Fruits Basket Fan Fiction ❯ Seasons of Sorrow ❯ Embers of Summer's Glory = Over a cup of tea...Obon ( Chapter 55 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

DISCLAIMER: Welcome to another chapter from me to you based on Takaya-sensei's creative characters!
Special Note: Wordy, long, and a little too liberal on the profanity. Heads up!
Embers of Summer's Glory
Chapter 55: Our cup of tea…Obon
Another summer day came upon the humble home of Sohma Kazuma, the usual stuffiness in the air dispelled due to the summer showers that passed through the previous evening. With the birds and the cicadas lending their natural melodies this morning, it gave one a sense of lull, of lethargy…of merely basking in this summer warmth along with the brisk wind that swayed the tall, old trees surrounding the property.
As the summer breeze carried the sweet, clean scent of this summer day into the house, a young lady lifted her feet high into the air, and then let them rest on the low windowsill while she laid on her back comfortably. Sighing languidly, she shifted her numb arm behind her head, regretting that she didn't just get a pillow instead of using her limb as one.
`This nail polish better hurry up and dry. I don't have much time today…'
“Isuzu, I'm running out to retrieve our breakfast! I'll be back in thirty minutes!”
Hearing Kazuma's muffled remarks through her closed door, she called out, “Hai.”
She'd never admit it out loud, but she was grateful for the home Kazuma was generous enough to provide her with. However, his last attempt to make her a healthy meal still gave her the chills—really, the burnt marks on the stove still won't come off. Thankfully they were both fortunate to have such a caring neighbor within a ten minute walk that always cooked plenty to share with them.
“You know, showing off your toes to the world is the same as showing cleavage…”
With a jolt, she became aware of the new presence outside her window. Sitting upright to glare at her companion, she sourly remarked, “Only you would think that, Haru. And you're in the way of my sunlight…”
“It can't be helped…I think your toes are sexy.” Moving to the side slightly, Haru looked down at her, drinking in her appearance as a man half-starved for that sort of attention. It was a shame that she was dressed rather conservatively this morning. Many would never think that she slept in pajamas that covered her assets so well or that her attire would have little cows printed all over. Kagura had made passing mention of it at the dojo that she had bought it for Rin as a get-well present some time ago…
Lying back down, Rin closed her eyes, deeply breathing in the masculine scent that Haru usually brought with him. It always calmed her and made her feel unique in his eyes, not like some pity-case as she usually sensed from others. Cracking one eye open, she curiously asked, “How did you get here from your house? You don't look like you were wandering around lost for hours or days…”
“Nope. I called a cab.” He looked down to her small toes, tempted to twitch each one, but wisely kept his hands to himself. She'd throw a fit if he ruined her pedicure. `Girls…go figure.'
“Haru…you only live five minutes from here…walking,” she stated incredulously.
“Tell me about it. That was the fastest ride I've ever been on. Strange…” He looked off to the side, contemplating how the cab ride was so short when it usually took him a day to walk over to see her. He had only taken the cab this morning because of what was planned on this day…it was bound to be stressful for all involved.
Turning back to her, he asked, “Anyway…you look like you're ready to start off the day right. You have everything ready for tonight's gathering?”
She immediately became dour and closed her eyes to him, crossing her legs carefully to avoid messing up her toe nail polish. “It's a joke that I have to go to that THING.”
He wryly grinned. “Heh, aren't you in the `spirit' of things?”
“Pft…I'm so glad Obon only comes by once a year…having to hear that stupid joke just once is painful enough…” she grumbled lowly as she avidly avoided having to look at the Ox's smirk.
“Well, it's good that it does come around. It'll probably be the one and only time I'll ever get to see you in a summer yukata,” he pointed out to her none-to-subtly. Her normal, more revealing attire was never lost on him, and it bothered him to see the leering stares from other males on his girlfriend. Not that he blamed them…she had the curves to drive any guy insane. And she did drive him to the brink of insanity and back so many times…he loved it. He's just not one to share the goods…
Exasperated that he brought up this old subject yet again, she relented if only to get some peace. “Fine…I get the point. I'll start to dress to show less…how's that?”
“You love me too much,” he replied with a wide grin.
She looked away, slightly blushing, unable to make a comeback remark without sounding like a fool. Instead she asked, “Anyway, what does your yukata look like? Ayame-niisan had said when he dropped mine off that everyone had their yukata's customized to the wearer.”
It was a big surprise to them all that Akito had ordered the custom garments to be made for each of the Jyuunishi. It was an even bigger surprise to be told that for the evening's festivities, they will all be together as a group and as a family to reunite by the lake near the Jyuunishi Gardens in celebration of Obon. Truly they wondered why now when Akito never bothered with it before, but questions asked rarely received answers in this family.
Sighing heavily, he grimaced as he thought of the attire assigned for him to wear tonight. “Mine's dark brown with some kind of peach color for the obi…looks pastel if you ask me. He stitched my Ox emblem on the front, over to the left shoulder.”
Curiously he looked over at her yukata hanging on a hook by her closet, wondering what colors their family's tailor picked for her yukata. `They look good for the summer…pale yellow with the light green obi. Hn, looks like she's got her emblem stitched to the front left-side, too. At least she looks like a real lady…heh, or like a dandelion.'
Don't say it. I know the damn thing reminds you of flowers,” she bit out, her annoyance from yesterday coming back to her in full force. Ayame had just cheerily hugged her and presented her with the outfit that she was to wear. She was ready to throw it back in his face if it weren't for the fact that he had zipped out of the house as quickly as he had blown in. The man was quick to come and go…even Kazuma found it difficult to keep up with the excited man's nonstop chatter.
“But I like dandelions…they're pretty,” he commented while delicately pinching her big toe. It really was a very cute toe…all clipped and polished…
She quickly took her feet off the ledge and immediately stood up with an incensed look to her face. “That's…a weed. I remind you of a WEED?!”
“Weed, flower…they all have petals…they're all the same,” he nonchalantly remarked as he waved off her pointed glare. Dodging a pillow aimed his way, he held up his hands to placate his precious Horse. Switching gears, he asked, “I wanted to ask if you're going to come with me or Shihan to tonight's reunion at the Gardens?”
“Hmph! I don't know…maybe being a WEED is too much for you to handle…BAKA!” Taking quick strides to her closet, she angrily pulled out her bathrobe and towel, readying herself for a nice soak in the bath. It will help in settling her nerves, too, considering what lay ahead of her tonight…
`Having to be near that… (Sigh) Akito…why? What are you up to, you arrogant little…ARGH. Forget it. I'm taking my bath.' Shaking her head furiously, she gathered her toiletries, and started to make her way down the hallway when a firm grip held her arm back.
“Gomen…you'll look beautiful…really,” he softly whispered from behind her, daring to hold her close to him in a warm embrace.
She faced the mirror before her, noting how Haru held her firmly but also tiredly. Worriedly she turned around and palmed his tired countenance. “I thought you had it all under control, what with your practice for the tournament and your entrance exams…”
“M-hm. It's fine…we're in the first week of August. We still have vacation until the end of August and the tournament is just around the corner, long before school starts up again. Once the tournament is done with, I'll be back on track with studying for the exams. I work better under pressure anyway…” He took her hand into his and grinned widely, “Heh, actually I'm pretty tired from last night…Momiji had Hiro and Kisa over and we all kept trying to scare each other all night long around Hatori-niisan's gardens. Even Kagura-nee came over for a while. Kimodameshi is definitely my favorite part of Obon.”
She returned his grin with a frown. “Scaring the snot out of each other all night long? I'm surprised Hatori-nii put up with all of you like that for that long.”
Holding her closer once more, he merely shrugged. “Yeah, well he did bring out his stethoscope towards the end. That put the breaks on Momiji bouncing around after Kisa with Hiro chasing him down. It was Hatori-niisan's fault anyway…making the ohagi that late at night is too much for the Usagi to ignore. He ate them all in one swoop…talk about sweets-overload. Heh, Hiro and Kagura-nee were so mad about that.”
“That kid with his sweet tooth…his teeth will rot right out of his skull at the rate he's scarfing down sweets,” she grumbled into Haru's shoulder, calmly taking in his scent once more as the rest of her irritation from earlier dwindled.
Breathing in deeply the scent in her hair, he relished it momentarily until he pulled away and went to where her kimono hung for the evening's event. Fingering the fine cloth, he debated on whether to ask the question that had weighed heavily on his mind for the past week or so. It had to be asked regardless. “Did you…have you confronted Akito since the last time you saw her?”
Topic swiftly changing, she stiffened upon hearing him pose the inevitable question. She normally would not have mentioned anything to him if there were an altercation between herself and the clan head. But this last time…she still felt the chills when she remembered the dark look in the woman's eyes…
Still, she only mentioned it because she felt the threat from the malicious woman to be real and therefore she wanted to warn him that they tread cautiously for now. But, typical of Haru, Akito's veiled threat on their relationship became the least of his concerns, having insisted back then that she reveal every last detail spoken by Akito relating to Yuki. Grudgingly, she did so and was now regretting it, seeing how lately he's been more on edge.
