Summary: A vignette from the film "The Last Samurai."
Disclaimer: Not writing for profit. Go away, lawyers!
This one's for Alashiya, a great friend who is fully engaged in the passionate pursuit of perfection. Cheers, babe. :D
Nathan Algren sat against the wall in what he'd come to think of as his room in Taka's house and absently scratched his left foot. He still had that irritation between his big toe and the other four. It was probably from the thong in the straw sandals. Even with the socks, those things weren't made for comfort. He finally gave up scratching, tried to ignore it, and curled up into a ball on the tatami to sleep. He knew he'd need it. He'd spent today having the crap kicked out of him by Ujio, Katsumoto's right hand man. Tomorrow would undoubtedly bring more of the same.
It did. So did the day after that, and the day after that. By the end of the week the former army captain was so sore and bruised and battered that at nine o'clock on Saturday he shed his wet outer-wear outside, stumbled into the house and belly-flopped onto the tatami with no desire to ever get up again.
It was raining. His stomach rumbled almost as loudly as the thunder. He hadn't been getting quite enough food lately. Usually he worked up quite an appetite from training all day, but Nathan had seen the small rice sacks in the cellar and he wasn't about to eat poor Taka out of house and home – especially not after she'd been so nice to him. So now he only took one small bowl of rice at meals and always left enough soup for Magojiro and Higen, Taka's two sons, to fight over.
Tired. Sore. Hungry. Damp. And now, on top of everything else, he was feeling feverish. But he knew he had to get out and train tomorrow, no matter what the weather, or the other guys would snicker and call him a pussy. So he groaned, rolled over onto his right shoulder (which was only slightly less bruised than the left one), ignored his whimpering stomach and aching head, and tried to sleep.
The next day came. By noon Taka was worrying. That morning at breakfast Arugren-san wasn't looking very well, although he covered it with his usual smile. Her warmhearted nephew Nobutada, who had enthusiastically seen to Arugren-san's education in Japanese, didn't notice the drops of sweat appearing on their guest's neck and disappearing into his clothes. Neither did her boys. They dug into the soup with their usual gusto while Arugren-san slowly ate his bowl of rice.
But Taka noticed. He wasn't eating enough. He hadn't been eating enough for two weeks, but now it was really starting to show. There were dark circles under his eyes and bruises peeking out from his collar. She was tempted to sweep some rice out of the family bowl and into his, but refrained. She couldn't get him to eat just by putting the food in front of him. So she resolved to talk to him as soon as she could, find the problem, and fix it. In her house, she could fix anything.
Higen, Arugren-san and Nobutada left soon after to begin training. So she did chores, got lunches ready and played with Magojiro. She was outside gathering wood when there was a rustling in the house. She slipped into the dining room to find that the lunches she had prepared were gone. In their place was the large, flat rice dish where someone – probably Nobutada – had left a configuration of peas that looked like a happy face. Taka couldn't help but smile. Nobutada had yet to find a wife of his own, so he was still living in her house. But it pleased her that her nephew was considerate and that her efforts were appreciated.
Dinner was an equally quick affair. It didn't blind Taka to the facts, though. Arugren-san looked worse than he had at breakfast, and he seemed to have developed a cough. Higen stole a few looks at their guest. He knew something was wrong. But he was so hungry that he dug into his rice and didn't comment. Nobutada was cheerful and oblivious, as usual.
There was more training after dinner, so Taka stayed inside, readying the bedrooms and playing with Magojiro until the men were finished. At nine o'clock Nobutada and Higen tossed off their sandals, hung their sopping wet outer kimono and hakama on their hooks under the covered porch and walked in, wearing nothing but their inner kimono and jabbering excitedly about the matches they'd watched. Taka smiled and brought them both their sleeping robes.
A little while later, Arugren-san arrived. The jabbering stopped immediately. Nobutada and Higen both shot her a quick warning look and left.
