In This Truth We See
"Jiya," Misao said.
"Yes?" Jiya replied.
"What are you doing?"
"Aaah, just enjoying the scenery." He sighed. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"
"Yes." Misao suppressed an urge to scream. Instead she said through gritted teeth, "So then why don't you go outside and enjoy it there."
"Huh?" Okina turned from leering at a pair of young ladies sitting at a table in the front of the Aoiya. "Outside? Why would I want to go outside?"
"Jiya!" Misao waved a tray at him, fury in her eyes and punishment ready in her fist and . . . tray. "Are you trying to scare away all our customers, you ancient lecher! No one's gonna be able to eat when they see your antique face drooling at them!"
Several customers stared at them and edged away nervously when Misao began brandishing her tray. However, they were regulars and were well aware of Misao's accuracy. It was just that, she was more accurate when the target wasn't moving.
"Oh, Misao!" Jiya placed one hand over his heart as if an invisible arrow had just struck him. "I'm touched that you're so jealous." He grinned lasciviously, "But don't worry, I won't ever forget my Misaaaooo-chaaan."
He leapt back nimbly from the flying tray and adopted a disapproving frown as it crashed into the back of Shiro's head. He tsked at the horrified Misao before beating a hasty retreat.
The two girls at the front of the shop peered over at the commotion. They had heard many rumors about this place. That it was run by an eccentric bunch. That it was known for it's intolerance for disrespect and had the martial skill to back it up. That it had a peeping tom.
But they had come to this restaurant for dinner because they had heard about the delicious variety of native cuisine. That their waiter was a relatively young and charming man had been an added plus. Now, they watched in stunned disbelief as he was clobbered over the head by the tray that the small braided waitress had launched at him. Then both sighed in disappointment at the thought that this waitress was probably his sweetheart, until they realized that she had just whacked her beloved.
They peered about, suddenly nervous. The eccentric and martial skills part had proven to be true. Now what about the peeping tom part?
"Ow!" Shiro whipped around, his spotless waiter's apron flaring slightly with his movement. His dark eyes lit upon the braided ninja and he complained, "What was that for, Misao? I didn't do anything!"
Misao gasped. "I'm sorry, Shiro. I didn't meant to do that, honest! I was aiming for Jiya's face!"
"The back of my head can't curdle water, Misao," Shiro grumped. He rubbed his head. "It's bad enough that we're short on help today that we can't afford to have a concussed waiter serving the customers!"
"I really am sorry." Misao had an appropriately contrite look upon her face, which was enough to make Shiro sigh and glare at her half-heartedly before walking past her to greet a trio of customers just coming through the door.
"Whatever. Just go and make sure the old man isn't harassing any of the young girls."
She nodded, appropriately chastened. "I will, and I'm sorry."
He merely waved back to her and hurried to the new arrivals.
Misao turned to the stairs in the back of the room that led up to their living quarters. She frowned with grim determination and marched up, her feet thumping the solid wood planks as if they would convey her irritation to the old man above.
Once she reached the second floor, she hurried to the waiting room where Li had been shown earlier.
"Jiya!" She shoved the shoji back with a resounding thwack! "Stop ogling the poor girls and receive your punishment!"
"Misao," Jiya said from his position at the window, "I'm surprised you haven't asked me anything concerning Li-san, yet."
"I—huh?" The sudden seriousness in Jiya's voice brought her up short. "Li-san?" she said.
"Yes. Usually you're brimming with questions if you think I know something."
"Oh. Yes, well . . ." Truthfully, Misao had thought about it. But Jiya had seemed too preoccupied and the constant stream of customers and only three people managing the Aoiya had not helped.
Misao knelt down before Jiya and squared her shoulders. "Well, Okina, if you are willing to tell me, what do you know about Li-san?"
"Hmm." He stared out of the window, his eyes pensive. Then turned back with a decisive nod. He knelt down before Misao, his face erased of all the silliness that he'd displayed downstairs.
"Did you know that your grandfather had stationed me and one other member here in Kyoto before the Bakamatsu occurred? Of course all of our members were dispersed throughout most of Japan back then by the order of the emperor." Jiya's gaze found a spot somewhere above Misao's left shoulder as he continued. His voice was sad, yet wistful. "We were to aid the Shinsengumi as well as gather intelligence on the Choshu-han."
The Choshu-han had been the organization that had established the Kihetai and the Ishin Shishi during the Bakamatsu and had been essential in overthrowing the Tokugawa regime to establish this new Meiji Era. Misao wondered what connection this history, more than fifteen years old, had with Li-san.
"My partner was a young. He was good, but still, so young and inexperienced and believing that he could conquer the world through sheer determination."
Jiya sighed and Misao sat up straighter. Jiya was not one to share his past unless there was something important.
"And when you're young," he continued, "you can't help but think that love will get you through anything, whether it is hunger or the ambitions of corrupt politicians."
He paused. Misao waited gravely even as she tried not to think about a certain icy-eyed young man, for whom she had braved hunger and corrupt bandits if not politicians.
