Black Hands

Chapter 2: Dangerous Girls

Keitaro quickly settled into the routine of managing the inn and riding herd on the tenants. With Konno's rent almost caught up, he had a little money for repairs, which he stretched by doing the work himself. He killed two birds with one stone by carrying all the boards and slate shingles and buckets of paint up those blasted steps. In just a few weeks his legs were as tough as telephone poles.

His leg-strengthening routine had one unwanted side effect: drunken staggering for a minute once he got up to the inn.

"Hey! What do you think you're doing, you pervert!?"

"Sorry, sorry! I tripped and fell into you. I'm sorry!"

Apologies did nothing to calm Narusegawa's wrath, or her ferocious punches. Nor Aoyama's wrath or the swats with her sword.

In theory Keitaro should be able to stop the girls' attacks, or at least avoid them. He didn't even try, as he felt guilty about shoving his face in their … chests. Or knocking them down and ending up in a pile with his hands up their skirts.

Despite the endless accidents, the house's self-appointed watchdogs of morality eventually accepted that Keitaro probably wasn't a rapist or peeper, and even his gropes had at least the appearance of being an accident. Keitaro appreciated this; he didn't care for being hit even if it did help keep him tough.

There was some backsliding, some jumping to conclusions. One afternoon, a noisy procession passed from the woods to the inn.

"Eeeeeee! Noooooo! Keep away from meeeeee!" Shinobu was making very good time across the grounds, wailing the entire way.

Keitaro was running after her at top speed, almost within arms' reach but always a few steps behind.

The first that he knew that Aoyama had come out to investigate the ruckus was when a wave of some kind of energy tore up the lawn, heading right for him. What the hell was that?!

Luckily he'd caught sight of the wave just in time to jump, so the churning earth didn't do much more than knock him off his feet.

The bridge crossing the small stream wasn't so lucky. It exploded in a shower of boards and splinters, catching Kaolla Su's mecha right in the face.

"That was great! It's been months since you did that! Do it again, Mo-chan!" Su-san was literally bouncing around, even more wound up than usual.

"You did that? What was it?" Keitaro was stumped. He'd never heard of being able to cause an earthquake, even a small one. This must be why Granny wanted to work with the Aoyamas. But he had more immediate concerns: "And who's going to fix the bridge?"

"I used a secret family technique to protect a young girl from an attacking male. That is all that one such as you needs to know."

Keitaro probably would have let Aoyama off easy because of the misunderstanding, but the pretend samurai's arrogance and prejudice, right after her trying to kill him, got on his nerves.

"Fine, keep your secrets. And you can use some more of your family secrets to rebuild the bridge, fix the lawn, and repair Su-san's mecha. If you do all that, plus whatever Shinobu-chan, er, Maehara-san needs as compensation, then I won't evict you and won't talk to the police."

After a few rounds of resistance and arguing followed by defeat and negotiating, Aoyama agreed to go home the next weekend to ask if she could teach Haruka the Rock Splitting Spirit Sword. There was no way she could pay for the repairs, and training Keitaro's aunt would at least keep the technique away from a perverted male.

And as for Su-san...

"Oh, don't worry about it, Motoko. I have to redesign my mecha anyway. I wanted to catch Shinobu but not hurt her, I just wanted us both to have a good time, so I couldn't shoot a missile. Maybe Turtlehead Mecha Mark II can shoot some goo at her to slow her down, or jump on her and hold her down so I can get my playtime in."

Keitaro was right the first time. Su was crazy!

Su-san wasn't the only crazy one. Narusegawa went into periods of irrational, aggressive anger, leaping to the most ridiculous conclusions and then punching people – Keitaro – because of the "truth" of what she'd seen.

Like seeing Keitaro reaching toward Shinobu's chest. It wasn't conceivable that he was handing her some vacuum cleaner bags he'd just bought. No, the only possible explanation was that Keitaro was about to grope the younger girl, who was paralyzed with fear.

