It had not rained in several weeks, and the young rice
lay wilted in the cracked mud of the paddies. The village
farmers had regretfully diverted what water remained to keep
the millet alive; millet needed far less water than rice
did. Rice meant good eating and sake, but millet meant
survival and was less attractive to bandits.
A boy ran along the path between the paddies, not sparing a glance for the dying rice. Puffs of dust rose from his footfalls to be whisked away by the hot wind. He paused on the rise just outside the village, looked back over his shoulder nervously, then ran down the road leading to the gate in the crude fence around the cluster of houses. He stopped in the shade of the sapling just outside the gate and panted, bent over with his hands on his knees; it wouldn't do to be too out of breath to speak.
The boy finally straightened, climbed nimbly over the gate, and ran along the dirt street to the largest house in the village. "Headman! Fire! There's fire in the woods!"
Men emerged from their houses, where they'd retired to escape the worst of the day's heat. "Jiro! You were supposed to go for firewood, not set the woods on fire!" one called reproachfully, then looked annoyed when none of the others laughed at his jest.
The headman, a stocky man with a strong face, came out of his house, blinking in the harsh sunlight. He eyed the boy and sighed heavily. "Jiro. Not again...."
Jiro stamped his foot and looked exasperated. "No, really! You can see the smoke from the road! Come on, I'll show you!" He started off along the street, paused, and looked over his shoulder to see if the men were following him. The headman heaved another sigh and strode after the boy. The other men fell in behind him.
Jiro ran to the top of the rise and turned. "There! See?" he said triumphantly, pointing north at a banner of smoke rising from the forested hills a couple of miles away. The men spread out across the road and stared, shading their eyes with their hands and muttering.
"Hm." The headman turned to face the wind, then swung back to eye the smoke. "Wind's blowing it away from the village, at least. We're safe, unless the wind changes." He paused. "Is anyone else out there?"
The men shifted uncomfortably. Finally one said, "Headman... didn't Shukumaru and Suzuko go that way today?" The headman nodded once without looking away from the smoke. The grim look on his face didn't change.
"He was carrying his spear," one of the men remarked, trying to lighten the tension, "but I don't think pig was what he was aiming to poke." He grinned and made a lewd gesture.
"Eee, if you had a young, pretty wife like that, Takezo," one of the others said, "you'd take 'er to the woods on a hot day like this too!" The coarse laughter died when the headman didn't join in.
"I'm sure they're all right, Headman," a third man offered. "Shukumaru's tough, and that girl's no fool, even if she is a bit odd. They'll be back in good time." The others nodded and agreed, but they were watching the headman carefully.
"In good time..." the headman muttered. "Yes, of course." He turned and started back down the road toward the village. It wasn't his way to show how concerned he was for his long-lost daughter and the boy he'd adopted and raised.
Suzuko awoke with a start. The cool, shady glade where they'd collapsed into the ferns, tugging at each other's clothing, was now filled with smoke and the crackling roar of a very large fire. She caught a glimpse of leaping orange light through the gray curtain as she shook the young man snoring beside her. "Shukumaru!"
"Huh? Wuzzat? Damn!" Shukumaru collected himself quickly, as he always did, and rolled to his feet. He hastily secured his yukata and grabbed his spear, looking around at the burning forest.
Suzuko tucked her kimono up so she could run, then stared at the approaching flames. Fire. Why is it always fire! The old, familiar panic threatened to overwhelm her, until Shukumaru grabbed her hand and pulled.
"This way!" They scrambled through the ferns away from the blaze, coughing. "Damn, should have gone to the waterfall instead... the wind's come up, we gotta get 'round it!" Shukumaru stopped suddenly. "Oh... shit."
Shukumaru gestured at more flames in their path. "It's ahead of us too." He looked up. Burning debris flew by overhead, dropping to start more fires all around them. "Dammit, one idiot starts a fire and now WE'RE yakitori!" He turned suddenly at Suzuko's terrified whimper. "Sorry. But I can't get us outa this one."
Suzuko steadied at that. "Maybe I can."
Shukumaru's smoke-reddened eyes studied her. They hadn't talked about her power much, even though he'd been carried from one time to another by it on three occasions; he was almost as uncomfortable with it as she was. "Where'll we go?"
"I don't know." That was the honest truth; she had no control over where when the fire would take them. "But anywhere's better than here...."
Shukumaru laughed shortly. "I guess. So now what?"
Suzuko coughed and glanced up at the fire spreading in the canopy above them. The air was getting as hot as an oven, and she could feel her skin scorching and her hair beginning to curl. "Hold me tight. Whatever happens, don't let me go. Hold on to your spear, too; we might need it." Shukumaru obeyed. Suzuko looked up at him. "Shukumaru... promise you'll protect me forever?"
"I promise." Shukumaru's strong arms tightened. Suzuko locked her hands behind her husband's back and felt the cord of the bell that hung from one wrist. It wasn't the bell that had come from the Sengoku Jidai with her when she was a little girl; she'd lost that one when she let go of her schoolbag while falling back through time after the gas explosion, the same way she'd let go of Shuhei, the neighbor's kid. Shuhei had fallen ten years past her and grown up to become Shukumaru, but she'd never seen her namesake bell again.
Suzuko squeezed her eyes shut and wondered what time they'd arrive in. She thought of the future where she'd grown up, and suddenly wondered if she really wanted to go back there
A burning tree fell in a forest, but there was no one there to hear it. It made the sound of a small brass bell ringing.
Suzuko sat up in a deluge of cold rain and looked around. Released from her embrace, Shukumaru slumped and rolled over, got a faceful of rain, and woke up very suddenly. "Good one, Suzu!" he said after he'd stopped spluttering. "Man, that feels great!" He wiped his face, delighting in the cold water on his scorched skin, then shivered as his thin yukata soaked through. "So where are we?"
"I don't know," Suzuko said slowly. They were on a heap of rubble that appeared to be a demolished house: it was mostly roof tiles, beams, and shredded shoji screens. She could see other houses, still standing, through the rain. "We're a long way from home, though."
Shukumaru stood up carefully, leaning on his spear, and reached down to give her a hand up. "Let's get out of the rain."
Suzuko smiled. "I thought you liked this rain?" she teased.
"Yeah, when I was burnin'. Now I'm cold." Shukumaru started down, picking his way carefully over the rubble. Suzuko followed. The rubble stopped abruptly at a street, but Shukumaru didn't. He walked boldly out into the street and turned, then beckoned to Suzuko. "Over here!"
She followed him past a damaged house to a shop that seemed to be intact and joined him under the shelter of its eaves. "It looks like Tokyo," she said, wringing out her hair, "but not the one I grew up in. No cars. The street's wrong." She turned to examine the papers posted outside the shop, and her knees buckled under her.
Shukumaru dropped his spear and caught her. "Hey, what's wrong?"
"The year is Showa 19. It's 1944," Suzuko said weakly.
"What's that mean?" Shukumaru asked, frowning.
"The Great East Asian War is still going on. Oh, this is terrible!"
