Author's Note: I'M SORRY D:
Important: I'm not an expert on Chinese traditions - I simply researched them and relayed them as best as I could. I don't claim to have any particular knowledge on the subject, so forgive any mistakes that might have arisen. Also, don't take this as 'This Is Most Definitely What Every Chinese Funeral Is, Down to The Letter, because it's not, by any means.
- CHAPTER 13 -
"Usui-san? We will be nearing our destination within the next few minutes. Please make sure you are prepared."
Horo nodded in assent to the pair of deep-set eyes that regarded him through the rear-view mirror in the front of the car, then turned his gaze out of the window once more. Resting his forehead against the glass was comforting in a strange way. He liked the cooling touch pressed squarely against his skin. The car's motion rocked his head back and forth unwillingly, and he watched the streets of China shake as though experiencing an earthquake.
As promised, the car slowly pulled up only a few minutes later. The driver said nothing to acknowledge that they had arrived, but Horo didn't need informing.
The Ainu remained in his sear for a few minutes, gazing at the house before him. Yes, unmistakeably the place. He gazed at the building – a grand pearl-white hue, with traditional Chinese architecture. The gates, wide open as they were, were rust-red and heralded glamorous statues of Chinese dragons. It looked strangely typical, but it was by no means the abode of a wealthy family. It might once have been quite grand, but time was showing signs of wear and tear, upon closer inspection. Paint peeled around the edges of the building's corners, and there had been obvious, patchy repairs to the roof. The dragons' eyes looked as though they had once beset jewels, but now they were nothing more than dull, empty holes.
And today, the main house of the once-proud Tao family looked duller than ever.
The courtyard that stretched in front of the house, beyond the gates, was not in any way decorated; it was no more than a plain dirt-path that lead, expansively, to the front doors. In the middle of the forecourt was the strangest set-up Horo had ever seen.
Hesitating, Horo reached out for the handle of the car door. He looked back momentarily to whisper a nearly-forgotten thanks to his driver, then stepped out, right outside the gates. It was a solemn face that greeted him, clad in black.
"Good morning, Horokeu."
Horo shifted in his own deep-blue clothes that he had been advised to wear. "Hey, Jun."
She smiled at him, sombrely. Her face looked pale and sunken since he last saw her. "I'm glad to see you're in keeping with our traditions. It's gracious of you to do so."
Horo bowed his head slightly, in respect. "I'm glad I was able to attend."
"Come on – now you're here, we're ready to begin." Jun turned on her black-clad heels and lead Horo through the gate.
During the phone call he had had with Jun just before his departure to China, Jun had explained the customs that surrounded Chinese funerals. They were important affairs – believed to curse the hosting family if not carried out correctly. There were a lot of customs he was requested to follow himself.
"Of course, not being either of our family, or of Chinese origin, you are not expected to follow our traditions if you don't wish to." Jun had stressed.
"I'm going to, Jun. This is Ren's world – I want to experience it for myself, properly."
And so it became that he was garbed in the necessary colours. He learned that depending on their relationship to Ren, members of the Tao family would be wearing different hues – as an 'outsider', Horo was urged to wear bright colours.
As Jun walked into the yard, she gave more commentary for Horo's benefit, in her sombre voice. "Normally, because Ren is one of the youngest of the family, he would not even have a ceremony in his honour. It is improper for an elder to show respect to a younger individual. However… as he was the head of our family, the situation is quite different. All the remaining members of the Tao family are present."
And Jun wasn't lying. The most obscure part of the strange assembly in the centre of the courtyard was the lines of people seated in rows at the very edge of the arrangement, All were of Tao lineage, all with the same grieving expression on their faces, but all dressed in their various respective colours. They were all turned to face the strange wooden box in the centre of the two lines. It was black – unmistakeably a coffin, but its lid has a strange design of three humps that gave the box such a strange shape. At the foot of the coffin, a collection of strange and wonderful things Horo was later told were offerings. And in the middle of the mass of candles, slowly flickering and melting with their flames, was a lone, framed picture of Tao Ren.
Horo looked to Jun for guidance.
She caught his confusion almost instantly. "You sit there, at my father's right shoulder."
He nodded nervously in assent. There was no lie in saying that Tao En was a very foreboding individual. Horo walked to his place; unnerved by the way no one seemed to notice him, all of their heads bowed, seemingly praying. He passed Ren's grandfather, the watched as Jun took her place in the empty space next to him. To Jun's left, her mother. Then, Horo's place, to the right of Tao En. He crouched down, hesitantly, eyes flicking this way and that to see what everybody else was doing. He copied their position, and closed his eyes tight.
