Chapter 112: Reminders of the Past
Liam put his phone away and ran up the block to his love's home. They were to go over to Nathanial's this evening while his family was at their kung fu practice in the Jade Lotus kwoon -- it was to be hoped that Si Gung Adamski could teach Micah and Nicholas some badly needed control. However, the lack of family there was not the reason they were to visit; they were to have a bit of practice themselves.
Upon arrival at Faelen's, he was greeted at the door by his boyfriend. The taller Wolf gazed down upon him with love most visible in his eyes, but there was also some confusion touched by concern.
Faelen spoke. "Liam." He glanced about. "I wanted to ask you something." He hesitated, but Liam remained silent. "I...felt some pretty strong emotions from you earlier today." Faelen rubbed the back of his neck. "You know, through our link?" That was most obvious. How, pray tell, could it have been otherwise? Liam's patient silence seemed to be making Faelen more uncomfortable, but now was not the time to interrupt. "Well, I felt one of your past lives, one of the ones I'm not too familiar with, uh, wake up. He...seemed to be in love with someone. What does that mean, if anything?"
Liam reached up and patted Faelen's shoulder, smiling lopsidedly. "It means I had been in love with someone prior to meeting you, prior to my life as Liam. What else would it mean? I already said I had not fallen in love with anyone as Lowell, so it should have been safe for you to assume that anyone I had loved is quite safely dead." He shook his head with a sigh. "Perhaps I should tell the tale rather than having practice. Yoishi is oddly restless, so if I tell his greatest tale perhaps it will allow him to rest more easily. Let us gather your master and depart. It is a long story, so I doubt we can complete it in one telling."
Geoff walked up the stairs carrying their gym bags. "One telling of what?"
Faelen barely glanced when Geoff spoke and grabbed his bag. "He's going to tell us about Kaoru-sama."
Geoff's ears flipped back and his chi roiled fiercely, causing Faelen's nose to crinkle under the assault of highly intense emotions. Geoff's voice spoke of great conflict: curiosity, anger, fear, guilt, and pain. "The guy you loved and killed with your own paws because some dumb ass ordered you to?" His lips curled back to show his teeth; anger was winning out, but the pain was still strong. "The guy you betrayed in the name of duty and honour, like Faelen said he would do if I ordered him?" It was pain and guilt's turn in ascendance. "Fuck that!" He turned to Faelen. "If I ever did something to you like that then the betrayal was already done! By me! How... How?" He choked off, too overcome to continue.
Faelen grabbed his master in a tight hug, which was quickly returned. "It might be a betrayal, Geoff, but it may be a necessity, too. You have a duty as well, and not to me but to the clan. If I was compromised and threatened the clan, you would have a duty to order me to resolve the situation that caused my compromise. By whatever means. Duty trumps love and friendship, sir."
Geoff pushed Faelen away angrily. "No! No, it doesn't! And stop calling me sir!" He seized upon an obvious gap in Faelen's argument. "What about duty to friends? Family? Love?! How the fuck could I turn on you, hurt you like that, when I love you!? You love Liam! To order you to leave him or hurt him would be...be cruel. It'd tear your heart out and mine. What sort of person could do that to someone else?"
Liam cut in. "A leader. A lord. Someone who understands that sacrifices must be made to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number of people who rely upon him. It is something every leader throughout history has had to come to terms with; there are times when an order must be given that will send someone to their death to ensure that more may survive or a higher goal achieved. I have sent -- and been sent -- in that precise situation many times, though far more in the 'sent' than 'sending' category. You have asked a difficult question, to which I may add 'What about love of clan? Of country? Of kind?' Could you not send Faelen off into dangerous situations, or even a suicidal one, if it meant that all Spirits may be wiped out otherwise? What if the Hunters found a way of killing all magic entities without sacrificing Nathanial? At what would you balk to prevent such a thing?"
There was no doubt or hesitation in Geoff's voice. "I'd go with him. If I had to order my friend into the breach, I'd be there beside him the entire way. There's no way I could blithely send someone out to die for me."
Liam smiled wanly. "No good leader can. Once such an order becomes easy it is time to step aside; if the order has always been easy then that person has always been unfit to lead."
