Winter Crossed Spring

An Akikaze/秋風 Collection by Chronic Guardian

:Introductions and Childhood

[Written for Twelve Shots of Summer 五 week 1: First Partner/Local Colors]

Dear Aki,

How has the year gone so far? Any weeds in the garden? I hope the day finds you well, and that the midnight skies are clear. Father says he's found a new clue on where Mother might have gone. It looks like it might be a little dangerous to investigate, but we should be fine if we stick together. Father isn't sure if the council will allow it, since I'm one of the Sent. They have bigger plans for my training, and they won't want to risk losing me on some fool's errand. Isn't it funny that us Sent are treated like royalty in battle but cattle in training? If they really revered me so much you'd think they would respect my will a little more.

Either way, It's likely I'll be headed out soon. I hope I'm going with Father, and that we can bring Mother back by next winter, but I might end up sitting around in some caravan listening to lectures from the council. If I'm not with a master like Father they'll want to keep a close watch on me themselves. They're on their way here right now to discuss my future—mostly as a good-will token, as I understand it. The whole thing feels humiliating, like they're treating me as a child while calling me an adult. If I've finished my training I should be allowed to go with Father. If I haven't then who else can really train me? Something isn't right and nobody wants to tell me.

I'll find out, though. And when I do, I'll tell you. I think people are scared to tell us too much because we're chosen. They can already tell we're stronger than them, so they can't let us get smarter too. Maybe they're separating me from father because they know he'll tell too much. They'll have to replace him with someone too ignorant to slip anything important.

I just hope whoever it is at least knows how to use their sword. I hear it's getting dangerous out there, and I'd rather not have to baby my supposed master.

I might be gone a while, but I'll write to you again soon. See if grandmother can get a cherry tree to bloom while I'm away.

Send a kiss of sun-dried buttercup,

-Haruhi

-春-

Haruhi thought about the letter all the way up to the monastery's appointment chamber. She should have been thinking about standing before the masters and minding her manners for father's sake. Instead, she kept thinking about her sister and how she was about to leave behind everyone who truly understood her.

By all accounts, Haruhi Ryuen was a private person. Many within Soul Sabre had hoped she'd turn out more agreeable than her father, a renowned—if taciturn—figure within their ranks. Instead, she took up her father's stoicism with twice the determination. She didn't join the other apprentices for midnight star gazing or stay after training to talk about campus politics. Whatever popularity her lineage and prophesied position attempted to lend her had long been stifled by a long standing refusal to engage in anything outside her established interests.

Even now, walking up the white stone steps along the chapel's outside wall, Haruhi didn't think about the visiting Soul Sabre council members and the mission they had in mind for her. Her world didn't extend out into the dunes of the Yurei where burning sands flowed like water or the sunken streets of Dolstheim where daylight struggled to reach. If there was blood and fire outside the monastery walls, Haruhi would never see it until it threatened something she recognized. She couldn't shoulder all of it just yet, so no one could really blame her if she looked away. Her mind had become a tiny gray canvas, but she guarded it jealously.

Few got close enough to really see this side of Haruhi, and fewer still allowed themselves to believe it. After all, she was among the four chosen: the Heaven Sent. If she turned out to be a selfish, loathsome creature, then prophecy seemed to say the world was effectively doomed. Many, therefore, preferred to view her at a distance as a suffering savior in training. Haruhi, in the meantime, reserved her recognition for the ones who really seemed to recognize her. If the world was determined to treat her as different then she wouldn't waste time trying to convince it otherwise.

So she trudged on dutifully to the appointment chamber where her father waited and the council members happened to be also. This would be the second time she'd made her way to the monastery's highest room, the first being her initial recognition as a one of the Sent. The walk had seemed novel then, now she felt as if it were just like any other part of the monastery grounds. The same cracked white stonework riddled with fuzzy swaths of moss and glowed to a pearly sheen wherever it could catch the first rays of morning light.

Haruhi picked at a patch of the green fuzz on the chapel wall as she passed by and widdled the softness between her thumb and forefinger. When it was all gone, she wiped her fingers back on the wall, leaving a smudge like smooshed peas on the chalky white hiding under the roof's shadow. Back when she'd first arrived at the monastery, she'd cleared moss off one of the dormitory walls in an attempt at restoration. Instead of thanking her and filling in the blanks with fresh mortar, though, the older members of Soul Sabre asked her to stop and let the bald dirt patches sit until new moss grew to take its place. Apparently they preferred to let their world rot.

