The first human she contracts with is five years old.
He comes upon her while she is drowsing in the western fields of Hokkaido, fur fluffed and dreaming of the autumn hunt. The seasons are changing, and the winds with them: everything smells crisper, sharper, hinting at perfumes of woodsmoke and frost to come. Her pack will be roving more actively soon, laying in stores for the winter to ensure that everyone's bellies are fed. She has a bet going with two of her kin for who will bring in the most meat, and who will earn extra chores for failing. She has another bet that the latter won't be her again for a second time running.
"Dog!" the child blurts when he sees her.
"Wolf," she corrects gently, already scanning the field for the whelp's dam or sire.
He is delighted.
He paws at her fur, screeching in delight at her tail, stuffing his face into it as if it were a pillow. He imitates her gleefully, hopping about like a frog, waggling his own rump with his hands held up by his head in lieu of long ears.
It is a mystery to her why he is so attached, when most children would have been taught to flee from strange yōkai in the wilderness. But he volunteers the answer without her asking, the light of his smile dimming even as he tugs on her clothes. "You look just like my dog," he pipes up. "She's the biggest and the best. But she had to go with my big brother when he left for his new family. My mom said it's to protect him, that his new home is scary, that there are lots more people there and some of them are bad. But I was wondering, I was wondering," his voice wavers, and he looks down, grinding the tips of his sandals into the dirt. "If he's safe now... then maybe she can come back and see me again?"
Hakuro does not know what to say to that. Reality is cruel: a guard dog cannot be in two places at once. The boy's companion will surely never return to the family home.
The boy must know that as well, for he speaks again before she can concoct a gentle enough lie. "If you have to go away to protect someone too," he declares, "you can always come back to me. I promise."
She nods, thankful for the excuse to stay mute. At the motion, the child hugs her suddenly, wrapping his arms fiercely around her leg.
"I don't think I'm strong enough to protect anyone yet," she confesses.
He grins, banishing sadness in favor of fresh joy. "Here, here," he begs, pulling at her elbow until she allows him to stretch out her arm, baffled by his intent. "This is how you write my name, so you can find me again."
He is young, but his finger is confident as he draws the characters on her palm with clumsy strokes -- and she is startled to feel the sudden sting of power as those same motions are inscribed in her bones, burning into her soul. She holds still with an effort rather than jerk away, staring down in disbelief as he sketches each line, half-expecting to see trickles of light parting her flesh as an afterimage. They brand themselves into every beat of her heart like whispers of ash, embers that leave only dwindling heat behind as rumor of their memory.
If a knife flays her open, it will find his name written there beneath the blade.
Once he is finished, she marvels down at the unmarred skin of her palm. Such eager power, in such a little frame.
"We'll be friends forever, right?" he asks, eyes wide and hopeful.
"Yes," she consents, feeling the binding of the contract take hold. Her agreement is willing, accepting the innocence of his need. "Yes. Forever."
He's too young to know what he does. He never learns the truth. All mention of magic passes over his tiny village, other masters assuming there is no talent to find. He never becomes trained; he forgets her as he grows older, but their binding remains intact.
She could leave. She's free to do so, having received no conflicting commands. Instead, Hakuro lingers in the shadows of his life, making excuses to her pack for why she spends so much time alone, protecting the boy in honor of a single childhood promise and the legacy of the dog who earned it. He never summons Hakuro or calls upon her powers, but she remains nearby anyways, some of his power always quietly feeding her like a trickle of ice in the summer, or the comfort of a nearby flame in the snow.
If he knows that she's the cause for his occasional weaknesses, that she is the reason he grows light-headed at times, he never shows any sign. He does not seek her out, never wanders off the paths in either field or forest. She tries not to draw deliberately upon his strength; he does not know how to protect himself, and she does not want to empty out his spirit by accident, like a pot upended to spill.
The boy's days are peaceful and calm. He becomes a potter by trade, and his home revolves around the balance of clay and glazes. His older brother never returns, but the rooms of the boy's home become filled with two daughters and a wife who smokes in the evenings outside with him in the summer, chuckling at the fireflies.
