The Iceman Melts

Swish. Snap.

Swish. Snap.

Swish. Snap.

"Hhhnnnn…"

Swish. Snap.

Swish. Snap.

"Ho-hum…"

Kijn's eyes flickered up from the document on his desk to the forlorn figure draped in red and slumped on the bench in his office, staring out the window at the empty palace compound.

"Desolate," Reishin moaned and lazily adjusted his position so his chin rested on his arm strewn over the back of the bench.

Swish. Snap.

Kijn glanced at the delicate fan folding and unfolding in Reishin's hand. Again and again. Repeatedly. With a loud snap punctuating—EVERY—SINGLE—MOVEMENT. He gritted his teeth, his heated breath steaming up the inside of his mask.

"Where is everyone today?" Reishin whined sluggishly.

"Working," Kijn growled.

"Hhnn…"

Swish. Snap.

"Get out of my office!" Kijn slammed his fist down on his desk.

Reishin swiveled disinterested eyes toward his masked friend.

Swish. Snap.

"When I'm done, if I feel like it, I'll leave…" Reishin stated flatly.

"Done with what? You're not doing anything…as usual," Kijn pointed out irritably.

Reishin sat up, a look of long suffering staining his bland expression. "If you must know, I'm waiting for my niece."

Kijn's masked face tipped a little to one side, silken hair cascading off his shoulder. "What do you mean 'waiting'?" He dropped his brush and leaned forward in his seat, clutching the edge of his desk. "Don't tell me you're going to talk to her?"

Reishin sighed. "Of course not," he glanced away as though Kijn were some repulsive bug.

The masked man bristled with annoyance and slumped back over his work. "Idiot," he commented and picked up his brush.

"I couldn't expect someone like you to understand," Reishin sighed. "It is my sad, heartbreaking destiny to watch over her from the shadows. Never to hear her say, 'I love you, Ojisan,'" he added with a moan that cracked his voice pathetically.

Kijn rolled his eyes and tried to shut out Reishin's existence, but his friend's sudden movement drew his attention again.

"Oooh, there she is!" Reishin swooned and looked out across the compound, his eyes following his niece as she hurried along the walkway from one building to another. He watched as she stopped and looked up at the sky, her fingers flying nervously up to her lips.

Storm clouds. Reishin cursed Kijn for distracting him so much that he hadn't noticed the thunderclouds rolling in overhead.

"Oh, my poor, sweet dear," Reishin bemoaned the fearful look on her adorable face. He anxiously clutched the back of the bench and contemplated what limited action he could take.

"What now?" Kijn demanded, tossing his brush down on the desk.

"Please don't pretend to be concerned about the needs of others," Reishin said coldly. "Oh…poor Shuurei-chan. She hates thunderstorms, and one is surely brewing up, even as we speak."

"Ah, yes," Kijn said wistfully, slipping his mask off and placing it on the edge of the desk. He stood up and swept around the side, coming to rest on the bench next to Reishin. His soft, mesmerizing eyes followed Shuurei's form as she dashed toward the building next to his office. "I remember very well how much Shuurei hates thunderstorms." A smile curved up the corner of his elegant mouth.

"You're not allowed to think about my niece. Ever," Reishin demanded.

"Mmm…" Kijn stroked a long, slender finger seductively across his bottom lip. "Shuurei shouldn't be alone right now…"

"Did you hear me?" Reishin jumped to his feet.

"If I don't wear my mask, she wouldn't know who I am," he chuckled softly, completely ignoring Reishin's disintegration. "I would just be a kind, fellow official, with strong arms to console her," he smiled broadly. "Yes, yes…"

"No! No!" Reishin stomped his foot and ran toward the door as Kijn got to his feet. Reishin threw his arms out wide and barred the doorway. "You're not going anywhere near my niece when she's vulnerable. Or any other time."

"Someone needs to check on her," Kijn reached up and flicked his long, flowing black locks behind his shoulder. "She was originally my apprentice, after all. I feel it's my duty."

"She's my niece!" Reishin ranted.

Kijn shrugged disappointedly. "Then go to her. If you insist on keeping her to yourself, then take responsibility."