The outside stairs leading to the appointment chamber hugged the monastery chapel in an "L", with the stem running along the south wall before the foot led up northward along the east. The monastery grounds sat on a terrace carved into Chinmokuyama, the Silent Mountain, that watched over the surrounding sleepy valleys and, further to the east, the rising shores of Sōgyō. The chapel started on the highest step of the terrace and only got taller as it ran on down the mountain.

And yet, for all its majesty, Haruhi preferred viewing the countryside from the chapel to viewing the chapel itself. She rooted her stance as she came to a stop at the landing and rested her hands on the sword strapped to her left hip. The seaside was a few miles out, but the spring winds still swept in a little of the salt musk with their regular showers. She closed her eyes and took a deep inhale to get the full range of flavor; little bits of smokey ash from fishermen's fires mixed with sweet hints of rice wine and cherry blossoms.

She opened her eyes again and took another slow breath, enjoying the scents as she surveyed the forests and rice fields lining the way to the shore. Farmers were already milling through like a procession of ants, their broad brimmed kasa turning this way and that as they hurried along the earthen pathways that cut through the croplands. Two of the round hats probably belonged to Aki and grandmother, but Haruhi couldn't pick them out from this distance.

Something wistful pushed at the corners of her mouth, stretching into a bland smile before disappearing again. Turning to the final stretch of stairs, Haruhi let the moment go and resumed her march to her new appointment. In spite of everything, part of her wished she could soak in more from her lonely mountain top before life moved her elsewhere. As far away as she was from her sister now, she knew the council intended to send her further. She was a Sent, after all, and part of that meant getting acquainted with the world she was supposed to be saving. What if she could somehow wave that all away and give it to someone else to worry about? There were two more Sent besides herself and her sister. Maybe the world could make it by with just them.

The other part knew leaving the valley was part of her destiny, and she'd kept her father waiting long enough.

When she arrived inside the main appointment chamber, Haruhi found her father standing before the Council of Eight. The old windbags had formed a line against the back wall, arranging themselves like a set of solemn idols waiting for their promised sacrifice. Haruhi bowed, more to her father than the visiting elders, and moved to stand with him.

She halted mid-motion when he lifted his right hand towards her. The gesture wasn't dramatic, just enough to signal her to stop, but it felt like she'd just stepped into a brick wall. The one person in the room who she actually trusted was telling her to stay away.

Determined not to lose face in front of the council, Haruhi quickly regathered herself and assumed an attentive pose, feet shoulder-width apart and hands clasped behind her back. Before her father turned back, she caught his eye and frowned. He replied with a look of patient determination that told her two things: first, that she had done nothing wrong; and second, that the council had already come to a decision he didn't like but would still abide by anyway.

Fighting down a scowl, Haruhi followed his lead and studied the assembled fossils for herself. To be entirely fair, not all of them seemed terribly old. That was to be expected. As masters of Soul Sabre each of them enjoyed the rejuvenating effects of a spiritual awakening. If it weren't for the occupational hazards of the order, Haruhi doubted the council would need new blood at all. Ultimately, the turnover rate was still pretty low, but that only meant the council members had a great deal of time to settle in their prejudices.

Haruhi looked down the line, recognizing the stone faces of her judges as one recognizes a group of foreigners. They were marked in her mind by their cold difference from the rest of humanity. Eyes, nose, and mouth were all there, but they didn't smile the same smiles or watch with the same watchfulness. They had been set apart through many long years of ordering the world around them, and now they seemed less like humans and more like demi-gods. They weren't chosen like the Sent, they'd cut their ties all on their own.

A hawkish boy with windswept ebony hair stood at one end of the line and an older girl with braids stood at the other, probably brought in as a runners for the occasion. Their uniform insignia's designated them as Type-3 and 14 wielders, respectively. Haruhi didn't envy them waiting on eight pretentious stuffed-shirts. Their faces weren't familiar, but Haruhi could say the same thing about any number of adepts she'd trained with for the past four years. Beyond those big enough to stand in her way, she'd never really paid much attention to those outside her family.

"Haruhi Ryuen?" One of the council members interrupted her thoughts. She turned back to find a woman with short, silver streaked hair in the center of the line up. After a few seconds of trading stares, the woman caught on that a bow wasn't going to happen and slowly continued. "You've kept us waiting."

"Very unbecoming for one of the Sent," another member chimed in, this one a bald man with a full fanning beard and a pipe clenched between his teeth. Even without the pipe, Haruhi got the feeling his face would still be frozen in a sneer.

