Koumyou leaned back against the tree, enjoying the sunshine through the burned leaves. This summer had been exceptionally hot and humid. Fires had broken out all over the forests, casting a grizzly haze in the air that did nothing to help anyone breathe easier. Many homes had been lost, and many lives, too. The village below the temple had been hit quite hard by the sudden blazes. Not a day went by when the wails of widows rose up and he was called down to give them a final blessing.
And still, despite all this destruction and the oppressive heat that kept most everyone inside in the shade, he couldn't help smiling as the younger boys of the temple went running from the walls, stripping down to their underwear to go diving into the cool river. He remembered once upon a time doing that same activity during the summer months. Pirate King had been his favorite game, even if he wasn't very good at it. Such masochistic tendencies when he was a kid, he thought, smiling at his own joke. The laughter and shrieks as people were splashed were a welcomed respite from the miserable cries he'd almost gotten use to hearing. So nice to know that even in the darkness people were capable of finding the light.
His smile faded and he uncrossed his arms from his chest when the shouts and happy laughs became mocking. A few were chanting something, the words unclear from this distance, but he didn't need to hear them to know they were picking on someone. His quick gaze slid over to the juveniles who had followed the youngsters out as chaperones. Both of them were grinning and pointing at whatever was amusing them. Chaperones, eh? Perhaps a few extra hours of meditation and cleaning this week would teach them the true definition of the word.
Disappointed his good mood had been squashed so quickly, Koumyou stepped out from the pleasant shade of the tree, instantly sweating as the sun landed fully on him. He began walking toward the river's edge, smiling when the novices spotted him and back away fearfully, sweat dripping from their bald heads. As he got closer, the chanted taunt became more clear.
"Kouryuu the river rat! Kouryuu the river rat!"
Ah... THAT again! He should have guessed Kouryuu would be the cause. He could never understand why the other children didn't like his apprentice. Kouryuu was quiet, well behaved, and very caring when treated respectfully by others. How could anyone have a problem with that? And it wasn't just the children either. Some of the older monks did as well. That he chalked up to them being jealous. It was hardly Kouryuu's fault for being so clever and hard working at his studies. He was only six, but he was just as capable as a boy twice his age.
Some of the boys in the river spotted him standing on the ledge, just above where the reeds grew thick the closer they got to the water, and backed away fearfully. They knew full well he didn't take kindly to ANY sort of teasing or belittling of others. The ones that didn't notice continued on, shoveling water at a spot further down from where he stood.
"HAHA! C'mon, maybe we can drown the rat," one of the bigger ones suggested as he renewed his efforts to splash the 'rat' in question.
The other three with him laughed as well and began sending the water in great waves. Koumyou sat on the grass and waited. He was curious how long Kouryuu would let this continue without saying or doing something. He was a little disappointed when his young student finally climbed up the bank, head bowed and looking dejected. The boy began the long walk back to the temple to the sound of laughter and more jeers. Oh, well...
Koumyou stood up, smiling as the rest of the boys suddenly noticed him. "You seem to enjoy water a lot, Chyou, Lian and Yasuo. It's only fitting then that you three be in charge of cleaning up in the kitchens for the next two weeks. You can start tonight, in fact." His smile widened at their dismay. No matter how many times he said to respect their peers, they never listened. Well, maybe dish duty would help impress the point.
"Yes, master," they all three glumly replied.
"And you two! Don't you think a closer eye should be kept on ALL these boys?"
The two novices straightened their shoulders and rushed down to the little embankment. Koumyou listened in amusement as they began berating the boys loudly, turning around to walk back to the temple. He had an idea where Kouryuu would be hiding and wasn't surprised at all when he peeked around the cherry tree growing under his office window to see the small boy sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest, violet eyes glaring at the dying potted fern by the temple door.
"So... why did you leave, Kouryuu?" he asked, crossing his arms over his chest. He smiled down as the boy looked up at him, the anger fading away and being replaced with an adoration bordering on love for the older man. Koumyou's smile widened a little at that look and he waited patiently for the six-year-old's response.
"Because they were mean, master," he finally answered.
"And they called me names."
"And they hate me."
Sighing, he pushed a piece of hair out if his face before saying softly, "Do you want to hear something funny, Kouryuu?"
Kouryuu nodded, arms slowly relaxing from around his knees.
"I get made fun of all the time."
Koumyou laughed quietly at the confusion in those purple eyes. "It's true! Just the other day I had a little old lady tell me I looked like a horse's butt with my hair this long."
There was a quick smile that was just as quickly bitten back. But there was no mistaking the amused twinkle in his eyes. "You're lying!"
"I am not! She took one look at me and said, 'Sonny, I've seen horse asses with less hair than you!'" He did a quick mimicry of how the old lady spoke.
Kouryuu smiled then, covering his mouth to keep his laughter back. "You don't look anything like a horse!"
"Oh, and let's not forget the time High Priest Ryuu called me an old fart!"
The boy shook his head, shocked at the idea of anyone calling his master names.
Koumyou crouched down, back to the tree. They were almost eye to eye now. "Can I tell you something else, Kouryuu? People are always going to be mean. Unfortunately, they're all over the place. No matter where you go, there's going to be someone who says you're short or ugly... or a river rat. That's just the way things are."
Kouryuu stared at his hands resting on his knees, his bare toes curling into the dirt ground a little. "Why, master? What's the point of being mean?"
"The point? What's the point of eating vanilla ice cream or flying a kite? What's the point of smiling and joking around?"
He thougt about it for a little bit, eyebrows coming together over his eyes. "Well... I guess... because they make you feel good?"
Nodding, the older man's smile widened. "Exactly! People are mean because it makes them feel better. And by letting it bother you, you play right into their hands. People are always going to say things, good and bad. What really matters is if you let effect you. Do you understand what I'm trying to say, Kouryuu?"
"I think so, master," he answered slowly. "They only want to feel good about themselves, so they're mean to me because I let them." He turned questioning eyes to him. "Is that right?"
"Yes, that's precisely right. So... the next time Chyou starts calling you Kouryuu the river rat, what are you going to do?"
Kouryuu was silent again as he thought it over. "Ignore him because I shouldn't let him make me feel bad just so he feels better?"
"That is exactly what you should do. And eventually, Kouryuu, Chyou and his friends will get bored teasing you and find someone else. But that'll only happen if you stand your ground and ignore him. You'll learn soon enough one stupid person being mean is worth less time than it takes you to turn your back on them and walk away." He stood up, stretching his back out. The faint scent of vegetables being cooked over an open flame came to his nose. "That smells delicious, doesn't it?"
"Yes, it does," Kouryuu replied, smiling.
Putting a hand on his student's shoulder, Koumyou smiled and motioned inside the temple with his head. "What do you say we ruin our appetites with some vanilla ice cream?"
"But the cook'll be angry..."
"Well, you do what you want but I'm getting a big bowl of ice cream and eating it until I get a headache!" He began to go inside, waiting expectantly.
Foot steps came running up behind him, slowing down only after they were walking side by side. Koumyou let out a quiet sigh, relieved to finally be out of that merciless sun!