~ * Sixth * ~
Arthur looked up and found Alfred waiting for him. They were at the theatre where they had ended the night last time, so as to waste no time getting to where the action would be this evening.
From the light pitter-patter of rain, and the chill in the air, Arthur could safely guess that it was neither summer nor winter right now. More like very early spring, he realised, looking at the budding trees scattered around the island shore, their bare branches coming alive with fresh new leaves.
After taking in those few brief details, Arthur looked back to Alfred, and found him wearing another magnificent red and gold kimono and a brave mask on his face. A little stony from over-compensation, but Arthur couldn't blame him. He was a nervous wreck himself, and the only thing stopping him from letting his guard down for a second was the knowledge that Alfred depended on him.
They never knew when Kiku was watching; they had to pretend that this was any other night. As far as the kitsune was meant to know, Arthur still didn't know he was a spirit, because Alfred hadn't had the heart to tell him. And it was supposed to seem as if the two men were not yet so close as to leap into each other's arms at every meeting.
When in truth...this was it. The last night they would ever see each other.
And for Alfred it was be even worse. He'd been through this before. For the third time in his life, Alfred believe this was the last night he and Arthur would ever spend together. And no matter how many times he went through it, it never got any easier.
"Good evening, Arthur," Alfred smiled, though his eyes were screaming at him in pain through the dark of the witching hour. "I hope you will enjoy the play tonight. It's a thrilling story we're putting on this time." Again, it was all for show. Kiku was probably watching them from the shadows nearby, or a window, perhaps. They had to lie even among themselves to fool him tonight.
"I enjoyed the love suicide," Arthur said as he stepped forward to share Alfred's umbrella. "Or what I got to see of it, anyway. But it might be nice to watch something exciting and a little less tragic."
"Well, today's offering is the story of a legendary kitsune warrior during a great war several centuries ago. Let me tell you what you've missed of the play so far and then I can take you to your seat. We have some special guests tonight, too, so I'll tell you the right thing to say, or how low to bow, should any of them speak to you."
Arthur followed Alfred inside and up to his room, where they could set the plan in motion.
Of course, most of the work had to be done during the rest of the year, while Arthur was in purgatory. Poor Alfred had had to do it all alone, risking everything, everyday with no support, just hoping and praying he didn't make a mistake.
But it seemed he had managed to get everything ready, and enlist all the help he needed without anyone turning him in to Kiku. For when they arrived in Alfred's room, there was a kistune waiting for them. He looked young in human years, maybe even a teenager, and had only one bushy black tail sweeping the ground behind him. His face was blank as Kiku's always was, but it didn't seem as cold and venomous as Kiku somehow managed to be. There was a vibrant sparkle in the boy's eyes, and Arthur felt hope swell in him that their plan might succeed with someone else on their side.
"Arthur, this is Hong Li," Alfred said. He remained calm and collected, but his voice sounded a little as if his heart were in his throat, and he was struggling to keep it from spilling out.
"Thank you for helping Alfred, Hong-san," Arthur said with a low bow, sending the kitsune a look of thanks from the bottom of his heart.
"I don't care about helping Alfred," Hong said coldly, waving a hand nonchalantly in the air and quite surprising Arthur. "I just care about getting a chance to trick Kiku. I'm the best trickster of all the kitsune, and if I can fool Kiku, people will start to take me seriously and show me the respect I deserve."
Arthur nodded dumbly, supposing that it didn't matter why Hong was helping so long as he didn't betray them.
"We don't have much time," Alfred said, interrupting them. "Someone should be distracting Kiku now so he won't come near this floor for a while, but we can't take any chances. Hong, show us what you can do."
Hong nodded and scanned Arthur carefully, from head to toe. Then he closed his dark eyes, scrunched his forehead in concentration, and Arthur watched in sheer amazement as Hong's features simply melted into his own. It was like watching his reflection ripple in the water until it calmed and formed his face again.
Arthur stared in shock, and Hong smirked at him. "Not many kitsune bother imitating yuurei because you can't toy with their lives. Kiku won't suspect a thing."
"Don't be so sure," Alfred said sharply in warning. "Even when he has no reason to worry, Kiku is always suspicious and over-cautious. Don't under-estimate him."
The American took a deep breath, eyes closed as he readied himself. Hong and Arthur exchanged a quick glance before looking back to Alfred as his eyes opened, bright and sparkling and ready for action.
"So Hong. You will come down to the theatre with me. Remember to keep staring at me lovingly all throughout the play," he said, with a quick grin at Arthur. "Kiku won't be able to sense that you are a kitsune in disguise, because the room is full of so many other beings and powers and auras. He will only be able to use his sight, and it will tell him Arthur is in the audience. If he gets close to you, then just trick him into thinking you are Arthur by acting like him. It will be tough but - "
"I can trick anyone! Kiku's barely even a challenge!" Hong snorted, arms crossed. "He may be a big shot in Yoshiwara and have contacts all over the place, but he's no match for me."
"Prove it," Alfred challenge, fixing his stare on Hong until the other was fired up and determined to take the challenge.
Alfred turned to Arthur then, eyes flashing with worry for only a moment before he hid it behind a mask so natural it was hard to see.
"Arthur. You will sneak into Kiku's room and take his star ball. It's basically his soul and - "
"I remember what you said yester-I mean, last time," Arthur said, hand gripping his sword. "Kitsune have a star ball and if you can steal it from them, the kitsune must do your bidding."
Alfred nodded. "I've finally found where he keeps his star ball when it's not on his person, and I'm almost certain he will have left it there tonight. I've learnt that he doesn't like carrying it with him on nights when he joins the audience, because there are too many untrustworthy characters down there. It wouldn't be beyond many of them to pickpocket his soul right off of him and make him their slave."
