My Soujiro stories form a continuity, and this story follows the series I call the "Winter Arc", which I posted as separate stories because the continuity between them was very loose. They are, in order:
Ikura desu ka
Fuyu no Hiakari
This continuation is the "Autumn Arc," and although it's still executed as a series of shorter stories, the continuity is tighter, so I'm posting it all as chapters. Some of the stories contained in it may also have multiple parts, such as the first story, Changing Leaves.
Rurouni Kenshin Fanfiction
by Laura Gilkey
year Meiji 12
"We have the building surrounded!" the policeman's shout echoed through the night air and filtered into the inn. "Surrender yourself and turn over the girl!"
"Hurry!" the old woman said, then stopped and grabbed Soujiro's jacket, which was printed with the name and symbol of the inn. "Wait, take that jacket off... May as well put a nametag on you..."
"Do you really have to leave?" the little girl asked, clinging to his hakama.
"You have five minutes, and then we break down the doors!" the police officer shouted.
"Don't worry, Tomi-chan, you're coming with me," Soujiro said. He disentangled himself from the jacket and picked her up.
"It's too dangerous for her!" the older man insisted.
"I don't care if it is! I'm going with my Onii-chan!(1)" she countered.
"You heard what he said. The police are going to take her if I don't."
"Enough, there's no time!" the old woman said. You have to go, now!"
Soujiro started for the door, then paused and turned back to the older couple. "When the police come in, you have to tell them I made you keep me here."
"We can't do that!" the old man insisted.
"Please do it! I don't want you to have any trouble about me. I've done so much a little more isn't going to matter. Please promise."
"All right," the woman said, before her husband could protest.
"Thank you. Well, then, good-bye."
"Bye-bye, Ojisan; bye-bye, Obachan(2)," Tomi said, waving to them over Soujiro's shoulder as they followed him to the small back door.
"Come back when you can, you hear?" the old man said.
"I will," Soujiro answered. "Now stand away from the door, please."
Once they were out of the path of any gunfire, Soujiro situated the girl on his shoulder and put his hand on the sliding door. No hesitation...
He whipped the door open and hit the ground running, all in one motion. There were shouts of "There!" and a few pops of gunshots, barely audible above his own footsteps. He couldn't quite get to Shuku-Chi speed with the encumbrance, and a little slower was more taxing, with each step a jarring blow against the ground. He didn't have to maintain this speed long, though. Just enough to get a safe distance away...
As he was reaching the edge of the peach trees around the inn, there came a sharp, clear sound like a crack of thunder. Suddenly, Soujiro felt a stunning blow on one side of his back, so hard that it nearly spun him around. He skidded to a stop, crouching down to keep his balance, and he grabbed Tomi again as his left arm gave way under her and she started to fall. His mind spun, trying to make sense of it as pain exploded through his left arm, sending ripples through his mind that broke up his thoughts. My left arm—Stupid! Running in a straight line—Hit in my shoulder—That's where Tomi was!! NO no no no!!
"Tomi-chan!" he cried, shaking her. "Are you okay!?"
She was trembling, and only managed a tiny sound.
"I– I'm okay! I thought you were dead..."
"Don't worry, I'm fine," he said, "Put your arms around my neck, okay?" He knew he didn't have much time, and he quickly picked her up again, with his right arm under her. He got a good grip on the ground with one foot, then kicked off and was running again.
Earlier that year...
Soujiro wrapped the padded kimono over his shoulders as he walked down the street of the small town, doing his best not to disturb the bird he was carrying in his kimono. He gave a slight sigh; "Everything's already closed. I thought if I hurried I could make it in time to get a room and something to eat..." He shrugged. "Well, it happens." There had been a footbridge across a stream that skirted the town on his way in. As he remembered it, there should be some room there where he could sleep with something over his head. That was important; the air smelled like rain.
I guess that's just how much longer my money lasts. It would probably be gone in a week as it was. Maybe after that he could sell the padded kimono, but now that winter was over and he'd given it so much use, he wouldn't be able to get so much for it, and it wasn't so warm yet that he didn't like having it in the evenings, or to sleep under if he had to sleep outside. For ten years he'd wanted for nothing materially; it had been a surprise how much money it had cost him for that one padded kimono, and even that hadn't kept him from nearly freezing to death once that winter.
