Disclaimer: I think we all know the story by now, right friends? I don't own it, and unless you are the creator and those associated within the creation of the show, you don't own it either. (Shifty eyes) Or do you? Hm . . .
Author's Note: Aw, man guys. How long has it been since I've been around here, huh? (Big sigh) I really, really shouldn't be doing this, but I'm feeling impulsive, so here it goes. This is a Touya/Jin story, yaoi, obviously. I want to write this, but with day classes, my night class, work, homework, and what little R&R I can scrounge up, I can't promise that it will get finished. If it becomes apparent that I am not going to finish this, I'll consider removing it, but I dunno. We'll see what happens. Now, on a more positive note, if this thing does get rolling it should be pretty good. I'm enjoying it, and I hope all of you do too. Happy Readings!
Light Beyond the Threshold
By: Obsidian Sphinx
Shinobi are to avoid being seen at all costs. We are to be shadows in the light and nonexistent in the dark. Communication is to occur only between sect members and on the rare occasion when information must be acquired through contacts. It is a life of solitude and of silence, of necessity and sacrifice. It is a life that, for all extending purposes, is not a life at all; that is how it is supposed to be and how it has always been. That livelihood was instilled in me from the moment the former shinobi Ice Master took me into his tutelage.
His name was Burma, and for all of his frigid power, he was the warmest individual, next to my mother, who I had ever had the pleasure of meeting. I was barely ten when he snatched me from the malicious fangs of starvation and disease, bundled me in his great, woolen cloak, and carried me to the security of his dwelling. There, in that cozy subterranean home, Burma nursed my young, abused body back to health. And through his kindness and good-natured disposition, he treated my mental wounds as well, going so far as to change the abrasions on my heart into mournful, yet manageable, scars.
"Scars," he once told me, "Are as necessary as the air in our lungs. They let us remember, and remembering is the force that presses us to excel."
Those words were the reason that I agreed to train under him, to succeed his noble claim on the title of shinobi Ice Master. I wanted very badly to rise up against the station of servitude that I had been born into, the station that I had seen beat, rape, and eventually kill my mother. In the worst of times, she had looked at me with such guilt, always blaming herself for bringing me into a position laden with such abuse; however, she always harbored hope.
No matter the state of her frail body, my mother would seek out and gently squeeze my hand with her own benign, pale fingers. "One day, my little cherub, you will see a light in this darkness, I swear it," she would say.
At the time, I had felt as though Burma had offered me the light that mother had always promised, and I lent myself to my training with concentrated devoutness. My mother had sacrificed herself every day in both successful and vain attempts to keep the harshest of our position from affecting me. Ultimately, she had sacrificed her life so that I could escape that thrice-damned compound, and I was going to honor her through my accomplishments.
Burma's territory was a large expanse of frozen tundra, snow-capped peaks, and glacier-ridden sea. Only ice demons lived so far north, and the majority of the breed had tendencies toward solitude or, at the very least, kept little company. As a result, I was isolated from the ways of the world beyond my frozen homeland. There, in that arctic corner of the world, the elusive ways of the shinobi were drilled solidly in to my mind and my technique so that they became second nature only to my honor and self-respect. Burma warned me often that some shinobi masters suffered from excessive pride, and that within that sin they lost their own senses of what is noble. Were I ever to truly question the decisions of my sect, I was always to consult my honor. Burma told me that it was a valuable lesson that not all masters taught their protégés.
One evening, as I meditated atop the jutting rock that hovered over Burma's home, my ragged clothes covered in grime and blood from training, I felt an abrupt hand drop on my shoulder. I had felt my master approaching and would have been relatively uninterested in his visit were it not for the labored breathing I heard him exude. Curiously, I opened my eyes and craned my neck around so that I could look up at his towering figure. He had always been such a beastly form to my small, nearly dainty, physique, but those dark eyes had never held anything but fondness for me.
"Master Burma?" I questioned softly. I became acutely aware of the extra pressure he was putting on my shoulder, as though he were using me to support his massive frame. I felt inadequate to his cause.
