Everywhere A Sign
by Zara Hemla
There is a space between doing and thinking, between action and reaction. Jack knows this, though he has never heard of TS Eliot. It is drizzling in the City and Jack sits, head in hands, considering.
As he stares down at his feet, he notices the fray around the edges of his robe. Seamstresses are few and far between, and he cannot find anyone that sells plain white kimonos. Jack has balked in the past at changing his dress to the City's standard (jeans and an "Aku Rules!" T-shirt) or wearing a locally-made kimono, which usually is some garish sort of neon color with large flowers printed on it. Jack has an uneasy feeling that people in the City think the Japanese come from Hawai'i.
Overhead, the traffic blares. Debris scatters around him from careless motorists - wrappers, cans, cigarette butts. Through the press of sound, Jack can also faintly hear the theme song for Aku Cola:
"Aku Cola's tasty, you will find -
Drink it. There's no other kind."
Jack knows that if he looks up, he will be faced with a giant billboard depicting Aku pouring cola down his eternal gullet. These billboards foster a deep despair in Jack, and though his training has taught him to never drop his head, he finds himself doing it often enough that it's becoming a new habit.
Ruefully, Jack thinks of the many times he was cuffed for dropping his head, and what his master would say if he could see this bad behavior. Or what his father might say. Would he scold? Or would he make a joke? Probably a combination of the two. He had the talent, especially if his wife was present, of soothing hurts and teaching at the same time.
Jack's heart, which is not made of stone in spite of months of wishing it so, flips over. He clenches his fists into his hair, squeezing his eyes shut, promising himself for the hundredth time that he will - not - cry. He cannot help a small moan of pain, indistinguishable in the general melee, but he manages not to dissolve entirely. The eyes of Billboard-Akus, watching with leering interest, help his resolve.
Jack is hungry, and he is lonely, and he longs for a familiar face. He has tried to be stoic, like his master would require, but he feels young and strange among the press of buildings that make up the City. Everything he does is wrong: every move he makes is watched by spies and enemies. There seems to be no respite.
"Oh," says Jack to himself, raising his head (but not enough to meet the eyes of Billboard Aku), "how I wish I could leave this city."
"Then why don't you?" asks a clear voice from behind him. Jack spins on the concrete bench, sword in hand, and his jaw drops when he finally realises what he's seeing. A woman - a Japanese woman - is standing on the curb that borders his ratty bench. She holds a small boy by the hand, and she has a round wicker basket over her arm.
She is not really noteworthy -- neither lovely nor plain -- but she looks like home, and it stalls him for a moment, hand on sword, probably looking like a perfect fool. She continues to stare at him with a look on her face that he recognizes - it's a mother's look, one that a woman would give any lost boy.
"San," he finally says. "I have nowhere to go." It's not something that he would say to anyone, but this woman's compassion is almost undoing him - and she has barely said anything. He feels edgy, suddenly cold. He's becoming a child again -- losing all his training - the eyes of Billboard Aku are frying the back of his neck.
The little boy, tiring of the conversation, breaks his mother's hold and scampers over to Jack. Before his mother can protest, he has both hands wrapped around Jack's scabbard. He tugs, and Jack tugs back, astonished. The leather slips from the boy's hand, and he sets up a wail of disappointment.
His mother walks closer, a rueful look on her face, and scoops the boy into her arms.
"I'm sorry, samurai-sama," she says over his wails. "Hush now, Hideo, hush, no one's hurting you." The boy quiets down almost immediately, staring suspiciously out at Jack, clutching his mother's robe. She pats him absently.
"Call me Jack," he says swiftly, almost without thinking.
Her eyebrows rise - someone in his costume isn't supposed to introduce himself so quickly. "You aren't a samurai?" she queries. "I apologize if I was mistaken."
"I am -" and Jack trails off, lamely finishing with, "I am far from home."
"May I offer you a place with us for the night?" she asks, and in her eyes he sees mostly kindness and a little speculation. She adds, "My husband is waiting for Hideo and I to come home from visiting my sister."
