|Blood+ fanfic: Across the Centuries, or Pink Roses (NC-17)
||[November 22nd, 2010, 00:29]
Title: Across the Centuries
Alternate Title: Pink Roses
Genre: Romance, Hurt/Comfort
Rating: NC-17 for a macabre dreamscape in part five
Characters/ Pairings: Hagi, Saya
Warnings/ Spoilers: Spoilers for the whole anime?
Words: 7,044 in six parts
Summary: Hagi confronts his own feelings for Saya as he waits patiently for her hibernation to end. He finally comes to a decision through David and the others' encouragement, and through the musical expression of himself.
Disclaimer: Don't own anything except the creativity and the artistic license.
A/N: I was experimenting with shifting viewpoints and dreamscapes. Also, this fic is divided into six parts based on the form of music suites.
Alternate Link: Read @ FanFiction.net
11th October 2021
The Tokyo Tower. It was one of his favourite places in the world; a quiet yet watchful presence in the middle of the bustling capital of Japan, like a mother watching her children while they played. One could stand at the very top, like he did now, and see every corner of Tokyo.
Of course, from this height, he could not see the faces of the people that thronged the streets, and the lights from the pubs and cars were only tiny pinpricks. It looked as if the entire city was a glass mirror, reflecting the stars in the night sky. Looking down, he felt like one of patron gods of the ancient cities of Greece, though the one he was sworn to protect was not among the drunken merrymakers below him. He turned away from the edge of the tower and stooped to undo the catch of his cello case. Until the time came to awaken his master from her sleep, this cello would be his sole companion.
He extended the end pin of the cello, adjusting its height to fit his tall frame. Then, with his bandaged hand, he tightened the screw at the end of his bow to adjust the tension of horse hairs. Now he was ready. He positioned his left hand on the fingerboard, and with his right, pulled the bow across the bottom two strings, making them resonate with each other one octave apart: the starting chord for the Prelude of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. The notes came to him easily, subconsciously. He had, after all, practiced this song for more than a century – almost two.
As he played, he allowed his thoughts to wander. It had been fifteen years since the most reckless and embarrassing deed in his entire 200 years of existence: confessing his love to his master, in a collapsing opera house that was about to disappear from the face of the earth. Since then, he had been too afraid to face her, reverting to stalking her, like he had first done when he found her in Okinawa. Besides, he reasoned, she deserved a normal life. His presence would only be a reminder of the painful past. Yes, so she cried when she thought he was gone, and he knew that, cursing himself for being the reason for those tears. But those tears would dry one day. And perhaps she will learn to live in a beautiful future – without him.
He reached the end of the Prelude, and moved smoothly into the Allemande, the second movement, as though he was merely turning a corner into the next street. His thoughts, likewise, now turned to Solomon Goldsmith, Diva’s Chevalier who had claimed to love his master, and had died for that tragic love. But at least he had been bold of his love and unafraid to proclaim it. He envied Solomon. He himself was sure of his own love, but not so much about what he should do about it. While he was convinced that she was better off without him, his selfish heart longed to have her to himself. Such appalling, un-servant-like thoughts. He was disgusted by his own desires and dreams, even as he relished in them.
And yet, wasn’t it his master who had said she wanted to travel the world with him at her side? As a Chevalier, his foremost instinct was always to grant his Queen’s wishes. Did she still wish that, he wondered. He wished he had Solomon’s wisdom and courage to choose the right thing to do.
He stopped his bow in mid-note, and moved his hand to wipe his eyes, glancing as he did so at the moon. The day had ended, and yet another had begun. It meant nothing to him, who lived within time, but was not bound by it. He packed his cello away and picked up the rose that lay at his feet. It was pink, just like those he had given her every day all those years ago, when she had not yet become his master, and he, her servant. Two centuries later, he found himself doing the same thing again, visiting the Miyagusuku family crypt every day, bearing a fresh rose for his Queen.
Shouldering his cello case, he stood up. It was time to go.
It was raining again, the second day in a row now. Saya was grumpy about having to stay indoors for another day. She had wanted to go on a picnic, as I remembered. To take her out of her boredom, I had suggested she help me with my bowing techniques. I was still practicing the cello every day, to master that piece that was Saya’s condition to stay by her side: Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. It was a difficult song to learn; I was sure Saya had expected it to be impossible of me and wanted me to fail on purpose, but I was determined to pass her test.
