Rating/Genre: PG-13. Romance / Fantasy-Supernatural-AU
Character(s)/Pairing(s): Greece/fem!Japan, Chiharu = fem!Osaka. Also includes Pochi and a fat cat.
Warnings: None, unless you’re allergic to cats and gender-bends.
Summary: In which Herakles and Kiku share an interlude with tea in the forest. Music that inspired the writing of this act: Ito wa Kanashi
de·co·rum / noun / - the quality or state of being decorous; orderliness; regularity
anointing the heads
of children too...
Buddha's birthday tea
And so the days went by, passing swiftly like the puffy white clouds cruising along the wide blue canvas of the sky, carried forward by the cool summer breeze.
And Kiku continued with her dance, practicing ever more diligently. When she wasn't busy perfecting the steps, she would have her daily duties to attend to. It was only by her propensity to keep her schedule as organised as possible, that she managed to squeeze in a little time in the morning (thirty-seven minutes and twenty seconds after breakfast, to be exact) to visit Herakles and Nagi.
Of course, unplanned errands – impromptu grocery-shopping for the cooks; delivering trinkets and tokens of appreciation to Madam Sakaguchi's many friends; fetching an item or two for Haru when she'd forgotten to bring for her engagements with customers – still occurred from time to time. And when they did, Kiku would forego her meetings with her new-found friends. She knew that her responsibilities would always be to Madam Sakaguchi and the okiya first, but whenever she saw Herakles and Nagi the next time she could, she'd always felt it necessary to apologise profusely and to offer them some handmade snacks and sometimes a pack of Nagi's favourite mitarashi dango.
"But Kiku,"' Herakles said as he chewed thoughtfully on a manju bun, "you don't have to visit us every day. Your dance is more important to you, as are your seniors. What are we but just a cat and her somnolent boy?"
Nagi only sneezed loftily beside him. "You may not be at the top of her priority list – and rightly so, I may add – so it is obvious that she feels compelled to apologise because she understands my importance." The cat widened her jaws, wolfing down two manju buns in a single gulp. Her pink tongue flashed over her lips and whiskers as she savoured the taste. She let out a loud purr of approval, nodding towards Kiku. "These gifts are most sincere indeed; you are hereby forgiven. As long as you bring more next time, of course. "
"You're unexpectedly polite today, Nagi. It's almost a nice change from your usual crotchety self." Herakles commented.
Nagi was, characteristically, unappreciative of Herakles' equivocal jibe. "I'm as polite as I'm petulant to those who deserve it."
Herakles grinned as he held out his hand towards the cat, tapping her pink nose lightly with a finger. "And which am I?"
"You, little one, deserve a paw smack, of course." Nagi said, swatting at the offending hand.
Kiku chuckled at the pair's harmless bickering. She knew what Herakles had said about her responsibilities was true, even if she continued to feel a twinge of guilt.
"It's true that the okiya and my duties as a maiko will always come first for me. But even so, it is only right for one to have the grace to apologise for keeping her friends waiting all day." She passed another manju bun to Nagi. "I do not wish to be a rude, ungrateful friend. That's all."
Herakles smiled. "Thank you. And on the contrary, you're not at all an ungracious friend."
So it became a routine for them, to meet once every two or three days. Most of her visits didn't last more than an hour as Kiku was worried she may be missed and people would begin to question her whereabouts. If word of her turning up late for her classes or missing her errands and engagements reached the okiya and Madam Sakaguchi, Kiku would most certainly be in a fix to try to find a way to explain everything.
Some days however, she had almost the whole afternoon to herself. These days were few and far in between, but they were the ones she enjoyed the most with Herakles and Nagi because they were free to explore deeper into the forests. Herakles was hesitant at first, to bring her closer towards the heart of the forest, where yōkai tend to converged together off and on, mostly to share and exchange news. But she had been curious about life in the forest and she had requested to see more of these yōkai interactions with her own eyes.
"She doesn't look it, but she is a very bold human indeed." Nagi had remarked after hearing her request the first time, grinning toothily at the girl in a way that made Kiku wonder if perhaps she'd been too demanding, too eager. But the cat clambered up her shoulders and nuzzled at her cheek instead. "I might actually be growing a little fond of you."
Kiku smiled, reaching up to scratch behind the cat's ears. "If that is so, then it is truly an honour to have your affection, Cat-sensei."
