Five days had conveniently passed since the epically proportioned fight by the Hot Springs under the midday sun. The day was Friday, and with the evening time approaching the burning ball of heat fell back behind the edge of existence, once again failing to incinerate them all, its currently leased light expired for the day.
With everyone having returned from whatever it was they did during those hours not spent in the dormitory, the residents had chosen to treat the sun setting with a celebratory dive in the Hot Springs, commemorating another day having survived the wrath of the Sun God and relaxing in the cool bath waters that would kill them all given half the chance and a kilogram of sentience. New members had been introduced to the cast at this point, the first and only of these being Setsuna, a young, slightly overweight woman from Nara of around the age of twenty. All who ever met Setsuna had considered her to be a nice girl, but this was mainly due to the fear that the girl had the power to instill in anyone she met. No one knew why, but they always felt like terrible things would happen to them if they ever said anything wrong about her, especially about her left shoulder blade.
The only person who wasn’t outside at this moment of relative importance was Gen, who had kicked everybody out of the dormitory so he and the cheapest hired help he could find could do a complete clean up of the building before everyone came back in and messed it up again.
Sagara and Natoko were training.
For these two, this is what half of their days had been like since the very short time they had become bestest best friends. Natoko, it can be assumed, had school during the day and Sagara was busy mastering the art of pretending to do the work he had agreed to do for the sake of rent whilst in fact being incredibly lazy and sitting by the television. The evening was now the only real time they had to come home and try to hit each other.
Their basic sparring had been going on for about ten minutes non-stop, with each pushing the other back in a reciprocating wave of practice. The unofficial match was about to reach its climax with the winner being a mysterious third entity, when a small watch started to beep.
“Right, that’s enough for today then,” Natoko panted, relaxing her stance as she turned the device off. Exhaling heavily, her lungs trying to catch as much air as possible, the newly appointed samurai fell to one knee. She was exhausted, despite her movements being much smaller than Sagara’s over the top acrobatic fighting, she had tired a lot faster than he had. It was beginning to dawn on her that changing her fighting style to something more realistic was probably not a good idea when she only had a day left to master it.
Sagara was a little disappointed when the watch had gone off, but the others had insisted that he stop overdoing it so that he wouldn’t be found in various obscure places around the dorms sleeping it off later. With the sparring having gone on for around two hours now, with only a few small breaks in between to discuss tactics, all knew that if they didn’t stop him now it would only lead to sweat stained floorboards later.
Sagara wasn’t actually any good at discussing tactics, Natoko had pointed out a few times, and could never seem to describe any idea pass the concept of hitting her in various body parts. On the other hand, he showed signs of constant, bright new ideas that would just spring out of him at any time and usually knock her down to the ground. And since she would often miss what he did due to being hit by it, she had to stop him as soon as possible unless he forget what he actually did. Natoko was able to catch him out as well, though her tactics often required her stopping to think about it, but that was what sparring was all about in her opinion. A chance to think up and try out new ideas.
Unfortunately, Sagara didn’t understand this at all.
Now, her real blade staying at her waist, Natoko had chosen to spar with a wooden sword to prevent injury. However, the blunt blade appeared pointless to the one she was fighting against, and he was treating it more like an ineffectual club, showing no hesitation of letting it touch him when she delivered a small stroke. He had even grabbed it a few times and used the stick to pull her towards him, ignoring the horrible mutilation that would occur if it was a real sword, as well as her complaints afterwards.
“Awww,” Sagara whined, disappointed and unconsciously rubbing his knuckles as he too dropped his guard. If he was aching all over as well, he didn’t seem to mind as much. “You know, you should stick to what you were doing earlier, when you kept your sword in the sheath all the time. You were faster then.”
“It is less… practical,” she commented, pulling her sword in and out of its sheath as fast as she could. “If I get surprised, it’ll get jammed and I won’t be able to pull it out in time. Kendo will do for now.”
“Come on,” he said, taking a step back, his legs already bouncing on the spot. “Let’s just try it. I wanna see if I can dodge.”
“Please sire-” she pleaded.
“Sagara…” Sagara insisted. “And you complained when I got your name wrong.”
“Sagara…” she continued, maintaining a calm composure in front of an urge to scream at him. “We need to head out soon, remember? I suggest that we rest up for a short while and then be prepared to move out.”
“Okay,” Sagara agreed far too easily, dropping his form. “I suppose we can do a rest.”
“A rest?” Fujiko shouted from the spring, grabbing their attention. “You two should go into comas the amount of time you’ve been doing that. Get lives already!”
