A Rurouni Kenshin fanfiction by Heather Logan
(Disclaimer: This was written for fun, not profit. The characters belong to Nobuhiro Watsuki.)
I am Hiko Seijuurou, the thirteenth of that name and master of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryuu. I am not known for being easily perturbed. But a fortnight ago, something happened that made me lose my cool. It involved my idiot apprentice. But you probably already guessed that.
The day started innocently enough. It was a lovely autumn morning, crisp and cool, and the maples all up and down the mountainside blazed with color under a pale blue sky. An excellent day for training. But first, I had an errand for my apprentice to run.
"Hey, Kenshin," I called. The kid hurried over.
The kiln had cooled overnight. I opened it up and lifted out a work of art. It was a small cylindrical cup of thin ceramic, patterned with indentations all around and glazed an exquisite pale green. I had spent the past couple of weeks making it, on and off.
I handed it to Kenshin. He took it reverently in both hands, his eyes wide.
"Take this up to the shrine at the top of the mountain," I told him. "Then run through your kata and do three hundred sword swings. Be back in time for lunch."
"Hai!" He slung the training sword across his back -- even at ten years old, he's still too little to carry it at his waist -- and set off at a run, slipping the cup into his shirt as he went. He'd better not break it, was all I thought as he disappeared up the forest path.
He wasn't back in time for lunch. I waited for him for half an hour or so, then went ahead and broiled the fish. Fine, I thought, if he doesn't want lunch, he doesn't want lunch.
He wasn't back in time for afternoon training. I was starting to get annoyed; I'd wanted to start him on a new kata today. I figured he'd gotten distracted. He has a tendency to space out at times, and the view from the top of the mountain is extraordinarily beautiful, especially at this time of year. I drank a little sake, and repainted the eaves of the cottage.
When Kenshin still wasn't back by late afternoon, I was seriously annoyed. What could he be doing? Did he intend to leave the morning's laundry out past sunset? That's it, I decided. I slung my cape over my shoulders and set off after him.
I was, perhaps, just a little worried.
As soon as I saw the bridge, I knew something was wrong.
It was an old bridge, had been old even when I was a student, and there was nothing extraordinary about it. It was just a typical flat wooden bridge with a low railing on one side, spanning the gorge of the river that ran fast down the mountainside and away to my right. It was made of pine or cedar or something like that, the wood long since gone a smooth papery gray. The construction was typical -- two long beams to span the gorge, crossed by planks separated by two-inch gaps to save on materials. Nothing with wheels would make it this far up the forest path; smoothness was not a requirement.
Near the middle of the bridge, the gap was at least a foot wide. One of the planks had broken; half of it was still hanging from bent nails off the long beam on the left.
I stepped onto the bridge -- carefully, though the rest of it appeared to be sound -- and crouched down to examine the damage. There was nothing much to see. The plank had simply succumbed to old age, splitting along a diagonal.
A small dark mark on the edge of the next plank caught my eye, and I reached across the gap to scrape at it with a fingernail. Blood. Dried, but not old. I narrowed my eyes. Stuck in it were two strands of red hair.
The cold wind sighed through the trees, sending flurries of red and yellow leaves drifting through the open air on either side of me. The water rushed on fifteen feet below, deep and smooth and dark, hurrying in its journey from the mountaintop to the distant sea.
I worked my way down the steep hillside, the rushing water on my right, scanning every yard of the river for signs of my apprentice. The training sword was heavy; most likely it would have sunk, I thought, but it could have wound up in one of the tangles of branches caught at intervals by the protruding rocks. My best bet would have been the bright flash of a bit of clothing against the darker wood. Or of Kenshin's bright red hair....
But I found nothing, except for a piece of wood bobbing among yellow leaves in an eddy in a curve of the near bank, too square and regular to have been natural. I fished it out. It was a piece of plank, about eight inches wide and a foot and a half long, a pair of nails still stuck in the square-cut end. The other end was split at an angle where the grain curved sideways around a knothole.
With a sudden battle yell I hurled the plank into the air and whipped out my sword. I'd turned my back to the river before the splinters hit the water.
