Clearing Skies chapter 4 : Identity
Chapter 4: Identity
Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin is owned by Sony, Watsuki-sensei, etc. I'm not nearly cool enough to have invented characters this interesting on my own. So there.
Author's notes: Kenshin gets pissed, news at 11. On with the fic!
/Kyoto. Two months ago./
Kenji dragged his tired feet along the dusty road toward the still-distant mountains of Arashiyama. The summer sun blazed down on his back, its heat only adding to the unbearable humidity which drenched his clothes with sweat and made them stick uncomfortably to his skin. His pack seemed the heaviest it had been since he began this journey; even the bokken at his waist felt as heavy as a real katana. His thoughts muzzy in the heat, and he wondered absently if he was even close to Kyoto yet. He'd been traveling for nearly three weeks now, he guessed, though he'd long since lost count of exactly how long he'd been away from home. Walking from Tokyo to Kyoto had been a far more difficult and perilous undertaking than he ever could have imagined, and he'd nearly turned back more than once. But stubborn pride, and the desire to see Hiko Seijirou, had kept him moving forward. Once he reached Hiko's mountain, he reasoned, everything would be okay. He'd explain his dream, demonstrate his worthiness, and then his father's master would teach him the Hiten Misturugi. It was that simple. It had to be. He never allowed himself to consider any other possibility.
He’d been visiting Kyoto since infancy. It was a city of the past, filled with old temples and grand streets, traditional shops and legendary swordsmiths, elegant sakura in spring and endless snow in winter. It was a city Kenji had always loved. Every spring, while his father visited his former wife's grave in private, he and his mother would explore the city. Often one or more of the Oniwabanshu would accompany them. He smiled at his many memories of the bouncy, ever-cheerful Misao. She had long ago adopted him as a sort of honorary nephew, and they'd become fast friends and partners in mischief; Misao's talent for getting into trouble was as great as his own. How many times had they snuck off, Misao showing him secrets about the city that only a ninja could know? He could admit to himself now that, for a time, he'd had a little bit of a crush on her.
He smiled slightly in amusement. //At least that's past now. // Sensing eyes on him, he lifted his head slowly, smile fading. People, fellow travelers, were looking at him with some concern. An elderly couple riding in a cart slowed their horse and dropped back until he was walking beside them. "Are you lost, lad?" the old man asked. His small eyes, nearly lost in his nut-brown, heavily lined face, were kind.
Kenji shook his head. "No, thank you. I'm okay."
The wife smiled at him. After a moment, she leaned around her husband to address him directly. "You seem so young to be traveling alone, dear. Did you lose your parents?"
Kenji blinked at that. "No, they just…I decided to go on my own."
He ignored the worried looks they exchanged and pulled a worn and dirty folded paper out of his gi. Flipping it open, he studied the fading map. //Looks like I'm almost there. // Glancing up, he saw a split in the path. According to the map, the larger branch went to Kyoto. The other led to the mountains. "Well this is my path," he told them cheerfully, forcing a broad smile onto his exhausted face. "Safe journey!"
"Aa, you too lad," the old man replied with a nod. He was giving Kenji a strangely knowing look, and the boy could feel the couple's eyes on him long after the road had split. It wasn't until the cart was finally out of sight that the unnerving feeling of being watched finally disappeared.
Once he was certain he was alone again, Kenji pressed on with renewed energy. He was nearly there, and he felt his excitement rise along with the road which wound into the base of the nearest mountain. According to the map, which he'd found in some of Yahiko's things years ago, Hiko's mountain wasn't far from Kyoto proper. He remembered as a young child making several trips up the mountain with his father, even going with Hiko once to buy some sake in the little village that lay at the base of the mountain. He soon passed the fork in the road which led to that village, and he was strongly tempted to stop for a rest and something to eat, but the afternoon was wearing on and he needed to climb the mountain before night fell. Sighing heavily, he ignored his aching body and continued on.
He soon lost himself again in the monotony of the trail, and was so preoccupied with reading the map that he nearly walked past the small figure sitting calmly on a boulder at the exact spot where the path took a sharp turn up the slope the mountain.
Kenji slowed and glanced over his shoulder at the man. He stopped and stared for a full minute, his mouth going dry.
The man wasn't moving, but even in the shadow of the trees his bright ember-red hair was unmistakable. Kenshin slowly lifted his head and fixed steely eyes on his son.
Several moments of tense silence passed between them. The clearing hummed with sounds of late afternoon insects, broken only by the occasional twitter of a bird. Kenji felt sweat dripping down his face and onto his clothes, but he couldn't move to wipe it away. He could only stare at his father, who sat as still as carved granite. Kenshin's eyes were locked with his, and it was impossible to pull away.
His father’s eyes were different than usual. If Kenji understood nothing else of what he was seeing at that moment, it was that. //They’re blue, // he thought stupidly, as Kenshin continued to stare him down in silence. His were indeed a hard, flat, icy blue, completely unlike their usual warm violet. Those eyes promised *pain*, and that alone sent Kenji into confusion. His father had a very even personality as a rule, and was nearly always soft-voiced and gentle, displaying not even the barest hint of irritation at anything.
