[This fic is set loosely between X 9 and 10. As of the time of this writing, it hasn't entirely gone out of canon (though it's not supported by canon either); that may change as Sorata and Arashi's story continues to play out. If there are any spoilers, they would be for Sorata's backstory, but I don't think there's anything really spoilerific there. Please see my disclaimer page for copyright information. (An Italian translation of this story by Shu is also available.)]
ReturnAn X fanfic
By Natalie Baan
"/Hey, Miss! MIIIIISS!/" The whooping echoed along the corridor, accompanied by a rapidly approaching thunder of galloping feet. Arashi looked up from her book, startled, and considered springing across the room to close and lock her half-open bedroom door. She barely had time to do more than think of it, which turned out to be a good thing, for in an instant the door was flung wide in a way that would have been dangerous to anyone standing too close. Sorata hung in the opening, panting and blowing, one hand still clutching the door knob and the other braced on the doorway's edge. Breath caught, he straightened, grinned sheepishly at her, then knocked two knuckles against the door frame.
She frowned at him. Taking that acknowledgment as invitation, he bounced into the room and hopped up to sit cross-legged on her bed. "Guess what I've got!" he announced, waving a fist-full of small paper stubs.
"What?" If she ignored him, he would ask again at least twice, in different ways, and then tell her anyhow. This method was much more efficient.
"/Shinkansen tickets!/" Each syllable had its own exclamation point, leaping up with exuberance in its wake, like the springing tail of an overexcited puppy. He began counting out bits of paper by twos onto her bedspread. "Tokaido Shinkansen to Shin-Osaka, then over to Namba Station--oh, but that's just a subway ride, we can get tickets there--and then the Nankai Tetsudo Line Express to Gokuraku-bashi, and then it's only a cable ride away!" With a flourish, he spread out the second half of his handful, a mirror to the first, then sat back and grinned at her where she sat in the straight-backed chair next to the window. "Two roundtrips to Koyasan, on the Temple's expense account!"
"I'm not going with you."
Oh, he must have known that would be her reaction, but he got the wide-eyed look of surprise and pleading anyway. "But Miss, it'll be /great!/ I can show you all the sights--I know every corner of the temples, and all the best places on the mountain--and it'll be nice and cool and green up there at this time of year. Much better than Tokyo in midsummer, even on the Campus. Blech."
She felt a little pang then, reminded of Ise and the morning mist rising like smoke between the tree-covered hills, those uncountable shades of green made dim and soft by the predawn twilight, soft as a moss-garden to be trodden upon by the goddess's feet when she arose. The scent of wet hemlock, the rain-washed Ujibashi bridge arcing in a shallow curve toward its torii gate, the low working-song of the river as it polished and repolished stones all called to her from memory, far from the choked sprawl of busy, sweltering, endangered Tokyo. She turned a page, realized that she hadn't finished reading it. "You /do/ remember that we're supposed to be guarding Tokyo's kekkai against the Dragons of Earth."
"It's only an overnight trip," he wheedled. "Okay, so that's not time for a whole lot of sights--but won't it feel good to get away, even for just a little while? I already talked to the others, and Karen-san and Sumeragi-san and everyone said they'd be extra alert while we're gone, just to be safe!" A thundercloud must have started to build up visibly in her expression--the presumption of him, making arrangements with the other Dragons of Heaven before even asking her, as though she'd already agreed!--because he backpedalled at once. "Wait, wait!" He looked frantically about his person before stuffing one hand into the shirt he was wearing over his tank top, causing her a momentary start of alarm. However, he pulled out nothing more offensive than a slightly crumpled envelope, which he brandished triumphantly. "I've got secret messages! From the Chairman to the Stargazer!" He held the envelope out, flap-side toward her; she could clearly make out the Campus's official fugu seal, stamped in wax. Sorata flipped the envelope up in the air, a little too energetically--it spun, fluttering and twisting, and he had to lunge almost off the bed to catch it. He hugged it to his chest and gave her a shamelessly ingenuous stare. "You don't want me couriering this all by myself, do you?"
Closing her eyes, Arashi prayed to the kami for patience.
* * * * *
Twilight shadows were deepening beneath the trees, like the color of tea spreading to darken the water in which it was steeped, as Arashi made her way up from the river. The stillness, the solitude was comfortable, as though the forest had become a private room, a dusk-curtained sanctuary. She passed back through Okunoin, its grave markers standing in little clusters among the rocks and soaring cypresses for as far as one could see in the dim light. The ancient cemetery was silent except for the desultory shrill whirr of a cicada, all the tourists and crowds of school children having departed now that the temple complex was closed for the night. Left behind were their occasional offerings, sticks of incense burnt out nearly or completely, and the memories of their passing, resonances of footfalls, voices, and living hearts, to dissolve into the enfolding presence of the dead.
