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When the Cherry Blossoms Bloom

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Tōga dreamed of Izayoi. She was sitting under the cherry trees in her father’s garden, a handful of blossoms in her hand. One by one, she ripped off the delicate pink and white petals, releasing them to flutter away on a breeze that was as soft as a sigh.

 

They met as often as his duties and her ability to escape from the watchful eyes of her father and his retainers allowed, stealing moments together in whatever quiet corner they could find, but it had been nearly six weeks since he’d had the pleasure of her company. The shaded grove with the cherry trees was his favourite place to meet up with the infuriating human woman who had perplexed and delighted him endlessly since they’d met almost a year ago. Really, it was no surprise that, after so long, he dreamed of seeing her there, of all places.

 

(He should have seen that very night, but, on his return to his palace, he’d been forced to deal with a ridiculous disagreement between two of the retainers he’d left in charge in his absence. By the time they’d been disciplined and dismissed, it had been far too late for him to disturb Izayoi.)

 

It was spring. Pale pink cherry blossoms rained down around Izayoi whenever the breeze shook the branches, catching in her raven hair and looking more becoming than the most expensive and ornate of jewels. In the real world, she would have laughed and shaken her head to dislodge them and he would have teased her for such dog-like behaviour. In the dream, she simply remained focused on methodically stripping the petals from the flowers in her hand.

 

It was summer. The dappled light that filtered through the canopy of vivid green leaves lent Izayoi’s skin an oddly ethereal glow. In the real world, she would probably have used a parasol for additional protection. (She’d once told him that was supposed to avoid the sun. A woman of her rank was not supposed to work and skin browned by the sun was a mark of a field labourer, not an aristocrat.) In the dream, she tossed petal after petal into the wind without a thought for anything else.

 

It was autumn. Izayoi sat on a red and gold carpet of fallen leaves. In the real world, Tōga would have tried to come up with a teasing comment that would madden her enough to make her throw a handful of leaves at him like she had on many other memorable occasions. In the dream, she didn’t even seem aware of or remotely interested in his presence.

 

It was winter. The trees were bare of leaves and the reeds fringing the ornamental pond were rimed with ice. In the real world, Izayoi would have been wrapped in a heavy mantle to protect her from the winter chill. (Tōga would have absolutely insisted on it.) In the dream, she was utterly unaffected by the cold.

 

Izayoi looked as radiant as a goddess as she sat beneath those ancient branches, but she there was a strange coldness to her beauty. A distance. She wasn’t the beacon of warmth and brightness in a bitterly cold world that he knew her to be.

 

He reached out a hand to catch a handful of the scattered flower petals. When his fist closed around them, Izayoi looked up at last, fixing her warm brown eyes - so sorrowful and so serious - and a sudden searing pain in Tōga’s chest jerked him into wakefulness.

 

When he opened his eyes, there were cherry blossom petals - white and pale pink, flecked with crimson - scattered on his pillow.

 

***

 

For another month, his duties kept him from visiting Izayoi, but Tōga saw her every night in his dreams. Every morning, he woke up with an ache in his chest and bloodstained petals - more and more of them with each passing day - on his pillow. He didn’t mention them in the handful of notes that he managed to find time to write to her. He didn’t mention them to anyone

 

(What could he possibly say? He wasn’t even sure that he was sick. He was a powerful demon, immune to both the trivial illnesses that plagued humans and most of the more serious illnesses that affected his own kind. He’d never heard of any condition that involved coughing up flower petals. If he truly was coughing up flower petals. Perhaps they were an extension of his strange dreams. He brushed them into the fireplace every morning and, by the time he was truly awake, it was far too late to inspect them.)

 

He missed her. The letters that she wrote to him in return were as warm and bright as their author, but they were a poor substitute for the woman herself. The figure in his dreams was beautiful but unreal, unreachable. He wanted the version of Izayoi that he could converse with. That he could let his guard down with.

 

It had been ten weeks since he’d been able to let his guard down.

 

He felt as giddy as a puppy as he raced across hills and plains in his dog form, darting through woods and wading through streams as his long legs ate up the distance between his palace and the palace where Izayoi lived under her father’s intermittently watchful eye. He hadn’t had an opportunity to send her a message, but he was not particularly concerned. While they preferred to plan their meetings, there had been occasions when he’d visited unexpectedly. She’d always been glad to see him. It was lonely in her father’s palace. His company was a pleasant alternative to the books which were her only other companions.

