Bad Blood - Chapter 9 - End.
A Rurouni Kenshin x Tokyo Babylon fanfiction by Ariane Kovacevic, AKA Fuu-chan.
The house was quiet, peaceful even. There was no sound intruding in the morning's deep calm. Hiroko had left to do some shopping at the market, and the other wings of the mansion were empty. Tokio's cousins had left Kyoto to return to Ise in order to celebrate the New Year's coming. Well, good riddance, Saitou Hajime smirked to himself.
It had been a little more than two weeks since the night they had brought back both Shunsuke and Asano Bran from Otsu. Both youths had been wounded, but Shunsuke had healed quickly. The boy had always been strong, Saitou had to give him that. Asano Bran had been another matter: the broken arm would take time to mend, and the blow to her head had been a really bad one. The girl had been delirious during a few days, stalked by nightmares and a high fever, and since then she had done little more than sleep like the dead--not that this disturbed the Wolf, on the contrary. It took the girl out from underfoot, and it left him with this most agreeable sensation of peace.
Except when stubborn fools came at the mansion's front gate.
Saitou snorted as he remembered the dumbfounded look on westerners' faces when Yuta had quietly told them, "No, there's no Bran O' Sullivan in this house but, oh, yes, Asano Bran is a guest of the Sumeragi clan and visitors aren't welcome--neither now nor later, thank you for calling on her and have a good day." It hadn't so much been the words as the tone in which they had been delivered. There had been no doubt in Yuta, no hesitation. He had closed the door on them even as one of the westerners had stepped forward, determination shining in his eyes--her father, most likely. Well, for once Tokio's good-for-nothing brother had revealed himself useful. The Wolf nodded thoughtfully to himself, admitting in the privacy of his mind that miracles could happen--sometimes.
They had come back, not once but twice already, and every time they had been denied with cold, but perfect courtesy. The last time had been on the eve of Tokio's and Shunsuke's departure for Tokyo. Saitou's wife had gone to the front gate herself. She had smiled benevolently on them when they had tried to invoke some western law stating that Bran's legal custody was in her father's hands, and would they return her immediately, please. Tokio hadn't laughed at them, but contempt and mockery had glittered in her eyes as she had advised them to seek information on Japanese traditions and laws. Bran was Asano, she had gone so far as to explain, and she was the Sumeragi clan head's personal guest. "Perhaps you'd be wise to get the advice of a lawyer before you decide to disturb the peace of my house--" she had suggested them with an icy cold smile, "before I decide to take notice of the disturbance you cause and bring this matter to the Japanese police." The westerners had left, and they hadn't come back since--well, not openly anyway.
Someone had tried to sneak into the house one night. Laughter bubbled up inside Saitou Hajime as the memory of the intruder's scream of terror came back to the fore of his mind. The wretched fool had learnt the cost of trying to breach the wards set around the residence of Japan's most ancient and powerful clan of Onmyouji. Nobody else had tried to pull that kind of stunt again, but maybe the westerners might come to the main gate again. The Wolf secretly hoped they would. Tokio and Shunsuke were gone, and Yuta had accompanied them to act as a liaison between them and the palace. That and the cousins' departure for Ise meant that Saitou Hajime and Hiroko were the only ones left to take care of the mansion and receive the guests. The Wolf had to admit that he'd enjoy confronting the westerners, and Asano Bran's father in particular.
The man intrigued him. There was a ruthlessness in him, a cold, resolute absence of mercy that Saitou Hajime could relate to, but the man pushed it farther than he had thought possible. He had all but broken his own child--it was only because the girl was incredibly strong-willed and resilient that she had held on until now. GwenaŽl O' Sullivan seemed to know neither limits nor boundaries. Perhaps that was due to the ancient curse upon his name, perhaps it led those who bore its full weight to abandon their own selves and to kill their hearts--perhaps it led them to hurt and destroy those they should have loved. And maybe--Saitou Hajime felt a cold, cold smile curl up his lips at the thought--maybe the man was actually doing what he believed was best for his daughter: make her like him so she could bear with what she had to be, and embrace her fate.
People could be such fools--hiding inherent weakness and cowardice behind flashy demonstrations of harshness and cruelty. Well, he sure could see through this particular show, and he had no more liking for it than he had for others of the same kind.
One must confront one's choices.
He grinned at the rising sun, and leaned his hand against one of the poles supporting the terrace's roof.
One must face all the alternatives, not deny their existence.
It was cold outside, but the sensation wasn't unpleasant. The weight of the katana resting against his left flank and hip was a familiar one. Through half-lidded eyes, he watched the sleeping garden before him. Even the maple trees had finally lost all their leaves. The only ones which had kept them were the sakaki, but winter didn't agree with them. They preferred warmer, gentler weather like that of KyŻshŻ, but the Sumeragi had to have sakaki trees in their garden, and so they were here.
Saitou Hajime chuckled in silence. Yes, stubborn, as Tokio was a perfect demonstration of that quality in the centuries-old, respectable Sumeragi clan. The thought of his wife brought his mind on hers and his son's voyage.