“Use more of your lower arm.” Saya’s voice cut sharply through my music like the lightning outside the window that framed her. “You look ugly and inelegant when you use your upper arm so. And don’t slouch.” She made an impatient noise in her throat. “You’ve grown taller again, haven’t you?”
I did not dare look her in the eye. She hated being shorter than me, especially since she was the taller one not too long ago. How time has passed, and how I have grown. She, on the other hand, had not changed at all: always the same haughty look and airs. I did not know then that she was a Chiropteran, so this stagnancy puzzled me a little, but I knew better than to ask too many questions.
To my great relief, Saya did not throw one of her tempers. She merely sighed and bent down to help me extend the end pin of the cello. “If you grow any taller, you’ll grow too big for the cello,” she said, half grumpily, half jokingly.
“Then perhaps I should tell Sir Joel to stop giving me a glass of milk every morning,” I replied, playing along with her joke. Saya ignored my comment. Standing up, she looked at my music score.
“Start again from this bar,” she commanded. I did as I was told, not wanting to upset her further. She watched me, her lips downturned in a pout. I pretended not to notice the ferocity of her glare, but after a while, when I could not bear it any longer, I stopped playing.
“Saya, is anything the matter?” I asked, concerned.
Moving to stand behind me, she bent forward to hold my bow hand in hers. Her arm was shorter than mine, so she had to lean in close to reach my hand. Her soft, clean hair ticked my nose. I tried hard not to sneeze.
“Yes. You’re bowing is all wrong. When you change strings, you should move like this.” She moved my hand along with hers, demonstrating the way my bow should move. Her skin was cool and soft on mine. Her well-trimmed nails dug lightly into my hand. It was the first time a girl had held my hand, and although I knew there was no passion behind the gesture, I felt my face grow red.
“Hey, Hagi, are you listening to me?” Saya had let go of my hand, and was glaring at me again.
“Y-yes,” I replied quickly. Saya continued to stare, unconvinced by my tone, but she let it drop. She glided to the window. The downpour had lessened to a drizzle now. Soon the dark clouds would give way to sunshine.
“Hagi…” Saya began, still facing the window, “one day, when you’re better at the cello, I’d like to perform a duet with you, in front of a large audience. And everyone will clap, and they’ll call us a wonder couple, and there will be plenty of invitations to perform all over the world. We’ll be rich and famous, and best of all, we’ll be together forever…” She turned to face me, her face shining with eagerness and hope. “You’ll perform with me, won’t you, Hagi?”
How could I say no to such a charming smile? “Yes, of course,” I agreed.
She hugged me. “It’s a promise then! I’ll go find the cook. It’s still not too late to have a picnic out of doors!” Saying thus, she danced out of the room, humming happily. I smiled too. A future by Saya’s side did not seem too bad. Setting the cello aside, I moved to the window to open it. The faint smell of wet grass wafted in. The rain had come to a complete stop now, and there, glimmering through the clouds, as if celebrating our promise with us, was a rainbow: our rainbow of hope.
12th October 2021
He had his rose in his hand, and now he tied a thin blue ribbon around its stalk, which had had its thorns painstakingly removed. Hagi remembered that Saya did not like thorns on her roses. Not that it mattered at this time: the sleeping Saya would not hold this rose in her hand, nor inhale the musky scent of the flower; by the time she was ready to awaken, this pathetic little flower would have long withered away.
It was still dark, and Hagi had no intention to leave his master’s side just yet. Her voice called to him from within the recesses of his mind, demanding – she had never been a polite girl – that he play her a song. He obliged, sitting on the steps to the Miyagusuku family crypt and taking out his cello. His first thought was to serenade the night air with Bach, but he banished the idea, deeming Cello Suite No. 5 too grave and heavy. He wanted something that could lighten the atmosphere.
