WOOSH! WOOSH! WOOSH!
A silver blade glinted in the sunlight, flashing downward with a velocity more wicked than was the custom with it. Eyes glaring with banked annoyance and normally sweet featured face set in a stony scowl, 12-year-old Kenshin was a decidedly unhappy young man this morning.
His eyes kept looking away from the sword he held before him and up at the high precipice from which the waterfall near Hiko's and his hut fell. Kenshin had always found the waterfall beautiful and practically since he had come to live here, had wanted to climb the mountain and see the top of it.
So naturally, the Master had expressly forbidden him to do so the first time he had seen the boy's eyes intently staring up that tall cliff. Hiko had said that when he thought his little idiot could be trusted not to tumble over the edge, he would take Kenshin up there himself one day. Well, that had been almost two years ago! Kenshin was certain that at age 12, he was mature enough to handle being at the top of that cliff without risk. When he had voiced his thoughts this morning, Hiko had thought otherwise and let his idiot apprentice know this in no uncertain terms.
Kenshin had made the mistake of arguing that if he was old enough to wield a deadly blade, he was old enough to go to the top of the cliff. This had earned him extra kata to work off for his insolence.
Kenshin perceived Hiko's prohibition as a huge injustice. He would be 13 on the next new year after all, two years from his coming of age! Would the Master make him wait until then to be able to climb the mountain?
Kenshin had been so caught up in resenting his Master's prohibition that he hadn't noticed the large man approaching.
"Keh! You were daydreaming! If I had been an enemy, you would be dead. You want to know why I don't let you go up that mountain? It's shit like this that makes me doubt you," chided Hiko.
Kenshin glared, the scowl on his face deepening.
"Your face will freeze if you keep it that way too long," teased Hiko, causing the boy to face fault. "Anyway, I'm heading into the village for a few hours. You stay here and work on your kata."
"Yes, Master," said Kenshin, now sulking at his glare not being taken seriously.
"And don't even think of climbing that mountain while I'm gone," commanded Hiko, jabbing his finger at Kenshin and leveling such a glare at the boy that Kenshin winced.
Kenshin now wanted to argue that if he was old enough to be left at home alone for the majority of the day, he was definitely old enough to climb the mountain, but didn't dare after that intimidating glare.
"Alright, Master. Have a good time," he said quietly, averting his gaze.
"Uh-huh. Just remember what I said," said Hiko.
"Yes, Master," Kenshin said softly, bowing to show his submission.
Hiko snorted, then whirled around and stalked off, white cape with red trim billowing out magnificently behind him.
Kenshin continued to work his Mitsurugi kata for a good quarter of an hour after Hiko left. He performed all the attacks he had learned, dancing his deadly, graceful ballet in the air. He knew by instinct and feel that all his movements had been perfectly executed. Despite the Master's misgivings, he was competent and mature.
When his kata ended, Kenshin sheathed his wakizashi in his belt. He was about to go inside when an idea seized him. Stopping in his tracks, he turned around and looked up at that forbidden precipice. Again, the thought occurred to him; if he could be trusted to wield a sharp sword and stay home by himself, surely he could be trusted to go where he pleased without silly restrictions.
'That old hypocrite treats me like an adult when it's convenient for him and like a child when it's not,' Kenshin thought petulantly, eyes flashing with annoyance.
With a firm nod, Kenshin headed toward the path that led up the precipice. For the first time since becoming Hiko's apprentice, Kenshin would deliberately disobey a rule set down by the Master.
Kenshin carefully picked his way up the escarpment. Only a quarter of the way up, he began to realize what a long, steep path it was. Still, he pressed on. If he could survive 12 hours a day training with Hiko, he could surely make it to the top of the cliff without stopping to rest. Higher and higher he went, grasping branches and rocks and leaning forward to keep his balance.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Kenshin looked and saw that to his delight, he had scaled the mountain and made it to the top of the cliff. Looking to the right, he saw the river running in a white water cascade toward the precipice, where it fell with a deafening roar.
Turning around, Kenshin gazed in amazement. It was even more beautiful than he could have imagined! He could see everything from up here! He could see where the vault of blue sky met with the tree line. Surely, he was up in the domain of the birds and the angels. In the distance, he could just make out their hut, looking like a tiny toy house. In the bright sunlight, the thin brown line of the trail that the old hypocrite had taken to the village contrasted with the dark green of the mountain forest. And in the valley below, he could make out the roofs of the village houses, a few with smoke ascending from them as the midday meal was being prepared.
