid back into the same dull blankness. It was like something had sucked out his soul. That was the really worrying thing. Anger could be dealt with, as could fear and hatred and despair—but the plain and simple lack of anything, the loss of all passion or caring, that was difficult to repair. If not impossible.
So he had been spying on him. Not all the time, just most of it. For the last few days. Well, really more like a week.
He watched Kenshin unload an arm's worth of wood blocks into the box by the kiln and then turn as if to go back into the hut—but just as he approached the threshold, Kenshin paused, his gaze turning off in the direction of the forest. He seemed to be considering something. Hiko had seen him do this several times in the last couple of days, but he wasn't sure yet what it was that kept drawing Kenshin's eye.
Finally, to Hiko's great surprise, Kenshin seemed to make a decision—and instead of continuing on into the house as he usually would, his baka deshi felt unconsciously for the sword at his hip and turned away toward the forest. After giving him a few moments to get a head start, Hiko silently followed him.
It didn't take long to realize where he was headed—the path up to the training ground by the waterfall was well-trodden, and both of them knew it intimately. Hiko followed at a safe distance, keeping to the shadows, and when Kenshin emerged into the clearing by the precipice Hiko silently slipped off the side of the path and into the trees, where he could watch under cover of darkness.
For a long time Kenshin stood still in the center of the training ground, staring across toward the waterfall with a strange expression on his face—like he was looking at someone that only he could see. Hiko rested his shoulder against a nearby tree, crossing his arms over his chest and frowning at the red-haired man's inscrutable gaze. He was just beginning to wonder how long Kenshin intended to stand there staring at nothing when suddenly his baka deshi shifted into a battoujutsu stance and drew the sakabatou with the swiftness that had earned his martial alter ego his name.
The exercise was a familiar one at first—an old sparring pattern they had used together for years. One of the earliest ones he had ever taught Kenshin, if he recalled correctly. Though of course, Kenshin's movements were much more precise and expert than they had been back then. His sword might be dull, but his skills most certainly were not—Hiko was pleased to see that, at least.
But as it went on, he soon noticed variations in the form. Kenshin was moving more quickly now, adding in additional strikes that weren't part of the exercise and dropping other movements until soon there was nothing recognizable in any of it. As the form fell away, so did that distant inscrutability—replaced by a cold glare that would have stuck fear into the heart of any living man.
Any living man except Hiko, of course.
Battousai, Hiko thought to himself as he watched Kenshin battling imagined enemies on multiple fronts. The movements were so precise that even Hiko could nearly see the invisible foes, watch them as they fell to the blade of the demon of Kyoto. Invisible though they were, Kenshin never seemed to forget where they had fallen, subtly modifying his footwork to avoid stepping on the insubstantial corpses.
But the battle never seemed to end. As the corpses piled higher and higher around him, hindering his movements even further, Hiko could see that Battousai mask begin to crack—and what lay behind hit shook him to the core.
Kenshin's eyes were wild and raw, vicious, desperate, childlike—and yet nothing like the child he had been. The young Kenshin had grown stronger in the face of the violence around him, violence he couldn't control. He had forgiven the bandits who had killed his protectors, and he had forgiven Hiko who had killed the bandits. He had buried them all, because people were people, and all life had value. And then he had grown up to become a killer in his own right.
It seemed Kenshin himself was the only killer that the child inside him could not forgive.
With a strangled cry, Kenshin skidded down from an attack and collapsed to his knees, driving the blade of his sakabatou deep into the dark soil. A light rain had begun to fall, already wetting his long hair, soaking through the shoulders of his gi, running the length of his shining reversed blade.
"Why didn't I listen?" Kenshin murmured brokenly as his hands slipped free from the hilt. He sank toward the ground, shoulders shaking, fingers clenching convulsively in the dirt. "Why didn't I listen?"
"Because you never listen, idiot," Hiko grunted in reply. Kenshin didn't look up. Only the slightest tension in the muscles of his back registered his surprise at his master's presence. On some level he must have known Hiko was there all along.
"I can't make it stop," Kenshin whispered. "I can't make it go away."
"It'll never go away," Hiko said simply, not unkindly, as he stepped forward out of the trees. "You are Hitokiri Battousai—that will always be true. It's a choice you made for yourself, and there's no point in running from it. You can never be my baka deshi again."
"But I thought…after it was over…things would be different."
"Things are different," Hiko replied. "That's the whole point."
Kenshin curled in on himself a little further, pressing his forehead into the dirt, his arched back shuddering with silent sobs. He looked like he wanted to crawl under the ground, bury himself alive to escape the pain he carried with him wherever he went. Hiko merely stood by, waiting for him to collect himself.
