Disclaimer: I don't own Kaede…or "him"…
Author's Note: Well, here's a little ditty I've been working on for several months. It's a little bit of a departure for me in several ways—first-person voice, non-Inu/Kag-centric, a rather different tone in general (though I guess I could compare it to things like Missing in Action or Paradise Found in certain ways, but only to a limited extent), etc. Anyway, I'll shut up now and let you make up your own mind—I'll add a few more comments at the end.
He's been there ever since that day: The man who murdered my sister.
I had never seen death until then. I had known of it, of course—children dying at birth, mothers dying giving birth, old men dying in their beds, young men dying of disease, or in farming accidents, or far-off battles. I had nursed to the sick for days, weeks, only to be told one day that my charge had passed peacefully in the night. I had helped take care of the orphaned children who were left behind until proper families could be found to take them in. I had even heard death on rare occasions, when trouble would come to the village—I could hear the screams, but I was always safely tucked away, out of sight.
My sister bled to death before my eyes, at the feet of the man who had killed her. With her last ounce of strength, she returned the favor. With her last breath, she asked me to take the jewel for which the man had struck his killing blow, asked me to burn it with her body.
As I watched the flames engulf her, slowly turning her flesh to ash, I felt a tightness in my chest and in my throat. How could she have let this happen to her? For as long as I could remember, she had been the voice of strength and reason for the village—for me. We had placed our faith in her judgment, our lives in her hands, trusted her to protect us and guide us and guard us from the evil that sought the talisman she now bore to the afterlife. We had believed that we lived a charmed existence.
But now everything had changed. We were not as safe as we had once thought. Our protector, the one we had come to think of as invulnerable—immortal, almost—had fallen victim to the very evils from which she was supposed to protect us. And if even she could be so fooled, then there was no hope for any of us.
My sister was dead. I was, for the first time in my life, completely alone.
I tried to be strong, as I had once thought Kikyo to be, but I couldn't keep my lower lip from quivering like a little child's. I couldn't be a child anymore—there was no time for that. With my sister gone, the task of protecting the village had now fallen to me, whether or not I was truly ready to accept it. After all, I was only an apprentice, not nearly finished with my training. But there was no one else.
The ceremony ended, and the people of the village began to trickle back toward their homes, bowing their respect to the funeral pyre as they did so. Soon, only the men who had been assigned to stand vigil and see that the fire did not get out of hand remained. I stared into the flames a while longer; so long that the shapes and colors began to lose their cohesiveness as objects, becoming no more than abstract elements dancing in my vision.
When at last I turned away, I did not follow the others back down the road to the village; instead, my feet carried me into the woods, following a path of their own design. The further I went, the more anxious I was to get where I was going, though I knew only vaguely where that was. My mind seemed to have filled with smoke from the fire, my thoughts barely discernable, even to me.
The last branches parted before me, and I spilled out into the clearing, stumbling to a halt before his silent form. He was exactly as I had left him the day before: utterly still, eyes closed as if in sleep, mocking me with the peacefulness of his expression. A tamed beast.
Such hatred as I had never thought possible welled up inside me, devouring me from within, driving me forward and reining me in all at once so that I was tortured by its power. How dare he? How dare he betray my sister, preying on her kindness, her willingness to see the good in people, and twisting her love into a weapon for his own personal gain? How dare he take everything from me, and then not even have the decency to disappear? How dare he remain there, an eternal reminder of what I had lost, of how our deepest trust had been corrupted?
The rage burning within me sparked to life, and I snatched up a stone from the forest floor, hurling it at the beast as hard as I could. I didn't even watch to see if the first one had hit its target before throwing another, and another, my breath coming in hitched gasps, tears streaming down my cheeks. At last my strength ran out, and I cried out, collapsing to the ground and sobbing uncontrollably into the dirt. "Sister," I sobbed, "Sister, help me…help me…"
The red-clad hanyou was silent, not so much as flinching at my despair. He neither saw it, nor heard it, nor felt it. Try as I might, I could not affect him. He might as well have been a part of the tree itself.
The next few days were spent going through my sister's possessions, though she had very few, keeping those things that I could use, and donating those I could not to the poorer residents of the village. I kept the many jars of herbs and remedies, though I only understood the uses for half of them, kept her arrows and her bow, promising myself that I would learn to shoot—but I gave away many of her clothes, keeping only a few priestess robes for later, when I might grow into them. I also kept the warm fur cloak she had worn in winter – the fur still smelled of her, ever so faintly.
Every day I tutored myself as best I could in the ways of a priestess, though my efforts were clumsy and frustrating. I tried to recall ingredients for remedies and poultices I had seen her make, but unfortunately I had never thought to pay that much attention, so I frequently made mistakes. One of my concoctions, intended to soothe a gash, made a man's leg swell so badly that he couldn't walk for nearly a week. It felt as though everywhere I turned I was apologizing for my shoddy work; by the time a month had gone by, I was almost afraid to leave my house, for fear that someone would require help, and I, of course, would only make things worse.
Still, I knew I had to find a way to make this work. Every evening at twilight I climbed the steps to the shrine on the hill and knelt before my sister's grave, asking her for guidance. Sometimes I would remain there for hours, telling her of how I had somehow managed to stain Hironosuke-san's goat green with a remedy meant to aid with pregnancy, or how my arrows kept veering off course and getting stuck on people's roofs. I could almost hear her gentle laughter dancing on the evening breeze, and it comforted me somehow. She couldn't tell me how to fix my concoctions, or how to shoot straight, or how to bind a wound so that the cloth did not unravel when the patient moved—that was for me to figure out. But she could promise me that everything would be alright, and that I would manage somehow, in time. And so she did.
I still missed her terribly, of course—even more when my attempts at the work of a priestess went horribly awry—but I was beginning to come to grips with my new life. It was a lonely existence, but not an altogether bad one, for I had the support and trust of the villagers. They knew as well as I did that although my skills were quite unpolished, I knew more of the craft than anyone else in town, and so I was best qualified for the job. And I was getting better, at that. A few months after my sister's death, I managed to perfect a poultice that eased swelling—well, at least it no longer burned on contact, and it seemed to help reduce the swelling. There was really no way to know if it was exactly the traditional recipe, because I had no frame of reference—but at least it was a step in the right direction, and that was encouraging.
It wasn't until nearly half a year had gone by that the answer to my prayers finally arrived.
The weather had just begun to turn chilly with the edge of fall, but the sky was bright and blue, dotted here and there with white clouds. I was on my way back into town with a basket of herbs that I had collected in hopes of stocking up before the cold really began to set in, when I noticed a small cluster of people crowded at the other end of the square—most of them female.
Curiosity steered me in the direction of the crowd—and after all, wasn't I responsible for the safety of the village? What if the reason for this assembly was a threat of some kind? I couldn't very well ignore it.
But as I drew closer, I saw that all the attention seemed to be focused on a handsome man in robes of yellow and brown.
My heart started beating faster—this man had spiritual powers! He would be able to instruct me in the ways of a priestess! Granted, he was not a priest himself, and he clearly followed the Buddhist tradition—but a worldly holy man such as this one must have some knowledge of the techniques of ones such as my sister and I.
"My lovely ladies, you are far too kind, taking in a humble monk such as myself. I shall be forever indebted," the man crooned appreciatively, and several of the women surrounding him swooned. His eyes were dark, liquid warmth, and there was something captivating in his gaze that I couldn't quite identify—but whatever it was, it seemed to be affecting the other young women to an enormous extent. I, on the other hand, had larger concerns to address.
"Excuse me, Houshi-sama," I said, squeezing my way in between two women—each of whom stood at least a foot taller than I—and into the center of the circle where the monk stood.
His eyebrows raised in surprise at the sight of me in my priestess robes. "Are you the priestess of this village?" he questioned, sounding somewhat impressed.
"I am," I replied, with perhaps a little more pride than I had intended. "Actually, I was hoping to ask your assistance. Please, if you'll come with me and hear me out, I'll be happy to give you a hot meal and a place to stay for the night."
"Ahh," he hesitated, glancing around at the women again, "Actually, I was thinking I might…room elsewhere tonight."
It was then that I got an inkling of what that glint in his eyes had been—but really, a monk? He couldn't possibly have such impure motives. Perhaps I was mistaken—perhaps he simply had friends he wished to visit. At any rate, I needed his help; I couldn't afford to take no for an answer. "Please, Houshi-sama?" I begged, trying to infuse my voice with as much desperation and meekness as I could muster—how could he refuse me?
He glanced again at the women, all of whom were now looking at him expectantly as they awaited his answer to my question. Clearly he would be risking their good graces if he said no—and that left him no choice. Sighing his defeat wryly, he nodded. "Very well—lead the way."
I suppressed a triumphant grin, bowing graciously instead and turning to head back toward my hut. I could hear the cluster of women sighing and whispering to each other as the monk extricated himself and trailed after me on up the path.
"You're awfully young for a priestess," the monk commented conversationally. "What is your name?"
"My name is Kaede," I replied. "I was only an apprentice until a few months ago, when my sister was killed…in an attack on the village." I had been on the brink of confiding the true story to him, but upon broaching it I found I wasn't quite ready to discuss it yet. Anyway, if he ended up staying here—as I hoped—he would surely hear the truth soon enough. "I was forced to take up the position in her place. Actually, that's exactly what I wanted to discuss with you."
We had reached my home, and I held back the mat for him as he ducked through the doorway. The sun had now begun to set, casting an orange glow through the window shades, though it was not sufficient to light the interior of the hut, so I set about lighting the lamps and stoking the cooking fire.
"What is it that you want from me?" the monk questioned, settling down across from me at the fire.
"I'd like your help in completing my studies as a priestess," I said candidly, finally coming to the meat of my request. "As I said, I was only an apprentice when my sister passed away, and I've been fumbling along with the help of my limited training so far—but everyone here will tell you that I still have a long way to go before I'm proficient. Half the time I just end up making things worse than they were before."
"But I'm not a priest," he protested jovially, "I'm a monk—there's a big difference. What do I know about your healing traditions?"
"You must know some things," I insisted. "Surely you've met many others in the holy profession in your travels—you must have picked up some knowledge from them."
"Well, yes, but still—"
"And there are things that our traditions have in common as well. Your expertise in sensing and battling demons would be invaluable to me—you could teach me to protect this village."
