The dojo was surprisingly empty. It was surprising mostly because everyone had wanted to see this fight. Then again, perhaps they weren't even aware.
That foul-mouthed, hair-trigger-tempered man had been egging me on since I'd first joined here. Albel Nox was his name, and like his name and the slight accent that added a bit of music to each of his words, he was utterly unique. Sometimes, that uniqueness showed in better ways but unfortunately, it was more common for his uniqueness to make all of the people around him miserable. Not that it bothered Albel any, really. Albel was my shissou. I had never met anyone quite like him. Most people would agree that it's not usually a good idea to piss someone off before handing them a sword, but Albel-shissou wasn't most people, so it stood to reason that he made it his practice to do what others did not. I'd never seen anyone else fight like him. Moves that came off as reckless were practiced, precise. He fought like his life hung in the balance each time, like he was a mere inch from failure, but honestly, there was no one in this dojo that could beat him. Shissou hounded me on a regular basis, pushing and prodding and shoving a knife in every tender little emotional scar I might have had. I wasn't quite sure as to why, only that I was the only one he treated this way. He wanted a fight, he wanted a challenge, he wanted blood, and for some reason, it seemed he wanted these things from me. My parents hadn't believed in things like self-defense or fencing or out-and-out war, and they had forbidden me from involving myself with violence. As they had desired, I believed myself an utter pacifist since childhood. Yet one fateful day in my nineteenth summer, I found myself standing outside a dojo watching a man with bicolor hair fight and fight and fight as though his life depended on it. And that had been the first time I ever thought, I want that passion. I'd joined the dojo the very next day, much to my parents chagrin. I didn't care: I lived alone, anyway, since they were both so busy with their research and experiments. The money and the time weren't an issue at all –I was the bored child of two of the richest people on the planet, and they rarely cared how I spent their money. I'm sure that at the moment I'd joined, nothing could have surprised me more than learning that the man I had observed would be my shissou. Somehow, I managed to take it in stride. It had been only a year since then, almost down to the day. Albel-shissou –Albel the Wicked, according to the whispers of reverence from the other students– had demanded that I fight him from day one. I turned him down flat, stating that I had come to learn from him, not to have my ass handed to me. I still got shivers each time I remembered the anger that had flashed across his features at my refusal, but I had stood my ground. Each daily visit to the dojo had begun with the same demand. And for 364 days, I had refused him. For 364 days, I studied his form. My eyes traced his movements. I scrutinized the way he wore his long bicolor hair in twin tails that seemed to shadow his movements. I measured the accented cadence of his voice, the slight differences in his speech that made it all the more musical to the ear. Endless hours had been spent in an attempt to place the accent with the correct origin, but each attempt was met with failure. Carefully, I observed the flickers of emotions he quickly hid behind his mask of anger. I tentatively examined the anger that terrified and drove the others to learn, achieve, fight like their lives were on the line. Without a word, I watched the way the ambidextrous man favored his left arm, an arm left horribly scarred from some incident we were never to ask about or speak of. I memorized the smirk he wore instead of a smile. I analyzed the pain he hid behind rage in his crimson eyes. On day 365, I came to a startling realization: I had reached a point that lie beyond my initial infatuation with my shissou. I had fallen in love with that damn man. Half of that realization really didn't come as much of a shock. Women had always been pleasant enough to look at, but they had never captured my attention. In my limited relationships, I'd had much more luck with my own sex than with women. I'd learned that I much preferred the hardness of a man to the softness of a woman. So, being in love with a man? Not that much of a shock. My parents would probably be utterly horrified, but they would get over it. As for me, I was very okay with being in love with a man. Being in love with Albel Nox? That one hit a little harder. I would admit that I'd been quite drawn to the man from day one, but he was infuriatingly arrogant and condescending. His entire demeanor was in no way suited to teaching anything, yet still I learned. When I'd first seen him, I had fully realized the appeal of his body. His body was so lithe and muscular and graceful, his movements smooth and precise. He didn't walk so much as prance or dance, his hips moving in the seductive fashion I'd seen many a woman use –usually to no avail, since the sensuous swaying of those hips had never garnered my attention. Those rare crimson eyes held a somewhat disturbing gleam, but I could see them as a thing of beauty as well. But there were certainly more beautiful men in the world –and they all certainly had nicer demeanors! It had taken me a bit to realize that the devil was in all of those tiny details I had gleaned from watching him silently, listening to the rasp of anguish that sometimes entered his voice, and, above all things, having the intellectual power to put together the pieces of the complex man. I'd studied him like he was an experiment in a lab –then I'd been foolish enough to feel for the pain that hid in the darkest shadows of his gaze and the smallest expressions that would flash over his lips before giving way to that ever-knowing smirk. Even more foolish still, I'd started to care about the man, and therein began my downfall.
