Seigetsu Ren: Not bad, I managed to come around to updating this after just…a summer. (Sweatdrops). Anyway, hope the writing practice over the past few months and long, hard brainstorming for better ideas have result in some progress with my skill. Enjoy.
A big thanks to Lord Balmung, Zero-Nightmare, Fanf1cFan, Love Hina Fan-101, and Wonderbee31 for staying with me despite slow updates. I'll continue to try my best.
Disclaimer: I do not own Love Hina. If you want to read something I actually own, shoot me an email (shameless advertisement, haha)
Chapter 24 – Guardian of Strength
The old door creaked open. Each step he took depressed the wooden floorboards, leaving uneasy cracks on the uneven surface. He could barely see them though. The candle light behind him flickered, casting only a dim orange glow that reached, at most, five strides into the enclosed corridor. His shaking hand subconsciously reached for the granite wall on his side, brushing the rough, grey construct for a sense of assurance. Unlike the floor, it didn't give away, holding strong once you reached past the thick layer of dust and cobwebs. Ancient, but nonetheless reliable, the feeling steadied his heartbeat to a deep, thumping rhythm.
Then the door closed. Suddenly, swinging shut with a bang. He whirled around, hakama snapping the wind, cold sweat creeping down his exposed nape. He was about to walk backwards, to check if his only exit, too, had been robbed, but at that moment…
Something swift tumbled towards him. Not just swift, but heavy, the wind literally pushed him backwards. Hastily, he lowered his stance, thin, boyish arms reaching out into the pitch darkness in hopes of stopping what was coming. It came closer, fast, too fast for him to think properly. Just a second and it would intercept him. His teeth chattered at just the thought; whatever approached was possibly dozens of times his own weight. He could not see it, but the rumble it created by just pushing through air, the slapping gale that only grew stronger, tearing into his parched face…
...it was big, so big that it could snap his arms like twigs and send him flying through the door behind him.
Behind him. Move back. Fast. Along with what was coming. The sound he heard was not just air, but also taut rope snaked across timber, rubbing, grinding. This was a pendulum. The heavy object was not a projectile, it was the mass of a pendulum.
He shifted his steps back, sliding, but the pendulum eventually caught up with him. The force at that point dissipated to an almost gentle push against his wide-opened palms. He collapsed his arms at the elbows, greedily embracing all of the power coming his way. He literally hugged the mass, a tree trunk thick as the length of his arm, letting it shove his rice straw sandals against the rugged ground below. The friction burned, but the speed finally decreased. Almost like a vacuum, the log tore him forward, at first slow, then gaining speed to suck him into what seemed like oblivion. He gripped hard on the bark and climbed to the top, riding the ripping waves of air and black shadows. It only got darker as the log swerved downwards to a pit in the ground; he knew it was a pit because he no longer felt the rebounding wind off the ancient, wooden floor. What lay below, he didn't know, he just knew it was deep, too deep, seemingly bottomless. Far into the corridor, the log began swinging upwards. He expected to see the earthen wall on the other side of the pit, but it was not there; the ground continued dipping like the basin of an empty rift lake. The velocity was coming down, he was ascending almost to the ceiling, but there was no landing in sight.
Chikara, strength, the style of strength…
Not just to gain it, but to utilize it. That was the purpose of his training.
Not just his duels with Akiko, but also the duties he performed with Kyoko – delivering bento lunches, cleaning the washrooms, wiping the floors, carrying off equipment into the storage rooms. Come to think of it, didn't each duty become easier once he got the hang of it? What was "the hang of it" anyway? It wasn't just his body being sculpted into shape by the hard muscle work, but his spirit of acceptance of those responsibilities, and the tricks he began to capture. For instance, it was a lot easier to keep a cart moving once you've gained momentum. It was easier to push a load up by the end of the handle than holding near the pivot. Hugging something close to you made it easier to lift it up, and applying force through your legs not only prevented injuries to your back, but also gave a lot more power to your upward thrust.
Strength wasn't just what could be applied in battle, in swordplay, but in everyday life. It was the power of your body, the way you carried yourself and your soul.
If there wasn't a landing, then create one! His ki wasn't enough for him to launch himself upward, but was that necessary? Could he reach the ceiling? No, the slowing log wouldn't climb that far. The walls then. The walls of the corridor were close enough together for him to touch both of them at once. The granite was rough, he had enough friction to keep himself suspended.