"Does this mean I've been relegated to second place on your list of favourites, Nagi?" Herakles tried to look disappointed at Nagi's sudden switch of allegiance, but both the girl and cat didn't miss the touch of humour in his voice.
"Whoever said I kept a list of favourites?" Nagi huffed, twitching her whiskers. "I only tolerate lesser beings because I am benevolent and kind, so it's either I dislike you a little less than usual or I dislike you all the time."
To those unfamiliar with the obake, it would seem that Nagi could never harbour any real attachment to anyone. But Herakles knew the cat was exaggerating; she would not have made a lifelong promise to his mother otherwise all those years ago. And to show Nagi he appreciated her thoughtfulness and was grateful for her constant companionship, he only smiled ever more and tickled her belly.
Kiku, however, was only just beginning to understand how the forest spirits – the yōkai – speak and think. She realised that unlike humans, they rarely felt any need to be openly affectionate or to develop kinship with another. They lived such long lives, while human lives breeze by so quickly, like flames perched upon candles, flickering brightly, precariously in the wind. As such, yōkai did not feel the passage of time within their bones as severely as humans did. While Kiku's own youth and physical beauty would gradually wither away with age, but Nagi would remain as she was – her amber eyes flashing fire, ferocity and pride in every tooth and claw – for thousands of years to come.
Because human lives were so brief, so fleeting, yōkai often did not wholly understand (or rather, they could not understand) the sense of attachment and yearning humans felt towards one another. Nagi was no different – or at least, that was what she often said to both Herakles and Kiku. And yet, as Kiku watched the banter between Nagi and Herakles – how the cat never strayed far from the youth's side, perched either upon his shoulders or slinking between his ankles; how she instinctively placed herself in front of Herakles whenever she felt the presence of bigger, more dangerous-looking yōkai approaching them in the forest; how she always hissed and spat at other yōkai who were friendly with Herakles – she couldn't help but felt there was an underlying sense of camaraderie between the two.
Herakles was her charge, her person, as he'd told Kiku the second time they met under the gingko tree. And Kiku realised then, as cantankerous and scathing as Nagi was at times, she was terribly fond of Herakles and guarded him like how a mother cat would with her litter. The thought of Herakles as an adopted nekomata kitten made Kiku's lips curve upwards into the tiniest of smiles.
After trudging through the forest for a good twenty minutes or so, they finally came to rest by the riverbank, to quench their thirst and cool themselves from the heat of the day. As they sat in the shade of an old willow tree beside the gurgling river, Herakles did not hesitate to dip his unshod feet into the cool water. Kiku reached for a tasuki, a strip of cloth she'd always carried with her. Gripping one end of the cloth with her teeth, she carefully looped it under her arms and around her shoulders, knotting the ends to one side of her left shoulder so that her kimono sleeves were tucked back neatly. With her sleeves tied back, she didn't have to worry about them getting drenched as she scooped water over her face and neck for a brief cool respite from the summer blaze.
As they rested quietly by the river's edge, they could hear excited murmurs and chattering. Kiku glanced downstream and saw what looked to be a group of yōkai seated on the opposite bank a little way off from them. These yōkai looked very much like normal rabbits, their white-and-brown fur shimmering in the sunlight, save for a few oddities: they stood upright on their back legs and were carrying teacups and boxes of tea leaves. The biggest of them was even balancing a huge porcelain teapot with its front paws before setting it down in the middle of the group.
"A tea ceremony," Herakles said, meeting Kiku's sidelong glance, as if he'd heard her unspoken question.
"I didn't know yōkai conducted tea ceremonies for themselves," Kiku said, turning her gaze back to watch the rabbit-spirits again.
"Most have their own rituals and ceremonies, but naturally, some are more curious and try to copy what they've seen from humans. I remember watching a similar incident once, long ago. When Mother still walked under the trees of this forest."
Herakles paused, a faraway look in his green eyes. Kiku wondered silently how lonesome it must have been, the years after his mother had passed on.
"Mother had always enjoyed early morning walks," Herakles continued, his eyes now bright with a distant memory, his voice soft with tenderness. "It was during one of these walks that we heard chanting and singing coming from up north. Intrigued, she decided to follow the chants and we eventually came to small temple sitting at the edge of the forest. We stayed close to the trees, watching from the shadows. It looked like a celebration or a festival – there were lighted sticks of incense placed all over the temple grounds and the air was thick with cloying smoke, the scent of tea and fresh blossoms. Bells tolled as the monks and worshippers chanted, offering up their prayers to the gods."
