Hida Nakamuro frowned. He was in the middle of drilling his squad, none of whom came from the Hare clan. He’d met a member of the Usagi months ago, but that had been an unusual circumstance, and… That voice!
With a roar, he turned and charged the speaker, a heavily-armored Crab bushi with a tetsubo slung across his back. The other samurai braced himself for the impact, his feet wide, hands raised, body in a half crouch. The two came together with a crash, and grappled for a few moments in a tangle of armor and weapons.
Nakamuro’s troops looked up from their weapons practice in surprise. One man, a former Mitanaka warrior named Tamotsu, took a hesitant step forward, but the Kakeguchi next to him put a hand on his shoulder. “An old friend, by the look of it,” Kakeguchi Hiroki guessed.
The squad had been drilling in a paved courtyard in Kyuden Hida. Divided into groups of two, they were practicing heavy weapons kata. The sky was overcast, with the promise of rain later in the day. Not that it would stop the drills, of course — the creatures of the Shadowlands never minded the rain. They would continue until well after dark, so this chance for a brief respite was both welcome and unexpected.
The two warriors separated, and to the shock of his squad, Nakamuro was smiling. In the entire time they’d been under his command, not one of them had ever seen him smile. His usual expression was somewhere between a brood and a despond.
“Very old friend,” Hiroki whispered to the Tamotsu, and then stood at attention as their gunso came towards them.
“This is Hida Nagayo,” Nakamuro said, in the direct way the Crab were famous for. “We were squadmates when I was first assigned to the Wall.”
Hida Nagayo grinned at the men, giving them a cursory bow. “I am honored to meet you. You are lucky to have Nakamuro as a commander. He is an excellent fighter, even—” here he glanced at Nakamuro, who seemed to know what was coming “—in bunny ears.” He laughed and moved his hands over his head as if stroking long invisible ears. Nakamuro shot him a disgusted look.
The squad was completely silent for a moment, and then the Kakeguchi snorted. “Bunny ears?” This broke the spell, and the rest of the squad began to snicker and whisper to each other.
Nakamuro sighed, his face returning to its usual dour lines. “It was during a draw lot play. We were reenacting the Battle of the Three Man Alliance and I was the Usagi.”
“But—” Tamotsu hesitated, then plunged on. “But the Usagi weren’t part of the Three Man Alliance!”
Hida Nagayo guffawed as Hida Nakamuro growled out an “I know.” He indicated Nagayo with a jerk of his thumb. “He made a lovely Sparrow.”
Hida Nagayo puffed out his chest, tucked his hands into his armpits and flapped his arms like wings. He circled Nakamuro, squawking raucously. The squad could not contain their mirth, and their laughter drowned out the Sparrow’s discordant song.
Nakamuro waited patiently, his face a stone mask, though his lips trembled with the effort not to smile. Finally Hida Nagayo ran out of steam and ceased his prancing. He bowed perfunctorily to the assembled squad once again, and then turned to Hida Nakamuro. “I would speak with you, brother,” he said.
Nakamuro nodded. “Keep practicing,” he said over his shoulder to his squad as the two bushi walked off a short distance together.
“How long have you been back?” asked Nagayo as they stood watching the squad begin their practice once again.
“A month,” said Nakamuro, making a mental note to correct Kakeguchi Hiroki’s footwork. He could tell he was off-balance even from here.
“Seen your wife yet?” Nagayo said, almost casually.
Nakamuro froze. He took a moment to get his face and voice under control, and then said, in as neutral a tone as he could manage, “No.”
Nagayo waited, but Nakamuro was silent. Finally he said, “She knows you’re back. So does your mother. You made quite an entrance, and that kind of news travels quickly.” Still Nakamuro said nothing. Nagayo grew impatient. “What’s wrong with you, brother? It’s not like you to shirk your responsibilities like that.”
Nakamuro winced. The accusation stung. “I… I didn’t think they would want to see me. I brought great shame to them.” He fingered the scar on his cheek. “I have been declared dead, one of the Stolen. Easier for them if I stay that way.”
Nagayo snorted. “Since when did you ever do things the easy way?” He began to pace back and forth, waving his arms as he spoke. “Yes, we all thought you were dead. But clearly you’re not.” He stopped in front of Nakamuro. They were almost the same height, and Nagayo’s eyes bored directly into his. “You owe it to them. Bad enough they had to hear about your return from others. Don’t further shame them by pretending they don’t exist.”
Nakamuro held his friend’s gaze for a moment, and then dropped his eyes. For a long moment, he said nothing. Then he nodded, slowly. “Hoh. You’re right.” He looked back up at Nagayo. “Thank you, brother.”
Nagayo grimaced. “Don’t thank me. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes. I hear that wife of yours has quite a temper.” He laughed as Nakamuro winced again, and clapped him on the back. “Come on. These whelps could use a break. Let’s show them how it’s done.” He unslung his tetsubo, and Nakamuro moodily hefted his hammer. They backed away from each other, giving themselves a bit of distance, and then Nagayo screamed a challenge that Nakamuro answered with one of his own. The sound of two battle-hardened Hida clashing together brought the squad up short, and they watched in silence as the warriors traded blows.
Nagayo pressed him hard, not bothering to cushion his strikes. Although Nakamuro tried to give as good as he got, he was distracted, and the bout ended when Nagayo swept his legs out from under him. He landed heavily on the stone pavement and sat there panting for a long moment. Nagayo extended his arm, and Nakamuro grabbed it, letting himself be pulled up.
“It is good to see you alive, brother,” Nagayo said, embracing him with his free arm. “Join me for a drink later, eh? We have much to talk about.”
Nakamuro nodded. He watched Nagayo walk off, and then turned to go back to his own men, limping just a little. By the time he reached them, they had all returned to their practice. None of them looked his way. He hardly noticed, lost as he was in his own thoughts.
Two Kaiu women, whose only weapons training had been the basic katana required of all Crab samurai. And yet, stiff and sore as he would be tomorrow, he would rather face an army of Nagayo’s than even one of them.