Full Time Job

Chapter 12

Chapter 12.0 – Morning Training (Day 17)

In the morning, Ojii and the kids had a hearty breakfast then went on their way. They would visit a shrine that housed all sorts of cultural treasures and more or less rare animals on compound. Afterwards the different branches of the family would take the train to their homes. While Tomoe helped the kids to get dressed, Ojii packed their belongings into his suitcase and asked Tomoe to have it sent to his home address right away so his hands would be free all afternoon. Ojiisama enjoyed travelling light.

Yoko promised Boba to return soon as their ways split on the cottage’s veranda. Boba nodded curtly and decided to stay behind, out of Okasan’s sight and therefore save his mom as much trouble as he could. Tomoe and Ukon accompanied their guests to the main gate to bid them farewell. Tomoe had just slipped an envelope into her sleeve as Okasan summoned her again.

She had two more guests for Tomoe who had called in on short notice. One of them was a regular at the resort, but Tomoe had never met him in person since he usually stayed at the main house and called professional entertainers instead of using a full cottage’s service. Tomoe studied the guest list Okasan handed her and kept her face a calm mask: Two elderly men, each with two bodyguards. She bowed and considered to see Norio to pin down the security issues but then she had a look at the chrono. The nightshift’s personnel and entertainers were still sleeping, so she went to prepare the cottage.

“What’s wrong?” Boba asked at his mother’s silent, drawn demeanor. Their days in the marshes had taught him the difference between her relaxed and acutely alarmed mode.

“I didn’t expect we would get another party of guests so soon, but Okasan has outdone herself… They are not like Ojiisama and the kids.” Tomoe deftly wrung out the cloth she used to wipe the wood of the veranda. “The sort that brings bodyguards and not because they are celebrities. I suggest you spend the evening over at Ukon’s place and sleep there, too, for your safety.”

“Are they dangerous?”

“I’m going to try and get some background, but I doubt they come here for enjoyment only. As long as everything goes as planned, I consider it safe. I’ll visit their favorite entertainer after I’ve seen the hairdresser.” After preparing the cottage, Tomoe changed and they went into town.

Taichi already waited for them at the corner of the hair-dresser’s shop. They entered and the actor pulled a chair over while Boba had a curious look around. The place smelled of perfume and hot wax. All sorts of strange accessories, tools and bottles littered the counters in front of large mirrors.

Tomoe had her hair set in the appropriate hairstyle with wide side wings and a relatively low cinched mage. The hairdresser was a tall middle aged man with haughty demeanor and a deep rooted sadistic attitude. He wasn’t happy about chatty audience. He preferred his profession being met with concentration. The strange kid seemed to have never seen a barber’s shop from the inside, but Ms. Harada was as calm as ever as he pulled the pins from her simple updo and let her hair cascade down.

Unlike most other girls, Tomoe-chan never flinched or made a sound while he was working, but today, it was the hairdresser who nearly dropped the comb at his findings “Creation! What happened to your hair, Tomoe-chan?”

“I did not choose that rather unprofessional haircut. Could you make the necessary adjustments, please?” In the mirror, the hairdresser’s face bleached behind hers.

“I’m afraid my scissors can only cut off... not ON. Half of your hair is MISSING – at least!” He plucked on the tips helplessly. “So uneven... what was that - an axe?!”

“Close guess… a knife to be exact. Just even it out. I’m sure there’s enough hair left for the usual style when you pad it out a little.” Tomoe smiled thinly. “You were always complaining I should get my license or marry for a higher mage because that would make your job easier.”

“I didn’t mean you should take such extreme measures!” - “Don’t worry.” - “I am not the one to worry. I’ll make sure the perpetrator is kicked out of the guild if you didn’t kill him already.”

“It no longer upsets me.” Tomoe leaned her head back to have her hair washed. “I know I’m in good hands with you, Riyoushi-sama.” Still grumbling, the master put himself to work while the two dancers figured out the details of their training.

Taichi had brought the recording of a recent rehearsal with his father. Boba leaned in, therefore Taichi hoisted him up on his knees and lowered the display for the boy to watch the show. The sinewy appearance reminded Boba of Kal, but there was no limp in the proud gait and fluent grace of the actor. It looked quite athletic and precise what he was doing, but Boba wrinkled his forehead at the differences to Tomoe’s sword training.

Tomoe forgot the hairdresser tugging at her hair as she concentrated on the small figure’s moves. She memorized how the techniques were presented and how everything was exaggerated for the stage. It would be a challenge to present it as wide and expectable as possible for the audience to follow every move.

They could use the cottage only if she had no guests, which was up to Okasan’s latest ideas. Shoichi-sensei had generously offered Taichi to use a training room in the closed hours which he gladly accepted, but for Tomoe it was a long way to the academy, so they agreed to meet in the morning and whenever they could fit it into her schedule, using the bamboo groove that bordered to the resort so Taichi could practice without crashing into precious things.

The hairdresser knotted another silken tie, put last hand on the mage and inserted the comb and pins that completed the stiff hairdo. Not a strand of her gleaming black hair was out of place anymore. After two weeks of absence, it felt heavy and uncomfortable. Tomoe thanked the master and took Taichi to their new meeting place.

Slender spires of bamboo rose from a bed of soft rustling leaves. Far above the threesome’s heads the stems spread into a wispy green canopy. There was space among the softly swinging pillars, but not enough to be mindless with a pole arm. Tomoe’s dark eyes scanned the surroundings carefully, frowning at a set of regular burned spots on the nearby clearing. Her hackles rose at the mere sight, but it had rained since then and the grass had started to conquer it again. In a few weeks it would look like a barbecue gone bad.

Tomoe ambled over to a shrub of thinner spires. It looked like she was just considering something intently until two spires slammed down vertically, just a hand width from where they had grown out of the ground. Tomoe pulled the long poles from the shrub and shortened the ends once more before she sheathed her knife. She threw the other long end at Taichi and a kid-sized staff at Boba. “Be careful when you do that. This ‘grass’ is hard enough to ruin a blade if you get it wrong and the spire can hurt you badly when it comes down.

Taichi weighted the pole in his hands. It wasn’t hard wood, but the tubular structure was still fresh and heavy with juices. “Smells nice.” Boba noted and let his staff whizz through the air. The boy possessed destructive creativity and a natural talent for aggressive moves. Tomoe let him play and concentrated on the repetition of the basic stances with Taichi.

Last time they had practiced like this, her rebellious school mate had shown an instinctual rejection of everything that connected him with his father’s profession. But that attitude seemed to have faded as Tomoe became his mirror and showed the techniques left-hand based. His moves followed hers with fluent and relaxed grace. He was dancing beautifully indeed, and he looked adorable in an androgynous way, but that would not be sufficient…

“Well done…” Tomoe complimented with a sweet smile then smacked the end of his staff suddenly. Taichi nearly dropped it in surprise as the impulse struck his wrists.

“Ouch!” Taichi complained. He hadn’t been hit since he left the bullies behind in elementary school!

Tomoe knew they had no time for explanations and corrections, so she taught him to develop an edge in the old way - by experience. “Be on guard but don’t cramp your hands. The weapon has to become another extension of your body. No more, no less. You don’t hold on to your arm, either.”

Tomoe went through a set of moves again, adding some harsh stops that would teach him to balance his body to withstand the forces of a powerful strike. “The move itself isn’t your problem, but you need to develop a visible edge. Keep on practicing - I have to get back to work.” She bowed, dropped her staff and kicked a cover of leaves over it while she memorized the location.