 

Which had been her only other companions.

 

Shifting back into the form that she would find the most familiar, Toga bounded up onto the wall around her private guardian and stopped, safe in a huge pine tree.

 

For the first time in the year that he’d known her, Izayoi was not alone..

 

A human male, perhaps only a few years older than Izayoi herself, was standing next to her on the veranda. There was a respectful distance between them, but he was closer than Tōga had expected. Closer than he should have been. He reeked of earnestness and, underneath that, there was the faint but unmistakable tang of carefully repressed desire. He couldn’t see Izayoi’s face, but the man was smiling at her with a familiarity that made the pain in his chest - the pain from his dreams - flare into sudden and unexpected life. He coughed, stifling it as best he could behind his hand.

 

The man didn’t notice anything, but Izayoi turned in Tōga’s direction. For a moment, their eyes locked and her smile - the one that she’d been smiling for her human companion - froze as her eyes widened in surprise.

 

Tōga jumped down from the wall and disappeared into the woods, away from Izayoi and the look of disappointment that flashed across her face when he turned away from her.

 

He didn’t make it very far before another fit of coughing seized him. This time, Tōga could no longer deny that the petals were coming from his own throat. He could put handful after handful and, when he was finally able to breathe again, rolled a single petal between his fingers.

 

It was real. It was real and so was the blood that stained it, a sharp copper tang that threatened to overwhelm the delicate floral scent.

 

***

 

He returned to her palace four days later.

 

He’d been in a foul temper from the moment he’d seen the unfamiliar human on the veranda at Izayoi’s side and the passage of time had done nothing to soften his anger.

 

It had done nothing to clarify it either. He didn’t know if he was angry at the man for smiling at her or at Izayoi for smiling back. He was certainly angry at himself for allowing himself to feel such ridiculous emotions. He was the Lord of the Western Lands, one of the most powerful and feared demons in all of Japan. He had no reason to be tying himself in knots over some insignificant human woman.

 

No matter how much he missed her company.

 

She was reading by the light of a candle and the light of the full moon when he climbed over the wall and into her garden. As soon as she saw him, she set down her book and rose gracefully to her feet. She smiled at him,  but the smile didn’t warm him as much as it usually did. It was tainted, somehow, by the fact that she bestowed it on another.

 

“Tōga! Is everything all right? I wasn’t expecting your first visit in nearly three months to be such a short one. You left so quickly …”

 

“I didn’t want to disturb you,” he said, taking a step backwards to match her eager step forward, “When I arrived, you already had company.”

 

Izayoi looked confused for a moment then, to Tōga’s surprise, she actually laughed, light and musical and astounding carefree. Why was she so at ease? Why was she so careless about something so serious? His chest burned.

 

“Takemaru left soon after you did,” she explained, “I wish you’d waited a little longer.”

 

“Takemaru?” he asked with a hint of a sneer, “Is that his name?”

 

She nodded, frowning slightly at his tone but obviously not entirely convinced that she’d heard such derision from someone who’d only ever spoken to her with friendship and courtesy.

 

“We knew each other as children, but he’s been fighting in the east for a long time. He recently returned home to serve under my father and wanted to pay his respects.”

 

To pay his respects. Are you truly that naive, Izayoi?” Her eyes narrowed as she glared at him. It wasn’t her usual glare - the highly enjoyable glare that promised a spirited argument - but a lot colder, a lot more serious. It reminded him of her sorrowfully distant expression when she sat beneath the cherry tree in his dream. “What he wanted was far from respectful. I could smell his desire …”

 

He didn’t get the chance to finish his sentence. She slapped him across the cheek and, although her fragile human frame meant that he barely felt the blow, the sound was startlingly loud in the silence of the garden.

 

“You have no right to speak to me like that.”

 

He enjoyed that temper, that spirit, of hers. Usually. Here and now, he simply wanted her to feel something of the ache that burned in his own chest.

 

“You’ve forgotten who you’re speaking to. Izayoi,” he growled, “I’m a demon. Don’t think you can tame me.”

 

“I’ve never wanted to tame you,” she said, “I wanted your friendship.”

 

The sadness and confusion in her tone, in her usually warm brown eyes, made his chest ache more than ever.

 

“I thought you wanted the same thing,” she said quietly.

 

He couldn’t hold back the cough building up in his chest for much longer.

 

“Then you really are naive.”