"His name was Takao. He was a peasant's son before he joined the Oniwanbanshu, but he had an ability to blend with any environment he was in. A lord's private party or a kimono shop. He was the servant or the brother buying his sister a gift. He deserved the title of Oniwanbanshu."
"Jiya," Misao said, "what happened to him? I've never heard of him."
"I don't think you would. After all you were only five years old when he died."
"Was he related to Shigeta somehow? Was he a brother perhaps?"
"No," Jiya shook his head. "No. But Takao and I were living at the Satoya, an "inn" that many of the Shinshengumi frequented when they wanted to find . . . comfort in a woman's arms. There was a young woman working there, and he fell in love with her. Her name was O-ren. She'd served me tea once and we'd had a stimulating discussion about tea. I was surprised. She was very intelligent and witty. She could have been a respected geisha. And perhaps it was my own fault for not watching her more closely. Or perhaps it was his love that allowed Takao to stumble across her secret."
His eyes closed as he relived memories that he had carried alone for the past fifteen years. "When I found him in her room, he looked like he was sleeping. But his skin was so cold and so pale and I'd seen enough death to recognize it when it came. He had been fed sakura-mochi liberally laced with opium. The sweets were on a plate next to his hand. But he said something to me. Something that had made no sense. He said, 'Li.'"
Jiya's eyes opened and his gaze sharpened as he stared into Misao's eyes. "O-ren disappeared. But I later learned that a daimyo's household had become inexplicably addicted to opium and his daughter had died from an overdose. This daimyo's name: Takashi Shigeta."
Misao said nothing and stared mutely at him. But her mind whirled with the possibilities and the consequences of a fifteen year old memory.
"I do not know if there is a connection," Jiya finished. "But there are just too many coincidences."
He huddled under the blanket. His body felt hot and flushed although he shuddered with each new chill that would not stop sweeping over his small frame. His mind wavered on the edge of sleep but would not let him be. Every small sound, every swish of newly formed leaves, the raucous laughter of the dinner party swirled into his ears and would not let his mind rest. The soft material of the blanket scratched against his cheek uncomfortably as if it was made of rough cotton. Yet he was loathe to give up the warmth it afforded.
Haji shifted, sitting up slightly as a light footfall sounded just outside his door. The moon lit up the squares of the shoji, casting white shapes on the floor like a woven blanket of light and shadows. Then the shoji opened with a soft scrape and a figure stood there, features gilded with the lamp she held in one hand.
"Oniisan!" Haji attempted to stand, but fell back when a wave of dizziness rushed over him. He closed his eyes to stop the ceiling from spinning crazily and heard another scrape as the shoji was closed. The light footsteps approached his futon then swept past.
"Do not get up." Her voice floated back from the back of the room, even and modulated and showing no emotion like a cultured man.
Haji frowned slightly. She was . . . angry. But she wasn't exactly angry. More like what he felt when Liu Tseng refused to reveal anything to him and would keep trying to convince him that he'd understand once he'd grown up. It was annoying. Ignoring Xiao Yan's command, Haji opened his eyes again and sat up slowly, pulling the blankets along with him to stave off the chill breeze that had come through the door with her.
"Oniisan," he said.
She turned from turning down her futon, disapproval clear in her brown eyes though her expression never changed. "Go to sleep, Hajime. We will get up early tomorrow."
He nodded. But before he could lay back down, a tiny frown creased her brow. "Are you feverish, Hajime?"
"Huh? O-oh . . . um . . . well, I was . . . that is . . . um . . ."
"Don't stutter, Hajime. It is unbecoming."
"Yes, Oniisan," he said as she walked over. He clutched the blanket tighter, suppressing another shiver. "The doctor said I have a mild flu. He said it'll go away in three or four days."
She crouched by his side then reached out to touch his forehead with the back of her hand. The chill seeped away slightly with the unexpected warmth of her fingers and he leaned into them.
"Doctor?" she asked. She lifted her hand away, causing Hajime to hold back a mewl of disappointment.
"Did Ayu-san summon him?" She laid her palm flat against his forehead.
"Yes." He closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth radiating from her hand.
"What did he say?"
"Soujiro told me he said I had to stay in bed and take the medicine three times a day."
"I see." She seemed to finally notice the washbasin and cloth next to his futon and she dropped her hand to finger the white cloth thoughtfully. "Did Soujiro-san tend to you?"
"I see." For a moment something flickered in her tea brown eyes, but it was too quick to allow him to imagine what it might have been. "Where is the medicine?"
"Um . . . um, Ayu-san h-has it . . . I think . . . ."
"Hmm," she hummed. "I am sure you have thanked her properly." At his sheepish expression, her lips thinned slightly and her next words came out clipped, "I shall thank her tomorrow on your behalf. Now sleep."
Haji nodded and lied down, working the twisted blanket around to tuck around himself as warmly as possible. Despite his efforts and the thickness of the material, he still shuddered as if the chill breeze had found its way under the covers and he'd unintentionally enfolded it in with him.
