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Plum Blossom (Blue/Green)

[Prince of Tennis] Et Cetera: Chapter 3

Posted on 2014.01.15 at 10:04
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Tags: , , , ,
This chapter was supposed to be released a few days ago. Out of all chapters, this chapter was supposed to require very little revision.

This was not a revision. This was a near-complete re-write.

Here we go, at last: Chapter 3!



'Sí do mhaimeo í, 'sí do mhaimeo í
'Sí do mhaimeo í cailleach an airgid
'Sí do mhaimeo í ó Bhail' Iorrais Mhóir í
'S chuir-feadh sí cóistí 'r bhóithre Chois Fharraige

'Measann tú 'bpósfa, 'measann tú 'bpósfa
'Measann tú 'bpósfa cailleach an airgid?
Tá 's a'm nach 'bpósfa, tá 's a'm nach 'bpósfa
Mar tá sé ró-óg 'gus dólfadh sé'n t-airgead

-- from Sí Do Mhaimeó Í
Et Cetera


Chapter 3


[Written February 2006 :: Revised January 2014]

Kikumaru wrinkled his nose in distaste, examining his dust-covered traveling boots. “How long until the next village?”

Oishi had to hold back a smile. Kikumaru harbored a cat's fondness for cleanliness. Not being able to bathe every day was probably bothering him. He wondered if it was Kikumaru's Chisu heritage or just a personal quirk. “Not very long,” Oishi said soothingly, and handed him the water skin. They were so attuned to each other's needs and wants, they hardly needed to say it aloud. “It would have been fine if you decided to stay in Moltania.”

Kikumaru didn't even deign with a response, taking a long draught from the water skin. With a sigh of relish, he took another sip, long eyelashes casting soft shadows over the half-closed eyes. After a moment of watching Kikumaru's pale throat, Oishi looked away, at the sun drawing close to the western horizon. Perhaps, if they hurried, they would get to the village before sunset. It'd spare them the need to camp out by the roadside for another night. “Why do you have to take so many trips to the back of beyond anyway? You get more than enough work in the city," Kikumaru said, wiping his mouth.

“There has been unrest—”

“—Since that great column of light a week ago. Tell me something I don’t know. You’d make your trips all the same.” Oishi accepted back the water skin automatically, and allowed himself a tiny smile at the pout Kikumaru had on his mouth. On anyone else, the expression would have looked ridiculous, but on his partner, he couldn't help thinking it was cute.

“There are only so many people I can help in the city,” Oishi said quietly, turning his attention back to more serious problems at hand. “For every person I help inside the city walls, there are ten more outside that need help outside but don’t receive any.”

Kikumaru looked away, still looking unsatisfied, but Oishi knew he wouldn't dispute the point. Despite all his grumblings, Kikumaru had always supported his effort to help others. A moment later, Kikumaru let out a sigh and changed subject, as Oishi knew he would. “Only a couple days’ travel away from Moltania, and there isn’t even a road big enough for dog-carts.” Away from the cities, away from the civilizing influence of Cetera, there was poverty, country folks struggling for their living. These people probably did not care for the complicated city politics in Moltania, or the three-way tug-of-war among Ketys, Brinwold, and Cetera for power. All around them, the once rich, dark land was becoming harsh with increasingly frequent droughts. How was his hometown, Caesis, faring these days? He hadn't visited in a while. He really should make an effort to visit more regularly. And Kikumaru's hometown, too. The little village of Mirhea meant a lot to Kikumaru.

Kikumaru's hand on his elbow brought him back to here and now. "Shall we go?" his partner asked, and Oishi nodded, flashing him a reassuring smile. Once upon a time, even a casual touch like this one would have startled him, so unaccustomed as he'd become to a physical contact initiated by someone else. The last person who'd been so physically comfortable around him had been his sister, who'd passed away years ago. But since then, Kikumaru had become...comfortable. Kikumaru's touch was familiar, comforting, and never unwelcome. A good thing -- Kikumaru seemed to need physical contact like the air he breathed.

When they arrived at the small village made of maybe thirty houses, they found it in the middle of some kind of festival. Village children were running through the narrow streets, screams of laughter ringing behind them. The sun still hung above the horizon, but the fire was already burning high in the middle of the town square. Maidens dressed in their best frocks chattered like a flock of colorful birds. Oishi cocked his head, realizing the villagers weren’t using the common language. Their words had the same rolling vowels that often graced Kikumaru’s speech.

“They’re speaking in old Hyrrha tongue. Just like in Mirhea," Kikumaru said without turning. His wistful eyes were fixed on the scene unfolding before him. Oishi smiled a private smile; despite Kikumaru’s numerous protestations that he far preferred the city life (the better to keep good hygiene with, he said), Oishi knew he still missed his hometown. Really, they should plan a visit to Mirhea within the year. It was past due.

