Title: Spring Thaw
Rating: mild PG-13-ish
Summary: When leading the Mibu clan gets to be too much for him, Shinrei gets more help than he'd expected from a surprising source ...
Disclaimer: Samurai Deeper Kyo characters and setting are the property of Akamine Kamijyo
Notes: Takes place a year or two after the fall of the Red Tower in 306. All hail Sanada for the idea for the pairing! (It's my first fanfic ... o_O )
(Originally posted to the love_deeper community; reposted here because I wasn't sure about the etiquette of using a deep link into a community post)
At dusk, an early spring storm blows through the Mibu city. Steady rain washes away the last of the sparse snow, drums quietly on the tiled roofs, and gurgles down the gutters. It's a gentle, soothing sound, and Shinrei wishes it would stop. He's only read the first 8 pages of Akari's weekly laboratory report, his eyelids are drooping, and there are still 34 pages to go. It's densely written, full of unfamiliar words, and is only cautiously optimistic - as far as he can tell. He sighs, and flips through the document again. Yes, exactly 34 pages remain, no matter how he counts.
There's a knock at the door.
He can't imagine who it might be. Ever since he assumed leadership of the Mibu, still wracked with grief for his mentor Fubuki, the members of his clan have always shown great sensitivity about respecting his privacy when he retreats to his own quarters. The few times he's been interrupted, it's been a true emergency. "Come in!" he calls, worried.
The door slides open to reveal a tall young woman burdened with a huge, heavily loaded lacquered tray. She has thick, silvery hair, severely combed back and firmly restrained into a horsetail at the crown of her head, a crisply pleated hakama, and an immaculate white jacket, as though she is about to attend formal weapons practice. He sees small hoop earrings wink and flash as she turns to close the door again, somehow managing the mighty tray with one hand, and as she turns back, he notices the long fingernails, brightly painted in stripes and dots, gleaming against the dark tray. From those alone he finally recognizes Anna, the oldest of Yuan's four sisters.
No emergency, he thinks, exasperated. But he's also, he has to admit to himself, a bit relieved to be interrupted this time, and curious as well.
He is not sure which fact is the most surprising: that she's here at all, or that she's so neatly and modestly dressed - except for those fingernails. He's not at all astonished, however, that she begins talking almost before the door is closed, words tumbling out as though she's afraid he'll dismiss her before she has her say..
"Shinrei-san, the commissary kitchen said you hadn't requested any supper, and no one saw you eat any lunch. I thought you ought to eat something. I hope you will like this - the commissary kitchen does well enough, but it's not like home cooking, is it?"
He smells seafood, tea, and freshly cooked rice. Suddenly he can't imagine doing anything but eating. The situation is worse than she realizes: he hadn't eaten breakfast, either, and he can't recall supper the night before, for that matter. He hastily begins clearing away the documents on his low, massive worktable to make room for the heavy tray, neatly squaring the piles of papers and stacking them carefully at right angles to each other, so they won't get mixed together.
Anna kneels smoothly at the far side of the table, so smoothly that the tray in her hands hardly trembles. Shinrei can't help but admire this display of muscular control and grace, but then, she is Ian's daughter and Yuan's sister: he wouldn't expect anything else. She places her burden carefully at one end of the table and promptly begins laying out his meal, her deft hands miraculously unencumbered by the ridiculous nails: a heavy ceramic dish with a lid from which wisps of steam were escaping; a square plate of grilled vegetables brushed with sauce; freshly-cooked rice, spooned out of a small, covered wooden tub into a beautiful deep-blue lacquered bowl painted with a water dragon wreathed with bubbles; a dish of mixed pickles; three tangerines on a deep blue plate, one of them already partially peeled to show the succulent flesh; and tea, wonderful hot tea, in a cup that matches the bowls and the tray. At last Anna pulls the lid from the large dish, revealing smoking-hot yosenabe, noodles, vegetables, and seafood in rich, golden broth.
Shinrei suddenly recognizes the tray, the teapot, the dishes: they are a matched set made for Fubuki years ago by one of the most skillful of the clan's craftsmen. He expects to be overwhelmed by thoughts of his late master, but for once he only feels a slight, bittersweet pang at a vivid memory of Fubuki's face, faintly flushed with surprise and pleasure the day that these elegant dishes had first arrived. Fubuki had never been overly emotional, but the devotion and respect that this careful handiwork symbolized, and the sheer artistry of the result, had moved him. Someone - Anna? - must have decided that the beautiful things had languished unused for long enough.
