The plan was to split up, then meet at the station. Ryo and Touma and Nasuti dropped off Bran and Willís excess luggage at Ryoís Tokyo flat, to draw any danger away from the Shuu household. Meanwhile Seiji, Shin, and Shuu went ahead to wrangle for tickets.
They barely made it to the shinkansen station on time. This was thanks to Nasuti, who was a demon behind the wheel. "I learned from Seiji!" she said cheerfully as she beat a yellow light.
"More dangerous than naginata lessons," complained Ryo, though he was grinning.
Touma was stuck to the cell phone till the last moment. He stowed his earpiece as they entered the station. "All our families know where we are. Cash is on its way. And we have reservations at Hachinohe. Thatís the terminus."
"We just need the tickets," said Ryo, scanning the crowd for the others.
Despite Shinís wonderful packed lunch, Will stopped at an in-station shop to buy two bento boxes and some pastries. Familiar and foreign ó it would be a poor holiday for Bran if he came all that way and didnít sample some local color. The Japanese were certainly fond of their snacks. The cheerful young attendant mimed that the peas were hot and the crisps sweet. "Ten minutes to train," she said as Will succumbed to the roasted peas. "Much time! Shinkansen never late."
"Hellish expensive," commented Bran.
"All this travelingís turned me to a culinary magpie," Will said amiably. Bran made a cawing sound under his breath.
It was all Will could do not to laugh. He didnít want to draw any more attention than necessary. In the mess of people at the platform, it was impossible not to make a scene. Foreigners were nothing new in Tokyo, but even the tourists were staring at Bran. Will gathered that they had hit the Golden Week holiday rush. Everyone else was going home, while they flew into danger.
The collective politeness was catchingó they stuck close to each other as possible and constantly murmured apologies for bumped elbows. Except for Touma. With characteristic Osaka aplomb, he forged through the crowd like a peanut seller at a football game, tickets in hand.
Bran hooked arms with Will as they followed them onto the platform. "Maybe theyíll think Iím blind." He paused while a little boy in a bright yellow hat patted his white hair, fascinated. His mother moved him to her other shoulder and apologized, red-faced.
Will smiled at the tot. "Got the collywobbles?" he said to Bran.
"You know it. Not just the usual. The tracks, too," and Will knew what he was talking about. An invisible taint marked the perfect, straight metal ties. It was hard to imagine a suicide in the midst of orderly queues, but there it was. Someone had crossed that river and never come back.
Bran was hesitant, speaking very softly. He neednít have bothered since they were squished so close. "Our bluebird. Are you... I mean, is there something unsettled about him, or is it just me?"
"I was going to ask you the same." They both glanced at Touma, who was squinting up at the sun. Ryo and Nasuti caught up with them; they were silent for a while.
Next to Willís ear, Bran said, "You can understand me when I speak in Welsh, right?"
Will shivered, not unpleasantly. "Yes, I can." His face was heating.
"Oho, I thought so. Handy, that." Bran wiped the smug smile from his face. "This is one they canít eavesdrop on. Mad about English, this lot."
"Canít escape it." Will grinned.
"No need for reminders. So... what do you pick up from him?"
Branís tone was only inquisitive, yet Will was instantly compelled to extend his senses. "Smooth facade like the others. Men and yet not, like a fox wearing a tortoise shell."
"Heís been shifty. Even with his friends."
Will nodded. "Youíre not wrong. There is something else there. His shadow... itís too dark for the light thatís shining."
Bran put a hand on his shoulder and took off his shades, "I donít see anything different about his shadow."
"You would not." Will regretted it as soon as he said it. Bran slipped his glasses back on. A casual move, but they shuttered his face.
"Three doubles and one single," came Toumaís voice from close by. "And a cot to round out us five." He came to stand by Nasuti.
She giggled. "Still squeamish about rooming with your Ďnee-saní?"
"Seijiíd have a nosebleed," chuckled Touma.
"You mean Shuu," Ryo said.
