Once upon a time, Yuuko grew up.
Originally written for the femgenficathon on livejournal.
Once upon a time a little girl knelt down beside a river and cupped the water in her hands. Her kimono was in some disarray and almost falling off one shoulder but that was ignored as carelessly as the way the breezes from the river played among her long black hair. The water that ran about and over her hands reflected the deepening dusk of twilight and the bright silver of the early moon.
Beside her knelt a second girl, her kimono somewhat neater and somewhat more embroidered by careful, shaky stitches. This second girl was leaning over her shoulder, staring intently down at the place where the first's hands disappeared into the water.
The first girl drew in a long slow breath and then, as she began to let it out, drew her hands up out of the water in one smooth, careful move. Her exhaled breath ended on a gasp of delight, echoed by the second girl. For, as if it were still a part of the deep slow river instead of possessing a mere inch's depth, the water reflected the perfect round silver of the moon, cupped in the girl's hands.
Eyes wide, the second girl poked a finger into the water, seeking to touch it. And for a moment before she knocked against her sister's hands and the water spilled out all over the bank, she felt dust as dry as bone against her finger.
Immediately they both looked up, stretching their eyes as wide as they could go as they searched for a new smudge upon the moon's pale face. They had to give up eventually, wincing as their neck's unbent and they looked at each other with small, sheepish grins.
"My finger's too small," the second said ruefully, waggling it in the air to demonstrate.
The first and elder grabbed it and examined it carefully, as if to check for dust. "They'll find it later," she said, glancing up, her eyes sly with old secrets and innocent with childish glee. "A human finger print on a moon rock for them to puzzle at."
The second's laugh held both disbelief and trust and they played at eagles with their long sleeves fluttering out behind them like wings until their shadows were swallowed by the night and their mother came to call them in.
Who are these girls? You'll notice I have given them no names, which must be slightly confusing to you the reader. But names have power. So do birthdays. And when both the true name and the true birthday are known... Well, at least one of the girls has grown up into a woman who can turn your soul inside out with one pinky finger, and it is not one of my wishes to have her mad enough at me to make a new pipe out of my bones. So let the time be indeterminate and we will call the family Ichihara and the first girl Yuuko. The second girl has left the name she used then far behind, and no harm wished upon her by it could travel between lives to reach her. But Yuuko guards her memory carefully, and so we shall call her Izumi.
And these two young girls, these sisters, lived a comfortable life. There was a family home and servants to attend them; they never went hungry and there were always fine clothes with which they could indulge themselves. And they had both their parents, and they knew that their parents loved them. They knew it as a fact, as something they could take out and look at, something they could name, something they could point to in the people who were their parents and say; "there, see? That's their love for us." Surely they knew it better than other children who know that love only by a bone deep assumption they can never see the root of, can never see its cause, and so can be troubled by fears and doubts that the cause does not exist and their assumptions are wrong. Surely.
But they knew other things as well. They knew that their father was not troubled by ambition for power or rank, even though his status was low within their high class, and so their comfortable life wasn't likely to end. They knew too that he had one ambition, one deep desire that he was always longing for, a wish like an empty, hungry hole in the middle of chest that he could never fill. Surely it's a terrible thing for a child to know that a parent cannot even make himself happy?
But they could walk through the streets of the town with their mother and an escort of their father's guard and even in those war torn times they could be safe. After a fierce negotiation between the sisters over what to buy Yuuko would bargain fiercely with the stall owner until she had haggled him down to a pittance.
Their mother would watch amused and comment that it was their blood showing; their mother was a merchant's daughter who had been traded to their father's family; her dowry for their status. An equitable trade, one that left no room for the husband's wish that his love was returned. Their mother wished that her daughters could live their lives as they wished, but resignation to reality had dulled the edges of her wish.
Sometimes while Izumi and their mother were bent over stalls of fine cloth and finer thread Yuuko would slip away to visit strange stalls at the ends of dark alleys the guards who hurried in search of her could never find. She brought back strange things to fill the treasure boxes in their pillows - stones that never grew cool, a flower on which dew never fell, a broken shard of sunlight. Sometimes Izumi came too. Sometimes Yuuko even let her be the one to bargain, but Izumi never enjoyed it as much as Yuuko did so she was never unwilling to yield.
Not that this was always the case; they were proud girls these two sisters, and their fights were never mere tiffs to be dismissed and forgotten in a moment. But hurtful words were always repaid with kisses, and they curled up in their bed with their dark heads close together, like two ravens in a nest or a deep pool encircled by the night.