So he accepts, unsurprisingly, and they walk together to a part of the City that Jack hadn't known existed - unsurprisingly. The City held its secrets close, and Jack often had trouble deciphering them.
Her name is Mina Okazaki, and she has five children, and her husband is a steelworker. Her oldest two are married, and Hideo is her youngest - a bit of an accident, but a lucky one, she confides - and they have lived in the City for fifteen years. She chatters brightly at him, towing the boy by the hand, as he seems more interested in running off in random directions.
As they walk, the shops begin to display discreet signs in Japanese, advertising books and fish and yuba and, oh wonderful surprise, kimonos. Jack grins widely at this and finds himself telling Mina about his sartorial problems. Mina offers to fix his kimono for him, so he won't have to buy another one for awhile. Jack thanks her - he can sew, and has done, but badly.
They stop at a small bakery and go around the back. Up a flight of narrow but neat stairs, there is a narrow door. Inside, a brightly lit room and a press of people, all calling out Mina's name in various incarnations.
"Mama! Can you help me with my sums? Dad swears you know them better than he does."
"Mama! I'm going out with Hayaka to the Bone Settlers concert on Saturday, okay? Dad says to ask you."
And a deeper, quieter voice: "Hello Hideo! Did you give your mama trouble? Here, let me take the basket. It's flounder stew and rice again tonight, you know that's my specialty."
Jack sees her face crack into a smile. "That's all he knows how to make," she throws over her shoulder at him, and steps aside. Simultaneously, Jack hears two gasps of astonishment and the rumble of deep laughter.
"So you brought home another stray?" the man asks, and he offers Jack a hand the size of a small dinner plate. Jack takes it deliberately, not liking the reference to strays.
"A samurai!" says one of the children - a girl - and elbows the other girl - young woman - in the side. The young woman says nothing, but stares at him with eyes the color of honey.
"Well-met, samurai-sama," says Okazaki-san, and pulls him toward a low table set with five plates. "Let me seat you at the head of the table, and I shall fetch another place. Sumio! Fetch another place setting for the table."
The younger girl, flashing a grin at Jack, does as she's told, and Okazaki-san introduces his other daughter as Taneko. Sumio comes skipping back with a plate, and the six of them sit down to a fish stew which is, in Jack's opinion, very fine. When he says so, he sets Mina-san laughing heartily. "You should taste anything else he tries to make!"
They ask vague questions about him, and he doesn't answer in much detail. He tells them that his parents are deceased, and when Okazaki-san asks about his master, Jack answers only that he is dead too. Okazaki-san knows what that means - that Jack is ronin, and therefore unpredictable - but he is kind and doesn't push the point. The girls talk about their day to their mother, but seem much more interested in listening.
After the meal, Sumio asks pertly if Jack is any good at algebra, and he tells her that he doesn't even know what that is. Mina-san laughs again.
"Sumi-chan, your sister will help you with your algebra. I am going to mend Jack-sama's kimono." She ushers Jack into the bathroom, hands him a towel and some clothes, and tells him in an undertone that he needs to wash. She reminds him so strongly of his mother that he is halfway undressed before he thinks about it.
The hot water is heavenly, and even the linen towel feels like home. It's wonderful and it hurts at the same time, and he doesn't want to consider why, because the meal and the heat have made him sleepy, and he feels safer here than in anywhere in the City. There is a window in the bathroom which looks out on the back streets of the City, and there are no billboards in his narrow field of vision.
He combs his hair, pulls on the clothes she gave him - jeans and a white shirt, both too big - and tidies up the bathroom before he leaves. Out in the family room, Mina-san is darning his robe and speaking desultorily with Taneko. In the corner, Sumio is bent protectively over her homework.
Jack sits down, feeling weird in the jeans, weird without his sword, which is propped in the corner of the room. He crosses his legs and tucks his feet under them, trying not to pay attention to the conversation, which seems a little personal. He studies Taneko instead, trying not to look like he's studying her.
