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That Sleep Which is the End of Each Day's Life

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Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.

 

(William Shakespeare, Macbeth)

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- I -

He hears them talking to Ageha afterward: Number 4, the disguised girl; Number 15, the pretty blond boy with the sour face; and the new prisoner, Number 50, the one with the curls. The girl is upset; when the sour boy says, "Maybe Ageha likes it that way!" the girl grabs his uniform and shakes him as if they were both men. Shirasu is surprised to see that she's so tough, but he's not worried for the boy. He listens to Ageha tell them to stop talking, that their fussing is making him depressed, that what he did wasn't such a big deal.

He tries to understand. After all, "A fisherman who cannot read the waves comes home with empty nets."

Ageha calls over to him, asking about some new prisoner, a name he's never heard, and then asks saucily, "Will you be recovered soon from this afternoon, Shirasu?"

Ah. He's doing this to convince his friends that the sex wasn't unpleasant or shameful, and letting Shirasu know that he's willing to go again, if it's worthwhile. "A bulging purse buys more than an empty one."

Shirasu offers to tell them what he knows of B and C blocks, of the overseers Water Deer, Fire Fox, and Earth Bear, of Wind Owl the prison warden; and then later, as the prisoners settle down for the night, he catches Ageha's eye and holds up a small jar of the oil that the prisoners use for massages and to tend to wounds. He hopes that Ageha understands that he had regretted taking him dry, earlier.

Ageha smiles faintly, but when he comes over he murmurs, "Don't make a fuss." Then he slips his prison trousers down to his shackled ankles, spoons back hard against Shirasu, and pretends to be asleep until a hesitant Shirasu is done.

Ageha's hair is a ghostly blur as he goes back to the other side of the cave to sleep next to prisoner number 4.

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- II -

The next day, Number 4 is sent down a side cave to sniff for gas. When she doesn't come back, Shirasu appreciates that Ageha warns him – not that he could have stopped him anyhow – that he's about to cause trouble before he races into the cave after her. Shirasu incites the other prisoners to yell noisily, hoping to help the two of them hear which way to come back.

When two of Water Deer's guard finally bring Ageha out of the canary-hole without her, Shirasu's first thought when he sees the bloody wrappings on Ageha's feet is No dancing for a while. He recognizes the triangular gashes on Ageha's body as wounds from Water Deer's chain whip, but when he tries to tend to him Ageha snarls, "Don't touch me! Don't think you can touch me whenever you want!"

Shirasu would like to ponder fully what this reaction means, but when cold water begins to flood the chamber his mind is on other things. He convinces Ageha to go up the escape hole by reminding him that he's strong and can pull others up; fortunately Ageha sees the reasonableness of this and doesn't argue. Luckily they come across Ageha's "brother" Tatara, but just when Shirasu thinks that they are on their way out – thanks to the map he's hidden on the inside of his shirt – scalding water diverted from the hot spring's fountainhead drives them into the dreaded B block. Fortunately, the sight of old friends turned into mindless, slop-eating animals warns Shirasu that the food in Hall B is drugged.

That night, as they sit, shackled to the wall, Ageha leans against Shirasu as he falls asleep. Shirasu, who has had some time to ponder, doesn't pretend that this means anything other than that Ageha is exhausted from his wounds and the exertions of the day, but it still pleases him, and so he carefully takes hold of a strand of the long silver hair that has fallen with reach of his fingertips. He marvels at how tough this supposed "dancer" is, even when so badly wounded, and thinks that they would make a good team, but he also knows that, despite the way he calls attention to himself, companionship – let alone affection or loving adoration – is not something that Ageha can tolerate for long.

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- III -

"I wonder what time it is?" someone asks, peering at the gray, snowy sky.

"Near noon," Shirasu says, settling himself more comfortably on the boulder submerged in the hot springs. The pool he's chosen is deep enough to keep the water over his shoulders, and close enough to the mouth of the cave that he'll be able to see when the wagon that carried Tatara, Gan, Kajuki, Hayato, the whale fisherman, and the sour boy into the nearby fishing town returns for them.

"How can you tell?" someone else asks.

"Sailors need to find east and west in all kinds of weather," he says, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. "No man survives by fishing only when it is sunny."

He feels a swirl of current, and opens his eyes to see Ageha sitting next to him. "It's been an interesting morning so far," Ageha murmurs.

Shirasu smiles at the understatement. They had been awakened after less than an hour's sleep in Hall B by an attack from Fire Fox and his guards, after which they had uncovered Karon's secret and the grisly fate of Earth Bear, burned the lotus field, set all the prisoners free, then swum through a waterfall to escape. Not to mention picking up Hayato, Tamon, the Genbu sword, and an alliance with Masunaga for Tatara on the way.

"Yes, and now it's peaceful," Shirasu says gratefully, closing his eyes again. "Now that it's all over."

Ageha makes a small, non-committal noise, and says, "Well, if you'd prefer to stay here …"

Shirasu opens one eye.

"… But I did notice a small grotto further back in the cave. Someone might have left a winter cache there, with blankets or food or something else useful inside. And the wagons may not return for hours."

Shirasu is too tired to interpret Ageha's expression, but he's not too tired to interpret the foot that slides up and down his shin. "I'm falling asleep," he says, blinking heavily.

"I'm tired too, but there won't be much to carry," Ageha says. "In fact, let me do all the work. I think I will find carrying to be very relaxing after the effort of escaping from Abashiri prison."

Shirasu looks around. Most of the other prisoners are half asleep themselves, huddled together like seals near the edge of the pool closest to the cave mouth. "This is because my eyes droop even more when I'm sleepy, isn't it?" he asks wryly.

Ageha doesn't deny it; he just turns and goes to the back of the cave, lifting his wet hair like a veil.

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- IV -

Wagons arrive a hour later to carry the newly-freed prisoners down the mountain to a fishing village near the shore. Shirasu does not see Ageha on the ride down, but that was to be expected. By the time they reach the town, the prospect of real food and clean clothes has him cheering and laughing along with everyone else.

As they run down the street to the inn, they chant, "The real world! With real women!" and Shirasu's voice is one of the loudest.

"I thought you liked men, Shirasu?" one of the former residents of Block A asks him.

"Only if there are no women! After all," he says as he shucks out of the last of his prison rags, "One eats what is on the menu."

He grabs a bucket and some soap from a shelf, and, trailing what is left of Block A, wades through the bathing pool to where Ageha stands, scoops up a bucket of the steaming water, and pours it through the dancer's long silver hair. "I will, however," he adds, "always make an exception for Ageha." He pulls the former Prisoner Number 31 backwards and kisses him deeply, ignoring both catcalls and cheers.

"Stop that," Ageha mutters when Shirasu lets him go, but he doesn't move away immediately, choosing instead to lean back against Shirasu's chest as he updates Tatara on the arrival of Masunaga and the Kazuno ships.

Then it is time. Ageha doesn't look at him as he leaves the sauna, and Shirasu understands: "Blind men do not mourn the end of sunset."

Still, an hour later, as Shirasu sees Ageha standing on the deck of the ship next to Tatara and Nachi the whale-hunter, he looks so solemn that Shirasu decides that, some day, he must definitely try to voyage to that distant land again.

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~ The end ~

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first post 31 August 2010
rev (04) 22 Sept 2014 ~ fix formatting, shin