"Touya," he said suddenly, and I suppressed the urge to cringe at the gravelly tone that had replaced his tender bass. "I am unwell and have been for a while. I am afraid that time is withering my health."
I quickly shook my head. "You are . . . ill, but certainly not terminal, Master," I protested.
His bark of laughter startled me to where I almost jumped, and Burma suddenly used my shoulder as a crutch to plop down beside me. His square shoulders were still shuddering from his dying laughter, and all I could do was stare at him in confusion and wait patiently for him to finish. When he did, he threw a muscled arm around my shoulders and heaved a great sigh.
"You have always had such a serious and mature countenance, Touya, but every time you are in denial I see that small child I found half buried in the snow."
I could not help it, I scowled at him, and he only laughed some more. "My boy, just because you choose not to believe something does not mean that it will not come about. Acceptance is one of life's greatest lessons."
I bowed my head. "Yes, Master," I replied.
Perhaps he sensed my underlying doubt, because he sighed once more, although this exhale sounded almost weary.
"Take a look out there, Touya. Breath in your surroundings," he instructed.
I glanced at him, but his eyes were cast toward the sky, so I relented and looked around. The sea stretched before me, it's waters shifting with the breeze. Glaciers and less prominent ice structures protruded rudely from the inky depths, their lofty pinnacles in an eternal race to touch the sky. The wind caught waves of snow in its arms and threw it heedlessly into the air, while veins of lightening from the dark, roiling firmament above occasionally gleamed off of the frozen particles. It reminded me a little of silver dust, luminescent and fluttering from the heavens.
"It is pretty, isn't it?" Asked my Master. I looked to him again, and this time he met my gaze with an easy smile. "We are born into this life, and we must all make choices. Each and every one of us takes a path, and we travel that path until time catches up with us. When it does we are faced with the realization that life is everyone's disease, and we are all terminal. It may have been the most pleasant ailment you will have ever had, or it may have been riddled with discomfort, but in the end you have a question to answer. Are you content with the choices that you have made, the choices that led you down every trail you took?"
I watched his eyes grow half a shade darker.
"My regret is that I did not take quite so much time to observe these lands. In my age, I look at them and cannot believe that I missed one of the few gifts that is freely given to us all, natural beauty. This place is my home, and now seeing it for what it really is, I feel more at home than I ever have."
I looked again to the frozen land before me and supposed that it was very beautiful.
"That's right, Touya, drink it in, and learn from my mistake. Do not take such things for granted," he told me. Burma shifted next to me and, removing his arm from my shoulder, placed it behind him so that he could lean back comfortably. He was silent for a time, perhaps observing as well.
For my part, I felt an over-whelming sadness weigh on my heart. If what he said was true, then I would soon lose the only being I had in the whole world, and it would be the second time that I was left alone. I untangled my legs from their lotus position and drew my knees upward to rest my chin on them, my arms wrapped protectively about my folded legs. I felt Burma's eyes on me, then.
"I have one more regret, Touya, and it is that I gave my life to the ways of the shinobi."
My eyes widened considerably, and I snapped my head up to look at him. "Master?" I questioned, shock disabling my thoughts.
Part of me expected for him to turn his head, eyes twinkling, and tell me some cryptic meaning behind his words, but he did not. Instead, he was staring at the sky again. For the first time, I noticed the wrinkles around his thin lips, and how they gave way to the slight sagging of the flesh just under his jaw line. Had he always had such darkness under his eyes? When had so much gray jet lined his long, thick mane of hair?
"The shinobi live by practices that suffocate the spirit and over time corrode the soul. But that decay is covered with speeches about honor and bravery. It all sounds very grand, like shinobi sects have reached some unattainable platform of existence."
He snorted in derision. "It's all bullshit. By the time you're smart enough to catch on to it, you're in too deep to do anything about it. You're stuck, and after that realization life becomes hard to live. The best thing I ever did as a shinobi was proclaiming that I was leaving to train my replacement."
I think my mouth must have been hanging open. His words had just punctured everything I had been working toward since the day he told me I was capable of being stronger. The very pride and honor that he had just dismissed as false were the things I had wanted to claim for myself and for the memory of my mother. Suddenly, he tore his eyes from the sky and bore his gaze down on me.