Sighing heavily, she leaned against her doorway, eyeing Haru for any reaction that would caution her to stop lest he flip the switch on his darker personality. “I've not gone to see her…she was damn clear that she didn't want me poking around in her business. Maybe tonight we'll get a chance to drag some more out of her…”
“Yeah…sure…” Walking back to her rumpled sheets on her futon, he kneeled down to lay on it, heavily sighing as well as he pondered on this new development. He closed his eyes as he relaxed further, hoping Rin's soft smell still in the linens would calm down his anxiety. It had only grown since she had spoken to him about her run-in with Akito.
`Akito…she…hates Yuki. So why…why all this big hoax to drag Yuki closer to her? To lie to him like she has…for what? To leave us be for so long…will she take it all back once she's through using Yuki? Yuki…how would he feel to know he's being used for another of Akito's schemes?' Questions such as these plagued him with no answer in sight. Groaning loudly at coming against this brick wall once more, he sat up and forlornly looked out her window, watching the curtains billow in the summer breeze. “What a damn mess Akito's made here…and he doesn't have a clue of how bad he's been duped.”
She bit back the response on the tip of her tongue, but she was right in her thoughts. It was the stupid Rat's own fault for staying close to the clan head. `He's like some damn moth to the flame…and just as stupid.' “Listen, don't go off the deep end in my room. Save that for later for when you meet up with the bitch. I'm going to take a bath, and my room better be just like it is now. And NO snooping.”
“Rin…” Sensing her pause at her door as she looked down at him, he softly asked, “Do you think I should tell him?”
Haru was overprotective of Yuki, no doubt about it. No matter the time that has passed since their early childhood, Haru would never abandon Yuki to his fate, whatever it might be. It was a harsh reality to accept over the years…
She would admit this to no one, she barely admitted it to herself, but it is the main reason she couldn't abide the Rat's presence…one's first love is never forgotten, and Haru has impeccable memory. How could she ever compete with a memory long cherished? She was of flesh and blood, of the here and now, and she knew that she held Haru's heart and soul as he held hers.
Still…the devotion Haru gave to Yuki was exclusive. It was a devotion that was reserved for him, not her, just HIM.
It hurt to know that he withheld that portion of himself from her. Yet, as much as she wanted to change that hard fact of reality, she would never deny Haru his favorite. Yes, she knew, in the deepest recesses of her mind, that Haru's favorite was a young man with soft grey hair with grey-violet eyes that mesmerized the general populace. She had known this truth for years now and had somehow come to respect it, and with a sick lurch at times in the pit of her stomach, she had accepted it. She had to…a love for the stubborn Ox demanded no less than to accept him as he is.
“Well, if he's as smart as you make him to be, then he already knows. Question is, why does he still hang out with her?” she softly asked as she turned away to proceed with the start of her long day.
Another question for the Ox to ponder…and worry about.
`One more hour…just one more…'
Kureno softly remarked, “Yuki, the family is now examining your wall scroll calligraphy in the other room—”
“—with Kagura's wonderful chabana!” cut in Ayame with a loud whisper. Setting out the remaining dishes at the host's station, he merrily continued to whisper, “I tell you, that lone stem of blossom coupled with Yuki's eloquent words that were written with the finest calligraphy on that beautiful painted scroll has me blushing with limitless brotherly pride!”
“Eh…hai, the flower arrangement and scroll work is well done—”
“Kureno-kun, your words are too modest! Be bold!” exclaimed Ayame even louder than before. “Yuki, the kaiseki ryori was magnificent…I was never afraid that you'd drop those heirloom dishes when handling the meals! And to think you did it all within two hours! No one can perform this level of tea ceremony as perfectly as you have, Yuki! Not one being! Come, Kureno-kun, don't dawdle—we still have the last round of tea to pass out…the most important one of all! Chop, chop, help me clean up!”
Yuki would have stopped the incessant chatter that steadily grew in volume, however, his joints were currently protesting from even bothering to make the effort to silence the elder brother. Having sat in a seiza position for so long, his feet were still feeling the pricks of needles all over. No matter how many times he had practiced this, being on your knees for hours on end was just not normal in his book.
`Eating at the dinner table in seiza is one thing…but for TWO HOURS STRAIGHT? Serving the food…arranging and cleaning the utensils used for the tea…making the tea…passing the tea…bowing to all our guests…all in seiza position. I went numb in the legs a half-hour ago! Why did I ever agree with Akito on doing this for the Board of Elders and their wives? Seto-san looked like he was disgusted with everything I had sent his way…Kumiko-san had been much happier, though. And Master Haji had been rather solemn…strange…'
Fanning himself furiously with his custom-made fan, now realizing just how warm he was in the stuffy room, he took a sip from his cool beverage, mentally focusing on the last part of the ceremony. It was the pinnacle point of the whole affair…the last passing of the tea. It was vitally important that he show his very best performance on this…the folding of his kimono sleeves must be just right, the tilt of the hand, the finger motion, the position of his seiza, the depth in his bows to the various members of the board, heck, even the tatami mats must be kept in mind as he goes through this last ritual.
“Yuki…sit down while I give you a quick rub-down.” Kureno laid his hands on the youth's slim shoulders as he guided him to the floor, careful of not stepping on the joints between the tatami mats. He quickly went to work on Yuki's feet and legs, giving them a brisk massage with expertise. He softly continued, “Ayame-niisan just went through the back way to return the dishes of the last meal. We only have a few minutes before the start of the next passing of the tea.”
Nodding that he heard, Yuki reverted to his inner thoughts, going over the many fine details of his upcoming performance. Deeply breathing in and out to steady his nerves further, he sleepily eyed Kureno's bent form over his legs. “Ne, Kureno…am I doing fine? Is there anything that I should be focusing on this last ritual?”
His companion smiled warmly. “You are doing very well, Yuki…perfection at its finest. Ayame-niisan was not exaggerating when he had said as much. You have practiced incessantly over the summer on mixing the tea correctly…it's just right. Just one more hour, and you'll be forever known amongst the clan as a master performer of the `way of tea'. How would you like to hear that?”
Yuki scoffed at the dry compliment. “This is the last tea ceremony I'm ever performing…my neck and back are KILLING me.”
“Then allow me…please turn around.” With the Nezumi's back to him, Kureno gently and quickly worked out the tense back muscles. “After the ceremony and everyone is gone, I can give you a proper massage. Akito will also need to rest up before we leave for the festivities tonight.”
“Obon…” Yuki looked down on his outfit, knowing he was to wear this outfit tonight as well. The talent Ayame held in those dexterous fingers amazed him time and again. His brother spared no expense in making this luxurious silk outfit for today's events…he only wished that it didn't stand out so much. It was just so…extravagant.
Unlike Kureno's simple design with an even simpler color scheme, his outfit carried such richness and sanctity to it. He was wearing both the kimono and the striped-colored hakama, which in itself was formal enough. But no, the exuberant tailor that was his brother didn't stop with these simple designs on his outfit. Ayame just had to add the emblem of the family crest to his left sleeve that covered the shoulder as well, soft in its pale pink color that was set against the dark wine color of his kimono. It was bold but at the same time delicate in its intricate details.
`I feel like a peacock showing off its feathers! (Sigh) At least I'm not the only one wearing this. Except for the color and the position of the family emblem on her obi instead of the shoulder, Akito's matches my outfit perfectly. Good thing our outfits are unlined…it's hot enough as it is wearing these things…'
He stared down to his split-toed socks (wearing tabi socks wasn't so bad after all), wiggling his big toe some more to ease the numbness there, still fanning himself furiously to ward off potential heat exhaustion…highly unlikely, but it was SO HOT. “You're so fortunate, Kureno…you and the others only have to wear just the yukata; I wish I could forgo the hakama. They make my skin itch too much…”
Glancing at the skirted-pants Yuki loathed since first wearing them in rehearsals, Kureno kindly remarked, “You only need to wear them for one more hour…you may then remove them afterwards until later tonight for Obon's festival.”
True, but the Nezumi eyed with envy the simple pale blue yukata along with the dark blue sash that comprised the Bird's outfit. Even a simple emblem of the Bird was stitched to the left side of the outfit. And what was worse, Ayame was also wearing the same design, no doubt forcefully refraining from embellishing the outfit anymore than necessary, his colors being a deep emerald color yukata with a pale yellow obi, the stitch of his Snake emblem in pale yellow set against the dark emerald of his outfit in much the same location as all the others it seemed. Why couldn't he wear something like that? It would have been good enough for the ceremony…in his opinion.
His wandering thoughts didn't linger long as he stood up and away from Kureno's comforting hands when Ayame entered the room with the final tea set for the ceremony. And moments later, the rest of their guests poured into the large tea room, mindful of their steps and the depths of their bows to their host. Feeling his two assistants already in waiting position, Yuki in turn acted accordingly in his customary seiza position. The final ritual has commenced.
Akito swept in as the last person to enter, earning deep bows upon her entrance from everyone in the room. She didn't extend her bow to the other members of their group, but she did incline her head to Yuki in greeting. The deep violet color of her kimono along with the lavender-colored obi made her skin appear porcelain-like. She hardly resembled a terminally ill person, especially with how proudly she held herself. She never once wavered in her steps nor in her positioning in seiza-style.