"But the important thing is we have somewhere to be tonight, ne, Kotori-san?" he said, looking down at her. No reply. It was late; the little bird had fallen asleep already. "I'm so hungry, though..." He remembered when he was very small, even before his mother took him to live with his father's family, she would tell him to drink a lot of water so that he wouldn't feel hungry. There was someone drawing water from a well at the end of the street, so he kept walking toward it.
As he got closer, he could see that the person at the well was a little girl, probably not more than six years old, pulling on the rope with her entire body to raise the bucket. "Do you want some help?" he asked.
"Ah!" she started and whipped around, and lost her grip on the rope. "Oh, no!" she cried as the distant sound of the bucket crashing back into the water echoed from the well.
"Ah, I'm sorry! It was my fault," Soujiro said, bowing. "Please let me get it for you."
"Okay..." she moved around him cautiously, from his left side to his right. She sat on the stone blocks around the well and watched him sidelong.
Soujiro easily pulled the bucket up, hand over hand, and set it down beside the girl. "There."
"Thank you," she said.
"No, no, it was my fault you dropped the first one," he said, sitting down beside her. "Is it okay if I ask why you're awake so late?"
"What about you?"
"I'm just traveling around. I thought I could get a room for the night, but I got here too late. You?"
"You're traveling all by yourself?" she asked, still not turning toward him.
"Mm," he nodded. "Well, me and Kotori-san."
"I think she's asleep, but here she is..." He held the front of his kimono open so that she could see the bird.
"Ahh! Kawaii!!(3)" the girl cried, forgetting her reticence and eagerly leaning over to look. "Can I hold her?"
"Well, I don't mind if you want to touch her. I guess I'll have to wake her up when I lay down to sleep anyway..." he carefully picked up Kotori-san and held her out, holding her legs between his fingers. "Be very gentle with her, please. I've been taking care of her because her wing is hurt and she can't fly."
"Ah, that's sad..." the girl said, but her eyes sparkled with joy as she gently petted the bird. Kotori-san looked this way and that with short twitches of her head.
Soujiro watched the girl, who seemed to have forgotten him entirely and just stared in wonderment at the little bird. But as he looked at her, his customary smile fell from his face. He hadn't noticed it at first in the twilight, but now he could see there was a bruise around her left eye. Was that why she wouldn't turn to him earlier? "What happened to your eye?" he asked, pointing to it.
"Ah!?" she looked up for a moment and then laughed nervously. "Oh, I fell."
"I'm really clumsy..." she said. "So where are you going?"
He shrugged. "I don't know yet. I guess I'll know when I get there."
"You're lost, huh?"
"Sometimes I feel like I am, and sometimes I feel like I know right where to go, even if I don't know where I'll end up."
The girl narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you a philosopher?"
"Me!?" He laughed. "No, no, my head's just empty." He tapped on his temple as if he could demonstrate an echo.
"You just talk so weird," she said. "I thought you might be one. So you're not staying here, though?" Kotori-san chirped and resituated her wings as the girl kept petting her.
"Well, I'd planned on leaving in the morning, but now I don't know..." he said. The more he thought about it, he was sure the girl had been turning her head so he wouldn't see the black eye. He knew how awkward she must feel; he'd done things that were just as implausible, a long time ago, so that people wouldn't see the bruises... He'd barely met this girl, but he was finding that he didn't want to leave her... "Maybe this town is where I was going."
"So you'll stay?" she asked excitedly. "Do you think I can see Kotori-san again?"
"Um... sure. I'll come here again and wait for you in the morning; is that okay?"
"Okay. I'll wait for you if I get here first." She got up and poured the water over into her own bucket and picked it up with obvious effort. "Well, I better get home or my Dad'll be really mad."
"Ah, that's best if you go home and get some rest," he said. "Just, could you please tell me your name?"
"Ah, sorry!" she said. "I'm Inoue Tomi."
Soujiro paused. "But, Tomi is..." Tomi was a masculine name. She did look and sound like a girl, but she was wearing boys' clothes, and was young enough that she had a soft, flat chest and a light voice either way. Maybe...
"It's a boy's name, I know. I was going to be a boy, but it didn't work out," she said, starting down the street. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Good night Kotori-san!" the girl said. "Good night onii-san!"
