by Andrew Huang
Homepage: A Leaf in Winter
Rimururu groaned, putting a hand to her head. What just happened?
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She sat bolt upright, which proved to be a mistake, as stars burst
across her field of vision. A moment, then another passed while she
wobbled, trying not to fall back over, and she was able to see once more.
"Sh...Shizu? Shizumaru?" she called out, weakly.
Standing up was not an option, Rimururu decided, as she felt the dull,
throbbing pain in her right ankle. So instead, she twisted around in her
seated position, trying to spy out an umbrella, a tasseled sword, a head
of red hair.... "Shizu!"
Rimururu breathed a sigh of relief, seeing her companion crouched over a
burly, black-clad form. With some difficulty, she crawled over to him.
"Shizu...oh, you're okay...right? Shizu, answer me!"
Shizumaru had not responded to her at all. When she finally reached his
side and tenatively touched his arm, though, he finally turned toward her.
She recoiled at the look on his face.
"Rimururu...I...yes, I am fine." But he clearly wasn't. "What about
"Um...I hurt all over. Especially my ankle." A gesture toward named body
part. "But I think I'm okay. Shizu, are you sure--"
"Zankuro is defeated," he pronounced, interrupting her. "I...have
confronted the demon, challenged him, and won." As he was now looking at
Zankuro again, he did not see her shuddering at the absolute lifelessness
of his voice. "We...you can go home, now."
"Home? We can...yeah, I guess...." She tried to stand up, but yelped in
This finally brought out a reaction from Shizumaru. His eyes flashed
with concern, and he placed a hand on her shoulder. "Wait. I can carry you
on my back. It is not far to Kamui Kotan, right?"
She ached to hurl herself forward, hold him in his arms tightly, ask him
what was wrong, why was he so sad? but she merely nodded her head. "I
recognize this place, yeah...it's only a couple of miles, I think."
He quickly took his sword from his back, sticking it through the sash
that held his tunic closed, then turned around and gestured. "Wrap your
arms around my shoulders, and I will hold your legs up."
She nodded, and did so. "But Shizu, what are we going to do about...
He stood up straight, hooking his hands beneath her knees, without any
trouble. One held his umbrella, which looked more battered than usual. "Do
not worry about him now." And he started walking.
Nothing more seemed to be forthcoming, and Rimururu sighed. "...take
that road, go straight until it forks beneath a great pine tree. Go on the
right, and that'll take us to Kamui Kotan."
He nodded silently. Rimururu laid her head against his neck, and with
the gentle rhythm of his steps, exhaustion quickly overtook her, and she
was asleep in seconds.
Once more, Rimururu groaned softly, and her eyelids fluttered open. Her
hands were pinned beneath a rather heavy blanket, though, and she had to
push it off to rub her eyes.
This time, she carefully pushed herself upright, and blearily looked
around. Then she blinked. Her old room, in her family's cabin.
Home. She was home. "Sister? Grandmother--Grandfather?"
Steps could be heard, suddenly, and they came closer until stopping in
front of her door, which now opened. "Rimururu! You're awake, good...."
She smiled broadly. "Sister! I--ow!" Again she tried to rise to her
feet, to be stopped by her sore ankle. Nakoruru was quickly by her side,
gently pushing her back down.
"It's badly sprained, so don't try to put any weight on it." The older
girl then smiled and hugged Rimururu, but gently, mindful of the bruises.
"It's so good to see you home again, Rimururu! We've been so worried.
Grandmother and Grandfather went to the neighboring village, so I sent
Mamahaha to deliver a message that you've returned--they'll be back
Rimururu giggled and hugged her sister back. "I'm glad to be home,
finally...we've been through a lot." She paused. "Hey! Where's Shizumaru?"
Nakoruru let go and sat back, nodding. "I was wondering why a young boy
was carrying you, unconscious, into Kamui Kotan on his back," she said, a
little gravely. "That gave us a good scare, I can tell you that." Then she
smiled, before continuing. "But he was very polite and careful with you."
"Where is he? I, I'm worried about him...."
"Your friend is out in the back. I got the feeling from him that he
wanted to leave, for some reason, without even saying goodbye to you."
Nako frowned slightly. "He was almost _too_ polite, somehow. And very...
"Did he tell you what happened?"
A shake of the head. "Nothing beyond that you two fought a demon just
before arriving." Another pause, then an even stare.
"...what is it, Sister?" Rimururu fought to keep the blush off her face.
"Mmm...no, never mind. Here, let me help you up. He asked to see you
once you woke up."
