Smooth runs the water Where the brook is deep
The air hangs thick and humid and the night does not bring relief. It settles like sand in an hourglass; this dense and spreading dark, that leaves them all feeling that something is running out.
Katsushiro traces the familiar grooves in his hand. One line will tell him what's in his head. Another will tell him what's in his heart. And a third will tell him how long he lives, but he's forgotten which lines tell what.
It is twelve o'clock and time for the changing of the guards.
In the corner, above a doorway, a black spider begins to spin its web. Swiftly, the silken web is released from its spinneret and carefully attached to the door frames.
The evening does not cool, and his palms stick slightly to the wood railing of the lookout post. Beneath him is a village built on a cliff. Always in danger of falling and leaving no trace of its existence on the world. Torches burn around a table where an aging samurai plans a game of shogi with an absent opponent. He sees one hundred moves ahead and is waiting for them to make their next mistake. They will not hesitate when attack, and the samurai only has seven pieces, and no pawns.
He watches the unsettled sleep of the village below. Everyone is holding their breath and sleeping with one eye open. Behind him, he hears the next guard climbing up the lookout tower.
Gorobei smiles in greeting as Katsushiro takes his place. As he descends from his post, he notices how tightly the youth is gripping his sword hilt.
Back and forth, the spider runs between the frames. With erratic precision, it works, leaving behind a glint in the moonlight.
With unhurried steps, Heihachi walks the outskirts of the village. He stoops and picks up a stone laying on the road; it is smooth, and fits in his palm. Compulsively, he runs his fingers over it as he continues on. He comes full circle to the lookout post.
It's just past midnight and the guards have already changed.
His eyes are sore and slightly bloodshot from lack of sleep and writing calculations in poor lighting, but wakefulness plagues him like a growing fever. Rubbing the stone like a charm, he wanders on.
The spider slows its pace and pulls on the lines of the web. The strands tighten and a pattern begins to form.
Kanna is laid flat on the table, just paper and ink. Carefully, he mars the page with lines and symbols.
Will it be enough?
The night air whispers in his ear like a lover and Kambei reviews the plans that have been drawn up.
It won't be. You won't be.
The words are haunting and as substantial as smoke. Beside him, Shichiroji looks on with passive eyes. They have the advantage of experience in this battle, but both of them can see the flaws in their strategy and how thin the ice they're walking on is.
He wants this to be their final battle with the Nobuseri. Because he knows that their luck and skill won't last forever.
And if they don't end it now, the Nobuseri will not stop until they are all...
The spider retreats into the shadows of the doorway and waits patiently.
Absently, he sits and tries to remember the feel of a single grain of rice in his palm. Or the heat of the summer sun as he toiled all day in the fields. The night spills around him and seeps into the earth, and Kikuchiyo knows that he is not yet what he wants to be.
He's like a plank of driftwood. He thinks, as the red haired man passes by for a third time. Without question, he goes where the tide brings him. He stops at the edge of the pond and Gorobei watches him with mild curiosity from a wooden porch. The driftwood pulls back his right arm and lets fly a stone from his hand.
Four times it skips and then sinks.
Inside, a candle burns down to the wick. Flickering and dying it calls out from the house. A moth sees the dimming light and cannot resist. As it passes through the doorway, it catches its wings in the spider's web.
Under a tall oak tree, with hair like the sun, he views the moon with dead eyes. It illuminates a break in the trees, but reveals nothing. He listens and hears the forest breathe. Leisurely, his thumb strokes the edge of his katana, leaving small lines of red that bleed into the dirt.
The old trees reach into the sky, stretching their limbs with an infinite grace that is both foreign and familiar to him. They are unheeding of the smell of battle that fills the air, and he finds a small measure of respite among their ancient strength. Tomorrow, they may burn and be reduced to charred bodies and smoldering remains. He sheathes the blade with its twin. Kyuuzou likes this forest, therefore it will not burn.
The stillness of the pond is shattered and ripples move languidly across the surface. He turns away and pauses, as if just noticing the silver haired man.
"Nice night, huh?" Muscles contract and pull his mouth outwards into a weak grin.
"Yes, too bad no one is enjoying it." Gorobei grins back, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. He makes a sweeping gesture with his hands, offering an expanse of the wooden porch. Heihachi accepts and sits next to him. Behind them is an empty house, prepared for the samurai to stay in, but each finds the night far too restless for sleep. He looks forward, watching nothing, but seeing Gorobei in the corner of his eye. He's like a circus tiger. He thinks. Tamed, but not without teeth.