Soujiro sat and watched her until she was out of sight before getting up. The padded kimono had shifted, and he had to hold it with his free hand. "I'm sorry I woke you up," he said to Kotori-san, who was falling asleep again in his hand. He carried her like that all the way back to the bridge across which he had entered the town and held her up from the ground as he crawled under it. Under the far end of the bridge, about a ten foot square of grassy bank sloped down to the water at a gentle angle that would make it a good place to sleep but a tight fit to get under. "Remind me not to hit my head in the morning, okay?" he said as he put Kotori-san down in the angle where the wooden walkway met the ground. "I just hope it doesn't rain so much the water comes this high..."
He shrugged his small pack off his shoulder and lay down, curled up on his side, then bundled the padded kimono around himself, trying to get it into the warmest configuration possible. He was already half-asleep when he realized that he'd forgotten to get a drink as he'd planned, and it made him notice the empty ache in his stomach, but by then he was too sleepy to get up again for it, even for the ten feet down to the stream.
"Oy, Sano," a man said, leaning in the doorway. "Don't you have a friend named Himura?"
Sanosuke's arm paused halfway through the dice-toss. "Yeah, Kenshin. Ginji, come on in and have a drink with us!"
"Ah, thanks," he said, taking a seat among them. "I wanted to tell you, though, I heard someone walking around the street near the market calling for a 'Himura-san.' Seemed pretty unsteady, like he was real drunk or something."
"Okay, okay," Sano got to his feet. "I'll go and check it out."
"Hey, Ginji, did you arrange to bail Sano out once he started losing money?"
"Nah, ain't nothin' like that," Sanosuke said. "I'll be back soon as I can." He stepped out the door and sighed. I was really looking forward to a night with the guys, but some stranger looking for Kenshin... If this is another one of those guys out to settle some old score I'm gonna head it off. He set off for the marketplace, listening closely for the voice.
"Where is Himura-san?" someone said before they came into view, as they came toward Sano from a sidestreet.
"Don't worry, I'll take you right to him," came another voice.
Sano leaned somewhat bemusedly against the wall by the opening of the sidestreet as a total stranger emerged from it, looking over his shoulder as if leading someone.
"Is that true?" said the first voice; its owner hadn't yet come into view, but his voice sounded vaguely familiar.
"Offhand, I'd say no," Sano answered.
"What the—" the self-styled guide whipped around.
"Ah! I... I forgot your name."
Sano looked over as the second figure emerged into the streetlights. "Ah!!" For a moment, he couldn't believe his eyes. "Seta Soujiro!?" Carrying a kid...?
The stranger glanced nervously between them for a moment, then lunged at Soujiro, trying to punch him; Soujiro dodged aside and under the blow, easily but unsteadily, like the "drunken" martial-art styles. Sano effortlessly positioned his fist in the path of the man's face and threw a punch that knocked him across the street.
"Name's Sagara Sanosuke," he said, turning.
"Ah, that's right!" Soujiro set the child, a girl, down against the wall of the alley and straightened up with effort, smiling at Sanosuke. "Thank you! Not to seem ungrateful, but I have to ask you to do something for me, since I know you're Himura-san's friend."
"Tell me what it is, then I'll tell you if I'll do it," Sano answered. Surely he knows Shishio's dead by now. Is he out for revenge for his teacher? He didn't seem that way last I saw him, but...
"Sagara-san, please protect Tomi-chan for me. Don't let the police or anyone take her away from you."
"Huh?" Sano looked down at the girl. She'd been sleeping and was just starting to move and look around blearily. "Uh, sure. Why?"
"I don't think I can do it anymore," Soujiro replied, resting his shoulder against the wall. "Ahh, thank you so much for this! I feel better now..."
Sanosuke barely had time to exchange glances with the little girl before realizing that Soujiro's shoulder was sliding down the wall. Sano snatched him up as he collapsed, and found the back of his kimono wet and sticky. Sano lifted a hand and found it moistened with blood. "Hey!" he cried, shaking Soujiro and getting no response. "Hey, don't you dare show up here just to die on me!"
"He's not going to die!" Tomi cried, obviously shaken as she grabbed onto Soujiro. "Onii-chan, tell him! You're not going to die!"
Sano gently eased him down and forward, looking at his back. A distressing amount of blood had soaked through his clothes, but the actual wound appeared to be in the shoulder, not in a place that should make it immediately fatal. "Tomi, right?" he asked, looking up at her. "He's not gonna die, all right? I have a friend who's a doctor. I'll carry him there, it's not too far. Think you can follow me okay?"
She nodded hesitantly.
