HAPPY (late!) CHRISTMAS, FAITHFUL READERSHIP! :DDDDD
We're not the same, dear, And it seems to me, There's nowhere we can go, With nothing underneath…: Was listening to Death Cab for Cutie's "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" off their album Narrow Stairs whilst bangin' this one out.
Talk about mood music.
It's really about a failed love affair, but the more I listened to it, the more it occurred to me that, if you ignored the one or two lines directly talking about the failed love affair, it had potential to stand as a kind of ode to failed relationships of all kinds, not simply the romantic kind.
Which made it all that much more appropriate, considering the content of this chapter.
So, if you're in the mood to listen to the Crazy Authoress, you might consider giving "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" a listen while you read this chappie.
Just a thought.
Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin, Ugetsu Monogatari or any of the tales referenced, however obliquely, within.
Words To Watch Out For:
Mukashibanashi: "Tales of long ago."
Ryūgū-jō: Ryūjin's castle under the sea. Depending on which legend you're going off of, it's made from red and white coral, or solid crystal. For our purposes, it's the former. On each of the four sides of the castle is a different season, and one day within its halls is equivalent to one hundred years outside of it. In the legend of Urashima Tarō, he visited for three days, and upon returning to land found that 300 years had passed. Again, I'm fiddling with legend here, purely for my own purposes, and that kind of time flow is reserved for humans visiting Ryūgū-jō; I'm working off the premise that time flows differently for gods and humans. The servants of the castle are generally considered to be sea creatures like jelly fish, sea turtles, fish, etc. There is apparently a station in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture that was built to evoke the feel of Ryūgū-jō, called Katase-Enoshima Station.
Yamato: the island of Honshū's ancient name; it has come to be a way of referring to something or someone distinctly Japanese, and has extremely patriotic undertones in modern usage.
Ugetsu Monogatari: Tales of Moonlight and Rain
IV.: Mukashibanashi I
Kenshin stared dispassionately at the great red and coral palace that had once been his home—once, many centuries ago, long, long before Kaoru had been born or Megumi had ascended to her post or Sano had been demoted to his.
Ryūgū-jō was a lovely place; he could not deny that, nor would he have thought to.
But it was also a place of unhappy remembrances for him.
Sighing, Kenshin continued on toward the palace.
Nothing for it, he thought grimly, the disconcerting change in Tokio-dono spurring him onward.
As he thought, the servants and attendants remembered him and greeted him enthusiastically, even joyfully. He internally winced, but outwardly accepted it.
They couldn't have known, after all, that he had forever forsaken his place there along with his inheritance.
It was while he was halfheartedly submitting to being fussed over by the servants that a deep, sardonic voice rang out:
"What a surprise."
The voice didn't sound the least bit surprised—had it, Kenshin would have been.
He turned and bowed low.
"Shishou," he said, deference in his tone out of a habit that even hundreds of years away from his master couldn't shake.
"You lost the right to call me that when you left, boy," his once mentor said tonelessly, and Kenshin paused, having never considered that.
The being before him had always been "Shishou;" it had never occurred to him that his title should change along with their circumstances.
"Ryūjin-dono," Kenshin softly corrected.
Ryūjin grunted. "Rise and state your business," he said, and Kenshin rolled his eyes but did as ordered.
Clearly, the flow of time had done nothing to soften his mentor's approach.
Kenshin straightened and beheld, for the first time in nearly a millennium, his one-time teacher.
Ryūjin was in his "human" guise, which surprised Kenshin—had his great and terrible master so forgotten his one and only pupil enough to believe him a mere human?—until he recalled that his master had not seen him in his glamour for nearly a thousand years, and he'd been little better than a boy then. Much had changed in the intervening time, and it should only be natural that Ryūjin should choose the safer route, working on the assumption that a mortal had, once again, made his way to the palace under the sea, and it had always been Ryūjin's policy not to scare these mortals unless it became necessary.
Appearing as a giant dragon was bound to upset somebody.
His master's glamour was a handsome one: his long black hair lay in a long queue, bangs framing a handsome face. He was a large, imposing man, muscled, in a white mantle that only added to his grandeur. He wore cuffs around his thick wrists, and eschewed the traditionally flowing robes of the gods for a plain gi of sea foam green and hakama of ocean blue, tucked into gleaming black boots.
