‘When people are bored, a little something of their true nature comes out.’
That’s what Father once said, long ago. Maybe that’s why TsuYa rarely allowed himself to become bored if he could help it.
He sat on the lower slope of a hill, as far away from JouKa as he could. Every now and then, he would catch himself subconsciously scratching at his shirt-front right above the darkened area on his chest. When that happened, TsuYa was caught in a suspended moment of dark memory and dread. Dread that someone would take notice. No one ever did.
In fact, JouKa seemed to totally ignore him. She currently entertained herself by poking at the ground in a vicious manner with a random stick she found. Though the two of them were forced to be together most of the day, nearly every day, little in the way of words ever passed between them. It was the only way to keep the peace, which more often than not, tottered on the edge of nonexistence.
Somewhere in between the two, Suzume sat in the grass, trying to braid her own hair. It was something that Aunt SaRa attempted to show the girl now that her hair was growing out again. It only managed to win the child a headful of knots and snarls by the end of the day.
“Suzume,” TsuYa lifted his voice. Not gruff, but letting her know who was boss. “Stop that.”
The child dropped her hair instantly. Veiled face turned to regard him. It was hard to tell if there was fear there or not. So far, she had not spoken to anyone again.
“Suzume,” JouKa countered. “There’s nothin’ wrong with braidin’ yer ‘air. Go on a’ead, missy.”
The child paused, face turning towards the winged girl. Then Suzume turned back to TsuYa, as if confused.
“Stop undermining me,” he grumbled back over one shoulder with a deep frown.
“And why don’t ya leave the little girl alone?” JouKa retorted with a few more sharp jabs of her stick to the ground. “She can braid ‘er ‘air if she fancy well pleases!”
“What a waste of time,” TsuYa hunched his shoulders with a quiet huff. “Tell me what good in the Seven Universes is teaching a kid to make knots in her own hair?”
“Braiding is plenty useful!”
“Coming from you and your no-hair?” he gibed, his frown slipping into a self-amused expression. She was the only girl that he had ever seen who had a guy’s haircut by choice.
“What did you say?” JouKa was suddenly on her feet, the stick discarded in the grass.
Suzume sat there, watching with an expression of curiosity.
“You heard me,” TsuYa pretended to be engrossed with observing the toe of his boot, watching the girl out of the corner of his eye.
“Well the men of my Gathering wouldn’t be caught dead wearing girl’s ‘air like yours,” her fists were clenched tightly at her sides, retort echoing sharp in the air. Then JouKa snorted down at him through her nose, “In fact, I bet yer one ‘o those Neffies, aren’t ya?”
“Neffies?” his eyes narrowed as he turned, for the first time focusing sharply on her face. One thing he didn’t abide by was being insulted with a word when he had no idea what it meant.
“Seein’ that you don’t even know what I’m talkin’ about, I assume so,” with a slightly smug look, the winged girl leaned back, arms crossed.
“Assume so?” he held his voice level, the best attempt at keeping his irritation from showing. He was turned around now, facing her with his full attention. And she knew it. “You don’t know your finger from your heel when it comes to assuming things about me.”
“And you don’t have a clue about what a Neffie is,” she taunted.
Suzume was staring back and forth between them in wonder. Or amusement.
“Neffie,” TsuYa muttered, “Sounds like something you’d name a dog.”
“Then it’d be quite fitting for you, wouldn’t it?” she smirked, flipping one stray lock of short hair over her shoulder. It was one of those annoying habits that she had when she was irritated.
“And just what is your problem?” TsuYa’s brows drew down sharply, lips pursed. Instantly, he knew her answer.
“You are!” she retorted without hesitation, faithful to predictability.
“Listen, I don’t have to take this crap from you,” he jabbed a finger forward. Seeing no ground being won in this matter, he decided it was time to pull rank. “I bet you don’t have any idea of who you’re talking to.”
“A lout with an over-inflated ego?”
He ignored that, rising to his feet to give his statement extra prominence. “I am TsuYa, son of ZenToYa, who was the founder of this city. As well as the founder of the School and Nefol.”
