Title: Ghosts With A Negative Age
Rating: R, for mature themes
Author's Note: Written for 14Valentines, raising awareness of women's issues for the 14 days leading up to the 14th of February.
Summery:Yaone possesses the skills to heal or kill, and sometimes the line between the two is very thin.
Shun limped into the shop with her hair over her face.
Yaone's hands, fluttering over jars and packaging herbs, stilled.
She reflexively looked over her shoulder, checking to make sure that her father remained enclosed in his office. Wordlessly, she came out from behind the counter and escorted Shun into her still room.
Once she had the door closed behind them, she exhaled softly. Yaone had been drying herbs since she was eight; while her father occasionally spent time in the shop itself, mainly he remained in his study and private laboratory. He considered herbs rather beneath him, and hadn't crossed the threshold of this room in years.
"Are you all right, Shun?" Yaone asked, and the woman laughed wetly and pushed her hair behind an ear.
Yaone gritted her teeth. The whole left side of Shun's face was pummeled. Fresh bruises where rising, the skin, dull red, bleeding into darker shades of blue-purple. Her left eye was almost swelled shut, and there were tiny cuts along her eyebrow.
Yaone took a deep breath. "I'll be right back," she said, backing through the door. She came back moments later with ice cubes wrapped in a cloth and her breathing under control. She couldn't even tell what emotion made her pulse pound heavy in her throat; sorrow, fear, disgust, empathy, annoyance all swirled around her heart in hot, violent bursts.
Shun was staring blankly at the table.
"May I?" Yaone asked, motioning towards the woman's face.
Shun blinked, came back from wherever she had gone, and obediently titled her head backwards.
Yaone gingerly placed the ice pack across Shun's face. Shun hissed at the contact, and brought her hand up to hold the towel in place.
"What happened?" Yaone asked after a time.
Shun shrugged. "He found the herbs you gave me," she started and didn't continue.
Yaone blinked in surprise. "I didn't think he would know what Blue Cohosh looks like, much less what it is for."
"Well," Shun said, running her free hand along the top of the thick table, fingers catching in the dips and scars caused by years of preparing herbs and playing with reactive chemicals. She looked up, and there was a spark in her eyes that Yaone rarely saw. "I told him what it was and why I was using it, and I also mentioned–" her hand made an abrupt move towards her belly. "–the other."
"I'd rather die than bear another one of the bastard's get," Shun said in Yaone's memory, voice vicious in a way that made Yaone nervous for Shun's children.
"Hm," Yaone said noncommittally. "So what can I help you with?"
Shun's lips twisted, and whatever she wanted to say came out, "do you have anything that would make him a little more... accommodating?" There was a sharp edge to her voice.
"Forgive me for being forward," Yaone started, folding her hands neatly in her lap and staring down at them, "but wouldn't it be more effective to simply leave him?"
Shun looked at her with amazement, eyes wide in her bruised face, and gasped, "I could never do that!"
"I see," Yaone said, and she did. She'd heard all the reasons to stay with men like Shaun's husband that existed and she could hear them as clearly as if Shun had listed them all for her.
The woman opened her mouth to do so, and Yaone stood up abruptly, suddenly unable to listen.
She walked over to the shelves, and started running the tip of her finger along the glass jars.
"Would a slight sedative work?" Yaone asked.
Shun smiled, and the split in her lip started dripping blood. "That would be perfect," she murmured, her swollen lips distorting her voice.
Yaone wondered if the next time or the time after that Shun's husband would kill her, and whether he'd started on the children yet and if... Unbidden her hand moved two jars over. Not letting her mind consider what she was doing, she pulled the jar out, unscrewed the top, and tapped a generous handful out onto a square of cloth. She adroitly twisted the fabric into a makeshift bag, walked back to Shun, and handed it to the woman.
"What is it?" Shun asked.
Poison, Yaone thought.
"Most people call it Gentle Kiss," she explained. "You just need a pinch, and be careful not to use too much."
"We use The Gentle Kiss as an analgesic," her father told her, "and not as a sedative because?"
She remembered how it felt to have the right answer at the tip of her tongue, that bone-deep sense of knowledge and perfection, and how easy it was to gain his approval once-upon-a-time.
"Because it builds in the body's memory," she answered, recalling the texts she'd studied, the delicate calligraphy of the words clear and perfect in her mind's eye, "and can cause death if used over a long period of time."
"That's perfect," Shun said, a forced smile on her face. "This will make things so much easier."
"Yes," Yaone agreed, "I do believe it will."
Yaone's mouth tasted like irony.
I love you... I just want you so much...
It was pathetic to realize that she was just as foolish as all those women who came to her with desperate eyes and slim figures.
He'd told her what she wanted to hear, and she'd believed him.
It was a simple as that.
She hadn't been smart, she hadn't been clever. She'd fallen in love.
Her hands worked automatically, scraping, mixing, distilling.
It was nice to know that the fall out of love was quicker than a flash of lightning (the look in his eyes, staring at her, a prize just won, and now, worthless). It was like reaching enlightenment; the world flashed white and suddenly everything made horrific, implacable sense.
She may have made every stupid mistake a seventeen-year-old youkai could make, but luckily for her, she had resources that the typical, frantic, adolescent female didn't have.
Footsteps across the floor and she didn't look up from her work.
"What are you doing?" her father asked.
"Tincture for a patron." Her voice was guileless.