He was carried away with the intricacies of this final performance of `the way of tea'. Folding his sleeve in a certain manner as he prepared the tea…the extension of his hand, the placement of the fingers…the exact positioning of the ladle in accordance to custom… And of course there was the overall serenity he must exude in all he did…the very air he around him must convey sanctity and harmony, much like what he wrote on his scroll.
`—In a circle of purity, harmony lies within.— Did the boy ever think how well this describes what our family is not?' Master Haji had kept to the codes of ancient times by keeping pace with the ceremony's rules of etiquette required of him. Yet his thoughts couldn't stray far from imminent upheavals sure to occur within the family, as was usually the case whenever the next Head of the family is officially appointed. Akito's own appointment to the position she holds now came with bitter opposition and just as equal elation. This time around will be no different.
He had to give Akito the proper credit on this appointment. This elaborate tea ceremony was certainly the perfect way to formally introduce Yuki as the next Head of their family. It was precisely what the Board of Elders would not expect…their next Head performing an elite service for them. His actions performed here so precisely and beautifully and all the while humbly servicing them spoke more about his character than any words Akito would have said about him. If he took such great care to give them the most memorable tea ceremony they've ever had or ever will, then he will be just as dedicated to his family in his new position. Clever…Akito always knew best how to have her way…it was never anything less than that.
He reluctantly pondered on further dark thoughts, having known that with this official introduction of the next Head, the intense power struggles kept under a veil of mere `disagreements' were about to reach their zenith and will very likely spill over to outlying family branches. The next few months will be tumultuous at best…
`And now…strangely…with Kyo's Neko spirit acting up the way it has been, it only guarantees the inevitable clash that's going to come around when Akito passes on. Damn rumors are already circulating about using the poor Rat as a puppet…to be seen as a mere figurehead of the clan headship. How terribly cruel…and yet, the truth was never anything but that. If Seto-kun has anything to say about it, he'll make the poor boy's life a living hell…that man is very capable of it.'
It was his turn now to participate in the ceremony. The placement of the hands on the bowl offered, the turning of the bowl… And as he returned the bowl to Yuki, he allowed his gaze to linger on Yuki's serene gaze before moving to look at Akito's proud expression as she sat off to Yuki's side to observe them all. The innocence etched in the Nezumi's heart was clearly conveyed to him through those luminous orbs…the untainted innocence along with unrelenting determination.
`Is it all a product of blissful ignorance…of not knowing the full extent on what it takes to be the Head of this house? Damn, what a gamble you're taking Akito…trusting it all in the hands of this…poor child. A child that will be eaten by the wolves of this family given the chance…and there will be many chances in store.' Glancing sideways, he noted the dark challenge from the eyes of Seto to the officially-appointed heir as he grudgingly accepted the tea bowl. It didn't faze the Nezumi at all as their exchange was done and over with in minutes. And as Yuki moved to exchange the bowl with Kumiko, who virtually glowed with approval of him, Seto caught his side-glance and held it firmly.
The look had said all that needed to be said. Looking down to his calloused, wrinkled hands, Master Haji inaudibly sighed. As the ceremony wrapped up with Akito taking the final sip of the tea that was especially made for her participation only, he wondered which side will draw first blood…figuratively speaking.
`Hell, who am I kidding? Damn our curses time and again…damn them all.' All these years of living the life of a Sohma weighed heavily on his shoulders, knowing how they will all become entangled in the fiercest power struggle yet to cripple the clan. And in the hands of a child he was to have hope of surviving it all along with his precious loved ones.
Could he entrust the safety, the lives of his loved ones in those delicate and unproven hands of the revered Nezumi of the Jyuunishi? And what will the Neko say of this new arrangement?
`We'll see, won't we? —Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war…— Hell of a quote to remember now of all times…and all too true with this familial war.'
`I never knew the Zodiac Gardens connected with the forest surrounding Shigure-san's home. The family has such large property… And a river runs nearby here, too!' Tohru was elated to feel the warm summer breeze blow through the trees, ruffling her kimono and short hair. Glad that her butterfly hairpins were keeping her hair secure, she freely looked around her at the tall trees that bespoke of many years of living. To think these very trees stood witness to their Senior Dance months ago in the courtyard they are now standing in… The memories from then rushed through her mind…they were wonderful to remember and cherish.
Turning to her companions, she once again gave her grateful reply, “Everyone…thank you so much for inviting me to come with your family to your celebration of Obon! I'm so honored to be here—”
“No, not at all, Honda-san…the honor is ours for certain!” countered Ritsu animatedly.
She bowed deeply in return. “You are so kind, Ritsu-san. I am so thankful—”
“Come on, Tohru…you're making me blush with all your thank you's,” cut in Rin with a heavy sigh. “This place will be crawling with Sohmas from all over, so you'd hardly be noticed, trust me.”
Laughing lightly, Kagura linked her arm with Tohru's and happily remarked, “Heh, that's translation for `your welcome' in Isuzu-chan's world. But it's true…there will be so many family members here. Anyone will hardly care you're here, so it'll be fine.”
Kyo had to agree with Kagura on that note. Many members of their extended family had come in from out-of-town to celebrate their Obon festivities with the main branch at their old ancestral home. One new face around them will make no difference with them. Unlike the private family celebrations at New Year's along with The Banquet, the invitation was open to all Sohma family members, including himself. He was just glad that the majority of the family knew little of his `outcast' status…less stares of disgust aimed his way. Quite the opposite…he was rather popular considering how many came to wish him success in representing the family well at the upcoming international tournament. Needless to say that he was currently in a good mood…
He sighed heavily and then looked down to his clasped hands…hands that had no business to act on their own, or his arms for that matter. He could even add fingers to the equation. No, he couldn't stop there. His body… feet, legs, torso, even his very mind…his whole body and soul…they all moved in synch yet in a rhythm far too alien for him to sense as his own actions but nonetheless he had done it.
He, an amateur at even holding a wooden practice sword, blocked two of the finest swordsmen in this country with his bokken. It had jarred him completely that at that time he hardly said anything when Tohru proposed she leave on her own as she had errands to run that had to take her into the bustling shopping crowds. He avoided staying after she had left, not keen on having to explain something that was impossible to even accept as true. He had felt the worried gaze of his adoptive father bore a hole into his back as he left, but he chose to ignore it…he absolutely had to leave with a semblance of control over his raging mind and body.
He had arrived home alone, thankful that both the Rat and Dog were out as well. His legs had instinctively sought out the high reaches of the house, his mind being numb then to what had occurred. He had been in a daze for the most part, but after a while, his mind had come under turmoil as the images of his earlier actions finally fell heavily into place within his shocked mind. It had been staggering…the movement of his foot, the aim of his hands…all without having consulted his conscious mind…it all played out with an eeriness that had left him shuddering with repressed tension.
He had tried to do it again…just by himself with a wooden practice sword he had stashed in his closet. Over the following days, as he found the time, he would try to replay the incident as it occurred. The alien feeling from before that governed his body and mind without consent didn't return. And rather than feeling out of place, it became more familiar…more understandable. And it was old…damn old, this sense of alien familiarity.
No one had questioned his unusual tension, no doubt attributing it to the upcoming tournament. It was just as well… He was no closer to an answer to this new riddle in his life as he stood here with his fellow Jyuunishi companions and Tohru. There was some small relief, though…ever since then, no more plaguing images of despair and terror, no more cryptic whispers heard…
Silence…deafening silence.
There were no further conversations with Tohru in his dreams. As troubling as they were, he…missed her. The void left in her absence from those intimate moments was felt every evening as he waited in vain to hear from her again. And silence was all that met his wordless pleas…
Shaking away the wandering thoughts, he looked to the very real Tohru chatting away with Kagura, her face alight with joy with being with them to celebrate what would have been a lonely holiday for her. She did belong with them, regardless of what Akito thought. She belonged here…with him.
`I don't need her in my dreams anymore…she's here, now, with me. I'll be just fine—we'll be fine.'
“But Kyo-kun's yukata colors are pretty, too…they go well with his hair color. I'm glad Aya-chan went with my idea on choosing the deep turquoise color for the yukata and yellow color for the obi.” Glad that she had a helping hand with the last minute custom job Ayame was entrusted with, Kagura happily beamed a wide smile to the annoyed Neko, then turned her gaze to look to Ritsu. She fondly met his warm gaze, transmitting to him wordlessly that she thought him to look the best in his outfit. She did pick his colors as well, the pale green yukata with the dark green obi conveying the young man's somewhat serene personality…at least, he was that way most of the time when he wasn't panicking needlessly.