When they were sixteen Yuuko made a new friend, and Akari-chan often joined them when they sat sewing together on the veranda in the cool evening breeze. The air smelled like plum blossoms and Izumi marvelled at how deftly paws could wield a needle. Yuuko and Akari gossiped freely, sharing a jug of sake between them, as Izumi practised patterns on a scrap of cloth and occasionally interjected a smiling comment whenever a familiar name was raised.
That year Akari-chan's mother brought a lantern for Yuuko and they attended the Hyakki Yako, joining the parade of demons. Izumi saw many familiar faces among the crowd turned strange in the light of the lanterns. Where the parade wound its way the familiar landscape seemed transformed and even Yuuko was silenced with a little awe. But her eyes lit up greedily when they reached the Tree and learnt what would happen next. It made Izumi smile but she had never had much taste for sake.
There was a party afterwards. Izumi sipped politely at her cup, her mind only half there, as the party grew louder and louder as Yuuko guzzled down cup after cup, traded jokes while sprawled against a living rock, cheated outrageously at Mahjong.
At some point in the evening Yuuko's hand slipped from the stalk of the lantern. No one noticed.
The next day the wedding broker came to talk to their parents. Listening at the door, Izumi felt a warmth bloom in her chest as her future unfolded before her like a gently cultivated flower. She ducked her head and bit her lip to try and hide the smile that threatened; the eyes she felt resting upon her back helped with that far more than the slight pain.
This will be my happiness she pleaded silently, and turned her face away from the scent of damp wood wild and dark, and the smell of starlight that hung about her sister like the wind. She turned away from those strange, familiar things and felt them cut through the kimono she wore, through the symbols of unity she had sewn in half dreaming hope, through the flesh to what lay beneath.
Almost she could feel her sister's long, elegant hands cup that flower. Her breath remained caught in her throat as she felt its soft petals tremble against those strong, eloquent fingers for one brief, endless moment. And then those hands slipped away
Carefully, Izumi closed her eyes to hold back her tears of relief and joy and bitter, sad regret.
Once upon a time there were two sisters who loved each other more than anything in the world.
The musicians were still playing when Yuuko snuck away from the celebrations, and the taste of the wedding feast was still in her mouth as she stepped onto the crossroads where one road stretched out behind her and three more opened up in front of her and countless others drew tracks of silver behind her eyelids. She might have paused then to look back, hesitated to strain her ears and catch the last fading strains of her sister's music. She did none of these things but, head held high and shoulders flung back strode forward onto the paths that lay behind the cartwheel ruts and churned mud of the soldiers' tramp. Her kimono flapped freely around her calves: her bag of treasures beat a tattoo against her back with every stride. She walked into shade and twilight and never looked back.
The first sight she saw on the road was an Orchard in which trees and vines mingled freely, and the taste of the wedding feast was soon replaced by that of the grapes from a vine that grew down from the sky. Arranged on a tree root she ate the grapes one by one, their juices running down her chin while the farmer perched on a branch above her head and told her stories of the cherry tree whose blossoms never died, not even in the depths of the coldest winter, but which never turned to fruit. His iridescent tail feathers fanned open and shut excitedly as he told her that he had eaten those fruit that-could-never-be once, when he was very young. But he had never been able to find them again, and the sense of his longing seasoned the grapes as Yuuko ate them one by one and licked the spilled juices from her fingers. Eyes half-closed in bliss, she wondered what the wine of such grapes would taste like, but knew that such wine would cost far more than a willing and listening ear. She'd just have to find something to barter then.
She travelled on down the road.
Soon she lost track of how long she had been travelling; there were so many new sights to see, people to meet, foods to eat and wines to drink. But wherever she fetched up she would kneel down beside the roadside, unroll her sack of treasures and, a leaf from a tree the size of a mountain as her umbrella, begin to hawk her wares.
The first time she saw someone whose wish was met and answered by one of the treasures in her sack the shock leapt through her like ice wind, like closing her hand around a lightning beast. For one awful moment she felt suspended, simply a wire who by knowledge and ownership bridged the distance between the man's need and its answer in her sack. Then gradually she began to breathe again as she realised; if she was the wire than she was also the musician, the only one who could pluck the wire and sound the note that would bring the man and his wish together. She paused a moment, conscious of the weight of that position, but if one pauses to appreciate the presentation of a dish that doesn't imply a hesitation to eat. It was a great tangle of feelings that urged her on; compassion curiosity, the fact that she /could/, that the ability rested in her hand and it seemed a waste not to use it.
Smiling a lazy smile she called to him.
