Life at Yamanouchi
18 years later...
The pleasant mountain valley which surrounded Yamanouchi resembled a Japanese water painting; it was as if the ancient gods had taken a brush and colored in the landscape. Pristine and beautiful, the valley also held hidden dangers. Much like Yamanouchi, there were many secrets hidden within its confines. When Toshimaru carved out the school from the mountain stone, he knew there would be no better place in all of Japan for his followers and their descendants to practice their art in solitude. Make no mistake, Yamanouchi was as much a fortress as it was a school and any intruder who thought otherwise would be meeting his ancestors very soon.
For many years, Kozoburo Sensei had called this place home. Years ago, when he set out on a quest around the world, he always knew his spirit would take him back here. Yamanouchi was in his blood. Coming from a long line of ninjas, one of the oldest clans in Japanese history, Sensei was bred for the lifestyle since he was a child. Through years of struggle, practice and discipline, he eventually worked his way up to becoming the master of his clan. Now students from all ninja families sought his tutelage.
In ancient times, Yamanouchi was very selective in who was accepted, but over the years, thanks in no small part to Sensei, the school had started accepting pupils from non-ninja clans and eventually opened its doors to non-Japanese. The first foreigner to be accepted into the academy was a brilliant and very talented young man from Britain. While many traditionalists protested, the student turned out to be one of the finest in the school's history. Since then, the voices of discontent have quieted somewhat and Yamanouchi again accepted another foreigner; this time from America.
It seemed that Sensei was destined to pass on his knowledge to some of the finest warriors in the world and not all of his most promising came from outside the country. Two of his students in particular, were home-grown Japanese.
He recalled their first days at Yamanouchi with delight. It filled a teacher with pride seeing his charges come into their own. Soon they would graduate from the academy and continue their journey, either to a ninja university to further their training, or as a freelance ninja, offering their services to clients. While he had taught his students honor, ninjas by nature were warriors for hire, taking any and all sorts of jobs. They weren't nit-picky about who they worked for so long as they obtained funds to support themselves and their clan. Still, that did not mean they were devoid of standards. Sensei's instilled in his students with a strong sense of right and wrong.
If they did good in this world then he could pass on to the next life knowing he accomplished something. That would be his legacy.
Strolling through the manicured stone garden at the back of the school, Sensei valued its calm serenity when he needed a place to be alone and think. He was sitting down in a meditative stance when a messenger had arrived. "You may speak, my son."
The ninja, who was garbed all in black despite it being midday where he'd stand out like a fly in milk, was silent as he made his way toward his master. Kneeling behind him, the student produced a small cylinder encased with the seal of the Yamanouchi School. "Master," he spoke with his head bowed. "I have returned from Nagasaki. This message is marked urgent and is addressed to you personally."
Nagasaki? Yamanouchi had agents throughout the country but Sensei knew no one on a personal level who was from Nagasaki….unless.
Standing up, the master turned to the messenger. He took the outreached message cylinder. "Thank you, my son."
With that acknowledgment, the ninja moved with remarkable stealth, disappearing as silently as he had arrived. Sensei recalled that the young man had been one of his most prized students when he was attending Yamanouchi. He was pleased to see he had kept up with his training. That kind of dedication was rare in today's generation.
Sensei removed the lid and pulled out a piece of parchment. The smell of perfume was evident on the message, further indicating that Sensei's guess as to whom the identity of the sender was. Unfurling the parchment, Sensei read quietly to himself. His aged brows narrowed. Once he was done reading it, the wizened old master got back up. "This is most troubling," he said and then turned to leave the stone garden.
Yori was poetry in motion. She went through her katas like a dancer would her performance. There was no wasted movement, no exaggerated posing; each and every move she made was planned, coordinated and beautiful to watch.
Hirotaka enjoyed watching Yamanouchi's number one student, and his best friend, train while he observed. It seemed like the girl could get nothing wrong. Had they not been raised together since childhood, or have been very close since, he'd have very well been jealous of her skill. As it stood, Hirotaka, or Hiro as she playfully called him, had developed a friendly rivalry with Yori. They would often try to outdo each other both in their training and on missions. Yori usually won but Hirotaka had his fair share of victories as well. There were some things he did better than her too, such as annoy the hell out her while he ate an apple, munching loudly to throw off her concentration.