"You're correct, but—"
"Please," I interrupted him again—this time the desperation came of its own accord. "Please, Houshi-sama. These people depend on me to guard them from danger. My sister protected them with her life, and if necessary, I will do the same. Please…"
The monk sighed, dropping his gaze to his lap—and for the first time I noticed the odd wrapping of yellow cloth secured with rosary beads that adorned his folded right hand. "I would like to help you, Kaede-sama—but I'm afraid I have my own agenda."
I watched him curiously. Suddenly this was a different man than the one I had seen flirting expertly with the village women in the square—the darkness in his eyes remained, but the warmth was gone. "What happened to your hand?" The words were out of my mouth before I could question them, and I regretted them instantly when the monk's eyes snapped to my face, his expression inscrutable. "I'm sorry. It's none of my business."
"No, no," he replied, his gaze softening again, "it's alright. My hand was cursed several months ago by a powerful demon named Naraku. He and I had met several times before, our battles always ending in a draw—until the last time. He managed to lure me into a trap by disguising himself as a beautiful woman, and then, instead of killing me, he burdened me with this curse."
"What sort of curse?"
"He placed a powerful void in my palm that, when exposed, sucks up everything in its path. At first the only way I knew to keep it secured was to close my fist, but I soon discovered that these holy beads can keep it sealed as well. But the void grows gradually larger by the day, and Naraku promised that eventually it will swallow me up."
Horrorstruck, I asked him quietly, "Are you certain? Are you certain he was not deceiving you?"
The monk smiled wryly. "He is devious—but I don't doubt that what he said about the curse is true. And what's more, it will be passed down to every male in my bloodline until Naraku has been destroyed. So…you see why I can't stay here."
Yes, I could see—but that didn't change the fact that I still desperately needed his help. There had to be some way to strike a compromise. "What if I were to help you find this demon? Would you stay and help me?"
He chuckled. "How do you intend to help me find Naraku?"
The truth was, I had no idea, honestly. After all, the whole reason I needed his help was because I lacked skills of my own—but there had to be something I could do. "Well…I could give you a place to stay, at least—a place to return to for rest. You wouldn't have to be here all the time—you could live here, and then journey out whenever you hear news of where he might be. And of course you would have lodgings and food free of charge in return for your services as a protector and a teacher."
"I don't know…" he said skeptically.
So I took a chance with another tactic. "And I'm sure the village women would be most delighted if you consented to stay."
His eyes widened almost imperceptibly, and I could all but see the wheels turning in his head—visions of himself, the handsome savior of the village, surrounded by a harem of grateful maidens. Apparently I had judged him correctly—he was that sort of monk. I was young, but I was not nearly as naïve as most girls my age.
At last, he seemed to come to a decision, though he made a respectable showing of reluctance to mask the undue influence that my last suggestion had had over him. "Very well—I suppose I can remain here for awhile. It will be nice to get some rest, anyway…"
I beamed at him. "Thank you so much Houshi-sama—I'll be forever grateful."
"Please, call me Shinzou."
"As you wish, Shinzou-sensei."
With the help of Shinzou-sensei's tutelage, I began to make rapid improvements. He had enough experience in battle to be able to show me how to properly dress wounds of all kinds, and he would always bring me back new recipes for herbal remedies and poultices from villages far and wide whenever he returned from his travels. By the time I was fourteen I was actually becoming quite confident in my abilities. Not only had I learned to make poultices and bandage injuries and minister to the sick and the infirm—I had also begun to learn to tap into my spiritual powers. It was very difficult at first—I seemed to have little or no control over my powers, and when they did choose to come to the surface, they were weak at best. But over time, with much encouragement and guidance from Shinzou-sensei, they began to develop, grow stronger. I couldn't yet do much of anything that was really useful with my powers, like generating barriers, or firing purifying arrows, as my sister had once done—but Shinzou-sensei assured me that that would all come in time. For the first time in my life, I felt truly proficient at what I did—as though perhaps the path that fate had chosen for me was indeed the one for which I was best suited.
One morning, as I was sorting the herbs I'd collected and laying them out to dry, a young girl appeared in my doorway, panting as though she had just run a long distance, her face smudged with dirt and tears. Alarmed, but carefully maintaining a professional calm, I set aside my basket and crossed to the girl, kneeling before her to ask what was wrong.
"Father—he—he—come quick! They said to come get you! Please, Kaede-sama…"
"Calm down," I told her soothingly, brushing her sweat-and-tear-dampened hair back from her face, "everything will be alright. Take me to your father."
I thought about trying to leave word for Shinzou-sensei about where I had gone, but he hadn't yet surfaced from his encounter with the previous night's "love of his life," and I doubted he'd miss me. It was amazing that after spending the better part of the last five years in this same village, he still managed to find women around town who were gullible enough to fall for his routine—you would think the women would have compared notes every once in awhile and realized he was making all the same promises to all of them. Shinzou-sensei was certainly a charming man—but I knew better than most women the potential price of falling for the first charming smile that happened to flash your way. Not that I suspected Shinzou-sensei capable of the kind of betrayal that had killed my sister—but I pitied all those other women who were so blindly willing to open themselves up to that horrendous possibility. Nothing was worth that.
The girl led me through the heart of the village and off down the road to the very outskirts of town, finally stopping at a small farmhouse on the crest of a hill. Stepping inside, I found a man—presumably the girl's father—lying on the floor, his face contorted in pain as his wife knelt beside him, ministering to an injury I could not see, blocked as it was by her body.
"Excuse me," I said, and the wife turned to me, her face wan and fearful, though I saw relief in her eyes at the sight of me in my miko's robes.
"Kaede-sama," she said, bowing gratefully and moving aside so that I could take her place.
The man had a deep gash in his side, which was bleeding heavily. I wondered briefly what could have made such a cut, but pushed the question to the back of my mind, instead setting about probing the area and deciding on the best way to treat him. He seemed to have a couple of broken ribs, and possibly some internal injuries, but I was hopeful that none of his vital organs had been irreparably damaged. For nearly two hours, I gently inspected the wound, applied special medicines to aid the healing process and prevent it from further affliction, and finally bandaged the wound, instructing him to remain as still as possible for at least two days. I also left some medicinal herbs and instructions on how to apply them with his wife, and told them to come get me immediately if there were any signs of infection.
When I stepped outside to return to the village, a man's voice startled me from behind.
"Thank you," it said.
I turned around. There in the doorway was a young man of about seventeen. He was nearly a foot taller than me, with a lean frame, and a few strands of inky-black hair hung lankly across his brow where they had come loose from the knot on top of his head. He must have been in there all along, but he'd been so silent I hadn't even noticed him. "You're welcome," I replied.
He glanced down at his feet. "It was my fault. The injury, I mean. I was working in the field, and I wasn't watching what I was doing."
I took a step back toward him, giving him my most serene, comforting smile. "I'm sure it was just an accident."
He smiled back at me wryly—but there was something oddly amused in his expression. I got the distinct impression he was laughing at me, and I didn't appreciate it. "Thank you," he said again.
I nodded in acknowledgment and turned to leave, not wishing to continue the conversation. There was something about this man and his quiet gaze that made me uncomfortable. And anyway, Shinzou-sensei would surely be wondering where I was.
Sure enough, my mentor was waiting for me on the front porch when I reached home.
"Why there you are, Kaede-chan," he said with a grin. "I was wondering where you'd disappeared to."
"A farmer on the edge of town had a little accident—I was just tending to his injury," I replied, taking a seat beside him. "I would have told you where I was going before I left, but it seems you had a little trouble getting out of bed this morning."
Shinzou-sensei raised an eyebrow at the innuendo, but I pretended not to notice. Teacher or no, I had come to think of Shinzou-sensei as a friend—probably the only real friend I had ever had, come to think of it—and although I treated him with the utmost respect in public, when it was just the two of us, the boundaries were rather informal.
"You would have to if you'd had a night like I did," he said with a grin.
"Why Shinzou-sensei, I'm sure I have no idea what you mean. As a man of the cloth, you certainly would not succumb to the pleasures of the flesh."
"Of course not."
I grinned. "So what was her name?"
"You remembered it this time?"
"Of course I did," he said indignantly. "Don't I always?"
"Oh. Fair enough," he admitted. And then, after a moment's pause, he said, "I guess this one is different."
I glanced over at him, mildly surprised, looking for the joke in his expression—but there was none. Was it possible? Could it be that a man who had made womanizing into an art form had actually experienced a flicker of real feeling for someone? It seemed unlikely, but there you had it.
"How did things go with the farmer?" he asked, swiftly changing the subject. "Didn't reattach any limbs backwards this time, did you?"
"No, thank you very much," I said. "It went just fine. He won't be doing any more farm work for a little while, but as long as nothing gets infected he should heal very well."
"That's good," he replied. And then: "Look, Kaede-chan—"
"You're going away again," I finished for him.
"You know me so well."
"Naraku," he confirmed. "There have been rumors of mysterious happenings in a town near the boarder of the next province, and I suspect he may be behind them."
I nodded. "Have a good trip, then. And be careful—you don't want the likes of me patching you back together again, do you?"
He grinned, and I was pleased to see a hint of pride behind his amusement. "No indeed."
Shinzou-sensei set off that afternoon, and things were pleasantly peaceful for the remainder of the day, and all of the day that followed. Unfortunately, the day after that, I received an unexpected visit from the young man I'd met at the farm on the outskirts of town—his father's condition had taken a turn for the worse.
I collected my supplies, and we walked back to the farmhouse in silence. The man looked as though he wanted to talk to me, but I discouraged him from doing so by maintaining a carefully concentrated, inward expression, as though I were considering the methods I would use to help his father once we got there. Truthfully, there was really not much I could do before even examining his condition for myself—but he didn't need to know that.
He held aside the mat covering the door to usher me inside, and I hurried directly to the man lying on the floor, exactly where I had left him two days ago. From the moment I walked in, I could see that his condition had, in fact, deteriorated. His skin was pale and waxen, dark circles forming beneath his sunken eyes. He shivered slightly from time to time, though the hut was toasty warm from the fire in the center, and his eyes—when they drifted open—were unfocused and insensible. Touching a hand to his forehead, I confirmed my suspicions—he had a fever.
Ever so gently, I pulled aside his shirt and the dressing on his wound, and inspected it. The edges were not healing cleanly as they should have, and there was discoloration around the laceration. This was serious.
The young man knelt at his father's other side, across from me. "Mother is in the other room resting—she's barely slept since the accident, nursing to him all hours of the night. Kaori is with her. Do you want me to get them?"
"No, thank you. I'll be fine on my own," I replied, hoping that he would take the hint and leave the room himself—but he didn't.
