Black Heart



Shaman King copyright Hiroyuki Takei.



Note: No spoilers for the manga, I think. ^^; This story takes place -- somewhere, beyond the ending, which I can only fangirl-conjecture anyhow. So, um.

Draft: January 2003

Rated: PG



The boy wasn't much to look at, at first glance -- barely sixteen, thin as a stick, mumbled incoherently, walked like a whipped dog. Anna, who didn't think much of males in the first place, would have ignored him completely, if she hadn't seen his eyes.

Unlike the rest of him, his eyes weren't afraid. They were a feverish sort of black, the pupils distended, strangely direct. Old, she decided. Eyes that had seen too much and felt nothing. Not fear, not anger, nothing. But not dead. Not yet.

She was curious. She was indifferent to death, regarded life with devastating contempt, and generally overlooked people who didn't matter, meaning, everyone except Yoh. Ghosts preoccupied her enough; humans, she tried not to see at all, unless she chose to. It was much too tiresome, anyhow, paying attention to what people did and said around you, their stupidities, their trivialities, their frailties. Yoh didn't think so but then Yoh, Shaman King and dealer in immortality, still had an incorruptible faith in his mortality. Anna had none. It was just a non-existent concept for her. She didn't have faith. She didn't have humanity. She only had Yoh.

This boy, however, was dead in all respects, killed in ways even Yoh would not understand. He breathed, he moved, he asked her what she would like for dinner, but he was no more alive in any practical sense than her ghosts. But something in him lived, in his eyes, something just would not die, even as it acknowledged that it would like nothing more than to go please please please.

Was it courage, anger, resignation? Anna studied him for a moment longer, which seemed to unnerve him because he began to back out of the room, almost stumbling on his own feet.

"The shrimp," she said coldly. "The miso soup. And pickled vegetables. Tell Mrs. Sanada not to add too much salt like she did the last time. Make sure the rice is warm. No sake, just fresh water."

"Yes, ma'am," the boy stammered. "Is there anything else?"

"Ice cream," she said. "Sherbet."

He blinked at her, at the strange lady with eyes that could eat you, who just said she would like ice cream. Sherbet. He smiled, perhaps because he didn't know what else to do. She glared at him and he swallowed.

"Yes, ma'am," he said. "Excuse me." He bowed and slid the door shut with a rather rattled movement but Anna had already turned away. She picked up her book and began to read where she left off. Yoh would be back in a few minutes. She had wasted enough time as it was.

That smile had betrayed everything. He smiled as if he knew how to, only barely though, something painfully learned. His eyes had not smiled. Perhaps they couldn't be taught, couldn't be reached. What she had seen in them was an abiding, profoundly simple sense of solitude. She could recognize it; she knew it for what it was. There were things one could only do alone, their mysteries could never be entirely shared.

Yoh came into the room then, almost running. He stopped right in front of her, wobbling a bit. She could see his socks out of the corner of her eye. They were unspeakably dirty. He had probably stepped on something again without meaning to. For a Shaman King, he really was quite clumsy. They should work on a new training module. She closed her book, inserting the bookmark with great deliberation.

"Um. Hi, Anna."

She looked up at him, taking her time.

"Am I late?" he said after another oblique pause in which they stared at each other measuringly. His eyes were wide and slightly red, hair sticking up in all directions. "Have you been waiting long?" His jeans, like his socks, were also wet and streaked with mud, and his shirt smelled distinctly of fish. He must have gone out to the sea with the village fishermen for the evening catch. Again, she thought in exasperation.

"You said you were only taking a walk," said Anna. She cast her eyes over him disparagingly, wrinkling her nose. "You look very dirty. And you smell /awful/."

He gave her a cheerful smile, now that it looked like she wasn't going to kill him. "Nothing a bath can't handle. And I'm sorry, I didn't really mean to join the guys, but the weather was great and anyway it was a one-time kind of thing--"

Anna only stared at him.

"Um, so, just let me ask for some hot water and--"

"Don't bother," she said and opened her book again. "I've already drawn your bath."

"--so you just hold on tight and I have a surprise for you for dinner and I didn't think I could get it but--oh. Thanks."

"You don't deserve a wife like me," she muttered irritably, turning a page.

He laughed and before she knew it, he had bent down and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Maybe not," he said, his breath warm and moist, smelling slightly of the sea, or a memory of it. "But I try /very/ hard."

"Don't touch me," she snapped.

"Anna! I thought you loved me!"

"Not when you smell like that!"

"What smell?"

"Yoh! You have sea weed on your hair!"

"A Shaman King is entitled to sea weed on his hair."

"Yoh!"



The surprise was a steaming dish of mullet, which Yoh proudly said he caught himself. He knew she liked mullet. The boy didn't serve their supper. That night, before she fell asleep, she spared him a brief thought, his unremarkable smile, his solitary eyes.

Love. Loss.

She wondered which it was.


Anna saw the girl a few days later. She was sitting in the front room reading the newspaper, dated a week ago. It was the latest one she could find. Yoh sat beside her, drinking tea and writing another postcard to Manta. She caught a glimpse of what he was writing, on and off.

-- place is really cool -- might just hire a fishing boat before we leave -- explore the adjoining island -- Anna will like that -- make sure Amidamaru doesn't watch too much anime or he'll be impossible to live with when we get back --

The door opened and the girl walked in. Anna looked up from her newspaper. The girl looked around the room, glanced quickly at Anna and Yoh, then started tentatively towards the kitchen.

"The Sanadas went to the market," said Anna.

"Oh," said the girl. "I'm sorry. You're the new tenants, aren't you? Do you know what time they will be back?"

Anna looked at Yoh. "What time did Mr. Sanada say they'll be back?"

"Around five, I think," mumbled Yoh, who was chewing on his pencil.

"Five," said Anna and went back to her newspaper.

There was a pause, then she heard the slow measured steps of bare feet against tatami.

"Excuse me," said the girl. She didn't sound apologetic, only matter-of-fact. Her voice was low and abrupt, almost peremptory.

"Yes?" said Anna.

"Have you seen Jyou anywhere?"

"Jyou?" She opened her newspaper to World Affairs. "Yoh, do you know anyone named Jyou?"

Yoh removed the pencil from his mouth and began to doodle on the postcard. A cartoon of Anna and himself, catching fish. "Hmm? Oh, yeah, the boy who helps out in the kitchen. Tall, scrawny, lives upcliff. He's a nice kid. Offered to teach me how to make a net."

"Is that him?" said Anna to the girl.

"Yes."

"He asked me what I wanted for dinner last night," said Anna, skimming yet another column about the Middle East with a small aside about the new crown princess. "I haven't seen him since."

"Oh. I see." The girl didn't look disappointed, only frowning and reflective. Then she bowed, a crude gesture that echoed the way she spoke, muttered "Goodbye. Thank you." and, without waiting for either of them to respond, turned and walked away.

Anna watched her. The girl wore her hair in a braid behind her neck. Her hair was black as charcoal, but her skin was very pale, almost translucent, especially around the areas of the neck which became exposed when she slightly turned her head to glance once more towards the kitchen. She had a gentle face, but there was something disorienting about her, an element of incomprehensibility and affectation in the way she let her wooden sandals clomp noisily against the floor of the veranda outside.

