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The Japanese Way


The Japanese Way

This one-shot was inspired by the mind blowing 'Ice of the Phoenix' piece from Audiomachine, and from a country I greatly admire for its ability to blend traditions and modernity. It also features some characters from the excellent drama Hakuōki, a must for those who want to learn more about the Boshin War and the opening of Japan to foreigners in 1868. 

Tōkyō, 2015

Hijikata Toshizō only meant to perform his duty; as the Vice Deputy of the Hakuōki Academy, discipline fell under his jurisdiction. And despite the fact that the current harasser was a colleague of his, and not a student, he would never condone such behaviour towards a lady. His white shirt clung to his back, a victim of summer’s harsh heats. Had the trees not been here to offer shelter, he would have melted on the spot.

Kami, I only meant to have a beer to stave off this stifling heat!

But the moment his eyes met hers … his whole world titled on its axis, sending his mind tumbling outside down.

Her irises were of the deepest green, the shade of a luxuriant forest coming to life in spring time. And, like most foreigners that set foot on Japan’s soil, they felt huge enough to drown in. But in those unfathomable depths danced rising panic, the kind of mind crippling, debilitating fear that crept up one’s spine.

The woman’s insistent gaze only added fuel to the blood that rushed in his veins. He took an instant, just one breath, to assess the situation. Or so he thought. Her hair shone like flame and cascaded down her back in ringlets of pure fire. A light blue dress adorned her silhouette with a square neckline, the outline of toned legs peeked below the mid-calf long skirt. Rosy lips, high cheekbones and defined brows of a deeper red threw his mind into turmoil; the great Michel Angelo wouldn’t have painted a comelier profile!

Hijikata, who had sprung from his seat with the determination of a commander found himself rooted to the spot, until his eyes returned to hers. The gaijin’s fear snapped his instinct back into place, and he growled at his colleagues in his mother tongue. Once, more, the desire to wring Shinpachi’s neck arose.

Shin, leave her alone!”

Ah! Hijikata-san,” Shinpachi quipped, ignoring his sombre mood. “She says she doesn’t speak Japanese, but you know how bad my English is. Gimme a hand!”

The Vice Deputy spared one glance to the young woman, noticing how her hand shook around the cup of tea. If Shinpachi was the cause of her panic, he swore he would kick his ass all the way to Butsumetsu at the next kendo practise.

Get lost!” he growled. “You are scaring her!”

All mirth left Shinpachi’s demeanour at the harsh command; the fool eventually stood and bowed with a grumble. Hijikata sighed in relief; there were a few brain cells yet alive in Shinpachi’s mind. As his colleague joined the others, a few tables away, the Vice Deputy surmised an apology was in order. So he summoned his best English accent and bowed.

“I would like to extend my apologies on behalf of my subordinate. I am deeply sorry he bothered you.”

“It’s alright,” the young woman responded with an adorable British accent. “No harm done.”

Hijikata frowned; she did not seem relieved at all. Had he misread the situation?

“Arigatō gozaimasu,” she added, bowing to him in the ways of his people.

“Dōitashimashite,” he responded in kind, watching those dainty hands shake around her cup. Her anxiety wasn’t abating, but he was loath to intrude more upon her privacy. With a mental shrug, Hijikata decided to turn tail; the young woman stopped him.

“Would you … would you sit with me for a while? Just until…”

An opening. And even though Hijikata wasn’t one to be at ease with a total stranger, her vulnerability called to his protective instincts. Hence the reason why he complied and took a seat beside her, tuning down Shinpachi’s indignant scoff.

“Anxiety attack?” he questioned.

Wide green eyes turned to his, pupils blown like those of a deer caught in headlights. Had she been in a sane mind, he would have marvelled at the thousand hues hidden in those lush depths. But the sheer terror that danced within pulled the strings of his heart.

“I apologise for my bluntness,” he started, only for her to cover her face with her hands.

Kuso. He’d done it again. To think he was blaming Shinpachi! A sniffle sent his heart racing in panic; how, in the world, did he end up handling a crying female? He only meant to have a beer with his colleague, damn it!

