He never thought she would take him up on his offer. He had always hoped but hope was different than expectation.
It is a rainy day when she appears at his doorstep and if he ever thought of symbolism, which he didn't, he would have wondered why he always seemed to encounter her on rainy days. But Takeda doesn't think about that.
He is energetic and happy. She has always made him that way, ever since he was a little boy.
He's so delighted to see her he doesn't think to watch his step either and he gets her toes wet when he steps in the puddle.
He cries out her name. "Sango! You have returned at last!"
"Yes." Sango shakes her foot.
Takeda's excitement fades into smugness. "Then you have returned to be my bride."
The haughty laugh dies on his lips. He stares at her.
Sango tips her hat back and looks at him. "But I did come to ask a favor."
After they have moved inside his castle, Takeda comments to her quite suddenly, "You have always reminded me of a lily."
Sango bustles with the removal of her hat to hide her blush.
"But I never thought," Takeda continues, "that you would actually look like one."
Sango drops her hat and her jaw with it.
"Your skin has no color to it. You're as pale as milkweed."
"Something white. Snow. I was never good with words." He notices, for the first time, the look on her face and blinks. "I sometimes speak before I think too," he adds but makes no apology for his rudeness.
He offers her food and drink, bids she sit down and rest, for he is a good host and not beyond civility.
His kindness makes Sango nervous. She picks at the food, takes one mouthful of drink and does not touch it. She is unused to being catered too.
When a moment has passed, and Takeda has made himself comfortable, he beckons to her. "You said you came here for a favor?"
Sango eyes shift to the floor. "When I was here last, you said to me" she swallows to clear her throat. "You said to me, 'If you are in trouble, ask me without hesitating.' You said to me, 'I will do everything I can.'"
"Did I say that?"
"You did." She meets his gaze, direct and serious, past her nervousness now. "I am asking you for that help now."
"What favor do you ask of me?"
Again, Sango's gaze detours elsewhere. The plates on the table this time. "It is my husband-"
"The monk," Takeda interrupts.
"How did you know?"
Takeda closes his eyes. He smiles and chuckles in that way of his whenever something isn't going his way and he's terribly disappointed or insulted. "I could see it. I knew when I saw you together that night you killed that bear youkai. Killed that bear youkai again, I mean."
"My husband, he is very sick," Sango carries on. "I have tried everything I know to cure him but nothing has worked. I am afraid he is going to die."
A glimmer of hope. She has come to ask him to replace her husband. Takeda sits up straighter. "And?"
"And," says Sango, "I am asking you to save him."
Takeda closes his eyes and laughs very hard.
They set out the next day. Takeda and Sango and his best doctors and a few servants and soldiers.
Sango rides in the wagon with the servants away from the falling away. Takeda rides on horseback with the soldiers. He gets drenched and complains about it.
"Your husband," Takeda says to her after he is finished complaining and retreated into the wagon to escape further drenching, "is he alone even though he's sick?"
"No. My brother is with him."
"Your brother? You never mentioned a brother."
"That is because he really isn't my brother anymore."
Takeda doesn't understand that. He doesn't try to either. "I remember something you said the last time you were here," he remarks, changing the subject because he doesn't care much for the other. "You said you had something you had to do. Something that might be very severe and difficult."
Sango is looking at the forest rather than at him. "I remember."
"Did you accomplish what you had to do?"
Sango's eyes are clouded and, he thinks, a little sad. "No."
"No? But how is it then that you are married? You said that you wouldn't be able to go forward if you didn't accomplish what you had to do."
"That is because I thought, at first, that I had accomplished what I set out to do."
Takeda wants to understand this time because it has to do with him. He waits for further explanation and when he receives none, he prods her into speaking. "What does that mean?"
"That means," says Sango, "that sometimes when you think you're taking a step forward, you're actually taking two steps back."
Takeda stopped talking to her for a while after that.
"Your village," says Takeda on the third night, "is it far from here?"
"Another day," says Sango. "And it isn't a village."
"What is it then?"
Takeda hates things that are fake. He hates things that mimic other things, he hates illusions, and he hates things that aren't true to themselves. He especially hates it when people lie.