One day, Hakuro feels the boy's life force ebb away like the tide, and vanish.
She is nowhere near Hokkaido when it happens. There is no sense of fear or struggle. His power is there one moment, and gone the next. His mark rises on her palm, a glowing thread of energy that begins as a single glimmer of light before tracing out the rest of his name in golden fire on her skin, an exact copy of a child's scrawl -- before finally completing the last stroke, and snuffing itself out.
Old age was the cause, she discovers. Age, and illness gnawing at his bones. Mortals live for such a short time. Though the boy survived longer than most, he was never meant to last.
She takes another contract a few decades later -- or rather, one is taken for her, by the hands of an onmyōji who comes across her in the fields and claims her for his own.
For this master, she learns how to snarl, and how to bite.
This master does not feed her well. He assumes she wants meat, red and raw, and throws chunks of shredded deer on the floor, as if she will fall to all fours and thrust her face in the blood. She picks at the food with her fingers, and he laughs at her mockingly for what he calls imitation of human ways. He sees her as wolf, as beast, and that beast is less than human. Anything not human is not person. Her own shape stems from mere envy of her betters.
She learns many things from her time with this master. She learns to keep her hair short, shaving patches of it away with the edge of a knife, for this master will not give her enough opportunity to bathe. She learns to love clothing as a different kind of armor, as a right that belongs to her as a living, speaking being -- human or not.
She learns to dislike the whip.
Her master is stingy with his energy. He rarely gives her enough to sustain herself with in battle, and does not allow her the grace of being summoned; whenever she accompanies him, she does so on foot. Dirt cakes on her paws as she trudges along from errand to errand, sent forth to clear away threats while he remains safe at the tables of town elders, laughing jovially while they serve him their best sake.
It is rare that he joins her in battle, but even when they are on the field together, he does not supply her with shared strength. She has only her own reserves to draw upon, and these dwindle fast when she is faced with more than one opponent. Hakuro has the sharp claws of her heritage, but she relies on her speed to escape the creatures who might otherwise overpower her. Without proper room to maneuver, she can become backed into a corner and beaten down quickly, unable to tear her way free.
Every fight inevitably becomes a bloodbath, wounds spattering in ugly, jagged gashes on both sides. Driven to desperation, Hakuro fights like the animal her master expects she is: feral and panicked, jaws snapping, teeth sinking into any exposed flesh. She crawls home each time with the taste of gore in her mouth, gore and ichor and her own vomit.
"I can't fight effectively if you don't give me the power to do it with," she grits out one evening when they have just finished hunting spiders in the river caves of Mount Kobushi. It has not gone well. Venom stains her leathers, already corroding her makeshift armor. Her master is leaning against a nearby rock, still panting with exhaustion. His fine robes are disheveled, smeared with dirt. How the courtiers would giggle to see him now.
He hawks and spits up a wad of fluid; her eyes follow it hungrily, hoping to see any streaks of bright crimson that would betray internal bleeding. His eyes stay fixed on her. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? All you damned beasts are the same, feeding on us humans one way or the other. You'd leap at the chance to drain away my life force until I die."
Her nostrils flare; her fur is bristled. She cannot hide the affirmation of her loathing, even with her silence.
He sees it anyway, and his smile is broad and smug.
It all comes to an end one miserable evening when they veer too close to a shrine protected by a waira, who catches her master's scent on the wind and is spurred into a furious rage. Like a songbird startled out of hiding, its ruddy hide bursts out of nowhere without warning. Its massive, bovine form stampedes through the forest towards them with the grinding thump thump thump of an avalanche, snapping small trees like twigs, grinding the underbrush into pulp.
There is enough time for Hakuro's master to order her to stand in front of him.
She has no choice. She has been given the command, and magic enforces it, a cheap spell that yanks at her limbs like a puppet. She jerks into place, teeth bared in panic. The waira skids and swings its head towards her with a bludgeon's weight; she dodges at the last minute, feeling the wind roar past, lashing at her face. It huffs, nostrils flaring -- and then swats out with one paw, a lazy reversal that catches Hakuro and knocks her aside as easily as a straw doll, flinging her into the air and far out of the way.