 

And it was starting to seem as if he had been just as foolish.

 

***

 

The little wooden hut was dark and cramped, the walls crowded with scrolls and jars and all of the other arcane odds and ends of the healer’s profession. Bundles of herbs hung from the low ceiling, brushing the top of Tōga’s head as he hunched under the low wooden table and survived the elderly frog demon through the clouds of acrid smoke from the fire in the hearth.

 

She lifted the kettle from the flames as he watched, bustling over to fill the teapot.

 

“I wanted to speak to you …” Tōga began.

 

“Shh! I’m making the tea!”

 

Tōga was so surprised by the healer’s rudeness - there weren’t many demons who dared to speak to the great Inu no Taishō with such casual disrespect - that he actually fell silent.

 

“You can’t have a conversation like this without tea, Great Dog Demon,” she explained as she returned the kettle to the hearth.

 

“So you know who I am?”

 

The demon gave him a toothless smile as she put a handful of pungent leaves from a small tin box into the teapot.

 

“I know many things, Great Dog Demon,” she said, surveying him with eyes that seemed to see a remarkable amount for being all but sightless. She bustled over to retrieve two chipped tea cups from a dusty corner before sitting down in front of him. “You have something for me.”

 

She held out a wizened hand. Tōga drew a handful of bloody cherry blossom petals out of his pocket and dropped them into her waiting palm. She rolled them between her gnarled fingers, examining them without seeing them.

 

“Do you know what they are?”

 

“I know what they are,” she confirmed, the petals disappearing into one of the many pockets in her shapeless kimono without surprising dexterity for one so ancient.

 

She apparently had no intention of explaining further before she poured the tea, though, and Tōga bit back a growl of frustration as she filled the cups, taking one for herself and pushed ngone towards him. He didn’t take it until the frog demon reached for her cane and rapped him sharply on the leg.

 

“Drink,” she ordered, “This is no ordinary tea. It doesn’t have the power to cure what ails you, but it will soothe your lungs.”

 

Once again disarmed by her lack of manners and the fact that she was not remotely afraid of him, Tōga took a sip of the tea. It tasted foul, even worse than it smelled, but, to his surprise, it did do what she’d claimed. Although it didn’t get rid of pain in his chest, the tightness in his lungs loosened, just a little.

 

“You have a terrible bedside manner.”

 

The frog demon smiled a toothless smile at him.

 

“You’re not on your deathbed yet, Great Dog Demon.”

 

“I’m hoping that, with your help, it won’t come to that. You have a truly impressive reputation.”

 

“As do you. The name of the Inu no Taishō is known from east to west. Drink, drink!” She tapped him with her cane again, repeating the gesture until he finished the entire cup of tea and she was able to refill it. “Good. The name of the Inu no Taishō is known from east to west. The strength of the Inu no Taishō is known throughout Japan. But it seems that love is something that even the Great Dog Demon can’t escape. Who did you dream of before these petals began to appear?”

 

“Her name is Izayoi.”

 

He could have denied it - he wanted to deny it - but it would have been petulant, even childish. He thought of how much he looked forward to talking to her. He thought of the bundle of letters tucked inside his armour so that he could carry her words with him when he was on patrol and he thought of her smile. He thought of the jealousy that had soured his stomach when he first caught sight of Takemaru and the way that the dream version of Izayoi had left him unsatisfied because she’d been devoid of the spirit that he loved so much.

 

He did love her.

 

He had loved her for a very long time.

 

Despite the soothing effect of the tea, he coughed, rough and raw, and spat out another handful of bloody petals.

 

“Tell me what the petals mean.”

 

The healer regarded Tōga over the rim of her tea cup, pausing for what felt like an eternity, even to a being as long lived as an inu youkai.

 

“Love can bring down the mightiest of demons. As your feelings for this woman grow, so to will these flowers. They will grow and grow until they fill your lungs. If they are not removed, then, one day, they will surely choke you.”

 

Tōga’s knuckles whitened as he gripped the table so tightly that the wood splintered beneath his claws.

 

“But you can remove them?”

 

“I can remove them,” the healer confirmed, “But be warned. Removing the flowers will do more than merely cure your disease. The only way to ensure that they can never grow back is to remove your feelings for this woman along with them.”

 

Her humourless smile widened as she turned her clouded eyes on him.

 

“Tell me, Great Dog Demon … are you willing to make such a sacrifice?”