When he sees Sango's rundown shack and the rows upon rows of graves around it, Takeda realizes that maybe he would have preferred the lie.
At the entrance of Sango's house, there is a boy-almost-man standing. He is so still that Takeda half-wondered if the boy was some sort of mummified corpse until the corpse blinked.
"Who is that?" Takeda asks.
Takeda chuckles. "I thought he was a statue."
It's a lie but Takeda doesn't think Sango would appreciate it if he called her brother a corpse in front of her.
"Most of the time," Sango replies, deadpan, "I think he is too."
She walks up to the boy, who doesn't react to her, and pats him on his scruffy, dirty head. "Have you been a good boy, Kohaku? Have you been taking care of Huoshi-sama?" She coos to him, as though he is an infant.
Slowly, as if just waking up, the boy turns his face towards her. He blinks.
Behind Takeda, the servants shift and murmur. A few make signs warding against evil spirits. Takeda blinks at them.
Sango is polite and pretends not to notice. "My husband," she says, and Takeda pretends for a moment that she's referring to him. "Would you like to see him now?"
Takeda closes his eyes. He chuckles. "Of course."
Sango's shack had been damaged, if not totally destroyed, once upon a time. Obviously the shack was somewhat repaired but Takeda can't help but notice the cracks in the wood, the holes in the roof, the patches of exposed dirt through the floor.
As they make their way through the holes in the floor, the boy trailing after them, Sango explains to Takeda what has been going on.
"We were here about three months when he started to get sick," she says. "It was little things at first; dizziness, coughing, that sort of thing. He kept saying that it was nothing to worry about, that he was fine. I believed him. It started getting worse three weeks ago. He wouldn't eat and he was covered in sweat at night. Then one day he just collapsed. After that, there was a fever and he lost all energy. He sleeps most of the day."
"We know it is nothing in the water or the food," Sango reassures Takeda who isn't in need of any. "It isn't contagious either. Neither Kohaku nor I have become sick."
"Your skin," Takeda points out.
Sango looks away. "That is not due to any physical ailment."
They reach the room where her husband is kept and Sango pushes aside the flimsy door. The air is stuffy due to a lack of circulation rather than sickness, and it is dark. Takeda can vaguely make out the shape of a figure on the floor
"Houshi-sama?" Sango kneels next to the figure. "Are you awake? I have brought help."
"Sango." His voice is scratchy. He coughs. "You have returned."
"Yes, and I have brought help." She shifts to the side to unblock her husband's view. "This is Takeda."
When Takeda comes face to face with Sango's husband, he can't help but feel the situation ironic, though he isn't sure why. Maybe it was disbelief instead of irony that he was feeling. Either way, this was Sango's husband and here was he looking at Sango's husband, who he hadn't seen in a year and hadn't been Sango's husband a year ago.
"I remember you," says Sango's husband. "You're the king of that castle."
"Yes," says Takeda. "What is your name?"
Takeda had never bothered to learn the man's name nor anything else.
Sango helps her husband to sit up, who looks amused. "Miroku." He grins in a self-degrading kind of way. "Should I call you your highness?"
"That won't be necessary," says Takeda, taking the comment seriously. "Takeda is fine."
"Heh," says Miroku. "I'll remember that."
"Takeda has come to help us," Sango interrupts. "He has brought doctors with him."
"I see. Welcome to our humble establishment then, your highness." Miroku is being rude.
Sango fumbles, shocked, tries to utter an apology.
Takeda ignores her. He chuckles. "I will send the doctor in for you."
He left without another word.
"I'm sorry," says Sango, when she runs into him later. "He is just irritated from being sick. Being stuck in bed all the time."
Takeda disregards what she is saying. "You called me Takeda,"
Sango pauses. "Yes," she says after a moment, slowly, as though chewing the word. "Yes, I did."
"You always called me highness before."
"Would you prefer it that way, highness?"
"No, no. I like the way my name sounds on your lips."
The darkness is not enough to hide Sango's blush.
Sango flutters around for a little bit, trying to offer what little service she can with her meager possessions.
One nervous servant asks her, "Are there ghosts?"
"No," answers Sango. "Though by every right there should be."