"Thank you for coming, Usui Horokeu."
The deep voice caused him to open one eye, squinting with the other, to see Ren's father next to him. En had remained still, not even opened his eyes as he spoke.
"Now… we can begin."
At once, the sound of gongs sounded – so authentically Chinese it was almost cliché. Horo bowed his head closer to his chest, until it began to hurt his neck, focusing on the reason he was here.
The rest of the day was lost, in a strange whirlwind of music, wailing, colours and tears.
Horo had been told that his excursion to the Tao residence would extend beyond the day of the funeral, but he was not told for what purpose this was. He had been there now for a week, and it was only yesterday – on his sixth day there – that he was told the true purpose of everyone remaining so stubbornly within the main house. And he watched them prepare for it the previous night. Flour had been dusted all around the floors of the house, in a practice Horo found most peculiar. He had watched En affix a crimson plaque to the outside of the house, inscribed with incomprehensible Chinese characters that he had no hope of reading. And finally, he was told that today, the seventh day marking Ren's burial, that he was to remain inside his room. He was left with sufficient food and water in his grand room, where he now sat, anxiously, on the bed.
The room itself was much like the outside of the house – it possessed a sense of grandeur once prevalent, but now remained more than a little tattered around the edges.
He had spent the whole day thinking and reflecting. What else was there to do? He had already counted the number of circular patterns on the walls of the room, and attempted to eat some of the food he had been left. But it was odd-tasting Chinese delicacy that wasn't quite to his liking. He began to wish he had thought to bring with him some wood, to carve a new Ikupasui, but precognition hadn't been that kind.
His thoughts drifted many times on to what today was going to be like. He didn't know what to expect. He didn't know whether to look forward to it, or fear it. He wondered when it was going to happen. He wanted it to be soon, he wanted it to be much later. He wanted it to never come. He wanted it to happen now. What would he do? What would he say? Would he feel scared, threatened? Would he be happy, gain closure?
His obsidian eyes drifted outside of the window. From here he could see the place where Ren was finally laid to rest, after ceremonies, chants and processions aplenty. His grave was positioned near the top of the hill, on the slant of the hillside – supposedly good fortune. It surprised Horo how important funerals to traditional Chinese families such as the Taos.
Anna has called yesterday and told him how Club Patch has been closed down. No one knew why, or how, but the place was completely deserted, leaving everyone with plenty of questions regarding Hao. Anna didn't know anything herself, but she suspected Hao was experiencing penance for his actions. Horo had spoken to everyone, including Pirika. His sister sent her love for her onii-chan, and her regards to the Tao family. She sounded so mature now. It made Horo smile.
He wondered what he would do once he got back home. Probably first thank Anna for her guidance, and for insisting he come to China for Ren's burial. And tell Pirika how proud he was of her. And apologise to Chocolove, Faust and Yoh for the trouble he had caused them. And then… what? The days seemed to stretch so long in front of him, endless and without Ren. What then? How to spend every day? How to stop himself crying at the thought of the one he loved? How was he supposed to continue without breaking down?
And why… why was thinking so painful? One painful thought arose, the next followed, almost seamlessly. It was like a cascade, a whirlwind of thoughts – and the more he thought, the further he went into his own mind, the further he wasn't to turn around and escape. But he cou-
The door came open. Only slightly, but it did. He clawed at the bedclothes beneath him with shaking fists. Unconsciously, Horo had been watching it the whole time. He has watched the door handle turn and release. He had heard the clicking of the lock sliding open. He gulped involuntarily, kneading the sheets between his fingers. Was it time?
A full minute passed. Nothing happened; no sound, no movement. Horo hardly dared to breathe.
It was nothing. Letting his muscles relax, Horo breathed out. False hope, he supposed. He felt a mixture of relief and disappointment run through him.
Sighing, he swung his legs off the bed, moving to go and close the door. He stepped along the bare polished floor at his usual pace, and clasped his hand around the golden door handle. The hallway was dark outside… pierced by the light of a pair of golden eyes.
Releasing the handle, he shot backwards. He came to a stop when the back of his knees hit the bed and knocked him down on to it.
Even then, there were still moments until there was any movement from beyond the door.
The door creaked on its hinges, and slid back slowly. The figure beyond it was revealed one feature at a time – a foot stepping inside the threshold first, followed by the mysterious silhouette of a body, and a shock of violet hair.
The door was closed gently behind him, and for a moment, the spirit in front of him was living, breathing…
"Wh-What's up?" Horo asked, for a moment believing he really was back in the Onsen, and Ren had come to see him with a problem or concern… everything was as it had always been – Ren was still here.