She looked down to her own outfit with pride. Ayame really had done well with picking out the designs of the apparel they were all given to wear tonight. In her case, the pale peach of her yukata contrasted well with her complexion and dark hair, her deep coral-colored obi tying the outfit well. He had worked on these outfits nonstop with his assistant for two straight weeks. There was no doubt in her mind that the tailor had infinite stamina to put in such hard work in that short a time frame…
`He worked especially hard on the obi and sleeves of the girls' kimonos. The stargaze orchid patterns were always a contrast of the color it was set against… Heh…with my outfit, he set the deep coral-colored orchids on the sleeves while the pale peach-colored orchids were patterned onto the obi. And he made the same arrangement with the other girls' kimonos with their specific colors. He really is amazing with his needle and thread. My contribution to his work seems so paltry in comparison…'
With a heavy sigh, she fingered her work on her left side. She traced the edges of her brown emblem of the Boar, the product of her own needlework (as were the other Jyuunishi emblems), designating her lowly status amongst the Jyuunishi. Not that it ever bothered her…she was proud to stand with her unique family in whatever capacity it was…to share their cursed burden together. It was after all how she had coped with being what she is all these years…
`It really isn't even an issue anymore. We're given so many liberties now compared to before. I have Rit-chan and my family and friends in good health. Even the occasional tea with Akito is no longer uncomfortable for me…just another opportunity to hope to see what Yun-chan sees in her company. Such a strange relationship they have…'
After giving Kagura's words further thought, Tohru shyly remarked as she looked all around the gardens but at her companions. “Hai, Kyo-kun looks…um…very…handsome.”
Kyo's furious blush matched her own as he looked to her with a knowing gaze. Tohru's outfit resembled much like the other girls, the color scheme being different of course. Her bright red yukata with the white obi blended well with her, especially the white butterfly stitched to her left side.
`Heh…her mom was the -Red Butterfly- and now Tohru's butterfly emblem is white. It's good…real good. It's who she really is…' He cleared his throat as he spoke somewhat steadily, “You look great, too…Tohru. And I'm glad you came.”
“You have such a way with words, Kyo…terribly simple…” called out Haru from behind Kyo. The Ox barely dodged the swipe to his head from the flustered Neko. “That's a compliment, Kyo…why are you so angry?”
Tohru felt her blush subside just a bit as she remarked warmly, “Arigato. Ayame-san was very gracious to provide me with this kimono—”
“And he had done a marvelous job. All of you look spectacular! I knew his works were top of the line…nothing less from a Sohma! I'm incredibly smart to have commissioned Ayame-kun to design the outfits your team will be wearing for the tournament.”
Kyo couldn't help gaping at what he had just heard. “What the hell…?!”
Master Haji took his time walking up to the group. Giving Kyo a good, hard pat on the back, he bowed politely to the ladies and warmly addressed them. “Ah, my dear Kagura-chan, you look stunning as always…and what a pleasant surprise! Isuzu-chan and Honda-san are here as well. Welcome ladies…your presence here is like the refreshing breezes on a hot summer afternoon where my tea is cool to the tong-AGH!”
“OYAJI…what the hell were you saying earlier? That half-brained idiot is doing WHAT for our team?” bit out Kyo darkly as he held the old man by the scruff of his yukata, nearly choking him as he pulled the elderly man away from the girls' immediate presence.
Taking his cane from Kyo's throbbing head, Master Haji took his fan out and fanned himself as it suddenly turned stuffy for him. “Didn't I tell you before? Pft, and they say I'm getting old…”
“You know…it's reasons like this that I stay miles away from these two. They're giving me a headache.” Her short remark earned a snort from Haru. With that, Rin turned on her heel, ready to walk away to blend in with other family members already gathering by the river to send off their lanterns. She was certain Haru would follow close on her heels.
The sounds of the constant bickering behind her trailed off as she finally took notice of the new individual that was eyeing them from the edge of the courtyard, specifically a loud Neko. Her eyes turned stone-cold and she quickly whirled around and shook Haru's arm in passing, her rigid posture letting him know she was being serious as she let him know with a glance to look behind him. Certainly enough, his gaze turned hard as well.
Haru's darker personality was quickly coming out. “Damn son of a—”
“Tohru…come on. We need to get to the river before the other members start taking up all the room by the shoreline.” Grasping Tohru's arm firmly, Rin tugged her in the direction of the river that lay beyond the boundaries of the secluded gardens. Giving Haru a hard stare, she firmly stated, “Not now, Haru…let's go.”
Tohru was innocent in many ways, even she knew that. But she knew well the seriousness in Rin's grip…it brook for no argument on her part, just immediate cooperation, much like Rin's statement to Haru. She looked to Haru as he passed her, his frown prominent as he spoke softly to Kagura and Ritsu, both turning solemn as they nodded in quiet understanding. She earnestly wished that she knew what was bothering them…she resolved to be of help to them, not stand on the sidelines as she had before in the past. She desperately wanted to do that much for them…if only they'd let her.
Kagura squeezed Tohru's shoulder, knowing from Tohru's silent plea in her eyes that she wanted to understand and help them. She smiled sadly and shook her head, hoping it was enough of an apology. Seeing Tohru quietly accept their decision with downcast eyes, she sighed heavily and left their silent group, silently asking Ritsu to leave with them as well. It would be best that he not be present for this…reunion. It would only conjure up memories of his difficult childhood and dealing with the many criticisms at such a tender age.
She saw her small group part at a brisk pace, Haru lingering only a bit to throw one last threatening glare to the unexpected guest. He disappeared quickly after the girls and Ritsu. It was very good timing…the individual that brought an ominous air to the serene area was fast approaching her and the two that stayed. She softly called over her shoulder, “Kyo-kun…”
“Not now, Kagura!” yelled Kyo irately, not ready to back down from his elder relative.
Master Haji realized his carelessness too late…perhaps age was coming upon him faster than he'd like to admit. To have missed this oppressing aura…well, he was completely distracted arguing with Kyo. Still, it was an error that will cost him dearly in the next few moments…
Moving in front of Kyo, he called out to Kagura, “Please, Kagura-chan…you may leave now. I will handle it from here.”
She shook her head and quietly remarked, “Not without Kyo-kun.” Turning her soft yet determined gaze to her fellow Jyuunishi, she called out, “Let's meet up with the others, Kyo-kun. They'll be waiting for us by the shoreline…”
“Still protecting the Neko from the dark realities that surround his existence…you two are quite the experts.”
Kagura was quick to frown upon hearing the sour comment. She leveled an angry glare at the individual who dared to cross her. “DON'T talk to me like you know me! And Kyo-kun doesn't need my help to protect him…he does fine on his own!”
“Kagura-chan…onegai…” was Master Haji's plea, vainly trying to keep a handle of this precarious situation.
“If Kyo does so well on his own, then why do you think Master Haji and Kazuma have done their utmost to keep me from seeing, let alone speaking with my own son for the past few years?”
The conversation went unnoticed by Kyo. He heard none of the words, not even the atmosphere of tension reached him. All his focus was on the past…the very distant past… A young boy who was afraid and sad…a young boy who saw he was mother dead by her own hand…a young boy being told that he was to blame for her death…a young boy angry and bitter… A Neko's rage never forgotten…
The man was not as tall as Kyo remembered but imposing nonetheless. He was cool in his demeanor, his eyes full of disdain when they were aimed in Master Haji's direction, sometimes throwing a baleful stare over to Kagura when he spoke to her. To finally see him after so long…a year, maybe more…he didn't bother keeping count.
“Surprised, are you?” The stoic voice of the man finally reached Kyo's sense of hearing. “This is Obon…the entire family is down here to bid our beloved ancestors or more recently deceased loved ones a pleasant journey back to their eternal rest. Surely you would wish the same for the woman that birthed you, ne Kyo?”
And the inevitable reunion between this father and son came down to the bitter confrontation that it was fated to be.
“Kyo-kun…he's nothing but a hateful man that only says hateful things. Let's just go…” ardently called out Kagura, her baleful glare on the adult Sohma.
Sternly staring at her, Master Haji repeated once more, “Kagura-chan, I'm not warning you again…”
The bitter man returned Kagura's glare. “I'm a `hateful man'? I say `hateful things'? My dear little Boar, DON'T presume to know ME—”
“Shut up…the both of you. And leave her alone.”
All three turned their attention to the once-silent Neko. Kyo stood there, head held high, staring fiercely at none other than his father. He remained silent as did the others, the light flapping of the leaves heard upon the breeze flowing through the courtyard. The dwindling light indicating that sunset was fast approaching with the cicadas loudly proclaiming another ending to a summer day.
Kyo's father finally replied with a smirk, “It's good to hear that you can speak for yourself, Kyo. I had thought for a moment that the Neko spirit had made you spineless.”
“You can't ever speak without your anger clouding your mind, Tsuneo!” lashed out Master Haji as his patience had come to an end. “Is it any wonder that you're restricted from contacting Kyo-kun?!”
“I said THAT'S ENOUGH!” Taking striding steps to the two men, he angrily went on, “Master Haji, I don't need you `handling' things for me anymore.” Ignoring the heated stare from his father, he marched past them in the direction of the riverbank, pausing only to retrieve Kagura by the arm. “You're right, Kagura…they're waiting for us.”
“Running away without confronting me or the mess you left behind when you went running off to Kazuma when my wife died?” bit out his father lowly. “Don't you have a decent bone in that filthy shell you wear?”
Kyo did stop in his strides upon hearing the venomous remarks spewing from the man's mouth before wryly smiling. “Heh…you're right, Kagura. The man only knows hate and how to spread it around.”
