“How is she now?”
“Vitals are exactly the same. Get more water.”
Five minutes had past. Everyone was assembled in Natoko’s room, a museum of merchandise Samurai armour bought cheap from junk shops, large hanging scrolls displaying calligraphy and swords on display, all bought from convenience stores and souvenir shops. Silence lay dead in the air, the group surrounding Natoko and ignoring all the feudal era stuff everywhere, devoid of dust that should have been there in layers. Gen and Junko had joined them following the ruckus, standing by the door frame without a clue what was happening.
Everyone was rushing in and out the room, a bucket run going between them as water was gathered in the best drinks containers they could find. The loser was currently lying on top of a futon, her head lying on Aki’s lap as her victor shoved water down her throat, the liquid covering the bed sheet as it fell away from her parched lips. It was probably a good thing that she wasn’t awake to witness Sagara trying to drown her.
“Hey,” Otsune said, her rushing in turning to a hesitant approach as she watched Natoko coughing some water back up. “Are you sure you know what your doing?”
“Well I haven’t done this before if that’s what you mean,” Sagara replied bluntly, everyone quickly beginning to realise they had given their friend up to some clueless non-doctor. “But we should be fast about this. You can die of dehydration fast after a possession. If we fill her up with water, she’ll at least stop looking thinner.” Aki whimpered, looking worried for her friend again. She could do nothing but hold her steady.
“If she woke up, it would help a lot,” Sagara said clinically, slapping her cheeks back and forth until three people stopped hm.
“Shouldn’t we get a doctor?” Fujiko asked. “They’ll probably know what to do. Doctors always know what to do. Or at least have a better idea than ourselves.” Sagara was shaking his head.
“Usually, when one gets possessed by water demons, they take water out at the molecular level… or something. A doctor could only do what we’re doing and they don’t have my water drinking training, so they won’t be as good as it as I am.” Otsune wandered back out quickly, nearly bumping into Sakura as she left backwards. Sakura got as far as passing the glass to Sagara before she dropped it with a light squeal.
“You’re bleeding,” she cried out, trying to examine his chest as the blood stain covered his shirt.
“What?” Sagara blurted, looking down and seeing his shirt and jacket had been ruined. “Oh yeah.” Examining it carefully, the ninja seemed to struggle for a second over what to do, before shrugging it away. “Well, I’m sure it’ll stop soon.”
“How can you say that?” Sakura shouted, her eyes darting everywhere. “You might be even worse than Natoko.”
“It’s nothing. Happened when the sword poked into me,” Sagara replied, dismissing it like your parent’s funeral. “Say, do you have some smelling salts? That might help wake her up.”
“I think Junko might have left some,” Fujiko answered. “I’ll go check.” She left on her mission as Sagara got back to trying to make Natoko drink, ignoring Sakura and leaving her to back away into the hall. All of a sudden, water forced itself back into the cup, the girl lying in the bed coughing loudly and moving to sit up in the same motion. Strong hands in front forced her back down. Her body tried to resist, her eyes closed and unsure what was happening, arms quickly finding they had no strength to them.
“No you don’t,” Sagara said lightheartedly, the glass of water dropping from his hand to the floor like he had placed it on a shelf, landing on the edge of the futon perfectly. Nobody stopped to admire the glass’s expert gymnastic performance as it landed without spilling a drop. It felt rather sad inside. “Stay down.”
“I will not…” Natoko’s replied weakly. It was hard to get the words out, her throat was sandpaper brushing over glass and her words were just adding buzz saws to it “Get off… me. What are you… doing?”
Collapsing in the same moment, her hands persisted against Sagara’s, pride clawing away at them at every moment it could.
“Ssshhh,” Aki said warmly. “Everything’s gonna been okay, Natoko. Just listen to him for now.” Although she was not in the state to tell who the voice was, the defeated swordgirl seemed to instinctively trust it, letting her hands ease off Sagara, her mind slowly drifting back to numbness.
“No, no, stay awake,” Sagara told her, slapping her a little too hard across the face, more like he was accusing her of felicitation than keeping her conscious. “You have to drink. Water is good for you. Especially when you have none at all.”
