Characters: Foreman, Cuddy
Word count: 3,297
Summary: On the first day of training, the Order gives Foreman a sword.
Notes: Extremely late entry to foreman_fest. My prompt was: Ninjas in Space AU - Foreman and Cuddy are ninjas in space. Many thanks to zulu for making this way better.
On the first day of training, the Order gives Foreman a sword. It's smooth, polished wood, with a dull edge, not sharp enough to cut. Foreman tries very hard not to take that as an insult.
His lao-shi is the one who places the weapon in his hands during the initiation ritual, her eyes dark as she studies him for the first time. "You are to take this journey, xue-seng, but you will not walk it alone. I offer you this gift, to aid you in your quest. Do you accept it?" Her voice is calm and measured, and he remembers that he is not the first she has taught, not the only one she will teach.
Foreman bows in the formal manner before kneeling. "I do," he says, holding his arms out in the traditional stance. The ground is hard beneath his knees, ancient stone that has preserved their order for centuries. The temple sits in the middle of the only continent of a rain forest planet, isolated from civilization, from the rest of the galaxy. It is a good place to become strong, the Elders say. It is a good place to become hard and sharp, like the weapon he will one day wield.
There is transportation offworld, of course, and protection in the form of orbital shielding (not that anyone would be foolish enough to attack them), but other than that, everything is stripped down to its essentials, only things made of wood and stone and cloth are used. This is the traditional way. There is another part of the training, too, that will take place elsewhere, but those are for the upper-students, those who have already completed the lau-lou, the old path.
He stands and bows to Cuddy-lao-shi, gripping the sword in one hand, and the previously serious expression on her face curves into a smile.
He grew up on a carrier freighter. The Glory was an awkward, hulking thing that his family owned and ran, hauling shipments across the galaxy. The first thing he remembers is the sound of the engines, the clanking of metal on metal. His mother had soft, gentle hands and a warm, full voice. His father was a white smile across a dark face, wide and bright. His brother was a flick at his ears, a taunt over the ships comms, and Foreman can't think badly of those times.
They moved around, from place to place, planet to planet. The thing he always remembers is the field of stars, just outside the viewport of his cabin, streaking as they went past. The way they all looked identical, and yet not identical at all. Vast and welcoming, somehow.
Nothing quite felt like home like they did.
The first thing he learns is to stand. When Cuddy-lao-shi says this, Foreman wants to laugh, but the teachers do not do anything trivial, not unless it teaches something. She leads him to an empty room, with gray stone walls and one solitary window, high above the ground. "Stand here until the sun has gone down," she says, gesturing to the center of the room, and Foreman nods. There's an amused smirk on her face as she leaves, but Foreman doesn't register it.
The first five minutes are easy, legs straight, back straight, hands joined behind him. He practices the meditation exercises, first, envisioning his mind empty, clean. White, like the incubation chambers, white that stretches to the horizon. But there is an impatience underneath that he can't shake, does not want to shake. He wishes to learn his weapon, wishes to learn other things, not waste a day here standing.
After that, his legs start shaking, muscles wanting to move, trying to betray him. He manages to keep his breathing even, and his body is pulled tight like it's about to snap. It's betraying him, his body, and he cannot achieve the right state of mind for his meditation exercises, too distracted by his own weakness. He focuses on his breathing instead, the steady in and out, in and out. It's not easy, to keep the burning in his legs from overwhelming him, to keep himself from falling.
There is a patch of light on the wall, and Foreman watches it as it moves, by degrees, creeping upward. He finds it almost easy to lose himself in it, that one changing spot, a marker of the passage of time. Something in his body loosens, disconnects from itself, and the pain subsides, fading into the background.
He watches it as the light gets longer and darker and richer, bright yellow turning orange, and when it finally disappears, he is almost surprised to find himself still standing.
She comes back in at dusk, the dim, diffuse light still lingering in the room. She seems to be surprised to find him still there, still waiting. Surprised and pleased. "Good," she says, a curve of her smile on her face. "We will have dinner now."
