CHAP 2: What came up the hilltop

Although far from feeling joyous, Kairi would had been as content as possible sitting slumped over the low tea table, left alone with her irritation to flow freely.

"You're going to leave a bruise on your forehead – sit properly now," her grandmother commented nonchalantly.

In response, the young girl sluggishly lifted her head, revealing a slightly pink blemish on her forehead and the dull ache that it came with.

"Riku won't let me play with him and Sora anymore. I think he's mad at me…or hates me…but I don't know what I did," Kairi mumbled, rubbing away at the sore spot.

"Oh my…well it's a good thing that you're not getting dirty or hurt…they are boys after all. They end to play rough, you know."

"But that didn't stop me from joining them before! I just don't get why things are so different now," Kairi said, lowering her chin to the table.

Her grandmother laughed softly.

"My dear, you'll find a lot of things not how they use to be as you grow older. Besides, you know it's close to dinnertime anyway. Now, won't you please help me snap these green beans? And remove your chin from the table unless you want to get a matching pink spot there."

Reluctantly, the young girl did as she was told, reaching for the bag of beans and snapping both ends, peeling off the string but continuing to pout all the while.

"These beans were on sale at the market today, you wouldn't believe the price!"

"Uh-huh," Kairi replied. "How wonderful."

"I ran into Riku's father his morning, how busy he seemed to run around! A shame that he didn't have the time to stop and chat."

"Oh…really?" Kairi dropped her first string bean into the bowl of newly peeled ones.

Her grandmother stopped snapping the beans and tsked.

"Come now, at this rate, we won't be eating dinner until dawn. Where did all that energy you had before go?"

"A dumb white-haired demon stole it."

"Oh?" Her grandmother paused, a knowing smile appearing on her features. "Well what did the demon look like?"

"His hair that came down to his chin. He's just a little bit taller than you granny."

"I see…sounds like a big demon then. What color were his eyes?"

"Blu – I mean, red. Deep red. And he was wearing a mean frown!"

Kairi pulled down the corners of her eyes and scowled as deeply as she could before furrowing her eyebrows and sticking out her tongue.

"How scary! What a frightful demon. I wouldn't want to run into him. Well, I hope he has a change of heart and gives your energy back! You'll need to perform the hinokami kagura with me soon," Her grandmother chortled.

The girl stopped short of pulling her face, expression morphing to one of distaste.

"Oh granny, must we? I don't want to! Why do we have to do it every year during the coldest day? It's so troublesome clearing all the snow away too!"

"Don't be like that, it's tradition! You won't even feel the cold soon after we start! You know, it took me years to master the dance, but you picked it up in only a few. Oh, you look the most graceful and beautiful doing it!"

"I hate it though…it's no fun. We could just play in the snow." Kairi muttered.

"If you don't do it, Amaterasu won't show herself to us…we'll be due for a dark long winter."

"That's just a myth, Riku says it doesn't really–"

"Hush! Not another word." Her grandmother's eyes hardened, patience wearing thin.

Kairi abruptly quieted, reaching to snap and peel more string beans.

"Never mind what anyone else tells you. Our family has been doing these dances for generations, so don't make light of it. You know how seriously we pay our respects to the sun goddess…"

Anticipating the all too familiar ramble she was about to hear, Kairi was thoroughly prepared to only restrict herself to agreeing and nodding her head for the rest of the conversation. Her eyes drifted towards the low tansu behind her elder, upon which the family heirloom, a golden ornament perched upright. It was carved round to mimic the sun, with seven identical long thin strips of gold extended from it to act as rays. She spotted that in the center of the sun was a peculiar hole, but for what, she did not know.

A chipped and weathered fox mask sat beside the ornament and while she could care less about such items normally, a sudden idea for a game peaked a newfound interest in them. Riku and Sora would not be able to resist the opportunity for a treasure hunt.

Her train of thought came shuddering to a halt when her grandmother spoke.

"Really Kairi, you must understand the importance of this tradition! Are you listening?"

Her eyes snapped into focus when she realized grandmother was staring intently at her with tightened lips.

"Huh? Oh…yes, yes! Of course. I'm sorry about how I behaved earlier, I promise I'll take the dance and tradition more seriously." Kairi said as solemnly as she could, creasing her brow ever so slightly to achieve a sympathetic look.

Skeptical but willing to accept the apology, her grandmother continued the task of preparing dinner, getting up briefly to check the rice cooking in a pot on the heated kamado. It didn't take long for the food to be set on the table, but for a child anticipating play, time couldn't move any slower. Picking up sizable portions of food with her chopsticks and chewing fast earned Kairi a scolding from her grandmother, who warned her, "you'll choke at this rate!"

Eating as fast as she could, however, did not make Sora and Riku come home any quicker. It had been almost a good 2 hours since they left, leaving Kairi to wonder how long they could possibly take for kendo. She tried not to let this thought infuriate her, as she had had enough of feeling annoyed ever since they left.

