The fire was progressively consuming everything around the occupants of the room, and it was a matter of time until the place would come tumbling down like a house of cards. The air was now barely breathable, and the eleven year old Mayu fell on her knees, unable to stop coughing as she was inhaling more and more smoke. Her gaze wandered helplessly around the room, and she had to restrain herself from emptying her stomach at the view of the lifeless bodies bathing in their blood on the wooden floor. It had been a massacre.
Her eyes then fell on her eight year old sister who was still standing up by her side, her eyes blazing with fire as she was staring angrily at the person responsible for their misfortune. She could tell Jurina had something in mind, and she wasn't surprised when she reached for the katana laying on the floor near one of their bodyguards' form, her feet then swiftly leading her to the older girl raising her weapon over their injured father.
Jurina was a few meters away when a warrior stepped in and quickly gripped her arm, the weapon falling with a loud thump on the floor as he twisted her hand. A loud cry left Jurina's lips in pain, and she immediately fell on her kneels as she received a sharp blow on her back. Her fists tightened in anger as she tried to stand up again, only to get a kick on the head in reply.
Mayu cried out her young sister's name as she watched her writhe in pain on the floor and she crawled towards her, wrapping her arm around her waist to help her sit. The katana raised above their father's head lowered and the traitor turned towards the two sisters, a smile plastered on her face.
"You have a very fierce daughter," she murmured, taking a step towards Jurina and cupping her chin in amazement. "If she wasn't so young, I'm sure she would have been a worthy opponent."
Her fingers left the furious Jurina and her gaze shifted to Mayu, her smile widening in amusement as she witnessed her distress.
"You're right to be afraid," she declared, before turning her back and raising her katana over their father's kneeling form again. "Because you won't have anything left after today."
Mayu immediately averted her gaze as she knew what was coming, shutting her eyes when the sound reached her ears. Her eyes started watering and she refused to look at their father's lifeless form, gazing instead at Jurina who, unlike her, had not looked away from the terrible scene. Mayu's forehead hit Jurina's arm and she started to cry, her tears increasing in despair and fear. Were they about to follow their clan's fate? Were they going to get killed as well, their lifeless bodies left burning in their family's house?
Despite the crackling fire she could hear the warriors' footsteps as they surrounded them and she gripped tightly her sister's arm, noticing the way Jurina was breathing hard and seething with anger.
"Don't," the traitor's voice echoed loud and clear in the room, her subordinates immediately lowering their katanas at the command. "They don't pose a threat."
Mayu's eyes shot open as the forms around them dissipated, the room progressively emptying and leaving the two sisters alone in the middle of the suffocating fire.
"One day, I will come for you, Miyuki," Jurina declared as she suddenly stood up, her voice unusually steady as she stared at the older girl's back.
A soft chuckle filled the room as the traitor turned around, her amused eyes falling on the small girl. "I can't wait, Jurina."
10 years later.
Mayu had been pacing up and down for a few minutes now, stealing an occasional glance at the village below the hill. Her eyes swiftly scanned the streets, in search of a familiar face, but her eighteen year old sister was still nowhere to be found. An hour ago, she had woken up alone in the forest and soon discovered the missing body beside her. It didn't take her long to understand Jurina had decided to pay a visit to the village nearby, and her absence was starting to worry her. She almost wanted to go and look for her, but the idea faded when she knew it would be totally useless. She wouldn't even know where to start.
A sigh left her lips and she leaned her back against the tree, until her eyes suddenly caught sight of a familiar silhouette running in the streets. Mayu immediately took a step forward, alert, not missing the two very angry men chasing her sister.
"Jurina!" Mayu shouted at thin air in frustration. Now she knew why the girl had left without a word. She wanted to commit another bad deed.
Her pursuers were fast, but Jurina had the advantage of youth. She swiftly turned to the right, engulfing herself into a more narrowed street, then on her left down another one. Despite being very angry at her - Jurina had again decided to go against her wishes - Mayu couldn't help but relax slightly when she realized her agile sister was starting to lose her pursuers.
Indeed the two men had suddenly stopped running - obviously exhausted - and Jurina was now exiting the village at full speed. Mayu watched her as she climbed the hill in long strides, and when she was sure no one was following her anymore, she made her way back to their makeshift camp. It didn't take long before she heard footsteps and her eyes soon fell on the slightly breathless thief. When Jurina caught sight of her older sister her mouth tugged into an amused smile and she cheekily waved her bag at her, before laying on the grass.
"Breakfast," Jurina exclaimed cheerfully as she closed her eyes, a soft chuckle escaping her lips. "These guys really wanted to catch me."
When her remark was met by silence she curiously gazed at her sister, only to witness an angry Mayu standing in front of her, arms crossed over her chest.
"Why did you go without me?" Mayu protested.
"I didn't want to put you in danger," Jurina explained calmly, sitting up, and retrieving some food from the bag. "Come on, eat."
Mayu caught the apple coming her way and briefly glanced at it, before shifting her gaze to her sister. Jurina was already starting to eat what she had stolen, Mayu's protests already forgotten, judging by the pleased expression on her face.
Mayu was more than ready to voice her disapproval anew, but the sudden growl her stomach made told her she really needed the food. Reluctantly she took a seat in front of her sister, taking a bite in the fruit, not missing Jurina's smirk when her stomach voiced its discontentment another time.
Both sisters quietly ate and Mayu studied her sister's features, a pang in her chest as she noticed the bags under her eyes. A week ago both girls had woken up one morning to discover their food and money had been stolen and since then, Jurina had insisted on taking watch. Mayu had suggested staying at an inn but the young girl had refused, stating that they could not afford it.
Jurina was supposed to wake her up for her shift but she had not, and her current tiredness was only the result of sleepless nights. Mayu knew this situation couldn't continue forever. They were now out of money, and Jurina didn't seem to realize how much she was putting herself in danger. In the last village she tried to steal food she almost got caught, and the scar above her left eyebrow was the clear sign the situation could have gotten out of control, had it not been for Jurina's quick reflexes.
"How long are we going to keep on doing this?" Mayu asked, desperate eyes seeking an answer in her confident sister's ones. Despite the fact that she was three years older than her, Mayu was more than aware that Jurina was the one providing for both of them. The young girl was cunning and definitely more athletic than her, enabling her to quickly get out of difficult situations. Mayu honestly didn't know how she would have managed to survive without her. She should be the one taking care of Jurina, but it had always been the other way round.
"What do you mean?" Jurina arched an eyebrow, staring at her curiously.
"Stealing, sleeping in the forest. I can't stand it anymore," Mayu declared, feeling more than relieved to finally get it off her chest. For days she had tried to broach the subject - hating the apprehension she felt each time Jurina put herself in danger - but she had kept quiet, hoping their misfortune wouldn't last.
"It's not like we have a choice," Jurina answered.
A few days ago, Mayu would have relented to Jurina's assured reply. However, as much as she knew her words were going to upset her again, she knew she couldn't back away anymore.
"Yes, we do," Mayu retorted, tentative fingers retrieving a particular scroll from her bag and unrolling it, the picture of a maple tree coming into view.
"We already spoke about that," Jurina muttered, her displeasure more than obvious as her tone slightly raised up. "We are not going there."
Jurina's answer didn't surprise Mayu. Not in the least. It was not the first time she made such a suggestion to her sister. In fact, she had showed her that scroll a few times over the years, only to receive the same stubborn reply each time. She had abandoned the idea at some point, burying the scroll right at the bottom of her bag, but the desperate situation they were now into told her it was the right time to bring the subject up again.
"Why?" Mayu asked, gripping the scroll in her hand tightly. She could already predict Jurina's answer - she had actually heard it dozens of times before - but she was refusing to let her have the last word.
"We don't know these people!" Jurina hissed, waving her hands in the air in frustration at her sister's insistence.
"Yes we do." Mayu nodded, pointing at the maple tree. "We met the head of the clan."
"We were little." Jurina chuckled softly, shaking her head in amusement. "I'm not sure we would even recognize her."
"It doesn't matter!" Mayu exclaimed, noticing the surprise in Jurina's eyes at her sudden outburst. "We have to go."
Mayu averted her gaze slightly, trying her best to compose herself. It was unusual for her to raise her voice - even more to contradict her sister - but it seemed their recent hardships had taken their toll on her.
"No." Jurina's firm reply came shortly after, prompting Mayu to gaze at her in disbelief.
"Jurina..." Mayu murmured, her pleas being ignored when Jurina raised to her feet and walked away.
Mayu knew she had to think fast if she didn't want to lose her window of opportunity. However, much as she searched her brain for a solution, none came to mind. Her eyes suddenly caught sight of the young girl as she kneeled in front of the long blade laying on the grass, her fingers unwrapping the cover around it and absently brushing the familiar blue tsuka of the katana. The action didn't really surprise Mayu as she had seen her perform the act a few times before. At first, she didn't really understand why Jurina had decided to keep that weapon all these years - as carrying it around proved to be quite a burden - until she came to the realization that it held great meaning to her in some way.
Mayu's eyes widened slightly as a new opportunity suddenly presented herself to her. They rarely spoke about their father, but she knew there was a possibility - however slim it may be - that her next words could reach her sister.
"He would have wanted us to be safe," Mayu affirmed.
Mayu didn't have to wait long: a pair of very surprised brown eyes fell upon her, and Mayu could immediately tell her sister wanted to come back at her with a clever retort. However, even if her mouth opened a few times, not a single word left her lips. Mayu patiently waited, watching her sister's every move and not missing her sudden lost expression. She could tell that she was now truly thinking about her suggestion, and she held her breath when Jurina finally nodded at her, although somewhat reluctantly.
When Jurina came back from the next village on the back of a horse, Mayu didn't even bother to ask where it came from. It was more than evident the merchant had not kindly offered the mount to her sister. Despite not agreeing with Jurina's new bad deed, it was true that it enabled them to cover more ground. Carefully following the instructions they had been given they were now not far from their destination, and Mayu was confident they should arrive in three days if they didn't encounter any obstacle on their way.
It seemed fate had decided otherwise, as two men suddenly appeared in front of them when they were crossing a forest the second day. Judging by their threatening looks, it seemed they had not stopped them to simply ask for their way. Indeed, it didn't last long until they voiced their request, and Mayu would have found the situation quite ironic - if not for the two very dangerous men facing them.
"Leave," Jurina replied, her left hand letting go of the rein to move downwards to her belt, her fingers resting on her tanto.
Mayu knew her sister was sending a sign to their attackers, and a quick glance at them told her they had not missed the action either. However, unfortunately, it didn't provoke the reaction expected.
"Give us the horse," the taller man requested again, gripping his own dagger at his waist. "And you better not resist."
Mayu could feel her sister fidgeting on the saddle in front of her, and she knew the thieves' insistence could only lead to one thing. Jurina was never going to let them steal their means of transport, especially not after they already been robbed a week ago. Jurina carefully dismounted the horse, leaving the reins to her more than apprehensive older sister. Mayu watched as Jurina took a few steps towards the two thieves, and she held her breath when her sister spoke again.
"I won't repeat myself," Jurina said, showing again her tanto resting at her waist under her cape. "Let us pass."
"It's a girl," the taller man exclaimed, his eyes widening in surprise now that he was able to distinguish Jurina's face more clearly.
"It's true," the other thief chimed in, his mouth tugging into an amused smile. "Come on little girl, handle us the horse. We promise we won't hurt you."
Mayu winced when she heard the words uttered. It wasn't the fact that the two men had mistaken her sister for a boy that bothered her. It definitely wasn't the first time, and Jurina's shoulder-length hair and boyish behavior surely didn't help to believe otherwise. However, one of the things she had learned about her sister over the years, is that she truly despised it when people underestimated her because of her sex.
That's why it didn't surprise her when Jurina's fist immediately landed on the tallest man's cheek, the second thief soon falling victim to Jurina's anger. A chill run down Mayu's spine as she saw daggers being drawn and she gripped the rein tightly, watching in terror the fight unfolding in front of her. Both men had a very imposing stature, but Jurina's action had taken them by surprise and they had failed to react in time. The smaller man was now kneeling on the ground, holding his stomach in pain after a sharp cut, while the other one, dagger in hand, cautiously kept his distance with a furious Jurina. The shock was still very present in his eyes when he glanced briefly at his fallen companion, before apprehensively looking back at his opponent. It was obvious he had not foreseen such a turn of events, and Mayu could imagine how easy a prey they might have looked when they decided to rob them a few minutes ago. They were definitely now realizing their mistake.
"What is it going to be?" Jurina smirked as her opponent seemed to hesitate to attack, the fright evident in his eyes. She was more than aware than she was capable of provoking such a reaction in others, and it always brought her a great amount of pleasure. Truthfully, a part of her wanted to prolong their fight a bit more.
It seemed the thief read in her thoughts as he launched another attack, his blade brushing Jurina's left cheek as she moved aside to avoid it. Blood spilt from the small cut as Jurina swiftly replicated - her feet landing between the man's legs - a sharp cry immediately leaving his lips as he fell to his knees. Jurina didn't waste any time to threaten his throat with her tanto, her other hand moving upwards to her small injury, before studying the blood on her index.
"You cut me," Jurina stated, furious eyes leaving the red liquid to gaze at her fallen opponent. "You'll have to pay for that."
The blade of her tanto slowly brushed the man's throat and Jurina was about to draw more blood when Mayu's sudden voice made her pause. She didn't miss the pleading tone in which she had called her name, and she didn't need to look back at her sister to know she disapproved her action. Jurina's blade stayed a while longer on the man's throat, pondering her options. She truly wanted to teach them a lesson, but as she heard her sister's warning voice anew she snapped out of her anger and lowered her weapon, reluctantly placing it back at her belt.
Jurina watched as the taller man raised slowly to his feet, staring back at her in fear. He was more than aware that he had been that close to lose his life, and he glanced briefly at the other girl still mounting the horse, realizing that he wouldn't be alive anymore if she had not intervened. Placing his arm around his bleeding companion's waist he took a step back, both men soon disappearing into the depths of the forest.
Jurina followed their retreating form until they were out of view, before turning on her heels and she gazed at her sister, noticing the relief in her eyes.
"You shouldn't have stopped me," Jurina declared, moving towards the horse and taking her rightful place in front of her sister. "They didn't deserve to live."
Jurina's words sent a chill down Mayu's spine and her fingers slightly trembled as she encircled her sister's waist when she ordered the horse to move forward. As much as she loved her younger sister, sometimes she couldn't help the fear enter her heart when Jurina let her anger take control over her.
This is my new WMatsui fanfic. It is set in Feudal Japan, and will mingle adventure, romance, drama and action! If you enjoy reading my fictions, don't hesitate to let me know by leaving a comment! I love to hear people's thoughts, their favorite moments & scenes, their intuitions, guesses etc. Positive feedback/comments/encouragements are welcomed and give me motivation to keep on.
Mayu couldn't contain her joy when the large house came in sight. Both sisters had ridden most of the day - hoping to arrive before nightfall - and had greatly succeeded in doing so. To be honest, Mayu had felt her eyelids close a few times for the past two hours. She didn't even know how she managed not to fall from the horse. She was beyond exhaustion, and she suspected she may have taken one small nap against Jurina's back at some point. However, she now felt a regain of energy as she recognized the maple tree on the floating banner. They had arrived at their destination, and their long journey across the countryside had finally ended.
Jurina was the first one to dismount the horse, and Mayu could tell her sister was studying the place cautiously. Indeed, her scrutiny seemed to reach no end, and only her sister's voice made her snap out of it.
"What do you think?" Mayu asked, quite impressed by the very imposing wooden house standing in the middle of a large garden.
"I think there's still time to change our mind," Jurina offered, her unenthusiastic reply owing her a disapproving growl.
"We're not going to turn back," Mayu replied, dismounting the horse, her eyes soon falling on the guard by the gate who had been watching their every move since their arrival. "Let's go."
Usually, when they arrived at some new place, Jurina was always the one to lead the way and to cautiously look around. Today, it was the other way round, and Mayu was very aware of the hesitant steps behind her. Jurina was more than reluctant to enter the place, and Mayu knew she would have to take matters in hand if she wanted them to pass the front gate.
"We would like to meet Momijimori no kami dono," she asked, trying hard not to flinch at the stern look she received from the guard.
"You want to meet Shinoda-dono?" he repeated, incredulous eyes staring back at her. The hand that was cautiously resting on the tsuka of his katana suddenly moved upwards and he cupped his chin, an amused smile moving to his lips as he studied both girls.
"Yes," Mayu affirmed, though she now realized how odd her demand must sound to him. Indeed, here were standing in front of him two girls clad in very worn and dusty clothes, demanding to meet the highest authority of the region. He probably wasn't used to such a daring request.
"Why?" he asked.
The question was quite simple, but Mayu found herself momentarily at a loss for words. How could she explain their presence here? Of course, she could simply state their identities, but something was telling her the guard was not going to believe her one iota.
She gave a side-glance to Jurina, half hoping to get some help from her younger sister. However, as she witnessed her angry stare directed at the man, she figured the only thing she would get from her would be an impulsive reaction - translating into a fist on the guard's cheek - if she didn't manage to convince him fast enough to let them pass.
"What is it?" A voice suddenly broke the heavy silence, prompting the three protagonists to immediately turn towards its direction.
"Kashiwagi-dono," the guard stuttered, bowing to the long dark-haired woman, clad in a black kimono and matching hakama, who just appeared. "These two girls wish to meet Momijimori no kami dono."
"Yes, and we've had enough of waiting," Jurina declared, taking a determining step forward, before locking eyes with the guard when he blocked her advance, his hand back on the tsuka of his katana.
"Please forgive my sister," Mayu immediately intervened, bowing her head respectfully to the newcomer. She could sense the situation was starting to get out of hand, thanks to her -impatient as always - younger sister. "Our journey has been very tiring."
As Mayu raised her eyes anew she could see the samurai studying both of them carefully, and she prayed silently for Jurina to stay quiet.
"It's fine," the newcomer addressed the guard with a reassuring smile, before nodding to the two sisters. "Follow me."
When Mariko was informed about the arrival of the two sisters, it took her a while to accept to receive them. Indeed, it was unusual for the head of the clan to welcome two guests at such a late hour of the day, but the girls' insistence, coupled with her own curiosity, had finally convinced her to make a small infringement to the established rule.
Momijimori no kami was well famous in the entire region for being an indecipherable and impassive woman, but she couldn't help the surprise in her eyes when she gazed at the two sisters sitting on the cushions in front of her. Truthfully, she was having a hard time believing Mayu's words. The Watanabe clan had been decimated ten years ago, and it was hard to understand how the two daughters of the head of the clan had managed to survive the terrible massacre.
Mayu's story seemed completely unbelievable, and Mariko was momentarily at a loss for words, not knowing what to think. She was doing her best to recognize the two girls, but the distant memory of their encounter, coupled with the two adults now sitting in front of her, was making it impossible. Fortunately, Mariko was a good judge of character, and as she studied Mayu's features carefully, she could tell - as incredible as the whole situation seemed to her - that she was not lying.
"I can't believe it," Mariko finally exclaimed. The daughters of her long lost friend were still alive, and in incredibly good shape considering their ten years of wandering across the country. This was nothing short of a miracle. "Of course you can stay here."
"Thank you." Mayu immediately bowed to her, a small sigh of relief escaping her lips. She was starting to believe she had failed to convince the older woman, after waiting for her reply for such a long time under her intense scrutiny.
"Your father was a very good friend of mine," Mariko declared, sending a warm smile towards their direction. "I wish you had come sooner."
Mayu could hear perfectly the implied question behind her words, but she chose not to answer it. How could she admit that she had tried for many years to convince her sister to join the clan - in vain - only to have her finally accept her request because of some unfortunate circumstances?
Footsteps suddenly brought her out of her thoughts and she looked over her shoulder, following the two women clad in black kimonos coming their way. She immediately recognized the first as the samurai who enabled them to pass the guard at the front gate, but the second face, definitely more pale, was a total stranger to her.
"I would like you to meet Kashiwagi-dono and Matsui-dono," Mariko declared as her gaze shifted from the two sisters to the newcomers. "They will be your protectors for a year."
Jurina, who had stayed quiet the whole time, preferring to let her more diplomatic sister do the talking, immediately snapped at the affirmation. "What?"
"Yes," Mariko continued, unfazed by the rude tone the young girl had just employed. "Each new member of the clan is put under the care of another samurai."
"I don't need a protector," Jurina interjected, not even bothering to glance once at the two women now standing by the side of the head of the clan.
Jurina didn't like it one bit. She had agreed to join the clan to please her sister, but this was going too far. She valued her independence more than anything, and she certainly didn't want to be watched over by a stranger. Her retort was barely on her lips when she felt a hand on hers, and she didn't need to look at Mayu to know she disapproved of her attitude. It seemed she would need to make some concession for her sister's sake. Again.
"Fine," Jurina relented, listening absently as the head of the clan assigned to each of them a protector. For a while, Jurina stubbornly refused to look at the woman she had just been paired with - annoyed by the new situation she had been forced into - until curiosity got the best of her, and she locked eyes with the pale woman. She was definitely not going to make things easy for that Matsui-dono.
It had been two weeks since both sisters' arrival at Momijimori no kami's clan, and Jurina only wished for one thing: to leave. It's not like the place wasn't welcoming. On the contrary, everyone had been very nice to them - a bit too much to her personal taste - but she had mostly stayed secluded in their room the whole time, refusing to participate in the daily activities of the clan.
Mayu, on the contrary, had immediately fit in. Now, she practically followed her protector - Kashiwagi-dono - everywhere, and didn't miss one of her kyudo's lessons. Mayu had once suggested her to join them but Jurina had declined, stating she was not interested in archery. She had a few times watched them from afar, not missing the way her older sister was being a bit more talkative than usual when she was in the presence of her teacher. Jurina wasn't blind: it was obvious she enjoyed her company very much, and the feeling seemed mutual, judging by the genuine smiles her instructor would give her in return.
Mayu had asked her why she didn't try to form a bond with her own protector, but Jurina had cautiously kept her distances with the kenjutsu instructor. She had agreed to the head of the clan's conditions for the wellbeing of her sister, but that didn't mean she was going to do more than what was requested of her. Unfortunately, after two weeks, she was starting to feel bored. Very bored.
That's why she had decided that evening to pay a visit to the nearest village and taken a seat at the table of a street stall. It was already her fifth cup of sake, but the beverage was failing to have that particular effect she was researching. It's not that she wanted to get drunk: she had discovered over the years that her body had a strong resistance to alcohol anyway, but she kind of hoped it would numb her mind enough to help her forget about her unfortunate situation for one night. It wasn't too much to ask, was it?
Jurina snapped out of her thoughts when she heard the melodic voice addressing her, faintly visualizing out of the corner of her eye a woman taking a seat in front of her.
"I'm not in the mood for any talking," Jurina informed as she absently watched the liquid swirling in her cup, her gaze not raising once to meet her interlocutor.
"Who said anything about that?" The woman replied, stretching her arm on the table and reaching Jurina's left sleeve, her fingers starting to caress her forearm through the fabric.
The action instantly made Jurina stop her studying of her cup and she pondered the question - not missing the seductive tone in which it had been voiced - before uttering the words she was sure would immediately chase the woman away. "I'm not a man."
Indeed, the fingers immediately paused and slowly retreated, and Jurina truly believed she would soon see the presence in front of her fade, until her interlocutor spoke again.
"I don't mind."
Jurina arched an eyebrow at the unexpected reply and she slowly gazed up in surprise. She studied the woman carefully - from her long black hair to her green kimono - before locking eyes with her small brown orbs, in search of any lie or hesitation. She found none.
"I don't have any money," Jurina stated. She was well aware of what the other woman was expecting from her and where she wanted to lead her to. Unfortunately for her, she was doing fine with the sole company of her sake.
"You should have said so if you found me so repulsive," the woman chided. Despite the reproach, there was no sound of anger in her voice.
Until then, even though Jurina had found the woman's presence a bit of a nuisance, she had done her best to not shoo her away rudely. The woman was only doing her job, and it was not her fault if she stumbled upon a very reluctant client. However, the cheeky reply of her interlocutor stirred something into her.
"I think you're well aware of your charms," Jurina replied, mimicking the woman's amused smile. Out of the corner of her eye she caught the hand coming her way again, and she didn't pull away when the woman grasped her hand and her thumb traced circles onto the back of it.
"What's your name?" Jurina asked. She was starting to find that woman quite interesting, and the soft motion on her skin had a relaxing effect on her.
"You can call me Churi," she replied, her voice turning into a seductive tone again. "What about you?"
"Nobunaga," Jurina declared. She had just come up with that nickname, and she immediately liked the feeling of it on her tongue.
"Really?" Churi's eyes widened in amusement. Out of all the replies she had expected, this one was definitely not on her list, and she couldn't help a soft chuckle from escaping her lips.
"You didn't tell me your real name." Jurina shrugged, a small smirk forming on her lips. "Why should I tell you mine?"
"Touché," Churi conceded, though a bit surprised. It was unusual for this trick not to work, but it seemed this Nobunaga had a quick wit. "You really don't want to follow me?" She asked again. She was trying to convince herself her job was the only reason for her to insist so much, but a tiny voice inside her head was also telling her it wasn't the complete truth. She was starting to enjoy the girl's company, and those fierce eyes were having an hypnotic effect on her.
"I'm sorry," Jurina replied. It was evident the woman was trying really hard to get what she wanted, and she almost felt bad to decline her offer.
"Alright," Churi relented. She knew there was no reason for her to be at this table anymore, but for some reason, she couldn't bring her feet to move. "Can we meet again?"
"Why?" Jurina asked. It seemed this woman was still expecting something from her, but she was failing to understand what. She had just rejected her advances, and she had believed to be more than clear about it.
"I like you," Churi blurted out. It was not unusual for her to utter such words - the confession never failing to convince any reluctant client - but she knew that this time, there was a small truth in her admission.
"I can't give you what want you," Jurina insisted. At first, she believed the woman was just pulling another trick up her sleeve, but as she looked at her carefully, she was starting to wonder if there wasn't more to it.
"Friends, then?" Churi suggested. She was more than aware of the hopefulness in her voice, and another time she would have cursed herself for showing her true emotions. It wasn't like her to open up so easily to someone - even less a stranger - but those penetrating eyes staring back at her told she couldn't let go. Not yet.
"Friends?" Jurina repeated, arching an eyebrow in surprise. The word sounded a bit strange on her tongue, and the notion very mysterious. What exactly was this person expecting from her? Her whole life, she had only been close to one person: her sister. There never had been place for any other form of relationship. "Alright."
Why did she agree to her offer? Jurina did not know. Surprisingly, the words naturally left her lips. Even though she was more than confused by her own very unusual behavior, she had to admit she did not mind being the reason of Churi's sudden warm smile.
The chatting in the dojo suddenly stopped when both women grabbed their bokken and locked eyes, slowly moving towards the center of the room. Rena could see in her peripheral vision all the seated samurais following their every move, and she now could almost hear a pin drop as no one dared making a single noise in the audience.
Yuki had insisted on taking her revenge after losing by a small margin against her at the last kyudo's tournament. It had honestly surprised Rena to win against the archery master of the clan, but she assumed Yuki's slight distraction during the event probably had something to do with the older Watanabe sister's presence.
Rena didn't miss the way her samurai friend had been interacting with the younger girl this last month. Yuki was definitely fond of her, and judging by the admiring looks the shorter girl had been giving her in return, the feeling was more than mutual.
"Are you ready, Kashiwagi-dono?" Rena inquired, studying her opponent carefully. She received a swift nod and serious look in reply, and she immediately knew her friend had more than decided not to lose a second time.
Unfortunately for Yuki, Rena was in very good shape this afternoon and, most of all, did not have the added pressure of a certain young pair of very expectant eyes on her. The referee announced the beginning of the fight and Yuki didn't waste a second to move her right foot forward, announcing her intention to surprise her with a swift attack.
However, Rena had very keen eyes, and she calmly deflected Yuki's first attack, and the others that swiftly followed. Rena smiled to herself when her friend's expression gradually changed into a slight frustrated one as the minutes went by. It was really unusual for Yuki to get so excited over a fight, and Rena knew it would be a matter of minutes before she started making mistakes. Rena continued to protect herself from her energetic bokken, while carefully watching her every move in search of an opening.
Rena suddenly caught one on Yuki's less protected left side - perfect for a tsuki - but for some reason, she decided not to go for it just yet. She could tell by the samurai's many attempts that she was trying really hard to beat her - not leaving her a second to breathe - and Yuki's relentless attacks really surprised her.
Rena was the clan's kenjutsu instructor and, as such, remained unbeatable in her field of expertise. Only one person had managed once to find an opening in her impeccable defense: Momijimori no kami. Unfortunately, Yuki wasn't the head of the clan and, most of all, she was really starting to lose her temper, reducing her chances of winning against her.
Rena really wanted to see how far her friend would be able to go, but as the fight went on, she realized nothing could change its issue. Startled eyes looked back at her when her wooden sword finally hit Yuki's left side in a swift and assured movement. The referee immediately announced her victory, and Rena lowered her weapon, sending a small smile towards her opponent.
"Congratulations, Matsui-dono," Yuki said a few seconds later, bowing at her respectfully. As she gazed anew at her opponent her surprise was still obvious, and she was still trying to understand what she had done wrong when Rena's voice pulled her out of her thoughts.
"Thank you. You fought well, Kashiwagi-dono," Rena replied. It was not entirely true - the kyudo instructor had made a few minor mistakes during their fight - but it was the proper thing to say after a fight, especially in front of an audience.
The dojo progressively emptied, soon leaving both women alone and allowing them to drop the little act they always had to maintain in front of other people.
"Rena-san." Yuki chuckled, amused by her solemn words. She was well aware that her friend was being slightly dishonest with her. "You could have let me win, for once."
"I could," Rena admitted, a small smile grazing her lips as she placed her bokken back onto the stand. "But it would have been obvious to everyone."
"Don't tell me." Yuki sighed, her voice now void of any amusement. "I was that bad?"
"You were distracted," Rena chided, her eyes briefly falling on the Watanabe sister waiting at the dojo's entrance, before turning to her friend anew. "Again."
Yuki was well aware of what she was implying as she followed her gaze on the young girl but she chose not to answer, instead smiling faintly at Rena. "Did I really stand a chance anyway?"
"I managed to beat you at kyudo, didn't I?" Rena replied, amused by her friend's sudden desperate expression. "But you can't win when you let your emotions out."
It was the golden rule of kenjutsu, and despite knowing it full well, Yuki had broken it in a matter of minutes. It was not like herself to lose control, but she had to admit her friend was not entirely wrong. She had indeed been a bit distracted lately.
"By the way, I don't recall seeing your protégée in the room," Yuki stated, now quite eager to change the subject. She wasn't really a competitive person, but she was still bothered by the fact Rena's attack took her by complete surprise.
"No, she wasn't present," Rena conceded, not very surprised by the younger sister's absence during the fight. In fact, she still had not spoken to her once since her arrival at the clan. "I have a feeling I won't see her much during her stay here."
"This girl sure is something, isn't she?" Yuki murmured. As she studied her friend's features, it occurred to her Rena didn't seem really bothered by the young girl's refusal to spend time with her.
"That's a nice way to put it." Rena raised an eyebrow. The younger Watanabe sister's behavior during her meeting with Momijimori no kami was still very much engraved in her memory. "I believe rude is the word you're looking for."
Yuki nodded absently at Rena's affirmation, admitting that she was not entirely wrong. The younger Watanabe sister was an aloof person and she had not seen much of her either, even less spoken to her. As the two samurais made their way towards the dojo's entrance Yuki's eyes fell on her protégée's gentle smile, and she wondered how two sisters could have such opposing personalities.
The fire was consuming everything and the air was becoming difficult to breathe. Jurina's eyes fell on the katana on the floor, her fingers gripping the tsuka tightly. The weapon's weight did surprise her at first, but she soon disregarded this small fact, her furious eyes falling on the woman responsible for their misery. The distance separating them was quite short, but as she moved forward with determination, her steps were soon stopped by the strong hand of a man. Jurina did her best to disentangle herself and she managed after a short struggle, her feet leading her towards her target anew. She was so close. So damn close. Eyes locked as the armed woman turned towards her, an amused smile on her lips.
"You're not strong enough, Jurina."
As the eight year old girl threateningly raised her katana two men immediately seized her, and a desperate cry left her lips when her weapon loudly landed on the wooden floor. Forced to fall on her knees, she struggled anew, in vain against the strong hands that kept her firmly in place. Breathing hard, her eyes followed the sharp blade now placed against her father's neck. Jurina knew what was about to happen, but she still refused to look away, especially when she noticed how much pleasure the traitor was getting from hearing her sister's cries. She was not going to give her that satisfaction, even if it meant that moment was going to stay engraved in her memory her whole life.
The name left Jurina's lips in a cry and her eyes shot open, the woman's silhouette progressively disappearing from her vision. She could still feel the heat around her and she had to restrain herself from extinguishing an imaginary fire on her clothes. One hand moved to her heart as she listened to its erratic beating, while the other went to rest on her sweating forehead. Why did she have to relive that moment? It was a never ending circle, one that had been disturbing her sleep for ten years now.
Jurina stilled at the sudden small voice directed at her, her breathing still erratic when she sat up on the futon and absently started wiping the sweat off her forehead.
"I'm sorry I woke you up," Jurina murmured.
Jurina could feel her sister's eyes on her but she sheepishly refused to meet them. It was not the first time her nightmares woke Mayu up, and she wished she could find a way to stop these occurrences from happening.
"I wish you could forget about that day." Mayu sighed, her hand now softly caressing her sister's arm.
"I can't," Jurina retorted, this time tilting her head to meet her interlocutor. "I never will."
The words were uttered with such determination that Mayu couldn't help but feel a pang in her chest. A part of her wanted to try and convince her that her nightmares were going to come to an end sooner or later, but it seemed her sister was still unable to put her past behind. Jurina suddenly raised to her feet and Mayu's eyes widened in surprise when the younger girl started to put her grey kimono on.
"You're going to the village again?" Mayu asked, her voice raising slightly in concern. It was not the first time Jurina left their room after one of her turbulent nightmares, and she always wondered where she was heading to.
"Yes," Jurina simply replied, refusing to elaborate. She reached for her tanto and placed it at her waist, before looking back at her sister. "Go back to sleep."
Mayu absently nodded as she watched her move to the door and slid it open, soon setting foot in the corridor. "Be careful."
A mischievous smile instantly fell upon her, and Jurina's reply came shortly after. "I always am."
Mayu was about to retort that it was definitely not the case but the complaint never left her lips, the girl already far gone before she could utter a single word.
Three weeks ago, when Jurina had presented herself in front of the same door for the first time, the guard had merely stared at her and refused to let her in. She was that close to punch him in the face when Churi suddenly appeared, and thankfully intervened. Now, the same man didn't even blink when he saw the boyish girl clad in a grey kimono in front of him, and Jurina couldn't help but smile in amusement when he took her tanto away, as the rule prevented her from entering the place armed.
As she set foot in the house her eyes immediately wandered around the room, in search of a familiar face. Despite the late hour the place was quite busy - a few women were currently entertaining three clients - and judging by the missing faces, Jurina knew a few other ones were also upstairs. A keen inspection of the main room told her the woman she was looking for was occupied upstairs and she moved to an empty table, knowing she would have to wait a bit for her friend to arrive.
Jurina watched as a waitress served her a cup of sake and she took a sip of it, absently watching one of the women interacting with a slightly drunk client. Judging by his loud laughs and his hands wandering over the girl's body, it was a matter of minutes before they would head upstairs.
From her peripheral vision Jurina noticed a woman approaching her, and she didn't need to look up to know who it was. It was always the same one.
"Nobunaga." The seductive voice tickled her ear as the woman took a seat next to her, her hand soon encircling her arm as she pressed her body against her. "It's nice to see you."
Jurina had to restrain herself from rolling her eyes at the woman's behavior. Three weeks ago, when she had stepped in the house for the first time, a few women had also tried to make a pass at her. It immediately occurred to her that she would need to make herself very clear about the reason of her presence, if she didn't want to be disturbed by their incessant attempts in the future. Her reply owned her a few surprised looks in return, but when it became clear she was not going to change her mind, no one dared to bother again with vain seductive acts.
The woman practically now sitting on her lap was the sole one that refused to take no for an answer. At first, Jurina found her stubborn behavior quite amusing, as it successfully distracted her while waiting for her friend to arrive. Now, after three weeks of calmly rejecting each one of her advances, not so much.
"Annin," Jurina warned as she felt the woman's free hand sliding inside her kimono. You would believe her refusal to cooperate would put the woman off, but not at all. On the contrary, it seemed to stir something in her, as her actions kept getting bolder and bolder.
"Churi is currently busy," Annin purred, burying her nose into the crook of Jurina's neck. "Why don't you come with me, for a change?"
Jurina had to admit she did ponder at one point Annin's offer. If anything, she was a very good looking girl, and she understood well why she was one of the popular ones. However, despite the woman's very attractive features, she never managed to let herself convince to pass the door of her room.
"Don't waste your time on me," Jurina replied, catching the daring hand that was moving downwards. "It's not worth it."
Jurina's declaration immediately put an halt to Annin's seductive act and she pulled away, staring at her in disbelief. "What is she doing to you?"
Jurina didn't miss the frustration in the girl's eyes, and an amused smile moved to her lips. Most of the girls didn't understand the nature of her relationship with Churi, and Annin was definitely at the top of the list. "More than you'll ever manage to give me."
The always so composed Annin released a displeased groan, and Jurina had to restrain herself from laughing at her unusual reaction. Someone was definitely not happy to be rejected. Again.
A shrieking sound suddenly erupted and the room immediately fell silent, all eyes directed at the staircase in surprise. Jurina's ears perked at the alarming cry, stiffing when she recognized the voice. Her gaze fell on the guard standing by the door, but the man chose to remain impassive despite the second cry that followed swiftly. When it became obvious he was not going to lift a finger Jurina stood up abruptly, soon feeling a hand on her arm.
"It's none of our business what happens in these rooms," Annin said, tightly gripping the sleeve of her kimono.
Jurina ignored her warning eyes and yanked her hand away, before moving towards the staircase and escalading the stairs. She was trying to convince herself that it couldn't be as bad as it sounded, but as she heard Churi's frightened voice anew, she knew she couldn't afford to wait anymore. She had to know what was going on behind that door.
Her gaze immediately fell on the man hovering over the girl as she barged in, her eyes seething with anger as she witnessed him slapping Churi's face. A quick look at a terrified - and very naked Churi - told her she had been right to not stay idly downstairs, and she immediately grabbed the man by the collar of his kimono - throwing him on the floor a few feet away from the futon - before raising her fist and releasing her anger on him.
"Stop it," Churi's trembling voice interrupted her as her knuckles were about to make contact with the man's cheek for the third time. "He's drunk."
Jurina briefly gazed at Churi before approaching her face to the man, and smelling the alcohol on his breath. Jurina suddenly caught the sound of someone quickly escalading the stairs and she tilted her head, watching the guard now at the doorstep.
"Get him out of here," Jurina exclaimed, raising to her feet and pointing her index at the man who was barely moving on the floor, "I don't want to see him anymore."
The guard locked eyes with her - obviously not liking being given orders judging by his angry stare - before relenting and exiting the room with the drunken man under his arm. Jurina closed the door behind them and she tried to compose herself, despite her fists still trembling in fury at the memory of the man's violent behavior on her friend.
"Nobunaga." Churi's voice pulled her out of her thoughts and she turned around, watching the girl who was now retrieving her green kimono on the floor. "You shouldn't have done that."
Jurina's eyes widened in surprise at the reprimand and she approached her, studying her features carefully and noticing the bruises on her face. "He was hitting you."
"Yes," Churi admitted as she finished to dress, her hands still slightly shaking. "But he had every right. He paid for it."
Jurina stared back at her in shock, not believing what she was hearing. Was her friend truly condoning what had just happened? "I can't accept it."
Churi's mouth tugged into a faint smile and she approached, her fingers moving upwards to caress Jurina's left cheek, pausing on her scar. "You're a good person, Nobunaga." She murmured, soon resting her head against Jurina's shoulder and encircling her waist. "But that's how it works, here."
Jurina wanted to retort that she definitely did not agree with her, but she decided to stay quiet instead - listening to Churi's soft sobbing - and making herself the promise to never let such an occurrence happen to her friend again, no matter the consequences.
Rena knew something was wrong the minute the front gate of her clan came into view and her eyes fell onto the two men arguing. She had just come back from the nearby village - having a few errands to do in the morning - only to witness the guard refusing to let a man pass, despite his vehement protests. A quick look at the newcomer's clothes - and at the katana resting at his waist - told her she was in the presence of a samurai, and she arched an eyebrow in confusion, as she was completely unable to identify him. He was definitely not a member of Momijimori no kami's clan.
Rena dismounted her horse, noticing the very frightened look of the familiar thirteen year old stable boy holding the rein of the man's mount. As she stood next to the samurai she glanced at him, immediately noticing the bruises on his face.
"Thank you, Akihira-kun," Rena said when the stable boy approached her and took the rein of her chestnut mare. Despite her kind smile directed at him, fear was still written all over his face. It was an unexpected sight - one Rena had rarely seen on the usually joyful lad - and she curiously shifted her gaze to the man in his thirties responsible for his sudden fright.
"Matsui-dono." The guard respectfully bowed at her, immediately standing aside to let her pass.
"What is going on, Atsuhito-san?" Rena asked, her attention still on the seemingly angry short-haired man.
"This samurai claims a member of our clan assaulted him," the young guard explained. He tried to get rid of the newcomer without disturbing her, but it seemed their heated conversation had piqued her curiosity. "He wants to challenge her to a duel."
"Her?" Rena exclaimed, surprised by the use of the feminine pronoun. There were only a few women in Momijimori no kami's clan, and none of them would be reckless enough to do what the stranger proclaimed.
"She calls herself Nobunaga," the man intervened, noticing the guard and Rena's disbelief. His frustration at the lack of trust he was facing was now clearly perceptible. "It's obviously a nickname."
Rena frowned at the revelation and averted her eyes a moment - searching her mind for anyone in the clan who would call themselves this way - before glancing back at him when she found none. "What does this person look like?"
"She's about your height, has shoulder-length black hair..." he started to describe, before pausing, lost in thoughts. He was trying hard to recall more about the girl who had insulted his pride, but their encounter had been quite brief. "Scars," he suddenly exclaimed, as he could now picture her better. "She bears two of them on the left side of her face."
That last part immediately did the trick. Rena knew someone who fitted this description perfectly: a very impolite and unsociable young girl the head of the clan had - for a strange and unknown reason - decided to put under her care a month ago.
"Atsuhito-san," Rena addressed the guard, while still watching out of the corner of her eye the impatient and fidgeting samurai. "Go and look for Watanabe-san. I'll stay here with him."
The guard casted a last suspicious look at the foreigner before nodding at Rena's order, and swiftly turning on his heels. Rena followed his retreating form before locking eyes with the samurai - sending him a small diplomatic smile - to which he didn't bother to respond.
While waiting for the guard's return, Rena reflected upon her problematic relationship with the young Watanabe sister. The kenjutsu instructor was starting to get used to the idea of having no contact whatsoever with her during her stay here, but it seemed fate had decided otherwise. She was not in the slightest delighted to have her first talk with her under such unfortunate circumstances.
Yuki was well aware that her undying love for kyudo was not shared by everyone. First of all, it could easily be explained by the fact that archery was never the main discipline of a clan. Of course, every samurai had to learn to master it - as it brought them the calm they were required to possess - but it was soon disregarded in favor of kenjutsu. Samurais needed to be truly gifted in sword fighting in order to protect their master, and archery was only a means to achieve their goal.
That's why the sight of the arrow planted very close to the middle of the target brought a smile to Yuki's lips. It was the fifth in a row that almost managed to hit the center. There were many talented archers in the clan - even a few she considered as serious competitors - but she had never seen someone progress as fast as the person standing in front of her. Yuki silently watched as her protégée placed another arrow on her bow, the feathered object soon following the same path as the previous one.
Yuki didn't know exactly when, but at some point during the training, the other archers had stopped planting arrows in their targets to follow the impressive demonstration. Yuki had not missed the way the young girl had at first looked bothered by the attention she was getting - seemingly not really knowing how to react to it - before choosing to focus instead on the exercise and resuming her shooting.
Yuki shifted her gaze from the older Watanabe sister to look at her other students, carefully studying their reactions. There were, of course, a few envious looks. A new member of the clan was excelling so well at the discipline, when others were still struggling to master it, despite months of training. However, it was not the main feeling that transpired in the training courtyard today. As much as they didn't really understand how someone so young could be so gifted at a discipline that required such dexterity, they couldn't help but be impressed.
Suddenly, Yuki got distracted by the sound of the voice of her young protégée, and her eyes immediately fell into her questioning ones. "What do you think, Kashiwagi-dono?"
"You did really well, Watanabe-san," Yuki affirmed, surprised her apprentice was still unsure of her skills. It was obvious to everyone how well she had progressed in such a short amount of time but, somehow, she still looked for her approval each and single time.
"Thank you." Mayu nodded, swiftly replicating the warm smile directed at her, before moving towards the target to fetch her arrows and quickly getting back in position.
"Why don't you take a break?" Yuki suggested, placing a hand on the young girl's bow, preventing her effectively from resuming the activity. "You haven't stopped shooting for an hour."
"I don't mind continuing," Mayu replied, frowning. It was the first time her protector had ever stopped her during training. Was there something she was keeping from her despite her comforting words? "Am I... doing something wrong?"
"Of course not." Yuki shook her head. Her apprentice's startled expression was truly a very amusing sight. "But I want my other students to progress, and they don't seem to be able to shoot a single arrow when you catch their attention with your impressive shooting."
At those teasing words Mayu's mouth tugged into a small smile, before she took a peek at the nine men also occupying the courtyard, indeed noticing their eyes more drawn to her than to their target. "I'm still unable to hit the center," Mayu declared with a sigh, following the older girl who was now taking a seat under the wooden shelter.
"Watanabe-san, you're being too hard on yourself," Yuki reprimanded her gently. During the month she had spent by her side, she had became aware of that unfortunate characteristic of hers. "You're truly gifted, and I think you should also practice kenjutsu."
Yuki didn't miss the girl suddenly fidgeting next to her very ill-at-ease. A week ago, she had meant to suggest during a training session to follow Rena's lessons - something she had discovered surprisingly she wasn't doing - but it had slipped her mind, distracted by her protégée's impressive skills at archery.
"Thank you, Kashiwagi-dono," Mayu replied politely. She knew her protector only meant well, but the mere thought of holding a katana was turning her stomach upside down. She could feel the older girl's questioning gaze on her but she refused to meet it, wondering how she could explain her discomfort. She truly believed she had - contrary to her sister - managed to put her past behind her, but it seemed it was not the complete truth. "I know each member of the clan has to practice kenjutsu, but I would prefer not to learn to fight."
That was definitely a first. From all the years Yuki had spent inside the walls of Momiijimori no kami's clan, she had never heard a single person utter such words. A samurai refusing to fight? That was an unconceivable notion. Yuki knew that her position required of her to ask the young girl to reconsider, but as she witnessed her sudden sadness, she didn't have the heart to push things further. Instead, she moved her hand to the young girl's knee, her thumb soon moving on her hakama in a gentle caress.
"It's alright, you don't have to," Yuki spoke. It was not her right to say so, and she was well aware of it. She would first need to seek approval from Shinoda-dono - and she imagined the head of the clan would not be pleased to learn one of her samurais was refusing to fight. Nevermind, she would have to be very convincing. The thankful smile now directed at her told her it would be absolutely worth it. Fingers were tentatively placed on top of hers, and Yuki responded to the gesture by slipping her hand inside Mayu's.
Yuki didn't ignore the erratic sound of her throbbing heart, and she could guess by the young girl's shy expression that she was probably not the only one feeling so flustered. However, a sudden movement caught her attention from the corner of her eye and she reluctantly retracted her hand, watching the familiar guard quickly coming towards their direction.
"Forgive the intrusion," the man said in a respectful bow, before addressing Mayu. "Matsui-dono is looking for your sister."
The good thing is, Rena didn't even need to ask if they knew each other. The angry look Jurina immediately gave him as she approached, and the man's fingers now gripping tightly the tsuka of his katana were enough proof. Not to mention the very rude way the young girl had just called him. No, she definitely had not improved on her manners since their first encounter in front of the head of the clan.
Rena noticed Yuki and Mayu standing right behind her, and she understood that this problem she had hoped to solve as swiftly as possible, was going to have an unexpected audience. "This man claims you attacked him yesterday," Rena said, ignoring Jurina's interjection. At first, she had doubted the man's words, but the heavy tension between them was telling her he had not lied. Still, she had to make sure. "Is it true?"
Jurina didn't bother to steal a glance at her. Instead, a mocking smile grazed her lips when she observed the bruises on his face. She had done a very good job. "I defended a woman against a drunk."
Rena frowned at her words, appalled. The young girl had just admitted beating up a man, and she didn't feel slightly remorseful about her actions. Rena was starting to wonder why the head of the clan had accepted to let such a dangerous person enter inside their walls.
"You attacked a samurai?" Mayu gasped, taking a step forward and grabbing her sister's arm, her attention with it. She knew Jurina to be impulsive and sometimes reckless, but this was an unforeseen situation. The young girl gave her a side glance, but no explanation left her lips.
"A woman?" the man snorted. "It was a prostitute."
Just when she believed she had heard the worse, Mayu's jaw dropped in shock. Did the man really imply what she thought? "So that's where you go at night?" she stuttered. That was definitely an activity she had not been aware of.
However, Jurina wasn't paying attention to her anymore, instead she gritted her teeth in annoyance at the man's scornful expression. She had really tried to keep her composure, but her fingers were starting to itch. The idea of her sharp tanto against the man's throat was bringing her an immeasurable pleasure.
Rena who had up 'til then followed the conversations quietly knew she couldn't stay idle anymore. The situation was starting to escalate dangerously - Jurina's fingers approaching her weapon was a clear indication of what she had in mind - and she had to intervene. "Please forgive her," Rena chimed in, taking a step forward in front of Jurina in the hope of hiding her intentions. Indeed the man didn't seem to have noticed them or if he did, he apparently didn't take the threat seriously. "She didn't realize what she was doing."
At her declaration Jurina finally broke eye contact with him and stared at Rena's back, incredulous. "What?" She definitely knew what she was doing, and she was more than ready to do it again if the situation presented itself.
"Watanabe-san," Rena abruptly interrupted her when Jurina was about to develop her thoughts on the matter. "Don't say another word."
Jurina's behavior was starting to irritate her. She was trying to solve the situation diplomatically. Why was she making her life so difficult? Could she not understand she was trying to prevent her from getting killed? Rena didn't need to look back at her to know she disapproved her order. The loud growl her mouth produced in protest was enough information. However, unexpectedly, she didn't hear another single complaint. It seemed her words had managed to reach her.
