A bitter wind howled outside the small wooden cabin high atop a lonely mountain.
Inside, a red-haired man crouched on his haunches by a firepit and rubbed his arms for warmth. Even through the extra layers of clothing and an extra sleeveless jacket on top of that, his rather thin robes weren’t suited for the cold northern winters, and for a good reason.
As conceited as it sounded - even to him - Saizo was not supposed to be here.
“You are to be stationed by the northern border,” a certain long-haired samurai that he called Lord Ryoma had told him. No, ordered him. “We’re expecting a very important message that could change the tide of the war. Unfortunately, we’ve no idea on when it might arrive. As such, I would like you to wait there as long as it takes.”
Saizo considered himself to be an exceptionally loyal man. Even as he huddled by the meagre flames, gritting his teeth against the chill and regretting a number of life choices he’d taken, he was a man of Hoshido through-and-through. A ninja of Hoshido. Never one to take things lightly to begin with, Saizo considered his master’s words to be practically sacred. And for that master to be a high prince of the realm leading an entire war effort… well, those were words he treasured indeed.
Upon evaluating his situation, however, Saizo couldn't help but feel like he had been given the short end of the stick.
To be stuck up a mountain in an old, long-disused cabin in the far north of Hoshido and being told to wait an untold amount of time for a messenger that might not even come was hardly an ideal situation, even at the best of times. At this very moment, Hoshido was at war with neighbouring Nohr and what Saizo was doing to help was sit glumly by a fire in a far-flung cabin. If he could have it his way, he would already be in Nohr, conducting his usual sabotage operations under the noses of the enemy.
Ryoma’s words echoed in his mind: “It is a vital mission, Saizo. This information could very well be the one to change the tide of war. I’m entrusting you with a job of the highest import.”
Yes, that’s all very good and well… but by all the Gods and Dragons above and below, I can’t feel my damned toes. Saizo determinedly wiggled them. as stiff as they were in his woolen socks that just weren’t thick enough to cope with the frigid northern air.
But, if he was truthful, what he really couldn’t bear the thought of was the idea of his cowardice. What sort of man sat safe in a wooden cabin and left his countrymen to be trampled under the hooves of strange Nohrian wingless-pegasi? If Father could see me now…
Saizo’s lip curled under his woolen scarf and mask, and he quickly cast the thought aside. Spending an endless amount of time with little reprieve from dark thoughts haunting him day and night would surely bring him to ruin.
Then something came to draw him out of his reverie. A distinct thump sounded from outside, and Saizo gathered that someone - or something - had hit the cabin with force enough to break through the muffled blanket of the blizzard.
He got up cautiously, tugging the haori tighter to him. Who would be insane enough to venture out in a winter storm like this? As far as he aware, this old hunter’s cabin was known only to the village folk down the mountainside. Besides them, only his intended contact should know where he was.
Saizo paused. Now, there was a thought to at least consider - what if his contact had arrived in the middle of this very blizzard outside his door? A raging winter storm would make a perfect, if highly perilous, cover for any kind of clandestine arrival. He recited the pass phrase to himself, muttering just in case. “At the trees north of Fort Jinya…”
Wetting his lips, Saizo looked around for a blade or at least some kind of weapon, remembering after a moment the kunai he had behind a chest of drawers by the door. All his instincts were shouting at him to leave the door shut, and yet, he couldn’t risk it. Were it an assassin loitering outside waiting for the cabin’s occupant to fall asleep, or if it was the contact with vital information left outside in this weather… He shuddered to think of the repercussions, not just on him but for the entirety of Hoshido in the war.
The kunai would do. He grabbed the dagger swiftly, turning it so that it was hidden in the folds of his sleeve. Saizo ran a thumb over the dagger - it would be useless at keeping an attacker at bay for a long period of time, but it was more than functional in close-quarters combat should this be an enemy.
As he reached the wooden door, he put an ear to the surface and listened. He didn’t expect to hear anything besides the howling of wind, but it made sense to at least try.
One second passed, two seconds passed; nothing. Three seconds passed, four seconds passed; still nothing. The only thing he could hear was the harsh cry of snow and sleet as they rushed past at terrible speeds that could easily kill an unprepared wanderer.
Saizo grabbed a rusting iron lantern that hung on a disused hook by the door. He remembered that this cabin used to be the home an old married couple - a weaver and a hunter. He didn’t know what had happened to them, but by the time he’d arrived here they had long since been gone. They’d left the old loom at the back of the cabin and a couple of the hunter’s tools of the trade, but that was all.
He fumbled with the lantern for a moment to light the wick before pulling the thick fabric of his haori up and over his head for protection against the storm. With a lantern in one hand and a dagger in the other, Saizo didn’t exactly feel ready to fight off an assassin, but one had to make do with the things one was given.
He pushed the door open and was blasted instantly with a cold that he could feel all the way into his heart and bones. Saizo gritted his teeth and looked around, but the snow was falling faster than an autumn rain at this point. He could barely see or hear anything above the roar of nature trying its best to make the rest of the world disappear.
Snow fluttered furiously into his face as he fought to keep a hold on his jacket and for it to not fly away. The lantern was squeaking madly as the wind did its best to rip it out of his grasp, but Saizo held fast with the iron grip of someone who’d been through worse.
He shone the light around in and effort to look for a person, though the beam of the lantern barely pierced the veil of snow. “Hello?” He cried in a hoarse voice, his words getting swept away futilely. There’s no chance that someone will hear me above this wind. “Is someone there?”
Saizo shifted around blindly, the lantern only giving him perhaps another foot more of vision beyond his nose. The fire was threatening to go out - if there was no one there, then he would have to give it up until the storm passed.
Then he heard something faintly; a cry of pain through ice-cold sleet that was threatening to turn into hail. Right.
Saizo trudged carefully through the snow on the ground, hoping that whatever it was wouldn’t be an attacker. If it was, it could only end badly. He shook his arm quickly, letting the dagger fall down the sleeve and into his grasp.
Turning the corner of the cabin, he saw amidst the pale snow a patch of vibrant crimson that was slowly being covered by eddies of snow. He squinted with his good eye. Blood? No, not blood. It was shifting and moving-
His eyes widened. It was a bird.
Injured, it appeared, and barely moving, but a living crane nonetheless. He heard it cry out once more to something he didn’t know, the same mournful noise that almost sounded human-like. What the hell is a bird doing out in this weather?
Saizo had heard stories about men cursed with foul luck for harming birds like these. They’d been passed down for ages in his village - “Don’t harm a red-crowned crane,” the village elder had told wide-eyed children as they gathered by her feet. “They possess magic unfathomable to us humans! The gods themselves have blessed them with longevity and immeasurable grace - woe befalls those who dare injure them!”
The old woman was known for her unnecessarily graphic stories, it was true. On his part, Saizo was not a superstitious man. In fact, he had gained something of a reputation within the Hoshidan army for being incredibly hard to faze. Myths about vengeful spirits generally didn’t register to him as being actual threats. Yes, he’d seen the magic of the court diviners and other such magically-talented folk in the army, but those incidents had been real magic at play as compared to myths told by old folk to children.
Still… something in him couldn’t leave an injured animal to a freezing death. Regardless of whether heavenly retribution would be exacted upon him for any potential inaction on his part, nothing, human or beast, deserved to die alone in a blizzard when salvation was so close.
It took him a moment’s deliberation before crouching down and scooping up the bird in the arm holding the kunai. It was awkward going, what with the creature’s long legs and large wings, but the crane didn’t move as Saizo struggled to pick it up. Not that he was complaining.
He made his way back to the door, manoeuvring the hand holding the haori over his head down to the handle.
After some difficulty, Saizo managed to enter the cabin at last. The difference in temperature was breath-taking, and for a moment, he took a while to stand there.
Taking in the warm air into his lungs and letting it wash over him, he thought to himself, What am I doing here? Then he shook himself, breaking out of his stupor. The bird croaked slightly at the sudden movement and Saizo halted guiltily. “Shit. Sorry.”
Hanging up the lantern, he took a moment to take his sandals off and slip his feet into the thinner slippers by the door. Saizo grimaced as he did so - his feet would be colder, but he couldn’t exactly wear the sandals around the cabin anymore now that they’d been outside in the snow.
Saizo gingerly laid the crane down on the floor by the hearth, then went over to a bundle of cloth by the side of his bedroll. He took a moment, eventually fishing out a rough linen blanket that he believed Kaze had packed for him.
At the thought of Kaze, Saizo snorted, and shook his head. What a fool of a little brother he had. Then he softened as he imagined his twin dashing around the battlefield by the side of the royal family. What a courageous fool of a little brother he had.
But enough of that. Saizo went back over to the bird and crouched down, blanket held in his hands.
It was looking at him with dark, intelligent eyes, and watched as he pushed the blanket into a round sort of shape that hopefully resembled a nest. He didn’t have an eye for aesthetics, but this bird was a beautiful creature indeed. Snow-white feathers and a deep red crest, with dark black feathers on the edges of its wings. Looking at it, he could understand why the artisans in the capital were so insistent upon painting cranes in fog.
“Here,” he told the bird expectantly, pointing at the blanket. Then he realised he was expecting a bird to understand him and rubbed his face with annoyance. “I must be going mad.”
Saizo reached over, slowly trying to pick it up. The bird didn't shy away, to his surprise, instead continuing to watch him with its intelligent gaze. “Lemme see what’s wrong,” he muttered as he placed it on the blanket.
He wasn’t well versed in animal handling at all. That was more the expertise of Hinata, Prince Takumi’s retainer. Saizo didn’t have enough fingers on both his hands to count all the times he’d seen the buffoon with a stray animal in tow, whether to eat or to keep on as a pet shortly before being told that neither options were feasible.
Still, he knew basic medicine and triage care enough to assess his own wounds when he got injured for work. Saizo supposed that the same principles could be applied universally, even to a bird.
“Busted wing,” he muttered to himself. Pulling it even gently elicited a pained squawk from the animal, so he supposed that maybe it was a bruise or a pulled muscle. It wasn’t reacting too violently when he did so - a good sign in his opinion. Saizo tested the bird’s legs, then the other wing, then even the neck, but everything else seemed fine. Aside from being soaked through, it was pretty much in good shape.
The crane looked at him as he leaned back, hand on his neck. “What were you doing flying in this weather, bird?” he murmured to the empty air. “Should be asleep in a tree or something.” It occurred to him that he wasn’t familiar with where cranes slept at night. Ah, well, that wasn’t his concern.
Saizo stood up and went to rummage in a wooden chest at the base of a screened cupboard, then returned with two packages. “Looks like I’ll be sharing a cabin with you for the night,” he said matter-of-factly to the bird as he crouched down, “So might as well eat.”
He unwrapped one rice ball and placed it under the bird’s head, then began to open his own after pulling his mask down. It was so cold up here in the northern mountains, even rice containing fish like this one kept well for longer than usual.
Sitting next to the bird, Saizo was silent as he ate the food, as bland as it was. He was no glutton, but he hadn’t realised how hungry the cold made him. The crane pecked at the rice, eating every last grain cleanly so that not even a speck remained. When he finished, he took a rag from above the firepit and wiped the melted snow off of the animal as it ate. What felt like an hour passed in relative piece, and he caught himself suppressing a yawn.
Grabbing the wrapping, he looked at the crane. It was staring back, and made a little noise as he looked at it. “That’s your dinner, now go to sleep.”
A part of him felt stupid for talking to a bird. Another part of him felt that, strangely enough, this crane knew what he was talking about. There was something in its eyes and movements that belied an intelligence greater than that of a normal bird. Or maybe he was just fooling himself - he’d never owned an animal, after all.
Still, he couldn’t deny that company as silent as this one was suited him just fine. It was preferable to some of the incessant chatter that he’d had to put up with on other missions.
The bird watched as he moved around the cabin, wrapping the discarded packaging tightly in a bundle before placing it back into the chest for disposal the next day, then going to the door and locking it tight. He pushed the table in front of it just in case - in his line of work, you never knew what locks might be easily bypassed.
Saizo eventually wound up back at the fire. He blew on it to make the flame waver until it subsided - a roaring fire at night wouldn’t be ideal. As he was doing so, he felt something pull on his sleeve.
He looked over to see the bird waving its head. “What?” He demanded. “I’m not going to let the place burn down around me.”
The bird cocked its head, and Saizo supposed that it maybe was cold. “Fine.” He pushed it closer to the fire, but far enough away that it would be safe. “If you’re still not happy, I can’t do anything to change that.”
It let go of his sleeve and quickly settled down in a pile of white and red feathers.
He snorted, then turned away. Strange bedfellows indeed. Still, a bird was a better ending to the night’s short journey than an assassin and a dead body.
Saizo crawled into the bedroll and turned away from the fire. It was cold and his eye and his side ached terribly, but he couldn’t do anything about it besides nurse the pain and tough it out, as he always had and would continue to do.
His last memory before he fell asleep was the light of burning coals flickering on the screen doors.
When he woke up, it was still cold.
Saizo rubbed his arms as he sat up, already completely awake. It wasn’t as cold as the previous night, but it certainly was still chilly enough to make him breathing in a pain. Growing up in a mountain village as he had, Saizo had been privy to his fair share of cold weather. His childhood couldn’t possibly compare when put up to these northern winters, however. If he didn’t wrap up warmly, he’d surely catch his death. Once more, he wished he’d been more prepared to come to this blasted mountain.
He waited a few moments, letting eyes adjust to the darkness of the cabin since the fire had long since gone cold. Waking up at the break of dawn was second nature to him given the nature of his rigorous training, so the general darkness of the cabin was to be expected.
Once he had acclimatised, he reached for the tinderbox to the side of the fire pit and wearily sat up to light the fire while cross-legged.
Gradually the room began to heat up. “Thank the gods,” Saizo muttered. He was far more partial to warmth than cold. He didn’t doubt that spending an extended amount of time in this frigid northern land would drive him mad.
Opposite him, on the other side of the fire, the bird was asleep. At least, the thing gave off the impression that it was dozing.
Saizo eyed it for a moment as warmth began to fill the room. Fast asleep, huh.
He contemplated resting a bit more, feeling the ache of winter chill in his old scars, then decided against it quickly. The more he let himself deviate from his strict rules and guidelines, the worse he’d adapt upon returning to Prince Ryoma’s side.
Saizo spent another few seconds in silence, then swiftly got to his feet and stretched thoroughly. A wide yawn wracked his body and just as quickly subsided. He ran his fingers through his hair a few times to smooth the fiery-red mess before arranging his mask and scarf properly.
Satisfied that he had completed his personal grooming for the day, Saizo strode briskly to the door to check the weather. With any luck, the storm would’ve worn itself out overnight.
He pushed the table back to its original position, then opened the heavy wooden door. Saizo was greeted with a crisp layer of snow coating the ground and an orange sun slowly rising over ice-capped trees. All in all, he thought, not a bad start to the day.
Saizo went back inside and checked the wooden pot that held all the water in the cabin. Nearly empty. I’ll have to go fill it up. As he heaved it up, he looked down at the bird. Still sleeping. He supposed that was a given, considering that it was injured.
Hoisting the bucked onto his shoulder, Saizo walked back outside after pulling on his sandals. He deliberated, then decided that latching the door was probably a sounder decision than leaving it unlocked. As unlikely as it was for someone to come up the mountain, having a stranger come across the cabin wouldn’t be wise.
