Rules of Engagement
"I never thought I'd say this, Rowen," Sage said, adjusting the already-perfect folds of his black formal kimono for the tenth time in a quarter of an hour, "But if you happen to have any prescription drugs on you that I could abuse, I'd be glad if you'd share."
"Sorry, man." Rowen was, if possible, even more nervous than Sage. He didn't own a formal kimono of his own, and would have just borrowed Sai's, but Sage had insisted on buying one for Rowen for the occasion. It was elegant, it was very quietly expensive, and it had Rowen's armor emblem custom-embroidered at the shoulders. Rowen was anxious enough; but the addition of a such a deliberately-purchased garment only made it worse. Rowen was already too-aware of his family's low standing next to Sage's; it had little left of ancient glory besides a name that most people thought was extinct. If they were both about to be forcibly expelled from the Date family dojo (and for Sage, quite possibly from the family itself), Rowen didn't want to be wearing anything fancy that might be ruined when his ass landed ignobly in the street.
"It's time," Sage said, with the grim acceptance of a warrior facing his own beheading. "Are you ready?"
"God, I think I'd rather defeat the Netherworld all over again," Rowen said, but he followed Sage through the sliding door, and towards a future they were both determined to claim, despite the consequences.
The tea-room at Sage's family mansion was austere and tidy, forbidding only in its overwhelming formality. Sage was very much a product of his environment, and he knelt down on the floor cushion and bowed, forehead to the floor, with the humble poise of a man long used to such rituals. The closest Rowen got to that kind of thing usually consisted of falling asleep on the sofa in front of an old black and white samurai drama on TV, and he did his best to emulate Sage's effortless grace.
"Thank you for inviting me, Grandfather," Sage said.
Invitation, hell, Rowen thought, still bowing until it was his turn to be acknowledged. More like a goddamn court-order.
"I hope you don't mind," Sage continued, in Japanese so formal it made Rowen's ears itch, "that I have brought with me a companion for counsel."
That was the excuse, anyway, Rowen thought, feeling a prickle of sweat break out at the back of his neck. They couldn't really have said the real reason why Rowen was there, not yet.
"This is Hashiba Toma, Grandfather."
At last, it was Rowen's cue to sit up. Across the tatami from him sat the patriarch of the Date clan, Sage's grandfather, Date Hirofumi. He looked very little like Sage, a powerfully-built man with his thick hair going to silver, and piercing black eyes. Rowen would have rather faced down Date Masamune himself, one-eye and all. Beside him, her demurely-patterned kimono a bit of color in the severe room, was Sage's mother, Kimiko. There at last the family resemblance came into play, but mostly in terms of bone structure. Sage's coloring came entirely from his foreigner father, who was pointedly not invited to participate in the family's machinations for his son's future.
Once an outsider, always an outsider, Rowen thought, and had to resist the urge to glance at Sage. Was he really prepared for the cost of what they were about to do?
"Thank you for coming, Mr. Hashiba," Sage's mother said, with a tiny smile for Rowen. She knew him as Rowen, of course, and had met him before, in the much more relaxed setting of Sage's college graduation party.
"I'm honored to be here," Rowen said, and that was it, his one scripted line. After this, it was a one-way elevator to hell, and improv all the way.
"Seiji," Sage's grandfather said, obviously not holding with any nickname nonsense. "I expect you know why we asked you to come."
Sage's fingers tensed slightly on his knees, the only part of him Rowen could see without turning his head. "...Yes, Grandfather."
"Now that your education is finished, it is time for you to consider your future, and the future of this family. I realize, in modern times, such things are done in a casual manner, but there is the pride of the Date clan to consider. As the first boy in the family since my generation, especial care will have to be taken with your match."
Rowen swallowed past a sudden wave of nausea. Did he have to bring up the only male heir bit?
"Obviously, we don't want to force you into anything," Sage's mother said, and Rowen wondered if it was uncomfortable for her, her father's only child, who had run off to marry a gaijin against the will of her family. "But there are three young ladies whose families have made overtures, and I think surely one of them--"
"Mother," Sage said, and there was a terrible, awful silence. It was not Sage's place to interrupt, and Rowen knew how much the discourtesy cost him. "Grandfather. Forgive my rudeness, but may I say something?"
Sage's grandfather made a small grunt of permission, but his surprise was apparent.
"Of course, Seiji," his mother said, smiling.
Over the sound of his own thundering pulse, Rowen heard Sage swallow, very carefully. "First of all, I want to thank you for going to such pains to ensure my happy and prosperous marriage."
There it was, Rowen thought. The "M" word. It was out. There was no stuffing it back in Sage's mouth, no pretending that they were there for any other reason.
"You have always worked hard to secure for me a successful future, and it would be dishonorable of me to ignore your labors. I am undeserving of them, and grateful for your care."