"Please accept my apologies on her behalf," Rena addressed the man anew. She recognized a tricky situation when she saw one, and she knew she had to convince him to withdraw his demand. "My protégée never held a katana before, it wouldn't be a fair fight."
Rena's controlled tone seemed to have an appeasing effect on him as he looked straight into her eyes, seemingly pondering his options. "I can tell you're a reasonable person," he declared, nodding in agreement. "But you should watch over her more carefully."
The man's fingers left the tsuka of his katana and Rena mentally sighed, knowing she had managed to persuade him. She watched cautiously as he approached his horse and mounted it, not before casting a last look at the girl who had left her marks on him. "I'll better not cross your path again. I won't be so merciful next time."
Jurina's fierce protest was already on her lips when she felt a hand tightly gripping her arm, and two eyes looking back at her. She could easily read the silent warning in the small brown orbs of her protector and she stayed quiet, absently catching the sound of a horse's hooves stamping on the ground as the man harshly grabbed the rein and ordered the animal to turn around. Jurina didn't like it at all. It seemed this Matsui-dono had the capacity to silence each and single one of her retorts.
The clashing sound of wooden swords echoed in the dojo as both men moved towards each other and the fight began. The kenjutsu instructor knew she should be focusing on the confrontation in front of her eyes, in order to note and correct any potential mistake her students made, but she was having a hard time doing so, distracted by the unexpected presence in the room.
The young Watanabe sister entered the dojo half an hour ago and observed the training session from a corner of the room, not approaching her or saying a word. Rena was more than surprised to see her follow the training with great interest, considering she had never set foot once in the dojo before. What had prompted the young girl to do so? Rena had no idea, but she couldn't help but be slightly curious about her motive, even though she wished she wasn't. She knew she shouldn't be. After all, the young girl didn't even deserve her attention, especially not after the way she had behaved two weeks ago.
Rena's surprise increased when the training ended and everyone left, except for one particular young girl. The kenjutsu instructor followed her movements from the corner of her eye as she approached the stand, studying the bokken carefully. As she was placing her own wooden sword on the stand she cast a side glance in curiosity at the silent presence, following the fingers that were sliding on the fabric of one of them.
"Teach me," the calm but firm tone finally left Jurina's lips.
"Excuse me?" Rena's brow furrowed, meeting her eyes as the young girl finally bothered to glance at her. She understood well what she was asking her, but she couldn't believe her ears. This wasn't a request. It was a command.
"I don't want you to protect me anymore," Jurina explained, her attention back on the weapon now in her hand.
Rena simply stared at her, taken aback. Maybe she should be glad the young girl was finally reaching out to her after two months of deliberately ignoring her. However, after witnessing her impetuous behavior, she wasn't sure teaching her kenjutsu was a good idea. Who knew what she would do with such knowledge? She was already dangerous enough without a weapon in her hands!
"Did you hear me, Rena-san?"
Jurina's voice jolted her effectively out of her thoughts, and she arched an eyebrow in surprise at the unexpected familiarity. Did she just call her by her first name? Only Yuki had the right to address her in such a way and, as her close friend, she was legitimate in doing so. Rena wanted to give the young girl the benefit of the doubt, to believe that her lack of respect wasn't intentional, but her apparent impassive gaze wasn't fooling her one bit. Her will to provoke her was more than clear. It was the final straw.
"I refuse," Rena replied. She picked up on the shocked expression of her interlocutor but she chose to ignore it, turning towards the stand instead and checking one last time if each bokken was in its rightful place.
"What?" Jurina interjected, roughly placing her bokken back. She observed the older girl for a while who was completely disregarding her presence, before catching the sleeve of her black kimono as she was about to leave. "The head of the clan put me under your care."
Rena tilted her head as she was forced to stop in her tracks, briefly gazing at the fingers now encircling her arm forcibly, before locking eyes with the younger girl. "I am going to watch over you, but I'm not going to teach you sword fighting."
"Why?" Jurina gritted her teeth. This unexpected reply, coupled with her unsettling calm expression, was annoying her to no end.
"You're rude, Watanabe-san," Rena declared. She usually wasn't so straightforward - always preferring to tread carefully with people - but she knew it was useless with the young girl facing her. "Added to which, kenjutsu requires calm and discipline. Both qualities you apparently lack."
Rena waited for a reply, expecting something rude in return, but no invective left the young girl's lips. She could see she wasn't at all delighted - the glare she was currently giving her was a clear indication of it - but surprisingly, she didn't add a single word. Instead, she saw her release her hold on her arm, and the young girl turning on her heels. Rena watched silently as her protégée stormed out of the room, not before shooting a last displeased look at her as she passed the door.
After years of working here, Churi had discovered that alcohol had a truly powerful effect on people. At best, men would become more cheerful, at worst, it would trigger violent behaviors. However Churi had noticed, after watching countless of times her friend sipping cup after cup, that the beverage had surprisingly no effect on her. Nobunaga never were the talkative type and, unfortunately, sake was ineffective on liberating her tongue.
Churi was quite used by now to this characteristic of hers, and she didn't mind being the one leading most of their conversations. She would narrate her days to an always attentive ear, and would sometimes make her smile with amusing anecdotes. God knew she had a lot to share with all the men she saw passing through. Until now, Nobunaga's silence had not really bothered her but today, she could tell her friend was bothered by something. Indeed, the lost expression of the girl staring into her cup of sake wasn't fooling her at all. She wasn't listening to a single word she was saying.
Churi's questioning voice jolted Jurina out of her thoughts and she shifted her gaze from her cup of sake to the girl sitting by her side, her eyes falling into her friend's worried ones.
"What?" Jurina exclaimed. As she tried to recall her friend's last words it suddenly occurred to her she had not followed the conversation, and she cursed herself immediately for her behavior. She had stepped in the place in the hope that Churi's company would help her ease her mind, but she hadn't stopped reliving her latest confrontation with the kenjutsu instructor.
A soft sigh left Churi's lips as she watched her friend carefully, trying to understand where her unusual behavior was coming from, before gently sliding her fingers into the palm laying on the table. "You've been very quiet tonight," Churi affirmed, noticing the slight stiffening of Jurina's hand at the contact. "And awfully tense. Is everything alright?"
"Not really." Jurina smiled slightly, not surprised by Churi's perceptiveness. It also wasn't the first time her body language was betraying her.
Churi pondered her options carefully, wondering if she should push the matter through, before thinking against it. Something was telling her her question was going to stay unanswered. It wasn't like her friend shared much about her usually, anyway. "I've heard clients are pretty satisfied with Annin's services."
Jurina raised an amused eyebrow at her declaration, stealing a quick glance at the designated girl who was seducing a man a few tables away, before locking eyes with her friend. "Am I boring you?"
A smile grazed Churi's lips, and she shook her head slightly. "Of course not, but something is telling me you could use the distraction."
Jurina took a sip of her beverage absently, her eyes falling again on the girl who had many times tried to lead her upstairs, to no avail. "I'm not interested."
"You haven't bedded any of the girls yet," Churi affirmed.
"How do you know I didn't?" Jurina replied, her mouth curving up in amusement. Churi's self-assurance was surprising, considering she would never share that kind of details with her, but mostly very amusing. She could had slipped very easily into one the girl's rooms without her knowing about it. It wasn't like she was aware of her whereabouts 24/7.
"Trust me, I would have known." Churi chuckled softly as if she could read her mind. "These girls are anything but secretive." It was the perks of being confided into this house. Women got bored easily during the day, and gossips would run rampant, especially about the people who shared their beds. "Doesn't any of the girls suit your taste?"
"There are a few good looking ones," Jurina admitted, a small amused smile on her lips at her friend's persistence. Although very popular, Annin wasn't the only one granted with advantageous features.
Churi raised an eyebrow in confusion when her interlocutor didn't elaborate. Even if the young girl had rejected everyone's advances, it was clear she wasn't completely immunized to their charms. Maybe there was another explanation. "Are you in love with someone?"
"Love?" Jurina snorted, shaking her head in disbelief. "Absolutely not."
"Then there's nothing wrong in having a little fun."
"I am having fun. With you."
"Flirt." Churi chuckled at the cheeky reply. This Nobunaga was really one of a kind. "You know well that's not what I'm talking about."
Jurina smiled in amusement at the kiss placed on her cheek, before letting her gaze wander around the room, her eyes soon falling on Annin who was now sitting alone at her table. It appeared her charms had failed to work on her client, as the man had moved to another girl. Judging by Annin's displeased expression, she was not in the slightest happy to have lost his attention, but her mouth instantly curved up into a seducing smile when their eyes met.
"Maybe you're right," Jurina murmured. Churi's company - as pleasant as it was - was failing tonight to erase the pale girl from her mind. Maybe she needed another sort of distraction, after all.
Two days ago, Rena had requested an audience with Momijimori no kami. It took her a while to finally make this decision. A part of her would have preferred to resolve the matter on her own, but it appeared she was completely incapable of doing so. It seemed only the highest authority of the clan would be able to find a solution to her problem.
She was now seated on the floor in front of the short-haired samurai, watching her silently as she was reading a scroll at her desk. The older woman barely glanced at her when she stepped in the room a few minutes ago, engrossed in a mountain of work.
Rena took advantage of the older woman's attention on her duty to go through her speech again. She had rehearsed it in her head on her way here, choosing each word she was going to say carefully. Nevertheless, she couldn't help but feel a tinge of apprehension. After all, she was about to make an unforeseen request, and she didn't know how it was going to be received.
"Matsui-san." Rena was suddenly jolted out of her thoughts as the older woman glanced back at her, giving the signed scroll to her advisor by her side. "I think I know why you're here."
"Shinoda-dono," Rena replied, bowing at her courteously. Her interlocutor's words, as well as the strange amused smile at the corner of her lips, were unsettling. She had never mentioned the matter she was about to expose to her before, and she surely saw no reason for the older woman's delight.
"Watanabe-san came by two days ago," Mariko continued, absently nodding at her advisor who bowed at her before leaving the room. "She claims you refuse to teach her kenjutsu. Is it true?"
Rena was momentarily at a loss for words, taken by complete surprise by the revelation. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. The young Watanabe sister had dared to complain about her to the head of the clan. She had some nerve!
"It is," Rena finally replied. She knew her unsteady voice betrayed her unease, and she paused, taking a moment to compose herself. She had requested an audience with the head of the clan - something she rarely did - for a very good reason, and she wasn't going to back away. "I believe I'm not the best suited person to be her instructor."
"She has been difficult, hasn't she?"
"Maybe it would be wiser to allocate her another tutor," Rena trailed off, confused by her interlocutor's sudden laugh. This conversation wasn't going at all as she expected. Not in the slightest. "Someone who would be able to handle her unpredictable behavior."
"I see. Well, I have no doubt you will succeed in doing so."
Rena stared back in surprise at the woman who was trying to calm down from her amusement, going through another scroll again. The kenjutsu instructor couldn't believe what was happening. She had hoped her arguments would manage to sway her interlocutor's, but her words didn't have the slightest effect on her. It was as if her mind had already been made up before she even began to speak.
Rena raised up to her feet, bowing in respect to the older woman who wasn't paying attention to her anymore and still chuckling. She knew pushing things further would only prove useless - not to mention utterly disrespectful - and she turned on her heels, wondering why on earth the head of the clan was finding her situation so amusing. She surely wasn't. Unfortunately, it appeared she was still stuck with the wrong sister.
As her last student left the dojo, Rena placed absently her bokken back on the stand, while thinking back to her latest conversation with the head of the clan. Her behavior and answer had taken her by complete surprise, and she was more than bothered by the implied order she had easily read between the lines. Despite being quite displeased by the idea, it appeared she would have to teach kenjutsu to her protégée, after all. But how exactly was she supposed to do that when she had not seen the girl in four whole days? She had not really looked for her - guessing she would cross her path anyway at some point - but to her surprise, she had not done so even once.
A sigh escaped her lips in frustration, and her fingers moved upwards to massage her temple. The young Watanabe sister was a real nuisance. Just as she was about to turn around and leave the dojo she heard the sound of soft footsteps on the tatami and she tilted her head in curiosity, her eyes widening slightly in surprise at the view of the short girl approaching her clad in a grey kimono. That was an unexpected sight.
"Watanabe-san, I'm sorry but you just missed the lesson," Rena informed kindly the twenty-one-year-old girl who was bowing at her respectfully. As she watched her carefully, Rena couldn't help but think Yuki surely had been lucky to been paired up with her. Contrary to her younger sister, she had very good manners.
"No." Mayu shook her head slightly, embarrassed. Now she realized what her presence in the dojo must look like to the kenjutsu instructor, and she suddenly felt a little ill-at-ease standing in front of her. Although they had spoken a few times since her arrival at the clan, the older samurai had never once questioned her absence during the kenjutsu lessons. Mayu knew the proper thing would be to give the sword master an explanation, but she had never felt comfortable enough to broach the subject with her. It had already been hard enough to confide in her own protector. "I'm not here for that."
"Oh..." Rena trailed off, arching an eyebrow at the view of the girl fidgeting in front of her. "What can I do for you, then?"
"I was wondering if you had seen my sister."
"Your sister?" Rena exclaimed. Out of all the questions she had expected, this one truly wasn't on her list. "I'm afraid I have not."
"Alright," Mayu replied, defeated. She knew it was a long shot asking the kenjutsu instructor about her sister's whereabouts - considering that she was perfectly aware of the distance between them - but she was getting desperate.
"Did something happen?" Rena's question stopped Mayu in her tracks as she was about to turn on her heels and leave. It was not that Rena was particularly concerned about her protégée's situation - she was an adult, and more than capable of taking care of herself - but the fact that her own sister didn't know where she was was truly surprising. Despite their opposing personalities, they seemed pretty close.
"I haven't seen her in four days, and I'm starting to get worried."
"Do you have any idea where she might be?" Rena inquired. It appeared she wasn't the only one having a hard time finding her.
"She mentioned this place in the village," Mayu replied, avoiding her eyes in embarrassment as she recalled her sister's words. She still didn't understand why she would go to such a place, even less partake in such activities. Jurina had always been very vague when she had questioned her about it.
"I know she has been behaving rudely since her arrival, and I apologize for that. She might not seem like it at first, but she's a good person. Of course, it's not an excuse for what she's done, but I think my sister is having a hard time adjusting to this place."
Rena kept quiet for a while, amazed by the kind words directed towards her sister. She was having difficulties finding redeeming qualities in the young Watanabe sister, but one person still seemed to be able to see something in her. Was it only due to their sisterly bond? Or was there something she was missing?
"I'll see what I can do." Rena nodded, a smile grazing her lips as Mayu's face immediately lit up. Jurina's words uttered that day came to the forefront of her mind, and she had a good idea where she might be spending her time. She was going to do her best to bring her back. If not just to follow the head of the clan's orders, for her sister's sake.
Jurina laid down on the futon, shutting her eyes as she tried to catch her breath. She could feel a finger tracing patterns on her naked torso but she didn't pay attention to it, listening to the sound of her pounding heartbeat.
"I knew you would change your mind."
Jurina popped an eye open at the seductive voice, and she watched the nude woman hovering over her.
"It's not going to happen again," Jurina affirmed.
An amused laugh left Annin's mouth and she inched closer to Jurina's left ear, her lips soon brushing it playfully. "That's also what you said last time."
As distracting as her action may be Jurina noticed the hand that was moving sneakily downwards her body, and she caught it before it could go any further. "That's enough for today."
Annin cast a look at her at those words, before sighing at the view of the two brown orbs staring back at her with determination. "Alright."
Jurina watched cautiously as Annin moved from of top of her and laid down beside her, before closing her eyes anew when she knew the woman wasn't going to try anything else. Silence engulfed both of them immediately, and Jurina relished the pleasant sensation of her body relaxing, before slowly drifting off.
Rena knew her instinct had been right when she noticed the familiar black stallion waiting outside the house. Dismounting her chestnut mare she attached the rein beside the other horse, presenting herself in front of the door. She knew what the guard was expecting from her before he even began to speak, and she placed her katana inside his hand. "I won't be long."
The man frowned at her declaration but didn't say a word, pushing instead the door to let her pass. A few pairs of eyes fell upon her when Rena stepped in and she paused, her gaze wandering around the room in search of one particular young girl. Her brows furrowed in confusion when she was nowhere to be found, and she wondered briefly if she had not mistaken the horse waiting outside. It looked surely like the one both sisters had arrived on two months ago, and the fact it wasn't a coat usually seen in this region was making it even harder to miss.
Rena caught sight of a woman approaching her, and she immediately stopped any temptation she might have to try and seduce her. "I'm not here for that," Rena declared. "I'm looking for one of your clients, a girl named Watanabe-san."
"I don't know who you're talking about."
After assessing that the startled woman was indeed telling her the truth, Rena pondered leaving the place, before suddenly remembering one small detail. A piece of information the offended samurai had shared that day. "She calls herself Nobunaga."
This seemed to do the trick as another woman sitting alone at a table stood up immediately and approached her. "You're looking for Nobunaga?"
Rena picked up on the fondness in her voice as she spoke, and she studied her new interlocutor, from her long black hair to her green kimono. "Yes, do you know where she is?"
"She's currently busy upstairs. Can I do something for you in the meantime?"
The samurai cast a look towards the designated direction, before gazing at the woman again. "No, lead me to her."
It was the knock on the door that woke her up. Jurina narrowed her eyes at the soft sound, a groan escaping her lips in annoyance at the intruder who had dared to pull her out of her peaceful nap. A surprised Annin had gotten up from the futon, and was now moving towards the door. "What is it?"
"Someone is here to see Nobunaga."
Jurina sat up on the futon as she recognized Churi's voice, and she exchanged a puzzled look with Annin as she spoke. "Who is it?"
"I need to speak to you, Watanabe-san."
Jurina's eyes widened at the sound of her protector's firm voice, and she froze immediately. The room fell into a deep silence as she was completely unable of uttering a single word, until an apprehensive Annin called her name tentatively a while later.
"It's alright, Annin," Jurina reassured her, finally snapping out of her thoughts. She retrieved her grey kimono on the floor and started to get dressed, before moving towards the door when she was done. "I'll see what she wants."
"What are you doing here?" Jurina asked when she opened, leaning against the doorframe and locking eyes with her protector.
"I'm sorry." Churi murmured, avoiding her eyes in embarrassment. She could see that her friend was not pleased at all by the other woman's presence, and she was starting to wonder if she had not made a mistake by agreeing to her demand. "She insisted to speak to you."
"It's alright, Churi," Jurina replied, her gaze softening as she glanced at her. "You did nothing wrong."
"Watanabe-san, your sister is worried about you," Rena interrupted, ignoring the exchange between them. "She says she hasn't seen you in four days."
"And? You still haven't answered my question," Jurina retorted, crossing her arms over her chest in annoyance.
"She asked me to look for you."
"I'm fine." Jurina sighed. It's true that she hadn't been sleeping at the clan for a while now, and she was starting to feel slightly remorseful about it. Mayu always got so excessively worried about her. She should at least have warned her about her whereabouts. "Tell her I'll be back soon."
"I'm not leaving without you," Rena declared with determination. She certainly had not made the effort to come all this way to go back with a vague answer. She could see the young girl was about to protest, and she knew she had to find a way to convince her. There was one thing that might be able to change her mind. "I'm going to teach you kenjutsu."
Jurina arched an eyebrow at the revelation. It was obvious by her protector's displeased expression that she was not in the slightest happy about it, so what prompted her to change her mind? Wait. A smirk grazed Jurina's lips as she remembered her meeting with Momijimori no kami. It seemed her conversation with the head of the clan had not been pointless, after all.
"Yes, so please follow me back to the clan."
Rena didn't like one bit the sight of her protégée's amused smile, but she tried to ignore it, focusing instead on the task at hand. She had entered this place with a clear goal in mind, and she was not going to let the young girl's attitude deter her.
"Alright." Jurina nodded, uncrossing her arms. Rena was already turning on her heels and Jurina watched her as she was descending the staircase, until an idea suddenly popped up in her head. "But you'll have to wait. I'm not finished yet."
Rena paused midway and turned around, her startled brown eyes falling into Jurina's mischievous ones. Just as she was about to open her mouth to protest she saw the young girl entering the bedroom, and closing the door swiftly behind her. Rena's jaw dropped as she stared at it, completely frozen, not believing the scene she had just witnessed. Was she really going to resume her activities and make her wait?
A muffled chuckle suddenly distracted her and she shifted her attention to the woman called Churi still standing by the door, noticing how she was trying hard to control her amusement. Rena frowned at her reaction, not liking the odd feeling of déjà vu. Lately, it seemed everyone liked to have a laugh at her expense.
Rena retrieved her katana from the guard and cautiously checked out of the corner of her eye the young girl who was exchanging last words with the woman called Churi. She had not waited as much as she had feared, but she still couldn't believe that her protégée had dared to pull such a stunt. It was a miracle she managed to keep quiet when her protégée finally opened the bedroom door and descended the stairs to join her at her table. Everyone had always praised the legendary patience of the kenjutsu instructor, but she was gradually starting to lose it in the presence of the young Watanabe sister.
"Is everything alright?" Churi addressed Jurina in a whisper, stealing a glance at the woman who was now mounting her chestnut mare.
"Yes." Jurina nodded, placing a gentle kiss on the older girl's forehead. She had picked up on the way her friend had been worriedly looking back and forth between her protector and her for a few minutes now, and she could easily imagine a pair of frustrated brown eyes boring into her back. "Don't worry about me."
"Alright." Churi smiled, her body relaxing slightly at the reassuring words. "I still can't believe you went back into the room to sleep with Annin."
Jurina arched an amused eyebrow at Churi's words, and she approached her lips to her ear. "Who said I did such a thing?"
Churi looked back at her in surprise, before letting a soft chuckle escape her mouth. "You're unbelievable, Nobunaga."
Jurina smiled at her reaction and tilted briefly her head to watch her protector - noticing that she was now more than ready to leave the place - before glancing back at Churi. "I'll see you soon."
Rena's eyes wandered around the maple forest they were currently passing through, still amazed by the beauty of it. She had penetrated this vast forest surrounding the clan countless of times, but the sight still managed to catch her breath each time her eyes fell on the red leaves of the large trees.
After admiring the beautiful landscape a little while longer she cast a side glance to the girl who was riding by her side, and with whom she had not spoken once since they had left the village. The head of the clan had truly entrusted her with an impossible task, and she didn't know how she was going to manage to teach kenjutsu to a girl who was used to having it her own way. Two eyes suddenly glanced back at her and Rena didn't look away, trying to understand what could be going on behind those unreadable eyes. Why couldn't she still see what her sister had described?
The silent exchange suddenly got broken when Rena noticed a shift in the air, and she swiftly looked in front of her. Unconsciously, her fingers clutched the rein of her horse a little tighter, and she scrutinized cautiously the road, bothered by the uneasy feeling building up inside her. There was something wrong, but she was having a hard time identifying the origin of the problem.
Rena ordered her horse to stop immediately, and she heard Jurina's stallion whining when she thankfully obeyed to her command. Everything had suddenly fallen silent around them, and Rena could recognize these signs quite well.
Rena ignored her protégée's protest and moved her horse forward, alert to every single movement around her. While her right hand lead her mount, her left one cautiously fell on the red tsuka of her katana, not liking one bit what her guts were telling her. She had been in this situation once before, and the outcome was still very much engraved in her memory. For sure, she wasn't ready to relive it.
To her left, a sound suddenly caught her attention and she drew her weapon swiftly, easily deflecting the shuriken coming her way. While she avoided another one she tried to find the person behind this sneaky attack, but her eyes failed to find him in the dense forest. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the black stallion approaching from behind, and a warning shout left her lips. "Don't come closer, Watanabe-san!"
A fourth shuriken came her way but she failed to react in time, the blade brushing her right arm as she deflected it. The attacks stopped abruptly and Rena glanced at her small cut briefly, before looking up when she heard footsteps coming from the forest. As much as she wasn't prepared for the attack, she was expecting this man to be responsible for it even less.
"You!" Rena exclaimed at the view of the samurai who was walking towards them, his hand resting on his katana at his waist. Even if most of the marks had now disappeared from his face, a few were still faintly visible on his pale skin.
"What a surprise," he said, eying first Rena who was still holding her katana, before shifting his attention to Jurina. "I didn't believe we would cross path again so soon."
While keeping an eye on the man who seemed harmless for now - considering he still had not drawn his weapon - Rena searched the forest for their other attacker. The one who was still keeping himself out of view.
"You can come out," the samurai ordered, seemingly reading into Rena's thoughts, without breaking eye contact with both women.
Rena suddenly noticed a silhouette descending a tree, and she raised her blade cautiously at the view of the shinobi approaching.
"Why did you attack us?" she asked when both their enemies were finally in sight. They had already resolved their disagreement, and a samurai would never lead such a sneaky attack on another one.
"We didn't mean to," the samurai explained. "Unfortunately, you detected our presence, and we couldn't let that happen."
Rena arched an eyebrow at his words. They didn't make any sense. Not in the slightest. Why were they trying to conceal their presence in the first place? "Which clan are you from?" This question had nagged her from their first encounter. Now, she was more than eager to solve the mystery.
"I'm sorry, but I can't answer that." The samurai shook his head softly.
Just as she was about to insist, Rena felt a sudden pain in her right arm and she glanced back at her small cut, wondering why on earth it was hurting so much. The shuriken had barely touched her. As the seconds passed by the pain kept intensifying, and her vision was becoming blurry. A gasp left her lips as she suddenly understood the reason for her symptoms. Everything was falling into place. Looking up, her startled eyes fell into the shinobi's emotionless ones. "You poisoned me."
"We didn't have a choice," the samurai replied. "We have a mission to accomplish, and we couldn't take the risk of you stopping us."
Rena heard a voice behind her and she tilted her head when she felt a hand encircling her arm. "Are you alright, Rena-san?"
The kenjutsu instructor locked eyes with her protégée, surprised slightly by the concerned look she was giving her. It was the first time the young girl had shown the remotest sign of interest in her, or in her wellbeing. "Leave, Watanabe-san."
Rena barely heard the astonished reply in return as her katana escaped her hand, and she fell from her horse. Her head hit the ground and a small cry left her lips at the harsh contact. Her body wasn't responding to her command anymore, and she could barely keep her eyes open. Two hands soon started to shake her roughly, and she knew by the sound of her protégée's voice that she had not obeyed to her command.
Just as she was about to repeat it she witnessed fingers encircling the red tsuka of her katana, and she knew immediately what the young girl had in mind. Not only she was not going to run, she was going to fight a man against who she had no chance of winning.
"Stop," Rena stuttered, gathering her last strength to catch her wrist forcibly. "You can't win."
"They are going to kill us!" Jurina hissed, trying to pull away from her grasp.
"They already killed me," Rena replied, holding tight, her voice now barely a whisper. She was well aware that she was not going to survive the deadly poison, but her protégée still had a chance to make it alive. "A samurai will never attack an unharmed enemy, so don't raise this blade."
Jurina, who was by now seething with anger, stared into her enemy's eyes, considering her options. She wasn't stupid. She knew she didn't have much chance against him, but she was refusing to give up without a fight. Her protector was laying on the ground, barely able to move, and her own fingers were itching dangerously at the idea of retribution.
"Listen to me!" Rena exclaimed in a strangled voice. By now, she could hardly distinguish anything, and she had almost no energy left, but she was going to fight her annoying stubbornness until her last breath. Of course, they didn't get along, and she didn't believe she would ever have managed to understand the girl kneeling next to her, but she certainly didn't deserve to die so stupidly. No one did.
Rena's body was shivering profusely and her teeth were chattering. Why was she so cold? Her eyes fluttered open, not believing the sight in front of her. It was snowing. She blinked a few times in confusion, trying to understand why she was surrounded by this white substance. It didn't make any sense. It never snowed in this region.
Rena tried to get up from her seated position against the tree but as soon as she stood up, her body immediately failed her and her back harshly hit the trunk again. Why was she feeling so weak? Why could see barely feel her legs? A noise suddenly caught her attention and she gazed up, noticing a silhouette approaching slowly in the deep snow. Instinctively she tried to reach for her katana, but the weapon wasn't resting at her waist as it should be. How could that be? She never left the clan without it.
Rena shifted her attention to the new presence, trying to discern it better despite her blurry vision. Her heart was now beating faster in apprehension, knowing she was completely incapable of defending herself in the case of an attack.
"Who are you?" Rena blurted out, surprised by the sound of her own voice. It was so weak, and it barely sounded like a whisper to her ears. She tried again to stand up to face her possible opponent and, luckily, her legs finally cooperated at the second tentative.
"Stop." A soft voice finally reached her, and she barely had time to notice the figure quickly approaching, before her legs gave in again. "You're too weak, Rena."
Rena let the stranger encircle her waist and guide her towards the tree, and she groaned in frustration when her body touched the snowy grass anew. Why was she so lifeless? But most of all, why was her mind completely blank? She couldn't remember what had brought her to this place. Rena finally glanced at the form kneeling in front of her, and her voice trembled at the unexpected view. "Airi?"
This was impossible. Her twenty three year old friend couldn't be standing in front of her. She was having hallucinations. A surprisingly warm palm was suddenly cupping her cheek, and Rena couldn't help but relish the pleasant contact. She had dreamed of this moment many times before, but it had never felt so real. "Is this another dream?"
"Not exactly," Airi murmured, shaking her head a bit. "You've been poisoned."
This revelation succeeded in doing the trick. Suddenly, everything that had happened to her came to the forefront of her mind. She had been attacked on her way back to the clan. And her protégée was with her. At the thought of the young Watanabe sister, Rena looked around immediately in concern. Where was she?
"She's safe," Airi reassured her as if she could read her mind, before taking her hand and catching her attention again. "But you're not."
"I'm dead?" Rena stammered, her worried eyes falling into Airi's gentle ones. As much as she feared the answer, maybe this was the explanation to this unusual weather and improbable presence in front of her.
"Not yet." Airi replied. "But you need to keep on fighting."
A relieved sigh escaped Rena's lips and she shut her eyes momentarily, letting the news sink in her brain, before gazing at her friend anew. This gentle smile and that warm touch. She had missed them so much. "What if I don't want to?"
"What are you talking about?" Airi frowned.
"I've missed you so much," Rena said, her voice almost breaking at the admission. "What if I want to stay here with you?"
"That's not possible," Airi retorted and stood up abruptly, turning her back on her. "It's too early."
"It was too early for you!" Rena shouted, her fists hitting the snow in frustration. "I should have been able to save you!"
"The past is in the past, Rena," Airi murmured as she faced her again. "I got reckless and I paid the price. You couldn't have done anything to help me."
"But even so!" Rena started, until a finger placed on her lips prevented her from continuing. Airi's faint smile finally got to her and she broke into tears, resting her head against her friend's shoulder when Airi moved forward to embrace her.
"You still have a lot of things to accomplish in this world," Airi whispered in her ear, while her hand caressed Rena's back in a soothing gesture. "And you have someone to take care of."
"Who?" Rena stuttered between her sobs, startled, before she realized who she was talking about and she shook her head in disapproval. "The young Watanabe sister? You're mistaken. She doesn't need me."
"She does," Airi affirmed, pulling away gently from the embrace and wiping her tears with her thumb. "She's just not aware of it yet."
"Airi." Rena caught her hand swiftly when the girl placed her back against the tree and took a step back. "Don't leave me again."
"I'm not going anywhere." Airi smiled, kneeling in front of Rena's weak form and placing her palm against her faster beating heart. "I'll always be here."
As Rena tried desperately to hold onto her friend's hand, suddenly she heard voices calling her name. Despite the fact she couldn't recognize who they belonged to they were getting louder and louder as the seconds passed by, and the ghost from her past was disappearing progressively in front of her.
"I love you, Rena," Airi stated, and the kenjutsu instructor could now barely distinguish the words she was uttering. "I couldn't have wished for a better friend."
Rena struggled to get up on her feet, but her mind wasn't strong enough to win this battle. She barely had time to witness a last smile on her friend's lips, that the snowy scenery vanished abruptly and her eyes shut against her consent.
Her protector's words echoed in her head as Jurina stared angrily at the samurai who was approaching cautiously. Her fingers were still clutching the red tsuka tightly - stubbornly refusing to comply to her dying protector's order - while watching her enemy's every move. Just as he came to an halt in front of her his hand came to rest on his katana at his waist, and his calm eyes bore into her when he spoke.
"What is it going to be? Are you going to try and fight me?"
Jurina couldn't ignore the loud voices inside her head that were screaming at her to slit his throat. They had started to harass her the minute the sneaky attack began, and hadn't stopped taunting her since then. Her protector's warnings had barely managed to quieten them for a while, until they finally came back into her head in full force.
Jurina stole a glance at the older woman who wasn't moving anymore on the ground - her eyelids now shut while a few plaintive sounds escaped her mouth - before looking away and watching the unfamiliar red tsuka in her right hand. Her primal instinct was urging her to raise the blade to kill this man who had dared to hurt both Churi and her protector, but her better judgment was preventing her annoyingly from lifting the sword a single inch.
Her attention reverted to the man who was still standing before her - noticing the slightly mocking smile dancing on his lips - before her internal battle finally came to an end when Mayu's face suddenly appeared in her mind. Ten years ago, after witnessing their father's lifeless body in their burning house, she had vowed to herself to never let her sister follow the same fate. That's why she couldn't let her basic instinct dictate her behavior if she wanted to respect her wishes. She had to bow to her opponent, as excruciatingly painful the idea was to her.
Gritting her teeth and closing her eyes tightly in frustration she reluctantly let the red tsuka slip from her grasp and fall by her side in the grass. Mayu's image vanished from her mind and she met the samurai's eyes again, hoping her protector had been right. If she had been wrong and the man ended up taking her life nonetheless, she would have surrendered for nothing. The simple thought was utterly unbearable.
"Wise choice." The samurai nodded briefly, taking a few steps back. "But don't worry, we'll meet again someday."
Jurina's eyes widened slightly in confusion at the man's enigmatic smirk, until catching sight of the shinobi disappearing into the forest, before coming back shortly on the back of a horse, his left hand holding the rein of another brown one. The samurai briefly looked over his shoulder at the sound of a horse's hooves stamping on the ground, before casting a last look at the woman laying on the ground, his mouth releasing a small sigh. "Farewell, samurai. It's really a shame it had to end this way. I'm convinced you would have been a worthy opponent."
As expected, no answer left Rena who was now shuddering, and the samurai turned on his heels - about to take the rein offered to him - before catching out of the corner of his eye the two other horses without riders waiting not far away. Casting a brief look at Jurina who was still kneeling beside her protector's form, he moved towards the horses, before slapping their croup harshly. Jurina watched helplessly as both Rena's horse and hers whined loudly in reaction, frightened, before galloping away.
"I'm sorry, but I can't take the risk of you following us," the man addressed Jurina again as he mounted his own horse.
Jurina followed their movements as the two men gripped their reins and turned around, disappearing swiftly into the depth of the forest and out of her sight. Jurina released a breath she didn't even realize she was holding, still having a hard time believing what had just happened. Of course, she had more than hoped that her protector would be right and the samurai would spare her life, but it took her a few seconds to register that she was still very much alive.
After assessing that she was truly out of danger, she looked away from the forest and gazed down at her wounded protector, noticing how pale she now looked. The woman was still breathing, but a palm placed over her hot forehead told Jurina that she had a high fever. Jurina didn't need to be a doctor to know this wasn't a good sign. The young girl looked around quickly, in search of help, but her eyes fell back shortly on Rena when she found none. They weren't that far from the clan, but their chance of crossing someone's path in such a place was very low.
"Rena-san," Jurina called, shaking her arms roughly, the action having unfortunately almost no effect on her, apart from the faint protest leaving Rena's mouth.
Jurina exhaled deeply in frustration and shut her eyes, hoping her brain would come up with a brilliant solution. Their horses were unfortunately gone, and it was obvious no one was going to come to their rescue. Of course, Jurina could follow her protector's wishes and leave her behind, but that was simply out of the question. She had done everything to save her - first shielding her from their opponents with her katana, then with her wise words - and Jurina was well aware that she would never have been poisoned if not for her presence. It's because she distracted her that her protector was now on the verge of death. She knew she had to try something to save her, but she was unfortunately running out of ideas.
A weak sound suddenly broke the painful silence surrounding her, and Jurina glanced down at her protector in surprise when her pale lips finally parted and her small brown orbs fluttered open. "What are you still doing here?"
"I'm not going anywhere without you," Jurina retorted, before helping her sit up against the tree behind her, Rena's head immediately resting heavily against the trunk.
Jurina's eyes swept Rena's weak form, knowing the woman was utterly incapable of standing up and even less walking. Just as she was about to believe she was truly incapable of helping her, a solution finally emerged and Jurina's eyes widened slightly. Of course, it was a very long shot, but she had to try. There was no way she was going to give up, as low her chances of succeeding were.
"Alright," Jurina said, decided, kneeling on the grass and turning her back to Rena. "Get on."
"What?" Rena stuttered, watching in confusion the young girl who had her back turned on her and obviously expecting something from her. Her brain searched an explanation for the girl's odd request, failing to see what she was getting at, before understanding what she was trying to accomplish. "You can't bring me back to the clan on your back. You're not strong enough."
Rena's last words found an echo in Jurina's head as they immediately reminded her of the nightmare that had been haunting her nights for years now. It didn't take long before the silhouette of the traitor appeared in her mind, followed closely by the words she would each and single time utter. You're not strong enough, Jurina. The mere memory was enough to let her anger resurface, and she had to muster all her willpower not to drown into the darkness within her.
"Put your arms around my neck," Jurina ordered, the woman of her dreams finally disappearing from her vision. "I won't repeat myself."
Jurina noticed the faint protest behind her back and she waited impatiently for the older woman to comply, frustration washing over her when nothing happened a few seconds later. Just as she was about to turn around to voice her annoyance two arms wrapped slowly around her neck.
A small sigh left Jurina's lips in relief, knowing she wouldn't have been able to accomplish a single thing without the older woman's cooperation, and she slipped her hands under Rena's thighs - taking a deep breath - before raising slowly to her feet.
Unexpectedly, the weight on her back wasn't as heavy as she had feared and she took a few cautious steps forward - assessing if she was truly capable of doing this - before gazing at the path in front of her and concluded that she stood a chance. The only question that remained was how far she could go.
"Put me down, Watanabe-san." Rena's pleading, low voice sounded close to her ear, and Rena's left hand feebly tugged on the edge of her grey kimono. "You won't make it."
Jurina ignored her request and started walking, thankful of the branches that were for now protecting her from the sun. If she managed by luck to make it out of the forest she would have to confront the heat of spring, and she already dreaded that moment. Her ears perked up when she heard another protest from the woman on her back, and she knew she had to put an end to it if she was to focus on the difficult task at hand.
"Don't waste your breath," Jurina replied. She was trying desperately to keep her calm, but the older girl's persistence was starting to exasperate her. "I'm not leaving you behind. End of the discussion."
Jurina half expected her protector to voice her disapproval anew but surprisingly, no words left her lips again after that.
Jurina knew she should be proud to have made it so far, but the scorching sun now shining over her head as they left the forest was a true reminder of what was now awaiting her. Her eyes caught sight of the familiar large house of the clan standing down the hill and she paused - trying to evaluate the distance and how long it would take them to get there - before moving forward slowly again.
Her arms had started to hurt a while ago but she continued nonetheless - trying as best as she could to ignore the pain - and focused on her objective. Now she was running with sweat and even starting to feel dizzy. Jurina muttered under her breath, recognizing the signs all too well. Of course, the sun wasn't helping in any way and truly not her best ally right now; she knew it was a matter of time until her body would give up on her.
Rena hadn't uttered a single word during the whole journey, and Jurina knew it was mostly because of her weak condition. She had noticed the faint sounds of suffering that had occasionally left her lips, and the hands that were now barely holding onto anything. A part of her was thankful the older girl's weak state prevented her from moving too much on her back - as it would have made the task of carrying her almost impossible - but it was now starting to worry her. Indeed, she could now barely catch a single noise, and she knew something was wrong the second her protector's head suddenly became heavy on her shoulder.
Jurina stopped in her tracks and tried to look over her shoulder, feeling the arms around her neck progressively loosening up. When she called the older girl's name a few times and didn't get any reply she feared the worst, and her already pounding heart started to race at the meaning behind it. Jurina pondered her options, before deciding to assess what was going on and kneeled down carefully on the grass. The moment her knees touched the ground she felt the arms around her neck immediately leaving her, and heard the girl's body hit the ground.
Jurina turned around to take a look at her protector, her breath catching at the terrible view: her face was as white as a sheet. Jurina swallowed a lump as she leaned over her body in apprehension and placed her ear against her heart. It took her a while to finally hear it - her own racing heart and current condition of exhaustion preventing her from distinguishing anything at first - but a slight smile fell on her lips when she managed to catch the very slow beating of her protector's heart.
Straightening up, Jurina tried to provoke a reaction by shaking her arm again but this time, her action didn't have the slight effect on Rena. It didn't take her long to understand what her lack of response meant, and Jurina gazed worriedly at the woman who had fallen unconscious. The young girl took a brief peek over her shoulder - gazing at the house that was standing not far from here - wondering how she was going to make it without the older girl's cooperation.
It was now out of the question to carry her on her back, and she didn't like the other solution that was offered to her one iota. Jurina blinked a few times as her vision was starting to get blurry, and she cursed her dizziness that was getting worse as the minutes passed by.
Jurina gathered her strength and slipped her arms under her protector's body, a sharp cry escaping her lips in pain when she raised to her feet, the unconscious girl secured in her arms. Her eyes fell briefly on the head now resting on her right shoulder - still hoping she would wake up at any time soon and ease her burden a bit - before looking up towards the direction of the large house, when realization hit her that it was not going to happen.
Jurina could now witness from afar the silhouette of the guard at the gate. The thought should have brought joy into her eyes, but the sharp pain currently travelling throughout her body was preventing her from feeling the remotest sense of relief. A while ago she had started to break out into a cold sweat, and her steps were becoming more and more unsteady. Her protector, still unconscious, had a few times almost slipped from her grasp, and Jurina could now barely feel her arms.
Jurina kept repeating to herself again and again that she was so close, but the house still looked awfully far to her each time she took a step forward and gazed at it. She could now barely discern anything in front of her - and as much as she felt her hold on the body in her arms diminishing - she knew she couldn't prevent the inevitable from happening anymore.
Her body finally gave up and she fell on her knees, utterly incapable of continuing. She released her protector's body and slumped heavily to the ground, shutting immediately her eyes and grimacing in pain when everything started spinning around her. As she tried to sit up she realized she couldn't feel her arms or her legs anymore, and she gazed at the front gate that was taunting her helplessly.
Her eyes fell onto the guard that was looking everywhere else but in their direction, and a few bad words directed towards him immediately flowed Jurina's mind. She could feel that her body wasn't responding to her anymore, and she didn't even try to make a single move. A few large drops of sweat were now falling from her forehead, and she stole a glance at the woman beside her.
In a last effort her fingers moved tentatively towards her protector's wrist, hoping to catch a sign that she had not done all this for nothing. An inaudible sigh left her lips when she detected what she was looking for, and she took another expectant peek at the guard. Her protector was luckily still alive, but this knowledge was worthless if no one was going to save her. It may already be too late.
Jurina felt her eyes shutting against her consent and she fought against it a few times stubbornly, before finally relenting to it and passing out, not before witnessing the guard leaving his position at the gate and moving towards their direction hurriedly.
It was such an unforeseen sight that Mayu couldn't stop her whole body from shivering. Before her own puffy eyes was laying her younger sister on a futon; she hadn't opened her eyelids in three whole days. Despite knowing full well Jurina wasn't injured - the doctor who had checked up on her upon her arrival at the clan had assured so - she couldn't stop her heart from pounding fast at the terrible vision. This wasn't right. Since her childhood, Jurina never could stay still one minute. When Mayu liked to enjoy a peaceful nap in the shade of a cherry tree, Jurina couldn't help but explore thoroughly the surroundings of the Watanabe clan each time she had the opportunity, not bothered one bit by all the trouble she was causing her personal bodyguard.
Yes, Jurina was stubborn and reckless at times, always did as she pleased and didn't always listen, not to mention her bad attitude. Of course she was far from perfect, but none of this mattered. She was her beloved sister; the one who had watched over her all these years despite being the younger one, protected her even at the risk of her own life: her two scars were a constant reminder of her complete devotion to her. Jurina was never good with words and rarely verbally expressed her feelings, but Mayu didn't mind this side of her, because her actions always said what she was incapable of uttering.
Right now, Mayu would do anything to meet her sister's fierce eyes again. She couldn't bear the thought of losing her, and refused to imagine a life without her by her side. The girl who mischievously played pranks on her when they were still two innocent girls, even the one who couldn't help some night to toss and turn in her sleep and scream that name that still haunted her ten years later. She wanted her back, all of her - her bad as well as her good points - and now.
Mayu shut her eyes, desperate, when her prayers unfortunately stayed unanswered. A few tears were now rolling down her cheeks, but she didn't bother to wipe them off. Frustration washed over her and she swallowed hard, knowing she was utterly powerless. The doctor had informed her that Jurina's condition was apparently due to exhaustion, and she needed time to rest. How long?! Mayu wanted to scream at him from the top of her lungs, incapable of accepting the weakened state of her sister usually so energetic, but she had unexpectedly managed to keep her composure and stayed quiet.
Mayu reached out to Jurina's hand and slipped her trembling one into hers, intertwining their fingers together carefully. As she squeezed them a bit she looked up to Jurina's tired features expectantly, half hoping her action would provoke a reaction. A strangled laugh escaped her lips a few seconds later when she got none and she looked away, realizing how stupid she was to expect so much from such a simple action.
Glancing back at Jurina she brushed her upper scar with her thumb, before placing her head over her sister's heart carefully. Its constant heartbeat should have brought joy into her eyes knowing that, despite her weak state, she was still alive, but she nonetheless couldn't help the trembling in her voice when she spoke. "Don't leave me, Jurina."
Minutes passed by as she listened painfully to the sound of her slow heartbeat, before she reluctantly moved away and sat up near the motionless girl. She ran her still shivering fingers through her dark hair, caressed with deep affection her cheek then cupped her chin, before letting go and looking away when she couldn't bear the sight anymore. A part of her wanted to stay by her side, in case she woke up anytime soon, but she could now barely keep her eyes open. These last three days, she had been utterly incapable of sleeping.
At the faint sound of the door sliding she tilted her gaze towards its direction, her eyes falling into Yuki's warm ones. Until now, her protector had always relented when Mayu had asked to keep watch over her sister day and night, but Mayu knew the bags under her eyes and her current exhaustion would prevent her from convincing the older girl this time. Mayu glanced back at Jurina and held her hand, squeezing it slightly before placing a soft kiss on her forehead.
A few tears escaped her eyes and fell on Jurina’s cheek as she pulled away, and she glanced back towards her protector who was still patiently waiting for her at the doorstep. Just as Mayu held Jurina's hand a last time she heard a slight protesting noise escaping Jurina's mouth, and her eyes widened as she looked back immediately at her sister. For a minute, she believed her weariness was playing tricks on her as Jurina’s features didn’t change an iota, before she felt fingers encircling hers feebly, and a pair of eyes slowly fluttering open. Jurina’s voice was hoarse when she finally spoke, but the mere words she uttered were enough to cause Mayu’s heart to race. “You're squeezing my hand too tight, sister.”
Jurina could still remember clearly the day their father presented them that girl with a smile plastered on her face. Mayu had not hesitated one second to welcome her into their household with a genuine smile, but there was just something in this stranger's look that prevented Jurina from doing the same. Their father's warm touch on the older girl's shoulder, and his reassuring words directed towards the two sisters should have done the trick, but it failed. There was just something wrong with her. Even her smile seemed fake. However, never could Jurina have foreseen the tragic events her presence in the Watanabe clan would unleash.
Jurina felt the slight pull on her arm but ignored it for a while, until it became more urgent. The girl of her nightmares had not cleared her mind yet, and her hands unconsciously pushed away the person who was calling her name desperately. It was only at the sound of the plaintive cry that Jurina opened her eyes, only to witness with surprise her sister sitting against the wall and rubbing the back of her head.
Jurina stuttered as she squinted her eyes to try and adjust to the dark, her mind still foggy after her nightmare. However, it didn't take her long to figure out what had happened at the sight of the girl still rubbing her head, and she released a sharp gasp in horror. She got up on her feet hurriedly, her steps a little unsteady as she approached her sister worriedly. There was no fear or shock in Mayu's eyes as the first time this kind of incident occurred, but Jurina couldn't help the guilt take hold of her as she watched her hissing in pain. After that tragic day, she had vowed to herself to protect her sister at all costs, but her nightmares were having an impact on her behavior in a way she had not expected. She could live with the never ending visions, but she couldn't forgive herself for letting them hurt the person she cared the most about.
A frustrated growl escaped her lips as she looked away in shame and grabbed her grey kimono hurriedly.
Jurina could see out of the corner of her eye her sister getting up from the floor and hear her repeating her name but she ignored her pleas, refusing to face the reality of what she had done. Her fingers caught her tanto in one swift movement and she placed it at her waist where it belonged, and before Mayu's approaching hand could ever try and stop her, she stepped out of their bedroom without a second of hesitation.
Mariko sighed heavily when her advisor leaned forward and settled another scroll on the desk in front of her. Names had been coming one after the other for almost an hour now, and none fitted what she was looking for. Of course, the clan had many good samurais, but none mastered kenjutsu as well as the woman she was trying desperately to replace.
The head of the clan shooed away the older man with a swift gesture of her hand in exasperation, watching him absently as he bowed courteously and left the room hastily. As soon as he had gone she glanced down at the numerous scrolls spread out on her desk, her left hand moving upwards to massage her temple while the other went through the scrolls. She read one name after the other anew carefully, knowing the clan couldn't stay without a kenjutsu instructor any longer.
It had already been more than a week since the doctor had attended to the poisoned girl, and despite succeeding in removing all the poison out of her system, she still had not woken up. Mariko wanted to believe there was still a chance for her to survive, but she was well aware that time wasn't on their side. If the kenjutsu instructor didn't wake up soon, there was a high possibility she would never open her eyes again.
A frustrated sound escaped Mariko's lips as she realized she was utterly powerless in helping her, before looking up when she heard the door sliding, and she saw the familiar long, dark-haired kunoichi enter the room. The twenty four year old girl took a few steps forward and bowed courteously at her, before waiting for the permission to speak.
"Kitahara-san," Mariko exclaimed, quite happy with the distraction. "Tell me you have good news."
"Our frontiers are well secured, Momijimori no kami dono," the woman assured. "But I found no trace of those two men the young Watanabe-san described."