“Yes. I’m sorry. I just… I can’t do it.”

Mind racing, Hijikata avoided Shinpachi’s glare to try and make sense of her ramblings. At the Academy, a few stern words would have been sufficient to defuse any situation; his students would have rallied on the spot like good little soldiers. But there was no use commanding someone experiencing a panic attack to calm down. He wished his head nurse was there, Keisuke’s gentle manners would have probably done wonders.

But he was the Oni Vice Deputy, fearsome disciplinarian and kendo instructor. His days consisted in bellowing commands at students, and smacking their heels with a bokken. Not handling crying females. A distraction, maybe?

“Do you want to talk about it?”

The young woman did not emerge from her hiding place, her spine curving inwards to curl over the table as she fired English words faster than he could catch them. But overall, he understood that she was about to perform something, and believed herself to have no sense of rhythm.

What. The. Heck?

He tried to butt in, but the fire ringlets only shook as she started trembling. No words he uttered seemed to affect her, and he sighed. Fed up, Hijikata pulled his commander card and did the unthinkable; he grabbed both of her hands. Dire circumstances called for desperate measures, even though it meant touching a perfect stranger – scandalous! His mother would have his head for it.

The young woman froze, startled by the contact; he, in turn, refused to dwell on the warmth of her skin against his and straightened his palm, pushing upon hers to establish a two-way energy flow.

“Watch. Concentrate on the feel,” he ordered.

Her palms were clammy with stress, her breath ragged and heart racing so fast that he could feel it pulse against his skin. When he slowed his breathing and started sending Ki through his hands, the young woman’s frightened gaze locked into his. Would she feel the subtle link he was weaving? Respond, in kind to his energy flow, demanding to be returned?

He’d done it a thousand times with his students, the Nishino Ki practise, but it felt entirely too different this time. Almost intimate. Refusing to dwell on the remarkable beauty of her eyes, lest he lost his focus, he guided her through the motions.

“Slow your breathing,” he rumbled. “Concentrate on the air getting in, filling your lungs, and getting out. Can you feel the thread of energy through my palms? Imagine your Ki. The air you breathe allows you to produce that energy. It comes from your heart, send it back through your arms, feel it descend and flow back to me.”

Entranced by his voice, the young woman closed her eyes. For a long time, he sustained her, coaxing her heart rate to quieten, her thoughts to silence as she focused on her breathing. Until her chest filled so fully that she was only taking one inspiration a minute. Her lung capacity surprised him; few people were able to sustain such a slow rhythm. But he wasn’t complaining; second after second, the panic seemed to recede, confidence replacing her stricken expression until he felt a slight tingle within his palms.

She was sending her own flow of Ki. Impressive!

None of his students had caught the gist of it so fast.

Boom, boom boom!

They both jumped as heavy percussions shook the ground. Hijikata almost growled as wide, fearful eyes opened once more. Just when he thought he’d managed, a band of stupid teenagers decided to fall over their drums! He whirled around, looking for the culprits, ready to tear them to pieces only to spot a few violinists scattered under the trees.

The place was renowned after all; always crowded with strollers, families and workers alike. Again, the drums raised his hackles; their deep, strong presence vibrated through his bones.

Boom, boom boom!

Voices raised in the air, and he turned to the young woman in hopes of appeasing her.

“It is alright, it’s probably a music show.”

The voices gained momentum and power around them, some singers coming from the bar itself as random people stood. Understanding dawned upon him, and his jaw dropped in disbelief.

Oh, a flash mob! Here, in Japan?

If he had not been so worried for his newfound charge, Hijikata would have enjoyed the harmony the singers created, their melody interlacing like tresses of a river. But the tiny hand that latched upon his, squeezing him to death, had him fearing for her sanity. He was debating whether to scoop her up – she didn’t seem to weigh much – when she cut to the chase. The foreign lady stood, limbs shaking, but dignity infusing her features. As if she marched to the gallows to meet her maker, head held high. She took a deep breath, eyes lost in the clearing, as if in a trance.

