THE FAR SIDE OF THE MOON
"There are no happy endings because nothing ever ends."
So in the end, Shichika does not travel across Japan and back again with Togame. In fact, there's no Togame at all.
Shichika knows that there has been no greater strategian than Togame in and before their time, nor will there be anyone greater when they are all gone, but for all her wit and cunning – Togame did not foresee Emonzaemon waiting for them at the outskirts of Owari, and so Togame is dead.
Which is a pity. Hitei-hime – and he still calls her Hitei-hime, even though she's not really a princess of anything anymore – isn't poor company, at least when she stops being indignant after he tells her he'll tear her to pieces; and the money she finances him with is much, much more than what he and Togame had between them, which makes travelling and map-making and remaking very comfortable indeed.
It's only that he'll never fall for her.
Map-making, as it turns out, is much harder than it appears. The coasts are hard, especially the funny edges, with the cliffs and ports and towns that appear out of nowhere, and the towns that no longer exist (like the Maniwa village, like Konayuki's village) and the main roads and highways...
Hitei-hime rolls her eyes whenever they stop at the next town and they go through his maps and she redraws them. Which is what princesses like Hitei-hime are good at doing – writing and calligraphy and diplomacy, like arguing (about how he was doing it wrong) and negotiating ("I can do it just fine, Shichika— give. Me. The. Brush. Back.") and backstabbing (he doesn't like to think about this part. It reminds him about what Emonzaemon called Togame before he shot her – Yousha-hime, a princess who was no longer a princess after his father killed hers.)
Shichika finds himself in the habit of touching the lock of Togame's hair, still tied at his hip, subconsciously, like she's something always in the back of his mind.
Hitei-hime is not poor company, but she's not Togame, and that may as well be the worst crime of all.
They go to the north, south, east, west – any direction they like, except towards the island he used to call home. Hitei-hime pauses in consulting a cheaply bought map – which she says is necessary, because they're going to be drawing one much better than it, and they have to find out everything that's wrong with it and fix it on their map – and gives him that narrow-eyed glance.
He says it's because he's grown up there, he knows how the cliffs are, how far it is from the next town – everything they'll need to know to draw a map.
Hitei-hime 'hmmph's and looks away from him, insisting that she'll do it by herself if he doesn't want to, because a princess will never do anything that is left than perfect.
"Fine. However, at that point, you'll be torn to pieces by bandits."
She throws Emonzaemon's mask at his head.
And because it is her keepsake, as much as Togame's lock of hair is his keepsake, he lets it bounce off his forehead instead of breaking it in his hands.
Togame might have wanted her legacy as replacing 'Chesto!' with 'Cheerio!' in all of Japan, but the battlecry she gifted to him works just as well.
(The truth is uncomfortable, and the truth is this: he does not want to go back to that island, and think of his father – the murderer of his mother, and of Togame's father – and the man he was before he met Togame, because he was not much of a man at all then, and if Nanami would have lived, sickly and frail, but alive, had Togame never showed up.
Or that: he may have been the man he was before he fell for Togame, and that man was hardly a man. Just a sword.)
They make it to Izumo and find Konayuki, who immediately flings herself into Shichika's arms and almost knocks him over onto his back.
"Shichika-nii-chan! You came to visit!"
She peers over his shoulder, possibly expecting Togame, and finding Hitei-hime instead.
"Onii-chan, where did Togame-nee-chan...?"
He smiles and ruffles her hair. "This is Hitei-hime. We're travelling together."
"Onii-chan is always travelling, ne? Are you still collecting your Deviant Blades?"
Hitei-hime flinches. Shichika pretends not to notice.
"Map-making now, Konayuki. It's something I'm not very good with, but Hitei-hime helps."
And then Konayuki knocks down Hitei-hime with the force of her hug. Perhaps she should be told to hold back on that.
At night, Hitei-hime sits across from him, her mouth a firm line. "Who was she?"
"A casualty," he replies, undoing the ribbon from his hair, "In our journey to find the Deviant Blades. My sister destroyed her whole village."
It's not (really) meant to hurt, but he marvels at it because it does – Hitei-hime spends the rest of the evening polishing Enmonzaemon's mask until it gleams like polished bone, like the glowing white of Togame's hair (no longer white really, but becoming coarse and dry), without saying a single word to him.