"I see." Mariko nodded. It was comforting to know her clan wasn't in immediate danger - something she had feared after hearing the young sister's story a few days ago - but the fact that her most trusted and experienced kunoichi wasn't able to find the people responsible for her kenjutsu instructor current immobilization was troubling.
"I can keep looking," the young kunoichi offered.
"Yes, please do." Mariko nodded. Obviously, those two men were far from here by now, but she needed to know who had sent them. Something was telling her they had not acted on their own free will. Someone had been infiltrating her land and she needed to know who, and if this unknown enemy was going to pose a threat in the future. The fact that those two men didn't hesitate to lead a sneaky attack on two members of her clan to assure their escape wasn't in the slightest reassuring.
The pair of arms wrapped hastily around her neck was the last thing Jurina expected when she gave the guard at the front door her tanto, and stepped into the place. She could see from her peripheral vision the other women stopping what they were doing to look at her, and she freed herself softly from Churi's sudden embrace to understand her odd behavior. Yes, Churi had always been a very affectionate person; she still recalled vividly the way she had - in vain - tried to seduce her on their first encounter, but never the older girl had been so overtly affectionate towards her in front of the other women. This wasn't right, and Churi's incomprehensive babbling wasn't helping in any way in easing her surprise.
"What is it? Did something happen in my absence?" Jurina asked, checking her friend's face worriedly. Did another client dared to hurt her again? Her fingers were already itching at the idea of retribution if she proved to be right.
"No, I'm fine," Churi answered as she finally composed herself. She could now notice the looks directed towards them, and she cursed herself for behaving so impulsively at the view of her friend. She just couldn't help her legs from moving when Nobunaga's face finally appeared. The last time she saw her she was leaving with her protector, and the young girl had never been away for so long before. "You were gone for a week."
"What?" Jurina arched an eyebrow at her murmur. After assessing that, indeed, her friend had not been hurt, she processed her declaration, until her mouth curved into an amused smile as she gazed at Churi's flustered expression. "Did you miss me?"
"I was worried," Churi groaned, frustration washing over her as she witnessed Jurina's smirk, before noticing her tired features and slightly pale face, and her voice raised up in concern. "You don't look fine. Did something happen?"
Jurina's smile faltered, not believing how perceptive her friend always were. How come she always seemed to be able to read into her like an open book, despite sharing as little as possible? It was not that she didn't trust Churi - in fact, she really liked her and enjoyed her presence - but there were things about herself that she wasn't ready to tell, as much as she considered the older girl as a friend.
"Let's not stay in the middle of the room," Jurina murmured, an amused smile back on her lips as she decided to change the subject. "And let's not give those women another reason to talk about us."
Churi followed curiously Jurina's gaze until noticing that she was staring at her fingers that were still clutching her arm. Churi's eyes widened slightly in surprise and she removed her hand hastily, before sighing in relief when she heard the women and their clients resuming their chatting around them progressively. It took her so long and so much effort to persuade the other girls that she was not involved romantically with Nobunaga. After her sudden demonstration of affection, it was more than obvious the rumor was going to spread again. She didn't even need to look at Annin, currently occupied with a client at a table not far away, to know she was probably still watching them carefully. The jealous girl had always been the hardest one to convince.
"You're right." Churi laughed wholeheartedly, despite knowing full well the situation her unusual behavior just put her into. She could already predict all the questions she would have to answer the minute Nobunaga would be gone. The younger girl was now moving towards an empty table - the one in a corner of the room she always sat at when it was available - and she followed her silently, until stopping and watching her carefully as she took place and ordered a cup of sake from the waitress. Her friend's previous snarky remark came to the forefront of her mind, and a warm smile grazed Churi's lips when she gazed at her curiously - wondering obviously why she was still not sitting by her side - and she spoke. "I really missed you, Nobunaga."
Churi's sincere words rendered Jurina speechless, and she watched her silently when the older girl finally took a seat next to her and held her hand. Jurina showed no opposition to the affectionate gesture as she was very much used to it by now and, after failing to come back at with another clever retort, she choose to lean forward and leave a kiss on her forehead instead. As she pulled back she noticed Churi's smile broadening, and she knew the simple action was enough of an answer.
"Isn't your protector going to come and look for you here?" Churi teased. It's true that she felt bad at the moment for telling the samurai where Nobunaga was, seeing how displeased her friend was, but the young girl didn't seem to hold it against her. That's why she believed it was alright to mention it again, but her amusement vanished when she witnessed her friend's change of expression.
"No, don't worry about it." Jurina chuckled, but no trace of happiness could be found on her features. If anything, her laugh was more bitter than joyful. "She's never going to set foot in this place again."
"Why won't you wake up?"
Yuki sighed dejectedly when her question stayed unanswered for the second time. A little voice inside her head - getting louder and louder as the days went by - was telling her to stop hoping for a miracle, but it didn't prevent her from entering Rena's room each day, sitting by her side, and watching her sleep for a while. The doctor of the clan had left just an hour ago, only to declare that there was no evolution in her condition. The old man's remedies had managed to heal her body successfully, but he still visited the kenjutsu instructor once a day, at the head of the clan's order. Yuki was well aware that his visits were useless at this point, considering he had already done everything in his power to save her. Nevertheless, it still reassured her to watch him examine her friend each time, because it meant the head of the clan had not lost hope yet.
At the sound of soft footsteps in the corridor Yuki tilted her head left, noticing a silhouette now standing in front of the bedroom door.
Yuki stood up at the hesitant voice of her protégée, and took a few steps forward to slide the door open. Mayu bowed courteously at her before glancing over her shoulder, and watching the sleeping girl. Yuki could see the worry in her eyes, and she decided to answer the question that was probably burning her lips. "There's no change."
The kyudo instructor turned a last time towards the sleeping girl, before knowing it was time for her to leave. If it had been any other battle, she wouldn't have hesitated to take her weapon to fight by her side, but her presence was useless in this one. Only Rena could win this fight.
"How's your sister?" Yuki asked when she stepped outside Rena's room and slid the door closed carefully.
"She left." Mayu sighed. She wanted desperately to reassure Jurina after her unintentional violent reaction, but she had left the room quickly, her words falling on deaf ears.
"In the middle of the night? Where did she go?" Yuki inquired.
Mayu could see the mixture of surprise and worry in her protector's eyes, and she knew she had to give her another piece of information if she wished to reassure her. "To the village. My sister sometimes has violent nightmares, and when she can't go back to sleep, she likes to go to that place."
Yuki frowned at the sight of the girl who was now avoiding her eyes - embarrassed seemingly by what she admitted - until remembering the small incident that happened a while ago at the gate with a samurai. Indeed, it seemed her younger sister visited a well known house in the village, but she wasn't aware that her visits were so frequent, even less that she had such bothering sleeping problems. "Do you want to come to my room?"
Yuki knew she said something wrong the minute Mayu's startled eyes fell upon her. It was obvious her protégée was bothered by her young sister's absence - otherwise she wouldn't find her wandering in the corridor and waiting for her - and she felt bad leaving her alone under such circumstances. However, it seemed her innocent proposal had been taken the wrong way. "I'm sorry, it was inappropriate."
"Not at all." Mayu waved her hand at her swiftly when she realized what her reaction must have looked like to the older girl. She never expected her protector to suggest such a thing, that's why she couldn't help but show her surprise, but her answer came as an evidence at the sound of her beating heart. "I would like that, Kashiwagi-dono."
Yuki's chest fluttered at Mayu's shy but sincere smile and she extended her hand, cupping the young girl's cheek softly. "Please, call me Kashiwagi-san."
Yuki watched the young girl nodding briefly, seemingly appreciating the affectionate gesture as she leaned into her palm. Yuki listened to the sound of her own pounding heartbeat, realizing again how much she cared for the young girl standing in front of her. After a little while she retracted her hand, sharing a glance with the silent young girl, before moving forward and wrapping her arms carefully around her body. When Mayu buried her nose into the crook of her neck she planted a kiss on the back of her head, a soft sigh escaping her lips in content as she relished the warm body against her.
Jurina, her grey kimono now left aside on the floor, took a seat on the futon and watched Annin who was taking her purple kimono off slowly in front of her. How many times did she watch her perform this simple act lately? It was hard to tell, and truthfully, it happened way more often than she would have liked. When she entered the house a while ago she hoped Churi's company would help her forget about the demon from her past haunting her mind - and the unfortunate incident its presence triggered - but it failed miserably. Jurina picked up on Churi's desire to know the reason for her long absence, but words refused to leave her lips when she tried to formulate an explanation, her thoughts still annoyingly on what happened at the clan.
Despite being conscious of the fact that she had not injured Mayu seriously, she couldn't stop reliving in her head her expression of pain, and Jurina knew Churi's presence - as distracting and comforting it usually was - was not going to be enough if she wished to forget about her worries for a few hours. A quick look across the room to a seemingly very bored Annin sitting alone at a table told her she needed something more tonight, and as their eyes met, she knew she would end up in her room again.
Now, Jurina could only raise an eyebrow in mild amusement as she witnessed a naked Annin swaying her hips in front of her, before climbing on top of her and kissing her. The first time Jurina ever entered her room, the older girl had also pulled the same stunt, and Jurina had immediately informed her this whole seductive act wasn't necessary. There was no use for foreplay, and most of all, she didn't need to be seduced. Nevertheless, the girl kept on playing her part to the perfection and Jurina let her, guessing she was probably proud of showing off her assets. From the first day Jurina laid eyes on Annin, she knew she was the kind of girl capable of catching any man she wanted. She was an attractive girl well aware of her charms and, most of all, very persistent. Jurina had beard the consequences of her tenacity each time she passed the door of the house and Annin tried - in a not very subtly way - to lead her upstairs.
Yes, Annin's hard work paid off in the end, but the older girl never gloated over her success to the other girls. In the confinement of her bedroom - when it was just the two of them - she liked to tease the younger girl about it from time to time, but deep down, she knew it was only luck that brought this particularly reluctant client to her bed. The melancholy she could see when she looked deeply into Jurina's eyes told her her perseverance had nothing to do with the girl's presence inside this room.
"What's on your mind?" Annin whispered when she pulled away from the kiss. Until that day, she had never dared to ask a single question, mostly because she knew the taciturn girl would not grant her with an eloquent answer - or even bother to reply at all - but her growing attachment to the younger girl beneath her was preventing her from staying quiet anymore.
"What?" Jurina's eyes fluttered open, surprised by the unexpected interruption, and witnessing the older girl's concern. "Nothing." It was an outrageous lie, but she wasn't about to open her heart to the girl currently straddling her lap. She already had a hard time sharing anything with Churi, even though she considered her as a friend.
Jurina could guess by Annin's frustrated sigh that she wasn't pleased by her lack of cooperation but she ignored it, placing her right hand behind the back of her head instead, and leaning in for another kiss. Annin's lips moved a bit reluctantly against hers at first - obviously pondering if she should insist - before relenting when Jurina pulled her down on the futon with her.
There wasn't any established rule when Jurina decided to pass Annin's door. Some nights, when she was in the mood for something a bit different, she let the older girl take charge; moments Annin seemed to appreciate the most, judging by the thorough exploration of her body it always provoked. However, tonight, Jurina wished to erase her troubled thoughts as quickly as possible, and decided to take matters in hand. Her fingers circled Annin's shoulders and she pushed, reverting their places on the futon quickly.
A the sudden shift of power Annin glanced briefly at the girl now on top of her, before shutting her eyes when her lips were captured into a slightly rough kiss. Annin didn't blink, not at all surprised by the young girl's attitude. It wasn't the first time such an occurrence happened, and she didn't oppose any resistance when Jurina's hands traveled down her body hastily. Not only the young girl was not very fond of foreplay, she had also discovered she was not the most patient person in the world.
Maybe that was what Jurina liked the most about Annin. Much as the older girl displayed a possessive attitude when Jurina let her have it her own way, she never protested when it was the other way round. Jurina could tell Annin was a proud person and didn't appreciate being pushed back - she could remember vividly seeing the anger flashing in her eyes that one time a potential client happened to choose another girl instead of her - but, surprisingly, she could also be very compliant when the situation required it. This duality in her behavior couldn't help but intrigue Jurina each time she happened to witness it.
Jurina knew something was wrong with her when the familiar face of her protector suddenly popped up in her head. She had finally managed to forget about her recent incident with her sister, why did she have to think about the kenjutsu instructor in such a moment? A groan left her lips in displeasure as she pulled away from Annin's lips, tilting her head to the side to try and erase the unexpected image. When she felt a soft caress on her arm she glanced down, noticing Annin's worried expression. She could see her parting her lips as if to say something, and Jurina could already predict what she was about to ask.
"I'm fine," Jurina said swiftly, before Annin's mouth could produce any word. She certainly wasn't about to divulge who she was thinking about. The thought was disturbing enough.
"Let me." Annin offered when Jurina, despite her affirmation, stayed still and didn't resume what she was doing. Annin could tell something was bothering her more than usual and, as frustrating it was to be kept in the dark, she had to try her best to make her forget about it.
Annin kept her eyes locked on Jurina's brown orbs, her fingers first caressing her chest then gliding over her stomach, ready to stop if the young girl instructed her to. When Jurina showed no sign of opposition she continued her descent, before hearing the soft command echoing in the quiet room when her fingers finally slid between her legs.
Annin paused immediately, unsettled, trying to figure out desperately the reason behind her unusual request. It was almost inaudible, but her keen hearing also perceived the small tremble in Jurina's voice.
"I can't do this," Jurina exhaled deeply in irritation. Despite her best efforts, she was unable to get rid of the image of her dying protector, and Annin's expert touch was unexpectedly failing to erase the memory imprinted in her mind. What was happening to her?
Jurina moved away from Annin's naked form and she took a seat next to her on the futon, burying her head in her hands in despair. This house was supposed to be her sanctuary, the only place where she could forget about the thoughts - some days very dark - juggling in her head constantly, but it seemed reality was refusing to leave her in peace.
Annin, powerless, watched for a little while the young girl by her side who was mumbling incomprehensible words, before moving tentatively her fingers and caressing her forearm in a soft motion. She knew it was useless to question her again - and she certainly didn't want to take the risk of angering her with her persistence - but she didn't know how to act anymore. However, it seemed her simple gesture managed to have an appeasing affect on Jurina as her muttering progressively stopped, and she lifted her head from her hands. A sigh escaped Jurina's mouth, and her lips parted as she spoke in a steady voice, though still avoiding Annin's gaze deliberately. "I have to go."
Annin watched her in surprise as she stood up abruptly, Jurina's eyes falling on her clothes on the floor and grabbing them hastily. "Why now? We don't have to do anything if you don't want to."
Jurina, once fully dressed, looked back at her, noticing Annin's lost expression. Guilt crossed over her features as she realized she had not given her the slightest explanation for her odd behavior, and she knew she couldn't leave like that. After all, Annin wasn't responsible for what was going on inside her head.
"You did nothing wrong," Jurina spoke softly, a small tentative smile moving to her lips as she watched Annin getting up on her feet and dressing up hastily. She could tell the older girl was going to try to stop her from leaving again, but her mind was already made up. "There's just something I need to do."
Jurina realized by Annin's puzzled look that her enigmatic words may have confused her even more but she kept quiet nonetheless, knowing she couldn't say much more. On top of her dying protector's image, she knew there was someone else waiting for her at the clan, and to whom she needed to apologize for her behavior. She didn't doubt her sister already forgave her for her unintentional violent reaction, but she now knew she shouldn't have left their room after the incident. Her impulsive side had clouded her better judgment, preventing her from realizing how much her swift departure probably hurt Mayu even more.
Jurina slid the door open to leave and she stepped in the corridor, casting a last look at Annin. The older girl was now standing in the middle of the room fully dressed, watching her every move silently. Jurina wasn't oblivious to the older girl's fondness for her; she could see it in every touch, word and look from her. Much as she didn't comprehend the reason behind it - not believing she did anything to deserve it - she knew she couldn't give her what she wanted. Friendship - as strange the notion first appeared to her when Churi suggested it - she could now offer, but Annin was obviously expecting more from her.
"See you soon, Nobunaga."
Jurina nodded at Annin's warm smile, despite coming to the realization that it was the last time she was going to pass her door. Many times in the past she tried to convince herself she wasn't going to use Annin's services anymore, to no avail, as she always returned when her thoughts refused to leave her in peace. Not only the trick wasn't working anymore, her actions were also unintentionally hurting the girl who was always doing her best to change her mind. Jurina realized she now had to put an end to this arrangement, for both their sakes.
Jurina climbed down from her mount, her eyes falling on the young stable boy running toward her to take the rein. She watched the shy lad for a while as he disappeared into the dark with the black stallion in hand, feeling suddenly thankful that a member of the clan managed to retrieve her horse and bring it back safely. To be honest, she had grown quite attached to it since she first laid eyes on it, and the thought of losing such a faithful companion had caused a small pang in her chest when the samurai had frightened the poor animal, prompting it to vanish in the depth of the forest. In the end, it appeared both her protector's mare and her stallion had been found together not so far away from the clan's house, enjoying a peaceful afternoon under the shade of a maple tree.
An amused smile fell on her lips as the thought crossed her mind, before progressively fading when the image of the unconscious kenjutsu instructor appeared in her head. When she finally woke up after a few days of well deserved rest, Mayu did not wait long before informing her about the condition of her protector. Much as she was relieved to hear the doctor managed to heal her completely, she couldn't comprehend why she still had not woken up. It didn't make sense. Her body was fine, so why was she still unconscious? Jurina had shaken the doctor rudely at the news - frustration washing over her - and demanding an explanation to this illogical fact. Unfortunately, the frightened old man seemed utterly powerless, and Jurina ended up wondering if her little act of bravery had not been pointless after all.
Jurina jolted out of her thoughts, moving forward towards the house in determination as she remembered the reason for her return. Her feet led her to her bedroom swiftly and she slid the door open, her eyes widening in surprise when she discovered the two empty futon. She swept the room quickly, trying to process where Mayu could have gone in the middle of the night, before staring back at the untouched futon of her sister. For a minute, she wondered if her swift departure could have incited Mayu to look for her, and if she had ventured to the village in search of the house she mentioned a few times.
The thought vanished when she realized Mayu didn't know the place - she had, after all, asked her protector to look for her a week ago - and she knew she wouldn't take the risk of getting lost in an unknown village, not the mention in the complete dark. Jurina exhaled deeply in frustration when she couldn't come up with an explanation for her sister's disappearance, and she took a step back in the corridor after sliding the door closed. Although she was pretty sure her sister didn't leave the clan, she needed a confirmation, and she knew exactly who could give it to her.
Her feet led her back to the gate and she placed a hand on the guard's shoulder, prompting him to turn to look at her in surprise. She didn't bother to glance at the man when she arrived a few minutes before, but now, she couldn't help but frown in annoyance at the view of the familiar guard. It was the stupid one who took so long to notice her when she was laying exhausted in the grass with her unconscious protector, and to whom she had given a very appropriate nickname since that day.
"Blind one," Jurina said, ignoring his displeased expression and groan. "Has my sister left the clan?"
"No, she has not," the guard replied, gritting his teeth, and trying his best to keep his calm at the use of the nickname he had already been called by the girl a few times these last days.
"Are you sure?" Jurina insisted, taking a step forward until they were just a few inches apart, and her mocking eyes fell into his annoyed ones. "Because it's really dark, and you can't even see properly in broad daylight."
"Watanabe-san did not leave the clan," the guard repeated as politely as possible, although it was clear he was starting to reach his limits. He didn't know long he could tolerate the girl's mockery anymore. "However, I've heard she was looking for Kashiwagi-dono earlier on."
Jurina raised a surprised eyebrow at this revelation, before turning on her heels when she knew the guard wasn't going to be any more helpful. She walked to her bedroom slowly, pondering his words thoughtfully before pausing in the middle of the corridor. It was true that her sister became quite close to her protector recently and spent most of her time with her during the day. Jurina glanced over a particular room not far way, wondering if she would find the answer to her question behind its door.
She paused in front of it and listened attentively, hoping she would detect any sign of the presence of her sister. When only silence surrounded her she decided to take matters in hand and she carefully slid the door open, enough to take a peek inside. Maybe she should have expected it, but the view still managed to surprise her when she witnessed the two girls sleeping on the futon. Mayu was sleeping soundly on her side, her face turned towards the door, while the kyudo instructor was laying on her side behind her, her right arm wrapped around her waist protectively.
Jurina guessed her swift departure probably caused her sister to have a talk with the kyudo instructor, but she still couldn't believe the samurai would suggest her to come and sleep in her room. It seemed their relationship had developed a bit more quickly than she had anticipated. Jurina watched them silently for a few more seconds, before deciding she had done enough of spying for tonight and sliding the door close. Much as she wanted to apologize to her sister for her recent behavior, she wasn't about to disrupt her peaceful sleep. She felt bad enough waking her up so many times because of her nightmares.
Jurina thought about going back to her bedroom in order to imitate her sister and catch some sleep, but her feet slowed down unintentionally when she recognized another familiar room on her way. Although she never set foot inside she knew who it belonged to very well, as she had witnessed the doctor of the clan entering it many times these last few days. She placed her palm on the door, pondering for a while if she should finally enter this room she had cleverly avoided until now, before making up her mind and sliding it open.
Jurina paused on the tatami as her eyes fell first on the woman laying on the futon, before she let them wander around the room in curiosity, taking in what the dark was enabling her to see. The place was quite simply furnished, and apart from a small table at the end of the room, there was not much to look at. Jurina slid the door closed behind her and moved forward, now noticing a few racks properly aligned in a corner that she had missed. Curiosity got the best of her and she approached, her fingers brushing the saya of the wakizashi, then moving to the katana.
The last time she touched the familiar red tsuka it was during the attack, and she somewhat believed she would never see it again. It seemed their horses were not the only thing that were retrieved from the forest. Jurina took the katana from its shack and pulled out the sword slowly from its saya, admiring the blade and brushing its surface carefully. Her thoughts went towards those two men that had attacked them sneakily, and she remembered how much she would have loved to slit the samurai's throat. His enigmatic words came to the forefront of her mind, and she wondered what he had meant by that. Much as she wasn't ready to fight him back then, she was going to make sure to be ready to welcome him properly if she ever crossed his path again.
Once her scrutiny finally reached its end Jurina placed the katana back into its saya and onto the rack, before turning around and watching the sleeping woman. A sigh left Jurina's lips as she finally approached and kneeled by her protector's side. Now that her eyes were adjusted to the darkness she could discern her features a little better, thanks to the much needed help of the moonlight penetrating the room. Despite the silence surrounding them Jurina failed to distinguish her protector's breathing and she instinctively leaned over, placing her ear over her heart in worry.
Relief filled her chest when she finally managed to catch the slow but constant beating and she straightened up, before looking away when she realized it didn't mean much. Of course, she was still alive, but the fact that she had still not woken up after a whole week wasn't in the slightest reassuring. Jurina wanted to keep hope that she would wake up anytime soon, as Mayu believed strongly, but she didn't believe in miracles.
"You're driving me crazy," Jurina mumbled, her eyes back on her quiet protector.
Much as it pained her to admit it, her protector's image had crossed her mind more than she would have wished for lately, and she couldn't stop reliving the attack and what followed. Yes, the kenjutsu instructor's current immobilization was partly her fault, but she believed to have made the right decision by refusing to obey to her last command and bringing her back to the clan. It wasn't an easy task, and her body still had not fully recovered from the exhaustion it caused, but she didn't regret it. The pain she still sometimes felt in her arms and her legs was worth it if it meant she managed to save her life. Yes, they had a conflicted relationship from the start, but it was the least she could do after her protector shielded her from her enemies. Twice. Unfortunately, her failure was laying just in front of her eyes, reminding her that all her effort had not paid off in the end.
Jurina felt her eyes fluttering closed and she blinked to try to keep them open, before realizing sleep was about to claim her soon. Her body was already not reacting properly to her anymore and she looked towards the direction of the door sleepily, knowing it was time to go back to her room. She got up on her feet clumsily and stifled a yawn, her hand soon meeting the door as she was moved towards the entrance and was about to leave. Her fingers were already sliding it open when she perceived a faint sound behind her back, and she looked over her shoulder in surprise. Her eyes scrutinized the sleeping form in search of any sign it was not the fruit of her imagination, before coming to the realization that it was indeed. The kenjutsu instructor had not moved an inch.
"I really need to sleep," Jurina groaned, not believing what her sleepy mind was doing to her, and she faced the door anew, now eager to join her bed.
Jurina froze at the small voice calling her name and she turned around immediately. This time, she knew she had not imagined it, and she took a few unsteady steps towards the sleeping form. Two small brown orbs fluttered open and glanced back at her, and Jurina couldn't help the short gasp from escaping her mouth at the unbelievable sight in front of her. Maybe it was the weariness speaking, but she almost believed she could see a small smile progressively forming on her protector's lips.
Rena's smile faded at the sound of her own hoarseness, and she looked away in confusion from her protégée's, after taking in her very shocked expression. Her eyes scanned the room, trying to process where she was, and understand why she was feeling so sleepy. The familiar sight of her bedroom eased a bit her slight disoriented state, before concern washed over her as everything came flashing back into her mind. Now, she couldn't help but gaze down at her legs hidden under the cover worriedly, the memory of the effect of the poison very much vivid. As she tried to sit up to assess her condition she discovered how weak she still was - the task proving to be more difficult than she would have expected - but relief filled her chest when her groggy body finally obeyed to her command after the second attempt.
"Don't move, Rena-san."
Rena jolted out of her thoughts and she raised her eyes, watching the young girl who was making her way around the futon and approaching the small table, soon kneeling in front of it. Rena watched her while she lightened up the candle resting on the small piece of furniture, until noticing the reproach in her eyes - enhanced by the waving flame - as she turned to look at her.
"What are you doing here?" Rena inquired, confused by the girl's presence in her room. If someone had told her her protégée would be the first person she would see after her forced convalescence, she would definitely have laughed at the improbability.
"I just came back from the village," Jurina replied, leaning forward and lifting up the right sleeve of Rena's kimono nonchalantly, in search of the mark the poison had left when the shuriken hit her arm.
"I see." Though taken off guard by the girl's sudden action Rena let her proceed with her examination, feeling the surprisingly gentle touch as Jurina's thumb brushed her skin. Reflecting upon her words and slight - but not unnoticed - unease at her question Rena could guess there was something her protégée was hiding from her - not to mention her answer did anything but really reply her question - but she decided to not insist.
"It's all gone," Jurina announced as she pulled the sleeve down and leaned back. "Do you want me to warn Kashiwagi-san that you're awake?"
"No, she must be sleeping." Rena shook her head softly. She got a small nod in reply and silence surrounded them anew, until Rena's eyes widened a bit as she realized in which way the young girl had called her friend. Kashiwagi-san? Of course, she was being slightly disrespectful - considering the kyudo instructor's rank in the clan - but it was still different from the way she talked to her. She had, after all, called her by her first name again just a few minutes ago. However, despite failing to understand this difference of treatment, Rena found herself less disturbed by her protégée's familiarity towards her than she would have expected. "Are you alright?"
"Me?" Jurina frowned, disbelief in her voice at her protector's concern. "I'm perfectly fine."
Rena reached out for her forearm and her fingers circled it, giving it a light squeeze. The immediate small wince Jurina's mouth produced gave her the answer she feared. "You're a bad liar, Watanabe-san."
"It will pass," Jurina retorted immediately, refusing to meet Rena's scolding look. Why did her body have to betray her so easily?
"I told you to leave me behind," Rena declared. She was more than glad that the stubborn girl had listened in the end and not fought the samurai - as she wouldn't be speaking to her right now if she had done otherwise - but her next action still confused her. Why did she save her? The whole way back to the clan was just a blur and, because of her weakened state back then, she barely remembered anything about it, but the girl's tenacity as she commanded her to get on her back was very much engraved in her memory.
"Yes, and it was a stupid request," Jurina snapped, her angry eyes back on the older girl. "Did you want to die?"
Obviously, it was a rhetorical question, but Rena couldn't help but look away, finding herself incapable of formulating an immediate answer. Her short and latest encounter with Airi flashed through her mind, and sadness filled her eyes at the memory. She could still remember each word uttered and feel each single touch from her as if it only happened just a few seconds ago, and the notion that it felt very real - despite being just a figment of her imagination - caused a deep pain in her heart.
After Airi's death she had, out of rage, done the unconceivable, and that person she had momentarily transformed into still sent shivers down her spine every time that fateful day crossed her mind. Once the frightening monster within her had vanished - thanks to a much unexpected help - rage had been replaced with despair, tears flowing down her cheeks at the view of the girl's lifeless body in her arms. At the time, she had more than wished to join her into afterlife. Fear of being left alone in this cruel world, that had dared to separate her from the girl who brought so much light in her life, was stronger than any rational thought.
Rena still didn't comprehend what caused the vision of her friend to haunt her anew - she had, after all, believed to have put her past behind successively these last two years - but her terrible wish resurfaced immediately at the sound of Airi's soft voice, as if it was lurking all this time, waiting for the right opportunity to taunt her again. Her friend's comforting arms were a place she refused to leave, and a voice inside her head was telling her to succumb to this shameful desire. It appeared fate had decided otherwise, despite how much she fought to stay in the presence of her loving long dark-haired friend.
Rena glanced back at the young girl who was sitting by her side, probably wondering why her question was staying unanswered, considering her deep frown. Airi's enigmatic words about her protégée came to the forefront of her mind, and she wondered why she would come to such a conclusion. We are too different, Rena had wanted to blurt out to her smiling fading image, it can't work!
We still are, Rena mused as she studied Jurina's features through the dim light of the candle. Although they had had very few interactions since both sisters' arrival at the clan, each one of them had been pretty memorable, and it didn't take her long to figure out she didn't have much in common with the younger one. She still didn't fully comprehend this unconditional love Mayu seemed to have for her younger sister but, unexpectedly, she was starting to catch a glimpse of what she had mentioned that day in the dojo. Yes, her protégée was stubborn, rude, and more than difficult to handle, but after what they had just been through and what she had witnessed, she knew there had to be more to it than this tough exterior.
Rena reached out for Jurina's hand that was resting on her thigh and she placed her palm upon it, encircling the fingers underneath gently. The young girl's hand grew stiff at the contact but she didn't try to retract it, instead looking at the kenjutsu instructor in bewilderment. Rena couldn't help a small smile from falling on her lips as she squeezed the recalcitrant hand inside hers a bit, and there was no doubt in her voice when she spoke. "No, I don't. Thank you for saving my life."
Rena didn't how long they stayed simply looking at each other without saying a word, but, after a little while, she felt the hand inside hers slowly relaxing. "Good, because you still need to teach me kenjutsu."
Rena arched an eyebrow, taken aback by her protégée's commanding tone, until her keen hearing managed to discern the subtle playfulness behind it. Rena's features softened progressively, and she realized she would definitely have missed it if she wasn't paying closely attention to her interlocutor. Rena pondered this surprising aspect of her personality that she had just discovered, until her mouth curved up in mild amusement as she finally replied. "I will, and I do expect you to be present in the dojo first thing in the morning as soon as I'm able to resume the lessons."
Rena could tell by her protégée's small wince that she wasn't really happy with the arrangement, but no words left her lips in protest. Rena blinked a few times as she felt her eyes shutting against her consent, and she could tell her weakened body only wished for one thing: to rest.
"Go back to sleep."
This time, Rena didn't get fooled by the sudden order coming from her protégée as she heard the faint concern behind it, and, as she let her body lay down on the futon again, she wondered why she had never been able to notice all this before. Had she been so focused on the girl's rude behavior that she had failed to see what was carefully hidden behind it?
Rena could tell she was soon going to drift off as her eyes were refusing to stay opened, and she had to muster all her willpower to take a last peek at the young girl. She followed her sleepily as she stood up and moved towards the candle, the flame waving a bit as she kneeled in front of it and approached her lips. Jurina's brown orbs glanced back at her in expectation, and Rena didn't resist her body's urge anymore, falling asleep immediately as Jurina blew the candle out.
The daylight was already penetrating the room when Mayu fluttered her eyes open. It didn't take her long to assess it was still very early, considering the yawn escaping her lips and her sleepiness. Just as she was about to fall back to sleep she felt the small weight on her stomach and she gazed down in curiosity, noticing the hand resting on it. Mayu blinked a few times, startled by Jurina's unusual display of affection, until a better observation told her it wasn't her sister's arm. Her eyes widened as she took in her surroundings, discovering indeed that she wasn't sleeping in the room she shared with her younger sister.
Suddenly, everything that happened a few hours ago came to the forefront of her mind - from the incident with her sister to Yuki's invitation - and Mayu tilted her head towards the girl sleeping next to her. Warmth filled her chest at the view of her protector's peaceful sleeping expression, and she couldn't ignore the faint acceleration of the beating of her heart as she gazed at her longingly.
Mayu pretty much remembered falling asleep next to her protector, and she wondered at which point during the night her protector's arm ended up in such a position. However, the question vanished into thin air when she realized she didn't really care. All she could currently think about was the pleasant contact of her protector's hand, as it laid still on her stomach.
"Good morning, Watanabe-chan."
"Kashiwagi-san," Mayu murmured as she felt the older girl stirring up beside her and progressively opening her eyes to look back at her.
A warm smile spread on Yuki's face as she relished their proximity, until she noticed her own hand laying on the young girl's stomach. Confusion washed over her as she didn't remember placing it here in the first place, but as she looked up and studied her protégée's expression carefully and didn't read any sign of unease, she decided to keep it there a little longer. However, the comfortable silent exchange between them didn't last, as Mayu's features suddenly contorted in worry.
Yuki frowned at the girl's sudden outburst, watching her in surprise as she sat up on the futon they shared. "What is it?"
"My sister will soon be back from the village," Mayu explained as she got up on her feet. "She'll get worried if she doesn't see me in our room."
Yuki followed the young girl as she was now making her way towards the door, and she sat up slowly, surprise in her sleepy voice as she spoke. "You really care deeply about your sister."
Mayu stopped in her tracks, seemingly pondering her protector's words as she didn't move an inch, until she glanced back at her, a genuine smile on her lips. "I do. I know it's hard to understand, but she's everything to me."
Yuki didn't try to contradict her. It was true she didn't comprehend this unique bond the two sisters seemed to share, but she more than wished that she would someday, amazed by the sudden light in her protégée's eyes at the mention of her sister.
Mayu locked eyes with her protector for a little while, until her smile faded when she realized she was, in her haste, about to leave without uttering the words she wanted desperately to tell the kyudo instructor. "Thank you for letting me stay."
"You're welcome," Yuki replied, a warm smile forming on her lips as she witnessed her protégée's flustered expression. She truly believed she would never grow tired of seeing it. "Don't hesitate to come back if you feel the need."
Mayu nodded softly at her protector's kindness, already missing the warmth of her embrace. Torn between her desire to stay by her side and the will to not worry her sister she hesitated, before making up her mind and moving towards the door. For now, her priority was to make sure her - already troubled sister - would not find her futon empty upon her return. Shooting a last glance at the kyudo instructor over her shoulder, she knew that her affection for her, growing stronger day by day, would prompt her to take up on her invitation very soon.
Mayu's eyes widened slightly when she entered her room and discovered her sister sleeping. It was still early in the morning, and she truly believed she would manage to make it in time before Jurina's return from the village. Guilt washed over her as she could imagine Jurina wondering worriedly where she was, and she knew her younger sister was going to pepper her with questions when she would wake up in a few hours.
Mayu carefully laid down on her futon, making sure to not make too much noise, and as she slowly pulled the cover over her body, a gasp escaped her lips in surprise when Jurina suddenly turned to look at her. "Jurina, you're awake."
"Yes, I didn't sleep much," Jurina admitted, before quickly continuing when she noticed that Mayu was about to speak. She had repeated her small speech inside her head a few times now, and she wanted to make sure to utter it properly without being interrupted. "About early on, I shouldn't have left like that. I'm sorry."
Despite being uttered in a murmur Mayu didn't miss the apology, and she reached out for Jurina's hand to squeeze it lightly. "I know you are. It's already all forgotten."
"You really like your protector, don't you?"
"Why do you..." Mayu started, taken aback by her sister's - out of the blue - declaration, before sighing softly. "Yes, I do."
"I know what you're going to say," Mayu cut her off, noticing the surprise in Jurina's eyes as she did so. "I promise I'm being very careful."
"I don't know if I should be disturbed or amused that you can read my thoughts so easily." Jurina teased.
"Jurina," Mayu groaned, pushing her arm softly. "I'm being serious."
Jurina smiled at her sister's unexpected playful gesture, until her amusement vanished and her features grew more serious. "I just don't want you to get hurt."
"I won't," Mayu murmured. After spending 18 years by her sister's side she could now read her pretty well, and she knew nothing she would say would ever ease her sister's mind completely. Still, she had to try. "I know you still have your doubts about this place, but I believe it to be safe. And Kashiwagi-san... I trust her."
"Alright," Jurina relented, though somewhat reluctantly, until her sister's last words sank into her mind, and she arched an eyebrow in mild amusement. "Kashiwagi-san? No more Kashiwagi-dono?"
Mayu buried her face in her pillow in frustration, a muffled groan escaping her mouth when she heard the soft giggle escaping her sister's lips. "It's still early, let's go back to sleep. I don't want to be late for my kyudo lesson."
Mayu felt the futon next to hers shifting and she tilted her head in curiosity, ending up face to face with Jurina as she inched closer. "Of course you don't."
Mayu's fingers gripped her bedcover tightly and she covered her face with it swiftly, blocking the annoying view of her grinning sister effectively. "Goodnight, Jurina."
Mayu sighed in relief when her sister's amusement finally stopped a few seconds later, until popping out an eye open from under the bedcover when she felt a palm resting on her hand. She could feel the hesitancy in Jurina's action by its slight stiffness, but a small smile formed on her lips at the unexpected affectionate gesture - relishing every second of it - until her eyes drifted closed progressively and she fell asleep.
Ogawa no kami let her eyes travel the scroll laying on her desk, despite her focus constantly shifting to a certain woman, and what she had dared to do without her consent. The girl clenched her fists as the memory of the news flowed her mind again, before exhaling deeply in frustration. She ran her fingers through her black, shoulder-length hair briefly before leaning back in her chair, shutting her eyes to try and erase her worried thoughts.
At the young age of twenty two year old, Ogawa no kami was known as the youngest head of a clan of the entire country. Her father, well famous for his irrepressible thirst for battle, had left her - at his death - with a vast region to rule. Naturally, she had followed her father’s wishes and continued the expansion of their lands, defeating her neighbors one after another. No one seemed capable of stopping her advance, except for the region in the North East of the country, still out of reach.
It was not that she didn’t wish to conquer Shinoda-dono’s land - quite the contrary - but her father had always warned her against this particular opponent, stating it was better to stay out of her way. Ogawa no kami never really understood what her father feared so much about this woman but she had kept cautious nevertheless, and cleverly avoided any conflict with the older samurai.
That was why she couldn’t believe her ears when she learned what her most trusted advisor had done behind her back. The frontiers of Shinoda-dono’s clan were never to be crossed under any circumstance, and her advisor had just gone against the rule established years ago.
The door suddenly slid open and she gazed at it in curiosity, her features immediately hardening at the view of the woman who had occupied her mind all morning. She watched her as she silently walked towards her - a smile plastered on her face - the tip of her fingers brushing the surface of her desk before she leaned over and whispered in her ear.
“I missed you, Sayanee.”
Despite being very familiar with the use of her nickname the head of the clan flinched at it, not in the mood today for her usual seductive act. When the twenty six year old woman searched her lips she tilted her head the other way and it made the older girl pause in surprise, not used to being denied.
“You seem awfully tense, did something happen?”
Ogawa no kami noticed the slight reproach in her voice and she turned to stare at her, trying to contain her anger the best she could when she spoke. “Why did you send those two men, Miyuki?”
Miyuki’s mouth tugged into a smirk and she momentarily turned her back to her - seemingly pondering her question - before setting her amused eyes on her again. “I’m impressed. Nothing ever escapes you.”
“I’m asking you again,” Sayaka repeated, irritation washing over her. “Why did you do this?”
“I can sense you’re mad at me.” Miyuki sighed, taking a seat at the corner of the table, “But I don’t see why. I only did so in order to check our enemy’s strength.”
“Shinoda-dono’s clan is powerful,” Sayaka chided, not believing the other girl’s nonchalant behavior. “If she ever discovers we were the ones who sent them…”
“Don’t worry,” Miyuki cut her off gently, a reassuring smile on her lips. “They won’t be able to retrace them back to us. My spies know better.”
Sayaka arched an eyebrow at her declaration - wondering what she meant by that - and half fearing what she might have done. After all, she was more than aware of the despicable methods her advisor sometimes used to obtain the information she needed. Until now, she had always closed her eyes - as they successively helped her to reach her goals - but she was afraid the other girl might have gone too far this time.
“What are you so afraid of?” Miyuki exclaimed, noticing the head of the clan’s troubled expression. “These last three years, you defeated the clans of Oshima-dono and Yokohama-dono. In no time, you’ll be the youngest leader the country has ever known.”
“Don’t make the mistake of underestimating her,” Sayaka retorted. They already had this conversation dozens of times, but it seemed her advisor only listened when it suited her. “Shinoda-dono has many great samurais under her lead.”
Her father’s refusal to attack this particular clan had recently led Sayaka to investigate - curious to discover the reason behind her father’s reluctance - and the information she had gathered had more than even prompted her to keep her distances. Oshima-dono and Yokohama-dono, despite being fierce opponents - had been no match against her powerful army. Shinoda-dono’s army would not been dealt with so easily. Far from it.
“Perhaps,” Miyuki conceded. “But she doesn’t have a cunning advisor like you do.”
Sayaka snapped out of her thoughts at the older girl’s playful tone. Every time they had a serious conversation and it didn’t go the way Miyuki hoped, she used that card on her. Despite being well aware of it, Sayaka couldn’t help but fall in her trap each and single time. Unfortunately, Miyuki’s charms still worked perfectly on her after all these years, and Sayaka knew her voice was much gentle than she would have wished when she spoke up again. “I’m serious. Don’t ever do something like this again.”
“At your orders, Yamamoto-dono.”
Sayaka watched as Miyuki leaned seductively across the table, and she didn’t refuse her advances this time when she captured her lips in a lingering kiss. From their first encounter, Miyuki had managed to put a spell on her, clouding her mind with the passion each touch inspired. Sayaka was more than conscious that her true weakness originated from the woman who had enchanted her but, unfortunately, she was too far gone to do anything about it.
Rena gave the thirteen-year-old stable boy - Akihira-kun - a thankful smile when he took the leash of her mare and moved towards the stables. A whinny made her pause in her tracks as she was about to pass the front gate and she looked towards the direction of the stables, knowing perfectly well which horse in particular was greeting her calm mare so loudly.
Rena shook her head in light amusement, more than conscious that her protégée’s horse had been trying to woo her mare for months now. However, despite his many attempts, it appeared her mare still refused to relent to his advances. Rena was starting to wonder how long this little game was going to last. Was the proud stallion finally going to understand it was useless to try, and move on to another mare? Apparently no, as he still kept on sticking to her side each time he had the opportunity. Rena had to admit her protégée had gotten herself a horse worthy of her character: like her, he always did as he pleased, and never took no for an answer.
As she finally made her way to the clan Rena’s thoughts focused entirely on the young girl Shinoda-dono had put under her care. A month ago, Rena had resumed the kenjutsu lessons in the dojo and followed the progress of her young protégée with great interest. Rena had witnessed so many bad aspects of her personality since her arrival at the clan, that she couldn’t help but welcome her tenacious behavior during trainings. The girl was present first thing in the morning in the dojo as agreed, and listened to each of her instructions without complaining once.
However, her attitude with the other young samurais was a bit troublesome. She didn’t count the number of times she had to intervene to stop the girl from going too far. Of course, they were only allowed to use bokken at such a stage of their training, but a simple wooden sword transformed into a dangerous weapon when the young girl engaged in a combat, and didn’t control her emotions. Unfortunately, she never did.
That was what had transpired the most during all the times Rena had watched her young protégée in action. Much as she had progressed fast and incredibly well this last month, she was still incapable of following the number one rule of kenjutsu. Worse, this behavior of hers seemed to influence others, as she sometimes saw calm trainees let their frustration take control of them during a fight. Rena knew she needed to have a serious talk with the young Watanabe sister about it, but she feared she would not been inclined to comply to her wishes.
Rena made her way to the dojo, willing to check the place one last time before tomorrow’s training. It was almost sundown, and she always liked to make sure everything was in order before the first morning lesson.
As she approached the door of the dojo her steps slowed down as she perceived a noise coming from inside. She frowned at the strange occurrence, considering the place wasn’t supposed to be occupied at such a time of the day. Her fingers slid the door open in curiosity, and she stared in disbelief at the four young trainees attacking with their bokken her young protégée who was defending herself doggedly.
Rena blinked a few times, not believing what she was witnessing. The young girl was sweating profusely and breathing hard - which meant the fight had probably been going on for a while - but she kept replying to each and single attack directed at her fiercely. Under any other circumstance, Rena would have believed the four men had attacked her out of frustration - probably worn out by her daily provocations on the tatami - but she knew it wasn’t the case by the smile on her protégée’s lips. She was enjoying herself very much, and a small voice inside Rena’s head told her she may even have orchestrated this whole fight.
“What is the meaning of this?” Rena exclaimed, knowing she had to interrupt this improbable scene unfolding in front of her. Not only the dojo was not to be occupied outside of the lessons hours, an unequal combat between samurais was highly forbidden.
At the sound of her voice the bokken halted mid air, and five heads turned towards her in surprise. While the four men lowered their bokken immediately - avoiding her disapproving gaze in shame - the last occupant of the room stared back at her, a growl escaping her lips in annoyance.
“Four against one?” Rena continued as she walked towards the five occupants of the room. She was trying very hard to keep her calm, but this was an unforeseen situation. “What have I taught you?”
“Please forgive us Matsui-dono,” one of the young men replied, and bowed at her with respect. “Watanabe-san asked for a duel and…”
“This is not a duel,” Rena cut him off, her voice rising in anger. “There’s four of you.”
“His friends were watching from afar,” Jurina interrupted. “I thought: the more the merrier.”
Rena’s attention shifted to the young girl who was still trying to catch her breath after her intense fight, and who had a very amused look on her face. Of course she had guessed right, and her protégée had initiated this whole thing.
“I’m disappointed in you,” Rena declared, as she addressed the four men anew. “Watanabe-san is still new to this clan, but you have no excuses. You know the rules of this dojo, and therefore should never have disobeyed them.”
You could almost hear a pin drop as none of them dared to reply or even look at her, the kenjutsu instructor’s reprimand falling hard on them. After watching each of them carefully and seeing how truly remorseful about their actions they were Rena let out a sigh, knowing they had learned the lesson. “You can leave.”
The four men didn’t waste any time and bowed courteously at her before swiftly putting their bokken back on the stand and exiting the room without a word. Jurina was about to follow the same path when Rena’s commanding voice stopped her in her tracks. “Not you, Watanabe-san.”
Jurina turned on her heels, gripping tightly the bokken in her hand as she gazed at her in annoyance. “Why did you stop us? We were practicing!”
“This was not practicing,” Rena retorted. “It was a disloyal fight.”
“That I willingly asked for!” Jurina shouted, gritting her teeth. “I’ve had enough of training. I want to have a real fight.”
“You’re too impatient,” Rena replied, slightly taken aback by her rude tone. She had believed they had passed that attitude of hers - considering the young girl had never addressed her that way again after their first heated confrontations - but it seemed her frustration coupled with her impatience were bringing out the worse out of her.
Rena noticed Jurina’s grip on her wooden sword progressively relaxing, until the young girl approached her with a look of defiance, and paused when they were mere feet away, “Fight me.”
Words stayed stuck in Rena’s mouth as she heard her protégée’s incredible demand. Was she truly asking her that? A part of her wanted to laugh at the audacity - no trainee before her had ever dared to make such a request - but the young girl’s steady gaze told her she had to grant her with a proper and honest answer. “You’re not ready, Watanabe-san.”
“I knew you would say that.” Jurina chuckled bitterly as she looked briefly away, before setting her eyes on the older girl, this time more calm. “You said you would be training me, but I can feel I’m not progressing anymore.”
“You have progressed a lot lately,” Rena retorted gently, not missing the slight despair in her protégée’s voice. “But you are right. These lessons are useless if you can’t control your emotions on the tatami.”
“What do you mean?” Jurina asked, letting her instructor take the bokken out of her hand softly, and following her in confusion as she placed it back on the stand.
“Do you remember what I told you the first time you asked me to teach you kenjutsu?” Rena replied as she turned around to face her.
“That I was rude?” Jurina offered with a smirk.
“Not that.” Rena shook her head softly, a small smile falling inadvertently on her lips. “I said kenjutsu requires both calm and discipline.”
“Oh that,” Jurina muttered, avoiding her eyes.
“Yes, that,” Rena replied on a light tone, amused by her protégée’s unusual sudden discomfort. “Your discipline is not perfect, but it’s better than I would have expected. However, you really have to work on your temper. On a battlefield, you wouldn’t last one minute against a samurai who knows how to control his emotions.”
“I know,” Jurina admitted. “But I can’t change.”
“I’m not asking you to.” Rena shook her head, resting her hand on her shoulder and giving it a light squeeze. “But I can help you control your emotions better.”
Rena’s kind words finally prompted Jurina to look back at her, and she pondered her suggestion carefully. A part of her was a bit suspicious of what her instructor had in mind, but another got swayed by her desire to progress, and to a certain extent by the genuine smile on the older girl’s lips. “Alright.”
Churi slid her bedroom door open and moved aside to let her client pass - giving him a few seductive words as he leaned in for one last kiss - before watching him leave as he descended the stairs, a satisfied expression all over his face. Once he was out of sight Churi tilted her head to Nobunaga who was waiting on the side with obvious impatience, considering the arms crossed over her chest and her loud sigh.
“I didn’t know I had a new client,” Churi teased.
“I would treat you better than all those men,” Jurina countered on the same light tone, before entering the room and not wasting a moment to collapse on the futon.
Churi shook her head at her friend’s usual flirty attitude, before sliding the door closed behind her. While preparing herself to go to bed - having thankfully just finished with her last client for the day - she observed the young girl’s curious behavior - as she was inhaling and exhaling deeply and repeating the process over and over, eyes tightly shut.
“What are you doing?” Churi arched an eyebrow in confusion.
“My protector says I need to meditate to control my temper,” Jurina explained between two breathings.
“What?” Churi giggled, her reaction owing her a displeased growl. “And how is that working for you?”
“What do you think?” Jurina huffed, stopping her little exercise in defeat.