"I hope they speak the common language, too. Or I'm going to need you the whole time." Oishi's hometown, Caesis, was in West Hyrrha and spoke only the common language -- the standard language of Cetera -- which was also the official language for both Brinwold and Ketys. But some parts of Hyrrha, where older traditions still ruled everyday life, spoke only the old Hyrrha dialect.

Well. It was called a dialect. In reality the old Hyrrha language was more of a different language altogether. Once upon a time, possibly it shared a common ancestor with the common tongue. But now the two were mutually incomprehensible and have been for over at least three hundred years. Oishi understood maybe half a dozen words Kikumaru taught him, and that was about it.

"Yeah, well, who cares about stupid Cetera language anyway?"

"Eiji?" Kikumaru had a curious distaste for anything Cetera, which Oishi found baffling. Even Kikumaru's friendship with Fuji and adoration for Echizen didn't seem to affect it. While neither Brinwold nor Ketys much appreciated Cetera's involvement with their affairs, they had, out of necessity, adopted many of Cetera's customs, including spoken and written language. In fact it was rare to hear the original Hyrrha dialect at all in West Hyrrha. But parts of Hyrrha, despite being part of Brinwold the same as West Hyrrha, clung to its old ways and refused to abandon its original language, and Kikumaru, hailing from Hyrrha, preferred the confusing and lovely language to the common tongue. At times, it made him feel as if he and Kikumaru came from two different worlds.

In his distraction, at first Oishi didn’t notice Kikumaru wasn’t at his side anymore. When he did notice, Kikumaru was having a lively conversation with a matronly woman, who clasped Kikumaru’s arm like they’d known each other all their life. When her kindly gaze settled on him, Oishi, mildly flustered, shifted on his feet. Kikumaru had been speaking in Hyrrha dialect, which he did not understand, and he felt very much out of place. Excluded. Smiling, the woman waved for him to join them.

“Oishi, what’s the matter? Come join us.” Kikumaru walked over to grab Oishi’s hand and lead him towards the villagers. “They’re having their annual festival for good harvest. Mirhea used to do the same thing,” Kikumaru informed him excitedly. The men were checking and tuning instruments of various shapes and sizes. Traditional Hyrrha instruments, and perhaps some native only to the area, Oishi guessed; he didn't recognize some of them at all.

A man’s voice called out from the drum section, and a chorus of laughing voices from their audience answered. A drum took up a quick and driving beat, and another joined, then another, until all drums were sounding together like quick, stamping feet. Then, a lone voice joined them, adding a lilting tune to the rhythm.

Oishi found himself looking at a pretty maiden in white, her matching ribbon striking against her dark hair, her voice rising and falling like a swift stream. Soon, the villagers joined their voices to hers. The drumbeats never faltered even as the voices stopped and a fiddle took over, reprising the melody. As if chasing the melody of the fiddle, the maiden’s voice started again, accompanied by the villagers, and her voice, rising above the wall of sound about her, rang like a silvery bell over the thundering beat of the drum, the wail of the fiddle, and the booming voices of the villagers.

“What’s the song about?” It must be the drums, Oishi decided. The drumbeats made him feel almost giddy, swept along by the celebratory mood, and made him want to sing with them. The villagers were moving into smaller groups around the fire, laughing and dancing to the sound of the fiddle, and he had the most absurd urge to go join them.

“They said it's an old folk song,” Kikumaru explained, smiling widely with a childlike joy, his eyes sparkling, enchanted. “They’re asking if the handsome young man will marry the rich old hag.” Kikumaru laughed, an unconsciously innocent sound that was irresistibly infectious. “She’s your granny, she’s your granny, the hag with the money,” he chanted in time with the fading drumbeats, chuckling. Next song started, this one slower and more suitable for dancing, and the shy, awkward youths and blushing, giggling maidens were coming together in pairs to dance. Laughter was all around.

“D’you reckon he’d marry the hag with the money?” Kikumaru asked in a singsong voice, and Oishi grinned, getting an all-too-clear image of a toothless grandmother courting a handsome youth a third her age. “Come on, let’s dance.”

“I don’t –”

“—Dance, I know,” Kikumaru rolled his eyes at him. “And you don’t drink, either.” Oishi blushed, remembering the first time Kikumaru had dragged him out to “relax and have fun,” and they had both gotten very drunk. Kikumaru made a very friendly, giggly drunk, and Oishi had found out the hard way that he was an emotional drunk. Kikumaru had never missed a chance to tease him about the incident ever since. And had jumped at every available opportunity to drag him out and get him drunk. Before he could protest again, he found himself drawn along to the center of the square with the other dancers.