"Indeed," the first member nodded. "But I understand you've always had your own way of doing things. And that is why we're here now, talking in this room instead of attempting to summon you to Dolstheim. As you know, the surest way of safeguarding our collective futures lies in the proper upbringing and preservation of the Sent."

Preservation. Haruhi mulled the word over, trying not to think of salt rubs and sun-dried seaweed. She didn't like the thought of being protected, like a pristine relic sitting in a gilded cage until the time was right for her to fulfill her duty.

Giving the council member the benefit of the doubt, Haruhi set her teeth and tried to focus on what was being said.

"Master Kai Ryuen has requested leave to pursue rumors surrounding the whereabouts of Nerami Ryuen, your mother." the council member with the silver streaked hair went on. "If she perished in the course of her research on the midnight plague, her remains are likely infected and hazardous to handle."

Haruhi studied the councilwoman's broad, rounded features as she produced the analysis. She had a sleepy expression, with half-closed lids and little dark troughs building under her sockets. If she felt more compassionately about the discovery than she looked, her voice didn't betray it.

"Now, because we still lack a definite cure for the plague, and simply cannot risk losing you, we've decided—"

"You're sending my father to die alone?" Haruhi cut in. Maybe it wasn't what they meant, but the longer they took describing the situation the more Haruhi suspected they were easing her into something she would otherwise reject. If they could refute her in simple words, that would be just as well.

"We've decided," the councilwoman repeated, her sleepy eyes now narrowed in annoyance, "We shall provide him with one of our adepts from the western monastery at Lorst in your stead. You, young Miss Ryuen, will continue your training under your fellow Sent, Fuyuko Oshira, and begin your pilgrimage. If your father is still searching when you return, then you may join him. Are we satisfied?"

"With all due respect," Haruhi answered slowly, trying to think of her own simple words for the occasion, "I would think my father could use me now. If we're up against a plague," she paused to turn the sword hanging at her belt so its length faced them broadside, "Shouldn't you send a Purifier?"

"Ah, a Type-1," another council member said, rubbing his chin and smirking as if she'd made a joke instead of a perfectly legitimate proposition. This one was a smaller man with small, squinting eyes under thick, auburn brows. He looked younger than the rest, probably placing him as the newest addition to the group. "So you think you can take on the plague, young Ryuen? Just you and your sword?"

Haruhi opened her mouth to answer the taunt, but then looked to her father and closed it again. He'd already heard all this before she arrived. He'd probably also fought them on it and probed for other possibilities. He still had on the same look of patient determination that he'd given her earlier.

"With all due respect," the bald councilman said flatly, removing the pipe from his mouth so he could wave the stem in illustrative circles. "We've tried confronting plague with Purifiers, Miss Ryuen. Now we still have plague, but a mite fewer Purifiers. If you could help Master Kai avoid the plague, that'd be another matter entirely. But as things sit, you never done an investigation, you can't protect dear old Kai, and heavens smite me if this council lets one of the Sent wander off into the hinterlands before she's properly trained just because she's a bloody Sent and she asked nicely."

Haruhi managed a soft "Ah," and nodded her understanding. She didn't argue that her mother had disappeared in Dolstheim, far to the south of the hinterlands. If her father let the details stand then it was probably best she did the same. Maybe he doubted it too and was just playing along to avoid suspicion. Or maybe the trail really had started up again in the petrified forests to the north, haunted by fallen Shoyu-sha. Whatever it was, he'd already agreed to part with her, and she wouldn't get anywhere trying to fight his decision.

"I am glad you see the sense of the matter," the head councilwoman said, favoring Haruhi with a thin smile. "And… I am sorry it couldn't turn out differently. May God watch and shape you, Miss Haruhi. Now, about Miss Oshira..."

The woman lifted two fingers to beckon the runner girl at the end of the line. The girl nodded and approached with long, graceful strides. About the third step in, Haruhi realized the girl was coming towards her rather than the woman with silver streaked hair. Up close, she could see a scar running down the side of the girl's face, partially hidden by her bangs. An escort, perhaps? Or maybe—

"It's a pleasure to meet you," the runner girl addressed her, giving a slight, not-entirely-reverent bow. The gesture had an easy familiarity, and Haruhi found that unsettling given their general lack of acquaintanceship. When the girl came back up from the bow, slipping her braids back behind her shoulders as she returned to full height, she smiled and added, "I've been looking forward to meeting my fellow Sent."