Salut d’Amour: a piece Hagi had learnt during one of Saya’s hibernation periods, leaving him to travel the world alone. Sir Edward Elgar’s engagement present to his soon-to-be wife, it was also Hagi’s secret confession of love, though he would never dare to play it within her hearing. Even now, he could only tell the stars and the stones how much he loved his Queen. An occasional breeze would grace the still air; the rustling of the leaves on the trees surrounding the crypt were like whispers of sympathy.
“Such a rich, passionate tone... Have you ever considered playing a concerto?”
Hagi dropped his bow, freeing his right hand, poised and ready to counter-attack the unknown speaker. But there was no need. Through the darkness, Hagi spotted a face which had become more tired, more weathered, than the last time he had seen it.
“David.” Hagi nodded at the other man in recognition. Bending to pick up his bow, he continued, “I only perform the songs Saya wants me to.”
David made an amused noise in his throat as he sat down beside the black-clad cellist. “Always with the Saya this and Saya that. You never change do you, Hagi?” He smiled briefly. “Though I wonder if she actually asked you to learn that love song…” Hagi ignored him, concentrating instead of wiping the stray rosin dust off the stick of his bow.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” David continued. “Everyone’s missed you: Joel, Julia, Miss Jahana and Mr. Okamura, even Kai. Especially Kai, actually. He’s had his hands full running a restaurant while caring for two kids. Says they’re an identical pair of little devils. Metaphorically speaking, of course.” David remembered all too clearly a chiropteran’s true, ugly form. You could not help not forgetting something you’d spent the greater part of your life fighting. “Kai would have come with me today, but he needed to put the girls to bed. Here…” He pulled a photograph out of his shirt pocket and handed it to Hagi. Curiously, the silent Chevalier took it and looked at it.
There were two girls and a boy in the photo. The girls sported identical summer dresses and grins as they giggled unrestrained at some unseen joke. One of them was missing a front tooth. They looked no more than six or seven years old. The boy, on the other hand, was older, well into his teens, though his frown made him look like a sulky little child whose favourite toy had just been taken away. He looked like a wrinkle-less replica of David.
“My son, Daniel,” David said, pointing him out. “He treats Saya’s nieces as his sisters, though they tease him to no end, the poor lad…”
“Why are you telling me all this, David?” Hagi asked abruptly. “What does this concern me?”
David stared at him in disbelief, then started to laugh. “What does this concern you?” he repeated. “Well, they’re Saya’s nieces, aren’t they? What concerns Saya, concerns you.” He sobered a little before continuing, his face regaining its usual grave composure. “And also, because we’re friends. When old friends meet each other again after a long time, they exchange stories.”
Hagi said nothing, choosing to ignore the endearing term David had used to describe their relationship, and the underlying question of his absence in the past 15 years. Suppressing a sigh, David pressed on.
“Remember the time the Red Shield was destroyed, and I fell into depression?” he asked. “I had no hope, no future that I could see except in the bottom of a beer bottle. You said I was indulging in self-pity, and that the incompatibility I saw in myself was all in my mind. Remember that? Well, I’m telling you those things now. I do not know your reasons for self-isolation, but what I do know is that there are no answers to be found in separating yourself from those who love you. It’s not healthy for a human.”
“I am Saya’s Chevalier before I am human,” Hagi replied quietly.
“And before you were Saya’s Chevalier, you were human, with human flesh and human emotions!” David retorted angrily. “What would Saya say if she woke up, and found out that you had spent the last thirty years alone and cheerless? I am willing to bet my life that your happiness will be hers as well.”
Hagi turned away abruptly. Whether he realised it or not, David’s words had come too close to the truth. David took the chance to press his advantage.
“You are a Chevalier, and I can understand that what you do is what you feel is best for your Queen. You’ve been so focused on that goal, you never realised that self-isolation is just another form of self-indulgence. What you do is not for Saya, but for your own ego! And worst of all, no one gains happiness from it; not you, and certainly not Saya.
“If you want to make Saya happy, I’ll tell you how: be true to your feelings. You took the first step at the Metropolitan Opera House; now you have to be a man and continue what you started!”
Silence fell between the two of them. Hagi still had his face turned away from David. He did not want the ex-Red Shield member to know how much his words had moved him. For fifteen years, he had searched for an answer, only to have it shoved in his face by a man a quarter his years. He felt both relieved and a little ashamed.
