The afternoon grew hot and humid late Saturday. Everyone migrated indoors to cool down and get out of the sun. Watanuki had been in the middle of working on his overdue homework at a small table in the sitting room when Kimiko decided she wanted to crawl into his lap and take a nap. She was small enough to lay there on him without blocking his ability to write in his notebook but after a little while the weight of her started to cut off the circulation in his legs. The teenager sighed, unwilling to wake the child up but unable to sit in that position any longer. He dropped his pencil and leaned back, straightening one leg carefully, then the other. Kimiko's head fell to one side as he moved but the girl did not waken. Watanuki lifted her in his arms and leaned against the wall, her head now resting against his chest. He could feel her little heart beat steadily against his own.
Sunlight poured in through the window. Everything felt a bit hazy as the dust was lit up and swirled lazily in the air. The sheer curtains billowed gently from the cool air flowing from the vent.
Watanuki leaned his head against the wall and allowed his eyes to shut. His eyes felt heavy and his muscles sore from carrying children around all day. He wasn't sure how long he sat that way but he must have fallen asleep. When Doumeki entered the sitting room the noise caused Watanuki to open his eyes and the angle of the sun looked a little different.
Haruka trailed along behind Doumeki and rubbed his eyes, clearly as tired as his sister. Doumeki pulled a floor pillow forward and patted it, gesturing for the boy to lay down. Haruka did not complain and swiftly fell asleep.
"Still no ideas?" Doumeki asked.
Watanuki blinked at the question. He must be really tired himself. Doumeki was already sitting down too and was leaning against the table. The shorter teenager must have started to drift off again. "Well, not much. I looked around on the internet and learned kids can enter preschool as young as three years old. Kimiko seems to be pretty smart, I'm sure we can fudge her age by a few months. There are some preschools with longer hours. They can be in school just as long as we are, then I can pick them up afterward and either take them with me to work at Yuuko-san's, or take a few more days off a week and go home."
"I can take them on the days I don't have archery right away, otherwise pick them up from Yuuko's after practice. The problem is they need birth certificates and social security numbers. They also need documentation for proof of having legal guardians."
Watanuki dropped his head. "I don't know how to get those. We're not old enough to adopt them, and even if we were legally old enough there's no way the government wouldn't find something suspicious about it. Two kids don't just appear one day without any history. Yuuko-san might grant a wish for that, but she'd probably enslave me for the rest of my life."
Doumeki looked at the girl sleeping in Watanuki's arms. She looked peaceful and quite content. Her coal black hair was thin with fly-away wisps, just like the person that was holding her. "There might be a way around that."
Watanuki looked up sharply, suddenly more awake. "What? How?"
Doumeki folded his hands on the table and braced for the imminent protest. "My mother should be able to help."
"...What?" Watanuk hissed sharply. "How are you going to explain... this... to her!" He gestured at the kids sleeping around them.
Doumeki rubbed his thumb along his right temple. "People drop children here at the shrine more often than you might think. Infants, toddlers, special needs individuals... they get abandoned here frequently. There are a lot of people that see local shrines and temples as safe places, just like hospitals, so they figure here is a better place to leave them than somewhere else."
Watanuki stared at Doumeki, mouth open in shock. "They just... abandon their family? How could they do that?"
Doumeki shrugged. "I don't pretend to know their reasons. Maybe some of the people don't have enough money to take care of a child. Maybe they were raped and got pregnant. Maybe they're not mentally capable of raising a child. What I do know is my mother is very good friends with the local government employees in the social services department because of all of this. If she presented two abandoned children and declared she wanted to adopt them, the people at the welfare office would do a cursory search for their real parents, be unable to find any and push the adoption papers through within a week."
That option sounded like an easy miracle, if they could convince his mother to do that. "And just how do you plan on explaining their existence to your mom? Does she even know about half of the things we've done for Yuuko-san's insane missions?"
The taller teenager shrugged again. "She might. I've never said anything and she's never asked, but she always seems to know when something is amiss. My grandfather taught her a lot of what he knew. Whether she's seen any proof that the spirit realm is real I'm not sure. She might believe us."