Ren's expression on his translucent face enhanced this illusion furthermore. He looked as though there was something on his mind, a great weight on his shoulders that he needed to confide in Horo to rid himself of…
And perhaps he did; for this was the Chinese tradition of the return of the deceased.
The spirit stood there, not looking at him, expression guilt-ridden. Horo could make out a pale pink blush on his cheeks, and his whole composure was alien somehow.
"Horokeu," the spirit said again.
"What's the matter?" Horo hesitated knowing that something was definitely wrong.
And then, Horo realised what was so strange to him. His voice… there was no sneering tone, no threats, no cold body language… this wasn't the spirit that had been following him the past few weeks… this was Ren.
Suddenly his fear washed away. Shaking his head sympathetically, Horo stood up from the bed, and walked closer to the spirit. Reaching his hand out to touch, he stopped, remembering the rule.
"Hao told you everything, didn't he?" For the first time, Ren lifted his head to look Horo in the eyes.
Horo kept that gaze. "Yes… yes, he did."
"I didn't want you to find out this way. I was going to tell you; as futile as that sounds now." Horo recognised the frustration and anger so familiar in Ren's tone. But this time, the fury was not directed towards Horo, but instead, towards himself.
Horo felt his hand move instinctively to reassuringly catch Ren's fingers in his. How could he comfort without that touch? "I understand, Ren…" Horo felt a single tear slide, unbidden, down his cheeks. "It wasn't your fault, it was mine."
"No matter what happened that night, I had no reason to behave so thoughtlessly. You were far from the guilty party – as was Hao, even. I caused all this for myself."
"Please, don't talk like that. It's over now, it's in the past," Horo shook his head to dismiss the notion.
"But, Horokeu… I can't begin to apologize for everything that's happened to you over the recent weeks." Ren reached out a ghostly hand to gently touch the surface of the scars upon Horo's arms.
"That wasn't you. You had no part in that. It was only because I was naïve enough to think it was you that this happened to me. In spite of it all, I… I think I'm stronger now. Everything in your life teaches you a valuable lesson – that's what I believe. This was no exception." Horo shrugged, giving Ren a watery smile. "But this is it. It's over now. I guess now we're both moving on, going our own ways."
With a sway, Horo felt his legs buckle beneath him, and he fell heavily to the floor, tears now streaming like rivers. He could hold them back no longer. Head bowed to the floor, at Ren's feet, he struggled through his sorrow. "Ren… what do I do now? I was hoping that coming to China would help me, that I'd feel better somehow after this. I really convinced myself that was true. But now… I feel worse. I'm glad that the torment is over, but in a way… I somehow wish it wasn't. If it meant you could stay, I'd… I'd do it all over again."
Then, gently, like a blanket falling around his shoulders, he felt a warmth envelope him. It was soothing, sunk through his skin and embraced every bone in his body. It shook through him, like a chill, but so, so much warmer, and so much more familiar.
Glancing up, Horo caught sight of Ren's eyes again. This time, an inch away from his own. Ren was resting his translucent arms around his shoulders – and though Horo could not feel the touch, he felt the warmth. No more cold, no more loneliness.
"Ren… what was the message… that you stayed here to say?"
"You know it already. My confession was what bound me here. I needed to tell you what occurred between Hao and I. I couldn't have passed on knowing that you were unaware of what I did to you."
"Was that all?" Horo felt his heart sink. Why, he did not know. What was he really hoping for? Had he glorified this moment in his mind?
"I also wanted to give you this."
Ren moved forward, and Horo felt that same warmth spread over his lips. A kiss.
The spirit lingered there for moments, and the warmth evaporated the building tears. It stroked his mind, calmed him. He closed his eyes, letting it smother him.
And just like that, it was over.
"Horokeu… I love you. Truly, I do."
The words sounded only as an echo. Horo dared not open his eyes, afraid of what he might not see.
Lips still tingling, body buzzing with warmth; he clasped his arms around himself, unable to stop the tears falling, and the smile that teased his lips.
"Live on. Be strong."
It was time to move on.
Author's Note: Phew... that's it! Shattered's finally over. I'm sorry if the ending was a disappointment to anyone - if I'm honest, I don't like it myself. But let's face it, if I'd have spent any longer worrying about how you guys would react to it, you NEVER would have seen this chapter up here!
Thank you so much for all your support, everyone (Godfather's Sweetheart, you are a saviour, as always. If it wasn't for your support, I'd have stopped writing this long ago), and again, I'm so sorry for how long this has taken me!
And believe it or not... Shattered has nearly been one whole year in progress. How happy I am to finally bring closure to both the story, and the characters. Thanks for your time!