Rimururu nodded and stood up, with assistance from her sister.
They found him sitting slumped with his back toward a tall tree, in the
waning light of the late afternoon. Rimururu frowned at the position of
the sun in the sky--it had been early morning when they'd fought
Zankuro; did she sleep through all that time?
"Shizumaru-san," called Nakoruru, who was supporting Rimururu from the
side. "I've brought Rimururu."
With almost deliberate slowness, he raised his head and opened his eyes.
Rimururu shuddered slightly; the bleakness remained on his face. It did
lighten a little bit, though, and he smiled faintly.
"Oh...good, you are awake." He climbed to his feet, moving a bit
stiffly. Had he been sitting out here the entire day? Rimururu wriggled
out of her sister's grasp and hopped forward on her good leg toward
Shizumaru and threw her arms around him. This elicited a raised eyebrow
from Nakoruru and a slightly surprised look from Shizumaru, but she saw
"Shizuuuu..." she mumbled, pressing her face into his shoulder.
He seemed to be at a loss for words, and cautiously placed his arms
around her. "Ah...I am all right, Rimururu. Were you worried about me? I
There was a soft cough behind her, and Rimururu suddenly sprang away--or
tried to as well as she could, given her injured ankle. She still gripped
his arm for support, though. "Oh! Shizumaru, this is my sister, Nakoruru.
Well, I guess you already met her, but I have to make introductions
"Yes, we already met and spoke a little bit, Rimu-chan," said Nakoruru,
sounding faintly amused. "He told us about how you met a little while ago,
and have been seeking out Amakusa and a demon together for the past
months. You must have become good friends with all that travelling."
"...yes," said Shizumaru, sounding slightly dazed. Rimururu blinked, and
turned around. Was that an edge in Sister's voice, just now?
"And, of course, what happened just before you arrived," continued Nako.
Rimururu blinked. "Oh! Yeah--Shizu, what happened after I, um, got
knocked out? The next thing I knew, the demon--uh, you called him
Zankuro? Zankuro was...dead." She sobered at that sudden realization.
He did not answer immediately; rather, he bowed his head low for a few
seconds in silence. "...we fought some more. I...no, I do not remember how
exactly I managed to do it, but I finally struck a critical blow, and...."
Shizumaru shook his head. "It is over. That is all."
Rimu frowned, knowing that this wasn't all, and she gave her sister an
inquisitive look. Nakoruru only shook her head, indicating that she knew
nothing further. "Oh...um...well--oh! It's almost dinnertime, right?
Sister, we should make something special for Shizumaru--I'll help!"
Nakoruru laughed softly. "No, no, that's all right. You need to stay off
that ankle; I'm already partway through making dinner, so I can finish it
up pretty soon. Shizumaru-san, please remain with us for dinner, at least.
You've brought my little sister home safely, and our household owes you a
debt." She smiled, and bowed to him.
"I...thank you for your hospitality," said Shizumaru, just a bit
uncertainly, and bowed back. Without further ado, Nakoruru turned and
walked back to the cabin, to resume making the evening meal.
Rimururu sighed, and leaned against Shizumaru heavily. "Wow...I'm
finally home," she murmured, then turned and again buried her face in
Shizumaru's shoulder, holding him tightly.
"Rimururu...is something wrong?"
"You tell me, Shizu," she answered, slightly muffled. "You keep on
saying that you're okay, and that you've beaten Zankuro, but I can tell
there's something bothering you." She looked up into his deep red eyes, a
bit sadly. "Won't you tell me? Please?"
He was silent again; she knew that look on his face--he was turning his
thoughts over in his mind, slowly, thoroughly. "Come, sit." He gently
helped her down to the ground, and sat next to her, still beneath the
shade of the tree. He opened his mouth, closed it, and sighed.
Rimururu reached out and placed her hand on his arm, but said
nothing--only looked at him reassuringly, and nodded.
"He was my father," he blurted out, suddenly.
Silence reigned supreme for the next several seconds.
"Wha, what? What do you mean? Your father?" Rimururu finally managed.
The reassuring expression, which had frozen on her face, slowly gave way
to consternation. "I mean...um...."
"He told me, as he lay there dying," he answered, softly. "I could not
believe it at first, either...but it made sense. Why I was the only one he
spared in my village. Why I have always felt his presence on the edge of
my mind. Why...in the end...I was the only one who could defeat him." He
drew his legs up close to his chest, and in so doing, drew away from
She was still astounded. "Oh my gosh...Shizumaru...."