Kiku could see the images in her mind's eye as she listened attentively to Herakles' story, the sound of faraway bells chiming in her ears. At the opposite end of the riverbank, the rabbit yōkai were done brewing their pot of tea on a portable clay brazier and had begun serving it clumsily to each other, sloshing the brown liquid over the cups. The scent of dried hydrangea leaves steeped in hot water wafted around them in the breeze; Kiku could feel the sharp tinge of it at the back of her throat.
"Once the chanting was over, the monks began pouring the tea over all the tiny statues of the temple, bathing them in the sweet-smelling liquid with reverence." Herakles said.
"Ah," Kiku said, as she abruptly recalled a similar memory. She met Herakles' questioning look with a knowing smile. "My father told me about this festival once. It's called kambutsu-e, the anniversary of Buddha's birthday, and the tea used in the blessings and served during the festival is ama-cha. Sweet tea made from the fermented leaves of a specific type of hydrangea."
She paused, thinking back about the chadō lessons she'd been studying for almost two years now. "The ama-cha is used mostly for kanbutsue, a religious festival. We don't serve it during an actual tea ceremony, however."
"Oh? So you have different ceremonies with tea?"
"Yes. When we say 'tea ceremony', we are generally referring to chadō, the Way of Tea. And in chadō, only high-grade powdered green tea, matcha, is to be served to the guests."
"Chadō. The Way of Tea." Herakles looked thoughtful as he repeated the words after her. "I wish I could watch this ceremony, maybe even participate in one." The glimmer in his eyes returned as he was visited by yet another childhood memory. "Back when I was watching from the shadows, I had wanted to join the festival midway through the chanting, to mingle with the crowd of worshippers and to partake with them in bathing the statues of Buddha with the ama-cha. Mother had to keep a firm hold on my hand, lest I was tempted to run off."
"Chadō is a lot more formal and private than that; outsiders could never in any way attend a ceremony without a formal invitation by the host. There are public tea ceremonies open to all, of course, but these are held only on certain days during festivals."
Herakles waggled his toes in the water, watching the multi-coloured fish darting in between the reeds. Nagi was curled beside him, her paws tucked neatly at her chest as though she'd fallen asleep in the sun. But her amber eyes were bright and she watched the fish with the air of predator stalking its next meal.
"You seem to know a lot about tea ceremonies," Herakles said.
"I've been a student of chadō for almost two years now; it's one of the many lessons I have to take as maiko."
"Have you been to any tea ceremonies?"
"Yes, I've participated in a number of public ceremonies during the annual festivals. And I've helped Haru – the senior geiko at the okiya – on occasion where she was the main host. Some day, when I've perfected the art, I too will have to prepare and serve a private ceremony."
There was a loud crash and several surprised squeals. When Herakles and Kiku cast their gazes towards the noise, they found that one of the rabbit yōkai had accidentally spilled tea over another, causing the other to jump about frantically from the pain of scalding hot tea. Its flailing limbs then knocked the teapot out from a third yōkai's paws and kicked the kettle off the brazier and to the ground, where it smashed to pieces and sloshed hot water and tea all over the group.
Kiku hoped none of the yōkai were terribly injured from the scalding hot liquid, but she couldn't help but chuckle softly at their clumsiness. "That would be every student's worst nightmare, accidentally spilling hot tea all over your guests!"
They watched as the yōkai scurried about on the opposite riverbank, before they darted off into the undergrowth, kicking up a miniature storm of dust and withered leaves in their wake. As they watched the last of the creatures running off, Kiku was visited by an idea.
"Herakles-san, would you like me to conduct a tea ceremony for you?" She nodded towards Nagi as well, when the cat twitched her whiskers questioningly. "For both of you. I still have much to learn about chadō, and am far from being a full-fledged tea master yet, but I think I should be able to manage a simple ceremony... ah, pardon my forwardness," Kiku faltered, blushing slightly as she dipped her head apologetically. "I didn't mean to sound imposing..."
Herakles shook his head. "No, no, you're not imposing at all. In fact, I should be grateful to be offered such an honour, to be served tea by one of Kyoto's best maiko."
Kiku laughed, her voice dancing lightly in the passing breeze. "Now, you're being far too generous with your compliments; I have many more years to go before I earn the title of the 'best'."
Herakles smiled kindly at her. "And you're too modest."