"Master Oshira," Haruhi answered with a strained voice, ducking into her own bow to hide her reddening face. Gulping down a quick breath and hoping it was enough to stabilize her composure, she straightened her posture and forced a return smile. The girl didn't have any of the pomp or arrogance of the council. Indeed, the most unnerving part of her was how disarmingly straightforward she seemed. A thousand quick retorts flashed through Haruhi's mind as she considered how to best distance this presumptuous stranger without seeming openly contentious.

And yet, while her mind was busy regrouping, her mouth slipped out the proper response she knew by habit, something short, informal, and perfectly matched to whatever feelings the other had shown.

"Likewise."

When Haruhi was finally dismissed from the chamber, she realized she was shaking. The sun had climbed higher in the sky and now beat down on her with a harsh, humiliating light. Still, she marched on with her head held high until she made it back to her room.

Then she held her letter to her sister and cried.

-春-

Haruhi left the monastery with her new master the following morning on horseback. It was a new (not entirely comfortable) experience, since the younger Sent had never had need or use of a horse in her previous training. She'd ridden in carriages with her father on some of his trips out west, and life in the monastery was more or less all legwork. Now she sat behind her master, arms resting on her knees as she felt a larger animal's leg joints shifting and rolling beneath her own. She could only hope she'd grow used to it by the time she was expected to take her own steed at their first destination.

Because the monastery sat in a mountainside surrounded by woods and swampy rice farms, there wasn't much in the way of pasture available for raising horses. The stables were more a convenience for guests than a necessity for residents. If one wanted horses, they would have to look westward through Mothro Forest and towards the inland plains.

The younger Sent took the ride as an opportunity to acquaint herself with all the inconveniences and frustrations that came with traveling by horse. She soon found she didn't much care for the nauseating stench of manure, the rocking jolt of a brisk canter, or the added stress of another belly to decide when and where mealtimes would happen. In fact, she was beginning to wonder why they were bothering with a horse at all.

"And to think, soon we'll have two of these things," Haruhi muttered, leaning back to rest her hands on the horse's haunches as it picked at yet another patch of shrubbery that its master had failed to dissuade it from.

The master in question simply rubbed the creature's neck and cooed in its twitching ears. "They grow on you," the older girl murmured without looking back. "Stubborn and irritable at first, yes, but they do grow. Isn't that right, Sukuro?"

The horse threw a wide eyed glance back before again trimming the roadside greens.

"Besides," Oshira went on, straitening up, "It's not like he's eating everything he lays eyes on; Look at those flowers he passed over."

The older girl made a gesture and Haruhi's eyes followed to find long stalks of drooping, violet bellblossoms.

"Foxgloves," the younger Sent identified.

"Oh? That's a nice name."

"They're poisonous."

"...Oh. Well, that explains why Sukuro's been passing them up, then."

"Master Oshira..."

"Please, not 'Master'," Oshira chuckled and shook her head. Her trailing braids jerked side to side. "Just Fuyuko. We're two Sent on a journey; it'll be easier if we treat eachother like partners."

"...Partner Fuyuko," Haruhi went on, feeling a little ridiculous in accepting the term, "How long have you been in the area?"

"About two days now. I had to hurry to meet you on the way in, so I didn't get to soak in the local colors. Good thing you're such an expert! What other flowers do you know?"

"Only the ones Father taught me about." That wasn't an especially extensive selection, but he'd at least told her which ones to avoid making tea out of. She also had a few vague memories of her mother cultivating a rose garden, but that was about it. "Once we leave the forest," she continued out loud, "I'm afraid I won't be much use at all."

Completely ignoring Haruhi's attempted gravity, Oshira just laughed again. "You'll have eyes to see and ears to hear," the older girl said. "You might not be able to tell me much, but you'll be able to learn. That's the point of coming to something new, isn't it?"

Haruhi took a measured breath and studied the back of her partner's head. "Fuyuko," she said, "Why do you think we were sent off together?"

"Hmm? Oh!" The question seemed to take her by surprise. "Well, I suppose it's because we're both Sent."

"You don't think it's because the council… planned it?"

A beat of silence stretched like a prolonged hiccup, and for a moment Haruhi wondered if perhaps she'd stumbled a little too bluntly into the matter.

"I don't think entirely I follow, Haruhi," Oshira said at last. "I mean… yes, I think they planned to send us off together. Otherwise why would they send for me? But you say it like you suspect a drop of poison in the mix."

