Jack stared out over the fresh, red railing of the now rebuilt palace and toward the valley below. Despite the lovely cherry blossoms littering the ground and fluttering freely along with the spring breeze, he could not bring himself to smile. As many years as he had dreamed of seeing this view again, in the few weeks before his arrival home he had started to dread the possibilities of what returning to his life before Aku would mean. Destroying Aku in the dystopian future he had been prisoner to for over fifty years had been difficult, and Ashi had almost perished from the demon's possession of her. But she was strong, and broke free of his grip, and aided him, as promised, in vanquishing Aku once and for all. They barely had time to embrace, relishing in the victory, when she pushed him again, asking as eagerly as ever; "So, what's next?"
The many allies he had accumulated during his quest vowed to help them find a way back to the past, and while they worked, they insisted that he rest. It was during that time, amongst his fantasies of showing Ashi the wonders of his home, that the horrible thought came to him. Ashi was not just tied to this time, she was tied to Aku himself. Upon destroying Aku in his own timeline, even if this world could somehow continue to exist, Ashi could not without her wretched 'father'. The thought made him sick, and though he tried to hide his worry, Ashi was not fooled by his insistences that he was 'fine'.
She left him no choice but to explain to her what was bothering him. The revelation seemed to shock her as well, but after a moment of thought she replied.
"Don't hesitate." That's what she told him.
She told him that then, and again when they were hand in hand, ready to jump into the time portal that science and magic had managed to conjure. The canine archeologists and Andromedan robot scientists had been able to scan Jack and find the exact moment in time he needed to be sent back to, they only needed a power to summon the portal. Ashi stepped up to the task, and screeched a bat-like sonar into the archway. The machine whirred to life, and a familiar, rippling black and white pattern churned within.
"Please, don't hesitate. Destroy him." Her voice had been so calm, like she had never been more sure of anything, and her eyes shone full of the trust and hope he had grown so accustomed to seeing from her.
And he hadn't hesitated. As they exited the portal, Aku still laid defenseless as he had decades prior in Jack's memories. The sight of him filled Jack with renewed, righteous anger, and he drove his blade through Aku's chest and deep into the earth beneath him with a furious cry. As when he defeated him in the future, a bright light erupted from the spot where his sword pierced Aku, and a powerful blast cleared the area around them, breaking apart Aku's citadel until it was no more. When Jack emerged from the rubble, Ashi was gone.
The memory still tore him apart. Watching the valley glittering with flowers wasn't a treasure worth trading Ashi's life for, not to him. He hesitated a moment, then let his expression soften at the small figures of children scurrying and playing near the river below. He finally allowed himself to smile, but it was a melancholy one.
The choice hadn't been made for his own happiness—his choices rarely were, if he was honest with himself. It was, like the infinite other decisions he had made in life, for the good of the many. It warmed him, for only a moment, to think Ashi had been the same way that he was; more concerned with the greater good than even her own life, if need be. The warmth quickly depleted into harrowing sadness as he recalled her choices also always made a point of keeping him safe.
She was the most supportive companion he had ever had; so dedicated to him and his cause that she would devote her life to accompanying him every step of the way, and so venomously protective of him that she would jump to guard him from even the smallest of threats. Even with the gratitude of the entire world, nothing seemed to fill the space left without Ashi's unwavering faith in him.
The empress shuffled down the hall, slowed by the heavy layers of her ornate junihitoe, intent on checking up on her son. She knew of Jack's depressive state since his return, but hoped every day to see his spirits lift, if only slightly. He requested to stay in a room high within the castle, even after the doari was completed, and she nor her husband could deny him his request, even though it made it more difficult for the aged couple to visit him.
When she entered his room, she frowned at the now common sight of his drooping shoulders and still body looking out over his balcony. The wind rustled his hair ever so slightly, but he did not move otherwise. The empress closed her eyes sadly and shook her head, before continuing towards the balcony. As she reached Jack, she placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"Shinjiro…" She spoke with sad disappointment in her voice; not at him, he knew, but at his continued melancholy. Jack managed to look down at his mother, but soon closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly, unsure of how to respond. He had nothing new to offer her to ease her worries about him.
"…Almost all of the homes are rebuilt now, mother." He mumbled, looking back to the valley. The empress sighed again, and rubbed his arm through the sleeve of his gi.