David stood up, his hand resting on Hagi’s shoulder for a moment, giving it a tight squeeze, a small gesture of trust and well-meaning from one man to another. “Well, that’s all I have to say. Julia is waiting for me at home, so I can’t stay any longer, but I hope to see you at the Omoro one of these days. We still have much to catch up about.” He paused, then added, “Esperanza and Iriana both want to see their uncle. Preferably with candy in hand.”
29th June 2036
“Oi you two!” Kai yelled angrily as the twin girls that were his joy and his burden ran into the kitchen. “No playing in here! I’m busy preparing for your aunt’s homecoming party.”
“Yes, Kai!” the girls replied in unison before breaking into a fit of giggles.
Hmph, those brats, Kai thought as he mixed the batter for a chocolate cake. I should be more strict with them, but they look far too young and innocent. Thirty years had passed since he had taken them under his wing, pledging to raise them as his foster father had raised him and his brother, and yet both girls looked barely on the brink of puberty. If they had been human, his duty as a father would have been long over.
“I’ll keep them entertained,” Daniel offered, peering into the kitchen. At twenty-eight, he had grown to be every bit his father’s son as he could be: bright, responsible, and full of courage. Kai nodded his thanks.
“I’m getting too old to keep up with you young ones,” he complained.
“Wait till you’re my age before you start complaining,” David, Daniel’s father, retorted, overhearing their conversation from where he sat with his wife in the dining area of the Omoro.
“Hey Kai,” Iriana interrupted. “Will Uncle Hagi be coming today?”
The adults exchanged furtive glances. After David had had that talk with him at the Miyagusuku crypt, Hagi had indeed come to visit several times at the Omoro, to the delight of Esperanza and Iriana, for he always brought candy and consented to most of their games. But as the time of Saya’s reawakening approached, he appeared less and less, becoming especially distant and brooding whenever they made plans for Saya’s homecoming party. They had not seen him for the past two months.
“Of course he’ll come!” Kai replied, faking a huge grin.
After Daniel had ushered the girls out, however, Julia asked quietly, “Do you think he’ll really come?”
“Who knows?” David shrugged. “Saya will be hungry when she wakes up. It’s his duty as a Chevalier to feed her.”
“This goes beyond his duty as a Chevalier,” Julia replied. “What if he’s gotten those silly ideas of ‘for the greater good’ into his head again?”
There was a silence, in which Kai began to smash his wooden spoon against the cake batter violently. Damn Hagi and his moods. He wished he could beat some sense into him the way he now beat air into the batter.
“‘I am Saya’s Chevalier before I am human,’ he told me,” David said finally. “If that is true, he will remember his duty, and, if only because Saya wishes it, he will come.”
Kai was doubtful, but he merely kept quiet, pretending to be busy measuring out cinnamon powder to add to the cake batter. Thirty years had passed, but Kai remembered all too clearly the last few days Saya had spent awake. She had went out alone for a walk every evening on the pretext of wanting to enjoy the peaceful scenery, but Kai could tell from her red eyes when she came back that she had been crying, and much as he knew the reason behind those silent tears, he was powerless to stop them. The fact frustrated him.
He quickly lifted his sleeve to his eyes to wipe away his own tears. If Hagi made Saya cry again, he, Kai, will never forgive him. Immortal or not, no one was allowed to treat her like that. She was, after all, his little sister.
The door swung open gently, and a shadow appeared. Kai could not see the newcomer’s face because his tall figure blotted out the dying sunlight, making him look as if he were wreathed with a halo.
“Sorry, we’re closed for the day,” Kai said, squinting to get a good look at the intruder’s face. As the figure turned his head to face Kai, recognition struck him. He continued to stare, questions racing through his mind. “You… But where’s she…?” he blurted out, his words making little sense in his hurry to sort the situation out.
Hagi entered the room, smiling slightly. “Good day to you too, Kai…” he said, amused at Kai’s incoherence. He paused, looking around the room.
“Everyone…” He stepped aside, putting one arm around the young woman behind him as he did so, and pushing her forward. She stumbled slightly, smiling shyly at everyone in the room.