They had decided to go by boat to avoid travelling up the Tokaido in the heart of winter. The trip would likely be a bit rough, but it was nothing they couldn't handle. The Wolf hoped they'd be done quickly with the whole advice business. Sometimes, it seemed to him that the Emperor's summons stemmed more from a desire to have a clear conscience once the decision was made, than from a real need for advice. If the imperial palace remembered who the Sumeragi were, they had to know in which direction their advice would lie--or did they? Did they expect Tokio not to have a perfect grasp of all the facts and consequences? It was possible, of course, but unlikely. What was more likely was that the decision had already been made.
When looking upon the whole situation, Saitou Hajime had to admit that the emperor was most likely stuck into choosing war and conquest. He hadn't told his wife about this, but probably she understood it as well as he. Despite her disdain for politics, she had a good grasp of the game and a sharp mind.
A small, almost imperceptible sound abruptly intruded in the Wolf's idle reflections. As he focused on it, he realized that its source was the room behind him. About time, he thought as he stood up. Quickly, he walked to the sliding panel and opened it.
Asano Bran had somehow managed to sit up in her futon, and she was holding her left arm against her gingerly. Taking in the disheveled hair invading her face, he deduced that she had just woken up. This time, it seemed that the coma-like slumber had released her for good. She turned to face him when he stepped toward her, and recognition flashed in the grey eyes when they set on him. "Saitou-san," she whispered as she gave him an imperceptible bow of the head.
He knelt beside her, and eyed her critically before saying in a gruff voice, "You look better this time. How's your vision? Clear?"
She blinked at the question, then she gave a slow, careful shrug. "I guess. I don't see things in doubles, and there are no shadows obscuring my sight. I haven't had any feeling of nausea," she grimaced, "yet."
That, at least, was good. Saitou wouldn't have to threaten the healer anymore. In a way, he'd miss being able to bully the surly old man. As well, one couldn't have everything in life.
"What am I doing here?" she asked suddenly.
He gave her a look. "Healing."
The grey eyes clouded with something that might have been anger, then she sighed. "I can guess at that, thank you. What I meant was: why am I here, in the Sumeragi mansion, and you know it full well." He laughed at her, not ungently. She had barely regained consciousness, and already she was challenging him--already she was reaching out to seize control of the situation and gather information so she could act. He hadn't misjudged her.
Feigning to ignore the question, he said, "The healer claims it'll take your arm another two weeks to mend fully. Then you'll have to exercise it and rebuild the muscles you lost. The wound to your head was another matter. It almost cracked your skull. You may have headaches, bad ones, and have bouts of dizziness or weariness. All that will wear out in time, and you'll heal faster if you stand and move about as soon as you can." He paused for a few seconds, then he gave a careless shrug and went on, the tone of his voice unconcerned, "As to the why of your presence here, I was of a mind to leave you under that bridge in Otsu, to your father's and his men's tender mercies."
She stared back at him, never once looking away, and a crooked smile came to her lips. "You should have," she replied simply. Nothing transpired in the tone of her voice, but her body and her eyes betrayed her. She was still too weak to completely hide it. Grief, self-hatred and self-contempt were spilling from her like poison.
"Oh, trust me that I'd have done so," he snorted derisively, "but my mulish son wouldn't let me. He demanded you be brought here for healing and rest, and I think he'd have killed me if I had refused to obey him--well, he'd have tried," he finished with a feral grin.
"Shunsuke did that...." Her voice trailed off into silence, and she looked away from him. Saitou knew that she didn't want him to see her tears, but that was stupid. He'd have none of that kind of nonsense, not from her, not now. As he reached out to her, she heaved out a loud sigh and squared her shoulders. Then she confronted him.
"Where is he?"
"Gone to Tokyo with his mother. There's the small matter of the emperor's summons and a war between Japan and Korea with its procession of deaths and bloodshed to take care of, if you remember," he sniggered. Unmoving, he watched shock flash in her eyes.
"How long have I been out?"
"A little bit more than two weeks." He shrugged. "You kept phasing in and out, but I doubt you remember any of it." Saitou kept the mockery in his tone gentle. He didn't tell her what had happened during those two weeks. He didn't tell her that Shunsuke had come to watch over her as soon as he had been able to leave his own bed--he didn't tell her his son had been there when she had called his name in her nightmares, and that he had chased away the ghosts that stalked her. The matter between them was a difficult, painful one, and they had to sort it out themselves.
"I see," the girl whispered. Her eyes turned toward Saitou. "I take it I'm the guest of the Sumeragi clan, then?" When he nodded silently, she challenged him. "And how long is this supposed to last, Saitou-san? How long will you deny my father's claim on me?"
The Wolf laughed at that. "Asano-san, you're my wife's and my son's houseguest. This will last until they see fit to rescind it. If you ask me, at least until they're back from Tokyo. As for GwenaŽl O' Sullivan, the Sumeragi clan acknowledges no claim of that man on your person. Japanese law backs this position, so all he can do is whine."
"Until they return to Kyoto, then." Asano Bran bowed her head. "And then, Saitou-san, what?" Bitterness had seeped into her voice.
