Disclaimers: Shoujoai ni Bokuen and the characters of Yuriko, Mariko, Midori and Kaori are the sole property of E. Friedman, all rights reserved and are used with permission. The situations and other characters are copyright 2001, J. McLaughlin.

Erica's note: Jude is a brave lass, writing the first SnB fanfic - giver her your support and let her know how good it is!

And The Cherry Trees Are Blooming

by Jude McLaughlin

"Protect the princess! Protect the princess!" Yuriko bellowed. She drew her katana and held it high.

Just moments before, she'd been calmly sitting her horse, surveying the rocky landscape that lay before her small troop and the palanquin they accompanied. She enjoyed moments like that, especially since she knew that she cut a dashing figure and drew admiring looks from samurai and handmaidens alike. For this short escort trip, she'd worn her favorite kimono, pale cream patterned with lilies, close-fitting black kobakama (she preferred the freedom of the hakama, but riding made that impractical), and a matching black kataginu, a wing-shouldered vest adorned with her clan's mon on both sides of her chest. Her blonde hair was caught sleekly into a teawhisk topknot, though a few stray locks swept artistically over her face in the mountain breeze.

It was chilly in the mountain pass -- a perfect fall day, sun shining high in a clear blue sky. She knew that once through and into the flatlands beyond, there would be more trees turning brilliant fall colors, and looked forward to seeing it. It had been dry in the mountains this past summer, so the foliage would not be as breathtaking as she remembered the lush lands of her clan's allies.

When she glanced over toward Mariko, who had turned her horse back along the line to check on their passenger, she saw a bush move and a shadowy figure slink deeper into cover.

With her warning, the bushes all around them spat forth black-garbed figures. Steel sang from scabbards, and within a fraction of a second, the two sides closed for battle.

Yuriko cleaved a path for herself through the assassins on the ground, making for the palanquin, where she knew Mariko was making a stand -- she could hear her snapping commands to the foot soldiers. Then, over the sounds of battle, Yuriko heard a shrill scream, followed by Mari's curses. With a shout, she rode down the two ninja who moved to block her path and broke through to the furious skirmish around the palanquin. She saw the bloody bodies of handmaidens, retainers, and samurai scattered around the broken vehicle; two assassins were hauling the princess away from it. Mari was blocked by a half dozen hired killers, as well as the wreckage, though she struggled valiantly to hack her way free.

The pair shoved the princess to the ground roughly and turned to meet
Yuriko's charge. The blonde brought her katana around for a low side-cut, and one ninja head flew through the air. The other dodged aside and tried to bring his sword up into her horse's belly. The horse danced aside, affording Yuriko a downward slash at her remaining opponent. He partially blocked it, but she drew blood from his sword arm and he fell back for a moment.

She took that moment to lean down and drag the princess up across her

"Yuri!" Mariko shouted. "Go! I'll cover you!"

Yuriko didn't hesitate in turning her horse and kicking it into a gallop, but she did glance behind to see how her childhood friend was faring. The dust and commotion of battle hid all from view.

The princess was struggling now. Yuriko hissed, "Stop that and hang on, if you want to live!" There was a noise of rebellion from her charge, but she settled down for the moment.

The ride was fast and harsh, scrambling over rugged terrain into lower, more wooded territory. Yuriko hoped desperately that there were no reserves assigned to capture escapees. The sounds of battle faded behind. After just a few minutes of riding, Yuriko could hear only her own breathing and the clatter of her horse's hooves on the stones. She began to hope for the best.

Too much to hope: the horse had been struck with several arrows during their initial flight, and it finally collapsed under her as they were crossing a stream. She managed to snatch up the princess and jump for it as the beast stumbled and fell.

The two of them sat up slowly at the edge of the stream. Yuriko gave the horse's body a sad look. "Thank you," she murmured to the valiant, departing spirit, and turned to face the discomfited princess.

She blinked. Yuriko was not personally acquainted with the princess, but she was pretty sure she wasn't this… old.

"You aren't Princess Kaori!" she exclaimed, scrambling to her feet and reaching for her sword.

The woman dressed in the rich silks of a princess looked up at her and laughed, a rich, ringing sound that made the samurai catch her breath. "I suppose I can't blame you for not noticing in the heat of battle." She rose gracefully and, untying her obi, began to dispense with kimono after kimono, dropping the expensive fabric carelessly into the mud.

Yuriko backed up a few steps, gulping air and trying to find firm footing. "Where is the princess?" she demanded.

"Oh, at our client's headquarters by now, I suppose," the woman said, stopping at the final kimono, plain and dark. Her long, black hair was caught into a foxtail between her shoulder blades. It had been brushed smooth before the frantic ride; now it was tousled in attractive disarray. She set her fists on her hips and cocked her head. "Are you going to continue to wave that sword at me or shall we talk about this, samurai?"

