Ba Ra Kei

Seraphim Grace


May contain some scenes readers may find disturbing. Not suitable for anyone under eighteen.

"if you lie on the ground

in somebody's arms

you'll probably swallow some of their history"

The brochure had read that tonight was to be an intimate evening of gaslight horror - that for a few hundred yen that you could be titillated by the American masters of the genre read aloud by a legitimate American star of the stage. Ran had read the flier ten times over but was yet to discern who the American star was or what he was reading.

Kobayakawa-sensei had given him the leaflet with the comment that of his entire year only Ran's English was proficient enough to take something from the performance. Every semester the RikkaiDai English society put on a reading. For the past three years it had been the Elizabethan playwrights, this year it was gaslight horror - whatever that was.

Stuffing the flier into the pocket of his green blazer he approached the ticket booth. As a student of Rikkai-Gakuen he knew he would get a discount but at the same time he felt guilty that he had arranged a night off from both his kendo club and part time job for this reading. There was a tall gaijin in the queue in front of him, in a crisp blue sweater and stone coloured jeans, talking on his cell phone. When he turned to look at him Ran hid his eyes behind his bangs.

"Two tickets." The gaijin said in accentless Japanese, "one for me and one for the boy." He said putting a note on the counter and took the two tickets, turning with a smile he handed one to Ran who blushed as red as his hair under his bangs.

"Thank you," Ran stammered, "but it's okay, I can pay."

The gaijin's smile was miraculous, "I know but this means I can be the one who said he introduced you to Poe."

Ran's blush increased and taking his ticket he vanished into the auditorium. he took a seat t the back, in the shadows, where he could watch undisturbed. He noticed the gaijin, because of his height and blue sweater, sitting next to a group of professors from the university, but with no suggestion at all that he knew them or that they knew him, then from the thigh pocket of his jeans he pulled a well thumbed paperback book and sat patiently.

As he waited for the lights to dim Ran found himself staring at the gaijin. He supposed that it was curiosity that made him notice the foreigners perfectly styled black hair, swept back like Andy Garcia's in a film that Ran had watched with his sister, Aya. He cold see the man's horn rimmed spectacles and remembered the man's pale brown eyes; the rise of his throat from the vee of his blue sweater. He thought for a moment about the smattering of dark hairs in the hollow under his Adam's apple. He told himself it was because the man was foreign, and that he had bought him the ticket, but he didn't know the real reason he couldn't keep his eyes off the man.

The stage actor was a burly man in a tweed suit with a thick moustache and a harrumphing voice that almost bellowed out the unfamiliar words rather than read them. Ran came to the quick conclusion that the university hadn't bragged about him simply because he wasn't worth bragging about. The strange English seemed to do no favour for him and Ran found himself tripping over words he knew, but the Gaijin, in his seat amongst the professors with his well thumbed paperback, mouthed the words along with the blustering actor with his full mouth and Ran wished he could read lips so he would know the awe this stranger had for these mangled and strange words.

The wuthering actor stopped for a moment, harrumphed a few times to clear his throat and then turned to a new page. He slowed down, one thumb tucked into the pocket of his vest as he read.

"take this kiss upon thy brow!

And in parting from you know

This much let me avow-"

Ran watched the words shape and fall silently from the foreigners mouth, the way strong thin fingers swept back an errant lock of hair behind a golden ear, and in doing so noticed the fixated way that Ran stared at him, and mouthed along "you are not wrong, " before offering him a friendly smile and turning his attention back to the red faced man on stage. Ran blushed brick red under his bangs, pulling on an ear tail in irritation as the red faced actor continued on and Ran found himself tuning the actor out to wonder why he kept finding himself staring at the gaijin and why it affected him so to have been noticed in his scrutiny.

He wondered if it would be too revealing to get up and walk out now, with the performance barely started. He could claim that the English was too advanced for him, which it was, and that he did not understand the reading, because he didn't, but the truth was more to do with the way his chest flip-flopped when the foreigner looked at him and the way the scent of his cologne, roses and herbs, lingered in Ran's nose, smelling fresh and clean and undeniably male.

Ran drifted as the rotund man in tweed read aloud the unfamiliar cadences of the unfamiliar poem in an unfamiliar language, returning again and again to the same themes of madness and interment and death with fantastical adjectives and uncanny adverbs, haunting nouns and daring verbs and the memory of a sepulchre, whatever that was, by the sea.

