author's note: this might not make any sense at all if you're not familiar with yoroiden samurai troopers, specifically with the ancient (japanese name = kaos), anubis (sh'ten), and talpa (arago). um, sorry? if anyone's curious, though, i'd love to explain. or else you can buy the dvd when it comes out in april.
[six geese a-laying]
the eyes of winter
in winter, fire is beautiful
beautiful like a song
There is a new sound in the air tonight.
The man with the long white hair pauses, his hands gone still on the half-woven tatami mat in his lap. He tilts his head that he may better listen to the evening.
He thinks, at first, that it is the chirping of crickets-- before he remembers that it is past midwinter, and surely there are no crickets, not here in these high cold mountains. Winter means, too, that this sound cannot be the clack-click of his fountain, the clock-water long since frozen and still.
He has never grown accustomed to the swiftness of the changing seasons, in this world.
But if not crickets, nor the fountain, what then?
Footsteps. Crunching through the freshly-fallen layer of snow on the narrow path, and coming closer.
How long has it been since someone sought him out? His temple is remote, and his fire small, meant only to warm his hands and boil his water, and not particularly welcoming. For a second he thinks it might not matter what sort of a confrontation it will be; the company will be enough.
When the footfalls cross the threshold of his temple, he stands, careful to set down the strips of rice-straw. His incoming guest brings with him a burst of chill air, and the sounds of simply-spun robes, and thick sandals, and an almost imperceptible sigh. All this he senses without moving closer, for he already knows who the man is. Perhaps no one else might know the carefully bridled impatience latent in that sigh; perhaps no one else might know the fold and drape of the student robes merely by the rustling noise they make.
But even one without Kaos' perception might catch that scent of sakura and fire.
It can only be Sh'ten.
"There is tea, by the fire," Kaos says, sitting again and taking up a tatami strip in his fingers, resuming his weaving. He does not look up, eyes hidden-- always hidden-- under the protective bamboo of his kasa.
"My gratitude, sensei." And Kaos cannot remember how long it has been since he last heard Sh'ten's voice. Weeks, perhaps? Has it been a year? Time always slides by him, these days, himself too slow to do anything about it. It may be that his student has only been gone a few days.
He remembers that Sh'ten went into the mountain wilderness, restless. Fear tries to touch him, only briefly, listening to Sh'ten divest himself of cold shoes, of outer robe. The once-Oni will have to learn much, and quickly, before he is the one to speak to the Five. There is much of his former life in him still.
There is the whisper of tabi against the wooden floor, and the satisfying ceramic sound of cup and kettle meeting, the thin hiss of escaping steam. Even in his hurry, Sh'ten is very careful to replace the water over the fire, just so. Kaos smiles, thinks, 'So he is learning, after all.'
This silence is not like other silences that they have shared. Not to Kaos, who can hear a heartbeat in an empty room, or a cricket's footfall on a mountain path. Some of Sh'ten's anger has gone from him; Kaos can tell, merely by the way he drinks his tea. Good, that. Perhaps a walk alone has tempered some of his old fire, his hatred boiling away.
Now Sh'ten considers the warmth cupped in his hands, his quietness taking on a peculiar tone. Kaos, hands busy weaving the rest of the tatami together, guesses that his disciple will ask a question. "Why," perhaps, or "how." Neither of which he can answer, of course, that they both know.
It was Arago, with his thousand-year old terror, who chose Sh'ten to be his demon-general-- for his thirst, for his greedy fire; he knew Sh'ten would take on the mantle of the Ogre without a backward glance.
And it was something older still-- than Arago or Kaos, both-- that claimed Sh'ten for something else, that named him Loyalty.
There is nothing, now, Kaos can do, though it takes nearly that thousand years before he realizes this.
He knows his true purpose: to keep Arago in check, twin powers balanced, never touching. In later years, he thought to train a disciple-- heretic thought, that. A simple plan, to take one under his mentoring, to teach him to destroy Arago, as Kaos himself can not. But he never thought to take one of Arago's own, nor did he expect that his student would be one of the Nine.
Their fate is clearly not in his own hands; he decided that much when he severed his brother's armor, cleaving Arago's essence into the Nine: Virtue, Wisdom, Courtesy, Trust, Justice, Obedience, Piety, Serenity, Loyalty.
(Loyalty standing before him always, with the too-bright gaze and the too-quick temper, drinking his tea and staying intermittently in his temple, that he might glean answers from him.)
And so Kaos has learned to merely watch.
His fingers falter in their weaving, the rice-straw bending too far, snapping.
Watching, yes, though of late, that is becoming difficult.
