Sword

by Kadorienne
Thank you to Carlanime, Grey Bard and Frazzledog for beta.


            You could find anything in New York. The whole world was there, or rather, bits of the whole world. There were people from everywhere on the globe, people who knew everything the human race had ever learned. And if you couldn’t buy it in New York, it probably didn’t exist.

            So Hiro dragged Ando into a cab and gave the driver the address of the store. “I have to find that sword!” he insisted to Ando, who sighed and got in.

            The store, when they got there, turned out to be full of not only swords of all sorts, but also shuriken and shields reproduced from various historical periods and all kinds of other things. Hiro looked around, marveling, smiling in wonder, his eyes wide. It was the first time he had felt like himself since Charlie.

            He thought about her most of the time, when his mission wasn’t occupying his mind. He had learned the hard way that he couldn’t really control his power. He had thought he could just turn back time, like Superman did when Lois died, speeding around the earth until time reversed itself despite the warnings of the Elders. He would save Charlie like Superman had saved Lois, and then… but he wasn’t going to think about that. He hadn’t ever had it, so he hadn’t lost it, not really. Perhaps it wasn’t true that there was no fate, no fate but what we make.

            But that couldn’t be right either, or his future self wouldn’t have traveled back in time to give Peter the message. And he wouldn’t have gone six weeks into the future when he teleported to New York and witnessed the explosion he now had to prevent. So it must be possible, he had simply failed.

            He had thought he could go back just one day, and warn Charlie, and everything would be fine. Instead he had gone back six whole months, and spent weeks trying to convince her, and still she had died.

            He had even folded a thousand paper cranes, but his wish hadn’t come true.

            He pushed the sadness out of his mind as best he could. He couldn’t rescue those who had already died, so he would make sure they hadn’t died in vain. Since he couldn’t just make a do-over, he would have to learn how to do things right the first time. He would continue on his mission, and be the hero destiny had called on him to be.

            The proprietor was a middle-aged man, balding, looking tired as most New Yorkers did. “May I help you?” he asked, sounding as if forming the words was just too much effort.

            Ando started to reply, used to being better with English - that had been part of Hiro’s excuse for dragging his best friend to the other side of the world with him - but one good thing about having gone too far back in time was that he had had time to practice his English. “I need a sword,” Hiro spoke up.

            “We got swords. What kind of sword?”

            “A Japanese sword.”

            “A katana?”

            Hiro hadn’t expected a gaijin to know the word. He nodded eagerly. “Yes! And - not just for a wall decoration. One that could be used.”

            “You studying kendo?” the man drawled, taking some katana off the wall and laying them on the counter.

            “Eh, I am going to,” Hiro said absently, looking at the swords. He didn’t know anything about swords. He didn’t know how to choose. He wished he could have brought Peter with him to see if he could recognize the right one. All he could do was gaze at these and hope he felt something, an omen.

            Nothing happened. He turned to Ando and started to speak in Japanese, but stopped himself and switched to English. If his allies in saving the world were to be Americans, he needed to speak English well. What if he had to call to one of them in the heat of battle and couldn’t recall the English words quickly enough? He couldn’t expect them to all learn the Japanese for “Look out!” and “Behind you!” and “Cover me!”

            “What do you think of these, Ando?” he asked.

            Ando looked at them blankly. “They all look the same to me.” He turned over the price tag tied around the hilt and switched to Japanese. “I think you should buy the cheapest one.”

            Hiro looked and saw Ando’s point, but considering that they were saving the world, there was no point in balking at expense.

            The storekeeper spoke up, sounding as if he were repeating things he had said far too many times. “This one is a 1050 high carbon steel blade.” Hiro had no idea what that meant, but from the way the man said it, it must be a good thing. “It’s hand forged and the design is modeled after a Japanese swordsmith named, uh,” he thought, “Nagasone Kotetsu.” Hiro suppressed the urge to correct the man’s pronunciation. “He was one of the most famous katana makers in Japanese history. He lived in the seventeenth century.”

            Hiro did mental arithmetic. “The Edo period,” he murmured aloud.

            The gaijin shrugged. “All I know about Japanese history is when they made what kind of sword.” He partly unsheathed the next one and said, “This one is folded steel, the blade is twenty-nine inches long, and….”