The last words weren't said with any shade of accusation. In fact, they sounded more curious than anything else. Still, Haruhi's breath caught and her hands curled into themselves. Maybe she'd just gotten so used to being on an unreachable pedestal that she'd forgotten what it felt like to be accurately judged by anyone but her father. Either way, she knew she wasn't being particularly subtle in the current moment and wished there was more she could do about it than sit there and blush.

"Ah… perhaps more than a drop," Oshira murmured. "You don't trust the council, then?"

Haruhi's cheeks lit up and her stomach squeezed, but she still fought to uphold the sinking facade.

"I said nothing of the sort."

"It's alright," Oshira said, turning a little to give her a warm smile. "I suspected as much."

Thinking back to yesterday, Haruhi now reflected that she hadn't been the most tactful in the council chamber. Personally, she felt they'd given her worse than she gave them, but their self-importance entitled them to that dominance. Still, it had been enough for Oshira to make her judgments.

"But I also think that's why they sent us together," the older girl continued on. "That way they don't have to deal with you. Some of them helped me along on my turn, but that won't be the case here. Each of us Sent are different, so it's foolishness to think we could all be trained the same."

"You're very talkative," Haruhi observed with strained patience. "Is this what you meant by 'ears to hear'?"

"What? Oh! No. That'll come later. Right now I'm just—"

Oshira stopped in mid sentence. Haruhi, who was just now catching her conversational balance again, paused, then leaned forward a little. "...Fuyuko?"

"I'm sorry, Haruhi," the older girl said after a moment. Her voice had dropped to a subdued melancholy, and Haruhi now noticed the light filtering through the forest canopy had dropped into evening tones. With her face in slight profile, she was turned just enough that Haruhi could see the scar running down her face. "I'm being awfully insensitive, aren't I?"

Haruhi opened her mouth to brush off the assertion, but no words came out. Glaring, she turned away and blinked.

Rows of foxgloves stared back, swaying in lonesome rhythm along the forest path.

-春-

Haruhi had often heard it said that the trip through Mothro could be made in a determined day's ride. Considering Sukuro's pace, she wasn't surprised when they were still in the forest by nightfall.
They found shelter in an old shrine not far off the path. It sat nestled between the burgundy roots of Mothron Pine and the white speckled caps of mushrooms. The paneled walls were torn and some of the paint was chipping. Candle wax pooled in messy crescent in the single inner room, swallowing up broken sticks of incense and shrine offerings as it went. If Haruhi hadn't known any better, she'd think it were only a peasant hut.

Well… Close enough, she mused as she drew her sword and held it out parallel to the ground. Whatever spirit had dwelt there in the past obviously hadn't been very prosperous. Better to not take any chances. Focusing her energy into the Type-1 Purifier's blade, she stepped into the shrine and began a cleansing ritual. Her sword glowed and cut through the shadows like a broom sweeping through cobwebs. When she'd finished, the room was still a mess, but it had acquired a healthy glow that reached into the corners and didn't feel quite so gloomy as before. After giving the room another inspection, Haruhi nodded to herself and went to wait for her partner on the front step.

Oshira had tied Sukuro's reins to the lone torii gate leading up to actual structure before heading off to find water. The horse had then wasted no time in testing his tether's length and grazing as far away as he could before coming back towards the stores nearer the gateway. When Haruhi came out, he spared her a curious glance, then quickly resumed his endeavor to gorge himself once he realized she hadn't come to offer even more food.

Haruhi sat down on the wood deck surrounding the shrine and picked at some moss growing up between the boards. The stuff was a little thicker and tougher than what grew on the monastery walls, but when she closed her eyes and rubbed it between her fingers she could pretend it was the same. With a little more concentration, she could even block out Sukuro's munching and imagine the holy hush of monastery grounds after dark.

When Haruhi opened her eyes again, Oshira was just coming into view with a bucket of water at her side. The older girl grinned and waved with her free hand. Haruhi gave a polite wave back before slipping her tabi back into her discarded sandals and moving to meet her partner.

"Well, look at you!" Oshira exclaimed once they were a little close. She gestured to the shrine, which still gave off a soft glow, and raised her eyebrows. "Nicely done, partner."

Haruhi shrugged and relieved the older girl of her load. "Advantages of a Type-1, I guess."

"You mean the sword?"

"Yes. What else would I mean?"

"Well, you could mean the wielder," Fuyuko pointed out. "But you would've said 'Purifier', then, wouldn't you? I think that's funny, Haruhi. It's like you see yourself as a reflection of the sword rather than the sword as a reflection of you."

The assertion, though rather ambiguously threaded, still hit its mark. Haruhi once again stopped. A few steps later, when she realized they weren't walking together anymore, Fuyuko turned and gave a tilted look.