Rowen closed his eyes.
"However," Sage said, and the one word tipped them all down onto a new and uncontrolled path, a roller-coaster with no end in sight. "I cannot accept a bride. Not without doing great dishonor to myself and a worse dishonor to her."
The locusts outside in the garden were intrusively loud, their screeches tearing through the paper screens and shredding the frayed ends of Rowen's nerves.
"Seiji--" Sage's mother began, her brows lowered in concern, but she was silenced by her father's raised hand.
"Explain," Date Hirofumi said, running Sage through with his sword-edged stare. Rowen had been utterly forgotten for the moment, and it was only a brief mercy. "Are you already in love with some other girl in secret? Did you think perhaps we would turn her down out of name alone?" His gaze softened a fraction. "A girl of quality need not come from a rich family, Seiji, or even a notable one. If there is a young woman of your choosing, bring her to meet us, and then--"
"There is not," Sage said, with remarkable calm, "a young woman, Grandfather."
Sage's grandfather exhaled in restrained annoyance. "If your heart is free, Seiji, you cannot deny the right of a potential bride to claim it."
"I did not say my heart was free. It belongs to another, and from that person I cannot, and will not, revoke it. Not for honor. Not for family. Not for anything in this world or any other. I would sooner die."
Rowen felt suddenly cut free of his own fear, as light as a sparrow on the wing. Sage's heart was his, and no one else's. Nothing would ever change that, not war or family rage or netherworld demons or bonds of armor or death. What did he have to fear?
Date Hirofumi's voice cracked across the room like a bamboo sword striking lacquered armor, and Rowen remembered what he had to fear. Still, it was no longer quite the same.
"Don't be obstinate, Seiji! You said there was no--" Sage's grandfather got no further than that, his shout overridden by Sage's mother's tiny gasp of understanding. Her eyes flicked from her son to Rowen, and Rowen, without prompting, bowed again. It was as good a proof as any.
Even the locusts were quiet this time; the whole world seemed to be holding its breath.
"Start talking, boy," Date Hirofumi said, and there was something ominous in the way he dropped the comforts of formality. "And I trust you to make your explanation exceptionally good."
Sage's glare was of equal power to his grandfather's, but he kept his eyes lowered in respect, and did not use it. "Grandfather. I know I have certain obligations to this family. But you know there is a higher duty to which I am bound, one that it would be unfair of me to impose on a partner who could not comprehend it. Rowen shares that burden with me. Our destinies were intertwined before we even met. But besides all that--" For the first time in the ordeal, Sage looked at Rowen, their glances meeting in a moment of pure, wordless understanding. Rowen felt his heart skip, but it was not with anxiety. "I love him," Sage finished, simply. "Not just as a true friend, as a fellow warrior, and as one who has come to my aid more than once in a dark hour, though he is all those things. He is the dearest companion of my heart, and has been for many years. I can offer no more explanation than that."
"So. This one too, bears the armor you have told us of." Sage's grandfather studied Rowen, from his dyed-blue hair to the calluses on the tips of his right hand, but his still face revealed nothing. "You. Hashiba. Are you a swordsman?"
Rowen pried his dry tongue off the roof of his mouth. "No, sir," he said.
Date Hirofumi's face darkened with displeasure, and Sage said quickly, "Rowen is our strategist, Grandfather, and the second-in-command of our group. He is an archer."
"I would have thought you would be second in command," Sage's mother said, finally finding her voice.
Sage shifted on his knees. "I'm afraid I'm not rebellious enough for that role," he admitted, wry. "I'm too obedient to challenge my commander's orders, even when they might need it. Rowen has no trouble telling our leader when he's being foolhardy."
"An archer, is it." Sage's grandfather harrumphed, and for a moment he stared hard at the tatami, lost in thought. "Very well!" he said, so suddenly that Rowen started. For an old man, he got to his feet with incredible agility. "We will see about this. Into the garden. Both of you. Now."
Sage stood up at once with a soft noise of obedience and hurried into the garden; Rowen, with his legs numb from sitting formal style for so long, took a little longer to follow. The tea room opened directly onto the family garden, a traditional affair of ornamental plums and koi ponds, with small cypress trees twisted into fanciful contortions after centuries of training. Along a sunny patio, Sage's grandfather's bonsai sat in fuzzy green regiments, radiating the aesthetic effects of control and restraint. Rowen thought they looked stunted, but he had better sense than to say so.
"He's bringing us out here to execute us, isn't he," Rowen said, not entirely joking.
Sage's frown was thoughtful. "I have no idea what he's doing," he admitted.
Hirofumi emerged from the far side of the garden, where the dojo was located. In his hands he held familiar objects, an asymmetrical bow, unstrung, and a hip-quiver of arrows. Sage's mother followed, carrying a sword sheathed in black leather, her pretty face aged with worry.
