I own nothing, and I'm making no money off this. I'm sure this comes as no surprise to anyone.
Author's Note: First off, if you don't know the plot of Master and Apprentice II, this might be confusing. Summaries are up on Yojoe and Comicvine. That said, you don't need an intimate knowledge of the plot to understand what's happening, just the basics. Obviously there are spoilers, but then the book is eight years old so I feel all right about it.
Second, a warning: please, please, please, if you love this pairing to death and it's going to make you horribly upset to see them get criticized, you may not want to read this. This isn't "Don't like, don't read"; I have no problem with people reading things that make them upset. I just want them to know that might happen before they do. Also, please note: this is not an attempt to start a shipping war. People can, should, and will ship what they want. This is just me speculating pretentiously in a style that is clearly not my forte, and really my only hope here is that I don't get too crucified in the reviews.
Finally, two small notes: the title is a reference to Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, which also belongs to that venerable class of books where a younger woman falls in love with a broken older man with a weather-themed last name and an awesome house. Second, "older sister" is a fairly literal English translation of the title that maiko use for their mentors. Honestly, it would have made me happier to write Junko *not* as a geisha, but since I'm constrained by the source material I have tried to do the research. (But seriously, the whole thing could have worked just as well if she were an intrepid investigative reporter or a vigilante or possibly both at the same time.)
Hanae looked at Junko more critically, still a little shocked. She had not expected her best friend's daughter, a grave, intense girl she hardly knew, to phone out of the blue asking for a favor. And once Junko had finally managed to ask, she had not been expecting that favor to be recommending Junko to a geisha as an apprentice. Hanae took a deep breath.
"Junko, I didn't realize you were interested in…traditional things," she said. "Aside from your training with your father, of course. So, is this recent?"
"Yes, it is."
"Since your parents died?" Hanae asked more softly.
Junko looked stricken for a moment, but recovered herself. "Yes," she said evenly. "Since my parents were murdered."
Hanae took another breath, to give herself time to think. "Junko, this isn't a decision you should make lightly."
Junko frowned. "I haven't made it lightly."
And Hanae didn't doubt it. Junko wanted this badly; her desperation was written all over her face. But looking at her face, soft and still childish and unnervingly like her mother's had once been, Hanae found that she could not bring herself to say yes. Did Junko even know what she would miss if she became a geisha? Probably, in the abstract. But missing those hundred little rites of passage wouldn't matter until it was too late anyway, and she couldn't let that happen to Masami's daughter. She felt herself shaking her head.
"I'm sorry, Junko. I can't. We can wait until you're a bit older and then see if you're still interested," Hanae said. "And honestly, I don't know if she would take you. People do strange things after people they love die. She might not think you're a good investment until you've been interested for a while, and have started to move on."
"You don't understand. I have to." The intensity in her voice was unnerving. Hanae frowned.
"What's this really about?" she asked.
Junko hesitated a moment, but then pressed on. "The man who did this to my parents – this is how I can get to him," she replied. "I want their deaths to mean something, Ms. Ito. I can't let him get away with this."
"I understand completely."
Junko's face lit up. "Then you'll introduce me?"
"No," Hanae said. "What you're talking about won't make their deaths mean something. I know they haven't arrested him yet, but the man who did this isn't worth the effort, and it's not what your parents would have wanted. They would have wanted you to be happy and safe." But the words sounded hollow, even as she said them, and she watched in dismay as Junko's face hardened.
"I don't know how you can presume to know what my parents would have wanted," she said, cold and furious. "And I don't know how you can say you want justice if you're not willing to help me get it."
"Junko, if I let you get hurt, or even worse-"
"It's pointless." She was already standing up and moving away, her voice somehow even chillier. "I've already made up my mind, Ms. Ito. If you won't help me, then I'll find someone else."
"Wait." Hanae was surprised by how desperate her voice sounded. Junko must have been surprised too, because she turned around, startled. "Do you really want to make their deaths matter?"
