Chapter 31:

Vol 1: Ch 30: The Tiger of the South

Realms of Destiny

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The group trudged through the woods in an uncomfortable silence. Tora could feel himself about to burst from unspent energy and the lack of human voice. Usually, he’d be quite happy to provide the entertainment and make enough noise for the whole group combined but having caused what he just did he didn’t dare say a word. Bookmark here

Even Chibiku was walking with drooped ears and tail. They’ve been doing this for five long hours, and despite the cool autumn air, Tora could almost feel the weariness aura that seems to be oozing from Sousuke. Tora had never been quiet for this long in all his life, including the time he spends sleeping!Bookmark here

The silence was broken when Tora’s stomach gave a loud grumble. Reina looked up suddenly from the ground and Chibiku’s ears pricked in alertness, mistaking the sound for some wild animal. Tora gave a nervous laugh.Bookmark here

“He he he…he…that was me, sorry.” Forgetting their quarrel, Reina and Sousuke exchanged a look out of habit, then they looked at Tora and they all laughed. Chibi’s tails wagged cheerfully feeling the mood lift. The smile returned to Sousuke’s face, and he turned towards Rei again, hoping the shared laughter would’ve allowed her to forgive him just a little. However, he did not find her eyes again. She was looking at the boy.Bookmark here

“Should we stop for a break then? I was thinking about stopping for lunch in the village on the other side of the forest, but you must be hungry.” She looked around to find her bearings. She had traveled through this forest often with her father. Reina pointed down the path they were walking. “If we follow this path just around that corner, there’s a little clearing and a large tree where we can rest. It’s quite easy to find. See? There. You can almost see it.”Bookmark here

“Just follow the path?”Bookmark here

“Just follow the path.”Bookmark here

“I’ll wait for you there. Let’s go Chibi!” without warning, the boy tapped into his unspent energy and sprinted down the path, leaving a trail of dust and dirt in his wake. Even the dog was struggling to catch up but Chibiku chased him happily all the same. Reina could hear him go “Wheeeeee!” with glee at the prospect of food as the boy sped towards the clearing.Bookmark here

“Such a lively boy.” Reina smiled to herself. She didn’t enjoy the silence, and she felt a little pang of guilt at having kept such an energetic young boy like Tora quiet for so long.Bookmark here

“He is, isn’t he?” Sousuke had to agree.Bookmark here

“I wasn’t talking to you.” She looked away from him. “I was talking to Chibi-“ she reached down to pet the dog, only to realize that he’d followed the boy. It is only her and Sousuke now. She cut her own sentence short and continued walking, not looking at him.Bookmark here

“Reina – I’m sorry…” his hands reached out towards her shoulder.Bookmark here

“What about?” she asked without stopping to look at him, ducking behind low-hanging branches that were in the way.Bookmark here

“That I…” lied. He couldn’t say it. Bookmark here

And that made Reina even more annoyed. She knew that Sousuke wouldn’t lie or hold something back from her if not to protect her. But she was hurt that now that she’s a grown woman he couldn’t respect her enough to allow her the truth. Even a painful truth is better than a lie.Bookmark here

It’s no big deal, Reina thought to herself. So he lied to her about what truly happened six years ago. So what? They were both young then. She could forgive a lie, especially a white lie, to protect her. But now that she’s caught him at it, why is it so difficult for him to come out with the truth? Without noticing, she angrily paced even faster.Bookmark here

“Reina stop!” his hands shot out and grabbed her wrist. “Listen to me.” He couldn’t say it to her back. This is too important.Bookmark here

“Then talk to me!” she nearly screamed in his face, and to Sousuke’s dismay, he could see tears begin to form.Bookmark here

“Oh, please, don’t, no…don’t cry.” He pulled her close and held her as she began sobbing into his chest. “Shhhh…please, Rei, it pains me to see you cry. I love you.” She pushed him away with a force that sent him staggering. But she merely stood there and faced him.Bookmark here

“Is that another lie?”Bookmark here

“Of course not!”Bookmark here

“Then tell me the whole truth!” she demanded. “What aren’t you telling me Sousuke? What are you both keeping from me?”Bookmark here

“We did it to protect you.” He tried his best to explain. “You have to trust me Rei.”Bookmark here

“Then why can’t you trust me? Neither of you could trust me with the truth!” her tears were flowing freely now. “You’re the only ones I have…” she could feel herself go weak with emotion.Bookmark here

“That is the reason why I must protect you.” He caught her in his arms again.Bookmark here

“I can take care of myself.” She mumbled into his chest.Bookmark here

“Of course you can.” He stroked her hair. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I want to protect you. I will say this as many times as you’ll have me say it. I love you. Your father loves you more than anyone or anything in this world.” He loosened the embrace to wipe away her tears. As he did so he gave her his warm smile. “We weren’t going to keep it from you forever, just…until the time comes.”Bookmark here

“And when was that gonna be?” He couldn’t give her an answer to that.Bookmark here

