Bad Blood - Chapter 4.
A Rurouni Kenshin x Tokyo Babylon fanfiction by Ariane Kovacevic, AKA Fuu-chan.
A Rurouni Kenshin x Tokyo Babylon fanfiction by Ariane Kovacevic, AKA Fuu-chan.
"Thank you, Asano-san, for intervening on our behalf."
The man bowed and I did the same, dismissing to the back of my mind the reluctance I had perceived in the movement. Asano-san. The name echoed in my ears, and I mastered the amusement mixed with bitterness that had risen within with difficulty. Even here at the work site where I was officially known as the chief engineer's son, it was that name that was used, not my father's. "Better to stand in plain view where nobody will think twice about you," my father had said, and he had been right. Who would wonder at the why of my presence in Kyoto now?
As I turned away from the Japanese workers' representative, I wondered again what had possessed my father. Contrary to what my interlocutor believed, I hadn't had anything to do with the raise in the Japanese guildsmen's wages. Oh, I had told GwenaŽl O' Sullivan how wrong the workers' proportions were in terms of nationality. I had explained how it stirred endless trouble in town and made everyone's lives miserable. Not only were Kyoto's citizen unhappy, not only did they feel cheated, but the immigrant workers were rejected from all sides. They were living in their own unwholesome ghetto, and if they wandered around town at night, things could rapidly turn ugly. And what had my father done when I had brought him that piece of news?
"I know," he had snorted, "I didn't wait for you to keep abreast of the general situation--not to mention that I have eyes to see for myself and a brain to measure the consequences of my decisions. You forget that I understand Japanese well enough, Bran. Things suit me just fine as they are." That had been the end of our conversation, and when I had been convinced that nothing would change, he had decided to raise the Japanese workers' pay.
The Japanese worker's, not the foreigners'.
That alone would have been foolish enough, but there was more--and of course I had to be the bearer of bad news. "Because it's easier if it doesn't come from a westerner," GwenaŽl O' Sullivan had told me, lying through his teeth. And so I was busy covering the whole work site's grounds on foot, going from team to team and bringing the men news that they didn't want to hear. At last, I reached the one I had been looking for all morning.
The group of men was gathered around a thick piece of rock. They had slipped shovels and other tools below its edges on the right side, obviously to act as levers. A quick glance at the surroundings confirmed my thoughts: the big stone was set right in the middle of the future railway track. As I approached, I heard muffled grunts and saw the rock swing then fall back to its original position. Two men jumped to safety, narrowly escaping from having their toes crushed under it. They needed at least another person to get the work done, but there wasn't anyone in the immediate vicinity. On impulse, I stepped between them, and grabbed a great wooden handle, adding my own weight and strength to that of the man already gripping it. A head turned my way and surprise, then recognition, flashed in my companion's dark eyes. Other heads turned toward us, questioning, but the man beside me nodded in silence. Gathering our power, we heaved the great rock aside.
For a moment, I thought it would again fall back toward us, but we gave a single, final push and it swung over, rolling aside with a clatter of stones. I reached up to wipe at my brow, and in the same time the man next to whom I had stood smiled at me. "Thank you, Asano-san." Then, the smile faded from his lips and he frowned. "You shouldn't have done this, though. How would we explain it, if ever something happened to you?"
I looked at the discarded tools lying in the dirt next to us, and nodded. "You're right, I know." They would be blamed, and it wasn't something that I wanted to happen. I shook my head, staring absentmindedly at the work site beyond our group, and eventually I remembered what I had come here to do.
Steeling myself against the pain and discontent my words would raise, I told my companion in a quiet voice, "Sima-san, the chief engineers have decided to switch the work crews. You and yours should concentrate on cleaning the way ahead. Also," I added, careful not to let any emotion be heard in my voice, "because of the delay we suffered during the typhoon season, the work shifts will be lengthened by an hour every day. If you have workers who are unable or unwilling to comply with that change in schedule, you can either report it to me, or directly to one of the chief engineers if you will. Replacements will be hired for those who wish to leave."
But none would. The choice of going away was a lie and everyone knew it. These people had abandoned family and land to try and win money they could send back home to sustain their own. They weren't welcome here, nobody would employ them or accept them. None of them had even enough money to pay for a passage back to the continent by boat. They were virtual prisoners here, their choice either to bow their heads and accept injustice, or to try their luck as beggars in the streets of Kyoto.
A nice, true choice indeed.
"How do they plan to compensate for the extra-load of work?" the man who was the foreign workers' representative asked, his voice low but quivering with restrained anger. He knew the answer to that, of course, but still he had to ask.
"Proportional raise in the day's wages, Sima-san." I shrugged. It was stupid, but that hadn't been my decision. Misusing tools this way seemed ludicrous to me, but there was nothing I could do about it. It would be easy to find replacements: those who financed the work owned enough money and agreements with trading boats to have more workers brought from the continent for cheap. In this, I supposed my father's decisions weren't exactly mistakes. They felt more like insane, ruthless whims.
For a long, awkward moment, Sima's eyes searched my face, as if he hoped to find help or support there, but he should have known better. Silently, I confronted the anger and outrage shining in the man's gaze. At last, he bowed his head, shame twisting the lines of his weathered face. "I suppose it's better to let the more experienced guildsmen of Kyoto work at setting up the tracks," he whispered. There was no mistaking the scorn in his tone. All the teams had exactly the same expertise in that domain, and the Koreans were as skilled as the Japanese.
"I suppose so," I told him non-committally. Then, just as I was turning away, I paused. "I'm sorry," I offered, a low whisper that was taken away by the wind. It was true, I was. As far as I knew, they worked well and swiftly, and it seemed madness to reward them with this kind of insult. With a soft sigh, I made my way back to the engineers' offices.
When I reached the small barracks, I found my father's door open, and went in. GwenaŽl O' Sullivan was alone in the room, bent over maps and plans. "I've told Sima," I said quietly, coming to stand beside him.
"Good. How did he take it?" He hadn't moved an inch. He hadn't looked up toward me, and the sound of his voice hadn't betrayed anything but a vague interest. The question had come out as if it had been a tiresome, tedious one which needed to be asked but didn't have the slightest importance. I knew better. I had seen the faintest shift in GwenaŽl O' Sullivan's stance, I had noted the almost imperceptible jerking motion of his right hand on the map. No stranger would have noticed what was more a feeling hovering in the air than a tangible sign. He was very much focused on me.