Taking the solid bronze key hanging on a cord around his neck, Saizo leaned down for a moment to ensure that the cabin was secured. Once he was satisfied that it was, he left for the spring in the forest that he knew lay not far from the cabin.
He returned not more than an hour-and-a-half later. Although the weather was sufficiently chilly, the trip had managed to make him work up a fine sweat. To be fair, he blamed the perspiration on the unexpected snow drift blocking off his normal route to the spring.
Holding the bucket on his shoulder again, he made it to the door before putting it down outside the stoop with a loud exhale. Saizo stretched his back for a second, grimacing as he felt the muscles and bones release and snap. Damn, that took more out of me than I expected.
Feeling more than a little winded from his excursion, Saizo realised that he’d need to do some shadow-sparring to not lose his touch. He resolved to do so after some breakfast.
After unlocking the door, Saizo poked his head inside and let his eyes adjust to the relative darkness of the inside. Immediately he noticed that the pile of cloth by the fireplace was still where it had been earlier, but its erstwhile inhabitant was no longer there.
His brow furrowed, he made his way further in so that the door to the cabin was wide open. Cold, white morning light painted itself over the interior as he did, but it did not reveal any sign of the crane.
Saizo wasn’t so much as worried for the bird’s safety as he was concerned about how it had managed to leave a locked house. Closing the door, he cautiously entered the cabin and went around it, opening cupboards and moving furniture around. No sign of the thing.
“What the hell?” He wondered out loud. That bird had been weird from the start. First acting like it could understand him and now disappearing from inside a locked room. If he didn’t buy into the supernatural to begin with, whatever was happening now was sincerely testing him.
Scratching his side of his nose pensively, Saizo slowly turned around in the centre of the room. The fire still flickered gently, even though the breeze coming through the door was dampening its vigour somewhat.
However the beast had escaped had its implications on him. Saizo did not appreciate there being some kind of crawlspace he wasn’t aware of where something could fit through.
Paranoia was common amongst every ninja who served a master, and Saizo could feel cold fingers creeping up his neck at the thought of a potential attack late at night when he was least expecting it.
He breathed in deeply, then exhaled with all the breath he had in his lungs.
Saizo knew his tendency to get worked up over little things, and this was very much a big thing. The last thing he needed right now was to lose his temper. So, he rationalised, the best course of action for the moment would be to occupy himself with some kind of normalcy, and for him, that meant shadow-sparring. I’ll think about it later when I’m calm.
The rest of the next few minutes was a whirl of motion as he brought the bucket in and threw open the heavy wooden panels that shuttered the windows. He shrugged off the jacket and even took off the mask, placing the woolen cover to the side and removing his upper-wear as well. Saizo grabbed a second shirt; one that he had worn on the job before. One that he had killed in before. It would do for exercise.
Pulling it on without any more thought, he quickly stepped outside and began blocking attacks from enemies that only he could see.
He carried on like this for a full hour, time streaming past as he threw multiple shuriken and took down invisible people mercilessly. Saizo was a professional - he did this almost every day when he wasn’t on a mountain, so he had a method to this. Aim for the neck or the eyes with your weapons. Use your head to think; not your fists to act. Be logical and work with precision. Ordinarily, he preferred to use a real training dummy, but owing to the absence of one, he was having to use his imagination.
Throughout that hour, Saizo’s mind whirred with thoughts and potential explanations as he methodically went through what had happened sequentially.
Possibility one - the bird had crawled somewhere out of reach and gotten stuck. Highly unlikely considering he had practically turned the cabin upside down in his search, but something to consider.
Possibility two - there was an opening or gap somewhere in the cabin that he wasn’t aware of. This did seem more likely than the first option, but where would it have been? In his search, he surely would have felt a draft or seen something. No, there was more to it than this.
He threw a punch, dodged a katana and hurled two throwing stars through an invisible man that embedded themselves deep into the side of the cabin.
Possibility three - the crane had simply vanished.
The sun was high in the sky at this point, heat beating down across the land in a rare spot of warmth for the winter. Clear skies had both its benefits and its downsides, showing clearly in the sweat pouring down his face and body that soaked his shirt through. It was highly unpleasant, but a necessary evil.
Saizo grabbed at the air, pulling an arm towards him and striking where the nose should be with the base of his palm before tossing the enemy aside and reaching into his sash. Faster than even he could see, he turned the throwing star around in his hand and flicked it at a tree on the far end of the clearing.
The whole time he was silent; the only noise in the area coming from shifting snow underfoot. There were no cries of exertion or shouts of effort, just cold silence and the chirping of birds deep within the forest as he suppressed all and every noise. Keeping silent was child’s play to him - he had played such games with the other children in his home village when he had been younger. That was the nature of a ninja’s hometown, after all.
The star embedded itself deep within the tree, right into his estimation of the location of an enemy’s right eye.
Saizo put a hand on his face, making a concentrated effort to control his breathing. Hard as he may have been exercising, there was only one thing on his mind.
As ridiculous as it sounded, there was simply no other explanation for it. The damned crane had disappeared, somehow.
And then the soft, slow footsteps came from behind him; a noise that he hadn't made.
Instantly, he whirled about as he jumped back, one more throwing star at the ready to spring at the first sign of an adversary. Saizo glared furiously about with his good eye, looking for the source of the sound.
Then he hesitated, almost letting his arms drop for a moment before he pulled them back into a fighting stance.
Before him was a woman, Saizo guessed perhaps slightly younger than him, wearing an elegant, pristine white kimono. Her skin was pale like that of the people here in the north, with her dark brown hair tied in a tail high on her head contrasting starkly against it.
She also happened to be one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. For a while, he wanted to just stare at her. Then he shook his head slightly. Do not let yourself be swayed by a pretty face, Saizo. You know better than that.
Not wanting to seem caught off-guard to this stranger, he cleared his throat and ordered, “Who’s there? Name yourself before I cut you down where you stand.”
The woman blinked, then bowed deeply - embarrassingly so, in fact. Saizo had only ever seen a bow that low performed to royalty, one that he had given the royal family of Hoshido many a time. “I have come here to thank you, sir.” She even spoke in a strange, almost archaic manner, as if she had come from centuries past.
“There’s no need to bow to me, or call me sir,” he said awkwardly, and shifted his weight to his other foot. Who the hell…? “And your thanks is appreciated, but I haven’t done a thing to deserve it.”
She remained bent, her long hair cascading over one shoulder. “That is untrue. You saved my life.”
Saizo snorted at that. “You’ve got the wrong man, I’ve not done anything of the sort. Uh, and please, get up,” he said hastily, still uncomfortable with this woman bowing to him. He crossed his arms before remembering that this woman could still be an assassin, and he raised them again quickly.
“Listen - I’ve need of your name and why you’re here. No-one’s supposed to know this cabin is here, and it’s awfully suspicious for someone to turn up here unless they’ve been told of this place.” He eyed her - she was still bowing, and he was getting increasingly uncomfortable. The amount of respect she was showing him was far too much for a man like him. “You might be here to kill me. If that’s the case, you’ve no need to lie to me and it would be best to get it over with.”
At that, she raised her head. “Kill you?” she said, taken aback, then turned her eyes away. “I would never do such a thing. I mean- My name is Kagero, and I have only been telling the truth.”
He squinted with his good eye and saw to his surprise that she was flushed. “I would have died last night if it was not for your intervention,” she said, the words coming out rapidly as if she had far too much to say and too little breath to get it out. “It would have been remiss of me not to express my gratitude in person, so I made the decision to come here and properly thank you.”
Exasperated by now, he folded his arms. “You don't know what you're talking about. I didn't do anything last night, and I definitely didn’t save you - I would've remembered it if I did. All I did was sit in that cabin over there and wait that storm out, alright?”
The woman stared at him, then caught herself and averted eye contact by looking off to the side. “Forgive me for being blunt, sir, but you certainly did more than just sit in a room alone.”
“Again, I’m not a sir, and I wasn't alone,” Saizo corrected pedantically, “There was a bird-“
It hit him like an iron club. Don’t harm a crane. They possess magic unfathomable to us humans.
“I don’t believe you,” he said incredulously. “You- you jest. There’s no way that you’re the- No. No. No!”
Still not quite looking at him, the woman - Kagero was the name she had given - bowed once more. “You will have to believe me. That was indeed me, but as I have said, I thought it best to thank you in a way you would understand. Were it not for you, I would have frozen to my death in that blizzard.”
Obstinately, he shook his head. The evidence was mounting, but Saizo’s sense of scepticism had been with him since he had first opened his eyes. “You expect me to believe that you’re a bird-turned-human?” He asked her, his mind still not being able to deal with the unexpectedness of it all. “What proof have I got to say that you’re not some spying stranger?”
“Yesterday you gave me a rice cake with tuna inside. You said that you would be sharing a cabin for the night, so you might as well eat with me,” she told him, the faint redness still in her cheeks. She was either cold or embarrassed, he thought in the back of his mind. Possibly both.
“You also talk in your sleep about your father and your brother called Kaze. About Hoshido. About getting revenge and killing a man from Mokushu.” She was looking at him not, finally. Not judgementally, but just… watching him. Waiting calmly for him to react.
He was at a loss for words at this turn of events.
She was undoubtedly correct. No-one but him knew the truths that she had told him; even his own brother and twin had no idea of the part that a certain pony-tailed bastard had played in their father’s death.
A part of Saizo had known from the beginning of their conversation that this Kagero woman had been telling him the truth. He had heard from Lord Ryoma how the rescued princess had turned into a dragon that day in the marketplace, so there was a precedent for these things. Thinking on it now, it didn’t seem too unreasonable for a crane to turn into a human with all things considered.
Still, though… Saizo couldn't wrap his mind around the whole situation so simply. He slowly tucked the shuriken back into his belt, then put a hand on his neck as he deliberated hard about how to proceed.
After a moment, he brought his hand down.
“This is… a lot for me to process,” Saizo admitted, still somewhat reluctant. “… but I’m in no mood to discuss anything out here where anybody could be listening.” He looked directly at her. “If you haven't eaten, I’d invite you to tell me the whole story inside over some food.”
She straightened up fully. “You believe my tale, then?”
Saizo noted that she looked hopeful, and a part of him inside his chest felt gripped with warmth. “The case you present seems to be true enough, I suppose. Either way, I’m going inside even if you’re not. I’m hungry.”
Without another word, he left the shuriken outside with the thought that he would return for them later and made his way inside the hut. He held the door open behind him, and sure enough, Kagero followed him inside.
The open windows lent the cabin plenty of light, and the fire crackling in the pit was pleasantly warm. Saizo went to the chest again and retrieved another two riceballs after some slight hesitation. There were only enough left for a week - he would have to do some hunting soon, as unused to it as he was.
He turned around to see her sitting on her knees by the fire pit and watching the flames. She didn't look up from the fire until he proffered the small package. “Here,” he said gruffly. Kagero accepted it with a mild, “Thank you,” and started to unwrap the onigiri as he sat down cross-legged opposite her on the other side of the fire.
Saizo watched her remove the wrapping before saying, “There a reason why you’re so loath to look at me?”
She looked down, her hands halting for a moment. He huffed and grumbled, “Don’t think I haven't noticed. Am I displeasing to your eyes?”
“Not at all!” Kagero shook her head vigorously, and eventually she raised her gaze from her lap. “I just… I heard it was impolite to look at people directly in the eyes.”
He raised an eyebrow and leaned back slightly. “What? What on earth are you talking about?”
“I-is it not?” Now, she just looked confused. “I was under the impression that this was proper human etiquette.” Saizo shook his head adamantly, telling her, “Absolutely not. If anything, it sounds archaic. Did you learn this a hundred years ago?”
Kagero slowly turned red again. “I did not! My brother was the one who told me of human customs, so if anything, you should be angry at him.”
“Hold on there.” Saizo raised a hand. “You have a brother? I didn't know that people like you had siblings.” She frowned now and lowered holding the rice ball onto her lap. “Yes, and a father and a mother and a best friend. Cranes are not mythical creatures, you know. We can have families.”
“Which explains the turning-human part,” he said under his breath, but she cleared her throat.
“Regardless, I said this earlier, but I left my family behind in order for me to express my gratitude to you.” She took a bite out of the onigiri, now gazing at him evenly. “I am not very well-versed in human customs and language, but I shall try my best to explain the situation.”
Saizo started to unwrap his own packet of food, thinking. “So explain this: why would a crane be flying outside in the middle of one of the worst blizzards I’ve ever seen in my life?”
Here, Kagero tilted her head to the side. “I… fell asleep,” she admitted. “I am unsure if you are aware of this, but the chimney on this cabin is the warmest thing present in the forest. I merely thought it would be a nice change from roosting in the branches… then I woke up during a blizzard.”
He nodded once briefly. “And I would assume the noise I heard was an attempt at flying off and getting blown away by the winds?” She grimaced but indicated that he was right all the same. “Indeed. It was a foolish move on my part, but I thought that the safety of the trees would be better than being exposed on a roof.”
Shrugging, he took a bite and listened as she explained further. “Groggy as I was, I tried to fly into the wind. The storm ended up making me hit the wall, and I bruised myself from the impact.” Kagero winced as she recalled it, unconsciously reaching over with her free hand to rub her own shoulder.
“An unfortunate error, to be sure,” he remarked, “But you did make it out unscathed from my estimation.” She nodded at that. “Yes. I am rather sore, but it is the price to pay for my folly.”
They were silent for a moment as they ate, then a thought struck him and Saizo leaned forward with focused intent. “Wait. I must know - how the hell did you get out of this cabin? I locked the door as I left, so you either-“
She pointed upwards matter-of-factly. “I squeezed through the chimney.”
Saizo was quiet, then looked up slowly. There was indeed a space: far too small for any human, but a bird - a crane - could definitely fit through the gap that was there.
He felt stupid for a long moment. Gods, I am an idiot. You call yourself a ninja, Saizo?
After that moment passed, he rubbed the back of his neck and stared at the ground. His own face was starting to have the same colour as his hair.
“A-anyway.” Kagero’s voice came through his stupor, and he looked up to see her sitting with both her hands in her lap. She had finished the rice ball. “Thank you. Truly.”
Saizo stared, his attention sufficiently captured. For a second time, he noticed that she really was beautiful at a level almost incomparable to most other women he had seen before. He’d had his brief dalliances in the past, but he had never truly been so taken before.
“I-it was nothing,” he half-stammered, half-grunted, then decided to change the topic in a concerted effort to take his mind off it. “But what now? You’ve eaten your fill, so I suppose you’ll go back to your family now.”
She blushed again, red cast over her face. Now they were both blushing, and Saizo vaguely thought that they would have made quite a sight to anyone watching.
“You must know something,” she told him, her voice serious. There was a heavy pause. “We can only turn into a human form once in our lives. Once we return back to our original shapes, we can never do so again.”
Saizo heard the words, but took a moment to process the meaning. Either he was being slow, or…
“As such, I humbly request that I be allowed to stay with you.” She bowed deep; again, a bow much lower than he would ever deserve in his lifetime as a lowly ninja devoted to the crown prince. “I can take after myself, and I may even be able to aid you.”
“And you wasted your one chance on me?” He raised his voice, aghast. She jumped slightly. Shit. Making a concerted effort to calm down, Saizo said heatedly, “Listen to me. I’m not going to be here for a long time. I’m waiting for someone, but whether they take a year or a day, I will not stay here.