Arthur shuddered inwardly at the thought of one of those ogres or strange trolls creatures being in control of his whole life. No wonder Kiku would keep it safe when they were around.
"He usually leaves guards outside his room on such nights," Alfred added, "but I've had enough time to plan this night to make sure they will be occupied this evening."
"Where is the star ball?" Arthur asked quickly, worried that this would all take too much time and he'd disappear before he could free Alfred. "And how will I find my way to Kiku's room?"
"The ball is in a small, black music box." Alfred spoke calmly, and placed a hand gently on Arthur's wrist to soothe him, to tell him there was no need to rush and panic. "I've found you a guide who can take you to it. She can go about undetected and has learnt the layout of the building very well so she can take you around quickly." Alfred paused for a moment, cocking his ear towards the thin paper door of the room. The three men stilled, but there was no sound outside in the corridor so they relaxed, though only slightly.
Alfred lowered his voice further and continued. "Some of her friends should be distracting Kiku now. We've never had a large group of an important fairy tribe visit before and he'll have to spend time acting the host for them.
"We must thank you, too, Hong," he said, turning to the kitsune, still disgusied perfectly as Arthur and making it a bit of an odd sight for the real Arthur to watch. "Not only for your disguise but for helping spread the idea among your tribe and family to come here tonight."
"Adopted family," Hong interrupted quickly with a glare. It may have been strange to Arthur, but watching 'himself' glare at Alfred was rather enlightening: he suddenly realised just why people rushed to obey him on board his ship. He did have a very impressive glare.
"Hong's adoptive family is here tonight, and they are an incredibly important clan in the biggest kitsune city in China," Alfred explained. "With such honored guests, Kiku decided to make it a grand event tonight, with a brand new play and everything. He'll be distracted the whole time, if all goes well."
Arthur nodded, hope and tension and despair and adrenaline battling it out in his stomach. From the churning inside, he had to wonder how being dead was any different to being alive. He still felt everything he felt when alive - heat, cold, pain, sadness, happiness, touch - and still just as much fear for Alfred's safety as he ever did for his own life. Or rather more, judging from past experiences he couldn't quite remember.
"Now..." Alfred turned to Arthur after a moment of tense silence, and fixed him with a piercing look. Hong seemed to sense this would be an intimate exchange, and quickly looked away.
"Arthur. I hope this part of the plan will work. If not - "
"It will. I will see you after. Now tell me what happens after I get the star ball," Arthur said confidently They both knew it was a ruse, and that they were each as nervous and unsure as the other. But they could at least pretend, just to make things easier.
"Get the star ball," Alfred said firmly. "If the music box doesn't open easily, just bring it with you. From the time I leave this room, you have exactly fifteen minutes to get to Kiku's room, find the music box, and get the away from here. I've organised a big fight to go off soon after the play begins, and I'll be whisked off to safety. I'll sneak away from there and join you at the entrance to the shrine where your body is buried. Humans can't enter the shrine, so I will wait just outside, where the torii gates begin. Kiku will almost certainly meet us there soon. Like last time... Now...if he manages to catch me before I can get to you or the star ball..."
"Just hurry and you'll be fine," Arthur whispered, hands tangling in Alfred's hair and pulling him down into a long, sad kiss.
"We could try my original idea," Alfred whispered hurriedly, eyes darting in torment and anxiety between Arthur's steady green gaze. "Just bring the star ball to the stage and confront him there so I don't have to - "
"We agreed last time that confronting him with other kitsune about might backfire. If there really are many of Hong's clan present, they might jump to Kiku's aid rather than let him handle it hismelf. And that really will be the end of it. We will be fine getting to the shrine. Don't worry, my love. I believe in you."
Alfred nodded and planted a last kiss on Arthur's mouth, leaving it there to grow and give the English spirit the strength to succeed at his mission.
Arthur brushed his finger once through Alfred's shining hair that had first made Arthur look his way. They stared at each other for a long moment, trying to ingrain this moment in their memories so that they could relive it for the rest of their days once they were pulled apart. Although for Arthur it wasn't a matter of days but of minutes. Once Alfred left Yoshiwara, Arthur would have until 3 o' clock, and then we would be gone forever. He found that the thought of disappearing and not being able to remember and love Alfred was far worse than the thought of dying on its own.
Suddenly there was a soft knocking on the door, and Hong turned to open it. Arthur was a little surprised to see no one there, until he noticed a flying green rabbit darting inside, wings fluttering at rapid speed that mimicked Arthur's nervous heart beats.
"You!" he exclaimed, realising it was the same flying rabbit he had met on his first night at the theatre.
"Nice to see you again, Arthur," she smiled at him, nodding in recognition (obviously not fooled by Hong-Arthur standing right beside her).
"It's time," said Alfred. "Wait a minute after we leave and then go when it's safe. I'll...see you soon."
Arthur felt his heart crumble.
With one last, desperate look at Arthur, Alfred was entwining his arm with Hong's, and the two of them were out of the door, smiling and looking at each other as if the world revolved around them.
The rabbit floated over towards Arthur. "I'm sorry about all of this," she said, tapping a tiny paw on his shoulder, supportively.
Arthur heaved a deep breath, then looked at her with eyes bright and determined, and a wry smile on his face. "It's quite all right. It wasn't going to be easy getting Alfred out of Kiku's clutches, so I appreciate your help. I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name last time?"
"Mint," the fairy replied. "At least that's the English word for it; in my language it's a bit different but slightly more unpronounceable for humans." She smiled briefly then fastened her beady black eyes on Arthur. Although she lacked human features, Arthur could tell her expression was worried. "You know, you've been gone for two years," Mint said solemnly.
Arthur jumped. "Two?! But..."
"Last year there was never a night with a full red moon and rain," the rabbit explained. "The conditions weren't met and so Alfred had to go on without you. It meant we had more time to organise the big crowd for tonight's performance, but it's been difficult trying to predict the weather and make sure we planned the show for a night when you'd be here."