There was a moment of silence as I continued to inspect the wound, trying to decide whether a poultice would be best, or whether it would be wiser to try to wash the area clean and purify him of the infection with incense and oral medications. Making the wrong decision at this point might cost us valuable time—might even make things worse.
"It's bad, isn't it," the man said.
I looked up at him, but immediately I knew I shouldn't have. I had not intended to confirm his grim assessment—but the moment our eyes met, I could see that I already had. I looked away again. "I need water for the poultice—boiled."
The man nodded and got to his feet to fetch the water from the barrel outside. At the door I heard him pause. "My name is Jiro, by the way."
"Pleased to meet you, Jiro-san," I replied, not looking up from my work.
I combined the water with the mixture of dry ingredients I had brought and made a thick paste, which I spread over the wound before dressing it again. The farmer winced only slightly as I worked, but he seemed to be so delirious with fever that he hardly noticed the pain. Jiro-san sat by quietly, watching, jumping to his feet without comment whenever I requested a bowl or a pestle or another jug of water. In the end I decided to light some incense as well, hoping that the combination of treatments would give him a better chance of making it through the woods.
Wiping a sweaty tendril of hair away from my brow with the back of my hand, I gave a start at the sight of a steaming bowl of stew that appeared before me. Looking up, I saw Jiro-san standing above me, offering me the bowl. I hadn't realized until the rich, savory scent filled my nostrils just how hungry I was.
"Take it. You haven't eaten all day," Jiro-san said, and I did as he bade, noticing for the first time that the bright, clean, midday sunlight streaming through the window had been replaced with the cool blue of twilight. Jiro-san stepped away, taking a seat over near the cooking fire and lifting his own bowl of stew to his lips. Hesitating only slightly, I got to my feet and went over to join him, though I kept an appropriate distance between us.
We ate in silence for several minutes. Perhaps it was just because I was so hungry, but I was sure I had never tasted anything as wonderful as this stew before. It was mostly vegetables and broth, with only a little bit of meat—meat was hard to come by these days—but I devoured it gratefully.
"You're a fine priestess, Kaede-sama," Jiro-san said at last—but there was something odd in his tone. That strange, amused quality again. It seemed to be a compliment, but somehow he made it sound like it wasn't.
I decided my best recourse was to feign ignorance. "Thank you, Jiro-san. You are very kind."
"How long have you been studying?"
I looked at him over the rim of my bowl, eyeing him for any sign of an ulterior motive—but I found only genuine curiosity. This man was an odd one; that much was clear. "All my life."
"Your parents were of the clergy, then?"
"I never knew my parents. My father died before I was born, and my mother died in childbirth. I was sent to live with my sister and learn the ways of a priestess."
"Ah," he murmured, and I disliked the way he said it—as though my words had told him much more than I had intended them to. As though he already knew more of my story than I cared to reveal. Which, unfortunately, he probably did. After all, the circumstances that had surrounded my sister's death were anything but a secret. Still, most people in the village had the good manners to at least pretend they didn't know what had happened when in my presence.
"Then you've been on your own since she passed away?" he asked.
Although he asked it politely, anger flared in the pit of my stomach at the fact that he had had the gall to ask it at all. "No—I have Shinzou-sensei. He's helped me continue my training."
"He's done a good job. You're very efficient and professional."
There he went again—making a compliment sound like some sort of veiled insult. It was really starting to make me angry. "Thank you," I said again, keeping my voice carefully neutral and distant.
I felt his silent eyes on me, and narrowed my gaze at the fire. Finally, he spoke again. "Haven't you ever wondered what it would be like to do something else with your life?"
I frowned in confusion, so surprised by the question that I forgot myself and looked up at him. "Do something else? Like what?"
"Like anything," he said with a shrug, turning his gaze to the fire. "I don't know. It's just—there's a whole world out there that neither of us will ever see, because we've both had our lives planned out for us since before we were born. You've always been a priestess—I've always been a farmer." A wry smile spread cross his face as he glanced back at me, nodding toward his father's prone form. "Although not a very good one, as you can see."
I smiled in spite of myself and flicked my gaze to my hands. And then, before I could stop them, the words were out of my mouth. "Well, I wasn't much of a priestess at first myself. One time I was trying to cure a man's goat of a bite it got from a minor demon, and I ended up dying its hind leg green."
Jiro-san grinned. "I trust you've improved since then?"
"Oh, yes, I have, I promise," I assured him. His gaze drifted back to the fire, and I found I couldn't help myself—I had to ask. "What would you do?"
"If you could do something else with your life," I clarified. "If you could choose for yourself, what would you do?"
"Oh," he said, looking down at his folded hands. "I'd become a soldier."
"A soldier? Why?"
He shrugged. "Because, it would give me a chance to see other places—maybe even distinguish myself in battle. Maybe earn a name for myself—a position. Something that's mine. I don't know—I just wish I could do something to make my time on this earth worthwhile. I want to do something more than just live the life I was born to live."
I watched him as he spoke, fascinated. There was no greed in his tone, no lust for power or glory—only a heartfelt desire to find something he felt he was missing. He couldn't seem to articulate it to his satisfaction, but somehow I understood him perfectly.
He laughed, lightening the moment a bit. "But I guess that's not the way things work, is it?"
"You never know," I replied—but we both knew it was empty encouragement. He was right—life didn't leave much room for choices. All you could do was accept what you had been given and try to be happy with it.
And if anyone needed a reminder of what happened to those who tried to change their lot in life, he needed only to wander into the forest and find the hanyou sleeping silently against the trunk of the Goshinboku.
"Did you know him?" Jiro-san asked, breaking into my thoughts.
"The hanyou. Did you know him?"
I stiffened instinctively, unnerved at the feeling that he had somehow been reading my mind. "Why do you ask?"
He lifted a shoulder casually. "I just always wondered what he was like. I never knew anything about him until after it had all happened, and even then it was just the odd rumor here and there. Everyone says he was a ferocious beast of a man who terrorized the village and bewitched your sister—but I went into the forest once, just to see him for myself, and somehow I couldn't believe that this was the man they were talking about. I just always wondered how much of it was really true, that's all."
My jaw tightened and I looked away. "Well, I did meet him."
"He was a murderer. He got what he deserved."
He nodded slowly, still watching me. "I see…"
Dissatisfied with the turn the conversation had taken, and finally beginning to recognize the ache of weariness in my muscles, I said coolly, "I need some rest. Do you mind watching over your father for awhile while I get some sleep?"
"Of course not," he replied.
"Very well then—wake me if his condition changes," I said, getting to my feet and moving to the far corner of the room where a spare sleeping mat was already set out.
I slept deeply that night, to tired even to dream. When I awoke, the sun was already strong in the window. Across the room, sitting against the wall beside his father, Jiro-san kept his vigil exactly where I had left him. He glanced up and gave me a weary smile upon noticing that I was awake. I hesitated only slightly before returning the smile, deciding at once to forget the previous night's conversation—the last bit, at least.
"How is he?" I asked as I got to my feet and crossed the room to examine my patient.
"He's doing well. He doesn't look quite as pale as he did before."
"No, he doesn't," I concurred. Testing his forehead, I added, "I think his fever is receding."
"A good sign?"
"A very good sign."
We worked together in silence for most of the day. Jiro-san helped me to clean the wound and change the dressing, and we even managed to coax his father into swallowing a bit of broth to help him regain his strength. As Jiro-san handed me the warm bowl, his fingertips brushed mine ever so slightly, and the sensation seemed to trail its way up my arm, making all the little hairs stand on end. A couple of times I looked up to find him watching me in that quiet way I had come to expect, and it gave me a feeling in the pit of my stomach that hovered somewhere between annoyance and longing—but longing for what, I couldn't say.
He didn't ask me about the hanyou again, and for that I was grateful. When we did talk, it was about small things—the weather, the crop yields for the season, the upcoming marriage of the village headman's daughter to a man from a nearby village who looked uncannily like a monkey. By that evening, Jiro-san's father was finally beginning to come back to himself, and his wound was looking better and better.
Finally, I felt confident that he was on the mend. I left ingredients for another poultice with Jiro-san, in case of a relapse, but I was hopeful that it would not be necessary. All he needed was rest and plenty of water, and he would heal in time.
As I stepped to the door, my basket of herbs and other supplies in the crook of my elbow, Jiro-san got to his feet and came up beside me, drawing my gaze back to him.
"Thank you, Kaede-sama," he said quietly, and to my surprise and alarm, I felt inexplicably drawn toward him—as though he had just said so much more than a simple "thank you."
But that was all he had said, I reminded myself firmly. When I managed to find my voice again, I gave him my serene smile and a modest bow. "You're welcome, Jiro-san."
When I reached home, I tried to make myself useful, but I was so tired I nearly fell asleep upon my stores of medicines as I was putting them away. Finally, I gave in and went to bed—and it was a good thing I did, because not long after dawn, one of the village women went into labor. It was a difficult birth—not unusual, considering it was a first pregnancy—but to everyone's relief, both mother and child survived and were in good health and spirits. A few days later there was a minor outbreak of sickness, so again my services were required to contain the spread and tend to those who were ill. The only casualty was an elderly woman who had not been well for some time. I conducted her burial rights and the ritual cleansing of the family's house. There were a few minor aches and injuries brought to my attention, and a small weasel demon found its way into one of the village storehouses and needed to be eradicated, but I responded to each matter as it came with little difficulty. Every day I lit incense at the shrine, paid my respects to my sister, and said prayers for the sick and infirm, as well as for Shinzou-sensei, that he might be protected and have good fortune on his journey.
But every night, before I fell asleep, my last thoughts were not of the villagers or my sister, or even Shinzou-sensei—the last thing I saw before I drifted into unconsciousness was a quiet face with a knowing smile, and eyes that saw more than I had intended to show.
One day, nearly three weeks after my last visit to the farmhouse on the hill, I turned from my prayers at the sound of footsteps crossing the shrine grounds—it was Jiro-san.
"What's the matter?" I asked, getting to my feet in concern. "Is it your father? Has he had another relapse?"
Jiro shook his head slowly, his dark eyes fixed unflinchingly upon mine, as though he could see through me to something even I didn't know was there.
"Then what is it? I don't understand—why are you here?" I tried to keep my voice steady, but it sounded weak and uncertain nonetheless, and I hated it.
"Because…" he murmured softly, taking a step closer, "I had to see you again."
My breath left me as he took another step, at once almost threatening and yet open and unassuming. He seemed to have nothing to hide—and that frightened me. Everyone had to have secrets. Everyone left some things unsaid. But something about him seemed to say without question that he was completely and unflinchingly honest—an utter impossibility. "Why?" I whispered.