"Are you going to tell me what that was about?" said Yoh after a while. He was sharpening his pencil. The card to Manta had been set aside, stamped and ready. She glanced at the letter in front of him, this time addressed to his grandparents.

-- will be home in a week or so -- we're pretty happy here --

"Not now," said Anna.

Mrs. Sanada said she was the granddaughter of a Miss Erika Oshima. They lived in a mansion on top of the big cliff east of the island. The grandmother was very rich, owned half of the island interests. The girl, whose name was Reiko, was the only child of Miss Erika's daughter, who herself had died in childbirth. No one knew what happened to Reiko's father. Rumor was that he was from Tokyo, had come to the island one summer, then disappeared.

"So Reiko is Miss Erika's only heir," said Mrs. Sanada who was chopping onions on the kitchen counter. Anna stood beside her, idly stacking plates and bowls inside the antiquated dishwasher.

"She's a good girl, and pretty, and she knows everything. She had tutors since she was three," continued Mrs. Sanada. "But growing up there, all alone, with no girls her age, only Miss Erika for company--"

"She mentioned Jyou."

"Jyou doesn't count," said Mrs. Sanada. She stopped chopping to wipe her streaming eyes. "Now, Mrs. Asakura, don't bother with those plates, I'll wash them myself after I finish these onions. I don't think that dishwasher is working anyway."

"I fixed it last night," said Anna.

"Oh. I see." She wiped her eyes again, with a dish rag. "Still, Mrs. Asakura--"

"I'll chop the onions."

"But--"

"I'd like to have some tea afterward."

Mrs. Sanada cleared her throat as if to clear something that stuck. "If you say so, Mrs. Asakura," she finally muttered.

Anna took the knife from a dubious Mrs. Sanada. "I say so."

Mrs. Sanada shrugged and took the kettle to the sink to be filled. She had learned never to argue with Anna, whom she treated with a mixture of reverence, awe, and a great deal of skin-crawling. "Anyway," she said over the methodical chopping of the knife and the sound of rushing water, "as I was saying, Jyou doesn't count, because, well, obviously he's not a girl, and besides--"

"He lives with the Oshimas?"

"Yes. Ever since he was five or six years old. Miss Erika found him wandering the beach one day or so she said. Didn't remember a thing. Couldn't even say a word, actually. So she took him in. He's something of a handyman in the estate." She turned the tap off. The chopping continued relentlessly. "There's another manservant, Ryuchi, I see him around town. He's from the mainland, I think, and he's been with the Oshimas since Miss Erika was a girl--"

"He and Jyou are the only other people in the house besides Miss Erika and the girl?"

Mrs. Sanada put the kettle on top of the burner. "Well. Yes."

"Why does Jyou work here then? Doesn't Miss Erika pay him?"

"I don't really know," said Mrs. Sanada. "I don't think she does. He's lived in the mansion all his life. Free food, his own room, even attended the local elementary school. Miss Erika paid his way. He dropped out of high school though. I don't think he liked it much. But then Jyou has always been a strange boy."

"Strange." Anna stopped chopping. She began to scoop the onions into a bowl with the knife.

Mrs. Sanada looked vaguely uncomfortable. "I can't explain it. You have to see it to believe it."

"What do you mean?" asked Anna sharply.

"You might laugh at me, ma'am."

"I won't."

"Maybe you should be talking to my husband."

"Mrs. Sanada."

"Don't say I didn't warn you, ma'am. Well..." The tea kettle began to whistle. Mrs. Sanada turned her back on Anna to take the kettle from the stove. "They say he can raise the dead."

It was Yoh who told her about the invitation. "Jyou gave it to me this morning," he said, his voice muffled beneath his shirt. It was one of his old Bob concert tour shirts, bought when he was fourteen, and he had been trying to put it on for five minutes.

"Don't talk," she said. "You might suffocate."

"Well, someone can give me a hand here."

"Who wanted to wear that shirt? I don't think it'll even fit Tamao."

"It's my favorite shirt--and I've worn it forever and--shit--and--goddammit."

She tapped the invitation on her palm, watching him. He was hopping on one foot, then another. He clutched the shirt collar like a noose.

"Aaaaaaaaargghhhhhh!!! Who washed this anyway?" She could see his mouth as he spoke outlined against the thin fabric of the shirt. It was an interesting effect.

"Mrs. Sanada."

He stopped hopping. "Oh god. Anna, I told you you were the only person aside from me who can touch this shirt, didn't I?"

"She has her ways of getting round me or so I let her think. It makes her happy. Our servants need not /always/ be afraid of us."

"Why does my Bob shirt have to be the victim of your insane household management ethics?"

"Yoh, don't you think your shirt won't fit because you're not fourteen years old anymore?"

"Of course not! Don't be silly. Bob shirts will fit me when I'm sixty. It's Mrs. Sanada's fault. What did that woman do?"

"I think maybe she cast a spell on it. Or soaked it in lye."

"Now she's done it. Remind me to shrink her cat tomorrow. Let's see how she likes that. /If/ I can get out of this alive." He wriggled again and succeeded in sticking an arm out of the collar. "Shit." He staggered around the room like a grotesque surrealist painting.

"Are we attending the party, Yoh?"

"Why are you asking /me/?"

"Because you're the head of the family."

"Ow!" He crashed into a chair. "Dammit!"

Anna walked over to him, took his flailing arm, yanked it back mercilessly inside the shirt. He yelled and backpedaled away from her but she had grabbed the shirt sleeves firmly and, without pausing at all, pulled them down as hard as she could.

His head popped out of the collar like a magic mushroom in a circus act. His face was red, his hair was falling into his eyes, his teeth were bared, and he was glaring at her murderously.

"I should throw you out of the window," he shouted.

"Try it," she said coolly.

He opened his mouth to answer, then apparently thought better of it. Instead, he quickly slid his arms into the shirt sleeves, pulled the shirt down, ruthlessly, the manner of a boy changing in a gym room who didn't care if he went out with his jeans not quite slung properly and his shirt not quite wriggled into, and smiled at her. It was a sublime and prepossessing smile He didn't look like he'd just emerged barely unscathed from a death match with a ten-year old shirt. He looked like he'd caught her staring in a gym room. Over the years, Yoh had learned a few tricks of his own to get round her as well.

"Yoh, are we going?"

"Where?"

"To Miss Oshima's party."

"I don't even know why we're invited."

"Didn't Jyou say?"

"He said it was an annual party for Miss Oshima's stockbrokers and financiers and other," he paused and mimed quotation marks in the darkness, "Influential People. The governor is also invited."

"She probably thinks you're influential."

"I wonder where she got that idea."

"She's not the sort who invites random tourists."

"Yes."

"Something to think about."

"Hmmm."

"That was her granddaughter."

"Who?"

"The girl who came in yesterday, asking after Jyou. Did he say where went?"

"I think he runs odd errands around town. Earning extra money."

"I see."

"We should go then."

She turned her head to look at him in the darkness. His eyes were closed and he was smiling a little. She was reminded, suddenly, of the boy she had said goodbye to the night before he left for the Shaman Tournament all those years ago. "Why?"

