A Lifetime of Sake

The shadows of evening were beginning to gather as Kenshin held himself suspended between two pillars by pushing out against them with his hands. He was frustrated by how his muscles ached and by how little help his Ki was being to him. For the twentieth time he tried to let his mind settle into calm repose and allow Ki to support him as opposed to his weary muscles. For the twentieth time he seemed to fail, or so he told himself.

He had been keeping himself hanging between the pillars for nearly an hour. No one unschooled in the ways of Hiten Mitsurugi could have done so. Yet Kenshin was a very self critical boy who didn't give himself the consideration that he freely allowed others. Now, tired, sore, and hungry, he was letting himself have it mentally.

"Why did I disobey Hiko?" he moaned once again.

"Good question," rumbled a deep yet singsong voice as Hiko emerged from the shadows of the compound.

"I just wanted to go swimming," muttered the boy in excuse.

"YOU wanted?" questioned the giant of a man with a quizzical look telling Kenshin that this answer was the wrong one. "Interesting."

To Kenshin's chagrin Hiko strode slowly away from him and exited the tiny compound. It was often his master's habit to meditate alone in the surrounding forest at dusk. He knew that it would be another hour or more before Hiko would return. He also knew better than to take the opportunity to cheat. His master would know. Besides, not doing as he was told was how he got into this mess to begin with.

He settled himself in resignation that he would not receive reprieve any time soon.

Out in the forest Hiko sat in a small garden like clearing where the only sound was the bubbling of a near by brook and the creak of the pine trees leaden with damp from the recent rain. Even he, Hiko Seijuro, the thirteenth successor and lone master of the sword art of Hiten Mitsurugi, struggled to calm himself enough to commune with the universe. Kenshin was so delightfully easy to frustrate! At the same time he could be just as frustrating!

"He is always in trouble. If he is not off swimming in the lake he sleeping somewhere he thinks I won't find him," ranted Hiko to the trees surrounding him. "About the only things he does not do are his studies or follow my directions!" he went on to lament to the grass.

"This is your penance!" chortled his inner voice. "Once you were a stubborn little baka deshi who enjoyed the bustle of the tavern and girls with the dark eye. You managed to persevere and now are the thirteenth successor to the great teachings of Hiten Mitsurugi . So it shall be for Kenshin."

Hiko inhaled and exhaled deeply. He was a terror to his teacher at times and knew in a whimsical way that he was reaping the karma that he had sown as a boy. He also admitted to himself that he was being unfair to his student, who was really an avid pupil. Slowly he began to sink into peaceful calm and from there naturally fell into deep meditation.

When he returned to the small compound he found Kenshin were he had left him. He observed that, despite how weary the boy must feel, he was swinging his legs to-and-fro to break the monotony of just hanging there. Hiko felt the gruff countenance he had set his face into begin to slip and he was forced to slightly turn his face so the boy would not see the bemused grin he struggled to suppress.

Forcing himself back into a stern face he turned to his young student.

"Why did you disobey me?" he asked again.

Taking a moment to think over his response Kenshin, in a dejected tone, replied, "Because I let my desires take priority over my responsibilities."

"Hmmm," grunted Hiko.

It was enough. They had been together for so long now that Kenshin knew he was not just reprieved from further punishment, but was forgiven as well. Hiko was not one to hold grudges. Once an incident was over, it was over. Not that this meant his treatment would improve much.

Hiko treated Kenshin as the baka deshi he told everyone in the village he was. Yet Kenshin knew this was just a superficial front. This knowledge in no way made the teasing any less annoying or the outrageously tough training any less exhausting. This was merely how things were between them. The only difference the knowledge did make was that Kenshin would not have it any other way if he could choose a different life.

As his feet hit the dusty ground his arms reflexively pulled themselves into his torso, his young muscles recoiling as if they were heavy springs released from being expanded. His gut, too, flexed and pulled his shoulders forward so that he was slightly hunched over.

Hiko watched his student surreptitiously as the boy shuffled across the compound and plunged his long red hair deep into one of the four rain barrels that were set just to the right of the small cabin the two shared. He felt a desire to tell the boy just how much he cared for him, how proud he was of him, how he was sure that Kenshin would someday be the next Hiko Seijuro and a great swordsman in his own right. The sheepish grin Kenshin wore as he approached the cabin instantly told him that he did not need to say any of this; Kenshin already knew.

