To All Things Forgotten and Abandoned
A Tragedy, in Parts
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters. If I did, things may or may not have turned out differently.
Author's Note: The reason for this story is really very simple: me being unsatisfied with the treatment of a character that seemed very human and his reduction to a cardboard villain. Also my insane need to inject twists and misunderstandings and dark notes into this story. This is entirely based on the NT telling of the story, and no other continuity. It doesn't follow the telling to the last detail, basically because I view that as the Ancient One's view on the matter, and he might not have been in possession of all the facts, as well as being naturally biased.
Or maybe not
It all depends
Your ideal, your image
Your definition of a friend
"What Jail Is Like", Afghan Whigs
Yoshi was always the stupid one. Mashimi knew this like he knew what time the vendors moved their not-so-fresh foods to the garbage, he knew this like he knew the sun would come up and the sky was blue and that certain pockets were easier to reach into than others, that belt purses were not easy to slip and that adults wouldn't hesitate to use sticks and fists on someone smaller than them. Knew it like the smell of roast duck and of fish starting to rot, spicy and chemical smells in the air in the city.
He was stupid, but Yoshi was trusting and honest and he was golden like the sun, and that was something new in the small world of begging and stealing and starving on the streets.
The first time he met him, he was sitting in the shade in the doorway of a home about to be torn down, and Yoshi walked by. He didn't know why he noticed him. He still didn't know when he remembered it. Usually Mashimi paid no attention to anything but himself. But when Yoshi walked he sort of made everyone look at him-like something shining. Like new money glinting. And Mashimi looked at him and noticed the crushed purple marks under his glazed-dreamy eyes, the old blood on his hands and thought he looked like a ghost.
"Hey," he said. Mashimi didn't even think the other boy would answer. He thought maybe he'd go on walking in his strange dreaming way, like he was a spirit walking around without a body. But Yoshi looked up and noticed him.
Sometimes he'd remember that look and think about how his eyes went clear and almost bright when he saw him, like he'd maybe thought he was asleep and Mashimi talking to him showed him everything was real. And then he'd think of how his face went flat and crumpled and how he cried. How Yoshi's face was red and smudged with dirt and how he'd just sat there on the ground watching him for a while, like he'd never seen someone with tears on their face before. He remembered telling Yoshi to be a man and the other boy laughing at the same time he was sobbing. It made a strangled choking sound and he only heard that twice when he knew him. At the time it was scary, like he was going to stop breathing.
("my father used to tell me that," he explained later, and smiled his bright sunlight smile, "before he went away.")
When they first met Yoshi was in tears, and his mother was dead and cold in his old house. Sometimes he thought back to it and tried not to think that something that started in pain and killing would probably end the same way.
The instant Mashimi met him he knew two things. He knew Yoshi would be his friend: not because he liked him right away and not because he was ever inclined to be the eternal optimist wanting friendship with every wandering, homeless kid…but because he wanted something he could have for himself. He wanted someone to be his and to like him, wanted someone to look up to him and know everything he was and admire him for it, and this new boy was so soft, so miserable, so recently desperate, Mashimi knew he had no choice, really. And it was for the best. It was either him or the men with the sticks and fists and sometimes chains and cages to sell you off in. He knew Yoshi would be his friend and love him for it.
Yoshi wasn't like him. He thought simply: Mashimi was seven years old and so was Yoshi. That seemed like as good a reason as any for Yoshi to stay around.
The second thing he knew was that he would have to be his friend's keeper. For all that Yoshi could write his name and read the store signs like Mashimi couldn't, he didn't know anything about people. He'd walk around by himself in dark alleys like he had no fear of what was in them, he'd talk to the adults, the scary ones with large muscles and sneering faces and the scarier ones with the fake smiles and the pockets of candies. He'd talk to them about stupid Yoshi things, like racing with his friends and sword-playing and heroes.
He knew about people. He knew other children weren't to be trusted because they had greedy, grasping hands and the older ones would beat you up for what money or food you had. He knew other children could lead you into danger and use you as a scapegoat, leave you behind to take the punishment for their plans. He knew adults were even less trustworthy: anything bigger than you would use that to get what they wanted. Adults were the real monsters lurking in the alleyways and streets at night, with their strange powders and their guns. Mashimi knew about danger, and it made him angry to see his friend so oblivious to it all.
Mashimi dragged Yoshi away when one smiling man gave him a stick of dango, smiling like syrup and asking if he wanted to go someplace to play. Mashimi knew what that meant.
"What-" Yoshi asked, looking flushed and upset about being yanked away.
"You can't talk to them any more," he ordered, "They put you in cages and take you away. They put you in rooms and sell you like…like chickens. They'll hurt you. Taro told me and showed me what they do. You can't trust them," he said, trying to make him understand, make him see the world wasn't a storybook moral fable. It was real and dirty and sometimes he had bad dreams about Yoshi being taken away.
"He just gave me some candy," Yoshi said sullenly, "You're jealous you didn't get any. He would have given you some if you asked nicely. That's your problem. You're never nice to people."
"You don't get anything being nice," he sneered, gripping Yoshi's arm so tightly he cried out, "Why can't you just listen to me?" But Yoshi just looked at him, confused, like he was speaking another language. It was always like that, talking to him. Like his body was there but his mind was off living in a cloud castle somewhere and you had to try to speak through all that distance to reach him.
Yoshi didn't think like him. All he saw was a nice man giving presents to little children. Yoshi only thought about what was 'right', what was 'good', and never about what was real. If someone let him, he'd probably give away everything he had to people he thought needed it more than him. But everyone was starving here. Mashimi learned that no one needed anything more than he did, because everyone was equally needy. You had to watch out for your own.