“A dip in the Hot Springs would be just as good,” he said, pointing towards where the girls were resting, before skipping towards his intended destination, any signs of exhaustion now gone, the anticipation of his beloved Hot Spring taking all the fatigue away. A hand appeared in front of him magically. It was connected to Otsune, who clambered over the rocks hastily as soon as she heard his words.
“Hold it,” she exclaimed, a cross look on her face. “We’ve already been over this, Sagara. You’re not allowed in here when any of the girls are in here.”
“Aw…but…hot spring,” he whined, as if this would be enough to win over Otsune’s firm decision.
“No,” Otsune shouted, sick of going over the same ineffective conversation that she had suffered over the past three days. “If Gen’s not allowed in when we’re in, you shouldn’t be either. Why don’t you even begin to understand this?”
“Well, why don’t you just let Gen in as well?” he suggested with a sheepish grin. “Then we could have a big Hot Spring party.” Empathising his suggestion by spreading his arms out wide, Otsune responded with a glare that told Sagara his suggestions weren’t welcomed.
“But Otsune,” Sarah said, jumping to her cousin’s defense. “It’s alright to let him in, he just wants to relax like the rest of us, and we’re all wearing our costumes anyway.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Otsune said, getting angry now, still not understanding why her view of modesty was so alien to those around her. “He’s male, we’re female. If we allow a guy to bathe at the same time as us, and someone hears about it, we’ll have everyone in the village on the doorstep with burning torches. And, if some of you haven’t noticed already, there are some of us may not be comfortable with it either.”
“I’m fine with it,” Fujiko said, raising a small cup of clear liquid in the air.
“Me too,” Sarah said.
“And me,” said Aki.
Tina just blushed, ready to agree with everybody that they shouldn’t let him in, when they then all said the complete opposite of what she was expecting. Setsuna was asleep, and floated to the surface every so often, the possibility of her being dead significantly high.
Sakura just quietly stepped out to leave, knowing that if she said anything at this point the others would convince her to stay. The young girl found it far too embarrassing with Sagara just a few meters away from the spring. Even knowing that he didn’t see it as any big deal, though this too was confusing, it still felt a little weird to her.
“I don’t think it will be a problem, Otsune,” Natoko added, coming to the side of the springs, trying to comb her hair dry with a towel. “Sagara’s not the same as other boys his age. He’s not driven by his basic urges and wanton desires.”
“Oh really?” said Otsune, turning to look at the supposedly mature boy, who was currently staring in the direction of the springs where all the half naked girls were laying down, drooling slightly.
“Hot…hot springs,” he mumbled, reaching out with his hand to try and touch the water’s surface. “So close, yet an eternity away”
“It’s not the same wants and desires I agree,” Otsune said after a few second’s observation. “But you have to admit, he’s just plain weird.”
Natoko looked back to Otsune, with a small, worried smirk on her face.
“Oh fine, let him bathe with you then,” Otsune shouted, grabbing her glass of orange juice and heading for the door. “I won’t be here to suffer it. Just don’t come crying to me when a picture of you all serving a stranger in a pool gets distributed to every conservative freak in this town.”
“You can get in now, Sagara,” Fujiko cooed, snapping him out if his trance as the gate to the Changing rooms shut behind Otsune.
Sagara dived in without hesitation, either ignoring or not noticing the fact there he was still fully clothed, his training clothes still caked in sweat.
“Sagara!” a voice called out to him, causing the boy to shoot straight back out. He turned round to see his cousin Gen, who was currently facing away from him, the past few months having taught him the price for walking to a Hot Spring full of girls without first averting his eyes. “That show you wanted to watch is about to come on. Could you please sit on the towels until you’ve dried up?”
Sagara disappeared in a badly animated flash, this ‘show’ apparently being more important than his compulsive desire to bathe and Tina had to jump out of the way to avoid him. The girls looked on confused, and two of them found themselves leaving to find out what it was all about, Gen disappearing around the same time.
“What was that all about?” Otsune asked, finding herself wandering back a minute later, the threat of a male in a Hot Spring having been extinguished.
“No idea,” replied Fujiko dismissively, too lazy to follow herself. “Get back in already.” Having less reason to care about modesty, Natoko removed her sweat covered hakama before stepping in, keeping a firm grip on her blade, making sure the sheath didn’t get wet. Junko felt the urge to mention something about it, like the samurai had forgotten to take it from her hand like she would a sock on her foot. “You as well, Tina.”