"Sh'ten." He lifts his head to indicate that he is listening, hands working unnoticed to smooth the damaged tatami.
There is the muted jangle of Kaos' staff as Sh'ten lifts it from its place against the wall, by the temple doorway. The tea is already gone, and his student moves in only loose pants and belt, as for meditation or training. "I thought to make my new year's offering at this temple," Sh'ten says, and Kaos can hear him choosing his words carefully. "It... seems fitting."
Kaos wants to smile, but does not. Holiday festivals mean little to him now, with years flowing so swiftly into one another. No one else would risk the journey to this tiny temple, a bitter cold walk with the days fading quickly. Very few but the new devotees, these days, would observe the holiday quite so strictly. "You have shed yourself of your armor, have you not?" he asks, not so cryptically. "You have already begun anew."
Again the noise of the staff, brass rings purposely loud into the silence. "It has been many years, sensei, since the years have turned, for me."
"Of course." Kaos has not forgotten the hundreds of years that Sh'ten served, ageless, in the demon-world. The years that he was forced to watch Sh'ten through Arago's eyes, vision stained with hunger. (Loyalty even then, in the Ogre's blood, fiercely devoted to his master. The red-topped child on the battlefield, shouting defiance. Hair like blood or fire, caught up in the wind of destruction, of his own doing; skin like cherryblossoms; eyes green as the first leafbuds-- springtime.) But he does not think on these things. "But was there no ritual, no ceremony, in the youjakai?"
That earns a short laugh from the man standing in the doorway of his temple, who may not be so very far from the man of Arago's longing, of Kaos' troubled memory. "Nothing but ceremony. But little... celebration." He lifts the staff and wields it like a sword. "Everything was war."
"Don't," Kaos snaps, his voice sharp.
He can hear his student's smile, half a sneer. He does not stop his swordplay, slow, deliberate. "Will it not be my weapon, Master? They have said it holds great power."
Kaos is standing by his side in one heartbeat, his hands firm and resolute on the handle of the staff. "Careless," he breathes. "Inappropriate." But he cannot say worse, because that staff was once a sword, though Sh'ten may not know it, and no amount of Kaos' ancient magic can alter the truth of that.
Sh'ten does not stop smiling, his grip just as strong. "Is it? Why have you never looked me in the eye?"
It is the first 'why' he has spoken in all their time together, and Kaos is a little unprepared for it, not what he was expecting. He responds instead to the earlier taunt, the staff held taut between them. "Do you still crave power, Sh'ten? Then everything I have showed you means nothing."
"Not power, sensei," he says, letting go; nothing about the action is apologetic. "Understanding. What are you keeping from me? What else must I know? Why-- why has nothing changed?"
The rush of questions breaks around him like a tide, and he feels something within him trying to fold, to bend like reeds before the force of the gale. "It is not yet time, Sh'ten. Even I do not know when that time will come. Are you asking me why you have turned your back on your past, with no victory in sight? For what purpose have you betrayed them?" Kaos rights the staff and rests it on the floor with a hollow sound. Holding it in the posture of prayer, of serenity, he does not look as though he is leaning on it for support. "Do you miss your comrades?"
And all of Sh'ten's vehemence flares into his voice, his hands shaking as though he wishes to fight-- not to spar, but to hurt. "You cannot possibly know how I feel about them."
There have been moments, fleeting, when Kaos wished to speak of his past. None felt quite like this one. Keeping his voice calm, he says, "Remove my hat."
Still angry, Sh'ten is surprised. "Your kasa?" His hands move a little, of their own accord, to obey. "But--"
"Are you afraid of what you might see?" His mouth is a thin line. "You just asked me why I had never looked you in the eye. Remove it."
It is a little brighter, when the shadow is gone from his eyes, but other than that, there is no change in his vision.
Sh'ten, bamboo kasa in hand, has gone utterly silent.
"Tell me what you have learned," he says, the teacher to his pupil. He can only hear Sh'ten's unsteady breathing.
"Sensei..." Sh'ten raises his other hand, moving it mutely in the air around Kaos' face, halting only a breath from his skin. "...You never told me you were blind."
A tiny smile turns the corner of Kaos' mouth. "You never asked."
"You can see me." It is a question, nearly petulant, and Kaos' smile grows. "You have never... seemed sightless."
"I am not sightless," Kaos corrects him, taking the hat neatly from Sh'ten's limp fingers, though he does not replace it. "Long ago I learned that there are other ways to see."
Sh'ten shakes his head, long hair falling around his shoulders. "I never thought to ask," he says. "...I do not know what you are trying to tell me."
