Lady Kiku meets her outside, standing on the walkway of Izuna’s courtyard, dark eyes hopeful. “He will need you, child.” The older woman smiles, a little sad, but more joyous than sad. “Now, more than ever.”
“Kiku-sama thinks highly of me.”
Lady Kiku shakes her head. “No, I did not think of you highly enough.” There is gratitude to be read here in the expression on her face, pain and joy — he is his mother’s son, she realizes, the thought sudden, her youngest and best loved son. “I can never repay you for all you have done to save him.”
Her gaze flickers downwards. It had not been the work of one to ensure Izuna’s life. “Kusakabe-sama did much more,” she says and knows that it is true. “It was not easy for him.” Chubu had heard of what had happened to his father, had seen the late Lord Hiramoto’s coffin carried back, Lord Fusamoto riding before it on that hot summer day through the streets of Shunan, more dead than alive.
She’d not seen it herself, being a child, kept inside the house, but Bear had squeezed his way through the crowd to go see, and he had remarked on it afterwards with the gentle-heartedness that only Bear could. How awful, he’d said, how frightening. Can no one help him?
In the end, it had taken years for Lord Fusamoto to grow into the Lord Administrator of Chubu, a wedding, two children, all the years in between that had brought about the genial man he is today.
“Of course,” Lady Kiku sighs, “I have not the proper thanks for the Count and Countess of Chubu either, only humble offerings that I hope they will not receive in askance.”
“O-Shiki is the jewel of his heart.” As she has been for years and years now, ever since they were children. “And he is deeply filial to his mother. Whatever pleases them will please him as well.”
What will please O-Shiki are tea and cakes, a new hand stitched outfit, and a friend to share gossip with over tea.
But if this will give Lady Kiku ideas as to how to thank Lord Fusamoto, all the better.
Inside, Izuna is already dressed for the day, sitting on the edge of his bed, still leaning against the back of the nearest chair. He brightens upon seeing her.
“Will you stay?”
She had not expected him to ask her to stay, given that this is the morning where Lord Tajima has determined that he will need to bid goodbye to his title as a shinobi, and with it, the sword that was his coming of age present.
But looking at the hopeful expression on his face, she cannot say no either. “If that is what you would like, then I will stay.”
And let this be her penance as well, a reminder that she has asked for much from the world to save his life, and that it has come at a cost she cannot bear.
This cost he will bear alone, as he has borne other costs of being here.
He stumbles when he rises, and she catches him by the arm.
Weeks in bed have made him thinner and frailer, lighter than even the time they’d fled Senju attackers in the imperial city years ago.
She’d been strong enough to carry him then.
He leans on her as they walk out into the courtyard, with shaking hands, hands his sword over to his father, and steps back alone.
Lord Tajima glances at her, but makes no comment.
The courtyard had been cleared for the destruction of Izuna’s sword, which, even now, rests on a stand, a shallow stone basin beneath it, everyone sent away, but he has asked her to stay, so she does.
Lord Tajima makes a few gestures and brings his hands to his lips, blowing out a long tongue of fire.
The steel heats, red, then white, then faintly blue, the silk cords in the tassel burning away, the acrid smell lingering, leaving behind only metal wire fusing and pooling.
The heat radiates hotter than the house fire, more terrible than any fire that Izuna has set in her presence.
A scream of anguish rips from his throat, raw. If a sound could bleed, this one would.
He is on his knees, shaking.
And she is on her knees as well, arms around him, face turned away from the heat.
“Izuna,” she says. “Izuna.”
He would not like anyone else to see this — so private and so proud a man would not want anyone to know — and no one else will, but she is sure that they can hear him.
Were he thinking, he would not want them to.
But he is not thinking, so she must think for him. “Does he have to see this?” she asks, with more bite than she quite intends to let show. “He has not recovered.” He’d just been able to start walking unaided, and he still staggers like a man who has not quite regained control of his legs, and seeing that this morning in the courtyard had hurt more than she expected.
But Lord Tajima is impassive and silent.
When it is over, nothing left of a once beautiful blade but metal hissing in a stone basin, the heat faded, and Lord Tajima gone, Izuna stops shaking.
“He had to.” The three words tear out of him like a sob. “He had to because my actions forced his hand.”
Her arms are still around him, but she does not pull away.