Kenshin raised an eyebrow at the very much Western addition to his master's wardrobe, but said nothing—it was none of his of his concern, really.
"Well boy?" Ryūjin growled, glaring. "State your business."
"This unworthy one wishes for Ryūjin-dono's indulgence in a matter of small importance to his augustness, but of great concern to this lowly one." Kenshin said, bowing his head.
Ryūjin eyed him coolly.
"This, I suppose, concerns that flea-bitten Wolf," he said finally.
Kenshin flinched and stared at Ryūjin in shock; Ryūjin raised a superior brow.
"And to think I once considered you for my successor," Ryūjin said with a sneer, and Kenshin's shock morphed into irritation.
Ass, he thought nastily, glowering at his former master.
"Mind your manners, idiot," his erstwhile teacher said with a self-important sniff, looking down his nose at Kenshin. "Well? Are you here about the Wolf's mortal child or not?"
"Yes," Kenshin said, deciding to take the high road—because it would be faster. "How did you know?"
Ryūjin snorted and rolled his eyes.
"I do leave the castle under the sea, baka deshi," he said dryly, raising one eyebrow just so in a way that said, far better than words could, how much of a fool the Dragon god thought he was. "Not often, mind, but enough to glean the goings-on of the other gods, whether I wish to know or not."
"So you've been expecting me?" Kenshin asked, not liking the thought.
"Not especially," Ryūjin said, gaze settling moodily on a point beyond Kenshin's head. "I had heard you were still consorting with the mortals, and I had heard rumors that you were currently part of a motley little crew that was guarding the Wolf's mortal child. When I saw you were here, I assumed it had to do with her."
"Then you heard about him revoking his gifts from her?" Kenshin asked quietly, gaze steady on the being before him.
Ryūjin's gaze returned to him, unreadable.
"Yes," he said finally, after a long, pregnant silence. "I heard."
And of course, it went without saying that his former mentor had remembered revoking his own gifts from Kenshin nearly a millennia ago.
It was also abundantly clear to Kenshin that Ryūjin had not forgiven him for the events that had led to that result.
Then again, gods had the luxury of being able to nurse a proper grudge—they certainly existed long enough to make it count, anyway.
"I can't imagine," Ryūjin said at length, "what that has to do with you, however."
Kenshin watched Ryūjin in silence. Then:
"Tokio-dono is now…vulnerable," he murmured, meeting his mentor's inscrutable gaze solidly. "This one would like to minimize that vulnerability, if not completely do away with it."
Silence once more descended. Kenshin, who had never been able to ferret out his master's thinking processes or motivations, wasn't made too nervous by it. He was trying to tamp down the worry that Ryūjin would not help…
…which was an entirely separate matter from his being unable to help.
"And will we be marrying this one as well, baka deshi?" Ryūjin asked at long last, and Kenshin stiffened, quite shocked that his former master would bring her up, even obliquely.
"This has nothing to do with Tomoe," he said at long last.
"Really?" Ryūjin didn't sound convinced. "It started the same way. And history does have a way of repeating itself…"
"This is nothing like that," Kenshin said flatly, and Ryūjin eyed him, gaze gimlet.
It had been a long time since Kenshin had been treated to that gaze, the one that looked through you even as it looked at you.
"I'm afraid I can't help you," Ryūjin said at last.
Kenshin's lips thinned, and his amethyst eyes chilled to gold.
"Can't, or won't?" he asked darkly.
"You're a thousand years too soon to make those sorts of threats against me, boy," Ryūjin said in a low, threatening voice, eyes burning with overt warning.
"You would hold something that happened lifetimes ago—"
"This one allows nothing having to do with the likes of you to have any effect on him," Ryūjin interrupted in a thunderous tone that would have sent a lesser man running. "But until the mortal is entirely free of the Wolf god's influence, you can do nothing without bringing his notice your way. And you may be able to brush aside small fry, but the Wolf god is Ancient in the same way I am. You wouldn't last a moment under his undivided scrutiny."
Kenshin knew a moment of disquiet, that the great and terrible being who had taken him in and trained him would so baldly say that he didn't stand a chance against the Wolf god.
And Ryūjin had a bit of a mean streak in him, but he wasn't a liar—if he'd said it, it was because it was true.
Something else his former master said finally filtered through, and Kenshin frowned.