Around them, the voices intensified, infusing the air with a solemn hymn that genuinely touched him. Hijikata gazed at her, worried, taking in the pinched line at the corner of her eyes, and that stubborn set of her round lips. Had the music transfixed her as well?

And when she opened her mouth, by the Kami, when she opened her mouth all traces of shyness disappeared as she transformed into something ethereal. She produced the most amazing, high-pitched sound, like a line lacing the rest of the voices. Powerful enough to cover it. His body vibrated akin to a diapason, transcended by the melody, and the effortless way she bestowed her own upon the world, as if an angel had descended upon earth. Her Ki flooded their intertwined hands, unleashed. As she sang, he watched the lines of her face morph, the fearful expression melting into determination.

When, at last, she descended into silence, he willed his own jaw to close. The drums rumbled, forceful and dramatic, and the music went on, dozens of voices interlacing. But he waited, like a kendoka expecting his first attack, febrile and nimble. He waited for her to sing again, to mingle her crystalline tones with theirs and create the perfect chord.

Her hand squeezed his, fuelling the link between them, and her lips curled in glee. Now that the music had started, her nervousness melted, leaving behind a stunningly beautiful woman whose eyes blazed like a thousand gems. He couldn’t look away; he wouldn’t have, even if the world had crumbled around him.

It all made sense now!

Stage fright!

As around them, a new chorus unleashed, yet the woman remained stubbornly silent. She stood before the diminutive table, his hand still enclosed in hers, like a figurehead from a great ship, fending of waters in the direst of storms. The voices persisted, insistent, before she joined again.

The foreign woman layered the song with her soprano, echoed by two of her colleagues in that sea of voices. Three of them, amongst at least twenty more chorist, but with enough power to cover them all. No wonder she’d been nervous; they did not lead, they were the finishing polish. He allowed his senses to overflow, closing his eyes to hear their story as both the music and its choir picked up intensity.

Goosebumps ran up his spine; transported to an epic dimension where fighting meant life and death. Hijikata felt his whole being come alive. And then, when he thought he could take no more, she shifted to another line. Instead of topping the others, the sopranos climbed to yet another level, higher and higher, up to the skies. Like a blanket of clouds, she dragged him to new heights and they both vibrated in unison.

There were no words anymore, just a long, dragging note that waved and died, then picked up again without a pause for breathing. A winding high chord that caused him to shudder; in this moment, she was alone against the current, pulling through by the sheer force of her will, of her lungs.

The final was grandiose, with drums unleashed and a full choir blasting their voices. And she, unmovable, produced three notes, the last one almost crazy, thrown out with such power that he wondered how the trees could sustain it. They surely would never forget; sweet Amaterasu, he never would either.

Then it was over.

Applause thundered across the clearing, and the young woman bowed awkwardly when Shinpachi whistled at the singers, she included. Hijikata, stunned, felt her hand slip from his own. He refused to linger on the sensation – bereft – for what else could he do but join the ovation? And suddenly, he wanted to know how her fingers would feel against his in a different setting. Impressed, he searched her gaze; she gave him an awkward smile and sunk on her seat as soon as was socially acceptable, wiping her brow. Then, sincere relief bloomed upon her face, unhindered with anxiety.

His whole world stopped spinning when he realised it was addressed to him.

Arigatō gozaimashita,” she murmured, the random applause and praise covering the fact that she, indeed, spoke a little more Japanese than she’d admitted to Shinpachi.

“You are an amazing singer,” he breathed out, wondering if a haiku would do justice to her incredible voice. She blushed, rose tainting her already coloured cheek. He watched, fascinated, the freckles that seemed to dot her button nose. “Thank you,” she responded without an ounce of false modesty. “Singing is not the issue, it’s keeping the right rhythm when I’m not directed that is.”

Hijikata nodded; rhythm was part of his life; kendo had its own pace, and the footwork did not tolerate delays. To each their talent. Seeing her chest heave again – not in fright, but in exertion, the Vice Deputy blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

“You must be thirsty. I’ll buy you a drink.”

A set of green eyes watched him with amusement.