He lifted a hand and brushed a loose strand of hair back from my face, ever so gently. "Don't you know?"
And the strange thing was, I did.
He leaned in slowly, giving me every opportunity to stop him, but I didn't—and soon his lips were pressed against mine, warm and sweet and soft. His taste was bitter and utterly unfamiliar, but at the same time wonderfully exciting. I didn't know what to do, but he didn't seem to mind. He tilted his head and wrapped his arms around my waist, pulling me against him, and my arms drifted naturally around his neck, as though my body knew more than I did. Even as it was happening I could scarcely believe it. It was against everything I'd ever been taught, and it was certainly like nothing I could ever have expected, and yet I could feel my heart swelling with excitement and desire and passion and all those terrible, unseemly emotions that we women of the cloth are supposed to be above; and all at once, in that moment, I couldn't imagine why anyone in her right mind would choose the power of a sacred arrow or the spiritual purity of a cleansing ritual over this magnificent chaos.
When he pulled back, I could feel his warm breath upon my face. He was shaking—or I was, I couldn't tell. But I wanted more. I didn't know what—I didn't know how to ask, what I could possibly hope to expect. Something inside me was outraged that I had let this go as far as I had, and bade me sternly not to allow it to go any further—but that voice was all but drowned out by the thundering of my pulse in my ears. "Jiro…" I whispered.
"Kaede…" he replied, and the huskiness in his voice sparked a pleasurable twisting deep within me.
There was no more doubt—he needed me as much as I needed him. I raised to my toes to look over his shoulder, and then cast a furtive glance all around us, just to see that we were alone—and then I clasped his sweaty palm in mine and led him out of the main shrine and over to a nearby storeroom. Slipping inside and closing the door swiftly behind us, I had barely turned when he was upon me again, his lips against my lips, my cheek, my jaw, my throat. I couldn't breathe, but I didn't want to. I wanted only to be closer to him, closer than it was humanly possible to be. His skin was hot beneath my fingers as I pushed his shirt down off his shoulders, and my stomach clenched in nervous anticipation as I felt his hands move to the ties at the front of my hakama.
The tryst was clumsy and rushed, but he was gentle with me. There was pain, but I barely felt it, so awed was I at my own boldness, so exhilarated by my rebellion, and the feel of him surrounding me, filling me. Afterwards he held me close to his chest, covering us with our discarded bits of clothing for modesty's sake, and soon he was fast asleep. I, on the other hand, could not have slept if my life depended on it. My mind was racing with a million half-formed thoughts, with no discernable logic to them. What would Shinzou-sensei say when he returned? Would he know? What if someone came looking for us? How long had we been away? Had I really done this? Had I really given him what no miko ought ever give anyone? How many others had done so? Had Kikyo? Had she and…
Try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to feel guilty for what I had done. I knew I should, but as I lay there in his arms, I could feel nothing but elation. Even though it could never happen again, I could not bring myself to regret this moment.
I didn't know how long I had lain there awake when Jiro finally stirred. Propping himself up on his elbow, he nudged me to my back, so that he could look down into my face. I smiled up at him, grazing a hand lightly over his cheek, and he bent down to kiss me sweetly.
"We should be getting back," I murmured, as he pulled away, though he didn't go far.
He nodded, but didn't move to get up just yet. "When can I see you again?" he asked, and my smile faded—he didn't understand.
His brow wrinkled slightly. "Why not?"
"We can't…we can't let this happen again," I replied, schooling my voice to remain steady—gentle, but distant, as I had taught myself long ago.
This seemed to trouble him even more, however. "Are you…do you…regret it? Being with me?"
"No," she rushed to reassure him. "No, that's not it."
"You know why."
"No, I don't," he replied evenly.
I took a deep breath and glanced at the ceiling beam visible over his shoulder. "I'm a miko. I don't have the right."
"It's not as if it hasn't happened before," he pointed out gently, and my gaze flicked back to him—we both knew who he was referring to.
"I'm barely more than an apprentice," I said somewhat coolly. "And anyway, someone could find out. The people of this village might not take kindly to the idea of their miko being defiled by a man—even if you are human."
"Defiled?" he repeated, stung.
When I didn't answer, he pushed himself up to a sitting position and began collecting his clothes and putting himself back together. I raised myself up onto my elbows and pulled my shirt up a bit higher where it was draped over my chest, watching him in silence.
Finally, running a hand through his mussed hair, he walked to the door and looked back at me. I could only just see his eyes in the dim, but the hurt came through clearly enough, and suddenly I was glad for the lack of light. "I guess this is goodbye, then," he said simply, before turning and leaving the storeroom, the door closing behind him with a creak and a soft thump.
I lay there for awhile longer before getting up to collect myself as well. I had done the right thing—I was certain of it. To carry on would have been foolish, even dangerous—for reasons I wasn't entirely willing to name, even to myself.
About a month and a half later, it was discovered that Misao was pregnant. The news was brought to my attention when her father appeared at my door late one night looking for Shinzou-sensei. Unfortunately for my teacher, he happened to be in town that night. By the time Misao and her mother caught up with her father, Shinzou-sensei was valiantly trying to hold the irate man off of him without actually hurting him, while I tried my best to talk him out of murdering my teacher. The moment Misao arrived, Shinzou-sensei's eyes sparked to life, and he did something that none of us—I least of all—had ever expected of him: He asked her father for her hand in marriage.
The father was dumbstruck—but quickly recovered and answered with an enthusiastic "yes." Shinzou-sensei, for his part, was already looking to Misao for her answer—he wouldn't force it on her if she didn't want to marry him, no matter what her father threatened to do to him. She gave him a small smile and a nod over her father's shoulder, and Shinzou-sensei grinned at her—it was settled. They were to be married.
Not long after this excitement took place, I bumped into Jiro—much to my dismay. He was delivering sacks of grain to the marketplace, and I had just left the house of a woman who had taken sick. I kept the exchange short and polite, wary of the public nature of our surroundings—but he kept looking at me, watching me with that steady gaze that always seemed to say so much more than his words, and read so much more than mine.
When I returned home, I found Shinzou-sensei sitting by the fire, mending a tear in his robes.
"If it isn't my favorite pupil," he said with a smile. I tried to smile back, but I could tell from his appraising expression that I wasn't fooling him. "Something the matter?"
"No," I lied, turning to put away my supplies. "Just concerned about Satsu-san."
"I don't believe you," he replied easily. "This wouldn't have anything to do with whatever happened while I was away a couple of months ago, would it?"
I froze. "What are you talking about?"
He chuckled wryly. "Come now, Kaede-chan, have you forgotten who you're talking to? You can fool everyone else, but you can't fool me. What was his name?"
I swallowed, shifting my weight off of my knees to settle one hip on the floor. How had he known? But there was no point in denying it. "Jiro," I said, and to my surprise, it was a weight off my chest to finally say the name out loud. I hadn't even allowed myself to think it since that day.
"Are you in love with him?" he asked.
"Of course not."
He paused, seeming to consider my answer. "It's not as though it were impossible."
"It is impossible, for me," I replied simply. He didn't argue, but I got the feeling he wasn't entirely convinced.
"Well, regardless of whether you love him or not, you haven't exactly forgotten about him, have you?"
I shook my head.
"Kaede-chan, look at me," he said gently. I hesitated, but slowly I turned around on my knees, head still bowed, and inched closer to the fire before raising my troubled gaze to meet his. "What is it that you want?"
I gave a small, almost pitiful laugh. It wasn't the question I had been expecting, but somehow I knew it was the one I'd needed to hear. "I don't know," I replied, my voice small and unusually childlike—but somehow it didn't bother me with Shinzou-sensei. "I don't know what to do. I know I can't have anything more than what I've already had—I shouldn't have even let that happen in the first place. I know that this is the way things have to be, that this is what's best—but…I can't stop thinking about him. I try not to let him into my thoughts, but he finds his way in, no matter what I do. And I can't stop wanting to be with him."
Shinzou-sensei watched me silently for a few moments, taking in my words, considering his answer. When he spoke at last, his voice was gentle and soothing. "You're being too hard on yourself, Kaede-chan. I know you carry a great burden on your shoulders, and a lot of people depend on you to be a lot of things—but whatever they expect of you, and whatever powers you may one day achieve, you will always be human. Even the most powerful spiritual leader, houshi or miko, is first and foremost a human being. Don't drive out your humanity because you think that is what's expected of you."
"But…I can't…I'm not supposed to…" I protested weakly.
He smiled wryly. "There are a lot of things we aren't supposed to do, Kaede—but that doesn't mean they aren't done."
"Take your happiness where you can find it, Kaede-chan," he murmured, unconsciously fingering the rosary beads that sealed his right hand. "It won't last forever."
I spent most of that evening mulling over what Shinzou-sensei had said. Long after he had retired to bed, I still sat by the fire, staring into the flames and letting thoughts of Jiro wash over me—all those thoughts I had not allowed in, that had been waiting at the back of my mind, clamoring for air. Eventually, without ever really deciding to do it, I got to my feet and slipped outside, telling myself I would just take a little walk, just to get some air and clear my head. It wasn't long, however, before I found myself in front of the farmhouse on the hill, my heart beating in my ears.
A light flickered in the window—someone was still awake. I could only pray it was him.
My prayers were answered.
He turned to face me as I pushed aside the reed curtain over the door, his eyes widening slightly in surprise. "Kaede…" he whispered. Then, throwing a glance over his shoulder toward the other room, he motioned for us to go outside, and followed me out the door.
Once outside and around the corner of the building, away from the door, I turned back to face him.
"What are you doing here?" he whispered, his hands hovering over my arms as though he wanted to pull me close, but was fighting the urge.
My lips quirked up in a smile as I replied slyly, "I had to see you."
I fixed his gaze with my own. "You know why."
That was all he needed to hear. His lips crushed against mine, and I sighed into his mouth, delighting in the taste of him, the touch I had denied myself for so long. We didn't even break apart this time as we stumbled awkwardly towards his family's storage shed. In the dead of night, out here on the outskirts of the village, there was no one but the moon and stars to see us.
Misao was nearly five months pregnant by the time they were finally married. I conducted the ceremony up at the shrine, of course—and although I had done it several times before, I had to admit that none of those occasions had given me quite so much pleasure as when I joined the hands of my wayward sensei and the woman who was carrying his child. When he looked at her, there was a smile on his face that ran deeper and held more genuine emotion than I would have thought him capable of feeling—and she reflected every bit of it back at him. It was almost enough to make me believe that such a thing really could last. For some people, at least.