The Wolf somehow mastered an exasperated sigh, and said shortly, "Then you and Shunsuke face the choices open to you and make a decision."
"There are no choices," she retorted gloomily. "My path has been set for years, and nothing can change it."
Was it the curse of females to be so stubborn and insufferable?
Saitou wanted to shake Asano Bran's stupidity out of her, but he couldn't in the state the girl was. So instead, he smirked.
"Convenient lies, Asano-san." Her head shot up as she faced him, bewildered. "There are always choices, people just decide to forget about them or ignore them because they're too hard or too painful--or because people are too frightened," he added softly. As he glimpsed the look on the girl's face, he felt a wry smile curl up his lips.
Asano Bran was staring at him as if she had just seen a ghost.
I grimaced when I heard my yelp of pain rise in the air. Fortunately, the dojo was separated from the inhabited wings of the mansion. There was little chance anyone had heard me. The last thing I wanted was to see Hiroko appear and ask whether I was all right with worry shining in her dark eyes. I shot an irritated glance at my right thumb, and sighed as I noticed that some of the skin had been rubbed raw. Sanding my bokken free of shards was a task I usually enjoyed, but that was when I could use my left arm properly. I had tried doing it with my right hand today, but the result was far from satisfying. At least, I decided as I started to oil the white-oak wood, I won't have to watch Saitou Hajime do it while reproaching me my inadequacy at kenjutsu.
As soon as I had been able to stand up and walk more than a dozen steps before having to sit down, he had insisted that I exercise myself and train my body. To stop practicing during extended periods of time was bad. He had badgered me with that until I had surrendered. When I had explained that I was left-handed, he had shrugged. "So? You have a right arm in working order, and besides if you think that the only thing about kenjutsu is being able to swing your sword arm up and down, you're sadly mistaken." There hadn't been anything else to do but to obey him: that wolf of a man was way too good when it came to harassing and bullying people.
Despite the dull ache in my thumb, I smiled as I let my right arms slip into the easy, rhythmical pattern of oiling. It had been good to start training again. It had cleared my mind and helped me regain a semblance of focus. In many ways, it had brought me much closer to being healed than rest or medicines had. I suspected Saitou Hajime to be very much aware of this and to have tricked me into taking the necessary steps to be able to confront what life would toss my way. I had confronted him with this, but he had merely given me a blank look. Then he had laughed. "What do you think, Asano-san? That I care or that I'd enjoy wasting my time drilling into your body and mind the basics of kenjutsu?" He had shaken his head in wonder. "Girl, I'm doing this because I'm stuck guarding you here and because I'm bored." That had been the end of the discussion. I'd have stormed out of the dojo or told him that he was a fucking pain in the ass, but I had found both impulses stifled before I could carry them out.
I liked Saitou Hajime, in a weird way. I loved what he was teaching me. It was small, unimportant things to an outsider's eyes, but it was the heart of kenjutsu: balance, focus, knowledge and correct feeling of one's body and one's weapon. I had set my whole self on this odd training, I had forgotten everything else. Saitou Hajime had declared that while Kamiya-KasshinryŻ might have served me until now, he wouldn't allow me to keep indulging in a style that stank of stupid pacifist philosophy. "A sword is a weapon used for killing. Believing it can serve another purpose than that is ludicrous," he had muttered between his teeth. From his words and the annoyed tone of his voice, I had deduced that he probably knew Kaoru-sensei. For a fraction of a second, I had wondered if the two had fought in the past, to discard the crazy idea immediately. As much as I disliked some of the man's philosophy, I knew that Saitou Hajime would have defeated my teacher within moments--he'd have defeated her and killed her. The Wolf lived according to his beliefs and principles, and there was no doubt in my mind: when he drew his katana, it was to kill.
There, it was done.
Regretfully, I stored back both the oil and skin I had used, then did the same with the bokken. The light in the dojo had grown dim, the sun would soon set. Hours had passed since the moment when I had entered this place--many hours, since a call had come from the mansion's main gate to announce that the Sumeragi clan head had returned.
I drew in a deep breath, and considered exiting my refuge. I had fled here upon hearing the news, and I had started to work, to train, to do anything that would occupy my mind and prevent it from dwelling on what would happen. No matter what would come, I had known three full weeks of relative peace after waking up from the head wound inflicted by Milton. I could hardly ask for more than that.
You deserve none of it, Winter whispered as it coiled up against my heart. You will not run away, its cold voice hissed, vibrating through my bones and rekindling the pain in my arm. Reflexively, I clutched the silver bracelets on my wrist, and gave a grim nod.
Sumeragi Tokio and her son were back. The time of reckoning couldn't be far. I knew I'd have to face Shunsuke, and I didn't want to. The memory of the hurt and anger in his eyes was too vivid in my mind. Milton was dead, but he had no idea how well he had avenged himself before that. Again, I shied away from the emotions the memory stirred to life in my heart. Enough, I told myself sternly, enough with you nonsense! I should gather what small things I owned and leave--run before I was called to their meeting. It was the wisest thing to do, but somehow I couldn't bring myself to it. Perhaps it was because of the Japanese oversized sense of honor that the Asano had tried to hammer into me.