"Because I know you want to go."

"That's not a reason," she complained.

"I don't need a reason."

She snorted at the amazingly ridiculous answer and pulled her blanket up to her chin. He put an arm around her. A few moments later, his breathing slowed and deepened. He was asleep. Absently, she rested her head against his while she thought about Jyou, the girl Reiko, and the mysterious Mrs. Oshima who picked up three-year old kids in the beach.

"Anna, you can do your scheming tomorrow," he mumbled. "Go to sleep."

He hadn't changed at all.

The morning of the party dawned grey and dull. The invitation said cocktails would be served at six in the evening, supper at nine, but Anna didn't intend to linger for supper. She went to the market in the morning, taking Jyou along with her. Mrs. Sanada had issued her token complaint about Mrs. Asakura doing things she shouldn't be doing but she did not press the point. One did not tell Mrs. Asakura what she could and could not do. Yoh had entered the kitchen then and told Mrs. Sanada he wanted to have a word with her about Bob and shirts.

"Mr. Asakura, your wife is going to the market," said Mrs. Sanada flatly.

"If I were younger, believe me, Mrs. Sanada, I'd take pictures, the works," said Yoh. "Today I'm just numb. Besides, revenge is no fun when it's Anna. It just backfires on you. Now, about my shirt..."

Jyou had been much too cowed to protest. By the time he thought to mention that he was supposed to be helping Mr. Sanada in the garden, Anna had given him two baskets to carry and was propelling him briskly down the path leading to the town.

"Um, Mrs. Asakura--"

"Shut up and walk."

"Yes, ma'am."

Mrs. Asakura bought supplies like a bored slave-trader -- quick, efficient, and completely terrifying. She didn't need to haggle. The shopkeepers were giving her discounts before she opened her mouth. One fruit seller, a big well-muscled man who prided himself on treating customers like dirt, thought he could vanquish her where other lesser fruit sellers had failed and deliberately tampered his scales while she watched. He also dropped an orange on her foot. She slapped him in the face, twice. He gave her four kilos of strawberries for free, everything else at fifty percent discount.

Jyou watched all this with a mixture of stupefaction and mortally jangling nerves. Anna spared him a glance from time to time. He was quick on his feet and he was polite to everyone who spoke to him. Not that many people did. Most of them avoided him though they went out of their way to greet Anna who ignored them. It was Jyou who answered for her, smiling and bobbing his head when she simply walked past. She could have told him not to bother but she didn't. Yoh did the same thing anyway. She thought it was unnecessary but also a polite and harmless delusion, so she let it pass.

"Good morning, Mrs. Asakura! Would you and Yoh-san like to come for dinner?"

No answer.

"Um... good morning, Mrs. Omori."

A sniff. "Jyou-kun. Excuse me."

Anna didn't speak to Jyou until near the end of the shopping trip.

"By the way, a girl was looking for you the other day," she said.

He drew in his breath. He had gone very white. "What--what girl?"

"Reiko," said Anna, studying a basket of turnips.

"Yes, of course, Reiko-san," he stammered. Color flooded back into his face. He was blushing under his tan. "What did she say?"

"'Have you seen Jyou anywhere?'" said Anna, who took such inquiries literally.

He pretended to be absorbed in fixing a loose basket weave. "She probably wanted me to do something for her."

"Like?"

"Things," he said vaguely. "When she goes somewhere, she takes me along."

"You must be very close," said Anna as if she didn't care. She really didn't. Where other people would be accused of being deliberately malicious, she was merely stating a fact. It was one of the most evil things about her, as Manta liked saying.

"I don't know what you mean, ma'am," Jyou said, looking beyond alarmed and completely helpless. He had not known her long enough to appreciate the way she stated her Facts.

Anna only looked at him. "You know what I mean."

"I'm not -- we're not --"

Anna shrugged and dropped the turnip. "It doesn't matter."

"But--"

"I really wanted to ask you about Mrs. Erika."

Suddenly, almost as if it were put on, he lost his flustered look. There was only a sort of suspect wariness now. "What about Miss Erika?"

"Is she sick?"

He gasped. "How did you know that?"

She began to walk away. Jyou hurried after her. He dropped his basket and, overcoming his temerity, laid a thin shaking hand on her arm. She stopped walking.

"Ma'am," he said softly, almost in a whisper, "how did you know that?" His eyes were darker, brighter, and very distant though he was standing next to her, almost.

She met his stare, expressionless, then she looked at the hand on her arm. He withdrew it immediately and he took a step back from her.

"I'm sorry--I'm sorry--"

"I would say the same way Miss Erika Oshima knew about my husband and me," she said. "Only my informant was not quite so precise."

Jyou started visibly.

"Let's go home," she said. "Dammit. What will I do with all these strawberries?"

As they started up the path, she spoke again: "Will you be at the party?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said in a subdued voice.

"What are you wearing?"

Jyou, by now, was too tired to be disconcerted. "What I'm wearing now, ma'am. I don't have so many clothes."

Anna frowned at his ratty slacks and clumsily mended sweater. They looked even more deformed than Yoh's Bob shirt and that was saying a lot. "You've already changed?"

"Miss Erika might want me to run some errands later."

"Yoh has a clean shirt and pair of pants he will lend you," she said. "I can't provide you with shoes. You will have to endure those horrible wing tips. Polish them before you do your errands."

That rattled him again. "I heard Yoh-san say something about his Bob shirt..."

"Of course you will not wear his Bob shirt."

"Mrs. Asakura, I can't, thank you--"

"Do not be absurd. I am not doing this as a favor."

A pause, then: "No, ma'am."

The invitation had contained a note, written on linen paper in the strange irate script of the old and the morbid, that a car would be sent for them at their convenience. Anna sent back a brief reply through Jyou -- 5:30 P.M.

"Shouldn't you elaborate a bit?" said Yoh idly.

"Why?" said Anna.

It was Jyou who came to fetch them. He prudently allowed a ten-minute margin -- according to Mrs. Sanada, Anna ran better than clockwork -- so he entered the house at exactly 5:20 in the afternoon. He paused in the hallway, called out tentatively to Mrs. Sanada. No one answered. He decided to make his way to the living room to wait for the Asakuras.

They were already waiting for him. Anna was writing methodically on the table. She was dressed in a silk white blouse with long flowing sleeves fastened austerely at the wrists by small pearl buttons. Her stiff black skirt collapsed in graceful inoffensive layers upon the tatami. Yoh knelt a little behind her so as not to disturb this miraculous arrangement. He was wearing traditional black evening kit. Jyou, who had never seen him in anything else than casual clothing, usually disheveled or dirty or both, nearly didn't recognize him, but the askew white tie was a giveaway. He was combing Anna's hair, which she had left loose to dry.

He tried to back away from the room without any of them seeing him but Anna said, without looking up from her writing, "We'll be just a moment."

Jyou sat down near the door quietly.

Yoh gathered her hair and twisted it into a knot at her nape. He did this with a great deal of precision, also a little tender, a little distracted. Anna paused in her writing to scratch something out. She murmured a question to Yoh, who replied just as softly. She started writing again. He fastened a jeweled comb on her hair. She put down her pen, then folded the paper, half-wise, quarter-wise.