"And he told me why. He said, our family was starving. Him, my mother,
myself. So he used his skill with the sword to earn rice for our table.
But he lost himself in the sword...he became possessed, became the demon.
He went mad, and destroyed the village, and not even my mother could shake
him from his frenzy.
"But my cries stopped him, finally, he told me. He let me live, and
vanished, back into his madness. He said, he could feel my presence, just
like I could feel his, and tried to stay away from me. That is why it had
been so hard for me to find him. And now...."
Rimururu stared at him, then reached a hand out toward him, tenatively.
She touched his arm again, but he gave no response--neither drawing away,
nor looking at her. "Shizu...I don't know what to say...."
"I did have family. But my father killed my mother, and now I have
killed my father," he said, dully. "And if my father was the demon,
"You think there's a demon in you?" whispered Rimururu.
She gazed at him, through a rising wave of tears. He looked absolutely
stricken, completely lost, and what had happened to him was not something
she could really quite adequately comprehend. Her parents had died years
ago, when she and her sister were young, but at least she had remembered
them, and it had been disease that killed them, not...herself.
At a loss. She didn't know what to do at all. But she would try.
"Shizumaru...what are you feeling right now?"
"...I do not know...."
Rimururu wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, then shuffled forward
on her knees, moving up to his side, and timidly placed her arms around
his shoulders, in a questioning hug. "I'm sorry, Shizu. I don't know what
to say. I can't even imagine what you're going through right now."
No answer from him.
"But...Shizu...Sister said that she thought that you wanted to leave.
Please, don't go. I'd miss you so much if you went away. And I don't want
you to be alone, not after something like this. You'd be...I don't
Still no answer. But, she thought, she could feel him relax slightly. So
she continued. "You'll stay, won't you? I mean, what are you going to do
now? Where would you go? And you promised that you wouldn't leave me
behind again, remember?"
Finally, Shizumaru slowly turned his head to face her. Confusion, pain,
loss...but perhaps, the faintest glimmers of hope? Or something? Then his
eyes quickly darkened. And he still didn't speak.
So she kissed him.
Rimururu could tell that he was taken by surprise--his entire body went
rigid like stone, and he didn't respond at first. Undeterred, she
tightened her embrace, and pressed her lips a little more forcefully
against him. Slowly, he warmed up to her, and started kissing her back,
When they parted, Rimururu fell back, panting for breath. "So...um...
you won't be leaving, right?" she asked, a little giddy. She vaguely
realized that she was now wearing a rather goofy smile. He could really
kiss, when he wanted to.
He was smiling, too, though not as exuberantly as she was. But it was a
vast improvement over how he'd been earlier. "No, Rimu...I will stay. For
a little while, at least. Um. If that is all right with your sister." He
blinked, and looked over at the house. No sign of Nakoruru.
Rimururu giggled, suddenly realizing probably why her sister had a few
doubts about Shizumaru. "I'll talk to her. Don't worry." She smiled, a
gentler smile. "Are you okay, Shizumaru? Be honest, please."
His face fell once more, and he looked down. "No, I am not. This is
going to be...difficult." He sighed, and leaned back against he tree, now
looking off toward the mountains. "I just do not know. This was too much
for one time. Too much to think about. I am going to need time."
She nodded, and placed her hand over his. "Take as much time as you
need, Shizu. I'll be with you, always remember that."
And he smiled again, and she did too, and he leaned forward to kiss her
once more, lightly.
Of course, that had to be the moment that Nakoruru called, from the
cabin, "Dinner is ready! Rimururu, Shizumaru-san."
They quickly turned away from each other, and found Nakoruru watching
them from the doorway of the cabin. There was a smile on her face. Well,
that was to say, the corners of her lips were turned upward, and her teeth
Rimururu giggled nervously, as Shizumaru quickly helped her to her feet
and walked her back to the cabin.
Dinner passed pleasantly enough, really, although Nakoruru seemed to
smile just a bit too much at Shizumaru. She saw us, didn't she? Rimururu
thought. But that matter was not brought up over the meal, fortunately.
Neither was Zankuro. Shizumaru had asked that the details he'd shared
just earlier be left behind. Of course...that wasn't anything very
pleasant at all, was it?
So instead, they talked about the village, catching Rimururu up on
recent events and telling Shizumaru about some not-so-recent ones. They in
turn told Nakoruru about some of the adventures they had shared in the
They finished eating, eventually. Shizumaru looked rather spent; he had
to stifle some yawns during the meal, and Nakoruru quickly moved off to
prepare some bedding for him. Rimururu smiled at him, and took his hand in
hers beneath the table, discreetly.