"He took it was well as such things can be taken." I smiled at my father. "It's not as if he had a choice in the matter." The answering smile on his face had nothing pleasant about it. Taking a quick glance toward the door to ensure that nobody was eavesdropping, I added, "What I'd like to know is why you're doing this. You always told me that tools must be used wisely. I see no gain in your decision."
"Since when do you care for immigrant workers, Bran?" he sniggered.
"I don't give a damn about them, but they are tools which serve you well and best as they are now. Changing the balance of things in the work repartition will worsen their efficiency, not better it."
He laughed at that. "You lack perspective, Bran. You should know better than to question before you have grasped the whole situation."
I didn't reply anything for a while, contemplating the answer I had been given. It contained precious tidbits of information, that he had released on purpose, but he wouldn't say more. Focusing on the words, I added them to the picture of the work site and that of the ancient city close by, and then stared at the whole. Slowly, reluctantly, I nodded. There was a pattern, but it was an ugly one. Not that it mattered to me, but still what I could discern didn't make sense. Yet. There had to be something behind it.
Something tied to the reason for my being here.
"I've approached the Sumeragi's heir as you wished," I said, breaking the silence.
"Living in the famous Sumeragi mansion to boot!" he scoffed. It was true that the turn of events was more than funny.
"Do you wish anything more done?"
It was a reasonable question. Until now I hadn't seen or heard anything of note in the old mansion. Weird eastern magic and talks of spirits or kami weren't of any interest for westerners. As far as I could tell, I was wasting my time there--not that I minded. Strange though it was, the ancient building had a deep feeling of peace and serenity to it. The calm soothed my nerves, and Sumeragi Shunsuke was a nice host.
Someone I sometimes felt like reaching out to--mistake though that would have been. It was enough that I had warned him away once. If my father had heard about it, he'd have been enraged at my stupidity.
"Watch him," he said suddenly. "Letters should come from Tokyo, a summons he must answer. I need to know who advises him and in which direction that advice goes." With that, he turned away from his maps and exited the small office, walking past me without even sparing me a single glance. For a moment, I stood still, looking at the plans spread on the table without seeing them. Then I decided I couldn't make sense of things yet. I'd have to be patient. In the meantime, there was work to be done, and that wouldn't wait.
Sighing, I discarded the questions nagging at me and went out.
The sun hadn't yet set beyond the horizon when a familiar figure stopped on the dojo's threshold and took off its geta before stepping in. Sumeragi Shunsuke paused briefly to nod at Asano Bran in greeting, but the other didn't see it. The young man seemed to be absorbed in his own thoughts, and they sure didn't look like happy ones. Some more wounds to bottle up and leave in his heart to fester. Shunsuke sighed inwardly. As his guest drew his bokken and started a slow sequence of basic kata, Shunsuke went back to his own training.
Kempo was a lot of fun. He had picked it up upon his return to Kyoto, dragged along by Makimachi Misao, the owner of a restaurant named the Aoi-ya, and also the leader of the once feared Oniwabanshu, Edo-jo's shadow guards. At first it had been a good derivative from the black despair that had overcome him at the news of his mother's exile. Makimachi Misao had come calling at the main gate of the Sumeragi mansion one morning, and she hadn't given him a moment of peace until he had finally relented and accepted to be taught and trained.
The young woman's reason for doing this was a life debt she owed to Shunsuke's mother, but soon friendship had blossomed between the two of them. It was impossible not to like Misao: beyond the overflowing energy and good humor, hers was a generous heart, and she never questioned Shunsuke's moods or whims. Her hopeless courting of Shinomori Aoshi never ceased to amuse him. She had even come to him to beg for advice, to gain the understanding of men's hearts. Of course, he had proposed her to stay the night with him to find out, which had earned him a good beating in the dojo. He hadn't minded in the least--he had been asking for it after all--and besides it had taken a lot of weight off the young woman's heart. She was truly in love with the stern, silent man, but Shunsuke doubted that that love could be returned in the way that Misao wished.
A jarring motion abruptly interrupted Shunsuke's train of thoughts. On his right, Asano Bran had frozen in mid-sequence, and he was staring at his bokken with a mixture of irritation and disgust. Eventually, he hissed out a sigh and started his kata all over again, his eyes distant. His mind wasn't truly on what he was doing, Shunsuke could see it in the unusual awkwardness of his movements. Bran was good with a bokken--very good even. He had had true training, and it was obvious he loved kenjutsu, but sometimes it was as if he couldn't free his mind from whatever was plaguing it. And that prevented him from fully sinking into the delicate dance of his kata. Today was even worse. The young man was slow, and the lines of his face were drawn with weariness.
Gently, Shunsuke reached out and strengthened the shining web of wards he had woven around his guest. Pain had darkened Bran's aura, a dull ache that seemed to pull at him and that he looked intent on ignoring.
Despite himself, Shunsuke smiled. Bran was a strange guest, but it was true there might be reasons for his weirdness. Since Shunsuke had welcomed him into his house, nobody had come to the main gate to inquire about him. Not his father, who lived close enough, being one of the railroad work site's chief engineers, not his clan. No Asano family member had bothered to care where Bran lived. It was as if they didn't worry that he might cast shame on the Asano name if he lived below his station.
Well, perhaps they didn't give a damn for real.
Westerners' designs and clothes might be in fashion in certain circles, but still nobody wanted westerner blood staining their line. Shunsuke had nothing but contempt for that attitude. Oh, he understood the pressure of tradition and family rules. He knew he'd have been most certainly unable to push them aside himself unless he chose disgrace and renounced his name. Refocusing on his guest, Shunsuke thought that he was glad for the other's presence, all things considered. Bran mostly kept to himself, but still he was a life in the big, empty wing of the mansion that Shunsuke had claimed. Bran was sounds and movements, and the old seals had drawn him in. Their song was a happier one, as if the half-blood belonged in their midst--as if he had always been meant to be theirs to protect. A small, flickering candle light, Bran was warmth in the house, and Shunsuke was happy for it.
Carefully released breath.