Nearly tripping over his own feet was worth it to hear Kikumaru laugh. His partner, a pretty maiden in pale blue, giggled and caught him. Unlike his own pathetic attempt at dancing, Kikumaru, preternaturally graceful, drew admiring glances. Oishi laughed with her, apologized to her, and gamely stayed for the entire dance before begging off to watch Kikumaru dance. Flash of vivid red hair was like flame amidst the villagers, and Kikumaru's red eyes were shining. Sparkling, like stars appearing one by one in the darkening sky. And he was laughing. Laughing like a child he must had been once, before he was alone and had to take care of himself, had to be an adult under a child's skin.

The mixture of tenderness and pride no longer caught him by surprise. And Oishi knew Kikumaru's laughter would stay with him a long time afterward.

**********


The next day was hectic, as if the relaxed happiness of the festival only the night before had never been. There was no healer in the surrounding five villages, and news traveled fast within the tight-knit group of villages that traded with one another every other day. Eager customers swarmed Oishi seeking remedies for everything from fever to broken bones and chronic illnesses. Kikumaru was busy as usual helping Oishi mix and dispatch appropriate herbs and potions, as well as doubling as a translator for the older folks who didn’t speak the common language at all. It was not until well past dinnertime that he finally found some time to explore the neighborhood.

Unlike the city, the night in rural village was lit only by the stars. Kikumaru, thanks to his Sprite heritage, had always possessed much better night vision than Humans and Cetera. He had little trouble navigating to the edge of the village, where the forest started. Just shy of the forest, his keen sense of hearing picked out snatches of angry words and a small cry of pain, and instantly he was off and running. Under the dark shadows of trees, he saw a group cornering a small form curled up against a tree trunk.

“Hey! What are you doing there?” His sharp call had the desired effect, and the group jumped. After a moment of confusion, the three boys ran, leaving behind the small huddled form. With a sigh, Kikumaru approached. “Are you alright?”

A pair of luminous silver eyes looked back at him, and he started. “I’m fine,” she said softly. Her hair was dark, but it made her shimmering white skin and silver eyes look even more striking, and definitely not Human. She pulled herself to her feet and dusted off. "Just some idiots looking for trouble."

It took Kikumaru a moment to pull his mind away from the shock of seeing a Sprite-child in a human village for the first time. “Does, um, this kind of thing happen often around here?”

“Not until lately.” The girl gave him a small frown, which looked almost childlike on her face. “You’re one of us, aren’t you?”

“What?”

“Your eyes. You’re a half-breed,” she said, as if it should have been obvious, and Kikumaru started. True, his bright red eyes and hair were unmistakable marks of his Sprite blood, but no one had ever called him that. Never in Mirhea, or even in Moltania. Not to his face. “You’re with that Human healer, aren’t you? Does he keep you because your parents abandoned you?”

Kikumaru stared.

“My mother didn’t want me because her people would expel her if she kept me. So the village elders said I could stay as long as I didn’t cause trouble.” The girl gave a small shrug. “But no one likes a half-breed. They say half-breeds bring evil. Say the poor harvests for the last few years are because of us. Because we're freaks and our existence goes against what the Nine decreed.” Something about the way she said those words told him she was repeating these from memory of oft-heard comments. They were incongruous with a child's face, the old but pretty dress in a dark blue hue that must have been midnight indigo once. "My own fault. Everyone usually just pretends I don't exist. I shouldn't have gone to see the festival yesterday. Those boneheads saw me there. They think I'll bring them bad luck for this year's harvest."

The matter-of-fact tone made him hurt somewhere in his middle, both for her, and for himself. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen. Who had told this child such cruel things, had taught her to accept such a degrading name? “I’m a half-Chisu,” Kikumaru said quietly. “Chisu don’t abandon their children.” It was true. All books on Chisu agreed that there had been no recorded case of an abandoned Chisu child. Orphans were reared by the clan or the extended family, or even by neighbors. Chisu’s attachment to family and kinship was legendary. "Not everyone would abandon their own children, half-Sprite or not."

She wrinkled her pretty nose, disbelieving. “Oh yeah? What about your Human parent? Why didn't they take you?”

“I never knew my father,” Kikumaru admitted softly. He barely remembered his mother’s face now. "He died before I was born." Or he thought, anyway. Chisu didn't suffer from Human illnesses. Nothing but a broken heart would have killed his mother, would have made her leave her child behind. There were many reported cases of perfectly healthy Chisu wasting away after the loss of their mates.

“Oh.” The girl looked genuinely sorry. “I’m sorry. I never knew my father, either.” Her mouth tightened. “Not that I’d want to.”

“Why not?” He hadn’t really wondered much about his father, other than a vague curiosity, but it was more because whenever he tried to think about his father, he would inevitably recall his mother’s sad voice, her tears, and it made him want to forget. But he had never actively hated his father, although he knew Echizen did. Then again, he had never claimed to understand the little half-Cetera.