Of course Yori knew he was there long before he started eating. Hiro did not try to hide his approach. Each step he took was a warning that said, "Yori, I'm coming to bug you" so as to prepare herself. At times Hiro did try to sneak up on her. It was a favorite game of his and hers since they were children. One would get the drop on the other and surprise them. It helped keep them on their toes as well as polish up their ninja skills.
Yori was performing a complex pattern of katas that called for her to mimic moves from the Crane Style. A difficult art, the Crane called for practioners to use their enemy's strength against them, often overpowering them in the process. Her technique was near flawless, but that didn't stop Hirotaka from having his fun.
"Your balance is off," he teased. Munching loudly, Hirotaka stood on the outskirts of the training mat, well within sight of Yori but speaking as if she were on the other side of the dojo. Hirotaka was mimicking one of their teachers, a gruff man by the name of Kazuhiko-sama, who always spoke sternly to his pupils. Hiro would often make fun of the way he spoke and Yori would laugh. Of course should Kazuhiko-sama ever find out, the amount of chores and pushups they would have to do would take all the humor out of them for a few days.
"You call that a stance? This isn't ballet! Stop dragging your feet!"
Yori ignored him, though the curves of a smile slowly crept to her lips.
Hiro took another large bite out of the apple. "You are pitiful. I've never seen such a poor excuse for a ninja. Why if I had my way, girls wouldn't be allowed into Yamanouchi in the first place."
Yori continued with a near-perfect one-footed stance and held it there for several seconds. Imitating the crane, Yori spread her arms as one would spread its wings, centering her gravity within her gut and focusing only on maintaining this position.
"Ah, Daniel-san. You have much to learn." Hiro began to speak like Mister Miyagi. "You must flap your arms like this." He flapped his arms in an exaggerated gesture. "With luck you'll get yourself off the ground before the next sequel." He stood on one foot as well, bringing his hands together as if to pray. "Now repeat after me, Wax-on, Wax-off."
"Your attempts at distraction are pitiful and unimpressive, Hiro-chan." Yori still maintained her posture. "If you have nothing else better to do then I suggest you practice your own katas. Your form has been lacking of late."
Returning to his two feet, Hiro placed his hands on his hips. "Was that an attempt at a snap?" He asked.
"You catch on quick, grasshopper."
Laughing to himself, Hirotaka finished what remained of his apple leaving nothing but the crust. "Humor does not suit you. I can think of better ways for you to use that mouth of yours."
"Like reading me a bedtime story. You haven't done that for me in a long time."
Yori stretched out her leg, holding it as stiff as a board, she used her remaining leg to pivot until it was pointing at Hirotaka. "That was because you were sick and I felt sorry for you."
"So you do care about me."
"Only when you prove yourself useful."
He cocked an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Of course. Who else can I get to fold my clothes that way I like them?" Yori pivoted around, hiding her smirk.
"Is that all I am to you, your servant?"
"You didn't think we were friends did you?"
Feigning hurt, Hiro grabbed his chest. "You've cut me deep, Yori-chan."
"Humor does not suit you," She said as she brought her leg down and changed to another stance. "You know, Hiro-chan, if you spent as much time training as you did pestering me, you might actually be the best student in the school." Yori hit him where it hurt. She knew it bothered him that she was Sensei's number one ninja. The fact that she was a girl added insult to injury. Hirotaka was kind but like most Japanese men he felt this was a man's country and that Yori should be subservient to him. If there's one thing foreign influences have taught Japanese women, it's to tell their men where to put it.
"Hmph." Hiro looked down at the crust of the apple. "So you think you're the best, do you?"
"Sensei-sama seems to think so."
"While I have nothing but respect for our master, I think he goes easy on you."
"Afterall, you are like a daughter to him. He is very protective of you."
"Does that bother you?" She asked, switching over to a new stance which required her to outstretch her arms like an eagle about to swoop in on its prey.
"No. But it makes me wonder if you are good as you think you are. You seem to get all the easy assignments."
"I hardly call sneaking into a military prison easy, Hiro-chan."
"He often took care of you when you were sick," Hirotaka went on, "and would take walks with you in the valley. I'm starting to believe you are nothing but a….how do you say….teacher's pet?"
"This pet has claws, Hiro-chan, in case you have forgotten."
"Is that a challenge then?"
Yori finished her last kata and turned to face him. "I have more pressing matters to attend. None, I'm afraid, involve entertaining some jealous brat."
Hirotaka smiled. "I see." He tossed the apple crust at Yori who caught it easily. It was in that split second as the crust was flying through the air that Hirotaka attacked. No sooner did Yori catch it when his face appeared mere inches from her own, accompanied by a striking palm.
