Title: Going Home
Chapter: #1: The Woman with The Red Parasol
Rating: PG-13 (violence, sexuality); rating may change
Summary: Near the end of the Edo era, Natsuki seeks a bodyguard to accompany her north. She meets Fujino Shizuru, an elegant, cold-blooded killer heading the same direction. AU. No guarantee on historical accuracy.
Chapter 1: The Woman with the Red Parasol
The girl knelt low before the small grave marker, her long tress of dark hair pooling about her shoulders as she whispered her prayers with more urgency than usual. After three weeks of searching, of getting the most scandalized looks and indignant responses from the ronin travelling through her tiny village, she'd finally had a good omen. If her dream (vague though it felt now) could be trusted, she'd be leaving tonight. Finishing her sutra, the girl gave the headpost a wistful smile, and not wanting to linger for fear that she'd lose her nerve, she turned and left, the hem of her navy kimono dirtying as it dragged on the ground.
As she walked past a teahouse and onto the main avenue, the blood-red sun climbed higher into the air while shopkeepers and merchants prepared for business, the dawn-tinted light casting everything into a rich vermilion haze. Shingled rooftops clattered as birds landed and left in search of breakfast, and already a handful of travellers were making their way down the thoroughfare, their backs laden with possessions or else ox-driven carts heavy with rice or tea leaves or fish. Setting herself beside a post marking the town limits, the girl straightened her hastily-tied obi, pulled the loose strands of her hair back into a bun, and checked the heavy weight underneath her kimono, hoping it wasn't too noticeable. She'd no sooner done this than a man walked up to her, a katana resting comfortably at his hip, but before she could even introduce herself to the rather disheveled-looking ronin, he began speaking while waving a hastily-drawn picture before her, his voice nearly incomprehensible in a thick Ryukuu accent.
"Pardon, bu' have ya' seen this wom'n?" The dark-haired girl blinked as she stared at the drawing, nothing from the long mop of hair to the blank smirk on her lips triggering recognition.
"No... But I have something to ask you... Are you interested i--" She'd gotten no farther than that when he'd walked away, clearly not interested in her since she had no information to offer. She groaned a bit at the man's rudeness, but soon enough forgot the incident to focus on a crop of fresh passerby.
By noon the girl's optimism had all but vanished, replaced by hunger and a new wave of worry. Again, she'd had no takers; if the ronin she asked didn't laugh in her face outright, they quickly and proudly declared that they had better things to do than to 'babysit a child.' She poked at the okonomiyaki on her plate, the sounds of the teahouse's other patrons doing little to quiet her own thoughts. What if her dream was wrong (though deep down, she doubted it was)? If it were up to her she would have left already, but her father... Again she checked the satchel hidden beneath her robe, feeling nervous. She was nearly out of her own money, and she'd been warned to be careful with her inheritance. How was she supposed to travel like this?
For some reason she almost jumped when the chime at the restaurant's entrance clinked, sweetly musical against the harsh din surrounding her. She was about to go back to her half-eaten meal when the curtain suddenly parted, a woman passing through silent as a ghost, yet for a moment everyone seemed to stop what they were doing to acknowledge her. For her part, the girl felt a slight jolt of recognition, though it was only because she'd seen that face on the portrait the ronin from before had been carrying.
She walked to a nearby table with an almost ethereal grace, an impression aided by the immaculent ivory kimono she wore, the flaxen-hair tied back into a simple ponytail, a face concealed by what looked like geisha paint. As if to cap off this rather unusual fashion, she folded up a crimson parasol, not leaving it with her sandals as she took a seat barely three paces from the much younger girl with midnight hair.
"W-what can I get for you, ma'am?" the waitress asked, blushing slightly as she failed to meet the calm smile that greeted her.
"Green tea, please." As the waitress bowed quickly and dashed into the kitchen, the geisha-woman glanced over at the younger girl, who quickly looked away. She hadn't meant to stare, but... somehow she'd felt curious, wondering if there was any reason why that man from earlier had been looking for her. There was no way she could be dangerous, though admittedly those red eyes of hers were a little frightening...
"Well, well... little Natsuki-chan seems to have the spare money to eat, Hideki-san."
At the sound of her name in that horrible, sleazy voice, Natsuki felt her brow furrow automatically, not bothering to turn around for knowledge that Kimura Hideki would be standing there, at least two of his overweight cronies flanking him. A ring-covered hand latched onto her shoulder, the scent of alcohol clinging to the yakuza wannabe making it clear he was looking for a fight. Despite the urge to pull off Kimura's hand, Natsuki decided she had no choice but to deal with it for now.