A few moments passed, the glass on her lips spending its time convincing her mouth to let its passengers through, immigration seeming hesitant for unnecessary periods of time before letting the whole lot in anyway. As she drank, the colour came back to her cheeks, letting her drink faster and faster as her body celebrated the fact that it was alive, quickly finishing off the glass and seeing the owner of the hand who was feeding her.
“You?” she said, her dried up eyes widening, her body bypassing Aki’s hands as it shot up.
“Yo,” he said, lifting the glass away from her mouth and behind him, not caring who took it. “Someone get some more?” Watching as Sakura took the glass and rushed out, Natoko calmed down again, mainly because her body was missing the fluids required to get anxious. Her head landing softly behind her she checked her surroundings, her eyes taking in the concerned faces of those still in the room.
“What happened to me?” the girl replied weakly, her mind temporarily drifting out of consciousness as she spoke.
“A spirit possessed you,” Aki replied, as casually as she would to say what’s on television. “She made you act like a drama queen.” A few of the others couldn’t help but snigger at this. Natoko seemed to have trouble believing her friend’s comment, and looked over to the boy in front of her to get a better answer.
“It was a spirit… or something,” he confirmed, a smile on his face even though he sounded confused. “I don’t know. I’ve never actually read about one like that. It should have been a demon. But if it was, it wouldn’t have had human memories. Definitely odd.”
Even dehydrated it occurred to Natoko that this was a man who was relying on knowledge he hadn’t taken the time to understand. Fear tried to grip her at the thought of her friends leaving her in such a person’s care, but once more failed to produce the enzymes required for the adrenaline rush.
“Though how did you even know there was a demon… spirit. Thing… whatever,” Otsune asked. “And how did that attack force it out.” Otsune’s mouth danced over her own words, her mind fumbling against them. The stuff she was talking about seemed utter nonsense, yet unless this was a poorly designed dream she was having, the evidence was before her and she was demanding answers from it.
“It seemed only to affect things that aren’t human,” Sagara muttered. “It didn’t affect Sarah, so I knew it would be okay. But then again, why did such a technique force it out…”
“How did she even get in me?” Natoko’s weak voice muttered.
“No idea. I could only tell because of my eyes…” His voice slowed down, wrapping himself up in thought, dribbling water down Natoko’s chin. “It was something about you being angry. But it could have been there for months to be honest.
“I brought the smelling…” Fujiko started, before seeing Natoko awake. “Never mind.” Sakura came in right behind her with more water, trying to keep it steady as she could before passing it to Sagara, who took it off her quickly and turned to Natoko, glad that the conversation was being interrupted. Placing the glass to her mouth like he was feeding a baby, the drained girl’s hand intercepted him, slowly drinking it herself. Between sips she stopped, wanting to continue the interrogation.
“What was that about your eyes?” Sagara cringed at Otsune question, hoping the conversation would leave through the window. Taking a few seconds to think it over, stopping to consider taking the path that he wanted the conversation to take, he seemed to decide to get on and tell them in the simplest way possible.
“You know,” he paused for a second, “about the saying that the eyes are the window to the soul?”
“Yeeeah?” Otsune replied after a few seconds, realizing that no one else was going to. Sagara paused to think again, staring into space like his off switch had been flicked. Everyone blinked at least twice.
“Errr, well,” Sagara said, continuing without any distractions from himself. “Basically, my mom’s side of the family usually have green eyes and, for a reason I’m not allowed to tell you, can see through any illusion, trick and whatever. It has something to do with the Neutralis, but I’m a little diluted, so I can’t do it constantly… Basically if you see that I have green eyes, that when you know I’m using it.” He waited for a moment, and saw that they still expected him to say more. “So yeah…”
“What use is that?” asked Aki, as if understanding completely, but seeing it as a useless ability that only added +2 to his awareness.
“Well, I saved Kotona’s life today because of it,” he explained with a grin, glad that they were happy to leave it at that. “If I couldn’t have seen into her and realize there were two souls, we would have never been able to help her.”
“You’re not exactly…helping me now…” Natoko mumbled, causing everyone to look towards her, seeing the girl was becoming drowsy again. Her glass had fallen from her hand, and it was only because of the glass’s unseen acrobatic ability that it hadn’t been shattered. Fortunately this time, the glass was expecting not to be applauded and so nobody’s feelings were hurt.