Right now however, there could be no mistake. Kenji took in the extremely tense set of the other man’s shoulders, and the way his right hand was clenched in a white-knuckled fist at his side. His father was more than just angry, he realized; he was *furious*.
Realizing that older swordsman wasn't going to speak first, Kenji asked the first thing that came to mind. "Father…why are you here?"
Kenshin didn't answer immediately. Slowly and deliberately, with an agile grace that Kenji had never been able to copy, he pushed himself down from the top of the rock and stood. He walked very slowly toward his son, in a manner that was absolutely menacing. Kenji swallowed hard, rooted to the spot, his hands were trembling. He came to the startled realization in that moment that he was afraid, actually *afraid*, of his own father. But afraid of what exactly, he had no idea. He could hardly breathe as Kenshin came to a stop just a few feet away.
The older man's eyes narrowed a fraction. "Kenji, do you have *any* idea how worried we've been?"
He looked away. He couldn't face those angry eyes, which seemed so misplaced in his father's gentle face.
Impossibly, Kenshin's voice became even colder. "Your mother has been *inconsolable*."
*That* stung, and the tone it was delivered in chilled him. //I've never heard a voice like this from him before. *Never*. // Where was the man who had sat across from him in their home only weeks ago, seemingly helpless in the face of Kenji's frustrated anger? This didn't seem like his father, not the one he knew.
Kenji's hands tightened on the straps of his travel pack. He struggled to think of a reply, for he knew one was expected. "F-father, I—"
"Look at me."
Kenji hesitated; it was hard to move.
"I said, *look at me*."
There was no disobeying that tone, and Kenji slowly, painfully raised his eyes to Kenshin.
His father regarded him for a long moment. "Did you really think that if you came all this way, Shishou would teach you the Hiten Mitsurugi?"
Kenji swallowed, and finally found his voice. "Yes."
"And you felt it was your right to just vanish in the middle of the night and do whatever you liked, just because I told you 'no'?"
Anger burning away his fear, Kenji straightened up, satisfied by the few inches in height he had over Kenshin. "Apparently." He remembered something then, and despite his brain screaming a warning at him, he spoke his mind. "Why are you so angry? You did the same thing to Mother, didn't you?"
He didn't see Kenshin move at all, but a second later Kenji found himself sprawled on the ground, his jaw aching. He was so shocked he couldn't even move. Had he been hit? He stared up at his father in open astonishment. After a moment, he brought a trembling hand to his face. Kenshin merely stood there, completely still, as if he hadn't done anything at all. But Kenji could see his eyes nearly glowing in the fading light. "I've had a while to think about when we spoke last Kenji, and I came to a decision. You can think about what that means on the way to Shishou's. Now get up." And with that, he turned on his heel and walked back to the rock he'd been sitting on. Beside it was a small daypack and a lantern, which he lit. Without even a backward glance at his son, Kenshin started up the trail, the brightness of the lantern quickly swallowed by the encroaching trees.
Kenji blinked in realization, and he scrambled to his feet as fast as he could, grabbing his pack from where it had fallen to the ground. He took off after Kenshin, straining to see the faint light from the lantern bobbing up and down several yards ahead.
Kenshin moved swifter than Kenji could have imagined, and he struggled to keep up on the unfamiliar trail, which was soon plunged into total darkness. Kenji cursed the lack of moonlight, and the dense trees which hid the starlight. But he was far more concerned with what had his father meant by a "decision". Under normal circumstances coming from Kenshin, he’d assume it was something good. His father had always doted on him, largely leaving discipline to his mother. He had never thought much of this; it was just how his family worked. It wasn’t until after he’d started school and begun spending time with other children and their parents that he’d realized his father was different than the other adults. He remembered the day his friend Taro’s father had come to pick him up instead of his mother. Kenji had never seen a man so tall and stern-looking. Unlike Kenshin, who always greeted his son with a warm smile and a brief embrace, Taro’s father had simply stood at the gate, his expression neutral. Kenji had watched in confusion as Taro had bowed slightly to his father. The older man, expression never changing, had simply nodded in acknowledgment and walked off down the street, expecting his son to follow.
//Just like now, // Kenji thought grimly. For the first time, Kenshin was acting like a normal father; stern, and talking to his son with authority. Kenji had always thought he'd like a father like that, one he could talk about with pride to his friends. He was surprised by how much Kenshin’s sudden change in attitude unsettled him. He had no idea what to expect now, and that honestly scared him.
By the time he finally emerged into the clearing surrounding Hiko's home, he was scratched and bleeding, and completely winded. His father had stopped near a huge old tree standing by itself in the middle of the small field. Kenji stumbled over to him, immediately falling to his knees. He crouched there panting, sweat dripping off his face and onto his hands.
After a moment, Kenshin's voice, soft and ironic, floated to his ears. "If that little climb winded you, you won't last five minutes in a lesson with Shishou."
Kenji glared indignantly up at his father. "I've been walking since *dawn*."
"Exactly. Walking, not training. Though I assume you *have* been keeping up with your exercises all this time?"
The suggestion brought up painful memories, and Kenji consciously had to keep from pressing his hand to the injuries on his back and side. They were healing, but they'd been aggravated by the climb, and he was grateful they were hidden under his gi. That rather embarrassing incident, which had happened fairly early in his journey, was not something he was ready yet to share with anyone, especially not Kenshin. Something else his father had said now perked his interest. "Wait, what do you mean, are you saying Hiko-sama *will* give me lessons?"