"I suppose you will be expecting to eat now?" Hiko questioned sarcastically.

Kenshin did not reply. Saying "yes," he knew would bring accusations of his being greedy. "No," would be an out right lie and they both would know it. So he tried the road of indifference. It failed.

"So," exclaimed Hiko raising his eyebrows and slightly nodding his head, "Don't care either way, huh? Fine with me. We are still low on supplies so of you go."

This was too much for the boy to tolerate as he blurted out "What? It is nearly dark and it's getting cold, if you hadn't noticed! Why can't it wait till tomorrow?"

"Because I have other chores in store for you tomorrow. Besides," Hiko breathed waving his hand to dismiss Kenshin's arguments, "you have plenty of light left if you run both ways and running will keep you warm."

"How practical," snarled the slightly built 12 year old through his tiny teeth.

"Knew you would agree and see the sense of it," chuckled Hiko nonplused by Kenshin's anger.

"Off with you now!"

Kenshin remained rooted to where he stood and trembled with anger. Hiko merely left him there to work through it and sort himself out. Inside the cabin Kenshin could hear dishes rattling and smell meat searing over the fire. It took some time but he finally gave in and swearing under his breath stormed into his tiny room and pulled on dry cloths and his cloak. As he was leaving Hiko casually handed him a folded note addressed to the shopkeeper which was sealed with candle wax.

As he was leaving Kenshin tried one last excuse.

"You know there are robbers on the road at night?" he tossed over his shoulder not bothering to turn, knowing full well that it was useless.

"Give them my regards," snickered Hiko amused by his own wit.

Kenshin swore again, this time not so softly.

"Pardon?" questioned Hiko sharply, no longer smiling.

"Nothing," drawled Kenshin in resignation understanding that he pushed as far as he would be allowed to without reprisal.

What the darkness heard once the boy was well on the road is another matter.

He raced swiftly to the village and the exertion did him good as it improved his frame of mind. However his new good humor was short lived as the only "supplies" on the wax sealed list were four jars of sake.

"Four jars!" he exclaimed knowing he would never be able to run back to their cabin carrying four jars of sake and expect to arrive without breaking at least one.

The shopkeeper merely clicked her tongue against her teeth in disapproval as she contemplated Kenshin with penetrating eyes. The boy was unsure if she were disapproving of Hiko's having sent him out on such a cold night merely to quench his insatiable thirst for sake or if she suspected that Kenshin was the one at fault for not coming earlier as he should have.

Regardless of what the woman thought, his guilty conscious assumed she knew the truth and that her disapproval was directed at him. He was therefore glad to pick up the burdensome drink and leave.

At first he tried to trot down the rugged path that lead to their compound in the woods but the jars slapped against him. They were tied neck to neck by a cord that hung over his shoulders and around the back of his own neck. Fearing that the bottles, two on the right and two on the left, would shatter if they continued to clank together he was forced to slow to a walk.

Night was soon in full force, but the clouds had cleared off and the forest was lit by the pale yellow moon above. While Kenshin was thankful for the light it provided, he resented the fact that any heat the clouds held trapped now was gone.

"Damn it Hiko," he complained stopping briefly to readjust the cords that were cutting into the back of his neck, "you did this to me on purpose!"

He resumed his trek wishing to be back in the cabin sulking by the fire. Not that he expected Hiko to leave him to his sulks. "The old fart takes every opportunity he can to get a rise out of me, especially if he sees that I am already mad."

He continued on in this humor for a short time but was annoyed by how quickly his burden began to bother him again. He knew from what Hiko had taught him that it was because he was so mentally worked up that small discomforts seemed greater. He also knew this was the reason behind Hiko's constant irritation, but at that moment he didn't really care. He was mad at himself, he was mad at Hiko, and now he was mad at sake too.

"What does he find so fascinating about you?" he asked the sake as he set it on the ground near a large boulder, which roughly marked the half way point.

He recalled the various times he had seen Hiko drink sake. Sometimes he merely had one cup, but usually he guzzled it straight from the jars. After drinking he was at times mellow and occasionally almost friendly, Kenshin thought to himself then commented aloud, "But not often."

He recalled once when Hiko hit the other extreme and his teasing became down right mean and Kenshin felt that if he stayed close Hiko might just hit him.