Shukumaru shrugged. "One war's pretty much the same as another, ain't it?" Suzuko stared at him, remembering that Shukumaru had grown up in a country torn by war; to him, "peace" was something local and temporary that you enjoyed while it lasted.
"You there!" Shukumaru and Suzuko turned to see that they were being addressed by a man in a wide hat, wearing a uniform under his rain-cape. He walked closer, eyeing them suspiciously. "What's with the spear?" He examined Shukumaru. "Why aren't you in the military?"
Suzuko's tongue unfroze. "He's too young to be in the military," she began.
The policeman spared her a contemptuous glance. "He doesn't look too young to me, lady. And he sure doesn't look unfit for duty, either." He looked back at Shukumaru. "Come with me," he ordered peremptorily, reaching under his cape to unsnap the flap on his holster.
Shukumaru didn't remember clearly what a gun was, but the man's tone and Suzuko's frightened gasp were enough for him. The policeman had had the usual judo and karate training; Shukumaru was untrained, but had been fighting bloody battles since he was old enough to hold a weapon. It was no contest. Shukumaru's knee sank into the policeman's gut while the man was still realizing that the couple wasn't going to come along peacefully, and Shukumaru's fist to the neck laid him out unconscious.
"Come on, Suzu!" Shukumaru said urgently, seizing her hand and retrieving his spear.
Suzuko resisted, looking down at the policeman in horror. "You hit a policeman! They'll arrest you!"
Shukumaru snorted. "They gotta catch me first. Look, a policeman's like a lord's retainer, right? Those guys were always comin' around, wanting men to fight their stupid wars for 'em." He grinned. "I know how to stay outa military service. Run and hide until they get tired of looking." He tugged on Suzuko's hand again, and this time she stumbled after him.
"I hate to get rid of it," Shukumaru said after a half- hour's dodge through unfamilar neighborhoods that had Suzuko thoroughly lost, "but I guess they don't like guys to carry spears here." He weighed the spear in his hand sadly, then made to toss it away.
Suzuko managed to get her breath back. "No, wait. We can sell it." She smiled suddenly. "It's an antique now."
"I'll explain later." She took the spear. "We need to find a, a pawnshop or something. I'll carry the spear; that won't look as suspicious." She regarded him doubtfully. "You look too... healthy. Try to walk, er, hunched over and bowlegged, or something. Like Takezo."
"Heh. Yeah, I can do that." They set off through the rain, with Shukumaru in front doing his impersonation of a middle-aged farmer. Suzuko followed him three paces back with the spear over her shoulder, doing her impersonation of a submissive wife and trying not to laugh.
Suzuko followed Shukumaru out of the pawnshop, putting on her newly-acquired wide, conical straw hat. The money was tucked carefully away in her kimono; the amount had seemed surprisingly small until she realized that the value of a yen had changed quite a lot in forty years. It was only enough to make the difference between being penniless and being poor, though.
Shukumaru paused under the eaves and donned his own hat. "Now we can get something to eat. I'm hungry."
"Well, I'm cold and wet. We need to find a place to live first," Suzuko said, staring out into the rain.
"What? How long are we gonna stay here?"
"I don't know. Maybe the rest of our lives." I hope.
"No way! We gotta get back home!" Shukumaru burst out. He seized Suzuko by the shoulders. "You got us back the last time!"
Suzuko looked up into his eyes, ignoring the pain of his grip. "I knew the gas explosion would take us back because we'd already gone that way once. But that won't happen, er, again until forty years from now."
"But.... Well, we can make a fire!"
Suzuko tilted her head at the rain without looking away. "In this?"
"Fine! We'll wait for the rain to stop and THEN make a fire! Or find a fire! Or something!"
Suzuko's fragile restraint broke. "NO! Don't you understand?! I'm afraid of fire! I don't know where it'll take me! I don't know IF it'll take me!" Her voice dropped. "Shu... you're hurting me."
Shukumaru growled, released her roughly, and stomped away, splashing.
"Shukumaru." Suzuko's voice trembled with fear and anger. "Don't you leave me."
Shukumaru stopped and turned, and she saw the surprised expression under the hat. He came back. "I wasn't leaving. I was just... oh, hell."
Suzuko reached out and took his arm. "You promised..."
"...to protect you forever." He sighed. "I dunno how to DO that here, though, dammit!" The frustration and worry in his voice eased Suzuko's own anxiety.
"Let's find a place to stay. Then we can find something to eat. Then we can figure that out. All right?"
Finding a room turned out to be surprisingly easy; people had fled the city faster than the bombs falling from the sky had destroyed its residences, and it was a renter's market. Food, on the other hand, was expensive. Suzuko tried to be as thrifty as she could, but years as a schoolgirl with an allowance and a year as a 16th-century farm wife had not exactly prepared her for survival in wartime Tokyo.
Still, when darkness fell they had a roof over their heads and bowls of noodle soup inside them. One thing they did not have was dry clothes. Suzuko wrung out their soaked clothing, then hung it up to dry above the coals in the hibachi. Shivering, she crawled into bed with Shukumaru, glad she'd thought to make him stay there while she tended their clothes. He was dry and warm, and so was the futon and quilt; just the thing for a badly chilled girl to cuddle up to on a cold, rainy night.
"You said you'd protect me, Shu," Suzuko said in her cutest voice. "Protect me from the cold...."
"Gods, your feet are freezing! Your, your everything is freezing! Here." He shifted a little, bravely exposing more of his surface area to her. Suzuko sighed contentedly and snuggled, feeling the chill finally receding.
"So," Shukumaru said when they'd reached the same temperature. "You sounded like you know something about this place...."
Suzuko sighed; she'd been wrenched abruptly from pleasant thoughts. "Well, the whole country is at war, but not with itself this time. The enemies are the Americans, the British, the Chinese, and the Russians, mostly."
"The Chinese, I know. I dunno the others. The names sound kinda familiar, though."
"Americans live in the land across the Eastern Ocean. The Russians come from past the Chinese, and the British from past that."
"Huh. So, are we winning?"
Suzuko bit her lip. "No. We're going to lose, in less than a year."
"Damn. And after that? We get invaded and they take all our land and our rice, and some of our women, right?"
Suzuko bit her lip again, for a different reason. "Not exactly. War's a bit different now. We get occupied, but they don't take much, and in about ten years Japan is pretty much rebuilt."
"Weird. Why're they fighting us if they don't want our land, rice, and women?"
Suzuko tried to remember her history classes. Her teachers hadn't talked about the war much, and her parents her foster parents hadn't either. "I don't know."
Shukumaru sighed noisily. "It's probably one of those stupid-type wars, like when two lords get greedy and waste ten villages fighting over one village." He paused. "The whole country, you said... what about the Emperor?"
"I don't... well, in my time, the Emperor is still the Emperor, but he's not a god any more"
"Don't joke about that, Suzu." Shukumaru's voice was very serious. He shifted restlessly. "Man, if this is the Emperor's war, I'm gonna have to fight in it after all."
Cold fear gripped Suzuko. "No! You can't! Listen to me"
"What, you think I'm a coward?!"