When the log was about to pause at the end of the trajectory, he jumped, as far back into the corridor as he could, away from the tree trunk so as not to get caught up in its whirling movements. He spread his arms like a hawk, gasping for air, feeling the breath rush up his mouth to the back of his head. He was not falling, plummeting, but flying – he told himself that and reached out to the walls. Quickly, strongly, before gravity could suck him in; he imagined gliding above corn stalks and pulling up vertically. He arched his back, craned his neck, stared up to the limited sky of darkness. His fingers clawed the dust and dug stone; it hurt, but his calluses withstood the scrapes. Forearms bowed like a crouching spider, elbows pulled in towards his ribs, he perched himself between the walls, imitating preying lizards. It was not effortless at all, his weight tugging at him, asking him to let go. But letting go was giving up, and if there were one thing he had been right all along, even before coming to Shinmeiryuu, it was his determination to move forward.
Logically, so long as he kept three points of his body touching the walls, he could support himself, but each time he let go of a handhold, a foothold, he couldn't help but slide a little lower. The jagged rock scratched his palms and the balls of his feet, making gashes that began to bleed. The crimson liquid, stained a coal-tar black in the lack of light, made the surfaces even more slippery. He bit his teeth together, hard, brows furrowed to keep out the pain. Move on, bit by bit, inch by inch, and continue to believe in a miracle ahead.
If he strained his eyes, he could catch just a faint glimmer further down his road. It was not a warm light, but something pale, cold, like a shaft of the moon descending from a crack in this artificial haven. He followed up, edging forward, watching the once transient glimmer pool down like a cascade in slow motion. The blue luminescence slipped its slender fingers around the curves of something metallic, forming a pond on a circular rim on the ground. Ground. For the first time in the past few minutes, he saw it, the shadows of round pebbles on dirt. Coming to the cliff side, he lowered himself, letting his weary feet touch the placid surface.
Finally, he was standing, but something blocked his path. When he came to the bottom of the corridor at this stretch, he could at last make out what was the metal object reflecting the moonlight that streamed from narrow crevices in the ceiling. It was a bell, easily thrice his height, so smooth that it was impossible to climb. The shape was somewhat odd, looking more like a rectangular prism than a parabolic cross-section. The top was not much slimmer than the bottom; there was no way to squeeze through the small gaps on either side.
"Lift this?" he muttered to himself. Even his own voice carried a hint of ridicule. No way. He had to try though, but even as he threw himself on the bell, it didn't bulge.
He couldn't even tip the bell with all his body weight, let alone lift it. There had to be a trick to it, otherwise none of the students would be able to pass this test. But even such a thought didn't ease his impatience; he paced around, trying to find an answer, only to slip on something and fall face first onto the ground.
What he slipped on was rope, a very long one that extended from the top of the bell onto many, many loops lying on the floor beside him. Was the rope there for him to pull on it? Must be, but even if he pulled with all his weight, he was sure the bell wouldn't move the slightest bit. There must be some way to utilize the rope, what could it be?
He recalled practising punching – a stronger punch could be delivered if he moved, not just his arm, but his entire body, rotating the shoulders by twisting his abdominal muscles. He was a pivot, his arm a shaft, and by reaching out, he delivered the greatest torque…
He looked up desperately to the ceiling, tracing the rope, noticing that it was connected to a wheel on the top. Pulleys. He quickly climbed on the walls as he previously did, up to the top, carrying the rope with him. The line of wheels were enough to create a complex system, but even as he finished threading the rope through each of them, he had his doubts. Could the bell really be lifted by just this? He had heard of the story of Archimedes lifting a warship by pulleys alone, but he had always thought of it as exaggeration.
That was before his training at Chikararyuu though. He had learned that even his meagre strength could be very powerful if he knew how to use it.
Letting go of the wall, he swung down the rope, pulling on it while he dropped. There was a deafening clang as the bell creaked upwards and smashed into the walls, chipping granite along the way. Though he could hardly lift the heavy metal all the way to the top, he opened up a gap on the ground that he could barely fit through.
There was conveniently a hook on the side for him to anchor the rope in place – no, not conveniently, but rather purposefully; he was sure that was how all the previous candidates made it past this obstacle. He tied the rope securely and watched the bell for another minute, making sure it was safe to crawl through. Satisfied, he rolled his body under the bell onto the other side.