When Albel-shissou made his usual demand yesterday, I went out of my way to look at him. When he repeated his demand, I shrugged. "If that's what you wish, Shissou," I returned softly, respectfully. It hadn't been easy to say 'yes' after 364 days of saying 'no'. That was the reason why, for the first time ever, he'd had to repeat his demand to receive an answer at all: I had simply been unable to push the words out the first time he asked. I'd looked to him for strength, in an odd sort of paradox, and I'd found it in that gruff voice as it repeated his demand. It took me no strength, no effort, to produce the normal practiced 'no', my cowardly escape from something I'd been deeply longing to see. What truly required fortitude was to be honest with him and with myself and admit that I wanted to be on the receiving end of all that brute strength and passion. Just… probably not in the way he wished me to be. Had I been speaking to anyone but Albel-shissou, I'm certain their jaw would have dropped to the floor and they would have still been searching for a proper reply a week later. Since it was, in fact, Albel-shissou, his stunned expression flickered across his face only briefly before being contained and hidden by his practiced mask. Seeing his reaction encouraged me to press forward. "Perhaps tomorrow evening?" I inquired. "I have classes in the morning, and I would hate to be too sore to attend, Albel-shissou." He gave a single, jerky nod of agreement and moved on. If the others noticed any sort of difference in him, they didn't let on. Yet, I noticed it, and I found it a bit worrisome. By forcing myself to take a stand, had I disrupted the natural balance of things between my shissou and myself?
The day was long and arduous, if only because nothing seemed to matter aside from a fated meeting with my strangely patient shissou. All of my classes were terribly boring. None of my friends could entice me into conversation, not even Maria who was often jokingly called my twin. Turmoil simmered just beneath the surface of my apathetic perspective, though it seemed that none of the people I surrounded myself with were even aware. Nel Zelpher, the red-headed graduate student who was somehow a part of our rag-tag group and managed to be my best friend, had proven my supposition quite incorrect when she slipped into the library study room I had reserved for the hour break I had between classes. "Fayte, what's going on with you?" Nel inquired, her voice as smooth and soft as ever. I cocked my head at her. "Nothing. Why?" When those blue eyes focused on me, I knew without a doubt that she didn't believe a damn word I'd said. "Uh-huh. Out with it," she ordered. Instead of using the hour to complete the research I would need for my next project, I sat down with Nel and told her the truth –but only because she'd knew me well enough to demand it of me. When I had told her everything, had emptied out my soul at her feet and rattled it around to see if anything still lingered inside, she seemed taken aback. It took her a few moments to collect herself. Then she cleared her throat. "Fayte, there's obviously a reason you felt the need to keep this all inside. Can I ask what it was?" I swallowed hard. "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt, Nel." "And the training? Why didn't you tell us you were learning how to handle a sword?" "It… I guess it just never seemed all that important." She shook her head. "If you'd told me sooner, I could have told you that Albel the Wicked is quite famous. They say he's a modern day blood knight, Fayte. Someone as gentle as you really has no business fighting him. You never should have accepted his demand." I laughed feebly. After a year of having him as my shissou, I certainly knew I had no business fighting him. "I'm not going to fight him, Nel." "What do you mean?" Her expression turned concerned. "I'm not going to fight him. I can't. I am in no way ready to face an opponent of his level. A beginner, with a single year of training, against his master? That's preposterous: there's no way I would get out of that fight without a life-threatening injury. What I am going to do, however, is probably several times more reckless and dangerous." Her eyebrows nearly met her hairline. "What are you going to do?" "I'm going to confess." If I had told this to anyone else, I know they would have passed out at that pronouncement. Nel paled instantly but seemed in no danger of losing consciousness. She blinked at me for a moment. "Excuse me. I must be going crazy. For a minute there, I thought you said you were going to confess to Albel the Wicked." I gave her a wry smile and nodded slightly, as if to say 'That's because I did.' "Why in the hell are you going to do that? He'll chew you up and spit you out –or worse: he'll cut you to ribbons!" For someone who rarely raised her voice, Nel did it quite well. "Look: I'm going to tell him. The sooner I tell him, the sooner he tells me to fuck off. The sooner he rejects me, the sooner I actually get to attempt to heal." I gave her a sardonic smile. "After he rejects me, I'll leave the dojo. This is the right course of action because it gives us both closure. If I just quit, I have no doubt he will hound me until I tell him why, anyway." "What will you do if he doesn't listen to reason?" I scoffed. "I thought you'd heard of him. Albel-shissou never listens to reason. But he might listen to regret," I murmured. Nel looked at me strangely. "What do you mean?" I waved it off. "It's nothing, Nel. Thanks for listening." She shrugged. "No trouble, but it still looks like you're headed for a great deal of it." "I'm a trouble magnet. May as well get used to the idea."