She has shoulder-length hair and it's black, blacker even than his. He suspects that she colors it. She wears a blue baby tee with "IAC" on it and underneath the words, "I Am Cute." The way she is sitting, two inches of gold-brown skin are bared between the bottom of the shirt and the indigo jeans she's wearing. Her hands are large, like her father's, and expressive.
"I've said I will think about it, and that's final," Minasan declares, biting off a thread end. "I need you that night - you can't be out so late."
"Mamaaaa," says Taneko with embarrassment, shooting a glance at Jack. "I'm twenty-one."
"And still living with your parents - so you're babysitting if I need it. Now let's change the subject. Sit here and entertain Jack while I finish this seam - it's tricky."
"Fine, mama. So Jack," says Taneko, turning a honey-colored, sardonic look on him, "what do you think of the Bone Settlers?"
"The who?" he says, startled, and she rolls her eyes.
"It's a band. They play trance music."
"I don't think I'd like anything that would put me in a trance," Jack says carefully, knowing it's the wrong answer, and smiling to let her know it's a joke.
She smiles back at him and leans back, tipping her head and baring her throat. It's calculated, and he knows it, and tries not to react like she wants, but he's tired, so he does anyway. He can almost feel his pupils dilating. She is more beautiful than any of the girls he remembers from home.
"Maybe you'd like it. You could give it a try. Will you be here on Saturday?"
"Taneko!" says her mother. "It would not be appropriate."
"But mama, he's no older than I am. And just think how protective he could be." Taneko grins at him, shifts in her seat.
"First of all -" begins Mina-san, but Jack interrupts her, smiling so as not to give offense.
"I am older than you. And I don't think I will be in the City on Saturday."
"Where will you be going?"
"I am thinking," he says carefully, "of leaving the City for awhile."
"But we just met you!" flashes Taneko. "It's not every day - it's not ever -- that one meets a samurai. And now you're leaving?"
"I have a duty. I must avenge my father -" and he stops, uncomfortable, because he hadn't meant to say that.
Taneko sits forward again, her hair swinging to cover her neck. "What happened?" she asks, and her voice is only sympathetic, all fun gone from it.
"Taneko," says Mina-san quietly, "go see if Hideo's room is clean enough for Jack-sama to sleep there."
Mutinous, Taneko looks at her mother, then at Jack, then back at her mother, and then she bows her head and gets up.
"I am sorry if she offended you," says Mina-san.
"I'm not offended," he replies, and he isn't. Not even a little. In fact, if her mother hadn't been sitting right there, he might have told Taneko everything, and damn the consequences, whatever they were.
"I'm glad," and she smiles. "I'm going to wash your robe. You can have it in the morning when it's dry. Right now, why don't you go to Hideo's room and sleep? Hideo will sleep with the girls tonight, so you don't have to worry."
He thanks her and gets up, and Sumio shows him a little room off to the side of the hallway. Taneko is in there, fixing up a pallet for him, and Sumio goes back to her sums, leaving the two of them staring at each other warily.
"I'm sorry if I offended you," she says, sounding so exactly like her mother that he smiles again.
"I'm not offended."
She grins and straightens up. "Good." The pallet looks extremely inviting and she beckons him over.
"Lay down. Is it soft enough?" Her grin widens, and he does what she says in spite of the fact that he couldn't care less how soft the bed is.
"It's fine," he says, smiling up at her, and she kneels down beside him just for a moment, touching his face gently.
"Good night, samurai," she murmurs, and he lets her turn out the light and go, because he doesn't know what else to do. He strips off his shirt and crawls under the covers. The bed is warm and the room is quiet, and he is asleep in the space of two breaths.
When he awakens again it is full dark. Moonlight streams through the thin curtain behind him, and he knows someone is in the room with him. But he doesn't worry or reach for his sword, because he knows who it is.
"You shouldn't be here," he says, and sits up.