Boba transformed his pole arm into a walking stick as they ambled back into the resort, their sandals kicking up rustling leaves from the thick carpet on the ground. The garden gate was more of a stay-out hint than a security measure, fitting a society that respected a single stone on a pathway as much as other peoples respected a fortified barricade.

Tomoe considered taking the matter to Norio, but then, what chance did the security chief have? Put a guardsman at the gate? Pull up a solid boundary wall? Both would make little to no difference for the hard cases. She didn’t need to be lectured ‘We have sufficient personnel to accommodate any need of any guest any time. That’s our concept, not locking things up. We don’t want our guests to feel imprisoned. When you see a problem arise, just call me.’

For a local, Norio had a truly impressive build, standing more than one head higher than Tomoe. His massive rump and wide shoulders didn’t fit into the standard-width robes, therefore he was wearing customized extra-wide sizes, darker shades and finest quality only. Aside from his obvious and weighty qualities as a bouncer, Norio had a well balanced character, was surprisingly quick on his feet and unmoving as a mountain at the same time.

So far, their relationship had been one of mutual respect and Tomoe thought it was time to introduce Boba before Okasan managed to poison all the ears around. In earlier days, Tomoe had slept over in the women’s common room because some guests preferred her cottage all for themselves. When she traversed the corridor and listened to the chatter of the waking night shift, she considered sleeping there again to keep things under control. Norio had his own room in a dark corner of the same wing where he could sleep in without the morning sun waking him.

The massive man was up and dressed in a comfortable cotton robe. He had a hearty breakfast while he went over his schedule for the day. Appropriate transport had to be arranged, guest’s bodyguards informed about the resort as well as information acquired, entry permits issued, schedules be made to keep antagonists apart and more rarely payment difficulties solved. Norio preferred to leave the paper work to the secretary, but he made no compromises when it came to his field of work. He wasn’t an overgrown errant-boy, even though Okasan liked to see him like that.

“Come in.” He grumbled at the girl’s shadow on his entrance screen, cocking his head as he recognized Tomoe sliding the paper door open for a boy to enter as well. “I started wondering when you’d come here.” He nodded at her, finished his note and then put paper and brush aside.

“So did I.” Tomoe stated evenly while she closed the door. Silence fell as she approached, heavy from unspoken words as their eyes locked.

He had been alarmed at a yell outside and checked the cottage personally. Finding traces of a fight, he sent all security personnel he could muster to check the perimeter and find his friend and her guest. But they discovered nothing but glowing scorch marks and a whiff of ozone. His heart sank as Okasan forbid him to inform the police on the spot. ‘Vanishing guests are bad promotion.’ Fuming helplessly, Norio had paced a track into the wooden pathway that overlooked the resort.

When the morning dawned, Okasan had found him there, smiled and waved a sheet on which the Oniro-clan informed the Sen-Ike-Resort that everything was alright. They had paid the open bills and stated that Tomoe would be treated lawfully. ‘Come down, everything is alright.’ Okasan had requested. And so Norio complied, feeling every day like a thorn in his side. Every night, the empty Nanakusa-cottage reminded him of his failure, wrapped in saddening darkness. But when Okasan proposed to rent it out again, his signs of near explosion had been audible all over the main house and scared the interest out of any possible successor.

Norio was a strong man, but neither his physical powers nor his organization skills helped him to meet the problems that arose from Okasan’s latest business plan. Tomoe knew he had worried about her and tried to save him any accusations like ‘I expected somebody would come looking for me,’ in return... Yes, she had dearly hoped that more than once, but now the memory was like a faint shadow from another life. It was time to move on.

“May I introduce my son, Boba.” Tomoe’s fingertips grazed the mats as she bowed gracefully.

Norio’s voice rumbled deep in his belly, his basic was heavily accented but comprehensible. “I can see why Okasan doesn’t like him.” He turned his under dimensioned head to focus on Boba, and out came a mere whisper. “You have the soul of a warrior far beyond your years. The three of us don’t fit into the small accounting boxes within her mind.” He nudged his well filled breakfast tray a little closer to the boy. For Norio, that was the finest offering of peace and friendship he could make. “Help yourself, Boba-chan. I’ve always been hungry when I was your age.”

“Thanks,” Boba held Norio’s intense gaze until it slid back to Tomoe, before he had a look over the tray, picking up a small bean pastry. It was delicious! But then, the guy certainly knew how to eat well. Sure, Priest had a couple of extra pounds on him, too, but Boba had never seen a Mando’ad as fat as Norio.

“Any details on what I have to adhere with my latest assignment?

Norio turned to a board filled with colored shims, then picked up his brush again to make a couple of notes for her. “Shouldn’t be an issue, Tomoe-san, they are befriended parties. They like to be entertained well but they are not the choleric type about service. Just mind this time-slot for bathing and guard their privacy strictly. Their bodyguards will help you. They are highly competent, but aggressive as well.” He handed her the note. “Would you like to stay here over night, Boba-chan?”

Boba considered and looked at Tomoe. He didn’t mind Norio, but he wasn’t sure what to make of him, either. Ukon’s cottage was far closer to his mom’s. “Maybe next time, sir.” He concluded that strand of thoughts.

“I’ve promised Ukon they could spend some time together.” Tomoe excused them.

“Your Onesan really misses her grandson, isn’t it?” Norio chuckled “She’s going to spoil your boy even worse than the bunch of house servants and I.” He turned on Boba again “I know that’s not easy, but no sneaking around tonight, son.” He reminded him, “Promise your mom and me.”

“I promise.” For a short moment, a coldness appeared on his face that reminded Tomoe of his father, but she managed a smile nevertheless.

“Thanks for your offer and your advice.” She lifted the note in both hands, bowed and left with Boba to see Kimiryu in her town house, find out what her guests’ favorite food and beverage was and then make their round over the market. The high ranking entertainer was known as the ‘princess’ all over the resort.

Princess or not, Kimiryu had a personal handmaiden who took herself at least as important as her mistress. She told Harada-san to get lost in no uncertain terms, including the phrase that a ‘barbarian keeper would not be received’ and hinting the boy beside her visitor was a dirty brute. Tomoe was glad that Boba could not understand the scathing in detail... the mere tone was already hurtful enough.

She concluded their daily shopping anyway, resorting on her experience and instinct. If her special guest avoided Kimiryu’s personal attention for once, they were probably too busy to notice anything was off. Walking down the dust road, she tried to cover all the points she had probably forgotten when Boba plucked her sleeve briefly. He looked at the hairdresser’s entrance-curtain, then up at his mom. “Can I get a haircut like Norio, please?”

Tomoe focused on the boy. He didn’t say ‘like dad’ or ‘like my brothers’, no! Norio and Vau were rather exchangeable in that matter since Norio had ended his fighting career and put away with the waxed hairstyles - in fact with hairstyles altogether by shaving his head clean like an egg on a weekly basis.

The millimeters that grew in the meantime couldn’t show a bend, let alone curls. “I like your hair as it is.” She bowed down briefly to place a hand on the boys shoulder, restraining her urge to turn him away from that door “I’m sure so do Onesan and Norio-san. The others don’t count.”

“It will grow back anyway …later. For now it would make everything easier for us.”

“I don’t think so, Boba. The vicious will always find a reason not to like us. Wear your hair the way you want to. Don’t care for people who don’t care for you. They would just consider it a weakness - like sharks in the water that smell blood they would look for the next reason to hurt you.” She didn’t want him to lose his reflection in the mirror that was still similar to the one in Tipoca. So many things in his life had changed all too quickly. “I just ask you to sleep over it, Boba-chan.”

“Alright, mom.” The boy nodded and went on.