“Oh sorry, Kotone,” he said, taking the glass off her and passing it back to Sakura, turning this time. “Sorry to ask again, but…”
“It’s okay,” the smaller girl answered, leaving the room to head to the kitchen.
“It’s Natoko,” a voice said from behind him, as the girl’s footsteps left earshot.
“My name! Ya.Ma.Na.Ka. Na.To.Ko.” the girl said sternly, sitting up with energy, only to regret it immediately, her body insisting that sudden movement was a bad thing, and took control back, laying down on Aki again, who continued to tie the girl’s hair into knots without her realizing.
Before he could ask her what he had been calling her previously, the sliding door slid open behind them. In front of them stood the girl that Sagara had jumped over in the last chapter, now wearing a dressing gown and with a look that could be accurately described as very pissed off, with a pile of torn clothes wrapped round her hands.
“Where is she?” she shouted, ignoring the shocked look on Sagara’s face, which contrasted with the surprised look on everyone else’s faces. Ignoring everyone and everything that was happening she jumped over Sagara and landed on Natoko, grabbing the girl by her clothes and shaking her roughly for a few seconds, ignoring the state that the girl was in.
“That weird thing you did ruined my clothes, you bitch. You’re buying me new ones,” she shook the weakened girl again. If she weren’t so angry, she would have probably realized that she was somehow able to attack Natoko without getting swatted. Fuming in anger she turned to see Gen, trying to grab her softly and pull her off.
“Calm down,” he told her. “Natoko’s injured right now, she needs to be looked after carefully.”
“Be quiet you shit,” the ten year old child shouted back in her little temper tantrum. “Just because she’s fighting other people doesn’t mean she can ruin my clothes. My dad brought me them, and they’re from America. You think it’s going to be easy to replace them?” She turned to see Sagara, who was still looking at her with a studious look, his head waving from side to side. His staring caught her eye.
“Oh yeah,” she said, pouncing on Sagara and knocking him down. Even as he fell, the boy was still looking at her confused. Were it there, the glass would have been forced to do a triple backwards somersault with a nice little finale involving landing on its rim. This time it would have been noticed and declared the greatest glass in history. Unfortunately it was still with Sakura and was feeling intense emotional pain from within. “You’re the one who jumped around me. If it wasn’t for you then I wouldn’t have lost the clothes dad gave me. I am so gonna kick the crap out of you.”
Finally, something seemed to click in Sarah as well, seeing that smiling face staring back at her with furrowed eyebrows. Looking at each other, the two scanned each other, Sagara realising first.
“You’re the Squirt, aren’t you?” She paused for a second at his words, knowing that only one person could call her that and live. “I can still call you Squirt, can’t I?”
The runt just stared at the boy for a second, confusion running inside her mind, before finding the recognition it had been searching for.
“Boss?” she asked tentatively and although no answer was given she took it to be true. “Boss!” Screaming his name out once again with joy, she hugged her opponent, squeezing him tightly. The rest of the group just stared on as the ten year old hugged Gen’s cousin. No one had any real idea what was going on, but Sarah seemed happy, and that was rare.
Sarah was the youngest living at Heavenly Springs, and was two years younger than Sakura. Despite this, she was a loner and rarely ever left her room. Looking at her now though, Otsune could see no more than a normal child meeting their father as he came back from work.
Lifting himself up with the little girl was still connected to his neck, Sagara chortled to himself as she held on playfully. Finally having to pull the girl away, the two looked at the now familiar faces before them.
“Hey Squirt,” he greeted her properly. “You got quite the mouth now.”
“Your mom was a good teacher, Boss.”
“Really?” he replied. “I didn’t notice.”
“I take it you guys know each other?” Otsune was taking his place feeding Natoko now.
“Does Sarah usually mug strangers when she sees them?” he said rhetorically. Everybody nodded without hesitation, looking as dumbfounded as before, but Sagara hadn’t noticed. “Is your dad here?” he asked the girl, still clutching onto him. Sarah shook her head.
“I don’t know where he is at the moment,” she said. “He left me here a few months back. I don’t know when he’s coming back.”