"I've been training you to take my place, Touya, to send you into the same vicious circle I clawed my way out of. In two days I am to take you to meet with your sect members, so that you may resume my position as the Master of Ice. But you're a good kid . . . smart, kind-hearted, and adaptive. You do not deserve that life, and I could never rest in my grave if I knew I did not at least tell you that you had a choice. You can take my place, Touya, or you can leave here, and in two days I will go to the sect members and tell them that my replacement died during his training."
I was speechless, and my Master had said his piece. With a great sigh, Burma placed a large hand on my shoulder and climbed to his feet. I watched him steady himself.
"I'll give you time to think. You may give me your answer in the morning. Good night, my boy," he said.
I watched him leave. I watched my ideology crumble with his every retreating step; I watched the light of my future dim until I was once again washed in darkness. Suddenly, I was back in the compound, my body stiff, my belly empty, my skin bruised, my cheeks wet with tears, and blinded. There was never any light in the compound's holding cells, but there were always sounds. Slaves crying, slaves screaming, slaves mumbling incoherently, it was all displaced noise in the blackest of voids. My mother and I existed for one another, cramped together in our caged corner we would often sit quietly and try to pretend that there was nothing savage lurking in the dark. It was, however, hard to escape when they would come for us. It was hard to imagine when, less than a yard away from my bare feet, some faceless creature was raping my mother. I would remain quiet through the entire ordeal, as my mother had always bid me to do, and when it was all over, she would again tell me about the day I would escape our hollow prison and find a place so bright that I would have to squint my eyes against the sheer brilliance.
I thought I had found that place. I thought I could put my mother's soul to rest. Why only now was I informed that the true spirit of the shinobi was falsified for the sake of appearances?
I sighed in both melancholy and frustration, and suddenly felt as though I needed a walk. The cold, cold breeze accompanied me as I rose from the ground and began trekking down the snow-covered cliff. I followed the large footsteps that my master had made all the way down to the seashore, my body numb from the cold and my mind numb from the harshness of reality. Ice demons are no more immune to the effects of long-term exposure to freezing climates; however, their body temperatures tend to regulate in the extreme temperatures so that they can survive for longer periods of time. That being the case, I was fairly adept at dealing with the chill on my skin, well acclimated to the blue tint on my fingernails. The actuality of my circumstance was far colder than any winter frost.
As I began a slow shuffle down the moist, sandy beach, I could not recall a time when I had felt so utterly vulnerable inside. Even when I escaped the compound, I'd had the dream, and now I did not even have that. I knew nothing of the world beyond this place, and my entire existence had been based solely around the mastery of my powers. I was a powerful demon, but without the shinobi I had no purpose. My position now was almost more frustrating than my position as a slave. Slaves never had the luxury of choices. Our lives revolved around the lives of our masters, and our purpose for being was simply to accommodate them. There was no space for pride or power; those things were too grand for our kind.
I, however, had risen above that, I was powerful, and I had pride. Ironically, though, it did not seem to matter. I scraped and sweat to attain those two things that I could not have then, only to find that they were obsolete now. I had no outlet for which to peruse them.
I supposed I should not have allowed myself to exist for the sole purpose of becoming the shinobi Ice Master. It was naïve of me to have left myself no alternatives in life, but that's what I had done. I was obsessed with taking my master's place, with finding a light that, evidently, was not accessible as a shinobi.
'Then where,' I wondered?
And I wondered straight through the night. Morning found me miles away from the beach and sprawled out in a hefty snowdrift, still wide-awake and aching inside. My limbs were almost too cold and stiff to move, and my breathing was shallow. It hurt to inhale deeply, I choked when I exhaled, but I could not have cared less. It had not been the first time that I'd been pushed to my limits by the elements. Besides, my eyes were too engaged in their unblinking visage, watching the easily falling snowflakes glimmer in the bright morning sunlight. They fell on and around my upturned face, a few of them latching on to my eyelashes and lips like the gentlest little claws.