In general, though, Hiko was merely silent and kept to himself when he was deep in his cups.

"What does he find so fascinating about you?" he asked the sake.

"Why not take a taste and find out?" his mind taunted him.

The thought of doing this startled him. It felt the same as when Hiko decided he was ready to learn a new technique: excitement tempered with fear. Suddenly his heart was racing as he looked at the jars and debated what he would do. Obviously he knew what he should do, but he was so angry with Hiko that he did not care about right and wrong.

As they usually do, the fates stepped in and it was at this moment Kenshin noticed that the seal on one of the jars had popped off somewhere along the way. The open jar seemed to be taunting him as he sat now utterly confused by his conflicting thoughts.

"One sip!" the devils in his mind teased, "Hiko would never notice the difference of a small sip. If he does say anything you can tell him some must have spilled out."

Oddly nervous he looked up and down the path to ensure he was alone. Once satisfied he took up the open jug with trembling hands and lifted it cautiously to his lips. He intended to take a small taste but the strong drink sloshed into his mouth and he was forced to take a huge gulp.

He coughed as the alcohol burned his throat. Soon, however he noticed that the burning was not isolated to his throat. He felt his insides suddenly erupt into fire and gradually his ears began burning. Following closely, his toes slowly warmed as well. He shuddered as some vapor rose out of his belly and through his nose and throat.

It was not the best tasting stuff in the world, but the effect was not bad!

For some reason he was not as hesitant in taking a second sip. Thought the liquid did not slosh inside the jug this time, Kenshin again took a deep drought. It tasted worse than the first and Kenshin winced against the sour flavor. Yet the warmth in his ears was reinforced and now his cheeks were aflame as well. He was enjoying the warmth he was feeling inside as it contrasted to the cold air of the night.

"Well, well," came a voice suddenly from the darkness "What have we here?"

Kenshin jumped to his feet as he suddenly realized that he was surrounded by four teen boys and one girl who seemed to be about his own age.

"I won't allow you to steal my master's property," growled Kenshin as he took up a stance to protect the sake.

"Looks like you were stealing it pretty good!" quipped the leader of the gang. The others laughed at this, except the youngest one. She was the ugliest, clumsiest girl Kenshin had ever seen. The leader began speaking again however and Kenshin could no longer waste time trying to figure out what was wrong with her.

"Oh, you're going to fight all of us?" he taunted.

"I will beat all of you!" Kenshin replied confidently.

"I am impressed by your courage, foolish as it may be. Therefore, I propose a contest against just one of us."

The others began sniggering and the awkward girl began to fidget on her feet.

"Toru!" leader called over his shoulder.

The girl walked forward to stand beside the leader.

"You know I don't like to fight," a soft yet not entirely feminine voice squeaked and suddenly Kenshin understood what was wrong with this girl. It was a boy wearing a kimono!

Kenshin burst into laughter, much to his own surprise.

"That's my baby brother," the leader sneered as overemphasized the word "baby."

"We dressed him like that because he just let some boy in town take his money rather than fight him."

"I don't like to fight," came the timid voice again.

The teen wheeled on his brother and snarled, "Yeah! And if you are going to act like a girl you're going to dress the part!"

Then, looking less menacing but more sinister he added, "But I will give you a chance to redeem yourself!"

Kenshin felt less inclined to laugh at the poor boy. He thought of how Hiko treated him and it was nothing compared to the embarrassment this kid had to endure. Yet, he had little time to think on such things.

"Toru, run ahead and change and while you are at it try to find some courage hidden in with your things. "

As Toru swiftly took off accompanied by the jeers of the thugs, the leader turned his attention to Kenshin.

"Pick up your burden, my sake-soaked friend and come with us."

"I won't!" growled Kenshin, "And I won't let you steal from my master either!"

The thug merely grinned as he stooped to pick up a rock.

"Fine," he coolly spat, "If you won't come with us and we can't steal them, we will destroy them!"

Kenshin thought for a moment, weighing whether this boy was serious or bluffing, then submitted to following these ruffians. He could fight them later, on his own terms, when he held greater advantage. However he was annoyed to discover that the burning in his ears was intensifying and that it seemed difficult to shoulder his burden. It infuriated him that the others noticed as well as they erupted into boisterous laughter.