He shuffled about a while longer before hearing a huff above him. He stopped and looked up slowly. Xiao Yan stood above him, arms crossed and face expressionless. She held the wrapped sword and a bundle of clothing under one arm. "Shall I listen to you rustling about all night?"
"Um . . ."
"Really. I shall practice before taking a bath. Be asleep when I return." She left before he had a chance to answer.
He closed his eyes and tried desperately to sleep. But the rustling of the wind in the tree seemed unnaturally loud. His own heartbeat seemed unnaturally loud. It beat a rapid rhythm that everyone could undoubtedly hear. Haji shifted again.
Finally, huffing slightly, unconsciously echoing Xiao Yan, he sat up with the blankets wrapped firmly around his small frame and crawled to the door in slow, shuffling movements. Immensely grateful for the relatively small distance it took to reach the door, he leaned against it for a long moment, feeling as if the his head would fly away at any time. Then sliding the shoji open, he peered out at the moon-washed veranda. Feeling that he had enough strength, Haji slowly stood up, supporting his weight against the door.
Once that had been accomplished, he wrapped the blanket more firmly about his slender shoulders and hesitantly made his way down the palely lit walkway. Another shudder swept up his spine and he leaned against the wall. Perhaps he should go back. . . . Oniisan would be really angry if . . . when . . .
He turned to go back, yet shadows that had not been there before seemed to suddenly swell and swallow the path he'd just trod. Gulping audibly, Haji clutched his blanket tighter and slowly backed away. He turned and hurried down the suddenly sinister walkway. He ignored the slight throbbing that began just behind his eyes and shifted the loose folds of the blanket closer, trying to stave off the chill breezes that kept wafting up.
Hearing a soft whistle as of the wind blowing through a flute, he slowed to lean against the wall. For a moment everything spun crazily and the bright pinpoints of moonlight shining through the dark branches seemed to swell like soapsuds. Haji tasted the bitter medicinal tea he'd drank earlier along with the sour burning of bile in the back of his throat.
Fighting off the wave of nausea, he finally sank down, trembling with fatigue and clutching the blanket tightly. Through the thick folds he'd gathered against his neck, he could feel the rapid rise and fall of his chest as if he'd just finished a strenuous practice. Even the chilly air burned his throat and lungs as if they'd been overheated and he coughed slightly to rid himself of the ache deep in the back of his throat.
However, once his world stopped spinning, Haji was suddenly too aware of the dark and menacing shapes surrounding him. A sudden thump made him flinch. He pressed up against the hard wooden wall and stifled his whimper of fear.
[Don't cry, Haji! Don't cry. If you do, she will hear you. Stop crying. Stop!]
He squeezed his eyes tightly. If he couldn't see. . . . If he couldn't hear. . . . A sharp, dry skittering sounded to his right and he gasped before he could muffle his mouth.
No! It was a monster! It was coming! It was coming for him!
[I should not be here.]
The monster was there! It's eyes crimson with bloodlust and its mouth open wide to display gleaming white teeth that dripped with acid saliva. Haji scooted away weakly, his fever-ravaged body protesting his every movement even as it urged him to run. To run and hide.
[Do not cry, Haji.]
It was coming! His eyes still squeezed shut, Haji pushed himself away as whimpers began on his lips. It was coming. It was coming . . . and he could do nothing. He couldn't run.
Behind his lids, he could see the monster reaching out with one clawed hand. Hovering above his blanket. Waiting to tear away his last measly defense and swallow him whole.
[Do not blubber. It is disgusting.]
The piercing cry ripped from his lips and he couldn't stop it for all the world. He quickly stifled it in a fold of the blanket then curled in on himself, too weak to move and too afraid to open his eyes to banish the imaginary demon behind his lids.
[Stop sniveling. Are you a weak little boy? I do not have time for a weak little boy.]
No! He mustn't cry! If he did, she would leave. If he cried, she would go. If he was weak, he would be alone. He mustn't cry.
[If you cry, I'll leave you, Haji. I'll leave you.]
He mustn't cry.
[You will die if you remain so weak.]
He had to move.
[Just listen to my heart.]
Slowly, hesitantly, he uncurled himself. He had to get away from the monster. It was screaming and howling indecipherable shrieks that caused spittle to fly from its mouth like a rabid dog's foaming sickness. He had to get away.
[See? It is like the rain upon the earth . . .]
It followed him. Its smile was malicious because it knew it could reach out at any time and impale the frantic little boy on its long, vicious claws. It oozed malice. It reeked of cruelty. It was coming for him.
Haji's breath hitched and he blindly thrust his arms from the suddenly confining cover to drag himself away. And his eyes were still squeezed so tightly.
[. . . the pulse of a thousand eons . . .]
Scooting along the wall and trying to make himself as small as a mouse, Haji clamped his lips tightly against the cries bubbling up his throat. But still . . . still the monster followed him. All night and shadows and fear.