The waira screeches in victory and dives for the exposed onmyōji. Hakuro barely sees it plunge past as she slams against a tree trunk. She hits the ground promptly afterwards in a second impact that rips the air out of her and does not give it back.
The waira does not hesitate. One of its long, powerful claws lashes down and punctures her master's chest, impaling him like a nail to the earth. Her master's feet kick and thrash; his scream is thin and reedy as he writhes. Then there is no strength left inside him for even a defensive incantation, and his fingers are left to paw uselessly at the waira's talon, as ineffective as a sigh against a tsunami.
He dies like that, in agony and rage. His thread of power to Hakuro snaps; she is cut adrift of his sustenance, but also of his commands, and her will is suddenly entirely her own once more.
The waira shakes its head back and forth, tearing out the man's liver and snapping it down in two bites. It snuffles in the ruin of his belly, ripping and chewing for several long minutes before finally rearing back in happy satisfaction that the onmyōji is dead beyond all repair.
Hakuro scrabbles against the dirt. One of her eyes is already swelling shut.
"Thank you," she managers to choke out, spitting up a bubble of blood.
The waira inclines its head gracefully to her in respect, and then lumbers away.
She does not allow herself to be bound again for many years after that. She avoids human settlements and sticks closer to home. She takes tools for her weapons rather than use her claws, borrowing long knives and heavy blades, remembering over and over the feeling of gore as it clotted in thick wads that packed themselves beneath her nails, eroding the flesh of the beds.
Her people do not understand, but they are a proud tribe in the north, and cannot imagine how Hakuro might be weakened by this.
But she was never that strong to begin with, not the way she wants to be. Not confident enough to take action without second-guessing it for hours afterwards, balking at the last minute of the swing and leaving her opponent wounded instead of dead. She dislikes fighting now. That joy has been taken from her -- not because she has developed an aversion to violence, but because everything elegant about the act of battle has been ruined, made into a crude extension of servitude.
Her pack tells her that she'll love it again once she's better at fighting. They tell her she'll feel differently once she's mastered close combat -- but she no longer wishes to learn. She tries to avoid the practices, skip the gatherings. Whenever the pack assembles to spar, Hakuro sits on the sidelines, her ears flattening nervously at each blow.
"Whenever a human gets close enough, don't give them the opportunity to even think about binding you again," one of the elder wolves tells her, ropy scars splitting like vines over the side of his muzzle. He makes a quick gesture of his hand: a scooping, vicious twist in the air. "Have their bowels bleeding out into their belly before they can even draw the first line of a star. That'll keep them from getting any ideas -- permanently."
But she can't do that, can't embrace that rejection that so many of her people have arrived at naturally over the years. She doesn't know how to reconcile what she wants with the methods to get there; she doesn't know how to fight without it becoming messy again, frantic and bloody and desperate. The pressure leaves her restless, only half-belonging to her pack, and spurs her to roam again. She wanders longer and longer on trips to the south, scouting with the seasons, tensing her shoulders whenever she passes by humans who seem to look at her a little too intently, who veer a little too close in their travels.
But she does not let herself become sour towards humankind, either. Whenever she becomes too bitter, or feels her lips pulling back from her teeth -- the growl festering in her throat, ready to launch into a snarl -- she remembers the piping voice of a little boy, looking up hopefully at her with his arms wrapped around her leg.
You can always come back to me.
In truth, she has half-forgotten him at this point. She has half-forgotten herself by now, that person she was when she'd met him, remembering their binding more as an abstract concept than an actual event in history.
Was all of that real? she wonders at times, treacherously. Was the trust she remembers ever real, or is it simply wishful thinking which turns the memory glossy and sweet?
Is Hakuro the protector the boy imagined, or is she truly the monster that other onmyōji would prefer?
It is to her surprise when she comes across another human child who does not shriek and flee upon seeing her -- but she should have expected it as a consequence of daring too close to the capital and its court practitioners. Heian-kyo is no stranger to magic. It seethes like a nest of centipedes, powers coiling and intertwining, woven like a blanket made out of slender fangs by the clever fingers of court onmyōji. Its children must be suckled on tales of spirits, ingesting warnings along with their mothers' milk.