"I hadn't thought of that," Arthur admitted. He felt stupid for not realising such a great detail. He had had less than an hour last time to hear Alfred's plan, and all the while he was trying to reconcile the news that he was a spirit. But he should have known that his rare visits would cause such difficulties for Alfred. He couldn't help but feel guilty.
"You and Hong have both worked so hard and done so much to help Alfred, despite the risks to yourselves," Arthur said, holding out his hand gently and taking one of Mint's paws in his fingers. "I can never thank you enough."
Mint smiled as much as a rabbit could, and nudged Arthur's fingers with her nose.
"Then don't start. Us fairies don't choose to help people for no reason. You both deserved it, and that's enough for me."
Mint's eyes flashed to the door, and Arthur's followed in fear. But the rabbit seemed to be listening to noises Arthur couldn't hear. It wasn't anything bad, at least, because suddenly Mint nodded and looked Arthur dead in the eyes, full of determination and spirit.
"Come on then, let's do this. For Alfred."
"For Alfred," Arthur agreed with a firm nod, and a tight grip on his sword.
They set off out of Alfred's room and Mint led him upstairs. They kept silent, but there was obviously no one about with such a big important show happening two floors below. Plus, Arthur knew Alfred would have gone to great lengths to make sure no servants were wandering around inconvenient places tonight. He'd been working on this plan for two or three years, after all, and had plenty of time to orchestrate every detail. That wasn't to say there would be no snags along the way, but, at the very least, Mint and Arthur managed to reach Kiku's room without mishap.
They slipped inside, sliding open the wooden frame of the paper door as quietly and gently as possible.
The room was a little less bare than Alfred's, but not by much. The floor was empty of any futon, and no table or chairs were to be seen in the large square space. All that stood on the tatami were a dark mahogany chest of drawers, and a silk screen in the corner with beautiful looking designs painted over it. The whole space was sunk in the deep black of night, with only the barest light of the red full moon shining through one round window, bathing the room in an eerie red glow.
Mint nodded towards the mahogany drawers, and Arthur crept after her, the flapping of Mint's feather wings the only sound in the still, black room.
Sitting on top of the drawers was a mirror, an empty vase and a small, black music box, which looked like nothing more than a shadow in the dark.
Artur glanced at Mint and she nodded quickly. Arthur reached out, feeling almost as if he were moving in slow motion, and yet feeling years of adrenaline rush through him at the same time. His hand landed on the lid of the music box, and he paused, waiting for Mint to urge him on.
"It's too easy," he whispered and Mint seemed to agree. She fluttered down to the drawers and perched on the shiny surface. The rabbit fairy sniffed around the black box carefully, brushing it with her whiskers and touching it lightly with her flickering nose, only to flinch back quickly.
"I'm sure it has magic protecting it. I can't figure it out, though - my magic is very different to Kiku's. It's not keeping it locked but...I can't tell what it will do."
"Get behind me, then," Arthur commanded, nodding back to the door of the room. "If it's a trap intended to kill the thief, it's best I open it. It can't harm me now, can it."
Mint nodded hesitantly and flew away to the open door, hiding behind the framework and peering around carefully to watch.
Arthur placed both hands on the box, and gave himself no time to dwell on it before he flipped open the lid.
The inside was so beautiful that it took his breath away, and left him so completely entranced that he forgot he was meant to be scared and running out of time.
Inside was a perfect copy of the world outside the window. There was a small island that appeared to be floating on crystal clear water, even a little bridge covered in torii gates like the one leading to Yoshiwara. And it wasn't just a painting, it was real: real grass, real water, real miniature buildings, real tiny trees budding to life after a long winter sleep. It was the very same island and lake Arthur had seen for himself outside, copied down in miniature inside the music box.
Right in the middle of the little island scene was a forest, a wide circle of dark trees that covered the centre of the island and brushed up against the back garden behind the tiny copy of the kabuki theatre building. Running all the way through this forest, another line of red arches was clearly visible through the barren winter trees, reaching from the back garden of the theatre and stopping abruptly in the middle of the island. They were like the archways on the bridge: gates to nowhere, two long legs and a simple frame on top stretching wide, all painted a bright, enigmatic red. This must be the mysterious shrine Alfred had been talking about. Sure enough, at the end of the little line of miniature archways, right at the heart of the island, there was something made of stone, a little display of some sort. But it was too small to see just now, tucked away amidst the heart of the forest, and Arthur was still so busy drinking in the rest of the scene that he was quickly distracted. Not only was there the island and the lake with its many flower lanterns drifting across the water, but the sky actually rose above it all. It really was a complete little world, all its own. Arthur didn't know how the sky could be contained in a box, but it was, with clouds drifting across it, and even the full red moon hanging over the island.
"Arthur! The star ball! We need to hurry for Alfred!"
Arthur snapped back to himself at Mint's panicked voice.
But there was no star ball in here. Just the little theatre and a tiny shrine in the woods and the night sky tucked inside...
And the moon.
Now that Arthur looked at it more closely, he realised that the moon wasn't like the rest of the miniature scene, which was was undoubtedly real, a whole world trapped inside the music box. No, the moon may have been glowing but it looked more like a pearl suspended over the scene, and not a real miniature moon made of rock.
Ever so carefully, Arthur reached in and plucked the pearl out of the sky in the box.
He could tell that this was it. Kiku's star ball, his very soul in Arthur's fingertips. He knew it the moment his skin brushed the smooth surface of the pearl, as heat, sadness, longing, anger, love, all manner of emotions began flowing through his body. They tore up his arm, choked his throat, until finally they reached his brain, clashing together all at once in a blast of colour and noise and sensation, right in the centre of his mind...
And suddenly he remembered everything that had happened the first time he met Alfred, and all those days as they fell in love, and the night he had died.