"Or it might blow up in our faces. She might think I'm crazy and ban me from the shrine."
Doumeki doubted it would get that bad. "Grandfather could convince her, if he were here."
Hope sparked brightly in Watanuki's chest. "I could ask him! You think Haruka-san could visit her in a dream? I could ask him for help with your mom, if he's able to."
"That... might work," Doumeki conceded. "It's worth a try."
"I'll do my best to see him tonight when I sleep. If he can help, your mom needs to know about it as soon as she gets back tomorrow. I might even need to take Monday off if we can't get someone to watch them soon."
. . . . . . . .
Haruka and Kimiko were very confused when they realized Doumeki and Watanuki were not sleeping in the same bed together that night. Kimiko became very nervous and Haruka asked them if they were fighting. Watanuki didn't know how to explain to them that he and Doumeki weren't their real parents and he actually very much disliked the other teenager and did not want to share a bed with him. Doumeki, of course, didn't try to change their minds at all about the way things should be done. He simply shoved his futon into the other room and up against the spare that had been pulled out for the kids. This left Kimiko and Haruka right in the middle of them while leaving each teenager with a full mattress and plenty of distance that Watanuki couldn't complain too much about it.
"You're being surprisingly accommodating," Watanuki remarked.
"You've stopped saying you aren't 'Momma," Doumeki pointed out.
"Jerk." Watanuki pulled the covers up to his shoulders and closed his eyes.
Someone sniffed between them. "Don't fight," Kimiko pleaded sadly.
The muscles in his chest tightened painfully. "W-We're night fighting, Kimiko-chan," Watanuki rolled over and held her hand. "Don't worry. Just go to sleep."
Sharp yellow eyes stared at him. Watanuki didn't know why he suddenly felt so guilty under Doumeki's normally bored look.
. . . . . . . .
When Watanuki opened his eyes again he was sitting on the veranda of the Doumeki shrine. As usual during a dream, it was sunset and he could smell the sweet scent of a rolled cigarette being smoked.
"Haruka-san," Watanuki greeted. Doumeki's grandfather was sitting next to him as usual, wearing a kimono that was patterned with leaves. "Good evening."
"Good evening," Haruka smiled warmly. "It's a nice night tonight, don't you think?"
Watanuki looked up at the orange and purple sky. A bird flew off in the distance. "It is."
Haruka puffed on his cigarette and blew out the smoke. Lazy curls of gray swirled up into the air. "I understand I now have great grandchildren. I have to say they really do look just like you and my grandson."
Watanuki blushed and clasped his hands. "I'm so confused right now. I can't let them go, not after I know what happened to their real parents, but it's going to be really hard adjusting. I don't think I'll even be able to go to university now."
"You don't know that for sure," Haruka replied. "Things change quickly, as you've already seen. I think everything will work out."
"Haruka-san, I don't suppose you could help at all?"
Doumeki's grandfather pulled the cigarette away from his lips and looked at the teenager next to him. "Not for babysitting, I hope?"
"That would be impossible!" Watanuki blushed when Haruka chuckled. It really was too easy to get such a reaction out of him. "No, I mean, with Doumeki's mom? We need adoption papers, and Doumeki said his mom may need convincing to help us."
"Ah, yes, Kana-chan. Most people need a bit of proof about other worlds, she should not be much of an exception. I'll speak to her tonight, if I can. She is my daughter, after all, and shouldn't be too hard to convince."
Watanuki sighed with relief. "Thank you, Haruka-san. You're a life saver."
Haruka chuckled again. "Just ask her about her sixteenth birthday party. Tell my daughter her father wants to know if she still tastes mud pies when she's given a cake."
"O-Okay," Watanuki agreed. Clearly there was a whole story here he wasn't going to learn much about.
They were quiet for a little while as they stared at the sunset. The calm was welcome and the elder Haruka's presence was always reassuring."It's a shame what happened to their parents," the man said suddenly.
Watanuki jumped a little and turned his gaze to the other. "What happened to them? Did you see?"
"Briefly," he said. "It will take a while for those children to recover from it all. All of their memories revolve around fleeing from danger. Separation was equal to death for them, and their parents knew it. Kimiko was born right in the middle of it all and has never been in one location for longer than a week."
