Chapter 6: Can't Go Home Again - Part 1

Summary: In hunger and fatigue, Shizuru and Natsuki have a bitter argument before going their separate ways. Shizuru is attacked by an unexpected foe, while Natsuki-- having second thoughts about her journey-- makes an odd request of a stranger.

It had been nearly four days since their meal in the Tokiha home, and it was starting to become painfully difficult to ignore. In fact, it was because of the incident there that Shizuru had re-evaluated the original plan of going to Kyoto, opting instead to travel the long way around the Capital and into the surrounding wilderness. And though Natsuki wasn't one to complain normally, the combination of a lack of food and a new understanding of her companion's nature had made morale run especially low.

"Can we rest for the night NOW?" Natsuki implored as twilight darkened, the streaks of florescent brought on by sunset gradually losing their warmth to the evening chill carried from the direction of distant Mt. Fuji. She was dreading the very concept of walking farther; not only was the grassy plain before them dipping and undulating across the landscape, but it was that chill-- more than anything else-- confirming that they were getting farther with every day. Unfortunately, that seemed to be exactly what Shizuru had in mind.

"We can make it another few hours-- I'm fairly certain there's another village past the tree line," Shizuru explained while indicating a row of viridian clumps at least another mile away.

"Come on-- we haven't had a proper stop since Kobe, and we both know why THAT was." Shizuru said nothing in response to Natsuki's barely-veiled aggravation. She simply offered a small sigh and continued walking, but Natsuki seemed to have gained a small degree of courage from her hunger. "I don't see why you're so comfortable with raising hell in some dirt-poor town, but you're afraid to pass through Kyoto."

"For the last time," Shizuru declared, voice calm as ever but with just a hint of strain to it, "...Going through the Capital would only save us a day or so in travel time, and we'd have to worry about passing through the Checkpoint to stay on the main road..."

"Oh, and since when have you been afraid to cause trouble? We haven't eaten in days-- the least we can do is risk it to get something in our stomachs!" Shizuru decided it would do no good to continue the argument, so she simply ignored Natsuki's complaint. Natsuki, however, fueled by her companion's seeming lack of resistance, continued. "We shouldn't have to worry about just taking a rest-- or are there any other people with a grudge against you that you're afraid of dealing with?"

"Don't talk about things you don't understand."

Natsuki blinked at the clipped, harsh tone of the older woman, hesitating for a moment when she realized she'd somehow managed to strike a nerve. Nevertheless, the fact that she seemed to have affected that damned placid demeanor drove Natsuki on even though the sensible thing to do would have been to just be quiet.

"...Why shouldn't I? I don't think I have to trust a woman who kills that many people and doesn't even bat an eye!"

"Then why don't you leave? Or are there things that you NEED me to do for you?" This time it was Natsuki's turn on the defensive; Shizuru's calm smile was back in place as she paused to look her in the eye as steadily as if she could render the younger girl to dust with her gaze.

"...I... I don't know the way, I told you that!"

"Of course not, and so you need someone competent to babysit you. You don't care WHO it is, just so long as they take care of you, don't you?" At Shizuru's casual, sarcastic insult Natsuki felt her hand ball into a fist and slacken; she didn't have to take this from HER! What did she know about what Natsuki had promised to her father-- what did she DESERVE to know?

"Th... that's not--"

"And who is this 'important person' anyway? A suitor too poor to send an escort for you? ...Or else a deadbeat mother who sent you away a--"

Natsuki heard the smack of hand against cheek before she registered the angry red blotch on the left side of Shizuru's face, before she felt the slight painful tingle of impact along her right palm. The green-eyed girl was too angry to acknowledge that in her right mind she wouldn't have done that, or the slight widening of Shizuru's eyes in speechless disbelief.

"You know what? You're right-- I DON'T have to take any of this from you! You just cut up people without any thought and then you have the GALL to act like you're better than everyone else anyway! Don't you DARE act like you know ANYTHING about me! I can find my own damn way, so why don't I just go on ALONE?! That way YOU don't have to worry about 'babysitting' me anymore and we'll BOTH be better off!"

And finally with a furious growl, Natsuki simply stormed off to the southwest, towards Kyoto and the prospect of a hot meal.

Shizuru stood in place for a while, oddly aware of the sharpness of the slap and the girl's gradually retreating form, before offering only a deep sigh into the darkness and continuing on her way.

It was around an hour later before Natsuki regretted leaving her guide, and she'd lost the seemingly straight path she'd been cutting through the surrounding forest. Even so, there was no way she intended to apologize, and thus her stubbornness left her with no option but to continue on, complete disorientation be damned.

Besides, she reminded herself, there was nothing to apologize for. She'd done the right thing, had put that horrible woman in her place now that she truly knew of the darkness in her. And granted, it would be difficult, but she could find her way out of the woods and to the Capital. She just hoped she could find an edible plant or something before then. But what could she eat in this place? Again the slight sting of regret hit, but again Natsuki supressed it.