"Where's the music?" Mint's voice reached him through his sudden wave of memories.
He brushed the tears out of his eyes with one hand, the star pearl clutched tightly in his fist. Reliving all those emotions in a split second left him feeling a little weak, and he leant heavily against the chest of drawers, unable to will his legs to move. But as soon as the rabbit fairy's words registered in his head through the clamour of his new old memories, Arthur was alert.
He hadn't even noticed, but as he turned to face Mint by the door, the rabbit's comment clicked into place in his head. "It's a music box...but there's no music," he said slowly.
Mint stared at him, and at the very same moment, they both heard footsteps running up the stairs leading to Kiku's room.
"The window!" Mint shouted, darting forward on beating wings as Arthur struggled to slide open the wooden window frame.
They were three stories up, but Arthur had to tell himself he was already dead, and it didn't matter what happened to him now. So as Mint flew out into the night air, Arthur clambered on top of the dark chest of drawers...and leapt out of the window.
He could only clench his eyes shut against the wind that rushed up to meet him, and try to ignore the fear spiking through him. He didn't know if it was his imagination or if he really could sense the ground getting closer.
"Arthur, I've got you!" Mint was calling to him, and with a startled wince Arthur felt something touch his feet - something blessedly solid and stable and wide. The tips of his feet came in contact first, and he was lowered gently to earth. He finally opened his eyes and looked to his shoulder, and realised Mint had grabbed on to his collar with her teeth and lowered him safely to the ground. There must have been some magic involved, too, but Arthur didn't have time to think about it because Mint was zooming ahead of him into the trees behind the theatre and Arthur was following her.
He was still confused, as if he had left his head in the air, feeling like he was still falling, wondering if the world had turned upside down or if it was just him. He wanted to sit down for a moment and get his head back into gear. He had to sort through all these memories because he was drowning, bombarded with twenty-three years of images and sounds and feelings and stories...
Growing up in the workhouse, the people there as cold as the long winter nights he spent sleeping in rags...joining the navy and feeling his life start over...the day he met that man who looked so much like him, he knew they must have the same parents, but how would he ever know for sure...being made Commander of a ship...reaching the alien land of Japan...meeting Alfred...falling in love with Alfred...saving Alfred...Alfred...Alfred...
Arthur took a deep breath as he ran and pushed all those memories to one side. Right now, he just had to keep hold of that star ball clenched in his palm, and get to the shrine. For Alfred's sake. He was the most important memory Arthur had, and Arthur wouldn't let him down now, at the very end. He could make one last memory of helping Alfred to freedom before it was all over. And that would be the most important one of all.
Somehow, Alfred was already waiting for him at the entrance to the shrine.
It was precisely the same scene as the one nestled inside the little music box. Surrounded by barren trees, the scent of rain and damp earth soaking the air, the shrine behind the theatre was truly beautiful, even if Arthur didn't understand what it all meant. Dozens of red torii gates marched one after another into the shadows further in the island, in one row so long that he couldn't see the end of it. They looked so much like the torii on the bridge leading onto the island - but without the wide open lake underfoot and the sky above, the sensation was entirely different. This time, as Arthur looked down the tunnel-like path leading under the arches, it dissolved into darkness, looking like it led into a void. Arthur had the odd sensation that if you followed that path, you'd end up somewhere quite different from the island or Yoshiwara. It was no wonder mere humans like he and Alfred couldn't pass through those gates into the shrine.
"Arthur!" Alfred exclaimed as the Englishman came to a halt before him. He grabbed on to Arthur's shoulder and clenched the man's uniform in his fists, needing the reassurance that he was really here and they were still safe - even if it was just for this moment. "Kiku just leapt up from his seat in the middle of the play and dashed off! I was so worried! I left the stage and ran straight here!"
"I don't understand, either," Arthur panted. "But we have the star ball."
He grabbed Alfred's hand and pushed the star ball into his palm, closing his own hands over Alfred's as they stared down at the connection.
"You did it," breathed Alfred, looking more stunned than excited, though Arthur could hardly blame him for that.
"Now undo it." Arthur whirled around, and Alfred stared over the Englishman's shoulder, as Kiku stepped out slowly from the darkness of shadows and trees surrounding them. The lovers' hands, still clasped together around the star ball, gripped tightly in unison.
Mint darted over to hover by Arthur's side, and he was grateful for her loyalty, her presence a great comfort in such a dark hour.
"I am disappointed in you, Alfred," said Kiku, though his voice betrayed no emotion at all - neither disappointment nor anger. "Using tricks and deceit to get what you want? So you don't think you even deserve to be set free? You don't think you have the right to get out on your own? Take back this foolishness, return the hoshi-no-tama and I shall forgive you."
Alfred's hand clenched tighter under Arthur's grip.
"I didn't want to trick you. I wanted to do it honestly, but this was the only way. ...You made me promise last time. I traded a lifetime in your service if you could bring Arthur back, and you bound me to that promise through your magic."
Arthur couldn't help but gasp and turn to Alfred in horror. Alfred had done that for him? It made him sick to think he might have been the cause for Alfred to be trapped here forever. That was exactly what he didn't want. What neither of them wanted.
"It was a mistake for me to make that vow, and you knew it!" Alfred continued, ignoring Arthur's gaze on him, but blushing furiously at his confession. "You knew Arthur would come back as a spirit, whether I made that bargain or not! Because his purpose was not fulfilled, and his soul is so strong. You were the one who tricked me into giving you my life for free, and now I've had to trick you to get out of it! Besides..." Alfred's glare burned with haunting fury. "I know you're the one behind my parents' deaths. You got rid of them so you could bring me here and raise me to be your favourite toy. You're the only reason I'm in Yoshiwara at all! It's not only my life, but my parents' too. You owe me three lives, Kiku."