“I never noticed you had a temper,” Churi joked, taking a seat by her side and watching her with great amusement. “I wonder how she came to such a conclusion.”
“Don’t make me laugh.” Jurina chuckled tiredly. “I had a very long week, between my kenjutsu lessons and this useless boring exercise. I’m exhausted.”
Churi laid down beside her and propped herself up on one elbow, running her fingers affectionately through Jurina’s dark, shoulder-length hair. It was a gesture she had noticed seemed to appease her young friend, and she wasn’t in the least surprised when she saw her body relaxing.
Her thoughts shifted to the woman who had stormed in the house more than a month ago, in search for her protégée. Their confrontation had been so awfully tense that day, that Churi truly believed their relationship was doomed to fail. However, considering the bits of information Nobunaga had shared with her these last weeks, it seemed her young friend had unexpectedly warmed up a bit to her protector. Of course, they still had a few points of contention: their most recent one being apparently on the most efficient way to help the young girl control her emotions.
“She is quite good looking,” Churi affirmed nonchalantly.
“Who?” Jurina mumbled sleepily.
“Your protector,” Churi clarified.
At those words Jurina briefly popped an eye open - assuming the older girl was joking - before noting her serious expression and genuine smile. “You think? I didn’t notice.”
“Really?” Churi exclaimed, amused by her friend’s feigned disinterest. “I believe she would have quite some success here with a few clients.”
“Don’t even tell her that,” Jurina snorted.
Churi let her fingers brush Jurina’s left cheek lightly, before moving upwards to her scars. When she had had asked her about them a long time ago, the young girl’s reply had more than surprised her, not believing she would have gotten them during trivial fights. Many times in the past she had observed them longingly - a tinge of sadness filling her chest that they had damaged such a beautiful juvenile face - until realizing she had got it all wrong from the start. Nobunaga’s marks were nothing to be ashamed of, and mostly concealed a beauty within her, one carefully hidden from inattentive eyes.
Churi took advantage of Nobunaga’s closed eyes to depose a chaste kiss on her lips. As expected, she noticed her friend’s confusion when she stared back at her, and a smile fell on her lips when she leaned back. “A small gesture of gratitude for everything you’ve done for me.”
She could tell Nobunaga was slightly taken aback by her declaration as she didn’t utter a single word for a while - seemingly pondering over what to reply - until she finally spoke up again.
“I wish I could do more,” Jurina murmured, before a frown crossed her features in annoyance when explicit noises started emanating from the room next door. “You shouldn’t be working here.”
Churi watched Jurina’s troubled expression and lightly caressed her arm to try and ease her mind, before mentally thanking her lucky star for crossing path with such a unique human being. That day of their first encounter, when she had held on tight and not relented to Nobunaga’s rejection, she had made the best decision of her entire life.
A sigh left her lips in content as she laid her head softly on Nobunaga’s chest, ignoring all the noises surrounding her to concentrate on the slow and regular beating of the heart beneath her. Her friend’s unfailing loyalty was a driving force that, thankfully, helped her go through long and sometimes very difficult days.
“Hold me in your arms, Nobunaga,” Churi whispered.
Churi wasn’t sure if her request would be granted. Nobunaga was definitely not big on demonstrations of affection, and tender gestures mostly came from her. Indeed, there had been a few light kisses on the cheek and on the forehead from her young friend, but they were very rare occurrences.
Churi waited patiently - almost believing she would have to settle for Nobunaga’s much appreciated proximity - until feeling two arms encircling her gently. It was a bit hesitant at first - almost awkward even - but she could tell Nobunaga was getting progressively accustomed to the embrace as the minutes went by. Indeed, fingers caressed her long hair shortly after that, and Churi let her eyelids close, now absolutely convinced she had truly found the sole light in her miserable life.
Rena couldn’t help but feel relieved when she left the courtyard where the young trainees were currently training at kyudo, and the old Watanabe sister’s words sank in her mind. When she had stepped in the dojo this morning she had been surprised by the sole missing face, preventing her from completely focusing on the lesson all morning. As soon as her last trainee left the dojo she found herself moving towards the courtyard - willing to investigate her protégée’s unusual absence during her lesson - only to have her older sister inform her that she was still sleeping when she left their room this morning. Now, Rena was standing in front of the room in question, more than decided to have a word with the young girl.
“Watanabe-san, are you here?” Rena inquired.
“Yes,” the answer came a little while after, switflty followed by a “come in.”
Rena slid the door open at the invitation and what she found behind it made her freeze instantly. Her protégée was well present in her room as her sister indicated, but the sight presented to her was not the one she expected. Indeed, before her was laying on the futon and on her stomach her apparently still half asleep protégée, entirely naked.
Rena found herself momentarily at a loss for words, and she couldn’t help but observe the nude form offered to her, her gaze falling at first on the tip of her dark hair spread over her shoulders, before moving downwards to her naked slender back, and finishing on the curves a bit lower.
Rena would probably have kept on staring at the unexpected sight in front of her if she had not been interrupted in her observation by the small grunt escaping the young girl’s lips, and her startled eyes fell into her protégée’s sleepy ones as she tilted her head towards her.
Rena cursed at herself for all the stupid questions adding themselves in her head, wondering why on earth the view was making her feel so abnormally agitated. There was probably a very simple and logical explanation for her protégée’s current undressed state, one that should never have unleashed this peculiar behavior of hers. When the young girl began to slowly sit up on the futon to face her Rena tilted her head to the side, definitely not wishing to repeat the shameful staring she had been doing just a few seconds ago.
“What is it, Rena-san?” Jurina grumbled as she rubbed her eyes sleepily, and very much unaware of the turmoil currently going on inside her protector’s head.
When her question was met with silence she finally noticed the older girl’s strange attitude and she frowned - wondering what could have provoked it - before remembering her current nakedness as she gazed downwards at herself. Despite realizing it was the obvious reason for her protector’s discomfort she choose not to do anything about it for now, leaving the bedcover tossed aside near the futon where it was.
Jurina found herself watching with great amusement the woman who was avoiding her eyes and purposely anything else; relishing seeing her so out of her comfort zone. Never once during their conversations the kenjutsu instructor had kept so silent like she currently was, and the unforeseen sight was simply too incredible to not take advantage of it.
After a little while, when she had decided her protector’s unease had lasted long enough, Jurina stood on her feet and her eyes searched the room for her clothes, quietly putting them on, before shifting her attention to her protector when she was finally done.
“I think I’m going to sleep naked from now on,” Jurina declared nonchalantly, guessing her protector was kind of expecting an explanation for her previous undressed state, “Summer is way too hot in this region. It’s impossible to sleep with clothes on.”
Rena didn’t reply, trying to brush aside the image the young girl’s words had just put in her head again. And she was finally starting to erase the memory of what she had seen… Rena mentally cursed herself for her behavior, too focused on her own thoughts and her desperate wish to erase the inappropriate image, to notice the amused smile on her protégée’s lips.
“It’s not that I mind your presence in my room,” Jurina said, enjoying herself way too much, and taking another seat on her futon. “But is there a reason for you to be here?”
Those words jolted Rena out of her thoughts, and she finally looked at her. “You missed the lesson. I was wondering where you were.” Rena replied, now more composed, and choosing to leave purposely aside the worry her absence had caused.
“I did?” Jurina replied in surprise, suddenly feeling a bit guilty when she realized the light inundating indeed her room, confirming her protector’s affirmation. “I came back from the village quite late yesterday.” Jurina explained, this time being the one averting the older girl’s eyes.
It was not that she felt ashamed about her weekly visits to a certain house - after all, her protector was well aware of them - but she remembered the promise she had implicitly made to her a little more than a month ago. She was supposed to be present in the dojo each and single day first thing in the morning, and she had unintentionally failed to keep her word this time.
Jurina took a peek at the older girl still standing in front of her, expecting to see disappointment and maybe even anger in her eyes. What she saw instead surprised her immensely. It was none of both. Had she been worried about her? It was not like Jurina to apologize to anyone - in fact, she had only done so a very few rare times to her sister, and only when she judged the situation absolutely required it - but she couldn’t help the words from escaping her lips when she spoke up. “I’m sorry.”
Warmth filled Rena’s chest at the young girl’s sincere apology - one she would never have expected to hear from her - and she sent her a small smile in reply, her features now more relaxed. “It’s alright.”
Jurina briefly nodded at her at that - relieved her simple words seemed to have a positive impact on the older girl - until her latest conversation with Churi came to the forefront of her mind. There was something she had meant to tell her for days now, but she had until now refused to broach the subject, convinced the little method they had put in place would manage to work in the end. Unfortunately, after trying again and again it still proved as fruitless as the first time, and she knew she couldn’t stay quiet any longer.
“Your meditation thing, it’s not working,” Jurina admitted, a small defeated sigh leaving her lips.
“It’s not?” Rena exclaimed, only half surprised.
When she had suggested her that exercise two weeks ago, she knew by the look on her protégée’s face that she wasn’t in the least happy with it but she had insisted nonetheless, knowing the positive effect it could have on her if she truly decided to follow it. Of course, it was a long shot - considering the young girl’s difficult personality - but she was pleased when she had finally accepted to try, not without a certain reluctance. Unfortunately, it seemed she had reached her limits, and was failing to succeed on her own.
“No, so I hope you have a plan B for my little temper issue,” Jurina continued half jokingly.
Rena pondered over her words carefully, searching her mind for any other method that could help her solve her problem. Obviously, it was out of the question to give up. Her young protégée was truly gifted when it came to kenjutsu, and she couldn’t stop admiring how quickly she had learned the techniques she had taught her during her lessons. However, as necessary they obviously were for her to progress, her temper problem was a big issue she had to solve quickly, if she wished to progress any more.
“Alright.” Rena nodded, taking a seat in front of her. Meditation was a technique that had been passed to her by her own kenjutsu instructor years ago, and she knew the positive impact it could have on the human brain if properly taught. After all, she had been herself pretty devastated after Airi’s death, and she believed she would never have been able to move forward - and become the experienced kenjutsu instructor she now was - if not for the benefits meditation offered.
“Are you focusing on positive thoughts?” Rena inquired, more than decided to help the lost girl in front of her.
“What’s that?” Jurina snorted. The only thing that crossed her mind when she closed her eyes was a face that still haunted her ten years later. Positive thoughts? A complete and unknown notion.
“You need to brush aside any worried thought and think about things that give you pleasure.” Rena explained, trying to catch the young girl’s attention. Indeed, Jurina wasn’t looking at her anymore, and the kenjutsu instructor could guess her question had somewhat triggered something negative within her. Maybe memories she wished to forget.
“Anything in particular? Because I’m running out of ideas,” Jurina exhaled deeply in frustration.
Rena thought thoroughly about it, the exercise proving to be more difficult than she would have expected. Her protégée’s question made her realize how little she knew about her, despite the gap that had immensely been reduced between them since the attack. Of course, they spoke on a daily basis, but it was always about kenjutsu matters. Not once she had questioned her about a private matter - never too keen on prying - and the secretive young girl had not been inclined on sharing much about her, anyway.
“Your sister. You love her deeply, don’t you?” Rena suggested, receiving a confused nod in reply. “Then focus on her.”
Rena waited patiently for the young girl to comply, and she watched her carefully when she finally closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Rena wondered what could be crossing her mind as she saw her tensing up at first, until her features finally relaxed a little while later.
A small smile inadvertently fell on her lips as she watched her protégée’s peaceful expression. During her kenjutsu lessons, the young girl was an exemplary trainee, always listening with the utmost care to every advice given that could help her progress. Of course, she could tell she enjoyed very much the practice of sword fighting - judging by the smile she could sometimes witness on her lips during training - but never once had she seen her features so relaxed as right now. It was a fascinating view.
“Rena-san,” Jurina whispered. “I think it’s working.”
A pleased expression crossed Rena’s features and she extended her hand, resting it carefully on the young girl’s one when she finally looked back at her a while later.
“See.” Rena smiled, squeezing the hand beneath her lightly. “You just need to find the right focus.”
Jurina nodded at her silently, indeed realizing this little exercise wasn’t as stupid as she would have thought. Miyuki’s face had stubbornly refused to leave her at first, until her sister’s one had finally replaced it, enabling her to thankfully ease her mind. Jurina didn’t know exactly why and when it happened during the process but, at some point, the bright smile of her sister vanished, the image of her instructor filling her mind. Jurina had tried to brush it aside at first - a bit disturbed by the unexpected intrusion - until relenting when it refused to leave her after a few fruitless attempts.
Maybe the older girl’s current presence by her side had caused the sudden vision; Jurina had stopped trying to figure out the strange occurrence when no other explanation came to mind. Mayu’s image had managed to bring her so much necessary peace that she had been a bit frustrated by the unwilling change, until progressively realizing that the effects on her body were not as negative as she would have believed. Quite the contrary.
Jurina took a few step towards the middle of the dojo, her both hands holding her bokken, while locking eyes with the older boy facing her. After successively defeating her fellow trainees one by one, she had finally reached the long-awaited final of the kenjutsu’s tournament. The young girl studied the 5 feet 8 dark, short-haired samurai carefully, knowing she would have to be more than cautious with this one. Despite her best efforts, she had never managed in the past to find a weak point in the defense of the unshaken samurai.
At the referee’s signal Jurina didn’t waste a moment to attack, knowing the next minutes were going to be decisive. Despite her determination, Jurina was well aware of her disadvantage. The twenty two year old samurai was not only taller; he had also been in the clan longer than her, and as a result was more experienced. However, Jurina was absolutely convinced she had her chances against him. After all, she had definitely not gone easy on herself these last months. From her first kenjutsu lesson she had trained every morning with the other trainees in the dojo, and shaped her body - as well as her mind - at every given opportunity.
In fact, Jurina had never spent so much time at the clan - and as a result with her protector - since the latter had agreed to teach her sword fighting. Yes, the trainings had been intense from day one - the kenjutsu instructor never one to give a moment of respite to her young trainees, and even less tolerating the slight mistake - but Jurina had loved every second of her training. That was why when the kenjutsu instructor had announced her decision to organize a tournament between the trainees, a broad smile had immediately plastered Jurina’s face. She just couldn’t wait to show all the progress she had made.
Each time she managed to defeat an opponent during the tournament, her eyes unconsciously searched her protector, pleased to receive a small satisfied smile in reply. Jurina was well aware of all the samurais seated in the dojo and watching her every move as well as those of her opponent, but she didn’t care about the others. More than anything, she wanted to prove her protector that she had been right to finally relent to her demand to teach her kenjutsu.
Out of all the trainees, Jurina was probably the one who chose the most to attack rather than defend during fights. Her protector had a few times warned her about the importance of defense, but Jurina always felt a rush of adrenaline coursing her veins when she relentlessly attacked her opponent with her bokken, not giving him a second to breathe.
However, the strategy that had always paid off until then was not accomplishing anything against the impassible giant. The samurai was deflecting her attacks one after another, and not even breaking a sweat in doing so. If anyone was starting to tire themselves out, it was definitely herself. Jurina took a step backwards and paused when she realized she wasn’t going anywhere. Her hands tightened around the wooden sword, frustration washing over her as she blinked a few times.
Jurina was well aware that she was starting to lose her composure, and as a result doing exactly what she was not supposed to. Her gaze was not as focused as before, and her emotions were getting the best of her. She tried to loosen up a bit her hold on her bokken - in order to find the right balance again - but her body was unnaturally tense. Her brain searched a solution for her unfortunate problem, knowing she had to find one very fast if she didn’t wish for the calm samurai to defeat her. Which was definitely the direction this fight was leading to, if she didn’t change her strategy fast.
The roles were suddenly reversed when her opponent decided to take the lead of the fight. This time, Jurina found herself at the end of a very strong and precise bokken. The attacks came one after another - always carefully measured - and never precipitated. In the past, Jurina had watched the kenjutsu instructor’s demonstrations with great interest, and one thing was for sure: her current opponent was the one who had adopted the most her defensive techniques. Indeed, none of her counterattacks seemed able to reach him, as he deflected them with great ease.
The referee suddenly announced a break, and Jurina more than welcomed the interruption. Not only her heart was racing like it never had before during a fight, she was also starting to lose her temper. Her eyes fell briefly on her opponent - not surprise in the least by his relaxed features - before stealing a glance at her protector seated amongst the other samurais. Despite her quiet appearance, she could well discern the disapproval directed at her, and no words needed to be exchanged to know the reason behind it.
The referee announced the resumption of the fight, and Jurina faced the twenty two year old samurai again, pondering over the strategy to adopt. Swift and relentless attacks were obviously out of the question: they had merely served to drain her energy until now. Her protector’s words - uttered during one lesson - suddenly came to the forefront of her mind. A young trainee had asked her what was the proper response against a samurai stronger and more experienced than them, and the older girl had immediately replied, with a small confident smile on her lips: patience.
Jurina didn’t like this option one bit, as patience still wasn’t her strongest point. Yes, she believed to have progressed a lot on that particular aspect of her personality - thanks to her protector’s meditation technique - but she didn’t fool herself by thinking she could change overnight. After all, she had easily let frustration wash over just a few minutes ago. Why would it be any different in the second part of the fight?
Jurina snapped out of her thoughts when her opponent raised his bokken, in the apparent intention of attacking again. This time, Jurina was more than decided to not repeat the same mistakes. Seconds transformed in minutes, and went by excruciatingly slow as she deflected his attacks as calmly as possible, not willing to let her emotions take control over her this time. Her eyes followed his movements with great attention, in search of a very needed opening. After all, she knew she couldn’t keep up with this constant rhythm forever. Her pounding heart was resounding in her ears too loudly for her taste, almost eclipsing the sound of their clashing bokken.
Her eyes widened slightly when she - all of a sudden - noticed a certain pattern in the attacks. Indeed, her opponent was attacking slightly more from the left, repeating a few techniques he obviously had mastered well. Jurina figured she would have failed to detect it if she had not successively cleared her mind, and focused entirely on her opponent’s actions.
Jurina relaxed her arms and prepared herself when she saw a cunning yoko guruma coming from the left again. After keen and patient observation of her opponent’s techniques, she had finally managed to anticipate his next move after what seemed an eternity of countless attacks. Jurina gathered all of her strength as she deflected it with a perfect maki otoshi, projecting the tip of her opponent’s bokken between his legs, and disarming him in the process effectively.
The wooden object fell on the tatami with a thump, the referee immediately announcing the end of the fight. Jurina lowered her bokken at the sound of his voice, her chest heaving up and down quickly as she gazed at her opponent. Surprisingly, stupor flashed in the usual always perfectly composed samurai, although quickly fading as he regained his composure, and retrieved his fallen wooden sword. Jurina’s mouth tugged into a broad smile in content, not caring in the least if her true feelings were now definitely showing on her face.
“So, what did you think?”
Just as Rena was finishing checking the dojo and about to leave she noticed the young girl leaning against the doorframe, a smile plastered on her face in content. “It was a good fight.”
“That’s it?” Jurina arched an eyebrow at her protector’s collected enthusiasm. “I just won against the strongest trainee. I thought you would be proud of me.”
Rena chuckled a bit at her protégée’s feigned offended tone - hearing the slight playfulness behind it - and she slid the door of the dojo behind her as she replied. “You made a lot of progress, but it was only a trainee, Ju…” Rena started, her amusement vanishing when she realized what she was about to say, and she quickly corrected herself. “Watanabe-san.”
Unfortunately for her, the small slip of the tongue had not been unnoticed. “You can call me by my first name, I don’t mind.”
“No, it’s not proper,” Rena replied, avoiding her protégée’s amused eyes in embarrassment, and trying desperately to figure out why on earth she had almost called the young girl with such familiarity. If someone valued respect among members of the clan to the highest level, it was definitely her.
“I do it all the time,” Jurina countered with a frown, following the older girl who was now moving away from the dojo.
“Yes,” Rena conceded. “And you know you shouldn’t.”
“You’re always so serious,” Jurina growled in disapprobation.
“It’s not a question of character, but of respect,” Rena explained absently, still awfully lost in thoughts. Suddenly, she was pulled out of them when she felt a hand encircling her arm, and she turned in surprise to the girl who had stopped her in her tracks.
“I respect you, Rena-san,” Jurina declared. “I really do.”
Rena was momentarily taken aback by the calm but very serious tone of her protégée. It was not that she didn’t believe her, quite the contrary. A few months ago, it would have been a different matter, and she would definitely not have agreed with her. Now, the situation had thankfully clearly improved between them, and she knew she meant those three words. However, she did not expect them to fall from her protégée’s lips. “I know.”
“So, will you?” Jurina insisted.
Rena sighed at her persistence. Her better judgment was telling her to not relent to the demand, and keep a professional distance between them at all costs. Fingers were still clutching her arm - though very softly - and Rena knew her stubborn protégée would not let it go easily. Of course, she could simply end the conversation with a final “no”, but for some odd reason, her mouth said the exact opposite of what her mind was telling her to. “Alright.”
Rena noticed the pleased expression on her protégée’s lips who slowly released her hold, and sent her a small thankful nod. Rena knew it was too late to come back on her words, but she spoke up nonetheless, willing to correct a bit the mistake she hoped she wouldn’t regret. “But only when it’s just the two of us.”
Rena wondered what could be crossing her protégée’s mind when she didn’t answer straight away. Indeed, the kenjutsu instructor noticed the intensity in those penetrating eyes staring at her and she tried hard to not look away, as they were starting to make her feel slightly nervous.
“As you wish, Rena-san.”
Jurina’s playful smile caught Rena by surprise, and she watched her without a word as she left her side and walked away, destabilized.
Rena followed her until she was out of sight, soon lost in thoughts. Questions piled up in her mind one after another, trying to find an answer to her own unpredictable behavior.
“What are you doing, Rena?” The kenjutsu instructor whispered to herself, as her feet starting moving again slowly towards her next destination.
After Airi’s death, it had taken her so long to trust someone again, and even more to call her kyudo friend by her first name. Yes, she was a very guarded person, always treading carefully with people. Her life in the clan went like clockwork, never deviating from the usual path. Everything started to change when Momijimori no kami entrusted her with the young Watanabe sister.
Despite their clashing personalities, the kenjutsu instructor never let her protégée’s attitude deter her once, keeping her composure at each confrontation carefully. Rena had witnessed - and more than welcomed - the gradual changes in her protégée’s personality, but now she was starting to fear they were the reason for her peculiar behavior. Indeed, her perfectly controlled manners were starting to slip, transforming her into a person she was having a hard time recognizing.
A loud exasperated sigh escaped Jurina’s mouth when she wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. A small neigh caught her attention and she looked downward to her stallion, hearing the animal panting repeatedly. Obviously, she wasn’t the only one having a hard time adjusting to the weather of this region. Of course, she had long ago swapped her thick grey kimono for a light yukata, but the fabric stuck nonetheless to her skin under the scorching sun. Now, the young girl only wished for one thing: for Fall to arrive fast.
Jurina pulled on the reins slightly and halted her horse, scanning the vast forest surrounding her. A few days ago, she has learned the existence of a lake nearby the clan, and the impossible hot weather had finally decided her to search for the place, more than decided to ease her burning skin. Despite following the instructions given to her at the clan the promised stretch of water was still out of sight and, after wandering around the clan for so long, she was beginning to believe she would never find it.
Jurina looked over her shoulder, now seriously considering turning around. The idea of going back to the clan empty-handed was not very enticing - far from it - but she had to face the harsh reality. She was not going to feel the pleasant sensation of fresh water against her skin today. Unfortunately, she would have to settle for a simple bath at the clan.
Jurina was about to instruct her stallion to move when the animal suddenly produced another neigh - this time much louder - his ears immediately raising in alert. The rider frowned at his curious behavior, watching him as she had stilled abruptly and was looking in front of him, now very quiet. When the horse didn’t seem to want to snap out of it Jurina pulled on the reins again and, this time, the animal moved forward indeed, but absolutely not in the direction she had ordered.
“What are you doing?” Jurina exclaimed, not believing her stallion’s disobedience.
She pulled on the rein again, this time more forcibly, but the animal simply refused to comply to her wishes. Jurina was about to voice her protest out loud again when the sight of a horse not far away caught her attention and she narrowed her eyes, trying to distinguish the place her stallion was obviously leading her too.
The other horse was attached to a tree and Jurina could see the glimpse of a clearing in the distance. Her stallion was now speeding up a bit, and Jurina understood the reason for her stallion’s haste when her eyes recognized the familiar hazelnut coat of the horse peacefully grazing grass.
Worry immediately washed over her when the owner was nowhere to be found, and Jurina placed her fingers over her tanto as she scanned the area in alert. Soon, her stallion’s nose brushed the calm mare’s one affectionately, and the young sister didn’t waste one minute to get down from the saddle, wondering what her protector’s mare was doing alone in the middle of nowhere.
The memory of the attack flashed in her mind, and her heart started beating faster in apprehension. She was well aware a simple knife would not do much again a heavier armed opponent, but she surely wasn’t about to let the past repeat itself. Jurina approached the young mare, studying her in search of any sign of a potential ambush. However, the animal wasn’t in the slightest agitated, even welcoming the caress on his forehead with a small pleased neigh.
Jurina’s attention shifted from the horse to the clearing, her fingers slightly more relaxed over her knife but her gaze still cautious as she moved forward. The sun, against which she had been well protected under the branches of the trees until now, fell upon her when she stepped in the clearing, her eyes widening slightly when she noticed the unexpected view in front of her. After what she had believed to be a fruitless research, she had finally found what she was desperately looking for. And a bit more than what she would have expected.
“Rena-san?” Jurina murmured to herself.
Discovering her protector was in no immediate danger Jurina paused in her steps, her hand moving away from her tanto. After admiring the crystal clear small lake in front of her, her eyes fell on the woman swimming inside. Jurina noted from her peripheral vision the clothes as well as the katana laying at the feet of a tree nearby, but her attention didn’t shift once from the swimmer who had not noticed her presence yet.
After a little while of silent observation, Jurina decided to take a seat under the well appreciated shade of the tree a few feet away. Her fingers soon brushed the saya of the familiar sword, her eyes falling next on the neatly folded black yukata and hakama by its side. After that, Jurina leaned her head against the trunk, her eyes following the form moving slowly and gracefully in the water.
She didn’t know how long she kept her attention on the nude figure, but for some odd reason, she just couldn’t look away from it. Much of it was hindered by the water and Jurina found herself wishing to discover more than what was offered to her. She didn’t try to understand where her sudden curiosity came from - nor the reason for her slightly accelerated heartbeats - simply relishing the view instead.
A sudden loud neigh disrupted the quiet atmosphere and Jurina turned around in the direction of the forest in surprise, gazing at the two horses. Her stallion was still stubbornly trying to get the mare’s attention, apparently in vain, as she was now looking the other way. It appeared her stallion’s patience was growing thin day by day. Jurina shook her head, somehow guessing the mare’s attitude was not going to deter her proud stallion.
Jurina shifted her attention back to the lake, immediately freezing when she saw two small brown orbs looking back at her from the middle of the lake. The older girl had stopped swimming and Jurina muttered under her breath, knowing her stallion’s attitude had just alerted her presence. She was seriously considering ordering the young stable boy to diminish her stallion’s food ration for a few days in retaliation.
Jurina knew she couldn’t stay seated under the tree and continue her peaceful observation any longer so she stood up at the sound of her name, taking a few steps towards the edge.
“Rena-san.” She smiled, a bit amused by her protector’s startled and slightly nervous expression. Obviously, she wasn’t expecting to be disturbed during her peaceful alone time. “I wasn’t spying on you, if that’s what you think.”
The kenjutsu instructor raised an eyebrow at her teasing tone, and Jurina could tell by the look on her face she was not believing her one bit. The fact that she had not announced her presence as soon as she stepped in the clearing - and choose to take a seat under a tree instead - manifestly proved otherwise in her protector’s eyes.
“I was told about this place,” Jurina explained when her words were met by silence, guessing it was best to change the subject. “I was starting to lose hope of finding it and was about to turn around, until my stallion detected your mare’s presence.”
Jurina watched as Rena’s attention shifted briefly to their horses, her eyes soon falling back on her. The young girl could tell her protector was pondering the sincerity of her words carefully - considering her long scrutiny - until her features finally relaxed.
“Yes, this place is hard to find,” Rena conceded, with a small nod. “And you can easily get lost in this vast forest.”
“Don’t mention it.” Jurina sighed. If not for her keen senses, she would probably have gotten lost a few times. That would definitely have been the icing on the cake.
Silence surrounded them anew as both stayed quiet after that, Jurina somehow guessing her protector was waiting for her next move. Indeed, the older woman was standing still, the water covering her shoulders, and Jurina’s gaze fell on the vast stretch of water in front of her. She had come here for one good reason, and the tempting sight was making it hard for her to resist.
“I’ll leave you alone,” Rena declared.
“Why?” Jurina jolted out of her thoughts, watching the older girl moving towards her, in the apparent intention of getting out of the water. “The lake is big enough for the two of us.”
Rena paused in her tracks, raising her eyes to witness her protégée - at first - confusion, quickly replaced by light playfulness. Rena was used to this feature of hers - having been at the end of it quite a few times, and finding it amusing until now - but for some reason, she really wished she would stop acting this way with her. In such a situation, it was making her somewhat uncomfortable, and preventing her from thinking clearly. “It’s already quite late, and I need to go to the village.”
It wasn’t a lie as she really had a few errands to run, but Rena knew it wasn’t the only reason for her shameful attempted little flee. Despite desperately failing to gather the reason behind her current uneasiness, she knew she didn’t like the prospect of spending some time alone with the young girl. Especially not when they would be so close and undressed. It didn’t go particularly well last time she happened to stumble upon the naked form of her protégée.
Rena frowned when she noticed the young girl turning on her heels and heading towards the tree - bending underneath it to retrieve the clothes left there - and walking back towards her, a small genuine smile on her lips.
“I promise I won’t peek,” Jurina said, placing the black hakama at her feet, and undoing the matching yukata carefully.
Rena was momentarily at a loss for words, wondering why the young girl would offer to preserve her dignity. Had her discomfort been that obvious? Rena nibbled briefly on her lower lip, considering asking, before refraining from doing so. If she had to admit, her protégée’s suggestion was most than welcomed and appreciated. She never considered herself as a prude person but, somehow, the idea of having her protégée’s gaze on her naked form was making her feel unsettled.
“Thank you,” Rena murmured, sending her a faint smile in return, that the young sister didn’t catch as she had already closed her eyes in accordance with her own words.
Her feet soon met the grass as she approached and faced the young girl silently, her arms slipping into the sleeves of the yukata presented to her. Her fingers caught the hakama and she started tying the knot, noting that the young girl had indeed kept her promise, and not gazed at her once during the whole process.
“You can open your eyes,” Rena declared, two brown orbs immediately staring back at her at the invitation.
Just as she was finally regaining her composure the intense look on her protégée’s face managed to make her loose it in an instant, preventing her from focusing on the task at hand effectively, and her fingers slowing down unintentionally.
A small laugh suddenly escaped Jurina’s mouth, and Rena’s eyes widened in surprise, noticing the young girl’s amused expression as she was staring at her fingers.
“Rena-san, you’re doing it the wrong way.”
Rena looked down in confusion, before indeed noticing her horrible work. Tying a hakama was a long and hard process for a novice samurai. Rena could still vividly remember the reprimands directed towards her during her young adulthood when she entered the clan and happened to fail at it at first. However, after years of repeating the process everyday over and over, she could now almost do it her eyes closed.
“Let’s pretend you didn’t see anything, alright?” Rena murmured, undoing her work quickly, and doing it again, this time with great diligence.
“It will be our little secret,” Jurina replied.
Rena ignored purposely the teasing and the delight dancing on her protégée’s lips - instead drawing away to pick up her katana under the tree - before moving towards her mount.
Rena took a curious peek over her shoulders when she caught the faint sound of clothes falling in the grass, only to witness the young girl undressing hastily, her attention now drawn to the lake. Rena caressed absently her mare’s muzzle when the animal brushed her sleeve affectionately, her eyes still following the young girl who was entering the water.
Rena’s mouth tugged into a smile and she shook her head softly, amused when she heard a strident squeak escaping her protégée’s lips. Despite having obviously been slightly surprised by the temperature of the water the young girl didn’t let this small fact deter her, soon immerging herself from head to toe under the surface.
The young stable boy was currently attending to a white mare when footsteps distracted him and he looked over his shoulder in interest, his gaze falling on the twenty four year old samurai walking through the entrance of the stable.
“Matsui-dono,” he said as he turned around to greet her with a smile, bowing at her courteously. “Momijimori no kami dono asked me to prepare her horse, I won’t be long.”
“It won’t be necessary, Akihira-kun.” Rena shook her head softly. “I’ll take care of my mare myself.”
Rena suppressed a laugh when she witnessed the lad’s stupor. Obviously, he wasn’t expecting her to suggest such a thing. “You don’t have to. I promise I’ll be quick.”
The kenjutsu instructor reduced the distance between them, amusement dancing on her lips when she placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’m merely going to the village.”
Rena could tell the internal debate going inside the boy’s head - probably wondering if he should insist or not - but this time, he kept quiet instead. “Come on,” she said when he didn’t make a move, patting his shoulder lightly. “Shinoda-dono’s horse is more important than mine.”
The lad jolted out of his thoughts at the reminder of the mare waiting behind him and he nodded quickly, focusing his attention on the white horse again.
The kenjutsu instructor walked away when she knew she had managed to convince the thirteen year old boy successively - though not without noticing his embarrassment and somewhat reluctance as she left his side - engulfing herself in the stable. A few minutes’ walk was necessary to find what she was looking for - considering the place held more than a hundred horses - her eyes lighting up at the familiar view of her calm chestnut mare.
“Here you are,” Rena murmured as she opened the door of her horse’s box, greeted immediately by a soft neigh and a tap on her shoulder.
The samurai replied to the affectionate gesture with a caress of her own, before moving towards the saddle and placing it carefully on her mare’s back. Just as she was attaching it a loud whinny distracted her attention and she looked over to the left, noticing a black head popping up from the box next door, and two ears raising in alert.
Out of the corner of her eye she noted her mare turning to look at the new presence, and Rena wondered briefly what they could be saying to each other as her mount replied to the stallion with another soft neigh. The kenjutsu instructor got back to the task at hand when it was obvious she would never be able to understand the conversation they were currently having, remembering suddenly a small incident that had occurred when the stallion had joined the stable of the clan months ago.
Apparently, her mare had caught his eye quite quickly, because he simply refused to be placed in the box that was originally planned for him, instead insisting to be by her mare’s side. When the young sister had been informed of his impossible behavior she had only laughed, stating that the stable boy should simply relent and let him have it his way. Rena was absolutely against such an idea but she had let it go nevertheless, not wishing to enter a fight with the girl. Their relationship was challenging enough at the time.
“Why won’t you just give up?” Rena sighed, gazing at the stallion when she was done harnessing her mare.
Horses were very sensitive animals, and she had been well aware of the gradual changes in her mare’s attitude, especially when the stubborn horse happened to be around her. Stress was the last thing she wished for him to inflict upon her docile mount.
“Are you telling my horse what to do?”
Rena turned around at the voice directed at her, startled when she witnessed her amused young protégée leaning against the door of the box, arms crossed over her chest.
“Jurina-san, I didn’t hear you approaching,” Rena admitted.
“Yes, you seemed awfully lost in thoughts.” Jurina chuckled a bit. It was uncommon for her protector to be so distracted, and to not detect her immediately. According to a conversation they had had not so long ago, she was - apparently - as discreet as her horse. Which said a lot about her capacity to hinder her presence. “What were you thinking about?”
“Your mount,” Rena replied, choosing to keep half of the truth to herself, and leading her horse by the reins out of the box. “l really wish he would stop bothering my mare. She doesn’t like it.”
“What makes you say that?” Jurina arched an eyebrow, straightening up and opening the door of her stallion’s box.
“She’s ill-at-ease around him,” Rena explained, staring at her in incredulity. She believed this small fact to be more than evident, and the thought that it had possibly escaped her protégée was inconceivable.
“Maybe she is,” Jurina conceded with a nod, while placing the saddle on her stallion’s back with expertise. “But it’s not for the reason that you think.”
When her words were met with silence Jurina looked over her shoulder in curiosity, noticing immediately her protector’s confusion. “Give me your hand.”
“What?” Rena exclaimed, startled by the awkward and out of the blue demand, and trying to decipher its meaning through the confident look of her protégée.
Jurina reached out for it when her protector didn’t comply to her wishes, feeling it tensing up a bit when their fingers met, and placing her palm against her stallion’s neck.
“Look into his eyes,” Jurina instructed, keeping the older girl’s hand in place. “What do you see?”
Though very puzzled by the peculiar demand Rena did as she was told, trying to ignore the pleasant warmth emanating from the palm covering hers softly, to focus her attention entirely on the black animal.
Her touch had - at first - abashed the animal whose pupils had slightly widened in reaction. Now, after a few seconds, they had turned back into their original form, and the stallion was even tilting his head towards her, trying to reach her with his nostrils.
“You appease him,” Jurina murmured, amused lightly by her protector’s wonderment. “And I’m convinced your mare has the same effect on him. That’s why he can’t let go.”
Jurina wondered what could be crossing the older girl’s mind when silence surrounded them for a while. She could easily read her body language and see how agitated she now was, and she asked herself what could have triggered this whole behavior. Unconsciously, her fingers squeezed a bit the hand beneath hers, and the gesture seemed to stir something in Rena, as she immediately snapped out of her stillness.
“Maybe he should.”
Jurina frowned at her declaration, slightly taken aback when her protector gave her a serious look, the hand slipping away from her grasp instantly. Much as she wanted to prove her wrong and question her about her enigmatic words, it was clear the matter was already over. Indeed, Rena had now mounted her mare and was securing the reins - her eyes set on the entrance of the stable - in the evident intention of leaving the place.
“Where are you going?” Jurina asked, still confused by her protector’s discomfort.
“To the village,” Rena replied as nonchalantly as possible, her attention still very much in front of her. “I need to go to the market.”
“Me too, Churi wants to meet me,” Jurina informed, brushing aside her interlocutor’s awkward behavior and placing one hand on the saddle and her left foot in the stirrup, pushing herself up to mount her stallion.
“In broad daylight?” Rena blurted out without thinking, gazing at her immediately.
“She asked to see me for some reason but stubbornly refused to tell me why when I questioned her.” Jurina trailed off distractively, missing her protector’s perplexity. “It’s unusual for her to be so secretive. She never hides anything from me.”
I bet she doesn’t, Rena mused, before cursing herself for letting her protégée’s relationship with that woman impact unexpectedly her mood. What the young girl did on her free time should be none of her business - as long as it didn’t interfere with her daily kenjutsu training - and apart from a lesson she had missed that one time, she had always been very punctual.
“Maybe we can travel together?” Jurina suggested, already ordering her horse to move forward with a firm pressure of her heels, and entertained when her stallion’s head immediately went to brush the mare’s one when he passed by her. “This one will definitely not take no for an answer.”
Just as Rena was about to ask her protégée to keep her horse in check she observed her mare accepting the obstinate gesture and she stayed quiet, astounded by her unusual reaction. She raised her gaze from her horse to watch her protégée as she was walking away, a smile unguardedly falling on her lips when she threw her a playful look over her shoulder. “Of course.”
Jurina couldn’t fathom exactly why, but she was still thinking about her protector’s peculiar attitude when she followed Churi through the market a while later. Despite the fact the place was buzzing with noise and packed with people, she barely paid attention to her surroundings, hardly reacting when she happened to bump into a few people on the way, and received complaints in protest.
Her eyes were boring into her friend’s back and her left hand was leading her black stallion, but her thoughts were still on her protector and their recent conversation. The awkward meeting that followed between Churi and her protector had not been unnoticed as well, indeed not fooled one iota by her apparent composure and the polite greeting. She could tell the kenjutsu instructor was somewhat bothered by her closeness with Churi, even though no words had ever left her mouth to indicate so once. After spending months by her side, she could now better see through the collected appearance of her protector - discerning a few cracks here and there when she happened to let her guard down - but some of her reactions still remained a mystery. One she couldn’t help but want to solve.
“What do you think?”
Jurina snapped out of her musing at the questioning voice and she raised her gaze, noticing that her friend had suddenly stopped in her tracks and was now standing in front of a stand, studying an object in her hand carefully. The young girl paused by her side, looking down at the jewelry that had caught her attention. It was a small rounded pendant hanging at the end of a chain, representing the head of a horse. His mouth was opened wide as he was releasing a loud neigh, and his mane was drawn as if it was floating in the air. The true portrayal of a proud and fierce animal.
“It’s nice,” Jurina conceded, immediately noting the satisfied smile on Churi’s lips.
“How much?” Churi asked, showing the object to the man in his forties standing behind the stand full of different kind of jewelries.
Jurina frowned when Churi slipped the coins inside the man’s palm - obviously satisfied with the price indicated - wondering why she would want to buy such an object. She had not lied when she had answered her question, finding indeed the simple - but well crafted object - to her taste but somehow, she couldn’t imagine her friend wearing such a pendant around her neck. It simply didn’t suit her looks.
“Open your hand,” Churi required when she turned to look at her and Jurina did as instructed - though very much confused by the demand - until feeling the silver object against her skin when she placed it into her palm gently.
“What are you doing?” Jurina asked.
“It’s a gift,” Churi replied, suppressing a laugh at her friend’s confusion.
Jurina opened her mouth to speak but no words left her lips, too shocked by the revelation. No one had ever bought her a present before, and she couldn’t fathom why her friend would do such a thing. A part of her wanted to repeat the question in order to make sure she had not imagined it, but she could tell she had heard correctly when Churi gave her a kind smile.
“No, I don’t need it,” Jurina protested, holding the pendant by the chain and trying to give it back. “Keep your money.”
“I already bought it,” Churi retorted, in vain as the jewelry was placed into her hand forcibly a few seconds later.
“He’ll take it back.” Jurina addressed the merchant who was about to protest, before agreeing reluctantly at the intimidating look directed at him.
Just as she was about to walk away in order to make her opinion clear on the matter she heard the soft calling of her nickname, and she couldn’t help but pause in her steps at the pleading tone. Fingers encircled her arm gently but she refused to turn around, more than decided to not come back on her words.
“You’re the only person in this world who really cares about me,” Churi admitted. “Let me do this for you.”
Jurina noted the small tremble in her voice, and she could feel her own resolve faltering as the seconds went by painfully slow. Now, she understood better the reason behind her friend’s offer, but she still didn’t consider herself worthy of it. What did she truly do to deserve it?
Suddenly, Churi’s alarmed shout reached her and she turned around, confused, until seeing her staring at her right empty hand in shock. The jewelry was gone, and Jurina looked over her friend’s shoulder, noticing a man drawing away hastily, the pendant swinging by his chain in his left hand.
“Stay here,” Jurina indicated, not waiting for Churi’s reply to climb hastily on her stallion. “I’ll get it back.”
“No, it’s not…” Churi trailed off, her protest falling on deaf ears as the young girl had already ordered her horse to move forward.
She watched her in apprehension as she was making her way through the crowd, cursing herself for failing to react in time. Much as she wished for Nobunaga to accept her present, she certainly didn’t want her to put herself in danger for it. Unfortunately, considering the decided look she had witnessed upon her face before her swift departure, she was afraid she would do anything in her power to retrieve the object.
Jurina was already far gone when Churi felt a presence by her side, her eyes widening in surprise when she noticed the familiar sight, and the reassuring look directed at her.
After a few minutes’ chase, Jurina realized she was truly at disadvantage on the back of her horse. Indeed, the thief was making his way through the dense crowd with much more ease by foot, and the distance was growing between them. If only she could get out of the market square more quickly…
Relief filled her chest when she saw him turning in a street on his left, knowing she would have better chance to catch him now he had left the market square. However, her joy was of short respite when she noticed a horserider waiting at the end of it, holding the rein of another horse with obvious impatience. It didn’t take long for Jurina to understand it was probably his partner in crime, considering her agile thief was running towards his direction at full speed.
Jurina ignored the loud protests directed at her when she finally engulfed herself into the street, now hoping she could make it before he could jump on his horse. However, her own struggle to move forward into the market square had slowed her down significantly, and she watched in frustration the two men galloping away on their horses.
“I have not said my last word.” Jurina gritted her teeth, refusing to relent. She pressed her heels against her horse’s flank, receiving an immediate response as he sped up instantly.
For the first time, Jurina realized the luck she had had to stumble upon her stallion. His great shape and fierce look had immediately caught her eye when she had spied on the horse’s merchant back then, a theft she had not regretted once since that day. Indeed, it obeyed to each of her orders with great accuracy, enabling her to turn in the following streets without the need to slow down one iota, and avoiding a few horrified bystanders successively.
Jurina was starting to catch up when the two horseriders entered the main street of the village. She ignored the distressed cries of the people on her way, trying desperately to reduce the distance with the thief instead. His companion was apparently failing to match with his speed, as Jurina soon found herself by his horse’s flank.
Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the sharp tanto in the man’s hand, avoiding it narrowly when he tried to wound her. Jurina took out her own knife swiftly, injuring his arm in retaliation with a sharp cut. A scream escaped his lips at the pain and he dropped his tanto, enabling the young girl to focus entirely on the man who was escaping her.
Jurina tensed when she saw the thief exiting the village and galloping towards the wooden bridge crossing over the river. In the distance, the maple forest could already been seen, and she knew she had to stop him before he could reach it. Indeed, her chances to catch him into the dense forest would then be greatly reduced.
The young girl was well aware that what she was about to do to be a tiny bit risky, but she couldn’t come up with another solution when she finally managed to catch up. She didn’t know when another opportunity would present itself, and she surely didn’t want to take the risk of losing him in the fast approaching forest. If she had to act, it would be on this bridge.
She waited until their horses were finally galloping flank by flank - briefly leaning to her right to avoid a threatening tanto coming her direction - before releasing her hold on the reins in one swift movement and throwing herself at the other horserider. Just before their bodies came into contact she noticed the shock passing through the thief’s eyes, who was unfortunately too stunned to react in time.
They crashed violently against each other and the horse rider lost his balance, the reins of his horse escaping his grasp when he got unhorsed, and they both fell into the river below. Thankfully, it was only a five meters fall, and Jurina held her breath in preparation, not releasing her hold on the thief one moment.
Water surrounded them completely as they dived in, and Jurina had to avoid another threat directed at her when the man tried to injure her with his tanto anew. Thankfully, his moves were substantially slowed down by the water, enabling her to react in time and deliver a strong punch in his face.
The action stunned him effectively and Jurina took advantage of his disorientated state to retrieve the pendant at his waist, before preparing herself to regain the surface when it was finally secured in her hand. Unfortunately, her escape plan was put to an halt when she felt a hand gripping her feet tightly, preventing her from moving any further. It seemed her thief had not said his last word.
Jurina tried to free herself from his strong hold, but the furious man was holding tight. A few punches were exchanged when they came face to face, and - for the first time since she had plunged into the river - Jurina was starting to fear the issue of their confrontation. Indeed, she could now feel herself lacking some air, and she knew it was a matter of time until she would completely run out of it. Her opponent seemed to have the same problem, but none of them wanted to give up.
The young sister suddenly noticed her opponent’s attention drawn to something over her head, and her eyes widened in surprise when a tanto appeared from her peripheral vision, slitting the thief’s throat accurately. Blood blended with the water as he held his throat in a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding, much in vain. Jurina stared into his lifeless eyes as he fell deeper and deeper in the water, before diverting her attention to her right at the touch on her shoulder.
She didn’t even have time to look at her savior that lips were pressed against hers hastily. Jurina was about to push away the person responsible for this unexpected act, until freezing when she realized who was facing her, and feeling air engulfing her lungs gradually through her partially opened lips. Shock washed over when she stared into her protector’s eyes, questions piling up in her head one after another at the unforeseen help. However, all vanished into thin air when their lips finally parted, and the kenjutsu instructor pointed at the top of the water. Jurina gave her a small nod in reply - knowing she could now indeed reach the surface thanks to the welcomed exchange of air - and she swam towards it.
Jurina had never been so happy in her life to feel the earth under her feet. As soon as she reached the edge of the river she slumped on the grass, her heart hammering inside her chest while she tried to catch her breath. Her hand squeezed the object still secured inside her palm, relief filling her chest that she had not done all this for nothing. Her attention got drawn to the woman sitting by her side, and her eyes widened in surprise at the look directed at her.
“Why would you take such a risk?”
Her protector’s voice was calm and steady, but Jurina wasn’t fooled by it one iota. Indeed, she could well identify the anger burning inside her eyes, and she sat up - an explanation already forming on her lips - when she suddenly felt two arms embracing her.
“Don’t ever do that again.”
Taken aback by the unexpected gesture and slight tremble in the kenjutsu instructor’s voice Jurina failed to come up with a proper retort, instead feeling the hold tightening around her. After a little while, Jurina raised her hand and buried her fingers in the damp hair of her protector, pressing her cheek against hers. She could feel the older girl tensing up a bit in reaction but she refused to let go, hoping to convey as much as possible in the simple gesture.
There was always a peaceful feeling filling her chest each time Jurina happened to cross the door of the house. How many times had she now been to that place since her arrival at the clan? Too many to count, but she still felt the same calm invading her when she took her usual seat at the corner of the room, and sipped her cups of sake silently.
Tonight, the place was buzzing with sound and laughter, and she simply loved it. There was nothing she abhorred more than the quietness of the clan. If she had not started her kenjutsu lessons months ago, she would probably have kept on joining this place each and single day like she used to. Now, her visits were significantly reduced to once a week and only by night, sole moment when she could enjoy the company of her talkative cheerful friend.
Unfortunately, Churi was still occupied with a client when she happened to pass the door, and Jurina knew she would need to be a bit patient before she could spend time with her. Thankfully, her protector’s meditation techniques had helped her quite a bit on that problematic flaw of hers and now, the prospect of having to wait wasn’t as irritating as it would have been months ago. Though she wouldn’t mind shoving that man - and his filthy wandering hands over Churi’s body - out of the place.
Her fingers lingered playfully on her necklace, before stopping when they encountered the silver pendant. Lowering her gaze to the fierce horse in her hand, she studied the object with interest, her digits tracing the outline of the animal. Although she never wore it during trainings, she always placed it around her neck when she came here, after discovering it would bring a pleased smile on her friend’s lips each and single time.
Out of the corner of her eye she noticed a silhouette approaching and she slipped the pendant back inside her yukata, frowning a bit when the familiar woman went to sit next to her.
“Nobunaga,” the seductive voice murmured in her ear, lips soon deposing a soft dragging kiss on her cheek. “I missed you.”
Jurina gazed back at Annin in silence, very much aware of the invitation behind her words. Since that night, she had never passed her door again and Annin had surprisingly kept her distances, definitely believing she would come back when she felt the need to. However, she had not done so once, and it appeared the older girl had decided to take matters in hand.
