Yey ! I am so very happy to present this new fiction. Another part of Frances' travels, so if you're confused, you can check her timeline and main plot in my profile.
This being said, I'd yearned to go back to Japan for a while. I'm not a fool; I won't tell you this is a short story, this time. Get ready for the long haul.
For once, I'll start with the end :D I hope you enjoy, and please don't hesitate to review. For all japanese culture lovers, do not hesitate to correct me as well. I've done my research, but I'm not as knowledgable as I'd love to.
February 2010 – Tokyo.
There was that weight upon my shoulders again. This tightening in my chest. Who could have known I’d find myself seated on tatami mats again, contemplating traditional food with a clench of my heart? The lacquered comb rested in my hair; a token of tradition, especially since I’d pulled my hair up to adorn the gift from another time. It looked authentic enough, with its carved flowers and brightly painted colours.
Around me, people laughed and ate, curious about the country who played host for two weeks. I had not realised it was too soon – 3 months was just not enough to forget. I found myself contemplating how my last mission had affected me; I still sat in seiza on the floor whenever I ironed shirts. Drank my green tea with a hand under the butt of my cup … trained with the sword to unwind more often than not, and a million other things that were out of place in a western world. Somehow, the gaijin had soaked into the culture.
What I would have given to replace my colleagues – even though they were nice enough – with a set of smelly, rowdy captains. The food was great, the setting even better. It was like walking into the past … again. But my colleagues wore t-shirts and suits, and I … an office outfit. My fingers played with the hem of my vest wondering what the percentage of polyester was in that particular one.
Tch. Did it matter?
Yes. Because back then, at the Shinsengumi headquarters, polyester wasn’t an item yet. I’d worn cotton, linen, silk, once, or even Toshi’s purple hakamashita on occasion. And around me, the conversation, flowing in English, just sent pangs of regrets through my tender heart. I had not healed up yet. They had taught me to let go … or at least, tried to. And I had learnt much by their side. I still missed them in this meaningless world.
A waitress bowed low by my side, her kimono spotless, much richer than any waitress would have had in the past. Less colourful than the geishas of Shimabara who served my rowdy brothers in arms, a long time ago … 3 months, for me. A hundred and forty years, for the rest of the world. Her flow of words washed over me strangely, reminding me of a time when I could understand Japanese.
Shit. Aside from the little I’d learnt by myself, not much remained of those skills. Too bad. I just nodded, scooting aside so that she could pick up the dishes. The smell of hot sake lingered in the air and I allowed its warmth to penetrate me. Closing my eyes, I just lingered at this line of consciousness where it felt good, where the pain dulled and I could reminisce on easier times. Where I could remember Toshi’s warm body next to mine, or giggle at Heisuke and Shinpashi’s food fights. Where Sōji had stopped coughing, and gave Chizuru his most heartfelt look.
My heroes; they were still celebrated. I adored Japan for it. Beside me, whomever (Géraldine from France?) was speaking with another whomever (Akram from Turquey?). No one paid attention to me as I sank my nose in the cup of sencha tea. Tendrils of warm fragrance reached my nose and I smiled; there was nothing like a good sencha tea to soothe me. I toasted, internally, to the other tea lover that had taught me so much.
For you, Toshi.
Further away, the low lilt of a masculine voice called my attention. That voice … my spine stiffened, goosebumps running across my shoulders. Warm and deep, like the song of the earth in the deepest well. It couldn’t be…
I straightened on my seat, cup sloshing in the process, spilling hot tea over my hands.
“Shit,” I swore.
“All right there, Frances?”
I nodded to the instructor who had caught my clumsiness. A nice Malaysian guy I respected, with an acute sense of observation. I nodded, turning in my seat to catch sight of the voice. No one in sight; the man that owned it was silent, now. A hearty set of laugher rang from above, reminding me of Heisuke and his insane volume. I was just going mad, and took to observing the people around us. Some were families, friends dressed like us. But a few wore traditional kimonos and hakamas, and I smiled. Japan had not lost its soul, after all, even after being flooded by cannons and machine guns.