Alfred glanced sideways at Arthur, needing a boost of strength from the spirit beside him. The Englishman nodded his encouragement, hope and pride bubbling in his chest even as they heard voices in the distance.
"We have your star ball. You must do as we say," said Alfred.
"I do not take orders from ghosts," said Kiku calmly, looking pointedly at Arthur.
"Fine, then your soul belongs to me, and I am your master now!" Alfred declared, head held high and standing tall and proud. Arthur could tell the American was shaking on the inside, and that those voices they could hear drawing closer probably belonged to other kitsune who were coming to Kiku's aid. But Alfred was a brilliant actor, and from the show of strength he put on, even Kiku was weighing him with a new light in his eyes.
The kitsune said nothing. But the way his pointed fox ears twitched slightly, and his tails swept across the ground behind him with a gentle swish, betrayed that he was nervous. Whether he was stalling until his kin arrived, or he was too scared to speak, or whether he couldn't say anything against the will of his new master, Arthur didn't know. But the voices were getting louder, and there seemed to be many, and they had little time.
"I command you to bring Arthur back to life," said Alfred, staring fixedly at Kiku.
"Alfred! No! There's no time for this!" Arthur pleaded, tugging on Alfred's kimono and turning to him with wide eyes. "The other kitsune are coming! They'll overpower you and get the ball back! Do what we came here to do! NOW!"
Alfred didn't look at him, only stared at Kiku, who was smiling.
"Do as I say, Kiku. You must obey me," Alfred said, voice even, but chest obviously heaving under his loose red robes.
"I cannot bring someone back to life," said Kiku. "But there are other things I could do to help you. Let me tell you your options and you can choose which suits you best, master."
"NO!" Arthur interrupted. He let go of Alfred's hand around the star ball, and grabbed the American's robes to drag him round so they were face to face. "Alfred. I will be with you, always. Now let me go. Don't let my death be for nothing. Set yourself free and get out of here while you still can!"
Tears spilled out of Alfred's sky blue eyes. He hung his head and his next words sounded as if they came from a man who had given up.
"Kiku. I command that you release me from my contract with you. Let myself, and Arthur's spirit, and everyone who helped us tonight, leave Yoshiwara unharmed. Do not ever come after us. Do not send or suggest or influence anyone to harm us on your behalf. Do not let your kin take revenge on us for what we've done to you. Let your existence never touch our lives again, nor those of people we hold dear. Leave us alone. Forever."
Kiku's glare was cold and sharp as ice. Form the darkness behind him, kitsune of every shape and size loomed out of the shadows - some in human form, some as foxes creeping along the ground, some a bizarre mixture of both bodies. Their stares were like daggers, wrath emanating from them, and Arthur knew if Alfred had left any loopholes in his command, they would be dead already, and his spirit tortured in ways he couldn't even fathom.
The fact that the kitsune were hanging back...Arthur dared to believe that they might be saved.
Arthur dropped his hand from Alfred's kimono and grasped the other's fist again as they stood side by side, staring down the army of kitsune with Kiku at their head.
"It is done, master," said Kiku, the words grit out as if he were letting a foul taste slip off his tongue.
"Give me your word that after I return your star ball, you shall keep that promise. Obey the command I have just given you, even when I hand back your soul," Alfred said firmly. In all his years dealing with Kiku and the supernatural kind, he knew their tricks. He had fallen for them last time he was trying to save Arthur's life, and he would not do it again. He would leave no pass, no possible way for these immoral trickster creatures to touch his life again. He was done with them. Forever.
"I give you my word, Alfred F. Jones."
Alfred nodded slowly, jerkily, as if afraid to lower his head and let the kitsune out of his sight for even a split second.
"Excuse me if I don't trust you," he said. "I will be leaving now, and I'm taking your star ball to the gate of Yoshiwara. You can follow us there, and I'll return it once I'm safely outside this damned place."
Kiku said nothing, but the crowd of kitsune parted in two, leaving a path for Arthur and Alfred to walk down.
Mint flew to Arthur's shoulder and sat there, quivering. Arthur couldn't blame her. They could only pass through the ranks of kitsune and pray Alfred's words and Kiku's promise were good enough.
Arthur squeezed Alfred's hand, and they shared a brief glance before setting off through the trees and the kitsune. Every face they passed gave them a look that pierced to their very core. Human faces, pointed faces, foxes snarling at them from the ground - faces that would haunt them for the rest of their days.
Leaving everything behind, Alfred left the island estate. Crowds of strange creatures were gathered outside the theatre, trying to catch the reason for all the commotion. Hundreds of eyes, from monsters and magical beings of every shape and size, watched them leave, with the army of kitsune filing after them like servants.
Alfred and Arthur stepped off the island on to the wooden bridge, and walked in silence. They knew the kitsune were behind them still: their footsteps were too light to be heard but their stares were so heated the two men could feel them on their backs.
It was raining a little harder now, and Arthur soon found his hair plastered to his forehead, and his hands slippery and wet over Alfred's. But they kept going, marching on with heads held high, right up to the gates of Yoshiwara which opened for them on their own.
"Now I will give back your star ball," said Alfred, turning and facing Kiku finally. "But when I do you must all turn back the way you came and let me go in peace. Promise me. Even once I've given back your soul, you must obey that command. I know how important it is for your kind to keep their promises. If you go back on your word, Kiku, there is an army of kitsune right here who will see it, and never forget the shame you brought upon your kind."
"I promise we shall turn back and let you leave in peace," said Kiku. It was ever so slightly a growl, as if he were offended at the mere thought of breaking a promise.
It should have been so simple, knowing that Kiku was incapable of hurting them now. But Arthur's heart was still racing in fear that they would be betrayed.
Alfred, too, looked hesitant, but he could not stand here staring down the kitsune forever.
