"Don't wander too far! We have to be back at the bus in forty minutes!" the teacher admonished, all of the students nodding mechanically as they departed. It was rare that the children from the Mt. Jupiter Orphanage went anywhere. While the children at the town schools had many field trips each year, they had parents to donate funds to defray the costs. The orphanage had no such luxury, and as such, their school often went without.
Occasionally, the government officers were inclined to charity, and thanks to one such inclination, they had decreed that one day each year, the Mt. Jupiter Orphanage School would be allowed to visit the state park at the foot of the mountain for which the town (and the orphanage) was named, free of cost. However, the personnel who ran the park were unhappy with the lack of admission fees earned by such charity, and as a result allowed all of the other schools in the area to have first pick of dates and times to visit the park. This meant that the Mt. Jupiter Orphanage School only visited the state park once each year, usually on a weekend or holiday, when no other school wished to take their turn. Such was true this year as well, for it was not only a Saturday, but also October 31st. The children at the town schools were preparing costumes and getting ready for trick-or-treating. The children at the orphanage had no costumes, and would receive no candy that evening, so the field trip was a welcome diversion, because they loved this annual event.
Ever since she had been old enough to go to the park, Jun had taken this opportunity to run free among the wild grasses and in the forests. Their time was brief, and made briefer still by an obligatory nature lecture (all to make the trip more 'educational' for the youngsters) but it was their chance to leave the orphanage and explore.
Although Jun had been born at the Mt. Jupiter Orphanage, she had only begun attending school there when she had turned four years old. That year had been her first at the state park. Now she was seven, and this was her fourth visit, yet her excitement at the adventure had only grown. At the orphanage, too many children were crammed into a small space, and she always felt crowded, with no place where she could just be on her own. But here there were wide open spaces and secluded forests, where she could enjoy her solitude.
With this in mind, she ran in the opposite direction from the others, who generally gravitated toward the lake and its rocky shore. Jun ducked into the trees, looking upward to see the sunlight filtering in through the branches above her, creating a pleasant dappled effect on the forest floor below. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, reveling in the cool, crisp air and heady pine scent surrounding her.
After a few moments of this, she began to explore. She touched trees to feel their bark, turned over rocks and leaves to see what was underneath, squealing when she uncovered a bug. She moved through the gaps between the trees, feeling as if she was alone on the Earth.
Until she heard a cry.
It was a soft yelp at first, and then it devolved into a quiet keening. While she had wanted to be alone, Jun couldn't help but empathize with the creature making that sound. Perhaps an animal had been caught in a trap? She was a little afraid of approaching strange animals, but she didn't like to think of anything in pain. Carefully, she crept through the woods, following the sound, until she was certain it was coming from behind the tall tree in front of her. It appeared to be ancient, its wide trunk measuring further across than Jun thought she could stretch her arms. Curiously, she edged around the tree, peering at the other side, expecting to see a small animal, perhaps a bird.
It was a baby.
Immediately, Jun stepped out from behind the tree, causing the baby to look up at her. It stopped crying, staring at her expectantly. Jun crouched down, hardly believing what she saw.
The child was filthy, with a full, stinking diaper, torn clothing and a surprising amount of matted hair, given the young age. Through the layers of dirt, Jun guessed the baby to be about a year old, but then revised her estimate upward slightly when the child rose on wobbly legs and took a few uncertain steps toward her. It was clear that the child had been wandering in the forest for some time. But for how long? Even at the orphanage, where food was hardly plentiful, babies had something of a chubby look about them, but this child was as thin as a rail. Her heart breaking, Jun instinctively held out her arms.
The child ran toward her, pulling at her hair and snuggling against her chest. Tiny fingers went into the small mouth, and no protest was made when Jun rose, carrying the baby with her. While most children of this age would have weighed at least ten kilos, this one was no burden to the seven year old girl as she began to walk back to the bus.
She arrived just as the teacher began calling back the other children, who were straggling in from the direction of the lake.
"Teacher, look what I found!" Jun said, holding up the child.
"What in the world?" The teacher recoiled instinctively from the filthy baby, yet regained her senses and peered closely. "It appears as if this little one has been outside for a while. The parents must be very worried. We'll check in at the park office and leave it there."
"So should I bring the baby on the bus?" Jun asked.
"Yes, yes, just don't sit near the other students. Who knows what kind of germs that child has, what you might have picked up just from touching him?"
