The seven-year-old ran fast—perhaps faster than he had ever run before. His legs wobbled with every footstep, but stubbornness triumphed over exhaustion for now. Getting away at all costs was the only thing that mattered.
Escaping the beast, however, was no easy task, and for all his seven-year-old stubbornness he realized there was no escape. Every breath seared his lungs, but he had to keep going. He had to.
Dark, desperate eyes scanned the area for something—anything—that could be used for hiding. The trees were too narrow, the bushes too small. Nothing could conceal him for long.
"Come on, come on, come on!" he hissed to himself. Until—
"Eureka!" he shouted gleefully. A rock!
A large rock just large enough for a young boy stood in front of him as he slowed to a stop. He could have sworn light from heaven shone down upon it as he plopped on the ground behind it. The poor boy struggled to control his breathing; he had been running in vain for many minutes.
The thing caught up with him in seconds. The deafening silence was occupied only by the soft burbling of a stream and clumsy footsteps. His fingers dug into the tufts of cool grass under him, hoping—praying—that he would not be found; that something would cause the beast to turn elsewhere.
Excruciating seconds dragged on into excruciating minutes. Sweat droplets beaded and fell, tickling his temple, his jaw, and made his cloth kimono stick uncomfortably to his body. Please go, please leave, please don't find me.
The beast paused his search. A quiet gasp of realization. No, no, no, no.
Blundering footsteps drew closer. This was it. The boy scrunched himself up, preparing to fight, and—
The chubby fists of his four-year-old brother met Masamune, and he could not help but burst into a fit of laughter as his younger sibling tackled him.
"I got you! I got you!" giggled his brother. His eyes and hair were dark like his, but shone with the innocence of youth.
"Okay, okay, you got me! Ow—I said you got me, Hiro!" Masamune growled, batting away Hiro's hand.
"That means I won!" gasped Hiro. "I won! I won!"
Masamune stood up, brushed himself off, and looked away from his brother gravely.
"No," whispered Masamune, eyes downcast.
Hiro stopped his laughing and bunched his brows together.
"What do you mean...? Moonie?"
"It means," he murmured, clenching his fists, "that I am the beast now!"
Masamune threw his hands up, curled his fingers like claws, and roared.
With shriek-like laughter, Hiro began to run. Gods, that little boy is fast.
Masamune gave Hiro a three-second head start even though he knew he would regret it. Before he could even begin to track Hiro down, the voice of his mother stopped him in his tracks.
"Boys!" she shouted. A round-faced woman with dark hair and matching, upswept eyes stepped out of their home. Dirt stained her hands and she wore a straw hat. She had no magic gifts, but sometimes Masamune could swear that she floated by how soft her footsteps sounded. Her eyes met his and he gave his most charming smile.
"Hello, Mother," he said, giving a big, toothy grin.
"Ah, Masamune," she said cheerily. "I thought you two may be out here. Come to the courtyard, both of you." A wide smile grew on her lips. "Your father is home."
He gasped. "Really? As in, now?"
She leaned down to his height, beaming. "I saw his horse from the garden. Hurry! He should be here any instant, and I am sure he wants to talk to you."
A grin split across Masamune's face. Father! Home!
It took a while to convince Hiro that it was no clever trick, no prank, and even longer to convince him to call their game quits. For all his reluctance at first, at least he looked moderately excited now, as his eyes would not stop darting to the entrance.
True to his mother's words, a figure stepped into the courtyard. His broad shoulders were the first thing to be noticed, then his black hair tied in a top knot, then his heavy, layered clothing. It was a figure Masamune had come to look up in awe at and his heart swelled with joy. After four long months, Father was finally home.
Masamune could wait no longer. He walked, then jogged, then ran to his father. But as he drew near, something was off. An invisible weight bogged down his father's normally-springy gait. Dark circles lined his obsidian eyes that usually sparkled with good humor.
His grin faded as he stopped in front of his father.
His father's lips cracked into a forced smile. "I missed you, Tiger, but I need to speak with your mother before anything. Alright?"
His father's voice was nothing more than a croak. Gods, he even sounded exhausted. But what was wrong? Surely he could handle it?
"... Oh. Al-Alright," Masamune said, stepping to the side.
Cocking his head, he could tell his brother was confused as well. As their father guided their now grim-looking mother to the house, Hiro jerked his head toward the two. Masamune nodded in return.
As soon as their parents slid the door shut to the genkan, Masamune and Hiro almost tripped over themselves trying to hear. The door, being made of thin wood and paper, was easy to eavesdrop through. This time, though, their parents' voices were so hushed that they could only catch a few words through the murmurings.
"... brother… dead…"
"... how can… be?... action… taken?"
"... contained… now…"
A pause long enough to cause Hiro and Masmune to glance at each other. Dead silence.
The frantic voice of their mother: "You kept it?"
Their father hushed her.
"Kept what?" Hiro whispered loudly to Masamune.
"Shh!" Masamune seethed, but it was too late. The footsteps of their father's tabi boots drew closer, until—
"Boys," he said softly, but with a stern edge, "what are you doing?"
Hiro tried to concoct some strange lie involving a giant heron, but to no avail, not while their father towered over them. Their father merely raised a hand to silence him. Masamune's stomach churned; that was never a good sign.
But their mother put a gentle hand on his shoulder and said with a voice as soft as silk, "Do not be harsh. They are boys."
Masamune met their father's ancient gaze with big, pleading eyes. Please do not be disappointed. I am sorry.
Their father paused, then released a heavy sigh. "Your Uncle Akihiro is dead."
Masamune blinked. Hiro furrowed his brows.
"What? Father, I don't underst—"
"Your Uncle Akihiro is dead," he growled. Masamune flinched. His father's face was contorted as if… as if he were angry at him. His stomach dropped when his father took a step toward him.
"What is there not to understand, boy? Must I spell it out for you?" Cold hands cupped Masamune's face. He cringed away. "He is dead. Dead! And it was so hollow, so—so white and inhuman… you could barely call his body a corpse! And— and all of it was my—"
"Junichiro, please!" shouted their mother, brows bunched and mouth parted in horror. "You're scaring him!"
His father looked incredulously at their mother before seeming to realize how his son must have felt with his father hunched over and screaming at him. His face was pale as a sheet, and, up close, Masamune could see that his eyes, usually ablaze with zeal and humor, were haunted. Traumatized.
He did not notice he had been crying until his father released him and the cool breeze brushed his face.
"Masamune," breathed his father, whose own eyes were lined with silver, "what do you want to be when you grow up?"
He really tried to be strong, but his lower lip trembled and his voice quivered. "I want to be like you. A bounty hunter."
The glassiness in his father's eyes grew until they turned red with grief. He knelt down to his height, not seeming to notice the silent but tear-streaked faces of Hiro and their mother standing behind him.
"Get that dream out of your head," he whispered, shaking his head. "Be safe. Be cautious. Settle down and get yourself a wife. Have kids. But do not be like me. Please."
His father stood, tousled Hiro's hair, and retreated into their home.
Hiro said in a small, wavering voice, "What happened to Uncle Akihiro?"
Their mother shook her head. A tear slipped down her cheek as well, but her voice was strong as wire. "It is not my story to tell. Your father will tell you in due time."
Teardrops darkened where they fell on the hardwood wraparound porch. Masamune did not bother to stop them.
In due time.
Author's Note: Hello! This short story was mostly used to help develop the adult versions of Hiro and Masamune. It turned out pretty well, so I thought I would post it! I have also posted it on WattPad (my account is DesultoryWriter) and Amino (my name is queenofeggplants). I do not own the cover image.