And so, with a graceful arc of his arm, he threw the star ball to Kiku, and the two men and the rabbit fairy stood with baited breath.
Kiku caught the ball in his hands, and let out a sigh.
He looked up at the trio, and none of them could help a small flinch of fear, wondering what he would do now.
But all Kiku did was fix them with his keen eyes. It was the kitsune behind him who moved first. They turned their backs as one on the humans and their fairy companion, and led the way back to the island out of sight across the lake.
Kiku was last to leave, turning around and sending one last glare over his shoulder before he followed his brethren, and was soon lost under the shadow of the torii gates.
"They're gone," said Mint, her voice soft, as if unwilling to break the spell Alfred had cast over his old kitsune master.
Alfred nodded. Both he and Arthur gazed for several long moments at the tunnel of torii where the last of the kitsune had disappeared, expecting at any moment to see them come rushing back in full force.
But they waited and waited, and it never happened. As one, the two men finally turned to look at each other.
"You did it, Alfred," Arthur smiled, too relieved to feel the joy he knew was owed to him. "You left them no way to sneak through your commands. You're really free."
Alfred nodded once. Tears welled up in his eyes, looking red and painful in the that same moon Arthur had grown so used to seeing.
"Thank you for helping me fulfil my purpose," said Arthur, feeling his eyes sting with sharp tears, too. "I suppose..."
Alfred reached out a hand, grasping like a lost soul for any piece of Arthur he could hold on to, if only for a moment. Arthur took his hand, and their eyes never left each other though they couldn't find any words to say.
"Arthur," said Mint gently, fluttering off his shoulder to hover between the two men. "I don't suppose you knew, but I am a Rabbit of the Moon. I see what the moon sees, she shows me what people do when the world is at its darkest. And you managed to shine through."
Arthur didn't understand what Mint was saying, and by the look on Alfred's face he didn't quite know where she was leading with this, either.
She smiled at their bemused faces. "I saw you and Alfred the first time you fell in love," she said, eyes lighting up at the memory. "You forgot all those rules telling you it was wrong, and you didn't hold back because you saw what was right and you did it. I saw you help Alfred become the man he was meant to be, and give up your own desires to make sure he found his. I saw you sacrifice yourself for Alfred when Kiku tried to kill him in a jealous rage. And I saw you come back every rainy night with a full red moon and do it all over again. You could have let Alfred bring you back to life tonight, but you didn't. You could have asked him to stay so you could remain a spirit with him, but you didn't."
"I suppose I'm a little selfish," Arthur smiled. Alfred frowned at him in confusion. "All I want is for Alfred to get his own life back, so I'll make sure I get that no matter what."
Alfred hung his head, not wanting Alfred to see the heartbreak that was clear in his eyes.
But Mint just laughed softly.
"Well, I couldn't promise anything earlier because I needed to know for certain. But I have all the proof I need from you, Arthur. And now I just need something from Alfred."
"From me?" the American asked, so shocked that all his misery was wiped clean for a moment.
"If you can give me adequate payment, and ask the right wish, I might be able to fulfil it for you."
"I'll give you whatever you want. It means nothing to me." The words came tumbling out of Alfred's mouth in time with heavy tears that began to flow down his cheeks, dropping down through the cracks in the bridge to fall into the lake below their feet. He clutched Arthur's arms in hope and desperation and stared at Mint through the mist of water in his eyes. "I'll give you anything, happily, if you can bring Arthur back to life."
Mint smiled at him.
"I want something that makes you special," the fairy said. There was a mischievous twinkle in her, but somehow, Arthur knew it wasn't threatening. She was excited. "Something that has been your life until now - something that you've cared for and cherished and which has helped you rise above everyone else. If you can give that up, I'll have everything I need from you, too."
Alfred reached down to Arthur's hip, and drew the sword from the scabbard resting at his side. "Alfred, no!" Arthur cried, fearing Alfred was going to do something dramatic and dreadful.
But Alfred stepped away from the Englishman's grasp and swept the sword behind his head in one, smooth slice. The soft 'swissssh' noise that accompanied the action rang through the night air, echoing with finality. When silence fell once more, Alfred pulled his hands from behind his head, the sword in one palm and his long golden ponytail in the other.
"Perfect," said Mint, as she stared at the ponytail. It vanished before their very eyes and Mint smiled up at them, ignoring their worried stares.
"I daresay your hostess friend is waiting for you at the gate of Yoshiwara with your bag, Alfred. It would be rude to keep her."
Alfred grabbed the rabbit out of the air, holding her gently, but desperately all the same. "Is it - "
"See for yourself."
The fairy and Alfred looked to Arthur, and the American's eyes widened as he took in the sight of the Englishman before him. Arthur looked down, not feeling any different...
But his navy coat was blue and gold once more. No longer white, like the drained spirit of a man who once was, but bold and bright as if the uniform itself was bursting to life.
He whipped his head back up to Mint, but her enigmatic smile was back, full force. Those supernatural beings could be helpful, but none could resist a good prank, even if it was a benevolent one. She wasn't going to make this easy on them, rather let them agonise over whether it was true.
"If you don't trust me, you'll just have to see for yourselves," Mint said, looking very pleased with herself. "But I wouldn't have any worries about leaving Yoshiwara now, if I were you, Arthur. Nor you, Alfred."
Still, neither man could speak, not even to manage a 'thank you.'
But somehow, Mint didn't seem to mind, happy to have left them both speechless. It was all the proof she needed that her gift was truly superb. "I have to go back to my tribe now. We must get back to the moon before she gets too high in the sky. I will make sure to see you soon, though."
She flew out of Alfred's weak grasp and fluttered up to kiss them both on the cheek. Before they knew it, she was zipping away back across the bridge.
Arthur and Alfred stared at each other for a few long minutes, hands eventually reaching out to hold each other, both trembling and as sweaty as each other.