Caution had ruled; Hakuro had skirted around the capital by a healthy distance, keeping on the edges of the country estates. Even these were steeped in a cacophony of energies, wards crackling at one another in resentment as they rubbed up against each other's boundaries, each onmyōji trying to scrounge for any grains of territory they could lay claim to.
But smaller prey did not attract their notice, and the rabbit that plunged directly into the fenced-off fields did not care for court politics. Forced to choose between alerting any sentries and the gnawing of her empty belly, Hakuro had lunged behind it. She had cut recklessly through all the fields, doubtlessly smearing a trail of her own spiritual energy all over the land behind her, betting on her own speed to keep her abreast of any hunters picking up her mark.
Her own carelessness invited a clumsy doom. The maze of wards had claimed her within seconds, keeping her from exiting cleanly; she'd have to dodge the summoning attempts of onmyōji forever at this rate, their greedy hands scrabbling to bind her. She cursed herself with each step, trying to increase her pace to catch the rabbit and make her escape -- when she burst suddenly in the gardens of one of the estates, tumbling gracelessly out of the longer grasses and into meticulously-cultivated shrubs.
A young boy was standing calmly on the porch, outlined like a statue set in warning silhouette against the light. The lantern in his hand dangled meekly from its stick as he surveyed the evening. Insects battered themselves against the paper shell, speckling the candlelight. The moon watched over him impassively, grave and silent as it waxed overhead on its celestial path.
When Hakuro finishes smashing through a delicately-pruned bush and skids to a landing on a stone path, the boy does not even startle. "Good evening."
He looks so young for such precise words. His clothes are clean, not covered in mud or dust as Hakuro might expect from any child out to play, regardless of if they are human or yōkai. She regains her footing, and then waits, poised like a sparrow in the instant before fleeing. One of her ears flicks nervously. She can't pretend he hasn't seen her, but she's not sure what to say.
"Good evening," he repeats again, clearing his throat. The pitch of his words is high and thin. "Will you come and speak with me?"
She feels a stir in the back of her mind, remembering another child's voice, and finally finds her wits. "Would you feel safe if I did?"
"My mother taught me to be respectful of spirits," he announces politely, his speech still stumbling over formality. He is being court-trained, she guesses, made fit to serve nobility. "Is teaching. And so I will be respectful of you, spirit. Are you here to prey upon the... residents," he fumbles, searching for and failing to find the right phrase. "The people who are... dwelling here?"
She can smell the presence of stronger spirits nearby as she approaches the porch tentatively; their scent-markings are all over the buildings, and heavy on the boy as well. It reeks of fox. It is a miracle one of them has not already found her yet. She risks her hide with each passing moment simply by standing there, particularly next to one of their whelps.
"I have no quarrel with this place," she states aloud carefully for any pointed ears that might be listening. "I respect those who make their home within. I bring no threat, and will leave with gratitude for your patience.”
"You are an honorable spirit," the boy declares, and she does not entirely manage to hide her arched eyebrow, amused at his confidence. "May I ask your name?"
"Hakuro, my young lord," she offers, unable to keep her ears from pulling back at the knowledge that she has shared something so precious in such dangerous territory. Foxes are capable of boundless mischief. If there is a guardian watching, she may regret her choice for decades to come.
But the boy seems to recognize the gift of it as well, for he makes a grave nod. "I would like to offer you a partnership, Lady Hakuro," he asserts. "But my mother says I am not... prepared to make any contracts on my own, and she is occupied this evening. Therefore, would you be friends with me once I am old enough to be ready?"
"Will you still remember me then?” she asks, curious.
She half-hopes he will make an impossible promise as well: that her life will be filled with impossible, innocent vows from masters who will never know enough to harm her. But this boy only pursues his lips and shakes his head, too cautious already by far. His mother has taught him well, indeed.
"I don't know," he answers honestly, which is both disappointing and endearing. "They want me to learn a lot. And it's dangerous to promise things to spirits. That's how people die."
"True," she admits, grudgingly. The child is not wrong.