"The draw on this will be too short for you," Sage's grandfather said, holding the bow out to Rowen. "But if you're the warrior Seiji claims you are, it should be no obstacle for you. Prepare yourself." He handed the quiver to Rowen, the strap holding small containers of resin and rice powder for grip, and a spool of spare bowstring. A three-fingered shooting glove was tucked into the quiver.
"He wants a shooting demonstration?" Rowen asked Sage, but Sage stared down at the sword his mother had just given him, and did not answer. "I'm not really dressed for this," Rowen muttered, but loosened his obi to shrug out of the right half of his kimono and free his shooting arm. By the time he had strung the bow and finished with all the fussy components, Sage's Grandfather and mother had settled on a shady bench beneath a plum tree.
"Mr. Hashiba," Hirofumi said, squinting at Rowen. "It is my current opinion that you are a troublemaker with ridiculous hair, but I'm not so foolish as to mistake your name. If you can live up to it, then perhaps you may yet be worthy of my grandson's affection." He flicked a leaf from the sleeve of his kimono. "Now shoot him."
Rowen already had an arrow on the string, but he checked himself, staring. "Shoot... what?"
"Seiji. Shoot him."
Rowen looked at Sage, standing in quiet meditation with his sword held at his side, and then back at Date Hirofumi. "But--" Rowen began.
"My grandson's skills are not in question here," Sage's grandfather snapped. "Yours are. Shoot, if you want to prove yourself deserving of his heart. Otherwise, leave now and never lay claim to it again."
Rowen exchanged a look with Sage, whose tiny smile was too fleeting to be noticed by anyone else. His right hand hovered over the hilt of his sword, his nod was slight.
"Well, all right," Rowen said, and drew the bowstring to his ear. "Sorry about your kimono, Sage."
Sage's visible eye glinted with anticipation. "Likewise."
There was a small pause, as both of them took a breath, counted an unheard, shared cadence in their minds. Then Rowen caught his breath in his teeth and let the arrow fly; Sage's sword flashed out in a gleaming arc of steel, and it began.
Rowen could almost have laughed. This was the challenge? To fight one another in earnest? Sage's grandfather could not have known how often they played this game, grinding themselves against each others' skills until they all emerged sharper for it. Rowen might not know ikebana from a tea ceremony, but he knew how to fight. His bowstring sang, and Rowen's blood sang with it. He was not fighting Sage, he was fighting for a heart he had already won, to prove skills he had gained at the cost of his youth. Even without his armor, he thought he could fly.
Sage's sword deflected the first arrow to the right, the second to the left. The third he caught right down the middle, peeling the shaft lengthwise into two slim curls of wood. He left the bisected arrow behind him in his wake as he charged, blade whistling down in a cross-slash, and Rowen was forced to retreat. His Strata armor's bow could catch that blow and fling it back, but the simple wood and horn in his hand was capable of no such thing. He needed distance. Sage had more offensive power, but he didn't have Rowen's speed.
Rowen's sandals skidded on the gravel as he skirted the edge of the koi-pond, aiming for the low-hanging branches of a sturdy maple tree. Rowen heard Sage closing in on him, he made a vault for the tree branches and felt air whistle beneath his toes as the no-datchi barely missed him, scattering bark from the tree. Rowen had no time to celebrate his escape, as there was a sharp twoing from the bow. Sage's blow had cut the string, and the end of it lashed across Rowen's cheek, raising a fine line of beaded blood droplets.
"First wound," Sage said, and his grandfather made a small noise of approval.
Shit, Rowen thought. Won't go easy on me even a little bit, will you? Rowen knew the answer to that; Sage was unlikely to go easy on him in any fight, least of all now. Rowen was now in need of both time as well as space, restringing his bow would take a minute and he would be defenseless until he had. He couldn't do it and stay safely in the tree at the same time, he needed room to maneuver.
Sage waited underneath him, patient, implacable, knowing his quarry must come down eventually. "Yield?" he asked.
"You know the answer to that."
"Hm. I thought not."
Rowen looked pointedly across the garden, at the roof of the dojo a few yards away. The jump was doable, even without armor, but he had no intention of going that way. Sage's eyes followed his, however, flicking to the tiled gutter, and it was just the distraction Rowen wanted. He vaulted out of the tree like a shooting star, not to the side, but straight down. Sage did not have time to dodge. They both went sprawling in the dirt, and Rowen plunged the arrow in his hand through the sleeve of Sage's kimono, deep into the gravel path, pinning the swordsman's arm to the ground.