She watched silently, holding a folded sleeping robe, waiting to be noticed. But it looked like Arugren-san was in no mood to notice anybody. He flopped down on the front stoop, the wet seat of his hakama pants poofing out behind him, and removed his sandals glumly. Then he undressed the same way Nobutada and Higen had and padded slowly across the floor on bare feet. He entered his little room and didn't even look at her, but the dejection in his eyes and the limp in his step told her that Ujio had probably used him for a practice dummy again. It was frustrating. Taka liked Ujio; he was a fine warrior and an equally fine man. But his teaching methods left something to be desired.
Taka sighed. She couldn't take away the bruises or the hurt pride, but she could at least offer Arugren-san something. She walked over to the guest room and opened the door, where she found him laying on his side. He looked tired, injured, and quite sick, which startled her. Granted he'd been looking a tad pinched since yesterday, but the rain hadn't helped things at all. His wet hair was flopping in his face and he could barely keep his eyes open. Then he coughed loudly, hiding his face in his sleeve.
Taka looked down at the cotton sleeping robe she'd brought with her, and then back at Arugren-san. This would never do. She backed out of the room, hurried to the family clothing chest and brought out something better. By the time she got back, he was sitting up, supporting himself with both hands and obviously dizzy. So she knelt and set down a padded wool robe for him. He coughed once and gave her a gentle smile. She returned it. Hopefully the extra protection would help him feel better and maybe get some sleep.
"Arugren-san," she said. She meant to stop there, to merely acknowledge his presence as a way of saying good night. But to her utter shock, her mouth kept moving. "If you need anything, I am nearby."
"Thank you," he replied in faltering Japanese, his voice husky and dry. "Good night, Taka."
She nodded and shut his door before finally losing her composure and blinking wildly. "I am nearby?" Where had that come from? Taka had come to regard Arugren-san as a relatively pleasant, if basically unwelcome guest. He was polite and well-bred in his fashion, and willing to learn the ways of his hosts. He was actually quite a lot less of an imposition than he should have been. But he was separate, not part of the family. Nevertheless, a promise was a promise. She spread out her tatami near the guest room, instead of in her usual place by the hearth.
Midnight came. Nathan, bundled in his sleeping robe, blinked in the darkness and shivered violently. He could now add "thirsty" to the hot/cold/dizzy/sore/coughing mix. Why he was thirsty was beyond him – it hadn't stopped raining since six, and he'd gotten thoroughly drenched. Surely he had enough water in him. The coughing had gotten worse, too. Every few minutes he launched into a fit of hacking into the folds of his robe, into his hands, pressing his face into the tatami – anything he could think of to muffle the sound.
Taka heard him anyway. She dozed lightly and listened for any change – a sneeze, some rustling, a soft call for assistance. But none came. It was the sudden, utter silence that propelled her out of bed at two in the morning.
She carefully pushed open the door to the small guest room and gasped. Her guest was curled into a corner, unconscious and shaking hard.
He didn't answer, lost in his fever. She brushed aside some wayward hair and felt his sweaty forehead. He was burning up. It reminded her of the night he'd arrived in her house, half dead from the battle, limp and unresisting. He was too weak to even cry out when she sewed up his shoulder.
She dragged him out of the corner and into the middle of the room, where she would have more room to work. First things first: feed the fever. She hurried off to the linen baskets, pulling out a few thick cotton blankets and an old battered quilt. Loaded down, she padded back to the guest room, threw the blankets helter-skelter on top of the American and crawled in to help.
This was not looking good. Her boys had been sick before, and there was that time Nobutada ate some bad fish and vomited for a few days, but they were much easier to help than a big, clumsy, unconscious foreigner who was breathing way too fast and twitching wildly. One of Arugren-san's arms jerked by accident and missed her elbow by an inch. Taka silently cursed how full this room was with two people in it. There was hardly any space to work.
Well, she'd been in tight spots before. Rolling up her sleeves, she quickly removed Arugren-san's obi and opened his sleeping robe. It gave her some pleasure that he had figured out how to wear fundoshi, instead of those curious underpants he'd been wearing when he arrived. After so many washes in the river, they were full of holes and only good for rags.
As she got to work, she remembered the first time she'd put the fundoshi in his clothing box, hoping he would figure out what to do with the cloth. Her experiment was a spectacular failure. Arugren-san walked into the dining room wearing his robe and hakama as usual, with a cheerful smile and the fundoshi wrapped a few times around his head, the tail end of it holding his hair back in a ponytail.