"No! I know you're not! Listen! This war is a horrible waste. Japan's going to lose. You can't change that. All you can do is get yourself KILLED!" She breathed hard. "Shu, they're not fighting this war with spears and swords and arrows. They're using horrible weapons that kill hundreds of men at a time, without ever seeing their enemies, and you don't know how to fight with those. And in the end... they'll kill whole cities, a hundred thousand civilians dead in a flash. There's no honor in that. No heroes. You don't remember, because you were too little when you were in the future, but that's how it was. Will be."
Shu was silent for a time. "Still...."
"Shu, this isn't the Emperor's war anyway. The people now think it is, but it's really a group of powerful men who are running the war in the Emperor's name. He's not YOUR emperor anyway. You're a subject of the emperor back then. No one here even knows you exist; you're not on any records." Suzuko crossed mental fingers and hoped Shu wouldn't ask who was emperor when he was born.
"Man, this time stuff gives me a headache," Shu said ruefully after a moment.
Suzuko relaxed. "Me too. That's why I don't want to go through the fire unless I have to."
"All right, already. So what's the rest of the war like, here?"
Suzuko shrugged. "I don't know. Airplanes drop bombs on the city, I guess, but they don't destroy it all, and they don't kill all the people... not like some other places. They're aiming at the factories anyway, so it shouldn't be too bad. The war ends in about eight months, and after that things should get better." She considered. "We need jobs, though. We can't live here without money, the way we could in the village. What can we do?"
"Hell, you know. I fight, I farm, and I scavenge."
"You're not fighting," Suzuko said firmly. "I don't know if we can find land to farm, but you might work for a farmer. Scavenging... well, it's a little different now, because you can't keep what you find, but they'll be needing men to clean up the bombed buildings, I suppose."
"Fine. I'll go out in the morning and talk to people, see what's what. If we're gonna live here, I'm gonna want some buddies, anyway. How about you?"
"I'll see about getting the other things we need for a home, I suppose. We can't eat other peoples' cooking, it's too expensive."
"Sounds like a plan."
It was. Shukumaru turned out to have a talent for making friends and getting along in this century as well, and his contacts told him when men were needed here to load trucks, or there to clean up collapsed buildings, or over there to harvest radishes. He left their room early each day, and sometimes didn't come home until after dark, but he nearly always brought something back: a little money, an uncracked cup, a few radishes.
Suzuko slowly scraped together the rudiments of a household: changes of clothes, pots and bowls, a cheap kitchen knife and a salvaged cutting board, a kettle that didn't leak too much. She eked out a little money or food by cooking, cleaning, sewing, or baby-tending for those with more money and less skill than herself, but it was hard after being the wife of a prosperous farmer. She secretly counted the weeks until the war would end, concentrated on keeping her husband clean and well-fed, and waited for life to improve.
Suzuko didn't have the same gift for making friends that the outgoing Shukumaru did, though; most of her neighbors knew her only as a shy, pretty girl who moved among them, silent except for the ringing of the small bell she always wore.
Air-raid sirens wailed throughout the city when the American planes went over, so high that they were barely visible as silvery specks that sometimes spun out white contrails behind them, but the bombings were more of an annoyance than a danger; most of the bombs fell miles away by the docks and the factories. Stray bombs occasionally fell nearby, but most of the residents were barely concerned, and many didn't even go to the bomb shelters. For Shukumaru and Suzuko, a bomb falling in their part of the city usually just meant that Shukumaru wouldn't have quite so far to go to get work the next day.
Then a bomb hit the nearby public baths.
Suzuko stood in the crowd of people on the edge of the rubble-strewn lot, anxiously watching as Shukumaru and a dozen other men clambered over the unstable heaps searching for survivors, clad only in their loincloths despite the cool, overcast day. Luckily, there hadn't been many people in the baths; two had been found dead, and three wounded, but the owner was still missing.
The onlookers craned their necks as one of the men waved and shouted; the others converged on his location. After a few minutes of frantic activity, one of the men stood up, looked at the crowd, and shook his head sadly. A low moan went through the crowd, punctuated by a wail of grief from Mrs. Honda. Shukumaru was one of the men who finally carried the body out of the rubble and laid it on the street next to the others; some of the men wouldn't touch dead bodies, but Shukumaru had no such qualms.
He said something inaudible to Mrs. Honda, then came over to Suzuko, scrubbing at his hands. "Damn. He was a nice old guy."
"So what about the baths, Shu-kun?" one of the old men in the crowd asked.
Shukumaru shook his head. "I dunno. If Honda-san were still alive, I'd be thinkin' about getting some of the guys together and rebuilding, but...." He shook his head again.
The crowd muttered in dismay. The baths had been an important social center for the neighborhood, as well as an essential service among so many rented rooms and apartments that had only toilets, but no baths. The people began to shuffle away in ones and twos.
Shukumaru turned to Suzuko. "C'mon, let's go home. I've had it for the day." He wiped at the blood on his forearms and wondered where he could go to clean it off.
The loss of the baths was like an ill omen, and things began to get worse after that. For some unknown reason, there weren't any more bombings, and less work for Shukumaru as a result. More and more often, he came home empty-handed and grim-faced. Suzuko was having trouble finding food at prices she could afford; the grocers were raising prices on what food they were able to obtain, and the money she'd saved bought less and less each day. It was February, nearing the end of an awful winter.
Mr. Goto looked up, hearing the tinkle of the bell as Suzuko came into his small store. "Morning, okusan," he said cheerfully. "Turnips again?"
Suzuko smiled ruefully. "Yes, I'm afraid so." Turnips were cheap and nutritious, but not very appetizing. Still, with a little soy sauce....
Goto looked around, checking that no one else was in his store, and reached under the counter. "How about this, then?" He placed an oblong object on the counter and beamed.
Suzuko stared at the block. "Dried bonito...." Her mind raced. With shavings from that, a bit of cloth, and some kelp, she could make dashi, a delicious fish broth. With dashi, soy sauce, and the results of her daily search for food, she could make dozens of tasty dishes. With dashi, she could make even turnips taste good! The block would last for well over a month of meals, perhaps even two! Shukumaru would love
She dragged herself back to reality. "It's lovely, Goto-san, but I couldn't possibly afford it," she said regretfully.
Goto smiled. "Sure you can. I'll hang out the 'Closed' sign, we'll slip in the back and have some fun for a little while, and you can have this."
Suzuko's jaw dropped. The slimy little bastard was propositioning her! "Goto-san, I'm married! I, I love my husband!" I'm not a, a whore!
Goto nodded in agreement. "Of course you do. That's why you want to take this home to him." He nudged the block of dried fish. Suzuko looked at the block, then looked at Goto. Without conscious thought, her neck took over and started shaking her head back and forth, and didn't stop.
"No?" Goto shrugged. "Ah, well, no hard feelings. If you won't, there's others who will. Not all as young and pretty as you, but hey, don't you want some turnips?"