He situated Soujiro in his arms and stood. "Okay, come on."
One of Soujiro's hands dangled from Sanosuke's arms, and Tomi took it and walked along with them.
The bridge was made to be a floor, not a roof, so the rain dripped through it, little by little through the night. Soujiro was doing his best to sleep despite the cold water and bundled up the padded kimono even over his head, not so much to keep him warm as to keep the water from dripping onto his face and startling him awake. Still, a shallow, exhausted dozing was the best he could manage. He'd have to find somewhere to get warm and dry off in the morning or he'd end up sick.
Even at night, occasionally footsteps thudded across the bridge, most of them running to get out of the rain. Occasionally they would speak, but all Soujiro heard were snatches of voice moving by or drowned out in the rain, barely enough to pull him back from half-sleep. He didn't even bother to open his eyes when he was roused by hoofbeats and the heavy rumble of carriage wheels across the bridge, but listened drowsily as the sound stopped right above him, and the horses neighed and stomped.
A voice was drowned out in a boom of thunder, but the end of its message was shouted clearly, even through the rain. "—Or we kill you!"
At that, Soujiro bolted up—and hit the bottom of the bridge with a loud thunk! He held his head, but he knew he couldn't stop for that...
"What was that?" someone said.
"There's somebody under the bridge!"
"You! Take care of it!"
Soujiro listened for the first footstep, and by the time the man had dropped down to look under the bridge, he was up the other side, leaving nothing to find but a soaked kimono and a little bird.
Above, a wagon was stopped on the bridge, with fidgetting horses harnessed to the front and a few terrorized men standing at the back of it and the driver's seat. Several more men stood around it, with scarves around their heads to hide their faces and brandishing swords. Soujiro had come up no more than a yard from one of them, whose sword-sheath at his belt had laces hanging free. It took the man a moment to react, even after it whipped out of his belt by those laces, and he barely began to bring his sword around for an attack before Soujiro lay it beside the base of his neck with enough force to knock him senseless to the ground.
"Who the hell is that guy!?"
"I don't care who he is, kill him!"
After years of battles as one of the Juppon Gatana, Soujiro was amazed at how clumsy they were. He could see through them before he was even in their reach, and he dodged easily around their botched attacks and knocked them down with the sheath one after another, the sharp edges of their swords never even coming close enough to feel dangerous.
"What's going on up there??" called the man who'd gone down to look under the bridge, raising his head. Seeing all his partners laying unconscious and Soujiro alone standing among them, he stumbled back and fled.
Soujiro listened for another long moment to see if there were more of them. Hearing only the rain, he tossed his borrowed weapon aside. It seemed odd to him that everything kept standing still as he pushed his drenched hair out of his face and looked back at the wagon. "I think it's okay, you can go on now."
One of the men at the back of the wagon stepped away from it and took Soujiro's hand with both of his own; they were in gloves, and so large that Soujiro's hand felt smothered between them, but with the battle over, he was too sleepy to protest. "Thank you so much!" the man said, shaking his hand firmly. "We're saved!"
"It's nothing," Soujiro said blearily and tried to wander off without retrieving his hand. "If you'll excuse me, I need to go back to bed."
"You were sleeping under the bridge?" the man asked, letting go.
He paused with surprise. "You could catch your death of cold that way, and after saving my business! The least I can do to show my gratitude is get you a room."
"It's too late, all the inns are closed for the night."
"Get you indoors at least. Come on."
"Just a minute." Soujiro eased himself under the bridge and emerged again a few moments later with his pack over his shoulder, his soaked kimono over one arm, and Kotori-san in the other hand.
The men looked quizzically at the bird in his hand even as they helped him up into the wagon. As it rumbled on into the town, he curiously lifted the lid of a box sitting next to him, and found it completely full of money. "Wow. No wonder someone tried to rob you."
"Well, it's unavoidable," one of the men said nervously, gently putting the lid back on the box and sitting on it. "You see, we're starting a bank in this town..."
"Oh, is that so...?" Soujiro asked, but he had already closed his eyes and tilted his head back. That wasn't the last thing that happened before he fell asleep, but he was too tired to remember it all later.
"Is that Tomi-dono?" Kenshin asked as Sanosuke followed him up the walkway to Dr. Genzai's clinic. The girl was sitting on the step, with Ayame and Suzume beside her, and she was showing them a loose string of beads she was wearing as a bracelet. Tomi looked about seven years old, with a short ponytail of marmalade-brown hair and sad brown eyes.