“I appreciate that you’re taking the time to thank me, but I will not be here forever.” Kagero did not falter and replied, “Then I shall follow you.”
He mind flailed for a moment, then he quickly responded, “And I have a job, a hard one. One that means I’m never in one place. I can bring you to the capital, but what then? There’s a war going on. I don't have the time to chaperone anybody.”
“And you will not have to,” she replied obstinately. He was beginning to realise that this woman could be plenty stubborn if she wanted to. “I have said that I am perfectly capable of seeing after my own needs. Whatever the case my be, this is my chance to live like a human and I intend to make the most of it.”
He breathed in sharply and put down the half-eaten rice ball. “This is ridiculous, you know that? Springing this on me when I have my own duties and obligations…” His deep exhale caused the fire to flicker, and he massaged his temples.
She was still bowing and he wondered after the health of her spine.
After a moment, Saizo muttered, “I don't even know how to respond to you.” He looked up at her. “Why me? Why on earth did you think that I’d be someone you could spend time with?”
Kagero started to reply, but he brushed the answer away dismissively. “Never mind. Listen to me: I’ll even say this twice.”
He folded his arms. “My job is distasteful, but I wouldn't give it up for the world. I won't stop you from following me, if that is what you wish, but don't expect me to make time away from my duties just for you.”
Here she pointed out, “Forgive me for saying so, but you do not seem particularly… busy.” Irked, Saizo lowered his hand so that his arms were crossed once more, asking her with more than a little annoyance, “Care to explain why you think so?”
“It’s just…” She started folding the wrapping into smaller and smaller triangles, choosing her words carefully. “You have been staying here for almost a week - I remember seeing you arrive. In that time, I did not once see anything happen, exactly.”
“Th-that’s…” Saizo spluttered, almost rising up from his position before checking himself and sitting back down. “I mean… What would you know? You’re just a bird, after all.”
She pointed out, “That is true, but I am no idiot.”
Saizo didn't understand what was happening. She changed track from shy to hardheaded almost in a flash, leaving him dumbfounded and watching it all happen. He’d never had to deal with someone like her before - both elegant but also able to speak cuttingly when it mattered.
“I j- I do- I-“ Saizo was tongue-tied for a while, then finally, he came to a half. “Fine. Fine, do what you want.”
Kagero nodded. “Thank you for letting me stay then, sir.”
“And don’t call me sir,” he snapped, looking up. “I don't need that. My name is fine.” She replied calmly, “You haven't told me what that is yet.”
“It’s Saizo,” he told her, anger starting to simmer away. “Just Saizo. I don't want ‘sir’s’ or ‘misters’, just Saizo.”
Kagero inclined her head, picking up the discarded wrapper. “Then, Saizo, thank you for letting me stay in your abode.” He grunted, not wanting to say anything. “I shall sit outside for now. The weather is rather nice.”
Without saying anything else, she left, leaving Saizo alone with a half-eaten rice ball to contemplate what had just happened.
The rest of the day passed without incident, if still a little awkward. He retrieved his throwing stars while avoiding eye contact and brought them inside for sharpening in silence. Meanwhile, Kagero spent the day outdoors. He didn't care to see what she was doing, considering he was still frustrated at the turn of events.
When the sun had finally set, Saizo had his back to the front door. Digging through the wooden chest that contained provisions, he calculated his previous estimate of a week’s worth of rations being left to be wrong. Splitting the amount between two people meant that there would be only enough for four days at the most.
He heard her enter, take off her shoes and lock the door, but he didn't say a thing.
“The weather will be the same tomorrow. If you are looking to do some kind of hunting, it would be best to do so in the next day.”
Saizo snorted. “And how do you know that?”
Behind him, Kagero was making herself comfortable by the fire. He heard the rustle of fabric, then knees resting on the wooden floor as she sat down. “The swallows told me. There won't be another cold front for a few more days, but I expect tomorrow will bear the best weather.”
“So I suppose that fowl isn't on the menu?” Saizo finally turned to face Kagero and saw her trying to warm her hands by the fire.
She looked up at him with her brow furrowed. “That isn’t very funny.”
“I’m not very funny,” Saizo retorted as he walked towards her, then realised how lame of a response it was. Either way, she didn't particularly acknowledge his approach as he crouched down beside her. “Here.”
“Another rice ball,” she noted. Saizo frowned, replying grumpily, “There’s not much in the way of variety up on a mountain, alright? I can hardly make food appear from thin air, you know.”
She laughed slightly, hiding it behind a hand. “Truthfully, I prefer fish.”
He was taken aback by her positive response. Not what he had been expecting, but he supposed it would do.
“In any case, you’re too far away from the fire if you want to get warm. Move.” She turned to look at him, scepticism written on her face. “Duly noted, but I am perfectly comfortable where I am.”
Saizo shrugged. “Suit yourself. Don’t blame me if you fall ill.”
Moving over to the other side of the fire, Saizo began eating. Kagero, too, started on her onigiri, and they sat there for a long few minutes.
Outside, the wind began to pick up.
When the blustering outside began to make the window frames shudder, Saizo begrudgingly got up. “I hope you’re right about the weather,” he called over his shoulder, “Because as it stands, we might very well be facing another blizzard.”
He walked around the room, shutting panels and locking latches. “I do not doubt the word of the swallows,” Kagero replied politely. Her overly-refined speech stuck out to him again. “On the other hand,” Saizo said tongue-in-cheek as he went to the door, “I do.
“But if you’re right,” he continued after barring it shut, “And the weather holds up, then I’ll go fishing tomorrow. It’ll be a change from rice.”
Saizo sat back down. “It matters not to me if you want to come, so suit yourself.” Kagero looked as if she wanted to say something, then thought the better of it and kept quiet. Besides nodding slowly, she didn't indicate anything further.
“So.” Saizo resumed eating. “What exactly do you do?”
She seemed surprised that he had decided to ask after her. Kagero was silent for a bit, then she replied, “I know how to weave, firstly. All of us do.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Any reason?” The old loom in the cabin popped into his head.
Kagero shrugged. She had finished eating first again. Either she was ravenous, or she just really liked seafood. “There is some basis in mythology, if I am correct. Either way, it is a lengthy story, so you probably do not wish to hear it.” She changed topic. “I am also not unskilled when it comes to matters regarding nature.”
“Which explains the swallow-talk,” Saizo guessed. She nodded. “Somewhat. I, ah, also like painting.”
“Painting?” Kagero nodded again. “Yes.”
There, the conversation awkwardly dropped off again.
Time passed and it was pitch black asides from the fire. Saizo, leaning back, slowly realised that Kagero didn’t have anywhere to sleep - he had only one bedroll. He thought about it, then shook himself out of it and turned to Kagero. “Hey. When you sleep, take the bedroll.”
She blinked, then questioned, “Is that not your bed?” Saizo didn't answer her and grabbed a blanket from a pile of them stacked up next to the cupboard.
“Here’s what’s going to happen.” He turned around. “I shall clarify now that I’m still unhappy with this turn of events and have no intention of changing my stance on this.
“However,” he continued, “I’ll not take a bed while there’s another who needs it.” Kagero looked at the bedroll, then back to him. “You do not need to-” she began, but Saizo shook his head. “My choice has been made. You won't be able to change my mind, so quit while you’re ahead.”
Kagero, after a bit, relented. “Very well. But you will have somewhere to rest, yes?”
Saizo pointed to the blanket he held, deadpan. “Yes. You’ve no need to concern yourself with me.” He started to spread the blanket out by the fire, separated from Kagero and his bedroll by the flames. He admitted after some silence, “It’s appreciated, though.”
She stood up and looked like she was going to bow to him, then saw him glare. Instead, she went to the bedroll and voiced her thanks instead. “Thank you.”
He nodded as if it were nothing, watching her figure out the logistics of the blanket and bed. Saizo realised that she’d probably never used a bedroll before, then said in an attempt to help, “You put the blanket over yourself after you lie down.”
Kagero frowned slightly and said with a tinge of embarrassment, "I am aware, but I would rather figure it out myself.”
He figured it was getting too late in the night for an argument and backed off. “Alright, alright.”
After pushing the table in front of the door, Saizo settled down on the blanket, using a second as a pillow. He tucked his arms under his head and stared up at the ceiling with his good eye, thinking about nothing in particular.
Just before he turned away, Saizo bit his lip before muttering, “Night.” He didn't expect a reply, but as the heat washed over him, he could have sworn he heard a calm voice say “Good night.”
The next day, as Kagero had promised, the sky was blue and clear and bright with not a trace of sun.
“The river is this way!” Kagero called from quite a ways in front of him. Saizo continued down the incline, raising his hand briefly to indicate that he had heard her.
It turned out that Kagero was aware of a river roughly halfway down the mountain that hadn't yet frozen over even during the most recent blizzard.
Having only spent a week on the mountain and briefed on his mission just a few days beforehand, Saizo hadn't been able to properly survey the area. He knew that the river flowed from the spring in the woods he’d been using as a water source, but nothing more beyond that.
She waited for him to catch up, the snow on the dirt path crunching crisply underneath his feet as he made his way towards her. He was carrying a woven basket along with a few bamboo rods and a box containing a badly carved wooden tackle. Turns out he did have some use for the tools belonging to the previous occupants.
“I’ll be the first to say that I’m not the best at fishing,” he told her when he reached her, “So don’t get your hopes up for a bountiful catch.”
“It matters not,” she replied simply. Pushing her hair aside, Kagero gestured up the path where the river widened in size to almost a lake. “I have some talent for catching fish. At least,” she hesitated, then looked down at her hands. They were red from the cold, even though Saizo had already loaned her a haori that was too big for her. He took a mental note to look for gloves in the cabin. “I was good at it. Perhaps the skill transferred over.”
Saizo shrugged noncommittally. “I certainly hope so. Two people who don’t know how to fish attempting to catch some for dinner doesn’t sound ideal.” They started walking side by side and he continued, “I don’t much care about food as long as it fills my stomach, but a change of pace might be good.”
Here, Kagero spoke up. “Actually, I do have some knowledge about cooking. I could, perhaps, aid you in that endeavour.”
He frowned, moving a fishing pole out of his view so that he could glance at her. She was a good half-head shorter than him, only reaching the bottom of his ears. About average height. “How the hell do you know so much about… well, everything? I thought you were just a bird.”
She furrowed her brow for a long while as they walked. “I am not entirely sure,” she said eventually. “But regardless, I think that it matters not. I noticed that you have no cooking utensils in your home.” Kagero looked up at him, and their eyes met for longer than necessary. They looked away after an awkward second. “You do not have much of anything, really.”
“I don’t plan to stay here long,” he said curtly. “I told you. Besides, I’ve always been the frugal kind. A fire is more than enough.”
Kagero made a small noise, like she disagreed. He opened his mouth, about to say something sarcastically, when she spoke up. “It seems like a lonely existence.”
Saizo faltered and put his cutting words away. “… A content one, too. I’ve no need for prattle or for amusements when I am on a job. Even when I’m at rest, I’d much prefer to be left alone.”
They arrived at a particularly large tree that provided a pleasant enough respite from the sun. As he put down his things, she questioned quietly, “But you have a brother, do you not?”
“As much as any man has a mother or a father,” he responded honestly, pulling out a box of bait from the basket. “Our… profession dictates that we interact very little. Being birthed at the same time means little when our job sends us across different continents.” Especially when one twin is holed up in a mountain shack and his brother fights on a battlefield, he added silently.
Kagero took a mat that she had packed out from the basket and laid it out on the ground. She was deep in thought.
“You look like you have more to say,” Saizo told her bluntly. “So say it and be done.”
She sat down, thinking. He attached a wriggling worm that he had collected before they had sat out onto the end of the line. Kagero eventually said, “Perhaps it is just me, but I would think that siblings - twin brothers, at that - be closer than distant colleagues.”
“…You’re not wrong,” Saizo admitted. “I’ll acknowledge that we are not the closest of brothers. But like I said - greater things are at stake here than my relationship with Kaze. If our bond suffers because of the war, then it will have been for the greater good and the protection of Hoshido.”
He sat down in turn, cross-legged. “I would prefer having a distant, alive brother in a time of peace to amend our relationship than two dead men with no ties to anything in a destroyed country.”
“You speak often of this war, but I have yet to understand what exactly is transpiring.”
Saizo looked sharply at her, the pole still laying flat on the ground untouched. “You mean to say I’ve been going on and on about the war, and the whole time you’ve not had a clue?” Exasperated, he sighed. “Why didn’t you just ask me?”
“I thought you would be angry if I did,” she said defensively. “The way you speak sometimes-” Kagero caught herself and stopped mid-sentence.
Their silence turned very strained as her unspoken words hung in the air.
Finally, Saizo muttered, “I can be… abrasive, at times.” He cleared his throat and spoke louder, not quite looking at her. “But if you’re going to lodge with me - which I still disagree with - then I don’t want you scuttling around me like some mouse. I can be,” he struggled to say this, “Well - I can be an ass at times, so if I’m ever being too much of myself, then don’t be afraid to call me out on it.”
She nodded after a long pause, then brought her knees closer to her so that she was hugging them to her chest. Saizo thought it unlike her to sit in such a casual manner, but he wasn’t about to dictate how she should act.
“I do not want you to refrain from being yourself, though. That would mean being dishonest to who you are.” Kagero gazed out over the river and to the next bank. “Shall we just agree on honesty from now on?”
“It would make this easier, yes,” he conceded. Honesty, eh? Now there’s something I haven’t put into practice for a while. “I will try. No promises - but I’ll try.”
She glanced at him, one eyebrow raised. “It is a start. I shall answer questions you may have if you will answer mine, then.”
Saizo snorted and lifted the rod. “Very well. Being truthful is not much valued in my line of work, but I will tell as much as I can. I doubt you’re a Nohrian spy, besides.” He paused, looking back to her, suddenly serious. “But if you do feed any of what I say back to the opposition, then we will have something more violent than mere words to exchange.”
Kagero nodded solemnly again, brushing her long fringe to the side. Perhaps she would find use in a clip or a hair tie. I might see into that. “I know not of any opposition. It would be hard for me to give information to someone I don’t know.”
“Right.” Saizo flexed his arm, sending the line flying into the water. He held the bamboo rod with both his hands, staring out at the surface of the pond. “The question at hand.
“What do you know about the state of this country?” He looked at her as he asked her his question, mildly curious to see her response. Kagero shrugged and pulled at the strap of her sandal as she replied, “The swallows that wing north told us about unrest at the border with the crows and ravens. They said that the humans were fighting again, but much worse than before.”
He blinked, almost lost for words for a moment. “That’s an odd way of putting it,” Saizo said slowly, “But not wrong. You see - we’re in Hoshido now, right?” Kagero nodded. “That’s our - my - country. I fight for Hoshido and its rulers. The ‘border with crows and ravens’ would be the kingdom of Nohr. They live in an empty land, and we’ve long held an uneasy relationship with them.”
The water shimmered with ripples. “Recently, however, the entire situation has gotten worse. They’ve taken to invading our land on the behest of their mad king.” Saizo gripped the handle. “Now it’s only been made worse by the recent arrival of the Hoshidan royal family’s lost daughter from Nohr, where the boy was being held since his youth. To top the whole situation off, our Queen Mikoto is dead - murdered.
“So yes,” he exhaled, “Unrest is one way you would put it.” He gritted his teeth. “Unrest, and I sit here on a mountain where my lord is in danger of assassination.”