A long winding staircase in a dark tower. Light streams in through the high windows, colouring the white stone walls an ugly sepia of decay. It looks strangely familiar, like a painting I’ve seen long ago. I struggle to remember, but the memory escapes me.
But as I reach, panting, at the top of the staircase, recognition slams into me like an invisible fist. I bend double, clutching the wall to prevent myself from toppling backwards, and my hand finds the vine of a plant. Beneath my fingers, I feel something sharp: a thorn.
No, not this place again! I can’t bear to look… I don’t want to remember…
Despite my efforts to look away, my gaze falls onto the blue roses that deck the wall. They mock me, even as they welcome me, their petals moving eerily even though the air was heavy and still. Their sweet scent threatens to strangle me as my feet move down the corridor.
No! Please! Turn back. Turn back now!
But scream as I might, my voice does not carry across the centuries to my past self; I cannot change the past. I am trapped, a small window of present-day consciousness stuck in my past, forced to endure torture by watching my folly, and being unable to prevent it.
I turn a corner and feel the excitement and self-satisfaction of my past self; it sickens me now as I move ever closer to the padlocked door at the end of corridor. My heart thumps fast and loud with past thrill and present fear.
The roses here have not escaped the wrath of the vengeful sun, which now paints its delicate petals the purple of bruises, and its leaves a blackish hue, like dried blood. I want to run, to vault over the wall and fall down the side of the tower. The momentary pain of falling three storeys will be a comforting escape from this nightmare.
But I cannot. I am trapped.
The thoughts of my past and present selves turn simultaneously to Hagi as he shouts my name from somewhere else in the Zoo. His voice echoes through the corridor, so that a million whispers call out to me, leering at me.
Hagi! Save me! Please…
My present-day consciousness tries to extend its control, to work my lips and form those words. But those lips merely smile. Hagi will never find me here, my past self thinks. I know it is true. For all the time I had spent in the tower, Hagi had never once caught me here, talking to my true sister, my blood and flesh. I had not been surprised; after all, he had been forbidden to come in here.
I finally reach the end of the corridor. My right hand curls into a fist and knocks on the wooden door.
“Diva!” I hear my voice call out in a delighted whisper. “Diva, I’m here!”
There is a silent rustle of cloth from beyond the door, then Diva’s sweet voice, full of an innocence that disguises the venom within: “Sister… You’ve finally come…”
My head turns to look out of the window. The sun hangs low, a huge red circle pasted in the sky like a child’s art and craft project. But even as I stare into its depthless center, it begins to suck me in like a whirlpool. Bile rises in my throat, and I shut my eyes, reaching out a hand to steady myself on the wall. My flesh passes through the solid stone as though in water. Too late, I feel my entire body following through, falling, falling, falling…
Thump. I hit the ground face down. Still nauseous, I remain still, waiting for Hagi or someone else to find me. The patter of footfalls reaches my ears, growing louder and louder. I wait, but the owners of those feet merely run past me.
Now, my brain registers the smell of the earth: not the cool grassy scent, but the bitterness of burnt wood and mud. With effort, I roll over. Red fills my vision: not the red of the paper sun, but flames, reaching high. The spirits of the dead trying to touch the heavens; a bonfire of human sacrifices to a hungry war god.
As the roof of the burning house collapses, I hear a woman scream for her baby, still trapped in the ruins. The woman herself suffers from burns on her face and hands. I stand up, wanting to comfort her and find aid for her injuries. But as I move towards her, I become aware of the sword in my hand. Too late, I realise I am trapped in another shadow of the past. I am not meant to help the woman, but to kill her!
No! Stop it! Stop me!
My hand rises. The crying woman looks up at me, and for a moment, there is terror in her eyes. Then she smiles. Soon, she will be with her child. She closes her eyes, accepting her fate, as my sword falls, plunging straight into her chest. Blood spurts, but then, my hands are already stained. How many have I already slain today?
My present-day self watches horrified as the woman slumps to the ground, but my past self is emotionless, thinking only of my next victim. I am the war god, the one who feeds greedily on the blood of the innocent, demanding more and more sacrifices, and never being satisfied.
My back turns on the burning house. The fire cannot be controlled now, and even if it can, my past self has not the compassion to do so anyway. With a mental shudder, I remember that it was I who started the fire.