Kenshin's expression grew somber, and without replying he walked toward Hiko's cabin.
With a frustrated sigh, Kenji left his pack on the ground and half-limped, half-staggered after his father, who had stopped to wait in front of Hiko's door. Once Kenji had made it there, Kenshin softly rapped on the outside of the building. "Shishou, are you awake?"
The voice that replied was not the deep, confident, sonorous boom Kenji had always associated with his father’s master. Instead it was weak and raspy, and the oddity of that was enough to plant the first seeds of doubt in his chest. "Did you find the brat?"
"I did, Shishou."
Kenji frowned slightly. "But…he always knows when I'm here, doesn't he?"
Kenshin gave him a significant look, and pushed the cabin door open. "Go in."
Kenji hesitated, for the first time slightly afraid of what lay beyond that door. Something about this wasn’t right, and he glanced uncertainly at Kenshin.
He wished he hadn’t. The expression on the older man’s face was scary. Kenshin spoke, his voice low and tightly controlled. “I said *go in*. That’s what you came all this way for isn’t it?”
Gathering his courage, the boy stepped into the dim, candlelit interior. There was an odd odor in the cabin, which he quickly realized was sickness, and he had to restrain himself from covering his nose and mouth. He searched the floor, and spotted Hiko lying on his futon in the corner, half-covered with a blanket. Kenji had never seen the swordsman like this, and for a moment he had the impression his father's master had grown small. But no, it was just that he was lying down.
He waited for permission to approach. After a moment, Hiko's head turned toward him. Though he seemed too weak to get up, his eyes were as sharp as ever. "Sit down, boy."
Kenji did as he was told. He settled onto his knees and bowed respectfully. "It's good to see you again, Hiko-sama."
"Pity I can't say the same," Hiko said coldly. "Unfortunately, you've turned out to be just like your idiot father."
Kenji gaped in indignant shock. "Wh-what do you mean by that?!"
Hiko visibly winced. "Lower your voice."
Remembering himself, Kenji sat back. "I'm sorry." When Hiko didn't seem inclined to speak, Kenji ventured a question. "Hiko-sama…what's wrong with you?"
The swordsman grunted. "I'm sick, moron, what's it look like?"
Kenji frowned. //No wonder Father doesn't like visiting him. // "Will you get better?"
There was a long silence. When Hiko answered, his voice was soft and honest, devoid of its usual arrogance. "I don't know."
Kenji didn't know what to say to that and he bowed his head, feeling the beginnings of despair. "What did you mean I was just like my father?"
Hiko sighed in irritation. "I mean that like him, you're hopelessly stubborn and single-minded, and you never listen to what people say. It is your father's right to refuse your request for training. Even though he didn't accept the title of Hiko Seijirou the Fourteenth, he nevertheless is the current master of the school. It was wrong of you to come to me. Even if I weren't ill, my answer would be 'no'."
Kenji nearly choked on the sudden anger that consumed him. After all the trouble he'd gone through to get here, this was his reward! "No," he said, struggling to keep tears of frustration at bay, "you can't say that, not after I've come all this way! You have no idea what I've been through. I've worked so hard for this; it's what I want! You taught my father, and you didn't take some kind of non-killing vow, so *why*?” His voice had risen to nearly a shout. “Why can't I have your respect?"
"Baka deshi!" Hiko growled. Kenshin immediately appeared. The two men exchanged a look which Kenji couldn’t interpret. "Your son is giving me a headache. You deal with him."
Kenshin simply nodded and gestured for Kenji to get up. Kenji looked at Hiko in agony. "Wait, no, you haven't given me an answer yet!"
"*Kenji*." The command in Kenshin’s tone was clear. Reluctantly, the boy climbed to his feet and followed his father outside. Suddenly overwhelmed by exhaustion, he collapsed by his travel bag. He hugged his legs and rested his forehead on his knees. Over the distant sound the thundering waterfall, he heard Kenshin approach through the grass.
"Go away," he said harshly. "I don't want to talk to either of you right now."
There was long a moment of pause, just long enough for Kenji to think that he’d been left alone. “Is that so?” Kenji looked up, startled, as the air suddenly stirred next to him. He gasped when he felt a hand grab the collar of his gi and haul him roughly to his feet, so that he stood eye-to-eye with Kenshin. His protest at the rough treatment died on his lips. Kenshin’s eyes were fierce. “I don’t care if you don’t want to talk.”
Kenshin released him and Kenji stumbled backward, heart hammering in his ears. He stared at his father in alarm, unsure what to do. Kenshin’s behavior was just *bizarre*; raising his voice at him, physically pushing him around? This wasn’t the man he’d grown up with at all!
Kenshin was now visibly trembling with anger. “Where have you been? Explain yourself! Why did you come here on your own without telling anyone?”
Kenji gathered what strength he had left and stared his father down. “Is this an interrogation?” the teenager asked quietly, his voice barely remaining steady.
Kenshin’s glare could have melted steel. It took all of Kenji’s will to stand his ground.
“I don’t understand you,” Kenshin said finally, his voice a low, pained hiss.