"Please, eat, Shinrei-san."
The words wake him from his reverie. "Thank you, Anna-san," he says, and busies himself with spoon and chopsticks. A few moments later, he looks up, and realizes that she is tidying the room while he eats. He is ashamed of how he's been cluttering up the place with papers and books and even items of clothing, embarrassed that she is cleaning up after him, and worried about whether he'll be able to find anything when she is finished. But she seems to be following his lead in dealing with the various untidy stacks of papers, making sure that the piles don't mix. Relieved and grateful, he returns to the tasty soup and the tender-crisp vegetables. The warm food and the quiet rain are making him even sleepier.
He is halfway through his bowl of rice when he realizes that something is wrong. She is staring at him, a sheaf of papers forgotten in her hands, consternation on her face, tendrils of silvery hair working loose from their tie to frame her wide-open eyes. "Shinrei-san, you've finished all that already? Didn't you burn your mouth on the soup?"
Suddenly her gaze sharpens. He feel completely exposed, knowing that without a doubt she is noticing all the things he'd noticed recently himself when he happened to pass a mirror: the eyes shadowed and sunken behind the new spectacles, muscles slackening from lack of exercise, hair lank and lifeless with fatigue. He still has his pride, however, and he returns her stare defiantly. These marks of overwork are like honorable scars gained in combat, signs of his devotion to his clan.
And if I tell myself that one hundred more times, maybe I will believe it.
"Shinrei-san, I can't stand to see you like this!"
It's an anguished shout, and her voice has simply incredible volume. He feels as though he should be flung backward, a leaf tossed by the storm. All traces of sleepiness vanish miraculously.
"You know what Akari-san and the physicians have said - any one of us could develop the disease, and any imbalance in the body makes it more likely! You have trained all your life as a warrior - how can you expect to thrive now when you're suddenly living like a clerk? Look at yourself! When was the last time you ate? Do you even know? And no one has seen you in the dojo or on the practice field in weeks! You can't live like this! Shinrei-san, I ... we need you! You have to take care of yourself ... !"
His spine stiffens, and his face unconsciously assumes the forbidding expression of his old mentor at his worst. Who is she, to speak this way to him? But her voice shakes on the last words, her face is pale except for a flush of emotion across her nose and cheeks, and her distress is genuine.
And he can't condemn one of his people for speaking the truth. That, as much as anything else, was what had nearly destroyed them all just a few short years ago.
"Anna-san, I appreciate your concern, but the work has to be done."
"But you needn't do it all yourself!"
Still clutching the papers, she comes to kneel across the table from him once more. He can see now that what she holds are more of the torturous medical research reports. She slaps them down angrily in one of the few remaining clear spaces on the worktable.
"Look at these reports! You aren't one of Akari-san's doctors - you don't need to know how exactly how large the blood samples were in the last experiment. My brother Yurian has been studying with her, and she makes him write a summary of their work each week. They were pretty bad at first, but now they are so much better that she's having them printed up properly for the library. Yurian could bring you a copy of his final draft every week. It would be only three or four pages long."
Only three or four pages. He feels a knot of tension that he hadn't even realized was there unravel somewhere in his gut, and he sighs before he can stop himself.
"Anna-san, what a good idea!" He picks up his rice bowl again, and gestures encouragingly with his chopsticks. "Go on. Do you have any more like that?"
"Well," she begins, hesitantly, "About the new housing courts on the western border ... "
As she lays out her thoughts, he becomes considerably impressed. She has a very organized mind. But she would have to, wouldn't she, to manage a household of nine brothers and sisters and her father, with no help ... . As the last of his hunger abates, he finds himself gazing at her more and more often as she speaks. There are pale shadows on the soft amber-ivory skin beneath those brilliant eyes, and the little lines beside her generous mouth and between those graceful brows were from sorrow, not temper.
After Fubuki died, everyone in the clan treated me with kindness, and gave me what help they could so that I was able to get on with my life. What did any of us give Ian's family after she was killed? Evil looks, threats ... .
It can't have been easy for any of them. But for Anna, having to assume her mother's duties while ignoring her own sorrow, it must have been especially hard.
"Shinrei-san ... ! Did you hear what I just said?"
Her frown is back. But he has to be fair - he had been drifting for a moment there. Something about the way her neck emerges from the snowy cloth of her jacket ... . It is fortunate that his memory has been so well-trained.