So there we stood, alone in the dojo and staring at each other. The dojo was surprisingly empty, since everyone had wanted see this fight. I'd finally given into Shissou's demand, but more than that, the other students acknowledged my surprising amount of skill. They were certain they would see an all out war between two skilled swordsmen. Yet no one was here. I wondered if they'd even heard us arrange it. Perhaps Shissou had forbidden the attendance of gawkers. The notion seemed just contrary enough to have appealed to Albel-shissou. After my classes, I normally changed into loose long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Today, as if to mark the extraordinariness of things, I hadn't bothered to change. I still wore comfortable army-green cargo shorts and a close-fitting black tank-top, and I'd come to terms with the fact I would probably be wearing the other sort of clothing to classes to cover up the marks. My sword was still sheathed, the scabbard resting at my feet and just beyond a comfortable reach. Standing just a few feet inside the dojo, I waited quietly and respectfully for my shissou to seek me out. I smiled slightly when he began to walk toward me. Albel-shissou seemed to prefer to practice in the closer-fitting end of clothing the spectrum. Still, today's outfit was an abnormality, as well. He didn't even bother with a shirt –not that what he usually wore covered much– and his pallor was somewhat surprising. The dark ink of two tattoos provided stark contrast with the delicate paleness of his skin. One dragon seemed to rise over the jut of his hipbone on the left side and another dragon rose over his right shoulder to descend to his breastbone. The silver chain around his neck looked suspiciously like a choker-chain but my gaze abandoned it for another familiar gleam of silver –the barbell of his navel piercing. The small purple ball on the end made me want to smile. Tight black leggings incased his slender yet strong legs. Over all of it, it seemed he'd worn black hakema and kosode, but the kosode was held around his waist by the messily tied obi and he seemed to have abandoned the upper-portion. The scabbard of his beloved sword hung from the obi and close to his right arm. His arms were covered entirely, wrapped carefully with black strips of cloth that didn't seem to be tied off well but seemed to be holding. For a moment, I pondered the reasoning for completely baring his torso but covering both of his arms so artfully, but I discarded the idle curiosities in favor of paying attention to the dangerous man before me. My shissou, surprisingly enough, studied me for a moment instead of chasing directly after my purpose in being here. "Why did you accept this time, little fool?" As always, his accent added something sensual to the everyday words. I wanted to laugh. "Why have you demanded a fight from me each and every day I show my face here?" I challenged instead of answering. He shrugged. "You don't fight like someone with barely a year of training. You fight more like someone with around five years. I wanted to see how well someone with an abundance of natural talent could hold their ground against me. Why did you accept this time?" he asked again. A noncommittal noise slipped past my lips. "Perhaps because it was my shissou's will." I allowed my eyes a moment to search his face. "If I fight you, you must swear that if I leave this dojo, you won't demand a reason of me, Shissou." For once, he didn't even bother to hide his troubled expression. "Why should you leave, fool? Your skills are improving quickly here." I gave him a tight smile. "If I leave, I won't be giving you a reason, Shissou. The reason won't matter, anyway. It will only matter that you swear not to seek one." "And if I refuse?" "Then I leave and you don't get this fight." I shrugged. A single brow arched. "This is an indulgence, little fool?" "You might say that," I intoned smoothly. I just saw no need to inform him of which one of us, exactly, I was indulging. "You expect me to agree to your terms?" "You can teach a man to fight, Albel-shissou, but you can't force him to." He growled at me, anger vibrating off of him in waves. It was clear that he didn't like being manipulated. Silence stretched out between us as my shissou weighed and pondered the options. I wanted to sigh. I hadn't even meant to really fight him and now I'd managed to pin him like a butterfly in a shadow box. It wasn't right of me to manipulate him this way, but I didn't know what else to do. I simply could not bring myself to reveal my feelings to Albel-shissou. Not for fear of rejection –I'd already prepared myself for the inevitability of that– but for fear of humiliating myself in front of him. With this fight, at least, I had a minor chance. Albel-shissou had never had any issue with my form or with my speed. I could fight and handle myself: it was the words that I was afraid of. I had no fear of the many ways his sword could injure me, but I had all the fear in the world of the emotional wounds his caustic tongue could cause. This fight was not for a future with him: it was for a life without him. I was fighting for life in a way I'd never had to before. I was fighting for a chance to live without what-ifs or could-have-beens or should-have-dones. And most of all, I was fighting for the chance that we each might remember the other until the end of time. "Fine, little fool: I will not seek an answer if you should disappear from my sight," Shissou finally conceded. A faint smile pulled at my lips and I reached down and retrieved the scabbard at my feet, only to fasten it