"Funny how you can afford that, Natsuki-chan... your dear old Dad always seemed to have money troubles himself. In fact," he muttered wickedly, slouching into a seat beside the girl, "...I think that you should be able to buy us all lunch. It's the least you can do to pay off what's owed to us." When the girl continued to eat her okonomiyaki, Hideki simply spun her towards him, grabbing a free hand and extending it across the table. Feeling violated, Natsuki longed to reach for the package in her robe, but the wakizashi now grazing her wrist meant that any sudden moves would result in more pain than she was prepared to deal with.
"Hey, watch it ya' bitch!" Not daring to look away from the blade threatening her, Natsuki heard a clatter, then the waitress with the short, brown hair stuttering out an apology before a throaty grunt and the smack of a hand making contact with a face sounded through the rapidly deserting teahouse.
"K-K-Kimura-sama, we don't want any trouble--" the owner of the shop began, but was quickly interrupted by the long-haired young man.
"Shut up! Ain't none of yer business w..." Hideki was cut off by a groan, the sight of one of his men doubled over in pain as geisha-woman walked calmly past him, ruby eyes oddly darkened. "...What the hell are you doing?! Get back to your seat or you'll be nAAAGHHH!!"
"Ara, ara...It's not wise to keep a thirsty woman from a drink," she said in a thick Kyoto-ben, indicating the tea knocked on the floor with a slight nod as she twisted the wrist she'd just snapped a little more. Forgetting himself in his delirious state of pain, Kimura moaned aloud, dropping the short sword on Natsuki's wrist to clutch his own, a futile effort to block the pain overwhelming him. Shocked, the girl backed away at once, not sure if she was more disturbed by the ease with which the woman had injured Hideki or with Hideki's pathetic yelling. After a moment the blonde woman simply let go, like a cat who'd grown tired of playing with a novelty, and at that the head of the Kimura 'gang' whimpered out, followed by his injured henchmen. Before any of the remaining patrons could do anything more than stare, geisha-woman bowed and calmly walked out, as if she knew she'd worn out her welcome. And though Natsuki was just as shocked as the rest of them, that didn't stop her from quickly tossing a few coins onto the table and running out, calling when she noticed the woman hadn't gotten too far, the red parasol resting comfortably on her shoulder.
"Hey! HEY!" The adolescent was a little startled when the woman suddenly turned around, regarding her with a serene face though her eyes insisted that she had no time to linger. It took Natsuki a moment to gather her thoughts. "You... you can fight!"
"Indeed," the blonde considered after a moment, her expression less one of pride than of something close to shame. "...I must leave quickly. State your business."
"Leave? Where... where are you going?" Natsuki hoped she didn't seem disrespectful, especially after seeing the man who'd hounded her father for so long cowering in fear by this strange woman's hand. She answered after a long moment, as if wishing not to divulge it but hoping that it would deter Natsuki.
"...There are things I must attend to. In the far North."
At those words Natsuki's heart leapt, the word 'fate' suddenly flashing in her mind's eye. She had misgivings about this silent blonde, but there was no doubt she was strong. It had to be more than just coincidence.
"Listen... There's somewhere I need to go up north as well. But I don't know where to find... this person, and if you could just guide me part of the way--"
"I have no need to be slowed down by a child." Natsuki instantly felt her anger flare at the slight, but bit her lip and continued.
"L-listen, I can pay you..."
"A girl who can't even pay her own debts?" If possible, the slight smirk on her painted face made Natsuki nearly lose her patience. "Besides, I'm no 'sword-for-hire.'" With that the blonde turned, her face concealed by the umbrella. In her desperation, Natsuki called aloud.
"But you saved my life!"
"It was convenient," the woman answered lazily, not bothering to look backwards as she headed down the street.
Sighing, the woman turned the corner, relieved that she seemed to have shaken off the dark-haired girl. She'd been a little worried about going straight through town, but between a few hours in the open and another three days to navigate the surrounding forest, the former had been an easy choice. Besides, she wasn't well known this close to the Capital, and was incognito to boot. She could see the town limits from here...
"That's her! She stole my clothes!"
She only spared a second to turn around, finding not just the woman she'd left bound and gagged outside town (concealing her nudity with what looked like a spare robe) pointing accusingly at her, but a skinny man with bad facial hair, a crazed look of greed in his eye as his fingers toyed with the grip of his blade.
"Fujino Shizuru-- Don't move!"
Unfortunately for the ronin, Shizuru only broke into a run, dashing off down the nearest alleyway, her accuser quickly setting off in hot pursuit. She had no doubt she could outrun him, or kill him if it came to that. But if anyone saw her weapon... her train of thought ended abruptly when she collided with another body, the smaller of them yielding to Shizuru's greater height and speed and ending up beneath the woman.