Not Yoshi. He felt he had to keep an eye on him at all times, or one day he would disappear in the crowd and be swept away by everything real life was made of and drown. Mashimi had dreams of Yoshi sinking in dark swamps with trees like outstretched hands, gnarled like old men's or polished like rich women's, or the thousand tiny hands of children. He knew Yoshi had nightmares, too, about his mother and his father who had died before Yoshi even knew him. Mashimi couldn't understand how he could care enough to dream about that man. He never dreamed about his own parents anymore.
"It's nothing," he said, shoving Yoshi away when he shook him awake from a dream that had him drenched in his own sweat.
Yoshi sat back, and in the dark he couldn't see his face but he could hear the worry in his voice. "You were yelling. They'll kick us out if you yell. What were you dreaming?"
Mashimi couldn't remember anything but fear and red and darkness.. He felt the wetness in his eyes and on his face and realized he was crying. "You're not allowed to go away," he told Yoshi, "You can't ever go away."
"Where would I go?"
They ate dirty rice and fish they caught from the rivers and thrown-out fruit, and Yoshi went from soft to being all angles and thin bones just like him. They looked the same now when he saw their reflections in puddles and mirrored glass windows, two boys the same height with hair that was never combed and hollow cheeks.
He used to watch Yoshi's neck and collarbones, see how the chords of muscle there moved and how the bones on his wrist would stick out, and he would worry. Mashimi worried about finding food and finding shelter. More than that, he worried about being found, being thrown out and beaten and maybe even separated by people who would put them in homes, by police, by faceless adults. He thought of them ending up like the stray kittens on their street, some being picked up by people to eat and some escaping and the very lucky ones who got kept as pets. He remembered one dying in the curb, its skinny cat body lying very stiff and still, and he worried and worried. Mashimi wondered what Yoshi worried about, if he worried at all.
("buildings," yoshi said to him, "what happens if they all fall down? What happens to everyone then?")
In the mornings they sat by the pharmacy, quiet, heads aching and stomachs stinging like a thousand burning insects were inside them, and watched people go by. Mashimi noticed gazes sliding over them, like they were broken bottles or dead animals you found in the street and didn't want to see. 'I'm real! I'm alive! I'm starving!' he wanted to scream at them, and he hated mornings, hated these people for leaving them without even a glance that showed empathy or pity. They sat in the dirt, knees poking bony through their pants legs, and watched the world pass them by.
"Why won't they notice us?" asked Yoshi from where he stood by his left elbow, his hands out and trembling because they hadn't eaten in a day. Not since the too-old onigiri that a convenience store owner had handed them, eyes shifty like he didn't want anyone to see him showing charity.
"When you get old, you don't look up and you don't look down," he told him solidly. He wasn't trembling. He'd forgotten how. "Only straight ahead. When you get old, you only see what's straight in front of you."
"I won't," Yoshi said, suddenly fierce. "When I grow up, I'll bring food for everyone every day, and build houses for people, and make a city for everyone to live in. I'll save everyone, and I'll look everywhere my eyes can see."
Mashimi laughed at him and Yoshi just looked more fierce, more determined. "I will," he said like a proclamation, like a general, like someone much older and stronger than a seven year-old orphan with ratty clothes, "I will! I'll do it!"
And for a while Mashimi believed him. He never used to believe in fairy tales.
The first time they played a game together was two weeks after they met. Yoshi found a piece of chalk somewhere and drew shaky circles on the walls, and then broke it in two and handed him the other piece. They left chalk trails everywhere they met, like they were marking territory. "Your empire," Mashimi told Yoshi, and they laughed.
When he killed a pigeon with a brick as it hopped around near them, eating the crusty remains of something on the cement, Yoshi hit him across the face. It was so startling and unexpected that he didn't even punch him back, just stared in confusion. A few feet away, the pigeon's foot jerked before going still, its ribcage caved in with the force of his thrown missile.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked, outraged, torn between jumping on his friend and grabbing the bird before someone else came along and took it away. The bird would be fine to eat if they plucked and skinned it, made a fire and roasted it or something. He knew some people had eaten rats.
Yoshi looked angry, his face flushed with emotion and his eyes narrowed, sparking with hurt and fury. "Why'd you have to go and do that?" he asked, "It was just sitting there! It didn't do anything to you! Why'd you have to kill it?"
The bird's feathers were slick and soft under his fingers, almost oily, and its head lolled in the limp, boneless way of a dead thing as he picked it up. He wanted to tell Yoshi that the first time he killed anything, just a mouse that had slept in his shoe, he had to throw up until he stopped feeling the way it crushed under his fist. He wanted to tell Yoshi that meat was dead animals after all, how else did he think people ate things, that animals died all the time. It didn't mean he was a killer. It didn't mean he was bad. My aunt had chickens when she was alive. They look like giant pigeons when you take off their skins. Or maybe pigeons look like tiny chickens. He didn't say any of it.
"We needed dinner," he said without even raising his voice, and definitely without any pleading note at all, and started plucking. Yoshi watched him sadly and finally looked away when the skin came off, but he didn't turn down any of the meat when it was done cooking.
Yoshi slept like a baby. It was like he wasn't afraid of anything even after a year of seeing the bogeymen that people turned into at night, like he wasn't afraid of the rats that poured in through the cracks and gnawed at anything that looked like food. Mashimi had bites from them, sometimes woke up remembering beady eyes in the dark and tiny teeth tearing at his skin. He hated rats.
While his friend slept, Mashimi sat with his knees folded, arms wrapped around himself, and stood guard.
There were shallow puddles on the cement and asphalt from the rain, and Yoshi took his shoes off and splashed in them, skinny ankles pale and looking like skeleton legs in the early morning daylight. It was cold and damp and Mashimi couldn't see how he could be so happy when they hadn't had any breakfast. He felt a sharp tug in his abdomen and winced.