"We'll...we'll just have to see what happens," Arthur said.
Though if he dared to be honest and hopeful he'd say that...he felt whole again. When he was a spirit, he had felt off somehow. He'd known that all along, so that when Alfred told him the truth about being dead, it had made sense. Now...he felt different. Maybe it was just knowing Alfred was free, maybe it was his heart beating for a reason in his chest again. Maybe it was both. All he could do, all either of them could do, was leave Yoshiwara and see what happened.
Arthur pulled Alfred closer by their clasped hands and leant up kiss him. It was brief, but warm and soft, and Arthur hoped that he really was alive again so he could have more of them in the future.
"Come on, my love. Let's go."
They walked up to the back gate of Yoshiwara, which opened of its own accord as usual. And then, hand in hand, the two of them set off up Naka-no-chou, towards the front gate of Yoshiwara - where they would find out if they really had made it this time.
They were so nervous that neither of them had even realised it was already past 3 o' clock in the morning, and they had nothing to fear. They had made it out.
I am fully aware that this story would be much better as a tragedy. But, honestly, fuck that. USUK brings me happiness and fills me with love COUNTLESS times everyday. Why would I taint that with sadness and loss and horrible things? People can write tragedies if they want, but I'm going to protect these babies and make sure they get all the happiness they deserve. I'm not writing this just for me, or potential readers - I'm also writing it for them, to give them a happily ever after. I want Alfred and Arthur to be happy, so I'm not going to turn it into a tragedy just in because it would be a "better plot." As long as my babies are happy, I'm happy. Sorry if you think Arthur should have disappeared into the mist or whatever and Alfred started anew. Just no. That's not how I roll here in Sunshine-and-Rainbows-Fluffy-Ever-After-Disney-Inf luenced-Sweethearts-Ville. (You can find us just south of Sugar Top Mountain, and west of La La Land.)
That being said, I hope you enjoyed the fic! It was interesting to write, especially since it was something so unusual for me. The research was fun because I loved it when little bits of folklore I read about worked SO well with what I wanted to happen (did you know Japanese fairies CAn bring people back to life?!). There were lots of other details I wanted to fit in, but I wrote this in 6 days for the USxUK Sweethearts Week on LiveJournal, and as such I had to cut some things and rush a little bit. But I hope it was still okay. Thank you very much for reading!
1868 = although it is not explicitly stated in this chapter, it can be inferred from the characters' comments in previous chapters that this chapter is set in the spring of 1868. The Edo period ended in May of 1868, bringing about great changes in Japan. It was the end of Japan as everyone knew it, and the beginning of a whole new nation. It was the starting point for Japan to evolve from a remote and isolationist island of tradition, to a modern, industrialised country with many outside influences. I imagine that in this AU, many mythical creatures and spiritual beings would start to leave open places like Yoshiwara and hide even more from humans - so Kiku's theatre would not only suffer from the loss of Alfred, but because their world is about to change and they are forced into hiding.
Hong = Hong Kong. I know he has several human names, but I didn't know which one would fit well with this time period, so I made it Hong because I often call him that in my head as a shortened version of Hong Kong.
trickster kitsune = Hong says he is only helping Alfred because he wants to trick Kiku. It sounds very juvenile, but according to Japanese mythology, kitsune are naturally mischievous beings. They will play pranks and cause mischief to both other kitsune and humans, but the tricks they play on humans can often be disastrous because they don't take into account that humans are mortal and less powerful creatures. Young ones, like Hong who is only 100 years old - are obsessed with tricks. A good trickster will be greatly honoured in the kitsune community. And tricking an older kitsune like Kiku would be a great challenge and victory for a young, ambitious kitsune - so Hong sees this as a great opportunity.
shapeshifting = kisune have the ability to change their appearance to that of any human they ever meet.
kitsune city = some kitsune are loners like Kiku, who go around trying to earn money and power. But there are also many kisune cities - on another plane of existence but in the same location as a big human city might be.
star ball / hoshi-no-tama = in Japanese folklore, kitsune do, indeed, have a star ball that is believed to be their soul. It grants them special abilities when they reach a certain age, so they guard it closely. If someone can steal it from them, the holder becomes a master to the kitsune and they must obey him/her. This is why getting possession of Kiku's star ball is Alfred's best bet for ensuring Kiku sets him from Yoshiwara.
the shrine and the torii = in the Shinto religion, the fox god Inari governs industry (among other things), and if a business is successful the owner might donate a red torii gate to an Inari shrine as thanks. Kiku will obviously donate many torii gates over the years as his theate business remains successful - not only as a thanks to Inari, but also because he is a fox spirit himself, and Inari is an important symbol to his kind (even if a black kitsune like Kiku does not work directly for Inari, as the white kitsune do). So there ends up being a lot of torii gates spreading out from the heart of this island's shrine. When I was in Japan, I went to Fushimi Inari shrine, the largest shrine dedicated to Inari. There were hundreds of red torii gates lined along the paths winding up the mountain, and walking under them with no end in sight can be quite spooky. You really feel as if something magical could happen at any moment, or like once you get to the end you'll step out into another world. I thought a kitsune would pray at a shrine just like that one. But since the island shrine in this story is not just a human shrine to a fox god, but a magical being's shrine to a fox god, I thought it would be even more intense. Humans wouldn't be allowed to enter, and the place would give off an eerie and magical aura even to someone as non-magical as Arthur.
a kitsune promise = Alfred makes Kiku promise to obey his orders even when he has given up the star ball. Kitsune (and many other supernatural creatures around the world) are notoriously tricky with their words. You have to be EXACT when making a wish or a command, and leave no loopholes or obscurities or grey areas, otherwise the supernatural creature will use that to screw you over in revenge for ordering them around. So Alfred has to be very careful and clear in his command that Kiku will never harm them again - either personally, or by getting someone else to do it on his behalf. He knew what he was talking about, after spending so long around Kiku and his kind, so his words will keep him, Arthur, Mint, Hong and all the others who helped that night, stay safe from Kiku forever.
rabbit of the moon = in Japan and China, they say there is a rabbit in the moon, not a man in the moon as we say in the west. (This was covered in a Hetalia comic and episode once.) So Mint's tribe are moon bunnies! She's a fairy, which is called a yousei in Japanese (like how England sings in his character song: "Yousei-san! Yousei-san! Ahaha-ha-ha!")
bringing Arthur back from the dead = I know it seemed lame, BUT! In my research I found out that the Japanese believed some fairies could bring the dead back to life. I didn't even make it up! It just worked so well - fairies can bring the dead back to life. It was PERFECT for Arthur!