She expects the rest of the rejection to be fast; half her mind is already returning to the rabbit, which has surely made its way across the entire continent and to the ocean by now. Her best choice at this point is to cut directly away from the capital and flee, not to return for centuries. Or ever.
Yet the boy surprises her after all, stubborn enough not to give up so easily. "Come here," he says, already regal in his fledgling authority. "I will write my name for you instead, so that even if I fail, you will know who to hold to account. Please, give me your hand."
Startled, she obeys without thinking.
Unlike his voice, the child's touch is shy. He turns Hakuro's hand to face the sky, and then hesitates as he tries to figure out where to start. In the instant when his finger first touches her palm, she feels her heartbeat strike painfully hard in her chest, as if it has been yanked through time by the trembling echo of history latching onto it. It could be the past -- or the future yet to come. She does not know.
With an effort, she holds still and watches the characters being written out. The child speaks the truth about his training: there is no binding that goes along with the script, which means he must be reining back whatever natural power he has to hone. Even so, she is surprised to find her fingers already trying to close protectively around the shape of his name, as if seeking to protect his essence against the threats of the outside world.
"Seimei,” she reads aloud. "I will remember this day, then, for you."
It is difficult for her to remember to mark the passing of human years, but Hakuro makes an effort this time. No binding exists to nudge her in the right direction; with chagrin, she realizes only after several seasons have flown that she's not sure how to even find Seimei again without it. Chasing foxes is a certain way to earn herself a slow death. When a decade has passed -- possibly two -- she hesitantly returns to the estates near the capital, and then wastes half a year circling them, interrogating weaker spirits and fleeing from the strong.
Finally, she dares to enter the city itself.
She pours over the scrolls that she borrowed from her clan, practicing spells that do not come naturally. Other wolves are more skilled at transformation, but embarrassment keeps Hakuro's practice sessions secret; she does not want to admit to them that she is looking for another onmyōji willingly, not after the disaster of her last one.
When she manages at last to shrink her muzzle down and reshape the rest of her body to human contours, squinting at her reflection in a riverbed, she takes a deep breath in evaluation. Her feet feel clumsy, lumpy and wrong. She can't figure out how to balance without her tail. Her ears are still showing; either she can cover them up or finish transforming them completely, but both options will leave her with only half the hearing she's used to.
"You'll be fine," she assures the shape of her new face as it stares up nervously from the water. "The city won't hurt you. Nothing bad will happen. You'll be safe."
She underestimates the nature of the capital: it is a glittering festival when viewed from a distance, and a crazed mob when immersed. It takes all her effort to maintain the transformation and keep her appearance stable, with no energy left to consider just what risks she invites by looking like an average human. A human woman would not have fangs, not have claws -- and so when the beast comes lunging out of the alleyway, Hakuro is defenseless.
Fear smothers her, hamstringing her like a knife left outside in winter. The touch of its chill slices through her pulse. All of her concentration backfires, because now the only thing she can do is cling to that train of thought even as it means her doom: look human, look human, look harmless.
She is too terrified to react when the arrow sings over her shoulder, close enough that its feathers kiss her cheek. The missile slams into the creature's throat even as it begins its lethal dive towards her, jaws wide. The beast's shriek of outrage is cut short into a whisper; it hits the earth and sprawls, eyes gone blank now in death.
Hakuro has enough presence of mind to twist around, wondering what manner of savior -- or new threat -- has just given her a second chance to breathe.
At first glance, the nobleman standing there resembles neither. His robes drape him like a statue, each layer neatly in place; his gaze bypasses her entirely, remaining fixed on the newly-made corpse on the ground. If not for the bow in his hand, she would have thought his arrow to have come from nowhere, an accident of fate itself.
The man is fast to kill, but slow in the recovery from it, lowering his bow smoothly with no reaction on his face. It is not like any victory Hakuro has ever seen before. There is a placidity in his expression that she does not understand: there is no hatred, no pride, no demand for applause. There is barely any blood. This stranger killed simply to protect her -- and with only a single arrow, he turned the act of fighting clean again, free from any rage or mess or scorn.