After he'd been punched out the front door and had rolled down the entire stone stairway, Keitaro limped into Haruka's tea house right at the bottom of the hill.

"Uh-oh, what happened, Keitaro?" True to form, Haruka barely expressed any sympathy, continuing to wipe down tables as she talked.

"Narusegawa. Again. Hey, Auntie – ouch! – you told me that we need to work with the Aoyama clan, and she's supposed to be back in a couple days to let us know if she can teach you. But what about Narusegawa? She's not good for anything, is she? So I can just evict her for being a bad-tempered nutcase?"

"Sorry, Keitaro. Mom wants Naru here, too. Says she might be one of the trees."

"'One of the trees?' What does that mean?"

"She never said. All I know is that Kanako is definitely a tree."

That didn't explain anything. He and his sort-of-sister had climbed plenty of trees when they were children, but even the crazy old bat shouldn't be crazy enough to think Kanako was a tree.

Bottom line, though, he couldn't boot the cow from the boarding house no matter how violent she got. He'd have to take care of her violence himself.

Keitaro cracked his knuckles as he stomped up the stairs. No problem.

Up at the inn, Keitaro found Narusegawa kneeling submissively just inside the front door. With eyes cast down, she whispered in a tremulous voice, "I'm very sorry, Urashima-sama. I jumped to a conclusion and let my temper get the better of me. Please forgive me. It won't happen again." Narusegawa glanced at Shinobu, whom Keitaro hadn't noticed until now. "Was that polite enough, Maehara-sama?"

"That's up to Urashima-san," the younger girl said harshly.

A few minutes later, Narusegawa had been given permission to hit him when he accidentally groped her and had promised not to hit him otherwise. She edged out of the room, keeping Keitaro between her and Shinobu.

Alone in the front room, the manager and the youngest tenant worked together as smoothly as they always did, he lifting and she vacuuming. Unlike the other girls, Shinobu was a delight to work with. She was an excellent cook and never needed to be prompted to do her share of the chores, and she never hit him except when they were working out. If he were allowed to evict Aoyama and Narusegawa and if he didn't need the rent money from the other two, it would be so tempting to live here alone with Shinobu-chan. Su wasn't so bad, aside from being so loud and energetic, but Konno…

When Keitaro found that Shinobu had been doing some chores for the others, especially the oh-so-busy Konno, he tried to force them to pay the girl. He knew the thirteen-year-old was supporting herself, though he didn't know why, and he knew she'd need money for… whatever it was that teenage girls spent money on. Clothes, or whatever. Though Keitaro had a vision of Shinobu slinking into a pawn shop to buy bullets on the black market…

In any event, it didn't work. Narusegawa and Aoyama said they weren't taking advantage of the girl and promised not to do it again. Konno didn't deny slacking, but offered to pay Shinobu back by giving her tips on attracting an older man.

Keitaro scoffed. As if that would work. Konno had too much fat and too little muscle to be attractive, or at least not to him. Not like Shinobu, who was slim and lithe and surprisingly strong and unbelievably fast and could keep up with him when he was working out. And Konno's idea of attracting men was to expose flesh and make empty promises. Not like Shinobu, who never made a promise she didn't carry out.

From his own upbringing as a little girl, Keitaro recognized that Shinobu acted like the perfect traditional Japanese housewife: quiet and polite and competent in the kitchen. And dangerous. Very, very dangerous, like a beautiful flower with deadly pollen.

Keitaro smacked himself. She was thirteen. Hands off, no matter how attractive her flower.

...ooo000ooo...

"Could you please bring down the orange jar of miso paste, Urashima-san?"

"Here you go."

"I appreciate the help, Sempai, but there's a stool in the closet. I can get things from the high shelves myself."

"No, I like helping. After a long day of working and studying and dealing with the others, it's relaxing to be with you. Helping you cook, I mean!"

