July, 1866


Hiko Seijuro XIII made his way slowly down the mountain to the village. It was once again time to stock up on supplies, namely sake. Hiko made a beeline for the shop that belonged to Fudoro, the sake vendor he always bought from.

Over the past three years, rumors of war had slowly filtered into the village as samurai came and left. Fudoro was always the first to hear the rumors and would tell them to anyone willing to listen. Even though Hiko had made it clear to Fudoro that the troubles of the outside world weren't his business, even he had been unable to completely escape hearing the rumors.

Two years ago, the war had seemed to go very badly for the Ishin Shishi and over the summer and autumn, it looked as though the Bakufu might win. Suddenly, a year ago, the tide had seemed to turn in the Patriots' favor. Something dramatic must have happened for such an incredible turnaround to have occurred. Now the Bakufu's seemingly inexorable grip on Japan was being shaken loose.

Hiko slid open the door and stepped into Fudoro's shop. The old man looked up from filling his sake jug and promptly smiled and rose to his feet when he saw his favorite customer.

"Greetin's, Hiko-san," he said.

"Greetings, Fudoro-san," returned Hiko, plopping down some gold coins for the vendor.

"Listen, Hiko-san, I know you don't want to hear nothin’ about the war..." began Fudoro as he handed the jug to the swordsman.

"That's right. I don't," said Hiko curtly, his demeanor suddenly changing from semi-sociable to cold and defensive.

Fudoro sighed. He was the only outsider who knew why Hiko was so adamant about having nothing to do with the war. He couldn't help but feel that it might have been his fault that the young boy with the fiery hair and shining eyes had suddenly abandoned his training just over three years ago. Fudoro had cursed himself for saying what he had said to the boy when Hiko had told him in a short, cold voice about his student's departure.

"But I think you'll want to hear this," the vendor continued solemnly. "The men who came here said one very big reason for the turn in the Shishi's fortune is this warrior among their ranks called Hitokiri Battousai."

Hiko froze. The name Battousai could have only one meaning. An image of a tiny redhaired boy performing his first shaky battoujutsu flashed into his mind.

"They say he has hair the color of blood, cold purplish eyes and a huge cruciform scar on his left cheek," said Fudoro, tracing a cross over his left cheek for effect. "He has skills like a demon and his sword cuts are faster than the eye can see."

"Thank you, Fudoro-san," Hiko cut in abruptly. "I'll take my leave now. Other customers are approaching and you should attend to them."

"Eh?" said Fudoro, as he and Hiko were alone in the shop.

Not even a second later, Hiko's words were proven prophetic as the door slid open again and some warriors stepped in.

"Hey, Fudoro-san, wait till you hear this one! They say Hitokiri Battousai killed a squadron of 50 Shinsengumi all by himself in under two minutes last week!" declared one of the samurai.

"Thanks for the tidbit, fellas," responded Fudoro as he handed them sake after they handed him gold.

The vendor's gaze shot over to Hiko for a second, but the giant's face was inscrutable. Before he could say anything, Hiko whirled about on his heel and strode out of the shop.

"What's eating that guy?" asked one of the samurai.

"Oh, this war has everyone upset," said Fudoro dismissively.

Inwardly, he sighed as he stared at the door Hiko-san had walked out of. Ever since Kenshin had left, the giant swordsman had become even surlier, if that were possible. Who knew how this news about his former apprentice would affect him?

Hiko strode up the mountain, sake sloshing in the jugs he carried carelessly. As he walked, he tried to picture what his former apprentice might look like by now. Likely a few inches taller, slightly more muscular, red hair longer, perhaps down to his waist by now, facial features more angular, eyes, no longer a round, innocent violet, but two hard purplish slits, countenance weighted down in a perpetual scowl. And a cruciform scar marring his left cheek.

Hiko stopped and stared at the image of this older, careworn version of his pupil which now stood on the path before him.

'A hitokiri... You said you wanted to use Hiten Mitsurugi to protect people and you let them make you a hitokiri!' Hiko silently yelled at the image before him. 'Protector of the common people, my ass! Now you're just a common murderer! You will bear the blood of those you killed until the end of your days!'

Hiko suddenly crouched in battoujutsu and wrenched his nihontou from its sheath. In so doing, one of the sake jugs' cords broke, sending the jug flying and its precious contents spilling everywhere as the clay vessel shattered against a rock on the side of the path. Mindless of the mess, Hiko slashed for the spectral swordsman.

The image of Battousai wavered and shrank and before Hiko stood the tiny boy with the flaming hair and sad violet eyes. Hiko stopped his sword mid-stroke and stared at the image.

'Is there anything of the little boy I knew left in you?' he thought mournfully as he lowered the quivering blade.

The image did not move or respond, but merely faded away, leaving emptiness in its wake.

After taking several deep breaths to calm himself, Hiko sheathed his nihontou and glanced at the shattered sake jug. He decided to just continue on. He had no desire to return to the village right now. Tomorrow, he would go back and buy more sake. Tomorrow, he might hear more rumors about his former apprentice's exploits in the war, or he might not. Either way, it wasn't his problem.

At least that's what he told himself over and over again as he continued up the hill to his solitary shack.