Her gloominess dissipated a bit when the distant rush of water grew louder, and a sigh of relief passed her lips as she came to the bank of a swift river. Grateful for water at least, Natsuki bent down, careful to hold her hair back as she cupped her free hand and brought the cool liquid to her parched lips. She grinned at the mental image of Shizuru, looking defeated at the thought of Natsuki able to (somewhat) navigate on her own...

Before Natsuki could fully appreciate the enormity of her small accomplishment, the sound of nearby voices startled her. Turning around, she stood up and found the glimmer of torches not far off, accompanied by the jumbled chatter of a rather large group of people. Squinting, Natsuki could identify nothing specific about who they were or their intentions, but a strange jolt ran up her back. Were they looking for...

"Hey, who's there?!"

"It might be her-- get a few men and follow me!"

Natsuki tensed when she realized that a few had seen her, and her first instinct was to move backwards. However, having already been on the edge of the river, there was only one place for her to go.

She nearly choked as she found herself suddenly in the current, struggling to no avail against the raw force of the unceasing flow. She kicked helplessly at a nearby rock, but the undertow soon pulled her beneath the glassy surface, and as Natsuki felt her lungs ache for air and her muscles slacken, the world around her went black and her only thought was that this had to be the end.

Shizuru shut her eyes as she leaned against the broad tree, groaning when slumber didn't come. It wasn't as if she wasn't comfortable, but at the same time she knew her restlessness had nothing to do with her sleeping arrangements.

It bothered her because she knew Natsuki wasn't her problem now-- that if the girl thought she could travel alone, anything that happened to her would be her own fault. But the way they'd parted, and so abruptly... it didn't sit right with Shizuru somehow, as if she'd left something unfinished. Casting the oddly sentimental thought from her mind, Shizuru scooted against the bark again, taking in the hum of night animals and considering that now, without Natsuki, she'd be able to get where she needed to be...

There was a sudden whistling of something shooting toward her through the trees, and on pure instinct Shizuru tilted her head just enough to avoid the arrow that, halfway into the trunk, would have gone straight between her eyes. Startled and without any means of attacking from afar herself, Shizuru clambered onto the other side of the maple, protecting her from another arrow that hissed past her by mere inches.

"Who are you? Were you sent after me by him?"

Considering the sniper's skill, Shizuru was a bit surprised to hear the voice belonging to her was rather timid, but determined. Not wanting to appear frightened, Shizuru called back as loud as she could.

"I'll tell you who I am if you explain why you just shot at me!"

After a minute of silence, the Fujino woman dared to look out from her cover; it appeared that the sniper had no real quarrel with her, as she was already gone, leaving a very puzzled Shizuru in her wake.

She squinted her eyes, but it didn't make the glare of bright sunlight off freshly-fallen powder any easier to see past. It was cold here, and even more so outside, but she was comfortable, so happy-- Father was there, eyes kind and face aged with concern, and then SHE was there too, and slender, delicate fingers ran through Natsuki's short dark hair, a messy and sloppy mirror to the cascading, gorgeous sheet of near-cobalt that matched hers perfectly otherwise...

Natsuki felt, upon slowly forcing her eyelids open, that she'd been asleep for weeks, or months, or years even. And then in her half-daze, she thought she saw Shizuru kneeling over her, brown locks crisscrossing over ruby eyes and the strangest, gentlest smile on the killer's lips. It vaguely reached a part of her mind that she might have died when she fell into the river, and this was the afterlife somehow.

But soon enough she tried to sit up and found her body immediately protest from the shoulders down, and lacking the will or the energy she relented to the somewhat soft bed of straw she'd been laid on (unless she'd gotten there herself some how, and if that was the case she didn't recall it). And then the kind face before her wasn't Shizuru at all-- upon closer inspection Natsuki wondered how she'd made the connection in the first place. The color of her hair-- a light, smooth brown-- was the only semblance to Natsuki's former companion and even then it was cropped short; this woman was a bit smaller and had lighter, softer eyes while a quiet serenity not unlike a bodhisattva seemed to permeate the air around her. Compared to this stranger, Shizuru seemed positively brutal.

"Ah, good-- you're all right." The woman said quietly, and instantly Natsuki felt an almost maternal warmth in the smile that followed. Reaching carefully over to the fire crackling beside her, she grabbed a pair of what looked like skewered birds and a few dried yams, then placed them on a small plate and offered them to Natsuki. Again she smiled when Natsuki stared at the offering, uncertain to take it or not. "Please eat; I'm sure you're hungry."

Remembering her hunger-- and that it had been what had ultimately led her to this point-- Natsuki took the dish a little sheepishly, then slowly began to eat; her stomach's complaining dissipated now that its needs weren't being ignored. As she chewed gratefully on the dried yams, the girl's green eyes caught a flash of a silver ornament around her savior's neck. In the instant before it shifted back out of sight, Natsuki thought she'd seen a pendant of two small rods connected at the axis, like an 'x' standing on one end.

