Keiichi sat alone in the sake shop, drinking cup after cup, numbing old memories with deceptively sweet alcohol. He'd been there most of the afternoon, arriving shortly after meeting the child in the millinery. Battousai's child. Swallowing jealous resentment along with the wine, he slowly poured himself another, his hand unsteady with excess. Suffer the innocents, he thought, self-pity rising within him along with the alcohol in his blood. The world shouldn't work this way.
The Ishin revolution had taken its toll on the people of Japan, even more so on those of Kyoto. His had been a merchant family, common people, innocents never meant to experience war in its harsh reality. Unlike the samurai, he had no understanding of a warrior's honor and duty, nothing to salve his spirit and breed acceptance of the turmoil. Family, wealth, and position had all been ripped from him; and the losses he'd suffered remained still, half-healed wounds that caused him to rail against the injustices of life. Everything taken in a single night, destroyed in a single moment. Keiichi's blurred vision rendered reflected candle flame into a small conflagration, yet another reminder of unwanted recollection. Kyoto ablaze, buildings destroyed. . . his home among them. The fire still appeared to him nightly in dreams, causing him to wake in anguish, his heart racing with suppressed panic, Shiomi's screams echoing in his mind. Shiomi, stolen from him as night fell across the city and flame lit the streets. Shiomi, her midnight hair dusted with soot and her starlit eyes staring blankly, terrified, even in death. He'd arrived at their home in time to hear her terrified screams, to see the stairs collapse, to know he was too late. Fighting through the flames to her side, he could do no more than rescue her body from the blaze.
Gasping a painful breath, he drank again, racing to drown the surfacing memories before they swept him under. The effort was counter-productive: rice wine served only to make his nightmare visions all the more real. Losing his wife and their unborn child had been only the first, most poignant of the tragedies he'd suffered that night. Hours later, as he sat cradling her body in the burnt-out ruin of their once grand home, the cold-eyed government official arrived, delivering his message without a gram of pity: the family warehouse had been destroyed, his father killed.
Keiichi rubbed eyes gritty from unshed tears, struggling for at least the semblance of composure. It had been months before the debilitating shock receded, and he realized that he could not sit idle, wallowing in sorrow. Samurai honor might elude him, but that between father and son did not: he must continue what the older man had begun. Slowly, painstakingly, he rebuilt his life from the shambles of the fire and revolution, trading on his father's reputation and business contacts to make a place for himself in Meiji Japan. Now, more than fifteen years later, Hanabira was once again a respected name, backed by wealth. Yet he had lost far more than material goods in the fire, and he was only just beginning to piece the tatters of family together again.
The thought gave him a twinge of remorse as he glanced at his watch open on the table before him. He had remarried, as ambitious men do, seeking children rather than a wife; wanting family, not wedlock. Shiomi had been his heart; Naeko, his wife of but a year, was little more than an attractive means to an end. Still... she deserved better from her husband than to worry over his late return from a day's business; there was affection between them, however they came to be married, and whatever their difficulties in achieving his goals.
Yet it was those very difficulties which had led him to the sake shop, as surely as the sight of Battousai's daughter. Their
barren union tied the tattered shreds of his bitterness into hard, jealous knots. Why? Why should a hitokiri be so
blessed? Why, when he and his kind took so many lives? Why, when so many innocents still suffer? Keiichi shook his head
and poured himself another saucer of wine. Life shouldn't work this way.
Mishio swore under his breath as he walked swiftly, purposefully, through Tokyo's dark streets. Night had long since fallen, the dinner hour come and gone, and still his erstwhile brother-in-law had not seen fit to return home. Now he was on an errand of responsibility that long since should have ceased to be his -- should never have become his. Bound by the vow he'd made her, he'd lost far more than his sister when Shiomi fell to her death; he'd lost his freewill. Blithely swearing to protect Keiichi like a brother, as closely as ever he had her, Mishio found himself trapped.
Of course, it hadn't felt that way in the beginning. At first, the two men had grieved together, drawing strength from the sharing. Or at least Mishio had. Over time, he'd realized that Keiichi had not -- moving on in time, growing as a business man, but remaining emotionally locked in that moment of horror, fifteen years before. Bound by his word and their earlier friendship, Mishio stood by him, a supportive hand as Keiichi waded toward shore and could heal on his own. The recollection was a bitter one. He'd given up his own ambitions in the name of family, and now found himself little more than the other man's guardian and common sense.
Not to mention his conscience. Tightly drawn lips curved into a self-deprecating smile at the thought. So much he'd lost and could never recover. Still, as often as he'd regretted the promise his twin had extracted, it grated most when he was called upon to uphold it by her successor in Keiichi's life. Naeko's loneliness stemmed from her husband's longing for another, and -- much though he'd loved his sister, and cherished her memory -- Mishio was becoming increasingly disgusted with his onetime brother-in-law's inability to loose his hold on what was gone and grasp on to what he had. Naeko was a beautiful, talented woman; intelligent yet respectful, with unexpected skill in smoothing the ruffled feathers of those around her -- from servants, to clients, to family.