Which is alright with him. He only needs to sit back and think about the people he's met, and the people he's killed, and the man he was before he took off with Togame on her quest to find the Deviant Blades, and the perfected thirteenth sword he became. He wonders about the Itezora clan, and who Konayuki would have been if they still lived, if she would have been happy even as the weakest child in the village, had he and Nanami never left that island.
And then he cuts the thought short, the same way he has cut every thought on this matter short, because if he doesn't, he'll be thinking about the woman he fell for, and about the descendent of Kiki Shikizaki sitting across from him, who he isn't sure if he's meant to hate.
It takes five years to journey over Japan with Hitei-hime (who is not Togame) and finish their map (with Hitei-hime's finances) and sell it to the most respectable merchants they can find. There's money, and quite a bit of it even, especially when the men who they sell their maps to are just a bit intimidated about him and his stature, too frightened to try and cheat a woman like Hitei-hime.
It's fine until Shichika realises he has nothing to do.
So, being a sword, even as an unwielded one that has had no owner since Togame, he trains. The question of what he will do with himself, the same one that he has ignored since Togame's death, hounds him. Before Togame, he lived alone with Nanami, hoping no more than to live and take the secrets of Kyotoryuu with him to the grave. With Togame, he had hoped to journey across Japan, and draw their map. After Togame—
—the truth is uncomfortable, because the truth is that his life had revolved around her for all of those twelve months. Togame was like a battle – something that he cannot be helped but be drawn into, bright and burning, and he would like to believe that her final words to him were a lie. Not that she wanted to fall for him, as he did for her, but that she would have killed him the moment she saw fit to.
Shichika knows that there has been no greater strategian than Togame in and before their time, and she might as well have been strategising until her death, hoping that she could bring herself to kill him, or hoping that she could order him into living without her, or even hoping that he might believe her lie when she told him she would have killed him, if only to soften the blow.
But Shichika knows that altering history is a fairytale for men like Kiki Shikizaki, not men (or swords) like him.
A future without Togame is a future without Togame. There is no way around it.
He considers going to Zanki-san and asking her about running a dojo, even a dojo without students, if only to keep Kyotoryuu alive a little longer.
After a month of this, Hitei-hime, tired of him ignoring her for day after day after day, hauls him inside and sits him down. There are plans for her to return to Owari, something he never wants to do because to go back there means he most likely will stray and end up sitting beside Togame's makeshift grave again, talking to her as if she were still alive.
Shichika expects her to ask him to accompany her for the journey back. As a bodyguard perhaps – to keep her from letting the bandits on the roads tear her to pieces. (Hitei-hime is still not amused by this phrase.)
Instead, she proposes marriage.
"Think about it," she says, her hands folded in her lap, prim and proper, as befitting of a princess.
He doesn't know what to say. Emonzaemon's mask, perched at the side of her head, seems to grow eyes and stare at him.
"I don't," he starts, "I don't understand. Are you asking me to fall for you?"
Hitei-hime stares at him, eyes wide, speechless.
"No," she says faintly after a pause, "No. It's not like that at all."
(It's a relief, because Shichika never could, and could never tell her that he'll never manage to.)
He ends up accompanying Hitei-hime back to Owari, as a bodyguard.
He also ends up, just as he had foreseen, sitting by Togame's grave at the outskirts of the city, watching the sky grow dark, and the stars glitter overhead. Once, just as he had met her, he had told her he liked the way her eye sparkled like jewels. He still thinks the stars, and all the jewels Hitei-hime wears, do not compare.
"I'm back," Shichika says at last. "I don't expect Hitei-hime to be pleased with what I'm doing, but I think that's alright."
He lays his hand atop the pile of rocks on her grave. Neither travellers nor bandits have disturbed them, which is a small relief.
"I didn't think I'd come here again, but Hitei-hime asked, and she wanted a bodyguard."
He flopped onto his back.
"I think I'm replacing Emonzaemon. Or maybe not. She doesn't scheme as much as she used to. I don't think she has anything to scheme towards."
He paused. "If I said that I would marry her, even without falling for her, would you be angry? I think Togame understands that she is the only one I have fallen for, but..."
It was easier to bury her, and easier to face the Shogun's men and Emonzaemon with a death wish, but following her order to live may have been the cruellest, hardest thing of all.
He tells Hitei-hime 'yes'.
He does not add that he will not– cannot fall for her.
But Shichika wonders if Hitei-hime does not already know this without him needing to tell her.
(On their wedding night, Hitei-hime's hair is not as soft as Togame's had been, on the one time she wrapped her long, long hair around him so he could remember who she was. In candlelight, it gleams like gold to Togame's silver.