Her speed was incredible. Yori ducked under the attack, grabbed his arm, and used a judo throw which sent Hiro spiraling toward the mat. He rolled on the floor, coming up as easily as an acrobat. "Is that the best you've got?" A big smile creased his face as he got into a fighting stance. "Number one?"
Yori smiled back. "Of course not, number two." She got into a Crane fighting stance, arms to either side, palms in and one leg leaning forward.
Hirotaka reared back into Tiger Style, his fingers arched into the claws of the feared beast. With a playful snarl, Hiro began the match. With a series of assaults too fast for the normal eye to catch, Hiro lashed out with his hands, cutting the air with his lethal fingers. Yori danced around his attack, her feet swaying quietly on the mat and her body bending and swaying with each strike.
The Tiger Style relied on a blithering offensive strategy to overwhelm one's opponent. In contrast, Yori's Crane relied more on defense. They were a sharp contrast but ones that fitted each ninja perfectly. Hirotaka was strong and powerful, his arms firing in rapid succession like bullets. Yori was graceful whose delicate steps carried an inner strength. Like a bird taken flight, she was as untouchable as the wind.
"Are you going to dodge me all day?" Hirotaka asked.
"I am trying to decide whether or not you are worth the effort," Yori shot back.
"Such arrogance," Hiro came at her with a double-back paw strike. "Have you retained none of our master's lessons?"
"I've learned this. Hi-ya!" With a fierce battlecry, Yori went on the offensive. Her kicks forced him backward and she proceeded to sweep his feet from under him. Having expected this, Hirotaka flipped over and behind her, then fired a back kick which Yori caught when she turned around. She tried to throw him off balance but Hiro was no novice to the Crane style either and used Yori as leverage to back flip in the air, coming to a neat kneeling position before her.
Bringing his hand to his chin, Hiro casually stroked it. "Not bad. Definite room for improvement but adequate nonetheless."
"I will show you adequate, Hiro-chan." Yori was smiling as she continued the assault. This time she fell into the sensuous style of the Snake, keeping low and using her hand in the form of a striking viper. She was much faster than Hirotaka, and her hand stabs were a blur to the naked eye.
Hiro switched over to the Mantis Style.
"Serpents eat insects, Hiro-chan," Yori said as she moved in for the kill.
"Oh but I'm a very clever insect." Hiro's defensive strategy managed to keep her at bay while he prepared for his next move. With a dazzling display of technique, he parried her every blow and suddenly went on the attack. His cries filled the dojo with Yori's countering and anyone who could see them would be simply astonished at the speed that they were going. Their white training gi were like blurs on the red mat. As the match continued, the two performed even more acrobatic feats which called for great leaps into the air, covering large distances in a split second, and parrying one another's moves with such fluidity that one would think this was a movie being shot.
Faster and more intense their heated duel became. It was hard to believe that they were only playfully sparring. To Yamanouchi's two best students, this was all in good fun.
After a quick leap backward, Yori threw the apple crust Hiro had used to distract her at the beginning of their match. Hiro caught it and was expecting an assault of some kind but none followed. Instead, Yori glared at him from across the dojo and her eyes spoke volumes. She charged at him full-speed. Hiro mimicked her attack pattern; the two leaped and extended their legs in mid-air in pure Wushu fashion. There didn't seem to be any contact, and both combatants landed unharmed on opposite sides of the mat.
Looking back, Hirotaka carefully watched Yori.
Yori in turn looked at him. "That was fun."
She spoke as if the match were already over and Hiro was more than prepared to continue it. He had yet to break a sweat and was fully prepared to take Yori down a notch. Then he felt something crumble in his hand. Looking down, he saw the apple crust was split in half. Yori's Scorpion Palm technique was so flawless that he hadn't even seen her use it.
Sighing aloud, Hirotaka admitted his defeat, in pure macho fashion. "Too bad; the sun was in my eye."
"Why don't you just admit I beat you, Hiro-chan?"
"Because I don't want to."
"You are a, how do you say, sore loser."
"There is no shame in losing to a better opponent."
"Even when that opponent is a girl?"
"I was going to see brat but have it your way." Hirotaka stretched out his neck muscles. "One of these days I will beat you fair and square, Yori-chan."
"You really think so?"
"Even monkeys fall from trees," he quoted a Japanese proverb.