And she rarely, if ever, expresses dissatisfaction with her husband. Drawing to a halt in front of one of the town's more respectable tea houses, Mishio's let his features settle into a reproving mask. Keiichi was no doubt inside, his mind soaking in sweet rice wine and his body slow with alcoholic stupor. If he can still move at all. Distasteful as he found his errand, the actual effort involved was never great: long standing familiarity made the other man's movements easy to predict. Although he'd restored his father's decimated business to its former glory, the man Mishio had once admired was seemingly unwilling to make a similar success of his personal life. Following Shiomi's death, Keiichi had developed a habit for sake, one he returned to when confronted with any sort of emotional stress. There was no telling what had triggered the reaction this time, but it was the most probable reason for his unexpected absence.
Sliding the wooden door aside he entered, waving away the young waitress as she approached with a quietly spoken greeting. As expected, his quarry was slumped at a table in the corner, drawing idle circles in puddles spilled by shaky hands. When Mishio settled himself on the opposite side of the low surface, Keiichi didn't even look up.
"It's not fair, Mishio," he mumbled, the words sullen but intelligible, betraying little of the excess his manner revealed.
"What, aniki?" came Mishio's harsh, clearly exasperated reply. "What injustice led you here this time, when you have a wife waiting at home with your dinner, favorite kimono, and hot green tea? What horror has intruded upon your idyllic life?" Kami-sama how it grated, forced to play keeper to this emotionally stunted, useless sot.
If the business man noticed his brother-in-law's sarcastic tone, he gave no indication. "Children are a blessing, aren't they, Mishio? A gift that should be given only to the deserving." He reached for the sake bottle but Mishio withdrew it before he could complete the motion. Contenting himself with the dregs remaining in his cup, Keiichi continued, "Only the blameless should be fruitful, Mishio. Such innocence should never have been placed in the care of an Ishin hitokiri." Running a hand through his hair, he shook his head, voice dropping to a whisper. "She should have been ours, mine and Naeko's. Like to like."
Prepared to dismiss the muttered rambling as more of Keiichi's drunken delusions -- yet another alcoholic dream -- Mishio's attention was caught by the unexpected reference to an Ishin hitokiri. From time to time there were rumors on the street, in the circles within which he moved, of such a man living peacefully among Tokyo's ordinary citizens. Not just any hitokiri, either, but one who'd made a name for himself despite the secrecy in which he worked - perhaps even because of it. Although Shiomi's death had not forced him into the maddened depression with which Keiichi still struggled, the thought that one of the Ishin death-dealers survived to live in comfort did fill him with a lingering, smoldering resentment... enough to make him wonder if perhaps this time the other man's emotional foundering had some basis in reality. That possibility, however slight, tempered his reflexively caustic response.
"Keiichi." The sound of his name drew the other man's wavering sight and attention back to Mishio's face. "What hitokiri? She who?" Again, Keiichi shook his head, forcing Mishio to bite back a resurgence of frustration. "Keiichi! She who?!"
Massaging bloodshot eyes with trembling fingers, Keiichi's reply was petulant. "The little girl! In the dress shop!" Reaching out he grasped the younger man's arm in a surprisingly tight hold. "Oh Mishio... she was so beautiful, and had the most amazing eyes. Deep violet, like iris blooms in April." His breath caught on a half-sob, voice faltering as he released his brother-in-law's arm to clench his hands into anguished fists. "Her father's eyes, she said... her father's eyes!"
Understanding part of Keiichi's ranting was little better than understanding none at all. He was obviously horrified by the child's progenitor. No, not horrified; insulted. As if Kami-sama had brought the child into the world just to slight him. Mishio almost smiled at the thought. That, at least, was typically Keiichi. But who...?
"Battousai!" Keiichi all but moaned as if answering the unvoiced question. "She was Battousai's daughter, Mishio!" He reached for the sake bottle again, and this time Mishio was too dazed to stop him. "Why? Why was such a demon allowed to father children?" Gulping rice wine as if to rinse his mouth after the vehement outburst, he lapsed back into subdued melancholy. "She should have been ours."
Watching his brother-in-law continue to pickle what was left of his senses, Mishio slowly digested what he'd learned. So the rumors were true... true, but lacking in detail. Not only was the legendary hitokiri living in Tokyo, but he'd started a family. Considering all Keiichi had lost, his anger was almost understandable.
What surprised Mishio was his own.
It was the Ishin who'd planned to set Kyoto aflame to further their revolution, heedless of the innocent lives that would be lost in the blaze. The Ishin who were responsible for Shiomi's death, however indirectly, because of their reckless plans.
And it was the Battousai, who'd protected them, done their dirty work, weeded out the opposition so that the Ishin could carry out those plans.
Perhaps it wasn't the most reasonable of accusations, but in the rising red haze of anger, it seemed so: the Battousai was responsible for his twin's death, the state of his own existence, Keiichi's misery, and Naeko's lonely marriage. His actions had allowed the Ishin revolutionaries to destroy their lives... and now, fate had handed Mishio a means to reciprocate.
Reaching out, he grasped Keiichi's shoulder, shaking him slightly to gain his attention. "Yes," Mishio agreed, "she should."
(1) Oh my god! I wrote something! After what... over a year's hiatus?? (O.o) I hope it's halfway decent. (^^;)
(2) Thanks to the members of the rkresource ML for setting me straight about the details of the Kyoto fire. I know Mishio still has things a bit twisted, but that's as designed. Call it... perspective.
(3) This is dedicated to Risu-chan. I think everyone knows why.
Index of Japanese terms:(1) aniki -- brother