"What the--? What are you doing?!" Shizuru shook her head to banish her disorientation, only to wonder if she'd hit her head harder than she'd thought. Below her was not only the girl from the teahouse, but spilling from between the seams of her robe was a flood of ryo. More than she could hope to count. For a moment they stared each other down, both equally incredulous, before Shizuru quickly stood up, pulling the shaft of her parasol away from its top.
"I'd hoped to keep my cover for longer than this," she said absently, unaware that Natsuki was quickly gathering her coins and stuffing them a purse tied to her waist.
"W-who are you?! I saw that guy waving your picture around, but... what did you--" Natsuki's perplexed inquiry was cut off by the very man rounding the corner, with over a dozen other mismatched sword-bearers spreading out to form a tight circle around their prey. For her part, Natsuki wanted to be no nearer to anyone who'd have these many armed men after her, but between proximity to the woman with the blotched facepaint and the wall of swords around, Shizuru became an easy choice.
"So we meet face-ta-face, Fujino," the ronin with the greedy eyes chuckled, then cast a glance at her from top to bottom. He couldn't believe how utterly helpless she looked, from her docile smile and formal attire to what looked like half an umbrella in her hand. Did she hope to drive him off with that scrap? "Hmph. Hard ta believe yer worth that many ryo."
"Is it? I was worried that my disguise wasn't convincing enough," Shizuru retorted calmly, a carefree grin on her features as if this was a merely interesting diversion at best. "I admit I'm embarrassed, though-- You know my name, but the rest of you are all strangers. A shame, really."
"Well, there'r plenty of us who wanted ta meet you, Fujino... enough that we were willing ta visit together." To Natsuki's horror the woman beside her didn't seem to understand they were outnumbered. She only continued to smile benignly before uttering a simple taunt.
"That man in the grey... Do you trust him?" Greedy-Eyes blinked suddenly, hazarding a glance over at the third man to his right, looking equally disturbed to be pointed out but nonetheless stood his ground. Not waiting for an answer, but looking satisfied at the reaction, Shizuru continued. "...His hands are shaking and his stance is terrible. He's probably never held a katana properly in his entire life. And I can feel the same fear in the rest of your group-- you all undoubtedly believed that I'd... 'go along quietly' if you surrounded me. But if you value your lives," the blonde paused, putting dangerous emphasis on the remainder of her sentence, "...you'll leave now."
An uneasy chuckle broke out in the wall of 'bounty hunters;' despite the seriousness of her voice and the deadliness of her glare, it didn't change the fact that she had no weapon.
"Come, Fujino," Greedy-Eyes said condescendingly. "It's over, so if ya don't put up too much've a fight then we'll--"
Shizuru instinctively turned at the sound of the girl's voice directly behind her, and turning quickly found that one of the ronin, rattled by her words and infuriated by her insult, had lunged forward, disregarding the unity of the circle and Shizuru's greater value alive in an effort to avenge his wounded pride.
That was all she had needed.
Leaning her head quickly to the side, the tip of his blade cut the air, missing her by inches. Instead it ended up in the chest of the one across from him, and at that point-- despite Greedy-Eyes' protests-- they charged the two women at once. In a flash and a snap, a blade suddenly extended from the parasol stock and the shaft was twice its size. And with all the finesse and speed of a full-fledged samurai, Shizuru brought her naginata around in a full swing, sending everyone in range to the ground in a haze of blood. The leader, looking horrified, stared for a moment before raising his katana at arm's length, as though it would render him invulnerable. Shizuru was too fast for him, though, and before he could turn his head she was behind him, the blade of her long spear firmly jammed in his back. Pulling it out with a single motion, she let him drop to the ground with his writhing comrades, then wiped the blood off her already stained white sleeve.
"...Come. We're leaving."
It took Natsuki a moment, recovering from her horror as much as the crowd of passerby who'd parted for the Fujino woman to pass, to acknowledge that the offhand statement had been directed at her. Almost as much as that the joviality had returned to her voice. Shaking from her close brush with death, the girl slowly began to walk after the blonde, her naginata still drawn.
"Heh..." Natsuki looked down at the leader, bleeding from his mouth and the stab wound in his abdomen, fighting revulsion as he cast a horrible smile at her. "Ya think... you're gonna be safe with her? Ya don't know what yer gettin' inta... she's a demon... no w-woman..."
She did not stay to hear him drown on his own blood, nor did she speak when she finally caught up with Shizuru, who only cast her crimson eyes at her for a moment to acknowledge her presence. All that mattered was that her dream, flawed and inaccurate as it was, had been generally correct.
She was finally going north.