"Yoshi, stop that and put your shoes on," he commanded grumpily, "There's sharp stuff on the ground and we don't have money. It'll get all infected and icky and yellow pus and goo will come out." Mashimi paused, thinking about this gruesome image. "We'll have to cut your foot right off," he added with relish. "And you'll walk around with a cane."
"Liar! I will not!" Yoshi splashed water at him and grinned hugely, spreading his arms like he was going to take off and fly. His coat dangled loosely around him and reminded Mashimi of a scarecrow, something that could be swept up by the wind and spirited away at any time. "Take your shoes off, too!" Yoshi said, pointing at him in demand, smiling in a way that didn't seem right for such a miserable day.
"It's too cold, dummy. I'll catch sick. And so will you," he added, thinking about it. But he wasn't really worried about him getting sick. Not really. Yoshi wasn't the kind of person who caught sick easy, even when he stayed out in the rain all night or ate bad pickles. He wasn't the kind of person who got in trouble from something that small, not from something inside him.
Yoshi was singing something under his breath and looking around for scrap metal. The song grinded on his nerves, it was off-key and childish. Yoshi could be such a brat sometimes, ankle-deep in cold rainwater and singing a cartoon song like everything was fine and dandy and not going straight to hell.
"Stop singing like a girl," he told him irritably, kicking a trash can to hear it make noise.
"Shut up," Yoshi told him amiably, and did a handstand.
Mashimi smirked at him. "You're going to fall flat on your butt in the water, and I will laugh and laugh."
"No I won't. And you won't either, or I'll…" Yoshi wasn't good at threats, even ones he didn't intend to carry through, "I'll put water in your face."
"You have to catch me first, dummy. I'm a faster runner than you.'
Water sprayed his face as Yoshi kicked it towards him. "I'm not a dummy!"
"Dummy," he drawled, stretching the word. "Dummy. Moron. Shithead," he said the last one with extra emphasis, watching for the reaction. Yoshi flinched like he always did when Mashimi cursed, and he laughed at him and continued the stream of invectives, "Shithead!" he sang, "Ass! Fag!" He tossed the names at Yoshi like they could make him slow down, like they could make him fall into the water.
Yoshi's face was bright red and crumpled, he looked caught off balance as he started towards him. "Stop that, someone will hear you! I said stop!" And he stomped as he said it, sending his heel smacking against the pavement with a clap and a splash. Then his face went pure white and he sat down in the puddle. It was like someone had just pressed a button to make him fall down. Looking at it, it was almost funny. He remembered black and white comedy shows and pratfalls, but Yoshi's pale face and the way he was clutching at his foot wiped all humor away.
"It's just a piece of glass," he told him later, after inspecting it. "I told you it'd happen." Mashimi wished he'd listen to him about everything, but Yoshi never listened to anyone until it was too late. "Shut up with your crying and I can get it out."
His foot was cold in his hands, and the glass chip was tiny, not too big, not big enough to be a problem. He threw it against the wall and Yoshi complained about his wet pants when they walked out of the alleyway, Mashimi supporting his weight on his shoulder and gritting his teeth against reminding him that he was the one doing handstands and cartwheels in a wet, dirty alley. The sun was coming up and shining hard and bright like it could cut through the city smoke and clouds, and Yoshi started singing the cartoon song only a few minutes later.
"You didn't laugh when I fell down," Yoshi said, and he said it quietly like it was a secret.
"Wait until next time," he told him, "You didn't get hurt bad enough."
He didn't mention how his hands trembled as he'd squeezed the edge of that glass shard and slid it up and out of his skin.
It was always cold when they crawled out of boxes, of concrete sewer pipes not yet laid in the ground, and walked into the grey, chilly early morning. Sometimes stars still blinked from them in the sky, or the moon peeked mistily from behind clouds, but mainly they saw only grey, smoke from the city covering everything else. Yoshi would tell stories and Mashimi would scour the pavement for anything useful.
"Why did you think I could get enough to buy food today?" he growled, wringing rainwater from his shirt. Yoshi lagged behind, plucking bits of their broken umbrella from the puddle. "And why tell that guy? Now he took our money and broke our umbrella and we don't have anything! What's your problem?" He felt like a volcano on the edge of explosion as he turned to look at the other boy, baring his teeth. "It's not a game!"
"Didn't know that it would happen." Yoshi had a piece of metal from the umbrella in his hands and he was trying to twist it as he spoke. He sounded like he had when Mashimi had killed the pigeon: a kind of confused anger at how the world could go so bad. "I been talking to him for weeks. He's my friend."
"Well, your friend stole our stuff! Why can't you just listen for once? I keep telling you the kids here'll take stuff from you if you're not sharp about it! Fuck, Yoshi, everyone's starving!"
"Don't say fuck, Mashimi."
Don't curse, Mashimi. Don't curse, don't steal, don't lie. Pretend your hardest to be a good little boy with a hope of having an okay life instead of being a homeless, parentless street urchin, and maybe…what? A fairy would come floating from the sky and grant him wishes? Mashimi was tired of Yoshi and his stupid, pointless optimism.
"I'll say it if I want to!" he yelled, kicking the wall. "Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck! And you shut up about cursing! You're just a big wimpy momma's boy! You think anyone cares anymore? Remember? You don't have a mom or a dad to care about that! She's dead! She's not coming back from the grave to tell you to stop saying fu-"
He was cut off as Yoshi jumped on him, sending him crashing into the wet pavement. Mashimi landed hard on his elbow, sending a lancing jolt of pain all the way up his shoulder. The first punch landed on his jaw and he tasted blood, salty and metallic on his tongue. He kicked out, lashing a punch at Yoshi, catching him in the stomach hard enough to make the other boy grunt in pain before he struck him again.
"You shut up about my mom!" Yoshi said, his hands grabbing his shirt and shaking him. Mashimi grabbed his wrists and yanked his fists out and for a while they grappled at each other, neither of them giving way.