Perhaps some insane part of me still believed in choices.
"No", I whispered softly in the dusk as I closed my eyes. "No." I couldn't contemplate that, I couldn't face it. It was all a lie anyway, an illusion that Saitou Hajime might entertain if he wanted to, but he hadn't been confronted to the cold embrace of Winter's curse. He didn't know. No matter that I had told Shunsuke the truth, none of them could understand.
I whirled around, to find Sumeragi Tokio's maid waiting at the threshold of the dojo. I hadn't heard her coming. "Yes, Hiroko," I nodded, acknowledging her and dimly wondering if she could hear my voice above the thunder of my heartbeats.
"Sumeragi-sama requests your presence." She bowed and I did the same before following her back to Shunsuke's wing in the mansion. There was nothing else to do. "Shunsuke-sama's heart is a kind and noble one," she whispered as we reached the main room.
"Too kind, and far too noble," I heard myself replying tonelessly as I nodded at her to open the door.
There were only three people in the room: Sumeragi Tokio, her husband and Shunsuke. The Wolf barely spared me a glance, but something that might have been happiness shone in the Sumeragi clan head's eyes. "Bran." She gave me a warm smile. "Be welcome. Please, sit with us." I did so, and helped myself to some tea. During no moment did Shunsuke acknowledge my presence.
Eventually, I broke the silence, and bowed. "I'm glad to see you have returned safely." I kept my voice even and pleasant, refusing to show anything of the emotions boiling up inside.
Not that it mattered.
They could feel it, and the wards around my spirit were Shunsuke's.
"It was something of a rough trip," Sumeragi Tokio shrugged. "Ships sometimes encounter sudden and violent gales in winter, and they can be forced to take shelter in coves to wait out the storm." She drank a sip of her tea, then looked at me. "The emperor himself received us, and he listened to us during hours," she told me as if I was a member of her family who had a right to know and not a half-blood whom she knew had betrayed her hospitality. "He has listened, but I fear that his decision was already made before we even spoke to him."
"He heard us," Shunsuke suddenly broke in, "of this I'm certain." The amber eyes patched with green were set on me, but there was nothing to be read from them. A bitter smile twisted his lips. "Just as I'm certain he won't heed our words, no matter how much he'd wish to. People in the streets demand action, they demand that Japan lift up its head and hold it high--they want Japan to be a power to be reckoned with, like the westerners. The movement in favor of war and conquest grows with each day that passes."
I nodded at him, feeling cold all over. "War, then." I bowed my head, whispering, "It was what my father wanted." Within me, Winter laughed at this new betrayal. It laughed and laughed, its glistening scales of snow and ice embracing my being. Enough! I snarled inwardly, but it only mocked me harder. I couldn't let anything show, I had to keep control. I drew in a deep, steadying breath, and looked up.
"That's what we supposed," Shunsuke agreed. Had there been a hint of gentleness in his voice? "Anyway," he continued, "the matter is out of our hands now. The emperor knows all we could tell him, and he can prepare for the consequences we and his other advisors could foresee. He looks strong and intelligent. I believe he truly cares about Japan. He'll do the best he can, and we'll jump in if we're needed." He heaved out a helpless sigh.
Before the silence could become awkward, Sumeragi Tokio smiled. "Now that you know everything that befell us, tell us about yourself, Bran. How do you feel?" There was nothing but gentleness and worry in her tone.
With a small shrug, I replied, "I'm mending as best I can, but certainly not fast enough for Saitou-san. The head wound no longer troubles me, but I haven't recovered a full mobility in my left arm yet." I paused, gathering my courage, then I faced Shunsuke. "Everything is well with you, then?" The words were lame and empty, but they were all I could manage.
"I'm well enough." The tone of his voice was carefully neutral.
It couldn't go on like this.
Turning toward his mother, I gave her a deep bow. "Sumeragi-sama, I haven't yet thanked you for your hospitality. I'm infinitely grateful that you sheltered me during all this time, but we all know it cannot last forever. Maybe we should set a date for my departure." What I was doing was more than rude. I was insulting her, but there was no graceful way out of this.
She considered me during a long moment, apparently unruffled by my outrageous behavior, then eventually she let a sorrowful smile come to her lips. "Perhaps that question should indeed be raised, but you're not staying under this roof as my guest, Bran." She turned toward her son. "You're Shunsuke's guest, and it's he who wanted you brought back here after what happened in Otsu."
I knew, of course, what he had told Saitou Hajime, but I hadn't understood the portent of those words. So, I was his guest. There was a painful lurch in the rhythm of my heartbeats as the words echoed within.
And what else?
What could there still be between us?
Reflexively, I faced Shunsuke. His gaze was still set on me, but it had grown distant. "There's no need to hurry anything," he said at last. "You're free to do whatever you choose, Bran, but this you must know:" green eyes, unfathomable, locked on me all of a sudden, forbidding me to look away as he said quietly, "you and I can never marry. You're welcome to stay for as long as you want, however. The Asagao pavilion has been empty for generations. You can move there at your convenience and occupy as many rooms in it as you wish."
