The welcome party and first couple attempts on my life out of the way, San and I were eventually given a couple hours of peace to wander the streets of Tokyo in each other's company. We only had one night together in the city before traveling to Seto Island.
Cars flew around us, their headlights throwing San's face into relief. Her long straight hair seemed to glimmer in the shades of neon falling on us from street signs. She held my arm against her chest as we walked and I tried not to think that she might have grown a little more since I'd last seen her. Chivalrous men didn't obsess over such thoughts, I had to remind myself.
"Nagasumi-san?" With a jolt I realized she was peering uncertainly into my face.
"Are you listening to me?"
It was a dangerous question, but not the first time I had faced it. I'd learned years ago the ability to subconsciously listen to her chatter while I daydreamed, and I was relieved to discover it still worked. I consulted my ear's memory and smiled reassuringly at the woman on my arm.
"Of course. You were telling me about your classes in the university."
"I asked you about the letter your grandmother sent," she corrected me, frowning.
Er… The metaphorical recording device in my ear squealed while I searched the tape for a match with San's reference. I had missed that. Oops.
The letter in question was folded in the back pocket of my jeans. I carried it with me all the time now, like a face I couldn't forget. I pulled the worn paper out and passed it to her to inspect. She took it reverently and unfolded it to read with a solemn expression. I already knew every word on the page, so I walked with my eyes straight ahead, carefully guiding her steps while her attention was elsewhere.
My grandmother was a refuge for me, in a way that even San couldn't match. Because my grandmother talked to me about my unusual girlfriend and future wife. She was calm where my parents were excitable. She shared human wisdom where my in-laws were still overcoming the culture barrier. She had opened her house to me every summer for the past eight years and given me an environment to grow in new ways.
Last week I received a letter from her, requesting me to visit her earlier this season. She said her time was running short, and there were some things she wanted to give me. That vague, troublesome explanation had propelled me back to Japan before even receiving my end-of-term exam grades. A shadow of foreboding had followed me all the way back.
"I'm sorry Nagasumi-san," San said, folding the letter delicately back into its original creases. "Your important family member was sick, and I didn't know about it. Even though she lives on Seto Island, which is our domain."
"Hey hey," I said, trying to buffer her flare for the dramatic. "I know Grandma is important to you too. And you're busy learning to be a teacher here in Tokyo. It's not your fault."
"No." San rejected my words with a shake of her head. "I should have paid more attention to Nagasumi's family. As a wife I've brought shame to the Seto clan and caused you to worry."
"That's not true!" In another moment she was going to suggest corporeal punishment to make up for her supposed crimes. I prayed she had at least left her sword at home. "Look, we don't even know that Grandma is sick! The letter doesn't say." (Though I couldn't think what else it could be.) "Why don't we just stay optimistic until we hear from her what this is about?"
San seemed to consider that for a minute and then –thankfully- broke into a smile. "You're right, Nagasumi-san. We should believe in your grandmother's health until the very last moment."
"Good." I had to be content with that so I guided San away from the crowds to change the subject. Lit by the romantic light of an outdoor café, I was able to find a suitable alley that blocked us off from the view of passerby. "Um, San-chan…" Of all the useless emotions, I suddenly found myself fighting a wave of shyness. "While I was in America- uh. That is, I wanted to-"
I was almost relieved when a beer can bounced off my head, since it stopped the stuttering teenage attempts at romance from dropping out of my mouth. That wasn't how I wanted to be with San-chan. I wanted to be forceful and confident.
And then I realized I'd been granted the opportunity in the worst way possible. The beer can, still rolling across the alley pavement after ricocheting off my skull, came to a stop under the foot of a stereotypical city gangster. He had about three more inches of height on his side, as well as twelve more arms. His six friends spread out behind him, effectively closing off the only route of escape. I noticed three of them holding blunt metal objects like familiar tools. Perhaps strangely, the crow bar and pipes reassured me.
None of them were professionally trained martial artists. (I'd fought for my life against enough of that breed to recognize the aura of contained power and graceful balance.) The blunt weapons said they weren't all used to fighting with their fists, and didn't have any real weapons. These were just thugs who only knew how to attack in groups. I knew piranha who were more worrisome.
"What do you think you're doing?" The apparent leader asked, leering unattractively.
San was already moving forward, reacting to the aggressive tones. She was the sort to fight to the death in response to an insult against any one of her people. And I hadn't missed the light that entered her eyes since the beer can had interrupted us.