"Don't try to tell me what I can't do!" Mashimi spat out, "I'll talk about anyone all I want! I'll bet your mom was a whore! I bet she spread her legs for drunk homeless! I bet she-" he was punched again, this time just beneath the ribcage, Yoshi's fist grinding in. He choked.
Yoshi was crying, but his eyes were like the mad, blazing eyes of a battered alley cat. "You don't know anything! You never even had any parents! You never had anyone but your aunt, and you said she didn't care about you anyway! What do you know? You're just jealous because you wish you ever had a family!
Mashimi kicked him off and rolled over, getting to his feet. His head was whirling in fury and bitter desperation so strong it twisted his stomach, and he bit down on his tongue and tasted more blood. He turned on his heel and started away. Not walking as fast as he usually did, but with a wobbling, confused pace that led him out of the alley and down the street, jostling past a taller man. It seemed wrong walking away, walking alone, and he hated himself because it wasn't like he hadn't gotten along without anyone else before.
"Mashimi, wait up!"
(he remembered being very small, enough that his head would not reach the empty window, and an open car door, and a hand leading him away from it, fingers linked in his. that was all.)
"C'mon, wait!" Pattering footsteps, and then Yoshi was by him, his lip bleeding and a dark bruise forming on his cheekbone. Mashimi remembered thinking that he was going to make this boy his friend so he could have someone of his own, and wanted to spit.
He didn't even want to look at him. "Go away," he said, thickly because of the hurt in his mouth, "I don't need you! Who said I needed you, anyway?"
It was quiet after he said that, even with all the voices of the people walking by and yelling, and the cars zooming past them.
"I need you," Yoshi said in his way, solid and honest and completely truthful.
Mashimi reached out like he was going to hit him but grabbed onto his shoulder instead. He grabbed like it was the last thing keeping him on his feet. "You're so stupid," he told him. "You're so stupid."
Fate comes in odd guises.
He was ancient, and some things never changed even over decades. Poverty was one. He saw two little boys, too thin and too tired, standing by the street with outstretched hands. In a moment of compassion, he let a coin slip free from his fingers as he passed, knowing they would pick it up and perhaps buy something that children needed: noodles or water, or if they were wise, some food in cans. If they were not, they would waste it on candies.
It would not be overly wise of him to openly give money to begging children: he'd be swarmed by a small crowd sooner than he could blink. So he played this little game of pretend instead, and by doing so entertained himself and gave some small aid to those who desperately needed it. Sometimes the intended beggars got it, sometimes it was snatched up by someone else, but either way he was helping the needy. There were impoverished all over Japan. These children were not unique.
Or so he thought, until they came to him with his coin to return it, one eagerly, the other grudgingly. The other little boy looked at him in open distrust and resentment, one hand balled at his side, the other on his friend's sleeve, and his feet positioned to bolt at a moment's sign of trouble. He seemed sneaky, dishonest, and he paid him no more attention as he focused on his friend, the honorable little one. The child who would return money he so desperately needed. He looked at him with clear eyes, his shoulders straight and firm like a man's. Still, he was nothing but a distraction until he snatched the coin from his hand.
It was expected that he'd request that his sneaky-eyed friend to be invited as well. And so, as grudgingly as the boy had returned his money, he took the other child in to be trained along with this talented boy, this honest and straight-forward new warrior.
He knew fate had great things in store for that one.
This fat, old man wasn't tall, and he didn't look very strong. Fat people usually had problems breathing, but the old man wasn't having troubles at all, or he didn't show it with the wheezy inhale-exhale most of them did. He sailed along the ground like he was made of air, like a balloon. But still, he was old and definitely an adult, he smiled at Yoshi and offered him food, and he wanted to lead them away somewhere alone. He knew what it meant when adults asked you to go somewhere alone with them, and this old man with his crinkly eyes and strange smile was more than a little suspicious.
But Mashimi was tired, he hadn't eaten in two days, and Yoshi wanted to go. He couldn't very well persuade him not to, not when he had that set expression that showed he was determined to do a thing and wouldn't hear anything but 'yes'. He decided to eat this man's food and watch his friend.
It wasn't much of a decision. It was like deciding to follow your own hand as someone tugged you away by your wrist. Both of them knew already that where one of them went, the other had to follow. Both of them knew that they were friends together and couldn't split up. That was just bad partnership. That was why he smiled when Yoshi said he had to go, too. He knew the rules.
Mashimi had a knife he'd taken off some sleeping drunk, and he carried it around everywhere he went as one of his prized possessions. It was curved, with nicks on the edge, and sharp enough to cut if he wasn't careful to wrap it in his pocket. He used it on rats and birds and fish, but had never used it against a person before. When they walked with the old man, he slipped his hand in the pocket with the knife and closed his fingers around it, like it was a totem or a lifeline. Yoshi smiled at him, happy to get food, happy to have found a stroke of luck, and Mashimi kept that smile in mind as his finger slipped down the wrapped blade.
The old man fed them soba in bowls and told them to call him the Ancient One. He said he had no other name for them to use. Mashimi wondered about that, but kept his mouth shut and full of food and his eyes checking out the room for shadows, for men, for locks on the doors. Yoshi ate and chattered and the old man talked to them, told them stories and talked about teaching them, but he was too preoccupied to understand exactly what. It wasn't until Yoshi nudged his side hard with his elbow that he learned that the old man wanted to take them in.
He gaped and almost put his hand in his bowl of noodles and fought to keep the dark, blooming suspicion from showing on his face. There must have been something for the man to read, though, because he nodded like something expected had occurred and waved a hand toward the stairway.
"I will let you discuss it among yourselves, yes? But it is late, and children should not sleep in the streets."