Junko nodded, eyes still blazing.
"Killing one man isn't going to do that. He's just a drop in an ocean. If he dies, then another will take his place, and this will happen again and again to other people who aren't as brave as you. And they'll never get justice, not unless something changes." She had Junko's full attention now, and she didn't seem quite as angry. "And that could be you, if you stopped and thought about this for a minute. I'm not telling you what to do – you can walk out that door now, if you want – but I'm not going to help you pull off some half-baked revenge scheme that's going to get you killed. And I'm not going to let you tell yourself that this is for your parents or anyone else. This revenge is about you, and you know that even if you won't admit it." Hanae stopped, feeling as though she'd overstepped, but then she saw Junko. She was listening. And Hanae could almost see the gears turning in her head, creating something even more ambitious than simple revenge.
Later, in law school, Junko's tenacity would become almost legendary. Hanae would never have taken too much credit for that, of course; that belonged to the girl's parents. But she also couldn't help a slight rush of pride. After all, this stern, brilliant girl was her best friend's legacy. If Hanae had anything to do with guiding her along, she was pleased that she had helped make something Masami might have been happy to be remembered by.
She noticed the shaking in her hands first. The sting of the cuts, the long shallow scrapes left behind when her wig was torn away, the crushing finality of Hyata's death – they would hit her later, once her body and brain had processed the litany of other insults she had inflicted on them that night. But she couldn't ignore the tremor in her hands. Unable, unwilling to focus on anything else, Junko was transfixed.
The man who'd stopped noticed as well. Whatever had possessed her hands was clearly familiar to him, and his face held a weary fondness as he met her eyes. "Your first kill?" he asked, glancing pointedly at the bodies of the men who had followed them into the alley.
"Not exactly," she replied, following his gaze. "But close enough."
"Either way, you did well for yourself. So long as the Yakuza don't catch up with you later." He turned back to her. "Listen. If you'd like, I could give you a hand with that."
"You could protect me from the Yakuza?"
"Yes." Somehow, it was a reply that left little to the imagination.
Junko considered the offer. He seemed like he could follow through, this earnest knight errant. And it would be so easy to fall under his protection, to lose herself again in the comfortable trappings of an apprentice. Like she had been to her older sister. Like she had been to her father.
But tonight she was electric, ecstatic and dizzyingly free of obligations. And just her shaking hands had been enough to get her here, without any other protection. If she hadn't quite mastered the fine art of the getaway, then so be it; she had enough time to learn that and a thousand other lessons besides. She smiled.
"No, thanks. I'll manage."
He looked skeptical for a moment, but in the end he shrugged. "Well, then good luck."
"That's it?" she asked.
"I think you might need it," he replied. "It's not like you look particularly innocent at the moment."
Looking down, at the scraps of bloody silk that still clung to her catsuit, she thought she probably agreed. But when she looked back up to say so, to thank him, he was already gone, just a flicker of red taillight in the windows across the street. And so she slipped away without a word into the blank white future.
Tommy knew exactly what was happening. He would have to have been blind not to see it – the almost-sly glances when she thought he wasn't looking, the unconscious new lilt in her Kansai-inflected voice, the blushing. To be fair, he was sure Junko wasn't really aware of most of that. But still, a crush was out of the question. He was her teacher, and he knew precisely the sort of influence that a teacher could hold over a student, even unconsciously. He had said yes to Vietnam, yes to long summers spent far from home, yes to a punishing and isolated youth, because he knew those things had been asked for carefully. They were asked for knowing that he had an obligation, knowing how much approval meant. Desire was anything but careful.
This was a boundary he wouldn't cross, couldn't cross, if he wanted to believe that he wasn't just drawing lines in the sand to step across at the first signs of inconvenience. Terrorism was out of the question entirely, until it meant easing his own piercing guilt. Sleeping with a student was out of the question entirely, until that student was young and beautiful and adoring. As much as he wanted to believe that the two were entirely different, he could not quite seem to convince himself.
