Memories and Regrets
A Story of the Crane Clan

She had only known him for a few months.

She had only really understood him for a few fleeting moments.

There, in between the jovial bits of wisdom and the comments on the proper techniques of the sword, the woman had glimpsed something tragic and somber. A silence hidden between moments of laughter; a sadness just beyond the edge of that crooked grin.

She wondered if any other had ever seen that part of Togashi Masurao in all his years of contemplation and wandering; she sometimes wondered if it had been a part of him that the monk had been ashamed to let others see.

Ashamed of his weaknesses…ashamed like she was now.

The stone marker was just the Crab Clan's way of honoring a person that they had respected; she was sure that the Child of Fire would not have wanted it, would not have wanted her to think of death as an ending.

But to her, it was an end.

Kakita Kenshuko closed her eyes and listened to the sounds between the silence, concentrating on the wind that touched the small hill's dancing veil.

"I think that I am ready to go now, Nikkan-sensei," she said, letting one hand reach down to feel the coldness of the stone.

Behind her, the old Mirumoto bushi smiled a sad smile as she walked back towards their horses, the dying winds stirring her short hair as she passed through its way.

For one moment, the old man just stood there, listening to the breeze and staring intently at the stone. When he spoke, his voice was heavy with sadness and pain. "You have given her more strength than she ever thought possible…but she will be haunted, and she will be alone."

"I have yet to understand your choices, Masurao." he let his eyes drift back to where the samurai-ko waited in silence. "Times such as these make me wonder if I ever will."

* * * * *

"Don't you dare look at me like I am not paying attention!" Kenshuko pushed her long hair back with an angry snarl, ignoring the damp sensation made by her own blood. As she stood with drawn sword her opponent just smiled, his own swords held loosely and his gold-red eyes seeming to glow.

Masurao lowered his head slightly, paying her katana no more attention than if it were a wooden blade. "You are being too reckless. It is more than technique and form…"

The Crane stifled her feelings and focused; her anger was only helping him, and it was a barrier to the training. Masurao's eyes would not be fooled by little tricks or shouting…if she intended to knock him senseless, then the Kakita would have to do what he always asked her…

"I expect you to fight with both your sword and your soul."

She sheathed her crimson blade and returned it to her saya; Masurao arched one eyebrow, but his stance in no way changed. "Are you going to hit me this time, Kenshuko-chan?" he asked almost innocently, each word picking at her forced calm.

The Kakita's blue-gray eyes just narrowed in reply. "Here I come."

Sword met sword with a burst of sound and light. Kenshuko felt a force pass through her like thunder and then she felt no more.

* * * * *

"Does it still pain you, Kenshuko-san?" The older man's voice was kind and courteous, but those emotions were barely noticeable as she grimaced in embarrassment and pain. Resting on the floor of her bedroom, the samurai-ko submitted to the inspection of her lord's physician.

It would have been insulting even under normal circumstances, to have a man poke at her stomach and sides. The fact that it was for such a reason as this made Kenshuko almost want to curse the Togashi's name.

"Your body is quite…healthy. Much more so than I would have thought," Asahina Takeda said weakly, his wrinkled face almost as red as her own. "The child seems to be doing well. The kami are attuned."

Kenshuko had almost hoped that something had befallen it, but the idea made her heart ache now. "That is good," she said meekly as she drew herself into a sitting position, pulling back the borders of her deep blue kimono. "I…I appreciate that our lord sent you to see me, Master Takeda."

Silence hung in the small room that served as the Kakita's place in her family's temple; the healer response was one Kenshuko knew all too well.

The Crane had little respect for a woman who had returned from a journey of 'enlightenment' with a coming child and no father…

They had even less when that woman was a bushi now unfit for the duties of war.

"Our lord Katsura," the Asahina said after another moment, "has been most concerned with you, Kenshuko-san. He…"

Blue-gray eyes looked out at the shugenja through wisps of hair still cropped for mourning, telling Takeda that she understood all too well.

* * * * *

The first thing she was aware of was the warmth that seemed to surround her; Kenshuko's eyes opened painfully, the light of the sun painful as she tried to rise. Something cold and damp was pressed against her forehead.

"You are going to be all right, Kenshuko. Please, don't try to rise."

"You put your heart and soul into that attack," Masurao said gently, his face still out of focus as he tended to her throbbing skull. "But in doing so, you neglected your own safety…"

"Had to show you…" she managed to hiss through the pain.

The Togashi monk smiled and shook his head disapprovingly, his body slowly slipping into view. "I am just glad that you were not badly injured. I thought that I used the flat of my sword against you, but for a moment…"

She smiled. "That is…not like you, Masurao…"

"You think so?" the ise zumi asked softly, his own forehead wet with blood…

* * * * *

Kakita Katsura was a man who had dealt with many difficult decisions in his lifetime; his handsome face was creased with lines of worry, though they had little effect on him beyond adding one or two phantom years. The daimyo had come to the temple of Benten and Bishamon to offer prayers for his family.