Yoh stood up first. He held out a hand and she took it. She rose to her feet, her skirt falling around her heels, a slim and tapered silhouette. It was an elegant gesture they had perfected out of habit. Perhaps, a person watching them would think, out of love.

Anna held the folded piece of paper out to Jyou. He took it sitting down and then, as if waking from a terrifying dream, as if he had only then realized what he had done, he stood up so quickly he stumbled and swayed. Anna took hold of his arm to steady him. He was shaking badly. His dark eyes were more solitary than ever, and very sad.

"Give the paper to Mr. Sanada," she said. "He's in the kitchen. He knows what to do with it. We'll wait for you outside. Be quick."

He nodded. When he returned, he found them standing facing each other in the dark incense-scented confines of the hallway. Anna was fixing Yoh's tie. Yoh looked over at Jyou. He was holding a small black valise. He smiled at Jyou.

"Give us another moment, Jyou-kun," he said.

It started to rain on their way to the mansion. Jyou drove carefully. The road leading up the cliff was rough and unpaved. To their right, the sea was an open expanse of abstract black clouds and agitated water. The wind smelled of salt and storm, noisy and palpable even against their tightly sealed windows.

"I didn't know you would be our driver today, Jyou-kun," said Yoh.

"Ryuchi-san used to be the driver," said Jyou, glancing at the rearview mirror. "But after he got arthritis, Miss Erika wouldn't let him drive anymore so I had to learn by myself."

"When was that?" said Yoh curiously.

"When I was eight years old," said Jyou.

"Whoa," exclaimed Yoh. "That's cool."

Jyou smiled shyly. Anna was silent.

"Of course," Yoh qualified hastily, "not cool in the sense that you could have crashed every which way down the cliff. I mean, you were only eight!"

"There are people who are born to do things," said Anna. "By instinct, like breathing. They can't help it. Some of them shouldn't try."

Jyou changed gear hastily. There was a jarring sound as the engine protested the loss of momentum and timing. He tried to switch back to first gear, missed, and decelerated to second gear. The car jolted forward. They ran over stones, nearly a pothole. Springs creaked under the seats. A distinct smell of gasoline flooded the interior.

"The clutch, Jyou-kun," said Yoh calmly.

"I'm sorry," said Jyou. He looked mortified. "I'm sorry, I was--"

Anna was looking out of the window, towards the sea. She seemed indifferent to the entire situation. Yoh sat closer to her and took her hand. Jyou was concentrating on the road ahead of them. Yoh bent down and whispered:

"You shouldn't have done that."

"There are worse things," she said.

The mansion was old and rundown. The weatherworn windows on the topmost floors were shuttered with planks of wood, its roof of mixed tiles and decaying brick weighing heavily like a crime. It was very strange, Anna thought, and grand.

The rain had slowed down to an idle drizzle.

The door of the mansion was opened by an old cadaverous man. He was wearing an impeccably pressed linen suit and spectacles with metal frames behind which he had the habit of squinting. His clothes smelled of roses, and his long, fine hands were pale and bony.

"Good evening, sir, madam," he said in a curt voice. "My name is Ryuchi. I am Miss Oshima's steward. Welcome."

"Good evening," said Yoh.

Ryuchi held the door open for them so they could go inside. Yoh made to follow Anna, started as if he'd just remembered something, and turned to Jyou, who was standing behind him with an open black umbrella. He held out the valise.

"Here," he said. "I nearly forgot to give this to you," he added in a chagrined undertone. "I'm sorry. Anna would have killed me."

Ryuchi watched impassively.

Jyou's eyes were wide. "Thank you, sir. "

Yoh smiled at him and then he stepped into the house. The door closed after them.

Ryuchi led them into the hall. It was big, almost cavernous, like a church. The floor was made of wide planks of mahogany and had been polished to such a gleam that they could see themselves in it. Yoh looked slightly nonplussed at the crucifix hanging on the wall. Its withered Christ looked down on them with tortured eyes.

Ryuchi saw him staring. "The Oshimas have always been collectors," he said in his dry voice.

"I see," said Yoh. "An interesting artifact."

"It was Miss Erika who acquired it," said Ryuchi. "In Rome, after the war."

Except for the crucifix, the hallway was entirely devoid of decoration or furniture. As they neared the other end of the hall, they overheard what sounded like raised voices and the crash of something metallic.

"Miss Erika is in her room," said Ryuchi. "You are the first to arrive."

"I imagine that was the lady's intention," said Anna.

Ryuchi's lips thinned. He glanced at Anna. She held his gaze and he seemed to lose a little of his composure. "She has her reasons, madam."

"Really," said Anna.

The mysterious voices rose in intensity, almost a screeching. Doors banged open and closed. The sensation of something wet and cloying, a draft but not quite, rose up under their feet, rustling Anna's skirt. Ryuchi's glasses trembled on his nose. Livid red marks lengthened like shadows on the walls.

Yoh spoke sharply.

Everything went still and silent. The only shadows they could see were those cast by the weak filtered light of a far-off sunset through the clear glass-paned windows.

Ryuchi by now looked visibly distressed. Yoh gave him a reassuring smile.

"Shall we go on?"

Walking as fast as decorum allowed, Ryuchi led them to the end of the hallway. They stopped in front of a large imposing door. The transom over it was decorated with a latticework of carved wood. A pot of palm stood beside the door; its soil had been watered recently and was spilling what looked like streaks of lacquer on the floor.

Ryuchi raised his hand and rapped twice on the door. Then he opened it and motioned for them to enter. After they did so, he stepped away from the threshold as quickly as possible and closed the door behind him.

This room, while sparsely furnished, was a decided improvement over the bleak emptiness of the hallway. Portraits in carved wooden frames hung on the walls, a chandelier of Venetian glass dangled over their heads. There was a table, some chairs, an escritoire and an ornately carved cathedra with inlaid mother-of-pearl, in which Miss Erika Oshima sat.

"Come closer," she said. "I can't see very well."

She was wearing a formal black kimono, which gave off the scent of roses, and whose large sleeves gave the impression that she was swathed in a thick, immovable cloud. Her face was pallid and gaunt, and Anna thought the similarity between her and her manservant was uncanny, in a funny sort of way. Anna's lips curled slightly. The old woman must have seen it because she, too, smirked, with pure old-age malice.

"You're younger than I thought," she said. "How old are you?"

"Twenty-five," said Yoh politely. "My wife is a year younger."

"How old do you think I am?"

"One hundred and one," said Yoh, smiling himself.

"Ha!" Miss Erika crackled. "I feel older than that, I can tell you. Sit down."

Yoh held out a chair for Anna, who sat down with a bored expression on her face. Yoh pulled up a chair beside her. The old woman watched them intently. This close they could see her eyes, which had a basilisklike ferocity, and made her seem as though she was staring right through them.

"Do you know why I brought you here?" she said impatiently.

Yoh, still smiling, shrugged. "We were hoping you could tell us."

"I thought your wife knew," she said, shooting a sly sidelong glance at Anna.

"That you're sick?" said Yoh. "Is that it, Madam?"

"Sick!" she crowed. "Do you know what's wrong with me?"

