Hiko watched with satisfaction as the young red-haired boy he had apprenticed and renamed Kenshin worked his second level kata. Kenshin's year-long progress from paling and recoiling at the sight of a sword to swinging it with sure, smooth strokes had been amazing, though Hiko had certainly never said so to Kenshin. Every now and then, Hiko would give Kenshin a verbal correction on his stance, which Kenshin would immediately compensate for, all the while continuing his count.
When Kenshin reached 1,000 successful strokes, he sheathed his sword, bowed formally to his Master, then raised his expressive violet eyes, hoping for a scrap of praise or acknowledgment.
Hiko took a swig of sake.
"Decent," he said at length.
Kenshin lowered his eyes and sighed. That was as close to praise as the Master ever came when it came to his swordsmanship.
"That's enough kata work for now. You have an hour leisure before we spar," said Hiko, rising to his feet and heading for the hut to look after his nihontou for later that day.
"Thank you, Master," said Kenshin quietly with a bow.
Kenshin decided to do what he always did when the Master gave him free time: go walking in the surrounding forest. The young boy scampered away from the training grounds, his heart thrilling as he disappeared into the forest's shadowy embrace. Ever since he was able to walk, Kenshin had spent all his free time exploring forests, looking up, up, up into the high branches of the great trees that blocked out the sky, only letting small shafts of sunlight in.
Kenshin strolled about leisurely, sometimes stopping to investigate a tree, a flower or a bush that caught his fancy. When he came to a small pond, he spent time lobbing pebbles in and watching them skip a few times over the water before finally sinking.
SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH! PLOP!
Kenshin felt his stomach cramp when this sound assaulted his ears. He hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast that morning. Looking up at the sun's position in the sky, he discerned that there were still several hours before midday dinner. Kenshin sighed, knowing it would be futile to ask the Master for anymore food, as this would probably earn him extra chores or kata to work for being cheeky enough to expect to be fed on demand. Hiko was just that kind of man.
Just then, a bit of movement to the left caught Kenshin's gaze. Moving slowly, he looked over to the left to see a rather large brown tanuki, slowly ambling about, nose twitching, eyes peering out from black patched fur as it hunted for prey on the forest floor. There was his dinner of raccoon stew, if he could time it right! Moving slowly to avoid detection, Kenshin advanced on the unaware raccoon.
Entire body coiled up like a spring, Kenshin pounced on the furry brown creature, which easily dodged him and disappeared into its burrow. The boy ended up landing flat on his face, letting out a muffled "oro." Looking up, he glared at the entrance to the tanuki's burrow. He wasn't just going to give up!
Kenshin thrust his hand in to try to yank the raccoon out, only to be bitten on the tip of his index finger for his effort.
"ORO!" he yelped, snapping his arm out of the burrow and against his body.
Kenshin checked his hand and saw the tip of his finger bleeding. Sucking on the cut, he moved away from the tanuki's burrow to try to find easier pickings. The flutter of wings through the branches caught his attention. Perhaps he could catch a bird.
Kenshin again practiced his stealth and was rewarded by being able to get quite close to a small group of song birds that were pecking seeds off the forest floor. Kenshin bode his time, waiting for one to hop within range. When one finally did, he lunged.
Kenshin again found himself lying prone on the forest floor. Slowly, he rolled over to see if he had succeeded in pinning a bird under his body. Alas, the space underneath him was empty and the birds were long gone.
'Naturally...' he thought dejectedly.
GROWL! went his cramping stomach. What was a hungry 11-year-old boy to do?!
Just then, something bright and orange caught his sight through the thick trunks of the trees. Kenshin got to his feet and went over to investigate. Growing out of the log of a fallen, long-dead tree, were mushrooms almost the color of his hair!
'Mushrooms! My father used to bring home mushrooms when we had no crops,' Kenshin declared to himself, leaning over to pluck one up and examine it more closely. 'It looks alright...'
Kenshin sat down on the log, popped the large mushroom into his mouth and began to chew.
Hiko sat on his rock, nursing a saucer of sake, steely eyes riveted on the forest the small redhead had disappeared into several hours ago. Where was the little idiot? Midday dinner time had long since passed. Hiko hadn't wanted to admit it, but he had missed Kenshin's warm presence at the meal.
With a huff, Hiko rose from his rock and headed off in the direction Kenshin had scampered off in earlier. Knowing Kenshin, he was either daydreaming, sleeping or had gotten himself into some kind of trouble from which he would need rescuing.