Jun frowned at this last: the baby wasn't any more germy than the other children, just dirtier. And it wasn't like they didn't get dirty often enough. But grownups were always so picky about dirt for some reason. So Jun did as she was told and got onto the bus, placing herself in the front near the teacher's seat and holding the baby on her lap. The other children stared at her as they returned, eyes goggling at the filthy child sitting in unnatural silence and clutching at Jun's hair.
The teacher finally returned, making a head count and getting behind the wheel. She drove down the path, and Jun heard a sea of whispers behind her. Everyone wanted to know what had happened, yet Jun couldn't tell them. She barely knew herself what was going on.
The bus pulled over at the park office, and the teacher stood up, admonishing the children to remain in their seats. Then she beckoned Jun to come with her as she stepped off the bus. Jun complied, following the teacher into the small office, where a park ranger awaited them.
"So, did everyone have a good time?" the ranger asked as they entered.
"Yes, but Jun found this child in the forest." the teacher explained, stepping aside and gesturing. The ranger gasped in surprise, reaching down for the baby. Jun attempted to hand the child over, yet found that the tiny fingers were surprisingly strong in their grip around her hair.
"There's a baby changing station in the restroom." the ranger said finally, giving up on his attempt. "I think there are a few extra diapers. Why don't you try to clean it up?"
Jun nodded in agreement, bringing the baby over to the bathroom. The changing station inside was conveniently positioned next to a sink, and just as the ranger had said, there were a few diapers in a small cabinet on the wall. Growing up at the orphanage, Jun had often volunteered to help with the little ones, so she was no stranger to a diaper change. Yet she had never encountered a baby as filthy as this one! She took off the child's onesie, which was in shreds, tossing it into the garbage. There was no way it could be saved. There was no other clothing.
The disgusting diaper followed the onesie, and it was then that Jun discovered that the child was a boy. She wrinkled her nose, staring at him.
"Just a like a boy to cause all of this trouble." she admonished, yet her tone was gentle. "Let's see if we can get you cleaned up." She placed him into the sink, running warm water over as much of his body as she could. The child seemed to relax, letting go of her hair and splashing a bit, even looking up at her with a slight smile. She used wet paper towels to clean the rest of him, save his hair, which needed a proper wash. She pulled out a few random twigs and leaves, then turned off the water and dried the baby.
"What's your name?" she asked him. He seemed old enough to speak, yet she hadn't heard him utter a word. He did not break this pattern, only looking up at her seriously.
"I'm Jun." she told him, placing his tiny hand on her chest, "Jun."
When there was no response, she sighed, grabbing one of the diapers and putting it on. Fortunately, it seemed to be about the correct size. When she was done, she picked the child up again and brought him back out into the office. The ranger was looking at his computer panel and speaking with the teacher.
"From this report, it looks as if the fortress has been destroyed." the ranger was explaining.
"The fortress?" the teacher asked. "What fortress?"
"There is an old fortress in the middle of the park, about a kilometer up the mountainside." the ranger explained. "It is the ancient home of the Iga Ninjas, and is still home to a small group of warriors, although they call themselves the Jupiter Ninjas now, after the mountain. We protect their ancient grounds, and let them live in peace, away from the rest of society."
"What does this have to do with the baby?"
"It looks as if the fortress was hit by lightning a couple of days ago." the ranger replied. "Reports are that it is badly damaged, and the interior is burned. Apparently, the surviving inhabitants fled to a small village nearby, inside the protected grounds. I suppose it's possible that this baby…"
The child chose that moment to begin crying in a demanding fashion, and both the ranger and the teacher turned, noticing Jun's reappearance.
"I think he's hungry." Jun offered apologetically.
"There is some cereal in that cupboard over there." the ranger told her. Jun went to the cupboard, finding the box and starting to pour some cereal into a paper cup. As soon as he saw what she was doing, the boy quieted, yet he grabbed fiercely for the box, making it difficult for Jun to accomplish her task.
"No." Jun stated firmly, pushing the boy's hand away, yet he persisted.
"You're quite the little warrior, aren't you?" she laughed, and the sound seemed to calm him. She was able to get the cereal into the cup, and when she gave it to him, he beamed, revealing a large mouth with three teeth sticking out at a sharp angle. He began to eat, and his body relaxed, curving into hers as he snuggled against her, the cup of cereal clutched again his chest.
"A warrior, but also gentle." Jun mused. "A gentle warrior. Jin Pei."
The boy smiled at her, his mouth full of cereal.