“Because he must have known I would never be accepted by Humans or Sprites. He should never have married a Sprite. Everyone knows two different kinds can never be together.”

She spoke with such prophetic certainty, with absolute conviction of an oracle. And he wanted more than anything to make her stop talking. Stop believing these things.

Stop making him think about these things.

“Do you have somewhere to go for the night?” he asked instead. The girl shrugged. “Do you want to stay with me and Oishi? I’m sure Oishi won’t mind.”

“Oishi? Is that the healer’s name?” She sounded suspicious.

“Yes.”

The girl frowned at him. “Isn’t he a Human?”

“He’s my best friend. And the nicest person I’ve ever met.”

“Oh.” The frown really didn’t become her features, Kikumaru decided. It made her look even younger, more petulant. "Well. You're like me. And you helped me."

There was suspicion, yes, but also calculation in her eyes. Always gauging if she was safe, forever knowing she never was. He knew where she was coming from, at least a part of it, but he'd never had to be this wary of the whole world, not when he was this young. "How old are you, anyway?"

“Sixteen.”

"Shouldn't you be old enough to know better than let three boys corner you? At night?" Young, but not young enough to be ignorant of the dangers of being a pretty girl alone in the darkness, far away from help. If there was any willing to come to her aid.

"I had it under control."

Something about the smugness of her expression told him she wasn't bluffing. Sprites had Magic. Although half-Sprites usually didn't benefit from the full complement of Magic that their Sprite parents possessed, they often had a spark of Magic, or some Sprite charm that Humans didn't have. At her age he could have gotten away easily from Human pursuers if he had to, and that was without any Magic. Perhaps she had some special ability that would have saved her. Even then, eventually she'd slip up, and maybe, there would be no one to help her.

"Yeah, well, if you want to pass up on the best omelet on this side of Hyrrha, fine."

"For free?" She was wrinkling her nose in a way that really didn't become her.

"You'll work it off with dishes. And helping around the clinic tomorrow."

He figured she would agree. The girl looked like stiff wind would knock her right over. Overeating certainly had never been one of her problems. As he expected, she pursed her lips with a frown, then nodded. "Fine."

"And one more thing."

"What?" Back to wariness.

"Stop frowning," he told her bluntly.

“Why?”

Maybe he should also add pouting to the list of don’ts, Kikumaru thought, half irritated and half amused. Half-Sprite or not, she tested his patience like any other teenager. “Because you look prettier when you don’t.”

That earned him a sly smile. “So you think I’m pretty?”

“For a little girl, yeah. Come on, I’ll make you omelet when we get there,” he added as the girl’s stomach gave another rumble, graciously pretending to not notice her blush. He turned, trusting her to follow.

Behind him, he heard a reluctant shuffling of the feet and a petulant huff, with a muttered, “I’m not a little girl,” and smiled.

**********


Oishi, of course, did not mind the extra guest or putting some extra money into getting another room, and Ono – that was her name – ended up staying with them for the rest of their stay, helping with the herbs. Or making a mess. It was always a toss-up. Although she and Kikumaru argued all the time, Oishi didn't think it was in earnest. In fact, their little arguments reminded him of his sister, and he wasn't sure how the two of them would handle it when the time came for him and Kikumaru to return to Moltania. Especially since unlike Kikumaru, she wasn't welcome in her village.

Oishi wondered just what about Ono inspired such distrust from the rest of the village. Despite his and Kikumaru’s best effort, the villages barely tolerated her presence in the clinic, and after half a day, Ono mostly kept to the herbs room and didn’t enter the clinic. And Oishi knew the discrimination upset Kikumaru, even though it wasn’t aimed at him. Even if Kikumaru’s unusual coloring might have escaped notice the day they arrived in the excitement of the festival and the ruddy light of dusk, Kikumaru’s heritage as half-Sprite wasn’t difficult to detect. Yet, only some moments of hesitation in the beginning marred the first day of their clinic, and any lingering doubts seemed to melt away when Kikumaru spoke to the villagers in old Hyrrha tongue. Perhaps it was that Ono’s coloring made her stand out far more than Kikumaru’s did. Occasionally those with limited exposure to the Sprite-kind noted Kikumaru’s vivid coloring, but did not always connect it to Sprite bloodline. But there was no way to mistake Ono’s glimmering chalk-white skin and pupilless silver eyes as anything Human. Whatever the reason, the clear hostility from the villagers caused Oishi deep reservations about leaving Ono behind.

A week later, when the time of their departure drew close, a village woman came with hushed voice and unsmiling face to ask if Oishi could help a mother who had just given birth the day before.