Familiarity stirs in Hakuro's chest. She does not know the man's identity, or even why he might be in the city at all. But she remembers -- she remembers the ambitions she once had when she was younger, everything she once knew about herself, but which has been shoved aside for decades. All the parts of herself that she's forgotten about over the years are tumbling out like a box overturned, revealing colors which are still bright and warm. She thinks of her childhood in Hokkaido, afternoons spent dreaming of hunts which would be filled with laughter, not blood. She thinks of other childhoods, of hope for the world before the wonder of it became muddy with forgotten dreams.
The archer leaves without speaking to her -- without asking for reward -- and each serene, dignified step as he strides away is another gift, more proof of the path she can follow.
She watches him go in equal silence, her breath tight in her throat, her hands clenched from the effort of not running behind.
She is luckier than she expects: Seimei has grown in fame within the court, and word comes to her eventually of his formal estate where he has taken up full-time residence. He has aged only a little in body, but far more in his demeanor; the child inside him has melted away into the new length of his face and hair. His manners have polished themselves into a veneer as hard as steel, and as beautiful as lacquer. He has already contracted other shikigami over the course of his mastery, and -- as she approaches his courtyard -- she can feel their attention veering suspiciously towards her.
But in Seimei's eyes, there is a flicker of something stirring, a nostalgia that exhales reedily in the back of his mind. "We have met before," he says, a little uncertainly, which tells her he has done his best to etch their encounter into his thoughts. "You look... well."
"I am Hakuro, my lord," she says, and sees the rest of the memory return in his eyes.
It is strange to be his shikigami. Though she is the same wolf, he has matured into solemnity, tied up in the politics of the court as much as with the balancing of spiritual forces. He sits with his back perfectly straight in formal meetings for hours, and gives commands with authority. Even so, beneath each calm order that he utters, Hakuro can see the vulnerability lurking just below the surface: that child trying so hard in the night garden, desperately clinging to what he has been taught in hopes of guidance.
But Seimei is her teacher in things she does not know, and Hakuro respects his expertise and effort. Humans live such short lives; all the more reason to respect that which they manage to fit into the scant handful of their years. He has amassed other shikigami, strong ones who make her marksmanship look flimsy, like a child flinging sticks into the air. In all her years of wandering, she never tried to hone her prowess past the bare minimum it would take to keep her alive, accepting the resigned chagrin of her pack. Now, for the first time, she feels ashamed to not be able to stand side-by-side with these gleaming warriors, who can join Seimei in the field and cut through a row of enemies in time it takes for Hakuro to nock even a single arrow.
Despite her lesser powers, Seimei does not treat her as expendable among the ranks. He allows Hakuro to slip out of combat assignments, asking instead for her to survey territories, scouting out disturbances and reporting back on minor threats. Still: it grates. Her master grants her the easy requests she asks for, and with each comfortable limitation she accepts, the more it feels as if Hakuro is allowing her nature to change by a series of defaults, dwindling into a creature that has never been able to do more, and who should never have asked for responsibility in the first place.
The comfortable path will destroy her. A harder one may still do the same.
She mulls it over in the months afterwards, hesitantly touching the fragile sense of herself, afraid that if she pushes too hard, she will only lose it again.
Seimei is a good onmyōji, if already much too serious. The capital weighs on him heavily, sapping away any sense of lingering optimism that might have survived from childhood. But he is respectful to his shikigami and treats them as equals -- though with clear-cut expectations that both sides uphold their bargains, as exacting as a merchant's ledgers.
That precision is what worries Hakuro the most. She may have chosen human archery, but the decision is not mutual; the tools of kyūdō were made for human hands and senses, not a wolf's. Her ears are broader, wider; she keeps clipping one in the bowstring during both draw and release, unless she turns the bow off-center and ruins her posture. The yugake glove doesn’t fit on her hand. She tries to force it, and her claws only poke into the leather; she has to trim them down to neat curves, remembering how she used to value them so much for their sharpness, and then how she let them go ragged out of deliberate neglect. She drops the bow again and again during release whenever the string bounces against her hand and her grip is too slack. Too often, the arrow clatters to the floor, the bow fast behind, and Hakuro nurses the sting of failure as another slap against her skin.
