A/N: Since I've run into a bit of a snag with my overly ambitious first fic, La petite seconde d'éternité, I decided to amuse myself in the meantime with a series of twelve little episodes dealing with theafter of Scryed. Now, since I live in a country where the traditional Chinese lunar calendar is very much present, if not the main method of time keeping, I decided it might be fun to play around with it. So, this will be a series of twelve ficlets, each trying to keep to an appointed theme based on the lunar calendar.
I'm not going to launch into an explanation of the insanely complicated system, but here's what I'm making myself work within:
- A given year, identified by the traditional zodiac animals the West has become familiar with (Dog, Dragon, Rooster, Horse, etc.). Animals govern a lot more than years, though, despite what disposable placemats at Americanized Chinese restaurants would have you believe, and they themselves are governed by other things, which leads me to …
- An Earthly Branch. These branches govern particular members of the zodiac, a particular lunar month, and two hours out of the day. I've scrapped the second animal (too complicated!), but have kept the particular lunar month & the "ruling hours" of the day for the main setting of each ficlet.
Since I started writing this in a Year of the Dog (2006), Third Lunar Month (roughly corresponds to April on the Gregorian calendar), that's the beginning of this little cycle of twelve. Since ff dot net apparently doesn't display Chinese characters correctly, I've noted the kun yomi (Japanese reading) and the pinyin of the hanzi-that-will-not-display-correctly.
Disclaimer: I don't own Scryed, I don't own the poetry quoted in each ficlet. Etc. Etc.
The Year of the Dog
Tatsu/chén. The fifth Earthly Branch. Third Lunar Month. Ruling hours: 7 to 9 am.
Three years after the defeat of Mujo
… This dog only, waited on,
Knowing that when the light is gone
Love remains for shining ...
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "To Flush, My Dog"
Mimori Kiryu awoke to a face full of battered and dog-eared onionskin pages, the print and diagrams sliding together in a blurry haze. The numbers of her clock announced that it was 7 am, and the low light of morning was barely filtering through the heavy cloud cover. The low, ramshackle buildings scattered outside her window looked more depressing than usual in the haze, and bleary-eyed Mimori sighed, putting her head in her hands. It seemed that every day began and ended like this one – her pillow a textbook, her bed the hard little wooden chair that served as an all-purpose seat-clothes rack-occasional side table. "Coffee, I need coffee," was her only coherent thought.
She had thought that her days at HOLD could be long and tedious, but she realized now that those had been the easiest days of her life, sandwiched in between her mad dash for degrees and this … this excuse for a normal life. Every day was a long day now; "Weekend? What's a weekend?" was her new motto. She worked all day, dealing with mostly minor medical issues in her little clinic and teaching some interested students not much younger than her; she read half the night, trying to page through her texts in an attempt to glean from them knowledge she never thought would be terribly practical. Certainly, in all her years of schooling that flew by at an alarming speed, she never thought she'd have to know how to reposition a breech birth in humans, and certainly not in farm animals. Still, that drive to be useful, to be needed, to be doing something was strong within her.
The house – or cottage as she liked to say when she was feeling generous, it made it sound more romantic than the little run-down thing it was – was quiet, and even though the humidity of the summer was a few months off, a week of nothing but rain meant that a musty smell had settled into the old floorboards and every other porous surface in the place. She hadn't slept well in what seemed like years – even when sleep did come fairly easily, she spent the night in a fitful cycle of waking and sleeping – and her outlook seemed bleaker than it had ever been. It was so hard to continue pasting a gracious smile on, day in and day out, hard to continue attempting to be cheerful while ignoring her breaking heart. Or maybe it had broken long ago, and like a phantom limb, was just acting up again ….