Smiling to herself, Yori clasped her hands together and bowed. "Thank you for the exercise, Hiro-chan."
Hirotaka did the same. "And to you, Yori-chan."
Despite their playful rivalry, in the end the two were the best of friends. They enjoyed spending time together.
"I have chores I must attend to," Hiro said as he headed for the exit. "Perhaps later you can show me how you accomplished that Scorpion Palm technique without my knowing. Say after supper?"
"It would be my honor."
Always willing to teach, to learn, to admit when she was wrong and to remain humble. That's why she is the best, Hiro thought. Waving goodbye, Hirotaka left Yori to the dojo where she returned to her training. Just a few steps outside and he noticed Sensei walking up to him. "Master." Hirotaka bowed.
"Good day to you, my son." Sensei placed a warm hand on his shoulder. In truth, he viewed all of his students as his children though Hirotaka was a special case. Hirotaka comes from an ancient clan of ninjas with certain ties to Sensei's. Centuries ago, some of their ancestors married which meant they shared a common heritage. Sensei was more of an uncle to Hirotaka in that respect but he always saw him as a son rather than a distant relative. Theirs was a relationship that went beyond lineage.
"I trust you were giving Yori a hard time as usual?"
"Someone has to keep her in line, master." Hiro could not help but smile. "But yes. We had the most wonderful exchange of witty retorts. I believe though that's one skill I'm still better at than she is."
"If ninjas were meant to be comedians, Hirotaka, then you'd be our number one student."
"Thank you, master."
"As it is, however, I came to speak with Yori. Is she still in the dojo?"
"I just came from there. She's training as we speak."
"Good. Forgive me from keeping you from your duties."
"It is always a pleasure to speak with you, Master Sensei." Hirotaka bowed.
Sensei watched him leave before turning to the dojo. While he always looked forward to seeing Yori, this was one meeting he was not looking forward to.
Yori had decided to practice her meditations when Hiro left. A sharp mind was as important as a strong body and she spent as much time expanding her consciousness as she did perfecting her fighting skills. Like a leaf in a pond, Yori was the center of tranquility, floating on the silent pool of her mind; she felt every movement on the pond, from the slightest breeze to the rustle of the trees. She could sense students walking by the dojo. The little cat, Neko, who had become the lunch lady's pet and the school's adoptive mascot, was casually strolling by looking for something to amuse her. Two birds sang in the nearby Sakura tree and not far away a couple of male students burst into laughter.
She sensed Sensei's approach before he even spoke to her. She smiled. In spite of the strict boundaries between teacher and pupil, she felt closer to him than she did anyone. He had raised her since she was a baby, taking care of Yori like she was his own daughter. Perhaps that was what Hiro meant during their match. Yori knew that Sensei gave her no special treatment and raised her like he would any of his students. However, she did have some sort of privileged status in that he always took a personal interest in her. Such a thing could lead to jealousy among her peers.
Such emotion was beyond a trained ninja; or was it? Fukushima, the traitor who helped Monkey Fist steal the Lotus Blade and trap her and Stoppable-san in a cage over a boiling pit, was one of the school's best students. His discontent at allowing an outsider, a gaijin, into their ranks had turned him over to the dark side. He betrayed Yamanouchi, had nearly killed fellow students, and joined forces with a maniacal madman all for the sake of gaining entrance to one of the top ninja universities.
Yori had always sensed a dark presence about Fukushima, but in her worst contemplations had never dared to venture the prospect of him betraying the school. How could he let his emotions get the better of him like that? Perhaps, she thought, ninjas were not as indomitable as they believed themselves to be. Sensei taught that no one, ninja or no, was immune to temptation and that if one was not careful could wind up traveling down a dark path from which there is little hope of escape. Fukushima had fallen into that path. Could Hirotaka? Could she?
"Kim and I are dating."
"Yori," Sensei began. "May I speak with you a moment?"
Opening her eyes, the kunoichi immediately stood up and bowed. "It is an honor to see you, Master Sensei."
"As it is you, my child." He motioned for her to follow him outside the dojo where there was a beautiful bridge suspended over a pond. At the center of the bridge, Sensei gazed out into the pond. Sensing he was troubled but keeping her mouth shut, Yori waiting patiently for him to speak as he was her teacher. With her head slightly bowed and her hands folded above her waist, Yori too looked out at the pond though was standing a respectable distance from Sensei.
"I've received a message," Sensei began, always to the point, "from a woman who happens to be an acquaintance of your father."