From the corner of an eye, Shunsuke caught sight of Bran securing his bokken to his side and then stepping out of the dojo. With a nod to himself, Shunsuke finished an intricate series of moves, and then left the dojo as well. The whiff of the sudden, searing pain which had filled the air just now had left ripples that didn't want to fade.
As he had thought he would, Shunsuke found Bran sitting at the edge of the terrace, leaning against one of the pillars supporting the roof, as was his habit. Looking down on him, Shunsuke made his decision and sat beside him. The other didn't even stir or turn his head to acknowledge Shunsuke's presence. "Anything I can do?" he asked quietly.
A cold smile curled up Bran's lips. "No."
Being a courteous host to Asano Bran was a demanding task sometimes--a very demanding task. "Forgive me for inquiring about a guest whom I saw leaving the dojo with the slowness and caution of a very old man, even though he's as young as I am, and usually as quick and brisk as a foal in his first year, Asano-san."
He had the good grace to wince at that. "Bran," he eventually whispered, "calling me Bran is enough."
The weariness was in his voice as well, and that last sentence had felt enough like a peace-offering. A small opening in the high walls surrounding his heart, Shunsuke thought, and consciously, deliberately done. Weighing that against his annoyance at the way his sincere inquiry had been received, he finally decided it wasn't worth it to pursue the matter and claim a victory from someone who looked in no shape for a verbal fencing match. Gently, he said, "You're in pain." That wasn't a question, but the statement of a fact that was obvious to both, and it didn't require an answer. Nonetheless, the smile on Bran's lips softened, and he gave a small, almost imperceptible shrug.
"I'm just feeling a bit weak. It's nothing a good night's sleep won't cure. I'll be all right tomorrow. Don't worry about it."
Don't worry about me, he had meant. The unspoken words hung in the air between them, louder than if Bran had uttered them. That wouldn't do. It wasn't Shunsuke's way, and as long as the other would be his guest, he'd live by Shunsuke's rules. "I can't," he said softly, looking at Bran. "You live under my roof. You're a life, a presence in my house and I care, whether you like it or not, Bran." He said the young man's name slowly, deliberately, curious to taste the sound of it on his tongue and to feel its echoes in his mouth.
A shadow darkened the weird grey eyes and then was gone. Something cold cleaved the air, so sharp that it glided through the wards without disturbing them, but Shunsuke saw it and felt it as it raised the hair on his neck. Beside him, Bran shivered. Nothing betrayed the reaction, the expression on his face didn't change, but Shunsuke perceived it in the sudden disturbance in the other's aura. "Sounds hold power," it had been the first thing Shunsuke had learnt. Sometimes it applied to names as well, and the alien name given by a westerner to a bastard son of the Asano clan had felt like an invocation.
"Bran," he repeated softly, and again a shaft of ice sliced through the house's old wards, cold and dark. Bran was holding his left wrist with his right hand, his grip on it so hard that the knuckles were white.
As if the jewels there hurt him--or the sounds of his name.
There was silence for a while, during which Shunsuke had to fight the impulse to reach out to the very still figure on his left. It would have been the wrong thing to do. Slowly, the tension in the air ebbed away, and when it no longer felt as if Bran might bolt like a wild deer, Shunsuke asked quietly, "A bad day at the work site?" He wouldn't pursue the matter of his guest's name. It was a private matter, extremely private, and since it didn't threaten anyone or anything in his house, Shunsuke would let it rest until such time as Bran saw fit to tell him about it.
"You might say that," the other retorted with a twisted grin splitting his face.
"I don't understand you," Shunsuke said, his voice reduced to a whisper. "Why do you go there and obey a man you so obviously dislike? I can see the shadow your sire casts over you whenever you come back from there. It's dark, and it weighs on you." It was unseemly to voice such things to a guest of the house, but doing so was a sign that Shunsuke hoped this other would understand. If not, he would simply release that thread of possibilities and adjust. There would be no fault on Bran, and the rudeness would be remembered as his.
Not that it mattered to him.
"He's my father," Bran answered suddenly. The grey eyes were set n Shunsuke, and there was the ghost of a painful smile on his lips. "I thought you of all people would understand that." As the Sumeragi heir and a member of an old, traditionalist clan, that was what Bran meant.
But his father was a westerner, a complete strange for the Asano clan, and-- Shunsuke whistled softly as a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle that was his guest fell into place. "His name is yours as well, despite the Asano, isn't it?"
A slow nod, and a broken laugh. "Yes." Bran looked away and said, "He's O' Sullivan, and so am I. There's no denying that heritage." There was something frightening in the young man's quiet acceptance.
"It matters not." Shunsuke reached out this time, refusing to stop himself, and gripped the other's shoulder, willing his strength to pour into him. "You're who you are, and you're free to decide for yourself," he added in a fierce whisper. "Never let anyone dictate what your path must be. It can be done," he went on with a feral grin as Bran turned to face him again, "I have stepped away from the Sumeragi. They call me heir and try to make me dance to their tune, but I've shut my door to them and I live my life as I see fit. I'll never allow myself to be the elders' puppet."
"You've forsaken your own clan?!" There was shock in Bran's voice. He bowed his head. "I shouldn't ask you this, I'm sorry."
"It's all right." Shunsuke smiled reassuringly, pressing Bran's shoulder before releasing it. "You're a friend in this house, and I started it by asking painful questions." With a small sigh, Shunsuke nodded. "And yes, I've stepped aside. They betrayed my mother and abandoned her. I'll never forgive them--they can rot and the Sumeragi name can die where I'm concerned," he finished coldly.
Bran looked at him in silence for a moment, the grey eyes distant.
"It's not that simple," he said at last. "Blood will tell, and at times it's impossible to deny its call." There was a strong reluctance in the words, as if they were a hard-learned truth. Bran's voice faded into silence, then all of a sudden he smiled.
A warm, beautiful smile.
"But anyway, I thank you." It was all he said, but by those words, Shunsuke knew that his offer of friendship had been accepted.
"Good!" He let a wide grin come to his face. "Then let's party! We might go to the Aoi-ya, or I could have sake and girls come here."
"The Aoi-ya will do fine," Bran said with traces of laughter in his voice. The darker hues of pain had faded somewhat from him, and he looked like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "And girls if you must have fun, but I'll got to sleep. I have to rise early to get to the work site right after dawn. My father has changed the work shifts," he sighed.