'Better to sleep in the streets than in your bed', he wanted to tell him, but there was Yoshi looking humble and grateful. He figured even if the old man wanted to kill them, Mashimi was ready. He was just a short, fat geezer. It would be easy enough to knock him over. He just wouldn't sleep that night. It was easy enough, he'd often stayed awake, keeping watch for voices in the night. Better just to nap during the day, with less shadows to hide the nightmares in.
The house was enormous and the room they were placed in was larger than anyplace he'd lived in. It was almost too large, with the walls too far away to offer protection and security. He was like a fox that preferred a burrow, something closed in and safe. Wide rooms and open spaces left too much room for others to slip in.
He lay down on the side of the futon nearest to the door, on his side. Mashimi slipped the knife from his pocket, unwrapped it, and hid it under his jacket folds as the old man left the room, the lantern glow receding behind him.
"This is going to be amazing," Yoshi whispered next to him.
"What do you mean, amazing?" he whispered back without turning to face him. "This man is a stranger. There's no way to tell if he's fibbing to us or not. You don't know what he really wants with you." No one saved someone just for nothing.
"He gave us dinner."
"So? Just means he's giving advance payment."
"Maybe he's just a nice old man. He helped us and brought us here, didn't he? And he wants us to stay here, too. And he doesn't have any kids of his own. Maybe he's someone's nice grandpa. And Mashimi, he wants to teach us how to fight, how to use swords! We'll be ninja!"
"No such thing," Mashimi muttered into the futon. "Go to bed, dummy. We'll talk in the morning." He missed wedging himself between two walls, his chin on his knees, arms wrapped around his legs. He missed the old smell of fish scales and cigarette smoke and dirt, missed hardness and asphalt and dark night sky. His eyes closed on the trail of thought.
He was running from something chasing him, and it spun him around and called him brother, but he couldn't see it because it stood in front of the sun. He tried to reach for it and felt a wall, smooth as mirror glass and cold, polished metal, and the person behind it told him to be good so he could come see him one day. 'Where are you?' he asked, but he couldn't touch them. There were puddles everywhere and he bent down to pick up a coin from one. It was a piece of glass.
He opened his eyes. There was no sound to wake him, or at least he didn't think there had been one. Yoshi snored next to him in the squeaky, half-whistling way he did, and he thought for a second that all was well. His back ached and Mashimi moved his fingers experimentally and felt them still wrapped around the hilt of the knife.
That was when his eyes caught the faintest glimpse of lantern light. He saw it glow white through the shoji screen before it slid open soundlessly, and he closed his eyes as the glow came to settle on him, pretended to turn as if he was having a particularly restless dream. The light shifted, and he opened his eyes a crack to see the bare silhouette of the old man, holding the tiny lantern and looking down at Yoshi.
There was something otherworldly about this whole situation: of him lying there in a stranger's home and the slim lines of lantern light tracing the outline of that fat old man as he bent down to look at them. The man bent over somehow, with his squat, obese body, and his fingers brushed the side of Yoshi's shoulder.
Mashimi swung out, striking like a snake with the knife, trying to slice at him and thinking only of grabbing Yoshi and escaping, running and hiding.
To his surprise, the man caught him nimbly and firmly by the wrist, tight enough to make it feel like the bones in it were cracking.
"Little sneaky boy," the old man said, not sounding angry or upset at all, but rather like a teacher catching some mischief-maker in his first lesson, "You come with me."
He'd know from the first glance he cast at him that the little sneaky boy, Mashimi, was ruined by the streets. They had taken his honor, his trust, his compassion and integrity at such a young age, and most children who had been stripped of innocence this way never recovered from the loss. This boy would remain cynical and shifty-eyed, while his friend would grow to trust his masters. And yet somehow, there was still enough of a good child in him to protect his friend from perceived attack. Maybe just enough to salvage. Just enough good iron under all the rust to temper into steel.
So he tried to break the rebellious distrust, the memories and shadows in the boy's eyes. At first it was with the lessons, and Mashimi needed much more than Yoshi from the beginning. He was slower to learn to read and write, to learn calligraphy and mathematics along with the physical lessons and exercises. The boy was not slow because of a lack of intellect or delayed developmental skills. He was slow because of lack of interest, willful ignorance and no desire to learn.
"Lazy!" he told him, swatting him when he was too slow, "Your friend has finished already! You will soon be left behind!"
This was the only threat that worked on him, the fear of Yoshi setting forward and leaving him, the threat of being separated. Perhaps he used it too often, sending Yoshi to another part of the house or to the dojo to practice kata as Mashimi sat and worked the same sums over and over. He didn't have steady hands and patient fingers like his brother, so writing was difficult for him to master. Days passed by as he drilled him into obedience and discipline, reminding him always that Yoshi was faster, he would need to catch up if he wanted to be with his friend.
Training him in ninjitsu was less difficult. These skills he appreciated. These he found useful. Ancient One shook his head and told him these skills were not of use without the fully-trained mind and spirit.
Sometimes the child would have a dangerous darkness in his eyes, a pacing restlessness like a caged tiger, and he'd wonder if he judged correctly. This one seemed like he would never settle or comprehend the lessons he showed to him. Mashimi was the first to question, the hesitant one who preferred to form his own conclusions. Where Yoshi rushed in headfirst, Mashimi stood poised at the edge of conflict and waited until it made sense to him. Sometimes he'd abandon a fight where he felt it wasn't necessary for him to join in, disregarding honor.
"You must do what is right," he told him, and the boy sighed and looked like he had a headache.
"How will I know?"
Yoshi learned quickly. It wasn't surprising to Mashimi that he was faster at books than him. He didn't even care about books, about words and numbers. He hated the ink, black and runny between his fingers, the way the pen made his fingers sweat and the small print in books made him squint to see better. He wasn't interested in stories about other people, or fights that happened a long time before he was even born. Why should any of those things matter? Did anyone care that you could multiply and divide when they held a gun to your face or stole your valuables? Did murderers care about the literacy of the people they killed? Did you need to know how to properly form the word 'rabbit', if you were going to protect someone?