Yori regarded him. "My father?"
"Her name is Kimiko." It had been many years since Sensei had heard that name let alone said it. The last image he could recall was of a young woman, very young, with fire in her eyes and the look of determination he could not help but respect. Still, that had been a very long time ago. She was a woman now. The gods know how much she had changed.
"She used to be a close friend of your family. When your father and I last parted ways she went with him. We've managed to keep contact now and then through messages delivered via our own secret network. But five years ago, the messages stopped. I sent our best trackers to find out what happened but it was as if they had vanished from the earth. Until now."
Holding up the scroll he received from the messenger, Sensei held it up for Kimiko to see. "This was sent from Kimiko in Nagasaki. Apparently she needs our help."
The name Kimiko meant nothing to Yori, but mention of her father opened up a door she kept closed for many years. "Is it….my father?"
"He has gone missing."
Missing? Yori's father had been missing from her life for as far back as she remember. That void had been filled by Master Sensei who took up the mantle of father figure while she was growing up. Like any adopted child, Yori was curious as to who her real parents were. It was a delicate subject that Sensei had never elaborated on. He had told her that she had been given to him by her father to be taken care of while he was away. The red headband, which Yori always had in her hair, was a memento from her late mother. She had inquired once or twice as to how her mother died but Sensei said that it was not his place to elaborate on such things.
"Yori," Sensei called her attention to him. "Kimiko has asked for you personally. She wants to meet with you."
"Master Sensei, I do not understand. All these years we've rarely spoken of my family and when we did you always remained….cryptic." She didn't want to sound critical. "Now this woman from my past who I don't even know suddenly sends a message saying that she wants to see me about my missing father? I….I don't know what to say."
"Yori," Sensei's voice became solemn. "I knew the day would come where you would have to face your past. It can be difficult. Believe me, I know better than most." He stared intently into the pond. "When I agreed to take care of you and raise you at Yamanouchi, I made a promise to your father to keep you safe. Since then I've seen you grow and mature into the ninja you are today. No. Into the woman you are today. Any man would be proud to call you his daughter." It was strange but it seemed a hint of emotion had crept into Sensei's voice. It seemed that even his discipline could waver under his own heart.
"But in addition to your ninja skills, I have always tried to prepare you for this moment. You are a young woman now, Yori. Confidant and sure of yourself. I can no longer shelter you from the outside world. True you have already accomplished much in your time here, but it's time for you to leave the nest, as it were, and find your place in the world."
"But I will be graduating anyway. The ceremony is in a few months,"
She stopped when Sensei chuckled. "The ceremony is just for show. No manner of pretty speeches and confidence-inducing words can prepare you for the greater challenges of life. Some of the wisest people I have ever met had never completed their education. I myself have learned my greatest lessons outside these walls. I've traveled to many lands and learned that beauty and wisdom are not limited to a single culture or country."
Bowing her head. "Forgive me, master, but what does this have to do with my father and this Kimiko woman?"
"It means that you will be taking your final steps into becoming a full-fledged ninja. I believe you should meet with Kimiko and hear what she has to say. This will be your own personal journey, Yori, not an assignment from the school. I will not command you to do it; it will be your choice entirely." He turned to her. "I know this may seem daunting, but it is the only way you will find who you are and in doing so find true inner peace."
Emotions warred within her, but Yori managed to keep a stoic face. She did, however, look away from Sensei. All her life she had wondered what became of her parents. Now she had the chance to discover what happened firsthand. The question is was she ready? In her time at Yamanouchi she had trained for every sort of scenario imaginable except this one. What she would find when she faced this Kimiko she did not know, and that frightened her.
Sensing his student's distress, Sensei placed a hand on her shoulder. "You do not need to make a decision now. Think on it. Come to my chambers after supper to let me know what you have decided. Whatever it is, you will have my full support." He then left the bridge to let her be by herself.
Yori did not know if she could make a decision within a few days let alone a few hours. Kimiko sounded urgent which means she could not delay for long. This woman has requested her specifically and in the ninja tradition it was considered dishonorable to turn her down. Master Sensei had given her a choice on the matter. He'd given her the choice. By doing so he had defied tradition. He was giving her special treatment. Hirotaka's words lingered in the back of her mind and for the first time that day she couldn't help but wonder if he was right.