"You're surprised?" the older girl asked after a moment.

"Miss Fuyuko," Haruhi began, refusing to validate the show of weakness, "Why are you asking these things?"

"You mean why ask what you actually mean, or why ask at all?"

"Is it because we're 'partners'?" The word still felt weird on her lips, but Haruhi was beginning to lose patience beating around the bush with an apparent mind-reader.

Fuyuko put her hands on her hips, took a deep breath, and rolled her eyes back. After a moment, she responded, "I suppose you could say it's because I'm a Translucence, same as you being a Purifier. Instead of cleaning things up, though, I sometimes prefer to see through them."

Haruhi squinted at her new master in the low glow of the shrine's light; the warm tones were lending a pinkish freshness to her scar. Then, without another word, Haruhi pushed past and settled her bucket on the deck before heading inside. Behind her, she heard Fuyuko following, but as long as she didn't make eye contact she could still believe there was some barrier between them.

When she went to bed that night, she turned towards the mossy wall and imagined she was back in the monastery.

-春-

Breakfast the following morning consisted of dried rations from the monastery and a few early strawberries they picked from the undergrowth off the beaten path. Haruhi found the fruit light, hard, and mostly bland, but Fuyuko seemed content with each under-ripe bite.

"You know…" Haruhi sighed, taking a moment to loosen the ribbon holding her hair back in a ponytail before continuing, "They'll be much better in about a month or two."

"Mmm," her partner hummed back around a mouthful and smiled.

Haruhi answered with a blank stare until the older girl finally swallowed and cleared her throat.

"We might have to double back in a month or two, then," Fuyuko said. "Assuming we're not too busy, of course. What do you say, Haruhi?"

"...Forget it." Whatever meager progress they managed to make in the next few months, Haruhi could certainly say it wouldn't be worth sacrificing for a few ripe berries. She picked one of the current crop out of their foraging basket and twirled the stem between her thumb and forefinger. It was mostly white on top, but some red still crept in about halfway up. Dutifully, she took a bite and tried to forget what it was supposed to taste like. "I'm sure we'll find something else wherever we are by then."

"We won't be far," her partner assured her. "The pilgrimage isn't all about wandering, you know. Some of it is settling down to enjoy the world. It's… I mean, I know it seems like it shouldn't be that way. You'd think the chosen would hurry on off to fulfill their destinies. But what are you fighting for if you've never experienced any of it?"

Haruhi felt a frown coming on and forced it back into a neutral line. "So where are we going then?" she asked, before quickly adding, "After the stables, of course."

"Many places," Fuyuko answered with a definitive nod. "Wherever we must go to awaken your talents as a Sent. Places of joy, places of grief, places where light has faded and others where it has gone out completely. This journey isn't to keep you from life, Haruhi, it is to thrust you into it."

"I had a life," Haruhi sighed, picking at the white top of another berry. What was wrong with training with her father and sending letters to her sister? Why wasn't that living? She thought of the world of color she smelled wafting on the early mountain air and the sweeping valleys of rice fields leading out to Sōgyō. She thought of farmer processions like grand parades, and their humble straw hats suddenly seemed filled with a simple grace and unity that she longed to claim for her own. Because in a small cottage at the edge of the fishing village, Aki and grandmother were waiting for her to return and rejoin their family. And now, Haruhi realized, she'd been waiting for the return as well.

"Haruhi…" the older girl shook her head and smiled. "That was a piece of a life; it was like a seed waiting beneath the soil to climb into the sunlight and spread its leafs. The seed in itself is wonderful, but it must break to let the sprout grow."

"What do you know about me?" the younger girl asked sullenly. It was a stupid question, considering Fuyuko had already made a number of apt observations, but Haruhi still stubbornly clung to the idea that more was yet hidden from her new partner. Without some sort of reserve between them, she was beginning to feel self-conscious as all her secrets were revealed and she went on knowing nothing.

Fuyuko paused. Her smile stayed on, but it faded a little as her eyes seemed to glaze over. "Haruhi," she said again slowly. Her eyes resharpened and she turned to stare intently at her young partner. "I know the path of the Sent because I walked it. There's only one other person in the world who can tell you that right now. Even as Sent, we have our differences, but you know what both of us found when we did our pilgrimages?"

The older girl smiled and tucked some hair back behind her ear, fingers brushing across her scar as she did so. Haruhi winced without meaning to.