"Yup, that's her. She's pretty shaken up, but she's been doing better since Megumi told her he'd pull through," Sano said. "I heard her call him 'Onii-chan.' Guess he really has turned his life around."
"Ah," Kenshin nodded, smiling at the trio of children. He said "Good morning!" to them as he stepped up and into the clinic.
Megumi had been sitting beside the bed, and she rose and crossed the room to meet Kenshin and Sanosuke. Kenshin recognized Soujiro immediately. Even as he lay unconscious, there was a slight smile on his face.
"How is he?" Kenshin asked softly.
"He's been shot in the shoulder," Megumi replied, also in a hushed tone. "It broke his shoulder blade, but somehow the bullet didn't go all the way through. Dr. Genzai and I had to remove it surgically, and of course he's lost a lot of blood. He won't be able to use his left arm for awhile, but as long as it doesn't get infected, he should be fine with some rest. He's sleeping normally now.
"Ken-san, is this really the strongest of Shishio's Ten Swords, who gave you that scar on your back? Sanosuke told me so, but it seems so hard to believe..."
"Yes, that's him," Kenshin said, walking softly over to the bed. He could see where it would be hard to believe. Soujiro looked so peaceful laying there, with his head turned just slightly to one side, his black-brown hair brushing softly over his forehead and onto the pillow. Quietly, Kenshin eased himself down into the chair beside the bed. "I'll wait here until he wakes up."
"Say, Kenshin," Sano said. "What do you think he's doing here, anyway?"
"Arriving with this injury and asking you to protect Tomi-dono, I'd say he's in some sort of trouble and came here for help."
"Seems kinda weird after before, with Shishio and all."
"Dammit, Kenshin! I'm just saying be a little careful about him!"
Soujiro moaned softly, roused by the noise. He began to turn over, but at shifting weight onto his wounded shoulder, he sprang up from the bed, rolling diagonally up and away from them. As he came to rest sitting up, the blankets fell away to reveal his left arm in a sling.
Megumi was there on the other side of the bed. "Calm down," she told him. "There's a broken bone in your shoulder, don't jostle it."
Soujiro became still, gingerly touching his shoulder, and looked at her eye-to-eye. His eyes were wide and bright, sapphire-blue with a childlike, curious openness that made "Tenken no Soujiro" even more unbelievable. "You're the doctor?" he said, but not with the skepticism she often heard as a woman in the field. Then his focus backed off just the width of a hair, the difference between looking into her eyes and looking at the reflections in their surfaces.
He turned to face Kenshin, as quickly as he could while being careful not to turn across the shoulders.
"Hello, Soujiro," Kenshin said. "It's been a long time."
Soujiro didn't answer, just stared at Kenshin for a long moment, his mouth slack and unsmiling, before he lowered his eyes, like lowering a curtain behind which he could think. Police at the inn... I remember running... Tomi-chan! No, she was okay, but... broken bone? It must have been so close... And back at the inn, who knew what had happened? Ojisan and Obachan, they could be in jail right now... His eyes felt hot with tears, a sensation alien to him for ten years, and now so familiar, ever since...
"Soujiro?" Kenshin ducked slightly to look at him under the veil of his bangs.
With all his old speed, Soujiro brought his right hand around, open, and struck Kenshin across the face with a loud SMACK. It sent them recoiling in opposite directions as Kenshin rolled with the blow and Soujiro cringed from disturbing his injured shoulder.
"Oy! What was that all about!?" Sano demanded.
"It's okay." Kenshin rubbed his reddened cheek. "I was responsible for the death of your mentor and the people close to you. If you just want to hit me for that, I can't say it's unfair."
Soujiro shook his head. "It isn't that. I know why you had to fight Shishio-san. I do miss him sometimes, but actually, thinking about it now, I'm glad you won. But, even though I know it's better now, it's just that before, I was never like this..." His voice was breaking as he sobbed into his right hand. "And then waking up and seeing you..."
"I understand," Kenshin said. Who hadn't dreamed of a chance to go their whole life without crying? Soujiro, who had that chance, seemed to have really learned that such a wish shouldn't come true, but that wouldn't make it an easy thing to let go, face-to-face with the person who'd taken it from him.
"Now hey!" Sanosuke protested. "Where do you get off talking like you got taken by surprise!? You're the one who showed up here looking for Kenshin!"