“Your lord?” She queried. Saizo rubbed his mask - he had put it back on, just in case of an unwelcome visitor.
He looked around briefly, making sure that nobody was around to listen, then turned back around. “The crown prince, Ryoma. I actually serve as his retainer,” he said, a tinge of pride coming into his voice. “Many have tried to kill him, but I ended all those attempts on his life before they could even stand.” His countenance hardened. “Now, though, I am here, even though wartime stands the greatest chance of an assassination.”
Kagero looked concerned. “You did all of that by yourself? I do not question your conviction, but that sounds like not an easy feat.”
Saizo replied, “In truth, the members of the royal family each are supposed to have two retainers assigned to them.” Here, he shrugged. “I was chosen to serve Lord Ryoma before anyone else when I was still but a teenager. Unfortunately, every partner that I’ve had since then has quit or been reassigned by their request.”
He thought for a moment. “It… appears that I am not the best man to work with in tandem.”
“I do have some evidence of that,” Kagero said mildly.
Saizo frowned and glared at her. “Hey, when I said that you could call me out, I didn’t mean-”
The line tugged, and their eyes went wide. Gritting his teeth, Saizo hauled on the rod as hard as he could, all conversation out of his head. Kagero watched him with bated breath, looking as if this was the most exciting thing she had ever seen. Meanwhile, he struggled to pull in the line. Tug-of-war with a fish - exactly how he had planned to spend his life as a ninja in service to the Hoshidan throne.
The fight raged on for no longer than ten seconds before Saizo’s battle-honed arm muscles yanked the creature clean out of the water, sending a spray of water upwards and over them.
Kagero brushed off the water that had fallen on her sleeve, watching the fish as Saizo raised the pole upwards. The sizeable creature hung from the pole, still flopping and jerking about, while Saizo remained sitting neatly down. “I don't know what this is,” he remarked as he looked at is up and down, one hand on his thigh, “But it’ll make a good meal.”
“So this is how humans catch their fish!” She exclaimed, visibly enthused. Saizo watched her now, stunned. In the brief half-a-day that he had known her, this was a veritable show of emotion. He was used to a reserved, tentative Kagero, but he had to admit that seeing the stoicism broken with excitement was rather charming.
“…What did you think I was going to do?” He asked her, one eyebrow raised in amusement.
She hesitated, her face flushed. She had to be cold, the kimono she was wearing wasn’t the warmest of things, and he doubted his loaned haori was helping much. “I thought,” Kagero said truthfully, “That you were going to catch them with your hands.”
Saizo snorted loudly, and it quickly devolved into coughing. The sharp intake of cold air from his sudden inhalation was unexpected and for a moment he floundered about feeling like he was forcibly exhaling his lungs.
Alarmed, Kagero put her hand on his shoulder. “Are you alright?” He tried to wave her away with a hand, but he couldn’t quite find the strength to push her away.
After hacking out one final cough, he put the fishing rod to the side and hung his head backwards, breathing in deeply with closed eyes. Finally, he opened his eyes and slid his gaze over to the side. A concerned-looking Kagero met his glance, and he breathed out deeply before straightening up.
“You do say the oddest things,” he told her ruefully. She frowned at him, ignoring him. “You did not answer me. Are you feeling alright? Are you ill?”
He dismissed the idea with another snort, less forceful this time. “Preposterous. Us Saizo men have the constitution of oxen. I have no intention of falling ill.”
Reluctantly, she took her hand away. The spot where she had touched his arm was warm, and for a moment he shivered. Kagero caught that and frowned even deeper. “Sickness cares nothing for your intentions. Sit back against the tree and breath deeply, I shall do the fishing for us.”
She wasn't so much as suggesting as ordering. For once, he wasn't in the mood to argue, so he followed her advice quietly and put his back against the bark. “I hope you don’t plan to catch fish with your hands,” he called out, and Kagero shook her head. “All I need you to do for now is keep quiet, please. I wish I had some tea to give you, but we shall make do until we return.”
“Tea?” Saizo inquired, and she shrugged as she rolled her sleeves up. “I find that tea is calming,” Kagero explained. “It helps put a troubled mind at ease. I also have knowledge of tea ceremonies.”
“Mm… you’re certainly more educated than most birds I’ve met.” He thought about that. “I don’t know if I own a kettle,” he confessed. “So tea isn't on the menu.”
She pulled her hair back and over her shoulders and picked up the fishing rod. Turning around, she smiled gently at him.
Saizo felt very warm even in the cold.
“We shall make do,” she repeated. “So please, sit back.” He grumbled, but only in jest.
The basket filled up slowly as the sun moved in an arc across the bright blue sky. It was slow going at first, but Kagero got the hang of it quickly. Saizo was beginning to think he would have to ask her to slow down, carrying this much fish back would be a task indeed.
“Are you sure you haven’t done this before?” Saizo asked her, genuinely curious. “You have quite the proficiency for it.”
Kagero shook her head as she deposited yet another wriggling fish into the basket. “Not with a pole like this, no. This is all rather new to me, but it is nice to sit here by the river and wait for fish.”
Saizo shook his head and opened his mouth before suddenly feeling winded. Turning to the side, he had to breathe in deeply before turning back to her. …What was that?
She cut him off before he could open his mouth. “That mask you wear is making it hard for you to breathe properly.”
“I am aware,” he said curtly, withdrawing slightly. Kagero didn’t look at him as she sat back down, speaking to the lake more than Saizo. “Would it not be easier to just remove it while you sit?”
“On the contrary,” Saizo said sharply, “It would be harder.”
“And that scar on your face - it has to do with the mask?” She surprised him with her level of observation. A voice in the back of his mind told him that in a different life, she most certainly could have competed with him in that regard.
He stiffened up and found the river water to suddenly be a far more attractive thing to look at. “You touch that scar whenever you put on your mask,” Kagero said quietly. He could feel her watching him, her gaze like fire burning into his body. “We agreed to be honest.”
“It is a story of failure no man has ever paid witness to,” Saizo muttered, his face searing hot. My own, personal failure of the highest degree. “You wouldn’t want to hear boring nonsense like that.”
The river flowed past, the sound of trickling water turning almost oppressive in its presence.
“I believe that in order for us to not spend every waking moment fighting, we need to communicate,” Kagero told him meaningfully. “So please. I wish to hear what the burden on your heart is.”
A small voice at the back of his brain told him that this woman was to be trusted, as tight-lipped as he was about his own history. He could tell her the truth. She would understand.
“When I was a young boy,” he told her emotionlessly, “My father was killed. As a family of ninja in service to the crown, death was just a fact of life for me. But it was not that he had died that disturbed me, it was that he died by the underhanded arm of a man who dishonoured him greatly by doing so.
“I couldn't stand the idea that somewhere there was a man who laughed over the death of my father. So, even though his killer was the monarch of a land, I tried to assassinate him.” Saizo mimicked the motion of stabbing someone, hitting the palm of one of his hands with the side of the other. “I was foolish. I was young. An idiotic child barely out of my teens, I believed that I could avenge my father.”
He snorted bitterly, remembering the folly of his younger years. She had turned around to look at him now, but he avoided her eyes even though he was aware of her watching him keenly. In truth, he sometimes could still feel that rash and impulsive young man raging on the inside. Saizo had made a concerted effort to tamper down that side of him, but to no avail. He was how he was.
“So I made my way to the land where my father had passed, hiding in the shadows and waiting. And when the opportunity came…” He grimaced here. “I screwed it up. I couldn’t wait, and I jumped before it was time.”
Saizo pointed to the side of his midriff. “He got me good.” His mouth twisted, the words tasting foul and unwanted. “Taunted me as he cut across my face, then stabbed his knife into my side.”
He put his hand above the old wound gingerly. “When the weather gets too cold, they both still ache. A way of reminding me of past transgresses, I suppose. Regardless, it was a miracle that I managed to escape from him.”
The unspoken memory of the beatings and cuts he had withstood while in captivity hung in his mind. “I could have easily died then, but I did not.” Saizo bared his teeth behind his mask, staring furiously at the snow scattered by him. “I should have died - it would have been honourable. There is no pride in crawling away on your hands and feet like a mewling whelp.”
His fist clenched. “The scars remind me of my cowardice while the mask hides my face until I can get my revenge. I don’t wish to draw attention to myself and a mask is the best way to hide one’s identity. So, until the day comes when that bastard lies cold and unbreathing on a desolate forest floor, I refuse to let my identity be compromised.”
Saizo breathed out heavily, realising belatedly that the whole time he had been keeping it pent up inside him. He kept his eyes fixed downwards even when she spoke to him slowly and carefully.
“I am glad you did not die that day. You call your actions cowardice, and yet I see bravery instead.” The sky was tinged with orange now, reminding him of that day.
Her words should have made him feel better, but all they did was make him feel even worse. “Why do you care?” Saizo retorted, finally looking up. He met her eyes. “This doesn’t concern you at all; none of it does! Why are you trying to empathise with someone like me?”
She looked solemn. It struck him how serious her face was, and how she honestly believed every word that she said. It was rare to see such verity in the people he normally dealt with.
“I am not one for platitudes and empty praise,” Kagero said, exhaling a cloud of mist. “Maybe it is how I am… different. I do not know. But truly, I know nothing of you besides what you have told me, and I hear a much different story. Fleeing a battle you could not win while grievously injured is not cowardice; it is survival - it is the opposite of stupidity.
“It is bravery that spurred you to seek out the man, no matter what your intentions were. And it is that courage that led to you being alive and well enough now.” She frowned; not so much in anger as in a deep disappointment. “Your actions saved my life, and I will never forget that.
“In short - do not blame yourself. Most people cannot change how they are.” Kagero bit her lower lip. “I may not know much, but I know that dwelling on the past will do nothing for you.”
Saizo was very quiet. Her words cut him to his core, but it felt more like a warm glow that an icy knife. He needed to think on her words.
Why are you so kind to me?
“Ah!” She turned back to the fishing rod, and suddenly the tension of the last few moments had passed.
As she wrested the animal out of the water, a big gush of water splattered outwards. Both of them recoiled, soaked almost to the bone.
Saizo gasped for air as Kagero blinked, wiping chilling water off her arms.
They looked at each other, then slowly, they both started to laugh. He could feel the proverbial weights on his shoulders fall away. I needed this. Saizo was beginning to rethink his position on having company in the cabin.
“I believe that this marks the end of our fishing trip,” she told him triumphantly, holding the fish up with one hand. Saizo whistled lowly at its rather impressive size. “That could feed a platoon of soldiers, no doubt. I’m impressed.”
Kagero smiled, the same smile that made him feel like he had crawled into a warm bedroll on a chilly winters night. Kind of what he had done the night before.
Saizo stood up and offered her a hand. He felt unusually polite all of a sudden. “Let’s go back,” he told her. “I could do with dry clothes.” As he took her hand, he noticed that she was sopping wet, her kimono visibly darker. He supposed that fishing had that downside, and felt guilty.
She pulled herself up, clutching onto his arm. They stumbled a bit as she got to her feet, and he was very aware of the distance between them. Luckily, she made her own space, and all was well again.
“I don’t suppose you have another pair of clothes in a nest somewhere,” he asked futilely as he picked up the basket and waited for her to deposit her last catch.
Kagero shook her head ruefully. “Unfortunately, no. Do not worry too much, this will dry.” Adamant, he shook his head and put the basket down. Unbuttoning his winter coat, he gave it to her. “I am aware that two jackets is rather excessive, but I’ll not have you fall ill under my watch.”
“What about you?” She questioned, accepting the clothing gratefully. “Are you not cold?”
Saizo hauled the basket up onto his back, pulling the cords over his shoulders so his back bore the brunt of the weight. How much fish is in this thing? He turned to her and waited as she put the extra article on. “Oxen constitution,” he said dryly. “I’ll be just fine, don’t you fret about me.”
“I cannot help it,” she said helplessly. “You keep giving me your things to wear. It would feel horrible if you were to fall ill because of me.”
He shook his head, chuckling softly, and took the fishing rods that she had picked up. “I’m not on my deathbed. If you’re so eager to make sure I’m clothed, however, we can make a trip to the village at the base of the mountain. Their market days are on Monday and Friday. You need something else to wear besides that white kimono.”
She blinked midway through folding the mat. “The village?” She asked, intrigued. “I profess, I have not been to a village before. What is it like?”
Saizo rubbed his neck, not sure exactly what to say. Eventually, he settled for telling her, “People live there, but not that many. Most villages and towns have market days the last day of the week, so people who don't live there will come to sell and buy things.”
He nudged her with an elbow. “That’s what we can go there for. You’re in sore need of a change of clothes. I’m not the fashion-type, but even I know that only having one set is a poor idea.”
“So there are lots of people there, then?” Kagero asked this as they began the trek back up the mountain to the cabin that they shared. The sun was beginning to set; they had spent the whole day at the river. Somehow, they had managed to forget lunch.
Shrugging, he walked in tandem with her. Normally he was one to walk briskly, but Saizo actually felt content with strolling for now, especially considering the weight of the basket on his back. “This one’s a small mountain village, nothing fancy,” he informed her. “I’d peg it at maybe… forty people.”
Kagero nodded her head seriously. “I see. That is most impressive.”
He raised an eyebrow at that. “Impressive?” Saizo’s immediate response was to respond in some variation of derision, but he suppressed that in favour of merely shaking his head. “I… ah. Well… if what you see on Sunday is impressive, then the capital will astound you.”
“The capital has more people?” She turned to him, genuinely surprised. “I thought that anything over a score is already rather numerous.”
Saizo shook his head, actually amused for once in a very long time. “Nay. Shirasagi is the capital of Hoshido. There must be hundreds of people there, if not thousands upon thousands. Forty is a drop in the lake compared to that.”
“Thousands,” Kagero repeated, eyes wide. He nodded. “Aye. It’s a sight to behold when you do see it.”
She furrowed her brows, then cast a sideways glance at him. “When?”
He shifted the basket on his back by tugging the strings. “I’m still opposed to this idea,” he informed her, “For your information. When I do return to Shirasagi upon this mission’s completion, however, I can hardly force you to stay here. I’m assuming you’ll do as you wish regardless of what I say, either way.”
The corner of her mouth turned up in the faintest suggestion of a smile, although it probably couldn't be classified as such. “You have me dead to rights.”
Saizo sighed deeply. “And you have me as an unwilling companion, it seems.”
They were quiet for the rest of the trip back. It was an odd mix of content silence and awkwardness in not really knowing what to say. Saizo preoccupied himself by pondering about what he would do when he was done with the mission and back at Shirasagi, or with the main army.
Take a proper shower, for one. Maybe if he could find his brother he would try speaking with him; telling him what he’d just told her. He had to ensure Ryoma’s safety, too. Oh, and he definitely would need to make sure that Kagero had proper lodgings in Shirasagi somewhere.
Saizo frowned. That hadn't been in the plan originally, but somehow had risen to the top of his list. He wasn't sure how to feel about it.
They crested the hill, and soon enough they could see the path that led to the forest clearing where the cabin was located.
“I will go inside and light the fire,” Kagero told him before he could speak. Saizo was a little surprised that she had taken the initiative, but he wasn't going to complain. “You should clean the fish outside. Am I correct in understanding that humans do not eat the innards or the scales?”
He snorted as they reached the cabin, and began shrugging off the basket on his back. “You’re one of us mortals now, you know? Unless you want a hell of a stomach ache, you’d best not ingest anything untoward.”