Yoh leaned closer towards her, as if to peer more closely into her eyes. "No."

"Nobody does," she replied. "It's a family curse. The women outlive everybody else, but we persist with a strange illness. A lingering, incurable, tiresome disease. All the best doctors in Japan, in Europe, couldn't give us an explanation. Don't worry, it's not contagious. Only our women pass it on to one another." She cackled again. "We like to keep it in the family that way. Do you know how to say the rosary?"

She had a habit of suddenly springing questions, like a snake. Like her granddaughter, thought Anna.

"I'm afraid not," said Yoh.

"Well, I do," said Miss Erika. "And I've said it, I've said it many many times. I thought those Christians had something going for them aside from those silly bibles of theirs and their silly priests. I even bought that horrible crucifix. But I was wrong." She shook her head. "You can't trust Christians."

At that moment, the door opened and the girl Reiko walked in, holding a silver tray with a silver teapot and a silver cup. She was wearing a cream voile dress, a girl's dress, demure and easily overlooked. The skirt covered her knees. Her braid fell over one shoulder.

"Where the hell have you been?" barked the old woman. "Do you expect me to wait all day for you?"

Reiko set the tray on the table without looking up. She didn't acknowledge Anna or Yoh.

"This is my granddaughter Reiko," said Miss Erika. "I had no idea what to call her so I named her after her mother."

"A bad idea," snapped Reiko.

"Listen to her, how she talks back to me now," said Miss Erika. "Oh the young, how their ways have changed. So much change," she said, trailing off again. Then to Yoh: "Do you know what this is I'm drinking?"

Yoh said he didn't.

"It's an infusion of hibiscus and roses. It lessens the stench of putrefaction. I'm a walking corpse, but my piss smells like a garden." She raised the cup to her lips. "You can have your drinks when the other guests arrive. What a bother. Cocktails. Hah. But that Ryuchi..."

Reiko turned to leave. The door closed behind her. Miss Erika droned on about old bankers and their disgusting mistresses and their stupid whiskeys while Yoh listened, nodding his head every now and then. Anna stood up from her chair without a word, opened the door, and went out.

She followed Reiko who was walking down the hallway, her shoes clomping noisily against the floor, like the last time, as though she delighted relentlessly in the echoing noise they made. Reiko didn't speak until they reached the other end of the hall and then she stopped underneath the crucifix, where she turned to Anna and said, "You mustn't take anything she says seriously. She's crazy, you know. I bet she told you that you were the one she'd been waiting for."

"She never said that," said Anna. "Is that what she told Jyou?"

"My grandmother is crazy," Reiko repeated.

"Do you really believe that?"

Reiko shrugged. "My mother was crazy too. She ate roses. Then she died. My father is dead. That's all I know. I don't care. I like being an orphan. You should try it sometime."

"What happened to them?"

"They couldn't save each other. That's all I know. This is what they looked like."

She produced from the pocket of her skirt a silver cameo the shape of a teardrop, whose two faces contained two tiny portraits, which she held up to the oblique light.

"Look at them," she said. "They look so beautiful, and so sad."

Anna took the cameo. She traced its outlines gently with one finger. It was dirty and brittle to the touch, haunted, a memory falling apart, transmuted into madness, as memories were when left far too long in the dark.

"Nobody knows I have it," said Reiko. "Well, nobody but Ryuchi, but he's not telling anybody. I found it behind one of the books. Ryuchi told me the story. I've no doubt they are my parents. He's not saying, but I know."

The young woman in the cameo was Reiko, Reiko's mother, and until her dying day she had worn with it the portrait of her lover, whose name was Tetsuo. He was a young artist who was beginning to make his name in Tokyo and who had journeyed to the island to paint the sea for an exhibit. Instead what he found was a terrible destiny.

Miss Erika invited him to the mansion to see his drawings. The moment he stepped into the door, his entire world turned on its axis when he saw, fleetingly, in one of the rooms, a young woman whose very face to him was a pure premonition of love. That image so haunted him that he neglected his original mission and devoted his time visiting the mansion, on the pretext of discussing art with the lady of the mansion.

He himself was a striking man, a sexual creature whose confidence about his own beauty showed in his graceful stride and the haughty insouciance he affected toward his own mortality. Even the reclusive Erika was enchanted by his presence. She received him gracefully and openly, until she discovered that on the sly he had been slipping poems of anguish and longing to the young girl who had the face of a memory.

The poems turned up everywhere -- under doors, in the latticework of the windowpanes, under jars, stones, flowerpots, tea cups, and even delivered by homing pigeons, around whose rose-colored claws the young artist lovingly wound poems in which he declaimed his love in the quaint and moving language of an ancient poetry that recalled long nights and brilliant moons, incense and flowers and dreams, the sensation of languid hands on silk, then naked skin.

From then on, Miss Erika forbade Tetsuo to come back. The epidemic of love poems mercifully stopped and she thought that was the end of it, until one day she discovered scrolls of poems sewed in the hem of Reiko's skirts. She resolved then and there to send the girl to Europe, to the moon if need be. And that was when the young artist became desperate and came back one more time, somehow finding a way to the young girl's room and whisking her off to the port, to sail away with him to Tokyo, and beyond.

Miss Erika, accompanied by the police, caught them as they prepared to embark on a fishing boat. She handed the local authorities a hefty bribe to have the suitor arrested and issued a permanent restraining order forbidding him from ever returning to the island, and kept Reiko locked in the mansion for the rest of her days.

It was only much later that they found out that Tetsuo, incapacitated by grief, had slit his wrists in his studio in Tokyo, while he watched the sun set from his window, his face turned to a memory he could no longer see and could not bear to remember. His friends and family grieved for days. But no one was more inconsolable than a young girl who would recite his poems to herself at night as if they were spells that could conjure him to her side. She could find no relief in her sorrow and began to eat nothing but roses. Any other food made her sick, and Ryuchi planted rose bushes in the garden. Once, when an unexpected storm destroyed the flowers, he had made his way to the Christian cemetery in a neighboring island, where mourners offered roses to their dead. This was no good because the flowers for the dead were bitter and gave her unbearable stomach cramps.

She grew thin and sallow and preternaturally silent, and when she found out that she was pregnant, she was filled with so much fear that she spent her days kneeling in front of the crucifix and uttering incoherent prayers to a strange god with insane eyes. By her eighth month, she realized she would never see Tetsuo again and she died two hours after a premature birth.

"My name is the only thing I have inherited from my mother," said Reiko. "Maybe, for that reason alone, I should be grateful. But then I think I have also inherited her destiny, and that I cannot forgive."

Anna gave her back the cameo. Reiko took it and slid it again into her pocket.

"I'm going to my room," she said. "Have a nice dinner."

"Won't you be there?"

Reiko shrugged.

Someone cleared his throat. Both of them turned, and they saw Jyou standing framed in the doorway. He wore Yoh's clothes -- a pair of biscuit-colored slacks and a long-sleeved polo -- with a shy sort of distrust, a deliberate distance, and that made him look more grown-up, somehow, more confident.

He was staring at Reiko, who stared right back at him.

"What are you doing in those clothes?" she said.

He blushed a bit but he spoke in a calm steady voice, without his usual stammer. "Do I look all right? These are from Yoh-san."

