The day was approaching dusk when Riku wiped his red raw hands on the side of his slacks. Setting aside his axe, he gathered the evenly cut firewood. Although winter was far off, the cool air signaled the early approach of autumn, leaving the boy to think of the chilly dark tread into the woods he'll have to endure when gathering firewood midseason. He set aside the bundle by the back door of his home before entering the living room.
"Thank you for cutting the wood dear," his mother greeted, brushing her hair behind an ear. She was kneeling over the tatami matted floor, repairing the hem of one of Riku's pants.
"Be sure to hand me the other pair when I am finished mending this one," she said.
The boy nodded, providing a low hum of acknowledgment. The radio was playing softly, interrupted only periodically by the page turning of the day's paper.
"Try not to grow too fast hm? It will be a while before your mother can buy you another pair." Riku's father muttered, looking up from his paper.
"But dear," His mother sighed from the floor, "I do wish we can buy him a new pair or two, he's gotten so tall over the summer."
"Makes me wonder if someone replaced our son with a bigger boy!" His father laughed. Scratching his head, he continued, "Well then, I'll see if Mr. Gotōge needs any help in the shop tomorrow."
"It's fine, mother did a great job fixing my last pair," Riku said hurriedly, and hasty to change the subject he asked, "what are we having for dinner later?"
"Some fresh salmon roe I bought from the market, but it will be a while before we eat. Why don't you take some time to practice your kendo with Sora?" He grabbed a pair of shinai that was leaning on the dark oak drawers and handed them over to his son.
"I can't get the practice I need when I'm with him. He gets all wild when I hand him the shinai…thinking it's just a game," Riku groaned as he reached for the bamboo swords. "Can't you just practice with me?"
"I'm a bit tired from having to run errands in town. Besides, as his elder you're in charge of training him. Wouldn't it be something if you both grew to be accomplished in it?" His father smiled, diverting his attention back to the paper.
"Your father's right. Besides, a little training might set the boy straight and keep him busy from stirring trouble…" His mother muttered, pausing from her task. "I can never tell how that child's mother is looking after him…She lets him do as he pleases so he runs out the door and into the woods every day. Not once have I seen him hard at work doing chores like you or Kairi. It's bad enough that he's recklessly out and about, he has to drag the poor girl into it whenever possible. Without her mother or a properly lady to raise her, I'm afraid she'll grow to be as wild as he is…her grandmother won't be able to handle that."
She clucked her tongue and shook her head slightly before resuming her work.
Riku shifted uncomfortably. As much as he would have like to defend his childhood neighbor, much of what his mother had stated held true. Try as he might, Riku did not quite remember the last time seeing Sora complete manual labor or any chores around his house. In the end, he had just settled by reassuring his mother that he'll keep the younger boy in line.
"Don't forget the rest of the equipment." His father said, walking over to Riku to hand over pairs of masks, breastplates, waist armors, and gloves. "Unlike your mother, I wouldn't want you ruffling up the boy too bad." He laughed while an exclamation of "Dear!" could be heard from the other side of the room.
"Right, I'll try not to. I'll be back home in an hour then," Riku announced, leaving the front door and making way to his neighbor's. As he approached the front yard of Sora's residence, Riku spotted a pair of legs dangling off the low branch from the black pine. Only the back of Sora's head could be seen, and it appeared he was sitting on the branch, leaning closer to examine something at the trunk of the tree. An audible buzz indicated a beetle flew around past him and as Sora turned his head to track it, he spotted Riku below.
"Finally done? I thought it was taking forever for you to finish up with that firewood!" Sora called out, his face lighting up to a smile. As he positioned himself ready to heave off the branch where he sat, Riku gave a sharp look, as if warning the younger boy of the injuries he could sustain.
"Alright, alright…" Sora grumbled, and with that, he made his way slowly climbing down the tree.
"Do you think before you do the things you do?" Riku chided, setting aside the equipment.
"By the way, my parents said that if your mother is coming home late today, you can join us for dinner. Let's practice some kendo before then."