Every now and then his eyes found their way back to the mysterious gaijin, to strong hands holding open a battered yellow book and taking more pleasure from this vastly overwrought performance than it deserved. It was the words, Ran realised, that brought this man the small smile at the corners of his mouth, not this actor with his perfect pronunciation, not the room of disaffected students, but the words in his hands.

Occasionally he would look up from the pages, feeling the weight of Ran's eyes upon him, and looked up over his shoulder with that faint almost smile reserved for the writer that Ran couldn't appreciate.

Ran suspected his eyes drifted to the gaijin out of a sense of misplaced envy that he enjoyed this recital when Ran could not. He wanted to know about the women in the two stories the man read. He wanted to know why the RikkaiDai English society had chosen those stories, those poems, and this writer. Why had the gaijin been so amused to introduce him to the work whose English was patently far too advanced for Ran? He even wondered why Kobayakawa-Sensei had thought that Ran would understand, let alone enjoy, it?

He didn't understand but the words were beautiful, he couldn't fathom the way they pieced together in wholes that made the audience gasp or titter like school girls having been exposed to moments of fear. Yet words lingered for their strangeness, tarn and phantasmagoria, eldritch and stygian, words with a strange and rather alien elegance. He associated them with the foreigner in the wool because he seemed to choose these words to catch Ran staring, or perhaps he just wondered if the boy in his gakuran would know the fantastic and unusual words.

Ran was adrift in an inky sea of foreign words that behaved outside the rules that Kobayakawa-Sensei had so patiently taught him. He could be at Kendo he thought as the actor launched into another incomprehensible monologue, or at his part time job waiting tables, or even alone in his room reading or writing the odd stories that took his teenaged fancy.

For a moment he saw himself a hundred years from now as the focus of some foreign university's Japanese society reading out the juvenilia of the award winning author Ran Fujimiya. He saw some bishonen, probably from a band like Johnnys, reading aloud the poem that he had written for Ai only the week before.

He laughed out loud as a few of the students and the tall foreigner turned to look at him. In the corner a couple were kissing, using the relative obscurity as a chance to couple, the professors hummed and hawed over the surprise disturbance as Ran blushed as red as his hair. The foreigner didn't frown, however, he smiled before turning his attention back to the podium.

Ran's stomach flip flopped and the blush passed to what he suspected was an ash grey of embarrassment. He wanted the tiled floor of the auditorium to open up and swallow him whole.

It didn't.

He slipped from the row of seats to the back door and the refreshment vendor there, ordering a bottle of water but secretly wanting a glass of wine. The man might have sold it to him, he knew, if he had the courage to ask. "Vodka red bull," a voice behind him said, and Ran rolled the water bottle over his neck to take some of the fire from his blush. When he turned he found his face buried in soft baby blue cashmere.

He felt the blush return with its full force, cursing his pale complexion, in front of the foreigner who took his glass and knocked it down straight. "out of place?" he asked, and he spoke in a rich accented English, "probably just a bit too advanced for a non native speaker," he leant in to talk softly in Ran's ear, "like me trying to read Murasaki." Ran suspected the man was joking but he didn't get it. "Here," he pressed the paperback into Ran's hands, "you'll enjoy it more this way, I'm sure."

As he crossed the lobby he met a second foreigner, slightly older than himself, with a shock of pea green hair, he wore a slovenly hooded sweater and thread bare jeans. "That kid's staring at you," the other said to his friend.

The foreigner in the blue sweater and stone coloured jeans just shrugged without looking back as he left the performance early.

Ran's mother stood at the kitchen boiling the kettle, she noticed her son with a quick tadaima, before returning to her instant coffee. She looked tired, but Ran didn't comment on it. There was a paperback book burning a hole in his back pocket like a supernova. Aya-chan was on the phone, chattering away like a squirrel. She giggled as her brother passed her and closed the door behind him. He took the book from his pocket and threw it down on the desk, wishing he could throw away thoughts of the gaijin as easily. He snarled for a moment, unsure why he had such a temper, before throwing himself on the bed. He lay face down on the mattress for a moment but found he couldn't shake the thoughts of the gaijin's knowing smile as he had ordered his vodka. Ran snarled at himself before he rolled around to sit on the edge of his bed and from between his legs he pulled out his violin.

He knew he wouldn't get anything done in this fugue but playing the violin always soothed his nerves. He laid the wood against his chin and drew the bow in a few experimental notes.

He was a few bars into a song he knew by rote when Aya-chan opened the door, "Mom wants to know if you're coming down for coffee, or if you and Shiori fought again."

Ran answered his sister with a pillow aimed at her head then lay back down on the bed and sighed with his violin still in his hands.