When word reaches her pack -- she may be eccentric in their eyes, but she is still kin, and they will not let her be trapped a second time -- they promptly send back word of their horror. They send back two of her cousins, too, to argue and yell angrily at the weakness of human sport, checking Hakuro again and again to reassure themselves that she is not ensorcelled.
But the steadfast process of kyūdō grounds her with its discipline, laying out a guiding structure to follow. Eight steps repeating, over and over again, unlike than the quicksilver volatility of her people's fangs and claws. The process is the same each time. It loops endlessly over and over in a never-changing litany, and each repetition feels as if it smooths down the ruffled fur of Hakuro's soul, laying her thoughts into order once more. It's more than just her muscles being trained. It's her heart, her mind, her determination becoming stronger in the ways she needs them to be: in the ways that protect her from becoming eroded by fear and self-doubt. The purpose of kyūdō is not to emphasize the kill. It brings the archer to a state of calm and clarity first, and the victory that follows will happen as naturally as breathing.
She wishes she had some of that serenity when she finally goes to broach the subject with her master.
Seimei grants her an audience between his many appointments and ceremonies; despite his outward formality, she can read his honest concern in the way that he shoves aside the numerous missives demanding his attention, all in favor of attending to her. She kneels on the cushion across from him, fidgeting despite herself, and pretends it's just another arrow being laid to the string -- ashibumi, dozukuri, yugamae -- and then lifts her head to focus on her goal, forcing everything else to fall away.
"I would like to dedicate myself to my archery studies, Master Seimei," she says. "However, I don't think I can do that while still fulfilling the duties needed of a shikigami. But I swear, I will become skilled enough for you to count on me. I must." She does not know how to explain her resolve, so she forges ahead resolutely, feeling a tremble in her tongue. "Please forgive me, but until that day, I must leave your service. Not permanently. Just -- just for now."
He is not surprised. She knows her master well enough to decipher the slight tilt of his head, a nod to himself as he confirms his previous guesses. He does not argue. He spares her from any demands to defend her choice.
"Mt. Aosan would be the best place to focus on such affairs. But whether you go there or to another refuge, know that you travel with my blessing, Hakuro," he tells her simply. There is no emotion in the finality of his statement, but when he takes her hand to undo their contract, his touch is gentle. "And know that you will always have a place here with me, should you wish to return."
Seimei is different without his memories.
He is more like the boy she first met, less guarded and more curious. When Hakuro hears he is in trouble, she comes to his courtyard without hesitation -- and then spends the rest of their hunt marveling at the subtle changes in his behaviors, the ways in which he is soft now instead of hammered smooth and flat and court-formal in his outward demeanors. Losing his past means losing the strictures that everyone has tried to alternately smother and arm him with. He is free to be a child again -- or, at least, his heart is.
He allows her to depart once more after they close the netherworld rift and help Master Hiromasa, but she comes back anyway to his home. Her home, once. She is familiar with the path. She slips through the gate, feeling the tingle of the wards as they recognize her, and turns automatically into the corridor leading to her own room. Only as she's sliding open the door does she catch herself in horror: she's likely walking directly in on the shikigami who's moved in since, treating them like a temporary guest in quarters that originally belonged to her.
Relief mixes with a strange melancholy when she glimpses the room inside. She'd packed up all her things when Seimei had released her, but she's always wondered who else might have lived there in her absence. Now she sees the truth. The room is exactly as she left it, empty and unmarked. The air is stale. No one has used it since she left, and there's a twist in her chest as she realizes that even if they had, Seimei would not even know who he was replacing.
She wonders if this new Seimei has even seen all the rooms in his home yet, if he has sorted through them and wondered at the lives which are missing now.
Or if he even knows if something is missing at all.
He comes across her as she is running her fingers over the shelves and checking at the dust. "Hakuro," he remarks, surprised, standing in the doorway. "Are you looking for Hiromasa?"
"Master Seimei," she replies. One of her ears flicks despite herself, giving away her agitation at the nobleman's name. "Forgive me for visiting unannounced. No. I thought -- I thought to simply come by."