At that thought, Kenshin's stomach growled. With a sigh, he chided himself for not having thought to pack a bento to bring up. He had hoped to spend a few hours up here just taking in the sights, but if he wanted to do that, he would need food. There was no getting around it, he would just have to go back down, make a lunch and then hope he could get back up before the Master returned.
Just as he was about to turn around and head back down, a silver shimmer caught his eye from the shallow part of the river. Kenshin looked closer and saw a fish swimming in the clear water. What luck! Kenshin remembered being amazed when he had seen the Master effortlessly pluck a writhing fish out of the lake by their hut with his bare hands two years ago. He wondered if he could do that too. Well, there was one way to find out. If he could catch the fish, he could gather some wood from the trees and bushes lining the river, start a fire with the quartz stones he always carried and eat the fish up here!
Pulling his sheathed wakizashi from his belt, Kenshin sat down on a large rock and pulled off his zori and tabi. He then stood and moved carefully out into the water. There was the fish, nosing along the bottom of the river bed. Kenshin moved slowly and carefully to keep from frightening it. When he was within range, he thrust his hands into the water in an effort to snatch the fish.
Kenshin pulled his empty hands out of the water. He had missed the fish by a mile and it was now swimming up the river.
'Well, so much for that idea,' he thought dejectedly.
Suddenly, a flash of white in the distance against the brown of the trail leading away from the hut caught Kenshin's gaze and made him look right. There was Hiko, coming up the trail!
'Oh, no! Why is the Master back so early?!' Kenshin thought in alarm.
So distracted was he by Hiko that Kenshin didn't see a particularly sharp stone just an inch away from his bare foot. Taking a step forward, he stepped hard on the sharp stone. Pain shot through his whole being. The next thing Kenshin knew, he had pitched forward into the deeper part of the river and was being carried toward the precipice by the raging rapids.
"MAAAAAASTEEEEERRRRRR!!!!" he cried at the top of his lungs before he was pulled under and tossed head over heels by the rapids.
At the distant, but very unmistakable sound of his pupil's call, Hiko Seijuro XIII froze. He quickly assessed distance and direction, steely eyes fixed on the waterfall. It didn't take a genius to figure things out.
'That little idiot!' he thought.
Dropping his purchases, Hiko summoned all of his godspeed and ran full force toward the base of the waterfall.
Kenshin was able to break the surface of the water just long enough to see the edge of the waterfall coming at him and simultaneously, the form of his Master running straight to the base. Before he could cry out, he was again flipped upside-down and hurled over the edge.
It was just for a second, but that was long enough. Hiko spotted the unmistakable scarlet of his student's hair as the boy was thrust over the side of the cliff. Summoning all his strength and drawing his sword, Hiko leapt upward, cutting a straight path up the middle of the waterfall with his sword's blade.
As he moved, his left hand left the hilt and his arm stretched out. Not a second later, he felt the slight form of his idiot apprentice hit his arm as the boy descended and he ascended. Hiko wrapped his arm around his pupil's limp body and continued his journey up the waterfall.
Kenshin was dimly aware of falling, banging against the side of the cliff several times, then suddenly being caught in a strong grip and shooting back up the side.
Gasping for breath, Hiko hauled himself and Kenshin onto the shore and collapsed in a heap. That had been a close one. If not for Hiko's lightning fast reflexes, Kenshin would have been a goner. There was no time to rest, however. Grabbing Kenshin and slinging the boy's prone form over his left arm, Hiko whacked Kenshin roughly between the shoulder blades several times until the redhead's form began to jerk as he spasmodically coughed up all the river water he had inhaled during his little swim.
When no more water came, Hiko set the boy on his side and appraised him. He was breathing and aside from some bumps and scrapes, seemed to be OK. With an irritated huff, Hiko sat down on the large rock and glared at the boy.
For the next few minutes, Master and pupil stayed as they were, Kenshin lying on his side, slowly regaining his senses and trying to catch his breath, and Hiko glaring at the disobedient boy, growing angrier by the moment. Finally, Kenshin rolled over and sat slowly up.
"You idiot!" growled Hiko, rage, not just annoyance, evident in his voice.
Kenshin struggled to meet his Master's angry gaze.
"Shut up!" Hiko barked angrily.
Kenshin flinched at the barely restrained rage in the Master's voice. Hiko had been annoyed and mad at him plenty of times before, but this was very different.
"You deliberately disobeyed my order! Do you realize what would've happened had I not been there to save your worthless hide?!" Hiko continued his angry reprimand.
Kenshin took a breath to try to answer, only to be cut off again.
"No excuses! I don't want to hear your voice for the rest of the day!" barked the Master, angrily turning his back on his student.