He shuffled through the forest's brush and soon was able to see a bright fire shining though the base of the trees. As the group approached the fire Kenshin saw that it was built in the center of a small clearing and that the surrounding perimeter concealed crude huts so small that one would not be able to stand upright inside.

Sitting beside the fire on a large stump looking pitifully sad was Toru. The group halted in front of him and as Kenshin laid down his burden again a second large stump was rolled between him and Toru while a third was placed behind Kenshin.

"Sit," commanded the leader.

As Kenshin obeyed, the leader turned his attention to his little brother, but before he could speak, Toru affirmed again, "I won't fight him, Kochi."

"I know you won't, coward! But there are other ways you can amuse us!"

Two small clay cups were placed on the table between Kenshin and Toru. Kenshin struggled to grasp what was going on as Toru's sad face slowly shifted into grinning mischief.

"I thought you would like this game!" quipped Kochi as he tussled his brother's hair in a gesture of affection Kenshin found totally unexpected. Just as odd was how Toru beamed up at his older brother. It didn't make any sense to Kenshin, who never had any family and could not understand these quick shifts of interaction.

His mind, dulled by sake, struggled to keep up with everything that was going on, but was so preoccupied by the behavior of Toru and Kochi that he failed to notice other members of the gang creeping in on him until it was too late to prevent them from stealing all four jars of sake.

"Give it back!" he yelped in response to their roars of laughter.

"If you want it back you will have to compete with Toru for it!" grinned Kochi.

"The rules are simple. We'll let Toru start since you are already ahead. He will take a drink, and if he does not pass out or puke, you will take a drink. This will continue until one of you has fallen off your stump! If you win…" Kochi looked at Kenshin waiting for him to supply his name which he surprised himself by doing.

"If you win, Kenshin, you take what is left of your sake and can be on your way. If you lose your journey to wherever you call home will be four jars lighter."

The crowd of hooligans howled at this, which irritated Kenshin to no end. He would show them! Night after night he watched Hiko drink gallons of the stuff. He told himself that it would be just like drinking lots of water: an endurance test! However the warmth in his ears and toes, which was starting to subside, nagged at him that it would not be as easy as it seemed.

Toru's cup was filled to the brim with sake and the boy, licking his lips in anticipation, raised it carefully to his mouth and drank the contents. He just as carefully returned the small cup to the stump that was serving as table and noisily blew the alcohol vapor out from his mouth through gritted teeth. As Kenshin watched, Toru's cheeks flushed a soft pink and his grin broadened.

Then it was his turn. His own cup was filled and set before him. He glared at Toru and without taking his eyes off him drank to the bottom. The familiar warmth crept over him again and he struggled not to let slip the giddy giggles it inspired. He also refused to exhale as blatantly as his opponent had, but flared his nostrils allowing the vapor to escape.

The band of robbers all muttered to themselves, enjoying the show. In their mutterings, though, he distinctly heard one of their number whispering their approval for his performance. This one sidled to Kenshin's side and pulled out a bag of coins and put a few on Kenshin's side of the table. The others exploded in jeers aimed at both Kenshin and his gambler. They instantly pulled out their own wallets and matched the coins on Toru's side.

The cups were filled a second, third, and fourth time. The pile of coins continued to build on either side of the table and the cheering became louder with each round. After the tenth, Toru was cheering along with them. After the seventeenth so was Kenshin! Not that he remembered the count.

He was in a odd world that kept tilting and rocking. He realized that it would be very easy to fall off the small stump he was seated on. Each drink rushed through him in a wave of warmth. Everything seemed funny and he was not bothered by his predicament of being in with a band of hooligans. Nor did he associate that fact that everyone was now drinking with the fact that they were drinking Hiko's sake!

They continued on drinking and oddly Toru seemed to be pulling for Kenshin who was himself encouraging Toru. They eyed each other through their growing drunkenness all the while they were having their hair tussled and backs slapped by their supporters. Kenshin was growing a liking for his opponent who was now feigning exaggerated disappointment that Kenshin had managed to reach the bottom of his cup yet again. Toru took up his cup and as the two boys exchanged grins, took the drought in one gulp before burping loudly and grinning even more broadly.

Kenshin was the first to cheer!