Inwardly, Shunsuke shrugged. It looked like it was impossible to get Bran to have fun with the girls he knew. Perhaps he feared rejection, but Shunsuke knew for a fact that more than a few found the half-blood pleasing enough. Perhaps it was also the rigid discipline and rules of the Christian religion that forbade such simple pleasures. It was completely stupid and incomprehensible to Shunsuke. Denying oneself the comfort of a woman's embrace was just plain masochism. Whatever the reason was, Bran could really be a spoilsport at times.
Saitou Hajime drew one last time on his cigarette, focusing on the feeling of the smoke sliding down his throat and invading his lungs before flicking the tiny object away. He didn't see the wind take it, but he knew that the great gusts would drop it far away from the boat. Idly, he wondered if he had left a trail of discarded cigarette bits to be followed all the way from Hakodate. As always, the disgusting taste of tar remained in his mouth, clinging to him like a beggar who wouldn't be cowed when kicked away. He hated tar, it made him feel like he was chewing ashes, but when he had complained about this in Tokio's hearing, the fool woman had laughed.
"Why do you keep smoking then, anata?" she had asked, stretching the emphasis on the stupid form of address in a way she knew irritated him to no end. He had glared at her, but the wretched female he had been insane enough to marry hadn't even had the good grace to pretend to be chastened. She had merely looked at him with that mischievous glint in her eyes before turning away from him and discarding him like a kid who didn't make sense. It was the feeling of it, and it couldn't be explained in words--but then Saitou cared nothing if his wife didn't understand or share that small vice of his.
A sudden draught brought with it droplets of seawater that wetted his hard, angular face, and he sighed. It was wiser to get back inside, he supposed. With the night, a strong northern wind had risen and, while it helped push the ship toward its destination, it had also brought clouds heavy with rain and snow. Soon, now, Saitou thought to himself as he closed the door securely behind him. Very soon.
The boat they had chosen had made its painstakingly slow trip down from Hokkaido in an endless stream of stops along Japan's eastern coast. First there had been Hachinoe, then Miyako, Matsushima bay, Imaki, Mito and Choshi--enough names to put on a string like pearls. At last, they were nearing Tokyo. From there, the way to Kyoto would be quick. They'd reach their destination in the heart of winter, around the turning of the year. Early enough to gauge the situation and take appropriate action.
Or so Saitou Hajime hoped.
While Tokio had gotten everything ready for the trip, he had been busy reaching out through the old communication channels, hungry for information. Years of aimless wandering in Hokkaido's wilderness, dodging the attempts of the master assassin who was his wife's self-proclaimed nemesis, had cut off the ex-captain of the third Shinsengumi troops from keeping upraised of how things had evolved in Japan. With each stop, he had been able to gather precious bits of information, and he was starting to see a meaning to the whole thing.
A pattern a design in a tapestry grown too big for human hands to fully enfold, no mater what some in power certainly thought.
Saitou Hajime had no liking at all for the tableau that had been painted by the discreet intelligence reports he had received. Ito Hirobumi had somehow managed to solve the old problem of the unfair customs and trade rights treaties which had plagued Japan's commercial exchanges with the outside world. That victory had caused people to raise their heads and again turn their gaze toward the continent. Uprisings in the Korean population had gotten bad to the point of having the Korean government turn toward the powers that backed them from the shadows. China had promptly responded and was busy sending in troops with the perfect justification of a rebellion to quell. There was a treaty binding China and Japan concerning Korea, and by rights Japan could now intervene there and gain a legal footing in the continent. Nobody, not even the westerners, could say anything about this. To many of the Oligarchs, it was an opportunity too good to let pass.
A bit too tempting for Saitou's taste.
Besides, there was much more than territorial ambition or national pride at stake. The choice to send troops in numbers would commit Japan to a path from which there would be no turning back. They were now standing at a crossroads, with a decision to be made on which weighed far more than the terms of a treaty with China. The old imperial advisors had seen it, and they had wanted to protect the choice from being made too hastily.
And oddly enough, it was fitting that the Sumeragi be requested to give advice. Saitou had heard enough about her clan from Tokio to know that, yes, this concerned them. For, no matter what path would be taken, the balance of Japan would shift. Things would change--things as deep as the roots of the ancient trees of the Kisa forest. The Sumeragi were an ultra-conservative lot, but it in no way meant that Tokio's word would be to choose against gazing outward. The clan head would select the way she felt was best for Japan, and it would all hang upon how the situation would be depicted to her. He knew his wife's mind enough to be certain she'd demand to know all the possible consequences tied to each alternative and, if she wasn't satisfied, she'd keep asking from other sources, until she judged she had enough to form an opinion and make a decision. The poor advisor who'd have to expose the problem to her and stand through the fire of her questions had better be a shrewd tactician--not that the Wolf wouldn't tell Tokio all that he had grasped of the matter. Really, he pitied the unlucky man who'd have to confront the Sumeragi. If he was given the opportunity, it'd be a spectacle he'd relish watching.
Everything was quiet in the cabin as Saitou carefully closed the door. Beyond the muffled howls of the wind outside, the only sound in the small room was that of Tokio's regular breathing. Noiselessly, he stepped over to the bunks that had been their beds for far too long, and he stopped as he was about to go up to his own resting space. She was awake, he could see it in the way her arm was tucked under her. With an almost inaudible sigh, he sat down beside her and laid the palm of his hand on her thigh.
"It's all right, Hajime," she said in a quiet whisper. "Go to sleep, you need it."
"As much as you do," he snorted back at her. "Sit up." Her mental exercises might be enough to calm her breathing and give her the semblance of sleep, but it wasn't a true rest. She hadn't slept for the last three nights, and that wasn't a good thing, no matter that she was the Sumeragi and trained for hardship.
She did as she was told with a sigh of her own, and Saitou grinned to himself in the night. "Turn to the left." Once she had complied, he rested both hands over her shoulders and gently, carefully, pressed into the hard muscles with his thumbs.
Tense, as he had suspected.
Much too tense.