He took a few long deep breaths before he sat up again and then arranged his music stand. He opened the book to Tartini and the piece his violin tutor had declared to complicated for a boy of his age, and started to play in earnest.

As he jabbed the bow at the strings, his fingers working hard against the strings, his mind returned again and again to the dark haired gaijin in the horn rimmed glasses until foul note after foul note drove the violin from his fingers back to hanging at his sides. He had never felt anything like this.

A quick dinner of instant ramen and a lackadaisical attempt at his homework and he decided to have a bath.

Yet he couldn't get the man from his thoughts, he found himself lingering on his long strong hands and when his own hands found their way to his lap, as they almost always did in the bath, it was the gaijin's hands he thought of. He caught himself and thought of Ai and the parts of her that caught his attention, the curls at the back of her neck when she turned away from him to look at things. He thought of her hands, her soft pale hands, and the purse of her lips and when he came he hated himself.

He dried himself off tersely and then pulled on a black vest and briefs to get into bed. His homework could wait until the morning.

He climbed into bed with his hair still wet, his bangs falling against his neck and lifted the book that the gaijin had given him. It smelt of his cologne. As he traced the words, those he knew and those he didn't, his head was full of the scent of the gaijin. So the gaijin became the hero of those tales, the narrator of those poems, and when he fell asleep, one arm cradled under his head and the other was holding open the book upon the pages of The Telltale Heart.

He dreamt of the thudding of a heart behind him. He dreamt of strong hands reaching up under the vest he slept in, running across the line of his chest, as his nostrils filled with the scent of the gaijin's aftershave, and with a dark chuckle one of those strong hands reached down under the elastic waistband of his shorts and found the erection he hadn't noticed before with the strange detail of dreams. He could feel the gaijin's breath at the back of his neck, washing over his throat, as one hand's fingers parted the curls of his pubic hair, the other reaching up to touch his neck and hold his head back. Ran was hard, he was so hard it hurt and the gaijin was pressed against his back, his head stopping Ran's from bucking back as with a grunt he came, hard.

He woke up to find he'd soiled himself and his sheets, and every detail of his dream was etched into him. His briefs were wet and sticky with semen and he could still feel his heart thundering like that in the story, his breath quick and his eyes wild.

He was suddenly glad that he would never see the gaijin again.

"Maybe I don't understand it
Maybe I was never meant to know
I heard he had the whole world in his hands now
But everything is still out of control"

Ran only tended to see his parents at breakfast. They both had important jobs with the Takatori company, his father being head of finance and his mother being a secretary on the same floor. His father was still eating his breakfast when Ran came down the stairs, with his mp3 player hanging from his ears, the white cord leading like an umbilicus to the pocket of his green blazer. He unplugged the earbuds as he sat down, letting them dangle around his neck. He poured himself a cup of tea and lifted his chopsticks. "That new executive from New York is going to be in work today," his father told his mother, "the one that is arranging the big shuffle."

"I hear," his mother answered conspiratorially, sipping her tea, "that marketing won't know what hit it, that the financial drain should be stopped."

"Apparently," his father continued, "he is quite the head hunter, there'll be cuts made everywhere to get it back up to scratch. My department has to lose thirty three percent of its costs. Most people are taking wage cuts rather than lose their jobs, but this guy from New York might not accept that in the long term."

"Papa," Aya-chan said with a mouthful of rice, "are you going to lose your job?"

Their father smiled, "of course not, Aya, my department were the one that recommended getting him in and we've made the biggest improvements since the losses started, we'll be the last in line for the detailing. In fact," he winked at his daughter, "I'll be working very closely with Crawford san from now on."

If Aya was relieved she didn't show it, but very little worried Aya, she had a very insular world in which everyone loved her. She was the most popular girl in her class and it looked like she might win the class elections. Her grades weren't the best but she just smiled at her teachers and they forgave her for not being her brilliant brother in an instant. Ran on the other hand was shy and quiet, but top of his class.

"You'll have to have him around for dinner sometime," his mother said, "just give me some warning and I'll get the afternoon off and actually cook something." She laughed with her husband conspiratorially.

"I'll be in late tonight, Mama," Ran said changing the subject, "I'm going to Riku's after school to study, I might stay over."

"That's fine," she said, "just phone and let me know if you are." She gathered up the bowls to put in the dishwasher. "Aya, I expect you in straight after tennis club if Ran's not walking you home."

"Yes, Mama," Aya pouted, although she didn't have a boyfriend she was often seen lingering in the company of boys.