/Revered ancestors, guardian beings..../
Leaving the cemetery, she found the path that wound uphill toward the main temple building. She wasn't sure she should be roaming the mountain herself after closing time, although the monks had assured her that as a special guest she could make free of all but the most inner sanctums, and no one had come to roust her from the riverside where she'd spent the final hours of the day. Yet she felt that she shouldn't return to the guest house without first finding Sorata. She was certain he would not have gone back himself without her.
It hadn't been as bad as she'd feared--at least, not after the first few minutes of the Shinkansen ride, during which Sorata had made a predictably noisy spectacle of himself. Once she'd convinced him that referring to their trip as an "early honeymoon" in her presence was not a good idea, he'd settled down and spun off instead into a long string of stories about his life in the monastery. She almost felt that she knew the place, the varied personalities that lived, worked, and meditated there, as well as she knew the quiet, enclosed world of the kami's servants at Ise. It was only toward the end of the trip that she'd become aware of how he'd managed to tease small reminiscences from her in turn, but somehow she found herself unable to regret it. What had started out as a monologue had turned into conversation. She found that the change was not unwelcome.
And the closer they got to Koyasan, the easier it had become to be with Sorata, because his attention's focus had shifted away from her as object. First in Osaka, and then during the second train ride into the mountains, and most of all when they reached the temple complex itself, his thoughts had been on what was around them, and not on whatever fascination he had with her. He hadn't been exaggerating when he'd said that he knew every feature of the area, and in his excitement at returning home he'd overflowed with a keen insider's commentary on each site they'd visited, a surprisingly informative and engaging tour guide. She felt that she'd learned a great deal, even if it had been in a rush. Looking back, the afternoon was a whirl of sights and sounds, impressions for a lifetime--the bowl-shaped plateau surrounded by eight peaks, like the petals of a half-open flower; the vermillion of the Konpon Daito pagoda blazing hot against the blue sky, those two colors mediated by its serenely out-curved slate roofs, a chance summer breeze picking shivery music from the chimes strung on its spire; the exhibit of bewilderingly complex, ten-layered Koyasan style ikebana at the Reihoukan Museum; the slow, sonorous tolling of the Six O'Clock Bell--and through them all ran the thread of Sorata's voice, pointing things out, explaining, offering a tale, a secret, a laugh. And a silence, she realized, the absence of that voice when it was called for, which in those religious precincts, immersed in reverence and beauty, was often enough.
She hadn't been aware that Sorata had a gift for silence.
Toward the end of the day he had hesitated, falling briefly into a different quiet, and then had suggested that she might want to take a walk by herself along the river. He'd mentioned a particular boulder that overhung a small but surprisingly deep pool, and that was in fact where she had ended up, shaded by dark green rhododendrons and listening to the river murmuring across stone before it stilled into a flawless silvered surface, a mirror for contemplation. Even on Koyasan, the warmth of a summer's day was not inconsiderable, but in that place there was only the coolness of shadow and water. The sounds of tourist voices had been remote and intermittent, of concern mainly to themselves, like the warning cries of birds. Arashi wondered if Sorata had considered it a refuge himself, although she suspected, from the way the other monks they'd met had teased him about his trouble-making childhood, that his emphasis might have been on concealment more than solitude. But he had chosen right for her--an unfurling hush that she hadn't known she'd needed until she was there, breathing in the scent of forest duff and dampness, a softly charged but untroubled air. She wasn't sure whether it was serendipity or insight, or if his thought had been for her or for whatever mission of his own had brought them there.
Perhaps, she mused, it was a little bit of each.
She reached the Kongobuji just before true dark. The sweep of the temple's roof was still visible against the near-night sky. She started toward its lantern-lit side porch and paused, for there was an old man sitting there, wrapped up in robes despite the mild warmth of the evening, a man she had been introduced to earlier that day--the astrologer and seer Stargazer Chuu. /Grandpa,/ as Sorata had called him. She faltered, for despite Sorata's easy familiarity with the Stargazer he was a man of towering reputation and spiritual power, and she was a guest who had possibly strayed where she shouldn't be. But his bearded face creased into a smile that was kind, even welcoming. Moving closer, into the dim glow from the porch's hanging lights, she proffered a bow.
"So, are you continuing to enjoy your visit, my dear? " he asked, his voice sere and quavery with age. "Our Sorata hasn't been wearing you out?"
