Copyright: Legend of the Five Rings is an awesome setting and a bitchin' rp game, but I can't take credit for it.
Author's Note: Most nerve-wracking roleplaying session I've ever had... but it was absolutely amazing. Not just in terms of character development either. Hells, it was practically therapy. Crying in and out of character? Priceless~ Kudos to Phe for being an *AMAZING* GM, and for pushing both me and Ohashi right when we needed it.
Ohashi ran her hands over and through her hair one more time, still not used to the change. Her fringe was uneven, long and wavy in the front, but short and to the point of almost being spiky at the back. A little ragged around the edges, she thought, and bit her lip as she smiled.
Sensei Ryutou cleared his throat, interrupting Ohashi's feverish attempts at self-distraction. "Student Ohashi."
Ohashi paused a moment, then continued. She kept her eyes on her kite, making sure the bamboo tie was secured properly before she was able to stand, turn, and look her teacher in the eye. "S-sensei?"
He tilted his head, taking in the shadows under her reddened eyes, and the cut on her lip that was almost healed. "Today will have been the third of the classes you have missed."
Ohashi dipped her head, eyes on the ground, a pink flush building across her face. "F-forgive me, sensei, I… I was un-unwell."
"Unwell. I see." He paused, looking at the kite she had almost completed, at the scraps of paper and bamboo and string that littered the ground around her creation. "Then I shall make sure Sasaki and Yosuke send their regards and prayers for your swift recovery."
She couldn't help it. She flinched, and turned her head away.
Ryutou sighed, so faint his student didn't hear. "Ohashi, you are a dedicated student. And I know it means much to your family - and to you - that you follow this path."
"I am Izaku," her voice was low and quiet, but there was doggedness there. The repetition of a long-repeated mantra, a phrase imbued with more meaning than mere family.
"Yes. Your heritage is a testimony to what can be achieved between the balance of Dragon and Phoenix, of the knowledge and…" He stopped, watching as his student's head drooped lower. "Ohashi."
She snapped to attention, her eyes like that of a dog that expected to be kicked. "Yes, sensei?"
"You have worked hard, and the kami have appreciated your manners and your seeking spirit." He smiled as he gestured to the three water kami that were hovering protectively at Ohashi's shoulders. "However, I do not think I can be your teacher any longer."
"What? I… Sensei, I am s-sorry!" She clasped her hands together, eyes starting to fill with tears. "I did n-not mean to miss th-those classes! Please, I shall work harder to w-win your approval…"
"It isn't my approval you need to worry about," he smiled kindly, patting her on the head as he walked past her, moving to stand over and examine her kite. It was very detailed. A lot of effort had gone into it. It looked like a box kite, only there were extra wings added either side. Two pairs of wings, the one above longer than the set on the base.
"You already have it, Ohashi," Ryotou murmured. He reached and picked up the kite - smiling to himself to see Ohashi wringing her hands in concern out of the corner of his eye - and carefully examined it.
"It is very well balanced," he commented, as he turned back to look at his student. She was still wringing her hands, but there was a faint smile around her lips now, a look of relief and muted pride in her eyes. He held out the kite to her. "Have you flown it, yet?"
"Not yet," she said, gingerly taking the kite back and manoeuvring it in her hands. "I've gone over the theory several times, and I think the extra wings, while providing sufficient assistance in gaining lift from the initial takeoff, do have the potential to cause a lot of strain on the main body of the kite. I believe," she gestured within the main body of the box kite, "Additional struts should be added here, here, and here… though now I think about it, perhaps just two struts, crossed here and here, so that the strain is shared and therefore halved…"
Ryotou smiled and folded his hands into his sleeves, waiting while Ohashi spoke through details of the design and schematics, and the plans for eventually flying it. He watched the way her mouth picked up at the corners and her eyes shone, listened to the way her voice got stronger and louder and she lost the stammer.
Eventually, Ohashi reached the end of her speech, and, breathless, she sank back into silence. She carefully set the kite back down, and scraped her toe across the tatami, gathering a few of the scraps into some kind of order. Her eyes were on the ground, as though it were the most important thing in the world for her to be doing.
"There is someone I would like you to meet," Ryutou said. "A Tamori shugenja I believe you have much in common with."
Ohashi looked up at him. "Sensei?"
"I must warn you, most find him strange." He smiled. "But I can think of no better student to become his apprentice."