[. . . the knowledge of existence . . .]
Then his hand hit nothing but open air and Haji almost sobbed outright because he was trapped against an impossible precipice and he would either fall or the monster would eat him. The monster had pushed him against a jagged outcropping of a cliff and now he would die. He would die because he was too weak to do anything but crawl away.
Gradually, however, a niggling thought filtered through his feverish mind and he quickly realized that he'd reached the corner of the veranda. Yet that thought could not comfort him. His body was too exhausted. He couldn't move anymore.
And the monster was here. It was reaching. Ready to eat him, now.
[. . . that you and I share the same heartbeat.]
A clear chime sounded through the darkness like the rings on a monk's shajaku. The shadows dissolved and rippled away like the reflections in a pond as someone threw in a stone.
Another whistle came, louder than the first and over-riding the shadow monster's voiceless shriek.
[We are only ghosts in this world.]
The monster swiped at him again, but missed. Gasping, his eyes still squeezed shut so tightly that they ached, Haji crawled away towards the sweet, clear tone.
[You should not exist, Haji.]
Finally, it was gone. Wisped away like smoke caught in a good breeze.
Laying on his stomach, his hot breaths coating the wooden boards with a fine sheen of moisture, Haji reached for the keen whistling like a parched boy begging for rain. He held onto the pitch of clear ringing, clutching his blanket as if it was a physical manifestation of the sound. Slowly, carefully, by increments of a rice paper width, Haji opened aching slanted eyes.
They were immediately awashed with the cool light that illuminated the bare courtyard before the kitchen. It turned the hard-packed ground beneath a bone white that allowed for no shadows and lined the gently rounded cheek of the single person there. Then it glinted off the bright edge of her slim sword.
[I should not be here.]
She seemed like an enchanted fairy that had materialized from the ethereal moonbeams as she moved through the katas. She slid fluidly from one stance to another; slim fingers stretched gracefully, loose hair flowing as reeds would sway in the wind. Her sword twisted through the air so quickly only a brief streak of silver left one to imagine that the sword was not itself a product – a trick – of the pale orb above. Then she would suddenly be still. For a heartbeat or perhaps an eternity such as a mountain would withstand. But from one breathe to the next and she was springing up, becoming a wraith.
[You should not exist.]
He slumped in total and exhausted relief like a traveler finding shelter at the end of his long and arduous journey.
Lids, heavy with fatigue fell willingly over brown eyes. He did not try to fight to keep them open like he'd done on so many other nights just as this. Did not try to watch the end of her routine, which he had never accomplished yet. Did not try to keep her in his sight.
[We are spirits with no time.]
The smell of sweat and cool night air mingled pleasantly in his drifting mind, reminding him of other such nights when slumber had also eluded him. His oniisan's breaths became distant. The whispering of her feet fading. Sensations became dim.
A rising mist edged across the veranda to brush against Haji's flushed cheeks like a fine drizzle.
[We share the same heartbeat. Just listen.]
Misao stared contemplatively at the bright moon above. She sat on the windowsill, leaning against one side of the frame and braced the other side with her leg. One elbow was propped loosely atop her bent knee as a slightly chilly breeze brushed past her. Only the special cut of her kimono allowed her such a casual posture.
The conversation with Jiya had stroked her natural curiosity. The mystery surrounding this Li woman in the past and this Li youth in the present worried her in some ways. But she could not quite place her finger on the worry that was worming its way into her thoughts.
What Kuro and Okon had found had been scarce, which hadn't surprised her greatly. Apparently, Li was the son of a deceased spice and tea merchant in Shanghai, and while the business wasn't floundering, it certainly wasn't flourishing. Meaning what would be urgent enough for the sole heir to suddenly leave to traipse around Japan?
She flipped her braid over one shoulder to toy with it absently. Information on a Shigeta that had made a trip to China had turned up nothing, although this was only an initial investigation. The information Jiya had given her would be sufficient in tracking down this Japanese man. She hoped.
She turned at the soft voice outside her room. "Come in, Okon."
Once the taller woman had entered and closed the door behind her, Misao leapt to her feet. "Don't call me that. It makes me feel old and decrepit." Then she added almost as an afterthought, "Like Jiya."
Misao gave a sharp glance. The corners of Okon's mouth, twitched, however, and Misao giggled instead. Then her face settled into a serious complacency that Okon disliked seeing on the younger woman. Despite what she'd say, at these times, Misao was her okashira and the fact made her both proud and sad. Proud that the exuberant little girl had grown into such a fine woman, and sad that the little girl had to go through many hardships to become such a woman.
"When do you think we will have an answer?" Misao said.
"Within this month. The birds will not cover the distance from here to Nagasaki overnight."
"I know. I know. But that's too long. Much too long." She absently tugged her kimono folds, a habit she'd begun right after putting one on for the first time.
"But the wait will be worthwhile. They can use the telegraph. That will be much faster and more accurate than any rumors we happen to hear."