"She told me she'll be coming home late again, but it's okay, she should be coming back with dinner." Sora said cheerily. After a moment of consideration, he commented, "Why is your father always on your case about practicing? Ever since he asked you to pick it up, that's all you ever do. We could be doing more exciting things, like catch fish by the creek, hunt for beetles, or explore the woods. Just yesterday while you were out by the marketplace with your mom, Kairi and I found a small cavern deep in the woods! It's big and deep, we should make it our hideout!"
"Look, all that is fine and everything, but I think we're getting too old for that stuff," Riku sighed, "and my dad does not get on my case."
"Yeah? So it's your own choice to be boring then? That's even worse." Sora snorted, as if finding his particular comment amusing.
"It's my choice to act my age and grow up. You'll probably get it when you're older." Riku was quick to quip back.
"You're only thirteen and a year older than me! We're practically the same age, so stop trying to act all mature." Sora retorted.
"We can argue about this all day, but what I'm hearing is you refusing to be beaten again since losing 27 times," Riku declared, with a smug smile slowly spreading across his face.
"You started not so long ago, so don't get such a big head," Sora said quirking one eyebrow, and after some consideration added, "I know you're baiting me to practice with you, and not that it matters, but it was only 17 times out of 30 you won."
"My mistake, I must be looking into the future where I beat you 10 more times," Riku mockingly corrected, to which Sora snorted at. Seeing as his bait did not have the usual effect, Riku offered to practice in the woods.
After a pregnant pause taken to consider his offer, Sora said, "Fine, I'll do it, but only because we're going there. You won't believe what you've missed."
"Missed what?" piped Kairi, their neighbor whose house laid a few feet directly in front of Sora's.
She was leaning on the backdoor frame, hands covered in soot from what the boys presumed to be her recent cleaning.
"Wow Kai, did you really take all afternoon to clean the kamado? Can't even imagine having to do something that boring for so long!" Sora said in disbelief.
"No, I finished a long time ago," Kairi answered. Then she looked back, making sure her grandmother wasn't at a distance to hear before she hushed her voice and whispered, "I just wanted to look busy so granny wouldn't ask me to do anything else."
"You're just as lazy as he is." Riku chuckled as he glanced over at Sora, who merely shrugged and laughed along.
"So you noticed." Kairi grinned, letting loose a giggle. "Granny usually sleeps in the afternoon until she needs to make dinner, but she's been loading on more chores for me and staying up to see if I did them. I think your mom spoke to her." She said this while making a sour face, and then asked, "So, what are you two up to? Maybe I can sneak away and come back before dinner."
"No way, we're just practicing Kendo. You wouldn't like it," Riku said dismissively.
"Huh? How would you know I wouldn't? Besides, I know you're going to the woods too, stop hiding that from me." Kairi pouted and then shot Sora a pleading look.
At this, Sora was quick to act in defense for her.
"Yeah Riku, she might be really good at it! Come on, you never even let her try," the younger boy pleaded.
"I said no." Riku held firm before continuing. "And besides, who will bear the blame from her grandmother when she gets hurt? You?"
At his question, Sora shrank back and averted his eyes.
"Besides, we'll be going into the woods like you wanted, and Kairi can't come home late for dinner. She won't have time to sneak back, it will get us all in trouble."
Hearing his response and having no argument she can readily think of, the girl's eyes became downcast. A moment passed before she heaved a huff and glanced up at both the boys, brows furrowing over her light blue eyes.
"Fine, go ahead and play with your pretend swords. I couldn't care less if you two were out there. I hope you cross an ogre and have to run back home!" She stamped her foot and with that, sharply turned, her short dark red hair swishing behind her.
When she had retreated back inside, Sora give Riku a puzzled look and said, "Why have you been so mean to her lately? This is the third time you haven't let her come play with us. She's been getting more upset and if you do it anymore, you'll make her cry."
"We're not playing, we're practicing kendo," Riku corrected, picking up their kendo equipment and shoving them to Sora. "Anyway, her grandmother is elderly and needs help, haven't you thought of that? You've been dragging her off wherever to play but haven't considered her responsibilities or what she needs to do."