Suzuko stopped a hundred yards away, leaned against a wall, and waited for her heart to stop pounding. She'd been nearly raped, nearly killed, and nearly burned alive on several occasions, and these damn 1940s pig-men leered at her all the time and she was used to that, but this scared her more than all the others... because Goto had gotten to her. He'd known exactly what would tempt her the notion of making something nice for her man (and for herself, a small voice insisted) and he'd used it mercilessly, and she'd been tempted, and she couldn't stop trembling. She wondered what she'd have done if the block had been a little bigger, or Goto hadn't been quite so repulsive. If he'd been a nice man, a tall, strong, young, handsome man like Shukumaru... if he'd been the kind of man who would kiss her and talk softly to her first, and who would stay awake afterwards, unlike Shukumaru....
"Get real," she muttered to herself. Men like that didn't need to barter blocks of dried fish. They could have all the women they wanted, especially in this city, where half the men were off to war and the other half were too old, too young, or crippled. The women, on the other hand, would give a lot for a tall, young, strong, handsome man like... oh, god, like Shukumaru. It wouldn't matter that he didn't have a romantic bone in his body and always fell asleep just when a girl wanted to be cuddled.
Suzuko pushed off the wall and headed for home, wishing desperately for Shukumaru to be there and knowing he wouldn't be.
"Suzu! Hey, what a day I had!" Shukumaru burst into their room, grinning, and stopped short. Suzuko, kneeling in the corner slumped against the wall, raised her head slowly and looked at him. He could see she'd been crying. A blind man could see she'd been crying. "What's the matter?"
Shukumaru cocked his head. "Uh... right. Anyway, this'll cheer you up!" He sat down, produced an oblong object from his yukata and held it out. "Here!"
Suzuko stared at it. Oh no. He didn't. "What's that?"
"A block of dried bonito," Shukumaru said happily, ignoring the way Suzuko's face had suddenly frozen.
"Where did you get it?" Suzuko was quite proud of the level tone of her voice.
"A woman gave it to me," Shukumaru said.
Oh no. He did. "Why?"
"I got lucky yaaah!" Shukumaru fell over backwards, surprised by his wife's sudden lunge at him from a kneeling position, and fended her nails away from his face. "Ow! Dammit, what the hell's the matter with you?!" Shukumaru twisted suddenly, caught her wrists, and pinned her down with a carefully applied knee. "Have you gone CRAZY while I wasn't lookin'?!"
Suzuko was twisting in his grip, leaking tears. "You, you screwed another woman to get that bonito, didn't you!"
Shukumaru's face registered blank incomprehension, then shock. "You ARE crazy. Why would I do that?"
Suzuko sagged. "You... you didn't?"
Shukumaru loosened his grip a little. "No!"
"Well, what, then?"
"Me an' Jubei, we were called to this place that they hadn't propped up good enough after it got bent a little by a bomb, and it fell over, right? So we're pokin' though it, like we do, and I found this hand, see? It had blood on it, but I pulled on it, and it didn't come loose, and it was warm, so I called Jubei over. We dug this guy out, and he was alive. Man, I love diggin' out live ones," he said with satisfaction. "So anyway, his wife was real happy, and she gave me this. She gave Jubei one, too."
"Oh." I'm an idiot.
"Can I let go now? I mean, is it safe?"
Shukumaru let go, sat back, and helped Suzuko up to a sitting position. His face still reflected honest bafflement. "Suzu... why would you think that I would do that? You know you're the only girl for me."
Suzuko shook her head, unwilling to meet his eyes. "I don't know. Maybe you're right. Maybe I did go crazy while you weren't looking." She sniffled. "I'm sorry."
"Maybe I should look more often...."
Suzuko looked up at that, and saw in Shukumaru's eyes everything she could hope to see there, and more. "Oh, Shu!"
The air-raid sirens howled to life in the predawn darkness. Shukumaru and Suzuko sat up in unison and felt for each other. "Shu? They've never come at night before."
"I know." Shukumaru's voice was worried.
"Why are they coming at night, Shu?" Suzuko's voice was drowsy and frightened.
"I don't know. Wake up, dammit. Get some clothes on and get ready to run for it. I don't like this. I'm going to go outside and take a look." Suzuko heard Shukumaru stumbling around the tiny room in the dark, swearing as he tripped over the hibachi. By the time she'd found a kimono and put it on, he'd dressed and slipped out. She found her bell and looped its cord over her wrist, taking comfort in its familiar ringing.
As she left their room and felt her way down the stairs, she became aware of noises: the clamor of people shouting, running footsteps in the street, the wail of the sirens, and over it all, the rising thunder of hundreds of aircraft engines. She burst out the front door of their tenement and stopped, stunned.
Lines of fire were marching across the darkened city. The planes that had dropped destruction from so high in the sky that they could barely be seen were now dropping fire from lower, much lower. The light of the great orange chrysanthemums of flame they sowed behind them reflected off their shiny bellies and slim, straight wings. They swept across the city, and the city burned. People exclaimed in tones of awe, and wonder, and terror.
Suzuko shook off her paralysis. Fire. "Shukumaru. Shukumaru!" She had to find him, had to find him before the fire came and took her away "SHUKUMARU!"
One of the planes droned right over her head, perhaps five thousand feet up, and even she knew what that meant. The line of fire-flowers bloomed behind it, one every five seconds, each one closer, each one hiding the last
"SUZUKO!" She heard him, and saw him running up the street towards her, and she ran to meet him. The fire came, perhaps five hundred yards away, dazzling her and throwing Shukumaru's face into sharp shadow. The next one would be right HERE, right NOW
Shukumaru's outstretched hand slapped into hers as the flame washed over them, and they fell. The ringing of her brass bell was the last sound she heard.
Suzuko fell forward, her knees slammed into earth, and her hands hit a moment later. It was night, and the stars shone brightly; there was no fire anywhere. A frog chirped happily not far away, and another answered. She rested there on all fours for a minute, as glad to be still alive as the frogs were. "Shu?" Frogs don't have husbands. "Shukumaru?" Frogs don't travel in time. "SHUKUMARU!"
A frog doesn't pop into the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night with empty hands where her husband was just a minute ago. A frog doesn't feel a terrible wail of grief and loss and despair welling up in her throat because if he were just lost, she could start searching and have a hope of maybe finding him someday, but if he were lost in time, she could search for ever and ever and ever and she would never, never find him....
A frog doesn't cry.
The frogs were silent for a long, long time.
The rays of the sun striking her face woke Suzuko up. She groaned and sat up, stiff from a night on the ground, then looked around. She was on the border of a field; millet waved to one side, and there was a cart-path to the other. Her hands were crusted with dirt, and there were smears of dirt on her kimono. She looked at the ground and saw marks, as though something had been clawing at the earth. She looked at her hands, and it all came back to her.
Not something. Me. Oh, Shukumaru.... Let's see. The sun is rising there, and our room was here, and the place where the gas tanks were... um... will be, was THAT way from it. The place where my foster parents found me was where the village was, and that's THAT way, so the village is... might be... might have been... oh, hell.
Suzuko stood up slowly and started walking along the path, not because she wanted to, but because it seemed marginally better than laying herself down to die right there. Her bell jingled softly as she walked.