Geoff's muzzle wrinkled up in resurging anger. "And what if they're still the leader? If they're born into the role? Should they still be followed? Do they deserve loyalty and the sacrifice of your loved ones?"
That, surprisingly, cut at Liam. This disquieting doubt gnawed at him; reading histories and seeing current affairs through the lens of this time's view showed how poorly leaders of ages past acted and how much unnecessary suffering their arrogance had caused. Leaders were to care for and protect those under their command, but the bonds of duty and honour were often treated as going but one way, not both ways as was just and as the majority of oaths spoke. "I...no longer know. Not so long ago, I would not have hesitated in my answer, but I cannot answer in certainty as I once would have. But is anarchy preferable? Where the weak and the poor have no protection? Is war preferable, wherein the strong clash for dominance, trampling any who may stumble into their way? Is not even a poor but stable leadership better to such alternatives?"
Liam suspected that from the look on his face it was Geoff's turn to doubt, but Faelen interjected, seeking to end the argument. It was likely that the emotions raised by the topic smelt as unpleasant as the thoughts felt. "Okay, guys. Nathanial's waiting for us; let's just get going...and change the subject. I think hearing Yoishi's story is going to hard enough as it is without you two fighting."
Liam felt great guilt as they began trotting to the forest. "I...need not tell it, my love. I was under the belief that you would wish to hear it, but I have a great many tales that will likely never be told; this may be such a one if it would upset you."
Faelen half-exhaled breathily and half-growled as he rubbed his face. "I want to know you, Liam. Who you were as much as who you are. I think Geoff would have a much more difficult time listening to Nathanial's life story, even if it's a miniscule fraction of the size of yours." The grey Wolf gestured at his friends when he named them without turning aside from the path he led them down, the dried leaves crunching under his broad hindpaws sending an earthy scent up into the moist air. "It still shaped the pup we know, and it's still something you have to understand to make sense of why he reacts to certain things the way he does. For example, he loves cooking, but the abuses he faced every time he displeased his mother or her guests make him terrified to cook for other people. Without knowing that you could never understand the way he reacted when Geoff suggested he run a charity dinner for your event."
Geoff's posture indicated he was thinking deeply about the veiled inference that he still did not truly know nearly enough about the pup. It was true. Liam knew he, too, knew very little about their friend.
Geoff's voice was quiet, blending in with the birdsong and wind through the trees. "I couldn't believe Da's and Dirk's reactions when they mentioned what they found in his mother's office. I couldn't imagine anyone doing that to their pup. To him. He's so sweet, so kind. His brothers didn't know -- I don't know if they know how bad it was now. What else is he still hiding? Could he have actually endured anything else? If he could hide something like that from his brothers, imagine how easy it'd be to hide from us."
Liam spoke softly in response, "Then we must ask if we have any doubt. We must be there when he appears to be in pain, or we get a mere hint of it. We must know him better so that he is unable to deceive us. His brothers are young and likely did not suspect such may be the case; we now know it was and can look for the signs of when it troubles him. That is our duty as his friends: to protect him when we can and to help him heal when we cannot."
Geoff did not appreciate the inclusion of the word 'duty' but seemed to agree with the sentiment. They remained silent as they raced through the trees.
They settled into their chairs around the sitting room. A fresh pot of Japanese gyokuro tea sat upon the table next to a plate of cookies, ones that bore more than a passing similarity to the ones Lorie made, except these were soft and need not be dunked in tea to draw out their preferred flavour.
Nathanial levitated cups of tea to everyone and a few cookies. He ducked his head. "I-I'm sorry I don't have any mochi or other Japanese desserts to go with this, or even sushi, but I, um, I-I wasn't expecting this."
Geoff leant over and rubbed his muzzle over top of Nathanial's. "Neither was I. I don't think Liam was, even, but it isn't necessary to have thematic snacks for this." He paused before adding, "Well, any snacks, when it comes down to it." He moved back and lifted Nathanial's muzzle so he could lightly kiss it. "I have what I need, right here." Nathanial's expression spoke of how well-timed the comment was and how greatly it was appreciated.