"That's awful!" Watanuki gasped. "No wonder she was so afraid of leaving again."
"Indeed," Haruka agreed. "That being said, you may even need to move into the temple. Your apartment is very small, and your daughter may end up needing the same protection you do."
"Haruka-san, what do you mean?"
Doumeki's grandfather pointed to something in the distance. "Another time, perhaps. Someone is trying to show you something very important."
Watanuki's eyes followed the direction that Haruka was pointing to. At first he saw nothing remarkable at all, just the darkening sky. A breath later and all went black.
. . . . . . . .
"We should leave this place tomorrow."
Doumeki Kimihiro looked up sharply at her husband, wearied frustration plain on her face. "We just got here this morning!" She protested. She set down the worn rag she'd been using the clean their dinner dishes.
"I know, but the emperor has been hiring better and better trackers. It was too close of a call the last place we were at. I don't want to stay here any longer than daybreak." Shizuka sat down against the wall of the bedroom his children were sleeping in. They were lucky to have walls tonight. The night before was spent on the road, and the night before that in a damp cave.
Kimihiro wondered where her young and handsome husband disappeared to as she looked upon him, for all that was left was an aging man with a worn face and sallow cheeks. He looked as spent as she felt, exhaustion distorting his complexion and causing his attitude to take a sour turn. She sat down next to him and rested her cheek against the armor on his chest. "How much longer can we go on like this?"
"As long as it takes."
As Kimihiro tried to hold back a yawn her shoulders shook. "As long as the emperor lives we will never be safe. Shizuka... soon enough we will pushed so far north even the tundra will disappear under a thick sheet of ice. We will run out of food and shelter within a month if we keep moving north, and we are out of places to run to in all other directions."
Shizuka tightened his arms around his wife, knowing the logic she stated but refusing to give up. "We'll find a way. There's a small temple a few miles from here. We can take shelter there tomorrow night and-"
"No," Kimihiro protested vehemently, a horrific memory playing in her mind. "No, we can't, not after what the emperor's men did to the people of the last one we stayed at! Shizuka, they torched the whole building. Dozens of people were trapped inside and died!"
"Those that help us know the risks. They offered, you know that. They want us to live."
"I don't care!" Kimihiro started to sob softly. She was so tired of leaving a trail of blood in their wake. It was a wonder her children weren't mad already.
Shizuka was an exorcist, a warrior priest that was supposed to take orders only from his liege lord and emperor. He was the very opposite of a seer, a spirit medium and the only living link between the human world and the world beyond.
As a seer, Kimihiro was expected to serve as well, and was expected to be chaste until a suitable male was selected for her to breed the gift into the next generation. Being the strongest seer of the modern age Kimihiro was coveted by every man in power. The emperor had wanted to keep her locked up in his palace and have her council him on her visions of the future. Should he request anything more personal as a service she was not allowed to refuse.
A seer and an exorcist were not supposed to ever mingle, never mind fall in love, but that was exactly what they did. Kimihiro rejected Shizuka's advances for many years, fearing the punishment of her emperor, but eventually she could deny her feelings no longer. They married each other, declared their union and defied the law. Seers were feared and often scorned for as long as man could remember, so it took little persuasion for the emperor to call out a witch hunt for Kimihiro and all like her after her and her husband's betrayal.
The witch hunt, however, caused a rebellion that was slowly and quietly starting to grow. No one realized just how many people with the ability to really See there were, and families had been torn apart. Doumeki Shizuka and Kimihiro had become the symbol of the rebellion that fought the impossible odds of a tyrant with a terrible army. So long as the emperor and his men never acquired their bodies and physical proof of their death hope would live that the rebellion could win.
Kimihiro did not care what others saw her as. She did not want anyone to die on her behalf. After over three years of running she only wished to live the remainder of her days with her family, far away in a small cottage in the country. Such peace sounded like heaven.
"I'm sorry, don't think about it," Shizuka consoled. He took one of her wrists between his thumb and fingers and gently rubbed the skin over her veins. He pressed a kiss against the palm of her hand. "You should rest. We'll worry about tomorrow in a little while."