Who had asked him anything about that?
From very far away, I felt my eyes widen as the words fully registered in my brain.
The Asagao pavilion.
I staggered backward, barely catching my balance with my right hand. The concubines' pavilion, which had indeed been empty for many years. He had bragged about it during an evening of drinking--he had bragged about how he could have entertained at least five girls there, if the Sumeragi hadn't stopped practicing that custom. He had bragged about it to one he had thought was male, and it had felt like nothing more than adolescent bluster, but now--
Now he had reached for the crimson threads binding us together.
Now he had grasped the tangle born from the strands of our names.
Now he had severed it in a single, sharp stroke.
He had flung to me all the things that we had felt, all the fragile, unreal emotions we hadn't even had the time to name--that we had never even had the opportunity to voice to ourselves.
And he had trampled them underfoot.
I looked at the pain in my heart, and laughed in silence. I laughed like Winter did, scorning myself for sheer idiocy.
What did you think?! I asked myself. That he'd forgive you and love you and all would be well? Did you?! The unvoiced questions rang within, hammering at my soul.
I didn't hear Sumeragi Tokio's shocked hiss. Somewhere, deep within, there was cold waiting.
A seed of Winter which was a part of myself.
Reaching out with my right hand, I clutched the jewels of silver and held on to them--I gripped them with all my strength, and welcomed the terrible feeling of ice that washed over me. Then, slowly, I lifted my head to confront Shunsuke.
The emerald eyes were watching me.
"I don't have to listen to this," I told him simply, unable to keep the smallest quaver from my voice. I bowed to his parents and stood up.
Then I left the room.
I struck at the wall of the dojo with my right fist, uncaring of the pain flaring up in my knuckles. "Damn you!" I snarled as I struck again. "Damn you, and damn me as well!" I struck at the unyielding wall, again and again. I shouted until my voice was hoarse. Eventually, I fell to my knees and bowed my head. Tears were burning my eyes, but I refused to let them run down. I couldn't break down now. I couldn't.
At last, now things were clear.
At last, stupid, insane hopes had been crushed.
I dragged in a long, shuddering breath, and swallowed back the sobs that I could feel rising up my throat. It hurt--it hurt worse than anything else ever had, but what had I expected? I'd go on. I'd survive. I had no choice about that, no matter what Saitou Hajime thought--no matter what he had almost lured me into believing.
Instinctively, I focused on the pain in my knuckles. The skin there had been rubbed raw, and they were bleeding. That pain was far less than the one clawing at my soul, but it would serve. I reached out to it and bade it fill me, seeing in my mind's eye the path that it could take along the nerves to come up the arm into the shoulder, then down the back, radiating through the ribs before going down the thighs. It obeyed instantly, greedily, and it filled me, offering a pitiful shield against what I didn't have the strength to bear. Then I stood up and exited the dojo.
Night had fallen completely, and it was very cold. I watched my breath come out in small clouds, and wondered whether it would snow. The sky was strewn with stars, which seemed to indicate that it wouldn't, but that it'd get much colder. Carefully, I left the terrace and made my way through the garden. Once I had reached the grove of maple trees, I reached out to the closest one and laid a hand against its trunk.
As I had known he would, Shunsuke had judged me, and he had understood the full truth of the curse. I couldn't blame him, I could only blame myself. He could never trust me. All he could do was to give and give again while I betrayed him and his repeatedly. It was absurd--it had been absurd from the start.
I looked at the wall set less than twenty steps away. It was the garden wall; beyond it there was the street--beyond it was a world of which the Sumeragi were but a tiny, microscopic part. If I went over that wall, I could leave them behind forever. I could go and rejoin my father. I could tell him I never wanted to set foot in Japan again, and if he refused to hear me, I could leave him and find my own path of deceptions. I could do all this, the only thing I had to do was to stop clinging to a lie.
I could never belong here.
Even if this strange world had embraced me, it now knew better. I had been the one who had warned them and deceived them, and yet somehow they had ensnared me. I couldn't face the simple act of going through the threshold of the main gate. I couldn't face leaving, and yet I had to. Slowly, I walked toward the wall. I had to let go, for myself and for Shunsuke. He had been right: he and I could never find harmony. I should have known this at once, and I should have guarded myself from him. I hadn't. I had allowed my walls to go down, I had deluded myself into thinking that I might belong in this house. The enormity of it all was appalling.
How had I dared?
What kind of impossible selfishness did it take to assume such a thing?
With a small shake of my head, I sent the painful illusion away, and reached out to the garden wall.
"Aren't you precipitating things a little?"
In a sharp, jerking motion, I lifted up my head to face the source of that crystalline voice, and my heart skipped a beat when I recognized the woman squatting atop the wall.
The Sakurazukamori was staring down at me, her utterly black eyes sparkling with dark amusement.
I didn't answer the question. I didn't move. Something worse than dread had claimed my mind. She had breached the seals shielding the Sumeragi mansion without raising an alarm, and I was alone.