            It wasn’t long before Hiro stopped really listening. Nothing the man was telling them really meant anything to him, though the man assured him they were all good swords. He ended by choosing based on the horimono, the designs finely etched on the blades. That first one had a horimono that meant it had been made during the Edo period, even though it was clearly very new. A gaijin would just see it as an exotic foreign design, but to him, it was absurdly out of place. There were others that had gods on them, but Hiro decided that for a hero, a dragon was the proper emblem. He looked at the ones with dragon designs and chose one, with a fearsome-looking three-foot blade, because its dragon looked the most noble.

            Ando winced when he saw the price, but Hiro didn’t care. A hero never worried about things like money when he had a job to do.

***

            He thought about naming the sword Excalibur, but that didn’t seem quite right. King Arthur hadn’t known that he had a special destiny until after he had pulled Excalibur out of the stone, but Hiro had gone looking for a sword because he knew he needed it for his destiny. Then he thought of Stormbringer, but that might have been bad luck; Stormbringer’s lust for souls had driven Elric to kill his own friends and the women he loved. Hiro didn’t want a sword that led him to the Dark Side.

            “’Green Destiny’,” he suggested at length, looking at the katana lying on the table.

            “But it isn’t green,” Ando protested, looking at the sword warily. He hadn’t even tried to hide his skepticism about the entire venture, even though he had heard Peter say that future-Hiro had a sword.

            “The Green Destiny wasn’t green either,” Hiro explained patiently. “It had that name because it had dragons engraved on its blade. And this sword has dragons on it too! See?” He pointed to the beautiful, intricate lines of the creature.

            “What comic book is it from?” Ando asked with exasperating patience.

            “Not a comic book!” Hiro enthused, undaunted. Ando had never been able to put a damper on him before, and that hadn’t changed. “The movie ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’!”

            “A Chinese movie?”

            “Why not? It is a good name. It will make me remember that I have a destiny.”

            “Americans can’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese anyway,” Ando conceded witheringly. Hiro didn’t think that was true, not really, but he didn’t bother to argue. “Why do you have to name it at all? It’s an inanimate object.”

            “Heroes name their swords. A sword is like a comrade. You trust it with your life,” Hiro explained.

            “So how do heroes come up with their swords’ names?”

            Hiro didn‘t bother to take offense at his friend‘s patronizing tone. Instead he thought it over seriously. “Usually their swords already have names when they get them.”

            “Ask for your money back because it didn’t come with a name,” Ando said wryly.

            “I must give it a name that reminds me of my destiny,” Hiro murmured, gazing at it, and then he knew what the name had to be. “Charlie!”

            “What?”

            “The sword’s name. Charlie. So that I will never forget her.” He gently gripped the hilt and hefted it. “Charlie,” he pronounced.

            Sympathetic, Ando watched sadly until Hiro tried a few moves with his newly christened katana. As the blade hissed in the air, Ando exclaimed one of the new English words he had picked up since coming to America, one they hadn’t learned in school, and quickly backed toward the door. “Put that thing down before you hurt someone!”

            “I have to practice!”

            “Hiro, you don’t know how to use that thing. Put it away.”

            Hiro looked at himself in the mirror, holding Charlie aloft. The katana was beautiful, but Ando was right. He didn’t even look right, holding it. Anyone could have told he didn’t know how to use it; it didn’t belong in his hands. But Peter had said that when he visited from the future, he had a sword, so clearly he was going to learn. In fact, if he didn’t, it might compromise the fabric of the space-time continuum. That wasn’t the sort of thing a hero did lightly.

            Besides, he was going to need it when he met that dinosaur.

***

            A hero’s destiny was a strange thing. Hiro had left Japan and come all the way around the world, and now in New York, a blue-eyed gaijin was going to teach him to use a katana.

            The sensei was going into the little office by the door of the dojo when Hiro entered, but Hiro recognized him from the advertisement. The man looked to be in his forties, very tall but with stooping shoulders. His light brown hair needed a trim, his nose was a little too pointed, and there were slight bags under his eyes. So far as his body could be seen through the black gi, he seemed physically fit, with just a bit of a paunch; at his age, that was usually a losing battle. Hiro started to greet him, but the phone in the office rang and the sensei hurried to answer it.

            Hiro followed the other beginners into the dressing room and put on the gi they had all been told to wear. Black jacket, black pants with wide swishing legs, belt. Well, he had wanted a costume. He tied the white belt around his waist and studied himself in the narrow mirror, feeling very solemn. His destiny was beginning. He had dared to try to bend space and time, he had followed the omens in the comic book from the future, and now here he was, ready to learn to use a sword. It was lucky he had studied so much about how to be a hero. It gave him an advantage. He already knew the riddle of steel.