Kimihiro sighed deeply and tried to calm her frayed nerves. "You should rest. When was the last time you slept all night long?"
Shizuka shrugged. "Two years? Longer? I've forgotten."
Kimihiro fingered at the pendant that hung around her husband's neck. "You'll keep your promise to me, won't you?"
Shizuka frowned down at the pendant, a constant reminder at his potential failure to protect his family. "It won't come to that."
"Shizuka, tell me, you will keep your promise?" Her gaunt fingers squeezed around the jewelry tightly and looked up at him, demanding the answer she sought.
She had told him a few months ago that he needed to wear it always. Should all else fail, should she die and he be at death's door that pendant was the last resort to keep their children alive. "I promise," he said to his wife. "I will keep our son and daughter alive."
The woman sighed, too tired to think any more on it. Her worst nightmare was emperor Fei Wong getting a hold of them and doing unspeakable things to her children. Their very existence was a stain on his reputation and the man had made it clear he would stop at nothing to get to them.
"Go to sleep," Shizuka urged his wife again.
Kimihiro yawned deeply. "You should come, too."
The priest shook his head no ruefully. "I'll rest, but not sleep."
Together they stood and entered the room with their children quietly, both to not wake them and to not draw any extra attention from anyone that might be passing by in the middle of the night.
. . . . . . . .
Shizuka woke up with a start when he heard a sharp noise. It sounded like sticks outside the thin walls of their shelter were being stepped upon and breaking.
Adrenaline sang through his blood, the feeling of it so normal he barely registered it anymore. He got up quickly and quietly and moved to his sleeping wife. Thankfully, after all these years of constant alarm she was nearly as light of a sleeper as he was. She rolled over and looked up at him in concern. Shizuka moved a finger to his lips in a motion to be quiet.
Kimihiro nodded and rolled onto her knees. She drew the short sword that was strapped to her waist and sat close to her children, poised to strike.
Shizuka spared a moment to mourn over the loss of her pretty court dresses and sparkling jewelry. His wife had been wearing breaches and tunics like any man for the mere practicality the clothing offered. He drew his sword and slowly made his way out of the room and to the front door of the shelter.
It was very dark outside, the moon was new and black in the sky. As the shelter lacked a front door the priest had no trouble creeping outside and peering for trouble.
There was a bright amber light and a noise that went thwunk! Shizuka looked up and knew fear yet again as he saw the top of the shack alight with a flaming arrows.
They'd been found.
He bellowed a battle cry and drew the second blade at his hip. Moments later dozens of the emperor's men surrounded him and charged.
Shizuka was swift and merciless as he cut down the attackers. Blood splattered the ground in thick and sticky puddles as man after man was cut down, dismembered and beheaded. Once upon a time this much blood made him ill. Now he barely noticed.
A stray blade sliced along his chest. Shizuka stumbled back from it and fell to his knees as the pommel of a sword was hit smartly against his head. Not wanting to be overwhelmed he swept his swords out in an arc around him as his head rang and heard two more men fall down. It gave him enough time to regain his feet and parry another blade.
A cry from inside the shelter. The fire was spreading and the blood in Shizuka's veins turned to ice. After cutting down the last man he sped inside and slammed open the door to the room his family was in.
Kimihiro was clutching a sword that had pierced just below her shoulder. The emperor's soldier had a hand wrapped around her neck and was squeezing. Two more men were dead around her and his son and daughter were sobbing and holding each other in the far corner.
Shizuka dug his long sword in the man's back and twisted it brutally in place. The soldier gurgled in pain for only a moment before the priest's other sword cut his head clean from his shoulders.
"Shizuka!" Kimihiro gasped in pain. She crumbled to the ground once the soldier was no longer strangling her.
"No, no, Kimihiro!" He fell to his knees and leaned over her, careful of the sword still sticking out of her chest. "You'll be fine, you will! Just let me get this sword out, you'll be fine!"
Kimihiro coughed and the sound was not like a normal cough at all. Blood leaked down her chin. "Shizuka... my husband..." She shook her head. "It..." She coughed again and Shizuka felt his world crashing down around him. "It pierced my lung... just nicked my heart... I won't..."