Magojiro giggled madly and pointed. Higen almost peed on himself, he was laughing so hard. Nobutada silenced them both and hurried Arugren-san outside for a little talk – and knowing her nephew, a demonstration. A few minutes later, they both came back properly attired and Arugren-san's cheeks had gone extremely red. She looked down at her dinner and tried not to smile.
The smile came out now, though. She wiggled him out of the sleeping robe and put it aside. Just as she was trying to roll out the first blanket, there was a creak outside and Nobutada poked his head in. He'd jammed his katana into the obi of his sleeping robe, just in case.
"Auntie?" he asked. His voice was husky with sleep. "I heard a noise. Is there…" And then he saw the other person in the room. "Oh, no! What happened?"
"He's ill. He wasn't well yesterday or today, but it just got quite bad. If we can wrap him up in these blankets, he should sweat off the fever. I'm glad you woke up, Nobu. I don't think I can lift him by myself."
Nobutada nodded. He clambered into the room to help his aunt. Their guest lay on his back, completely out of it, which was probably for the best. Even in the dim light, both of them could make out the remnants of his lessons with Ujio. He had lots of lovely little decorations all over him, each turning a different color. Nobutada winced.
"I must talk to Ujio."
"I agree. Here, help me move him this way."
They rolled Nathan over against the wall. He bumped his head against the wood softly and didn't move. Hardly a good sign, but at least the floor was a bit clearer. They spread out the quilt with the blankets on top.
Taka stood up. "I'll get his legs. You take his shoulders."
They positioned themselves, locked eyes, and lifted quickly. Nathan was airborne for a moment before they plopped him onto the bedding. Taka knelt and began wrapping him up in the first blanket.
"I was in a hurry and I completely forgot the ties. Would you go to the basket and bring me back three or four?"
He left and padded off through the dark house until he reached the basket. Locating the strips of cloth, he hurried back and crept into the room, to see that his aunt had finished her job. She'd made a neat package of her patient, leaving only his head free to loll about on the mat. With her nephew's help, she fastened the package with the ties and stood up, rather pleased with the result. There was no way Arugren-san was going anywhere.
Satisfied, she and Nobutada went back to bed. Only this time she left the doors to the guest room open.
Morning came. The sun burst through the window and striped Taka with bars of golden light. She was sleeping quietly on her mat, instead of stoking the fire. The sound of her children's footsteps woke her up.
"Mama?" Higen asked, stumbling out in his sleeping robe and rubbing his eyes. Little Magojiro was right behind him. "What's for breakfast?"
"Um, nothing yet," Taka said, sitting up and fighting the panic of having nothing ready. "Heat the fire. There should be water to boil for tea, and there are some cold rice balls in the food basket. Make sure Magojiro has something to eat too."
Higen could have been grouchy about having to make his own breakfast, but his mother looked very tired. He wondered what had kept her up all night. He nodded, took his little brother by the hand and went to work.
Taka hauled herself out of bed and went to check on Arugren-san. He was completely still. At first she was afraid he was dead, and hurried over. But then he took a breath and blew it out. She felt his forehead. It was warm, but a normal sort of warm – nothing like last night. The blankets had apparently done the trick. He coughed, but it was quiet. Kneeling next to him, she felt his cheeks and neck, to make sure the fever had not somehow escaped his forehead and spread. At least, that was what she told herself.
His eyes fluttered open. The morning light was creeping in through the window and it turned them a dazzling blue. She smiled.
"Good morning, Arugren-san."
"Good morning, Taka." His voice was quiet and hoarse. "May I have some … Sorry. Water? Please?"
Keeping her relief and happiness to herself, she delicately rose from the mat and slipped out the door.
In the main room, she met Nobutada. He was in the process of getting dressed.
"How is he, Auntie?" he asked, fumbling with the ties on his outer robe.
"Much better. Thank you for your help last night."
Nobutada smiled. "Always."
Taka nodded politely at him and went to her room to get her day kimono. Just before she went inside, she turned to him.
"Nobutada. I'm getting some water for Arugren-san. You will tell Ujio that he will not be training today."