Keitaro's correction didn't do anything to cool Shinobu's blush.

Shinobu's blush and downcast eyes obviously didn't do anything to her alertness. While Keitaro washed dishes, a knife flashed past his ear, pinning a very large spider to a cupboard.

On another evening, Shinobu was carrying laundry up the stairs, following Keitaro after he finished another day of prep class and chores around the inn. Keitaro suddenly dodged one of Su's surprise mecha attacks, which left Shinobu in the line of fire. The blue-haired girl back-flipped down the stairs, snatched a framed picture from the wall, and flung it like a discus at the mecha. Su was heard muttering about improvements for the next generation as Keitaro helped Shinobu pick up the laundry… until she realized that he was folding her underwear. "Aaauuu!" She grabbed all of the clothes and disappeared up the stairs in a flash.

Incidents like these weren't the only reason she was the most interesting tenant. She couldn't remember her father's name or what he did for a living or why she was here by herself.

It didn't make any sense. Keitaro had glanced at the information Granny had on all of the tenants when he became the manager. He'd looked at Aoyama's and Narusegawa's in more depth when he was looking for an excuse to evict them. Now he looked at Shinobu's records, trying to figure out this mystery.

Father: unknown. Mother: unknown. He hadn't noticed that before. Shinobu had casually mentioned her parents' names a few times over the past six weeks. She gave different names each time. Either she was a liar or there was something wrong with her memory. Shinobu didn't seem to be a liar, and he couldn't see how giving the wrong names would get her anything.

If she had something wrong with her memory…

Keitaro had memories he didn't want. Much of his childhood had been bad, being forced by his family to reach his body's limits, to spend entire days practicing his skills.

Shinobu was a predator. He could see it in her eyes sometimes and in the way she moved. And she'd been pushed harder than he ever had been. There was no way a small girl could regularly beat a larger, older, highly skilled man unless she'd been trained even harder than he had.

Had the poor girl repressed all of her childhood memories? Could her life have been that bad?

Keitaro didn't know what he could do to help with that, but he could help to make her life here better.

...ooo000ooo...

Once he had the inn well in hand, Keitaro had returned to his studying with a vengeance. He didn't care about his parents' foiled plans for him. He didn't care about his insane grandmother's schemes. He didn't even know what the old woman had in mind, but she always had a scheme working, and he didn't want anything to do with it.

Getting into Tokyo U was his goal, his plan. He didn't even remember why he'd first set his sights on that school, or even how he'd heard of it. All he had was a fragment of a childhood memory of promising to get in. It could be that, even as a small child, he had rejected his parents' disappointment in him not being able to follow the path Granny had planned for him – her – before his birth.

Regardless, he had signed up for an afternoon study class to help him pass the admissions test. Most days he'd study and do chores for about eight hours, go to class, then come home in time for a soak before dinner.

"Hello, Shinobu-chan." Keitaro had jogged to catch up to his youngest tenant, whom he'd spotted a block ahead. He was just being sociable, that's all. "Do you mind if I walk with you? I won't be scaring away a boyfriend, will I?" He mentally slapped himself upside the head. That was none of his business and he didn't want to give her any idea that he was overly interested in a barely-teen's love life.

...-...

"G-Good afternoon, Manager. N-no, I would like it if you walked with me." Shinobu cursed her stammering. She didn't want to give away any hint of her crush on the young man. "A-and I don't have a b-boyfriend yet." Oh no! Why had she admitted that? Now he'd think there was something wrong with her and she was an old maid!

...-...

"Here, let me help you carry those." Keitaro shifted his backpack so he could take most of the hundred bags of groceries the small girl was carrying. This was a little way he could make her life easier. He definitely liked her despite her bashfulness and he respected the way she supported herself at such a young age. Unlike the other girls, all of whom slacked off as much as they could on their three hours a week of cleaning chores, Shinobu threw herself wholeheartedly into her 20 hours of chores every week. "Is everything OK? You're late today." He shouldn't have said that. Keitaro didn't want to sound like a creepy stalker who knew exactly when she should be coming home each day of the week.