When he had completed his chores, Hirotaka arrived at the school cafeteria for dinner. Strangely enough, Yori was not among those present. She was known on occasion to skip meals in favor of training, a fact which even Sensei confronted her with stating that no amount of training can fight back the powerful enemy that was hunger; all humans must eat. Hirotaka had never seen anyone so dedicated to her craft, so much so that he began to wonder if Yori had been destined to be anything other than a ninja.
Once he had finished eating, he set about the task of finding her. Earlier today she had promised to teach him the intricacies of the Scorpion Palm technique. He didn't think Yori would stand him up, but after a prolonged waiting period he began to get a little concerned. Yori never kept him waiting this long before. Had she gone on a mission? It can't be. Even then she wouldn't leave without telling him knowing they had promised to meet later on. Yori wasn't the type to have others deliver messages. If something came up and she couldn't keep to the agreement, she would come tell you herself.
All the students had finished eating by the time Hirotaka decided on finding the whereabouts of his missing friend. He began to ask around, speaking to students, teachers and staff members if they had seen her, but all of them shook their heads. Seeing as it was curfew, there is no way she would be off school grounds. The only other place he could think of was her room so that was his very next stop.
With all the other students doing chores or training, the dormitory was empty save for the school janitor, a man who had been here almost as long as Sensei. In the school hierarchy, Hiro outranked the janitor and therefore did not need to acknowledge his presence, but he was a wizened old man and had gained Sensei's respect and friendship. When the time came for him to pass the janitor, Hiro bowed his head, making sure to leave his shoes outside as was custom. The janitor did the same and made way for Hiro to pass. Hirotaka thanked him. No matter how high up in the social ranking the ninja was, experience was still prevalent when it came to showing respect.
He found light coming from Yori's room. Daylight was almost gone so it was easy to spot in the darkened hall. Unlike the dojo, Hiro approached quietly, not because he wanted to surprise Yori but because his curiosity got the better of him. He waited, attuning his ears to catch any sound. He could make out Yori's breathing, but other than that the room was completely silent. But even then he could sense she was troubled by something so he cleared his throat before speaking aloud. "Yori-chan?"
He could hear her shuffling feet and the sound of approaching footsteps. The door slid open. "Hirotaka?" Her eyes widened. "Oh! I was supposed to meet you for a demonstration. I am so sorry."
"Don't trouble yourself." Though it may be too late for that. "Are you well?"
"Yes, I'm…." She stopped. Then her head dropped, sadness overcoming them. "No. I am not."
"What is it?"
"It is a personal matter."
She need not say more. While Hirotaka and Yori had always helped one another in the past, they knew when to respect the other's privacy. Still, there were times when Hiro wished that he and she were more open to one another. In this aspect he truly admired Stoppable-san and his mate. They told each other everything and there were no secrets kept between them. Perhaps being ninjas for so long made them forget what it means to trust others with your secrets. If Yori did not want to tell him then he would not force her, but that did not mean he had to like it.
"I see. Well if you need anything I will always be here to help." Hirotaka turned to leave. Only two steps away when Yori called for him to stop.
He paused to look back at her. "Yes?"
She was hesitant at first but finally managed to look him in the eye. "I'm sorry." Stepping out into the hall. "Please come inside."
Hiro did just that. He'd been in Yori's room before and noticed without judgment how little it changed. A blue futon was rolled against the wall where she would pull it out to sleep. On the left was her closet which he noticed was open and a few of its contents were removed. Yori had extra uniforms, a small box containing bathroom necessities, a few towels, a pair of slippers, and a hamper to store her dirty clothes. Weapons were not allowed in the student dorms, though they were allowed to keep non-lethal items such as batons which Yori had fastened to the far wall in case of emergencies. Like every other room, the walls were colored white with a brown wooden floor. Yori kept her room spotless and Hirotaka could make out his image in the polished surface of the wood.
The light was coming from a lamp which Yori had placed in the center of the room. She'd been meditating before he arrived. Yori stepped in after him and closed the door. She walked by Hiro and knelt down cross-legged on the floor. Hirotaka joined her and waited for Yori to speak. She had her eyes closed as if to finish her meditations but Hiro knew she was gathering the courage to speak.
"I've been offered an assignment in Nagasaki."
Offered and not given. Hiro recognized the significance immediately. Ninjas do not choose their assignments. Theirs was a world built around a strict hierarchy of rules and a code of conduct. They do what they are told to do, go where they are ordered. Already Hirotaka could sense Sensei's hand in this.
"Is it dangerous?" Hiro asked.
"It's to gather information."
"Doesn't sound dangerous."