Alfred's hair = cutting off your hair in Japan can often symbolise a new beginning. (Even in modern times, many boys will start a new school year with their heads shaved almost completely.) So it was very appropriate for Alfred to give up his hair at this point in time, when he's about to start his new life. Plus, fairies often ask for sacrifices in payment for wishes, and Alfred's famous hair which had made him special all this time, was a classic sort of sacrifice. (You see hair as a sacrifice in "Howl's Moving Castle" by Hayao Miyazaki, too. In fact, several of his heroines end up getting a haircut a the end: like Shita in "Laputa", and Haru in "The Cat Returns".)
the music box = this AU (Japanese style!Alfred, kitsune, etc.) is generally caled the Music Box AU, based on the name of the MMD by Aoi on NicoNico that made it famous. So I had to get one in somewhere. There was no music in Kiku's music box because only he can hear it. When the lid opens, he hears the music in his own ears. That's why he rushed out of the play so suddenly - he heard the music box in his ears and knew someone was trying to get his star ball.
Kiku = some notes about Kiku which didn't really fit anywhere else. Kitsune are very social beings, and if they are not currently living in a clan with family members or in a kitsune city, they will still surround themselves with other types of mythological beings, and even humans. They are very curious creatures, and love gathering knowledge about different types of people and beings. This is why Kiku started a theatre troupe in Yoshiwara - he wanted to have lots of different people visit his establishment so he could sate his curious nature and always have interesting new people to talk to. Another thing kitsune love are secrets, and they treat it like a game: finding out as many secrets about other people as possible, but trying to keep themselves shrouded in mystery. This is another reason Kiku likes the theatre life - having a close-knit group of actors/prostitutes living close together, not to mention a big crowd of drunken, excited creatures in the audience almost every night, means he hears lots of juicy titbits. And yet, Kiku is still a mystery to everyone around him. Basically,he is very good at what kitsune games, even if he's the only one who knows they're playing.
What is more, Kiku is known in Japanese mythology as a "yako kitsune." There are good kitsune (called zenko kitsune) who serve the fox god Inari. These types can be mischievous and trick humans, but they do not cause harm. Then there are the yako kitsune, who can range from being mischievous tricksters, to being downright evil. (Evil ones are rare, though.) Whilst kitsune can and will play pranks on any type of being, they cause most trouble for humans. It's not that they hate humans in particular - rather that kitsune do not live by human morals. They might do something terrible to a human which the kitsune would not actually consider evil, because their code of conduct is different from ours. For example, kitsune particularly love testing their skills as thieves, and stealing is even considered an art form to many kitsune. Naturally, they most enjoy stealing valuable and/or beautiful things - real treasure of al varieties. Sometimes even humans can be considered a good prize worth stealing, and yako kitsune might try to steal a beautiful man or woman away from their partner. It won't be because they have feelings for that human - they just want to show off their thievery skills and play a good prank on the human.
Kiku knows very well the pleasures of these unsavoury kitsune past-times because he was the one who killed Alfred's parents. Alfred only learnt this when he was trying to escape with Arthur the first time, and he didn't bring it up in detail again this time because they had so little time and the information wasn't vital to their plan. But Kiku was, indeed, the one who killed Mr. and Mrs. Jones a while after they arrived in Japan. He saw Alfred as a child and knew he was a wonderful and unique prize - a golden-haired boy with blue eyes and a fierce soul. So Kiku basically "stole" Alfred from the life he was supposed to lead, and raised him to be a kagema. But it wasn't just stealing Alfred from his parents that made Kiku keep him around. Alfred proved to be a great prize worth holding on to. Kiku could sell Alfred's services and body to others - make them want Alfred and desire him and covet Kiku's treasure - and then Kiku could steal him back from them after they had had a glimpse of him. And they had to pay him for it! Once they've seen Alfred in a play or spent the night with him, they have to pay Kiku and thank him for showing them his treasure, only to have Alfred taken away from them again. It's the ultimate combination of stealing and trickery and money-making, and would be very attractive to certain bad types of kitsune. Kiku has managed to make a good life for himself doing this, and although it's at the expense of Alfred's life, he has no concept of human morality, so he doesn't care. He just doesn't want to give Alfred up, or his fun will be over.
One last thing! Yako kitsune may be more mischievous and dangerous than the good zenko kitsune but there is one good thing about them: they can never go back on their word. If a yako kitsune makes a promise, it is impossible for them to break it. Obviously, this means they rarely go around making promises, but they become very valuable and a yako kitsune doesn't want to be chained to do favours for many people. They usually have to be tricked into making a promise, but even if it's achieved through trickery, they will still never break their word once its given. Alfred took full advantage of this. Not only did he secure Kiku's star ball to make sure he could command Kiku to leave them alone forever, but even just by forcing Kiku to make that promise, he knew the kitsune could never go back on his word, even once Alfred had given back the star ball. Of course, he was still worried that it wouldn't work because it was a tense situation, but really he had done a clever thing; it was really the only way for him to escape.
Thank you for reading.