"You okay?" she asked him, softly.
"I will be," he answered, equally softly.
"Shizumaru-san, I've laid a bedroll out for you here," Nakoruru called,
from the other side of the room, by the fireplace. "Make yourself
comfortable. There's a stream outside, if you need to wash up in the
morning. It'll be cold, I know, but I imagine you can handle that."
He dropped Rimururu's hand, quickly, and rose. "Yes. Thank you very
much, Nakoruru-san." He looked at Rimururu. "I think I should sleep now."
She nodded up at him. "I'll be just down the hall, and so will Sister."
Shizumaru walked over to where Nakoruru was; they exchanged a few quiet
words--probably of thanks, some inquiries if everything was all right--and
then he lay down. Very soon, even before Nakoruru had made it back to the
table, he looked to be asleep.
Rimururu watched his face, now untroubled and quiet, illuminated by the
dancing flames in the fireplace. She sighed softly and wistfully, glad to
see that he was, if for only now, at peace.
"You care for him, don't you?"
Her sister's voice, not speaking Japanese anymore but their own native
tongue instead, broke into her thoughts. Startled, she turned to face
Nakoruru. "Eh? Oh...um...." Heat rose in her cheeks, and she look down at
the table. "I do." The blush intensified as she remembered that her sister
had seen them almost about to kiss, just before dinner. "He's a perfect
gentleman, too," she said, quickly, in an attempt to forestall her sister.
Nakoruru laughed softly, as she piled up the dishes that they had used.
"He does certainly give that impression. Quite polite, and the very model
of humility." She continued to speak, as she rose and moved to set the
dishes aside to be cleaned. "And he does seem to care very much for you."
Rimururu could only nod, and murmur, "Yes, he does."
"I was wondering when I would have to talk to you about this." The soft
sussuration of robes filled the pause that followed, as Nakoruru sat down
once more. "I didn't think something like this was going to happen when
you left us half a year ago. You never showed any interest in boys
Rimururu just shook her head. "No, I guess not."
Nakoruru sighed. "And now that I'm faced with the task, I'm not really
sure what to say. You're my little sister, and I love you very much. I
don't know if I'll ever totally trust any boy to be with you, even moreso
a Japanese boy. His people have fought us long and hard, you know."
"I...yeah, I know. But...." Rimururu's shoulder slumped. "He's
different. He didn't care that I was Ainu. I even taught him some of our
language; he wants to learn it." She smiled in memory. "He's not very
good, but he's trying."
"And...he's done a lot for me, too. He taught me about Japan--he's
traveled a lot, you know, because of...the demon that he was hunting.
Helped to train me in fighting. Protected me from some bad people that we
ran into." She stared at her hands, clutching and twisting her fabric of
her robes. "I'm glad I met him."
Nakoruru did not answer, right away, instead sitting there in silence,
drumming her fingers softly on the table. Rimururu finaly turned to look
at her, with wonder and some fear in her eyes.
"I see a good heart in this young man," the older girl finally said.
"But one that has been scarred by a lot of hardship. He may be the
stronger for it, but he may not." Nakoruru turned to look at Rimururu
directly. "I have the feeling that there was more to the demon that he
defeated today than either of you have said, so far. I won't pry, but I
can tell. And what results of this will be important in what sort of a
person he becomes."
Rimururu could not answer, only listen and nod.
"Rimururu, if you stay at his side, you'll be taking on some
responsibility for helping him through this. Are you sure you can do
something like that? Think about this carefully. The greatest demons that
a person faces often come from within himself."
"...I...." Rimururu paled. Surely, she didn't know, did she? Those words
echoed what she and Shizumaru had been talking about earlier. But no, she
meant them in a different way that they had. Certainly. "I have to,
Sister. You remember how I told you that he left me behind shortly after
we first met, right? He promised not to do that again. And so I can't
leave him behind, either." She folded her hands in her lap and stared at
them, again. "Even if...he was just a friend, and...um...."
Nakoruru laughed softly, and placed a hand on Rimururu's shoulder. "If
he were just a friend, I would be less worried, actually. It is easier, I
think, for people who are just friends to support each other in this way.
If you are more than friends...that may make things more complicated. Do
you understand?" A hesitant shake of the head was her response. "Hmm...
well, there's just more feelings involved. Ahh, I really don't know what
to say! You have such bad timing, Rimu-chan," she said, chuckling, giving
her little sister a hug.
This, at least, allowed Rimururu to relax a little. "I'm sorry, Sister.
