An author's note on the characters: hm, am I the only one who thought that Kirara was merely naïve and young and didn't mean to be as malicious as she ended up being, or didn't even know what she did until it was too late? Just wondering. In the end, while she's not the biggest favorite of mine, I would probably defend her.
Hm, spoilers…31 is at the almost-end, and the others are all vague enough to not really have specific spoilers, and 35 might have semi-spoilers for that episode in the 20s. And it's long, the longest piece out of all 35 of them.
Spinning on the Edge
For the 30 ANGSTS challenge
Themes #31-35 (you know you're everything to me)
31. Cold (bloody destiny)
Cold was something he encountered enough.
Cold was the first time he tasted steel, felt it bite into his skin. How could metal be so cold, he wondered. How could it stay at that temperature and still be wielded by human hands? Who was the fool who realized it could be used to destroy, to slice through skin and tendons and ligaments, so easily?
Cold was the first winter in Kanna Village. The villagers themselves remarked on the fact that there had been more snow that year than in most that they could remember. It was okay when he warmed up by practicing with his sword, but there were still other elements out of his control that chilled him to the core.
Cold was how her eyes looked so many times when they looked straight at him. When she said no, Katsushirou-sama, you don't understand, you don't understand anything. Not about us, not about the village, not about Kambei-sama, not about me. Not about anything at all.
And when the first signs of the thaw came, he had finally had enough of the cold.
Time for a change of climate, he knew.
32. Black (sleeping in the red)
Kyuuzou came and went as he pleased, everyone knew. If he wasn't on a mission or training the villagers it was as though he disappeared, but the moment he was needed it was as though he reappeared by magic, as if he had read their minds and felt how he was needed.
Some of the time, he sat under the same tree in the forest, one at a junction that allowed him to see much of what was happening without being close to it. A red figure that managed to blend in camouflaged against dark brown bark.
He liked it that way. And tonight, he would very much appreciate the undisturbed quiet.
Sensing movement, he looked up. Two shadows swept past him in the darkness, not knowing he was there. The mikumari and that interesting youngster, probably.
He had been observing their chase for a while now, and idly wondered how long it would take her to get it. She was probably smarter than that, he thought. Besides, they disturbed the peace. Defeated the purpose of him sitting under the tree by himself. He did not want to get involved.
The shadows slowed down to walking speed and settled next to each other. The middling distance between them spoke for their embarrassment, for their blushing youth. Or, perhaps, for both of the truths that they knew, hers and his. Though, it would take time for him to catch on that she was only with him out of courtesy, not out of love.
He did feel a twinge of pity for the boy, though. Just a bit.
33. Kill (house of pain)
Gorobei could only smile sadly at him. A boy dealing with his first kill was always something that brought out some compassion from him. But this was something Katsushirou would get over soon, would grow from as he progressed and became the outstanding warrior he knew he'd be.
But a boy chasing dreams fated to end in disaster brought out more feelings of pity from Gorobei than he himself would ever know.
He always meant to talk to Kambei about it. But he was sure that Shichiroji had already addressed it at one point or another, and his job was to know and discuss tactics, nothing more. Though, the welfare of his comrades and friends should also be just as important.
The other thing was that Gorobei knew that Kambei also knew, because Kambei was the sort of guy that would know and there was no way he couldn't have known already. And he also knew what Kambei's feelings on the matter regarding her were, too. But as to why the man hadn't gone and told her or ended the problem or anything, he didn't know.
And yet…it would be something akin to cruelty to bring it up to the boy. He wouldn't even listen to him, even if he tried to say anything.
He glanced over and saw the water maiden cleaning the blood from his face, and smiled sadly again, for the moment was sure to end.
34. Teddy bear (demon master)
He blinks for a moment, stares at the little ball of fluff sitting at the doorstep. It's a strange thing, he thinks…a doll, perhaps? He picks it up, prods at what he assumes is its head, its stomach. He tugs at the small ears on either side of the head, glances at the black dots for its eyes.
"Katsushirou-sama?" a timid voice says.
He turns around. "Oh, Kirara-dono. Ah. I just found this – " he holds out the plushie " – here, and I'm not sure which child it belongs to. Is it Komachi's?"
"Ah, no…" She blushes slightly. "Actually, it's mine."
"Yours?" he says, a little bit confused.
"My mother was a good seamstress and made many of the dolls for the girls...this was the last toy that she made for me before she and my father…passed away." She sees him opening his mouth again, but continues on. "Komachi must have taken it on accident, or something like that…"
"Ah, I guess so." He stares at the ground for a second. "I'll see you tonight, then."