Liam felt a warm glow within. While at one time he had hoped to be the recipient of such a gaze from the Akita, he was more than happy with Faelen and was most pleased to see Nathanial so in love, even as it caused Yoishi to partially wake.
He brushed his thumb reflexively over his raven feather when Geoff turned to look at him, prompting him to begin his tale. "I speak to you of the love of Yoishi Takahashi. Please note that hereafter I will be using the Eastern nomenclature and will place the family before the person, as is appropriate. I suppose I should begin with a little history..."
Nathanial hated missing another afternoon of kung fu practice, but his aunt was coming over for supper, and he wanted everything to be perfect. He was still not sure what to make, but he decided to just go with his strengths and hope for the best. Even if Aunt Naomi lived the life of a pauper now, she would still have learned about quality, etiquette, and protocol the same way Mo-- uh, Lily did. She seemed to have gotten more of Lily's aesthetic sense than their mother; the dress the elder Mrs. McKay wore to her daughter's funeral was hideous, but Naomi's was really nice...if not tailor-made.
The resolve to do his best didn't quell the butterflies in his stomach, though, nor did the smell of Geoff's roses. They were growing large root balls at the base of each stem, so Nathanial moved them into individual vases and put them by the patio doors to get more light until he could plant them in pots. He even managed to do all of that without cutting himself.
Last night, while his family went to kung fu practice, Liam, Geoff and Faelen came over and Liam had started to tell them a bit about his last great love -- Ohtori Kaoru-sama. Liam only got partway through the story before the night grew long, but he promised to continue it some other time. Nathanial really wasn't sure he wanted to hear the story, but it was a part of Liam, and he wanted to know more about his friends. The first part was...nice. He hadn't expected Liam to go into as much *ahem* detail as he did, but Liam always enjoyed tweaking people's sensibilities that way. He wasn't sure if knowing the outcome beforepaw would make it easier or harder to listen to it, but it was probably for the best; he'd be crushed to hear such a romantic tale only to find out...that. He turned away from the counter after a few tears fell onto it and tried to compose himself. The love Liam (with a bit of Yoishi in there too) showed whenever he talked about Kaoru-sama was really heart-warming; it was very similar to the way he spoke about Faelen, so Nathanial found himself getting really worked up whenever the...ending crossed his mind. Even if it was a common element in Japanese and Chinese romances, from what he could tell...not that he was an expert or anything.
He struggled to focus on cooking, so to clear his mind he ran through the menu. Today's carte du jour would be Japanese, in honour of Yoishi. Starting out was the ubiquitous miso soup, with some autumnal ingredients added in -- tiny cubes of butternut squash, thin strands of spaghetti squash, and some crumbled chestnuts that were leftover from his last big dinner party. The butternut squash replaced the need for the tofu, which was good, because he didn't have that much of it on paw. The soup would be served with a light sunomono salad. It was commonly composed of thin rice noodles soaked in a bath of rice vinegar with some vegetables on top; he thought the fresh tastes would contrast nicely with the heavier, saltier taste of the soup, so he only added thinly sliced carrots, cucumber, and small shrimp to it. Or would add them, a minute prior to serving. Next, he had made a small selection of sushi for each person: a vegetarian yam and squash roll with a sweet sesame sauce, the standard California roll, an asparagus and smoked salmon roll, yellowfin tuna (caught by a sport fisher, not netted or long-lined) with a bit of green onion, and a barbequed unagi (fresh water eel) roll with wilted spinach and a light teriyaki sauce -- unagi had a mild flavour and could easily be overpowered.
'What did Kaoru-sama feed Yoishi during that first meal they shared? Fish was usually considered something other than meat, so maybe Yoishi had unagi rolls, too? Liam never really said what was going through his mind; did it bother him to eat with his intended target? How... How could he do that? Smile and laugh with someone over lunch, knowing... No, that doesn't matter. I'm cooking dinner. I'm making sushi for my family; it doesn't matter what Liam, er, Yoishi ate. I wonder how it was prepared. Would the fish have been caught nearby? Poor Kaoru.'
