Doa's steps are still light, so light Rin doesn't hear them until they're right behind her. The Asano dojo doesn't get many visitors these days, and she unfolds her creaking body without hurry. She brushes the dirt off her hands and turns around slowly, and there's Doa standing in Rin's garden with her hands on her hips like it's nothing out of the ordinary, like it hasn't been sixty years since last.
Her hair is still surprisingly dark. Rin's turned silver early on, but Doa's tresses have only changed in parts. She still cuts them short.
"Rin," she says, dignified despite the sad state of her clothing. She already dressed oddly before; now her clothing is a mish-mash of east and west that makes little sense. A shredded haori and a sailor's shirt, leather shoes and a headband with the pattern of her people. Rin isn't sure whether it tells of homelessness or of many, many homes.
"Doa," Rin replies. In the old days she would have given acting dignified a shot, but if she's learned anything it is to embrace the joy when it finds you. She smiles and Doa smiles back. Her face is still round, still holds a hint of childish cuteness, but it's lined, marked by a long life. The edges of her tattoo are blurry, but her smile is still clear, still shatters her hardened shell to reveal the softness inside.
Rin spreads her arms to draw her oldest friend into a hug, but remembers something. Squinting, she peers behind the shorter woman.
Doa's eyes darken. The air is suddenly hard to breathe.
"Oh, Doa," Rin says, tears welling up in her eyes. "Oh, Doa," and Doa falls into her open arms like a tall tree succumbing to the axe.
The afternoon heat drives them into the shade. At first, they sit in silence. Doa has always been sparse with words, and Rin has a new patience for it now. If you spend enough time in it, you eventually learn to love the silence.
At last, when their shadows have grown long enough to spill over the edge of the porch, she asks:
"How has it been?"
"Hard. But good," Doa says. She pauses, lips tight. "Until it wasn't."
Rin takes her hand and Doa allows it without protest. It's small and wrinkled, but still steady.
"What happened to Isaku?" Rin asks softly.
"Got ill. We had no money, so no doctor. I could do nothing."
"I'm so sorry."
Doa nods, squeezes Rin's hand. She's calm, strangely so. Maybe the grief has already faded some, or maybe the years have made her stronger where it matters most. Rin hopes so.
"And so you came here," she says, and Doa looks her in the eyes for long moments.
They prepare the meal together. Doa's cooking involves some rather strange ideas, but Rin gently guides her and the preparations in the right direction, and in the end they have something edible. She watches Doa stir the pot out of the corner of her eyes and refrains from teasing remarks about her having acquired domestic skills. For some reason, Rin feels more proud than smug.
When the bowls are empty and the chopsticks put down, Doa finally asks:
"How'd it go?"
Rin takes a deep breath and looks out over the garden. It has been her only company for a long time now.
"Anotsu's gone. Manji is, too. And Hyakurin," she says. "Everyone's gone, and none of us got what we wanted."
The sounds of the city are so close now. So loud. It didn't use to be - but then, this isn't the city she knew. Not the country she grew up in. She feels like a stranger here sometimes, and those who should be strangers walk as though they own the ground beneath their feet. She wonders what her younger self would have thought. Had things turned out differently, would she have been happy with the new order?
"No win," Doa says. She doesn't say sorry; Rin didn't expect her to, but she tilts her head. "You still have it?" She motions to her hip, and Rin understands. She reaches into her obi for the dagger. The authorities confiscate weapons now, but age has only made it easier to escape watchful eyes and pass for harmless. She refuses to go completely unarmed, even if she's had to give up her golden daggers.
Doa runs her fingers over the smooth wood of the sheath like she's petting a small animal. It was a gift. Rin was supposed to continue Doa's carvings but first there was no time, then it was forgotten. Then she couldn't bring herself.
"No man, no kids." Doa raises her eyebrows. "Why? Are you barren?"
Rin feels the heat of anger on her cheeks. With a speed she hasn't been able to muster in years, she snatches the dagger back.
"At our age, who isn't?" she snaps. "Don't come chiding me for not having children when you don't have any, either."
Doa simply waves her hand.
"It's not the same."
"And how, exactly, is it not?" Rin asks, outraged, but Doa ignores her.
"Ipetamu," she says.
Her voice is so small, so breathless, that Rin forgets her rage.
She kept the swords.
Kutoneshirika, her heritage, and Ipetamu, Doa's old blade. That one was a gift, too, but Rin always considered it a loan. She suspects that in her heart of hearts, so did Doa.
When she lifts the floorboards and the steel shines up at them, a low sound escapes Doa's lips. Her eyes are wide. Rin leans back and watches her friend reach for the weapon, lift it up carefully and hold it like a treasure. Doa still holds it with skill. She tests the edge, swings it through the air. Her arms are still strong, her movements still fluid. Her eyes still fill with feral joy at the clang of metal.
Rin understands her better now. They were born holding a blade; they will die empty-handed. She never expected it to be a loss, but she misses the weight on her shoulder.
"You had better put it back. No one's allowed to carry a sword anymore," Rin says, forcing herself to look away from the ornate sheath still in the hiding place.
Doa doesn't listen. She almost jumps to her feet and lunges at the stairs, beheads an invisible enemy. Rin scrambles to her feet and manages to catch her before she continues outside.
"Don't you understand? Everything's different now!"
She holds Doa by the shoulders, looking down into her face. It's the face of an old woman. The eyes of a young girl.
"Not us," Doa says. She stands on her toes, and, suddenly, they're kissing. It's not quite how it used to be, but Doa's tongue is still urgent, almost desperate. Rin still kisses back without thinking, and when they break the kiss, she still doesn't pull away.
Doa grins, and the years fall off her.
Everything Rin used to feel around Doa comes tumbling down over her at once; confusion, frustration and dread.
She welcomes it with open arms.