Yori looked at him.
"Forgive me. I did not meant to sound condescending."
Looking away, Yori asked. "Hiro-chan, how much do you know about your family?"
"My family?" He repeated. "But you already know all about my family. They're one of the oldest ninja clans in Japan. You've even met my parents once when they came for a visit." Hiro stared intently at her. "Does this have something to do with me?"
Shaking her head. "No, Hirotaka. Believe it or not my world does not revolve around you."
Both loved to kid around but Yori's tone suggested that that comment was not meant as a joke. If anything, she appeared to turn agitated.
"I'm just curious as to why you would ask. I thought that," he stopped when he saw a darkness overcome her face. It could have just been a trick of the lantern and the firelight, but it was enough to send a shiver down Hiro's spine. It passed quickly and he recovered his voice. "I will let you speak from now on. Please, tell me what is bothering you."
The edge in her voice disappeared and Yori was normal again. "The message is from a woman named Kimiko," she said. "She knew my father."
"Knew?" Hiro sucked in his breath. Didn't he just promise to keep his mouth shut? "I'm sorry."
But Yori didn't seem to notice. "Sensei told me that Kimiko accompanied my father…." Yori told Hirotaka all that had been relayed to her by Sensei while he just listened. When she finished, Yori's eyes stared into Hirotaka's, the firelight gleamed off her dark orbs as if hinting of the heated struggle within. "I'm trying to decide whether or not to take up this task. Tell me, Hiro-chan, what would you do?"
Now that he could speak, Hiro told her the only thing he could have. "As the Americans say, 'go for it.'"
Not the kind of reply she was expecting, her beautiful face turned into a bewildered scowl. "Go for it?"
"A family is the very basis on which society is built upon. Without it, we are but leaves in the wind; scattered and aimless and pulled by forces beyond our control. Family is the root which holds us to the ground, allowing us to grow and develop and eventually blossom. Yamanouchi may have given you a structure from which to grow on but it is not your roots. This woman, Kimiko, is giving you a chance to find those roots. You ask what I would do. I would pick up my things, tighten my belt, and make way for Nagasaki with all haste. Nothing would stop me from finding the family I left behind."
Yori's face did not change.
Feeling himself turning red, Hirotaka shuffled uncomfortably under her gaze. "Er….if it were me, that is. I don't pretend to tell you how to….why are you looking at me like that?"
"You sound like Sensei."
Then she smiled. "I do not believe it. That has to be the most profound thing I have ever heard you say. Hiro-chan, the Philosopher."
Hiro-chan pouted. "You don't have to mock me."
"To the contrary, your words have helped me uncloud my thoughts. Now I can think more clearly." She turned serious and looked into the lantern. "It's just that….I wonder how far my roots have been removed that they may ever be planted again."
Studying Yori and hearing her words, Hiro began to formulate what was bothering her. "You are afraid."
Her eyes shot up, Hirotaka knew he hit the proverbial nail on the head.
"Of what you'll find?"
"Yes." It took her a moment to admit it but when she did she actually felt like a weight had been removed from her shoulder. Until that moment, she didn't realize that meeting her father could be the hardest thing she'd ever done in her life. This had been the man who left her for some unknown reason; a reason known only by Sensei and he wasn't talking. To receive the truth from a stranger's mouth instead of the teacher she'd known her entire life just seemed wrong. What is it about her father that Sensei would not reveal to her? What had he done? Was he a bad man?
But there was something else.
Fingering her headband, Yori took it off so as to look at it. "This was my mother's," she went on. "Master Sensei told me I look just like she did when she was my age. Our teacher knew both my parents and spoke very highly of them; that is, only what he was willing to tell me." The band was so delicate in her hands, yet it felt as if it weighed significantly more than its size would suggest. It was the emotional weight that it carried. She had worn it in memoriam for her deceased mother. It was the only connection to a past she didn't know. Looking on it now, Yori noticed how much it resembled a collar. It was a chain and someone was pulling her back in. This little hair ornament, blood red like the blood of the woman who died giving her life, was so much more. "I keep telling myself there must be a good reason. Sensei has never done anything that would harm me. If he trusts this Kimiko then who am I to question his judgment?" She looked at Hirotaka. "Does it make sense?"
"I'm not one to question our master's wisdom. What concerns me is how will you feel once Kimiko tells you what she knows? It may not be something you'll like."
"I have considered that option." She said. "Then again, never knowing the truth may be more disastrous still."