She already knew that value was a fluid thing; what one person prized beyond measure another considered a mere curiosity. When the price was the soul and the weights against which it was measured was desire, however, any anchorage to material objects went out the window. The piece of the soul given in payment must match the weight of the desire being answered, but people valued their soul so differently.
Yuuko had a business woman's sense and quickly adapted to this exchange rate.
Soon her treasures became too many to carry in a sack over her shoulder. She bought a mule who liked the taste of sake; a bowl of rice wine at any inn or roadside seller and it would loose its intractable mulish disposition. Eyes half closed behind long soft lashes it would sway slightly on its hooves, rest its large head against her shoulder, and whicker along to her singing. Sometimes it would even dance. She had to drink a lot of alcohol, however, before it became any good as a conversationalist. She called it Karasu which wasn't quite right, but the future memory refused to clarify itself and she wasn't such a fool as to go trying to cast her own fortune.
When her treasures grew too many for even Karasu to carry comfortably she came home. She found a house that overlooked a familiar street, laid out her treasures that suddenly seemed unsatisfactorily few in their new large room, and settled in to wait.
It was not long. When her sister descended from her carriage and rushed into her shop, Yuuko decided that it wasn't that bad coming home.
"I could kill your for these seven years!" Izumi declared half laughing, half crying.
"And I can see every one of them in you," Yuuko drawled.
"Now I really most kill you," Izumi smiled, and hugged her again.
But it was true, Yuuko thought, feeling something like unease slip through her. Izumi's sleeves were shortened and her teeth were blackened in the fashion of married women; there were gentle lines about her eyes and her body bore the softness of past pregnancies. Yuuko was suddenly aware of herself; of the leanness of her body, the calluses on her hands and feet, the smell of the spirit world still in her hair and the complete disregard of custom that was her dress. More importantly, she was aware of her difference from Izumi.
The second time Izumi came to visit she brought a pile of glorious clothes that she had made for Yuuko over the years and Yuuko coaxed her into drinking more sake than she really should and suddenly nothing was that different, really.
Sometimes Izumi brought her two sons to visit. Their eyes saw into the same worlds that Yuuko knew; Izumi had been teaching then to smooth away the sharp edges of their gift, to slip seamlessly into the human world. Knowing a little bit more, seeing a little more clearly, but both human kin and kind all the same.
Yuuko coaxed and manipulated them into experiencing everything else; not just watching but joining, becoming part of the other worlds that whirled about that of humans. She spoiled them outrageously and they adored her in turn.
The husband didn't approve of her. Yuuko didn't care. She didn't approve of him either. But he didn't try to forbid Izumi from coming to see her and so she couldn't hate him outright and this, she confided to Karasu during one of their drinking binges, she felt was rather unfair.
He was a decent man but Yuuko could remember her sister sitting on a lily-pad and playing a harmony of flutes with the frogmen. Izumi, in Yuuko's opinion, deserved a lot more than decent; she did after all, and why should her sister settle for less? But That Man made her sister happy and so Yuuko grinned and bore it and cast a few unpleasant-but-non-fatal hexes on him until Izumi found out about it and undid them.
You couldn't change other people's happiness.
Afterwards, Yuuko wondered why she had never thought to cast a fortune for her sister. The answer was simple; she would never have thought to cast one for herself.
People still came to her shop to trade for treasures but, more and more, the whispers were spreading. More and more, people were coming to her shop to trade for wishes. Yuuko had been pleased about that.
"I had a vision," Izumi said quietly, and knotted shaking hands in her lap. "There's going to be a battle. And he won't survive." A sob wracked her body and she brought her hands up to cover her face. "Please," she cried. "Please, Yuuko, do you have anything that can save him?" She didn't beg because sisters never have to beg each other. But she asked. "Please. I know it will be expensive, I know that but I don't care what the price is. I'll pay anything." She lowered her hands and Yuuko saw her eyes, raw and hollowed with desperation. "Please. I'll give anything."
And Yuuko looked upon her sister's face and felt the weight of her desire, felt the yawning hole within her that craved to be filled but that was so huge that only a life could hope to fill it. And Yuuko looked upon her sister's face and felt the desperation of her desire, felt the terrible fear and the looming, threatening emptiness and heartbreak, and Yuuko felt a desire awaken within her in response, a wish to make everything alright
And Yuuko closed her hand about her sister's hand and said: "For you I'll trade it for a kiss."
Something tore; Yuuko felt it, a sudden lightness that felt like falling forever before her sister slammed into her arms, babbling and shaking and almost crying with relief. Thank you, Yuuko, thank you thank you, and Yuuko felt her sister's joy as an anchor as she folded her arms about her in turn as Izumi, half giggling in drunken relief, ceremoniously pressed a kiss against her cheek. It will/ be alright,/ Yuuko thought fiercely as she pressed the dry and brittle plant into her sister's hand, a challenge flung out at the universe. How can it not be?