“My HATE is only fueled by the curse YOU bestowed on my family and the rest of this clan.” Finally seeing Kyo turning to face him with a cold glare, the harsh man proceeded to go all the way with what he had wanted to say to the infamous Neko for so long, the words spilling faster with each moment, the years of built-up hate and anger heavy in his tone. “You hide your shame well nowadays, Kyo, or perhaps you're just well tamed since being under Akito's thumb. You'd have to be if she let's you out of your leash. I had last heard that you were to be confined upon your graduation…an act I had been waiting on for YEARS since it was the only means for retribution for MY wife's DEATH. Tell me…what deal did you strike with her to allow for your freedom to continue?
Stripped bare…the raw rage heard only fueled the restless fears that Kyo himself couldn't help but wonder about on dark, lonely nights. Yet he did come to one conclusion that he honestly believed…and of all people, he had Yuki to thank for that.
“So…do you feel better now, Otou-san? Does it hurt less now that you've said what you wanted to say to me? And if it's not enough, are you still going to drag Okaa-san's memory through this hell of yours each and every time you face me? Because let me TELL YOU a FACT…Okaa-san is NEVER coming back to you or to me. She made sure of that when SHE took her own life! And nothing you do or say or whatever I do or say will EVER CHANGE THAT!
The eerie stillness in the air was felt as the heated discussion came to an abrupt halt. Both Kagura and Master Haji felt the rage and sorrow in Kyo's words. It was always there, hidden behind a scowl or flair of tempers. They knew it was only a matter of time before it all became too much for the Neko to suppress any longer. They just hadn't anticipated being the spectators to it. And sadly, they weren't the only ones…
“I must say, Kazuma, that you have certainly raised one angry, spoiled child…he's having quite the tantrum on these revered grounds. Perhaps I was lax in extending my invitation to all family members to celebrate Obon here…but then again, I was certain that most would have some shred of sense to be civil while giving their farewells to the dearly departed. What do you think…Yuki?”
And he thought the tension in the car was suffocating. It was fine towards the end of their drive, though…he had engaged in light conversation with Hiro and Kisa on how they were coming along with their preparations for their upcoming high school entrance exams, Kureno occasionally lending his opinion as well. And seemingly Akito was too immersed with her private thoughts to pay them any mind…she simply stared out her window without a word to any of them. She did, however, keep a steady hold of his hand within her grasp the whole time, tightening her hold every so often.
They had arrived at the gardens in good time, Hatori following them in his car with Shigure, Ayame, and Kazuma as his passengers. As they had all gathered to make their trek through the gardens to reach the isolated river, Akito had suddenly stopped and sharply turned her head in the direction of the old courtyard where the last school dance was held. Frowning, she then turned to Kazuma with a pointed stare and instructed the rest of them to go to the river and await her presence there. Hatori wasn't about to let her wander alone by herself when exhaustion was heavy on her senses, and as she was about to refute his concern and protest with one of her infamous glares and vocal lashings, Yuki had spoken out.
It was a bad idea…not that it stopped him from voicing it. He knew what lay beyond those trees and winding maze of the gardens. He knew, yet still insisted that he accompany her and Kazuma. If nothing else, he would at least divert her more `attentive' nature towards him so that she gave less attention to the main cause of her obvious displeasure.
Never had he imagined to have walked into an encounter of this magnitude. He had known it was Kyo, but he didn't anticipate seeing his father there as well. The bitter man was supposed to be with the other members of the family already gathered by the riverbank awaiting Akito's arrival. So the moment he heard and felt the abhorrence in the tail-end of their verbal dispute, he knew then that it was truly a very bad idea that he was there.
He was familiar with the usual dagger-like glares sent his way when Kyo was upset…it happened often enough for him to take them in stride. This wasn't one of them. It was more than words could ever describe…the cold, unyielding stare that was aimed at him squarely; no other was included in that hard look. But it wasn't exactly the stare that bothered him most…it was who gave him that icy look that had his nerves shaken and his Nezumi spirit on high alert.
`That's NOT Kyo behind those eyes…and it's smiling at me.' Brought out from his rattled thoughts by the question posed, Yuki mentally gave himself a shake and quietly replied, “I think it's late, Akito. Hanabi will be starting up very soon, and we still need to reach the riverbank to send off our lanterns. This is no time to be having these `discussions', especially here of all places.”
“I quite agree, Yuki. Such disrespect shown to our ancestors by these two is not acceptable. But more importantly…” She then walked sedately to the two that were arguing heatedly only moments before, but both now clearly affronted by her remarks yet subdued from protesting by the mere look of her own steel blue eyes that coldly stared at them. The small smile she wore never once reached those orbs.
“I will not have my respects to my father tainted by either of your presence at the riverbank.” Looking all around her as her grin widened, she went on, “In fact, why don't all of you just stay here and become reacquainted with one another as a family should? I'm sure Kazuma has many words he would like to discuss with Tsuneo-san…catch up on how Kyo has been behaving… And Master Haji can of course handle further things from here onward…he was doing so well just a few moments ago, ne?”
It was the highest of insults…and well deserved, too. Master Haji said nothing as she had spoken calmly and firmly, meting out punishment for the altercation that should have been prevented or at least delayed for another time. He had wanted to put a stop to it, and had come close to slamming down his cane on both the stubborn heads of the fools. Still, he held back…it was a decision that he knew would be costly for all involved, including himself.
Humiliated. Utterly humiliated and in front of the person Kyo detested most. He was only too glad that Tohru was dragged away…it was bad enough Kagura had to witness this. And then there was the Nezumi… It took so much to keep himself planted where he was, to refrain from lashing out verbally, physically, in any way possible. His mouth was clamped shut so much so that his jaw muscles were protesting. His hands were tight fists that were clenched hard enough to draw blood from his palms where his nails cut into his skin. And his beaded bracelet hidden under his long sleeves…it thrummed with his repressed rage…
“Akito…your punishment is well given. But to have it carried out would deprive them of bidding their farewells to their departed loved ones. It wouldn't be proper to mete out punishment on this day, no matter how well justified it is. And then, of course, there is the fact that the family will notice their absence. Having to deal with the stares and constant gossiping behind our backs tonight of all nights just because of these two's negligence isn't worth the aggravation. Why not spare them your punishment this once, Akito, if only to save us further hassles?”
Kazuma shared the look of astonishment with his grandfather, both obviously not expecting Yuki to agree but also oppose Akito's reprimand. The Nezumi had done so in such a manner that it still stung them to hear him side with her but also presented the matter in a logical light that lacked emotional attachment. There was no sympathy in his tone when he had spoken…it was all said in a very detached manner, indifferent to their situation.
`Thank you, Yuki…no doubt it was the most difficult thing you've had to say. But it was exactly what Akito would only hear. Cold logic. You know her well, Yuki…so well that you're emulating her way of thinking and turning it back on her with ease.'
Kazuma's musings were shared with Master Haji. The elder Sohma knew then that the next Head of this family would be ruling with a cool head on his shoulders and will not be easily swayed by raging emotional situations. `Heh, the first test of this young clan head and already he'd passed it with flying colors. Promising…very promising…'
The silence continued for only a moment longer before Akito finally gave a frustrated sigh.
“How insufferable…but true. The things I sacrifice for the good of these intolerable… Fine, then.” Giving Kyo one final glare before turning to his father, she coldly remarked, “You have given my staff and myself enough grief with your incessant complaints of the decisions I have made. I'm tired of them and will hear no more of them. Consider this your one and only warning.”
Kyo's father stammered with barely restrained rage, “But Akito-sama…how could—”
“Are you arguing with me? WHAT HAD I JUST SAID?!” she loudly exclaimed as she cut him off.
It was then that Yuki suddenly reached out to her and held her wrist to prevent her from moving forward to physically strike out. Incredibly, she didn't flinch at the contact nor did she bat his hand away as would have been expected of her. She only stood still, looking no less intimidating than before…no less lethal…
The man knew better than to push this matter further with the clan head. And with the Nezumi looking over her shoulder at him with a cutting look that was up to par with her ire, there was nothing else to be said or done. After all, the Nezumi was next in line to lead this family. His sources confirmed it just this afternoon. The matter of the Neko was truly out of his hands, leaving him with only the bitter resentment that absolution from the cursed Neko's existence would never be his.
Upon seeing the troublesome man bend his head in deference to her authority, she nodded triumphantly. `As it should be.' Tugging her hand free from Yuki's grasp, she leaned in and softly whispered for this man's ears only, “Remember well, old man…what I decide to do or not to do with the Neko is MY business. Now and for ALWAYS.”
Barely giving the man and Kyo a look of disdain, she turned on her heel and gracefully went to stand by Yuki with no further comment. Smiling calmly, she led him by the hand and steadily marched off in the direction of the riverbank, the sleeves of her beautiful kimono billowing softly with the wind. “Let us be off then. The fireworks will be starting soon, and we have lanterns to send off before then.”
Yuki nodded in assent, his face forward to follow Akito without hesitation. He wanted to be as far away as possible from that group, especially from the acidic look the Neko was blessing him with. And after what he had said, he was fairly certain that whatever tenuous peace might have existed between Kyo and himself, it had now come to a resounding shatter of a million pieces. He was not looking forward to when they were home alone. He wouldn't be surprised if even Master Haji or Kazuma felt betrayed by the words he chose to employ to halt Akito's actions.