I remembered all too well what she had tried to do to me. Even though she couldn't grasp my soul, she could force me to retreat so deep within myself that Winter would be all that'd be left of me. I didn't want that, I suddenly realized. I didn't want to become like my father. I refused that, savagely so. It meant that I had to stand up to the master assassin, somehow. As I made myself focus on her, I took in the knowing smile on her lips, and abruptly I felt a spark of anger amidst the fear drowning my being.
"The wards are as powerful as they were before," she reassured me with laughter in her voice, "but the Sumeragi will tolerate my presence at the edge of their domain."
The mockery I sensed in her spurred me out of the haze of terror. "Why are you here?" I asked her. "How did you know I'd be here?"
She laughed aloud this time. "The whole world doesn't revolve around you, Asano-san, no matter what the haughty ice encasing your spirit believes!" She shrugged. "As it happens, I was hoping to catch a sight of Yuta. You're not the only one whose loved one returned after more than a month of absence--not that it's any of your business." She grinned at me.
From very far away, I felt heat come to my cheeks. She was treating me like a child, and that rankled. With difficulty, I mastered the rising anger within, and gave her a quiet nod. "Why did you speak up to me, then?"
"Ah!" She clapped her hands. "A much more intelligent question." Abruptly, she sobered, and the black eyes locked on me. "Perhaps I don't wish to see a delightful dish such as yourself lost to the westerners." I shivered as the soft tone of her voice reached me.
"Why do you care? I'm sure you can find many amusing people to torment besides myself," I replied tightly.
"Care?" she chuckled. "I don't." She sat down on top of the wall, allowing her legs to dangle in the air. She didn't seem to feel the cold. "I'm just intrigued. You would flee headlong into one direction when there are so many paths open to you. You wouldn't even stop to consider your options. This attitude is typical and even understandable from a prey the hunter has harassed and pushed until exhaustion, but you...." She let her voice fade into silence.
"There aren't multiple paths open to me," I told her softly. "I have no choice, but I don't expect you to understand that. The only thing that interests me is this: will you stand in my way?"
Her eyes widened, then she laughed again. "Should I be afraid, Asano-san?" Merriment soon disappeared from her eyes and she shifted to the left with a sweeping gesture of her arm, embracing the night behind her as she said quietly, "You can jump across this wall now. You can wait until morning and leave through the main gate. Or you can stay--for a short or a long time. That's what I call choices. If you leave now, you'll reach the streets, but you'll soon fall into your father's hands--he has a watcher out a few blocks away, as you should have guessed--or you'll fall into mine. If you leave in the morning, you can pack things and you may have a chance to reach your destination--if you even know what that is. If you stay, then you can think things over, and the option of leaving remains available. It's really simple, don't you think?"
Yes. Yes, she made it sound so simple, and she made my own impulse sound so stupid and childish...but she didn't know. Looking away from her, I said tonelessly, "No, it's not. Staying here is impossible. I can't face--"
I whirled around to face her.
She was gone.
Laughter, ethereal, enveloped me, and all of a sudden I felt something soft touch the palm of my right hand. Looking down, I felt wonder invade me: it was a sakura blossom petal, as white as snow. For a long time, I stared at it, unmoving. I didn't know what I should do anymore. Everything she had told me was true, but the pain inside me was more real than anything else. I couldn't face myself. I couldn't face Winter or the emotions tearing me apart, not now--perhaps never. Eventually, I turned away and stepped into the night.
My traitorous feet brought me back to the maple trees' grove, right next to the pond. I didn't look toward the house. Slowly, I squatted down on the stones of the path, and leaned back against a maple's trunk.
I closed my eyes, allowing the sensations to flow into me. Yes, the bark's smooth surface was cold, but it was a cold completely different from the one that had taken roots in my soul. I couldn't bring myself to think, even though I recognized the necessity of it. I just couldn't envision the future. I was alone. Oh, I had always been, but I had never realized it before. I had never felt it as acutely as now. The world seemed strange and dim.
I was floating adrift, a severed limb cut off to prevent the festering of a wound to claim the body. Yes, Winter suddenly whispered inside me. Yes, it repeated softly as it embraced me, that's exactly what you are: poison. It wound itself around me, and its thorns pierced through my spirit. Reflexively, my body shook as the insane, inhuman pain filled my awareness, and I bit my lower lip until I tasted blood.
Refusing to cry.
Time passed, minutes or hours that flowed past me. I didn't acknowledge them. Eventually, greyness mixed with the night's blackness. I saw it despite my closed eyes. Dawn was coming. The world around me was living and moving--changing. It beckoned, I couldn't completely step away from it. Unable to help myself, I surrendered to a nameless impulse, and opened my eyes.
The sky was laden with heavy grey clouds, and it was snowing. Looking down at my body, I realized that it must have been snowing for quite a while: the snow had covered me with a cloak of pure whiteness. Slowly, I lifted an arm and brushed it off me. It was a reflex: the muscles in my legs and back had grown stiff with the cold. To allow this to continue was dangerous. Once I was done, I gathered my strength and stood up. It was hard to do so. I couldn't refrain the grimace that contorted my face as I leaned a hand against the maple tree for support.
The fingers of my hand tightened their hold on the trunk.