He had rarely hinted at any sort of pain in the weeks that he lay dying. A hole through him could not make him scream or send him to his knees in the space of a moment, shaking as if someone reached into his chest and squeezed his heart.
But wounds of the soul always hurt worse than wounds of flesh.
The sword is the soul of the shinobi.
Forged for only his hands, the way that a qin never could be.
And now it is gone.
She has no words with which to comfort him, no understanding or mutual grief to share with him, nothing to offer that could ever replace what he has lost.
“Thank you,” he says when he is more composed, though he does not let go. “Thank you.”
“You shouldn’t thank me.” So strange it is that he would thank her. “If you had not come here, it would not have happened.”
“And there you are again,” he catches her hand when she lets go of him, the remnants of what once was a smile on his lips. “Putting space where there was none before.”
She helps him up, wordless, but still bleeding tenderness.
“I’ve told you. I don’t regret it.” And though there is pain on his face, there is something else there as well, and she doesn’t know if it ought to scare or delight her. “That will not change.”
“Then you are more foolish than I thought.” She does not intend to say this, does not intend to, but does anyway. Hurt flashes across his face, but she continues onward. “You are no longer a shinobi, because of who you have killed. You and I both know why you killed them. Is it worth it, Izuna? Have you thought of what you will do now?”
“You are worth it,” he says and means it so genuinely that it almost scares her. “If it meant you felt safe enough to step out your own front door, even if I had to choose again, I would choose the same. No matter how far I have to fall, if you can live happily, it would be worth it to me.”
He has taken the mask off, hope a living flame on his face. “Come walk with me?” he asks. “I do not want to wait for the bridge.” On the bridge of everlasting sorrow in the underworld, every soul drinks the dream scattering soup before stepping off into a new life.
But it is possible to wait for someone there and to walk together into the next life.
“Even the Cowherd waited for the bridge.” He and the Weaving Maid meet once a year on a bridge of magpies at seven-seven. “Even Hou Yi looks to the moon.” The fabled archer sits alone and raises a toast towards the moon.
He almost laughs. “If it is seven-seven, then I will wait for you. If it is Mid-Autumn, I will still wait for you.”
And because she is very foolish, she wants to say yes.
And because she is even more foolish, she does not.
“You are the son of a count,” she says and gently brushes the dust from his shoulders. “And so shouldn’t say such things to me. Else, I might take them seriously.” I do not fault you for these promises.
But I am the one who cannot bear the results of them, more slender than a reed in the river.
Her footsteps draw her back to her father’s study that night because she cannot sleep.
But this time, she has no time to turn back.
As soon as her foot crosses the center of the courtyard, her father’s door opens.
“Hisa-chan,” he beckons towards her. “Come in?”
So he did know when she was here last time, but had waited for her to come back instead of seeking her out.
“Chichi-ue,” she says when her head is resting against his shoulder, and all the burdens of the world seem smaller because he is here to tell her that it is fine. “I do not think I can afford to love him.”
“Tell me about it?” he asks. “He is saved, but you are not overflowing with joy. I thought you would be happier now that he will live.”
“I do not know what I am supposed to do.” He is alive, and she is glad of it.
But now that he is alive and will remain so, she seems to have reached out for some new goal instead.
While he lay injured, she could only think of how desperately she wanted him to live.
But now, now, she does not know what she should do. She wants so much more now.
“What do you wish for?” Chichi-ue asks, gently stroking her hair. He does not sound unhappy, though he did not care for shinobi and still does not. “What does my daughter desire?”
“Chichi-ue,” she whispers, not entirely sure she wants to say the words out loud, “if I told you that your daughter wanted a count’s son for a husband, what would you do?”
“Lord Uchiha is in our house right now.” A corner of Chichi-ue’s mouth tilts down. “I suppose I simply will go see what he has to say about this proposal. I would like to see if he can refuse and retreat with any dignity after our discussion this last week.”
“But what will you do?”
This prompts a small silence. “What do you mean?” He squeezes her shoulder. “Get ready for a wedding, of course.”
“I meant after.” Because it is not the wedding she fears.
And it is not how she will live afterwards that she worries over, again and again in her mind.
How can she leave everyone behind?
How can she leave Chichi-ue?
He sighs, brushing a tear away from her cheek. “I will be here for you to visit. It is not as if you will never come back to your maiden household, is it?”