“I know what you want,” Jurina declared, much softer than she ever used to be during their conversations. A few months ago, her tone would had been more decided in order to make her intention indisputable but - much as she didn’t wish to give her false hopes - the knowledge of her improbable affection for her prevented her from resorting to her usual ways. “It’s not going to happen.”
It was strange how Jurina could find some similarities in both Annin and her protector. Both were well composed human beings - their perfect mask slipping on very rare occasions - but when they did, there was nothing more fascinating than the truth crossing their features. Astonishment and subtle - but well distinguishable hurt - in the case of the woman currently staring at her.
“Alright,” Annin conceded, to Jurina’s puzzlement. When was the last time the older girl had ever relented? Never. Somehow, she could tell she had not said her last word. “Can we talk?”
“Talk?” The suggestion took Jurina completely by surprise. “About what?”
“Not here,” Annin replied, already circling her arm gently. “In my room.”
Jurina narrowed her eyes at her. Annin was a clever girl who always went to great lengths to get what she wanted, and the request seemed more than suspicious. Why did their conversation need to occur behind closed doors? She saw absolutely no reason for it.
“Please,” Annin insisted.
Jurina momentarily tore her eyes away from her pleading look to gaze at Churi - noting that she was regrettably still very much occupied - before studying her again. She knew it was a bad idea - not to mention how it would look like to the other girls if she followed her to her room - but her boredom won against her better judgment in the end.
“Alright, but no tricks,” Jurina warned.
Of course it was a bad move, and Jurina felt like a fool when she slid the door closed behind her, and was greeted with the sight of a naked Annin when she turned around. Although she should have guessed it was just another ploy from the cunning girl, she surely didn’t see it coming when she pressed her against the door and started leaving a trail of kisses along her neck. Never once had she been so bold, and her unpredictable behavior left her completely stunned.
“You didn’t really believe I wanted to talk,” Annin whispered between kisses, her sarcasm more than obvious in her light tone.
Yes, she was a complete idiot who felt in an obvious trap. Jurina muttered under her breath, not believing what was happening. Annin was relentlessly exploring every inch of her skin, and Jurina found herself taken aback by her sudden eagerness. If someone ever showed signs of impatience during their previous intercourse, it was definitively herself. Not the other way round.
Lips that had assaulted her without warning were now moving progressively downwards and along her jawline, fingers untying her hakama with great haste. The sound of the piece of clothe falling on the tatami brought Jurina out of her reverie and she gripped her shoulders, knowing she had to put an halt to all this. “Stop it.”
Two eyes looked up at the request, and the longing in them rendered her speechless. Annin’s fondness of her was never wished, and beyond understanding. Her touch had always been anything but gentle, and no words of affection had ever left her lips. Moreover, she had made her intention very clear from the first day, but it seemed it had been useless after all, considering the situation she currently found herself into.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Jurina continued, when Annin ignored her and opened her yukata instead. Overpowering her would have been easy, but she really wished her words would manage to sway her effectively, without the need for her to push her away forcibly.
“That’s fine,” Annin whispered huskily, kissing uncooperative lips. “I like it when you’re a little rough.”
Fingers were now caressing her breasts, and Jurina knew her diplomatic attitude wasn’t getting her anywhere. There was no other option left, if she wished to make her point.
“That’s enough.” Jurina pushed her away once, then twice when Annin tried to move forward again. “I don’t want this.”
She knew what she would read in her eyes before the words ever left her lips. Anger. Frustration. Hurt. Even a bit of despair. And she hated herself for being the reason of each and single emotion crossing the older girl’s features.
“Do you like someone?” Annin asked in confusion.
Jurina’s immediate thought was to deny, but for some reason, she found herself utterly incapable in doing so. She watched as Annin’s attention fell on the pendant resting between her breasts - her fingers encircling it gently and her thumb caressing the figure of the horse - before two eyes looked up a while later, this time with conviction.
“I used to believe it was Churi,” Annin admitted. “It took me a while to understand it was not the case. Now, I really wish you could be honest with me.”
“I was when I told you I was not worth it,” Jurina reminded her, sliding her fingers between Annin’s long dark silky hair. Why was she causing so much pain to someone who had brought her so much pleasure?
“I beg to differ,” Annin trailed off, leaning into the soft touch. “And I don’t regret giving myself to you. Not a single time.”
Lips were suddenly pressed against hers in a last desperate move, and were already gone before Jurina could ever react. A faint smile fell on Annin’s lips when their eyes met anew. “Whoever she is, I hope she gives you everything you want.”
“Your katana is like an extension of your arm. Never leave the clan without, and take the utmost care of it,” Rena declared.
Jurina listened absently to the kenjutsu instructor’s words - taking in her solemn expression as she uttered them to the fifteen students facing her - her attention more drawn to her sister training at kyudo not so far away.
This morning, the kenjutsu lesson didn’t take place in the dojo as it had for months, but in the courtyard of the clan. Jurina immediately guessed what it meant when the samurai informed them of this small change. Indeed, it was forbidden to draw a katana inside the dojo, and Jurina knew today was the day they would finally put aside their wooden sword for a real one.
Even though she had waited for that moment for so long, she got distracted as soon as she discovered they were going to train near the kyudo students. At first, her eyes flicked towards her sister from time to time, but now, she was more paying attention to her and the kyudo instructor by her side than anything else.
Mayu had just finished shooting a few arrows - awfully close to the center to Jurina’s amazement - and the older woman was now addressing her with a smile, her hand resting on her shoulder softly. The other students weren’t paying attention to their exchange - focused intently on their target - but Jurina could read their body language easily. Fingers were now leaving her sister’s shoulder to caress her arm, eliciting a pleased expression on Mayu’s lips, a few words leaving them in the process.
Unfortunately, Jurina was too far away to hear anything, but it didn’t prevent her from watching them closely for a little while longer. Their affection for each other wasn’t a mystery anymore; she had witnessed the first signs of it merely a few weeks after their arrival at the clan, but Mayu’s reassuring words were failing to erase her worry successively. From what she had observed lately, the kyudo instructor seemed indeed a good and caring person as her sister had declared but still, she knew she would need to have a few words with her sooner or later.
Since their childhood - and even though she was the younger one - she had always taken care of Mayu. Not because she felt obliged to do it, but because it was natural to her. Her desire to protect her from anything and anyone had not faded once since their arrival at the clan, but she was aware that her role had been progressively taken by someone else. A certain kyudo instructor she needed to have a serious talk with, if she wished to entrust her sister to her.
“Now, I’m going to teach you how to pull your katana out, and put it back effectively,” Rena indicated.
Rena’s voice jolted her out of her thoughts and Jurina gazed back at her, watching the kenjutsu instructor’s fingers encircling her red tsuka, and drawing out her sword in one swift movement.
“It seems easy,” Rena said as she placed the katana back into its saya effortlessly, “but you need to be really careful. One moment of inattention, and its sharp blade will cut you. That’s why I want you to try it very slowly, your attention never leaving the blade.”
Jurina frowned at the strange request: the kenjutsu instructor’s eyes had not fallen once on her own katana during the demonstration. Was the simple act really as difficult as she described? Or was she being overly cautious with them?
Out of the corner of her eye, Jurina noticed her fellow trainees obeying to the instructions, blades being pulled out one after another scrupulously. Her left hand went to rest on the saya, while the other encircled the tsuka, pulling the blade slowly out. Confusion washed over when she managed to mimic the action quite easily, and she didn’t pay as much attention to her blade when she put it back in its saya, immediately hissing when the blade split her left palm.
The sound had not only alerted the other trainees - whose heads were now turned in her direction - it had also warned the kenjutsu instructor. As Jurina was checking in annoyance the cut inside her palm she noticed from her peripheral vision a figure approaching, and heard a voice addressing her softly.
“Show me,” Rena asked.
“It’s nothing,” Jurina answered quickly. Her palm closed immediately in order to hide the injury, and her lips were now sealed tight to avoid any sound from escaping her mouth at the throbbing pain.
“Show me,” Rena repeated.
Jurina looked up at the insisting tone of her protector, sighing dejectedly when she knew by her decided look that she wouldn’t let it go. Reluctantly, she let fingers open her palm carefully, revealing the three inches cut.
“It’s not too deep,” Rena informed, after a studious observation of the wound, “It will heal quickly, and won’t leave a scar. But you need to put a bandage on it.”
“No need,” Jurina replied, slipping her hand from her protector’s grasp in disapproval. “I can continue the lesson.”
Jurina encircled her tsuka anew, more than decided to make her point, and not wishing to miss a moment of the lesson because of a stupid mistake. Unfortunately, it appeared her protector had not said her last word.
“It’s not up for discussion, Watanabe-san.”
Jurina gasped, not believing the sudden harsh tone directed at her. She searched her protector’s eyes for an explanation, but the older girl was already walking away. She could tell the other trainees were also taken aback by the instructor’s attitude - it was indeed very uncommon to hear her raise her voice - and all were staring at her in bewilderment, the previous exercise all forgotten.
“Fine,” Jurina finally relented. A part of her wanted to insist that it was pretty useless, but she didn’t wish to enter a fight with her protector. “I’ll be back soon.”
Jurina was already turning on her heels when Rena’s voice stopped her in her tracks.“No, you won’t be attending the lessons until your wound is fully healed. Leave your katana behind.”
“This is absurd!” Jurina exclaimed without thinking when she turned back. It was only a small injury, why on earth was she making such a fuss about it?
You could now almost hear a pin drop, as no trainee dared to make a single move or utter a single word, stunned by the intense exchange and unusual confrontation. Even the kyudo students had caught the now heated conversation, Mayu staring at Jurina in shock from afar.
Jurina muttered under her breath, not believing she had dared to raise her voice to her protector, especially in front of others. She had never done so once during training before, so why did she let her frustration take control over her suddenly? Although her protector’s order was beyond understanding, she knew she should never had reacted this way. What was happening to her?
Without a word, Jurina took a few steps forward and bowed in front of Rena, presenting her katana with both her hands. “At your orders, instructor.”
She couldn’t help the slight bitterness from entering her voice as she addressed her, and she waited patiently for her to take her sword away. As soon as she felt the weapon slipping from her grasp she turned on her heels, cleverly avoiding her protector’s gaze. Her keen hearing didn’t miss the gentle calling of her surname but she ignored it, leaving the courtyard instantly.
Rena wasn’t surprised in the least when she dismounted her mare in the forest, and found Jurina training - katana in hand - a few feet away. As soon as the young girl stormed out of the lesson guilt washed over her, and she couldn’t help but reliving their confrontation during the rest of the lesson. A tiny voice inside her head had also told her that her stubborn protégée wouldn’t simply relent to her demand, although she had agreed to it at the time and returned her katana. That was why she had - as soon as the lesson was over - moved towards the location she had discovered the young girl liked to train alone during the afternoon.
“What are you doing?” Rena exclaimed in disapproval, disappointed she had not been listened to. “You wound still hasn’t healed.”
“It’s just a small cut,” Jurina replied with a groan when their eyes met. She had heard the horse approaching for a while now, but she had waited the last moment to acknowledge its presence. After all, she was still reminiscing their recent confrontation, failing to understand why her protector had shooed her away, and so severely. “I couldn’t stay idle in my room while everyone else was training.”
“I knew you wouldn’t obey my order,” Rena sighed, her eyes falling on the unfamiliar katana in Jurina’s hand, and its blue tsuka. “What is this katana?”
“It belonged to my father,” Jurina replied, and was about to put it back in its saya - this time definitely more cautiously - when she noticed out of the corner of her eye Rena’s extending hand.
Although confused by the demand Jurina nodded after a moment of hesitation, watching her as she took the weapon and studied it in silence. At first, it felt a bit strange to see someone else’s hands on the katana that held great significance for her - Mayu being the only one to have occasionally carried it during their travels - but however, she didn’t once think about taking it back, in the end not as bothered as she thought she would be by the unexpected occurrence.
“The blade is blunted,” Rena affirmed after a little while. “I can ask the blacksmith to sharpen it if you wish to use that sword in the future.”
Taken aback by the kind offer, Jurina didn’t reply immediately. The memory of their recent confrontation was still pretty much engraved in her mind, but the frustration she was feeling until now had faded in an instant at the sight of Rena’s gentle smile. “Thank you.”
Rena placed it back in its saya with expertise, her attention soon drawn to Jurina’s left injured hand.
“I’m sorry for challenging your authority in front of the others,” Jurina said, when Rena captured her hand to check the bandage the doctor of the clan had applied. “It wasn’t my intention. I was just feeling a bit…”
“Frustrated. I know,” Rena cut her off gently without looking up.
“I didn’t understand why you wanted me to leave the lesson altogether,” Jurina continued. She expected her protector to finally give her an explanation but no words left her lips, her eyes still glued on her left palm. “Why did you?”
“You were distracted,” Rena explained calmly. “You were checking your sister every now and then.”
“You noticed?” Jurina gasped. Yes, she had been inattentive, but not once she had thought her protector had realized, the older girl not once exchanging a word with her on the matter, and believing her to be focused on the lesson and the other trainees.
“I did,” Rena nodded. “I didn’t wish to be so harsh with you, but I knew you wouldn’t listen otherwise. I feared you would injure yourself more seriously if you continued.”
Jurina’s gaze softened at the admission. A question was now burning her lips and she caught Rena’s hand when she - apparently satisfied with her keen observation - tried to pull away, not caring in the least if the abrupt action triggered a sharp pain in her left palm. “Why do you care so much?”
“It’s my duty as your protector.”
Jurina felt the hand trying slowly to slip away from her grasp but she refused to let go, disbelief washing over her at the older girl’s affirmation. Yes, the kenjutsu instructor was a very composed woman, hard to read most of the time, but she could tell by her slight discomfort that she was hiding something from her.
“Is that all I am to you?” Jurina raised her voice, in a mix of annoyance and hurt. She didn’t care if her protector was now staring back at her with surprise, obviously not expecting such an outburst. She wanted the truth. “Someone to look over for a year?”
Jurina lifted her right hand to cup her cheek, trying to decipher the current unease in the older girl’s eyes as she inched closer. Her gaze fell on those lips that were stubbornly refusing to produce an answer, the memory of the brief kiss suddenly submerging her mind. Somehow, she couldn’t look away from the sight, and her protector’s heavy and inconstant breathing didn’t go unnoticed.
Annin’s image popped up in her head unexpectedly, and the question she had asked her - and had desperately failed to answer - came to the forefront of her mind. She still didn’t fully comprehend the reason behind her slightly accelerated heartbeats, and refused to formulate a reply to that question. Never in her life before, she had felt this way around someone. It was completely unsettling.
Her love for her sister was unconditional, and she would give her life for her without a second of hesitation. If she had not insisted greatly, she would never have come to this clan, simply satisfied by her sole presence by her side. Even though the place seemed safe for now, she knew she would eternally worry about her, not matter how much Mayu tried to convince her there was no reason for her concern anymore.
Churi’s friendship - as improbable it still appeared to her sometimes - was something she cherished more than anything. Her presence brought her a peace she had never experienced before, and she relished every second of their time spent together. But she didn’t desire her. Not once, she had wished to taste her lips and map her body with her hands. Their relationship was - at first - off-putting, considering she never had that kind of relationship with anyone before, and she failed to understand what she expected from her, but all questions had bit by bit vanished into thin air. She didn’t care what it meant: she just knew she wanted to preserve this gentle smile always directed at her.
“Don’t,” Rena’s trembling voice jolted her out of her thoughts.
Jurina felt the hand that was trying to pull away from her grasp - again - but she held tight nonetheless. Their close contact brought her an irrepressible need to connect their lips, and she put her unanswered question at the back of her head momentarily, moving forward despite her protector’s protest.
Jurina didn’t even notice the lips going completely still against hers, too focused on the jolt of electricity coursing her body. It felt nothing like the numerous kisses she had exchanged with Annin. Unfortunately, the moment was soon interrupted when Rena’s uncooperative lips left hers abruptly, and she tilted her head to the side.
“This must never happen again,” Rena scolded her, despite her voice being barely a whisper.
Jurina’s eyes fluttered open and she stared at her in astonishment, this time letting go when Rena pulled away. She could well discern the reproach in those eyes that were avoiding hers - not to mention she now realized she had not responded to the kiss - but she could tell that she was not completely mad at her. Yes, she was denying her touch for now, but the erratic heartbeats she could feel behind her protector’s chest when she placed her right hand against it in curiosity, told her there had to be another reason for her strange behavior.
Jurina opened her mouth to speak but the kenjutsu instructor turned on her heels abruptly, preventing her from uttering a single word. Frustration immediately washed over her at her protector’s attitude. She couldn’t fathom the reason behind her affirmation and sudden will to put some distance between them, but - as she watched her mounting her horse without glancing back at her once - she made herself the promise to crack the secret of her unpredictable action. Her attraction to her protector was now more than obvious, and she was decided to taste those soft lips again.
Two years ago.
Rena accepted the blindfold that was offered to her by the grey, short-haired man and placed it over her eyes as asked. Although puzzled by the curious demand the twenty-two year old samurai didn’t dare to question it, expecting her kenjutsu instructor to explain what he had in mind with this new exercise. The wind of Fall was blowing softly through her long, dark straight hair and she waited patiently, her sight now completely blocked by the dark fabric.
“Attack me, Matsui-san,” the older man ordered.
Despite hearing the instruction loud and clear, Rena didn’t take a step forward or pull her katana out. This time, a slight frown fell upon her features and she opened her mouth to speak, confused. “Forgive me, Yamada-dono, but I can’t see.”
The amused giggle escaping the older samurai’s lips took Rena by complete surprise. Her mentor was the most reserved person she had ever met, and never once - since she had entered the clan - had she hear him laugh, or seen him smile. The notion that he was doing exactly that - although she could only guess the latter - was utterly unsettling.
“Is that all Nature has granted you with? Your sight?” The older man replied after a little while, his delight still very present in his tone. “Listen to the forest around you. It will guide your arm.”
Silence fell upon the two individuals as Rena mulled the instruction over in her head. She turned her body towards the last location she had seen her instructor but she didn’t hear a single move, and her fingers rested still on her red tsuka. “I don’t understand,” she admitted, in a small helpless voice.
The sound of leaves being lightly stamped on caught her attention and she drew her katana out, alert when it was followed by another katana being pulled out as well. Leaves of Fall kept on being stamped on one by one and Rena listened carefully to the trail of sounds, soon discovering that the older instructor wasn’t in the least trying to approach her as she would have thought, but was instead circling around her, keeping his distance carefully.
Footsteps stopped altogether and she waited, both of her hands holding her katana in expectation. The blindfold was indeed plunging her into darkness, but she had other senses she could rely on: one in particular that enabled her to discern in time the footsteps coming her way on her left without warning, and lift her katana to block the threat.
Sharp blades came into contact at once, and an intense exchange followed suit. Rena wasn’t astonished by the relenting attacks of her instructor, not leaving her a second to breathe: she didn’t expect any less from him. Her blindness wasn’t incapacitating her as much as she would have feared: on the contrary, it was developing her hearing like it had never before, helping her discern his movements with accuracy, or catch his breathing each time he opened his mouth to launch another well-measured attack.
How many times did their katana come clashing together? Rena lost count of it a long time ago, absorbed in the intense fight against her instructor, seconds very soon transforming into minutes. Although she never lost her concentration one moment, a small smile fell inadvertently upon her lips in content. This unusual exercise in the peaceful maple forest was the greatest lesson she had ever learned.
“That’s enough.” Her instructor’s composed voice halted her katana all of a sudden, after a never-ending succession of attacks on his behalf, each and every one deviated successively on hers. “You understood the goal of this lesson. You can take the blindfold off.”
Rena removed the dark fabric as instructed, blinking a few times when light entered her small brown orbs. Now that she got her sight back she noticed the satisfied expression of the man facing her, and she placed her katana into its saya instantly.
“Matsui-san, you are truly gifted,” the man said with a thoughtful nod, pride crossing his features briefly, until they grew very serious. “I’m going to appoint you as my replacement.”
“Yamada-dono,” Rena murmured in astonishment, not believing what she was hearing. How could her mentor suggest such a thing? Yes, she was probably one of his most devoted students - and this from the first day she had stepped in the dojo - but truly someone else deserved this position more than her. A person more higher placed in the hierarchy, and much older. “Aren’t I too young for such a respected position? And why would you think about your succession?”
“What you lack in years, you compensate in maturity,” the older instructor explained. “And I’m afraid I’m not getting any younger, though such an engaging fight is always invigorating.”
A smile fell upon Rena’s lips as she witnessed her instructor’s light amusement, before following him when he motioned her to walk by his side. Silence surrounded them as they progressively returned to the clan, Rena pondering over her mentor’s words. More than anything, they were flattering, but she was unsure of her ability to occupy such a place in the clan.
“Matsui-san.” Rena tilted her head to the side at the voice directed at her, before stopping in her tracks when a hand was placed on her shoulder. “Momijimori no kami dono needs a strong kenjutsu instructor to protect the clan from forthcoming dangers. I believe you possess all the qualities to become that person.”
Rena wanted to respond that she didn’t share his strong belief, but nonetheless no words left her lips. She knew she was being bestowed a great honor, and that her new title would place her directly at the right hand of the leader of the clan. The thought was somewhat frightening for the young woman that she was but, as she thought carefully about what to reply, she knew she would do anything in her power not to disappoint the man she had so much respect for. “I hope I’ll meet all your expectations, Yamada-dono.”
Rena entangled her fingers in the soft and neatly brushed mane of her mount, before placing her forehead against the horse’s neck carefully, her eyes shutting at once. When she crossed path early on with the eleven year old Akihira-kun she indicated her wish to attend to her horse herself, and had more than relished her tête-à-tête with the peaceful mare until now.
The news of her promotion was somewhat overwhelming, and she felt the need to calm her racing heart in the company of the quiet animal. The silence surrounded her coupled with the close contact with her dearest traveling companion were having an appeasing effect on her, but it didn’t prevent her from catching the familiar footsteps approaching. She would recognize them anywhere.
A smile immediately fell upon her lips in content as they drew closer, and she tilted her head to welcome the new presence. “Airi.”
Airi was the first person she had interacted with when she joined the clan four years ago. Calm but always caring; a good listener and never intrusive in her questions. Airi was a reassuring presence by her side: a continuum in her daily life in the clan. In fact, it was the only person she ever considered as a friend. Although the term didn’t seem entirely right when she sometimes thought about her relationship with the twenty-three year old girl. They weren’t lovers, but they shared a bond stronger than a mere friendship; a beautiful one she couldn’t exactly described, but hoped would never be severed.
“I believe congratulations are in order,” Airi stated, her palm caressing lightly the mare’s nose - smiling to herself when she received the usual affectionate tap on her arm in reply - her eyes falling on the young samurai in admiration. “You are now officially the new kenjutsu instructor of the clan.”
“How do you know?” Rena exclaimed in disbelief. It had only been a few hours since her discussion with her instructor, and she had not shared its content with anyone yet. In fact, she wanted to wait for an official confirmation, but it appeared her interlocutor was aware of certain unknown facts.
“News travel fast,” Airi explained with light amusement. “I heard Yamada-dono made the suggestion to Shinoda-dono early on, and she didn’t oppose the slight resistance to the idea.”
“I see,” Rena trailed off. She couldn’t fathom how her friend discovered such a piece of information but after all, spies were very resourceful human beings. And her discreet friend somewhat always managed to learn things others couldn’t. She truly found her way when she decided to join the spy information cell.
“What are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be with Rie-san?” Rena asked in confusion. Her friend’s presence by her side was much appreciated but very surprising as well, considering she was supposed to be spending her afternoon with her instructor.
“Actually, I was looking for you. I wanted to warn you that I’ve been assigned a new mission,” Airi announced carefully. In fact, she knew about it for a few days now but kept the information to herself, not knowing how to broach the sensitive subject. She feared her easily worried friend would not take the news so well. And the expression on Rena’s face told her she was right to apprehend this conversation.
“Another one?” Rena’s features contorted in unease. It is true to say Airi accomplished many successful missions in the past, but she still felt the same knot in her stomach each time she happened to leave the clan for a secret operation. Was it selfish of her to wish that the person so close to her heart never left the safe vicinity of the clan? Gathering information didn’t only require patience and discretion; the task also asked of you to be on your guards constantly.
“Everything will be fine,” Airi tried to reassure her. “I’m not going alone. Rie-san will be accompanying me.”
Rena gave her a soft nod in reply, but no relief filled her chest at the supposedly comforting news. It was not that she didn’t trust the master kunoichi’s decision to send her on a mission, but she was having a bad feeling about this. Or maybe she was only letting her emotions get the best of her more than usual? Too many thoughts were currently juggling into her head to really tell. “Will a samurai be coming with you as well?”
“It’s not dangerous,” Airi murmured softly. She could see distress written all over her friend’s face, and she really wished she could find the adequate words to erase it. “There’s no need for an escort.”
“Alright,” Rena relented. A part of her wanted to offer to trail along - just in case - but she knew her presence would be undesired. If the master kunoichi didn’t judge the presence of a samurai necessary, then she would only be a burden to them. Unfortunately, she would have to be satisfied with the decision made by Airi’s instructor, and trust her good judgment instead.
“Please be careful,” Rena murmured as she pulled her into a soft hug, and felt two arms returning the embrace at once. It was a ritual she followed each time Airi left the clan for a mission, a simple way to demonstrate all the affection she had for her kunoichi friend. However this time, no matter how hard she tried, she was desperately failing to calm her edginess. And not even the confident whispered words she received in reply managed to alleviate the doubts plaguing her.
If there was a place where spies could gather information the most effectively, it was definitely at the brothel of the village. Men got drunk in the blink of an eye, and extracting information was easy as pie once they reached the bedroom. Rie had more than once used prostitutes in the past to get what she wanted, and today was no exception.
“Our target has taken a liking in this new girl,” Rie explained. Both Airi and her had engulfed themselves in a narrowed dark alley away from prying eyes. Although their chances to stumble upon someone in such a place were very low, Rie still checked her surroundings every now and then while addressing the other kunoichi. Experience taught her to stay cautious at all times. “Go inside and wait for her to give you the information we need. I’ll be waiting near the horses.”
Airi nodded. She had been given those same directives at the clan early on, but the master kunoichi always liked to repeat them one last time in detail before the beginning of a job, in order to make sure they were well understood. A sign of her unfailing professionalism: since Rie was appointed master kunoichi three years ago, not one mission failed.
A few minutes later Airi entered the house, scanning the place in search of the girl who was going to help them accomplish their mission. Although she never met her before, the green kimono she was informed she would be wearing caught her attention, and she observed the woman who was having a talk at a table with a man in his thirties.
Their eyes met briefly and Airi guessed by the sudden glint in the prostitute’s ones that she realized who she was. Not wishing to attract any unwanted attention - especially not from their talkative target by the girl’s side - she looked away and walked towards the staircase, before entering the bedroom she would be staying in during the operation.
She didn’t have to wait long before hearing the bedroom next door filled with voices, especially one very loud and drunk. The walls were so thin, that Airi could hear perfectly everything: from the kisses being exchanged, to the clothes being dropped on the floor. Nothing could escape her, and she waited patiently for the information to leave the man’s mouth. It was a question of minutes, now.
As expected, words left his - drunken with alcohol and desire - lips, all thanks to the girl’s clever seductive act. Location. Identity of the next target. Day and time. Airi got everything she needed. She had no reason to stay any longer in this room. Silently, she pulled away from the wall and moved towards the door - ready to slid it open carefully - until the man’s loud voice stopped her in her tracks.
“Why are you so curious?”
Airi froze instantly. The heavy silence that followed wasn’t a good sign. Experienced prostitutes knew how to deflect unwanted questions - making good use of their charms to cajole their clients - but this was a new girl. And she fell upon a victim much clever than expected. Unfortunately, it appeared the cups of sake did not cloud his mind as much as hoped.
Airi didn’t like the direction this mission was going. The girl had resumed talking and was trying hard to change the subject, but she had triggered the man’s suspicion. Her words were lacking conviction, and Airi could hear through the thin wall separating them that she was losing control. Not to mention the man’s voice was rising higher and higher as the seconds went by. This was not good at all.
Airi knew she couldn’t intervene. Spies were supposed to stay hidden in the shadow; a fact she learned on her first day of training. She followed that rule scrupulously until now, understanding well why her job required of her to never reveal her identity to anyone. One mistake, and the mission could be compromised. So what was she still doing in this room? Why had she still not left the house?
A hard slap on the cheek jolted her out of her thoughts, immediately followed by a feminine plaintive cry. The man was obviously decided to get an answer. The prostitute was discovered and she was going to pay the price. Airi mulled over in her head the situation as calmly as possible. Leaving with the piece of information she gathered and ignoring the girl’s distress would be the wiser option. In fact, it was exactly what she was expected to do. The mission was always more important than anything or anyone.
Airi slid the door open and stepped in the corridor, her heart skipping a beat when another slap reached her ears. The prostitute was holding on and not relenting to his never ending questioning, but her silence wasn’t going to help her. She was going to give in soon or later. The man was making sure of it. Airi knew there would be consequences for what she was about to do, but she couldn’t simply walk down the stairs and leave as if nothing happened. She had to defend this poor girl - who did nothing to deserve this treatment - from this extreme violence.
It only took a few seconds’ struggle for Airi to knock the man unconscious. Now, he was laying motionless on the tatami, and the young kunoichi tore her eyes away from him to look at the frightened woman on the futon. There were bruises all over her face, and Airi’s heart sank at the view. Why didn’t she intervene sooner to avoid such a beautiful face to be so brutally marked?
“It’s over now,” Airi murmured as she approached. The crying girl was breathing uncontrollably, and she flinched when she tentatively rested her hand over hers in comfort.
“What’s your name?” Airi asked softly as she took a seat next to her on the futon, trying to distract the girl whose eyes were still glued on the person who brutalized her a few minutes ago.
“Churi.” The answer left her lips in a stutter. She was desperately trying to choke back her tears.
“I’m so sorry for what happened,” Airi squeezed her palm carefully, before wincing at the view of the bruises on the back of her hand. It appeared the girl tried to protect her face as best as she could during the violent hits.
“I don’t think I can do this,” Churi whispered between her sobs.
Airi nodded. The prostitute’s reluctance to help them after that terrible incident was more than understandable, and she herself didn’t wish to see that gentle girl experience that again. “Don’t worry. It’s the last time you’ll see me. We won’t call on your services anymore.”
After that, Airi stayed a little while longer with her. She was aware that Rie was waiting outside and probably wondering what was taking so long, but she didn’t want to leave before making sure the girl was alright. That is why she waited patiently for her to calm down, and recover progressively from the traumatizing situation she just went through.
The growing discomfort Airi was experiencing in the middle of her stomach prompted her to take an apprehensive look at her injury, staring at the blood tainting her fingers as she tentatively massaged it. The man’s hidden tanto took her by complete surprise early on, and she failed to avoid it in time when it came her way. The black cape hid her cut perfectly until now - keeping it unnoticed from the master kunoichi - but the sharp pain she was now feeling as they were both making their way back to the clan told her it was not a mild injury as she first believed.
“Rie-san,” Airi uttered with difficulty as she tilted her head to the horse rider at her right. She hoped to solve the matter with the doctor upon her arrival at the clan without the need to worry vainly the other kunoichi, but she was starting to fear the worst. The pain was getting unbearable, and she could feel the reins of her horse slipping from her grasp. “I’m not feeling well.”
“What is it?” Rie asked in confusion, before noticing her companion’s pale face, and the unnatural way she was leaning forward on her mount. Her attention got caught by the fingers pressed against her stomach, and a gasp left her lips when Airi fell from the horse without warning.
“Airi!” The master kunoichi climbed down from her mount at once, quickly reducing the distance to assess what was wrong with the girl now whimpering on the ground. The unknown injury she discovered when she opened the black cape gave her the first piece of information she needed. “How did you get that?”
“The target was hitting the girl. I couldn’t walk away without doing nothing,” Airi justified herself. Fingers were pressed against her cut hurriedly, and her eyes fell into the distraught ones of her mentor. Never in her life she had seen the self-confident master kunoichi so atrociously frightened. This discovery - coupled with the fact that she was now shuddering slightly - didn’t appear as a good sign to her.
“You know we’re not supposed to take action under any circumstances,” Rie chastised her. She was trying very hard to keep the worry out of her trembling voice to not scare her, but she didn’t like what she was seeing. They were still far from the clan. How was she going to bring her back safely in such a condition?
“Why didn’t you say anything!” Rie shouted at last, incapable of keeping her composure any longer. She pressed her palm against the deep wound more forcibly, the action causing the injured girl to hiss in protest. The master kunoichi looked up, only to witness the terrible pain flashing through her eyes. Not once, she released the pressure on the injury, although a little voice inside her head was telling her her desperate attempt to stop the bleeding was useless. She was losing too much blood.
The atrocious pain Airi was experiencing until now was progressively diminishing, but no relief filled her chest. The changes her body were currently going through; she heard all about them before. The arms embracing her were bringing her no warmth. Her lips that were failing to utter a single word were parched. Her eyes that were set on Rie were starting to close without her consent.
Airi could read the signs quite well. She realized it was a matter of seconds until she would draw her last breath and death would take her away. All of a sudden, a familiar face appeared in her head, and she knew there was one last thing she had to say. A favor she needed to ask. “Please look over Rena for me.”
Jurina felt a jolt of electricity course her body when a moan suddenly disrupted the quiet atmosphere of the bedroom. Her expert touch was obviously having quite some effect on the girl laying naked underneath her on the futon, and her lips ravishing the slender neck pulled away to gaze at her lover. The older girl had her head turned the other way and her eyes squeezed shut, but her breathing was becoming erratic through her slightly parted lips. The sound escaping her mouth seemed to have shocked the usually very collected girl as she buried her face in her pillow, in the obvious intention to not produce such a shameful noise again.
Jurina’s left hand moved upwards from the breast she had been giving undivided attention until now to cup her chin and tilt it gently towards her. Despite the dark surrounding them Jurina could distinguish through the moonlight the embarrassment inside the small brown orbs looking back at her, and she kissed longingly those lips that had betrayed her true feelings.
“Don’t hide anything from me, Rena. I want to hear all of it.”
Jurina didn’t wait for an answer and dived in for another hungry kiss, the lips against hers responding to it with equal passion after a slight - but well noticed - moment of hesitation. Of course the older girl didn’t approve of her request and would try and prevent those embarrassing sounds from escaping her lips again. In fact, Jurina didn’t expect any less from the kenjutsu instructor. However, as she let her fingers travel down her abdomen and caress her inner thighs, she knew she was going to do everything in her power to hear them again. And countless of times.
Jurina’s eyes shot open at once and she gasped, the image of her protector still much present in her mind. Her skin was glistening with sweat, and she knew it wasn’t only because of the summer heat. Her dream had been quite… daring. Since that brief kiss exchanged a week ago with the kenjutsu instructor her head had been filled with images of her, but never her nights had been so agitated. Her attraction to the older samurai came as an evidence the moment their lips touched, but after such an intense dream, it was also undeniable that she desired her. Unfortunately for her, the kenjutsu instructor had been cleverly avoiding her since that moment of intimacy in the maple forest.
Jurina sat up on her futon, lifting her hand to run her fingers through her slightly damp hair. Desperately, she tried to focus on anything but the girl of her dreams to calm her racing heart, a growl leaving her lips in frustration when her brain refused to comply to her wishes. She could still feel vividly the older girl’s soft skin under her fingertips, although it had only been a figment of her imagination.
A faint shuffling sound caught her attention and she turned her head right in surprise, noticing her sister turning on her futon. At first, Jurina got afraid she may have unintentionally woke her up, but the head resting heavily on the pillow without moving proved otherwise. Jurina let out a small sigh of relief, not knowing what explanation she would have given her older sister if questioned. Nightmares didn’t even need to be explained as Mayu was unfortunately quite used to them by now, but this kind of dream was another matter altogether. Clearly, she couldn’t have shared its content with her still innocent sister.
When it became obvious by the persistent picture of her protector that she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep straight away she got up on her feet, and retrieved her clothes to dress up. Some fresh air was needed if she wished to clear her head and cool her body down. Her eyes fell on her sister as she finally slid the door open once she was done covering herself - making sure one last time she was indeed still sleeping - before stepping out the room quietly.
“You look surprised to see me,” Jurina joked when she took a seat at the table near her friend clad in her usual green yukata. Indeed, the shock that crossed Churi’s features when she stepped into the house didn’t go unnoticed. Neither her mouth opened wide.
“Of course I am,” Churi stammered, slapping Jurina’s arm in remonstrance at the light mockery she was being subjected to. “You never come here in the middle of the week. Did something happen?”
Perceptive as usual, Jurina thought inwardly. And she didn’t even need to utter a single word for a friend to guess things right. Not surprising, but still very impressive.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Jurina replied simply, her gaze wandering around the room in mild curiosity - taking in the other women occupied with men and noticing Annin who was busy seducing a client - before drinking silently her cup of saké the waitress placed in front of her.
“I see,” Churi murmured. “Did you have other plans in mind?”
The implied suggestion didn’t go unnoticed when Churi’s eyes flickered briefly to Annin, and she shook her head lightly, her gaze lingering on the girl who had shared her bed a few times in the past. “No, this is over.”
“Really?” Churi exclaimed, before nodding pensively. “So you were serious that day.”
Jurina shifted her attention to her in puzzlement, noticing how her friend’s features grew suddenly serious. She could tell by the way she was hesitating that she was about to divulge something important, and she stared at her in expectation.
“Annin came to talk to me a while ago,” Churi started after a little while. “She explained me everything you told her the last time you joined her in her room. I think she expected me to have an explanation for your distant behavior.”
“She came to talk to you?” Jurina repeated, not believing what she was hearing. It was no secret the two women were not the best of friends - in fact, she had never seen them share a word once - but it seemed Annin’s curiosity had led her to make the first step.
“She wanted to know who was driving you away from her.” Churi continued, before pausing. Annin’s pained look submerged her memory, and she realized how wrong she had been about her all this time. Until now, she always believed Annin considered Nobunaga as a treasured prize - as she was the only one the young girl had accepted the favors - but their recent unexpected conversation brought out a truth she would never have foreseen. “She has feelings for you, Nobunaga.”
“I know.” Jurina sighed. Churi’s discovery was no revelation to her as she came to the same conclusion herself, but it was the first time she was broaching the problematic subject with her. She still couldn’t understand how the older girl could have developed such improbable feelings for her, considering she had definitely never encouraged them. “What did you tell her?”
“I lied. I said you never mentioned another woman,” Churi murmured, guilt washing over her as she recalled her disconcerting conversation with Annin.
In her field of work, a good lie was the key to success. Telling clients what they desired to hear the most was the best way to obtain what she wanted and, after years of practice, it was like second nature to her. However, she couldn’t help but feel slightly bad afterwards when the lie left naturally her lips at Annin’s pressing questioning. Of course, it was not her place to divulge such a piece of information, but the other girl’s desperate need of an answer managed to hit a nerve.
“But I never did.” Jurina frowned.
Churi came out of her musing at Jurina’s affirmation, her mouth tugging into an amused smile at the confused look directed at her. Somehow, she could sense this was going to be a very interesting conversation. “What about your protector? Hasn’t she been on your thoughts quite a lot lately?”
Churi expected her young friend to refute her bold statement vehemently but to her amazement, no words left her startled interlocutor. Truth to be told, she had wanted to broach that particular subject for a little while now, noticing the frequent mentions of the kenjutsu instructor. Nobunaga never was a talkative person; but each time she opened her mouth, the older samurai happened to be mentioned at some point during the conversation.
At first, no kind words were uttered concerning her protector; on the contrary. It was quite obvious by her constant displeasure she did not like being watched over by a stranger, even less by someone she seemingly couldn’t understand the motivation. Moreover, Churi still remembered the intense confrontation she had witnessed between them a while ago, and she feared their forced partnership would end very badly if they did not manage to find a common ground.
It appeared she had been very wrong about her predictions. Harsh criticisms had progressively been replaced by kinder words, Nobunaga’s face even lightening up each time she spoke about her daily trainings. Churi had to admit she would have given anything to assist to one of those, mesmerized by the passion her friend always displayed when she mentioned her tiring but obviously fulfilling exercises. And she could tell she now respected the woman who was delivering them; the one who was driving her mad - although she amusingly always tried to minimize the effect her behavior had on her - until not so long ago.
Churi watched thoughtfully her young friend who still had not replied her declaration. A little voice inside her head was telling her it was the right moment to ask the question that was burning her lips, but her fear of being too invasive held her tongue. Apart from her daily activities at the clan and the recurrent mentions of her instructor, Nobunaga never shared much about herself or her past. It was not that she wasn’t curious about the girl she happened to enjoy the company very much, but she always respected her laconic behavior until now. Maybe it was time to dig in this dense armor to discover what was hidden inside this beating heart?
“I think you like her more than what you want to admit,” Churi affirmed, finally breaking the silence between them. There was a chance Nobunaga would not grant her with a proper answer or even change the subject: if that was the case, she would choose to not insist. Even so, she had to try, or she felt she would regret not asking. After all, maybe she was as curious as Annin to discover the truth.
“I kissed her and she pushed me away,” Jurina declared, smiling a bit when she saw Churi widening her eyes in reaction, before frowning. “But I know she likes me too, which is why I don’t understand her attitude.”
Churi could imagine the surprise written all over her face, but she simply couldn’t help her emotions from showing: she had not seen coming such a revelation. Not only she had admitted - though in a diverted way - harboring feelings for her instructor, she had also confessed easily making a move on her. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Find out the truth,” Jurina replied seriously. “I was hoping she would come around, but she hasn’t stopped avoiding me. It needs to end.”
Churi smiled at her friend’s self-confidence. She didn’t know exactly how she was planning on doing what she had declared, but she could tell her next conversation with her instructor would be a very interesting thing to watch. Now, she half regretted she wouldn’t be present to witness it. “You won’t quit until you get what you want, will you?”
“Quit?” Jurina arched an eyebrow in confusion, as if she just heard a foreign word. Churi tried to suppress her laugh as best as she could at her reaction, but her lips betrayed her amusement when she faced a smirking Nobunaga. “I don’t even know what it means.”
It was still dark outside when Jurina left Churi and mounted her horse to go back to the clan. After her conversation with her friend, she was more than decided to have a word with her kenjutsu instructor, who had barely spoken to her these last days. In fact, their only moments of interactions had happened during lessons in the presence of other students, and always stayed strictly professional. Each time she had tried to approach her at the end of a training session or during the rest of the day the task proved to be impossible, as the kenjutsu instructor was never one moment alone. And Jurina wasn’t naive enough to not see that she was surrounding herself with people on purpose.
Rena’s composed as ever attitude surely didn’t ease her frustration one bit. Truth to be told, she didn’t even know how she managed to stand this absurd behavior of hers, and not tackled the subject with her protector the day following the kiss. Reflecting upon her own unusual patience, it occurred to her that those meditation techniques truly had had an impact on her, as she had kept quiet all this time and not let explode her annoyance. However, after one very long week of watching her protector’s clever maneuvers to avoid her, she had reached her limits.
Jurina didn’t know exactly how she was going to get the answers she needed, but she was ready to burst into her protector’s room if it had to come to that. It was not the option she favored the best, guessing the older girl would definitely not be pleased by the unwilling intrusion, but what other choices did she have left if her protector stubbornly continued to cautiously keep her distance? How would she get the truth out of her if she did not confront her about it?
Jurina was still lost in thoughts when the small whinny of her stallion made her look up in curiosity, only to witness three men standing at the end of the narrowed alley she was currently passing through. She squinted her eyes in the direction of the unknown silhouettes to try and discern them better, much in vain in this distance. Her fingers gripped the reins of her horse more tightly and - when he happened to slow down a bit - she pressed her ankles against his flanks to prompt him to move forward. The animal’s hesitant behavior taught her he was starting to feel nervous about the unmoving presences staring at them, and Jurina knew his senses had been right when she heard footsteps behind her.
Three other men had appeared over her shoulder, and Jurina frowned at what looked awfully like an ambush. What were they after? Her money? She had barely any, like every samurai of the clan. Was it personal? Her time was divided between her lessons at the clan and her moments spent with Churi, and she didn’t believe to have offended anyone, at least not to the extent to be dragged into a fight. Jurina halted her horse when the three men in front of her approached until they were merely a few feet away.
"I see my source was right," the middle one snickered as he stood out from his companions. "You really do visit the brothel of the village.”
Jurina understood by his words that she had been followed, and that this ambush was cleverly planned. It definitely looked like they knew each other judging by the contemptuous look he was giving her, but his face did not strike a familiar note. However, she did not need to question him as he spoke again, seemingly noticing her confusion.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” he spat, lifting his left sleeve to reveal his arm, “maybe this mark will refresh your memory.”
A ten inches scar appeared on his forearm, and Jurina failed to understand why he was showing her such a thing as if it was supposed to ring a bell. Her eyes flickered back and forth between his mark and his face, until she finally managed to connect the dot. Indeed, she had crossed this man’s path, even if it was only for a few minutes. Their encounter had been so brief she had all forgotten about him, but it seemed not the same could be said about her interlocutor.
“You’re the accomplice of the thief.” Jurina affirmed, the scene flashing through her mind while she spoke. He was the man who was waiting that day at the end of the alley with two horses; the one she had then injured with her tanto, before going after the thief who was distancing himself with Churi’s present.
“It took me a while to find you,” he continued. “But I won’t let you go now that I did.”
Jurina narrowed her eyes at his threatening tone. So that was what it was all about? Retaliation? Under any other circumstances, Jurina would have laughed at him. He deserved this scar he seemed to be ashamed of - considering he quickly hid it under his sleeve - and got lucky that was all he managed to have. That day, she was fuming with anger after failing to stop the theft from happening. If she had not been in a hurry to retrieve the pendant from his companion, she definitely wouldn’t have felt contented with a simple injury on the arm.
All those words were about to leave her lips when she noticed the group of men moving closer to her, and she realized the urgency of the situation. Their goal was pretty clear when she saw their hands moving to their daggers in a threatening manner, and it became obvious she would not escape without a fight.
“This is disloyal,” Jurina said calmly, looking at each one of them, before stopping on what appeared to be the leader, considering the other men had still not uttered a single word. “Six is not enough.”
Jurina smirked proudly when she witnessed the fury flashing through his eyes, his hands tightening into a fist by his sides. Without a surprise, she did not have to wait long to hear his command disrupting the heavy atmosphere. “Seize her."
Jurina grabbed her tanto at her waist in a haste, aiming for the first man who tried to unhorse her. A cry instantly left his lips when the sharp blade disfigured his cheek and he took a few steps backwards, placing his palm against his bleeding skin. Jurina’s quick reaction seemed to have surprised the other men as they all paused in their tracks, and she took advantage of the moment to press her ankles against her horse's flanks.
At the order the stallion tried to move forward but one of the attackers quickly blocked his way and tried to grab the reins. Just as its fingers were about to circle them Jurina pulled harshly onto the reins and the animal reared up instantly, his hooves landing on the man’s face harshly. An opening appeared in front of her when he hit the ground hard at the contact, but it was without taking account the leader’s tenacity.
His voice sounded anew in the dark alley encouraging his companions to attack, and Jurina felt the reins slipping from her grasp when four men hurled themselves at her and made her loose her balance onto the horse. After a short struggle Jurina managed to disentangle herself from their grasp but it was now too late, as she had lost her only advantage. Now, she was standing on her feet and facing six very angry men, decided to fight to the finish considering they had pulled out their daggers.
Jurina tightened her hold on her tanto and pressed her back against the wall behind her, pondering over her options while feeling small drops of water starting to hit her face. It had not rained a single day since her arrival at the clan, but it appeared today the odds were definitely against her. A fact she realized when the rain started to fall really hard a few seconds later. The unpredictable change of weather did not seem to have deterred her opponents who moved forward and she lifted her tanto, ready to greet each one of them properly.
Jurina watched the three men who were still standing in front of her. Since the beginning of the fight she had managed to get rid of three attackers, who were now laying unconscious on the ground. Her tanto had escaped her hold during the last confrontation, and she could now only rely on her fists and quick reflexes to defend herself. She held her fists in front of her when the remaining attackers approached slowly, trying to figure out the best tactic to adopt. Until now, she had avoided any serious injury - only receiving a small cut on her ripped left sleeve - and a few bruises, which one of them had notably split her lower lip.
A first man tentatively threw himself at her and she moved right to avoid his sharp blade, catching his wrist when he got within reach and twisting his arm. The dagger slipped between his fingers and fell on the ground, a cry leaving his lips in complaint at the sharp pain, before a fist hit his face and knocked him out. Out of the corner of her eye Jurina noticed another man rushing towards her and she moved aside quickly - tightening her hand into a fist again - her opponent falling onto his knees when she threw a punch into his stomach.
Now that she was done with them, Jurina stared at the leader who was cautiously keeping his distance. In fact, since the beginning, he had watched the whole fight from afar, never participating even once. Was he going to flee? Jurina truly did believe it when she witnessed his hesitant look. Morever, he still had not pulled his dagger out. Jurina followed his every move carefully, a bit startled when he opened his mouth to speak.
However, his words did not reach her ears, the pouring rain muffling the sound of his voice. Jurina frowned when she witnessed his mouth tugging into a smirk, and she failed to notice in time the threat approaching from behind. Suddenly, she felt a sharp pain at the back of her head, blurring her sight and unbalacing her steps. Her head was ringing loud when she turned to face her opponent, only to feel a pair of arms encircling her waist from behind, preventing her effectively from moving any further.
It appeared one of her victims had recovered from her blow as she faced a threatening dagger, and she heard in her ear the snicker of the leader who had seized her from behind - and whom against she was trying to free herself - in vain against his strong hold. Under any circumstances she would have gotten rid of him quite easily, but the previous fights had worn her out, and her head was still painfully buzzing. Not to mention she had to squint her eyes to try and see properly, having not fully recovered her vision from the previous blow.
Jurina felt the side of the dagger grazing slowly her left cheek, before moving upwards towards her eye. Her breathing hitched when she understood what her attacker had in mind, the tip of the blade drawing close to her orb. Acting fact she thrusted her elbow hard in the man behind her, destabilizing the leader a few seconds, which gave her enough time to move aside and avoid the threat.
A shriek echoed through the rain when the blade planted itself into the right eye of the leader, and Jurina took a few cautious steps backwards at the scene. The leader was now kneeling on the ground, holding his face in terrible pain, while his accomplice was staring at him in shock at the unforeseen turn of events.
Jurina placed her hand at the back of head, feeling the red liquid on her fingers instantly. When she was still unable to see properly and was starting to feel dizzy, she realized how hard the blow had affected her. Recognizing those signs all too well she looked up to the two men in worry, knowing she had to get rid of them fast before her body would give up on her.