`It was the only way…I think. Maybe… Good thing that I didn't catch the whole shouting match…Kyo was ready to skin me on the spot after only having heard just his last remark to his father. I doubt he knows that these trees and shrubbery are good sound buffers.' He mentally gave pause to his inner ramblings as he carefully glanced to Akito, noting that she was no longer incensed and looking rather pleased with herself. `If only they knew…'
No one would have been the wiser that this young lady that held herself so regally and just dealt with two obstinate individuals with a heavy hand was laid up earlier with a feverish headache, dizzy spells and all. He was assured that it wasn't his tea or the meals that he had served her earlier that brought on her sudden infirmity. Kureno's and Hatori's assertions didn't allay his doubts, though.
In any case, her tenacity knew no bounds on this day since she pressed on and forced her body to take in further abuse in it's delicate state. No amount of medical warnings from her doctor or heartfelt pleas from her personal attendant to remain in bed swayed her chosen course to be at the riverbank by the gardens for Obon. Especially when she had partings of her own to give…
`It was the thing to say, I'm certain…to state the cold, hard facts. Akito wouldn't have budged otherwise…those two idiots ruined what little good mood she had with their ill-timed shouting match. It was supposed to be about Akira's memory tonight and only that…it's why she went through hell just to get here. Akira…her father…he was her whole world. And mine as well…'
He chanced a glance to Kagura as he was close to leaving the courtyard. In that one instant, she knew what he wanted to say to her and nodded that she would carry out his request. Disappearing into the foliage, he silently pleaded for the best despite the reality he lived in. It was a vain hope, he knew, nonetheless, he did hope…
`Can you see through the dark hate that's not entirely your own, Kyo…see through the mire of half-truths and truly see what's there? Can you understand me? Would you even want to? Probably…but no. I'll still hope, though…'
Kyo's father reluctantly took another path that would lead to the riverbank. He walked away with no further looks or words to anyone else. Seeing this, Master Haji let out a sigh of relief, his proud shoulders now distinctively in a slump. “Well…that's not a reunion worth repeating, that's for sure.”
Kazuma immediately went to Kyo's side, noting how rigidly he stood in place while staring blankly at the void where Akito and Yuki walked through. Softly he called out, “Kyo…don't bother with it anymore. Let it go. It's over.”
Kyo didn't respond to the concern nor did he acknowledge Kazuma's arm draped over his shoulders as a comforting gesture. Kagura felt the need to help as well…even Yuki had wanted to. It's what he had wordlessly asked her to do for him… “Kyo-kun…please?”
Still no response from the eerily silent Neko. Trying to lure him back to some sort of normalcy, she brightly remarked as she reached out and tugged his limp hand, “Kyo-kun, snap out of it! We're going to be late. Remember? The others are waiting…Tohru-kun included. Come on, I'll lead the way!”
“Why?” The voice from the Neko was soft but filled with intense desperation. His frigid glare was soon turned on her. Kyo immediately shoved the arm across his shoulders and jerked his hand from her startled grasp. Standing over the petite young Boar with a menacing aura that had her hairs raised, he bit heatedly, “Well? TELL ME! Why the hell should I care to show up where I'M NOT WANTED BY MY OWN FAMILY?!”
Kazuma was ready to respond to his son's silent call for help. However he was rather slow to react compared to Kagura's quick actions. She swiftly and fiercely hugged the burdened Neko, pouring as much love as she's always had for the foolish guy into her embrace. Just as quickly, she pushed him away so that she could level her own hard gaze at him, never once letting up on it. Suddenly, she thrust her hand out and yanked his head down, her hand gripping his hair tightly into her fist.
Stunned silent. All gaped like dead fish. No one expected that outburst…least of all Kyo.
Yet, nice and soft was never the Boar's true style. Not when it came to knocking sense into the hard head of one stubborn Neko. She loved him—that much showed. It never ceased to amaze Kazuma to see her passionate in anything she believed in. The love she had nurtured over the years for his hard-headed son gave him hope for so long, and he was glad that it hadn't faded over the years. Despite the new, more stable relationship she had with another, her love for Kyo had only matured into something else that was akin to that of a sibling bond. She did know this brash teen that well. And she knew exactly what to do and say at a time like this.
`She certainly DID it and SAID it…rather strongly,' mused Kazuma with a sense of relief.
“Damn…if only I was seventy years younger.” Whistling lowly, Master Haji gave Kazuma a hearty pat on the back, also wanting to reach the riverbank to bid his private respects to one former Neko. “Well, Kazu-kun, let's be off or else we'll miss our turns.”
Kazuma nodded in agreement and walked off with his grandfather, all the while eyeing Kyo warily. The teen had stood there with a look of shock that hadn't moved him to act. But apparently that wasn't required…someone else took on that task for him rather happily.
“Fine…have it your way…” With an exasperated sigh, patience not a virtue Kagura possessed, she let go of his hair and quickly grabbed hold of his ear. Twisting it none-too-gently, she firmly held her grip as she began to literally drag Kyo in the direction of the riverbank, catching up to an amused Master Haji and Kazuma.
“Love hurts and don't call me that, Kyo-kun! You'll make me cross,” she chastised the irate teen as she kept her hold on his abused ear.
“Love hurts, my ass…” was Kyo's low grumble, glaring heatedly at the amused faces of his elder caretakers, daring them to say anything of his predicament. Sighing heavily, he resisted pulling back on his ear. Kagura certainly had a hold on him…no need to lose an ear over it.
As they made their way through the thick foliage, following stone steps that led to the riverbank where most of the family was already gathered, Kyo finally began to feel all the pieces of his nightmare turned reality come together. The memories made from this latest war of words…
His father, the father that gave him life, was dead set on ending his freedom however it took. He spoke his piece, nothing new, of course, but he definitely seemed more desperate. The man even dared to confront Akito on the matter, though he was quickly silenced.
`Hmph, damn fool. At least, he's telling it to my face instead of going behind my back. Tch, probably because Shihan and Oyaji can't hold him back anymore.' Then the images from another pair came into focus…the condescending air…the sneer… Authority shoved down his throat…but above all, those eyes… Eyes of gray-violet that took in all of that mess and bore witness to his greatest humiliation. And the owner of those set of eyes stood by her…he stood WITH HER…
“Kyo-kun…I'm glad you did it.”
He was brought out of his spiraling thoughts by Kagura's sudden remark, noting thankfully that she had let go of his ear. “Huh? Did what? What are you talking about now?”
“You faced your fears…somewhat. But that's something,” she remarked assuredly, grasping his wrist while going down the stony path.
The comment gave him a sudden start to the heart. Has it been that long since he's heard this line of discussion? Swallowing inaudibly, he asked with trepidation, “Wha-what fears? I…I didn't do anything besides yell back at that man.”
“Exactly.” Linking her arm through his, she began to hum to a tune in her head, happy to have this shared moment with him, however brief it would be. Such moments were harder to come by as time passed. That was her greatest fear…to grow apart from those close to her. And to her, her fellow Jyuunishi are those closest to her, even Akito.
`I'm not about to give up on you, baka. You faced one fear…with so many more still out there. It's a start. And no matter how hard you try to keep yourself away from us, you won't be alone as you face each one…promise.' She heavily sighed as she continued, “You told him what you were too afraid to admit to yourself. It's good that you finally let it out. I'm glad.”
To admit…to acknowledge…to believe the truth that was always there, yet too horrible to accept. And worse, it had hurt too much that it was better to have felt the hate than the agony.
Yes, that boy from long ago that was too afraid to face the truth had finally admitted it to himself.
`He abandoned us. My mother…me…he just…left us. Still in the same house, but…he was never THERE. He never looked my way…but worse…he hardly looked at her. And when he did…it was only with disappointment with those dead eyes of his. She ended her life, sure…but…she was dead inside long before that. She barely held on to life because…of me. Hehe…what do you know? All this time I had thought she was afraid of me. She had fear…but she feared FOR me. And all she could see was the cause of her fear…this damn bracelet that represents all her misery rolled up in a string of beads.'
He looked dejectedly into the distance ahead of them, soft murmurs of the crowd now being heard through the thick tree line ahead. He quietly remarked, “How do you put up with my shit, Kagura? All these years…they were hell just to live them. And you…you were…there. You never turned your back on me, not even when I…I rejected you.”
So many years…lots of laughs and a whole lot more tears. She really was with him every step of the way, minus the time he took off with Kazuma up in the mountains. Even when the pain of his rejection had become too unbearable at times to endure, she never once gave thought to abandoning him. Some time apart was necessary, but…to leave him behind…to let him go entirely…
“I couldn't. In the end, you're as much a part of me as I'm a part of you. To leave you behind or alone…it'd be like cutting off a part of my life that meant so much to me…and still does.” She lightly punched his arm, smiling widely as they finally breached the tree line to see all the family gathered by the riverbank. “Silly idiot…this is what being a family is all about.”