“I- I’m fine, thanks,” the German girl replied, having chosen to sit on one of the rocks above the Hot Spring. Otsune saddled up besides her friend, dropping into the water slowly.
“I think it has something to do with a cartoon they watch around this time,” she said, sinking all the way down to blow bubbles out her mouth
“Oh? I thought Sagara didn’t like watching television,” Fujiko replied, moving over for Natoko to sit beside her.
“That was until he started to goof off all day. He’s strangely lazy for someone obsessed with fighting,” Otsune said, slipping back in. “Now, when he’s finished his chores, he tends to sucks information off of the education channels doing yet more training as he does so. Really messes up the floor.”
“He’s been watching the period dramas as well,” Natoko pointed out, cooing slightly as she let the water slip around her. “Or at least tries too. He always gets me into fighting him halfway through.”
“How is the training going anyway?” Fujiko asked her friend.
“Good I guess,” Natoko replied, sighing in response to the hot water as it closed in around her. “All we really have to do in refine our skills. I’m just worried that I won’t be able to use kendo before it begins.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to qualify for this tournament thing?” Fujiko asked curiously. She was in conversation mode, as Aki called it, and they had all learnt from past experience that it didn’t actually matter how she replied to Fujiko’s quick fire questions; the girl’s insatiable urge to fill the silence was all that mattered.
“Well, as long as I have that ticket he gave me, all I have to do to qualify is show up on the day… I think. He hasn’t actually told me much of anything.”
“So you two will become rivals as well as lovers,” Fujiko said casually, failing to change the tone of her voice and smiling as Natoko became more relaxed.
“It seems so,” replied Natoko, relaxing further into the spring, her eyes soon springing wide open. “Hey,” she shouted.
“What? You mean you two aren’t a couple yet?” the other girl said teasingly. “But it’s been four days and you’re already so close.” Natoko held in her anger, never finding herself on Fujiko’s tormenting side before, but knowing it would be letting the girl get her way if she shouted her disdain. Fujiko was the type that liked pushing her friend’s limit.
“Oh… I never knew. You’re so lucky, Natoko-san,” Setsuna replied, now awake and resurfacing. “Sagara-san would make a wonderful husband. He’s so caring and considerate.”
“Shut up,” the samurai shouted, failing to hold it in. “There’s nothing between us. We’re just helping each other train.”
“Oh, you believe that,” Fujiko replied grinning, letting it sink in as she took another sip from the small plate that contained her alcoholic beverage. “But what does he think?”
“What do you mean?” Natoko asked, pausing in her anger.
“Well, he did give you that ticket as a present. That tournament is apparently high class, even if it is for kids. You can’t even buy one of what you’re holding, I’ve looked on the ‘net. Don’t you think it means something if he’s showering you with rare and valuable gifts?”
“It-” Natoko stumbled. “It was merely an order, to enable me to be by his side, and in recognition of my skill.”
“And you’re following that order? Some feminist you are,” Fujiko slurred, the alcohol having taken full hold of her now. “Would you date him if he ordered you? Oh, would you slit your stomach?”
“I wish for all the world that you hadn’t heard the conversation between me and my master.”
“Yes, yes,” Fujiko replied with a happily dismissive tone. “It’s such a shame that our amazing ancestral samurai senses completely failed to detect when a glass is pressed against the other side of a wall and used as a listening device.”
“But really, Natoko,” Otsune began, doing her best to silence Natoko’s growl. “Declaring someone your master like that. It’s too weird. You wouldn’t see anyone do that nowadays.”
“Y-you think so?” Natoko stuttered, trying to pass it off with a smile.
“It’s like you’re actually trying to be some kind of actual samurai or something.”
“O-of course not.”
“I’ve prepared your bag for you, Sagara,” Natoko said, bowing as she handed it over to him. “Everything you should need for the next few days should be in there- though I couldn’t find your gauntlet anywhere.”
“Don’t worry about it, thanks,” Sagara replied taking it off her and heading for the doorway. It had started to get dark now and the cicada was chirping away peacefully in the surrounding hillside. “I won’t be using it anyway. Well, I won’t be allowed to anyway.”
“Very well,” she said, coughing nervously to herself as she looked to everyone else. “I have prepared the hotel reservations and train tickets. We should have forty five minutes to get to the train station from here on foot
“I wouldn’t mind getting something to eat on the way down,” the ninja said nonchalantly.
“Well, there is a nice-” Natoko cut herself off, glancing to the others as they started leering, “vending machine at the train station. We could get some snacks from there.”