Kenji frowned slightly. “What?”
“I don’t know you anymore. You were always an obedient child. Full of mischief, yes, but you didn’t deliberately try to endanger or hurt other people.”
“I haven’t hurt anyone!” Kenji protested.
Kenshin continued as if Kenji had not spoken. “But in the past year, for whatever reason, you’ve changed. What on earth were you thinking, Kenji? Do you disrespect us so much, you don’t even care that we’ve spent nearly a month wondering if you were alive or dead?”
Kenji scowled in silent indignation, trying to ignore the pain the accusation caused him. Of course he respected his parents! How could he not? No, it was *they* who had disrespected *him*! He was old enough to make his own decisions now; it was ridiculous that all his wants and desires were still being spurned like this, for no good reason that he could see.
Kenji just glared back in defiant, sullen silence. Kenshin returned his gaze…and then something in his face changed. The cold mask of anger he had worn until now seemed to crumble for an instant, revealing an agonized frustration that Kenji couldn’t remember ever seeing in his father before. His eyes also had changed; they were unfathomable eyes, deep and dark as Tokyo bay at midnight, filled with sorrow, grief, regret, and a dozen other things Kenji couldn’t even name. He didn’t know how, but the sight was easily more terrifying than Kenshin’s earlier rage.
The next instant, his father blinked, and it was all gone; his eyes and face were again cold and distant. “Fine then, keep your silence. But this conversation is not finished, and until it is you will NOT leave this mountain. I will know if you do. Understood?”
Still disturbed by what he had seen, Kenji could only manage a slight nod. With a final warning look, Kenshin turned and strode back to Hiko’s cabin.
Kenshin closed Hiko’s door behind him with a hand that shook with emotion. He had come close, so dangerously close, to striking his son for the second time that day, for the second time in Kenji’s entire *life*. His frustrated rage still coursed through his veins, frightening him with its intensity. He sank to his knees next Hiko’s futon, struggling to get himself back under control.
“I haven’t heard you raise your voice like that in quite some time, Baka Deshi. Finding him hard to control, are you?”
Kenshin closed his eyes and drew a pained breath. His master has quite possibly just made the understatement of the decade. It had been over three weeks since Kenji’s sudden disappearance from the dojo. Three weeks of the Tokyo police and the Kyoto Oniwanbanshu failing to find even a single trace of his son. Three weeks of a nearly hysterical Kaoru running through every grisly fate Kenji could have possibly met on the road, and demanding that Kenshin DO something about it already. Three weeks of being nearly as frantic as his wife, terrified that every minute that went by without news was another minute his only child could be lying murdered in a ditch somewhere. His *son* dead, and he would never know, unless one of his countless enemies from the past had learned of Kenji and conspired to kidnap him with the intentions of torturing the boy and then ransoming his life for his father’s.
Yes, the last three weeks had been Kenshin’s own personal Hell, almost as bad as when he had thought Kaoru was dead. He had wanted so much to let his anger loose, to rip apart the entire countryside of Japan until he found his son. But that was impossible, and a foolish waste of time and energy, so he’d been forced to keep his rage contained, like a starving dragon pacing behind flimsy wooden bars, held in place only by sheer force of will.
Finally, he and Kaoru had had no choice but to go to Kyoto themselves, for they knew that was where Kenji was heading. Why he had not yet arrived there, when the journey usually took less than two weeks on foot, was something neither parent was willing to contemplate. Almost immediately upon arrival at the Aoiya a week ago, Kenshin had rushed up Hiko’s mountain, hoping against hope that Kenji was there.
What he’d found was almost worse than discovering his son’s corpse. His master was ill with the flu, deathly so. He had in fact been sick for weeks but had told no one, being at first too stubborn, and then finally too weak, to seek help. Nearly a week’s worth of medical attention had improved Hiko’s condition immensely, but he was still far from well. The strain for Kenshin had become nearly too much, and by this morning the accumulated stress of everything that had happened had brought him nearly to the breaking point. It was in this state of mind that he’d once again, for the fourth day in a row, sat himself on a large rock by the trail, hoping against hope that his son would finally arrive.
And then, as if in a dream, Kenji had come around the corner. Kenshin’s relief had been indescribable; not only was his son alive, he was apparently completely unharmed. His eyes had skimmed over his son, taking in every detail. The boy was obviously tired; his feet dragged stiffly, revealing how sore and blistered they probably were from weeks of walking. His hair was sweaty and scraggly; how long since he’d had a bath? But most surprising of all was the wooden bokken hanging easily from a cord looped around his chest and back, identical to the one Yahiko used to carry the Sakabatou in a way that was more acceptable to the Tokyo police than wearing it at the waist. Kenshin silently gave his approval; at least the boy had had the common sense not to leave Tokyo unarmed.
However, Kenshin’s happiness was fleeting, replaced by an unreasoning rage that had come swift, unbidden, and beyond his control.
After all the suffering his family had been through trying to find him, Kenji seemed completely unconcerned about it, and had had the *gall* to be flippant with him, to act as if Kenshin been foolish to ever be worried about him in the first place. Something in him had snapped then, and before he’d even thought to move Kenji was lying on the ground, holding his jaw where Kenshin had struck it, staring up at him in open shock. The memory sickened him.