'Leave to escape the darkness, but where do I go to find the light? I could stay right here,' I thought. 'I could stay in the snow and just . . . fade away.'
It would not happen for several days. An ice demon waiting to freeze to death would have a long wait. It would be peaceful, surely, but I was certain I would become bored with it. I had endured far worse things than the cold in my life. There had been times when I would have prayed to freeze to death slowly rather than go through another moment of foreign hands groping me, of watching those same hands strike my mother upon her protests.
Burma's training had been no easy weight to bear, either. Our sessions were long, arduous, and bloody. In fact, blood loss had often postponed my training for the first several years. My body had been frail then, and my health was relatively poor for a demon. Burma had needed to be gradual with his lessons; however, I was never gradual with my progress. I trained until the only thing frail was my physical appearance. With my strength came better health, but I would never escape certain aspects of the disability. My stomach would remain sensitive to certain foods, I would always be prone to headaches and dizziness, and I could probably never escape the fact that my body healed a bit slower than most. Regardless, Burma had taught me to weather these deficiencies, and I was leaps and bounds beyond adequate.
And it was at that precise moment that it hit me. I blinked and my jaw dropped open a little so that snowflakes filtered into my mouth, wetting my dry tongue. Walls had been constructed around me, from the moment of my birth obstacles were laid before me, and somehow I managed to overcome them all. My life had never been easy, but I was still here, alive after having experienced so much. My philosophical side simply screamed that there must be some deeper meaning to my existence, while that pride I had earned suddenly flared to life. Was I honestly going to let a few words stand in my way? Everyone was different, and Burma may not have been able to find peace in his life as a shinobi, but that did not necessarily mean that I could not. His warnings were valid, I would take them to heart, but they did not have to become my path. I was more than qualified to take Burma's place. I would just have to be careful that I did not repeat his mistakes because the truth was that the shinobi were all I had. In the past, I always made the best of my situations, and this was not going to be any different. The pursuit of my master's title was still very much alive inside of me . . . I was alive. It would be selfish to waste away in the tundra, to give my mind and body to the stiff earth. What are those people, who lie down when their path is not so blatantly trodden, but bumps to their more determined brethren?
I was simply not that type of individual, and I was never going to subject myself to that kind of life. Abandoning my plans would be my regret and, surely, a crime to my future self.
Had my body been as restored as my heart, it would not have been such a miserable trip back to my master's home. Be that as it was, two hours after my epiphany, I stumbled through Burma's door and promptly collapsed at his feet. After an awkward moment or two of him staring dubiously down at me, and me slowly reacquainting myself with having feeling in my hands, I gently cleared my throat and almost indignantly stated, "You can't go around telling people that I'm dead. I am decisively undead, in fact, I'm unarguably alive."
Burma was silent just long enough for me to begin feeling uncomfortable under his gaze. It was unreadable, and I always found that near lack of expression unsettling, but in his typical style, a broad grin suddenly spread across his face.
"Yes . . . yes I can see that, although I must say this kind of disregard for your health won't keep you that way for long. You're a sight, Touya."
I lowered my head and blushed furiously. Burma had a way of making me feel incompetent, and I supposed it was because he had done something that a tutor should never do. It was more obvious to me now than ever. He had come to love me as a father would love his son, and I was not beyond denying that I reciprocated the emotion. Burma had been the only other constant in my life after mother died, I had been completely dependant on him for all matters, and whether he intended to or not, he had risen to the challenge, becoming both my teacher and my family.
"Don't be lazy, my boy," he said. "Clean yourself up. Shinobi masters present themselves accordingly to their brethren."
I lifted my head, mildly surprised that he was not going to confront me further on my decision. He had turned away from me, though, and was busy prodding at the sooty hearth. I watched him as he hunched over and his body trembled with a sudden coughing fit. Once again, I was reminded of his age and of his illness. He gasped for air between coughs, each harsh intake of breath causing a shiver to crawl up my spine. His words ran through my mind. ' . . .we are all terminal.'