"You sure as hell did! I found you calling for him in the street last night, remember?"
Soujiro paused a moment, sniffled, and shook his head.
"You can't expect someone to remember everything that happened when they were exhausted and had lost as much blood as Soujiro did," Megumi said.
Sano sat back in a huff and looked at the door, where he could see the girls playing outside. Tomi peeked in, and smiled to see Soujiro awake. I remember my promise, Sano thought, even if you don't.
"Are you angry at me?" Kenshin asked Soujiro.
He shook his head. "No. I'm sorry I hit you."
"That's all right," Kenshin replied, despite the makings of a bruise on the left side of his face. "But then, if you were looking for me, were you coming here for help?"
Since Soujiro had no memory of the idea, it struck him afresh as a bolt of hope. Certainly his situation was desperate enough, with Tomi and everyone in danger. He couldn't run away with her now, with his shoulder broken by a gunshot that almost—no, don't think about that—and somehow he had to know what had happened to Ojisan and Obachan. "Yes! Please!"
"Tell me, what happened?"
Soujiro woke gradually to a general working sound going on outside the door—footsteps and shuffling and scraping and an occasional bell. He was laying alone in an office with a fireplace, wrapped in a blanket, and his clothes were laid out near the fire; as he woke up more and more, he remembered putting them there to dry. He got up and dressed, and was just tying on his hakama when he heard a tapping sound—Kotori-san was outside on the window sill, pecking at the glass.
As he looked up at her, he suddenly realized that the sun was already high in the sky. After the rough night, he'd overslept. "Oh, no, Tomi-san..." He snatched up his pack and his padded kimono and left the room, pausing only slightly to find the exit of the building.
The man who'd thanked him that night was still there, in a western suit and a bowler hat. "Oh, you're awake! I—"
"I'm sorry, I have to leave now. Thanks for letting me stay," Soujiro said quickly, running out the door.
He skirted the building and picked Kotori-san up off the windowsill, then ran down the street to the well. Miraculously the girl was still there, with her bucket of water beside her; she was leaning the injured side of her face against the well. He could see her more clearly in the daylight; she had a full round face and marmalade-brown hair tied back in a short ponytail, and in the light her skin and her boyish clothes looked even more accustomed to rough treatment.
She raised her head as he got closer; the bruise around her eye was more distinct in the daylight, too. "Here you are! I was afraid you weren't coming."
"Sorry, I slept late," he said, sitting down beside her and putting Kotori-san down on the step between them.
Tomi petted the little bird, but then her face darkened and she looked up at him. "Hey! I told you my name, but you didn't tell me yours."
"No, you didn't."
"That's all? What's your family name?"
Soujiro thought for a moment. No matter how far behind they seemed to be, the police were on his trail somewhere. No reason to make himself too obvious... "I don't have any family."
Tomi turned back to Kotori-san for just a few more moments. "I have to go home now or I won't get everything done," she said, getting up.
"I'll come and help you. It's only fair, since I held you up," he said, picking up the bucket before she did. It wasn't as if he had anywhere else to be, and he was curious to see where Tomi lived.
"Okay," she said, and started off. She led him out of the town and down a path into some surrounding woods, and finally to a clearing with a small, tumbledown house. A small cart sat by the path, tilted on its single set of wheels, and a chopping block and axe stood in the yard. The chopped wood lay around in the grass, along with cut-off twigs and bits of junk. An old, thin horse was tied to a corner of the house, eating feed off the ground. Tomi took the bucket of water and poured it into a half-barrel beside the horse.
"I'll do the laundry because that's the girl stuff," Tomi said. "Dad told me if I was going to be a girl, I should do it all the way. And you can pick up all this wood and put it on the wagon. If that's okay, I mean."
"It's fine," he said with a smile.
She started into the house, then paused and turned around. "Oh, and if you hear Dad coming, you might want to hide. I haven't told him about you and he doesn't like strangers."
"He won't see me," Soujiro said.
Tomi disappeared into the house before looking out one more time. "Thank you!"
Stacking wood was easy, and Soujiro had it done before noon. Thinking about it, however, he could see where it would've been a difficult job for Tomi by herself. She would probably have to climb up on the wagon to do it, where he was tall enough just to reach over the sides, and of course he could carry more than she could. By the time he was finished, though, his body felt weak, and he was keenly aware that he hadn't eaten since that time the day before. Living on the road, he'd become easygoing about when he ate and where he slept, but this was extreme.