"Is that true, Yaone?"
Yaone raised her head. "Of course." She put just the right amount of 'what else could it be?' in her words. She never used to be able to lie like this.
"Ah. Carry on."
"Yes, sir," she said, obedient and flawless.
Her father left.
She swallowed the tincture down.
It tasted like salvation.
Yaone turned the key, heard the lock of her room click open, and the back of her neck prickled. She paused and, due to recent experiences, bombs were between her fingers before she turned her head.
She caught a flash of bright beryl-colored hair darting back behind the corner and returned her explosives to their normal positions.
Yaone fiddled needlessly with her lock and waited.
After a few minutes, she heard footsteps approaching.
"Lady Jiang," Yaone said politely to the youkai girl walking towards her and terribly faking nonchalance. "How good to see you. Would you care for some tea?" she asked and Jiang darted inside the room so fast the edges of her outline blurred.
Yaone followed at a more controlled pace, carefully locking the door behind her.
Jaing was pacing back and forth, wrenching her fingers and twisting thin rings bearing precious stones that could have feed a family for a month.
"You won't tell my father, will you?" Jiang asked, and Yaone's estimation of her intelligence rose; most of the girls who came to her were too rattled to ask that question until after they'd told her everything.
"Of course not," Yaone said. "Will you join me in the kitchen?"
Jiang nodded, her neck too-loose and eyes too-bright.
"You are an apothecary, right?" she asked as she followed Yaone, who guided the girl to the window seat.
Her kitchen was too small for a table. When Yaone had the desire to actually cook something she simply used her lab. However, her kitchen did contain miscellaneous snacks, teas, and a spice cabinet stocked to her standards, which meant rather more aconite and belladonna than one normally found in a room where food was prepared.
Yaone started water for tea. She sat down next to the girl and waited, staring out at the mountains, jagged peaks cutting into the crisp blue sky like hungry teeth.
"I was stupid. He said–" Jiang cut herself off. "I was stupid," she continued tightly, "and now I'm pregnant and unless I get rid of it, they'll kill me."
Yaone nodded. "I know what you need," she said quietly, and went to pour scalding water over an abortifacient.
"I was so stupid," Jiang repeated between gulps, eagerly swallowing down the hot liquid, and it was only when she finished that she started to cry.
Yaone put her arms around the girl.
"I love him," Jiang sobbed into her shoulder, "I love him so much but I can't, I can't..."
"I know," Yaone whispered into her hair.
"My parents would have killed me, they would have disowned me, I would be..." Jiang's voice was cracking, and she pulled away, scrubbing at her cheeks and trying to get herself under control.
Yaone looked away, giving her as much privacy as she could, staring at the familiar lines of her counter, the chill sunlight illuminating the tiles on the floor and the knife block with startling clarity.
"If they find out I'm not a virgin I'll be worthless," Jiang said in a dead voice.
Not necessarily, Yaone thought automatically. But Jiang was most likely correct. She had an arranged marriage and wasn't going to be sacrificed to a demon known for his perversion; virginity was going to be much more important than it had been in Yaone's case.
"That won't be a problem," Yaone told her, soothingly brushing strands of blue-green hair away from the girl's temples. "I can teach you how to stain the bedsheets convincingly."
Yaone pressed her hands flat on her worktable, pushing down so hard that the tips of her fingers were flushed and her joints were white. Between her hands, a perfectly prepared cordial sat, ready for her to consume. She could taste panic and she could. not. move.
Yaone focused on steadying her breathing, which didn't seem to want to do anything but flutter frantically in her throat.
She didn't know why her body was reacting this way. She had been in this situation before (well, not exactly, because when he was finished, she was sated and replete and he brushed damp hair off her forehead and the look in his eyes was of finding something holy instead of defiling it and–) and it had been easy to fix.
Easy. It was easy. Why wouldn't her hands move?
It wasn't like there were any other reasonable options. They were enemies and–
She had a sudden flash of future-memory; a little sweet-faced girl with Hakkai's coloring and Yaone's tentative smile, asking, "but why did you have to explode him, Mommy?"
She wasn't sure precisely what about that thought felled her, but she jerked one of her stools from under the counter and sat down abruptly, pressing her head to her knees.
...maybe he could kill her. That would solve so many problems in one stroke. She wouldn't have to tell Doku or Lord Kougaiji or Merciful Goddess, Hakkai himself. Yaone inhaled the familiar scent of gunpowder and chemicals and tried to imagine telling Hakkai about this.
Her mind went utterly blank.
Think, she told herself, turning her head to stare at the cup of dong quai steaming innocuously on her table.
Hydrogen, atomic weight 1.007, her mind supplied, Lithium, atomic weight 6.941.
Yaone's hands were shaking. She was an apothecary and her hands were shaking. Her hands were shaking. She'd walked forward to be sacrificed to a horror and her fingers had been steady. What was wrong with her? She made explosives, her hands couldn't ever tremble.
But they were. That's how accidents happen, she told herself as she picked up the cup, walked across the room, and flung the liquid down the drain with an uncharacteristic lack of respect.
It wasn't an accident and she knew it but her breathing inexplicably calmed and she went to the window, opening it wide and letting the cold, high- altitude air slip around her and ruffle her hair, cooling her flushed cheeks.
Please let me die before I start to show, Yaone prayed, but that thought lacked force, and her hand didn't reach for the dagger sheathed at the small of her back.