"What are you doing in those clothes?" she repeated.

His face was pale against his black collar.

He said something so soft, something Anna could not hear.

Perhaps it was a poem.

Anna left them to it, but not before she had seen the smile on Reiko's face, suddenly radiant, almost stricken. She looked like the strange figure on the crucifix. Dying, at the very moment of salvation.

Children, one might call them, but not Anna. There were people who were never born to be children, whose destiny was to live and die, and who loved only by accident. She herself had never been a child.

They stayed for dinner, after all. It was served by a group of hired help from the village. Yoh had met a fellow Bob fan in the cocktail party -- an elderly banker named Matsushima who said he had met Bob personally.

Anna sat quietly, listening to the quiet hum of conversation around the table. The man beside her, Miss Oshima's lawyer, had tried and failed thrice to get her attention. She knew Miss Erika was watching her from her vantage point at the head of the table but Anna pretended that she didn't notice.

She did notice Ryuchi approach Miss Erika and whisper something in her ear. The old lady looked vaguely irritated, then speculative. She muttered something to Ryuchi, who nodded then left the dining room.

Anna waited for Jyou to come so she could ask him to get her sherbet ice cream. But she didn't see him the entire evening. Neither did she see Reiko.

Jyou didn't show up for work for the rest of the week. Anna shrugged off Mrs. Sanada's somewhat apoplectic apologies. "Oh, Mrs. Asakura, he's never done this before. Maybe he's sick. He's usually so reliable. Do you want me to send someone to the mansion?"

"Don't bother, Mrs. Sanada," replied Anna. "We'll be leaving in a few days anyway. It doesn't matter."

"But ma'am--"

"Please call Mr. Sanada. I'd like him to send another telegram for me."

She received Yohmei's package on the eve of their departure. There was a letter inside. The island had no reliable telephone system and mail was delivered from the main postal office through boat. The reply was too long for a telegram -- five pages of closely-written details. She read it aloud to Yoh while they prepared their supper. They had given the Sanadas the evening off.

They decided to take a walk in the beach afterward and were surprised to see a group of people huddled around something lying on the sand. They walked faster.

"What is it?" said Yoh to a man standing at the edge of the crowd.

"Snake bite," said the man morosely. "One of the fishermen."

Poisonous water snakes infested the shallow waters of the beach near the coves. A bite could kill, some of the fishermen had told Yoh and proceeded to recount several of the more gruesome cases. There was no antidote. Even the scientists the governement sent from the mainland couldn't help.

"Has anyone fetched the doctor?" said Yoh.

"The doctor isn't here," said the man. "He's away visiting relatives."

Anna pushed to the forefront of the crowd. People made way for her, muttering and shaking their heads.

The man was convulsing on the sand, his mouth spewing gangrene-colored foam. Several meters from him lay the snake's remains, hacked into pieces, beyond recognition.

He was vomiting bile now. A green substance came out of his nose and eyes. His body seemed like mud, cold and soft and quivering, but his neck and face were like wood, the purple veins popping out as though they were about to explode.

"He's as good as dead," said someone behind Anna.

"No."

It was Jyou. The people turned to stare. Somehow, he had made his way near the dying man without anyone noticing.

"Leave it, Jyou."

"He's breathing," said Jyou. "Give him a chance."

"Now is not the time to get revenge, boy," someone shouted.

Ignoring this, Jyou knelt beside the man and gently took his head under his hand. The man had his eyes open -- the open eyes of sudden death, a shocked glaze. Jyou whispered in his ear. The man convulsed harder. Jyou spoke again, in a louder voice, with force and desperation. His eyes glowed in the moonlight.

"Live," Anna heard him say. "Please live."

The man stopped convulsing and lay still. Anna knelt on his other side and put her fingers on his limp wrist. The pulse was weak but steady. His eyes were closed.

"He's alive," she said.

The crowd burst out into shocked exclamations. Four men pushed Jyou and Anna aside. They carried the man between them and ran down the beach, towards the village. The rest of the crowd followed, casting glances at Jyou, who kept his head down.

Yoh stood behind Anna. When the last of the people had gone, Jyou moved to stand up.

"Wait, Jyou-kun," said Yoh.

Jyou bit his lip, hesitated, then sat back down wearily on the sand, with an air of dread, almost of remorse.

"One of the men mentioned revenge," said Anna. "What did he mean?"

"I am not well-liked in the island," Jyou answered softly. "You saw what happened. They think I'm a freak."

"You saved him," said Anna.

"It's never made a difference before," he said, bitterly.

"Why don't you leave?"

"I can't," said Jyou, averting his eyes. "Miss Erika will never let me."

"You have a family," said Yoh gently. "They'll help you."

His laughter was short and strangled. "You know as well as I do that won't happen. They left me here deliberately. They knew what I was, you know who they are. And Miss Erika has a lot of money. I belong to her. I don't have any family."

"You can't do anything for Miss Erika," said Anna. "You know that."

"It doesn't matter what I know or what I want," he said. "She thinks I can help her."

"That's not the reason why you stayed."

He was silent for a long time, then, carefully, he put the valise on the sand between them. "I was on my way to your house to return this. And to say goodbye. I heard you were leaving tomorrow." He bowed. "I apologize for not being a better employee. It's because--I can't--" He stopped and he suddenly looked ready to cry. Then his mouth thinned and he straightened in his seat. "Thank you for everything. May you have a good journey, sir, madam."

"The clothes are yours, Jyou-kun," said Yoh. "Consider them a gift."

"But Yoh-san--"

"Here," said Anna. She reached into her coat and pulled out a packet of papers tied with a black ribbon. A faint scent of roses rose in the chill air. She placed the packet beside the valise.

"Give that to Reiko," she said. "Those are the last letters her father wrote her mother. I think they are poems. They were found in his studio the day he died."

"But how did you....?"

Anna stood up. "We had better go back."

Yoh smiled at him. "Take care, Jyou-kun."

"Thank you," Jyou said softly. He waited until they had walked a few paces then he whispered, as if he couldn't help himself, "But I can save /her/."

He thought Yoh, at least, would stop and look back and tell him everything would be all right. But he didn't.

"I'll find a secret place," he said. "Where no one ever dies." He licked her lower lip with the tip of his tongue, savoring the sweetness. In the shadows, he could see her close her eyes, turning her face up to receive his kiss.

"And you'll take me with you?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I'll marry you someday," he whispered to her.

"Marry me now," she replied. "Right here."

"Let's see the portraits again," Jyou said. "Let them be the witness."

She held the cameo up to Jyou.

"I promise to love you forever and ever, and I declare myself married to you," said Jyou.

She slowly repeated the words. "I promise to--I promise to..."

"Say it."

But she was so overcome with emotion that her voice broke into a stifled sob. At that moment they heard Ryuchi coming in, and she quickly clapped her hand against his mouth. Tears were still streaming down her cheeks. Jyou turned her hand around and kissed her fingers, one after the other. As soon as they heard Ryuchi leave, she returned his kiss, full in the mouth, so strong and sudden that it knocked Jyou's breath out.

"I love you," she said. "Forever and ever."