Mashimi thought the only language he needed was the whisper of blades hissing in the air, of fists and feet and flying kicks. Yoshi could do the clerk work, the writing and the sums, he could weave the high-flying 'save the world' fantasies, and Mashimi could do the work he always had done: make sure Yoshi wouldn't end up like the bird who broke his neck against mirrored window glass he thought was only an extension of the sky.
He wanted to tell him about practicality, about survival, about sometimes remembering that honor was something that didn't really exist, not like rocks and steel and blood, and the only thing that mattered was keeping what's important alive. The Ancient One just shook his head and sighed, and fed him another lecture and more readings from dusty books of men that had died ages ago.
Yoshi started to talk more and more like those books, and Mashimi worried about all the invisible walls in the world he could be flung against.
Yoshi swiftly knocked Mashimi down again and again, until he growled and left the room. Their master disciplined him later about accepting losses and building strength, about acknowledging that Yoshi was stronger, faster, (better), but Mashimi only felt more like his foundation was slipping away. Because if Yoshi was so much better, then why would he need him any more?
"I'll teach you how to do it better," Yoshi offered, smiling, his shoulders straight and chest swelling with pride after being praised.
Mashimi knocked him down on the mat, pushing him with the flat of his hand. "Sensei says never let your guard down," he snarled in his startled face.
Neither of them ever forgot their twelfth birthday.
They turned twelve in the summer because that was when Yoshi's birthday was. Mashimi could not remember his own, couldn't even vaguely remember the day of his birth being celebrated. So they shared a birthdate like they shared most other things. The two of them were no longer so thin, their ribs and other bones were covered by flesh and muscles gained from practice. Calluses on their hands from working with weapons, scars from training and weapons practice.
The two of them sat in the grass behind the house, sitting at the foot of a tree ancient enough that its roots curled up from the ground and wrapped themselves into stools and baskets. It was cool there, in the breeze that made the dappled leaf-shadows dance, and their bare toes dug into the dirt as they compared battle wounds made by bokken, or accidents, or older ones still from the life lived not so long ago in the streets.
Mashimi turned his forearm to show the long wrinkle of scar tissue from where he fell against an exposed nail, the puffy white line that ran straight to the crook of his arm and ended there. "I got this looking for broken chairs, remember?"
"Remember when I fell down the stairs and broke my leg? Remember how weird it looked?"
"This one was from climbing up the tree too fast and the branch broke underneath me."
"That's right, you fell on the rocks underneath it and sensei had to call a doctor to stitch your side shut. You were bleeding all over like people in movies."
"I didn't mind. It felt like I was dreaming. Look, I have this on my knee from where the glass cut me when we tripped running from the shopkeepers."
More memories of injuries, from fish hooks, from falling, from hot oil in the kitchen. It was like his body was a photograph book, with pictures of accidents and injuries written into his skin. He remembered most of them as faded, water-blurred images. Like thousands of little ghosts of his life, collected in his mind and played as a movie. Mashimi always remembered more than Yoshi, clung to the past like it was a securing line. The Ancient One told him the past left its marks deeper on him, and he would have to run faster to keep out of reach of its claws.
The Ancient One said many things that made no sense to him.
When he turned to look at Yoshi, his head was tilted to the side, gaze fixed on the main gate. "Who's that?" he asked, pointing in the distance. Walking towards them was their master and someone a little taller, with dark hair gathered up and a strange white outfit they couldn't see well enough to set details to.
That turned out to be a girl.
She was also a little taller than they were, which was embarrassing to a twelve year-old boy convinced he was on the brink of manhood. She wasn't pretty, because he didn't think of girls his age as being pretty, or attractive, or in any way interesting. The white outfit turned out to be a dress, Western-style and made out of strange, stiff fabric that was folded like a fan at the skirt. She stared at them with wide, dark eyes, and they bowed and formally introduced themselves. The Ancient One introduced her as Tang Shen, another orphan child he was adopting and taking in his home.
He turned and left them, presumably to become acquainted with each other, and Tang Shen looked at them with all the trepidation a person would use when faced with a pack of feral dogs.
They had a stand-off for a while, all three of them watching each other and waiting for the first move. He watched her distrustfully, and she met his stare with a blank, silly smile of her own. She looked like any other empty-headed little girl, but not one of the orphaned on the street: like one that had a family that loved her. She looked like she'd never known pain. Mashimi's eyes narrowed and the girl looked even more nervous, but her gaze never left his.
Eventually, the girl folded her hands in front of her and edged forward a step. "Are you playing something?"
"Well…" began Yoshi, looking both determined to be friendly and quite obviously intimidated by this new girl-thing.
"No," snapped Mashimi. "We don't play. We train. Maybe little girls like you play games with dolls and flowers and stuff, but we don't have the time. Also, we're talking about stuff you wouldn't understand, so you should go away. Look at the kitchens or something."
She had shown no reaction to his speech until that point. At the mention of a kitchen, her eyes took on a glint of curiosity. "Are they nice kitchens?" she asked, sounding actually interested. This was proof of her inherent girlyness and complete lack of worth as a playmate. Which they didn't actually do, so it didn't matter.
"I don't know," he said, annoyed, "Why would I have seen them?"
"They should be nice kitchens," Yoshi volunteered shyly. "It's a nice house."
Tang Shen smiled at him with the same plastic doll smile she'd given before, and Mashimi frowned. Nothing good would come from this. He just knew it.
"We could show you them," Yoshi continued.
Mashimi resolved in that instant that he did not like Tang Shen. He surveyed both of them with growing irritation and noted that Yoshi had that beaming look of single-minded altruism on, the one that meant that he would not give up on this new duty to take care of the new girl until his sense of honor and compassion was duly satisfied. He considered this one of Yoshi's most negative points.