"Then listen to me, and learn to ask the right questions. I lost my vision many years ago, after a battle I was never meant to fight."
Tentative comprehension creeps into Sh'ten's stance, into his voice. "You lost?"
Kaos speaks evenly, so that Sh'ten might learn. "I won."
Sh'ten blinks, twice, and understanding dawns. He was not Arago's favored general for no reason; his mind as keen as his weapons. "Arago," he breathes, "a thousand years ago. Yes, sensei. But... you were not meant to fight him? Surely you have been fighting him all along."
"We are perfectly matched, Arago and I," Kaos says, perhaps believing that the words carry no pain. "Neither of us can defeat the other. Such is the way, with twins." And before Sh'ten can comment he says, nearly hoarse, "Do not tell me, Sh'ten, that I cannot understand how you feel about your fellow Masho."
The silence stretches long and longer, the snow blowing in long slow swirls across the mountainside.
Kaos thinks perhaps that Sh'ten will make apology, or perhaps leave again, to walk again alone. He does not think he will bridge the distance between them and take hold of his shoulder, practically shaking him. "Why?" he growls, the question for its own sake, the cry of mortal men. "Why? Why do you fight him? Why have you chosen me?"
"It was not my choice," Kaos begins. "You--"
Just as swiftly, Sh'ten changes tactics, veering down a different path. "Come away with me. We can find a place where he will never seek us out--"
Kaos does not even have to raise his voice. "Sh'ten..."
"I know. I know." He shakes his head. "But I cannot stay, with nothing changed. I will go mad."
It is a remarkably liberating thing, to think that one has failed at the one task that has preoccupied the mind for a thousand years. "Then you should leave," Kaos says flatly-- or perhaps he only thinks he speaks emotionlessly, for Sh'ten lets go his arm and the pitch of his silence deepens.
He brushes his hand against the sweep of Kaos' hair, his touch not like that of a student. Not properly obedient, Kaos wants to say, forgetting the last time he felt capable of such irreverence.
"Are you cold, sensei?" But there is the respect, lingering on the one word like a nightingale's note.
You needn't call me master, he wants to say. Long time has Kaos known that he would teach him, remake him in his own image rather than Arago's, to destroy the brother that he cannot. But he never thought it would be like this, never thought to regret the choice he made a thousand years ago. He never meant to fall--
Too late his unthinking selfishness dissipates, wondering if it were not better just to die, rather than to take a disciple, training him only for his own death. "I have set you on a dark path," he manages to say. "Perhaps it would be best if you were to leave. I fear it will be the death of you," meaning, I will be the death of you.
"It is the path I choose, sensei." Sh'ten is unswayed, bare feet steady on the cold wooden floor. "Each of us lived so long in that ageless world, we used to dream of dying. The one thing Arago denied us-- a warrior's death. Not a one of us feared to die; we were samurai. We started to yearn for it." They burn, all these words that Kaos once hoped to hear. "We hated him, we needed him, we served him, we loved him--"
Kaos lifts a hand, anything to still that flood of words, but Sh'ten silences him with a finger against his half-parted lips.
"But it was never something so simple as this, sensei," he advances, quietly. "...So simple as--" and he touches Kaos' shoulder, fingers warm against cool fabric-- "this, sensei--" and he traces a fire-thin line down his chest-- "so simple as--" and here he kisses him, his mouth hot like sunshine in springtime, forestalling any further words.
Like warmth after a long hard winter, like the sweet tang of fresh plumblossom tea, the kiss takes Kaos by surprise. He does not realize he puts his hands in Sh'ten's hair, feeling the heavy smooth weight of it; he does not realize that Sh'ten has not closed his eyes. He only knows that it is not his to fight any longer.
When Sh'ten trails kisses along his throat, Kaos whispers, "Forgive me." Sh'ten must never know of how Kaos-- during that last battle, seeing through Arago's eyes-- sought to capture his image in memory: from his cascade of hair to the quick turn of his heel, every inch of him sweet and deadly and beautiful. He must never know how Kaos dreamed as Arago dreamed.
"Nothing to forgive, sensei," Sh'ten speaks distractedly against his chest, his voice warm and shivery, working the kimono loose from Kaos' shoulders.
He must never know that Kaos understood his brother all along-- that terrible driving need, the hollow aching emptiness, wanting to be filled, wanting only to swallow the whole world, to make it his own, to the very last drop.
...But did Arago ever feel like this?
All willing is Sh'ten, his hands everywhere, and Kaos finds himself, his clothing discarded, improperly and deliriously on his back on his futon.