The man who still had the bloodied dagger in his shaking hand suddenly turned to her, and she prepared herself when he launched himself at her in fury. She caught his arm when he tried to plant his blade into her stomach, while using her other hand to punch him in the face. He stumbled backwards immediately, his hand moving towards his broken nose, and she took advantage of his disoriented state to return his blade against him.
Jurina watched as he fell on his knees in front of her, severely injured, before she looked up to the leader who was still screaming in pain a few feet away. Her gaze swept her surroundings to assess that all her attackers were still motionless on the ground. Of course, she had been involved into a few fights before she arrived at the clan with her sister, but never it had ended in such a terrible way. Five men were now laying around her - a few severely injured, the others unconscious - and the last one would have the reminder of this day on his face for the rest of his life.
As she walked towards his direction and stopped in front of him he looked up slowly, and Jurina felt a shiver run down her spine when he removed his fingers and his bloodied eye appeared. A few whimpers were now escaping his mouth in agony, and Jurina wondered briefly if she did not see tears sliding down his cheeks. It was hard to tell with the rain still pouring hard over their heads.
"Please don’t kill me.”
Jurina widened her eyes slightly at his pleading tone. He definitely did not sound anymore like the man who had taunted her early on. In fact, he now almost looked like a lost and lonely child. The sight was definitely astonishing.
“Why should I spare your life?” Jurina hissed, kneeling and grabbing him by the collar. Her sight still had not come back completely but as she inched closer to his face, she could well discern the fear she was provoking inside him.
“You will never cross my path again,” he stuttered, breathing hard. “I was foolishly so bent on revenge, and what did I get in return?”
Jurina watched him as he placed his shaking hand over his bloodied eye, and she considered her options. A dagger was laying close to her fingers on the ground, and the idea of retribution was still very much present in her mind. Until now, she had only injured her opponents and not killed any one of them, but this man was at the origin of everything. He was the one who had provoked this fight.
While still holding his collar with her left hand, her right one caught the dagger between her fingers. There was no one around to witness her crime; nor her sister to stop her. If she wanted to kill him here and there, no one would ever know about it. Jurina lifted the weapon, the man gasping when he noticed the threat directed at him, and felt the cold blade against his throat.
Jurina was starting to draw blood when she suddenly paused midway, frowning in confusion at her own hesitation. Yes, she had wanted to get her revenge the moment those men unhorsed her, but she could not feel the bloodlust running through her veins. This man doesn’t deserve to live! Her mind was screaming at her, but her steady hand was refusing to end his life.
“Leave,” Jurina ordered, removing slowly the dagger from his throat, and seeing surprise written all over his face in reaction. Obviously, he did not believe he would see the sun again once the blade was placed against his throat.
Jurina watched as he got up on his feet clumsily and took a few cautious steps backwards. She could tell he was still following her every move in fear when she stood up, before he turned on his heels when he was at a good distance, and left without a word. Once he was out of view, Jurina looked over her stallion and she walked towards it with difficulty, feeling her last strengths abandoning her rapidly. Her fingers brushed the reins but she did not manage to grab them, collapsing into the alley at once.
Churi placed her slightly shaking palm over Jurina’s forehead, exhaling in despair when it was still burning under her fingertips. After a little while Churi retracted her hand slowly, wondering worriedly how to help the unconscious girl laying on her futon. A couple hours ago, one of the prostitutes had passed the front door of the brothel in a haste, and at the mention of Nobunaga along with her look of terror Churi’s heart had started to race, fearing something terrible had happened to her young friend.
Without wasting a minute she had followed her to the nearby alley Nobunaga had been seen laying unconscious and they had brought her back safely to her room, although not without difficulty. At some point, the injured girl had mumbled a few words to her, however mostly incoherent. Now, she was unconscious again, and Churi found herself completely powerless. She had knocked on the door of a doctor and begged him to come to tend to her injuries, in vain as he simply refused to enter what he called a shameful place.
At the sound of footsteps Churi looked up from the motionless girl to the door, noticing the annoyed guard staring at her. He had surprisingly stayed quiet when they had entered the place with a stumbling Nobunaga under their arms, but his displeased expression spoke louder than words. Churi knew it would be a matter of time until he would come to her room to broach the subject, so she wasn’t in the least surprised by his presence.
“She can’t stay here any longer,” he affirmed, pointing his finger at Jurina with determination. “She’s preventing you from working.”
Churi nodded silently, well aware that - despite his harsh words - he was quite right. Of course, she could try and buy herself more time, but it was useless if she couldn’t come up with a solution for her current problem. Contrary to the guard, her work was the least of her concerns right now: Nobunaga’s troubling condition was monopolizing all her thoughts. She could tell by all the bruises and her torn clothes that she had been involved in a very bad fight, and her injury at the back of her head had not been unnoticed. Moreover, she had a fever, most probably caused by the unfortunate and unforeseen bad weather. It had rained really hard the whole night.
Churi watched as the guard left her room with a deep frown, realizing she had to act fast. If Nobunaga was still laying on her futon by the end of the day, she guessed the man would not hesitate to shove her out of the brothel. And her pleas would definitely be useless against such a harsh treatment. Her fingers absently traced the pendant around her friend’s neck, wondering what could have been the reason behind her current terrible state. Yes, she had witnessed her being impulsive at times, but never Nobunaga had entered the house with such injuries. The few bruises sometimes observed on her skin had only been the result of her daily training at the clan.
At that thought Churi’s eyes lit up instantly, and she gasped as a solution finally emerged. Why had she not thought about it sooner? She got up on her feet at once, a smile falling on her lips in hope. Her unfortunate position as a prostitute prevented her from helping her friend as much as she would like, but it didn’t mean someone else couldn’t. A person the feverish girl had uttered the name a few times before falling unconscious.
It was already sunrise when Churi stood hesitant in front of the black stallion tied next to the front door of the brothel. He had been really agitated from the moment she had brought him back from the alley, and she had even doubted then that she would manage to have him follow her, considering how difficult he was acting. From the first day Churi laid eyes on Nobunaga’s horse she could tell it was a very impetuous animal, and she always wondered how her friend successfully managed to control him so effectively.
Churi tentatively took a step forward, approaching her hand to the horse’s reins. Just as she was about to grab them the horse made an abrupt movement backwards, and Churi pulled away in fear instantly. A sigh left her lips in concern at the animal’s behavior, trying to figure out how she was going to mount a horse who was obviously not ready to cooperate with her.
“I’m just trying to help your master,” Churi murmured, hoping her calm tone would ease the nervous animal. He was acting very suspicious today, and she knew it wasn’t only because of his wild nature. Obviously, he had witnessed early on something in that alley that made him keep his distance more than usual.
Churi made a second attempt, her eyes never leaving once those of the black stallion. Refusing to let fear take hold of her this time her mouth tugged into a reassuring smile, hoping her emotions would reach the animal. Her hand was not trembling anymore when she placed it gently against his neck, and she waited patiently for his reaction. The stallion’s eyes were still fixed on her, as if measuring her sincerity, and Churi had to muster all her willpower to stay serene. If anything, Nobunaga’s proud stallion was a beautiful and strong animal, but also very impressive to look at.
The wait was painfully never-ending, but Churi knew she couldn’t rush it. Going to the clan by foot would take her too long, and the horse currently staring at her was unfortunately her only option right now. She absolutely needed to gain his trust if she wished to aid its owner. Her hand moved carefully upwards, sliding her fingers through its long mane. The gesture seemed to surprise him at first, as his ears raised immediately in alert, until she felt a little while later his nostrils against her arm when he tentatively approached his head.
Churi continued to caress his mane, noticing that she was making some good progress, before untying the reins with the other hand. This time, the animal didn’t make any sign of protest, and Churi knew now was her chance. Placing her right foot in the stirrup she pushed herself up, securing the reins again once she was on the animal. Patiently, she waited for the stallion to get used to the new human being on his back, before releasing a small breath she didn’t even realize she was holding when he seemed to accept her presence.
The horserider looked in the direction of the maple forest visible from afar, her fingers encircling the reins. When was the last time she found herself at the back of a horse? Too long ago to remember, but she couldn’t afford to let her insecurity get the upper hand. With determination, she pressed her heels against the horse’s flanks, relieved when he thankfully obeyed to her command and moved forward.
Churi couldn’t help but feel slightly nervous when she dismounted the horse and gazed at the very large house of the clan. It was the first time she happened to stand in front of the imposing mansion, and she took a moment to take in the impressive view offered to her, from the large garden to the few buildings the clan was composed of. Her fingers pulled gently onto the reins when she finally decided to approach the front gate, her eyes falling into the guard’s suspicious ones.
“I would like to see Matsui-dono,” she asked with a polite bow, but could immediately tell her request would unfortunately be denied by the man’s mocking expression.
“Turn around, woman.” He waved a dismissive hand at her. “Your services are not needed, here.”
Churi wasn’t at all surprised by his attitude. In fact, she sensed her presence would be mostly unwelcomed, and her request would lead to such an answer. Prostitutes belonged to only one place - the brothel of the village - and were not supposed to venture outside, certainly not to such a respectable place as Momijimori no kami’s clan. Still, she had not come here to offer her services - as the guard obviously seemed to believe - so she needed to make herself very clear about the reason of her presence.
“Please,” Churi tried again. She didn’t want to sound too desperate, but her thoughts kept shifting to the last time she laid eyes on her young friend, and her preoccupying condition. She couldn’t afford to go back to the village empty handed. “Nobunaga is injured. She needs to see her.”
“Who?” The guard frowned.
The impatient and exasperated grunt that left his lips soon after told Churi that this conversation was going nowhere. Not only this guard was being completely uncooperative with her, it also occurred to her that she was missing a big piece of information: Nobunaga’s real name. Indeed, never once she had shared it with her. Until now, she had not really thought twice about it, as she was used to calling her by that nickname, but now she realized the problem she was facing because of it.
Churi tore her eyes away from the guard - deep in thoughts - searching her brain for the right words that could manage to sway him. When, after a little while, she still couldn’t come up with anything she looked up in despair towards the inaccessible building visible across the gate, noticing two women engaged in a conversation leaving the building. Her face lit up when she distinguished her friend’s protector, and her feet moved without thinking towards her direction. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to go very far as the guard immediately blocked her advance.
“That’s enough,” he hissed, pushing her away unceremoniously. “Go away.”
Just as Churi was about to open her mouth to speak the loud whinny behind her back made her jump and she turned around to the stallion, startled when he pulled forcibly onto the reins she was holding and moved decisively towards the guard. Churi watched dumbfounded the improbable scene unfolding in front of her - the man trying desperately to stop the animal’s energetic attempts to pass the front gate - and she would have laughed at his helpless look if she didn’t notice from her peripheral vision a woman now moving towards the gate.
“Careful, Matsui-dono,” the guard warned when he saw the long, dark-haired samurai approaching him. “This animal is out of control!”
As soon as the alarming words left his mouth, the stallion calmed down instantly, and the guard watched in stupefaction the animal completely disregarding his presence in favor of the kenjutsu instructor, reducing the distance and pressing his head against her shoulder as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“What is going on, Matsuda-san?” Rena addressed the young guard just recently appointed to the watch of the gate, while moving distractedly her fingers towards the animal’s neck when he happened to rub her arm gently.
Her eyes flickered back and forth questioningly between the man and the woman staring back at her completely speechless, while trying to figure out why her protégée’s stallion - which she had recognized its distinctive loud whinny from afar - was out of the blue being so affectionate with her. Apart from that day in the stables where the animal had responded to her touch positively under the influence of the young Watanabe, never had he taken such an initiative. But most of all, she was wondering why its owner was nowhere in sight. Her absence, coupled with the improbable presence of the familiar woman in front of her, was starting to unease her.
“Matsui-dono,” Churi intervened when she noticed that the guard was about to speak up. “Please follow me to the village. Nobunaga has been injured and needs assistance.”
Rena’s hand that was until now caressing the calm animal froze, and she widened her eyes at Churi’s declaration. Her steady heartbeats accelerated slightly at the revelation, questions piling in her head one after another. Although she discerned footsteps approaching from behind and heard Yuki’s voice calling her she did not utter a single word for a while, her eyes never leaving once Churi’s worried ones.
“Kashiwagi-san,” Rena finally said, tilting her head right when she felt her friend’s presence by her side. “Could you please accompany me to the village?”
Yuki was surprised by the sudden demand, having unfortunately arrived too late to eavesdrop the conversation, but as she distinguished the slight - but perceptible - tremble in the usually controlled kenjutsu instructor’s voice, she knew she would leave her questions for later. “Of course.”
“I still don’t understand why the young Watanabe comes here so often,” Yuki addressed Rena in a murmur, sweeping the room with a glance as they stepped this early morning in the quiet brothel.
To be honest, she was feeling a bit ill-at-ease standing for the first time in such a place, but she chose to keep her discomfort to herself, instead following her friend who had barely uttered a single word on the way here. And her latest declaration didn’t stir much a reaction either as the kenjutsu instructor didn’t reply, instead keeping her eyes glued on the woman leading them up the staircase.
When it became obvious Rena wasn’t going to satisfy her curiosity with an explanation Yuki diverted her attention to the woman wearing a green yukata in front of them, who had definitely not been much more talkative herself. She knew almost nothing about her, except for the fact that she was somewhat close to Mayu’s younger sister, and seemed to care a lot about her. Indeed, the deep worry she had witnessed upon her features at the clan was still much present in her eyes when she happened to turn to look at them.
Churi paused in front of her bedroom and slid the door open, stepping aside and inviting the two women in with a polite bow. Rena entered, before freezing when her eyes fell on the unconscious girl laying on the futon. She caught Yuki’s shocked gasp behind her back, but her attention was still drawn to the motionless girl when the kyudo instructor happened to move past her.
Rena vaguely registered Yuki asking a few questions - as she was seemingly trying to find out what had caused Jurina to be in such a bad shape - and Churi’s helpless voice as she confessed her ignorance. Both women were now kneeling next to Jurina’s form - Yuki checking the young girl’s injuries - and Rena could feel her heart pounding fast inside her chest without her consent.
Unconsciously, her fingers started to circle the tsuka of her katana, before squeezing it into a tight, painful grip. Rena ignored the hurt completely, instead listening to the chanting mantra of the voices that were sneakily slipping inside her head. It had been two years since she last heard them and, thankfully, they had never once resurfaced again. Until that precise moment.
“Rena-san, are you alright?”
It was only at the third calling of her name that Rena finally snapped out of her dark thoughts, and she glanced back at Yuki who was watching her half in worry and confusion. As she noticed her friend’s eyes moving downwards to her waist she suddenly became aware of her hand over her sword and she released it at once, finally leaving the doorstep to approach the futon.
“Do you think she provoked a fight?” Yuki asked hesitantly when Rena kneeled by her side, her previous strange behavior all forgotten. It is true that she had witnessed in the past the young Watanabe sister’s impulsive behavior, but this was definitely a first. Her thoughts went worriedly towards her own protégée, and she feared her reaction when she would see her sister in such a terrible state.
“She most definitely got involved into one,” Rena affirmed, covering Jurina’s sweating forehead with her hand gently. “But I’m convinced she wasn’t at the origin of it.”
Yuki found herself taken aback by her friend’s assurance, wondering where her sudden faith was coming from. Yes, she had seen Rena’s relationship with her protégée improve greatly these last few months - witnessing them talking to each other quite freely during and after the training lessons - but all this progress seemed to have vanished into thin air these last days. Yuki had seen the distance Rena was now putting between them, but she still couldn’t figure out why Rena was seemingly trying to avoid her protégée at all costs.
Out of curiosity she had asked her about it during one of their recent talks but her friend had been quite obscure about it, and cleverly changed the subject in the end. Did the young sister find a way to offend her again? The thought had crossed her mind a few times after that, but Rena’s current caring attitude told her there had to be another explanation. One her secretive friend was refusing to provide.
“Why hasn’t she seen a doctor?” Rena snapped. Jurina’s terrible state was not reassuring, and her lack of care more than obvious. The injury at the back of her head was nothing but worrying, and she had a high fever. As a result, she couldn’t help her tone from rising when she gave an accusing look to the owner of the room, failing to notice Yuki’s astonishment at her sudden outburst.
“I’m sorry,” Churi stammered, avoiding her intense, angry stare. “The doctor refused to follow me here.”
Rena realized by Churi’s guilty expression that she had gone too far, and she immediately regretted the harsh tone she just employed. It was unusual of herself to get carried away by her emotions and, to top it all, her interlocutor was not at fault. “Forgive my impoliteness. You did the right thing by seeking help from the clan.”
A small smile grazed Churi’s lips which Rena reciprocated a bit awkwardly, before turning towards Yuki decidedly. “We have to bring her back to the clan at once.”
“I’ll carry her to the horses,” Yuki offered immediately to which Rena agreed with a nod, helping her lift up the unconscious girl from the futon carefully.
Once Jurina was well secured into her arms Yuki made her way out of the bedroom, followed closely by Rena. The kenjutsu instructor was about to pass the door when she paused, turning hesitantly towards the owner of the room. As she studied her she could see worry still written all over her face, and she pondered over what to say next. Her relationship with the woman standing silently a few feet away from her had always been quite complicated, and although her protégée had mentioned her a few times during their conversations, she had barely spoken to her.
Truth to be told, she felt slightly uncomfortable in her presence and, after denying the truth for so long, she was now conscious that this uneasiness was triggered by the woman’s close bond with her protégée. For a while, she stubbornly refused to acknowledge this pain she would feel inside her chest each time the young Watanabe happened to talk about her, alongside with that very unfitting feeling of jealousy. It was quite childish of her to behave this way and it had unsettled her at first, considering she never had let such a negative feeling enter her heart before in her life.
Rena could feel the tension enveloping them progressively as none of them spoke, instead merely facing each other silently. The thought of turning on her heels and leaving without a word did cross her mind at some point, before realizing she simply couldn’t do that. It was true that she knew practically nothing about that woman, but they had one thing in common: someone they were currently both concerned about.
“I’ll send someone once we know more about her condition,” Rena stated confidently, surprising herself by how naturally the words left her lips. “Thank you for sheltering her.”
Rena noticed the surprise flashing through Churi’s eyes - although it faded rapidly - and she received a genuine, broad smile in return. “Thank you, Matsui-dono. I know she’s in good hands.”
Rena observed the old grey-haired man of slight build who was leaned over the feverish girl lying on the futon. He had been studying her protégée for quite some time since their return to the clan - checking her bruises and apparent injuries carefully - and hadn’t said a single word since the unconscious eighteen year old girl was brought to him. The kenjutsu instructor was not in the least surprised by the doctor’s reserved behavior: she had witnessed the same pattern over the years when he happened to tend to a soldier or a samurai’s injuries. However today, she found herself a bit frustrated by the lack of information falling from his lips.
A few times now, she had meant to ask him how severe her protégée’s condition was but had refrained from doing so, not wishing to disturb him during his thorough observation. Maybe her legendary patience was finally running thin as Rena felt her mouth opening without her consent, ready to have a few burning and pressing questions roll off her tongue. Just as she was about to let them slip from her lips, she heard the bedroom’s door sliding rapidly, and her attention got drawn to the two women standing on the doorstep.
Shock was written all over Mayu’s face and her mouth wide open, and she probably would have kept on staring petrified at her motionless sister if not for the hand placed gently on her shoulder by the kyudo instructor next to her. The gesture pulled Mayu out of her daze and she took a few hesitant steps forward, her eyes, which were fighting back tears, never leaving Jurina.
Mayu took a seat next to her sister, letting out a gasp when her shaking palm touched her sweating forehead. Rena could tell by the side glance she gave the quiet doctor that she - as well - wanted to desperately interrogate him, but she nonetheless did not utter a single word. The current worrying state of her sister was rendering her completely speechless.
Yuki soon joined Mayu, placing a comforting hand on her still shaking one. A silent exchange followed suit between them as Mayu tilted her head slowly towards her protector, her sorrow preventing her from reciprocating the warm smile directed at her. However, although Mayu’s lips kept firmly shut the whole time, Rena picked up on the young girl’s fingers tentatively squeezing Yuki’s in obvious search of comfort.
“Her life is not in danger,” the doctor declared, disrupting the heavy atmosphere. Three pairs of eyes looked back at him in expectation, waiting eagerly for his next words. “I’ll give her medicine to help the temperature drop, and the injury at the back of her head is not too severe. It will heal rapidly with a good treatment and full rest.”
You could almost hear a pin drop as none of the occupants of the room spoke after the announcement, letting the encouraging news sink into their mind. After a little while, Mayu extended her hand to squeeze Jurina’s lightly, and she was the one to break the silence in a completely unexpected way.
“Idiot!” Mayu scolded her unconscious sister vehemently, accompanying her reprimand with a loud exasperated groan. However, the smile suddenly upon her lips betrayed her relief, and her hold tightened around Jurina’s right bruised hand. Tears were even starting to form in her shimmering eyes, and threatening to fall at any minute.
Rena’s mouth curved up in an amused smile at her spontaneous reaction - the same expression flashing through Yuki’s eyes at Mayu’s interjection - until warmth spread through Rena’s chest, moved by the devotion shining through the twenty one year old girl’s eyes. It was definitely not surprising, as she had witnessed in the past the deep affection Mayu held for Jurina, but the tight bond both sisters shared still managed to impress her each and single time.
“Apart from that, she looks alright but I still want to verify that she doesn’t have any hidden injury,” the doctor affirmed, drawing their attention to him again. “Could someone please help me remove her clothes?”
“I will,” Mayu offered without a second of hesitation, already moving forward in accordance with her own words.
Mayu started untying Jurina’s creased, dirty hakama, her fingers now more steady than before. Suddenly, Rena found herself slightly ill-at-ease witnessing such a scene, and what she knew was about to follow. Without thinking twice she got up on her feet slowly, noticing Yuki’s startled eyes following her when she made her way towards the door. Although no words were exchanged with the kyudo instructor the latter mimicked her action and stood up as well, not before leaning towards Mayu and slipping a few short words into her ear. Rena failed to catch the murmured exchange, but noticed Mayu nodding in agreement and sending Yuki a genuine smile in reply.
Once in the corridor, Rena pondered on whether she should go and inform Momijimori no kami about the doctor’s reassuring diagnostic. Indeed, the older woman had witnessed their arrival at the clan early on, and voiced her desire to know more about the young samurai’s condition as soon as the doctor would have assessed the state of her injuries. However, despite remembering clearly Shinoda-dono’s request, her body refused to move in the adequate direction.
Instead, her feet stayed desperately stuck on the wooden floor, and she let herself lean against the wall behind her. Although she had physically left the room her thoughts were still on her young protégée inside, and Rena shut her eyes to try and calm her racing heart. The wise and experienced doctor had assured everything was fine with her, so why could she feel the organ pounding fast in her chest? Why was she unable to free her mind from worried thoughts?
Lost in her musing, Rena failed to hear the bedroom’s door sliding open and she jumped when she felt a hand touching her right arm and encircling it gently. Surprised, she tilted her head towards the person responsible for this action, noticing Yuki’s curious expression on her.
“I don’t understand you, Rena-san,” Yuki admitted in a murmur.
Rena frowned in confusion at Yuki’s declaration and the image of her protégée vanished from her mind - from now on focusing entirely on the kyudo instructor - and trying to decipher the meaning behind her words.
“Today, I saw how much you truly care for your protégée,” Yuki continued, when Rena was about to ask her to clarify. “So why have you been deliberately ignoring her for a whole week?”
Yuki could immediately tell her friend was not in the least happy about her question. Indeed, no words left her lips in reply and she looked away instead, though not before Yuki could discern the discomfort crossing her features. Until now, she had accepted her vague answers, but Rena’s disconcerting attitude towards her protégée was bringing out her curiosity even more. Unconsciously, it made her think back to her very first encounter with the quiet samurai.
It had already been two years since Yuki entered Momijimori no kami’s clan. It didn’t take her long to cross the path of the recently appointed kenjutsu instructor, as she was introduced to her on the very first day. The greeting she received was nothing but polite and sincere, but lacked a bit of warmth to her taste. Indeed, only a few words were exchanged between them during the first weeks, and it took Yuki a few months and quite some determination on her behalf to reduce the distance with the less than talkative woman.
Yuki was well aware that Rena did not have friends. In fact, she had not seen her interact with a lot of people, except for her students and the head of the clan. And their conversations always stayed on a professional level. Hardly ever she witnessed a smile upon her face, instead noticing on some occasions a trace of sadness mixed with loneliness deep into her eyes. A few times she had thought of bringing up the subject, but never gathered her courage to do so. It had taken her so much effort and time to finally have her open up to her just a little, that she didn’t want to risk destroy all the progress she had made with what might prove to be a too intrusive question.
Yuki got pulled out of her thoughts when she noticed Rena facing her again and opening her mouth to speak. She was hopeful she would finally get a proper answer, but couldn’t have foreseen the next words uttered on a very serious tone. “How close are you to your protégée?”
Yuki released her hold on her friend’s arm, wondering what could have triggered this curious question. It is true to say that she had herself broached in the past the subject of Rena’s relationship with the young Watanabe sister - mostly out of concern as it proved to be a quite complicated one at first - but never once Rena had returned her the question. At the time Yuki didn’t think too much of it guessing it was probably because, contrary to her, she had managed to get along with the older sister pretty fast.
Moreover, even though both instructors had gotten closer this last year, Rena was definitely not the kind of person to ask too often about personal matters. In fact, she did so on very rare occasions.
“I enjoy spending time with her,” Yuki answered sincerely. Although taken aback by Rena’s out of the blue question she saw no reason for lying, and even chose to admit the complete truth. “I have deep affection for her.”
“Do you think it’s wise to harbor such feelings?” Rena questioned further.
Yuki frowned in perplexity. She could tell by Rena’s somewhat troubled expression that she was asking merely out of curiosity and she didn’t detect a hint of criticism in her voice, but their conversation was taking a very strange turn. “Do you disapprove? Is it because I’m her superior?”
Rena shook her head lightly. “No, that’s not it. But I’ve come to realize that life sometimes hangs by a thread.”
Yuki found herself momentarily speechless when she failed to understand her friend’s enigmatic words, and saw her face darkening. What had provoked the sudden gloom in her small brown orbs? Just as Yuki was about to question her about it she felt a light squeeze on her shoulder, and witnessed a faint smile upon Rena’s lips.“Forget about what I said.”
Yuki opened her mouth to speak but Rena had already turned on her heels. Her eyes followed her retreating form until she was out of sight, releasing a small defeated sigh. After two years she now considered the kenjutsu instructor as her closest friend, but some aspects of her personality still remained a complete mystery.
“Why do you always do this to me?”
Rena paused in front of the door when she caught the complaint leaving Mayu’s lips. A full day had passed since Jurina was brought safely back to the clan and the news suddenly reached Rena that she had finally woken up. As soon as her kenjutsu lesson was over she took the direction of the bedroom both sisters shared, only to stop when she realized someone had already preceded her. And this person was definitely voicing out loud her great displeasure, to a visibly amused Jurina.
“I know you’re mad at me, but please stop hitting me.” Jurina protested with a small laugh. “I’ve had my share of that lately.”
“It’s not funny, Jurina!” Mayu shouted, another slap on the arm being heard across the door. Apparently, she didn’t appreciate her sister’s jokes one tiny bit.
Rena took a step back, seriously considering coming back another time. After all, both sisters were having a little reunion, and she didn’t wish to disturb such a moment. Her mind made up she started walking away, when she heard someone calling her from inside.
Rena halted in surprise at the sound of the voice of her protégée, wondering how she could have detected her presence. It is true to say that those doors were very thin and as a result it wasn’t hard to discern a silhouette - or catch a conversation easily - through it, but the fact that she had recognized her was still unbelievable. After all, her attention was also supposed to be drawn to her conversation with her older sister. The kenjutsu instructor retraced her steps and slid the door open carefully, but chose to stay at the doorstep.
“I didn’t mean to intrude,” Rena apologized, setting her eyes on a very startled Mayu. “I’ll come back later.”
Mayu saw her turning around in the intent of leaving, and she spoke up quickly. “Please come in, Matsui-dono.”
Rena hesitated but finally complied and moved forward, reciprocating the genuine smile the older sister was sending her.
“It seems my sister doesn’t appreciate my sense of humor,” Jurina addressed her, catching her attention. “Any thoughts on the matter?”
“I’m afraid I have to agree with her,” Rena replied in a neutral voice, ignoring purposely Jurina’s teasing tone. Her gaze wandered over the girl’s body, taking in her clean clothes and neat appearance. If a few bruises weren’t still apparent on her face, you wouldn’t believe she had just been involved into a fight.
“I’m glad to see you look better, Watanabe-san,” Rena declared, noticing her protégée’s amusement vanishing in an instant. It wasn’t hard to guess she didn’t like the formality she just employed with her, judging by the deep frown she received in return.
The room fell silent as none of the three occupants spoke after that, and Mayu watched in bewilderment the strange scene unfolding in front of her. Indeed, Jurina was sending a very disapproving look in the direction of her stoic protector, and Mayu really wondered what could have triggered this tension between them. The atmosphere was becoming a bit too heavy to her taste, and she cleared her throat in discomfort. “I’ll come back later.”
Rena tilted her head at once towards Mayu when she saw her getting up on her feet and heading towards the door. “You don’t have to leave, Watanabe-san.”
Mayu halted and turned around - noting her confusion - before gazing at Jurina. The latter didn’t utter a word but she could well discern the frustration in her sister’s eyes, ones that were still set on her protector. Obviously, a serious discussion was soon or later going to occur between them that she certainly didn’t wish to assist to. Mayu wondered briefly if it was somehow linked to the intense confrontation she witnessed a week ago in the courtyard between the kenjutsu instructor and her sister. “That’s alright. I already said everything I needed to my reckless and very stubborn sister.”
Mayu narrowed her eyes when she saw Jurina looking back at her with a mischievous expression. She was that close to voice her annoyance anew but refrained from doing so at the last minute, not willing to have a third part witness such a moment. Moreover, she guessed another reprimand on her behalf wouldn’t have much impact on her sister, and only serve to entertain her even more. Mayu bowed in respect to the kenjutsu instructor, before sliding the door open and leaving the room.
Jurina’s features grew serious when she found herself alone with her silent protector. The latter was still turned in the direction of her sister’s last appearance, and she pondered carefully on what to say. Her immediate thought was to seize the occasion and question her about her distant attitude this past week, but she could tell she was worried about her health. After all, Mayu had informed her she was the one who brought her back safely to the clan with the kyudo instructor’s help, and the fact that she came to see her as soon as she woke up was the clear sign that she cared about her. That is why Jurina decided to leave the question burning her lips for later.
“You probably wonder what happened to me,” Jurina started, her protector finally turning to look at her. “Those men came after me. I didn’t start-”
“I only have one question,” Rena cut her off. “Why did you go to the village without your katana?”
Jurina arched an eyebrow at her harsh tone. Because of the morning light inundating the bedroom, it also wasn’t hard to discern the anger in her small brown orbs. Jurina didn’t answer, watching the older girl as she walked towards the corner of the room where her katana was laying on the rack. Her protector’s fingers brushed the blue tsuka, before she pulled out the blade of the saya and she studied it carefully.
“The blacksmith sharpened the blade as you asked,” Rena affirmed after a little while, placing it back into its saya, and onto the rack. “Therefore your katana should have been at your waist, not on this rack. Didn’t I specify during my lessons that a samurai should never leave the clan without its katana?”
Jurina nodded, knowing she had no excuses. No, she certainly didn’t like the remonstrance one bit - as it felt a bit too severe to her taste - but the older girl was perfectly right. Indeed, she had more than once warned her students about the great importance of their sword. Despite hearing the instruction loud and clear, she had never seen the necessity of bringing it with her during her weekly trips to the village. Never once she had been attacked before, and she deemed her tanto more than enough in case of a troubling situation. After her latest encounter with the group of thieves, it seemed she would have to revise her judgment.
“I made a mistake,” Jurina conceded. “Sit next to me, Rena-san.”
Jurina saw the other girl’s eyes widening slightly in surprise. Was it from her admission or her request? It was hard to tell, and Jurina let out a small sigh of frustration when her protector didn’t make a move. Was she really going to keep her distance during their conversation? Jurina wished she could get up and take her hand to make her comply, but her body was still weak and had not recovered from the attack. According to the doctor who visited her early on, she needed to stay in bed for a few days before she could go back to her daily activities.
“Do you enjoy making your sister worry about you?” Rena chided, stubbornly refusing to meet her demand. “I lost count of the number of times she has been concerned about you since you arrived at the clan.”
A small smile grazed Jurina’s lips. The reproach definitely lacked its previous harshness and no trace of anger could be seen in her interlocutor’s eyes. Instead, Jurina read frustration mixed with concern. Decisively, she lifted her palm in her direction. “Come.”
Her second attempt was successful as Rena ended up reducing the distance, and Jurina didn’t waste a second to take her hand once she was seated next to her. It wasn’t hard to tell that the latter didn’t approve of the gesture as she tried to pull away, and Jurina tightened her hold in determination. “I’m sorry for the worry I’ve caused you,” Jurina said carefully. She really hoped her protector would be swayed by the sincerity of her words. “I’ll always take my katana from now on.”
A few seconds passed by, until Jurina was glad to feel the hand inside hers relaxing progressively, and see her protector’s features softening. Now that she knew she had managed to convince her she loosened her grip on her hand - though still keeping it inside hers - and took advantage of their proximity to contemplate her protector at length. How long had it been since she had been able to look into her eyes, without having the older woman look away?
Just before she got attacked by those thieves, Jurina was more than decided to have an explanation for her distant behavior and do everything in her power to obtain one. Her wish had not faded, but it got momentarily pushed into the background when she realized how much she had truly missed her protector’s closeness. She didn’t know how long her eyes swept over her delicate features in appreciation. The urge to slide her fingers into her long dark silky hair and remember the touch of those soft lips was getting hard to resist.
“Jurina-san,” Rena murmured. “Tell me what happened.”
Jurina nodded softly at the request. The pull to reduce the small distance between them was still strong, but she knew she had to satisfy her protector’s curiosity for now. She owed it to her.
Rena had listened attentively to Jurina’s narration, without interrupting her once. A few times during her monologue she had seen her blink to fight off her sleepiness, but her eyelids ended up fluttering close without her consent. Now, her protégée was fast asleep, and Rena watched her sleeping, thinking back to every bit of information she had shared. It still amazed her that the young girl could be in such good shape, considering the dangerous fight she had been involved into. Yes, she had a few bruises here and there, but her body got preserved from any serious injury. In the end, it appeared the injury at the back of her head was not as severe as she had feared, and the doctor affirmed Jurina would be back on her feet in a couple of days.
Rena removed her hand from Jurina’s hold, being careful to not wake her up in the process. A small smile grazed her lips when she witnessed her peaceful expression, contrasting with the alarming fever that had been plaguing her not so long ago. Her eyes fell next on the pendant around her neck, and the sole sight was enough to make her joy vanish. Now, she remembered a question she had meant to ask the young girl early on, but her tiredness had prevented her from uttering a single word.
The curiosity the object provoked was irritating her, and she wished she didn’t find herself so interested by the nature of her relationship with the woman called Churi. Until now, she had always refrained from asking anything concerning the prostitute - simply listening quietly when Jurina chose to talk about her - but she couldn’t ignore anymore the strong bond the two girls shared. It was more than obvious her protégée had a deep affection for her - considering the gentle words she always employed when she spoke about her - but now Rena knew it was also mutual. The deep concern she had witnessed into Churi’s eyes spoke louder than words.
“I hate what you’re doing to me,” Rena whispered, despair entering her glistening eyes as she looked up from the pendant to gaze at her sleeping protégée.
Her eyes traveled down to Jurina’s closed lips, observing the small cut on the lower one, until she looked away and shut her eyes in frustration. Two years ago, after Airi’s death, she made herself a promise. One she was well intent on keeping, no matter how much it was making her heart ache.
“Good morning, Airi.”
Rena knelt in front of the small grave, her fingers slowly brushing the kanji engraved in the stone. Today was the first day of Fall, and also the anniversary of Airi’s death. For this occasion Rena had decided to pay a visit to her friend who had left this world but definitely not her heart two years ago.
So much had happened since the last time she faced the familiar grave, and there were so many things she wanted to share with her lost kunoichi friend. Nevertheless, no words left Rena’s lips. Instead, she gazed silently at the last proof of Airi’s passage on this earth. Memories of the moments they shared together invaded her mind, and the most joyful ones didn’t fail to put a smile upon her face. However, her expression darkened when their very last interaction came to the forefront of her mind and her brain shut down, refusing to relive what followed.
“I miss you...” Rena whispered.
The first times she found herself gazing at Airi’s tomb, a part of her refused to believe her friend had truly left her side. Although she had witnessed with her very own eyes Airi’s lifeless body, she continued to see her everywhere she went. Airi was still present around her, even in the air she breathed, and she didn’t know how she would have survived her absence without the unexpected help of her kenjutsu instructor.
Her mentor had passed away of natural death a couple of months after Airi, but not before he could teach Rena a few meditation techniques. At first, Rena was more than doubtful that it would be of any help, but still she listened to the wise man’s recommendations attentively. And, indeed, they managed to ease her sorrow gradually over time. But never erase it completely.
Rena suddenly perceived footsteps and she jolted out of her thoughts, tilting her head to her right in curiosity. The familiar long, dark-haired master kunoichi was approaching from afar, and Rena distinguished a flicker of hesitation in her eyes when they looked at each other. Her steps even slowed down, until she halted altogether a few meters from her.
“May I join you?” Rie questioned tentatively.
Rena studied the 24-year-old girl who was keeping her distance cautiously, knowing perfectly well why she was acting this way towards her. When Airi was still alive, she got along with the kunoichi master of the clan, but they had barely shared a word since that fateful moment two years ago. Unfortunately, Rena’s irrational actions had provoked a profound uneasiness that had not dissipated one iota since that day. “Of course, Kitahara-san.”
Despite the polite invitation, Rie didn’t move forward when she heard Rena calling her with such formality. When they spent time the three of them with Airi, she always addressed her by her first name but, evidently, nothing was the same anymore since their common friend was gone. They had barely interacted together since that day and when they rarely did, there was always a third party present. In fact, it was the first time in two years she found herself completely alone with the kenjutsu instructor.
When Rie noticed that her interlocutor wasn’t paying attention to her anymore she finally joined her, looking down momentarily at the small grave, before kneeling by Rena’s side. It was not the first time Rie visited the cemetery to pay her respects to her most trusted and devoted spy, but the usual silence of the place had never been so heavy. Discreetly, she tilted her head to her left, observing the quiet woman who had her eyes set in front of her.
“I know you will never forget,” Rie spoke up at last. She was doing her best to keep her voice steady, but apprehension was building up inside her at the unknown turn this conversation was going to take. “But I hope one day you’ll be able to forgive me for sending Airi on this mission.”
Rena’s baffled expression would have made Rie laugh if she wasn’t dreading her reply so much. It was a conversation she had repeated in her head many times in the past, waiting for the right moment to broach the subject with her. It was not that she didn’t have a few opportunities to do so, but she had never gathered enough courage to make the first step.
“I have no reason to forgive you. You did nothing wrong,” Rena replied seriously. “If anything, it’s me who should apologize for the way I behaved.”
Rie found herself momentarily taken aback by her words. She could from now on witness her own apprehension reflected in her interlocutor’s eyes, and she shook her head softly. “You were devastated. Death can sometimes make us act in the most unreasonable way.”
As her last words left her lips in a feeble whisper, memories of all the people she had seen dying submerged Rie’s head. Some died by her own hands, and others by her trusted network of spies. She had witnessed so many forms of deaths: slow and painful, quick and painless. A part of her was convinced she had seen every case scenario possible. Moreover, the sight of people grieving their loved ones had never really managed to hit a nerve. Rie strongly believed it was her impassivity that made her more efficient on the job.
When Airi drew her last breath in her arms, she realized she wasn’t as indifferent to the vision of death as she had always thought. For the very first time, tears gathered in her eyes and fell in abundance over the form of the motionless girl. Not only had she lost one of her most faithful apprentices; she had also been separated from a dear friend.
Yes, Rena’s unusual reaction had startled her and even frightened her at the time. But who was she to hold it against her anyway? Airi’s death had also prompted her to do something she wasn’t especially proud of. A crime she had committed and carefully kept to herself.
“Do you know what Airi’s last words were?” Rie asked, even though it was a rhetorical question. Never had she shared the content of her last conversation with Airi with anyone. “She asked me to look over you. And I have for these past two years, albeit from afar, as I knew you didn’t desire my presence by your side.”
“She did?” Rena exclaimed in surprise, avoiding her eyes in mild embarrassment. “It’s not that I didn’t want to speak with you, but each time I looked at you… I was reminded of her. And of what I did on that day.”
“I know...” Rie murmured and she placed her hand over that of the kenjutsu instructor carefully, in an attempt to bring her some small comfort. “I also wish you could forgive yourself. You have to know I never blamed you for the way you reacted.”
“You’re too kind,” Rena protested, shaking her head in disapproval.
Despite that, Rie was glad when her comforting gesture didn’t meet any opposition and she saw a faint smile on Rena’s lips a while later. Rie quickly reciprocated it, well aware that it would take some time until their relationship would go back to normal. However, it was undeniable a big step had been made today.
A recent event suddenly invaded Rie’s mind, promptly replacing the image of her lost apprentice. It was a mystery she had not solved, and a source of great frustration. “If only I knew who poisoned you a few months ago.” Rie declared thoughtfully.
Albeit the fact she sent her best spies to investigate, she still had not a single clue who the two attackers were. Without a doubt, they were two experienced men considering they had carefully covered their tracks, but Rie took pride in thinking she was leading the best network of spies of the country. She should definitely have been able to discover which clan had sent them. The thought that she had failed was disturbing her to no end. Thankfully, the issue of the ambush had not been as tragic as it could have been. “I’m relieved your protégée was able to bring you back safely to the clan.”
Rie watched Rena attentively and waited expectantly for a reaction. The mention of the young Watanabe sister did indeed stir her as she noticed Rena’s smile fading instantly and a slight discomfort crossing her features, but the latter chose not to say anything. Instead, her gaze fell anew on the grave in front of her.
“She looks like a good person,” Rie declared. She knew she needed to tread carefully with the subject she was about to bring up, and choose her words wisely. There was a risk the kenjutsu instructor would not want to pursue this conversation, but her latest openness to a very sensitive subject such as Airi gave her the motivation to continue. “I can also tell she enjoys spending time with you.”
This time, Rena gave her a suspicious look. “Why do I get the impression you’re trying to tell me something?”
Her words brought a smile to Rie’s lips. It is true to say not much escaped her - she wasn’t the master kunoichi for nothing - and her interlocutor was more than aware of her attention to details. Still, could she admit the complete truth without risking to offend her? Rie didn’t hesitate long and decided to go for it, somewhat curious by the reaction she would get. “I witnessed a certain kiss between you in the maple forest.”
The kenjutsu instructor didn’t answer straight away, but her shock certainly didn’t go unnoticed. "You weren’t supposed to see that,” Rena uttered after a little while, clearly bothered by the revelation that this moment had been spied upon.
“I figured,” Rie replied on a light tone, unable to keep the amusement out of her voice any longer.
It was by complete chance that she happened to cross their path that day, and observe that short scene from afar. If truth be told, the young Watanabe sister’s initiative had not really startled her. Somehow, she guessed something positive would come out of this imposed partnership. It was definitely a matter of time until one of them would make the first step; the young Watanabe sister more likely. Rie didn’t believe she met anyone more straightforward than her.
“I explicitly told her it would never happen again,” Rena affirmed.
“Why not?” Rie exclaimed, surprised by her decided tone. “I can tell you care a lot about her. I saw the way you interact together.”
“You really shouldn’t be spying upon people,” Rena countered with a frown, until noticing Rie’s smile broadening, and she understood the irony of her own words. Quickly, she added. “At least, not upon the members of the clan.”
“Forgive me, it was never truly my intention,” Rie offered, shaking her head lightly. “I guess it’s the perks of the job. I see everything, even moments I wish I didn’t.”
Rena’s reaction after the kiss submerged Rie’s memory, and she frowned at her swift departure. Although she was too far to hear anything they were saying, it was obvious the kenjutsu instructor did not appreciate her protégée’s action. But why?
“I don’t know what your reasons for pushing her away are,” Rie murmured thoughtfully, albeit she did not expect her interlocutor to give her an explanation. Today, Rena had already shared more than she would ever have hoped for, but still she wanted to give her a piece of advice. A piece of advice she regretted not to follow when her dear apprentice Airi was still by her side and alive. “Life is short. I believe we should make the most of it while we are on this earth.”
“I’m not sure it’s a good idea. Matsui-dono said you were not to resume training until you were fully healed.”
Jurina grumbled, not in the least surprised by the short-haired man’s declaration. After all, he was one of Rena’s most devoted students, and she somewhat guessed he would not easily accept her demand. Still, she was not about to back away, and tried as best as she could to keep the frustration out of her voice when she replied. “Do I look unwell to you, Tanaka-san?”
The 22-year-old samurai eyed her carefully. The young girl facing him did indeed seem pretty fit, but he was reluctant to go against the kenjutsu instructor’s orders. Those she had again made more than clear a few hours ago when her protégée had tentatively tried to join the morning lesson, to no avail. “But Matsui-dono…”
“Matsui-dono is not here, is she?” Jurina cut him off. She could feel her patience progressively slipping, and had to muster all her willpower not to raise her tone in annoyance. “I’m not going to tell her. Are you?”
“Obviously not,” Tanaka retorted, before sweeping the maple forest surrounding them in apprehension. There was not a soul in sight, but the fear to stumble upon the kenjutsu instructor was still not leaving him. He certainly did not want to be subjected to her remonstrance if she ever happened to discover they had been training in secret.
“Perfect,” Jurina exclaimed, pulling her katana out in determination. “Shall we begin, then?”
“Are you alright, Watanabe-san?” Tanaka questioned hesitantly the girl who was slightly bent over and trying to catch her breath, and whose katana who now laying on the grass after her defeat.
Their fight had been intense, to say the least, not that he expected anything less from his fierce opponent. However, he certainly did not foresee the surprising turn their fight took. His defeat against the young Watanabe sister during the last tournament was still engraved in his memory, which is why he absolutely did not expect to win this time. He could tell the young girl had something on her mind during their duel, as her focus wasn’t as sharp as it usually was.
It is true to say the young girl wasn’t - at first - the best when it came to keeping her emotions to herself, but she had improved greatly on that matter over time. Tanaka was more than startled that all the progress she had made came to nothing during their last fight. The young girl had asked to train with him and insisted, despite his reluctance; but she had made one mistake after another. Her behavior didn’t make sense.
“Thank you for accepting to train with me,” Jurina declared. Her breathing was more steady now and she straightened up to gaze at her interlocutor. “It was a good fight.”
“Likewise.” Tanaka nodded politely, albeit he thought the complete opposite. Their fight had been mostly disappointing to him, especially as he expected much better from someone who had mastered sword fighting so well these last months. However, it seemed his opponent was definitely not in a good day. “I’ll head back to the clan, Watanabe-san.”
Jurina watched his retreating form, until laying down on the grass when he was finally out of sight. She wiped her sweating forehead with the back of her hand, before staring absently at the cloudy sky. Gone was the perfect blue sky of Summer, as well as its scorching heat. Jurina certainly didn’t mind the drop in temperature, even letting out a small sigh of pleasure when the wind blew her hair softly and cooled her skin.
Her gaze fell next onto the katana by her side, the memory of the fight invading her mind at once. A frown fell upon her face. When she asked for Tanaka’s cooperation it was in the hope that the distraction would ease her mind from troubled thoughts, but it had failed miserably. Instead, she had made basic mistakes and had been completely unable to turn the tide.
Jurina knew perfectly well the reason behind it: her protector’s distant behavior was at the origin of everything. Her refusal to let her join the kenjutsu lessons until she deemed her fit had been the icing on the cake. It had already been four days since she had woken up for the first time after the attack, and Jurina was convinced to have recovered fully. However, it appeared her protector believed otherwise, as she was stubbornly keeping her away from any physical activity.
Albeit the fact they still had not talked about the kiss, Jurina thought to have made some good progress during their latest meeting in her bedroom. She couldn’t have been more wrong. After that, her protector was still not inclined on sharing with her more than a few words, and was cutting the conversation short each time she tried to broach a certain sensitive subject.
“Rena-san, you truly are a stubborn woman,” Jurina groaned, shutting her eyes tight in frustration and pondering over her next move.
Until now, she always avoided any true confrontation with the older girl and did not insist when the latter turned the other way. Truly, she didn’t wish to resort to such ways, but she was now convinced she had no other choice. It was obvious her protector was keeping something from her, and a gentle approach was leading her nowhere. If she wanted answers, she would need to find a situation where her protector was completely alone and unable of escaping her questioning. Only one moment fit the description.
It was still dark when Rena’s eyes fluttered open. She didn’t usually have so much trouble sleeping but when she fell asleep that day, she knew her night would be filled with visions of Airi. After all, yesterday was the anniversary of her death, and her visit to the cemetery had brought back so many memories. Not to mention her impromptu conversation with Rie.
If truth be told, Rena was more than surprised when the master kunoichi made such a move. In two years they had only exchanged a few words, and she truly believed their relationship had changed forever after Airi’s passing. At first, she even hardly managed to conceal her discomfort at the situation she found herself forced into but progressively, she felt her body relaxing next to the other girl.
Rena knew Airi was close to the master kunoichi. Even though she never really considered herself friends with Rie, she didn’t mind her presence and found their occasional conversations interesting. Rie was wise, eloquent and professional. She trusted her judgment when it came to missions. The apprehension she felt each time Airi left for one of them had nothing to do with Rie’s expertise. It was solely motivated by her protectiveness towards her dear friend. Rena couldn’t pinpoint exactly when that side of her emerged for the first time but much as she fought against it, she soon discovered it was pretty useless. She simply couldn’t help but worry about the people she loved.
Rena was about to finally leave her thoughts aside and go back to well needed sleep when she caught some movement out of the corner of her eye. At first, she believed it to be the fruit of her imagination. After all, how could someone possibly be in her bedroom in the middle of the night? It was only when her eyes got progressively used to the dark that she managed to discern a form seated against the wall. No, she was definitely not alone.
Rena froze when she recognized the familiar voice. Her concern vanished when she realized she was not in the presence of an enemy, but her frown did not disappear yet. She sat up on her futon, watching her interlocutor approaching and lightening up the candle on the small table.
“Jurina-san?” Rena murmured sleepily when their eyes met through the dim light of the flame. “What are you doing here?”
“We need to talk,” Jurina replied simply, taking a seat by her side.
“Excuse me?” Rena exclaimed in confusion, now very much awake. “It’s the middle of the night.”