"No, sir. Thank you. The whole trip has been very nice." All the wonders of the twelve-hundred-year-old religious precinct flickered through her memory once more, and she flushed a little, essayed something more effusive. "Even among the rest of Japan's National Treasures, Koyasan is a beautiful jewel that truly shines out."
"'The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,'" he quoted, but his eyes were twinkling. "Although it's true that our esteemed founder in general wasn't known for being self-effacing." The fingers of one hand, which curled out through the opening of his robe to hold the fabric together, straightened, made a vague, all-encompassing gesture. "Thunderbolts and so forth." Arashi nodded. She'd read the legend of how Kukai had discovered the site for his religious center by hurling a three-pronged thunderbolt from China, and when he'd finally arrived at the place where it had landed, the mountain's kami had made him a gift of that land. "For ourselves, we're honored just to be simple guardians, caretakers of these treasures left to our country from the past."
Arashi inclined again, in mute agreement and respect, and then asked tentatively, "Excuse me, sir, but is Sorata-san here?"
"Sorata is...inside." The old man shifted his weight, then resettled. "Would you like one of the monks to guide you back to the guest house?"
/Ah./ "No, thank you, sir. I can find the way there by myself." She knew enough of hidden matters to read the direction in those oblique words: Sorata had slipped back into the temple's ambit, at the moment was not available to outsiders. The business they'd originally come about, which so far to her knowledge had never been mentioned? (Indeed, she'd been starting to suspect the Chairman of romantic collusion. She might have to have a word with his secretary when they got back to the Campus, just in case.) Internal affairs, or perhaps some private ritual observance? She would not ask. Her heart twinged like a struck gong, though, sudden homesickness for Ise, for Kaede, for her own place within the shrine's measured rounds, an unexpected and resounding aloneness. She wavered, wondering if the Stargazer's words had been meant as a dismissal.
The old man sighed.
"I wonder sometimes," he murmured, "about what we do to you young people. The burden of vows taken as a child. Of living out the consequences of decisions made on your behalf, the circumstances that other people's choices have created."
"All children have things decided for them by their parents," Arashi replied, a little stiffly, trying to contradict without giving offense, especially if, as it seemed, the Stargazer was speaking mainly to himself. "I've never regretted my own vows."
"Mm. But a vow has little meaning until it has been tested. Until one has experienced and truly understood its cost." The old man chuckled drily. "Unlike most parents, I at least can say that the stars show me what must be. Step by step, mapping out all that was, all that is, all that is to come. But the knowledge...does not excuse the actions taken. Each person must examine his or her own conscience. After all, no outside force can take responsibility for what human beings do. But we must be aware, to choose between harm and right action. Especially when the latter may be painful as well...." He trailed off, gazing out across the temple's yard at the darkness beyond, the forest now a black cloud, deeper than the night sky against which it rose. After a moment, he turned back toward Arashi and smiled.
"The stars are coming out," he said. "My assistants will be along shortly to put out all the lamps."
That /was/ a dismissal--Arashi bowed one last time, more deeply, then walked away, heading for the front of the temple and the main path leading down the mountain to the visitors' lodge. The yard's gravel crunched beneath her feet. In the distance the lone cicada had been joined by others, judging from the rise in volume; partially disguised by their drone, far off, she thought she could make out low male voices chanting. With nightfall, the air had become pleasant, cool and crisp, and above her one or two bright stars had already glimmered into view, despite the temple grounds' illumination. At the edge of the forest she paused, gazing back at the sky not yet hidden by branches--a long pause, before she turned and began to make her way downhill. The night sky spoke of power, enigma, inexplicable knowledge, but the stars held no messages for her.
* * * * *
As they came up out of the subway level, Arashi made a conscious effort and ungritted her teeth. With their arrival in Shin-Osaka station, they'd been traveling for two and a half hours, exactly half the full span of their return trip. Surely Sorata had to run down soon.
Sorata was.../hyper,/ even for him. There was no other way to describe it. From their departure that morning from Koyasan, punctuated with cackling, high-spirited farewells to the monks, all the way to Osaka, he'd been on a tear: nonstop babbling and jokes that were even worse than usual. The calm of the day before was gone; Arashi wondered if this was some kind of equal and opposite reaction, like a swing reaching the limit of its rope and being drawn back toward the other extreme, or whether it was just Sorata trying to shake off the influence of monkish self-restraint. At Namba Station, he'd insisted on stopping for hamburgers ("Shojin-ryori food's all right, but it just ain't filling...Miss, d'you want some fries?"), and in a gift store he'd tried to buy her the largest available plushie of Osaka's mascot, which she'd been forced to refuse strenuously. Never mind his multiple futile attempts to offer her sweets and snacks of all descriptions. The result was that they were cutting their Shinkansen connection very close. They should still make it, though, barring any further delays.