When Kenshin showed no signs of rallying, Hiko gave a heavy sigh and uncrossed his arms, taking a few steps over to the huddled lump of his former student. Kenshin didn't acknowledge his presence even as he bent down and pulled the sakabatou up out of the ground. He wiped the mud off the blade with the hem of his cloak and tilted it back and forth in the rain-spattered moonlight.
"Hakubaiko and death," he said quietly to himself, and he could feel Kenshin freeze at his feet, though he still didn't look away from the blade. "So that's the reason, is it? Why you carry this sword. Why you've vowed never to kill again. Something about hakubaiko and death."
When Kenshin made no reply, he took it as a yes.
"Who was he?" Hiko asked. "This particular person you killed."
Kenshin's fingers tightened in the dirt. His reply was almost too quiet to hear. "She was my wife."
Hiko arched an eyebrow in mild surprise. This curious revelation begged a number of other questions, but now was not the time to ask them. Demon or not, Hiko knew Kenshin better than anyone yet living. The important answers were already clear.
"Look," he said, a little more brusquely, "I don't know what happened to you all those years, and frankly I don't really care. But even you've got to see that you're no good to anyone like this—especially not some dead person, and certainly not yourself. If you want to kill yourself, then quit being a coward and do it quickly—but if you've still got enough sense in that thick head of yours to know the value of a human life, then stop sniveling and make something of your own."
He tossed the sakabatou into the dirt so that it landed on its side with a soft thump, just a few inches from Kenshin's head. Hiko watched as Kenshin slowly pushed himself up, staring down at the shining blade between dripping red tendrils, though he made no move to take it.
"Scars fade," Hiko said quietly. "People forget. Your past will always be a part of who you are, but it doesn't have to be all of who you are. You can't go back to who you were before the Bakumatsu, but you don't have to be Battousai for the rest of your life either. Be someone else. Be the man who wields the sakabatou. The man with the cross-shaped scar."
"But the Hiten Mitsurugi is all I know," he said quietly. "And I've covered its name in blood."
Hiko snorted. "The Hiten Mitsurugi has taken more lives over the centuries than you could in a lifetime, Kenshin. I gave it to you so that you could protect the weak, and you did that. Maybe not in the way I would have liked," he added irritably, "but it was your decision. And it's your decision now. The Hiten Mitsurugi will always be yours—not even I can change that. So what will you do with it?"
Kenshin stared at the sword, its blade spattered with mud, rivulets of rain gliding over its curved surface. Finally, he reached out one soiled hand toward it, closing his fingers hesitantly around the cord-wrapped hilt.
Then, almost before he'd realized what was happening, Hiko was forced to draw his own sword as Kenshin leapt to his feet and lashed out at him. The strikes were wild, filled with fire, and yet precise. If he hadn't just recently spent several minutes watching Kenshin fight as he had in Kyoto, Hiko might actually have had a little difficulty anticipating his movements. There was a ruthlessness that fascinated him, the way Kenshin barely even allowed himself breath between each sequence of movements, and he often shifted into unexpected counterattacks when Hiko would block one of his strikes. It was never quite the same sequence twice. Though the components of the style were of course familiar, as they leapt and clashed across the clearing Hiko marveled at the sensation that he was fighting an opponent he had never encountered before.
And yet, something was changing.
The wildness was disappearing. The fear and despair that had briefly overwhelmed Kenshin was receding—and not back into the dead-eyed chill that Hiko had come to expect, but into something familiar. A spark. Not a flame, but a spark. A drop of soft blue at the heart of fired gold. Not much, but it was something. Something better.
Finally Kenshin leapt high overhead and hurtled downward in a spectacularly executed Ryu Tsui Sen. Their blades scraped together as Hiko fended him off, and the force of the impact sent both of them skidding on their heels on the slippery ground to opposite sides of the clearing. Hiko smirked a little at the image of them, sparring in the rain, covered in mud, both struggling just a little to catch their breath, but ready and willing to keep going the instant the other chose to press the attack. There were, he admitted, more than a few things he missed about having a student around the place.
When Kenshin finally lifted his gaze again, blue eyes glinted out at him in the moonlight, bluer than Hiko had seen them since the day he'd returned. Hiko smiled slightly to himself as he watched Kenshin push his sopping, muddied bangs back from his face and glance heavenward, sword still lowered at his side. It was a silly looking thing, but somehow it looked right in this man's hand. Bright red hair, a huge cross-shaped scar on his cheek, and a sword with the blade on the wrong side. If someone had asked him what he'd expected of his baka deshi when he had first taken the boy in, he would never have said this—but looking back, it seemed he'd have been a fool to expect anything else. A kind and gentle boy with a heart of sword. What else could he become?
"If the Hiten Mitsurugi is mine," Kenshin said quietly, dropping his gaze to Hiko again, a hesitant flicker of hope in his piercing blue eyes, "does that mean you'll allow me to complete my training?"