The moment he got through, the bell fell with a deafening ring. Kenichi continued rolling forward on the ground, hands clutching his ears as hard as he could to shut out the roaring sound. Impossible! How could the bell have fallen? He was sure he tied it securely, but a glimpse behind him let him see that the rope was severed, pinned now to the ceiling with a kunai.
"Welcome, Kenichi. I am pleased that you've advanced so far…" a familiar voice sounded after the fading vibrations of the bell. Clear and gentle as water, though not without a warning churn like strong undertow running along a river's bedrocks, she spoke to him, half her face hidden by the darkness, the lower half bearing her slim smile exposed to the thin light shining through the crack in the gates behind her.
"Yes, I am Haruno Kyoko, Guardian of the Gate of Strength. I have been sent to monitor your progress in secret, and it is of my greatest pleasure to finally meet you here. It is unfortunate, however, that my identity may not be revealed to any members remaining in this house. Therefore, you will defeat me and advance through these doors," her voice tailed off while her slender fingers, like dragon claws, brushed the bronze gap, "Fail and you will be exiled from the Shinmeiryuu."
Her angled eyes shot a brief raven's gaze at Kenichi, hard, cold, narrowed orbs piercing through the ki that whirled around him. He took a deep breath and covered the frightening image with the arc of a crescent moon, the blade that was unsheathed by his hands, slicing through the curtains that lowered upon their battle.
The beautiful weavings of blades being wielded, dangerous silver flashes, razor sharp wind slashing granite, chipping stone under the cold gleam of moonlight. Dancers pattered the floor of rotten wood, pivoting and twirling by their toes, landing and clawing onto rare perches of stable ground, pushing against their swords to stay in that shelter of temporary safety. Grinding metal screeched, cutting into his ears; he raised his hands to shield them from the raw noise that made him imagine blood, hot crimson liquid same as that which pounded his arteries. He tried to close his eyes, but it was too mesmerizing…he could not stop gazing at the shadows, beautiful curvatures of steel, blurred hamon of flames and waves clashing, tearing, raining sparks that lighted up the chamber for split seconds. It hurt. His chest hurt like he was stabbed by the intertwined katana. Was he one of the blades?
Keitaro shot up from his sleep, the white pain vanishing along with the swordplay he had seen. There was nothing in his room other than the low kotatsu beside his futon, its polished surface reflecting the aquamarine luminescence, with his bookshelf's shadow silently sitting across it. It was a quiet night. Not a bird sung, and all he could hear was the ticking of his clock's hands.
His heart beat with that rhythm, almost as though the powerful muscle was induced by its sound to contract. The thought bothered him, even as he stared up to the ceiling, counting the dots to slow down his running mind. What was that dream? Why did he dream of it? Was it something from his past, something from his future, something he subconsciously reminded himself of? No, probably something random, he tried to convince himself, but it didn't help. The clock ticked again, his heart beating shortly after it, trailing behind like a ghost's haunting steps or some sort of echo. He took a long breath and rose to his feet, stepping out of his room.
The feel of cold air did not calm him, nor did the navy skies studded with twinkling jewels, washed with violet ink flowers called clouds. The clusters seeped like cancer across the dome above, scattered petals flaking off to patter the clearing that was the moon, but such a sight that reminded of sakura bore no scent. He inhaled deeply, wanting to take his mind off the searing memory of his dream, but the plain, tasteless air choked him. He gripped the railing and climbed a staircase up to the roof.
Without his glasses, Hinata was a whirl of colours below, red roofs eroded pink by years of rain, white walls, circular windows framed with dark wood that he couldn't clearly see, only catch the warm, yellow glows coming from lights inside. The river glittered orange under the streetlights lining the dikes on its side, pin-point scarlet flashed atop electrical transmissions towers in the distance, looking more to him like ghostly onibi trying to lead him astray. He leaned against the railing and sighed, wishing that his breath would become wisps of smoke that he could then trail with his eyes out into the open mountains far away. But the weather had warmed since they had their hanami party, so the air he exhaled just laced his lips with heat.
"Seems like I'm not the only one who can't sleep," a voice commented from beside him, shocking him so much that he jumped and nearly fell off the roof if not for his hands that were gripping the railings, hard. The woman beside him chuckled, smiling.
"Naru-san, I did not hear your steps!"
"That's just because your mind wasn't there. Unlike Motoko-chan, I'm not trained in keeping my footsteps silent."