She took the rods from him, their hands brushing for a moment. Absentmindedly, Saizo thought that her hands were much colder than his. Then it passed, neither of them really acknowledging it.
“You are correct, and yet there has only been a single day,” she informed him almost teasingly. “So you will have to excuse me.”
Amused, he crossed his arms and watched her enter the building. “Whatever you say,” he called out. “Whatever you say.”
He stood there for a moment, then made his way towards the forest proper. Under his mask, his cheeks were red.
The days flew by like birds migrating south - before you knew it, they were all gone.
The week that had passed had been, he had to admit, more than entertaining. It turned out that while he and Kagero clashed on many a viewpoint, they also had much in common. Both enjoyed solitude, both had brothers, both were of like mind.
It was refreshing. He had not known that having company could be so agreeable. Normally he loathed interacting with others, but something about Kagero put him at ease. Maybe it was how both of them were content with silence instead of words, or how she was able to guess what was on his mind.
They had spent their week in equal parts silence, talking and fishing. Saizo had started to teach Kagero how to use a shuriken, as surprising it was to himself even. She had shown an uncanny aptitude for the throwing star, and was far better at it than he had been learning in the same timeframe. They had even sparred once, although Saizo had beat her at it. With proper training, however, Saizo suspected she might be almost better than him. There was not much to do up here on the mountain, so far from everything else, but this passed time was pleasant enough.
Regardless, through their occasional talks around the fire, they learned much about each other. She had a brother, Kagetaka, who was currently winging his way across the mountain and would return come the end of winter, and a best friend - a snake, strangely enough. She also enjoyed painting and weaving.
Saizo didn't have much in the way of cash, but the mental list of things that he would need to purchase on market day grew longer and longer. Ordinarily, being unduly pressed to spend money was an annoyance for a man as frugal as he, but he was alright with it in this particular scenario, he told himself. It was like doing Kagero a favour - he had more than enough, while she was still relying on one set of clothing and many loaned extras from him.
Odd as it was, he felt a sense of kinship with her. It was a mutual sense of companionship, with each of them giving and taking equally. Saizo had never had something like this before, so the entire experience felt more than a little surreal. Strange as it was, however, no part of him would have traded how he felt now and the time spent in her company for a lonely wait atop an icy mountain instead.
On market day, Saizo woke up to find that Kagero had already risen before him. He shivered a bit, but the fire in the room warmed him up sure enough.
“Ah. I see you are finally awake?” Upon hearing him shift around, Kagero turned to look at him. She had sat in front of his bedroll, facing the fireplace.
He sat up slowly, feeling the cold deep in his bones. Though he had grown up in a mountain village much like the one he was currently on, it had never gotten as chilly in Igasato as it did here in the far north. “Aye,” he muttered, then rubbed his arms. “You told me that you’ve lived here for a long time, but how the hell can you stand this cold?”
“Good morning to you as well,” she murmured, clearly amused. Even though it had been a while, he was still getting used to the archaic dialect she spoke with. Sometimes he had to pause to process the words, and oftentimes he would find himself emulating it subconsciously. Only the elders in his village had used it, and he suspected that whatever Kagero spoke with was even older than that.
Saizo noticed that there was light streaming through the window, which was set ajar. Morning already? It must be almost nine for the sun to be out already. He was slightly concerned, but his focus wavered when Kagero continued, “Actually, this is not that cold for me. I am used to it by now.”
Saizo snorted, the burst or air visible as it condensed into a small cloud before dissipating. “Were that I had your uncanny ability to shrug off cold, I’d sleep much more soundly.”
He looked around as Kagero got up and went over to the cupboard at the side. Over the fire was a beaten-up old iron pot that he had found while rummaging through the same cupboard. From what he could see, some kind of soup or stew was bubbling away in it.
“I made fish soup,” Kagero answered from across the room, Saizo not even having to vocalise his question. “It will help keep you warm.”
Grunting his thanks, he got out of his covers and moved over to the spot where she had just been sitting. He had been sleeping
Sitting in such close proximity to the fire, Saizo definitely felt warmer. The chill inside of him, however, stayed. He assumed it would go away after moving around for a bit.
“The bowls are to the side.” He reached for one and made for the handle of a ladle resting in the pot, then stopped as Kagero said, not even looking at him, “Be careful. The handle is hot; use the rag to hold it.”
Appropriately chastened, Saizo did as she said and took the handle.
The soup smelled of fish - obviously - as well as herbs he could not identify. Either way, he didn't doubt it would taste good. She had a knack for cooking, she had told him, and it was certainly not a falsehood.
She came back and leaned down next to him, offering him a neatly folded pile of cloth. “Here, please take the haori.”
He let go of the ladle and took it wordlessly, putting it on as he grunted thanks once again. the third layer of clothing combining to restrict his movements somewhat.
Kagero then moved to sit opposite him, taking the handle and pouring soup into her bowl. She handed it to him, and he accepted it gratefully, holding the bowl in two hands and letting the warmth seep into him.
“So today we’re going down to the village,” he informed her. “We need to leave as soon as possible, as in mountain villages like these, market days only last a few hours. They’re hardly days, in truth.”
She nodded. “I see. Will we be there long?”
He shrugged. “Long enough, I suppose. We have a few purchases to make, then we are at the liberty to do as we wish.”
Kagero sipped from her bowl. Saizo watched, then scratched at his cheek. He had slept with his mask on, as was usual for him. She saw the mask, sighed, but continued drinking. He knew she disapproved, but old habits died hard. Saizo had the feeling that the mask would stay on longer than even he knew.
Saizo pulled the mask down briefly and took a long drink, finishing the bowl in one large gulp. He exhaled as he did, feeling warm throughout his whole body, and shook his head. “I thank you for the meal,” he said formally to Kagero and inclining his head, then lapsed back into his usual brusque self as he got to his feet. “Douse the flame, but keep it over the fire pit. I wouldn't mind having the same for dinner.”
He went around the cabin, shutting windows and moving furniture around from where they had blocked doors overnight. “Do you think we will be there long?” Kagero asked out of the blue.
“Oh?” He turned around, looking at her with an eyebrow raised.
“I think I should like to return as soon as we are done,” she said somewhat sheepishly, the fire reflecting off her. “I have something I wish to do.”
Saizo snorted, but didn't question that. He pulled his mask back over his mouth and went to the cupboard by the side. “Then we’d best leave now. Are you ready?”
She nodded, and moved to put out the fire.
Saizo watched, not saying anything, then opened a drawer to take out a small drawstring purse and a cloth bag. He tucked both into his waist sash, ensuring that it was safely wedged, then turned around to look at his companion. “Let’s go.”
They left within minutes, locking the house and making their way down the mountain. Saizo gave Kagero the key, not wanting to have both all the money and the cabin key in his possession.
Walking at a brisk pace, they made their way down the mountain by following the winding path. Another man who hadn't done the amount of training he had done would certainly have been winded by the trip down, let alone returning back to the top. The cabin was located quite close to the mountaintop, after all.
They reached the village after taking a path that led to a bridge over the Kurosu river - the very same river that they spent hours by. By this time, Saizo estimated it to be about a quarter-to-ten.
“They call this village Yukiyama after some local legend about mountain blizzards.” he informed her as the village came into view. She looked at him, and he continued gruffly, “Don’t ask me about the specifics, I’m no man for myths. Just thought you'd be interested.”
Kagero shook her head and turned to look at what they had made the tiring trek down for. Her eyes widened, and she exclaimed, “So this is a village!”
Immediately, there were stall owners advertising their wares with everything from vegetables - at the start of winter? Must be clearing old stock - to preserves, to bundles of hay to clothes and even toys for children. People were everywhere, with children playing chase and adults browsing the stalls that lined the streets.
Saizo was actually surprised by how many people there were. He had, admittedly, dismissed the village when he had first heard of it, which he now realised was not the brightest move. Ordinarily he would have conducted a proper surveillance, but Saizo had been so flustered at the request that he had bypassed Yukiyama entirely on his initial trip.
Now, he realised that the place was much more of a bustling town than a village. He didn't know how many people were here from neighbouring enclaves or family-run farms out in the countryside, but there was certainly a sizeable amount of people present.
“So this is a village,” Kagero repeated, this time far more in awe. Saizo shrugged albeit sheepishly. “I might have undersold it,” he told her, “I think this is a town.”
She glanced at him. “Towns have more people?”
Saizo nodded. “And cities are like ten towns put together. I told you about Shirasagi, right?” They stood at the entrance to the town, people passing by and laughing as they went about their business. Some stopped to look, but no one paid them too much mind for Saizo to be suspicious. “Trust me, you’ve barely seen anything yet.”
They had quite a time of it, wandering from stall to stall. “That’s a doctor’s house,” he told her, pointing to a modest hut with a red diamond painted on the door. “People go to them when they’re ill.” She nodded with an intense expression on her face, committing every scrap of new information to memory. “And that place there with the banner over the door is the town mayor’s house. Mayors are in charge of the whole town, so when people have problems, they go to them.”
Kagero was clearly interested at almost everything there, but was too reserved to talk to any of the merchants that were there, as much as they wanted a sale. She turned away from all of them, refraining from getting too close. Every now and then, a glimmer of recognition would flicker into her eyes when she gazed upon a face, but what it was about she never explained to Saizo.
On his part, Saizo was keenly aware of the sun passing overhead, so he kept an eye on his surroundings.
“Alright, so we need to get you at least two changes of clothes, an extra pair of shoes and a haori,” Saizo said to her, watching people walk past as Kagero bent down to examine dango being sold by a young woman. He pulled a face at the thought of the sweet dumplings. She got back up and declined the woman’s offer, her face reddening as she did so, and turned to Saizo. “Y-yes?”
“There’s a shop over there that sells women’s clothes,” he pointed out. “See anything you want from here?”
They walked over and were greeted by an older woman with blue-ish hair wearing white, much like Kagero was. Internally, Saizo thought that Kagero wore the colour much better.
“I, ah, quite like this one,” she said, pointing to one that a straw mannequin was wearing. Her eyes lit up, Saizo noticed, as much as she tried to look away. It was a pale-red sort of colour that was hard to describe - not quite pink, but not red either. “The yellow one with the feather pattern is also rather nice…” She wants two of them?
The woman nodded and grinned. “Most certainly! I would say that both of those suit you rather well, young miss.” Saizo looked back to Kagero from the woman. “You don't need custom fitting or anything, right? You know how to fit it yourself?” Loath as he was to admit, there was only so much money in his purse, and a tailor would blow that amount out of the water. Saizo wished, for the first time in a long time, that he had more money.
Kagero nodded at him reassuringly. “Of course.”
“They’ll fit you perfectly,” the woman assured her. “You’re almost the same size, after all.” For a moment, he hesitated, then he shook his head. “Then we’ll take both. That’s it, right?” Saizo turned to his companion.
She wavered for a moment, then pointed to a bolt of cloth coloured a faded navy blue. “Would it be possible to get that as well?” Saizo coughed in surprise. “What, the whole thing?” He asked incredulously. “What’ll you do with that much fabric?”
Kagero blinked, then shook her head vigorously. “O-of course not! Just maybe something…” She gestured with her hands to the woman a space about two metres long, saying, “Something this big?”
The woman nodded. “I can certainly do that.”
He sighed. Whatever. “So how much will it be?” Saizo cut in, taking out the purse from his sash. Kagero looked at the little bag curiously.
“Thirty gold,” the woman told him, still grinning broadly. Saizo frowned. “Preposterous. Fifteen.” Instantly her countenance changed to a haggling one, the smile disappearing. “These take time to make. You’re paying the gold for a well-tailored kimono that has a guarantee for at least five years. Twenty-eight.”
Saizo countered, “Twenty. Considering that you still have most of your stock here, I’d say that we’re one of your only customers today.” The woman fired back, “This is fresh stock. I already sold most of it, and this is actually all we have left. Twenty-five, and that’s the lowest I’ll go.”
Kagero was bewildered at their rapid exchange of words and struggled to maintain a calm expression. In the short timespan of a week that she had known Saizo, she had come to realise that humans were endlessly odd. She had come no closer to understanding them as she had previously, and this only served to drive home the fact that there was a whole world of knowledge that she wanted to learn - would have to learn.
She stood at his side, watching his face - or rather just his eyes - scrunch and contort as he furiously argued with the woman selling the cloth.
Or maybe it was just Saizo that Kagero didn't understand. She was sure that not all humans were as prickly and angry as him. The odds that she had stumbled upon the most conflicted human of all seemed to be pretty large, if she were honest.
Taking a strand of her hair, Kagero absentmindedly began to curl it around her finger as Saizo gestured vigurously. She didn't even know what they were shouting numbers at each other for. Humans were endlessly strange, but also incredibly fascinating. Just Saizo alone was prickly like a briar bush, but he was also gentle and caring in his own peculiar way.
Kagero would never completely come to understand humans, she was sure. But for now, as she watched Saizo argue, she realised that she was content to just stand next to him and figure it out one day at a time.
“Fine,” he said, exasperated. “Twenty-seven.” Saizo began digging around in his little purse for the gold and made his purchase, frowning deeply under his mask. He wasn't happy with paying more that the lowest amount, but what could he do? The shopkeeper had threatened to not make a sale at all, and Saizo knew that Kagero wanted the dresses.
He took the cloth and kimonos and put them into the cloth bag he had brought, slinging it over his shoulder. “Thanks,” he told the shopkeep with obvious sarcasm, who returned it with a sardonic nod.
They walked away, and Kagero took the opportunity to ask Saizo, “What were those shiny beans you were giving her?”
Saizo looked at her, nonplussed, then realised that she was looking at the purse still in his hand. “Beans? You mean the gold?”
He took out one coin and showed it to her. Saizo watched as she took it and examined the coin and informed her, “This is a gold coin. I was paying for the dresses and the cloth.”
“Paying?” Kagero inquired. Ah. It clicked in Saizo’s head as he realised, of course she didn't know about money. That wouldn't have been something that she would have dealt before. Then he also realised that the reason why she had been so up-front about the cloth and the dresses was that Kagero probably thought they were free, or some sort of bartering system.
He knew that there had been no spite or monopolising intent behind her request, so Saizo didn't want to tell her that a good tenth of his money had gone to buying her clothes. He knew she would apologise and try to return the things - that was the kind of person he had learned she was from their time spent together. Reluctant to express her true intentions, but always well-meaning at the core of her heart. Always kind and gentle, even if she masked it behind polite and formal speech. But she would ask him anyway, and she deserved the truth.
“Yeah.” Saizo shifted the bag on his shoulder. “Humans use money to, uh, trade for things.” Kagero frowned slightly. “Trade? You mean that the cloth and the clothes were not…” It dawned on her slowly. “How do you get money?”
He sighed, answering, “In return for working, we get money. Money can buy things, but you only get so much. Most of the time you have to save up to get enough to buy most things, so people tend to value it.”
“Why did you not tell me?” Ah, there it was. She wasn't angry so much as worried, her eyes cutting into him. “It’s nothing to get worked up about,” Saizo reassured her. “I’ve more than enough for a few more weeks at the very least. Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”
“Still, though,” Kagero responded, face flushed, “It is the principle. You should not so easily cast away something that was hard to come by on me. I would have done just fine in the clothes that I do have.”
“And what if I want to spend it?” Saizo retorted rebelliously, a little vein in his temple pulsing. “I get to decide what I wish to do with my money, and I wished to spend it on buying you clothes. Alright?”