Matsuo laid his hoe down and sat in the welcome shade of the tree he'd left his lunch under. He untied the cloth wrapped around it and peered in to see what his wife had made for him. Millet cakes. Pickle. Oh, well, perhaps if the harvest was good this year, there'd be rice
He became aware of a small approaching sound, like a little bell ringing, and looked up. His jaw dropped and his lunch fell in his lap.
"Excuse me." The slim young woman looked like she'd been very pretty before she'd died and then clawed her way up out of her grave. Now she just looked dead, and dirty. Matsuo looked down to see if she had feet. She had feet. Great, she isn't a ghost. She must be something worse....
"Yes?" Matsuo croaked. "Please don't kill me!"
Something resembling life sparked in the monster's tormented dark eyes. "I won't," it said. "Please, can you spare some millet cakes? And maybe a pickle?"
Matsuo sagged in relief. "Yes! Yes! Take the whole thing, and welcome to it!" He watched the polite monster smile gratefully and devour his lunch. Gods, what sharp white teeth it has, and how hungry it is, and how sad it looks.
"I don't suppose you know anyone named Shukumaru?" the monster asked, wiping its lips delicately on the cloth.
Matsuo swallowed. He knew he wasn't brave enough to fight a monster, and he didn't think he was clever enough to outwit one, the way the heroes did in the stories his mother had told him when he was a child. Shukumaru was both brave and clever, though, and could fight or outwit a monster that a cowardly fool had set on his trail, and might even be kind enough to forgive the fool afterward. "Uh... yeah, sure. Shukumaru lives in the village over that way." He waved vaguely, then watched in astonishment as the monster's eyes lit up, transforming it from a monster into a girl who looked strangely familiar.
"SHUKUMARU!" The girl started running. A moment later she was back. "Thanks for lunch!" She disappeared in a cloud of dust and a wild jingling.
"Wait!" Matsuo called, but she was already out of earshot. "Suzuko?" he whispered to himself. "But...." His brow furrowed. "Uh oh." He got up, picked up his hoe and empty lunch-cloth, and jogged after her, grinning. This promised to be very amusing.
Suzuko ran down the rise to the gate in the fence around the village, passing the tree that grew beside it, and slipped in through the gate. Please, let it be him, let him be here.... She didn't notice that people were standing up and staring as she sped past, and she certainly wasn't looking back to see them gathering behind her and following. She ran past house after house, little changes barely registering, and then saw her house. Their house. "SHUKUMARU!"
She tore open the door and stumbled in, her sun-dazzled eyes seeking desperately in the gloom inside the house for the man she'd lost less than a day and over three hundred years ago, the man who was standing there and beginning to move towards her. "Suzuko? What?!"
"Shukumaru! I found you!" Her tears were washing the dirt from her face as she cast herself into his arms and kissed him joyfully. He smelled the same, his lips tasted the same, his... his chest was a little thicker, and his hair was a little thinner. She pushed back and looked up at him. It was Shukumaru, but older. Not much older, perhaps twenty-five, and still handsome. Close enough. He'd do just fine. "Oh, Shu, you waited for me!"
"Papa? Who's this?"
The word rattled around inside Suzuko's suddenly empty mind. Papa? Papa? She looked down. Her gaze was returned by a small boy. Papa. Of course he's Shukumaru's son, he looks a lot like Shuhei.... She looked back at Shukumaru, who was still looking like he'd just been hit with a pole. "You BASTARD! You DIDN'T wait for me!"
"What?! I did! Suzu"
"Who is she?! Fumi?! Mieko! She's always been after you! Who?!" The crowd jammed in the doorway murmured to each other, smiling. This was something you didn't see every day.
"I'll rip her hair out! I'll" Suzuko's gaze finally took in the woman standing behind Shukumaru, the woman with the shocked expression on her... her....
Welcome blackness swept over Suzuko's eyes and mind.
"Are you feeling better now?"
Suzuko opened her eyes. She was inside, in the house she'd helped Shukumaru build, on a futon, with afternoon light leaking in past the closed shutters and a lamp illuminating the woman who was gently dabbing at her face with a wet cloth. The voice was almost familiar. The face....
"You're... me," Suzuko said flatly.
The other woman smiled. "Sort of. I was you. You will be me. Something like that."
"I sent him away. I sent them all away, the silly idiots. Honestly, I can't imagine what they were thinking. No, we need some time alone, you and I."
"What... what happened?"
The other woman her other self, but perhaps twenty-five years old, about the same age as Shukumaru lost her smile. "The same thing that happened the first time I... you... we went through the gas explosion. We didn't have a good enough grip on him, and we lost him, and he went past us. Only about seven years, this time, though."
"Oh, he's still alive. He's quite well, too. Shu landed only about five months after the forest fire, so it hasn't been all that long."
"About seven months after that. Shu did wait for... for me."
Suzuko shook her head violently. "I don't want to. I won't. I won't go through the fire again. Not after what happened the last time."
The other woman frowned sympathetically at her. "I know. I didn't want to either." She looked as though she were thinking, or perhaps trying to remember. "We'll talk about it later. Now you need to rest." She watched Suzuko, as though waiting for something.
"Um... what should I call you?" Suzuko asked.
The other Suzuko looked relieved. "Well, you know my name, but I'll admit it could be a little confusing. Shukumaru-no-okusan, perhaps? No? Well, call me Suzu, then, and I'll call you Suzuko, since you're younger than I am."
"All right." Suddenly rest sounded like a very good idea to Suzuko. "Shukumaru... I need him here. I need to know he's not lost. Please...."
Suzu nodded. "Yes, of course. I remember feeling that way. I remember that, at least, quite clearly. He'll be here, I promise. I'll watch over him for you." She rose quietly and left the room. Suzuko wanted to stay awake, to wait until Shukumaru came back, but sleep came over her while she was waiting.
Suppertime was quite bizarre for Suzuko, with the boy staring at her curiously, Shukumaru's puzzled eyes darting back and forth between Suzu and Suzuko, and neighbors dropping by on all manner of contrived pretexts to see the best show in the village since it had burned to the ground. Suzu smiled through it all, behaving as though everything were perfectly normal, and tending to a daughter perhaps three years old.
Suzuko sampled her stew; the taste was familiar, but the intervening years had evidently made Suzu into a better cook than she was. It wasn't surprising, really. She kept watching Shukumaru, and eventually the urge to throw herself on him and hold on tight settled down to a warm, comfortable feeling at just being in the same room with him... slightly disturbed by the uncomfortable feeling of being in the same room with herself.
"Who are you?" the boy asked suddenly. "You look like Mama, but... not."
Suzuko smiled weakly. "I...." I am Mama, but not. I can't say that; the kid's only about six. "Call me Suzuko. Suzuko-no-obasan."
"Suzuko..." the boy said doubtfully. "Mama's name is Suzuko, too, but I'm not supposed ta call Mama that."
"Well, people can have the same name, can't they? You can call me Suzuko, and you can call her Mama." Just don't call me Oneesan, that'll cause lots of problems when you figure out I'm married to your Papa... too. Oh, dear.