"You have spilled so much of yourself for us, for the Nine, for me... Let me give it back to you, sensei, let me give you back yourself," Sh'ten is speaking, not rushed but agonizingly deliberate, every breath punctuated with movements of his greedy knowing fingers-- along his sides, his belly, his thighs.
Kaos gestures helplessly to his small temple, all he has ever had to offer. "I have only shared my fire--" All the while thinking, half-coherent: I am old and written to die, you must live you must live, do not follow in my footsteps now, I have taught you too much I have not taught you enough, do not leave me, I must leave you, forgive me for failing you forgive me for falling for you...
Sh'ten purrs against his navel, quickening his blood. "So let me share my fire--"
And Kaos surrenders to that young hot mouth, not thinking of another lover, of another first time.
I know nothing, says the ancient one, with the uneasy curve of his shoulders and his tentative hands. I do not want this if I cannot see my path.
And, I will guide you, says the hot-headed younger one, with his mouth and not his voice, his hands feeling their exultant way across the other's body. It does not matter that I cannot see. Watch me come for you.
Each sensation lasts a thousand interminable moments, each distinct and perfect-- like melting snowflakes falling from Sh'ten's hair as he would come in from the snow, like notes from a finely-tuned koto, all cold and silvered.
When he comes it holds him for something like eternity, himself finding in an instant what Arago has not learned in centuries. But when Sh'ten cries out and comes-- a warm heady offering, that promise of himself-- Kaos thinks, for the first time, that dying might not be a thing to fear.
He holds Sh'ten humbly, spent, feeling the faint firelight dancing off the other man's skin, the room warmed more by Sh'ten himself than the wavering flame in the brazier.
"Do I please you?" Spoken so huskily, the words should not sound like the earnest inquiry of an eager student, but they do.
"I don't have the words," Kaos says, "for how well you please me."
"Thank you, sensei." Sh'ten's voice is more reverent now that Kaos has ever heard it. The touch of his lips against Kaos' forehead is cool, like the dew from the cherryblossom.
He lifts his own deft unseeing fingers to Sh'ten's temple, feeling the promise of Loyalty there. "You act as if I have performed a sacred ritual for you. Is this the only kind of instruction you will take from me?"
Sh'ten considers, his hair falling lightly around Kaos' face. "Hn. I feel a boy, in the bed of a samurai for the first time." He laughs dryly. "Or perhaps in the bed of another boy, learning all new."
As if Sh'ten were at all inexperienced, as if were the one shaking.
Very quietly indeed, Kaos finds himself saying, "We did not even have a bed. I believe it was a riverbank."
"How very fitting." Sh'ten leans back on one elbow, and Kaos can hear the other man's amusement as he imitates his teacher's voice: "The river moves on, ever-changing--" But his tone becomes somber halfway through, the laughter spent. "You have been alone a long time."
Kaos would shrug, but that he is nestled comfortably in the hollow of the other man's shoulder. "I have learned to measure the silence. Your heartbeat-- is like an earthquake."
Sh'ten catches up one of his hands, holds it to his own chest. Side by side their hands look no different, smooth and youthful both. "Feel it, sensei. That, at least, is something I can give."
"Are you cold?" Kaos asks, after a moment. He himself is, though he had not noticed it until now. He thought himself immune to the changes in weather.
"No," Sh'ten says, though he draws the blankets closer about them, blankets that smell of sex and the distinct scent of his temple, too subtle for incense, too strong for streamside flowers. "It was far colder sleeping in Anubisu's bedroll." His voice is not without humor. "That jackal was winter itself, for a world without seasons."
Kaos thinks of cherrypetals and unexpected heat. "You were spring to them," he says, thoughtful. "As it will soon be spring, here."
Sh'ten's face stills. "Spring will die," he says, without fear or bitterness. It should be victory for Kaos to hear the resolution in his pupil's voice. "But still the year will turn."
Kaos finds himself profoundly tired, content to do nothing more than sleep the night through.
"Sensei, in the morning--"
"Yes?" Already he finds himself drowsing, allowing himself to savor the bodywarmth of the man beside him. Outside perhaps the snow has started again, muting the world to shades of silver and grey, but inside it is ever springtime.
"I wish to offer tribute in your temple," Sh'ten murmurs, mouth carefully placed in the hollow of Kaos' throat. "I can think of no better place, this first new year."
And Kaos laughs, for the first time he can remember. "You have already spilled libation enough for me, Sh'ten. But your offering is always welcome."
in winter, snow is beautiful
all of the winter long
twelve days of christmas
b i s h o n e n i n k