What did manage to push Kairi to a tantrum was when her grandmother announced it was time for bed after the bowls and eating utensils were cleared away.

"Granny, I want to stay up like Sora and Riku! They always get to play after dinner!" Kairi insisted.

"I said no, and besides, it's dangerous for a young girl to be playing out at night! Not to mention that Mr. Tanaka has been missing for three days! Don't be foolish, you know you shouldn't be out there!"

Coming close to tears and red in the face, Kairi protested loudly, asserting that she'll wait until the boys came home. It was completely unfair how much earlier she had to sleep compared to everyone else.

"Enough, it is time for bed! If you're not going to be a good child, I'll lock the doors and you can sleep outside where the ogres will eat you!"

That was the final say that her grandmother had on the matter, and there wasn't much room for the girl to object, especially when there was no way she planned to sleep out there. Huffing and feeling extremely sour with the situation, the prickling thoughts did not subside well after she settled into the futon next to her grandmother. She was not letting the day end this way.

It was only when Kairi heard her grandmother's deep peaceful breathing did she resolve to slowly edge away. Getting up as quietly ask she could, her footfalls were soft as she made her way to the living room. She changed out of her sleepwear into a new kimono and a pair of hakama. Wasting no time, she quickly snatched the golden ornament, inspecting it. It was certainly very pretty to look at, so Kairi was sure this would be the perfect treasure for the boys to find. Taking one last glance at the other room where her grandmother slept, she couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt bubbling up.

It'll only be for a little while…I'll return them before she wakes up tomorrow…

She slipped a string of twine around the hole in the middle and knotted both ends. The make-shift necklace was then slipped on around her neck, hidden under the layers of her kimono. She grabbed the fox mask pulling the band in front of her forehead so that it covered the back of her head.

When she stepped out of her home, she was greeted by the full moon and cool breeze. Surely there could have not been a better night to claim her newfound freedom. Any previous doubt or guilt she had gave away to giddiness and glee. She hopped in excitement and when the weight of the ornament hit her chest, she was reminded to find the proper spot to dig and hide the treasure. Turning a corner around her house and in front of Sora's she digged a shallow hole, and wrapped the ornament with a white cloth before dropping it inside. After burying it, she marked it with a sizable flat stone she found nearby.

Not a moment too soon, a distant call could be heard from the foot of the hill.

"Sora! I'm home!"

Ms. Watanabe could be seen in the distance as she ascended up the hill. Her brown hair was tied to a bun, but loose strands could be seen moving with the night wind. She strained to keep her balance carrying sizable paper bags on each arm.

"Sora?" She called again, shifting her weight to better grasp the groceries she carried. "Where is that child?" She huffed, blowing a loose hair strand from her face.

Afraid the outburst may awaken her grandmother, Kairi rushed over to meet the woman.

"Hello Ms. Watanabe, do you need help with those bags?"

"Ah Kairi, I didn't know you would still be awake at this time. I would appreciate some help!" The older women flashed warm smile that reached even her weary eyes.

"Well, granny said…umm…" Kairi faltered, not wanting to make up an excuse or lie to her favorite neighbor.

"Don't worry, since you've been a good girl helping me with these heavy groceries, I'll keep it a secret," Ms. Watanabe said, giving a quick wink, "And if your grandmother finds out, you can always say that you heard me struggling with these heavy bags and decided to help. It's the truth isn't it?"

Kairi beamed and nodded in full agreement.

"Kairi, have you seen Sora around? My poor boy must be starving…Now I'm not one to complain since I'm normally use to staying at the store late, but today has been busier than ever," Ms. Watanabe sighed.

Before Kairi could answer her question, a sliding door could be heard, and Riku's mother and father had stepped out of her house to greet them.

"Ms. Watanabe, I thought that was you. Have you seen Riku anywhere? I thought he was out here practicing…he was supposed to come in for dinner an hour ago," She said worriedly.

"Hello Mrs. Yamamoto, no I haven't seen Riku, I've just arrived home you see. I haven't got the chance to see my own child!" Ms. Watanabe said with a slight laugh.

Despite the other woman's attempt to lighten the mood, Mrs. Yamamoto couldn't be steered away from her troubled state. And although Mr. Yamamoto was normally a reserved man, Kairi could see a hint of concern in his eyes as well.

"Where can he be? He's never been out so late without telling us…" Her lips puckered in thought, brows creased in concern. She turned to her husband, who resolved to calm her.

"He's a responsible boy, he'll come home soon…you're worrying over nothing," he murmured.

"Don't say that! We should look for him! You know what happened to Mr. Tanaka, how they found him, completely torn–"

Ms. Yamamoto abruptly stopped short, noticing Kairi for the first time.

"Oh Kairi! I didn't see you there! I thought you would be in bed at this time..." Mrs. Yamamoto continues, trying to compose herself.

It was a shame for the story to be cut short, because Kairi was sure that she was about to hear something interesting, perhaps something even Riku might not have known.

"Mrs. Yamamoto, Riku and Sora went to practice kendo in the woods," Kairi piped up in an effort to calm the older women.