Master Haji and Kazuma kept silent as the two conversed quietly amongst themselves a few feet ahead of them. Both knew well that only another in the same cursed position could truly understand the sorrow of having to face hard truths. And both were extremely pleased to see them come to terms in only the ways they knew best.
“Haji-ojiisan…are you ready to bid your respects to your brother?” asked Kazuma while setting up his lantern for when his turn came.
Master Haji smiled fondly, his lantern in hand and ready to be sent downriver. “Yes…I think it may be the same as yours.”
Kazuma wordlessly nodded and looked to the inscription on the paper surrounding the floatable candle… `—Hope. May it shine upon us like your smile once did…'
Kyo met up with the other Jyuunishi, glad to focus his thoughts on anything that wasn't related to the earlier incident. They all murmured amongst themselves, much like the large crowd was doing, all excitedly waiting for the signal to release their lanterns. All seemed eager to commence this traditional send-off, each member carrying their lantern with their private inscriptions of well wishes to those that have departed the living realm. He was one of them as he retrieved his lantern from Haru's hands.
`—Never alone…never forgotten.' The inscription he wrote for his deceased mother. Yet, he wasn't so sure if it was more for himself that he wrote it or for her memory…
He looked away to the girl he was hoping to have next to him as he sent off his lantern. Although Tohru had to stay away from Akito's immediate presence, he was glad that Tohru was just a few members down the line with Ritsu's parents. She waved excitedly at him, her lantern to her mother in her other hand. The smile that never died sent him a calm he had so desperately sought. Especially when his eyes landed on one other Jyuunishi…
Cold and numb…bitter. Hollow…and an ache in your chest. Is this what true betrayal felt like? The sting of betrayal…it's fine blade cut deep. Certainly his father betrayed him and his mother, but…it was different. He had never developed a relationship with the man. And despite repeatedly making his beliefs known that Yuki was never a friend and worse than a rival, there was still the unmistakable connection with the baka Nezumi. Hardly noticing it as it snuck up on him, a true relationship had developed between them over the years, high on strife and emotion, but also one of understanding. And for a time, it became comfortable to accept that fact.
Simply put, somehow, some way, he had come to trust Yuki. It was by no means a conscious decision on his part, but nonetheless, it was what it was.
Sohma Kyo, Neko of the Jyuunishi, trusted Sohma Yuki, the Nezumi of the same circle.
`My mistake…my LAST mistake regarding you…traitor.' It was not as all-consuming as he had thought betrayal to be, but he was sure it was just the shock that's softening the blow now…and disgustingly, it was also immense disappointment. Repressing the tide for now, he focused on the other Jyuunishi, strangely content to be in their midst despite the lingering ache that would only grow with time. But for now…he'll remember his mother…with his family beside him.
`Are they insane?! Shigure's and Nii-san's antics have reached an all-time high with that ridiculous lantern! Pink ribbon and lace don't belong on a lantern! (Pause) Hn, well, that's something…Hatori's making them change it. Pft, have it torched is my opinion…' Glad that he was at a distance from having to hear the commotion they were creating (already several parents were giving them disapproving glares), Yuki chanced a glance at Tohru and found her not too far off and in good spirits. He smiled fondly, very pleased that she was there to celebrate this occasion with them.
`Maybe she'll come with us for the festivities being held in our neighborhood. It'll be small compared to the one in town, but it'll be manageable for us to maneuver through the family crowds. They went all out with the games and decorations.' He caught her glance then, her smile from before wider than ever. She showed him her lantern, the small, simple candle-bearer ready to be launched. `Her inscription…what had she written for her mother? If it's anything like ours—'
“Yuki, Akito is starting to give her signal…please be ready.” Kureno guided the young adult further out to the shoreline, next to the serene lady overlooking the calm river. `At least, I hope I'm reading her right…' It was well past time to commence the festivity, but for whatever reason, Akito had been silent and waiting ever since she arrived. `Waiting for what, though?'
Yuki was along the same line of thought…his companion had not spoken or done anything else since arriving except stand by the shore, staring blankly beyond the horizon. She ignored the expectant silence from some of the family, oblivious to the quiet murmurs from others, and definitely ignoring the growing restlessness from several of her Jyuunishi. She simply stood there…waiting…her extravagant kimono billowing with the breeze. The minutes advanced…
He sighed quietly and gently grasped her shoulder. “Akito…”
She went off…right into the calm water of the river. She continued sloshing her way through the water, unmindful that her once flowing kimono had now begun to stick to her legs.
“My masterpiece!” bemoaned Ayame.
“Ssh!” Once silencing the tailor, Hatori turned to Shigure, the unspoken question clear in his eye.
Shigure shook his head, wordlessly conveying that he was also at a loss with the woman's actions. He looked over to Yuki, confusion also evident in the youth's eyes. “Well, let's hope she's not out for a swim this late in the day. Usually if you're out this late at the river, clothes aren't normally required for skinny—”
“Desist with your perversion, Shigure,” bit out Hatori threateningly. Seeing the Inu silently pout as he rubbed his sore head, Hatori held back his temper once more and began walking the short distance to Kureno and Yuki. Upon reaching them, he asked quietly, “Kureno, Yuki…what's going on?”
“I'm not certain,” whispered Kureno nervously.
There was no response from Yuki…only a resolute stare as he quickly went to follow Akito through the tepid water, his hands firmly holding onto the lantern to be launched.
“Not that one, too!” cried out Ayame, forlornly burying his face in his hands. “Heinous death to silk works of art!”
Consoling his old friend with pats to the shoulder, Shigure solemnly mused, `Like so long ago…where one goes, the other inevitably follows. (Sigh) We're back where we started…the Nezumi always standing by her side. And just like last time, it won't last for long. Only this time…it'll come at a higher cost.'
The remarks were lost to the wind, Yuki now only feeling the cold against his legs. He was glad that Akito finally stopped when the water level reached her knees. Finally reaching her, he shifted their lantern to one hand, the unoccupied one grasping her shoulder once again. “Akito, is everything all right?”
She finally looked up from her staring at her reflection on the river, locking her piercing gaze to his concerned one. “Look all around you, Yuki.”
Taken aback at her demand, he glanced about for a moment, noting only water all around them as well as the other shoreline on the opposite side. “Yes, Akito…we are far out into the river—”
“No! Try again…LOOK.” Her gaze narrowed as she stepped closer to him.
He carefully looked around him as she had wanted him to. Trees…water…the opposite shore…the river stretching far out on either side…the darkening sky with bright stars…fireflies… And, of course, the family.
Haru was staring at him quizzically, his hand lazily swinging his lantern from its side. Rin was keeping a wary eye on said lantern, nudging the Ox to maintain it right-side up to keep the candle inside. Hiro was arguing with Momiji while Kisa calmly spoke with Kagura and Ritsu, ignoring the bickering beside her. Ayame looked to be shamefully lamenting a great loss on Shigure's shoulder, the Inu patting the tailor in understanding…now cheerfully showing him the pink ribbon and lace that was supposedly put away. Hatori wasn't paying them any mind anymore, likely giving them up as a lost cause, as he stared at Akito with no small concern. Kureno shared this as well…both were no doubt worried about the clan head's delicate health.
And beyond them all was Kyo…quietly making his way to Tohru, Ritsu's parents accommodating his presence to avoid accidental exposure. The Neko remarkably was sedately addressing them, and then settled to hold onto Tohru's extended hand. There was tension in his shoulders as he rigidly stood beside Tohru at a safe distance. She was happy, but worried…her eyes clear to show it all.
Never once did Kyo look to him or Akito…only at his reflection in the water.
“Do you see it, Yuki…do you see it now?” asked Akito persistently.
Yuki observed the rest of the family, noting how they were all looking at them with expectant stares. `Our family is large…sharing the same blood…the same possibility… This curse of ours…it's an endless cycle that could strike anyone of those faces in the crowd or their future generations. Such a bleak future…'
Leaning into him, Akito softly whispered, “They all eat…drink…sleep… Gossip…worry…complain…care…even love. It's all such a lovely…illusion. Some want to break away from it, preferring to face the `reality' of life by wanting to break away from the family and live on their own. But that's also an illusion, isn't it? An illusion woven over the centuries…it's not easily abandoned. In the end…wherever you go or whatever you do…we all still share the same blood…the same fate…the same, damn curse.”
Deeply breathing in the cool night air and somewhat fishy smell from the river water, she wrapped her arms around Yuki's waist, tightening her embrace, and leaning into his chest. She smelled the soft incense from the tea room on his yukata and, of course, his distinct smell. Closing her eyes, she heard his soft heartbeat against her ear, only now noticing that her small Nezumi was a full head taller than her.
`The years have past us, Yuki…we're no longer children. But while I still can…even in death, I will NEVER let you go. You are mine…always mine…' She abruptly opened her eyes, staring straight out at one other girl in the crowd. She knew of the `outsider's' presence. She had allowed it for this very reason…
Certainly enough, Tohru caught her stare and was momentarily startled. And after being under the scrutiny of the clan head for several moments longer, Tohru bowed her head quickly and tightened her grasp on Kyo's hand. She felt chills go down her veins from that one stare that wordlessly said only one thing…'—mine—`. She didn't dare read any further into Akito's intense stare, but she felt the warning therein.