But what if you did? Junko was quick and eager and brave. And besides, she was an adult. She had chosen this, hadn't she? Who was he to question that?
Remember what you chose, when you were her age. A different voice, dry and insistent. And it reminded him that he had spent his twenties reveling in his own absurd indestructibility, facing down insurgents and conspiracy and a faltering ethical high ground with only a sense of moral rightness and faith in his abilities. He had also been quick and eager, and possessed of a naivete that could almost be called bravery. He mused, not for the first time, that he was probably lucky he had only died once.
But besides her youth, the power he held over her, and the chasm those factors created even now, in the end what tipped the scales was something like professional pride. I heard he took up with one of his students, spoken with vague pity, full of insidious implications. Because he's damaged goods, the sort of trick every girl falls for when she's too young to realize what she actually needs. Because he knows he's not young any longer, and he needs the world to know that someone still wants him. Because he can't handle a woman who might disagree with him, who might be a partner rather than a trophy. Because he is every man who falls for a younger woman at the nadir of a midlife crisis, looking for a savior, and finds that women are only human and hold no arcane answers. And then there was the question, implicit but barely hidden, about the fresh-faced girls from Cal and SFSU who had been his students when he lived in the Bay Area, about every woman he had ever trained with the Joes, about these hundred other students he had never looked at twice. And if he took other female students, it would linger on indefinitely. This would be the end of anything like neutrality. And if wanting that was selfish, it was no more selfish than acting on this.
And so instead of archery, that afternoon he told her to pack. He was sending her back to the clan, to the sword academy in the mountains, for a change of pace. He tried to make it sound like it was well-motivated, but he bungled the lie, and the pain that flickered in her eyes almost made him turn back. But soon enough she was gone, safely receding into the distance, and when Cobra forced him to return he wondered if even her fearless inexperience could have compelled her to wait.
Perhaps it was because she'd built it up too much in her mind. That was probably it, Junko reasoned. While the night of Hyata's death had become practically mythic, and the time she'd spent as Tommy's student was hazily golden, his return from Cobra was anything but. The electric link between them was gone. What was left was solid, if unimaginative. Comfortable, if a bit too safe.
It was stupid to want it any other way, she supposed. There were a thousand clichés about playing with fire, about lightning in bottles, about foundations of sand, all celebrating the value of sturdy, immutable things. And she should be tired of change. Her childhood had been reactive, and this was her first chance to take a breath and choose something for herself. And this was what she wanted, wasn't it? A good thing, but not a frivolous one. She did not like frivolities. No, she focused and held out for things that were sweet because they were earned. What she had here was one of those things. Really, she should be happy.
But she found herself wondering if he were really the only one. Being a geisha had meant a professional distance between herself and her clients. This was the first time she'd really let herself fall in love, and it had been wonderful. It was just that she'd expected the fall to last longer.
And there were the other clichés, dark things that surfaced when it was quiet. It might not be true love; that's a hard thing to separate from timing and circumstances and luck. It's pointless to stay when he loves you more; it's a pond that's too small, a recipe for stunted dissatisfaction. If you're not happy now, then tell me what happens when it really gets bad. Forever is a long time, when you can't even imagine thirty. Forever doesn't leave anything to the imagination.
But no matter how she insisted that she could've gotten it right at twenty one, that looking for looking's sake was a waste, there were doubts. But she said nothing to him. This had been her idea, after all. And that made her responsible for making it work. So she soldiered on, believing that it would work itself out. She was so focused, believed so fervently that change was right around the corner, that she never saw it coming the night he pulled her aside, gently, reluctantly.
"What, is something wrong?" she asked.
Storm Shadow sighed. "Do you think it's working?"
"It?" For a moment she scrambled, but then it dawned on her. She had wanted to say yes, that a single rough patch wasn't enough to call it off, but then she was sobbing, horrified and relieved, and all she could seem to say was that she didn't want to hurt him.