Tomoe already hated herself for leaving her kid alone with his sorrows but when she met her Onesan to ask her about Boba’s stay, she found out that Ukon’s appointment had been changed by Okasan as well. The old lady was buzzing with alarum at the high ranking guests she was about to receive. The guests she had prepared her cottage for had been offered a room in the main house plus evening entertainment which they gladly accepted. “I’m confused. Why is Okasan asking you personally while I get the same people booked into my place over the intercom?”

Tomoe huffed and felt a slight shiver run through her. “I think I know why.” She began to seriously doubt at that moment, that this was just a ‘simple’ vacation. “They are playing games and I don’t like it. If Okasan can see through it, so can others.” Boba didn’t complain as she took his hand and went back to the main house with him.

Norio was talking to the barkeeper and greeted the kid warmly. “Of course you can sleep up in my room, but come, I’ll show you around the service area and kitchen here, so you won’t be hungry or lonely while I have work to do. I can only pass through from time to time and I will turn in late. If you are tired, just ask a kitchen helper to take you upstairs.”

“Yes, sir.” Boba resigned. In his experience, he would be stuck for hours and nobody would speak Basic. He wished he had brought at least that picture book that Yoko loved so much.

Chapter 12.1 – Battles without Honor (Day 17)

In the late afternoon, the white stretch-limo of the resort pulled up to the main entrance. Two of the four bodyguards in dark suits quickly grabbed a pair of leather satchels before the resort’s servants could pick up the remaining bags.

“I have checked us into a fairly nice hotel, the Sen-Ike.” A man in his early sixties wearing traditional dark blue robes looked at an only slightly younger man as he exited the back seat, “I hope you like it. We can sight-see after we unpack.”

“I’m sure I’ll.” The other smoothed down his extra dapper light grey suit.

“Welcome, welcome Wadashima-Sama!” Okasan greeted him personally. “Everything has been set up as you specified.”

“I’ve brought my friends, and we intend to have a nice relaxing vacation.” Wakashima said as they walked past the bowing lady of the house.

‘An alias,’ Tomoe thought to herself, spotting a semi-famous face of the underworld ‘obviously he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s is here.’ And it only confirmed her feelings earlier about this being some kind of ‘business trip’ for him and not a vacation. However she just played along smiling benignly and acting the part of the serviceable housekeeper. Although the four guards seemed relaxed and at ease, Tomoe recognized the intense look in their eyes, or the way they casually seemed to be scanning the surroundings constantly for any trouble. She could tell they were alert, especially the two carrying the satchels were like guard dogs on high security.

“Your rooms are all prepared and if there is anything you need, don’t hesitate. I am always at your service.” Ukon greeted the guests while Tomoe stayed in the background. Flanked by the bodyguards and followed by the house servants carrying the luggage, the bosses went through the splendid garden to Ukon’s elegant cottage, while the duffle bags of the guards where dropped on Tomoe’s veranda which was closer to the main house and covered towards the hills by the wide roof of the bath-house.

Once the procession of servants was gone, everybody seemed to move at once. The bodyguards immediately began to check out the place and switch the luggage around under Wadashima’s watchful eyes. “It is nothing to be frightened of, I promise,” the powerful crime boss smiled lightly at the servant girl for a moment, his hand resting on hers as she picked up a piece of luggage that clanked suspiciously.

“Of course your other rooms are prepared as well, Wadashima-sama.” Tomoe smiled and bowed, then lead them down the short but well hidden path that connected the two cottages. They were travelling light and they were quite convinced of their little charade, obviously.

‘If they only knew…’ Tomoe suppressed a hysteric giggle.

A bodyguard of each side had checked the inside thoroughly first while Tomoe warmed some rice wine and prepared snacks for the two bosses. Two of the guards stayed outside to secure the place at all times. Once they were convinced that everything was safe and their bosses had their refreshments, the satchels they had kept safe were handed over to Wakashima and his friend, and then the guards took the servants with them to stand watch outside with the other two.

Tomoe sat with Ukon, who did not trust her old eyes as one bodyguard assembled two slug throwers for mid to long-range work and all four checked and double checked their side arms in the shadow of her cottage. Once they were armed up to maximum, the guards repositioned themselves one on each side of the site, alert and on duty. No one would be disturbing their two bosses.

Inside Tomoe’s cottage, Wakashima and Tachibana sipped their wine and spoke together in their traditional underworld dialect. “I have looked forward to this day for years, my dear friend.” Wakashima raised a toast to Tachibana, “I have owed you so much in friendship, in favors and for all you have done for my clan as well as for me personally as a friend.”

“I feel the same way, my close friend.” Tachibana said returning the toast, “There will be much in business for both of us. I am touched that you are turning over such generous ventures and businesses to our branch.” Tachibana was referring to the fact that Wadeshima was turning more and more of the illegal aspects over to his clan.

Wakashima nodded, “Things are more secure and safe right now in your territory. This Tradefed shit,” he shook his head almost sadly, “it has been slowly destroying ‘our thing’. That and the lack of loyalty has been eating away this thing of ours like a cancer. I predict it will get only worse with the Republic’s different gangs, different crime rings, different rackets… none of it is like before Tachibana-san.”

“I understand.” Tachibana nodded sagely, “And I think you will be very happy with some of the legitimate areas I will give to you in East Port. Banking, more export/import.”

“I am already happy and pleased with everything you have given me, including some wonderful men… and women like Kumiko-chan…” Wakashima winked and let the sentence hang. Even though the house had been checked for bugs, both men were old timers they were experienced enough to know even if an area seemed safe to still talk in code and in a round-about fashioned.

Tachibana smiled at the name of his daughter. “She turned out well my dear brother.” he sipped more sake; “Your Kumiko-chan, she will bring strength to the Family, make you proud.”

“Yes, yes she will.” Wakashima leaned back, glancing at the large picture window next to where the two men sat. It overlooked the ocean side, once in awhile he would see one of the guards pass by but other than that, nothing moved out there except the bamboo and reed swinging in the wind. “And again I thank you for our connection as well as the men you have now offered to help the Yuwa Society settle this war with our old enemies.”

Tachibana chuckled then, “Tsunaike has bought one-way tickets to South Port.” He let the information sink into Wakashima for a moment. “Just for him and his family, and I hear rumblings of him wanting to hook up with my old enemy, the Aido’s.”

“So he wants to flee does he?” Wakashima rejoiced in this news, “I will make sure he never makes that flight.”

“The Tachibana-clan will be at your side my friend, through all of it.” The younger man reached into the breast pocket of his suit coat and pulled out a small red silk bag. “We solidify now, our alliance for all times, to you and to the next head of the Yuwa-Society when it is his time.” He untied the braided thread and poured out onto the lacquered tray close to 150 thousand credits worth of loose diamonds, they sparkled and glimmered with inner fire like a thousand light-filled rainbows.

“I am deeply honored, Tachibana-san.” Wakashima silently and gently examined the exquisite diamonds then gently scooped them back into the bag. He then put the leather case on the table. “I now give to you as a gift to seal our alliance, something that has bought our society a lot of profit in the past.” He opened the case and inside was a set of override probes for financial transactions. “Now since we are getting out of this particular aspect, I want them to have a home with you.”

Tachibana was stunned for a moment. These were the famous Yuwa Probes he had heard vague rumors about, supposedly the best monetary slicing tools the planet had ever seen, it was also rumored this was one of the main ways, in the early days of Wadashima’s reign the Yuwa Society had made so much cash and assets, and now Wakashima was turning them over to him. Tachibana knew then his dear friend Wakashima truly was giving up more and more of the illegitimate aspects of the Society.

“I am… stunned, my older brother.” He said honestly looking into his friend and fellow boss’s eyes. “A truly special gift indeed, thank you.”