The night is long and dreary in the destroyed village. Few sleep. Most are awake and gathered around the fires. The soldiers burn sage and hold onto their weapons. The servants make warding signs out of sticks and make many false calls of supposed ghost sightings, which cause the soldiers to jump up and get angry at the servants.
At one point, their calls were valid, as the strange boy swings in from the dark forest with a dead rabbit clutched in his hand, but Takeda was too deeply asleep to notice.
The next morning, after rousing his sleepy men, wondering why in heaven's name they were so tired and lazy, the doctor reports Miroku's condition to Takeda rather than Sango.
"To be honest," admits the doctor, "I'm not entirely sure what is wrong with him. I've never encountered something like this before."
"What does that mean?"
The doctor grinds his teeth discreetly, irritated by his king. "I don't know what ails him. I will need a few more days to observe him. We should get him out of that house. It's in no condition for a sick man. He needs to be out in fresher air."
Takeda thinks for a moment. "Ah," he brightens, "I have just the solution then."
Later, when Sango returns from gathering water from a stream, she stops in shock at what she sees and drops the buckets of water on the ground.
"What are you doing?" she demands of Takeda.
"Building you a house," says Takeda as if it's the most obvious thing in the world.
Sango stares at the soldiers and servants milling about, picking up wood here, chopping down trees there, stacking planks and hammering away.
"You're building me a house."
"I was thinking of a garden in the back," Takeda rambles. "There aren't any graves over there so nothing will be disturbed. One of the servants said the soil was good too."
"You're building me a house."
Takeda becomes a little worried. "Do you not like it?"
Sango is silent for a long moment. "I love it."
Later, Takeda says, "I never did ask you about what happened to this village, or your people. Why and what caused it to be destroyed."
"I know," says Sango, "I have found that I prefer it that way."
For once, Takeda is curious. "Why?"
"Because it's nice having someone around who isn't surrounded by tragedy."
For the rest of the day and into the night, Takeda feels glad, even though he doesn't understand what Sango meant.
The next morning the first thing he notices is that there are white flowers on the graves. There is one flower to every grave, aligned perfectly, like little soldiers in a row.
"Lilies," says Takeda stupidly, not fully awake yet.
"My brother," says Sango, already up and about and answering unasked questions. "He is the one who puts them there."
"He never talks or looks for affection. All he does is hunt and kill. Most of the time I don't think he even has a soul." She pauses before continuing. "But when I see those flowers, it makes me think that there might be something human in him left. That there's a part of him that still remembers that once he had a home and a family that loved him, and that's it still here if he could just reach for it."
Takeda is only half-listening but Sango is only half-talking to him. It doesn't matter if he truly listens or not.
Sango leaves, disturbed it seems, back to her husband in their destroyed shack as the house is not ready yet. Takeda hardly notices. He is thinking about lilies.
He finds Sango's brother sitting on a log. The boy is skinning a weasel, holding the animal between his legs, getting blood everywhere, and scaring the servants as usual. The blood doesn't bother Sango's brother. Even when he is finished, he fails to wipe it up. He is used to blood being on his hands.
Takeda isn't disturbed by the blood either. He has never had blood on his hands so doesn't relate it to evil.
When he stands over Sango's brother, the boy slowly looks up.
Takeda doesn't bother to lean down to the boy's level. Takeda is a king and he stands above all others.
"Those lilies," he says, cool and detached but interested. "Where do you get them from?"
Sango's brother slowly blinks at him.
Late in the afternoon, Takeda presents seeds to Sango. "For the garden," he proclaims. "They aren't for eating but they will look nice."
Sango squints at the tiny brown dots in his palm. "What are they?"
Sango looks at him in surprise. "Where did you get them?"
"Your brother showed them to me."
The look of astounded shock on Sango's face was priceless.
Another night passes and the servants get no sleep. The strange boy is sitting next to their king's tent and his presence so near allows them no rest.
The servants have thought for a long time that Takeda is a little strange, maybe even a little crazy. Lately, they have become very disturbed by their king's behavior.
Takeda is sitting outside his tent, enjoying breakfast. Beside him, Sango's brother sits, tearing the legs off a frog.
Takeda chatters merrily with him. The boy never responds but Takeda talks on anyway, something to do about lilies and the female demon slayer, and orders the servants to cook the torn off frog legs.
