So engrossed he was with his determination to keep her free of his touch that when she, once, pressed her lips against his and brought her hand hesitantly to the opening of his gi, brushing three fingertips against his chest, he inhaled sharply and jerked away. He fumbled backwards; a grown man frightened of a small woman – of what he could do to her.
Taka stammered, even her faltering voice maintaining a sense of dignity Algren envied, blushed, and turned away. "I'm sorry," she whispered, uncertainty seeping into her words. "I'll go now." She swallowed and turned to leave, mortification writ clearly upon her brow. A wall rose behind her eyes, exposing the steel inside her, pushing Algren away.
Realizing what he had done Algren recovered from his shock and grabbed her sleeve. "No, I'm sorry," he said quietly, apologetically. "I'm afraid of..." he stumbled for the right words, "I don't want to hurt you." Hoping, praying, in silence, that Taka would understand, he looked at her with pleading eyes. Please. Don't leave me. Stay with me.
She looked up then, to his eyes, and there was compassion in hers. Algren pulled her closer, hesitantly, until she was pressed against his chest, his arms surrounding her, her arms fisted in the back of his gi. Whispering words in English to her ear, he stroked her back with relieved, uncertain strokes: "Thank you. Thank you."
The autumn was fast approaching.
Algren remembered his first autumn in the village; a captive/guest, held against his will but never ill-treated. He remembered the strange people, their politeness, their averted eyes and the laughter of the children. A bitter smile crossed his lips when he thought that he, the man they all had despised, should be the last reminder of the glory of the village.
But now, there was no hatred in the eyes of the villagers. There was respect, and gratefulness, and that, to Algren, made the place feel more familiar than any he had habited before.
And when he returned from his stroll in the woods, he closed his eyes and marveled at the beauty of the words: "Welcome home."