The telegraph. What a wonderful invention of information. Since the government had installed the line between Nagasaki and Shanghai, Oniwanbanshu's overseas informers had been so much easier to contact. However, they still had to rely on carrier owls to deliver messages from the Okashira in Kyoto to former members in Nagasaki.
Blowing a frustrated sigh that lifted her bangs, Misao tugged on her kimono again before flopping down ungracefully. Okon allowed herself an amused lift of a brow then asked gently, "What is troubling you, Misao?"
"I don't know." The braided ninja propped her chin in one hand and stared morosely at the floor. "What was Daidouji-san thinking? I mean, she obviously thought that brat needed our help. But he's hiding something, I know it. But if he needed our help, why's he hiding information from us? And his little brother? I don't know if I was going to believe that, but Daidouji-san had confirmed it. Li came with a little boy, that's for sure. And he had a Japanese name, Okon. A Japanese name. Not Chinese. Japanese. So he might be telling the truth and all he's doing is looking for this Shigeta guy, but if he is then why is he not telling us everything?"
Okon remained silent.
"And I know he's not going to just sit still, dammit! He's going to go out and cause trouble, I just know it! I mean, look at what happened at the market today! If he hadn't run into us and if I hadn't been so easy on him, he could've gotten himself killed! What if he'd run into the yakuza, huh? What was he gonna do? He doesn't know anybody. He barely knows what he's doing and kami-sama, but I don't think anyone's gonna want to help such a brat!"
Okon remained silent.
"I mean, how the heck is he supposed to find 'Shigeta' if he doesn't even know who to ask! If he hadn't met Daidouji-san, what was he going to do, wander around until he managed to bump into the man?!" Misao snorted, "I bet the fool would have done so, too!"
Okon finally said quietly, "Are you worried, Misao?"
There was no hesitation. "Of course. He may be a brat, but he's still just a kid."
"A kid," Okon said slowly. "But he may be older than you."
She waved her hand airily, "Doesn't matter. I think he's a kid."
And that, Okon mused, was that for Misao. "So, what do we do in the meantime?"
Misao sighed. "I don't know. But make sure he stays in Kyoto in the next month."
"I'll make sure Daidouji-san is made aware of this."
Shaking her head, Misao stood up again, "No. Don't worry about that. I'm going to pay her a visit tomorrow."
"And check up on Li, too, I suppose?" Okon raised one brow.
"Or his 'brother'." Misao leaned against the window, allowing the chill breeze to brush back her dark hair. "I need to make sure that the boy is not just a decoy."
A few moments passed in silence before Okon ventured tentatively, "Misao, I don't wish to be rude, but . . ."
"But why am I doing all this, right?"
"Yes," Okon sighed in relief. Of course Misao would just say it so frankly. She didn't even seem to be aware that as Okashira, she did not need to divulge such information with her subordinates.
Misao tapped her chin thoughtfully. "I don't know, Okon. It was something Jiya said. Tea . . . and Li Xiao Yan. . . . I know information is our business, but he seemed. . . not lost in thoughts, but lost in memories."
"Memories?" Okon said. "Well, he is getting older. I suppose he will be given to reminiscing."
The younger ninja shook her head. "No, Okon. There was something else. He didn't hear the name, 'Li Xiao Yan' in passing. It was something else. It was something closer."
Misao stood by the window silently. Shadows grew long against her features and the cool illumination of her cheekbones grew from those shadows like unattached lumps. Okon stifled a slight shiver as the breeze blew through again, bringing with it a distant, unknown skittering like dry leaves. Except that she knew there were no leaves yet. All the plants were only starting to bud.
Long moments passed and Misao continued to stare pensively out the window. Uncomfortable with such uncharacteristic stillness from the young ninja, Okon purposefully shifted loudly. "Misao," she said.
"Yes, Okon?" Still no movement from the young Okashira.
Okon shifted again. When Misao was given to such anxious brooding on the affairs in the Oniwanbanshu, Okon could hardly stifle a sting of resentment against her icy, former Okashira. How could he force her into such a situation? A choice that had irrevocably shaped the path of her life?
"Misao," she repeated. "Whatever you wish to pursue, I will gladly follow and I will do so because you are not only my okashira, but my family as well. I will do as you bid because I could do no less. Because I have full confidence in my okashira and my sister."
"Okon . . ." Misao unfolded herself and suddenly launched at the elder woman.
Surprised, but not greatly, Okon caught the braided kunoichi and automatically hugged the smaller girl. Slim arms encircled her neck like they'd used to when they had both been younger and Misao had searched for a mother in the available Okon. Perhaps it had been more of an older sister playing at being a mother, but to the tiny girl sniffing about a scraped knee, she had been the loving embrace that made it all better.
"Thanks, Okon," she murmured. Then she pulled back and smiled impishly at the older shinobi. "So, if I jumped off a cliff, would you still follow me?"
Smiling just as mischievously, Okon replied, "But didn't you already do that?"