The young Tamori's eyes filled with tears again, and her mouth dropped open in disappointment. She was too shy to voice the thoughts, but they were plain enough to read. You're sending me away? You think I'm not good enough?
A few days before this, when the cut on her lip was still fresh, and the gravel burns on her hands were still visible and painful, Ohashi went to the Izaku library to look for her older brother. She found him easily; he cut a striking figure in his scarlet Pheonix robes, the gold of the Izaku prominent across his back.
"Asako-san." She bowed.
Her brother smiled, and bowed back. "Tamori-san." The table before him was piled with books and scrolls, all to do with history. This literature was his driving interest, as much as Ohashi's was kite-making. Today, though, both of them were distracted - him with his impending wedding, and she with her physical injuries and mental wounds; brother and sister were very alike.
"Brother, why is life such a struggle?"
"The sages say the world is ruled by letting things take their course."
If he was not so engrossed in recounts of the Eighth Century, he might have recognised the unspoken plea for help. If she had seen the way he was reading and re-reading sections about the Kaiu Wall, she might have realised his concern about the family of his bride-to-be.
So the wisdom he spoke sounded trite to her ears. However, Ohashi saw merit in her brother looking to his favourite activity to give him solace. She bowed and left, intending to go and make a kite.
"Student Ohashi," Ryutou kept his voice gentle, but firm, "You have much potential… though I do not think you will reach it as my student. You have worked hard to come as far as you have. One cannot remain a student forever."
Ohashi stared at the ground, nodding but miserable.
"The Mantis have a saying: you cannot change the wind, but you can adjust your sails. This is my final lesson, Ohashi. I want you to think on what this saying means." He tilted his head at his student. "Perhaps, in working as Tamori Kang's apprentice, you will find yourself tripping down stairs less often."
Ohashi's hands clenched in on themselves, and she lifted her head to look up at her sensei. Startled, embarrassed, relieved, sad…
"When w-will I meet him, sensei?"
"Now, if you are ready." He paused a moment, then nodded to the contraption on the floor. "And bring that with you."
Ohashi was convinced she was cursed. Her master had shown her kindness, and now he was dead. He had taught her to stop stuttering, had brought joy to her life through the building and flight of the Tobune, and had helped her to find a path in life on which she was not afraid to walk. She hadn't realised how at peace she felt whenever her hands were busy; it was in the times of craftsmanship and construction that her mind was still and focused, and everything seemed right.
But now all that was gone. It was ended the minute she slid aside the door and saw her master hanging from the ceiling with a chain wrapped around his neck. She hadn't been able to stop screaming, even after her voice was gone and all she had strength to do was cry over his body. Her mind was a loud place, everything in turmoil. Losing the Tobune had been a terrible blow, but it could be rebuilt. But to lose her master as well seemed like the end of hope.
But then Ide Takako had asked her to speak of kites, and Ohashi, nervous at first, was happy to explain. And the Unicorn seemed so genuinely interested. For so long, the Tamori had believed she was alone after her master's death; only the kami would keep her company, and they were more interested in cleaning than in flying. To have someone to talk to about her interests, and to have them be interested in turn, was a strange but pleasant novelty. Maybe, just maybe, this was what it felt like to have a friend.
But then Ide-san was killed. Brutally slain by unseen attackers: the Forest Killers. Murdered, just like Kang. Ohashi rushed to interpose herself between Ide's body and the giant fox-oni, but it was too little, too late.
One is an incident. Two, a coincidence. But three is proof. She had two people she counted as friends, and both had been murdered. She was not willing to test the hypothesis any further.
But as she hauled herself out of the frozen lake, her clothes soaked and freezing to her skin, her belongings ruined and her body shaking from the cold, Ohashi remembered the thought of the curse, and closed her eyes.
Those I call friends are murdered, but bullies will achieve immortality.
Maybe her failure, inability to reach her goal, and eternal unhappiness, was going to benefit someone else. At least, in that regard, she wouldn't be completely useless. And no-one else would have to die.
This was worse than the lake, because she wasn't cold, ill, or unable to breathe. But she still couldn't swim.
The Winter Court was not a place for the naïve. Ohashi was drowning here.
She had expected the Dragon Champion, a powerful stranger, to come assist her. Instead, it was Emiko at the doorway, with eyes that glowed green as Togashi's as she spoke.