“Kenji…” Kenshin said slowly, bringing his mind back to the present, “doesn’t seem to feel he’s done anything wrong.” He clenched his fists on his knees until his nails bit painfully into his palms. “I don’t know what to do.”
Hiko carefully pushed himself into a sitting position, reaching for the medicinal tea Kenshin had brought from Kyoto. He grimaced and tossed it back like a shot of sake. “Are you sure this witch’s brew will actually work? It’s worse than the thrice-damned disease.” Pushing the cup away in disgust, he glared at his former student. “What do you mean, you ‘don’t know what to do’? You’ve been far too easy on that boy, Kenshin. You’ve got yourself to blame for this mess, and you know it.”
Kenshin frowned. The remark stung. “Shishou, please…”
Hiko grunted and eased himself back down, pulling the blanket up to his neck. “It’s freezing in here,” he hissed irritably.
Kenshin said nothing. Absently, he brushed sweat from his forehead. It was in fact sweltering in the cabin, but he knew that the stupidly obvious was the last thing his master wanted to hear right now.
There was silence for a time. Then Hiko spoke, his voice quiet, yet strong, with just a trace of accusation. “You really are a fool. Isn’t this situation just a bit familiar?”
Kenshin blinked. “What?”
“’What’?” Hiko echoed mockingly. “Idiot, this pain you feel is nothing. Your son is alive, unharmed and back in your sights. Be thankful for that. How do you think it was for ME, knowing I would probably never see you again? And after all the time and effort I put into you. Gods, the two of you are *so* alike. You’re both ungrateful little twits.”
Kenshin bristled. He fought to keep his roiling temper in check. “How can you say that? The situations are nothing alike!”
“Nonsense. You told him ‘no’, so he decided he knew what was best for him and did what he wanted anyway. Obviously, just like a certain other hotheaded young punk I used to know, he has no idea what he’s asking for. As his father it was *your* responsibility to tell him, and it looks like you haven’t done your job. You are in no position to complain; a spitfire like that cannot be coddled, he must be *tamed*.”
Kenshin gritted his teeth. “Right, because you did such a wonderful job taming *me*?”
Hiko smirked. “Well of course I did, but apparently it didn’t do anything for a blockhead too pure-hearted to believe he could ever be used by men for less than honorable purposes. That young man told *me* I was the fool and walked willingly into the wolf’s den. So, I suppose the dragon could not be tamed, but you can’t blame me for trying now can you?”
Kenshin bowed his head, shame overcoming his anger. He knew Hiko was right; that didn’t make it any easier to accept. “I wanted to keep him away from all this. I don’t want him to go down the same path I did! What he wants is madness.”
Hiko snorted. “I didn’t teach you madness. You did that yourself. I taught you swordmanship, and *that* is what he wants. *Your* problem is, for Kenji only the strongest will do. Young men refuse to settle for what they see as second best, as you well know. Your wife’s style, noble as its goals are, will never be enough for that boy. I knew that from the first moment I met him. The solution is obvious. Tell him everything. Stop hiding what you’ve done, and what the consequences were. And do it now, tonight, before he gets it into his head to go *looking* for a war to join and gets himself killed.”
Kenshin opened his mouth to reply, but Hiko cut him off with a look. “Enough, I’m tired.”
Kenshin studied his master’s face in concern. His shishou *did* look exhausted; his cheeks were sunken and there were shadows under his eyes. Kenshin suddenly regretted having let his master expend so much valuable energy talking. //But then, it’s rare that he will say so much at once. He really must have felt it was necessary. // “I will sleep now,” Hiko continued wearily. “Go deal with your boy.”
Despite his exhaustion, sleep would not come. Kenji lay against the tree in the clearing, resigning himself to a long night. His entire body ached, especially his blistered, swollen feet. He felt heavy, like a sack of rice, and he knew that nothing could make him move at that moment, short of being carried. He let his mind drift over the events of the day, trying to make some sense of them. The glowing enthusiasm he’d had that morning, knowing that his long journey was nearly over, had now been completely crushed by Hiko’s illness. He knew he shouldn’t be surprised; Hiko was only human after all, and he was hardly a young man. But Kenji had grown up hearing stories of his greatness as a warrior, and the handful of times they’d met, Hiko had truly seemed invincible to him. He’d believed that even if he lived to be a grandfather himself, Hiko would still be there on his mountain, making pottery and drinking up Kyoto’s supply of fine sake. This reminder of Hiko’s mortality was just as painful as his disapproval of Kenji’s actions. But, Kenji admitted to himself, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t known what Hiko’s answer would be. Even before he’d left Tokyo, he’d had his doubts about what he was doing, and now they’d been confirmed. //All that effort of coming here, for *nothing*//.
