Winter Crossed Spring

An Akikaze/秋風 Collection by Chronic Guardian

十二: Prophecies and Life
[Written for Twelve Shots of Summer 五 week 12: In Search of Legends/Proof of Existence]

Dear Haruhi,

I'm sorry this took me so long. Life's been busy with just grandmother and me. I tried to sit down and write a letter back ever since the first one, but then something would come up and by the time I got back to it another letter would come in. I think there's a start on the back of this one that I smudged over, but that could just be another ink smudge from all my careless brushwork. If grandmother distracts me at all, I'm hopeless.

That said, I hope you are well, sister. Even if I haven't sent you the most words, I want you to know I've sent a lot of thoughts these last few years. And every time you've asked for a new flower, I've tried my best to go and get you a sample. I'm sending you my collection so far with this letter. Sorry if there's one you asked for that I missed! I had to ask grandmother about most of them. You must have spent a lot of time with her and father to know so many! She says mother knew the most, but I don't remember if you were old enough to care much while she was around.

Things aren't the same here. We've lost a lot of neighbors, and now grandmother and I are the only ones left on the west hills that overlook the rice fields. Sometimes I go out to explore the empty houses, but there isn't really much left inside. Now they're more like crab shells than proper homes. Still, I think we could fill one if we wanted. I found a place for the sand you sent from the Amethyst Coast. Maybe if you bring more things back from your adventures, we could turn the place into a monument or something. That way, even if the rest of the world is changing, we'll still have a little piece of it to ourselves that stays the same. I'll see if I can find anything to give, but I can't promise much more than a few baskets and my worn out kasa. I fell on it last week and now there's a hole that lets the rain in, so I had to retire it. I hope that's not too bad. I know you worked hard weaving it together when you were younger. Maybe we could weave another one when you get back?

I'm sorry to say I never met Fuyuko, but I'd guess you figured that on your own by now. Could you tell me a little more about what she's like? I know I'll meet her on my own eventually, but you make her sound like a puzzle with all your talk of promises and secrets. Did it take you a while to trust her? You're usually suspicious of people like that.

Also, you mentioned something about mother in one of your letters. Why didn't you say more? Where is she? Is she alright? I know you said she's alive, but there's so much more I want to know! Hurry home so we can talk about it.

Whatever else there is to say, we can talk about that too. We'll talk about everything. I know you've had a long three years, sister, but I'll still be here waiting when you get back. It doesn't have to be all at once, but I know you've probably been through a lot by now, and it's easier for you to think about things when you have someone to share them with. Do you remember that time we were skipping rocks and you threw one at me? I remember you apologizing years and years later, just before you went off to train at the monastery. I'd actually forgotten about the whole thing by then, but I know it still meant something to you. You're stubborn like that.

Well, try not to get too stuck in the past, sister. I'm still waiting here in the future.

Send a kiss, a hug, and a handshake. Delivered personally if possible,

-Aki

-冬-

Fuyuko sat on the postmaster's roof in Caesdin, holding a letter in one hand and an earthen mug of corn and cactus chowder in the other. The message had come by foot, accompanied by a book of pressed flowers and a small glass jar of pickled ice plant. Technically, the package had been addressed for someone in Dolstheim, but the transit stopped in Caesdin. The carrier had given up once he learned the intended party would be unavailable.

Shifting in place, the winter Sent sucked in her lips before releasing a visible breath over her steaming mug. Above her, the pigeon coops rustled under their night coverings. Although winter in Caesdin was decidedly more tame than the northern regions, it still got brisk enough to warrant an extra layer. Fuyuko had taken on a thick wool jacket for the occasion, but she still felt like shivering.

And yet, to be indoors at a time like this felt impossible. She'd tolerated the walls through her initial recovery, imagining all the while that Haruhi was falling further and further into the dark just beyond them. Now that her lungs had recovered far enough to allow movement, Fuyuko spent every night outside, waiting for a certain visitor to finally accept her invitation and come home.

Night by night, the waiting was getting colder.

Fuyuko breathed in again and took an idle sip of her chowder. Natsudo said it was a local delicacy in the same vein as jellied trout and candied grasshoppers: mostly a treat in that it allowed one not to starve. She'd forced a smile and kept eating. Ever since Dolstheim, she'd been subsisting on a liquid diet; given that her sense of taste had yet to return, she found the pale ocher sludge perfectly adequate for her needs, even if it did bear a strong visual resemblance to vomit in the wrong light.