“Excellent,” Sagara proclaimed, opening the door and sliding through it without any form of farewell to those that had come to see him off, leaving Natoko hesitant at following quickly after him.
“Well then,” she muttered. “I shall see you all tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Junko replied. “I thought you’d be gone for the weekend?”
“Aren’t you coming to watch?” asked Sakura, standing next to the background character. “I thought Aki got seven tickets from Sagara’s bag.”
“Ah, sorry, Junko,” Otsune butted in, clapping her hands to ask for forgiveness from her friend. “I let Tina have the last ticket. I didn’t want to leave her on her own here.”
“You could have said!” the schoolgirl moaned.
“I know, but she’s been really sullen and I think she’s homesick, not to mention the whole perfume thing. I just think it’ll be good for her to get out and do stuff.” Junko sighed loudly, seeing the group staring at her in the process and straightening up.
“Fine,” she gave in. “I guess I would have found it boring anyway. Why any of you want to see idiots hitting each other is beyond me.”
“Because it’s fun” Aki announced happily, as Natoko took that moment to slip away, bowing one last time, with only Sarah watching her, a glum expression on the child’s face.
Taking the one hundred and eight steps down to the bottom of Heavenly Springs, Natoko met Sagara with a passive look before they both carried on walking. Keeping behind him, the samurai girl tried to look attentive to her surroundings, unsure of how she was supposed to act. It should have been obvious really. She had seen hundreds of shows depicting the style of a samurai, but with Sagara in front of her, she couldn’t tell if she was doing it right or not. It didn’t help that he wasn’t helping himself. Other than saying ‘thanks’ or ‘let’s fight’ every so often, the boy hadn’t done anything with her as regards to her being his retainer, and she was beginning to think that perhaps he wasn’t taking it as seriously as she wanted him to.
Though what had she been expecting? That everyday he would assign her with a new mission. That they would be engaging in street fights against punks who would threaten the innocent? Maybe even fighting demons in dark alleyways? No, even in a world where just days ago a water based demon had invaded her body and use it to perform strange magical powers there would not be action on a daily basis. Even in the cartoons whole months would pass between events where the warriors would train themselves in preparation. In that regard she had been doing things right.
But from what he had said, there was something going on within this tournament that he had entered the two of them into, something to do with demons. Admittedly he hadn’t gone into much detail with her and even consulting Gen hadn’t offered much more information. Did Sagara even have any more information?
“Not really,” he replied when she finally asked him. Expecting him to at little go over the little information he did had, Natoko waited in silence for a minute or so, soon realising that in his mind, the conversation was over.
“So shouldn’t we be getting information?” she asked eventually. He was a ninja after all, though she had yet to see him be sneaky in any way whatsoever, and information gathering was what ninja did best after sneaking into the castles of Feudal lords and assassinating visiting dignitaries.
“Maybe,” he replied. “We’ll have to see.”
Is that really the type of decisiveness that you should be having? Natoko thought to herself as the steep hill gradually declined to a level that didn’t kill her calves. Mind you, he had only entered Japan recently. It would have been difficult even for a super ninja to start getting information out of the surrounding lands. Whilst she was sure that, if this were a computer game, they would have already run into the mysterious entity that would have gave them a special item required to get the key for the next level, this wouldn’t be the case here. Sagara probably didn’t even know where the surrounding demons of this area hid.
Actually, just how many demons were around this area? So far she had only seen one (and been possessed by another) in her entire lifespan. Surely if there were many nearby there would have been other clear signs: torn fences, missing pets, people claiming to have seen mysterious events, only to be instantly refuted by their friends.
Just how many times had she ignored a ghost story when the person in front of her wasn’t crazy. The girls in class talked about them all the time, though only Aki seemed interested at home.
No, the girls in school were clearly just playing. They read far too many light novels and were engaged in talks about the latest mystery television show just as much as they thought poltergeists had been throwing rocks at them in the fields. She had to remain smart about this. Just because she now knew demons to exist didn’t mean she should start accepting Tanouki spirits and the American Bigfoot as fact. Natoko knew there were a lot of questions to be asked about this and she could feel her heart beating hard at the idea of being one of a few that knew about such an immense secret.
“Sagara,” she said, briefly under the impression that his mind was turned off. “About all these demons?”
“A lot of the residents were away last Sunday, so not many got to hear about all that happened,” she began, not entirely saying what she intended to say. “Can you… Would it be possible that you don’t bring it up to anybody? That it stays a secret with those few that already know?”