“You have provided so much to me, brother. And, you are providing even more in men for this war with my enemy. Were it not for your soldiers and assistance, I don’t think the Yuwa-Society would be successful in this vengeance against Tsunaike.”

Tachibana just solemnly nodded at the compliment as each man secured his gifts of alliance from the other. “It’s what brothers and family do for one another, Wadashima-sama. I know you would do no less for our branch, were the situations reversed. You, I respect. You are indeed like the bosses of old, eh?!” Tachibana gently teased. It did hurt him to know that their thing was now down a path that would forever change it so radically from what it had started, back in the days of the pleasure quarters.

Once the bosses finished their private talk, Tomoe was winked over again by one of the guards. They had already changed into more casual summer robes. In the identical clothing of the resort they looked at her briefly as she stepped over the threshold, and then smiled together. There was no doubt they were a team and ready to go to the bath, but it was still a little early. The other guests had not left the bathhouse yet to have dinner. Thankfully, they seemed to know what was expected and tried to kill some time.

“I hear they serve wonderful seafood and such.”

“Fresh from the ocean,” Tomoe agreed, “and whatever is your favorite?”

“Oh, we aren’t too picky as long as it is prepared under our eyes.”

“Of course, Wadashima-sama.” She would have preferred a precise answer to work with, but she started running menu options through her mind nevertheless while she poured beverages and cleared the trays.

“You could finally introduce me to Kimiryu.” Tachibana proposed to Wakashima “I’ve heard a lot about her.”

“Sure - and just one is boring, tell her to bring a younger sister…” Wakashima ordered over his shoulder “...and we need some other musician for her dancing.”

“My Onesan, Ukon-san, is one of the most brilliant musicians in the resort.” Tomoe proposed.

“That old frump? Whatever you say, but get us Kimiryu, either now or after dinner - whenever she can fit it in.” Wakashima requested. It was still early, therefore an appearance at one of her regulars should be possible on short notice.

Tomoe went to the intercom in the next room to make the arrangements, conferring quietly for a moment. She didn’t like the response she got of the princess’s manager. “I’m afraid Kimiryu-san can’t make it over from the main house tonight, but two of her younger sisters lend themselves to attend to you. Kimiryu-san would be honored to receive you in the morning-glory-room another day.”

“That’s her damn sauciness!” Wadashima’s fist slapped his thigh in anger. “Scratch her Arrogance altogether with those brats… I hear you dance as well, Tomoe-chan?”

“I’m just an apprentice in my final year, Wadashima-sama.”

“That should do – one final year is still better than two first years. I’m not into kids anyway.”

“Thank you.” Tomoe bowed.

Wakashima looked over to Tachibana briefly before returning his attention to the servant “When do you graduate?”

“This winter, hopefully.” Her big plans were as messed up as the schedule of the day since those guests didn’t fit into the standard sequence of tea-bath-dinner-entertainment. She had hoped to get a time-margin for dinner preparations while they were in the bath, but no such luck…

“Lead the way to the bathhouse then. We’ll see your dance after dinner.” The small old man came to his feet with a grace that came with regular physical training. Surrounded by three of the guards while a fourth stayed behind to watch their possessions, they walked up the canopied walkway and took the branch to the bathhouse. Norio’s schedule was working and they met no other soul - even the bathhouse attendant was gone.

A bodyguard went scouting to secure the bathhouse while the bosses walked on slowly “You are quite overdressed to wash my back, Tomoe-chan.” Tachibana noted at her layered silken robes and raised his chin to another guard “Ariga-san, see to her change before you check her thoroughly, and then leave us to our bath.” He slipped out of his sandals and proceeded through the dressing room into the bathroom, followed by his other watchdog.

Tomoe went into the deserted ladies dressing room, the dour looking guard on her heels. Around 5’9, he was lean, olive skinned man with classic hard looks and darkly chiseled features. Ariga had collar-length hair that he kept combed back tightly. He looked like the type of man who had no compulsions about killing anyone or anything.

Turning her back on the guard Tomoe unwrapped her wide sash and placed her silken robes into a basket, slipping her knife in between unnoticed before she donned a cotton summer robe. She hated leaving her knife behind, but she couldn’t make any more ruckuses and give Okasan an excuse to get a rid of her. All in all, her guests had been decent enough – so far.

Satisfied by the display of the shapely woman taking off everything quickly and efficiently before his eyes, even turning to face him while she shrunk out of the under robe and opened the crimson half-slip, Ariga let her grab a cotton robe from the shelf. He made short process patting her down in the entrance of the bathroom before he joined the others patrolling outside. His comrades wasted no time teasing him about it. Yes, he was known for the amount of mistresses he juggled. He smiled and winked, then moved on. No, he wasn’t here for his own indulgence.

The bosses were already sitting on bathing stools at the tabs, their full body tattoos in plain view. Wakashima’s displayed an Oni, the round eye-balls of the monstrous mask moving on his shoulder blades as he started shaving. Tachibana had a great tiger tattooed all over his back. The big cat’s spread paw that reached over his right shoulder was disfigured by a voluminous white patch held in place by band-aid. “That Aido slug-round is still giving you trouble, eh?” Wakashima commented, receiving a drowsy “Hmmm…” instead of an answer.

‘Try bacta next time’ Tomoe thought and she got a bowl, soap and washcloths. She felt a wave of relief wash over her. There was a plain reason why he had requested her attendance and he seemed to have no further expectations, so she did her job thoroughly while carefully avoiding the patch. “Good girl.” The bosses stayed glued to their bathing stools until the last bowl of water rinsed every reminder of soap down, as it was tradition. Afterwards Tomoe withdrew to watch over them while they soaked in meditative silence. The pool was embedded between a water fall which Wakashima used to massage his shoulders and a garden that reached out into the splendid country side.

They didn’t spend more than twenty minutes in the hot well, then got out and dabbed themselves dry without another rinse to increase the exposure time to the minerals while they slipped back into their cotton robes. Tomoe had no time to dress herself into her more intricate garb. She borrowed out the basket while she tagged along.

Somewhere off in the distance Tomoe could hear music. Other guests had already finished their dinner while she was late with the catering. But apparently, Ukon had managed to convince the bodyguard they had left behind to watch their satchels to let her inside so she could start a fire and begin preparations. In fact, she had already squished out the man who could be her son or even grandson about the bosses preferred food. Her guests were outlaws, but they were still raised with a proper respect to their elders.

Ukon returned to her sister’s cottage with a basket of fresh vegetables and two large lobsters. She did the cutting in the tidy kitchenette with the slide door wide open for the guard to see her every move. She changed the settings of the fireplace from a bowl to a large plate and arranged the ingredients on two large plates. The old lady smiled at Tomoe as she entered behind the two bosses. This was their home and they would run the show according to those somewhat spoiled kids’ wishes.

They skipped the cold delicacies which had been prepared by the main house, served the soup then went over courses of vegetables, chicken, lobster, salad to nerf-steaks. Wakashima had Tomoe pre-eat a bowl of rice and drink some sake with them to soothe their paranoia before they leaned back and enjoyed the action of tinkling spatula, flying pepper mills and the whoosh of three feet high alcohol-fuelled flames.

Dawn fell as they finished dinner with fresh fruits Tomoe sliced in the kitchen, her handling of the knife overlooked by the guard from the bathhouse while Ukon fetched her instrument and the guests were watching the show of nature and drinking. Lightning flashed in the distance from a few far off storms on the ocean that never quite rolled in.

“Come here, Tomoe-chan.” In Tachibana’s experience, for the right price and for just a few hours time, every woman could be coaxed to fulfill his wishes. A thin layer of sweat made her skin shine under the cool fabric of her summer robe as the house keeper brought a small tray with the desserts and placed a tobacco box nearby. She was very attentive indeed, but he was looking for a forthcoming of another kind.