Slowly, he set to work, massaging away the cramps from her stiff shoulders and neck before allowing his hands to travel down her back. He had seen her trying to do some exercise on the deck the day before, and he had been unable not to notice the awkwardness in her every movement. Sometimes she could be impaired in this fashion when she bled, but here he knew the cause was the weather. The combination of cold and humidity was a bad one. Even in their cabin, there was a perpetual chill that nothing could seem to chase away.
Against him, Tokio sighed again, but it was a sigh of contentment this time. Sometimes she would even purr when he did this, but here she simply went along with his expert ministrations. Her body gave way, shifting this way or that to accompany his fingers' pressure, as if she was a doll. It went on for a good five minutes, then she finally relaxed. Her shoulders sagged, and she fell back against him. Had he not been sitting there, she'd have slumped to the floor, but she had known he'd expect her movement.
As she shifted her body to lay her left cheek against his chest, he rested his chin on top of her head, breathing in the honeysuckle perfume of her hair. It's better than cigarette. Far better. The thought faded quickly to the back of his mind, and he wrapped his arms around her, helping her to find a comfortable position in his lap while he rested his back against the cabin's wall.
Saitou Hajime didn't need light to know that his wife was smiling. It was in the warmth of her body pressed against his, and in the soft caress of her hair against his throat.
He held her close. Hers, he remembered almost at once as she lifted a hand that she closed around his arms. "Sleep," he bade her, and incredibly enough, she obeyed. He'd have cramps come morning, but it was worth it if she could get a few hours of true rest. She'd need her wits about her and al her strength once they reached their destination.
Thunder rumbles in the distance as she sets foot in the shabby inn. The sound of it is low, but threatening. The storm comes from the Haku mountains, and once it wins free of the high peaks of the Japanese Alps completely, it will glide over lake Biwa, swift and lethal as a snake. The people she passed by in the streets of Nishijin are aware of this. The menacing weather was as obvious in their quick, hurried strides as it was in the darkening sky. Here though, in this small borough that she doesn't remember ever existing in this place, people are going about their business as if they hadn't noticed anything.
Foreigners, the whole lot of them. From the continent, and hired for the work site of the future railroad liaison between Kyoto and Tokyo it seems. She gives a small bow of thanks to the girl who leads her to a table, and orders some sake. The drink that she is brought is strong, and it had nothing to do with the soft, warm cup of sake she's used to. It figures that these people would have their own alcohol and not the one she expects. As she sets the cup down, she gives the taproom a quick but thorough glance. Nobody has paid attention to her, which means that the small illusion is enough for them to see her as one of their own, not as a Japanese woman--enough for them to hear her words as belonging to whatever tongue it is they're speaking. Korean, most likely. She gives them what they want to see and hear, and they're all too happy to be ensnared by the gentle spell.
She was appalled when she came in sight of Kyoto. She didn't think the city would change so much in a mere four years. Now that she's had time to wander through all the quarters she knew so well, she understand that the cause of it is the gigantic construction site. It has brought too many strangers to Kyoto, far too many. She has heard the discontent in the population, she has felt it in the rolling waves of anger sweeping over the crowds in various markets. Tempers are short, and disputes have grown common. It wasn't so before, she thinks with a pang of sadness. And this whole place, this new quarter that has sprung out of nowhere is a painful sign of the unbalance that the work site has brought to the ancient city.
It's not as if the people living here had any other choice, she knows. Rejected everywhere, they built their own place--fake homes in which they can delude themselves into feeling that they belong. A smile comes to her lips as she remembers the strange, alien smells that greeted her on the way to this inn. They've somehow managed to bring the fragrances and perfumes from their distant homeland with them. The scent of foreign spices fills the air, making the illusion an almost perfect one.
Estranging these people from the true heart of Kyoto that much more.
Adding to the unbalance that anyone with talent can feel growing in the city.
The Sumeragi would be enraged if she could see this. She wouldn't have let it happen unchallenged. The woman known as Sakurazuka Keiko lets out a soft chuckle at the thought of Sumeragi Tokio walking all the way to the work site in full ceremonial robes and demanding to know why the chief engineers have seen fit to go insane and allow the situation to come to this. Oh it would be a sight, to be sure, but the Sumeragi isn't here, and nobody has stepped in her shoes to fill the void she has left.
Well, not officially.
She's first heard the rumors in Nishijin, and then in the potters' markets close to the Kamo-gawa, and everything she has felt confirms it. The Sumeragi's heir has taken to walking the streets of Kyoto and tending to the seals of the city. He rids common people of small and not so small curses, he mends the damage the unbalance born of people's overflowing emotions causes where he can. He seems to choose whom he'll help on a whim, and it looks like calling on him through the Sumeragi mansion is useless. Rich merchants, officials and even nobles have been seen waiting at the main gate of the centuries-old residence.
All of them have been turned down.
It confirms the last bit of information she gathered right before leaving Tokyo: Sumeragi Tokio's son has turned away from his clan. The cub has grown into a wolf like his father, she grins to herself with an approving nod. That means that if SaigŰ Tsugumichi's information is correct, Sumeragi Tokio will indeed be given no choice into coming back here. Still, she will watch the Sumeragi's heir and try to find out what his decision on a matter such as the one the admiral depicted to her would be. It won't be as easy as if he were his mother, but she doesn't mind.
Half-closing her eyes, she listens to the alien music of the foreign language spoken in the establishment, and focuses on the aura of the place.
An awful lot of it, far worse than in the other parts of the city.
She catches a whiff of it in the air, and her eyes widen a fraction. The scent is faint, but it lingers in the air.
"Very well, Sima-san, but be quick about it. I don't have much time." The familiar sounds of the Japanese tongue rouse her from the slight trance, and she allows herself a small smile as she gets a glimpse of two men sitting at a nearby table.
After having taken the measure of the unbalance in the city, she's quickly come to the conclusion that it's been done deliberately. It's no accident, no bad management of a difficult situation, and once she saw that, the source of it all wasn't hard to find.
The work site and those who rule over it.
Those who charter ships that sail into Osaka's harbor to unload their cargo of workers from the continent.
This is all chance, of course, she thinks to herself with no small amount of sarcasm. SaigŰ's words still echo in her mind, there's no doubt in her. But even if there had been, the younger of the two men who just sat down would have lifted them from her mind. Here is another fascinating piece of the rumors she's been collecting since her arrival. The half-blood, bastard son of one of the work site's chief engineers has somehow managed to befriend the Sumeragi's heir, and is now living in the Sumeragi's mansion. How amusing, the way people dance around each other.