My feet begin to hurry, following the scent of fresh blood, probably the survivors of the fire. By now, I have resigned myself to the fact that I have to sit this nightmare through, until I awake.
Ahead of me is a dense forest, where not even the light of the fire reaches past the front line of trees. My body crashes headlong into it, plunging into the darkness. Branches whip at my face, cutting my skin, but I pay them no heed. The sweet, metallic smell of blood grows stronger, as do the crunch of many tiny feet on dry leaves. I am closing in for the kill…
Unexpectedly, I run into a clearing within the woods. The bare, open space of about a five metre radius in the middle of the thick forest confuses me. My pace slows as I walk to the centre of the clearing. I cannot smell the blood anymore. All is quiet; not even the wind rustles the leaves. Puzzled, I look around me.
Seemingly disembodied faces now float out of the darkness of the forest. My first thought is that they are the ancient guardian spirits of the forest, here to chase this unholy being out of their territory. But as they draw nearer, I begin to make out their features, and I stifle a cry.
The housekeepers at the Zoo, both those who had died the day I let Diva out, and those who had apparently quit their jobs over the duration of my stay there. Among them are also the young boys whom Joel had chosen as my companions before Hagi had been brought in, who had run away when they found out the truth about me. They crowd around me, pressing their white, mask-like faces up close to mine. Their blank eyes are accusing.
“You killed us,” they chant over and over again. “Remember, Saya? You killed us. Our blood is on your hands.”
“NOOOOOOOO!” I scream. I finally have control over my own actions, but my legs are weak, like jelly. I cannot move, cannot run. Digging my nails into my palms, I discover that my sword has vanished, and even if I still had it, what can I do with it? My sword of steel cannot cut down the ghosts of my past…
“Monster! You bloodthirsty monster!”
“I was kind to you, and you had me killed.”
“You’re two hundred years old, but you look only sixteen… You’re not human!”
“You deserve to die!”
“No…” I begin to sob, despising myself for my crimes, my sins. “Go away… Leave me alone!” I raise my fists and try to hit the mask nearest to me, the face of the fat cook whose apple pies were my favourite. He merely sidesteps my blow, his twinkling eyes mocking me.
“I am already dead,” he says jeeringly. “Is that not enough for you? Do you want to hurt me more, even in my afterlife?” He gives his deep, booming laugh. It reverberates around the trees, and the sound is amplified. The other ghosts join in, lending their voices to the cook’s laughter. I begin to lose control, swinging my arms in an attempt to push the ghosts away.
Then, through the crowd, I see one face which is not twisted in a grin. Hagi!
I begin to run towards him, eager for him to hold me in his arms and kiss my hair, like he used to when I woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweat, screaming and crying because of some nightmare.
But though I run as quickly as I can, Hagi does not seem to get any closer to me. On the contrary, the more I run, the further away he gets.
“Hagi…” I reach out a hand towards him, but he shakes his head slowly.
“No, Saya.” His tone is gentle, but also sad. “You used me, and now you must face your past alone.”
“No! Don’t leave me!” My voice chokes with tears.
“All our time together has been a lie… And now for us this is truly goodbye.”
“Hagi!!” I close my open palm, trying to grab onto him, but my fist comes away empty, and he is gone… The white masks close in again, moving in a circle around me, spinning faster and faster until they become a blur of white. Their laughter fills my ears and suffocates me. I am going to die here, alone, dragged down by my past…
I open my eyes. I am back in the familiar darkness. The white, jeering faces are gone, as is the burning house and the corridor filled with blue roses. It was all just a dream…
The faint smell of roses reaches me. I begin to panic. Is the dream starting again?
I sit up, my hands lashing out wildly as if to free myself from my nightmare. The fabric around me tears, and I tumble out to the ground. Where am I?
I raise my head, peering through my once-again long hair to get a view of my surroundings. Beside me lies a bouquet of pink roses, the source of the aroma. I breathe a sigh of relief, then cast my glance around anxiously, looking for the one who had brought the flowers.
There, in the far corner, he stands, trying unsuccessfully to blend into the darkness. Silly man, did he forget that I have excellent night vision? There is an expression of wariness on his face. Surely he does not think that I would be anything but pleased to see him again…?
