Note: Esmeralda’s life account in the manga differs with that of
the anime. I choose to base this fanfic on the anime version.
"Look, there’s a ship coming."
The girl ran to the beach, shading her eyes. "Where? I don’t see it…oh, there it is." The aforementioned ship was just appearing on the western horizon, its smoke rising lazily against the reddish-orange sky. She watched it, excited; ships were very rarely seen on this part of the Pacific Ocean, and ships heading for this island were even rarer. "Do you think it’s coming this way? Coming to this island?"
"It’s hard to say."
Her father’s uninflected tone made her look up. She was not used yet to the red mask he always wore nowadays, with its painted large, demented-looking eyes and white fangs. The sight of it never failed to make her uneasy. "Who do you think it might be, Father?"
He turned away. "Probably some other fool who thinks he can come here and return safely home." He started to walk toward the cliff and she followed. "That ship will have landed tonight. You don’t want to have anything to do with it, Esmeralda."
"No, Father," she said, but secretly she was curious about this new
visitor. No one who had been here survived her father, his Black Saints,
even the very air this island exuded. In two years, three at the most,
they would be broken, in spirit if not in physique – or so she had been
told. When the ship landed, she decided she would take a look, if only
to satisfy her curiosity.
"What’s your name?"
She peeped cautiously from behind a rock, craning her neck to get a good look. Her father was interviewing the newcomer. She had to be very careful; if her father saw her, he would beat her for being disobedient.
"Ikki," said the newcomer, chin jutting, back straight. To her surprise it was a boy, about nine or ten, sturdy, tall, with blue-black hair. From the look of him the Black Saints must have been giving him some tanning: bruises stood out in his face and his hair and clothes were in complete disarray. But he faced her father without fear, and, without knowing why, she was slightly proud.
"Why did you come here?" Her father crossed his arms. Behind him, the Black Saints stood guard in a semicircle.
"I’m going to be a Saint," the boy who called himself Ikki declared. "And I will return to Japan with a Cloth."
Some of the Black Saints snickered. The boy’s expression did not alter.
"Is that so?" said her father, moving closer to the boy. "Do you know why we call it Death Queen Island? Because this is a hellhole, boy, in a very real sense of the word. You can come in but you won’t get out. And about getting the Phoenix Cloth, you might as well forget it. Nobody touches that Cloth as long as I’m alive." He pushed the boy roughly. The boy swayed but did not fall. "Your training starts tomorrow. Take him to his cell." Her father jerked his head at one of the Black Saints.
She watched as the boy was herded unceremoniously to the house she and
her father lived in. There was a cell in the basement, but as far as she
knew it was reserved for punishment. The cell was very cold and sometimes
rats came and went. Was the boy going to spend his days on the island there?
They were having dinner when her father said, "Esmeralda, there’s some leftover food here. I want you to bring it down for Ikki."
"Yes, Father," she answered, hiding her relief. Today was the second day Ikki lived in Death Queen Island. He had not eaten anything ever since his arrival, and she feared for him. Moreover, today’s training had been very severe – she knew because she had been watching. Ikki could hardly stand at the end of the day, and had stumbled his way to the cell.
After she had done the dishes, she carefully scraped the leftover – and a hunk of chicken she had surreptitiously put aside – onto a platter. She put the platter, a bottle of water and a glass on a basket, then went to the basement.
It was damp and dark, as usual. When she turned on the key and pulled open the door, utter silence greeted her. She frowned, listened. Where was Ikki? Then she heard it – a slow, irregular breathing. He must be sleeping. She tiptoed in, not wanting to disturb him. Going past a sconce on the wall, she lit it. The cell now was glowing in a muted yellow light, and strange shadows moved in the corner.
He was indeed asleep; he was lying on his back, eyes shut, knees a little drawn up. She knelt and put down the basket next to him.
Suddenly his eyes flew open, looking straight at her. Gasping with surprise, she sprang to her feet. He struggled to sit up, his eyes never leaving her, and she was rooted to the spot, not knowing what to do.
"Sh…Shun," he managed feebly. "Is that…is that you?"
Her confusion mounting, she backed away toward the door. Then his eyes seemed to clear; he blinked several times.
"Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were…who are you?"
"My…my name is Esmeralda," she stuttered, still not recovering from
her surprise. She gestured at the basket. "I’ve come to bring you your
dinner." He eyed her narrowly, suspiciously, she thought. She gave a nervous
smile and whirled around, not wanting to be near this strange boy.
"You are hurt again." She bent down to examine the gash on his hand. It did not seem deep, but the meat beneath showed. She took out her handkerchief and tied it carefully around the wound, tight enough to stop blood from flowing but not too tight as to block his circulation.
He remained silent during her treatment – if it could be called that. "Why are you so kind to me?"
She raised her head, meeting his thoughtful dark blue eyes. They were not so daunting as they had looked the first time she talked to him, a year ago. There was tenderness there, concealed deep within – or was it her own wishful thinking? "You get beaten up by my father from sunup to sunset, you’ve got no friend here, and you sometimes dream of somebody called Shun. I think you are very lonely. I just want to be your friend. That’s not a wrong, is it?"
There was no reply. She rose to her feet and was about to leave when he said in a low voice, "Thank you, Esmeralda."
She stopped, surprised. He had never thanked her before. "You’re welcome,"
was all she could come up with.
His back was a rainbow of bruises. They must have pained him a lot but he did not show it. She pressed a sponge that had been dipped in cold water against each bruise. He winced but did not say anything. After she was done, she rubbed some healing ointment.
"It’s no use," he said flatly. "Tomorrow I’m only going to get more. There are no rest days on Death Queen Island."