"Of course," Keitaro answered lightly, going over Motoko's dexterous moves in his head. He had trained with her for several days now, and admittedly, there were few people other than her who could walk so steadily that contact with the floor would go unheard – no, even the air around her seemed to go still despite her movements.
"I'm…not honourable like Motoko-chan either," she made another note, and grazed her fingers atop Keitaro's. The man shifted to his side in avoidance, clumsily, and tripped, falling to the ground behind him.
"Are you alright Keitaro!" Naru exclaimed, reaching out for him, but Keitaro squirmed back and hastily rose to his feet.
"I'm fine, thank you," he rapidly spat out the words that almost tied themselves around his tongue, "It'd be more appropriate if we kept the distance. Kenjiro-san would probably prefer it that way as well."
The words struck Naru and she was left speechless. A part of her wanted to continue her pursuit, but guilt took a grip over her, so she too stepped back, leaving a wipe gap between them.
"If you find this more comfortable…then I suppose I'll just have to live with it," she muttered under her breath, hardly audible to Keitaro. Lifting her head and raising her voice, she continued in a more cheerful tone, "Kanrinrin-san, I've been meaning to ask…are you happy now?"
Happy? That question, amongst anything else that Naru could've asked, came as completely unexpected. Keitaro had thought that Naru would press on, blaming him for something he did in the past, for forgetting what exactly he had done, or nailed him to the corner with accusations that he didn't understand a thing, but she didn't. She stepped back, leaving only a hollow, and asked on the other side a question that he should be asking himself.
Was he happy? Considering the situation, considering that he couldn't remember a thing other than tumbling through air and water and darkness and waking up to the scent of bleach and blinding white light, he was not unhappy. The moment he woke up, he had been welcomed by Naru, taken back to Hinata, and nursed to health by the remaining residents. He had found a new life, new responsibilities, new friendships. Besides the block in his mind, he had no difficulties, financially or socially. Nobody forced him to do anything, he had all that he needed, could do anything he so pleased, and he knew, that kind of life was something many people fought with all their years to hold even once. Yet, was that…happiness?
"Before I answer, would you like to enlighten me? What do you think is happiness, Naru-san?"
As though surprise was contagious, Naru stood there, eyes staring but unseeing, lips slightly parted but no words came through. What is happiness? It was something she had once given up, regretted giving up – something she was selfishly trying to wrestle out of others for herself now. But in the end, she had yet to touch it. They were remnants of her distant past, memories of golden sands running softly through her fingers, sakura flying in azure blue skies, and him, Urashima Keitaro, there by her side.
"Gomen, I don't know," Naru answered, then in a whisper, let the wind carry off her last thought, "I haven't been happy for many years."
There was a pause in their conversation, just the rustle of leaves in the mild breeze that passed and disappeared, the landing of a crow upon the railing, leaving a scratching sound as talons gripped metal, then another scratch before it flew off into the distance, following an invisible arc in the violet night. Keitaro's silence seemed to prompt Naru to continue, to explain, and she reluctantly took the lead.
"It was raining, that night when I first met him. Himura Kenjiro, head of the Kamiya Dojo. He was just standing there, a bokken in his hand, staring. I don't know why I remember this, but the rain drops were so fat that night, plopping onto the wooden blade, splashing his hand, scattering. If you look past that forced smile, just watch the water drip down his chin and trace the lines of his pecs, he was almost beautiful – the kind of beauty of a tragic hero.
Maybe it was my own unhappiness that made me attracted to him. I recall having an umbrella in hand, but it wasn't for myself, it was for someone else. But I didn't open the umbrella. It was like…if I opened it, I wouldn't be able to hide my tears in the rain. The rain was cold and hard and it beat me, but the pain was real and solid and I could always tell myself that once the storm was over, everything would be okay. When I looked at him, his dark, marble-like eyes, I found a connection. I knew…he was thinking of the same thing.
You know, Kenjiro liked Motoko-chan. But Motoko-chan didn't choose him, that was why he was standing there. We're so alike in that sense – I wasn't chosen and neither was he. But there are many people in this world who wouldn't be chosen, and who was to say that they didn't deserve happiness? They would walk off and find another happiness that belonged to themselves, right? That was what Kenjiro and I thought. The next time we met, the night was just dark. It was dry, and the moon was visible. Both of us thought the storm was over.
