"In a book in a box, high upon a shelf
in a locked and guarded vault,
are the things I keep only for myself -
it's your fate, but it's not your fault."
-Barenaked Ladies, For You
"But destiny is calling and won't hold
and when my time is up, I'm outta here ..."
-Ben Folds Five, Don't Change Your Plans
He finds her in the garden four months later, when the cherry trees are in bloom across the rest of Tokyo. His first impulse is to throw her out, but it isn't his house, and he was brough up too well to give in to such impolite impulses. It isn't that he's angry, only that he has become accustomed to the silence, the lonliness, and her presence threatens to break it.
"What are you doing here?" It's an uneasy comprimise, and his voice is scratched from disuse.
She doesn't seem angry or shocked or even suprised. "Where else should I be?"
"Ise? Mount Kouya?" Those are the two obvious answers. But his lips frame the answer she gives before it reaches his ears: I'm done there. I don't belong there anymore.
She doesn't belong anywhere. Destiny brought her to a certain place at a certain time to do a certain task, and when that was over, it spat her out and forgot about her. It's not an unfamiliar feeling. It's inevitable, really.
Yuzuriha reached out to touch the cherry tree. "She's beautiful," she whispered. "But ... she's sad, isn't she. Lonely."
Kusanagi nodded. "Very sad. But she's glad that we're visiting." He laid his hand next to Yuzuriha's. "The one she loved died, and she misses him."
"I didn't think trees fell in love."
"She's unusual." Kusanagi leaned up against the trunk of the ancient cherry tree and looked up at the sky through the branches. It was bright blue, the color of springtime and hope.
They settle in together easily enough, the two who were left behind. It doesn't take a lot of words. Subaru is grateful for that. The house is full of ghosts, not literal but psychological, and he doesn't want to disturb them by speaking too loudly in their presence. They're not his ghosts, but he has adopted them, taken them in with the house. They live in the remnants of past generations: folded kimonos hidden in the backs of drawers, jewelry, old photographs.
Arashi sleeps on the couch in the living room and treads carefully around the ghosts, never moving anything. She arrived carrying only the clothes she wore and her memories, and seems determined not to impose. Politeness remains when everything else vanishes, Subaru thinks distractedly. The next time he goes out he goes to a clothing store.
The shop attendant is bright and cheerful, and reminds him of Hokuto in her attempts to steer him toward the eye-catching, impractical clothing. He demurs as politely as he can, blushing and half-terrified, and buys long black dresses instead. They seem appropriate.
"Thank you," Arashi says, when he hands her the dresses. She goes into the bathroom to change, and when she comes out she is holding ten inches of hair in her fist. "Where should I put this?"
Subaru is astonished to see her hair not even brushing her shoulders. "Leave it in the garden," he suggests. She nods, and goes outside to toss it into the wind, spreading strands across the plants. Subaru watches it flutter across them. Some of it vanishes over the wall. He remembers how it felt to look in the mirror and not see Hokuto anymore, but there's really no comparison. Arashi was an only child.
The tree's shade made patterns on the picnic blanket and they amused themselves finding pictures in the splotches of light.
"Who was it that she loved?" Yuzuriha asks, one hand scratching Inuki between the ears, idly. "It must have been someone really special."
Kusanagi sets his hands on his chin. "She's never told me that. But I think I know anyway," he says, very softly. Inuki whines and nuzzles his elbow, picking up the somber mood.
He hasn't been spending much time in the house. He no longer works, but he is afraid of what the ghosts would do if he stayed too long indoors, and the smells of the city are oddly comforting. Sometimes he buys things - groceries, cigarettes, or candles. He wondered for a little while what he would do when he ran his savings account dry, but it has gained in money instead of decreasing; he presumes his grandmother has been leaving money in it. He hasn't called to check.
Arashi doesn't go out. Subaru leaves at irregular hours of late morning and early afternoon, and always she is seated, on the couch or somewhere in the garden, reading through one of the antique books that line the cabinets with reverent care. Usually when he returns, she has moved on to another, but always she is in the same place.
He supposes she isn't worried about the ghosts. They aren't her ghosts. She has others, but those live on Mount Kouya and haunt Ise Shrine, and this quiet little house holds no terrors.
One evening he comes home to find her lying down, the day's book fallen to the floor, the remnants of her hair spread over the couch cushion. He would think she was asleep, if he could not see her open eyes. He stops beside her, kneels.
She smiles. "I'm not sick," she tells him. "Only tired. Where were you?"
"Out." He holds up his bag of groceries as proof, although he's not sure why he feels he as to prove anything. "I'll have dinner ready in half an hour."
"I'm not hungry."
"You said you wern't sick." Dinner together is the only ritual they have observed with regularity. Subaru suddenly feels terrified. What if she is sick, more so than he knows how to treat? He does not want to take her to a doctor, and he does not think she would want to go. He lays a hand on her forehead; it feels warm, but he has just come in from a chill evening.