They decided to meet again in a fortnight, in the shade of the old gingko tree beside the abandoned torii. This would give Kiku ample time to make preparations for a small private ceremony. When she'd first suggested this latest activity for their clandestine meetings, Herakles had, again, shown some slight concern.
"I don't wish for you to get into trouble with your mentors," he'd said, matter-of-factly.
"We're not doing anything harmful or illegal," Kiku said firmly, even as a rosy blush coloured her cheeks, as if she'd been caught in the act of something completely unrefined. "In any case, I am no longer a child. And even then, I do have permission to while away my free time in any manner that I wish, as long as I bring no harm upon myself or besmirch the good name of Madam Sakaguchi and the okiya."
Herakles couldn't disagree with that.
The truth was, Kiku enjoyed spending time with Herakles, even if his ideas and ways were worlds apart from hers. With Herakles, she remembered how things had been when she was a child – simple and carefree. She loved what she did as a maiko, as a practitioner of the traditional arts, but sometimes – only sometimes, because ah, there was so much to do, so much to see and learn ! – she felt the need to be away from all the schedules, all the plans and engagements.
She would never give up her duties or her love of the dance, but she could enjoy what little free time she spent with Herakles in whichever way they choose. Kiku didn't think Madam Sakaguchi would take too kindly to this 'private ceremony' conducted in the middle of a supposedly haunted forest, but she reasoned that no one, not even Chiharu, needed to know about it. Besides, it provided ample opportunities for Kiku to perfect her technique without the stress of performance under dozens of silent but watchful eyes.
They had returned to the same spot by the river, seated once again on the dewy grass and in the shade of the willow tree. Herakles and Nagi had managed to procure a small brazier and a copper iron kettle. As they waited for the water to boil, Kiku settled herself down in seiza, looking over the things she'd brought along with her for their small ceremony. She opened the lacquered wooden box, the chabako where she'd kept all her tea utensils, and began to lay all the items out neatly before her.
A simple summertime temae, the unohana, would be good for today, she thought. She removed the lid from a small porcelain bowl to reveal the colourful higashi sweets inside. She served the bowl of sweets and a pair of o-hashi chopsticks to Herakles, before she slid back slightly on her knees and with her hands placed neatly before her, she bowed politely. "Okashi wo dōzo."
Herakles turned towards Nagi, dipping his head at the cat.
"O-saki ni," he said, and raised the bowl of higashi sweets lightly and offered a subtle bow of thanks.
(Kiku had earlier explained the form she'd planned to use for the ceremony as they walked through the woods; she'd reassured Herakles that she would help him through the procedures as the guest.
"Don't worry," Nagi had cut in abruptly. "I've been to many tea ceremonies, for both human and yōkai. And as his noble benefactor, I'll make sure the brat remembers the steps.")
As Herakles and Nagi enjoyed the sweets, Kiku continued with the next step of the ceremony: the purification and cleaning of the tea utensils.
She adjusted her posture and her kimono to ensure a comfortable sitting. Inhaling and exhaling softly, she allowed herself to relax, composing herself to move into the silent, meditative state of mind so as to be able to prepare the best tea. When she was ready to begin, she placed the small green and gold tea bowl close to her knee. With a folded orange fukusa cloth, she first cleaned the top of thetea caddy, and then the tea scoop. Once cleaned, she set the scoop back carefully on top of the tea caddy. By this time, wisps of steam were beginning to rise from the kettle; the water was boiling. With a bamboo ladle, she scooped hot water into the tea bowl. She balanced the ladle gracefully over the top of the kettle, and with a few careful flicks, she stirred the water in the bowl with a tea whisk, before setting it aside again. She swirled the water gently in the bowl before she poured it away, wiping the tea bowl clean with a white hemp cloth.
With the purification steps completed, Kiku was now ready prepare the tea. One and a half-spoon of matcha powder, and a little more than half a scoop of hot water – the perfect mix for an aromatic bowl of tea. Holding the tea bowl steady with one hand, she whisked the water and matcha briskly to create a frothy mix. She finished off by drawing the whisk in shape of the hiragana no, and lifting the tea bowl and turning it to face her two guests, she placed it before them.
Herakles had watched Kiku attentively as she went through the motions of the temae, his green eyes alight with child-like fascination. Lost in his silent appreciation of the girl's graceful movements, he'd even forgotten his lines when she finally served him the bowl of tea. Nagi, being the ever helpful companion, bent forward then and gently nipped his fingers, breaking him out of his wordless reverie. And Herakles recalled himself, uttering an embarrassed sorry, before he dipped his head in a grateful bow and said, "Otemae chodai itashimasu."