“What seems to be troubling her?” Oishi asked, nodding to Kikumaru to gather what they would typically need for a nursing mother.

“It’s...it's not the mother,” the woman replied, biting her lip nervously. “Look, could you...could you just come, please? You might be able to do something.”

Oishi and Kikumaru exchanged a look, but followed her. Ono, surprisingly enough, kept in step next to Kikumaru, and Oishi again wondered what would happen to the poor girl once they left. Perhaps they could... They were hardly in position to take in orphaned children, but surely there must be something? Especially when Kikumaru so clearly cared for her?

Forcing his mind back to the current task, Oishi followed their guide to a small cottage. When they arrived, nearly half the village was gathered outside, restless and whispering to one another. Their guide lost no time to lose herself in the small crowd, and Oishi gave a mental shrug, and stepped forward.

Inside, the young mother was cradling a health-looking baby boy, worn out but not looking sickly. In front of her bed was a little old woman whom Oishi recognized as one of the respected matriarch of the village, the sonorous Hyrrha language turned harsh in her throat, gesturing imperiously. The mother shrank back to the headboard, clutching her baby tighter to her bosom, as if the gesture would put more distance between them. Her husband stood next to the bed, looking grim. Oishi looked to his partner, who was frowning as he followed the rapidly spoken conversation.

"She says that the baby is cursed. That he needs to be -- left in the forest."

"What?" Oishi was aghast. Expose a newborn baby? He scanned the room, then settled on the father. "Excuse me, sir. May I ask what happened?"

"You the healer from big city?"

"Yes." Typically, delivery of a baby was the domain of midwives, not healers, but it seemed to put the father's suspicions to rest.

"Old Mei here thinks our baby is cursed because he has a birthmark." His face tightened with grief. "She says our baby will bring death to the whole village if we don't--" He swallowed, a flash of pain darkening his eyes. "--If we don't expose him now."

Oishi nearly asked him if they were seriously considering this atrocity, but restrained himself. Judging by the pain on his face, and the terror on the mother's, the baby really was in danger here. Behind him he could hear shuffling, and he saw out of the corner of his eyes Kikumaru putting a protective arm around Ono, who seemed to be doing her best to disappear into the wall. Neither of them was in fit state of mind to provide him with translation, and Mei, if he recalled correctly, spoke only old Hyrrha tongue.

"Sir, could you ask her to explain what mark your baby has? And why it would bring death?"

The man stared at him for a moment, but dutifully turned to Mei and spoke to her. Mei narrowed her keen eyes at Oishi, and her words came like whipshot, short and emphatic.

"She says he has the mark of the Cursed Ones. She saw it during her great-grandmother's time. Says that crops failed and diseases killed half the livestock until the Magic Ones came and took it away."

Magic Ones. Some rural areas referred to Mages that way. "Begging your pardon," Oishi said with a polite bow to Mei, then addressed the mother directly. "May I have a look? I am a Mage, and have some knowledge of Magical markings."

"You're a Cetera?" The father's gruff voice was instantly suspicious. Even if West Hyrrha had come to grudgingly tolerate Cetera's ubiquitous presence, Hyrrha's attitude towards Cetera ranged from suspicion to downright hostility.

"No. I'm a Human Mage," Oishi said patiently.

That didn't seem to convince the father. "I thought there weren't any left."

"There aren't many of us." Oishi did not elaborate. "With your permission?" he prompted, to both the mother and the father. The mother had latched onto him with desperate eyes, and looked like she wanted to refuse. A second later, with a darted glance at Mei, who stood by with the air of an executioner, the mother nodded.

The baby, despite the commotion, was sound asleep, little pink mouth open and breathing evenly. Even when Oishi carefully unwrapped the swaddling cloth, the baby didn't stir. A vivid red mark the size of an apricot glowed on the right bicep. At first glance it looked like an ordinary birthmark. But a closer inspection revealed fading remnants of an intricate geometric pattern. And he couldn't shake the feeling he'd seen this mark before, or at least something similar to it.

Mei muttered something, then spoke in a ringing voice. The father stiffened. "Mei says the Magic Ones will want him. That they will destroy our village to get him. He can’t stay and that’s final."

That didn't sound like a typical Mage behavior. Besides which, what would any Mage do with a baby? "By Magic Ones, do you mean--"

Mei barked out another word, then another, tone clipped and impatient. "The Ancient Ones," the father translated. "The Dark Ones." When Mei spoke again, her voice was quieter, a hint of unease entering her usually imperious demeanor. "They hide in the shadows. Come like the night. Dragon-Slayers." The man frowned, as if trying to puzzle out Mei's words. "Wearing the mark of winged demon horse with collar and chain. Says she saw them only once, as a child. But she could never forget it."