The husband came home from the battle with only a light scar shaped like a water reed across his shoulder, and Yuuko didn't see anything of any of them for a while. To be expected, she told herself firmly, and worked herself up into such a righteous indignation over the neglect that she was almost able to ignore the worry that ran under the hurt. Sometimes her cheek itched.
She ran into Izumi one day in the market; her sister was strangely distant. Yuuko treated herself to meat and refused to pay any attention to the slowly building sick feeling in her stomach.
One day Yuuko found her youngest nephew crying beside her shop door, blood beading along his cheek. His mother had slashed him with a pin. Yuuko fed him shaved ice treats and taught him how to gamble at dice until his shaking had stopped and the raw, bewildered look in his eyes had faded. She watched him go from her shop door; a single spot upon her cheek was burning, as if she'd held a piece of ice against her skin, as if that same piece of ice was now slowly congealing around her heart. Her nephew didn't know what it was he'd done; Mother hadn't even seemed angry, he'd said.
For the first time in her life, Yuuko didn't want to get drunk.
She closed up shop and went into the back room where she took out her tools and, kneeling on the floor, cast her sister's fortune for the first time. She took her name and her birth date and tied them together, and flung them out into the future, her sticks held ready to catch what came back.
The thread snapped. The sticks clattered to the floor. The place on her cheek her sister had kissed started to burn. Refusing to think she cast again, and again and again and each time there was nothing. Absolutely nothing when name and birth date should have been an anchor drawing knowledge in, a stand in for the person. For the soul.
The more times she cast, the fiercer burnt the kiss upon her cheek until finally she threw down her sticks, pressed her hand to her cheek, and didn't try to hold back the tears anymore. The burn throbbed in time to a heart beat. A heartbeat. But not hers.
"It was too much," Yuuko whispered through numb lips to an empty room. She closed her eyes; the kiss seared into the darkness. She couldn't claim to be surprised; she remembered the aching longing in her sister's soul that could only be answered by her husband's life. A wish that could only be paid for with a life.
A price it was impossible to meet, and so she had asked for next to nothing. No, Yuuko stopped herself. No more wilful self-delusion. Her lips tilted upwards in a mocking smile. We've had enough of that, haven't we? The price wasn't impossible to meet. It was just that it was unacceptable. But she had answered the desire nonetheless, granted the wish. Merchants who sold too little for too much cheated their customers and brought punishment on themselves, but the only one an overly-generous merchant harmed was himself. That was what she'd believed.
But the price had been claimed nonetheless.
She touched the kiss on her cheek that was her sister's soul and longed with everything in her to give it back; that husband was not worth this and she wanted to close her eyes against the anguish of that thought but she refused. She would never close her eyes to anything again. Value was relative. Worth depended upon perception. She didn't believe that man was worth a tenth of Izumi but Izumi did. Izumi believe that he was worth her life. And Izumi had been the one to make the wish.
But Izumi hadn't given her life. Her soul had been claimed in payment but her body still walked and talked - the shell still lived. The transaction wasn't done.
She wanted to shy away from it. She wouldn't let herself. She rose to her feet and strode from her room, and never looked back. If she had she might have see an image of herself like a discarded snake skin sigh and crumble into dust. But she didn't and so we will never know.
It was deep night when she reached her sister's house. She slipped in through the darkened corridors and closed her ears to her nephews' soft breathing. She found her sister's room and eased inside. This time she didn't even pause.
She slit her sister's throat and the blood spilled out upon the floor and the unpaid price spilled out into the air and drifted away through the cracks in the walls. Yuuko watched it go silently. Even now she couldn't call it back, and that truth sat hard and bitter on her tongue. She bent her head and buried her face in her sister's hair and breathed in its perfumed scent even as it was slowly buried by the encroaching stink of blood.
"Everything has its price," she whispered, and smiled. Strands of hair caught and pulled at her lips. "It's a shame. The bargaining was always my favourite part."
Once upon a time a woman stood beside a river, and knelt to set a flower upon its waters. The flower was the colour of the moon and it bled purple juices into the clear water. The woman stood and watched it until it faded away till a scent on the breeze, and until that too vanished. And then she turned and left.
Where she went from there and what she did is not my place to say; the story of the two sisters by the river ends here. But I can tell you this at least. Wherever she is now, whatever name she bears: that kiss is burning upon her cheek still.