How many of those sat in museums now, ruthlessly cloven by my sword? The memory of desperate officers, watching their destroyed canons, called a smile to my lips. Bien fait !
The evening went on, and I absently participated in the conversation. Technology, software and oil industry were part my everyday life. There were interesting personalities to meet in this company, for it gathered people from around the world. I felt at ease in this disparity of culture; I had always loved switching point of view.
Hell, with my missions for the Valar, I was glad to be flexible on beliefs and traditions, else I’d be dead.
“So, let me get this straight. When you’re going home, your mother will choose a wife for you?”
Geraldine’s stunned exclamation brought a smile to my lips. I would hardly blame a guy for following family traditions, when I always chose my men on the brink of death, or in the past. Or both. The Turquish guy narrowed his eyes at the judgement, and turned to me for support.
“Well, yeah. My mother knows me best after all.”
I snorted. If my father had to choose a guy for me, I’d be in deep shit. I doubt he would have chosen a half millenaire elf, either a fifth century knight, or even a Samuraï born farmer. But anyway.
“This is crazy, uh, Frances?” Actually, yes. To me, it was a bit crazy, but I wasn’t about to insult a guy who trusted his mother to choose for him. What would be the point, beside belittling his culture, and hurting him? Either he had to grow out of this because his wife could be horrible, either he’d be happy and that was it. I smiled. “Well … a point of view is very subjective, right?”
“Duh!” Geraldine exclaimed. “But not choosing one’s partner!”
She was so typically French; stubborn, a little hotheaded, and convinced that her way of life was better. I’d been like that, once. But again, even if my ID read 26, I was past 29 years old now. After a few wars, I was proud of my own evolution.
“Well,” I started. “I get what you …. ”
A feather touch over the comb placed in my hair caused me to freeze. Who …? Geraldine’s eyes widened suddenly, focused on something behind me. I whirled around by reflex, my hand jumping to my hip … empty. Damn conventions, I hated being unarmed! Heart beating a staccato, I found myself facing a purple hakamashita, its colour awfully familiar. My eyes travelled upwards, neck arching when the voice – THAT voice – breathed out.
“Kitsu ? Kitsuneko ?”
My heart nearly leapt out of my chest. That deep rumble … those eyes, this face … downright to the jet-black colour of his long hair. Impossible! I was dreaming. I blinked once, twice, before a hand extended to me. By my side, colleagues had gone silent, stunned by the sheer presence of the man that faced me. Couldn’t blame them; the bravest Shinsengumi cowed before him.
At last, I found my tongue and choked: “Toshi ?".
A fond smile bloomed upon his face, and there was no doubt left when he grabbed both my hands, and lifted me from the cushion I’d been kneeling upon. Hijikata-san had returned, somehow, from the dead to greet me. And he looked as stunning as he used to, with a softness to his eyes that I had thought lost. The warrior’s heart was still there, deep within. But happiness infused his features, and I couldn’t get enough of that look upon his face. He’d never radiated such joy in the past.
He said something, his voice low, in Japanese. I didn’t understand half of it. Blushing, I cursed myself, once more, for delaying my learning.
“Sumimasen, I… watashi wa nihongo…” Damn, the words didn’t come, so I gave up and huffed. “I don’t understand you.”
Confusion knitted his brows together in an adorable expression, and I felt so out of place my heart threatened to explode. How shameful! Head bowed, I bit my lip; I’d been so broken-hearted, after my mission, that I refused to learn more of this wonderful language. One long finger touched my chin, lifting it upwards so that I could meet the gem of his eyes.
“Don’t worry. I speak English. Même un peu de français.”
Disbelief washed over me as I allowed him to drag me into a fierce hug. My arms wound around him, crumpling the fabric of his hakamashita on either side of his spine. How could he possibly remember me? I’d seen him die, felt his heart stutter and stop below my palm. Could it be a descendant? No … his arms felt the same around me, his long fingers – those of a swordsman – caressing my hair soothingly. Down to his smell, it was the same man.