He does not think he's been unfair to Hitei-hime, because she keeps her eyes fixed on the polished white mask hanging on the wall for the whole night.)
Shichika goes to Zanki-san, and she beats him in five games of shogi before she answers any of his questions about running a dojo.
"It's not impossible," she says, neatly beating him for the sixth time. "But it may be difficult to run a sword school where you cannot use a sword."
"In Kyotoryuu, you are the sword," he replies stubbornly.
"Nevertheless," Zanki says. "I have a hard time as it is." Her dojo was still empty, even though it had nothing to do with her return to being a shogi player.
He watches her take his knight.
"By the way," she adds, "what happened to the woman you were travelling with? She's a much better player than you are, Shichika-san."
"She was killed," Shichika says shortly. "At the very end of our journey. With a Deviant Blade."
Zanki pauses before she captures his general.
"I am very sorry to hear that," she says, her voice measured. "But to run a dojo is to be a shogi player – you must understand strategy."
He wants to say that it was Togame who had done that for him, but keeps it back. It's time enough he learns for himself.
Hitei-hime summons him back to Owari. Properly, with a messenger and a wax-sealed scroll, all too fancy for what Shichika cares for. No doubt he wasn't too hard to find, in the dojo without any students.
"What's that?" Zanki asks after soundly beating him in another round of practice.
"I'm being called back—" home, but Owari isn't really home, "to Hitei-hime."
"My wife," he explains.
Perhaps he should have tried harder on 'catching up' with her.
"It seemed like the thing to do," he says, thinking about returning to Owari and the idea of home, and never really having had a home since the island. Searching for the Deviant Blades, he'd never thought about home, other than returning back to Nanami, and after he killed Nanami, he'd thought about a future with Togame, and after Togame fell to Enmonzaemon's attack...
His eyes drift to the end of the scroll.
"I'm not sure on how to go around with this," Shichika says at last, after five minutes of silence between he and Hitei-hime. "Being a father."
"You didn't have a father?" Hitei-hime deadpans. Her hair has been growing longer since he left to train under Zanki-san. He almost wants to reach across the table, and run his fingers through it.
"I did. But I killed him when he requested it of me. I don't suppose normal families work in that way."
Hitei-hime looks somewhat horrified at this fact. "And then?"
"And then," he shrugs, "that was that. He killed my mother, if that means anything to you..."
"Shichika," Hitei-hime declares, "families do not work in that way. So help me if you turn on me after I bear this child. And while I suppose you want an heir for your sword style, I do not hope that he would kill you in return."
His heart skips.
"We can't be sure," Hitei-hime says, sitting straighter. "But that is what Shichika-san would be hoping for?"
(He has actually never thought about this – about children, about futures. Certainly, he should have a child, not a sword, given to him, and if he loves that child well enough, would he burden them with the task of Kyotoryuu, to train to become Kiki's Shikizaki's thirteenth sword?)
Shichika rises to his knees, and shuffles over to Hitei-hime, takes her hands in his.
"Hitei-hime," he says, looking into the green of her eyes, like lake water and spring leaves: beautiful but not the way Togame's were beautiful, "I would do obey anything for your sake."
Togame's house still stands in Owari. Once, he thinks it might have been reclaimed by the local government, or knocked down because it looks so tacky (it still does), and now he imagines it full of ghosts.
He doesn't think it unfair to Hitei-hime that he comes to visit, one last time, empty as the place is.
The floors are dusty and bare, as it had been when he had last seen them, and even the scrolls are missing from the walls. He can hear mice running away from his footsteps, and see the spiders darting away from the lantern-light when he lifts it higher to illuminate the cobwebs.
Togame's house is as old and forgotten as she is.
"Is there something you left behind for me?" he asks aloud, to the empty rooms, the lonely hallways. "Anything? Were you so sure you could kill me once our journey was over?"
He can hear his echoes, and the pitter-patter of mice feet, and the scuttling of spiders, but no Togame, no ghost made from his own dreaming.
"At Mount Odori," he continues, "I wasn't asleep. I never was. I heard you, Togame. I heard you doubt, and I thought you really did fall for me too. Did you lie to your own heart even when no one was looking?"
He sets the lantern down when he comes to a room – empty, just like all the others – that might have been hers. There's nothing remarkable about it, save for a scroll he found hidden under a dislodged floorboard, one bearing the title 'Yousha-hime'. He leaves Togame's strand of hair with the scroll, because like its owner, it is no longer his to keep.