Lifting a slice of toast from the rack Ran stood up, plugging himself back into his ear buds, "Come on," he told his sister, "otherwise we'll never get to school on time."

Outside he climbed on his bike, making sure Aya was right behind him, before taking off.

Ran had three steadfast friends, Riku, who he had known since kindergarten, Mafuyu, who he'd known almost as long, and Shiori, who lived only a street away from Ran but came to school on the subway with her own little brothers. They met him at the gate. Mafuyu, in a sign of teenage rebellion, had his blazer tied around his waist showing his grey sweater vest and blonde streaks in his hair. Riku, like his older brother, had his hair bleached and wore earrings, but got away with it because he was champion in the regional kendo league. His tie was loose and he wore converse sneakers instead of the usual bulky sports shoes. Shiori, on the other hand, was a quiet little mouse of a girl with bobbed black hair and wire framed glasses. She giggled behind her hand and wore a uniform a size too big for her that had been passed down from an older sister. Everyone teased Ran, Riku and Mafuyu that they were dating her. She didn't look like she belonged among them, because they were the best and brightest, handsome young men who might not have been the most popular in school but weren't prey either. They never treated her as anything but one of them. Although sleepovers at her house had stopped years ago. It had more to do with her numerous brothers and sisters, though, than her being a girl.

Shiori was rooting around in her bag, as usual, when Ran walked over having chained up his bike and waved off his sister to her gaggle of girl friends. Shiori's satchel was a thing of wonder and legend. She kept most things in it. It surprised most people there was room for her school work. "See," she said brandishing a closed Sanrio umbrella, "I do have a second spare."

Riku and Mafuyu laughed at their private joke and seeing it Shiori laughed. It was a well intentioned piece of humour and later yen would be exchanged but for now, there was just laughter.

Riku and Mafuyu made bets over everything.

They bet over whether or not there would be a pop quiz in the two classes they shared; who would get the best boken in kendo practise. They bet over who would get the most declarations of love or letters, something Ran always won at. They bet over how many girls would approach Ran and ask if he could help them with some course he probably wasn't doing. They bet over what Shiori had made them all for lunch and which of them had earned the largest portion the day before. It was all harmless and everyone knew it.

Sometimes, to get their attention, girls would stage bets of their own, like who would wear their socks highest, or their skirts shortest, but the three boys only had eyes for their studies. They even pretended to be nice to Shiori to get their affection. It failed.

Kobayakawa-sensei caught Ran on his way to his homeroom. "Fujimiya-kun," he said as Ran turned around. Of all his teachers Kobayakawa-Sensei was Ran's favourite. The man had a wonderful sense of humour and seemed to genuinely enjoy teaching English, unlike his English tutor, of whom he always got the impression she would much rather do anything but. "How was the reading? I mean I heard it was going to be Melville but then someone today told me it was Poe."

"It was Poe, Sensei" Ran agreed. "I didn't understand a lot of it, but there was a person there who gave me the book, but not all the words were in my dictionary. I must admit that I read it and just glossed over those words."

Kobayakawa-Sensei laughed, it was a rich sound of genuine mirth. "Your English tutor is American, isn't she?" Ran nodded, "and I bet she couldn't tell you what half the words meant. Had I known it was Poe, I wouldn't have suggested you go, he really is far above most people's level." He had his hand on Ran's shoulder which caused Riku, beside him, to visibly bristle.

Riku did not care for Kobayakawa-Sensei.

"I enjoyed the stories though." Ran told him, "Especially The Cask of Amontillado and the Fall of the House of Usher."

Kobayakawa-sensei grinned under his moustache. "Nevermore quoth the raven." He quoted in English. Riku, who shared a homeroom with Ran, almost growled.

"What does quoth mean?"

But before Kobayakawa-sensei could answer Riku cut him off, "we better get going, Ran-kun, or we'll be late."

Kobayakawa-Sensei's grin just grew broader. "Always so solicitous, Nakatsu-kun, I can't say I've noticed that in our lessons."

"I am always solicitous, Kobayakawa-sensei," Riku answered sweetly, "I use your lessons to catch up on work from geometry." He turned to his friend, "Come on, Ran, we don't want to be late."

But as they walked away Kobayakawa smiled to himself as he heard Ran say to his friend, "I don't know why you don't like him, he's always nice to me."

"Hey you, are me, not so pretty
All the world I've seen before me passing by
Silent my voice, I've got no choice
All the world I've seen before me passing by
You don't care about how I feel
I don't feel it any more"

"Tadaima!" Ran called as he opened the door. He never expected anyone to answer him, Aya would be at her dance lessons and his parents were at work, but now and again he was surprised.