Bran turned toward them. "What about you, Professor. Daresay you donít fit in with this rabble."
"What? Iím their number one chauffeur." She and Ryo exchanged an ironic look. "My late grandfather was an expert on the armor legends. His research saved us, more than once. Plus they needed a roof over their head and food on the table, so far from home. Writers of hero legends rarely mention that part."
"Nasuti, you saved us a lot too," Ryo insisted. She just shrugged.
Bran leaned in boldly. "I hope you donít mind my asking, Miss, but you seem a long way from home yourself."
"Ah, Iím half French too. I was born there. Papa made sure I learned Japanese. For my gap year I asked to visit Grandfather, and landed in this mess. Not that I regret it." She favored Bran with a smile.
"So have you crossed the Channel yet, Nasíti? Is that right?"
"Yes, thatís right. And not really. Does a day in London count? Iíd like to return there someday, especially to the countryside. Are you from Wales, Mr. Davies?"
"Born and bred, or so they tell me. Please, the formalityís downright English. Just Bran is fine."
"Bran," she tried.
"Got it in one," he grinned. Fortunately for Willís comfort, it was then that the train arrived. Bran craned for a good look as it glided into the station. "Thatís a sleek one, eh? Wonder they donít put feathers on it."
They were lucky to get seats. The aisles were crammed with passengers. Shin came over to make sure they were all settled, then graciously wended through to where the others were standing.
Will insisted on Bran taking the window seat. "Iíll be closer to the food," he said lightly. Bran only nodded.
The train pulled out precisely on time, sliding through Tokyo proper at a reasonable pace. It was three hours to Hachinohe, Will thought glumly. He still wasnít sure if he and Bran had fallen out over this. Or where he stood now. Perhaps Jane had kept their group together when they emerged from their teens, but he and Bran had needed no extra encouragement to become pen-friends. After university, theyíd realized there was no reason not to visit each other whenever work and study allowed it.
It was just that Will remembered how it had been before all that. The quest and the battle against the Dark was etched in his mind with the accuracy of an Old Oneís powers. And, he realized ruefully, he nursed those old memories often, even with bright new ones to take their place.
The gentle push of inertia told him the train was accelerating. Had he looked out the window, he would have seen the landscape smeared to nothing under a cloud-wreathed Mount Fuji. Instead Will fished through for his purchases. Maybe Bran would like to try some of it.
Will bit his lip. As though that would solve everything.
Bran had his face turned to the window. Will thought he was intent on the view, before realizing that heíd fallen asleep. His chin rested on the rough lining of his traveling coat, his eyes hidden behind the glasses. Will smiled to himself, and set aside Branís share.
He opened the packet, sampling what he saw now was a wasabi flavor. He chewed thoughtfully, feeling the train shift under him as the countryside rushed away from them. Then he emptied eight peas into the shallow cup-hole. Three he held in his hand.
There was a puzzle to solve.
Even if Kayura were indeed an Old One, or as heíd heard once, had the look of one by blood ó it was unlikely that she knew the meaning behind the poems. Messages were for the receiver alone, and usually his alone to decipher. Though help had been available before, when the Darkís harrying allowed it. Now it all rested on the words themselves. Was she trustworthy? Will knew the others thought so. Heíd watched Nasuti especially, trusting as he was of a womanís intuition. She betrayed no anxiety about the mysterious lady. He popped that one in his mouth.
Two peas were set apart from the others in the cup. Himself and Bran. For some reason he felt at ease with Branís position, even though he was the mundane one, so to speak. His friend had his senses about him. Plus there had been no question of Nasuti coming along, despite Shuuís grumbling.
Will felt uncomfortable being targeted, and moreso because he didnít know why. The stone of the Lost Land they had, and Bran the raven boy. The stoneís twin was sitting in a bank deposit box in London, to Willís great annoyance. The tokens were but a treasure out of time, no more than a memory of ringing bells and a crystal sword. In a land of great wonders, it was raw material, unwrought.