"We lost something small in ourselves, only to see it rejoin the whole we were meant to be. These little moments aren't bad. These little heartaches aren't wrong. But there's so much more than the world we want to see, and drawing a line in the sand won't keep it out."

Haruhi stared back and set her lip in defiance. There wasn't any real, hard logic in the words, but they still weighed on her and she couldn't figure out how to shake them. It felt like sitting in a dark room and staring off at the shadows surrounding her small circle of light. Everything she knew, she knew intimately and fully. As long as the world was just that, she'd be fine.

So then why did Fuyuko have to come and insist that there was more? Why did there have to be a world so big and new and different that Haruhi knew nothing about? Back when she was the only Sent she knew, being a Sent just meant being herself. Why did she have to be more than that now?

"It's frightening, isn't it?" Fuyuko asked, reaching out to lay a hand on Haruhi's shoulder. "To think that who we really are aren't these faces we've worn for so long… But it's okay, Haruhi." She squeezed the shoulder and smiled. "I'm with you. And when you stumble in the dark with a friend, you at least have someone to pick you up again."

For a minute, Haruhi just wrestled with the thoughts and didn't say anything. Her eyes dropped to Fuyuko's chin and her hands clenched around bunches of fabric from her uniform's hakama. The only movement between them seemed to be their chests' rise and fall as they breathed in the same morning spring air.

"Mast—I mean… Fuyuko?" Haruhi asked. Her hands only got tighter at the botched words, but she forced herself to press on. "Was… was this," she took a trembling finger and traced the spot on her own face where Fuyuko's scar sat, "Was that because you weren't big enough for the world, even as a Sent?"

Fuyuko smiled again. "No," she said. "It was because I forgot how much the little things mattered. So don't worry, Haruhi. You don't seem like you'll make the same mistake."

"I'm… glad." Haruhi's eyes fell again as she pulled the words from her tightening throat. They were the words she wanted to hear, her ears perked and devoured them, but her mind and heart still felt empty afterwords. What was she even saying, that she was happy Fuyuko wasn't perfect either? Was she so desperate to find a flaw in her senior so she could divert attention from her own shortcomings?

She stopped and thought of what she was now without her father, an empty little husk hiding behind a paper mask. More terrifying still was the thought that things had always been that way, and it was only just now she was realizing it. The council must have seen, and that was why they mocked her and sent her away. She was being taught a lesson she deserved.

"Say, Haruhi?" Fuyuko said.

Haruhi looked up again to find her partner still smiling at her. The younger girl felt a scowl pass over her face and she looked down again. "What is it?" she asked in a hoarse voice.

"I'm glad I get to take this journey with you."

"...Because I'm a fool?"

Fuyuko paused, and Haruhi could almost hear the older girl dissecting the questions as she thought up some tactful dismissal.

"...Partly," Fuyuko admitted eventually. "But that's just part of the journey. We must be emptied before we can be filled, you know."

"So I'm empty."

"Perhaps." And then Haruhi felt the hand on her shoulder shift and come beneath her chin. Gently tilting up, Fuyuko brought their eyes level and leaned forward so their foreheads touched. "But only because it means you will be so gloriously filled."

Haruhi straightened up and removed the hand from her chin. For a moment, they simply locked eyes, and Haruhi felt the deep, piercing depths of Fuyuko's gaze without shying from the other's curiosity.

She felt as if her very core were being excavated and brought to light after years of hiding from the world.

"Fuyuko?"

"Yes, Haruhi?"

"Am I really empty? I mean… do you see anything there?"

"Yes, Haruhi, there's something there."

Slowly, Haruhi nodded, then smiled too.

"Thank you, Fuyuko."

"Don't mention it, partner."

[終了]


Glossary of Soul Sabre Sword Types

Type-1 Purifier

A sword for those who cleanse and refine, Soul Sabre originally issued the Purifier as the standard blade for Rangers and Acolytes. Users are typically more blunt, straightforward, and eager to deal in absolutes. Related abilities tend towards purging darkness or impurity, paving the way for new life but notably not creating it.

Type-2 Stinger

A sword for those who calculate and pierce, the smiths of Tenku developed the Stinger as a more elegant counterpart to the Purifier. While a fully realized Soul Sabre's spiritual awakening grants enough strength to effectively handle any blade, female recruits regularly prefer this blade for its light weight and numerous technical applications to compensate for its lack of brute strength. Related abilities tend towards increased focus.