She stared at him, and he stared at her with his one good eye. They stood in the middle of the thoroughfare, eyes locked, and Saizo felt his face get warm and red. Ah, shit.
“You’re gonna need different things to wear when you come to Shirasagi,” Saizo said, tone softer as he exhaled. “So don't worry. I’ve decided that I don’t… mind you as much. Let me do what I can.”
Just then, Kagero spied something coming down the street. It looked to be an ox, barreling at full speed and dragging behind it what looked like a heavily laden cart. Even further behind was a man yelling something hoarsely. The bull didn't seem to be aware of the busy market centre, but whatever the case was, Saizo lay right in his path.
Before he could react - before he could even notice - Kagero grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the way. She yanked him towards her as the ox continued its mad dash through the marketplace, sustaining shouts and yells from angry townsfolk along the way. After a moment, its apparent owner rushed through, apologising profusely but not stopping. Kagero gathered that it had been stung by a wasp, but she had other things to worry about.
“Saizo! Are you alright?” Kagero asked, alarmed. “I apologise for pulling you so roughly, but the ox was going to run you over. Are you hurt at all?”
Saizo didn't respond, and she realised that they were far closer to each other than they had ever gotten before. His face hovered over hers, staring right into her eyes. Saizo noticed her eyes were a soft shade of brown.
He pushed away, then realised that she had grabbed her hand. Somehow, their fingers had ended up intertwined. Her hands were soft and cool, delicate and graceful to the touch. So different from his that were warm, hard and calloused and scarred from years of gripping blade handles and blocking blows.
They both didn’t know what to say to each other. Saizo was probably the same colour as his hair, and he was sure that she had to be an equally vibrant shade of red as him. She’d said his name.
Awkwardly, he scratched the back of his head. “I’m, uh. Fine. I’m fine.”
Kagero blinked, then nodded bashfully. “Good. I am… glad.”
They still were holding each other’s hand, Saizo realised belatedly. He felt childish even thinking it, but he didn't want to let go. “W-we should get going,” he stammered, not quite looking at her. Saizo cursed his own tongue; why the hell was he stuttering like some village child that had never spoken to a woman? Surely he had graduated from such infantile behaviour.
“Y-yes.” At the same time, they both let go.
It was a unique experience for Saizo as they completed the rest of their shopping in a unsteady, unsure silence. The quiet had gone away after the first few days, but now it had returned with a vengeance. It hounded their heels as they made their way back to the cabin and continued as he put down the bag on the table.
Saizo tossed the pouch into the drawer and closed it, thinking hard. The sun was past its zenith - not enough to be warm, but much better than stifling cold.
At last, he turned around. She had taken out the cloth and was holding it up in the air, making a concerted effort to avoid eye contact.
“You said my name, didn't you,” Saizo said abruptly. “Back at the market.”
Kagero studied the cloth intently. “Why bring it up now?”
He rubbed the backs of his arms. It felt odd to not have gauntlets on them. “You’ve not done that before, is all.”
She lowered her arms. “I… would not dwell upon it. It was in the heat of the moment, and it is only natural to call someone’s name when you have known them for a while.”
Saizo frowned. “I wouldn't call a week ‘a while’.” Kagero put the cloth down on her lap and stared at him, eyebrows pressed together. “Fine, then. Whatever you would call it. Regardless, it feels as if you are unduly bothered.”
“I’m not!” He replied hotly, “It just stuck out to me, alright? Leave it!” The held eye contact for a tense moment, then broke off.
Ah, shit. It ended up like this again. Saizo gripped the edge of the drawer. Why does every conversation I have with someone else end up in anger? Why does it always begin well enough, then result in sharp words and accidental harshness?
Maybe it was him. Maybe it was the anger inside him that ended up leaking out when exchanging words. Kagero had helped to quell it of late, but he still ended up snapping back. Even with her, he had gotten angry.
Then Saizo realised. Somewhere along the line, he had started to want to get closer to her. Wanted to sit by her side and watch her fish, or watch her sew, or anything really. As long as he was close to her.
So that’s it.
He had never dealt with crushes before. Saizo knew that he and his brother were considered attractive by some, but he had never put much thought into it. Sure, he had had the odd fling or two with faceless women, but they were driven by the need to release stress - nothing other than lust. They had been nothing romantic, almost the polar opposite. What he felt now was something much different from that.
“…I wanted to ask you if you thought it was alright for me to start calling you by your name, alright?”
Saizo took his hands away from the drawer and fidgeted with his sleeve. “It’s why I brought it up; since you used mine first. I don't know, okay?” Fumbling and nervous was not natural to him, but he supposed that in this circumstance it was somewhat pardonable. At least, he hoped it was.
She looked at the cloth on her lap for a long moment. Thinking he had made her angry, Saizo wet his lips and turned to the door. “Never mind it all. I’m going to go grab more water.”
Then he felt something cool on his hand. Saizo turned around, not really knowing what was happening and not daring to presume.
“Of course.” Her eyes were completely honest; honesty the likes of which was by and large foreign to him. Ordinarily he dealt in the dark and now he was confronted by someone who had never seen shadow. Her hand was smaller than his, but felt like it was made to fit into his grip. It was warm and so much more unblemished than his own scarred one. “Of course it is alright.”
Saizo curled his fingers around her hand, almost worried that by holding on too tightly he could shatter her. “O-okay,” he muttered to her.
They held each other’s hand for what felt like forever but really was more like a few seconds. Then Kagero let go and picked up the bucket that she had brought. In reality, he had been intending to go outside just to cool off, but come to think of it, they did need more water.
“Give me a bit. I’ll be back soon,” he told her. She nodded and put her hands together. “Alright. Give me a day,” Kagero replied.
Saizo raised an eyebrow. “For what?” He asked, but Kagero just shook her head. “You have to wait to see.”
He eyed her, then snorted and turned around. “This’ll be… interesting. Ah, whatever. I’ll be back soon, Kagero.”
“See you soon, Saizo.” She watched him leave, feeling flushed for some reason as his back receded into the distance amongst the forest.
The day after that, Saizo woke up and found something warm on his torso.
He could see a bright blue sky beyond the window and groaned under his breath. Again? He had mangaged to wake up late again? Putting it out of his mind for the moment, Saizo tilted his head forward to find a folded piece of navy-blue fuzzy cloth on his chest. He picked it up and the cloth unfolded into a long sash.
“Ah! Good morning, Saizo.”
Kagero was kneeling in the same position as she had the day before in front of the fire, the shape of her body silhouetted by the fire. He looked at her, then sat up and rubbed his bare chin. He’d actually taken the mask off the night before - for once, he’d felt alright with sleeping without it.
“Mm, Kagero. Morning,” Saizo acknowledged, then lifting up the bundled cloth on his lap and showing it to her. “Care to explain this?”
Still glancing over her shoulder, she paused for a moment, then shifted around so that she was facing Saizo instead of the fire. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, then put her hands together.
“Well, I, ah, I heard from the birds that a storm will be coming in very soon,” Kagero explained matter-of-factly. “It will be a long blizzard - I would estimate it at perhaps a lasting for a good few days.
“So, given that you are rather prone to wearing not much at all,” - here Saizo snorted - “I thought that it would be prudent to make something that you could wear.” Kagero gestured to what he realised was actually a scarf. “It is very simple, so my apologies on that front.”
Saizo unraveled the whole thing, admiring it. He shot a glance at her. “And you made this just last night?”
She blushed; tucking the same stray strand back behind her ear where it had come loose again. “I am not unknown to be talented with my hands. Think of it as a thank you for what you have done.”
He looked back at it, then carefully wound it around his neck. For something that had been made overnight, there were no blemishes or loose strings or any kind of indication that it had been part of a swathe of cloth just the night before. The scarf was just the right length to cover his shoulders but wasn't too heavy.
“You are smiling,” Kagero noted, surprised. Under his mask and a thin shade of stubble that was the result of not having shaved for a few days, Saizo looked almost boyish. The long scar over his eye, the sharp features and his severe demeanour belied how young he looked under it all. In a person like that, a smile was most definitely a rarity.
Saizo hesitated, then realised that he was smiling. Seeking to hide it, he buried his face in the scarf, then pointed to her. “So are you!”
He wasn't the sort to give gifts, so it was equally surprising to receive them. Normally they were handed to him and really intended for his brother instead, or meant as a way of trying to make him acquiesce to a favour. So, a scarf. Something that was a gift, given to him, by Kagero.
“I am,” she replied, smiling slightly with her face still red, “But you never smile. It is far rarer to see you so… mirthful.”
“Hey, neither do you,” Saizo responded, covering his mouth with his scarf until he was satisfied that he had stopped grinning from ear to ear. He almost felt like he was some lovesick fool from a backwater village still wet behind the ears. “I’m not sure that I’ve seen you laugh properly since I met you.”
She was taken aback for a moment, then chuckled softly. “I suppose there is a first for everything.”
“Indeed,” Saizo echoed.
There was a quiet moment before he pulled the covers away and stood up in one fluid motion. His lower back creaked as he did so and he took a moment to wince and clutch it, bending over slightly. Sleeping on a cold wood floor with only a blanket between him and the floorboards would have that effect on him, Saizo supposed.
Maybe sparring would work out the twinge in his back.
He got up, putting his hands to his lower back as he stretched, almost cat-like. After he did so, he turned to Kagero and scratched his chin tentatively. “…What do you say we spar a bit? I could do with some exercise to stave off the cold.”
She blinked, and Saizo offered her a hand. “That last time we sparred you actually almost beat me. I’ll not have talent with go unused. Care to join me?”
Kagero smiled, a real, genuine smile, and took it.
As the clouds moved by overhead and the noon sun decided to show itself, Saizo came to the realisation that he had been very wrong in his assumption. He did not feel warmer in the slightest; in fact, as the sun beat down, he felt colder than ever. Throughout his body, there was a bone-deep cold. Something isn’t right.
It showed in his movements, a definite lag presenting himself as he tried to throw a shuriken. The sharp metal star landed heavily in the snow, nowhere near the tree they had been using as a target.
“Saizo?” Kagero turned away from the target to look at him. “Are you feeling alright?”
Saizo held a hand up to hold her back as he bent over, staring at the scuffed snow at his feet. For some reason, no matter how hard and how much he inhaled, he felt as if there was something heavy pressing on his chest that wouldn’t go away.
Kagero approached him anyway, pushing his hand down as she came to stand by his side. “Is it the cold?”
Saizo gasped, “Give me… a moment…” Putting his hands on his sides, he looked up at the sky as he concentrated on his breathing. “I’ll be fine… in a bit…”
She turned his head to look at her and put the back of her hand to his forehead, feeling for his temperature. Kagero frowned - he was far colder than he had any right to be, especially considering the exercise he had just done.
Furrowing her brow, she removed her hand. “I think you should go inside and sit down.” Saizo nodded, not having any reason to argue. “Alright… I’ll just… go do that.” Kagero watched him move, then went over to the target to retrieve the throwing stars.
When she returned to the house, Saizo was sitting on his bedroll. Ordinarily this was no cause for concern, but now, the ordinarily robust Saizo was leaning on the wall for support and looking into the distance where there was nothing.
Kagero crouched by the fire and used a ladle to scoop a bowl of fish soup before turning to Saizo. “We forgot to eat this morning,” she explained, “But this was to be breakfast. Hopefully you will feel better after eating something.”
She offered him the bowl, and Saizo took it. She saw how his hands trembled, and in her gut a hard weight settled. This wasn’t the man she had come to know the past few weeks.
He coughed once into his hand, then took a sip and felt the warmth spread down his gullet and through the rest of his body. It felt better than he expected, and for a moment Saizo felt normal, but then the feeling disappeared far faster than he wanted it to. He kept drinking, hoping to keep the warmth, but it always went away too quick.
Handing the bowl back to Kagero, he saw her turn her back to him. Saizo watched her put the bowl down and hold the ladle - simple movements, but elegant and graceful in their own way.
Then, Saizo didn't see anything anymore.
Kagero heard a thump of cloth and whirled around to see Saizo slumped over, eyes shut tight.
“S-Saizo!” She pulled him up with a bit of a struggle, worry etched into her face. The man was either soundly asleep or unconscious; she didn't know which. Either way, a thin film of sweat coated his face and hair in an exceedingly unflattering matter. She had much more pressing things to worry about, however.
Kagero shook him a few times, but Saizo just wouldn't wake up. His hand slid to the floor, and she saw a dark red substance on his palm. It would have been from when he had coughed into it.
She bit her lip. He had seemed to be falling ill, but every time she had asked him he would brush her concern away and blamed it on the foreign environment. I should have pressed the issue harder, she thought. Now, she had no idea what to do. She had never been sick before, and was much less equipped to deal with human illness.
She was on the verge of panicking when a voice in the back of her mind echoed.
That’s a doctor’s house. People go to them when they’re ill.
A small house with a red diamond carefully painted on the door stood out to her in her memory all of a sudden.
Kagero knew what to do now, her panic gone. Alright. I can get him help.
Laying Saizo down gently, she brushed his hair aside and pulled the blanket over him before standing up. “I will be right back,” she promised him, hoping that somehow he could hear her. “I am going to fetch the doctor, and you will be fine.” So please, just hang on.
Then she left, hastily locking the door, slipping her feet into the shoes that they had bought together just the day before and making her way down the mountainside.
The trek down to Yukiyama seemed much longer than it was previously. Kagero wished that she was still a crane so that she might just fly down and get help; it would be so much quicker than being bound to two feet. Then again, were she still a bird, talking to a doctor would be impossible.
She pursed her lips. If Kagero was being honest with herself, she had never expected to be concerned about Saizo when she had first met him. He was rude, prickly, and blunt, and she hadn't really thought much about what she would have done after her initial meeting. It had taken a while for his intentions to come through, but ever since Saizo had sheltered her from the storm, Kagero had known that he was a good man.
It had sounded beyond stupid when she had told her family and Orochi that first day, but his hands had been more gentle and caring than they had any right to be. Her brother Kageta had been rightly worried about his little sister assuming human form for a strange man, but that week with Saizo had been more eye-opening than the previous fifty years were.
Now, as she crossed the bridge into the town, the sun was steadily moving west. Kagero identified the door with the diamond and went straight to it.
She looked around for any sign of other people, but there was no-one outside. A few villagers were looking oddly at her, but she paid them no mind.
“‘Scuse me.” The voice came from behind her, and she started before turning around. It was an older man, completely bald, but an impressive beard framing his chin. “This is my house.”
“Are you the doctor?” Kagero asked, heart racing. She had barely interacted with humans other than Saizo, and even she knew that he was more ornery than most. She wasn't quite sure what other humans were like.
The man grunted, “Aye. Now, mo-”
“Saizo is ill,” she told him, words leaving her in a jumbled rush. “You have to come with me.”
He squinted. “Who’s Saizo?” Right. He told me that he was not acquainted with anyone from the village. “He lives with me,” she told the doctor. “Up on the mountain.”
Kagero moved to the side as the doctor squeezed past her. “He your husband?” He asked gruffly. She felt her face heating up as she hastily replied, “No, not at all! We just happen to be living in the same house.”
“Unmarried?” The doctor mused, then shrugged. “Shan't judge. Not my business. What’s he got?”
She was disconcerted at the sudden change in subject, then shook her head. “Ah, he fainted. Before he did, he was sweating and coughing.”