Rena left aside the fact that her protégée had dared to come uninvited in her room. It was something that unsettled her, not to mention very improper. Despite her discomfort, Rena chose to keep the thought to herself.
“How else am I supposed to have a talk with you?” Jurina retorted almost immediately. “You keep avoiding me during the day.”
The reproach was clear and the tone almost icy; shivers run down Rena’s spine. She didn’t like the direction their conversation was heading, and she could tell by her protégée’s steady gaze that she was not going to let it go easily. Still, she could not let her have it her way. It was simply out of the question.
“You need to leave,” Rena affirmed, her decided tone leaving no room for discussion.
“I’m not going anywhere until you give me an explanation,” Jurina replied on the same tone. It was now obvious her presence was unwelcomed, but she didn’t move an inch from her position.
Rena frowned in displeasure at her lack of cooperation. It had been a while since she found herself in such a disconcerting situation with her protégée, and she didn’t keep the best memory of their first tense confrontations. It is true to say the young girl had tried to engage a conversation a few times lately, but she had cautiously avoided each one of them. It appeared the matter would not be solved easily this time. If her protégée didn’t want to comply to her demand, then maybe using a more diplomatic approach would work. In that intent, Rena softened her tone when she spoke up. “An explanation for what?”
“You know very well what,” Jurina groaned, unable of keeping the frustration out of her voice any longer. “Your distant behavior. You haven’t been the same since we kissed.”
Rena flinched at the mention of the infamous moment. She had been trying really hard to not think about it since it happened, the exercise proving to be more difficult than she hoped. Was she too naive to believe that the young girl would simply do as asked and not bring the subject up again? Probably. After all, her protégée was definitely a stubborn person and always went to great lengths to obtain what she wanted. She should have guessed she wouldn’t simply give up on her demand.
Rena tilted her head to the other side and thought carefully about what to reply. Obviously, she couldn’t brush it off this time. But what were there really to talk about? Nothing could happen between them. Their relationship had to remain on a professional level. It was imperative for her own sake. So why couldn’t her stubborn protégée take no for an answer?
From her peripheral vision, Rena noticed her interlocutor drawing closer, and she looked back at her in bewilderment. The lips that were rapidly approaching hers were a clear indication of what the younger girl had in mind, and Rena promptly placed her hands against her shoulders to prevent her from reaching her goal.
“Stop it,” Rena reprimanded her immediately. She couldn’t believe what her protégée was trying to do - for the second time - but was thankful when she halted. “I thought I made myself very clear on the subject.”
“Why are you doing this?” Jurina exclaimed, in a mix of frustration and annoyance. Although she stopped her advance, she didn’t back away an inch. They were so close now she could hear the older girl’s breathing, and she tried to find an answer into her eyes. “Is it because I’m your protégée? Or because I’m younger?”
Rena loosened slightly her hold on her shoulders, but chose cautiously to not remove her hands altogether. Somehow, she didn’t trust her protégée to not make a second attempt if she gave her another opportunity to do so. The distance between them had been considerably reduced, and she wished she could move back. Unfortunately, her back was already pressed against the wall behind her.
“It has nothing to do with that,” Rena denied softly. Of course, the wiser thing would have been to use one of those reasons to explain her distant behavior, but she couldn’t bring herself to lie. How could she justify her foursquare refusal to accept her advances? Evidently, it was out of the question to mention her past. That’s something she had carefully kept to herself for two years, even from her friend Yuki. Unfortunately, she was facing a complete dilemma.
“I’m sorry,” Rena murmured. She knew her interlocutor wanted an explanation more than anything - she could read the slight despair lurking in her eyes - but she was currently incapable of giving her one. She was at an impasse.
"I don’t want an apology.” Jurina frowned. “Your behavior makes no sense to me. I know you like me too.”
The statement was quite bold, but Rena barely blinked. Yes, it felt a bit strange to hear such words uttered out loud, but her protégée was absolutely right. When did she start having feelings for the young girl? It was hard to pinpoint the exact moment, but she became aware of them once and for all when she made a move on her and kissed her.
Albeit the fact she had never felt this way with anyone else before, it was futile denying the obvious. The young Watanabe sister stopped being a mere student a long time ago, and her affection for her kept growing gradually as she happened to spend more time with her. Rena knew the mistake was entirely hers: she should have maintained a professional distance from the start and never let her protégée get closer to her.
The harm was done. There was no flashback possible. Her heart was beating differently in the presence of her protégée, and she couldn’t ignore it. However, it didn’t mean she had to act upon her feelings. Yes, pushing away the object of her affection was utterly painful, but it was essential if she didn’t wish to see the past repeat itself.
Rena jolted out of her thoughts when she noticed a pleased smile on Jurina’s lips. Manifestly, her silence just gave away the truth. Rena was in an impossible situation, and completely clueless on what to do next. Her protégée just got the confirmation she needed, and her intent was clear when she saw her moving forward in determination.
This time, her resistance proved much in vain. Her fingers clutched her kimono in order to push her, but it failed miserably. Despite her obvious disapproval her protégée didn’t give in, and Rena was left to tilt her head the other side to avoid the imminent contact with her lips. To her surprise, the young girl didn’t try to steal a kiss. In fact, she stopped moving altogether and as the seconds went painfully by, Rena ended up believing she would finally leave it alone and back away.
The last thing she expected was the soft touch of Jurina’s lips on her cheek. Its gentleness was such a contrast with her previous forceful behavior that Rena was caught completely off guard. The lips that had briefly touched her skin soon pulled away, and Rena knew she had to seize to occasion to stop what was happening. Somehow, she knew the young girl would not be satisfied with such a simple kiss.
Indeed, she didn’t have to wait long to feel a lingering kiss on her cheek, slowly descending down her jawline. Rena heard her heart hammering inside her chest, and she knew she had to put an end to this until it would be too late. Her hold on Jurina’s shoulders had already considerably diminished, and she could feel her resolve slipping progressively under her protégée’s careful ministrations.
“Don’t do this,” Rena protested. It was a desperate last attempt to push her away, but she knew she had miserably failed at the sound of her own voice. Indeed, the words were uttered in a feeble murmur and lacked any conviction. Where did her previous decided tone go? Right now, she would have given anything to get it back, as she could feel herself losing the battle gradually.
“Stop resisting,” Jurina whispered between kisses. “It’s hurting us both.”
Rena distinguished the pain in her voice, and it hit a nerve. All this time, her main goal had been to preserve her fragile heart. She was so decided not to suffer again, that she had completely disregarded her protégée’s feelings. When did she become such a cold and cruel person?
Rena felt soon a lonely tear slid down her cheek, but she didn’t bother to wipe it off. The feelings she was so desperately trying to keep locked inside were bursting free, and she turned around slowly to face her protégée. Their eyes met silently, and a faint smile grazed Rena’s lips when the young girl wiped her tear off gently. Was this a mistake? Maybe. No one could predict the future. But she wanted to see where this relationship would lead them.
When Rena leaned forward and their lips touched for their first mutual kiss, she had already surrendered. For better or for worse, she was giving her protégée the key to her heart.
TO BE CONTINUED
This is the end of the first arc of Warriors.
I'm pausing the fanfic with chapter 25, and will continue it when my Heartbeat trilogy is over. If you enjoy reading my fictions, don't hesitate to let me know by leaving a comment! I love to hear people's thoughts, their favorite moments & scenes, their intuitions, guesses etc. Positive feedback/comments/encouragements are always welcomed and give me motivation to keep on.
A week later.
Jurina, her katana secured in her hand, stared fixedly at her calm and poised female opponent, desperately trying to get a grasp of the situation. Frustration boiled within her. The fight had been going on for a while, much longer that she originally planned. She was so convinced of winning. More than ready to prove her stoic adversary that she would finally find an opening through her impregnable defense. Yet here her instructor quietly stood, a few feet away from her, standing undefeated in front of her. They were awaiting one another’s reaction, unmoving, the wind of Autumn seeming to want to break them from their concentration by blowing away the scattered maple leaves at their feet.
Jurina raised her weapon and lunched forward, her blade immediately blocked as she attempted to surprise her opponent with a quick hit coming from the left. She kept attacking, fierce, over and over again, not leaving her adversary a second to breathe. Nothing managed to break her resistance. Nevermind how many times she came after her, her instructor’s moves remained précised and measured, deflecting every hit with baffling ease. Jurina could feel herself getting more tired and weaker. The fight had dragged on for far too long now, draining her last energy.
As she made a sudden beginner’s mistake, one she should never had made, Jurina stopped and took an unbalanced step back, catching her breath. “Yes, yes. I know. I’m losing my temper.”
Rena blinked, confused, and lowered her katana. “I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t have to. I can hear you thinking out loud.” Jurina, sweating, sucked in a ragged breath. Much as it pained her to admit it, she had to concede defeat. Reluctantly, she slipped her katana back inside the saya. “This fight is going nowhere.”
Jurina caught the faintest flicker of amusement on the kenjutsu instructor’s face, before her expression turned serious again. “You’re the one who insisted on receiving those private lessons every morning.”
Jurina released a despondent sigh, nodding, and swept around the vast maple forest surrounding them. She felt powerless, knowing deep down that the other woman was right. The previous week, she hadn’t stopped badgering the kenjutsu instructor with her request. At first, she had refused, saying that she feared how the special treatment would be interpreted if it came to the attention of the other trainees. In the end, Jurina’s determination had gotten the best of the instructor’s resolve. Every morning for the past week, they would train together for an hour, away from prying eyes, in the depth of the maple forest. Jurina believed those lessons would help her progress much faster. Unfortunately, she was still unable to pierce through the sword master’s fighting technique.
“But you are right,” Rena spoke up, breaking the silence that had settled between them. “Those lessons are of little use if you don’t respect the golden rules of kenjutsu, and are not capable of focusing on your enemy’s moves.”
Jurina’s mood shifted and she eased up; her eyes twinkled with mischief. “Oh, trust me.” She stepped closer, her fingers encircling the tsuka of her katana at her belt. “I’ve been paying close attention to you.”
“Then…” Rena moved backwards cautiously. “You should have been able to touch me, don’t you think?”
Jurina smiled at her cunningly and kept advancing. “I think it’s because I’m not using the right technique to beat you.”
Confusion flashed through Rena’s eyes. “The right technique?”
“Yes.” Jurina took another confident step forward.
“W-What are you doing?” Rena raised her weapon in the air.
Jurina’s hand rested on her own katana but she didn’t make any move to pull it out, taking a malicious delight in seeing the hesitation in her protector’s gaze. When Rena moved back again and her back hit the trunk of a tree, her eyes widened at the contact, and Jurina didn’t waste an opportunity to reduce the distance. Quickly, she prevented her escape by placing a hand flat on the tree while the other trapped Rena by the waist. Jurina drew her face close to hers, studying her with hungry eyes, feeling her protector’s body shivering against her, and she leaned forward to whisper into her ear. “And I think I found it.”
Jurina’s lips attacked her neck with a flurry of kisses, trailing down towards her shoulder. When Rena opened her mouth to protest, she smothered it with kisses. A hand grabbed her fiercely by the fabric of her kimono and pushed her back, but Jurina didn’t bulge, savoring the feel, the sweet spicy taste of Rena’s lips on hers. She struggled again, but Jurina wrapped both her arms around her waist in a hold she couldn’t break. After a couple more desperate attempts, the strength of Rena’s grip on her kimono diminished. Jurina’s mouth tugged into a smile of victory, finding Rena’s lips soft and warm and eager to receive hers.
Jurina’s pulse quickened, even faster than it already was. She pressed her lips against hers again, her protector responding to her kisses and clutching at her, giving her all necessary the encouragement she needed to continue. Rena’s heart was beating like a drum against her chest, and she knew there was an attraction neither could ignore. Jurina’s kisses had turned more possessive and demanding and, realizing what she was doing and fearing her sudden fervor could get her to go too far, she forced herself to slow down.
Jurina detached her mouth from hers and looked into her eyes, witnessing the hesitation in her gaze in response to her passion and intensity. The kiss gentled as she brushed her protector’s slightly bruised lips with soothing grazes. She let her lips roam gently over Rena’s slender neck, relishing the involuntarily moan that escaped her lover’s mouth. So caught up in the pleasurable moment of intimacy they were sharing, Jurina chastised herself when she realized she had almost forgotten her initial objective.
While she kept one hand wrapped around the instructor’s waist, she used her other arm to approach the hand Rena was using to hold her katana, slowly and gently circling her wrist. She didn’t even need to use force, her protector visibly far too distracted by her kisses to pay attention. Without much effort, Jurina loosened Rena’s hold on her katana and extracted the weapon from her hand, carelessly letting it fall aside. At the sound of the blade hitting against the bed of Autumn leaves, Rena immediately pulled away from the kiss.
“Yes, I think I found a new effective technique to disarm you.” Jurina couldn’t help but gloat, stealing another kiss from the shocked girl. “But don’t worry, the secret is safe with me. I won’t say a word to the others.”
Rena’s disoriented gaze fell upon her, and it took her a few seconds to grasp the full meaning of what had happened. “R-Really, Jurina-san?!” Her eyes were wide as she stared at her in disbelief. “You’re proud of yourself?” She bent down, retrieving her fallen katana with haste, and replacing it in its saya. “Do you think this kind of childish, silly trick will serve you on the battlefield?”
Jurina’s smile faded a little, her expression growing softer and more understanding as she witnessed her instructor’s manifest disappointment. “I’m sorry.” Jurina reached to cup her cheek in a tender way, surprising herself at how natural and right the gesture of affection felt to her. “I guess you’re right. I haven’t been entirely focused during training lately.” She withdrew her fingers, slightly unsettled by her own behavior. “I want to progress in sword fighting. It was my only goal these past few months, but…” Her voice trailed off, hesitant. “But I always find my mind wandering in your presence.”
As they held one another’s gaze, gauging each other’s reaction, Jurina didn’t fail to notice the way Rena’s gaze dropped to her lips, before quickly raising it once more to her eyes when she realized she had been caught in the act. “N-No, that’s enough.” The kenjutsu instructor took a decided step back. “We already got carried away enough as it. We can’t do this. Not now. Not here.”
“Why not?” Jurina groaned. She reduced the distance, refusing to be deterred by the rejection. “I know you want it too, and there’s no one else here. We are completely alone. It’s just you and I. So what’s stopping us?”
“W-We’re supposed to be training!”
The protest was too feeble to convince her. Jurina licked her lips; a mischievous glint entered her eyes. “We already finished, and I won.”
She moved closer to her, pausing when her instructor placed a hand on her chest to stop her advance. With their faces just inches away, Jurina could hear Rena’s quick breathing, witness the vulnerability displayed, one that only appeared in the samurai’s eyes when they found themselves completely alone. Since they had exchanged that first mutual kiss in her protector’s bedroom a week ago, Jurina constantly felt her self-control and willpower slipping away in Rena’s presence.
Jurina tried to collect her scattered thoughts. Comprehend why she felt so irresistibly drawn to her instructor. Why she had such a hard time fighting the lure to taste her lips over and over again. The urge to pull her closer and take possession of her mouth with hers was hard to resist. Before she even realized what she was doing, Jurina had already captured her mouth and placed her lips on hers. This time, her instructor showed little resistance, her warm breath sending goose bumps racing down Jurina’s neck as they kissed each other.
Her instructor’s kisses were still a little shy and hesitant, almost as if she was afraid of letting loose. Rena was a calm and collected person, who liked to have control in every little aspect of her life. The confession of their attraction to each other had taken them both by surprise. Jurina still had difficulty expressing and putting a name on what she was exactly feeling. And she could easily imagine that her protector was equally destabilized by what was going between them.
The sudden weighing of a horse caught them both by surprise, and they pulled apart, turning around to discover a rider approaching. While Jurina’s brows knitted together, and she glared at the master kunoichi who had dared breaking their peaceful moment alone, a look of embarrassment spread over Rena’s face, although very briefly as she immediately collected herself and adjusted her clothes, politely addressing the newcomer. “Kitahara-san, what brings you here?”
“Forgive me for the interruption, but Momijimori no kami dono is requesting the presence of the kenjutsu master.”
“It will have to wait, because we were not finished,” Jurina said dryly.
“Of course, Kitahara-san. I will follow you back to the clan at once.” Rena quickly replied, and gave Jurina a look of reproach. “Watanabe-san, we’ll continue the lesson tomorrow. Why don’t you continue training on your own in the meantime? I believe you have some flaws to work on.”
Jurina arched an eyebrow at the formality employed, before smiling. “Of course, Rena-san. I will work hard on those flaws you mention, and impatiently wait for the time of our next private lesson.”
The double meaning of her words didn’t escape the kenjutsu instructor, and Jurina gave a faintly malicious smile at Rena’s disapproving stare. Without adding a word, the kenjutsu instructor turned on her heels and mounted her horse, seizing the reins of her mare. Jurina didn’t bother to hide her amusement while Rena followed the master kunoichi, her instructor cleverly avoiding to meet her gaze the whole time. Jurina leaned her back against a tree, not missing the loud plaintive weighing of her stallion, matching her own current bad mood now that the two feminine figures had vanished in the distance. Tonight, she was well intended on making it up for this interruption.
Unease filled Jurina’s chest as she observed the scene unfolding in the archery training courtyard. Sitting on the porch, tapping her right foot on the ground, she ignored the curious glances a few samurais sent her way to focus on Mayu who was diligently practicing her shooting. She should be proud to witness all the progress her sister had achieved since their arrival at the clan, if only she wasn’t so disturbed by the presence of another woman next to her. Jurina had lost count of how many the kyudo instructor had leaned closer to her to murmur something into Mayu’s ear, or casually lay a hand on her shoulder as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Did the female instructor even pay attention to the other young samurais training in the courtyard? Because this awfully looked like a private lesson.
One thing was for certain; Mayu didn’t seem to mind the personal attention she was receiving. Indeed, way too often Jurina would find her glancing back in her protector’s direction, exchanging secret smiles with her each time one of her arrows would hit the center. Her sister was lost in a world of her own, looking so happy, most obviously enjoying more than her recent discovered passion for archery.
Jurina realized how long she had been staring when the young samurais lowered their bows and proceeded in gathering the equipment, leaving one by one the courtyard after thanking their teacher for the daily lesson. Soon enough, all the trainees had scattered away and the courtyard got emptied, except for Mayu who visibly had a hard time parting way with the instructor. Jurina watched as their conversation dragged on and on, neither of them seeming ready to put an end to it, until at last Mayu retreated and left the kyudo instructor behind.
It was the moment Jurina had waited to intervene. Without an ounce of hesitation, she stood up and entered the courtyard, approaching the kyudo instructor who was checking the good condition of the spears and arrows. “I know what you’re doing with my sister.”
Yuki turned around, surprised to see the new feminine presence behind her. “W-Watanabe-san, I hadn’t heard you approaching. I’m sorry…” She frowned slightly in confusion. “What do you mean?”
Jurina searched her face suspiciously. “Do you take me for an idiot? I can see you’re trying to seduce her.”
“S-Seduce her?!” Yuki almost choked on the word. “I don’t know what you think you saw, but I’m not-”
“I want you to know that I have my eyes on you,” Jurina cut her off, her tone sharp. “If you ever dare hurt my sister…” She took a threatening step forward. “You’ll have to answer to me.” Her eyes lingered on Yuki, challenging her. “I’m warning you, Kashiwagi-san. Don’t even think of playing with her feelings.”
Yuki’s jaw dropped, too speechless to reply, and stared at the younger girl who abruptly span on her heels and left without another word. As she replayed in her head their short but memorable conversation, Yuki didn’t know what shocked her the most. That the young Watanabe-san would think so ill of her and of her intentions towards her older sister, or that she had dared using such a rude tone with her and threatening her without the slightest remorse.
“Ah, Matsui-san, take a seat. I’ll be with you in a short moment. I need to finish reading and sign those scrolls, otherwise my obstinate counsellor won’t leave me in peace for the rest of the day.”
“P-Please take all the time you need, Momijimori no kami dono. There is no haste.” The designated male counsellor, who was standing right behind Mariko’s shoulder, quickly straightened up and stuttered. The head of the clan didn’t raise her nose from the scroll, her joking mood clearly perceptible as she continued reading, Rena hiding a smile when the counsellor’s features contorted in great discomfort.
Rena kneeled on the cushion in front of her, her gaze lingering on the highest authority of the clan seated behind the office, before her attention got caught by the quiet presence of the master kunoichi. Rena was slightly destabilized, wondering why the head of the clan had also requested Rie’s presence for this meeting. She kept her questions to herself, waiting for the head of the clan to be ready to address her. As the room fell silent, she allowed her mind to drift away, her thoughts a jumbled mess since this morning. She was conscious that she ought to have a serious conversation with her protégée, and discuss what had happened during the morning training lesson. She needed to make her understand that this kind of frivolous behavior wasn’t permitted, and could in no way ever occur again if she wished to keep receiving privileged private lessons.
Since that first mutual kiss they had shared in Rena’s bedroom a week ago, her young protégée had gotten bolder and bolder. In presence of witnesses, she was still wise enough to not cross boundaries and not display public demonstrations of affection, but it was another matter altogether as soon as they had the slightest moment of privacy. When her protégée had asked for kenjutsu private lessons, stating she wasn’t progressing fast enough with the others, Rena had hesitated a long time, fearing such problems would arise.
A few times already, she had caught her protégée staring intently at her lips during the kenjutsu public lessons, and it had cost Rena a lot of self-control to ignore it and pretend she didn’t notice. No wonder her protégée was complaining she wasn’t progressing! She was constantly distracted! Rena seriously considered putting an end to those morning lessons after the way they had digressed from its original purpose, without mentioning the way Jurina had so rudely addressed the master kunoichi.
“Matsui-san. How well would you say your new trainees have progressed?”
Rena straightened up, and mustered a polite smile. “Very well. In a few months, I don’t believe I’ll have anything more to teach them.”
“There’s always something to learn from the master kenjutsu, but that’s good to hear.” Mariko nodded in approval. “I would like to send a few samurais along with some of our spies to check our territory’s borders. I initially wanted to choose Sagara-san and Atami-san for this mission, but Sagara-san hasn’t fully recovered from his leg injury, and Atami-san hasn’t returned yet from his travel to the Murakami clan. That’s when I thought it could be a good opportunity to test your new trainees. Do you think some of them would be ready to go on a patrolling mission?”
Rena processed the information, now understanding the reason behind the master kunoichi’s presence. “I could select a few of my best trainees for this mission. Tanaka-san and Matsuura-san are now mature enough to fulfill a mission.”
“Perfect.” Satisfaction plastered Mariko’s face. “I’ll let you and Kitahara-san decide on the terms and organization. I trust you both to make this mission a success.”
“I will not disappoint you,” Rena said, and bowed her head. “Is there anything else you wished my assistance with?”
“No, that will be all.” Mariko rested back in her chair, looking pensive. “But there’s indeed something else I meant to ask. It’s been three months since the arrival of the Watanabe sisters at the clan. Kashiwagi-san appears to have developed a good relationship with her protégée, and I wanted to know how things are progressing with your own protégée? Have you been able to sort out your differences?”
Rena was momentarily caught off guard. “Our differences?”
“If I remember correctly, you once asked me if another samurai could be put in charge of her protection. You feared not being the right fit for the task. Has your opinion evolved on the matter?”
“Oh, I…” Rena was slightly destabilized. “She is still difficult to handle at times.” She admitted, before carefully adding. “I thank you for your concern, but I can affirm that our relationship is not as conflictual as it used to be at her arrival. The situation has improved since our last conversation.”
A smile ruffled Mariko’s mouth. “Yes, that’s what I thought, but I wanted to confirm it in person. Otherwise, I don’t believe you would have accepted to give private lessons to the young Watanabe.”
Rena’s eyes widened, and she diverted her gaze to the female kunoichi.
Mariko grinned at her in unashamed delight. “Please don’t blame Kitahara-san for her indiscretion. I was curious to discover how your relationship was evolving, and I might have harassed her with questions once or twice.”
Rena blanched, dreading how much the master kunoichi could have divulged on the nature of their relationship. However, she didn’t have time to think further that the head of the clan began to cough, worry filling her when the coughing kept going on and didn’t seem to want to cease. “Is everything alright?” She stood up from her kneeling position, alert. “Should I ask the doctor to come?”
“No, no. It’s fine.” Mariko brushed it off with a rapid wave of her hand. “It’s the change of season. Autumn has never been a season I favor the most. Maybe I should ask him to concoct one of his herbal potions.”
Rena relaxed a little.
“Thank you, Matsui-san. That will be all.” Mariko addressed her, then tilted her head towards the kunoichi by her side. “You can leave too, Kitahara-san.”
Both women bowed respectfully and retired in silence, Rena shooting one last glance at the head of the clan as the door closed on her, enough to see that she had already plunged herself back into her pile of work.
“Tell me what moment of the day suits you the best to organize this new mission, and I’ll arrange my schedule to your availabilities.”
Rena looked at the woman who was walking by her side, and pondered over her question. “This afternoon is fine.”
“Alright,” Rie nodded, before adding hesitantly. “This morning, we didn’t really talk, but I wanted to say…”
“We don’t need to mention it.” Rena winced, averting her gaze. “I already feel enough ashamed that you witnessed such an embarrassing moment.”
“It truly wasn’t my purpose to spy on you,” Rie said, concealing a smile. “And I want to clarify that I only told Shinoda-san that you were getting along better with the young Watanabe. I didn’t get into details and didn’t give any specifics.”
Astonishment touched Rena’s face; her pace unconsciously slowed down. “I thank you for your discretion, but you have to know that I would never ask you to hide anything from Shinoda-dono.”
“I know you wouldn’t,” Rie spoke softly, agreeing. “But I didn’t believe it was a matter of the most utter importance that Shinoda-dono absolutely ought to hear about.”
Rena gave her a grateful look.
“Shinoda-dono always had a perceptive nature.” Rena’s tone was more relaxed and casual as she continued. “A quality I often envy her. Some days, I even suspect that she knew exactly what she was doing when she placed the young Watanabe under my care.” She made a thoughtful pause. “I just still wonder what lead her to accept them within our clan. From what I’m aware, that’s a decision she never shared with anyone else, and we know nothing about them.”
“You’re right. That’s an information she always kept to herself,” Rie conceded, then added with conviction. “But I believe Shinoda-dono never does anything by chance. She probably had a good reason for allowing the Watanabe sisters to join our clan. A reason she might one day decide to share with us.”
They stopped walking and faced each other, Rena noticing the young shinobis waiting by the stables. “You’re going on a mission, Kitahara-san?”
Rie followed her gaze, smiling when she saw the male group looking in their direction. “Not quite. I’m about to teach them an exercise that will leave their body sore for the rest of the afternoon.”
Rena chuckled softly, knowing how much endurance and stamina the physical training required, not to mention how demanding and nerve-wracking it could be. “Please don’t be too hard on them.”
“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t ask them anything I wouldn’t do be prepared to do myself,” Rie joked lightly.
“Then I guess this is where we split ways,” Rena said, not bothering to hide her amusement. “We’ll see each other later as agreed.”
Rena followed Rie’s retreating form as the latter nodded back and left her side, realizing how pleasant their conversation had been. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had felt such at ease in the master kunoichi’s presence. Could this mark a new beginning and fresh start in their relationship?
When Rena took the direction of her bedroom to retire for the night, it was already pitch dark outside. After the long, tiring day she had, she could feel exhaustion slowing down her steps and threatening to close her heavy pupils at any instant. Between her daily responsibilities as right-hand of Shinoda-dono, the kenjutsu lessons she gave, the recent mission plan she had to supervise with the master kunoichi, and the occasional problems that arose and required her attention, Rena barely had a minute to breathe.
Her mind was fuddled with sleep, her body eager to join the comfort of her futon, when her thoughts suddenly drifted to her protégée. She couldn’t help but wonder in curiosity about her whereabouts, saddened that their paths had barely crossed all day. These last few days, it often occurred to be the case, her high position within the clan keeping her extremely occupied, and preventing her from seeing her as much as she wished, except for the daily lessons of kenjutsu. At the remembrance of what had happened this morning, Rena felt both flustered and frustrated by her protégée’s behavior, repeating to herself that she needed to have a conversation with her.
As she arrived in front of her bedroom, Rena slid the door open and stepped inside, stopping dead in her tracks when she discovered a shadow of a body lying on her futon. Stunned, it took her a few seconds to react, the darkness preventing her from distinguishing the face hidden underneath the kakebuton. At last, her feet moved forward and she crossed the room, lightening the small candle on the night table, her features contorting in incredulity when she recognized the feminine presence. “J-Jurina-san? What are you doing here?”
A head slowly raised from the makura, and two eyes fluttered opened to fall upon her. “Isn’t it obvious? I’m sleeping with you tonight.”
Rena’s mouth dropped open at the nonchalant reply. “What? Since when did we agree to such a living arrangement?”
“Since we started kissing a week ago? But don’t worry, I warned my sister that I would be sleeping with you.”
“You told your sister what?!” Rena exclaimed in disbelief.
Jurina let out a small chuckle. “Calm down. She took it very well. Besides, you don’t have to be afraid. I don’t sleep naked anymore. You can check for yourself. I’m fully clothed beneath the bedcover.”
Rena felt the color rush to her cheeks. Did she really have to remind her of such an embarrassing day? “Jurina-san.” Rena cleared her throat, recollecting herself, trying to keep her voice calm and regular. “You can’t enter my bedroom whenever you seem fit. Just because our relationship has evolved into something more… into something more profound, there are boundaries to respect.”
“But I am respecting them. Otherwise, I would be naked in bed right now.”
At her protégée’s teasing tone, another flush of embarrassment spread across Rena’s face. Somehow, she was getting the feeling that nothing she would add would help her win this argument between them. Rena scrutinized the girl lying, eyes closed, on her futon, and pretending to go back to sleep. “I don’t know what’s holding me from throwing you out for your impudence.”
“Oh, you could. But I know you won’t do it.”
Rena felt her control slip away from her. She never lost her temper. Not once. Even when faced with the upmost difficult situations, she always managed to use calm and diplomacy to her advantage. Since the young Watanabe sister had been put under her care, her legendary patience had been tested on more than one occasion. And here she naively believed their relationship had evolved and they had made substantial progress on that aspect of her personality. That her protégée would flirt again with her limits strained her patience to breaking point.
“Look, I only want to sleep. I promise I won’t misbehave. You know I would never do anything against your will.”
Rena wanted to laugh, ready to retort that she surely didn’t listen to her protest in the maple forest this morning. However, for some reason, she kept those thoughts to herself, and the genuine sincerity she perceived in her protégée’s soft, gentle voice managed to strike a chord. “F-Fine, I will let you sleep here tonight.” Against all reason, she heard herself saying.
The younger girl peered at her; her lips curled with amusement. Rena ignored it, walking away and unbuckling the katana at her waist, and placing her weapon on the allocated stand. Rena could practically feel a pair of eyes boring into her back as she began to undress, removing her black kimono and her matching hakama, swapping her daily clothes for her nightly yukata. When she turned around and approached the futon, her protégée didn’t even bother hiding the fact that she had been shamelessly staring at her the whole time, the cunning smile playing on her lips enough to reveal her sneaky attitude.
Rena took a seat on the futon, making sure to put enough cautious distance between them as she laid down by her side. As they quietly faced one another, studying each other through the dim light of the candle, Rena felt her throat tighten, aware of her ambivalence and inner conflicts between contradicting desires. She was having difficulty dealing with the new feelings that had emerged within her, and a part of her couldn’t help fearing that this may be going a little too fast.
“Are you really afraid of me touching you?”
Rena heard the catch in her protégée’s voice and felt her heart ache. Now she feared her recent words and actions had been interpreted the wrong way. A week ago, she had taken a leap of faith, kissing back the girl who had unexpectedly captured her heart, and deciding to give this relationship a chance. Rena could tell they still had a lot to learn about each other, and it was crucial that they adapted to the wishes and needs of the other. But if there was one thing she refused, it was to let her protégée believe that she wasn’t serious about them. “It’s not that. You know of my affection for you.” Rena extended her hand, gently stroking her protégée’s cheek, brushing away a few strands of hair from her eyes. “But you have a tendency of not always listening and not being able to control yourself when we are alone. Like this morning, for example.”
A grin curved up the corners of Jurina’s mouth. “But you enjoyed it when I kissed you, don’t deny it.”
Rena shook her head disbelieving. “I’m not particularly fond of it when you just do it as you pleased, without caring much about my consent.”
“But you liked it,” Jurina insisted, drawing closer, not hesitating to invade her personal space on the futon. “Just as right now you’re staring at my lips and wondering if I’m going to kiss you again.”
Rena swallowed hard, chastising herself. She was desperately trying to make her understand how she felt about her sometimes forceful and possessive attitude. Not only her protégée wasn’t truly listening, her own body was choosing to betray her inner thoughts. She had allowed her guard to slip. And her protégée didn’t hesitate to take advantage of it. When the latter gently pulled her body closer, Rena didn’t find the strength within her nor the desire to resist, shivering despite herself when she brought their lips together. The kiss was slow and gentle, reminding her of their first mutual kiss. The kiss Rena had initiated that day, liberating, but also shy and hesitant.
The kiss wasn’t as hungry and demanding as she had accustomed her to, but full of gentleness and patience. Her protégée wasn’t as dominating as she sometimes proved to be; and Rena took control of the kiss without realizing it. Rena brushed her lips with hers, feeling a fluttering sensation in her stomach as her protégée softly kissed her back. Rena took her time, caressing her cheek with her fingers, allowing herself to kiss her again, to be so vulnerable during such a moment of intimacy. The feeling of a scar under her fingertips made her pause and she slowly pulled away, studying the mark, carefully tracing it, before her gaze met the one of her protégée.
Her proud and satisfied expression made Rena smile. “That’s what you were waiting for, weren’t you? For me to take the lead?” Rena stared into her eyes, her lips curving into a knowing smile when her protégée reached forward, and tried to capture her lips in another kiss. “I think that’s enough kissing for today.” She stopped her, gently placing her index finger across her lips. “Don’t you think?”
A small pout formed on Jurina’s lips, but she didn’t protest. Rena took a seat on the futon and turned around, blowing the candle, the bedroom plunging into complete darkness. Rena lied down and searched the feminine silhouette before her, trying to get fully accustomed to the new presence in her room. For a moment, she wondered if her cunning protégée would take advantage of their proximity to make another move on her. She waited, but the seconds transformed into minutes, and she remained quietly by her side, making her almost wonder if she hadn’t fallen asleep. Rena felt her own body getting heavier and heavier, surrendering to exhaustion. She fluttered her eyes close, her breathing slowing down, her arm unconsciously laying loosely across her protégée’s waist.
This evening, all the hatamoto - the samurais that composed the private guard – along with other lower ranked samurais of the clan were reunited, invited to have dinner together in the company of the head of the clan. The atmosphere was light and laid back, the good spirit contrasting with the usual solemnity and uptight protocol of official meetings. It was a gathering that occurred once a month, a routine the head of the clan insisted on having to strengthen the bonds of the samurais under her service.
More than 50 members of the clan were currently seated on cushions along the long wooden table dressed up for the occasion, chatting among themselves and enjoying the multi-course brought to them by servants. After finishing the appetizers, they were served a soup garnished with vegetables, followed by a few fried and grilled dishes. Rena raised her chopsticks to taste the tempuras inside her bowl, but somehow was having difficulty enjoying her meal, disturbed by the scene unfolding in front of her.
On the opposite side of the table, her young protégée drank many cups, one after another, filled to the brim with sake. Even though her protégée’s gaze was fixed on her cup, she had clearly noticed what was going on next to her, her upset expression leaving no secret about how she felt about it. On her left, Mayu was having difficulty rebuffing the advances of a slightly wasted Hasegawa-san, the male samurai having not only taken a liking in her, but was also pushing her to drink more sake than she was willing to. The old Watanabe sister, albeit ill-at-ease, was too polite to upfront refuse him and did as she was told, bringing the beverage to her lips at his invitation.
Rena gave Yuki, who was sitting by her right, a discreet sideways glance, and caught her eye in a fleeting moment. The visual contact didn’t last, yet was enough to tell Rena that she had equally noticed the problematic situation. Manifestly, she was struggling between her strong desire to rescue her protégée from this awkward moment, and the realization that she couldn’t do so without risking offending the other male samurai. Yes, it was a tricky situation, and Rena understood perfectly well the dilemma her friend found herself into. However, it turned out the young Watanabe sister didn’t have such scruples.
“Stop bothering my sister.” Jurina’s lips twitched in annoyance as she set down her cup of sake on the table noisily. “And stop trying to get her drunk!”
“I-It’s alright, Jurina.” Mayu tilted her head in her direction, and said to her in a low voice, embarrassed. “Don’t worry about it.”
Jurina shot her sister an incredulous look. “No, it’s not fine. I will not stay seated here while this old man keeps harassing you.”
The table fell silent and heads were raised; faces turned towards the direction of the unexpected argument.
“What did you call me?” The designated Hasegawa-san stopped eating and, straightening up, stared back at the young Watanabe sister with a mix of disbelief and bewilderment. “You’d better not be impudent, young one.”
“Me? Impudent?” Jurina scoffed. “You’re the one who should apologize to my sister for your inappropriate behavior.”
“Watanabe-san.” Rena quickly spoke up. She had tried to keep her voice calm and controlled, but she knew her disapproval was showing when her protégée instantly looked back at her, and her dark brown eyes reflected nothing else but deep frustration. The kenjutsu instructor had strongly hoped she wouldn’t need to intervene, but she refused to stay quiet any longer. The situation was escalating dangerously, and she dreaded the anger now burning from the male samurai’s eyes.
The latter’s hand fell threateningly upon the wakizashi at his belt. “I will not tolerate such dishonor any longer.” He diverted his attention towards the head of the clan. “Momijimori no kami dono, I ask for reparation.”
The atmosphere was electrifying, no one daring to make a single noise or move as they awaited in anticipation for the head of the clan’s reaction. Rena stiffened and held her breath, knowing full well the implication of what Hasegawa-san was asking. Opposite her, her young protégée didn’t seem to measure the consequences, more than ready and eager to pull out her own wakizashi.
A sudden laugh broke the heavy silence. “Old man. I think it’s the best insult I’ve heard in a while.” Mariko said, not bothering to hide her entertainment at the altercation. “Hasegawa-san, you have to admit you’re not the youngest of all at this table. In fact, your extraordinary good health never ceases to amaze me. I’m even convinced you will bury us all. Come on, let’s eat. If there’s one thing that displeases me the most, it’s to eat my wagyu cold. You wouldn’t want your little duel to force me to eat my food cold, would you?”
Despite the casual smile falling upon the head of the clan’s lips, the subtle warning didn’t escape anyone.
“O-Of course not.” The male samurai forced a smile, and slowly released his hold on his wakizashi. The head of the clan burst into another laughter, at what she visibly considered an original insult. It took the other guests a moment or two to know how to react, before timidly following her in her laughter, the dinner resuming its course in a more serene atmosphere. Conversations continued, the incident quickly forgotten, but Rena couldn’t ignore the range of emotions coursing through her as she felt a wave of relief.
It took her a few minutes to fully calm her beating heart, as well as the slight tremble of her hand when she seized her chopsticks to eat. If the head of the clan hadn’t denied Hasegawa-san’s request, there was not a shred of doubt how the confrontation would have ended between the experimented male samurai and her impetuous young apprentice. Rena stole a glance towards the other side of the table. She didn’t detect the slightest sign of remorse on her protégée’s face, not that it surprised her very much. At this précised instant, her thoughtlessness both scared and infuriated her. Not only wasn’t she feeling ashamed by the fact that she had offended a highly respected member of a clan, she didn’t seem to grasp the real danger she had put herself into.
Yuki couldn’t help chastising herself for her powerlessness as she and Mayu crossed the corridor leading towards the samurais’ quarters, the pair having fallen quiet when the kyudo instructor had offered to walk her back after dinner. Yuki relived again in her head the incident that had occurred, blaming herself. She was still shocked by the way Mayu’s younger sister had dared to address another member of the clan, her impoliteness reminding the unpleasant conversation she had had with the young Watanabe sister a few days ago. However, a part of her was also secretly glad that she had spoken up, and been able to put an end to the male samurai’s advances.
If there was one thing Hasegawa-san had never been good at, it was controlling his drinking. It wasn’t rare to witness him getting carried away during social events. Usually, it would only transcribe in the samurai being more jovial and talkative. This evening, it appeared his close proximity with one of the newest feminine addition to the clan had pushed him to test his chances with her in a heavy, clumsy way.
As they were getting closer to their bedrooms, Yuki refused to part with her protégée without addressing the situation. “I should have intervened during dinner. I did notice that Hasegawa-san was bothering you, but I didn’t do anything. I hope you can forgive me.”
Mayu stopped, and glanced back at her, startled. “We both know you couldn’t have done anything without risking offending him. What my sister said was rude, and I hope…” Concern darkened her features. “I hope Hasegawa-san won’t hold it against her.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Yuki said, shaking her head. “Given my past experience with Hasegawa-san, he had way too much sake tonight to remember a single thing when he wakes up tomorrow morning,” she added on a teasing tone, trying to lighten the mood.
A look of relief crossed Mayu’s face. “Oh, alright. It’s just… My sister has difficulty getting along with the other members of the clan. I would blame myself if she made herself an enemy because of me.”
“Your sister’s impulsive reaction was probably not the wisest,” Yuki admitted with a small nervous chuckle. “But she protected you, which I should have been doing. And a part of me will always feel guilty about by inaction tonight.”
Mayu was touched by her care and concern. “I thank you, Kashiwagi-san. But you don’t have to protect me.”
They looked at each other for a moment, and Yuki found herself having a hard time deciphering the expression in her eyes when her protégée slowly approached her. She awaited in expectation, sensing she wanted to tell her something, before replying when no words left the other girl’s lips. “Of course, I do. I’m your protector. It’s my job to-” She didn’t have time to finish that she felt a pair of lips on hers. The contact was only brief as her protégée quickly pulled away.
Mayu turned away, her face flushing red. “I-I’m sorry. I don’t know… I don’t know why I did that.”
It took Yuki a few long seconds to recover from her shock, her gaze softening as she noticed the other girl’s panic. This evening, she could tell her protégée was not acting as usual, and knew alcohol was in cause. Yuki’s heart skipped a beat; her lips tingled at the remembrance of the kiss they had exchanged. Her inner voice was telling her it wasn’t appropriate to take advantage of the situation when her protégée was obviously not completely herself, but she chose to silence it. After these past months, there was no more denying how they felt for each other, and she knew the beverage had only given her the necessary courage to take the next step in their relationship.
Yuki cupped Mayu’s cheeks between her hands, gently turning her face towards her. “Watanabe-san, you did nothing wrong.”
Mayu finally dared to look back at her. Yuki held her breath in anticipation and, after what felt like an eternity, her protégée slowly reduced the distance once more. Yuki saw her hesitate, uncertainty crossing her face. At this right moment, she couldn’t have found her more adorable. As her protégée’s face drew timidly closer to her, Yuki leaned down and met her halfway, their lips slowly pressing against each other. A burst of happiness fluttered in Yuki’s chest as they shared a sweet, lingering kiss, expressing at last their romantic feelings for each other.
As soon as dinner was over, Rena had had good intentions to have a word with her young protégée about her attitude. She didn’t have the opportunity. The moment the head of the clan raised to her feet, marking the end of dinner, the younger girl didn’t wait to leave, vanishing into thin air without exchanging a glance or a word. Albeit slightly destabilized by it, Rena figured out she probably needed some time alone to cool down. She had regained her quarters, plunging herself in some work she needed to attend. Unfortunately, she had failed to progress as much as she wished, her thoughts diverting far too often towards her protégée. As the evening had progressed and it became pitch dark outside, Rena ended up believing she wouldn’t hear from her anymore until the following morning. If there was one thing she didn’t expect, it was to receive a nightly visit.
Rena tensed as she heard her bedroom’s door sliding open, her brush pausing on the paper laying on the table in front of her. Rena didn’t raise her gaze from the scroll, and listened as footsteps approached on the tatami, feeling a body pressed against her back the following moment. When her protégée buried her face in her shoulder, Rena calmly settled her brush down on the table, and removed the wandering hand that was attempting to open the front of her kimono.
“Stop it. You’re drunk,” Rena said, unable to keep the frustration out of her voice. She couldn’t believe what the younger girl was doing. Were they really going to pretend that everything was fine?
“I’m not drunk,” Jurina protested. “Why are you still working anyway?” She wrapped her arms around her once more, kissing the nape of her neck. “It’s late. You should come in bed. With me.”
That was the last straw. Rena pulled away from her embrace and turned her gaze on to her with an accusatory look. “I can smell alcohol on you. And you’re very naïve if you think I’ll accept you in my bed after your rude behavior at dinner.”
“Rude? This samurai was harassing my sister!” Jurina exclaimed, disbelief filling her words. “What would you have expected me to do? To stay here doing nothing?! He was lucky the head of the clan stopped us, or I would hav-”
“You would have what?” Rena said challengingly. “Killed him? You wouldn’t even be capable of touching him.”
“Incapable?!” Jurina abruptly rose to her feet, infuriated. “You have so little faith in me? What side are you on?!”
Rena avoided her gaze, feeling her own temper also slipping out of control. “I’m on the side of people who don’t want to see you get killed because of a misplaced desire to protect your sister from everything and everyone.” She took a deep breath in an attempt to calm down, getting a little desperate. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m dealing with a child who never thinks about the consequences of her actions.”
Her last words were followed by a long silence.
“If that’s your opinion of me, then maybe the child should go to a place where her presence is more appreciated and welcomed. Where someone else will be more than happy to warm my bed.”
Rena raised her head at her last snarky comment. As footsteps drew away rapidly, a mixture of stupor and incredulity surged within her. “If you ever do what I think you’re implying, this is the last time you’ll be passing my doorstep.”
Behind her, her protégée stopped on the tatami at once. Rena waited, but she obtained no response, the last thing she heard being the sound of the bedroom door being roughly slid open and slammed closed as she left.
Surprised entered Churi’s eyes as she noticed the familiar feminine presence awaiting in the main room of the brothel. Distractedly, she kissed back her male client who was leaving her bedroom, then refocused her attention on the girl who was drinking alone. Hadn’t it already been a week since she last saw Nobunaga? Pleasure plastered her features, and she began descending the staircase to greet her friend, but her smile slowly vanished when she realized something was definitely wrong with her tonight.
By Nobunaga’s empty look, it wasn’t hard to guess something had happened. From her seat, she was following the dancing performance of one of their new girls, Akiko, but didn’t seem to take much pleasure in it, not even joining the other patrons in their round of applause. Churi felt both destabilized and troubled. Even more when one of the servants approached her, and discreetly slipped into her ear that Nobunaga had been drinking quite a lot since her arrival. The revelation only served to increase Churi’s concern, having indeed well noticed that her friend appeared more wasted than usual.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” Churi said, trying to keep the concern out of her voice as she took a seat beside her. “What brings you here?”
Jurina brightened up. “Hey. What took you so long?” She brushed her ears with her lips, before kissing her cheek. “I missed you.”
Churi tried not to look destabilized by the unusual public demonstration of affection, but it was impossible to ignore the curious glances she received. When she felt an arm sliding around her waist, holding her close, and a pair of lips approaching dangerously her mouth, Churi quickly intervened. “Alright, I think someone had too much drinking for the evening,” she tried to defuse the situation with a laugh, and gently disentangled herself from her hold. “Why don’t we continue this conversation in my room?”
A seductive glint slid straight into Jurina’s alcohol—blurred gaze. “Oh, you’re being much bolder than usual tonight.”
“I just don’t want the others to witness you like this,” Churi said and turned to look at her, unable to hide her true feelings of concern any longer. “And you’re obviously not in a condition to return to the clan right now.”
It proved less difficult than Churi feared to bring her friend to get up from the table and leave the main room, following her upstairs without the slightest protest or resistance. As soon as they entered her bedroom and she had closed the door behind them, Churi didn’t have time to react that two arms had wrapped around her neck, and a head dropped heavily upon her shoulder. “D-Did I tell you how much I missed you?”
Churi held her back with one arm, supporting her weight, while stroking her hair with the other, trying to analyze the situation. It wouldn’t be the first time that her friend would drink a lot, but she usually had a great resistance to alcohol. Tonight, the realization that the beverage was clearly affecting her more than usual, taught her that her friend had been drinking for a while, probably even before her arrival at the brothel.
“What is going on?” Churi gently asked; apprehension fluttering through her. “Did you have a fight with someone? Was it with your protector?”
“Why would you think-” Jurina let out a low growl. “I don’t want to talk about her.”
Churi could tell she had predicted right, and was determined to get to the bottom of the problem. “I don’t know what happened between you two, but I’m sure it wasn’t worth drinking so much.”
Jurina’s furious gaze landed on her. “S-She thinks I’m an impudent child!”
Churi let out a small chuckle escape.
Jurina took a step back, and narrowed her eyes at her suspiciously. “What?! You think that too?”
“No, I don’t…” Churi said, doing her best to keep the amusement out of her voice. She crossed the room slowly, carefully pondering on what to reply, before sitting down on the futon. “But you can’t deny that you can act impulsively at times.”
Jurina leaned her back against the door, and folded her arms around her chest. “I thought we were friends, but you’re taking her defense!”
“We are friends.” Churi raised her head and extended her hand, inviting her to join her side. “That’s why I didn’t want the other girls to see you like this, even if I now fear they will find it suspicious that I invited you to my room.”
Churi’s lips curled into a playful smile, and an unconscious smile tugged at Jurina’s lips too. She quietly detached herself from the door, and took place on the futon beside her, burying her face in her hands.
Churi caressed and lightly squeezed her friend’s shoulder. “Do you want to tell me what happened?”
Jurina heaved out a long sigh of despair. “I accepted to come to this clan for my sister’s sake, and I really tried to adapt, but…”
“You sometimes feel like you don’t fit in?” Churi offered.
Jurina lifted her head slowly and gazed back at her, nodding.
“I see.” Churi smiled, understandingly. “I think it’s important that you share with your protector how you feel about the situation.”
Jurina averted her gaze, shaking her head. “She wouldn’t understand.”
Churi made a thoughtful pause.
“I will never forget the look of distress on her face when she saw you lying here, injured and weak, fighting a fever after your attack. She obviously cares about you. And I can tell the feeling is mutual. So maybe you shouldn’t underestimate her, and allow yourself to open up to her about your internal struggles.”
“I don’t…” Jurina looked lost, uncertain.
Churi leaned and planted a kiss on her cheek. “Why don’t you rest here for a bit? Right now, you’re in no condition to go back.”