"Aw, man, we really didn't have time to see /anything,/" Sorata was complaining as they started across the sunlit Shinkansen concourse. "We shoulda stayed for another day at least! There's all kinds of things I didn't get to show you. Nyonindou is neat. Historical. You know, until Meiji Era women weren't allowed into Kongobuji--they had to stay at that women's temple. I'm glad I'm a modern boy! Ahahaha!" Arashi tightened her grip on the strap of her overnight bag, and tried to pretend that nobody was looking at them. "Although still, growing up in the monks' quarters, there weren't really any women around. Tourist and visitors wandering the place, but not anybody living there day to day. Hey! I was just thinking, the way only men could be Buddhist monks from way back, and in Shinto, the way it started out with mostly women as mediums and shamans, it's like the right and the left hand, isn't it. It's a matched set--"
"Don't take that thought too far." Why did everything always have to come back to /that,/ she wondered. Silence followed her words. She blinked--had she actually managed to squelch Sorata?--then realized that he'd fallen a step or two behind. Turning, she saw him halted in mid-stride, staring across the concourse, the expression on his face peculiar, almost stunned. Then, with a start, he literally sprang back into action, leaping toward Arashi and grabbing her wrist.
"Come on, come on, come on!" He dragged her off at a half-run in his wake, too quickly for her to brace her feet and break his grip. Her breath was jolted out of her in a tiny, involuntary squeak, and her face burned. Oh, this time she truly was going to kill him. "Ma'am! /Hey, ma'am!/" Sorata towed Arashi over to the other side of the concourse, where a woman was standing near the information booth, probably waiting to meet someone. The woman looked up in mild alarm as their stampede came to a halt in front of her. Sorata pulled a disposable camera out of a side pocket of his backpack and gestured with it. "Would you do me the world's biggest favor ever and take a picture of me with my girlfriend?"
"Just push that big black button there," Sorata instructed, pointing hastily. His other hand remained locked around Arashi's wrist. She twisted against his grasp, and he yanked in the direction of that twist, somehow twirled her around, until she fetched up against him and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and chest. She stiffened, felt her throat seize up and her eyes go wide. Sorata stuck his free hand out, two fingers in the victory sign; she could imagine the demented grin spreading over his face."CHEEEEEESE--/ooagh!/" As he doubled over, she pulled her elbow out of his gut and stamped a couple of steps away, putting herself safely out of reach.
"Oh, dear," the woman said, lowering the camera. "I'm not sure that came out so well."
"'S'alright," Sorata wheezed. "'m sure...I'm sure it's fine." He straightened gingerly. "Ah--thank you, ma'am." Arashi slanted a sidelong look at them and saw the woman handing the camera back to Sorata. She was perhaps in her late thirties, slim and dressed in a sleeveless, flowered sun dress, with medium brown hair tied back loosely except for a few chin-length wisps that framed her face. Her eyes were grey. She was smiling faintly, an expression that wavered into surprise as Sorata caught her hands as well as the camera.
"Ma'am, you just made my day," Sorata said, low-voiced and smiling with unusual intensity. "/Absolutely./"
"Ah, it wasn't much, really--"
"Not much? Ma'am is too modest! Ahahaha!" Sorata snatched the bloom from a geranium in a nearby planter and went down on one knee to present it to her, oblivious to the uniformed man who popped out the information booth's door and yelled at him. "Really! You're the best!"
The woman put one hand to her cheek as the flower was pressed upon her. "Oh, my...."
Arashi couldn't stand it anymore. Wheeling, she marched back across the concourse toward the Shinkansen platform, ignoring Sorata's startled pleas for her to wait. "Thanks again, ma'am!" she heard him calling as he lingered behind her, still delaying. "You have a nice day now!"
"You too," the woman replied, amusement plain in her voice as she raised it to carry. "I'm sure it will all work out for you!" Arashi thought she heard the woman laugh then, a brief, merry peal, before the station's crowd noise drowned it out.
"Miss--hang on--I'm coming--!"
Spending so much time around Sorata, she had become a master of the high-speed stomp. She flung herself up the stairs, arriving on the platform just as the bullet train's doors hissed open. Ducking into the nearest one, she made her way back through the inside of the cars, though not quickly enough to lose her pursuer entirely. She could hear him apologizing as he briefly got tangled up with a salary man somewhere behind her. Reaching their seats, she plunked herself next to the window and glared at the platform outside. The attempt to escape had been pointless, since they had assigned seats next to each other, but she hoped that she had at least sent him a message.