to my belt. "Shall we, then, Albel-shissou?" He led me through a maze of hallways, then through a heavy door. To my surprise, I found myself standing in a field of tall wild grasses and pale wildflowers. I blinked for an instant, stunned to realize that this tract of land lay behind the dojo all this time and I'd never realized it before. When my attention returned to my shissou, I realized that he had already drawn his weapon, a well-crafted tachi that he always kept a short distance from his right hand if not in that hand. Swallowing hard against the rush of sheer lust that had coursed through me upon seeing the longer Japanese sword in his hand, I slowly drew my own sword from its sheath. My sword was much more European in style –more like a bastard sword than a broadsword. A single-handed weapon seemed better suited to my style, anyway, not the hand-and-a-half weapon that my shissou wielded with a single hand and tremendous strength or the two-handed claymores or broadswords. Slowly, I approached the middle of the clearing, careful to analyze the terrain as I went. All the good form in the world wouldn't save me from tripping over a boulder if I was unaware it was there. When I stood about ten feet from my shissou, I paused. Simultaneously, we bowed deeply then rose to our full heights. I widened my stance and waited: I'd watched Albel shissou fight enough to realize he preferred to charge his targets first. When he did as I'd predicted, I moved away from the blade an instant before it arrived. Then I parried his thrust, forcing him back with strength I hadn't known I possessed. My eyes carefully followed the back-step he'd used to maintain balance. As I watched, he postured himself for the second attack, his back arching forward in a certain familiar way. I made speedy adjustments to my stance so that I could withstand and counter the strike. The fight continues much that way. I would watch his posture, stance and movement carefully in order to know when to change or adjust my stance, counter, or speed away. Fighting my unpredictable shissou should never have been this calm and easy. Nel, who's merely heard of him, had been worried I'd be cut all to hell by this man's blade, but had not a single scratch on me. The answer came to me very suddenly: I had spent a year doing nothing but study how this man moved, stalked, talked, and walked. Was it so much of a wonder that I could read each move in his form before he even came at me? "Little fool, perhaps you should participate?" Shissou inquired dryly. I looked up quickly, meeting those crimson eyes. "Countering and parrying aren't participation?" I asked him. "Very well, then. You're participating, but you're not making this interesting. You block all of my attacks competently enough: why don't you attack, yourself?" His tone was surprisingly warm and even, with a natural sort of cadence that seemed to soothe me –even when I believed I had no need to be soothed. I stepped back and allowed the tension to ease from my body and my stance. There was a very specific reason I didn't attack him. Nel had been right: a person like me had no business fighting Albel the Wicked. I had no desire to hurt him or harm him, so any attack would be half-hearted at best and utterly useless at worst. Still, if this was to be my last memory of the man, I at least wanted to make an impression. My first attack was swift and strong, startling my shissou more than a bit. I had known he would counter it, so my pride was in no way wounded by the fact my blade was nowhere near where the attack should have left it. Just as suddenly, I struck again. This brought me in closer to him, to a point where our breaths seemed to mingle. I knew the counterstrike would come. I knew how it would arrive. I knew the exact place that would be vulnerable to it. Even more, I knew that I had the speed to counter his counterattack. My shissou was also well-aware of this set of facts. So I watched the crimson eyes widen when his blade slashed open not only the shirt I wore but the skin of my chest. "Why?" he demanded, his voice harsh and ragged. He made no more to resolve the almost awkward position we found ourselves in. I gave him a sad smile but no answer as I sheathed my blade and brought one hand up to touch my wound. It was a bit deeper than I'd expected, but it wasn't something that I couldn't handle. As some point, he must have wiped my blood off his sword and slid it into the scabbard once more. Of course, I was making assumptions, since the next thing I was aware of was when both of his hands were tightly holding my shoulders. "Why?" he demanded again, his voice sharper than before. Unable to stop myself, I leaned forward and pressed my lips against his chastely for an instant. When I withdrew, I wore the same sad smile. "Because I love you, Albel-shissou," I confessed. He stared at me, completely stunned and eyes unseeing. He didn't notice when I slipped away and headed for my home. As I walked home, I called Nel, since she was the only one aware of the whole situation. I was sent to voicemail, but it didn't really matter.
"Hey, Nel. It's Fayte. I ended up fighting him, anyway, but I'm okay. There's just one tiny little slash across my chest, but don't worry about it: it's not all that deep. If I tell you not to stop by, you'd just do it anyway, right? Thanks for talking things over with me today. See you when you're done with classes?"
"Fayte, it's Nel. If you meant to make me worry less with that little message, you failed horribly. Just how big is this wound? I'll be over around 6:30, so don't do anything else reckless, alright?"