I sighed and let my eyes drift shut a moment, unable to think about it any longer. I would take my master's advice and make myself appear decent. A hot bath usually did a fine job of clearing away the plaque in my mind, gave me time to think and put things into perspective. A step had been taken, a very large step, and now that I was passed it I had more to think about. I needed to confront my fears of losing my master, both to change and to time, I needed to think about how to better my position so that I could avoid the dissatisfaction Burma had warned me of, and I needed to think about my soon-to-be teammates. I needed to think about how I would present myself, or rather, how much of myself was appropriate to present. Were these shinobi masters simply my allies, partners of the strictest nature, or were they friends, perhaps a new family? I had no inkling and could gain that knowledge from nowhere, seeing as how I was already more than aware of Burma's opinion on the matter.
'One step at a time, Touya,' I reminded myself. 'When life becomes overwhelming, simply take it one step at a time.'
The words had been one of the first lessons Burma taught me in dealing with my physical disabilities. When I was very young, I would become so terribly frustrated with my inadequacies that I would make myself sick. Fevers and vomiting were not uncommon simply because I was so stressed and embarrassed about the fact that my ailments limited my abilities by certain degrees. Demons simply are not prone to those things, and I was. I did not understand, could not accept it, and had to learn to deal with it one step at a time, just as Burma told me.
At the moment, my next step was simply to get myself to the bathhouse. Part of the reason Burma had chosen the location of his subterranean home was because there were natural hot springs a few yards away from the front door. He had constructed a shelter to protect it, and it was there where I would find blissful relaxation and sacred time to reflect.
I only stayed in the water until my skin was absolutely pruned because I dozed off. I had managed to wash myself, thereby eradicating the filth from training the previous day as well as the grime from my strange little wandering session. Afterwards, I had planned to just soak for a while, but sleep deprivation had finally caught up with me. I would have slept longer had it not been for the incessant pounding on the door.
"Touya, what's taking you so long," called my master, his voice mildly irritated? "You're just shy of five feet and three inches, and you're about as big around as a pair of sticks. There's not that much of you to wash, boy!
I sighed. It was a gross exaggeration. I was bigger than a pair of sticks . . . a bundle probably would have been more accurate.
"Yes, master," I called and lethargically readied myself to leave the bathhouse. I had brought a pair of linen pants and a long sleeved shirt with me to change into, for they acted both as lounge clothing and sleepwear. My other outfit was far from useful anymore, so I washed and shredded them so that they could be used as bindings or field dressings as needed.
When I entered my master's home for the second time that day, I was immediately greeted with the tantalizing scent of stew. I was ecstatic because I was hungry but curious because my master rarely did the cooking. He always said that I was too picky to make anything for and that he preferred the taste of my cooking more anyway.
I set my newly made pile of rags aside and tried not to appear too surprised when Burma, who had been bent over the fire, looked over at me. He rose to his full height and flashed me a smile.
"Ah, you look like a whole new demon," he said.
I shrugged and sauntered over to the fire, quietly observing his culinary handiwork.
"Of course, when you're face was covered in dirt you at least looked like your skin had some pigment to it," he added.
I scowled. He grinned. It was all routine. Shortly thereafter, we sat down to enjoy a quiet dinner in one another's company, but there was something hanging in the atmosphere that evening. Abnormal little things drew my attention to the fact that this would probably be our last dinner together. After tonight, Burma's dark eyes would no longer peer disapprovingly from under those bushy eyebrows as I toyed uninterestedly with my food. He would not succeed that glare with a lecture on proper nutrition, or prod at my "damn frail" arms with his eating utensils. He would not snort derisively when I reminded him that I had beaten him in our training match, and I would not get to see him try to hide his proud smile behind his bowl. It was doubtful that I would ever be woken up by means of frozen pillows chucked at me from across the room because I had overslept. He would not get another chance to clap both bear paws on my slender shoulders and, in his booming voice, say, "Enough is enough, Touya. Let's call it a day."
In that very large respect, our meal was solemn, but Burma was not prone to pessimism, and he kept it light. Were it not for the dusty shadows that seemed to drip into the creases around his eyes, I may have overlooked the wistful sorrow.