"They must have lost track of the time. They get very competitive so that if one wins, the other would want a rematch. That's how they've always been."

Mrs. Yamamoto let out a brief sigh of relief and Ms. Watanabe smiled encouragingly, claiming that sounded just as her child would do.

"I told you that you were worrying over nothing," Mr. Yamamoto said, but even he seemed more at ease.

"I am not worrying over nothing-he still hasn't come home. And after what has happened to poor Mr. Tanaka…" Mrs. Yamamoto said, a worried look returning to her features.

"None of that, authorities reported it happened 5 miles from town, and what's more, the opposite direction of us. We haven't seen any signs of wild animals here except for the occasional deer…" Mr. Yamamoto said.

Nevertheless, he resolved to bring the boys home after he found a suitable haori to withstand the night's chill.

"Thank you, Mr. Yamamoto, I'm sorry for the trouble and appreciate you bringing my child back," Ms. Watanabe said apologetically.

Mr. Yamamoto nodded and assured her it was no trouble.

"Besides, If I didn't go, my poor wife will start to lose her hair, she hasn't got any hair left to turn white after all."

"Dear," Mrs. Yamamoto tsked, brushing aside a strand of white hair, "That boy, he'll need a talk about his reckless behavior when he gets back…"

She shook her head and shared a look of disapproval that made Kairi grateful that she wouldn't be on the receiving end of their talk. With feelings of agitation subsiding, the fact that the young girl was out and awake without her grandmother did not escape Mrs. Yamamoto's notice. She spoke aloud of how she'll need to speak to Kairi's grandmother tomorrow and advised the young girl to go home before retreating to the house with her husband.

The mere thought of going back to bed made Kairi scowl, but the thought if receiving a scolding from her grandmother (and possibly more) soured her previous feelings of elation even more. She grimaced and stuck her tongue at the retreating back of Mrs. Yamamoto and Ms. Watanabe smiled at the sight. Together, they headed over to the empty household, setting aside the bulky bags of groceries on the table. Sora's mother thanked her, asking her to stay for a helping of dinner.

"I already ate Ms. Watanabe, thank you."

"Are you sure? It's not much, but I'm preparing some katé-meshi," Ms. Watanabe said as she started to pull out the ingredients from the bags.

"That boy, I'm sure it'll be difficult to convince him to eat his dinner- the other night, he was going on about wanting curry rice! I was hoping that if you stayed and ate with him, he won't make such a fuss, you both do everything together."

"Not today…Riku didn't let me come with them to practice Kendo. And Sora didn't say anything about it."

"Oh really? I'm disappointed in them! All three of you would play together all the time, there's no sense in acting all cold to each other…"

"I think so too!" Kairi exclaimed, "They're both being really unfair to me…maybe they don't think I'm fun anymore…granny has been giving me more chores so I can't see them as much during the day…I wanted to wait for them and play a new game."

"Ah, I see. That's way you're wearing such a strange mask, I was wondering about that. Well, there's no way that they don't think you're fun, you're the cutest girl I've ever seen!" Ms. Watanabe said, which made the girl perk up.

"But Mrs. Yamamoto is right, you should go back home to your grandmother. It is getting too late for games."

And perhaps because it was that said it that Kairi thought the advice be best to follow. She was still deflated that her night was not as climatic as she hoped, but the older women's gentle words buffered her disappointment.

Besides, the girl reasoned, even if I do get to play with them tonight, I would have to wait until they finished dinner, and Riku looks like he'll be in trouble as soon as he gets home…

Although she knew it was not nice to think, some part of her felt a sense of justice knowing that the older boy would face reprimand, which only served him right for what happened this afternoon.

I suppose it can be a game for another day, she thought, turning somberly to the direction of her home. Just as she was about to dig up the treasure, rough footfalls could be heard coming up the hill.

Ms. Watanabe must have heard the footsteps too, for she called out, "Sora! Dinner time!"

Not too far off, the doors were sliding open from the Yamamoto household. The couple had heard their neighbor's call and came out to meet the boys. Mr. Yamamoto donned a navy haori, looking relieved that he didn't need to venture off to search for his son. Mrs. Yamamoto's shared look of relief was much briefer, and she quickly adopted a stern look.

Kairi found it strange for Sora not to rush up at the sound of dinner and stranger still that Riku wasn't acting prudent in hurrying back to his parents. She had thought to hear their usual back and forth banter but… it was strangely absent. How rare it was for either boy to be silent with each other, especially if one of them was Sora.

At last, through the moonlight, Kairi could make out the heads of two figures inching up the horizon. Up came two strangers, fitted in dark kuro montsuki. One stranger had long silver hair that gleamed in the light, and the other dark blue. In awe, Kairi could not help but study their faces and that's when she noticed the most peculiar thing – their eyes pierced through the dark with a harsh yellow color.

So entranced by this, she did not notice how they edged forward intently, the bits of flesh and blood that dripped from their hands, leaving a faint trail behind them.