I tried to get air inside my lungs, I tried to steady the beatings of my heart, and I failed. I didn't need to turn to know who had come. I could feel him through the wind and through the furious hiss within me. Winter clamped its claws upon my heart with insane savagery and I gasped, fighting back a cry of pain. Mine! It snarled its claim over me, but I barely heard it through the pain roaring inside me.
"Thank the spirits you're still here," Shunsuke said as he came to stand to my left. "I feared you might have left already."
A bitter smile hovered on my lips. I would have, I wanted to tell him, I would have, but for an assassin's words and my traitorous heart. I don't know what to do. I'm lost. But I remained silent, my eyes set on the pond before me and the garden wall beyond it.
"If you had, my mother would have chased me away from the house, forbidding me to return without you. My father called me a fool for being angry and spiteful as a child when I hadn't even been smart enough to see through your disguise. He said worse words, and he also told me that my mother had played the exact same trick on him when they first met. Funny how fate can be like a wheel that brings back the same things over and over again." He shook his head, and rueful laughter escaped from his lips. "They were both right. Bran..." he dragged in a shuddering breath, "I spoke out of anger and spite. I deliberately hurt you, I--" Again, he shook his head, then abruptly he looked at me. "I was afraid. Afraid of the pain in my heart and of the feeling there that refuses to die, no matter how I try to smother it. I'm a fucking idiot." In a low, intent voice, he added, "I know you now. I know who you are, and you deserve none of my bitterness."
"How about your judgement?" I found myself asking in a toneless voice.
Emerald eyes locked on me. "That," he replied softly, "remains to be decided." He held out a hand toward me. "Will you let me touch you?"
It was a question he had asked once before, and I understood the depths of its significance. There was something alien in his gaze--something inhuman and frightening. I couldn't see my reflection in the green eyes, I could see nothing there but guarded gentleness and determination.
I could reach out to him.
I could step back.
"There are always choices," that was that Saitou Hajime had told me.
Past, Winter hissed malevolently. Past, and forever out of your reach. Its voice was strangely muffled.
Before I could think, I saw my right hand lift to meet his, of its own volition.
"Bran," he said as our fingers touched. "Bran," he repeated as he brought my hand to his lips. The emerald gaze was still set on me, watching me with frightening intensity. "Bran," he pronounced my name for the third time.
And he bound me.
"I forgive you," he whispered as he kissed the bloodied knuckles of my hand.
And he set me free.
Winter snarled incoherently within.
Like the sun.
In the time of a heartbeat, it engulfed me.
It scorched my soul, and I was no more.
"It's all right." I heard Shunsuke's voice come from very far away, and focused on him. "I'm here, Bran." Slowly, I grew aware of the beatings of my heart and of my body leaning against Shunsuke's. He had wrapped his arms around me and he was holding me close, supporting me so I couldn't fall to the ground. There was a fleeting memory of flames in my mind, of a pain that had ravaged my spirit and would have killed me if it hadn't been for the shield that had risen to protect my fragile human self.
"Summer," I murmured wonderingly as I remembered having felt this before. "But how can this be?" I looked up at him. "Are you a lord of Summer?"
"No." Gentle laughter flashed in his eyes. "No, it's nothing more than a Shadow, a memory which lingers inside me, just like the memory of Winter clings to you." His gaze had reverted to the familiar amber patched with green. "It's a spookiness in my line of the Sumeragi clan that's been there for longer than we can remember. Most of the time it sleeps, but sometimes it stirs to wakefulness--sometimes feelings or perceptions, whiffs of memories from long ago pull at it, and it wakes."
He continued speaking, but I didn't hear another word. All of a sudden, I had realized the absence of Winter's claws upon my heart. It had retreated far, far away, and it slept, just like Shunsuke's Shadow did. It was then that I realized what he had done.
He had forgiven me.
He had lifted the curse.
Within moments, tears filled my eyes and won over me. As the warm, salted liquid streamed down my cheeks, I heard myself sobbing like a child. The embrace of Shunsuke's arms around me tightened. "I'm here," he whispered huskily. "I'm here, hold on to me. Hold on." I did. There was no conscious thought inside me, only blind instinct that drove me to grasp for his light and his warmth. Within, there was nothing but chaos--a heartrending mixture of inhuman loss, too intense for a fragile shell of flesh and bones, that and relief. I was free, and I was alone now. Truly alone. Winter would sleep, and it would never wake again. It hurt too much for it to wake. It hurt so much that it had to reach out and lash at those whose blood was that of the men and women who had once destroyed the oath binding them to Erin's green plains and to the infinity of the sky.
Those who had betrayed it.
Sold it for gold.
Those who had laughed as its bright blood had splashed over the stones and painted the grass, feeding the blind, uncaring earth.
Those who had laughed, their hands smeared with the lives of Faery.
I wept in Shunsuke's arms, I wailed like a madwoman, and he held me through it all. I wept until my tears ran dry, and then I clutched at the cloak on his back as I fought to control the storm within and breathe. Eventually, I regained a semblance of balance and Shunsuke gently pushed me back. Bewildered, I looked up at him, and he smiled at me.