His intuition is not lacking, even if the history between them remains shrouded. "You are always welcome," he says, the words easy and natural, and Hakuro dips her muzzle to hide the twitch of her mouth as the invitation sends a second pang through her chest.
The motion must have betrayed her, for Seimei turns his fan against his palm: a new, nervous gesture that must have been drilled out of him years before their contract. "I've been meaning to ask you, Hakuro," he remarks, the mildness of his tone as good as a shout. "I would consult Doujo and Oguna, but don't want to disturb them further. It may be a painful question for you as well. Is it..." He pauses, glancing down, and her heart goes out to him again. "Is it difficult to be around me? As I am right now?"
She knows that he does not want the easy answer. He never has, now or ever. Not as a child refusing to make fast promises; not as an adult, when she had come to him asking permission to leave. To have lost something crucial about yourself and still be alive brings everything into question: who you are, what you are, if your continued existence means you were never that person to begin with.
Sometimes, she thinks, you do not even know when something was important to you until you study yourself afterwards, and realize your own discontent. And sometimes, you examine yourself and find that you do not miss it at all -- and have to wonder if you were ever as virtuous as you imagined.
"You said once you would not forget me, Master Seimei," she finally voices aloud, aware of the unfairness of her accusation. "And yet, it appears as if that is exactly what has come to pass."
"Ah," he says, and accepts the implicit blame gracefully. "All the more reason that you should be free to travel on your own, then. An agreement is not a thing to break lightly, particularly if it was part of our contract." He pauses, clearly fumbling, and then struggles for the next words like a man groping blindly in the dark. "A promise -- a promise with spirits is dangerous."
"That's how people die," she repeats back unthinkingly, an echo of years he cannot possibly remember anymore.
He blinks and makes a soft noise in his throat, as if punched in the belly, though his eyes do not leave her. It would be a kindness to lie, she knows. Seimei without his memories is a different kind of difficult to be around: he is the person he would have been outside of the court, liberated from its manipulations. He is not weighed down by the burdens that were stacked upon him as a child, like fresh stones added to his arms each year until he came to maturity already trembling with exhaustion for expectations of performance.
It's a second chance for life for him: a happier one. She wants it for him. They all do.
Hakuro does not know if she would welcome amnesia as a blessing or a curse. She is not the wolf she was in Hokkaido -- but she is not the wolf of her second master either, or even the same wary creature who stumbled into Seimei's gardens when he was a child. There are matters in her past which she can surely live without, ghosts that will never be fully resolved. There are lives which have been claimed by violence, and others by simple time. Lining up the memories in her own history is like looking at a jumble of trinkets on a shelf, a haphazard form of survival that would see Hakuro simply stumbling from one accident to another, forever reacting to the past in an attempt to escape it.
But there is a different way to arrange those events, she thinks, revealed to her by Hiromasa's kyūdō. Disasters become mere stages of motion; each one flows naturally into additional choices that have led her to the present day. Like the eight stages of archery, the act begins long before the arrow itself touches the string. The archer must ground their posture, compose their thoughts, temper their breathing. They must let go of their surroundings. They must choose and greet the target.
She thinks about the last stage most of all now, the one that comes after the arrow's release: of zanshin, of the continuing flight of the arrow in one's thoughts even after it has landed, when the archer's mind must finish soaring as well and comes back to earth. The shot doesn't end once the target is struck. Judgement occurs only after she lowers the bow and places her hands just right, and comes to an agreement with the target.
Like an arrow, Hakuro has been flung forward by her circumstances -- but she is still flying, even now. Regardless of all the stumbles in her life, nothing will be over until she accepts and settles the results in her mind. Success has not been determined yet. Neither has failure.
She turns back to her master, bowing her head in apology for how long her thoughts took her away.
"You may have forgotten our time together, Master Seimei, but you will remember it again," she counsels him softly. "Because we will begin and end, over and over, no matter how many attempts it takes. For as long as it matters, I promise you: we will be friends forever, and everything now is just another step along the way."
Her master smiles, a visible burst of relief that softens his face and turns him young again. "Yes," he agrees in kind, and she feels the ghost of fingers on her skin, a name harbored in her bones for all eternity. "Forever."