“Kings are known for doing that,” Sagara replied with a grin. “I’m sure he’ll be back soon?”
“Yeah, I guess. He just…” Sarah found herself changing the subject. “Hey, wait a moment. What are you doing here?” she started poking him in the chest.
“To see my cousin in one part I guess,” he said, wincing in pain as she prodded away. Although I’m here in Japan on business,” he lifted up the small child into the air to empathize his point, taking the opportunity to move her away from Natoko. Sarah face twisted up, confused at his answer.
“You came to see me, but you didn’t know I was here,” Sarah asked, wondering what he meant.
“I meant Gen,” he said, calmly as ever. Gen sat up, the extent of the conversation dawning on him. “I didn’t even know you were here, Squirt.”
“It’s Sarah now,” Sarah insisted. “I have grown up, y’know.”
“Sure thing, Squirt.”
“Sarah’s your cousin?” Gen mumbled. “Does that mean she’s my cousin?” Sagara nodded, Sarah freezing up as she stared at the boring landlord.
“Does that mean he’s my cousin?” Sarah exclaimed with a gasp, like the situation hadn’t fully sunken in. Sagara shook his head, making both of them look back at him confused.
“Gen’s on my mom’s side, and the Squirt’s…”
“Sarah,” Sarah replied. “Sa-rah!”
“… on my dad’s side. Otsune isn’t related to me.” His finger had somehow ended up pointing at her.
“I had no idea,” Gen said, still in shock as Sakura came back into the room with several bottles of water. “I just heard from the girls that my grandmother let her stay without question, and that she never had to pay rent. At first I thought it was a trick, but she never gets on with anybody, so it couldn’t be, then my mother insisted…”
“Ah, Mizune would have known,” Sagara stated, taking the bottle off of Sakura and pouring it into the glass. “Probably her who did it.”
“But I’m related to her through you? That’s kind of scary. It’ll mean I’ll have to put more effort into buying her birthday presents,” Gen said laughing, scratching the back of his head with the concealed attempt of severing all the nerves there.
“Could you actually pass me the other water bottles please?” Natoko asked, the strength returning to her voice. It took a few seconds for Sagara to understand what she was talking about and took the bottles as he passed the glass back. Inside, the small glass screamed as Sakura left the room, it knew it was going to get put with all the other glasses again. No doubt they’ll all laugh at it again, like always.
Natoko opened up the bottle herself and sipped at it carefully, downing the bottle in seconds. “Excuse me… everybody,” Natoko said softly, her voice sounding delicate despite attempts at making herself look healthy. “Could I ask that you all leave me for a few minutes. I wish for some privacy. Plus, none of you are actually allowed in my room.” The last bit of the request seemed sterner than the first part.
“Are you sure, girl?” Fujiko said. “I know you need rest, but shouldn’t we stay in case something happens?”
“I assure you I shall be fine,” the girl said practically. “Sakura has supplied me with plenty of water, and that is all I need at the moment.” Looking to the left, the group could see around twenty small bottles of water. They turned to the girl, looking nonplussed. If the she drank this much it would bloat her up like a slug.
“Well…” Otsune thought over it for a moment. “I guess you’ll be okay. Sagara?” she asked, looking for a double check, with the hidden intention of it failing to cash in.
“Ah she’ll be fine now,” he said, standing up and beginning to usher them all out. “And she looks healthy too. To think I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.” As they all left, Aki seemed as hesitant as Otsune was.
“You gonna be okay, Natoko?” she said, looking a little sad at leaving her friend in such a state. They looked at each other, Natoko smiling back at the girl’s tear filled eyes and worried smile.
“I shall be fine, Aki. I just need to rest for a bit. I need to get back to training as soon as possible,” she replied, her voice sounding smoother and more elegant by the moment. With this, Aki nodded, smiling once more. She then jumped up to her feet, being gentle with her friend’s head and placing it down on the futon beneath them, before bouncing out of the room, grabbing Sarah and taking the angry little girl with her.
Sagara was the only other one left in the room with her. Natoko picked up another water bottle and drank hungrily from the plastic container.