"Well," Misao huffed, "then why didn't I see you there?"
Sunlight touched his eyelids and warmed his skin. Haji shifted, turning away from the intrusive glare to burrow deeper into his blanket. The soft sliding of a shoji caused him to snap awake and sit up suddenly. Unfortunately, this proved too great for his still recovering body and he fell back with a soft plop onto his futon.
"Don't be an idiot, Haji," Xiao Yan said. "Go back to sleep."
The shoji closed with a whispered thunk. Then the gentle vibrations of her footsteps through the floorboards grew faint as she strode away.
He hoped she was only going to practice the daily exercises. He didn't want to stay behind again. Yesterday had been the first time she'd left him alone for so long, since they had arrived in Japan.
When they had finally set foot upon the dry ground, the first thing he'd noticed about Japan was the smell. It had been horrible like rotting fish and hadn't been all that different from Shanghai's port. Then he'd seen the sailors and merchants and they had looked and smelled just like the sailors and merchants back in Shanghai. The niggling sense of fear that he'd felt since he'd discovered that Oniisan's mama had disappeared had abated somewhat with this familiarity.
But once they had gotten off the skiff and tucked their small bundles of spare clothing under their arms, he had glimpsed a Japanese man with the wide pants that they wore. He'd stared at the man, confused because the sharply slanted eyes and the narrow nose were so much more similar to what he saw in his own reflections. He and Xiao Yan had traveled further away from the docks and more and more people like that had walked the streets, until it was Xiao Yan, who seemed out of place with her gently-rounded cheeks and cat-like eyes.
Yet the uncomfortable discovery had been eclipsed with awe and wonder when they had come upon a tree-lined avenue and a profusion of pale-pink—almost white—blossoms seemed to burst from every branch upon those trees. Even Xiao Yan had been unable to move. She had stared at it with the same breathless quality Haji had felt. Their carefully maintained garden could not compare to the simple beauty of a line of blossoming cherry trees.
They had stood there, amazement plain upon their faces and had shared a glance of true astonishment. Without consciously thinking about it, they had scooted closer as they advanced down the lane as if their shared isolation could push back the ending of this journey. But it seemed as if that companionship could not be sustained any further now that their primary reason for coming to Kyoto had resurfaced. Namely, whatever it was that Oniisan's ghost mama wanted Oniisan to do.
Haji pushed back the heavy blanket, suddenly feeling too warm. He wished Oniisan's ghost mama would never return so Oniisan wouldn't leave him again. But he knew that was a selfish thought. So he tried to think of something else.
And as his mind worked to erase the imagining of never seeing the ghost mama again, images of his oniisan's midnight sword katas quickly followed suit. Although, most of it was blurry and he could not remember much more.
He grimaced. Had she seen him? Otherwise, how had he returned to the room? Certainly, back home, there was Liu Tseng or Siu Qu, Mama's maid, to bring him back to his room. Who had brought him back? Was it Ayu? Or worse . . . Xiao Yan?
Haji almost flinched at that thought. If his oniisan had found him, he would have been angry. At the worst, certainly, his oniisan would surely have berated him for being such a fool.
But then, she hadn't seemed particularly angry. Maybe it had been a delusional product of his fevered imagination? A dream?
He opened tea brown eyes to examine the discarded blanket. He stared uncomprehendingly at the scuffed and abused article then slowly sat up. The room spun, but through sheer stubbornness, he gritted his teeth and settled into a sitting position.
Had it been a dream?
Pulling the blanket closer to examine a frayed corner and remembering the vividness of the luminous moon and bone-white courtyard, confusion wrinkled his slim brows. Was it only his imagination?
A low knocking pulled his attention away and a familiar cheerful voice came through the thin rice papers.
"Haji-kun. Are you awake?"
"Um, uh, yeah. Uh, I mean, yes, I am awake, um. . . ."
"May I come in? I have your breakfast and your medicine."
"Oh! Yes! Um, please come in."
As the shoji slid open, Haji's gaze skittered from the abused blanket to the smiling countenance of the ocean-eyed young man.
Or had Soujiro brought him back to his room?
"Good morning!" Soujiro chirped. He placed the two trays of food before Haji and left the shoji open, allowing buttery sunlight to stream into the room. "Where is your illustrious brother this beautiful morning, hm?"
Unfortunately, Haji's ears had become inexplicably sensitive since his abrupt rise. He winced slightly at Soujiro's overly cheerful query. "Uh, good m-morning?"
The elder man tilted his head like a bird. "Are you in pain, Haji-kun?"
Haji shook his head then regretted it as the room resumed tipping crazily. "Er, no, not really."
"Haji-kun." Soujiro leaned forward to press him gently back against the futon. "You need to lie down. Your eyes are literally spinning."
And all the while speaking, Haji could only note that Soujiro's smile never completely disappeared. It waned, but always, the corners remained tipped upwards. It had been the same yesterday.
"How did you kill your mother, Haji?"