"Tokio-dono is still under the Wolf god's influence?"
"It takes time to right wrongs," Ryūjin said, tone bored. "Once the mortal proved her unworthiness, the Wolf god began the task of stripping her of the many gifts she'd been given over the course of her life. She'll be good as normal before the year's out, I expect. Magic only does so much, on its own—to do a thing right, it needs to be done with patience."
"There was no such meticulous care when this one was stripped of his gifts, as he recalls," Kenshin said dryly.
Ryūjin's gaze flickered to him, then to a point beyond him.
"And I have paid for that error in judgment many times over," he said tonelessly, "and will continue to do so for some time yet. Affection in a god is most inconvenient."
That familiar pang of regret rose in Kenshin, as it always did when he remembered that time long, long ago, when he called the castle under the sea home and the god before him "Shishou." He had spent many centuries under Ryūjin's care, and while his once teacher had never been exactly demonstrative, Kenshin had never felt unwanted. But Kenshin was still human, at his core, all of Ryūjin's gifts notwithstanding, and it was in human nature to want.
Kenshin supposed he would always be too human, in the end.
Affection in a god is most inconvenient, the Dragon god had said.
Yes, Kenshin ruefully decided, I expect it is.
He didn't stay long.
Then again, Ryūjin hadn't been expecting him to.
He watched the boy he'd taken in and raised walk away from him for the second time from an upper story of the red and white coral castle, alone.
Not much's changed, he mused, the bitterness and anger that had consumed him the first time absent now.
Of course, he had known Kenshin wouldn't be returning—if he hadn't returned in the intervening time, he wouldn't be now. The little redhead had made his choice long ago, and he had chosen to go back to human society.
He had always been a little too human, Ryūjin thought, to ever fit comfortably in a world populated by gods and myths.
It was a failing of gods, he decided, turning away before Kenshin drew completely out of his sight, that they should forget that mortals would always be mortals, no matter the gifts doting deities showered on them. It would save everyone a lot of time and effort and pain if only the gods would remember that one truth.
"I would know best of all, wouldn't I?" Ryūjin murmured sardonically, aimlessly leaving the window behind him.
He had not been the first to hear what had occurred between the Wolf god and his mortal girl, being as he so rarely left his castle these days, but it had eventually gotten back to him. And though he'd let out a snort and said the Wolf god was a fool, a part of him had ached, remembering that a mortal had turned his back on him once upon a time.
Gods did not gift lightly, so it was no wonder that they did not appreciate having their gifts flung back at them.
He had wondered at the wisdom of visiting the Wolf god—a very small part of him had thought it would be a good idea, though most of him had been quite dead set against it, remembering his own reaction to his own failure nearly a thousand years ago. In the end, foolishness had made him seek the other god out.
The Wolf god had been just as hostile as Ryūjin expected, and he hadn't forced his presence on the mongrel for too long.
Best not to corner wounded animals, after all.
Ryūjin found he couldn't call the other god a fool and dismiss him. He had simply fallen prey to the same weakness others before him had fallen to: loving one particular mortal child a little too fondly. And these mortals were just like children—just as selfish and thoughtless, just as petty and greedy.
His own weakness had afflicted him millennia ago, when gods had roamed the mortal plain as they now roamed their heavenly one. And he had come upon a little mortal boy-child in quite the last place he had expected to come upon one…
It was rare for Ryūjin to travel by land—as a rule, he kept to rivers and streams to get around Yamato—but this day, he decided it couldn't hurt, so he abandoned the ancient pathways of the Dragon for the faint, dusty trails better suited to Tengu and Tanuki.
It was while he was making good time through the forest that he heard a noise that was out of place—a Mortal noise that didn't belong in the Wild Places. He immediately switched directions and decided to investigate, curious as to what business a mortal had in the Wild Places. He nearly passed the mortal by; if a small voice from somewhere in the vicinity of his slippers hadn't squeaked "Hello?" he most assuredly would never have found…well, his "prey," as it were.
Ryūjin looked down and met huge amethyst eyes in a pale little face smudged by dirt, surrounded by a halo of red hair.
"Hello," the child repeated softly.
"Hello," Ryūjin said, deciding that since he had nothing better, that would have to do.
"You look like a dragon," the boy said after studying him with serious eyes for some time.