Hiko chuckled at the way the boy's face fell—not into the despair of moments earlier, but into a shadow of the disgruntled pout he remembered so well. "Not yet," he amended. "But maybe someday, when you're ready."
Kenshin looked skeptical. "When will that be?"
Hiko gave a shrug and turned away, sheathing his sword and starting off down the path back to the hut. "Who knows? Maybe never. But you're a whole different person than you've been until now. You don't think I'll go teaching the greatest secrets of the Hiten Mitsurugi to just anybody, do you?"
Kenshin gave a frustrated sigh and started to trail after him, sliding his sakabatou back into its sheath as well. "Shishou…"
Hiko smirked to himself. "Don't forget to pull the clothes in off the washing line, baka deshi, or you'll have to do them all over again tomorrow."
"Shishou…" Kenshin groaned, and Hiko's smile widened.
Oh yes. He had definitely missed this.
Kenshin took a long look around the main room of the cabin. It was the only place in the world he could ever remember calling home. When he'd left it for what he'd thought was the last time, he had not really been thinking of it that way. He'd had a task ahead of him and that was all. He'd known that war was life and death, and each moment existed in the breath between the two. He hadn't known what he would become, but he had known it was very possible that he wouldn't live to see the other side of the war at all, much less this home again.
His eyes swept over the empty sake jugs piled in the corner, and he gave a wry smile. Whatever would his shishou do without him? He hesitated only a moment before walking back across the room and picking up the empty jugs, placing them neatly on the shelf by the door to be returned to the liquor seller for reuse. Then he took one last look around the room, one hand reaching back absently to scratch at the nape of his neck. He'd started wearing his hair lower now, just to keep it out of the way when he was bent over doing the laundry.
With a small sigh, he turned to walk out the door and down the steps from the porch. The weather had warmed considerably by now, and Kenshin felt as if the sun was reaching his skin for the first time in years as he tilted his face upward, breathing in the sweet smell of life renewed. When he opened his eyes again, he glanced over to the hulking form of his shishou, who was sitting before the outdoor kiln with a jug in one hand and a saucer in the other.
"Where will you go?" Hiko asked, not looking up as Kenshin wandered over to stand beside him.
"Not sure, really," Kenshin replied, glancing out toward the forest to his right. "Far away. Maybe Hokkaido."
"Pretty damn cold in Hokkaido," Hiko pointed out.
Kenshin shrugged with a mild smile. "Not in the summer. When winter comes around again I'll head back to the south."
Hiko nodded. "And after that?"
"After that…somewhere else," Kenshin said. "Maybe Niigata or Shimonseki or Kanagawa. Maybe even Tokyo, someday."
Hiko nodded again, studying the shallow dish of sake he held mere inches from his lips. "And Kyoto?"
Kenshin's smile faltered a little, and he glanced down at the hand resting on the pommel of his sword. "I don't know about that. Scars may fade, but ghosts tend to linger."
"I see," Hiko said, still not looking at him. "Well, if you ever pass this way again I'd better not find you half-dead in the middle of the woods again. You can't expect me to patch you up and nurse you back to health every time you get a little bit mopey."
Kenshin grinned at him, unfazed. "Very well, Shishou—I promise you'll never again find me half-dead in your forest, that you will not."
Hiko raised an eyebrow at the odd turn of phrase, but didn't comment.
"Well," Kenshin said finally, heaving a sigh. "Goodbye then, Shishou. I wish you the best."
"Go on and stop pestering me, baka deshi—you're losing the light."
"That I am," Kenshin agreed, and gave a slight bow to his master's back as he turned to begin the long journey that started at the path leading down the mountain. As Kenshin walked, he didn't look back, just enjoyed the warmth of the sun and the whisper of the trees that followed him along the way.
He didn't see Hiko glance up from his sake just as he was disappearing around the edge of the forest. "So long, baka deshi," Hiko said with a mild smirk, lifting his sake dish in salute. "Till we meet again."
A/N: That was fun. ;)
I actually intended for it to be a bit funnier, but I guess Kenshin wasn't in much of a funny mood given that he'd only recently stopped being Battousai. And I'm a bit of a sucker for angst over Kenshin's identity crisis. Anyway, hopefully this was clear, but I don't imagine this story to be sending Kenshin off on a whole separate path from the real series—I just consider it an alternate turn of events leading him back to the same eventual meeting with Kaoru in Tokyo in the 11th year of the Meiji.
Hiko is an awesome character—one of my favorites—but really difficult for me to write. He's so perfectly callous, and yet you can tell he genuinely cares about Kenshin's welfare. I find this a tricky balance to strike, but I hope I did him justice…