            He hoped he could be humble and patient enough to listen to what his sensei wanted to teach him. Not that he didn’t remember that Obi-Wan had understood Luke’s impatience and reined it in for him, but he was nonetheless resolved to trust his sensei’s purpose.

            With this silent vow, he emerged from the dressing room and did some stretching exercises while he waited for the sensei to come out and begin the class.

            The sensei‘s voice emerged from the office abruptly, loud. “Why do you have to do this crap now?”

            Everyone turned to look at the office, startled. The door was half ajar, so the instructor could be seen as he paced back and forth, the phone to his ear, his head bent.

            “You know I have a class starting in two minutes, and you still call me up and start-” The sensei slammed the door, so the rest of his sentence was indistinguishable, though his voice could still be heard.

            Hiro stared at the door, which had a poster of a kendo tournament on it.

            The phone conversation continued, sometimes loudly enough that a few words could be made out. “You always do this… never consider me… why do you have to do this now?… class starts in one minute… I told you… class is about to start….”

            Hiro wondered why the man kept repeating the same remarks. Surely if they were going to do any good, they would have worked the first time.

            He had always heard that Americans weren’t very private people, at least not compared to the Japanese, but the American students looked just as embarrassed to be overhearing this as he was, so that couldn’t be true.

            The sensei shouted a word Hiro hadn’t heard before but whose general meaning seemed fairly clear from the context, and then snapped, “No, I’m not gonna talk about this later. I’m not going to discuss this garbage with you one more effing time.” The sound of the phone crashing into its cradle was loud enough to make a couple of the students jump.

            The sensei stalked out to stand in front of them and no one knew where to look. On the one hand, they all wanted to look elsewhere and pretend they hadn’t overheard the conversation, but on the other, at a class of course one looked at one’s teacher. Mercifully, he started to speak, instructing them all in how to kneel and bow for the beginning of class in a bored tone, acting as if nothing unseemly had occurred at all.

            “We’ll begin with the proper kendo stance,” he said, and Hiro could hear in his tone the hundreds of students who had listened to this explanation over the years. It was faintly discouraging. “Stand with your heels barely touching. Hold your chest high, as if there were a string in the middle of your breastbone pulling it toward the ceiling. Tuck in your stomachs and your butts. The rest of your muscles should be relaxed.”

            It was very difficult to relax in such an unnatural position, but the sensei was doing it, demonstrating for them all. Hiro consciously released the muscles of his shoulders and neck, his arms at his sides. The sensei broke the pose and walked up and down the line, wearily correcting them, staying with each student until they had it right. “Relax your neck,” he instructed Hiro. Hiro obeyed. “Good. Now everyone, take your katana in your right hand.” It wasn’t really a katana, of course, but a bokken, a wooden practice sword. The sensei recited an explanation of how to hold it properly, and Hiro listened intently and followed his instructions to the letter. By the time they were practicing the first simple move, he had forgotten all about the telephone conversation. He didn’t remember it until the class was over and he was in the dressing room changing back into his street clothes.

            He thought about it for the whole way home on the subway, troubled. He wondered if he was supposed to find a more suitable sensei. Maybe this was yet another test, to see if he would know to walk away.

            But as soon as he got home, he couldn’t resist unsheathing Charlie (making sure Ando wasn’t in the room first) and testing what he had learned on her. And even though he had only had one lesson, he could tell from the way the move flowed that he was doing it right. Charlie gleamed in his hand and moved exactly where he wanted her to go, just as the bokken  had, and he could sense the beginning of how the blade would become a part of him, an extension of him rather than a tool. The sensei had done this for him already.

            Hiro struck the pose the sensei had taught him and looked in the mirror, pretending not to know how Ando would make fun of the pose if he saw him. Already his hold on Charlie looked more right. He had a beginning.

            He smiled at his own reflection. Now he understood what the test was.

            Ando appeared in the doorway. “Say cheese.”

            Hiro turned, lowering Charlie. “What?”

            “It’s what Americans say when they take your picture. Isaac told me. Saying the word ‘cheese’ makes you smile wider.”

            “Cheese,” Hiro said experimentally, observing how his lips moved with the word.

            “Was the class good?”

            Hiro carefully slid Charlie back into her sheath. “Very good. The sensei is a good teacher.” He smiled at Ando. “And it was a hard workout. I need some waffles.”

            “You’ll give that dinosaur a good meal,” Ando remarked, but joined him for waffles anyway.

 

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