Tachibana would enjoy playing his game with the spirited servant who was determined not to cringe in fear. In fact her playing ‘hard to get’ only aroused him more as it made him aware of her no-nonsense presence. Of course his counselor had done his homework. Tachibana stuffed his pipe meticulously before he returned his attention to the chairman. “Curious. The father threatened our status-quo frequently in his time and now the daughter does everything for our convenience.”

“Don’t tempt her... I kinda like her professional style” Wakashima slowed Tachibana’s pass.

Tomoe could have sworn she saw a gleam of laughter in the old man’s eyes. She flashed a smile at Tachibana “I see little difference... my father made a living of you, and so do I.”

Wakashima got some sake in the wrong throat as the men laughed together and Tomoe patted his back deftly for a moment. They were clearly beyond the point of appreciation of the finesse the Academy of Dance had to offer, so Ukon struck catchy melodies. They were singing folk songs together while the rain hosed down on the landscape and blew bubbles on the pond.

While the gathering was in high spirits, Tomoe couldn’t stop thinking of Boba. Something was wrong, she could feel it. What if the boy decided to come over and ran into one of the guards? But then, she had to trust Norio’care and Boba’s instinct for danger. Nevertheless, her senses stayed fully alert. Thankfully, Wakashima had found a partner in Ukon and left her out of their drinking game.

“Would you show us another dance, Tomoe-chan?” Tachibana demanded as she refilled his cup.

She stood and took a few steps into the centre of the room. She was sure her hackles would be rising if they weren’t glued in place by wax and oil. There was a slight scratching noise outside... She started singing the tune of “The Cat on the Roof” on top of her lungs and struck a pose with a hand lifted like a paw. Where were the guards on duty outside?

Takashima started clapping and sung the husband’s second line “Then why is it wearing yu-ka-ta?”

Lighting flashed over a shadow too big to be Boba and Tomoe jumped. Rushing fast enough to support a foot on the timber set, she grabbed the naginata that lay hidden on top of the rafter and drove it through one of the paper windows that allowed day light into the main room over the lower roof of the veranda.

Whoever had been lurking on the ledge screamed as his blood gushed on the paper screen once the long curved blade withdrew. It sung over the heads of the bosses to slice through the legs of another assassin on the top of the stair connecting ground- and first-floor level of the cottage. For a split of a second, Tachibana wondered if his pass on this particular woman had been a good idea. Ukon dropped her instrument with a startled yelp and ran for the door.

“No... Onesan, NO!” A pair of legs still standing upstairs, the torso tumbled down the steps and Tomoe wasted no time to stab into it where it landed for good measure, withdrawing the curved blade immediately. She brought it around to guard the door while she smacked the emergency button in her back. Norio’s deep voice came up, but once the connection was made, she had no time to go into details. The sound scenery left no questions anyway as the screaming on the veranda roof faded. “Don’t fire that blaster,” she reminded the surviving Tachibana’s bodyguard with unnerving calm. “no need to smoke out ourselves.”

“Not mine.” Wakashima glanced at Tachibana a bit worried. “I don’t hear our men.” …But no more assassins rushed in on them either.

“Sniper.” Tachibana agreed and had a look at the assassin’s relatively undamaged face. “Alright, he’s not yours.” He insured his chairman to be safe. Interruptions like this had a tendency to lead right into a death-for-all situation when the bodyguards concluded it was the other side’s fault.

Tomoe turned half and rammed her pole weapon into the floor beside the stone rim of the fire place, hurling the heavy mat aside with a quick turn of her hips. A trap door was revealed “Please get down while I check.” She halted opposite of Ariga with her back to the timber set, peering out through the rain. Ukon lay face down on the steps of her cottage, a dark flower spreading on the light green silk of her robe. Tomoe calculated the angle, ‘I know where you are, you bastard,’ she thought and checked the length of the veranda before securing the butt of her weapon against the woodwork of the steps leading down to garden level.

While the bodyguard crouched to check the ground level, Tomoe smacked the base of the razor sharp blade into the edge of the veranda-roof. She lunged up while the pole was still dry and stuck to her bare toes and pulled up the weapon after her immediately. Staying in the cover of the main roof, she finished off the assassin clinging to his live where he had dropped after her first stab. She peered over the roof where the mossy top decoration concluded the elegant swing of the thatched construction. There was a flash of blaster fire between the tall cypresses on the opposite hill, distant screams were cut off abruptly, then nothing was heard but the rain pounding on the roof of the bathhouse and rustling in the leaves.

Tomoe rested her forehead on the wet moss when she picked up a high whistling chitter. Thanks to creation - Moronoko was alright. She kicked the dead body off her veranda roof before sliding down herself, landing on the soaked grass with a splash.

“Onesan?!” Tomoe called and ran to pick up the old lady. The shard of a slug round had penetrated her back deeply. She didn’t know where the rest of the round stuck. “Oh dear Onesan, let me take you inside… you’ll be alright, ambulance will arrive shortly.” The old lady was as frail as a child as Tomoe carried her out of the downpour and behind doubtful safety of the screens.

Tomoe lifted her hand only to hit the emergency button in Ukon’s cottage. This time another security guy picked up her report. Apparently, Norio was already on the way... with the resort-medic, she was told. In the corner of her eyes, she saw a motion on the opposite veranda, then there was a sudden yellow flash and bang of an explosion behind the roof of the main house. She ducked instinctively, but kept giving life-support to Ukon...

An infinite second later, Norio’s wide shadow fell on her, a comlink at his ear “That was our only armored transport - booby trapped...”

“Get Ukon a medic, or she won’t need any more transport tonight.” Tomoe gasped for air.

“It’s not for..” Norio started.

“Root out the rat that had access to the garage.” Tomoe demanded “You check the resort, Norio-san; I check the perimeter, the eastern hill and secure corridor out of here for our guests.”

The medic came running, taking over with the help of the bath house attendant that drove Tomoe away. She could not do anymore for her friend and picked up her pole weapon. “Good luck.” Once she made it out of sight, she slipped out of the blinding white and blue cotton robe, smearing mud all over her skin, face and blade. Blending in with the surroundings she vanished in the undergrowth and ran. Her lungs were burning, but she had to find Moronoko... there had been a tone in his voice she could not classify as convinced.

Chapter 12.2 – Clean-Up (Day 17)

Tomoe found her childhood friend crouched over a fallen body, staring at something in the shadows of the bamboo grove, fangs twitching as a low growl erupted from his throat. As she inched closer, she spotted a long black arrow that was sticking out of the body below the Hi-inu. She imitated his chitter and Moronoko vanished in the bushes like the intelligent being he was, taking a large angle before rounding back on her position. Crouched beside him, she sniffed and ran her hand over the black fur. There was blood on his fangs, but the rest of him smelled of rain and ozone only and wasn’t sticky from blood.

At the same time, Moronoko took in her scent as well; keeping an eye on the tall black clad figure that emerged from the undergrowth and hovered over the body... his prize! There was no flash of metal but the sound of decapitating the fallen sniper. ‘Blackened short sword.’ Tomoe thought and watched him stuffing the head into a bag before taking the path down to the resort with long strides. ‘Vengeance?’ Otherwise, he had left the body untouched – at least one ranged weapon must lay around there still. ‘...the enemy’s enemy...’ She wasn’t sure if that applied here.