Kenji let his gaze drift up to the broad trunk of the tree. He knew this tree; it was the one his father had trained on. Its side, stripped completely clean of bark, was permanently marred by hundreds upon hundreds of sword strikes, all from metal blades, as opposed to the wooden bokken that rested by his side now. Some strokes were short and straight, others long diagonal slashes, and a few were from an angle so steep he knew they must have been delivered from high above the tree. //Ryu Tsui Sen, // he acknowledged silently. The tree’s roots had been damaged too; scars of the technique Kenji knew was called Do Ryu Sen. A ground strike, relying on ken-ki to execute. He’d absorbed much from the stories everyone had told him of his father’s many battles, and he’d been looking forward to finally putting that knowledge to use. But it was not to be, and this tree had only one message for him now: deep or shallow, sloppy or precise, the cuts spoke of a level of training he would never experience. His mother absolutely forbade training with a real blade; only Yahiko had the privilege of wielding the Sakabatou. //I missed my chance didn’t I? I wasn’t born into a war. //
Which brought him to his father, and his strange behavior. Kenji couldn’t figure it out. Both his parents were anomalies, actually, and if people asked about them he always evaded the question. How was he supposed to explain that his mother made the money for the family, and that his father did all the housework around the dojo? No one would believe him, and if they did the ridicule would never end. Yahiko only made it worse when he told stories about Kenshin’s greatness as a swordsman. Kenji had never even seen him pick up a shinai, and so for a long time he’d been convinced that everyone was lying to him, making up tall tales so he’d like his father better. Not that he actually *disliked* his father, far from it. Himura Kenshin was a good man, kind and honest. No, what he felt towards him was disappointment. Why in the world would a swordsman that strong just give up and hand his sword over to someone else? How could a former assassin and hero of the revolution possibly be content to do laundry all day? Yet that was the man Kenji knew. Even so, his temper earlier had definitely been real, and it wasn’t the pathetic bluffing of a man trying to cover his own weakness. No, today his father had been deadly serious, even dangerous.
//I just don’t understand.// Kenji started to get to his feet, and was suddenly struck by just how much he *hurt*. With a surprised gasp he stumbled and promptly fell over the tree root. “Urmph,” he mumbled into the dirt. Immediately he jerked his head up and checked to make sure no one was watching. He glanced toward Hiko’s cabin. It was quiet. He sighed in relief. //Thank the gods. // Mortification averted, he climbed stiffly to his feet.
He looked down at the bokken still lying in the wet grass. For a moment, he thought about leaving it behind; but only for a moment. Sighing, he picked up the weapon and tucked it his hakama ties. Slowly he made his way to the stand of trees behind Hiko’s cabin. A narrow path wound its way through the dense forest, leading to another, much larger clearing on the other side. He emerged from the forest and found himself facing a huge waterfall, which plunged into a large shallow pool at its base. A spire of rock rose up on front of the waterfall, covered in slick grass and mosses. Its height was perfect for practicing leaps and falls. Another of his father’s training grounds. Hiko had actually sparred with Kenji here once, when he was very small, barely large enough to hold a shinai. Clinging to the memory, he sat down on a low boulder and laid his fine oak bokken, a gift from his mother, across his lap. He stared sightlessly into the falling water.
“At least you haven’t tried to run away again.”
Kenji nearly gasped in fright as Kenshin’s voice came from right behind him. Half-spinning around on the rock, he stared up at his father, fully on the defensive. However, Kenshin wasn’t even looking at him; he was gazing out at the water, his eyes distant.
Feelings confused, Kenji fell back on anger. “What do you want?”
Something flickered briefly across Kenshin’s face. There was banked fire in his eyes when he looked at his son. “I would strongly suggest you stop taking that insolent tone with me. I’ve had quite enough of it. You are the one who is in trouble here.”
Kenji gripped the rock tightly with his fingers. “How is it that I’m in trouble? I’m fifteen now. I’m old enough to make my own choices.”
“Even if those choices hurt those closest to you?” Kenshin asked quietly.
“You keep saying that. Who have I harmed?”
Kenshin’s eyes narrowed. “You cannot possibly be that stupid. I *know* you aren’t. Have you forgotten who *your* master is? Do you think your mother will easily forgive you for what you’ve done? You betrayed her and everything she’s taught you by leaving. You’ve hurt her, and me, deeply. I will ask you one more time. *Why are you doing this*?”
Kenji felt like he was going to explode. “Why are you acting like this?” he demanded, evading the question. “You’ve never reprimanded me like this before.”
“Which apparently was a mistake. One I mean to rectify now.”
That struck Kenji as a bit ominous, and he had to force down a sudden nervousness. “I’m not a little kid anymore; you don’t have to worry about me! I can do things on my own!”
“No, you can’t. You are only a boy.”
Kenji bristled. “I’m not!”
Kenshin gave him a patronizing look. “Is that so?”
Kenji gritted his teeth. “Yes.”
“Because only a child would have done what you’ve done; thrown a tantrum and stormed off when the adults didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear. How very mature of you.”
Now it was Kenji’s turn to step closer. “How can you judge what I’ve done? Isn’t that just what you did to Hiko-sama? You were strong enough to become a hitokiri when you were younger than me!”
“That’s right,” Kenshin said in a steady, very quiet voice. “By fifteen I had already murdered over a hundred men in cold blood. I went on to kill hundreds more. My master told me *exactly* what would happen to me if I left him. I was warned. But I thought he was a fool, and I left anyway. You have NO comprehension of who and what I was, Kenji. Hitokiri Battousai was a child, with too much power and not enough common sense. Not nearly enough. I waded in blood for five years. I lost my wife because of my own carelessness, and my sanity nearly went with her. I can see you starting down the same path. Look at what you’ve done so far in the past month. Look at what you’re *doing*. I will *not* stand by and let you ruin your future, chasing a legend that doesn’t exist!”
