Part Twenty-One: Archer
The sun angled low, turning the surrounding stone red, when Ransom suddenly asked, “Do you give ninja lessons?”
Daichi left off writing in his journal long enough to meet Ransom’s gaze. “No.”
Marcus said, “I thought you wanted to go to cooking school, not ninja school.”
“Well, yeah. But it might be fun to have an ‘unusual hobby.’” Ransom looked to Daichi again. “So did you go to ninja school? I mean, who taught you?”
“Someone with great skill and greater patience.”
Marcus was a little surprised by the sudden launch into potentially dangerous territory, but hints and subtlety really weren’t Ransom’s style.
“You’re skilled and patient,” said Ransom. “Bet you’d be great! Don’t you want a student?”
A sad smile found its way onto Daichi’s face. “I do not anticipate ever taking on an apprentice.”
“I’d take lessons from you.”
“Thank you for your trust, but that will not be possible.”
Marcus could understand Ransom’s fascination. Daichi made the impossible look like a stroll through the park. Or in this case, the canyon. “You used to let me help you train,” Marcus said, trying for nonchalance. “Want me to set something up?”
Ransom brightened. “I’ll help! I swear I won’t blink this time!”
After a lengthy pause, Daichi dipped his head. “Set up targets. I’ll retrieve my bow.”
“How many arrows?” Marcus checked.
While the man tucked away his journal and strolled toward their campsite, Marcus scanned the rugged landscape for likely targets. The canyon’s sharp edges were softened by scrub and sparse trees, but there wasn’t much to work with. “Guess we’ll have to use rocks.”
“How’s that gonna work?”
Marcus found a flat surface and stacked a handful. “Like this. He’ll have to spot them, then topple them. We’ll spread them out so he’ll have to hunt for them.”
Ransom’s eyebrows waggled. “You’ve don’t this before.”
“Sure. Lots of times.”
“Are your other brothers all in some kind of ninja militia?”
He snorted. “Not quite. But they like competing. Especially against each other.”
Moving fast, they set up towers on the ground, atop the larger stones, in the shallow trench of a dry creek bed, and even on the jutting branch of one of the trees. Twenty in all. No room for error.
Daichi returned with a bow that was taller than Marcus, and Ransom did a double-take. “Where’d you have that stashed?”
With a serene smile, the man gave the same answer he’d given all those weeks ago when they first met. “Up Al’s sleeve. Now … you have a challenge for me, little brother?”
Marcus smirked. “All set.”
“Twenty stone towers.”
“Boundaries?” he inquired, dark eyes already scanning landscape streaked by lengthening shadows.
“Between here and the canyon wall, from that tree to the second thicket.”
“I’ll start counting after the first arrow hits.”
“So be it.” Bowing at the waist, Daichi withdrew an arrow from his quiver and set his feet. Raising his bow in one graceful motion, he drew back. With a stillness that took incredible strength, he held the position for a breathless eternity before letting the first arrow fly.
Classic. Daichi was always went traditional with his warm-up shot. A tower against the far wall toppled, and Marcus quietly began, “One … two … three …”
Ransom stared at Daichi, who impassively returned his gaze.
“That was really good, but shouldn’t you hurry? There’s a bunch … more.”
Before the last word was out of Ransom’s mouth, Daichi was halfway to the far boundary, two arrows in his hand, another between his teeth. He loosed them with ruthless precision.
“Oh, man. He’s fast!” whispered Ransom.
“… twelve … thirteen … fourteen …”
Canyon walls echoed as arrows struck stone. The sharp blows were the only noise, for Daichi slipped across their course silent as shadows, sure as Sending, swift as death. Marcus shivered.
Pivoting, Daichi ran in a smooth arc, systematically uncovering more targets. As a dozen more fell, Ransom muttered, “Is he for real?”
Marcus only nodded.
“ … twenty-seven … twenty-eight …”
Leaping onto a narrow outcropping, Daichi decimated three more towers from his new vantage. They exploded, scattering stones in every direction.
“That’s nineteen. Only one left,” said Ransom, who’d been counting arrows on his fingers.
Suddenly, Daichi charged them. When Ransom took a step back, Marcus eased in front of him, but his count never faltered. “… thirty-five … thirty-six …”
At the last moment, his big brother spun, releasing the last arrow in his quiver. It struck the branch where Marcus had hidden a target with a resounding thunk. Tremors unbalanced the stacked stones, which clattered to the ground.
Daichi wasn’t even winded.
“Forty-two seconds. Not bad,” said Marcus.
“Are you kidding?” exclaimed Ransom. “You’ve gotta be some kind of special ops. Or maybe an assassin. Unless… hey, are you a spy?”
With a low laugh, Daichi said, “Let us say … I must keep many secrets.”
Rounding on Marcus, Ransom exclaimed, “Your family is seriously non-standard!”
Marcus shrugged. “Wanna share?”
Having shouldered his bow, Daichi placed his hands atop both their heads, gently mussing their hair. “Then my little brothers must fulfill their duty and collect my spent arrows.”
Ransom just grinned … until Daichi quirked a brow and began to count. “One … two … three …”
They didn’t find an underground waterfall, but they sat under one in an out-of-the-way campground that boasted big game, mountain springs, and hammocks-for-rent.