The doctor moved into the house and picked up a basket, listening to her as he did and putting things inside it. “Anything else?”
“There was blood when he coughed, and he was very tired. Can you help him?” she asked, a tinge of desperation present. The doctor was moving far too slow, and when he turned around, it felt like he took an eternity.
“Blood in saliva?” He murmured to himself as he put his basket on his back. “Not promising.” Something about his eyes gave her a bad feeling. They were constantly darting around, never once looking at her. “Let us go. I have a hunch, but I need to see the man to confirm.”
She wasted no time in leading the doctor from the village and back up the mountain. He moved at what felt like a snail’s pace while she stayed a good few metres ahead, impatiently turning around every now and then to see if the older man was any closer. Consistently, he was not.
When they eventually arrived back up to the cabin, her fingers were trembling as she tried to unlock the door.
The doctor watched her fumble but didn't say a word, more interested in looking around at the clearing that the hut stood in as he hefted his basket over his shoulder. She resented his nonchalance when Saizo could be dying, but knew that she had only him to rely on if Saizo even stood a chance of getting better.
Kagero finally got the door open and hurried inside. The doctor followed suit, albeit much slower.
He identified Saizo lying down on the bedroll straightaway and clicked his tongue loudly. “Your man’s in bad shape.” The doctor shrugged the basket off of his back and put it by Saizo’s head as he sat down cross-legged on the floor.
She watched him pull the blanket down and take Saizo’s hand. The doctor put two fingers to his wrist and concentrated intently before doing the same to his neck. Kagero wasn't sure exactly what he was doing, but she hoped that it was helping Saizo somehow. She came to kneel by Saizo and faced the doctor, watching him go about his business as she took Saizo’s terrifyingly limp hand.
After a few moments, he clicked his tongue again and muttered, “He’s freezing.” Then he pulled the blanket down and moved Saizo’s robes so that he could examine his bare chest. Kagero pressed her lips together.
He was far thinner than she had expected. Saizo was a big, muscular individual ordinarily packed with strength, but his ribs were showing as he breathed rapidly. She cursed herself for not knowing anything more about human physiology and grasped his callused hand tight.
The doctor continued his examination over the course of the next few minutes. His constant muttering of staccato phrases and words nearly drove her insane as he completely disregarded her.
Eventually, he pulled the blanket back and looked up at her. “He’s very ill,” the doctor stated, as if Kagero was unaware. “This takes time to happen. Was it sudden?”
She remembered that Saizo had been under the weather for days and shook her head, replying, “He was not feeling well for a while.” Her voice came out hoarse with worry to her surprise.
He didn't say anything, and instead reached into his bag and retrieved a bundle of herbs wrapped up in cloth. He proffered them to her and told her, “Twice a day. Grind these up with water and let him drink. Morning, and night. If you need more visit me. Keep him warm. Lots of water. Should see improvement in three weeks.”
Kagero took it gratefully, setting the bundle aside with utmost care. “I thank you.”
The doctor’s hand was still outstretched, and he raised an eyebrow. “Fifty.”
She was confused for a moment, then remembered golden pebbles that Saizo had used to get the cloth. “Ah…” Kagero faltered, opening her mouth before closing it when she realised that she had no idea where Saizo kept the pouch with money or if he even had enough.
The doctor saw this, and for the first time, his expression softened. “I see.”
He closed his hand and withdrew it. Eventually, he told her, “Alright, twenty. By next week. Compromise.”
Glad to have some sort of reprieve, Kagero put the matter of money aside for the moment and gladly nodded. “Of course. I will do so.” The doctor nodded as well, then quickly turned sour again. “Then I’ll leave. Damned long walk.”
He stood up without waiting for her and hoisted the basket onto his back before making for the door.
The doctor left without another word, leaving Kagero alone with Saizo. She held his hand tight and rubbed her thumb over the back. Then she got up to make the medicine with the pestle and mortar that she’d used to make fish soup. Her stomach clenched at the thought, and she had to reassure herself that she had medicine now. It would be alright.
When she returned, Saizo looked as pale as ever. Kagero furrowed her brows as she tried to wake him up to no avail. “Saizo?” He was solidly unconscious, lost in whatever bad dreams he was having from the frantic way his eyes were darting about under his eyelids.
She bit her lip, then reached down to prop him up. As ill as he was, Saizo was still a big man, and the only way for him to not fall was for Kagero to sit behind him and rest his back on her.
Kagero reached up with some difficulty but nevertheless got Saizo to drink all of the mixture. He coughed as he did, and she was unsure whether it was optimism, but as she laid him back down he looked like he was in less distress than before.
She pulled the blanket back up and moved to keep the precious herbs by the dresser. The memory of payment came back to her, and she winced.
If Saizo wouldn’t wake up, how could she pay the doctor? All she knew how to do was fish and sew, and that wouldn’t get anywhere. She didn't have a stall like those people at the market. Even if she did, she had seen plenty of stores selling fish the day before - the venture would not work.
As for weaving, there was no way she could get the fabric to make clothes out of without the coin to begin with. She knew the markets were open every two and three days, but the price of a swathe of cloth alone had been more than the price the doctor had given her for the medicine.
Then, an idea struck her as Kagero stood over her needles and materials that lay on the top of the dresser.
Kagero brought her hands up. They trembled not of her own accord.
She didn’t have to buy cloth, she realised. She could make it.
One hand brushed over the other and revealed pristine white crane feathers coming from the sleeve of her kimono. She had what she needed. She had not told Saizo this, even though he suspected as much, but there was a magic to her transformation that meant the feathers were raw fabric enough.
Kagero set to work. She’d seen the loom that stood by the door. Even though it was old, it could still be used to weave, and that was all that was necessary for this endeavour.
She went right to it; unhooking the lantern and removing her drying kimono from the frame. It took a sizeable amount of pushing and pulling, but as the sun got high in the sky, the loom was once again assembled and whole in the corner of the room opposite from where Saizo lay.
Brushing the hair from her face, Kagero contemplated it. The wires were still intact, and everything moved smoothly. Good.
Behind her, Saizo coughed suddenly. She rushed over to him and kneeled down to see if he was alright, but the episode was over as soon as it had begun.
Relieved, she sat back and looked down at him. Her relief turned back to worry, and she reached down to smooth some of his ruddy hair away from his face. The long scar stood out angry and red, and Kagero hesitated for a moment before leaning down.
She lightly put her forehead against his. Then she winced. He was cold to the touch.
“Don’t you fret,” she promised him once she had sat up, using words he had uttered before. “I shall make sure you recover.” And the first step of that is to make cloth.
Standing up, Kagero went back to the loom and sat down. After a long moment, she brushed one hand over the other. Then, hand shaking, she pulled hard on a feather hidden deep within a sleeve. She closed her eyes momentarily as a sharp pain coursed through her arm, resolving not to shy away from pain, but face it head-on.
She pulled more and more until she had five in her hands. Long, white, and satin-like to the touch even as stabbing pains made lightning bolts through her fingers. Human fingers… they were odd, short things, but surprisingly nimble.
Then she began to weave. A mixture of ingrained knowledge and instinct drove her onwards of hours on end, and outside the sun began to fall rapidly from its peak as befitting the winter. It was soothing work to see the cloth begin to form under her fingers, but Kagero could not rest knowing that she was the only one that Saizo had to rely on in this time.
When she finally raised her head, it was pitch-black.
Kagero realised that evening had come and gone and it was now nighttime. She staggered to her feet, but felt prickling needles in them and had to sit back down in a flurry of cloth.
Exhausted, she took a moment to stare out the windows at the night sky. She could hear the sound of the forest even from inside the cabin. Untrained ears would only hear silence, but for someone like her who had grown up as part of the wilderness, even the softest rustle of leaves as winter wind passed through them stood out to her.
The softest chirp of a bird came from the window. Kagero breathed in, then out. Now, that was a world she could no longer return to. She had known what she had been getting into, choosing to discard her original form. Even as she sat here, she would not have given up her time spent as an erstwhile companion to Saizo for another century as a crane.
She turned her gaze to the man lying on the bedroll behind her. Worry draped itself on her as Kagero got up to stoke the fire, then kneel by his side to adminster that night’s dose of medicine.
Unsure if it was just her eyes or her heart, Kagero could swear he looked better already. She knew better than to leave such things to chance, however. Propping Saizo’s head up on her lap, she watched him feverishly swallow the medicine, his body still wet with sweat.
That reminded her - she would have to change his robes. That would be a job for tomorrow, but at least for now, maybe she could help rid him of some of the sweat plaguing him.
It took a short while to grab the bucket of water and a rag. Kagero started by carefully wiping his brow, going over the long scar and eyebrows that looked furious even at rest. Then she moved to his forearms and hands, dipping the cloth into the water before progressing to his chest.
Even while ill, Saizo was a strapping man. His hard muscle was marked all over by deep-set bruises that coloured yellow and blue with age and constant abuse and scars of all shapes and sizes. The assortment’s prizewinner, however, was a large white mark the size of a closed fist to the right side of his abdomen.
If she remembered correctly, that was the one he had been given by the man who killed his father. This was the first time she’d seen the scar properly, and its ominous story showed. Kagero didn’t doubt the wound that had caused it would kill most other humans.
She looked at his face and softened a little. But Saizo was not just some human. He was a retainer in service to the future king, as he so often liked to say. Stubborn and foolhardy, but with determination to be admired.
Kagero didn’t doubt he would get through this, if only by the force of sheer will to get better. All she had to do on her part was ensure he had the medicine and food he needed to recover.
With that thought in mind, she finished wiping his torso and pushed the bucket aside. To make dinner, then weave.
Weave, then sell. Kagero turned away from him, her mind set in its plan to help him. “You will never come to harm under my eyes,” she murmured. “No matter what it takes.”
And she meant it.
Two weeks passed with her initial assumption proving horribly wrong. Saizo’s condition took a dive for the worse, with his night shivers and sweating alternating throughout the day. Kagero’s schedule could more or less be boiled down to caring for him and making meals in the day, then weaving endlessly at night.
She didn’t complain, though. She was steadfast. A life for a life in turn. I refuse to let you die.
The doctor’s medicine helped, but she still had to pay for it. After the first week, she’d managed to find the money Saizo squirelled away in the chest of drawers, and it had helped for that one time, but selling the cloth made from her own wings was the only option left available to her.
Kagero wasn’t sure how selling things worked, truthfully. She only just barely made out with more gold than she had to begin with, but the woman at the market who sold cloth said something to the tune of her designs being too odd to sell to most people. If anything, that was the thing that bothered her the most. She thought they were remarkable, while the woman had called them strange. Rude.
The medicine ran short faster than the doctor could give it to her. Kagero showed up often at the man’s door looking harried and preoccupied. It was an odd routine, but one that worked.
On the fifteenth day since Saizo had fallen ill, Kagero made her way to the cabin with a basket on her back and the sun already setting. She had gone fishing - now their only source of food as winter still raged onwards. She had been lucky no blizzards had passed through in that time.
Tiredly, she pushed the door inwards after unlocking it and set the basket down. The fish would keep for a few hours. Need to weave.
Kagero cast a worried glance at Saizo as she made her way to the loom, then looked back, assured that he hadn’t gotten any worse. He hadn’t arose since the day he’d collapsed. She needed to finish her current piece, but the feathers were growing less and less.
The effect of plucking feathers was doing noticeable damage to her human body. Thin nicks, like scratches, appeared on her arms. Alongside the many cuts she’d sustained from the constant weaving, they bled in unison. More than once Kagero’s hands had slipped on the blood from the numerous wounds on her fingers and arms, and oftentimes she would have to wash the cloth due to the bloodstains. She’d bandaged her hands and arms with excess cloth and kept going, however, since she still needed to weave.
Kagero had lived a long life as one of the blessed cranes with power to turn into humans. Over ninety winters, each of them unremarkable. She had watched time turn and seen villagers born, mature, grow old and pass as a bird. Wondered if she would ever have a part in their short cycles. Her parents and brother had assured her that she would know what to do when the time came, but Kagero had not seen them take human form in all that time. She’d heard of others doing so, but never known one.
None of it explained why she felt so compelled to aid this man. It had begun as a show of gratitude, then quickly turned into more than that. Kagero was fond of him, Saizo liked her in turn. As people, then more than that. He had mentioned bringing her to the capital often and even she had started to see a future that went beyond this lonely mountain.
She sat down at the loom, breathing in deep, then beginning the slow process.
Progress was slow, given how often her fingers stiffened up and the bandages caught on the threads. It frustrated her, but she steeled her resolve and reached for another feather. This time, pulling it out was a piercing thread of pain that resonated through her arm and into her chest.
Kagero stifled a sharp gasp, clapping her hand over her mouth. Please, just hold up a little longer, she berated her own body.
Then she heard cloth rustling and a full-bodied cough.
She turned around, eyes wide, to see Saizo sitting up and looking at her with a lidded gaze. “Are you… alright?” He managed to say, breath coming in short gasps.
Kagero scrambled over and sat down, putting her body behind him as a support. He relaxed his rigid posture and allowed himself to lean backwards ever so slightly. Saizo was far too light, and she knitted her brow.
“You are awake,” she breathed, not hiding the obvious relief in her voice. “Yes, I…” Saizo broke his sentence to look away and cough violently, whole body spasming.
His clothes were hanging off his body, slippery with sweat as it were. She furrowed her brow. It was so cold, and yet he was sweating. Saizo, though still looking largely the same, made for an near-skeletal figure. Normally he would be standing to attention, but now his muscles all seemed to sag as he looked like he would give way where he sat.
“Have some medicine,” Kagero urged him, bringing up the dish she’d prepared earliet and put off to the side. He slowly nodded his thanks and let her put the shallow dish to his lips, her hands trembling as she did so.
He caught her hand as she moved to take the dish away, a frown etching itself onto his face. Turning over his shoulder to look at her, Saizo managed to say, “Your… fingers.” His voice was even more gravelly than usual, sentences punctuated with his laboured breathing that wracked his whole body. “Your hands… bloodied.” His much larger battle-worn hand almost engulfed hers.
Her words caught in her throat and she bowed her head, resting it on his back. He rumbled softly. “Worry about yourself, not me,” she berated him, fighting to keep calm. “You have been ill for weeks, and the first thing you do when you wake up is ask after me?”
“I promised… I’d take you… to see Shirasagi,” he breathed. Saizo’s one good eye rested on her, more focused than she’d ever seen as he frowned and told her, “A Saizo… keeps his word. So… why?”
She closed her eyes as he moved his thumb as gently as he could over her bandaged fingers. “I have been weaving,” she told him. “Making cloth to sell and buying medicine.” Kagero gripped the cloth on her lap with her free hand. “I used my feathers for thread, and pulling them out was my only recourse.”
“And pulling them cuts you,” he guessed, then exhaled heavily. “Don’t hurt yourself… for me.” he told her, making a concerted effort to speak as another spasm coursed through his body. “I can’t stand it… knowing you-” Then he broke off into another vicious coughing fit, dropping her hand while she held his back and looked on, biting her lower lip and wishing she knew a way to help him any more than she already was.
Once it subsided for the time being, he put a hand to his mouth and breathed deeply, his chest still heaving up and down with every laboured breath. Kagero watched with worry on her face, propping him up.