Type-3 Windcutter

A sword for those sensitive to the currents of change, Western smiths designed the Windcutter around fluid adaptability and basic elemental channeling. Users are typically thoughtful and aloof, sensitive to technicalities and prudent in assertion. Related abilities tend towards mobility and evasion.

T ype-4 Evoker

A sword for those who express themselves to the world, the first Evoker designs were actually Purifiers modified for elemental channeling. The distinctive "lattice" grooves along the blade act as reservoirs for the user's chi, solidifying into a full blade when fully charged. Users of this sword tend to be outgoing and charismatic. Related abilities tend towards chi expression, such as elemental channeling.

Type-5 Dauntless

A sword for those who press on against danger and loss, the Dauntless uses a distinct "hammerhead" weighted tip to favor a heavy, momentum based fighting style. New recruits often have trouble keeping the tip from resting on the ground, leading Acolytes at Coastal monasteries to refer to it as "the anchor". Users are typically resolute and assertive; Related abilities tend t owards pain tolerance and strength enhancement.

Type-6 Grappler

A sword for those who engage with life in frank terms, the Grappler draws inspiration from an Eastern nonlethal philosophy to turn the blade from a weapon into a tool. Based on a forked herder's rod, the two pronged design lends itself to a unique "blade catch" technique used to disarm opponents and force the conflict into hand-to-hand terms. Users are typically engaging, upfront, and prone to conflict; Related abilities tend towards paralysis.

Type-7 Ember

A sword for those who endure, the Ember is notable for its hooked edge and durable design, rarely requiring sharpening or polish. With its low weight and relatively broad profile, the sword lends itself to battles of defensive attrition, wearing down opponents rather than dispatching them directly. Users are typically faithful and unyielding; Related abilities tend towards preservation.

T ype-8 Remorse

A sword for those who seek distance and solitude, the Remorse marks the first true Greatsword design in the Soul Sabre canon. Due to its increased range and effectiveness against crowds and beasts, the Remorse became popular with Soul Sabre Rangers patrolling the trade routes between establishments, often alone. Users are typically reflective and tactical, preferring to dictate the terms of engagement and ever seeking the most efficient path to resolution. Related abilities tend towards spiritual evocation, drawing out and amplifying inner traits and conflicts.

Type-9 Guidance

A sword for those who lead, the Western smiths forged the Guidance as a social derivative of the Windcutter. While the Type-3 represents personal agency and fluidity within a system, the Type-9 is meant for those who hew a new path for others to follow, endearing itself to vanguards and berserkers. Users are typically goal oriented, future-thinking, and inventive. Related abilities tend towards foresight and prophecy.

T ype-10 Overtaker

A sword for those who value pure strength, the Overtaker is both sought and shunned throughout the Lord's Dominion. Some see its raw power as excessive and vulgar while others see it as the mark of a true champion empowered by the spirit because its size makes it nigh unwieldable to an unawakened warrior. Users are typically bold, competitive, and unrelenting; related abilities tend towards physical enhancement.

Type-11 Absolution

A sword for those who restore and forgive, the Absolution is actually a hybrid descendant of the Grappler, Purifier, and Windcutter disciplines. Most Absolutions are actually blunt, finding more use in channeling than traditional swordplay. However, some Eastern monasteries have developed practical techniques for disarmament and augmented hand-to-hand combat. Users are typically compassionate and outwardly oriented; related abilities tend towards healing and transference.

T ype-12 Guardian

A sword for those who protect, the Council of Eight commissioned the Guardian from the foundries in Lorst as the standard weapon for their personal retainers, but the imposing tapered greatsword ended up finding use throughout the dominion. Users are typically reserved and choosy with their personal relationships, but stoutly loyal to those they value. Related abilities tend towards shielding.

Type-13 Blink

A sword for those who live in the moment, the Blink is an opportunist's blade, built for technical maneuvering and feints. Also the first sword Type designed specifically with dual-wielding in mind, the Blink favors a light, fluid style and lends itself more to slashes than thrusts, leading some to view it as a marriage between the Stinger and Windcutter. Users are typically good natured and adaptable, but chafe under commitment and dogma. Related abilities tend towards temporary focus and optical illusions.

Type-14 Translucence

A sword for those who look beyond outside appearances, the Translucence is sometimes called the Diplomat's Blade both for its users' skill in mediation and its largely ornamental nature. Indeed, Translucence wielders often find greater reward in diffusing a situation with their tongues than their swords. As a result, the odd, tip-heavy greatsword often sees more use in its imposing sheath than open combat. Users are typically perceptive and socially adept. Related abilities tend towards reading opponents and emotional resonance.