But that does not explain what he will do or how her family will live without her and the future she carries on her shoulders.
But she cannot say this without implying that she thinks much of herself. “I can’t leave.” Down that path is only nonsense. “I will miss you too much.”
Her words are more watery than she feared.
“Where does your heart belong?” Chichi-ue asks, voice even and unresigned. “Put aside your worries, and what you think it will cost, and answer yourself truly. In the end, the only regrets we have are the lies we tell our hearts.”
But in the end, which choice would she regret making more?
What do I wish for? She’d sent her handmaids away to think about it.
Chichi-ue had asked her this question, though he had phrased it differently. Where does your heart belong? Put aside your worries and what you think it will cost, and answer yourself truly.
She is not as brave as Chichi-ue once was — the young man who had seen what he wanted stopped at nothing to acquire it.
And time and time again, Izuna had hinted, and she did not ask or pin anything down.
Time and time again, she has deferred the decision.
Danna, you look good today.
It should not have taken him lying on his deathbed for her to admit that she would rather have him for a lifetime at her side.
In most things in life, at least in her own heart, she is straightforward and honest with herself.
She wants his years and his smiles, to share his joys and hold his sorrows, to spend her years at his side, wherever that might be.
The edge of heaven, the corner of the sea.
Of all the trials in the mortal realm, eighty-eight trials and tribulations, love is the hardest.
Once tasted, it is the hardest to put down or set aside, out of sight.
Chichi-ue is proof of that.
Chang’e, her body bound to the moon, but her hand forever reaching down to the earth, is proof of that.
And yet, she has tried to set it aside.
What am I afraid of?
In the world, the only people who win are the ones who are willing to lose everything.
What is she afraid of, in the end?
To marry him, I will have to leave this household.
And that is the core of this, is it not?
She will leave, dressed all in red, embroidered with gold, a red veil over her face, in a bridal sedan chair, ten li of dowry behind her. And all will know of the wealth of Kawaguchi.
Trumpets and wedding games will follow her, laughter and the envious eyes of Shunan.
Befitting of a daughter.
Befitting of a daughter, for she will have to leave her maiden home someday.
But what will she leave behind?
An aging silk merchant, a little sister still too little to bear any weight of the business, little cousins who must be married out, Toraki-kun who ought not have his studies disturbed by matters of business, widowed aunts who depend on their brother-in-law to provide for them, her mother’s sister who had been divorced from her husband because of her, and a foolish cousin who had started growing up so late who cannot lift any burdens for her father either.
If she leaves to chase her heart, she closes the door on the family who had raised her and sheltered her, on the father who loves her and the hundreds who depended on the name of Kawaguchi to make a living.
She turns her back on all the dreams buried in the family cemetery, on the brothers who died and women who live.
Then, my father will have really raised an unfilial daughter who grasps at social connection to the detriment of her family.
But to be filial, one must not be proud.
To be filial, one must not be selfish.
And must Chichi-ue, who has already lost so much, lose her as well?
Of all the eighty-eight tribulations, love is the hardest.
But this, too, can be buried.
I will go tell Chichi-ue, she thinks, a hand trailing in the pond, Dharma Wheel nibbling at her fingers in case she has food, to tell Lord Uchiha that the daughter of Kawaguchi does not wish to marry out.
“Neesan?” Momo-ko arrives in the morning, long before she could go speak to Chichi-ue, and not wanting to disappoint her sister, who has another little handkerchief to show her, she had stayed. “Neesan, why do you look sad? Izu-shinobi-niisan is walking again, but you won’t go visit him now.”
She pouts, tapping Momo-ko’s nose. “And have you been bothering Izu-shinobi-niisan, Little Peach?”
Momo-chan wrinkles her nose at her. “Wasn’t bothering him. Neesan is though.”
She squishes Momo-chan’s cheeks. “What did you say about me, Little Peach?”
“I said!” Momo protests. “I said! Neesan is bothering Izu-shinobi-niisan!”
“And how am I bothering him?” She examines the handkerchief that Momo has brought her, noting the unpicking but also the care that Momo had put into make each stitch neat and even, and praises her for that.
“Because you haven’t gone to see him for a day now.” Momo wriggles closer to her on the bench inside her bedroom, pouting at the mirror. “He misses you.”
“Did he tell you to come tell me that?”
It is true that she has not seen him since the conversation where she told him to remember his propriety, that some promises he is able to afford, but she cannot.
