On Saturday Hiroshi hoed the leeks. The older girl offered to help, and trailed behind him, tossing the uprooted weeds into a bucket. The boy and the younger girl sat on the porch and watched him, their hands clasped tightly together. He remembered the smell of smoke that still clung to their clothing when he found them at the forest's edge, and wondered again where they had come from, and who they were.
"Thanks a ton," he told the older girl when he reached the end, leaning on his hoe and wiping the sweat off his brow.
"It's the least I could do," the girl said solemnly. "You've been so hospitable. I assure you, we won't trespass on your home much longer."
Hiroshi shrugged. "I don't mind. It's nice not just burning dinner for myself every night. Where are you going next?"
"To Mugenjou," said a quiet voice from the porch. It took Hiroshi a moment to realize it was the younger girl, as they were the first words she had spoken since her arrival. He turned in surprise. The boy looked surprised too, but very happy, and he leaned closer to the girl, his face full of sudden hope.
Hiroshi blinked a few times. "Where's that?" There was a moment of silence.
"We don't know," the older girl finally said helplessly. "What should we do?"
Hiroshi leaned the hoe against the fence with a clonk of finality. In his sister's old pink dress the younger girl looked fragile and small, and the golden bells on a string around her neck glinted like sparks in the sunlight. "We'll ask my girlfriend," Hiroshi said firmly. "She knows everything."
"I don't know everything," Asuna assured them, "I just have an Internet connection. Won't you have some tea?"
"You do too know everything," Hiroshi muttered as they sat down. "You know what goes on around town and that's not on the Internet."
"Nonsense. I just keep my ears open and think things through." Asuna flounced off, gracefully avoiding the piles of books scattered across the floor. She returned ten minutes later with three printed sheets, which she slid across the table to the older girl with a flourish. The older girl picked them up thoughtfully and looked at Asuna, confused. "This is just a map to Tokyo," she said, her voice trailing off.
Asuna shrugged. "As far as I can tell, Mugenjou is a place in Tokyo. A very unpleasant place. It's a section of Shinjuku, and the police don't even go there anymore, and some people claim it doesn't actually exist and is just an urban legend, and the exact street directions seem to vary. This is the best I can do. I'm sorry."
"It's more than we could. Thank you very much." The older girl folded the sheets up carefully and made them vanish in her pocket. "You may not know everything, but you know enough to help us."
Asuna sat down, leaning her chin on he hands. "I'm glad I could. Information is power," she told them seriously, "and the ability to get information is the greatest power in the world. If you know enough, you can do anything. Remember that."
The younger girl nodded slowly. "Thank you," she said carefully. "I will."
Tohru was so surprised by the sight of three children standing on the side of the road attempting to read the junction sign with a flashlight that he forgot to read the sign himself, and was a hundred feet down the right fork before he managed to pull over directly into some kind of a bush with thorns on. He spared a moment to be grateful he hadn't crashed altogether before he began to run up an impressive string of curses.
The sound of feet on gravel distracted him and he looked up to see the children standing next to the car. He realized they were actually teenagers - a boy and two girls, it looked like. The boy was shining the flashlight into the driver's seat, his hand on the window. "Are you alright?" he asked. "Sir?"
"I'm fine," Tohru lied. He had a splitting headache, but he'd had that before he stopped. "What are you doing out here? It's two in the fucking morning."
"We're trying to get to Tokyo," the boy told him calmly. Tohru opened the door and stepped out, getting a better look at the three of them. The boy was in jeans and a t-shirt, despite the chilly night. One girl was in a pink dress, and the other in a worn high school uniform, by the looks of it. None of them looked old enough to be out of school. He wondered briefly whether they were runaways trying to get away, or regretful runaways trying to get back.
"So'm I," he said. "Is this the right road, or do we have to go back and take the other fork?"
"It's the right road." The boy followed him with the flashlight as Tohru stepped to the front of the car, trying to brush the brambles aside and examine it. There was nothing broken he could see, although his paint job would probably need some touchups.
"I'll take you as far as I'm going. Hop in," he told them, and got back in himself. The girls sat in back; the boy opened the door for them before running around to the passenger side and taking that seat, flipping off his flashlight.
He leaned over to Tohru before he even buckled his seatbelt, murmuring, "Hold still. You have something in your hair." Tohru felt a prick on his neck, and then the boy was dropping something out the window. "Bramble," he said helpfully. Tohru wished one of the girls had taken that seat. They were both quite cute, if a little young for him. Well, maybe they would switch at the next rest stop, once he'd demonstrated his ability not to make lewd comments.
As he pulled backwards onto the road he realized happily that his headache was gone.
When the older girl finally fell asleep, slumped over the table, Kotone took the opportunity to slip the piece of paper out of her pocket and examine it. It was a printed map, and traced on it in careful blue pen was a route from a small mountain village to the outskirts of Tokyo. She put it away again just as carefully.
The girl woke up first, mortified that she had fallen asleep in the middle of a restaurant. Kotone assured her she needn't worry; the place was closed on Wednesdays anyway. The girl was even more horrified that she had imposed on Kotone on her day off. Kotone reassured her that it was no problem at all, but when the girl insisted on finishing the dishes she let her. It was little enough to make a guest comfortable.
Kotone sat down and watched the other two sleep. They were curled up together, and even in their sleep the boy's arms were curled tight around the younger girl as they slumped against the back of the booth. "Are they eloping?" she asked curiously.
"What? No, no," the older girl said hurriedly; she was blushing. "Nothing like that at all."
"Then what is it?"
The girl bit her lip. Finally she said, "Running away from ... a bad family situation." She scrubbed at the saucepot as if it were responsible for all her woes. "We'd rather not say more. We do have a place to go; it's just a matter of getting there."
Kotone nodded, and looked down at her wrinkled hands. "Good luck," she told the girl. "I hope it works out for you."
When they left they had three railcards, a map of Tokyo, and a bag of fresh cinnamon rolls. It wasn't much, but Kotone hoped it would be enough to get them home.
Katsuo was a little surprised when the three kids wandered idly down his street. Two of them were girls in kimonos for god's sake, and the third was a skinny little boy he could have beaten up one-handed. But he decided to be charitable, so he headed over to them, and grinned. "What are you doing here?" He leaned over them.
The younger girl leaned back and looked up at him. "We're looking for Mugenjou," she said. "Do you know the way?"
"I might," Katsuo murmured. Oh, this would be easy. "But it'll cost you ... a kiss."
The two girls exchanged glances. The older one sighed and stepped forward. "I'll do it," she said. Inwardly Katsuo drooled; outwardly he leaned down to make it easier. The girl raised her hands, and he reached out for them. He was quite surprised when he found his arms pinned to his sides, and he fell to the street, struggling to get loose from the cloth that had somehow wrapped around him. The older girl, through whose hands the cloth rippled darkly, regarded him sadly.
The younger one stepped forward and looked down at him. Two bells tied in her hair jingled and caught the light. Katsuo groaned. "I'll ask once more," the girl said. "Do you know the way to Mugenjou?"
Katsuo whimpered. "Fuck, man, Mugenjou doesn't exist. S'an urban legend." The cloth tightened slightly. "I mean it! I've never seen the place and I've gone looking!"
The girl sighed, and the cloth released him and vanished, wrapping itself around the older girl's shoulders again. Behind her the boy was visibly seething. Katsuo sat up and rubbed his arms, giving another miserable whimper.
"Count yourself lucky," the young girl said, and turned away. "Come. He's not worthy of more concern."
He never saw them again in waking life, although his nightmares wore kimonos for a long time.