I stand, picking up the bouquet as I push myself upright. Gathering the flowers close to my bosom, I sniff at them, taking in the rich scent. Then, I look up at the man again.
“Hagi… Thanks for the flowers…” I smile.
Relief crosses his pale face, even as he crosses the room to kneel before me in a posture of supplication. “The pleasure is all mine… Saya.”
23th December 2036
Saya frowned, twisting her right arm this way and that, hoping to relieve the cramp in her muscles. How long has it been since she had given up the cello? She had only been practicing for two hours, and yet, her back and arms already ached, and she desperately wanted to stand up and stretch her legs. But she could not afford to do so until she had mastered this piece.
Oh well, just a small break will not hurt, she thought, slumping forward and using the cello as both support and pillow. She closed her eyes, relishing in the warm, woody scent of the instrument.
A quiet chuckle from behind jolted her upright again. She turned to look for the intruder.
“Slacking off already?” Hagi asked, smirking. He bore a tray with two mugs, which he set down on the table beside Saya. “You’ve barely started.”
“Oh shut up,” Saya complained. “You’ve had years to practice, so you don’t know what it’s like to be sore from playing the cello too much.” She reached out with her left hand and took a mug. It was filled with hot tea, with lots of sugar and minus the milk. Exactly the way she liked it. She sniffed at the brown liquid appreciatively. The warmth rejuvenated her.
Hagi watched her, a fond smile on his lips. “You don’t have to push yourself too hard,” he told her. He put her large hands on her stiff shoulders and rubbed them methodically. More than anything, he just wanted his Queen to be happy and healthy.
Saya shook her head. “No, Hagi,” she countered. “I want to do this.” She turned to face him, a little awkwardly, because he was still standing behind her, massaging her shoulders. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
Hagi saw the determination written in her deep brown eyes and nodded reluctantly. “But at least take a break first before continuing?” he pleaded.
“Of course!” Saya smiled, knowing her Chevalier’s worry. “Besides, you took the trouble to make this tea. I couldn’t spoil it by letting it go cold, can I?”
That night, the Omoro was more crowded as usual, and not just because of the Christmas Dinner Special that Kai had added to the menu for the season. According to the signboard outside the restaurant, there was to be a special one-night performance that day.
Seated around the table nearest to the makeshift stage were David, Julia and Daniel. They were not alone at their table, however. Many of their old friends were with them: Joel in his wheelchair, performing magic tricks to delight of Esperanza and Iriana; Okamura and his live-in partner, Mao, drinking boisterously, their bickering growing louder with each bottle of beer; and Lewis, who was busy devouring an entire roast chicken. Kai smiled as he watched them from behind the counter. Strange though the circumstances under which these people had first met, their friendship certainly was strong. After all, it is hard not to begin to grow on someone after saving his skin many times over.
He glanced at the clock behind him. It was almost time for the show to begin. He pulled off his apron and slipped through a side door to where the main part of the house was, hidden from the view of the paying customers. Here, Saya was pacing the floor nervously, while Hagi sat coolly on the sofa, his posture relaxed. What a stark contrast, Kai could not help noticing wryly.
“It’s time, you two,” he told them. Looking Saya in the eye, he added, “You’ll be great! Don’t worry.”
Saya nodded once. Her shaking hands were slick with sweat. She wiped them frantically on her dark pink dress. Noticing this, Hagi dropped swiftly to one knee and took her hands in his, kissing them tenderly.
“Just follow my lead,” he adviced her gently. “We’ve practiced this, so I can say for sure that I know you can do it. After the first note, everything will flow smoothly. Trust me!”
Saya nodded, her courage bolstered by Hagi’s confidence. She took a deep breath to steady herself. Hagi handed her her cello and bow, and she took them with a brief smile of thanks.
“Ready?” Kai asked, his hand on the door handle.
“Yes,” Saya and Hagi both replied together.
“The show’s all yours then.” He opened the door, and stood aside as Queen and Chevalier passed through.
The crowd cheered rowdily. Saya suspected that the alcohol was the cause of the arousing welcome. Not quite the audience she had envisioned herself performing to. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm gladdened her. She took her place on the left side of the stage, and spotted her nieces seated just below her, clapping wildly.