"This cannot last, Asano-san. I can't hold this situation for long. You have to tell your father it's madness."
She blinks, surprised. So, this child is a bastard, but not one his father got on one of the whores in Gion. A costly bastard son, but useful if only for his mother's name. That holds power, and she'd bet anything the man knew it when he got her with child. He's a good dancer, that engineer, and judging by the mixture of fury and desperation in the words she just heard, he keeps moving his pawns on the gameboard, advancing ruthlessly. And here, another nice push in the failing balance of the city.
"I have, Sima-san, and I will, but I fear it's useless." The Asano bastard's voice is oddly pleasant and quiet, but there's something strange in it, that she cannot name. It feels a bit...forced, somehow, but then he's part westerner, and westerners' tongues have always had difficulties handling the Japanese syllables and sounds. Looking at him, she knows why she didn't notice his entrance into the inn before he spoke: his features are almost Japanese. It's only his height and the weird lines of his nose that give him away.
That and his eyes.
They're grey, a grey as dull as the sullied waters that stream down the streets of the hide tanners' quarter after a thunderstorm. The color is wrong.
As she focuses on the man, absentmindedly noting that he must still be in his late teens, she abruptly freezes.
Spiritual energy leak from him in small tendrils of ethereal smoke. Reflexively, she stretched herself, reaching out to the tempting tidbit, and all of a sudden she recoils.
It's all she can do not to snarl. The young man is surrounded with beautiful, shining wards. The one who drew them doesn't seem to care for stealth, they're brighter than the starts in the night sky, bristling with power. Asano isn't the one who did this, he doesn't even look like he's aware of them. Strange wards that these are, they--they're turned inward! A soft hiss escapes the Sakurazukamori's lips as the flamboyant spell's reason for being becomes apparent to her: it's designed to restrain the young man's aura, so that the power leaking away from him won't contaminate and unbalance places or people whenever his heart is troubled. This must be the work of Sumeragi Tokio's son, there can be no doubt about it. Who else would care if this gaijin's simple presence caused brawls in the more unsavory quarters of Kyoto? And if she managed to catch the fragrance of magic from the young man even though he's so strongly shielded, it means that the power in him is greater. Much greater.
So, this is the tool that has been placed close to the Sumeragi clan, and a fine tool it is. The move is a master stroke. It's perfect--or rather it would be, if she weren't here now. Laughter bubbles up inside her. She came to get a feel of the place, she didn't expect her quarry to turn up so readily. This must be the gods' will.
Gently, very gently, she reaches out, slipping beneath the shining wards, careful not to disturb them. They were made to keep power in, not to prevent someone from tampering with the young man from the outside, which allows her to win past them unnoticed. She draws a sharp intake of breath as she touches the aura behind the shields. So much of it. She understands why the Sumeragi's heir acted. There's so much raw, wild energy coiled up within, so many dark emotions pent up for too long without a way of release!
Quivering with excitement, she makes her decision. This is an unhoped for opportunity. Here sits the perfect way of keeping a close watch on both the Sumeragi clan and the westerners running the work site. The tool sitting before her is just too tempting not to be claimed and used. Willing calm to settle over her, she rises from her seat and steps over to the two men's table.
"Please, excuse us," she says even as she weaves the illusion around them both. Obediently, the Korean rises and leaves her alone with her prey. As she peers down upon the young man, she feels her smile widen to reveal her teeth. This one she won't kill, oh no. This one she will draw strength from, and use as an extension of her will. She sits down, and looks into the grey eyes.
Feeling the disturbance in his aura, she calms it at once. The wards around him can't protect him, can't shield him since they've been designed to shield his surroundings from him. He's like a lamb led for the slaughter.
Frowning, she reaches out to steady him once more, and strengthens the illusion imprisoning him. It's as if a part of him felt her and tried to win free but, even if his awareness of the spiritual is deep enough, he has no control over it. Gently, she caresses the wild stream of darkened light spilling from him, soothing it with unreal songs that have no words.
Songs that cannot be heard.
Once she judges her hold on the young man is secure, she asks, "Your name?" It's a test, the first, and sometimes the most difficult one.
"Asano Bran." The grey eyes are unfocused, lost in her illusion.
"Bran," she repeats using the sounds of it like a skilled rider would reins.
A tremor of his right hand. Something abruptly disturbs Asano Bran's gaze, like fear or refusal. That won't do. "Hush," she tells him as she would reassure a horse hurt by the bit in his mouth. On instinct, she reached out and rests her hand over the young man's left. He's trembling, almost imperceptibly. "It's all right." She reaches deeper, finding her way between the wards and through the untamed waves of power. "What is your father trying to achieve by breaking the city's balance?" This is the most important question. The rest she can easily guess for herself, but this one eludes her.
"I don't know." A bitter smile twists Asano Bran's lips, and anger surges forward, black and violent. "I'm not sure yet." The grey eyes have lost their distant look. They're focused now, focused on her--but it's not her that he sees.
She needs to tighten her hold on him, but here isn't the right place for that. Getting him out shouldn't be too difficult, she just needs to calm him a bit. She moves the hand she's rested upon his, stroking softly as she feels for his pulse. A satisfied smile comes to her lips as she feels him quivering at her touch.
Her fingertips have encountered something on his wrist. Curious, she gives a quick look down. It's just a set of three bracelets that bind his forearm.
The same grey as his eyes.
Her eyes widen as the word echoes inside her, summoning emotions and ghosts she cannot deny.
Silver, cold and ancient.
A gasp cuts through the turmoil of unwanted memories, and all of a sudden she realizes that the young man's eyes are set on her. He can see her, and more.
She sees it in the shocked horror and refusal that have clouded his gaze. He can feel her coiled up to him. He can feel her ethereal fingers clasping his soul.
All that he is.
Reflexively, she pulls at him with all her strength, but in the same time he shoves her aside, hard, breaking the physical contact. He starts to stand up, but she calls, "Stay, Bran!" Her voice rings in the air. It's his name, she understands it on instinct. With it, she can hold him and bend him to her will. "Bran!" she calls again.