By this time they had already built a house of their own, although they had refrained from actually inhabiting it for propriety's sake—despite the fact that everyone in the village knew Misao was already pregnant. Mostly they kept up the ruse for the sake of Misao's father, who seemed to have decided to pretend that his daughter was still pure, and would remain so until her wedding night. Everyone else was happy to play along.
As for Jiro and I, we saw quite a bit of each other throughout those months—though we hid our relationship with rather more care than Misao had hidden her pregnancy. As far as we knew, no one but Shinzou-sensei and his wife had any idea of what was going on, and that was as we preferred it. For his part, Jiro didn't seem particularly concerned with what people thought of us, but he knew that I worried about what might happen to the villagers' faith and trust in me if they knew the truth, so he maintained our cover. During the day we made sure never to be seen with one another, never to exchange any more than the usual polite nod of greeting when we happened to pass one another on the road—but at night we met in secret in whatever spots we could find. The shrine, his family's storage shed, a secluded bend in the stream, a copse of trees in the forest—we tried not to meet in any one place too often, figuring that only made it more likely that someone would notice and realize what was going on.
Actually, though I was hard-pressed to admit it, even to myself, the whole thing was strangely exhilarating. I had a secret. I knew something that no one else could suspect, something scandalous and exciting and bold. I had someone who wanted me so badly he would wait until midnight and then feel his way into the thick of the forest in the dark just to be with me. And even more frightening and elating was the fact that I wanted him too. I was never happier than when we were together—and during the more difficult days, when I was surrounded by sickness and pain and despair, I wore that happiness like a talisman, close to my heart.
Late one night we were lying together in the loft above one of the shrine storage rooms. We met in this place more often than most—mainly because it was protected from the elements, and it was unlikely that anyone would happen by when we weren't expecting them—so we had created a sort of makeshift bed of hay and old rice sacks in the shadow of the sloped roof. Moonlight slanted through the window behind us and the gaps in the aged wooden walls and roof, casting a gentle blue glow over the room and illuminating us just enough so that I could see his eyes and smile glinting back at me in the darkness. His hand was resting on my bare hip, his weight propped up on his elbow so that he was looking down at me. He seemed content to look at me in silence—and oddly, I felt content with this as well.
His hand slid up from its perch, grazing my skin gently and sending a cool wave of sensation rippling over my flesh, until it finally came to rest again at my chin. He tucked away a stray lock of hair, and then ran his knuckle lightly over my cheek and jaw line, making me smile slightly. "Can I ask you something?" he said at last, looking at me pensively.
"Yes," I murmured.
"What happened to your eye?" Though there was no malice or disrespect in his tone, I felt the muscles of my chest tighten protectively at the question. It wasn't that I was ashamed of it or anything—it was a battle wound, nothing more—but it was something I didn't speak of often. Those who didn't already know the story had never dared to ask such an impertinent question, and I had become so used to the sight of the small, black circle of cloth in my reflection where my eye ought to have been that I barely thought of it anymore. It wasn't a pleasant memory, after all. Of course, it didn't help that he had been there when it had happened.
"It happened when I was nine. There was a demon causing trouble for a nearby village, so…my sister went to help. I insisted on going along even though she told me to stay behind, and…I was injured."
He seemed to be watching me carefully, as though suspecting there was more to the story than I was revealing, but he didn't press the matter, and for that I was grateful. "I'm sorry. It must have been painful."
I shrugged slightly. "It was a long time ago—and anyway, it was my own fault. I should have stayed behind like she'd told me."
"I bet she didn't see it that way," he commented, and I winced at the pang of guilt it elicited.
"No, she didn't. She blamed herself for not having protected me. And so did—" but I broke off, only just realizing what I had almost let slip.
But it was too late—the look of understanding in his eyes told me he had heard what I had not said. "He was there too, wasn't he," he said, confirming my fears.
I nodded solemnly, but said nothing, praying he wouldn't ask me questions I was unwilling to answer. Seeming to read my thoughts, as he so often did, he let the matter drop, asking hesitantly instead, "May I see it?"
I frowned slightly, confused at first—but then I realized what he meant. To be honest, I was a little afraid. I had never shown my injury to anyone—never even looked at it myself if I could avoid it—and the little girl inside me worried that he would be repulsed by the sight of it, that he would never be able to look at me again. That he would slip away from me. But of course, that was ridiculous—I knew he wouldn't, but even if he did slip away, it wouldn't matter. This was never meant to last. It wasn't as if I were in love with him. I wasn't capable of love.
Finally, I nodded again, taking a deep breath as he slowly reached up to push aside the patch shielding my useless eye from view. I watched him carefully as it was revealed, and was undeniably relieved when his expression betrayed no revulsion or horror, instead remaining as gentle and placid as ever. I felt his fingertips tracing the rough, raised lines that slanted across my eyelid from brow to cheekbone, representing the demon's claw marks. I watched him with my one good eye as he pondered the pale, glassy surface of the blind and scarred one. And then he did something I could not have expected—he bent down and placed a feather light kiss on my maimed eyelid. And that was when I began to cry.
Not sobs—just a few silent tears slipping from the corners of my eyes and sliding down over my skin into my hair. I wasn't even sure why—there was just such tenderness in his touch, and his kind acceptance of this evidence of my weakness, that I felt emotions I couldn't even begin to give name to well up inside my chest. And then I was crying—and he just stayed there, holding me, pressing gentle kisses to my temples, my eyelids, my nose, my mouth, until finally I fell asleep, blanketed by his warmth.
It was on a crisp fall morning that my routine was interrupted by a bit of joyous news—Misao had gone into labor. I wasted no time in collecting my supplies (which I had kept at the ready for some time now, knowing the day could not be far off), and hurrying to the hut where she and Shinzou-sensei had taken up residence.
A few of the other village midwives were already there when I arrived, and Shinzou-sensei was still there as well, holding his wife's hand and murmuring soothing words, trying to keep her as comfortable as possible. I laid a hand upon his shoulder when I entered the room, and he glanced up at me. "You'll have to leave now," I informed him gently, "but don't worry—I promise we'll take very good care of her."
He looked at me for moment before nodding his understanding and bending to kiss Misao on the lips. "I love you, dearest—you'll do wonderfully, I know you will."
"Shinzou…" she whispered, stroking his cheek and giving him a weak smile—though the love in her eyes was as strong as ever.
With one last kiss to her forehead, he got to his feet and exited the hut to stand vigil outside for what would undoubtedly be a very long day.
I knelt beside Misao and peeled back her yukata to examine her and assess her progress—there was still a long way to go, but that was not surprising considering that this was her first child. I asked the two younger midwives to sit beside her and keep her calm and comfortable for the time being, while the most senior woman and I prepared the herbs and medicines we would need when the time came for the birth itself. Hours passed, and the pains in Misao's stomach grew gradually closer together until finally, sometime in the late afternoon, she was ready.
We helped her from her futon and moved her to the birthing stool, where we performed the necessary cleansing rituals and applied herbs in hopes of gaining the favor of the gods. Shinzou-sensei had already had the forethought to adorn the house with ofuda for good health, happiness, and a successful birth. We had taken every measure in our power to ensure that all would be well.
It was a very difficult labor, but Misao was strong of spirit, and bore it well. Still, I could tell she was in an exceptional amount of pain, her breath seeming to be torn from her in gasps and sobs, her fingers bone white where they clutched the hands of the two younger midwives. Sweat coated her face, and no sooner had one of the midwives dabbed it away than it was back again, dripping from her chin, from her nose, from her eyelashes.
But it wasn't until it was nearly halfway through that I began to realize something was truly, terribly wrong. All the blood seemed to have drained from her skin, and she was trembling violently from much more than tiredness. There was blood—far too much blood—and I knew that if the child was not delivered soon, she would not survive. She seemed to have realized it too, and met my eyes in vague, pain-glazed terror.
"Push—you need to push now, quickly, as hard as you can," I told her firmly, trying to keep the urgency out of my voice—but it was no use. She knew.
"Please," she said, her voice halfway between a sob and a gasp. "Please…"
"Misao, you need to push," I repeated, and my heart sank in my chest at the grimace that twisted her face when she tried to comply—though it wasn't nearly enough. Her strength was waning quickly.
"Please…" she sobbed again, "please save…save the…ba…by…"
My jaw clenched, and she doubled over with another contraction—but again, little progress was made, and there was far too much blood. By the time the muscles had relaxed again, Misao was unconscious.
There was no time to think. She had made her wishes clear, and I knew what had to be done. Only one of them would survive—and it had to be the child.
The younger midwives paled when it became clear what I was going to do, but the oldest was unsurprised. She had undoubtedly seen and done this more times than I had before I had even been born myself—so when she reached for the knife I had retrieved, I surrendered it willingly.
Within minutes the child was free and breathing steadily. Misao was still alive, though blessedly unconscious, and we moved her as carefully as possible to lay on the floor. While the other midwives busied themselves cleaning and swaddling the infant, I sat beside her, holding her colorless hand until her feeble breathing finally ceased. She did not linger long.
For several moments after I knew she was dead, I sat there, watching her still features. I couldn't bring myself to move just yet. I couldn't bear to think of what I would be forced to do next. Just a moment longer—let him have her for a moment longer.
But of course it couldn't last. He had to know. And I had to be the one to tell him.
I cleaned my hands carefully as best I could before getting to my feet and moving to the door. With one last glance back at her body, I stepped outside.
There he was, sitting on the ground outside the door, leaning against the support of the neighboring hut, his eyes closed in meditation and prayer. He must not have been finding much success in that meditation, however, because he looked up immediately as I appeared.
"How is she? Can I see her?" he asked anxiously, getting to his feet.
I couldn't find any words, but he seemed to read the truth in my expression, his anxious anticipation descending into a growing horror. He stared at me for a moment, and I could see understanding and angry denial tripping over one another in his eyes.
"What is it—tell me," he demanded, his voice sharper and more serious than I had ever heard it before.
"She…" I began, and then had to swallow, my mouth dry. "She didn't survive it," I finished at last, as gently as I could.
Fury flashed in his eyes and he came at me, gripping me by the shoulders and shaking me roughly. "What do you mean she didn't survive?" he snapped, looking positively wild, and I felt a flash of fear at the strength of his anger.