"No!" Shizuka protested. He held her face in his large and weathered hands and wiped the blood splatters away from her pale cheeks. "You can't..."
"I love you." She looked at him urgently. "Keep your promise to me, Doumeki Shizuka. You must..." She coughed violently and blood splattered everywhere. It covered the man's face and decorated the front of his wife's dirty shirt. "Keep them alive!"
He nodded, too numb to do otherwise. "I will."
Blue eyes faded away to milky orbs of nothingness. Doumeki Kimihiro was finally dead.
Like a wild animal clawing at its cage to be free, a scream tore itself out of Shizuka's throat and demanded to be heard. His eyes squeezed closed and his arms pulled the body of his dead wife up and into his arms, the rest of him unable to do otherwise. He cried, holding her body close and unable to believe this was how it would end.
Two children sobbed miserably next to him. They'd never seen their father like this, raw emotions and straining muscles. They'd never seen their mother so still and the blood was still pooling around their small bodies and inching closer and closer.
Shizuka chocked back the rest of his despair and gently set Kimihiro down. He moved to his children and wrapped them up in his arms. "Be calm," he said to them. He still had a promise to keep and he could not fail them, too.
To each child's forehead he pushed his thumbs against their skin and said with power: "Sleep."
Dark lines of characters glistened in their skin before disappearing completely. The children were asleep before they'd even been tucked into their father's arms and hefted up.
Before completely leaving the shelter Shizuka pushed one hand against the dry wood wall and whispered fire, and right at the spot his hand was flames danced out and licked up the sides of the cracked lumber.
Bodies were proof, and proof was what the emperor needed to quell his rebellion. With Kimihiro's body nothing more than ash and dust she would become a martyr.
With one last regretful stare at his wife's burial place Shizuka ran into the forest and away from the fire. After a while he came upon a clearing that he felt would suit his purposes quite well. He was high enough on the hillside to see the smoke of torches as more of the emperor's men made their way up to him. He leaned his daughter against his chest as he sat on his knees and pulled the pendant from around his neck. Kimihiro had told him that, should he need to use it, the item would need to be broken for its magic to be released.
He should have enough time, once the children were taken care of he would set one final trap for the men after him. He broke the golden butterfly pendant and held his children close as the magic coalesced around him and sucked him up and away.
. . . . . . . .
When he landed back in the clearing Shizuka took a deep breath and cleared his mind of all concern. This would be his last act of rebellion against Fei Wong, and he wanted it to count. It was comforting to know that his precious children would be taken care of by someone that bore his wife's name. Kimihiro had said things before about other worlds, filled with the same people but vastly different circumstances. While he would forever miss them he knew that they would live, they would never know the terror of the emperor, and he could die in peace.
He was quick to set his trap. He'd been storing random objects in a hidden cache magic created for him, large and sharp and deadly and plenty of rope as well. It was only big enough for this trap, but he'd used it before to much success.
By the time he was done the pounding of footsteps could be heard climbing the hillside. Shizuka drew his swords and made his final stand in the clearing.
The soldiers must not have been expecting to see him because they looked panicked for a good few seconds before someone realized they were supposed to kill him.
He was outnumbered, but that was fine. Judging by the contingent that was around him one of the generals must be afoot.
The dance of death was aptly named. There were certain steps he had to follow, dips and sweeps and tense muscles as blood flowed like a river. He had danced this very dance many times already.
He was tired, though, and hadn't had a decent meal or rest in years. It was not long before a sword sliced at his left arm and he dropped his second weapon. A few steps later and a knee cap was blown.
It took thirty men to bring him to his knees.
The sharp edge of blade pressed against his neck and Shizuka prepared for his death. A sharp call from someone and stopped it.
"Well, well, what have we here? Doumeki Shizuka. I never expected to see you alone out here without your whore wife as well."
Shizuka panted heavily. His head was roughly jerked up by a fist in his hair to stare up at the man that addressed him. "General Rondart. I can see your nose is still brown with the emperor's shit."
As expected the soldier holding him became rough and pulled at his scalp.