Back then, I really thought I had found happiness with Kenjiro. At first, we met each night and wandered the grounds on the dojo, talking about all the dreams we had of the future, of course, before they were shattered. We always skipped that part, how and why it all cracked and fell apart, only delving on the good, the fantasies. It was like living in an imaginary heaven, no? So long as you don't look at the conclusion, any story can be as beautiful as you'd like. Then we figured, we can make those dreams come true together. We can replace the person we dreamed of, but can never obtain, with each other.
It was a mistake of course. I can't say it's all Kenjiro's fault for putting Motoko's attributes on me, because I too must've forced my wishes upon him. I wanted him to be more humble and gentle and caring and warm. I wanted him to take my hand in a lighter grasp, or just take my hand more often in general; I wanted him to wear out that edge he always carried. He's like a katana, you know? Hard and sharp and never backs down, when he's right or wrong or anything in between. You can say he has a lot of integrity, but it's too much at times; he doesn't listen to anybody. He is the rule of the world. He lives by his own morals, such is the swordsman that I thought I had fallen in love with. Of course, it's not a swordsman that I really loved, it's the slight reflections he bore of another man. He probably loved only vague parts of me as well, Motoko's hard-strong personality and independence? But I must be too weak for him, too much of a burden, too emotional, too wishy-washy.
We were never happy, and I'm so guilty to have passed that onto Yuri. She's only a child. She isn't to blame for all this. I want her happy, and Kenjiro probably does too. We've tried going out on trips to the mountain and all that stuff that parents do with their kids, you know, but some little thing would come up and Kenjiro and I would break out into an argument. It always ends like that. Finally, there was one time when Yuri just said, 'Okaasan, let's not go out on trips anymore.' You know how I felt at that time? It was like…getting run over by a train. I'm such a failure as a mother, as a human being. Just a total failure. Yuri is happier with Shinji-san. She's happier even when she's just wiping the floors and cooking for us! Your own five-year-old cooking for you and feeling enjoyment from that? It…hurt…
...that's why…Kenjiro and I keep thinking Yuri is our mistake. It's not her fault, it's ours. We're failures, and somehow, we have to live with it. We had to walk away from her and leave her alone, because the closer we pushed ourselves, the worse it rebounded – the more we hurt her. Even without Shinji-san confronting us with the problem, Kenjiro and I knew we had to do something about this. Kenjiro was an honourable man, and I respected him for that, trying to be just as honourable. It was part of our dreams, you know? But after everything that had happened, we lost that part of us that we valued so much. But we decided it didn't matter anymore. For ourselves and for Yuri's sake, we had to get this over and done with. That was why we decided to come to Hinata. The sakabatou is a symbol of Kenjiro's past. He came to either claim it, or give it up, once and for all.
If we can both try our hardest to claim the happiness we dreamt of, getting scarred and burned along the way so that it hurts so much that all imaginary happiness would dissipate, perhaps we can move on, you know? Perhaps we can move on and live for a future belonging to us?
If you ask me what is happiness, all I can say is…it's something I'm wishing for? I asked you the question with the intention of finding out from you, Keitaro. To me, you've…always been happiness itself."
He is happiness.
That statement…it made the world whirl about him.
Was that his importance to Naru? To everyone? To himself?
But what he really wanted to say, what he didn't dare say, was that happiness didn't matter to him anymore. Happiness was a by-product of life, was it not? There was no point striving for it. What he had to strive for was the strength to reconstruct himself.
He was losing that strength. He had been trying hard, but each step he took seemed to be cutting into the path of others, others like Naru and Motoko who clearly loved him dearly. He was walking tangent to their wishes, ignoring their hopes, savagely breaking them down. Naru's gaze, liquid whirling in her eyes, her bitter smile, trembling lips…they all made his heart clench tight…
...was his decision correct?
The promise he made in the past, did it really not matter anymore?
Should he just bring up the courage to ask Naru…what really happened back then? Knowing that if he had the answer, he'd have to live with it. He'd have to take responsibility and give up on a reconstruction. Instead, he'd have to warp himself to the old Urashima Keitaro, the one living in everyone's memories.
He took a step forward, unaware of Motoko's waiting eyes below.
New AN (2016-11-13): This story is currently on hiatus as I rewrite its prequel, Another Promise, and all the older chapters of this particular installment. Updates will resume March 2017 at the earliest. Thanks.