Kenji started to argue, but Kenshin cut over him. “No! Listen to me. Forget what Yahiko told you. Forget what Kaoru told you. If you learned the Mitsurugi, what on earth would you do with it? Teach it to others? Fight for the police, or the government? Use it in a war? Any of those things can and will lead to death, by *your* hand. It is not a question of if, but *when*.” He paused for a moment to let that sink in. He watched the frantic movement of Kenji’s eyes, caught between comprehension, fear, and stubborn denial. “Are you prepared for that? Do you really want to know what it’s like to kill a man?”
Kenji tore away and walked over to the water, shaking with anger. “Why do you keep saying I’m going to kill someone? Do you think I’m some kind of horrible person who—
who’ll go around just *murdering* people for no reason?”
Kenshin’s voice was infuriatingly calm and logical. “That’s exactly what I did with it.”
Kenji half-turned to stare at him. Kenshin continued. “That’s what the Hiten Mitsurugi is *for*, Kenji. Do you think the Bakumatsu was like point-fighting in a dojo? Neat and clean fights where no one really gets hurt, and it only matters who has the best technique? That’s not what war is like.”
“I’m not going to kill people,” Kenji repeated stubbornly. “I’m not *you*!”
His father’s reaction was not quite what he expected. Kenshin, for a moment, said nothing; but he looked more flustered than Kenji had ever seen him. His face was actually flushed, and the night breeze had picked up, blowing Kenshin’s hair about. It didn’t quite register with Kenji that the surrounding trees weren’t moving. Abruptly, the wind settled, and Kenshin’s eyes gleamed with barely controlled rage. “Fine,” he bit out, “then then you’re also not like the dozens of other swordsman I either knew or faced in battle, who constantly sought better techniques to promote their own strength. They all insisted they wouldn’t hurt anyone *without just cause*, but in the end they found themselves involved in bloodbaths anyway. I was no different from them, and believe me you’ll find a reason to justify your actions as a swordsman, and those reasons, no matter how flawed, will seem perfectly sensible to you. I joined Choushu because I thought it would help people be free from the suffering and death I saw all around me. When the imperialists asked me to destroy the Bakufu, and to do it through killing men, I didn’t know what I was agreeing to.”
Kenshin began to steadily walk forward; Kenji stood still, watching him in stunned silence. “Once I found out, it was too late. I stood in the Kyoto streets night after night with the blood of men running down my face and soaking my clothes, and their body parts lying scattered on the ground all around me, and even then *I still didn’t understand*. I didn’t know I’d become a mindless tool of death, a murdering *monster*.”
Kenji broke in with a panicked look. “You…you’re not…you’re not a—”
“I was, and I *am*. Don’t you remember the day you came home upset by the horrible stories the children at school had told you about Battousai? How eventually you learned that *I* was the man in those stories? Even now they still tell nightmare tales about the person I was. It’s *real* Kenji, everything I did, and I am telling you now that it wasn’t worth the price. I want to say that the Meiji government has been the best thing for Japan, but the truth is it’s fraught with nearly as much corruption as the Bakufu. Hiten Mitusurgi Ryu was *never* intended to protect the weak from harm; its sole purpose is to kill, and kill as many as possible at once. It is a tool of war and death, no more and no less. That is why Kamiya Kasshin Ryu is *better* than the Hiten.”
Kenji’s eyes flashed. “No, nothing is better! I want to be strong, and Kamiya Kasshin isn’t enough!”
Kenshin made an exasperated noise. “WHY do you want to be strong Kenji? Give me a reason, a real reason!”
The boy's voice rose to a shout. “Because you were a legend, you were unbeatable, and I’m your son! You should give me what is mine by right!”
Kenshin stepped back, eyes narrowed to slits. There was a furious quaver to his voice when he spoke. “Ah, so now we come to the real issue. This is about Yahiko and the Sakabatou isn’t it? You want what you haven’t yet earned.”
Kenji straightened to his full height. “Oh I’ve earned it. I’ve worked my whole life to prove I’m strong enough to learn the Hiten.”
Kenshin gave his son a long, hard look. “So,” he asked in a steel-edged voice, “you think you’re stronger than me? You think you can play this game? Well then.” Kenji blinked as his father stepped back into a neutral stance, tucking his hands away in his sleeves. “Come at me.”
Kenji’s face slackened in surprise. “What, you’re…serious? I’ve never seen you fight at all!”
Kenshin smiled grimly. “Well, this should be easy then, shouldn’t it?”
Kenji blinked in shock, the bokken suddenly feeling very heavy at his waist. “But…you don’t even have a weapon…”
“It doesn’t matter,” Kenshin said evenly.
It took a second for that to sink in, and when it did Kenji scowled, sucking in his breath with a sharp hiss. Kenshin simply waited in silence, observing his son with an unconcerned air.
Kenji’s right hand drifted to the bokken’s hilt. He gripped it until his knuckles turned white, trying to control the tremble that ran up his whole arm. //He can’t be serious! //
Yet he was; Kenji could see it in his eyes. Kenshin’s gaze carried an unmistakable challenge, one Kenji knew he could not refuse.