“Yes … no.”

Ah. Time to go then; he’d overstayed his welcome. His heart gave a strange tug as he braced his hands on the armchair, wondering why returning to his previous activity felt so much of a waste. But she reached out at once, trapping his sleeve shyly.

“I’ll pay, I owe you that much. Will you share a drink with me?”

Hijikata paused, hands settling at his side as his mind considered this unacceptable breach of protocol. Shaking his head, he decided to be blunt. “This is not how this country works. Men buy drinks, period.”

Green eyes challenged him, sparkling with both wonder and determination; the moment he lost himself in their depth, he knew he would concede defeat. “Well, it is acceptable in mine,” she stated, lips curling in an adorable smile. “As sign of gratitude towards a friend. Please? Tomodachi ?"

A friend. Stunned, the Vice Deputy could only nod, and an order was placed swiftly. And while they waited for their drinks, the young woman strung conversation.

“I am Ellen,” she bowed.

“Hijikata,” he presented himself curtly. Seeing her puzzled expression, he realised how difficult his patronym would be to a foreigner. People in the west weren’t as formal as here, and it would be unfair to call her by her first name if he did not offer the same courtesy. “Toshizō,” he relented.

 “Toshizō, then.”

When not in the throes of a panic attack, she turned out to be an enthusiastic, eager person, easy to listen to. Her smiles were secretive, her intelligence cunning, and her expression open.

“I will never thank you enough for what you have done for me,” she told him with that devastating smile that did strange things to his heart. “That breathing technique was amazing, it gave me wings.”

“It is the Nishino Ki practise I teach my students before they step on the mats.”

Her eyes blazed with curiosity. “Are you a teacher?”

Kendo, yes. And literature,” he confirmed.

“Is that why your English is so good?”

A blush dusted his cheekbones at her praise. One table ahead, he could hear his colleagues snicker; they were listening to the conversation, and not being subtle about it.

Hey!” he called out in Japanese. “How about you get lost?”

Sure thing, Oni no Fukuchō!” Shinpachi yelled back.

Toshizō groaned, humiliated by his own show of rudeness and Shinpachi’s stupid nickname. But an adorable giggle by his side distracted him. And then, the waiter handed him the lemonade he craved, and the young woman offered her glass to cling.

“To international friendship,” she stated.

How could he disagree? Feeling a smile creep up his lips, Toshizō responded in kind. An hour passed in the span of a few minutes, so enthralled he was by her conversation. She was so different, a breath of fresh air in his orderly life. The kind of bird that broke all chains of society without even being aware of it, innocent to the world.

 When the moment came for them both to head back – he, to grade papers, and she, to rehearse – he’d learnt she was a professional singer and about to perform with her group in a concert. But to part ways left a churning feeling in his gut. Hijikata being Hijikata, was at loss on how to handle that feeling of bereavement.

His clumsiness with women only rivalled his dedication to the Academy. And, resigned to closing the parenthesis of this incredible moment, he bowed again, and prepared to pay his respects for the last time and keep Ellen’s memory in a cherished place, deep in the recesses of his mind. A little piece of sunshine that would, in dire days, warm him from within.

Hopefully, not in the form of regrets and what if.

It wasn’t cowardice, but respect that always stayed his hand; flirting was, in his mind, lacking that very virtue. Most stated he was a callous man, one that did not play the games of seduction. There was truth in those sayings: Hijikata abhorred any kind of deception. He showed himself as he was, blunt, and sometimes grumpy, authoritative and not afraid to pursue his goals by any means. That it kept him away from women’s wiles was but a sorry side effect; after all, what time did he have for a romantic relationship anyway? Even less for a chase.

Thank the Kami Ellen was more courageous than he was, for he might have stayed a celibate his whole life. So, when he bowed again, for what felt like the tenth time this night, she reached out with hesitation.

“Hey do you think you could … cheer me before the concert? I have a spare VIP seat. You might enjoy it, it’s good music.”

Her willingness to see him again sent butterflies in his belly, and a smile crept up his lips.