Tomoe slunk over the clearing in a long lunge that retrieved the slug thrower from where it had fallen and leaned back against a tree while Moronoko went scouting again. What had hit Ukon and the three bodyguards was a high-precision offworld weapon that she recognized from the handbook. Kal was using a far more advanced version. This one was a lot longer and not secured yet. She knelt and rested the front hold in the notch over her fist on the pole arm and sighted down the hill. The damn thing had night vision as well. The click of her careful recharge was barely audible.

“Steady.” She barked downhill, knowing that the barrel wouldn’t be visible from below, but the blood stained blade against the dark bark of the tree would be. The rain kept washing down her camouflage. “Identify yourself.” Instead of complying the tall man moved for cover quickly.

“Tock!” A black arrow grew out of the tree a meter above her head. She adjusted the crosshairs and peered through the green tinted night vision. How uncivilized was that? He was a fine archer actually, but she had just to tense her finger slightly to strip a patch of bark off his cover tree and knock the second arrow off his bow-hand. “This is Sen-Ike-Security. Identify yourself,” she repeated patiently.

“Wadashima-clan, Enforcer, Hanma.” The tall man spoke in a deep sonorous voice and pressed his back into the trunk of a thick cypress. He shouldn’t have left a weapon behind, but he had been in a hurry and his finely attuned senses had not picked up another human enemy. Still he could not sense any more blood lust out there. By the voice of it, the large carnivore that had helped to finish off his enemies had suddenly turned into a female. Impossible! ‘A fox spirit of sorts?’ He felt his own hair prickling dangerously in the tense situation.

“Better late than never.” Tomoe commented to defuse the situation. “The way down to the resort is secured. Unstring your bow, sheath your blade and keep your hands away from it until Wadashima-sama identifies you. If he does, I will need your help, Hanma-san.” There was no room for argument in her calm but not to be denied voice.

Hanma fought down his superstitions and stepped out of his cover. Up hill, a short blade flashed in the lightning, and then a female shape rose into view from the deep shadow of the bulbous tree he had mistaken for a standing enemy a moment ago. Whatever it was, once it had assumed a human form, he supposed it could be killed like any other human. But for now it had made a reasonable suggestion... and it looked like a worthy enemy who could handle the liberated weapon where it rested on the dragging hilt of the pole arm.

“Report.” Hanma ordered darkly, stepped into his bow and unstrung it. He kept the bow-string safe from the rain under his belt. The woman ducked for cover like a nervous squirrel once he reached under the overlap of his tunic. ‘Not an immortal spirit then.’ A wan smile played on his lips. Her apparent strength made her fear all the more delicious. In the vicinity the advantage of the sniper rifle would be evened out and he could certainly handle a single naked woman.

“It’s too early to tell.” Before she stepped any closer, Tomoe secured the slug-thrower and slung it over her bare shoulder, taking up the naginata in both hands in a show of constant vigilance. “Stay in front of me, please.”

With no further comments or looks back, Hanma walked stoically downhill along with his grizzly trophy. He even held the garden gate open for the mud-caked visitation of a war goddess pointing a weapon on him. He really didn’t know what to make of her. Had it been anyone else daring to make this disrespectful scene or questioning his orders like this, the Wadashima-enforcer would have killed them on the spot.

Tomoe followed like a shadow as she led him down the path hidden by bamboo scrubs and called out for Norio to announce them to the guests. The surviving Tachibana-guard pushed past the broad security-chief of the resort and had a look at the new arrival’s face. The tall man leaned in slightly and for a short moment pulled down the cloth that covered the lower portion of his face. “Enforcer.” Ariga recognized, bowed respectfully and stepped aside to let the higher ranking member of their society pass.

It left Norio staring blankly at the dark female shape standing in the narrow path like a personification of death, the crescent of blood splattered steel hovering between them at ankle height, ready to mow through mankind. How could he bridge that gap… “Tomoe-chan?” He called over. This was no duel of strength and minds, this was brutal warfare breaking into his domain. He swallowed hard. “What did you do?”

“Hill is clear. I’m working to secure a way out of here. How is Ukon?”

“They have stabilized her and she’s on the way into hospital.”

“What are Okasan’s orders?”

“We are to cover this up silently.” Norio cleared his throat.

“How expectable.” She nodded. “Work outside-in, starting with the wreckage in front of the main gate. Backfill any holes in the road. It would be terribly impolite to let the inspector drop into one on the way to his investigations.” Okasan’s order was a bad joke, but inspector or not, the resort had to be spared of the second wave of attack of this gang war. She turned to follow Moronoko down to the river

Inside the cottage, Wakashima reunited with his enforcer “I’m fine, Hanma-san.” he patted the man’s broad shoulder. “It’s good to see you. Any other Tsunaike-men alive?” Wakashima asked in a calm commanding tone.

“No. And we got the only heir of Tsunaike.” The enforcer explained as casually as one discusses the weather and lifted the bag slightly. “There were only four, all have been taken care of.” he gently said. “But we lost too many men. I am, sorry about this.” Hanma looked deeply and sincerely into the Tachibana’s eyes.

“For what it is worth, we hurt Tsunaike tonight… hurt him good.”

Hanma nodded. He knew how very true that was indeed, a thin smile played briefly on his lips as he whispered to the small old man’s ear, “At least Tsunaike will have no idea whether his son died fast or slow. The wondering will be agonizing enough.” He informed his boss, their minds once again thinking along the same path.

“That was just a scouting squad. Once they find out how badly their ambush failed, they will be swarming out like angry wasps to find us.”

“We can’t give them time for a thoroughly prepared hit. You’d better leave, Chairman.” In the adjoining room, Hanma helped his boss to change into his street clothing, “We will find a way to bring our fallen.”

Moving out to have a good look around, Hanma casually and discreetly asked the Tachibana-guard, “Who is this woman?”

“The young one wielding the scary blade in our favor?” Ariga almost looked shocked at the enforcer, “That’s Tomoe, of the late Harada-clan...” his eyes held a sparkle of deep amusement and sarcasm.

“Curious.” Hanma’s eyebrow quirked up in surprise. He had always thought that mountain-warrior clan was extinct altogether.

“You didn’t know?” Ariga smirked gently, teasingly.

Hanma just shook his head ‘No’ in surprise. “I had no idea.” He said thoughtfully and glanced discreetly around for the woman who moved like his own shadow. “How did you know?”

“She looks - and feels… memorable under all the dirt.” Ariga made a brief lewd gesture.

“I have returned.” Her gentle voice announced the woman before she popped up from the bushes and strolled over to the body lying in the grass outside. The white of her eyes was shining in her mud caked face, but she had draped a summer robe around her nude form. It was soaked and offered her little warmth but at least some dignity. The white hem hovered over the dripping grass like a footless ghosts’ trail as she frisked the body for weapons, ID and gadgets.

Her way was cleared at once as she stepped inside and passed the fire place silently. She leaned her pole weapon against the blood splattered staircase and knelt beside the fallen assassin. It stank horribly and the mats in that area were beyond saving. She removed some matte black chest armor, then ripped open the tunic, uprooted another comlink and disabled it the hard way.

How could the woman he thought he knew be so cold? Norio wondered. ‘So harsh!’

Once she considered it safe, Tomoe spoke up. “Take the scraps into another direction. If they have any back-up left, they will prepare an ambush at the connective road and we have no more armored transports. But they cannot watch the amount of water ways leading away from here. There is a motorboat at Uekiya-san’s footbridge moored beside mine. It’s a rental they left behind before they snuck up here, so it should not be infested. At least I could find no bugs.” It wasn’t the moment to tell that Moronoko had sniffed up and down the boat as well to make sure. “Wadashima-sama, do you want to take your fallen with you?”

“Of course we will bring our men home.” Wakashima nodded discreetly to his enforcer to come with.