Jurina nodded absently and complied, lying down and resting her head on the pillow. Churi stayed by her side, not taking long before she witnessed her heavy pupils drifting close. More than anything, she was conscious that Nobunaga had always been secretive, and never shared much about herself. However, she deep down hoped their conversation would influence her and she would follow her advice, convinced her protector was much more of an attentive listener than Nobunaga was willing to believe.
Jurina stirred awake, placing her hand on her eyes to block the unpleasant sun entering the room. Turning around in bed, it didn’t take her long to grasp that she hadn’t slept at the clan, when she witnessed the familiar feminine body of Churi lying beside her. Her friend was profoundly asleep, her eyes tightly shut. Jurina blinked in confusion, trying to replay in her head the events that had led her to that moment. Her fuddled mind came back to a sharp focus at her sudden headache, painful reminder that she had been drinking more than reasonably.
Gradually, she put the pieces back together, alerted when she realized it was already morning, and she had slept much more than initially intended. Taking a seat on the futon, her thoughts drifted towards her protector. Her heart skipped a beat, fearing how her sleepover would be interpreted, especially after the harsh words that had left her mouth during their last heated argument. Jurina tilted her head in her friend’s direction, enough to check that she was still sound asleep, before getting out of bed as quietly as possible.
She crossed the room and approached the door, conscious she couldn’t stay any longer here, yet stole a last peek at the woman sleeping on the futon. At the reminder of their last conversation, a tired but grateful smile grazed her lips. Yes, she sometimes felt unsatisfied and unfulfilled by her new life within the Shinoda clan. However, if there was one thing she couldn’t deny anymore, it was how lucky she was to have encountered such a faithful and trusted friend in the person of Churi.
Jurina paused when she arrived in front of her protector’s bedroom, hoping she had not already woken up. She placed her hand on the door, ready to open, yet couldn’t manage to go through with it. The irony of the situation struck her hard. The previous days, she certainly didn’t embarrass herself with such consideration, entering her protector’s bedroom whenever she deemed fit. After their latest fight, she found herself hesitant, apprehending how her arrival would be received.
Jurina took a deep breath and carefully slid the door open, her greatest fears becoming reality when her gaze landed on the empty futon. Her protector was awake. Which could only mean that she had well noticed her absence. Jurina moved forward, feeling slightly insecure, wondering if the kenjutsu instructor could possibly have already left for the dojo. The presence of the katana disposed on the rack told her otherwise, and she progressed further into the room, distinguishing a silhouette through the fusuma leading outside.
Jurina approached and slid the door open, noticing her quiet protector seated on the porch facing the garden. It was barely sunrise, and there was not a soul in sight, except for the senzui kawaramono, the gardener of the Shinoda clan. As every morning, he was attending the gravel garden, sweeping away fallen leaves, before tracing with his rake horizontal lines on the ground with the utmost patience and diligence.
Jurina knew her protector had noticed her presence by now and, even if the latter didn’t raise her head to glance at her, Jurina didn’t hesitate to take a seat beside her. She couldn’t deny that her pride was still hurt after being called a child, but she was conscious her protector had every reason to think that way about her. She hadn’t been on her best behavior since her arrival at the clan, and she had a tendency of losing her temper far too easily. Especially last evening, when her unfortunate words went beyond her thoughts.
Silence enveloped them and, when the woman beside her wasn’t inclined to speak, Jurina knew it was up to her to make the first step. “You’re awake early. I thought… I thought you would still be in bed.”
There was another moment of silence, before the reply came. “I am. Let’s say I had troubles sleeping.”
Jurina felt a twinge of guilt, guessing she was responsible.
They fell into silence again, and Jurina maneuvered her thoughts, trying to figure out the best way to broach the situation. When she the least expected it, her protector was the one to speak up. “Where were you yesterday?”
Jurina swallowed twice before she tried to answer. Despite knowing she wouldn’t like her answer, but she couldn’t bring herself to lie. “I was with Churi,” she said, before quickly adding. “But I didn’t have sex with her, if that’s what you think.”
“Why should I believe you? You seemed to have other intentions in mind when you left my bedroom.”
Jurina tensed; another wave of embarrassment swept through her. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have… I shouldn’t have spoken to you that way. I lost my temper, and said things I didn’t mean. I would never…” For a shrinking moment she paused, feeling ashamed for having spoken so cruelly. “I would never cheat on you.”
There was a long silence, and as her words received no reply, Jurina dreaded to have gone too far this time. There was no denying that their relationship had started off on the wrong foot, but the bond between them had grown stronger over time, up to the point of transforming into an intimate close relationship. Despite everything Jurina had put her through with her bad temper, her protector had always showed infinite patience with her. What if she had managed to push her to the limit with that last provocation?
For the first time since the beginning of their conversation, Rena finally faced her back. “No, you shouldn’t have said those things. It was harsh and hurtful.”
Jurina’s face clouded with uneasiness.
“But I forgive you. I forgive you because I know it was also the alcohol speaking, and you didn’t truly mean it.”
Jurina’s eyes widened slightly; hope fluttered in her chest.
“But it’s not only about your attitude with me. You were out of line during dinner, and I’m not sure you even realize it. There are basic rules to respect in society, and your lack of manners keeps baffling me. You cannot keep behaving this way if you wish to stay in this clan, even less in front of Shinoda-dono. Next time, she might not be so merciful. What would you do if she decided to expel both you and your sister? Or maybe that’s what you’re hoping for? To leave that place you seem to abhor so much since your arrival?”
Jurina took time to process everything she had said, deep down conscious that she was entirely right. She mustered her courage to look back at her, witnessing the mix of emotions in her protector’s eyes. She looked upset and disappointed in her, not that Jurina expected any less, but she also couldn’t miss the genuine caring and affection reflected in her small brown orbs. Without warning, Churi’s words came back to the forefront of her mind, and Jurina drew a deep breath, forbidding herself to back away.
“For ten years, it was just me and my sister. Life wasn’t always easy, but I didn’t care because we were together, and it was all that mattered to me. When we arrived here, my whole world was turned upside down. I hated everything about that place, and wanted to leave as soon as possible. My freedom was suddenly restrained, and I was forced to follow a set of rules I had never agreed to. For the first time, my sister didn’t need me anymore. She was doing fine without me; she was happier than I had ever seen her.”
Jurina made a pause, feeling her voice raspy with emotion.
“And that’s why, despite everything I’m feeling, I know we can’t possibly leave anymore. What kind of person would I be if my actions only lead to cause her pain? I would never forgive myself for being the source of her unhappiness.”
Rena’s gaze softened as they stared at each other. “Why did you never tell me those things? I would have listened; I would have understood how you felt.”
Jurina let out a small nervous chuckle. “Let’s say I don’t have the habit to confide in people. Even less in people I barely know.”
“Jurina-san…” With tenderness, Rena reached up and cupped her cheek. “Don’t you know me a bit more by now? I’m conscious I have a tendency of being strict, but if there’s one thing I would never do, it’s judge you for feeling lost and lonely. And I want to think… No, I know that I can help you feel more at home.”
Jurina shuddered at the contact, her touch soothing and warming at the same time. She closed her eyes, feeling an overwhelming surge of relief, not having the strength to resist when she got pulled into an embrace. Without speaking, they remained in each other’s arms, and Jurina let her head fall upon her protector’s shoulder, her grip tightening around her back. A voice inside her head was telling her that it was wrong to display such weakness and vulnerability, but she refused to listen to it, realizing despite herself how truly good it felt to let go and open up her heart.
A long, blissful sigh escaped Mayu’s lips as she enjoyed a rest under the shade of the large branches of a maple tree. From her position at the top of the hill, she had a privileged view over the main grounds of the Shinoda clan. The head of the clan’s main residence. The samurais’ private quarters. The stables held over two hundred of horses of every color and kind: black, white, grey, chestnut, roan and bay; packhorses, workhorses and riding horses. The Buddhist temples, central places of prayer. The cemetery, where people came to mourn their lost ones, often soldiers fallen during the last great war. But also, the small houses, taverns and trading centers, that stretched in the valley as far as the eye could see.
The movement, the hustle bustle, the energy. It reminded her of her childhood. Of how the Watanabe clan used to be when it stood proudly as one of the leading authorities of the country.
The remembrance of her lost heritage made Mayu a touch melancholy, but she pushed it firmly to the back of her mind. She was content living here. Every passing day, she was grateful Shinoda-san had accepted to let them stay. At last, they were off the roads, filled with disreputable individuals ready to rob them of their scarce resources. Mayu felt safe within these walls, and wasn’t afraid to call it her new home.
She had settled into what proved an idyllic life, with only one cloud on her horizon. Her sister, Jurina, who had difficulty adjusting to their new day-to-day routine. Maybe it was her optimistic side speaking, but Mayu wished to remain positive. Believe she would come to appreciate this second chance life gave them.
The maple forest had become a sea of reds, oranges and yellows. The grass swayed in the autumn breeze, the sun bathing the foliage and flowers in its golden rays. Gone was the scorching heat of Summer. Mayu found the current temperate, neither hot or cold, pleasant. She had heard that, in this northern region, Winter could prove to be ruthless. Some years, inhabitants had even witnessed lakes freeze. The sole idea made her shiver, and she hoped her thick kimono would be enough to keep her warm. She had spent all her childhood in the South of Japan, where the Watanabe clan used to be located. Only recently, she and her sister had begun to travel norther.
Never before had she had the chance to witness lands covered with the white substance people called snow. The prospect made her secretly excited.
Mayu’s eyes fluttered close. Relaxed, her body felt heavier. She wasn’t particularly tired, but the atmosphere was serene. She drifted away. Without warning, a certain kiss came back to the forefront of her mind, and she was wide awake. Her heart leaped. She raised her hand to her lips; they quivered slightly at the touch. A shy but happy smile broke out across her face. The memory of the soft and warm kiss she had shared with the kyudo instructor was vivid and sharp.
There were gaps in her memory concerning that particular evening, and she blamed it on the excessive use of alcohol. She had always been a light drinker, and she couldn’t explain why she had gotten carried away. Despite her mind fuzzy about the course of events, she didn’t imagine the kiss. She had a hard time believing it happened. For months, her attraction for Kashiwagi-san grew, but she hesitated to make the first move.
What if her protector was gentle and caring out of duty? Mayu had seen a couple of signs suggesting a mutual romantic interest. The personal attention, the lingering eye contact, the physical proximity. And what about the evening Jurina had left the bedroom in a haste after a violent nightmare, and Kashiwagi-san, witnessing Mayu’s disarray, had invited her to her room and provided her comfort?
As days transformed into weeks, and weeks became months, the protégée and her protector grew closer than ever. Their relationship didn’t progress as much as Mayu secretly hoped, but she didn’t want either to take the risk of overstepping boundaries. What if Kashiwagi-san held herself for the same reasons, and believed a romantic relationship between them was inappropriate? The kiss, reciprocated, had put an end to any remaining doubt, and filled Mayu’s heart with happiness.
At the crackling sound of leaves and twigs stepped upon, Mayu pulled out of her reverie. Her eyelids peeled open, finding Jurina standing in front of her. Mayu blinked, coming back to reality. Her sister’s delight caught her attention. “I see some habits don’t change.”
Mayu readjusted her seated position, flustered to have been so lost in her thoughts she didn’t hear someone approach. “What do you mean?”
“It reminds me of when we were little. How often would I find you napping under a cherry tree?”
“You mean…” Mayu continued, in a slight humorous tone. “You mean when you escaped your bodyguard’s attention and explored the lands of our clan, disappearing for hours, sometimes even until sundown?”
Jurina slumped down beside her, and rested her back against the tree. “It’s not my fault if they were too slow to catch up.”
Mayu let out a small chuckle. “I’ll always remember Father’s fury when the bodyguard confessed having lost you. How many times did he change your bodyguard? Four? Five?”
“I have no idea.” Jurina shrugged her shoulders, grinning. “It never made a difference anyway.”
Mayu laughed openly. A comfortable silence fell over them, during which both enjoyed the view and each other’s presence. Once in a while, Mayu would steal a peek at Jurina when she wasn’t paying attention. She felt so lucky to have her by her side. They had endured so many hardships. The murder of their father. The downfall of their clan. Years of restless wandering. Life at the Shinoda clan was a fresh start; an opportunity to put their painful past behind.
“Why don’t you join Rena-san’s lessons? You haven’t come to the dojo. You need to learn kenjutsu.”
Mayu shifted uneasily. “Thank you, but… I’m fine with kyudo. It suits me more.”
An awkward silence followed.
“You’re spending way too much time with Kashiwagi-san. You follow her everywhere. You barely leave her side all day.”
“What are you talking about?” Mayu asked, taken aback by her manifest disapproval.
“I’m not blind,” Jurina rolled her eyes at her. “You get that dreamy expression when you interact with her. You have a crush. I hope you’re not making yourself false illusions about your relationship.”
“W-We kissed,” Mayu blurted out.
Jurina’s mouth dropped open. “What? When?!”
Mayu hesitated. “The other day, after the dinner organized by Shinoda-dono. Kashiwagi-san offered to accompany back to my room, and we ki-”
“Did she take advantage of you?!”
“W-What? No… Kashiwagi-san is not like tha-”
“I knew I couldn’t trust her!” Jurina abruptly stood up. “I warned her to not play with your feelings but she seized the opportunity as soon as she saw one! She used you during a moment of weakness! What else did she do to you?! Tell me! You have to tell me everything!”
Her outburst rendered Mayu speechless.
“Do you even remember what happened that evening?!” Jurina asked, in a slightly mocking tone. “No, of course you don’t. Let me refresh your memory. Hasegawa-san harassed you the whole evening. He made you drink again and again, and you were too nice and polite to refuse. I had no choice but to intervene to make him stop! I wouldn’t be shocked if you were half drunk when Kashiwagi-san walked you back to your room. Your beloved protector didn’t lift a finger to help you!”
Mayu was baffled by Jurina’s fury. Processing the information revealed, she put the missing pieces of the puzzle back together. Little by little, her memory of that evening became much clearer. “Kashiwagi-san couldn’t say anything! It would have caused an incident!”
“Tss. What a silly excuse,” Jurina huffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “She was too much of a coward to act, and I was forced to step up.”
“Yes, and it could have gotten yourself killed! And what do you mean by you ‘warned her to not play’ with my feelings?”
“Exactly as I said,” Jurina spoke with confidence. “I had a clear conversation with her on the subject. I won’t let anyone toy with you.”
Mayu didn’t like arguing with her. Conflicts left her emotionally and mentally drained. But this was too much. She couldn’t accept nor condone what she had dared to do behind her back. “I can’t believe you did that!” Mayu sprang to her feet, anger bubbling within her. “How could you? You had no right!”
If Jurina was shocked by her raised tone, she didn’t let it show. “You’re my sister, and it’s my role to protect you. I don’t trust Kashiwagi-san. I never did. Even less after her behavior during dinner.”
“You don’t know her like I do. Kashiwagi-san is a good person!”
“You’re naïve.” Jurina wasn’t so easily deterred. “You always see the best in people. Kashiwagi-san is acting nice to get close to you. Once she gets what she wants, she’ll get rid of you without any remorse!”
“You always believe everyone has bad intentions. I know what my heart feels and that Kashiwagi-san feels the same. I don’t judge your relationship with Matsui-san!”
“How is it different?” Mayu countered. Her sister avoided her gaze, and Mayu guessed she had caught her off guard. “I won’t pretend I fully understand the nature of the relationship you two have. But look me in the eye and tell me you don’t have feelings for her. Or you want me to believe it’s a simple flirt? That it’s not serious?”
When the younger girl didn’t reply, Mayu added. “I think we’re both experimenting the same. We met someone who makes us feel something different; something new and strong. But at least, I’m honest about it, and not afraid of saying it.”
Mayu stood face to face with Jurina. She wanted her to realize she meant every single word, and nothing, no one, would make her change her mind. She half-expected her to come back at her with a clever retort. Against all odds, Jurina’s lips remained tightly sealed. Mayu took a step back, and slowly walked away. Their heated debate had left her shaken, and it would take her a while to recover from it, but she was also proud to have been brave enough to stand up to her convictions.
“She’s totally infatuated with Kashiwagi-san,” Jurina mumbled, leaning her back against the stall. “It doesn’t make her think clearly.”
The whinny of her horse distracted her. “What?” She cocked an eyebrow at her black stallion, meeting his visible disapproval. The animal tilted his head to his left, pointing his nose towards the untouched saddle on the rack. “Yes, yes, we are leaving! You can be so impatient, sometimes!”
Jurina pushed away from the door stall and picked the saddle, throwing it on the horse. All morning, she couldn’t get out of her head her argument with Mayu. She had taken the direction of the stables, hoping a ride would help dissipate her bad mood. “Why won’t she listen to me!” She growled, putting on the bridle. “I know I’m right, right?!” She studied her horse’s reaction, hoping for support and understanding, but all she got in return was a silent stare.
Akihira-kun, the thirteen-year-old stable boy, who brushed the knotted beige mane of a horse, spoke up in a small, hesitant voice. “I-Is everything alright, Watanabe-san?”
Jurina spared him a quick glance. “Yes, yes.” She answered, attempting to sound as nonchalant as possible. A complete lie. She was anything but fine.
“And how can she compare it to my relationship with Rena-san! It’s ridiculous! It’s completely different!”
A chestnut head popped over the next-door stall. Her protector’s calm and gentle mare appeared, and twitched her ears at her in a friendly hello. The stallion disregarded Jurina’s presence and greeted the mare with a nicker, rubbing his nostrils against the head of the female horse.
“Great,” Jurina groaned, her frustration rising. “Remind me who defended you when Rena-san didn’t want you two to be together? Me! So, you could at least pretend you’re interested in my problems!”
The stallion turned his head partially towards his owner, and snorted in response.
The front door of the stables opened, and Jurina diverted her attention from the couple to the group of four men entering. Amongst them, Jurina recognized two kenjutsu apprentices, Tanaka-san and Matsuura-san. She failed to identify the two others, but by their dark blue outfits, concluded they were young shinobis at Kitahara-san’s service. Her own horse ride all forgotten, she observed the scene unfolding. The four horses saddled and prepared. The heavy, large packages. The weapons concealed beneath the kimonos or wrapped up in dark clothing.
This group of men spiked her interest.
Unable to contain her curiosity, Jurina approached them. “Going somewhere? You seem prepared for a long travel.”
“W-Watanabe-san.” Tanaka-san spun around. “Oh no, we’re only going to the village.”
“So heavily armed and food supply for what? A week? Has anyone told you before you’re a terrible liar?”
He swallowed nervously. “Matsui-dono told us not to disclose any information.”
“And if you’re not aware of it, it means Matsui-dono doesn’t trust you enough,” Matsuura-san chimed in, snickering.
Jurina glared at him. Her hand travelled toward the hilt of her katana, loosening it from its guard. Her protector had asked her to work on her temper, and to socialize with the other trainees. On that first point, Jurina had made efforts. Did she sometimes lose her calm? Yes, she did, but she had made great progress. Three months ago, she would already have pulled out her sword and challenged him to a duel.
Concerning her relationship with the other apprentices, it was a different story. At first, any opportunity was good to challenge them into spontaneous fights. She relished the adrenaline coursing through her veins when their swords clashed together. Eventually, her thirst depleted to a more reasonable level, and she was satisfied with the daily trainings and regular tournaments. Jurina had neutral feelings for the majority of her fellow companions. She hadn’t developed any friendship, but some had owed her respect, such as Tanaka-san, whom she considered as a valuable opponent. However, if there was one trainee she remained in permanent conflict with, it was the pretentious and self-assured Matsuura-san.
Jurina released her hold on the tsuka of her katana, calming down. Ignoring the provocation, she addressed Tanaka-san. “You’re going on a mission?”
“Yes, we are,” he confessed, a little reluctantly. “We were ordered to patrol the clan’s southern border with Ikeda-san and Abe-san.”
Jurina’s eyes widened at the revelation. The southern border. It was where she and Rena had been attacked. It couldn’t be a coincidence. Jurina thought of interrogating him further, but refrained. He probably had been told the strict minimum. The group mounted their horses, and trotted out of the stables. Why didn’t her protector warn her about this mission? And why wasn’t she part of it? As the four riders vanished in the distance, she decided to have an explanation.
Jurina made a beeline to the samurais’ quarters, discovering Rena’s bedroom empty. She moved to the dojo, finding the kenjutsu instructor equally absent. For an instant, she wondered if she had briefly left the clan. No, it wasn’t possible. Her protector had to be within the grounds of the clan: her horse was still present in the stables. Jurina checked a few other locations, such as the courtyard and the garden, without any success. After half an hour of fruitless research, she came to the evidence: she needed to question a guard.
The first guard proved completely useless, having not a single clue about her location. The second one she interrogated provided her, at last, with the information she desperately sought: the kenjutsu instructor was in the council chambers. Jurina took its direction, feeling slightly foolish for omitting that place. Her protector had regular meetings with the head of the clan, and lately, her presence was requested on a daily basis.
Jurina arrived at destination, but was disappointed to find the doors shut. Jurina hesitated: come back later or wait? In the end, she chose the second option. Ignoring the two guards eyeing her suspiciously, she made herself comfortable in the waiting area, praying it wouldn’t take too long.
Time passed slowly, so slowly she found her patience strained. She never had been the most patient person in the world – Mayu would be the first to attest to it - but this meeting was unusually long. Nevermind. She would have to postpone this conversation to later. Jurina raised from her chair, decided to not wait another minute, when the doors opened. An advisor hurried out, his arms filled with scrolls, and Jurina used the opportunity to take a peek inside the room.
Astonishment touched her. The head of the clan was nowhere to be seen. Behind the office where she usually handled meetings and claims, was present the one and only master kenjutsu. Head bent down, she was focused on the table heaped with papers, listening to the male advisor who stood beside her and gave her instructions.
Jurina considered her next move. Should she make her presence known? Or leave her protector to her occupations? No, she had waited long enough to turn back. She approached the entrance, but was halted by a guard. “Do you have a meeting? Matsui-dono asked not to be disturbed.”
“No, I don’t. But I want to talk to her.”
“What is it?” Rena’s inquiry sounded from inside the room.
“It’s Watanabe-san,” the guard announced, turning in her direction. “She wants to speak to you. I told her you wished not to be disturbed.”
“It’s fine. Let her in.”
Jurina walked in and, as the doors closed behind her, didn’t wait to point out the oddity of the situation. “Shinoda-san is not here?”
“Momijimori no kami dono is unwell, and is resting in her quarters. In the meantime, I’m assuming her obligations.”
Jurina frowned. “Is she sick?”
“It’s a simple allergic reaction to the season.” Her protector’s tone was controlled, but Jurina detected a hint of concern in her tone.
“Well, for what it’s worth,” with a slight joking tone, Jurina went on. “If anything were to happen to the head of the clan, you would make an excellent replacement. You’re practically already doing the job for her.”
The advisor’s features contorted with shock and stupor. Rena pursed her lips in slight disapproval, yet a look of veiled amusement crossed her face. “Forgive my protégée’s erratic sense of humor. Obviously, she wishes no harm to Shinoda-dono. Am I wrong, Watanabe-san?”
“Of course not,” Jurina answered, suppressing a smile. “I hope Shinoda-dono will be on the road of recovery in no time.” She continued, not losing sight of her primary objective. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“Matsui-dono has a busy schedule. I’m sure this conversation can wait,” the advisor intervened firmly.
“Yes…” Rena’s voice trailed away, with embarrassment. “Suzuki-san is right. I have all this paperwork to finish by the end of the day.”
“It won’t be long,” Jurina tried to sound reassuring.
Rena could sense her advisor’s eyes boring into her, pressuring her, but she felt guilty for denying her protégée’s desire to speak. “Alright.” Rena relented, and lowered on the table the document she was reading. “What did you wish to talk about?”
Jurina’s gaze drifted from her to the advisor, and Rena deciphered the meaning of the message conveyed. “Suzuki-san. Would you mind leaving us?”
The advisor exchanged with her a glance of surprise, not making any secret of his discontent. His mouth opened as if to speak, and it took him all his self-restraint to not object, bowing slightly, and leaving the council chambers.
“I don’t have a lot of spare time…” Rena’s face creased; her stress palpable. “It’s not I don’t wish to speak to you, but this added workload was unexpected. The Autumnal season seems to affect Shinoda-san’s health… more than usual. She’s been unwell for the past few days.”
“Is it true you sent Tanaka-san and Matsuura-an on a mission?” Jurina didn’t intend to be so blunt, but the question had been nagging her all day. She couldn’t hold herself any longer; she was in desperate needs of answers.
“H-How do you…” Rena stared at her, astounded. “Yes, I did. A couple of days ago, Shinoda-san organized a meeting. She asked me and Kitahara-san to gather and send a group on a patrolling mission. She wants to make sure the frontiers of the clan are well secured. It’s simple routine.”
“We both know it’s more than that. She sent them in the South, where we were attacked.” Jurina confronted her with the truth. “Why didn’t you choose me? I’m your top trainee. I was the best fit.”
“Tanaka-san and Matsuura-san have proved their value. Choosing my protégée would send the wrong message. I didn’t want Shinoda-san or the other trainees to believe I was partial in my decision.”
Rena sounded extremely convincing, but Jurina didn’t buy it. “It’s not the real reason. You didn’t choose me because you don’t trust me. You don’t have enough faith in me to complete a mission without messing up.”
“Jurina-san… No, it’s not true.”
Jurina drew closer to the table, placed her hands flat on the surface and leaned down inches away from her. “You think I’m uncontrollable, don’t you? That I can’t follow orders?” She studied her, trying to read her response. “You know how much I hate being cooped up in this place! I told you… I opened myself to you. This mission, it was exactly what I needed! I needed the distraction!”
Jurina glanced away, overcome with embarrassment. This wasn’t right. She was doing it again. Losing control over her emotions. Precisely what she fought so hard against. She breathed in and out, calming her fast-beating heart. It wasn’t the image she wanted to project. Not to her protector. She wanted to prove she changed, and wasn’t anymore the impetuous child of their first encounter.
“I feared you would be unhappy if it came to your attention. It’s true, I didn’t want to send you. But it’s not for the reason you think. Of course, you have issues to work on. Your temper, your independent and stubborn personality. But you had all the physical and fighting skills required to fulfil this mission.”
“Then why?” Jurina said, allowing her frustration to leak into her tone. “Why didn’t you send me?”
Rena grew rigid and tense, and drew her attention back to the scroll in front of her. “I don’t think it’s the appropriate time for this conversation.”
Jurina felt a stirring of anger. “No, I want to know!”
“Jurina-san, please.” Rena cast her a pleading look. “We can talk about it later. But now is not the best moment.”
“Why?!” Jurina slapped her hand on the table. “It’s not fair, Rena-san! I deserved to go on that mission! You had no right to-”
“I don’t want to lose you!” Rena blurted out, her voice shaking angrily. “Two years ago, I lost someone. It was supposed to be an easy mission, but things didn’t turn out as planned. She never made it back alive to the clan! She died! I don’t want the same thing to happen to you! Can you understand that?!”
Shivers racked Jurina’s body; the confession destabilized her. She withdrew her hands from the table and pulled back. Her protector’s deep brown eyes glittered, and brimmed with unshed tears. What was she supposed to say? Or to act? When the silence stretched unbearably long, Jurina did the first thing that came to her mind. She reached out, touching Rena’s hand. As she held her palm, fingers tremble inside hers, and Jurina met her watering eyes.
“You’ve come to mean so much to me,” Rena’s voice crackled; a tear slid down her cheek. “I cannot accept to lose you too.”
Jurina was about to protest, before realizing the irony of the situation. Who was she to disagree with her protector’s desire to protect the ones she cared about, when she acted the same way with Mayu? “I understand you want to protect me.” Her voice was calmer and gentler when she spoke up. “But I can protect mys-”
They were interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Forgive me for the disturbance, Matsui-dono.” The advisor, Suzuki-san, stopped at the entrance, and bowed in respect. “The emissary of the Yokohama clan has arrived. Will you receive him now, or should I make him wait?”
“Oh, right.” At the reminder, Rena straightened up in her seat. Noticing her hand still linked with Jurina’s, she gently extracted her fingers from her hold. “Let the emissary know I will receive him immediately.”
The discussion was over. The thought of protesting didn’t cross Jurina’s mind. She couldn’t delay her protector from her obligations. Jurina slowly backed away from the table, not breaking eye contact with her. “Maybe…” she paused for a breath, hesitant. “Maybe later we’ll have the opportunity to continue this conversation?”
The master kenjutsu didn’t hide her surprise. She didn’t reply immediately, before giving her a small silent nod of consent.
Jurina’s face relaxed into a faint smile of relief.
She spun on her heel and retraced her steps back to the exit. At the doors, she marked a stop, and glanced over her shoulder. The male advisor, Suzuki-san, had already reached her protector’s side. Jurina was too far away to distinguish the content of their conversation, but imagined he was prepping her for the upcoming meeting. Jurina observed her protector attentively, amazed by her ability to regain her composure. In the blink of an eye, her demeanor had altered entirely, her serious, work-hardened expression not revealing an inch of what had transpired in this room.
Every evening, Rena had a ritual.
Her daily chores done, she bid goodbye to Momijimori no kami, and took the direction of the samurais’ quarters. After a hard day’s work – the life of a master kenjutsu anything but restful - it was often sundown by the time she joined her bedroom. Her first action was to lit the candle on the small table, wait for the flame to grow and illuminate her surroundings, and move towards the weapons rack.
Detaching the katana and wakizashi from her belt, she disposed of them and proceeded in disrobing. She removed her hakama and kimono, swapping her daily clothes for her nightly yukata. Before laying down on the futon, she checked her tanto was secured under the pillow, before falling into a deep slumber, exhaustion gaining her.
This evening followed the same path, for one exception. As Rena removed her weapons and placed them onto the rack, she fixed the ninjato laying at the top. She tried not to dwell on it, but was unable to look away. The familiar sword brought her back to the conversation that occurred in the council chambers, one that triggered painful memories to reemerge.
Rena took if off the rack; her fingers slid along the surface of the 30 inches flat blade. That moment of her past was supposed to remain buried deep within her. Only two people, Shinoda-dono and Kitahara-san, had borne witness to the scene, and seen how devastated Airi’s death had left her. The monster who took control. Her delirium and destructive fury. It wasn’t a memory she was proud of, and wished she could erase it from her mind forever. Unfortunately, it still haunted her.
People praised her benevolence and good manners, her sound education and ability to never let her emotions cloud her judgement. Aside from her misconduct two years ago, she had kept them under control. Her encounter with the young Watanabe sister had disrupted the stability of her perfectly organized daily life. After the confession that left her mouth in the council chambers, she didn’t recognize herself. It wasn’t like her to disclose such personal information. The weakness she had displayed. It left her both disturbed and ashamed, and she was lucky only one person had been testimony of it.
“May I come in?”
The familiar feminine voice, hesitant behind her bedroom door, distracted her from her thoughts. Rena cleared her head, and carefully replaced the ninjato back in place. At the request, her mouth lifted into a smile. “Since when you do my protégée ask for my permission to enter?”
The fusuma panel slowly slid open. “Since I learned it’s not appropriate to barge into someone’s bedroom without their approval.” Jurina said, mischief flickering in her eyes. “So, is that a yes? You haven’t answered.”
Rena suppressed the urge to laugh. “Yes, Jurina-san. You may come in.”
Jurina stepped inside the room, closing the fusuma panel behind her, and locked her gaze with hers. They fell into silence and Rena turned around, busying herself with the untying of her hakama. She convinced herself she was simply following her nightly ritual, but revealing secrets of her past had left her vulnerable. She didn’t know how to confront the situation. Rena fumbled with the hakama, the knot resisting her. Her fingers, usually so clever and deft, seemed to have lost all dexterity.
“Do you need any help?” Jurina moved behind her and wrapped her arms around her waist, cradling her against her. Rena stiffened in surprise. “It’s funny. You always seem to have troubles with your hakama. Last time, you couldn’t tie it properly. Now, you have difficulty removing it. What would you do without me?”
It took her a few seconds to recall what she referred to. That day at the lake rushed back with vivid clarity, and her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. She turned around in the embrace, and frowned at her protégée’s wick grin. Jurina’s hands didn’t wait to work on the front himo of her hakama, untying it, then moved to the back. Rena watched as she followed the process, respecting the steps, impressed by her calm and diligence.
“I see I don’t have anything more to teach you.” Rena smiled at her warmly.
While a smile appeared at the corner of Jurina’s lips, she wore a pensive and serious expression. “You know… it’s alright. I’m not upset.”
There was a startled pause. “You’re not?” Rena bit her lip, attempting to keep her voice casual. “Then I guess I must have imagined your anger when you entered the council chambers and interrogated me about the mission.”
Jurina’s expression clouded with unease. “Yes, I was angry at you. Upset, disappointed, and angry. But I’m not anymore.”
Rena vacillated between disconcert and disbelief. “But you have all the right to be. You deserved to go on that mission.”
“You explained yourself. You told me about your past. After what you went through, I understand you would want to protect me.”
Rena stared wordlessly at her, uncomprehending.
“Nothing will happen to me. I’m too stubborn to die,” Jurina said casually. Her job done on the hakama, she took a few steps backward, and sat down on the edge of the futon. “Besides, I’m counting on you to teach me everything you know. I won’t be satisfied until I managed to beat you. So, you need to fulfil your part of the bargain.”
The teasing in Jurina’s tone made her relax, and she smiled in spite of her worry. “Didn’t you defeat me in the forest?”
Jurina waved a hand in dismissal. “No, that didn’t count. I want to beat you in fair fight, without any trick.”
“Please don’t be offended, but I’m afraid you’ll need a few more years for that,” Rena said softly and kindly, but truthfully. “It took me years to perfect my technique, and acquire enough experience to defeat my own instructor.”
“Years? That’s perfect. I’m not going anywhere.”
Rena sent her a small, doubtful look. “You have enough patience to wait for so long?”
“Ah yes, that’s one of the many things I need to work on,” Jurina chuckled, nodding in agreement.
Rena gave her a knowing smile. Dragging her eyes away from her, she stepped out of her hakama, collected it from the floor and neatly folded it on the chair. She reached for the belt of her kimono, aware of her protégée peering at her, but didn’t feel uneasy under her scrutiny. Halfway through the process, she gave her a sideways glance. The amusement had died from Jurina’s eyes, and Rena saw something new and deeply serious within them she couldn’t decipher.
Jurina rose from the futon and closed the distance between them, catching her off guard when she gently pulled her into her arms. “I know you’re troubled by what happened in the council chambers.” She whispered close to her ear, her breath warm against her cheek. “You don’t you like being vulnerable in front of others, and I understand the feeling. I don’t have the habit to confide in people. I’ve never been good at comforting people either,” Jurina confessed awkwardly, struggling to find the right words. “When I told you how much I felt lost and lonely here, you didn’t judge me.”
She pulled back enough to gaze into her eyes. “Today, Mayu told me something that made me think. There are many things I don’t understand. Things… that confuse me. But I know I’m a better person when I’m with you. You said you wanted to help me feel more at home, and I want to try. Not only for my sister’s sake, but because I think it’s worth it. I think you’re worth it, Rena-san.”
Rena’s heart accelerated.
Jurina reached for the front of her kimono and began to detach it. Rena reacted on instinct and seized her hand, interrupting her. She expected the younger girl to fight against her hold, but she didn’t resist. Rena was used to her protégée’s dominant personality and possessive moves. Tonight, she could sense the dynamic between them had changed. She felt her protégée’s desire for her, but she showed more patience, her gaze soft as a caress as it traveled over her face.
A shiver came over Rena, and a knot welled up in her stomach. Jurina leaned closer, her lips paused inches from hers, offering an invitation without taking any liberties. The decision would be all hers. Rena hesitated for the briefest of moments, as her self-preservation instincts warred with her heart’s desire. She knew where this was leading if she didn’t push her back. Her heart won out. She closed the gap separating them. Their lips brushed. She could feel her heart beat faster as Jurina’s mouth moved gently against hers. They had kissed before, but never like that. It made her go weak in the knees, and Rena responded to her kisses with equal tenderness.
Her grip on her protégée’s hand diminished, conveying her consent for her to keep on. Jurina broke the kiss and drew back slightly. Her face brightened with happiness, and Rena gave her a shy smile. The younger girl took her hand in hers, leading her towards the futon. Jurina sat down and gently pulled her down to sit on her lap, and she didn’t oppose any resistance. Without haste, Jurina untied her belt, and swept aside the fabric of her kimono. She feathered her lips along the valley between her breasts, and Rena felt her hands slide over her arms as she freed her from her kimono.
Rena felt the air caress her skin. Her touch claim her. Jurina’s kisses bathed her in delicious intoxication. Her senses roared. Rena’s hands plunged into her hair, fingers tangling, getting accustomed to the sensations of pleasure coursing through her veins. She tried to fight for a minimum of self-control, but found no desire to back out of her embrace, and allowed herself to give free rein to her feelings.
Jurina lifted her off her lap, and laid her gently down the futon. Rena settled back, enjoying the feel of her arms around her. Jurina swooped down, her lips brushed her neck, her cheek, and found her mouth, kissing her. The friction of the fabric of her protégée’s kimono against her skin reminded her that one of them remained fully clothed.
“Is there a reason why I’m the only one naked?” Rena murmured in between kisses, tugging at her protégée’s kimono.
The latter removed herself from her lips and looked at her, visibly entertained by the complaint received. She rose from the futon and undressed, keeping her eyes locked on her face, letting her clothes fall on the floor without ceremony. Rena found herself openly staring at her nude form, admiring her shapely body in the pale moonlight that came through the fusuma leading to the garden.
Jurina climbed back into the futon, reclaiming her position on top of her. “Better?”
Rena reached up, capturing her chin with her thumb and finger, tugging her down for another soft lip touch. “Yes, much better.”
Despite the dominant position, Jurina’s touch was not aggressive or demanding. It was remarkably gentle, coaxing. Jurina’s mouth wandered up the tingling cord of her neck. With a slow, leisurely touch, her fingers roamed over her curves, and she explored her body as if she had all the time in the world. When she touched her breasts and traced their roundness, her nipples surged at the intimacy.
Rena softly moaned with pleasure.
Their eyes met through the dim light, and Rena wondered if the other girl wasn’t holding herself. Taking things slowly for her sake. Rena studied her, trying to obtain a response, but didn’t detect any sign of frustration. On the contrary; all she witnessed was the similar raw pleasure etched on her features. It set her heart pounding. When Jurina dipped her head to recapture her mouth, she met her halfway.
Soon, they both were back in a passionate embrace, their naked bodies entwined, gently making love. While Rena’s hands glided over her back and shoulders, Jurina’s hands left her skin hot and tingling. Tonight, Rena was witnessing her protégée’s softer side. But if those last three months had taught her one thing, it was that Jurina was a complex, multifaceted person. And she was eager to discover all aspects of her personality.
Jurina peeled her eyes open, relaxed beyond any feeling she had ever known. A dim morning light penetrated through the outdoor fusuma; it was barely sunrise. Jurina tilted her head to her left, and observed the beautiful woman lying naked beside her. Her protector was on her back, eyes closed, her chest slowly rising and falling, her breathing steady as she was peacefully asleep.
The bedcover rested over her chest, covering her breasts but tantalizing her with a peek of naked flesh. Her long dark hair spilled over the pillow and her face, contrasting sharply with her pale face. Jurina was unable to look away, her thoughts and emotions in a jumble. She had longed to touch and possess her body more intimately, and last night, it became reality. Pride and satisfaction swelled in her at the accomplishment, but at the same time, she felt a twinge of vulnerability.
She had laid with a few women in the past, but never had she experienced what transpired between them.
Her protector brought out of her a softer side that she didn’t often expose. How come her protector had such an influence on her? Long gone were her initial feelings of distrust and animosity towards her. As days turned into weeks and transformed into months, she felt more and more irresistibly drawn to one who had been assigned as her protector. At first, she believed it was merely physical attraction, before realizing she was in the wrong. There was something else between them she had difficulty describing.
Her protector moaned in her sleep and turned to the other side, the bedcover sliding down to her waist. She wanted to run her fingers over the smooth expanse of skin showing. By the subtle change in her breathing, Jurina could tell she was slowly awakening. She edged closer on the futon. She slipped her hand beneath the covers, wrapping her arm around her midriff. For an instant, her protector’s body tensed and she thought she’d pull away. Then she felt her ease up. Holding her, she buried her nose in her hair and drew in a breath, filling her lungs with the sweet scent of her. Her body felt soft and engaging against her. She had to fight the urge to tighten her hold even more.
Jurina’s heart pounded. The impact her protector had on her didn’t only make her vulnerable: it also destabilized her. This was such unknown territory for her.
She leaned forward and took a small nip of her exposed neck, testing the waters. As she didn’t receive any resistance to her ministrations, she grew bolder. Her hand explored her protector’s ribs, her stomach, rediscovering every inch of her smooth skin. The sweet whimpers she received in response ignited another spike of desire within her. She moved her hand across the bottom boundaries of her breasts, and contemplated her next move, wavering between conflicted feelings. Could she afford to let loose of her overwhelming need to possess her again, or should she better control her ardor?
“Maybe I should stop,” she whispered in her ear - trying to sound confident - but already regretting her words.
Her protector turned halfway around in her embrace. Whether she caught the uncertainty of her voice, she didn’t say. Her protector’s gaze was riveted on her face, studying her intently, and she cupped her chin between her fingers. She brought her mouth close to hers, and gently kissed her. The feather-like touch of her lips sent her aflame, more persuasive than she cared to admit. Jurina’s gaze bore into her in expectation, eager to reclaim them.
“I…” After what seemed a moment’s hesitation, her protector kissed her again, more deeply. Her eyes were no longer weary with sleep, the light of desire illuminating her dark brown orbs. “No, I don’t want you to stop.”
Jurina’s eyes gleamed, sparkling with heat. Her mouth swooped down to capture hers, and they shared another kiss, full of passion. She smothered her lips with demanding mastery, her protector’s lips parted. Her tongue slipped inside, teasing, tasting, exploring. When she withdrew her mouth from hers, she stared in her smoldering eyes for a beat. Her protector gave her a heavy look of lust that sent her pulses racing.
Jurina moved her hair to one side and placed a few lush kisses down her neck, starting behind her ear and moving down her shoulder. Her protector attempted to turn around completely to face her, but Jurina wouldn’t allow it. Despite her protector’s confusion, she gently but firmly made her regain her previous position and pressed her front to her back, trapping her body in another embrace.
She nibbled playfully on her earlobe, eliciting another lewd sound, while her right hand roamed intimately over her breasts. Her protector tilted her head in her direction, and Jurina joined her mid-way, pressing her lips to her. Her hand continued to move on her breasts, expertly massaging, stimulating them. By the way her nipples quickly firmed under her touch, she realized her protector was particularly excited.
Removing her hand from her chest, she pulled the bedcover down. Her hand explored the soft lines of her waist, her hip, and traveled down between her thighs. Her protector shuddered in anticipation, and she didn’t wait. This morning, her instincts were telling her there was no use to take things slowly. She parted her legs slightly, and dipped a finger between the pink folds. When she felt how wet and hot she was, Jurina’s heart gave a wide lurch and arousal pulsed through her veins.
She eased a finger inside, her vision narrowing when her protector let out a moan and rocked against her hand. Slipping a second finger inside her, she placed her thumb against her clit and stroked lightly. She circled the hard little nub before pressing on it. As more wetness flowed from her protector’s body, she pushed her fingers deeper, moving them in and out at a steady rhythm.
Her protector was panting, little gusts of breath that let her know she was enjoying it. She squeezed her clit harder, before pressing her thumb against the bundle of nerves and plunging her fingers deep inside her. Her protector had gripped the bedsheet, her lips trying hard to suppress another moan. She continued to stroke her and increased the pressure and speed of her fingers, knowing she was close. By every minute, Jurina found it harder to ignore her own aching burn growing stronger in the pit of her stomach.
At last, she clenched on her fingers, the tight ring of muscles vibrating with an intense orgasm. Jurina pushed deeper inside her, flicking her thumbnail over her clit at the same time. Arching her body against her hand, her protector buried her face in the pillow to muffle a scream as she pulsed against her fingers, and crashed over the edge of ecstasy a second time. As she whimpered softly and went limp in her arms, Jurina let her ride out the waves of pleasure, before slowly extricating her fingers from her.
Jurina’s body throbbed with pent up lust, her climax on the verge. Opening her legs, she reached for her nether regions to touch herself, swimming in desperate and building urgency. Her protector turned around, catching her in the act. She looked at her with half-lidded eyes, lips red and swollen and curled into a small smile. Jurina didn’t have time to proceed, that she had gently removed her hand and replaced it with her own. She didn’t show hesitation as she slid a finger into the moist warmth between her thighs, and into the slick folds of flesh. Jurina shut her eyes close and let out a low, feral growl, rocking her hips as the pleasure coiled tight in her belly.
Her protector pumped her finger in and out of her, the slow pace driving her to the brink of insanity. Jurina wrapped her hand around her wrist, urging her to move her finger quicker in her. Understanding the message conveyed, she moved faster. Stimulating all the right places, she added a second digit. Blissful pleasure built and tightened all Jurina’s muscles until she thought she’d burst. She couldn’t deny her body its sweet release any longer. A few more thrusts were all she needed to convulse around her. Her body spasmed; electric thrills washed through her as she felt wave after wave assault her senses.
For a moment, she drifted, glowing with the aftermath, listening to her frantically beating heart. After a little while, the futon shifted beside her, and Jurina felt a pair of lips on hers. They laid side to side, sharing lazy kisses and slow caresses. Rather than being awkward, Jurina felt at ease with the simplicity of the intimacy shared, welcoming it when her protector rested her head on her shoulder. Jurina felt her own breathing slowing, calm in a way she’d not known in a long time, if ever. Her eyelids again felt heavy. She heard her protector falling asleep and she couldn’t resist joining her, letting her head fall against her in her last stream of consciousness.
“Rena-san, are you here?”
The soft knocking on the door woke Jurina from her sleep. She immediately recognized the voice, even through the haze of slumber. Kashiwagi-san. She let out a groan. First, she had gotten her claws on her innocent sister. Now, she messed up with her precious private time with her protector. Why did that woman had to intrude in every aspect of her life? She forced her eyes open, only to throw her arm over her eyes at the bright light inundating the bedroom. She stole a peek at her protector; she hadn’t moved an inch, visibly still absorbed in a heavy slumber. Right now, Jurina was seriously considering mimicking her and ignoring the distraction.
A second, more insistent, knock told her otherwise.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, but it’s already late and…” Yuki’s voice trailed away, filled with uncertainty.
Jurina couldn’t take it any longer; she shoved the bedcover aside and took a seat on the futon, facing the door. Through the fusuma, she distinguished the feminine silhouette of the woman who had dared disturb her peaceful sleep. Maybe if she didn’t answer, she would give up and walk away? That could work, right?
“Y-Yuki-san?” Behind her back, her protector’s sleepy mumble reached her. “Did I hear Yuki-san knocking at the door?”
Jurina wanted so badly to reply that it was the fruit of her imagination, but a little voice inside her head told her it wouldn’t be right to lie.
“That woman is something.” Jurina gritted between her teeth. Resolute, she stood up, not bothering to put clothes on, and padded bare feet to the front door.
“What?!” She asked, after she swung the door open.
The kyudo instructor’s mouth dropped, stupor written all over her face. Despite Jurina’s annoyance at her presence, a sparkle of amusement flashed through her eyes. The woman facing her was forcing herself to keep her gaze at an appropriate level, and not look down at her nakedness.
“So, what do you want?” Jurina placed her hand on the doorjamb and stared at her, irritation gripping her once more. “We were sleeping, so you better have a good reason for disturbing us.”
“I apologize for waking you up, but the trainees were worried,” Yuki stammered. Noticing Jurina’s confusion, she quickly continued. “The kenjutsu lesson. When Rena-san didn’t show up in the dojo, a few trainees got concerned by her absence, and wondered if the lesson had been cancelled. I wasn’t aware of any other obligation Rena-san had to attend this morning, so I feared she might be unwell.”
“No, she’s fine. Let the others know she’ll arrive when she’s ready.” Jurina gave a nonchalant wave of her hand. “Goodbye, Kashiwagi-san.”
Jurina shut the door close, and returned to the futon. She laid down, well decided to put that brief encounter at the back of her head and sleep, only to witness her protector’s shocked expression. “That woman has no shame.” She pretended to not notice it and made herself comfortable again, pulling the cover up her body. “Disturbing us for nothing.”
“N-nothing? I’m late for my lesson!” Rena shot up and out of the futon, rushing to take her clothes. “How could that happen?” She almost tripped as she slipped into her hakama, her fingers fumbling with the belt. “I can’t even imagine what Yuki-san must think of me.” She murmured, horrified. “And she saw you naked! How could you answer to the door in such an undressed state?!”
“Don’t worry, she didn’t look.” Jurina shrugged it off. “And the trainees can wait. It’s not as if the lesson can start without you.” She added, proud of her joke. The stern look she received in return told her she didn’t share her sense of humor.
“You better get up and dress up to join the lesson.”
Jurina fell pensive, watching as her protector finished tying her hakama, and picked up her kimono from the chair. “Wouldn’t it look suspicious if we both arrived at the same time?” Her mouth crooked into a smirk. “What will the other trainees think?”
As realization dawned, the kenjutsu instructor went pale. “A-Alright, you may arrive a bit late.” Her fingers worked clumsily on closing her kimono, as she tried to compose herself. “But don’t take too long. It would be improper if you missed the lesson.”
“Why not?” Jurina propped herself on her elbow, not caring if the bedcover slid down her waist. “I have my own private lessons.” Her smile widened. “They are far enough.”
Another long, silent disapproving stare.
“Fine, I’ll arrive after you.” Jurina sighed in a laid back, almost nonchalant way. When she noticed the way her protector’s gaze traveled down the length of her body from her face, over her exposed breasts, her eyebrows arched mischievously. “You’re sure you don’t want to come back to bed?” Jurina peeled back the bedcover, and held it back in invitation. “You still look sleepy to me. You should rest a little longer.”
Her protector gave her a knowing look. “Something is telling me we don’t have the same definition of rest.”
“Probably not,” Jurina grinned unapologetically.
Her protector shook her head with an amused smile. She marched straight towards the front door and paused, glancing over her shoulder. Jurina watched her attentively, sensing by the way her mouth opened and closed a few times that she wished to add something. “I don’t regret it,” she said at last, softly but seriously. “I’ll expect you in the dojo. Please don’t take too long, Jurina.”
Jurina was caught off guard, and followed her retreating form as she slowly exited the bedroom, leaving her alone with her thoughts. Jurina. For the first time, she had spoken to her without using any honorifics. Her face split into a wide smile; an odd, warm sensation fluttered through her chest. Jurina groaned, and buried her face into the pillow. Her reaction was silly and childish. It was only a trivial thing. So why did it fill her with such strange happiness?