“Best I could do, under the circumstances,” Uncle Al said, though his apology sounded decidedly smug.
After their impromptu shower, the boys sprawled on a warm boulder to wait for their clothes to dry. “Close enough,” mumbled Ransom. “Right?”
Marcus wasn’t about to complain, and he grunted an affirmative. But his attention had been caught by a speck of green wheeling high above the surrounding pines. That you?
“I am here.”
His heart leapt. How far had his mentor flown? Marcus had known Aleff and Daichi his whole life, and his place with them was long-established and comfortable. But Jedrick was … new. And unpredictable. What are you doing here?
“Seeking peace.” Jedrick’s next thought held a wry twist. “It has been too long since my apprentice was under my wings.”
Marcus scrambled to his feet.
“I wondered how long your good captain would hold out.” Uncle Al casually added, “Go on, Marcus. Your wings must be restless.”
Camping and close quarters had seriously curtailed Marcus’s sky time, but he hesitated, glancing Ransom’s way.
“Don’t fret. He’ll nap until you return,” Aleff assured.
Marcus leapt, warm light unfurling around his shoulders, and reckless wingbeats carried him higher. He knew his technique was sloppy, but Jedrick didn’t welcome him with criticism or correction. His mentor swooped to snatch him out of the air.
“Are you well?” Jedrick asked.
“I’m good.” Finding himself cradled in strong arms, Marcus grumbled, “I haven’t forgotten how to fly.”
“Indulge me,” Jedrick said quietly. Catching rising currents, Jedrick spiraled higher.
“Did something happen?” Marcus asked.
“Oh.” Marcus could feel color creeping into his cheeks. “I didn’t think Protectors were big on affection.”
His mentor’s stern features registered surprise. “What gave you that idea?”
“You.” He winced at his own bluntness, but Jedrick didn’t exactly coddle him.
“I was under the impression you wanted a warrior’s place at my side.” Jedrick gently pointed out, “This embarrasses you.”
“It’s supposed to. I mean, as a human.”
“So you are not opposed to small displays of your mentor’s favor? As a cherub.”
“Nope.” Marcus sheepishly admitted, “It’s been too long since I was under my mentor’s wings.”
They grilled their evening meal in the picnic area, then followed a map and a meandering path to the campsite Uncle Al had reserved earlier.
“So where are these hammocks you keep mentioning?” asked Ransom.
Aleff smirked and pointed. Up.
Ransom muttered, “No way.”
Following his gaze, Marcus smirked. “Impressive.”
Hammocks were strung at regular intervals between lofty pines, like a bunk bed reaching some twenty feet above the forest floor.
“That’s crazy!” muttered Ransom.
“Certainly bear-proof,” observed Uncle Al.
“How are we supposed to get up there?”
“Daichi will hoist you.”
Ransom inspected the pulley system while Marcus ambled over to Daichi, who was inspecting the pine needle-strewn ground. Or more specifically, the tracks on the ground. Marcus whispered, “He wasn’t kidding.”
“I will stand guard,” offered Daichi.
Aleff joined them. “I’ll stay at the bottom to sweet talk passing critters.”
“Hey, can I be at the top?” asked Ransom. “Or did you want it, Marcus.”
Marcus shook his head. “Go for it.”
Uncle Al asked, “Afraid of bears?”
“It’s not that.” Ransom shrugged. “I want to count the stars.”
Marcus relaxed into the gentle sway of the night breeze. Being trussed up in a hammock left him unarmed and unable to unfurl, but Aleff was close and Daichi was closer. He was safe. “Okay up there?” he called softly, mostly to see if Ransom was still awake.
“I’m good.” The hammock above him wriggled, and Ransom’s voice filtered down. “Say, Marcus. Ever been homesick?”
“What’s it like?”
Marcus frowned. “Don’t you know?”
“Not sure. It’s not like I miss my dad. I don’t miss my mom either, and they don’t miss me.” Ransom’s voice tightened enough to break. “I kinda wish I had a little brother like Landon to look up to me. Must be nice to matter to someone.”
What do I say? Marcus had no clue.
But Ransom kept talking. “I think I have reverse homesickness.”
Marcus grunted. “What’s that?”
“I don’t ever want to go home again. Because this is better than anything back there.”
“It does?” Ransom almost sounded relieved.
“To me, yeah. I’ve changed homes a lot, so I know it’s not always a place.” Marcus took a deep breath. “You can be homesick for something you’ve never had … because something inside you knows when something is right … and when it’s wrong.”
“This seems right.”
“Yep.” Marcus gruffly said, “You’re probably not homesick because Uncle Al, Daichi, and me … we’re your home. For now.”
“Huh. I think I get what you’re saying.” After a while, Ransom asked, “What’s home for you?”
Marcus tried to put it into words. “I guess it’s like you said—reverse homesickness. If I don’t wish I was anywhere else, then I’m where I belong.”
“Belonging’s good.” When Ransom’s voice came again, his words slurred sleepily. “It’s a with … not a where.”
Close. Real close. Because it’s actually more of a Who.
Next Month: Angel Unaware, Part 22: “Archivist”
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