"There were complications," I rushed to explain, for explanation was all I had to offer. "It was either her or the child, and she begged me to save the child. It was her decision, Shinzou-sensei," I implored him, willing him to remain calm—but my words seemed to have no effect. I had barely finished uttering his name when he shoved me aside and rushed into the hut. "Wait!" I called after him, following. "You can't go in there yet!"
I crossed the threshold just in time to see him yell at the other midwives, "Out, all of you!" Two of them edged toward the door and slipped passed me, but the oldest one—who also happened to be holding the infant—stood her ground until he picked up a small clay pot and threw it at her. She ducked in time to avoid it and protect the child, but wisely decided to leave as well, if for no other reason than to keep the child out of danger.
He dropped to his knees slowly at Misao's side. He was facing away from me, bent over her, so I couldn't see his face, but his hands hovered over her body as if afraid to touch her.
"Shinzou-sensei…" I said quietly at last.
"You to," he replied shortly. I didn't move, and he turned back to look at me, his eyes hard and cold. "I said get out," he repeated, his voice like stone.
So I left.
It was almost completely dark out, I now realized, and in all the day's excitement I had forgotten to send word to Jiro that I would not be meeting him that night. He would be waiting for me in the glade.
As I turned to wander off into the forest, I planned to simply meet him and explain why I couldn't stay, so he wouldn't be left wondering and worrying all night. Shinzou-sensei was bound to come to his senses soon, and I needed to be there when he did, both to offer my support, and to help perform rituals and make preparations for Misao's burial. There were so many things to be done. But somehow, when I stepped into that patch of moonlight, and he glanced up at me, his smile fading as he caught sight of my appearance, all practical concerns seemed to fly from my head, and I was overcome with a wave of grief.
When my knees gave out beneath me, he was there to catch me and lower both of us gently to the forest floor. I leaned in to him, clutching at his shirt, barely even aware that I was sobbing uncontrollably. My head began to feel light, the earth swaying like a pendulum beneath me as weariness and fear and despair came pouring out of me, leaving me empty and fragile.
Somewhere in all of this I managed to tell him what had happened, and he wrapped his arms around me and rocked me back and forth, pressing his cheek to the top of my head and letting me cry.
I was never sure quite when we fell asleep, but by the time I awoke, curled with him in the grass at the edge of the glade, it was midmorning.
For several long moments I lay there propped on my elbow, watching him sleep, his arm around my waist. It was certainly not the most intimate position we had ever been in, as both of us were still fully clothed, simply cuddled together for warmth and comfort as brother and sister might—but there was something different about this morning. Something had shifted—I had let it go too far, I was certain of it, and now I was in terrible danger. Of what, I couldn't be sure—even putting a name to it might be enough to allow it to come to pass—but it was clear to me that if I didn't put a stop to it, something horrible was going to happen.
I slipped out of his loose embrace as carefully as possible, relieved when he did not wake up, and headed back towards the village. I only stopped by my hut long enough to retrieve a change of clothes and brush the leaves and grass from my hair before approaching the hut where I had left Shinzou-sensei with Misao's body.
When I peaked around the edge of the reed curtain covering the door, I found Shinzou-sensei exactly where I had last seen him, seated beside Misao's body. The only apparent change was that he had covered her face with a crisp, clean, white yukata, and was now facing away from her, staring blankly at the wall. He did not seem to hear me come in—or if he did, he did not acknowledge my presence.
"Shinzou-sensei," I said quietly, when it became clear he was not going to notice me on his own.
No response. I waited a few moments before trying again. "Shinzou-sensei."
"Please go," he murmured blankly, his voice hoarse from disuse, and barely audible.
Nonetheless I felt encouraged, and took a step closer. "Shinzou-sensei, there are…preparations that have to be made. You can't stay in here like this."
"Then make them. Leave me be."
My shoulders slumped beneath his words, like stones sinking in a clear pond. "You shouldn't be alone right now," I said gently in my most soothing voice.
"I don't have a choice," he replied.
I could think of nothing to say to that. Standing there staring at his grim, unfocused profile, I couldn't help thinking of my sister and the day she had died. The day I had been left alone in the world. And all at once I knew exactly what he meant.
He surprised me when he spoke again, after what must have been several minutes. "It wasn't supposed to happen this way," he said quietly, still staring at the wall, though now his brow had lowered slightly, an echo of a distant anguish. "We both knew it wouldn't last forever, but it was supposed to be me—I was supposed to be the one to go. She was supposed to be the one to live on, have a full life. Now there's nothing…"
"There's your son," I replied, not really even thinking the words before I had spoken them.
The ghost of a wry smile twitched at his mouth, though it was sluggish, almost in slow-motion. "And what kind of life can I offer him? I'm a marked man, Kaede-chan. All I have to offer him is a curse."
"You have yourself," I declared firmly, though my voice was so low it was almost a whisper. "You have his mother—you can give her to him through your memories of her. But I won't let you sit here waiting for your death to come to you before it's due. I won't let you abandon him before you have to. He needs you. He needs his father."
Miraculously, these words seemed to finally get though to him, and his eyes drifted from the wall around to my face, slowly coming into focus. He stared at me for a long time, and I stood before him unflinchingly, bearing his scrutiny. Finally, he gave a slow nod.
The days that followed were solemn ones indeed. Misao was laid to rest in a manner befitting her status, with prayers and blessings to guide her soul to the afterlife, and perhaps, eventually, to rebirth. Shinzou-sensei, preferring to bear his grief in private, did not attend the ceremony. He spent most of those early days shut away in quiet meditation—though, after that first night, he seemed much more himself. Subdued and reclusive, yes, but at least that frightening, deadened look had receded from his eyes. I felt confident that he would be alright, given time.
The child, who had not yet been given a name, was cared for by another young woman in the village who had given birth earlier in the year, and was still producing milk. Shinzou-sensei quitted his solitude at least once a day to look in on him and hold him in his arms, murmuring to him in a low, gentle voice. Sometimes I went with him to offer support and see that there was not anything else they needed to care for the child. It was good to see them together, father and son. When he looked down at the bundle in his arms, I could see the echo of the same tenderness with which he had looked upon Misao, and somehow he seemed to draw nearly as much strength and comfort from the child as the child drew from him. Afterwards we would return to his hut, and sometimes he would allow me to stay for dinner, and we would talk of pleasant, simple things. It was almost as if he had died along with her, and was now slowly finding his way back toward life.
As for Jiro, I did not see much of him for a long time. He came to me several times in the first few days, but I made excuses not to see him, telling him that Shinzou-sensei needed me. Soon he seemed to acquiesce to my wishes, and I didn't see him for days at a time. It was almost like it had been before—but now whenever I came across him by chance in the village square or coming out of one of our neighbors' huts, his eyes asked me the same question: When can I see you again? He never said it aloud—he knew I didn't want the others to become suspicious—but he didn't need to. Regardless, I didn't have an answer for him.
It was on a warm, spring evening, when the air was heavy with a rain that had yet to fall, that Shinzou-sensei appeared at my doorstep. The strangely calm expression on his face told me this was no ordinary friendly visit, so I invited him in warmly, trying not to show my hesitation, and waited for him to reveal what he had come to discuss.
I did not have to wait long. "I thought you should be the first to know, Kaede-chan," he said with a somewhat regretful yet determined smile. "I'm going to be leaving soon."
Something like anger clutched at my chest, and it must have shown in my expression, because he held out a hand to prevent me from speaking. "I should say, we're leaving," he amended. "I'm taking Kentaro to the temple where I was trained so that when he's old enough he'll be able to learn all the skills he'll need."
I narrowed my gaze upon him, hearing what he wasn't saying. "You're going after him again, aren't you," I murmured quietly. "You're going to look for Naraku."
He answered with a nod, meeting my gaze steadily.
"Why?" It sounded plaintive and weak and I hated it, but I couldn't help it. We both knew what he was saying. This wasn't like the other times—this time, he had no intention of returning.
"It's time," he said simply, as though that explained everything—but somehow it only made me angrier.
"What do you mean, it's time?" I demanded, though my voice did not increase its volume. "What about Kentaro? He needs you to be there for him."
"I will be, in the only way I possibly can," he replied, with the calm of a man who saw the path ahead of him with perfect clarity. "I'm going to do everything I can to destroy Naraku so that my son won't have to suffer for my mistakes, and I'm going to see that he's well cared for if it should happen that I fail. That's all I can do for him at this point, Kaede-chan. If the force of my will alone were enough to keep me alive and with him for as long as he needs me, you know I would stay with him—but it's not. This was always going to happen, sooner or later. I only hope I can kill Naraku before it's too late."
"No you don't," I snapped at him, surprising even myself. It was as if someone else was speaking, borrowing my voice. "You've just deluded yourself into believing that your death is unavoidable because you to afraid to keep going. You could have prevented it—you could have held on. You could have stopped it before it even began, but you were too selfish. You don't care who you leave behind." The accusations flew from my mouth with wild abandon, like sparks from a forest fire, without any thought or reason behind them. When I had finished, Shinzou-sensei was staring at me in concerned curiosity.
"Kaede-chan, what are you talking about?"
But I wasn't listening. Tears obscured my vision, and in them I could see warped images of branches being consumed by a funeral pyre, and the fine, smooth wooden shaft of an arrow protruding from fabric that was a cousin to flame itself. I drew a long, slow breath and swiped the tears from my eyes, banishing the images and trying to steady my trembling nerves. "I'm sorry," I managed finally, taking in another steadying breath. "I…I don't know why I said those things. I know you're only doing what you think is best."
He paused, and I could feel him watching me, though I didn't meet his eyes. "Kaede-chan—" he began at last, but I interrupted him.
"Please—don't say it. It's done now. Just let it be."
He gave a small sigh, but conceded with a nod, getting up to leave. When he got to the doorway, however, he paused and turned back, seeming to remember something. "I saw Jiro earlier today—he asked after you. He said he would be waiting in the shrine this evening, and he hoped you would come speak to him."
I nodded, confirming that I had heard him, but said nothing else. I didn't even hear him leave.
I don't know how long I sat there on the edge of action, waiting for something to tell me what to do. In the end I decided it was only fair that I go speak to him. If it was over, he deserved to know that, once and for all. And it had to be over—I couldn't imagine any other possibility. So I gathered myself together and stepped out into the thick, damp night air, climbing the steps of the shrine with slow deliberation. When I pushed aside the door leading into the storehouse, he turned to look at me, and I felt a moment of doubt—but I steeled myself and stepped inside, closing the door behind me.
"You came," he said quietly, sounding mildly stunned.
"I only came to tell you that…I don't think we should see each other again. I think we've run our course."