She did smile as soon as she saw that the little coffee pot was ready for her to switch on, no bean grinding or filter preparing necessary. Mimori had days – usually those dark days, late at night, when she wondered why she even bothered, why she was here on the Lost Ground, why she still kept the faith - of thinking that Kanami Yuta was her tenuous connection between reality and madness. Mimori smiled a little thinking of the younger girl, strong and wise far beyond her years, who always made sure that Mimori wasn't working herself to death, made sure the coffee was ready to go in the morning and that there was some sort of dinner for her to wolf down in the evening.
It was an odd life they'd settled into in this little aged house, full of musty smells and an aura of decay. Kanami had hated the place, and Mimori had conceded that it was really quite awful – but it'll do for now, won't it? Once life was more settled, they could find somewhere else that wasn't so … oppressive in the mornings. Once life seems more normal. Once the longing stops being so sharp. Once we move on. I, Mimori corrected herself. Once I move on. Once she could face upheaval again, minor as moving would be. Kanami, always so perceptive, just let Mimori go at her own pace, somehow understanding that right now, she needed to fling herself into work, needed to fall asleep over books, needed to distract herself with getting the roof patched and acquiring better insulation for the walls and fighting a losing battle with mildew. "She knows I need my coffee in the morning," Mimori thought with a smile as she took a sip of the strong black coffee, cream and sugar luxuries given up long ago.
"Well, it could be worse," Mimori reasoned with herself. She fingered the heavy pendant that still lay close to her heart, its familiar weight soothing. She'd tried taking it off a few months back, tucking it safely into a little box where she kept other treasured possessions. "I shouldn't need it anymore, I shouldn't have to wear it," she'd told Kanami, who had watched silently as Mimori wound the thick cord around this little piece of her life that seemed like so very, very long ago and gingerly placed it on top of other items from that same life. But she found its absence distressing, and while it shamed her to admit that she did need this familiarity, this reminder of one who would quite possibly never return to her, she had retrieved it and hung it back in its rightful place.
A knock on the door brought Mimori out of her hazy thoughts. An emergency? No one ever came to the house directly unless something was wrong, not this early, at least. She threw the door open, about to tell whoever it was that she'd get her little bag and be out in a few seconds, but words failed her when she saw who it was.
"Ta – Tachibana?" she asked a little wondrously, though who else could that familiar face with the shock of purple bangs be? "What are you – when did you … why are you here?" She felt the color rising in her cheeks, embarrassed that she'd blurted something so rude. "I'm sorry, I just thought it was an emergency or something, I wasn't expecting …."
He smiled back at her, apparently not taking offense. "Kanami told me you'd be up by now and not due to work until 9 or so, so I thought I'd stop in before your day got too busy. I hope that's OK?"
Mimori shook her head vigorously. "No – I mean, yes, of course! It's fine. You just startled me, that's all. I … I was expecting you to be someone else."
They sat on a the little hillock behind the house, sipping steaming coffee and watching life beginning to wind up: women going for water, the children tagging off for their schooling, a small herd of scraggly-looking sheep heading for scant pasture.
"Well, Cammy wanted to visit some friends – we got in late last night, I didn't want to bother you - and I wanted to stop in to check in on you and Kanami, though it sounds like you've been doing really well," Asuka Tachibana said to Mimori, though he thought inwardly that she looked paler than the last time he had seen her, dark circles under her eyes. Thinner. She seemed to be fading. "The people we stayed with last night were delighted to regale us with stories about Kiryu-sama delivering babies and calves in the same night."
Mimori laughed. "That was an awful night; one that I hope will never be repeated. I was begging them to call a farmer or someone who knew something about cows, but they insisted there wasn't any time and the cow was in trouble. By the time they started talking about possibly having to cut the calf up to get it out, I was about to be sick – you know, I liked to think that years of biology classes and dissection made me immune to that sort of thing, but I was so very, very wrong. Everything turned out fine in the end – a healthy calf, a healthy baby a little later, and life goes on." She was smiling, looking out into the distance, shaking her head a little. "I never thought about what after would be like. I never imagined I'd be some sort of jack-of-all-trades doctor-veterinarian combination."