Sorata arrived just as the train was beginning to pull out of the station. He settled into the aisle seat unobtrusively enough that she thought her irritation might have finally gotten through to him. There were three seats in their row, but nobody claimed the extra one. Just as well--it meant they could keep the empty seat between them, at least until the next station stop. The unusual quiet continued as they skimmed through the city. At last, Sorata cleared his throat. "Ah...I guess you're a little annoyed with me right now."
"I /cannot/ believe you were so offensive with that woman!" With an effort, Arashi controlled her anger, which had cooled but not really diminished--it remained an irregular leaden mass weighing inside her chest. "A complete stranger!" she accused, keeping her voice low but letting it remain sharp. "After all, what if she'd been married?"
"Ah, she wasn't. A stranger, I mean. At least, I guess not, technically. She /was/ married, though." Surprised, Arashi actually looked at Sorata. He was slumped down in his seat, elbows on the armrests and fingers laced across his stomach. His eyes, gazing up at the seat back in front of him, were bright. "That woman...she was my mother."
Anger turned to air inside Arashi as she took a long, slow breath. "I thought...I thought that you were given to the monks as a little boy. That you didn't even remember your mother's face." Over the past few months, bits and pieces of all their stories had come out. Sorata had told her things about his childhood even before their trip to Koyasan.
"That's right. But this time visiting, I asked Grandpa Chuu to help me see where I could meet her. Because I might not get another chance. I wanted to remember her better." Sorata closed his eyes. "I made her laugh--didja see that?" he murmured with a tiny, blissful smile that made him look like some improbable Buddha. "I got to see her face, laughing."
"But you--" Arashi hesitated, not sure how far to involve herself, what pain might lie behind that seeming calm. She thought of the Stargazer's words, about vows and choices. "You didn't tell her who /you/ were."
"Yeah. I know." Sorata's eyes opened--the same grey as the woman's, Arashi realized. Turning his head, he glanced away up the aisle. "I didn't want to see her cry again."
Arashi watched Sorata's face, gone more serious, a little tension around the brow, his gaze focused on something further away than the front of the train car. Suddenly he blinked, pushed himself up in his seat, and the moment had passed. "Oh, here come the lady with the snack cart. Miss, you sure you don't want anything? A sandwich, or maybe some shrimp chips, or a Coke?"
The moment had passed, but was not gone, just as Osaka, even its outskirts left behind them now, or Koyasan, the eight-petalled lotus folded away in its mountain retreat, left their imprint on the mind and heart. Just as choices made and their consequences resolved were the foundation stones upon which one built a life. Demurely Arashi smoothed her skirt and folded her hands in her lap. "I'd like a box of almond Pocky, please."
"Really?" Sorata goggled at her. She quirked an eyebrow, and he bolted upright, clapped one hand to the back of his head. "That's right! Anything you want, Miss! Mwahahaha!" He flashed her a grin before turning to wave at the attendant, and on impulse Arashi tucked that memory away deep inside herself: the picture of his laughing, smiling face.
Mt. Koyasan, the Eight-petaled Lotus, situated a little over two hours from Osaka in Wakayama prefecture, is the location of the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism. It gets its nickname because the plateau on the top of the mountain is bowl-shaped and is encircled by eight small peaks or spires. The main Shingon temple, Kongobuji, was established by the sect's founder, Kukai (also known as Kobodaishi), in 819, although the present building and the use of the name "Kongobuji" to refer to it date from the 1800s. There are more than 120 temples scattered throughout the area, which is also a national park.
You can check out http://www.koya.org/eng/index.html for pictures of most of the sites mentioned in this story, as well as a description of the Koyasan style of ikebana.
The legend of the founding of Mt. Koyasan that Arashi recalls is a pretty classic example of Buddhist/Shinto syncretization; you can read it at http://www.asunam.com/koyasan_page.htm.
Shojin-ryori is a special vegetarian diet served at the temple, consisting of vegetables, cereals, and seaweed. It's served to visitors staying in the lodging house as well as to the monks.
Finally, the bit about women not being allowed into Kongobuji and having to stay at Nyonindou Temple instead is historically authentic. I found the following quote on a Japanese tourism site, which also manages to give the context for CLAMP's occult manga take on the place and to reflect somewhat amusingly on life in modern Japan:
"Being isolated from the rest of the world, it had been a popular training camp for young Buddhist monks in the old times. Though its access being forbidden to women before Meiji Era, now everybody can visit it by using a cable car."
Thanks go out to Char for their support, and especially to K-chan, whose musing about Sorata's parents was the initial spark for this story, and Mel, for telling me the right way to spell Koyasan. ^^
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