"I was stronger than her. I'm here and she's . . . not. . . ."
"What do you mean?"
"She's a ghost now. That's what Mother told me."
"But you said she was dead."
"She's a ghost now. I made her into a ghost."
Not once had the smile wavered. It was like staring at a mask he'd seen several of the Japanese children wearing. It was scary. Haji could not understand why, but the masks had scared him each time they had covered their faces with them.
Haji shook his head, more carefully this time. "'m hot," he mumbled and resisted the hand pushing him back.
"Hot? Oh, my. That just won't do at all, will it?" Almost humming, the cheerful man reached for the basin of water and dipped in the linen hanging off the basin's rim. As he wrung out the excess water, he said, "Well, how about trying some of Ayu-san's wonderful soup? It's good and nutritious and hot and scrumptious and . . ." Soujiro continued to list all the properties of the soup in a sing-song voice and patted the cool, damp linen against Haji's forehead.
"How does that feel?" he asked once he'd finished.
Haji nodded. He wanted to ask if Soujiro ever stopped smiling. Haji, himself, certainly couldn't imagine smiling that much for that long. Didn't the man's cheeks ache?
But in some ways, he wanted to ask because it was frightening. He looked so much like Xiao Yan-oniisan at times. The way her eyes became terribly flat and blank when she was especially displeased.
"Thank you, Soujiro-niichan." Haji ducked his head to sip at his soup. He made a disgusted face at the twist of brown paper that was tucked unobtrusively next to a covered cup of hot water. Soujiro had made him drink all of the bitter drought yesterday for lunch and dinner. He peeked up at the smiling man and decided not to try and ask if he could leave off of drinking his medicine. If he couldn't handle even something as simple as that, Soujiro would be right to leave him alone.
"I know the medicine is bitter," Soujiro said suddenly and gently, "but I want you to get your strength back, and the best way to do that is to follow the doctor's instructions. Do you understand, Haji?"
Haji nodded and glanced up. When the older man said nothing for a long while, Haji finally replied, "Yes, um, yes, I, uh, understand."
Although his smile remained fixed, Soujiro's ocean-blue eyes darkened before glazing over like a smooth pane of glass used for the windows in those British buildings. Haji quickly dropped his head and hunched over, expecting a scathing scolding for lying when he truly did not understand. But he didn't want Soujiro to go away because he was weak.
[I'll leave you.]
His eyes burned and he blinked quickly. He mustn't cry. His antics last night were already disgusting enough. He must be strong.
"Haji-kun? Are you alright?"
Haji blinked quickly. He didn't want Soujiro to leave.
"Are you alright? Do you feel hot? Do you feel cold? Haji-kun?"
"S-Soujiro-niichan?" he said instead.
The blossom studded branches of the cherry tree in the courtyard swayed and rustled, bringing a faint, flower petal smell into the room.
"Is it really a good morning? It . . ." he ducked his head shyly, "It smells very nice."
Soujiro's smile grew wider. It seemed to melt into his eyes and his cheeks and somehow, Haji felt a little better.
"Would you like to come out?" Soujiro asked. He sat back. "I think sitting outside with the blanket for a little while will be alright. The sun is bright and the air is getting warmer."
"Um . . ."
"Yes? Was there something else?"
"Um, I-I, well . . . I mean . . . um, that is . . . I-I want, uh . . . I m-mean, um, could you, well . . ." Haji trailed off, his throat suddenly feeling too tight and his heart beating impossibly quickly as nervousness compelled him to pick at a loose thread on his futon. He mumbled, "I, um, I don't want to . . . um . . . sit alone. . . ."
And as soon as he finished he wanted to cringe, except that would have been yet another demonstration of his weakness. Of course Soujiro would refuse. He had his chores and couldn't spend all of his time with a sick boy. Haji was being selfish. How could he ask Soujiro to stop working just to sit with him? And why would he want to sit with a weak little boy anyway?
Haji opened his mouth to recant the request, but Soujiro's voice overrode his.
"Okay," he said simply.
The denial lodged in Haji's throat and he squeaked out a "Huh?" instead.
"I'll be busy for a while this morning, but when lunch time comes around, I'm sure Ayu-san won't mind if you and I enjoy a bit of the sun then. Does this agree with you, Haji-kun?"
"Um . . ." Instantaneous relief and gratitude washed through Haji's being and he almost slumped from the sheer rush of feelings to his chest, where they gathered and swelled like a bubble. It was so much and he could barely understand why he suddenly felt like crying and suppressed the sigh rising from his lungs. But to his utter horror, tears pricked his eyes again. He quickly ducked his head.
"Haji." A calloused hand landed gently atop his bowed head. Soft like the feathery touch of a sparrow's wings. "Like I told you yesterday, you do not have hide your tears. I do not want you to feel that they are worthless."
But Haji shook his head. No. The tears were only weaknesses. He had to be strong and not cry because Oniisan was strong and didn't cry. He had to make Oniisan proud. He had to make sure Oniisan wouldn't leave him. This man didn't understand.