Yoshi already was walking across the grass, leading the girl towards the house. "Mashimi, come on!" he said, and it was either follow and suffer the boredom and the growing despair that his friend was being entirely too friendly with this silly girl, or stay behind stupidly.
He followed. It felt like since they'd come here, he'd been doing much more following than he really cared to do.
When she was very small, she had a tiny doll that she took with her at all times. It was the size of her hand, with tiny silk thread hair and tiny seed bead eyes, and a tiny kimono made of pink and lavender fabric. She had either named it and couldn't remember it's name, or she hadn't called it by anything at all.
Her mother was very ill, but not in the way cured by medicine, not in any sickness of her body. She said she had a worm in her spirit that was chewing on her soul, and it made her grow more tired by the day. Her mother told her that if she was not a good girl, the worm would feed on her wickedness and grow larger and larger, and some day devour her mother whole from the inside, and on that day she would be her mother no longer, but a blood-sated worm in her mother's skin. When she cried, when she spilled things, when she played in the dust, her mother would sink to the floor and close her eyes, rocking back and forth, shaking and wailing. This was the worm inside her growing in size.
She learned to be silent, biting back her words and her tears. She learned to be obedient, playing in her room alone instead of on the street with friends or in the dirt, playing adventurous and messy games. She learned to follow everything her mother told her unquestioningly, lest she trouble her spirit worm.
"Do not hug me so tightly. Do not run through the house. Do not tug at my hand." Her world was a list of forbidden things.
Soon, she would not touch her mother for fear of harming her. Instead she sat quietly at the table to watch her cook, stirring hot oil and fish fillets on the stove with a jabbing fork. Her mother's speech was troubled with talk of demons and bad men, confused with memories of her father, who was also a very bad man. She was born to be a very bad girl because of him. Eventually, her mother wouldn't even call her by a name. She was 'child', or 'girl', or other names that were frightening although she did not know what they meant.
One day she woke up to an empty house. She sat alone at the table, not moving for hours and hours. She sat quite still and quiet, as if by becoming a statue herself, she could bring her mother back from where she had gone. The neighbor called and police took her away, and a person she did not know took her in. Since she would not speak, not even to say her name, they called her Tang Shen for the root in the medicine they gave her to help her eat.
Tang Shen did not remember if she had a real name once before and could not remember it, or if she hadn't been given any name at all.
In the beginning, Tang Shen's presence in their home made very little difference. She was busy with teachers and lessons of her own. Tang Shen read the same books they did, learned literacy and calligraphy alongside them, but was taught other things while they spent most of their day in the dojo. She was always quiet, never venturing so much as the most mundane thought unless asked, and even then was reticent in her response. It was like she was a shadow of a child, and not a real one at all.
Little pieces of her began to show, like flower buds opening on a previously-bare tree. She picked flowers from the gardens and arranged them in vases around the house, learned tea ceremony: chanoyu and sencha, learned dancing and needlework and some other mysterious, feminine things. Dishes that she cooked were incorporated into their meals, they drank the tea she brewed, and she would sometimes sit quietly and watch them spar out on the lawn, her eyes dark and thoughtful.
Tang Shen never sparred with them. She never learned any ninjitsu at all, not even the most basic kata. She shrunk away from the idea. When the Ancient One attempted to train her, she just sat on the floor, cross-legged, hands in her lap, and stared blankly ahead. She sat like that until he eventually gave up on her and left her be.
"You boys must be strong and protect your sister," he told them.
Mashimi did not say that he would never think of her as a sister.
Many things about her bothered him, but her silence aggravated him most of all.
He didn't know why, but he hated her shy, submissive eyes and her posture, always slumped and dejected. It was like she was ill, or someone always on the brink of a defeat. Away from the watchful eyes of their master and father, he'd tease her, torment her, try to prod her into a reaction. Anything to break that oppressive, silent stare of hers.
At first, Yoshi helped him with small pranks: the stag beetle in her room, the ink in her perfume bottle, little things like that. Those things barely made her squeak with fright, like any normal girl should. She kept the stag beetle in a giant glass bowl when she found it in her room, and cleaned the ink up and hid her stained dress somewhere it wouldn't be found, and never complained about anything they did. She seemed to be fighting her side of the prank war with cold silence and polite, formal words.
So, Mashimi just tried harder. He hid her homework, snuck into her room and rearranged things so she couldn't find anything without a long search, told her horrible, frightening stories and played tricks on her at night so he seemed like a ghost or a demon. All of these made her shrink inside herself, but the reaction he wanted never showed. No screams, no anger, no heat…nothing. She tucked herself into a ball and went still as a dead person, and he hated her for it. Hated it because he saw it as cowardice and because it frightened him although he wouldn't admit it.
Yoshi had stopped helping him by that point. But one day, when Mashimi had tripped Tang Shen up so she fell into the muddy creek, he turned on him. "Mashimi, you are not supposed to bully girls," he scolded, helping her out, "You need to stop." He looked like a shining white knight in a storybook, protecting the princess. It was the kind of role Yoshi probably was born to play.
Tang Shen said nothing in her own defense, but then, she never did.
"You shouldn't baby her like that," he said coldly. "She'll just grow up a crybaby, relying on you to stick up for her everywhere. Besides, she doesn't even say anything. She never even cries. What's wrong with you? Why don't you tell me you don't like it if you don't?" he demanded of her.
He didn't get an answer. He wasn't really expecting one.
"She'd never last on her own," he said to Yoshi, partly-smug, but mainly trying to explain, trying to show him why she made him so angry, why her behavior was unacceptable. "She's the type to just lie down and die."