"Then you are going?"
She examined the headband a moment longer before putting it back on her head. "Time to find how deep my roots go."
"I have faith your success, Yori-chan."
"Thank you, Hirotaka." Placing her hands on the floor, she bowed her head low. "You are a true friend."
Hirotaka bowed. "Always."
Sensei was meditating in his chambers when he felt Yori approach. "Enter."
Her head low, Yori respectfully approached her master. "Master Sensei, I have made my decision."
"Oh?" He spoke with a knowing undertone.
"With your permission, I would like to set out for Nagasaki immediately."
"So soon?" Sensei turned to her. "Why not wait to morning?"
"Kimiko was urgent in her letter. This cannot wait. Sensei," She bowed lower, fearing she may have overstepped her boundaries with her imperative tone. "Please, master."
"I told you before, Yori, that this was your decision to make. If it is your desire to leave tonight then so be it. Just make sure you take the right precautions leaving Yamanouchi."
"I will. Thank you, Master Sensei."
"Yori," she was already on her way out when Sensei called her. "Kimiko is a good woman. I've no doubt she will assist you in any way possible. But be careful. While I have utmost trust in her intentions, I fear she is not the same woman I had met all those years ago. The world she plunged into is a dark one and may have hardened her soul. Do try to understand her and be not so quick to judge."
"I understand." Yori left and Sensei was left thinking on his own words. He began to stroke his thing, white beard. "Yes, Kimiko. I wonder how much you have changed."
In just half an hour, Yori made all the preparations she would need for the journey. She changed into her casual clothes, a sleeveless blue blouse with the puffed-up shoulders, a navy-blue skirt with red stripes down and across, and black stockings and shoes. In a small bag she carried a change of clothes, underwear, toiletries, and her ninja gi. As the school turned in for the night, Yori stealthily made her way across the school grounds. It never ceased to amaze her how peaceful Yamanouchi was at night. The zacatas were out singing their nocturnal lullabies. The chanting was hypnotic and always put her to sleep. Now was not the time for that, however, so Yori bade the singing insects sayonara and proceeded towards the exit.
Master Sensei was waiting for her there. "Do you have everything you need, Yori?"
"I do." She bowed. "I am off."
"Safe journey, my child. Whatever happens I know you will be successful."
"Thank you, Master Sensei."
"Thank you, Yori. Watching you grow up has been a great privilege."
Yori wanted to wrap her arms around the man and give him a hug. She'd left Yamanouchi many times before and traveled to places on the other side of the world; yet this time felt different. This goodbye felt important, as if Yori was leaving something precious behind her. Could it be her innocence? Her youth? Whatever it was, Yori would miss it.
Standing tall, Yori wore the face of determination as she bade farewell to her master. "Well then – until I return."
"Indeed." Sensei watched her make for the bridge.
"Don't you mean we return?" Hirotaka morphed out of the shadows of the main gate, seemingly to appear before her eyes. He was wearing his red blazer, black shirt, and gray pants with black boots and black gloves. Appearing more like a biker than a ninja, Hirotaka had a large duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
"I asked Master Sensei if he would allow me to accompany you on this mission. He saw no reason to deny my request so here I am." Pulling up his duffel. "Ready?"
She glared at him. "Do you not think it would have been more practical to ask me first?"
"I knew you wouldn't mind. Besides, some has got to take care of you. Trouble follows you around like a sick puppy, Yori."
Behind her, Sensei chuckled.
Yori growled. "This is because of the Scorpion Palm I used on you during the dojo isn't it?"
"Yes. Yes it is. Shall we?"
Turning to Sensei to protest, the aged master raised his hand. "Listen to me, Yori. I have learned from experience that the greatest battle you will have to face will be alone, but the journey there and back again is best when accompanied by a friend. Think of all the great stories you'll have to share when you're old like me. Those memories will be timeless."
Seeing as she wasn't getting out of this, Yori had no choice but to smile. It would be nice to have company along. Especially if that company was Hirotaka. "You are right, Master Sensei." She turned to Hirotaka. "Besides, I need someone to fold my clothes the way I like them."
"I will say this again: humor does not suit you."
The two ninjas walked side by side down the bridge and to the opposing mountain. Sensei waited until they were out of sight before he regarded the stars. "Look after them, Yuriko. They are as close as siblings and will rely on each other much in the trials ahead." His eyes fell back to the bridge. "Speaking of which, I wonder if it's best that I never told her about her brothers."