"You kidnapped the princess and took her place?" Yuriko said, feeling more than a little slow today. She lowered her sword slightly, but
not entirely.

"Well, yes. We thought it would be safer for her in the long run, what with this rival clan being after her for /their/ client. After all, I could take care of myself /and/ bring back information. But your gallantry and skill with the sword seem to have put a hitch in our plans." She smiled at Yuriko, a surprisingly sweet smile for a hired killer, and slid past Yuriko's sword to press against her seductively. "I have an idea, samurai. Let's make a deal."

"I don't deal with assassins," Yuriko said firmly. She had to fight down her awareness of the other woman's body, though, and the warmth
rising to her face.

"Oh, stop that," the other woman said, playfully toying with the front of Yuriko's kimono. "You're very honorable, I have no doubt. All I'm asking you to do is tell one small lie, and you can have your princess back. There are plenty of girls my client can marry and get as much status as he would from Princess Kaori."

Yuriko narrowed her eyes. Rival ninja clans battling over the princess for rival lords seeking to marry her by force. She determined that she would /get/ Minister Kishi for this. Simple babysitting job /indeed/. "What lie?" she inquired, gazing down into the dark eyes and trying not to sound as breathless as she felt.

The woman stretched against her sensuously. "Those clothes are dreadful, you know that? You wouldn't catch /me/ wearing seven kimonos every day. And coordinating them to the /season/? At least autumn is enjoyable for its colors." She arched her back and looked at Yuriko from under heavily lidded eyes.

Yuriko not distracted enough by this performance to fail to notice the very slight jingle of metal in her opponent's sleeves. "What lie?" she demanded.

The ninja smiled lazily and said, "You will tell your lord that the princess was stolen by our rivals, the Hazu. We will supply you with the location where you will have rescued her gloriously."

A sudden explosion of noise -- a shout and the clash of steel -- erupted about five meters to Yuriko's left. The woman in front of Yuriko cursed and sprang away, loosing a half dozen shuriken at Yuriko as she went.

Yuriko spun to the side, bringing her sword up behind her and to her side in a blur to block the few stars she couldn't dodge. She halted in a crouch and brought her wakizashi into her free hand, waiting.

A dead ninja lurched out of the bushes, and a young samurai woman climbed over him into the clearing. She carried a bloody sword and a grim mien. Her dark hair was caught into a high ponytail and she wore the same clan mon as Yuriko.

"We're surrounded," she snarled briefly. "There is no deal, Yuriko-san."

"I don't deal with assassins," Yuriko repeated, moving to stand with her back to the other warrior's.

"Good to hear," said the younger woman with an edge to her voice that suggested she'd heard the entire conversation.

The battle was vicious and brutal. Yuriko finally stood, leaning against a tree, breathing hard. The ground was littered with dead assassins, including the woman who had played princess. Her companion paced, cat-like, among the bodies, making sure they were all dead.

"You're… very good with the sword," Yuriko panted.

"Thank you," the younger woman said. "So are you." She peered at
Yuriko. "And you've been wounded."

"Merely a scratch," Yuriko replied, prodding the slash in her upper left arm with her fingers. It hurt. It always hurt. The trick was not letting anyone else know.

"Bleeding a lot, though." She drew out her inner sash and a small flask. "Let me take care of that for you."

Yuriko shrugged, regretted it as fabric rubbed over the raw edges of the wound, then slid her arm out of her kimono. The younger woman examined her shoulder critically, then poured wine over it. Yuriko drew a hissing breath as it stung more than she'd expected, but she was at least half reacting to the touch of the other woman's warm hands. "So," she said, trying to distract herself. "I don't remember your face. Who are you?"

The young samurai stopped, then stared hard at Yuriko. Finally, she shook her head and said, "Kaori."

Yuriko blinked. "As in," she began cautiously, "/Princess/ Kaori?"

Her companion nodded and finished knotting the bandage. "Minister Kishi had information about an attempted abduction, so I posed as a foot soldier while one of my maids took my place." She looked down at the woman on the ground. "I suppose she's been taken off to marry whatever lord these," she kicked one of the nearby corpses, "happened to serve."

"I suppose." Yuriko sighed. When she looked up from the bodies, she found Kaori watching her with a strange intensity that made her chest tighten. "Well, uh," she said, fumbling for anything to say, "we should be getting you to your… husband-to-be."

"Yes." The intense stare didn't waver at all.

Yuriko slid her arm back into her sleeve. "So," she said, trying a conversational tone, "are you looking forward to your marriage?",br>
"Are you a fool?"