“Has anyone come… to the cabin?” He asked in a change of topic, turning around stiffly to look at her. She shook her head and he nodded slowly, the back of his hand still raised up. “Good, good… That’s good.” Saizo relaxed, all the tension in his shoulders and neck melting away as he let her hold him.
Without the pressing scowl that normally was plastered over his face, Saizo looked incredibly gentle, especially more so as he gazed upon her.
Reaching for her hand once more, he turned his gaze down to look at it. “I’ll get better soon… so don’t hurt yourself.” Moving his other hand, Saizo raised it to her face and held it gently, warmth radiating from his good eye even as cold as he was.
Kagero, still holding him, didn’t say anything. He continued, steeling his faltering voice even as his eyes began to flutter shut as the medicine took its effect. “I promise, I won’t leave you… so just… wait for me.”
“I love you,” she murmured finally, wanting him to hear her before he fell asleep for gods knew how long more. Both his eyes snapped open and for the first time, Saizo looked truly awake. Then he smiled and the both of them could have sworn that the world stopped moving for that moment. “I… love you too,” he managed to whisper back.
The smile remained on his face, and she smiled in turn. Then he was fast asleep, some of the pallor already gone from his face.
Kagero watched him rest, then closed her eyes for a few seconds as she knelt by his side. The numbness in her hands began to slip away, and just for that moment, she could have sworn that everything was going to be alright.
Saizo’s health did begin to improve as he had promised. Days passed and soon it was three days since he’d last woken up, then two, then one. Soon he began trying to sit up, but was quickly thwarted by Kagero’s watchful eye.
He still slept fitfully at night and for most of the day - she attributed it to the medicine that he was imbibing. As much as he implored her, Kagero continued to weave cloth to sell at the market to pay for the medicine. Recoveries did not happen overnight, and she feared that being careless just for one day might push Saizo’s illness over the point of no return.
Similarly, her hands and arms were mottled with the cuts. Kagero didn’t let Saizo see them and bandaged them profusely, but on Saizo’s part, he was not fooled. A ninja like him was more than familiar with the scent of blood, as obscured as it might be. Besides, the wounds were so bad that oftentimes he could see the dripmarks on the floor even though she cleaned them up.
There was a small irony in the sick man scolding her for not taking care of himself, so she abided by it in the day, but at night still kept at it no matter how much it hurt and how much he pleaded and implored her to stop. He had made a promise to her, it was true, but she had also made a promise to herself.
A life for a life, she repeated inside her head. A steadfast promise. Saizo was stubborn, but she could be tenacious as well.
The day came, a week and a half after he had first woken up, when the final blizzard of the winter season had just descended upon the mountain. It raged like a man possessed, buffeting the windows and tearing at the door.
Kagero had gotten word of it early from crows returning from the south and was more than prepared for it, but it didn’t matter whether she was ready, for she had much more pressing work.
She sat at the loom, hands gripping the wooden bar tight. The tapestry she was making was the final one. She’d put her all into it, crafting a masterful scene of the moon shining its white light onto the tops of trees. The trees did seem a little pointed and the moon slightly too large, but the villagers had seemed impressed by it, if bewildered. Nonetheless, Kagero had received money for it, and that was all she cared about.
There was one last feather left now. Somehow the pure white had managed to keep clean from the bitter red blood, and there was only one thing left for her to do.
It was night, and Saizo slumbered fitfully behind her. He was quiet when he sleeped, with no real indication of any life coming from him. That first day she had slept in the same room as him and woken up before he did, Kagero thought that Saizo had died in his sleep. Now, she smiled at that distant memory.
Saizo had coughed up blood the other day, prompting more fear from her and feverish, mildly delirious confidence from him. “It’s just some phlegm, that’s all,” he’d told her. “Nothing for you to worry about.” As if I could stop worrying just like that.
Foremost on her mind was the fear of what would happen when the final feather was removed. Kagero swallowed a lump in her throat. She had never heard of cranes who had done as she did now, so she was unsure of what might change in the next moment.
For a second, she let the fear creep in.
It was in her nature to be withholding. She had always been quiet, with her only idea of manners and human nature being the stories she’d been told and the tales from her older brother on how humans ought to act. Years ago, she would take wing over the village below and watch as the fathers and mothers of the people who now lived in Yukiyama went about their business. Always watching, never quite being a part of them.
With Saizo, though, she had started to feel more at ease. Kagero was not too sure herself, but she had some suspicion that he felt the same way. Being expressive was not familiar to either of them. Now, though, she almost felt like she had nothing to lose with speaking her mind.
“What if I return to a crane?” Kagero wondered softly. “What if… I just cease to be?” Both outcomes seemed equally possible at this moment; an unavoidable fork in the path that she had been taking. Then, much quieter, with her words were barely more than a whisper on the wind, “Would you stay by my side even then?”
And then, finally free of trepidation, she closed her eyes and pulled on the single, white feather.
There were a number of things she felt.
Firstly, the indescribable pain that was foremost on her mind. It was like being pricked by a thousand invisible needles. Kagero gasped out loud in a wordless cry and a sharp intake of air as her arms shook, caught up in the agony.
Next, something inside; some tenuous, unsure connection to a part of her being that the crane resided in, the part she had somehow been holding on to all this time - was severed abruptly. She could no longer hear the birds as they murmured in the forest, or the howling of the wind as it billowed past the cabin - only the crackle of the fire remained to her ears.
Finally, there was the warm embrace of another as Saizo hugged her from behind. Kagero had not heard him approach and was taken aback as he embraced her fully. His hands, so much bigger and so much more weathered than hers, clutched her bandaged ones as she held the long, elegant feather in-between her fingers.
He chuckled, a low and dry rumble of genuine amusement. She had missed it dearly.
“Don’t you know me by now?” His hand gripped hers comfortingly, not faltering even as blood dripped steadily to the floor, running down her arm from under the bandages and staining his skin. “I’m too stubborn for my own good.” He pressed his head to hers, content to sit there and embrace her as long as he could. “As long as you’re around, I’ll be here as well.”
Kagero bit her lip, her heart beating with emotion. So many different, yet distinct feelings - surprise, happiness, sadness - all tapped away at the edge of her consciousness. Yet, as the two of them sat there, holding on to each other as if they were afraid the other would slip away, relief was the main emotion that washed over her.
She dropped the feather, turning around to return his hug. It felt like an eternity but could just as easily have been a single moment in time. The world slipped away for that moment, with his shaky but calm breathing being the only thing she could hear.
“I’ll never leave,” Saizo reassured her, speaking under his breath and determined to hold on to this one good thing in his life. “As long as I can… I’m yours, Kagero.” He wasn’t quite sure where his words came from, seeing as they were much nicer than his usual ones. Nevertheless, they felt right.
Kagero nodded, not saying anything, but barely suppressing a smile. Somehow, any words she could muster up didn’t quite do her feelings justice. She didn’t have to say it, though - Saizo already knew.
Then they heard it. A worried, staccato knock on the door.
Someone was outside.
Saizo tensed up all of a sudden and turned his head. “I’ll go,” he told her, looking at her in the eyes, but she shook her head. “No, you can barely stand. I’ll go.”
He furrowed his brow. “It could be an assassin. You can’t defend yourself, don’t be-” Kagero looked at him, one eyebrow raised ever so slightly. “It would be wise of you to be the one sitting still, Saizo. You are in no state to run around, seeing as you can barely stand.
“In any case, the one to tell me about the how to use shuriken was you, after all. Have some faith in your teaching.”
With that, she rose to her feet. Appropriately chastised, Saizo watched as she went right to the chest of drawers, reaching around the back for a throwing star that he pretty sure only he knew of. He’d hid it there on his very first day in the cabin. Before she could go to the door, Saizo spoke up in his still-raspy voice. “Hold on. How did you know that there’s something there?”
Kagero paused, then answered, “I… may have observed your line of sight once or twice. You did look towards it every time we entered.”
Saizo blinked, then chuckled. Gods, I love her. Then shakily, he got to his feet, raising his hand to stop her from helping him. “Listen… I might not be the one to answer, but I won’t sit around letting you do the work.”
He gestured with his head at the door. “If it’s an assassin, we’ll know. The first thing you must ask him is, ‘Where do the red flowers bloom in the spring?’” Saizo recited the phrase that he had memorised just before coming here. It almost seemed like that had been another age entirely. “They must answer, ‘At the trees north of Fort Jinya’. Anything else, and you give me the signal.”
Reaching for the broom that rested against the wall, Saizo gripped the handle. “Alright. When you’re ready.”
Kagero nodded, then turned to the door. She took a deep breath, then unlocked it and opened it slowly.
What greeted her was darkness and the bluster of a storm in full swing. Kagero squinted against the sting of the fluttering snow and saw a figure standing in the gloom. They were swaddled in thick clothing befitting the weather, and she could hardly see their face.
The figure shifted a bit upon seeing her but said nothing. She swallowed, then said calmly, “Where- where do the red flowers bloom in the spring?”
It took a moment, but a steady voice that she couldn’t clearly make out replied, “At the trees north of Fort Jinya.” Kagero nodded slowly, then held up the shuriken in her hand. “Alright. You may enter, but be careful.” They had answered correctly, but still…
Kagero eyed the figure as he entered, closing the door behind him. The figure said calmly, “You can sheathe your weapon, miss. Although, you don’t seem to the man I’m looking for…” Saizo frowned, still hidden to the side. That voice…
“Take your hood off first.” Kagero said evenly. “Alright, alright.” The person pulled their scarf down and pushed the hood back off their head, revealing their face. Saizo’s shoulders dropped. “Now, could you please put the shuriken down?”
Saizo stepped out from the shadows. “It’s alright. I know who he is.” The figure looked at him, his own shoulders dropping in relief as well. “Oh, thank the gods. I was surprised - I almost thought you’d died.” He snorted and replied, “I very well might have at one point. It takes more than that to kill a Saizo, though.” The man smiled a little awkwardly, replying, “Don’t I know it.”
Kagero watched Saizo step forward to meet the man. Her eyes flickered back and forth from the newcomer to Saizo.
The two men looked exactly alike. Both bore the same defined jawline and thin eyebrows that made for a serious - and rather handsome - face. They were identical, barring for Saizo having red hair and this second man having green.
“So… who is this, then?” The man turned his head to look at her curiously, though not rudely. “I wasn’t expecting anybody but you to greet me, honestly.”
“Ah. Kagero, this is my brother Kaze.” He looked at her and Kagero bowed formally., saying, “Saizo has spoken of you before.” Kaze scratched his chin with his finger bashfully. “Oh, er, please don’t bow to me, I haven’t done anything to deserve it.” At that, she straightened up and hid a small smile. Saizo may not think so, but they really do resemble each other.
Saizo gestured to Kaze. “Kaze, this is Kagero. I’d have died if it weren’t for her.” His brother looked at him sideways. “You? Die?” Kaze knitted his brow together. “What happened?”
He shrugged, not really sure how to explain. “It’s a long story. We’d best sit down for it.”
They took their places around the fire, Kaze sitting opposite from Saizo and Kagero as the latter helped the former sit down. If he took notice of her hand on his arm, he did not say anything.
“We’ll get to the storytelling afterwards. What news do you have for me?” Saizo asked his brother, eager to hear anything of the war. It had been a while since he had heard anything about news beyond the mountain, and considering how he had been drifting in and out of consciousness for weeks, it was practically a lifetime away.
“First, I must apologise.” Kaze bowed his head, fists on his knees as he closed his eyes. “We had meant to send word to you much sooner, but things took an unexpected turn and whatever information we had quickly went out of date.
“The war is over.”
Saizo stared at his twin. Kaze noticed his silence and looked up tentatively. When he did not speak, Kaze fully straighted up and crossed his arms. “The royal family declared a truce with Nohr not but a few days ago. The missing princess was the one to convince Lord Ryoma to send a delegation offering a cessation in hostilities in exchange for a renewed attempt at peace.”
“So… that’s it?” Saizo asked incredulously, not really sure what else to say. “That’s the end of the matter?”
Kaze nodded. “It seems so. Once again, I must apologise. I’d wanted to come and tell you sooner, but I was asked to accompany the delegation to Nohr.”
Saizo held a hand up, massaging the bridge of his nose as he processed this news. “…so you’re telling me that I spent near a month on this mountain for the entire war to pass me by?”
His brother smiled awkwardly. “…Apparently.”
He breathed out slowly. “That’s… certainly unexpected.” Saizo closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them. “Very well then. I’d much rather have been told of this sooner, Kaze. Did Lord Ryoma forget that I was here?” He said that last line with a mild tinge of annoyance.
“Not at all.” Kaze shook his head emphatically. “In fact, he told Lady Azura that he wished he had the men to send to bring you the news. It was only after that I volunteered once I heard Lord Ryoma was looking for someone to send.”
Somewhat placated, Saizo sat back and squinted his eyes, not saying anything but not as miffed as before. Kaze chuckled a little. “You can come back to Shirasagi now, Saizo.”
He smiled before seemingly remembering Kagero’s presence. He shot a sideways glance at her that was in no way mean but more curious. “And, ah, you’ll have to forgive me for being so straightforward, but… can I ask what exactly the situation is here?” Kaze rubbed his nose apologetically. “This may be rather blunt of me, but you’ve never seemed like the sort to go looking for dalliances while on a mission.”
Saizo eyed his brother, not really saying anything before sighing heavily. “You know, I fell ill while I was here.” He raised a hand to his neck and looked to the side. “I still am, truthfully.
“If it hadn’t been for Kagero, I would be a dead man.” He looked at Kaze, completely serious. “She’s been kinder to me than I have any right to deserve, considering how I’ve carried myself.
“We’re partners.” Saizo turned to look at Kagero. “If she would have it, I’d ask her to return with me to Shirasagi.” Her face coloured red ever so slightly, but she did not look away as he offered her a hand. “There is no one I would trust more at my back.” It embarassed him greatly, saying such sappy words aloud, but they were the truth. To not say them would be denying the obvious.
The faintest smile adorned her face as she took his hand with bandaged fingers, saying softly, “I shall go wherever you are.”
Saizo wanted desperately to break out into a huge smile, but refrained from doing that. Instead, he looked away, abashed for a moment, then snapped his gaze to Kaze.
Kaze was looking at him fondly, to his surprise. Pushing his green hair back, his brother grinned good-naturedly. “I’m glad, Saizo. Whatever happened atop this mountain has changed you, I think. For the better, I might say,” he hastily added when Saizo cocked his head. “I know you don’t like it when I pry, but… I’m happy for you.”
Saizo huffed, not really sure what to respond with. “Well,” he eventually said, “That’s… that’s kind of you, Kaze. I appreciate it.” He looked at his new partner now, scarcely daring to smile and almost afraid of scaring away one of the few things in his life that had for some reason decided to stay by his side. Kagero was looking back at him as well, dark hair framing her face as she watched him.
“So… when we leave, you’ll come with us?” Saizo asked her hopefully, just to be sure that he wasn’t dreaming. She laughed softly, covering her mouth with her hand. “Must I agree more than once?” Then, taking him aback, she laid her head on his shoulder, eyes shut. “I promise.”
Even if he had been standing barefoot in the blizzard that was raging on outside the cabin, Saizo didn’t think he could have felt any warmer. For the first time in a while, the road that lay in front of him seemed rife with brightness and possibility.
Behind them, a single white feather lay abandoned on the wooden floor as Kaze laughed happily and the two embraced each other. The fire crackled comfortingly and in that moment, there was nothing that they wanted for.