I'll pass on SiriusFan13's responses to the previous chapter soon. Things have been rather hectic recently. Anyway, now it's time for sueb262! She did a wonderful job :D Warg's chapter will be coming up next, so keep an eye out!
(edit: chapter reposted with a few alterations)
Chapter 3 – A Ridiculous Situation
The day was fine: impossibly fluffy white clouds glided across startlingly blue skies, birds twittered to each other through the forest, and the mist from the fall freshened the air and braced the skin—it was a scene out of an ancient, romantic tale.
Such a fine day that any traveler would have found it irresistible to pause and soak it in, perhaps to stop for a bite to eat, to dangle dry, dusty feet in the river, to cool off in the dappled shade of the clearing. In short, a delightful and welcome break in a tiring journey.
Delightful and welcome until, that is, noticing the figure standing stock still at the edge of the clearing, right at the head of the trail leading back down to the city.
Massive and forbidding, the morning sun shedding down muscled shoulders and glinting off a fall of gleaming black hair, the thirteenth master radiated a seething, menacing mood: shock and dismay and, to a close observer, even defeat—a most dangerous combination. Preoccupied with glaring down the path along which his deshi had fled only moments before, he seemed not to notice the small creature at his feet.
Upon being plunked down from the great height of Hiko's arms, Kenji at first sat blinking up in the direction of his new caretaker's face, then quickly grew bored, and began to explore his immediate surroundings. He plucked at the small summer flowers between his feet, and tossed them up, cooing delightedly as they wafted back to the earth. Pushing up off the ground, rear end first, he teetered for a moment upright, outstretched arms flapping for balance, then steadied himself. He toddled around the trunk-like legs for a few turns, clutching sporadically at the man's trousers, and then caught sight of something really interesting: a small cabin—small enough to seem like an inviting playhouse to the tot—and, just beyond that, a woodpile!
Kenji had fond memories of woodpiles. This last winter, his father had deemed him old enough to indoctrinate into The Game, and the two of them had spent many happy, soggy, freezing afternoons peek-a-booing and hide-and-go-seeking around, through, and under the snowy logs, much to the consternation and disapproval of his mother. These sessions usually ended with Kenji pounding, shrieking, into the warm kitchen of the dojo, his father close in his heels, where he'd find Kaoru frowning and sweating and swearing under her breath, abusing some unfortunate food items, but all too ready to leave that and rush to the rescue of her son. Kenji always enjoyed immensely the ensuing dialog between his parents; he usually got a steaming cup of sweetened tea and a decorated rice ball out of the bargain.
So it was with gleeful anticipation that he made his tottering way across the open space and around the back of the cabin.
He hated to admit it, but the words of his deshi had stung, and stung hard: "Look how I turned out."
What call had there been for that kind of talk? He'd tried his level best with the boy, and damn if he didn't think he'd done pretty well! Was it his fault the youngster had abandoned his studies and chosen a path into hell? After all, look what he'd had to work with at the beginning: a child, small for his age and in poor physical condition, traumatized almost beyond the ability to breathe, nights broken by tremors and tears, and waking hours spent hiding and cowering. Most nights, it took several tries before the boy successfully passed through the waking to sleep transition, with its sudden nightmarish hallucinations that would startle him (and his frazzled guardian) into howling, wide-awake panic, leaving both of them exhausted and panting. And then there was no easy way to comfort the boy back onto his futon: in his half-awake, half-asleep state, he couldn't distinguish Hiko from the monsters in his dreams, and wouldn't be touched, much less held and rocked, but stood whimpering against the wall or in a corner, stiff and trembling, sightless eyes staring blankly.
Hiko sighed himself out of his reverie and turned his back on the path. Oh, well, it should only be an hour or so, right? What could possibly go wrong?
A thunderous crash split the quiet. It seemed to roll on and on, and involved an alarming cacophony, the sound of splintering wood and the thudding of heavy objects against the ground echoed off the mountainside.
With all the speed of his life's training, he flashed to the source of the sound. Barreling around the corner of the cabin, he skidded to a halt at the sight that met his eyes: his woodpile was in ruins, logs lying every which way, several of them still on their way down the slope toward the river; he realized at once he'd be dragging them back for hours, sodden and slippery and useless for days. The pile had unfortunately collapsed most heavily at the end nearest the kindling box, and had not only crushed the box itself, but had smashed most of the kindling inside.
Hiko swore colorfully, but this time under his breath: he'd learned his lesson just moments before, and images of an enraged mother bearing down on him with a wicked shinai sent a small shiver up his spine. In his amazed fury, he looked around for what he knew must have been the trigger: Where is that kid?
And almost immediately, his heart caught with the real meaning of the question. By the furies, where is Kenji?!?
The tot was nowhere in sight, and he was gripped by the kind of cold fear he'd been introduced to two decades previously, but hadn't experienced in several years. Once, Kenshin had tumbled off a similar woodpile himself, and Hiko's parental memory flashed unwillingly on the angry purple bruises and vicious scrapes that he'd had to nurse for days.
"Kenji! Where are you?"
Frantically, he began to paw through the disorganized mess, rising panic empowering his motions as he threw logs helter-skelter behind him.
"Boy! Come out to me immediately!"
A cold sweat broke out on his brow—he'd reached the ground and still no Kenji.
"Kenji-i-i-i!" The man's bellow seemed to shake the very limbs of the forest, and he stood panting raggedly. Then, between gasping breaths, a small whimper behind him caught his attention. He spun on his heel and came face to face with a very frightened little face.
At first, he couldn't fathom what was wrong with the picture, why the tiny face was actually "face to face" with him. Irrationally, he had the ridiculous thought that the kid had grown very quickly indeed. Then the world clicked back into place.
It was the gentle swaying of the flushed little face that tipped him off. Reaching up to grab the back of the miniature collar, he unhooked it from the ragged edge of a cracked wooden roof beam, where it had snagged when the little boy had tried to scramble from the top of the woodpile onto the roof itself and had thereby escaped the avalanche as his final push-off had destabilized the first log.
Man and boy locked gazes for a long moment, one set of eyes filled with relief and growing fury, the other filled with relief and the dawning realization of terror. Kenji, who had nearly stopped breathing with the shock first of the cataclysmic event, then of the roars of his custodian, drew in a long ragged breath, held it as his emotions gathered steam, and exploded into a single, earsplitting wail that dissolved into great wracking sobs, his little body, still suspended from the man's fist, jerking and spasming with the effort.
Hiko held the boy at arm's length, amazed at the power in the tiny lungs, his ears ringing with the echoing screams.
He checked the sun's level. Ten minutes had passed since Kenshin's departure.
At the foot of the mountain, the boy's father paused and kneeled over the cold river to scoop up a refreshing mouthful of the cold water and stretch his back from the steep descent.
They'll probably be fine—no need to hurry back right away, and I might even have time to find a new mirror for Kaoru to replace the one Kenji broke last week.
He smiled at the thought that his master and his son might form a bond if left alone to get to know each other, and congratulated himself on how smoothly the situation had been set up. He rose and headed toward town with a lighter step.