...-...

"I- I had to stay after school. My math teacher is not satisfied with my work." Oh, no! She shouldn't have said that. If Kei-kun – she could call him that in her own mind, even if she'd bite her tongue off before saying the words to his face – if he thought she wasn't able to keep up with her schoolwork as well as her housework, he wouldn't let her stay with him and she'd have to go back to … back to wherever she was before this.

...-...

"I can help you if you want. You can come up to my room any time. N-no, that's not what I meant to say! We can, we can work at the kitchen table. No one could object to that."

Keitaro shut up. It was safer. The two walked in self-conscious silence as night fell, sneaking glances at each other, and quickly looking away if the other noticed them looking at each other. The adorably awkward moment ended when Keitaro stifled a curse as one of his bags ripped. Shinobu politely stopped, in front of a narrow alley, to wait for him to redistribute the fallen goods.

"Heh, heh, heh. Look what we have here, a careless little girl who doesn't know she shouldn't walk by herself at night. Fun times, boys!" A hulking figure had half-emerged from the alley.

Keitaro dropped his freshly-gathered groceries and sprinted to rescue the girl.

… who didn't need to be rescued. Three cans of coconut milk flashed so fast that if Keitaro had blinked he would have missed them. In the next eyeblink Shinobu had ran away wailing. "Aaauuu! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

All three thugs were dead, their faces caved in. Keitaro quickly grabbed Shinobu's spilled groceries, all except for the exploded milk cans. There would be nothing to eat tonight without these bags, and nothing tomorrow, either. His and the inn's finances couldn't bear to lose two days' food.

Keitaro didn't even consider calling the police or doing anything about the bodies. Lessons from before he could remember told him to get away quickly. Kill all witnesses. Luckily, there were no witnesses in sight, so he could just get the food and go.

After he had lugged about ninety-nine bags of groceries to the top of the inn's stairs and set them down so he could open the door, Keitaro smacked himself in the head and then ran back down the stairs. Sloppy. Those cans of coconut milk had Shinobu's fingerprints all over them.

But when he got to the alley, and it took time because he had to keep out of sight, he found that not only were the cans gone, the bodies were gone. Only a smell remained, cleaning product of some sort, an "outdoors" smell totally out of place in the middle of a city.

There was no sign of police anywhere. A bureaucratic organization like a police force could not have come, cleaned up, and left in this amount of time. It was a mystery. Keitaro filed it and headed back to the steps up to the inn.

...ooo000ooo...

One evening as Keitaro helped Shinobu with the supper cleanup, she turned to him with a pleading expression. "Mr Manager, my class in school is scheduled to take a trip to Kyoto to see the bamboo forest. We don't have enough chaperones signed up, so we won't be able to go. Would you pleeeease come with us? I'll make a special lunch that we can sha– I mean, I'll make you a special lunch."

Keitaro didn't stand a chance. Even if he didn't feel more of a connection to the barely-teen girl than he should have, he'd have agreed to eat his own liver five second after she used those puppy-dog eyes against him.

Thus, a few days later, Keitaro found himself on a bus, one of the few adults among dozens of noisy, excited, chattering, giggling middle-schoolers who'd gotten up well before dawn. He'd hoped to get some studying done during the several-hour trip, but those hopes were dashed just minutes after the doors closed.

"First time as a chaperone, right?" one of the teachers asked sympathetically as Keitaro slumped after stopping some older students from making some younger students polish their shoes for them. "It must be. You look like you just graduated last year. Don't worry, you get used to it."

That wasn't as reassuring as it was probably meant to be. Did the teacher think he was insane? What Earthly reason would Keitaro have for subjecting himself to this enough times to get used to it?

("Puppy-dog eyes," a tiny voice whispered. He told it to shut up.)