A sad, beautiful smile.
"Now you're free," he said, unable to completely keep a hint of trembling from his voice. "You can choose your path, and take the time to think about it. What I told you," he bit his lower lip, but didn't look away, "is true. You and I can never marry. The elders would forbid it, and I cannot go against that, not as my mother's heir. However, one thing I can do." Bitterness twisted his smile. "I'll never take a wife. If that's the way it must be, I'll remain childless, and another branch of the family will rise to leadership when I die. I'm sure that solution will please the elders, after all my mother and I have never been anything but pain in their asses--worthless rebels who know no gratitude for those who raised them to be what they are." He paused for a long time, the finally he said in a soft voice, "You can choose your future, Bran, but selfishly, I would ask this: stay." He bowed his head, then faced me again. "Stay with me. Even in winter, the garden reaches out to you, the wards ruffle and fuss around you like they do for one of the family, and I--" his voice broke. "I love you."
I looked at him, I looked at this fine young man who was the heir of one of Japan's most ancient families, and found that I couldn't accept him--not when he might still see a lie standing before him. "You love Asano Bran," I told him, trying to keep my voice steady, "you love the young man you met in the taverns of Gion and who drank sake with you while bragging about women. I--"
"He is you." He reached out to me and let his fingertips brush against my left cheek in a caress. "And you are he. He's a part of you, and I love him, it's true. I love him because I love you, Bran, all of you. I know who you are, now. Trust me to know what I say when I tell you this: I love you."
The words echoed within, somehow summoning more tears in their wake. My heart was beating so fast that it must burst within moments. "I will not be your concubine," I managed at last.
He drew me in his arms, and whispered in my ear, "The Sumeragi have stopped following that custom for generations. The elders would never allow it anyway." He kissed the side of my neck, and I shivered as the simple touch of his lips sent warmth coursing through my body. "We don't need a marriage ceremony, do we?" There had been a hint of mischief in his voice, mixed with careful hope. He had told me that I was free to choose my path, but in truth I had done so when I had let him touch me. Gently, I leaned the palms of my hands against his cheeks and made him look at me.
"No, we don't," I told him as I shook my head.
Then I kissed him, and found that I had a place in the world.
Here, I belonged.
Here, I could love.
"They'll be all right."
Sakurazuka Keiko's voice echoed her knowing smile in the grey light of dawn. I nodded at her. "I know. I told my stupid son what would happen to him in vivid details if he didn't set things right."
She laughed at that. "They're both stubborn, but they can listen. And they can learn...like us," she finished softly. I looked at her and at my brother standing by her side, and felt a heavy weight settle on my heart. This decision wasn't mine to make, it belonged to Yuta and he had chosen of his own free will.
"It doesn't have to be this way," I sighed. "I could open the wards to you and welcome you in this house."
"No, you cannot." The gentle rebuke had come from my brother. "The Sakurazukamori is the shadow of the Sumeragi clan. You cannot let her live in this house, no more than she can allow you to, and you know this full well, ane-ue." I gave him a reluctant nod, and he added with a soft smile, "Please don't be sad, don't worry about me. This is what I want--what we both want," he amended as the master assassin gave a playful poke at his right flank, pretending to glower at him.
Yes, it was all true, but I couldn't help knowing what awaited them both at the end of their road, and it was enough to turn my heart to ashes. "I love him," Sakurazuka Keiko said all of a sudden, "I will love Yuta until the end of our days. We will have many years during which we can know happiness. Human beings can hardly ask for more in the course of their lives." The black eyes were looking at me with and odd mixture of gentleness and mockery.
"It's true." I bowed my head, then I looked at them both. "Be happy," I told them in a voice heavy with emotion. "Be happy. I love you, Yuta. I'll always be there if you need me."
They nodded at me, and then a sudden wind rose, raising a cloud of snow flakes around them like sakura petals. A heartbeat later, they had disappeared, one with the mist that was slowly rising in the street.
"They're gone," I observed uselessly.
Beside me, the Wolf snorted, but didn't comment. He had been there all along, but he hadn't volunteered any word to anyone. Why he had come, I didn't know. He didn't have to, he had ever felt any ties to Yuta, and the Sakurazukamori didn't fascinate him so that he had to be there lest he miss a minute of her presence.
"She was right," he said quietly, and I turned toward him. He was smiling. "We can hardly ask for more than a few years. Trust them, and let them go. It's their lives and their choices, just like your worthless son and the stupid Asano girl." I saw the flames dancing in Saitou Hajime's eyes, and found myself smiling despite everything. "Let's go back," he said as he drew an arm around my shoulders and brought me against him. "After all it wouldn't do for the Sumeragi to be seen sniffling and staring blindly into the distance so early in the morning." I had to laugh, then. The rascal always did that to me. As the fingers of his hand reached up and entangled themselves in my hair, I sighed and leaned my head against his chest, surrendering. "About time, silly woman," he growled, and then he laid a tender kiss on my brow.
In the north-east, the clouds had broken above the Hieizan mountains, and they were letting through beautiful rays of sunlight.
It had stopped snowing.
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