Keeping his eyes averted, Kenshin slowly struggled to pull his tabi onto his still wet legs. Shaking, he pulled himself to his feet, leaning his weight on his sheathed wakizashi. Pausing only to step into his zori, he followed dispiritedly after his angry Master down the trail back to their hut. When they reached the hut, Master and pupil retreated to their respective rooms and changed into dry clothes. As punishment for his disobedience, Kenshin was made to take their wet clothes outside, wash them in the river, then hang them to dry, even though his body ached everywhere from exhaustion. Kenshin would have argued about the chores, but the Master's ki was still dangerously agitated, so the boy wisely remained silent.
Only after the clothes were spotless and hanging from tree branches to drip dry did Kenshin dare set foot inside the hut. He immediately smelled rice and fish, which made his stomach cramp with hunger. Gaze averted, he began to make his way to his room, not daring to ask for any food. The Master's voice surprised him.
"Sit down and eat, stupid," he said, in a softer voice than earlier.
Kenshin looked up at him, startled.
"Oh, don't worry. I'm still pissed and there will definitely be hell to pay tomorrow, but when have I ever starved you as punishment for a misdeed?" Hiko asked.
"Never, Master," said Kenshin softly, gazing down at the floor.
"Exactly, so sit down, eat and then get your scrawny ass to bed. You have some demanding training coming up tomorrow," commanded Hiko.
Kenshin seated himself across from Hiko and took the rice and fish gratefully.
"Thanks for the food," he mumbled before sailing in.
The Master might be an old hypocrite, but besides being an amazing swordsman, he was also an awesome cook. Kenshin hoped he could be even one tenth the swordsman and cook his Master was when he was grown.
When Kenshin finished, he set his dish and chopsticks in the basin to wash tomorrow, bowed and mumbled "good night" to Hiko, then headed quickly to his room, where his warm futon was waiting.
Hiko watched as Kenshin retreated to his room for the night. As soon as the wooden door slid shut, he permitted himself to sigh and his shoulders to sag. Practically since he had taken Kenshin as his apprentice, he had been working to get the boy to have his own will and to assert it more. He had just never considered that Kenshin would pick such a reckless way to do so.
'That boy will be the death of me,' he thought before uncorking a jug of sake he had bought in the village that day.
POUND! POUND! POUND! POUND!
Kenshin's eyes snapped open.
Hiko's voice came from the other side of the wooden door, not muffled a bit by the inch of wood that separated them.
"Rise and shine, dummy! Your penitence for yesterday's little stunt begins now."
"Coming, Master," he called, hurriedly dressing and pulling his hair up.
After his usual morning chore of filling the buckets and making miso with rice for both of them, Kenshin found himself following his Master out back. He expected them to stop at the usual training spot, but Hiko continued on, toward the trail that led up the side of the mountain. Kenshin stopped in his tracks. What was the Master doing?
Hiko kept striding forward, not missing a beat, when he heard his student's footsteps cease.
"C'mon, stupid! You were eager enough to climb this mountain yesterday. Now you'll get another chance," the swordmaster called over his shoulder.
"Quit oroing and come on!" barked Hiko impatiently.
Kenshin gulped as he reluctantly fell in line behind his Master, wondering if the large swordsman didn't intend to throw him over the cliff as punishment for yesterday.
In silence, Master and apprentice made their way up, Hiko with great ease, Kenshin with great effort and trepidation. When they reached the top, Hiko unsheathed his nihontou and turned on his student, leveling him with a glare and fierce blast of ki, causing Kenshin to flinch.
"Draw your sword," Hiko growled.
Kenshin assumed battoujutsu stance and quickly unsheathed his wakizashi. It was a good thing he was quick because just as his blade appeared, he saw his Master charging at him full speed.
Hiko lashed out with his nihontou. Kenshin tried to block, but this was unlike anything Hiko had ever attacked him with! The sword seemed to be everywhere at once, striking him in several places simultaneously with its dull edge. Kenshin was bowled over, rolling a few feet backward almost to the cliff's edge, gasping and coughing. What WAS that move?!
"Did you make out the move before collapsing?" asked Hiko, shouldering his sword.
Kenshin nodded as he dragged himself to his feet. Upon seeing how close he was to the cliff, he quickly jumped forward before answering.
"Y-you attacked me in s-several areas all at once at top speed," he answered between heavy pants.
"Very good. This is the Ryu Sou Sen, a wild strike thrust that can quickly disable any opponent," said Hiko, assuming battle stance with his sword's hilt clutched in both hands. "Attack me!"
'Gladly!' thought Kenshin, eyes glinting.
"HYAAAAAAA!!!" he cried as he charged at Hiko, sword at the ready.