Reishin gulped, his arms falling to his sides. "If only I could."

"Then out of my way," Kijn grinned lasciviously, smoothing his robes. "After all, I know just how to comfort Shuurei at such a time. I mean, I have experience…unlike some people."

Reishin gritted his teeth and growled at his adversary. "Over my dead body." Red eyes glared across the room.

Kijn squinted in repulsion. "You would leave her to suffer…alone," he accused in a low voice, as if ashamed to say the words out loud.

On cue, a thunder clap crackled across the sky, filling the tense silence between the two opponents.

"Move!" Kijn demanded.

Beads of sweat pearled on Reishin's forehead. His eyes shifted in the direction Shuurei had gone and then back to Kijn, who had the face of an angel, but the eyes of a demon. Someone else would come for Shuurei. Seiran. Shouka-aniue. That snot-nose. He thought twice about the last one. Surely someone less…dangerous…than his masked rival would come to Shuurei's aid. Still, she was only next door to them, seconds away...

Another crack of thunder made Reishin wince like he'd been punched in the stomach.

Shuurei…He bit his bottom lip. His shoulders sagged. Shuurei…

A lifetime of denial, doubt, guilt, self-loathing, longing, fear and humiliation crashed down on Reishin's trembling shoulders. His self-assessed failure as a brother, a father, a husband, a friend, a clan leader—every wrong, selfish, misguided, defensive choice he'd ever made—everything he had found a way to hide from in his life roiled in the storm clouds overhead and the firestorm in his heart. Everything he wanted to pretend he wasn't waited to accuse him in the beautiful brown eyes of his cherished Shuurei-chan. His chin dropped to his chest in defeat.

"You disgust me," Kijn stated in a low, emotionless voice. In one smooth, graceful move, he crossed the space between them, his face averted from his old friend. "Stand back. Shuurei needs me."

As Kijn reached the doorway, and arm like a steel bar thrust across the opening. Kijn's eyes widened and he turned to Reishin, whose knuckles turned white with the force of his grip on the doorframe, blocking Kijn's exit.

"No," Reishin replied and drew his head up. He straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin, turning a withering glance toward his friend. Kijn blinked in surprise at the rock-solid determination in Reishin's eyes. He couldn't remember a time he'd ever seen that look on that man's face. "She doesn't need you," he snapped his fan open, his imperious glance just visible over its furrowed edge. "She needs her ojisan."

With another snap closing the fan, he completely lost his composure, whirled in the doorway and disappeared. Kijn jammed his head out the door to watch the "Iceman" sprint down the hallway, his robes flying in all directions, tripping over himself, heading toward the building next door.

Mirth bubbled up from deep in Kijn's chest, and he laughed into his hand, wiping tears from his long lashes. Shaking his head, he returned to his desk, satisfied that he might now be able to finish his work.

Yet, with another crash of thunder louder than any he could recall, he wondered if Reishin had finally crossed the chasm of his own fears and accomplished the one thing he wanted more than anything in his life—to be acknowledged by Shuurei. Though Reishin had never voiced the notion, Kijn somehow understood that at last being accepted as Shuurei's uncle—officially—would absolve Reishin of the sins he held against himself.

He grinned again. "Idiot."

Raising his eyes to watch the first drops of the threatening rainstorm splatter the ground outside, he suddenly recalled the scent of blossoms that wafted from Shuurei's hair when she had clung to him during that rainstorm, now so long ago. It might have been quite enjoyable to console her again, he considered. The quick tightening in the pit of his stomach shocked him out of his daydream, and he cleared his throat and turned back to his work.

He picked up his brush, swept it through the ink, and poised it over the scroll unfurled expectantly in front of him. Two drops of ink fell to the paper, side by side, one large and splashed in a sunburst on the paper, the other more compact, round and perfectly contained within itself. In that moment, he understood that it was his own sad, heartbreaking destiny to always lose to his foolish friend.

He set down his brush and his graceful, porcelain fingers curled into a fist. They remained clenched tight for several seconds before they fell limp on the desk. He sighed. Straightening in his seat, he reached out his hand and lifted his mask to his face, tying it securely in place before resuming his work.