For the time of a heartbeat, he stands there frozen, torn between the awful realization of what's being done to him, and the command she's given him. Then cold ripples through the air--ice stronger than the wards around him or her illusion. He recoils, crying out in pain and clutching at his left wrist. She can almost feel his heartbeats filling the air while the wards come alive, trying in vain to contain the flood of terror coming from him. As her illusion shatters, he bolts and runs.
Before her, the sight of the silver would around his wrist lingers.
So horribly cold.
With a snarl of defiance, she draws the feeling of the ancient Sakura around her and denies her memories. Emotions and thoughts collide inside her, and the little girl crouches in the shadows of her soul.
She refuses it all, and flings herself in pursuit of her quarry. Angrily, she casts aside the feeling that it was the jewels of silver that denied her.
Denied her what belongs to them alone.
Thunder cracked, deafening. For a time, its roar filled the universe, but I barely heard it. Run! The frantic thought echoed within, eclipsing every other thing. Run! Faster! Flee! Flee far away! Lightning zigzagged and splashed the street with blinding, violent light. I missed my footing and staggered. I can't fall--can't fall! From very far away, I felt pain as my right shoulder and arm scraped against a wall and as my jacket's sleeve tore. It was pouring a mixture of rain and snow, and my clothes clung to me, heavy with icy cold water. The weight kept dragging me down, but I refused to feel it.
I ran, stalked by the sudden winter storm.
Stalked by the wind and the soft whispers riding it.
There were tears mixed with the rain on my cheeks, but there was no holding them back. There was no controlling the awful sensations that were worming their way within, coiling up to me--clinging to me in the way a lover would. There had been a woman at the inn, sitting right in front of me where Sima should have been. She had reached out to me.
Her fingers, the cold scales of a snake.
She had touched me, I knew. I could still feel her. It was here, her breath and her scent, the whispers of her voice wound around my soul. Almost, I had completely sunk into the quagmire of her trap. I had felt the snare when I had met her eyes, but feeling hadn't been enough. She would have had me, hadn't she made the mistake of using my name. She had reached out and grasped all that I was--she had taken my self for her own use, unaware that this was the one thing that would never be allowed.
True to the covenant of dusk, I stand.
The ethereal whisper had cut through the threads of the woman's web, it had parted the thick curtain of terror choking my mind. Ice colder and harsher than anything in the world, it had closed around my heart, hurting so bad that I had cried out.
Burning so horribly that I had screamed.
I had held on to the impossible pain, I had sought refuge in it like a child clinging to an adult for protection. True to tainted blood, I had replied, facing the darkness that was my heritage, I yield my will. I bind my soul. It had been my choice--a decision made on instinct that was nothing more than a confirmation of what had been sealed before an hearth of ancient stones. Laughter, harsh and contemptuous, had severed the bonds tying me to the woman whose eyes were blacker than the night. Then I had turned away and ran.
A sudden unevenness in the street made me falter, and I crashed in a wall to my left. For a moment, the pain blinded me and I felt myself going down. Soft, ethereal whispers enveloped me, gentle, oh so gentle. "No!" I yelled, and pushed myself away from the obstacle. I ran on, spurred by the horrible certainty that I was being pursued. A prey fleeing before the hunter, defenseless. There was no thought in me of turning to confront what was coming with the storm and the wind--no thought of fighting her. I couldn't, even if I had had my bokken. Kenjutsu would make her laugh, it would amuse her and the only thing I might have gained would have been to push her to make her hunt last a bit longer.
I could only flee, for as long as she'd feel like toying with me. I knew it as I knew my own name. She was there, in my mind, I could feel her touch lingering, drawing substance and strength from my fear.
"Hey! Watch it!" Lightning illuminated the street, and all of a sudden I glimpsed a movement right in front of me. A shape, a shadow in the split second before the storm engulfed everything again. In a desperate reflex, I flung myself to the left, and tripped.
Fingers were grasping my right arm, their sure grip on it keeping me from falling headlong into the mud. On instinct, I gave a violent pull to free myself,, but the fingers' hold didn't yield. "Oh, stop that, I'm not going to hurt you." There was annoyance in the voice, and gentleness hidden behind it. It was a woman's, but not the one I dreaded to hear. Turning to face her, I found myself staring into a pair of dumbfounded eyes.
"Misao, did you find anything?" A light came with that deep, quiet voice. Someone had come to the gate of what might have been an inn, and was holding a lantern. As its light parted the darkness somewhat, I recognized the young woman who had stopped me.
Makimachi Misao, Shunsuke's friend.
His name echoed inside me, somehow dimming the cold of the woman's hold on my soul. "Shunsuke," I told Makimachi Misao between chattering teeth. "Shunsuke!" I repeated, unable to bring order to my thoughts. I was chaos, a patchwork of raw, violent emotions colliding and threatening to drown the small bit of sanity I was still clinging to. I needed Shunsuke, I was sure of that now. As the girl looked at me, uncomprehending, whispers came again to enfold me, borne by the wind.
"Bring him to the Sumeragi mansion, Misao, quickly!" The tall figure of the man had turned toward me. His eyes were watching me, apparently indifferent, but I saw something dark flickering in them. "Quickly!" he repeated, his voice low and urgent. "There's something coming with the wind, and it will get him if you don't bring him to safety. Go, Misao!"
For a fraction of a second, she just stood in the furious storm, hovering between yes and no, and in the same time something colder than winter brushed against me. Caressed me. "No!" I screamed, and pulled free. As I was falling forward, she steadied me and nodded at me, her face set in a grim mask.
As she led me through the storm, I focused on her strong grip on my arm. I focused on her warmth, desperately trying to deny the wind's song filling my mind.
"I hope to the gods he's home," Makimachi Misao hissed beside me, shaking despite the warm cloak that covered her from head to foot. The words slipped past me, unheard. I couldn't hear her. I couldn't understand their meaning. Before us, the Sumeragi mansion's main gate was a looming shape, threatening. The storm had worsened on our way her and it was only thank to the girl that we had found our way. Without her, I'd have been hopelessly lost.
The whispers that stroke my being as if I had been a harp or a shamisen had retreated for a time and then come back, more enticing and insidious than ever. Thunder couldn't eclipse them, and neither could the wind's furious howls. Laughter accompanied the song that had no words--laughter soft and delicate. Joyful. Happy, even.