He walked towards me slowly, the moonlight sliding over his face through the gaps in the roof, revealing a determined expression. "Don't say that," he said, coming to rest barely a foot in front of me. "I don't think that's true at all—and I don't think you do either. I think you're afraid."
My eyes snapped to his, and I felt a surge of anger. "That's none of your business."
"Maybe not," he conceded, "but I can't stand by and let you do this to both of us because of that."
"How dare you—"
"How dare I?" he interrupted, his voice firm, but still quiet and somehow gentle. "How dare I what? How dare I care about you? How dare I try to help you? How dare I want to be with you? How dare I fall in love with you?"
My breath caught in my throat, as I was sure he knew it would. "You know I can't love you," I replied harshly when I had found my voice again.
"You're a priestess, Kaede, not a living Buddha, and just as capable of love as the rest of us," he continued, his voice still even and unflappable. "It's not a weakness—it's a strength, can't you see that?"
"Don't talk to me like I'm a child, damn you," I fumed, taking a step closer. "I know better than anyone how love can destroy a person. For god's sake, how can you stand there and tell me that love is a strength after the hell that Shinzou-sensei has been through these past few months?"
"Because it's nothing compared to what I've been through," he burst out, and for a moment I was taken aback. When he spoke again, his voice was calm once more, though it shook slightly with suppressed anger. "He has his son. He has her memory. He has the knowledge that once, at least, they were happy, and he can carry that with him through whatever comes—but I have nothing. I have the memory of your touch, and the burning ache of all the things I've wanted to say that you wouldn't let me say—but I have nothing of you, Kaede."
I could think of no reply.
"Kaede," he said gently, almost pleadingly as he grasped my shoulders, "I want to marry you. I want to live with you in a house somewhere on the edge of the village. I want to give you children and see you smile every day. I'm in love with you, Kaede."
I looked into his eyes, feeling something creep up on me inside my chest as he spoke, like I was drowning, yet some part of me didn't want to be saved. But I couldn't let that happen. I couldn't give in. "No—don't say that," I gritted out angrily, wrenching myself out of his grip and taking several steps further into the room, facing away from him. "I can't do it. My sister—"
"Your sister was only human, Kaede," he said seriously, and I found I couldn't move another step. The anger seemed to drain out of my body like water through a sieve, leaving me feeling frighteningly empty. As though the anger were all that I had left.
The silence stretched on. And then, finally, unable to take the silence any longer, I forced myself to speak. "I know," I said, my quiet, meek voice sounding foreign to my ear. It was a voice I hadn't heard in a very long time.
I could hear him take a step forward, choosing his next words very carefully. "What do you remember about the weeks before she died?" His voice was gentle, soothing.
I resisted the memories that stirred at first—I had not let myself think of them in a very long time. Whenever I thought of my sister these days, all I could remember was the fury in her eyes as she looked upon his still form, the blood on the grass, the sound of her last breath leaving her body, the heat of the flames that had consumed it in the end. Somehow over the years, my sister had become a single moment in time, a symbol of hate and bitterness and tragic endings. But Jiro was right—it had not always been that way. Of course it hadn't. "She was…very happy in those days," I murmured, barely aware that I was speaking aloud. "I had never seen her smile so much, or so often. She loved him." I could hear my sister's laughter as clearly as if she had been standing right beside me. It was something I had not recalled in a very long time—something I had not allowed myself to remember—and somehow that made it even more present, as though I had last heard it only yesterday. "They had planned to be married one day, after they'd gotten rid of the jewel."
"Kaede," his soft breath caressed the nape of my neck, and I felt his hands settle on my shoulders—this time, I didn't shrug them away. "Do you think she would have traded it? If she were alive now, and she had it to do over again, do you think she would sacrifice that happiness, that little time they shared?"
My eyes closed of their own volition, and but I resisted leaning back into his embrace. "I can't, Jiro. I can't…"
"You can," he pressed. "Kaede, I am not that hanyou, and you are not your sister. What happened between them—"
"It's not just that," I interrupted him impatiently, fighting my traitorous impulses, "I have responsibilities."
"I'm not asking you to ignore your responsibilities—I'm asking you to trust me. I'm asking you to look inside yourself and think about what you really want. And I don't care what you say—this is about him for you, very much so."
"Of course it is," I snapped suddenly, pushing away from him and rounding to face him, the familiar anger returning to a low boil. "Of course this is about him. Everything is about him, because he took everything from me. You couldn't begin to understand all that he took from me."
"So take it back," Jiro returned fiercely, stepping toward me again. "That's what strength really is, Kaede—it's knowing that things can go wrong and still choosing to face the danger in spite of it. It's knowing what you want and being willing to fight for your own happiness. But it's not just Kikyo's fate that concerns you, is it," he said, looking so deeply into my eyes that I felt as if he could have told me the shape and color of my soul. "Somewhere underneath the anger and bitterness you feel over your sister's death is a scared little girl who looks at that man pinned to the tree and sees her protector."
I could feel my jaw tense at the words, my gaze locked on Jiro's face—but I could muster no reply.
"He didn't only betray Kikyo that day, did he," he murmured, so quietly I wouldn't have heard him if my every sense had not been focused on him at that moment. "He betrayed you too."
Outside it had begun to rain lightly, the tiny water droplets tapping gently against the wooden roof above us, a few of them leaking through its imperfections to slip almost silently to the floor. For a long moment we simply stared at each other, his words hanging in the heavy air between us—and then I looked away. Suddenly I felt extremely tired, as though my clothes were already heavy with rain, though I remained indoors. Without a word, I walked past him toward the door, my only desire being to return home and curl up by the fire. I wanted to sleep—I wanted to sleep for an eternity, my mind a blank.
"At least," he said gently, just as I laid my hand upon the door, "think about what I said. I can wait. I have no choice but to wait for you, Kaede."
I managed a silent nod of agreement before slipping out the door and into the rain.
Shinzou-sensei departed with Kentaro early the following morning. There were no tearful goodbyes, although I couldn't help fearing for the fate of my tutor, to say nothing of his tiny son—but we kept up the pretense of happiness so as not to disturb the little one, and perhaps because it made it easier to believe that everything was alright. Somehow, however, I could not suppress the feeling that the world was slowly and inexorably splintering around me, leaf by leaf, branch by branch.
It was a turbulent spring. Small storms came and went so often that the sky seemed to take on a permanently hazy, sickly cast, and yet none of them managed to tear open the heavens and give the earth the generous rainfall it so desperately needed. It always seemed to be somewhere out on the horizon, beyond reach. I did not see Jiro at all for nearly two months, though I could hardly say that he was not with me. True to my promise, I thought a great deal about what he had said that night—I don't think I could have avoided it if I had tried—but try as I might, I could not seem to come to a decision. He had been right, though I was loath to admit it—I was afraid. I was terrified.
One day, a couple of travelers appeared at the edge of town. They were badly injured and bleeding heavily, and one of them was leaning upon the other, barely conscious, so I took them in immediately and tended to their injuries. While his companion slept the younger one confirmed what I had suspected to be the case, but had dreaded to hear: war had been declared, and it was not far away.
Apparently a neighboring Daimyo had attacked a village some way to the north of here, and the local lord was raising an army to stop him before he managed to gobble up too much more territory. These two men were from the village that had been destroyed—they had stayed behind with the other menfolk to defend their home when the women and children fled. As far as they knew, they were the only ones left.
I listened to his tale in silence, offering my condolences for the loss of their friends and neighbors, but all the while I could think of only one thing—Jiro. As soon as the younger man had fallen asleep, I slipped out into the pale, overcast evening and made my way to the house on the hill.
"Lady Kaede," his mother greeted in mild surprise, giving a respectful bow as I appeared in the doorway.
"I need to speak to Jiro for a moment, please," I replied, draining the emotion from my voice with little difficulty.
He appeared in the doorway to the back room immediately, looking at me with even greater surprise than his mother had, but he followed me out the door in silence.
"You're going, aren't you," I said steadily, when we had put enough distance between us and the hut. It was not really a question.
He nodded. "I have to. The army is headed this way—if we don't stop them soon, this village will be destroyed as well."
I had expected nothing less, but somehow his words still managed to take my breath from me.
"I would like it," he pressed tentatively, resting his hands on my shoulders and looking into my eyes imploringly, "if I could know that you would be here waiting for me when I return."
I looked back at him, my heart straining against the cage of my chest. I wanted to say yes, if only to make him happy, if only because it was all I had to give him—but somehow I couldn't bring myself to form the words.
"I'm leaving in three days," he said quietly. "You don't have to answer right away. I told you I would wait."
I nodded, understanding. "I have to be getting back," I murmured. "One of the men may need care."
Over the next two days, Jiro occupied my every thought. He was in my hair when I tied it back, in my fingers as I dressed and re-dressed the men's wounds, even in my one good eye when I caught my reflection as I fetched water from the stream. Then, near sunset on the evening before his departure, I was sitting beside the younger of the sleeping travelers applying a clean bandage to his arm. He seemed to be healing well and was in good spirits even as we spoke of his departed comrades.
"At least they died honorably, fighting to protect our home," he offered. "There are certainly worse ways to go."
Something in his voice made me frown—it sounded as if he were referring to something in particular. "What do you mean?"
"You know, like that monk a few weeks ago—didn't you hear the story?"
My breath caught in my chest. "No," I whispered, "I didn't."
"They say he was cursed somehow, and that he had been traveling the countryside seeking revenge upon the one who had cursed him—but in the end he was swallowed up by a strange wind. I guess the gods didn't approve of his quest for revenge."
But I wasn't listening anymore. I got to my feet and hurried outside, not caring what the man would think. I only managed to get around the corner of the hut before I collapsed against it, silent tears running down my cheeks. I had known it would happen, it must happen, just as surely as he had always known it—but somehow I couldn't believe that Shinzou-sensei was really dead. It was too cruel. And the thought of little Kentaro left fatherless in the care of strangers, burdened with a curse that might one day swallow him up as it had his father before him, and perhaps even his son after that—it was too much to bear.
And then I thought of Jiro and the war, and something Shinzou-sensei had told me once—it seemed ages ago—came back to me: "Take your happiness where you can find it, Kaede-chan—it won't last forever."
I had thought I had understood it at the time—and I suppose I had to an extent—but suddenly the wisdom and truth of those words seemed to magnify a thousandfold. I thought of Misao and Shinzou on their wedding day, and the way he had looked at her. I thought of my sister and her laughter in those days before the end. I thought of Jiro and the way he had kissed the scars across my eyelid while we lay together in safe seclusion in the eaves of the storehouse.