"My son, please… you must not let this sadness consume you." She warned him gently. Jack could only sigh and nod. He was well aware of how prolonged remorse and bitterness could affect someone.
"I will not, mother." He focused his eyes onto a group of citizens working away at one of the new bridges on the river. "…I should go assist those men down there."
The empress looked over the railing, regarding the workers for only a moment before returning her attention to her son. She knew he was only distracting himself from his inner turmoil, but she supposed it was a better alternative than standing on his balcony consumed with grief. As Jack bowed and turned away from her, she spoke again.
"You've spoken so much about her sacrifice for our home, Shinjiro. Her sacrifice for you. Please, if not for me or for yourself, try to overcome this sadness for her." His mother's words made him pause, and he closed his eyes painfully. He kept his back to her to hide his anguished expression. He had tried endlessly to tell himself the same thing, but to his heart, reasoning made no difference.
"…I will try." He sighed, and continued out of his room.
Helping the still-healing citizens of his land had been a welcome distraction from his aching heart in the months since Aku's defeat. Many villagers even credited the quick reconstruction of the Imperial City and the surrounding villages to their prince's almost nonstop efforts. Jack couldn't help but feel a little guilty from their praising—after all, his toiling was fueled by a desperate need to distract himself. But as the villagers regained their strength and former happiness, their need for his constant aid dwindled. Jack found himself helping citizens any way he could, from collecting eggs for farmers to retrieving a lost ball for a group of children. He could hardly bear the moments of peace in-between.
Every happy family, or pair of lovers he saw—even the sight of a beetle lofting away into the long grass, he was reminded of Ashi. It burned his very soul that she was never able to know this level of peacefulness; that she confidently gave up her life for a world that she desperately wanted to experience, and never had the chance to.
Unfortunately, this world wasn't completely free of Aku's influence just yet. During his nearly two decade long reign, violence had become a common method for survival, and some people were unwilling to return to a moral or civil lifestyle. Others had always made a living from raiding and pillaging, and a small percentage even still held loyalty to Aku. Jack could not understand it himself, but again took up defending the innocent as a way to ignore his own pain. His father, though still the emperor and a wise leader, was weak and weary from his enslavement, and could no longer protect his people as he once did, and he found great pride in his son's eagerness to protect their citizens. Again, Jack felt like the praise was misplaced, but couldn't bring himself to confess his selfish motives. He tried to convince himself that it was irrelevant, because he would do the same even if he wasn't consumed with depression.
The worst of all was the night. After the humming of villagers outside faded away into the dark evening, and the only movement within the palace were the guards patrolling the grounds, Jack's mind haunted him. He couldn't stop himself from remembering her; every little bit of her. The many nights they had spent together after Aku's first defeat, sitting bathed in moonlight, sharing stories until the sky was tinging purple with twilight—experiencing, finally, the small pleasures of simply existing, like coming home to the same home every evening, or cooking and sharing every meal together; the memories were hard to experience again. He had hoped, after time, remembering her would no longer bring tears to his eyes, but if that time would ever come, it wasn't this night.
*junihitoe – 12-layer robe worn by women of the court
*daori – multiple buildings within the imperial compound where the emperor and his family/nobles reside (**emperors actually didn't have castles, those were for shogun and generals… but we'll ignore that part)
I'm so full of possible 'end game' scenarios for Jack/Ashi that I just had to get out at least ONE of them—this one is my favorite by far, so I hope ya'll enjoy my suffering
And I'm using Shinjiro (based off the whole Momotaro-zamurai thing I wrote out on tumblr) as a headcanon first name for Jack, but if his actual name is revealed in the finale I'll be change it afterwards heheh
(This is really rough because I'm writing at light speed, but I'll be rereading and fixing errors over the weeks I'm sure lol)
**POST-FINALE UPDATE: Okay (as some reviewers have commented LOL) this chapter was close enough to the actual finale that I'm going to just… leave it. It you want to go with more canon, pretend the paragraphs explaining Ashi's demise say "They defeated Aku, hung out awhile, Ashi sent them back in time, then perished along with Aku." (No wedding!)
**6/1/2017 Update: I decided to change the returning to past part so that Ashi was directly responsible for it, because it felt important (to me) to keep that part of the finale. ;-;
**3/19/2018 Update: Minor fixing throughout the story before I start updating again... wish me luck! XwX