"Wait, San-chan." I stopped her with a light touch on the arm. "I'll take care of this." I actually had full confidence in her ability to neutralize any threat of this caliber. She probably wouldn't even break a sweat. But I had my own code to live up to. As a man, it was my job to protect her.
Unfortunately, I was still somewhat outnumbered and the alley was a narrow place that made it hard to release all my energy in a fight.
"Oh hoh! You're going to fight us?" There were mocking titters around the small gang.
I gave them my most potent Yakuza-face. It had been awhile since I used it, but for San's sake I could be quite intimidating when I wanted. My body was a bit of a contradiction to the forceful attitude. I couldn't help being a little on the short side, with a narrow frame not particularly suited for thug battles. But my strength was no joke. In the end it came down to experience, aggression, and determination. For San, I was no lightweight.
The face broke their confidence a little and blunted the spearhead of their attack. I was able to avoid any painful knocks against the metal weapons, but the sheer number of attacks in the confined space necessitated that I take a couple hits. I absorbed several attacks to my torso and took out the two weakest men –one with a punch to the face, and the other thrown hard against the wall. A couple more blows were exchanged, and I wasn't doing badly until the leader bit my arm.
And by "bit my arm" I mean he wrapped his mouth around my entire forearm and dug his teeth into my elbow. That was my first clue that I wasn't dealing with normal humans. My second clue was that he turned his head and threw me against the wall. After that, it was just a disjointed rainfall of hits and kicks.
I might have been in real trouble then, since San was under the impression that to help me out would shame me –something far worse in her mind than death. But one of the thugs lost interest in me around the time I could no longer stand on my own and he looked in the direction of the gorgeous young woman watching from the sidelines.
"What are you doing with a guy like him anyway?" the thug wondered.
A shout in a deceptively cute pitch turned everyone's attention to a rodent sized appearance at San's foot. I hit the ground like any sensible person when Seto San's safety had been threatened. Live water rounds –as dangerous as lead- bounced over my head. In the street outside the alley, heads turned at the sound of machine gun fire and people started running. In only a few moments there were no longer any standing targets and the only sound in the alley was "Spiral Shell" Maki's screaming homicidal psychosis.
"Ara, Maki-chan!" San knelt to scoop up her miniature bodyguard. "You were with us?"
"Of course!" The raging psycho instantly became an eager child. Her voice was sweet enough to cause cavities. "Maki's always with you," she explained to her mistress. And then for my ears only she added, "Like hell I would let you alone to have your way with my lady, you sea-louse!"
"Nevermind that! If you were here, come out sooner!" I bawled. Maki and I had never got on properly, since she shared the belief with San's father that everything would be better once I had died. She was a loyal, devoted friend to San-chan, but clearly she had been watching as those thugs had beat my eye-sight crooked.
"Sorry!" Maki returned, not in the least bit repentant. "I thought you said you were going to protect my lady. I didn't want to interfere."
That shut me up. Arm-eating thugs aside, the obvious truth was I failed.
"San-chan!" I dismissed the argument with Maki and knelt before the only person who mattered at all. "Forgive me! I swore to protect you, and yet I am still too weak." Even I knew it was over-the-top. Yet the dramatic locution didn't make the emotions less sincere. This too, was for San's sake.
"No, it's my fault for not supporting you like a proper wife. Your weaknesses are mine."
Maki looked like she was going to be sick in her shell. Her face had taken on some of the same hue as her hair –a deep purple. She was a good friend, but would probably always resent my relationship with San.
"Nagasumi-san!" San rushed to my side, now full of concern. "You're bleeding!"
I looked at my arm to see she was right, though that was hardly the worst of my injuries at the moment. I would probably bruise into a mottled rainbow by tomorrow from the hits I'd taken to my chest and face. The tooth marks on my arm were bleeding jaggedly, but none were particularly deep.
"I'm alright," I told her bravely. I brushed off the unnecessary concern and struck a manly pose. "Someone should call an ambulance for these thugs. But first…" I pulled San roughly against me, keeping her in place with a hand on the small of her back. I was inwardly encouraged to note that she was breathless in my grip. "A souvenir from my travels-" I pressed a glittering hairpin into her hands. The length was solid gold, and the gems certainly weren't glass. I had lived off instant ramen for months in America to afford it. "I thought you could make it look attractive," I told her.
She accepted my gift with a glowing smile. I had done well.
It didn't even matter that Maki opened fire on my silly grin and that by the time the ambulance arrived, I was their first patient.