Moonlight glints off her grin. "I do a lot of things I shouldn't." She is wearing a bluish-black nightshirt, cut off at the thighs, and Jack begins, slowly, to lose function in his brain.
"You - I - you don't even know me," he says desperately.
And she sits down, within touching distance but not touching, and she puts her head to the side, and she says, "Then tell me."
So in whispers, as the moon slides across the sky, he tells her. Everything. His family, the palace, the destruction, the time portal that has riven him into this existence.
As he speaks, she moves closer to him, and by the time he ends, she is curled up next to him, his head on her shoulder, and he is speaking softly into her ear. His hand absently strokes her hair, and she has flattened her palm onto his chest.
Quietly, as he talks about his father and mother's deaths, he has begun to cry. So she lets him talk, lets him tell her about the Aku billboards and the Aku T-shirts and the way that he can never seem to get near the real thing. At last he runs down and stops, and she simply sits there with him in silence for a minute.
"I don't know what to say," she finally whispers. "I don't think any of us can help you. But I see why you want to go."
He lifts his head from her shoulder, slants a mooneyed look at her. "I don't want to go as much as I did this afternoon."
Taneko grins again, giddily, and then she kisses him, and all his problems are blown like chaff. It's been so long since he's been touched, let alone kissed, that he's growling inarticulately and shoving up against her before he can think twice. She takes it, too, and gives back a little growl of her own.
She twines her fingers in his hair to keep his head in place, and turns the kiss into something sweeter than he's ever tasted. Long, warm minutes go by while he finds her chin and her neck and the satin of her thighs under the nightshirt.
Taneko nibbles on his shoulder, frictionizes her way down his chest, hooks her hands into the waistband of his jeans. He thinks fuzzily that it's lucky they are so big, there's a lot of room in there for her to move around. He whispers her name, liking the way it feels on his tongue, loving the way his skin feels under hers.
"Jack," she says, "Jack," and she pushes him backwards onto the bed. She fumbles for the first button on his -- her father's -- jeans, and reality suddenly falls back into place with a thump.
He turns his head, notices the little boy's trucks piled in a corner of the room. And he thinks about Mina-san's laugh, and how she took him in, and what Okazaki-san would say if he knew that Jack was about to let his daughter take off her clothes for a stranger.
"Taneko," he says, and he sits, backing her up forcibly. She sees it coming, and before he can move, she has her nightshirt half off.
"No," she says, "you aren't going to do this to me," even as he catches her wrist to stop her. "You aren't." Her eyes darken and she jerks out of his grasp. "I want this. I want it."
He tugs the nightshirt down over her legs again, catches her hand. "I've got a duty," he says, looking her straight on. "This can't happen."
"Duty!" she whispers bitterly. "More like you're scared of my mom."
"That's part of it. But I'm leaving tomorrow. I can't do this and then leave you. I'm not - I just can't."
"Duty," she says again, pulls herself straight, and walks to the door silently. As she walks out, she turns and looks at him, half-dressed, hair down around his shoulders, tear tracks still marking his wide eyes.
"Sleep well, Jack-sama," she says, and he doesn't.
In the morning he combs his hair as best he can and dresses in his kimono, which has dried and been delivered by Okazaki-san. He eats a mostly silent breakfast of rice, eggs, and umeboshi. He does not meet Taneko's eyes, nor she his.
"Where will you go, Jack-sama?" enquires Okazakisan. "If you like, I have an uncle who lives about twenty miles south of the City, in a village called Mass Peril. He can take you in for a few nights, give you work if you need it." He hands Jack a note which Jack tucks away in his pocket with thanks.
He retrieves his sword and belts it on, and he tells Mina-san that he is extremely grateful for her hospitality.
"For a moment," he says as he stands in the doorway, "I felt as if I were home again."
Mina-san gives him the maternal look, and puts a hand on his arm. "Thank you, samurai-sama, for the time you spent with us - and the things you didn't do." She pins his eyes with her own, and he notices through his shock that they are the same honey-brown as Taneko's.