“Jitters?” he smirked, giddy.

Her wide eyes told him everything he needed to know; they really were a window into her soul, betraying her emotions. How refreshing, is a world so codified that taking a piss did not happen until all the protocols had been met. Those lush irises pleaded for him to come, to be her anchor again. That she would choose him, a literal stranger, to help her flattered his ego to no end. He’d been raised in a traditional family, where occidental fairytales were replaced by samurai serving their lord and lady. But here he was, playing the prince to a damsel in distress.

“When?” he asked.

“Tomorrow evening.”

Hope gleamed in those eyes, and he was loath to kill it. But kill it he must, for the director was scheduled for dinner the very next day. Hijikata felt his brow crease.

“I can’t… But I’ll send you the protocols for that meditation we made, so you can practise on your own. You’ll see it’s very efficient.”

“Oh!” she murmured. Deception danced in her gaze, her face crumbling in an expression that caused his heart to lurch. To think he was responsible for it was unforgivable! But he couldn’t ditch the director, could he? She summoned a smile that didn’t reach her eyes because this time, it meant goodbye. Or perhaps not, because she would have to give him her number. “Sure, that would be nice.”

Hijikata extended his hand, intend on asking her phone to put in his contact information.

“Alright then, give me your…”

Her fingers slid into his palm, her innocent look enough to short circuit his brain. Incredulous, he watched their intertwined hands, her touch soft and warm, skin tingling at if a hummingbird had taken residence in his palm. Stunned speechless, his gaze slid up her lovely silhouette, finding an earnest look upon her face. So hopeful, so radiant that his throat closed.

Was he really about to leave her here, now? Eventually, his mouth decided to work again and he nodded. “Give me a second, I need to make a phone call.”

“Alright,” she whispered, her lovely voice laced with hope.

In this moment, he was very glad he’d loosened his tie, because heat was rapidly creeping up his face. He sped dialled 1, and waited until the director greeted him with his usual enthusiasm.

“Moshi moshi, Toshi !”

Hijikata forwent all formalities in favour of sheer bluntness.

“Kondō-san, forgive me for asking, but would Wednesday evening work for you as well?”

“Mmm, let me think. Yes, it seems so! Why?”

Why indeed? Hijikata took a peek at the young woman who patiently waited for him, standing still under the wavering trees. Her hair danced in the breeze, and so did the hem of her dress, fabric billowing around deliciously rounded calves and creamy skin. A forest fairy.

“I … something came up.”

“Are you alright?” was the frantic reply. Hijikata found the strength to smile at his friend’s solicitude. “Yes, yes. Do not worry.”

He heard the very instant curiosity replaced worry in Kondō’s voice. “So you say an unexpected event?” Hijikata stole another glance at Ellen and nodded. “Something … life altering, I think.”

There was no denying it now. “Oh! I can’t wait to hear about it,” Kondō cheerfully responded.

“And hear you shall. I will see you then, Kondō-san, and thank you again.”

And so, two days later, the director learnt that the meditation technique he’d taught his best friend had thrown Hijikata into a concert that made his guts churn, and his heart race. That the subsequent dinner with one of their sopranos had wrecked him thoroughly, filling his lungs, his mind, and his ears with the delight of a foreign singer.

That when she had graced his apartment with her presence, it had felt like coming home after a thirty-three year road trip. That, now, the sensation of her little hand in his wasn’t segregated to meditation, albeit they still practised together.

It would be years before she sang her vows to love and cherish him all her life.


In un' altra vita


In un' altra vita

This one-shot was inspired by the excellent composer Ludovico Einaudi. I advise you listen to this piece 'In un altra vita' to get the feel of the mood.

 “Everything all right, sir ?”

Tristan blinked, shaken out of his musings. The coffee was to his taste, yes. But what tugged at his mind wasn’t the breakfast, per se, rather than the flurry notes of piano that hung in the air.