"Since you don't have a name, that's what I'll call you. Jinpei." she decided. The boy appeared to pay no mind as he enjoyed his meal. Jun returned to the front desk, walking up to hear the end of the ranger's conversation.
"No one in the village claims this boy." the man frowned. "It looks as if his parents must have died in the fortress."
"So he's an orphan?" Jun asked, approaching them.
"It would appear so." the ranger confirmed. "And since you are from the orphanage…"
"I understand." the teacher nodded, a weary expression on her face. "I feel for the boy, but we're already stretched thin."
"I can watch him." Jun offered. "I'll make sure he isn't any trouble."
"You've got a great little helper, there." the ranger told the teacher.
"Jun certainly is good with the little ones." the teacher agreed. "And in this case, it will be of great help. If he truly is an orphan, we will be required to accept him, regardless."
They made their way back to the bus, where the other children, restless from the long wait, were rough-housing and banging on the windows. They were young enough that a sharp blast on the teacher's whistle calmed them down, and the curiosity of the child in Jun's arms distracted them, particularly now that he was significantly cleaner.
"Who's that?" they asked. "What's he doing with you?"
"His name is Jinpei." Jun told them. "He's a orphan too, so he's coming back with us."
This news seemed to satisfy the other children, who began whispering amongst themselves. Yet it was clear that they were still intrigued by the new arrival. For his part, Jinpei sat quietly on Jun's lap, staring at everything with wide eyes. His hands no longer clutched at her hair, but he still grabbed at her arm, her shirt, anything he could reach to maintain a connection between them.
When they arrived at the orphanage, Jun got off of the bus, taking Jinpei to the administrative offices. The teacher accompanied her and explained the baby's arrival to the people there, before taking her to the nurse's office.
Jinpei was clearly reluctant to let go of Jun, but the nurse's strong, gentle hands eventually convinced the boy otherwise. Jun helped bathe Jinpei properly, and he was issued a set of clothes.
"You won't be able to stay with him." the nurse advised Jun. "It's better to make a break now."
"Can't I be with him?" Jun asked. "I'm already assigned to help with the little ones for my chores."
"Well, yes, I suppose that would be fine, as part of your chores." the nurse said, staring at Jun shrewdly. "You've developed quite an attachment to him, and in a very short period of time."
"He needs me." Jun shrugged, not able to explain it to herself, much less another person. "He was all alone out there, waiting for me."
"Yes, I gather you found him in the forest." the nurse nodded, as she began examining Jinpei. It seemed that the baby was a bit ticklish, as he began to giggle when she ran her hands over him lightly. "He's very thin, and has a terrible case of diaper rash, but otherwise he seems to be okay. It's amazing that he survived this long on his own." She gave him a sippy cup of milk, which Jinpei accepted and began slurping quickly.
"How long do you think it was?" Jun asked curiously.
"I gather his home was destroyed two days ago." the nurse replied. "That's consistent with what I'm seeing here, in terms of his physical state. I'm guessing that he's about a year old, and seems to be in good health, given the circumstances."
"A year old…" Jun repeated to herself.
"Maybe a couple of months older." the nurse added. "It's difficult to tell, as every child is different, and given his weakened state, I can't assess his developmental milestones at the moment."
"He was walking," Jun recalled, "but he hasn't said anything. Not even his name."
"No name?" the nurse repeated, as she began filling in the report on her computer.
"Well… I gave him a name." Jun admitted. "Jinpei. Because he's a gentle warrior."
"Well, it certainly fits!" the nurse smiled. "Fine, Jinpei it is. Now for birth date…"
"Today." Jun said quickly. "He's about a year old, right? And then he'd always remember the day he was found."
"But it's Halloween. Isn't that bad luck, to have a birthday on All Hallows Eve?"
"He's had good luck today." Jun pointed out. "I found him. Besides, we need something to celebrate…" Her voice drifted off, and the nurse nodded with a sad smile. Although the children at the orphanage had no candy or costumes, they understood what they were missing. A distraction could only be a good thing.
"Okay, I'll mark his birthdate as October 31st." the nurse agreed. "Now you run along to dinner and let me bring Jinpei in to the nursery. You can come see him tomorrow, after breakfast."
"Thank you!" Jun grinned at the nurse, before waving at the child. "I'll see you tomorrow, Jinpei!"
She ran off to dinner, feeling happier than she would normally have done on a Saturday evening, particularly a holiday evening when the children at the orphanage would not be celebrating. She held the thought of Jinpei close to herself, a glimmer of hope in her heart and a smile on her face as she collected her food from the line and began to eat.