He placed a hand on her head, feeling the softness of her hair. How different she was from everybody else, the cruel girls in the village, the hard-faced women from the mainland. May she never change, may she always remain a child. Things as they are. Both of us.

She unbuttoned his shirt and gently brushed her lips down his chest. He shivered. He wrapped his arms around her, whispering, "Let me see you too." Slowly she began peeling off her dress. Her body was pale and nubile, skin and bones.

They were startled when Ryuchi walked in again. Catching them naked, the steward rolled his eyes and clucked his tongue. "Stop these games," he said. He threw Jyou his clothes. "We have work to do. Miss Erika wants you to drive her to town."

He could not remember a time when he didn't love her. All life, all memory began the moment he saw her, just a child of such mad, mad beauty. She looked at him with her grandmother's cruel eyes.

"Who's he, Grandmother?" she demanded, frowning.

"His name is Jyou," said Miss Erika. "He has come here to help us."

"Nothing can help us," she retorted.

"He will lessen the pain."

"Of what?"

"Of this and that," the old woman replied with some annoyance. "You'll get it too, be warned, child. It's a family curse. I've told you this before."

"Yes, yes, you have," Erika replied. She walked up to Jyou, who stood unmoving and panic-stricken.

She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.

The old woman laughed. Jyou was at a loss what to do or say. As if nothing had happened, Reiko stepped away from him and went out of the room without another word.

That night, as he looked out of his window at the sea, at the landscape of his loneliness where no visas were possible and no escape allowed, he realized that he loved her. And knowing that love had changed him precisely into something that made it impossible.

After Ryuchi saw them, Erika sent Reiko away to Europe as she had so often threatened. Reiko was gone for a year. Jyou spent this time alternating between apathy, pain, and complete despair. Her image haunted him. He thought he saw her everywhere, to enchant and torment him. But rather than delight in the chimerical presence that he imagined, he was filled with terror and foreboding, he broke in a cold sweat, his bones felt like water. For days he imagined conversations with her. Sometimes she was pleasant, friendly, full of stories about Paris Madrid London, full of sorrow at having left him. Sometimes she was combative, angry, explaining why she had to leave, and that she was in love with somebody else. In those moments, he felt the coldness in his bones set in -- a fracture in his soul, too small for anyone to see.

When she returned, the first thing she said to him was: "Go away. I've got nothing left to give."

She had grown up; she seemed taller to him, her face no longer filled with that childish mischief he knew so well. Time had refined her best features -- her nose, her brows, her lips, her skin. She looked impossible, inspired by a superhuman grace, and she was everything he had ever wanted.

But she would not let him touch her. She wouldn't even talk to him. One night, finally, he had followed her out into the beach, where she stood on the water with her hands clasped together, as if she were praying with her grandmother's rosaries.

"Go away," she said.

"I've come to see the one I used to know," he whispered.

"No one can bring the dead back. Not even you."

"I don't know what that means." He stood beside her, not touching. "I don't understand what's happened to you. So much change."

She was silent for a while.

"Something's happened," he said. ""Tell me."

"You're the mind reader. You tell me." She hid her face in her hands. "I want to die."

It was a boy, she said. She had gone to a party in Rome and he had introduced himself to her. He was handsome and polite and the most elegant person she had ever seen. He was delighted when she spoke to him in fluent Italian. Charming, he said. When it was very late, he offered to take her home to her hotel. She agreed. But first, he said, would you like to take a stroll in the park?

It was a beautiful night and she felt so young and free.

Yes, she said.

In the darkness, he began to kiss her. She responded at first. Then he kissed her harder and harder, furiously. She resisted.

Let me go, she said. You're hurting me.

Only if we stay in your hotel, he said.

You're crazy.

The young man was used to having his way. He dragged her farther into the darkness and pushed her down to the sweet-smelling grass and tore her dress off. She fought back, scratching at his face. He held a knife against her breast and whispered,

If you fight, you'll die.

"I'll kill him," said Jyou.

"I should have died," she said. "I want to die."

"Don't say that."

"No one can help me."

"I can. That's why I'm here."

"It's too late."

"Please."

They talked for hours.

What was it like in Europe?

Did you ever think of me? I wondered what you were doing. I wondered if you were alive.

He asked her many questions, to fill the gap left by her absence. But knowing what she saw, what she heard, only made him feel more distanced from her: the more he knew the more he realized how far she had been. Even now, close to her, he felt a certain terror at the thought of that distance, which could once again take her away.

Were you happy? Were you sad?

I wanted to run away.

He held her close. Erase the distance, the memory of it. Start all over, as though nothing had intruded upon their first touch, their first kiss.

I want to save you, he said, looking into her eyes. I want to save you from everything, I know I can.

She looked at him for a long time. I'm scared, she said.

Anna lay awake for a long time that night. She turned to Yoh, who lay beside her, and touched his face, slowly, making a memory, forever and ever.

"I have always loved you," she said.

"I know," he said.

Yoh had gone to the village to say goodbye to his friends. Anna was packing the last of their bags when Mrs. Sanada burst into the bedroom and announced, "There's a foreigner in the island, just stepped off the last boat. Old Kentaro said he's Italian. Ryuchi-san fetched him in the car."

Anna closed the bag.

"I've never seen a real blond boy in my life. This is my first time," said Mrs. Sanada. "He's handsome, if you like them that way."

"Why is he here?"

"I don't know," said Mrs. Sanada. "But there are rumors that he came to see Reiko-chan. She was in Europe all of last year."

Anna picked up the bag and placed it on the hallway along with the rest of their baggage. Mrs.Sanada trailed after her.

"When Yoh comes back, please tell him to go ahead to the pier," said Anna. "I'll meet him there."

"What? Where are you going, ma'am?" asked Mrs. Sanada, looking alarmed. "You're leaving in an hour!"

"Tell him what I told you," said Anna.

Her friend the strawberry fruit-seller had a car. It's an old gear drive, he said apologetically. Toyota model. Does madam know how to--

I've watched someone do it, she said.

She arrived at the mansion fifteen minutes later. The car wasn't in the garage yet. Perhaps Ryuchi's arthritis had struck again. She screeched to a stop in the courtyard, wheels spinning in fourth gear. She left the engine idling. She did not want to waste time starting the car again on her way back.

She went inside the house and made her way down the hallway which stank of roses and beeswax without pausing or looking around. Her calfskin boots made little noise. This time, no one and nothing tried to stop her.

She flung the door open to Miss Erika's room. The old woman was sitting pretty much in the same position where Anna had first seen her, dressed in the same black kimono. She was sipping her tea when Anna walked in. Jyou sat at her feet, reading in a hollow voice from a book. He started when he saw Anna and he stood up slowly. His face was paler than she had ever seen it. His eyes had lost their distance. They were wild and cold, dying.

Miss Erika put her cup down on the table beside her. "I knew you would come," said the old woman, her mouth widening into her crazy evil smile.

"I didn't come for you," said Anna.

"I've heard so much about you," said Miss Erika. "The mysterious fearsome itako who could summon ghosts from heaven and hell. It was your husband I really wanted to see but when I met you, I knew it was you I was waiting for." She laughed: a hoarse, screeching sound. "Well, then, what are you waiting for? Command the spirits in my body. Expel them."