That strongly suggested a forging to come. Will knew the care of magical artifacts but by himself he had not the art of creation. The stone itself came from a power beyond the Light.
He spent some time going over what else he Knew. The hushed cell phone conversations and the flicker of a DVD player were ignored, as well as the towns and mountains and rice fields passing by.
And what of the five? He swirled the peas on the tray. Elemental powers were nothing to scoff at. The bonds between them could very well bend High Magic... could loving bonds be used for ill? Will was at once uneasy. If his omen was Cafallís, then he could not turn his back on mortal men. Toumaís suspicious behavior sprang to mind.
Indeed there was a strain in those bonds. Ryo, likely accustomed to Touma as his lieutenant, had taken it for granted that the Aomori was their destination. Shin had sensed no malice, sensitive as he was. Where Shin went, Shuu would go. It was Nasuti and Seiji who had unvoiced worries. Will wondered if they were comparing notes back there.
Will had not forgotten the encounter at the police station, either. He trusted Branís instinct, but so far there was no information on the shady stranger. He chewed the second pea thoughtfully.
Then there was the sixth verse.
"What are you thinking, bachan?" said Bran. He stole the last pea.
"Spicy." Bran started on the other peas. "I had a dream. It was on a train, going very fast like this one." He nodded at the blurred landscape. "But it was really sailing on a river, with wings like a swan."
Will handed him his own packet wordlessly.
"These arenít dreams, are they?" Bran was leaning back, his glasses drifting down the bridge of his nose.
"Memories, mixed up..."
"They seem like dreams," Bran said absently. With his free hand he ruffled Willís hair. "But they let you remember?"
Will ducked a little. "My jobís not done, it seems."
"Ah." Bran frowned. "It seems so wonderful and terrible. We really did that? The five of us?"
"Six," said Will, leaning back and turning towards Bran. "The first of us went away, too. And it was. Wonderful and terrible, I mean."
Bran stowed his shades. His eyes seemed to fix on a point past Will, probably the glimpses of the Pacific Ocean through the opposite windows. Will didnít turn away, but neither did he meet his gaze.
"If it pains you to think of it, I wonít ask again. But... tell me one last thing. Have you carried this... all this time?"
Will nodded mutely.
Bran did a strange thing then, which Will would never forget. He pushed his forelock aside and placed a kiss upon his brow. "Will, Will, youíve always been the stronger one of us. You donít have to do that all the time. It doesnít always have to be you."
Will drew breath, his arm coming up automatically... then both he and Bran turned to the window at the same time.
"What is that?"
Others were noticing too. One man said, "I thought they decided against the Aoba Castle renovation..."
"Thereís a fire on that hill, across the river." It was on a forested plateau overlooking the city, the distant flame as faint as a match-flare. Tension thrummed in the air.
"Weíre slowing down."
Will raised the tray, spilling his half his packet. Some of the exiting passengers glanced at him. "Been over an hour. Weíre approaching Sendai."
Suddenly the light dimmed, as though they were pulling into a wall of thick smoke. Bran was standing too, body coiled, listening to the air. "A tunnel...?"
"There wasnít a sonic boom, when it enters one." At that moment Will spotted a flash of blond at the back of the car. "Seiji-san!"
Light seemed to break through the darkness, though the shadows were deepening. /Itís a beacon! My sister lit a beacon!/ Seiji was approaching them as quickly as he could, against the flow of people.
"And... now weíre not slowing down," Bran murmured.
Several things happened at once. At the other end of the car a conductor was yelling frantically. Then there was a bang, and a pressure change so sudden that everyoneís ears popped. And Will stood straight as a pine tree and raised his hand. Like a strange ebbing tide the crowd shuffled out of the way, until Seiji and Shuu and Ryo were the only ones left in the aisle.
"Itís here," Will said.
"Red for Pleasure" copyright © 2000-5 Sameshima Shuzumi. All content is mine; HTML and layout are produced by me. Background and button graphics are courtesy Angel's Webgraphics.