Arashi shakes her head, dislodging his hand. "No. Not really. Women's problems." She smiles weakly. "If you have asprin, I'd take that."
Oh. He should have guessed, and he's blushing again. Hokuto used to get like this at the wrong time of month, except she was a lot louder and more extravagent, and Seishirou-san would apologize on behalf of his gender and bring her tea and that wasn't the right thing to think right now. He flees to the kitchen and returns with a cup of water and a bottle of asprin. Arashi thanks him dully and swallows the asprin.
"I'm sorry," he offers hesitantly. "Um, is there anything else you need?"
"No." Arashi closes her eyes and holds out the glass of water; Subaru grabs it hastily. "I don't really bleed these days. No more than I can wash out. I imagine a doctor would say it was stress."
"Oh." Subaru doesn't know what to say to that, so he flees back to the kitchen, and makes dinner for one. Arashi lies silent on the couch. After he goes to bed Subaru thinks he hears her crying, but he does not get up; he does not want to disturb her if she is.
He hasn't cried for months. Not since he moved here, in fact. He wonders if he should, if that would make things easier for him, but he doesn't think so.
Kusanagi and Yuzuriha have kissed a few times. He's always been hesitant, while she's been enthusiastic, throwing herself into the kiss like she throws herself into everything.
When they kissed under the tree it began to drop petals, not many, but soft and gentle. Inuki began to chase them like butterflies, and Yuzuriha pulled back laughing. "Did she like that?"
"Yes," Kusanagi whispered. "She says it remided her of happy things."
When summer arrives, Subaru finds himself too warm. He's almost forgotten what it was like, and wonders at first if he has a fever.
Arashi for the first time wears something other than her black dresses - the skirt she arrived in, and one of his shirts. It hangs loose on her, and Subaru realizes how tall he grew, in the years he was waiting. He offers quietly to go get her more clothes.
"You should get more for yourself," she tells him. "That turtleneck can't be comfortable."
"It isn't." He shurgs, and wonders whether he was lying. The feverish warmth is a relief after months of feeling too cold, always too cold. He goes out anyway, and looks at the new clothes. This year bright colors predominate, too bright for his taste.
He wonders whether it's a subconcious reaction. The Seals won, the world went back to the way it was, the people who had died, even, came back to life. But a year like the one before had to have left a mark on people's souls, even if it never happened. The bright colors were a celebration, a sigh of relief. He has to work hard to find things somber enough to suit himself. As for Arashi, he doesn't think she'd want to wear bright colors either. It's even harder to find women's clothing that's modest and quiet, but he manages eventually.
When he comes home Arashi is lying beside the fishpond in an undone yukata. He blushes and looks away as he comes in, but he can't keep looking away if he wants to talk to her. The yukata, he notices, is one of the ones that came with the house. Perhaps she's given up on not disturbing the ghosts.
Subaru doesn't know why he's blushing. There's nothing sexual here; he's never had a taste for women. He sits down, and finds himself running his fingers through her hair. "I bought more clothes," he says. "I don't know if they'll fit."
She half-shrugs. "If they don't you can return them." She smiles then, and Subaru wonders what it is about the summer that there wasn't in spring, that has woken them both up again. Perhaps it took the spring to heal.
Subaru tells her of his theory while she pulls the summer clothes on. "It's possible," she says. "It was a long year. Before I came here, I noticed that the streets were quiet. As if everyone was sleepwalking. I thought it was just because I was sad that I noticed that." She smiles as she begins to button the shirt; it fits her perfectly. "Maybe they've healed. Humans are very resiliant."
"Maybe." Maybe we're healing, he thinks.
Arashi does not smile again, but still she seems happier, as they sit quietly together and watch the garden explode into bloom. Subaru thinks that she is happier now than he ever saw her before.
He realizes that he is happier too. When Seishirou died, he thought he would never be happy again, but there's a certain freedom that arrives only once the worst has happened. Perhaps that's why they're better now, even though they remember last year. Destiny has done its worst to them both, and they lived, even if they lost everything. Whatever happens now, it's not their concern. The end came and the rest of their lives is an epilougue.
Aoki went home to his wife and daughter (and they lived happily ever after). And Subaru went to live in a house full of ghosts and he was never quite the same but that was alright, because he hadn't been quite the same for years. It's not a happy ending but maybe he wasn't made for happy endings. Maybe she wasn't either.
Yuzuriha adored the bright new fashions. To celebrate the beginning of summer, she bought a vibrant yellow dress, and a hat with rainbow ribbon. She wore them to meet Kusanagi under the tree.
"They suit you," he said.
She did a pirouette. "I'm glad the city's so bright again. I'd begun to think winter would never end."
The tree was still in full bloom, and Inuki spent the afternoon rolling in fallen petals and green grass, and barking in uncontrollable happiness.
Subaru calls his grandmother. He doesn't know why, because he doesn't want to talk to her, but he calls her from a payphone at the grocery store. The house doesn't have a phone.