The boy nodded. "Sure! I'm Shuhei."
"Shuhei?" Suzuko glanced at Suzu and Shukumaru. Both were watching the boy with parental pride.
"What else?" Suzu said, smiling. She indicated the little girl sitting on her lap. "This is Ryoko."
Suzuko smiled and twiddled her fingers at the toddler. "Hi, Ryoko." Ryoko eyed her silently.
"She's a little shy yet," Shukumaru said. "She'll get over it." He reached across and stroked the child's cheek. "She's as pretty as her mother, though." He was looking at Suzuko when he said it, and Suzu and Suzuko exchanged a glance laden with about six different emotions.
Suzuko was feeling almost back to normal the next morning; a night's sleep had helped, of course, but it was a tremendous relief to be out of wartime Tokyo and back in the village she thought of as home, and a bigger one to know that Shukumaru wasn't lost in time after all. She sat on the stack of wood outside the door and let the sun warm her. She waved at Matsuo as the young man went by carrying his hoe, and giggled when he jumped a foot sideways and hurried away. He still wasn't quite convinced that she wasn't some sort of revenant or foxwife.
"Suzuko!" Shuhei ran up and climbed onto the woodpile to sit beside her, and Suzuko had a sudden attack of not- quite-deja-vu.
"Good morning, Shu-kun. What are you up to?"
"Oh, nothin'." Shuhei swatted at the ground with his stick. "Just playin'. How 'bout you?"
"Oh, nothin'." Suzuko and Shuhei exchanged glances and laughed.
"You laugh just like Mama," Shuhei told her.
"Does your mama laugh a lot?" Will I be happy?
"Oh, sure. Not like Goro's mama." Shuhei frowned. "Goro's mama yells a lot, but she doesn't laugh much."
"Is your mama good to you?" Will I be a good mother?
"Well, sure." Shuhei said it as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "She's... She's Mama."
"What about your papa?"
Shuhei swelled. "He's the bestest papa in the whole world!"
Suzuko smiled to herself. "Why's that?"
"Well, when the bad men came to burn down our house, he fought them!" Shuhei said excitedly. "Mama hid with Ryoko, but I watched through the window. Papa had a spear, and he stuck it in a bad man, and he fell off his horse! An' he had a sword, and he swung it, and the bad man's head fell right off! Swish! Splat! There was blood everywhere!" Shuhei waved his stick. "Splat!" he repeated. "I'm gonna grow up big and strong, and I'm gonna fight just like Papa."
"I'm sure you will, Shu-kun," Suzuko said, smiling a little greenly. "Does he ever hit you when you don't deserve it?"
Shuhei looked uncomfortable and rubbed his rump unconsciously. "Yeah... I suppose. I mean, it was just a little bowl, and I didn't mean ta break it." Suzuko laughed, and Shuhei looked indignant. "Hey!"
"Sorry, Shu-kun," Suzuko said soberly, but her eyes were still twinkling.
"Mama laughed like that when I told her that, too," Shuhei grumbled. He studied her. "You're an awful lot like Mama. Where'd you come from? Are you her sister?"
When, not where; and no.... "Not exactly, but that's pretty close. It's... complicated." And getting more complicated all the time.
"Huh." Shuhei looked up suddenly. "There's Goro. I gotta go. See ya!" He sped off, waving his stick.
Suzuko watched him go. A good kid, she thought. One hand strayed to her belly. My kid, sort of. Maybe. Someday. But only if I go through the fire again.... She shook her head hard and slumped back against the house, her good mood consumed by the fire burning at the back of her mind.
Shukumaru came out of the house a little later, carrying a spear. "Hey, Suzu... uh, Suzuko. Want to go for a walk?"
Suzuko's heart leapt. A walk was just what she needed, especially since they wouldn't spend all their time walking. "Sure!"
The roads were still about the same, the trails were about the same, and Suzuko kept telling herself she was the same... but Shukumaru was different. He smiled more, and blustered less; he'd matured, in the six or seven years that lay between them, and she... hadn't. It doesn't matter, Suzuko thought. He's still Shukumaru. This is the man I married, this is the man I love, and in a little while he'll be the man I share my body with.
The turnoff to the waterfall was the same, the waterfall hadn't changed a bit, and the spot they always came to was still there. Shukumaru laid his spear aside and looked at Suzuko. She smiled, flowed up against him, and raised her face to be kissed. He complied eagerly. Suzuko felt her kimono being loosened. His hand slid inside, the hand of a farmer and warrior, calloused and familar. She jerked a little. Wow. He's never done THAT before... at least, not that well! Did he learn that from... from her?
They tore themselves apart hastily and turned to see Suzu, standing a few yards away with a very complex expression on her face. Disapproval, jealousy, envy, resignation, pity, love, hope, fear fear?
"Suzu, you TOLD me to do this!" Shukumaru remonstrated.
"I told you to take Suzuko for a walk," Suzu said with a wry smile. "I knew you'd both take it as a chance for a roll in the hay, but I didn't tell you to do that."
Shukumaru scratched his head. "I don't get it."
"I know," Suzu sighed. "I'm not sure I get it either. But you can't have her." She walked closer.
"But she's my wife!"
Suzu shook her head. She appeared to be concentrating. "No. She was your wife," she said slowly. "I hope I pray that she will be your wife. But she is not your wife now. Right now, I am your wife. I bore your children. I keep your house. I've been with you for over seven years. I won't be cast aside for a younger woman." Her mouth quirked. "Even if she is me."
"Who said anything about casting aside?" Shukumaru asked, trying to sound reasonable. "You can both" He stopped. Suzuko and Suzu had both shaken their heads at the same moment. Suzu smiled, and Suzuko noticed how naturally her face fell into that expression. Suzu watched Suzuko expectantly.
"He's my husband," Suzuko said faintly.
Suzu looked relieved. "No," she said again. "He was your husband. He will be your husband. But now, he's my husband. I'm sorry, but I won't share him with you any more than you will share him with me." Her lips moved soundlessly for a moment. "I can't," she added. Again, she waited tensely.
"Why not?!" Suzuko burst out.
Suzu let out a deep sigh and relaxed, rubbing her head with one hand. "We need to talk about that. Shukumaru, please go home now. I need to talk to her... to me. In private."
"Shukumaru, please stay," Suzuko said quickly.
Shukumaru looked from one wife to the other. His face hardened. He bent suddenly, picked up his spear, and departed in swift, angry strides.
"I have no idea how I'm going to handle THAT," Suzu remarked when he was gone.
Suzuko stared at her. "What's going on here? Why can't I just stay?"
"Think about it," Suzu said carefully. "You've been through time often enough, you ought to be able to understand. I did, when I was here. You will, right about... now."
"Destiny," Suzuko breathed. Suddenly it all made sense. "You remember what's happening here"
"because I was you, and you'll remember this," Suzu said, nodding.
"Why are you afraid of me?" Suzuko asked slowly.