"Not likely!" Sage kicked him off, but Rowen was already running, unraveling a new length of bowstring from the spool at his belt. He looped the last knot through the end just as Sage tore free of the ground, snatching up his sword and coming in pursuit. Rowen had an arrow in his hand, on the string, it was drawn. Sage had cleared the koi pond, raised his sword, bringing it down in an unavoidable strike. Sage's mother had her hands to her mouth, her eyes wide, as the two young men collided in the middle of the garden.
"Hold!" Sage's grandfather shouted, but it was unnecessary by the time he got it out. Sage and Rowen had already checked their battle a second before. Sage's sword hovered an inch from Rowen's throat, Rowen's arrow-tip was level with the breast of Sage's kimono. It was a draw, but moreover, it was a tableau of absolute trust. Rowen and Sage were both winded slightly, their ribs heaved, but otherwise, they did not move, life and death held in the scant space between their weapons, in the fierce light in their eyes.
And then, as it had begun, it was over in a moment of silent agreement. Sage stepped back and lowered his sword, and at the same time, Rowen's bowstring went slack, the arrow still in his hand. They bowed, first to each other, and then to Sage's grandfather, who stood under the plum tree. His hands were balled into fists, but slowly he remembered himself, and tucked them into the sleeves of his kimono.
"That's enough," he said, unnecessarily.
"Have you learned what you wanted to, Grandfather?" Sage tossed his hair out of his face, but it fell back down again anyway, as always.
"I've learned that this young man of yours is calculating, shrewd, honorable, and dangerous. All admirable martial traits. It is easy to land a blow, but holding one back at the last second is a greater skill for a warrior."
"What does my being a warrior have to do with anyth--" Rowen began, and was shut up at once by Hirofumi's glare.
"This household is about upholding tradition, Hashiba," he said. "I'm not about to let my only grandson go off in some unnatural relationship and turn his back on everything I've brought him up to respect. He is a Date, and as such, he has a responsibility to behave in a manner that is absolutely without reproach. I will not stand by and watch as he sullies the name of our clan with aberrant behavior in some frivolous dalliance with another man, of all things. Do I make myself clear?"
For a moment, Rowen felt as though Sage's blow had landed, cleaving through muscle and bone. "Yes, sir."
"Hmph." Sage's grandfather glanced at his grandson, and for a second there was a flash behind his eyes, a glint of something that could only be mischief. "On the other hand," he continued, taking a sudden interest in the rain chain by the gutter, "Love among warriors is one of the purest forms of affection. It was once the lofty goal of many a samurai, the subject of some of our greatest literature, an honorable tradition untainted by baser urges. It is a shame that it has declined in recent years, and now it is a great rarity. Should Seiji choose that path for his life, one of complete devotion to a comrade-in-arms, well." Hirofumi looked back at them, and his resemblance to sage emerged at last, in his smile. "He would have my blessing, of course."
Rowen's breath hitched in his throat. "You--"
"Welcome to the family, Toma," Sage's grandfather said briskly, patting Rowen on his bare shoulder. "Kimiko will get you both some fresh clothes, and you can come inside for a bit of tea, hm?"
"Y-Yes, thank you," Rowen said, as Sage reached out to take his hand, relief and love in that slight touch. The adrenaline caught up with Rowen in a rush, making his knees go weak, his head feel light. It was over. Sage hadn't been disowned, and neither of them had been disemboweled. It was all right. They had each other, and it was all right. Rowen felt positively giddy. "Thanks, Gramps!" Rowen called after Hirofumi, who paused in the doorway of the tea room.
"Don't push your luck, kid," Sage's grandfather said, and yanked the shoji shut behind him.
"Oh, Seiji!" Sage's mother exclaimed, rushing over to her son and hugging him, then Rowen, then both of them at once. "I'm sorry I didn't know sooner. It must have been awful for you, I know you hate secrets."
"It would have been improper for me to bring up my marriage before you did," Sage said, but he was laughing breathlessly, and as he sheathed the sword his hands trembled. "But I'm glad you know, at last."
"I should have known already," Sage's mother said. "What kind of mother am I?" She hugged them both again. "Besides, if Seiji turned out liking boys, it would be my father's fault. He's the one that suggested dressing Seiji up like a girl when he was a child."
"You did who with the what, now?" Rowen looked at Sage, who had put his face in his hand.
"You grew up in drag?" Rowen said, and started giggling uncontrollably. It was as much the sudden lack of pressure as the idea of Sage's early adventures in transgenderism. "Ahahaha! What did they call you? Seiko? Sei-chan?"
"I've got pictures," Sage's mother said, hooking her arm through Rowen's. "We can look at them over tea, if you like. He was so precious! Prettier than his sisters, but don't tell them I said that. Come along, Seiji."
"I should at least have asked if any of those three prospective brides were cute," Sage muttered, but he went with with them. Sage and Rowen stepped through the door of the dojo together, shoulder to shoulder, like warriors, like friends, like lovers.