“It will be cramped, but the motorboat can carry seven.” Tomoe stood to get her knife and a pile of large wrapping cloths. “Norio-san, I can carry only one body to the boat, but I can take the matter from there.” She finished gathering the body pieces from the stair and knotted the cloth to take them outside like smelly garbage. Why weren’t the men moving already? Afterwards she stepped into the shower to wash down the mud. Her exhausted limbs had to regain some warmth before she changed into a set of the dark clothing she had worn in the marshes and pushed her knife under her belt. She needed her hands free from now on.

When she returned from the little bathroom she looked at Norio and his stunned guards who were all staring at her with gaping mouths, as they had been discussing what to do next while Ariga and Hanma eyed her with consideration. She noted the enforcer’s eyes over the cloth covering his face were steel blue. ‘Curious.’ She thought, then narrowed her eyes and shot them all a dark look, “Problem?” she quietly and darkly asked. Her rising anger was burning away her fatigue. Their game in her home had wounded her sister badly. Whenever it had been foreseeable or not, they would end it right now.

Wakashima was obviously uncomfortable talking to a woman on those matters. “Norio-san,” he quietly ordered to the resort’s chief of security, “Please remain here and see that the cottage is restored to its pristine condition. Take the enemy bodies and make them disappear forever in safe places. The Yuwa-Society will cover your expenses and give you an address where to send our luggage.”

“Yes, Wadashima-sama.” Norio acknowledged. He had no idea how to do such a ‘disposal’. Guests who made that sort of mess had always taken care of it themselves.

“First and foremost: your men.” Tomoe took over and threw a sheet at each, Tachibana’s self-confident bodyguard and the tall enforcer but kept one herself. “Shift it.” She added, still in that unnerving calm and stepped out on the walk way to find one of the guards the sniper had shot. The slug round had penetrated his face and exploded through the back of his head. She gathered what she could find in the dark and kept things together with the cloth, using the belt to tie the flaying arms folded to the body in a more peaceful position before it stiffened.

The crime lords’ henchmen did the same around the cottage, and then the enforcer came over, watching the woman lengthen the slug-thrower’s belt to carry it in front of her chest. She was quite a trooper, but he knew under the baggy clothing and behind the large gun was a lithe and definitely human body. “Are you sure you can take it?”

“If you help me rise, I can carry his weight for you, Hanma-san.”

“Excellent,” his deep resonant voice acknowledged as he lifted the body up and watched the slim woman stagger first, then balance the weight. He repeated the process for Ariga, who had gotten the heavier load but denied to give up his friend’s body, let alone in front of a woman. Hanma adjusted the long straight assassin’s knife that he had strapped to his back next to his quiver and picked up his own gruesome load. He motioned to his associates to follow him. “Let’s go.”

Tomoe took step by step down to the garden level carefully, leading the procession through the garden gate and down the path among the orchards to head-gardener’s footbridge at the river. She could feel Moronoko eyes on her and spot telltale signs of his presence in the dark because she knew what she was looking for. Her walking right up to the motorboat held a scary confidence, but in fact, she was too tired to play games. She sunk down on a knee, her muscles shaking as she pulled the boat over by the mooring line. The railing of the motorboat had become a hindrance she could not take anymore.

Hanma took the long step into the boat with ease, lowered the body from his shoulder then turned his glance towards the woman. She had gained his respect as a person, but she was still a Harada who had seen too much... “Easy now, little one.” When he was ordered to kill her, he would not make her suffer.

His dark voice caused her hair to stand on end, but still she would not quit. She just ducked so the enforcer could roll the body over the railing and store it while she inched back for Ariga to make it as well, then held the boat for the two crime lords. The sniper rifle rested against her thigh and pressed against her chest. In a moment, they would be gone and Boba would be safe. Or she would mow down every living being coming at her with shaking hands despite she had put her life on the line for them a moment ago... ‘Crazy new world.’ She thought.

“I’d love to hire her.” Tachibana meant the comment sincerely.

“Would you waste our nice meeting place?” Wadashima’s voice sounded gruff.

“Can’t do that, can I?” His old friend tried to defuse the situation. As he saw it, they couldn’t come back anyway. But he could ask his bodyguard to turn on his charm as he sent him over with his proposal. Tachibana snickered inwardly and imagined that he would not be disappointed. Known as irresistible as well as insatiable, Ariga was the womanizer of the Tachibana-clan.

Wadashima’s hand reached out over the railing to her. With trembling hands Tomoe grasped it, feeling the strength and warmth in his older hand. “I’m fine.” he assured the men around, then joked “More than likely I am coming down with one bastard of a cold.”

“Good journey, Wadashima-sama.” Tomoe concluded their contact formally.

“Very well child.” The crime lord discreetly slipped a wad of cash into her tunic, then placed his hand gently on the inn keeper’s shoulder, gave it a squeeze of reassurance and friendship then turned and sat in the boat as the guard started the engine. Tomoe threw the mooring line over and the slim sports boat turned into the dark, leaving a flurry of white water behind.

She quickly dove for cover behind the stone lantern guarding the river bank, shivering in the pouring rain and of a bout of paranoia, but no assassination attempt followed. “Ugh.” Moronoko’s shadow dropped onto her and she hugged him close. “I hate people shooting at me.” She simply confessed and nuzzled her face into the short black fur behind Moronoko’s stubby ear. “Why can’t I leave it all behind?”

Moronoko whooped and promised to be around for her while she finished the job. Cracking her bones she stood and pulled a cart out from Uekiya’s shed. With the help of Norio’s men, she gathered the remains of the assassins from the cottage and the decapitated sniper from the cypress groove on the hill. Moronoko’s hints enabled her to find the spotter and wrap him up before anybody else saw him. She certainly didn’t want reports about dangerous carnivores or rumors about her animalistic identity to sprout from the mutilated body.

After all, the young man Norio had sent to help her was already puking his stomach out behind a bush when he thought she wasn’t looking. He was relieved as the dark keeper of the Seven-Autumn-Grasses Cottage threw the line of the boat loose and vanished with the gruesome evidence of a bloody harvest. Only the steady screech of the rudder marked her way through the night. Never again he would comment on her looks or on that ‘son’ of hers. The evil spirits of the marshes alone knew how Harada put those tainted, angry souls to rest.

The noise of the main house had died down hours ago and Boba was sleeping as the slide door of Norio’s room screeched slightly. His eyes cracked open immediately. The big fat man finally came home, but behind him, his mom tagged along in her fishing clothing, a long-range slug thrower slung over her back. He turned his head. “Didn’t they like your cooking, mom?”

She knelt by the bed, the dark pools of her eyes burning with exhaustion. “You are awake.” She stated more for Norio who stopped shielding the small lamp with his dinner-plate sized paw.

“Can we go home now?” Boba sat up and threw the sheets down, wide awake.

“We stay here tonight. The cottage has to be cleaned first. Norio’s men tackle the major construction jobs as we speak; the details are up to us in the morning.” – “But it is morning.” – “It is half past four.” She ran a hand over her face, leaving a brown smear “I need to clean up for real.” She went over to the intercom to have a bowl of noodles sent up from the kitchen, and then vanished in the bathroom across the corridor while Norio pulled out another sleeping mat and blanket from the wall closet, placing it beside Boba’s.

Boba faked sleep as his mom returned, wrapped into a fresh bathing robe. The mud on her neck was gone, but her artistically constructed hairdo was down as well. She knelt on one of the floor cushions at Norio’s writing desk. She uncovered the bowl and a spicy scent filled the room. It smelled nice and she looked truly starved, but curiously, she turned her face and put the bowl back down, covering her mouth while she fought the nausea shaking her body. ‘It’s all useless. I can’t have my kid like this, I’m going to lose it...’ her exhausted mind repeated over and over.