"Somehow, I don't think that's going to be enough," he said softly, almost to himself.
Junko gathered herself quickly, wiping away the tears. "I just wanted it to work. I thought it would." He nodded knowingly.
"Do I have to leave?"
"Not if you don't want to," he replied. "Unless you wanted to study under someone else-"
"No," she said quickly. "Not yet, anyway." She looked at him carefully. "Is that all right?"
"It's fine," he replied. "Absolutely fine."
"So then it just goes back to the way it was?" she asked.
He paused, trying to speak. Apparently unable to, he only shrugged and smiled, with a sadness that could not have been intentional.
She would go back, Junko told herself, when her hair looked better. At the moment, it was a choppy shag all the way around her head, too short even to cut into something acceptable. If she was going to make a triumphant return, it was not going to be looking like this. She did have her vanities. And besides, she had nearly died in the Red Ninja's caverns. Taking time to recover – taking time to figure out who she was now – Tommy wouldn't begrudge her that.
But the time stretched out and on – two weeks, three months, half a year. She found herself reluctant to leave the quiet life she had made for herself in Tokyo. In business for herself – as a bodyguard, of course, as though she knew how to do anything else practical – she found herself growing increasingly protective of her small group of loyal clients, getting set in her routines, becoming fond of the tiny apartment that was hers and hers alone. A year came and went, then another. She kept her hair short; she told herself it was practical. But at the end of working yet another long night, as she lay in bed waiting for the sun to rise, she realized that she was never going back, and that somewhere deep down she had never planned to.
Of course she still wondered, occasionally. Maybe it was guilt, maybe she hadn't been quite honest about being over him. Either way, she kept an eye out. She knew when he returned to the city, hot on the trail of some tall, blonde Yakuza, and she stayed hidden. And if it stung at first that Tommy seemed a little too fond of the Yakuza, arranging deals with his aunt for her, forgiving the destruction of his water tower and a beating in a pachinko parlor, it faded soon enough to something like relief. Because it was good to know, even indirectly, that she was not the only one who had begun to let go.
It was amazing to think about how many of them were gone now. Not just Junko, but Billy as well, and the host of Red Ninja who were probably more closely related to him than he liked to think. Storm Shadow thought about them often now. Now that it was all over for good, he found that he didn't have much else to think about. And the guilt kept him turning their fates over and over again in his mind, looking for whatever it was that he'd missed. He still wasn't quite ready yet to admit that there was no mastery in the world that could've saved them.
Of course, he had never expected to leave Cobra without paying a price. He'd known that going in. But if he had known it was going to be this high-
It was wishful thinking. This was just how the cards had fallen; there was no reason it had turned out this way except that it had. It was only luck that Snake Eyes and Scarlett had survived to spend their summers in the High Sierras. It didn't mean anything that Jinx had her samurai again. But it felt consequential that, in the end, he was the only one who had netted nothing.
"Tomi, are you moping again?"
He snapped back into the present, sitting on the bitterly cold floor of a familiar room. "No, Auntie. Of course not."
"Your eyes were very open for someone who was meditating," she replied.
"You can meditate with your eyes open."
"Hmph. This was bad enough when you actually were a teenager."
He didn't have a reply for that, and got up, intending to leave.
"You know, you're not helping them," she went on. "The dead don't care if you're paralyzed by grief. Not even the girl." He must have looked hurt, because her face softened, almost imperceptibly. "I know she bothers you. More than the others."
"If I had only-"
"No." It wasn't harsh, simply abrupt. "You already know that we all had a part to play in this, that it wasn't just you who got your hands dirty. Someday you'll actually understand that. Until then, there are dishes."
As he left for the kitchen, happy to have anything to do, he happened to glance back. She was looking at the patchy snow outside, beginning to crumble as the weather warmed, and suddenly he realized that it did feel as though something had taken the edge off the cold. And it felt consequential, the way it had all come together. Even if she would have insisted that it was just the radiator finally turning on.