The samurai stared back at the princess, startled at the vehemence of the response. "Aren't you supposed to say something like, 'It will be very advantageous for our clan'?"

One side of Kaori's mouth twitched. "I hate being predictable." She leaned closer to Yuriko.

Yuriko's eyes widened as she realized the princess was about to kiss her. Her lips tingled with anticipation and the nearness of the other woman's breath. She wondered if she should let her do this…


They sprang apart guiltily and it took Yuriko a moment to recognize Mariko's voice. "Mariko!" she shouted back. "Over here!"
Mariko appeared over a rise with a small troop of the clan's samurai on horseback. "Is the princess all right?" she asked, cantering closer.

"She's fine," Yuriko said, and jerked her head in the direction of Kaori. When Mariko's brow furrowed in puzzlement, Yuriko explained, "Minister Kishi was very… foresighted. Disguise. Bait-and-switch. That sort of thing."

"Ah," Mariko replied in a tone that suggested a long talk in the garden later. "Well, come on, both of you. We need to get going. We've got a duty to perform."

"Yes," Kaori intoned gloomily.

Two samurai slid off their beasts and offered them to Kaori and Yuriko, who took them gladly. The troop wheeled around and headed back to the trail.

They rode hard down the mountain trail to the flatlands, trying -- unsuccessfully -- to avoid another confrontation.

"Damn," Yuriko said, watching the slow closing of the circle of enemies. "I guess the Hazu ninjas are pretty desperate."

"How can you tell the difference between them?" Kaori wondered, drawing her sword. "They all look like hoodlums in black to me."
Yuriko pointed to a near one. "The Hazu are the ones with the big, staring, yellow eyes."

"I see," Mariko said, pulling the sheath off the blade of her naginata. "Well, let's do our best!"

Battle again. Dust, blood, screams, havoc, giant lizards. Yuriko thought, when she /could/ think, that they were very close to their destination. She hoped the clamor would draw reinforcements. She knew they couldn't hold against the horde of assassins pouring into this clearing.

She ended up unhorsed again, standing back to back with Kaori and Mariko. There were a few small knots of her samurai still fighting, but the ninja were overwhelming them. Blood trickled into her eyes from a copiously bleeding slash on her forehead.

"I didn't think it would end like this," she shouted to Mariko.
"I did," Mariko replied, dropping her textbook and raising her naginata again. "Back to back, just like always."

"Mariko," Yuriko said huskily, "you know, I've always wanted to…"

"I know," Mariko replied, leaning closer. "Just once…"

"Can you stop with the drama and fight, please?" Kaori growled.

They jerked apart, Yuriko with a snarl, and turned to continue their

Yuriko caught a shift in the ebb and flow of everything. "There! Mariko, take Kaori and run for it. I'll cover you!"

Mariko grinned over her shoulder. "Oh, so /I/ finally get to run off with the princess. You /always/ get that job." She swung her naginata wide to make an opening. Kaori grabbed her by the belt and began to run, weaving her way expertly through the gap in the opposing team to their goal.

Yuriko screamed and leaped upon the nearest ninja, letting herself slip into a hazy, semi-conscious state of bloodlust. Weapons clashed, octopi flew, heads rolled. The earth was dark and slippery with blood and even less pleasant things, like pastries. She wasn't aware of time, or where Mariko and Kaori were -- nothing but the endless waves of masked mecha.

The world tilted dangerously. She looked down and saw blood soaking the front of her favorite kimono ("Not going to get /that/ stain out," she thought), spreading in a fast, dark, dripping way. Her leaden legs staggered a few meters from her latest kill and she fell to her knees, then reeled over onto her back.

She gazed up at the perfect azure tiles of the sky and noticed that the air was full of pale, delicate, pink petals that fluttered on the wind.

Someone shouted her name and slid to a halt on their knees next to her. Midori leaned over her, face lined with worry. "Hang on, Yuriko! The doctor's coming!"

Yuriko had to tell Midori -- it was terribly important, more important than anything she'd ever known before. She managed to sit up and seized the front of Midori's kimono with both hands. "It's fall," she shouted urgently, "and the cherry trees are blooming!"

Yuriko woke up with a muffled shout and sat bolt upright in bed, staring into the dark room around her and breathing hard. She groped at her belly and found it intact. The digital clock by her bedside told her she had an hour before her alarm went off. She clawed the bedclothes in frustration, both at the various tensions in the dream and at being deprived of sleep. When she finally realized she was too full of adrenaline to sleep, she got up and went into the kitchen for tea.

On the way, she stumbled over the pile of scripts Aya had assembled for her. With a vindictive snarl, she kicked the folder on top, scattering the pages across the floor.

"Note to self," she said aloud. "No reading scripts for samurai dramas before bed. Never, ever, ever again."

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