There was only one place Shichi could think of going. He had waited months for this moment, pushing down the longing and the ache as he had focused on training. He had missed Kana terribly, wondering if she was safe, hoping that she was happy. He wasn’t certain if she would be treated as a victim or a traitor, or whether her husband and family would be accepting of her actions. He’d pondered if and how she had changed in the last year; had she cut her hair -- had she learned anything new?
Many nights had been filled with dreams of her voice, imagining that he had seen her in the clearing, or that he was back in the old storehouse by her side. The thought of her laughter, the memory of her fingers brushing his face -- each of these made his heart race. His pace changed; rather than a walk away from his mentor, it became a run towards the one he loved.
What had previously been a three day journey now took half the time. The air was cool, dancing with the scent of wet leaves and moss. A carpet of yellow and orange rushed below his feet as he made his way back towards the mountain he had once called home.
The sun had almost finished setting as he reached the village. He looked down at the buildings from a shelf of rock, noticing that it hadn’t changed at all. The houses were still laid out in neat curves; the tile roofs had remained the same shades of black and blue. Life had continued normally in the time that he’d been gone. Perhaps Kana’s had, as well.
Shichi waited until nightfall, taking the time to meditate on the ledge as the sun sunk deeper behind the houses. It was rather difficult to free his thoughts, knowing that Kana was so close. Counting his breaths, he ignored the chill that the darkness brought with it. He had almost freed himself from distraction when a sound dragged him back to reality.
There were footsteps behind him, attempting to move softly as their owner approached over the leaves. Shichi took in a slow breath, tensing his hold on the shakujo that rested over his shoulder. He could hear the clink of metal -- the adjusting of a sword as its owner prepared to draw. As the blade slid from its sheath, Shichi turned just in time to parry, knocking the sharp edge away with the head of his staff.
As the monk positioned himself, he took a look at his assailant. It was a young man from the village, dressed in the uniform of a watchman. It was only natural that the town would have guards, especially after the events that had occurred in the last year. This one seemed freshly trained and eager to prove himself. If he were to bring home the head of a surviving tengu, it would surely grant him honor and approval.
The man attacked once more, letting out a cry as his weapon swept towards its target. Once more, Shichi blocked the swing, rotating the staff to force the guard backwards.
“I’m not here to hurt anyone,” Shichi explained, keeping his voice steady. “I’m just passing through.”
“Don’t take me for a fool,” the guard replied, keeping his eyes locked on the tengu before him. His grip on the sword’s handle tightened.
“I see,” Shichi said, disappointed, though he had expected such an answer. “In that case, I’m sorry.”
He moved in, shifting to offense. The two exchanged several blows and Shichi found himself surprised at how much easier it was to fight this human in comparison to Sagiri. He had been trained to deal with an enemy much faster and much more experienced, leaving this particular skirmish rather lacking in challenge. Just as he was beginning to feel confident, a cut snuck through his defense, leaving a bright trail of red down the side of his arm. Shichi faltered; though Sagiri had always defeated him, she had never broken his skin. He stumbled backwards, barely avoiding the next attack as it curved inches from his throat.
Shichi scolded himself, grateful that his mentor hadn’t been around to see his mistake. He couldn’t let himself be caught off guard -- not again. Ignoring the sting from his arm, he turned his shoulders to attack once more. The handle of his staff met the human’s chest with a crack, then spun as the metal head knocked hard into the back of his skull. The man toppled, the sword falling from his hand as he hit the ground. Shichi paused to look down at him, realizing that it was the first time he had intentionally hurt another person.
“Forgive me,” he said, giving a short bow before turning to leave. Though he had successfully managed to defend himself, he couldn’t help but feel ill.
The cut to his arm was minor, easily tended to with a quick cleaning and bandaging. The village was now dark enough to cover his movement, allowing him to shift silently behind rows of houses. The sight of the crooked plum tree brought relief to his mind -- he had almost expected Kokou to have cut it down. It remained along the walls of the house -- still strong, and still longing. Shichi took a breath, then climbed it.
The first time he had visited Kana, he had waited hours for her to appear outside. This time, however, he didn’t have to wait at all. There she was, her back to the tree, standing in the courtyard of the house in a dark kimono. Her hair was arranged carefully, held up with a floral pin, exposing the collar of her dress. His head lifted, forgetting to breathe, overtaken by how close she was -- at the fact that she was alive and well. He quickly shifted to pluck a feather from his arm, preparing to drop it in an attempt to gain her attention.
Yet, as the feather waited between his fingers, something gave him pause. She was talking to someone, swaying just slightly as she spoke. She was alone in the courtyard, making him wonder just who it was that she was speaking to. As she turned to face the well, the answer struck him like an arrow, running through his chest and wedging itself into his heart.
There was a child in her arms, no more than a month old. She whispered gently to it, running her palm over its soft, dark hair. There were two things he was certain of as she bundled the child against the cold air -- the baby was human, and it was hers. He shrunk on the bough of the tree, lowering his head to keep out of sight. His eyes closed for a moment, making no attempt to stop the bliss that was draining from his chest. He had taken too long.
The side door slid open and Shichi glanced up to see Kokou emerge. He placed a hand on her shoulder, speaking with gentle urgency.
“Kana, come inside. You’ll catch a cold out here.”
“I’ll be in soon. I just need a moment,” she replied, placing the child in his arms and kissing his cheek. He nodded, returning to the house and leaving her to herself in the courtyard.
Kana had once admitted to Shichi that, despite loving him the way he was, she often wished that she could kiss him properly. Properly, the way that humans could.
‘Did you forget?’ he wondered, though in his heart he knew the answer.
Though he struggled with what to do next, he knew there was only one real choice. Kana had moved on. She had a family; she seemed healthy, and happy. How could he possibly ask her to leave everything behind to join him on a perilous, aimless journey? Even if she wanted to, it would be selfish to ask her to bring the child -- someone else’s child, into danger and uncertainty. It would be even worse to ask her to leave the baby behind, to abandon it so he could have her to himself. If she didn’t want to go, if she had found happiness without him, it would only be painful for both of them to say good-bye. His presence would simply be an uncomfortable reminder of her past.
He knew that he should leave, but something had anchored him to the tree branch. His claws, now back to their proper length, gripped the bark as he took one last look at her.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. Sorry, for coming too late, for breaking his promise. Sorry that he couldn’t offer her the same happiness as a human.
He slipped back down the trunk, not noticing as the feather in his hold slipped down into the courtyard below. It spun down towards the ground before it was caught in a light gust, rising in an arch before settling on the ground at Kana’s feet. She stared down at the black feather for a moment, then brought a hand to her mouth. Her heart was pounding as she looked up towards the plum tree, but it was empty. Hurriedly, she grabbed the feather before rushing towards the entrance of the house. She forced the wooden gates open, letting the iron hinges rattle as she swept past. Her eyes darted up and down the road, clutching the front of her robe as she scanned for any signs of movement.
There was nothing. The street was barren, dimly lit by a few lonely house lanterns. Kana took in a breath, letting the night air fill her chest as she looked back down at the feather. She turned it over in her hand, running her fingertip over the soft edges. Even if it didn’t belong to Shichi after all, the dark sheen still brought her comfort.
After a moment, she closed her eyes, leaning back against the trunk of the plum tree. The bark mussed her hair as she slid down to the ground, not caring about the dirt on her kimono. She folded her arms over her knees, keeping the feather against her cheek as she listened to the rustle of leaves.
“...did you forget about me?”