"I just want to help."
"What does your father say about this?"
"Nothing. He thinks I’m old enough to know my own mind." Or he doesn’t care at all, she amended silently. Ever since he returned from Sanctuary he’s been acting strangely, what with that awful mask and his attitude, which is growing more unlike the father I used to know. And those Black Saints he brought here with him – I don’t like them, not a bit. In fact, they make my skin crawl.
He did not speak until she finished tending to his injuries. When she was walking toward the cell door, he said, " I have a brother, you know. He’s the one who should’ve gone here, but I took his place. I’m glad I did. He wouldn’t last a day here. But sometimes I miss him…He’s all I’ve got." He turned around slowly to face her. "The first time I saw you, I thought you were him."
That triggered a smile. "Really? So I look like a boy?"
He smiled with her, and her breath caught. He had a beautiful smile, one which seemed to originate straight from his heart. "No. I was just confused, that’s all."
When she went to bed later, she replayed the memory of that smile over
and over again in her mind.
"Can you tell me about your brother?"
He looked up from his plate, regarding her pensively. "Why do you want to know?"
"Well…I want to know more about you. We’re friends, aren’t we? We shouldn’t hide anything from each other. Two years I’ve known you and you never said anything about him, though it’s obvious you love him very much."
"He’s two years younger than myself." He continued his interrupted dinner. "He looks a lot like you – the same look in the eyes, almost the same hair, even, though you’re blond and he’s not. You both are calm but brave. He thinks he’s weak – and maybe he is, a little, so sometimes I worry about him. He was sent to this island called Andromeda Island. How is he doing? I wonder…" His words trailed off.
She touched his arm timidly. It was the first time she had ever touched him physically; he did not like to have physical contact more than necessary with anyone he did not know too well. "I’m sure he’s doing fine."
"I know you only say that to comfort me, but thanks anyway." He put down his now empty plate. "You should leave now, or your father will come looking."
"I told you he doesn’t care about me." She did have to leave now, as a matter of fact. He had finished his dinner, there were no wounds to tend to, and she had no further business here. But she wanted to stay. She wanted to talk to him, know more about him – be with him, in short. Would he mind? His day had been long and exhausting, and maybe he would like some rest now. To allow herself some time to think, she gathered the plate and the glass into the basket slowly. "You must have hated my father."
"Did I tell you that?" he asked, seemingly surprised.
"No-oo…I sense it, that’s all." Then she blurted out, "The way he’s been teaching you, one day he’ll get you killed. I don’t want that to happen. If you die, I don’t know how I will go on."
Now his astonishment was evident. Then his eyes softened, turning into that tender look she had come to recognize and love. "Thank you," he said. "I’m glad I’ve still got a friend here. You’re a good person, Esmeralda."
Her face warmed – and her heart. "You are, too. Please don’t be angry with Father."
"I’m not. He probably thinks this is the fastest way for me to learn. I have to bring the Phoenix Cloth back to Japan, one way or another. I’ll prove to all those bastards I’m not someone they can toss around and mistreat as will." There was hardness creeping into his tone as he spoke. It made her uneasy.
"Then you can meet your brother again," she said, hoping to placate him.
The hardness subsided. "Yes. Yes, you’re right." He let out a sigh. "It’s late now, you had better leave."
"Good night, Ikki." She rose, carrying her basket with her.
His hand closed around her wrist and she looked down, stunned. He held her wrist, staring at her straight in the eye. "I’m happy to have you as a friend. You’re the kindest person I’ve met on this island."
Now her color heightened, and she withdrew her hand. "Uh…thank you," she said lamely, wishing she could convey into words what she actually felt. But she could not come up with the adequate expressions. She fled the cell, heartbeat accelerating, and almost cannoned into her father.
"What have you been doing down there with him?" he asked when she attempted to push past him and go to her room.
"I delivered his dinner, as usual." But her blush was all too obvious; he must have suspected something was out of the ordinary.
"I don’t give a damn what it is you two do every night, as long as you don’t disturb his concentration. He’s a good Saint in the making and I don’t need you or anyone else to ruin it."
"Father…what does it take to attain the Phoenix Cloth?"
He contemplated this question. "He’s got to defeat me first, of course. And to do so he must strive very hard. No Saint attains his or her Cloth the easy way. There is always a sacrifice." She could sense his eyes boring into her from behind the mask. "Are you ready if Ikki’s sacrifice turns out to be you, Esmeralda?"
Her throat was suddenly dry. "What do you mean?"
But he left her, not answering. She stood in the middle of the room, clutching at her basket, eyes fixed unseeingly on the floor. Though her father’s last sentence had puzzled her, terrified her a bit even, it also reminded her of something else: Ikki would not be in this island forever. One day, after he attained the Phoenix Cloth, he would leave, return to his brother. She would be on her own again. The thought made her go cold.
I will follow him, she decided. If he goes, so will I, and Father won’t
be able to stop me. I will go with him wherever he goes…if he will have
He stood in front of her grave, a simple one with her name engraved on the gravestone. Simply reading the name had the power to transport him to those days years ago, days he would never know again.
Her laughter of those days rang in his ears, her face vivid in his memory. She had thought she would leave this island, and though her remains lay here, she had indeed left. She was in his heart, would always be there, never to be forgotten.
In a while he would have to return to battle – there were still people here who did not like him and wanted to finish him off – but that could wait. This moment was his and hers.
If she hadn’t died, would I have been where I am now? he wondered. I suppose not. I am who I am mostly because of her. I owe her so much. Esmeralda, sleep well. You will never be alone.
He bent down to put the flower he had picked gently on the grave.