Below her, the city had mostly gone to sleep. Graveyard patrols slowly cycled lanterns across the walls, but the streets went silent with the sunset. During her recovery, Fuyuko had thought it might just be her imagination coloring the future dark. Once she came outside for herself, she didn't know whether to be shaken or relieved that the rest of the world felt the tremors from Dolstheim.

Turning the letter over again, Fuyuko let her eyes trace the words like a lifeline back to a simpler time. She remembered this Haruhi, too. She remembered the girl who wanted nothing more than to be left alone with her thoughts and family. Perhaps in another life, that Haruhi would have gotten her way and simply been another rice farmer or fisherwoman in Sōgyō.

And yet, Haruhi had also wanted to be a Sent. She didn't like being a Sent, she'd always had a complicated relationship with her identity, but she'd also longed to become the only thing her mother left behind for her. In a way, it gave meaning to her loss. Haruhi had never articulated as much, of course, but Fuyuko could see it in the girl's eyes on the rare occasion that she actually talked about her family. Fuyuko used to think it was a pain they shared, but she eventually conceded it would be harder to lose someone she knew than someone she'd only dreamed of.

The winter Sent felt a bitter smile sweep across her face in the darkness. Now they were even. Fuyuko had lost someone dear to her too.

The smile summarily disappeared as sounds began drifting up from the building below her. It wasn't entirely unheard of for the postmaster to run after-hours operations when something needed doing, but the world had been so dangerous as of late that people had stopped reaching outside themselves. City Governors across the West had closed official correspondence after letters from Dolstheim were proposed as possible vectors for Midnight Plague. With only the sleepy East to manage, the postmaster had been left to practice his thumb twiddling and regularly enjoy a full night's rest. Thus, nightfall was more a time for people like Fuyuko to sneak up onto his office roof and ruminate amongst the bird coops.

Or rather, Fuyuko and those looking for her. With her sense of smell more or less shot, Fuyuko didn't mind the odor of pigeon droppings and got to enjoy solitude from those who did. Earlier in her career, she might have thought it selfish to indulge in such barriers. Now that nobody had a use for her anyway, though, it didn't seem to matter either way.

A few moments later and Fuyuko's fellow intruder was in sight. Natsudo climbed up onto the roof with a lamp and gave a small wave before joining her in silence. They sat together, with her watching the walls and him watching the stars, and both agreed to let the moment soak a little before time inevitably swept them forward.

She could feel his concern. Natsudo tended to worry about a lot of things, but he was currently spending a large portion of that worry on her specifically. Putting down her half-finished chowder, she reached out and put her hand on his. For a half-second he stiffened, flashing through feelings of discomfort and guilt, before settling back into resolve.

"I'm going out again," he said without looking into her eyes. She could still read a fair bit from his body language, how he carried himself upright and kept his breathing measured, but there was still a small piece of him held back from her piercing sight. He'd been that way for as long as she'd known him, finding little ways to keep from pouring his full thoughts from 'contaminating' the time line. Fuyuko had never really liked the practice, but she'd at least learned to respect it.

Where? Fuyuko signed, metronoming her forearm from the elbow. It wasn't the sign she'd used with Haruhi, but it was part of the standardized system Oda had been teaching her over the past few months. Natsudo glanced back to read the movement before looking away again.

"To the farm country west of Verestal," he said. "Master Ryuen and your cousin are looking to hold the line there at the valley's mouth. It's a wide stretch, though, so they asked Oda and me to rejoin the campaign."

Fuyuko gave a wry smile and drew her thumb under her chin before pointing at herself and raising her eyebrows. Not me?

It was an unusually loaded question for Fuyuko. She'd often made an art out of gently guiding a conversation in the direction she wanted, taking care not to jab too directly at the sensitive parts of the matter. Now that she'd been robbed of her vocabulary, though, she'd resigned herself to the coarse bluntness of whatever signs she knew for the occasion.

"Well..." Natsudo trailed off and leaned back on his hands, pushing his shoulders up in a slump. "There's something else you need to do."