Anna stared at her coldly.

"What is it?" The old woman raised a sly eyebrow. "If you're worried about compensation, you are free to name your price. I'm prepared to meet it, if you can rid me of this curse."

"I want to talk to Jyou," said Anna.

"Jyou?" said Miss Erika. "Why do you want Jyou?" But she knew. She didn't wait for a reply. She reached inside her kimono and held out a necklace, a cameo almost similar to the one Reiko had shown Anna, but with an almost unrecognizable daguerreotype of a gentleman in a hat.

"Do yo see this?"

Anna saw nothing but the remnants of a face.

Jyou stared.

"It's the man who promised to marry me when I was seventeen. He told me he loved me -- oh, all men say that when they only want one thing from you. But I believed every word he said. I was young."

She pulled the necklace back abruptly. "Don't ask me what his name was or what he did. I don't remember. Love is a fragile, useless thing. It decomposes easily."

"Why do you keep his portrait then?" said Anna.

"Do you think it's because of love? No. I keep it to remind myself that I have a heart, and it's nothing but a trinket." She smiled again and looked at Jyou with her basilisk eyes. "Don't waste your time on human emotions. You were meant for a greater purpose. Don't you know that yet? Haven't I taught you enough?"

Jyou didn't reply. But she said, "You may still get what you want when I die. You know that, don't you?"

"And what is it that I want, ma'am?" said Jyou in a soft strangled voice.

"Freedom," she said. "When I die --" she seemed to like to roll the words on her tongue, to taste them--"when I die, you may leave this island forever and never have to come back. I will release you. That's what you want to hear, isn't it?"

"I want more than that."

The old lady tilted her head skeptically. "And what is that?"

Jyou glanced at Anna, took a deep breath, and said, "I love her deeply. Reiko-san."

Miss Erika looked highly amused. "It comes like clockwork and it spares no one. How much do you love her? Six feet deep? Like the sea?"

Jyou swallowed. "I'd like to marry her."

The old woman smirked at him. "She's taken. Go find somebody else to play with."

"What?"

"She's not your responsibility. Someone's already seen to that."

"The Italian," said Anna.

"You can't do this," said Jyou. He reeled back as if she'd hit him. "You can't do this. I won't let you!"

"You won't, will you?" Miss Erika pointed a clawlike finger him. "Tell me. Does she love you?"

The question surprised him, and he kept silent.

"Ah, I see some doubt. You may be the healer but the young are so transparent. Speak up. Does she love you?"

"Yes."

"Yes?"

"Why--I think so--don't know."

"You don't know?" she croaked. "And you're living for something you don't know? Well, my impetuous one, I do. I know a lot of things. These diversions had been played out so many times before. Would you like to find out?"

"Find out what?"

"Whether she loves you or not. Aren't you just dying to find out?"

Jyou didn't respond.

Anna's mouth tightened.

"Very well then," said Miss Erika. She rang the bell for tea, insistently, so that the metallic sound seemed as if it would shatter everything in sight. Jyou stood frozen as Reiko came in with the silver service. When she saw Jyou, she stopped in shock. The teacups rattled in the tray. Motioning a finger at her, the old lady said: "Set it down." And to Jyou: "Ask her."

"Ask her what?" said Jyou. He and Reiko were staring at each other.

"Does she love you or not?"

Anna heard a barely audible gasp from Reiko. She glanced at her. Reiko had brought her hand up to her throat, clutching at the collar of her blouse.

Erika studied her, smiling slyly. "Well? Do you?"

Reiko was trembling, her hand kept at her throat, as though she were choking. She looked at her grandmother with such rage, and angry tears welled up in her eyes.

"What's the answer?" Miss Erika demanded.

"No," she said.

Jyou closed his eyes.

"Of course not," said Miss Erika. Her smile widened. "But there's nothing you'd like more than to stick your privates together, like animals. Don't make that mistake. There are more important things in this world than love. Or whatever you think it is. I have more suitable plans for both of you."

"How can you be so cruel?" said Reiko in a harsh choked voice.

"Cruel?" said the old woman. "Look at you. You were nothing, worth nothing, the daughter of a mad woman who ate roses and loved a mad man. I made you. Sent you places, educated you, gave you everything. When I die, all I have will go to you. And I am cruel." She turned to Anna. "You would know that, you would understand. That's why I knew you would come back," she said. "You are cruel too."

"You do not know who I am," she said.

Jyou opened his eyes then. Anna looked at him, and looked away.

Like an automaton missing a part, incomplete and mortally wounded, he walked, half-stumbling, to the open door. Reiko stared rigidly ahead of her, tears streaming down her face, but he didn't even glance at her.

Then a strange thing happened.

"Stay," said Miss Erika. It was not a command, but a plea.

He didn't seem to have heard her. He disappeared out of the doorway.

A long silence stretched between them.

The old woman finally sighed. "You've lost him," she told Reiko. "Be wise, and follow your destiny."

Reiko ran out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Anna turned to leave.

"Wait," said Miss Erika. "Help me, destroy this curse. If you do that--"

"I want nothing you can offer," said Anna. "Not anymore."

She walked to the door.

For the first time, Miss Erika looked desperate.

"Wait, wait, you can't leave."

"Like I said," said Anna, "it's not a curse. It's a sickness. You can never see it for what it is. There is no cure."

"But what is it?" demanded the old woman. "What is it?"

"Not being able to love," said Anna.

She searched the corridors and the hallways but the mansion was bigger than she thought. Like a series of nesting boxes, one room led to another. One contained chairs, the other bolts of silk, that one empty easels, and this, torn strips of paper. She let herself into rooms she thought she had already seen but they turned out to be different rooms altogether.

Finally, she found herself stepping out into a vast courtyard surrounded by many doors. It was a quiet enclosure surrounded by crumbling brick walls and creeping vines. In the middle was a well designed after Moorish watering holes, inlaid with mosaics. In the mouth of the well, she caught her own face staring from a depth that was not placid but frightening, the strange figurations of a dream.

Somewhere in the house, a door slammed. She turned in its direction and went back in. Finally, she found herself once more in Miss Erika's room but when she opened the door, it was Yoh who stood there. Miss Erika was gone. Yoh's eyes were shuttered, almost opaque. He held out a hand to her and she took it.

Together, they walked quietly down the hall. As they stepped out of the mansion, they heard a sound, like the wind, but heavier, full of grieving. Somewhere in the distance, the waves crashed against the rocks. They looked at each other. Then they heard it again, heard it coming back, prodigal, racked with sobbing that sounded almost human.

They drove down the cliff with the windows open. The sea smelled of roses.

End.

Heh. Heh. Tired and stinking of hubris at having finished a story (look, it's one of the wonders of the universe for me), I summarize the story as corrupt Garcia Marquez screaming: Sadako ate verisimilar Banana Yoshimoto!

But seriously: the story was mostly an attempt to write Yoh/Anna love story past present future without really talking about them, with unsubtle (and unstable) fannish interludes & asides when I can't help it because goddammit why am I apologizing for my waff anyway?

This is for Pei Yi, who was pimping Shaman King and then wrote that intriguing Vol.9 vignette.