"Are you going for a walk?"
Takeda surprises her with his question.
Takeda doesn't ask if he can come along. He invites himself. "I'll go with you."
Takeda walks behind her and the route she takes is lonely and into the wood. It is beaten by footprints from many walkings.
"You have walked here before," Takeda comments.
"I always walk this way," says Sango. "Long ago, I had two friends who walked this way. When I walk this path, I pretend I am walking into the past."
They fall silent for a time and continue walking. At some point, the beaten path disappears and this is where Sango comes to stand.
"This is where it ends," she says. "This is where past ends and present begins."
"And the future?"
Sango gestures into the wild foliage. "There is no future."
On the way back to the destroyed village, Takeda remembers something.
"Your two friends," he says. "You mean that hanyou and that weird girl."
"That was them."
"Where are they now?"
"They disappeared down a well together."
"And then what happened to them?"
"I think they lived happily ever after."
If Takeda had bothered to ask, he would have learned about Naraku and of the long battle they had gone through and eventually won. He would have learned that the young kitsune they had traveled with had been left with an old miko in some village somewhere, about the protests and the tears, and of Sango's decision to leave her cat youkai there in order to watch over them.
Takeda would have learned about the Kazaana.
"Houshi-sama and I," Sango continues as the twilight spreads across the sky, "we have been through so much. I think even more than other two companies had. We lost family and kin. We lost homes or never had one in the first place. We were there when darkness rose and fell. We survived and went through the same calamities they had but they got to live happily ever after and we didn't."
She turns to him, quite suddenly and almost desperate. "Do you ever feel," she asks, "like you've been robbed of your happy ending?"
Takeda is not a very thoughtful guy. He doesn't understand a lot and doesn't take the time to understand what he doesn't understand. But he understands now.
"All the time."
When he had first seen her all those years ago, and he remembers this, he instantly thought of flowers. Which was odd because the first time he had seen her was in the middle of a bear youkai slaughtering, and the last thing he should have been thinking of was flowers. But Takeda had always been a little eccentric and Sango had always been a little unique, so it worked out.
He watches Sango become enamored with the garden. She is constantly in it and there is a brightness to her that Takeda has not seen since encountering her again.
Sango likes the garden because it makes her think of birth. Birth, she believes, is the start of a new life. It is coming into the world fresh and clean, leaving behind the past and moving onto new.
Sango has been born twice. The first she can't remember. The second she remembers layers of dirt and the desperate need for air. When Sango thinks of birth, she thinks of dirt and a flower garden.
When Takeda promised her a flower garden, it made her a little happier for some reason.
You are a goddess among weeds, Takeda wants to tell her but instead he bites his tongue and stands on the outskirts of her marriage.
The doctor comes to Takeda again. "I have thought of something," he announces, bright and brilliant. "There is a rare herb in the west. If you can get it, I am sure it will save him."
Takeda turns away from Sango's brother picking apart a bush with a frown. "How far in the west?"
"A fair distance."
"Huh," says Takeda. "Very well."
Sango rushes outside when she sees him preparing to mount his horse, afraid he is leaving. Her voice is shrill. "What are you doing?"
"I am going for that herb," says Takeda calmly.
"For your husband. I don't trust anyone else to get it so I shall go myself."
Sango stares at him, speechless.
"I thought that I might bring your brother along as well," he says suddenly, catching Sango off guard.
Her jaw snaps. "What?"
"I am going to bring your brother-"
Takeda shrugs. "He wants to go."
Sango is staring at him again.
Takeda mounts without waiting for further reply, or permission, and Sango's brother behind him. "I will be back in three days," he informs Sango.
She forgets to wave as they ride off.
Sango sits by Miroku, wipes his face when he sweats, moves aside when the doctor comes in. Miroku is asleep, which Sango is thankful for.
She wouldn't want him to know she was worried. Especially because she isn't sure which man she was more worried for.
By the end of the third day, Sango has chewed down all her nails. She walks around the destroyed village, lost and trying to find something to do only to stop in the middle of it. "They said they'd be here by now," she whispers, worried.
Miroku hears her anyway. "Who said?"
