Think like a Rabbit
A Rurouni Kenshin fanfiction by Heather Logan
To Nekotsuki, for planting the seed
(Disclaimer: This was written for fun, not profit. Rurouni Kenshin belongs to Nobuhiro Watsuki.)
Think like a rabbit, Hiko had said.
Easy enough to say it. Not so easy to actually do it. Kenshin suppressed a shiver and took a long, slow breath, letting it out through his nose to avoid steaming the icy air.
He was lying curled up on knees and elbows, his chin close to the ground and his eyes held wide as if he could pull in more of the meager starlight from the forest floor. His sword lay sheathed parallel to his left forearm, the cord-wrapped hilt resting casually beneath his right palm. Just a stick, he thought to himself. An old branch lying on the forest floor, one that just happened to be resting under the paw of a rabbit.
He knew more or less what he was supposed to be doing, what it meant to 'think like a rabbit'. Hiko had taught him to sense ki more than a year ago -- well, not taught as such, more forced him to take notice of the information his senses had always been receiving -- and he'd been training since summer to control the way he projected his own.
It was like trying to grasp water. The harder you squeezed it, the faster it ran away between your fingers. You couldn't catch it; you had to just let yourself fall into it.
Kenshin blinked slowly, consciously releasing the tension from his folded joints, letting his body sink into the earth. He'd been training in this as well: the art of being still, more difficult in a way than even the fastest motion.
Four days before, they had left Hiko's cottage on the mountain to travel through the forest, training in winter tracking and cold-weather camping and the current progression of sword techniques. The forest in winter was another world, the four-inch crust of snow and the bare trees transforming the landscape so completely that the mountainside familiar from the other three seasons became almost unrecognizable. Kenshin loved it, just as much as he loved the autumn, and the summer and spring before it.
Still, nothing had gone as Kenshin had expected. Hiko had put him in the lead at the start, with instructions to find the campsite they'd visited the previous spring on another of these training trips. He'd wracked his memory all day as he labored across the icy patches of melted and refrozen snow under a too-heavy pack, cutting this way and that across the unexpectedly unfamiliar landscape. In the end he'd failed, and they'd set a cold camp by the fading twilight in a different clearing. Hiko had smirked at him smugly, sitting up late with a dish of sake after Kenshin had crawled mortified into his bedroll and fallen into an exhausted slumber.
The next morning he'd woken at sunrise to an empty campsite. Hiko had gone already, taking most of their equipment and leaving behind a half-frozen rice ball and a terse note, which had said only 'Today-- tracking'.
Kenshin had sighed and packed up his gear, gulping down the rice ball as he set out between the tree-trunks, following the rather obvious trail of footprints that Hiko had left in the crusty snow. He was lucky that Hiko was so big, he'd reflected as the sun reached its low zenith and started back down the pale blue sky; his footprints were deep and easy to follow. Kenshin's own didn't even break through the surface of the snow half of the time. It made the hiking much easier for him, but he would have been considerably more difficult to track. He'd found Hiko as the last of the gray-blue twilight was fading above the mountains to the west. As always, his shishou had timed it perfectly: just as Kenshin finally reached the tidy campsite, Hiko had smirked in that infuriating self-satisfied way of his and handed him a steaming bowl of fish soup.
The two days just past had been given over to endless kata among the trees. Hiko had drilled him on the complete set, leaning impassively against the thick gray trunk of a beech and following Kenshin's every motion with narrowed eyes. All through the first day and the morning of the second he'd stopped Kenshin at random moments, making subtle corrections to his stance or the position of his elbows or the exact placement of his fingers on the hilt of the katana. Finally, satisfied, he'd shown Kenshin a new kata. Once. And then he'd returned to his station beside the beech tree, and nodded at his student.
This was the way it always was. Hiko demonstrated once, and Kenshin watched with hungry eyes. And then he imitated, trying for it all, every detail, every refinement of his master's technique, striving to match the height of Hiko's jumps and the strength of his swings. He usually botched it badly. Hiko would laugh then, and Kenshin would shrink with a mixture of annoyance and intense embarrassment and try it all again. And again. This was the way it always was, and the day just past was no exception.
They'd headed back toward the camp at dusk again, Hiko suave and smooth as always, not a hair out of place, and Kenshin winded and sore and covered with dirt. This time, though, all had not been as they'd left it. Hiko had stopped abruptly at the edge of the clearing, his accustomed sarcastic calm displaced by discomfiture. Kenshin had blinked at the sudden change in his shishou's demeanor and hurried the few paces to Hiko's side.