Hiko, of course easily blocked all of Kenshin's thrusts and sent the boy flying backwards. The problem was, he hadn't considered just how close to the cliff they were. Hiko was genuinely horrified to see Kenshin go tumbling over the edge for the second time in two days. Just as he was about to start for the edge, he heard a mighty cry.
The next thing Hiko saw was Kenshin flying straight upward. Into the sky the boy flew until he was silhouetted by the sun. Hands gripping the hilt of his wakizashi, Kenshin charged at his Master from the air, swinging the wakizashi down, aiming at Hiko's head.
'RYU TSUI SEN!'
Hiko raised his nihontou over his head at the last moment, pushed to the right and effortlessly sent Kenshin flying headfirst into the bushes. The Master snorted in amusement at the sight of Kenshin's sandaled feet sticking out of the bushes, straight into the air. Who could ask for a more amusing pupil?
He was, however, genuinely amazed that Kenshin had been able to save himself. Judging by the wear on the soles of his zori, Kenshin had scraped against the side of the cliff to halt his downward momentum, then coiled up his legs and shot upward. Not bad for a 12-year-old idiot apprentice!
"I'm glad you were considerate enough to save me the trouble of saving your scrawny hide two days in a row," remarked Hiko, as Kenshin slowly crawled out of the bushes and got to his feet.
Kenshin glared, eye blazing with anger. What he didn't see though, was that he had twigs and leaves sticking out all over among his crimson tresses. These negated any ferocity that Kenshin might have otherwise achieved in his countenance. At this sight, the Master burst out laughing.
"HA HA HA HA! You dummy, you can't even give me a proper glare with your head looking like something a bird might nest in!" Hiko roared with laughter.
"Oro!" Kenshin cried as he reached up and felt the foliage in his hair.
It took him about eight minutes to pick every last leaf, burr and twig out of his hair, Hiko sitting on the big rock, downing sake and grinning openly at his student's misfortune the entire time. When Kenshin was finally finished, he did his best to face his Master again.
"Alright, we're switching sides. You attack me from that side so you don't go over the edge again," announced Hiko, corking his sake jug and rising from his seat on the rock.
"Fine," pouted Kenshin as they switched so Kenshin was facing the cliff and Hiko stood with his back to it.
"Come," growled Hiko, all earlier amusement gone from his face. It was training time again.
Again, Kenshin charged at his Master with the Ryu Sou Sen and again he was easily rebuffed. This time though, Kenshin flipped in the air and landed on his feet after being knocked back. Immediately, the redhead raised his wakizashi and charged again, his battle cry on his lips.
'He's getting better,' thought Hiko to himself, though his face remained neutral.
Hiko and Kenshin spent the rest of the day working on the Ryu Sou Sen by the riverside, Kenshin being very careful to stay away from that cliff. Each time, Hiko would rebuff his attack. Even though Kenshin still couldn't land blows on his Master, by the end of the day, he was getting to the point where he could learn a new attack and still come out with a modicum of dignity intact.
By evening, Hiko could say that Kenshin had a passable grip on the Ryu Sou Sen. As with all the other moves, full mastery would come through repetition. Hiko also felt confident now that Kenshin could handle being up here as long as he didn't wander out into the rapids or let himself be distracted.
Hiko and Kenshin made their way down the trail. Hiko's breathing was even, not a hair out of place. Kenshin was disheveled, flushed and gasping for breath. Hiko had drilled him more harshly than he could ever remember. Glad to see the hut after today's arduous training, Kenshin started to trot past his Master toward it, only to be snatched up by the collar of his shitagi.
"Where does my little idiot think he's going? Did I say your punishment was over?" Hiko asked in that sarcastic tone Kenshin hated.
Kenshin's body drooped, and he sighed. It couldn't be that easy, could it?
"No, Master," he said softly, staring at the ground beneath his dangling feet.
"Thought not. Now, you get those clothes down from the branches, wash the dishes, and chop firewood since we're running low. I'll be inside by the fire," said Hiko with that smug smirk that Kenshin hoped to one day wipe off his face.
"Yes, Master," assented Kenshin, trying to keep the resentment from his voice and ki.
"Get done quickly, or you'll be working by moonlight," Hiko said before unceremoniously dropping Kenshin to the ground.
"Oooph!" went the boy as he landed on his hands and knees with a thud.
Kenshin sat on his heels watching his Master head for the entrance to their hut without so much as a backward glance. After he heard the wooden door slide shut, he dragged himself to his feet, stuck his tongue out in the direction his Master had gone, then went to do his assigned tasks. Never again (not for a really long time at least) would Kenshin deliberately disobey his Master's rules. It just wasn't worth it!