Kyo had years of experience dealing with wordless stares aimed his way, especially when they contained some sort of derogatory term. So he had felt the severe glare aimed in his direction from the clan head. Looking up, he saw how Akito held the Nezumi in a possessive embrace, intently staring at his companion with a small smile. When Tohru had abruptly bowed her head and held his hand firmly, he felt the ever-familiar tightening of his jaw as he gritted his teeth, but just as rapidly he felt his previous bitter anger cool the flames of his temper.
`No…things won't be the same as before…not anymore.' Bringing his other hand to hold their clasped hands together, he looked down to meet Tohru's surprised gaze, fondly smiling and quietly remarking, “You know, if you don't pay attention you'll miss sending off your lantern to your mom. Don't let anyone make you forget that.”
She looked away from such a heavy stare and smiled nervously. She then looked back to Akito and Yuki, seeing how they were now preparing the lantern they held in their hands. Her eyes glanced to her own lantern, the small candle ready to be lit and illuminate her inscription to her mother.
“Arigato…I'll be ready. Okaa-san will want to see this message.” Pulling her hand away from his, she carefully cradled the paper lantern with her hands. `It's what I know to be true now, Okaa-san. I hope you do understand…—I found THE home that'll never leave me.—'
As Kyo observed Tohru's private moment with her mother's memory, he patted the top of her head warmly, quietly swearing to his deceased mother and to hers, `I'll protect her from the dark pit of hell we've been stuck in for too long. She won't live the life that left us alone and forgotten…by those we used to trust. That's a promise.'
The soft flicker of the flame danced with the breeze on the tip of Yuki's lit match. Carefully he tilted their lantern, lighting the small candle within the paper lantern. Setting it right-side up, he looked to Akito as she stared at the softly lit lantern. Taking it from his hands, she set the candle-bearer on the water, pushing it away to float along the current. She once again stood next to Yuki, holding his hand with her own.
It was the signal the whole family had been waiting for. Many more lanterns were lit simultaneously, swiftly sent on their way to join the lone lantern from the clan head. The lanterns were of all different size and shape, each carrying their distinct inscription written for their deceased loved ones to take back with them in their eternal rest. It was mesmerizing…to see the many gentle lights weave their way through turbulent waters, never once becoming extinguished by the waters or shrouded by the darkness encroaching upon them. They stayed lit…always lit despite the overwhelming odds.
“What you say is true, Akito.” spoke out Yuki solemnly. “No one in the family can escape the blood in our veins. The possibility will always be there, for the curse to continue in our bloodline far into the future.”
He paused, placidly staring as the flickering lanterns floated further away. He then looked down to meet her upturned gaze, his sudden smile surprising her for a moment. “To abandon our reality if only to believe in the illusion when it promises to offer less misery or none at all—it reminds me of when we were little and didn't behave much differently.”
She could only stare at him confoundedly. Shaking her head in disbelief, she retorted, “That's ridiculous, Yuki. For one, we were CHILDREN—”
“Hai…we were. I remember discovering mud for the first time. It was incredible, really…dirt so wet it made bubbles when squished in your fists.” Smiling widely at the memory, he quietly recollected, “I was all too happy at the time…not a care for what dark problems surrounded me…us, actually. If I recall correctly, I had painted my face with streaks of the gooey mess because someone had read from a book what a samurai looked like.”
Vaguely annoyed at the implied remark, she crossed her arms and turned away from him. “It's not my fault Tou-sama left those books where I could reach them.”
Sighing inaudibly, he reached out and took her hand into his own, slowly leading her back to the far-off shoreline, the water around them gently parting as they calmly waded through. His voice was soft, barely heard above the ripples of water around them. “Back then, you seemed happiest when you played with me or read to me. You made the stories come to life with your voice, even when…when our family became too much to handle.”
“Did that not prove my point?” she asked equally softly.
“It proved that the good memories were no illusion. We weren't deceived in any way in that regard…they were real. Yet, when faced with so much sorrow, especially when Akira died, it was only then that the good memories became an illusion.” He sadly brought to mind those times of extreme despair as a child. Tears that never stopped…screams and wails that broke the silence in the dead of the night…and above all, the loneliness he and she had succumbed to.
“Our dark reality will always be there, lurking around corners without mercy. But if our family can find a little bit of that `illusion' in their lives like we had and somehow still do, then why not allow them that hope? Life in general never came with a guarantee…just the hope that it could be better.”
She had stood still as he quietly spoke, her stoic demeanor never breaking. But he had felt the difference as he held her hand, how it no longer tensed against his palm. Yet the tension returned in him when she next spoke the words.
“You sound like Tou-sama.” Turning her face to look at him squarely, she continued, “Perhaps this family may yet come to their senses, although I wouldn't hold my breath, not that I could spare it anyway.”
He did have to agree with her on that…their family was never easy to live with, much less cooperate with them. Briskly he began walking to the shoreline, leading her away from the deeper waters once more. He couldn't help remarking when something caught his eye, “Have you been growing out your hair, Akito?”
She turned to him with mild shock, “How could you tell?”
Her upswept hair didn't clearly show longer hair, but if it were pinned up, then her hair was long enough. “It looks nice…the rose pinned to your hair is a nice touch. Nii-san's idea?”
Tension returned to her hand holding his. “The insufferable loon…he had the audacity to beg just to do my hair. As if it weren't bad enough that he had to dress me.”
His grin grew upon hearing her short tale. `That explains why Kureno had helped me get dressed instead of Nii-san. I'm surprised Nii-san didn't get beaten to a pulp in the process.'
“Strange…I always thought that the official passing of the clan's headship would be more…painful.” Shrugging away her wayward thoughts, she pulled Yuki back just before reaching the dry earth. He turned to her fully, perplexed at her earlier remark. She reached out to softly run her hand through his hair, tucking away the longer strands behind his delicate ear. “Will you remember this day as an `illusion', Yuki…the day you became the official heir to be head of this clan? Or will this be another dark day in your history with this family?”
A choice. Simple in its nature but profound in its impact on the family. He couldn't even think to breathe, let alone make a decision of this magnitude. He desperately wanted to argue against this decision of being the next clan head. Although, if current events had told him anything (his interview with Seto and his wife now making complete sense), the decision was already final…Akito never did anything half-way.
So…what choice was there to make but the obvious one? He needed only to never regret his choice. Recalling the inscription he truly believed in that was written on their lantern, he replied, “It's never a dark moment when my family needs me, if they'll have me.”
She wordlessly looked back to their large family, his gaze soon joining hers. They both then looked out the river, seeing the zigzag of bright fireflies all about the waters, joining the flickering candle-lit lanterns on their journey to the sea. It was a silent serenity that enveloped them all, with one written message on one lantern in particular ringing in the mind of one newly-appointed clan head.
`In life, hope lives.'
No regrets…a promise he would never forget.
~ * ~
Long gone notes (11-16-07):
My word, how long has it been? Too long, for sure. I have good reasons, though…
September timeframe…summer blues that I couldn't shake. It was so bad that the beginning portion of this chapter took the whole month to come up with and yet it wasn't near what it ended up being! October…oh yeah, the urge to splurge on writing was high! I loved it…I was pushing through left and right and…wow. I'm amazed with all that I wrote. Though I was a little too descriptive in some areas, but oh well, it was there and I didn't bother deleting it.
I had planned to release this before Halloween…funny how my chapter centered on Obon, the Day of the Dead in Japan. It's usually celebrated in July/August by the whole family…just as big as New Years! All my resource material for Obon and the tea ceremony came from Wikipedia and the August edition of Shojo Beat! Anyway, it didn't pan out because the Kyo scenes were too involved. That's okay, it was necessary.
What did ultimately put off the ending and releasing of this chapter was an ill-timed accident on my part. Yep, I had a car wreck…not pleasant at all. I broke/sprained my driving ankle, so I was laid up for a week on pain meds. Thankfully I've now been taken off of them and am able to end the chapter and finally release it. No car anymore, but at least I have good use of my hands and legs and mind…it's good to be alive!
Now, I can't be as wordy on the behind-the-scenes with this chapter release. My mind is beyond stressed with what happened personally, so I'll be brief.
Chapters 19, 26, 48, 52 and the sidefic To My Surprise and the last chapter from Sometimes…—this chapter brought to light many points brought out in these chapters and sidefics. Feel free to re-read! Also, to be proper, the `cry havoc…' quote was from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I.
Wow, I really went all out on this chapter…length-wise, traces of profanity, family feuding…typical Sohma! I think my verb tense here is pretty bad, and I tried fixing the most that I could catch. Oh well, I'm just glad to release!!!
Song choice: “Fallen Embers” by Enya. Lyrics are great and full of imagery that you can't help but apply to the family's situation, figuratively speaking.
Thanks to all, really! I wish to thank all that keep me in their alerts and favorite list…you're my favorite! Keep reading because I'll keep writing. You won't want to miss the next few chapters…the Tournament is finally here and then a few surprises that'll end this `season' with a shock! Stay tuned!!! Luvs and hugs to all! Ja ne!