"Why shouldn't I be afraid of you?!" Suzu burst out. "You know how much I love Shu! You can imagine how much I love my children! I have a wonderful life, and you can destroy it all by not doing a thing, and I would never even know! If you don't go back in time seven years, just like I did, it all would just be... gone! Ffft!"
Suzuko staggered back, appalled. "But... the fire...."
Suzu regarded her levelly. "I remember me doing this." She sank to her knees, bowed, and touched her head to the ground before Suzuko. "Please. Please. For my children. For my husband. For my life. For your life. Please. I beg of you. Do what I did, and become me."
"But..." Suzuko mumbled. "Destiny... it's already happened... hasn't it?"
Suzu raised her head. "That's one theory. Another is that if anything doesn't happen right, everything that depends on it happening that way vanishes. Ffft. Things happened differently. Will happen differently. Something like that. I don't know which is right, and it scares me to death."
"Then... you're trying to tell me exactly what you remember, um, you telling me...?"
Suzu sighed and nodded. "No more, no less. I'm also trying to make things happen the way I remember them happening, like sending Shu to take you for this 'walk'. It's giving me a headache like you wouldn't believe, and there's no aspirin for two hundred years in any direction. Willow bark just doesn't cut it."
Suzuko laughed suddenly, then sobered. "Do you remember you telling me that?" Suzu met her eyes and nodded slowly. Suzuko suddenly understood the depth of the older woman's mortal terror of making a tiny mistake that would snuff out her family... and she weighed it against her own terror of the fire.
"All right," Suzuko said, trembling. "I'll do it."
Suzu gave a little sigh and fainted, collapsing sideways from her kneeling position to lie sprawled on the ground by the waterfall.
Suzuko sat on the woodpile again an hour later, carefully not listening to the voices inside the house as Suzu tried to explain to a very upset Shukumaru what had happened, and what was happening, and what was going to happen. Suzuko didn't envy her older self that task at all. The shouting had subsided, though, so Suzu must have done well enough; she hoped she'd do as well when the time came for her to do it. She smiled a little, closed her eyes, and tried to stop thinking, or wanting, or worrying, and just be, like a plant in the sunshine.
The door opened and closed. Suzuko felt the woodpile shift a little as someone sat down on it.
Suzuko opened her eyes and smiled at Shukumaru. "Shu."
He clenched his hands together selfconsciously and looked at them. "I'm sorry about... you know."
No, I don't know. Sorry we almost made love? Sorry we didn't? Sorry you chose her instead of me, when we asked you to do different things? "That's all right. She's right, you know. You're her husband, not mine, not really."
Shukumaru lifted his head and smiled at her, and for a moment she could almost believe he was her Shu... but not quite. "Yeah, I guess I am. She says you're leaving soon."
"I suppose so," Suzuko said, looking at the house across the street. "I want to get back to my Shukumaru. He probably misses me. I sure miss him." A sudden thought struck her, and she glanced back at him. "Shu... do you remember how it was, after you fell back into this time, seven years ago? When I wasn't there?"
"It was pretty bad," Shukumaru said slowly. "You were lost, and I couldn't even go looking for you in the fire the way you could go looking for me. All I could do was wait. So I waited."
Suzuko swallowed a lump in her throat. "For seven months... was it hard?"
He shrugged. "Not knowin' was hard. I figured the same thing had happened again, like you told me once, and I was thrown farther back than you were." He smiled suddenly. "I was afraid it was gonna be ten years again."
Suzuko looked at her feet. "Did you ever feel like giving up and marrying someone else?"
"No. Never. Suzuko...." His hand rested on her knee, strong and gentle. "You know you're the only girl for me." He removed his hand suddenly. "Er... I mean, she's the only... oh, hell."
Suzuko laughed and reached over to pat him on his knee. "It's all right, Shu. I understand, really."
"Well, I don't," Shukumaru muttered, rising, "but if you say so, I believe you." He picked up a hoe leaning against the house. "I don't suppose the millet's gonna weed itself. See you at supper, Suzuko." He strode off, whistling, and Suzuko settled back in the sunshine to think about time and fire.
Her first trip had been from very near this spot, about eight years ago as the villagers counted time, when she was perhaps four years old. A burning house had collapsed on her and she'd fled... to 1970. Why? As good a time as any, to a little kid about to be burned to death.
Her second trip had been from 1983 to just before the beginning of her first trip; a gas-storage complex had exploded, sending her to a 16th-century battlefield. Why? Maybe I was going... home. I came pretty close; I only missed by about a week early. Shukumaru landed ten years earlier and grew up in the interval.
Her third trip had been to escape a burning beam that was being wielded as a club to smash Shukumaru. She'd thrown herself on top of him before it hit, and they'd ended up back in 1983. Why? Maybe I was going home again, sort of, to just before the crazy adventure started. If so, we arrived only a few hours early.
Fourth trip, through the same gas explosion for the second time. I saw myself, with Shuhei before he became Shukumaru. Shukumaru and I landed in the battlefield a couple of weeks after I landed there alone on the second trip. Why? I guess I just missed. Not by much. I knew when that fire would take me... I knew.
Fifth trip, from the forest fire, and boy, did I miss. I was aiming for 1983, and hit 1944. Why? Suddenly Suzuko's eyes snapped open as she remembered. I was thinking about NOT going to 1983! That must have thrown us off!
She forced herself to focus. Sixth trip: the firebombing. I had to have been trying to go home. I fell short, and Shu landed when I wanted to be, more or less. Why? Maybe I was too scared, or too surprised. But the size of the fire doesn't seem to make any difference, and I do have a lot of control over when I end up....
Suzuko patted the firewood she was sitting on. "We're going to take a little trip, you and I," she whispered to it. Suddenly she wasn't afraid any more.
"We're ready to light the fire!" Shukumaru called, sticking his head in the front door of the house.
"Go ahead! We'll be there in a few minutes!" Suzu called back. She turned back to Suzuko as Shukumaru's head withdrew and the door closed. "Time to get dressed. Here, I want to show you something." She opened a flat box, pulled out a neatly folded kimono, shook it out, and held it up. It was exactly like the cheap cotton kimono Suzuko had pulled on the night of the firebombing, and it still bore faded dirt stains; its unnaturally precise thread and weaving declared it an anachronism in this time of home-spun. "I saved it." She picked up another folded kimono and shook it out. "And here's yours. I washed it as best I could, but I couldn't get it quite clean."
Suzuko looked at the two kimonos that were the same kimono, and then looked at the 25-year-old woman who was herself. "Suppose I put on the other one instead of the one I arrived in, and then go through the fire?"
Suzu thought about it for only a moment before paling. "Then it would come from nowhere, and there'd be two...." She trailed off, looking terrified. "Or none! No! That mustn't happen!"
"Don't worry," Suzuko said soothingly. "I'll wear this one, and everything will be all right." She undid her kimono, let it fall, and put on the newer of the two matched kimonos.
"Are you sure that's the right one?" Suzu's voice still held a note of fear.
"Yes. See, this one's less faded. And this is my bell, and THAT one's yours." She slipped the cord over her wrist and shook it to hear the jingle.