"Um..." Natsuki finally muttered, setting the dish carefully beside her makeshift grass-and-leaf bed, "...What happened? How did you, um..."

"I found you in the shallow end of the river," the woman said as she pointed a little further downstream, where the rocks lining the riverbed were indeed easier to see. "...But if you don't mind me saying so, you don't quite seem like you belong out here..."

"...Natsuki," the dark-haired girl answered simply. "And who are you?" Natsuki hoped she hadn't been too rude when her savior hesitated for a moment, but when she turned back to Natsuki it seemed that she'd taken no offense.

"I'm Yukariko." Natsuki nodded to show she'd understood, then glanced around the small shoreline camp. It was riddled with rocks ranging from pebbles to fist-sized stones, all of them smoothed out from eons of time and water wearing them down. Natsuki's eyes caught onto a long bow, leaning carefully against one of the larger boulders along with a pack of nearly-depleted provisions and a quiverful of arrows, each one clearly carved with attention and devotion.

"Are you a hunter or something?"

"No, I'm afraid not quite that," Yukariko responded with an almost sad smile. "I'm... well, I'm going somewhere. Or rather... I'm running away from someone."

"...What do you mean? Did you do something, o-or was there--"

Yukariko gave the slightest shake of her head, but it had been enough to tell Natsuki that she didn't want to talk about her situation in detail. And as much as Natsuki wanted to feel indignant, instead she felt grateful that this woman--who she barely knew-- had been more honest in the first few minutes of meeting her than Shizuru had over the course of two weeks.

"...I know it's not fair to ask since I just refused one of your questions... but why were you out here all alone?"

"It's nothing," Natsuki said curtly, her anger flaring at the thought of Shizuru. "...I was actually with someone, but they were so rude that I... I'm sorry, I don't know why I'm telling you this," the girl caught herself quickly. She didn't know why she'd left Shizuru out of the explanation; what did it matter to her what happened to that woman?

"No, I understand," Yukariko said with a nod, then a glance at the far-off moon, its crescent broadening as it approached its next phase of the month. "...The Lord works in mysterious ways, after all. Perhaps we were meant to meet like this, to save your life." The girl pursed her lips in thought; she'd never cared much for such silly ideas but after what she'd just experienced her resolve as a whole seemed much less solid.

She'd been so certain about going North before, about getting there, about seeing that person for the first time in years, about finally having all her questions answered. But what if it was already too late? What if she was just wasting her time, and she really was all alone in the world? What if none of her efforts mattered, or no one cared?

"...Where did you say you were going?"

"It's not so much a... specific destination," the cloaked woman answered, noncommital and once again, more than a little humbled. But Natsuki didn't care, and her heart was so riddled with doubt now that the idea of being left alone at this moment frightened her deep down.

"Yukariko-san... Could I travel with you?"

Shizuru grunted in annoyance as another low branch caught the sleeve of her kimono, but she stood still just long enough to free it without tearing the silk before continuing. The arrows had come from this direction, she was sure of that. And while the archer was definitely gone by now, perhaps this could give her some hints about where they would have run off to.

For some reason the thought of the archer finding Natsuki gave swiftness to the woman's feet. And while it was true that she owed Natsuki nothing, it felt wrong to do nothing when such a dangerous woman was roaming the forest. She registered after a moment the irony of this thought, but now wasn't the time to dwell on her own vices.


At the command Shizuru skidded to a halt as a group of armed men surrounded her. She armed her naginata in an instant but did not attack; she could tell right away from the elegant, clean robes and fine topknot on each man that these were no simple thugs or would-be ronin looking to collect on her head. They were too well organized for that, and as a bearded one stepped forward, bearing the air of a person well-used to a position of authority, her suspicions were confirmed.

"I wouldn't do that," he said with a smirk as he pulled out a letter from inside his kimono and held it up; in the moonlight glittered the gold-trimmed image of a three-leafed clover in a circle.

"Ahh," Shizuru said with a grin, intrigued. "...So what does the Shogunate want out here in the middle of nowhere?"

A/N: Okay, a few cultural footnotes just for clarification's sake (as accurate as can be, anyway):

1) Christians were in Japan during the mid-Tokugawa Era, an import from Europe along w/ other trade goods, though even trade was minimal as Japan had a fairly strong Isolationist standing. However, Christianity was regarded with suspicion and hatred which came to a head around 1630-1650, when it was illegalized by the Shogunate. Just for the record, this story takes place near the end of the Tokugawa Era, nearabouts 1670-1680. However, it was still practiced by a few underground or hidden groups.

2) The clover in a circle is the symbol of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the ruling power of Japan during the Tokugawa Era, appropriately enough. Anyone carrying this symbol was regarded, especially if they had authority, to be carrying out the direct will of the Shogun himself, and anyone who showed disrespect to said official was therefore directly insulting the Shogunate.

Sorry for the long time for an update-- blame Portal and the rest of The Orange Box! Will try to have another one up by Saturday, though I can't make any promises...