Play 16: Uncle Keimon's Store

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As much as I hated to admit it, I felt slightly better compared to a few moments ago.

  When I came to Kyoto for the first time, I didn't exactly take notice of my surroundings—I was too busy scaring passers-by off with my 'crazy' act. Now that I was patrolling with the world's most annoying man alive (and his men), I absorbed the entire scene of the busy city as if I was starving for it.

  The whole streets were packed with people, and I got excited. Not only was it a long time ever since I had stepped out of the Shinsengumi, I finally got to interact with other commoners, though indirectly. My eyes were still shining with anticipation as I scanned the buzzing crowd when Souji decided to spoil it.

  "Don't get too excited there, Jun. We're out here for business, not fun, remember?" His smile was warning me—if I dared to run off without permission, even if it was to check out some items from a stall, he would make sure I wouldn't be waking up the next day.

  I gulped, suddenly anxious. "Of course. I just..." I drifted off as soon as a child bumped right into me. Wincing, I backed away—I was never good with kids, and somehow they were also afraid of me. I made sure I didn't make eye contact to the little boy even when he apologized.

  As if he had just seen something funny (everything about me was hilarious to him anyway), his lips twitched into a grin. "Well, since the Gion Festival's coming up, things are a little more lively than usual." His tone turned serious all of a sudden. "Of course, some of those nationalist ronin are acting pretty suspicious too. What I'm saying is, watch yourself, all right?"

  I tried my best not to glare at his nonchalant 'warning' as I strolled down the streets, observing everything. Kids were pulling at their parents, pointing excitedly at the items selling at each stall. Women were buying groceries and necessaries, and men were running some kind of errands for their jobs. Some stall-tenders were yelling about, trying to capture the attention of potential customers, and most of them succeeded.

  As I walked on with Souji and his division, I realized that most people flinched and cowered away, trying not to meet their eyes with any of us. I guessed that the fear was obvious—after all, they were all men in blue who cut down people who opposed them without any hesitation.

  Stopping in front of a grocery stall, I took out my only portrait of Yukimura Koudou and asked if the stall-tender had seen him. He shook his head, looking quite shaken, and I quickly left with the others, afraid that he might lose his customers. I stopped anyone passing us—even if the person looked as if he or she might wet themselves from making eye contact with the Shinsengumi. After the twentieth try, a middle-aged man stroked his chin and nodded his head after a moment of consideration.

  "Oh, yeah. I think I might have seen that guy a while back, over at Masu's." He pointed over a store selling wood and charcoal. I brightened up and thanked him elatedly, before jogging over to there. I knew Souji was slightly annoyed, since he did tell me not to wander off before. But I didn't care—I wanted to find that Yukimura and settle things once and for all.

  Almost immediately when I was about seven feet away from the store, I heard a loud commotion behind. I whipped around, almost hitting a toddler with my short sword, and felt guilty at once. One of the Shinsengumi soldiers had went to confront a group of men, and Souji was facing in that direction, clearly weighing his options—he could just leave it all up to them and follow me, or he could join the others in stopping the ronin. Finally, he made a decision and touched the sword by his side. He pulled the blade out, which shone under the bright sun as if thirsty for blood.

  Before I could even run back to Souji, he was already moving at an incredible speed. As I watched, he managed to squeeze through the panicking citizens easily towards the group. I tried to catch up too, but was instead dragged away by the strong crowd which were going off in the opposite direction.

  I hissed under my breath as I slipped out from the fleeing crowd. Exhausted, I sat on the ground, gasping for air. I stood up, ready to run back there when someone spoke from a store.

  "Hey kid. Better come over here. You don't want to get yourself caught up in that." A store-owner smiled gently at me, and my eyes fluttered to the signboard. Masu's.

  "Ahh," I let out a sigh of relief before I could stop myself. "Sir, can I ask you something?" I began to reach into my pocket for the portrait when someone from inside the store yelped.

  "Keimon-san! I just saw that kid with Okita, the Shinsengumi captain!"

  As soon as words left that man's mouth, everything happened so fast that I didn't have the time to react. Everyone in the store scrambled for the exit as if their whole lives depended on it. Within seconds, the first floor was completely empty. I stood there, my jaw wide open. What the hell just happened here?

  Suddenly Souji spoke up behind, almost startling me to death. "You really have the worst luck, don't you? Still, I guess you could say the same thing about them...and me." His cold green eyes were bright, and I shuddered involuntarily. This was the man I had first met—icy and uncaring, craving hungrily for battle. I took a few steps back and hit my back against the wall as Souji shrugged unconcerned and entered the shop almost dramatically. A few moments later, the entire store exploded with the sounds of men fighting, swearing and escaping from the chaos.

  I blinked, shocked as injured men ran out of the stall, clearly afraid. I could hear some of them screaming as blades came down upon their chests, and before I knew it I was recalling the night I was almost killed. My whole body started to shake, and my legs gave way.

  My sweaty hands desperately clung onto the sword by my side, but for some reason I couldn't get it out. I wanted to defend myself, just like Souji had told me to when we reached Kyoto for the rounds. However, once I thought that the men escaping might notice me and take me as hostage, I couldn't move a single limb. If one of them decided that I would be their ticket to escape from the Shinsengumi, I knew I wouldn't have the strength and guts to fight back, even if it was for my life.

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