"You - I - " he is completely at a loss for words.
"The walls are very thin," she says. "And Taneko is predictable."
"And I'm not dead? You haven't killed me?"
"You are a samurai," she says gently. "I knew I could trust you. Her, not so much, but you - I knew."
"Thank you, Mina-san," is all he can think of to murmur, and she hands him a package with what she assures him is good Japanese food. As he tucks it in another pocket, she gives him a street map of the City and tells him that he's welcome back anytime.
Jack half-smiles. "Are you sure?"
"Come back when she's thirty," says Mina-san, and they both laugh. Jack feels more than a little guilty, so he is glad to say goodbye. This place is like home, but much more confusing. Jack likes his life to be straightforward, not full of girls - and their mothers.
He makes his way around the bakery and is halfway down the street, nose in the map, before he hears the running footsteps behind him.
"Jack!" shouts Taneko. "Wait!" So he does, and she runs up to him, a lithe golden girl in black leggings and a dark brown top. She catches him by both arms and almost swings herself into his arms, settling instead for a fast, hot kiss.
"Come back, okay? Come back and see me." She's half-pleading, half-ordering, and he responds to both.
"If I can."
"You can. You will."
"Okay," he says, "I will. Enjoy the Bone Settlers."
She grins at that, kisses him again, and darts back for home. He watches until she turns the corner.
"In a while," he says to himself, and begins the long walk out of the City. Overhead, Billboard Aku begins watching him again. The stare, as always, makes Jack want to cringe, to jump under a rock. And then he stops short in surprise, for the Aku Cola song has changed:
"Aku Cola's tasty, give it a whirl:
Jack, you should have done the girl."
Jack's head whips up like it's on a spring, and for a moment he meets the flaming eyes of Billboard Aku. And slowly, surely, the head on the billboard stares back at him, and slowly, a round, revolting black eye winks at him.
Jack grins through gritted teeth. "Not that easy, foul one," he says. "I still have my duty."
"Duty," says Billboard Aku, sounding bored. "Do your duty or do the girl, it's all one to me. You think you're going to come out all right in the end? Ha."
"I'm coming for you," says Jack. "I'm coming." And before Aku can reply, Jack rips a "no parking" sign out of the ground and javelins it right into the billboard. The spell breaks as the pole shatters the glass, and Jack is aware that he's standing on a street corner with sparks fountaining out around him. The silent billboard has ground to a halt.
"Ha," Jack mutters, and spits to the side. Then as someone comes running up yelling, he saunters down the street, ducking around a corner and consulting his map. It's not the best map in the world, but it can tell him how to get out, and that's all that matters.
He hums an old lullabye as he walks, something his mother used to sing: "Kirakira hikaru, osora no hoshi yo ...."
"Go to sleep, Jack," his mother used to say, "and come back to us in the morning." There is a space between action and reaction, between light and shadow. And it's getting smaller.
--Notwithstanding the two facts that I've had a lot of sex and that I've read truckloads of romance novels, I suck at sex scenes (even aborted ones). Sorry. --I'm not sure how old Jack is. He's always struck me as early to mid twenties, because of his mix of tactlessness and competence.
--When I say "billboard," I mean the lit-up ones, like in Times Square. I don't know what else to call them. --I hope I have gotten the honorifics more or less correct, though I doubt it - I don't even watch anime. "-chan" is a diminutive, "-san" is roughly equivalent to "Mr. or Ms.," and "-sama" is used to address a social superior (such as a samurai). I used http://looney.physics.sunysb.edu/~daffy/jap_honorifics.txt as a reference.
-- "ronin" is a samurai whose master is dead, or just a samurai without a master. "umeboshi" is a pickled plum.
--I stole the "I am cute" T-shirt from Megatokyo. --The lullaby, supposedly, is the Japanese version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." If I am misinformed, it's my own fault.
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Zara Hemla
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