"This one is a dragon," Ryūjin said. "What are you doing out here alone? This one expects your parents are wondering where you got off to."
The boy shook his head. "Gone," he said matter-of-factly. "Brothers too."
"No parents, no brothers?"
Again, the boy shook his head.
"Then what are you doing out here alone, boy?"
Ryūjin cocked his head and studied the child. He couldn't be older than six summers, and he looked badly undernourished; there was a possibility he was already getting sick with whatever had taken his family. Ryūjin was not in the habit of concerning himself with Mortal affairs. His curiosity had been satisfied, and he decided he had wasted enough time on the child—he had matters to attend to elsewhere, duties to perform.
But there was a pathos to the way the child sat so quietly on his little rock, spindly arms wrapped around his upraised knees, large amethyst eyes regarding him so solemnly, that made him hesitate.
Despite that hesitation, Ryūjin did eventually continue on his way, the child's soft "Goodbye Dragon-dono," following him. For three days, Ryūjin was able to put the boy from his mind as he attended to his official business. But at three days' end, when he was once again heading through those woods—this time by water as usual—he remembered those large, solemn amethyst eyes. And it occurred to him what an odd eye color that was. That red hair, like flames floating around his thin shoulders, had been highly unusual too for a Japanese child.
It was an understood, accepted truth amongst the gods, that when a child was born with unusual traits it usually spoke of greater things to come in that child's future. This boy had been a wholly unique—and wholly Japanese—child. And Ryūjin began to suddenly wonder what the child's future held, and whether or not their meeting had been a fated thing…
When he found the boy, still at the exact spot where Ryūjin had left him three days prior, the child had faded to even less than a shadow of his former self. He was curled up on the ground before the rock, too weak to do more than slit his unusual eyes open to see who loomed over him. The Dragon god smelled decaying mortality wafting off the spindly little body.
Just in time, it would appear, Ryūjin thought, raising an eyebrow.
"What is your name, boy?" he asked.
"Sh…in…ta." The soft little voice was barely a whisper now.
Ryūjin frowned. "That name is far too soft for the likes of you. We shall have to remedy that."
The boy's eyes slipped closed as Ryūjin bent and scooped him up. The child weighed nothing; he might have been holding a feather.
"In the mean time, child, we have other, more important matters to attend to than your name."
Shinta sighed quietly, an almost last breath. Ryūjin, possessed of a truly awesome amount of power for one as—relatively—young as he, touched a hand to the boy's forehead, then drew it down over the pale little face. After a moment, the amethyst eyes opened, and the Dragon god grunted in approval when he saw the thin ring of amber circling the pupil.
"Hello Dragon-dono," Shinta said, sounding surprised.
"This one is called Ryūjin, boy," Ryūjin said, and smirked when the large eyes widened to hitherto unimagined size and his mouth shrunk into a tight little "O."
"Oh," the child breathed. "Mother told me about you."
"I doubt it was all right," Ryūjin murmured with a sniff. "That, however, is the least of our present concerns."
"It is?" Shinta asked, mystified.
Ryūjin grunted again and adjusted the slight weight in his hold.
"We must have a name to live up to your potential. Shinta will not suffice."
Apprehension filled the boy's gaze, and Ryūjin smirked.
"We shall have to meditate on this one," he decided. "For now, we shall discuss certain things."
"I feel…different," Shinta said with a frown, eyes darting to Ryūjin's, who noticed more of the amber overtaking the amethyst.
"Yes," he said with a nod as he began walking. "That is one of the many things we shall discuss, baka deshi."
He had never intended to as good as adopt the boy, but when the child had been fading, he hadn't the heart to let him slip away—not when he still had Something to fulfill, not with so much raw potential.
That didn't make the memory of that day—or the one that had come hundreds of years later—any easier to live with. Nor the memory of Amaterasu-ōmikami's anger when she had learned just why it was impossible to strip Kenshin of all the gifts Ryūjin had bestowed upon him.
"Long memories are a curse," Ryūjin murmured, watching sakura petals fall in lazy, whirling patterns upon the smooth coral floor.
He turned away from the sight and swept down the hall, toward his receiving hall, his great white cape flapping softly behind him.
He had frittered away his valuable time on mistakes best forgotten for long enough.
"Most inconvenient," he muttered as a pang went through his heart.