Apparently, no one had informed the girl of his position. For the first time, JouKa hesitated as an expression of surprise and dismay flooded her face. After a moment of self-collection she argued, “You are not.”
“Don’t believe me if you don’t want to,” reassuming his dignity, he turned his gaze the other way, both hands planted on his hips. “You’re only fooling yourself.”
“If you’re the son of ZenToYa,” the girl’s face contorted, as if struggling with what she could not deny. “Then why ain’t ya got any wings?”
“And how did you ever manage to steal yours?” TsuYa sneered. “I thought Lord Zemi had better taste. Guess even he gets a little desperate sometimes.”
“That’s not any of yer business!” JouKa’s voice had grown absolutely solid.
“Then, likewise,” he told her.
“I shoulda known. You really are a Neffie — in the worst way possible! To think, yer infernal father founded that awful ‘eap of a School!” she suddenly blurted, trying to find any way to move the topic beyond that of wings.
“Don’t talk about my father like that!” TsuYa hissed through his teeth, eyes growing momentarily darker.
Unaware, JouKa remained fighting to hold her ground. She lifted her chin, forcing her gaze to meet his. “And what are you goin’ to do to me if I do? Bring the fires rainin’ on my ‘ead? Make the ground swallow me up?”
“Don’t be stupid,” TsuYa found his voice quiet to his own ears. Anger drained quickly from his limbs at the suggestion that he would stoop to such abominable actions.
“That’s what yer kinda people do,” she insisted. Her eyes flicked over his face rapidly, trying to decide how true the statement was.
“My kind of people?” he echoed, voice hinging on incredulous. “I told you, you know nothing about me. I don’t belong to any people. Not up here. Not down there.”
Suddenly she had nothing to say. Her green eyes simply remained fixed on the stern lines of his face. As she turned her head to peer away, the silent, almost imperceptible statement of ‘me neither’ was there. Just for a second, despite the fact she had not said anything.
“I find that ‘ard to believe,” JouKa said. There was a grudging sound to her voice. It was the first time she had spoken in a calm, non-aggressive manner towards him.
“If you are ‘oo you say you are… the son of ZenToYa. ‘Ow can you not belong to yer own School?”
“Because, Nefol’s changed a lot since Father… disappeared,” TsuYa told her. “And I hate what it’s become — run by some lousy Council of know-it-alls. All the stupid rules they’ve been slapping on people. And how the Searchers have been instructed to go out and forcefully recruit people that have talent.”
JouKa’s eyes flicked up, meeting his gaze.
“It’s all a big mess and it’s straight out wrong! It would have never happened if Father had been there,” he buried one fist into the palm of his other hand.
“Then why didn’t you do somethin’ about it?” the expression on JouKa’s face hardened again. Her blame was very clearly spoken and certainly aimed at him. For what, he did not know.
“It wasn’t my place,” he frowned, spreading his hands.
“What, yer ZenToYa’s son, right?” one hand planted on her hip as her feet dug in firmly in the ground. She was up and ready for the next round.
“The youngest son,” TsuYa said ruefully. “My brother, SoYa, was the one next in line to inherit the position of command in the School.”
“Then ‘ow come ‘e didn’t do anythin’?” she was starting to sound like a broken record. Trying to ferret out any point of fault that she could.
“Neither of us was old enough to be taken seriously by the Council,” he gave a grouchy look. It was really none of her business, but for the sake of his brother’s good name, TsuYa explained, “Personally, I don’t think they had ever planned on giving SoYa his rightful position. There would have been some serious issues coming from my direction if they ever tried to rip his rank.”
The winged girl fell silent, now, looking as if she was mulling over what he had just told her. Picking it apart. Trying to see how well it stood up against her own precooked perceptions of the world.
TsuYa leaned against a nearby tree stump and waited for her response, determined to let her make the next move. But JouKa did not speak again — except to intercept Suzume in the act of resuming the braid in her hair. “Don’t do that, missy. Yer goin’ to tie it up in knots.”