The general ignored the insult. "So tell me, where is your wife? Burning in that run down little shack? Hidden somewhere? I can't imagine you had time to bury her, not that it would hide her from us. Emperor Fei Wong will have her body."
"She's little more than ash now," Shizuka said with relief. "Ash is not proof."
Rondart snarled and grabbed a bow and arrow from a soldier next to him. "Where are your brat children, Doumeki!" He positioned the arrow at a point blank range in the middle of Shizuka's right eye.
Shizuka laughed with triumph. "They are somewhere, so far away from here you can never reach them. Your fool emperor will never have his victory."
"Break his arm!" The general ordered.
Someone struck his left arm with a blunt object. Shizuka cried out as he felt the bone break. Once the immediate pain passed he laughed again, louder this time. "They will live, and you will never find them!"
They broke his other arm next, then all of his fingers. When Shizuka was not gasping and yelling in agony he kept laughing. It did not matter what they did to him, his children were alive and Kimihiro was waiting for him.
The general grew bored of the routine. He raised his arrow again and snarled. "You'll die, you filthy priest! Your body is enough for now! Even if your wife is a martyr for now with your body the emperor will win!"
Yellow eyes stared blankly as they looked down the shaft of the arrow. "You will always lose, Rondart. Even in my death you will always lose."
The general loosed his arrow and felt satisfaction as it buried itself in Shizuka's head. The priest fell backward, dead before he hit the ground.
The leaves along the ground sprang up in surprise as something was triggered over the spot the priest fell. Ropes that had been previously hidden unwrapped from the large oak tree that was above them. By the time the general looked up it was too late to stop the trap.
A large apparatus of metal and steel swung down behind him and up, piercing his chest and lifting him up from the ground. Gore poured out of his chest, pieces of his heart stuck to the metal. His mouth was open in a picture of surprise.
It was quite convenient General Rondart made this expedition tonight. He was Fei Wong's right hand man, and with him dead the rebellion would have more steam than ever before. It was a worthy death for Doumeki Shizuka.
. . . . . . . .
Watanuki was screaming well before he was awake. He blinked and cried and every time his eyes closed all he saw was blood. He may have kept saying Oh god, oh god, oh God! He felt sick to his stomach and needed to rush immediately to the rest room.
Doumeki's heart pounded wildly in his chest at the initial scream. He tried to get up and go to the teenager's side but Watanuki was up and running down the hall with a hand over his mouth before he could get to the other side of the futons.
Haruka and Kimiko were wide awake, alarmed and frightened. Kimiko in particular cried big crocodile tears in the middle of the bed. "Dadda," the girl sobbed. "What's wrong with Momma?"
Doumeki didn't know, but he intended to find out. He leaned over the girl and put his hand on her shoulder. "Everything will be fine. I'll go check on him. Stay put, all right?"
Doumeki looked to Haruka, who was quiet but clearly worried. "Watch over your sister. I'll be right back." The boy nodded. "I'm counting on you."
Haruka put his small hands on his sister's shoulders and started talking to her, telling her to calm down and be strong like Dadda. That was enough reassurance for Doumeki for him to get up and run after his peer.
Watanuki was in the bathroom and heaving over the toilet. His face was streaked and wet with tears. Doumeki kneeled next to him and held him by the shoulders. "What happened?"
Watanuki cried as he'd never seen before. "It was awful!" The boy shook. He dabbed toilet paper at his mouth and tembled, close to throwing up again. "I've never seen so much blood! Oh, god the images won't leave my head!"
Doumeki's hold became tighter and tried to support him. "Was it a dream?"
"I saw how they died!" Watanuki bawled. "Kimiko and Haruka saw it, too! They saw their mother get stabbed, they saw her bleed all over everything! They saw people beheaded! Oh, god!" He leaned away from the toilet and into Doumeki's arms and shivered.
"Tell me," Doumeki said.
"I can't," Watanuki creaked. "I don't think I can!"
"You need to get it out, share it with someone. You'll feel better," Doumeki told him.
Watanuki hiccuped, and the action reminded Doumeki of Kimiko earlier that day when she begged to not leave.
It took Watanuki a few minutes to compose himself before he could even start with that terrible dream.