She beckons, and he follows. At first, his legs ache, unfamiliar and unprepared for the effort of walking, but that fades away as well. He feels that he has learned something today, but he is not sure what.
He thinks that he will learn that too, in time.
At the age of fifteen, he was caught trying to jack a speeder on Jasatara. At the age of sixteen, he joined the Order.
There are bits and pieces that belong between those two events, but Foreman doesn't like talking about them, so he doesn't.
His days begin to sort themselves into patterns. In the mornings, he meditates on the stone floor of his room, in the patch of sunlight let in by the open doorway. Mornings are the quietest part of the day, silent and still. The afternoons are for lessons, Cuddy-lao-shi's voice steady and sharp in his ear as the sun turns more gold than yellow. He listens to her spare bits of wisdom, tucks them away. Good advice should not be wasted, his mother used to say, and Foreman knows it's true. He practices his forms in the evenings, his weapon in hand, the motions smooth and familiar. He likes to practice in a small courtyard on the fifth floor of the largest building, where no one else goes, where it is easy to watch the sunset bloom across the darkening sky.
There other students, other teachers studying and teaching in the temple at the moment, and Foreman meets them in bursts. First, Cameron and Chase, House-lao-shi's two trainees, and they are bright and loud and open in ways that Foreman does not quite understand. He keeps too much to himself. They eat together in the mornings, and Foreman listens to their chatter. It's soothing, in a way.
Cameron is from Tyllius, a mid-rim forest world, that Foreman's only ever been to once. There are plains, where the trees haven't grown too thick, and Foreman remembers the way the grasses came up to his chest (he was nine at the time), the tiny green bugs that hid at the base of the stalks, the rich smell of dirt. Foreman can imagine Cameron, all earnest idealism, growing up on Tyllius. It's not that hard.
Chase is from Lhrukana, a dry, desert world with huge icecaps. Foreman's never been there, but he hears Chase talk about home from time, affection in his voice. Chase is easy to understand, Foreman thinks. He just wants people to like him, to be proud of him.
House-lao-shi, on the other hand, is something Foreman does not quite comprehend. He has none of the serenity of the other teachers, too sharp and too impatient. He has an edge, polished, bright and sharp.
He teaches tactics, lessons that could be dull, but House-lao-shi likes to keep them all off-guard, asking sideways questions and twisting their assumptions with his quick, deadly tongue. Foreman resents it, most of the time, the condescending sneer, the brush-off of Foreman's opinions.
"You're wrong," House says, dismissing him without another thought, when all the other teachers would make him prove himself wrong, step by step. He's putting a lot of weight on the cane, and Foreman can imagine kicking out from underneath him, watching him fall.
Instead, Foreman grits his teeth and glares.
Foreman does not have a planet he calls "home", no culture but that of the spaceports. But there was a wood figure on his parents' dresser, carved into the shape of man, a walking stick in one hand, its face tilted up toward a non-existent sky.
He thinks of it at times, when his body aches and refuses to move, when he chafes at Cuddy-lao-shi's demands for self-discipline, when she says he is too ruthless, too uncaring, when he wants to leave and never come back. He thinks of the way the man will perpetually be searching, never satisfied, restless until the end.
It's raining as Foreman runs across the roofs, feet sure on the the stone structures, finding all the right grooves to grab onto. He knows his body now, not the way Cuddy-lao-shi does, not with that same perfect fluidity, that pinpoint precision, but with something that's close, that's getting there. He knows the power he needs to get to the next roof, the way it will feel for his muscles to bunch and push. He knows his uniform, the way it moves with him, the way the black of it hides him in the shadows, the feel of fabric pulled tight around his head and nose and mouth. The tile under his feet is sturdy, but it has a different texture in the rain, and he has to watch his balance, weight it carefully against the easy way it lets him move, fast and uncontrolled.
