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Noh by Shisaa

Ichi-go, Ichi-e

Disclaimer: All credit to Takahashi-san for the characters and setting. Plot is all mine.

A/N: This chapter has been edited by my wonderful Beta BelovedStranger. Be sure to check out her stories, you won't be disappointed! (^o^)/

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Chapter 1

Ichi-go, Ichi-e

One Chance, One Meeting

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A cooling breeze snaked its way through the darkened forest, leaving a trail of rustling leaves and creaking limbs. It rolled towards a quaint village situated in a generous clearing, soon making fires flicker erratically as the draft found gaps in the hut walls. Bamboo mats swung lazily in their door frames. The gentle wind moved onward, past the homes and shops, and slowly climbed over the stairs on the outskirts of the glen. It wrapped itself around the torii, sending the fresh shimenawa into a slow dance. The white shide, glowing brightly in the moonlight, made a soft rustling sound much like the leaves of the trees surrounding them. Finally, the cool draft made its way across the quiet shrine grounds and caressed the cheek of its lone inhabitant before continuing ever onward through the woods.

The young woman sighed contently as the wind wrapped around her, whispering to her of the waning summer and the coming autumn. She brushed her ebony hair away from her dark brown eyes with the flippant movement of a delicate hand, huffing slightly as her bangs stubbornly fell back into their previous position. Tilting her head backward, the girl inhaled deeply through her nose while gazing thoughtfully at the starry, cloudless sky. Hopefully it wouldn’t rain tomorrow. Closing her eyes, she exhaled slowly and turned towards the large, dark silhouette at the western edge of the shrine grounds. She ran her gaze over the familiar contours of the stage, picturing the performance that would take place the following day. Over the past week, she had worked tirelessly to make sure that all of the most vital repairs and preparations had been made.

Glancing around the grounds once more and finding them acceptable, Kagome finally walked towards the house just past the stage pavilion, scowling lightly as her geta caught on one of the uneven stones that made up the many walkways. This place was in dire need of repair, but times were much harder than she could ever remember. The shrine’s patrons were few and far between. Her family’s small plots of rice and vegetables had done poorly this year, most probably due to the extreme heat this summer had brought. Their primary source of money was the plays they put on once a month.

In the past, people had come from all over the country to witness her father’s plays. Everyone from human farmers to wealthy youkai daimyo would attend the performances. Her father, writing under the name Zeami, had been truly gifted. He had written over fifty plays, many of which had spread to the furthest reaches of Japan. However, when he fell ill and eventually died, the flow of regulars quickly waned as they realized that no new plays would be written. This left Kagome and her family struggling to attract enough customers to avoid starvation.

Shaking her head as if to expel the depressing thoughts, Kagome quietly slipped out of her geta as she entered the genkan of her home. She gracefully knelt down, rotating her sandals until they faced neatly outward. Slinking quietly through the dark house until she reached her room, she slowly and silently slid the shoji screen closed behind her. Grateful that her mother had already laid out her futon for her, Kagome quickly divested herself of her red and white miko outfit. Slipping a faded green yukata around her shoulders, she didn’t even bother with an obi as she collapsed into her bedding.

Taking deep, calming breaths, Kagome couldn’t keep her thoughts from returning to her father. From the moment she took her first steps, he had trained her in the many facets of Noh. For fifteen years, she had trained, pushing herself to succeed. She felt guilty, even now, that she hadn’t been the son he was hoping for. By the time her brother Souta came along, she had all but mastered everything her father had to show her. He had tried to bring Souta in on the training, but soon found that the boy simply didn’t have the grace or coordination required to excel as the shite, the lead actor. And then, just under two years ago, her father had passed on. This left Kagome in a very troubling position.

Kagome groaned and rolled over, willing her mind to quiet. There was no reason to ceaselessly go over the problem in her head, as if thinking about it enough would change the parameters of her predicament. The fact was, just before she was born, the four Cardinal Lords held a meeting and decided that the prostitution that female actors often participated in had become an unsightly problem. They immediately decreed that females were to be banned from all stage productions, without exception. Her father, hoping the ban would be lifted and having no other heir, determinedly trained her in secret, despite the new law.

Now here she was, her family’s survival relying on how well she could play the part of a male actor.

Scoffing softly, Kagome was finally able to drift into an uneasy sleep.

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The village was bustling as usual, the shops and vendors calling out to the travelers passing by on the main road that dissected the town. Sweet smoke rose from the food stalls, tempting all who received a whiff of the tantalizing aroma. All, that was, except the lone youkai standing at the edge of the forest, looking down and scanning golden eyes across the busy human dwellings. The silver haired demon wrinkled his nose ever so slightly before turning and walking just inside the tree line. Sesshoumaru held quite a dislike for human villages, the incessant din and overpowering stenches making a trip through one exceptionally unpleasant. He found it less troublesome to simply skirt around the humans, and it was much easier on his senses.

Looking idly up through the leaves, Sesshoumaru noted that it was quite nice out. He enjoyed patrolling his lands on days like this. The smell of the trees and the warmth of the sun made him feel invigorated. He had been away from his shiro for over a full moon cycle, and it was nearly time for him to return. He had preparations to oversee, as the three other Cardinal Lords would inhabit his castle for their annual meeting. He frowned slightly, thinking of the insufferable hanyou inside his home. Naraku of the North was a constant thorn in his paw.