Soon, however the warm flush that accompanied each cup turned into a harsh blow. It became more difficult to keep steady on their stools and to keep their eyes open. Both boys were now genuinely hoping the other would hurry up and lose. Kenshin burped as he gulped down the now nasty tasting drink. As he did so he felt a warm rush hit the back of his throat and had to swallow hard to keep from vomiting.

The spectators cheered and more coins hit the table. Toru looked absolutely disgusted that Kenshin was able to keep it in. His eyes were very heavy and he nearly fell off his stump twice. It was his turn again and he held the cup in a trembling hand. Violently he caught himself falling asleep and jerked himself upright again. He wanted to quit but was to stubborn to relent. He managed to slurp all the sake down and slammed the cup on the table as he nearly collapsed onto it as well.

Kenshin's heart sank. He thought he would win with that round. Now the hateful cup was placed before him and sake rippled at the brim. Just the sight of it made him nauseous. Still, he threw the contents of it into his mouth and swallowed hard. The world around him lurched as he teetered on his stump dangerously. The small crowd yelled and jeered and it was their din that roused him into saving himself.

He looked across at Toru whose face mirrored the misery he felt himself. The two smiled at each other commiserating. Toru was handed the cup and drained it. Kenshin watched as his new friend's eyes rolled around in their sockets and knew he was trying to focus and for a brief instant he did lock on to Kenshin's eyes then, smiling, Toru fell limply off his stump and hit the ground with a muffled thud.

There was a fuzzy roar as the rest of the boys lamented their losses to Kenshin's lone backer. However Kenshin was unconcerned with the betting. He wanted to get what was left of the sake back to Hiko so he could go to bed.

"Iwandareshmeshake," he announced.

The others laughed.

With tremendous effort he pushed himself to his feet, felt himself rise, then felt himself fall.

When he woke up it was to the knowledge that in an instant he was going to be sick. He bolted up and saw Toru standing just inside the forest with his shoulder pressed into a tree retching savagely. He ran to a tree close beside Toru and commenced to do the same. It seemed to last forever and even after things stopped being expelled his stomach continued to knot.

After what seemed and eternity to Kenshin the heaving of his stomach ceased and he was able to crawl back to the warmth of the fire. Toru was already there huddled underneath his vomit stained blanket. Kenshin carefully drew his own filthy blanket around him and gently lowered his aching self beside Toru.

The sun was shining painfully brightly and heat from the fire felt just as awful as the cold of the morning. Kenshin thought to himself that, if Hiko were here, it would be a blessing to be decapitated. Once dead the torturous pain in his head would stop. Beside him Toru groaned, feeling every bit as miserable as Kenshin.

On the other side of the fire Kochi was eyeing them amusedly. His eyes were bloodshot and he looked very tired.

"Been up all night?" croaked Toru.

"Someone had to make sure you cubs didn't drown in your own puke!" jeered Kochi.

He then added jerking his thumb over his shoulder, "The river's that way. You both stink!"

Without a word the two boys skulked off through the woods to the river. Once there Toru didn't break stride but walked straight into the chilling waters blanket, cloths and all. Kenshin hesitated for only a moment then followed the example Toru set.

The waters were bone chilling but their cold relieved the two boy's suffering. As one they dunked themselves under and burst back into the morning air with a rushing gasp. They then scooped the fine sand from the bottom and commenced to scrub first their blankets, then the cloths they were wearing. When one article was finally clean they tossed it to dry into the branches of nearby bushes and would start on another article. Ultimately there was nothing left but their bodies which they also scrubbed with the soft sand. Once finished they too removed themselves to the banks to dry.

The sun was at full force now and the spring morning was warm enough to allow the two to lounge in the grass as they dried. Both were still suffering terrible hangovers and each chose to lie as still as possible in silence. Soon they were both sound asleep.

How long they slept, Kenshin did not know. He squinted his eyes against the bright sun and knew that it was late in the afternoon. Both he and Toru were covered with dry blankets and at the water's edge he could see Kochi and the other robbers fishing. He realized how hungry he was and the thought of food did not inspire nauseas as it had earlier. He also realized just how much Kochi, despite the rough treatment he doled out, cared for Toru. It made no sense to him, but it was evident. It was also evident that he, Kenshin, was accepted as one of their own.

Beside him Toru also began to stir. Soon the two boys were up and dressed. They shuffled sheepishly to the tiny camp and flopped down by the fire where two trout were already prepared and waiting for them. As they gingerly nibbled the others returned.