“T-thank you,” she croaked between gulps of water. “If it wasn’t for you I don’t know what would have happened. Your timing here was most convenient” Sagara stopped by the door, looking out, yet listening carefully.
“You’re welcome,” he replied happily. “Although I’d still like to know what that thing was.”
He was different now. Different from how she had seen him earlier, the image of a moronic lewd creature molesting what he could gone with the true image of what, admittedly, still seemed to be a bit of a moron. It was almost amusing to watch him banging the back of his head against the wall, trying to spark some memory that would help him figure out what the spirit was. That didn’t matter now, though. She owed him a debt of gratitude, one which she felt, by her sword, that she had to pay.
“My sword!” she cried out, the word relaying over her mind several times.
“Huh?” Sagara mumbled as she started moving frantically within the confines of her futon, any thoughts of dehydration gone.
“Where’s my sword?” she asked him desperately, her voice shivering without the blade. “Please don’t say that it broke.”
“It’s behind you,” he said nonchalantly, unsure of her reaction. Turning around, she felt relief brighten her face as she saw it, the three and a half shaku blade that was as much a part of her life as her hand. Crawling up to it, moving on her knees, she grabbed it and brought it back to her futon. It would have all been pointless if she had lost Iziz. Her soul lay inside this sword.
The boy was looking at her and she felt her face fill with blood.
“Sorry,” she muttered.
“What for?” he replied, looking honestly confused.
“Oh, nothing. It’s just this sword is very important to me.”
“Right,” he said, falling silent again. Had she sounded weird again? People always went quiet when they thought she was being weird.
“That aren’t that many possession spirits…”
“Just thinking,” he replied. “There aren’t that many Earth spirits that can possess people like that woman did. Demons and Angels can do it with ease, but she wasn’t either.”
“Oh right…” Was he still thinking about that? Had he even noticed her rush to her sword?
“Mind you, there were similar effects of the possession to some earth spirits,” he continued, clearly speaking to the both of them. “Your skills were weaker than they should have been, that was similar to when my mom got possessed…”
“Your mother was possessed?” she replied, finding the idea of someone else being possessed somewhat relieving. It made her less weak by diffusion.
“Well I shouldn’t have been able to beat her,” Sagara replied. “She’s the Enforcer of the Balance. There aren’t any humans that can beat her.”
“Enforcer of the Balance?” Natoko repeated, the title meaning nothing to her except that it sounded rather stupid.
“Oh wait, I’m not supposed to talk about that,” Sagara said, waiting for someone to give him permission as he said it, “but I guess it doesn’t matter. In essence, like I told the others, my family are demon hunters, but the point of the direct bloodline is the role of Enforcer. The Enforcer is the lord of the village and assigned the job of making sure that non-humans from other realms don’t set foot on earth, because of the influence their mere presence might cause.”
Looking around for a moment, she realized he was being completely serious as he went on to explain other roles, sounding like a video game tutorial rather than someone describing their family.
“And this is your mother’s job?” she said, when he had finally finished, none of it having sunken in.
“Enforcer, yep. And one day, it’ll be mine. That’s why I’m here actually, I guess. The tournament is part of my initiation ceremony.
“So you really are a demon hunting ninja?”
“Didn’t I say that?”
“Too many times,” she replied. “I thought I might have misheard.”
“Right,” he replied, clearly not understanding her troubles.
“I guess I can’t argue with that. My wish to be a samurai is just as stupid.”
“You’re not a samurai?” She glared at him. That was that western view again. Everything holding a sword was a samurai from their perspective.
She sighed, regretting her slip as he suddenly became fascinated. “As far as I’m concerned I am one. I have always insisted fighting for honour and justice every since I got my sword, ever since my grandfather…” Her voice cut itself off, that inbuilt warning instinct that usually kicked in when she got too comfortable around stranger, wanting to share but knowing fantasy should stay away from fact. “But I guess there is no such thing as a modern day samurai.”
“There isn’t?” he asked, now looking mildly curious.
“At best, I’ll just be another Iaido or Kendo practitioner. That’s what I was told…but,” she felt a deep strain on her heart, threatening to crush it, “but that insults everything the samurai stood for! There aren’t even classes for Iaijutsu anymore and when I try to make my own styles up, people just say it’s like this or like that. It…”
“Don’t you have to be born into a samurai family or something to be a samurai?” he interrupted, apparently failing to notice her discomfort at speaking about this. Before she could stop herself, the words were already leaving her mouth.