She gives him her farewell also, but drifts off into the memories locked into the stuffed animal she is now clutching in her arms, as a vacant, preoccupied look settles on her face.
Katsushirou smiles, a small bitter smile for a moment, remembering family.
He walks away.
35. Haha…… (secret passage)
"There's nothing more to say."
"But - !"
"You're excused," he said coolly.
Katsushirou sighed, bowed stiffly in deference, and walked away.
Eighteen years should have been enough to teach him that he just couldn't win an argument with someone whose position was so elevated beyond his, and a merchant to boot. However, he had always hoped the fact that the man was his father would even out their struggle.
Hope wasn't truth, though. The man who groveled before his father as his life's savings were taken away, hoping that the ruthless smile was merely a ploy, an illusion, that he actually had a heart – he was one who knew the reality of that statement all too well. In addition to his starving son, and his weeping wife. Not that they would ever believe that the merchant's son could ever understand it also.
Sighing in frustration, he picked up his sword. Training would help. He had hardly been taught, and not even particularly well at that, due to his father's belief that learning the way of the samurai was pathetic for a merchant's son and that Katsushirou wasn't eight years old any more.
Slash, hack, slash. The air parted before his sword, much like it did before his father's girth and power.
The air never sang for that man, though, like it did for him.
A knock on the door. "Katsushirou, are you there?"
Slash, hack, hack, slash. Only one person called him by just his name, and if it really was her, she'd know to come in.
The door swung open without a creak. Perhaps the maids finally oiled the door.
Hack, hack, hack.
Before he could swing his sword any more, the woman gently grasped his hands and loosened his fingers. She slid the hilt out of his grip and laid it delicately by its sheath.
She looked at him, her eyes, large and sad and blue with the calm before a storm, and he fell silent.
"Your father is furious."
"I'm not surprised."
"He was really hoping that this time, you would…accept the future of being a merchant."
"He wants me to become something that I will never concede to, something that would torment my conscience forever."
"Not all merchants are bad," she said, as though she was pleading, but he knew better.
"The ones working beneath Father are. And if I take up working for him, I'll be beneath him, and he'll see it as…victory."
It was almost as if the air itself was saying, This isn't going to work.
"I know," his mother said.
"I can't do this."
Katushirou sighed. "He…gave me an ultimatum. If I don't take the apprenticeship, then…"
Eighteen is too old for a man to not have a productive job. And the only productive job is…
She spoke softly. "Neither of you will be able to sit across the table and look each other in the eye civilly, at this rate."
Did we ever? they let the air wonder.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I think you should leave."
"Mother!" He tried to come up with something coherent to say. "What do you mean?"
"Hear me out, Katsushirou. You will never willingly become a merchant. Your father will never let you become anything else. The hate between the both of you has rotted everything else. And in the end, your father…he always wins. He'll have his way."
"And you won't have a chance at happiness."
He looked at her, eyes pleading, and she knew better.
"Don't worry about me," she smiled. "I'll be fine here. Your father loves me."
He doesn't love you
"Katsushirou. Look at me."
His eyes snapped upwards.
"I love you. I want what's best for you. I always have."
His head whirled. "I haven't even been out farther than this city…I don't…"
A smile played at the corner of her mouth. "I'm surprised that you're so…reluctant. I thought that you had always been planning to leave home at some point."
He blinked. "Well…yes, but…"
"Then what more is there to say?"
This is the only way.
He looked her square in the eye, and nodded.
"Then you should leave tonight."
His fists relaxed only after she had left.
His mother had always been a beautiful woman. Meek and quiet in all appearances, she was quite the free spirit underneath instead. But in their society, a woman like her always went to the highest-bidding suitor, and so she was married to his father.
He had never asked if their marriage was a happy one. His mother was always a better actress than he could ever comprehend. The first time she had covered for him, hiding his face in the folds of her robe while she calmly, sternly, and manipulatively talked his father down until his face lost its redness, he couldn't believe it was her. And then there was a second, a third, and more than a fourth time, so he started to let it sink in a little bit more.
Many women lost that skin-deep beauty a decade after their marriages. His mother, however, always had that radiance that nothing could touch. And in addition, she was the kindest person he knew. The kindest person to him.
She was all that he had, and he was almost the same to her. Personally, he wasn't sure if she loved his father or not, but he never bothered to ask because she could've answered however she'd have liked and he still wouldn't be able to tell if it was the truth.
She was all that he had, and now he was going to walk away.
He had her permission.
How much did that mean?