But--yeah, I told him that I'll be at his side, to help him. He needs me.
He needs friends, and I was hoping that you could be his friend too."
"Yes...I think I can be his friend, too. He's lucky to have met you,
too, you know. You're a good person, and I'm proud of you."
Rimururu beamed, and hugged her sister tightly. "Thanks, Sister."
"And the only reason I haven't already chased him out of this house for
trying to kiss you earlier is because I saw _you_ kiss _him_ first, before
Rimururu pulled away and stared at her sister in shock. "You, you saw
Nakoruru grinned, and tapped Rimururu on the nose. "I'm your big sister.
Of course I see everything."
They laughed together, then cleaned the dishes--Rimururu insisted on
helping, despite her ankle--and soon retired for the night afterwards.
When morning arrived, everyone in the house was up quite early.
Shizumaru quickly washed himself off in the stream--quickly, because
dawdling would have been a very, very cold experience indeed. Rimururu
took a little longer, and needed Nakoruru's help, because of the ankle.
During this, Shizumaru was very careful to remain inside the house and
away from any of the windows.
Rimururu finally entered the house again, looking rather refreshed by
the bath in the ice-cold water. She was using a walking stick for support,
now; it would probably be a week or so before she could walk normally
again. She quickly found Shizumaru, sitting on the bedroll that Nakoruru
had laid out for him--now carefully folded up. "Shizumaru? What are you
going to do today?"
He sat there, thinking, for a few moments, before answering. "I left
Zankuro's body out there. I think I should bury him before the carrion
eaters get to him."
She blinked. "Oh...that's right. Yeah. Well, um, Sister is a
priestess...I guess she can bless the body, or something like that?" she
offered, a bit lamely.
Shizumaru smiled faintly. "I suppose...that would be good, yes. If she
does not mind."
No, Nakoruru did not mind, when they asked her. She gave Shizumaru a
shovel to use, and the three of them walked down the road to where the
fight had been, yesterday. It was slightly slow going, as Rimururu held
them up slightly. The trip was conducted mostly in silence, out of
deference to what the boy had to be going through right now.
They found Zankuro just as Shizumaru had left him--the scavengers hadn't
touched him; no travelers had disturbed him or taken the huge sword of
obvious fine craftsmanship. There was an air of...something, that lingered
around him. Rimururu decided that, were she just another passerby, she
probably would have given him a wide berth, crossed to the other side of
the road and continued on her way.
Nakoruru spoke some quiet prayers over Zankuro, asking the kamui to come
and cleanse the evil spirits from this place. When that was done,
Shizumaru quickly dug a grave a slight distance away, near the road but
not too near it. By himself, with no help from either of the Ainu girls,
he half-carried, half-dragged the body into the grave. The sword went in
as well. Just as quickly, he covered it up with dirt, and then placed a
stone there, as a header. Again, Nakoruru spoke a soft prayer, and then
Shizumaru knelt down at the side of the grave, in silence. Rimururu
looked at her sister, who nodded slightly. So she knelt down beside
Shizumaru, and waited. Waited for him to speak, to pray, to cry, to do
He did speak, after a while. "It is done, Rimururu. And now I am not
sure what to do."
She reached over and took his hand, squeezing gently. "It's okay. You
don't have to do anything, if you don't want to."
"I feel sad, but I am not crying. Maybe I should...he was my father,
She could not answer. But Nakoruru did.
"If you must mourn, it will come to you, Shizumaru-san. It may not come
right away. I didn't cry when my parents died until a week afterward. I'm
not sure why, but I think it was because I couldn't believe that they were
Shizumaru nodded, then slowly stood up. He held onto Rimururu's hand,
and helped her to her feet as well. "I think I understand. I still cannot
believe that he was my father. But...." He shook his head. "As you said,
it will come in time. It must."
Nakoruru nodded. "Yes. Well...are you done here, Shizumaru-san? Our
grandparents should be returning soon. If not, then--"
"Yes, I am done here, for now. I would like to meet your grandparents,
actually." He smiled faintly. "And I...er...." He looked down, and
realized that he was still holding Rimururu's hand, and turned a bright
Nakoruru followed his gaze, and chuckled, but made no comment. Instead,
she turned and started walking up the road back toward the cabin.
Rimururu, giggled, and murmured to him, "It's okay. She understands, I
think. But she said she wants to talk to you sometime."
Shizumaru gulped, and did not look all that reassured. "I...see...."
They set off, after Nakoruru, struggling to catch up with her.