The pack containing their provisions had been torn open, and what little hadn't been eaten had been strewn around the campsite. Kenshin had groaned in dismay; he was invariably ravenous at the end of a day of training, and it was a good two days' travel back to the cottage and the stock of rice and dried fish and root vegetables they'd carefully laid in for the winter.
But Hiko had just snorted and turned to him, smirking. Another chance for a lesson, Kenshin guessed correctly, and his stomach growled in protest. "Kenshin," Hiko had said. "Think like a rabbit." And he'd waved a hand off toward the northeast where the land rose slightly, dense with scrubby maples between the tall beeches. With that he was gone, striding away in the opposite direction.
After three and a half years as Hiko's student, Kenshin needed no more explicit instructions. And so he'd headed off into the darkening woods, digging through his memory for everything he'd ever learned about rabbits.
It was a plus that they were nocturnal in the winter. In spring rabbits could be seen out and about at all times of day, their constant eating interrupted only by frenetic bouts of chasing each other around the forest. In summer they became creatures of the twilight, active at dawn and at dusk. But in winter they kept to the darkness, avoiding the sunlight that would make their tawny fur a too-obvious target against the snow. Kenshin had seen all this and paid it not more than passing attention. But now it came back, gradually, as he slipped between the trees, his zori crunching now and then through the thin patches in the icy crust that topped the snow.
After about half an hour he'd found the faint track of a rabbit run -- at least, what he was fairly sure was a rabbit run -- and had followed it slowly, examining the snow while he worked out what to do next. The track was a slight depression in the ground that ran relatively straight across the forest floor, under and through some particularly dense clumps of maples. The snow was well packed down along its bottom and had been mounded up slightly on either side from the passage of the little animals. Kenshin had noticed rabbit runs before, but never in winter. He'd spent a pleasant hour one sticky summer evening when he was supposed to be gathering firewood following the distinctly unnatural feature through the underbrush, and had been startled and delighted when a pair of rabbits had galloped past him at full speed down the track. He'd understood in a flash that it was the same as a road: a quick and sure path that eliminated the need to navigate across uncertain terrain. This winter run was the same, an easier path through snow that would seem deep to a creature with four-inch legs.
Rabbits didn't hibernate. They needed food year-round. And therefore they would be traveling by night along this miniature road; had been traveling, recently and in numbers by the look of the snow in the run. Even as Kenshin had been thinking these things a small flash of motion in the darkness had caught the corner of his eye and he'd whirled towards it, sword flashing out of its sheath. But the rabbit had seen his movement and startled, fleeing back down the run the way it had come. Too fast.
Kenshin had stood looking after the rabbit, his breath steaming in the cooling air, and had realized that he wouldn't be able to catch a rabbit by stalking it. Rabbits were too fast, too small and maneuverable. He would have to be a lot closer to the rabbit before it ran if he were to have a chance. If he couldn't stalk a rabbit, he'd decided then, he'd have to lie in wait for one.
That must have been what Hiko had meant, Kenshin had thought as he'd selected a spot along the run to lie in wait for his quarry. Think like a rabbit. Rabbits were good at seeing motion; they weren't so good at seeing still things.
He had half-knelt at first in a relatively clear spot along the side of the run, his sheathed sword held horizontally in front of him, ready to draw. That hadn't lasted very long. Think like a rabbit, Hiko had said. He'd been thinking about what a rabbit would do, but he hadn't actually been thinking like a rabbit. Stillness or no, a rabbit wouldn't be fooled by a human crouched in this position. Rabbits were prey animals. They were always tense, always on edge. Always a just-too-slow reflex away from being supper. Crouching by the run was too human. He would have to think more like a rabbit.
And so Kenshin had ended up like this, curled up on knees and elbows under a dense tangle of shrubby maples. He'd fidgeted a little at the beginning as the cold seeped slowly through the sleeves of his quilted jacket and the knees of his trousers, but he'd been training in this: the art of being still. And so he'd breathed, and cleared his mind, and relaxed into the still earth.
It had been the need to maintain his concentration as he lay still, watching the empty rabbit run, that had led him to wonder what a rabbit's ki would feel like. A small furry animal, warm beneath its thick soft fur. A winter diet of bark and roots. A quickness of movement, a constant alertness.
The screech of a large owl in a tree above and to the left had made him freeze, taut as a wire, no motion to give away his position to the owl's round eyes, no sound to reveal him to the keen ears beneath soft feathers. An owl meant swift death to a rabbit.
A minute had passed, and then another. There'd been a clicking of talons on the branch, a whisper of air followed by silence as the predator took wing. Kenshin had given it another full minute to fly away before letting himself relax. It was at that point that he'd known that he could do it, that he could wait here as long as it took. That he could think like a rabbit.