If Oishi hadn't seen the gleam of intelligence in her eyes, he would have questioned the soundness of her mind in the face of such superstitious babble. But no, Mei's eyes were clear. She was frightened more than angry, but she was rational and calm. And she meant every word. The glitter of hardness in her gaze was underlined by conviction.

But equally strong -- perhaps stronger -- was the love in the mother's eyes as she looked at her sleeping baby. The tenderness mixed with determination.

"What will you do?" Oishi asked her softly.

She clutched at her baby convulsively. "If Mei says so, he can't stay here," she whispered. "Others -- they'll never accept--" She choked down an anguished cry, looking at him like a drowning person who just caught a glimpse of a boat. "Please," she said, and far flintier hearts than Oishi's would have melted in the heartfelt plea. "Please."

"Oishi." Kikumaru's voice was strange. Oishi glanced at him, and found red eyes gone huge and dark, all carefree childishness gone. Ono did not look up, but the silver eyes, veiled with unnatural brightness of unshed tears, spoke more eloquently than any words could. His eyes were drawn back to the baby, sleeping blissfully unaware of the peril he slumbered under.

Kikumaru had grown up alone, like Ono. This baby was alone. Without help, he would die.

"We'll take him."

His own voice surprised him, breaking the silence with clarity that shocked him. But try as he might, he could add nothing, or take it back. The emotion in the mother’s eyes shifted from apprehension to desperate hope of someone clinging to straws, and Oishi took a quick breath, stealing another look at Kikumaru, whose eyes were also wavering with an emotion he could not identify. The look of awe in Ono’s face was harder to endure.

The mother swallowed, but could say nothing. With a sob she turned to her husband. “Take the child,” her husband said, and covered his eyes with his hand. The mother let out a cry, but quickly smothered her sobs, kissing her baby repeatedly, feverishly. Oishi waited until she was ready, and received the baby from her trembling arms. Mei watched the whole process with cool eyes, but Kikumaru was at his side, lifting his chin, returning her look with a challenging look of his own. Something akin to smile twisted Mei’s stern mouth for a moment, and she scoffed, muttering something in Hyrrha tongue.

When Kikumaru did not translate for him, Oishi glanced at him, but Kikumaru did not look at him. It was Ono who translated in a small voice. “She said a fool’s hope is the best hope.”

Oishi didn't know what she meant, and didn't care to ask. There was enough to worry about, like how they were going to raise a baby and a teenage girl, because there was no way in hell they would be able to leave Ono behind now. For better or worse, they were in on this and couldn't back out anymore.

A day later, Oishi and Kikumaru left the small village, accompanied by Ono and the baby, named Kaoru by his mother before their departure.

**********


The unexpected additions to the group forced them to return early to Moltania. Of course there was a sudden outbreak of some illness or other immediately after their return, and Oishi was busy from the day they got back. Not that Oishi ever took his work lightly, but Kikumaru had come to expect at least a day or two of relaxation just for the two of them after each trip. He knew the decision to bring along Ono and baby Kaoru wasn't so much made as simply happened because there hadn't been an alternative. But now that they were home, Oishi seemed determined to keep working and leave the two new members of their family entirely up to him.

Ono hung around him at first. Then around Oishi, with eyes that better suited a neglected kitten hoping the owner would notice it, even if only by accidentally stepping on its tail. Kaoru was a quiet baby and didn't fuss, almost as if he knew his mother wasn't around and he couldn't afford the luxury anymore. Both of them so quiet and undemanding. One could almost pretend they weren't even there.

Kikumaru slammed his crate of scrolls on the worktable with a bang.

"Eiji?" Oishi called in the ensuing silence. Kikumaru, too busy glaring at the table, did not respond, and a minute later, Oishi poked his head in the doorway. "Is everything okay?" Oishi asked, coming into the room.

"My hand slipped," Kikumaru answered tartly. Oishi looked like he was about to ask him what was going on, but was interrupted by the timely arrival of one of their regular customers. Kikumaru kept his back turned, putting away the scrolls with a furious sort of concentration. He knew without looking what kind of expression Oishi had on his face. Could almost picture the sweet smile Oishi reserved for patients.

“Welcome back, Miss Narumi, Miss Kurumi. Have you been taking your medicine like I said, Miss Kurumi?”

The little girl proudly declared that she had, and was rewarded with another one of Oishi’s smiles. Usually, Kikumaru liked watching Oishi work. Oishi’s hands were a healer’s hands, long-fingered and clever, strong but surprisingly gentle. And when he touched his patients those hands took on a life of their own, moving with grace and certainty entirely separate from the usual, easily-flustered Oishi. Today, everything tested his patience, including the way little girl glowed, starry eyes fixed on Oishi, hanging onto every word. Oishi prescribed her more medicine, and luckily it was one Kikumaru could prepare in his sleep, because his mind was elsewhere the whole time he measured out the potion into little bottles and sealed them.