“Ah yes. I have to salute your taste in music. This piece truly lifts’s one spirit. Which composer is it ?” The waiter addressed him a puzzled look. Then understanding dawned upon his heavy features and he responded with a smile. “You will have to ask the lady at the Grand Piano, sir”

Tristan turned around, realising that the music came from behind him. From where he sat, he couldn’t see the Piano but he had caught a glimpse on the way to his room yesterday evening. Right before his brother’s wedding ceremony and ensuing party. Lucky him; at forty, he had, at last, found his significant other while Tristan never stopped his collection of good-looking actresses and models. Still searching from this recurring dream; a woman who would be his equal.

The waiter watched him; he didn’t dare interrupt his thoughts, but was clearly uneasy about going without his patron giving his leave. The rules of a Grant hotel. Tristan shook his head, considering how heavy the etiquette of such places could weight upon their employees’ shoulders. “Thank you.”

The man bowed slightly – a gesture from centuries past – leaving him behind. In the background, the music had changed from joyful to slightly sorrowful. There was the odd note here and there – the lady in question was probably honing her skills – but overall, it was pretty magnetic performance. One that held such pull that it tore him from the breakfast table. Tristan grabbed his mug of coffee to see who played the piano with such emotion.

The music flowed louder when he passed the threshold of the salon. Great tapestries and oil paintings of Carcassonne in the roman empire – ugh ! He hated romans and didn't even know why - then in medieval times hung in the higher part of the grandiloquent wall. History, ancestry, pride and all that jazz that new money loved to see displayed. Families hoping that once, their ancestrors were of noble descent. For he was rather sure of it; past lives existed, and were a reason why people’s behaviour was so different.

Aside from upbringing, some individual beat the odds so strangely. Like this child, Amira Willighagen, who sung opera at 9 years old without ever taking a class in her life. Those prodigies make a whole lot of sense when you realised that they were only channelling past experiences. It didn’t mean that the present moment wasn’t important; just that you would live your life with the baggage of the previous ones. Stronger, wiser, scarred, perhaps.

Tristan had buried those scars without finding their source. His family thought him too mystic. Who cared ? It didn’t change the fact that he was here, now, without any idea of what he was doing. For the flurry of notes stirred something deep in his heart. Tristan froze on the threshold of the immense room, surprised to find himself alone save the lady whose fingers caused the piano to sing. Cold marble on the floor, large airy lounge that connected the corridor to the terrasse area. And one soul, only, that caused the ground to vibrate and the air to hum.

He expected a more imposing woman such was the area of influence of her playing. Someone, maybe, with a big ego, checking out if people stopped to watch her. A lady that knew her consequence – monetary wise – and would overlook waitresses and hotel janitors as mere servants.

His expectations and prejudices were thrown through the window, for she was tiny. Tiny, and so engrossed in her playing that he didn’t dare stepping in for fear of interrupting. Long hair, reddish, falling in ringlets upon her slender back. A posture that told of her principles, high cheekbones that sometimes showed when she bent to strike higher tones. And the melody flew in the room, created by deft fingers who played softly, as if the lady was coaxing the music out of the instrument and not creating it herself. There was magic at hand there.

Tristan sipped at his coffee, finding comfort in the strong brew. His eyes closed by themselves, the melody became light as a feather, her touches barely caressing the white keys. And when she stumbled, breaking the rhythm of hitting a wrong key, a hiss passed her lips. But the beauty of the piece remained, for she was only summoning it. It existed out of her, from the composer who wrote it in the first place.

Silence occurred for a few seconds. Nothing happened as the woman breathed, back ramrod straight, before the piano. Those long ringlets of fire… it reminded him of…

Her fingers started a haunting melody and Tristan felt compelled to step forward. Slowly, as if lured by an invisible string, his coffee still smoking, he took another step. Then another. As silent as a scout in a warzone, lulled into a trance by the notes that danced around him, Tristan watched the woman’s face. Warm chocolate eyes, distant look, she wasn’t even acknowledging his presence as the melody changed. It became… a plead to his soul. Such sadness, tugging at those long-forgotten scars.

Bam, dam, dam. Those slender, elegant fingers fell upon the keys like a herald of doom. He remembered now.