"We're in here," His father called.

Ran acknowledged him as he put down his book bag and kicked off his shoes, slipping his socks into his slippers. Aya had thought it funny to buy him pink fluffy bunny slippers and he'd been annoyed at her at first, but they were warm and they did the job, and no one important ever saw them. His friends knew about it and knew his sister and no one else was ever brought to the house.

He slipped off his blazer, hanging it on the hook in the hall, unplugging his ear buds so they hung around his neck as he walked into the main room and stopped still. Sitting at the table, around trays of ordered sushi, were both his parents, the gaijin from the previous day in an impeccable charcoal suit, and the green haired man he had left with.

Ran wanted the ground to open up and swallow him.

He stopped, his breathing catching in his throat as the colour slipped from his face. "And this is our son, our oldest," his mother said introducing him to the gaijin, "our Ran."

A smile slid across the gaijin's face and he wore a strange look that Ran was too young to recognise. "Is that the Kanji for orchid or chaos?" he asked Ran's mother.

"Orchid," she answered without hesitation, probably used to the question, "we were going to call him Hiro until his eyes settled, come here, Ran, and let him see your eyes." Ran stumbled forward as his mother requested.

"Lovely," the gaijin said, "it's very rare, isn't it, eyes that colour?"

"There are Ainu in my family," his mother replied, "it comes from that, his entire colouring is just strange but he's my little orchid for it."

Ran wondered why the ground wasn't swallowing him down yet, it really was about time for it to be doing it, because he was quite convinced if he got any more embarrassed he would explode all over the room and the sushi.

The other gaijin looked amused, as if he was party to some conversation Ran wasn't.

"Love the slippers," he said wryly from the other side of the table as he pushed a maki roll into his mouth.

"Oh, ignore my manners," his mother said being the dutiful hostess rather than proud mother. They were roles she could switch between with ease. "Ran, this is VonSch, Vonschoe," she couldn't pronounce the name

"Schuldig," he corrected, "everyone calls me Schuldig, even the Germans can't pronounce my name." He offered her a winning smile, "it's von Schlossen-hoeffler."

"Schuldig-san," Ran said with a bow of his head, "pleased to meet you, but I have homework, I must be going."

"Ran!" his father chided, "don't be so rude to our guests."

"It's fine," the gaijin said and pulled out a chair, "the poor boy is overwhelmed, I'm Crawford," he said and his smile was warm and inviting as Ran practically collapsed into the seat, "and Ran-kun and I have met before. Didn't he tell you that he was at the same reading I was?"

"I didn't know who you were." Ran stammered almost silently as Crawford laid his hand on his arm. "Thank you for the book, Crawford-san."

Crawford grinned showing the whites of his teeth, "I'm glad you liked it, it means I can be the one to brag that I introduced you to the Americans." Ran was close enough that he could smell his aftershave, that same haunting smell that had lingered in the book and he felt himself drifting towards it like a character in an American cartoon. "Now tell me did you like it?" Ran just nodded mutely. "Ran and I have a lot in common," Crawford continued, "we both like the same books and your mother was telling me you play the violin?" Ran nodded again, "so we must have the same taste in music, and here I was lost in Tokyo thinking I'd never find a similar soul, and there you were, right under my nose. You'll have to forgive me, Fujimiya-san, if I steal young Ran away from you, because Takatori-san has given me pairs of tickets to all manner of things and am not long enough in Tokyo to have a lady date, and Schuldig would hate being taken to the theatre or the opera and I have no other friends."

"I can't see it being a problem, Crawford-san." His mother said pouring him more sake, "after all, Ran could do with the practise in speaking English, I'm sure you wouldn't mind, Crawford-san, with your Japanese being so good."

Crawford looked for a moment that he was about to swallow Ran whole, but it was Schuldig that spoke. "Oh Crawford just loves the Japanese," he paused for an almost instant, "language."

"I must be going," Ran said, "I have to practise and I have lots of homework and…" the words were falling away from him as Crawford held him in his golden gaze through his horn rimmed glasses.

"I thought you were staying with Riku tonight." His mother said.

"It fell through." Ran answered, "I must be going, um, bye." And he practically ran to the stairs, pink fluffy bunny slippers notwithstanding.

Inside his room he slid down the door and tried to catch his breath or his mind, he wasn't sure which was more important. With his hand at his mouth he realised that his parents had sent him with the gaijin, just after he had hoped never to see him again.