Trying to focus on the food he was preparing wasn't clearing his mind enough, so he turned his mind to happier thoughts, the way Liam mentioned he did when thinking of all the people he'd lost over his lives. It didn't quite work; he instead found himself thinking of Liam's expressions as he had talked, particularly in those deep brown eyes. They'd reflected so much emotion last night, but each moment seemed tinged with sorrow and pain...and happiness. Nathanial knew a bit about the Sengoku Jidai period of Japan, since it was a period that frequently appeared in manga and video games, so he could understand how an artist like Yoishi would be so happy to find someone who understood him and value his work like Kaoru-sama did. If Liam could find happiness in those memories, despite the end, couldn't Nathanial do the same? Thinking of it that way seemed to help; he could picture the look in Liam's eyes when the Rottie glanced at him -- as he had done frequently -- so full of love, and it felt like a balm for his heart.
Nathanial blew his nose and washed his paws. He was finally composed enough to start on the next course, the tempura and kareage. Both were deep-fried dishes and required careful attention. The tempura was a very simple affair, just grab something, roll it in tempura batter, and stick it in oil until it was done. He chose yams, butternut squash, mushrooms, shrimp, and broccoli. The kareage was deep-fried meat cubes in a crispier batter; today it would be the tuna. Normally he'd prefer chicken or pork, but the tuna had looked so good he had to add it to another dish. He would roll it in a mixture of corn starch and panko crumbs and fried, leaving it rare in the middle. When cut it would show the brown, crispy outside and the tender white meat of the tuna with a rapid gradation to the pink -- almost red -- flesh in the middle. The main course would be a fairly simple stir-fry; he had used very little in the way of vegetables so far, so he needed to add them in somewhere. The sauce would be a Japanese curry, and the meat would be beef. He was tempted to use the tuna, but it'd be completely overpowered by the curry. On the side would be goma-ae -- wilted spinach with a sesame dressing.
The oil in the pan sizzled fiercely when the first piece of tuna touched it. Naomi would be here in about five minutes, just as everything should come together.
Nick came trotting up the stairs with Micah in tow. Nick was wearing appropriate attire, slacks and an open long-sleeved shirt, with a brighter t-shirt on underneath, but Micah... Micah was taking the Japanese theme a bit too far. He'd seen Nathanial watching Bleach a few months ago and decided he'd wear the black clothing the Soul Reapers, or Shikigami, wore. Nathanial rubbed his forehead with the back of his wrist, wishing he could rub the sudden headache out of his temples.
Nick chuckled and glanced back. "Told you he wouldn't like it."
Micah pouted. "Aww! But it's Japanese! It goes with dinner. It's not like when Sensei told me off on the boat for dressing up all Egyptian." He spun around and stopped in his Sailor Moon pose...complete with the sailor suit and skirt. He grinned cheekily. "Better?"
Both of the older Akitas choked. Nathanial managed to splutter out, "No! Gods! Micah, just, just..." He waved frantically at the cupboards. "Plates. Dishes."
Nicholas trotted over, looking worried. "That's enough joking Micah. Let's help set the table and let Nats finish cooking." He stopped beside Nathanial on his way to grabbing the dishes and placed his paw on his older brother's shoulder. "He was joking, Nats. Don't worry. Everything will be fine."
Nathanial nodded shortly and quickly, trying to keep himself from shivering. Micah spun again and stopped in clothes similar to Nick, but in icier colours to go with his black fur. He scampered over and latched onto Nathanial's back, his slender arms wrapped around his eldest brother's small ribs. "Sorry, Nats. I was just kidding; I would've changed before Auntie Naomi got here."
"I know, I know. It's just..."
"You worry too much." Micah squeezed a bit tighter. "You need to laugh more and have fun."
Nathanial smiled softly and rubbed one of the black paws holding him. "I do, but don't forget that I'm not you. We find different things fun, different things make us laugh, and different things scare us, too."
His little brother's voice dripped with sarcasm. "Really." But he broke out into gales of laughter right after. "I kinda sounded like Sensei!" He dropped his voice to a very good approximation of the Ancient One's. "That is most obvious, young Nathanial, but balance between fun and gloomy sour-faces must be achieved for inner harmony."