Miroku has heard the story by now. He closes his eyes. "If he doesn't come back, he will be a very bad man," he states.
Sango stops biting her nails. She swallows. "Yes..."
"But it he does come back, he will be a very good man."
Sango clutches her upper arms. Something pricks her throat, painfully. "Yes..." she agrees.
She isn't sure which one would be worse.
Takeda comes back on the fifth day. In the early morning, Sango sits, awake all night, waiting. She runs to them when she sees them, Takeda in the front and Kohaku in the back.
"Yes." Takeda is tired and dusty. He coughs and under the dust Sango finds him handsome.
That scares her more than anything.
Sango's brother dismounts. In his arms there is a duck and he sets it on the ground.
"Oh no, Kohaku. Don't do it." Sango moves to intervene.
"Sister," says Kohaku.
Sango freezes. She stops breathing. "Wha..."
"Sister, sister," Kohaku chirps. He bends down and strokes the duck's head. "Cow. Dog. Cat. Cat. Bird."
Sango is having problems forming words. "Wha...How..."
"Oh yes," says Takeda, bored and slightly irritated. "He started that a couple days age. He won't stop talking now. Chattered all the way back here. I couldn't get him to shut up."
Sango's hand is covering her mouth. Her skin is pale, like she is about to throw up.
"No," Sango lowers her hands, shakily. "No. Not at all."
It was the closest Takeda had ever come to seeing Sango cry.
Later, after Sango has sat with her husband and watched the doctor give him the herb, she walks into the house where Takeda is.
"Thank you," she says. "Thank you so much."
Takeda looks at her in the dark. He is framed by shadow and firelight, and terribly handsome. Sango lowers her eyes to hide her blush.
"Thank you for everything. I wish there was something else I could say but all I can think of is thank you, so thank you."
She turns to leave and when her back is to him, he speaks.
"I'm still in love with you."
Sango becomes still, her limbs hanging limply by her sides. She doesn't turn around.
"This is bad timing, I know. But I needed to tell you," says Takeda. "I realized it the other day, when you told me about that path of yours. For a while I had forgotten. I waited and waited, and when you finally came back to me you had found another. I think I gave up then but now I know better. I know I'm still in love with you."
"You aren't in love with me," Sango replied, still refusing to turn. "You're in love with the idea of me. You take what you know and you fill in the gaps with what you want me to be."
Takeda doesn't say anything. Sango leaves without another word.
Sango avoids him the rest of the day. Takeda sits in his camp, thinking hard and eyebrows lowered. Kohaku sits beside him, the duck in his arms.
"Stone. Cat. Cat. Sister. Duck friend. Friend duck."
The boy is learning to speak again.
Around him, the servants watch warily. They have finally stopped making warding signs.
Miroku is moved into the new house, which is almost completely ready. Miroku is trying to contain himself but it is obvious he doesn't like the house. He is silent as they cautiously move him.
When the soldiers leave, Miroku says to Takeda, "I don't like you much."
Takeda stands in the doorway, looking at him.
"I don't like you at all. If I could, I think I would hate you."
Takeda doesn't say anything. He doesn't react.
"You've given her everything," Miroku chokes a little. "You've given her everything that I couldn't give her."
Takeda looks away, not sure if he is saving Miroku embarrassment or because he didn't want to see the man's tears.
Miroku regains himself, wipes his face with his sleeve. "But thats exactly why I can't hate you."
Takeda looks at him again.
"And for that," says Miroku, "I have to say thank you."
Miroku died the next day.
The doctor is sad and angry. "It was the right herb. I i know /i it was the right herb."
Sango lays a hand on his shoulder, quieting him. She forgives him.
Sango buries Miroku by herself, refusing all help offered to her. Beside her dead family, she makes a new grave. It takes her the entire day and after it is done, she sits on the grave for a long, long time.
Takeda goes to Sango when she leaves the grave and goes into the house at last. She sits on the floor, staring off into space.
"I'm sorry," said Takeda to her turned back. It is the first time he has apologized for anything in his life. "I wasn't able to save him."
Sango straightens her back. She says nothing.
Takeda waits for a little bit. Eventually, he walks away.