("Control is key," Cuddy-lao-shi said during training, correcting his stance. "Control is what makes you different, what makes you strong." Foreman let her move him, felt the weapon in his hand shift, and learned.)
The rain makes him reckless, makes him want to push himself harder, farther. He jumps, feeling the weightlessness of flight, exhilarating as always, but when he lands on the next rooftop, he lands badly, slipping on the wet stone. He manages to catch himself before he tumbles onto the ground, one hand curled onto the edge of the roof. He takes a moment to gather himself. He's not that far off the ground.
He lets go, an easy landing, bending his knees to absorb the impact. Cuddy-lao-shi is waiting for him, her face creased with displeasure, and Foreman feels a quick flash of shame before fighting it down.
"You were being careless," she says, even though Foreman knows that already.
"I am sorry, lao-shi," he says, bowing his head in deference.
The walk back to the living quarters is short, and halfway there, Cuddy-lao-shi says, her expression thoughtful, "I studied with House-lao-shi many years ago. There are times when you remind me of him as he was then. Be careful not to make his mistakes."
Her words take Foreman by surprise. If someone were to ask him, he would say that he and House-lao-shi are nothing alike. "Thank you," he says, bowing, accepting her advice for what it is.
"You have potential, xue-seng. Do not squander it," she says, leaving Foreman to ponder over her words for the rest of the day.
None of the students at the temple know the story behind House-lao-shi's leg injury, or even the extent of it. Rumors fly, of course -- an angry mob on Skedactica, a rival from the White Tiger school, a starship crash -- and once, a brave student asked Wilson-lao-shi, who knows House-lao-shi better than anyone, about it, but he told her nothing, just smiled and explained that it was not his story to tell.
Foreman's favorite explanation is a barfight on an Outer Rim world. Dom, perhaps. He can imagine it quite clearly, the dark, rainy night, the sneer on House-lao-shi's face, the soft glow of the vibroblade in the dim light of the bar, the inevitable conclusion.
Foreman himself got into a fight once on Dom. He'd been twelve at the time, and the other boy had told him that his skin wouldn't be so dark if he washed it from time to time. Foreman still doesn't regret punching him in the face, even though it meant that he didn't get dessert for a week.
Foreman begins to watch House-lao-shi after his conversation with Cuddy-lao-shi, his snide dismissals of anyone who doesn't agree with him, his casual arrogance, his fierce impatience. Maybe Foreman's just seeing what he thinks he should see, but every time House insults Cameron's technique, every time he sees House-lao-shi ignore one of Chase's suggestions, he feels an unsettling twinge of recognition. He doesn't like it.
"He's not a bad person," Cameron says, while they climb, hand over hand, up some of the tallest trees in the forest. Cameron climbs the way she fights, with a strange combination of ferocity and timidness.
Chase snorts from somewhere below them. It's hard to spot the dark green of their uniforms amongst the leaves. "Yes, he is," he says.
Cameron sighs, which could be the climb or just the thread of conversation. "He's just angry. Frustrated. Wouldn't you be if you couldn't walk without a cane?"
Foreman nods, though she probably doesn't see it. He remembers the anger, the frustration, at being caged quite well. He still feels it at times, simmering underneath his skin.
When they reach the top, Foreman says, "Yeah, I think I understand that." From their perch, they can see the forest all around them, creeping up the mountains to their right, stretching out to the horizon in front of them, and he wonders what it would be like to never have this again.
When they first arrested him, his cell was cold and dark, and it smelled of old sweat and urine. He remembers curling up in one of the corners, sulking, pressed up against the cold metal of the walls. He'd stayed that way until his parents came to get him, shame twisting darkly in the pit of his stomach.
"No," House-lao-shi says to Cameron. "You'd be dead before you had the chance to pick up your sword. What do you do?" He leans in close to Foreman, trying to get a reaction, but such tactics have not worked on Foreman for some time now.