Learn to speak again? Fuyuko suggested. At the back of her mind, she wondered if Natsudo could tell she'd deliberately used the motion for "speak" instead of "sign". Or wait for God to fix me?

Natsudo shook his head. "You have eyes to see and ears to hear," he told her. "That will be enough."

To do what? Watch everyone else die or fall to the dark? Was that her purpose as Winter's patience, to record the second falling?

"To protect the hope we have left," Natsu explained. "Kai Ryuen has asked us to attend his daughter's training."

Fuyuko gave her partner a narrowed look. I tried.

"To attend Aki's training," he amended, glancing back skyward. "She's nearly thirteen now, and the longer we take to develop her abilities the more preventable death we allow."

No. Fuyuko shook her head. She said—

Natsudo held up a hand to signal a pause. "Who said?"

Her sister, Fuyuko replied. She couldn't remember the signs for seasons off the top of her head, and spelling out names with Natsudo was still a less-than-reliable process half the time. He did his best to accommodate her loss, but there were bigger things on his mind than learning sign language. After all, there was still a lot he could do to save the world.

She said the way led to death.

"What way? The way of the Sent?"

Fuyuko pressed her mouth into a determined line and nodded. She'd kept the thought to herself until now. Haruhi hadn't exactly been explicit in her argument, but there was enough in her eyes for Fuyuko to reconstruct the reasoning behind the fall.

Aki's path as a Heaven Sent wasn't just dangerous. If that had been the case, Haruhi would have just grown stronger. And while there was a fair bit of doubt and fear in her reasoning, Fuyuko had also seen the crushing weight of the underlying logic. Haruhi wasn't just speculating on a lie from the Shoyu-sha or lashing out in rage at a world that had mistreated her, she was acting on the last chance she could see to change her sister's fate.

Aki wasn't meant to walk closely with death, she was meant to walk towards it.

"...It might," Natsudo admitted after a moment. "It's… well, it certainly seems that way, yes."

Fuyuko sighed and looked away as she processed the words. Hearing the possibility from Haruhi made it a concern. Hearing the same from Natsudo made it unavoidable. She felt her strained breath shallow and the thump of her pulse in her ears grew a little.

You saw? she asked, hoping against reason for some loophole for the whole thing to slip through. Even if Natsudo's record for accuracy was untainted, he would be the first to admit his prophecies could be misleading.

"Her Virtue is love," Natsu murmured, idly rubbing small circles on the roof with one of his thumbs. "'Rekindling love in the midst of Autumn's decay'. She's the only one of us absolutely destined to sacrifice because she's the only one of us who can truly make that mean something. You and I? We can give things, Fuyuu, but we can't take on too much. No matter how much we understand of the world around us, we're still only ourselves.

"The younger Miss Ryuen, on the other hand, has the terrifying ability and duty to draw the world's darkness into herself. She's meant to take on the impossible burden because that's the only way the world can rest through winter, be reborn in the spring, and harvest the wholesome fruit in the summer. She isn't meant for cleansing like her sister, she's meant for reconciliation. She was meant to take on the plague itself. And no matter what the cost, her purpose was to pay it."

Fuyuko frowned and searched her memory for an appropriately probing sign. What did he mean by "was"? Wasn't that still her purpose? Had something happened to Aki?

"Her purpose hasn't changed much now," Natsudo went on before she could pull a proper concept together. "It's just… rather ironic. Instead of paying for the world's darkness, she might only be left paying for her sister's."

The idea clicked and Fuyuko let her hands fall back into her lap as she stewed on the implications. So in trying to save her sister, Haruhi had only become another liability. She closed her eyes and took a slow breath. Natsudo was right: it was ironic. It was twisted. It was the sort of thing that made her wonder if a god of goodness reigned in heaven, or if the Sent were only puppets made to suffer in some divine tragedy.

"So, that leaves us here," Natsudo sighed. "I'm going to go and try to minimize the losses with her father while you go and help Aki become the only one who can give this story a happy ending."

Fuyuko half opened her eyes and pointed to herself. Me?

"Yes, you."

Do what? Teach killing? What was he expecting out of the winter Sent? She'd wrought enough destruction already, hadn't she? Without a voice to soothe and comfort with, she may as well be just another sword arm.

But then she looked at him and remembered who she was talking to.