Tears leaked from my eyes, relief flooding my chest at the glorious sigh of him. Sobs weren’t far away, and I struggled not to give in. I felt his finger curl at my nape, then travel to the comb.
“Frances?" another voice rose in the background.
Pulling away, I turned to the group and attempted to hide the tears in my eyes. The instructor seemed worried, and I rushed to reassure him.
“Er. Long-lost friends, it’s a damn coincidence, really.” A dark eyebrow rose upon his tanned skin, the interrogation clear enough. “All right?”
My chest stuttered, and I felt Toshi’s hand settle at my back protectively. His looming presence, so intimidating to the rest of the world, brought me the air I was struggling to gather. I exhaled slowly, then nodded curtly.
“Yes… I’ll get back to the hotel by myself. Do not worry about me.”
“Are you sure?”
I was about to babble something when Toshi’s commanding voice rose.
“I can assure you that we will take the utmost care of her. I will ensure she returns safely.”
The instructor straightened, nonplussed by the steel of Hijikata’s command. He’d reverted to the Oni-Vice Commander for a moment, and I had no doubt his every whim would be fulfilled by the restaurant waitresses. Damn, he was so impressive in his full regalia; I liked this version of him better than the uniform I’d seen him die in.
His hands, though, had not left me; as if he was worried, I would break. Then, something he said registered in my mind. “We?”
He nodded, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “I found two of my captains already.”
I blanched, wondering who, out of the Shinsengumi captains, he’d managed to fish out. “What? Who? They’re here?”
He grabbed my cheeks between his fingers without responding, his eyes dancing with mirth. The move was so intimate … memories of past days sharing skin, warmth and tenderness flooding me. The tingle of his warm hands upon my skin caused me to blush, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him. “Yes. We’re taking a little downtime from the dojo, away from our wives.”
It clicked then. Happiness. Toshi had found his match after all. Eyes widening, I grinned.
“So you found a woman that could handle you?”
The smirk that adorned his features was the best of presents.
“I have found her, yes.” His eyes twinkled with mirth. But he didn’t let me elaborate; the commander replaced the man soon enough. “Now come. We’ve got much to discuss.”
Overjoyed, I felt my legs turn to jelly while he dragged me away from the table. Colleagues and instructors watched us leave, until one of them, the meeting’s organiser, suddenly stood, eyes wide. Hijikata stopped in his tracks, aware that someone was calling his attention. I inhaled sharply; he’d not lost his touch. Ever aware, to the point of eeriness.
Oni no Fukuchō, the demon Vice commander.
Toshi turned slightly, pinning the man with an intense gaze, waiting for him to report. The organiser – a respectable Japanese director – seemed so shaken I wondered if he was about to break. Then, he knelt on the tatami mats and bowed. His head eventually touched his hands upon the ground; the highest sign of deference.
“Hijikata-sama. Kistu-sama. Domo arigato gozaimasu. For your service to the country.”
Toshi’s steely gaze softened, and he simply inclined his head before he dragged me away. Realisation it hit me hard; he looked so much like his old self that people actually recognised him. Thas photograph, taken by the westerner, was displayed on the web. The organiser probably was a very cultivated man with a knack for Shinsengumi, and the Boshin war. And they believed in reincarnation… Meaning he’d recognised me as well.
That was a first.
Kitsu-sama. That rang well. And Hijikata-sama even better, even though the deference came all too late; after his death. My legs felt like jelly, and Toshi’s arm supported me up the stairs, leading me to a more secluded area. My breath caught. There, in the corner of the room, sat two people with familiar stances and even more familiar faces.
“Hey guys, look what I’ve found.”
I realised, just now, that Toshi was speaking English for my sake. The exclamations, though, were strictly Japanese and I didn’t catch a word other than 'Kitsuneko', repeated over and over again. Toshi literally threw me over the table, and I received the most massive hug of my life.
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