The Lord of the West was pulled from his vindictive thoughts by the sound of a fue, floating languidly through the forest. Sesshoumaru paused and listened more attentively, picking up the faint sounds of drumming. For some reason, the tune was familiar to him. Interest piqued, he decided to follow the sounds to their source. Walking with purpose in his stride, it wasn’t long before he came to worn, stone steps on the opposite side of the town he had started from. Seeing the torii, Sesshoumaru hesitated briefly. His youki flared out, searching for the reiki that could belong to a miko protecting this shrine. He did not want to startle some foolish ningen and get purified for his curiosity. Granted, there was hardly a chance it would kill him, but burns from reiki were still incredibly harmful and they healed excruciatingly slowly.

Satisfied when he felt no miko's presence, Sesshoumaru chose to ascend the incline while under the cover of the surrounding forest. Panicking humans were the most irrational beings, and the thought of dealing with them at the moment was exhausting. At the top of the small hill, he saw the noise was coming from the western-most building on the grounds. There seemed to be a Noh performance going on. Stalking silently closer, he looked over the small congregation of people, somewhat surprised to find a few lower level youkai in attendance. As he finally got as close as he could without being seen, he allowed himself to examine the stage. The large bell hanging from the middle of the stage immediately revealed why the music had seemed familiar to him; this was Dojoji, his father’s favorite Noh play. He had been forced to watch this play countless times. Thinking of his father, his eyes darkened. The old fool had left him with so many problems after his ill-timed demise at the claws of Ryuukotsusei. A death, he smirked, that Sesshoumaru had quickly been forced to avenge, lest he be thought too weak to inherit the Western lands. His claws twitched, remembering the dragon’s blood dripping from their deadly points.

Returning from his violent reverie, Sesshoumaru took note of the main actor. A beautifully painted onna-kei mask covered the man’s face, indicating he was still in the role of the mysterious maiden shirabyoushi. He was dressed in a very simple women’s kimono, a light green smoked around the edges of the otherwise light blue garment, hinting at the transformation to come. The man started the dynamic dance that prefaced the dramatic bell scene. Sesshoumaru couldn’t stop a devious grin from ghosting across his lips. He vividly remembered the performance at a celebratory dinner for his father where, to his amusement, the half-witted stagehand’s timing had been off and he sent the bell crashing to the floor too soon. The ill-fated actor had been completely decapitated by the heavy bell. Of course, this remained Sesshoumaru’s favorite rendition of the play yet.

The dance picked up speed, and Sesshoumaru’s eyes followed the dancer closely. This man was definitely skilled. His movements were sharp and perfect, alternatively gliding effortlessly across the floor and landing echoing stomps. Each tiny movement was faultless.

A convincingly feminine voice broke out in a short verse from behind the mask.

“Coming at the dusk in spring…” The men in the chorus abruptly took over, leaving Sesshoumaru wishing to hear more from the main actor. “…the bell tells you the sunset, and the cherry blossom falls quietly with the ring. The cherry blossom falls. The flower falls. The flower falls.” Dancing wildly, the actor approached the hanging bell. The drumming had escalated to a frantic pace, and Sesshoumaru could feel his pulse quickening to match the frenzy. With a sharp stomp, the actor leapt under the bell as it fell atop him.

Only lightly disappointed by the lack of bloodshed, Sesshoumaru barely watched the middle part of the play. He knew the story by heart. The servants would awaken from their dance-induced trance and run to the head priest. The head priest told of the love affair between a past priest and a lord’s daughter. The foolish priest toyed with the woman before discarding her, refusing to marry her. The priest ran to Dojoji and begged them to hide him. They relented and allowed the priest to hide under the bell, as they lacked any suitable rooms. Enraged, the girl chased after him. Her attachment to the man and her resentment towards him transformed her into a terrifying hebi oni. She quickly found the bell where the priest was hiding and, wrapping herself around it, she breathed fire onto it. The bell became so hot that it melted, and the priest disappeared with the bell. 

Impatiently, Sesshoumaru listened to the waki finish the story. This supporting actor was hardly as talented as the main man. Playing the head priest, the boy had foregone the elderly mask, most probably because he was not yet able to perform adequately while wearing it. Sesshoumaru allowed himself to think back on the talented actor who had so deeply pulled him into an activity he normally despised. The man’s skill was truly impressive.

Finally, the priests had gathered around the bell in prayer, hoping to quell the vengeful onna’s spirit. This signaled the reappearance of the shite. Sesshoumaru waited as the bell was slowly raised. Triumphantly, the actor appeared with a sweeping flourish, symbolizing the smooth, confident movements of a serpent. His look had been completely transformed. He wore a silken, feminine kimono that was deep green in color, with an alternating triangular pattern alluding to scales. His mask was an expertly carved red hannya mask, the horns and eyes golden in color. Using a bright red fan, the actor struck out at the furiously praying monks. His moves became more erratic as the monks’ prayers rose in volume. With an agonizing bellow and a final beat of the drum, the man collapsed into a heap on the floor. The silence was just as deafening as the drumming had been, but it was short lived. In a fluid motion the man rose from the ground, turned violently towards the bell, and slowly extended the arm holding the fan towards it. This was the oni breathing fire onto the bell. However, in a flurry of motion it was made clear that the snake had also caught fire. With erratic, painful-looking steps, the man rushed over the bridge leading to the stage and, with a final stomp, threw himself out of sight. The demon had thrown herself into the river and drowned.

By the time all of the actors had exited the stage, Sesshoumaru had come to a decision. He turned on his heel and left; he had arrangements to make before he returned that evening.

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Vocabulary:

shimenawalengths of laid rice straw rope used for ritual purification

shide zigzag-shaped paper streamer often used to adorn Shinto-related objects

shite - main actor

fue - traditional flute

shirabyoushi - dancing girl or prostitute

hebi oni - snake demon

waki - supporting actor

 

INUYASHA © Rumiko Takahashi/Shogakukan • Yomiuri TV • Sunrise 2000
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