Nicholas laughed out loud, one of the freest and most genuine laughs Nathanial had heard from him in over a month. Micah's tail took off in a storm of happy wagging, making Nathanial shake from the force. Nathanial felt the tenseness in his muscles, tension he hadn't even been aware of, leach away. Seeing them happy -- laughing -- was...was...
Nicholas stopped laughing and quickly moved back over to his older brother. He gently turned Nathanial's head to peer at him in concern. "What's wrong?"
Nathanial struggled to control himself. "N-Nothing." He sniffled. "Just, seeing you laugh like that again." He grabbed Nick in a tight hug, squishing Micah's arms between them. "I'm happy. J-Just a little overwrought."
Nick relaxed and hugged him in return. "Good. All right, then. You really need a vacation, Nats."
"Ack! The fish!" Nathanial pushed Nick away and frantically checked on the fish in the pan. It was cooked a little more than he'd have liked, closer to medium rare than rare and the batter was a bit too dark, but still tolerable. He shook his head and put the next batch of fish. "Ah, well. I guess these will be the extras." He disengaged Micah's arms. "Set the table, please." His brothers nodded and moved off to do so.
He idly wondered where Naomi was; he expected her to take the bus, but he'd have been able to sense her by now if she did. 'Maybe she managed to get one of those -- what did Mom call them? Jalopies? Yeah, that's what she said poor people drove if they managed to save up enough money, and she always said her sister was poor. Wait! She works way out of town, at the airport! Maybe she lives near it and was expecting us to offer to pick her up and is now all mad because we didn't, and she couldn't get out here quickly and was hitchhiking and got picked up by--'
A cold nose pressed into the back of his head, just above the thicker fur over his neck, startling him. Granted, it was more the suddenness of Snow's arrival and greeting than the cold that startled him, but still. *You are still cooking the fish? We thought you needed to pay attention so you didn't overcook it again.*
Nathanial quickly checked the fish and pulled it out of the oil in time to save it. He'd been so wrapped up in his worries that he hadn't even patted the excess oil off the other batch. "Thanks, Snow." He began quickly patting it all dry while he got the sunomono salad going. The tempura was just about ready to go, too. He levitated a piece of the fish up to Snow's head where it rested on his shoulder. The mastiff's head was right next to his own and easily dwarfed it.
Snow daintily plucked the floating fish out of the air and carefully chewed it. His tail thudded against the floor. *We find this pleasing. It crunches like the rolls you gave us, it's soft like cake inside but it has more texture, and it tastes... We don't know how to describe it, but we know we like it immensely.* His nose twitched as he gazed at the glistening pile of crispy brown morsels.
Nathanial gave him another piece. "That's enough for now. I can set up some food for you, if you want to join us."
*We find too much solid food makes us...uncomfortable. We enjoy tasting it, but small amounts are all we want.* The large nose rubbed over Nathanial's ear. *We ate just before we saved the fish. You are still our favourite food. Your fear is without compare.*
"Uh... Thanks?" How in all of the hells is someone supposed to take that? The tempura sizzled in the oil when Nathanial dropped some in, drawing Snow's attention. The sounds and smells seemed to absolutely fascinate the planar entity.
Garret walked into the kitchen and flinched. "Zeus have mercy!" He put a paw on the doorframe and leaned against it. "By all the gods, will I ever get used to seeing him, Nathanial? ...Uh, you, Snow?"
Snow's tail thudded on the floor again, but his attention didn't turn from the dancing bubbles that rose from each piece of tempura as it was placed in the oil.
Nathanial shook his head, careful not to bother Snow. "Maybe. He still gives me a jolt every once in a while." He reached up to scratch Snow's ear before reaching over to wash his paws again. "But so does Si Fu DeKou." The Polar Bear was huge, in more than one way. He changed the topic. "Um, does Naomi have a car? Should we have offered to pick her up or something?"
His father leaned against the doorframe, frowning. "Yes, she has a car. I'm not sure what it is, but there's no way she could work at the airport without one, especially in her office -- that's behind the airport, as you should know, having stormed it with a squad of Knights. She'll be here; she's always been very punctual, unlike Lily. She may have gotten lost. She's never been to our house before."