But that was no more than a day or so ago.
When you really care about someone, you think of his welfare, sleeping or waking. You want him to be happy, and you are sad when he is sad. In all the good, and all the bad.
She wants him to be happy.
To be living and not merely alive.
But down which road happiness lies, she does not know.
“Why would he ask me to come tell you?” Momo pouts, pigtails bouncing. “He doesn’t want you to know that he’s sad. Why is he sad, Neesan?”
She sighs. “He is sad because I do not wish to marry him.”
Her heart cries out. But I do. And he will not know how much I do.
“Neesan doesn’t?” Momo blinks at her, confusion written large across her face. “But why?”
“If I do, I will leave to go live with his family.” She gently mentions a defect in Momo’s stitching, praises her for what she does well. “Like how your Haha-ue has come to live with us, since she is married to Chichi-ue.”
“Neesan will go away?” Momo hugs around one leg, eyes enormous and filled with tears. “Neesan can’t go away!’
No, she cannot.
“I will not go away.” She tucks a lock of hair behind Momo’s ear and gently pries her sister from her leg. “Momo-ko,” she crouches so that she and Momo are the same height — and in the unsuspecting passing of the years, her little sister has grown taller — “Tell him to come see me if he is truly sad. We have things we must say to each other.”
She has two faces, public and private, and wears her public face even when at home, but since it has come to this, then let them speak plainly to each other.
He deserves that from her, at the very least.
Momo nods. “I will go fetch Izu-shinobi-niisan.” Her little sister pats her face. “Don’t be so sad, Neesan. He can marry you and come live here instead!”
She laughs at this, so unlike the natural order of things that only Momo would think of it seriously.
Momo grins at her impishly and scampers off.
Izuna arrives alone, carrying his qin, clearly having made the effort despite being tired. He sets it on the courtyard table and comes to stand before her, a hand holding the railing for assurance. “You said you wanted to see me?”
“I do.” She sets her own hands on the railing and looks up at his face. “There are words I wanted to say to you.”
He looks at his hands. “And there is a song I want to play for you. May I go first?”
“One I wrote for you.”
He’d written her a song?
She is uncertain of bearing the weight of such regard, but it would let him be, at least, content, to play it for her. “I would be honored to listen.”
He sighs, shaking his head. “Liar,” but he is still smiling. “You don’t want to hear, but you think it will make me happy.” He picks up the qin once more. “But that is enough for me, I suppose. Am I allowed to come in?”
She offers him her arm, and he takes it gratefully and sinks into the chair she pulls out for him with the same sort of gratitude, laying the qin out on her table.
“No one has ever heard this before,” he tells her, with eyes so very serious.
“I believe you.” He is a private man, and private men do not go around serenading the world at large.
He sets his hands on the strings. “If you are unsatisfied after,” here, a pause, tremulous and sad, “you may tell me so, and I will not ask again.”
“I would not expect it of you.” He has more self respect. If he asks her plainly and she still refuses, then she will have refused him for the final time. If she had refused to listen, he would not have asked again either.
But she is willing to listen.
She takes a seat beside him. “I do want to hear it.”
So he begins.
The last of the notes from his qin dies away. Softly, outside on the walkway, the snow continues falling, soft white flakes, blanketing the peach trees in her courtyard. It is a late snowfall, and so very rare in this part of the world.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.” She stares out into the courtyard, listening to the wind, the sound of snow falling.
“Should I have played Phoenix Seeking a Mate, instead?” Of course, that makes it more clear, but—
“Save your skills, Izuna.” She sets her hands on the walkway railing, wonders if it would be too mauldin to cry about this later. “Why ask me questions when you know I cannot answer?” She cannot say yes, but she does not want to say no.
She wants all of his years. Three is not enough.
“Because I have found a way to reframe the question.” Slowly, he makes his way to her side, qin left behind him on the table inside. “I’m not asking if you would like to be Uchiha Hisa.”
Slowly, she turns her gaze up to his face, where he pensively stares at the snow falling.
“Will you let me become Kawaguchi Izuna?”
The words strike to the heart of her. “You would give up your name?” She knows how much names mean to him, how deeply he felt the connections of blood and honor.
That he would offer, that he would turn away—
“For you?” He smiles at this, half in rue, half in hope. “Yes.”