Little Kurumi wouldn’t even let her own twin sister Narumi touch the parcel containing her medication. Their mother, Mrs. Ijyuin, bowed to them gratefully and left with her two girls. Oishi waved at them graciously, but before they were around the corner, his attention had already turned back to his notes.

Kikumaru watched him write down notes in elegant, careful handwriting. “She likes you, you know,” he said suddenly. “Kurumi.”

Oishi didn’t look up. “She’s just a little girl.”

“Yes, and she puts up with bitter medicine and weekly trips here because she likes you,” Kikumaru said, keeping his eyes on a chip on Oishi's chair leg.

Oishi sighed and turned to face him. “Eiji. She’s very ill, even if she doesn’t look it. I don’t know if I can help her.”

“So you don’t even want to acknowledge she likes you,” Kikumaru accused, his eyes fixed on a potion-stain on Oishi’s robe. “Because you don’t want that burden.”

“Eiji...” Oishi sighed. “We’ve been through this before.”

“Been through, but not finished,” Kikumaru snapped, and the heat in his own voice surprised him. “You never let anyone close. Because you don’t want to get attached to anyone.” He savagely cut Oishi off before he could speak. “You reject people. You seem so friendly to everyone, but in your heart, you reject everyone, even me!”

“Eiji!”

Oishi’s green eyes flashed, and Kikumaru felt a certain perverse kind of triumph at having caused the reaction. Usually, it took a lot more to disturb Oishi's equilibrium.

“Am I wrong?” Kikumaru asked levelly. Oishi was angry -- it meant Oishi saw truth in the accusation. The muscles in Oishi’s jaw worked, and Kikumaru did not wait before launching his second attack, before impenetrable walls slammed down between them. “You spent the last two weeks pretending you’re too busy to talk to Ono. Or hold Kaoru even once. Because unlike your patients, they are here to stay, and you don’t know how to handle that. Am I wrong?”

“I don’t know how to...care for them,” Oishi acknowledged, anger subsiding into something more neutral. “But you’re...I never...” Oishi’s shoulders sagged, just a little, the heat dissolving from his gaze. “I know you don’t like the way I handle my patients. But I’ve never rejected you. Never. You’re... It’s different, with you,” Oishi finished, coloring.

Kikumaru couldn’t help softening, just a little. He’d always known he was special to Oishi, just as Oishi was special to him. He’d been patient for years precisely because of that. But – maybe Fuji was right, that there was a time to sound the walls, and there a time to scale them. “You feel for your patients so strongly. But you won’t even try to see the people they are, let alone like them. You want to help everyone, but you won’t let anyone in.” Kikumaru gentled his tone, more coaxing than confronting. “Why, Oishi?”

“Because I can’t save everyone,” Oishi finally said, his voice tight. “No matter how powerful I am as a healer, I can’t save everyone.”

“Who’s asking you to?” Frustration was seeping into his voice, and Kikumaru quickly quashed it. Getting emotionally worked up in a fight with Oishi was counter-productive, although it had taken years before he could put the insight into practice.

“Everyone!” Oishi exploded, helplessness in his voice, then subsided just as quickly. “People expect healers to save them. And I can’t! I’m supposed to be the most powerful healer in West Hyrrha in the last three hundred years. But I’ve lost count how many patients I’ve lost over the years. I’ll lose countless more.”

Kikumaru bit the insides of his mouth, hurt by the raw pain in Oishi’s voice. “But you don’t stop trying. You never stopped trying. The people you can help, you always do everything in your power to help them.” Three steps brought him to Oishi, and Kikumaru put a calming hand on Oishi’s shoulder. “That’s got to count, right?”

“Eiji...” Oishi’s green eyes, so honest and open, were troubled, clouded. They called to him, and like a moth to flame, Kikumaru was helpless to resist. He drew closer, and was gratified when Oishi immediately reached for him, arms wrapping around his waist. Kikumaru put his own arms around Oishi, touching the back of his neck very gently.

“You can’t save everyone. But that’s not your fault. No one can.” Kikumaru could feel the tension unwinding from Oishi’s shoulders. But that was only one half of the problem. “Now me – you try to shield me from everything. Don’t,” he said sharply in warning, “tell me you don’t. You never let me come along if you think there’s even slightest chance of danger. You keep trying to convince me it’s better if I stay behind and look after things while you’re gone. Or you invent excuses to go alone.” He drew back just enough so they could look at each other in the eye. “I hate it when you do that, Oishi.”

“I just—” Oishi sighed deeply, like he was letting something go. “I just want you safe. I can’t bear the thought of losing you.”