The older man cranes his neck from side to side, eliciting a sharp popping noise and sighing in relief. Smirking, Heihachi interlaces his fingers and places them out in front of him, pressing forwards. He arches his back and his knuckles crack simultaneously with all the joints in his spine.
Gorobei observes the unspoken challenge, his red eyes alight with amusement. He holds his left elbow with is right hand and pushes back. His shoulder creaks in protest, and falls loose. Just as swiftly, he places the joint back in place.
Heihachi grimaces, "You win."
Gorobei accepts with a small bow.
"How did you learn to do that?" Heihachi asks, impressed and repulsed.
"At first it was out of necessity, but then it became one of my acts."
"I can teach you how to do it, it's very simple..." He reaches for the other man's elbow.
"No, it's okay!" He jerks back and Gorobei chuckles at the horrified look on Heihachi's face.
He pats the younger man on the shoulder and apologizes for scaring him, eyebrows slightly dipped and lips pressed, revealing a gleam of teeth. Heihachi smiles back, and knows that neither are fake.
The moth fights for release, but the silver net clings tighter. From hiding, the spider feels the moth's alarm. It plucks the strands of the web like a harp and plays a song of panic and dread. The spider listens and begins to move.
He leans against his spear like a crutch and touches his neck; the metal is a welcomed cool on his flesh. Above, there lies a pattern of seven stars, bright white and burning, in the shape of a warrior. Some of those stars are already dead, but it will take thousands of years before they disappear from the sky.
Shichiroji glances at Kambei, who is always poised and always ready. The corners of the older man's lips upturn slightly and wordlessly, he thanks Shichiroji for following him into this fight. But beneath the gratitude he asks for forgiveness.
I have taken you from another life, Kambei believes.
Shichiroji knows better, You've given me back my old one.
That life of rapture and little restraint will still be waiting for him. He had peace there, and she was black and white and red as snow. But it was fragile and fleeting, because sometimes, in that other life, he would sleep and dream of war.
Darker still the night has grown, and Heihachi feels something has shifted. An easiness settles between them as they talk, but every once in a while, the older man speaks in riddles and ambiguous answers.
Heihachi relates some of the more humorous engineering duties he's done. And under and behind and inside, everything the younger man says is a hidden voice, murmuring: I don't want to be alone.
Gorobei listens and casts looks that linger just a little too long. Heihachi catches him, like a current dragging in the depths.
"Gorobei..." Heihachi pauses, a question at the tip of his tongue.
Veiled words rise slowly to the surface, desperate for breath, bound and...
The moth grows more frantic. Writhing and rolling, it tries to escape but only succeeds in wrapping the web around it tighter.
"It is late, Heihachi." He says in response to the unasked, "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to retire to my bed."
Gorobei stands and smiles, Heihachi glimpses an invitation or a playful challenge in his eyes. But it disappears as he turns away. He retreats into the dark room, leaving the sliding door open.
Heihachi follows and closes it.
The spider sees its prey. With hastening speed, it approaches, knowing it will not go hungry tonight.
There are no words, nor are they needed. Both have seen through the other's words and are drawn, inexorably, into the abyss.
There is no hesitation, nor any rush. With steady hands, he maps the contours of the other's flesh. Gorobei hears a low rumble, something akin to a purr, issue from Heihachi's throat and he laughs.
The moth looks into the spider's black eyes and can see its death reflected in them. It gives one final twitch as the spider bites, and then grows still.
The slow rhythm builds, a blind, catatonic ecstasy, that draws back his skin to expose the primal impulse running beneath. The touch of flesh, unhindered and entranced, as it slides beneath his palms, leaves him aching to be...
The spider is done for the evening. It withdraws into the shadows and all that remains of the moth is an exoskeleton, cracked and empty.
For a moment all lies still.
A breeze sifts through the trees and it begins to rain. They listen for a moment, taciturn and tranquil, and then rise with the coming day.
Gorobei picks up the pilot cap and places it sideways on Heihachi's head. The younger man jabs him lightly in the ribs and straightens it. Discarded clothes lie in a heap and he runs a hand through his unruly hair as he gathers them. Dressing quickly, they part with a short goodbye and a smile. In the gathering storm, they walk to their posts, the rain dripping off them like sweat.
The night has passed, but both know that tomorrow, once the battle ends and the day is gone, there will be time for another brief reprieve behind closed doors.