Natsudo stared back with a warm compassion. She remembered the first time she saw that look on the day the council told her she was a Heaven Sent. She remembered being thrust into a new world and having to give up everything she thought she was meant for. She remembered losing her name, and being told that she represented the most deadly, lonesome time of year.

But she also remembered Natsudo, who seemed so stern and distant before, looking in her eyes and telling her the wonderful things he saw in her future. He'd predicted hardship with Haruhi, but he'd also told of how Fuyuko was meant to care for the girl and raise her into the fullness of her destiny. He'd given her hope that she would still mean something safe and wonderful to someone; she would still be allowed to give the sureness and warmth she'd missed in her own childhood.

Fuyuko felt tears start to form in her eyes and blinked them back. The story wasn't over yet, not for her, and not for Haruhi. Gathering herself together again, she took a bracing breath and did her best to clear the concerns hanging like cobwebs in her heart.

Does she have to die?

"Aki?"

She nodded. Yes.

"...That depends on the Unknown God."

Fuyuko paused. Not knowing God wasn't something most in Soul Sabre would admit, but in the end, that was the state of the world. With only a scant smattering of "holy scriptures" scraped together in Dolstheim, the most they'd actually been able to divine about God and his will mostly came from Guidances and personal spiritual encounters. Philosophers in the Scholastic district would theorize on his properties, and people across the land would pray to him for good fortune and protection, but few if any really understood the God of the Heaven Sent. He was known of, but not about.

And for that reason, Fuyuko couldn't help but stop and consider what Natsudo meant. It was said that the Unknown God raised humans back up out of the Forgotten Works after the fall, that he had awakened their souls and blessed then to prosper for a time. And yet, because he would not show his face to his people, he remained unknown.

For some, he faded into fairytale. Those in the West had long forgotten any such claims of dependence and left the faceless god for their own human rulers. In the East, where Soul Sabre preserved his legacy, there was a growing sense of abandonment as Shoyu-sha and Midnight Plague ravaged the land. With the rise of so much suffering God was said to stand against, it became easy to wonder if he no longer cared, or if he had ever existed in the first place. In the South, he had long been supplanted by a pantheon—although some Bustani shaman claimed him as a descendant of the line. And now, even in Dolstheim, the Unknown God and his ambiguity had given way to the Saints who linked humanity to the spiritual through their own virtue.

Despite all this, Soul Sabre always took great pains to affirm their authority as emanating from God, and propagating the belief that they stood as executors of his will. In truth, the best of them used their limited understanding to affirm their naturally formed morality, and the worst used it as an excuse to exercise their own desires. For over three centuries, God was only a name, and nobody could truly say what he meant.

Then, fifteen years ago, when Natsudo had first proclaimed his identity as a Heaven Sent, he'd been asked to identify the one who sent him. He told them he was a herald of the Unknown God, and they'd originally thought him a heretic for it. In fact, if it weren't for one of the few scriptures in the Dolstheim grand cathedral mentioning his coming, the summer Sent would have likely been executed before his journey began. Instead, he'd gained the favor of the council and gone on to stumble his way through a crusade he himself could scarcely understand. For even to Natsudo, God was unknown.

To that day, Fuyuko had silently gone back and forth on what she thought about God. When the world was good and pleasant it was easy to praise the beauty of the heavens and earth, and when the world was difficult it was easy to cling to the promise that things would get better, but she rarely thought about either as proof of his existence. More often, she just assumed if Natsudo was truly a Heaven Sent, then the God he believed in would certainly exist as well.

Some days, he seemed like a mechanism at best, but others she thought she could see his very hand stirring the clouds. She'd felt her spirit lifted against the darkness, and she'd felt it crushed under the weight of his suffering. There were times when she thought of God as the father she'd wanted and the mother she'd never known, but then there were also days when her heart sank with grief and bitterness against his silence. She'd seen him on the peaks of the highest mountains and through the depths of the deepest valleys. But through it all, she still had yet to truly understand what he stood for.

"Fuyuko," Natsudo began again after a pregnant silence. "Did I ever tell you the purpose of us Heaven Sent?"

Fuyuko gave her friend a tilted look and shook her head. There was a certain assurance in his eyes that she hadn't entirely untangled just yet.

"Funny," he said lightly, "I could have sworn I gave a whole prophecy about it."