Kotori-san hopped around in the yard, pulling up earthworms. "Sorry I haven't fed you since yesterday," Soujiro said, but his stomach felt too empty to know how much of the feeling was hunger and how much was guilt. "Tomi-san?" he called. "How about lunch?"
"Well, the laundry's not done yet, and I'd have to cook..." she said, coming to the door.
"No, I meant going to town for lunch."
"I don't have any money," she said.
"It's okay, I can pay for it."
Tomi made some show of considering it. "Well, the clothes will probably be cleaner if they sit in the water for awhile anyway," she said, coming out. "Wow, you're done already? That'd take me all afternoon!"
"Things like that get easier as you get bigger," he said, starting back toward the town. "My Dad used to tell me, 'I can move a hundred bags of rice in a day, why can't you?' but he didn't realize it was hard for me because I was a kid then. I could probably do it now." Why am I talking about this...?
"My Dad's just the same way," Tomi said with a laugh. "He always says 'I work hard all day so we'll have something to eat and you just sit back here while I do all the hard work and you still can't keep up!'" she affected a gruff voice. "But I really do try to do everything. I normally keep going every minute. I think parents are just like that."
"No, I don't think they all are, just some," Soujiro said.
"Well, I hope I grow up soon so I can do it all," she said.
"So does your Dad let you sleep in the house before you finish?"
"Well, yes, but he gets mad..." She looked away from him and didn't say any more until they got to town. "Have you ever had lobster?" she asked.
"A few times. I think it was good but I like just about everything."
"I never have and I always wanted to try it."
He saw what she was trying to say. "Well, I don't have money for that right now..."
"It's okay. I don't get to eat out hardly at all, so I think I like just about everything, too."
In the end, he was so hungry he took Tomi to the first place to eat they came to, a small outdoor stand, and asked for whatever would be ready most quickly. It was just cheap noodles, but it tasted wonderful, and Tomi seemed very pleased also as they sat outside and ate in the cool spring air. They both enjoyed watching Kotori-san peck at the noodles they set out for her, like she'd pecked for worms in Tomi's yard..
"Ah, there you are! Sir!"
Soujiro didn't even imagine he was being addressed until he saw the man from the bank coming toward him. "I finally found you!" he said.
"Um, can I do something for you?" Soujiro asked. Tomi abruptly turned her bruised eye away.
"Well, you left in such a hurry this morning, I wasn't able to give you this small token of my gratitude," the banker said, handing him an envelope. "You can open it now, if you like(4)."
"It was really nothing. Thank you very much," he said, opening it.
Tomi looked over his shoulder, and again she forgot about hiding her black eye to stare at the gift. "Wow! That's a lot of money! I guess we could have the lobster tomorrow, huh?"
"Well, I have to be kind of careful, I don't know when I'll get more money after this," Soujiro said.
"Um, about that... there was something else I wanted to ask you." The man fiddled with his bowler hat just a bit. "I've talked it over with my business partners, and we'd appreciate it if you'd come to work for us, guarding the bank at night. So, how does that sound?"
Soujiro took a moment to wrap his mind around the question. "Um... I don't know..."
Tomi tugged on his sleeve. "Come on, it'd be great! You'd have a job and you could stay here. You want to find out if this is where you were going, right? And we could be friends!"
He thought about it a bit more. Staying in this town, having a job... It sounded like a 'normal life.' At any rate, it was something he'd never done before, and it sounded interesting. And just when he'd begun to think that kenjutsu wasn't useful in 'real life'! "All right, I will."
"Splendid! Please, come to the bank around sunset tonight. I appreciate this very much!" The man started away, but turned over his shoulder. "That money should be plenty to rent a room, but if you need more, just come to the bank and talk to me, all right?"
"All right," Soujiro said. He waved numbly for a moment before what had happened began to dawn on him. "Thank you very much!" he called.
to be continued...
1. Onii-chan means "older brother," but can also be an affectionate term of address from a child to a young man. "Onee-chan" is the feminine equivalent.
2. "Ojisan" and "Obachan" mean "Uncle" and "Auntie" respectively. They are also used as terms of address for older men and women.
3. "Kawaii": "Cute!"
4. At least according to my reading, it's customary in Japan not to open a gift immediately unless the giver tells you it's okay; doing so is considered to appear greedy.