She's grateful to hear from him. She was afraid of what might have happened to him, wondered whether she'd hear from him again. She'd kept on putting money in his account, just in case. She wonders if he plans on coming back to Kyoto, if he wants to start working again, where he's been staying.
With a friend, he tells her. He doesn't know when he'll be coming back, or when he'll start working again, and deep down he suspects that he won't be.
That evening he finds himself crying in the middle of dinner, and doesn't know why. Arashi lets him lay his head in her lap, and strokes his hair as he calms down. She doesn't ask him what the matter is.
"I called my grandmother today," he tells her. "She's worried about me. She wants me to be all right again."
Arashi sighs. "She'll learn. One way or another." He remebers then that Arashi has family, or something like family, but he thinks he knows Arashi, who has always been competent and calm and considerate: she would have told them that she needed some time alone, and that they shouldn't worry about her, although she didn't know when she'd be back. And no, she wouldn't write, but she'd be just fine on her own. Then she would have smiled at them, to erase any doubt.
He tightens his hand on a fold of her skirt. "I don't want to hurt her," he tries to explain. "But I don't think I'll ever be all right."
"Don't try for her sake. You'll only hurt yourself." Arashi pauses, lays her hand on his shoulder. "Subaru-san, you've lost so much, I don't think anyone could blame you for not being happy. And no one has an obligation to be happy, even in the best of times. It's not something that can be forced. Anyone who thinks so is deluding themselves."
"I know that. But - I still wish I could be better, just to reassure her."
"You're better than you were."
He remembers the strange happiness that took him earlier in the summer. "Maybe I'll heal. If I give it enough time."
"Do you want to get married?"
The question startled Kusanagi so badly he spilled tea across the tree root. Yuzuriha giggled. "I don't mean now, silly. Later on. In a few years." She looked up at the tree and patted it. "Don't you think so?" she asked it. "We should have a happy ending."
The tree rustled in the wind, as if to give its blessing. Kusanagi smiled at it. "Thank you," he says. "I know how lucky I am."
"What did she say?" Yuzuriha bounced on her heels.
"That I'm a very lucky man. And that she wants us to have a happy ending."
Subaru is better now, he thinks. At least, he's more steady. He knows what he needs to do.
Arashi is calmer too. It's almost fall, and the flowers are starting to die down. She's gone back to her black dresses, and trimmed her hair short again. She'll be alone for a long time, but she'll be just fine. She's been fine all along. Arashi was made to survive.
He calls his grandmother again, and talks to her calmly. He doesn't think he'll be coming home, he tells her. But he's better. The relief in her voice nearly breaks him, but by now, his resolve is steady. He talks to her for a long time, and finishes by thanking her for everything, sincerely. She sounds happy as they say goodbye, and he's grateful for that.
Arashi isn't suprised when he asks.
"It's not that I'm sad anymore," he tells her. "It's that I'm not. So I can look at this the right way, and I know I wasn't meant for this. Maybe you weren't either, but you're stronger than I am."
She holds him close. "I know," she says. "It's alright. Maybe I was meant for this, and that's why I came here."
He dreams that night of things he knows are the past - a woman smiling at her son as she dies, and the son's golden eyes, two golden eyes he remebers looking into his. He dreams, too, of a woman sitting under a cherry tree. She says she's sorry, that all this had to turn out so badly. But it will be better soon, and she's grateful to him, for doing what he can.
Her lips taste of cherries, absurdly bitter, and he melts into wakefulness with that memory still on his tounge. Staring at the first rays of sunlight, he realizes it's been a year since Seishirou died. And he's better now.
Arashi is waiting in the garden, in a white kimono. She smiles at him, and he smiles back, and sits down beside her. It's not that he's sad, or that he can't go on. It's just that he doesn't belong here anymore.
"Are you ready?" she asks him, and he takes her hand and tells her yes.
Yuzuriha was suprised to see Arashi waiting under the tree, but glad. She hugged her, remarked on her new haircut. Arashi hugged her back and apologized for being gone so long.
"It's alright," Yuzuriha told her. "I'm just glad to see you again."
When Kusanagi arrived with a picnic basket, Arashi was sitting with her back against the tree. "It's almost too cold for this," she said. "At least you had a good summer."
"How did you know that?"
"She told me." Arashi pressed a hand against the trunk of the tree. "She says you've visited her all the time."
"Yeah," Yuzuriha said, "we've been having picnics here all summer." She smiled at Arashi. "She's still sad, isn't she?"
"Yes, but I think she'll be better now. We've put a lot of sad things behind us." Arashi closed her eyes and leaned back. "That's the advantage," she said, almost absently, "to living most of your life in the epilouge. Fate's done with us, so there's nothing to stop us being happy."
Kusanagi didn't know what to say to that, so he settled for taking Arashi's hand. He half expected it to be shaking, but it wasn't. "I think I should spend more time with you two," she said, and gave the brightest smile they had ever seen.