Spurred on by the feeling of the woman's fingers closing around my heart, I stepped forward, intent on breaking through the ancient door if I had to.
Inaudible bell chime.
Abruptly, the storm's savagery abated, and silence replaced the constant roar of thunder. It was as if something over the house had turned its attention our way and had cast reality aside so that it could examine me at its leisure. The air around me rippled, as I had once seen it do in the inner garden.
"There you are! Damn you, where were you? The sun's been set for almost an hour and--" The gate's door had swung open to let a young man pass. Anger was bristling around him like wild fire, but it didn't matter. His voice cut through the silence and restored the storm and the cold, just as a muted hiss filled my mind and as whatever it was that had reached out to me recoiled violently. The storm rushed in to claim me, its song once more enfolding me. Five steps away from me, Shunsuke tensed. The amber eyes widened in stupefaction, then I saw him lift up his head. Unmoving, he stared out at the night.
On instinct, I flung myself toward him, and as I reached his side, he rested a hand on my shoulder. The grip of his fingers over my skin was hard, painful even. It would leave a bruise, but that was unimportant. "Steady," he told me in an eerily quiet voice. "Be still." His voice and his touch were a claiming, at once identical and different from the woman's. I heard him, and nodded woodenly. I couldn't obey him, I couldn't calm the frantic beatings of my heart, but I tried nonetheless. Apparently, it was enough, for he nodded back and said, without turning away from the storm, "Go in now. You too, Misao." As he released me, I moved to obey.
The ethereal whisper stilled the world. My name was a song only she could sing, only she could call. I closed my eyes as she embraced me, and in the same time, something pushed me, hard. "In, stupid fool!" I lost my balance and staggered forward, unable to help the reflex. I stepped forward and crossed the threshold of the Sumeragi mansion.
The wind died in an instant, its song growing distant. I fell more than I leaned against a wall, and vaguely I heard the deep clang of the ancient front gate's door being closed shut and locked.
As I fought down the sobs rising in my throat, I felt my whole body shake feverishly. Steps roused me as I was about to close my eyes, and I realized that Shunsuke had come in as well, and had joined us. "You're soaked through," he remarked calmly. "Come, don't just stand there." I followed him through the long corridors to get to the abandoned wing, barely aware of Makimachi Misao's presence as she tagged along with us. "We can discuss what happened once you've changed those clothes," he said when we stopped before the room he had given me. "Misao," he turned toward the young woman, and added with a gentle smile, "go to Hiroko, I'm sure she can find something your size. You're as drenched as he is. Get blankets from her as well, you're not going back to the Aoi-ya tonight."
While the young woman scampered away, I slid the door of my room open and went in, numb. Clothes are in the far corner, piled up beside a futon, a distant voice said within. Woodenly, I stepped over to the designed spot and fell to my knees on the floor. My clothes were too heavy, I just couldn't stand up anymore. The cold was slowly receding, leaving nothing but emptiness inside my bones. "Bran, are you done? Do you need help?" The words hovered in my mind, odd strands of sounds that just dangled out of my reach. It was only when I heard the door being slid open that I understood.
"No!" I snarled, biting my lower lip so that I could keep the hysterical shriek that had risen in my throat locked in. It was Shunsuke, just Shunsuke, and he meant well. Focusing my will, I took off my clothes, leaving them in a heap on the floor, and then picked up an old kimono that I wrapped around me. Once I was done, I tried to get up and rejoin Shunsuke, but I found that I couldn't move.
I was too cold.
Far too cold.
"Come in!" I called out as loudly as I could. Immediately, I heard the panel being slid open and then shut. The sound of Shunsuke's steps on the wooden floor sent weird echoes coursing through my being, and I realized that even though my back was turned to him, I could feel his presence next to me with a clarity of perception so sharp that it was almost painful.
"Here," he said softly as he laid a heavy blanket over my shoulders. As I hugged it tight around me, he asked in a quiet whisper, "What happened?"
"I don't know." I heard the mad laughter in my voice and somehow managed to stifle it. "I sat down with Sima on the way back here, there was urgent business he wanted to discuss. Then I found myself sitting with a woman--I think it was a woman." I shivered. "Her features were hazy, except for her eyes. She called my name." I closed my eyes at the memory. "She touched me," I said between clenched teeth, trying in vain to control the tremors in my voice, "here." I hugged myself. "She enfolded me, all that I am. She...sang to me. She sings to me still," I bowed my head, hating the terror in my tone. "She's still here, I can feel her, it's better now that you've closed the main gate's door, but I can feel her reaching out and taking the life that spills away from me."
For a long time, Shunsuke remained silent. Then, eventually he asked, "Did she use your name to hold you?" I gave him a slow nod, but didn't tell him about the darkness that had risen to deny her. I couldn't tell him, no matter what. "That's a heinous thing to do," he said, disgust plain in his voice. "I think I can help, but you'll have to trust me." I looked at him, lifting my head to find his gaze set on me.
He reached out to me and asked, just as his hand brushed against my left cheek, "Will you let me touch you, Bran?"
He was Fire and Sun.
I could see it in him--in the beautiful, unfathomable green depths of the eyes he had focused on me. He was Fire and Sun, and he would burn me. He would burn the cold away, and the woman's presence within would retreat and give way to him.
If I let him.
I nodded at him, and didn't move when he rested the palm of his hand against my cheek. I didn't move away when the bright, magnificent Summer that he was seared my being like white-hot iron. "Bran," he said as I focused wholly on him, and "Bran," a third time. There was a strange understanding in his emerald gaze, and gentleness too.
The sounds of my name resounded within, but it was his voice this time, and he had asked. I had consented, and I wouldn't move away. I concentrated on him and nodded again, accepting the claim. No alien voice rose within to deny him. No laughter dared mock Shunsuke as he wrapped ethereal arms around me and enveloped me in his warmth. My body shook as I looked into his eyes--shook as his touch burnt me and hurt, hurt far worse than the savage bite of Winter ever had. It seemed to last for an eternity, but at last I was allowed to close my eyes. I slept, then.
End of chapter 4.
Back to the Previous Chapter
On to the Next Chapter
Back to my Fanfic page.