"We're not orphans in the streets anymore, Mashimi," Yoshi said, angry and lofty and self-righteous, "And even if we were…even if we were, it still doesn't make it right." Then he went to go build a swing for Tang Shen, and Mashimi went and had a headache.
Tang Shen had been outside playing for too long, and Mashimi was sent to find her. She was sitting in the tree that Yoshi often climbed with her: an old one, with many branches and a cradle built into the tree as it split in two in the middle. All she was doing was sitting there, not singing or playing or even plucking the leaves from the branches. When he came closer, he noticed that she was cross-legged in the crowded space between the thick boughs, her hands in her lap and her eyes blank and staring.
Despite himself, he felt a pang of concern. Tang Shen looked like someone in a waking dream.
"Hey!" he called to her.
Her gaze drifted slowly from mid-horizon, her hair shifting from he shoulder to her neck as she turned to look down at him. Tang Shen didn't say a word, just looked at him as if she was trying to decide whether he was real or not.
Mashimi found this behavior distinctly unsettling.
"It's time to go in," he said, a note of uncertainty entering his tone. "Sensei says it's time for us to do our reading." Mashimi injected as much distaste into that as possible. "Something you love to do, right? So hurry up and get down."
Tang Shen just sat there and closed her eyes, like she wanted to go to sleep up there or something. It was unbelievable to him how a person could be so completely detached from reality.
After a few minutes of waiting for her to talk or climb down, or even throw a fit, he lost his patience. Let her sit there and mope and ignore him all she wanted. "Fine! Just sit there like a creepy tree ghost! You're such a brat!"
He had every intention of leaving her there and getting Yoshi, who she clearly liked better, to go and charm her off the tree or maybe offer her flowers and a pacifier. She was practically dependent on him. Mashimi had only made it a few steps away from the tree when he heard Tang Shen cry out for the very first time.
"Wait! WAIT! Mashimi, wait! Please!"
Hearing her raise her voice was so unexpected, it actually startled him. He turned back so quickly he nearly lost his balance. He thought something really dangerous was up in that tree, or that maybe she'd been about to fall off, or maybe she'd broken something already. But when he turned to look, she was still simply sitting there in the exact position she'd been in before, trembling, white-faced, and frightened. Actually frightened.
"I…I can't get down."
He actually laughed incredulously. "What?"
"I tried. The ground's too far away and my feet won't reach."
"Well, why did you climb up, stupid?"
"When Yoshi does this with me, he always gives me a boost. I thought since I'd grown taller I could do it by myself this time and surprise him…but I can't get down. I've been stuck here for ages and now I really have to use the bathroom."
She whispered the last bit like it was a secret too shameful for words, and he laughed again.
"It's not funny!"
"Yes, it is. You've been stuck so long in that stupid, short tree because you're afraid your feet don't touch the ground? All you have to do is jump down. The ground's not too far, look at it!"
Tang Shen squeezed her eyes shut, clearly feeling unable to face the sight of it.
"Well, do what you like. I'll just go inside and tell Yoshi to save you so you can go pee on him." He felt so buoyant about this new display of emotion, it was almost an adrenaline rush. He wanted to get her to react more, to make her act almost human for once.
Her eyes fluttered open and she looked morally outraged. "What?"
Mashimi turned and started walking back to the house.
"Get back here!"
The strangled curse behind him made him spin around again, eyes wide, grinning. "Girls shouldn't use that language! Wait until I tell sensei on you! No, wait. Wait until I tell Yoshi-"
Tang Shen, her face still stark white and twisted with desperation and fury, leapt from the nest of branches and dropped from the tree like a large, flailing stone. She landed on one foot, cried out, and collapsed to the ground. Then she immediately curled on her side, clutching her ankle, and burst into tears.
Mashimi ran up to her with a sudden rush of guilt, and she waved an arm at him to shoo him off. "Get away! Get away from me!"
He ignored her and went to look at her ankle. The stinging smell of urine hit him as he got close enough, and her dress and legs were wet from it. "Ugh…" he started, then trailed off when her expression closed in shame and she clutched desperately at his arm. "Don't grab me, just calm down! Your ankle's fine. Well, it's not broken, anyway. Bet you sprained it. I sprained mine a couple times."
Her hand stayed closed on the fabric of his shirt, and as he watched, her expression shifted from the crumpled mess of embarassment, anger, fear, and pain, to the bland and emotionless look she always had. Mashimi wanted to do something to take that off and away from her, but he also felt triumphant, he'd known it wasn't really a real expression. He felt like he'd just seen a real little girl and not just a puppet creature.
"I'm going to throw up," she said weakly, and he grabbed her up.
"No, you're not. I'll throw you in the creek if you do."
Shockingly, she made a sound that could have been some distant cousin of laughter. "What help will that be? No," her grip tightened on him. "Don't take me to the house. Don't take me there. Don't…don't tell Otousan, please, don't tell, please."
For some reason, he said he wouldn't.
"Or Yoshi, either," he said. "Promise. Now you promise you won't tell about me letting you jump."
"Promise." The smile she gave him for that was shy, tentative, and actually looked genuine. He could almost see why Yoshi spent so much time playing with her. She was still a brat, though. And a girl.
They snuck in through a side door of the house and she got changed into regular clothes and put the dirty ones someplace until she could go and clean them, and when they got asked what had happened, Tang Shen just said she had slipped in some mud, and Mashimi didn't say anything at all. Yoshi looked at them like they were a puzzle he wasn't able to solve.
After a while, he got used to her.
After then, he loved her.
All three of them sat very close together, too young to care about space between boys and girls in that way, and watched the firecrackers. Mashimi had Tang Shen's feet resting in his lap, and Yoshi had her head, and Tang Shen smiled at them both and told them she'd never seen firecrackers before, not like this. They burst like great blossoms of flame, like showers of glittering rain in the night sky, and the three of them watched and wished they could have them every day. At the end of it, their fingers were all entwined.