A wry smile formed on her lips and she reached out to push his shoulder. He took the hit with good humor and smiled back.

"Alright, alright. I suppose it wouldn't hurt to remind you," he chuckled. Taking a moment to clear his throat, he settled himself and began the recitation. "'Four children blessed by Heaven and bearing the seasonal virtues will open the way to salvation. Through their deeds, God will show his face and the lost will know his name. The light will descend into the darkness and pain will give way to love. For even the least of these will be found and brought before the God that saves, and he will give them rest from their enemies.' Now, do you know where that leaves us?"

Fuyuko rolled her eyes back as she thought of how to put her thoughts in signals they both knew. Off track? she tried.

"Not necessarily. You see, the prophecy I received never explicitly said we would be perfect. It said we would be blessed, and through our deeds the world would know the face of God, but it doesn't say we are the way to salvation, only that we'll open the way. So it's possible..."

Natsudo trailed off and his smile faded. Fuyuko watched as the brief spark of hope again soured into skepticism as the full scope of the future fell back into its usual place on the summer Sent's shoulders.

Taking a breath, Fuyuko motioned for him to continue anyway.

"Well… it's possible," Natsu went on, making sure to give the word special hedging, "that the Unknown God is waiting to be pursued, and our lives are meant as a demonstration of his existence. But that doesn't actually give us much to stand on. See, if we're only a demonstration, then we don't… that is, we don't have to..."

He stopped again and stretched his mouth into a listless grimace for a moment. Fuyuko caught the meaning clearly enough. If they didn't have to usher in salvation, then they didn't actually have any guarantee of surviving through to the end of their mission. As long as they faithfully paved the way for someone in the future, they would have done their part.

But… Fuyuko bit her lower lip and tried to think of some proof that pushed the other way. You saw us together. Right?

"...There is another meeting of the Sent, yes."

And the sisters?

Natsudo leaned forward again and took up the book of flowers Aki had sent for Haruhi. "There's still something between them," he said. "As long as you can keep it alive long enough for the meeting, we might still stand a chance."

Me?

"Yes, you," Natsudo nodded as he leafed through the collection. "Aki hasn't seen her sister in three years. She needs someone there to tell her she isn't just loving a memory. You're their bridge now."

And, Fuyuko paused for a second before pushing forward, if it kills her?

"She doesn't have to answer the call," Natsudo said simply, coming to the last page. "But that's not our decision to make. In retrospect, I think our secrecy might have cost us Haruhi's trust, although I imagine she'd come to the same decision to rebel against the prophecy either way. Now, though, we can at least give them an honest reunion."

Looking over at the book of flowers, Fuyuko saw a long flower lying on the page, its lavender petals pressed and dried.

A crocus, the inscription read. For the return of spring.

Closing her eyes once more, Fuyuko thought of the girl she'd lost to the darkness, and the love that still endured. Breathing in the brisk winter air, she nodded as it cooled her throat and filled her lungs. I'll go, she signed. I'll bring her back.

Even if she had no words left to give, the love in her heart had not yet run cold. And although it had not brought Haruhi back, it was still proof that winter could wait a little longer for spring to return.

[十二終了]

The Ryuen Sisters will Return in...

Akikaze/秋風


Production Notes

-Most episodes originally had either longer openings or multiple encounters that were cut to save focus. For example, Haruhi's climb to the council chamber in episode 1 had a more detailed description of the chapel architecture and episode 8 had multiple encounters with Veron Kaln before the good(?) doctor undermined Haruhi's belief system.

-Although details of each episode were decided upon as prompts became available, the general shape of the collection was structured from the start.

-In the original concept outline for this collection, the episodes were meant to deal with a variety of genres. This concept broke down in episode 4, which was originally conceived as a western "cops and robbers" type story, because the western feel would require a more thoroughly steampunk world.

-Similarly, episode 10 was originally going to be a crime drama with Haruhi solving a murder case. The idea of suffering for another's crimes would be illustrated through an Absolution wielder framing himself for the murder by erasing the killer's memory and then taking the blame.

-Although "Dolstheim" is meant to sound germanic, it actually translates as a nonsense word. "Durstheim", however, would roughly translate to "Thirst Home".

-The Forgotten Works is named and modeled in homage to Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar, a piece of psychedelic post-apocalyptic fantasy the author read on recommendation from a coworker. He thought the concept was underused enough that it warranted a rebirth.