Typically, Kenshin had left a trail that was so easy to read, Hiko didn't even need to use his tracking skills. Small footprints led Hiko to a tanuki's burrow that seemed to have a few drops of blood outside of it. Beyond that, the footprints led to a small clearing where some flattened grass looked as if someone had landed face-first on it.
Hiko's patience was rewarded when he heard the faint sound of stupid giggling emanating from a small clearing. Parting the bushes, he saw, lying on his back, eyes even more glazed over than usual, and laughing hysterically, his stupid little pupil, right next to the log which sported what he immediately recognized as waraitake, or "laughing mushrooms" due to their toxic side effect, which Kenshin was now enduring.
'Kami-sama,' Hiko thought with a roll of his eyes.
"Haha hahahaha! Hi, M-master!" stammered Kenshin as he rolled onto his side and tried to regain his footing, only to tumble back down in a laughing heap.
"Kenshin, why did you eat laughing mushrooms?" chided Hiko.
With a sigh that was half-disgust and half-amusement, Hiko picked Kenshin up, slung the boy over his shoulder and carried him back to the hut.
"Master, you have some gray hairs!" chortled Kenshin as he grasped at his Master's long ponytail.
'At 25? Impossible!' thought a mortified Hiko.
"Probably from putting up with you for a year, dummy," he said aloud.
"Hahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!" Kenshin howled as he pounded Hiko's back goodnaturedly.
Hiko decided to ignore the boy until they were back at the hut.
"Master, d-did I ever tell you your cape's ugly? Bwaahhhahhaaahahaaa!" giggled Kenshin.
Or rather attempt to ignore the boy.
'Master, you were right. Karma's a bitch,' Hiko thought to himself as he carried his little idiot back to the hut.
Back at the hut, Hiko kicked his pupil's futon out flat on the floor and unceremoniously dumped the boy onto it with a soft thud. Kenshin was so out of it that he didn't even complain.
"Hahahahahahahaha! My clumsy Master dropped me!" he slurred. "M-musta drunk too much sake. Do you ever drink water, or just sake? Hahahahahaha!"
'It's the mushrooms. You know he wouldn't say that to you if he were sober,' Hiko reminded himself as he went to gather some herbs and water.
"M-Master, you really should d-decorate this hut. My old s-slave cell was nicer than this! Hahahahahahahahaha!"
'How about I shave off your hair and decorate it with that?' thought Hiko, teeth grinding as he ground the herbs with his pestle.
Finished with the grinding, Hiko poured water into the mortar and quickly mixed the liquid and herbs together. He then went back to the futon with the little chucklehead on it.
"Here, dummy. Drink this. It'll get you back to what passes for normal with you," said Hiko, holding the mortar to the boy's lips.
Kenshin drank and then promptly pulled back, spitting out what he had just imbibed.
"Hahahahahaha! N-no thanks, M-master. Hahahahaha! T-tastes bad. Heeheeheheee! H-how 'bout s-some sake? Bwahahahahaha!" the boy managed to stammer between guffaws.
"Like I'd let an 11-year-old idiot drink any of my sake," said Hiko, suddenly grabbing Kenshin around the cheeks, forcing his head back, pinching his mouth open and forcing the medicine down his gullet.
Kenshin coughed and gagged as the foul substance went down, but Hiko was able to force most of it into the boy's stomach.
Hiko's eyebrows shot up as Kenshin promptly passed out on his futon. He certainly hadn't expected the stuff to work that fast.
'Especially considering it's just some random herbs ground up in the water. This kid is really vulnerable to suggestion,' Hiko realized as a smile that boded no good Kenshin-ward spread across his features.
A few hours later, Hiko looked up from his sake when he heard the rustling of fabrics and quiet groan. There was Kenshin, sitting up in his futon and holding his head.
"Feeling better?" Hiko asked sardonically.
"Master? What happened? How did I get back to the hut? The last thing I remember, I was in the forest," said Kenshin.
"Do you remember what you were DOING in the forest?" asked Hiko.
"I found some orange mushrooms. They were delicious!" exclaimed Kenshin.
"Kenshin, those orange mushrooms were waraitake, the laughing mushrooms. I found you on the forest floor, laughing your guts out," said Hiko.
"Oro?" yelped Kenshin.
"It's a good thing I found you when I did," said Hiko with a smile.
"Because if I hadn't gotten you back to the hut when I did and gave you this medicine," said Hiko, holding up what was left of the medicine he had made in the mortar, "your heart would have exploded in your chest."
Hiko glanced over at Kenshin to find the boy passed-out cold again.
'Vulnerable to suggestion indeed!' he thought to himself as he tossed the bag of placebo into the air and caught it with an amused grin.