There was no one to say goodbye to. The maids and workers at their mansion were like shadows that could hardly be seen; the sons of other merchants were as greedy and pig-faced as their fathers, and equally as derisive of Katsushirou.
He had a sword, a change or two of clothes, a pouch of money, another one of gold sewed into his bag, just in case, which his mother believed he'd probably have to tap into once the first one was stolen, and a small carved stone which his mother gave him long ago.
His father was having a business dinner with several other merchants tonight, and Katsushirou and his mother weren't expected to be there. So he sat down and waited for the inevitable to come to him instead, which manifested in a knock on a the door.
She stepped inside, depositing the tray on the table and a bundle next to it. "Everything you probably forgot about packing," she responded when he looked at her questioningly. "Hurry and eat, it's probably best if you leave as early as possible."
"But not through the front door."
"Maybe you've forgotten. You used to play around it as a child."
Once, when he was young, he was pretending to explore the house and managed to fall out of what he could only remember as a secret chute or door, something that he couldn't get back through; his mother had been the only one who knew where to look when her son failed to appear for lunch.
Afterwards, it was the one hallway that he never bothered to journey through ever again, saying that it was the enemy's hideout and that was how they trapped him in the first place and that the enemy's hideout always had to be saved for last, while putting it out of mind. But before he remembered, he grew up and grew out of the game and forgot about it for good.
His father, calculating sums and profits and costs, never noticed, never knew.
He made a note to count how many back door exits there actually were the next time he was in a merchant's home.
Never mind that, next time he should ask how many doors the merchant was aware of, or if he even knew of any besides the servants' exit in the winding hallways in the back that he never bothered to inspect.
Katsushirou followed his mother through the corridors of smudged dusty lanterns, faded gold tapestries, dusty must, and shadows in the dark. Candlelight flickered against the walls and he could've probably seen his childhood monsters that he fought and may or may not have conquered if he tried.
His mother moved deftly through the maze and the question arose in his mind of how she managed to remember this route along with everything else she took care of, but before he could contemplate the answer she suddenly stopped and glanced at him. She gestured at the door and he thought, but –
"Go through and follow the alleys until you reach the innermost part of the city, and then go where you will. It's probably best if you can leave here as soon as possible and head for another place, perhaps even as far as Kougakyo if you can."
"Mother – "
"You should probably be able to make it to the gates by early morning, or at least to an inn on the outskirts where you can stay quietly."
She looked at him, fondly. "Katsushirou. You'll be a great samurai, one that will make me proud."
So go already, before she does something silly like cry over you, because you've never seen her shed a tear before.
He bowed his head, tugged harder on the straps of his rucksack. "I'll come back one day, Mother. I'll come back."
And then they whispered I love you and goodbye and everything that put those childhood weepy stories he ever heard to shame before he turned the knob and stepped past the threshold of all that he knew.
Katsushirou looked back, seeing the hallway edged in the dim moonlight from beyond the door and his mother's long hair swaying slowly from the wind, and then he turned away and shut the door behind him.
The alley is the same as the hallway with the light at the end like the door and she's just as beautiful as his mother and she doesn't say goodbye or wish him well, but he still has the feeling that he'll never really see her ever again.
That look of farewell in her eyes is barely there, but it's enough to tell him that his decision of walking away for the second time is the right one.
He takes a breath, and steps into the doorway. And this time, he doesn't think twice about leaving behind a beautiful woman in his life and a powerful respectable man that he grew to hate and a hit or miss or miserable future that might've been his.
Besides, this time around it's probably not love that's what's left between them, anyway.
No Japanese vocab ended up in #35, somehow. It turned out insanely long (1,825+ words – more than a flash fic), but I'm incredibly happy that I replaced the original #35 with this one. I think it's probably my favorite.
And with this, I've managed to successfully mention every samurai. I wasn't sure how to pack in those last two, but…ha, got them in somehow.
Sometimes, even though I had all of these themes finished ages ago (yes, I know you're tired of me saying this, sorry, I guess it's a 'but wait, I really did write them that wasn't the problem!' defense mechanism), I wondered if I'd ever finish and post them all.
Well, now it's done, so…there we go.
Lyrics to each of the chapter titles were from Dizzy by The Goo Goo Dolls. Many, many, many many thanks go to the beta who stuck through with this the entire time, rasetsunyo, who also picked up on all of the little (and big) things that I would've kicked myself over later. And thanks to the reviewers as well. Comments are still greatly appreciated, since this is the end of the road.
Thanks again for reading and sticking through these 35 themes. :)