-Episode 9 was originally going to be named "The Sea and Poison" in homage to a work by Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo about controversial vivisections performed during World War II.

-Certain units of measurement used in this collection, such as kan, are drawn from antiquated Japanese systems.

-The original concept for the Akikaze universe was heavily inspired by conventions from the anime/manga Bleach, specifically the uniformed Soul Society and Bankai sword transformations.

-The flowers Haruhi asks for in her letters all hold a symbolic significance for their respective chapter.

-Buttercup blooms are poisonous until dried, reflecting Haruhi's naturally venomous personality and need for natural exposure.

-Snapdragons represent grace and deception, reflecting both Haruhi's lack of grace and the world of lies she suspects she is navigating. In the larger narrative, it points to the turn in this episode where Haruhi realizes her shortcomings, but to Haruhi it is simply the familiar.

-Iceplant is a mostly coastal shrub, representing Haruhi's coastal roots, but is invasive, hardy, and mostly used for soil preservation. Additionally, the fruit of some ice plant can be eaten pickled. Haruhi asking for this pickled piece of home is akin to her asking for a preserved piece of her past life.

-While one might mistake Haruhi's episode 6 request for a bloom from the water lily family (Nymphaeaceae), the river lily (Crinum pedunculatum, also called a swamp or mangrove lily) is an Australian plant whose sap can be used to treat box jellyfish stings. Haruhi is essentially asking for another coastal plant but with a practical purpose in mind this time.

-Chrysanthemums are often grown in large bunches and require good soil drainage to really thrive. In the language of flowers, chrysanthemums mean things like support for loved ones and rest and recovery after a long trial or challenge. Haruhi's request for this flower is mostly meant in reference to her failure in the Verestal campaign and longing for familiar company.

-Snowdrops are early spring bloomers and symbolize things like purity and hope. Haruhi, feeling these things revitalized after her revelation at the end of episode 7, asks for them mostly as an affirmation. Ironically, these virtues are then tested by Veron Kaln and his foreign philosophy.

-Hyacinth blooms actually draw their name from Greek mythology, referring to a boy accidentally slain by jealous gods. While the flower has a range of meanings, from sincerity to sporting interest, purple hyacinths in particular represent sadness. Furthermore, hyacinths require a little care in handling during the transplanting process. If their roots are damaged during the move, they may not recover. Haruhi asks for these flowers as a delicate show of sincerity, but unwittingly matches with her discovery in the red waves of the Amethyst coast.

-While dahlias vary in meaning by color, general meanings revolve around inner strength and virtue under pressure. Red in particular means power and blue means a fresh start. In essence, Haruhi is asking for power to overcome the coming trial and a clean slate from the life she's been given.

-With many different types of crocus, it seems one species of the plant or another is always blooming, no matter what time of year it is. However, the crocus is also associated with the return of spring, as Aki notes, as well as youthfulness and joy. The white crocus in particular means purity and innocence. Haruhi's request for the flower may seem odd considering her circumstances, but this is more a reflection of what Haruhi fervently hopes for at this point than what she truly feels.

Misc. Translations:

冬 Winter
春 Spring

夏 Summer

秋 Autumn

春燈Haruhi (Spring Lamp)

秋Aki (Autumn)

冬子お知らFuyuko (Winter Child) Oshira (Awareness)

早暁 Sogyo/ Sōgyō (Early Spring/Dawn)

沈黙山 Chinmokuyama (Silent Mountain)

夏土秤 Natsudo (Summer Soil) Hakari (scales)

梅原退船Umehara Taisen (Original Plum Departure)

留守居 Rusui (Caretaker)

終了 Shūryō (End)

図利ばいあ Zuri bai a (Bookmark and Share)

記憶域 Kioku-iki (Field of Memory)

狙味心 Nerami (Aimed Taste) Kokoro (Heart/Soul)

解龍苑 Kai (Solution) Ryuen (Dragon Garden)

古希洗Koki (Old Rare/antique) Arai (Washing)

所有者 Shoyu-sha (the Possessed)

火月獲部のHitsuki (Fire Moon) Ebuno (Harvest)

度手化Doteka (Degree)

Mlezi (Guardian/Tutor, from Swahili)