"Please," he whispers, "I loved you. Don't I deserve to know that I was as precious to you as you were to me?"
Despite thinking that Hitei-hime would disapprove, she informs him to return to Zanki-san and train.
"I have more than enough retainers to keep me safe, Shichika-san," she grumbles and waves him off. Certainly, this is no normal way for a wife to act towards her husband, but Hitei-hime is clearly no ordinary wife.
"Would you like me to be there?" he asks, before he leaves. "When—"
"Clearly, you have no idea how children are born," Hitei-hime deadpans. "No man enjoys being there for the process of childbirth," she informs him, her arms folded. Shichika wonders if this hostility is because he snuck off to Togame's house, which may not be standing for very long now if Hitei-hime has anything to do with it.
"But," he says, brushing away a stray curl from her face, "I am the man who has fallen for you."
Hitei-hime is silent. He is silent. She removes his hand from her face, her own impassive.
"Please, Shichika-san. We like each other well enough not to lie to one another."
He vents about the complexities of women to Zanki-san, who does not understand the trivialities and difficulties about being married at all.
"I've never responded to anyone who's been interested," she responds when Shichika complains, even though she's thoughtful enough to listen. "Is this why you have been so unfocused and doing poorly?"
"I don't understand shogi or strategy," he says, watching himself be beaten for the sixth time.
"Excuses," Zanki says, setting up the board. "You have been troubled. You cannot focus. Clearly, if not about your wife, then something else."
He can't say it is about Togame, because who on earth can be haunted by a dead woman for over five years? Aside from him.
Zanki would think poorly of him if she knew, especially after she told him to look away from his past if it would hinder his future – but leaving behind a game of shogi is different from leaving behind a ghost of a memory he had once fallen for, even if both were sentimental and special to them and them only.
"When you encounter a difficult opponent, both in a shogi game, and on in the dojo, you must not avoid it," she says, "You must meet them, whether head-on, or with cunning and strategy. You will overcome them if you persist, Shichika-san. It is not impossible."
Zanki ended her lesson by taking his general.
"Are you suggesting I overcome my wife?"
She sighs. "I suggest you overcome this hostility, Shichika-san. Do not avoid it."
In the end, he doesn't need to apologise to Hitei-hime, because he returns to Owari just as—
"—she's giving birth?"
The midwife pushes him out the door.
Shichika waits. And waits. And waits longer, until Hitei-hime stops screaming, and he can hear a child wail instead.
The midwife urges him inside. Hitei-hime, pale, sweat-slicked and exhausted, holds a white bundle in her arms.
"Shichika. Look at her."
His daughter looks the way he remembers Nanami to have looked when she was born – quiet and small and clinging desperately to life. She grabs his fingers when he touches her tiny hands.
"Hitei-hime," he says, pressing a kiss to her cheek, "I should apologise."
"There's no need," Hitei-hime murmurs sleepily. "Shichika-kun. Name her."
When he doesn't know, Hitei-hime puts up the effort to scold him. "I should only hope she's not as annoying as her father."
"I wouldn't know how to name a child," he protests, to which Hitei-hime sighs.
"No one knows how to name a child." Her eyes soften, the first time he's seen it so, without Hitei-hime looking at the porcelain mask hanging on the wall. "But. I think we'll call her Yousha-chan."
When Hitei-hime is well enough, he establishes a dojo.
Even Zanki-san has better prospects finding students than he does. No one seems to want to learn from a sword school where their sensei couldn't even hold a sword without dropping it – or worse, flailing it in their direction.
She visits once she finds the time, bringing a gift for Yousha-chan.
"A shogi set? She's hardly going to use that."
Zanki coughed politely. "Not now, perhaps. In the future. I would hope she would have better strategy than her father."
"I would worry," Shichika drawls, taking tea during midday. "She'll take after Hitei-hime, and scheme her days away."
Zanki sips her tea without an answer. At last, she asks, "And you are well now, Shichika-san?"
"I'm fine. The Kyotoryuu sword school... has been quiet." Being the only one in it, day after day after day, was certainly quiet.
"Perhaps you should try harder to find students. The strongest swordsman in Japan surely should not find as much difficulty as I do in finding students."
He wants to add that he is also the strongest Deviant Blade, but the circumstances that make him so are not circumstances he wants to think of, and it's not something for Zanki to know. He settles for finishing his tea and watching the clouds shift overhead. "The strongest swordsman in Japan is no better than a sword himself. Very rarely are there students wanting to become a weapon."