"It is funny how things work out, isn't it? I think we're going to move, the city just feels cramped these days. It's been nice being here, even for one night - things seem to have a rhythm. I don't know, Mimori. Sometimes I just can't believe that only a few years ago, we were all …." He trailed off as he saw her features contort for the briefest of moments.
"It does seem like so long ago, doesn't it?" she said softly. "I feel so old sometimes, Asuka. I just turned 21, but I find myself waking up in the morning and asking where all those years went. Where the past months have gone. I know it will get better, and things really aren't so bad right now, but sometimes I wish I could just turn the clock back a bit …. So you and Cammy aren't happy in the city? Where are you going to move to?" Mimori deflected the conversation away from the areas that were obviously still raw, and he had no wish to push her on the issue.
Tachibana shrugged. "I'm happy wherever she is, but I do miss everyone, and Cammy likes the idea of being out here, truthfully. I'm sort of tempted to see if we can get a patched-up place of our own. Maybe we can convince Cougar to head this way, might be like old times again or something." He smiled at Mimori. He knew what she must be thinking: nothing could bring back the old times, for all the wonderful and terrible things that had been rolled up together. He wondered if she'd ever give up on Ryuho. Kanami hadn't seemed terribly concerned about Kazuma, but then, she was oddly resilient for a kid.
"Mmm, shouldn't be hard to find something suitable, it'll be musty, though. Half these places are in deplorable shape. I'm hoping we can find another house after things settle a bit … it would be nice to have you and Cammy and Cougar around. Maybe I'd do more than work and read my medical books." She looked down at her lap and then to him. She seemed so downcast; he wondered if this was just a phase because it pained him to think of Mimori, eternal optimist, turning into this mere shadow of her former personality.
They sat side by side in the grass in silence, Tachibana trying to think of just the right thing to say to her, hoping to see her smile or laugh or something. She'd been so charming when she first arrived at HOLD, and that hadn't changed - she was still the same gracious Mimori as always - but her usual effulgent personality was gone. Well, Kazuma and Ryuho had abandoned the world in favor of mortal combat indefinitely, to say nothing of -
"Do you think they'll ever be back?" Her voice pierced through his thoughts suddenly. Tachibana opened his mouth, frantically trying to think of what to tell her, but she continued to talk. "I wonder, sometimes. What would happen? What would things be like if they came back?" She squinted, looking up at the sun that was beginning to break through the clouds. "I can't even fathom right now, and sometimes at night, I query myself. 'What would you do? What would you tell both of them?'And even then, even I can't tell myself what I would say." He had no response for her, but he wasn't entirely sure she was expecting one.
She turned, looking back towards the house, and he twisted in kind, trying to see what she was gazing at. She looked at him and smiled. "It's getting late, I probably have children to patch up, or pigs, or something." He couldn't help but laugh at that, and he stood up, holding out a hand to pull her up. He squeezed that little white hand which felt so cold, thinking that maybe Cammy was right, they should get out of the city. Someone needed to keep an eye on Mimori. The idea itself was laughable, but he had never seen her so dejected. It just isn't normal. Well, everyday existence as of late had defied being labeled as normal, but he couldn't help but worry about her. He'd have to talk to Cougar, maybe he would have some ideas. God knows if it concerns the subject of Mimori, it's impossible to shut him up ….
She brightened a bit as they walked back, suggesting he and Cammy drop by that evening, the sakura were apparently lovely. Pausing to look back at him before she opened the door to her little house, Mimori smiled that little smile, and it occurred to him again how kind her eyes were. It wasn't the color that made them beautiful, as they were common enough in that department. It was how clear they were, how expressive.
She gave a polite bow to him, and her hand trailed across the phoenix carved on the door as she pushed it open. Tracing the astonishingly well-done curves of the bird with a finger, she smiled again.
"It'll be OK, Asuka. I know it. It always is."
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word ...
... Never such innocence again.
Philip Larkin, "MCMXIV"