Sora fell into silence, looking down at his gear. With nothing more to say, he followed the other boy to leave the little hilltop they resided. Still stubborn but without heavy conviction, Sora only muttered, "she should come for a little bit," and "she discovered the cave with me." It was only when he stated, "we use to play all the time together," that Riku dully registered his friend's words.
While it was true that the three children did use to spend every waking moment together playing rambunctiously, Riku knew it was only a matter of time before Kairi would be stopped in order to grow into a "proper lady," as his mother had stated. It was not that he disliked their games or time together, but the simple truth that they were growing out of being children. Had not been for his father busy looking for work in town, Riku would also like nothing more than to run off from his daily chores.
Looking aside at the younger boy, who strolled quietly along, Riku could not help but wonder if there was an ounce of self-reflection in him. With Sora's mother working hard to provide for the two of them, did he not understand the importance of learning discipline and responsibility in order to grow into a respectable adult? Why must he and Kairi both be so clueless? Riku's calloused hands gripped tighter on his kendo equipment.
Still, he could not deny that his outings have been less enjoyable without Kairi. Laughter always found a way to cut in the boys' prominent rivalry when she was there. As much as she would follow Sora through adventures of climbing trees or swimming by the lake, she would side with Riku and tell the younger boy off when he was too wild. Unlike Sora, she had never berated him for being "too serious" and had often times directed the other boy to follow Riku's lead. Whether she's willing to do so now, however, is a different story.
"Hey," He said, breaking the long silence, "Are there lots of flowers nearby the cave? We should bring back some for Kairi."
"Huh?" It took a second for Sora to be pulled from his thoughts before registering what the older boy said. "Oh…oh yeah! Great idea! She'll like it.
"You should have came with us instead of going to the marketplace! There's a ton of purple blossoms hanging from trees. They grow on this tall cliff surrounding the cave and it's really pretty. The flowers were a little high up, so I told her to sit on my shoulders, but we still couldn't reach them. She was a little upset because she wanted to hang the blossoms by her window."
"When we get there, you can climb on my shoulders. Let's surprise her with enough of those blossoms to surround her house," Riku announced.
Sora beamed at the idea, picking up his pace to an eventual jog, and Riku laughed at how easily his young friend had changed demeanor. With guilty conscience cleared from both boys' mind, the rest of the way to the woods resumed much more pleasant than before. As they pressed on, the trees grew thicker and the unruly grass taller. After a half hour, they approached a clearing with few trees surrounding and grass conceding to give way to a dirt path.
"Just a bit further ahead…I know it was around here somewhere…" Sora squinted.
"Let's practice here, if we go any further, it'll take us longer to get back. We have to go home for dinner soon anyway."
"But Kairi's flowers, we-"
"Can get them the next time we come here."
Upon seeing Sora's pout, Riku sighed and added, "Tomorrow, I'll finished my chores so we can come here early afternoon. And…Kairi can come with us then too."
Upon hearing this vow, Sora quirked a brow, not quite believing whether it will be fulfilled. However, he couldn't hide his hope, as a toothy smile began to spread on his face.
"So it's a promise? Kairi is coming too and you can't change your mind!"
"I wasn't going to, that's why I said it. At least offer to help me so we can get here quicker."
"Alright, I'll help out. You'll be able to finally loosen up again. We were getting a bit worried about you forgetting how to have fun."
"Yeah, yeah, hurry up and put on your gear," Riku said as he fastened his waist armor, "I doubt any of our matches are going to last long, you might as well admit defeat now."
"Oh?" Sora piped, in the middle of putting on his helmet, "What's a match without stakes? If you're so confident, there should be a reward for the winner and punishment for the loser."
This incentive only encouraged both boys not to back down. After fully putting on their protective gear, they gave each other a few paces of distance, then bowed.
"If I win, you have to call me sensei for a whole week. If you win, then…" Sora trailed off, unsure if he liked his arrangement if it worked in Riku's favor instead.
"I get to marry Kairi," Riku inserted firmly.
As Sora's face balked in confusion, Riku stepped in for the first strike.