"I don't like Tetsuo as headmaster of the children's school," he says, firmly. "He's too stern. Let him stay on as their martial arts master, and let's try Mitsue-san as director. She has both toughness and kindness, don't you think?"
She flushes slightly as she realizes that he was listening after all, and nods.
"You know, Anna-san, I can think of another way that I can take better care of myself. I would like you to try acting as my assistant - if you can spare the time away from your family."
"You do me too much honor, Shinrei-san!"
Now she's really blushing. But she also looks ... bereft. As though he's disappointed her deeply somehow.
"You don't like the idea? They can't manage without you at home?"
"Oh, no, that's not it. It would be good for Angelica to have more responsibility."
She seems a little short of breath, and now she's become pale again. The charming enthusiasm with which she outlined her plans for him has entirely vanished. Listlessly but efficiently she begins to tidy the remains of the meal away.
"I'm sorry, Shinrei-san, I was just a little startled."
She places the soiled dishes on the big tray, after removing a smaller, inner tray that he hadn't noticed before. On this she arranges a clean rice bowl and chopsticks, the wooden tub with the remainder of the rice, the plate of fruit, and a small tea caddy. "You can make yourself ochazuke for breakfast," she murmurs, nodding at the flat-topped brazier that warmed the room and allowed him to make himself tea. She stands, the big tray in her hands again, ready to leave.
Gazing at her, trying to fathom what she's thinking, Shinrei suddenly realizes that her nails have been painted to match the tray and dishes: they are banded with broad strokes of different shades of blue, and the white spots are tiny, carefully painted bubbles.
How strange. Why would she do that?
He rises to his feet as well, and tries to look encouraging and hearty.
"Well, I'll see you at my office tomorrow morning, then, early? I guess you have to get back to your family ... ."
She stands there for a moment, looking forlornly down at the dirty dishes on the tray, one long fingernail tapping the lacquerware absentmindedly. Then her head comes up, she inhales deeply, and she glares straight into his eyes. She looks, he thinks, like a warrior about to issue a challenge.
"Shinrei-san. Do you really want me to go?"
Why wouldn't I? is the answer that comes to mind at first, but the next second, everything changes. Her question is a ray of sunlight illuminating a deep pool, revealing the silvery fish in its depths. He sees everything clearly now - her attempts to change her usual mode of dress to something that would appeal to his conservative nature; her care in putting together a meal that would appeal to every one of his five senses; her dismay when she realized how badly he had been treating himself; her sorrow - and anger - when she understood at last that he had completely overlooked what she was really offering.
And he sees another truth, as well: that every moment since she stepped through the door, he has become more and more entranced by this woman.
The complexities of the situation seem to be choking him, and he is completely astonished when a single word tears itself loose from his lips.
He feels himself flushing deep red. But she doesn't laugh at him. Instead, she flushes too, a delicate wash of sunset rose. It's the loveliest color he's ever seen. She tilts her head, her eyes questioning, as though she doesn't trust her ears.
He recovers, takes a deep breath, and gropes for words.
"Anna-san, it would please me very much -"
No, that sounds as though I'm offering her a job again.
"Anna - please stay. For as long you like. It would make me happy."
Now she does laugh, a friendly laugh that makes him smile too. She sets the tray down again and steps around the worktable. He meets her halfway. Their hands join, and their lips. Impulsively, he picks her up. She is a solid armful, every bit as strong and muscular as he had thought, but even in his current state, he has no problem carrying her. She smiles widely and puts her arms around his neck as he carries her toward his bedroom.
And then he stops dead.
Because this isn't some romantic tale, and he's carrying Yuan's sister to his bedroom.
He looks down at her helplessly. Her smile fades only a little, but suddenly there's solid steel in the depths of her eyes. With her drifting, wild silver hair and wide mouth, she most resembles her easygoing father, Julian, but at this moment, it's her mother, the Taishirou Ian, who confronts him.
"Shinrei, if it makes it easier, you can put me down, and I'll carry you off. Don't you want to, really?"
Her words are teasing, but he knows that she means it - and the chances are, she could do it. Easily.
And then, unexpectedly, he's remembering the first time he met this woman. Remembering her young brothers and sisters telling him how she had insisted that his own half-brother, Hotaru, become part of her family, and made it happen.
Remembering her brother Yurian's voice, saying, "You don't dare say 'no' to Anna."
Shinrei smiles back at the woman in his arms and steps forward again.
Say 'no' to Anna?
Hell, no. He didn't even intend to try.