Bran was still sleeping when Will woke up again, and remained asleep when he untangled himself and crawled out. It was a deep slumber indeed. Probably exhausted. Will hoped it was a dreamless sleep. He himself was a little light-headed, but that was nothing compared to the bone-deep lethargy of the night before.
The wooden porch outside their window thumped under bustling feet. That must have been what had roused him so early, before even the birds. Will peeked out. The whole company of ronin were filing out to a candle-lit grove. He caught sight of Nasuti at the head of the group. Her hair was done up and she was wearing a kimono. In her hands was a covered dish, still steaming.
Will flashed back to the lonely cairns of Osore-zan. It’s a food offering. He squinted. They were gathering around a small shrine under a gnarled old tree. Kujuurou’s wild hair flared into view as he lit an incense cone. Then the golden staff illuminated Kayura.
He stared as she raised the staff and laid it before the altar. Will wondered who would merit the offering of a Thing of Power. It was someone the ronin had all respected, that much was certain. The priestess tipped her head in Will’s direction, as though she sensed him without sight. He was tempted to call out to her with his powers, but refrained. Even if it were safe to do so, it would be intruding.
Who was she? She clapped her hands, bowed, and the staff began to ring of its own accord. "Or her command," Will said to himself. He knew then that it was hers, in the same way the sign of Iron was his, and in the way a certain sword belonged to a certain boy in a world far from this moment.
He turned from the private scene. Sitting in the corner were their suitcases. Someone had thoughtfully rescued them from the hotel in Hachinohe. Inside was a change of clothes... toothbrush, passport, plane tickets... and the familiar melancholy of journey’s end.
Except this time he had found something. He just didn’t quite know what it was.
The light in the room began to change. The sun was sliding out of the sea and seeping into the tree-thick hills. A sliver of light touched Bran’s hair. Outside, the birds were waking.
Will put away his questions and worries. He crawled back under the covers. Reality could wait.
They slept through the next stampede, and were gently roused by the returning clamor. Bran’s whispers were warm on Will’s ear, half-dreaming Welsh murmurs which he clasped to himself before translating. When Bran turned impish, Will knew he was full awake. Sure enough his owlish eyes were at half-mast.
I can’t tell his age, he thought inanely. Unless I watch his eyes. Then Bran said something to make him laugh, and he was startled by the look on his face: he had not realized how Bran was anxious for him until the anxiety fell away.
There was a rapping at the door. "Come in," they said after a bit.
It was Satsuki, Seiji’s younger sister. She had come bearing food on a contraption that was half tray and half bento box. She set it down before they could help her, headphones tangling in her hair and around the collar of her cheery kimono. "Good morning! Eh, Bran-san, you don’t have to – I’m used to Sei-nii’s eyes."
Bran put on his dark glasses just the same. "It’s all right. Just as much for me as anyone else. Come in."
She ducked a hasty bow. "Should this be on the table?"
"On the floor’s fine, thank you," said Will. He noted that she’d left a bundle just outside the door.
"You got off your punishment?" Bran said. Will remembered that she’d been disciplined for lighting the beacon. It seemed like ages had passed since then, but it had only been the day before yesterday.
"Just for today! Because we have guests. Sorry we had breakfast without you. One shrine opens early on Children’s Day, and Ojii-sama – Grandfather allowed us to eat festival food for breakfast. We did not want to wake you." She continued on, breathless. She was as ebullient as Seiji was serious. "See, Kayura-sama is going soon. She has not gone to festival since she was very young."
Will swallowed a sudden lump and flashed a reassuring smile. "You brought more than enough in exchange." Some of the festival food had made it back. Among the normal fare were sweet rice cakes, baked fish shaped like bamboo leaves, and a colorful array of local sweets.
Bran rattled one of the boxes, which seemed to have a secret compartment. "Aha! Bless her, she did it." He showed off his prize. "Nasuti made hotcakes and sausages."
"Shin-san did," said Satsuki. "Girls are the guests today. They forced her out of cooking."
Will chuckled. "What are you doing here, then?"
"Un, I have something for you!" She bounced out and retrieved the bundle. "Sei-nii said it fit."
Will gasped. Rich silk spilled from her hands as she unfolded an embroidered robe. Blooming lotuses and flying cranes seemed embossed into the lustrous fabric.
Bran took it from her. "Put it on, Will." Without waiting for an answer, he draped it over his shoulders. After a slight hesitation, Satsuki tied the obi around his waist.
"But... Satsuki, why? This is too fine a gift."
Her chin lifted, as though it was the gravest of insults. "Nothing is too fine. I was there. I heard the tengu scream. I saw the train cars disappear. I stood under the beacon when you made the darkness go away."
From the folds of her sleeve, she produced a single iris bloom. Quite brazenly she pinned it over his heart. "I don’t know everything about my brother. But I know you saved him, and his friends."
Will shook his head. "I should be the one thanking you. And you got into trouble for us, too."
She laughed. "Don’t worry! It was fun. Just don’t tell my grandfather that."
"Suki-chan, let’s go!"
"I’m coming, Yayoi-nee!" she bellowed. "Everyone is waiting for you in the sitting room. Bye-bye!" She dashed off, leaving Will speechless.
Bran watched his face while shutting the door after her. He lowered his shades. "Would you have...?"
He knew at once what Bran meant. Her memories of the tengu had not been affected by the Old One’s spell. "If Seiji had asked. But she’s stronger than that. That warrior’s spirit stays in families."
Carefully, Bran said, "And if I had asked?"
"I..." Will bit his lip. "If you let me see what you see." He could think of nothing else to say. Both sides of him – Old One and youngest Stanton son – trusted Bran.
Bran seemed to accept that. He stripped off and grabbed his own borrowed robe, worn and rather humble next to Will’s. "No time to lose, then. I’m not so hungry yet. Come on, grab a bathroom before someone else..."
"Good idea," said Will emphatically.
"I’ll shower first. While you, Mr. Stanton, show your face among the living, or they’ll think you wasted away under their roof. Oh, get out," he said, smiling suddenly. "I know you’ll want a word with her before she leaves."
Kayura. He did have to thank her before she left. "But..."
"Don’t worry about me. I’m safe, remember?" Bran plucked the feather from under his robe and tickled Will’s chin. "Of course that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to skip breakfast."
Will glanced at the feather under his nose, astounded at its ordinariness. Bran had him all turned around; that wasn’t what he was worried about at all. "...well, all right..."
Between them they managed to get Will fed, dressed, and decent in record time. Will felt fine physically. It was the rest of him that felt wrung out like an old rag, as though he was not yet at home in his own flesh.
Bran was at turns stern and fussy, and it was not until Will was hustled out of the bathroom that he realized Bran’s nerves were showing. That made two of them. Will was not used to being shy around his friend. It had been an easy thing to just be together, jostling elbows and ribs, sharing a laugh or a look. It was as though Bran had changed again, and torn off another mask.
Or perhaps it was himself who was different.
Absently Will reached for a handle... and found none there. He blinked. It was a traditional house with only sliding partitions for ‘doors’, and this room seemed a dead end. "Pretty sure this was the way we came..." He could hear voices coming from the sitting room. Hoping he wasn’t walking into private quarters, he turned himself around and opened another partition.
This one led to the shaded back-garden. Will nearly retreated, but some movement caught his eye. He shook off his house-slippers and padded down the porch. The old house and the zelkova trees created a bubble of stillness away from the road and the modern buildings of Sendai. He touched the flower on his breast, suddenly honored that this daughter of a great house had granted such a boon.
Will didn’t speak for a long time. When he did, it was in an ancient Japanese dialect – a Northman’s language.
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