Garret's jacket was off and he loosened his tie before unbuttoning the top two buttons on his dress shirt. He looked like he should be in some ad for cologne or something. Nathanial telekinetically slipped his phone out of his pocket and snapped a quick picture of his father. He turned his head to look over the shoulder without a giant canine's head resting on it and smiled at Garret. "Welcome home, Dad." Nathanial wondered when his father got home; he completely missed the gate buzzing.
The adult Akita shook his head and walked over, carefully avoiding Snow as best he could, to rub Nathanial's arm. "Thanks, Son. It's good to be back. Smells great, by the way. What was the photo for?"
Nathanial felt his face heating up. "You looked like a model for an ad; it seemed like it'd make a great picture. And..." He felt embarrassed to admit the other reason -- he was afraid he'd wake up someday to find it was all a dream, or that Garret had walked out on them again.
Garret seemed to catch the unspoken fears right away. He leaned over to lick Nathanial's ear. "I'm here, Son. I'll still have to make periodic trips, but I'm here. I love you."
Nathanial sniffled; he was just a complete watering pot today. He carefully fished the finished tempura out of the oil, trying to keep his face from scrunching up and his eyes dry. Zhaohui, the Light entity that fed off his love, was stirring -- that seemed to be a good sign, at least.
His father just stood there, with one paw on his shoulder until the last piece of tempura was out of the oil, before gently nudging Snow's chin to get him to move. He pulled Nathanial into a hug. "Crying is all right, Nathanial. If you need to cry then there's probably a good reason for it. Releasing stress is one of them."
Sometimes Nathanial wasn't sure if this was his father. He'd changed a lot from who he was years ago, notably his stance on crying. "Crying is for babies, Nathanial." He hadn't realized he'd spoken out loud, or with the scorn that so often was directed at him. "Just because you suck at magic and failed to cast the spell again isn't a reason to start bawling. Grow the fuck up."
His father's muscles were as hard as rocks and quivered beneath Nathanial's arms. "Shit." He leant his head over to rest his cheek on Nathanial's forehead. "I'm sorry. I was an ass and kept taking my problems out on you. I was wrong." Nathanial could hear the emotion in his father's voice. "I can't believe you remember that."
"Huh? Oh, um, sorry. I-I didn't realize I said it out loud. I d-didn't mean to upset you, Dad." Garret was wrong about one thing: he'd said it, either verbatim or paraphrased, many times when Nathanial was a young pup.
The gate buzzed, signalling Naomi's arrival. Garret pulled back a bit to hold Nathanial at arm's length. "You aren't the reason I'm upset. I'm the reason. I was a horrible dad; I probably still am. You are a sweet, kind, and wonderful son. I don't deserve to be forgiven for what I did to the three of you, but I'm very glad to have been given another chance." He took one paw off Nathanial's shoulder and rubbed a tear off the pup's cheek. "I'd be very happy to know you trust me enough to let me dry your tears and comfort you when you need it, rather than trying to keep it bottled up. I'm sorry I ever made you think you had to hide your feelings. Please, come to me when you're hurting; you don't have to face everything alone." He stepped back. "Now, I should get changed." Garret seemed to have second thoughts and gently pulled Nathanial back into a hug. "I love you. I want to be here for you whenever you need me."
"I love you, too, Dad."
Nick poked his head into the kitchen. "Are you getting-- Oh, hey, Dad. When did you get home?"
Garret stepped back. "Just a few minutes ago; Ella dropped me off. Can you get the door? I need to change."
Nick grinned wolfishly. "Ella, eh? I'll want more details later."
Garret lazily swung a paw at his middle son as he walked by, bapping him on the shoulder. "Scamp. Go get the door. It was an official meeting, not personal. I can't talk about it."
Nathanial cringed by the stove. "D-Did I do something wrong?"
Garret paused, looking back. "Calm down, Nathanial. Drink some of Sensei's tea before you put yourself in the hospital. No, it was about our family in general, and no, I won't say anything else. It isn't your business until the Agents make it your business." He looked back to Nick. "The door, Nick!" Nicholas jumped and trotted off to the front door. Garret muttered, "Hera help me," and hastened off to the stairs, shaking his head.