I glared at the trees for a few seconds, my teeth clenched. Then I took a deep breath, resheathed my sword, and turned back to the water. There was nothing else to do. I continued working my way downstream, scouring the river with my eyes.
Fifty yards on, I saw something. The river curved away from me at that point, leaving a muddy overhang on the near bank and a broad sandbar on the other. The smooth curve of the sand was scuffed and disturbed.
I crossed the river in three jumps, using the protruding spray-slicked rocks as stepping-stones, and quickly surveyed the shore. The sandy soil held tracks well. There was a large impression here, scuffed like it had been crawled upon, and a little further on, a sandal-print. Kenshin's.
I closed my eyes and sent a silent prayer of thanks to the god of the river. Kenshin may be an idiot, but he's the only apprentice I've got. He'd been here. He hadn't drowned.
But of course. It was I who had taught him how to swim.
It had been a nice hot day early in the summer of last year. I'd had Kenshin practising sword swings for most of the morning, working on his footwork on the marshy ground next to the pond. Not the small pond below the waterfall at my main training ground -- it would be crazy to try to teach a kid to swim in that, the undertow's too strong. It was the larger pond, a little further downstream.
We'd stopped to take a breather.
"Kenshin," I'd asked him, "do you know how to swim?"
He didn't. No surprise there.
"Well," I said, "think about how you would do it." This is an excellent teaching technique. I developed it myself. I use it constantly when teaching sword techniques. When you're a stupid student, it's important to think before you act.
Kenshin looked out at the pond, his expression abstracted. I gave him a couple of seconds to think about it. Then I picked him up and threw him into the water.
He promptly sank, flailing around uselessly below the surface. After a minute or so I started to think I'd have to wade in there and drag him out, to keep him from drowning. Pathetic, but I didn't want to lose my apprentice over something so trivial. Fortunately, at that point he started to get it together -- he got his head above water long enough to get some air -- so I didn't have to get my clothes wet.
It took an excruciatingly long time, but eventually Kenshin made it to the edge of the pond. He dragged himself out onto the grass and lay there, coughing the water out of his lungs.
I waited. Education can't be rushed. I let him get his breath back, let him climb shakily to his feet.
Then I picked him up again and threw him back into the middle of the pond. The look of incredulity on his face as he hit the water was one of the funniest things I've ever seen.
By the time I'd stopped laughing, he'd managed to thrash his way over to shallow water. He tried to wade out, fell to his knees when the water was no longer deep enough to hold him, and crawled the last few yards. His arms were shaking. As soon as he was clear of the pond he flopped down on his stomach and lay still, eyes closed, breathing like it was all he ever wanted to do.
I nudged him with my foot. "You didn't try to breathe the water this time," I observed. "That's an improvement."
We went back to sword drills after that. Kenshin kept quiet, obviously annoyed, refusing to meet my eyes. Silly. I knew he'd be grateful later.
The next few days passed as usual, but with one small difference. Kenshin started getting up a half-hour earlier than usual and disappearing before his morning chores. He made no comment on it, and neither did I. But I was curious, so I went out for a stroll to see what he was up to. What I found surprised me.
Kenshin had left his clothes folded near the edge of the pond. He was just reaching the far side when I spotted him.
He was practising. I was impressed. After his reaction to his first swimming lesson I'd figured I'd have to force him back into the water. But no. This was good.
I oughtn't have been surprised. After all, I'd chosen him as my apprentice. And I am an excellent judge of character.
Kenshin touched the far bank, turned, and saw me. I nodded toward him.
"Show me," I said.
With a look of concentration, he started back across the pond. Along its longer diameter, I observed. He thrashed inefficiently through the water, much more slowly than he ought to be able to, wasting a lot of effort trying to keep his face above the surface. A couple of yards from the near side, his feet found the bottom and he stopped to look up at me, sloshing his arms back and forth under the surface to keep upright.
"Keep your legs straight when you kick," I told him. "And move your arms like this." I demonstrated the crawl. "Breathe to one side." I nodded toward him again. "Try it."
He did, working his way across the pond and back again.
"Your form's awful," I told him when he'd returned. "Keep practising. Be back for breakfast in twenty minutes."
He looked surprised for a moment, then nodded back at me. There was determination in his eyes. And he was smiling.