Norio held her for a moment, then poured some hot water from a thermos flask over a bowl with green leaves on the bottom and got her some rice crackers before he sat with her again. Tomoe cracked the snack between her molares methodically and waited for the substance to take the bile back down her throat. She sorted her thoughts and bound them to the here and now. Tomorrow she would call the hospital, then clear up their home and hide the weapons that she didn’t have to include in the Yuwa-consignment. Once the doctors allowed, she would go and see Ukon. Should she have a word with Okasan? She looked at Norio thoughtfully.

“What is it?” the security-chief asked.

“I wonder if it makes sense to remind Okasan that she cannot cover this up. The inspector won’t buy it and she can’t buy him.”

Norio rubbed his shaven head. “Don’t underestimate her.” He warned, “She can always go on the next higher level. She lives in a different reality than you and I. Minds can be manipulated where facts can’t.”

“I see.” Tomoe started on her soup. She hadn’t eaten anything aside of a light lunch the day before. Right now it was her main duty to stay healthy. The police was Okasan’s problem anyway.

“Mom?” Boba padded up to her, a package clutched under his arm and smiled. He had the news to cheer her up.

“Oh, I forgot... mail for you, came in with the evening delivery.” Norio explained and smiled.

“Yes,” Boba nodded and raised the box with ‘Harada B.’ written over it in calligraphic aurabesh. “Ojisan’s been writing us. He sends me a datapad for school and there’s a letter in for you as well.” He handed her the folded sheet that enveloped the scented letter.

“Thank you.” Tomoe finished her meal slowly before picking up her letter. The night was as good as gone and she wasn’t in a hurry anymore. Oji wrote that he was impressed with Boba, sending him a little something to support his progress learning so many new things... and then it read:

“It might interest you that I’ve found a message when I came home, to crown a happy day. An old Corellian friend of mine is seeking advice on calligraphy. He has been devoted to spread the interest for our traditional arts around the galaxy for many years. Isn’t it wonderful how a scribbled letter can be more powerful than the most splendid brocade-lined scrolls we display at official receptions?

Ah, the power of love carries the words on gentle wings!

Anyway, my friend’s contact on Mygeeto seems to be especially taken with a determined push that little copy of Komachi’s rain-poem displayed. He asks for translations - which I agreed to do for him - and for scaled examples of similar artistic quality. Looking at it, I was immediately reminded of your handwriting.

I’d like to make up for the less than happy experiences you have probably made in the past, so if you like, I could establish a contact to the more literary folks out there for you...”

“Oh no!” Tomoe let the letter sink on her knee. “Norio, I need something to write. Let’s hope Ojisan hasn’t given away his address or made another mistake yet.” She brushed down a letter quickly to warn her old friend. If they were monitoring him, that seemed to be the safest way of communication. Maybe should she go and see him? No, that would just attract the dangers to his home.

Chapter 12.3 – So this is Peace (Day 17)

“We preserve muscle mass and avoid thromboses by triggering reflexes. Put him through the paces on a daily bases.” The med-droid lectured with unconcerned cheerfulness. “The viscosity of the bacta supports the strain. He is doing better now, but it will take some rehab to recover from the damage.”

“Well, at least his nervous system is fine.” Rav crossed her arms in front of her red chest plate.

“How long?” Kal inquired - “Give it one more day.” - Skirata nodded. Their taskforce was prepared to go in and watch Fett’s six whenever he was ready.

He was walking... or his muscles felt like he was walking up hill. It was cool, but not unpleasant after the moist warmth of his past... experiences. The path under his bare feet was rough rock and withered grass that teased the soles of his feet. But at least he sensed something. It soothed his mind. He hadn’t felt like that since... he went with Jaster Mereel... leaving Concord Dawn. But this wasn’t Concord Dawn. This was rougher terrain, colder, wilder. A land untouched by harvester droids.

The path lead up the slope and around pillars of rock, then the view opened into the land below. The way meandered along until it vanished between the trees that clung to the rocky ground. In the cold clear air he could spot a homestead far below. It appeared closer once he concentrated, as closely as if... he reached out, but no, he could not touch it.

Something rustled through the plantation. Some beast from the wood feeding on the crop? No... there were kids playing hide and seek between the rows of high stems. ‘If dad sees that...!’

But his father was dead. His brain blown out by one of Vizsla’s thugs.

A voice called from the orchard behind the shingle roof ... that sweet voice... ‘Walk on, Jango!...’ he scolded himself. Why was everything taking so long? “Turn around, turn to me, Tomoe... Can you hear me?” but nothing came out of his mouth.

He walked on, following the voice that called the kids inside. Down the hill, crossing the plantation, then the orchard... would they wait for him?

Jango opened the garden door soundlessly. There she was, standing beside the fireside with the kids. And then the door opened - and in strode, as if he did that every day...

“Montross!” The mercenary didn’t give him as much as a look as he marched past him, grabbed Tomoe and crushed her against his armored chest. Then Montross bent her backwards and kissed his woman on the mouth with affectionate sounds. Jango pulled out his blaster and shot his long time enemy with an enraged grunt.

Now she finally turned to him, blood and gore splattered all over her white face, her eyes as unblinking as a ghost’s. “So what is different now?” she asked, and then turned to the screaming kids as if he was nothing but a shadow on the wall.

The scene faded.

‘Damn nightmares.’ Fett muttered and slammed his inner emotions down. ‘What exactly do you want?’ his mind bore into his heart and soul. ‘For her to be happy and safe,’ he tried to reason with himself, “with me.”

A part of him wanted to yell, “No... never mind, I was just mistaken, I love you, I want you near me forever!” That part of him so wanted her close in every way, but another part of him wanted her as far away from him as possible, so she could never be used against him or harmed by the enemies creeping up to him ...or cramped in the depths of his soul.

Even if he could defend her against their outside enemies, there was so much danger lurking inside of him. It had happened once, how could he keep himself from acting the same way again?

He realized he was afraid. That’s why he had to find out once he was out of these hellish confinements before he lost his mind...

Meanwhile, Kal sat in the OPs room with the Nulls and concentrated on the satellite images of the White Mountain Range which Ordo had snatched from an poorly encoded transmission between the orbital control and ground defense. They were not high-res, but showed sufficient details to stir alarm. “Somebody has been there before us!”

“Quite a fire power spent on one target.” Jaing commented. He despised imprecise spending of material and ammo.

“P for plenty.” Ordo agreed. One of the buildings forming a court nestled into the mountain ridge was blown apart, the rest more or less burned down.

“But where did she go? No news reports. No peak in police com in the area... unlike what your landing sparked off, Kal’buir. That caused quite a ruckus.” Mereel had been listening into the news stations.

“We need those police codes.” Ordo rarely repeated himself.

“Try another landing?” Prudii proposed.

“The Slave I won’t let us close and a TIV isn’t exactly unobtrusive.” Kal shook his head.

The door opened and Vau strode in, helmet under his arm and Mird on his heels. “Make that a project. Our transport platoons are terribly bored again, they need some realism...” The Nulls grounded the holographic presentation immediately, the blue and green charts vanishing into the projector with a whizz. “Safe it. I already know where Harada is hiding.”

Kal hated to be startled, especially by Old Psycho. “I know your realism. It tends to end up in bacta tanks.”

“Same with your sort of deals.” Vau retorted.

“Who would have thought he’d lose it like that? He’s been a professional all those years.” Skirata defended his tactics.

“Maybe that’s the problem. She’s been a professional at the other end of socialization. It could not work.”

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