It was hot - there was too much moonlight – he couldn't sleep. Yukimaru sat up, pushed off the thin quilt and wrapped his arms around his knees, resting his chin on them. The other boys who shared the room with him were dozing uneasily, too; the dim air was filled with small, soft sounds like a paper box of crickets. That wasn't what was keeping him awake, though – it was knowing that tomorrow they'd share the practice-hall with the senpai, and he'd get to see Jin.
Yukimaru wondered sleepily what moonlight would taste like if you could lick it off your fingers... then he closed his eyes and let his mind slip off to the place it liked to go in the dark. It wasn't always the same place; sometimes there was a waterfall, and a kind of misty light, or a battlefield, all noise and flags, or maybe a temple and incense smoke and the feeling of gods watching, and sometimes it was the trees along the riverbank, but it was always the same two people – himself, and Jin. And they'd be sparring, and Yukimaru would be better than he'd ever been, moving the way you only do in dreams, like dancing, like love, and gradually Jin would lose that look that made him seem so far away, and the long, black eyes would warm, gradually catching fire, until...
The sound of Tiger hitting the floor made a smile pull at Yukimaru's mouth; it was a kind of damp smack, like a big fish landing on the deck of a boat – or what Yukimaru imagined a big fish landing on the deck of a boat would sound like, never having been directly exposed to anything so vulgar. Not that he would ever have let the other boy see his triumph – that would have been very bad form, and he quite liked Tiger – so he put away the smile for later, lowered his wooden practice sword and stretched out a hand to his sprawling opponent.
Tiger took it and scrambled to his feet, grinning, good-natured as always in defeat. "Hey, Snowflake, that was brilliant! I never even saw it coming..."
"Slipped nothing. You're just... better than I am. You're better than everyone, now. Shudo-sensei's going to have to move you up to senior..."
Yukimaru allowed a little of the smile to show after all. It had been a good move. Fast. Graceful. Unexpected. His trademarks. He flicked the damp hair out of his eyes, using the movement to disguise a quick sideways glance across the practice-hall. The half-dozen or so highest-ranking students were finishing their drill at the top of the long, high-raftered room, lined up in front of the monitor's bench. In their grey jackets they looked like shadows of each other, moving perfectly... and the one, the most perfect of all, making the pattern the others only followed – Jin...
Yukimaru realized he'd been holding his breath and let it escape slowly. "Come on, Tora-kun, let's go get a drink before Shudo sees we're not doing anything."
They'd have to pass the seniors to get to the water jar.
Yukimaru slid a surreptitious look at the monitor – Shudo always reminded him of a story he'd heard when he was little, about a haunted pool – a beautiful pool with a smooth, dark surface, but if you went close to admire the reflection of the willows, something would break through from beneath the skin of the water, something with long arms and claws to drag you in...he fought down a superstitious shudder. Stop that; he's only a man, not a demon. Just don't catch his eye.
Letting Tora get a little ahead of him, Yukimaru retied his jacket, arranging the collar to reveal small suggestions of throat and shoulders – nothing obvious, just...
"Morinobu." Shudo-sensei's low, dangerous purr froze Yukimaru where he stood. He resisted the urge to pull his collar back up and duck; instead, he managed a proper bow, the wooden sword suddenly slippery in his hands.
"Since you appear to be idle, I am assuming you've beaten everyone possible in your own group. Perhaps you need a challenge, Morinobu-sama..." A taste of poison had crept into the purr, and Yukimaru tried not to meet the monitor's eyes, focusing instead on his fan as it moved lazily back and forth below the man's handsome face. Shudo turned his head with a studied precision that made even Yukimaru look clumsy, and eyed his seniors. "A challenge... Jin. Jin-kun, perhaps you'd like to amuse Master Morinobu a little?"
The tone in which Shudo said Jin's name made Yukimaru glance up, startled. It was like one of those kisses that ends in a bite...he dropped his eyes again hurriedly, feeling his face go hot. His particular friends had oozed a little closer to watch, and there were a few half-murmured protests that, good as Snowflake was, he shouldn't have to fight the best of the senpai –
"Be quiet, children," Shudo said, without looking at them. "Jin."
Jin said nothing, moving out into the open space at the center of the floor with the hard-edged grace that was so unexpected if all you looked at was the long limbs and the thin, delicate wrists.
Yukimaru thought he heard Jin sigh as the senior took up the opening position of a challenge bout.
"Morinobu. Your attention, please?"
"Go on, Snowflake-san!" someone called, and Yukimaru reminded himself where he was, what he was going to do. Wasn't this, after all, what woke him in the middle of the night, what made him breathe a little more quickly when he thought about it during practice, what made him stare into space during lessons... the two shinai met with a crack that echoed through the silent hall; Jin had attacked and Yukimaru had parried without thought... adrenaline shot through his veins and the bright cold settled over him like sudden snow; the perfect focus came... he found himself responding instantly, instinctively, even taking over the attack, driving his opponent back several steps with a combination he invented just that moment... watching Jin's eyes... better than he'd ever been, moving the way you only do in dreams, like dancing, like...
The impact of his body striking the floor drove the breath out of him; the view of the ceiling he suddenly had was unexpected, and his wrist hurt where it had got twisted under him somehow as he fell. He hadn't even felt the blow that knocked him off his feet. The blunt end of a shinai was pressing into the pit of his stomach, holding him down.
"Students may dismiss," he heard Shudo say through the beating of the blood in his ears, and the small rumble of feet on the echoing wood. Then silence. The end of the practice sword trailed up along his chest, his throat, under his chin until it was forcing his head back.
Yukimaru felt a sting behind his eyes and made himself take a hard breath. This wasn't how it ended...
"Don't cry," Jin said, so quietly Yukimaru could hardly hear him. The shinai was withdrawn and the senior was bending over him, pulling him to his feet by the front of his jacket.
"Tell yourself it doesn't hurt," the rapid murmur went on, the narrow hands passing over him as if checking for damage. "Make yourself believe it. Then no one can touch you." Fingers closed around Yukimaru's jaw, moving his head back and forth.
There was an infinitesimal hesitation, then a moment's pressure of a finger against his lips, and the voice, barely a sound. "And don't... look at me that way."
Jin suddenly dropped his hands and stepped back, saying, "He's all right, Sensei-sama."
"Oh, good. I'd hate to think we damaged our little hina-ningyo warrior."
The monitor rose to his feet, flicking his fan closed and tucking it into his sash. He stepped down from the platform and moved towards the door, glancing at Yukimaru as he passed.
"Next time, you'll see it coming, won't you, hina-chan? Next time we take you off the shelf to play with you."
Yukimaru heard neither the threat nor the insult; didn't see Shudo leave or Jin turn at the door and look back, though he quivered as if he might have felt the brush of that last regard...
He stood wrapped in a darkness he'd woven himself, hair in his face and the taste of moonlight on his lips.