“Go for it, Saya!” Mao called from her seat beside the twins. The familiar faces were a soothing balm to her nerves. If only for them, she would play her best.
Saya looked up at Hagi and nodded once, indicating she was ready. Hagi bowed his head in acknowledgement. He lifted his bow to the strings, and began to play. His tone was perfect: the lower strings resonant and the upper sweet and light. But Saya had no time to immerse herself in the beauty of Hagi’s music. One bar after his start would be her cue to enter.
In fashion similar to her partner’s, she put her bow to third string of her cello and pulled. The melody was the same as his: a playful tune that made the bow dance across the strings, alternating between fast and slow, loud and soft, big and small movements. Slowly, they worked themselves up into a crescendo, their bows moving in unison.
Saya smiled. Hagi was right: after the first note, the rest did flow easily. All she had to do was simply let the music take her on a ride. She began to relax…
They completed a phrase. Saya’s bow moved to the lower strings as she played a quiet accompaniment for Hagi’s melody. He played for a bar and a half, fingers flying over the fingerboard, before passing the melody to Saya, himself playing the accompaniment. They continued this hide-and-seek game for a while, taking turns to be “It”, before converging suddenly back into a duet once more. Now they were the dancers in Swan Lake, their bows soaring as they crossed strings. Yet not once did they falter or play out of sync; it was as if two had become one, and indeed their music blended so well that it was now hard to distinguish who was playing which note.
Kai watched the duettists with a tinge of sadness. In all the years he had known Saya, he had never seen her as happy as she was now. Her face was a mask of radiance as her fingers moved in accordance with her partner’s. Hagi, too, had a small smile playing on his lips, as he watched Saya, sending signals to her telepathically: when to slow down, or when to play softer. Kai knew that they had only started to practice together that day. It certainly was not enough to coordinate their every move; their ability to synchronise, to flow together, heart, body, and soul, must have been inborn, predestined.
Kai had always seen Saya as his little sister, a fledging to be kept safe in her mother’s nest. But now, he saw, his little sister had grown up, and he himself had grown too old to keep protecting her. It was time for the fledging to spread her wings and seek a life of her own – with the person she loved.
The piece ended with a drawn out chord. Together, Saya and Hagi ended the note and stood up. The crowd burst out with applause again. “Bravo!” someone called from the back. Esperanza and Iriana stood on their chairs in a standing ovation, wolf-whistling and cheering. They only sat down again when Saya and Hagi turned to leave the stage. Kai smiled, half exasperatedly, half fondly. That’s right, he thought, it’ll be up to Saya to take care of those two brats once I’m gone… She and Hagi will do a good job, raising them well… He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Now was not the time to brood on the inevitable future.
Back in the living room, Saya hooked her arms around her tall Chevalier excitedly, causing him to have to stoop slightly to prevent her from straining her already tired arms. “That was wonderful!” she shouted. “Everything went without a hitch! And the crowd loved it. They loved us!”
Hagi could not help grinning a little too as he unhooked Saya’s arms gently, cradling her in his. With one hand, he held her chin up, and their gazes met. “Yes,” Hagi whispered. “You were great…” He felt a great sense of connection to his Queen. It was as if the duet had joined them together in a perfect union. Before they were two; now they were one, coming ever closer together as they travelled down a narrow road from opposite ends…
He bent his head, his lips seeking hers…then stopped. People were coming. Reluctantly, they drew apart, turning away from each other, a second before the door to the restaurant portion of the building opened again. In came Kai, bearing a large bottle of champagne.
“Congratulations, you two!” Kai shouted, as the rest of Saya’s old friends trooped in. Okamura was so tipsy he could barely walk; he had to be supported by Daniel and Mao. They dumped him on the sofa before turning to Saya and Hagi.
“First, the stage of the Omoro,” Mao said. “Next, perhaps, some recital stage in Paris!”
“Yeah!” David added. “Come, let’s pop the champagne and drink to your next performance!”
Saya looked at Hagi uncertainly. Her Chevalier merely shrugged. For now, it was good to spend time with friends. After all, they had the centuries after, all to themselves.