If it was also a good place for a private meeting, then surely that was coincidence and nothing more.

"I never thought that I would see you return with child, Kenshuko." His black eyes accused her of nothing. "This is an…unusual occurrence among my retainers."

The samurai-ko said nothing as she knelt before her superior, trying not to consider how much the position made her back and stomach ache. The elder Kakita ran his hand along the edge of his silver obi in idle silence for a moment. "Your former sensei Mirumoto Nikkan has spoken with me, though I admit that the circumstances are difficult to believe…"

Again, there was no accusation, though Kenshuko was already aware of what the words likely meant. The Kakita had come to her in order to allow her to atone in private…it was a motion that Katsura was not required to offer, and one Kenshuko had been surprised to receive.

"What would you have me do?" she asked him meekly, feeling the pain acutely now as her body and mind both braced for what was to come. "I am still a samurai, Katsura-sama. I am ready to answer for that name."

* * * * *

"You are bleeding, Masurao!"

"What…oh," the monk gave a dismissive smile, again using his considerable strength to hold the stunned Crane where she sat. "This is nothing…"

He was lying, and for once, he was not doing it well. On the monk's clean head there was a single, deep cut more than a finger's length that crossed his temple; the wound still oozed blood slowly, dripping down to mark beside his right eye. On step farther, and…

Kenshuko bit her lip in anger for a moment, waiting until the Dragon bushi grew silent before her angry gaze. "You could have died," she said, surprised at her own anger, but more shocked at her fear. "You could have bled to death, simply sitting here and waiting on me…"

She understood him for one moment, and that moment touched her heart.

"That was stupid, Masurao."

Her hand touched him; a simple gesture, but for some reason it felt like something more. Kenshuko pulled herself up and released her hair from its white ribbon. The samurai-ko flushed in embarrassment as she wrapped the monk's injury, trying not to notice how he watched her with those brilliant eyes.

"I'm sorry," she said after what seemed like a very long time.

Masurao just smiled. "So am I."

* * * * *

"It is not my wish to see you sacrifice yourself and your child to make amends," Katsura said to her. "But you have a duty to the Empire and our Clan, and it is time to see it served. We will arrange for a marriage among the Mirumoto, or perhaps a Kitsuki or Tamori; surely they will be more accepting of your circumstances than most. Masurao was one of their clan, after all."

"Then…I shall prepare my house to be moved."

The Kakita's dour expression did not change, but something in his voice drew her eyes. "I have no intention of relinquishing a servant to the Dragon Clan at this time, Kenshuko. You will remain here, and tend your duties. Mirumoto Nikkan has already expressed the possibilities of seeing to this arrangement, in the interests of fostering peace between our clans."

"Katsura-sama," she pressed her head back against the floor, hiding her surprise as best she could. "I…thank you, my lord."

By the time she lifted her head, the Kakita lord was already leaving, his dark topknot bobbing with each movement as he passed his yojimbo and exited the room. Kakita Kenshuko rose with a mixture of disbelief and wonder.

She had never expected this--never believed she could come home.

* * * * *

The samurai-ko had not bothered to unpack many of her meager belongings; it had seemed like an act of self-delusion to take the time before. Now, Kenshuko spent the evening cleaning her sword and returning her spare clothes to their places; in truth there was not much to move. Her only company was that of a small grey cat, dividing its time between playful fawning and sleep.

At the end there was only the monk's furoshiki, along with the satchel that she had taken up after he was gone. Just the texture, rough in places and worn in others, was enough to make her fingers tense up as she drew the traveling pack to her side. The cat pounced at the edge of the green fabric, and the samurai woman gently bowled it aside.

Kenshuko had never unwrapped the parcel; it seemed like a strange final gesture, and one that she had been reluctant to make.

It wouldn't really be 'his' anymore, once she opened it.

One pull, and it was done.

In the next few hours there would be time to sort through the strange collection of items; gifts from the Dragon and the Scorpion, things that were foreign to the Kakita's eyes. For the moment, there was only one object, wrapped and folded neatly to one side. Kenshuko reached down to touch the old white ribbon, its edges flecked with the deep red of old blood.

Masurao would have stayed with her forever, would have respected her decisions…even knowing that they would never be together.

He would have done that, if only fate had given him a chance.

"Damn it," Kenshuko choked through tears half shed. One by one, her fingers closed around the long strip of silk and squeezed it tight. Sitting there waiting in the darkness, all that was left were memories.

The memories…and the regrets.

Beginning and End...