“And I can?” Kikumaru shot back. Oishi blinked as if the thought never once occurred to him. Kikumaru knew he was all Oishi had in the world, but the reverse was also true. From the widening of the lovely green eyes, the realization had finally dawned on Oishi.

“I’m sorry, Eiji. I wasn’t thinking.” Oishi sounded like he meant it, too. Kikumaru knew he did mean it.

“Damn right,” Kikumaru huffed, but it was hard to stay angry in the face of such tender look. He could feel a flush rising on his neck. “I’m not one of your patients. Or a child. I don’t need you saving me, or protecting me. You believe in your work. So do I. Every time you run off trying to help people, you can bet I’ll be there to help you. Who else would take care of your herbs? You’ll never find a better herbalist.”

That made Oishi smile, although it was a little sad around the edges. “That’s true.” Leaning forward, Oishi pressed his face against Kikumaru’s stomach, and Kikumaru swallowed, his throat suddenly feeling dry. For someone usually so proper, Oishi could be surprisingly affectionate. “...Thanks,” Oishi murmured.

“You’re welcome,” Kikumaru said, trying hard for his usual voice. It was difficult when Oishi was so close, when Oishi’s scent enveloped him like this. “We’re partners, remember?”

Oishi’s laugh was still shaky. “Right.”

“And talk to Ono once in a while, she doesn’t bite. Oh, and no more slacking off, either. You’re changing Kaoru’s diaper at least twice a day. And that’s final.”

Oishi pulled away enough to smile at him, and Kikumaru felt his breath catch briefly. The smile was smaller, warmer, and more open than the one he gave to his patients. “All right. Deal.” With the smile still on his lips, Oishi pulled away, looking thoughtful. “Fuji once said I have a true Mage’s insight into the nature through my bond with Elemental Earth. And that it might give me access to a...collective consciousness that the Elementals share.” He paused, collecting his thoughts. “I don’t know anything specific, but I can feel something is wrong, and has been for a long time. You know severe droughts have become more common in the recent years. And ever since that light appeared, I can’t shake the feeling everything might be related. What happened with Kaoru may be only the surface of a much bigger problem.”

Well, speaking of Fuji. “We can try asking Fuji. Have him take a look at that mark Kaoru has, maybe? But you’re going to have to ask him to come soon. Kaoru’s mark is getting fainter,” Kikumaru added, remembering how the red mark on Kaoru’s skin faded with each passing day.

Oishi’s expression brightened. “You’re right. If nothing else, he might have more information from the Cetera about that light.” Oishi straightened, once again his usual, composed self, and Kikumaru couldn’t help a pang of disappointment. “I’ll contact Fuji tonight.”

“I’ll go see if the kids need anything, then,” Kikumaru offered, not moving yet.

Oishi nodded gratefully, turning back to the worktable, putting his back to Kikumaru. “I’ll come join you after I finish here. We could...I don’t know. We could take them out for dinner, maybe?”

“Ono will like that,” Kikumaru answered automatically. Oishi wasn’t looking at him, which meant he was thinking about something and didn’t want Kikumaru to notice. And Oishi was rearranging his work desk, which was -- as usual -- immaculate. Kikumaru held back a sigh; the walls surrounding Oishi’s heart had taken a century to build, and it was naïve of him to think they would come tumbling down just because he managed to reach past them once or twice. “I’ll be waiting,” he promised, voice soft but firm.

Oishi placed the inkwell back on the right side of the desk, still not looking back. “Right.”

Kikumaru watched Oishi for a moment longer while Oishi reorganized his perfectly ordered scrolls, and padded out of the room.

Seconds later, just as the door closed behind him, he thought Oishi started to call out his name, but stopped. After waiting for another moment, Kikumaru let out a little sigh, and walked down the corridor.

END OF CHAPTER 3


About Sí Do Mhaimeó Í. I first heard this song from Celtic Woman CD. It's a lovely song in an equally lovely album. The translation for the quoted section goes:

She's your granny, she's your granny
She's your granny, the hag with the money
She's your granny from the town of Iorrais Mór
And she would put coaches on the roads of Cois Farraige.

Do you reckon he'd marry, do you reckon he'd marry
Do you reckon he'd marry the hag with the money?
I know he'll not marry, I know he'll not marry
Because he's too young and he'll drink the money.

I once jokingly called Golden Pair my revisionist pair. It’s because every time I write a Golden Pair scene, I end up having to re-write or revise it multiple times. Which is odd, because individually, Oishi and Eiji interacting with other characters go without a hitch. It’s only when I write them together in a GP-only scene that this happens. The revision likewise ended up becoming quite substantial for this chapter, and took up quite a bit of time. Hopefully the rest of the story won’t be as bad, but given this story is nearly ten years old now, I severely doubt it. ^_~


Crossposted at http://shiraume-fic.dreamwidth.org/29999.html.

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