It was clear now—I had always been in love with him. Nothing I had done to protect myself had prevented that, and nothing I could do now would protect me from the dangers of the future, or do anything to slow the inexorable march of time. In the end, I could only cause us both pain by trying—and it wasn't worth the effort.
I found Jiro by the fire in the main room of the hut, a bundle of provisions sitting in his lap where he was preparing it for his departure. He didn't hear me come in, but looked up when I laid a hand on his shoulder and followed me out to the storeroom in silence.
Once inside I turned to him, lifting my hands to his face and running them over the rough, weathered skin of his cheeks, and then down and back around his neck. "I love you," I whispered, "I love you." The words were foreign in my mouth, and frightened me more with each syllable I uttered, but I didn't shy away from them. He drew me against him and kissed me deeply, his fingers memorizing every dip and crevice of my body, and mine his. We spent the rest of the night in each other's arms, praying it would never end, and yet wasting no time dreading the sunrise.
We stood beside his hut in the early dawn, saying our silent goodbyes. His family would awaken soon, and I could not be there when they did. For now, for just a little while longer, this was only between us. "I'll wait for you," I whispered against his mouth, "I'll wait for you, like you waited for me." He kissed me again, slowly, deeply, his lips traveling from mine to my cheeks to my nose, and finally to my forehead. We looked at each other for one last, long moment, and then I turned to go. I looked back only once to find him watching me as I disappeared into the morning mist.
It was the last time I saw him.
When I received word of his death, nearly a month later, I died as well. I did not leave my hut for days. When people came to me seeking assistance, I turned them away. I knew it was wrong, I knew I was shirking the very responsibilities I had always clung to so steadfastly, but I couldn't help it. I was alone again—more alone, perhaps, than I had ever been before in my life, even after my sister's death. Any measure of peace and stability I had found these past few years was now suddenly gone once more, and I simply did not have the strength to start again. I hovered between sleep and waking for days that seemed like years, praying for the finality of death—but it never came. Finally, late one night, almost delirious with grief and hunger and lack of proper rest, I stumbled out into the forest, finding myself at last in a place I had not visited since the day of my sister's funeral.
For a long time I stared at the still figure sleeping peacefully against the tree trunk, his long silver mane rustling gently in the breeze. He looked exactly as he had always looked, though I could see roots and vines beginning to wind around his feet and curl over his arms. Perhaps one day, centuries from now, he would be swallowed up completely. Somehow the thought disturbed me, though I could not say why.
The longer I stared at him, the more lost I became in his quiet, peaceful visage. He looked so impossibly gentle. Try as I might, I could see no vestiges of the hateful creature who had haunted my dreams all these years. Instead, he looked young and helpless somehow, perhaps even rather lost. In fact, it startled me to recognize, he appeared no older than I was myself. A warm, heavy sensation gathered in my chest like a mist, and I was surprised to discover that it was pity.
Pity? Pity? Why should I pity him? I should hate him. I had always hated him. He was evil—he had proven that beyond a shadow of a doubt, had he not? He had enchanted my sister into trusting him—into loving him—and then he had stolen her most precious possession and abandoned her bleeding on the ground, not even caring whether she lived or died. It had taken her last ounce of strength to seal him here, to this tree. And the final cruelty was that despite all he had done, she had chosen not to kill him—she had shown him mercy.
And now I was doing the same thing.
Why had I not killed him myself? He had hung there, helpless and insensate, for years—it would not have been difficult to finish him off. Perhaps my sister had loved him too much, had been too much taken in by his lies, but I had not. So why had I not killed him? Why couldn't I hate him? Why did I feel this inexplicable tenderness toward him, even now, after all that I had suffered? Why couldn't I be cold? A hardened heart felt no pain—I would have been better off if I were like him, callous and selfish, untouchable, unreachable. Was it possible to pity him and envy him at the same time?
There were no answers.
Yes—answers. That was it. I needed answers.
"Why did you do it?" The words came out quietly of their own volition, and it was a moment before I realized I had even spoken. Of course, he gave no reply—but I only felt emboldened. "Why did you betray her? Did you ever really love her? Was it all just a lie? It doesn't make sense…"
The breeze played across his face, gently sweeping back his bangs, but he did not move.
"I trusted you," I continued, my voice even, drained from lack of use. "I believed in you, once. You weren't like the others. You were hard and gruff, but deep down there always seemed to be a kindness about you. Did I imagine it? Was that only what you wanted me to see? Is the gentle face that lies before me now only the remnant of an old illusion? How could you do it? How could you do what I still cannot?" The last question was a demand.
The branches rustled mutedly in the darkness, night creatures calling softly as they moved through the distant trees.
"You don't have any answers either, do you," I said at last, my weariness drawing me down to settle on my knees before the tree. "You don't know any more than I do, not now, anyway. And if you did, what good would it do either of us? Only Kikyo had the power to break the seal, and she's long gone, you saw to that—so I suppose, in the end, she did kill you that day. Perhaps she left you here not so much for your sake…as for mine."
It was a strange thought, but in my vague and muddled state it seemed to make perfect sense. Kikyo had been entrusted with the protection of the jewel—an item capable of greatest good and darkest evil—and her feelings toward it had been as mixed as the jewel's nature itself. Now she had left me a similar task. She had entrusted me with the protection of this hanyou prisoner, this gentle beast who was capable of so much destruction. He must remain here forever, suspended between this world and the next, between darkness and light—sealed away, but never gone.
I slid sideways to curl up on the grass, resting my head on my arms and blinking slowly, sleepily into the darkness. Jiro was there somewhere in the space before me, lying beside me and stroking my hair with gentle fingers. A little smile crossed my face, and I let him lull me gradually into a deep sleep.
From that day onward, I found a new purpose for my life—and with it came a sense of great calm, a wisdom beyond my years. For all that Shinzou-sensei had taught me, for all that Jiro had shown me, I knew then that I had been a child all along, only playing at responsibility and strength. I only wished I had not had to lose them in order to understand this.
But then, once I came to understand it, I also knew that I had not lost them. I could keep them with me—I had to keep them with me, or I would never be able to carry on. And so, wherever I went, they went, shadowing my footsteps and whispering in my ears.
For many, many years I served the village humbly. I delivered many healthy children, and many who did not survive. I buried many mothers and brothers and fathers and daughters. I tended injuries, I offered what wisdom I possessed—and every evening I walked into the Forest of Inuyasha and looked upon the sleeping hanyou, watching his face grow younger and gentler as mine grew older.
Perhaps he was a murderer. Perhaps he had committed evil deeds, and if freed, perhaps he would commit more. Perhaps the evil in him outweighed the good—but over the years I came to understand that while goodness can be suppressed, it can never be destroyed. The gentle face was not an illusion—the goodness was real. And more important than either the good or evil was the space in between, the shades of gray, the questions without answers. It was in this space that I found room in my own heart for forgiveness.
Tonight, for the first time in nearly fifty years, the tree is empty.
A/N: Well, what do you think? This story came about because I've always been curious about Kaede's reaction to Inuyasha when he was first unsealed. Given the fact that as far as she knows, he betrayed and murdered her sister, it has always seemed to me like she ought to be a little more personally offended and irked by his presence—but her concerns strike me as merely practical and oddly detached. Once she manages to subdue him with the rosary, she's a-okay with him hanging around her house, eating her food, and basically acting like a jerk. She displays some mild annoyance, but nothing to really indicate any lingering personal grudge over the way things played out all those years ago. So my question was, what happened in between? How did she get from being the little girl who watched her sister and mentor die at her feet—apparently at Inuyasha's hands—to being the wise, keenly-insightful old woman she is when he reawakens? Add in a passionate little midnight affair and a thinly-disguised Miroku stand-in in the form of his grandfather (why not? --grin--), and this was the answer I came up with.
It took a lot of self control to keep the story from becoming about Inuyasha and Kagome—force of habit, I guess. I kept thinking maybe it should turn out that she was telling this whole story to Kagome and/or Inuyasha as sort of a "gather ye rosebuds while ye may" kick in the pants, but that seemed to cheapen it somehow. I wanted this to be Kaede's moment in the spotlight. Granted, the story has a lot to do with Inuyasha—but I tried to keep the focus on Kaede's relationship with Inuyasha, as opposed to letting Inuyasha himself become the focus of the story. (And believe me, that was really hard, because the timeline constraints obviously didn't allow me to vindicate Inu-chan by having Kaede realize that he didn't really kill Kikyo…that was painful… --grin--)
Also, I know a lot of people assume Kaede's eye was injured in Inuyasha's attack on the village in the first episode, but as far as I know that has never been confirmed, and it has always seemed to me that she would be a lot bloodier and less coherent if she had just been injured in that way a few moments before. Maybe she's a tougher chick than I am, but I know I wouldn't have been able to muster much of a thought for anyone or anything else if I were in her place. Probably would've passed out, actually… (--grin--) Anyway, generally I don't put much stock in filler episodes, but in this case the explanation given in "Tragic Love Song" made as much sense as any, so I went with that one. Besides, I really didn't want the eye thing to be Inuyasha's fault. It seemed like it would just complicate her motivations in a way that wouldn't be helpful.
Oh, and I swear, when I came up with the names Shinzou and Misao, I didn't realize they had the same initials as Sango and Miroku (--grin--). It just sort of worked out that way. In fact, I didn't even notice it until I was writing notes to myself on some part of the story, and abbreviated them to "S&M" (which is sorta funny in its own right, come to think of it… --grin--), and I was like, "Hey, why does that look so familiar…? Oh!" Lol…
Actually, I took both of those names from Rurouni Kenshin. Misao is, of course, from Misao Makimachi of the Aoiya ninja clan, and Shinzou was the name of some minor character from one of the "Tales of the Meiji" filler arcs (I think it was the one about the Christian sect…not sure, haven't watched those episodes in ages. But I always liked that name…). Also, I know Miroku's grandfather is given another name in the third movie, but like I said, I don't really "count" non-manga-canon material unless it helps me, and by the time I realized this I was already attached to the name Shinzou…so, yeah… (--grin--)
Finally (last thing, I swear), sorry if there are any historical and/or medical inaccuracies. I did the best I could, but I am neither a doctor nor a historian, so I have to make do with a combination of light research, drawing from other stories/movies/novels, and my own imagination. Hopefully I got close enough that any mistakes were not distracting.
Okay, enough. Way too much, probably, but you should have seen these notes before I edited them…