Sleepwalker, chapter I: the strangest dream

Disclaimer and notes: I do not (sigh) own Jin, Mariya Enshirou, Niwa Junnosuke, or any other character of Samurai Champloo, and I have no intent of trespassing on the copyrights of Manglobe and Simoigusa Champloos (c) 2004-05, to whom I owe so much. Many, many thanks and warm dedications to my nakama: Judy/Gecko, without whom nothing happens; and to my priceless beta-reader and collaborator Ariel the Tempest, without whom this would never have gotten past "passing thought" stage; by now she may know how important all that is.

Edited July 2009 to purge it of fangirl Japanese.

He was having the strangest dream.

Everyone else in the house was screaming.

That's how he knew it was a dream. He was at home, and home is safe. People don't scream there.

He heard running feet, and a cold voice shouting commands, something shattering…

If he just stayed asleep, it would pass by soon. He closed his eyes tightly, curled up in warm, tea-scented darkness.

The screaming faded away, the running feet departed. Everything was as it should be again, except the smell. A dark, heavy smell had crept into his dream, like iron in the sun, or rot.

More running feet, and voices…

Too late…knew the clan had enemies, but…the whole place reeks of blood..

(blood? That smell was blood? No--)

...anyone left alive?

Abruptly light broke in on his dark space, and someone scooped him up, wrenching him into reality. He fought with the fury of pure terror, and the startled young man set him down, said something…

"--easy, won't hurt you, boy. Did you see what happened? Did you recognize any of them?"

…what did he mean?…and who else did Jin hear talking? An unfamiliar voice--

He looked around, realized that they were standing in the kitchen, of all places. But he had been asleep in the main room, with everyone else--when--how had he--

Something itched his neck; he rubbed it unthinking and felt a small object, crisp and dry. It crunched in his fingers: a tea leaf.

Rubbing it slowly to powder between his fingers, not at all aware of it, Jin walked out into the central room, hearing the soldier's footsteps follow him. Strangers, armed men, but standing still, as at a loss for words. He stared at them fixedly, with a sudden, awful fear of looking at anything else in the room. The dark smell overpowered the delicate fragrance of the tea leaf. The young soldier behind Jin spoke.

"Their son, sir. Jin, if I remember. He must have heard them break in and hidden himself in the kitchen bins; they missed him in the confusion, I expect. I doubt he saw anything."

..yes, that was right; he remembered. He had been shocked awake by a sudden inexplicable terror, scrambled clear of the futon and darted for the kitchen; right on his heels the sudden commotion, the door crashed open, his father shouting; he had just dived into the tea basket as heavy feet pounded into the room--they must have missed seeing him by no more than a sun or two…he was lucky…

The captain shook his head. "Makes no sense. Killed even the servants but left without being certain they'd gotten the son and heir. Do they have a death wish?"

"There is a boy his age dead--" another soldier pointed--"There. A servant's child maybe. Probably mistook him for this one and thought their job done." He spat. "Bastards."

It didn't make any sense. Who were these people? Where was everyone else? Couldn't he just go back to sleep? Everything was so, so wrong--- and that smell, that made his spine tingle and his stomach feel knotted up and sick all at once…

The words began to fade into a blur again. What to do…whole family dead…Mariya-dono's dojo. He's kin to House Takeda, and has no son of his own…

The young guard captain who'd found him was trying to explain that he needed to collect his belongings and get ready to leave, there was a long journey ahead of him. In the middle of the night? But…

Then one of the men moved aside and Jin saw what was in his parents' bed.

They'd thought he'd been drugged when he arrived at the dojo; his pupils had dilated when he saw what was left of his family, and he stared fixedly into middle distance for the entire journey there. The first time they put a sword in his hand, however, he seemed to suddenly awake. It was recalled that his father had spoken of his natural talent with a blade, and there was general relief that Mariya-dono could take him in.

He was tended with kindness and sympathy, but largely left alone, because no one knew quite how to deal with him; they had taken in foundlings before, but never one like this. He was a handsome boy, and would have been most engaging if a child's natural enthusiasm ever lit up his face, but it never did. He was biddable and obedient, but disturbingly absent; he did precisely as told, gravely and silently. He showed no anger and did not cry. He heard and replied when spoken to, but met all eyes with a strangely adult, level, dark-grey gaze, perfectly calm, his eyes revealing nothing that lay behind them. When not bidden to do anything--in the free time the dojo's regimen permitted its students--he either remained in the boys' quarters, sitting motionless on his small futon, or practiced alone in the dojo with a startling, single-minded ferocity.

There was much quiet discussion, and some deep misgivings, but no real alternative, since the boy was Mariya-dono's kinsman, and had nowhere else to go. Only time and the grace of the Forgiving One could do for him what they could not. So, after ascertaining that he was not ill, and hadn't been drugged or poisoned by his family's killers, they left him to his own devices--not without some lingering unease. He was hardly like a child at all. He was like one found wandering in a mountain snowstorm, with the distant eyes of one kissed by Yuki-onna, the Snow Maiden, the giver of silent death.

The nightmare could never touch him while he was fighting, so he threw himself into it to the exclusion of all else. It grounded him, set his feet in the way of his oldest memories, when he had listened wide-eyed to his father's battle stories and slept with his wooden sword beside his bed. That was real. That was how he knew what a warrior would do. He would not hide and beg for pity; he would train and prepare himself, because there were enemies, they had shown themselves, and one day they would appear again. They had killed everyone around him, but now he was wary, and they would not kill him. He fixed himself on that thought, centered on it with all his strength. They would not, ever, get that chance.