Has there been even one time in this world where you wanted something for yourself?
For a moment, she teeters between the choice she wants and the choice that is right. For a moment, but no longer. “Yes.”
Izuna turns to her then, genuine delight alight on his face. “Oh, I… I’m glad to hear that.”
He sets a hand over hers, there, on the railing.
And for a few minutes after, they listen to the sound of snow falling.
“I have not been kind to you.” She turns her face up to him. Last night, she had thought, her fingers trailing in the fish pond, and been willing to bury their love below ground. It would’ve buried her in the end, and it had not been what he deserved.
Last night she had thought and nearly been willing to give everything away. “Momo-chan said I made you sad. I do not know how to apologize.”
He reaches over, and tucks the strands of her buyao behind her ear, where it belongs. “Not always, no. But I admit that was because I did not make myself clear to you as I should have.” His hand is warm against her cheek. “There is no need for you to apologize to me.”
“It will be different if you choose to stay,” she says, a strand of his hair looped about her fingers. “Are you sure you will like it here?”
He smiles, which breaks into a laugh. “Hisa,” he pulls her close, still laughing. “You are the eyes with which I see.”
The eyes with which I see. He had said that as well, in music. The eyes with which I see, the heartline that which I follow.
She swallows, suddenly tearful. “If you stay, you should be warned that I will want you to stay forever. That I want you to go nowhere without me.”
She feels more than hears his laughter this time, near silent, but it shakes his shoulders, his breath warm against her cheek. “Hisa, Hisa, if I ever leave you, it will be because I am an ungrateful fool.”
And this morning, they understand each other perfectly.
They return inside, hand in hand, and he sits once more as Kimei flitters here and there to make them tea. “I see that our second young master has gotten his act together?”
Izuna makes a face at her. “I was always going to.”
“You could’ve fooled me,” Kimei mutters as she comes back with the tea tray. “Dallied any longer, and Hisa would’ve gone to tell Kawaguchi-san she didn’t want to get married, and then where would everything have gone?”
“Kimei!” She is sure she did not tell Kimei about what she had been thinking about. “I said no such thing.”
“Your face said everything.” Kimei looks her in the eye, a frown on her lips. “If I didn’t distract you and then force you into bed, you would’ve gone to talk to Kawaguchi-san last night, and we’d all have been only fit for soup. Hiko would’ve been so upset.”
“And I thank you ever so much for not letting me go.” She is truly blessed, so she is, to have such caring friends.
“You should.” Kimei sighs and smiles, more mischief than exasperation on her way out. “What would you do without me?”
“What would I do, indeed.” The thought strikes her, just before Kimei can make her way further down the walk. “And thank your fellow co-conspirator for me, will you?”
Kimei flushes. “He’s not my co-conspirator.”
Izuna slaps a hand over his mouth, but cannot contain the chuckles, shaking with laughter.
Kimei vanishes down the walk with her hands over her ears.
“She called me ‘second young master.’” There is a note of wonder in his voice.
“Isn’t that what you’ll be?”
He would’ve been the second young master to the Kawaguchi household regardless of how they are married, but their circumstances mean that he will hear it more often than he would otherwise.
“I suppose,” he muses, “it will take some getting used to.”
“You have a lifetime.” The thought is warm.
“I do,” he agrees. “I do.” His eyes pause on the little figurine at the end of her table when he goes to pick up his qin. “You kept the duck?”
She’d left the wooden duck he’d given her for her twenty-first birthday on her desk, in the line of sight of anyone who chooses to come in, uncaring of exactly what that looks like to others. “It was a present,” she says, feeling a little bit wicked. “From a handsome gentleman caller, I felt bad putting his art away where no one could see it.”
“A handsome gentleman caller?” His voice carries a hint of incredulous amusement. “I hope he wasn’t too disappointed by your lack of favor.”
“Mmm,” she picks up the duck. “I believe he was quite woeful at not knowing how old I was at the time.”
“And would you tell him now if he asked you?” He sets another duck on the table where the first one sat for nearly a year. It has eyes the color of lapis lazuli, wearing an outfit she recognizes as having been in fashion nearly three years ago.
A matched set.
“That depends,” she picks up the second duck and holds it next to the first, at eye level. If the second is meant to be her, then the first is…
The man sitting before her, still smiling.
“Does he still want to know?”
He smiles wider. “Yes.”