“Soon.”Bookmark here

“That’s not good enough Sousuke.”Bookmark here

“When I know for certain you will believe me when I say it.”Bookmark here

“Say it, and I will believe you.” She was looking straight at him now. Her grey eyes bore into his, as bright and determined as he’d ever seen it.Bookmark here

“The truth is…” Sousuke began.Bookmark here

“AHHHHHHH!!!!!” the scream came from the direction of the clearing where they were heading. However, it did not sound like the scream of a teenager. Loud barking followed.Bookmark here

“Tora-kun!” Reina and Sousuke said at once and rushed to the scene. When they got there, however, Tora was leisurely picking his teeth with the tail end of what remained of his lunch atop a pile of struggling bodies. Two of them were unconscious, the third, who was at the bottom of the pile, made to reach for a knife on the ground but Chibiku nudged the weapon further out of reach and gave an angry growl.Bookmark here

“What took you guys so long?” asked Tora before he finished picking his teeth and threw the rest of the fish into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. He slid down to the bottom of the pile, stepping on the bottom guy’s hand, who screamed again in pain, before walking lightly towards them. “These bandits here thought they could try to make away with our food.”Bookmark here

“H…How dare you treat us like this you brat?” the remaining conscious bandit struggled, but he tried his best to point an accusing finger at the 14-year-old. “Do you know who you’re dealing with?” Tora raised an eyebrow.Bookmark here

“Oh? Pray tell.” He crouched down to sit just out of the guy’s reach.Bookmark here

“We’re men of the Shadow Hands!”Bookmark here

“Shadow Hands?” Reina’s expression changed, the guy mistook for shock and fear so he went on with even more confidence in his voice.Bookmark here

“Yea! We are! So unless you want trouble… you’d…you’d hand over your money and let us go!” Before Reina could give him some, Tora laid a restraining hand on her shoulder and whispered into her ear.Bookmark here

“He’s no Hand Reina-neesan”Bookmark here

“But he just said-” She began.Bookmark here

“They do that a lot nowadays, it’s like a magic word that keeps the law enforcement off their backs. I came across a few of them on my way to your dojo.”Bookmark here

“I see.”Bookmark here

“Whether or not he is, this one’s not involved enough to wear the gang haori anyway. Let me handle this.” He gave a mischievous grin and turned back to the bandit. “Really now? This is perfect!” the self-proclaimed Shadow Hand was taken aback at the apparent glee the boy seemed to be showing, especially that slightly sadistic glint in his eyes. Like a predator playing with his prey. “You see, ojisan. We happen to be hunting Shadow Hands members ourselves.”Bookmark here

“H..Hunting?” this was not the reaction he expected.Bookmark here

“Oh yea. Hunting. Like, you know, tigers hunting deer. Ever heard of the ‘Tiger of the South’?” Tora’s grin almost reached his ears. His mismatched eyes scaring the poor bandit even more.
“T…Tiger…?” the older man had gone visibly pale and beads of sweat began to roll down his temples; partly from his two comrades lying on top of him.Bookmark here

“You see, ojisan, he’s no fan of the Shadow Hands.” The bandit looked nervously into the boy’s yellow eye. He seemed at a loss for words and could only manage a soft squeak. “Do you know what tigers do to hands that try to steal their food?” To give his words impact, Tora dramatically unsheathed one of his short swords, allowing the sun to shine directly on its edge.Bookmark here

“P…Please! We’re not really Shadow Hands!”Bookmark here

“Well, I don’t have a reason to keep you alive then.” The sword came out completely.Bookmark here

“Tora-kun…” Sousuke began when the blade got too close.Bookmark here

“No! I…I know of one! I can lead you to him! Don’t kill me!”Bookmark here

“How do we know you’re not lying?” the boy narrowed his eyes suspiciously.Bookmark here

“Please! I do know of one. I only saw him this morning from Onitsuba. The village just an hour’s walk from here. He has a black haori with a white hexagonal emblem with the kanji for ‘Kage’ on it.”Bookmark here

“Now that’s a good ojisan.” Tora put his sword away, content with the description given to him. 
“Why don’t you tell me how to find this guy?”Bookmark here

“H...His name is Matsutada, Matsutada Nobuo I think. He’s staying at the Akaheya.”Bookmark here

“We should head there then.” Said Reina at once.Bookmark here

“Do you not want to eat something first?” asked Tora.Bookmark here

“It’s fine. If we really are only an hour away, I can wait.”Bookmark here

“Am…am I free to go?” Asked the bandit at the bottom of the pile. “Do you mind helping me out?”Bookmark here

“Don’t force it.” Said Tora. He walked to the knife that once belonged to the bandit and worked swiftly to remove any other weapons on the unconscious ones. “I’m keeping these.” He twirled two short knives and slipped them into his belt “Let’s go Sousuke-nii and Reina-neesan.” He turned to lead the group down the road towards Onitsuba. “Feel free to help yourself out of that pile.” He called to the struggling bandit.Bookmark here

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