“It’s just-” she almost panicked. “It’s just that we’ve all got a lot of problems anyway and I don’t think it’ll help if news of demons in the dormitory got out. It’ll be better if no one knows about it and talks about it even less. You understand?”
“Okay,” Sagara replied briskly. “I have to do that anyway. It’s a standard of the clan.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Mom says the presence of demons should be kept from the eyes of the mortal world as best as possible, for not only might humans been taken in by greed and lust, but they will for certain lose their own free will.’” He fell silent for a second, his gaze looking over the rooftops to the newly approaching moon. “Thinking about it, letting you humans find out might get me into some trouble. Protecting free will is supposed to be paramount.” He rubbed his chin in contemplation. She couldn’t help but think it was a bit too late to be considering it now.
Still, if it was kept between the eight or so people that knew already, that would be for the best for her. Now if only…
“Lot of people out tonight,” Sagara said casually, pricking Natoko’s ears. It was an unusual thing for him to say, for looking around Natoko couldn’t see anybody.
She stopped just short of bumping into a frail old man dressed traditionally, Sagara jumping out the way to avoid him first. They weren’t alone. Looking carefully, in the shadows that grew between the gaps of the small houses, she could just make out a few figures in the mist. She was just about to mention how unlikely it was for the residents to be out this late when she realised the man was still staring at her.
“Ah, excuse me sir,” Natoko said when the old man didn’t step out of the way. “Is there something we could help you with?”
She saw his receding hairline as he tilted his balding forehead towards her, his eyes glazed with a fury that labeled itself righteous. The old man’s eyes met up with hers and enjoyed a brief session of glaring before a ball of saliva emerged from his mouth and landing hard on Natoko’s nose.
“Whore!” he shouted, alarming her a few steps back. “All whores, you should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Natoko was about to interject when she saw four more of the elderly group advance upon her. They looked ready to contribute to the layer of saliva that was now dripping down her nose and, judging by the saucepan the woman was holding, perhaps ready to beat her senseless as well.
“You should probably wipe that off,” Sagara told her as he stood besides her, distracting the encroaching mob. “He might have germs.” Natoko cringed.
“You little brats. Have you no respect?” the man in his dressing gown asked. “You come to our little town and you corrupt it with your filthy ways. You summon men to your rooms and let them have their way with your pert little bodies. You disgust us.”
He spat again. Natoko wished she could have said she was ready for it but she could only dodge so much that it landed in her hair and bounced off what little hairspray she used. What was going on here? Had they all been drinking? She had heard from the others that there had been issues with the community for Gen taking over ownership of the building but this was absurd. She felt her grip head for Iziz. Part of her wanted to take the man’s head off his shoulders and place it on her mantelpiece to show off as the ultimate conversation piece but reality stopped her, knowing that she couldn’t possibly use it against such people.
“How long do we have until the train?” Sagara asked her far far out of the blue.
“About fifteen minutes,” she answered off her tongue, only able to think of the question’s gratuitousness second after as the lady with the pan took three slow steps behind the ninja and swung hard, taking his head down with her cooking utensil.
“Sagara,” Natoko found herself screaming, her lord falling before her. His landing more than awkward, the boy tripped on his own ankle, spinning on the spot and collapsing into the floor.
Getting up almost immediately, Sagara rubbed his head, his body moving of its own accord, groaning like he had woken up with a hangover. Wandering around in a daze, he moved behind Natoko; a move the samurai interpreted as permission to attack. The mob of five in front of them were all standing now, one of them preparing his walking cane as the samurai did the same.
Grabbing the air around her sword, Natoko’s eyes went wide. It was gone. The samurai girl’s hands fumbled around her waist for a few seconds, letting out a small cry of desperate anguish that served distraction to the approaching geriatrics.
“Iziz!” she whispered weakly, realizing it was gone. “Where?”
“What?” Sagara said confused, the world spinning round his eyes. “You left it back at the dorm.” Refusing to believe him, her hands checked her waist again, before trying to feel her back, just in case she had decided to place it there for a change.
Thoughts of the fight fell away from her mind, her knees buckling as agony assaulted her mind. All those around her disappeared, blurring with distorted sounds. She felt like she was underwater, floating lifelessly, like she had drowned without losing her life.
“What’s wrong?” Sagara asked through the storm that entered her mind. What does it look like? Barely hearing her own thoughts, she looked at him with barren eyes. He was blurry still, his image deformed in sore eyes. She had never been without her Iziz in so long. It felt wrong that she hadn’t even noticed until now, a betrayal to herself.
“My sword. Iziz. I need it.”