Time passed, and the night wore on. Kenshin lay still beside the run, eyes alert and senses extended. Just another rabbit hanging around by the side of the trail. He imagined his ears flicking back and forth as he listened to the faint night-sounds.
And then he saw it. A rabbit, off down the trail to his right, heading directly towards him. Kenshin squashed down the flare of excitement. He had to keep his ki hidden. He had to keep his ki like that of a rabbit.
The rabbit wasn't in a hurry. It hopped forward, paused, sniffed at a leafless shrub, hopped forward some more. Kenshin waited, watching it with wide eyes. The rabbit's ears flopped forward and sideways. It was listening, of course, but it was not alarmed. No more alert than usual. It hopped forward again and nibbled at the straw-colored stem of some plant that had grown beside the trail. The rabbit was close now. Not directly in front of him, not yet, but close. Kenshin could see its nose and lips moving as it chewed the stem.
Its fur was beautiful. A pale halo seemed to float just above the surface of its coat. Kenshin widened his eyes, drinking in the dim starlight. The rabbit took another step forward and he could suddenly see that its individual hairs were variegated, light then dark then light again at their tips so that it was hard to tell where the rabbit's coat ended. If it weren't for the high contrast of the snow, it would be almost invisible, in a way that a single-colored animal could never be.
The rabbit advanced another step. He could even see its eyelashes, short pale bristles skimming horizontally above the liquid dark eye. Rabbits had always seemed daft in a way, because Kenshin could never tell what they were looking at. It was because their eyes were on the two sides of their heads, not on the front. But he realized now that a rabbit's perception was different. It was all peripheral vision, all the way around and up over its head, and a rabbit therefore saw almost everything that went on around it. It needed to see all the way around. It needed to keep on the alert for predators. And that meant that a rabbit could look at things with only one eye.
The rabbit was looking at him, Kenshin realized with a shock. He gazed back, drawn into the bottomless darkness of that liquid brown eye, knowing suddenly what it felt like to have fur, what it felt like to sense vibrations through the pads of his paws, what it felt like to be able to point his ears to the four directions. And for a moment he could see what the rabbit saw, in its strange flat vision: another rabbit, crouched by the trail, a rabbit with red hair and a human face.
There was a small flicker in Kenshin's awareness and the rabbit was no longer looking at him. Its eye was still pointed in his direction, but its attention had moved on. The rabbit hopped forward a few paces, and paused again to sniff at a stick. Then it continued on down the trail, away to Kenshin's left, until it disappeared into a thicket.
A sudden bolt of panic shot through Kenshin's body, freezing him to the spot. There'd been a sound, up in the tree above and to the left where the owl had been before. Predator! his senses were screaming, and he mustn't move, he must keep still, if he kept still enough the predator might not see him. His heart was racing, preparing his body to flee.
The sound came again. It was a human sound. A-- familiar--?
Part of Kenshin's mind had parsed it, colliding with the prey-animal panic. He blinked. "Kenshin?" the voice had said.
There was a scrabbling, sliding sound and then a heavy whump that vibrated through the ground under Kenshin's knees and elbows, even as he bolted to his feet. He stumbled a little, his cold joints protesting at the sudden motion, and Hiko caught his shoulder to steady him.
"Huh. Thought you'd frozen to death," Hiko said, but with the kind of carefree amusement in his tone that indicated he'd thought no such thing.
"N-no," Kenshin replied, a bit unsteadily. "I'm all r-right." His teeth were chattering. He hadn't noticed until now.
Hiko looked at him for a long moment, searchingly, and then a half-smile spread over his face. "Baka deshi," he commented. "Don't get so caught up next time."
"Come on," Hiko continued. His loud voice seemed to echo in Kenshin's ears. "Let's get something hot into you." And he turned then and started back through the trees.
Belatedly, Kenshin noticed the sheathed sword in his own hand. "The rabbit..." he started. He was supposed to have caught the rabbit. Hiko must have been watching, from up in the tree. "I'm sorry, s-shishou."
"Huh," Hiko said again, and held one arm casually out to the side as he sauntered on through the woods. Dangling from his hand were a pair of rabbits, hanging limply from the cords cinched around their necks.
Kenshin swallowed. For just a moment, he'd felt those cords around his own neck, felt the deadly jerk and snap of the snare. He shivered and started forward after his shishou, shaking off the images. Those rabbits were their supper.
"Snares," Kenshin commented, half to himself. He hadn't even thought of using snares.
"Yep," Hiko replied, striding across the snow. "Much easier. Just like fishing!" And he turned to give his apprentice a cocky grin, his eyes sparkling in the starlight.
-- Owari --