After the morning's guided tour – restful for Keitaro because the students mostly shut up for an hour – and lunch shared with Shinobu – just as delicious as promised – the class was allowed to wander around the forest before the return trip.

Shinobu, ever the economical cook, took the opportunity to gather some kind of edible fungus, an expensive delicacy which she could gather for free here. Keitaro was a decent cook himself, but not in her league and he always bought his ingredients from the market. He wouldn't dare gather wild mushrooms because he would never want to unintentionally poison anyone.

Nevertheless, he had a valuable role to play in this expedition: pack mule. The fungus wasn't especially heavy but it was bulky, and tiny little waifish Shinobu could not have managed the pack.

In addition to the fungus she expected, Shinobu also found several other species as well as a few roots that were likewise expensive and useful. Their gathering expedition took them farther and farther from the school group's tour area. As the evening came on, the wind picked up and clouds gathered. It would be a dark and stormy night.

Suddenly a shot rang out. Quicker than an eyeblink, Shinobu disappeared into the forest. Keitaro, hampered by the pack, could only throw himself face-down. He hadn't even crawled behind the bamboo stand before she was out of sight. Discarding the pack and drawing the pistol which he hadn't consciously realized he had brought with him, Keitaro pursued his friend, moving faster when a flurry of new shots rang out.

By the time he found her, it was all over. Shinobu was standing, face blank but eyes very alert, surrounded by the bodies of three men in green and yellow coveralls. Camouflage for hunting Shinobu and him in the bamboo forest, no doubt. There was a handgun near every dead body.

"Come on! We have to get out of here before anyone sees us." The same instinct-level training was telling Keitaro that they had to be long gone by the time anyone else – witnesses, police, more killers – saw the scene.

Shinobu snapped out of her daze. "Aaauuu!" came the familiar wail as she ran away. Keitaro noticed how she tucked her pistol into the small of her back without breaking stride. He collected weapons, bullets, and wallets, and then used a stick to tear up their footprints as he followed.

As soon as he got back to the starting point, well behind Shinobu, Keitaro was grabbed to help the teachers herd the students into a group to wait for the buses. Shinobu was standing alone so he drifted toward her, but a pair of slightly older girls came up to talk to her before he got there.

"So, Shinobu-chan…" one of her classmates said slyly as they waited for the bus which would bring the class back home. "Did you have a good nap?"

"Ah, what?"

"Well, you were out of sight for a while. Everyone else stayed together, but you disappeared right after the tour. What could you have been doing that we weren't?"

"I was looking for—." In the presence of older girls, Shinobu was back to her normal self: young and small, shy and uncertain.

"Did you notice that you have leaves in your hair, Shinobu-chan?" the second girl asked, elbowing the first with a wink.

"You have leaves on the back of your sweater, too," confirmed the first.

"You must have been lying down."

"Lying on your back."

"So you must have been sleeping in the forest, right? Why else would you have been on your back, in the forest, where none of us could see you?"

"Or hear you."

"Though I thought I heard you scream once a few minutes before you came back to the rest of us."

"It wasn't a scream. It was more of an ohhhhhh!

"We didn't go to check on you because it didn't sound like you were dying…"

"Maybe just a little…"

"Yes, a little death."

"And it looks like your boyfriend—"

"Her 'landlord', you mean."

"Oh, that's right. He can't be her boyfriend because he's too old. It looks like your landlord was lying down for a nap, too. He disappeared at the same time."

"And he has dirt rubbed into his elbows and knees."

"But we didn't hear him yelling like he was dying."

"Not even a little death."

Keitaro couldn't think of how he could rescue Shinobu from the gossips' smirking insinuations. ("Does your landlord have a bed or a futon?" "How soft is it? Softer than a pile of leaves?" "How do you pay your rent with no parents to take care of you?") Rescue himself, too. His reputation was being dragged through the mud just like hers was. But anything he said to defend Shinobu would make it worse. Anything she said would make it worse.