The scent of tea was sharp in the crisp morning air, the taste creamy and bitter velvet upon his tongue. It was familiar and yet new all at once, and Herakles found that he enjoyed it immensely.
"Thank you for the tea ceremony. It was quite an experience."
The sun was blazing high in the sky when they finally made their way back towards the abandoned torii that skirted the border of the forest.
Kiku paused beside the old gingko tree, careful to step over the twisted roots and fallen branches. She smiled up at Herakles, bowing politely.
"It was my pleasure to be able to share it with you. Thank you for partaking in the ceremony. You did fairly well, even for a uninitiated guest new to the form."
Somewhere, above in the tree and sprawled lazily upon a branch, Nagi let out a disdainful sniff. "Only because I was there making sure he doesn't mix up his lines."
Kiku lifted her gaze to meet the cat's. "Thank you for your help, as well, Cat-sensei. I hope the ceremony and the tea was to your liking."
Nagi yawned, stretching her jaws to reveal sharp pinpricks of teeth and a very pink tongue. "Well, it certainly does not rival the great tea masters of old. And mind you, I have witnessed my fair share of ceremonies long before your great-grandparents were out of their cots. But even for a youngling such as you, there is potential." The cat purred, jumping down the branch to hover close to Kiku, and brushed her whiskery face gently against the girl's cheek.
"And what she really means by that," Herakles chuckled softly as he scratched at Nagi's ears affectionately, "is that she enjoys your company and hopes that you'll visit more often, if possible."
"Watch what you're insinuating, boy," Nagi huffed, swatting lightly at Herakles' fingers, before settling herself pompously around his shoulders. "I said no such a thing."
Kiku could only laugh and bowed once more at the two, before turning to take her leave.
"Kiku, wait," Herakles called, reaching out to touch her hand softly. She halted, curiosity in her dark eyes as she gazed back at the youth.
"There will be a festival by the riverbank, two moons from today. I was wondering if you'll like to go with me... with us."
"I know it may be too much to ask, and you don't have to come if you don't feel comfortable. I just thought you might like to see a yokai festival." Herakles said.
Kiku considered his invitation, brushing down the sleeves of her kimono tentatively.
"I'll come," she said, much to Herakles' surprise. "But... only if you will attend the Kyo Odori and watch my dance, as well." She felt her cheeks warming at the boldness of her request, her heart beating rapidly even as she spoke.
But Herakles only grinned wider, and he nodded. He raised his littlest finger towards her, the one entwined with both his mother's hair and Kiku's own black hair. "I'll go with you. To the festival and to watch you dance."
Kiku smiled and linked her own finger around his, sealing their promise.
"Mata au hi made."
Notes and translations
kambutsu-e - Buddha's birthday, celebrated in Buddhist temples on April 8. more popular known today as hana-matsuri ('flower festival'). a small hall called the hanamido is set up on the grounds of every Buddhist temple, decked with colorful flowers. a basin of water with a statue of the Buddha at birth is placed in the middle, and people who visit the temples pour sweet tea (ama-cha, or hydrangea tea) on the head of the statue.
chadō - 'the way of tea'; japanese tea ceremony.
temae - 'form', general term for the ritual preparation of tea or the procedures used in making tea. there are many forms for making tea, depending on the season and the school. unohana is a basic summertime temae.
chabako - a box containing a set of tea utensils, and generally is used for an outdoor tea ceremony.
chashaku - tea scoop
chasen - tea whisk
natsume - tea caddy, a small container where the matcha powder is kept.
Okashi wo dōzo - please have some sweets
O-saki ni - forgive me for going before you
Otemae chodai itashimasu - thank you for making tea
Dewa mata - see you; good-bye (formal, polite form)
Mata au hi made - until we meet again
The actual steps for the tea making in chadō is a lot more complicated of course; for the sake of readability and simplicity, I only mentioned the main steps in this story. I may or may not be wrong about some details too, as I'm not a true student of chadō and well, Google research can only inform me so much, lol.
And I'm extremely sorry that I took this long to update this fic (eight months?! any longer, I could have made a baby! o_O) I don't really have any excuse for the horrendously late update, except that I guess I'm running out of inspiration for writing Giripan? orz I'm not dropping this fic however, and hopefully I will finish up the story by the end of 2013.
Thank you to those few readers who left really sweet reviews and crit; I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts and I hope this act isn't too disappointing :')