In the morning, there is a white lily on Miroku's grave. Sango sees it and disappears into the wood. She doesn't come out.
Days pass and the servants inquire about leaving. The man they had come to save was dead. They had no more reason to be there.
Takeda tells them to be silent.
Takeda spends a lot of time thinking and a lot of time wandering around that day. He walks around the destroyed village, through the shack, down to the field where Kohaku showed him the lilies. Around and around he goes, studying Sango's world for the first time to discover what exactly it was that made her so irresistible to him.
He knew he could have any woman he wanted. He had enough money and enough power to attract any illegible female. Takeda was a king and he knew most kings didn't pine over taijiya women for years on end. No woman was worth that much but Takeda couldn't help himself.
Standing in the destroyed village, Kohaku at his heel with the duck on his heel, Takeda found an answer.
Sango is sitting on the edge of the path, where she has been sitting for days now. She sits like a rock and stares into the foliage. She doesn't turn when Takeda walks up to her.
"You said," starts Takeda, forcefully, "that I was in love with the idea of you. That I was in love with the gaps. And I have found, Sango, that that is true."
Sango tilts her head slightly, enough so he can see the profile of her face.
"Those gaps in you," said Takeda, "all those holes that have been left because of all these bad things that have happened to you, I am in love with that. Your tragedy is what I love, your resilience is what I love, your darkness and your fire and your heartache. I love them, Sango. But, furthermore, I love the whole parts of you too. I want to make you whole, Sango. I want to fill in those gaps so you can love them too."
Takeda takes a breath. There. He had laid his heart on the table again for her.
Sango turns away, back around to the path that led no where. It is a long moment before she says anything. "You don't want to love me," she says at last.
"Why?" Takeda demands.
"Because everything I love dies."
Takeda's eyebrows lower, anger rolling in him. He moves purposely forward and pulls her to her feet. Grasping her shoulders, he turns her to face him. "I am not dead," he says into her face, surprising her. "And neither are you."
He releases her and points a finger down the path. "You said there was no future didn't you?"
Slowly, she nods.
Takeda moves off the edge of the path. Right where the path ended, he began to stomp his feet.
Sango clutches a fistful of fabric over her chest. "What...What are you doing?"
"Making a future. When fate doesn't hand you a happy ending, you have to make one for yourself."
Sango leans against a tree for support. Hollowly, she watches him.
Takeda stomps until he is to tired to stomp anymore. Exhausted, he collapses.
Sango doesn't move. Takeda looks up at her but she isn't looking at him.
"You," said Sango suddenly, "have always been rude."
Takeda's mouth drops, shocked. If there was a reaction he suspected, it certainly wasn't that.
"You never ask about anything," Sango continues, "unless it has something to do with you, or satisfies some inner curiosity of yours. You don't care to know about anyone. You are bossy and spend too much money and act too proud. You are snotty and arrogant. You rarely apologize even when you know you've hurt someones feelings."
Takeda lowers his eyes to the ground. She is the only one who could hurt him so deep. There was no happy ending in the storybook for him.
"I also think," Sango said, "that the world would be a much better place if everyone was like you."
Takeda had only enough time to open his arms to her before she ran to him.
"Will you leave with me?" Takeda asks her after she has cried and recovered.
Sango looks at the ruins around her, at the many graves, Miroku's white lily, and her brother with his duck.
Before she can say anything, Kohaku hands her a flower. "Lily," he says and touches her face.
One tear slides off Sango's cheek. It lands softly into the flowers petals and gleams there. "Yes," she says. "I think I will."
It takes a few days to pack everything. Takeda takes care of most of it, allowing Sango to rest. Sango is still a little distant and she cries sometimes. Takeda knows it will take time for her, but he has waited years. He is more than willing to wait as long as she needs him too.
On the last day, Sango asks Takeda to come walking down the path with her this time. Together they walk, side-by-side.
At the end of the path, instead of stopping, Sango walks off into the grass.
"What are you doing?" asks Takeda.
Sango looks up at him and stomps his feet. She smiles, for the first time in a long time. "Making a future for myself."
"And then the taijiya moved with the king back to his castle."
"And then what happened?" asks Kohaku.
"I think," said Sango, "that they lived happily ever after."