And quietly, calmly, drove home just how Tamori Ohashi had betrayed the Dragon Clan.
The engineer gripped her knees where she sat, struggling to breathe. It wasn't just the atmosphere of the court that was crushing the life out of her. The curse. The tea at the House of Beauty and Grace. The crash of the Tobune. The kimono she was wearing. The kami in her stolen bag. The impending duel she had not intended to start. The secret of her master's work. The fear that came from not knowing if her family would even be alive for her to try to send her New Year's gifts late (seeing as her previous intended gifts had been destroyed). The war in her clan lands. And those words, spoken so many times previously by Emiko, now closer and harsher and truer and...
... and the only way out.
She gripped her wakazashi tight as she drew it, bringing it up to her neck and feeling the cold blade draw against her skin. A thrill of fear chilled her already-cold blood for a second, but she did not stop. She lifted the blade further, raising both hands. Closing her eyes and taking a gulp of what air she could take, she cut. Quick and sure, one stroke being all she needed. And she lowered her hands - one still gripping the wakazashi, the other clutching her severed ponytail. She lowered her head, and her new fringe fell forward into her face.
I should send this to my brother, Ohashi thought, staring at the hair she held in her grip. This is what happens when things take their course. Fortunes, forgive me. I've ruined everything. I can never be redeemed...
"You are in the presence of two who have killed themselves."
"Hah?" Ohashi was startled out of drowning for a moment.
The old woman's smile was faint, but it was wider than before when she had told Ohashi of her betrayal. She gestured to the younger woman kneeling beside her, who was watching Ohashi's hair-cutting with curious eyes.
"You are," the old monk repeated, "In the presence of two who have already killed themselves." Her smile broadened at Ohashi's confusion.
Oh. It was a metaphorical thing. The engineer looked down at her ponytail. So much for preparing myself for seppukku... But she couldn't help but feel lighter. Not just from removing the weight of her hair. No, it was more than that, and more than metaphorical. For a small moment in time, she had been willing to leave herself behind.
She gasped for a moment, gulping in the air, surfacing briefly from the tumult, realising she had a place to stand to stop herself from drowning.
Emiko tilted her head, and waited.
Ohashi sheathed her wakazashi, and set her ponytail across her lap. "Life has always seemed such a struggle... walking this path was more pain than joy."
"Then maybe you are to find a new path."
A new stinging started in her eyes, fresh tears to replace the bitter and scared ones. Yet, at the same time, a slow smile started crossing Ohashi's face. It was apologetic, and diverted the path of the tears that marked her cheeks, but it was a smile. A smile that had been a long time coming.
"I always wanted to fly," Ohashi said, staring at Emiko instead of at the floor. "But it seems as though I'll be walking for a while longer yet."
The old monk smirked, and for once it didn't seem unkind. "You could always run."
Her body trembled for a moment, soft sounds escaping her. Laughter. "… heh. A running start."
Emiko's smile seemed genuinely delighted this time, rather than a fixture or a mask. "She almost gets it!" She turned to the other monk, clapping her hands. "She very nearly gets it!"
Ohashi closed her eyes and rocked slowly, laughing and crying and smiling to herself all at once. Her smile, she could feel, was not a proper one. It was a little idiotic, and more than a little apologetic, but it was real. After all these years of punishments and disappointments - mostly self-inflicted, or at the very least, twisted that way by self-pity - this was a real smile. And her laughter and tears were more than she had ever admitted to herself in silence, let alone in the presence of others.
Ohashi ran her hands over and through her hair one more time, still not used to the change. Her fringe was uneven, long and wavy in the front, but short and to the point of almost being spiky at the back. It almost felt like she had a pair of birds' wings either side of her head. And maybe it looked that way, she didn't know; there was no mirror to check.
She felt... better. Alive. There was still a little confusion, and a great deal of humility, but there was no self-pity, there was no fear. She had almost been able to kill herself - in the sense of the Togashi philosophy - and had caught a glimpse of how life could be if she did not focus on the flaws. The flaws, either real or imagined.
The beginning of a journey is the hardest part; the single step over the threshold is the hardest to make. But she'd made that one step. She had a long way to go, but now there was a chance to find a path that welcomed her feet... and would push her towards the sky. She had a long way to go, but she would get there eventually.
Ohashi ran her hands over and through her hair once again. A little ragged around the edges, she thought, and bit her lip as she smiled.