Nobutada was a little surprised. "But Auntie, you said he was much better."
"He is. But he's in no condition to be thrown about like a rag doll."
Nobutada sighed. "Auntie, I said I was going to talk to Ujio about that."
"And I know you will. But for now Arugren-san is my charge, and he needs to rest."
"Um, I don't think Ujio will like that."
"Then I'm afraid you will have to disappoint him."
Nobutada looked cross. "Aunt, with all due respect, this is my village."
Taka smiled at him. "And once again I say to you, nephew, with all due respect … this is my house."
Nobutada, defeated once again, bowed politely and left to give Ujio the news. He didn't look happy about it, but Taka didn't really care. The men would get over not having their usual goofball opponent and just train harder with each other.
She changed into her work clothes and padded back into Arugren-san's room, where she was greeted with a surprise. Her patient was fully awake and squirming a little, obviously not too thrilled about being trussed up like a turkey. She knelt and untied the bag.
A few minutes later he was under clean blankets, wearing a fresh sleeping robe. Taka repositioned him so his head was near the window. Most of the light missed him. She knelt at his side.
"Arugren-san, now that you are feeling better, you must tell me something." She made sure to speak slowly.
He nodded. "Yes?"
"Do you not like my cooking?"
He looked baffled. "No, I like your cooking very much."
"But for two weeks, you have not eaten your fill. Why?"
Nathan blinked at her, stunned that she'd noticed this and embarrassed by his actions. Her eyes were soft and sad, as though she'd done something wrong. He'd offended her – the last thing he wanted to do.
"I … I saw the cellar. The sacks were … were small. I left rice because I didn't want any of you … to be hungry."
It took Taka a second to figure out what he was talking about. Then it hit her. Oh, of all the idiotic… She put a hand to her mouth and giggled. "Arugren-san. I thank you for your kindness, but we have plenty of food. I keep the rice sacks in the big stone box behind the house. Those sacks in the cellar are full of turnips. We don't eat many turnips, so I don't have many sacks."
She laughed again, hiding her blushing cheeks behind her hands. Nathan joined her. Once she'd calmed down a little, she patted his shoulder.
"I will bring you water. Wait here."
He nodded and she left. Feeling like a dolt, he lay back on the tatami and rested for a moment, relishing the peace and quiet. That didn't last.
Magojiro and Higen, having eaten their breakfast and heard about the situation, came in to visit. Nathan nodded at them. Higen sat seiza by the door, looking proper and respectful, particularly since he was visiting someone sick. Magojiro just saw the silly white man on his back, utterly defenseless. He didn't even sit down, and proceeded to pester Nathan by dancing around just out of arm's length and making faces.
"Magojiro!" Higen chided from his seat. Magojiro did not stop. Higen clicked his tongue in annoyance and turned to Nathan. "Please excuse him. He's still learning manners."
Nathan smiled. "It's fine."
He was less sore than yesterday. He was safe in Taka's house. The misunderstanding had been resolved. And as a bonus, he wasn't getting his ass handed to him by Ujio in front of all the other men. What a relief.
Catching Magojiro off-guard (he was making a face that required both hands), Nathan sneaked one hand out of the blankets and tickled him. The little one screeched with laughter and climbed on top of him, digging his chubby elbows and knees into old bruises. It didn't really hurt, but Nathan made a face at Magojiro and squealed out an overly-dramatic "oooh!" Magojiro, who was easily entertained (and five if he was a day), found this hilarious and kept crawling along, to see what other faces and sounds he could get out of his new toy.
Higen's eyes bugged out in horror. He hurried over to get his brother off their guest but tripped over Nathan's leg and went sprawling. Soon the three of them were tangled up in a pile, Nathan trying in vain to shield himself from the children's tussle and Higen trying to catch Magojiro, scolding him loudly and cursing as he swiped and missed.
Nathan just held his ears and thanked the powers above that Taka was away getting water; she would probably be very upset if she saw him playing like this with the kids. Higen finally got bored and gave up trying to pin his wriggly sibling. He plopped down on the floor to catch his breath. Nathan laid back and let Magojiro clamber all over him.
Tomorrow he would train again. But today … today was for this.