With the same stubbornness that had taken him so far yesterday night, Haji stared at his pale hands in his lap and tried to ignore the comfortable weight and warmth of the equally pale hand atop his head. He stared until the hand finally moved away and its owner sighed inaudibly. He stared until he was sure his eyes would not betray him and then raised his head.
"I know you won't understand," Soujiro continued, "but I want you to know that no matter how worthless you believe your tears to be, they are extremely important to me. I want you to cry when you're sad or laugh when you're happy. If you don't . . ."
And though the corners of Soujiro's mouth remained tipped upward, his brows and his eyes and his cheeks suddenly fell down, as if someone had attached invisible threads to his face and pulled down on them. Without thinking, Haji placed one index finger on the muscle between the Japanese man's brows and pushed upward. Inadvertently, he also caught Soujiro's ocean-blue gaze and could only stare in confusion at something dark and glittering in their depths.
Soujiro gently sat back out of reach of Haji's finger, but his smile widened until the invisible threads were gone. "If you don't do that, Haji," he continued, "you'll become a ghost. Like your mother. . . . Like me. . . ."
[You should not exist.]
A mild breeze blew through the open doorway, brushing back Soujiro's earth-brown hair. He turned into the wind to look out at the smaller courtyard beyond. When he turned back, his eyes were glass again and he piped a cheerful response, "Well, you should eat before the food gets too cold. I'll be back for your tray, so make sure you take your medication." He mock-frowned, "I mean it, now." Then he gathered the second, untouched tray and moved towards the door, "I'll be back, Haji-kun. I won't leave you alone."
"Oh. U-um . . . 'kay," Haji whispered.
"I'll see you later." One last smile and then the blue-clad young man was gone.
"Thank-you," Haji whispered into the silence of the room. It fell like the sibilant hiss of a disembodied spirit before the breeze blew it out the door.
A/N: Gasp! An update! But I really don't feel bad about not updating for so long. (That's right! I ain't apologizin'! Nyah-hah-hah-hah!) Really, I actually want to thank everyone for being so patient. (Really, really patient.) You're the best!
This story is also archived hakubaikou.com. haku baikou has collected some very, very good fics, so I highly recommend that Rurouni Kenshin fans check it out.
I also have one request and two general responses:
1.) What is your initial impression of Haji? This is the first chapter from his point of view and although I've gotten a lot of feedback on Xiao Yan's character, I haven't received much about him. I want to know if I'm portraying his character as I imagine him to be. Thanks.
2.) "Xiao Yan is a brat!" Hehehehe. Yes, she is a brat. And I'm glaaad. You'll see why she is so as the story progresses. Well, I hope I can accomplish that anyways.
3.) "Why is Mother so mean?!" Not telling. Yet. She is an integral part of Xiao Yan's characterization, though, so how can I not develop her character more?
Mayorie: I was aiming for "profound smile" for Shenshen. I'm just a bit surprised no one else has asked me what that meant. Congratulations, you're the first!
As for Soujiro's "reforming", yes, I also believe that Soujiro would not be able to fully accept Kenshin's ideals right away. But this comment also got me thinking about reforming like alcoholics and whatnot, and my mind sortof petered off into a weird world where the cast of Ruruoni Kenshin participated in an AA group. Assassins Anonymous. Hehe. I bet I'm not making any sense at all. Nyargh! But for the portrayal of his character, thanks for the comment, because I really don't want him to be Kenshin's copycat.
ChiisaiLammy: Wow. You are amazing. Your reviews were very helpful and made me think further upon this story and its characters and its historical/cultural accuracy. (By the way, my head hurts from thinking so much! Argh! Heheh.) After reading your review, I went to the library and checked out three books on the history and culture of China and Japan. And I believe my story will be much better because I've actually done this research. So thank you for pointing that out to me. (Although, I'm still not done with the researching. I don't know if I should curse you or thank you for making me think further upon this aspect of my story. Nyaaarrrgghh.)
Thanks for your comment on my dialogues. I suppose it is just that I feel like my dialogues are very monotonous. There doesn't seem to be a great variety in the tone I set for each character's interaction. Or maybe I'm just imagining things?
I really enjoy your reviews. Please don't feel shy or feel that you're saying too much. After all I can't improve much if I don't have constructive criticism.
Shimizu Hitomi: Thanks. Yes, Misao is about twenty-one, now. Hehehe.
I'm glad Xiao Yan is an interesting OC. Hopefully she won't develop into a Mary Sue, but I seem to be going in the right direction from the comments everyone has been making. Thank-you very much.
Black Aura-Sama: Hahaha! Yes, I really don't like angst. I think it's one of those "I hate things in others that I find in myself." Hehehe. Thanks for stopping by and reviewing!
DarkMoonGoddess: Thank you!
CurlsofSerenity: Haha. No, Xiao Yan is a "she", but chapter 5 is from Soujiro's point of view and he thinks Xiao Yan is still a "he"