Shinobu didn't say anything. The cute little girl disappeared in an eyeblink. Her face went flat. Monstrous. It was the face from his drawing the day they met!

The problem went away, at least for the moment, as the two girls went away, leaving behind a faint smell of ammonia.

...ooo000ooo...

Putting the confrontations on the bamboo forest trip behind her, Shinobu sold most of their bounty of mushrooms and used the rest to make a fancy meal. For the first time since Granny's abrupt departure, the inn's grocery budget had enough extra to buy live fish and other ingredients above just the basics.

The industrious young chef could have used some holiday or birthday as the excuse, but she didn't bother. The real reason was that the manager had insisted that she take three quarters of the mushroom money and she wanted to show her gratitude. And she wanted to show what she could do. Kei-kun was always so impressed with what she accomplished with only limited material to work with. She'd show him that if she had the proper ingredients, she could make a meal any husband would be proud of! If Kei-kun were her husband, she would offer him something mouth-watering every night.

Shinobu looked down as the other meaning of her thought occurred to her. Luckily, her blush was hidden because Kei-kun was walking behind her … behind and below her, with her bottom right in front of his face. Shinobu blushed deeper, but couldn't stop her hips from swaying a bit. Why oh why couldn't she have a figure like Mitsune-san? … But Kei-kun wasn't interested in the rather over-stuffed woman and he did like Shinobu, so she held her head high and waggled her hips even more as she went up the stairs a few steps above him.

...-...

Keitaro dealt with the weight of the twelve fish he was carrying for Shinobu. The fish were good-sized, but not that heavy. What was heavy was the water to keep the fish alive until just before cooking. He dealt with it. It was good strength training.

The stairs, though… As he struggled up the (146 damned) stairs, Keitaro needed something to take his mind off the burning in his legs. He found himself focusing on the skirt-covered behind right in front of his face. No! If he'd had a hand free he would have slapped himself. She was thirteen! True, she was more mature and more capable than any of the other tenants, but she was still a little girl.

… A little girl who could kick his ass. Shinobu had talked him into bare-handed sparring a few times, when Motoko wasn't available for working out. Despite her size, despite his strength, despite his family techniques, she beat him three falls out of four. Sure, he was holding back, but so was she. Her school clothes didn't show it, but she was solidly muscled.

Which brought him back to the solidly-muscled behind swaying right in front of his face. Keitaro groaned and shut his eyes.

Finally overcoming the stairs, he brought the fish to the inn's kitchen. The girl prepared the meal with an efficiency that was always a pleasure to watch.

As Keitaro grabbed the fish one at a time from their bucket and placed them on the cutting board for the chef, he thought he saw a wave of despair pass over her. "What's the matter, Shinobu? You didn't spend all your money at the market, did you?"

She paused before bringing her cleaver down on the last fish. "I can kill so easily but I feel nothing. Why don't I feel anything?"

Keitaro saw a tear glistening in her eye, but then she beheaded and gutted the fish and the moment was over.

...ooo000ooo...

Life at the inn went on. The girls went to school or to their jobs, paid their rent, and did the chores Keitaro assigned them (with varying amounts of coercion and supervision required). Keitaro managed the inn and kept it up, and studied when he could.

And Keitaro continued to stagger after climbing the stairs, or trip going down the stairs, or start cleaning the changing room just as a naked teenage girl came in from the hot spring. And then be sent flying for his perversion.

Shinobu saw it all. She saw the trips and the collisions and the accidental gropes.

She saw that Keitaro managed, with no intent at all, to come into intimate contact with all of the tenants.

All of the tenants except her. When was it going to be her turn? Why wasn't Kei-kun ever clumsy around her? When was she going to just happen to be there when he came around a corner and ended up with his hands in her shirt? Or his face against…

Shinobu looked down and concentrated on carrying dishes to the table, not wanting Kei-kun to see her blush.