Endless sky reigning upon wide plains of yellowish grass. Sarmatia. Horses running wild and the cry of a Hawk. His faithful companion in the journey of his life. The journey of his death. Long, difficult days to each Britain. Rain, and snow, mountains of hard granite and bitter winds. Comrades falling under the blue devil’s arrows, bleeding from deep slashes. And Arthur, precious Arthur with his principles, still leading them on, hoping that after fifteen years in the service of the Roman Empire, they would be set free. His loyal knights. He remembered his green eyes watching him, the torture in his soul as he realised what his scout had become. Fifteen years brushing death before she came and revived his heart.

The woman with the reddish ringlets. His little fairy. He remembered fighting by her side, protecting her until he succumbed to death. Remember her tear-stained face as he closed his eyes for the last time, promising that he would find her in the next life.

Had he, really ?

Her fingers kept flying, and tears stained his cheeks now. The coffee had run cold in his hand, the bitter taste eventually reminding him that he had never liked the brew. She was watching him now, features frozen, but her hands couldn’t stop playing. As if the call to his soul also caused hers to awaken.

They were dancing, carefree, on their wedding day. Putting on a show for the others to believe that he really fancied her, when his soul was consumed by the lovely Queen. But she – her lady in waiting and loyal friend – had agreed to marry him to hide the truth, protecting her Matilda with unwavering loyalty. And yet… even through this ploy, he could only watch, mesmerised, as she danced around him. She gravitated like a planet around the sun, her smile genuine, her bosom so lovely in the court dress, long ringlets adorned with flowers and a pin given to her by the Queen. The love in her eyes, so genuine, caused his heart to stir. So graceful, almost like a bird about to take flight. Who was he to cage her in a loveless marriage ?

For he didn’t love her, right ? Too engrossed in his consuming love for the Queen... he couldn’t see. He had not realised the extend of his regard until she held his hand on the scaffold, her lung pierced by a soldier’s blade, her stomach hosting an iron bullet. His mind cleared then, holding her fingers tightly, the memories of the past hitting him full force. He cried for her, for the life of an innocent woman who had protected him with strength and honour, a woman of twenty-five who now died for him. The executioner’s axe fell, and he knew no more.

Many other images came to his mind; she was there, always there.

He saw the great Mt Fujiyama, and her slender frame clad in a kimono. Married to another. He saw the mountain of Jerusalem, her face but a memory in his mind, her love the only silver lining in the cloud of this crusade. The United States, a desert in the Nevada; she had been his twin. Young and beautiful sister, shipped in the east coast to marry a bourgeois. Babylone, her long legs encased in a dress of white as flimsy as a dragonfly’s wings, preying to a deity in the desert with a stunning necklace of lapis lazuli adorning her neck. England, so young, blond hair and a dress laden with too many ribbons to count. Too innocent, easily swayed by the Duke's son.

 Her hands stilled, her open gaze fixed upon him. Had she seen what he did ? Tristan discarded his coffee on a nearby table, mindful not to spill it upon the expensive furniture. Who was she, today ?

“What… was this piece ?”, he asked.

“In un’ altra vita”, she said, voice even.

A magical piece, for sure. Realisation dawned. It was the Italian for…

“In another life”, he translated.

She nodded, her features frozen. Waiting to see what he would do. His feet carried him without asking his opinion on the matter. She scooted aside, leaving him enough space to settle down. Breath short, Tristan sat upon the plush bench, his grey eyes drinking in her beautiful features. Such few changes in such a wide range of memories; how was it even possible ? And given she intense look she was giving him, he had not changed much either.

The young woman didn’t move an inch when his hand lifted to caress her cheek. 

“Who are you ?”, he asked.

“Who do you want me to be, this time ?”, she responded.

Tristan smirked; he had been robbed of her so very often. He had even robbed himself once, too stupid to realise her love before it was too late. Her question made sense; they could be anything now. And even if he didn’t know her name, it didn’t matter at all. Today, they only had to choose.

And so, he closed the distance between them and allowed his lips to capture hers in a tender kiss. And for the first time in the past thirty-four years, he felt complete.