“If I beat you, will you teach me?” he asked.
“We shall see.”
“So that’s a yes?”
Kenji's grip tightened angrily. It suddenly no longer mattered whether there was a deal or not; he was being mocked. He drew the weapon from his belt and sank into stance. //He hasn’t practiced swordplay in years. I can defeat him, especially if he’s unarmed... // He swallowed hard, knowing he was really trying to convince himself.
Kenji breathed deeply, then lunged forward with all his strength and speed. Nothing could hold him back now; not his pain, nor his fears. There was only Kenshin, and the obstacle he represented. //I’ll prove I’m worthy!//
He lifted the bokken up above his head with a sharp battle cry. Kenshin simply watched him with calm eyes, not even flinching as the shaft of wood swung straight at his head.
For an instant, Kenji thought he’d won; then Kenshin *moved*. He vanished from sight; a heartbeat later Kenji felt a *presence* appear right behind him. With a yelp he spun and dove to the side, swinging the bokken blindly. He caught a glimpse of his father easily evading the strike. Kenshin darted backwards. Kenji instinctively followed, and he tried desperately, again and again, to score a hit. Kenshin however seemed to flow like water, moving backwards, around and from side to side almost faster than Kenji could follow. The boy covered his increasing alarm with a swift flurry of strikes, but none could touch the older man.
They chased each other up and down the shore of the lake, Kenshin always staying one step ahead. Kenji’s fury finally boiled over, and he looked at his father, who had paused briefly a few feet away, saw his chance. Adrenaline overcame his body’s soreness, and he launched himself into the air, plunging back downward in a Ryu-Tsui-Sen aimed straight for his father’s head.
A hand rose up to hit him square in the chest. Kenji blinked in shock; Kenshin was right by him in the air. //How can he—?// “Bad move, Son,” came a whisper in his ear. The hand on his chest tightened around the collar of his gi, and then he was pulled *down*.
The next few seconds were a blur of confused motion. As he fell, a fist drove with unbelievable force into his gut, the world spun upside down, and then he was flat on his back in the grass, his own bokken pressed hard against his jugular. Gasping in horrified shock, Kenji stared up the length of the weapon and met Kenshin’s cold, shadowed gaze. Father and son stared at each other. Kenji's labored breathing was the only sound that could be heard over the thunderous waterfall.
“Not…possible…” he whispered finally.
“What’s not possible?” Kenshin asked, irritated. Kenji realized with a mixture of fury and awe that his father wasn’t even winded. “Surely you don’t think I have been idle in my swordplay all these years. Just because I can’t use the Hiten Misturugi anymore doesn’t mean I can’t practice standard swordsmanship.”
Kenji almost groaned aloud at the enormity of his error. “But you never…not even a shinai! You never sparred with me, never shared what you knew! You hid your strength from me, why?” The last word was distorted with pain. He stared up at Kenshin in open agony. “WHY?”
The swordsman was silent for a moment. “So that you would not want it. Do not think that I am proud of this strength; it came at tremendous human cost.” He relaxed the pressure of the bokken, letting it drop to rest on Kenji’s shoulder. “I feel nothing but shame and regret for what I was. I lived in a world where swords were used only to gain power over others; in my ignorance, I believed in that world, and helped to promote it. Joining the war was the worst mistake of my life, and it nearly destroyed my soul. Your mother’s dream, Kamiya Kasshin Ryu’s dream, is an age where swordsmanship is just that; a way the weak can be protected without death. I would see that world come to pass, no matter the cost to me, or to you. You are a talented swordsman Kenji, and I am proud of what you’ve accomplished, but there is nothing for you to inherit from me, no legacy to pass on. I am no hero, and I am certainly nothing to admire. I will not teach what I know to be morally wrong. Accept it.”
Kenji glared sullenly at the ground, no longer able to meet Kenshin’s eyes. He heard a sound, and looked up to see his father striding away through the grass, bokken still in hand. “H-hey, that’s mine!”
“When we get back to Tokyo perhaps,” Kenshin said over his shoulder as he walked into the trees. “We leave for the Aoiya in the morning. Be ready.”
Kenji stared after him in disbelief. //He beat me so easily…and he didn’t even have a weapon. // His body finally gave out, and he sank back down into the grass, eyes drifting closed. //I don't understand. To protect the weak, don’t I need strength like his? No matter what he says, I’ll be as good as him; no, I’ll be *better*. I won’t make his mistakes. Never… // With that promise, he slipped into an exhausted slumber.
To be continued…
A/N: Delays, delays…they are going to be the rule for this fic. What was it this time, 6 months? Hopefully the fact that this chapter was extra long helps make up for it a little. Major, major kudos go to two people, my fabulous beta Ranma151773012 and the talented Nekotsuki, for their extensive help with proofreading, sentence flow, and especially character development in this very difficult chapter. This has been one of the hardest I’ve ever written. It was an impressive struggle keeping father, son and adoptive grandfather in character and in conflict, while building tension throughout the chapter. I hope it all works! Next time: tons of action next chapter; we learn more about the bad guys, and we see that Kenji actually has a social life! Should be fun :D Thank you all for being such loyal readers, look forward to chapter 5, hopefully sooner than later!