Suzu examined the kimonos and the bells carefully and calmed. "I'm sorry. It's just...." She removed her kimono and put the old one on, then put her bell on her wrist. They inspected each other, as nearly identical as seven years' difference in age would allow, nodded simultanously, and giggled together.
The whole village had turned out to see Suzuko off. Most of the families had contributed wood to the bonfire that burned atop the rise outside the village. None of them save Suzu and Suzuko really understood why she was leaving, or what the fire was for, but they all stood around the bonfire watching as Suzuko made her farewells.
"This just isn't right," the headman grumbled. Suzuko and Suzu looked at each other and sighed.
"Father, having two daughters isn't right, either," Suzu told him firmly. "We know what we're doing." I hope. Gods, I hope.
"Well, if you talked Shukumaru into this, I don't suppose I have much of a chance," the old man sighed. He looked at Suzuko. "Good luck."
"Thanks, Father," Suzuko said. She ruffled Shuhei's hair. "Be good. I'll see you again soon." In about a year, and you'll be a lot smaller....
Suzuko stepped up to Shukumaru. "One for the road?"
Shukumaru tried to smile. "Yeah." He hugged her tightly. "Come back to me," he whispered in her ear.
Suzuko smiled through her tears. "Silly Shu. We explained that. I'm already back. I came back years ago." She tilted her head to Suzu. "If you want to make me happy, take care of her." She could see that Shukumaru still didn't quite understand, but he nodded anyway and let her go reluctantly.
Last she embraced Suzu. "I can't thank you enough," Suzu whispered.
"If it wasn't for you, I'd probably be too scared to go," Suzuko whispered back. "I want to be you. I want your husband and your children, and if this how I get all that, then this is what I want to do."
"Well, I'm sure not letting you have them any other way," Suzu whispered, smiling.
Suzuko laughed and stepped back, wiping her eyes. Suzu went to Shukumaru and held him tightly, and he put one arm around her, but both continued to watch Suzuko.
Suzuko turned to face the fire. It was a fine fire, crackling and roaring, shooting flames up ten and fifteen feet into the air. She thought of the summer after the forest fire, and fixed in her mind the image of Shukumaru: not Suzu's Shukumaru, but hers, the same age as she was, brash and impulsive. She ruthlessly suppressed the desire to aim for the time right after he'd returned, and spare him the awful waiting; who knew what would happen if she did that? THIS was the future she wanted, and its past was the past she'd try to reach.
Shukumaru shone in her mind as she took a breath, held it, and ran headlong into the fire. The sound of her bell hung in the air for a moment after the flames took her.
The villagers gasped and murmured. "She... vanished," the headman said unbelievingly. "Like she never was."
"Don't say that," Suzu said firmly. "She was, just exactly as much as I am." She relaxed her grip on Shukumaru a little, reassured by the fact that Suzuko had gone and she and her family still existed. She looked up at Shukumaru. "She must have made it," she said softly. "She must be me now. It all happened just the way I remember it."
Shukumaru nodded, but his gaze was still fixed on the fire and his jaw was set. "I still feel like she's lost again."
"Well, maybe it'll help if I tell you what happened to me after I went through this same fire...."
Suzuko skidded to a stop by the dirt road on the rise outside the village. Hey, I didn't even black out that time! She turned and saw the thatched roofs of the village, peaceful and familiar in the afternoon sun. People moved to and fro. None of them looked like Shukumaru. She started down the road.
A bent man wheeling a cart loaded with sacks looked curiously at her as she paused to examine the sapling by the gate. "Suzuko? Suzuko! You're back!"
"Hello, Takezo," she greeted him, smiling brightly. "Excuse me, I think Shukumaru's waiting for me."
"Uh, sure..." Takezo watched her slip through the gate and run away down the dirt street, moving only his head to do so. A sack fell off his cart and landed on his foot. "Ow!"
Suzuko ran up to her house, opened the door, and hurried inside, leaving the door open. "Shukumaru!" Only silence greeted her. She looked around at the piles of long- unwashed clothing and the unswept floor, and her nose wrinkled. "Good heavens, Shu," she said to the room, "I can definitely tell you haven't had another woman in here. What a mess." She considered going looking for him, but decided it would be better to wait where she was. Humming a tune that wouldn't be composed for over three hundred years, she began to tidy up.
Suzuko turned and looked at the stout man in the doorway with other villagers crowding in behind him and jumping up to peer over his shoulders. "Oh, hello, Father," she said cheerfully, putting down a quilt long overdue for airing. "Where's Shukumaru?"
"You've been gone for a year, and all you have to say is 'hello, Father'? Where've you been, girl?"
"Oh, here and there, now and then," Suzuko told him. "Where's Shukumaru?"
"Out looking for you," the headman snorted, sitting on the edge of the raised floor. "The stupid kid was sure you'd come back, but he said he couldn't stand to sit around waiting, so he's been wandering around every minute he wasn't working or sleeping."
"That idiot," Suzuko said fondly. "If he hadn't been out searching for me, he'd have been home when I got here."
"That's what I told him... well, the 'idiot' part, anyway." The headman got up with a grunt and turned to go. "Welcome back, daughter. Shukumaru should be back around sunset. Get out of the way, you fools," he said irritably, stomping through the crowd outside the door.
Shukumaru trudged wearily homeward with his arms draped over the spear across his shoulders, looking down at the shadow stretched out in front of him. He was almost home; he could faintly hear the sounds of the village over the next rise. It just wasn't the same, though, coming home to the empty house that he'd built for Suzuko and himself. Perhaps that was why he spent as little time as he could there.
For some reason he would never know, he lifted his head and looked up the road, and he noticed the slim woman standing atop the rise, her kimono glowing in the rays of the setting sun. She waved at him, and her voice sounded faintly over the sudden pounding of his heart.
He swung the spear off his shoulders and sprinted up the hill to meet her, weariness forgotten. She held out her arms as he ran the last few steps, and he dropped the spear, swept her up into his embrace, and spun around, laughing. "It's really you!" he exulted. "I thought I'd have to wait another ten years for you to come back!"
"You just wanted to be twenty-eight and have an eighteen-year-old wife," Suzuko said accusingly, but she was smiling as she said it, knowing in the surest possible way that it wasn't true.
"Aw, Suzu.... Man, it's good to see you again! So what happened?" he asked, putting her down and bending to pick up his discarded spear.
"I'll tell you later. We have lots of time for stories," she said, linking her arm though his as they started down the rise. Lamps were coming on in the village as the dusk gathered. "That's all in the past now, though. I'd rather think about the future."
"Whatever you say. I'm really glad you're back, Suzu."
"I know. I saw the house."
"It's all right, Shu. I'm glad to be back. From now on, things will be wonderful. I have my word for it."
~~~~~ end ~~~~~
Disclaimer: Fire Tripper characters and situations are copyright 1983, 1999 by Takahashi Rumiko. Publishing rights (Japan) by Shogakukan Inc. Publishing rights (North America) by Viz Inc. This work is not intended to infringe those rights.