Foreman knows what House-lao-shi wishes to hear. He wishes to hear that Foreman would sacrifice the innocent to gain the upper hand, that Foreman is learning to think the way House-lao-shi does, every action in service of one goal: victory. Foreman can see the logic in it, can understand the cold, ruthless steps he must take to reach that conclusion. "You let her kill the bystander, and when she has her back turned, that's when you make your move," Chase says, following the script.
"Good," House-lao-shi says. "I'm glad one of you is actually paying attention." He glares at Cameron, like he expected better from her, and she fearlessly meets his eyes.
Foreman remains silent, watching. It's not House-lao-shi's philosophy itself that disturbs him. It's that most of the time, he actually agrees.
The first thing Cuddy-lao-shi ever said to Foreman was, "Well, you do have spirit. I wonder if you will ever learn to control it."
He had pleaded guilty on all charges, and now he was waiting for his sentence. He remembers disliking her elegance, her poise. "What's it to you?" he asked. It wasn't unusual for the various orders to take in "troubled youth" and remake them in their own image. He knew what she was the first time she stepped into his holding cell.
She didn't even flinch. Foreman remembers being impressed. "In order to succeed, you will need discipline -- self-discipline. We can offer you that."
Foreman laughed. "Oh, really?" he said, but he remembers the way she looked at him, like she saw something there that no one else ever had.
It's late afternoon when he finally snaps, during a sparring match with Chase, their shadows long in the dimming light. Foreman's tired, worn out from Cuddy-lao-shi's exercises, and when he spots the opening, he goes for it, a dirty groin grab that brings Chase down fast and hard. (A street fighter's move, Cuddy-lao-shi would say with a snort.) He regrets it almost immediately.
House-lao-shi claps. "You're learning," he says. "You're doing what it takes to win."
It's a slap on the face, even though it's not intended to be, and even as Foreman bows, accepting the praise, he thinks, No. No, I will not become you. If this road must be longer and harder, I will gladly take it. If this is the price of winning, I will gladly lose.
His next match is against Cameron, and this time, he finds his center, the way Cuddy-lao-shi has taught him, finds the quiet place inside himself where the world around him becomes sharp and clear. This time, he wins with a clean sweep, his technique so precise Cuddy-lao-shi would be proud.
He finds everything easier after that, his lessons, his meditation, his practices, all driven by what he knows he is not, what he knows he does not want to be. Cuddy-lao-shi seems pleased with his progress. "You have made peace with yourself," she says. "I had feared you never would."
His final test is to venture deep into the forest and retrieve an ancient dagger from a hidden temple. It takes him three days. Three days of the calming sounds of chirping birds and buzzing insects, the thick tangle of leaves obscuring the sky. Three days of relying on nothing else but himself and what he has learned. It saves him more times than he can count.
When he returns, Cuddy-lao-shi is smiling. "Come with me," she says, "and we will give you your sword."
She takes him to the Chamber of the Elders, a small, circular room in the heart of the biggest temple with the Elders seated near the walls, facing inwards. She nods as he kneels before them and says, "This student has passed his final test. I will give him his sword and my blessing. Do you approve?"
"We do," the First Elder says, voice rough with wisdom and age. He sits at the front of the circle, and his hands are hidden in the long sleeves of his robe. There is a sword in front of him, newly made. The sword is newly made, Foreman knows, because your sword must be an extension of yourself, must only belong to you. The First Elder hands it to her.
Cuddy-lao-shi turns to him. "Eric Foreman, this is your sword. Treat it well, and it will protect you. You will have need of it in the times ahead. Do you accept it?"
"I do," Foreman says, holding out his hands. His sword fits like it has always been there.
They give him an hour to pack before the shuttle will come to pick him up and take him to the rest of his training. He doesn't actually need that much time.
Cuddy-lao-shi meets him on the landing pad. "I wish you luck," she says, as the shuttle touches down. She is still smiling, eyes dark and pleased, and Foreman knows he will never forget the things she has taught him.
He bows to her one last time before he leaves.