"Well, Kenshin," greeted Kochi as he took a chunk out of a loaf of bread he had been carrying before passing it to Toru, "I guess you are free to go. I want you to know that you are free to stay as well. We all have taken a liking to you." He grinned at Toru who smiled back.

Kenshin thought for a moment. He never had a family and for a brief moment he entertained the thought of joining this one. It was very appealing to live where he was cared about, despite how hard the life would be. It couldn't be any harsher than life with Hiko however.

"Hiko!" he exclaimed now returning to himself by thinking of his master.

Thoughts rushed in on him and made him dizzy. Hiko was his family, he realized. It was not the greatest, but it was his. Kenshin realized he actually cared about Hiko's opinions of him, about not letting Hiko down, and about Hiko himself! Kenshin had to get HOME!

"No," murmured Kenshin, "I want to return to my master."

"You're free to go whenever you wish. Toru will show you the way."

"What about his sake?" asked Toru

"Nothing left by four empty jars. He is welcome to them," replied Kochi.

"He'll be in more trouble than he is already in!" exclaimed Toru.

"Can't do anything about that," shrugged Kochi.

"We can give him money to buy more."

"You'll need to talk to Takeda about that. He won all our money last night betting against you."

"Takeda…?" Toru asked of the largest of the band of thieves.

"You got to be kidding," smirked Takeda.

"Give it to him," growled Toru.

"Or what?" challenged Takeda.

"I'll take it from you!" snapped Toru.

"You never fight, you little coward!"

Toru moved to stand directly in front of Takeda and glared up at him.

"Kochi, do something about you brat brother, will you?" pleaded Takeda.

Kochi barely registered being addressed. He merely continued to poke the coals of the fire with a long stick as he replied, "He is picking this fight with you, it is up to you how to deal with it. Whatever happens it will be his own fault."

"Give me the money, you big ape!" growled Toru.

"Ok, kid. You asked for it!"

The blow was incredibly fast and Kenshin thought Toru was surely going to be crushed by it. He leapt to his feet but before he could take a step to help his new friend the smoldering stick Kochi was stirring the coals with was pointed directly between his eyes.

"Let it be. It is Toru's choice."

Kenshin could only watch and, to his surprise, the blow he feared never landed.

Toru exploded into a storm of punches and kicks administer with the skill of a master. After the deluge ceased Takeda collapsed to the ground unconscious. Toru helped himself to the man's wallet and tossed it lightly to Kenshin.

"You are the best fighter I have ever seen," came Kochi's voice distantly as he returned to prodding the coals. "Gifted, to be able to pick up any fighting style just by seeing it once! Yet you won't lift a finger to defend yourself."

"You will never be a decent thief…never be one of us. I suppose I should dump you at one of those Buddhist monasteries some day soon. You are always hanging around those musty priests anyway"

"Eventually, Kochi," Toru agreed, "eventually. But not too soon! I still want to stay with my big brother for a little while longer."

Against this backdrop no one noticed Kenshin slipping into the woods. He raced into the village, braved the disapproving looks of the shopkeeper's wife, and purchased four new jars of sake. On his way back to his own cabin in the woods, Kenshin left what remained of Takeda's money on the boulder where he first encountered the thieves. He didn't have what it took to be a robber either.

Once he returned to Hiko's cabin he was surprised that Hiko was not too furious with him. He was verbally chastised to be sure, especially because he refused to supply any real details. He merely explained that he was robbed and that it took until this evening to get the sake back. Hiko mocked him, but seemed willing to accept this.

Later that evening, as the stars were emerging in the night sky Kenshin brewed a cup of jasmine tea for himself as Hiko poured a large sake.

"That's a baby's drink," teased Hiko. Then to Kenshin's shock added, "Why not have a little sake with me?"

"No thanks," gulped Kenshin as the mere thought of sake made his stomach queasy.

Hiko, who watched Kenshin turn green burst out in laughter and suddenly Kenshin understood that his master somehow knew all the details from the night before.

"Are you sure? It's good stuff!" Hiko continued to tease.

"Never again!" groaned Kenshin looking stone cold resolute.

The walls fairly shook from the sounds of Hiko's laughter knowing full well his idiot student honestly believed he had just taken a lifelong oath.