“I was. I have my genealogy on the wall over there. My great grandfather was samurai and my grandfather gave his life alongside Mishima at the Self Defence Force building just to maintain the samurai way. And even though that failed, it doesn’t make me any less samurai. Just because my father chose the path of business shouldn’t change that, shouldn’t make me any less samurai.”
“Well, why would it?”
“Why shouldn’t it make you any less samurai?” Was he mocking her?
“It shouldn’t,” she replied bitterly, her voice felt cold, wanting to twist. Her eyes felt like tears should be streaming down them.
“So you are samurai?” he said, voice still as calm as ever, yet still confused.
It took her a few seconds to realize that she had shouted, the silence echoing the room greatly contrasting the volume a moment ago. Her eyes were locked onto his, finding that urge to tear him apart returning, wishing her body wasn’t as weak as it was. She waited for whatever mockery he had waiting for her.
“That’s cool,” he finally said. “I’ve never met a samurai.”
The lack of belief flooded her mind, the pain gripping her heart falling away. Why wasn’t he laughing? Everyone always laughed, mocking her with her own words. At the very least, they’d look away, make some excuse, talk behind her back at how silly she was. They always did. Even her friends took it all in stride. Yet he wasn’t doing anything. He reacted as if she had she wanted some respectable business job or something and now-
It was clear. Now she owed him two debts. Her hand tightened over her sword. Would it actually be possible?
“Anyway, I need to shovel food into my mouth at an alarming rate so…” he began, moving for the doorway.
“Sagara-san…” she whispered, interrupting him.
“This may seem…a little sudden…but…” She was hesitating. It wouldn’t work if she was hesitating. The moment would be spoiled.
“What is it?”
“Please,” she shouted, throwing her hands onto the floor and bowing her head as deeply as it could go. “Please take me on as your retainer!”
“Excuse me?” he replied, sounding as bewildered as she expected.
“All my life,” she began to explain, letting the moment rush into her. “I have been determined to be samurai. Some called me childish, others strange. Others simply laughed it off. Yet you have accepted my dream unwaveringly. As samurai, I have no choice but to follow and serve you.”
“But,” he said, scratching the back of his head loud enough for her to hear it. “Aren’t you supposed to be following some Lord or something?”
“If what you have told me is true, and I have been convinced today that it is, then I have opted to follow someone who is heir to the position of a Lord. I beg of you! I believe I am making the right choice.” She held herself in, water was leaving her body again, her eyes clamped shut like fearing the executioner’s bullet. “Please. Accept my plea for you to become my master.”
That was it. She had said it. It didn’t matter how stupid it sounded now, how messed up it was. It had come out and there was no way to take it back. Whether he refused or not was just a small side detail now compared to that step she had just taken.
I thought so.
“No wait. You should know,” he hesitated, scratching the back of his head. “My way isn’t exactly about honour or justice. It isn’t even considered a noble thing what I do. For me to take you in probably won’t bode well in the future.”
So that was his excuse. It sounded different, almost reassuring. Should she accept that?
“…but then again. It is your choice, and it is our key principle that we allow a person their free will. So…”
Was he just speaking aloud? Was it acceptance? It was impossible to tell. Her mind felt like it was on fire. It didn’t matter if it was his answer.
“Thank you,” she shouted, bowing furiously. “Thank you so much!”
“Hey, I didn’t…” but she was looking at him now. His face had barely budged an inch since she had brought hers down. He seemed to give in. “Never mind, it would have probably led that way anyway. Okay, I accept you.”
Nodding, she brought her head back down for another bow, years of period drama teaching her exactly how she should act. But it wasn’t an act. For once it wasn’t an act. At that one point she felt truly free. It was a beautiful moment for her, her blood was racing despite the water shortage. A feeling of flight emerged in her. Acceptance.
“Wow, my second servant,” Sagara muttered as he wandered out. “Remind me to introduce you to Melissa sometime.”
“Eh?” Natoko blurted out as the door shut behind her new lord.