"Advertise yourself, then. Like a shinobi, without the impossible techniques, or the deceit and betrayal."
"It's not quite like that," Shichika finds himself saying. "Once you become a sword, you remain a sword. I can't say when you return to becoming a man."
Zanki sets her hand over his. It's the way he imagines his mother might have consoled him once, but he no longer remembers.
"I think, Shichika-san, you are much more of a man than a sword. And," she adds dryly, "I would not hope that Yousha-chan should inherit an empty dojo without any students as I did."
He can't help but laugh at that. When Zanki joins in after a pause, they can't manage to stop.
(The truth is uncomfortable, and the truth is this: he doesn't think there is a place for Kyotoryuu in this world anymore, not after its goal was to become a perfect Deviant Blade, and in a world where there is no need for Deviant Blades, there is no need to perfect Kyotoryuu, let alone burden his children, and his children's children with this goal. He's killed his father for it, and if normal fathers should not do that, he should not place this burden onto Yousha.)
Hitei-hime is unconcerned when Shichika worries about the future of Kyotoryuu.
"Is there nothing else you could imagine doing?" she asks while she nurses Yousha. He can't help but notice that her hair tumbles down her back now, like a waterfall. He reaches over to run his hand through it.
"I could be a bodyguard. A retainer for a shogun. One of them who doesn't know I killed the last one..."
"There's no need," Hitei-hime says sharply. She looks away from him and settles their daughter when she begins to cry. With her back to him: "I would like you to stay home. I would worry about Yousha-chan never remembering her father's face if something were to happen to you, if you journeyed across Japan again."
He doesn't fight her on this. He doesn't even say anything about calling Owari 'home' (because, in part, it feels like one.)
Hitei-hime keeps the dojo open, in no small part because of her finances. He trains Yousha-chan when she's four and trailing after him like a shadow. Hitei-hime doesn't say if she approves or not, but she smiles when Yousha-chan punches him in the chest with her tiny fists, yelling "Cheerio!" each time.
Shichika laughs, and hopes it'll catch on all over the country, as unlikely as it might be.
There's no need to hope for Yousha-chan to perfect Kyotoryuu, except he hopes it might keep the boys away when she's older (Hitei-hime's words, not his, except if this is a normal fatherly thing to worry about, he's certainly doing it as he should.)
When Yousha-chan is six, and successfully breaking all the vases in the house, Hitei-hime sends her outside to practice her sword work. Shichika sits back and wonders: how time passed so quickly, how once he remembers only being that young himself, and being pushed to his limit by his own father.
"Yousha-chan," he calls outside, gestures for her to sit by him in the shade, "I'm thinking. Of writing a story."
"Can I help?" she sings, clinging to his arm.
He ruffles her hair – wavy, as Nanami's had been, and the same pale gold of Hitei-hime's. She looks nothing like Togame, even if she is her namesake, and somehow, it's alright now.
"Of course. Yousha-chan tells the best stories. But this story's long, and I'll need Yousha-chan to tell me the best way to make it interesting enough to read."
"Daddy!" she protests, punching him in the side. "Your story will always be interesting enough to read! Is it about samurai? Princesses? Demons?"
"Maybe," Shichika says, looking at the sky, so much like the sky over Inaba, calm and blue and still, when Togame told him she was going to write a novel about their adventures once they were over, and she would become rich that way. He hadn't been a very interesting character then, but he had been a sword then, not a man, and now he is certain he became a man once he fell for Togame, and grew into a better one once he learned how to live. "It's about a general. And a sword of the Kyotoryuu sword school—"
"—that's our school!" she squeals.
"Yes, the very same. And the general and the Kyotoryuu swordsman went on a journey across the country to collect swords that the general was commanded to collect, and even though there was no reward for the swordsman to collect these swords, he went with her because—"
(A novel is not quite the same as making 'Cheerio!' popular throughout the country, but it might certainly last longer.)
Shichika smiles, holds his daughter close.
"Because he fell for her," he whispers.
"How does it end, Daddy? Does it end happily?"
"I don't know if it has a happy ending, Yousha-chan. I don't know if it even ends, but I know it has happened, and that is the most important thing."
Winner of the SMASH! 2011 Fanfiction Category 2 contest. Yay. Unbeta-ed.
I'm not sure on how iffy the characterisation is.
For everyone who got here through Kiseki – hello!